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After a good minute, Ah-Xia came out carrying some dishes and passed them to Ah-Dong, who took them and nimbly walked off in the direction of the kitchen.
Meanwhile, Ah-Chun had just finished eating, and came out to catch sight of Ah-Dong heading over. “Why did you come here, too? You can set those dishes to the side there, first. There’s no one at the Madam’s side! What’ll be done if she needs something?”
Ah-Dong giggled. “Don’t worry, Sister Ah-Xia already came back. She’s standing watch by the Madam!”
Ah-Chun wrinkled her brow. “Didn’t she say she didn’t feel well? I even had her go see a doctor and get medication these couple of days.”
“Right, she said that her monthly came. She seemed to be really uncomfortable walking!”
Ah-Chun was astonished. “Her monthly came? How come I didn’t see her thong? Maybe it came just today…”
As soon as she said that, she apparently realized that it wasn’t appropriate to talk like this to an eight-year-old girl, and quickly shut up.
“Okay, Ah-Dong, go ahead and rest. Ah-Xia and I will be fine by the Madam.”
When Ah-Chun had just returned to Lady Zhang’s courtyard, she happened to see Ah-Xia coming out from inside. Following a second of close observation, she discovered that her complexion was indeed a bit pale, so she went up to greet her. “Ah-Xia, did you go to the doctor’s today?”
Ah-Xia smiled. “I did, but there were too many people there. I feared that the Madam would have some commands to go about here and you wouldn’t be able to do them by yourself, so I stopped waiting and came back.”
“You’re still not at ease about how I do things?” Ah-Chun rebuked her. “I told you to rest, yet you run off to come work again! It’s fine, go back and lay down! I’ll be okay here with the Madam!”
Ah-Xia made a gesture to keep quiet. “She just went to rest.”
Ah-Chun nodded, a concerned tinge to her face. “Is she still in a poor mood?”
The other sighed. “Yes. I comforted her some and had her go to sleep early. She had a bit of a headache. Let’s not go in and disturb her unless something’s wrong.”
“She’s sleeping inside the room, and I’ll be resting outside it. What harm’s in that?”
“There’s only one door separating the inside and outside. The Madam had us leave, so she obviously doesn’t want us to wake her up with the noise from tossing around in the middle of the night, right? You know as well as I that she sleeps lightly whenever she has a headache.”
“You’re right. I’ll stay out for the night, then.”
“I’ll go with you.”
Ah-Chun gave her a push. “That won’t do. Go rest now, your face is hard to look at like this.”
“I’m the one that should have been on duty today, how could I just dump it on you to go rest? I’m going with you and that’s that.”
“Didn’t Ah-Dong just say that you’re on your monthly?”
“I am. It just came today, but it’s much better now. If I’m sitting down, I feel fine.”
Ah-Chun couldn’t do anything, so they sat down beside a stone table in the courtyard. Thankfully, even though it was midsummer season and the weather was stuffy, it was pleasantly cool in the yard when one raised their head to look at the starry sky.
The two chatted idly. Once midnight came, they both got a little tired, and with their chins rested on their arms, they dozed off right there.
Ah-Chun yawned, standing up. “I’ll go in to check on how the Madam is sleeping, and if the windows are shut tight enough so that it doesn’t get cold.”
Ax-Xia stood up along with her. “I’ll go too!”
“It’s fine, there’s no need. Are two people needed to go close windows? Just sit!”
At that very moment, a muffled noise came from within the room.
Ah-Chun and Ah-Xia gave each other a look, and both stepped forward. The former knocked on the door of the room, lightly asking, “Madam?”
Hearing no answer from inside, she directly pushed the gate open and came in.
The inner-room door was still shut, but the screen in the back of the outer room had a shadow on it, like something was moving.
Her heart jumped. She slowly walked over, tentatively asking, “Madam?”
Once she wound around behind the screen, she discovered that a window turned out to not be closed, and the branches outside were dancing under the caress of the breeze, the tree’s shadow casting onto the screen. In tandem with the clothes hanging behind said screen, it was easy for one to get a misconception.
Breathing a sigh of relief, she took a particularly probing look outside.
There was a small garden connected. The bright moon was now above, illuminating each plant and tree distinctly. Twigs lightly swayed and rubbed against each other, and a couple of faint meows came from the undergrowth.
She shook her head, then shut the doors and windows.
As she walked back around the screen, she caught sight of Ah-Xia lightly walking out from the inner room.
“How’s she sleeping?” she whispered to her.
Ah-Xia shook her head. “She seems to be in a deep sleep. I’m not sure what that sound was just then, but it didn’t wake her up.”
“Let’s leave, then. It’s rare for her to have a bit of a better sleep these days, so don’t wake her.”
They left the area. “What was that noise?” Ah-Xia asked.
“Maybe it was a feral cat being naughty, and it bumped against the frame of the window when it scrambled up. That’s happened before.”
After getting disturbed by the activity, they were contrarily energetic, simply sitting there and chatting until the break of dawn. “The Madam should usually get up at this time,” Ah-Chun said. “You go fetch water, I’ll go in and see if she’s awake.”
Ah-Xia affirmed, while Ah-Chun went to Lady Zhang’s room.
This was something they were accustomed to doing every day, and there was nothing novel to define about it. Ah-Chun entered, then knocked of the door of the interior room. “Madam, it’s the time of the Rabbit.(5-7a) Do you want to get up?”
The inside was silent. No one answered.
Lady Zhang was a light sleeper to begin with, and even a tiny bit of outside noise could wake her. Even if she had slept well last night, it was impossible for her to be called out to like this and still not stir. Could it be that she had taken ill?
Astonished and unable to wait for Lady Zhang’s response, she went ahead and pushed open the door.
Yet, that push resulted in the most terrifying scene she had ever seen in her life.
A looped rope was suspended from the roof beam, and Lady Zhang hung from it, her body dangling. From Ah-Chun’s point of view, she happened to see the woman’s eyes staring wide open, and directly at her.
Something like this happening to the Li family was no different than the sky actually falling down.
On account of the Li patriarch being outside on business for a long time, their ancestral home of the capital had Lady Zhang keeping watch on it. As Mistress of the house, she not only had to manage household affairs, but also attend to the everyday life of all ages in the family. Because she couldn’t bear children, Li Man later took two concubines, among which was the mother of the Li’s lone son, Li Lin.
Having a son in middle age meant that Li Man was naturally very doting on Li Lin. It wasn’t him alone; Lady Zhang also regarded him the same as she would a biological son, and he had grown up at her side, respecting her utterly. She didn’t just not hide his background, but treated his birth mother with the same care, too. Li Man’s two concubines were well-behaved people that wouldn’t stir up any major storms. Therefore, in spite of the patriarch not being in the home year-round, the Li family had uneventful peace and stability for very many years due to Lady Zhang’s presence.
With her current death, the Li family had no supporting pillar, as Li Man wasn’t yet back. The entire house, from top to bottom, howled and wailed, in complete disarray.
She had been continuously in low spirits and cheerless for the last few days because of the news that Li Man was about to bring a concubine home; shortly taking it hard and killing herself appeared to be quite reasonable. However, what forces made Tang Fan live neighboring the Li’s? Upon this event happening with Li Man absent, the first person the Li’s thought of was Tang Fan. The steward, Old Li, was quickly dispatched to Shuntian Prefecture to seek him out and request that he take charge of this.
According to reason, he shouldn’t be the one supervising, as there were several counties that Shuntian Prefecture had jurisdiction over. The Li’s area should be looked after by Wanping County. If, from this, the Li’s people suspected that this was murder as opposed to suicide and wanted to report it, they would first need to go find the County Magistrate. Were Tang Fan to manage it, then he would be accused of exceeding his station, a huge taboo of officialdom that was sure to upset Wanping County.
So, despite his shock, Tang Fan could only comfort Old Li for a spell, then promise that he would go to the Li’s to take a look beforehand. If it was a suicide, there was no need to alert the authorities. If a murder was suspected, then they were to go to Wanping County to make a report.
When he followed Old Li back to the home, he saw an unfamiliar man sitting in the lobby, dejected, and beside him stood a beautiful woman. Li Lin stood there weeping, while Ah-Chun and Ah-Xia were kneeling in the hall.
Old Li gave an ah. Overcome with joy, he swiftly stepped forth. “Master! Master, you’ve returned!”
“Where have you been, Old Li?!” Li Man’s face was full of grief, tears glistening in his eyes. He had taken in a concubine, but still had feelings for his unfortunate wife, in the end. His line of sight landed on Tang Fan, who was next to Old Li. “Who is this?”
“Master, this is Sir Tang of Shuntian Prefecture,” the other busily answered. “Because our family suffered this adversity all of a sudden, and you still weren’t here, this lowly one simply took it upon myself to beg that he come over and take a look!”
Li Man stood up and attended to courtesy. “‘This villein was lacking in manners, then, Sir Tang! I’m not sure what you and my family…?”
At the time Tang Fan had started renting the neighboring courtyard, Li Man had already gone abroad. He had simply never seen him before, so it was no surprise that he would have such doubts.
“He rents the next-door courtyard,” Old Li explained, “and he’s helped our family out several times before, being very gracious to us. You weren’t here, Master, and this lowly one was at the end of my rope, so the first thing I thought to do was go seek him out when this happened!”
Li Man nodded, cupping his hands. “As that’s so, I thank you on behalf of the Li family, Sir Tang!”
“There’s no need to be polite. However, Madam Li was perfectly fine; why would she hang herself?”
With those words said, not only Old Li, but even Ah-Chun and the rest didn’t make a sound. The atmosphere froze somewhat for a second.
After a good minute, Li Man flatly said, “Old Li, Sir Tang is asking you something. Why won’t you answer?”
Old Li sighed balefully. “To answer you, Master, for this… I was in the outer yards all of yesterday, and didn’t see the Madam at all. Speaking without grounds is bad, so I’ll have to let Ah-Chun and the rest explain it.”
“Ah-Chun, Ah-Xia,” Li Man then said, “both of you explain this!”
Ah-Chun looked endlessly terrified. She had been the first to discover Lady Zhang’s corpse, and the impacting force of it swinging as it hung from the roof beams had been too great, to the extent that she still hadn’t yet come back to her senses.
Li Man had no choice but to ask Ah-Xia to speak. She glanced at him and the woman beside him, then timidly began. “A few days ago, she heard that the Master was going to bring someone back from the outside. Added in with the reason of her having not been anywhere for many years, her mood was a bit low, and we consoled her about it. Afterwards, just last night, she said she wanted to rest, and disallowed us from going in. Ah-Chun and I both stood watch outside, not going inside to call for her until daybreak. Unexpectedly, as soon as Ah-Chun did, she saw her…”
Hearing this, Li Man stamped his foot in sorrow. “She and I are husband and wife, our affections were deep; when did I ever begrudge her?! Why did she take it so hard?!”
The pretty woman wailed. “I followed the Master back and wanted to pay respects to the Madam. Why did she mistrust me to this extent? She didn’t even let me meet her!”
Tang Fan shook his head. Private inner-house affairs like this — and this woman’s train of thought — were really not for outsiders to know about, and would be inappropriate for him to intervene on. Based on the sentiments of neighbors, however, he still said, “If it’s no trouble, you may as well take me for a look at your Madam so that I can determine whether she actually did kill herself.”
Li Man cupped his hands. “Many thanks for your kind intentions, Sir Tang, but my wife is ultimately a woman of the house. Men and women are not to touch hands when exchanging gifts, to say nothing of the greater fact that she is now the venerable dead. It would be disgraceful to go inspect her all over. Now that my home has met with a calamity, it truly isn’t convenient for us to entertain you. It would be better for you to wait for me to finish handling funereal matters for her first, and then I will drop by your door to give my thanks. Is that alright for you?”
Tang Fan gave him a profound look. “And what if I must take a look?”
Li Man was confounded. “As a Dynasty official, how could you neglect the law, and our family’s wishes? The dead are to be respected, and this villein does not want her to be disturbed, having no peace after her death. Can’t that be done?”
“It can, but just as there’s a possibility that she committed suicide, there’s also a possibility that she was murdered. I naturally have the authority to examine the body.”
Li Man’s face darkened. “To the best of my knowledge, even if there’s authorities investigating, they should be sent to do so by Wanping County. You belong to Shuntian Prefecture, but are on the wrong layer for this, when all is said and done. Is this not in disharmony with the law?”
The Li’s ancestors were officials, and Li Man had once been a scholar. Now, he traveled everywhere for business and had a vast circle of friends, so he was inevitably not as gullible as the average citizen. In addition to that, what he had said was indeed correct.
With no other option, Tang Fan could only say, “I can always have a walk around the room she lived in previously, then, can’t I?”
The translator says: Props to the husband for being sus and the new woman making this all about her. Can’t roll my eyes hard enough.
Trivia time! In the title, the word for ‘shocking change’ (惊变) got censored, leading to an appropriate author’s note next to it that said ‘why in the heck did those words get censored’… or, to be more fun with all the slang, ‘why in the Horse God‘s name did these two characters get crabbed?’
 A quote from Mencius. The full passage is here. Li Man takes the quote out of context, because Mencius pretty explicitly states that proper male-female etiquette doesn’t apply during extenuating circumstances.