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Truth be told, as long as one gave all of that careful thought, they could discover the flaws it had. And yet, that completely slipped the mind of the typically-sleuthy Tang Fan in this moment, his mind filled only with what Sui Zhou had just said.
Seeing Sui Zhou’s rare, slightly-gentle look… for some reason, he should have felt relief, but was not happy in the least. “C-Congratulations, then, really,” he had to stammer.
“Thanks.” Sui Zhou pat him on the shoulder. “She’s familiarized with you, and you and I are close, so even after we get married, you can keep living here without needing to move out in a rush.”
That sentence appeared to be a deliberate warning to Tang Fan. The instant he said it, the latter realized that after Sui Zhou’s marriage, he would be bound to have his own family, his own life he needed to live. No matter how good his relationship with Sui Zhou was, he was ultimately an outsider. Moreover, it wasn’t like Tang Fan didn’t have his own house; why would he have the cheek to refuse to leave?
“After I marry, you can continue to eat over here, too. My cousin has never done chores, but she’ll bring cooking maids over. Even if I’m not at home, there will be someone cooking.”
The second Mister Tang heard this, his mood dropped even lower.
Witnessing the other’s entire body wilt, like a dog drenched in the rain with its tail drooping, Sui Zhou wondered, “Didn’t you want to have your sister matchmake for me before? Are you actually unhappy with hearing that I’m getting married?”
Tang Fan smiled absent-mindedly. “How could I be? I just feel it’s a bit too sudden.”
The other’s steady voice floated into his ears, but it equally added a slight sense of illusion. “Runqing, all those disgraceful things I said before should just be viewed as mist before the eyes. Don’t take them to heart. From now on, we will still be good brothers.”
Mister Tang hummed a bit, forcing himself to raise a smile. “What disgraceful things? I’ve long forgotten them.”
Sui Zhou gave him a profound look. “That’s good.”
After dinner, Tang Fan made up the excuse of going next door to help his nephew with his homework so that he could get out of there. Once he left the Sui home, he didn’t actually go next door, but instead veered off in another direction.
That phrase ‘My heart is joyed by a gent; does the gent’s heart feel the same?’ reverberated uncontrollably in his head, jumbling into a mess, as he unwittingly walked to a certain someone’s estate.
He raised his hand and knocked on the door. After a good minute passed, the door opened — and the one who opened it was Wei Mao.
The other was a bit surprised. “Oh, is that not you, Mister Tang?”
“Is Eunuch Wang around?”
“He is. He doesn’t need to be on-duty in the palace today, so he happens to be resting here. Please come in!”
After Wang Zhi’s return to the palace, he inevitably had to spare no small amount of effort in managing his forces that had been suppressed and crowded out, then re-establishing himself bit by bit. The Emperor’s side had been easy to handle; upon seeing Wang Zhi, he had remembered how people had requested for the Western Depot to be shuttered, felt guilt, and thus gifted Wang Zhi a residence outside the palace, allowing him to stay in it when he was not on-duty.
Despite his great merit earned at the border, in everyone’s eyes right now, Eunuch Wang was simply a tiger without claws that anyone could push around. Those who had been tripped up by the Western Depot before set obstacles up for him both overtly and covertly. He was currently busy dealing with such things, counterattacking what should be counterattacked, enduring what should be endured, and opting to settle scores that should be settled.
Compared to the time he had headed the Western Depot, he had clearly since learned how to hide his light in the darkness. This residence had been gifted by the Emperor, but it looked somewhat unremarkable from the outside, not too different from the other civilian homes surrounding it. Only when one came in and looked around would they find something extraordinary about it.
When Tang Fan arrived, Wang Zhi was in the middle of getting ready for bed. Upon hearing that someone was visiting, he had to put on his outer robes with a face full of impatience, then welcome him. “What brings your presence here, so late in the evening?”
His perfectly good rest had been disturbed, so his tone naturally wouldn’t be any sort of good. What kind of visitor dropped by in the middle of the night?
Tang Fan was startled. “I just finished dinner. Why are you going to bed?”
Wang Zhi was not happy. “This is normal! You think I live it up all day in the palace? What is it? Spit it out! Wei Mao, don’t get tea, he’s leaving as soon as he’s done talking!”
Wei Mao smiled powerlessly at Tang Fan, implying that Eunuch Wang was in a bad mood and to please be patient, still going out to have someone make tea.
Tang Fan sighed.
Wang Zhi had never seen him look this dispirited before, which caught him off guard. Had something… actually happened? “What? Who did you offend? Are you getting denounced again?”
Tang Fan sighed once more.
“Do you have any wine?”
Wang Zhi understood nothing. “You ran off to my house in the middle of the night to drink?”
“One drunken fit solves a thousand worries.”
“…Are you explaining, or what? If you don’t, I’m having Wei Mao see you off.”
For the third time that night, Tang Fan sighed deeply. “I’ve run into a hard problem. I’m not sure how to handle it.”
Wang Zhi raised a brow. “There are still problems in this world that you can’t solve?”
His curiosity was genuinely piqued by that statement, and the Wang Estate servants happened to send the tea in then. “Swap this for wine,” he ordered.
Following three rounds of drinks, Tang Fan was a little tipsy. He wanted to get more wine, but Wang Zhi’s chopsticks struck the back of his hand, which immediately turned red.
“State your issue quickly,” Eunuch Wang said, displeased.
Sir Tang felt a bit aggrieved. “Why are you so stingy? You won’t even give me wine to drink at your house!”
“…” You haven’t even passed three cups yet. How are you getting drunk?
Thankfully, Tang Fan didn’t have any notion to leave him in suspense, merely finding a tactful way to convey himself after fermenting it in his head over and over again. “There’s someone… that expressed admiration for me.”
“Oh.” Wang Zhi’s interest was mostly lost almost immediately, since it had nothing to do with politics.
Tang Fan didn’t care whether Eunuch Wang wanted to listen to him or not, talking on his own. “I rejected him. He’s getting married now, but I feel… I feel a bit uncomfortable.”
(Quick reminder: All pronouns are verbally identical in Chinese.)
“That proves that you like her back,” Wang Zhi drew blood at the first prick. “Since you have mutual feelings, go tell her parents. You’re a fourth-rank official, are unmarried, and have looks that aren’t that bad. Her parents definitely won’t object. Okay, done. Steward, see him off!”
“…” Can’t you be a more empathetic? “I can’t be with him.”
Wang Zhi raised a brow. “Why’s that? Is she a married woman?”
Tang Fan shook his head.
“Born in a brothel?”
Tang Fan shook his head.
“Do you have some kind of issue that keeps you from having sex?”
“…Did I guess it?”
Tang Fan shook his head, and fiercely.
“If you don’t tell me, I’m hitting you.”
Mister Tang stammered out, “H-He’s a man.”
Wang Zhi looked at him, brow slowly creasing.
Tang Fan avoided his gaze, pouring himself a few more cups of wine. The normally painful and hot alcohol was now unexpectedly refreshing, a burst of heat going from his throat to his stomach. His entire face flushed peach-red, too.
Wang Zhi looked strange. “It wouldn’t be Sui Guangchuan, would it?” he suddenly asked.
Tang Fan abruptly coughed, tears bubbling up.
The other’s expression was unfathomable. He held neither disdain, nor surprise.
This was not because Eunuch Wang was widely knowledgeable and progressive in thought, but because homosexuality was prevalent in the Great Ming Dynasty. Officials were banned from seeking female prostitutes by law, having policies and countermeasures about it — everyone thought that if they weren’t allowed the company of women, men were always fine, right?
Despite typical brothels still existing, they consequently had to follow the tides to keep up business. Southern Winds had also become popular, especially in the Southeast, where it was all the more fashionable.
Hence was why a man expressing his admiration for another man was not commonly seen, but, in the Great Ming, also not exactly rare.
Wang Zhi snickered. “I thought a long time ago that that punk had rotten thoughts towards you. So that’s why you’re waiting here… since you feel the same, why reject it?”
Tang Fan frowned in his drunken haze. “I want to continue the Tang family line. There’s no way that he can just not take a wife and have children. But, in my mind, it’s one pair all your life, the two of you in perfect harmony, where you shouldn’t let each other down, and there’s no need to burden anyone else. It would be better to just… to just… do you get it?”
“You want to talk to me about continuing family lines?”
Tang Fan suddenly recalled the other’s status.
As a eunuch, Wang Zhi wasn’t unable to continue the ancestral worship of his family line. The most common method was adoption, which many eunuchs did. Those with relatives would adopt children from family members, and those without would make a separate selection; ordinary citizens being able to have a powerful eunuch in their family was not a cause for shame, but of honor, because it signified that their family would also grow wealthy.
However, discussing the continuation of lineage to a eunuch’s face… ahem, was rather offensive.
Tang Fan’s wide eyes looked at him guilelessly.
Wang Zhi sneered. “If you get smacked, you’ll start talking. I’ll beat you up, then throw you in front of him. Maybe he won’t take a wife if his heart is in pain.”
Mister Tang flattened his mouth, saying nothing.
After getting drunk, his behavior was prominently much more childlike than it was when he was sober. Whenever he wisely laid out a hundred different plans, he always had the air of a lofty man — and yet, didn’t he give one the itch to thrash him on the face now?
For the sake of not quarreling with Sui Zhou someday, Wang Zhi had to suppress his impulse, calling Wei Mao over. “Go, call for Sui Guangchuan. Make him take this guy back.”
Wei Mao affirmed. Not even a minute later, he rushed back in, Sui Zhou following behind him.
Wang Zhi raised a brow at this.
“This subordinate ran into him the second I went out,” Wei Mao came in close and whispered. “I’m not sure how long he was standing there.”
Wang Zhi laughed mockingly. “If you’re so tense, why do you need to keep making new problems?”
Ever since Sui Zhou came in, his eyes had been on the intoxicated Tang Fan. The latter hadn’t noticed his arrival, watching his empty cup blankly.
Sui Zhou diverted some of his attention to answer Wang Zhi’s question. “If I don’t let him realize that there’s nothing to lose, he will forever choose to run away.”
“Like I said, why make such a fuss? Get married, have kids — that’s all the norm, and you can still be fond of whoever you want. Is there someone that’s even able to stop you?”
Sui Zhou shook his head. “Since I can’t tolerate anyone being near him, I won’t make him bear with it, either.”
Wang Zhi tutted, fully conveying the two concepts of ‘you’re hard to understand’ and ‘I don’t feel like talking nonsense with you.’ “Fine, fine, take him back now. Quit disturbing my sleep. What a bunch of stupid crap this was. I have to go into the palace early tomorrow! Go on, get!”
There was no need for the host to wave his hand and drive them out; Sui Zhou quickly left with someone in tow.
Tang Fan was a glutton, but that didn’t mean that his alcohol tolerance was high. A few cups of burning-knife wine had put him under, then ended with him completely exposing the matters of his heart to others, allowing a certain someone to see everything clearly.
By the time he was getting carried back, he was still dazed, as if he had fallen into a dream. “…Guangchuan?” he asked with some uncertainly, while Sui Zhou piggybacked him.
“Why are you here? Am I not at Wang Zhi’s?” Tang Fan asked, perplexed.
“You’re drunk. I’m taking you home.”
The other gave an oh. “You’re not marrying?”
It was unknown to him if the man answered, or what he answered with. Mister Tang involuntarily planted his head down, then dozed off.
After waking up the next day, he had a splitting headache, in a haze about what had happened last night. He couldn’t claim that he had totally forgotten it, as he certainly had some vague impressions of it, but whatever he had specifically said — and whether or not he had said something amiss — was not so clear.
Asking Sui Zhou about it? He felt that shameful and embarrassing. He wanted to find Wang Zhi, but the other was tremendously busy. There was no way he could be in his outer-palace residence every single day.
Out of a lack of choice, Tang Fan could only play dumb.
Someone couldn’t stand to see him self-deceive, however. After a few days, Tang Yu came looking for him. “I found an opportunity to ask Guangchuan. He said he already had someone in mind, so I don’t need to help him matchmake.”
Tang Fan was startled, quickly remembering that the other had said that he was engaged to his cousin in the Qiao family, then also remembering that after he had gotten drunk last night, the other appeared to have said that he wasn’t getting married. He couldn’t help but mentally curse, Sui Guangchuan, you scoundrel! Are you trying to ride two boats at once?!
Meanwhile, he feigned casualness to ask, “Who does he have in mind? Why don’t I know?”
Tang Yu sighed, not answering that. “Fluffy, be honest with your sister. Do you not want to get married for right now?”
Seeing her question him so earnestly, he replied solemnly, “Yes. I’m always running all over the place, and occasionally landing in danger. It would never be good for a nice young lady to marry me, then worry herself sick all day long.”
Didn’t a remark like that mean that border guards couldn’t have a wife or children all their lives?
Tang Yu side-eyed him, knowing well that that was an excuse, but didn’t expose him. Following her long discussion with Sui Zhou, some of her thoughts had quietly changed.
No matter what, the Tang family was only them, siblings that relied on each other. Their parents were passed, so the eldest sister was akin to the mother. She truly did wish to see Tang Fan marry and have children, spreading out his branches, but she also didn’t want her little brother to be unhappy.
As he was playing ignorant now, he likely still didn’t grasp his own thoughts. She had experienced the thing with He Lin for herself, and never wanted her brother to repeat her personal calamity.
Husband and wife, husband and wife… the husband sung, the wife followed, and only then would they be in harmony. Never having any good feelings would just make her brother and his future wife become resentful, wouldn’t it?
It was better for him to be happy, of course.
She had now come to an acceptance. People pursued nothing other than a happy life in this world. If they could do whatever their heart desired, why force shackles all over them?
What you would not wish for yourself, you should not shove onto others. She refused to do so, so she would try to force him even less.
After thinking for a time, she brought up a different topic. “Fluffy, in your view, if Qilang wants to change his surname, would that be a possibility?”
Tang Fan creased his brow at that. “Sis, did you actually take his angry talk seriously?”
She shook her head. “I’m just thinking that the He’s have no lack of grandsons. After the mess from last time, He Lin was so arrogant, he might propose separation. We can use that chance to add that condition.”
He smiled painfully. “You think too simply. Qilang is currently the bind that ties the Tang and He families. If he changes his surname to Tang, that is the equivalent of us completely severing our connection to the He’s. From how I see it, they would never do such a foolish thing.”
As soon as talks turned to stuff like this, Sir Tang’s brain immediately became useful.
Hearing that statement, faint worry covered Tang Yu’s face. “Is that so?”
“Sister, Qilang is young. Those were just words born of anger. Do you really want him to change allegiance like that? It’s not a joking matter. When he grows up, if he suffers the gossip of others, he’ll likely turn around and blame you.”
“I talked this over with him long ago. He isn’t that young anymore, and I don’t need to hide so many things from him. He already told me that he does indeed want to change his surname, and doesn’t want to return to the He family.”
Truthfully, the reason why she wanted to completely break away from the He family had another layer of concern. Two of Patriarch He’s sons were acting officials; if ever something happened, they would rely on their connection with the Tang family to drop by. For his nephew’s sake, Tang Fan would never refuse, but she didn’t want to make trouble for her brother.
Tang Fan looked grave. “What does he know? The Second He did many things wrong, but in blood ties and status, he is still Qilang’s father. If he doesn’t acknowledge his own father, that will be unacceptable wherever he goes, and he’ll face full criticism.”
Tang Yu shook her head. “It isn’t that he rejects his father, he just doesn’t want to be involved with the He’s. Before you came, he suffered difficult bullying in family studies all day long, as his classmates knew that his father wouldn’t take care of him. The bullying got all the worse, and he was too afraid to tell me; it was only when I saw a wound on him one day that I knew.”
“Why didn’t you tell me about something like that earlier?” he asked, enraged. “When we were there, I should have paid that all back!”
She laughed at him. “What would you have done? Those were all little children about the same as Qilang. Would you fight them back? Wouldn’t that have just made you a big bully of the weak? In any case, he was too frail back then. It was I, his mother, that couldn’t protect him.”
“It wouldn’t have been convenient for you to step in. Brother-in-law didn’t care, but was the rest of the family busy being dead? Did Patriarch He also not care?”
Tang Yu went quiet for a minute. “Qilang said… that the Third He’s son was amongst those that bullied him, so the Patriarch turned a blind eye to it.”
If the bullying had become vicious, the Patriarch would have stepped in, but it had simply been small fights between children. The Third He was his youngest son, too, so he definitely had some bias.
Even though Tang Fan knew that He Cheng had suffered a lot of bullying at the He home, he hadn’t thought that it had left such a deeply-cut impression on him, he refused to enter the family again.
Now that he thought about it, his father’s lack of conduct, grumbling about his mother, and lackluster passage through life had caused the crowding out from his classmates, his own cousins included, who had been influenced by their elders to not be kind to He Cheng. Children’s displays often were the bluntest and most injurious.
All of that had left scars on He Cheng’s heart that could not be erased. If not for Tang Fan’s meddling, it was hard to say whether he would have been another He Lin when he grew up.
That thinking made Tang Fan’s impression of the He’s decay yet again.
“Actually, if you want to sever ties with them completely, there’s a chance to.” Greeting Tang Yu’s inquiring look, he laughed. “I heard news that a grace exam branch is supposedly opening up this year.”
Whenever celebrations of great importance came — such as the Emperor or Dowager’s days of longevity, the birth of a Crown Prince, or other such things — the Emperor might choose to open a grace branch to express universal celebration and add amnesty to the land.
For scholars that were still slowly treading exam paths, the opening of a grace branch was an immensely joyful event. It meant that they had another shot at taking the exams, and another shot at getting listed on the golden roll.
Noticing that Tang Yu still didn’t get his point, he explained. “The Second He is wholeheartedly hoping to be an official, and as long as he can become a Provincial Honorate, he will then possess the qualifications to be one. Even though there’s too many monks and not enough congee, and I might not be able to help him achieve a capital post, if he wants one abroad, that would not be an issue. Under those terms, I can force him to relinquish the two of you. If he’s willing for the separation himself, his family won’t be able to say anything.”
“What about Qilang, then?”
He smiled. “That’s easy, too. Before the separation, both of you should draft documents for uxorilocality. Let the Second He marry into the Tang Family, and then you can change Qilang’s surname to Tang, as well as handle the separation. After you separate, since Qilang will be a Tang, he will never have to return to the He family.”
She was dumbstruck. “That’s… that’s possible?!”
He gave his sister a sly grin. “The Great Ming Code doesn’t state that it isn’t possible.”
Tang Yu was speechless.
With how clever her little brother was, if he was even a little willing to find a wife, practically every unmarried, well-to-do woman in the capital would be crying and shouting to marry into the Tang family, wouldn’t they?
On that note, even if he had no interest for it, wouldn’t he attract a bouquet of peach blossoms all the same?
Thinking of what Sui Zhou had said to her earlier, she couldn’t help but inwardly wipe off her sweat.
 烧刀子/shaodaozi, a rice wine named for the burning and stabbing sensation that comes from its extremely high alcoholic content.