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After that day, Tang Fan was happy thinking about how Sui Zhou had just earned a nobility title, and decided to wait a few days before telling him about his own dismissal. It wouldn’t do to drag this on, because if he wasn’t needing to go to the bureau every day, even Ah-Dong would start questioning him, to say nothing of Sui Zhou.
Thus, when Sui Zhou got off of work the next day, Tang Fan called Ah-Dong and him together, then glossed over the matter in simple words.
Little Miss Ah-Dong had been influenced from hearing about the tricks of officialdom so many times, she knew a bit about it. She leapt three chi up in the air immediately, then castigated every single one of Tang Fan’s superiors for being villains. Right as she was about to reproach the Emperor himself, she got slapped on the back of the head, and immediately stopped dead.
Tang Fan was both amused and angry. “A lot of words are best kept to yourself! Don’t even think of being so unbridled just because you’re at home! What if you get too used to saying that, and it slips out while you’re outside? Your brother here is a plain citizen now, so there’d be no way for me to back you up! Go, go, go! Go make tea!”
After driving Ah-Dong away, he noticed that Sui Zhou’s reaction was abnormally calm. “You don’t have anything you want to say to me?” he couldn’t help but wonder.
Sui Zhou shook his head. “That day you told me to bring the treasures into the palace, I should have expected this. However, we were traveling, and I didn’t think much about where blame would fall. That was my own negligence. Now that that ship has set sail, more words on it would do no good.”
Tang Fan was practically sweating. “You absolutely cannot blame yourself for that! You are a Brocade Guard, and must be conscientious of His Majesty before all else. If you didn’t deliver the treasures, but the Cabinet did, your own failure in duty would not be covered up, and would even create a barrier between you and the Emperor. That was why the credit needed to be yours to have. As for me, whether I curried favor with Liang Wenhua or not, I would ultimately never be able to avoid this end. At most, it would be the difference between dying now, or dying later. Since I was going to get stabbed whether I stuck my head out or shrunk it back, the briefer pain is better than the longer one.”
Seeing as how he instead was the one to console him, Sui Zhou’s expression softened. “I know why it happened. You don’t need to explain. Truthfully, it would have been difficult for you in the Ministry of Justice regardless, so it’s better for you to rest a little. It isn’t like there won’t be another chance for you in the future.”
Tang Fan nodded and smiled. “You get me; that’s exactly the reason. I haven’t visited my sister and nephew in years, so now that I happen to have free time, I’ll be taking a trip to Xianghe County in a few days. Given that there’s no mishaps, I’ll be having a little stay there for some time.”
“I’ll go with you.”
Tang Fan burst out laughing. “There’s no case to be investigated there, so why would the dignified Bastion Envoy head out? You should hurry to renovate the house. It’d be good to install your ‘Count Estate’ plaque as soon as possible! The Court didn’t grant you a residence, but we can’t be too shabby-looking. Wouldn’t that degenerate your prestige, Count Ding’an?”
The word ‘we’ coming into his ears, the look in Sui Zhou’s eyes grew ever more joyful — it demonstrated that Tang Fan did not consider himself an outsider anymore.
Sui Zhou didn’t cover up his mood at all, so that joy shot straight into Tang Fan’s eyes, catching the latter off-guard.
The branches in the courtyard bore clusters of fruit, leaves gently swaying in the light breeze. Early summer was of even weather. Idly sitting around in light robes, eating candied mulberries, viewing the greenery right before the eyes, and kept company by a close friend… no matter what, this was a great worldly happiness.
Despite Sui Zhou being a man of few words, he felt that it was time for him to say something.
…On the premise that no one disturbed them.
A knock came from outside the gate. “Is this Sir Tang’s house?”
Sui Zhou: “…”
Tang Fan gasped a little. “Isn’t that Qian San’r? Why did he come looking for me here?”
“Probably to beg you for mercy.”
“Why would he beg for that?”
While they spoke, Tang Fan walked over and opened the door.
Qian San’r was wearing the uniform of the Brocade Guard’s lowest rung, a rankless position called ‘Runner’. The second one heard that title, they would know that it was a post that ran errands and did odd jobs, only barely managing to count as being inside of the Guard’s threshold, distinguished from the low-grade public bailiffs outside.
Following their return from Gong County, Tang Fan had not forgotten his promise, having discussed throwing Qian San’r into the Northern Bastion Office with Sui Zhou and starting him off as a minor errand-runner.
The Brocade Guard was not an easy department to enter. Aside from being the family of meritorious officials or consort-kin, there were three channels for entry: substitution, performance review, and referral from a superior. Qian San’r had gone through the last channel. Even for a position like Runner, many would fight tooth and nail.
With Sui Zhou’s current status, even if he wasn’t at the top of the Brocade Guard, being second-from-the-top would always be more than enough. Letting Qian San’r in had been a matter of one mere sentence.
As was said, one’s future self could gleaned from them as a child. Qian San’r had never committed anything majorly heinous, but he had followed his Master in petty thievery ever since he was little. Now, even though he was in a Guard’s outfit, he had no majestic aura developed.
To put it a different way, he was presently wearing uniform clothes, and Tang Fan was wearing everyday clothes. While Tang Fan still looked like an official, he looked like a thief.
Witnessing how incongruous his appearance was, Tang Fan held in his laughter and let him in.
Upon seeing Tang Fan, Qian San’r was happy, but upon catching sight of Sui Zhou behind him, that happiness turned to fear.
“Th-the Count is here, too…?”
Sui Zhou’s cold face that could scare children into not crying at night could also make Qian San’r freeze in place.
“U-Um… I didn’t expect such a coincidence to happen today, for me to run into you here, Count… how… how about this lowly one comes back some other day?”
With that, he wanted to slip away, but Tang Fan grabbed the back of his collar, amused and annoyed. “You know that Guangchuan has been bestowed a title, but why did you never even ask around about where he lives? Did your coworkers not inform you that this is his house?”
“Huh?” Qian San’r was baffled, unable to comprehend the situation for a moment.
“This is the Sui home. I only live here as a tenant. Did you not see what was written on the door’s plaque outside?”
Qian San’r looked miserable. “This lowly one… couldn’t read some of the characters…”
Seeing how pitiful he looked, Tang Fan couldn’t help but want to pat him on the head like he would Ah-Dong. “Alright, quit acting. Why did you come looking for me?”
Unfortunately, Qian San’r could no longer answer that out loud. He sneakily glanced at Sui Zhou, smiling apologetically. “It’s nothing, it’s nothing! I just came here to visit you, Sir. You are this lowly one’s great benefactor!” He placed the gift he was holding on the stone table next to him. “This is a tiny fraction of my gratitude, not even close to the end of my respect for you. Please accept it!”
Tang Fan laughed. “I’m not a ‘Sir’ anymore. You can’t keep shouting that.”
The other scratched his head. “Then… Don? Lord?”
Tang Fan put away his smile, straightening out his face. “Enough talk. One does not visit the Temple of Three Treasures when nothing is wrong — what did you actually come here for?”
Sui Zhou answered before Qian San’r could. “He’s presumably unable to keep going in the Brocade Guard, so he came to plead for leniency from you.”
“Why can’t you keep working there? Do you know that others can’t even ask to get that job?”
Having had his thoughts pointed out bluntly by Sui Zhou, Qian San’r’s face went thoroughly red as he smiled in embarrassment. “The Count has discerning eyes, to have seen through all of this lowly one’s ideas.” He then knelt in front of Tang Fan with a plop. “To tell the truth, it is as the Count said. That I have what I do today is entirely from your Grace, Sir, and this lowly one in beyond thankful, but… but the Brocade Guard is really not suitable for me. I only hope to be your attendant! Please fulfill my wish, Sir!”
He really wasn’t being pretentious. With his bamboo-reed physique, he was quick-witted enough, but did not have the visible power of a Guard, looking like a supporting role whenever standing in a group of them.
Sui Zhou’s rigorous nature made it hard to get any cheats. Although Qian San’r had entered through a back gate, he didn’t receive any sort of special treatment. Every day, he practiced strenuously alongside the others, nearly giving up the ghost by the time he was done, and yet his grades were at the very bottom time after time, where he lagged behind the second-worst by a large chunk. Absolutely unable to advance higher, he had become the least capable member of the Guard.
Thankfully, he was clever and mingled well with his colleagues, so everybody looked after him, but the training he ought to be doing couldn’t not be done. He himself believed that this was completely due to his body being innately flawed, and he had never been a good match for the place to begin with.
Thus, no matter how prestigious the Guard was, he had no affinity with it.
After hearing his laments, Tang Fan turned to look at Sui Zhou. The latter nodded, then gave his own assessment. “Commendable diligence, but insufficient natural gift.”
Meaning that Qian San’r had worked extremely hard to keep pace with the training, but really wasn’t the material for it. As an imperial corps, the most important selection criterion for the Guard was to be tall, imposing, and built like a horse. People like Qian San’r, who wouldn’t look like a Crown Prince even in dragon robes, did not have much of a future road for it, even if they somehow managed to get in.
As Sui Zhou had said similar, Tang Fan asked Qian San’r, “What do you have planned for yourself, then? If you want to go back to your old profession, never say hello to me again whenever you see me from now on. I don’t know you.”
“Since I vowed to change my ways, I will never go down the wrong path again!” Qian San’r hurriedly answered. “I am indebted to you for not casting me aside! I’m willing to follow you, Sir! Please accept!”
At his intention, Tang Fan couldn’t help but frown. “Why is that what you thought up?”
“Sir, when we were in the vault, I really admired you,” Qian San’r answered earnestly. “I was eager to serve by your side and learn something from you, but I knew that my status wouldn’t be worthy of it, so I dared not say anything…”
“Then why do you dare say it now?” Tang Fan teased.
Qian San’r chuckled. “Now, I came to the capital, got insight, and heard that you don’t have any servants, so I want to apply for the job!”
Tang Fan shook his head. “I have no official’s post now, and I don’t need anyone to tend to me in everyday life. You want to follow me, but I can’t accept you.”
Qian San’r was anxious. “Sir…”
He really wanted to rely upon Tang Fan. For one, he really was grateful towards him, and wished to repay him. For two, he felt that no matter how much effort he put in in the Northern Bastion Office, that was no way to go about things. Tang Fan was learned and big-hearted in character; he might actually be able to learn something from following such a person.
Tang Fan still thought to refuse, but Sui Zhou spoke up. “Go back for now, and come again tomorrow. He needs to think it over a little more.”
With the deity of exceedingly strong aura that was Sui Zhou seated nearby, Qian San’r had been thoroughly uncomfortable, but said deity had unexpectedly helped him out. He became overjoyed on the spot, kowtowing to pay thanks again and again before he took his leave.
“You just prevented me from talking. Do you actually intend to have me take him in?” Tang Fan wondered.
“That’s up to you, of course. I just think you really do need to consider it. He isn’t Guard material, but he’s quick-witted, loyal, and reliable, and his heart isn’t bad. You could bring him along.”
Tang Fan gave it a think. “Well, I am going to Xianghe to visit my sister. I’m not bringing Ah-Dong with me, so I can bring him for my companion instead, then.”
Sui Zhou was a bit confused. “Why aren’t you bringing Ah-Dong?”
“The family my sister married into is one of the biggest in the county. With so many people babbling about, there’s inevitably a lot of things going on. It wouldn’t be good for her to suffer wrongs being there, so she’ll stay in the capital.”
“As you wish.”
With the passing of these few days, everyone had come to know the news of Tang Fan’s dismissal. People generally sympathized with the weak, and on top of that, Tang Fan was seen as much more talented than Liang Wenhua, so many inevitably wanted to help him fight this injustice.
It was simply a shame that Liang Wenhua had cast his lot in with Wan An. Those of Tang Fan’s same year were still sixth- or seventh-ranks simmering their experience, and had no way to vie with this opponent at all. All they were able to do was comfort Tang Fan, tell him to patiently wait for his opportunity, and so on.
Tang Fan had had a few days of socializing with his exam fellows, after which he had written a letter to Tang Yu, his elder sister in Xianghe. As per usual, he had put some things about him being safe and sound and mutual pleasantries, not mentioning his series of tribulations in the capital at all, merely saying that he had received a long break and wanted to go visit her.
She had sent a reply quickly, expressing her welcome of her brother’s visit, as well as sincerely hoping that he could stay for longer after he arrived. She had also stated that his little nephew was over six years old now, and had long forgotten what his uncle looked like; if he didn’t go, that nephew would forget him entirely.
Even though the words she had written were not much different compared to those from the past, he could still sniff out something abnormal off of it.
She hadn’t given half a word of mention of her husband, He Lin.
The He family was a major Xianghe clan. Back when Tang Fan’s father still lived, he and He Lin’s father, He Ying, had been officials of the same locality. Once close friends, they had then jointly set up a betrothal to become in-laws.
Right before Tang Yu had married into the He’s, the Tang parents had both died, leaving the brother and sister pair alone, while Tang Fan had not yet been a Palace Honorate. Regardless, He Ying had kept his promise, not dissolving the betrothal between the two families, and had had his second son marry Tang Yu in.
The Tang siblings had a deep bond, but with the elder sister married, she was ultimately part of her husband’s family, and the He’s had three of its generations living under the same roof. As an outsider, Tang Fan had not been able to frequently visit, and after he had become an official, he had always been busy, leaving him with even less time to grab.
Having gleaned a clue out of the letter, he was worried that she wasn’t doing well at the He’s, so he didn’t plan to have Ah-Dong come with. With this reply had, he had packed up his luggage and gotten ready to leave in a few days’ time.
However, prior to his departure, he received an invitation from an old friend he hadn’t seen in a very long time.
Immortal Cloud was still Immortal Cloud, and the private room was still that same private room, but of the two present, one had a bumpy career path, and the other’s road ahead was unfathomable.
The one with the bumpy path was, of course, Tang Fan. The reason he was sitting here was due to the heavyweight that had invited him here.
The other was indeed a heavyweight, as in the past, with every stomp of his foot, bystanders would shake three times — he was Eunuch Wang of the Western Depot. Because he had been focused on the situation outside the Great Wall these two years, he had rarely showed up in the capital, making everyone a little unfamiliarized with him.
In contrast, the Eastern Depot had risen straight to the top. On account of him having the merit of recommending the State Master, Chief Eunuch Shang Ming had become arrogantly smug recently; he almost didn’t even place importance upon Huai En, who was right in front of the Emperor, to say nothing of Wang Zhi.
With the two having reunited after a long separation, they should have clinked their cups together and co-sympathized, but, ever since he got in here, Tang Fan had been listening to Wang Zhi using all sorts of methods, going from all types of angles, leaving no gap behind, and all-encompassingly… scolding him.
After being scolded in an unceasing deluge for nearly half a shichen, he had since become numb. At the start, he had been thinking to obediently listen to Wang Zhi’s admonishment to show some consideration for the other’s face, but he got hungry. Raising his chopsticks, he picked up a chopstickful of roasted pork neck, then delivered it to his own mouth. “You ought to be thirsty after scolding me for so long, yes?” he casually greeted. “Do you want me to tell someone to get some malva-chrysanthemum tea?”
“You fooltot! I’ve never seen you be this much of an idiot before, giving merits to someone else for no reason—“
Look at that. Eunuch Wang was chastising him so effortlessly, he had even slipped into rivers dialect.
Tang Fan nodded. “You’ve already said that three times tonight, though.”
Wang Zhi did not cease his swears. “Others get greater and greater the more work they do as officials, while you regress the more you just exist! Liang Wenhua crowded out Zheng Ying and now his word is law in the Ministry of Justice, like the sun in the sky! Right when he needed to find someone to establish his might with, you run right on over! Wasn’t that just you turning yourself into a target?! What can you even stand to gain from giving the credit to Sui Zhou? Now, things are great! Cap dormancy! Hah! As I see it, you’ll never have to think about making a comeback for the rest of your life!”
“That one’s five times,” Tang Fan kindly reminded.
The anger stifled within Wang Zhi had nowhere to go, making his eyes roll straight back.
Seeing his man-eating expression, Tang Fan quickly smiled apologetically. “I’m just worried that you’ll talk yourself parched. I know that you’re concerned about this humble one—“
“Who’s concerned about you?!” Wang Zhi sneered.
Unfazed by his cold words, Tang Fan picked up his wine cup, clinked it against the other cup still set on the table, then downed it in one go. “Reality is set, and more talk will do no good. Now that I think about it, I’ve been pals with you for several years. Ever since you went to Datong, we’ve rarely come to be in the same room together like today, and nowadays, we’re both destitute men at the end of the world…”
“Bah! Can’t you say anything nice to hear? When did this guy ever go destitute like you?”
Since they had been quite familiar with each other for long, no matter how fiendish of a look Wang Zhi put on, Tang Fan wouldn’t pay it mind. He merely chuckled and set down his wine cup. “All that said, was you inviting me over today purely to treat me to dinner?”
Wang Zhi had no words. He picked up the wine pot, poured himself three back-to-back cups that were all shot down with his head thrown back, then wiped his face. “You’re right. I’ve run into a difficult problem.”
As was known, Wang Zhi had listened to Tang Fan’s suggestion, and had genuinely wanted to establish military merits in the Emperor’s presence, so he had incited the Emperor into agreeing to send troops to the Great Bend. Then, unexpectedly, the Tartars had happened to invade when he had arrived at Datong. Under Wang Yue’s leadership, the Ming army had had an overwhelming victory, and Wang Zhi had made a huge show-offy display before His Majesty, giving him remarkable reputation.
However, once he had gotten a taste of that sweet success, he hadn’t quit while he was ahead like Tang Fan had told him to, but his mind had rather expanded outwards, wanting to establish even greater merits.
While Wang Zhi devoted himself to his side-business, he inevitably neglected his capital business. A eunuch that infrequently showed his face near the Emperor was destined to be marginalized, no exception, with how favored he was irrelevant. (Naturally, that set law was also applicable to Court officials.)
In short, while Wang Zhi had been getting credits abroad, the circumstances of the capital had silently changed.
Shang Ming, who had previously stood on equal ground with him, even having to lower his head, had visited the dock that was major palace eunuch Liang Fang, and acknowledged him as a godfather, even growing friendly with the Emperor’s heavily favored Li Zhisheng and referring a monk named Ji Xiao for entry into the palace, who, as could be predicted, had become valued by the Emperor, receiving the title of State Master.
With all those advantages, Shang Ming had quickly replaced Wang Zhi’s previous position in the Emperor’s mind.
Without Wang Zhi, the Western Depot was basically a motherless child. Its past glory no more, it suffered repression by the Eastern Depot from all directions.
If it had been all that alone, things would have been fine, but Wang Zhi had further discovered that at some unknown point in time, Consort Wan, previously willing to speak for him, had become distant from him, to the point that when he had tried to have an audience with her when he came back, he had found her door closed.
How could that not cause him panic?
Regardless of how talented and impressive he was, a eunuch’s innate disadvantage lied here: destiny told that there was no way he could not adhere to imperial powers. Once despised by those above, his end was predictable.
Even so, with his pride, he felt it too disgraceful for him to be like Shang Ming’s completely unscrupulous sort, where he would give the Emperor sorcerers and magic as tribute. After that feeling of getting hard-won military merits, Eunuch Wang hadn’t been able to resist getting cockier and cockier, feeling that even though he was a eunuch, he did not fit in with run-of-the-mill ones, and absolutely could not bring his dignity down to do the things Shang Ming had done.
On that same note, were it not for him still having moral integrity, thus differing from Shang Ming and the rest, Tang Fan would never have been sitting here to talk with him.
To be blunt, even though Eunuch Wang had achieved things and received prestige young, he was still an old hat at sailing in the sea of eunuchs. Having already begun to see omens that he was on the edge of falling out of favor, he thus had to ask Tang Fan about strategies.
As the Chief Eunuch of the Western Depot, despite many people surrounding him, truly few of them were placed into his high regards, and of those that were, there were even fewer that were willing to associate with him. After calculations, Tang Fan alone could be labelled as an excellent figure amongst them.
That was why Wang Zhi was willing to spit out some of his inner thoughts to him. No one else was around, anyway, so his appearance and grandeur of a Chief Eunuch could be put away for the time being.
After hearing this, Tang Fan asked him one question. “What kind of road are you wanting to take?”
Wang Zhi was confused. “What do you mean, ‘what kind of road’?”
“We that are mixed into officialdom have only two endings: good ones and bad ones. Amongst good endings, there are three different types. One is to retire from your post with flair and return to your hometown in silken robes — this is what officials want. One is a plain end, quiet and unknown. The last is dimming into nothing, then dying in poverty and sickness. Since that’s still considered a good end, what’s a bad end, I don’t need to say. You already know.”
Wang Zhi thought. For subjects throughout the ages, whether they were eunuchs or normal men, there was really no escaping endings like those.
Oh, but rebellion was a separate matter, of course. It wasn’t in the range of their discussion.
“We’re not talking about appointed officials, so let’s talk about eunuchs. If you want a good end, it won’t be easy. As the saying goes, to accompany a monarch is to accompany a tiger. How many predecessors of yours have banked on that, thinking that they had received the Emperor’s favor, only to fall from the clouds and land in the mud as soon as the situation changed? At best, they would get plain ends, but if it was really bad, they would lose even their lives. What I’ve described is certainly not what you’re wanting.”
Wang Zhi nodded, with a hint of pride. “Life should always be lived vigorously, as only then will one not walk the world in vain! If I have to choose, of course I’d go for retiring with flair!”
Tang Fan smiled. “Many think like that; not just you, but Shang Ming, as well. However, those inside the scene can’t see the big picture clearly. At times, what someone does is actually just them digging a grave for themselves, while they themself have no idea.”
Wang Zhi frowned. “Don’t just keep getting more mysterious the more you talk!”
“Then, I’ll ask you; does His Majesty like Huai En’s prudent sort, or Shang Ming’s fawning sort?”
“The current one… probably likes Shang Ming more,” Wang Zhi pondered.
“What about the Crown Prince?”
“How should I know? I’m not that familiar with him!”
“I’ll say this. The Emperor might like Shang Ming, but he doesn’t dislike Huai En. It would have been impossible for Huai En to be in imperial presence for so many years and gain his deep trust, otherwise.”
Wang Zhi nodded, understanding what he meant. “You’re saying that even if Shang Ming is having a moment of glory, it won’t be a lifetime of it.”
“That goes without saying. Many actions will yield many mistakes. Shang Ming has thoroughly sifted through his mind for how to curry favor, getting allies here, getting on good terms here. Even if His Majesty can tolerate him, will the new ruler do the same? He will inevitably come across someone that will settle things with him, and when that time comes, so will his troubles.”
Wang Zhi snorted. “His troubles aren’t coming right now, but mine are about to!”
“No need to be dismayed, Eunuch Wang. As I said before, out of those inside the palace, you can imitate either Huai En, or Shang Ming.”
“I don’t want to imitate either! Shang Ming’s type is distasteful to me, of course, but to have me be like Huai En, stifled every day and going to toady up to Court officials… I can’t do that, either!”
Tang Fan smiled in exasperation. “That’s why, starting from a long time ago, I’ve been suggesting that you take a third path.”
Wang Zhi glared at him. “When did you ever tell me about a third path?”
“Way back when, through my senior Pan Bin, I gave you two proposals: one was military merits, and one was the East Palace.”
“And what kind of proposals were those?”
“Don’t look down upon them. Many things are meant to be planned for in advance, with preparations started for them long ago.”
“Can you quit it with the drivel?”
Tang Fan sighed. “Can you be more patient? You now have military merits established outside. You were just a Military Supervisor, but no one can possibly deny your contribution. Ever since the Tumu crisis, the Great Ming has rarely been able to prevail over Northern tribes. You can be said to have fought to everyone’s satisfaction these several battles, and morale has boosted. Among that, as the initiator, your credits cannot be ignored, and are enough to get you into the history books.”
This method of flattery could be called ‘drenching with no sound’, garnered from the highest realm. Sure enough, Wang Zhi’s face relaxed as the other spoke, showing a look of ‘so you’ve gotten to the main point, you joker.’
“Yet,” Tang Fan said with a change of tone, “have you noticed that when you led soldiers out, the voices opposing you in Court have never once lessened?”
“How could I not?” Once that came out, Wang Zhi’s face darkened. “They’re nothing but inflexible eggheads that pose themselves as being holier-than-thou! They keep talking stuff about ‘over-ambition’! If this were Yongle’s time, where even Zheng He could lead troops, would they still dare to say that?!”
“There’s the opinions of clean-streamers in there, sure, but there’s one person’s opinion that you can’t ignore.”
Tang Fan saw that Wang Zhi was astonished. “Don’t pay attention to the fact that every time you ask to go on an expedition, he agrees. The reality is that his closeness to you is declining by the year. This much, I shouldn’t need to say — you should have also detected that it’s not just him, but even Consort Wan that refuses to see you. That is precisely due to you leading soldiers outside for such a long time, and therefore neglecting to engage in your relationship with the palace.”
“But I never forgot to send gifts on New Year’s and holidays,” Wang Zhi said gloomily.
“Are objects comparable to people? Shang Ming dances in front of the Emperor and Consort all day long, and he still has a mouth, so isn’t that much better than those gifts of yours? Even though you still have your own people in the palace, none of them have traits comparable to yours. The Emperor and the Consort view you differently because you grew up right before their eyes, and no one else can come close to that familiarity. But, if you’re away all year round and refuse to return, they’ll definitely think that you’re greedy for power, or even want to monopolize military authority. Add that in with Shang Ming, Wan Tong, and others speaking poorly of you to them from daytime to night, you can imagine the next question for yourself: how far are you from falling out of favor?”
Wang Zhi automatically sat up straight. Tang Fan’s analysis had reached the bottom of his heart.
“What should I do, then?”
“You have military merits in hand, which is a symbol that distinguishes you from Shang Ming and the other eunuchs. Even if you weren’t a eunuch, though, you still wouldn’t be able to hold military power forever. Though you’re only a Supervisor, do you not have good relations with Lead Commander Wang Yue and Deputy Commander Zhu Yong? That itself is a great taboo for subjects to have. Hence why I urged you two years ago to return to the capital after you got your military achievement…”
“And I didn’t listen to you,” Wang Zhi had to admit, depressed.
Due to him getting addicted to making military credits, he had been very refreshed outside and so far away from the capital. With no one keeping watch above, he had been able to do whatever he had wanted.
“It isn’t too late yet,” Tang Fan said, voice serious. “Once the Great Bend battle ends, you can send a memorial to His Majesty requesting to come back to the capital. How the memorial should be written, and how to make him feel close to you once more, is something you’re more familiar with than I, so I won’t say.”
“After I come back, then what?”
“Then, you will engage in running the Western Depot, as well as its reputation. The Depots are the eyes and ears of His Majesty, always loathed by officials, but if those senses are used properly, they are not without benefits. Wan An, Shang Ming, and the others are fawning on the Emperor, but to those below the imperial, they’ve taken on a ‘obey me and prosper, defy me and die’ stance. If you can save one or two major and highly-respected officials from them, your reputation will immediately rise.”
Wang Zhi’s eyes lit up — that was indeed a good way to go about it.
The relationship between him and the Court officials had never been very good; they looked down on him, and he couldn’t stand to see any of them, either. A few years back, he had felt himself to be outstandingly impressive, but now that he was aware that he had a crisis, he had finally started to think of how to make those relationships up.
He would not be able to imitate Huai En in being benevolent to everyone in all aspects, as he just innately didn’t have the personality for it; him even attempting to would just seem out-of-place. Doing what Tang Fan said would not be hard for him, though.
“Also,” Tang Fan continued, “to major officials that still cherish righteousness, the Crown Prince is the hope in their hearts. If you can be kind to him, that will benefit your future reputation and prospects, too. That’s a bit more difficult, however, because the Consort doesn’t like him. If you’re nervous about her, don’t act too obviously.”
With that, Wang Zhi felt the weight on his heart mostly vanish, and greatly relaxed. His predicament was still present, but he at least wouldn’t be feeling like fire was burning his brows off anymore. “I’ll find a way to deal with you getting dismissed. If I have the chance, I’ll plead for you to His Majesty.”
Tang Fan wasn’t concerned about that, though — he hadn’t given Wang Zhi a plan for the sake of getting something out of it. He shook his head. “You can plead for me a little later, okay? I’m going to leave the capital in a bit. Even if the Emperor does reinstate me, I don’t want to return to my job so soon.”
Wang Zhi sneered. “You’re the type to start putting on a show of panting whenever someone calls you fat! Is your ‘job’ picking as much of the bok choy you’re growing at home as you want?”
Tang Fan spooned out a crab meatball from his bowl, laughing. “I don’t grow any bok choy.”
“Speaking of… I was wanting to find a chance to make that Liang Wenhua trip up, but someone was actually a step quicker than me in nabbing it.”
Wang Zhi side-eyed him. “You don’t know?”
Tang Fan blinked a bunch of times, at a loss. With his cheeks stuffed full of food, speaking would be inelegant, so he could only substitute it with facial expressions. He looked beyond stupid, a completely different person from the talented man of immeasurable calm he had been just before.
“Supervising Censor Shangguan Yong presented a memorial denouncing Liang Wenhua, saying that his youngest son had been conceived with his concubine during the period he should have been mourning his mother’s passing.”
Caught off guard, Tang Fan choked and coughed a couple of times — aside from the two Depots and the Brocade Guard, who else in the Great Ming Dynasty could have been able to dig out an old secret like that?
[End Arc 5: The Case of the Ancient Coffin in Luo River]
The author’s mini-theatre:
Wang Zhi: With a loud bang through the sky, I’ve appeared on set! Ahahaha! Weren’t you all saying that you missed me? This must be the charms of a protagonist!
Tang Fan: …Guangchuan, I want to write Commentary on Eunuchs of Past Dynasties. What do you think?
Sui Zhou: Sounds good.
Tang Fan: Let’s start from this Dynasty, then, which is said to have many famous eunuchs, such as Huai En, Liang Fang, Shang Ming, and Yuan Liang.
Sui Zhou: Only four?
Tang Fan: Mhm, only four. The rest are all average and not worth mentioning.
Wang Zhi: …
The translator says: The original title for this was basically ‘Everybody’s Crazy About Mister Tang (something’s not right here…)’
 In reference to the made-up word, ‘fooltot’. Bear with me a bit; this was originally guawazi, 瓜娃子, lit. ‘melon baby’, originating from Sichuanese. ‘Melon’ is a metaphor for ‘idiot’ in Chinese. I decided that, to make it read ‘off-kilter’ as intended, I was going to make up a weird word in a similar vein to ‘nincompoop’, while also keeping the original meaning of ‘you idiot child’. Hence, fooltot.
 A quote from ‘Spring Rain’ by Du Fu. (Full version here.)