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“Ah, Runqing! Come, sit!”
Liang Wenhua didn’t rise, himself, but beckoned to Tang Fan in a motion for him to sit down.
Tang Fan had no idea what was wrong with him, so he respectfully bowed, then gently took a seat.
When it came to subordinates meeting superiors and subjects meeting the Emperor, particular care was given to seating. One couldn’t plop their whole butt down, but only half-plop it, just in case that superior or Emperor had a question to ask and the individual needed to stand up and answer at any time.
Seeing Tang Fan’s appropriate mannerisms, Liang Wenhua’s smile deepened. “I heard that when you went to Gong county, you found a Gong noble’s vault from the Spring and Autumn period beneath a Song Emperor’s tomb?”
The most likely thing that had happened here was that, prior to the group’s return, a detailed memorandum had already been written, sent by horse to the capital, and reported to the Cabinet for reading. After the Cabinet had informed the Emperor, it had gone down to the Ministry of Justice and Brocade Guard — in other words, Tang Fan and Sui Zhou’s direct superiors — to let them understand the situation. Hence was why Liang Wenhua had some comprehension of the course of Tang Fan’s expedition.
“Correct. On our assignment, we also found and arrested the Henan branch temple of the White Lotus Society. Their Vicar, Li Man, died in a mishap while fighting with us, while his concubine, Lady Chen, has already been detained in the capital. She is being looked after by the Northern Bastion Office for the time being, and they’re just waiting to pry out information about the Society’s remnants from her. There are a certain number of other henchmen, as well, and they are provisionally being seen to by the Guard’s Henan post. They will enter the capital at a later date.”
The other nodded nonchalantly; his main interest, apparently, was not this. After hearing him out, he didn’t express much of an opinion, simply asking about something else. “I heard that you all seized a great amount of treasures from the Society?”
“There are not many, truly. It’s all kinds of gold, silver, jade, and jewels. I already ordered for an inventory to be made, so I came to deliver the register today.”
Liang Wenhua’s eyes brightened as he looked at the book Tang Fan held. “That’s the treasure register?”
“Correct. Please pore it over.”
Taking the book, Liang Wenhua immediately started flipping through it, and the more he flipped, the brighter his eyes became.
It wasn’t surprising that he would react like this. The vault had had many treasures, but some of them had been tarnished by age, turning dull — like some of the gold leaf that had been pasted onto lacquerware, which had long lost its original color. It wasn’t as if absolutely none of them had kept well, however. Everything truly valuable had been casually inventoried when Li Man’s group had moved them, while Tang Fan later had Cheng Wen and Tian Xuan count them up again out of a want to determine the objects’ worth. Once it all had been summed up, their value was estimated to be around a hundred thousand taels, which was equal to about a tenth of the Great Ming’s annual revenue.
That was large sum of money, especially since they were spoils they had flown away with without having to pay any sort of cost. Everyone watched like predators, Liang Wenhua in particular, who even expected that the valuables would allow him to show his face before the Cabinet and Emperor.
Perhaps, with the Emperor’s delight, the day of his promotion to Minister would officially come.
As smart as Tang Fan was, he knew what tune this man was playing. From the instant the other asked for the book, he understood Liang Wenhua’s uncharacteristic politeness towards him.
Of course he hadn’t overlooked the death of his student; he just felt that credits were of higher importance than that student.
Mentally finding him ridiculous, Tang Fan listened to Liang Wenhua happily say, “Good, good! The gains of your assignment weren’t few. I will report to His Majesty and show off what credits you’ve made. What of the items? They should have been brought into the capital, yes?”
“Yes. The valuables have since been packed into two separate trunks and escorted in.”
“Where are they? Are they outside the Ministry right now?”
“When we arrived, in order to prevent thieves from coveting them, they were handed over to Bastion Envoy Sui. He must have already entered the palace and made a report about them.”
Liang Wenhua’s face twitched. He stared at Tang Fan a good while, as if he wanted to glean a hint of his intentions off of his face.
Quite pitifully, he was disappointed. Tang Fan was as courteous as ever. While he spoke, he had stood up, hands in his sleeves and head slightly bowed as he waited for his superior’s words.
What could Liang Wenhua even say? ‘You shouldn’t have given it to the palace, but handed it over to the Ministry of Justice so that I can deliver it myself?’ Those valuables had not fallen within tax limits; had Tang Fan brought them to the Ministry, that would have been him being slyly discreet, and if he hadn’t, he would still be seen as reasonable. Liang Wenhua couldn’t criticize him for this at all.
“You performed well. Very well.” Liang Wenhua said slowly, looking at him. There was not a bit of fire to be heard in those gentle words.
But Tang Fan knew that the more he got like this, the more he was expressing his fury.
As expected, a moment later, Liang Wenhua said, “Yin Yuanhua was a fifth-rank Deputy Chief, yet died in the Gong vault with not even a corpse to bring out of it. As the lead envoy of the imperial ambassadors, how do you justify that?”
“Answering you, Sir, the situation was critical at the time. The tomb guardian was abnormally vicious. While this official, Envoy Sui, and the other guards were contending with it, none of us expected that Deputy Yin would suddenly run out, nor did we expect that there would be another tomb guardian outside the door, which led to his unfortunate demise. The White Lotus demons had placed gunpowder in the vault beforehand, and blew up the Song tomb along with the Gong vault. We underwent many hardships before we could escape, ourselves, while the paths downwards were all completely blocked off. There were even a few Brocade Guards that came to be buried there, with no way to retrieve their bodies.”
“I’ve already read all of what you’ve said out of the memorandum, but there’s quite a few suspect parts of that that don’t make sense at all. The beasts you described are unheard of and absolutely absurd, and if I don’t believe that, the Cabinet won’t, either. As the leader, you had the responsibility of protecting your subordinates, yet you let them die in there. What is your explanation for that?”
What explanation could Tang Fan give? He could only admit his fault. “This official is indeed guilty of providing inadequate protection.”
Regardless of how Yin Yuanhua had died, Liang Wenhua was right about this. Tang Fan had been the leading official of the task, and everyone had followed his orders. No matter what the reason, he was responsible the instant anything happened.
To put it in ugly words, this was basically… mud landing on his crotch. It wasn’t shit, but it might as well be.
Liang Wenhua nodded, then commented on it no more. “You worked hard on the expedition. Go home and have a good rest, you’ll have time to return to work tomorrow.”
“Many thanks for your sympathy, Sir. This official will take my leave,” Tang Fan answered deferentially.
They had exchanged some polite words, the scene not at all as hostile as Tang Fan had imagined it would be, but he was well aware that since he had given away the credit of offering up the valuables to Sui Zhou and ‘caused’ Yin Yuanhua’s death, thus yielding Liang Wenhua no benefits to fish for, the man was definitely not going to let him off.
Coming out of Liang Wenhua’s workroom, Tang Fan noticed Peng Yichun’s head poking out of the neighboring workroom, and him beckoning him over with his hand.
The dignified Right Assistant Minister of Justice acting so sneaky… was rather comical.
Thinking this amusing, Tang Fan walked over to him.
As soon as he entered the workroom, he got pulled in further by Peng Yichun. “How did it go?” the man asked.
“Not so well, I’m afraid.” Tang Fan shook his head and sighed, then briefly relayed the conversation he had just had.
“Oi!” Peng Yichun was severely disappointed in him. “Why were you such a fool?! You clearly knew that he was awaiting those valuables to go show off your merits! Why couldn’t you bring them over to the Ministry of Justice? How could you let the Brocade Guard take that advantage?!”
Tang Fan smiled bitterly. “Sir, do you think that even if Assistant Liang got them, he would use them to seek fortune for this Ministry? He likely wouldn’t. Instead, he would have certainly gone to the Cabinet’s Head Vizier to show them off, then head into the palace with him to offer the objects up to His Majesty.”
Peng Yichun was speechless.
“That was why I couldn’t do things like that. If I get twenty percent of the credit for this, the Guards then deserve to have the remaining eighty percent. All of those treasures were obtained in exchange for their lives, so how could anyone seize their merits? Rather than do that, it was better for me to offend Assistant Liang and allow my Guard brothers to show their faces before His Majesty. This official knows that you had good intentions, Sir, and don’t want to see me pushed out of the department, but with what happened to Yin Yuanhua, and with Assistant Liang’s personality, he will hold a grudge indefinitely. Even if he does nothing this time, he will inevitably find a chance to act.”
Peng Yichun shook his head. “With you saying as much, what else can I? Before the former Minister left, he said that you were a talent worthy of cultivating, and asked me to look after you better. But now you’ve gone and offended Assistant Liang to death the instant you came back! I fear that life for you won’t be any sort of easy from now on.” He then took out a letter and gave it to him. “This is something Minister Zhang told me to pass on to you prior to his departure.”
Tang Fan was a little surprised. He hadn’t expected that Minister Zhang would even leave anything for him.
In outsiders’ eyes, he had been tagged as Zhang Ying’s person, but the truth was that he had not been that close with the man. The only association they’d had that could be labelled as ‘deep’ was that long discussion right before Tang Fan had gone to Gong county.
Saying farewell to Peng Yichun, Tang Fan couldn’t resist opening the letter up the second he stepped outside the Ministry’s gate.
It was in Zhang Ying’s handwriting. He let Tang Fan know that the reason he had gone to Nanjing was that he had offended Head Vizier Wan An, and was certain to be replaced by Liang Wenhua as Minister. He also told him to do his best not to offend the latter, bide his time, conserve his strength, and bear with it for a time; by going a step back, one’s skies would broaden. As there would be much to do in the future, rushing into conflict with Liang Wenhua was unnecessary. He was not to believe that just because justice was stifled now and things were difficult, there was no hope for the Great Ming’s officialdom. As was said, one would see the moon after the clouds cleared; as long as his actions did not let down the realm’s heart, he would be worthy of his initial intent to be an official.
Zhang Ying even used himself as an example, saying that he had stepped upon the wrong path at his own beginning, resulting in him being ho-hum for over a decade. Fortunately, he had now had sudden repentance, and it was not too late for him to warn Tang Fan to learn from his precedent, maintain his integrity, and be a good official that could care for the world and its inhabitants.
Tang Fan was not one who was easily moved, but from reading this letter, his eyes got a little watery.
He had a shallow friendship with Zhang Ying. Before this, he had once believed that the man was just as others had described him as: a mediocre official of inaction. Now, he seemed to be able to peer into the elder’s heart through this letter.
On the surface, Zhang Ying was mollifying and encouraging him, but it was really a feeling of regret towards his own previously wasted years, regret for how he had bowed his head to the status quo for the sake of his official’s position.
The difference here, at least, was that many would confess as much only in their hearts, then be done with it, either beginning to bow their heads, or continuing to do so. Zhang Ying, however, had made up for it with his own behavior. That sort of courage was not something everyone possessed.
No matter what comments anyone else had towards this ‘clay-figurine Minister’, at this very moment,Tang Fan only had profound respect for him.
He raised his head to look towards the South.
Zhang Ying ought to have arrived in Nanjing right about now, too.
Tang Fan took a deep breath, put the letter away, and strode for home.
Ever since Tang Fan had reported the one-hundred-tael value of the property in his documents, the Cabinet and Ministry of Justice had both been waiting with open eyes. Neither had expected at all that his report was only after the fact, and he had already had Sui Zhou directly hand the items over to the Emperor.
It must be said here that the Great Ming had both an internal treasury, and a national treasury. What money was in the latter was for the Dynasty, and the Emperor basically never thought to use it, as what was in the internal treasury was his own stash. As a result of the Great Ancestor decentralizing financial power, the central government collected very little coin annually, and once divided amongst the Six Ministries, it was even lesser — hence why the minute the Emperor ever wanted to reach into the national treasury, everyone would chide him like their lives depended on it. He disdained trouble, plus generally wished to build palaces, peruse alchemy, reward his consorts, and pay the salaries of the eunuchs and maids, so he would solely take things from the internal treasury.
Even though such things were not clearly stipulated, the Emperor was still relatively aware of them under the circumstances. Still, none of the current Solons were strong men, and kept fighting with each other, so they needed the Emperor to support them, wanting to gain his favor. Sometimes, the money in the Emperor’s treasury wouldn’t be enough for use, whereupon Head Vizier Wan would transfer him money from the national treasury.
This time around, Wan An had similarly wanted to give those treasures as tribute to the Emperor in order to get into his good graces. As a bonus, that money wasn’t coming out of the state’s revenue, and wouldn’t incite all the officials to scold the Emperor.
However, the treasures hadn’t gone through him at all, but had been sent straight into the palace!
And, apart from being an imperial ambassador, Sui Zhou had two other identities — he was a Brocade Guard, and therefore not under the Cabinet’s jurisdiction, and a consort-kin of Dowager Zhou, meaning it was easier for him to enter the palace than it would be for a Head Vizier.
Wan An had no choice but to hold his nose and concede, though he had long cursed Sui Zhou sideways in his heart.
The Emperor had no requirement to care about his feelings. In his opinion, as long as money was to be had, it was a joyous event. He called Wan An over solely because he had suddenly received a large sum of valuables and was happy about it, wanting to share his joy with the Head Vizier while discussing what rewards to bestow Tang Fan, Sui Zhou, and the rest of them.
Wan An was sixty-three this year. According to standards, officials over the age of sixty ought to retire, but there were always exceptions.
For those good enough to remain, age was not an issue. For those that could not remain, age was just an excuse.
The Chenghua Emperor ordered his attendant to move a stool over, thus granting Wan An a seat. After some pleasantries, he asked, “The Ministry of Justice and Brocade Guard had a joint case together in Gong county. Have you heard as well, Yuanweng?”
“This subject has,” Wan An answered.
Chenghua smiled. “Such a hair-raising thing. Even Guangchuan, who is not the best at speaking, could narrate it in a way that had us trembling. Seeing as how they have gone through such purgatory, they have established a brilliant merit!”
What ‘brilliant merit’? Haven’t they done nothing more than give a lot of money to you?
Wan An said that derisively on the inside, while his face showed compassion. “Haven’t they? This subject has also read the documents they sent over, and it is indeed extremely harrowing. However, those ‘tomb guardians’ are not something I have heard of before. With how big the world is, where are such world-shocking beasts in it?”
He had been wanting to calmly chastise Tang Fan and Sui Zhou, but Liang Fang, who was standing behind the Emperor, had given him a a meaningful look, and he had also heard the Emperor specially call Sui Zhou by his courtesy, which meant that the former must place him in high regard. As such, he had promptly turned the subject around, going along with the Emperor’s preferences to talk about the tomb guardians.
Chenghua laughed. “It is a pity that you, as the Cabinet’s Head Vizier, must read memorials all day long, and also no wonder that you have no comprehension of such oddities. After we heard what Guangchuan had to say, we went to flip through those ancient tomes of curiosities, yet Classic of the Mountains and Seas, In Search of the Supernatural, and Extensive Records of Taiping had no mention of it. Huai En later called our attention to something else, however.”
He deliberately paused, as if to keep his listener on edge.
As a standards-meeting Head Vizier, Wan An quickly revealed an expression that said, ‘I’m really quite interested in learning about this.’ “This old subject is ill-learned. Dare I ask you the origin of those beasts, Your Majesty?”
His appetite satiated, Chenghua smiled. “There is no harm in letting you know. This is from Notes Relating to the Extraordinary by Ren Fang of the Southern Liang; the creature is called a hui, resembling a snake yet not being a snake, having scales yet no horns! It is the preceding form of the jiao!”
Wan An gave an ah, sighing in disapproval on the inside while looking like he had an epiphany on the outside. “So that’s what they were. From your explanation, this old subject also believes that to seem to be the truth.”
Chenghua grew excited. “‘Seem’? It is simply the truth! Previously, the State Master informed us that this land has no lack of wonders. There are monsters, gods, and even mortals that painstakingly, incessantly cultivate, which ends with them ascending upwards in broad daylight! We had only half-believed, at first, but now that it has been proven that hui exist, there must also be jiao, and dragons! The rest must also be true!”
Only now did Wan An realize where the Emperor’s interest was placed; as it was, he believed that the existence of hui indirectly verified the existence of gods and immortals, which gave him the motivation to take refined pills and cultivate.
Bringing that to mind, Wan An smiled. “You should only take those as amusing tidbits, Your Majesty. There is no great need to look into them so deeply.”
He disconnected himself from this topic so as to avoid word of it spreading outwards, and those censors saying that he was egging the Emperor on into not doing proper business. Being a ‘papier-mâché Solon’ was fine, but even one thought towards the other nickname he had on the streets of ‘dick-washing hustler’ made him feel an anger that he had no place to get rid of.
Chenghua laughed. “Alright, we will not make things difficult for you. They handled an enormous undertaking, and deserve rewards. We have something of an impression of that Tang Fan, as well. In the Han family incident that implicated Consort Wan, it was thanks to him finding out the truth that she was declared innocent. He truly is a competent official. In your view, how should he be promoted this time, Yuanweng? We recall that there’s a position open in the Inspectorate. How about elevating him to be the Left Royal Envoy of All the Capital?”
That’s a truefourth-rank position! When I was his age, I was still simmering my seniority as a minor official!
Wan An couldn’t help but be inwardly envious, but he was calm-looking, cupping his hands and he stood up. “This old subject was not planning on bothering you with such trivialities, but as you have asked, I have something to say.”
“Speak, speak! When would we ever prevent you from speaking?” Chenghua was quite amiable towards his favored subjects, rarely using his imperial airs to suppress them. He showed enough reverence towards the Solons, as well.
Wan An took out a memorial from his sleeve, presenting it. “This is the memorial where Right Senior Censor Fu Yan of the Justice Branch denounces Tang Fan.”
Liang Fang stepped out from behind the Emperor, took the memorial, then brought it back and offered it to the Emperor.
After poring through the memorial, Chenghua was surprised. “He denounced him for treating human life as grass, and causing his subordinate’s death? We have read the documents the Cabinet reported about this, and did they not say that it was an accident? If the beasts truly were water hui, it is not strange that they could not save everyone.”
“Your Majesty, Yin Yuanhua was a civil official. Tang Fan knew as much, but still let his subordinate enter dangerous circumstances. That’s one thing,” Wan An said solemnly. “A second is that as the lead envoy of the assignment, he must bear responsibility for protecting his subordinates. If he is not punished, but instead rewarded, this practice will be encouraged. A third is that this old subject has heard that the Deputy Chief that died had some personal grudges with Tang Fan while in the Ministry of Justice.”
Chenghua furrowed his brow. “You mean to say that Tang Fan enacted his personal revenge using his position, Yuanweng?”
Wan An shook his head. “I did not see it in person, so I cannot draw that conclusion. It is merely wind from an empty cave that might not be true. If he truly is an upright gentleman, how could such a rumor ever spread outwards?”
The fatal strength of those words was too potent. Even Chenghua mumbled to himself after hearing it.
Then, the Emperor turned his head. “Liang Fang, is your godson not Shang Ming, who manages the Eastern Depot? Has he said anything to you about this Tang Fan?”
Eunuchs were not allowed to get involved in politics — that was a rule once established by the Great Ancestor. But if the Emperor himself inquired on his own initiative, that did not count as getting involved.
Liang Fang had been beside him like a wooden doll. If the Emperor hadn’t questioned, he would never have opened his mouth, so he now took a step forward and lightly laughed. “Tang Fan is merely a fifth-rank official, not any sort of important figure. Why would Shang Ming ever bring him up to this servant?”
Chenghua guffawed. “That is also true!”
“However,” Liang Fang then continued, “after Tang Fan gave his contribution last time, Lady Consort appreciated him very much. You praised him a lot, too, Your Majesty. This slave paid some attention to him for a time in preparation for your bequeathed inquiries. It’s simply that when I asked around, I found that ever since he entered the Ministry, he has had mediocre relations with his colleagues.”
A master of false accusations did not need to directly state how bad someone was, like right now. Liang Fang gave an understated quote, not even openly answering the question, yet it was enough to let the Emperor get the information hidden within.
Chenghua would think that if someone had a poor relationship with one person, that might be an issue with the other party, but if the first person had a poor relationship with everyone, it had to be an issue with the individual.
And since Tang Fan had a defect in his personality, that happened to correspond with Wan An’s recent claim that Yin Yuanhua’s death might have been related to him.
Someone like that, of course, could not be placed into an important position.
After staying by the Emperor’s side for so long, and witnessing many masters of killing people without blades, Liang Fang’s skills were extraordinary.
Eunuch Liang didn’t know Tang Fan personally, though, so why would he be making trouble for him?
Because his godson, Shang Ming, was the Chief Eunuch of the Eastern Depot, he was completely incompatible with Wang Zhi of the Western Depot, and Tang Fan had a decent relationship with the latter. He had heard that he frequently gave him ideas, even. Someone like that was best eliminated while the chance was present.
On top of that, Eunuch Liang never did work for nothing. Liang Wenhua had gifted him five hundred taels through Wan An.
One sentence was worth five hundred taels. What a great transaction.
Chenghua, as expected, frowned. “As that is so, this Tang Fan truly cannot be utilized. How should he be handled, Yuanweng?”
“There is no denying that Tang Fan has given you a huge sum of valuables, Your Majesty. That merit has not disappeared. However, he really must bear responsibility for Yin Yuanhua’s death. The merit and demerit counterbalance each other. This subject believes that he should be stripped of his post and returned to being a commoner.”
The Emperor hesitated. “Is that not too severe?”
“One begets another. As long as he keeps his post, others will think that this behavior of conspiring against coworkers can be considered a path to promotion, which will likely lead to poor customs over time. His character is also not good enough to be an official. If you feel sorry for this, Your Majesty, dismiss him from his post, then separately grant him silver as a token of commendation for his efforts. Such would keep the merits and demerits level.”
Chenghua nodded. “Very well. Your words have long held up the nation, Yuanweng. This will be handled according to how you want it to be!”
He had only been interested in the case itself to begin with. Coupling that with the case of the Eastern Palace, where Tang Fan had performed well, Chenghua had formed a good impression of him, but now that fair impression had been ruined by the words of Wan An and Liang Fang. An Emperor wouldn’t be too invested in whether a fifth-rank official stayed or went.
With that clause revealed in scant few sentences, he went to speak about other matters with Wan An. The latter presented some memorials drafted up by the Cabinet, and after giving his report, the ruler and subject conversed for a time. The Emperor thereafter cast political stuff to the side to ask after things he was more personally interested in, like how to use elixirs to help spice things up in the bedroom.
According to normal ideologies, Viziers of the country ought to boldly step forth and awe-inspiringly advise the Emperor not to be engrossed with such lewd and nefarious magic, but Wan An was instead enthusiastically conversing with the Emperor. They had similar hobbies, chatting for a long time, and exchanged understanding smiles when it came time to leave.
Even Liang Fang looked on coldly at them, feeling that this Head Vizier was much too inappropriate.
The time for communication between ruler and subject was a bit short today, as no more than half a shichen had passed before the Emperor stated that he was tired and had Wan An take his leave. As per usual, Liang Fang was ordered to see him out of the Palace of Heavenly Clarity.
They slowed their pace down, with Wan An smiling at Liang Fang. “Many thanks for what transpired today, Eunuch Liang.”
Liang Fang chuckled, but was blunt. “Services were paid for. There’s no need to be polite, Yuanweng.”
Upon seeing the one walking up ahead of them, Wan An was somewhat startled. “Why is he entering the palace again?”
The other grinned. “Why must you ask? His Majesty has always cared about the Bastion Envoy, and has also been very curious about what was in the Gong vault these past few days. Really, he wasn’t content enough with the questions asked yesterday, so he has to continue them today!”
No wonder the Emperor so hurriedly ousted me, Wan An thought. Still, he’d had no contact with Sui Zhou previously, and him moving against Tang Fan had only been at Liang Wenhua’s incitement.
After not long, Sui Zhou had trailed the leading attendant up before them.
“Greetings to Mister Vizier, Eunuch Liang,” Sui Zhou said as he cupped his hands. He was wearing a gorgeously detailed flying-fish uniform, its gilded threads glittering beneath the sunlight. Paired with that stern expression, Wan An’s head somehow seemed to be getting pressed down upon.
Wan An subconsciously took two steps back, then caught himself. He, a stately Vizier, had actually drawn back from the presence of a fifth-rank Millarch — if that got out, would it not make people laugh to death?
Looking at Sui Zhou and Liang Fang, it seemed that no one had noticed that detail, so Wan An gave a light cough and a shallow smile. “So it’s you, Bastion Envoy. You’re ready for royal audience?”
His words were concise, not a bit of drivel in them at all.
Wan An was immediately bored. He hated talking to tactless blockheads the most. “Head in quick, then. Don’t let His Majesty wait too long.”
Sui Zhou nodded at the two of them, then strode for the Palace.
Once he saw Sui Zhou enter, Chenghua was slightly more happy than he would be when seeing Wan An. There was no other reason for this than that the Emperor was an enormously filial son, and Dowager Zhou was fond of Sui Zhou. Chenghua simply loved who she loved, regarding Sui Zhou as part of his mother’s family.
“Come, come, Guangchuan! Sit! After hearing you speak of the tomb guardians yesterday, we went to flip through some classics, and actually found the type of beast that you described. Its name is the ‘water hui’, correct?”
“This subject does not know the particulars of that, but Sir Tang guessed the same.”
Hearing Tang Fan’s name, Chenghua appeared to recall what he had just talked about with Wan An, and his smile dulled slightly. “Guangchuan, you earned a great merit this time. Have you considered any rewards you want?”
“This subject has not. You alone are in charge of that, Your Majesty.”
As the saying went, if someone was likeable to you, you would find every bit of them perfectly fine. With how the Emperor was right now, Sui Zhou’s scarce words were not viewed as impolite by him. There were many boot-lickers all over the Court, if he wanted a boot-licker — the reason why he looked at Sui Zhou differently was because his straightforward, unwavering personality was exactly what he liked about him.
“You’ve performed well in the Bastion Office,” Chenghua said with a smile. “Later on, we will speak to Yuan Bin to have you not be hung with the rank of Millarch anymore, but directly promoted to being the Bastion Envoy. That is simply what you deserved in the first place, though, and is not considered a reward. How about this; how about we seal you as a Count?”
Only then did Sui Zhou show a look of shock. “Please take your order back, Your Majesty. This subject absolutely does not deserve that!”
“How could you not deserve it? The national treasury is now coinless. We were worried about where we were going to get the money for alchemy. These treasures you delivered have coincidentally solved our desperate problem. That is a great credit!”
The corner of Sui Zhou’s mouth pulled down. He hadn’t brought the Gong vault treasures over here for the Emperor’s alchemy, but how could he ever stop the Emperor from doing what he wanted?
He listened to the other go on. “There is no need to be alarmed. The title we are granting you is one of a boon, not an iron-clad contract. If you want to earn a lineage title, you will have to work hard from here on out. We and the Dowager have high hopes for you. You must not disappoint us!”
Seeing how cheerfully Chenghua was looking at him, and knowing that the other had made up his mind, he no longer rejected this notion. First, he thanked him for this grace, then said, “In truth, this subject only acted as deputy envoy for this assignment, and the things I did are finite, while many things were executed thanks to Chief Tang’s mediation and management. If we are discussing contributions, he is placed before me.”
Chenghua waved him off. “We know about Tang Fan already, you need not say more. We have our own ideas. We do have another thing to ask you.”
Sui Zhou had had no idea that the Emperor had already come to a decision on Tang Fan prior to this. After hearing as much, it wouldn’t be appropriate to ask after it, of course. “This subject will answer all that I can.”
“Yuan Bin is up in age. We are thinking of letting Wan Tong take control of the Brocade Guard back. What do you think?”
Remembering what Tang Fan had said earlier, he couldn’t help but inwardly praise his foresight. “Your are a sage of brilliance. This subject has one impudent request.”
“Commanding Envoy Yuan has experienced two Courts, and has excellent loyalty. I respect his conduct very much. He has reached retirement age, but for the more than two years he has been heading the Brocade Guard, he has been proper in how he has handled each of its levels. Even without merits, he has worked hard. I must be so bold as to ask that you issue a decree to give him some consolation for his efforts.”
Chenghua sighed. “Well-spoken. Yuan Bin is indeed loyal! Father Emperor owed him quite a lot.”
During talks of the Late Emperor, Sui Zhou could only be silent and listen to the Emperor.
“You are right. We really should express as much to him, give him compensation for these past years.”
Sui Zhou cupped his hands. “You are wise, Your Majesty.”
The Emperor smiled. “A traditional saying is that once a person leaves, the tea grows cold. You have been in contact with Yuan Bin for only two years, yet now that he is about to go, you are willing to say this on his behalf. How quaint!”
“This subject admires Sir Yuan’s sincerity towards the Late Emperor, and is willing to imitate him. Things concerning Yuan Wenzhi also concern the Late Emperor’s heart.”
Hearing this, Chenghua was extremely moved, and walked over to personally help him up, laughing. “Okay, Sui Guangchuan! We have hopes for you! With your abilities, you will definitely do better than even he! We have already considered your title. We had thought for it to be Count Guning, but now, it will be Count Ding’an! May your heart embrace loyalty and righteousness, and may you bring stability to the nation!”
The translator says: Ah yes, my favorite thing in the world: corrupt men with any sort of power.
Fun fact: ‘dick-washing hustler’ is not embellished, lmao. Just as Wan An was a real person, he was actually called by that nickname – I’m not sure if it’ll ever come up in the novel, but he gained favor by introducing aphrodisiacs to the Emperor, which got him the Head Vizier position. In other words, he hustled his way upwards by getting Chenghua’s dick washed. No wonder MXS chose to write during this time period, it’s one big fucking joke.
 I can find scant English sources about the hui (虺), likely due to the book it’s from’s obscurity, which quotes: “Hui turns to jiao after five hundred years, jiao turns to dragon after a thousand years, dragon turns to horned dragon after five hundred years, and a thousand years, a winged dragon.” The hui character is also frequently used to describe water snakes and lizards; in this case, it’s a giant water lizard.