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“Where is he now?” Tang Fan asked the posthouse worker.
“Censor Yang is in the posthouse and hasn’t left, waiting to be called over upon your return, Sir. He told this lowly one to wait here, and if I saw you come back, I was to first ask if you want to see him, then invite him over.”
Tang Fan nodded. “Go and bring him.”
Compared to Chen Luan, Yang Ji was a little unpresentable. He was not yet forty in age, yet his hair had already gone half-white, and it wasn’t from stress; some people were simply born to age prematurely. Because of his thin figure, a lot of traces of hardship had been invisibly added to him, too.
“This humble official is the South Zhili Patrolling Censor, Yang Ji, and I send my greetings to you, Left Metropolitan Censor Sir Tang,” Yang Ji said with a bow.
“You don’t need to be polite, Censor Yang.” Tang Fan waved him off. “Come sit. San’r, bring tea.”
Tang Fan and Yang Ji had no friendship, nor were they about to talk nonsense in circles. As soon as they were seated respectively, he asked, “Is there something urgent?”
Yang Ji cupped his hands while seated. “This humble official went to inspect Kunshan County before and was unable to meet with you, Sir. After my return, I heard that you looked for me, so I went to visit you, only for you to have gone off to Wujiang. Thankfully, I didn’t miss you again this time. I know you’re here to investigate Wujiang’s famine, and I happen to have things to report on it.”
Tang Fan picked up his gaiwan and took a sip, nodding. “Say them, then.”
“I was ordered to garrison in Suzhou Prefecture. Last year, Lake Tai overflowed, and the lost crops in Wujiang, Wu, and other places caused many lives to be lost. After I went to all of those areas, I discovered that Wujiang’s condition was the most severe. At the time, I was reckless, and without any investigation, I decided that Chen Luan had neglected his duties plus delayed disaster relief, which is why I sent a memorial denouncing him.” With that, he sighed. “As it was, I later confirmed it to be my error.”
Tang Fan set his gaiwan down, rapping his knuckles lightly against the table. “Oh? You were wrong? How so?”
“Rather than neglect his duty, Chen Luan actually did it thoroughly, and has already done all he could. He moved every one of the refugees to the city’s south, then resettled many that had come from Wu, only for the provisions allocated by Suzhou to not have been enough. For this, Magistrate Chen was forced to empty the county granary and borrow from wealthy merchants in the city, which I witnessed firsthand. This is why I now feel my previous denouncement to have not been very proper. Were Magistrate Chen to lose his black hat over this, it will be on my conscience for all my life, so please see the light, Sir.”
Tang Fan hummed. “So, you’re saying that you think Chen Luan has not only not gone overboard, but has merit?”
Yang Ji shook his head. “Whether he has merit or not is not something I dare to decide. I just hope that you can find out the truth and report it to the Court. I am willing to sign my name alongside yours to make up for the mistake I made earlier.”
Tang Fan smiled. “Whether you’ve made a mistake or not is yet to be determined. As a Censor, it is your right to denounce every department, and be an annotator of every official that is contemptible, greedy, and corrupt. In every case, you must be iron-faced and selfless, keeping everything in order. Where’s the error in that?”
Yang Ji was taken aback. “Your implication is… that Magistrate Chen is still in the wrong?”
Tang Fan’s gaze fell to the color of the tea, as if a flower was blooming there. Yang Ji waited for a long time, then couldn’t wait anymore, asking, “Sir? Sir Tang?”
The other seemed to wake up from a dream. “Hm? What did you just say?”
Tang Fan smiled in embarrassment. “We just got here yesterday, then ran off to Wujiang today. I’m a little tired and distracted.”
Yang Ji had a face full of understanding. “You should take care of your health, Sir!” he said, sincere.
Tang Fan couldn’t help but yawn. “Pardon my laughable performance. Go on, go on,” he apologized.
Yang Ji was forced to repeat what he had said. “What you implied just then, Sir, is something this humble official doesn’t understand too well. Can you please elaborate?”
“Hm? What was it that I just said?”
“…You said me being wrong about Magistrate Chen is yet undetermined.”
“Right. What’s the issue? Whether he’s at fault or not is for the Court to decide upon. I’m an imperial ambassador, but even I can only report on what I’ve seen and heard.”
Yang Ji really had no way of telling if Tang Fan was playing dumb, or actually dumb. He had never interacted with him before, but the other had repeatedly cracked cases, and was known for his judgements.
When he had been in Xianghe County in particular, a child had died in a well, and everyone had though that it had been an accident, or that someone had pushed her, only for Tang Fan to find evidence on the body that determined that she had first been killed, then thrown in. It was precisely that case that had spread his name around.
Looking at him now, though, he seemed to be more suitable for being a Judge than for running off here to mix in the water. Yang Ji felt that this guy didn’t live up to his reputation, and faintly looked down upon him.
Although, on that note, with what was happening right now, a stupid imperial ambassador that wasn’t paying attention was obviously much better than an intelligent and competent one.
Yang Ji smiled. “You are correct, but however you plan to write your memorials, why not let this humble official see them first? That way, I can follow close behind you, and not go on the wrong path.”
Saying so, he took a memorial out of his pocket, then offered it up with both hands. “This is the memorial I’ve re-drafted over these past days. Please look it over, Sir.”
Tang Fan took it and placed it to the side. “I will. If you’re free tonight, let’s have dinner together, and we can discuss at the table.”
Those were exactly the words that Yang Ji had hoped for, and his smile grew all the more sincere. “I will wait for your summons in the other courtyard, Sir.”
As soon as Yang Ji was seen off, Lu Lingxi came back on his heels.
“Why are you back so soon?” Tang Fan asked.
Lu Lingxi grinned. “I dared not stay back for too long, and spurred back full speed after I learned about everything, afraid that you’d have no one to order about here.”
Before they left Wujiang, Lu Lingxi had followed Tang Fan out of the city, only to circle back in, do what Tang Fan had instructed him, then run back out.
Qian San’r curled his lips. “What do you mean, ‘no one to order about’? Am I not someone?!”
“But you have no skills. What if Brother Tang ended up running into danger?”
Qian San’r’s humiliation turned into rage. “Who said I have no skills?! My skills were learned from Mister Bastion Envoy, of the Brocade Guard’s Northern Bastion Office! Do you know who he is?!”
“Hm. So it’s Mister Envoy’s apprentice that couldn’t last three moves against me?”
Qian San’r’s heart immediately shattered all over the ground.
“Alright, quit messing around.” Tang Fan picked up the memorial and opened it. A piece of paper floated down out from inside it, and before it landed on the ground, Lu Lingxi caught it between two fingers.
“It’s a banknote… for ten thousand taels,” Lu Lingxi said, awed. The descendant of a wealthy family like him had been nurtured well since childhood, and he was not someone whose eyes could be opened by money; to be able to move him, the amount on any banknote had to be massive. “It has a Maochang notation, and the silver can be withdrawn on sight… that’s a lot!”
Banknotes were more convenient to carry around than pure silver, not easily pilfered, and a must-have for gifts and bribes. For that reason, following the former Song’s wisdom and Great Ming’s founding, silver notations like this had gradually become mainstream.
Native banks in this age were all backed by big merchants. No one merchant was running them, but one big merchant’s association. For example, the renowned Huitong notation in the capital had Shanxi merchants backing it, while the Maochang notation had Yangzhou merchants backing it, supposedly.
Each native bank had its own unique anti-counterfeit measures. On the one Lu Lingxi held, the characters had all been made with an ink that had special materials in it, and as long as it was placed under sunlight, the writing could show off its luster that differed from common ink. There was also a half-seal on the note, which would be matched up with the stub on the bank’s end to form a full seal.
Hearing that amount, Tang Fan recalled that when he had been investigating the Marquis Wu’an Estate case, Jubilance’s Miss Qingyi had been worth a few thousand taels. Since that was the case, was his own current worth about two top-names at Jubilance?
Thinking such, Mister Tang, who had some sort of slight deficiency in his brain, started laughing.
“Brother Tang, why are you laughing?” Lu Lingxi asked inquisitively.
While smiling, Tang Fan recalled the memory to them.
“The Marquis Wu’an Estate case? I know something of that,” Lu Lingxi said. “I heard that there was a huge row, and they verified that there was more than one group that killed Zheng Cheng.”
Tang Fan nodded. “That’s a correct assessment. One group was his little brother and concubine collaborating, the other was his primary wife buying off a prostitute from Jubilance to kill him. Though, after his death, it was difficult to identify the cause of his sudden demise, and perhaps it originated from both sides. Sins from past lives must have caught up to him; not only did his brother want him dead, but even his wife did. Being in such a situation is much too tragic.”
“So you were the one the judged that case!” Lu Lingxi exclaimed, excited. “I’ve heard of it before. The Estate had believed that he had passed of too much lust, while an official later staunchly searched through layers of clues to find both groups of killers. Turns out that official was you!”
That case had been the first bizarre, noteworthy one Tang Fan had had since starting off on his career path, but it was not the one he had become famous for. It was not surprising that Lu Lingxi hadn’t known.
Tang Fan smiled and shook his head at him. “Actually, Marquis Wu’an was not as incompetent as you might be imagining. He knew that there was something fishy about his son’s cause of death, but he didn’t want implications that were too far-reaching, so he wanted to just settle the situation and its people down. I was young and reckless at the time, insisting upon shining a light upon the case, and had turmoil come up from behind. The Estate lost a son and a daughter-in-law because of me. When its people see me nowadays, they straight-up take a detour. My career path having several ups and downs is inextricable from me throwing rocks at them while they were down.”
“Regardless of why the decedent died or what he did while he lived, getting to the truth was something that should have been done. Whatever their attitude is has no bearing on whether you did something wrong, Brother Tang. You didn’t.”
Tang Fan stared at him deeply for a moment, then nodded with a smile. “You’re right. I didn’t.”
In the other’s eyes, there looked to be a confirmation of his attitude, approval of his viewpoint, and a barely-there sense of knowing him well. This caused Lu Lingxi’s pulse to quicken, his mood instantly lifting up high. “So, someone like you is soft on the outside, tough on the inside… the more complicated a situation gets, the more others menace you, and even though you seem to draw back, in reality, you’ve long had a plan in mind.”
Tang Fan grinned. “Tell me, then. What is my plan?”
Lu Lingxi wasn’t sure what was wrong with him, but every single time the other smiled at him like that, he would unwittingly go dumbstruck seeing it, and he would not snap out of it until Tang Fan spoke again. “Display weakness to let your opponent relax their guard, then secretly go back to investigate what you want to.”
Tang Fan’s eyes betrayed his praise. He had not met many youths that were as intelligent as Lu Lingxi before. Others going unmentioned, his former brother-in-law had been known as a child prodigy in his youth, and his intellect had definitely been no lesser than Lu Lingxi’s, but the latter’s praiseworthy areas lied within his strong abilities to learn and adapt. Because of his travels, he was also far more experienced than scholars who were shut up in their homes, capable of both literary and martial feats with a more open-minded thought process.
No wonder Huai En had recommended that he help. There had likely been the thought to have Tang Fan help guide him, too; after all, no matter how valued Huai En was in the imperial family, he was just a eunuch, and there were many things that were inconvenient for him to do. Letting Lu Lingxi forge a connection with Tang Fan would aid in the former’s future career growth.
No matter what else, Tang Fan did indeed get a mind to cherish a talent.
“Correct.” He wasn’t going to keep him in suspense anymore. “It looks to be that Yang Ji is now on Chen Luan’s side. His words were wrapped with intent to exempt Chen Luan from responsibility. Patrolling Censors have huge authority, but their positions aren’t high, and Jiangnan is wealthy, but Yang Ji did not come from a wealthy family. Him easily taking out ten thousand taels of silver to bribe me with is clearly not possible, so that banknote had to have been taken from Chen Luan to give to me.”
Qian San’r was confused. “Since they’re in the same group, why did they denounce each other?”
“Maybe the two of them didn’t get along before, and are now colluding?” Lu Lingxi guessed. “Or they want Brother Tang to speak nicely of them in front of His Majesty?”
Even though he was smart and had seen much of the world, he was not actually in officialdom, having not much grasp on the twists and turns inside it.
Tang Fan shook his head. “There’s no need for baseless guesses right now. Qian San’r will stay in the posthouse tonight. Yiqing, you’ll go with me to a place.”
Qian San’r scratched his head. “Don’t you have dinner with Yang Ji tonight?”
Tang Fan side-eyed him. “It’ll be after.”
Lu Lingxi already understood Tang Fan’s plan, grinning while rubbing his palms. “Good idea, Brother!”
When night just fell, Tang Fan sent someone to invite Yang Ji over, then footed the bill in having a posthouse worker buy a good feast from outside. He spoke and drank with Yang Ji alone, never about serious business, but trite affairs. Yang Ji had an unsullied name — fond of not wealth, but reputation alone — and Tang Fan could make out as much; two out of his every three sentences didn’t stray from his appreciation of the common good, incorruptibleness, and frankness. He spoke until he had a floaty air about him, even. Under the wine’s assistance, he seemed to view himself as having become a savior that pulled the commonfolk out of all sorts of perils and set them upon those bedmats, and that without him, the Great Ming Dynasty would have been sunk into a situation it couldn’t get out of, and would need a competent official to come save it.
Still, he did not forget his goal. Availing himself of a drinking interval, he had to ask, “Did you ever read this humble official’s memorial, Sir?”
Tang Fan smiled, looking satisfied. “I did. It’s well-written.”
To those not in the know, they were genuinely speaking of the memorial, but in reality, Yang Ji’s implication was, ‘Did you get the banknote folded into it? Is the amount to your liking?’, while Tang Fan’s implication was, ‘I did, and it is.’
Then, he heard Tang Fan say, “I personally went to look at Wujiang. Magistrate Chen really did do the utmost of his responsibilities. Meanwhile, the Suzhou Magistrate, ever since I came here, has only paid a visit to me once, even avoiding me when I came to his door. It was uniquely detestable… if the amount of provisions allocated to Wujiang wasn’t enough, he likely won’t be able to shirk his connection to that.”
As he had expressed his stance, Yang Ji finally relaxed. “You are wise, Sir. Magistrate Hu covers the sky with one hand, and everything in Suzhou is his final say. My position is humble, with what I’m able to do ultimately limited; now that you’re here, I finally have a pillar of support. I am willing to send a memorial up with you rather than leave you to fight the war alone.”
Tang Fan laughed. “Alright, come on. Drink, drink!”
With an atmosphere like this, their dinner was the utmost of enjoyable. Yang Ji had a moderate amount of alcohol, yet he was getting poured some by Tang Fan over and over again, and before the banquet was done, he fell headfirst under the table.
Tang Fan staggered to his feet and pulled him up. “Brother Huimin?”
Yang Ji gave a barely-audible mumble, not even lifting his eyelids.
Tang Fan reached out to support him, then ‘accidentally’ stumbled a little, pressing most of his weight down onto Yang Ji. The other still didn’t make a peep. How drunk he was was self-evident.
Tang Fan narrowed his eyes for a short time. Seeing that he really had drunk himself into a puddle of mush, he gently rapped on the table.
A moment later, people pushed the door open from outside — Lu Lingxi and Qian San’r.
Tang Fan said nothing, only lifting his chin. The other two got it; Qian San’r helped Yang Ji up and walked out, simultaneously saying, “Sir Yang, this lowly one will bring you back to rest up!”
Lu Lingxi came over to support Tang Fan, meanwhile, whispering, “Yang Ji only has one boyservant at his side, and if he has to look after him, he definitely won’t have the spare time to care about us. Qian San’r will pretend that you’re still in the posthouse on his end. As for the people watching us, there’s only two outside right now, and they’ll be easy to shake off. We won’t go through the rear entrance later on, but jump straight over the wall.”
Lips pursed, Tang Fan whispered, “…I won’t be jumping over any walls.”
The other pinched his waist. “No worries, I’m here.”
“Where are you putting your hand? Take it away,” Tang Fan coughed.
“How could I carry you if I took it away?” Lu Lingxi asked innocently. “Don’t talk so much, you’re still drunk and need to get that noticed!”
Saying so, he slightly raised his volume. “Sir, relax a little, watch your step — hey! Sir, I’m not your Chun’r! Don’t rub my waist, that tickles!”
Tang Fan rolled his eyes.
That night, Tang Fan and Yang Ji had gotten massively drunk, and didn’t part for sleep until late in the evening, likely not about to get up before the sun was high in the sky tomorrow.
On another end, two people disguised as ordinary civilians departed the posthouse in secret, heading for Wujiang County.
The gate of the county capital was closed at night, never to be opened unless there was an urgent military situation. The pair had no interest in climbing the gates; stuff like that only showed up in stories and legends, as the reality was that the act was way too troublesome, and very easy to notice.
For that reason, they quietly walked all the way to the outside of the city, mixed in with the citizens that wanted to enter in the morning, and peacefully waited for the gates to be opened.
They wore coarse clothes that looked no different from those of ordinary people’s, but their appearances and presences would not change because of what they were wearing. Their faces would stick out when standing amongst ordinary people, and they had just been to Wujiang in the daytime, meaning that the guards at the gates might recognize them. Thus, Lu Lingxi had slightly modified their looks, drawing their eyebrows on thicker, making their complexions waxy yellow, pasting facial hair on, and adding some wrinkles to the forehead and corners of the eyes so that they weren’t too remarkable-looking, and no one would be able to recognize them.
Tang Fan was unfamiliar with this trick. “Is this face-changing?”
Lu Lingxi shook his head. “This isn’t in the same vein as face-changing, but similar to how a woman does makeup. The face-changing technique is more refined, as in addition to changing one’s face, they could change their hair, figure, and even go from male to female or female to male. That would have some genuine unfathomability.”
Tang Fan recalled how Li Man had noiselessly swapped identities with his son and fled disaster, then also recalled how Li Zilong had disguised himself as Chuyun-zi, and nodded. “That’s true.”
Lu Lingxi looked at Tang Fan. He had changed skin tone and gained a beard, but that actually gave him some allure. It could be imagined that when Tang Fan grew a beard for real and regained his look of a pale-faced scholar, he would be even more handsome than he was now. “Still, Brother Tang, even when you look like this, you look good.”
Tang Fan glared at him. “Don’t always be speaking so irreverently to your elders, sprout! I’m your father!”
They were currently disguised as a father and son. As Tang Fan had a mature bearing, he could pretend to be a middle-aged man with a beard. Lu Lingxi wouldn’t be able to do that no matter how he disguised himself, so he could only stick to his true colors. His present appearance wasn’t as handsome as it had been before, but his sallow complexion made him seem a few years younger, like an impoverished lad who had been undernourished for a long period of time.
He smiled at that, leaning in close to Tang Fan. “Dad, we both have the same qing in our courtesy names. Is that not a karmic tie from a previous life?”
They were standing at the base of a wall with other commoners beside them. In order to not draw attention, they were quite close, with Tang Fan nearly able to feel the other’s warm breath whenever he spoke.
This was straight-up, bare-naked flirting!
Tang Fan had no idea how to react, unsure of whether to get mad or be amused. He stroked his bread, completely serious. “Guai’r, why say that? That we’re father and son is obviously a karmic tie from a previous life. Your dad is a little tired from standing, so come massage my feet for me!”
He had thought that Lu Lingxi would draw back, but the bloke actually said ‘okay’ with a grin, then reached out and kneaded Tang Fan’s waist.
The latter smacked away his mitts. “I said massage my feet, not knead my waist!”
Lu Lingxi blinked. “Waists also get sore from standing for a long time, so that should be kneaded first. Your waist is thinner than mine, dad!”
Tang Fan was simply beside himself from how thick-skinned this guy was.
Luckily, right then, the city gates finally, slowly opened. Tang Fan got serious, pulling down the conical hat on his head. “We should do our job.”
“Right.” Lu Lingxi tactfully took his hand back, picked up his pole that had baskets loaded with pears on either end, then followed Tang Fan into the city. Afterwards, they found an unmanned alleyway, set down the baskets, and headed for the city’s west.
The city’s west gate led to Lake Tai, yet Tang Fan had always gone through the east gate before this. Chen Luan leading him to examine the refugees had brought him to the city’s south, while the city’s west had never been approached. Now, Tang Fan was hidden from everyone’s eyes and ears, bringing Lu Lingxi here to personally check whether Chen Luan had lied or not.
From a distance, they saw the gate of the city’s west shut up tight, with soldiers patrolling around.
When Tang Fan had ordered him to double back before, Lu Lingxi had already fully asked around. “The actual settlement for the refugees ought to be outside the city. This gate is only for exiting, not entry. Following the disaster, plagues were rampant, and to avoid the spread, Chen Luan ordered for all those infected to be driven out of the city. They were settled together outside along with the refugees. They have only one meal of congee a day, and more and more die out there, so the authorities send people daily to collect the corpses. Because they worry that the bodies would spread the disease, they basically all get burned.”
When it came to handling plagues, authorities had always carried out the isolation method. Tang Fan couldn’t nitpick that fault, but Chen Luan had known that he had come to patrol Wujiang and refused to bring him to see the actual settlement site of the refugees, instead putting on a charade and trying to get his mouth sealed up via Yang Ji. There had to be something else off with this.
“Since you’ve said that, will it be difficult for us to go out and take a look?” Tang Fan asked.
Lu Lingxi shook his head. “The opposite; it’ll be really easy. We can mix in with the people collecting the bodies, and those officials responsible for the collection. Pretty much no one wants to take on the task, so they even hire people to do it. The soldiers guarding the city, too — as long as no refugees want to get in, they won’t care. Follow me.”
He brought Tang Fan to the county bureau, and they went into the sidehouse next to it, where several people were sitting in a circle, drinking tea, and chatting. The instant they entered, Lu Lingxi smiled ingratiatingly. “Gents, we’ve come for some jobs!”
One amongst them munched on melon seeds. “Jobs? There’s only one job: go out of the city and burn corpses, thirty coins per trip. Are you doing it?”
“Yes, yes! Thank you for your great kindness, Mister!” Lu Lingxi hurriedly answered.
The other sized them up. Their postures were bowed, heads lowered. He huffed in satisfaction, clapping his hands and saying to his companions, “You all keep talking. Save some melon seeds for me and don’t eat them all, I’ll be right back!”
Then, he said to Lu Lingxi and Tang Fan, “Come with me!”
They followed him all the way to the west gate, convening with a group that was already waiting there. Beside them were some flatbed carts with firewood stacked in them, as well as a few sets of cloth wraps.
“You lot remember that whenever you’re dragging corpses, you need to wear these wraps that cover your mouth and nose,” the bureau clerk said to them. ”You can’t touch the corpses directly. Come back immediately after you’re done burning. I’m giving you all one shichen; any later, and the gates won’t open.”
Clearly, it was not the first time these other folks had done something like this. Everyone just agreed.
The clerk left after his explanation. Tang Fan and Lu Lingxi pushed one of the carts, following the rest out of the city.
The gate was a boundary line. In the wake of its slow opening, Tang Fan saw a world completely unlike that of what was inside the city.
That was to say, the underworld had come to the living world.
In the open areas outside, scattered all about, sitting or laying down, were densely-packed people all over. Some were groaning, and some had their eyes tightly shut, but without a single exception, their faces were entirely blank. Even if they saw Tang Fan’s group dragging away the corpses of their relatives right next to them, they didn’t move at all. Their eyes just vacuously flitted over them, remaining at an imaginary distance.
This was the true resettlement site. There were no doctors, no medicines. The total number of refugees from both Wujiang and Wu had to have added up to several thousands, but in this moment, there couldn’t be more than one thousand here. A lot of them had likely died prior to this.
Their sole hope was a small amount of daily congee delivered by the authorities using a basket hanging from the gate, but it wasn’t enough for everyone to eat. In the rush, those infected or physically weak would be the first to get washed out. Due to being worn down day after day, having only a faint hope of being able to survive this, many refugees had lost their fighting spirit for charging the gates or their thoughts to leave, only able to wait for death to welcome them.
The issue was that if there had been enough congee and medicine to begin with, none of this would have happened.
In other words, Chen Luan, in his governance, had not elected to appease the refugees, but had instead left them alone to die and survive as they would.
This was the truth that he hadn’t wanted Tang Fan to know.
As more and more people died, after not too long a time, the evidence here would be erased forever. Chen Luan had deceived the Court, Yang Ji had assisted him in the abuse, and Hu Wenzao had kept quiet. If even Tang Fan sent a memorial saying that all was well, no one in the future would ever know what had taken place here.
Everything before Tang Fan deeply shocked him.
Never before had he seen a local official be so brazen. On one side, he was working in tandem with Yang Ji, striving to manufacture the illusion that he had already done all he could to help, while on the other side, he was slaughtering the commoners under his jurisdiction, in a way that didn’t use blades.