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Once he mentioned Lady Chen, everybody looked at the pretty woman that had arrived with Li Man. Tang Fan had noticed that she had a shrewdness about her, and had heard Li Man say that she had been a huge benefit to him, so he knew that she wasn’t someone that was easy to deal with. Yet, after Li Man had been exposed as the murderer, she had then — either intentionally or unintentionally — maintained a low profile, as if she wanted to blend herself into the background.
Upon hearing Li Man say this, she knelt daintily, using her sleeve to wipe her tears. “How could this concubine have the goodness and ability to do so? I am truly unworthy of receiving Husband’s generous favor! If you’re no longer here, what use is there for me to go on living alone?!”
Her tones were wondrous and prompted one to cry, but Tang Fan was expressionless, not giving her one look.
Li Man seemed not to hear Lady Chen’s words, his mind fully immersed in his memories. After a pause, he continued on. “I hadn’t ever thought of killing her, at first… a very long time ago, I proposed divorce to Lady Zhang, and was willing to subsidize her with properties, but she refused. Later on, I proposed it again, and to give her half the family capital so that she could have her later years be free of worries, but she refused the divorce all the same, saying that I needed to not forget our original vows. This went on so many times! I really had no other way!”
His expression turned malevolent. “She clearly couldn’t do anything, nor could she help me! There’s a lot of women that are more beautiful and competent than her! Me using up all of my wealth back then was already an extreme benevolence to her! Since she couldn’t have kids, why did she bother with occupying the position of my primary wife? Of course I couldn’t take it anymore! It wasn’t that I owed her, it was that she owed me! She owed me!”
Silence stretched out in the hall. Everyone stared at him in astonishment, especially the people of the Li family.
Li Man had rarely returned home, but in front of others, he had always been respectful with his wife, and not exacting towards his servants. The whole household respected him.
However, not one of them had known that underneath his peaceful and benevolent exterior, there had lurked such a beast!
Li Lin, the Young Lord, was even more positively astounded, staring at his father. “Father, why would you do such a thing?” he mumbled.
“You don’t actually think that she couldn’t help you,” Tang Fan answered coldly, “nor was this because she couldn’t have children. Rather, in your mind, you’ve constantly been brooding over that thirty-year-old past, so you blamed her family for dragging you down and hurting you by investing so much! Thirty years ago, when you were still young and in love, you thought that said investment was acceptable, but you grew older by the day, and upon going through laborious work in the sea of commerce, you saw the hearts of all sorts of people. You learned that of the four occupations, it was still scholars alone that were noble, and you gradually came to regret the choice you had made. That regret accumulated with each passing day until it became a demon in your heart, and as long as there was some slight outside trigger for it, that demon would be in a hurry to come out and cause harm! All of the ‘reasons’ you’ve just stated are nothing more than you looking for excuses for the crime you committed!
“You indeed paid a great amount in your early years, but since then, she had managed your household for you, and helped you take care of your son. Even if she did owe you, she had long paid it all back! You wanted to divorce her; what was so wrong about her refusal? Which one of the Seven Ousts did she commit? Do you believe that with an annulment, a woman won’t get met with judging stares? As for financing her with capital, how could money measure her deep, decades-long affection for you?”
Li Man sneered. “You don’t get it, you don’t! My predecessor had been a third-rank Assistant Minister! How impressive he was! Because I renounced the exams and switched profession to business, I’ve been met with judging looks everywhere! The Li family as it is today was only able to earn itself back after I spent the entirety of my heart’s blood! She didn’t need to do anything other than peacefully enjoy that wealth at home! I don’t accept it, I don’t! If I had been able to participate in the exams back then, I’d probably have long had a jade belt wrapped around my middle, and you little sesame-seed officials would have to bend your backs in my presence!”
No matter how good Sir Tang’s self-cultivation was, even he couldn’t help but roll his eyes at that set of words. “You’re wanting too much. If I recall correctly, you just said that you were recently thirty in the year her maiden family met with misfortune. Your instruction started at age six, meaning that you had a full twenty-four years to study, yet you didn’t even pass as a Fine Scholar — even if you were given another twenty-four years, you probably still wouldn’t have the knack to pass. Wake up! You really think that with how you behave, you could have become a high official? I’m afraid that if becoming any sort of official was your fate, it wouldn’t be a post you’d have the fortune of living it up in!”
Li Man laughed icily. “I know well that you Dynasty officials will forever put on such high-and-mighty appearances. You all plainly reached out and took the money, but still insist upon wearing faces of righteousness! You’re so out-and-out hypocritical, it’s nauseating!”
Tang Fan was in no hurry to make them take him away. “You came back in advance to kill your wife and didn’t want anyone to know about it, so you had to have someone on the inside that was collaborating with you in order to divert the servants. According to reason, the Li home is divided into inner and outer residences; if you were going in through the front entrance, you’d have to pass through both residences, which would be extremely troublesome with all those eyes and ears. If you came in through the back entrance, though, it would save you a lot of trouble since it’s connected to the garden, and in front of that garden is Lady Zhang’s room. Your counterpart only needed to help you with keeping watch, and preventing people from wandering the back garden in the name of not disturbing the Madam in her rest. Who are they?”
Li Man didn’t answer, and Tang Fan didn’t intend to allow him to. His gaze swept across the varying expressions of the Li crowd, ultimately landing on a certain someone.
She raised her head in alarm.
He stared at her profoundly. “Madam Li had never belittled you. She could have practically been described as utterly benevolent to you, even. Why would you treat her like this?”
She shook her head over and over. “No, I didn’t—“
“You still dare to say that?!” His voice was harsh. “You had been unwell that night. Ah-Chun had already said that she would keep night watch for you, but you stubbornly refused, insisting on staying with her all night in illness! That’s the first thing!
“The second is that there had been a strange sound in your Madam’s room. You and Ah-Chun went in to check it out. Ah-Chun didn’t go into the inner room, only you. However, after you went in, you didn’t step forward to investigate at all, instead merely glancing at the door and stopping Ah-Chun from coming in — Madam Li was already dead at that point, and you were afraid that Ah-Chun would discover something abnormal after she entered. Is that not you plainly having some kind of ulterior motive? Explain!”
Even Li Man couldn’t argue in the face of conclusive evidence, let alone a woman like Ah-Xia that hadn’t experienced much of the outside world. As soon as he said ‘explain’, she immediately crumbled. “I didn’t! I didn’t! The Master threatened me! I was forced! I didn’t kill her!”
“What did he threaten you with?”
She covered her face and wept. “I didn’t feel well that day and went out to visit the doctor, but bumped into the Master. He tricked me into going somewhere, and then… then, to me… he told me that I was his now, and if I didn’t obey him, he would tell the Madam that I had seduced him so that she would sell me! He wanted to make me kill her, but I refused, so he made me help him by being on the lookout and keeping the Li servants away, saying that he’d do it himself! I-I really didn’t do it… why didn’t you agree to the Madam wanting to give me to you? If I had left with you then, nothing that came later would have happened!”
The corners of Tang Fan’s mouth were typically slightly raised in a warm smile, making onlookers feel like they had been washed over by a spring breeze. However, whenever he wore no expression, he had a certain presence that one didn’t dare to look directly at.
“People always love to make up all kinds of excuses about how they were forced when they’ve done wrong. How did she typically treat you? Do you still not understand what kind of person she was? You helped him commit murder solely because he sullied your purity; do you dare to still claim that you have a clear conscience before your Madam?!”
Ah-Xia wept bitterly. “Madam, I let you down! I let you down!”
Not paying her any further attention, he turned to the Deputy and crew. “This case originally should have been handled by Wanping County, but now I’ve overstepped my bounds. Do you resent me, Deputy Qian?”
“No, no!” the Deputy quickly answered. “You have a god-like ability for cracking cases, Sir! This humble official really admires it!”
“Then I will now trouble you two with taking over.”
“That is our duty!”
“Old Wang, hand Li Man and Ah-Xia over to them.”
Old Wang affirmed, detained Ah-Xia, then passed them over to the bailiffs Deputy Qian had brought.
“Deputy Qian,” Tang Fan spoke again, “even though Ah-Xia was an accomplice, she didn’t personally take part in the murder, and has also already explained her crime. All interrogations should follow according to national law. I ask that you don’t conduct torture in private.”
Worldly views were especially severe towards women. Once a woman was thrown into prison, everyone would believe that she had lost her purity, and the jailing bailiffs might take the opportunity to harass and molest her more in prison. In light of this, Ming law took special considerations towards female prisoners, sometimes even passing over the hall to interrogate them in their homes. However, with Ah-Xia now having been threatened into complying with murder, the evidence of her crime was undeniable, and she couldn’t not be imprisoned. Tang Fan didn’t wish for her to suffer dishonor outside of the penalty of law, hence why he pointed this out in particular.
From this, his attentiveness could be seen.
Ah-Xia stopped crying, staring at him dazedly, with grief throughout her features. It was unclear what she was thinking.
Maybe she was lamenting her own bitter fate, and that she didn’t have the fortune to follow him. Or, perhaps she was regretting having a moment of befuddlement from suffering Li Man’s blackmail, thus helping him do something awful.
However, if she had known this would happen beforehand, how could it have ever come to be?
Tang Fan turned to look at the Li’s steward. “Come here, Old Li.”
“Sir Tang.” Old Li looked wretched. He was utterly loyal to the Li’s, but couldn’t have known that his Master would murder his Madam. That sudden blow had truly been too great, as his waist was even bent by a good degree.
Tang Fan took out a stack of white papers from his lapels. “There’s two-thousand taels of silver banknotes here. Just previously, your Old Lord had called me into an inside room and gave me this pile, wanting to make me not investigate further. You take the money, and take care of your Young Lord from now on.”
Old Li accepted them, shedding tears. “Thank you, Sir Tang. This lowly one will never forget the great kindness you’ve showed towards our Li family, for all my life!”
“You’re using my money to do a favor,” Li Man said coldly. “You calculate things well, Sir Tang!”
Tang Fan beamed. “Are you angry that your bribe didn’t work? Hurry up and shut up. Murderers get the death penalty, so the Li’s money is not yours anymore. It’s all your son’s.”
Li Man turned bright red with anger, his two resentful eyes nearly about to burn holes into Tang Fan. “I won’t die! Don’t celebrate too soon!” he answered darkly.
“A suspect with such a nasty attitude is snarling at a Court official, here,” Tang Fan said to the Deputy. “Doesn’t seem too appropriate, hm?”
The Deputy seemed to wake up, promptly waving his hand to make the others escort Li Man and Ah-Xia out.
Right when Tang Fan and the rest were on the cusp of leaving, Old Li called out to him. “Sir Tang, this family is unlucky. Now that the Master has become this and the Madam has passed, there is only the Young Lord left in the house. The two concubines have never managed matters before, either. We are a group of dragons with no leader. This lowly one is impudent, but I’d like to ask that you help us obtain a charter.”
Tang Fan glanced at Li Lin, who was as mute as a wooden chicken. “If there’s any reliable distant relatives alive in either your Master or Madam’s families, you can request that they head over to lend a hand in management. Your Young Lord is currently considered a half-grown teen, but he will nevertheless have to shoulder this home in the future. You can discuss everything that needs to be managed with him.”
Old Li nodded repeatedly. “You’re right, Sir Tang!”
Exiting the Li Estate, Tang Fan called out to the Deputy with a skin-deep smile. “This hadn’t been a complex case. According to your intelligence, you’d probably crack it yourself. Why did you have to call me over? Was there some other reason?”
The Deputy smiled awkwardly and apologetically. “You’re surely joking, Sir. If it wasn’t for you revealing it, this humble official couldn’t know so much inside information. I would have likely just accused a good person wrongly!”
In reality, Li Man had bribed Tang Fan, so he had obviously also bribed the Deputy and Registrar. It was just that they had wanted to accept it, but, on account of Tang Fan being the foremost acceptor of this case, feared that he would expose them. For that, they invited him over beforehand to see whether he accepted it or not. If he did, and decided to change the murder into a suicide, they would then inevitably have peace of mind with him at the helm.
Tang Fan understood this point, but he didn’t expose them. Water too clear had no fish, and people too critical had no followers; exposing Deputy Qian’s motives would only make him mad, and had no other use apart from that. Most people wouldn’t suddenly repent just because of your own righteous teachings; on the contrary, they were liable to despise you because of it. Being an upright official wasn’t challenging, but being one that wanted to accomplish things was.
Therefore, he simply stopped at that, allowing them to stay vigilant all on their own.
Early the following morning, Xue Ling sent someone over to report to Tang Fan, saying that he hadn’t heard of any news from Chief Eunuch Wang’s side.
In other words, the Brocade Guard couldn’t find out why the heck Wang Zhi had invited Pan Bin out to dinner.
He passed this news on to Pan Bin, and the latter expectedly looked anxious upon hearing it.
“There’s no need to worry, Brother,” Tang Fan consoled him. “The Marquis Estate case had indirectly benefited him, and Shuntian Prefecture doesn’t have the mind for planting willows. Maybe he’s wanting to express his gratitude?”
“You think that’s a possibility? Wang Zhi doesn’t even attach importance to any of the Cabinet Solons. Why would he need to invite a measly figure like me to dinner? How about this; you’ll come with me tomorrow night to give me warnings when something happens.”
“That won’t work, will it? His invite was only for you. Wouldn’t me showing up without one make him unhappy?”
Pan Bin waved his hand. “It’s fine. You won’t be acting in the capacity of a Shuntian Judge then, but as my junior! And that’s settled!”
The translator says: Wow. Fuck that guy. With sharp, particularly rusty implements, and the most amount of pain possible.
As for Ah-Xia… she’s not free from punishment at all, but I can only blame a sad, manipulated, assaulted, and technically-enslaved woman so much.
 The Seven Ousts were the possible grounds for a man to divorce his wife in ye olde times, some being more reasonable than others: disobedience to parents, lack of sons, adultery, envy, being beset with plague, talking too much, and theft.