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The job was unexpectedly smooth-going, because whenever Tang Fan and the rest dragged a corpse away and burned it, those remaining didn’t try to block them, just watching numbly, motionless. They didn’t even have the strength to stand up, even though their own relatives were amongst the bodies.
After finishing all of this, Tang Fan and Lu Lingxi took off the cloth wraps on their hands and masks on their faces, burned them, then followed the others back to the city. After checking over their names and identities, the soldiers let them back into the city, and gave each person thirty coins of payment.
Once they left the city gate and confirmed that no one had noticed them, the two left from an alley and headed straight for the city’s south, where Chen Luan had brought Tang Fan for a look yesterday.
Even though all of his conjectures had already been confirmed with what he had personally seen and experienced, he still had to make this trip.
As expected, when they approached the monastery, yesterday’s neatly-organized charity hall was emptied out. Even the straw mats and blankets that had been laid on the ground were completely gone, to say nothing of the figures of the refugees.
That alleged ‘proper settlement’ of the refugees had been a sham from beginning to end, a sham made for the imperial ambassador sent by the Court.
No matter how cunning Chen Luan was, Tang Fan had still found his faint clues, and got to see the truth that he wanted.
In this moment, however, instead of having any elation in his heart, it had all been replaced with sky-soaring fury.
His usual warm and elegant smile had completely gone from his face. He quietly watched the empty, not-too-far-away charity hall, neither joy nor anger distinguishable on him, but anyone that got close enough would be able to sense a cold and intimidating aura coming off of him.
Lu Lingxi had had no clue that the ever-approachable Tang Fan could give such a chilling look. Right when he thought to say something, the other turned and walked away.
He was startled, hurrying to catch up. “Brother Tang, we’re now…?”
“Going back to Wu,” Tang Fan answered concisely.
It was natural that they had to go back. They had come here disguised like this precisely to not draw anyone’s attention; even though they had uncovered the truth, what use was there in running off to Chen Luan now? Were the other to confess on the spot, he could still later renege on his confession in a memorial. Furthermore, with how sly he was, he would definitely not fess up outright, and because there was no way that Tang Fan could drag the Emperor himself to come see all of this, it was similarly impossible for him to see what he had seen.
And, between him and the Emperor, there was a partition of thousands of mountains and bodies of water, as well as many human affairs and variables.
Thus, Tang Fan needed to find evidence, in the form of either people or objects.
That would be difficult, of course. On the road back, he didn’t say a word, thinking of this the whole time as his mind raced. When they returned to Wu, Lu Lingxi noticed that the corners of his mouth were still drawn back, giving him a slightly icy look.
“Brother Tang, how about I return to the capital and report this to Eunuch Huai, and have him think of something?” he helped suggest. “He’s a favorite of His Majesty, and has his deep confidence. Maybe he’ll believe him.”
Tang Fan’s lips drew up, showing a curve that couldn’t count as a smile. At first look, it seemed a bit mocking, but it wasn’t directed at Huai En. “That won’t work. Even if I spend half a month drawing up what I saw for the Emperor to see, the outcome would not be within our control.”
Lu Lingxi was astonished. “Why?”
“Someone will block it,” Tang Fan answered coldly.
“Even if Eunuch Huai personally gives a full account for us, it would have no use?”
Lu Lingxi couldn’t understand. He regarded Huai En’s position and innate importance as too high and heavy, having no idea that there were occasions where he had no power.
“Huai En is just one person. He could talk to His Majesty once or twice at best, but his counterparts? Chen Luan’s uncle is the Nanjing Minister of Revenue, and his department controls nearly half of the Great Ming’s taxed grains, as well as salt permits. Do you think that the Wan party would allow someone that’s at odds with them sit in such a position?
“Chen Luan has no scruples because he’s not only supported by his uncle, but knows that even if I expose him, nothing may end up happening. Also, Wu Zong and Zeng Pei didn’t hesitate to warn me before reaching Suzhou that they’re keeping track of my whereabouts — is that merely because of the gifts Jiangnan merchants have given to the Eastern Depot?
“Shang Ming is not happy to help other people to this extent. There has to be involvements and connections to the Eastern Depot within this. With so many people speaking in unison before His Majesty, do you believe that he’ll listen to them, or Huai En alone?”
Sentence after sentence, he questioned Lu Lingxi into speechlessness.
It was currently the end of spring and start of summer. The warm breeze was gentle, yet his body was full of cold sweat.
He stared at Tang Fan in a daze. For some reason, his nose suddenly ached a little, and he quickly bowed his head, blinking away the soreness in his eyes.
He had once faced off against dozens of mountain bandits alone in a perilous situation and had not felt much from his injuries then, but now that he was seeing Tang Fan’s profile, an indescribable melancholy arose from the bottom of his heart. All he wanted to do was cry his eyes out.
For Tang Fan, and for his difficult path.
Lu Lingxi had never known that being a good official and wanting to do a good thing would be so difficult. He was quiet for a long while, then asked, “Then… are we still investigating?”
“Yes,” Tang Fan answered automatically. “Why wouldn’t we?”
Lu Lingxi furrowed his brows. “Could we even fight against them?”
Tang Fan smiled. “We haven’t tried yet. How would we know?”
Within such banal words, there was a fighting spirit that could move the soul.
Affected by his smile, Lu Lingxi suddenly sighed. “Brother Tang, I finally understand why Eunuch Huai had me come find you.”
Tang Fan turned his head, as if able to see what the other was thinking. “Yiqing, you could choose to be a wealthy gentleman, or you could choose to travel the land, becoming a hermit that cares not for the mundane world. However, if you later walk into officialdom, I hope that you don’t choose the paths of Chen Luan, Yang Ji, or Hu Wenzao.”
Lu Lingxi cupped his hands solemnly. “I will definitely not fail your expectations!”
He had believed that Huai En had sent him to Tang Fan in a wish for him to help protect him using his skills. Later on, he had further felt that in all the scheming and running about at Tang Fan’s side, he really had been a great help to him.
However, he hadn’t truly understood Huai En’s intent up until now — it was not only for him to help Tang Fan, but more so for him to learn from Tang Fan.
Learn from others, learn from other places.
Tang Fan must also know as much, yet he had never pointed it out, instead allowing him go everywhere.
This made Lu Lingxi feel a little humbled, but in addition to that, there faintly arose an unspeakable admiration.
The man before him had no martial arts, nor any strong backers, but he did have a stalwart mind that no one could compete with.
Were he to accept the ten thousand taels and help cover up the disaster, he wouldn’t need to do anything other than portray in a memorial that everything was fine. No one would cause trouble for him, and those refugees jumping up to reproach him would be even less likely.
Yet he had still chosen the most difficult route.
Lu Lingxi inhaled, his morale reignited because of Tang Fan’s words. “Where do we investigate from now?”
“No matter how strong a fortress is, it will have cracks. There is no such thing as genuine invincibility, it simply depends upon whether we’re willing to discover those cracks. In this case, someone that tied the bell up is needed to untie it.”
Lu Lingxi creased his brow and thought for a time. Chen Luan was a no-go, as he was strongly supported, and dared to lie to Tang Fan’s face despite only being a seventh-rank County Magistrate, not placing importance onto him at all. Yang Ji had helped Chen Luan give Tang Fan money, so he was obviously smoke from the same geyser. That only left… “Hu Wenzao?”
Tang Fan nodded.
“But didn’t he avoid seeing you?”
“That’s because he has no idea that he’s been sacrificed,” Tang Fan answered mildly. “He acted dumb because he didn’t want to offend Chen Luan. Now that Chen Luan and Yang Ji are going to push him out to be the scapegoat, will he keep sitting still?”
The sky had brightened, the amount of people watching the outside of the posthouse gradually increasing. It was impossible for them to stealthily slip back in using their original method, so Tang Fan simply kept wearing his coarse clothes and conical hat, then openly entered the main gate with Lu Lingxi.
They were stopped by the door guard. Tang Fan removed his hat; his counterpart could still recognize him, stammering out, “S-Sir?!”
It was not only him, but the spies watching the outside of the posthouse that were greatly shocked. No one knew how Tang Fan and Lu Lingxi had managed to sneak out from right under their noses, nor where they had come back from.
Tang Fan grinned at the posthouse soldier. “It’s me. What’s wrong? Can I not go in?”
The soldier quickly moved out of the way. “Nonono! If you please!”
Seeing the two enter, the guard scratched his head, wondering to himself what that was all about. Did the other have some kind of strange hobby that wasn’t appropriate for a proper official to have, so he wandered out in the clothes of the commonfolk? If he could be an official, he would have to wear his official’s robes all his life, not even talking them off in sleep!
Back at the posthouse, Qian San’r came over to report. “Sir, Yang Ji still hasn’t woken up, and neither Zeng Pei nor Wu Zong have left.”
“What about Hu Wenzao? Did he come?” Tang Fan asked.
Tang Fan laughed coldly on the inside. That Hu Wenzao had no idea that he was on the brink of death.
He spoke no nonsense. “Help me change my clothes, I need to go on a trip.”
“You haven’t slept all night! Where are you going? Can’t you do it after you rest?” Qian San’r quickly asked.
Tang Fan shook his head. “It’s too late. Time is of the essence. Those people will definitely report to Chen Luan that we went out, and they might do something to Hu Wenzao. I want to win him over as quickly as possible.”
Using the hot water Qian San’r brought over, he washed the makeup off of his face, restored his original looks, switched into normal clothes, then headed out.
Lu Lingxi had already come to recognize Tang Fan’s tireless look when it came to proper business. Sighing inwardly, he hurriedly followed after him.
The two found the prefectural bureau. It was daybreak, and today was an off day, so Hu Wenzao was still sleeping in the rear hall of the bureau. Tang Fan didn’t wait for anyone to make a report, directly bringing out his imperial ambassador’s token, breaking in with Lu Lingxi’s protection, and going straight for the rear hall.
Hu Wenzao was sound asleep, until a woman’s shriek unexpectedly came from beside him. In his haze, it sounded a little familiar to him, as if it were his concubine’s voice.
His eyelids twitched, striving to open a crack, and he saw that someone appeared to be standing beside his bed.
He had no idea what idiot would come to disturb his slumber. Even before his eyes were fully opened, he dimly rebuked, “Who dares barge in here? Get out!”
“You really live a comfortable life, Magistrate Hu. Even this Tang feels inferior!” the other party mocked, rather than get scared away.
That voice… Hu Wenzao felt it to be inexplicably familiar.
That was, until his concubine yelled out in ashamed anger. “You pervert! Didn’t you hear what he said?! Get out!”
Hu Wenzao was annoyed, crawling up from the bed. Once he got a good look at who was in front, though, he completely woke up.
“C-Censor Tang!” He looked flustered, anger and embarrassment mixing together. “How can you burst in here without the owner’s consent?!”
Tang Fan said nothing, only looking at him calmly, until Hu Wenzao avoided his line of sight out of guilt.
A minute later, he finally remembered that his rank was equal to the other party’s, and he didn’t need to be so fearful.
Tang Fan’s hands were behind his back. “I came to save your life, Magistrate Hu.”
The latter was struck dumb. “Please don’t be alarmist, Censor Tang! What is this nonsense about my life being in danger?!”
Tang Fan laughed with an unclear meaning. “Drag everyone unrelated out of here.”
That sentence was for Lu Lingxi, and it received a thorough implementation. He dragged the concubine with messy clothes off of the bed, then pushed her out the door.
During this entire process, Hu Wenzao could only shout ineffective stuff like, “What are you two trying to do? What are you actually trying to do?!” Lu Lingxi seemed to hear none of it, and after finishing, he conscientiously shut the room’s door, then stood guard. No one would be getting in before Tang Fan came out.
“Okay, it’s quiet. Now we can sit down and talk business.” Tang Fan sat down in a grandmaster chair.
Talk what business? Hu Wenzao wasn’t even in clothes, how could he talk business?! He viciously mocked the other in his heart, naturally not having any nice expression on. Anyone who had been sleeping pleasantly, then been barged in on and disturbed would also likely not look any better.
“I’m not sure what you wish to talk about, Censor Tang?” he asked coldly.
“I was ordered to come down south to inspecting Wujiang’s famine from last year. As Suzhou’s Magistrate, you’ve hidden away, not only not reporting to me, but also making a lot of oversights. If I submit the truth to the Court, what effect do you think that will have?”
Hu Wenzao was unmoved. “This Magistrate already allocated the provisions in a timely matter. Anything else is the responsibility of Wujiang’s Magistrate. Why not go and ask him?”
His attitude of deflecting responsibility was quite common, but since Yang Ji and Chen Luan were working together to do him in, it looked rather moronic.
Tang Fan laughed. “I already inspected Wujiang yesterday. Do you know what Magistrate Chen said to me?”
Hu Wenzao didn’t answer.
Not minding, Tang Fan took it upon himself to continue. “He first brought me to see the city’s charity hall. He set it up nicely, with all the refugees properly settled in. The sole less-than-perfect thing was that there were only three days’ worth of provisions left, and the county granary was already emptied. He didn’t ignore this, planning to get grains from wealthy merchants to help the refugees overcome this difficulty, but he did tell me that the reason why provisions weren’t enough is that Suzhou Prefecture only allocated thirty shi to Wujiang.”
Hu Wenzao’s eyes instantly widened.
Tang Fan’s line of sight imperceptibly passed over his face. “You don’t believe me? I also didn’t believe him, but he showed me his grain registry, which clearly had thirty shi on it. He also said that if you hadn’t given such a minor amount, disaster relief would have been enough.”
“Bollocks!” Hu Wenzao couldn’t hold back anymore, slapping a table and standing up with a bang. If the other hadn’t said so, he would have had no idea how death would come to him. “Censor Tang, thirty shi isn’t even enough for the annual salary of an unranked official! How could I have done such a thing?! The provisions Suzhou allocated was clearly three-thousand shi!”
“He had the grains registry to prove it. What do you have?” Tang Fan countered indifferently.
“I have a grains registry too!” the other raged. “Whenever provisions are moved, it always gets recorded!”
“Where is it?”
“Come, follow!” Hu Wenzao loudly called.
“Magistrate Hu, the weather is warm, but it seems to be a little indecorous to meet guests while wearing only inner robes, doesn’t it?” Tang Fan ‘kindly’ reminded him.
Hu Wenzao then realized that he hadn’t put on clothes, angrily and abashedly putting on an outer robe, shoes, and socks, cursing out Tang Fan and Chen Luan an unknown amount of times in his head.
A servant came in from outside. “You were looking for this lowly one, Lord?”
“Get Auditor Liao to bring the grains registry over!”
The servant agreed and left.
Calling someone required some time. Taking advantage of this interval, Tang Fan asked, “After returning to Wu, I secretly went back in disguise and discovered many refugees outside of the city’s west. Their clothes were threadbare, and they looked like the living dead. Starving victims were everywhere, plague was rampant. You ought to know what’s going on there?”
“This humble official has no idea what you’re talking about, Sir,” Hu Wenzao refused to admit.
Tang Fan did not get angry. “If you don’t speak now, I might not be willing to listen when you want to speak later.”
Hu Wenzao still did not say anything.
The room was immediately immersed in an abnormal silence.
A short time later, Auditor Liao hurried over. “Mister Magistrate!”
He looked at Tang Fan. He had been present when Hu Wenzao had led the welcoming committee, so he recognized him. “Greetings, Censor Tang!”
Tang Fan nodded slightly, saying nothing, but Hu Wenzao couldn’t hold back. “Where’s the registry? Did you bring it?!”
“I did, but there’s a lot of them, and I left them outside. Did you want to look…?”
“Cut the nonsense! This Magistrate asked you if you have the registry where what was allocated to Wujiang was recorded!”
“Yes, yes! You want to read that section?”
“Go find it, now!”
“Please wait a minute, Sirs! This humble official will go get it!”
He had transported all of the year’s registries over via cart. They were sorted according to time and region, so it was easy to find things. Not much time was needed for Auditor Liao to find the registry Hu Wenzao demanded.
“This is the registry for Wujiang last year. Please look it over, Sir.” He flipped to one of the pages, then offered it up to Hu Wenzao.
The latter nearly snatched the booklet. His eyes hurriedly swept it from top to bottom, then suddenly froze.
“What. Is. All. This?!” He looked up in shock and fury, his gaze nearly swallowed Auditor Liao alive.
The other had no idea, so he leaned over to see, apprehensive. “Sir, I don’t know what the issue is here?”
“It was clearly three-thousand shi! Why did it change into thirty shi?!” Hu Wenzao roared. “Where did the rest of the two-thousand, nine-hundred and seventy shi go?! Did you eat them? Huh?!”
Auditor Liao trembled. “You’ve accused me wrongly, Sir! You clearly ordered for thirty shi to be allocated. Where did three-thousand shi come from?”
The other nearly lost it. “Suzhou Prefecture’s granary had a total of five-thousand shi last year in provisions! After allocating three-thousand, two-thousand is left! If it was thirty shi, then the granary will have more than four-thousand left! This Magistrate will go take a look now! If there isn’t more than four-thousand shi in there, you can wait for your black hat to leave along with your head!”
Auditor Liao looked at him like he was looking at a nutcase. “Did you remember it wrong, Sir? Suzhou’s granary had ten-thousand, five-hundred and thirty shi last year. Amongst that, the ten-thousand five-hundred was handed over to Nanjing, then to the Dynasty. The remaining thirty shi was given to Wujiang. The granary currently has nothing in it. Where did two-thousand shi come from?”
Hu Wenzao glared at him, chest heaving nonstop. “I’m going to see for myself! Also, bring the grain registry with!”
Auditor Liao brought them to the prefectural granary, ordering someone to open its main door. The instant it was, Hu Wenzao pushed the crowd away like he was mad, rushing in.
Every wall was bare, not even a single grain of rice on the floor. It really was an empty granary.
Hu Wenzao bellowed, then snatched the grains registry that Auditor Liao passed over. Sure enough, what was written on it was exactly what the other had claimed before.
He stared blankly. He wasn’t thinking at all that he was going insane, or that his memory was wrong.
That name was madly circulating his mind, nearly devouring him whole.
He slowly raised his head, staring at Auditor Liao maliciously.
That dark look in his eyes made the other subconsciously take a few steps back.
“Liao Shouchang, you sure are great!” Hu Wenzao spat out each word from his mouth with deep rancor. His eyes were shot red, as if he was about to throw himself at him and take him down with him.
Auditor Liao forced out a smile. “This humble official has no idea what you’re talking about, Sir.”
Tang Fan wanted to laugh hearing that. Not too long ago, Hu Wenzao had used that sentence to cut him off, and now someone else had gone down the same road of doing it to him.
Feng shui really did revolve.
And he really did laugh out loud.
That laugh seemed to suddenly affect Hu Wenzao. He did a full-body jolt, coming back to his senses, looking at Tang Fan with an urgency and hope he had never had before. “Brother Runqing, can we discuss this somewhere private?”
He was quite anxious, but Tang Fan was not. Hands behind his back, he answered leisurely, “Discuss what? What else do we need to discuss? Don’t you not know what I’m talking about?”
Hu Wenzao’s face flashed green and white. “I failed to recognize Mount Tai before. Please don’t stoop to my level, Brother, I really do have a hundred thousand urgent matters to report to you! Please give me just a short moment of your time!”
Tang Fan pretended to think it over. Eyes sweeping over Auditor Liao, who was looking all over the place with an uneasy expression, he gave Lu Lingxi a look.
Understanding him, Lu Lingxi went right behind Auditor Liao, and squeezed him at his nape at lightning speed.
The other immediately collapsed, limp. Lu Lingxi cried out in alarm. “What happened to you, Sir?! Is the granary’s airflow so bad that you passed out? This lowly one will help you to bed!”
With that, not waiting for anyone to stop him, he picked the man up and walked up, unsure of where exactly to bring him.
Hu Wenzao quit losing it at last, reacting with a shout at his confidantes. “Come and get this place under control! Everyone is to be taken out of here!”
Finishing with that, he turned to Tang Fan, looking faintly pleading. “Sir?”
Tang Fan finally nodded a bit.
The two returned to the rear hall of the bureau.
The area was the same as before, the people were the same as before, yet the mood was not the same as before. Were it to be said that Tang Fan had wanted to pry open Hu Wenzao’s mouth prior to this, the active and passive spots were now inverted.
Tang Fan didn’t give him much time to revise his thoughts. “Speak. I don’t have much patience.”
Hu Wenzao was quiet for a moment, then took a deep breath. “All of this is Chen Luan’s plot.”
The author’s mini-theatre:
The author meows out righteously: A truly handsome dreamboat wouldn’t need another man’s contrast behind his back.
Sui Zhou slowly draws his spring-gilt sabre…
Following a cold light…
The author dies.
Wang Zhi: =皿= Shit. This guy hasn’t had enough screen time yet!