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Tang Fan had just been minding his own business, his body walking down the street, but his mind in a state of wandering elsewhere. The fist right in front of him brought him back, and he subconsciously withdrew two steps. His heel bumped against the edge of some tangerine-seller’s little basket, quickly unsteadying his center of gravity and near about sending him down to the ground.
Right then, someone reached out to grab him by the belt and haul him to the side, thus averting it.
Upon hearing this voice, he turned his head to find Sui Zhou. The other was dressed in official’s robes, probably either having just gotten back from the Bastion Office, or on the eve of going there.
“Yeah.” Tang Fan waved his hand. He wasn’t as bold and strong as Sui Zhou or Wang Zhi, but he was still a grown man. How could he have been scared by this little thing? He had merely had no defenses up, causing him to get caught off guard.
After coming back to his senses, he realized that that punch really hadn’t had too much power. The other party hadn’t deliberately gone for him; because he hadn’t been paying attention to where he was going whilst two passersby brawled, he accidentally got caught up in it. Their simultaneous scuffling and quarreling was quite lively, and many encompassed it to observe from the side.
Tang Fan understood the sequence of events after hearing a bit of them.
It was currently nearing the year’s end. The fifteenth happened to be suitable for burning incense in ancestral worship, so the capital’s streets were even more exceptionally congested, where people were stepping on each others’ heels and rubbing shoulders. Of the two fighting, one had been walking in front, and the other in the back.
The one in front had suddenly felt that his middle seemed to have been swiped at, and his heart had jolted. Quickly feeling about for a spell, he then discovered that the bag he had put his money in was missing. Once he had looked behind him, he saw that there was someone following him, who shot him a grin. The first guy had stopped at once, grabbed the guy behind him, and insisted that he was a thief. The other, not to be outdone, had insisted that he was innocent.
They had then started to fight. The one in front said that he was going to bring him to see the authorities, but the one behind refused to go, making the other think all the more that he was guilty.
The guy who got stolen from was now heard to curse. “You look like a poor scholar! You said you didn’t steal it, but now you’re too afraid to go to the authorities with me! How is that not a guilty conscience?!”
The one he fought with berated him back. “Did that mouth of yours just get fished out of a cesspit? How can you insult someone like this?! I didn’t steal anything, so why would I go with you? Of course I won’t!”
Nearby folks encircled them, lining along the streets; most were watching the excitement, while some tried to soothe them. Tang Fan hadn’t been cautious, so he had gotten trapped in the loop. Looking at how the two parties were, they hadn’t noticed that they had nearly hurt Tang Fan, keeping on with having a row.
While they contended vigorously, someone was heard to say, “You two, you two — do you hear what I’m saying?”
No one did, of course, but when the two saw cold light glint in front of them, and also each involuntarily got pushed backwards into stumbling a few steps, they took a better look. Upon realizing that the one standing in front of them was a Brocade Guard, they quickly stopped.
“Sir, you came just in time! Please get justice for this lowly one!” one hurriedly shouted of his wrongs. “This man stole something of mine, and still won’t admit to it!”
“Sir, don’t listen to his nonsense!” the other stated. “I was walking down the street, perfectly fine, and then he grabbed my clothes for no reason, insisting that I’m a thief! Does a more unjust accusation exist?!”
Sui Zhou said nothing, but Tang Fan did. “What did you say that he stole from you?” he asked the one.
“A pouch for silver. All my money is in it. I was going to use it to buy New Year’s stuff, but now it’s gone!”
The other guy patted himself off angrily. “What does your money being missing have to do with me? I don’t have what you’re looking for!”
Number one laughed coldly. “Won’t the answer become clear when you’re under arrest in a bureau? Even if you’re not the thief, you must be his accomplice! Why else would you grin at me as soon as I turned my head?!”
“Don’t flap your trap! All you do is recklessly accuse people!” number two reproached.
Seeing that they were about to start quibbling again, Tang Fan cut them off. “He’s not lying to you,” he said to One. “He really isn’t a thief.”
One had a face of unhappiness. Tang Fan didn’t care, simply turning to cup his hands towards Two. “Dare I ask for your good name, old chap?”
Since he was polite while conversing, unlike the rabble, and also had a Brocade Guard at his side, his counterpart swiftly cupped his hands to return the greeting. “You flatter me. My lowly surname is Yu, single first Hao.”
“Fellow Yu, then,” Tang Fan smiled. Then, he asked One, “And how are you called, old chap?”
“You’re too kind. Those that know me all call me Landlord Luo.”
He was plump, and ostentatiously dressed all over; he really deserved the appellation of ‘Landlord’. Smiling, Tang Fan asked him, “Landlord Luo, look at the jade tablet hanging on his chest, and the jade pendant hanging from his middle. What is engraved on each?”
Not only did Landlord Luo focus his eyes on those things, but everyone else did, too.
Not many knew how to read in this day and age, but some could still recognize these characters. Yu Hao’s jade plaque was carved with ‘Yuanxiang’, while the pendant was the lone character ‘Yu’.
Even though Landlord Luo was called a Landlord, he was illiterate. His face showed some embarrassment. Noticing this, Tang Fan read the words aloud to him, then explained. “Songs of Chu has a verse that says ‘the vast Yuanxiang.’ His character sizes conform with each other, which illustrates that both jade ornaments are unmistakably his. Why would a thief have these things on him? He also didn’t hesitate at all when reporting his name. It’s clear that he wasn’t lying, so he wasn’t the one that had stolen your purse.”
Landlord Luo was upset upon hearing that. Because Sui Zhou was nearby, he didn’t dare to be rash, only verbally refusing to accept this. “Who even is your esteemed self? We still need to all go to the authorities to see whether he’s a robber or not! Your word doesn’t mean anything!”
Tang Fan’s expression immediately sank. “I’m a Judge of Shuntian Prefecture. I can help to nip a trifle like this in the bud so that you don’t go and add troubles to my benefactors. If I haven’t guessed incorrectly, you should also know in your heart that Yu Hao didn’t steal your stuff. You’re simply angry about your missing item, so when you saw him smile at you, you were wanting to find someone to blame, right?”
“D… don’t be ridiculous!” Landlord Luo answered, guilty.
“Since you want to see the authorities so much, we can go see them,” the other replied indifferently. “When that time comes, you’ll falsely accuse Yu Hao, and then your stuff won’t be found, after which you’ll get hit with the paddle. Have you considered that?”
Landlord Luo waved his hands on repeat. “I don’t want him to compensate for it! I’m not going to bother with this!”
With that, he drew back a couple of steps, turned his head, pushed the crowd aside, and fled, not caring about the one he had just grabbed at. This had been something trivial to begin with, so now that it was resolved, Sui Zhou was disinclined to chase after and capture Landlord Luo.
The unjustly-accused Yu Hao quickly gave his thanks, and the onlookers all applauded Tang Fan’s quick wits and attention to detail.
Tang Fan and Sui Zhou squeezed out of the group. After a good time of walking, peace finally returned to their ears.
“Are you going to the Office?” Tang Fan asked.
Sui Zhou mn’ed. “There’s nothing to do today, I’m just going for morning roll call. You’re unhappy?”
The other raised a brow. “How do you see that?”
“The profession of a Brocade Guard is a bit like you Judges, and requires observing things carefully. When it comes to quick thinking, though, I’m not as good as you. You were born for the role of passing judgements.”
Walking with his hands behind his back, Tang Fan sighed. “Right. I went with Mister Prefect to see our teacher today, and we had a bit of an argument where he couldn’t understand my side. I’m even kind of doubting that I might have done something wrong.
“Guangchuan, there’s some things that I’m not sure would be appropriate to ask. The Brocade Guard is responsible for arrests, able to act on its own without needing to go through the Court in advance. There’s many cruelties unfit to ever be seen within the Bastille, as well. You’ve experienced a lot — has your heart never wavered?”
Sui Zhou nodded a bit. “It has.” Noting Tang Fan’s curiosity, he continued on. “You know that even though my elder brother has inherited the title of a Brocade Guard, he’s always been wanting to study for the imperial exams so that he can stand out?”
Tang Fan gave an mn. “Yes. You’ve told me before.”
“When I was young, I also had that way of thinking, and could understand his desire. He didn’t want to be looked down upon in his status as consort-kin and a military official, so he thought to stand out via his own skill. The difference between us lies in me acknowledging reality early on, while he still hasn’t.”
Tang Fan was a little rueful. The exams happened once every three years; that didn’t sound like much of a cost, but how many threes of years were there in a lifetime? Every generation of the country had talents, yet, the exams being what they were, they not only required an innate gift and perseverance, but luck, too. Relying on hard work alone would not grant success.
How many talents of the nation participated in the exams every three years, really? To be able to kill one’s way out of that massive army, they needed the ability to, first — Tang Fan had met Sui Zhou’s brother before, and he could tell from a glance that he was no such person. If he could be content with how things were and know of himself, obediently passing his days, or even imitate his little brother by going out on assignments, he wouldn’t be wasting years of his life. That he still couldn’t see his situation clearly was a tragedy.
“When I had just entered the Office, I handled a case,” he heard Sui Zhou go on. “A censor had denounced Consort Wan and her brother, Wan Tong, over controlling the imperial harem and Brocade Guard, loudly scolding them. Wan Tong became enraged, arrested him, locked him in the Bastille, then framed the entirety of his family for some crime, getting them exiled. Since I was new and connected to the Dowager, it was improper for me to be ordered to the chore of escorting them. I knew that the family was innocent, and also admired the censor for being strong-boned, daring to say what others didn’t; so, I asked for the task on my own, personally escorted them to their location, then paid for the local officials that were keeping watch on them family to look after them a little better. I prepared to wait for these waves to pass, after which I would plead His Majesty for leniency and get them pardoned.”
Tang Fan had long known that Sui Zhou was cold on the outside, yet warm on the inside, and took good care of his subordinate brothers, but he didn’t think that he would also do something like draw his blade and come to someone’s aid when witnessing injustice on the road. He admired him, heart warmed. “If you went to plead for mercy right then, it would have just been slapping Wan Tong in the face. Once it was over, he might not even remember who these people were. Pleading His Majesty should have worked after that.”
However, Sui Zhou had no smile at all, tone heavy. “When I returned to the capital, it was only to discover that the censor had already been tortured to death in the Bastille. As for his family… two months later, I received news that they had all died of sudden illness.”
The other’s smile also disappeared. “Wan Tong had sent someone to do it?”
“I don’t know, but ever since that incident, Wan Tong has strictly kept to his word. No one else dared to risk compensating with their entire family, were they to denounce Consort Wan and him. Only then did I realize how naive, and absolutely useless, my previous behavior had been.”
“It wasn’t your fault.”
Sui Zhou nodded. “From then on, I’ve curbed all impractical thoughts that I’ve had, and never got the notion to leave the Office again. I knew that if I could have a voice in the Brocade Guard, and even balance Wan Tong out, that family might not have had to end up like that.”
“That’s why you’ve stayed there all this time?”
“The Guard itself is a double-edged sword. Used well, it can serve the Great Ming. Used poorly, it becomes as it is now. Many things aren’t right or wrong to begin with; they depend upon how the one regarding them thinks and acts.”
Despite them being friends, they were usually separately busy. It was rare for them to be able to chat side-by-side like today.
Even with the surrounding noise and liveliness, Tang Fan gradually settled down. He sighed with a smile. “Guangchuan, others say that you’re cold-faced and cold-hearted, believing that a military post like you will only act under orders, inherently a grade below civil officials. They have no idea that you see things more clearly than anyone else. I’m inferior to you in that.”
Sui Zhou shook his head, gaze softening. “No, you’re not. You just had a moment of confusion is all. If you think that you aren’t wrong, press on. What your teacher, or anyone else says isn’t important — as long as you have the path in your heart, nothing is unfeasible.”
Tang Fan laughed, achieving quick enlightenment. “As you say, then! What about you? Do you agree with my stance?”
“The country has been at peace for a while,” Sui Zhou replied calmly. “I think that it long should have been wanting wars and being on the alert, but Wang Zhi’s dramatic conduct is not a long-term solution. Big trees attract more wind, and all the more people are seeing him as displeasing to the eye. Once he loses imperial favor, he’ll fall from the top, never to get up again. Interacting with him is harmless, but be careful not to get towed into the muck by him. I don’t want you to get implicated.”
He was typically of few words, but Tang Fan had never looked down upon his political wisdom. Now that the other had bared his heart, he truly understood that beneath Sui Zhou’s reserved exterior was foresight and aspiration.
No wonder the Emperor had compared him to Sun Jizong. Supposing that he had the time to, his achievements would likely get to be even greater than Sun Jizong’s, in Tang Fan’s view.
Thinking like so, Mister Tang’s improper enthusiasm relapsed. “It’s as they say: ‘learn the Dao in the morning, and you can die at peace in the evening,’” he joked. “Your remarks, Guangchuan, have caused my heart to be much more cheerful and open. Should I give a bow to you and call you my teacher?”
“If you want to. I won’t mind,” Centarch Sui casually answered.
Tang Fan was still on sick leave these days, so there was no need to go to the bureau, while Sui Zhou was merely heading over to his for appearances, so he wasn’t in a hurry. They talked and laughed, going slow the whole road.
The weather had already changed from autumn to winter, gradually treading into the frigid season. Beijing’s winters came fast, and the people on the street that had just been seen wearing thin robes a minute ago were now all heavily bundled up. Having just recovered from illness, Tang Fan was wearing more, but the warmth in his heart did not come from his clothes; it came from the attention and commentary of his pal.
Seeing that someone was peddling tanghulu on the street, Sui Zhou reached out and bought two sticks, then passed them to Tang Fan.
“Little Ah-Dong shouldn’t eat so much. I’ll help her by getting rid of one of these,” the latter said with a grin, taking them and beginning to chow down.
Sui Zhou was silent, thinking to himself, I already know you’re a glutton, just eat it. You still make so many excuses.
He stopped paying attention for just one second, and when he turned his head again, he noticed that Tang Fan’s hands were empty.
Mister Tang was a little embarrassed, tugging at him to walk back around. “C’mon, c’mon, let’s go buy another stick. The one I had just now had bugs on it, so I threw it out.”
“…” Don’t think that I didn’t see those two bamboo sticks in your hand.
Counting on Sui Zhou not to expose him, Mister Tang stressed his face in order to beam as he said some nonsense. When the tanghulu was purchased again, he let out a cry of surprise. “I forgot something!”
Sui Zhou shot him a side glance, looking confused. They had said way too much already; what couldn’t be said now just shouldn’t be said.
Tang Fan explained the bet he had made with Wang Zhi. “He owes me a feast at Immortal Cloud, but he didn’t bring it up when he visited last time. Could it be that he’s planning to renege on it?”
…Is this what you think about all day long? “Did you already forget what I just said to you?” Sui Zhou asked, sullen.
Tang Fan smiled ingratiatingly. “I haven’t, I haven’t. I’ll keep my distance with him, I know, but can’t that wait until the meal is honored? No matter what, it’s worth a lot of taels…”
His voice got quieter and quieter, while his expression got guiltier and guiltier, until he decided to just beat it. “I’ll take the tanghulu back to her ahead of time so that the coating doesn’t melt off! You’re busy, so bye-bye!”
With that, he vanished like a puff of smoke.
Sui Zhou shook his head, feeling somewhat helpless.
Since Tang Fan was more or less better, he couldn’t stew on sick leave anymore; his senior might have been the Shuntian Prefect, but he still had to do the work he should be doing. Thus, he resumed his one-line, everyday life between the two points of Shuntian and home.
On the day the Qiu’s left the capital, he went to see them off. Despite quarrels — and differences — the status and affections of a teacher and student were still there. That would never go away simply due to fear of a dirty look.
Qiu Jun hadn’t expected that a student he had parted poorly with a few days ago would come to say goodbye. The disciples and friends he had in the capital weren’t many, and even fewer would do this.
This was what was called the ease of adding flowers to brocade, and the difficulty of sending charcoal during snow. It wasn’t that Qiu Jun’s popularity was awful, but because everyone was adapting to the circumstances. Pan Bin himself had used an excuse to avoid suspicions; he had said it was because he was busy in the bureau that he couldn’t come, but the truth was that he was afraid of offending the Emperor. Qiu Jun didn’t blame him at all. There were always lots of helpless situations in officialdom, and Pan Bin had already dropped by, anyway. That counted as fulfilling his disciple-ly regards.
Even so, Tang Fan, Xie Qian, and some others still came.
They were Palace Honorates from the same year, but unlike Tang Fan, who got additionally accepted as a disciple afterwards, Qiu Jun could only be regarded as their examiner. This made the man a bit touched. The face he held towards Tang Fan wasn’t as ugly as it had been that other day, and he patted his shoulder in encouragement.
“I’ve thought carefully about what you said,” he started. “Even though you disagree with me, it’s plain to see that you’ve deliberated on this. I myself cannot take an official’s post, nor will I force my students to be an unadaptable as I. So long as you have the country and its people in your heart, not thinking about only yourself when you do things, you will not disappoint my hopes.”
Tang Fan hadn’t thought that his habitually-stubborn teacher could be so open-minded. Perhaps getting demoted from the capital had made him get over this; the old fellow wasn’t so stubborn today, instead being reasonable.
He didn’t have just this one honorable teacher, but he really did respect Qiu Jun. He naturally didn’t want to ruin their teacher-student bond over a difference in political views, so he clasped his hands towards him upon hearing this. “This student will carefully observe your instruction, teacher.”
Their group said a few things more. Seeing that it wasn’t early in the day anymore, Qiu Jun then mounted the carriage at the urging of his family. With his academic studies over the years, his home couldn’t be stated as being wealthy; his carriages were packed with books, when not packed with people.
The horse’s back was whipped, the driver shouted, and the carriages rolled forwards, gradually distancing from their line of sight.
Though Pan Bin was the Shuntian Prefect, that post wasn’t much in the capital, and he couldn’t really look after Tang Fan, just like last time; when Wang Zhi had stretched his finger out, he had been scared half to death, and had to push Tang Fan out to contend with him. Meanwhile, Qiu Jun wasn’t obviously in an official’s position, but he had a celebrated literary voice, as well as a consistently clean name in the bureaucracy. The man’s reputation, and the shade from his tree, could act as their backdrop for every day he was in Beijing. Now that he was gone, they were truly without anyone to rely on.
While others’ mentors and examiners would either enter the Cabinet or work as a Minister, their branch had met with many difficulties.
Once the carriages had completely banished from their sight, Tang Fan and them began to leave. Xie Qian patted him on the shoulder. “How about, after the capital inspection, you find a channel for getting yourself transferred back to Hanlin? Ever since our Academy lost you… well, I really don’t need to explain how uncannily lonely it is there every day.”
“Yeah,” Wang Hua chimed in with a grin. “I had been pretty happy, at first, since we would at least be missing a criminal glutton whenever we went out to eat. I thought that I’d be able to eat a little more, but who could’ve known that without your balancing seasoning, eating and drinking would be tasteless!”
Tang Fan side-eyed these blokes. “You just want to drain my coffers.”
“Don’t use a heavy word like ‘drain’,” said Xie Qian. “That really is how it is right now, especially for that one guy, Liu Jian. All day long, he’s full of complaints, saying that we have no idea how long we’re going to steep in Hanlin for. He’s even a little envious of you, someone who’s left.”
As soon as the weather cooled, days would get darker. It was rare to see brilliant sunlight anymore.
His teacher had been sent away, and he was listening to the others grumble about how depressing and sterile Hanlin was, but Tang Fan wasn’t as glum as he had imagined he would be. That solely stemmed from his previous talk with Sui Zhou, which had benefited him enormously.
Once one’s conviction was steady, they would no longer waver, nor hesitate.
The corners of his mouth slightly raised.
Day after day passed, the step of the New Year getting ever closer.
A good amount of time had elapsed since the East Palace case, and Wang Zhi had long since departed the capital for the North. No news had ever come regarding what he had promised beforehand, where Tang Fan’s rank would get brought up — it was like everyone had already forgotten about it. Tang Fan, however, didn’t mind; he was as terribly busy with his official duties in the Prefecture as ever.
During such a busy interim, the bureau got sealed up. In other words, starting from today, Tang Fan and them were formally welcomed into their New Yearly vacation time.
The translator says: MXS wrote a ‘mini-theatre’ for this chapter. Unfortunately, it involves a joke that doesn’t translate at all without excessive explanation that kind of ruins it. Basically, Sui Zhou’s response to getting called a Brocade Weed is to dub Wang Zhi ‘Top Wang’, in order to remind him of what he can never be because he’s missing something. Cue airhorns. The original pun was that the characters for eunuch (公) and gay top (攻) are homophonous. It’s like 2AM and the only equivalent joke I can think of is “haha wang is slang for DICK but you DON’T HAVE ONE”, which isn’t really funny, so I’ll just shut up.