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"I'm going to your house to see Wan'er," said Ye Ling'er. She looked at Miss Shen standing beside her as she said this, though snorted and said nothing
Fan Xian didn't much like her naturally carefree arrogance, but as he was not one to judge others, he decided not to say anything. He retained a respectful air, and though Ye Ling'er was accepting of this, she knew from their interactions over the past year she that he was the kind of man who paid attention to detail. She smiled. "Don't worry. I know you're a big shot in the Overwatch Council now. A woman in a nice house isn't likely to come out onto the street."
Fan Xian laughed and said nothing. It was then that the crowd in front of them seemed to disperse as the Ye family's carriage made its way through before stopping. It seemed that Ye Ling'er had discovered something worth looking at.
Fan Xian waved a hand, signaling for the carriage to continue on. After he came up to the Ye family's carriage, he put on his raincoat, and Deng Ziyue and a number of other members from Wang Qinian's team followed close behind.
In the carriage, Ye Ling’er saw that they were all wearing black raincoats and walking through the rain, and finally realized that Fan Xian was not merely passing through Dengshikou, but had specifically come to Dengshikou to handle matters.
Every day, Dai Zhen of the Dengshikou Produce Inspectorate would wait for fruits and vegetables to come in from outside the city, ascertain their quality, then divide them up for selling. He also saw to the daily food orders for the royal court and the great families of the city. Specifically, he was a kind of kitchen porter for the noble families of Qing, though he had a wide range of responsibilities. One stick of celery was not worth anything, but a hundred sticks of celery were. A single egg was worth nothing, but a hundred eggs were enough for Yishi Tavern to turn into a feast.
The Produce Inspectorate was not considered a government office; it had no rank, and because of the many different places it served, it did not even have a supervisory office above it. Perhaps the officials paid it no attention because they felt there were no ill-gotten gains from delivering food in the city. In fact, Fan Xian was quite aware that new policies regarding this form of production had been put in practice from time to time over the past few years and were occasionally left unfinished. His Majesty was simply fooling around, and this subordinate structure was thoroughly disordered and redundant.
Dai Zhen was head of the Produce Inspectorate. Over the past few years, he had gained a steady supply of cash from eggs and vegetables. He presumed that he was the only one who knew just how much profit could be made from such unremarkable things. Often, in the middle of the night, he would laugh to himself in bed. Even when his most beloved concubine urged him daily to ask his uncle for a decent, honorable position in the bureaucracy, he said nothing.
It was marvelous. He was probably the first person in all of history to have made such a profit from selling vegetables. Dai Zhen couldn't help but consider himself a genius.
But today was the day that he would cease to be so pleased with himself. In the autumn rain, the personnel of the First Bureau of the Overwatch Council had come to shut down his pitiful little department, and were blocking the way to Datong Lane. Datong Lane was where the peddlers sold their groceries, and it was where a third of the city's food was purchased daily.
He face was ashen as he rushed into his office and saw those devils in black clothing inside. He patted his cheeks to make his smile seem softer. "So the men of the First Bureau are here. As it is mid-autumn, we have a number of rare fruits on offer. Perhaps I can offer them as a gift..."
Today, the person heading the case at the First Bureau was Mu Feng'er. He knew that this action today had been part of a demonstration by Commissioner Fan, and he dared not be negligent. He looked at Dai Zhen and spoke coldly. "Master Dai, come with us, please."
The officials of the First Bureau had already confiscated his accounts. They began picking out people in the street based on the names on their register and escorted them into their carriages outside.
The autumn rains were still falling. Dai Zhen felt colder and colder. He smiled apologetically. "I'm no 'master'. Perhaps you are mistaken, Master Mu." He customarily slipped a banknote into Mu Feng'er's sleeve.
Mu Feng'er looked at him and felt slight pity for the man. Could it be that he had not heard that Commissioner Fan was now heading up the First Bureau? Two stone-faced officers came up from beside him and kicked Dai Zhen in the back of the knee, forcing him to the ground. They took rope from around their waists and bound his hands tightly in one swift move. It seemed that the First Bureau had been doing that sort of thing a lot that year.
Dai Zhen fell to the floor, his thoughts in disarray. There was a sharp pain in his wrists, and he was both ashamed and furious. Finally, he could hold back no longer. "What are you doing?!" he shouted, cursing them.
Mu Feng'er gripped the object in his breast pocket and thought for a moment before deciding not to take it out. "This is official business, and we ask for your co-operation, Master Dai."
Dai Zhen panicked, his eyes swiveling around the room. "Help!" he yelled in a loud voice. "The Overwatch Council are trying to kill me for my money!"
When the First Bureau team had rushed in through the rains to raid the Produce Inspectorate, the people of Qing, always fond of a good scene, had already gathered around. But fearing the black-clad men of the Council, the commoners did not dare get any closer. Now captured, the once-arrogant Dai was a sorry sight indeed. He was fearful, and though the hired thugs that he had hired in secret were roused by his cries, the Overwatch Council blocked their path.
Dai Zhen's hands were bound, and his heart was beating fast. He knew that when the Overwatch Council made a move, nothing could make them stop. He howled for his life. "The Overwatch Council want to kill me for my money!" In truth, he was truly distraught. For a moment, he couldn't think of doing anything but shouting those words. He hoped that his uncle in the palace would hear the news as soon as possible and intervene before he was taken to their terrifying prison.
Looking at the excited crowd outside, Mu Feng'er frowned. He took out a document from his breast pocket, and read out Dai Zhen's crimes aloud to the people.
The workers and common people of the city all believed in the government and trusted them. After all, everyone knew that Dai Zhen's hands weren't clean in the slightest. But as the crowds gathered, it became harder for them to leave. The First Bureau had only sent a handful of men, and seizing the accounting books and gathering testimonies seemed rather difficult.
Looking on the scene, Mu Feng'er felt rather angry, but he glanced in the distance beyond the crowd and saw two carriages that were over to one side. A group of unfamiliar colleagues from the Council were escorting Commissioner Fan, dressed in rain clothes. He peered through the heavy rain, and his heart pounded.
"Go!" he yelled.
Dai Zhen's hands were tied. He knew that the Overwatch Council's prison was a place that officials could not go to. His face reddened as he howled himself hoarse. He was like a child throwing a tantrum, laid out on the floor and absolutely unwilling to leave.
His henchmen had gathered around outside. Although they wouldn't dare lay a finger on the men of the Council, they forcefully blocked them from returning back with their detainee.
As the rains fell, Fan Xian glanced at the scene on the not-so-distant stone steps, making a silent evaluation of Mu Feng'er's capability. He heard Ye Ling'er's curious voice come from the carriage behind him. "Sir, the work that you Council men are doing seems rather absurd. Hassling a minor official in broad daylight. What’s next? If the commoners see what you are doing, then how will that reflect on the royal court?"
The rain beat down upon Fan Xian's rain hat. The droplets fell down from the brim, hiding his face.
"If an official does not care for his reputation, there is no reason why the royal court should cover for them," he said calmly. "Ling'er, despite being just a minor official, he can graft 5,000 taels of silver from the palace in the span of a year. As for the profits he's made on Datong Lane in the past few years, who can say?"
Ye Ling'er was by the carriage window, and the rain water had soaked the hair on her forehead. There was a look of interest in her eyes. She had been planning to enjoy herself at Fan Manor today; she hadn't expected to run into Fan Xian, and certainly hadn't expected them both to be witness to such a scene. She finally realized that a petty official could still make off with a large amount of money.
At that moment, and with great difficulty, Mu Feng'er's men finally fought their way out of the Produce Inspectorate, approaching Fan Xian and dragging the miserable Dai Zhen with them through the heavy rains.
The thugs who had encircled them seemed to have caught sight of the strength and power that those two carriages represented and did not dare rush forth. As for the commoners, seeing Fan Xian and Deng Ziyue's uniforms, they seemed to sense the chilling air that emanated from the two men, and unthinkingly retreated.
Dai Zhen was still a forceful petty official. His official's garments were already soaked through by the dirty rainwater. His hair was scattered across his round face, and he looked truly exhausted, yet he still scolded them ferociously. "You Council men, you take what we have, and you still want more? And now you want to torture my money out of me!"
When the ignorant masses surrounding them heard his words, there was a sudden look of realization on their faces.
Fan Xian lowered his eyes and looked at the official who struggled before him, flailing his legs like a tied-up hog about to be slaughtered. He was not concerned about getting him to shut up, because the common people had always seen the Overwatch Council as a shadowy organization. Even if Dai Zhen cursed them all day long, it wouldn’t have any effect on the situation. And today was simply a trial run; the main objective was seeing how his subordinates handled affairs.
Seeing a look of shame and uneasy anger on Mu Feng'er's face, Fan Xian shook his head. "Why did you not choose to capture him at home, in the middle of the night? Although it's raining today, you knew that Datong Lane would be full of people, and the whole scene could easily descend into chaos."
Mu Feng'er was stunned. The new regulations were clear - from now on, cases were to be handled out in the open as much as possible, so they had chosen to arrest him at his office. If things were as before, then of course they would have taken him in the middle of the night. How was this his fault?
Fan Xian did not wait for him to explain. "Even if you had done it in the middle of the day, you could have closed up his office and left immediately. Could you not have let him quietly come with you to the Council? What use were your methods? Reading out an official record of his crimes. Did you think you were bureaucrats from the Supreme Court? Do I have to specially employ a clerk to follow around after you make official proclamations?"
Hearing his harsh words, Mu Feng’er grumbled. On the one hand, Dai Zhen had some serious support behind him, and they feared the possible consequences of making a chaotic scene. On the other hand, he worried that the commissioner, as a gifted scholar, would look poorly on their usual cloak-and-dagger methods.
Although the commissioner was known as an immortal of poetry, it seemed that that did not contradict the secretive methods of the Council. Hearing Fan Xian's mockery, it seemed he felt even more strongly about them than Mu Feng'er did.
At that moment, Dai Zhen let out another howl as he lay face down on the wet ground. His eyes were covered by the mud, but he saw a glimpse of who Mu Feng'er was reporting to. He knew that this was a major figure in the Council, and he couldn't help but feel afraid. He didn't recognize Fan Xian, but he recognized Ye Ling'er in the carriage behind him. Ye Ling'er was the only daughter of the Commander of Defense. Ever since she was a child, she had enjoyed riding on horseback through the city streets. There were very few of the city's denizens who could not recognize her.
Dai Zhen immediately cried out to the young woman in the carriage. "Lady Ye, please, help..."
Ye Ling'er looked at Fan Xian's strangely calm face. She did not dare say a word, and abruptly pulled her head back inside the carriage.
Dai Zhen knew that he was done for, and finally played his trump card. "Do you know who my uncle is?" he yelled. "How dare you arrest me! My uncle is... ugh!"
Seeing Fan Xian signal with his eyes, Deng Ziyue knew that he did not want to hear Eunuch Dai's name spoken aloud, and wanted him muzzled.
At that point, Mu Feng'er understood, and somewhat shamefully took from his breast pocket a small wooden stick, both ends tied with rope, and crudely placed it in Dai Zhen's mouth. The stick was stiff, and tore at the corners of Dai Zhen's mouth, leaving him unable to speak, with blood dripping from both corners of his lips.
The people around them were shocked. Fan Xian paid them no attention. "I don't care who his uncle is," he said, speaking to Mu Feng'er. "I only care who your uncle is. Do your job well. Don't bring shame upon Mu Tie."
Mu Feng'er let out a slight grunt of shame in response and hauled the bloody-faced Dai Zhen to the carriage. His subordinates had caught a number of the thugs who had hidden themselves in the crowd, and they turned around and beat them fiercely to the ground with his Council-issued truncheon, not giving them a chance to resist.
Seeing him lay blows upon them, the gathered commoners were filled with fear, and immediately and loudly dispersed. Once they had reached a safe distance by the corner of the street, they turned around to watch curiously once more.
Through the rain, all they could see were a few agents of the Council dressed in raincoats, brandishing sticks, their faces cold as they beat a number of men on the ground. The men did not dare fight back, perhaps due to the power the Overwatch Council had amassed over the years.
It was a rather bloody sight.
Fan Xian looked at the commoners who had been watching the spectacle from a distance, and imperceptibly shook his head. Yet what surprised them was the fact that he did not return to his own carriage, but lifted his hat and went directly into Ye Ling'er's carriage.
Ye Ling'er was shocked. How could a man so brazenly enter her carriage?
Fan Xian pretended not to have realized this. He looked at Ye Ling'er's slightly damp hair, hesitated, then pulled a handkerchief out of his breast pocket and handed it to her. Ye Ling'er took it and dried off her damp hair. She could smell a slight perfume on the handkerchief, and presumed that it was Wan'er's. She smiled, then asked him what all that earlier business had been about.
Fan Xian laughed bitterly and told her all about Dai Zhen's circumstances. "Such a trifling matter," she asked curiously. "Why did you have to see to it personally?"
Fan Xian sneered. "The water is deep in the capital. Despite Dai Zhen being just an official who sells vegetables, he's managed to steal quite a lot. The reason he's so brazen is because he's got support. His uncle is Eunuch Dai of the palace. I'm overseeing all this today because I'm afraid that my subordinates might move too slowly and allow Eunuch Dai to catch wind of things. If I didn't get involved, the First Bureau would have no way of catching the man inside the palace."
Ye Ling'er looked into his gleaming eyes. "My father once said that matters are most complicated inside the palace. He told us never to get involved. You're quite brave."
"It's just a eunuch; nothing more." Fan Xian smiled. Eunuchs had no rights anyway.
Ye Ling'er shook her head disapprovingly. "Don't underestimate the palace eunuchs. They have their own masters, and if you make them lose face, you will also cause the palace concubines to lose face."
Fan Xian was somewhat stunned. It seemed that the thought had only now occurred to him. A moment later, the smile returned to his face. "And why should I fear that? I don't much care for Wan'er going to the palace and acting as a go-between. If the concubines find me troublesome, then as a Prince Consort, at worst I'll get a slap on the wrist from the palace and nothing more."
Ye Ling'er cocked her head to one side and looked at this fearless young man, unsure of what he was thinking.
The carriage reached the gate of Fan Manor, and the two of them got out. Teng Zijing was waiting outside. Fan Xian told him to tell his wife to make space for young Miss Shen in the rear house. He then led Ye Ling'er into the manor, not without forgetting to take his handkerchief back from her.
The handkerchief had been stolen from Haitang. And Fan Xian wasn't willing to give it away.
Eunuch Dai was the favorite of Imperial Consort Shu, and Ye Ling'er would immediately become the concubine of the next Emperor, which meant that Concubine Shu was essentially her future mother-in-law. Ye Ling'er would also immediately become the liege of Eunuch Dai. Fan Xian had gossiped with Ye Ling'er before regarding these relationships. He wasn't willing to give her the handkerchief, but he had to use it where he could.
The rain fell on the capital all day long, though had somewhat subsided by sunset. Having received the news, a flustered Eunuch Dai hurried out of the palace.
He was a popular figure within the palace. Because Imperial Consort Shu was a woman of outstanding literary talent, she often helped the Emperor compose works, and she took Eunuch Dai along with her. He also had the responsibility of sending imperial edicts - when Fan Xian first learned that he was to be named Functionary of Taichang Temple, the decree was issued by Eunuch Dai, and there were a number of benefits related to this. Now he could enter and leave the palace regardless of the rules, and no one would dare complain.
Eunuch Dai stood in the doorway of the Produce Inspectorate, his face red. He looked at the mess inside and heard the shrieking of the people around him. Anger rose up within him, and he pointed a scolding finger at his nephew's subordinates. "I already told you! The other government offices in the city aren't worth a damn, but when the Overwatch Council come knocking, you better lick their damn boots!"
One man clutched his half-swollen face, sobbing. "My lord, normally we gladly hand out money. Today, the boss handed a banknote to the man from the First Bureau. Who knew they were going to follow their instructions to the letter?"
Eunuch Dai's rage made his whole body tremble. "Who would dare humiliate us like that!? Who are these scoundrels? I shall find Mu Tie...How dare they cross the Dai family!"
He was a eunuch of the palace. The Overwatch Council had no right to interfere with him, and he was confident in saying so. Filled with rage over this humiliation, he took a sedan chair to the First Bureau and find the person responsible. Though his nephew Dai Zhen was a good-for-nothing, he had still sent plenty of money his way over the years. He could not simply stand by and watch as he was beaten half to death by the Council's men. Everyone in the bureaucracy knew that when you entered the Council, the only way you could leave would be missing a few vital parts.
The sedan chair came to the gate of the office of the First Bureau. Though Eunuch Dai was filled with doubt, he was determined. First, he asked a footman to go inside and make inquiries. A moment later, the footman returned and whispered something in his ear. Eunuch Dai's face immediately changed. He paused for a long time, then spoke through gritted teeth. "Go back to the palace."
Covered in bruises from head to toe, a thug saw Dai's sedan chair return to the palace. For a moment he was alarmed. Unable to approach the gate of the First Bureau, he yelled after him. "My lord, you must seek justice for us!"
Eunuch Dai was a cunning man indeed. His experience in making proclamations had trained his tongue in the art of speaking carefully. He spat out some phlegm which just happened to land on the man's face, and his voice quivered as he spoke. "I am a eunuch! Not a judge!"
Having said this, he retreated to his sedan chair, feeling thoroughly uneasy. The footman had made it clear. The person in charge of today's operation was none other than Master Fan!
At that moment, Eunuch Dai realized that the Emperor had already given Fan Xian control of the First Bureau... but why had young Master Fan chosen to target his nephew? Eunuch Dai knew full well that his nephew was corrupt, but when it came to the scale of corruption in the capital's bureaucracy, he was little more than an ant in comparison.
He had no idea that Fan Xian simply wanted to train his men and open up the market. Yet he presumed it had something to do with him, and when he thought of the Fan family's considerable power, Eunuch Dai's blood ran cold.
Watching the sedan chair pass by, Dai Zhen's hired thug dimwittedly wiped the disgusting spittle from his face. He couldn't understand it. Who was Eunuch Dai so afraid of?
A few days later, Eunuch Dai sought out an opportunity. He brought up the matter in front of Lady Shu, hoping that she could intervene on behalf of his nephew and pass on any news to him. To his surprise, Lady Shu had already somehow learnt of it, and was thoroughly aware of his nephew's situation. She was thoroughly determined to have him punished.
At that moment, Eunuch Dai realized that Fan Xian had somehow already blocked any way for him to take alternative action. Filled with shock and fear, he gave up on any hope of retaining his dignity, and rushed to Yi Guipin's chambers in a shameless attempt to curry favor with her. He hoped to use her connection with Lady Liu to quietly transfer money to Fan Manor.
Meanwhile, Mu Feng'er, who was in charge of the case, was racking his brains. He looked at Dai Zhen, who had yet to be transferred to the Celestial Prison, and felt a certain frustration. It was this this no-good wheeler-dealer who had caused him to lose face in front of Commissioner Fan, and yet Commissioner Fan had ordered that this ruffian was not to be punished. Why? He felt the purse of silver coins hanging from his belt with his hand, and couldn't help but grumble.