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As soon as they arrived and caught sight of the brothel’s sign, Wang Zhi laughed coldly. “So, it’s this one. You Southsiders really were hiding out in plain sight!”
The two leading the way were too afraid to make a peep, both bowing their heads and pretending to be obedient grandsons.
Ordered to do so by Wang Zhi and Sui Zhou, the Western Depot and Northern Bastion Office’s people had already long encircled the brothel, enveloping it from head to tail to ensure that not even a mosquito could fly out of it.
Hearing Eunuch Wang’s very acquainted tone, he apparently understood this place better than the ‘normal’ men present. Were it not for the current mismatching circumstances and mood, Tang Fan might have started laughing for real. “What’s wrong with this building?” he instead asked, with a serious face.
On the plaque above the main entrance was engraved the name ‘Relaxation’, its calligraphy elegant, and details of outstanding literary grace. Without the bursts of giggles and dubious candlelight coming from it, it could have been some kind of restaurant.
“Wan Tong has a share in it,” Wang Zhi answered.
This tidbit was bit shocking to hear of, but when thought deeply about, it really wasn’t anything strange. Since the Western Depot could become a patron boss of Immortal Guest, why couldn’t there be a brothel under the Brocade Guard’s title? Not only that, but it could fall under the pretty name of ‘intelligence gathering and information scouting’, as brothels, gambling dens, and restaurants were areas most frequently concentrated with people coming and going. Wherever more people were at, more info would be at, which complimented the demands of such intelligence agencies.
Thinking of that, Tang Fan looked at Sui Zhou.
The man shook his head slightly at him, indicating that he had no idea about this. Apparently, Wang Zhi was hinting at Wan Tong having a personal connection to the brothel.
His elder sister was the Consort, which made him an even more unreasonable capital character than Wang Zhi was. Owing to the shelter provided from a Brocade Commanding Envoy, the brothel’s business had gotten even more prosperous, and there was no need to fear people from the bureaus frequently coming to their door and soliciting bribes from them for all sorts of reasons.
Anyways, right as they had come up to the door in preparation to mess the scene up, someone had already come out of it to welcome them. It was a gently-aged woman with a smile all across her face, the obvious owner of Relaxation. “Oh my, Sirs! What kind of wind is blowing today? If you all wanted to come over and have fun, you only needed to say so ahead of time. Why make such a big scene?”
She had seen that their numbers and might were impressive, and that they hadn’t come with benevolence, but she wasn’t panicky. This demonstrated that she had self-confidence.
Wang Zhi said nothing. There was no need for him to, really. Stationed behind him was a Depot squad leader named Ji Yang, who then ordered the two men to be put forward. “Talk less drivel. Do you recognize these two?”
She glanced at them, smile unchanged. “Never seen them before.”
He huffed out a laugh. “Come. Go in and search!”
Her face sank. “Hold on!”
Following her voice, more than a dozen big ol’ men scrambled out from inside the building, each of them tall, broad, and wielding clubs as they glared fiendishly at them.
Tang Fan was not going to bring up who was in that group for right now. Sui Zhou, Wang Zhi, and the rest of them were all in officials’ uniforms, and their distinct robes would tell anyone that glanced at them what bureau they had come from. Ordinary folks wouldn’t even have the time to hide once they sighted them, yet this bawd dared to openly stand off against them. Was this not the very definition of ‘overconfidence’?
“You must be mad, old broad!” Ji Yang bellowed. “Do you know who we are?”
She was undisturbed. “I do, of course. You gents are of the Western Depot, are you not? Had you said that you were all here to seek pleasure, this old one would welcome you, but now that you’ve made it clear that you’re ready to cause havoc, I won’t be able to keep running my business if I let you in. The Western Depot has impressive might, but do you know who owns this place?”
“It’s an establishment listed under Wan Tong’s name, right?” Wang Zhi said at last.
She narrowed her eyes and sized him up for a long while. Seeing how he was gathered around like stars to a moon, she smiled anew. “Could you be Director Wang? Our house gives our courtesies. The Western Depot and Brocade Guard are as close as kin. Since you know the gains and losses amongst this, please be more accommodating on account of Envoy Wan’s dignity.”
Wang Zhi was someone of Consort Wan’s, and Wan Tong was her little brother. These were not secrets in society at large. However, a brothel bawd having the nerve to threaten Wang Zhi with Wan Tong made it clear that they weren’t in alliance.
With that said, she made a gesture, and someone behind her offered up a tray. She lifted up a corner of the cloth covering it, instantly revealing the blindingly dazzling gold beneath it. Judging from its heavy weight, it was likely no less than three or four hundred taels worth.
Observing that they were all staring at the tray, she couldn’t help but grin, putting the cloth back down. “This tiny bit of kind regard is for buying drinks for you and your subordinates, Director Wang. There’s no need to be humble, so please accept it.”
Wang Zhi laughed icily, reaching outwards.
Everyone looked on blankly as the tray was flipped over. All the gold twisted numerous times around in the air, then tumbled onto the ground, immediately filling it with glittering light.
“Are you good enough to bribe me?” he said to the dumbstruck bawd. “Saying a few words to you is already putting you in high enough regard! Don’t take yourself to be anything worthy!”
She had made a massive mistake.
This brothel had Wan Tong’s investment in it, true. Given his connection with Wang Zhi, the latter ought to give him some face. Conflict with him wouldn’t be appropriate, either, else it would get back around to Consort Wan and make it hard for him to act.
The problem was that he was currently looking for someone, and this place had confirmed that it had something to do with the Southside Gang, perhaps being one of its hideouts. He would be bearing the brunt of it if the case couldn’t be solved, so no matter what kind of emotional incense was brought up, he had to find the children.
Besides, the brothel wasn’t part of Wan Tong’s assets, so raiding it wouldn’t be regarded as anything at all. The bawd had mistakenly believed that moving out his name would calm Wang Zhi down, but why had she thought that he would be easy to deal with? If he was too afraid to act against even an insignificant brothel, what would others think of him when word about that got out? Would he not be seen as a silver spear made of wax — impressive, but ineffective?
He wasn’t done after scattering the gold, kicking the bawd over. “Search!” he then ordered his staff.
“Wait, wait! You can’t go in!” Her face finally contorted, since he wasn’t responding to either force or persuasion. Due to being kicked in the middle, she couldn’t get up for a moment, only able to sit on the ground and holler. “I’ll go send someone to fetch Master Wan! You’re not allowed in!”
“That’d be no use even if his own mother showed up,” Wang Zhi answered indifferently. “Are you all still not going in to search for me?!”
With that command, his subordinates directly unsheathed their blades. The several men guarding the main gate looked vicious, but how could they ever best the even more ferocious Depot wardens? In no more than a few exchanges, they had all collapsed onto the ground.
Sui Zhou hadn’t brought as many people tonight, and they weren’t even here, all guarding the rear entrance of the brothel. He didn’t vie for power with the Depot, following in with Tang Fan behind them.
As soon as the bawd had seen the Western Depot arrive, she had thought that moving Wan Tong’s name out would make tonight’s major event a minor one. She hadn’t anticipated that Wan Tong would have no effect, nor that Wang Zhi would pay her no mind.
Since she had been confident a hundredfold, she hadn’t evacuated those inside, resulting in a bunch of cries of alarm when Wang Zhi’s group broke in. The customers in the lobby were frightened; having something of an identity, they were prepared to slip out the rear entrance, but, unbeknownst to them, there were people waiting for them outside. They couldn’t even jump out the windows, let alone the back entrance.
Ji Yang gave an order, and then the wardens split up into several directions to outflank the upstairs, rapidly ascending to the second and third floors. All of the passages and doors to private rooms were kept watch on as the doors were kicked in. No matter what the people inside the rooms were doing, all of them got dragged out, which earned even more rising waves of screams.
Everyone was brought out to congregate into the main lobby. Tang Fan lightly swept over them; there were a couple officials present. Hoo boy.
Even though the Court had made it clear that officials were not allowed to go whoring, what man wouldn’t sneak some in? So long as no one found out, they wouldn’t get denounced by the censors. Since Wan Tong was connected to the place, the confidentiality of everyone that came to play was still safeguarded via the abilities of the majestic Commanding Envoy. This caused Relaxation to be unusually popular with both the over and underworlds, and business was great. Ordinary traders would frequently run into bureau workers using the excuse of collecting taxes to come and extort them, but because Relaxation’s influence was too great, no one dared to drop by and look for trouble.
Resulting from this, they hadn’t expected to encounter ghosts from walking too much at night. Today, somebody wasn’t afraid to make a mess of Relaxation, and everybody was tongue-tied as they watched the Western Depot barge in.
“You can’t fault this old one for not warning you, Director Wang! You shouldn’t burn your bridges like this!” the bawd said sternly as she walked in with a limp.
Wang Zhi looked at her unfeelingly, as if he was looking at a dead woman. “Do you know which family the children missing tonight came from?”
She laughed coldly. Arrogant from her behind-the-scenes supporter, she stared straight at him with no amount of dread. “How would I? You’re being ridiculous. If a child has been lost, go look for it. What does that have to do with my brothel?!”
“Among the children lost tonight, one is the youngest daughter of the Crown Prince’s Grand Tutor, Zhu Yong, and another is the grandson of the Assistant Minister of Appointments. You’ve got some guts, to be playing accomplice to a villain and covering up missing children! Forget about one Wan Tong; even ten Wan Tongs wouldn’t save you!”
Her face was covered with a thick layer of makeup; no one could tell whether she went pale or not, but in her eyes, there showed some hesitation and disbelief at his words. It was different from the conceited look she had had before.
Right then, the wardens had already turned the whole brothel upside-down, and Ji Yang was seen to walk out of a storage room beside the back kitchens. “Chief Eunuch, there’s a cellar here, but nobody’s inside it!”
Wang Zhi glared harshly at the bawd. “Where are they?”
She forced a smile. “If you didn’t find anyone, then that means that we’ve been accused wrongly. If you don’t believe it, you can search again and see that I’m not lying!”
Sui Zhou and Tang Fan went straight into the storage room. A spot had been cleared out on the messy ground, revealing the entrance of a black hole.
“No one’s below?” Tang Fan asked.
Ji Yang nodded. “I went down and checked it out myself. The area below isn’t large, and there’s no mechanisms for secret tunnels. Even if anyone had been hidden down there, there’s no chance they could have escaped from it.”
There were a lot of things in here, like many miscellaneous foodstuffs, and items such as rope. It looked like a typical storage room. Even the existence of the cellar below it wasn’t odd, as many business or large households would have one for use in storing some perishable foods.
Tang Fan didn’t drop the topic because of Ji Yang’s words. He glanced at Sui Zhou, and the latter immediately understood, taking a candle down from the wall. The two went down below, one after the other.
Ji Yang was slightly displeased upon seeing this, thinking to himself, I said that I already checked it out. Are you two doubting me?
He didn’t descend, standing in place with his arms crossed, waiting to see how dejected they looked when they came up.
Not long after, they did come up, but Tang Fan looked grave. “People were kept below before.”
Ji Yang was skeptical. “How could you tell?”
“The cellar had to have been constructed some time ago, judging from the encasing walls. There’s no way that it was left completely empty, but had it been used to store foodstuffs, like pickled vegetables, there would be a remnant smell, or traces of their storage here. However, the ground is so clean, there’s no traces of anything, which means that it isn’t being used to store objects.”
Ji Yang had a sense of epiphany. He, too, had felt that the cellar was strange, but couldn’t figure out why. As it turned out, he had forgotten to analyze the scent. “How did they exit? Did they hear word on the wind before we got here?”
Tang Fan shook his head. “From the time we caught those two gang members, got their confession, then came here, the time in between and people we had contact with give little possibility for word to leak out about it. They ought to have fled upon seeing our arrival.”
“There’s no other passages here, though. People are standing guard outside, so they would have gotten discovered as soon as they had left.”
Sui Zhou had already gone to investigate the storage room, using the hilt of his saber to prod at a lot of the foodstuffs piled up in the corners, and also jab at the surrounding walls. Ji Yang could tell that he was trying to look for another passageway.
Unfortunately, nothing seemed to be uncovered. Ji Yang, a bit disappointed, was about to go to a different room to look around when he heard Sui Zhou speak up. “There’s something weird here.”
Turning his head, he saw that Sui Zhou was currently prodding at a huge hemp sack leaning against the wall, only for said sack not to budge at all from the action. Tang Fan stepped up and untied its opening, exposing chunks of stone that looked to weigh a couple thousand catties at a glance. No wonder Sui Zhou couldn’t move it with his prodding; it would probably take two or three people to shift it.
Why would a pile of rocks show up in a food storage room?
There was no need for Tang Fan to explain as much; Ji Yang could tell that there was something weird going on. He and Sui Zhou joined forces to push the sack a little bit away.
Spread out beneath it was a thin layer of straw. Sweeping that away, a thick floor tile could be seen covering the ground. In spite of it trying to blend in with the floor around it as much as it could, it still left some signs of itself behind. Sui Zhou and Ji Yang pried the tile up, then saw that there was indeed a hidden entrance below that seemed to go even deeper than the cellar, wherever it led unknown.
Ji Yang realized that the ones that had dug out this tunnel were super cunning. They had made an easy-to-find cellar so that when people saw there was no one inside, they would subconsciously go to look in other spots, not guessing that there would be another hidden entryway in the room. Plus, the stuffed sack on top of it looked exactly like the sacks around it that held food. Only when one prodded each individual one like Sui Zhou had, then also took the time to untie and examine them, could anything be found out.
That bawd wouldn’t be able to yell about false accusations now. Ji Yang promptly strode out and told Wang Zhi of what had been discovered.
The latter looked at the bawd. “Do you want to say anything?”
Her face was unreadable, stiff-lipped as ever. “That tunnel had been dug out during this building’s construction period for use as a ditch, then was abandoned afterwards and is no longer used. What’s so strange about it?”
“That fucking ‘ditch’ of yours was dug out just enough for humans to enter it,” Ji Yang sneered. “They really took some great pains for it. Which craftsmen made it? I’ll hire him later!”
Wang Zhi had substantial proof, yet was calm as he spoke to her. “You keep on saying that this place has Wan Tong’s backing, but he still hasn’t shown up. Do you know why? You’re nothing more than a brothel bawd; whenever something happens, you’ll always be shoved out to be the scapegoat. You claim to be on his side, but if there’s someone that doesn’t acknowledge that, what’s to be done? In any case, we have the time, so we’ll just interrogate you right here. If you refuse to speak, we’ll keep asking until you do. Wei Mao!”
A middle-aged, stiff-faced man came out. He was a squad-leading Millarch of the Western Depot, and the best at forcing out confessions. Now that this task had been handed over to him, he was entirely within his area of expertise.
As soon as he waved his hand, two subordinates stepped forth, then firmly held down the bawd.
“We’ll proceed with ‘Ten Unsullied Fingers’,” he said as he came forward, having the others press her fingers onto the ground. Producing a pair of strangely-shaped pliers from who-knew-where, he crouched down, nipped them onto one of her fingernails, then ruthlessly pulled up.
Her shriek rushed up to and broke through the clouds.
All the customers and women in the brothel had since been gathered into the first floor by the Depot. They helplessly watched this spectacle, every face turning pale with fear. They had always heard a lot about the Depot’s might, but it was only now that they got to witness a real-life torture scene. For a long time following this, they would likely start trembling all over just from hearing its name.
The name of ‘Ten Unsullied Fingers’ sounded pleasant, but in reality, it was the pulling off of all ten fingernails on one’s hands. Since fingers were connected to the heart, it could be imagined how painful it was.
All were white-faced as they saw the bawd howl in agony, suddenly feeling like their own nails hurt.
When Tang Fan came out of the room, he heard Wang Zhi ask her, “You have ten nails. It’ll be slow-going until your hands are done. There’s still your feet, then, you know? If even those all get pulled off and you’re still going strong, I’ll accept your words.”
Her arms tightly restrained, she was unable to move, tears and snot flowing together. There was no need to mention how pitiful that old, previously-overbearing face was now.
Even so, Tang Fan would never sympathize with someone like this. To put it in ugly terms, her heart was completely blackened; even if she had nothing to do with the missing children, she had committed no lack of immoral deeds on a regular basis. Were she to experience every kind of torture in the Depot once through, she likely still wouldn’t be washed clean of her sins.
Seeing that she still refused to speak, Wei Mao used the pliers to grasp the nail on her index finger. Right when he went to move, he heard her squeal like a pig getting butchered. “Don’t! I’ll talk, I’ll talk! Don’t do it! Let me go! Let me go!”
Onlookers might not know from experience the sensation of getting a nail lifted off, but the bawd really wanted to die right now. She itched to cut off her finger, as that might not hurt so much. She wailed with all her might, body twitching non-stop — though that still couldn’t cast away the ache of bone-penetrating gangrene. Already unable to care about anything else, every secret in her head was far away, leaving only one thought behind: Make the pain stop!
Wang Zhi waved his hand, following which she was picked up and escorted to the storage room. The door shut, leaving four people inside aside from her.
“Speak,” he said.
“The kids aren’t… aren’t here…” she claimed as she sobbed.
He raised a brow, thinking that she was going to shamelessly quibble again. “Wei Mao, get some salted water and sprinkle it on her finger.”
She screamed. “No, no, no! I didn’t lie! They’re really not here! They left more than half a shichen ago! I only do business of the flesh. If the Southside Gang kidnaps any kids, they sometimes hide away here temporarily, but they always take them away quickly!”
“Did you see us coming, then notify for them to leave? How many people were in their party? How many of them were children? Where did they escape to? Where does this secret tunnel lead to?”
He threw out those few questions quickly. She looked at the very near pliers, long scared into being too afraid to not answer. “I didn’t! I didn’t notify them. They left before you came here, because someone had come back ahead of time and said that they had seen your Depot doing an interrogation near the city towers. Thinking that things might get exposed, he hurried back, took all those kids out of the cellar, then left by the tunnel. There were three adults, and about eight children. Most of them were under ten… the tunnel leads outside the city. That’s all I know! My place is only a transfer point, I don’t know where they actually go!”
“What is your position in the Gang?” Tang Fan asked. “Who are the others in it?”
“I’m a bawd! How could I talk about having any position?!” she cried out. “I’m just a nobody in the Gang! Human trafficking is all the domain of the second-in-command, I would never dare to ask after it! Occasionally, they’ll send over some tender-skinned children over, say that they brought them all from the South, and tell me to train them up, which I’ll do, but I really don’t know anything more!”
Wang Zhi said nothing. Wei Mao directly poured salted water on the bawd’s blood-stained finger; she wailed in agony, but couldn’t give anything else useful. Everyone could tell that she wasn’t lying, and her knowledge was evidently finite.
“Among those children, was there a fat little girl about eight years old?” Tang Fan questioned again. “Her hair is put into double buns, and there’s a red ribbon on her head.”
So that she wouldn’t suffer further, the bawd vigorously thought back. “It seems like there was… nono, there definitely was! There was! I remember a girl like that. There was a littler girl that had been crying the whole time, and the adult leading them got impatient, so he went to beat her. The bigger girl protected the younger one, and she got slapped hard!”
His complexion went ashen. Ah-Dong had been born a slave, but ever since she had been with him, he was fond of her. How could he have ever hit her? Now that he had heard that someone had struck her, he was immediately enraged.
Wang Zhi asked a few more questions, such as where the other hideouts of the Gang were, where the man in charge was, what the identities of those that took the children were, and so on. She always answered that she didn’t know, and torture had no effect.
“There’s no time to waste. I’m going to take a look now!” Tang Fan said.
Sui Zhou nodded. “We’ll go together.”
He called Xue Ling and the rest over. Altogether, five people, Tang Fan included, brought along candles and such, then bent over to enter the tunnel.
It was relatively narrow. Only one person was allowed to pass through at a time, and even then, they had to stoop to proceed.
According to the bawd, the secret passage had been excavated pretty crudely. There was no illuminated flight of steps nor mechanisms, just a path that led out of the city. It was convenient for moving people and things that couldn’t be seen, whenever they wanted.
As the Brocade Guards were physically skilled, they responsibly walked in front while Tang Fan walked behind. They went on for a while; because the passage was craggy and uneven, Tang Fan was preoccupied with adapting to the environment, and thus was inattentive. By the time he had gotten a short distance along, he detected that somebody was following him. Turning back to look, he saw that it was Wang Zhi, plus a couple of wardens.
“A place like this is dark and difficult to traverse. You’ve really been wronged, Eunuch Wang. With your status, why should you do everything yourself?” he couldn’t resist mocking, upset that he had asked Ah-Dong to be bait.
Eunuch Wang snorted with a grin. “They must have someone outside of the city corresponding with them. I feared that with how few people you have, you’ll inadvertently meet with them on the road, then make fools of yourselves.”
The translator says: In today’s authorly mini-theatre, the bawd offers to tell Wang Zhi a joke to lighten the mood. Her joke is, “Once upon a time, there was an imperial eunuch. He died. The end.” He sicced dogs on her. End scene.
 In TCM, heart meridians are purportedly in one’s arms, which gives them more feeling compared to legs.