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Xiao Wu didn’t want to die. She further didn’t want to die for Chen Luan, nor be buried with him, else she wouldn’t be swaying back and forth between betraying him or not.
And then this moment came.
Seeing the blades coming in at three angles, she subconsciously shrieked, tightly gripped Tang Fan’s clothes, and hid behind him.
The three’s offensive power didn’t slow at all because of that, her alone left in their eyes. With no mishaps, Tang Fan would die alongside her beneath the blades, one-and-done.
With this all happening so quickly, no one on the mainstreet could react in time, all of them even forgetting to scream.
Xiao Wu couldn’t move, her eyes blown wide. This did not at all destroy her charming air, the frightened beauty instead able to arouse protective instincts, but no one could care about appreciating her charms right now. Everyone was rigid, only able to follow the direction of the glinting blades, witness to a scene of imminent bloodshed and death.
The blade coming down over Xiao Wu’s head stopped. The wind it kicked up swept across her hair, making it flutter.
The assassin was quite surprised, too. He hadn’t expected for his attack to be blocked, and at the same time, he felt a sharp pain coming from his wrist. Looking down, he saw half of his own hand get sliced off evenly from his wrist, flying off into the air along with his sabre.
Blood splashed out, staining Xiao Wu’s clothes, and she screamed yet again.
The other two individuals faced the same situation, not even able to tell how it had happened.
One fellow was sent flying high, then crashed into a small candy peddler’s stall at the roadside, smashing it into pieces. Thankfully, the peddler had quickly seen an opportunity and had long since fled, so he was not drawn in.
The other assassin thought to draw back upon seeing his companion fail, but before he could turn around, a spring-gilt sabre had already pierced through his back. The final act he had in life was to lower his head and see its bloodstained tip shining in the sunlight.
Three assassins, three directions. All had been dealt with in the blink of an eye.
Di Han drew his sabre out of the assassin’s body. The expression on his face was as collected as ever, and he even leaned over to wipe off his bloodied blade on the other’s clothes before he walked over to the assassin that had crushed the stall.
Facing this Yama that killed without hesitation, that assassin became terrified. He couldn’t get up, only able to watch the other approach step-by-step, moving backwards in a panic while shouting in a false show of strength, “Don’t get near me! Don’t you get near me!”
Right then, the people on the streets seemed to get jostled, as screams sounded out in all directions. Following a bout of turmoil, a half-li area around Tang Fan and Di Han’s group was quickly vacated.
Di Han walked over to heft the man up, then unhinged his jaw without a word to prevent him from biting on any poison hidden in his teeth.
Tang Fan pat Xiao Wu on the shoulder, causing her to subconsciously shudder. She wasn’t sure if she had been frightened by the assassins or cowed by Di Han’s straightforward killing methods, as she hadn’t been able to come back to herself for a long time.
Seeing as much, Tang Fan exchanged a glance with Di Han.
The previous poisoning had been their handiwork, but these assassins had not been set up by Tang Fan.
The latter had anticipated that once Chen Luan noticed that Xiao Wu was slow to send word back, he would do something, he just hadn’t expected that the other would be anxious enough to send out assassins. That at least expressed one thing: her role truly wasn’t minor, and she had to know something of his private matters at the bare minimum, to the extent that after feeling that she might betray him, he couldn’t wait to silence her.
The three Chen Luan had sent had clearly been top picks. Had Di Han not been here and an ordinary bodyguard was around instead, he would have likely been surpassed by them. Who could have known that the unremarkable-looking Di Han was actually the alter ego of the Northern Bastion Envoy?
Also, were Chen Luan to learn that Tang Fan had been waiting for him to try to kill Xiao Wu, would he have regrets until his insides turned green?
Ever since Tang Fan had stepped foot into Jiangsu’s realm, the two parties had been destined to set up a game.
Chen Luan had not believed that Tang Fan would be such a huge threat to him; had he known that the other responded to neither coercion nor bribes, wouldn’t accept beauties, and didn’t seek wealth, he likely would have strangled the threat in his cradle back when he had been on the ship.
That a thousand gold couldn’t buy much was a long-known idea.
“Ah-Wu, are you alright? Let’s go back before we talk about it,” Tang Fan softly consoled upon seeing that she was scared stiff, wanting to bring her away.
She just stuck firmly to his clothes, refusing to let go. “N-no! We can’t go back. They’ll definitely send someone else!”
He laughed. “Look at how scared you are! I told you earlier that Di Han is pretty powerful. I’m not afraid of getting assassinated, so why are you?”
Xiao Wu finally crumbled. “…They didn’t come to kill you, they came to kill me!”
“What?” he asked in astonishment. “Ah-Wu, did the fear make you lose your senses? You’re a mere woman. Why would they kill you? I’m the only one going against Chen Luan, I ought to be the one he wants to kill!”
She shook her head desperately, sobs within her voice. “Take me away from here! I have the grains registry, I have it — it’ll help you take down Chen Luan with no room for him to recover!”
Due to fear, she was almost bodily climbing up on him. Di Han frowned slightly seeing this, stepping forth and pushing her away.
She stared blankly at him, unable to respond.
Mouth twitching, Tang Fan reminded him, “Put your sabre away. Don’t scare Ah-Wu.”
If he scared someone so important stupid by shoving her all the time, where would they find another one of her?
Di Han’s cold gaze swept over Xiao Wu. The latter shrunk back from his staring, leaning in towards Tang Fan, who hugged her.
“We won’t go back to the posthouse. I’ll take you somewhere safer so that no one can attack you,” he said softly, then turned to instruct Di Han. “Clean all this up, soldiers will probably be here soon. Give that stall owner some compensation money while you’re at it; his stall getting smashed up for no reason is quite pitiful.”
Di Han felt like the other was retaliating for what had happened last night, but, well, who made Envoy Sui take on his current identity of Gonfalon Di? He could only watch the other two’s backs silently, draw out some silver to toss onto candy peddler’s stall, then drag the two passed-out assassins into bitterly following behind him.
The place Tang Fan brought Xiao Wu to was none other than the local Brocade Guard post.
Millarch Jiang quickly greeted them himself. When he saw Di Han behind Tang Fan, he became several magnitudes more enthusiastic, chatted them up, and cordially accompanied them, falling just short of serving them tea himself.
By his orders, the assassins were promptly taken by the Guards to be dealt with. Even though Tang Fan’s group knew why they had come for them, if more things could be pried out of them, Chen Luan could be charged with the crime of trying to assassinate an imperial ambassador.
“This humble official worried that I would interfere with your work, Sir, which is why I never came to visit you after you came to Suzhou. Please forgive me,” Millarch Jiang said.
“You’re too polite, Millarch Jiang,” Tang Fan answered with a smile. “We were the ones to disturb your peace, really, and now I’m having to trouble you. Envoy Sui is far off in the capital, but he has repeatedly brought up your valor in doing your tasks, intelligence, and capabilities!”
Millarch Jiang gave a few glances towards Sui Zhou, who was being mute, and his smile grew brighter. “You’ve overpraised me, Sir Tang. This humble official dares not accept. This is all thanks to the Bastion Envoy’s fine leadership!”
After the former Commanding Envoy, Yuan Bin, had stepped down, he had passed almost all of the forces hand-reared by him over to Sui Zhou. Combining them with Sui Zhou’s own confidantes, he was now a hidden competitor to the current Commanding Envoy, Wan Tong. The Brocade Guard of today was split into two factions: one was headed by Wan Tong, and the other was loyal to Sui Zhou.
For that reason, despite the Guard still being the Guard, the people subordinating those two needed to pick a side, making it far less calm than it was on the surface; and Millarch Jiang happened to be on Sui Zhou’s side. The head honcho coming in person was a rare opportunity, so he had to spend extra effort.
Tang Fan chatted with him for a bit, then left Di Han and Millarch Jiang behind to speak while he brought Xiao Wu into the courtyard prepared for them to rest. “Ah-Wu, are you better now? Do you want me to find a doctor for you?”
Not a single word of his brought up the grains registry, instead asking after her health.
She shook her head, yet looking shaken. She held onto his sleeve with one hand, like she would only feel a little relieved when doing that.
“Don’t be afraid, I’m here. Whatever you want to say, you can just say it,” he comforted, pouring her a cup of tea.
Holding the cup, Xiao Wu finally, slowly calmed down, the warmth going from her palms and into the bones of her limbs. She took in a deep breath. “Sir, I’ve actually been deceiving you this whole time.”
She wasn’t an idiot, but intelligent, having the astuteness of a young woman — Chen Luan wouldn’t have sent her to entrance Tang Fan, elsewise. However, due to her confidence in her own good looks, she had failed to see the full picture, having felt all this time that she would be able to complete this task smoothly. Now that the situation had gotten out of hand, she had been thinking, and felt that confessing everything to Tang Fan might be the best course of action.
Hearing this, instead of looking surprised or angry, Tang Fan just calmly smiled. “Deceived me about what?”
She was astonished. “You already know?”
“I didn’t know that you had the grains registry on you.”
He didn’t know that, so he had long known that Chen Luan had sent her?
Him accompanying her had been a long con? He had long taken her for a fool, being insincere while laughing at his own jokes?
Seeing her face flash green and white, he said in understanding, “You don’t need to think too hard. Since you refused to reveal your identity at the start, if I unmasked you too early, would that not be alerting the enemy? You and I have our own standings. I can’t say that you were wrong for acting like that, but now that you’re willing to give up the darkness for the light, I welcome it, of course.”
So, he had said ‘Ah-Wu, Ah-Wu’ over and over again, pretending to be an idiot fallen into love’s net!
The man before her had a smiling, handsome face with clear eyes — where was that half-obsessed look from before?
She was angry at heart. This was the first time she had discovered her own looks and allure to be ineffective, but she dared not blow up, because if she wanted to keep her life, she would have to rely fully on him now.
“Since you long knew of my identity, did you arrange for today’s assassination?” she had to clarify.
He shook his head. “Of course not.” I only arranged for that poisoning incident from before.
“With things come to this point, and with how bright you are, why bother lying to yourself? Since I knew your identity in advance, I was able to intercept the information you sent out to prevent it from getting to Chen Luan. As a result, he couldn’t keep waiting for word from you, and once he heard the outside rumors, he believed you betrayed him. Those assassins are the best proof of that. They failed to kill you this time, but they’ll definitely think of a way to get to you again. The only leeway for your survival is for us to get decisive evidence against him soon, and thus bring him under law.”
Recalling that recent harrowing scene, Xiao Wu was still awfully frightened, but she didn’t need to put on an act in front of Tang Fan anymore. No longer wanting to show timidity to him, she grit her teeth hard. “Even if you get the grains registry, it’s no use. He’s backed by the Wan party, and sends no lack of gifts to them yearly — they might even fight to protect him!”
“You are smart, Miss Xiao, but you don’t understand the intrigue of the Court. I told you before that he has little use to the Wan party, and if he’s not around, they could just make someone else the Wujiang Magistrate. This is simple, and I have my own method, naturally.”
She was doubtful. “What method?”
He smiled wordlessly, spreading out his hands.
His implication was obvious: If you refuse to come clean, I’ll throw you right out to face Chen Luan’s wrath. See if he’s willing to believe in you.
During this time period, not only had Xiao Wu worked hard to put on an act, but he had, too, and it hadn’t been in vain. Basically everyone knew that he was infatuated with Xiao Wu, as gossip was a ferocious tiger. Why would Chen Luan not believe it?
If she didn’t have Tang Fan’s protection, the second she left this place, she would be shot through with arrows until she was a hedgehog.
Beauties needed to be alive to arouse people’s pity. A dead beauty was just a gravesite.
She had no other option.
Xiao Wu pondered silently for a time. “If I hand over the registry, what kind of protection can you give me, Sir?”
Tang Fan curbed his smile, then spoke solemnly in a way she had never seen before. “I, Tang Runqing, swear on my own life and future that I will do all I can to ensure your safety. If I violate it, may five lightning strikes come down upon my head, giving me no sort of good death.”
She was slightly moved.
People of this time period took oaths very seriously. Him making one like this demonstrated his sincerity, and that he was a little superior to Chen Luan, at the very least.
How unfortunate it was that such a man couldn’t be lured by her.
Xiao Wu peered at him with low-key grievances. “Chen Luan’s grains registry was in the residence I had been settled in, but after I was sent out, he must have moved its position.”
Tang Fan creased his brow, faintly disappointed. If that was so, then why did Chen Luan still try to hunt her down and silence her?
Sure enough, her words took a turn. “But… I can rewrite it from memory.”
He was ecstatic. “Are you serious?”
She smiled with some self-pride. “Of course I am. Would Chen Luan have cherished me for so long on looks alone? Or wanted me dead?”
“How long would it take you to rewrite it?”
“One night,” she said, putting on no empty posturing. “Just give me one night’s time!”
Tang Fan clapped. “Alright! Given that we can successfully bring down Chen Luan, not only will your life be saved, but I can send you to a safe place where no one will know you, and give you a sum of money that will let you be worry-free for the rest of your life.”
Her eyes sparkled.
Just like what Tang Fan had said, she had indeed been bought to be a concubine by a wealthy merchant. When said merchant had died, she had been driven out of his residence, then hidden in a cushy home by Chen Luan. However, while she liked wealth and splendor, she had no interest in serving him and his fickle nature plus unstable personality.
“Do you not have feelings for me? Have you not thought of taking me as a concubine like Chen Luan did? Do my looks not entice you?” she asked.
Tang Fan smiled lightly. “Your looks could topple a nation, Miss Xiao. I’ve rarely seen anything like you in my life. If I said my heart wasn’t moved by them, would that not be me blatantly lying? There’s likely no man under this sky that would dare to say such a thing to your face, is there?”
She felt a sweetness in her heart. “Why don’t you want me, then?” she said, displeased.
“My heart being moved doesn’t mean my emotions have been,” he replied with a smile. “Furthermore, those looks of yours being at my side will be nothing but misery for the both of us.”
Xiao Wu glared at him angrily.
Truthfully speaking, she didn’t have any affection for him. At most, she enjoyed his handsome, graceful face, and jade-like, orchid-like bearing… but her own beauty was something everyone would be hooked on without exception, even self-important men like Chen Luan. Kicking this iron plate that was Tang Fan really made her feel frustrated.
She knew that the most important thing for her right now was simply to get free of Chen Luan’s grip, and save herself before anything else.
“I understand. Fetch me writing materials — in addition to that, I need a maidservant who can write to help me organize my recitation.”
Tang Fan nodded. “What do you think of me doing so, Miss Xiao?”
She was stunned for a minute, then broke out into a lovely smile. “There couldn’t be anything better than you willingly humbling yourself so that we can collaborate, Sir.”
Once the insincere masks were gone and they could interact honestly, it was much easier for them to get along than before. Tang Fan no longer needed to behave like a clingy infatuate, and Xiao Wu no longer needed to conceal her identity and feel wronged about everything.
She wasn’t fond of him because of this, while his impression of her changed. He had learned that the woman had her own areas of excellence.
One night passed. Neither slept, bags under their eyes, but they weren’t doing anything unspeakable. One was reciting from memory, the other was organizing, and this went until they managed to collate a grains registry.
Xiao Wu claimed that she had a highly retentive memory, and that was no lie, as all of the accounting numbers from the registry had been firmly planted into her head. It was little wonder as to why Chen Luan was so panicked after suspecting that she had betrayed him, thus sending assassins.
It could be said that Tang Fan’s evaluation of the man’s psyche had been very on-point. Even if Chen Luan hadn’t sent anyone to kill Xiao Wu, Tang Fan’s group had planned to fabricate another murder plot against her life after the poisoning incident, then frame him for it to drive a rift between the two. That was no longer necessary, as Chen Luan had done it himself, causing her to land fully on their side.
This registry Tang Fan held recorded the true details of the government provisions’ exchange, and proved that Hu Wenzao’s previous statement had been correct — the granary once had five-thousand shi of provisions left, all of which had been taken away by Chen Luan, then sold to food merchants at high prices. At the end of it all, some old and rotten provisions had been sold at an extremely low price for use on the refugees.
Such conduct, in the Great Ancestor’s time, would have gotten him skinned and stuffed.
Xiao Wu watched as a look of fury emerged on Tang Fan’s face as he flipped through the registry. “If this is passed to the capital, I’m afraid it’ll take a while. Chen Luan certainly won’t sit and wait for his fate before then.”
The one that answered her was not Tang Fan, but Di Han, who had pushed open the door. Millarch Jiang walked in behind him, smiling. “After your arrival yesterday, I found people to disguise as you and return to the posthouse as normal. In result, people snuck in last night, planning to assassinate you, and we caught them red-handed.”
Xiao Wu let out a gasp, a look of lingering fear on her face. “Is it Chen Luan’s people again?”
He nodded. “Yes.”
“What do we do now, then?”
Millarch Jiang couldn’t answer that question. In the room, there were three people with six total eyes, all of them looking at Tang Fan.
He weighed the registry he held, smiling, and said two words: “We wait.”
Xiao Wu’s eyes widened. “Wait for what? We have the registry, so why can’t we just take him down?!”
Clearly, staying in the Brocade Guard post couldn’t completely put her at ease. Tang Fan excluded, were anyone else to be described as having not slept a wink and hoping that Chen Luan would be apprehended as soon as possible, it could only be her.
“It won’t be for long.” He gave her a calming smile. “We can do it soon.”
For Chen Luan, meanwhile, days were passing like years, yet he itched for them to go even slower. Truthfully, things had gotten completely out of his control, and he couldn’t quite understand how the situation had suddenly come to this.
Two pieces of bad news had come this morning.
His uncle — the formerly all-powerful Nanjing Minister of Revenue, Chen Zhi — had been denounced, and stepped down. The Wan party hadn’t been able to defend him. The Emperor had issued a decree; empathizing with his virtuousness, advanced age, and declining health, he told him to return home for recuperation. This sounded honorable, but was actually a dismissal from his post. Chen Zhi was finding it hard to defend himself, so he naturally couldn’t care much about Chen Luan.
Moreover, Chen Luan’s low post meant that he couldn’t directly contact the Wan party. He had relied on his uncle to build a bridge between them, and now that his uncle was gone, the sole link between them was broken.
The second piece of bad news was that the people he had sent to silence Xiao Wu had failed. Not only was the woman not dead, but the assassins had been lost; who knew how much they had revealed? At this point, he certainly couldn’t hope that she would keep his secrets, either.
If the grains registry hadn’t been lost, or if his uncle hadn’t lost power, Chen Luan wouldn’t have been that worried, because he knew that wimp, Hu Wenzao, couldn’t cough up too much alone. Now that the situation was obviously disadvantageous to him, he was forced to plan for the future.
Within the Magistrate’s spacious rear hall, Chen Luan, three of his aides, and Yang Ji the Patrolling Censor sat in separate spots. Many people were here, yet the ambience was silent.
Yang Ji’s heart was filled with burning worry. Seeing that everyone had turned into corked gourds, he had to say, “You all should think of something to do!”
An aide lightly coughed, saying to Chen Luan, “Sir, at this point, why not ask them for help?”
Yang Ji quickly perked up his ears, but what he heard confused him. He didn’t know who the other meant by ‘them’.
Beneath everyone’s expectant looks, Chen Luan slowly said, “I already contacted them. They’re willing to help us.”
The three aides were overjoyed, but Yang Ji was still in the fog. “Brother Chen, what are you talking abou—“
Before he could finish, a servant of the Chen’s was seen to stumble in from outside. “Master, it’s terrible! A large group of Brocade Guards suddenly arrived outside, and they’ve already surrounded the county bureau! You need to get out!”
Greatly shocked, Yang Ji quickly looked at Chen Luan.
The latter just smiled coldly. “Just in time.”
The translator says: I don’t know if I’ve ever said this, but if anyone is wondering why I put stuff like ‘this humble official’ once, then switch to ‘I’ the rest of the time, it’s because I’ve seen several occasions where the original text itself does the same. A few have happened in FYC alone. (Semantic satiation is also a real problem in English.)