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He awoke amidst the sound of a dispute.
After gradually regaining consciousness, he discovered that his arms and legs had been bound tight, his back had a hard wall against it, and his eyes were blindfolded. Two people in front of him appeared to be talking in hushed voices.
“You won’t kill him outside?” a rough one asked. “Why did you bother with bringing him in?”
“Big Liu, you idiot!” another quiet one answered. “Didn’t you hear what Little Six said? He misled those guys up the mountain, and had to give up two fingers, plus a stab, to barely get them to believe him. If they can’t find anyone, they’ll definitely come back, and when they find this guy dead there, they might find this place out of suspicion, too. We’re only trying to drag this out, not attract troops into chasing us!”
“This is all Cripple Luo’s fault,” Big Liu said, dejected. “If he had clearly checked out the origins of those brats before taking them, we wouldn’t be in such a mess!”
“You really can’t blame him, though.” The other was also dejected. “Brats go strolling around without any labels stuck on them, so who ever knows whose kids they are? To do stuff like this, you need sharp eyes, quick hands, and prompt decisions. He saw that they were well-dressed and good-looking, so he got them. He wasn’t wrong for it…”
“What do we do now, then? The Brocade Guard and Western Depot have both chased us here. Should we send them back?”
“From the second-in-command’s implication, he seems to have said not to. A mistake is just a mistake. Those imps’ll be transported South to sell, and there’s always someone willing to pay a high price for them. If we send them back now, the talons of those Court hawks might shove us out to be the fall guys! Heh heh… and didn’t you see the goods we got this time? That tender flesh will fetch at least a hundred taels of silver per head. Those two are especially pretty, so maybe they’ll sell for a couple hundred! When that happens, everyone’s getting a minimum share of the figure!”
The man scoffed. “Can you be a bit more ambitious? Add a zero after that!”
Big Liu sucked in a breath.
What a concept fifty taels was! Tang Fan’s own yearly salary didn’t even amount to that much. Without a doubt, Ming officials suffered hard lots; from the Viziers down to the piddly officials, everyone’s pay was low, else he himself wouldn’t be needing to write romance novels to supplement his income. Fifty taels was no small amount for an ordinary commoner, either, as a family of five only needed about thirty a year. A redemption price of a couple thousand taels, like Feng Qingzi’s, was something only the rich could afford, but even so, many people had scrambled like ducks to crowd around her. This was obviously a hugely profitable industry, and indicated that the truly wealthy were still numerous.
It was thus unsurprising that the one before him would take such a severe risk for the ‘high return’ of fifty taels.
Hearing his description, Big Liu seemed to visualize that gleaming silver, and he started to chuckle with unlimited longing. “Brother Xin, you’ll have to guide your littler brother, here! All I’ve done in the Southside Gang prior to this is some non-mainstream little jobs, but how can I get into the second-in-command’s high regards like that? You’ve always been his subordinate, so I’ll follow whatever it is you say to do!”
Brother Xin was similarly crafty. “No way! All of us follow him; how would I have the skill to guide you?! I’ll be honest, what happened this time has kicked up a bit too big of a fuss. That Wan guy likely won’t be able to shoulder it for us, so he’ll have to send people for the search. The second-in-command’s implied that he’ll drag it out for ten days to half a month. The Court group will act in waves, and once the wind passes, its search efforts won’t be as strong. After that, we’ll take a boat from Tianjin down South, where the land and waters are vast. I don’t believe they’ll be able to track us down, then!”
Tang Fan’s eyes were shut as he continued to feign unconsciousness, hoping to hear some more useful information. There was a throbbing pain at the back of his head; he suspected that he was bleeding from a hit with a brick.
“But, Brother Xin… it seems like Lady Ninth’s group is in the middle of trying to convince him to let the two best-looking brats go, right? It’s said that they’re kids of officials, and the people outside are pursuing so closely wholly because of them. If we let them go, the Court won’t go after us anymore. Even if we sell what’s left, that’ll still be a moneymaker.”
Brother Xin snorted. “Idiot! They’re just cowards, the second-in-command has the right idea! Now that things have gotten to this point, we can’t just give them back and have everything be okay, since Wan’ll be lacking a scapegoat to bear the blame. Instead of that, we may as well go for broke. With them in our hands, we can negotiate terms better with those hawk talons.”
“You’re really smart, Brother Xin! You’ve seen right through the second-in-command’s thoughts!” Big Liu praised on end. “Having said that… are we going to keep hiding here, or take the time those guys are upmountain to hurry and leave?”
Listening this far, there was suddenly no sound before him. He felt it odd — until he suffered a hard kick to his calf, the pain making him grunt.
“Still faking sleep?” his counterpart sneered. Immediately after that, the cloth strip blinding him was torn off. He squinted. Only one candle was lit in the room, its feeble light not at all preventing him from observing his surroundings. The room had mud walls up, down, and all around, a secret area dug out who-knew-where. There was only one chair and one blanket spread out on the floor; it didn’t get any simpler than that.
He also took notice that there were four circular holes dug out in each corner of the house-cave’s roof, which were each slightly smaller than a man’s palm. They appeared to be used for ventilation.
His heart jumped, but his calf got kicked again before he could ponder further. He made a muffled sound of pain, twitching continuously from it. His hands, bound behind him, couldn’t even reach out to massage it.
“What are you looking at, shifty-eyes!” the Xin guy bellowed. “No need to look! You got in, so don’t even think about getting out!”
This was the first time in his life that someone had called him ‘shifty-eyed’, and the one that did it was a shifty guy that sold people. It was so absurd, he didn’t know how to react, though he did clear his throat. “Have you two brothers misunderstood something? Presumably, you know that many people are looking for you outside right now. As it happens, I’ve come under secret orders from Envoy Wan. I want to meet with your second-in-command to relay his words to him.”
Xin laughed coldly. “Still acting? Don’t think that we don’t know that you’re obviously a Shuntian Judge, and that you’re grouped up with the guys chasing us! I’ll tell you now that your life is in our hands, and whether you’re killed or not is up to us. Quit using those smartass little ploys! They’ll cost you your life instead of saving you!”
Tang Fan’s heart sank, immediately going half-cold. This wasn’t because the man had threatened him, but because the enemy was in the dark while his side was in the light. They had already discovered his origins in detail, yet he knew not a thing about them, apart from what he had learned from Wang Zhi.
Seeing that Tang Fan was momentarily silent, Xin smiled in self-pride. “Be good and stay here. Don’t think about playing any tricks. Maybe you’ll be able to live for a moment more.” He then turned to Big Liu. “I’m going to report to the second-in-command that the punk’s awake. You stay and keep watch.”
Big Liu affirmed, and Xin left in a rush.
As his name told, Big Liu was tall and robust. The ceiling here was low, so someone like him had to stoop a little to stand. Quite stifled, he could only sit on the chair, which had been tottering to begin with. As soon as his butt hit it, it broke apart with a clatter, and Big Liu followed after it with an ouch, planting solidly on his ass.
Tang Fan wanted to laugh, but couldn’t, for fear of incurring the other’s wrath. He did all he could to make his face serious, and full of concern. “Are you okay, Brother? You mustn’t land on bone. How about you rub some medicinal wine on it?”
Big Liu gave him a fierce glare. “Where’s wine going to come from in the middle of nowhere?! Shut up or I’ll stuff a chair leg in your mouth!”
Tang Fan sighed. “I heard that other man say that your surname is Liu, so I’ll just call you Brother Liu, okay? I can tell that you’re stately-looking, and a man of obvious talent, much stronger than the unbearably thin bamboo reed that I am. You surely have excellent skill. If you were willing to serve the government, you might already be a squad leader for patrolmen. Why should you squander your good physique here?”
He put on a look of having a heartfelt chat, as he could tell from the previous exchange of words that Big Liu was clearly someone lacking in brains, so he intended to show some feelings in the hopes that he could get some more insider information. If that Xin guy had stayed behind instead and he still did this, he probably only would have incurred another kick.
Sure enough, Big Liu had been flattered. Even if he was still ignoring him, the expression he held was slightly loosened up. Tang Fan continued with his efforts. “Before I came in here, the Brocade Guard and Western Depot were on a joint manhunt for you. What their backings are, I don’t need to explain; you should know, yes? Their methods are ruthless, and they have no scruples at all. They aren’t comparable to average Shuntian Prefecture officials like me. If you fall into their hands, they’ll take turns with tortures like pipa-play and ‘ten unsullied fingers’, where death will be preferable to life. As of right now, no one has lost their life. You’ve merely kidnapped a few children, meaning that there’s absolutely still margin for discussion. In my own words, if you’re willing to turn to the light and help me out, I can guarantee that you’ll be wholly unharmed. Not only that, but you can be a Shuntian patrolman. Isn’t that more impressive than a life of stowing away?”
He had spoken so painstakingly patiently for so long, only for Big Liu to suddenly ask, “How much yearly salary is there for a patrolman or whatever, then?”
Tang Fan had tried to persuade him so strenuously, yet had to casually tell the truth. “About a dozen taels.”
“As long as I work under the second-in-command, I’ll get more than fifty taels a year. Why the hell would I follow you in earning a dozen?” Big Liu looked at him with a face of ‘you’re mad.’ “Don’t swindle me! Brother Xin said that you officials only get a couple dozen taels a year once you’re at the top! If I can’t do that, then aren’t I just shit out of luck? You may as well join up with us. The second-in-command will let you live well!”
…Damn. A second of inattention, and now I’m the one being recruited!
Tang Fan calmed himself, proceeded with assuming an appearance of plain communication, and utilized a gentle tone to lower the other’s mental defenses. “Speaking of, how come I’ve been hearing you name the ‘second-in-command’ so much? Your first-in-command is Ding Yimu, and he’s a celebrated hero.”
Big Liu was getting bored from doing nothing. Since someone was willing to chat with him to pass the time, he went along with it. “That’s true, but I’m not sure. Ever since I joined the Gang, I’ve never seen the first-in-command. In my eyes, the second is the most powerful. His wisdom is comparable to Zhu-something…”
“Right, Zhuge! We’re all super confident in him. Ever since I’ve been following him, my life’s been getting better by the day. My woman at home can even wear silk stuff!”
“That’s really good. Even I can’t wear silk,” Tang Fan said with a smile. “But does she know what you’re doing, and living in no lack of fear every day?”
“I haven’t let her know. She does odd jobs outside because of me.”
“Your home is in the capital, then, yet you’re stuck here now; aren’t you afraid that she’ll worry?”
“There’s nothing to be done with that bunch searching so closely. Still, this isn’t that far from home. If I can ever get back, a shichen will be more than enough to.”
“Brother Liu, you and I have different standpoints, but we’re fast friends, being able to talk to each other like this. I couldn’t bear to watch a married couple get separated. Excuse me for asking, but have you ever thought about what happens after this? The Western Depot will certainly maneuver the entire capital into tracking you all down. They might not be able to find you in these wildlands, but if you ever want to leave, you likely won’t be able to.”
Big Liu scratched his head. “There’s nothing to be done about that, either. Danger’s in the search for wealth. The second-in-command isn’t scared, so we aren’t scared, and it’ll still be hard for them to find this place. The second said that even though it’s only a chi down from the surface, we won’t be found as long as we don’t go out, and can rest easy.”
Tang Fan felt elated, as he had received two important messages from Big Liu; one was that they were possibly still in that deserted village, and the other was that they were possibly underground. The Southside Gang had used the advantage of the village’s terrain and environs to dig out a couple cellars that were enough to seek shelter in, serving as hideouts.
With the vigilance of Sui Zhou’s group, if no one was discovered upmountain, they would definitely come back down and find him.
In other words, given that he was able to get out and make a report, or get news up to ground level, everybody here might get caught in one fell swoop.
“That’s an acceptable method,” he said, “but are you going to be able to stay here forever?”
“What are you asking so much for?!” Big Liu asked, defensive. “Do you want to know where the exit is? I won’t tell you!”
Tang Fan was speechless.
It couldn’t be said that this guy was smart, as he had quickly handed Tang Fan a set of information. It couldn’t be said that he was stupid, either, as he was still quite on-guard, and in no way careless at critical moments. Tang Fan was a little unclear on whether he was genuinely stupid, or just pretending to be.
At that time, a dark chuckle came from the entrance. “You’re pretty skilled, buddy, to get Big Liu to talk. Come with me. Our second-in-command heard that you’re up and wants to see you.”
Xin had returned. Taking big strides over, he then roughly grabbed Tang Fan’s shoulder and hefted him up.
His arms were bound, and he had been seated on the ground for a long time, making his body lose its center of gravity. He couldn’t help but fall onto him from his pulling.
Xin pushed him away with a look of disgust. “Look at how delicate you are. Are you one of those guys that plays with ‘backyard flowers’? This old guy ain’t into that! Lay off a bit!”
He, too, wanted to burst into expletives, but his life was grasped in the hands of the one whose eaves he was under. He had to be well-behaved. Mister Tang squeezed out an apologetic smile, humbling himself. “Sorry, sorry! My legs are numb, I didn’t do it on purpose! My life is now in your hands, so how Could I dare to act rashly?
“If I may ask, though, Brother Xin, why is your second-in-command calling for me?” he asked, looking like he was currying favor.
Xin looked at him with a disdaining laugh of mockery. “How should I know? A softie like you that’s afraid of death is best kept out of sight. If it wasn’t for him saying that he wanted to see you, I would have sent you on your way long ago, and never have the luck of hearing you gab!”
With one glance, Tang Fan caught sight of the bloodthirsty light flitting past his eyes. He understood immediately that he was a different sort from Big Liu; this man had to have seen blood before, and might have a lot of lives on his hands. As he couldn’t use the same style of interaction on such a criminal, there was no use in saying more. He simply shut his mouth, getting ready to see where they went and remember the way.
Unexpectedly, Xin picked up the cloth strip he had previously thrown onto the ground, blindfolded him again, then pushed him forwards. Tang Fan had no choice but to count his approximate steps as he walked.
He perceived walking about ten paces forwards, after which he was pushed into a right turn. Following about three paces, he could faintly hear the young voices of children, but they seemed to have their mouths stuffed up, only able to make weak whines. Quickly following that, he heard someone lowly shouting things like, “Be good, or we won’t give you food tomorrow.”
His heart jumped, but before he could think, he was again pushed into a left turn. After about five paces, and then another right turn, he was finally stopped by a push down on his shoulder.
“Second-in-command, he’s here!” Xin stated.
“Bring him in,” Tang Fan heard another say.
Preoccupied with keeping note of his position, he stumbled from getting pushed inside hard by Xin, and fell straight forward onto the floor in a sorry state.
“Did he kill your father, Xin Shitou? Why so rough?” a delicate voice rebuked from nearby.
Xin Shitou snickered. “Are you distressed, Lady Ninth? So you really did take a fancy to this guy, and that’s why you won’t let the second-in-command kill him. He’s so weak. Could he even service you properly? How about you let this brother do it?”
“Is this how you manage your underlings, Deng Xiucai? Allowing them to be so rude to me?” she said, voice dark.
“Why haven’t you apologized to Lady Ninth yet, Shitou?” the same voice that had told him to come in said. That gentle tone had to be Deng Xiucai, second-in-command in the Gang.
Xin Shitou had no choice but to reluctantly apologize to her.
“This must be Sir Tang of Shuntian?” Deng Xiucai asked. “I’ve long awaited your illustrious name.”
Tang Fan smiled. “I’m no more than an insignificant Judge; what illustrious name? You’ve really overpraised me. However, my eyes were bound too tightly just now, and the force of it really hurts. Could you help me with getting it off, first?”
“Don’t you just want to see what we look like? Why beat around the bush? Shitou, help him with that. Give him a chair to sit on, too.”
With the blindfold removed, Tang Fan exhaled, then took a measure of everything before him. This was another narrow and cramped inner room, its differences laying in its furnishings being much more comfortable than where he had just been.
…Not to mention the fact that the chairs these people were sitting on weren’t rickety in the least.
There were three people seated ahead. The leftmost one was an elder that hadn’t ever spoken, the middle one was Deng Xiucai, and the one to the right was the pretty Lady Ninth. In addition to Xin Shitou, there was someone standing behind Deng Xiucai and Lady Ninth; he ought to be a personal bodyguard.
Deng Xiucai, as his name suggested, was erudite-looking, around thirty years of age, and possessing of a neatly-trimmed beard upon his jaw. Tang Fan had heard, out of Wang Zhi’s mouth, that despite being only the second-in-command of the Gang, the man’s power was quite great. Due to the leader infrequently appearing as of late, Deng Xiucai instead became the main authority, and gang members knew only of him, not Ding Yimu.
Aside from human trafficking, the Gang ran brothels and gambling dens, set off usury loans, and did all sorts of other lucrative, shady stuff that dripped with grease. On account of it opening up relations in officialdom, there had never been unprofitable year for them, and they got increasingly undiscerning the more influence they had, hence why they even had the guts to snatch the daughter of the Grand Tutor. They hadn’t expected for things to get so serious this time around, where Wan Tong couldn’t protect them, and the Western Depot would take up the job of doggedly tracking them down to the end. They had to flee here out of a lack of option.
Now that he had seen Deng Xiucai in person, Tang Fan made a mental judgement: Don’t pay attention to his gentle looks. This is definitely a cruel tyrant.
However, when his line of sight shifted to the nearby Lady Ninth, he was startled.
She tittered upon seeing his expression. “Why so shocked, Sir Tang? Have you met me before?”
He swiftly resumed his normal state, laughing as well. “I won’t hide it from you, Miss. Your appearance is somewhat similar to an old friend’s. I actually did almost confuse you for her.
She covered her mouth and shook with laughter like a flowering branch, throwing him a flirty look. “You guessed right. I do indeed look a lot like her, and not only that — we’re sisters.”
“So, Lady Chen, then,” he answered calmly. “It appears that she ought to be the elder?”
“You have good eyes.”
She didn’t deny it, so it was true; this Lady Ninth was the little sister of Li Man’s concubine. Back when the Li’s case had happened, Lady Chen had gone missing. He hadn’t expected that he would ever meet her sister.
No wonder his identity had been exposed. She was the one that had bestowed it to them.
Once their exchange was over, Deng Xiucai began to speak with composure at last. “You’re in a good mood, Lady Ninth. Great calamity is about to befall us, yet you can still reminisce on old times.”
She shot him a glance. “You speak wrongly. You’re the one that incited all this; if you hadn’t kidnapped those two hot potatoes, would these officials have been provoked into a tizzy right now?” She turned back to Tang Fan with a smile. “You’re a wise one, Sir Tang. We didn’t mean to cause this. In your opinion, what should we do?”
Tang Fan wasn’t sure of the status this woman had in the Gang, but upon seeing the fleeting anger on Deng Xiucai, he went along with her. “This is easy to handle. I know you all didn’t intend to defy the Court, so if you just set these children free, we can act like this whole thing never happened.”
“What weight do your words carry, Sir Tang?” Deng Xiucai asked gloomily.
“As you know, the Brocade Guard and Western Depot are responsible for hunting you down. I have a bit of a friendship with the Depot’s Director; its hard pressure on you is because there’s official’s children amongst your group, which has alarmed His Majesty. If you’re willing to concede a bit and hand them over to us, this will all get played down. The Guard is even easier. I’ve heard that the relationship between your Gang and Envoy Wan is good, so one sentence out of you will be more effective than ten out of me.”
Before Deng Xiucai could speak, Lady Ninth piped up. “I told you that Sir Tang is most reasonable, second-in-command. Do you still not believe that? No matter how good a commodity those kids are, they won’t be worth more than a thousand taels when they’re sold, while those Depot wardens could very well take our lives. Now that they have imperial orders, they’ll come relentlessly biting us like rabid dogs. Are our lives worth that amount?”
“You really are an expert outside of the field, Lady Ninth,” Deng Xiucai answered slowly. “The top puts heavy importance on money. Without those thousand taels, my assignment for this year won’t be accomplished, and now that things have gotten so messy, Wan Tong will fear implication. He’ll be certain to find an unlucky devil to blame; if I return the children now, I’ll be that unlucky devil. As clever as you are, you must have thought of that, yes? Or are you consciously wanting to push this Deng into a pit of fire?”
Hearing that, Tang Fan came to comprehend something. In the inn where Lady Chen had vanished, the mark of the White Lotus Society had been left behind. So, if Lady Ninth was her sister, she must also be related to it, meaning that ‘the top’ Deng Xiucai had referred to was likely also the Society.
From their interaction, it wasn’t hard to see that the two had a bit of conflict between them. Their views didn’t conform, but she wasn’t a gang member — she was a diplomat sent by the Society. Thus, even though she didn’t much like him, she couldn’t blow up at him.
Her opinion was that he should make peace with the officials by handing the kids over, but his opinion was the exact opposite, hence the divergence. Tang Fan was inwardly fearful thinking about it: If Deng Xiucai is focused on escaping to the South, wouldn’t it be unnecessary for me to exist?
Beyond that… since she’s of the Society, why is she doing all she can to defend me? Women’s thoughts are truly hard to fathom.
Lady Ninth smiled. “Your words are so serious, second-in-command. You’re among the best in the Southside Gang; if something happens to you, and then Ding Yimu can’t control the situation at large, won’t the Gang be instantly disbanded? I simply believe that things haven’t yet reached that extent. To have a blood feud with those officials would have no benefit to your, nor my, present circumstances. If you ruin our very important affairs because of this, there will be no need for those officials to hold it against you, as the Society will deal with you directly. Can you believe that?”
Too much information had been revealed in those words, and Tang Fan was nearly unable to take it in. Some cold sweat seeped from his palms and back, as the more he knew right now, the worse things would be for him.
As expected, Deng Xiucai’s face sank, and he swept his gaze to Tang Fan. “Don’t tell me that you’ve gotten a flare-up of ‘can’t walk straight upon seeing a handsome man’ disease, Lady Ninth? You’ve said so much right to this punk’s face. Looks like he can’t be kept around. I’ll help you by getting rid of him in your stead, so that disaster doesn’t make its way back to you someday!”
With that, a silver light flashed from his sleeve, and a dagger came out of it, heading straight for Tang Fan!
The latter’s hands were tied up, and he was seated on a chair — how would he have the time to dodge? He could only lean back on automatic reflex, but the other moved at lightning speed, coming up before him in the blink of an eye.
The dagger shone icily, its point puncturing the clothes on his chest, soon about to pierce his skin… but Lady Ninth was heard to shout, “You dare try to kill him in front of me?!”
As soon as that was said, the shadow of a whip swept across. It did not hit a person, though; that dagger was wrapped up and pulled away, seized out of Deng Xiucai’s hand.
This incident occurred in the span of a breath. Everyone was dumbstruck. By the time the two subordinates remembered to protect their leader, the confrontation was already over.
“I have a way to get the best of both worlds,” she said, cold. “Will you listen, or not?”
Deng Xiucai snorted. “What ‘best of both worlds’? How could I not know what you’re thinking? You just want this guy to be your lover!”
The translator says: Threw up in my mouth a little from having to type out what these old fucks say about little kids.