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This happening could not be described as either big or small.
The current Crown Prince had many teachers, those amongst them of the highest status and most resounding name being a few Cabinet Viziers. However, they were occupied with other things, only having the title without ever teaching the Prince themselves.
Those that actually taught him were several tutors of the East Palace, which included Liu Jian, Xie Qian, Wang Ao, and others. They were considered his real teachers.
At the start of this year, one of the Prince’s teachers returned to his homeland for mourning his father and would not be returning until three years later, leaving a vacancy in the East Palace’s tutors. Reason stated that someone else should make up for this, in order to not hold up the Prince’s studies.
Someone capable of being the Prince’s tutor had to be a learned scholar that was not only a Palace Honorate, but a Hanlin entrant. However, those who had only just entered Hanlin Academy wouldn’t do, as they were too impetuous, and senior subjects wouldn’t do, either, as those people would be too busy with their jobs to have time to focus on instructing the Prince.
Of Tang Fan’s branch of peers, their qualifications were just perfect, which was why two out of the top three of the branch had become tutors.
Originally, this hadn’t been Tang Fan’s business, as he was now a Censor that didn’t hold a candle to being an East Palace tutor, but someone recommended him for it.
The recommender was Peng Hua.
Peng Hua was a Cabinet member, ranking behind Liu Ji and the rest of them, but that did not at all influence his doughty war victories. Unlike Liu Ji, who got denounced all day long, he was classified as the type that no one dared to provoke. This stemmed from him being a very aggressive person that smacked people (especially their faces) and exposed people (particularly their faults); whoever annoyed him would have their each and every defect and shortcoming infinitely magnified. He was deeply comprehending of the minds of humans, too. Every time he instructed censors to attack his opponents, he could always prod their weakness, causing them to be worse off than they had started.
Over time, Solon Peng had gotten another name: Peng Paperwasp. He stung whoever was unlucky enough.
Peng Hua and Tang Fan had no frequent contact. The only time they had ever met was at Wan Tong’s fiftieth birthday, where they had exchanged brief pleasantries that had amounted to nothing more than Tang Fan being courteous to Peng Hua, and Peng Hua saying a few polite things.
For that reason, upon abruptly learning that he had been recommended as a tutor by Peng Hua, Tang Fan’s first reaction was not happiness, but worry. This was because Peng Hua was close to the Wan party, and Tang Fan had wittingly ruined a lot of the party’s nice things. He had no belief that he was universally loved, or that the Wan party held no grudges whatsoever.
He had also heard this news brought up by his teacher, Qiu Jun. There were no secrets in officialdom; within not too many days, the event spread throughout the Inspectorate. Many of his colleagues looked at him with envy in their gazes, believing that Tang Fan had walked into some great luck.
Being the teacher of the future Emperor meant that one’s career path would be a little smoother than others’. Furthermore, being a tutor didn’t meant that one would need to resign from their current post, so Tang Fan would both be able to have his identity as Left Metropolitan Censor and be a lecturer in the East Palace. The two were not irreconcilable; at most, Tang Fan would be getting more of a good thing, not receiving any hindrance to his current career path. This was a glorious thing that many wouldn’t find even if they sought it out.
Tang Fan, however, was a mute that had eaten goldthread, unable to describe its bitter taste. Peng Hua had recommended him for no good reason — the man couldn’t have been doing his daily good deed and taking joy in helping others out, could he?
Peng Hua had no clear idea of Tang Fan’s intellect. How would he know that he was capable of guiding the Crown Prince?
There had to be something afoot.
Tang Fan pondered back and forth. Even though he wasn’t sure of the other’s intent, he couldn’t just be led by the reins like this, so he hoped to be able to go through Wang Zhi to find an excuse for himself to resign from this duty before the Emperor.
However, after several days of waiting, Wang Zhi never once came out of the palace. This went until the evening of a certain day, when Tang Fan got back from the Inspectorate and ran into the travel-worn Sui Zhou at the doorway.
At this unexpected encounter, both were taken aback. Sui Zhou was fine, but Tang Fan instantly thought of the scenario where he had quickly nabbed Ah-Dong’s jade pendant to give to the man, and felt that act to have been incredibly stupid. He hated that he couldn’t go back in time and prevent it from ever happening.
Afraid that Sui Zhou would ask about what he had been trying to say, he immediately took a step back, laughing dryly. “You’re back, Guangchuan?… Oh no, I just remembered that there’s something at the Inspectorate that I didn’t grab. I’m going back to get it!”
With that, he turned and went, as if there was a ghost chasing after him.
Tang Fan’s figure subconsciously stopped, after which he inwardly scolded himself, Tang Runqing, you’re really hopeless, stopping whenever anyone tells you to stop!
“You’re avoiding me?” Sui Zhou asked coldly.
Tang Fan turned around, doing all he could to put on the most innocent expression he had ever had in his life. “Why would I avoid you? You’re thinking too much.”
The other was expressionless. “What was the purpose of you giving me Ah-Dong’s pendant?”
Mister Tang laughed. “There wasn’t one. I saw that you left so quickly that you didn’t have time to put on a pendant to weigh down your clothes, so I gave you one!”
“Then why didn’t you give me your own?”
“…I wasn’t thinking that hard.”
He regretted saying that. It was such a perfunctory answer, even he couldn’t stand to hear it.
Sui Zhou gave him a profound look, tossing him something. Tang Fan caught it on reflex, then lowered his head to look — it was Ah-Dong’s pendant.
He instantly felt something indescribable.
Sui Zhou didn’t look at him, turning around and heading inside.
Sir Tang stood there in a daze for a long time. Belatedly realizing that he hadn’t yet eaten dinner, he moved his feet to walk next door.
Tang Yu was bringing food out. Seeing him come in with a distracted look, she teased, “What’s wrong with you? You look lovesick!”
Snapping out of it, Tang Fan handed the jade pendant to Ah-Dong. Ah-Dong, the half-wit, exclaimed upon seeing it, and pounced on him.
He dodged to the side, glaring at her. “You’re too grown to pounce on a man! How scandalous!”
She snatched the pendant, fuming. “I knew my pendant vanished for no reason! I set it on the table last time, so I thought Qilang took it! You grabbed it without saying anything!”
Tang Fan felt a little guilty. “I was in a rush at the time, so I forgot to tell you.”
She blinked. “Where is yours, then?”
He wanted to say that it was on his waist, but when he felt for it, he discovered empty air. No pendant was there at all.
Now, he was completely dumbstruck.
Ah-Dong chewed her tongue. “You lost it, brother? That was good jade! Quick, think of where you might have lost it! Did it get knocked off when you came in from outside? I’ll look for it for you!”
It would have been better for her to have not said that. With that statement, sparks flew in his head, and he quickly reached out to grab her by the back of the collar, firmly pulling her back from heading outside. “Nevermind, don’t be anxious right now! Who knows where I might have dropped it? I’ll look after we’re done eating!” he said, feigning nonchalance.
The Emperor wasn’t worried, but his attending eunuch was. “That won’t do!” she said. “If someone picks it up, won’t you regret it forever? You all eat first, I’ll go out and look!”
Right when she took a few steps outside, she saw Sui Zhou coming in.
After the latter’s return from the capital, he had first gone to the palace to have audience with the Emperor and report on his entire journey, then hurry back for dinner. Despite his recent change of clothes, it could be seen that his days of running back and forth had made him rather tanned.
Ah-Dong said hello to him, quickly went to head out, then suddenly gasped. “Brother Sui, why do you have my brother’s jade?”
The little lady’s voice making a big thing over not much caused Tang Fan’s heart to leap. Following the sound, he indeed saw a piece of jade hanging from Sui Zhou’s waist, which was precisely the one he had lost.
“He gave me it,” Sui Zhou answered.
“Really?” Ah-Dong asked skeptically. She looked back at Tang Fan, saw that he wasn’t arguing, and had to tease. “You sure are something! You gave your pendant away, then forgot about it! Have you been working too much at the bureau recently? Your memory is about the same as an old man’s!”
How could he say he hadn’t, under these circumstances? He could only give Sui Zhou a scathing look, thinking to himself that the man was truly shameless!
Noticing the undercurrents hidden between the two while Ah-Dong and He Cheng were clueless, Tang Yu shook her head with a smile. “Guangchuan, you must be tired from the journey. Come sit and eat!”
Sui Zhou nodded. “Thank you, Sister.”
Tang Yu then shot a look at Tang Fan. “Fluffy, what’s with that dazed look? Help set out the chopsticks. There’s cucumber noodles stewing on the stove, I have to go see if they’re ready.”
There were maids to help around now, but if Tang Yu had the free time to cook like this, she typically would give pointers from the side herself, rather than pass the whole thing onto the servants.
Mister Tang childishly deflated to express his dissatisfaction with his sister’s favoritism. Accepting his fate, he picked up a pair of chopsticks and passed them to Sui Zjou. When the other man accepted them, it wasn’t clear whether it was on purpose or not, but his fingers gently swiped the back of his hand. The calluses on them met skin, causing Tang Fan’s hand to jolt and the chopsticks to fall.
You asshole! Tang Fan mentally cursed.
Ah-Dong poked her head out to join in on the fun. “What’s the matter, brother? You’ve been absent-minded all night!”
“It’s nothing.” Tang Fan pushed her skull away, bending over to pick up the chopsticks. “Go get your food!”
A maid brought the cucumber noodle stew in, Tang Yu walking behind her. She had happened to see him drop the chopsticks, chiding, “How old are you? You can’t even pass chopsticks without dropping them on the ground!”
Mister Tang’s injustice nearly made him feel sympathy for the eternally-wronged Marshal Yue!
He had to give Sui Zhou a vicious look, only to find that the man wasn’t looking his way at all, but speaking with He Cheng.
After the latter had been training for a time in the Northern Bastion Office’s training grounds, Sui Zhou had noticed that his physique had gotten tougher, so he didn’t make him go back, only having him practice what they had taught him before in order to keep him fit. The Office apprehended major criminals as imposed by royal orders, in the end, and also had the hellish Bastille, a bloody aura overflowing from it all; it was best for children like He Cheng and Ah-Dong to not go there so much.
Due to his experience in the Office, He Cheng had become somewhat close to Sui Zhou. Instead of fearing his stoic face, he excitedly asked him about some things during melee training.
Eat without speaking, sleep without talking — such went an ancient proverb, the standard of every household. However, when it came to the Tang family, it was hard for all of them to be able to come together for dinner after a long day. If they solely ate without communicating, feelings would inevitably be hurt, so there was no such standard here.
Tang Yu prompted the two children to start eating. Ignoring Tang Fan’s resentful look, she placed moo shu in vinegar sauce into Sui Zhou’s bowl. “Guangchuan, will you be able to stay a while this time?” she asked.
“I should be able to.”
She glanced at Tang Fan, then asked, “How are wedding preparations going?”
Tang Fan’s hand that had been reaching for the stew paused, then spooned some into his bowl like nothing had happened. He bowed his head and started eating.
“They’re about done,” Sui Zhou answered. “The date can be set for next month.”
A good deal of work could be said to have gone into this stew when Tang Yu had made it. In the pot was mincemeat, shiitakes, crab, tofu, and bean starch noodles. After being simmered for two quarter-hours, the sliced cucumbers were to be added, as well as water and seasonings. Once the cucumbers were lightly cooked, the boiling could begin. During that period, the noodles would absorb the umami flavor of the miscellaneous ingredients, all of it cooked into a tenderness that made it melt in the mouth. The most wondrous thing was the cucumbers enhancing the flavor, making the entire dish even more sweet and refreshing. It had always been Tang Fan’s favorite.
And yet, as he gnawed on this dish that his sister had so carefully cooked, he felt that it wasn’t as delicious as it used to be.
A spot of warmth was felt on his thigh. He lowered his head to see that there was a hand placed on it.
There was no need for him to think about who that hand could belong to. He was vibrantly furious. While Tang Yu and the others weren’t paying attention, he reached under the table and tried to pry that paw off, but no matter how he tried, the hand was like a locust, not budging.
His minute motions finally alerted Tang Yu. Seeing her brother’s face slightly twitch, she asked, “What is it, Fluffy? Do you feel unwell?”
His mouth drew back. “No. I was just bitten by a mosquito.”
The ‘mosquito’ left his thigh at last.
Looking at Sui Zhou again, the latter still quietly had his head bowed to eat, as if that hadn’t been his hand just then. Him trying to look like he hadn’t been involved made one’s hackles raise.
With that, Tang Fan’s appetite greatly increased, leading to him taking a few dishes and repeatedly finishing off the white rice in his bowl.
“Fluffy.” The speaker was not Tang Yu, but Sui Zhou.
Hating him on the inside, Tang Fan’s face was blank. “Call me Runqing.”
Tang Yu was heard to pfft. Tang Fan looked at her hatefully.
Sui Zhou was, in contrast, good-tempered. “I have something to say to you. Let’s go to the study.”
“There are no outsiders here. You may as well just say it.”
“It’s related to you being an East Palace tutor.”
When he spoke like this, if Tang Fan refused again, it would seem like he was being petty. He could only follow him into the Tang study.
“When I went into the palace today, I ran into Wang Zhi. He said to pass on to you that it would be best for you to not resign from the role of tutor.”
Tang Fan hadn’t expected that he would talk actual business. After being stunned for a bit, he asked. “Why?”
“If you want to enter the Cabinet someday, this role will add a splendidly-colored mark onto your qualifications.”
Any civil official of the Great Ming would have his ultimate dream be to enter the Cabinet. Tang Fan already had all the prior requirements for entering the Cabinet; he was not only a Palace Honorate, but a Hanlin entrant. His only minor shortcoming was that he had been in the Academy for a mere three years, not remaining to simmer his qualifications there like the rest of his peers, but if he could become an East Palace tutor, that little flaw would be nothing at all.
Following the ascension of a new Emperor, he would first promote his subjects and confidantes close to him. East Palace tutors, as teachers that were entrenched in the Son of Heaven’s residence, were indisputably connected close to him.
This would have been a superb assignment, but since it had been brought up by Peng Hua, a Wan party friend, it made Tang Fan hesitate quite a bit.
Hearing his apprehensions, Sui Zhou asked, “Can you guess the motive behind Peng Hua’s action?”
Tang Fan smiled bitterly, shaking his head. “If I could, I wouldn’t be so worried right now. I really would like to hope that he recommended a talent for the good of the nation and out of a mind to help the public, but he doesn’t seem to be the type. If I was alone at this point, then even if something did happen, me getting dismissed or resigning wouldn’t be anything awful. I worry that since the Wan party clearly knows of my connection to both you and Wang Zhi, they want to go after me first, and use me to bring you two down afterwards.”
With Sui Zhou currently around, Wan Tong would never have a day where he could fully control the Brocade Guard. He horribly hated him, but there was nothing he could do. After what had happened with Datong, the Wan party regarded Tang Fan and Sui Zhou as thorns in the eye all the more; Peng Hua wasn’t a true party member, but Tang Fan wasn’t about to take him lightly.
Sui Zhou knew what he was thinking of. “You don’t need to worry. Wan Tong can’t do anything to me, and since Wang Zhi advised such, that shows that there wouldn’t be any problems on his end. He also told me that Huai En knows of this and also expressed his approval, hinting for you to take up the decree.”
Tang Fan was startled. “This is what the Crown Prince wants?”
“Huai En is always close to the Prince, and if he isn’t, then he isn’t too far. The Prince likely has a good impression of you, and hopes that you’ll take on the task.”
Tang Fan considered this for a moment, then came to a decision. “Fine, then. Looks like rough times are up ahead, and I need to charge through them.”
Sui Zhou gently smiled. “That’s the Tang Runqing I know.”
He shouldn’t have said that. The atmosphere turned awkward.
Tang Fan’s gazed flitted over the pendant on his waist, and he immediately couldn’t sit still. “Go on back and rest a little earlier! I just remembered I have books I need to read, so I’m going!”
Not waiting for Sui Zhou’s response, he got right up and left, the way he deliberately detoured around Sui Zhou resembling how one would avoid a flood, or rabid beast.
He had forgotten that if Sui Zhou wished to stop him, then no matter how he tried to leave, he would definitely be stopped.
However, Sui Zhou just sat peacefully in his spot, watching his fleeing figure sink completely into the darkness, after which he lowered his head to look at the jade pendant he was playing with in his hand.
Sending something and immediately refusing to acknowledge it, having something taken and then playing dumb.
He was clearly already on the chopping block, yet he believed that he was still able to fly out of the spider’s web.
Sui Zhou shook his head a little, a tiny, invisible smile streaking across his eyes.
The decree appointing Tang Fan as an East Palace tutor was soon issued. According to the rules, Tang Fan did not need to resign from his original job at the Inspectorate, let alone go to report to the East Palace every single day. As the Prince had other teachers to give him lessons, he only needed to go there once every five days.
His Highness the Crown Prince was now thirteen, a half-grown teenage boy; in a poor family’s household, that would be enough for him to bear an entire family’s worth of property, and no longer be regarded as a child. People of this age were most liable to think up some original, out-of-the-norm ideas. Were he an average student, that would be fine, but when faced with the heir apparent of a nation, the Prince’s teachers had to treat him with one-hundred-twenty-thousand percent concentration, carefully selecting his lessons and being cautious out of fear that one misstep would hold up his progress.
“You’re really calm, Runqing. When I first came to the East Palace, I didn’t have your self-restraint!”
To welcome this new teacher, the Crown Prince had specifically asked that another teacher, who happened to be Tang Fan’s same-year friend, show him around, thus showing his respect. The other party also held an East Palace post as an attending lecturer.
Tang Fan laughed. “I’ve been to the East Palace before, when I needed to handle a case. That’s why I’m not surprised this time around.”
“Right! How could I have forgotten that?” Xie Qian realized.
“Yuqiao, I heard that when we teach His Highness, we are each responsible for a subject?”
The other nodded. “That is so.”
“I’m still unsure of which subject to teach the Prince, as my predecessor went off to his homeland for mourning. Can you tell me what it is?”
“I instruct him on classical argumentation, while your predecessor was responsible for history. So, if nothing goes wrong, you should also be responsible for history.”
Tang Fan was slightly surprised. “He’s interested in learning classical argumentation, too?”
Xie Qian sighed with a smile. “He must not only learn what we have learned, but learn what we never have, of course. As I see it, even though he’s very young, he’s still royalty. He works strenuously in his detailed studies, not being a single bit lacking to when we ourselves studied relentlessly!
“However…” he lowered his voice, “his days in the palace aren’t too easy. You must have some caution.”
That much had become deeply understood by Tang Fan back when he had cracked the East Palace case, but he wouldn’t speak of his own relationship with the Prince in front of his pals, lest he show off terribly.
Xie Qian was a generous nobleman, and told him a lot of things to pay attention to as a tutor. After listening closely, Tang Fan asked, “Yuqiao, do you know what my predecessor taught His Highness last time? I’ll pick up from there.”
The other shook his head. “I don’t know, actually. When we teach the Prince, we each given separate lessons. Later on, you can ask Orator Lin Ying. He’s responsible for jotting down the Prince’s learning curriculum and providing assistance.”
While they talked, they arrived at the East Palace. A few individuals were seen from far away at the palace’s entrance; upon getting closer, it was seen that the Crown Prince had come to personally welcome him, followed by some servants.
He hadn’t seen him in some years. The Prince had grown by a lot, the sparse bun atop his head even having gotten visibly thicker. Perhaps due to his congenital weakness, the Prince was now thin for his age, but he was still a lot better compared to when Tang Fan had seen him before. Only his shining and clear eyes had remained unchanged.
Upon seeing the Prince come out to greet him, Xie Qian was not at all surprised, merely turning quick to whisper to Tang Fan, “His Highness is one who highly respects teachers. The same was done for several other teachers in the past, so there’s no need to panic.”
Tang Fan and the Prince’s eyes met. The two of them automatically smiled, knowingly.