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It was autumn in the fifth year of the Qing calendar. The young eunuch Hong Zhu was holding onto a thick collection of documents. Struggling with the amount, his back hunched, he ran into the room of the western corner. His little feet dashed along the puddles of the soaked floor with no hesitation. The length of his robe had already been lifted and tied higher for greater mobility and to reduce the chance of tripping. His right hand atop the documents, he used the wide sleeves to umbrella the parchments he was delivering, for he was afraid that the grey skies could at any moment part and make way for another downpour.
He stepped through the door and handed over his regulation papers, and then performed a register check with the other eunuchs that had gathered there. Hong Zhu was relaxed and after carefully signing the documents, gave them over, too.
The office of the palace secretary was an important location that dealt with matters of a great deal, including the affairs of state. In comparison to the past, the office had grown in its relevance and significance. This is because there was no longer a prime minister to lead the six departments. The validity and acceptance of all decrees authored by the departments had to go through the prime minister before they went to the palace, but Lin Ruofu had already retired and returned to his hometown. The position of the office of the palace secretaryhad now garnered a lot of attention and the Emperor had invited many people there to work. The Emperor had called upon the presence of many chancellors there and put the location for their discussions outside the gate of the palace, where it would be easier for them to communicate.
Those who were now in charge of important matters of the imperial court, the palace secretaries, were a few senior chancellors and Shu the Scholar.
A chill wind blew across the plaza of the palace. Hong Zhu rubbed his hands together as he yawned where he stood, outside the door. He was there waiting for a few old men to stamp and return his documents. He could not yet leave, so he just stood there solemnly outside the door. His ears perked to the sounds coming from inside.
Sometimes, the occasional officer walked past him. Whenever they did, they politely nodded to him. Remembering his status, Hong Zhu would quickly return with a salute. No one thought it strange that Hong Zhu was standing outside the office of the palace secretary, for everyone was aware of his position.
Occasionally, the palace would send out a eunuch to come over and watch him. They were all polite and bowed before him greatly. They invited him to a room to stay warm. Hong Zhu didn’t show much appreciation or polite mannerisms to these younger eunuchs; he would just nod their way, disregard their suggestions, and remain outside.
He was only 16, but he held quite the position in the palace. The reason why was because the job he was appointed to complete each and every day in the palace was important. But the most important reason was because his surname was Hong. As such, a rumor occasionally circulated about him possibly being a relative of Old Eunuch Hong.
Hong Zhu touched the pimple on his lip once more and felt annoyed. In the past few days, the Overwatch Council had captured many people and because of this the officers were ceaselessly drafting new decrees. The palace secretary was growing increasingly noisier, as well. With more documents to deliver, he had been running up and down the palace all day. The toxins of his pimple had become too much and as he stood there, it popped. He was thinking that after he returned to the palace that evening, he would have to ask the kitchen staff to prepare for him some herbal tea.
The discussion inside the room was not that loud, but he could still hear what was being spoken.
"This is a task best appointed to the Overwatch Council. The Emperor has declined to oblige the decrees and has had them sent back; what is that supposed to mean?"
"Perhaps…" Following a pause, the voice picked up again. "Has the Emperor been of the mind to believe Fan Xian’s actions of late have been a bit excessive?"
An older chancellor with an angry voice harshly responded with, "It is more than excessive! Fan Xian is using his own power to beat down those that disagree with him. In but ten days, he captured five chancellors. He had his officers sneak into their manors at the dead of night to take them as they slumbered. This is not the behavior of the Overwatch Council; these are the brutish actions of a bunch of thugs with authority."
A voice that vehemently disagreed with what was spoken now interrupted. "Fan Xian is no sly, sniveling dog; he does things plainly for all to see. He does not hide things. These five officers were captured and a trial found them guilty of their charges the very next day. This was not done in secret, for a bulletin was posted in front of the Supreme Court, explaining the proceedings that had transpired. Any and all civilians were able to come and learn of these events. What Mister Yan said is far too much. The First Bureau of the Overwatch Council was authored to unearth corrupt officials; what does that have to do
with him attacking those who disagree with him? Those five chancellors were not doing their job as was originally bidden, and it was because of this they were found out, captured, and subsequently charged."
Old Chancellor Yan replied angrily, "Oh, you disagree that he does not beat down those who aren’t in favor of his ways? Then how come following the events of the Imperial Censorate’s attempt at framing him, there has been so much additional movement from the Overwatch Council?"
His interlocutor coldly laughed, and then said, "If this was about revenge, then how come he has kept clear of the Imperial Censorate? They are the ones who were responsible."
"It is because the Emperor is smart, and he has forbidden the Overwatch Council from having any interaction with them."
The man laughed coldly and replied with greater intelligence, "Then may I ask you of the connection between the Imperial Censorate and the Imperial Observatory? Can you explain to me why Fan Xian would go after the old goat who leads the Imperial Observatory?"
The Minister of Personnel, Yan Hangshu, was made speechless. It was a while before he responded, but when he did, he coldly said, "Whatever the case may be, we cannot allow the Overwatch Council to expand their influence as they have currently been doing. If their capturing spree continues, there will be no officers left!"
Mockingly, his debating foe responded, "Do not worry. The Overwatch Council lacks the authority to go after officers above rank three." These words weren’t entirely comforting, for it was a veiled jab at Yan. He was insinuating that the Minister of Personnel would not become a target, even though he was corrupt. His fear of the Overwatch Council potentially coming for him was undoubtedly what incited his wrath.
The anger in Yan Hangshu now had his voice elevated to the level of a blaring trumpet. Even Hong Zhu, who stood outside, could hear him. "This is ridiculous! Are you truly going to just sit back and watch the Overwatch Council become the boss?"
The person who first spoke before the argument between the two broke out now re-entered the fray of spiteful words as a peacemaker. "Lord Minister, there is no need to be mad. Mister Qin should not speak any further, either. The Overwatch Council can only investigate cases. They are not able to cast judgment or sentence anybody. These few chancellors…" he coughed and then lowly spoke, "guilty or not, still have to go on trial before the Supreme Court. The Emperor has made this abundantly clear that we three have to come to a decision."
The man who had now been identified as Mr. Qin said, "The concerns regarding the Overwatch Council are matters that should be handled by the Emperor himself. I am just a chancellor, and I have no further comment."
Yan Hangshu was fuming. He yelled, "I don’t think this can go on as it is! Allowing Fan Xian to run free like a wild dog; do you truly want this kingdom to have itself another Chen Pingping!?"
Hong Zhu continued to guard outside the door. He could hear the conversations unfold clearly. From the corners of his lips, a cold smile was developing, as he thought that the relationship between the Emperor and Chen Pingping was unlike anything they could anticipate.
Just at this time, the Bureau of Military Affairs’ councilor Qin Heng pushed the door open with a cold smile and stepped outside. Hong Zhu approached him and said, "Mister Qin, I am in a rush to get back to the palace. When will I receive the documents?"
Qin Heng was in his thirties. He was the son of General Qin of the Bureau of Military Affairs. Last year, when they fought against the northern Qi Kingdom, he was a leader of the Qing Kingdom’s armies. He was not qualified to participate in palace secretary affairs, but ever since General Qin’s punishment of lashing, he had been sick and not come to court since. In sympathy, the Emperor bid that his son Qin Heng visit the office of the palace secretary and take part in the discussions that were held there. It was a blessing to the Qin family, and it was a sign that the kingdom still valued its military.
General Qin of the Bureau of Military Affairs was sick and had not been to court because of this. People believed it was because the Qin family did not like seeing Fan Xian there, as boisterous as he was. But Hong Zhu knew this could not be the reason, for he had just heard him defend Fan Xian today.
Qin Heng looked upon the eunuch and laughed, saying, "Let them argue. In the end, I highly doubt anyone will go against the Emperor’s will. And as for you, you should not peep and listen in on us as much as you do. Even if I encouraged you, you still wouldn’t dare to tell anyone, would you? Why risk the possibility of inviting trouble upon yourself?"
Hong Zhu gave a nice smile. Seeing one of the most popular men in the military walk away left him confused, and so he shook his head.
Not long after, the argument inside the office of the palace secretary was brought to a close by Shu the Scholar. Every chancellor tactfully wrote their own opinions on the documents, and they each asked the Emperor whether or not he was sure about this. After all, the five chancellors who were captured did not have a
a high rank; but still, they were elders of the city. No one wanted to see their friends fall from grace, least of all at the hands of the Overwatch Council.
Hong Zhu had now been given his documents back. He lifted the length of his robe, used his sleeves to umbrella the documents and began running across the palace once more.
The route from the office of the palace secretary to the royal study chamber was forever under the watchful eye of the guards and as such, none would dare bring harm to the documents Hong Zhu was delivering. Along the way, an attractive maid stopped to bid him a fond greeting - one he ignored. The other eunuchs looked at him continue on with jealousy in their eyes, but he pretended not to notice.
He reached just outside the royal study chamber when he stopped to take a breather. He built up his gentle-looking composure and softly opened the door, putting down the documents upon the desk lightly.
The Emperor, who was reading the southern decree, was frowning. He picked up one of the documents and Hong Zhu watched his eyebrows tighten even further. After a little while, his lips moved to speak. "These are mere ordinary men. Shu the Scholar knows about it, and Yan Hangshu must have some guts… Hm. That kid from the Qin family is not bad, either."
Hong Zhu did not dare to listen to the Emperor. He stood aside with a pounding heart.
The Emperor gestured with his hand.
Hong Zhu was brought relief when bidden to depart the royal study chamber, for it meant his duties for the day were over. He followed the blue stone path and took a few turns every now and again until he arrived at the Taiji Palace. In this place, there were a few eunuchs in the process of breaking melon seeds. Seeing him approach, they bid him to come over and sit with them. One of them asked, "Did anything interesting happen today?"
Hong Zhu was annoyed and said, "Nothing much. Nothing of great intrigue can come from listening to old men argue over trivial matters."
The eunuchs quickly spoke complimentary words before saying, "You go back and forth between the royal study chamber and the office of the palace secretary every day. All these important matters of the kingdom unfold right below your nose, so it is no wonder you may not think they are special."
Hong Zhu may be arrogant, but he still had the vigilance to respond quickly and gravely: "What are you talking about? I am just a servant!"
One of the eunuchs laughed and said, "Aside from the Emperor, all of us, officers included, are servants. Hong Zhu, even if you were famous, you would have no idea. Even if the worthless sorts who took to stitching outside the palace were to say that they knew of you, people would think of them in a different way. In this capital, aside from Fan Xian over on Minister Lane, you are to be the second one."
Hong Zhu reached out his hands to smooth his bangs and smiled, not saying anything more. Although he knew that he could not compare with Fan Xian, people always enjoyed boot-licking praise and for them to make mention of him being comparable to Fan Xian was an overwhelming delight. In his heart, he began to feel cocky.
At this time, a shadow hovered past the door to the room they were in. In an instant, each eunuch closed their mouth. Hong Zhu’s heart jumped as well, seeing that it was Eunuch Dai, who was a subordinate of Imperial Consort Shu. Although he accepted the task of delivering documents, he was far below the prestige of Eunuch Dai in terms of rank.
Once Eunuch Dai had walked far enough, one of the eunuchs in the room spat on the floor, believing it to be ridiculous how they each and all went silent on his behalf. He harshly spoke, "This Eunuch Dai is nothing compared to what he used to be. It was because my mind was absent, but seeing him like this, there is no cause for us to be afraid of him."
Hong Zhu’s heart jumped and simply asked, "Why?"
The other eunuch’s eyebrows raised, and he responded, "A while ago, the Imperial Censorate attempted to frame Fan Xian. They even got Eunuch Dai involved. Although the Emperor called for the censors to be punished, Eunuch Dai received punishments as well. I heard a rumor that his entitlement to deliver decrees had been stripped. Even Lady Shu wanted to have him kicked out of the palace."
Another one of the eunuchs wanted to flatter Hong Zhu as well. "When Eunuch Dai was still popular, he frequently yelled and beat up others who were below him. But now that he has lost his position, who should care about him? He is little more than an autumn leaf that has fallen to the mud. He is nothing compared to you, Hong Zhu. You are a freshly budded leaf upon a mighty tree."
Hong Zhu heard these words of extreme flattery and felt it to be unbearable and rude. With a frown, he casually spoke a few words and then departed.
He walked alongside the big pillars of the palace and now he stood before the gate of the Emperor’s harem. He saw Eunuch Dai there, and his shadow looked to be one of dejection. He quickly ran towards him and said, "Eunuch Dai, I could you see
you see from afar. I have come here to greet you."
Eunuch Dai was surprised and looked at Hong Zhu. These days, very few of the little bastards in the palace would show the kind courtesy that he did. He knew that Eunuch Zhu had spent much time in the royal study chamber and now his popularity was to receive a major boost. As such, he found it strange that he held onto such pleasantry.
Hong Zhu did not make mention of why he had come, he just used his complimentary words to please him. It made Eunuch Dai happy, and following this, they both departed.
Seeing Eunuch Dai disappear inside the harem, the young Hong Zhu had a boisterous-looking smile.
People thought that Eunuch Dai would lose his position, but Hong Zhu did not believe this. Because Eunuch Dai had a relation with Fan Xian outside the palace, it was only a matter of time before we would return to his feet. Hong Zhu did not have much faith in Eunuch Dai, but for Fan Xian, he held an immeasurable amount of trust.
Everyday Hong Zhu could hear the discussions taking place between those in the royal study chamber and the office of the palace secretary, and it was through them that he learned much of what he knew about Fan Xian and his popularity. The First Bureau of the Overwatch Council captured five officers in as little as ten days, but the Emperor remained neutral the entire time, despite how much the palace secretary complained. They couldn’t do anything to Fan Xian.
Five chancellors in ten days. Although they were all below rank three, for a eunuch in the harem, Hong Zhu knew that to make such a big fuss, Fan Xian must have possessed a lot of power. And behind him, a legion of followers. Hong Zhu was always in the royal study chamber, so he was aware of the Emperor’s own support of him.
Hong Zhu was playing with a pimple that was ready to burst, skirting his lips. He greatly admired the Fan Xian who was so very much adored outside of the palace. But seeing as they were both young men, he pondered as to why there was such a great difference between them. There was nothing more that he wanted right now than to establish a relationship with him through Eunuch Dai.
The Imperial Observatory and the Ministry of Appointments lost five officers one after another, and the darkness brought by the Overwatch Council felt as if it were beginning to veil the entire capital.
But the civilians of the capital did not care for these matters all that much. The ones who were in trouble were the officers, who had little to do with them.
In the political field, the reviews given towards the First Bureau of the Overwatch Council were mostly negative. Aside from the fact they were killing their own, there were other issues few were privy to. No officer could understand why the young Fan Xian would commit such deeds to officers of little repute.
Aside from a few people, no one knew that the people who had been captured were pivotal pawns that belonged to the second prince.
A lot of people believed Fan Xian to harness a vendetta due to the Imperial Censorate’s framing of him, but he was given a direct order from the Emperor to stay away from them. People viewed Fan Xian like a madman who had been provoked, holding a large knife as he scoured the streets slicing innocent bystanders and children, doing anything he could to quell the raging fire of his heart.
But… Fan Xian’s behavior in the past couple of years weren’t reckless like this.
Fan Xian was smiling as he sat in the Xinfeng Restaurant. His right-hand was holding chopsticks, stirring the tantalizing noodles and meat sauce. In his left hand, he held a scroll that had been delivered by Mu Tie. The trials for the past few cases had concluded very quickly, and so he was given the opportunity to prepare himself. The evidence that the First Bureau had come into possession of was inscrutable and decisive. It looked like sending the evidence to the Supreme Court and Ministry of Justice would yield no issues.
Before this entire thing began, Fan Xian noticed that his father and the crippled old man remained silent. It was because of this that Fan Xian knew where they both stood. This was a matter that he could not hide from; he had to do it. He had to make the second prince feel pain and make him think twice about listening to Xinyang again. At the same time, Fan Xian could reduce trouble for himself.
But the second prince’s reaction was different to what Fan Xian had expected. After he kicked He Zongwei out of his manor, he hadn’t sent anybody else over to make peace. It seemed as if the pride of being a prince stayed his desire for further contact. With no retaliation of any kind, the entire situation felt strange.
"What is this Baoyue Brothel?" Fan Xian curiously asked.
Mu Tie’s face possessed a slightly horny look.
Fan Xian laughed and said, "You are too old for this. Go home and hug your grandson; do not think of such things."
Mu Tie’s face became slightly bitter, and then he said, "Baoyue Brothel is a brothel. It was newly established this year. The First Bureau has come to learn that this building has a certain important character behind it. There is much going on much going on there, and something ill is brewing behind its closed doors."
Fan Xian was uninterested in the business of a brothel, and Liujing River was crown prince Li Hongcheng’s territory. Although he was fighting with the second prince in secret, he did not want to start a fight with Li Hongcheng just yet. The both of them were friends, and who could tell what might transpire if he was to join in?
But with further interest in what Mu Tie was trying to tell him, he pressed a little by asking more.
With a concerned look, one that displayed a delicate choosing of words, he said, "That brothel is evil. The people there are restless and they are willing to commit any heinous act in the chase of profit. In the few months of its operation, many women who have worked there have shown up dead. Yet despite this, the capital government has remained silent about the entire affair. I fear that a prince may be behind it all."
Fan Xian fell silent. He didn’t know if the Baoyue Brothel was the work of the crown prince or the second prince, but the former was the sort who only enjoyed fighting men of equal caliber. He had recently returned from war and the Emperor had granted him much in the ways of reward; it did not seem as if he was the sort who cared for money-making.
In the situation he was in, it was impossible for him to go about offending everyone. He thought that this sort of establishment may have been the work of the second prince; it at least seemed more likely. With a calm expression, he told Mu Tie, "Find some time to go out there and investigate. We need to know more, and if that high-end whorehouse was a way for a prince to make contact with the officers of court, then we may need to plant some bugs on the inside."
Mu Tie shook his head and said, "The security there is pretty tight, and it is newly opened. It may be difficult to infiltrate. Furthermore, the Overwatch Council can only watch over the officers. There is little we can do to the merchants of the city."
Fan Xian looked slightly annoyed, and so he looked at him and said, "Although the Overwatch Council cannot deal with prostitutes, we can deal with the Yamen who take care of them. Just go take a look."
There was something further that he did not tell Mu Tie. He knew that the second prince was too quiet and too nice, but Fan Xian always believed him to hold a trump card up his sleeves and that he was merely waiting for the right moment before its use.
After the business, Fan Xian did not return to the manor. He had a headache and yet he had to go straight to King Jing Manor.
Today, the whole Fan Family was visiting King Jing’s manor.
It was King Jing’s birthday, but he had not invited anyone else except the family of Fan Jian. The sort of relationship and friendship they both shared were quite profound. Although Fan Xian had no desire of seeing Li Hongcheng, he had little choice but to go.
Walking into the manor, the first thing Fan Xian thought of was about what happened one and a half years ago. He was reading aDu Fu poem near the lake. And when he was done, there was to be a feast in the manor where Zhuang Mohan was spilling blood. It seemed as if so much had transpired around this elegant, seemingly quiet manor.
Fan Xian all of a sudden turned his thoughts to the precious books in that carriage. After he sent the books to the Imperial College as a gift, he had not yet received the opportunity to go and read them. As he thought of this, Li Hongcheng already approached with a bowl of sour juice in one hand.
Fan Xian’s heart sighed. He accepted the drink and took a sip. He then said, "You know I like to drink the juice that is produced in your manor." The first time he visited King Jing Manor, he was getting sick from his travel in the carriage. He was given a bowl of the sour juice back then to help him recover, and it was most effective. He had loved it ever since.
Li Hongcheng looked him in the eye and shook his hand, saying, "You are the Commissioner of the Overwatch Council now. You can capture whoever you please. Why can’t you capture the juice merchant outside my manor so that he can produce the sour juice exclusively for you?"
Fan Xian understood the jest and with a wry smile and bitter laugh, he responded, "I thought that I wouldn’t be able to escape this today. When you approached me with the sour juice, I thought you were going to throw it in my face."
Li Hongcheng harrumphed. He walked alongside Fan Xian and said, "You know that I am still mad?" He looked at Fan Xian and continued, "It’s not just that I don’t understand, but it’s that my brother does not understand, either. You are not with the eldest prince, so why do you care so much?"
Fan Xian shook his head and gave a wry smile. "You think that I enjoy offending everyone I meet? My hand was forced."
After that, Fan Xian pointed to the heavy clouds of that autumn day. There were many things he wished to tell him.