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Even in the hottest periods of summer, ice water like this would have been enough to make him shudder. It wasn’t something he wanted to experience a second time in his life.
That was, if he still had enough life left to experience a second time at all.
“Long time no see, Sir Tang. You’ve been well since our parting, right?” a familiar voice resounded.
Tang Fan opened his eyes. Beads of water were still on his lashes, teetering and threatening to fall with the motion of his blinks. His arms were still bound, but he had gone from the interior of a carriage to the inside of a hall. The surrounding decorations were elegant, with several blades and bows hung up on the wall — it appeared to be some separate manor of a wealthy family’s.
Perhaps the only caused for celebration was that his eyes were not blindfolded at this time.
He sighed. “Blame my poor eyesight for not recognizing you before. You seem to have gotten on fine, Daoist Li… but should I be called you Daoist Li, Merchant Fang, or Chuyun-zi?”
Fang Huixue — or Li Zilong, it should be said — laughed at that. “We can really be said to have a karmic tie. Several times, we’ve met; it’s good that we didn’t end up missing this one.”
Although people were not be judged based on appearances, all humans were creatures of the mundane world. Who could really remained uninfluenced by outward appearances?
Tang Fan didn’t know what Li Zilong’s true appearance even was, but from these several meetings — whether he was Chuyun-zi or Fang Huixue — he had either the bearing of an immortal or a cultured cordiality, all characters that appeared as they were disguised. It other words, his appearance-changing technique not only changed his face, but his entire look. If he didn’t, with Tang Fan and Sui Zhou’s perception and caution, he would not have been completely unrecognizable.
Tang Fan shook his head. Wet hair plastered to his scalp, some pieces stuck to his cheeks, which made him quite uncomfortable. “How could having a tie with you not signify bad luck? That said, I hope we never have a destiny again.”
Using his speaking opportunity, he began to take in the environment surrounding him. In addition to Li Zilong and Ji Min, there were several black-clothed people, each holding a weapon and sharp-eyed, guarding every corner inside the hall.
He was well aware that even if he wasn’t tied up, he wouldn’t be getting out of here.
Li Zilong clearly knew that he couldn’t run, so he very generously allowed Tang Fan to look all around. “It’s been so long, and you’re still so witty. Reasonably speaking, we ought to have a nice, long reminiscence after being apart for so long, but I’m short on time. Thanks to you, most of the foundation I worked hard to create for so many years is ruined. I thought I would be able to come to Jiangxi and live the latter half of my life in peace, yet you chased me down here yet again. You really won’t go away, Sir Tang!”
The deeper his hatred for Tang Fan was, the softer his tone of voice became.
“Daoist Li, you saying so is a greatly false accusation,” Tang Fan said, sighing. “As you can see, me coming here this time had been to investigate the imperial exam fraud, which was far removed from you. I also didn’t provoke you of my own initiative. And yet, I’ve ended up tied up, while you instead say that I’m bothering you — does that have any logic? If I had known beforehand that I would meet you here, I wouldn’t have come even if I was beaten to death.”
Li Zilong smiled lightly. “Really? It’s good that you did, then. How else would I have witnessed your grace in judging cases like a god?”
Tang Fan smiled bitterly. “We’ve known each for so long, and know each other to the corse. Don’t poke fun at me, Daoist Li.”
Li Zilong stroked his beard, his other hand behind his back, and slowly walked a few steps to be in front of Tang Fan. He had just said that he didn’t have much time, yet now he was of the leisurely enough mind to drag him into some insignificant drivel. Seeing so, Tang Fan had something of a speculation. “Now that you’ve tied me up here, Daoist Li, what do you plan to do?”
“Can you guess?”
“No. It can’t be that you brought me here specifically to kill me, right? This Tang is an insignificant pawn; why bother going to this trouble?”
“You’re too modest. I heard you’re already at third-rank? That’s pretty quick. You would have been able to join the Cabinet in not too much of a time. If you weren’t here today, maybe you would turn into the Great Ming’s youngest Vizier, hm?” Li Zilong jested.
The man had fallen to this plight, his final layer of hidden identities as Fang Huixue getting revealed, and should have been antsy or stomping mad, but was still about to joke with Tang Fan. It had to be said that he held the slight bearing of a formidable hero.
What a shame it was that a world at peace did not need one of those.
Tang Fan shook his head. “I dare not think about that. If you have something urgent, you can go on and do it. No need to mind me.”
Li Zilong smiled playfully. “Why would I want to cast you aside, Sir Tang? In regards to our friendship, I’ll have to send you off to see the one you want to see?”
Tang Fan feigned surprise. “Who else would I want to see, apart from you?”
“Sui Zhou. Don’t you want to?”
“Is he also in your hands? Very nice, very nice. Have him come out now, lest he keep saying that I’m useless; this time, I can have a nice laugh at him,” Tang Fan said with a smile.
“Don’t be anxious. Didn’t that Sui guy go looking for the silver mine after hearing about it? That was actually fake news that I set free. The mine has long been emptied, but I left some good stuff for him. As long as he gets in when the times comes…”
Witnessing Tang Fan’s collected expression finally change a bit, Li Zilong couldn’t help but life, extremely gratified. “Tang Fan, I thought you would keep pretending until your death. So you can get scared!”
Tang Fan shook his head with a bitter smile. “It seems that I’m a failure as a person. Friends betraying me aside, even an old acquaintance like you has his heart set on having us die!”
Ji Min, standing nearby, remained expressionless, as if Tang Fan wasn’t talking about him.
“Truthfully, if you hadn’t killed my adopted son Li Man and ruined my good deals too many times, I wouldn’t be specifically making things hard for you,” Li Zilong instead comforted. “Buddhist thought teaches of karmic ties; good ties are bad ties are both ties. When all is said and done, we still have a tie.”
Tang Fan nodded, unsure of how to react. “You’re right.”
“Since we’re tied, and you owe me so much, if I want to take revenge by stabbing you a few times, you won’t mind, right?” Li Zilong asked warmly.
“If I say I do, will you change your mind?”
“Then it appears that I can only let you do as you may.”
Li Zilong wanted to say something, but saw someone rush in from outside. “Second-in-command, everything is ready!” they said, clasping their fist.
He nodded. “All of you keep drawing back in bits. I’ll come out in a quarter of an hour.”
Tang Fan inwardly sighed. If Li Zilong wanted to flee, he wouldn’t have bothered with him, a burden. It appeared that he would only be living for a quarter-hour more.
As expected, after the other party agreed and left, Li Zilong grinned at him. “Blame me for being unable to contain my joy meeting you, Sir Tang. We’ve been chatting for so long… I wanted to cut your flesh off bit by bit until you died in agonizing pain, but it’s too late for that now. Looks like I can only stab you a few casual times. Where do you want me to start?”
On the eve of his death, Tang Fan didn’t neglect to joke around. “Can you just stab me in the heart? I’m afraid of pain. Let’s solve everything with a single stab so that it won’t hold up your desperate escape.”
Confronted with someone like this, Li Zilong wasn’t sure if he should say that he was very brave, or brainless.
In reality, he felt not only pure hatred for Tang Fan, but an abundance of appreciation for someone of similar talents. Were their two sides not incompatible, he would have done everything he could to recruit Tang Fan, as, in his eyes, he was more of an outstanding talent than Li Man or Ji Min.
However, just like how Tang Fan knew Li Zilong could not be enlist and amnestied by the Court, Li Zilong knew that Tang Fan would not be persuaded.
“That won’t do. A stab to the heart will absolve you, but not my hatred.”
Shaking his head, while he spoke, Li Zilong took a dagger glittering with cold light from who-knew-where, and pierced Tang Fan’s thigh with it.
“Hng!” Tang Fan’s face instantly went pale, but his cry was not as loud as his previous speaking voice. That bored Li Zilong a bit, but he had long come to understand that beneath Tang Fan’s casual demeanor, he had bones harder than anyone else’s.
That was why, even if someone like him had a weakness, it would never be fame, profits, glory, or wealth. It was also why Li Zilong would never have been able to win over Tang Fan the same way he had won over others.
The dagger was stuck in so deeply, the majority of it was in. Blood gushed desperately out of the gap between the knife and his skin, dying a lot of Tang Fan’s lower robes red instantaneously. He clenched his jaw tightly, eyes shut, as transparent drops slid down from his temples; it was hard to tell if they were water or sweat.
At this moment, all Li Zilong would have to do was twist the hilt a bit to chew apart the muscle inside.
He didn’t do that — not because his hatred for him had gone down, but because he didn’t have enough time. Thus, he pulled the dagger back out, and pondered over whether to just kill him with the next stab, lest some adverse change occurred.
Blood spurted from the wound. Tang Fan was already limp on the chair, having no strength to talk glibly.
At that moment, Ji Min opened his mouth. “Second-in-command, everyone is waiting outside. You go on ahead, let this subordinate deal with him.”
Li Zilong raised a brow. “You’re not wanting to let him go, right?”
“Tang Runqing is a most crafty person. He’s just been delaying this whole time speaking with you; I suspect that he has some trick planned. You should take a preemptive step, I will do the hard wok.”
The other smiled coldly. “It’s not going to be that quick. Even in the Weining Sealet, I could still…”
Before he finished, two hawk cries sounded outside in quick succession.
Tang Fan raised his eyelids, having something of an impression of that sound. Back at the Sealet, Li Zilong had gotten away by relying on two massive hawks; they must have some additional scouting role in addition to being fierce.
Expectedly, Li Zilong’s expression changed. No longer caring about tang Fan, he went straight to the door, and someone happened to come in at right that time. “Second-in-command, those Court lackeys came out of nowhere, and had already fought their way in!”
Both alarmed and furious, Li Zilong couldn’t believe this. “How could they know where we are?!”
No one could answer that question, and he didn’t intend for anyone to.
“All of you go out and obstruct them! You must not let them take half a step in here!” he said to the black-clothed people in the hall.
Ji Min became worried. “Second-in-command, what do we do now?”
Li Zilong sneered. “What are you panicking for?! With all those people set up outside, even if they find this place, there’s no way they’ll be able to fight their way in so quickly.
“But…” Ji Min seemed to want to say something, looking helpless, which revolted Li Zilong.
Had it not been for the White Lotus Society’s personnel being too heavily damaged, leaving no one to use, he would not have placed someone like Ji Min by his side. Clearly, he had begun with treated him as no more than a pawn set to idle in Luling County; who could have known that he would be forced to start using even that disposable pawn, in the end?
On another side, he felt this rather strange. Once the Brocade Guard had split into two, one group had been allocated by Tang Fan to observe the Fang residence, while the other had followed Sui Zhou into the mountains, which Li Zilong had received news of. He was cautious everywhere he went in Luling County, never to repeat the same misstep and spoiling his efforts for want of one basket, which was why he had idly chatted with Tang Fan here — e had convinced himself that he was hidden so well here, no one would be able to find him. Why were Court lackeys attacking his door now, though?
He was in a rush and didn’t have time to think further on it, turning to stride toward Tang Fan with an intent to use him as a hostage. In that moment, he was grateful that he hadn’t hurried to kill this guy before, as he still had a use now. Having him as a meatshield, he predicted that no matter how nuts those Guards went, they would definitely be too afraid to openly shoot a third-rank official.
However, the instant he was about to grab Tang Fan, he suddenly went on the alert, twisted to the side, and dodged the dagger that was stabbed from behind him.
He kicked it out of Ji Min’s hand, swept out a palm, and immediately sent the other backwards, who knocked over a chair and landed on the ground, spitting up a mouthful of blood.
“You really are an ungrateful wolf that bites the hand that feeds you!”
Li Zilong had even more hate for people like Ji Min than those like Tang Fan, and now had to go give him his own stab. What he didn’t expect was for Tang Fan to break free of his bindings behind him, seize the dagger he had just kicked onto the ground, and thrust it at him.
Tang Fan had no intent to land it successfully; it was only for letting Ji Min flee in time.
After waking up here, he had realized that a piece of broken porcelain had come to be in his hands at some unknown point in time. Before this, his hands were tied behind him, and there had also been people keeping watch behind him, so he hadn’t dared to rashly expose this, only sawing through the rope after everyone had gone out.
The moment Ji Min had attacked Li Zilong, he understood that the porcelain must have come from Ji Min. No more words needed to be said right now — just like how Ji Min would elect to betray Li Zilong, he couldn’t just watch blankly as Ji Min died.
He had clearly overestimated himself, however. With Li Zilong’s skill, he would be more than a match for Sui Zhou or Wang Zhi, so how would these two be of any importance to him? It was only because Tang Fan still had some use that he hadn’t killed him prior to this. Seeing the other strike at him, he laughed coldly, as this was exactly what he wanted; he didn’t pay any mind to that dagger, grabbing Tang Fan’s shoulder and starting to drag him away.
Then, a figure darted over from the side, threw himself at him, and firmly held on.
“Go!” Ji Min hissed out.
He knew no martial arts and couldn’t match even one move of Li Zilong’s, but when he used all of his strength to hold on to him, the other’s punches and kicks couldn’t get him off.
Eyes brimming with hot tears, Tang Fan grit his teeth, but didn’t hesitate for a moment as he turned and ran out the door with all of his strength. He couldn’t allow Ji Min’s bravery become a joke.
Watching Tang Fan’s figure vanish beside the doorframe, Li Zilong became incensed, viciously palm-striking Ji Min’s body several times. The other kept spitting up fresh blood non-stop, yet still refused to let go, his nails deeply embedded into the other’s skin while he himself could feel nothing anymore.
After a short while, Li Zilong finally tore him off. Not bothering to find Tang Fan to be a hostage, he ran straight for the rear entrance.
However, when he was only a few steps away, the sound of cut air attacked the back of his head. He dashed to the side — an arrow flitted right past his ear, lodging halfway into the wall before him.
And, leaping up high behind him was someone hacking towards him with a spring-gilt sabre — it was Sui Zhou, who should have died in the mines!
No retreat, no escape. Li Zilong grit his teeth, obliged to draw out his flexible sword and fight.
Experts exchanged moves, the image of blades flashed. How fervent the battle was needed no mention.
Tang Fan had returned; not to watch the fight, but for the sake of Ji Min, who was lying there.
He had been struck by Li Zilong several times, his internal organs heavily damaged. Tang Fan didn’t dare to even bring him outside the hall, only able to move him to the nearest corner to avoid the fight, then carefully support his neck while he pat his cheek.
After calling out many times, Ji Min’s body slightly jolted, his eyelids forced open a gap. He appeared to want to say something, but his voice was too quiet. Tang Fan had to lean down to hear him.
The wound on his leg had only been haphazardly bandaged using his outer garment, blood still minutely flowing from it and his entire leg hardly able to move, but he had no spare time to care about all that. He even forgot his physical pain to hug him tight.
“Runqing…” he heard him say.
“I’m here! I’m here!” Tang Fan put his ear to the other’s lips, so that he could hear every word.
“My home… mom…”
Ji Min could no longer say complete sentences, only able to express himself in pieces, but how could Tang Fan not understand him? He picked up his unfinished words. “I know, don’t worry. I’ll take care of her.”
The other’s breath was weak. “And don’t… tell the court… that I-I relied on…”
Tang Fan gripped his hand tightly, as if afraid that as soon as he let go, he would completely disappear. His eyes were rimmed red, and he had to grit his teeth to swallow down the crying choke that was about to come up. “You did not rely on the White Lotus Society. Those demons captured you alongside me, and in order to catch their leader, you unfortunately died during your duty, which makes you a greatly meritorious subject that ought to receive the Court’s compensation! Not only that, but I will send a memorial to request that you be granted a posthumous title!”
Hearing that, there was slight gratification on Ji Min’s face, and a luster emerged in his eyes. His body regained a bit of strength, making his speech flow better. “Sorry. I really am jealous of you, but… I admire you, and like you, too…
“Back then… back then, when I was depressed, only… only you treated me the same as ever. If you don’t hate the idea, in our next life, we… we can be friends again…”
His pupils gradually dilated. He couldn’t say the whole sentence, his mouth agape and eyes remaining half-opened, looking to have had regrets.
Grieved, the tears Tang Fan had been holding back for a long time finally fell. When he had been stabbed in the leg by Li Zilong before, he hadn’t even grunted, but now, he could only let out anguished sobs.
On the other end, Li Zilong was anxious to get away, yet Sui Zhou was focused on his death. They had witnessed who was superior in their battling minds. Additionally, there were many Brocade Guards who were coming to control the situation outside the gates; Pang Qi and crew came in to lend a hand, tightly surrounding Li Zilong. While he panicked, Sui Zhou slashed him across the back, and Pang Qi fired off his long-prepared firearm from nearby, hitting him directly in the chest.
He opened his eyes wide, glaring dead at Sui Zhou whilst his body automatically slid down the wall.
He died with his eyes open.
No matter how awingly powerful and full of schemes he was, or how he could transform himself in so many ways and toy with hearts between his palms, he couldn’t escape the conclusion so much evil brought him.
Tang Fan paid no mind to the fight over there. He was still entrenched in the grief of his friend’s death, until a hand pressed down upon his shoulder.
“How did you escape, and how did you find this place?” Knowing who it was, he didn’t lift his head.
Sui Zhou voice was permeated with exhaustion. “We had already entered the mountain when I noticed something was weird, so we drew back in time. Right when we left the mountain, an explosion went off inside, making half of it cave in. Everyone was injured, but since we withdrew, no one died.”
He spoke in an understated manner, but how could Tang Fan not have heard how harrowing it had been? Had Sui Zhou noticed a little too late, or had less resolve, he estimated that they really would have to meet in other in the Yellow Springs below.
“It’s good that you’re okay,” he said hoarsely.
Sui Zhou’s hand tightened on his should, and he continued. “Due to that explosion, I worried that the enemy would lure the tiger out of its mountains, so I rushed back. When I returned to Ji’an, I learned the prefecture had turned into chaos, Xi Ming was dead in the county bureau’s rear hall, and Ji Min and yu were both missing. At the time, I found these on his stone table.”
He reached his hand out, spreading his palm open.
Tang Fan looked at it. “Water caltrops?”
Sui Zhou nodded. “A bunch of uneaten ones. After asking about it, I learned that this cultivar has a distinct sweet flavor and is only grown in an area near Luling County, and is considered a local commodity. I followed the trail to find you. This ought to have been a clue he prepared and left for me ahead of him.”
Tang Fan shut his eyes. His hand swept gently across Ji Min’s face, closing his eyes.
Pang Qi was ordering their subordinates to handle the aftermath. In spite of Li Zilong’s death, there were still many things that were unresolved, like the batch of White Lotus followers that were waiting at the rear entrance to pick Li Zilong up.
This manor was location in the outskirts of Luling, a little-known home under Fang Huixue’s name that was specifically used by him to conduct shady Society business that couldn’t come to the light. Who knew how many secrets were buried here that they need to dig up individually?
In addition to that, there were the silver mines that Li Zilong had excavated and that silvers’ whereabouts, how the Xu and Fang families’ should be dealt with, and what ‘divinity’ the great figure that had colluded with Li Zilong in the far-off palace actually was. That was a pile of things that they all had yet to figure out.
But, at this time, Tang Fan could only think, and only let out a long sigh. “I miss the capital a bit right now!”
He missed his big sis, missed Ah-Dong, missed his adorable nephew, missed the capital’s liveliness, missed the precious food that filled the eyes along all of the city’s streets and alleys.
“We can return soon,” Sui Zhou said.
The afternoon summer sunlight was brilliant, close to dazzling, shining on the entire courtyard outside so that it was without any shadows.
How lucky it is that I have him by my side, Tang Fan thought.
[End Arc 10: The Case of the Imperial Exams]