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Tang Fan carefully mulled over his sister’s words, getting the overall sense that there was a deeper meaning within them, and seemingly another motive.
In truth, from the time he had returned home drunk from Wang Zhi’s home to today, more than a half a year’s time had passed.
During this period, Sui Zhou had gone on several abroad assignments, seldom able to spend a few successive days peacefully at home. Tang Fan himself had been posted at the Inspectorate, which, due to being particularly short-staffed these years, had particularly large workloads allocated to each individual. This was especially so with a superior like his teacher, Qiu Jun, who had strict demands of his subordinates.
Even in the capital, Tang Fan frequently left early and came home late. It was difficult for the two of them to find days where they could spend time together like they had in Datong.
However, Tang Fan had always kept such in mind. As was known, Sui Zhou had previously stated that he would get married at the start of spring; even though Tang Fan seemed to have vaguely heard that he wasn’t taking a wife, he had never found an opportunity to question it.
The matter had been set to the side. They appeared to have reached a sort of implicit understanding, neither taking it upon themselves to bring it up.
That was, until today. His sister’s words had finally made Tang Fan come to a decision. He planned to wait until Sui Zhou was off-duty to make things clear to him.
However, he waited here and there, looking on until the curtain of night fell, and the man’s figure didn’t appear. A bit anxious, Tang Fan went straight to the Northern Bastion Office to find him.
Outside of his expectations, he was informed that Sui Zhou had received an abroad mission at the last minute, and was preparing to head for Tongzhou overnight. It wasn’t long since he had set off, so if he went now himself, he would probably be able to catch up.
Tang Fan’s mind was on fire, caring for nothing else. He immediately borrowed a horse from the Office people to run to the city gates.
By the time he did, it was already dark, and the gate was soon about to close. Scrambling forth, he managed to catch sight of a group that seemed to be about to leave the capital, and immediately shouted out, “Sui Guangchuan!”
He hadn’t even been certain that Sui Zhou was amongst them, yet that shout unexpectedly drew the entire group into successively turning their heads — and there Sui Zhou was.
The latter said a few things to all his companions, allowing them to proceed with their journey before him, then turned his horse back. “What happened?”
Seeing how he was panting, Sui Zhou habitually wanted to take a kerchief out to wipe off his sweat for him, but just when he lifted his finger, he stopped, unmoving. No one could have been able to detect the slightest flaw.
For this over half a year, he had been carefully measuring himself. They seemed to have returned to the days where they had only just met, plus not known each other for very long. Despite living under the same roof, Sui Zhou had never said a half-word of ambiguity again, nor made the slightest ambiguous action.
That should have made Tang Fan relieved, but for some reason, he was not as happy as he had expected himself to be.
A stomachful of words spinning in his throat, all he ended up asking was one thing: “…Why are you going on another abroad trip?”
Sui Zhou hummed. “Imperial orders. I’m going to Tongzhou to handle something.”
Simply-worded, without a bit of nonsense. Not even his goal was ever revealed.
Tang Fan cupped his hands, voice a little sullen. “Then… have an easy trip, and come back soon.”
Sui Zhou nodded. “Thank you.”
With that, he turned his horse in preparation to leave.
A scant few words, nothing else.
When had they become so estranged?
Tang Fan felt inexplicably discomfited. Seeing the other man’s figure appear to become one with the darkness, he turned reckless, not making a sound as he leaned right forward to grab the other’s arm, only to almost fall off of his horse.
Luckily, Sui Zhou reacted in time, turning around to hold him up by the arms, then bringing him back onto his own horse. He himself dismounted, and dragged the other off.
“What are you doing?!” he coldly rebuked, anger inside his tone. “If I wasn’t paying attention to what was behind me, you would have fallen off!”
Tang Fan smiled sheepishly. “I wasn’t being careful.”
Sui Zhou went silent for a bit. “If there’s nothing else, I’ll take my leave.”
Tang Fan couldn’t drag this out further, so he lightly coughed, took something out of a pocket, then handed it over. “I just saw this on the streets and bought it. Take it and have fun!”
Not waiting for Sui Zhou’s reaction after that, he turned and rode off on his horse, kicking up dust.
Sui Zhou was a bit mystified. He bowed his head to observe using the moonlight, seeing a piece of jade in his palm. It was warm to the touch, and its make was a little inferior, as if it really had been casually bought off of the streets.
Upon a closer look, the janky beaded string tied through the jade’s hole… seemed to be Ah-Dong’s handiwork?
Raising it up for a sniff, there was no fragrance to it, except for the smell of simmer-fried eggplant.
…And he recalled that when Ah-Dong and the rest had dinner last night next door, they had eaten simmer-fried eggplant.
What kind of ploy was this?!
He carried the jade with him out of the city, head full of fog. Everyone was waiting for him at the outskirt posthouse.
It was too late in the day, making it unsuitable to get on the road, but if they didn’t leave the city, the gates wouldn’t be open when they tried to leave early the next day, which would cause a delay. Hence was why everyone had planned to rest for a few shichen in this outside posthouse, then get on the road when daybreak came.
Journeying with him was the Minister of Revenue, Yu Zijun. Seeing that Sui Zhou was holding a jade pendant, he teased, “So, Censor Tang calling you over was to hand over a love token for someone else?”
Dark-faced, Sui Zhou vaguely grunted. Never before had he received a ‘love token’ that stank of eggplant.
In any case, Tang Fan suddenly giving him a jade must have had a deeper meaning. Thinking of how Yu Zijun was also a Palace Honorate and erudite scholar, he humbly asked for guidance. “Please instruct, Minister Yu; is there something I need to understand in this?”
“Did you give the other party anything prior?”
The implication a gift of pretty jade had was quite simple. Since antiquity, there had been a saying that went ‘toss a quince, get a jade back’, but he was getting the sense that Tang Fan wasn’t going by that, else he would have had his own jade pendant. Why take the trouble to steal Ah-Dong’s for the gift?
“Let me see,” Yu Zijun said.
Sui Zhou passed the pendant over.
Yu Zijun found it poor to say that the beads had been strung uglily, so he could only pick out nice-sounding words. “Hm. The make is average, but it has a young maiden’s full heart in it… uh, why does it seem to smell like fried eggplant?”
Yu Zijun looked it over for a time, then returned it with a smile. “Have you ever read a certain poem by Po Qin, Envoy Sui?”
Despite being well-versed in writing, Sui Zhou was not a true scholar, and had no specific knowledge of such things to speak of. He shook his head in response.
“I wander outside the eastern gate, where I meet a noble air of great. I follow to a secluded room, attending to him with garments grabbed. No vows made beneath the mulberry, near the roadside, we are together. Engaged I am by his lovely looks, pleased is he by my countenance, too. How to convey our sincerity? Slip on the arms two golden bracelets. How to convey our courteousness? Fix the fingers a pair of silver. How to convey delicate feelings? Appoint two pearls upon the earlobes. How to convey our joint devotion? Tie a sachet behind the elbow. How to convey our pining, yearning? Wind around the wrists two long ribbons. How to bind affections eternal? Fine jade strung by beaded, silken thread…”
Hearing the last two parts, Sui Zhou couldn’t help but be shocked. Such an open implication — how could he not grasp it?
Though… was that actually what Tang Fan wanted to convey? Was that dead tree having a day of revival?
Yu Zijun kept talking on his end. “Presumably, this young lady has deep feelings for you, and she finds it hard to say directly out of embarrassment, so she had to choose to express it this way. Such touching affection; Envoy Sui is truly blessed beyond compare.”
Seeing no sort of joy whatsoever on Sui Zhou’s face, then remembering that eggplant smell, Yu Zijun seemed to understand. That lady’s hopes were likely all in vain. He stopped poking fun, going to rest after saying a few more things.
He could have never imagined that Sui Zhou’s mind had long come to be a total wreck, or that he itched to turn around, grab that guy, and interrogate him thoroughly.
However, he had a job to do, and the city gates had long shut. All he could do was forcefully quell his burning mind, focus on his task, and ask later.
Tang Fan had no idea of Sui Zhou’s reaction, of course. While on his way back, he was still measuring whether his act of gifting jade had been too esoteric. With Guangchuan’s literary talent, he likely wouldn’t be able to guess the poem.
He had taken Ah-Dong’s jade pendant at the last minute and hurried out; buying her another piece in compensation was a trifle. When Sui Zhou came back, and she saw her pendant show up with him, who knew how she would react?
Were it not for the fact that his own jade pendant had no beads, but a tassel, he would not have done such a thing.
Thinking as much, Mister Tang held his forehead, troubled over how to fix this disaster.
Not only did he have a headache, but He Lin had a headache, too.
He Cheng changing his surname and the separation was too big of an event. Knowing that he wouldn’t be able to keep it secret, he informed his parents of it after his return.
Once Patriarch He and Lady Xu heard, it was like a bolt from a clear sky, turning them both stiff.
In the current age, men from decent families would not go for uxorilocality, as it was dishonorable, and viewed as a disgrace that cast aside one’s ancestors. Unless there was no further path of survival for him, no man would ever agree to it, let alone allow a perfectly good descendant to change families and be handed over to someone else.
Had the He’s been impoverished, this would have been fine, but they were clearly a family of standing! How could they allow their son to do such a classless thing?
“I knew those Tang siblings had no good intentions! Now they’ve even wrested our grandson away!” Lady Xu couldn’t resist shrieking out, disregarding her typical dignity.
“Mom, don’t get angry! Listen to what Brother has to say first.” He Xuan, having rushed over at the news, couldn’t help but mentally shake his head. What was even happening?!
“What could he say?! How has our family reached the point where it sells off its grandsons?! Second, did you never consider our reputation when you did such a thing?! How do you view the He ancestors?!” Lady Xu pointed at He Lin, hand shaking out of anger.
Patriarch He was much calmer than she was, tamping down his anger to speak to He Lin. “This was nothing more than a private talk, right? That road hasn’t yet been crossed, so it can just be like the gibberish that comes after drinks. Tomorrow, I will go find Tang Fan and request that he withdraw this proposal. I don’t believe that he wouldn’t even give me that face.”
“You don’t need to go find him,” He Lin answered. “I already signed the uxorilocality documents.”
Both Patriarch He and Lady Xu were taken aback.
“Once the authorities process it, Qilang’s surname will change, and then I’ll separate from Lady Tang,” He Lin continued. “After the separation, the uxorilocality documents will be nulled. How would that be seen as losing the family face?”
“Brother, how could you be such an idiot!” He Xuan stamped his foot. “Even if you separate, what could be done? Once Qilang changes his surname, outsiders will say that you’re powerless to the point that even your wife and son don’t respect you! That won’t put your reputation in a good light!”
“And I have much of one right now?” He Lin asked coldly. “Tang Fan agreed to help me get past this blockage by offering me a post.”
“What did he promise you?” Patriarch He asked.
“Official Mentor of Miyun County.”
“That little job won you over?! You pawned off your wife and child for that?!” The other became furious. His face flushed red, and he pressed on his chest. Lady Xu and He Xuan rushed up to help him upon seeing this.
“Since they have no will to remain in the He family, why force it? Father, do you think I don’t know that your refusal to let me separate from Lady Tang is for no other reason than to pave a path for the Third?!”
“Has he ever let you down?!” the Patriarch fumed. “He’s a He, and the He family is good — are you not?! You can’t become a Palace Honorate, so you’re keeping your own brother from success?!”
He Lin sneered. “The issue there is that the Tang family doesn’t want to be bound to us at all. You’re scrambling to hug their thighs, but have you never considered how they would regard us? No matter what, I’m Qilang’s father, and I’ve already agreed! If Lady Tang treats Qilang well, then whether he changes his surname or not, he’s still my son!”
With that, he swept out his sleeves and left, not paying any further attention to the expressions of his parents and brother.
He Lin had always been a lone wolf of reclusive personality. Over all these years, Patriarch He had grown used to that, and yet He Lin had decided to separate from Lady Tang and let Qilang change his surname without permission — that was both unacceptable and incomprehensible.
Yes, the He’s had no shortage of descendants. He Yi had three sons at his knees, and He Xuan had a son, too. He Cheng’s nickname of Qilang had been granted according to the lineup of his same-generation brothers in the family; without him, Patriarch He had four grandsons from his non-concubine lineages. That generation could be labeled as thriving, but the families of the Eldest and Third’s wives had no in-laws in them like Tang Fan.
The joining of two families by marriage was not only for the purpose of producing offspring, but for having mutual support. This was something commonplace, and yet a friendship spanning two generations had been completely severed when it had come to He Lin.
The Patriarch was really of the mind to beat his unfilial son to death.
“Dad, what do we do now? Do you want to go to the Tang home?” He Xuan asked.
Patriarch He waved him off, dispirited. “That the Tangs came up with this means that they were scheming for a long time. Since the Second has consented to it, our dissent will have no use, and if we force it, we’ll instead make enemies of them. Forget it, just let them be.”
He Xuan stamped his foot again. “How did the Second bungle a perfectly good marriage like that?! The Tang’s conduct has not conformed to etiquette, and they were clearly in a rush to cast us aside, like they were afraid that we might ask something of them. How about I get a peer to denounce Tang Fan?”
“Are you a fool?!” the Patriarch shouted. “Will denouncing him make our reputation all shiny? No matter how we speak of it, this is a family matter. Both of our families have officials in them — tell me, how will the authorities judge that? Don’t be an embarrassment, just let it be! The Second will fix the problems he causes, and you’ll mind your own business!”
He Xuan hesitated. “…But, if this goes on, the Tangs will have a complete falling out with us. Won’t Tang Fan take that chance to build obstacles for me?”
The other laughed angrily. “You think too little of Tang Runqing. If he wasted energy on such petty affairs, he wouldn’t have his current post! Listen to your father; you’re in the Ministry of Justice, so just do what you need to do, and don’t criticize him behind his back. We were indeed the first to let him down about what happened with the Second Lady and Qilang, so this recompense should be enough to calm his anger. You don’t need to overthink… though I do have a warning for you.”
Hearing his father get serious, He Xuan stood solemnly. “Please speak, father.”
“That your second brother had this day was entirely his own fault, and caused by his personality. No one else can be blamed for it. Since he was able to decide to get this minor post, if he mends his ways, he will still have room for redemption. If he can’t, his life will be a total waste. Your mother birthed all three of you, yet you all have distinct personalities. The Eldest has a wealth of calmness, but lacks drive. To be able to sit in the post I had before retirement is the apex of his sky, and it’s difficult for him to advance further.
“The Second will not be spoken of. As for you, your personality and aptitude are not lacking, and you’re now at the perfect age to be a Palace Honorate and get on your officialdom path. Your only defect is that you frequently view little schemes as big ones, and that is a huge taboo in officialdom! Little schemes can work for a small while, but will make it hard to walk far. Take Tang Fan, for instance; setting his quick rise aside, if you were made to go to Datong to puff sand, would you be happy? Would you be able to perform beautifully under those circumstances? Would you dare to oppose the Wan party?”
He Xuan felt that an aspect of that had some logic, while another aspect, he couldn’t help but argue against. “But with the Wan party constantly suppressing him, no matter how promising he is, it will be difficult for him to have any sort of great luck!”
The Patriarch sighed. “When observing any situation, your eyes must look into the distance. No one dares to provoke the Wan party, but will it live forever? To put it disrespectfully, is its ‘ten thousand years of longevity’ actually going to be ten thousand years?”
Both He Xuan and Lady Xu were shocked by his unscrupulous words. “My Lord!” the latter quickly called.
Patriarch He waved his hand. “There are no outsiders here, I’m guiding my son. What level of society does the Wan party rely upon? Only the one seated above them, right? They clearly appear to have no one brave enough to oppose them, but who isn’t suppressing their ire? Tang Fan looks to be on a rugged road now, but once that dark cloud covering his head is gone, the career path he has today will be his future qualifications!”
He Xuan was pensive.
Having not yet expressed himself, the other added more sparks. “I’ll ask you this; when in the Ministry, what did you hear that was related to him?”
“He was exceptional, polite to his superiors, and warm to his inferiors.”
“Is no one unhappy because he drove Liang Wenhua out?”
“Some were, but not many, only a few. Most had a bad impression of Liang Wenhua to begin with, believing that he was too domineering, and they sympathized with Tang Fan. This son also heard that the former Minister, Zhang Ying, had even more praise for him, and it was because of his support that Tang Fan was brave enough to oppose Liang Wenhua.”
Patriarch He shook his head. “Did you know that Zhang Ying was once a member of the Wan party?”
He Xuan let out an ah. “He was? I never knew.”
“The crux of it is here. Before Tang Fan entered the Ministry, Zhang Ying obeyed Wan An. After Tang Fan entered the Ministry, Zhang Ying was demoted to Nanjing because he presented a memorial contradicting Wan An’s will. If anyone said that there was no connection at all, I wouldn’t believe them.”
Following his settlement in the capital, Patriarch He had regained contact with old friends, some of which had not yet retired, giving him a source of information.
He Xuan was astonished. “You’re saying… that Tang Fan encouraged Zhang Ying to oppose Wan An? He can’t be that tremendous, can he?”
“Of course not, but it had to have something to do with him. I’m not saying this to frighten you, nor to tell you to promote other’s ambitions while destroying your own style. I only want to let you know that there is a lot of deeper knowledge herein. If you don’t understand something, speak less and observe more until you do understand. Based on my comprehension of Tang Fan, he will not take revenge against you because of the chasm he has with your brother; that would be too unlike him. Your brother is your brother, and you are you. If you have the chance to, you can still forge a good relationship with him. Understand?”
“This son understands,” He Xuan accepted.
With no obstruction coming from the He family, things went a lot smoother.
Because of Tang Fan’s connections, the government’s processing efficiency was rather quick. This case of uxorilocality-first, separation-after was pretty uncommon, but not rare enough to make everyone raise their eyebrows. Many bizarre people and events had existed in the Great Ming; by comparison, this incident was completely inconsequential.
Tang Fan was not an unreasonable man. He knew that despite He Lin agreeing to it, this matter had only gone so smoothly because Patriarch He hadn’t added any blockades. Cast a peach, reciprocate with a plum — via his former colleagues in the Ministry of Justice, he asked them all to look out for He Xuan some more, so that the latter would not be at a loss for what to do when he entered the Ministry.
Compared to Tang Yu and He Lin’s separation, He Lin’s uxorilocality and He Cheng’s change of surname were not things that many knew of. Following them, all that happened was that He Cheng’s name was quietly scratched off of the He’s genealogy record.
Most solely heard that He Lin had separated from his wife, and inevitably mocked him behind his back as being so hopeless, he couldn’t even keep her. However, by that time, He Lin himself had already gained the post of Miyun’s Official Mentor with Tang Fan’s help, and headed off for Miyun County.
Official Mentors belonged to a class of tutor officials; Mentors for Estates were Palace Honorates, but county Mentors only required a Provincial Honorate or Tribute Student to fill the post. The He Lin of twenty years ago, who had been wholeheartedly thinking to get his name on the golden roll, wouldn’t have thought much of the post, but things had changed with time. Nowadays, he was fully satisfied with being able to get a county tutor position.
The He family, its Patriarch especially, did not hold too many expectations for He Lin’s future career. He had truthfully disappointed all of them too many times before. Now that he was going to work abroad instead of stay at home and blame everyone but himself all day, they finally breathed a sigh of relief.
The ways of the world were variable, and the minds of people hard to predict, however. No one would have thought that, after a certain number of years, the one exceeding all expectations would be He Lin.
That was all a story for later, of course. That which was not important to the now was not to be brought up for the time being.
With He Lin’s side resolved, this aggravating familial matter came to a close at last. Yet, not long after the start of spring, something happened.
The translator says: Yu Zijun was mentioned much earlier in the novel as being the Minister of War. I’ll assume he got transferred.
I’m finally at a point in translating where I don’t want to commit fullspeed window whenever I see poetry… *sobs happily*