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Yet, against all odds, the atmosphere that had appeared to be going in that direction was quickly broken.
The subordinate following Eunuch Wang didn’t dare to disturb his boss’s staring match, but little Ah-Dong had no such qualms. She came out of Tang Fan’s room, bowl and chopsticks in hand. “Why are you standing there and not going in?” she called out in bewilderment upon witnessing this scenario.
Only then did Eunuch Wang wipe off the nonexistent dust on his clothes, curve his lips into a smile of unknown meaning at Sui Zhou, then pass him to head inside.
Seeing that Sui Zhou wasn’t following him, Ah-Dong was slightly confused. “Aren’t you going to go in, Brother Sui? Who’s that guy? Why’s he so imperial?”
Sui Zhou shook his head and said nothing. Giving the Depot warden standing outside a look, he turned and left.
They would talk more in the room.
Any man that was typically stylish and affectingly pretty would not really maintain that same look when sick. Mister Tang was, of course, no exception.
He was currently using a handkerchief to cover his nose while he sneezed, blowing it clean as he was at it. Noticing that Eunuch Wang was standing three chi away from him with a look of disgust, he had to say, “You’ve graced us with your presence, Eunuch Wang. Why have you come?”
His voice had a thick nasally sound to it, and his eyes were slightly red. His fair, jade-like skin contrasted with the disheveled hair near his face, but one such look at him seemed to give off a sense of frail beauty.
…Which would have been the case, if Wang Zhi hadn’t just seen him sneeze and blow his nose.
Eunuch Wang suddenly bolted to where Tang Fan was, then mysteriously shut the door like he was the host and not the guest, thus driving said host’s family away. He hadn’t come to merely pay him a visit, naturally.
“Have you not heard the word in Court?” he answered after Tang Fan’s question.
“I’ve been sick these couple of days, and have rested at home. One day is twelve shichens, but I’m sleeping for eight or nine of them, at the bare minimum. Where would I find the free time to go ask about news? What’s happened?”
Wang Zhi curled his lip. “I petitioned for reclaiming the Bend to the Emperor. Like you predicted, it was rejected.”
Tang Fan nodded, no surprise on his face.
The other was a bit put off. He was young and had been in charge of the Western Depot these two years, having much more tremendous insight from his experiences outside the palace. When it came to having an observant mind in Court, he didn’t fall short of Tang Fan, but even if he had the thought to get military merit and head off troops, his knowledge of army stuff was nothing beyond than average. He dragged a chair over to the side of the door, then sat. “What’s the trick to this? Tell me. How were you so certain that His Majesty wouldn’t approve of the reclamation?”
Could you not sit so far away? I only caught a cold, not the plague…
Tang Fan looked at him, a bit dumbfounded. “Everyone knows that the Great Bend is an important location, but it’s also one that’s easy to attack, difficult to defend. Even if the Dynasty snatches it, it’s foreordained to be hard to keep. The Court won’t be willing to expend that much effort in nabbing a piece of land that could be snatched away by anyone at any time. Once they figure the costs, they’ll feel that the gains aren’t worth the losses. That’s one reason.
“Another is that even though we have the forces, we don’t have the morale. The country as it is now is not the country as it was before the Tumu Crisis. Take a look at society at large; who would bring up reclamation of their own accord? Even the Emperor himself is likely thinking that the less complications there are, the better. It’s only natural that your act has hit a wall, Eunuch Wang.”
Wang Zhi frowned. “But you suggested beforehand that I go North. Now that reclamation can’t happen, what merits could it hold?”
“It isn’t that the Bend shouldn’t be taken back, but that it can’t be rushed for a short while,” Tang Fan answered, voice low. “It would be a massive battle. It needs the right time, right place, and right people in order for victory to be assured. Now that not even one out of every three people are in cooperation, how can discussion over the Bend be had? Your appetite for recovering territory on behalf of the nation is admirable, but this is a dish that needs to be eaten bite by bite. War is the same. The North’s situation is ever changing as the Oirats and Tartars flop between strong and weak, but what never changes is that the Great Ming’s North is always getting menaced. Yongle had shifted the capital to Beijing so that Emperors of subsequent generations could go on alert instantly as they faced the Northern barbarians, thus keeping the Northern border safe.”
What he didn’t say was that it was a boon that the capital was now Beijing, not Nanjing. If it weren’t, then according to the current Emperor’s habits, he would have been happily faffing about in the South whilst the North got its doors opened wide and land invaded countless times by the Oirats and Tartars. Now, there would always be a sense of crisis when it came to Beijing’s safety, because it absolutely couldn’t be lost.
“Therefore, even if reclaiming the Bend is important, it’s not the only thing that must be done,” he continued. “You must know that ever since the Tumu Crisis, our side has lost more and won less, weakening our morale. Following the Oirat’s wane of power, the Tartars had sprung up. Many think that if we can’t win no matter what, we may as well hole up and not go out, and then when things get bad, we’ll bribe the Tartars with treasures and money, or just let them go into cities and plunder them for a spell, because once they’ve stolen enough and their hearts are content, they’ll naturally leave. Given that you’d be able to beat the Tartars scared so that they’re too afraid to come harass us constantly, that’ll be a stake of merit.”
The Ming Dynasty was big, but it was precisely because of that that it couldn’t mobilize casually, and was a conspicuous target. The nomadic race of Tartars, despite their small-scale attacks, would simply leave after they were done pillaging; they didn’t dare to come when the strong were around, so they stepped up when only the weak were around, never remaining stationed in any border city. The enemy was in the dark, but Ming was in the light, making this quite difficult to manage.
That was why the country never had a way to deal with those people. They were a bunch of black flies buzzing all about that would scatter with one swat, but after time passed, you would still be standing there, a giant target, while the flies could come and find you at any time. How was that to be dealt with?
The only way it could be was to be so completely formidable, the flies would never dare to approach when they saw you.
But, if the Great Ming wanted to get strong… those good-for-nothing major officials in Court needed to be switched out first, and then, if possible, the Emperor also needed his brain washed so that he wouldn’t waste so much of his life away.
Therefore, if Wang Zhi wanted to regain the Bend, it would be practically impossible for him to do so without wrangling those guys.
Wang Zhi had been excitedly wanting to get the watermelon and eat it, too, only for Tang Fan to inform him that it wasn’t ripe yet, so he could only eat grapes. His interest immediately vanished.
Seeing that he wasn’t fond of little fights, Tang Fan was a bit helpless. “Eunuch Wang, forgive my bluntness, but if the Great Bend was so easy to recover, Yongle would have long taken it back with how wise and strategic he was. Why would it be our turn for it now? Would victory against the Tartars not be a major credit? Moreover, doesn’t the Dynasty not have the money to support you in reclaiming the Bend in the first place?”
Wang Zhi stood up. “Forget it! I don’t want to stay in the capital, fighting with Shang Ming all day long over this tiny piece of land. How droll! I want to do something big. That’s the only way I won’t have walked this world in vain.”
“People who walk away when the tea gets cold dread slander the most,” Tang Fan warned. “Before you have the time to return, His Majesty and the Consort will have already forgotten you.”
In his view, Wang Zhi had many shortcomings, but still had relative superiority when comparisons got made. He ultimately had a view of the big picture, unlike Shang Ming’s sort of eunuch that only knew how to eradicate dissidents and fawn on the Emperor. No matter what his motives were, in light of him helping keep Yuan Liang a secret, and thus sparing the Crown Prince scrutiny from Consort Wan, he was much better than several officials in Court. This was the reason Tang Fan was willing to associate with and suggest things to him, as well.
Wang Zhi waved him off. “I understand that.” Then, he got skeptical. “That said, though, you’re young, and your post is minor. How do you know the state of the Northern border so well? Scholars can learn of the world without ever leaving their homes, but there’s not many people like you in Court. I think Pan Bin wouldn’t even be able to say what you did, despite being an official for so many years.”
Tang Fan smiled. “How can scholars that never leave their homes learn of the world? Back when my parents died early, I took my recently-gained County Honorate achievement to travel as I studied, going from Yunnan in the South to the Gobi in the North. I read a great number of books and traveled a great number of li, a footprint for my every step as I went.”
Wang Zhi was slightly moved as he listened, genuinely looking at him in a new light.
In this time period, transportation was extremely arduous. Tang Fan was no frail woman, but he had still been alone. Regardless of how peaceful a golden age was, there would forever be robbing bandits and obstructing troops on the road. Unfathomable disasters of all sorts would happen, and if he got a fever from chill, treatment and medicine would be lacking, while finding any kind of doctor out in the middle of nowhere wouldn’t be happening. Also, ever since Zhengtong’s time, riots had cropped up time and time again. If a scholar with no martial arts like Tang Fan got accidentally swept up in something, the rioters would probably just kill him, ignoring what side he was on.
Yet, he had not died. He was alive and well, even passing the exams to become a Palace Graduate, then an official.
With all the hazards and risks he had encountered through it, he had somehow turned that danger around into security. All it needed to do was be written out, and it would become a marvelous tale.
An official like this, and an official that only knew how to be dead-set on reading unto actual death, becoming an official only to whittle his days away in his post, could not be spoken of in the same breath. In this world, those that withstood hardships might not all be destined for greatness, but all those that were going to become great had to have experienced hardships, without exception.
Eunuch Wang had already been feeling that Tang Fan wasn’t much like the rest. Now, he was even more certain that he was going to accrue further investment in the latter. Whether said investment was political or emotional, having a good relationship with this man would definitely be an advantage to him in the future.
Their talk about official business done, Wang Zhi prepared to get up and take his leave. In a joking mood, he smiled ambiguously towards Tang Fan. “I’ve noticed that you normally present yourself as being free-spirited, but not to the point that you’re idling life by. How did you get sick? Since you’ve got a grown man and little girl attending to you, do you want me to send you a few pretty maidservants?”
“No thanks. Wine is a poison to the viscera, lust is a blade to the bones. I’m afraid that my bones will get slashed to pieces before I’ve recovered from the cold. If you’re willing to, though, you can do something for me.”
Tang Fan was kind of embarrassed. “Well… you see, I’ve been sick at home these past couple of days, and can’t even go out the door. I heard that a bunch of new books are coming out in bookstores recently. I really can’t trouble Sui Zhou or a little girl with going out and buying these trifles for me, so I’d like to ask you to buy a couple books and send them my way. Being ill is boring, so they’d be good for killing time.”
Wang Zhi was suspicious. “What kind of books? They’re not erotic ones, right?”
Tang Fan nearly choked. “Do I look like somebody that would be so indecent?!”
Wang Zhi didn’t even need to think about his answer. “No.”
The other seemed relieved.
“But looks can be deceiving.”
He was not happy. “Not erotic books, romantic stories! Written with supernatural stuff and weird anecdotes! Will you bring those or not?!”
Wang Zhi smirked. “I will. Since you’ve helped me so much, how could I not lend you a hand for such a little thing?”
At some unknown point in time, he had stepped forward, and now used a hand to raise Tang Fan’s chin, looking him left and right.
“Speaking of, you’re a bit of a looker. If you stop being an official someday and go sell romance novels in town, I reckon that your business would boom with all the women giving you their matronage.”
Mister Tang finally couldn’t help but roll his eyes gracelessly. “If that day actually comes, I’ll go and sell them at the Western Depot’s gate.”
As soon as he said that, the door was heard to push open with a creak.
Sui Zhou walked in with medicine, just in time to see Wang Zhi leaning over with his hand on Tang Fan’s chin. The latter had to tilt his head slightly back, but his body was still reclined on the bed and wrapped in a blanket. Due to his coughing, two rosy blushes suffused the cool white of his complexion, his hair messy and clothes disheveled. The distance between them was so close, it caused one’s mind to go to weird places upon seeing them.
What was also worth mentioning was that Ming eunuchs weren’t as effeminate as many people liked to imagine they were; there was no lack of tall, powerful, man-molded characters amongst them, and if it weren’t for their inability to grow beards, no one would ever find them out.
Chief Eunuch Wang didn’t look powerful, skewing towards softness, but his physique had not a thing to do with the words ‘weak’, ‘frail’, and ‘thin’. Think about it; would someone who had practiced martial arts since childhood, just like Sui Zhou had, be in any way slim?
In contrast, because Mister Tang was both a civil official and ill, once glance told how strong he was.
No matter how one looked at this, they would think that Eunuch Wang’s lustful heart had emerged, and he was now teasing Tang Fan.
Under Sui Zhou’s cold, wordless gaze, Wang Zhi graciously let go of Tang Fan’s chin, then lightly pat him on the cheek. “I’ll come see you another day. Get well soon,” he said, as if he was being… affectionate.
Tang Fan: “…”
Why did he feel like those words could cause a misunderstanding?!
In the face of Sui Zhou’s frigid and imposing aura, Wang Zhi acted like he didn’t see it. “Centarch Sui is highly virtuous, to both bring him medicine and care for him. If things keep going down like this, Sir Tang won’t even need to take a wife in the future, hm?”
Not waiting for Tang Fan’s reaction, Wang Zhi laughed and strolled right out of his own accord.
What he had said was super blatant, a hundred percent brash, and extremely arbitrary. If anyone else today had been teased like a woman, or been a big, magnificent man getting compared to a little wife, some grudges would be held. Thankfully, Tang Fan didn’t take it seriously, and Sui Zhou was disinclined to bicker with him, thus allowing the Director of the Western Depot to freely leave.
The unlucky guy was now Mister Tang, because as soon as Wang Zhi left, he got scolded.
“Wang Zhi’s moods fluctuate, and it’s hard for him to distinguish between good and evil,” Sui Zhou said to him, cold-faced. “Making friends with him isn’t worth it.”
Tang Fan agreed with his evaluation of Wang Zhi, but still had to say something. “His Majesty favors eunuchs right now, and that situation is difficult to change. Ones that conduct themselves rigorously like Huai En are ultimately a minority, as the Emperor prefers ones like Liang Feng, Wang Zhi, and Shang Ming, who will pander to his desires. Even if it wasn’t Wang Zhi doing it, it would be a Li Zhi or a Zhang Zhi. As long as I can somewhat guide him into walking a proper path or doing something that benefits the country and its people, it’s a gain.”
Seeing that he knew what was up, Sui Zhou said no more, putting medicine in front of him.
Tang Fan: “…”
He smiled beseechingly. “Look, can we talk this over? I’m just about better. We can skimp on the medicine, right?”
He said that he was ‘just about better’, but in reality, he was still sniffling.
Unperturbed, Sui Zhou said only one thing: “Will you drink it yourself, or will I feed it to you?”
Giving no more objection, Tang Fan took the bowl, pinched his nose, then glugged the stuff down. His face scrunched up into a ball. He even weakly waved away the osmanthus candy that Sui Zhou had brought to him, completely uninterested.
Foodies loved to eat, but that definitely didn’t extend to bitter medicine.
Right as they were chatting idly, someone was heard to be calling at the gate outside. Sui Zhou got up and headed out.
It had to be said that Sui Zhou’s three-yard residence really wasn’t that small, but its total permanent population amounted to him, Tang Fan, Ah-Dong, and no one else. Day workers would get hired to clean the house, and they had their own dwellings in the capital that they would return to after they were done, not dilly-dallying around the host’s place. Not even a doorman or steward was now present, the entrance needing to be opened by the hosts themselves, but that gave a freeing feeling. People like Sui Zhou and Tang Fan didn’t like to be constrained, so it was logical that they also wouldn’t like seeing people they weren’t close to moving about right under their noses all day long.
After Sui Zhou left, he didn’t come back. While Tang Fan was wondering why, he saw Ah-Dong sneakily feel her way in. He wasn’t sure whether to laugh or cry. “Would I not let you in here, or something? Why are you acting like that?”
She giggled. “Brother Sui’s cousin dropped by again.”
Mister Tang was a grown man of typically laid-back and casual personality. He had no grudge with Young Miss Zhou, so he thus didn’t find her unpleasant. The cause of his little temper that one day was simply that he had just experienced the East Place case, where he had seen someone die that shouldn’t have, and then after coming back, he witnessed Ah-Dong and Sui Zhou having an affectionate talk and a laugh with Cousin Zhou (when there was, in fact, no ‘affectionate’ talking and laughing at all; that had purely been Mister Tang’s one-sided, subjective opinion). It had been hard to avoid having a feeling of loneliness, like he was going through life in solitude.
Things had long since changed with time. He was, of course, not actually going to be like a tiny, jealous child throwing a tantrum, to the point that he would block his pal from getting close to the Zhou lady and whatnot. Upon hearing what Ah-Dong said, he smiled lazily. “Ah-Dong, are you jealous that someone else is getting close to your Brother Sui? Typically speaking, since you’re so young, your big brother should make decisions for you. If you like Sui Zhou, wait a few years for when you’ve grown up a bit, and then I’ll bring it up to him, see if he’s willing to take you as a concubine. You’re such a little bean sprout right now, though, that it’s no use just mumbling to me about it here.”
Ah-Dong was always naive and lively, but she had still been the maid of a rich family. It was impossible for her to be completely ignorant of inner-household affairs. As soon as she heard him say that, she pounced forward to beat him up, loudly and verbally abusing him as she did so. “What are you even talking about?! I’m not jealous of Sister Zhou! I’m worried about you!”
“What are you worrying about me for?” he asked, mystified.
“Think about it! If Brother Sui actually does marry her, what’ll you do?”
Tang Fan, a usually very smart man, was totally dumbstruck. “”What do you mean, what’ll I do? The more you talk, the less sense you make.”
She side-eyed him. “Did you get dumb in your illness?! If they get married, won’t she inevitably come live here? How would we be able to stay, then? We’d have to move, right? Of course I’m concerned! You don’t earn big, either, which is why I hope that we can live here for as long as we can, so that you’ll save up more money!”
In spite of her youth, she was able to add up the bills, as well as explain things clearly and methodically.
“Am I so useless, in your eyes?” he asked sullenly. “Are we going to get battered by wind and rain if we move?”
“Won’t we be?” she answered sadly. “Your salary is so low, and you like eating so much. You eat so many things every single day, you’ve eaten yourself poor. What’ll you do from now on? I measure out the rice and noodles you buy for me each month carefully, we grow our own fruit in the garden, and a small bit of meat is bought after all that, giving you a couple monthly silvers that you can save for when you get a wife. If we move out, I’m afraid that you won’t be able to save even that up. What can you do, then?”
Hearing that emotional tinge, he really wanted to roll his eyes, both angry and touched. All that pomp, yet the girl had actually been invested in the other two because of this?
He patted her on the head. “Take your heart out of your stomach, okay?” he said, voice rough. “We’ll never end up wandering the streets. Besides, even if I do, are you going to stop seeing me as your big brother?”
She shook her head fiercely.
“Then that’s that, isn’t it? If I get a bite of food, you’ll get a bite of food. In any case, you shouldn’t underestimate our old Tang family. Before my parents died, we were prestigious in Shaoxing, and they left lots of good stuff behind even after the decline. Should there come a time that we take ten thousand steps back and can’t go on anymore, I still have my older sister’s family in Xianghe County that we can go seek refuge with.”
He was just randomly comforting her, though. His big sister marrying off meant that she was a part of her husband’s family, while Tang Fan was in the capital being an official; why would he ever run off to go stay with her?
The girl grinned widely anyways. “Okay then, big brother. I won’t scold you for eating a lot anymore. It’d be better if you ate some more, actually. Once this illness is over, you won’t have any meat on your bones! Anyone who didn’t know would think you were a refugee!”
He went to pinch her on the face. “If you keep talking crap, there won’t be a need to wait for your Brother Sui to get a wife — I’ll just straight-up kick you out!”
While they mucked around, a voice unexpectedly came from the door. “Who’s getting a wife?”
Looking towards the sound, they saw that Sui Zhou had come just in time to hear the latter half of that sentence. He was followed by Miss Zhou and her maid.
“My cousin heard that you were sick,” he said. “Recalling that day that she had run into you, she specifically asked me to bring her over to see you and apologize.”
There were huge blockades between men and women nowadays, but that wasn’t to say that they were so harsh, no leeway was to be had. Tang Fan, for instance, was Sui Zhou’s friend, had already shown his face before Sui Zhou’s family, and was keeping Sui Zhou company right now, so there was nothing stopping Miss Zhou from meeting him. Comparatively speaking, were this the South, Confucian morals would be a bit stricter, but the North was a little more lenient with them.
Miss Zhou’s sharpness from before was unseen, and she looked rather bashful before her cousin. Anyone not blind could see what intentions she had for him. Only the one in question remained placid-faced, the degree to which he was aware of them unknown.
Tang Fan smiled. “You’re too polite, Miss Zhou. That had just been a misunderstanding brought about by not knowing each other’s identities, so now that it’s been resolved, everything is fine. However, I’ve come down with a cold right now; out of fear that it will get passed to you, please don’t stay for long.”
Zhou Xiuyue nodded, then said a few more pleasantries. She was evidently not too comfortable with the medicinal smell in the room since she never took a seat, merely standing at the doorway as she also said a greeting to Ah-Dong, after which she took her leave
As the host, Sui Zhou naturally had to be the one that saw guests off.
While they walked towards the gate, Zhou Xiuyue spoke up with a slight bit of coquettishness. “Winter is about to come, Cousin. On a day when the weather is a bit better, how about you come with me to Yunju Temple to burn incense?”
Sui Zhou was a bit cold, but irresistibly tall and soldierly. Both exceptional-looking and remarkably talented, his prospects for the future were bright, and the Sui’s got a lot of matchmakers coming by their door with marriage proposals. However, the Sui parents had never been the masters of their youngest son, and there had also been a verbal engagement made between the Sui and Zhou families, so this had gotten shelved.
His maternal uncle from the Zhou side had brought his family for a little trip to the capital. One reason for this was to care for his elderly mother, and another was to get marriages for his children.
In truth, Feng Xiuyue’s father had already picked out another candidate for her. The other’s own father had a post in Hanlin, while he himself studied in the Imperial College. They could be described as a family of literary repute, which was way different from Sui Zhou’s Brocade Guard sort.
Ever since the Zhou’s debuted because of the Empress Dowager’s fame, they had consciously been wanting to get closer to literary and official families so that their people could rise higher. That his uncle would choose based on that was normal.
Of course, in Sui Zhou himself’s opinion, this might get his cousin to not insist.
The friendship between them had stopped at their childhoods, and after being separated for many years, there had been way less melodramatic events of undying love declarations, or oaths to not marry anyone else. Still, Zhou Xiuyue seemed to have an unclearly-stated sentiment for him. These repeated visits had only been to probe out how he was feeling about it.
What a shame that their thoughts were not on the same line.
With difficulty, she invited him over, but he shook his head. “No. Tang Fan has been sick, and Ah-Dong can’t work alone. I need to be at home to watch over things.”
She bit her lip. “How about I find a maid or servant to come and help, then?”
“Let it be. Don’t trouble yourself so much,” he answered mildly. “Just go with Uncle and them. I heard that he intends to seek out a marriage for you, so the groom’s qualities are bound to be high. We may be cousins, but men and women are different. You’d best visit less so that people won’t gossip.”
Her face quickly came to be embarrassed. She gave him a fierce glare, then threw out one sentence: “You’re really awful!”
Turning, she walked out in a fury.
The Zhou maidservant had been following after them, then had tacitly moved a distance away when they seemed to be having a private conversation. Upon seeing her master inexplicably get angry, brush her sleeves out, and leave, she hastily caught up in bafflement.
Watching them go far off, Sui Zhou’s expression didn’t change much. He went back to Tang Fan’s room.
The medicine having since taken effect on his end, Tang Fan was deeply asleep.
“Big brother hasn’t been sleeping for long,” Ah-Dong whispered. “What do you want to eat for dinner, Brother Sui? I’ll go cook it.”
“Do as you like, just heat up some leftover congee for later.”
These several days had been busy with caring for the sick one, and the sick one couldn’t eat too much fancy stuff. Ah-Dong didn’t feel like messing around, either, so she headed out with the confirmation.
Once she left, only two remained in the room. One asleep, one awake. One laying, one standing.
Tang Fan had been asleep longer than he had been awake recently. Illnesses came like collapsing mountains, then went like spun silk.
The inside of the room was very quiet, with only the sound of Tang Fan’s elongated breaths linking together around.
Sui Zhou covered him up with the blanket properly, then stood there silently for a minute.
It wasn’t until Ah-Dong’s knock on the door and call for him to eat that he turned to leave.
 Quote from Song of the Four Vices, a poetic admonishment from the Song Dynasty, author unknown. Refers to wine, lust, greed, and wrath.
 Li (李) and Zhang (张) are some of the most common Chinese surnames ever along with Wang (王), typically used for placeholder names or to signify the everyman. (Take a gander at Chinese John Doe equivalents here, they’re quite interesting.)
 I honestly get mixed signals whenever I google what this stuff is. It’s either another name for osmanthus ‘cakes’, which are actually jellies, or blocks of crumbly ‘pastries’. You’d think it’d be obvious, but it’s not…