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Peering into the room’s mist, Tang Fan’s group was simply startled speechless.
“What are they doing?” Tang Fan asked, strained.
“Dispelling evil influences,” Ding Rong whispered mystically from beside him.
With this many people arriving, the commotion was not light, so those in the room quickly spotted them. Wang Yue looked embarrassed, his face saying ‘I was forced to do this,’ while Wang Zhi was calm and collected.
The accompanying Daoist also noticed them, a half-dead rooster in one hand. The spectacle was practically humorous.
Both sides stared at each other until Tang Fan lightly coughed. “Would you all like to switch out your clothes, first?”
Wang Yue woke up like he had been daydreaming, quickly shedding himself of such an awkward situation by cupping his hands towards the rest. “I’ve lost my manners. Please allow me to go change.”
Saying so, he left in a rush with all that chicken blood, likely not noticing that there was also a chicken feather stuck in his hair. Pang Qi and the Guards wanted to laugh upon seeing that, but felt it poor to, trying hard to hold it back.
After him, Wang Zhi confidently walked out from inside. Resisting a grin, Tang Fan called out to him. “Long time, no see, Eunuch Wang. I hope you’ve not been ailed since we last met?”
Wang Zhi’s face was overcast. “Not only am I ailed, but I’m practically too gravely ill to get back up again!”
Others seeing his expression would only jump in fright, looking back to wonder if they had said anything wrong, but Tang Fan still smiled, not scared in the least. “Your complexion isn’t that bad to me, though.”
Wang Zhi huffed. His gaze directly passed over him to land upon Sui Zhou, and he cupped his hands. “I owe you a debt.”
This had come out of nowhere, but Sui Zhou knew that he was talking about what had happened when the censors had petitioned for the Western Depot’s closure whilst Wang Zhi was far off in Datong, his whip’s length unable to reach. Sui Zhou had taken in his aides prior to the Depot’s resounding collapse; with those men still around, Wang Zhi could yet have a time where he could make a comeback.
That was, of course, a huge favor.
Sui Zhou returned the courtesy. “We keep watch and help each other. There is no need to be polite.”
Wang Zhi’s complexion slightly cleared up. “May all of you go into the side hall and sit for a bit. I will be absent for a short time.”
The coated-in-chicken-blood Eunuch Wang was going to go change his clothes, of course. He had already caught sight of the Guards visibly toiling hard to hold back their laughs, and couldn’t help but roll his eyes, turning to leave.
Ding Rong led them all into the side hall to sit, and ordered the servants to fetch tea. A while passed; the first person to come out from inside was not Wang Yue, nor Wang Zhi, but that Daoist.
He, too, had changed into clean clothes, his appearance not as messy-haired and untidy as it had been before, instead having a bit of an authentic immortal bearing. Noticing that Sui Zhou, Pang Qi, and the Guards had no intention to pay notice to him, he called out to Tang Fan on his own initiative. “This poor Daoist is Chuyun-zi, from White Cloud Monastery of Mount Longhu.”
Hearing the name of Mount Longhu, Tang Fan’s brows lightly jumped, and he rose with a smile. “Left Metropolitan Censor, Tang Fan. Your revered self is actually a zhenren from Longhu; pardon my disrespect.”
After Zhang Daoling, Mount Longhu had become an important branch of Daoism. By the time of this Dynasty’s founding, the Court had still followed Song-Yuan customs, granting Longhu religious leaders of zhenren status the title of Divine Master. The name of Divine Master Zhang was like thunder in the ears; the second one heard of Longhu, they would bring him to mind.
The Chenghua Emperor had been obsessed with immortality and Daoist arts these past two years — people like Li Zhisheng wouldn’t have come to be favored, otherwise. He had originally hoped to be able to invite Divine Master Zhang into the capital, but his invitation had been declined due to reasons of the latter being in seclusion.
Famed, upright sects that were able to persist for a thousand years naturally had their own survival wisdom. They knew well that they would surely have a moment of glory if they left the mountain, but once the Emperor passed, the Court officials would surely flock up and affix them with the crime of egging the Emperor into doing rotten things. Thus was why Longhu would never join in on that excitement.
However, just because Longhu wouldn’t stick out didn’t mean that everybody else would look down upon that splendor spilling from the Heavens, too. Li Zhisheng had popped out as such, as a matter of fact.
As Tang Fan was being quite polite, Chuyun-zi chuckled, slightly embarrassed. “Although I practiced at Longhu, I don’t belong to the Divine Master’s orthodoxy, but came from a side branch. I don’t deserve the title of zhenren.”
The man was sincere, so Tang Fan changed the way he addressed him. “Did you come here after accepting an invite from Commandant Wang or Eunuch Wang, Priest?”
Chuyun-zi’s expression was unchanged. “I was wandering until recently, when I saw dark surging qi in the sky over Datong. I feared that demons were up to no good, and after a divination, I knew that this place would face disaster soon, so I dropped by for a visit. The Commandant and Eunuch had vexation all across their faces, but became greatly elated once they saw me, quickly asking me to help them out. Monks cherish mercy; this poor Daoist had to help whatever way I could.”
Despite the man’s heavy liberties, Tang Fan was an expert in flowery language. He received only one actually important point listening to Priest Chuyun’s unceasing torrent of words: he had channeled Mao Sui, recommending himself at their door.
“Um, Priest…” Tang Fan started, then stopped.
“If you have some spot of confusion, please go ahead and clear it up, Censor Tang,” Chuyun-zi said solemnly.
Tang Fan coughed. “That phrase, ‘Monks cherish mercy’… seems to only be said by Buddhists?”
Several muffled laughs reverberated in the guest hall, which must have been the Guards unable to hold it in anymore.
Sui Zhou was unusually calm, in contrast, still sampling his tea with his normal expression.
Chuyun-zi had wandered the land, his game face extraordinary. Hearing Tang Fan’s question, he didn’t turn red, merely smiling. “Whether one practices Buddhism or Daoism, it’s all for the sake of finding our true natures and being benevolent to those we come across. Why is such a distinction necessary?”
“It was I that was too pedantic,” Tang Fan said with a smile. That the other could speak like this demonstrated that he had some temperance.
The two chatted some more, and then Wang Yue and Wang Zhi walked in, one in front and one in back. Everyone paid greetings to each other, then sat down again.
“I heard that Censor Tang and Envoy Sui encountered some trouble when they entered the city,” Wang Yue said. “There truly was no reason for that. I will apologize on behalf of those blind bastards.”
With that, he stood and cupped his hands.
He was a second-rank Commandant, titled as the Minister of War, and a Palace Honorate from the second year of Jingtai. How could Tang Fan and Sui Zhou have ever dared to accept such an immense grace? They promptly got up and returned the courtesy in suit.
“There’s no need for this, Commandant Wang,” Tang Fan said. “How could this humble official be deserving of such? We heard of what happened from Ding Rong on the way here, and I believe it to be reasonable. If those villains were allowed to mix into the city using the statuses of officials, the results would be quite disastrous.”
Wang Yue smiled bitterly. “In truth, prior to this, we didn’t expect those demons to be so bold as to try to swagger in like that. Ever since then, we’ve had no choice but to be cautious, too afraid to be the least bit careless.”
With Wang Yue’s seniority and might, he never would have needed to justify himself so much to them, nor be this polite, but he had been away from the capital for a long time, while this group had been sent by the Emperor. He must be worrying that they would hold grudges at heart, file a complaint after their return, and never let him stop suffering from that, therefore making the forging of a good relationship a necessity.
Hearing them go back and forth with the pleasantries, Wang Zhi got a little impatient and butt in. “Since you’ve all just arrived, allow me to debrief you on the situation before anything else.”
“That’s just what I was thinking. Please speak, Eunuch Wang,” Tang Fan replied.
Wang Zhi’s explanation was a little more detailed than Ding Rong’s had been. Earlier on, when the group had heard the latter’s depiction, there had been a lot of areas of uncertainly, but they all became clear in Wang Zhi’s.
Ever since Ming’s founding by the Great Ancestor, the North had never been that peaceful. Later on, Yongle had disregarded the opposition of a gang of high officials, moving the capital straight to Beijing; apart from his own lack of adaptation to the Southern climate, he’d had the intent to make his descendants personally keep an eye on the Northern threat and defend the nation. After the Tumu Crisis, however, the three Capital Battalions had been annihilated, giving the panicked Great Ming an even greater fear of being struck.
Once the Oirats had waned, the Tartars had risen up suddenly. They were a similarly immense threat to Ming’s North, and no one in all of the Dynasty believed that the Ming army was capable of defeating them. Wang Yue had convinced Wang Zhi, though, and together, they had asked for the Emperor’s orders. His Majesty had agreed to send out troops at last, and the fight had lasted over two years.
The two had left the capital to come here and manage things, starting from nothing and getting to here. During this period, horses had been fed, soldiers had been reprimanded, and training had been done night and day, until the situation had finally turned around, the unmatched Tartars beaten into submission. They went from coming around whenever they wanted up to twenty times a year, like the place was their own home, to now only daring to come around a few times a year. That military accomplishment had to be called impressive.
However, those circumstances had changed as of the end of last year. The Tartars — always coming straight in, going straight out, fleeing after the fight was done, and paying particular attention to raw power — seemed to have learned how to be underhanded overnight. All sorts of sly plots of theirs had cropped up in quick order, they were sending spies, they were luring their enemies in deep, and they were having backup plans, dazing the Ming army.
It should be said that on the battlefield, with the ancestors of strategy that were Sun Wu and Sun Bin, even if Ming’s officers had been sent for a loop a few times, they should have learned from their mistakes. Things off of the battlefield were hard to speak of, however.
Every time the Ming army moved, the Tartars would always know of it in advance, then make preparations. Several times, they would even just detour around the regions the Ming army focused on to target areas with weak defenses, making it hard to successfully guard anything.
In light of this, Wang Yue had ordered for a thorough search of the Prefecture’s boundaries, resulting in the discovery of several groups of spies. One amongst them had been found right before Tang Fan and the rest’s arrival, disguised as the family members of a retired official from Pingyang Prefecture. The soldiers guarding the gates hadn’t verified, leading to them getting swindled, which had been discovered in the mass investigation.
Even with that, however, the trend hadn’t been restrained at all. There was no way for the entirety of Datong Prefecture to be sealed off, and with all the commonfolk coming and going, it was difficult to guarantee that spies weren’t mixed in with them. On top of that, pre-fight discussions required the summons of all of the army’s higher-ups, and even if those people were tight-lipped about the battle plans, when orders were passed down, if any part of the link leaked something out and it got to a spy, the Tartars would still be able to get the information. Because of this, Wang Yue and Wang Zhi had carried out several large-scope investigations, yet could never completely snuff out the source.
And the most vexing thing didn’t stop at just that.
From two months ago to the present, the Tartars had come five times, and been beaten back by the Ming army each time, but three Ming squadrons had all vanished in the process of hunting down the enemy. Seven people had been located from the third group, just like what Ding Rong had explained previously; the soldiers that had survived by a fluke were badly frightened, each claiming that they had accidentally gone into haunted grounds. Had they not been lagging behind the rest of the squadron, they likely wouldn’t have been able to return.
Upon hearing this, some might ask: ‘Everyone says not to chase a defeated enemy, so why has the Ming army been duped so many times?’ But, if they did, the asker would clearly not be versed in military matters.
Even though defeated foes weren’t to be cornered, there was another saying that went: ‘Press home after a victory.’ As an officer rich in military experience, Wang Yue had only ordered the pursuit when he had previously judged that it was feasible after their opponent’s hurried escape.
Circumstances like these could only be described as being completely out of plans and expectations.
Sporadic news of disadvantageous battles still spread to the capital in quick succession, which had given political opponents an opportunity. The former Datong Governor had been switched out for Guo Tang, who had arrived half a month before now, yet had already gotten into several fights with Wang Yue and Wang Zhi over disagreements in opinion. He had likely sent no lack of false accusations back to the capital, putting the present situation at a standstill for Wang Yue and the rest.
Wang Yue had heard that Wang Zhi and Tang Fan had a decent relationship, and that the others were at odds with Wan An’s party, so he had been hoping that they would get here soon. At the bare minimum, Guo Tang’s haughtiness had to be curbed, lest the Emperor’s misunderstanding towards Datong grew deeper, and he believed that Wang Yue and Wang Zhi were too cowardly to fight.
However, the disappearance of the soldiers could ultimately not be concealed. A lot of rumors soon came out, saying that the Tartars had the aid of gods, had learned how to control the weather, had the ability to grow soldiers out of tossed seeds, and could vanish people in the blink of an eye, causing morale to greatly waver. Even Wang Zhi had felt something evil at work, so, with Chuyun-zi’s coincidental visit, and after deeming that the other was not of suspicious origin, he’d had him come to dispel that evil.
…Thus resulting in that dumbfounding scene Tang Fan and the others had witnessed.
After hearing of this, Tang Fan asked, “Where is Governor Guo now?”
“He looked down upon Chuyun-zi’s work here, saying that it was a heretical path, and disdained to keep us company, leaving with a sweep of his sleeves,” Wang Zhi coldly answered.
“Daoism as a religion is broad and profound,” Chuyun-zi spoke up from the side. “As long as righteousness exists in the heart and deeds are done for the benefit of others, it’s a proper path. Governor Guo’s perspective is much too narrow.”
Tang Fan shook his head. “Are you not afraid that he will turn around and complain to His Majesty that you all aren’t doing proper business?” he asked Wang Zhi.
“Don’t forget that His Majesty has recently had high praise for Daoist arts. If he files a complaint like that, it’ll actually help us out.”
Tang Fan was speechless. So… they had been wanting to deliberately annoy Guo Tang.
Wang Yue sighed with a smile. “Our hands were tied with Guo Tang here, as his memorials were getting sent to the capital one after the other, and there was no one to help speak for us. Thankfully, His Majesty is a sage of brilliance, and both learned and heard clearly. With the two of you here, this heart of mine finally feels a little at ease!”
As of late, he’d had to command military affairs, strictly investigate the enemy spies leaking information, and defend against Guo Tang’s frequent false accusations. That triplicate pressure from both inside and out was really wearing on his mind and body.
He was speaking of two people, but the chiefly important target of his speech was Sui Zhou. That derived from a Brocade Guard like him being able to report straight to imperial presence without the need to go through the Office of Transmissions and Cabinet, thus not getting apprehended halfway through. Even Tang Fan, as a censor, couldn’t do that.
Why would everyone fear and respect the Brocade Guard, if not for that particular, one-of-a-kind quality?
Faced with the other party’s burning gaze, Sui Zhou nodded almost imperceptibly. “Everything investigated will be reported truthfully.”
The stone on Wang Yue’s mind fell to the ground at last, the smile on his face growing more enthusiastic.
Business had come to an end. Tang Fan’s group had come here windworn, and as the hosts, Wang Yue and Wang Zhi were to provide for them. A table was promptly set up in the Commandant Estate, Guo Tang going unsummoned as the higher few took their seats around — Pang Qi and the Guards got a separate table. Set on the tabletops were fresh pots of bone broth, and next to those were tender cuts of lamb, various bits of mutton tripe, and all sorts of side dishes, like tofu, mushrooms, and so forth.
Everyone was ravenous, nearly unhinging their jaws to eat. Chuyun-zi ate as happily as they were. Noticing that Tang Fan was paying off-and-on attention to him, he explained, “This poor Daoist practices the path of orthodox unity, not the path of complete trueness. There is no need to abstain from meat. As I see it, you have quite the insight and wise roots for Daoism, Censor Tang. Do you want to be accepted under my denomination?”
At the tail end of it, he added, “The path of orthodox unity won’t stop you from taking a wife and having children, either!”
Mister Tang started sweating, the corners of his mouth automatically pulling back. “…Thank you for your kind intent, Priest. My life is complex, and I’m afraid that it’d be impossible for me to focus on cultivation.”
After saying so, his line of sight somehow met with Sui Zhou’s opposite him.
The other’s smile was skin-deep. He watched Tang Fan until the latter felt a wave of inexplicable guilt, quickly shifting his gaze away.
Once the meal was done, it was time to talk proper business. Chuyun-zi took his leave out of self-awareness, and the Guards withdrew all at once, as well. Wang Yue invited Sui Zhou into the study for a private conversation, while Wang Zhi and Tang Fan remained in the side hall.
“Chuyun-zi came from Longhu?” Tang Fan asked.
“How should I know?”
“…Why did you let him stay and talk so much, then?”
“It was on purpose. The more he hears, the better.”
Tang Fan suddenly understood. “You suspected him long ago, so you acted to probe him out?”
Wang Zhi stood up, hands behind his back as he paced the hall. “I’m uncertain, because before he even showed up, the Tartars already had a few instances of advance knowledge. He’s indeed suspicious, though. Rather than allow him to wander all about outside, it’s better to have him by my side to keep an eye on him.”
The other grinned. “I didn’t expect that in these brief two years in Datong, you’d become fluent in the ploy of using decoy troops, Eunuch Wang. Very admirable!”
“And what goddamn good is it?! The Western Depot’s still been eradicated!” Wang Zhi stated icily. “I knew that once that shithead Shang Ming landed on Wan Tong’s side, he would attack me using the guy’s power!”
He gave a look of calmness, but at heart, he was still very concerned about this, else he wouldn’t have gnashed his teeth around Shang Ming’s name.
That was normal, really. Regardless of whether the Western Depot had been good or bad, the influence he had built up single-handedly, once able to rival the longstanding Eastern Depot in just a few years and even suppress it a few times, had been wiped out in a wink. Anyone else would have been upset, too.
And yet, Tang Fan just threw oil onto the fire. “It’s better if the Western Depot is gone, actually.”
Ignoring the eye daggers Wang Zhi was shooting him, he sipped his tea, then slowly explained, “Don’t be hasty. Hear me out to the end, first.
“Disregard the Western Depot for now. Ever since the Eastern Depot’s founding, of all the people whose hands it has passed into, how many have had good ends? If there are any, you may as well count them off for me to hear. Let’s not speak of older examples, but newer ones, first. Take Huai En, or Liang Fang, those old fox-esque figures; have any of them ever touched the Eastern Depot’s affairs? No, as they’re deeply aware of the unpredictable rises and falls therein, and would therefore prefer to shrink back into the palace than touch the hot potato that is the Depot.
“Don’t pay attention to Shang Ming jumping up and down for joy right now. He’s both in charge of the Eastern Depot and affiliated with the Wan party, but his relationship with said party is not secure, founded upon interests. The second something happens, the first one that they throw out to be the scapegoat will be him.
“I know that you established the Western Depot single-handedly and are reluctant to let it go, but its existence would bring you a hundred disadvantages without one advantage anymore. It’s gone, so let it be gone. When you send a memorial to His Majesty after this is all over, you may as well write about what happened to it. He is soft-hearted, so he’ll certainly allow you to come back to the capital upon reading you write as much.”
Wang Zhi didn’t necessarily not comprehend that logic, but he just couldn’t get over the blockage in his heart, nor could he let go of his former sky-soaring power. Once this war was done, what would be the use in going back to the capital? Would he not be a powerless castrate by then? With the tree fallen, its monkeys scattered, who would still regard him as anything?
“You’ve spoken so logically. Don’t think that I don’t know that you’re just like all those civil officials, always hoping that the Western Depot will close down!” he sneered.
“You’re right. I long felt that the Western Depot had no need to exist,” Tang Fan sincerely, bluntly, and honestly admitted.
Wang Zhi glared at him for a very long time, only to find that the other wasn’t unnerved at all, still smiling, and he couldn’t help but feel dejected.
Tang Fan grinned. “You and I have been acquainted for years. You know that what I say isn’t aimed at you. It’s not just the Western Depot, but the Eastern Depot and Brocade Guard, and anyone that grasps the original intent of their foundings will not feel that they should exist, either. Imagine the Qin, Han, Tang, and Song times; as long as the world is prosperous, why would there ever be the need to eternally grasp the common will via monitoring every officials? If it’s said that the Brocade Guard is yet a double-edged sword with both pros and cons, then the Eastern Depot truly has not a single thing going for it. We, as civil officials, all dream about it being eliminated.”
“Your boldness grows ever bigger, Tang Runqing! You dare to criticize even rules laid out by the Great Ancestor and Yongle Emperor?!” Wang Zhi shouted darkly.
“I consider you as one of my own, which is why I can say a few words from the heart, Eunuch Wang. How is that criticism?” Tang Fan asked innocently.
The other started disregarding him.
“For this reason, the Western Depot’s eradication isn’t something you can totally blame on Wan Tong, Shang Ming, and the rest of them,” Tang Fan continued. “Even I don’t want it to exist, so what’s to say how the other officials in Court feel? The Eastern Depot has been established for too long, too deeply-rooted for anyone to touch, but the Western Depot’s foundation was still shallow. In order to prevent it from turning into a behemoth like the Eastern, there would be people sending up memorials to abolish it, even without Shang Ming or Wan An.”
Hearing his tone that sounded like he was perfectly happy for all this, Wang Zhi couldn’t help but get vibrantly furious. Once he barely managed to tamp down his anger, he coldly laughed. “So, it’s not your wish now?”
Tang Fan laughed mildly, pretending not to hear his sinister tone. “This goes back to what I said before. The ancients said that fortunes decline to misfortunes, and misfortunes beget fortunes. Sometimes, what seems to be something good may not be, and what seems to be something bad may not be. As you can see, those long versed in the ways of the world, like Huai En and Liang Fang, would never touch the Eastern Depot. Now that the Western Depot is gone, that’s not necessarily a bad thing for you.
“I’m aware that you’ve always been in pursuit of merits and capital. Any big manly man born and raised in this world thinks as much, while your status inevitably makes doing that no less than ten or a hundred times more difficult than the average man. And yet, you’re different from Huai En, and even more different from Shang Ming’s sort; instead of honing in on the palace or the capital, you go for the border a thousand li away, a grand ambition that’s deserves admiration. Allow me to guess… the one you admire most is the Eunuch of Three Treasures, Zheng He?”
Wang Zhi warned himself not to place importance onto this guy’s ornate rhetoric, but when he heard this, he couldn’t help but ask, “How did you know?”
“Zheng He followed Yongle to fight in both the North and South, gaining brilliant credits that were no lesser than all of those meritorious Jingnan officials; was he not a eunuch, he likely would have been given a title of nobility. Even like so, he sailed West seven times, making all-time contributions that cannot be erased. Such a track record makes later generations that read of it yearn for it, wishing that their lives could be the same as his, therefore revering the moxie of the Eunuch of Three Treasures!”
At this, Wang Zhi was slightly moved, his expression changing.
Truth was, the evaluations people of the current era had towards Zheng He’s sails to the West were not that great. Everyone generally believed that those expeditions, faraway voyages, and built ships had squandered the Great Ming treasury’s uncountable riches, being nothing more than the Son of Heaven once taking joy in doing grandiose things. That viewpoint had become especially prominent after the sea ban.
Tang Fan’s way of looking at it was not the same as many’s, though. His words had finally gotten to Wang Zhi, who thought the world of Zheng He’s life.
Wang Zhi went silent for a long time before answering. “You’re right. I do take Zheng He as the sole target of my lifelong admiration, I just hate that I was born too late to be able to follow Yongle all over the place like he did. With how the world works today, there’s too much hesitation in even launching a war against the Tartars, and when we do win, we still get politically attacked by some lowlifes! If Yongle was still around, this wouldn’t be!”
At the end of his speech, he had quite a bit of a bitter aftertaste in his mouth.
Tang Fan shook his head. “You’re being extreme, Eunuch Wang. If you want to imitate Zheng He, why the need to focus on the path of wartime merits? The seven voyages are just as famed in the annals of history.”
Wang Zhi furrowed his brow. “Those were obviously a waste of money and human resources. Why would they be imitated?”
Tang Fan smiled. “A waste they certainly were, but they were not without benefits.”
Despite the Great Ancestor’s strict ban on maritime travel, Tang Fan had once traveled South and seen with his own eyes that many seafarers had not been able to make ends meet with the ban, and had had no choice but to sneak out secretly, the number of which had been gradually increasing by the year, according to government documents. For such a reason, the ban existed in name, but was dead in reality; it could hold back ordinary people that followed the law, but not those ‘errant people’ that staked their entire livelihoods on it. In recent years, the coasts had quite a few sea merchants privately trading with foreign countries, with some even more excessive than that, colluding with runt pirates to loot coastal folks.
Zheng He’s Western voyages had not been considered violations of the Great Ancestor’s orders, as they had been on government ships, not commoner ones. Honestly, following Zheng He’s voyages, the sea ban amongst the citizenry had gradually loosened up, but no one was going to break through that layer of window paper, was all.
On the other end, the officials’ sea-faring scope had vanished after Zheng He, because many in Court adhered to the rules, believing the act to just be a waste of everything. They did not feel that officials taking to the ocean could bring any benefits to the Court or the country.
However, Tang Fan had seen himself that sea merchants would return from far away with full loads, ships all packed with objects acquired after selling Great Ming goods that they had transported to neighboring countries. He knew very well that this old-school style of thinking was extremely flawed.
Due to the Court’s sea ban, these merchants’ dealings were all classified as illegal smuggling, and the authorities just turned a blind eye, not imposing any merchant taxes. This had caused that annual revenue to slip away for no good reason. Whenever the Court looked to the sky and shouted that there was no money for disaster relief, yet put no consideration towards such a legal taxation method that wouldn’t bother the commonfolk, it really made Tang Fan wring his hands on end.
After listening to Tang Fan’s explanation, Wang Zhi saw the light. “You’re thinking to urge me into getting the Emperor to declare the sea ban lifted, then go on voyages? You know that it’s not Yongle’s era anymore. Besides, there’s no Shipbuilding Depot nowadays, and those prized vessels are all ancient hulks from that era. I’m obviously not going out to sea, and even if I could, as soon as those people hear about a Western voyage, they’ll think it’s a waste, then probably accuse me of something again. If it’s only to allow citizen’s ships to go out to sea, it will violate the forebear’s law, which certain people will fly into a rage about. Are you trying to help me, or hurt me?”
Tang Fan lightly laughed. “‘Government vessel’ is just a label. Having the best of both worlds isn’t without a way. I just wanted to let you know that you don’t need to set your sights on just one area; you want to get outstanding achievements, so you have to have open eyes.”
“What way do you have?” Wang Zhi doubted.
“I said before that issuing taxes upon marine merchants could increase the national treasury. You have no objection to that, right?”
The other nodded.
“The current problem is that if only government vessels can go out, but not civilian, the Court wouldn’t be able to afford it, and there would be no benefit to it. On the flipside, if government officials can’t go out, and only civilian ones can, that would go against the Great Ancestor’s orders. Correct?”
The other nodded again.
“That isn’t hard to solve. The Court can always establish a special bureau for levying taxes on marine transport, annually establishing several voyage permits similar in style to certificates of origin. Those sea merchants that want to go abroad will be allowed to buy things, after which they can be allowed to trade goods overseas in the government’s name. The commodities acquired can be taxed by the Court. Those that cannot get government permits, and troupes that sneak out to sea, must be hit hard.
“As for the merchant tax collected, that can be apportioned in the form of business taxes. Sixty-percent goes to the national treasury, and forty-percent goes to the internal treasury. Like so, both the Dynasty and His Majesty will have gains, and since the name of the government will be used for the voyages, they won’t be considered as violating the Great Ancestor’s ban. Even if there is opposition, it won’t be too great.
“The most important thing is that if this much is done, you can sit in that bureau of marine transportation in the future. Holding that income in hand, you will help both His Majesty and the Court collect revenue, your status will never be doubted, and the Emperor will be inseparable from you. Is this not a great thing that gets a lot done in one fell swoop?”
There was a moment of silence in the side hall, where only the sound of Wang Zhi’s breathing could be heard. With his martial arts and physical skill, he should never have made such a rough sound to begin with.
He stared at Tang Fan, unable to say anything for a very long time, before eventually getting out, “If you don’t go on to be an unscrupulous merchant, that would be a real waste of your natural talent!”
“…Is this you complimenting me, or chiding me? Why does that not seem like a nice thing to say?”
Wang Zhi waved him off. “Just take it as a nice thing!”
His pace quickened as he circled around a few times, genuinely digesting Tang Fan’s idea. After he fully came to comprehend it, he realized that what he had said was actually not infeasible.
If he wanted to open the sea ban, he would inevitably come across never-before-seen resistance. If he used Tang Fan’s method, resistance would still exist, but be far lesser. Moreover, if there was no resistance at all, a pile of people long thronged up for the cause, how would it be out of turn for him?
The greater significance of Tang Fan’s statements, though, was that they had opened up a big, brand-new gate for Wang Zhi, causing him to think about issues he had never thought of before, and see a world he had never seen before.
He had thought that he had already come to the end of his rope, but hadn’t expected that Tang Fan would give him guidance, pushing aside the clouds to reveal the moon, willows making shade and flowers making light. A shine had immediately appeared in his mind, at the very least, as if a corner of a mirror covered in dust had been wiped all clean, limpid and brilliant, that bewildering fog dispersed.
As time passed, his excitement slowly faded, and he gradually regained his former calmness, having yet considered many issues. “The Wan party definitely won’t just sit back and watch me make a comeback. Even if the sea ban can be opened in a way they can’t ever prevent, they’ll be coming to take a share of it. When that time comes, I won’t have the final say.”
Tang Fan nodded. “Right, that’s why it can’t be done for right now. For those marine merchants that secretly collude with runt pirates in private, the Court will need to build a strong navy, which cannot be achieved in the span of a day. The most pressing issue at current is resolving Datong’s incident and winning this conclusive war, after which we can be completely justified in returning to the capital.”
Wang Zhi wiped his face, spirits lifting. “You’re right! That’s paramount. Those sons of bitches don’t want to let me go back, but I’ll be going back anyways!”
Tang Fan had described a huge bing bread that had successfully roused his appetite for success, allowing him to erase all of his inopportune frustration from before. He was someone who could let things go, too, so he was already no longer preoccupied with what had happened to the Western Depot, more concerned about how to resolve the current problem.
“Tell me about what’s happening,” Tang Fan said. “With Chuyun-zi having just been around, I could tell that you all had a lot of things to speak of that wouldn’t have been good to get into details about right then.”
“The thing with the Tartars’ spies is a bit tricky. I suspect that there is one of theirs among us.”
Tang Fan automatically straightened up upon hearing that. “How do you figure?”
The translator says: I suppose it wouldn’t be much of a spoiler anymore, so… Wang Zhi’s original fate in history, for those curious, is that he remained in the Western Depot until his garrison in Liaodong alienated him from Chenghua. Shang Ming then denounced him, got the Western Depot disbanded, and got Wang Zhi banished to Nanjing, whereupon he dropped off the face of history. So, without Big Bro Tang here, our favorite foulmouthed eunuch eats dirt. ;(
 Let me explain why I put ‘runt’ here. 倭 is an old, extremely condescending word for Japan. A fitting translation for it, which both accurately portrays its offensiveness and literal meaning, would be, um… midget. In reference to the islands’ comparatively smaller size, I’m assuming. Runt was used as the pejorative instead.