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Sui Zhou’s residence was a small, three-area home. If one lived with a large family, it would be a bit crowded, but if one lived alone like Sui Zhou did now, it would be unduly spacious, so the addition of Tang Fan wasn’t excessive. There were three main rooms and three side rooms; apart from the main room Sui Zhou stayed in and a side room used for storing junk, the other two main rooms and side rooms were all free for Tang Fan’s selection.
Of note: no rent was collected.
Tang Fan had never thought to eat or stay for free, but Sui Zhou wasn’t in need of that bit of rent cash. In any case, if Tang Fan wasn’t here, he would be living alone as ever in such a big house.
Since Centarch Sui said he wouldn’t accept coin with a cold face, Tang Fan didn’t insist. However, given that he had the free time, he would put some rice, noodles, and other foodstuffs into the home, which was tantamount to undertaking food expenses. Sui Zhou had no comment whatsoever on this.
Tang Fan chose a side room as his own. That wasn’t because he was being coyly polite and too afraid to live in a main room, but rather because this one faced east, and its door opened to the courtyard, the illumination of its field of view decent. Whenever he had the spare time, he could also plant all sorts of vegetation under the pillared terrace in the courtyard.
After finding a day off work, he moved his stuff over.
Li Lin was surprised that he wouldn’t have anything to hold over Tang Fan, since the other had found a new dwelling so quickly.
Ah-Dong’s issue was settled with the same speed. It wasn’t good for Tang Fan to step in himself, but Sui Zhou completely lacked that worry.
He didn’t even need to show his face. People from the Northern Bastion Office only had to stand there at the Li household, saying that Li Man’s case wasn’t yet concluded and that they were going to take a group of people for questioning. Ah-Chun, Ah-Qiu, Ah-Dong, and the other servants would all be pulled away, then released, then carried off again, then released, then carried off again. After a few rounds of this, the Li’s couldn’t take it anymore. Steward Li pulled the Brocade Guards aside and begged them to give the family a break, secretly stuffing silver taels to them, but it didn’t work. At last, the Li’s had no choice but to offer up the slave contracts with both hands — not only Ah-Dong’s, but Ah-Chun’s, too.
With Lady Zhang gone, Ah-Chun didn’t want to remain in the house anymore. Her biggest wish was to be able to regain her autonomy and go off to marry, but Li Lin had been wanting to make her a concubine, which she was unwilling for, but unable to do anything about. Tang Fan, as a good man, saw things to their end; he had resolved to rescue Ah-Dong, and incidentally brought Ah-Chun over alongside her. Ah-Qiu was willing to stay with the Li’s, so she was left to herself.
In the span of three days, it was done and dealt with, making Tang Fan sigh with how wonderfully efficient the Bastion Office truly was, able to accomplish what ordinary people could not. No wonder everyone’s expressions changed when they heard the words ‘Brocade Guard’.
Ah-Dong had been sold into the family as a child. After leaving it, she had nowhere to go aside from seeking out Tang Fan.
Even so, he didn’t accept Ah-Dong’s slave contract, and instead burned it right in front of her, telling her that it was fine; he would just accept her as a sworn sister. Prior to her being fifteen, he would shelter her, and after she was fifteen, he wouldn’t force her to stay if she wanted to get married. When the time came, he would naturally sort out a dowry for her and find her a good family.
Ah-Dong was enthusiastic about this, of course, immediately switching to calling him ‘big brother’. She originally had no family name, but from then on, she would have one before her given: Tang Dong.
In the home had been merely two grown men that left in the morning and came back at night, so the work of the house could usually only be done by employing a temp worker to come do it. Plus, even if Sui Zhou could cook, it was impossible for him to have the time to do it every single day. After Ah-Dong’s arrival, there was no need to hire anymore temp workers, and the cooking was done by her, too, since she assumed housework on her own initiative. Though young, somewhat gluttonous, and playful, she worked with agility; in not a few days’ time, both the inside and outside of the place looked brand new, and she had planted a lot of flowers and shrubs. Sui Zhou and Tang Fan expressed how pleased they were with it.
Mister Tang henceforth lived a blessed life of not having to worry about cleaning, sanitation, or cooking.
Tracing the location of the woman Lady Chen, who was likely to have a connection to the White Lotus Society, was still underway, but Pan Bin was all sorts of fretful.
Well… although the whereabouts of the white jade horse were known, Wang Zhi had still given Pan Bin a difficult problem.
The horse was clearly with Shang Ming, but Wang Zhi had insisted that it was his lost object — was Pan Bin going to tell him the truth? What if Wang Zhi said ‘Shang Ming’s jade horse isn’t the one that’s mine, but mine’s exactly like his’? Was that going to morph into making Pan Bin get another one from somewhere to give him?
He had been suspecting that Wang Zhi was deliberately trying to mess with him, but when he went to inquire about it afterwards, he discovered that that wasn’t the truth at all.
For this while, the Eastern Depot had snatched two ‘ideas’ from the Western Depot, ruthlessly changing the way the wind blew before the Emperor. In addition to that, after Wang Zhi left to operate the Western Depot, his relationship with Consort Wan gradually became alienated, and she no longer helped him by saying pretty words to the Emperor. Without the effect of that pillowtalk, Wang Zhi was rapidly suppressed by Shang Ming.
The news about Pan Bin helping Wang Zhi find the jade horse would get back to Shang Ming, which was bound to make his nose go askew in anger: What’s the meaning of this?! It’s plainly mine! You had to say that you lost it, so that it seems like I stole it?!
Wang Zhi wasn’t even twenty yet. He had the impetuousness of youth, not the maturity of eunuchs who simmered for decades in the palace. Him cooking up such an idea to embarrass Shang Ming wasn’t that weird.
Two eunuchs fighting over favor was not formerly something related to Shuntian Prefecture, but Wang Zhi had caused such a fuss, he even dragged Pan Bin down into the water. Shang Ming would hate Wang Zhi, but he was definitely going to hold a grudge against Pan Bin, too.
With that thought, Pan Bin was the same sort of pained as he would have been eating canker root, and his mood was rather like bok choy in the wintry December — freezing cold.
He felt himself to have especially poor luck. Who did I even provoke, here? I managed to get a third-rank post where not a one of the peak-like seats on that giant mountain above my head was offended, but now, I was just sitting in my house when disaster came down from the Heavens! If I had known this earlier, then it really would have been better for me to just be a fourth-rank Prefectural Magistrate somewhere else from the get-go! At least then the Emperor and the Heavens would be far away, and I could be comfortable without all these stupid things going on!
It was too late to issue these complaints now. The best way forward would be to offend nobody, take the lid off this matter, then let those two blasted eunuchs duke it out however they liked. It would be best for the Prefecture to not get drawn into it.
How could a method that went both ways be as easy to find as that, though?
He ruminated for half the day, but still couldn’t come up with one.
Could he tell Wang Zhi, ‘we couldn’t find the jade horse’?
That wouldn’t do. Wang Zhi would submit a memorial stating that he was incapable of completing assignments, which would be more than enough to denounce him.
Could he tell Wang Zhi, ‘your jade horse is in Shang Ming’s house’?
That wouldn’t do, either. That would pretty much be an offense to Shang Ming.
Could he tell Wang Zhi, ‘how about you don’t mess with me? If you don’t find Shang Ming pleasing to the eye, just go and find him so that you two can fight to the death. Why are you making things hard for me, the Shuntian Prefect?’
That would do even less. There was no such thing as bluntness in officialdom. When the time came, Wang Zhi would pass blame onto him, and it would be impossible for him to get away from it.
His hair practically turned gray from worry. Then, he remembered his junior brother.
When he had brought him with to the meal last time, Wang Zhi’s impression of him seemed to have been pretty good. Maybe there was something there.
He went and found Tang Fan, then implored him in earnest, “Runqing, a day you have your senior in Shuntian is a day I can look out for you a little more whenever something comes up. If I get banished to a foreign post and your superior is then someone else, you’ll have to be more careful, and look after yourself well!”
Tang Fan smiled bitterly. He knew that Pan Bin was going back and forth like this to win sympathy, so he didn’t add to his nonsense. “Please state your command, Brother!”
“It’s nothing major, just that search for the jade horse. Wang Zhi made it clear he was deliberately giving me a hard time. No matter how I respond, it’ll be inappropriate, and offending him is practically a done deal.”
Tang Fan mulled this over for a short moment. “It’s not completely without a way out, actually. It just depends on whether or not you have the courage to say it.”
Pan Bin was over the moon. “What a good Brother you are! I knew you were full of ideas! What is it? Quick, tell me!”
One day later, it was the same Immortal Cloud, as well as the same private room. Wang Zhi was seated at the table, watching Pan Bin with a fake smile. “For you to come seeking me out, Sir Pan, you’ve presumably already found the location of the jade horse?”
Pan Bin cussed out this damned eunuch-slash-motherfucking conspirator several hundred times over in his head, but there was still an earnest smile on his face. “I won’t keep it from you, Eunuch Wang — the jade horse has not yet been found.”
Wang Zhi’s brow raised. “Then what did you call me over for? Are you purposefully toying with me?”
“Don’t be hasty, Eunuch Wang. Listen to what this humble official has to say for right now. When I asked about it, there is actually a white jade horse that looks very similar to the one you’re looking for in the home of Chief Eunuch Shang, but I know that he’s very fond of it, and will probably refuse to part from it. To you, though, the horse is secondary. Your top priority is an even bigger crisis.”
Wang Zhi sneered. “Such alarmist talk, Sir Pan. Is this you trying to escape responsibility?”
Pan Bin shook his head. “Not at all. You have His Majesty’s confidence nowadays, and are in control of the Western Depot; this seems like fresh flowers added to brocade, but it’s actually oil added to an inferno. I heard that for you to be able to get into His Majesty’s good graces, you relied on Consort Wan’s spoken recommendation, on top of your own ability and efficiency. However, you’re now managing the outside Depot and are involved in outside politics, while she is someone of the imperial harem. It would be no good for her to show too much interest in those things, thus making it difficult for her to put in a good word for you. On His Majesty’s side, Shang Ming is ultimately someone that’s followed him for many years; in comparison to you, the former is a bit closer to the latter. If Shang Ming makes up some false charges before royalty, you won’t escape suffering losses.”
The other’s heart jolted. Pan Bin’s words matched what was in his head.
Why was he impatient to monopolize power? Why did he still want to expand his influence after getting the Western Depot so that he could compete with Shang Ming? It was all because he knew that that his favor with the Emperor was inferior to Shang Ming’s, and for that, he had to use the means of establishing more contributions in order to strengthen his position in His Majesty’s mind. This was something Consort Wan couldn’t help him with since she was in the harem, so he could only strive for it by himself.
But how could he strive for it? He couldn’t think of any other method than this. The capital’s territory was more or less divided up between the Eastern Depot and Brocade Guard, so he was forced to snatch food out of both their mouths to fight over favor with Shang Ming.
No matter what, though, the Western Depot had only been established for two years. It simply had no way to compare to the other two, which were long-established intelligence agencies rich with lengthy histories and elements. The Emperor building the Western Depot was on a moment of impulse, which meant that Wang Zhi had to display more proactivity and establish more merits. Only then could he thoroughly consolidate his position, win the Emperor’s trust, and climb to the apex of life from there on out, standing tall with no chance of collapse.
Under the steadily increasing competitive pressure, everyone was making all sorts of bizarre maneuvers for favor. The pressure on him grew each day, as well.
He gazed at Pan Bin. “In your view, Sir Pan, what should I do?”
The other was in no rush to speak. He dipped one finger into his wine, then wrote four words on the round, mahogany table:
Military merit, East Palace.
Wang Zhi, among the many hands of eunuchs that grasped great authority, had an unusual personality.
He didn’t act on a ready whim, understood clearly who he could offend and who he couldn’t, and was also able to win the Emperor’s approval. However, on account of his youthful arrogance, he loved to be in the limelight of everything, hence why he came up with the idea of getting Pan Bin to help him look for the white jade horse — something that mocked someone else, yet did no favors for him personally — just to embarrass Shang Ming. That also made it easy for him to make enemies, like right now, where Pan Bin had scolded him a couple hundred times on the inside while not daring to do anything else.
On top of that, Wang Zhi still liked to stick his fingers in military matters. He might not necessarily be proficient in them, but as long he had the thought of being able to be like those famed generals whose names were left behind in history, galloping across the borderlands while laying down merits unworldly, Eunuch Wang would feel hot-blooded from head to toe, as if he wasn’t lacking a certain component.
For that reason, Pan Bin’s ‘military merit’ was quite understandable, and fit right in with his desires.
Wang Zhi, at last, became interested in this topic.
Although… those last two words were a bit odd.
“What do you mean by ‘East Palace’?” he thus asked.
“We subjects don’t dare to rashly comment on inner-palace matters,” Pan Bin answered, “but it’s been said that the present Crown Prince of the East Palace is studious and diligent. All high officials praise him as having the looks of a wise ruler.”
In this day and age, it was fashionable to say half and hide half of one’s speech, not providing clarity in order to deliberately make the other person do guesswork. No matter what happened after that, one could evade it, putting on an air of pretentiousness in passing as they showed off the art of words.
Wang Zhi pondered what Pan Bin meant. It seemed like he wanted him to back the Crown Prince.
Everyone in the world knew that Consort Wan was on bad terms with the Prince, found nothing about him pleasing to the eye, and was even planning to convince Emperor to abolishing him.
However, Wang Zhi himself had been promoted by her. Asking him to support the Prince would make her angry, and wouldn’t his spot as the Chief Eunuch of the Western Depot come to an end?
For that reason, he shook his head. Feeling that Pan Bin’s idea was stupid, he mocked him. “You’re the Shuntian Prefect, and all you care about is the square area of the capital and its outskirts. If you don’t know the details of important things in the Dynasty, don’t go commenting wildly on them!”
Pan Bin sighed. “You’ve misunderstood, Eunuch Wang. I insist that you stand on a team. The world has a Long-Lived Emperor, but how could there be a Long-Lived Consort? You don’t need to give thought to the present, but you should give thought to the future. If there’s an opportunity for it, you can gain a connection, and then may have an extra escape route later on. Advancing and retreating needs to be done suitably; only then can one’s tactics be foolproof!”
Wang Zhi hadn’t been taking him seriously at the start, but upon hearing the latter half, he began to look thoughtful.
Pan Bin hadn’t spoken incorrectly. In spite of it being said that the Crown Prince might not be able to become Emperor in the future, he was still currently liked by the people, and word in the Court about him was quite good. Some people even stated that he was bound to be better than his old man. Wang Zhi was still young, himself, and needed to make some kind of plan for the future. If he could find an opportunity to flaunt for the Prince, maybe that bunch of civil officials would jointly not try to make trouble for him in all aspects, or find him unsightly.
Coming to understand that layer of this, Wang Zhi eventually said, “You’re considerate, Sir Pan. Let’s drop the jade horse for now. I lost it, so it’s lost, and I don’t care to find it.”
Having awaited those words, Pan Bin couldn’t help but sigh in respite.
Wang Zhi watched him with a skin-deep smile. “With your personality, you don’t seem too much like someone who would give me an idea like this. Could these words be your good junior’s?”
The cursed eunuch got it right!
Pan Bin smiled awkwardly. “No such thing, no such thing!”
Wang Zhi sighed ruefully. “He’s a real talent. Despite his post not being high, he has a good and rare insight. What a shame that there’s no precedent for civil officials entering the Depots, else I’d definitely draw him over to be one of my closest assistants!”
Pan Bin: “…”
On behalf of my junior, I thank your entire damn family! Truly!
Sir Pan had at last resolved the headache that was the ‘white jade horse incident’, exhaling in relief.
Over on Mister Tang’s end, the man was extraordinarily pleased with his life of co-habitation.
He brought a lot of seeds for flowers and trees in to plant in the courtyard, then left them for Ah-Dong to take care of. Some of the flowers were already fairly bloomed when he bought them. In a split second, the vacant courtyard was crammed with a multitude of colors, turning vibrant and diverse. It gave a sense that the whole yard had come to life in quick order.
Even though his own cooking level was nothing to boast about, he gathered a lot of recipes from outside, all in the glorified name of teaching Ah-Dong how to improve her cooking skills.
During a downtime, he took advantage of when she was cooking (and when he had nothing to do) to start reading a recipe to her out loud. “Sweep felled plum florals, bathe clear. Using snow water, cook white congee. Wait for the finish. Florals go in to cook with it…”
She couldn’t help but cover her ears and howl in anguish from his reading. “Big brother, I don’t recognize those characters! I don’t understand anything that you’re reading!”
Mister Tang played innocent. “It isn’t hard to understand, is it? Come, I’ll teach you what these mean. ‘Sweep felled plum florals, bathe clear’ means that when there’s plum flowers in winter, wait for their petals to fall, collect them, then clean them in a wash. Take snow water and add it into the white congee so they boil together…”
“But it’s not winter right now. Where will the plum blossoms come from?”
“One thing can be a hundred different things. It’s not just plum blossoms that can be put into congee, but things like scholar and pear flowers, too, and each has its own respective properties.”
She blinked. “What does plum blossom congee taste like, though? Is it like eating a mouthful of petals?”
“…You’re really no fun. Fine, let’s switch it out for something else, then. Hm… okay! This dish is called ‘cold scholar-leaf noodles’. You need to specifically pick leaves from high up on a scholar tree, then beat the juice out of them, put it in flour, and roll the dough into thin noodles. After those are cooked, place them in cold water to steep, turning them into cold noodles. After that, chop up garlic, mix it with vinegar and sesame oil, then sprinkle the combination over them. Say, isn’t there a scholar tree behind our house? It’s summer right now, so how about you try this one next time?”
Ah-Dong drooled in the wake of that. “This sounds tasty! The tree isn’t that tall, either! I’ll go try it tomorrow!”
“That won’t do,” Tang Fan said, righteously. “What’ll be done if you fall? I’m better suited for such labor. I’ll go pick them.”
“Huh? You can still climb trees, big brother?”
“Of course. I leapt all over the place as a child, up trees and down rivers. Why? You don’t believe me?”
Ah-Dong sized him up, then shook her head.
Tang Fan rolled up his sleeves, ecstatic. “You don’t believe me, so I’ll climb to show you now. It’s still early, too, so when I pick the leaves off, we can have this for dinner!”
“But I already cooked the rice,” she said, feeling awkward, “and you shouldn’t do that. What if you fall and Brother Sui scolds you?”
“No worries. He’s still reading files in his study, so he won’t mind us for a little while.”
With that, he turned around, just in time to see someone standing behind him.
He haha’d. “Brother Guangchuan, you finished work so quickly?”
Sui Zhou nodded. “I heard that Sir Tang was going to climb a tree. I came to see it myself.”
Tang Fan sweated profusely. “What’s so great to watch about climbing trees? I’m doing this so we can all eat something better. Do you not want to eat it?”
Sui Zhou’s face was placid. “Who was it that said he was going to make boxia gong, insisting that I get a rabbit? You fiddled with it using a so-called ancient recipe, but the result was so sour and tart, it was practically inedible.”
Tang Fan quietly wiped his sweat off. “That was an accident. I forgot to marinate it in wine beforehand.”
“Then who was the one who volunteered to make bamboo shoot stew last time, but ended up with a pot of boiled paste?”
Ah-Dong’s head poked out from behind him so that she could betray him unfeelingly. “It was him!”
Mister Tang could not lift his head up from getting scolded. The other man enumerated his previous crimes, then straight-up led him away. “For all those reasons, you being responsible for just eating is enough. A space like the kitchen is unsuitable for you to enter.”
With that final blow, Mister Tang’s title of ‘useless’ was crowned upon him henceforth.
The expressionless Sui Zhou walked as he lectured him. “From now on, whenever Ah-Dong is cooking, don’t go in and bother her.”
Knowing that he was in the wrong, Tang Fan accepted his chiding at once. “Got it!”
“What she cooks is what we eat. Don’t always be giving her a hard time with weird recipes that make her go randomly experimenting. If you want to eat fancily, you can go do that in a restaurant outside.”
“Got it!” The other nodded like he was smashing garlic with his head.
“Also, you need to eat less at night. Occasionally eating snacks is self-indulgent, you can’t do it every day. There was one time where Ah-Dong said that she found pastry crumbs under your desk when she swept your room. She thought there were rats roaming about at first.”
Mister Tang was quite exasperated. I lived like this when I was alone before. How come I acknowledged one little sister and gained one friend, yet it seems like I’ve suddenly found two moms for myself, instead?
Over a long period of living under the same roof as Sui Zhou, he discovered that the life the other man led was simple to the point of dryness.
For their typical working days, they both left at about the same time, then came back at different ones, but they were still able to eat dinner together for the most part.
Following dinner, they would chat for a time, then return to their respective rooms to read. Sometimes, they’d also play go and other such games, but Sui Zhou’s go-playing power wasn’t up to par, so he lost basically every round, Tang Fan tyrannically wiping the floor with him.
A lot of the time, the Northern Bastion Office constantly had things that weren’t finished being done, dossiers that weren’t finished being read, criminals that weren’t finished getting apprehended, and secrets that weren’t finished being sussed out. He was several times busier than Tang Fan; they had to manage things inside the palace, as well as things outside it.
At Sui Zhou’s position, him not coming home the whole night was a common occurrence. Contrary to reason, he was rigid and serious by nature, unlike others who would go dining, wining, wenching, and gambling every once in a while. His life’s trajectory was more simple than Tang Fan’s, not resembling that of a high-tier younger gen at all.
Mister Tang was consciously aware that as a friend, him transforming Sui Zhou’s bland life was mandatory. Therefore, in his spare time, he would think up some ideas in the hopeful pursuit of enriching the other’s life outside of work.
Like right now, for example.
“C’mon, c’mon, c’mon, Brother, these are all folk stories that I’ve hoarded over the years. Take a look at them when you’re free. You shouldn’t be burying your head in official business all the time, it’ll make you age faster. One’s duty is important, but you need to live life, don’t you?” Tang Fan said with a grin, heaping a huge stack of books onto the man’s writing desk.
After getting along with Sir Tang for a good while, Sui Zhou had personally experienced the random eccentricities beneath the other’s refined exterior. Hearing this, he had no choice but to put his brush down, then look through the books he had brought somewhat helplessly. “Collected Treasures, A Flower’s Tale, Yingying’s Biography, The Western Journey, A Story Told of King Wu of Zhou, Precious Karmic Blessings, A Record of Passions… I’ve read all these before.”
“You’ve read them all?” Tang Fan was greatly shocked. One truly couldn’t be judged by their appearance! He couldn’t tell at all!
“A time before, White Lotus followers were using books to push their words, disseminating rumors and disturbing the public mind with lies. Because of that, the Office needed to check through stories on the market, lest those with intent use the fame of those books to make a rebellion true.”
He rifled through to the bottom-most book, then pulled it out. “What is this book, Pear Blossom Fate?”
Sir Tang gave an oh, having a rare bit of embarrassment. “I wrote that one.”
 Small, my ass. Any ‘small’ Chinese courtyard China puts most modern-built houses to shame in terms of size. Take a look at Sui Zhou’s possible house here.
 拨霞供, literally translated as ‘offering for parting red clouds’. Essentially rabbit hot-pot. Thinly-sliced meat is placed into a hotpot until it cooks and forms a ‘cloud’, after which spicy red pepper is added to the final pot.
 Collected Treasures: A very generic name for anthologies, likely fabricated.
A Flower’s Tale: A Tang Dynasty story that has since been lost.
Precious Karmic Blessings: Generic love story title. A section of Dream of the Red Chamber is titled this, but I doubt it’s meant to be that. Fabricated.
A Record of Passions: Again, a generic title. Fabricated.