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Standing outside the door was a big, tall man wearing a trueseventh-rank Gonfalon uniform of the Brocade Guard. If any distinguishing feature of his were to be spoken of, it would be his mustache that blocked practically half of his face. Still, his eyes were bright, and as he stood there, his out-of-the-ordinary bearing felt like a deep pool of still water, a peak on a tall mountain.
What a shame it was that Tang Fan had no martial arts knowledge. Were Lu Lingxi here, he would know that the other man was definitely an expert fighter.
The man held his fist towards Tang Fan, who was still embracing the beauty. “This subordinate is Di Han, Gonfalon of Wujiang’s Guard post. Greetings, Sir Tang!”
Tang Fan creased his brow. “Who sent you?”
“I was ordered to come protect you by Millarch Jiang!”
Tang Fan’s expression sank. “He told you to come protect me, so why did you barge in here for no reason? What’s your purpose?”
Di Han bowed his head. “This subordinate acknowledges my mistake. I simply didn’t hear your answer and felt anxious, fearing that you met with mishap.”
“Do you feel that coming to protect me is a waste of a resource like you, Gonfalon Di?” Tang Fan coldly asked. “If that’s so, I can go to Millarch Jiang and tell him to give me a replacement.”
Hearing this, Di Han immediately knelt. “I acknowledge my mistake! Please don’t drive me away, Sir! Millarch Jiang told me over and over again to obey your every word, yet I was reckless — please forgive me!”
Tang Fan peered at him for a long time. “Didn’t I ask him to send two people over? Why are you alone?”
“Perhaps he saw my skills as adequate, and felt that one was enough.”
The other was angered into amusement. “You’re not modest at all.”
“Thank you for your praise. This subordinate is too ashamed to accept it,” Di Han answered, true to rhythm. Xiao Wu, an actively-radiating beauty, was sitting there, yet he had only given her one glance upon entry, his line of sight never landing upon her afterwards.
“Since Millarch Jiang told you to obey my every word, I want you to do one thing right now,” Tang Fan said.
“Please instruct, Sir.”
Di Han finally had a rare startle.
“I’m telling you to leave now, shut the door, and not disturb us. Did you not hear?” Tang Fan repeated.
Di Han silently left.
Tang Fan relaxed his arm on Xiao Wu’s waist.
Then, the door opened once more, and Di Han’s dawdling mug showed up again. “Sir, this subordinate will stand guard outside. If you have an order, you only need to yell.”
Tang Fan nearly keeled backwards out of anger. “Get out!”
The room resumed its tranquility at last.
Tang Fan let go of Xiao Wu. “Pardon this laughable performance, Miss Xiao.”
She lowered her head, too bashful to speak, only able to warn him out of embarrassment, “Sir, the food has gotten cold. How about I make a fresh batch and send it over?”
“There’s no rush to eat. I have something to say to you, Miss Xiao,” he said softly.
Her head got even lower, hands wringing the hem of her clothes as she was silent.
Following their recent bout of close contact, the ambiguous feeling between them grew denser. A man like Tang Fan would never have been so audacious if he didn’t have genuine interest in a woman.
Despite her doing all she could to hide the expression on her face, her hands still slightly trembled beyond her control. Such a young, handsome, and graceful Don had repeatedly expressed his intent to get closer — how many women in this world would not be moved by that?
Expectedly, she heard him ask, “Are you engaged, Miss Xiao?”
That question was much too hinting. Her face grew even redder, and she had no idea how to answer, until she suddenly remembered something and raised her head. “Sir, w-why did you believe I poisoned your food earlier?”
Tang Fan smiled apologetically at her. “We’ve met twice before at too-coincidental opportunities. I believed that someone else had sent you, so I thought to probe.”
She bit her lip. “And what about now?”
“Now, I still think that you’re pretty suspicious, but… I can’t control my own heart,” he confessed.
The first half made her face pale, but the second half made it go from white to scarlet. Massively shocked and pleased, her body nearly couldn’t take it.
She hesitated for a time, then drummed up her courage. “Actually… I know what it is that you’re suspecting.”
Xiao Wu lowered her head. “I won’t hide it from you; I’m not a woman from a good family. What I said before about seeking shelter with relatives was a lie. A good woman certainly wouldn’t be like me, coming into a man’s room in the middle of the night, right?”
“If you want to speak, you can. If you don’t, I won’t force you to,” he said softly.
She abruptly looked up. “Really?”
Tears rippled like waves of stars for a very long time in her eyes, then finally fell.
Not all beauties looked good when they cried, but the phrase ‘dewed pear blossom’ couldn’t be more appropriate for her.
“Have you heard of Yangzhou leanmares before?” she asked him.
He had, of course.
‘Yangzhou leanmares’ were pretty girl children bought for cheap from poor families in order to be trained for prostitution. Whether they had literary attainments in the four arts or bedwork for seducing men, they were all stunningly beautiful, and thus could be sold at high prices, either as high-grade brothel workers or concubines to wealthy families. They were highly popular in the Jiangnan region, and there were even people that specialized in this industry, similar to human brokers.
Seeing him nod, she continued. “I used to be a leanmare. I was bought when I was fourteen to become the concubine of a wealthy merchant. After he died, his primary wife could no longer tolerate me and drove me out, which was why you met me outside of Yangzhou City. I have been working to attend to men ever since I was learning characters, and after that, I was kept like a bird in a cage; I never knew how hard it would be to make a path for myself in life. If it hadn’t been for you, Sir, I’m afraid I would have already…”
Xiao Wu wiped her tears, smiling softly. “Now you know. After I met you, I-I shouldn’t have deluded myself in deliberately disguising myself as a proper lady. I’m not one at all…”
She was wiping away tears more and more as they flowed ever profusely. Unable to speak anymore, she abruptly stood up, turning to leave.
Tang Fan grabbed her hand, then pulled her back into his embrace, hugging her tight. “Ah-Wu!”
As soon as that nickname hit her ears, Xiao Wu’s slender frame shuddered slightly, and she immediately went limp in his arms.
“I really like you,” his voice came from over her head. “I’ve liked you since I first saw you… I don’t care about your status, either, as long as you say one thing. If you agree to come with me, I’ll bring you back to the capital, and take you as a bride!”
As soon as he said that, a knock sounded from the door again.
“Sir, it’s late. You should rest,” Di Han said outside.
Tang Fan was furious. “You keep making trouble! I told you to wait outside, didn’t you hear?” Then, he softly asked Xiao Wu, “Did that scare you?”
She lightly shook her head.
There was quiet outside once more.
The two maintained their embracing pose. Tang Fan had no plan to let go, and Xiao Wu didn’t struggle, only saying softly, “This one’s heart… is the same as yours.”
“Ah-Wu!” he said, elatedly.
She covered his mouth that was about to speak, smiling bitterly. “But I’ll never dare to expect to be wed to you as the primary wife. With my status, as long as I can stay by your side and attend to you, that will already be my greatest blessing.”
His eyes were gentle. “Don’t you worry. My parents are dead, and my older sister is excellent at understanding other people. She won’t stop us.”
Xiao Wu shook her head. “But my identity will make you a laughingstock in officialdom. You don’t need to say anything more, Sir, I can understand your intent. I-I’m already quite happy, really… from childhood to adulthood, no one has ever been so honest to me, and no man has ever said that he wanted to take me as a wife…”
Tang Fan sighed, stroking her hair with his palm. After a long while, he said softly, “Don’t speak of such depressing things. I still have something very important to do. Chen Luan deceived the sovereign and sold disaster relief provisions for soaring profits — I must find evidence to report to the Court, so that I can bring you back to the capital as soon as possible. During this period, I might not be able to look out for you, so stay in the posthouse and minimize going outside as much as possible, lest Chen Luan gets desperate and tries to threaten me with you as my weakness.”
“Are you in danger, then?” she asked, worried.
He gripped her hand. “I shouldn’t be. I have something of a connection with the Brocade Guard, so they sent someone to protect me. Is there not one standing outside right now?”
She huffed out a laugh, her tears breaking into a smile. “It seems to me that he’s here to control you.”
He gave a powerless expression. “The Brocade Guard has always been domineering. I only have a friendship with their boss, I can’t order them around. As long as he can protect me, what changes in the weather will matter?”
“I didn’t sleep at all last night, only shutting my eyes for a minute just now. I’m a little fatigued.”
“I-I’ll leave, then,” she quickly said. “I’ll bring you breakfast tomorrow!”
He smiled. “If you’re willing to keep accompanying me, I don’t mind much.”
Xiao Wu’s face flushed. Speechless out of embarrassment, she picked up the tray of food, lowered her head to hide, and left.
Tang Fan didn’t chase after her, merely watching with an infatuated gaze, his eyes so soft, they were about to drip water. Even though Xiao Wu didn’t turn to look, she could still feel his burning sight on her back.
Strictly speaking, back at Yangzhou City, the one who had saved her had been Lu Lingxi, but for a woman like her, Tang Fan would be the target of her ultimate affection. She had long set her heart upon a secret promise, but had never spoke it out, only silently following him to Suzhou, then coincidentally getting saved by him yet again — were mysterious forces truly at work? Was fate really set by the Heavens?
If she could go with him back to the capital…
Thinking of that, her charming face heated up all the more red, and even her footsteps got a little a more chaotic.
When Xiao Wu had shut the door and gone far away, Tang Fan then stretched out his back, smile not fading from his face. “Di Han, are you outside?”
“I am,” a voice said from outside.
“Come on in.”
Di Han pushed the door open, only to hear Tang Fan say, “I’m a bit tired. Go and fetch me some water to wash my feet in.”
Not waiting for his answer, Tang Fan slightly looked up. “What is it? You refuse to? I’ll have Millarch Jiang replace you, then.”
“This subordinate will do it.”
Di Han turned and left, then speedily returned with a basin of water, placed it beneath Tang Fan’s feet, and reached out to pull up Tang Fan’s trouser leg.
Tang Fan coughed. “No need, I can do it myself. Just sit down, I have something to ask you.”
Di Han ignored his rejection. With that facial hair, his expression couldn’t be clearly seen, but his voice was very sincere. “Since this subordinate is following you, I should attend to you in everything. Otherwise, if you go to Millarch Jiang and complain, I will never be able to live it down. Please give me a chance, Sir.”
Before Tang Fan could refuse, he had already rolled up Tang Fan’s pants, cupped some water in his hands, then lightly pat the top of the other’s feet. Once the man was used to the water temperature, he lifted and placed his feet into the water.
Tang Fan was a man, so his feet couldn’t be described as delicate-looking, but they were fair, slender, and had well-proportioned bones that weren’t frail, giving them a just-right beauty.
When Di Han held them, he also noticed that their soles had thin calluses.
Civil officials always took sedan chairs or carriages when they went out, and wouldn’t walk more than a few li, typically. Where had the calluses come from?
Tang Fan seemed to see his doubts, answering languidly, “Did you forget? Before I became a Palace Honorate, I spent a few years traveling all across the country, countless roads going under my feet. Getting calluses was normal.”
Di Han lowered his head to help him wash his feet. “You must have misremembered, Sir. You never told me this, so how would I be able to forget it?”
Tang Fan hummed in contemplation. “Then maybe I mistook you for someone else. About that, though… you just barged in over and over again; what crime deserved that?”
“This subordinate only worried that you would come across danger.”
Tang Fan sneered. “I think you saw a stunner and got carried away. Would you like a few more chances to take her in?”
Di Han went quiet for a moment. “Sir, her background is odd. She isn’t an uncomplicated character.”
Tang Fan shook his head. “I might as well let you know that I’ve taken a liking to her, and will receive her in a few days’ time. If you don’t have any intent towards her, that’s fine, this official isn’t going to give up easily— ow! What are pressing so hard for?! You’re about to break my ankle!”
Letting go, Di Han saw that there was indeed a new red mark on it. He helped the other man by kneading it. “…I didn’t mean to.”
Tang Fan took back his feet, then wiped them off with a kerchief while waving him off, as if he was swatting a fly. “Sure, sure. Go on out. Don’t disturb my shut-eye!”
Before he could finish speaking, he was suddenly thrown back onto the bed!
“What are you doing?!” he asked angrily.
Their eyes faced off, noses almost touching. They were so close to each other, they could feel the hot breath their counterpart exhaled.
“Forgive this subordinate’s abruptness,” Di Han said slowly, though he still had no intent to get up. Staring at him, he enunciated his each and every word. “That woman’s motives are unknown. Please don’t be swindled by her, Sir.”
Tang Fan laughed. “Isn’t she Chen Luan’s favorite concubine? I don’t care. What is this about being swindled?”
Di Han was caught off guard. “You know?”
“Do you think that your Brocade Guard is my only source of information, and I would dare to bust into Yangzhou without knowing anything? You look down on me too much!”
“How did you know?”
“How long are you going to hold me down for?”
Di Han looked deeply at Tang Fan, then finally let go of him and got up. The latter lightly huffed, lifting his chin. “Go take the water out. This official is going to rest.”
“…Please clear up this subordinate’s confusion, Sir.”
“Are you begging me?” Tang Fan wondered.
Di Han breathed out quietly. “Yes. This subordinate begs that you clear up my confusion.”
Tang Fan’s mood went high. “As you’re being so sincere, I will very compassionately let you know that as early as when I met her on the streets of Suzhou a second time, I have suspected her.”
Seeing Di Han’s slightly doubtful look, he went on. “Know oneself, know the enemy; only when anticipating your foe’s crucial moves will one have no losses in a hundred battles. Before leaving the capital, I had Wang Zhi help me with looking into Hu Wenzao, Chen Luan, and Yang Ji. In regards to Chen Luan, Wang Zhi specially informed me of one thing: he has an extremely gorgeous concubine. Few people have seen her, but any that have have been invariably blown over by her beauty, and she was once a Yangzhou leanmare.
“This world has many beautiful women, but Xiao Wu’s soul-shaking, nation-toppling looks are not commonly seen. Even if she’s not unique within ten-thousand li, she at least ought to be unique within one-thousand li. This official is no antsy pervert that has never seen the world before; would I not feel suspicion at such an extravagantly beautiful woman randomly popping up outside of Yangzhou City? And what you said about her background being odd; Chen Luan sent me both money and a beauty. If that beauty wasn’t someone he himself valued and was familiar with, he likely wouldn’t be at ease. For all those reasons, isn’t it highly likely that she’s his favored concubine?”
Di Han nodded. “So, you’re planning to lure her with your charms in a fake play with a real effect?”
If Tang Fan had liquid in his mouth right now, he would definitely have spurted it out. “I don’t have ‘charms’— it’s not her that I want to lure!”
The other was confused.
Tang Fan sighed. “Purportedly, Chen Luan’s favored concubine is ‘exceptionally gorgeous in appearance, bright in nature, proficient in literature, and exquisite in thinking,’ which is why Chen Luan is so fond of her, even having specially built a separate residence for her to settle in. That he was willing to use such a woman to put me in a honey trap can be considered a high regard to me! If I actually did lay with her and fall for her, a jump in the Yellow River would not even wash me clean — perhaps, in that honey trap, even my ambitious heart would be whittled away, and I would only be able shake hands and talk merrily with Chen Luan, turning into one of them.”
While he spoke, he began to feel amused. “However, when the time comes for me to share a home with that beauty, will Chen Luan choke, or simply send her to me?”
Seeing him getting more off-kilter the more he spoke, Di Han had to say, “Sir, you mean that you want Chen Luan to mistakenly believe that you’ve been trapped?”
Tang Fan shook his head, showing a devious smile. “I want him to believe that after coming to my side, Xiao Wu gradually came to like me, and even means to betray him.”
Di Han looked surprised.
“They can make use of a honey trap, so can’t I use a counter-trap?” Tang Fan continued, grinning. “Xiao Wu has Chen Luan’s high regard and could be dispatched to do something like this, indicating that she has to know a lot about him, and might even know where the real grains registry is hidden. If Chen Luan thinks that she’s betrayed him and come to my side, what do you suppose he would do?”
“Out of desperation, he would silence her,” Di Han slowly spat out.
Tang Fan nodded. “Right. At that time, even though she’ll be of no mind to betray him, she’ll have no choice but to come to my side.”
What a spectacular counter-trap! Suspicions within suspicions — no one could fail you more than yourself.
Di Han raised his brows high. His expression beneath that facial hair was unknowable, but judging from the inexplicable luster seen glinting in his eyes, he obviously agreed with his plan.
Tang Fan pushed the wooden basin towards him with a bare foot. “You’re done hearing the tale. Why aren’t you leaving? Didn’t you hear that this official is going to bed?”
The other wordlessly bent down and picked up the tub. “Rest well, Sir. This subordinate will be on guard outside.”
Right before he was about to leave, Tang Fan’s joking voice came from behind him. “The next time you want to change your identity, remember to learn well from Daoist Li beforehand, Brother Guangchuan.”
The next morning, Tang Fan walked out of his room refreshed, and Xiao Wu was already sitting outside and smiling at him. The table next to her had various snacks upon it, all small, refined, and very cute.
Di Han, who should have been standing watch outside, had gone to who-knew-where.
Tang Fan smiled. “Ah-Wu, why did you get up so early?”
Xiao Wu hid her mouth as she smiled. “It’s not early, it’s nearly noon. I made breakfast before, but since you weren’t yet up, I made it again.”
“Why did you need to do it yourself? The posthouse has its own cooks!” he said, moved.
She turned red. “You were quite sincere to me, Sir. I-I wanted to repay it in good faith.”
He sighed inwardly. This woman’s acting was beyond the pale; with both beautiful looks and a scheming mind, it was little wonder that Chen Luan would cherish her, and not hesitate to hide her beauty away inside an expensive house.
Honey traps had different ranks to them. Being able to have such a beauty try and use her charms to seduce him made it obvious how much value Chen Luan placed upon Tang Fan.
The latter was deeply honored. What a pity it was that his counterpart’s plans were destined to be fail.
Seeing that Tang Fan was looking at her, Xiao Wu’s cheeks automatically became a bit hot, and she faintly uttered, “Sir…”
He came back to himself, sat down with a smile, picked up a golden-fried mantou, and put it in his mouth.
He hadn’t eaten Xiao Wu’s nighttime snacks yesterday, as he had feared that she would use that opportunity to drug him, then fabricate a story that would pour tainted water onto him. Now that it was broad daylight, even if Xiao Wu wanted to act, she would know that this was not a good time for it.
“These are stuffed?” he wondered.
“With cherries.” She smiled. “Is it good?”
He nodded. “It is, very good. The craftsmanship is better than my little sister’s. If you come back to the capital with me, I’ll be eating well in the future.”
Xiao Wu smiled, lowering her head, as if exceedingly shy.
Tang Fan held her soft hand. “Ah-Wu, you have barely any hairpins on you. I’ll bring you to the market to buy some today.”
She was confused. “Aren’t you going to investigate Chen Luan?”
He gave her a mysterious smile. “I won’t keep it from you — I’ve actually found crucial evidence that can bring him down.”
“Ah. What evidence?”
“Let’s not speak of such drab stuff. You won’t be interested in it,” he said, instead changing the subject. “Come, after we finish breakfast, I’ll take you out for some fun. Chen Luan gifted me ten-thousand taels last time, and I haven’t touched them yet — I can get you a good amount of stuff!”
She was rather shocked. “Y-you took his money, and yet… and yet are still going to denounce him?”
Tang Fan was nonchalant. “You must not understand. This is what they call ‘villain-eats-villain’!”
The translator says: ‘Ah-Wu’ is pronounced ‘awoo’, like a wolf howl. Do with that information what you will. I’m thinking of werewolves.