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Steward Li became worried upon hearing this, promptly saying, “Young Lord, Sir Tang has been greatly kind to us—“
“Old Li, who’s actually in charge of this family right now?” Li Lin cut him off with. “You, or me?”
How loyal Old Li was, to get thoroughly anxious at that. “It’s you, of course!” he said on repeat.
Li Lin had no patience. “Since it’s me, you don’t have a say! Even though he’s an official and we’re commoners, is an official allowed to have no regard for law or the Heavens? This is the capital, not some remote area. If it wasn’t for him, how could Father have become a murder convict?”
Tang Fan sneered slightly. Maybe this Young Lord of the Li’s had read himself stupid. “Li Lin, even though Lady Zhang hadn’t been your birth mother, she had nurtured you since you were a child, never using another’s hands to do what she wanted to do. That warm, motherly heart could move anyone allowed to see it. Between the favors of being born and being raised, how can they be weighed separately? Li Man is your father, but he’s also the very murderer that killed your mother. You being in a conflicting mood and finding everything around you difficult I can understand, but if you can’t distinguish between right and wrong as a result, then what use were all those years of strenuous studying?”
Li Lin stiffened his neck. “Who doesn’t know by now that she was only good to me because she couldn’t have her own son?!”
Tang Fan’s gaze turned cold, and he shook his head. “Seems all those books you’ve read have gone into the belly of a dog. I’ve really let down your mother in the Nine Springs.”
“Since that’s so, please go ahead and leave, Sir Tang!” the other raged. “I know that you’re a Shuntian Judge, but the capital is filled with officials, and your sixth rank really isn’t much. Ah-Dong is a slave of the Li’s, so how she’s getting placed is for me to decide! I said I won’t sell her, so I won’t!”
This Li Lin was a bizarre person.
It could be said that he had gone stupid from studying and had no grasp of everyday matters, but sometimes, he was extremely spot-on and correctly-spoken in his remarks. An official of Tang Fan’s rank was indeed not much in the capital, and as a Judge, he wasn’t to manage something like another family’s selling of its slaves. If he forcibly took Ah-Dong away right now and then Li Lin made a fuss to his superiors, he would inevitably be denounced by a censor as someone that ‘fought with a citizen over a maid’, even if he had done no such a thing. It would influence his reputation.
To say that Li Lin was intelligent, however… from his current statement that his primary mother being good to him had ‘other motives’, Tang Fan’s opinion of him had immediately dropped a thousand zhang.
No matter what feelings were between Li Min and Lady Zhang, that was something for the older generations. As a junior, Li Lin having conflicting and bitter emotions was normal, but he would rather overlook Lady Zhang’s investment in him to blindly shield his father.
That, of course, could be described as a type of filial piety. A stupid one, if it were.
One didn’t need to conduct themself selflessly and honestly, but they at least had to distinguish between kindness and resentment. If they couldn’t tell the difference between good and evil, then they wouldn’t have much of a future.
Tang Fan nodded. “Ah-Dong is part of your household, so you placing her is only fit. That’s correct.”
With that, he was disinclined to give Li Lin one more look, straight-up turning around and leaving.
By the time he came out the Li’s front gate, Old Li quickly caught up to him from behind, panting hard. “Sir Tang, the Young Lord is still young. Please be magnanimous, and don’t lower yourself to his level; this lowly one apologizes to you!”
Tang Fan had to laugh. “He’s not young. I remember that when I was fifteen, I had already passed the provincial exams, and had also sent my eldest sister off when she got married. I could have supported a whole family.”
Noticing Old Li’s panic, he went on to say, “You can relax, though. In light of your Madam’s dignity, I won’t do anything to him… but if he continues going on like this, he will only bring harm to himself.”
Tang Fan departed the Li home and went right back to Shuntian Prefecture. Seeing Du Jiang sitting up straight in his office, he smiled. “You have free time today, Xiaohu?”
‘Xiaohu’ was Du Jiang’s courtesy. As a Shuntian Verifier, he specially aided Tang Fan in handling a few documents, and could be described as his assistant. The position of Verifier was unranked and not regarded as an official’s, but there were still a lot of people that bust their heads open fighting for the post. Because the Great Ming in Chenghua’s present reign required already extraordinarily high academic qualifications, it was difficult to pass the exam and be an official; even the lowest-ranking Palace Honorate would have people bowing their heads, because only by being one could someone be qualified enough to obtain even half a post in the government.
Du Jiang was now more than thirty. He had passed the provincial exams in his twenties, but after that, he dropped off the Palace Honorate roll twice. With no other choice, he had to find a way into Shuntian Prefecture, seek out a job to provide for his family before anything else, and then make other plans.
There were a lot of people like him in the Great Ming. Before Tang Fan had entered the Prefecture, Du Jiang was already employed there. He was straight-laced by nature and worked seriously. He had no ambitions for the Prefecture to begin with, belonging to a category of people that suffered getting pushed aside, but Tang Fan appreciated him; after he joined, he requested that he come over and act as his right-hand man. Sure enough, Du Jiang didn’t let him down, and had helped him greatly, sometimes even giving him ideas. He was no different from a personal aide.
Upon hearing his teasing, Du Jiang didn’t laugh along with him, his face solemn instead. “Sir, Lady Chen has vanished.”
Tang Fan’s hand that held the lidded cup paused. “What happened?”
“After Li Man went to jail, the Li’s drove her out, after which she found an inn to lodge in. I obeyed your instructions to have people keep watch outside, but, somehow, they didn’t see her leave it for all of yesterday. The bureau’s people went and questioned the inn’s proprietor, but they said that she had checked out yesterday, and didn’t say where she was going.”
Li Man’s uxoricide had proof, motive, precedent, and consequences. It all appeared to be unrelated to Lady Chen from head to tail, but Tang Fan got the general sense that the pretty woman certainly had no lack of impact in fanning the flames therein. He also noticed that she had been abnormally low-key this entire time, both unafraid on account of Li Man’s imprisonment and unconcerned on account of the Li’s kicking her out. She was excessively calm in her behavior, the abnormality causing them to keep watch on her, yet she surprisingly still managed to slip away.
“Did you get someone to investigate the room she had been staying in?”
Du Jiang nodded. He was meticulous and diligent in his work, so Tang Fan didn’t need to specifically order for these things.
“Yes. There was nothing strange, as the luggage she carried on her hadn’t been much to start with. Later, I went there myself for a look, then discovered a small symbol in the corner of the room, on the wall. The marks looked to be freshly carved, and it was about the height of two knuckles. I’m not sure if it’s related to her or not.”
Tang Fan’s curiosity was piqued. “What did it look like?”
Du Jiang took out a piece of paper and drew out the rough appearance of the mark from memory.
Once Tang Fan saw it, he blurted out: “The White Lotus Society?!”
Du Jiang was alarmed as well. “What? Don’t tell me that she’s related to that demonic cult? Is this still just a regular uxoricide case?”
Tang Fan’s face gradually turned grave. “I’d been thinking that she was a little suspicious, which is why I had you keep an eye on her. I didn’t know that this would get dragged into it.”
“This is certainly a bit hard to handle. She’s related to the Society, yet stayed by Li Man’s side, willing to be his concubine. Presumably, she incited him to kill his wife,for some unknown goal.”
Tang Fan smiled bitterly. How great this was; one wave hadn’t yet settled when another came rising up. There was still no location for Wang Zhi’s white jade horse, and the event with the Li’s had something to do with the White Lotus Society. Troubles were coming to knock at the same time.
He pondered this. “In any case, keep having people search for her whereabouts. Since the inn room has been entered, the enemy is alerted now, and even if there is a relation to the Society, they likely won’t be showing up again. Still, you should have people keep watch so as not to miss anything, and then make a report to Sir Pan. I’ll go to the Northern Bastion Office and let them know. The Brocade Guard has tracked down a Society happening once before, so maybe they’ll have an idea of this.”
Speaking of, Tang Fan recalled that former time he was strangled in the middle of the night. The other had intentionally feigned being the supernatural in front of him, then was confirmed to be of the Society after the fact. It seemed that ever since the thing with Li Zilong, the dregs of the Society had never left the capital, merely going from being conspicuous to being inconspicuous, hiding beneath the surface.
Three or so years ago, the sorcerer Li Zilong secretly made friends with eunuchs in the palace, then nearly flipped the place on its head, even almost overthrowing the Emperor. It was because of this event that he felt the Brocade Guard and Eastern Depot useless, so Wang Zhi then took advantage of his mental state to rise into a high position in a very short period of time. Only after that did the Guard go on the alert, overturning the capital completely. In that interval, there was no lack of conflicts breaking out with the White Lotus followers, and the latter lost many of its members, thus suppressing the Society’s fire. Unpredictably, after these years, it hadn’t actually been rooted out this whole time, its spring wind blowing again at the slightest bit of opportunity.
However, it should be remembered that the Society had been able to last since the Song Dynasty, after which it experienced the chaos of Song’s end, the darkness of the Yuan Dynasty, and the disorder of Yuan’s end before it came to this present era. A long-standing cult organization that had existed for hundreds of years must have its own set of survival means. The Guard wanting to throughly eliminate them in a short couple of years was practically impossible.
After Tang Fan gave his explanation to Du Jiang, he went for the Northern Bastion Office.
Unfortunately, Xue Ling wasn’t there, and the ones on duty weren’t faces Tang Fan recognized. He asked some things, but upon seeing that they refused to disclose anything, he didn’t force it, turning around in a desire to leave.
However, he heard a familiar, and placid, voice come from behind him. “Why are you looking for Old Xue?”
Tang Fan turned his head, joyful. “Brother Guangchuan, you’ve returned.”
Sui Zhou retained his unmoving ice-cube face, but a bit of a smile appeared in his eyes when he saw the other’s unpretentious happiness. He nodded. “Mn. You’re looking for Old Xue?”
Tang Fan grinned. “I had been wanting to find you when I came here a few days ago, but he said that you were out on a job then. I didn’t expect that you would come back so soon. If you have the time, I happen to have something to share with you.”
“I’ve heard about what you entrusted Old Xue with already.”
He paused, turned his face slightly to the side, then indicated to the person next to him. “In the future, if he isn’t here, you can look for Pang Qi.”
Pang Qi was also in the Brocade Guard’s uniform, but his official’s position looked to be slightly lower than that of Old Xue’s, and he looked younger, too. He smiled at everyone with his babyface, seeming gentle and harmless.
However, Tang Fan didn’t dare to underestimate him because of that. Being able to have a position in the Bastion Office, and see its varying punishments without a change in expression, meant that he could not be measured based on the criterion of ordinary people. When he walked outside, others would know him and his face, but not his mind; oftentimes, the more harmless someone looked, the more vicious their persona might be.
Tang Fan nodded in greeting to him and introduced himself. “Tang Fan, Runqing, a Judge of Shuntian Prefecture. I’ve already seen you before, when you went with Brother Guangchuan to Rejuvenation Hall that day.”
On the basis of the man directly calling Sui Zhou by his courtesy, plus hearing the latter tell him to ‘look for Pang Qi’ for anything he needed, Pang Qi would know that this was someone that had a good relationship with his boss — and thus could not be offended — even if he was an idiot. For that, he quickly cupped his hands in courtesy. “You’re too polite, Sir Tang. If you need something later, just give the command!”
Sui Zhou had no sort of patience to listen to this scene of them saying nothing of sustenance, so he flat-out interrupted them. “Jianxian, you go on ahead.”
Pang Qi affirmed and left, while Sui Zhou and Tang Fan departed the Office for a stroll outside.
“Last time, you asked Old Xue to find where that jade horse was,” Sui Zhou said. “It’s since been found.”
“Where is it?” Tang Fan quickly asked.
“It’s in the home of the Chief Eunuch of the Eastern Depot, Shang Ming.”
Tang Fan looked bewildered. “…”
“He had spent a lot of money to buy it from the Duke of Ying. Wang Zhi had wanted it at the time too, but couldn’t snatch it from Shang Ming, so that object has not a thing to do with him.”
Tang Fan smiled in pain. “Sir Pan is going to be annoyed, now. It’s just… why would Wang Zhi want to play a trick on him like this, for no rhyme or reason?”
Knowing the location of the jade horse was useless. What was Shuntian going to do, run to find Shang Ming? No need to speak of the fact that the object was Shang Ming’s to begin with; even if it wasn’t, with Pan Bin’s face, would Shang Ming just give it to him if he asked?
From another perspective, wouldn’t Wang Zhi already know that Shang Ming had it? Yet, he still asked the Prefecture to look for it — was that not him making it clear that he wanted to embarrass Pan Bin with his prank?
Was Wang Zhi truly like the outside rumors claimed: domineering, headstrong, and doing whatever he pleased?
Sui Zhou mulled over this. “Wang Zhi has always been at odds with Shang Ming. Maybe he just wanted to humiliate him.”
Tang Fan spread out his hands. “But he dragged the completely irrelevant Sir Pan into the water because of this.”
“How will you all respond to it, then?”
Tang Fan shook his head. “I’ll go back to report this information to Sir Pan, and we’ll go from there. On that matter, I have something to tell you.”
He explained the circumstances of Li Man killing his wife and Lady Chen’s disappearance in simple terms, then brought up the mark of the White Lotus Society.
Sui Zhou nodded. “The scum of the White Lotus are returning from the ashes. They can only cause trouble in the dark. I’ll have my people keep an eye out.”
He wasn’t sure why, but since Sui Zhou had said this, Tang Fan knew he was certain to do it attentively. It gave him the relief of entrusting a heavy burden to someone else.
Some people that were reliable in their work could then intrinsically make others feel at ease. Sui Zhou was such a man.
Tang Fan smiled. “I’ll leave it to you, then. I should be sitting down with you for a free chat after you’ve come back from abroad, but Sir Pan has been uneasy about this matter with the jade horse all this while. I have to go back and tell him, first. Why don’t we make an appointment for another day?”
Sui Zhou hummed. After a bout of awkward silence, he suddenly asked, “When are you returning home today?”
“If all goes well, I’ll get back at the usual time. Why?”
“Then I’ll go find you tonight.”
Tang Fan subconsciously answered ‘okay’, but when he thought back to it later on, he felt like something was off with that, somewhere.
…What was it?
The highly intelligent Mister Tang racked his brains over it on the road back, but couldn’t work out the reason why.
There was presently no need to bring up how confounded Pan Bin was upon hearing the news about the jade horse. Without Ah-Dong coming over to deliver snacks, Tang Fan solved the problem of his dinner outside before he got off of work, after which he went home. When he remembered that Sui Zhou said he would be coming over, though, he turned to a grocer stall on the street to buy some lou mei, then purchased a small jar of yellow wine at a winery to bring back.
He took a long detour, and when he leisurely got back home, he discovered that someone was already standing at his gate — wasn’t that Centarch Sui?
“If I had known before that you would be here so early, I would have come back first thing so that you wouldn’t be standing in wait at the entrance!” Tang Fan promptly sped up towards him, an apologetic smile on his face.
“It’s no problem,” Sui Zhou answered.
Tang Fan found that he was also carrying some food.
“My home is far from yours, so I’ll just stay with you for tonight. Do you mind?”
“Ah? I don’t mind, I don’t mind! My break is tomorrow, so we can talk through the night by candlelight!”
Mister Tang lived the legendary bachelor life to its entirety.
Upon becoming an official, one would have a couple boyservants accompanying them, to say nothing of those that were married and had children. Tang Fan alone lived by himself, eating snacks and reading books by nighttime moonlight in considerable delight.
With just one more person present, there was more excitement, and the desolation following nightfall was avoided. Even though the man was expressionless year-round and rarely spoke, he was nonetheless better than nothing. (Generally.)
They put their stuff down. Tang Fan went to get cups to pour the wine into, while Sui Zhou individually untied the paper bundles that held the food.
Tang Fan had bought braised pig ears and tongues; fresh, fragrant, tasty, and most suited for drinking with wine.
Sui Zhou had bought sausages in Sichuan peppers, crispy-fried tofu, salted peanuts, and dressed cucumbers.
“You’re the guest, why would you need to bring things? We’re familiar with each other, don’t spend any money next time!”
Mister Tang pretended to scold him about this scenario while simultaneously picking up a piece of fried tofu and eating it. Its skin had been fried to a crisp, but after biting down on it, its interior was as white as soybean pudding, so soft that it was about to flow outwards. The aroma of the beancurd permeated about.
“Where did you buy this crispy tofu? And why is it so delicious?” he wondered.
“I had some ingredients at home,” Sui Zhou answered concisely.
“You can cook?” Sir Tang was wholly shocked.
Sui Zhou gave a rare hook of the lips, saying nothing.
A few breaths later, Tang Fan was still soaking in his shocked emotions. “Brother Guangchuan, you can actually cook? That’s really, really, really…”
He ‘really’ed for half the day, but didn’t get out what the ‘really’ was about. Then, a rapid knock echoed in from outside the door.
“That’s really too amazing!” Tang Fan took in a deep breath. After he had replenished his air, he got up to open the door.
Ah-Dong was standing outside. Before he could say anything, she anxiously said, “Sir Tang, save me!”
The little girl was about to kneel, but he stopped her. “What’s happened?”
She had a mournful face. “Sister Ah-Chun told me that the Master is having someone go find a broker tomorrow, and they’re going to come sell me!”
Tang Fan was alarmed. “Only you?”
She nodded. “A group already got sold a few days ago. Mister Steward knew that I wanted to come over here. He didn’t have any objections to it at first, but now they changed their minds all of a sudden, and are saying they’re going to sell me!”
In order to be able to enunciate clearly, she grit her teeth to hold back her tears, yet after saying all that, she couldn’t help but choke up. “Sir Tang, what can be done about this? Can you go and talk to Mister Steward? I don’t want to be sold!”
Tang Fan knew that this was definitely not the doing of the steward, Old Li. That was the idea of their Young Lord, Li Lin, at a ninety-nine percent chance.
In all likelihood, what happened in the morning led to Li Lin’s resentment, and since he couldn’t directly confront Tang Fan, he simply made preparations to strike first by selling Ah-Dong, thus making his plan fail. A slave of the Li’s wasn’t anyone else’s business, anyway.
Thinking up to here, Tang Fan was momentarily speechless.
When Lady Zhang was there, he had met Li Lin a couple times before. Back then, he was bashful in personality and spoke little, but as a fellow scholar, he had some reverence towards Tang Fan for passing the exams at such a young age. The latter gave him a few pointers, too.
Unexpectedly, things changed with time’s passage. Due to the incident in his family, Li Lin’s character drastically transformed, becoming its current unreasonableness.
What did Lady Zhang feel about that, in the Nine Springs down under?
To speak with finality, Li Lin selling Ah-Dong was a matter of course, and Tang Fan truly had no control over it. He had been wanting to think of a solution these couple of days, but hadn’t foreseen that the other would just sell her straightaway. If she got sold to a bad family, she would suffer bitterly from then on.
Looking at the adorable little girl, he almost couldn’t bear it. “Is that so… don’t worry. Go on back, I’ll think of something.”
She naturally had a sense of trust towards him, so she nodded obediently, and returned whilst wiping her tears.
She had sneaked out, because she obviously couldn’t go out through the front entrance. Therefore, when she went back, she had to make another big loop around to the back entrance.
As he watched her retreating figure disappear from his line of sight, he tried to think of a solution.
However, someone behind him said, “You want her?”
Tang Fan nodded, then felt like that sentence seemed a bit ambiguous, so he briefly explained about her. “It just so happens that I lack someone to cook and clean here. Ah-Dong is hardworking, so she’s competent enough for it.”
Sui Zhou nodded. “This isn’t a difficult task, really. You don’t need to worry. I’ll help you solve it.”
Where could such a righteous friend ever be found? Mister Tang was so touched, he promptly cupped his hands. “Many thanks to you, then, Brother Guangchuan!”
“Since you’re in such contradiction with the Li’s, what are you going to do about housing?”
Tang Fan hadn’t told him the thing about him currently looking for board everywhere, but he still took note of it. His meticulous mind was apparent.
“The capital is big, and there’s a lot of rooms. I’ll likely be able to find some.”
Sui Zhou thought about this for a moment. “If you want, you can come live with me.”
Tang Fan was taken aback. “Is… that alright? Wouldn’t your wife be upset?”
“I haven’t yet taken a wife,” Sui Zhou replied coldly.
“There has to be someone like a wife, right…?”
Sui Zhou was not pleased. “I haven’t accepted any concubines, nor slipshod maidservants.”
Before Tang Fan could ask anything else, he proceeded to say, “My parents live with my eldest brother. I moved out on my own. Don’t worry about that.”
With all that said, since the other was inviting him there in good faith, it would be poor of Tang Fan to decline again. He ended up clasping his hands together, saying with sincerity, “I’ll bother you for now, then, Brother Guangchuan!”
In truth, despite Sui Zhou’s coldness, he wasn’t hard to get along with at all. They had things in common, too, but what was most important was that not only could the man cook, his craftsmanship was more than a hundred times better than Tang Fan’s own.
Thinking about it that way, Mister Tang was genuinely a tad excited.
Sui Zhou’s indifferent lips finally hooked up a bit.
“We’re familiar with each other. There’s no need to be polite.”
The translator says: Bro Sui’s got that game. He might not know he’s got that game yet cause it’s slowburn But He Got It
Also, Li Lin needs one (1) or fifty (50) slaps in the face.