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Tang Fan had originally planned to return to his native home and worship his ancestors after returning from Suzhou, but now that he was still an imperial ambassador and a life debt had broken out in Ji’an for no good reason, his hopes had subsequently been dashed. Once he had passed the follow-up arrangements to Wang Zhi, he was to ride non-stop to Ji’an of Jiangxi.
Prior to his departure, he lamented to Wang Zhi, “I remember that when I got to know you, you had not even reached crowning age yet. A few years have since passed in the wink of an eye. Pitifully, we must part ways after meeting up for not too many days. After today’s parting, I’m adfraid that I won’t be able to see you again until my return to the capital. I do hope you’ll take extra good care of yourself.”
“Where did you learn to be a sap?” Eunuch Wang just replied back. “I thought you were different from banal folk, but now I see that you’re the most banal of all! Don’t forget that you’re not yet thirty, yet had already taken the title of a truethird-rank Assistant Minister. Even though it’s an empty title, you’ve attained it much earlier than others have. What you need to do now is quickly use the Jiangxi case to establish a huge merit, as in that way, Huai En and I can will be able to speak to His Majesty for you so that you can become an actual Assistant Minister of Justice. I heard that the Cabinet is going to officially nominate new people for entry into the Cabinet next year — if you’re considered to have enough qualification for that then, that place gives ranks according to time of entry! Every day you get in sooner is an advantage!”
He had always been like this, bold and unrestrained, with gloom or negativity seemingly forever unable to be seen on him. Even when he occasionally came across a setback, he was never seen to shrink back. Someone like this would inevitably give others a bossy and domineering feeling, while also being infected by an eternal fighting spirit.
Tang Fan’s heart-filling sentimental feelings about this separation were all swept clean away. He could only pull down the corners of his mouth as he repeatedly agreed to him.
Unexpectedly, Wang Zhi turned the conversation around, grinning with ill intent. “Actually, you should be pretty happy about being able to go to Jiangxi instead of anywhere else.”
Tang Fan understood nothing. “Why is that?”
“Because Sui Guangchuan is there too, eh? You two not seeing each other for one day is like not seeing each other for three autumns. Won’t this be exactly as they say, where those that spend some time apart are like newlyweds again meeting up?”
That purported feeling of melancholy people had while gripping hands and facing one another upon farewell was only a thing of myth and imagination. When facing Wang Zhi, he might as well save those feelings for someone else.
Seeing that he had choked him too much to say anything, Eunuch Wang laughed, self-proud. “Alas, he has an assignment, so he probably can’t look after you, and might not even be in Ji’an. You not having protectors by your side won’t do. A dignified imperial ambassador traveling solo is much too tragic — I have four people here that I can happen to lend to you, enough to ensure good faith. When you’re in Ji’an’s territory, someone will be there in advance to accept you. Don’t worry about anything else, there won’t be any Eastern Depot lackeys giving you a hard time this time!”
Those four were Wang Zhi’s former subordinates of the Western Depot, of intrepid appearance. Tang Fan had met them several times before. They now called out greetings and introduced themselves, separately greeting him, even if they did recognize him.
Suffering such an interruption, Tang Fan quit expressing any sort of inner feeling. After saying goodbye, he led the other four in speeding for Ji’an Prefecture.
The distance from Suzhou to Ji’an wasn’t much, meaning that there was no need to rush every single day and that it could be reached in about ten days. Their group of five departed Suzhou, not saying a word of chatter the whole way to their entry into Jiangchang Prefecture. Reaching a local posthouse for rest and refreshments, they encountered an unexpected acquaintance.
“Brother Tang!” the happy voice of someone that had been waiting for a long time outside of the posthouse called out, upon seeing them approach.
After confirming that he hadn’t seen incorrectly, Tang Fan grew excited. “Yiqing?”
“This Yiqing gives my greetings to you, Brother!” Lu Lingxi was even more excited, leaping to be in front of Tang Fan with his hands cupped towards him. “My fortune hasn’t let me down. When I brought the stuff to the capital, I passed them over to Eunuch Wang to handle. I assume that you’ve resolved what happened in Suzhou already?”
“No need to be so polite. So, the friend Wang Zhi spoke of was you!” Tang Fan laughed, helping the other up with both hands as his heart suffused with the joy of finding an old pal.
Lu Lingxi was quick-witted in handling things, clever in mind, and quite active. Even though they had not interacted for very long, Tang Fan already felt very fond of the youth, even seeing him as a little brother. When he was following by him before, Tang Fan had unthinkingly taught him a lot of things. That attentive sentiment was something Lu Lingxi had certainly been able to realize.
“That’s me! Aren’t you happy to see me, Brother?” Lu Lingxi said with a smile, eyes curved in a lovable way.
“Quit acting like you’re a good little boy!” Tang Fan accordingly bopped him on the head, the action showing his full closeness.
Lu Lingxi covered his head, looking wronged and innocent, though there was a happy grin on his face.
Tang Fan grouped up with him. The accompanying group of four had already gone ahead to make proper arrangements for their stay.
These people Wang Zhi had given Tang Fan were shrewd and strong, handling a lot of work. All along the journey, there were some things even Tang Fan himself hadn’t thought of that they had been quick to do. With their assistance, he had nearly expended no effort this whole trip.
Xi Ming and the rest had come from low origins, later becoming valued by Wang Zhi and transferred directly into the Western Depot. They had been devotedly following him ever since.
When Wang Zhi had gone to Datong, he hadn’t brought them with, thinking to have them watch the Western Depot. Unexpectedly, once the weather had undergone precipitous changes, the Depot had straight-up shut its doors, turning these four into dogs mourning their homes. Following Wang Zhi’s return to the palace, they were woven into the Left Feathered Forest Guard, turning into imperial guard chiefs defending the Imperial City.
Tang Fan was going to Jiangxi the investigate the case of the imperial exams as an imperial ambassador; as no Brocade Guards accompanied him, he couldn’t go over alone as a one-man army for no good reason, or people would laugh. The Court therefore needed to send him bodyguards according to standards, firstly to protect the imperial ambassador, and secondly to have that ambassador have the flair that an ambassador ought to, lest the Court’s reputation be lost.
In light of the four’s capabilities, Wang Zhi had told them to follow Tang Fan. Martial experts had the conceit of martial experts; although they said nothing and obeyed his orders, Tang Fan could sense that they were not at all convinced by him. He didn’t care, though. Each individual had their individual ways of thinking, and there was no way to force someone else to listen to you wholeheartedly. To speak disrespectfully, even the ol’ Emperor probably wouldn’t be capable of doing that, as in this day and age, plenty of people derided him in private. Given that Xi Ming’s group could listen to orders, not act on their own, and not voice their own opinions, Tang Fan would be fine.
However, what he didn’t know was that there was another weighted consideration behind why Wang Zhi had told the four to follow him.
“Eunuch Wang said that several hints of the White Lotus Society have shown up recently in Jiangxi,” Lu Lingxi said. “The Brocade Guard has already gone to investigate, but he also said that you’ve ruined the Society’s plans several times, even destroying their Tartar foothold. Over these past few years, their influence has been mostly eliminated, and your contribution to that has been indispensable. They have to hate you to the bone because of that. That’s why Xi Ming’s group is here, so they can ensure your safety, at the very least. After I heard that, I took it upon myself to volunteer. Another person can overall give you some more protection.”
Tang Fan was somewhat surprised. “The White Lotus Society?”
To tell the truth, after he had returned from Datong, he hadn’t heard that name for quite some time. And yet, this all seemed to be within expectations.
Back at the Weining Sealet, Li Zilong had escaped by a fluke, his whereabouts unknown, but from his previous behaviors, the man was abundantly ambitious and certainly unwilling to face defeat. On the contrary, he would wait for an opportunity to do all he could to rise up again. Also, from the ‘gifts’ Tang Fan had given the Society, he was likely up top on the list of Li Zilong’s enemies.
“Yes. That’s why you must be careful in order to sail a ship that lasts forever,” Lu Lingxi answered. “Be more cautious, Brother Tang. Starting from today onwards, I won’t stray a step away from your side.”
Tang Fan laughed. “There’s really no need to be so nervous. Fate is determined by the Heavens, and its recipients won’t escape. Even though this present world isn’t one that clothes, feeds, and warms everyone, it’s generally a land at peace. The scenario of Yuan’s end, with smoke in all directions and formidable characters coming in groups, has long gone. Average citizens won’t want to follow in the Society’s nonsense for no reason, meaning it has no soil with which to propagate itself in the first place. Their followers are getting fewer and fewer, and now even their altars have lesser numbers. As long as their few upper-tier members can be wiped out, their opponents will have nothing to worry about.”
He said as much to Lu Lingxi, but Tang Fan still mentally had some vigilance while thinking of the Society’s unorthodox, limitless methods. While it was true that the Society’s general actual power was diminishing gradually, it was precisely because it was reaching a dead-end that its counterattacks had turned even more ruthless and rampant. He yet recalled that Li Zilong had been called the second-in-command by the Society followers, which meant that there could be a first-in-command above him — if those people could not be excavated, they would undoubtedly become hidden menaces that might pop up at any time.
Lu Lingxi didn’t notice the secret concern beneath Tang Fan’s relaxed chat. He had never dealt with the Society before, after all, and had no idea how badly this nefarious sect stuck around. The youth’s personality combined with his high martial arts caused him to generally have some heroic ambitions that feared nothing. “Actually, Brother Tang, before I convened with you, I went on a patrol of Ji’an Prefecture.”
Tang Fan raised a brow. “Since you said that, what did you ask around about?”
The other chuckled, having a smidgen of eagerness to curry favor via proving his ability to him. “It was all hearsay, but I did indeed hear things. Would you like to hear them too, Brother Tang?”
Despite the question, his face had the expectation of ‘Come ask me about it, quick’ written all across it, exceedingly resembling a cute little puppy wagging his tail.
Resisting the impulse to pet his head, Tang Fan smiled. “If you don’t tell me, I’m going to go to bed.”
Afterwards, he saw the other’s face instantly fall, listless-looking, and ended up laughing aloud. “Alright, just say it! I’ll listen, okay?”
Lu Lingxi was not about to throw a little girl tantrum of ‘You told me to say it, so now I’m not going to,’ of course. Hearing him say that, he immediately brightened up. “Supposedly, the involved Consultant Shen is terrible with people. When he was still in Nanchang, his relationship with his coworkers in officialdom was average, and now that he’s patrolling Ji’an for exams, he’s already caused extreme discontentment everywhere in such a short amount of time. His skills at offending people are truly unmatchable.”
Tang Fan nodded. “Consultant Shen’s temper really is poor. Those rumors aren’t too ridiculous.”
The other was astonished. “You’ve heard of him before too, Brother Tang?”
A territory’s Consul of Education was also called a Consultant of Education, with every single matter pertaining to teaching and imperial exams the responsibility of the Consul to handle. Someone able to preside over a territory’s students needed to be an official with very comprehensive knowledge, making the average Palace Honorate no good — they had to be an official that had gone to Hanlin and had some literary fame. Tang Fan’s type, for example, could someday walk the path of the Consul of Education, then enter the Ministry of Rites.
Shen Kunxiu was born in Xi’an Prefecture, and a Palace Honorate from the fifth year of Jingtai. That he could be the Jiangxi Consul of Education meant that his knowledge had no shallow aspects to it. The scholarly circle spoke of all things north and south of the river, basically anyone with some fame coming to be known in it, but Shen Kunxiu’s fame did not come from his expertise; it came from his brother.
An incident had happened before, where, when Shen Kunxiu had just entered Hanlin Academy, everyone had once gathered up to write poetry and bounce off of each others. He had been upset that then-Hanlin member Liu Pengcheng had stuck himself to Head Vizier Xu Youzhen, so he had written a verse mocking him to his face, causing the other party to swiftly leave with a twirl of his sleeve out of anger. Later on, due to Xu Youzhen not getting on with Shi Heng and the rest, he had been booted out of the capital to go be an official in Guangdong. Adding that on to Yu Qian’s political revolution, Shen Kunxiu had written poems mocking those that had adhered to Xu Youzhen, which had won him a beautified reputation as a clean-streamer.
If that was all, it would be no big deal. Reality had proven that in order to be labeled a ‘clean-streamer’, only always had to have a weird personality that normal people couldn’t comprehend. After Shen Kunxiu’s Hanlin job had been fulfilled, he had held successive posts in the Imperial College and Ministry of Rites. However, in every place he went to, he would just quarrel with and part unhappily with his colleagues, and offend every single person there by the time he finally left his posts. As time went on, people had given him a nickname: Shen Shitstone, which implied that his temper was harder and smellier than a rock inside a pit latrine.
Tang Fan feared interacting with people like him the most. If against someone conniving and barbaric like Chen Luan, anyone could fight with wits and valor, but Shen Kunxiu’s type generally wouldn’t speak reason with you, because they felt that all the rationality in the land belonged to them, making them immune to all persuasion.
“Did you hear anything regarding this case?” Tang Fan then asked.
“Consultant Shen’s voice as Jiangxi’s Consul of Education is good, and he’s also reportedly sincere in his holding of his post. The scholarly circle has high regard towards him. When this case broke out, some people said that he had secret enmity with the deceased and took this opportunity to retaliate, while others said that he had made a cruel ruling. Still, a portion of scholars have spoken out for him, believing that he isn’t like that.”
Tang Fan grasped onto a key point. “What did they mean, he has a secret enmity?”
“Ah, right, I forgot to explain that. It’s said that the scholar who hung himself’s father is Lin Fengyuan, Balancing Magistrate of Ji’an Prefecture.”
The other creased his brow. “In other words, the younger gen of an official’s household?”
That really was a bit of a bother.
“Yes. The enmity between these two families started from the previous generation. Shen Kunxiu won first place when he participated in the county exams back in the day, so he was expected to earn the title of Minor Prime Scorer. Unexpectedly, when he took the institutional exams, he happened to run into Lin Fengyuan, the acting Consul of Education, who straight-up threw out his papers. Not only did he make Shen Kunxiu have to retake the exam, but the title wrongfully passed him by. Now, feng shui has revolved; Lin Fengyuan’s son happened to be a test-taker under Shen Kunxiu. The latter, knowing that Lin Zhen was Lin Fengyuan’s son, was giddy, laughing loudly and saying that his revenge was nigh and wrongs would be repented, after which he grabbed onto that handle, crossed Lin Zhen’s name off the list, and abolished his scholarly title, which was why Lin Zhen hung himself out of shame… hey, big brother, why do you look like that?”
Tang Fan’s expression was weird. “You know that he laughed and what exactly he said? Were you there on the scene to witness it with your eyes?”
Lu Lingxi scratched his head, laughing dryly. “This is all rumors on the street, yeah? I’m only relaying them!”
Tang Fan glared at him. Even though he spoke to him in an admonishing tone, he wasn’t angry at all. “Since you know those are street rumors, you also know that they can’t be taken seriously. If I took them seriously and used them to judge this case, it will invariably generate the idea that first impressions take the lead.”
The other was a little embarrassed. “I only wanted to make you laugh. Still, the grudge between Shen Kunxiu and the Lin family has spread all around the common haunts; baseless, but not necessarily without cause. I thought it would be good to let you know.”
Tang Fan pat him on the shoulder, then poured him a cup of tea himself. “I know you had good intentions, and I’m not reproaching you. Keep on talking.”
Seeing the faint smile at the edges of his mouth, Lu Lingxi immediately became animated again. “The three-generation hatred of the Shens and Lins is old. Shen Kunxiu is now truethird-rank, Lin Fengyuan is only a minor Balancing Magistrate, yet their two sons are completely different. Shen Kunxiu’s is a stereotypical fop — unlearned, untalented, and not able to recite texts well — so he has to bring him everywhere to personally prompt him to study. Meanwhile, Lin Fengyuan’s son was promising, already earning second-place in the institutional exams at around age sixteen. Shen Kunxiu was unhappy, feeling that comparisons were damning, and therefore murdered the other’s son.”
Tang Fan’s mouth twitched, really unsure of how to react. What was all that junk? The people who made up these tales were really lacking in common decency. With Shen Kunxiu’s character, if he learned of this, he would probably rage to death. He shook his head. “Enough. All this can wait until we go to Ji’an Prefecture and see him ourselves. You said before that the Brocade Guard’s footprints have been through Jiangxi?”
“Yes. I listened to Eunuch Wang, and after coming to Jiangxi, I was met with not just one group. They’re in Jianchang Prefecture, too. All of them travel incognito, but anyone with martial arts can tell from their every gesture. Their bearing differ from typical jianghu folk, too. I’m almost positive they were Brocade Guards.”
Tang Fan hesitated for a second. “Then, did you come across Sui Zhou?”
“Sui Zhou? Is that the Northern Bastion Envoy?”
“I didn’t. I’ve long heard of his name, but I’ve unfortunately never met him. I also heard that he’s pretty skilled; I would want to see him if I have the chance.”
Tang Fan thought to himself about how the other had taken his orders to request help from the Suzhou Guard post, which had ended with Sui Zhou-as-Di Han coming over. Maybe the two had already met, yet Lu Lingxi had no idea who he had faced… it was a little funny.
“Brother Tang, do you need to find the Envoy for something? Should I help ask around for you?” Lu Lingxi had to ask, observing his body language.
Tang Fan shook his head. “No need, it was just a random question. Judging from all that you said, this assignment likely won’t be breezy.”
“Are you afraid that the White Lotus Society took this chance to stir up trouble?”
“No, it’s that Shen Kunxiu is not an easy person to get along with,” Tang Fan said with a smile. “With his personality, he’s going to be hard-lined to the end of handling this matter. He has something of a name in the scholarly circle, too — I won’t be able to strong-arm him. Though, I’m guessing that I’m not the only with a headache right now, as the Ji’an Magistrate must have a major one, too. This is all under his jurisdiction, after all, with one being his superior, another his subordinate, and him being unable to take both sides.”
Lu Lingxi smiled as well. “Isn’t that just it? Everyone says that the position of Ji’an Magistrate is unlucky, with its lucky starts clashing in the sky. That’s why the previous one was unlucky, and this one is also unlucky.”
When it came to information byways, markets and streets were definitely no inferior to officialdom. Furthermore, commoners frequently loved to stretch the truth and add a lot of unlikely elements, just like the previous ancient coffin of the Luo River case. The locals hadn’t known the truth, and the White Lotus Society had purposefully spread gossip, making them all believe that it had been the wrath of river gods.
Tang Fan had no belief that this information had too much value, but that didn’t keep him from hearing it out. “The previous one was unlucky? How so?”
“The former Ji’an Magistrate was Huang Jinglong. A few years ago, because of his prisoner abuse and deviant accusations of good people that caused innocent citizens to be arrested, then tortured to death in prison, the Court had ordered for his arrest after the fact, but he was already dead. The next position-holder has encountered that same kind of poor luck; obviously, it’s ill-fated. When I went to Ji’an, it happened to be in time for Duke Guan’s birthday, and the local Prefectural Magistrate purportedly requested for people to dance for the deity at his bureau!”
He had once traveled all around the world, never having the opportunity to interact with such matters of officialdom. The longer he was by Tang Fan’s side, the more he was seeing, and the more his field of view opened.
As it turned out, not each and every one of those old officials that had relied upon their knowledge to become Palace Honorates were actually not fully versed in politics or above it all. People like Chen Luan and Yang Ji were admittedly included, and those like Ji’an’s Magistrate were further abundant; the higher one went, they could find the tests above getting all the more intense.
The Emperor spurred on his subjects, and the subjects exploited him. Everyone fought with wisdom and bravery, thinking up all sorts of different things. A moment of inattention on their path, and they would have no idea when they ended up on the brink of death. Those that appeared to be low-key and prudent might not really be at a disadvantage, possibly pretending to be swine to eat up tigers.
Last time, when he had entered the capital with what Tang Fan had entrusted to him, his heart had burned with anxiety, itching to see Huai En or Wang Zhi as soon as possible so that he could save Tang Fan from his perilous situation. The following series of unexpected changes had been enough to overwhelm his eyes.
When Shang Mind had lost power and the Eastern Depot had changed ownership, he realized that he seemed to have learned a lot. Even if Shang Ming’s loss of power had no direct connection to Tang Fan, he had definitely played a part by seizing the opportunity to add to the waves.
Had Tang Fan currently been a Cabinet Vizier, that method would have not been a surprise, but he had been no more than a fourth-rank Censor at the time. Being so far away from the capital’s core of authority, yet still able to judge the situation at large so accurately, made one gasp in admiration.
Such was why whenever Lu Lingxi saw Xi Ming and the rest have an inevitable air of covert arrogance, he would always recall his own self that had just been at Tang Fan’s side, then not point such out, only huffing to himself: You’re all self-important now, but you’re going to respect him by the time this Jiangxi trip is done!
Tang Fan gave no notice to Lu Lingxi’s thoughts. The latter had taken the Ji’an Magistrate position as an interesting story, but the former was thinking back to what had happened with the former Magistrate, Huang Jinglong.
As was known, Sui Zhou had handled this case himself, and Huang Jinglong had suddenly died in prison later, cutting his impression of it in deep. Due to that death, the case had been left hanging afterwards, leaving many riddles behind.
Looking at it now, Heaven’s fate might be at work. What came before was the cause, what came later, the effect — there were truly many areas of worthy of deep inquiry in Ji’an. Whatever was weird in them would have to wait until after Tang Fan came there himself to check each and every one of them.
After joining up with Lu Lingxi, the group took a rest in Jianchang Prefecture. Meanwhile, Tang Fan sent people to go on a step ahead and notify the Ji’an Magistrate. An imperial ambassador out on the road would have themselves announced everywhere they went; it wouldn’t be impossible to his their whereabouts, but it would relatively difficult, and not necessary. This time around, Tang Fan was going to investigate without tricks, not go incognito. There was nothing for him to hide.
Upon hearing that he was here, the local Jianchang officials scrambled to the posthouse to visit him. Outside officials had an indescribable admiration for capital officials, especially directly-dispatched imperial ambassadors like him. If they could forge a relationship to him or hug his thigh, it would be even better.
Still, thigh-hugging needed a survey of the situation. If he was instead someone that opposed the Wan party and left the capital to work on a case, every wouldn’t be able to avoid them out of fear fast enough. Why would they ever come closer?
Tang Fan’s circumstances weren’t much the same. Despite him repeatedly defying the Wan party and having ups and downs in his career path, the Emperor still needed to make use of him. His opposition to the Wan party had instead ended up turning away from peril, and, owing to his repeated cracking of cases, his reputation had grown. Wherever he went, if he really waved his imperial ambassador banner, not only would the local literati and gentry come to visit, but even local officials would come to revere him, wanting to forge a good connection with him.
Recently, at the Suzhou case’s solving, Chen Luan, Yang Ji, and others had fallen off their horses, and the Eastern Depot’s tyranny had greatly reduced. Recalling how insufferably overbearing Director Shang Ming had been, had he not still been so dejectedly diminished to the rock-bottom of the Ming tombs?
Who with working eyes couldn’t link up Shang Ming’s decline with Tang Fan investigating Chen Luan? Who wasn’t inwardly thinking that he was of strong talent and mind?
If being able to get one over the Wan party wasn’t talent, then what was?
That was why, in spite of him trying all he could to reduce his social interactions, there was still an unceasing flow of people coming to visit him. Not only Jianchang officials came, but Jiangxi’s Envoys of Education and Investigation even sent people to pay their respects.
Some people had to be met, else it would easy to give off a too-good-for-you air. Henceforth, even though he didn’t like these annoyance, he still had to spend a few days to contend with immortals of various paths.
Two days later, he brought his group to Luling County, located in Ji’an Prefecture. The Ji’an Magistrate, together with the Luling Magistrate and a group of officials, had since received word and were waiting at the posthouse outside the city.
When Tang Fan saw the Luling Magistrate as he stood beside Fan Yuezheng, the Prefectural Magistrate, he couldn’t help but be stunned.
The translator says: ‘Shen Shitstone’ is inspired from the original Chinese, Shen Shitou (沈石头). The shared ‘shit’ is entirely on purpose. The original implication of the ‘latrine stone’ gets lost in literal translation to English, so I improvised because I’m six years old and think swearing is funny