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As expected of Lady Wan’s pampered-concubine affectation, her notes were out-of-the-norm as soon as she opened her mouth.
However, Tang Fan was still heard to use that moderate tone of his. “I must inform you, Consort, that my parents have long passed and my older sister has married off to elsewhere, thus not being of the Tang family. Strictly speaking, my entire family is indeed wiped out.”
The corners of everyone’s mouths twitched, all floored by that set of words.
Even Lady Wan was taken aback, instantly forgetting what she was about to curse at him.
Tang Fan changed the subject. “I stated that as a Judge, I can judge the minds of the dead, but not the living. Since you’ve said as such, Consort, I can pursue investigation with peace in heart.”
He had already gotten roped into this, and it was hard to get off when riding a tiger. He had no option but to accept.
Consort Wan had denied before everyone that this had anything to do with her, which was tantamount to pledging an oath under public eye. With that statement, Tang Fan would suffer relatively few impediments when sleuthing.
However, he didn’t believe that this genuinely had no relation to her just because she said so.
A direct poisoning method might seem dumb, but if it worked, it wasn’t an impossibility. Lady Wan held the topmost of favor in the imperial harem, so even if the Crown Prince died, the Emperor still might not hold it against her, and would have many excuses to help her shirk the blame. With all that, why wouldn’t she take the gamble?
The case was likely not complex overall, but due to the detail of all the figures involved being heavyweights, it was particularly headache-inducing.
Originally, a case like this wouldn’t have ever been Tang Fan’s responsibility to bear, and should have at least gone to the Ministry of Justice or Court of Judicial Review. Because the one who had recommended him was Wang Zhi, though, and he was someone of Consort Wan’s, the present Cabinet Viziers pretty much refused to stand off with the Emperor. A bizarre silence was thus maintained on the scene for a moment, no one uttering an objection.
But, when one carefully thought through it some more, there had always been a lot of oddities happening in the Ming Dynasty. Considering that it had an Empress Dowager that had adopted a son and treated him like she had birthed him, every official in it playing deaf and dumb, an Emperor that had been taken hostage by foreigners, a Consort that was sixteen years older than the Emperor yet could still be favored, and an imperial eunuch of no more than twenty that every official dreaded, allowing a minor Judge of the sixth-rank to come investigate this case didn’t seem so hard to accept.
Chenghua yawned, truly tired from over half a day of tumult. “Since that’s so, then it shall be so. It’s late now, so the Crown Prince will first return to rest. All Solons may also return.”
“Your Majesty, the case…?” Wang Zhi inquired.
Chenghua waved him off. “Let’s speak more of it tomorrow. Tang Fan may also return and enter the palace again tomorrow. When he has anything he needs to ask or investigate, you should cooperate with him as much as possible, Insubject Wang.”
Wang Zhi had to affirm.
Consort Wan walked over to latch onto Chenghua’s arm, looking coldly at Tang Fan meanwhile. “I am clean of implication,” she said pointedly. “I ask that you be sure to get to the bottom of this, Sir Tang, so that I don’t have to suffer needless notoriety!”
Tang Fan appeared to have not heard her warning, cupping his hands. “This subject will do all that I can.”
Once the Emperor and Crown Prince had gone, the three Solons naturally didn’t want to hang around much, either, and instantly left in full. Shang Ming, having allowed Wang Zhi to snatch the limelight, vented the sum of his anger onto Tang Fan with an unreadable smile. “This case will burn your hand, Sir Tang. You’ll have to shape up. If you don’t find things out, your little life will be strung up.”
Tang Fan gave an oh. “Many thanks for your pointers, Eunuch Shang.”
Wang Zhi smiled fakely. “Shang Ming, you can’t say I didn’t warn you. You shouldn’t always be thinking to fight for power in inner strife, but thinking more about how to share worries with and solve the problems of nobles. If you have the ability to go find the murderer, the Consort will be bound to remember that great favor of yours!”
The Eastern and Western Depots were always at odds. Shang Ming and Wang Zhi practically had a substantive amount of fire coming out of their eyes as they watched each other. In the end, the former rolled his eyes and huffed. “Don’t be proud of yourself too soon. If this Tang guy can’t put forward a pleasing result, you’re going to be out of luck alongside him!”
With that, he swiveled around by the waist, and left with a fling of his sleeves.
Looking at his retreating back, Wang Zhi laughed coldly, then turned to Tang Fan. “I’ll send you off from the palace, Sir Tang.”
Tang Fan knew that he had something he wanted to say, so he didn’t decline. They left the Palace of Celebrating Humanity, then walked down the road towards the palace gate. Wang Zhi only permitted anyone unrelated to follow from far away, while he himself walked shoulder-to-shoulder with Tang Fan, one lantern per person.
“Eunuch Wang, you and I have never had any grudges, nor enmity, yet you’ve caused me disastrous trouble,” Tang Fan said bluntly.
Wang Zhi snickered. “Riches and honor are sought in danger. You’re such an intelligent man; isn’t it a pity that you’re subordinate to an average one like Pan Bin? If you can help scrub Consort Wan’s unjust accusation away, this will be an enormous boon, plus a lucky turn of events. Isn’t the time for you to get promoted, gain glory, and rise up in the world just a matter of when?”
Tang Fan had no expression. “You look upon me too highly. At that time, I would likely not get promoted, but be unable to ensure my own life.”
“This was an outright incident that no one wanted to happen. You’re aware of why I sit equally to Shang Ming, right? Way back when the Western Depot had been established, there had also been an incident. Since what had happened had already happened, we went and turned that incident into an opportunity.”
“You don’t need to go around in circles, Eunuch Wang. If you have something to say, say it straight.”
Wang Zhi didn’t mind the other’s tone. “I may as well explain the whole of it to you, first. This hadn’t been the Consort’s doing, as she would have never intensely demanded for His Majesty to launch a thorough investigation otherwise. Furthermore, in private, she actually has her mind faintly set on the murderer. Do you know who it is?”
Tang Fan lightly quirked a brow.
Wang Zhi didn’t keep him in suspense, drawing out his words. “She thinks… this was the Crown Prince’s doing.”
Tang Fan’s brows shot up, then proceeded to furrow deeply.
“Actually, with your smarts, it’s not too difficult to comprehend why, is it? You’ve presumably heard of the death of the Crown Prince’s birth mother three years back. Consort Wan believes that despite his youth, he still remembers that, so he’s harboring a grudge and wants to frame her via this.”
The other frowned. “But he’s still young—“
“Right. There’s some devoted people around him, though,” Wang Zhi cut him off with. “Don’t you civil officials have a lot of thoughts towards him?”
Consort Wan had dominated the imperial harem for many years. Whenever an heir was born in the palace, he would never escape the fate of an early death. The survival of Zhu Youcheng could be called a miracle; with the help of the eunuch Zhang Min by Consort Wan’s side, the deposed Empress Lady Wu, Empress Dowager Zhou, the Sealwielder eunuch Huai En, and an unknowable amount of maids and servants, Zhu Youcheng managed to cover Consort Wan’s eyes and ears until he could live to the point that he was donned the Crown Prince.
From a different point of view, it could be imagined how furious she was when she heard the news. At that time, there were no heirs at the Emperor’s knees apart from Zhu Youcheng, who was the foremost and oldest son in both reality and name. Meanwhile, there was no way for Consort Wan to stuff him back into his mother’s womb, nor any way to prevent him from being established as the Crown Prince.
Three years prior, at the end of the very same year Zhu Youcheng had been dubbed, his birth mother, Lady Ji, died of sudden illness. Although there was no evidence for it, a lot of factors indicated that it had been Consort Wan’s craftsmanship.
Seeing as the Crown Prince title had been set, she wanted to recognize him under her own name. Lady Ji had been a hindering existence to that, so she had to die.
Yet, following that, he appeared to hold a grudge in his heart. He treated Consort Wan with estranged courtesy, never approaching her easily of his own accord. With her plan to raise the Crown Prince to maturity foiled, she began to loathe him again, always feeling that it was hard for him to forget the death of his birth mother, and that there would come a day that he would take revenge on her.
Those past events were no sort of secret. Even Tang Fan knew a thing or two about them.
“That idea Pan Bin gave me last time, to accrue more good karma with the East Palace — that had actually been yours, right?” Wang Zhi asked, tone unhurried. “After hearing your words, I felt they made exceptional sense. Who could’ve known that a ready-made opportunity would now bring itself to our door? If you can prove that this has case had nothing to with Consort Wan, and also wasn’t the Crown Prince’s doing, not only will she view you favorably, but he’ll be thankful to you, too. Do you still need me to explain more about the benefits you could get from this?”
Ever since Wang Zhi had referred to the Crown Prince, Tang Fan knew what he was about to say. He smiled indifferently. “Eunuch Wang, that plan was for you, not me. Since the case has now come into my hands, how I will investigate it will naturally go according to my own standards. In contrast, since you recommended me, if the time comes that I can’t crack the case, you will definitely be implicated.”
“Tang Runqing, don’t mess around! I’m warning you!” the other raged. “Did I not say it clearly enough?! With your intelligence and methods, isn’t the direction this goes entirely within your control?! When this is all done, we’ll both benefit! Do you not know how to appreciate a favor?!”
Tang Fan retained his calm. “You didn’t consult with me beforehand. Now, when the matter has come to a head, you’ve forced it onto my head. Isn’t that too spiteful? Yes, we would both benefit were things to go like you say, but I wouldn’t be able to hide from my conscience. Even if one acting as an official cannot do good for the citizens, they, at the very least, cannot distort the truth. Now, we’re all on the same boat. I can only promise you that I will do my utmost with the investigation — how the ultimate truth goes isn’t up to what you say, nor what I say, but what the facts say.”
At this point in the conversation, they had already gotten near to the palace gates. Tang Fan responded to him no more, stuffing his nearly-dead lantern into the hands of the young eunuch that had been guiding in front. Then, in contrast to his snail’s pace from just before, he took big strides out of the gate.
The night wind brushed the flaps of his robes to the side. When one stared into the distance, Tang Fan looked so puny contrasted with the vast Imperial City, as well as so aloofly independent. Tiny and indistinct, it seemed like he would leave on the breeze.
Wang Zhi didn’t go to catch up with him, merely standing in place with his eyes narrowed, watching his retreating figure gradually get further away.
“Eunuch Wang, the wind gets strong in the deep of night! Try not to catch a chill!” The young eunuch gathered in from behind, showing some care to being eager to please.
Wang Zhi said nothing, his expression deep and unfathomable. After a long time, he let out a mocking laugh. “I thought that he’d be another Liu Cottonflower, but I hadn’t expected to run into a Shang Hongzai… civil officials! Hmph!”
The young eunuch understood nothing, his face full of confusion.
Tang Fan hadn’t bumped into Sui Zhou when he entered the palace, nor did he see him after he got home. It wasn’t until the shine of daybreak was in the sky, and when he had a recent bit of sleep, that he heard the faint sound of a courtyard door getting pushed open. He draped clothes over himself to go see; Sui Zhou had indeed returned.
The latter didn’t conceal the drain and exhaustion all across his face, though his appearance and expression were as stern and sharp as ever. He looked up to see Tang Fan coming out from inside, and his brows promptly knitted together. “I heard you also went last night?”
Tang Fan nodded. “Yes.”
Those brows knit even tighter. “You shouldn’t have.”
Tang Fan spread out his hands. “As someone in officialdom, my self is not my own.”
Seeing as Sui Zhou was still looking imposing, he couldn’t help but let out a pff. “It’s fine, the boat will find a straight current. You haven’t eaten breakfast yet, right? Go, go, go, let’s go out and find a breakfast stall. Get something to warm your stomach before anything else so that you get a bit of energy.”
At this hour, those who ought to be at Court had long gone to Court, and those that ought to have gone to the bureau had long been sitting in the bureau. Tang Fan had been in the palace for most of last night, and he’d also been shouldered with the East Palace case, so his mind was a bit shot. He straight-up prepared to take sick leave, then fill out the forms for it when he went to the bureau tomorrow.
This area was a residential district, and there were a lot of breakfast-selling stalls on the street. The two of them randomly picked out one that had youtiao and youbing, then sat down, ordering a plate of youtiao and two cups of soymilk.
Tang Fan concisely explained what had happened last night.
Sui Zhou already knew the rough circumstances, really. Following Han Zao’s death, the Brocade Guard had received the news and entered the palace soon after. Because the situation hadn’t yet been understood, on top of the event two years ago where the sorcerer Li Zilong had schemed to seize the palace still being fresh in the mind, the personnel of the Northern Bastion Office had been divided into several groups, then separately assigned for security duty all over the palace. Due to his rank being comparatively high and his connection with Empress Dowager Zhou, Sui Zhou knew a bit more about it, but still didn’t get the amount of detail that Tang Fan had.
After the other’s recounting, his understanding consequently became clearer.
The two sat in a corner and whispered quietly to each other within the bustling market. One among them being a terrifying Brocade Guard meant that no one came near, which made it easy to speak and not worry about someone overhearing.
Listening to the end of it, Sui Zhou had a chill in his eyes. “Wang Zhi doesn’t have good intentions,” he stated outright.
Tang Fan nodded, smiling bitterly. “Yeah. All that has cause must have effect; I didn’t expect that me giving Pan Bin an idea would have wound around to come right back at me!”
“What do you plan on doing now, then?” Sui Zhou asked with mild concern.
Tang Fan smiled. “With things as they are now, what else can be done than the very word ‘investigate’? It’s merely how I’ll investigate, and where, that will need careful consideration. However, when I was in the palace last night, all I heard was Wang Zhi’s one-sided account. His Majesty and Consort Wan had both been present, so there definitely had to be a lot of things that were poor to speak of then. Did your Office pry out any information?”
“I’ll investigate with you,” Sui Zhou answered, no hesitation.
Tang Fan shook his head. “Just me alone is enough. How could I drag you into this? If I don’t handle this well, I’ll be losing my black hat.”
“I’ll be fine.”
“I still can’t treat a friend like this, though!” Tang Fan said, resolutely.
The other gave him a profound look. “Since we’re friends, there’s no need to decline. My mind is set.”
Tang Fan was a bit touched.
After being buds for so long, he knew that Sui Zhou was someone cold on the outside, but warm on the inside. That warmth wasn’t directed towards everyone, either, but for those he cared about. Take Ah-Dong, for example; Tang Fan was well aware that if she wasn’t his sworn sister, the man would have never attached any importance to her.
Even so, there was really no deep friendship of many years between Sui Zhou and he. Theirs had only been built up via the Marquis Estate case.
White hairs like new, a first meeting like old friends.
Some people just innately shared such rapport. The word ‘friend’ didn’t need a long period of time for it, and as for whether they’d be compatible with each other, the ancients yet relied on fate for an affinity at first meet.
What great fortune Tang Fan had, to come across a friend like this.
With those words said, rejecting him would just be a slap in the face. Tang Fan grinned easily. “Then… it would be rude of me to refuse!”
Sui Zhou looked placid. “It would be.”
He paused, then said, “I didn’t really receive any other information than you did, but I can confirm one thing; Han Zao definitely didn’t pass of sudden illness.”
Tang Fan mustered his energy. That sentence was so important, it could directly determine what direction their investigation went. “How do you say that?” he hurriedly asked.
“Han Zao was born to Han Fang in old age, the latter being forty. His family spoiled him, making him exceptionally mischievous. He had been strong-bodied since childhood, frequently climbing up trees and going into water. Three days ago, he and the Crown Prince dined at the Dowager’s place, which coincided with an imperial doctor coming in for a checkup pulse. She then asked him to examine Han Zao. At the time, he concluded that Han Zao was healthy, while the Crown Prince seemed a bit inherently feebler.”
Tang Fan mulled that over. “Since you say that, Han Zao’s cause of death truly does involve poison applied to the soup bowl?”
Sui Zhou shook his head. “I’m not sure. After the incident, the body got moved to the Western Depot. If we’re going to investigate, it needs to be done as soon as possible. Otherwise, we’ll be waiting until the corpse rots or the Han family comes asking for it, which will be even more tricky.”
Tang Fan nodded. “You didn’t sleep at all last night over this, so go home and take a rest. I’ll go to the Depot.”
Sui Zhou gave him a look. He said nothing, but his message was obvious: You’re a weak scholar that hasn’t cried out that he’s tired, so would I be more tired than you?
They finished their breakfast, then headed straight for the Depot.
Sui Zhou’s Brocade Guard uniform was rather glaring there, but Tang Fan had been imperially ordered to handle the case, so the wardens had presumably been informed prior to this. As soon as Tang Fan announced his identity, they were led in.
The team leader that admitted them used to be a Brocade Guard called Bian Yu. Judging by the way he acted, he still recognized Sui Zhou, and his attitude was very cordial. “Eunuch Wang said we were to do our utmost to comply with you if you wanted to check anything out, Sir Tang. Han Zao’s body is indeed stored here. The Han’s had come once in the early morning, but we didn’t hand it over.”
Tang Fan nodded. “First, I’d like to meet the palace maid Consort Wan had sent to deliver the soup. I heard she’s here, as well?”
“Yes, she was brought over last night. I’ll take you to her.”
He gave Sui Zhou another glance, grinning with a hint of awkwardness. “Centarch Sui, you know that the Western Depot and Brocade Guard have never gotten along very much. If Eunuch Wang knew that I let you in here, he’d definitely put me on the hook for it—“
“I won’t put you on the hook.”
Wang Zhi’s voice resonated outwards, and the three’s eyes followed the sound. The founder-slash-administrator of the Western Depot walked over, a smile on his face.
“Ah, Brother Runqing. Did you sleep well last night?”
He and Tang Fan had clearly had a disagreement yesterday evening that could be described as a near-falling out, where Wang Zhi had pointed at Tang Fan’s nose and told him to not turn his back on a favor. The latter wasn’t afraid of him, but he definitely didn’t believe that the other would be magnanimous enough to not hold a grudge, either.
However, after a separation of only half a night, Eunuch Wang acted like he had totally forgotten the previous night’s unpleasantness.
Haughty and tyrannical before the masses, careful and prudent before the Emperor and the Consort. The very first time he had met Tang Fan, he was condescending, but now, he was approachable — all of that illustrated the multiple faces of this imperial celebrity. As the saying went, those floating through jianghu would not survive without learning a couple extraordinary skills, and this Chief Eunuch was young, yet fully adept in the art of face-changing.
Tang Fan wasn’t to be outdone in this, smiling slightly. “I’ve troubled you with concern, Eunuch Wang. Having received a meeting with royalty last night, I was severely excited yet nervous, tossing and turning as I slept. How did you sleep?”
When had Bian Yu ever seen the majestic Chief Eunuch give someone a kindly look before? His jaw almost dropped to the floor in shock.
Even if the Chief of Cabinet arrived, Eunuch Wang would probably love to put on an air of ignoring him, but now he was putting on a rarely-seen smile — and in the presence of a minor, sixth-rank official! The sun really was rising in the West today!
The translator says: MXS wants to say that that ‘Shang Hongzai’ refers to Shang Lu, a popular official who had resigned from his post because he didn’t like the Emperor, nor Wang Zhi. Wang Zhi was commenting that the other wasn’t Mr. Cottonflower, who was flexible, but Shen Hongzai, who is hard as a rock.