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Ah-Dong was as much of a glutton as Tang Fan. Back at the Li’s, she would go to the cook to nab things to eat. Whenever they made pastries for the Madam and Young Lord, they would put an extra piece or two in after packing the dish, which were frequently pilfered by Ah-Dong. It was to the point that, as an eight-year-old, her shape didn’t have much of the slenderness of a young girl, but instead gradually trended towards plumpness.
Her days in the kitchen had not been in vain, at least. She had snuck a trick or two out of the cook’s lessons, and could thus fully satisfy the various demands of her big, chowhound brother. Take these scholar-leaf noodles, for example; after hearing Tang Fan’s description, she also got a bit a craving for them.
Of the brother-sister duo, one climbed the tree, the other squeezed the juice into the noodles, and together, they actually managed to cobble the noodles together.
The white jade-like bowl was loaded with thin, delicate, rolled-out noodles made with scholar-leaf juice, then sprinkled with chopped garlic, sesame oil, and vinegar. In an instant, the aroma of the vinegar flowed out in every direction. Tang Fan and Ah-Dong both closed their eyes in simultaneous pseudo-intoxication — were someone to state that they were only sworn siblings, no one would believe them.
“C’mon, c’mon, hurry and eat!” Tang Fan personally made up a bowl for Sui Zhou, smiling as he pushed the seasonings and spoon over to him.
Sui Zhou said nothing, lowering his head to try it. The taste genuinely was good. The freshly-picked leaves had an earthly fragrance, so once their juice had permeated the noodles, those subsequently tasted of the leaves as well; fresh, delicious, and best for the summer. No wonder Tang Fan had been preoccupied with them.
Seeing him nod, Tang Fan’s eyes shone. “Next time, let’s try out golden chicken!”
Before Sui Zhou could answer, Ah-Dong had already started calling out from beside him. “Big brother, don’t forget that you scratched your arm when you climbed that tree this morning. If you go to catch a chicken, are you going to get pecked?”
He gave her a glare. “I hadn’t climbed a tree in a long time, so my memory was foggy is all. I’ll get good at it after a couple more times.”
“You’re still going to do it?!” she howled. “I had to stand under the tree and look after you! My heart was going up and down! I was scared that you’d fall! If you actually do next time, then there won’t be a time after that! I might actually die of fright!”
Tang Fan reached out to go tug her on the ear. “All you need to do is eat, little girl, yet you nag all day long. Be careful, or you won’t be able to marry later!”
In spite of Ah-Dong’s roundness, her movements were surprisingly quick. She sprung up and hid behind Sui Zhou in a flash, giggling as she made weird faces at Tang Fan.
“Are you hurt?” Sui Zhou asked.
Tang Fan shook his head. “Don’t listen to her nonsense. I just got cut by a branch.”
Sui Zhou nodded, and said nothing.
Scholar-leaf noodles, cold dressed cucumber, spiced beef — one meat and two vegetarian, all of them cool, crisp, tasty, and appetizing dishes. One that had been hot from head to toe would feel refreshed after eating them.
Sui Zhou had formerly lived by himself. He was able to cook, but because he was always busy, he would concentrate on handling things or solving whatever in the bureau a lot of the time, meaning that he would often have his meals while flipping through files, not tasting a thing of them. Seldom was he able to be like this; sitting around with a couple other people, chatting as he ate, and tasting the carefully prepared flavors of the food.
At the start of this, he still felt that coming back home to eat after working late was a bit pointless. It was only via Tang Fan’s insistence that even did so. Now that he had gotten used to doing it, though, he would always rush back no matter how late it had gotten.
It was an undetectable, subconscious influence.
After eating, Ah-Dong cleaned up the dishware, while Sui Zhou said to Tang Fan, “Follow me.”
He brought him into his study.
“Sleeve,” he ordered.
He forever spoke succinctly, wouldn’t talk where he didn’t need to, and insisted upon reducing the language he used when he did have to.
Sir Tang thought to himself, It’s good that I’m smart, because otherwise, grasping the meaning of his random gibberish would be an absolute challenge.
Once he rolled up his sleeve, a long gash could be seen on the outer side of his right arm. It wasn’t deep, but had likely bled quite a lot before, and presently had a bloody scab following its stoppage that looked a bit dreadful.
Sui Zhou glanced at it, then took a bottle of ointment out from the collection on the table, dipped his fingers in to get a bit of it, and applied it evenly to Tang Fan’s wound.
The cut scorched painfully, but it was an ache that could be ignored. Tang Fan didn’t grimace, but after the ointment was smeared on, a comfortable sensation of coolness swiftly came through to his wound. Even the pain seemed to have dulled by a lot.
“This medicine of yours is really effective. I won’t have anything to worry about if I fall again!”
He was joking, but got a cold look from Sui Zhou that made him shut up immediately.
“You want there to be a next time?”
Mister Tang tried to bear with it, yet couldn’t. “But those scholar-leaf noodles were really great, don’t you think?”
He sounded like he’d been wronged. Centarch Sui couldn’t help but tick the corner of his mouth up slightly, though he just so happened to turn away to prevent the other from seeing it.
“If you still want to eat those later on, tell me,” Sui Zhou was heard to answer, but only after a long while.
Tang Fan smiled wide. “You truly are a good brother!”
Centarch Sui, who had been crowned with the title of ‘good brother’ just because he was willing to climb a tree and pick leaves, felt exasperated. “Weren’t you going to talk about the Li family?”
The other went oh a few times. Remembering his proper business, he promptly switched from foodie mode into a serious one.
He relayed all of his conjecture from start to finish, ending it with, “I once heard Old Li explain that back when Li Man had relinquished the imperial exams and switched professions to business, he suffered many losses due to insufficient experience. He had lost his assets, as well. The family owed a pile of debts, being close to desperation, but because of some business he made from an unknown source, they improved in the span of a night. Old Li was just a steward, so he hadn’t known the specifics, but now that I think about it, maybe the reason Li Man was able to make a sudden recovery was due to the assistance of the White Lotus Society, and the two sides have long been affiliated. With his circumstances of having a virtuous wife, filial son, properties, and high wealth, why else would he be bewitched to the point that he would kill his wife and son?”
Sui Zhou nodded. “I’ll report about this to the higher ups and proceed to track the whereabouts of Li Man and Lady Chen. The Society has gotten increasingly prevalent in recent years. The influence of their collusion with the Oirats was indispensable in the Tumu Stronghold Crisis more than ten years back, too.”
As soon as he mentioned the great Crisis, Tang Fan sighed.
The year that major, world-shocking event occurred, he hadn’t yet been born, but that didn’t keep him from understanding it. It wasn’t just him; everyone in the world would likely sigh the same whenever the matter was brought up.
Stemming from the Emperor’s ignorance and willfulness, hundreds of thousands of people died from it, and there was no lack of merited officials of all kinds among them. On top of that, the capital’s Three Legions were nearly wiped out. Later, his previous imperial names became taboo, and the benevolent governing of his subsequent title as Yingzong was what was brought out to be spoken of.
However, Tang Fan believed that if one person’s maturation required hundreds of thousands of human lives to accumulate, that was really too bleak. What was done was done, and no matter how much Yingzong had dressed himself up, he could never hide the mistake he had made. He had been taken hostage, turning into the disgrace of the nation, and then the Oirats barged right in while the capital was completely defenseless — had Yu Qian not boldly stepped up, stood fast again public opinion, persisted with not shifting the capital, established a new Emperor, and also put himself in the lead of the defensive war’s launch, how the capital would be right now, and how the Great Ming would be right now, were both difficult to say.
“Looking at how the Tumu event went, the Society’s plans are quite grand,” he warned. “In all likelihood, the thing with Li Man is only the tip of the iceberg.”
Once the White Lotus Society got involved, it became something that Tang Fan couldn’t resolve by himself. The Northern Bastion Office had much more abundant experience in this field, so handing this over for them to investigate was clearly much more suitable.
Sui Zhou nodded, then said icily, “With how Li Man’s character is, even without that Lady Chen or the Society’s instigation and enchantment, he probably would have done the same thing anyway.”
He plainly laid out that he had no good feelings towards this man that had killed his own family.
“The amount of people like him in the world isn’t few,” Tang Fan answered, “thus giving the Society these opportunities to seize.”
Noticing Sui Zhou’s look of tiredness, he asked, “Have you run into some kind of touchy issue?”
Sui Zhou shook his head. “It’s as I told you last time. The Society’s followers use romantic stories to mix rumors therein, wanting to rampantly bewitch the commonfolk. There’s been nothing but the seizure of books these days.”
Sir Tang went ah, smiling a bit ingratiatingly. “Guangchuan, can’t we talk about this? If you all see a book called Pear Blossom Fate and don’t have a problem with it after you thumb through it, can you not seize it? There’s also this book called Flying Swords…”
His voice got quieter and quieter under the other man’s expressionless stare, until he eventually just looked guilty.
“Orders from the top say that every single romance book is to be seized,” Sui Zhou replied. “Those that check through them only flip through casually, making it hard to discover whether there’s anything wrong inside or not. That’s why it’s preferable to be harsh as opposed to lenient. Furthermore,” he paused to look at Tang Fan, icy expression finally suffused with a trace of helplessness, “you’re a Dynasty-ordained official that’s run off to write an anonymous book like that. If that gets out, your reputation likely won’t be kept.”
Tang Fan chuckled. “What’s wrong with doing it? It’s not just me, but a lot of people in Court that do this, too. No one can tell who’s who with pen names, anyways. How could somebody support their family otherwise? Relying on salary alone? If they don’t want to be corrupt, they can only take a different approach. Hm… I may as well tell you — you know Assistant Minister He of the Ministry of Justice, right? He anonymously wrote that book Moon-Viewing to the Sound of Tides the same year he had been a Hanlin editor as me, though he’s since been posted elsewhere. He’s written a couple of books for his livelihood before. Because his writing style is more free than mine, and the content more erotic, they’ve received no small amount of welcome from booksellers. His sales are higher than mine. There’s also people from the Ministry of Rites that will sell the papers of the high-rankers to bookmills every time a provincial exam is finished, because they want to make profits off of the wave of senior students that buy them to analyze and reference off of. That makes even more money than our story-writing!”
Sui Zhou listened to him recount this all like he was very familiar with it, dumbstruck.
He was thinking about what he had said about Assistant Minister He, of course. He was an honest and serious old man of fame; it was really hard for him to imagine that that old guy would write romance novels like this in secret. Even with the Brocade Guard’s interrogation methods, he still didn’t know about this, to boot. Seemed like he needed to do a smidgen of self-reflection.
Then, he heard Tang Fan moan and groan, trying to win sympathy. “Ah, seriously… just look at us civil officials. Look at that all-around prestige! The truth of it is that we study laboriously for decades, then must return courtesies with courtesies once we become officials, but without money, we can’t take a single, tiny step forward. Our superiors will throw parties, and if we don’t send gifts, that’s equivalent to offending them, making advancement tough forevermore. If we think to give gifts yet have no money, we then have no choice but to pilfer those below us, making the citizens suffer in turn. When all’s said and done, those that do can’t be entirely to blame… I’m really not advocating for them, though. There aren’t many that can be bright and resourceful like me, after all, able to get money from simply writing books…”
“I have a salary.”
Tang Fan just kept going. “Wouldn’t you say so, Guangchuan… eh? What’d you say?”
“I have a salary. No need to worry.”
Brocade Guards were not much like civil officials. They had both monthly and travel provisions.
Monthly provisions were the same as civil officials’, being a monthly salary, while travel provisions were allowances for outside assignments. For those that frequently went on abroad assignments like the Northern Bastion Office, their travel expenses weren’t meager, to say nothing of the fact that when they arrived somewhere, they would get all sorts of gifts and off-the-books income. The Guard’s original responsibility had been imperial ceremony, too, and they were to maintain flashiness at all times, on top of posturing as a fiendish group of gentlemen that scared everyone that saw them. Hence, even if there came a time that the Dynasty was short of supplies and the Ministry of Revenue couldn’t give salaries for a while, they would absolutely never dare to deduct the Brocade Guard’s pay. Everyone knew that the persimmons one had to pick needed to be soft.
Tang Fan had lived alone, so he hadn’t needed to support a whole family. Adding on Ah-Dong wouldn’t have cost much, either. However, he was an eater of fine food, so he would sometimes (always) run off to places, resulting in him not having much saved.
In contrast, Sui Zhou was a great paragon of thriftiness, because he had also lived alone, yet had no vices, dissimilar to Tang Fan’s unreasonable adoration of good food. Outside of returning home from the bureau every day, his life was simpler than an ascetic monk’s. He would send New Year’s gifts to his family and superiors as according to standards, but after the year was done, he would still have a lot of savings, completely blowing Tang Fan’s out of the water.
Hearing what he said, Tang Fan was stunned for a while, after which he started to laugh wildly. He ended up having to support himself on Sui Zhou’s shoulder in order to keep steady, rubbing his own stomach in pain. “Ouch… well, then, us siblings will depend on you from now on, Centarch Sui. Once I use up all my salary, you’ll have to help me out!”
Tang Fan still couldn’t resist wanting to laugh, but he was a bit touched, as well. He knew that not everyone was capable of making the man say stuff like this.
“To be honest, Guangchuan, I used to have a so-so opinion of the Brocade Guard. It was only after I met you that I learned that there was a real gent among the Guards like you, worthy of friendship and being viewed as a close confidante!”
There was a trace of warmth in Sui Zhou’s cold eyes, though he gave the same concise mn as ever.
“My maternal grandmother’s day of longevity is in two days. Do you want to come with?” he asked.
His grandmother’s surname was Zhou, and she had an unusual status — her older sister happened to be Empress Dowager Zhou.
Dowager Zhou had formerly been of common background. The Ming era had a rule that all the women in the imperial harem had to be selected from good families amongst the common folk, not from high officials, so as to prevent their relatives joining forces and overthrowing the government. She received the title of Noble Consort as a harem woman, then eventually became the Empress Dowager through her status as the Emperor’s mother. The Zhou family enjoyed an abrupt rise to the top, riding on her success. In addition to her father being granted a posthumous title, her brothers were each given nobility, and, on account of his connection to Lady Zhou, Sui Zhou’s maternal grandfather was granted the tile of Commanding Envoy of the Brocade Guard.
‘Commanding Envoy’ was the highest post in the Guard, but not an exclusive one. Consort Wan’s little brother Wan Tong, for example, was also currently a Commanding Envoy, but he actually held solid authoritative power. There was another Envoy named Yuan Bin, who had once saved the Late Emperor’s life; his influence was great in the Guard, and he had equivalent power.
Aside from those two, there were many other Commanding Envoys. The majority of them were empty posts granted by the Emperor, where they hung their name up, took in money, and didn’t have to work for anything. They, of course, had no real authority.
This type of consort-kin nobility belonged to the ranks of the parvenu, and was incomparable to that of Marquis Wu’an’s sort, where the title was gained through merit, then succession. They hadn’t a bit of power, simply needing to say a few things that were nice to hear to get yearly coin and food.
The Sui family was held aloft by the Empress Dowager’s blessing. Sui Zhou’s father and brother occupied empty posts in the Guard, as well; the types that did nothing, got cash, and were eye-drawing all the same. They weren’t direct consort-kin with Empress Dowager Zhou, though, nor was their surname Zhou, which gave them an even greater layer of separation from each other. For that reason, after Sui Zhou entered the Guard, he had to start from Pennon and slowly work his way up.
Since it was impotent and consort-kin, civil officials generally refused to associate with the Sui family. One reason was to avoid suspicions, and the other was that they didn’t want to lower their own statuses.
Tang Fan, however, wasn’t thinking that at all when he heard the other’s request. “We’re brothers, so your grandma is my grandma. Call for me when it’s time, I’ll go with you.”
Sui Zhou gave an mn, heart slightly warm.
Because of the Li affair being related to the White Lotus Society, the Northern Bastion Office attached extreme importance to it after getting Sui Zhou’s report. Yet, just as Tang Fan had foreseen, Li Man and Lady Chen had both made prior plans, already fully prepared for this. Once the Office’s people chased down the plausible Li caravan in the confines of Baoding Prefecture, they discovered that the only ones remaining inside were Ah-Qiu and couple other servants.
As stated by her and the rest, after departing the capital, the one acting as ‘Li Lin’ did not actually move the family to Nanjing as he had originally agreed to, but instead immediately divvied a bit of silver up to each of the servants, dismissed them all on the spot, and told them to go off in separate directions. As for himself, he sat in the carriage alone, then made for the North, leaving no traces behind.
The servants still had no idea that the ‘Young Lord Li’ they had seen up until that point had likely long been switched out on the inside for someone else.
With things coming to this, finding ‘Li Lin’ and Lady Chen was not going to be a day’s worth of effort, nor was it within the scope of Shuntian Prefecture’s authority. After Sui Zhou handed this over to his colleagues, Tang Fan could just wash his hands of this and quit caring, but every time he looked at Ah-Dong, he would still occasionally think of Lady Zhang, Ah-Xia, and the others. In his heart, he had to sigh for how Mother Nature toyed with people.
From Sui Zhou’s personal statement, as well as all the doubtful aspects of the matter, the case became unresolved. Tang Fan’s denouncement was also left unpursued, so Pan Bin specially dispatched Old Wang and some others to go find Tang Fan and take him back to resume his post. Even though his Prefect of a senior frequently made all sorts of inconveniences for him, his heart wasn’t poor at all, and they further had the kinship of shared tutelage. If he hadn’t been that way, Tang Fan never would have abandoned his cushy and noble post as a Hanlin editor to go towards his senior’s smoke signals.
Those two days passed. On Old Madam Zhou’s birthday, Tang Fan brought Ah-Dong along as he went with Sui Zhou to the Sui home for celebration.
Old Madam Zhou had birthed one son and one daughter, the latter of which happened to be Sui Zhou’s mother.
After Mama Sui married Papa Sui, they had three children. Sui Zhou was second in seniority, with an elder brother Sui An above him, and a little sister Sui Bi below him.
In spite of counting as consort-kin with the Empress Dowager, the Sui family was ultimately just an average one. It didn’t contain multiple wives and concubines like Marquis Wu’an’s Estate and the Li family, thus making the atmosphere murky; Sui Zhou’s father had just the one wife. His paternal grandparents had already passed, too.
Old Madam Zhou’s son worked as an outbound minor official, with only her daughter’s family remaining in the capital. The siblings had both thought things over; in order to prevent their old mom from toiling in travel just to spend her later years somewhere else, they decided to let her stay in the capital. After that, the Sui’s bought a neighboring residence to move her into so that they could look after her without other people gossiping about it.
After he heard about the seniority of the Sui kin, Tang Fan was a bit confused. “That means your family setup is actually pretty uncomplicated. Why did you want to move out and live alone?”
“My elder brother was sealed as a Centarch based on connections, but it’s an empty post,” Sui Zhou answered lightly. “He’s not accustomed to the Guard’s work and still wants to rely on his studies to stand out from his peers, but he still hasn’t had success in passing the provincial exams. On top of that, we’re now of the same position even though I started out a bit lower than him, so that sister-in-law of mine is a bit cross with me. Rather than be at constant loggerheads at home all day long, I simply moved out for some peace and quiet.”
This time, Tang Fan understood. Every family really did have its own inscrutable scriptures.
Sui An, as the eldest son, was going to inherit the family business in the future, so his parents were bound to have a bit of bias in regards to his importance. With how Sui Zhou was, he certainly wouldn’t have the patience for these pesky, inconsequential household matters, so he simply moved out, avoiding conflict and preventing fights amongst brothers.
Old Madam Zhou’s son couldn’t come off the field for her longevity day, so it was arranged by her daughter. Previously, due to the Old Madam’s relation to the Empress Dowager, the Sui family didn’t dare to slight her, but she herself didn’t want it to be a big thing. She said that she had come from an ordinary family, her present wealth gained only from basking in the light of the Dowager. Fortune should be all the more cherished, so, instead of wantonly setting things up, wasting money, and inviting a heap of people she didn’t know to come celebrate her birthday, she would rather just invite her children and grandchildren over in one sum to have a lively dinner.
The birthday banquet was in her house. The Sui family only needed to go next door to congratulate her, which was quite convenient.
As soon as Tang Fan arrived at the Zhou home, he realized that apart from Ah-Dong and him, everyone else was from the Sui family.
Old Madam Zhou was more than sixty years old, with a head of white hair and a kindly look about her. Upon seeing Sui Zhou, she beamed, reaching out to pull him over. “My dear grandson came to visit me! Quick, quick, come over!”
Despite Sui Zhou’s habitual, year-round face of seriousness, he couldn’t help but soften up to her. He first paid birthday respects, then presented his gift, respectfully calling out her title of ‘grandmother’.
“Good, good, good!” She said thrice in a row. Seeing Tang Fan and Ah-Dong standing beside him, she smiled and asked, “Ah-Zhou, is this your friend?”
Before Sui Zhou could answered, someone else spoke up. “Today is a family banquet, second brother. The Old Madam said not to bring outsiders, so why did you bring someone we don’t know? There’s women here, too! He’s not even someone close enough to be considered family! You’re really being too careless!”
The speaker was the wife of Sui Zhou’s older brother, Lady Jiao.
Married brothers at odds were most likely that way due to conflicts between their wives. Sui Zhou wasn’t married yet, but since she found him displeasing to the eye, she talked into her husband’s ear throughout the day. Over time, the bond between brothers suffered adversely.
Plus, Sui Zhou had grown up before the Old Madam’s eyes. While the parents were biased in favor towards their eldest, she was biased in favor towards Sui Zhou. Being a Brocade Guard was a big, popular, lucrative post; as a second son not surnamed Zhou, the hereditary title hadn’t extended to him, but the Old Madam said something to the Empress Dowager to immediately get him a solid position that was more enviable than a vapid one. It was little wonder that Lady Jiao would be furious at that disparity in treatment.
However, she had forgotten that Sui Zhou was not someone she could badger as she pleased.
As soon as she was done, he gave her an indifferent answer: “From now on, he’s to be considered family.”
The translator says: WTF, he’s so smooth and they’re not even close to a thing yet. (Also, I typed out “Consulting Envoy of the Brocade Guard” and got Golden Stage flashbacks.)
MXS would like to note that Sui Zhou’s ‘consider him family’ isn’t him coming out of the closet. Slowburn for thee, and also me…