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The other presumably rode litters out on average, as it was only a few steps from the bureau to the city gate, yet Chen Luan was already gasping for air. It wasn’t until Tang Fan was right in front of him that he forced out a smile. “Please wait a bit, Sir! Dare I ask if you’re Left Metropolitan Censor, Tang Fan?”
Tang Fan raised a brow. “And you are?”
Chen Luan quickly cupped his hands. “This humble official is Wujiang’s Magistrate, Chen Luan. I pay my respects to you, Sir.”
Tang Fan smiled fakely. “Magistrate Chen, I am neither wearing an official uniform, nor have I made my identity known. How are you so certain that I’m Tang Fan? Wouldn’t it be a laugh if you recognized the wrong person?”
“You have a dragon’s cadence, fenghuang’s poise, and extraordinary looks, like a crane amongst chickens. Anyone can plainly see that you’re not an average civilian. This humble official heard that the Court was sending a censor to inspect the disaster situation, so I instructed the soldiers at the gates long before to pay close attention, letting me rush over quickly.”
He was not too old, seeming to be only in his early thirties, and his facial features were straight and neat, which gave one a sense of goodwill. He was a model young, intelligent, competent official.
Even though the imperial exam system had long grown and matured from the Great Ming’s founding to now, and people of humble origins could test into the provincials and become officials, generally speaking, those from wealthier families were able to get more resources, hire famous teachers, be guided by their elders, and enter known academies. Their probabilities of passing the test were much higher than the average person’s.
Take Tang Fan, for instance. Despite his family having fallen, they had still been influential, and he had been well-educated since his childhood. Chen Luan was beyond that; his uncle was Nanjing’s Minister of Revenue, and he himself was an official, which illustrated that the Chen family was at least a scholarly family spanning three generations, and very likely an official family. Circumstances like that were all over the Great Ming’s officialdom.
Therefore, even though Chen Luan was a seventh-rank Magistrate, him having such an outstanding presence was not strange.
After hearing his explanation, Tang Fan only smiled, saying nothing.
Chen Luan had been anticipating questions, but Censor Tang was instead abnormally collected, so he had to continue. “You came a long distance for this assignment, Sir, and this humble official should put all of my effort into entertaining you, but Wujiang suffered a huge disaster last year, and its vitality is greatly injured to the point that it hasn’t yet recovered. If I slight you in any way, please forgive me.”
Tang Fan nodded. “That’s fine. You are the host, so you’re naturally the one in charge. Whatever you arrange is what we will go with.”
“How about I take you to first see the situation of the refugees’ settlement, then?”
Tang Fan raised his brows.
Following his arrival at Suzhou, of the three people he had met, Prefectural Magistrate Hu Wenzao avoided seeing him, Patrolling Censor Yang Ji wasn’t present, and the Wujiang Magistrate, the one at the heart of the turmoil, had been the one to bring up taking him to see the refugees.
Quite forthcoming, with no schemes at all to cover up or whitewash.
Their eyes met. Chen Luan’s did not shy away, gazing back the same with a slight smile, which brought with it an inquiring undertone.
A seventh-rank County Magistrate and a fourth-rank Prefectural Magistrate… the superior one appeared to be immediately evident.
Tang Fan smiled. “Please lead the way then, Magistrate.”
“If you please, Sir Tang.”
Chen Luan brought them to the city’s south, to what had originally been an abandoned temple that was now cleaned up, the Buddha statues and such inside accordingly tidied as well, turning it into a charity hall. The former monk quarters had been all torn down so that more beds could be set up.
Of course, these were simple beds, nothing more than straw mats laid out on the floor which people would lay on and cover with blankets. Still, for these refugees that used to not have a roof to shield them and now had this place doing so, and could eat their fill plus be warm in clothes, this was already a paradise.
When Tang Fan’s group came over, it happened to be lunchtime. After people that had been sent from the government cooked congee, it was delivered, and the refugees queued up, holding their bowls and awaiting their turns. It was not at all the wailing, miserable scene Tang Fan had imagined it would be.
“This congee is served up twice a day, once at noon and once at night,” Chen Luan explained. “The number of refugees has decreased by a lot. Since the start of this year, many have begun to return home in succession, so it’s nice and orderly now. There were several incidents of injuring and stealing from people to get more food before.”
Tang Fan nodded. Looking at the bowls held by the refugees that passed by, he lightly creased his brow. “That congee looks a little too thin?”
The other smiled painfully. “I must tell you that what could be diverted from the county’s granary has already been diverted, Sir. The remaining had to be given to Nanjing for taxes, meaning it’s long been emptied out. If you don’t believe me, I can take you over to it for a look.”
Tang Fan didn’t speak to him, instead grabbing an old man that was passing by. “Elder, where are you from?”
The old man looked up to see Tang Fan, then the uniform-wearing Chen Luan, and shakily went to kneel and bow. Tang Fan didn’t let him do that, readily keeping him up. “No need for too much politeness, elder. Where are you from?”
“This commoner fled the famine outside the city. It was thanks to this County benefactor’s compassion that it opened its city gates to let us in, giving us shelter and preventing us from starving to death. Now that the benefactor is here, please accept this commoner’s praises!”
Saying so, he kowtowed in respect.
Chen Luan helped him up with a slight smile. “Did you not hear Sir Tang say to not be so polite, elder? This was what the county should have done, and as a guardian official, what I should have done.”
The elder only agreed, looking reserved as he gripped the bowl and dared not speak.
Seeing that he didn’t know what to do, Tang Fan let him go, asking Chen Luan, “Did Suzhou Prefecture not allocate provisions?”
Chen Luan shook his head. “It wasn’t enough at all. To tell you the truth, Wu was also hit by the disaster, and because it’s where the Prefecture is governed out of, it was higher priority. In result, our Wujiang was basically the stepchild, and we were given only about thirty shi of provisions.”
Tang Fan furrowed his brow. “Why so little?”
“These are all things that can be verified. This way, please.”
He brought Tang Fan to the county granary, then ordered the door to be opened. Tang Fan immediately saw that the interior was truly empty, with not even half a grain of rice in it.
Chen Luan then brought the grain registry out for his viewing. Behind the portion where Suzhou Prefecture’s allocated provisions were, three-hundred shi had plainly been written down.
“How many more days can the provisions still be given to the refugees?”
“About three, probably.”
“After that, what do you plan on doing?”
“This humble official plans to lend grains from merchants in the county. Also, now that the lakewater has receded, the fields can be replanted, so I’m getting ready to have the refugees persuaded to return. There’s only a few hundred people remaining, after all, making it a little easier, and if they can go home, people generally wouldn’t be willing to be dead mice here, apart from the local hoodlums. That’s why I only need to borrow a few days’ worth of supplies.”
“Are the merchants willing to?”
Chen Luan laughed. “They aren’t of course, but I intimidated and enticed them. I can always make them dredge some up.”
Tang Fan laughed, too. “You’re quite the competent official, Hongya!”
Before, he had called him Magistrate Chen on official business, and now he had changed it to his courtesy, immediately getting much closer to him. It also indirectly portrayed his stance.
Chen Luan cupped his hands. “I dare not accept your praise, Sir. This falls within my duties, and is nothing more than me being devoted to my post.”
Tang Fan pat him on the shoulder. “Loyalty is a word that’s easy to say, but hard to do. How many officials fail to abide by it? You doing this much really wasn’t easy. After I go back, I will report nothing but the truth, rather than allow you to be wronged.”
Chen Luan smiled. “Your words are too weighty, Sir. The Prefectural Magistrate hasn’t had it easy, either, as several counties were hit by the disaster. There inevitably comes to be different priorities, which this humble official can understand.”
“As far as I’m aware, though, Wujiang and Wu were the worst affected areas. Moreover, Wu’s refugees heard that there was more congee supplied over in Wujiang, and hence all came over here. Was that true?”
“They did indeed have extravagant hopes, which is why we’re so overtaxed here. If we weren’t, then with our typical amount, the granary’s provisions would have been enough. It was precisely because of this that Yang Ji denounced me, but after I explained this to him, he didn’t wrangle much more with me.”
Tang Fan nodded. “I will go look for him to verify that.”
Chen Luan brought him around the city’s south, answered many questions completely methodically, and caused the smile on Tang Fan’s face to get all the more friendly.
Compared to the extraordinarily talkative and decorous Chen Luan, the flustered-in-movements, very weird Hu Wenzao was not only inferior, but appeared to be extremely suspicious.
Tang Fan stayed in Wujiang for a meal. Chen Luan’s treatment was quite simple; he didn’t go get out the big proteins because he was here, but he also wasn’t too shoddy with it, of course.
Chen Luan, Tang Fan, Lu Lingxi, Qian San’r, and the few accompanying Chen Luan had seven dishes and one soup together. It was all common fare, yet very delicious. Regardless of official’s status, Tang Fan and Chen Luan had similar life experiences, giving the two a lot to talk about. The host and guests were quite happy during the feast, everything being peaceful.
Following the meal, Tang Fan rejected Chen Luan’s accompaniment, stating that he would look around when in the county again, and had Chen Luan go back to his proper business without needed to escort him. The latter did not insist, leaving after a few niceties.
Watching Chen Luan’s back, Qian San’r sighed with a happy grin. “That’s the bearing of an honorable official. This lowly one thinks that he’s a little comparable to you, Sir!”
Tang Fan turned to Lu Lingxi. “How do you see him?”
“Right.” Tang Fan put away his smile, expression turning serious. He did not hold up his recent appearance of being as warm as a spring breeze. “He’s likely even more difficult to handle than Hu Wenzao.”
Qian San’r was confused. “Sir, what’s suspicious about him?”
He hadn’t been able to tell at all. In his eyes, Chen Luan’s words and actions had been normal, much better than Hu Wenzao’s.
Lu Lingxi was the one to speak. “He knew when we had entered the city immediately. If it was as he claimed, where he had long known that we might come and thus had the soldiers at the city gate keep an eye out, I wouldn’t believe it at all, because were that true, then as early as the gates themselves, the soldiers would have directly barred Brother Tang’s way and invited Chen Luan to meet him. Now, it’s obvious that he had sent people to track us beforehand, which is why he knew our location so easily. That point is enough to say that his motives are impure, and he didn’t tell us the truth.”
Tang Fan nodded. “Correct. There’s another thing; I saw that when we were in the charity hall, those refugees’ clothes were neat and tidy. They had obviously been newly changed into. No matter how good the conditions of a charity hall are, there is absolutely no justification for a government to pay for refugees’ clothing. Do you all remember what happened when I stopped and questioned that elder?”
Seeing them both nod, he smiled. “Did you notice anything off about him?”
Qian San’r scratched his head. He really hadn’t paid attention to such fine details, so he couldn’t answer.
“He acted a bit odd,” Lu Lingxi said. “He had been uncomfortable at first, yet was abnormally fluent in his answers, as if he had memorized them ahead of time. I also saw him look at Chen Luan from time to time. Were it said that he was a citizen that had never seen the County Magistrate before and wanted to look at him a few more times due to the rarity, that would be okay, but the look in his eyes was really bizarre. It felt like… like…”
He furrowed his brow to think of a fitting visual, but Tang Fan picked it up. “Like he was looking at Chen Luan for cues.”
Lu Lingxi clapped. “Right, that’s it! You’re really as fine-tuned as a hair, and leave no scheme unconsidered!”
Tang Fan had already grown numb to his frequent praise.
Strictly speaking, Lu Lingxi wasn’t a flatterer, and even if he was, his skills at flattery were way too clumsy. Actually, if he was flattering him, it would be fine, but he was full of sincerity and perseverance, needing to express a dizzying amount of reverence towards Tang Fan whenever he had the opportunity. After a few bouts of it, Tang Fan had long learned to just pretend not to hear him. He shot him a look. “Yiqing.”
“What are your orders, Brother Tang?”
Tang Fan’s expression was mild. “You must have known earlier that someone was watching for our location?”
Instead of denying it, Lu Lingxi happily confessed. “Yep!”
Tang Fan frowned. “Then why didn’t you say so earlier?”
“I thought you knew so from the start, and just didn’t want to alert the enemy,” the other answered innocently.
Tang Fan glared at him. The latter, both innocent and aggrieved, brought out some favor-currying words. “But you never asked before… from now on, whatever you want to know, I’ll tell you, okay?”
Tang Fan went quiet for a short moment. “Then, what else do you know?”
“There were two groups watching us outside of the posthouse, and they followed us all the way here.”
“Two groups?” Tang Fan asked, raising his brows.
Lu Lingxi nodded, certain. “Two groups.”
“Are you sure they weren’t of the same affiliation?”
“They aren’t. You know as well that martial arts practitioners always have keener senses than ordinary people. One of the groups is likely on Chen Luan’s side, and the other, I’m not sure.”
“Could it be the Eastern Depot?”
“That’s a possibility.”
Tang Fan thought for a short moment. “Let’s head back, then.”
Qian San’r was startled, still a bit puzzled. “Where are we going?”
“Back to Wu, and then we’ll come back here.”
As for what they would be doing back in Wu, Tang Fan didn’t explain.
However, when they returned to Wu’s posthouse, he was informed that Yang Ji had returned, and came to pay him a visit.
The translator says: This chapter is less than 5k words…. I’m so not used to it lol