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After some more exchanges of pleasantries, Pan Bin got up to take his leave. Right before their departure, Tang Fan said to Zheng Ying, “Marquis, this matter is beyond the norm. For the sake of convenient examination, we hope to be able to take away the body of the good Don.”
Zheng Ying’s brow furrowed tight. He was evidently not too pleased. “Is there no other way?”
“To discover the cause of his death, this is where we need to start.”
“He’s the eldest son of I, Marquis Wu’an. How could he be treated the same as an ordinary man? His body will be kept at the Estate, and his displayed coffin will immediately be buried on the seventh day.”
The implication being: if you can’t find out the truth within seven days, my son won’t be able to wait that long, and will have to be buried.
Before Tang Fan could answer, Pan Bin said, “Of course, of course. The dead take priority, and it’s good for him to be buried and at rest. Restrain your grief and go along with fate, Marquis. We’ll take our leaves first, then.”
“Marquis,” Tang Fan said, “that maid named Ah-Lin, according to regulations, will also need to be taken to Shuntian Prefecture.”
Zheng Ying said nothing this time, bluntly waving his hand to have someone bring her and hand her over to a bailiff.
As soon as they left the Estate, Pan Bin scowled and scolded Tang Fan. “Runqing, you’ve really been too impulsive about things today!”
Tang Fan had a look of innocence. “Where did that come from, Sir?”
“You shouldn’t have said the latter of those words to him right then. Is there ultimately another reason for Zheng Cheng’s death? Well, that’s ultimately, too, nothing more than your speculation. What happens when you figure something out? Tell me, why did your attitude change so badly when he saw us off? He’s merely afraid that the killer is wading in his residence; at the time of his son’s death, he might have even been in contact with them.”
Tang Fan sighed. “Sir, if we sit back and observe without a care, I fear that will lead to a miscarriage of justice.”
Pan Bin was quite annoyed, thinking to himself, I gave you all these pointers, how do you still not get it? Zheng Ying’s own son died, and even he hopes to downplay this big event into something minor, so why would we work so hard for no reason? Furthermore, the Emperor will certainly have the thought to look after Zheng Ying’s feelings out of sensitivity for a meritorious official. If the Prefecture actually does uncover something at that time, it’ll only offend people.
Tang Fan was a bit exasperated, as well. Shuntian Prefects were truethird-rank officials, no matter what one said, but Pan Bin was very timid, even being overcautious when investigating a murder case. It was little wonder that this gentleman had worked for so many years, yet hadn’t been able to rise further up from start to finish.
The two had dilly-dallied in the Estate for more than half the night, and when they came out, the morning drums had recently been struck outside, the number of early-rising pedestrians gradually rising. The air was still pervaded with the crisp chill of frost and dew that hadn’t yet withdrawn. Noticing that somebody had already set up a breakfast stall at the side of the road, Tang Fan smiled at Pan Bin. “Brother, working hard through the night should have made you hungry, too. How about I treat you to breakfast?”
Hearing him switch out the way he called him, Pan Bin’s originally cloudy mien nevertheless eased up some, and he felt his stomach rumble a bit.
Both of them were in plainclothes, so they weren’t eye-catching at all.
When the stall owner saw them find a place to sit, he didn’t come over, shouting from where he stood. “You two customers, what will you be eating?”
“Two bowls of mincepork noodles!” Tang Fan answered.
“Got it!” the owner shouted back.
Not long after, two bowls of mincepork noodles with steam coming off of them were arranged in front of them.
The hot broth, its aroma pouncing at the nose, had green and plump scallion tips scattered on its surface, which really made one’s appetite grow immensely.
Pan Bin and Tang Fan were truly hungry, wordlessly picking up their chopsticks and lowering their heads to eat.
Tang Fan’s manner of eating was refined, yet not the slightest bit slower in speed than Pan Bin’s. It was even a smidgen faster.
By the time Sir Pan had finished drinking the noodle broth, Tang Fan had already put down his chopsticks.
Before Pan Bin could think to open his mouth and scold him, Tang Fan said, “Brother, the truth of this matter is; even if the Marquis wants to suppress it, he might not be able to.”
“Why do you say that?”
“Can you still remember that huge incident that happened last year?”
Pan Bin thought about it, and then his face twisted up. “You’re saying…?”
He picked up a chopstick, dampened it in the broth, then wrote the word ‘west’ on the table.
Tang Fan nodded.
The word wasn’t in reference to the cardinal direction ‘west’, nor the Western Paradise’s ‘west’.
Rather, it was the Western Depot’s ‘west’.
When the Great Ming Dynasty was passed on to the present Chenghua Emperor, he became its eighth monarch.
When his father, the Late Yingzong Emperor, reigned, a major event occurred that was enough to get recorded in the annals of history — the Tumu Stronghold Crisis. To say it plainly and truthfully, an imperial eunuch called Wang Zhen wouldn’t have died if he hadn’t courted disaster by instigating Yingzong into a personal campaign against the Oirats; said Emperor actually listened to him, too, bringing a group of major officials with him on it. The end result was that the damned eunuch was killed, the Emperor was captured, and all the officials died until none were left. When the Oirats were about to invade Beijing, Yu Qian stood up on the precipice of danger, and only then could the national capital be preserved, preventing the Great Ancestor and Adept Ancestor from getting angered into jumping out of their coffins and cussing out their unworthy descendants.
During Chenghua’s father’s abduction, because the former was still young at the time and the nation could not be left without a monarch for one day, Yu Qian and a group of officials established Yingzong’s little brother — that was, Chenghua’s uncle — as Emperor, in order to avoid suffering the Oirats’ threats and extortion.
Consequently, the immoral Oirats surprisingly set Yingzong free to come back. One mountain couldn’t tolerate two tigers; how could Chenghua’s uncle give his older brother the seat once more? For that, he placed him under house arrest.
On a certain night several years later, Yingzong ascended in a palace rebellion with the backing of several major officials. Feng shui changed the direction it flowed, now rotating so that it was Chenghua’s uncle who was demoted and imprisoned.
In no more than a few years’ time, Yingzong perished, it circulated again, and then the title of Emperor ultimately fell upon his son, the Chenghua Emperor.
When Chenghua, who nearly didn’t get the throne, had just ascended, the administration was still described as ‘well-managed’, but good things didn’t last forever. He wasn’t diligent in politics to begin with, and once a lazy person got used to being chronically lazy, it was difficult for them to become hardworking.
It was said both inside and outside of Court that Consort Wan was currently the source of the calamity, but Tang Fan didn’t see it like that. No matter how much of a scourge one woman could be, her ability was still finite. If it wasn’t for the Emperor taking all advice at its word, what use would even dozens of treacherous Consorts be? For that matter, Consort Wan’s arrogant domineering was only in the harem, and had no great influence in the Court’s presence. Lastly, Chenghua himself didn’t want to work, pushed off all Court matters to its officials due to his fondness for alchemy, and was extremely doting and trusting towards eunuchs, which then caused the Dynasty, inside and out, to be in disorder day after day.
In comparison with Court officials, eunuchs were the closest people to the Emperor. In order to handle affairs conveniently (on top of all sorts of other incidental benefits), officials would naturally approach the eunuchs. Coming from this, there was a joke circulating the Court: “the Three Solons are made of paper paste, and the Six Ministers are clay figurines.” It conveyed that those Solons grasped nationwide power, yet watched all day long as the eunuchs next to the Emperor handled things; yes-men, incapable of proper business.
Under these circumstances, it was, of course, impossible to have the extravagant hope that the government could be ‘well-managed’ in any aspect. Those knowledgeable moaned and groaned, every single one of them saying that the Emperor’s environs were hemmed in with villains; inside, eunuchs caused calamity, and outside, ordinary officials blocked the road. The golden ages of national power from the Great and Adept Emperors’ eras weren’t to even be brought to mind, as it was really hard to say that the decent management from the Renzong and Xuanzong eras would even get reinstated.
In February of last year, the imperial eunuch Wang Zhi ordained the founding of the Western Depot. For the purpose of establishing his might, he arrested many people when it was just barely founded; included among those were not only commoners that had ‘rashly commented on Court government’, but also earnest Dynasty officials. The example of the Executive of the Imperial Hospital, Jiang Zongwu, didn’t need to be said, as not even agents of the Six Ministries and local provincial commissioners had the luck of escaping — Wang Zhi straight-up arrested them all as he pleased, not even going through memorials. Due to people in the palace speaking for him adding into his considerable ability to ingratiate himself by being overly submissive, Chenghua hardly looked into it at all. Many people had hopelessly indicted Wang Zhi, only to receive his retaliation.
In a single moment, the Western Depot’s power flourished like a flame, pressing in close to the Eastern Depot and Brocade Guard, and putting every last person on every level of society in danger. It was to the point that Pan Bin didn’t even dare to directly call out its name, only daring to use the word ‘west’ as an ambassador.
Seeing Tang Fan nod, he questioned, “What connection is there between that place and the Marquis Estate? Don’t you go and recklessly get involved!”
“Do you still remember the case of the ‘demon fox night-sightings’ two years back, Brother?”
Pan Bin’s expression changed again.
Tang Fan smiled. “You need not be nervous, Brother. The city hides us in its masses. We can speak here, and no one will notice.”
Two years ago, the tale of a golden-eyed, long-tailed demon beast that was causing misfortune everywhere suddenly began to spread around the capital for some reason. Rumor was that if a human simply ran into the demon, they would fall into a coma. Later on, someone had purportedly died as a result of that coma, and then the beast had stripped their body of its skin to wear, transforming into that person’s appearance; with the perpetuation of these lies, the hearts of the people grew alarmed. Then, at that time, a Daoist name Li Zilong appeared, and used sorcery to make friends with inner-palace officials for the purpose of awaiting a chance to kill the monarch. Someone else made a connection between the demon beast and Li Zilong, also claiming that Daoist Li was actually a transmogrified demon fox that the Great Ancestor had slain, and now that the Ancestor was gone, he had come looking for his descendants for revenge instead.
Even though Li Zilong was later beheaded, and the gossip gradually settled down, Chenghua was frightened by this incident after he heard of it. He even believed that the Eastern Depot and Brocade Guard were both unreliable, and he needed to set up a new spy organization customized to serve him — that was how the Western Depot was born for the special occasion.
“Following the case of the demon fox, the Western Depot was founded, and just so happened to be treated as an excuse to arrest a bunch of people. On top of wanting to show an impressive reputation in the presence of His Majesty, and expressing that the Depot is indeed more competent at things than the Eastern and the Guard, he still wants to establish his prestige, making every official scared when they see him. Now that this incident with Zheng Cheng has happened, even if the Marquis himself likes to downplay things, Wang Zhi will inevitably take the subject and make a hubbub over it. Then, he’ll beg His Majesty for a thorough investigation, and might even stick his hand in it so that he can display the might of the Depot.”
Pan Bin shook his head. “That’s not possible. Even though the Depot is presently akin to the sun in the sky, why would Wang Zhi go offend the Marquis Estate for no real reason?”
“For the sake of building might within the royalty and aristocracy, and to let the people of the realm know that not only does he dare to arrest officials, he doesn’t even stint on making a faux-pas against those influential families of estimable subjects. That way, everyone in the world will fear him, and it’ll be even more convenient for him to do whatever he wants to in the future.”
“Let’s just wait until the Western Depot meddles to talk more of this, then. If it’s willing when the time comes, the Prefecture can properly push the boat along the current, and thus push this troublesome affair over to them.”
Tang Fan shook his head, a bit exasperated. Their teacher had once previously commented to him about his study-brother, saying that Pan Zibin “doesn’t finish things sufficiently, plans for things mediocrely, and retreats before the battle is even fought when he encounters anything.” Now that he brought that to mind, it was, indeed, extraordinarily fitting.
On Pan Bin’s end, he feared that Tang Fan would make trouble on his own initiative, so he urged him to go in the opposite direction. “This matter with the Estate will definitely be presented as a memorial, so wait for His Majesty to pass any edicts down before you say anything else about it! You absolutely must not run off to the Estate and go asking for Zheng Cheng’s corpse!”
Tang Fan bust out laughing. “Do you view me as someone as impulsive as that, Brother?”
Pan Bin wasn’t happy. “I do. Our teacher even said that you were ‘docile and refined, having the flair of a gentleman of old’, which, mixed in with that astonishing set of words you just said at the Estate, instead makes you seem all the more brash!”
How did a truethird-rank Shuntian Prefect and a minor sixth-rank official come to call each other fellow students?
This was quite normal, actually, as they both had the same teacher, Qiu Jun.
Qiu Jun could be considered a jack of all trades. Not only was he good at serving as an official, but he had also dabbled in history, science, economy, and even medicine, his knowledge far-reaching. With a hefty abundance of writings, he became widely-known to all at once, and received quite the amount of respect from intellectuals. If people of the time could have worshipped him as their teacher, that would truly be three lifetimes’ worth of luck.
Pan Bin was a disciple that Qiu Jun had accepted in his early years. It was ridiculous to say aloud; the disciple’s political career had gone smoothly and he was now a truethird-rank Shuntian Prefect, while the teacher was still a fourth-rank Chancellor at the Imperial Academy. Yet, the status of a teacher and his student was still present, so even if his official’s rank was higher than his teacher’s, Pan Bin still had to grasp the respectful etiquette of a disciple as usual before him.
Three years prior, during the eleventh year of Chenghua, Qiu Jun was appointed to preside over the Sheep of Twists edition of the provincial exam. Tang Fan had participated in that very exam; first, he placed fifth in the provincial, then soon scored first of the second bracket with flying colors in the palace exam.
In spite of the imperial exams being held once every three years, there was an untold amount of talents that would step up to replace those that had fallen, also wasting their time on it. Tang Fan getting fourth place while being just shy of crown age was already enough to make the scholars of the world envious.
Rumor had it that Chenghua had wanted to venerate Tang Fan as the Prime Scorer, but didn’t, because Chief of Cabinet Wan An said that he was way too young, and it would be better to shift his ranking back so as to avoid having the young man get overly joyous and fail in life due to being over-praised; it had to be kept in mind that the vulgar wind would inevitably break the beautiful trees of the forest.
Feeling that that made sense, the Emperor changed the ranking, shifted Tang Fan to fourth place, and joked with regret, “Tang Runqing’s literary grace and academic knowledge are both of the highest quality. It is hard to come by one both so young and so intelligent. If he was placed as Prime Scorer, it would be very likely that all Prime Scorers from now on, when they came to stand beside him, would cover their faces in shame!”
Thus, three years ago, despite Tang Fan not receiving Prime Scorer in true, his name spread around the realm due to the Emperor’s statement.
The translator says: *screeches in extreme pain at all the links I had to find and research I had to do*
Also: Ah, yes, another Emperor that’s Dumb As Fuck.
 Temple names, as they were called, are one type of many titles of reverence for monarchs. Often used posthumously, but not always.
 An actual quote from Ming times, though there’s no exact source. The ‘Three Solons’ refer to Chief of Cabinet Wan An, High Scholar Liu Xu, and High Scholar Liu Ji.
 A real person. Refused to give Wang Zhi medicine while Chenghua’s father was in the hospital (the meds were not for Chenghua), and thus got arrested for the false charges of stealing ink and incense from the palace.
 The version in this novel is leagues different, but there’s an actual account called this in the History of Ming. According to baidu (which admits that it’s only briefly explained), a man named Zhao Ling’an supposedly took a beautiful woman back home with him, and then every living thing in the Estate died overnight. After, a beautiful woman was seen wandering the streets at night, and even more people died. The hysteria led to the Western Depot being formed.
 This is in reference to old calendrical yearkeeping; the sexagenary cycle. The Twelve Heavenly Branches (the zodiac animals) and Ten Heavenly Stems (the attributes) are crossed with each other to label 60 different years (even though 10 x 12 = 120, they only use half of the combos), after which the cycle resets, kind of like how there’s multiple zodiac years of the Horse and whatever. On top of that, they label months and days the same way, though with different formulas… honestly, it’s a big goddamn mess, and they calculate auspicious days with it, somehow. (Here’s a table that illustrates it better than I can – yi wei is the Sheep of Twists year, the 32nd.) The West is typically a euphemism for death, hence why cutting it off is a good thing, though hell if I know why a date would do that.
 ‘Ranks’ are separated into two categories per rank; ‘True’ and ‘regular’ versions. True ranks are a half-step higher in position than regulars, i.e. Truethird-rank is higher than third-rank, but lower than regular second rank, and third-rank is better than truefourth-rank.
 Adding onto the previous link to clarify; of the famed imperial exams, in the Ming Dynasty, there were county-specific exams, after which came exams in the capital of said county’s province, after which came the palace exams, introduced in Ming. County Honorates have passed the County, and so forth. Of the Honorates in the palace exams, there’s a first bracket of examinees with the Prime Scorer, Second Scorer, and Third Scorer. The second bracket doesn’t get official titles like so, but they do have individual ranks. Of course, their literal translations are much more flowery than these boring ones, but sometimes you have to take practicality over flair.