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Sui Zhou really didn’t know what expression to use when facing Mister Tang, here.
It was said that he possessed the talent of a Prime Scorer — even if he ultimately didn’t get the position, he had still been fourth in the whole country, receiving a commendation from the Sacred One himself. Were he to write something like Interpreting the Analects or A New Understanding of Master Zhu, it would be seen as applying his knowledge and returning to his roots. So what was he even doing right now, running off to write these romantic stories?
Tang Fan beamed, not ashamed at all. He was actually rather proud. “My salary is low, so I’ve earned a bit of money from literary works. You don’t need to be so surprised, Guangchuan. No one even knows that I wrote it, anyway. It’s gotten a thousand copies printed and sold, though, which is superb in terms of sales.”
With his interest thoroughly piqued, Sui Zhou pulled out that book alone. “I’ll peruse it.”
“That’s really great! You’ve accepted my book, and I just so happen to have something to bother you about.”
Sui Zhou raised a brow to express his suspicion.
Tang Fan felt that since the other had taken his book, he could trouble him with doing a minor little thing. “How about you come help me go pick those scholar leaves outside?”
Sui Zhou: “…”
Is he thinking that this is an exchange of favors?
We’ve already been through this, yet he still hasn’t given up on eating those cold noodles?
He really is the number one foodie in the world!
Mister Tang wasn’t thinking thataway, of course; he believed that someone with such a rich life and interests like himself was destined to rescue this piece of wood, Sui Zhou. See? After getting him in his mix, the other man’s life swiftly brimmed with sunshine.
However, he didn’t get to eat the scholar-leaf noodles he was hung up on to the very end.
…Because Sui Zhou straight-up brought the two of them to a restaurant to pick up food.
There were none of those noodles, but there were crab-stuffed oranges and steamed shrimp. The latter was freshly fished from the river. They weren’t as tasty and sweet as sea prawns, but it was fine. The soy sauce was dotted on top with sesame oil and chopped garlic; peeling a shrimp, then dipping it in, was a pleasure of the human world.
Eating with satisfaction, Tang Fan got the spontaneous feeling of being blessed. “Guangchuan, you see this hustle and bustle? Being able to pilfer an ephemeral moment of relaxation in life, watching the various manifestations of the mortal plane as you eat… that’s a leisure that can’t be sought, and a type of enjoyment, too. It’s something you should sit down and slowly appreciate.”
The man was well-bred, both unlike those honest officials that were quite uptight and hard to associate with, and also not at all resembling most of the people of the world that wanted homes of gold, an abundance of wealth, and to wake up grasping power over the realm in the palm of their hands, lying down drunk with beautiful women nearby.
There was a wisp of a smile within Sui Zhou’s cold eyes. He shook his head. “Even for days off, I typically stay at the Office to look up dossiers, and rarely go out. With getting promoted to Centarch at my age, if I don’t try a little hard, people will otherwise believe that my promotion solely relied on the matron I’m related to.”
Tang Fan gave an interjection of shock. “Other people can think how they like, that’s their business. We are singular people with one pair of hands; no one can shut up that enormous crowd of mouths. As long as you have a clear conscience, all is good, and you may as well enjoy what should normally be enjoyed.”
That was rather reasonable. Right as Sui Zhou wanted to say something, he heard Mister Tang’s words do a one-eighty. “Well, then. In a minute, let’s go to the store and get us a couple packs of cold dishes to take back. It’ll be just in time to eat for tonight.”
Sui Zhou stared at him flatly.
Tang Fan blinked. “That is fine, right?”
Ah-Dong couldn’t keep herself from laughing, covering her mouth.
With the addition of one Sui Zhou and one Ah-Dong, Tang Fan had been thinking that he would be heading for a happy life where he wouldn’t need to lift a finger from there on out. He didn’t expect that the end result would be that he had recruited two old mums for himself, nor for them to take control of everything all day long, especially in regards to food. That control meant that he was forced to merely gaze at the morsels and begin to sigh.
Though, generally speaking, a life like this was still pretty great. A couple people would always be waiting for you when you came home every day, and you could eat a piping-hot meal, see smiling faces, and hear words of conversation. His big sister had married off to somewhere far away, but the feeling was entirely different now that it was like he had two extra family members.
In Ah-Dong’s view, she was a previous member of the Li family; despite Lady Zhang being nice to her and Ah-Chun being willing to take care of her, she had still been just a servant, where a comfortable life wasn’t meant for her. Superiors and inferiors were to be treated differently, so no matter how active she was, she couldn’t be too unbridled. That was why she had forever liked to run off and find Tang Fan. Having now acknowledged him as her elder brother, her sensation of having family was similarly hard to describe. When she had just moved into the Sui home, the little lady had been so excited, she didn’t sleep well for several days on end.
It wasn’t just them, truthfully. Sui Zhou didn’t say anything on the surface, but he was coming back home a greater and greater number of times nowadays, and doing so earlier and earlier, not even steeping in the Bastion Office for all of his rest days. His train of thought was likely about the same as Tang Fan’s.
Even so, tracking the location of Lady Chen wasn’t going smoothly. If she was by herself right now, she certainly wouldn’t be able to get far, due to the rigorous questioning at gates and documents of travel needed for coming in and out of the city. If she was in cahoots with the White Lotus Society like Tang Fan had guessed, however, then it wouldn’t be difficult for her to drift out of the capital if she wanted to, under the organization’s shelter.
Once she left the city, it would be like a fish entering the big ocean — the whole wide world was there, really.
By means of the Brocade Guard’s remarkable powers, she was searched for for many days on end, but no trace of her was found in the city. The woman appeared to have completely vanished into the sea of people.
On the day of the case’s outbreak, Tang Fan could have had her detained as well, but he had already sensed at the time that something was slightly off about her, then thought to use a long line to catch a big fish, seeing if she possibly had any accomplices or subsequent tricks. Unexpectedly, she was actually sly enough to avail herself of the opportunity where everyone thought that she wasn’t of much importance, and where the dispatched bailiffs were only watching at a distance, to flee without a trace in the blink of an eye.
Meanwhile, the day before Li Man was to be transferred from his detainment in Wanping County’s jail to the Ministry of Justice’s prison, something even more baffling occurred: Li Man had died.
It was suicide.
After he had smashed the bowl used for serving convicts food, he purposefully concealed a fragment, then, in the dead of night, stabbed it right into his own chest. He perished from excessive blood loss on top of the mortal wound, and was already without breath by the time he was found.
Upon the wall next to his corpse were two characters. He had written them, stroke by stroke, with the blood of his own heart.
Those blood-red characters were truly frightening, reflected in the staring, blank, wide eyes of his corpse. It scared the jailer that discovered the scene so much, he screamed.
There were always a lot of prisoners that couldn’t stand the torture in prison and killed themselves, but, throughout the ages, death was still the hardest thing to do. Even when sentenced to an autumn beheading, many people would rather pull through until the final moment where the blade chopped off their heads, not having the courage to end their own lives.
Furthermore, for prisoners like Li Man who the Ministry of Justice hadn’t yet finalized a verdict for, there might be a chance to end up overturning it, or possibly get exiled instead of simply beheaded.
By the time Tang Fan had received the news and went to check it out, Li Man’s corpse was no longer there. The cell he had been kept in was dismal and damp, a candle’s flame still needed to see clearly inside even in broad daylight. The two blood-written words on the wall had since congealed and changed color, but what was there was as visible as ever.
Li Man had deserved punishment for his crime. Tang Fan had directly laid his murderous motives and thoughts bare, so it wasn’t strange that he had hated him… however, could that resentment really have been great enough for him to be obsessed with it prior to his death, to the extent that he would draw Tang Fan’s name onto the wall? He had to have known that even without Tang Fan, the uxoricide case would likely be exposed by someone else that came along. There was no suspense about it at all.
Also… at Li Man’s point of death, he wasn’t concerned about his only son, nor his wealth, nor his wish to survive, but of his hatred towards Tang Fan?
Looking at those two words of blood, he got the feeling that there were still a bunch of enigmas lingering about, as well as a bunch of puzzles waiting to be solved.
He rushed to the Li’s again.
Following a coroner confirming that Li Man’s body was, in fact, dead, the Li’s took it back and were preparing it for a coffin burial. The deceased were to be respected; even a rebellion was allowed to collect its peoples’ bodies, to say nothing of Li Man, who had merely killed his wife.
They did not happily welcome Tang Fan at all, Li Lin especially. As soon as he saw him, his face turned extremely unsightly, and he immediately went to chase him out.
“This official is simply taking a look, and will leave once I’m done,” Tang Fan said.
Li Lin laughed coldly. “What’s so great to look at? Could it be that now that my father is dead, you refuse to let even his corpse go? I’ve already heard that right before he died, he wrote your name on the wall, so I haven’t yet asked you, Sir Tang; what part did you ultimately play in his death?”
“I have no enmity with your family. Why would I play a part?” he countered.
“That’s certainly difficult to explain. Does anyone not know that Ah-Xia had admired you before? And then she ended up like that. You wanting to take revenge for her of your own volition isn’t an impossibility. My father was already in prison, too; you really could have done whatever you wanted.”
Tang Fan didn’t feel like defending himself to him. “Li Man’s crime had its punishment taken from national law. As a Dynasty official, I have to come and investigate the circumstances, since he’s now dead.”
Li Lin refused to budge one bit. “He’s already in his coffin and is getting buried in a few days! No one is allowed to disturb him! National law doesn’t state that the dead will also receive punishment!”
Tang Fan simply raised his hand. The bailiffs to his right and left stepped forward, pushing Li Lin and the rest away. Tang Fan moved past the crowd and had Old Wang open the coffin’s lid.
A pallid, bloodless face appeared. The clothes on the body had been switched to a new set.
It genuinely was Li Min, though. There was no doubt.
Right at the time Tang Fan was pondering silently, Li Lin charged forward to push Old Wang and them away, then guarded the front of the coffin, looking vehemently at Tang Fan. “Haven’t you looked enough? He doesn’t want to see any of you! Get lost!”
He was but a commoner, yet dared be so rude to officials. Old Wang and them were pissed, stepping forth to rebuke him, but they were all stopped by Tang Fan reaching out his hand.
The Li’s had been planning to move the whole family down south, so now that Li Man was dead, the hall was decorated simply in order to turn it into a funeral hall, with incense sticks given to family members and guests that came to offer condolences. However, with the crime Li Man had committed, there was no way that Lady Zhang’s maiden family would be coming, thus making the place deserted. Li Lin, in his mourning clothes, appeared all the more bitterly lonesome, with no one to depend upon.
If outsiders were present and saw this scene of confrontation between the two sides, they would absolutely think that Tang Fan was using his status to bully Li Lin.
Tang Fan said nothing, merely winding around the coffin to light a stick of incense himself for Li Man. “The dead are to be venerated,” he then said to Li Lin, “so I won’t bother you any longer. I just hope that you will take your deceased mother’s dignity into consideration. Study well, behave properly, and don’t repeat your father’s destructive methods. Presumably, he wants you to go up in life, under the Nine Springs.”
Li Lin stared at him coldly. “Don’t trouble yourself with concern about that, Sir.”
Ever since his primary mother’s death, his voice had become deep and hoarse. In all likelihood, he had had his fair share of crying in private, to the point that he was on the brink of losing his voice.
Tang Fan frowned, mostly feeling that the teen’s personality had undergone an immense change after his parents’ death. He hadn’t seen Li Lin many times before then, but the other definitely hadn’t been as completely illogical and unreasonable as he was now.
Maybe the deaths of Li Man and Lady Zhang really had hit him hard?
Since Li Lin wasn’t too welcoming towards him, Tang Fan remained no more, soon departing the household.
However, the matter was not yet over.
The same night he had visited the Li’s, the home caught fire. Li Lin and the servants all escaped, while the steward, Old Li, missed the opportunity for that because he wanted to protect Li Man’s body. He alone burned to death inside.
Paired with the words of blood Li Man had written prior to his death, the whole thing was veiled in mystery.
A few days after, Tang Fan was denounced.
The one that did so was the Right High Executive of the Board of Justice, Zhuo Xing.
The Board of Justice was not the Ministry of Justice. In the Great Ming, apart from the Six Ministries was another division called the Six Boards. The officials in it were trueseventh-rank, if not seventh-rank, all in quite low positions that had no way to compare to the Six Ministries. Even so, they had a collective name; the Board Censors.
The Six Boards had been founded by the Great Ancestor long ago. For the sake of allowing the group to specially supervise Court officials and be able to denounce all that they saw as some abuse of the law, he bestowed them with enormous privileges, where even the Cabinet couldn’t keep their memorials away. However, in order to prevent them from going rogue, they were set in the lowest possible ranks. That was considered a counterbalance.
Li Man had previously threatened Tang Fan by saying that a forebear of his had been a third-rank Assistant Minister, and that he had old senior friends in Court. Those words hadn’t been an empty threat, because Zhou Xing’s father once had an old friendship with Li Man’s grandfather. That had purely been the affections of a prior generation, though, and upon coming to Li Man’s, they were shallow; he wouldn’t have had not a single soul come to speak up in his defense when he went to prison, elsewise.
Even so, the dead still left a tad of residual feelings. With Li Man’s evidence having been conclusive, Zhuo Xing couldn’t defend him when the Ministry of Justice hadn’t yet made a final determination. Now that Li Man was dead and had written Tang Fan’s name pre-mortem, everything seemed mighty suspicious. For that reason, Zhuo Jing presented a memorial accusing Tang Fan of making a mistake when investigating the case, as he believed that the man couldn’t shed skepticism from Li Man suddenly dying before the verdict.
In the Great Ming, anyone that wasn’t carrying a couple of denouncement memorials on their backs would be embarrassed to call themselves officials whenever they went outside. Since Li Man’s incident was indeed a bit suspicious, Tang Fan just temporarily stepped down from his post so as to avoid scrutiny, facing the wall in standby as he awaited punishment.
He didn’t think anything of it, but Pan Bin was infuriated.
Although Mister Pan normally had nothing good to say about his junior, he still considered him his groupie, and now he was being bullied by someone for no real reason.
Pan Bin had no choice but to give in a little bit when facing Wang Zhi, Marquis Wu’an, and other such people due to their domains and different authorities, playing the part of a younger grandson. Facing off with colleagues that were fellow civil officials, he wasn’t so polite.
Everyone has a couple of old connections these years. If you have them, would I not?
He unleashed his connections in a rage. Soon after, another censor denounced Zhuo Xing as being unjust in his role — he knew well that evidence against Li Man was concrete and irrefutable, yet intended to get the verdict overturned for him. How many bribes had he accepted from the Li family, for him to slander an official in a merchant’s name?
Little by little, both sides came to fight hardily with their words.
Tang Fan, the one actually implicated, was instead sitting by himself and reflecting.
Why had Li Man senselessly killed himself in prison?
Why would he write his name before death?
Why did the Li home suddenly catch fire, for yet another body to coincidentally be burned?
In the same vein, wasn’t the death of Old Li suspicious?
Setting writing implements up on the tabletop, he used them to write several different names.
Li Man, Li Lin, Lady Zhang, Lady Chen, Ah-Xia.
The day was getting later, and Sui Zhou hadn’t yet come back. He was probably caught up in Office stuff again.
Ah-Dong had already made up all the food, and had placed it in a pot to keep it warm. She and Tang Fan sat in the courtyard to bask in the chill, while also waiting for Sui Zhou to return for dinner.
Propping her chin up, she peered inquisitively at the characters Tang Fan had written down. Because she was still small, her legs didn’t touch the ground, so she swung them in the air.
“Big brother, how do you pronounce those?”
He pointed out each one, taught her how to say them, and told her what they meant. Giving her a piece of paper and a brush, he had the wee girl scrawl them out herself, then started to sort out his clues.
Lady Zhang was dead. She was the initiative victim in this case.
The reason Li Man wanted her dead was quite simple: over a very long time, hatred was borne from love, and he came to find her an eyesore. With her refusing to divorce, he didn’t hesitate to bring her harm thereafter.
Ah-Xia was currently still in prison. Tang Fan had already gone to question her; she didn’t know anything at all. From start to finish, she had merely been an unfortunate and exploited person that had no choice but to yield to Li Man due to her lost purity, helping him commit evil.
There were three people left… no, four people.
Tang Fan realized that he had overlooked the steward, Old Li.
Li Man killed himself in prison, writing his name before he died. The Li home caught fire with Li Man’s body inside, and Old Li wasn’t able to escape, either.
After the Li’s buried both Old Li and Li Man, they left the capital in haste, heading South as was previously mentioned.
Li Man had just died, and then his house caught fire. That was rather too much of a coincidence.
Or, perhaps… one could audaciously suppose that Li Man hadn’t died at all. Rather, someone else did in his stead, and he had consequently destroyed the corpse and evidence completely, in order to avoid someone finding something off later on?
The possibility of that actually did exist, on account of Li Man being locked in the Wanping County jail. Despite the case’s importance, there were still many opportunities for doing some tricks amongst this. It was hard to safeguard against jailers that coveted profits and were willing to help him with hoodwinking others.
Tang Fan couldn’t figure it out, though. When he had gone to the Li’s that day, he had clearly seen Li Man’s corpse. Him faking death as he lied there would have been absolutely impossible. He had to know that the corpse would get inspected by the coroner before it got released from the jail. Could he have bought him off, too?
No… wait. Wait.
He felt like he was still missing some major link.
“What was Young Lord Li usually like?” he asked Ah-Dong.
She tilted her head. “He didn’t like talking much, and was really shy. He was good to us, but I didn’t see him often because he was always shut up in his room to study. He had his own maid, too.”
“How was he towards your Madam?”
“Very filial. He had been raised by her since he was little. On the contrary, towards the Old Lord, who didn’t come back much throughout the year, he was respectful and fearful.”
Tang Fan stood up, then paced around the courtyard with his hands behind his back.
Filial, shy, didn’t like to talk.
Right. That was the impression he himself had towards Li Lin before this.
He still recalled that following Li Man’s arrest, he had gone to Li Lin to discuss Ah-Dong’s redemption, and the teen had a guarded and hateful attitude towards him. Plus, there were those extreme words he had said to him.
At the time, he still believed that Li Lin’s personality had greatly changed due to suffering upset, but that now seemed to not be the truth.
Swiftly turning his head, he asked her, “Do you think that Li Lin was similar-looking to Li Man?”
She nodded. “They were. The Madam always said that the Young Lord and the Old Lord seemed to have come from the same mold.”
Even though she had left the Li family, she still hadn’t altered the language of her habitual addresses.
He didn’t question her anymore, but accelerated the beat of his soles.
That’s right! That’s right!
They should have been thinking about this from another angle to begin with.
He hypothesized that, in the interim following Li Man’s arrest and proceeding Tang Fan’s meeting with Li Lin, Li Man had already swapped identities with his son. When Li Lin went to visit the prisoner, the other likely convinced him to swap places with him in jail, fibbing that he himself would go out and find a way to suppress the case. With Li Lin’s timid and bashful nature, it would’ve been impossible for him to oppose his father’s idea. At that juncture, were he to stuff a bit of coin to the jailer, then find some pretext to have him open the cell door to allow father and son to reunite for a short time, the jailer would inevitably agree to it. Therefore, when Li Lin was done visiting, that Li Lin was actually Li Man.
Since the father-son duo had similar statures and approximate looks, as long as Li Man tweaked his disguise a little and deliberately imitated his son’s voice, the servants wouldn’t dare to say anything even if they had doubts. The only one entitled to put forth a question in Li Man’s presence was likely the devoted steward, Old Li.
The man might have found out about their identities being swapped. According to his faithful character, he assuredly would have urged Li Man not to do such a thing. Afraid that he would disclose something, Li Man simply threw caution to the wind, burning Old Li and Li Lin up into ash together in order to eliminate the evidence.
As for Li Lin’s cause of death, some uncertainties were still around that. When he thought about it now, though, suicide composed the majority of probabilities.
With filial piety pressing down on his crown, his weak self had no other option but to comply with his father’s request to switch identities. However, on account of his mother’s death, as well as his father’s cold-blooded lack of feeling, Li Lin’s heart had to have been full of painful struggles; everything that had happened was in complete conflict with the books of wise men he had read before.
That contradicting state of mind caused the teen boy incomparable confusion, and he ultimately chose suicide to escape it all.
Yet, as he was dying, he still worried after his mother’s death and his father’s cruelty, so he wrote Tang Fan’s name on the wall — it wasn’t to blame him, but rather to hint at him, hoping that he would be able to solve all these riddles!
Just like that, it all made sense!
Thinking up to there, Tang Fan automatically began to breathe quicker.
He wasn’t excited because he had everything figured out, but rather because he felt that Li Man was really too awful a man.
What had started as an entirely uncomplicated wife-murder case ended up having a conclusion like this.
Starting from the very instant he had committed the murder, Li Man had to have made two plans. If he could bribe officials into downplaying the case, that would have been best, of course. If he couldn’t, then everything would advance according to his other plan: he would use underhanded means to get his way, replace himself with his son, then ultimately make his getaway.
The Li’s had already moved Southwards two days back. Tang Fan was certain that even if he sent people to give chase right this second, they would likely only be able to hunt down the scattered Li servants. As for the son-feigning Li Man, he had definitely long since carted the Li assets away to parts unknown.
Combining that with the previous disappearance of Lady Chen, a shadow of the White Lotus Society really might be inside these events.
His sleeve got shaken a couple of times. Snapping out of it, he noticed Ah-Dong was watching him with an inscrutable look.
“What is it?”
“What were you thinking about, big brother? I’ve been shouting all this time, but you didn’t answer! You almost scared me to death!” The little girl patted her chest, then pointed at the day-worn Sui Zhou that had just returned. “Brother Sui is back! Let’s get ready to eat!”
Tang Fan creased his brow. “Guangchuan, I thought up a little something regarding the Li case. I was just about to tell you that I’m afraid I’ll need to trouble your Office again.”
Sui Zhou nodded. “Let’s eat first.”
Ah-Dong skipped out from inside with the dishes, echoing what she had heard. “Yes, yes, let’s eat first! I’m about to die of hunger!”
Sui Zhou patted Tang Fan’s arm. “We’ll talk more after.”
His language was simple and speech dull, but from that dullness came a feeling that made one place ample trust in him.
Tang Fan didn’t notice that his own expression immediately relaxed. He nodded, smiling towards him. “Thanks to Ah-Dong today, I finally got to eat scholar-leaf noodles. I’d been craving them for a long time!”
“You’ve got some nerve to say that, big brother!” she shouted. “You ran off to climb that tree and narrowly fell off it! I almost broke all my bones trying to catch you!”
Sui Zhou: “…”
He had thought that after taking him out to eat that one day, the other would have since abandoned this notion. Who could have foreseen that Sir Tang would take advantage of his denouncement-induced downtime to persist with climbing the tree and picking the leaves himself?
Sui Zhou, at last, learned what an ‘epicurean obsession’ was.
The translator says: Pan Bin can diss his shidi all day long, but when anyone else starts doing it, the Mortal Kombat theme starts playing in the background.
I’ve done some translation touch-ups, so if you see things that are different, you’re not going crazy. Everything is fine.