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The Estate of Marquis Wu’an had a fog of misery over it as of late.
Zheng Cheng had been the eldest authentic wife-born son. Due to word on the wind about him being bad, the Dynasty had dragged its feet in dubbing him, but this was, in actuality, a certain trick it used to manage those under it. Although he ultimately still might not get the noble title, in a situation like that, it could put a stranglehold on its subject, making Marquis Wu’an cautious and fearful of taking a wrong step.
This attitude of the Dynasty’s was not solely for the influential families of meritorious officials; the same treatment went towards its own old Zhu family, as well. Subsequent to the country’s long-time establishment, the Zhu surname branched out to cover the entire country, making the imperial clan worthless. In the opinions of the Emperor and the Court, they were all a bunch of vermin that just wasted the Dynasty’s supplies and did nothing useful. The only obstruction here was that there was no way to abolish his forebears’ rules.
That was the Dynasty’s stance, however. To Zheng Ying, even if Zheng Cheng had always given him a headache, he was still his oldest son, and no one could be in high spirits with a son dead. Zheng Cheng’s mother, Marchioness Wu’an, had cried herself into a tearful mess, overly heartbroken and bedridden.
When Sui Zhou and Tang Fan arrived at the Estate, everyone that entered their eyes was wretchedly pale. Zheng Cheng’s body was still being kept in the Northern Bastion Office, but he was dead, regardless. Plain white cloth was hung up all over the place, and even the servants were all wearing mourning clothes.
Upon catching sight of them, Zheng Ying naturally didn’t have a great complexion. It was only because of the Brocade Guard’s reputation that he had no choice but to mentally force himself to deal with them. “What has brought you gentlemen to my humble abode?”
Sui Zhou didn’t exchange pleasantries with him. “We want to see Miss Hui, Marquis,” he said, straightforward.
Marquis Wu’an was startled, reacting quickly. “Is she related to my son’s death?”
“This is just necessary for handling the case. That conclusion can’t be made yet.”
Marquis Wu’an spoke no more drivel, swiftly having someone bring Miss Hui over.
Tang Fan had already met Zheng Cheng’s one wife and three concubines the night of the incident, when he had followed Pan Bin to the Estate.
Lady Sun of Zheng was virtuous, but because of her average looks, she didn’t incur Zheng Cheng’s fondness, and the married couple were seldom in the same bedroom.
The eldest concubine Miss Wan had entered the earliest. Honest in personality, the love nevertheless loosened as her beauty waned, and he seldom ever set foot in her courtyard prior to his death.
Miss Yu was the most recently taken concubine, having a beautiful, jade-like countenance, and being right at the age where she was most delicate. At the Estate, she was Zheng Cheng’s favorite, but domestic flowers didn’t smell as good as wild ones; he still wanted to reach outwards from time to time. Even though she was favored, she wasn’t the only one that was.
Miss Hui alone had previously been getting more favor than Miss Yu. It was said that Zheng Cheng had given her a lot of jewels and clothes to make her happy, but after a new person crossed the threshold, her status gradually became uninsured. Tang Fan recalled that in the different reactions the four women had upon Zheng Cheng’s demise, Miss Hui had wailed the loudest. At first glance, she had been the most grieved, but now that he carefully thought back to it, it was really a bit lacking in realness due to how excessively grand the reaction was.
She was led over quickly.
As the saying went; to be beautiful was to be mournful. Miss Hui was awfully affecting in her plain white mourning apparel. Too bad that neither Tang Fan nor Sui Zhou had the mind to appreciate it.
The latter just had Xue Ling exhibit the portrait. “Do you recognize this man?”
She looked at it. “I do. He’s this lowly wife’s cousin.”
“Where is he?” Xue Ling asked.
Miss Hui, her lashes filled with tears, looked heartbroken. “To answer you, Sir, when he went out three days ago, he accidentally got hit by a carriage. He passed on the spot, and has now been buried!”
Xue Ling sneered. “What a coincidence that is. We come looking for him on our end, and he happens to have an accident on yours?”
“It’s absolutely the truth. My distant cousin was a servant of the Estate, but I dared not disturb the Marquis, so only the steward knows about this. If you don’t believe me, Sir, you can ask him to come testify!”
“It doesn’t matter. We aren’t looking for him right now, but rather you. The shopkeepers of the Three-Era and Kindness Halls have already identified him; he once went to their apothecaries to buy large quantities of thorowax, right?”
“This question you’re asking has no grounds, Sir. If he did go out to buy medicine, why would he inform me of it beforehand? And what would it have to do with me?”
“Yang-rich spring comes from an old recipe. It isn’t beneficial for health, but it also isn’t so severe that it would put someone in the ground after a brief few months. However, it just so happens that you incited your cousin to add the extra substance of thorowax into the pills, which caused Zheng Cheng’s sudden death that masqueraded as shed-yang disease!”
“That’s a false accusation—“
She had just finished shouting of her injustice when she was cut off by a sharp sound and a furious roar next to her — Marchioness Wu’an had automatically charged forward and viciously slapped her!
“You still dare to argue, you whore?! Your cousin and Cheng’r had no animosity, and he had no chance to get near him at all — why would he go plot his death?! The proof is undeniable! If it’s not you, then who?! I’ve long been seeing you all restless in your room, but I didn’t expect that you would dare to kill Cheng’r, bitch!”
The Marchioness, Lady Liu, came from a family of scholarly repute. When Tang Fan had last seen her, she had, at the very least, maintained her composure and self-restraint in spite of being grief-stricken by her son’s death. Now, though, when she saw that the murderer might be close at hand, she inevitably couldn’t hold back.
Miss Hui cried out, covering her cheek and side-stepping. “Save me, Marquis, save me! I’ve been accused wrongly!”
Seeing that she dared to dodge her, the fire of Lady Liu’s rage burned all the higher, and she threw herself at her with the intention to fight. The scene suddenly became a huge mess.
Watching this anarchy, Sui Zhou coldly asked, “Are you wanting us to observe this theatre of monkeys, Marquis?”
Even though Miss Hui was the most suspicious, she was still a woman of the Estate, as was the Marchioness. Men and women were to be separate; it wouldn’t be good for the Brocade Guard to intervene.
Marquis Wu’an took a deep breath, then shouted, “You’re still not stopping this?! Are all of you dead?! Help the Madam away and seize Miss Hui!”
With that order, the maids and wet nurses swarmed around, finally separating the two.
The Marchioness was panting roughly. Despite being supported by someone, the eyes she glared at Miss Hui with were brimming with hate and resentment, causing the latter to shudder. Even her sobbing lessened.
Sui Zhou saw her weeping appearance that made her look like a dewed pear blossom, and wasn’t moved a single bit. “Do you want to confess on your own, or do you want to go to the Northern Bastion Office and confess then?”
Before she could respond, Tang Fan said, “You are a married woman held deep within the house. Illiterate, and beyond that, not proficient in medical know-how. How would you have the courage to conspire against Zheng Cheng? There had to be someone behind you kindling it. If you’re willing to confess the truth, you might be spared the death penalty. If you blindly cover for them, when the time comes, they’ll be fine, but you will suffer. Great Ming’s law has long stated clearly that murderers are to be beheaded. If you insist upon not admitting guilt even unto death, then going to the Office is inevitable. Water, fire, swords, spears, lashings, getting your fingers cut off; there are so many things there, that life won’t be given to you if you seek it, nor will you be able to die if you want it. So, when the time comes that you do want to die, I’m afraid that won’t be so easy.”
His words were light and airy, without a single puff of smoke from the fires of anger, but Miss Hui could hear her own teeth chattering. Everyone had heard of the Brocade Guard’s methods before; she seemed to be able to see herself in the Bastille, covered in blood.
In reality, the Bastille was not somewhere she could get into just because she thought she could. Those able to do so were all serious criminals decreed as such, and dying in there might allow their names to remain throughout the ages. For someone of her status, she would be going to Shuntian Prefecture’s prison, at best. The Bastille wouldn’t care to shelter her.
Sui Zhou shot a glance at Tang Fan, expressing no opinion on the latter’s method of using the Bastille to scare her.
“Gonfalon Sui,” the other said, “I heard that there’s a certain punishment in the Office called ‘Rain Watering the Plum Blossoms’. The prisoner’s hands and feet are bound, and then thin, dampened paper is used to cover their face, layer added onto layer, until they pile up. At the start, the convict wouldn’t feel anything, but, gradually, they’ll feel that it’s difficult to breathe. The drenched paper sticks tight to their face, blocking up both their mouth and nose, giving them no way to breathe, and making them slowly suffocate to death in torment… isn’t that right?”
Expressionless, Sui Zhou slowly nodded. “Mn. Correct.”
Xue Ling skewed them a glance out of the corner of his eye.
…When did our Office ever have such a pansy torture method? Isn’t that an invention of those damned eunuchs at the Eastern Depot?
Miss Hui felt it happening to her; in the wake of Tang Fan’s vivid description, she felt like her face was getting coated by layer after layer of invisible, damp paper, with even her breathing turning into a challenge. What ‘Rain Watering Plum Blossoms’? Clearly, that was just slowly torturing someone to death!
“I’ll confess! I’ll confess! I didn’t kill him! It was Zheng Zhi! Zheng Zhi made me do such a thing!” she finally shouted, falling apart.
“Stop talking!” Marquis Wu’an hollered. “Do you even know what you’re talking about, you bitch?!”
“I didn’t do it! I didn’t! Zheng Cheng wasn’t killed by me! My cousin didn’t do it, either! It was all Zheng Zhi! He had me give Zheng Cheng the prescription, then had my cousin go buy and give thorowax to the apothecary worker so he could mix it in! Right — that worker! Zheng Zhi was the one that had someone silence him, but it wasn’t me! I don’t know anything!”
“What do you mean, shut up?!” Lady Liu called, frosty. “Let her keep going!”
“Would she say anything good?!” he raged. “This slut is just randomly biting at and implicating people! Will she only be satisfied after dragging everyone in the Estate down into the water?!”
Lady Liu sneered at him. “Obviously, you’re afraid that she’ll point out someone that shouldn’t be spoken of, so you really want her to shut up, right?”
The Marquis was flustered. “Have I ever had such thoughts before? You just hate that there’s not enough chaos already!”
Sui Zhou turned a blind eye to the married couple beginning to argue. “I’ll have to bother you with inviting Second Don Zheng over, Marquis,” he stated.
Marquis Wu’an was forced to halt his quarrel with Lady Liu. Glaring fiercely at Miss Hui, his mouth opened and closed until he finally got out a couple words. “Are you all still not bringing Zheng Zhi over for me?!”
The servants quickly left with their order.
Zheng Zhi soon came, a beautiful, middle-aged woman arriving with him.
Tang Fan had seen her before; the night of the incident, all of the women of the Estate had been present, and he vaguely remembered her being Marquis Wu’an’s concubine.
Zheng Zhi bowed. “This child greets father and mother. I don’t know who these two are…?”
His sights set on Sui Zhou and Tang Fan. He hadn’t been on-scene that night, so he naturally wouldn’t recognize them.
His looks greatly resembled that of the woman beside him, increasing his femininity a bit, but his actions and bearing were refined. Looking at that point alone, Zheng Cheng couldn’t compare to him at all.
The Heir had not yet been dubbed, its name up in the air, yet his second son was more outstanding than his eldest — that certainly put a struggle within the Marquis.
From that struggle, there would inevitably be a tilt in his heart. A bowl of water was difficult to hold level.
Disputes arose from such.
Marquis Wu’an was straight-faced. “They are Shuntian Prefecture’s Sir Tang and the Northern Bastion Office’s Sir Sui, who have come for questions in regards to your older brother’s case. I’ll ask you this; did his death have anything to do with you?”
Zheng Zhi was greatly shocked. “Father, won’t these words kill me wrongly? How could I plot against his life in fratricide?!”
He put on a good show, but Tang Fan didn’t miss the glance he just subconsciously shot Miss Hui.
“Second Don Zheng,” Sui Zhou said, “Miss Hui is now claiming that you incited her to poison Zheng Cheng, then killed her cousin in order to silence him. Is that how it happened?”
“Absolutely not!” Zheng Zhi resolutely declined.
Miss Hui sobbed bitterly. “You’re the one that should die by a thousand cuts! It was obviously you that made me do it! You even said that when that damn devil died, it was going to all go right past me!”
“Have you lost your mind, woman?! You were my elder brother’s concubine! How would I be able to collude with you?!” he raged.
The middle-aged woman shrieked. “I’ll teach you to randomly slander people, you cheap hussy!”
Then, she rushed forward to slap Miss Hui on the face.
When Lady Liu had recently done the same, it would’ve been bad for Xue Ling to interfere. Now that a concubine did it, he directly stepped forward and pushed her away. “The Brocade Guard is present! How dare you be so impudent!”
The woman got shoved down onto the ground, face green and pale. She wanted to get mad, yet didn’t dare to, simply twisting her waist to throw herself at Marquis Wu’an and hug his thigh as she sobbed. “Marquis, you must give justice to us!”
His head swelling to twice its size, the Marquis hurriedly grabbed her. “Get up, get up! What decorum is this?!”
Even though he had said that, his tone was much more tender than the one he used with Lady Liu just now.
Lady Liu looked on coldly, not saying a word.
In the face of such a disorderly spectacle, Tang Fan and Sui Zhou both thankfully looked as they always did.
“Miss Hui, you accused Zheng Zhi. Do you have any evidence of that?” Tang Fan asked.
She was wide-eyed, tongue-tied, and speechless.
“Oh, good! You can’t say anything, is that it?!” the woman began accusing randomly. “Ah-Zhi is undoubtedly innocent! Why would he murder his brother? Noticing that the Eldest Don had died, did someone prompt you to frame Ah-Zhi because they were unhappy that he was going to be the Heir? Say it!”
In the middle of her string of curses, though, Miss Hui suddenly shouted. “I have proof! I have proof!”
She had genuinely been scared stiff by Tang Fan’s depiction; regardless of whether it was the Office’s Bastille or that ‘Plum Blossom’ pestilence, she wanted to try out none of it.
“Speak,” Sui Zhou said.
She grit her teeth. “Second Don Zheng has a red birthmark on his posterior! It’s half the size of a palm and in the shape of a plum blossom!”
With that remark, the woman’s yelling came to a screeching halt.
Men and women were to be separated. A birthmark on the hand or face would have been fine to speak of, but one on the butt… if they weren’t exceedingly intimate, how else could she have known that?
Miss Hui was Zheng Cheng’s concubine, while Zheng Zhi was Zheng Cheng’s little brother. The two should have been poles apart, but she knew he had a birthmark there. What did that illustrate?
Sui Zhou looked at Zheng Zhi and his greatly-morphing face. “Is that true?”
Zheng Zhi didn’t answer, but Sui Zhou didn’t need him to, straight-up waving his hand. “Detain him and bring him back to the Office!”
Then, he pointed at Miss Hui. “You’re coming with, too. Since you were forthcoming just now, a maid can accompany you.”
The middle-aged woman wailed loudly and threw herself tight around her son, not allowing anyone to get close.
As she cried, others pulled at and soothed her. The scene, again, started to become chaotic.
“Wait!” Marquis Wu’an yelled, angry. “Sir Sui, this is my Estate, and Zheng Zhi is someone from it! How can you just carry him away at your say-so?!”
“Marquis, if the good Don is discovered to be innocent, he will certainly end up being released.”
“Sui Zhou, you can’t assume authority you don’t have! His Majesty ordered you to investigate the case, not to take even the cooking pots out of my Estate! What are you trying to do?! I’ll be presenting a memorial denouncing you!”
Sui Zhou was unmoved. “This is within this humble official’s obligations. Do as you please, Marquis.”
Marquis Wu’an’s nose flared in anger, but right when he wanted to say something, he heard Lady Liu speak. “Just handle the case fairly, Sir Sui. I will take care of all this!”
“You…! You dare…?!” The Marquis pointed at her, too mad to say a complete sentence.
“Why wouldn’t I dare to? Do I have no share in this Estate?” She looked at him, gaze icy, as if she was looking at her enemy. “Don’t forget that I am the wife you officially married, that similarly underwent the Dynasty’s canonization, that has the rank and status for it! In this Estate, I have the same right of management as you do!”
“Cheng’r is already dead, the departed are no more — do you want the entirety of the Estate to have no peace? What good does that do you?!”
She smiled coldly. “Zheng Cheng was my son by blood, and also your son by blood, but in your eyes, Marquis, he wasn’t comparable to that slut-born Zheng Zhi. Since his dad is a disappointment, his mom is the only one he can ask to bring him justice!”
The middle-aged woman wept sorrowfully, kneeling down before her. “Sister, big sister, everything is my fault! Spare Ah-Zhi, he’s a good child! Anything and everything you want me to do in the future, I will! I’m begging you, sister!”
Women forced to their extremes were frequently dauntless. Lady Liu straight-up snatched her by the lapels, then swung her quite a few slaps, pow pow pow, instantly slicing several very long scratches onto the woman’s fair and tender cheeks with her very long nails. After that, she nabbed her roughly by the neck.
“I’ve tolerated you for long enough, bitch! Now you’ll pay my son’s life back!”
The woman screamed. Zheng Zhi also shouted, “Father! Dad! Dad! Save me! I don’t want to go with them!”
His struggle, as far as the Brocade Guards were concerned, was useless. With one look from Sui Zhou, he was taken outside.
Because of her recent confession, Miss Hui’s treatment was a bit better, and she had a maid helping her. Even so, the Guards were watching her like tigers all the same, intolerant of any escape attempt.
Tang Fan and Sui Zhou left the Estate together. The situation behind them was in a wreck and ceaselessly noisy, but that had nothing to do with them.
“You whore! You won’t have a good death!” Zheng Zhi swore loudly. Despite being detained, he itched to throw himself at Miss Hui and bite her to death.
At this moment, he had none of the poise he previously did when he showed up on stage.
Sui Zhou scowled. “Shaobing.”
“Do excuse me, Don Zheng!” Xue Ling, implicitly understanding the man, directly stuffed a handkerchief into Zheng Zhi’s mouth.
The world went quiet.
Things went smoother than expected. As soon as he entered the Northern Bastion Office, Zheng Zhi confessed to everything without waiting for any sort of torture to be used. His confession wasn’t too inconsistent with Miss Hui’s explanation.
Despite ‘Marquis Wu’an’ not having real power, the lure of a heredity Marquis title was as irresistibly big as ever. The incumbent Marquis didn’t have feelings for his primary wife Lady Liu, instead favoring his pretty concubine and the pretty-concubine-born Zheng Zhi. More than once, in the presence of that pretty concubine, he had displayed his anger towards his eldest’s lack of drive, but with one time too many, Zheng Zhi inevitably got an idea. Added in with Zheng Cheng having been a useless dandy, he had a natural thought: the Great Ming has never imposed that concubine-born sons can’t inherit noble titles. Why should I bow out and give it up, just because I was born two years later than him?
Zheng Cheng was a disgraceful man, and because he sang songs on the nightly, he hollowed himself out and made having offspring difficult for himself. Up to the present, he hadn’t been able to produce a son; for that reason, Zheng Zhi had Miss Hui pass Zheng Cheng the yang-rich spring prescription via fooling around with her, and then added a touch of thorowax into the drug via her cousin.
Miss Hui had once been favored, but after Zheng Cheng became fond of the new and disdainful of the old, she felt resentment and discontent. Under those circumstances, Zheng Zhi easily persuaded her.
According to his words, he originally had no intention of killing his older brother, he just wanted to ruin his body so that he could never have a son. Due to thorowax making yang-rich spring’s medicinal properties greater, it was liable to make one lose their natal yang, and with that, the title would naturally get bucked onto Zheng Zhi’s head. Against expectations, he hadn’t grasped the proper drug amount, resulting in Zheng Cheng’s death being an outright surprise.
Nonetheless, the evidence of the crime was conclusive. Zheng Zhi pled guilty, slated for execution. Marquis Wu’an wanting to defend his son no longer had any efficacy, while Marchioness Wu’an’s maiden family’s influence was present, and she, of course, wouldn’t let the matter be. The two quarreled about the lawsuit in royal presence, and Sui Zhou’s side presented the evidence and confession statement one after the other. The Cabinet initially commented for Zheng Zhi to get the death penalty, but the Emperor couldn’t withstand the Marquis’s pained entreaty, so he ultimately changed the death penalty into a life penalty — Zheng Zhi was sent to the outside world to be a normal citizen, ordered to never return to the capital throughout his life.
Since the case had come to this point, it was finally at its end. When Sui Zhou sent up the memorial, he also incidentally mentioned Shuntian Prefecture in writing, stating that he had received no small contribution from their assistance in dealing with the case.
That statement was not to be underestimated. After Yongle, the Cabinet’s status had gradually risen. In this Court, the Emperor wasn’t too fond of doing work, so the Cabinet Viziers nearly equaled the Prime Ministers, divvying up power with the Emperor.
Because Sui Zhou had a paternal great-uncle that not only once occupied the position of Minister of War, but also had disciples and old friends all throughout every level of society, the Cabinet’s impression of him was generally good. Beyond that, due to his relation to Empress Dowager Zhou, he also had the capability to speak in the Emperor’s presence. Having those two sides of connection, one sentence of his was more effective than ten from someone else, and Shuntian Prefecture’s liability ended up a permanent loose end.
People would be invigorated upon coming across happy occasions. Pan Bin wouldn’t be losing his position, nor would he be getting a wage reduction, nor dispatched to elsewhere, merely getting a featherlight scolding that was like a crisp breeze passing his ears; it was nothing much at all. He was, of course, elated — a contrast to his apprehension from a few days prior. He came looking for Tang Fan. “It’s only thanks to you, Runqing, that this case could be cracked, and the investigation into our Prefecture’s blame for it won’t proceed!”
“This was all His Majesty’s benevolence, as well as Gonfalon Sui’s emphasis on loyalty. It had nothing to do with this Runqing. I don’t dare to take credit!”
Very pleased with his modest and prudent attitude, Pan Bin nodded, stroking his beard with a grin across his face. “You don’t need to be overly modest. You participated in it, after all, and I heard that Sui Zhou mentioned you in the memorial he presented — you deserve the credit! This Prefect can distinguish between public and private affairs; have merit, get rewarded, have sins, get punished. Since you have merit, that’s that! What do you want?”
Prefecture Magistrate Wei Yu, seated to the side, also chimed in with a smile. “You’ve been running about all over the place to solve this case, Runqing. How exhausting that must have been!”
Tang Fan remained humble. “This humble official wants nothing. You’ve praised in error, Sir!”
Pan Bin slapped his thigh. “Since that’s so, didn’t we make a bet last time? I still owe you a bowl of mincepork noodles. A fixed date isn’t as good as a random one; when the bureau is done for the day, this Prefect will treat you to noodles!”
Tang Fan knew his Brother Pan was a bit stingy, but him being this stingy was… really eye-opening.
Tang Fan, shooting a helpless look at the wanting-to-laugh-but-afraid-to Wei Yu, gave a joyful smile. “Thank you much, then, Sir!”
Wei Yu made a fist and coughed into it twice. “Sir, I’m not sure if this humble official has the same fortune to try the noodles you’re talking about?”
Pan Bin glanced at him. “Xuanzhang, this will be your mistake. Speaking of, you came to the Prefecture later than Runqing, and neither of us have gotten to taste your promotion wine yet!”
Wei Yu was now depressed, having gotten attacked simply for being present. He had only been casually asking for a bowl of noodles; why did the outcome turn into him owing the drinks for a banquet? Mister Prefect was too good at taking advantage of people!
“Of course, of course! If you two are willing to do the honors, we’ll go out today!”
“Are we not going to the noodle vendor Runqing mentioned, then?” Pan Bin asked.
“No, no. We’ll go to Immortal Guest for promotion drinks, of course! I’ll have someone go make a reservation!”
Seeing Wei Yu looking like he had eaten a fly, Tang Fan laughed until he nearly gave himself a hernia.
The translator says: case closed everybody, let’s pack up. wait what. what do you mean the arc has 6 chapters left in it