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Those words were so authoritarian, no one could say anything for a moment. They all stared at Sui Zhou.
This wasn’t Tang Fan’s main venue, so he had no right to speak at the start. That didn’t at all hinder him from habitually utilizing his innate case-viewing vision to analyze the hearts of these people, though. With a sweeping look, he could glean a lot of clues off of the words, actions, and airs of each individual.
For one example, Sui Zhou’s parents were docile people. When Lady Jiao started talking, the mother should have shouted to put a stop to it, otherwise.
For another example, Sui Zhou’s elder brother was a similarly reticent, stuffy man. He was a bit similar to Sui Zhou in that regard, though the latter was quiet when he had no need to speak, yet didn’t stint on words when it came to needing to speak on a case’s analyzed details. His brother, meanwhile, seemed more like his nature and habits made it so that he was slow to talk.
As Tang Fan watched, he inwardly shook his head. He had heard Sui Zhou say that Sui An wanted to take the imperial exams, but with a personality like this… even if he passed them by sheer luck someday, it would likely be hard for him to go forth with officialdom for long. The question had to be begged; what high-ranking official would like a subordinate that was so uptight, he couldn’t make more than three sounds per sentence?
In contrast to her husband, Lady Jiao appeared to be eloquent, and overly impatient to get ahead. The docile elders weren’t suppressing her, so she likely did whatever she wanted in the household on typical days. It wasn’t surprising that Sui Zhou had ended up wanting to move out.
After Sui Zhou said his part, Tang Fan could no longer be silent. He stepped up, cupping his hands and bowing towards Old Madam Zhou. “This humble one is Tang Fan, courtesy Runqing. You may call me the latter, Madam. I am an appointed Judge of Shuntian Prefecture, and a friend of Guangchuan. I’ve brought my little sister Ah-Dong today to come congratulate you on your birthday. I pray that your fortune is as vast as the East Sea, and that you live as long as the South Mountain.”
Ah-Dong obediently bowed in suit, called out “Many blessings to you, Old Madam Zhou,” and presented her gift as she did so.
Madam Zhou grinned from ear to ear. “Good, good! Since you’re a close family friend, you don’t need to take so many pains. It’s rare for our Ah-Zhou to bring friends home, yet you’re still giving me birthday wishes. You clearly must be a good child, and this little lady is pretty, too — very good, very good!”
In this day and age, it was fashionable to give presents and have them be opened in front of the host’s family. It didn’t matter how expensive they were; so long as the meaning behind them was good, the host would be happy.
Lady Jiao took the gift box, reached out to untie the cord wrapped around it, then opened it up.
What was taken out from inside was a longevity peach carved from white jade. The color was warm, and it was well-made and cute, its palm-size extremely suitable for playing around with in the hand.
Old Madam Zhou had also received birthday gifts in the palace before, but she had been frugal all her life and didn’t want wanton extravagance. For the banquet, she had consequently only invited her daughter’s family over for food. Upon seeing this present, she was both ecstatic and startled. “It’s fine if you just bring yourself here! What need was there to spend money on something so expensive?!”
Tang Fan smiled. “I didn’t spend anything at all. You must know, Madam, that my salary is scant, so if I really did want to buy it, I wouldn’t be able to afford it. This peach had been passed down in my family, and now that my elders are no longer here, I’m re-gifting their things. I hope that you don’t look down on it!”
Despite his modest speech, Sui Zhou only needed to look at the quality of the jade to know that the peach definitely had high value, and was also quite old. For him to be able to have something like this, the Tang family had surely not been lacking in them in the past.
The ability to give such an object also displayed the kind regards of the gift-giver.
As Old Madam Zhou was sisters with the Empress Dowager, the Sui family had thus seen a lot of officials and nobles prior to this. Furthermore, in the Great Ming, respect for the elderly was a typical convention, where some old women could scold officials in the middle of the street and make their palanquin take a detour. For that reason, when Sui Zhou first introduced Tang Fan as a Shuntian Judge, they really didn’t feel any shock, considering Sui Zhou’s father and brother had inherited posts in the Brocade Guard.
But once the jade peach came out, even Lady Jiao tactfully shut her trap.
The Old Madam still shook her head. “You absolutely mustn’t spend so much in the future! Only you being here is fine! Seeing you all makes me so happy!”
Tang Fan held his smile. “You’ve misspoken, Madam. When you have a later birthday where you’re venerably aged, not only will I spend money, but I’m going to spend a lot of it. I’ll assuredly look for an even bigger peach to give you, then!”
She just laughed from his teasing. “That mouth of yours is a hundred times sweeter than Ah-Zhou’s, Ah-An’s, and all the rest’s, Runqing. I’m sure it’s a hard job for you to get along with the stopped-up gourd that is Ah-Zhou. If he bullies you, you must tell me! I’ll right that wrong for you!”
Tang Fan felt like that somehow sounded like he was about to get married to Sui Zhou. However, he remembered that she was up there in age, and her speech must sometimes not pass through her brain, so he smiled perfunctorily.
It was just a family banquet, but the dishes on the table had clearly been cooked with the utmost of care. Although the Sui’s were poor at words, they had Tang Fan there, and he was amusing the Old Madam. Sui Zhou’s little sister, Sui Bi, was several years older than Ah-Dong, but the two little girls got on well, and drew in close to start whispering to each other in no time at all.
In comparison, Sui Zhou’s parents and brother seemed to just be sitting by, rarely speaking from start to finish while they lowered their heads to the food. Lady Jiao wanted to interject, but the Old Madam didn’t seem to like talking to her much, as she kept holding Tang Fan’s hand and asking him things. Upon hearing him say that his parents were long dead, his elder sister had married off to somewhere far away, and he wasn’t yet married himself, she sighed on repeat. “That’s so sad to see… a lone man acting as an official in the capital, with no one loving by his side. For someone of your quality, matchmakers must have already tread your threshold worn, yes? What kind of woman do you like? Come, tell me! I’ll help you find one, too!”
As soon as he heard that, Tang Fan’s scalp went numb. He swiftly moved Sui Zhou out as a shield. “As I recall, Madam, Guangchuan seems to be a few years older than me. He’s surely in more of a hurry than I am!”
Once that was said, he detected the person next to him shooting him an unenthusiastic look, evidently quite displeased with his methodology of drawing in calamity for him.
“Runqing has high standards. Don’t randomly try to tie red threads for him,” Sui Zhou said, finally diverting the Old Madam’s attention.
She was none too happy with his statement. “Nonsense! Is there no need to marry if you have ‘high standards’? Worst comes to worst, I’ll go look for the Empress Dowager and have her help find someone. If you’re saying that ordinary women don’t catch your eye, then a Princess or Dame surely will, eh?”
Tang Fan wasn’t sure how to react. Right as he thought to stop her, he heard Lady Jiao make a sour half-joke nearby. “You really are biased, Madam. You and Runqing haven’t known each other for even half a day, yet you’re not neglecting to help him get introduced and be matchmade. I’m not sure why you’re acting like you have a freshly-acknowledged grandson!”
The Old Madam giggled. “I’ve hit it off with the lad, so what’s wrong with being a go-between for him? Could it be that you want it, too? I’d be happy to ensure a Dame for Ah-An, but wouldn’t that mean that you would have to stand aside?”
Lady Jiao promptly piped down.
Tang Fan tried everything he could to make the Old Madam perish the thought. After the meal, since Ah-Dong had clicked with Sui Bi, they stayed for a good long while. He and Sui Zhou said their goodbyes to the Old Madam, only getting released after they had promised to visit her often.
After they left, Sir Tang couldn’t help but wipe his sweat off. “Guangchuan, your Old Madam is really hard to handle. Thank goodness that I didn’t have a moment of soft-heartedness, else she might have actually gone to the palace right then and there to get the Dowager to find me a Princess.”
“Are Princesses bad?”
It sounded like he was poking fun at him, but his expression was as stern as ever, and his tone was frigid.
However, Tang Fan had long gotten accustomed to his rigor-mortis face and didn’t mind it, merely shaking his head with a laugh.
Was taking a Princess as a wife good? No woman in the realm could surpass a respected, proud daughter of Heaven. Of course it would be good.
Yet, becoming the Consort of a Princess or a Dame meant that one could not participate in the government. Even if they were an official, they would have to resign from their post and go home — though, that was only aimed at civil officials. In regards to military ones, this was a lot less stringent. During the Tumu Stronghold Crisis, for example, a Princess’s Consort named Jing Yuan had been a military official that followed the Later Emperor on expedition, then died in battle because he had been protecting him.
In the opinion of civil officials, though, it was tragic. Marrying a daughter of the imperial clan was tantamount to never going anywhere in their careers from then on out. Due to that, any man that had a tad of ambition would forever view those marriages as dangerous paths. Tang Fan wasn’t exactly crazy about officialdom, but he had studied strenuously for over a decade, and that was for nothing other than to be able to expand his goals in life, as well as do a little something for the citizens of the land.
To aid their digestion after a meal, they went on foot, walking towards home with slow gaits and relaxed attitudes.
“The Madam did say something that wasn’t wrong, though,” Tang Fan teased with a smile. “You aren’t that young, and ought to get married. Don’t wait until a few years from now, or no one will want you.”
Sui Zhou gave him a glance. “You want me to get married?”
Before Tang Fan could respond, Sui Zhou said, “If I do, you’ll have to move out.”
Tang Fan nodded. “That’s reasonable. Faux-pas must be avoided, after all.”
“You’ll have to find housing yourself.”
“Ah… that’s really hard to find in the capital.”
“In several more years, Ah-Dong will be old enough to marry, and then you’ll have to cook for yourself again.”
“That makes sense…” After thinking about it, though, Tang Fan felt like something was off. “I can be married by then too, you know.”
“After she finds out that you write romantic novels, will you still be selling them?”
“Maybe you could research with her and also make her write them, so that you can supplement domestic expenses.”
Tang Fan wasn’t sure whether to laugh or cry. “It wouldn’t get that bad, right?”
“With your current salary, you still have to contend with the expenses of frequently going out to eat. When Ah-Dong marries off, you’ll have to have a dowry saved up for her. After you get married, there’ll be one more person to support, and then when children are born, there’ll be further mouths to feed.”
The more Tang Fan heard, the greener his face got.
Even so, Centarch Sui continued to dissect the practical facts. “With parents’ orders and a matchmaker’s words, you might even marry a woman like my sister-in-law. If your wife isn’t virtuous, your family will be miserable, and misfortune will extend to your offspring.”
“Stop talking…” Sir Tang was a bit lacking in strength. “Getting a wife is terrible. I’m not doing it.”
The other gave a hum, expression serious. He obviously felt similar.
Just when the two were about to get home, they saw Xue Ling stationed by the entrance and pacing back and forth, accompanied by several Brocade Guards.
One of them caught sight of the duo, then quickly stepped forward and said something to Xue Ling. He abruptly raised his head, eyes shining, and strode forth to greet him — he had obviously been waiting for him.
“You’re finally back, Brother!” He didn’t cover up the worries he had, voice anxious.
“What is it?” Sui Zhou asked.
Xue Ling glanced at Tang Fan, but didn’t hide his intentions, merely taking a half-step forward to whisper to Sui Zhou, “Something big happened!”
Sui Zhou frowned. “I’ll go in and get my uniform,” he quickly answered.
As an operative of a special department, Xue Ling would undoubtedly not exaggerate on purpose. Tang Fan was of Shuntian, and thus completely unrelated to their duties. At the same time, his rank was too minor for him to be able to inquire after information from them, so he wisely didn’t ask much about this. Saying hello to Xue Ling, he then prepared to return home.
Xue Ling was a little embarrassed, though, and said to him. “I’m in a real rush right now, Brother Runqing. I’ll invite you out for a drink some other day!”
Tang Fan waved him off. “You’re still being so humble, with our friendship how it is? You have your own official business, so you naturally can’t delay on—“
He didn’t get to finish, as Xue Ling lowered his head and said with a bitter smile, “I’m afraid things are in quite a snag this time around!”
Tang Fan was taken aback. He wanted to mull over the deeper meaning of his words, but Xue Ling said no more on it.
Sui Zhou’s actions were swift, and he came out of the inner room in the blink of an eye. Before he could say a thing to Tang Fan, the group scuttled away.
They were in such a haste, that he couldn’t help but think further on it. Something that could make Xue Ling so vexed had to not be a small event. Maybe the palace was involved.
As that was the case, he was thus even less able to make baseless inquiries about it. In this age, the less one knew, the safer they were, while self-styled geniuses died quicker.
Being open-minded, he acknowledged himself to be low-ranking, and thus didn’t need to worry. He just reclined leisurely in the courtyard and read books.
Around a shichen later, a servant from the Sui family came to the door, saying that Ah-Dong had a really good kinship with their Third Miss, Sui Bi, who kept urging for her to stay. Ah-Dong was going to spend the night there, have a sleepover with the Third Miss, then return on the morrow.
The little girl had gotten familiar fast, and had a good friendship. Tang Fan could understand that, but because she wasn’t coming back, he had a worry; what was he going to do for dinner?
Whenever Mister Tang — who had since become food-spoiled — gave one thought to the plain congee he used to cook himself when alone, he would feel no taste in his mouth. Ultimately, he resolved to go out to eat.
When it came to the wonton stall he once went to often, he rarely went there in recent times because he had moved in with Sui Zhou, and he and Ah-Dong fed him regularly. The stall’s owner still recognized him, smiling wide and calling out when he saw him. “Is there no one providing you food at home today, Sir Tang?”
Tang Fan smiled painfully. “Yeah, I had to come to you for a meal here!”
“Still the usual?”
Not long after, steamy wontons were placed in front of him. The proprietor knew that he liked cilantro, so he specially sprinkled a little more in. The bowl was filled with mouth-watering, verdant greens, which Tang Fan was delighted to see, grabbing his chopsticks. Right as he went to eat, he heard someone’s voice beside his ear. “Good on you, Tang Runqing, for drifting so casually through life!”
Tang Fan raised his head for a look, then laughed. “I was wondering why the magpies were chattering on the branches so early in the morning today, but they turned out to just be you, Brother Yuqiao. Come, sit! I’ll treat you to wontons!”
The new arrival was Xie Qian, Prime Scorer from the eleventh year of Chenghua, same year as Tang Fan. He had just passed thirty years of age, and also had a bright, confident air that was not inferior to Tang Fan’s. It was only due to Tang Fan being too young back when the places of the palace exams were being calculated that the title of Prime Scorer wrongly passed over him, Xie Qian plucking that very crown. The rumors about this went rampant, causing many people to think that there was certainly some issues between the two of them, but in reality, their secret friendship was quite good.
Neither of them were petty-minded people.
Xie Qian smiled. Not bothering to be polite, he swept his robes to the side, then sat directly across from him.
“Is it your day off? Why aren’t you hanging around your study, but willingly running off to stroll down the street?” Tang Fan teased.
He turned his head for the owner to serve up an extra bowl of wontons.
Xie Qian rolled his eyes. “It should have been my turn on duty today. How could I be as carefree as you?”
Tang Fan smacked himself on the forehead. “Right, right. It’s been less than a year since I left Hanlin, yet I’ve even forgotten the rules!”
The wontons were served speedily, and Tang Fan pushed the bowl in front of Xie Qian. “Try this. The wontons here are pretty good!”
Without another word, Xie Qian spooned up a bite of broth and sipped it, attitude casual. From this, it was clear that they were kind to each other, wholly unlike how outsiders guessed they were.
“It is good, and delicious!” Xie Qian praised, then shook his head. “In my opinion, you really shouldn’t have left Hanlin. It’s a bit boring there, but it’s also the best way to enter the Cabinet and get into the government!”
Tang Fan grinned. “I’m someone that can’t just do nothing. If I had been made to sit still in Hanlin like you, I’d probably have gotten bored to death.”
Xie Qian rolled his eyes at him again. “Fine. I’m much more anxious than you by nature, so I’m not hating it there. That said, though, you being willing to work at Shuntian is enough eagerness alone to convince people of that.”
Pausing, he sighed. “If I hadn’t stolen your Prime Scorer spot three years back…”
“Nope, stop right there!” Tang Fan raised his hand to block him, sounding sincere as he spoke. “You’re a confident character, Xie Yuqiao, so why are you affecting these oversensitive mannerisms? When we had gone into that hall, the rankings had long been decided. It was little more than just going through formalities. Those rumors of alleged secrets are all just blind hearsay. When did you start believing in those hyperboles? You won Prime Scorer, Brother Yuqiao. It was what everyone expected and readily believed. I was much the same. Don’t ever say things like that from now on.”
Xie Qian pfft out a laugh. “Okay, okay, okay, I won’t say them. All I did was make one statement, yet it made you go on a big lecture.”
He gathered in closer to Tang Fan, then lowered his voice. “I fear that something has happened in the palace.”
First it was Sui Zhou and Xue Ling, and now it was Xie Qian that was saying something. Tang Fan felt a chill in his heart, also lowering his voice to ask, “Why do you say that?”
“Undergrad Zhong had received orders to go into the the palace and put on a show of seasonal verses, but he returned early after not having been at it for very long. I also heard that many Cabinet Solons rushed in for an audience. Today ended up being a day off, too, which is different from the norm. There has to be something up.”
He was straightforward in personality, as well as decently close to Tang Fan. Knowing that he wasn’t someone that would open his mouth and go blab, he freely shared his doubts with him.
Tang Fan pondered for a bit. “Our posts are humble, so too much speculation won’t be of use. If something truly big happened, go home a bit early and don’t stay outside too much, lest the censors latch onto that to denounce you.”
Xie Qian nodded. “You’re right. After these wontons of yours, I’d best go back as soon as possible so that this won’t lead to some kind of ruckus.”
The other smiled. “Right, right. Go on home quick to keep your lovely lady company!”
Xie Qian had been newly wedded last year — and it was classified as a late one, in this era. He was right in the period where passions were strong.
The man laughed. “Jealous? Let your sister-in-law choose one for you later, then. With your looks and qualities, you’re probably going to get overwhelmed with all the choices.”
Tang Fan shook his head. “Don’t do that. I’m afraid that I won’t be getting ‘overwhelmed by choices’; each and every one of the girls will just insist that if they’re not marrying me, they’re not marrying at all!”
Xie Qian huffed a laugh. “You really don’t have any shame!”
They chatted for a bit, finished their wonton broths, then each said their goodbyes and went home.
When Sir Tang got back, he unhurriedly flipped through a book, the conclusion of which he hadn’t gotten to finish last time. At the end, he gave a series of sighs at the fate of the heroine, then freshened up, dressed down, and prepared to go to bed.
It was totally silent outside. The voices of night watchmen floated over from far away. Seeing as Sui Zhou still wasn’t back yet, things had to be rather sticky in the palace.
Right at this moment, the sky-shaking echo of a door being beaten on came from outside the courtyard, bang bang bang. It disturbed one’s eardrums with an extremely painful droning, and seemed abnormally piercing in the quiet night.
Frowning, he put on the outer robe he had just taken off. He knew that the comer was absolutely not Sui Zhou, but he wasn’t sure what ‘divinity’ had arrived at his door in the middle of the night. As he turned this around in his head, he walked towards the courtyard gate.
He raised the latch and opened the door, only to see several tall-hatted, gray-clothed Depot wardens standing outside. They held lanterns in hand and blades on their waists. Each of them had cold, indifferent expressions, not reacting at all to seeing him come out.
“Are you Tang Fan?” their leader asked, icy.
Tang Fan’s line of sight flitted past the character for ‘west’ embroidered on their cuffs. He nodded. “Who are you gents?”
“The Western Depot has been royally decreed to handle a case! Follow us into the palace immediately!”
“Dare I ask what for?”
The other party was harshly toned, didn’t tolerate him asking for details, and wasn’t interested in chatting with him. With a wave of his hand, the two next to him promptly stepped forth, one to the left and one to right, hemming Tang Fan in with the postures of escorting a criminal.
Tang Fan smiled bitterly to himself on the inside, unsure of what pitfall Wang Zhi had dug for him this time. “Then I must go back and change into my official’s uniform, right? How could I forget my manners in royal presence?”
The man’s dead-fish-esque eyes looked all about him. “Go quickly, then! Don’t waste time!” he shouted frostily.
The Eastern and Western Depots were really too unbridled. Forget about a minor, sixth-rank official like Tang Fan; were Pan Bin here, they wouldn’t look at him too well, either.
Despite working for the two Depots, wardens weren’t eunuchs themselves, but rather manpower transferred over from the Brocade Guard to help out — they were all normal menfolk. However, after being in the Depots for too long, they had been tainted, becoming a bit more arrogant than typical Guards.
People like this spoke no reason at all. Tang Fan was disinclined to talk drivel with them, so he turned, went back in, changed into his uniform, then came out in no more than a quarter of an hour. “I’m ready. Let’s go.”
Seeing that he was plenty cooperative, the Depot men didn’t adopt that half-coercing posture that they had before. “Can you ride a horse?”
Tang Fan gave a slight nod.
A warden quickly led a brown-coated horse over, which Tang Fan mounted.
The sound of clopping hooves echoed as the group swiftly vanished into the borderless night. Only their few lanterns distantly swayed, shining one moment and extinguishing the next.
From the second the wardens arrived, Tang Fan had started to deliberate their purpose in coming.
Sui Zhou had so far not returned from the time he left for the palace in the afternoon. Xie Qian had also stated that something peculiar might have happened in the palace. Now, it appeared that things perhaps far and away exceeded all their imaginations; but what was the point in calling someone so completely irrelevant like him into the palace?
[End of Arc 2: Days Living with the Brocade Guard]