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That guy, Ding Rong, could be described as cunning. Even though Wang Zhi, Tang Fan, and the rest’s private scheme had not been divulged to him, as Wang Zhi’s personal attendee, he couldn’t have not noticed a bit of the commotion and word on the wind.
According to what people at the Wang Estate said, very soon after Wang Zhi had left earlier that day, Ding Rong had left on his tail. Prior to his departure, he had told them that he was going to help Eunuch Wang with something and would return late, also telling the servants to not be lazy. Clearly, he had long made preparations, collected and calm.
Everyone knew that Ding Rong was Wang Zhi’s aide. With how suspicious Wang Zhi was, there were not many that could fully earn his trust; Ding Rong, brought from the capital, was one of them. For that reason, no one detected anything off at the time, to say nothing of thinking that he would never be coming back from that trip.
It had to be known that when Ding Rong left, he didn’t take even a tiny bit of luggage with him. Of course, when Wang Zhi had someone search his room later, it was discovered that all his silver taels and banknotes were unseen.
It had to be said that a fire was ignited in Eunuch Wang’s heart, undoubtedly from Ding Rong’s betrayal. The latter’s disappearance was no different from adding fuel to that fire, and he vented the sum of that fury on Shopkeep Jin’s boss.
By the time Tang Fan and the rest returned, they were welcomed with a pawnshop owner that was on his last breath.
Still, this venture was not without harvest. The harvest was quite bountiful, in fact. Shopkeep Jin had pointed out before that his boss’s other identity was of the Vice Vicar of this branch of the Society.
Straight from the Vice Vicar’s mouth, Wang Zhi had learned that the Society did not have many branches across the nation, and they had become even lesser after the government’s non-stop suppression. Shanxi had only this branch remaining, the Vicar of which was Ding Rong.
Wang Zhi had long made a mess of his own estate in his raid, the place shifted around from top to bottom by him. Those that had been close to Ding Rong had been summarily put on watch; were there to be anyone suspicious amongst them, it could be imagined that with his traitor-detesting personality, he would absolutely never let them go.
However, after Tang Fan heard of this news, ever more questions cropped up in his mind. “Ding Rong only arrived at Datong with you, over two years ago. Had he already been colluding with the Society beforehand?”
“The Vice Vicar said that Ding Rong was promoted to being the new Vicar only after coming to Datong,” Wang Zhi answered mildly. “Before that, the Vicar was him. As for the capital’s end, he wasn’t very clear, only saying that the Overseer placed a lot of importance onto Ding Rong. I’m guessing that he almost certainly already had ties with the Society before this. If that’s so, things will be all the more complicated.”
“Where even is that ‘Overseer’ they all talk about? Who’s the head of this dragon?”
“The Vice Vicar said that he had never seen the big boss before, but if one particular person could be found, he would definitely know.”
Tang Fan and Sui Zhou glanced at each other, both slightly startled.
This was not the first time they had heard the name of Priest Li Zilong. It was practically thunderous to the ears. Wang Zhi’s initial rise, too, had relied upon the case of Li Zilong’s discovery and capture.
Li Man, once a repeated impediment to them, had purportedly learned a few tricks from Li Zilong, hence why he had used the mystic arts of face-changing back in the capital to be a counterfeit version of his son, blinding Tang Fan and the rest’s eyes.
“Right. That Lady Ninth told me before that Li Zilong wasn’t dead at all,” Tang Fan answered. “He had clearly been sentenced to death, yet still managed to flee. If someone said there wasn’t anything mystical about that, I definitely wouldn’t believe them. The only possibility there is that someone helped him, and they must be hidden so deeply, they have sky-soaring power. Who is he? Wan Tong? Or Shang Ming?”
“After Li Zilong escaped, he fled here, and even found a way out of the passes. Now he’s mixing in with the Tartars like a fish to water, getting revered as a State Master.”
Tang Fan felt this a bit comical. “The Tartars recognized a Central Plainsman as State Master?”
Wang Zhi curled his lips. “Don’t underestimate him. You weren’t there when the case of the demon fox broke out, so you wouldn’t know that while Court was in attendance, a giant demon fox suddenly appeared in the palace. Many people attending saw it, as did His Majesty with his own eyes, else I would never have been allowed to establish the Western Depot to investigate the case. Even if his tricks are all deceptive, that shows that they’ve been perfected. Additionally, the Tartars always flaunt being the descendants of the former Yuan’s imperial kin; remember that back in the day, Khubilai once revered Qiu Chuji as a State Master. Being able to coax the Tartars into trusting him is a skill Li Zilong has.”
“Very well, I’ve underestimated Priest Li,” Tang Fan said with a smile. “The White Lotus Society’s traitorous heart doesn’t die, always thinking up plots, while the Tartars are even more ravenous. The two hitting it off immediately and benefiting off of each other is quite fitting.”
Wang Zhi creased his brow. “Nevermind Li Zilong for now. The current issue is that the Weining Sealet’s problem has still not been solved. If an incident will happen the second the Ming army goes to the Sealet, that fight doesn’t need to happen; from this point on, we’ll simply stand guard at Datong City, expelling the enemy as soon as they come, while they will be able to calmly draw back when they see the situation is unfavorable, with us unable to formulate any strike to them whatsoever. The Vice Vicar has always been acting in the Shanxi region, never going outside of Pian Pass. Nothing came of questioning him about the Sealet.”
“What a coincidence that is!”
Tang Fan smiled and said nothing, looking at Sui Zhou.
“That Shen Gui we brought back with us went to the Sealet before,” Sui Zhou picked up.
Sui Zhou hummed, then spoke no more. To be blunt, he was still moping about Eunuch Wang beating Tang Fan up, making him disinclined to speak to him more.
Seeing that his plan was not to explain much at all, Tang Fan could only pick up where he left off. “Shen Gui once brought people with him to leave the pass and do business with the Tartars in private, and also received Li Zilong’s invitation to go to the Tartar Palace. He heard Li Zilong say that he was going to make an array at the Sealet that would make it hard for the Ming army to advance, and aid the Tartars in completing their great enterprise. So, he guessed that in the vicinity of the Sealet to Barbarian Ridge, there’s likely an array set up that caused those strange events.”
That was indeed some good news. Wang Zhi’s eyes flashed. “His words are credible?”
“Since we captured his family, he’s answered everything. I questioned him a lot on the road here, but I had to wait for you all to ask after specifics. If what he said is true, we will have to go to the Sealet to check it out for ourselves. This all will be swiftly cut through once the array is broken.”
Wang Zhi couldn’t wait half a moment longer, though. He promptly got up and walked out. “I’ll go interrogate Shen Gui myself!”
“Don’t break him. He’s still quite useful,” Tang Fan quickly reminded.
The other gave him an eerie grin back.
Hand on his forehead, Tang Fan said to Sui Zhou, “Can you go watch him?”
Of the present key figures, Ding Rong had fled, Aunt Xing knew nothing, Shopkeep Jin was just a low-level lackey that could only provide limited information, and the Vice Vicar had already been plundered dry by Wang Zhi. The only one of use was Shen Gui.
Tang Fan was genuinely worried that Wang Zhi would vent the anger he couldn’t vent on Ding Rong onto Shen Gui, then accidentally kill him.
Sui Zhou agreed, rising to head out.
Tang Fan’s belly rumbled. Only after he rubbed his stomach did he realize that he had been scurrying about all day, and hadn’t eaten dinner. Not regarding himself as an outsider, he called for the Wang Estate’s servants to get him a bit to eat.
The servants were familiarized with Sir Tang, and had just been re-organized by Wang Zhi that day. After receiving Tang Fan’s request, they set up a table of food without delay, to the point that it far exceeded expectations; he had only been thinking that a bowl of dumplings in chicken broth would have been plenty, yet they had straight-up cooked eight dishes and one soup, the abundance able to make one gasp.
Not only that, but a Wang servant smiled at him and said, “Sir Tang, do you feel that this is enough? If it isn’t, I’ll let the cook know.”
Tang Fan wasn’t sure whether to laugh or cry. “It is. Go see what your master and Envoy Sui are doing, and have them come eat with me.”
The Defending Supervisor’s Estate had no torture room, but this was no issue, in Wang Zhi’s opinion. Given that he had the want, any room could be converted into a torture room. Since Sui Zhou was present, though, he couldn’t be too heavy-handed with Shen Gui.
He thought as much, but Tang Fan still couldn’t just wait around for them. Seeing the table filled with a whole number of dishes dangling right before him, each one looking to be written with the words ‘Come eat me, quick!’, he finally couldn’t resist taking up his chopsticks, sneaking a shrimp-in-a-ring, and putting it in his mouth.
It was unclear whether the Wang cook’s skill was too high, or that he was just too hungry, but he couldn’t stop at just that one, eating most of the entire plate. Upon seeing that of the ten shrimp that had once been neatly arranged, only two lonesome individuals were left, Mister Tang couldn’t help but feel a little guilty.
As no one else was around, he simply finished off the last two and hid the plate away nearby, thinking to himself that seven dishes and one soup ought to be enough.
Not even a minute later, someone came back from outside. Tang Fan looked over, only to see the Wang servant scrambling over.
“Sir, go and look! Eunuch Wang and Sir Sui started fighting!” the servant said, panting.
“Hah? Bring me there!” Tang Fan got up with a bang, then followed him through the courtyard and veranda to get to the neighboring side-courtyard.
The men were heard before they were seen. Right as he turned a corner, and prior to him seeing any human figures, Tang Fan was already hearing the sound of wind vigorously being swept up, punches and kicks being exchanged.
With one other turn, he saw the Brocade Guards and a few Wang servants circling an entryway, craning their necks to spectate what was inside.
As for the targets of their spectating, they were Wang Zhi and Sui Zhou, naturally.
There was not too much space in the side-courtyard before them, a lotus pond with bonsai occupying its middle, but that did not influence the crossing of edges between the two experts. Their fighting speed was quick, and each and every move was hitting flesh, not giving the least bit of suspicion that they were bluffing.
Watching this spectacle of swiftness, accuracy, and viciousness, Tang Fan nearly believed that there was a deep hatred between the two.
Sui Zhou’s skills could not be doubted, of course. The paramount responsibility of the Brocade Guard was to personally defend the Emperor, and those with the qualifications to protect him had to be the very best experts in the land. Sui Zhou had been trained by famed masters from inside the palace since a young age, and had experienced no lack of things himself; these skills were not ornamented moves of no importance nor use, but all quintessence that had been tempered within danger. That much was clearest to Tang Fan, who had gone through life and death with him.
However, Wang Zhi was no lesser. If he had been a touch inferior to Sui Zhou before he had left for the capital, then in these past two years of personally leading troops into campaigns alongside Wang Yue, he had also forged a lot of genuine combat experience, a murderous aura brought about from the battlefield between the images of his palms and fists.
The two humans resembled a wolf and a tiger coming to blows, not the least bit relaxed, watching hard for their counterpart’s weaknesses and openings to strike. For a brief moment, the fighting was difficult to distinguish between, the outcome difficult to determine.
Tang Fan could tell as well right now that the two were in close combat, yet had some further elements of swapping pointers, which each side might not lose out on. He thus didn’t call out to interrupt them, standing to watch like Pang Qi and the rest.
At that moment, a howl of anguish suddenly came from a tightly-shut door behind Sui Zhou and Wang Zhi. “I can’t do this, I can’t! Spare me! I really didn’t lie, if you don’t believe me, I can take you all there!”
Shen Gui’s voice…?
Tang Fan was startled, then saw Wang Zhi get slightly distracted, suffering a punch to the shoulder. He immediately stumbled ten steps backwards before his momentum came to a halt.
How could a fight between experts tolerate a moment of inattention? Wang Zhi’s own had only made a fraction of difference, yet had immediately been spotted by Sui Zhou.
That punch had likely not been light. Wang Zhi covered his shoulder while baring his teeth, sneering at the expressionless Sui Zhou. “This strike is what I owed Fluffy from last time. Don’t think I’ve lost to you! Come at me again later!”
Tang Fan: “…”
Sui Zhou: “…”
Tang Fan placed his hand on his forehead. “Hold on, how do you know my nickname?”
Wang Zhi raised his brows. “You want to know?”
“I’m not telling.”
Wang Zhi restrained his clenched fists and malicious grin, then walked towards the inside. “Damn, that bastard yelling out of nowhere made me lose! You don’t want to be at peace tonight, do you?!”
Tang Fan quickly stopped him. “Eat first! Eat first, and then we’ll talk more on it! I know you’re quite angry, but it should have been more or less vented after that bout, right?”
“It wasn’t. Getting punched by him made me even more angry.”
Tang Fan stubbornly carried on, managing to bring Eunuch Wang back to the dining hall to eat.
The instant he saw the seven dishes and one soup on the table, Wang Zhi made a hum of wonder. “They’ve always served nine dishes before. Why did they change the standard today?”
Tang Fan’s mouth twitched. “Haven’t you been busy from dawn to dusk? Why are you noticing such a minute detail?”
Wang Zhi furrowed his brow. “Because nine divided by nine returns to one, which is wholeness enough. I tell them to make nine whenever there’s guests. Seems like the thing with Ding Rong didn’t teach them enough of a lesson, and they’ve all grown even lazier!”
Tang Fan used a cough to cover up his own guilt. “You can’t blame them, I’m the one who told them eight. The metaphor of eight isn’t too bad, either!”
Even if he was to be beaten to death, Mister Tang was not going to tell the truth about him eating a dish clean ahead of time, but what difference would there? As long as Eunuch Wang had the whim to go ask the cook, he would learn everything.
Eunuch Wang, fortunately, had no intent to take such a triviality seriously. Mister Tang’s reputation was preserved, for now.
At the table, the three started discussing the Weining Sealet.
“With things at this point, we need to take a trip to the Sealet, no matter what,” Wang Zhi said. “Since Shen Gui is willing to lead us, let him.”
Tang Fan thought for a short minute. “The trueness of his words are pending discussion. They can’t be used as evidence. Were he to try anything, everyone will be put in danger.”
“If this is dragged out any longer, not only will it not help, but more schemes will be had. Regardless of whether he was lying or not, it’ll be worth a try. I plan to go out there myself.”
Tang Fan was surprised. “With you gone, who will watch Datong?”
“Aren’t Guo Tong and all of you around?” Wang Zhi answered casually.
“Don’t joke around,” Tang Fan said weakly.
Wang Zhi picked up a piece of glazed duck, ate it, then told them the truth. “It’s fine. Wang Yue actually never left Datong.”
Tang Fan was a bit shocked, but that made sense, when some real thought was put into it.
The row between Wang Zhi and Wang Yue had just been a good show that they had plotted in order to keep things from everyone, deceiving both Guo Tang and the informant. Now, the ploy of false troops had actually had results; the pond becoming thoroughly muddied had not only made Guo Tang jump up and down for joy, but even the traitor hadn’t been able to resist sticking out his head to set his information thread into motion, transmitting the information elsewhere, whereupon the thread had been sliced by Tang Fan and the rest, his forces dispersed.
Now that the matter was resolved and the informant was caught, Wang Yue ought to show back up, lest having no commander in the city affected the army’s morale.
“When Wang Yue appears, I can hunt down what’s going on in the Sealet. What happened with Ding Rong will come to light sooner or later, and everyone knows that he was my confidante. If he can’t be captured in one go, I won’t only have no way to justify myself after I return, but Guo Tang will definitely be itching to complain about me.”
That was true. If the thing with Ding Rong couldn’t reach a resolution, it would leave Wang Zhi with serious repercussions — ‘Your confidante was the Tartar informant, so what are doing being Datong’s Defending Supervisor? Is it possible that you’ve been secretly cavorting with the Tartars? Had all those previous reported victories the court had received actually been you lot putting on a joint show with the Tartars?’
The Wan party had long found Wang Zhi displeasing to the eye, and it was really hard to say that they wouldn’t take this chance to dump a chamberpot onto his head. His imperial favor had been getting slowly lesser to begin with, so if this continued, his political career would absolutely take a heavy hit.
“I’ll go with you,” Tang Fan said.
“You?” Wang Zhi was slightly shocked. This wouldn’t be an easy task; judging from the prior several experiences the Ming army had, it would basically be almost assuredly fatal, with no return to be had. Anyone else might yet rack their brains for a way to shirk this; Tang Fan’s brand of fool that requested to head out of his own volition was unheard of.
Tang Fan grinned. “Regardless of what Wan An’s goal in booting us out here was, we genuinely do have orders to come here and investigate. If something happens, and then we retreat right on the eve, that wouldn’t be good, would it? You know as well that when those soldiers went missing before, brawn evidently hadn’t made them safe and worry-free. Maybe, when we encounter some difficulties, I’ll be able to help by using my brain.”
His speech was thoroughly modest, never proud in the merits he held. It was clear that even if he didn’t go this time, the Wan party wouldn’t be able to say anything, because Sui Zhou and he had come to assist in the investigation; at most, they could say that they weren’t helping things. And yet, knowing the danger fully, Tang Fan had brought the issue up on his own.
His reason therein was mostly for the sake of ascertaining the truth so that the Ming army could be spared from loss and casualties, but at least a little bit of it was to help Wang Zhi.
Of course, Tang Fan wouldn’t clearly state that latter cause, while Wang Zhi couldn’t blindly accept it. The personality he had acquired growing up in the palace had caused him to forever attach heavy importance to his goals and use underhanded methods in his work, making him easy to condemn.
He understood that point well, yet had never minded it, having roped Tang Fan in for the purpose of achieving his own aims multiple times before. Even though he always wanted to act alone and not owe anyone anything, and had once helped Tang Fan get his post back via Huai En, after careful calculations, Tang Fan had helped him way more than he had helped Tang Fan.
Whenever he held self-pride, Tang Fan’s figure might not show up at his side. Yet, every time he had loss, Tang Fan’s scant words would always let him get out of the bottom of the valley.
He chewed on his relationship with Tang Fan, discovering that the two of them couldn’t be said to be enemies, but they didn’t appear to reach friendship, either. What was making Tang Fan help him out so much, without seeking reciprocation?
If he had been able to speak for him before the Emperor previously, what use was there now in being buds with a eunuch that was gradually losing imperial favor, and had been ousted from the Wan party?
Quashing his confusion, Wang Zhi looked at Sui Zhou, his implication being: He wants to go. Aren’t you stopping him?
Sui Zhou’s reply was: “I’ll have Pang Qi lead a few in staying here to help Wang Yue. The rest will go with you.”
So… it was having this guy’s infinite tolerance that Tang Fan felt that he could go wherever he wanted?
“Do none of you fear death?” Wang Zhi couldn’t help but ask.
Tang Fan gave him a weird look. “What are you saying? Aren’t you going, too? Why jinx yourself?”
Wang Zhi rolled his eyes. Fine, people were going to accompany him in throwing away his life. What in the hell was he worried about? “Make preparations, then! Write some letters to your wives and concubines, lest they never see you again!”
“No one should jinx themselves like this. Can’t you think up one positive?” Tang Fan asked, exasperated.
Utilizing the time they were bickering, Sui Zhou was already deliberating on candidates to come with them.
“You said before that seven soldiers managed to survive Weining Sealet. Can we bring one with to show us the path?”
“Yes,” Wang Zhi said. “I need to bring Chuyun-zi, too.”
Tang Fan smiled bitterly. “What use would there be in that? To go have a battle of arrays with Li Zilong?”
The other side-eyed him. “That might be a real possibility.”
Since Eunuch Wang had full trust in Chuyun-zi, Tang Fan said nothing else. It would just be another person on hand, anyways.
“There’s another to bring,” Sui Zhou said.
“Who?” Wang Zhi questioned.
“The daughter of Zhongjing Hall’s owner?”
Sui Zhou nodded. “She said that she had once gone beyond the pass to gather herbs, and went to the Barbarian Ridge area. If she can come with, many people would be our guide.”
Wang Zhi smiled weirdly. “I heard that she’s in her maiden years, just waiting for a betrothal in her boudoir. You even call her by her unmarried name; is there something to be said about the connection between you two?”
Sui Zhou had no expression. “Cut the nonsense. It was her who guessed that we would be going sooner or later, so if we go, we can take her.”
Wang Zhi raised his brow, clearly disbelieving. “That so?”
Sui Zhou didn’t feel like explaining, merely glancing at Tang Fan.
“…” Hold on, what are you guys looking at me for?
The candidates were determined at the start. Once everything was properly prepared, at daybreak three days later, their group set out from Datong City for Weining Sealet.
The translator says: wang zhi: is this…… friendship? disgusting
(The original title for this was ‘Sui Zhou Player-Kills Wang Zhi’…)
The authors says: The Defending Eunuch’s Estate · Enigma of the Plate
Servant A: By the gods, there’s a plate here! Who hid this?!
Servant B: Don’t yell! Maybe Eunuch Wang snuck out to eat in the middle of the night and didn’t want to get discovered by us! Won’t you ruin his reputation with that shout?
Servant A had an epiphany.
Far away, Wang Zhi inexplicably sneezed.
 When girls marry, it’s considered rude to call her by her given name if you’re not her husband or family. That’s why married women are usually ‘Lady X’ and such, their real names never heard or said.