FYC 121: No Free Lunches

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After Wang Zhi finished his word-for-word reading of the decree, everyone was dazed where they stood, unable to react.

Chen Luan responded a bit quicker than the rest, quickly turning and running into the county bureau — but he seemed to have forgotten that if he could successfully flee, the Brocade Guard would have no prestige from now on.

As expected, he hadn’t run a few steps off before he was thrown bodily to the ground, then hauled up and tied up so tightly, he completely turned into a sacrifice of meat for his ancestors.

Wang Zhi’s eyes swept over Ma Xingfu and the rest, then said lazily, “Since that’s the case, Sir Tang, hurry up and deal with these small fries. I came on His Majesty’s order — time is precious, and I can’t stand all this dilly-dallying!”

Those words were clearly for Tang Fan, but Ma Xingfu was angered half to death. Small fry?! That was clearly an insult to him!

Yet, what could he do about it? Even though Eunuch Wang was young and he had more seniority than him, and even though the Western Depot had poofed like smoke, things had turned around. He was now a high-ranker in the Emperor’s presence, and his words were heavier than a Defending Supervisor’s, who was far away in Suzhou.

“Where is Millarch Jiang?” Tang Fan asked.

“Present!” The Millarch’s voice was particularly resounding.

“Arrest Chen Luan, Yang Ji, and their entire group to bring them to justice. Furthermore, Supervisor Ma Xingfu has colluded with Chen Luan to embezzle relief provisions. Zeng Pei and Wu Zong have aided the evildoers; instead of fulfilling their responsibility in protecting an imperial ambassador, they secretly passed Chen Luan information, and helped him fight against the Court! Arrest them, too!”

“Understood!”

Pale-faced, Ma Xingfu put on a brave front. “Who dares arrest me?! Sir Tang, don’t presume authority that you don’t have! If you’re arresting Chen Luan, then do that! What does that have to do with me?! I also have an imperial order and worried that you would unjustly accuse a good official, which is why I had to come forth! Don’t capsize the entire boat in one strike, or you’ll end up getting yourself splashed with water!”

Tang Fan smiled. “Eunuch Ma, you rushed up to stick your neck out for Chen Luan before, so why are you scrambling to distance yourself from him now? Right and wrong will be cleared up during interrogations. I certainly won’t wrong a good person, if you are one.”

Saying so, he put away his smile and called, “Get them!”

Those that followed Ma Xingfu exchanged looks, unsure of whether to protect him or not. The few loyal ones had already drawn their blades, looking to want to square up to the Brocade Guard, but with a wave of Wang Zhi’s hand, the people behind him simultaneously unveiled their sabres. Their numbers being comparatively higher, Ma Xingfu’s troops became surrounded, instantly turning weak and pitiful.

Wang Zhi sneered. “Are you still holding on to the hope that your Director Shang is supporting you? To tell you the honest truth, Shang Ming has since been denounced, removed from the capital, and gone to watch Hongwu’s tomb. Suzhou isn’t that far from Nanjing, so maybe you’ll be able to meet up with him in the future!”

That news could crack boulders and shake the sky. As soon as Ma Xingfu heard it, he went stiff all over. “You… you’re talking nonsense!”

Wang Zhi laughed coldly. “Why would I come here just to blab at you?! You can ask him yourself when you see him later whether it’s nonsense! Millarch Jiang, why haven’t you arrested them yet?”

He had been here for no more than a short moment, yet Millarch Jiang already learned of the arrogant aspect of Eunuch Wang’s personality. Hearing this, he didn’t dare to mosey, ordering his subordinates to arrest them.

Perhaps Ma Xingfu had been shocked by Wang Zhi’s words, as he didn’t react, even with two Brocade Guards behind him. Seeing that he was so docile, his subordinates could only set down their weapons and wait to be dealt with.

Since even Ma Xingfu had stopped resisting, the rest of them would never be able to keep staunchly resisting, either. Every single one of them, as listless as frostbitten eggplants, allowed the Brocade Guard to arrest them.

Yang Ji was wan, squeezing a smile out at Tang Fan. “Sir Tang, Sir Tang, I have something to say — I was coerced into all of this! I never participated in anything Chen Luan did! Not only that, but I can provide you with even more evidence so that he can never make a comeback, you see… can you give me an out?”

Chen Luan laughed icily hearing that. “You never participated in anything? That’s a real joke! You knew about the refugees outside of the city, too, yet you never sent a word out about it! You want to pretend to be a good person now? There’s still those taels I gave you; when the search is underway, they’re bound to find each and every one!”

“That was all you! Were it not for you dragging me into the water, how could I have fallen to this extent?!” Yang Ji said angrily. “I told you at the start to not be too zealous in what you were doing, but now retribution has come!”

The two were about to start squabbling. Disinclined to watch dogs biting each other, Tang Fan waved his hand. “Take them all away!”

When Chen Luan was being escorted past Xiao Wu, he glared at her menacingly, resentment seeming to spill out of him.

With Tang Fan around, why would she fear him? She just smiled charmingly at him. He was instantly enraged, and couldn’t resist cursing, “Bitch!”

Xiao Wu sneered. “Since you slept with a bitch, what does that make you? A mongrel?”

Those nearby all huffed out laughs. Chen Luan quickly went green with rage.

Since she no longer needed to act in front of Tang Fan, her doughtiness had grown by the day.

When Chen Luan was gone, Tang Fan couldn’t help but wonder, “You said that he had illicit affairs with his father and brother’s women. Was that true, or false?”

“False, of course,” Xiao Wu answered automatically. “Would he have gotten so stomping mad, otherwise?”

Seeing that he looked speechless, she added, “Still, he’s forcefully bound other people’s wives and daughters into being his concubines plenty of times. If you wish to check that, Sir, it can all be verified.”

Tang Fan nodded. “I understand.”

Chen Luan, Yang Ji, and the rest’s violation of the law was not quite wrapped up yet. After clearing away the biggest blockage, Tang Fan ordered for mugwort to be burned outside the city, congee stalls to be set up, physicians to be sent to treat the refugees, and a lot of provisions to be excavated from the mouths of those grain merchants that had colluded with Chen Luan in order to feed the refugees.

Even so, the refugees had nearly been wiped out by Chen Luan, as not many remained. After receiving proper settlement, their health gradually took a good turn, and then they left Wujiang to return to their hometowns and resume farming the fields, one after the other. Tang Fan prepared a memorial requesting for Wujiang to be exempt from grains taxes for two years; it would not be able to take the refugees completely out of poverty and let them live successful lives from then on, but it was the most he could do within his authority.

After Chen Luan was arrested, the post of Wujiang’s Magistrate should have been taken by the County Deputy, but the reason why Chen Luan had become Wujiang’s local ruler was that those below him had aided in his tyranny a lot. Once he discovered this truth, Tang Fan fired nearly eighty percent of all the officials in Wujiang County.

The County now had many vacancies, but that wasn’t an issue. The Great Ming had a huge populace, and every year, the reserves of those that had the qualifications to be officials, yet no posts to grab, was uncountable. They were eyeing this area like tigers, as no matter what, it had cushy jobs. Lacking a few ‘Chen Luan’s meant that many wanted to fill in their positions.

During this incident, Hu Wenzao’s performance had been within bounds. It couldn’t be said to have been good, but he also hadn’t been as impudent and vile as Chen Luan — to be blunt, he hadn’t the guts to do anything terrible, simply having let things run, at worst. After all this, he had likely learned his lesson, and would be more alert from now on.

His timely switch of sides was also mentioned in the memorial by Tang Fan, to plead for mercy for him. Hu Wenzao ended up not losing his head nor getting exiled, only being stripped of his post and ordered to retire while retaining his official’s status. This was a great fortune within this misfortune.

Of course, an officialdom-obsessed person like Hu Wenzao definitely didn’t think this to be any sort of ‘great fortune’. Once he learned that he wouldn’t be able to be an official, he would probably be a wailing mess.

Tang Fan had no free time to care about his feelings. Ever since the arrest of Chen Luan’s group, he had been finding settlements for the refugees without pause, not even able to chat with Wang Zhi for long. It was only when the other was about to return to the capital that he took a break from his work, as well as the chance to sit down and eat together with him.

“This is all thanks to you. I’ve been so busy these days, it’s made me dizzy, and I haven’t yet had time to thank you. Let’s toast!” Tang Fan first poured cups of wine for them both, then stood holding one in his hands, lifted it up slightly, and tilted his head back to down it all in one gulp.

“You should be thanking me for getting here on time, but, really, this was all your own planning. It didn’t have much to do with me.” Wang Zhi didn’t act polite, downing all the wine in front of him, then pointing at the cup to hint for Tang Fan to refill it.

He was a model greedy git. Thankfully, Tang Fan had long gotten used to his personality. He smiled, casually picked up the wine pot, and poured two cups anew.

In this event, Tang Fan had made a surprising move with his qi pieces. As all knew, Chen Luan’s uncle was a member of the Wan party, which was why many felt that Tang Fan working against Chen Luan was basically him working against the party. It was also why no one had had faith in him at the start, as they thought that he would never be able to contend with Chen Luan.

Tang Fan never thought so, though.

Regardless of how much posturing Chen Luan had in Wujiang, it had been limited to Wujiang. He had no participation in upper-level political strife, and no one regarded him as important. His uncle being in the Wan party did not mean that he himself had been in it too — plainly speaking, his post had been too low to be eligible for joining the play.

As such, to take down Chen Luan, his uncle had needed to be taken down, first.

Nanjing’s Minister of Revenue was a coveted position, with every single person scrambling to get it. On top of that, many regarded Chen Zhi as an eyesore. Tang Fan had thus exploited that; via the connections he had with Zhang Ying and Huai En, his peers had initiated the denouncement of Chen Zhi. In his flurry, the latter couldn’t look after himself, leaving him with no time to look after his nephew’s status.

Every acting official had weaknesses and faults to nitpick, it just depended on whether one’s political opponents wanted to make use of them or not. For someone like Tang Fan, if another could one day dig up the fact that he had once written romance novels, they would be able to put on a whole show about it, to say nothing of anyone else.

The wall collapsed from everyone’s pushing — right when Tang Fan’s peers had denounced Chen Zhi, many others had been watching for good opportunities to grab hold of Chen Zhi’s corruption and bribery faults to attack him with. Liu Ji was wanting to push his own person up into the Minister spot, too, so he had added another fire.

Getting massively chastised, Chen Zhi’s fall was inevitable, and the Wan party couldn’t protect him. Him stepping down made it easier to put Chen Luan into order.

Still, the other had had another killing truncheon. He’d had a close connection to Suzhou’s merchant society, and through it, he had given the Eastern Depot many gifts, which was the source of his prior unscrupulousness. Zeng Pei and Wu Zong following Tang Fan all the way South had not only been to protect and monitor him, but to safeguard Chen Luan at critical moments. Eunuch Shang Ming would have hated for Tang Fan to uproot his giant money tree, hence why he had wanted to help him.

After coming to understand Chen Luan and the complex, intertwined connections behind him, Tang Fan had chosen to not fight the Wan party to the death, but rather focus his firepower on the Eastern Depot, tying Chen Luan’s crimes to it.

In the memorial he had made Lu Lingxi deliver, he hadn’t mentioned one word of Chen Luan’s other backers, only speaking of the Eastern Depot, asserting that the taels he had given the Emperor were not even a twelfth of what Chen Luan and the Depot had embezzled. He also stated that while His Majesty was cultivating to immortality in the capital, apprehensive and thrifty because the internal treasury was empty, Shang Ming, Ma Xingfu, and Chen Luan, the villains, had meanwhile taken advantage of the Emperor being far away to blatantly hoard a massive amount of wealth. Regarding His Majesty as nothing, they had also hidden that money away and indulged in extravagant lifestyles, yet had turned around and cried to him that they had no money, that even if he could stand for this, they absolutely could not.

The Emperor could neglect Court politics, but it should absolutely not be thought that his low intellect made him prone to being deceived. Back when he had just ascended, he had fought hard to clean up the government and indemnify wrongs. Although he had declined over these years, a lion was still a lion, and would at most shut its eyes and be deaf to the sounds of the outside world. If those sounds disturbed his slumber, he would reach out his paw and give people a whack.

Tang Fan’s words had undoubtedly spoken to the bottom of his heart, as well as prodded his soft imperial underbelly. He could tolerate others not doing anything and everyone muddling their days away, but he could not tolerate anyone thinking that he was easy to humiliate and deceive.

Most importantly, Tang Fan had solely targeted the Eastern Depot and mauled Shang Ming, not involving anyone else. That not only made the Wan party’s backlash minimal, but also caused the Emperor to have no misgivings in dealing with Shang Ming. Had Tang Fan dragged the party down, the Emperor would get pillow talked to due to thinking of Consort Wan, and the matter would definitely be left up in the air.

A good deal of elements adding up was why Wang Zhi had shown up here. Tang Fan couldn’t have done this by himself, of course; he was just a Censor, and far off in Suzhou. The combined skills of many people had been needed to get this done.

For example, when it came to Shang Ming’s decline, the efforts of Huai En, Wang Zhi, and those officials that hated the Eastern Depot had all been behind it. The internal power struggles of the Cabinet had also been involved. Tang Fan had simply noticed this, then made proper use of it.

After Shang Ming had been driven out of the capital, the post of Eastern Depot Director had been immediately filled in by Chen Zhun, a eunuch on Huai En’s side. The Wan party had then realized too late that the Depot’s power was no longer within their grasp.

The situation had undergone a million changes in the span of a breath, its opportunities transient. If they couldn’t be grasped one moment, they could only be watched as someone else grabbed them the next.

In the refugees’ opinion, Tang Fan’s arrival had given them a renewed hope for survival. However, in the opinions of many more people, this misfortune hit not just Chen Luan and Yang Ji, but the Wan party too, in loss of Shang Ming and the Eastern Depot. Its power had weakened a good bit; there was no way it would be able to use the Depot as henchmen or tools that took public weapons up for personal use, or took public revenge for personal grudges, now.

Therefore, not only did Tang Fan resolve Suzhou’s issue, but the Crown Prince had received a significant victory. It could be said to be an evening out, of sorts.

“Following this, the Crown Prince will definitely be more grateful to you. Even though he didn’t say anything, in the future, if… well, you’ll definitely be getting reutilized,” Wang Zhi hinted. Everyone was well aware of what the words in that pause had been.

Tang Fan shook his head. “My original intent wasn’t to take down the Eastern Depot, I simply wanted to resolve Suzhou’s issue. This current conclusion can only be described as a chance coincidence. Moreover, Shang Ming has been overbearing for a long time, which the Heavens couldn’t bear to see, hence why this happened.”

Wang Zhi rolled his eyes. “Alright, quit putting on airs. Too much modesty just makes you pretentious. The Crown Prince is going on thirteen — by logic, he should be in the Cabinet watching the governmental process, but His Majesty is growing more convinced by the Dao day by day and is lukewarm towards the Prince, so him entering the Cabinet has been repeatedly blocked by the Wan party. It’s been put on hold for a very long time. Now that the Eastern Depot is collapsed, their chutzpah will probably be curbed a little.”

Tang Fan was too far from the capital and not a member of the central power circle, so these little machinations did not get to him promptly. Had it not been for Wang Zhi’s present explanation, he wouldn’t have even known that the Wan party had been preventing the Prince from entering the Cabinet. He shook his head again. “I must say, the Wan party is doing everything it can to get in the Prince’s way. What a very stupid move. Ever since Ming’s founding, if anyone other than the eldest son thinks to ascend, even if the Emperor dotes on them, they end up with nothing. Just look at how strong Yongle was — he favored the Prince of Han far more than the Crown Prince, but didn’t the latter ultimately receive the throne? Considering the present one’s firmness of will, he’s far and away from Yongle. How could he accomplish what he failed to?”

Facing Wang Zhi, Tang Fan would bare his heart in his words. The former was slightly moved, indeed — prior to this, he had never heard of such a viewpoint, but after a careful thought, it really made sense.

“But is having such insight useful? How can the Wan party be resigned to not putting up a desperate struggle? The throne has been enticing since ancient times. The party doesn’t have the guts to rebel, but they’re obsessed with supporting the Emperor, which isn’t odd. It’s good that you’re far from the capital so that you don’t get dragged in or made into a raft like that last time in the East Palace. Once the situation in the capital clears up a little, I’ll help you petition to return.”

Saying so, he picked up a piece of osmanthus-candied lotus root, put it in his mouth, and wrinkled his brow. “What’s this sugary crap?”

Tang Fan was speechless. “One glance would tell you that it’s sweet. Why did you pick it up if you don’t like that?”

Wang Zhi slightly scoffed. “I was distracted by talking. Only sugary people would like sugary stuff!”

“…” Tang Fan’s mouth twitched from having been struck while lying prone. It was good that he had long been used to Eunuch Wang’s cold treatment.

The next moment, he expressionlessly reached out to pick up another piece of root, bite it, and smile with curved eyes. “It’s good. The sticky rice is soft, and osmanthus taste strong. By the way, I’m pretty shocked; why did His Majesty promote me for no reason? It isn’t because I gave him that box of treasures, right?” he asked his own question that he couldn’t figure out.

“You think too optimistically. If a gift of silver could net a third-rank official title, the national treasury would never have to worry anymore!”

Tang Fan smiled. “Please clarify for me, Eunuch Wang.”

Wang Zhi laughed a few times, the sound full of schadenfreude. “It’s because there’s another mess for you to go tidy up, so he needed to give you a sweet jujube!”

“…”

Tang Fan began to noiselessly bury his head in his food. “Can I act like I never heard that?”

“No.”

After eating for a spell, Tang Fan found that not even steamed meat in lotus leaf powder could make him happy. He was forced to set down his chopsticks and question after his fate. “What happened this time?”

“You don’t need to be so spooked. This actually isn’t too complicated a matter.”

“You have bad intentions all over your face, yet you tell me it isn’t complicated? Would I believe that? I bet you don’t even believe that!”

Wang Zhi had no care. “I wouldn’t falsely console you. Why let you steel yourself to take on a task? Besides, you’ll have the title of Right Assistant Minister of Justice, which will make it much easier for you to act than only having a Censor status would. I brought this up before His Majesty and got it for you.”

His logic sure was something. When it came to being recklessly unreasonable, Tang Fan had never once surpassed Eunuch Wang.

“Okay, okay, okay. Explain, then,” he said, head hurting.

Anyone that had taken the imperial exams knew that in order to kill one’s way from nobody to Palace Honorate, there were countless exams of all sizes to take. Among those were six relatively more important ones: county exams, prefectural exams, institutional exams, provincial exams, metropolitan exams, and palace exams. In simple terms, those that could pass the institutional exams were County Honorates, those that could get their names on the provincial rolls were Provincial Honorates, and those that could be on the metropolitan rolls were Tributary Honorates. Those last ones were bound to end up in the palace exams, and not fall off the roll.

Institutional exams were conducted twice per three years. Unable to become even a County Magistrate without it, all had to consider them the starting point of their careers.

Something had happened in Ji’an Prefecture of Jiangxi’s institutional exams at the start of this year.

There was nothing out of the ordinary about Ji’an’s exam process; it was the same as anywhere else. The head examiner was Shen Kunxiu, currently appointed as Jiangxi’s Consul of Education. He was an official that had been directly appointed by the Ministry of Rites, and directing exams like this was second nature to him.

However, on the day the institutional exam roll had been released, a heaven-shaking scandal had suddenly broken out. It was unknown where the rumors had originated from, but they said that the top twenty exam candidates on the first roll had mostly received their ranks through cheating. Not only that, but the rumors had spread like they had limbs; on all of those candidates’ scrolls, words like ‘Great Achievement’ appeared, which had been a signal for alerted appraisers that had accepted bribes, and knew the secret behind them, to give papers high marks whenever they saw the words.

Things had become more and more hectic. Within the tumult, the scholars that had fallen off the roll had been the most violently raging. They had first beaten the drums in requesting that something be done, then had brought a commemorative tablet for Confucius out of a Confucian temple, making a clamor outside the Consul Estate’s gate — the official in charge had needed to give an explanation.

After Shen Kunxiu had heard the news, he had reacted quickly, checking those candidates’ papers over, then discovered that the rumors hadn’t been too far off the mark. Of the top twenty on the roll, at least sixteen individuals’ papers had the words ‘Great Achievement’ in them.

That had been no coincidence. Alarmed and furious, he had decided to investigate thoroughly. He had no idea where the rumors had come from, but the most important thing at that time had been to find out if those candidates had actually cheated to get a scholarly title as had been claimed. If proved false, there would then be a thousand methods available for stifling the rumors.

Thus, he had first called for the appraising officials to interrogate them individually, who had flatly denied it. He had then sent people to arrest each of the top-twenty scholars to question them one-by-one.

The process of learning whether anyone had cheated or not was quite simple: ask a few more exam questions, then have them write on the spot. If they couldn’t do it, or if their level was greatly lowered, then there had to be an issue. When Shen Kunxiu used that method, amongst those sixteen people, several had seemed shaken with one attempt. After the topic changed, they had either written their essays sloppily, or their levels had dropped dramatically, completely different beings from the embroidered content of before.

At that point, how could Shen Kunxiu have not yet understood? For the sake of killing one to warn a hundred off from following these bad examples, and also to quell the rage of the other scholars, he had promptly sent a memorial to the Court, requesting that all sixteen exam-hopefuls be stripped of their honor and never employed, as well as planning to hold another institutional exam at Ji’an Prefecture.

However, at that time, one of the sixteen title-stripped scholars had hung himself. Prior to death, he had written words in blood on the wall of the room where he had been detained: “Grossly wronged beyond compare, I die with my eyes still open.”

Things had become even more critical, then.

Even though Shen Kunxiu had stripped the sixteen of their honors via memorial, before the Court issued a clear degree, they would still be considered County Honorates. One being forced into death by a Consul of Education immediately shocked the entire scholarly circle. If the other had been feeling guilty without yet having the time to tell half-truths after losing his honors, why would he use suicide to proclaim his innocence? Who could say that there was no inside story there?

A lot of rumors immediately cropped up, saying that Consul Shen had a grudge with the other party, found an excuse to deal with him, and then caused him to kill himself out of humiliation and fury. It was also claimed that Consul Shen had judged the case incorrectly, and that the dead scholar had been accused unjustly, having not cheated at all.

Not long after the incident, Jiangxi’s Envoy of Education and Envoy of Investigation had sent separate memorials asking for a strict investigation of this case, to distinguish between who was being honest or not, and to use righteousness to observe.

Right as Tang Fan’s Suzhou assignment came to its end, the Emperor told him not to return to the capital, but go straight to Jiangxi to fix this.

As Shen Kunxiu was a truethird-rank Consul of Education, his status exceedingly pure and noble, Tang Fan’s fourth-rank Censor status wouldn’t have been enough against him. Therefore, the Emperor had given him the additional title of Right Assistant Minister of Justice with a stroke of his brush, to make it easier for him to investigate.

After learning this whole story, Tang Fan’s feelings were mixed. He only wanted to say one thing right now: There are no free lunches in this world. The ancients really didn’t lie to me.

[End Arc 9: The Case of Suzhou]


The translator says: ‘Great Achievement’ is a tentative translation of 大成也 (great/big + to accomplish/turn into + connecting placeholder character that can be a stand-in for the concept of ‘anything’), which has unclear meaning without context. As I’ve said before, I’m translating blind; I could come back and edit it if the meaning is important.
The author’s mini-theatre:
Tang Fan: Ai, nothing I’ve eaten recently has had flavor.
Wang Zhi: For how long? A few months?
Tang Fan, enraged: ‘How long’, my ass! If you were the one who had just solved a problem only to get another problem to solve, would you be happy?!
Wang Zhi: I would. If I can keep fight-fight-fighting, I’ll be happy! Great men’s journey is on the battlefield! The meaning of life is in military merits!
Tang Fan: …Talking to a war nut is nearly impossible.

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6 thoughts on “FYC 121: No Free Lunches

  1. There’s a sentence that got cut off in the paragraph about the exams (・–・;)ゞ

    Tang Fan and Wang Zhi sounds like siblings bickering 😂

    Thank you for the update, stay safe and healthy~

    Like

  2. No rest for the wickedly smart! Poor Tang Fan, no happy family downtime this time!
    I feel like I’m still gleeful about the end of this case and already intrigued by the next one…

    Thank you very much for your -as usual- wonderful translation!

    Like

  3. Thanks so much for the translation, I’m really looking forward to the next arc!
    You’re doing an amazing job, even if it’s not proofread, there aren’t even many spelling issues not to mention serious stuff or unclarities, that’s seriously impressive!
    One thing I caught here – I think you meant the uncle, Chen Zhi
    “Getting massively chastised, Chen Luan’s fall was inevitable,…”

    Like

  4. Can’t wait till Tang Fan gets denounced for having written romance novels. 😅😅😅

    This new mystery sounds like it’s right up Tabg Fan’s alley! I’m looking forward to it. Thank you for translating!

    Like

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