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The promotions of military posts weren’t too similar to those of civil officials’, and divisions like the Brocade Guard relied upon imperial favor and merits to a great extent. Even so, being like Sui Zhou — where one rose from Gonfalon to Millarch, and also gained a leadership position in the Northern Bastion Office, over the very brief span of a year — was still very eye-grabbing.
When the heads of the Office had been taken down by Yuan Bin, the few Millarchs under him had all been staring covetously at that position, only for Sui Zhou to come up from behind and occupy it — this inevitably put everyone into a bit of disbelief. After he had taken up the post, they had overtly and covertly tried to trip him up, like secretly sabotaging, procrastinating, and other such things on assignments that should have long been finished prior. Some people had even looked at Sui Zhou’s day-long frosty face, felt that he was bound to be someone very exacting upon his subordinates, and changed the way they spoke to get close to Xue Ling’s group, wanting to see if they could dig out some blackmail material, file a complaint to their superiors, and then pull him down from his position.
See? No need to believe that Brocade Guards weren’t also civil officials, else they wouldn’t have so many tortuous ideas. Officialdom had never lacked such ambushing, pitfalling schemes, and an intelligence division accustomed to interrogation like the Guard found it even easier to do such work.
There were those that set up snares in the dark, laughing behind backs, and those that rushed to fawn. Wherever there were humans, there were turbulent rivers, and that was a statement that could be applied everywhere.
In not even a few days’ time, someone presented a complaint to Yuan Bin, stating that Sui Zhou hadn’t been in his position for long before he started forcing them to train, adding in many programs that hadn’t existed before at a tempo that would torture the entire Office to death. If he wasn’t stopped, they all likely wouldn’t be able to withstand it.
Yuan Bin was seventy-eight this year — what spectacles had he not seen before? As Commanding Envoy, he looked down from up on high and could view the minds of all sorts of people, yet he had said nothing, did nothing, didn’t lend a hand to Sui Zhou’s predicament, and didn’t call Sui Zhou over to chastise him because of his subordinates’ complaints. He had merely watched what was happening in peace.
If Sui Zhou couldn’t resolve these troubles, he wouldn’t be worthy of sitting in that position.
Sure enough, very quickly, everybody quit coming around.
The Guard was of martial quality, so they did regularly practice and exercise, but, since the time of the country’s founding was getting further and further away, many were inevitably becoming lazier and lazier, making said practice have no real effect. Even the Capital Battalions had turned into a pretty and useless display on the battlefield. Despite the Guard also executing the functions of acting as imperial bodyguards, patrolling, and apprehending, they were no longer as fearsome or go-getter as they had been at inception; coupling that with the repression of the Eastern Depot and sky-crowding emergence of the Western Depot, more and more power was being diverted away from the Guard, making them more and more put-out, and more and more powerless. Such was why whenever it had investigated the White Lotus Society before this, the Guard had never profited very much.
After Sui Zhou took a leadership role in the Northern Bastion Office, the first thing he had wanted to change was its general atmosphere. Thus, he had given the firm order that starting from the beginning of each month, once every three days in the early time of the Tiger,(3-5a) and excluding those that were on-duty or on abroad assignments, everyone had to assemble at the training grounds to practice for two shichen. All training regimens followed the Battalions’, with some extra components added in by Sui Zhou.
For many of those that had long grown accustomed to doing nothing, then sleeping until the sun was high in the sky, then wandering about brothels and gambling halls in the night, this was unbearable. They all excessively whined for days on end, and even ran off to Yuan Bin to issue complaints, saying that Millarch Sui’s position wasn’t high, yet his authority wasn’t low, and he took no one’s lives seriously, mistreated his subordinates, completely lacked in humanity, and so forth, all for the sake of flaunting his official’s might.
It had seemed, at first, that Yuan Bin would not be able to sit idly by and ignore such broad-scale complaints, but, unbeknownst to them, Sui Zhou had already informed him of all this.
Prior to the training, he had sought Yuan Bin out, enumerated his plans one-by-one, and explained the goals and reasonings behind them. As it were, Yuan Bin disapproved of how the Guard had become so corrupted due to Wan Tong, hence why he was unmoved by so many coming to complain.
In all things, one must first win over the understanding and comprehension of their superiors. Once they knew clearly that what you were doing was correct, the opinions of underlings wouldn’t matter that much. Any action that altered existing conditions would always be met with resistance, but if nothing was done out of fear of said resistance, Sui Zhou would just be waiting to be made into an empty figurehead…
Seeing that their complaints were useless, everyone had no choice but to comply with Sui Zhou’s orders, and reluctantly come to the training grounds for practice.
The very first instance, a quarter-hour had passed in the time of Tiger, yet the right-about average ones had never shown up. Every one of such people had been pulled away to suffer corporal punishment, getting ten hard hits with a paddle each, after which they still had to continue with training. If they were still late the next time, they would get another ten strikes added, and so on and so forth for any further subsequent times.
They all learned that Sui Zhou was the real deal, and no one dared to be late the second time.
The contents of the training outline he had set up, however, included balancing a bowl of water on top of one’s head and standing in a crouched horse-stance position under the sun for half a shichen, all while holding ten-catty weights in each hand. If any water was spilled, that would be considered a violation of the guidelines, and their time would proceed to be prolonged by another half a shichen. A lot of people had raised objections to this, thinking it too painful and exhausting; the long-spoiled Guards had profusely expressed that they couldn’t take this, it was simply impossible to complete within two shichens, and other such things.
Without pomp, Sui Zhou had personally gone onto the field and demonstrated for them. Everyone had watched him for a half-shichen with their own eyes —not only had the bowl on his head never fallen off, but not even a drop of water in the bowl had splashed out, which thereafter made them entirely convinced, in both heart and word.
Xue Ling’s group had never needed to speak up. They had always followed in Sui Zhou’s footsteps, doing whatever it was he ever said to with absolutely no dissent. The rest had discovered that this newly-appointed boss was decisive and kept to his word, where complaining and being lazy would have no effect, so they had to steel their hearts and train with him to the exact beat.
Still, Sui Zhou was not just blindly making uncompromising demands. At the end of every month, he would treat everybody to a meal, and those that had displayed excellence would get extra rewards. The money for that all came out of the communal treasury, of course — though, when Wan Tong had been around and his people had managed both the Northern and Southern Bastion Offices, said funds had often been used privately and spent recklessly, while those below hadn’t even needed to think about touching them. With no material benefit, they all had been obliged to reach down even further to lower levels.
Following Sui Zhou’s appointment, he had the account books re-made, with each expense required to be clearly noted. Like so, an extra sum of silver could be withdrawn for the purpose of appeasing the minds of the people, which was to everyone’s satisfaction.
Consecutive to three months of this, when everybody had gradually gotten used to this stringent training, the grumbling lessened, to say nothing of the fact that the Office’s atmosphere was like brand-new; at the very least, it had changed a little from how it had been before. It was a good change, naturally, and if nothing else, the case-handling efficacy of the current month had greatly improved.
A superior that set examples, as well as clearly distinguished their punishments and rewards, was much better than a boss that only knew how to eat, drink, whore, gamble, and monopolize all the benefits for themself all day long. Sui Zhou was much stricter than the original Bastion Envoy, but strictness had strict advantages. Those that had good relations with their original boss could no longer sneak around, and the subordinates that hadn’t been able to hug that boss’s thighs no longer needed to worry about life being made difficult for them.
Before anyone had realized it, Sui Zhou’s position became increasingly stable, and he slowly began to leave his own mark on these people.
On this day, Tang Fan emerged from the bureau of the Ministry of Appointments. His mind was invigorated on account of a happy occasion, his steps even a bit brisk as he walked. Upon seeing that it was still early, he changed directions; instead of heading for home, he headed for the Northern Bastion Office.
He hadn’t been over here since Sui Zhou’s promotion. Its formerly-lax entry defense was now quite tight. The one on-duty didn’t recognize him, and as it was a little odd to see a sixth-rank civil official coming there, he stopped him. Upon hearing that he was going to see Sui Zhou, his expression grew even stranger.
“Who are you?” the on-duty Brocade Guard interrogated. “What’s your purpose in seeking out Sir Envoy?”
The man’s attitude wasn’t that great. If it wasn’t for Tang Fan wearing his official’s uniform, he might have suspected that the other was dropping by in his free time to come have a laugh at him.
It was little wonder that he thought like so. The majority of civil officials cherished their plumage and their reputations, so, in general, they would only ever reluctantly drop by after getting ‘invited’ over. Ones that came of their own volition, like Tang Fan, were rare.
“This one is Tang Fan,” said man answered. “I’m a friend of your Bastion Envoy. Sorry to trouble you with passing on a message, but if he’s since gotten off of work, please ask him to come out here.”
Sui Zhou shouldn’t really be getting called ‘Bastion Envoy’, strictly speaking, because he was only in that position temporarily, but people were always getting talked up in officialdom. Deputy Millarchs, for example, would directly be called Millarchs, the removal of ‘Deputy’ causing the one that heard it to feel easy and refreshed.
The Guard looked at him doubtfully, disbelieving from the bottom of his heart that a man like their new Bastion Envoy would have any friends. Beyond that, this guy’s rank was low, making him wonder; was he bluffing about his connection in order to climb to a higher position via the Envoy?
Noticing his suspicion, Tang Fan smiled. “Please pass word on, my good brother. If he won’t see me, I’ll go back home.”
His counterpart wasn’t purposefully trying to make things difficult for him, really, but regulations had gotten a lot stricter as of late. Were he to hastily go in and be a bother only for this guy to not have that much weight, he might be getting the paddle.
“He’s occupied with something important,” the man thus said, straight-faced. “Come again another day.”
Tang Fan gave an oh. “I’ll ask this, then; is he still inside, or has he gone home?”
“He’s still inside.”
Tang Fan nodded. “I’ll wait for him here, then.”
With that, he shifted his robes aside, sat down upon the steps, drew out a book from his pocket, and began to read.
The Guard glared at him. “How dare you be so impudent at the entrance of the Bastion Office!”
What a joke. How could the impressive, iron-blooded, cold-hearted Office frighten anyone with somebody reading right in front of its gates?
Tang Fan gave him a leisurely glance. “I asked you to go notify him, and you refused. I’m going to read while I wait right here, which isn’t getting in your way, nor am I blocking the gate. My butt is to the side, isn’t it?”
The Guard was speechless. When he thought to say something, his companion that was also keeping watch at the door gave him a look, then got in close to whisper to him. “Are you stupid? So what if you go in and notify him? If he’s a friend of the Envoy, you can’t be offending him. If he isn’t, we’ll just drive him away!”
The other rolled his eyes at him. “You’re one to talk. Why aren’t you going in yourself, then?”
His companion chuckled. “I will. Don’t be jealous when I get the Envoy’s praises later!”
The man didn’t believe him, but his friend actually did turn and go in to make a report.
Not long after, he saw said friend rush out from inside, face full of smiles for Tang Fan. “Good Sir, the Envoy is busy right now, but he’s asked you to come in and wait for him.”
His mouth opened wide as he watched his companion attentively guide Tang Fan in. A good while later, when the other came back, he hurriedly asked, “Who is that guy?”
“A friend of the Envoy. You didn’t recognize him? He just said that his name is Tang Fan. I’ve heard he’s lodging in the Envoy’s home.”
The man sucked in a cold breath. “It’s that good of a friendship?”
“How could it not be?”
“How come you didn’t say so earlier?!” the man stamped his foot, dejected.
“Blame yourself for being blind,” his companion mocked. “I even warned you, and you still didn’t go make a report. If the Envoy came to pin blame afterwards, there’d be no way that I was getting scolded along with you!”
Depressed into silence, the man thought of how he had missed another opportunity to show his face to their boss.
Regardless of whatever those two Guards were thinking of, Tang Fan arrived at the training grounds under the guidance of the watchman. Before he even saw any human figures, he heard the distant shouts of a fight coming from far away, and only upon coming near did he discover that there was a martial competition going on at the grounds.
In the center of the field, two figures rose up and dropped down swiftly, the light from their sabres intersecting. This bout was not a flashy show to dazzle one’s eyes and ears, but a completely relentless, life-threatening maneuver to kill. Upon taking an even closer look… wasn’t one amongst them Sui Zhou?!
He was competing with another on-field. Next to them was an encompassing circle of people, each one jeering and cheering.
Tang Fan looked around, spotted Xue Ling’s figure in the crowd, and then walked over, slapping him on the shoulder while he was unawares.
Xue Ling jumped in fright. Right as he went to get mad, his anger turned to happiness as soon as he turned to see. “How come you’re here?”
“One that’s idle will wander all over.” Tang Fan chuckled. “Are you all having a competition? Why did even your Bastion Envoy have to get on the scene?”
Xue Ling grinned. “Big bro previously established a rule that contests were going to be held at the end of each month. Contestants can propose challenges towards anyone, while the final winner gets a hefty reward. Lots of guys have been badly admonished by him before and were holding in their anger, so they wrote him challenges of war, only for him to beat them all down onto their stomachs, one by one. Heh-heh-heh… they still have no idea how awesome he is, but how could I not? I, Old Xue, am not about to bring embarrassment to myself!”
While he was talking, the match’s loser and victor had already been distinguished. The one competing with Sui Zhou had believed himself to have spotted a gap in the other’s defenses, raising his spring-gilt sabre to sweep it from behind in an attempted sneak-attack. However, the other apparently had eyes grown on his back; the tip of his toes touched upon the ground, and he soared up, did a flip in mid-air, then sent his opponent flying with a kick. When his own body was incrementally falling to the ground, he took that landing power to go from lying flat on his back to once again standing steady.
That entire series of events had been akin to traveling clouds and flowing water; extremely nimble, and having a sense of beauty that brimmed with strength. The onlookers applauded en masse, cheering in rises and falls.
Sui Zhou was only in a pair of pants as he stood in the middle of the arena, his upper body bare. Sweat trailed down from every area on his forehead and neck to slide down the rest of him, his entire body drenched in it, his bulging muscles glistening under the sunlight. It was clear that such a built physique had been obtained from incessant and diligent daily tempering, which he hadn’t gotten sloppy with due to his sudden high post at all.
He stared at his opponent that he had kicked over onto the ground, back-handedly sticking the spring-gilt sabre into the ground. “If you haven’t given up, come at me again,” he said, icy.
His state of mind was currently fully immersed within the fight. To him, there was no division between swapping pointers and dueling. Since he was on the field, he needed to spare no effort, and treat this seriously — this was both respect towards himself, and respect towards his opponent.
The one he was staring at felt like he was being pinned by a ferocious beast. Unable to resist a shiver, he couldn’t drum up any will to fight anymore, and hurriedly took back his sabre, cupping his hands. “I won’t, I won’t! Your skills are outstanding, Sir! This subordinate admits defeat!”
Those surrounding hooted with laughter. This guy had overcome everyone in the Office for two months in a row; likely feeling a bit proud of himself, he had thus challenged Sui Zhou. Many had been defeated by the latter before, but he had been certain that he would be the one exception, not expecting that he would be conceding in the end. It was truly tragic.
The instant his counterpart gave in, the harsh aura surrounding Sui Zhou suddenly softened up. He walked over and pulled that subordinate up, then clapped him on the shoulder. “You’re already pretty good. Sir Yuan intends on having us compare knowledge with the Battalions in order to boost morale. At that time, the fight for our Office’s honor will wholly depend on you.”
Said underling had been a bit embarrassed, but after hearing that, he promptly got a surge of emotion. “Don’t worry, Sir! I’ll definitely do all that I can to never let our Office lose face!”
This method of ‘hit, then support’ was quite forcefully convincing.
Tang Fan had his hands behind his back, watching this scene with a full smile. He wasn’t anxious to step forward. After Sui Zhou had finished motivating his subordinates, the conclusion had been announced, and everyone had scattered, he leisurely walked up to him. “You’re very mighty, Bastion Envoy. Looks like your proper place is just around the bend!”
It wasn’t that Sui Zhou hadn’t noticed Tang Fan beforehand, but that it simply hadn’t been convenient to speak. Everyone else was now gone, and it was him alone that was watching him with a smile; thinking of how he didn’t have a single cun of thread on his upper body, a trace of hard-to-perceive bashfulness flashed past Sui Zhou’s cold face. “Why did you come looking for me? If it’s nothing urgent, wait a bit for me to wash and change clothes.”
Tang Fan grinned. “Go and change, I’m not rushing. I’m inviting you to dinner today — Immortal Guest. Want to go?”
Sui Zhou had been walking back to the room where the changes of clothes were, but upon hearing this, he stopped, raising his brows. “Where did that money come from?”
Mister Tang did not have free finances right now. Each month, he could spend half, but the other half went to Sui Zhou for safekeeping, in order to prevent him from wastefully squandering his coin. Were the half he had to be used up, there was basically no way that he could spend the money Sui Zhou was guarding.
Tang Fan laughed. “It fell down from the sky!”
Seeing that he was keeping him in suspense, Sui Zhou was unworried. Once he was done freshening up and changing, he found Tang Fan sipping tea in his personal work office.
Upon noticing that he had arrived, Tang Fan got up. “C’mon, c’mon, c’mon! Let’s go eat!”
Sui Zhou just shook his head, questioning him after. “You got promoted?”
Tang Fan had anticipated that he would guess as much, so he wasn’t startled upon hearing this, nodding animatedly. “Yep!”
“Chief of the Henan Office in the Ministry of Justice. My late mother was granted the fifth-rank title of Lady of Peace, and I was granted an additional one hundred taels of silver.”
Those three above-mentioned articles had to be the belated rewards for his exceptional performances in the East Palace and child kidnapping cases. Sui Zhou’s brows jumped, and then he immediately loosened up, the corners of his mouth faintly lifting. “That’s great. It really is worthy of celebration.”
Tang Fan grinned. “I don’t insist upon getting a high post and heavy salary, but doing something and getting proper compensation for it is a happy event. You’re not going to stop me from treating you to food this time, right?”
Sui Zhou nodded, only to say, “No need to go out to eat. Have Ah-Dong purchase some more ingredients tomorrow, and I’ll cook at home.”
Once he heard that, both of Tang Fan’s eyes shone with sparkles at once. Sui Zhou could definitely swear that he saw light showing through them, and had no idea how to react. “You like the food I cook more than Immortal Guest’s?”
Tang Fan laughed, his graceful and elegant air suddenly wiped out of existence. “That’s only natural. How could the dishes made by the Sui Guangchuan himself be inferior to those of Immortal Guest?”
His very lavish compliment automatically made the curve Sui Zhou’s smile even bigger.
The head of their family was in a good mood, which surely blessed the other two.
That evening, Sui Zhou had a rare bout of cooking, personally making pork strips flavored with yuxiang, sweet and sour spare ribs, and red-cooked lion’s head meatballs. Ah-Dong had even wrapped up some jimao dumplings that Tang Fan had constantly been thinking about. Added onto all this was a goblet of green plum wine simmered atop a red clay stove — because Ah-Dong was still young, she had to obtain permission to drink such sour-sweet wine.
Prior to starting the meal, Ah-Dong filled up two wine cups for Tang Fan and Sui Zhou, then offered them up on her own initiative. “Congrats on your promotion, big brother! Congrats on your promotion, Brother Sui!”
The two smiled and drank their cups down in one gulp. “Actually, the triennial authenticator positions haven’t been filled up,” Tang Fan said. “Logically speaking, I haven’t yet reached the time for promotion, but Chief Zhou of the Henan Office just died of sudden-onset illness, coincidentally vacating a spot over there. They then had me fill in for the vacancy, before anything else happened.”
Sui Zhou nodded. “In officialdom, there’s typically too many monks, and not enough congee. Your bureau isn’t seen as a cushy job, but freeing up a spot for it is difficult, and there’s bound to be many scrambling over it. You might have wrested away somebody’s livelihood. People being envious of you is unavoidable, so be a bit careful when you first get there.”
In truth, there wasn’t really a need for him to warn him. Tang Fan appeared to be a free spirit, but he actually had no shortage of slyness and prudence. Still, the kind regard of a good friend was something he was going to appreciate, so he gave a serious promise.
“What rank are you now, then, big brother?” Ah-Dong wondered.
“I used to be sixth-rank, and now I’m truefifth-rank. That’s a rank and a half of promotion.”
“In a few more years’ time, you’ll probably be able to get first-rank, right?” she asked excitedly.
Tang Fan was not amused. “You’re acting like the Emperor is my dad and my family runs the Great Ming’s government.”
She covered up her grin. “Wouldn’t he be delighted that you want him to be your dad, though?”
If this old man had a father like him, that would be way too miserable, he thought to himself, simultaneously raising his hand to strike a pose of being about to bop her. Ever since she had returned from her kidnapping, she had worked all the harder to learn martial arts from Sui Zhou, and it was to the point where Tang Fan couldn’t get at her, only able to glare.
There was a reason it was said that everybody in this world each had something they were good at. In example, Ah-Dong had no halo of enlightenment when it came to studies, but she had a gift for learning martial arts that surpassed others. Meanwhile, Tang Fan could study and be an official, but he could make no progress in learning martial arts no matter how hard he tried. Having also experienced the Southside Gang incident, he, too, had wanted to learn a few moves for self-defense purposes. However, after holding a horse stance for half a shichen with Ah-Dong, she had remained standing steady with gritted teeth in spite of the sweat soaking her back, while he had long since wavered, spitting up foam as he proclaimed that he gave up.
He decided that, instead of learning how to fight, he should just do less dangerous stuff from now on.
Following the Ministry of Appointments’ written approval, he would be able to report to his new division. Before that, though, he was going to pay a visit to his former superior-slash-senior, Pan Bin, and thank him for these two years of support.
Once Pan Bin had heard the news that Tang Fan was on the eve of being promoted to the Ministry of Justice, he was both pleased and disappointed.
What was pleasing was that Tang Fan and he were brothers of the same teacher, and with that layer of connection, they could look out for each other in the official’s scene forevermore. His young junior having a bright future brought no disadvantage to him.
What was disappointing was that Tang Fan was twenty-five this year, yet already a truefifth-rank official. Even though he had entered Shuntian Prefecture midway through his road from Hanlin, he had now made his way back into the Six Ministries, walking the path of orthodox promotion to a successive appointment as a Cabinet Vizier, still young and promising.
In contrast to this, Pan Bin himself had been interred as a Palace Honorate, but because his rank hadn’t been near the top, he hadn’t been chosen as a Hanlin entrant, giving him a tier less of accomplishments than Tang Fan. This year, he was over forty, and the Shuntian Prefect — to an outsider that didn’t understand the truth, that looked pretty good, but he knew well that if he ever wanted to move up further, it would be quite a bit difficult, as he had no backers, nor mastered skills and aptitude.
Looking at Tang Fan, it was hard for Pan Bin to prevent a surge of self-injury and self-pity, in a sense that the Yangtze’s waves in the back pushed the waves in the front forwards, causing them to die upon the beach.
No matter what, though, he couldn’t put on a long face for Tang Fan, nor did the guy owe him any money. He still managed to muster up his energy to bring out his status as the senior, first congratulating Tang Fan, then earnestly urging him to be on guard against arrogance and not get complacent as a result of this. One’s biggest nemesis in the bureaucracy was typically not other people, but themself.
This was all talk from experience. Tang Fan received his instruction on humility, which was ended with him staying over at Pan Bin’s place for a home-cooked meal. Their pair was still in the capital, able to see each other with a lift of their heads — there was no need to treat this like an eternal parting.
In any case, by the time Tang Fan had handed over his assignments in Shuntian Prefecture and checked into the Ministry of Justice, it was already May’s early summer season.
This year was the fifteenth of Chenghua.
And, not even two days after entering the Ministry, Tang Fan discovered… that he was inexplicably getting isolated.
The translator says: Guess we gotta change the name of the novel now.
Also: Hmmm. That’s weird. How come you’re fine with your other friends seeing your Sweaty Man Chest, Sui Zhou, but when Tang Fan arrives, you get embarrassed? HmmmMMMMmmm.