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On an occasion like this, not inviting Guo Tang would be much too unreasonable. Who let him be Datong’s Governor? This position that did not a thing from start to finish, yet still got to sit and enjoy the labor of others by taking a portion of the victory fruit, was within its rights to sit at the banquet.
However, Wang Zhi was not giving him any face at all. During the meal, he shifted the full sum of his sullenness at not being able to catch Li Zilong onto Guo Tang, aiming a few jokes of ill intent at him until his face flushed from the ridicule, put on the spot. Not only that, but he summoned a beautiful maid to serve him wine — she had nothing else to do, so she specially poured Governor Guo alcohol, making him so drunk that he was helpless, knowing nothing of anything.
Tang Fan had no idea how to react to these tricks of Wang Zhi’s that he was witnessing, but he knew that the other wasn’t solely venting his anger. Behind his seemingly-impulsive acts, he had a different goal.
Firstly, due to Consort Wan, he had been classified as a figure on the fringe of the Wan party, even though he had never made a clear-cut stance of being on it. He had simply always had his own standpoint, where it would be impossible for him to ever listen to the Wan party like Shang Ming did.
As a consequence of his secret help for the Crown Prince, the Wan party had removed its label from him, even sending Guo Tang to trip him up in Datong. That had annoyed him, his attitude towards Guo Tang actually displaying his attitude of completely separating himself from the Wan party. From this point on, the two would be strangers on different paths.
Secondly, regardless of how incompetent the Emperor was at doing things, as a ruler, he definitely wouldn’t like for his subjects to all team up and start colluding to swindle him. For example, he did everything Consort Wan said, yet had still removed her little brother from his post for a set amount of time as a warning — those two sides were not contradictory.
For that reason, Wang Zhi’s posturing was for the Emperor to see. Wang Zhi was in disharmony with the Wan party, the two sides complaining about each other; not only would the Emperor not be vexed, he would be glad.
As for who the Emperor would end up leaning towards, that would depend on whose heinous accusations could reach a higher level. As it went, of the Eight Immortals crossing the sea, each clearly had remarkable powers, all doing their best.
Thirdly, since Wang Zhi was inclined towards the Crown Prince, he ought to show off his sincerity. His hostilities with Guo Tang, despite being in the far-off Datong, would soon reach the capital, then the ears of the Crown Prince.
More importantly, Wang Yue and Wang Zhi had established great merits, and those of great achievements easily encountered jealousy. Exposing some weak points at opportune times would make others feel a bit more at ease.
Thus, Eunuch Wang’s recklessness and arrogance that was to the point of lawlessness was to be disregarded. When mingling within officialdom, every move and act had a deeper meaning to it. If one couldn’t see and comprehend, then they would meet their doom very quickly, either being taken as a stepping stone and trampled to death, or remaining in place for all their lives.
Thankfully, Tang Fan didn’t need to worry about that. To him, Guo Tang’s reputation and that pretty maid were inferior in attraction to these dishes that filled the table.
Four-joy spheres, hall-filling treasures, cluck-as-one-wills, abundance-through-the-years, promotion-by-steps… for the sake of gaining a good message, Wang Yue had specifically ordered people to pick out nice-sounding names for these.
The ‘four-joy spheres’ were braised lionhead meatballs.
The ‘hall-filling treasures’ were tricolor egg rolls.
Within ‘cluck-as-one-wills’, there was a pun off of ‘luck’ being in ‘cluck’. After the chicken had been stewed, the meat had been torn from the bones, then mixed with shredded cucumber to make a cold dish.
Abundance-through-the-years was one massive perch. After being steam-cooked, it had been sprinkled with scallion-oil sauce to bring the umami flavor of the fish to its pinnacle.
Promotion-by-steps was year cake typically eaten by civilians on New Year’s, but for a feast at the Commandant Estate, they had been made more exquisitely and deliciously.
There were also various other sorts of soups and river fish that didn’t need to be gone through individually.
With this feast, Tang Fan and Sui Zhou’s emotions would likely be at their most relaxed, eating their fills without worry… though, Sui Zhou didn’t have such a profound obsession with delicacies, so it was ultimately a boon for Tang Fan alone.
After the meal, Wang Yue ordered for the too-drunk-to-walk Guo Tang to be taken back to his own Estate. Tang Fan and Sui Zhou got up to bid farewell, expressing that they had to go back to the inn, get their things together, and prepare to go back to the capital for imperial audience; Wang Yue understood as much, so he didn’t try to make them stay longer, personally seeing them off at the entrance.
Wang Zhi left together with them. Tang Fan saw that he wore barely any smile, and simply took it as him being mad over what had happened with Li Zilong. “Li Zilong escaped one catastrophe, so his life shouldn’t be gone yet. With this great victory, the Court will certainly not place more blame onto you,” he soothed.
The other just shook his head. “That’s not what I’m thinking about.”
Tang Fan raised a brow. “Then what are you?”
“I previously presented memorials announcing illness and requesting to return to the capital, but they were rejected several times with orders that I remain garrisoned in Datong. When I present another memorial this time, I’m afraid that His Majesty will reject it again.”
“He should agree to let you return after such a huge success,” Tang Fan answered, confused. His meaning wasn’t that the Emperor would cherish his hard work enough to let him come back, but that if Wang Zhi didn’t return with his high merits, the Court would worry about him sitting too high.
Wang Zhi’s face was overcast. “Don’t you understand how the Wan party is? It isn’t whether His Majesty agrees or not, it’s that they’ll definitely think of a way to keep me away from both Datong, and the capital. They might even send me straight to Nanjing for retirement. His Majesty’s ears are soft; if they puff on them, he’ll likely nod his head.”
Tang Fan pondered for a bit. “It’s actually not that hard, if you want to return.”
Wang Zhi having followed him all this way had been precisely to ask him about ideas, so he grew excited at that. “You have a solution?”
“I’ll ask you this; did all of your last few memorials state your ill health?”
Wang Zhi rolled his eyes. “It was more than ill health! I jinxed myself on being near-death, and His Majesty still didn’t agree to let me go back!”
“Then, did you ever say that you were willing to lay down your post to serve His Majesty and the Consort?”
The other was caught off guard. “I never did.”
How could a strong man go a day without being in power? If the Emperor took him seriously and actually sank his post down to the bottom, where would he go off to weep to?
Tang Fan shook his head. “His Majesty has a soft heart, but it isn’t a soft heart that’s without a bottom line. You have to have grounds that can actually move him. Now that the Western Depot has long shuttered, even if you don’t say as much, after you return to the capital, why the need to bother with starting business back up there? You’ve grown up in the palace since your childhood; it’s your native home. Even if the Wan party is being an obstruction, they can’t make you beg for your own carcass to be taken back to your homeland, can they?”
Wang Zhi snorted; this was one a sarcastic guy. ‘Beg for your own carcass’, in conventional words, was to return home for retirement — Tang Fan was actually right. Were it said that the palace was Wang Zhi’s home, how could the Emperor still disagree?
This… seemed to be actually doable?
“There’s still another issue. If they use my health as an excuse to send me to Nanjing for recovery, what should I do?” he asked again.
“You’re clearly suffering from very serious joint pain,” Tang Fan answered casually. “Doctors say that this sort of ailment needs to avoid long periods of time in damp and cold areas. The South is damper than the North; why would it be suitable for your recovery?”
Great! This was really great!
Wang Zhi couldn’t help but want to give him a big thumbs up, but he thought that that wouldn’t be too appropriate, holding up his aloof airs. “Tang Fan, I acknowledge you as a friend.”
The other laughed. “That’s a bit heart-breaking, Eunuch Wang. I thought we’ve been friends this whole time!”
“One-sided ties and bare-minimum acquaintances are both considered ‘friends’, too,” Wang Zhi sneered.
“It’s getting late, we should get back,” Sui Zhou suddenly spoke. “I had the posthouse people cook lotus seed-mung been soup. If we get back earlier, you can have some. It won’t be any good later.”
Despite having recently eaten his fill, once he heard that there was sweet soup to be had, he automatically said, “Let’s head back quickly, then! This is my farewell, Eunuch Wang!”
With that, he cupped his hands towards Wang Zhi, then dragged Sui Zhou off without delay.
“…” Wang Zhi had no time to respond, blankly watching them leave.
In truth, Sui Zhou was displeased at heart: Why would I tolerate you nitpicking the one I hold in my palm?
Those words would not be said to outsiders, of course.
A dozen or so days later, when Lu Yan’s injuries were good enough to let him ride a carriage, Tang Fan’s group officially set off for the capital. Compared to when they had arrived, they were down one Wei Shan, but up one Du Gui’r.
During Lu Yan’s recovery period in Zhongjing Hall, he had developed a mutual affection for Du Gui’r, who had helped to look after him.
On that heart-pounding night, not only tenacity had been tested, but the heart. Du Gui’r hadn’t been with Lu Yan at the time, but she had learned from the mouths of others that he had been injured in order to protect his colleague, only for Wei Shan to unfortunately die at the hands of Li Zilong, who had been disguised as Chuyun-zi. Lu Yan had ultimately failed to save his friend’s life.
Even so, Du Gui’r held some good feelings for his loyalty. Combined with him recuperating in Zhongjing Hall, their long days of getting to know each other caused her to regard his moral character all the more highly.
To be exact, her previous good feelings she had displayed towards Sui Zhou had merely been a type of admiration towards someone strong. Compared to him, Lu Yan’s steadfastness and consideration made her genuinely realize what she needed most.
Doctor Du had been deathly worried about his daughter’s marriage, nearly believing that she would never get married for all her life, yet Lu Yan had suddenly fallen down from the Heavens, who she happened to take a liking to. Also seeing that Lu Yan was of good character, and learning that he wasn’t from a military household, but a well-off one light in capital, Doctor Du had quickly consented to their marriage.
As the Du family only had two daughters, Lu Yan had even promised that the first child they had would have the surname Du, which had made the Doctor ecstatic. What was baffling was that, in order to avoid complications from prolonging things, he had made what was supposed to be a long affair very short, determining the marriage in half a month with all the velocity of a flame.
Tang Fan and Sui Zhou, in the capacities as matchmaker and superior, had even attended the wedding ceremony.
Hence was why Du Gui’r was coming back to the capital with them; as the lady of the Lu house, she would have to pay respects to Lu Yan’s parents. It was not exactly clear on whether those parents would be over the moon, or more shocked than happy about their son going out and bringing a wife back.
After several months of separation, the capital was the same, unchanged by anyone’s departure or existence. To speak in a way that was a great faux-pas, even if the Emperor himself perished, the commoners would wear mourning clothes for three months at most, living their lives how they ought to live them.
Since Wang Zhi and Wang Yue still needed to handle post-battle matters in Datong, they would be coming back later, not with Tang Fan’s group this time around. What was most important was that Eunuch Wang’s memorial for returning to the capital for ‘retirement’ needed to be passed on via Tang Fan’s group, because if it went through the regular process, it would likely never reach the Emperor’s end.
The process of their imperial audience was nothing notable. Tang Fan’s group had handled its assignment properly and without flaws. The Wan party could, at the very most, only pour some dirty water on them regarding Li Zilong’s escape, but there was no way they could deny their credits in helping to crack the pending Weining Sealet case and report back ahead of time.
When it came to Li Zilong, Tang Fan’s group naturally had something to say, too. The man had clearly been sentenced to death by both the Emperor’s brush and the Ministry of Justice’s documents. That an imperial prisoner like him could escape from right under the Court’s nose held a huge implication — didn’t that mean that there was an informant in the Court that had passed messages to Li Zilong, and even helped him to flee? If they wanted a strict investigation, that would start off from the origins!
Considering that that would be a huge loss even if they won it, the Wan party had no choice but to abandon the inquiry, put away their battle flags, and not even obstruct Wang Zhi’s request to return to the capital. Meanwhile, Wang Zhi’s memorial, as written by Tang Fan’s suggestion, indeed moved the Emperor, as he not only agreed to let Wang Zhi come back, but reinstated his position as the Brushholder Eunuch of the Supervisory of Royal Steeds.
That was all a story for later.
Tang Fan and Sui Zhou, owing to their phenomenal performance, were bestowed with gold, silver, and silks, as well as allowed to recuperate for a few days before returning to their duties at their bureaus.
After the fact, Tang Fan’s same-year friends privately felt no lack of injustice for him. Thinking about how hard he had toiled, and how he had nearly lost his life, yet had received no promotion, they believed it to not have been worth it.
Tang Fan, conversely, understood that despite posts being good, it wasn’t like one could get promoted just because they wanted to be. There was only one daikon per pit; for a promotion, someone else would have to make way from their post.
In any case, Tang Fan had been promoted fast enough as it was. Amongst Palace Honorates of his same branch and age group, those that were like him — young in age and with truefourth-rank posts — were not nonexistent, but also weren’t many. His career path could be said to be worthy of pride.
The Wan party hadn’t gone looking to make trouble for him thus far, so he should go thank the Heavens and the Earth and burn incense in worship to the Buddha. Wanting to be promoted would purely be a search for death, so it was way better than all else to just relax a little.
What ought to be yours would sooner or later come to you. What ought not would be pointless to force.
The days following their return to the capital, in Tang Fan’s opinion, were relatively tranquil and easy. He was finally able to resume his standard official job again. Then, when work got off every day, he could return home to play with his nephew, make his sister laugh, eat snacks with Ah-Dong… in a life like that, there was simply nothing else to look for.
Well, of course, if Sui Zhou could quit staring at him with a deeply meaningful gaze all the time, Mister Tang would feel a lot more comfortable.
The other’s feelings had already been made very clear. What needed to be said had been said in Datong, and what needed to be done had been done back at the Weining Sealet. Even with how bright and quick-witted a person Tang Fan was, he didn’t have a good grasp on stuff like this, and was unsure of how to react.
To say that he was revolted wasn’t it. At the very least, after that night, he still held no disgust for Sui Zhou.
But making Mister Tang confess that he liked him, and so terribly, was not happening.
Bluntly speaking, he was happy with the way things were, and wanted no change whatsoever. See, everyone was already great friends — why the need to ask that things go a step forward?
Would everything be like it always was after the change?
To comprehend this event, the ever-simple Mister Tang suffered an unprecedented shichen of insomnia, only to wake up the very next day as chipper as ever, interacting with Sui Zhou like nothing had happened. Him getting over it made Envoy Sui quite helpless.
Alas, when faced with Sir Tang’s personality, where he would pull the blanket over his head if the sky was falling down, this could not be rushed.
It was good that Sui Zhou had long grown accustomed to his style. After finding that his method of slowly cooking a frog in warm water wasn’t working, he decided to switch tactics.
As for what tactic that was, he was keeping it a secret for right now. There would conceivably come a day where Tang Fan finally wouldn’t be able to escape.
On a different topic, ever since He Cheng had moved to the capital with his mother, he grew livelier by the day. By the time Tang Fan had returned to Datong and seen his nephew once more, He Cheng was no different from typical children. His melancholy and calmness of the past had decreased by a lot, and he would even go with Ah-Dong to climb trees.
Of course, in order to raise a well-bred young lady that at least had an outward appearance capable of fooling outsiders lest she never be able to find a husband, Ah-Dong would get dejectedly pulled down off the tree by Tang Fan grabbing her ear. Still, as his uncle, Tang Fan was extremely happy about the heartening changes that He Cheng had gone through.
He Cheng aside, even his sister Tang Yu had shed the solemness she had had in the He household, restored to how she had been back when unmarried.
No one in this world wanted to wear a mask all their lives; it was only due to extenuating circumstances that one would have to forcefully change their temperaments to adapt to their situation. There were millions of women just like her, and she was not the most tragic one around, but they might not have a little brother like Tang Fan that would be willing and able to help her. That was why she felt herself quite fortunate.
However, after Tang Fan’s return, he learned from Ah-Dong that during the time they had all been away, his brother-in-law had come over from Xianghe County, sought out the Tang house, and personally came to the door in want to take his wife and son back. In the end, despite their separation of households, she was still nominally a woman of the He family, and her name was recorded in their ancestral register. He Lin’s demand was completely within bounds.
Tang Yu had refused, of course, and even He Cheng had rejected going back with his father. Shamed into anger, He Lin had nearly made the servants accompanying him straight-up grab them and take them away. This had been followed by Ah-Dong charging out, the little lady alone against a bigger enemy; she had taken up the longsword Sui Zhou once crafted for her, then beaten up the He people until they had fled in defeat.
From Tang Fan’s understanding of He Lin, someone with an unaffected temperament like him would definitely not have stopped by to pick his family up for no reason. When things went awry, demons must be afoot — in order to find out why, he secretly sent people to Xianghe County to investigate.
The search indeed yielded a cause.
Purportedly, Tang Yu’s departure from the He home had already spread around the County. Despite the outside world being told that it had been for recuperation, those with discerning eyes had made out a thing or two, to say nothing of the fact that the He servants had mouths. This had gradually turned into things unpleasant to hear; that the He’s had abused their daughter-in-law until she couldn’t take the disgrace anymore, and also that Tang Yu had an affair with an adulterer from the capital, so she had relied on her brother’s high official position to discard her husband and run away from home. Rumors were abound.
To add a thunderstorm to that snow, the instant Wei Ce died, the Wei family’s financials had plummeted a thousand zhang. The richest people in the county capital had scattered in the span of a night. Even though this was the Wei’s problem, as their in-laws, the He’s reputation had been impacted by no small amount. They were not a breakout-rich household with no strong foundation, however, and Patriarch He wouldn’t make his son divorce his wife, as that would only cause everyone to think that the He’s were heartless.
Before all of this, He Xuan had just tested into being a Palace Honorate. Even though he had only been on the tail-end of the second roll and not selected to be a Hanlin entrant, he was still an authentic piece, of much more promise than his second brother, He Lin. Patriarch He didn’t wish for his youngest son to be like his eldest son, unable to come home for years on end, so he had used some old connections in the capital, and expended no lack of strength and difficulties, to get He Xuan into the Ministry of Justice’s Records Center, becoming a minor, trueeighth-rank Archivist.
For the He’s reputation, and for his youngest’s future career, Patriarch He had made a major decision: the family would move to the capital.
Their family had generations of officials, and Xianghe County was not that far from the capital, but they weren’t true capital folk. Despite them being a big deal in Xianghe, they really wouldn’t be much in the capital area. When He Xuan entered the Six Ministries, for example, he would inevitably have times where he would need help.
Patriarch He’s old colleagues were only connected to him by old experiences, after all. Every once in while, they could be asked for a favor, but that already relied on their particular nostalgic feelings; expecting others to constantly look after him was a complete impossibility.
Speaking of which, the Tangs were the He’s proper in-laws, but, stemming from the fight between He Lin and his wife, the fuss made Patriarch He want to go find Tang Fan, but he couldn’t set down his old dignity. On top of that, Tang Fan had previously been assigned to the Ministry of Justice — when it came to looking out for someone, where could a closer relationship be than that?
Regardless of how it was said, this pot had been stirred up by He Lin, so this matter had to start from the Third of the He’s, He Xuan. After he entered the Ministry of Justice, though, he had realized that Tang Fan’s capabilities were far greater than he had imagined.
As his superiors and colleagues had said, when Tang Fan had been in the Ministry of Justice and taken up a fifth-rank Chief position, he had dared to openly lock horns with the Left Assistant Minister of Justice. The two had fought like mad, and in the end, Tang Fan had been admittedly dismissed from his post, but that hugely-influential Assistant Minister hadn’t received any benefits, either, soon getting sent abroad to Nanjing to chew on grass.
Then, the other implicated party had quickly reclaimed his official’s post after a brief timespan, and not only that; he had been promoted a grade.
How much ability was needed for that? A fifth-rank Chief had dared to go against a third-rank Assistant Minister — either the man’s brain was sogged, or his backer was too great for him to place importance on that Assistant Minister.
He Xuan had interacted with Tang Fan before. Someone that had been wise enough to crack the Wei case certainly didn’t have a sogged brain, so the only possibility was that Tang Fan had a strong supporter.
Even though the man was no longer in the Ministry of Justice, he had become something of a legendary figure there. Anyone that had witnessed the storm themselves would get a complicated expression upon hearing his name.
Outsiders didn’t know that He Lin and Tang Yu were in disharmony, only knowing that He Xuan and Tang Fan were in-laws. On that layer of relation alone, they were a bit polite to him, no one daring to bully him for right now despite him being a newcomer.
He had been bewildered at the onset, placed inside cloudy mist. After gradually coming to comprehend these connections, he had gotten the mind to ask around.
These inquiries had caused him to suck in a cold breath.
As it turned out, Tang Fan was currently posted in the Inspectorate, the Right Censor being his teacher. That Bastion Envoy of the Brocade Guard that had accompanied him to Xianghe was his best friend. The recently-transferred Right Assistant Minister of Rites, Pan Bin, shared his teacher. Rumors were abound that the former Western Depot Director of brilliant and vicious repute, and current Brushholder Eunuch of the Supervisory of Royal Steeds, Wang Zhi, had a fateful friendship with him. The group of his same-year friends didn’t need to be brought up, either.
That was a huge amount of influence — no wonder he hadn’t been shaken at all by that one Left Assistant Minister.
It must be said that the strength of rumors was immense, and time could bury facts all the more. Liang Wenhua ending up deported to Nanjing had actually been an event done during the process of the contest between the Crown Prince and Wan parties, the latter of which had elected to abandon him. It wasn’t much like how bystanders imagined, where Tang Fan had tremendous power.
Still, everyone that was fond of reading commoner novels were always happy to believe in the exaggerated portions. He Xuan, who didn’t know the truth, was no exception.
He had quickly conferred what he had found out in detail to Patriarch He.
Before this, perhaps, the He’s would have inevitably grumbled to themselves that Tang Fan had caused problems over nothing, provoking this crisis of familial disharmony. He Xuan had also been angry and dissatisfied with Tang Fan over what had happened with his wife’s natal family, but after all this, the He’s had realized that if they wanted to settle in nicely, they needed to forge a good relationship with Tang Fan.
Back in Xianghe, what all of their eyes hadn’t seen would be put out of mind. Now that they would be at eye level, could they still pretend to not know each other?
All else notwithstanding, if Tang Fan ever went out and set word on the wind that he and the He’s were at odds, giving his thoughts on them, He Xuan’s days at the Ministry of Justice would likely not be so great.
Now, using the time before they were officially moving, Patriarch He had wanted to first send He Lin over to stand up, making him beg for his wife’s forgiveness. It would be best for the married couple to reconcile, so that no one would feel awkward when meeting from now on, and if the He’s ever needed to ask the Tangs for help, it wouldn’t be impossible to ask for it.
This was the full story behind He Lin showing up at their door.
All it had ended with was He Lin bungling everything, though, chilling the relationship between the two families down to a freezing point once again.
[End of Arc 7: The Case of the Weining Sealet]
The translator says: *burns demon-repelling incense* no in-laws in this house
 Original pun was that the ji of 吉/good luck and the ji of 鸡/chicken are homophonous. The pun I made instead makes me feel like a dad.