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Despite Hu Wenzao having said that he would come pay a visit the next day, his image never actually showed up. Tang Fan visited the Magistrate’s bureau himself, only to be informed that the other had some abroad task and happened to not be present.
At this point, how could Tang Fan not know that he was purposefully avoiding him?
“Hu Wenzao really doesn’t know right from wrong!” Qian San’r raged. “You’re clearly here to help him solve this issue, but he seems to see you as having come to add to his headache! Don’t mind him, Sir!”
“Since he doesn’t wish to see us, we will go meet with people who do.”
The other was puzzled. “Who?”
“The Patrolling Censor of South Zhili, Yang Ji.”
“Right! Wasn’t it said that both he and Chen Luan denounced Hu Wenzao for his inaction? Now that the guy is avoiding meeting with us, it’s obvious that he has a guilty conscience! He really does seem to have something off with him!” Qian San’r said joyfully.
Tang Fan smiled, saying nothing.
The Patrolling Censor was not a permanent-resident official, so he had no set Estate, always staying in posthouses wherever he went, like Tang Fan. The only difference was that Tang Fan had been sent directly from the Court, making his official’s rank much higher than that of a Patrolling Censor’s.
When Tang Fan’s group had arrived at Wu County yesterday, Yang Ji had not been seen in the crowd that had greeted him. After Tang Fan had questioned the posthouse people, they had claimed that Yang Ji had previously gone to Ze County for an inspection.
He did want to meet with Yang Ji, but he didn’t wait idly at the posthouse, instead bringing Qian San’r to stroll the streets and alleyways of Wu.
Qian San’r was beside himself with joy. Back in Yangzhou, he had been preoccupied with buying Tang Fan some eats, and had also worried about no one being around to protect him, so he had run back after a brief shichen, not daring to remain long, let alone have any fun. Now, Tang Fan bringing him out could be said to be justified for him.
He walked about here and felt about there, in a pure display of viewing a novelty. The North and South had differences in sights, with the South’s stuff overall being more exquisite and pretty; this was incarnated in many of its refreshments, where even the patterns embellished on top of them appeared to be a bit more delicate.
The two entered a long-established snack store. Tang Fan had the shopkeep measure out two catties of all sorts of snacks, then told Qian San’r to carry them while he himself took a rose pastry and put it into his mouth. “It still tastes like how I remember!” he praised, nodding.
Hearing that, the shopkeeper grinned accommodatingly. “You speak with a Southern accent, yet the style of your robes is Northern. You must be visiting your parents after many years away from home?”
Tang Fan smiled. “You have good eyes, shopkeeper, but the Great Ming is unified. Are there really differences between the clothes of the North and South?
“Why wouldn’t there be? Take that goose-yellow color that’s been in fashion here for two years. Regardless of gender or age, lots of people like putting on goose-yellow outer robes, and your jade pendant’s tassel is different from how the South does it.”
Qian San’r was pondering. “As I see it, that junk is only for women to pay attention to. No wonder people always say that Southern men are softies, if this is what they care about.”
After saying that, he received a side-eye from Tang Fan, after which he remembered that the other was a Southerner. Since he had just pointed at a monk and called him a bald donkey, he quickly went to flatter him. “You’re different, of course! How could the North and South divide be used on your character and aspirations?”
Tang Fan wasn’t mad, but the snack shopkeeper wasn’t pleased. “Little brother, you’re quite wrong! What’s wrong with Southern men? The water and soils supports the people, and our Jiangnan is wealthier than the North! It’s only natural that its people would live more meticulously!”
Qian San’r grinned. “Don’t be angry, Shopkeep, I was just kidding! Our Don here is a Southerner, so how could I claim that Southerners are bad? I just thought it was strange. It’s said that the heavenly hall is above with Suzhou and Hangzhou right below, and this is where Suzhou Prefecture is governed from, but why is it more bleak than Yangzhou? Is Yangzhou City actually the most prosperous in Jiangnan?”
This time, the shopkeeper wasn’t angry, merely sighing. “This was caused by the mess of last year’s flooding. We of Wu are alright, but I heard that Wujiang is even worse, and hasn’t recovered to this day.”
“Are any citizens still affected by the disaster in Wu now?” Tang Fan asked, going with the flow.
“Why not?” Tang fan wondered. “Didn’t Lake Tai’s shores flood? Were they able to replant their crops this spring?”
“No, they all left for Wujiang.”
“And why is that?”
“Wujiang and Wu must have really offended the ones above last year, as there was first a spring drought, then a summer flood,” the shopkeeper lamented. “I have a relative that lived on Lake Tai outside the city, and his fields flooded, to say nothing of his house. He was forced to come seek shelter with me, which was fine. Because of plagues arising, a lot of people died, and the authorities worried about the spread, so they were disallowed from entering the city. Later on, it was heard that Wujiang had more congee on its end, so a lot of people headed there. That all happened last year. I also heard that a lot of them froze to death in winter, but now that spring is here, the situation ought to be a lot better.”
The two left the snack shop. At this point, Tang Fan had already eaten about eighty percent of the two catties of snacks Qian San’r held, and even drank down a pot of rainfore longjing the shopkeep had made, his stomach right about full.
Qian San’r had eaten his share of the snacks, of course, but when all was said and done, he had to admire Sir Tang’s people skills in chatting with the shopkeeper, else that rainfore definitely wouldn’t have been theirs to have later.
Looking at the emptied out oilpaper, Qian San’r rubbed his stomach, a little unsatisfied. “Sir, can we have lunch, too?”
“Yes. Why wouldn’t we?”
“You can still eat after that?”
Tang Fan side-eyed him. “Why wouldn’t I be able to? If you can’t eat anymore, go on back, I can do it by myself. Let me think… what to have for lunch? Squirrel fish, or longjing prawns?”
Qian San’r’s drool nearly overflowed from hearing that. “Both are good!”
While the two joked around, a pleasantly surprised voice suddenly came from in front of them. “Brother Tang?”
Following the voice, Tang Fan saw Lu Lingxi, who he hadn’t seen since parting with him that one day, standing not too far away, looking at him with happy surprise.
Before he could snap out of it, the other had already taken a few steps forward. “Why are you here, Brother? After I went back that day, I had thought to pack my stuff and cheekily trespass on your ship, but once I got to the riverbank, I discovered that your vessel had long been on its way. Why did you go so fast? Did you know that I wanted to freeload your ship?”
Lu Lingxi’s tone gave off enthusiasm and happiness, with a faint trace of being wronged in his words. It made one smile a bit hearing it.
“Am I not seeing you again now?” Tang Fan smiled.
“That we could be drawn together from a thousand li apart is clearly fate!” Lu Lingxi said happily. “Are you on a stroll? I once lived in Wu for a while, and I’m familiar with the place. I can show you around!”
“We happen to be searching for a place to eat.”
“I’m even more familiar with that! Come with me, I’ll take you to a place.”
“Very well. Seems that we have a good fortune for food this day.”
While they spoke, he brought the two of them to a restaurant, got a private room with elegant decor and a fine view of the landscape, then ordered a good couple of dishes like it was routine. It looked like he had been here many times before.
“Brother Tang, the squirrel fish here is made especially authentic. You need to try it! If you have another free day, there’s another place in the city’s south that specializes in making iced eel. You came at a good time, as that dish is most refreshing during the summer—“
“Yiqing,” Tang Fan suddenly interrupted.
“What’s wrong?” Lu Lingxi asked, puzzled.
“You know that I’m a Court official, and that I’ve been imperially ordered to handle something in Suzhou.”
Lu Lingxi nodded. “You said that.”
“Then do you know what I’m here to handle?”
The other thought, smiling. “Is it related to last year’s famine?”
Tang Fan smiled back. “Tell me if this is a coincidence; I just pass Yangzhou, and you come to visit. Now I’m at Suzhou, and we have yet another lucky encounter. With that said, who ultimately sent you? What is your purpose in following me?”
Following that, Lu Lingxi’s smile gradually went away.
When he smiled, he had an innocent feel to him, but when he didn’t, he looked a bit frigid. His previously ever-grinning thin lips pressed together, changing to seem more unfeeling.
If he came to be a few years older, and experienced some time to take full form, the youth would definitely come to be rich with allure, an unknown amount of women coming to fall head over heels for him.
“What do you mean by that, Brother?”
“Open people don’t speak in secret words. What you think I mean is what I mean.”
The two looked into each other’s eyes. The formerly relaxed atmosphere of their chat quickly turned a bit tense.
Qian San’r’s heart dropped.
When Lu Lingxi had shown off his might on the river last night, he had happened to be absent, but after Lu Lingxi had left Tang Fan, he had personally witnessed that while the government vessel had been some distance from the shore, Lu Lingxi had launched himself right off the deck to land steadily on the bank. Qian San’r had been amazed by his brilliant skills, and when he had heard the boatworkers speaking of Lu Lingxi’s rescue, he had felt that among the people he had met before, likely only Sui Zhou and Wang Zhi could match the man in abilities.
Upon seeing Lu Lingxi’s change of face, he was now afraid that the other would suddenly put Tang Fan at a disadvantage, and prepared to pounce if needed.
Then, he saw Tang Fan pick up some squirrel fish and put it in his mouth. “Hm, this fish is really good. It’s soft and fresh, with a sweet and sour flavor. It’s great for a dinner. Waiter, some rice from last night — do you two want any?”
Qian San’r was instantly dejected.
Sir, couldn’t you have kept your grandeur up for a bit longer? How can I, as a subordinate, help you put on a front like this?!
Lu Lingxi pfft out a laugh, waving his hand. “I don’t. I’m not much for rice. Waiter, give me a bowl of congee. Brother Tang…” He looked at Tang Fan, a serious expression on a pure and innocent face. “Do you think I would hinder you?”
Tang Fan took the rice the worker brought, thanking him, and was in no rush to answer. On the contrary, he picked up some rice to taste with his chopsticks, then nodded to express his satisfaction. “The rice is good, too. Lake Tai rice really deserves its repute! However, since there was a flood and famine last year, why is there still fresh rice to have? Could it possibly have been transported from elsewhere?”
Lu Lingxi shook his head. “No, it was harvested last year. Even though the lake flooded to point of calamity, it was not without crop yield. Last year, the only fresh crops were collected right into the pockets of wealthy Suzhou merchants. This Lake Tai restaurant is one of the properties owned under the name of a merchant, Liang Hongyi. Can you guess how much this meal is going to cost?
Tang Fan didn’t answer that, instead setting down his chopsticks to answer his question from before. “I don’t think you’ll hinder me, else I wouldn’t have spoken with you into the night. I also hope that you don’t betray my trust. After all, it’s not just anyone that I will allow to call me Brother Tang.”
Lu Lingxi startled. “You’ve been suspicious of my identity ever since that time on the boat?”
“There were so many boats around, yet you pulled onto mine. After that, I didn’t tell you that I was going to Suzhou, yet we just so happened to meet on the streets. One coincidence is easy to find, but too many coincidences are seldom. If you were a little more patient, you wouldn’t have needed to be in such a rush to come out and see me. Wouldn’t it have been better for you to bump into me when I went to Wujiang?”
At this moment, Tang Fan was smiling, eyes roaming. His tone was light, yet carried an indescribable carefreeness.
Lu Lingxi was dumbstruck for a minute, then suddenly said, “Brother, you really look good when you smile!”
The corners of Tang Fan’s mouth twitched. With how the youth was sometimes bright, sometimes naive, it was a little unclear on whether he was feigning stupidity, or actually stupid.
“If you’re not telling the truth, I’m going. No matter how delicious the squirrel fish is, I have no interest in sharing it with someone of unfathomable mind, as it spoils the food.”
Tang Fan made to stand up, and Lu Lingxi anxiously reached out to stop him. “Brother Tang, don’t be angry. I didn’t intentionally hide from you. I was entrusted to do this by someone else, but it isn’t to hinder you — it’s to help you.”
Tang Fan raised a brow. “Help me?”
Lu Lingxi nodded, eyes sincere and honest. “Yes, don’t leave. Listen to me through first, okay?”
“Go on and speak.”
“I’m not lying to you. I really am a member of Pinghu’s Lu family, and I really am traveling abroad. Look, this is my jade identity token that I wear on me, with my name and surname engraved on it, as bestowed by my elders. It’s simply that when I last went to the capital, I ran into an old friend, and he said that you might come across some troubles while in Suzhou, so he asked me to go South to find you and lend you a hand. I was born in Pinghu, but I grew up in Suzhou since childhood, and have some friends here, too. I might be able to help you out.”
“Who is that old friend of yours?”
Tang Fan was surprised. “How is it him?”
“Eunuch Huai once stayed in Suzhou Prefecture and was kind to my family, so we have constant contact with him. When I went to the capital, I followed old standards by visiting him at his residence outside the palace, and happened to meet him as he was resting at home, where he entrusted me with doing this. He said that what happened to the Crown Prince had nothing to do with you, but stemmed from someone else wanting to mess with him, yet you were still implicated, and the Eastern Depot’s people might use this time to set up obstacles for you while you investigate. He told me to come and help you while I was here.”
Tang Fan heard the key point amongst that. “What relation does this have with the Eastern Depot?”
“Eunuch Huai said that each year in Suzhou, a lot of presents will be gifted to Director Shang Ming. They used to be given to the Western Depot, but now that it’s gone, the Eastern Depot rules alone, and they fawn even more.”
Huai En had always been low-key, but he was extremely popular in Court. The Wan party relied upon the Emperor’s idiocy and tried to sort out many major officials, while Huai En would always help out if he could. Tang Fan had been dragged into the East Palace incident, but he knew that that had been out of the Prince’s hands, and thus had never blamed him; he hadn’t thought that Huai En would send Lu Lingxi over, which really surprised and moved him a little.
“In your view, what’s happening here?” he asked.
After exposing his identity, Lu Lingxi spoke with more frankness. “I’m not too clear on it, I only heard a little from Eunuch Huai at the capital… oh, right, Brother Tang; he told me to tell you that the uncle of Wujiang’s Magistrate is Nanjing’s Minister of Revenue, Chen Jing.”
Tang Fan raised his brows. “Is that true?”
After the Great Ming had shifted its capital, Nanjing still had its Six Ministries, but their authority had been pretty much replaced by Beijing’s Six Ministries, turning them into a well-known ‘retirement resort’ in officialdom.
However, Nanjing’s Six Ministries were not actually without any power. At the very least, that wasn’t the case for its Ministry of Revenue.
It bore the responsibility of collecting grain taxes from the four areas of South Zhili, Zhejiang, Jiangxi, and Huguang, which had all been wealthy since ancient times. To tell the truth, near about half of the whole nation’s grain taxes were held in the grasp of its Minister, and even though it would ultimately have to be passed up to Beijing, there were many areas of the process where manipulations could be supplied. This resulted in the Nanjing Ministry of Revenue being a good, dependable area, and its Minister was a post everyone longed for. If one couldn’t make it in Beijing and was destined to make it in Nanjing, then everyone’s first pick would be Revenue.
It didn’t stop there. In addition to the grain tax, the Ministry was also responsible for nationwide signing of salt licenses — in other words, if merchants wanted to peddle salt, they first had to get a license from Revenue before they could do so legally. Otherwise, they would be selling it illegally, and would face heavy punishment if caught.
As such, the Suzhou Magistrate’s odd behavior and disappearance had to be related to this.
Tang Fan felt himself to have been thinking about this too simplistically at the beginning. He had believed that he was only coming here to inspect the state of the disaster, acting the part of a peacekeeper, but after his arrival, things were just getting increasingly complex.
Also, the more Lu Lingxi explained, the more convoluted it got.
The Eastern Depot, Nanjing’s officialdom, Suzhou Prefecture, Wujiang County… stringing all of these people together could really make one see stars.
Were he an ordinary official, he would have likely thought to run away, let alone find out the truth. However, Lu Lingxi noticed that after hearing of this connection, instead of showing a look of hesitation, Tang Fan seemed to be full of interest, as if he had discovered something fascinating.
“Brother Tang?” he had to tentatively call out.
“Since that’s so, let’s go to Wujiang to take a look,” the other said.
“Let me go with you,” Lu Lingxi said automatically. “I know martial arts, I can protect you.”
Saying so, he looked at him pitifully, as if fearing that he had a poor impression of him from the initial secrecy, and he would be left high and dry for asking.
Tang Fan didn’t care, though. The reason why Lu Lingxi had kept Huai En’s part a secret had probably been to see if he could impress him. The thoughts of a youngster were nothing special, and offensive even less so.
On top of that, his impression of Lu Lingxi was pretty good, and he was subconsciously a bit softer on him.
“Sure, but while we’re in Suzhou, you have to listen to my every order. If you don’t, you shouldn’t blame me for being cold.”
Hearing this, Lu Lingxi’s entire face suddenly lit up. “Of course! I’ll definitely be nice and obedient! If you tell me to go east, I won’t go west!”
Qian San’r immediately glared at him when he heard this, alert. He was trying to nab his spot!
Seeing his face full of vigilance, Lu Lingxi smiled at Tang Fan. “Brother Tang, apart from those two Eastern Depot-goers, all you have is this frail and useless guy at your side, and he wouldn’t be able to defend you if something happened. I would do better following and attending to you. I can be both a boyservant and a bodyguard, two things in one! I’m great!”
Qian San’r puffed up. “Who’s frail and useless?! I once worked as a Brocade Guard in the Northern Bastion Office, got it? If you don’t believe that, we’ve got a few tricks, and then you can see who’s afraid of who!”
Lu Lingxi sized him up, looking hesitant and doubtful. “You? A Brocade Guard?”
Having his manly dignity and pride encounter a serious challenge, Qian San’r put up his fists without another word in a vow to viciously knock this punk to the floor.
However, Lu Lingxi didn’t evade him, instead reaching out to hold his fist, turning his body slightly, then gently twisting his wrist along with the direction of his momentum.
An elegant pose, a lithe figure.
His other hand was even behind his back — he wasn’t using all of his strength!
Qian San’r involuntarily pitched himself forwards, watching himself about to massively eat dirt. All of a sudden, there was a tightness on his middle, and he was summarily pulled back by someone. Before he could react, he was standing in his original spot with a face full of confusion, maintaining his same posture of holding his fist out.
“Are you alright?” Lu Lingxi asked with concern, after which he turned to smile brightly at Tang Fan. “See, Brother? This guy isn’t good enough to protect you. Am I not better?”
Feeling himself to have lost Tang Fan face, Qian San’r felt humiliated and enraged, face flushing. “Sir! Sir—“
While the two of them had been screwing around, Tang Fan had since casually eliminated all of the squirrel fish meat. “Alright, quit fighting. Are you eating, or what? If you’re not, leave!”
“Brother Tang, did you not see my moves just now?” Lu Lingxi asked, faintly complaining.
Tang Fan reached out and flicked him on the forehead. “I did see. Very cool. Even stronger than the Brocade Guard, alright?”
Only now was Lu Lingxi happy.
Qian San’r felt it to be necessary to rectify the Brocade Guard’s name, quickly refuting, “Sir, Envoy Sui aside, even Millarch Xue and the others would have been enough to make this jerk eat it!”
Lu Lingxi beamed. “Brother Tang said I’m good, so I’m good. No matter what way you quibble, it’s useless, so why bother expending energy for no reason?”
Qian San’r’s anger hit him until his teeth itched. “Who said you’re good?! He was only consoling you!”
Tang Fan didn’t feel like listening to their childlike squabble, walking right out. The two quickly sounded a retreat and ceased attacking, following close behind him.
Wujiang neighbored Wu, the two localities being tight up against each other; not only were the names nearly the same, but their distance was quite close. The three of them got three horses from the posthouse, then rode straight for Wujiang, setting off in the afternoon and arriving quickly.
The second they entered its city, they felt that the atmosphere was even more oppressive than Wu’s. People that were getting off of work, coming to trade, or visiting relatives came and went from the city gates in the same way they would in other cities, but the amount of people was far fewer.
“Wujiang City has two city gates. We’re entering the east gate, and Lake Tai is at the west gate,” Lu Lingxi advised.
Tang Fan nodded. “Let’s go look at the west gate, then.”
However, they didn’t go far before they saw a group of people catching up to them from behind. Their leader was wearing a seventh-rank official’s uniform — it was the Wujiang County Magistrate, Chen Luan.
The author’s mini-theatre:
Wang Zhi (schadenfreude): Did you play around too much? Now he’s having an affair! Lu Lingxi has the martial arts, the good background, the talent, the looks. What do you have?”
Sui Zhou (expressionless): I’ve been prepared. Everything is in my control. (turns head) Fluffy, do you want to have coiled dragon tonight?
Tang Fan: What’s ‘coiled dragon’?
Sui Zhou (Baidu wiki face): Lean pork, fat stock, fresh fish cuts, egg whites, mung bean flour, scallion whites, black pepper, salt, and other such ingredients are used. The fish and meat are sliced up into a mince, strained through gauze, mixed with seasonings, wrapped in egg, then arranged in a coiled dragon shape, after which it’s steamed until done.
Tang Fan (pondering deeply for a second): Let’s be together!
Wang Zhi: …Could you get a bit more of a spine?