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Paying New Year’s respects during celebrations was a given. At dawn of the first day of the year, Tang Fan went with Sui Zhou to the Sui’s to pay respects to the latter’s parents, ending it with a trip to the neighboring Zhou’s to pay respects to Madam Zhou.
Her son had returned to the capital, making her house lively. Elderly folks like her most loved to watch the excitement of their descendants filling the halls. She also had repeated praises for Tang Fan, a junior she had met already, and introduced him to Sui Zhou’s uncle’s family.
Once out of the Zhou’s, Ah-Dong was giddy from having collected a good many packets of New Year’s money. “Which house are we going to pay respects to next?” she asked Tang Fan, greedily rubbing her hands.
He side-eyed her. “Which one do you want to get your money from, hm?”
Her thoughts had been pierced right through, but she wasn’t ashamed, sticking out her tongue. “Right?! It’d be best to gather them up until my hands go soft.”
Tang Fan bopped her without mercy. “Don’t even think about it. I only have one sister in Xianghe, whose family would be bad to disturb for New Year’s, and no other relatives in the capital, so you’ll be going home and obediently eating dumplings! Besides, how much did you get? Is it any different from what I haven’t yet given?!”
“It is,” she giggled. “What you give is yours, and what I collect is mine!”
“Okay, you little brat. My cherishment of you has been in vain.”
He knew that she wasn’t actually thinking like that, he was just accustomed to excitedly and happily warring with words. Ah-Dong was in charge of money normally, and after she had learned character writing and bookkeeping, her each and every brushstroke was aboveboard. Just as she had claimed, after she became steward, she had saved a bit from Tang Fan’s pitifully meagre salary every month, preparing for when he took a wife in the future.
He was also intending to set aside a bit of a dowry for her, of course. Everyone was giving the same kind regards to each other, so there was no need to divide things up so decisively, else they wouldn’t be family.
Following that, he took Ah-Dong with him to visit the Pan Estate. He had been about to pay respects to Pan Bin, but the servants at there informed him that the man was out paying respects to his own superiors, so he just skipped this step and went home.
These days, apart from one’s majorly important superiors that required a personal New Year’s visit, it was popular amongst all to just send New Year’s cards between friends and colleagues. There were just too many people around; at times, one could go to this house, but not that house, making it hard to avoid favoritism. If every single home was to be gone to, then respects probably wouldn’t get finished being paid by day fifteen. Simply dispatching servants with cards to those houses, your name and a few words of blessings written within, would therefore be considered the utmost of courtesy.
There were also many that didn’t send anything at all, like Tang Fan. He had no servants at home, meaning that he would have to run around himself, but if that running was going to break his legs, he might as well just not. After the Lantern Festival, everyone would be set up for an appointment for a meal at a restaurant anyways, and then it would be fine.
For that reason, people like him loved celebrating New Year’s the most. His current official’s position was low, so he didn’t have as many convoluted social niceties. He also didn’t hold a lucrative job in any sort of important bureau, so no one would take the time of the celebrations to send him gifts. That all saved him a lot of trouble. From the second day to the fifth, he lazed around all day, every day, until after the noon, where Ah-Dong would stand by his bed and tug his ear to get him out of it.
Yet, after those six days, his life wasn’t so great. From the sixth to the tenth of January, he had to confront a heap of complex official duties in the bureau.
The way this vacation was set up wasn’t very rational. Just imagine: it ended on the fifth, after which it would start back up on eleventh, having five days of work in the middle. Nobody had yet recovered from the comfort of the New Year, and everyone had started to look forward to the Festival vacation time, so they obviously didn’t have much of an idea to do work.
There generally was never anything new and big that would happen these past couple of days, mostly just old stuff amassed with dust in Shuntian that couldn’t be fully handled in one second, nor be hurriedly dealt with properly in just a few days. Tang Fan had always worked in a methodically arranged manner; he had Du Jiang arrange a lot of things according to order of importance in order to clearly understand what should be done first or later.
Like so, the Festival break on the eleventh soon came.
Ah-Dong was the utmost of happy, because the most ceremonious Festival of the year was the Winter Solstice, and the most unifying Festival was New Year’s, but the Festival regarded as most exciting was the Lantern one.
The lantern market that showed up each time was famed. The whole street would be hung with multicolored lanterns, layers and layers of them, all with different looks. Trees of fire, flowers of silver, bridges of stars, and locks of iron — it was an extremely spectacular sight. Only on this day of the year would everyone go out to sightsee, regardless of whether they were an unmarried daughter that never left their home’s gates, or a married woman that strictly abode by wifely virtues. This was tantamount to the entire city setting into motion, infinite people vacating its alleyways. It was little wonder that she was so excited.
It began exactly at the start of the officials’ vacation. The market was actually autonomously launched by the capital’s chamber of commerce, since they could take advantage of the Festival period to do a bit more business. Once people got really numerous, however, public security would inevitably get chaotic, and the authorities would have to be dispatched to take responsibility for patrols.
But who would want to go do work while other people played, and on such a big holiday? When the market had just started up in the Great Ming, Shuntian Prefecture, the Five Districts Military Office, and even departments like the Brocade Guard had all shirked that responsibility, unwilling to take the job. Later on, a fatal trampling incident occurred during, and only then did the Cabinet order that each bureau was to have some people patrolling this time of year, with the chiefly responsible division rotated annually, thus forming a routine of lasting effect.
This year, the Five Districts Office was in charge of the patrol. Shuntian Prefecture and the Brocade Guard only had to dispatch a small amount of manpower to assist — Sui Zhou happened to bear that charge for the Guard.
He had been promoted again not too long ago for his handling of Huang Jinglong’s case, and was now a Deputy Millarch. Upon one man’s achievement of the Dao, the animals around him would also ascend to the Heavens; he didn’t feel much about it, but his subordinates were ecstatic, believing that they were following a boss of bright future prospects.
Sui Zhou wasn’t fond of talking, but that didn’t mean that he was ignorant to the ways of the world. Prior to the holiday, he treated his group of underlings to eating and drinking promotional wine. However, because he had to help patrol and keep the peace this day, he couldn’t go with Tang Fan and Ah-Dong for a stroll.
Tang Fan brought her out to view the lights, the bustling crowd nearly wedging them apart. She, being young, hadn’t seen much of the world and was quite delighted to see the excitement, but he firmly led her along by the hand, afraid that they would get separated.
From time immemorial ’til now, many human traffickers had been amongst the populace, and they particularly liked to go for beautiful, cute, and decorated women and children. No matter how celebrated one’s origins were, once they fell into traffickers’ hands, they could only be resigned to their fates. Before Song, there had been tragic cases of imperial kin and nobility getting kidnapped. Ming had had none of those, but many still went missing every year, some sold into brothels, some as slaves. Their perfectly good lives would be ruined, fates utterly miserable.
A plump little girl like Ah-Dong was one of the focal targets of traffickers.
They toured the market for a minute, and also guessed at lantern riddles. Tang Fan guessed so many of them right in a row, the prize vendor’s face got dark, after which the former realized that the situation wasn’t good and quickly scrammed. Ah-Dong had since been covered in the spoils received: she was holding a flower lantern, had a bracelet on one hand, a silk flower on her head, and knickknacks stuffed into her arms. It was no surprise that the vendor’s face had gotten so unsightly; if Tang Fan had been allowed to keep winning, he probably would have had to give him all his family property.
Tired from their walk, they prepared to find a place to sit for a rest, and get a bite to eat while they were at it.
By coincidence, the wonton stall that Tang Fan often went to was still open today. The owners looked to be giving their all in want to earn a sum of profit via the holiday, terribly busy.
Still, as a regular, an extra table could always be made up for him. The proprietress complimented Ah-Dong a bit, then served them up two bowls of wontons and two youbing.
“Big brother, let’s go back and guess more riddles later!” Ah-Dong, having just witnessed other people rack their brains while Tang Fan had guessed correctly one after the other, was self-assured and honored, her face full of pride.
“Go back?” He smiled bitterly. “Did you not see that vendor looking like he was about to swallow me whole? How about you leave a path of survival for people not yourself?”
“We’ll find another stall, then. It’s not just him doing them. I heard that there’s lantern-appreciating activities in Immortal Guest, too!”
“Really. Let’s take a look later…”
Right after he had lowered his head to drink some broth, he casually lifted it, then unexpectedly caught sight of someone walking past in front of him not too far away. The half-mouthful he still had nearly sprayed all out only to overflow into his nose, making him cough until his insides ruptured.
Ah-Dong quickly pat him on the back, admonishing him like he was an old decrepit. “How old are you, to choke after you eat something?”
There was no time for him to laugh, mind still immersed in the recent shock.
Gods above! Did he just see a ghost?!
Following that sudden event, he absent-mindedly ate a wonton.
Because Ah-Dong was with him, he couldn’t cast her aside to go give chase for a clearer look. Besides, the other had quickly disappeared into the crowd after just one hurried glance. If he hadn’t been certain that his own eyesight wasn’t fuzzy, he would have believed that he had hallucinated.
Once Ah-Dong had finished her wontons, they walked in the direction of Immortal Guest. There were lots of people on the main road, so Tang Fan just took a smaller alley to avoid the congestion. The route was a bit longer, but with how unclogged it was, it was actually a little faster, after calculations.
Perhaps everyone that lived down the alleys had gone out to see the lanterns, or no one else liked to take the long road like he did, because when they turned into the alley, it was very quiet, a completely different world from the outside excitement. Ah-Dong, typically carefree, now got a bit apprehensive. Before Tang Fan could tell her to, she firmly held his hand on her ownx.
The little lady was hesitant to speak. “It’s so dark here. Are there any ghosts?”
He bust out laughing. “How is it dark? There’s a main road at the end of the alley. Is the way ahead not lit—“
Before he could say the word ‘up’, he suddenly got slapped on the shoulder from behind. Despite his mind knowing that it couldn’t be a ghost, he couldn’t help but make a huge jump in fright.
As if sensing his full-body jolt, Ah-Dong subconsciously looked behind them in turn.
“YEEK! A GHOST!” she shrieked in terror.
Tang Fan quickly turned to look, as well. All he saw was someone standing very close behind him, their eyes staring sullenly at them.
At first glance, this genuinely could make the hairs all over someone’s body stand on end. However, Sir Tang was a Confucian scholar, and believed in not speaking about the supernatural. His scare had purely been due to this suddenly-arriving happenstance, which he very quickly got over. Gripping Ah-Dong’s hand, he drew back a couple of steps with quick speed, then peered at their counterpart that wasn’t having the inclination to step forward and attack again. Focusing his eyes, his heart then gradually settled into its original spot.
“I say, Eunuch Wang, what play are you putting on? Even if you don’t find me pleasing to look at, there’s no need to set to task yourself, you know,” he said angrily.
Anybody else that had gotten smacked on the shoulder in a small alley late at night likely wouldn’t be happy, either.
“Come with me.” Wang Zhi’s voice was muffled and a bit hushed, different from usual. It was like he was deliberately lowering his voice to conceal his identity.
Saying as much, he turned around and walked forward. Tang Fan didn’t have time to think more on this, obliged to hurriedly keep up with Ah-Dong.
As the boss of an operative spy agency, Wang Zhi had long known the internal and external capital roads of every size like the back of his hand, more familiar with them than Tang Fan was. He took them for a lot of loops, going from a small road to a main road, then turning from a main road to a small road, deliberately choosing the farthest route. Tang Fan very nearly fainted from all the spinning around before they finally reached their destination… which happened to be the back of Immortal Guest, where Tang Fan had just said he was going to bring Ah-Dong to.
However, Wang Zhi did not go into Immortal Guest, but Immortal Cloud right behind it, and to a single private room that was familiar. He didn’t even need anyone to guide him to it. Tang Fan surmised that the room was one that Wang Zhi had reserved year-round, so that he could conveniently conduct some private business like he was now.
Of course, he wasn’t sure at all what Wang Zhi was wanting to conduct.
Once inside the room, Eunuch Wang pulled off the hood of his cloak, undid the tie around his neck, then cast it to the side, showing a look of being relieved from a burden. He let out a very long sigh. “That thing’s really fucking stuffy!”
Tang Fan silently watched him.
“What are you staring at me for?!”
“…If I’m recalling correctly, shouldn’t you be in Datong right now?”
“Yes, but I came back on secret orders from His Majesty. In addition to my confidantes, you two know about it now, as well. If my whereabouts get leaked, it’ll definitely have something to do with you.”
Tang Fan rolled his eyes. “I’m really being more wronged than Dou E. With how you’ve wandered about a large street, under public view, it would be no surprise if someone’s recognized you.”
Wang Zhi hey’d. “You act, I think. I’m on for—“
Tang Fan quickly stopped him. “Since you’ve come back under orders, I won’t hear of them. The more secrets one knows, the quicker they’ll die.”
“Too late, you have to.” Wang Zhi just did not care at all. “There recently came a royal report claiming that suspicious figures had apparently been spotted on Longevity Mountain. After they investigated for a long time and found nothing, His Majesty summoned me, so I hurried back in order to arrange staff for the investigation these past few days. But then, another big thing happened! When it rains, it really pours! Such bad luck!”
He then waited for a long time, but didn’t hear Tang Fan respond. “Why aren’t you asking me what happened?”
“I don’t want to know anything, but from what you’ve said, even if I don’t ask, you’ll say it anyways,” Tang Fan answered helplessly.
“Zhu Yong’s youngest daughter and Assistant Minister Geng’s grandson went missing together.”
The other let out an ah. “When?”
“Tonight. I just now learned of it. I’ve yet to have time to report to His Majesty, but even if he knew, we would probably just get told to find them, and fast. Zhu Yong is now Deputy Commander of the northern expedition, and is fighting on the frontlines. Since he had a daughter in middle ages, he cherishes her like a treasure… I’m afraid that if he learned of this, his mind would stray from fighting, and he would hurry back to look for her.”
Tang Fan nodded, indicating that he understood.
At every festival, the time when all the families of the capital poured out of everywhere was also often the time when the count of missing persons cases increased dramatically. Traffickers frequently surveyed these opportune times to set to task, as the more people around there were, the more difficult the issue of retrieving them would be. Because the nightly curfew was rescinded these days, once the traffickers were out of the city, it would be even further like fishing a needle off of the seafloor. Having said that, even if they didn’t leave the city, the entirety of Beijing was a huge area; the whole of the Brocade Guard and the Western Depot getting immediately dispatched would still not guarantee that every nook would get searched. Many children had been eternally separated from their relatives like so.
Now, though, the traffickers’ hands had placed themselves upon the children of officials. How could that be tolerated? If they couldn’t be found, and then word of that spread out, wouldn’t departments like the Depots and Brocade Guard get muddied? They would then become nothing more than pretty arrangements of flowers; they might as well have gone back home to suckle their mamas’ teats instead of working for those salaries every year.
The Emperor would also become doubtful from this, of course: You lot can’t even find one person, so how could you do anything bigger for me?
For that reason, regardless of whether it was publicly or privately, Wang Zhi had to keep an eye on this. He had just been wandering the streets for the sake of personally finding traces of the traffickers, and had also long seamlessly planted wardens about. Mixing in with the crowd and pretending to be ordinary citizens, as soon as they were to discover the indicators of child abduction, they would immediately chase after, follow the vine back to its source, and catch everything in one net.
That had been a fine plan. What a shame that Chief Eunuch Wang and his subordinates had wandered for half a shichen, yet no sort of commotion had occurred.
It was obvious that these traffickers were very vigilant. If they weren’t certain that they could snatch someone, they wouldn’t rashly go for it.
“If you need Shuntian Prefecture’s aid, do give the command, Eunuch Wang,” Tang Fan said.
Wang Zhi curled his lip. “No need. The Brocade Guard and Eastern Depot have also been dispatched. Is your Prefecture the one that’s going to come out on top?”
Tang Fan had asked merely as a gesture of goodwill to begin with. Since he didn’t need them, he wouldn’t court disdain, instead asking after something else he was more concerned about. “What’s happened with the war on the frontlines?”
The other’s expression loosened up some. “Wang Yue and Zhu Yong are both learned in military matters. There’s no need to worry too much with them over there. After half a month more, they’ll definitely have victory.”
Tang Fan relaxed as well. “That’s good. With the victory reported, the Tartars won’t dare to invade lightly for a short amount of time. The border should finally get a little bit of peace.”
Wang Zhi scoffed. “How boring. The mountain won’t come to me, so can’t I come to the mountain? This is a hard-to-come-by opportunity. We ought to press in with the win, striking for an even bigger victory!”
“The Tartars are experts at guerrilla warfare, and have a fierce cavalry. Please be careful, Eunuch Wang,” Tang Fan reminded. “Also, the Court might dissent.”
“I have my ways.”
Having touched upon the subject, Tang Fan said no more, letting it be. Wang Zhi pulled on the bell, and dishes came in succession.
The workers at Immortal Cloud had seen many occasions that could never be spoken of aloud. Upon seeing Wang Zhi, who should have currently been on the frontlines, here, they averted their eyes, played mute, took him for transparent, set the dishes down, then left. They never stayed for long, and acted like Tang Fan and Ah-Dong didn’t exist.
“You should be careful,” Tang Fan had to say. “Since you don’t wish for your whereabouts to be exposed, it would be best for you to return earlier. The workers here are still strangers.”
Wang Zhi gave him a weird grin, then suddenly asked him a weird question. “You ate at Immortal Guest last month on the sixth, right?”
Tang Fan was startled. A chill ran all over his body. He wanted to ask him if he had planted someone to monitor him, but after thinking a bit deeper about it, a different question came out. “You own Immortal Guest?”
Sure enough, Wang Zhi smiled gently. “You deserve to be you. Yes, the Western Depot is one of the owners of this restaurant.”
“One of?” Tang Fan raised a brow.
“This business had originally been under the Zheshang Commerce Committee. Later on, the Western Depot put some money into it, too. Guests crowd like clouds here, so it’s the best for scouting out info.”
Tang Fan wasn’t sure why he wanted to inform him of this, only wanting to laugh bitterly after hearing about it. “I’m too afraid to come here to eat next time, lest you know even how many times I go to the latrine.”
“I’ve never done anything shameful all my life, so I’m not afraid of ghosts knocking on my door at midnight.”
“Stop, then. If I flirted with a songgirl here, and then she ended up being your Depot’s spy, wouldn’t I never be able to get away from that?”
Wang Zhi sneered. “You think about such unpromising things all day long, eh? No wonder your official’s post hasn’t gone up ’til now!”
“That I was able to attain sixth rank at my age is already pretty good. Who can be like you, not crowned yet in charge of the Western Depot, plus able to now have extra military power? People as powerful as you are few, under this sky.”
Wang Zhi used to be someone that liked to hear others praise him, but instead of looking pleased after hearing Tang Fan’s set of pretty words, he sighed. The latter was a little confused, but the former didn’t explain, so he didn’t ask much. He kind of had to ‘go’ right then, so he excused himself and left.
By the time he returned to the table, he discovered that Ah-Dong, who had been obediently sitting and eating in the private room, had disappeared. Wang Zhi was still sitting there, though, eating and drinking as calmly as ever.
“Where’s Ah-Dong?” Tang Fan quickly asked.
“I had her do something.” Wang Zhi delivered the food to his mouth, set down his chopsticks, then picked up the damp, warm towelette that had just been brought over to wipe his mouth.
The other frowned. “She’s just a little girl. What could she do to help you? Don’t joke around, Eunuch Wang. Please tell me where she went, and I’ll go find her.”
“Why would I joke with you? Those traffickers’ tracks are hidden, and they’re mixed into the crowd, making them difficult to distinguish. The best way to go is deeper into the tiger’s den. That little girl is clever and obedient; as soon as I asked her to be bait, she agreed to it. If this case can be cracked, I’ll definitely mark down a great merit for you.”
Upon hearing this, Tang Fan was endlessly furious, but barely suppressed it. “Ah-Dong is my little sister, not anyone’s bait!”
Wang Zhi remained calm. “Don’t you worry. I’m having her walk about randomly in the crowd, pretending to be a child that’s lost her elders. If nothing goes wrong, the traffickers are certain to go after her. The Depot has eyes and ears everywhere, and I’ve also had people tail her; once our counterpart makes any moves, we can take over at any time, follow the trail, then dig up their hideout.”
Seeing Tang Fan’s suppressed anger, he laughed aloud. “Your sister is more sensible than you. I told her that once this was done, you could get promoted, and she agreed to it immediately. She’s pretty good to you. I heard that you’re not blood siblings?”
Tang Fan was both enraged and distressed, not in the mood to exchange half a sentence more with him. He threw out an “I’m going looking for her,” then got up and walked out.
“Stop!” Wang Zhi bellowed. “She won’t be in any danger. Don’t alert the enemy!”
“She isn’t my sister by blood, but I love her like one,” Tang Fan answered coldly. “Imagine, if you will, that your little sister’s been used as bait and captured by traffickers, and I tell you not to worry. Would you still be equanimous?”
Wang Zhi raised a brow. “I don’t have a little sister, so I can’t answer that, but I’ve already said that Depot people are following her. Nothing will happen to her.”
“How can you know that nothing will happen to her? There’s a big difference between ‘she won’t die’ and ‘she won’t be missing limbs.’”
The other didn’t answer, because he couldn’t guarantee that, of course.
Tang Fan, as a Shuntian Judge, had seen many cases of women and children getting kidnapped and sold. Those lucky enough to be found and returned, if they hadn’t lost their purity, had been sold as slaves or into brothels, where a beating would be inevitable no matter what. To be brief, people who had recently fallen into a nest of demons would have to be trained first, which went until they were docile and too afraid to resist, all sorts of unknowable torture methods used during that juncture.
Since Ah-Dong was so young, her ability to act was likely not any kind of strong, and her odds of getting found out were high. Furthermore, there would be an abundance of fugitives amongst those traffickers; if someone like that found out that she was an inside agent, her life might be in danger. Were she to get stabbed, what would be the use of any officials catching up to her?
Right then, a Depot warden came into the private room, face unsightly. “Chief Eunuch, we lost her.”
The translator says: Dude.