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[Arc 3: The Case of the East Palace]
Their group cantered in. The night wind cut across the face, making robes flap noisily.
The palace gate had long been locked up at this shichen, but with the Western Depot’s imperial orders, no one dared to obstruct them. A soldier looked over the wardens’ identification tokens, then immediately let them through. As for Tang Fan, he interrogated him a bit, only for the warden who had brought him here to mouth the words ‘Eunuch Wang’s orders’. The faces of those several imperial guards morphed drastically. They eventually waved their hands, hurriedly letting them in.
Upon entering the palace, one had to dismount — that was iron-clad law that no one could violate. Cabinet Solons and Guardian Officials would, at most, be ferried on a small palanquin, as would Wang Zhi, Shang Ming, and other such powerful eunuchs. There was no special treatment here; everyone had to get off their horses and walk, so Tang Fan and rest were obviously even less likely to be exceptions.
The wardens bringing him in were in a rush, taking lightning-fast strides as martial artists. Tang Fan followed them for a burst, but was somewhat unable to keep up, panting hard. In his haste, the leader had to have his subordinates take Tang Fan by the shoulders and arms, half-lift him up, and force him to walk forward quickly. That was fine with him, since he didn’t need to use any extra effort. He stepped upon the bluestone slabs with only the tips of his toes, as if he had learned lightness arts in a split second.
Being pleased at the breeziness, nice-sounding words came out of his mouth. “This… humble one… is lacking in strength, and has burdened you gents with the trouble!”
There was a stretch of darkness within the Forbidden City. Distantly, only a few, feebly-shining candle flames were in the palace ahead, aside from the lanterns held by the occasionally-passing soldier on duty as well as the ones their own group relied on for illumination.
Even though the Emperor was as abundantly rich as the four seas, if he made this huge palace well-lit all over, it would be a massive expense that even he wouldn’t be able to undertake. Tang Fan had never seen the City at night before; not needing to look at the road himself anyways, he used that distracting comment to remotely observe the imposing and vast palace complex for a second. What emerged in his heart was not worship, nor admiration, but rather the thought that under the cover of blackness, in each and every room of each and every hall in the palace, an unknown amount of gratitudes, grudges, passions, hatreds, sorrows, and pleasures of the human world had once played out.
Were it not for the concern of violating taboo, this would all be great book-writing material!
Beneath the lighting of flickering flames, Tang Fan’s profile appeared to be abnormally tranquil. He had neither the panic of getting summoned into the palace late at night, nor the dread of dealing with the Western Depot.
The leader of the wardens wasn’t sure why Eunuch Wang had suddenly made him go fetch this minor official, but Tang Fan’s display made him look at him a little differently.
Thankfully, he had no idea what Mister Tang was thinking about right now, else he would absolutely fall apart.
Counting this time, Tang Fan had been here twice. The first was over three years ago, when the rankings for the palace exams were being announced and he had come in with many people of his same year. The ambience had been dignified and solemn as they followed officials to pay respects to the Son of Heaven.
Thinking back, that Son’s elegant bearing had really been… ahem, too far away. He hadn’t seen it clearly.
As he was not a person from several centuries in the future, it wasn’t possible for him to know the layout of the Forbidden City. This was the Emperor’s home, so that sort of imperial schematic obviously had to be kept strictly confidential in order to prevent spies. If, some day in the future, he could become one of the high-ranking officials of the Six Ministries, he would then frequently enter the palace to participate in politics, and naturally becoming familiar with it as time went on.
Thus, he had no clue where they were bringing him right now, and had no choice but to just go with them.
They walked for about two quarters of an hour, passing through one palace gate after another, seeing one palace wall after another. Eventually, their footsteps slowed. Not too far away, there was a hall with dancing human shadows, shining lights, wide open doors, and even a good deal of people making patrols around the hall’s gates, defending it strictly.
Tang Fan knew that this was the goal destination of their trip.
The wardens finally put him down. His heels touching the slightly rough slabs, he abruptly got the eased feeling of having one’s feet solidly planted on the ground.
Being a human sedan chair had been quite speedy, but not enjoyable. His arms faintly ached now.
“Go.” At this point, that had been the only word the lead warden had said the whole time.
“I dare ask, sire, what’s inside?” he had to whisper.
“Go in and you’ll know.” The other refused to explain a word.
Tang Fan had simply been wanting to mentally prep himself some. Seeing that the other was taking this so seriously, an idea bloomed at the bottom of his heart, and he asked no more. He went up the steps, accepted a body search and interrogation from guards at the doorway, and got in only after a very long while.
The one who was bringing him in, however, was not the Depot warden that had just brought him the whole way, but a young eunuch of unfamiliar features.
Presumably, the other was often on duty here. The first thing he said to Tang Fan was “Wait here,” and then entered. After another good long while, he came out, said “Follow me,” turned, and went back in.
Tang Fan came inside, then noticed all the various decorations in the hall. He showed nothing on his surface, but had an inkling on the inside.
Once he was led into the main hall, he caught sight of people sitting and standing in the middle of it. In the center of them was a middle-aged man in round-collared robes of yellow silk. Tang Fan didn’t stare blankly and lose himself, directly kneeling down to prostrate himself. “This subject, Tang Fan, pays respects to His Majesty.
“You are exempt from ceremony,” the Chenghua Emperor said. His voice had a laziness that hadn’t changed for an eternity, but it wasn’t because he was feigning laziness; he genuinely was.
Tang Fan got up from the bow, standing up tall. He didn’t raise his head to look all about, expression as stable as ever.
Chenghua cared not about the arrival of this minor figure, and would have never remembered that he had once praised the other as ‘stylish and graceful’. He was tired, but what had happened today was really too serious. Even the three Cabinet Solons were all still here, not yet leaving the palace; the Emperor hence had no choice but to muster up his energy.
He looked towards Wang Zhi. “Insubject Wang, he was recommended here by you, so go on and do what you please.”
“Yes,” Wang Zhi answered respectfully, completely missing that bossy flamboyance Tang Fan had seen outside the palace.
“Tang Fan,” he said.
“Subject present.” Tang Fan yet maintained his posture of a slightly-bowed head. Generally speaking, if a subject didn’t have permission, they could not casually look straight at the Emperor’s sacred countenance, as that looked disrespectful. Even so, back when he had just entered, he had already rapidly taken in everyone on-scene.
The Emperor and Crown Prince were both here.
Wan An, Liu Xu, Liu Ji — the three outstandingly famous, papier-mâché Solons were here as well.
These bigwigs were apex-level figures that equivalently grasped imperial power.
There were also some other servants, maids, bodyguards, and soldiers, who were self-explanatory.
Despite all the people, they were passive, not making a sound.
Only the candle flames in the hall would momentarily make crackling sounds outside of that.
In the reach of Tang Fan’s sights, he found that behind the Emperor was a screen, and someone’s silhouette was faintly hidden seen behind that.
Who they were seemed to be on the verge of reveal.
On the other end, Wang Zhi began to explain why he had been summoned here.
Nowadays, the Crown Prince of the East Palace was Zhu Youcheng. He had grown up in the palace, but it wasn’t until three years ago that he had been established as the Crown Prince. His life experiences could be labelled as ‘rough’.
Now that his status had been set, though, all of the books he read and characters he wrote needed to be fostered in accordance with the specifications of an heir apparent.
The Crown Prince’s troupe of teachers was large, but he needed study partners in addition to those.
Typically, those would be chosen out of inner-palace eunuchs for him, but sometimes they would be selected from the sons and nephews of major officials. In recent times, one of his study partners was Han Zao. His father, Han Fang, had been one of Chenghua’s teachers when he was the Crown Prince.
Due to his poor health, Han Fang had intended to resign two years prior. However, due to the Emperor caring about his camaraderie with his teacher, he bestowed Han Fang with the empty title of ‘Youth Minister of the Crown Prince’, and had Han Zao go into the palace to be his study partner.
He was not to be some kind of servant that would take punishments on the Crown Prince’s behalf when the latter didn’t do his work well, but an actual classmate-slash-playmate. Han Zao was about the same age as the Prince, and they studied together all day long, making their friendship quite close.
Yet, it was just today that when the Crown Prince and his group were in the middle of lessons, Han Zao had suddenly cried out that his stomach hurt, and before the imperial physician could come over, he soon dropped to the floor, dead.
How was that okay?!
The East Palace promptly erupted. Imperial doctors rushed in at top speed to look Han Zao all over, yet still couldn’t tell how he had died.
By good or bad luck, shortly before Han Zao shouted about his stomach, Consort Wan had sent someone over with two bowls of mung bean-lily soup.
The Crown Prince hadn’t eaten it. Han Zao had.
A series of events unfolded as a result.
Everyone knew that Consort Wan once had a son. He had been the Emperor’s eldest, but passed soon after he was born. Later on, the Noble Consort Lady Bai had one, and he was established as the Crown Prince, resulting in not even two years passing before he died. Ever since then, no successor had been born in the imperial harem. Everyone claimed that it was because Consort Wan forbade any woman aside from her from having sons.
With Lady Wan’s feminine power, she put the Crown Prince through all sorts of twists and turns now that he was able to see the light of day again. Those who heard of what they were were heartbroken, those who saw what they were were moved to tears.
Honestly… when as much was said, the cause of Han Zao’s death seemed to be extraordinarily obvious, with no need for an investigation.
As the Emperor’s most favored woman, even if the Crown Prince had died, she likely wouldn’t have gotten in trouble for it, to say nothing of the fact that he hadn’t. The smartest way to handle this would be to quickly downplay the matter, casually find an excuse to gloss it over, and then have everyone maintain an exterior of calm.
Yet, a problem came. After Consort Wan learned of this, she was extremely shocked, crying to the high heavens, and immediately ran to the Emperor. She swore on the sun itself that she hadn’t anything to do with the matter, then persistently begged him to get to the bottom of it and find out truth so that her innocence would be returned.
It was precisely because this involved the Crown Prince, Consort Wan, and the son of Chenghua’s teacher that Chenghua got an excessive headache, having no choice but to summon the Viziers into the palace to discuss how to deal with this.
A Vizier’s job was to help govern the country. The three Solons currently heading the Cabinet all muddled through their days and the country wasn’t being governed properly, which didn’t at all indicate that they were competent enough to crack a case.
Chief of Cabinet Wan An, considering things from the angle of politics and the situation at large, proposed that the Emperor just gently take the lid off the affair. His Highness the Crown Prince was thankfully fine regardless, and as for Han Zao, the Dynasty ought to generously compensate the Han family. Everyone would be happy with that.
Consort Wan wouldn’t let it go, though. Disregarding whether anyone believed her, she always repeatedly insisted that she was totally innocent in this.
She understood that everyone knew she loathed the Crown Prince and wanted to eliminate him as soon as possible, which was why she was the most suspicious in this. If the Emperor really was going to be vague about it, then even a jump in the Yellow River wouldn’t wash her clean.
Under the insistence of his cherished woman, Chenghua had to have someone bring the Solons into the palace, and another to bring word to the Han family.
Two bowls of mung-lily soup. The Crown Prince hadn’t eaten; his bowl had been given to Han Zao, while the remaining bowl had been given to a young chamberlain to drink.
The chamberlain was fine, but Han Zao died.
Prior to Tang Fan entering the palace, someone had already checked this out; the pot with the sweet soup had nothing left in it, making it impossible to see if anything had been put in it, but the bowl and spoon themselves weren’t smeared with poison.
If there had been a problem with the soup, how could the attendant have eaten it, yet be fine?
Was it only in the bowl Han Zao had eaten?
The one that brought the soup over was a maid from Consort Wan’s palace, who wouldn’t admit that she had poisoned it no matter what.
Besides that, Han Zao was nothing more than a young child. How could he have any enemies? Given that his death was wanted, the Crown Prince also would have been killed — and who was it that found him displeasing to the eye?
All across the palace, there was only one person that fit that.
That would be bad to say aloud, however, and could not be done so plainly. For that reason, after Wan An’s suggestion was rejected by Consort Wan, he flat-out spoke no more so that he wouldn’t offend her.
Though the two shared the surname of Wan, they didn’t have a single thread of relation. Simply put, he knew that she received no small amount of Chenghua’s doting, so, utilizing the sizable Wan name, he took every method he could to claim connection to her, sitting quite stably as the Chief of Cabinet thereafter.
In the opinions of others, this was shameless, and everyone privately started to give him the nickname ‘the long-lived Solon’. In addition to that, there were all sorts of ridiculing nicknames aimed at the other Viziers, like the third, Liu Ji; he was Liu Cottonflower. Because he was thick-faced and was afraid of getting fluffed, everyone just straight-up called him Liu Cottonflower whenever they talked about him behind his back.
Getting back to the topic at hand, there was no issue with the soup, nor the bowl. The imperial doctor couldn’t take a dead person’s pulse, nor could he testify whether Han Zao had been sick to begin with. According to the eunuchs and the Crown Prince, though, he had been perfectly fine, with no ailments occurring in the past.
If there really was a poisoner, then no one was likely to believe that they were only going for a mere study partner. Everyone was more willing to believe that this was a deliberate homicide-by-poison case, and that the target had been the current Crown Prince.
Were this to be thoroughly investigated, who knew how much bad weather would get set off in the palace, or how many people would die unjustly? Chenghua loved the Prince, but it was a finite type of love, as the latter hadn’t grown up by his side since infancy. Now that he had been dubbed for the sake of the country’s foundation, Chenghua wasn’t stingy with what ought to be given to him, but he also didn’t want to let a storm brew because of this; to say nothing of the fact that, on the inside, he felt that this had something to do with his precious Consort Wan.
The Prince himself was sensible. Although grieved from the death of his study partner, he didn’t cry and shout to get revenge for him. When the Emperor questioned him, he simply said that he would comply with Father Emperor’s will.
All were hoping that this would get swept under the rug, but Consort Wan refused.
His Majesty was both very vexed and unwilling oppose his favorite’s wishes, which put the matter at a stalemate. Before Tang Fan got there, he had already called his two most trusted eunuchs over, Shang Ming of the Eastern Depot and Wang Zhi of the Western Depot.
For the sake of monopolizing the merit, Shang Ming actively petitioned for the Eastern Depot to investigate at once, while Wang Zhi understood the Emperor’s intent. They wanted to know to truth, but also didn’t want this randomly blabbed about. In the Emperor’s view, this should be investigated stealthily, so that in the event it was discovered to be related to Consort Wan, covering it up would be easy.
That was why he recommended one person to His Majesty — Tang Fan.
He had done so for the following reasons: he was smart, presently appointed as a Judge of Shuntian Prefecture, extraordinarily suited for his occupation, and had done an outstanding job in the Marquis Wu’an Estate case prior. They could have him come investigate.
The Emperor approved, and Tang Fan subsequently entered the palace.
Bystanders were curious as to when Tang Fan had built a line with Eunuch Wang. Tang Fan, after hearing the full sequence of events, only wanted to smile bitterly; wasn’t this just Wang Zhi pushing him into a pit of fire? Who’d want to get stained by such a sticky situation?!
This imperial eunuch was indeed young, brash, and the utmost of headstrong, doing whatever with just one thought about it. This wasn’t pressing, yet he had still towed Tang Fan down into its water.
“Tang Fan, now that you’ve learned what’s happened, what opinion do you have regarding the case?” Wang Zhi asked.
Towards Wang Zhi’s behavior of being high-and-mighty, fond of acting on his own accord, and not taking him seriously, Tang Fan was equivalently revolted.
However, he was not one to harbor grudges. Now that he had already been placed upon the bonfire, and was in the presence of the Emperor and the Cabinet, he had no right to decline. His fury simply passed in a flash, getting repressed to the bottom of his heart soon after. Then, he began to ponder how to settle this.
“This humble official’s skills are limited, and I dare not speak random drivel before His Majesty and all the Viziers,” he said after a think. “I have currently only heard a general idea; since I have neither seen Han Zao’s body, nor interrogated all the personnel concerned in this case, there is thus nothing I can comment on for the time being.”
Chenghua was a bit disappointed hearing this. He hadn’t been banking on Tang Fan being able to immediately unmask the truth — if he really did have that kind of ability, he would be more powerful than the gods — but he still couldn’t resist grumbling to Wang Zhi at those words. “Insubject Wang, you were just saying how formidable this man is. In our opinion, he’s just like those imperial censors outside, whose gift of glib is unrivaled in the land!”
Tang Fan’s eyes observed his own nose, and his nose observed his own chest, in pseudo-death, as if the Emperor wasn’t talking about him at all.
Wang Zhi inwardly thought that Tang Fan didn’t know how to appreciate a favor, wasn’t rushing to show off his good faith, and was now just standing there at the side like he was made of wood. “Do tolerate my advice, Your Majesty,” he quickly replied. “Many things are currently in a tangled knot, so discovering anything straightaway is a genuine challenge. It would be best to request that you extend the waiting period just a bit and allow him to take his time investigating. In fact, during the nominations of Gold Hall in the eleventh year of Chenghua, he ranked first of the second bracket, and had even been praised by you yourself at the time!”
For the sake of confirming that he actually did have good eyesight, he shifted out an old event of the past. Chenghua lifted his eyelids, dimly recalling that such a thing had indeed happened before. His impression of Tang Fan slightly improved.
“As that’s so, this case will be handed over to you to take care of, Tang Fan. However…” The Emperor glanced at Wang Zhi.
Understanding tacitly, Wang Zhi promptly picked up, “This case is of immense importance. You absolutely cannot speak casually about it to the outside world, or else you will be heavily punished.”
Beneath the crowd’s watching eyes, Tang Fan finally spoke, but they were words that startled the Heavens.
“This subject doesn’t dare to accept this order.”
Was this guy nuts?!
Did he even know what he was saying?!
How could he get all huffy in a setting like this?!
Everybody, including the servants and guards serving as backdrops, couldn’t help but stare wide-eyed at him.
Chief of Cabinet Wan An scrambled to shout in front of everyone, “You are impetuous, Tang Fan! How dare you not respect his sacred will! Is there respect for no one in your eyes?!”
Wang Zhi was even more furious. He knew that Tang Fan was likely grumbling about this assignment on the inside, but he had his own calculations. Even if the other wasn’t happy about this, he had no choice but to obediently go along with his orders now; how could the guest’s voice overpower that of the host’s? Who did this minuscule Judge of the sixth-rank think he was? The Emperor’s words were precious, yet he said he didn’t dare to accept his order? Wasn’t that basically punching His Majesty in the face?
“Tang Fan, have you gone mad? Where do you think this is? Are you allowed to be impudent here?! If you dare to object, may Xiang Zhong and Shang Lu be lessons to you!”
Xiang Zhong and Shang Lu; one was the former Minister of War, one was the former Chief of Cabinet. Both had fallen from their positions because they had opposed Eunuch Wang; one was sacked and returned to civilian life, one resigned and ran off. Wang Zhi bringing them up was clearly to menace him — if you still dare to object further, then their end will be yours.
Wan An mentally shook his head, thinking to himself that anger was truly attacking Eunuch Wang’s heart for him to speak irresponsibly like so. It was obvious that Tang Fan was only a sixth-rank Judge right now, yet he took out those two as examples; wasn’t that instead elevating Tang Fan up?
Chenghua then frowned, glaring at Tang Fan with an annoyed expression.
He wasn’t an Emperor fond of killing (which was his one good aspect), but if he didn’t much like someone, he would either get them dismissed from their post with a small wave of the hand, or demote them off to a penal sentence, which would be terrible enough as it was for the one in question.
Crown Prince Zhu Youcheng similarly didn’t say a word, but he looked at Tang Fan inquisitively.
It had been a very long time since the incident had occurred. It was supposed to be his bedtime hour now, but because this was related to him, he couldn’t go to sleep yet. Even so, he didn’t exude any sort of impatient expression despite his tiredness, standing beside his father as ever, as respectful and solemn as before.
When the tempest of rebukes came to an end, Tang Fan simply cupped his hands and started to speak at ease. “Your Majesty, excuse this subject’s words. As a Judge, I can judge the hearts of the dead, but not those of the living. With a rough look at this case, I fear that the degree of complication in it far exceeds imagination. For that reason, if you hand this great responsibility over to me, I won’t dare to decline it, but there are some things that I cannot help but ask to understand this clearly. Please absolve this subject of blame.”
“Feel free to ask. You’re absolved,” Chenghua replied.
Tang Fan nodded. “This minister will be so bold as to ask, then; can you guarantee that this truly had nothing to do with Consort Wan, Your Majesty?”
That statement was even more startling than the one just before.
Everyone there thought that Tang Fan was not only insane, but brainless.
That topic was fine placed in one’s head, but was it something to be said straight-out?!
Even Wan An was stunned, after which he couldn’t help but mentally shake his head. He thought differently from the others, though — this was marvelous, truly marvelous. Tang Fan was well aware that a certain someone was present, so he had purposefully asked this in order to come out on top, get the full-spread explanation of the case, and avoid plots against himself in the future.
Wan An recalled that three years back, it was his own words that had caused this young man, who originally should have been picked as the Prime Scorer, to instantly become a thoroughly cooked duck, only for him to apparently fly off anyways.
Exactly as expected, while Wan An was thinking it, the one behind the screen was quickly no longer able to contain themselves, and stepped out in a biting rage.
“If it was my doing, then may the Heavens strike me down with lightning for a horrid death! If it wasn’t, then may the Heavens strike down and wipe out your entire family!”
 Specific officials appointed to take charge of the country if the Emperor dies and the Crown Prince is still underaged. They’re in other positions of power in the meantime.