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Old Zhao was a soldier on watch outside the posthouse. In his opinion, Magistrates or Censors having a big row, embezzling, bribing, and all that stuff had absolutely nothing to do with him. Minor characters should live minor character lives; as long as one could get off work, then have a cup of hot wine, a woman warming the kang, and brothers to chat about whatever with, that was enough to be satisfied.
However, minor characters also had minor character gossip.
For example, he and his other brothers on-duty at the posthouse had been extremely curious about the serious beauty Censor Tang had brought back recently, and had guessed at her identity more than once in private. Some said that she was a concubine from his home, and because she couldn’t bear the jealousy of his primary wife, she snuck out to follow him when he went on a Southern assignment, chasing him all the way here. Others said that she was a gift to him from some other official, and he liked her the second he saw her, instantly becoming unable to part from her to the extent that he insisted upon always bringing her everywhere. Others still said that she was actually a proper woman that he had snatched after taking a fancy to her; he had come on imperial orders to investigate Wujiang’s famine from last year, yet had gotten tangled up with a woman after coming here and wasn’t paying attention to proper business, like a corrupt official.
Rumor spread rapidly in the posthouse, and then gradually to the outside. Regardless of how far-and-away absurd the contents were, though, Old Zhao and his colleagues could identify two major points in them.
One was that the woman was truly beautiful; so heart-shocking, soul-movingly so, that she could nearly draw someone’s soul out of them.
Suzhou and Hangzhou had many beauties. Old Zhao and them were native-born Suzhou folk and considered themselves to have seen a lot of the world, unlike all those hicks, but the beauty at Tang Fan’s side was so beautiful, she couldn’t have been locally produced. With their barren lexicon, they couldn’t fathom how to describe her looks at all.
The first time they had seen her, they had only been able to watch, tongue-tied, as the beauty with a seductive air was brought into the posthouse by Tang Fan. After the fact, they had inwardly mocked themselves as having lost themselves too much then, but when they had witnessed Censor Yang, who was also staying in the posthouse, have a similar reaction to seeing the beauty, they had immediately balanced out mentally. It wasn’t that they hadn’t seen enough faces in the world, but that this beauty was way too beautiful.
Tang Fan picking such a flower that was more delicate than a peony… it had to be said that everyone else was awfully envious.
There was still the second identified point, which was that Censor Tang heavily pampered the beauty, practically tying her to his belt and frequently bringing her out.
On the basis of Old Zhao’s watches over the past few days, whenever Censor Tang went out, no matter where he was going or what he was doing, he would take her with him. It was even claimed that when he went to pay a visit to Mister Magistrate at the prefectural bureau, he had brought her in with him, not avoiding taboo at all, which was pretty dumbfounding.
Even so, it was unsurprising. If they could instead be the ones to cozy up to such a woman, they would be pretty unwilling to part from her. Those with the title of Sir were human, too; what was so odd about it?
As could be imagined, once Censor Tang returned to the capital, the beauty would definitely follow, and if his primary wife back home wasn’t a tigress, she would definitely dominate his back residence in the future.
Though, speaking of which, such a beautiful woman not being in the Emperor’s harem, but taken up by a fourth-rank Censor… it wasn’t quite clear if Censor Tang would be able to hold onto her!
No matter what elements stormed and exaggerated deluges of divine petals rained down outside, Tang Fan heard none of it, continuing to bring Xiao Wu in and out. Despite carefully making her wear a veil to cover her features whenever they went out, with her graceful figure, who would be fooled? In not many days, nearly half the people in Wu knew that there was a rare, nation-toppling beauty at his side that was going everywhere and doing everything with him.
Every single man sighed over Tang Fan’s luck with the ladies.
In Xiao Wu’s opinion, though, this was another feeling entirely.
She had no idea that Tang Fan had already figured out her identity, merely doing her best to stay by his side and completely ruin his reputation in accordance with Chen Luan’s orders. Even if they weren’t married in true, she had to do all she could to make outsiders think that she had long become Tang Fan’s sole domain.
That plan was now being implemented step by step, and Tang Fan was indeed deeply infatuated with her, but she wasn’t happy about it — because, in spite of his infatuation, he insisted upon holding onto a nobleman’s rules. Apart from hugging and holding her hand, the two’s relationship had not gone any farther.
That really wasn’t anything much, as she had seen many self-proclaimed noblemen, and it wasn’t like his type had been absent from her life. What she was hung up on was something else: now that he liked her, he couldn’t be apart from her for a single moment.
Not only did he have to bring her out, but whenever she took a short moment of time to go to the bathroom, she would see him looking for her all over the place with a panicked expression upon her return, and he would say stuff like ‘Ah-Wu, where did you run off to, I didn’t see you, I couldn’t do anything’ and such.
She had been rather fond of his graceful looks and elegance, but after interacting with him for a long time, she had discovered that the man was clingy to his core. After being bothered by him for so long, her fondness had dried up, and she had no fondness for him whatsoever.
The sole consolation for her was that he did not shy away from bringing her to anything, and that included official business. Hence, over these past few days, she had not only come to learn that Hu Wenzao had already cast his lot in with Tang Fan, but also that Tang Fan’s major backer was the former Director of the Western Depot, and now-close subject to the Emperor, Wang Zhi. Tang Fan had also informed her that the treasures gifted by the Suzhou merchant society had since been sent to Eunuch Wang in the capital.
However, what really made her depressed was that because of him being so tightly bound to her, and the sneaky looks of that Brocade Guard being too shrewd, ever since she had entered the posthouse, she had never been able to find an opportunity to pass word along to Chen Luan. One lone time, she had taken advantage of when Tang Fan had brought her out to attempt to send news in a jewelry store, but in the end, it had been a stone thrown into the sea. Not the slightest bit of response came from Chen Luan.
She had begun to panic. She was not afraid that she wouldn’t be able to complete the task Chen Luan had assigned her, but worried that he would believe those rumors flying all about, think that she had fallen for Tang Fan, and betrayed him for him.
How heavy Chen Luan’s paranoia was, and how cruel he was, was something no one understood better than her. Just look at the number of refugees outside of Wujiang City, whose numbers waned by the day; for the sake of profits, he dared to deceive the Emperor and an imperial ambassador, to say nothing of her, a mere woman.
No matter how beautiful a woman was, to men, the difference between all of them was that they were either a toy that could be casually thrown away, or a toy of some higher worth.
Her mind was not at ease, to the point that even Tang Fan had noticed, believing her to be ill. He not only personally brought her soup, but stayed by her bedside. Were another woman to have come across such a passionate man, she would have long been moved.
Not Xiao Wu. The better Tang Fan treated her, the more she fretted that Chen Luan would doubt her loyalty.
Seeing her face that was somewhat pale and gaunt from lack of sleep, Tang Fan’s worry defied words. “Ah-Wu, what’s wrong with you? Is something on your mind? Tell me. I’m not the guardian official of Suzhou, but I can always help you resolve any of your troubles. If you keep going on like this, my heart will die from pain!”
His expression was one of genuine sincerity. The heavy load on Xiao Wu’s mind didn’t make her feel that this was inappropriate, but rather made her seriously ponder how to get rid of him and go make a report.
She forced out a smile. “I have some tightness in my chest, Sir. I’d like to lay down for a minute.”
He felt her forehead, tucking her bangs behind her ears. “I’ll stay with you, then,” he said, voice soft.
You! Do! Not! Need! To! Do! That!
She grit her teeth, nearly wanting to say as much aloud. Thankfully, her reason was still in place, and she swallowed the words back down just like how one would swallow down a mouthful of blood.
Knocking came from the door right then. Tang Fan got up to open it, only to see a posthouse worker carrying in a medicine bowl. “Sir, this is the medicinal brew you wanted, freshly made!” he said diligently.
“Set it down,” Tang Fan replied with a nod. He was not as affectionate towards the worker as he was towards Xiao Wu, naturally. “Ah-Wu, drink. This is to help calm the psyche. Afterwards, you’ll be able to sleep well, and be just fine when you wake up.”
He picked up the bowl, carefully helping her up. With him currently being a truefourth-rank official, doing such a feat was rare of him, and if she were some other woman, she might have actually been affected.
Unfortunately, her thoughts were not going that way at all.
“I can do it myself.” She took the bowl, then lowered her head, about to drink.
“Wait!” he suddenly said, taking the bowl she held back. The movement was a tad abrupt, causing some of the liquid to splash onto both of their hands.
“Di Han! Di Han, are you there?!” Tang Fan shouted.
“Present,” came the deep response from outside.
“Bring a dog or a cat here.”
The other agreed without further question.
Xiao Wu’s attention was diverted at last. “You, what…?”
“I think the smell of this medicine is a bit off.”
She was startled.
“There was that worker that just brought the medicine, too. He looked a little unfamiliar… and after he came in, he didn’t glance at you like other people have. That’s really abnormal.”
Xiao Wu had wanted to crack a joke about him making a big fuss over nothing, but upon thinking of something unknown, her face suddenly went white.
Di Han quickly returned with a puppy in his hold. At Tang Fan’s indication, he picked up the medicine bowl and poured it into the puppy’s mouth.
In not long at all, the puppy howled, seeming to squirm in Di Han’s arms in horrible pain. The instant he let it go, it collapsed onto the ground, limbs twitching a few times before it didn’t move anymore.
Tang Fan was furious. “This had to be someone trying to get at me! Why did they not target me, but try to hurt Ah-Wu?!”
“Maybe they thought that with Miss Xiao gone, it would cause your mind to spiral, thus exposing your weaknesses,” Di Han answered.
After their exchange, Tang Fan turned around in want to comfort Xiao Wu, only to find that her complexion was getting paler, and he jumped in fright. He gripped her hand, which was also freezing cold. “Ah-Wu, what’s the matter with you?!”
She didn’t respond. He delicate frame shuddered uncontrollably, and she remained silent as he took her into his arms.
He lightly pat her on the back, comforting her in a soft voice. “It’s okay, it’s okay.”
After consoling her for a long while until she laid down again, he left her room, returning to his own.
And as soon as his front foot went in, someone followed him on his heel.
He knew who it was without needing to look back, unhappy. “If you come and go like this, how would anyone believe that you’re an ordinary subordinate? You’ll give yourself away too easily!”
“This subordinate isn’t an ordinary subordinate to begin with. I’m a personal bodyguard.”
Unintentionally or not, he put heavy emphasis on the word ‘personal’, while his eyes were fixed on Tang Fan.
Tang Fan made a fist, put it to his lips, and coughed fakely. “I was busy setting things up lately, and never had time to ask: with your status, how could you have easily left the capital to come find me?”
“Something happened in Jiangxi. His Majesty ordered me to handle it in-person, so I took a detour to Suzhou while I was at it to see you.”
“You’re abusing your power!” Tang Fan scolded, half-mad.
The trace of a smile appeared in Di Han’s eyes. “So what if I am? Yan Li and the rest went on ahead. I just missed you terribly.”
Those straightforward, not-even-a-little-bit-embellished words coming out of his mouth were more effective than any limpid look from Xiao Wu. Mister Tang’s handsome face instantly turned a bit red.
Di Han reached out and gently touched his shoulder. His handslid all the way down along it, until it stopped on the other’s hand; once his fingers brushed his palm, he unsurprisingly felt that hand quickly shrink back.
However, Di Han’s reaction was quicker. Before the man could take a step back in response, he grabbed his hand tight.
At their skin contact, he found that Tang Fan’s knuckles were slim and evenly-proportioned, similar to the feeling of his feet from the other day. These hands were used to create beautiful writing pieces, without a doubt.
Tang Fan was a little embarrassed. “Enough! Let’s just talk business!”
Having said that, though, he still didn’t break away.
Seemingly aware that he was especially thin-skinned in this respect, Di Han didn’t tease him much, only smiling. “Xiao Wu must now believe that Chen Luan gave her that poison.”
Tang Fan hummed. “She’s someone who understands that she needs to make plans for herself, and is shrewder than the average woman. This event alone will not be enough to deceive her, nor make her come to a decision. We need to force her to understand two things: one, Chen Luan will definitely be taken down and out of luck, and two, he is suspicious of her and wants to silence her, where even if she’s thinking of him, he won’t place importance onto her.”
“What are you thinking of doing?”
Tang Fan gave a sagely smile. “I have to ask you for a favor in putting on a good show, to make her believe all of that completely.”
“There’s just one thing.”
“Don’t hug her anymore.”
Xiao Wu spent the night with nonstop nightmares and restless emotions.
Early the next morning, Tang Fan came looking for her. “Ah-Wu, it’s much too dangerous here. I want to bring you to the capital as soon as possible to get you out of here!”
She was taken aback. “Are you finished with your proper business, Sir? Are you not going to take down Chen Luan?”
He smiled mysteriously at her. “It’s all near about done. I’ve already passed on evidence of Chen Luan’s crimes, I’m just waiting for the capital to issue an order for how to handle it.”
Xiao Wu was utterly confused.
Because of her identity, she knew many things about Chen Luan, including why he was so unbridled. It wasn’t just because his uncle was Nanjing’s Minister of Revenue, but also because he gave many annual gifts to the capital — to put it bluntly, Local Emperor Chen Luan not only had a tie to the Eastern Depot via Suzhou’s merchant society, but he and his uncle were members of the Wan party, too.
It was precisely because of that that he had sold Wujiang’s government provisions, colluded with Yang Ji, and even regarded Tang Fan, an imperial ambassador, as unimportant. Fearing his might, Suzhou Magistrate Hu Wenzao had also been too afraid to speak out at first, and had Chen Luan not used him as a shield, he likely wouldn’t have cooperated with Tang Fan to this day.
Consort Wan, the Wan party’s backer, had no sons, but it was said that she had formed an alliance with Consort Shao, ready to support her son as the Crown Prince and incite the Emperor to abolish the current Crown Prince.
Xiao Wu had learned a lot from Chen Luan, so she didn’t think that Tang Fan alone would be able to bring him down. Even having Wang Zhi backing him might not be enough, as what Tang Fan was dealing with was not Chen Luan at all, but the complicated mess of a colossus behind him. Now that he had sworn that he was capable of handling Chen Luan, Xiao Wu was beyond shocked, her first response inevitably being disbelief.
Still, with Tang Fan’s infatuation towards her, he certainly wasn’t lying.
“What evidence did you get on him, Sir?” she thus asked, but as soon as she did, she appeared to realize something, lowering her head in shame. “These aren’t things I should be asking about. I’ve overstepped.”
Tang Fan didn’t mind, gripping her hand. “I told you before that Chen Luan is backed by Consort Wan’s party, which includes her younger brother Wan Tong, the current Head Vizier Wan An, and so on. You should remember that?”
Seeing her nod, he continued. “That’s actually really easy to handle — I just need to always deal with Chen Luan alone, with no plans at all to involve the Wan party’s people. No matter how domineering Chen Luan is, he’s nothing more than a pawn to them. If he isn’t there, the Wujiang Magistrate can just be swapped out for someone else. It isn’t that important of a position.”
A storm was raging in Xiao Wu’s heart, but she could only show a delicate expression on her face. “But… isn’t his uncle Nanjing’s Minister of Revenue? Would he sit by and watch his nephew be denounced by you?”
Tang Fan smiled. “Well, there’s no harm in telling you: I have some senior pals from the capital that were forced out to Nanjing by the Wan party, one of which is the former Minister of Justice, Zhang Ying. He’s already found evidence of Minister Chen’s corruption and denounced him. Minister Chen is currently too busy to even look after himself, so how would he have the spare time to look after his nephew?”
She gaped. “W… would that work?”
“Why wouldn’t it? Outsiders talk too much, and you wouldn’t understand. All you need to know, in brief, is that even though the Wan party is tremendously powerful, it still has a lot of apprehensions. So long as you don’t try to take it down with you in mutual destruction, it won’t struggle to the death with you. Chen Luan is only the hegemon of the Wujiang region; if he doesn’t have his uncle, what even is he? To tell the truth, he’s already a little anxious right now, since he can’t get in contact with Hu Wenzao and doesn’t know what I’m planning. He’s currently plotting to be the villain filing a complain first, thus getting me out via the Wan party — maybe they’ll try to say that I accepted bribes in Wujiang and indulged in feminine wiles. Unfortunately, Chen Luan has no idea that I’ve already handed that money over to His Majesty!”
With that, he laughed a laugh that was filled with ridicule for Chen Luan.
Xiao Wu couldn’t laugh, though. This conversation had turned her heart upside-down, and she couldn’t calm down for a good while.
She had to admit that he had made a lot of sense. She had only seen Chen Luan’s rampant side, having never imagined that, in the eyes of this imperial ambassador from the capital, he was not any sort of invulnerable.
Upon coming to stand in a different spot, the problems one saw would differ. Chen Luan was a charming man that treated her well, but his means were just as vicious. She didn’t have too much longing for him, she was simply worried about her own escape route.
If he were to be taken down, what could she do?
Yesterday’s poison event had left her with some lingering fear. Tang Fan’s group thought that the poison had been meant for Tang Fan, Xiao Wu being an unexpected party; only she knew that it was very possible that Chen Luan felt that she had betrayed him, and thus couldn’t wait to keep her quiet.
Thinking of this, she bit her bottom lip until it turned white.
“Ah-Wu, what’s wrong?”
Tang Fan’s voice brought her back to herself. She forced a smile. “I’m fine.”
“You’ve been distracted recently. Do you not want to come with me to the capital?” Tang Fan asked, brow creased.
“It isn’t that.” She shook her head. “To be able to accompany you is my blessing. It’s just that I’ve felt stuffy in my chest lately, and adding that with the drugging incident… I’m really terrified.”
Saying so, she buried herself into his arms, as if wanting to extract a sense of security from him.
He held her, thinking to himself, She threw herself at me, I didn’t hug her on my own initiative… even if she’s a peerless beauty, putting on an act every single day is exhausting.
Still, he looked as gentle as ever. “In that case, the weather is nice today, so why don’t you go on a walk with me? The headpieces ordered last night ought to be made. Do you want to take a look at them yourself? If something isn’t right, you can have them change it while you’re there.”
She really didn’t want to go outside, but her thought processes were slowly starting to change. At the beginning, she had been as untrue as a winding snake, which had slowly become a fake act with real actions, at this point. Trending towards Tang Fan’s thoughts, she smiled softly. “As you wish.”
Then, she whispered, “It’s entirely my disappointing health and sickness all these days that has made me unable to truly serve you, Sir. I-I…”
After all that talking, she started blushing.
Tang Fan had adhered to a nobleman’s courtesy in not touching her, and she had been happy to not whet his appetite, too. That stemmed from her being learned in male psychology, and knowing that those that succeed too easily would never cherish anything; human nature had a contemptible foundation, and men treated women as much. The more reserved Xiao Wu was, the more Tang Fan would end up cherishing her like a treasure.
Thus, in spite of their two different minds, they were both at ease, and she had never suspected his behavior.
“Silly girl,” he said softly. “Your health getting better is the best compensation for me. Do you still not know what I feel for you?”
She looked touched.
Due to her frailness, he specially found a cloak for her to wear before he brought her out. They weren’t taking a carriage, and their escort consisted of only Di Han, which could be considered a light packing.
After being nearly poisoned, though, Xiao Wu had some lingering worries. “Sir, you only brought Gonfalon Di. Will that be safe?”
“It will be. He’s only one person, but he can match the strength of dozens with no change in expression,” Tang Fan explained with a smile. “You wouldn’t know this, but his martial arts have even been praised by His Majesty. Why else would he have been sent by Millarch Jiang?”
Stunned, she couldn’t help but smile. “It seems that your relationship with the Brocade Guard is quite good, for them to transfer over a talent like him.”
There was a probing nature in her words, but Tang Fan didn’t notice, only nodding. “I won’t hide it from you; I have a very good friendship with the current Northern Bastion Envoy. He follows me wherever I go, and I can’t get rid of him. Were it not for His Majesty putting him on some other task, he definitely would have come with me.”
That all seemed to have elements of exaggeration, but he was presently being followed by a Brocade Guard, so it wasn’t that much of a brag. Xiao Wu mostly believed it, further plans brewing in her mind.
Di Han, following behind them, was looking downwards, like their conversation had nothing to do with him.
The three stayed in the jewelry store for a time. Once Xiao Wu had picked her headpieces, Tang Fan brought her out.
“It’s still early. Let’s find a teahouse and sit for a bit, since it’s near about lunchtime. If we go back, you’ll have to stay in that little room again, which would be boring,” Tang Fan said with a smile.
“As you wish, Sir,” Xiao Wu answered, having no opinion.
However, before she quite finished speaking, something happened.
Three people rushed at Tang Fan and Xiao Wu from three different directions — the right, the left, the front — with sharp blades in hand and a fierce momentum.
Xiao Wu was completely dumbstruck. She wasn’t a martial artist in the slightest; caught off guard in a wink, she could only watch this all unfold.
What was even more terrifying was the discovery that their target was not Tang Fan, but her!
The translator says: This is the second novel where I’ve had to type out a dog dying… stop it… I hate it…