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Eunuch Wang couldn’t not put on a good face right now. After recommending Tang Fan last night, he had already tied him to his own boat. If the other caused any sort of situation that gave him a hard time, then he, as the endorser, would inevitably bear the blame alongside him. It was a no-brainer that Shang Ming was waiting nearby to look and laugh at him.
The Western Depot had only recently been established, and not for very long. It couldn’t compare to the Eastern Depot’s detailed history, but it was still in one-hundred-percent high demand. Who didn’t want a life of standing on equal ground with the Eastern Depot, having countless underlings under them, getting their presence announced wherever they went, and grasping immense power? Even middling officials like Liang Fang longingly eyed and drooled over the Western Depot. Despite having Consort Wan as a backing supporter, Wang Zhi still had to have some caution.
At this case’s onset, Consort Wan had summoned him into the palace for a face-to-face meeting, then asked him how this should be handled. He had immediately brought Tang Fan to mind.
Eunuch Wang was acquainted with a lot of officials, and also had many people at his command that would be willing to follow him around in service. However, when it came to judging cases and issuing verdicts, Tang Fan seemed to be the most reliable out of the people he knew. Based on the idea the man had given him through Pan Bin, he decided that he was quite clever, capable, slick, and adaptable; he ought to have been a Liu Ji-esque figure.
The situation had been pressing, so in his haste, Wang Zhi didn’t have time to consult with Tang Fan before he recommended him. He thought to himself that the latter was smart, and would presumably be able to grasp the abstract of this case with speed, making no sort of mistake.
Unexpectedly, the bloke looked smooth and slick, but he was actually rough and rigid. First, he got a preemptive strike before the Emperor and Consort, scaring Wang Zhi into a full-body cold sweat. Then, he had said that set of words to him, causing Wang Zhi to sleep poorly the whole night after he returned. With regret in his heart, Eunuch Wang felt like he had completely misunderstood the man.
Yet, what was done was done; there was no way that he could run back to the Emperor, say that he had suggested the wrong person, then swap him out for a new one. All he could do was suck it up, come over to greet Tang Fan, and scout out talk on the wind, so that he could avoid Tang Fan making a mistake at some point, thus dragging him down into the water with him.
Wang Zhi ignored Bian Yu’s nearly bug-eyed look, simply clapping Tang Fan on the shoulder and beaming at him. “I slept fine, of course!”
As he talked, he seized that shoulder and walked forward.
Tang Fan thought to himself that Eunuch Wang’s strength was considerable, nearly on par with Sui Zhou’s. With a tug and a pull, he couldn’t resist at all.
Once Wang Zhi had their backs turned to the rest of them, his expression sank. “Tang Runqing, this Eunuch will warn you kindly; this matter is one of great importance, and if you find anything out, you have to keep me up-to-date at all times. By no means should you make an assertion without permission, else your cause of death will be ‘unknown’ when the time comes. His Majesty is soft-hearted and doesn’t like killing people, but it isn’t like there aren’t exceptions.”
Tang Fan smiled. “You think rather too highly of me. I’m an insignificant Judge. How could I influence the overall situation? Furthermore, nothing has taken shape yet. Even what the true facts are is difficult to speak of. Since you’ve already stated that this isn’t the Consort’s doing, why are you so tense?”
Wang Zhi made his voice even lower. “Quit playing dumb! If it weren’t for your suggestion of getting in good with the East Palace, why would I have made you come over? I’ll be brief by throwing this statement out for you here — the murderer mustn’t be the Consort, nor the one in the East Palace!”
Tang Fan shook his head. “There’s no need for baseless fears, Eunuch Wang. As I see it, the East Palace has no relation to this.”
Wang Zhi looked at him skeptically. “Really?”
“When I was in Hanlin, I had once seen an essay written by the Crown Prince,” Tang Fan patiently explained. “He had only just entered schooling, so his writing style was immature and not worth a sneer, but, as the saying goes, how one writes reflects the writer. He’s young. Bad at masking himself. If he harbored malice, it would certainly come out between his words, but from what I saw, whether it was the essay or copied characters, each and every stroke revealed his self; honest, stable, and somewhat gentle. I was clear on him being a similarly soft-hearted, open-natured individual that doesn’t blame the gods and others for the roughness of his childhood, nor conceal an unfathomable mind. Someone like that is quite unlikely to use the life of his companion to frame Consort Wan. She’s truly overthinking this.”
The other had to breathe out a sigh of relief. “If your words are true, that would be for the best.”
Tang Fan laughed. “What good would it do me to lie to you? The country having a wise ruler thus means the land has great fortune; if that were not the case, why would I have suggested that you get close to the East Palace?”
In the Great Ming, the majority of civil officials truthfully didn’t think too much of eunuchs on the inside, even if they had to deal with them. Even a famed one might not get any more space in the history books than a mediocre civil official, who would demand higher standards from eunuchs than themselves; if they had a tad of power and took some rash actions, they would be crowned with the title of ‘corrupt eunuch’.
Tang Fan held a slightly different opinion, however.
For one in officialdom, being a greedy or corrupt official wasn’t hard: get an opportunity and seize it (but not too much of it), stand on the correct spot at critical moments, and don’t oppose the Emperor. Stick to that route. Keep with going down that path, and one would drift into a retirement of full glory.
Being a clean or straightforward official wasn’t hard, either: no matter how righteous someone was, put them in no regard, and when learning that someone had a handle to grasp, scold them for it, not even letting the Emperor slip past. Berating until you got banished or sent to prison was best, so that your name would get passed down through the ages.
Being an official that wanted to get real things done was beyond hard, though. The greater part of your colleagues above, below, and around you did absolutely nothing; what could you even do? Nothing, other than uniting those that could be united, and not making very defined dividing lines between good and bad people — so long as someone was capable of work, or capable of helping you in work, they could be made a friend.
In light of that criteria, Wang Zhi actually wasn’t too bad. He also wanted to accomplish things that weren’t too bad. It was simply that a eunuch’s status was quite confined, and because of his bossy nature, he had pulled a good amount of officials off of their steeds during his control of the Western Depot, thus creating his poor reputation.
For that reason, Tang Fan had given him that plan in the hopes that it could cause him to use his power for more productive matters, and not set the entirety of his mind on eliminating dissidents or scheming against the likes of Shang Ming all day long.
Eunuchs ought to have eunuchly goals.
What brought joy was that Wang Zhi had listened to him.
What was unfortunate was that the plan for Wang Zhi had hit Tang Fan on his own head.
One that did evil could not escape from it. Tang Fan was beyond helpless; with no way to deal with Eunuch Wang’s nagging, he had no choice but to tell him his foremost analysis of the Crown Prince.
Wang Zhi was finally appeased. After realizing that Tang Fan didn’t have the mind to fight against him, his expression turned from mostly-cloudy to clear weather. “Who do you think the killer is, then?”
“The investigation hasn’t yet started, and I’m not a god. How should I know?” Tang Fan answered, vexed. “Even what I said just now had only been my own personal judgement. It could only be used as a supplement to the case’s details, at most. All things need to have evidence.”
Wang Zhi hehe’d. “If you can find out the truth swimmingly, I guarantee that I’ll put in a good word for you before His Majesty and the Consort! Your rank will definitely get brought up then!”
Tang Fan sighed. “Whether my rank gets mentioned or not is secondary. I only request that you show mercy to me, Eunuch Wang, and not distribute things onto my head with no discussion next time around.”
The other nodded. “Okay. I’ll just inform you ahead of time, then.”
Feeling at great ease, Wang Zhi’s feminine and pretty face consequently appeared more like a maiden’s. Tang Fan, who had just experienced his strength, would absolutely never regard him the same as the other wimpy eunuchs.
Not too much of this case should be disclosed according to its special nature, but when Eunuch Wang now looked at Sui Zhou, he wasn’t hard on his identity as a Brocade Guard, instead giving him a meaningful smile. “I heard you and Centarch Sui had a good friendship, even staying in the same room. The rumors were truly not wrong — now you’re even going on assignments together!”
Wait a minute. What did he mean, ‘staying in the same room’?
The more Tang Fan heard, the more he felt something was off. “Rent is expensive in the capital. It just so happened that Brother Sui lived alone in his home, so he invited me and my little sister to come live with him,” he promptly clarified. “This present case is tricky and Shuntian bailiffs can’t be counted on, which is why I shamelessly asked that he lend a hand. Fortunately, he’s a loyal friend, and didn’t reject me. I really can’t thank him enough for his kindness!”
Wang Zhi made an oh, dragging the sound out for a very long time with a face of ambiguity. Unsure of what the other was being ambiguous about, Tang Fan heard him answer, “I also have a vacant house in the capital. If you don’t hate the idea, Runqing, you could move there, and not need to inconvenience Centarch Sui like so.”
Tang Fan, of course, rejected this without even thinking about it. “Many thanks for your generosity, Eunuch Wang. I am lazy by nature and don’t feel like moving, so I won’t trouble you.”
What a joke. Making friends with an imperial eunuch was one thing; staying in said eunuch’s house was of a completely different nature.
Smiling wide, Wang Zhi said that that was a shame and didn’t insist, turning to Bian Yu. “For this juncture, you, and the people under you, will obey Sir Tang’s orders. When he needs something, do all that you can to meet it. If the scope of your power falls short, come let me know.”
Bian Yu was not an average bailiff. The Eastern and Western Depots had identical posts; under the Chief Eunuch were twelve squad leaders arranged on the basis of the twelve shichens of the day: Rat, Ox, Tiger, Hare, and so on. Bian Yu was the leader of the Hare squad, able to directly report his situations to Wang Zhi.
Wang Zhi had already given this order previously, but now that he was repeating it in Tang Fan’s presence, its significance was even more out of the ordinary.
Bian Yu had no idea what Wang Zhi and Tang Fan had spoken of in private, solely witnessing Wang Zhi, who never respected anyone, have a nice and amiable attitude towards Tang Fan, the two being in pretty good kinship; his mind, unsurprisingly, underwent a storm. Once Wang Zhi was gone, the degree of Bian Yu’s cordiality towards Tang Fan immediately reached a new height, manifesting in an overpowering attitude of allowing him to do whatever it was he wanted to do.
Tang Fan wasn’t overly polite about it, either, soon asking him to bring them for a visit to the palace maid that had delivered the soup.
On account of her being someone of Consort Wan’s, the maid didn’t suffer any sort of torture, merely being imprisoned in a small room where her food and living was taken care of. The mental torment of all this was plenty enough for her, however. After learning that Han Zao had died after drinking the sweet soup she had delivered, she had constantly been in a state of disturbed anxiety. As soon as she saw Tang Fan’s group, she immediately knelt down, wailing bitterly as she shouted about how she had been accused unjustly.
“No crying!” the nearby warden shouted to cut her off. Like her throat had been grabbed, she promptly lost her voice, only looking at them pitifully with her big eyes.
“Don’t be nervous,” Tang Fan said. “I’ve been royally decreed to investigate this case. If you’re free of blame, then you’ll be considered innocent. I’m going to ask you a few things, so you must answer them truthfully, understand?”
She nodded over and over.
“What’s your name?”
“Fu Ru. This maid is Fu Ru.”
“I must ask you, Fu Ru; did you deliver those two bowls of soup to the Crown Prince under orders of Consort Wan?”
“Had she ever sent food to him prior to that?”
“Since it hadn’t happened before, why would she suddenly do so? Lay out the details of the situation and the entire process. If you cover anything up, I won’t be able to help you.”
Fu Ru collected herself, then organized her words. “It went like this; the Consort heard that the Dowager gave the Prince food daily, and also heard that he liked to drink mung-lily soup, so she sent me to imitate that. I had urged her not to, but she kept insisting it be sent.”
“What did you say to her at the time?”
“I said to her, ‘The Crown Prince already remembers, likely hasn’t forgotten his birth mother, and isn’t close to you at all, so why should you incur peoples’ suspicions like this? If anything happens to him, everyone will probably blame you.’ But she said, ‘He’s the established Crown Prince. All the others scramble to fawn on him, while only I ignore him. His Majesty told me yesterday, even, that I shouldn’t be estranged from him. Hmph! I’m only doing this for His Majesty’s sake, lest it be said that I’m an intolerant Consort!’”
“Then, she had the kitchen make the soup, and sent me to deliver the bowls. The soup was cooked in the kitchen in her palace, not the communal one used by everyone in the main one. Her own food all comes from there. The soup had also been picked up by me, never switching hands the whole way, so there’s certainly no issue there.”
He asked nothing else, consoled her a bit, then left with the others.
“Han Zao’s body is here, as well. Would you like to take a look, Sir Tang?” Bian Yu asked of his own accord.
Tang Fan looked at Sui Zhou, first. “Guangchuan, I’ll trouble you to go with Brother Bian to look at it. I’ll go into the palace and get the physician that had taken Han Zao’s pulse and examined him.”
Sui Zhou nodded. “Go on.”
With Tang Fan’s rank and status, it would be a total impossibility for him to enter the prohibited palace at will in ordinary times. Yet, after being summoned by Chenghua last night, Wang Zhi had given him a token of command to be used for his convenience in investigation, otherwise too much time would get wasted from the layers of reports getting made every time he went in.
By coincidence, when Tang Fan got to the imperial hospital and asked, the very Doctor Sun that had taken the checkup pulses of the Dowager, Crown Prince, and Han Zao in passing also happened to be the same doctor that had rushed to the scene for inspection when Han Zao died. Added onto that, he was even on duty that day, which saved Tang Fan the effort of running back and forth.
Hearing Tang Fan’s idea, Doctor Sun sighed. “It was truly unexpected. When I first took Don Han’s pulse, he was clearly healthy without a hint of ailment. Who could have thought that he would die like this? Then, when I came over that day, he was still faintly breathing, but it was unfortunately too late. It would have simply been impossible to prescribe the right medication in such a short amount of time. Also, I’m no coroner, nor can I take the pulse of the dead, so I couldn’t make out anything strange.”
“Even so, I still have to trouble you to take a trip with me. You were the earliest to arrive, after all. There may yet be some particulars that we haven’t discovered and will need your help deducing.”
Doctor Sun was actually energetic. “Then I shall. Although I couldn’t save little Don Han, if I can contribute all of my humble efforts, my conscience will be somewhat reassured.”
Tang Fan led him out of the palace. The man was up in age and couldn’t last long walking on the road, so they hired a sedan and hurried straight out of the palace gates to the Western Depot.
On Sui Zhou’s end, he was in the middle of inspecting the body alongside the Depot’s coroner. Noticing their arrival, he only slightly looked up and said one thing: “Didn’t find anything.”
Tang Fan was slightly disappointed, but still asked, “You already checked all over?’
“Don Han has neither wounds nor bruises on his body, so it wasn’t death by blunt force trauma,” the coroner explained.
“What if he was poisoned?”
“May I be so bold as to ask whether you’re asking after a sudden-onset poison, or one applied over the years?”
“If it’s poison, it should be highly toxic and fast-affecting,” Doctor Sun supplied.
Back when Han Zao had fallen to the ground crying of his stomach hurting, an East Palace attendant had run off to call for a doctor, but even when Doctor Sun had hurried there, Han Zao died shortly after. The time between his collapse and the doctor’s arrival had been no more than the smaller half of a shichen, which was why the latter judged it like so.
The coroner shook his head. “That makes even less sense. If he had died suddenly of poisoning in life, there would still be marks of it left behind even if there are no injuries — the whole body being black and blue, for example, or bruises under the nails, puffiness around the eyes, and so on. Looking at the body, though, there’s really no evidence of this.”
Going along with the coroner’s words, Tang Fan carefully examined the corpse. Indeed, he couldn’t see any indication of that.
The profession of coroner was passed down through particular experience and apprenticeship, and the quality of the Depot’s coroner was assuredly a good chunk higher than Shuntian’s. Tang Fan didn’t doubt the authenticity of his verdict.
If he said it couldn’t be validated, then it couldn’t be validated.
Since it hadn’t been a sudden illness, nor were there traces of a poisoning, that only further demonstrated the killer’s cunning and exceedingly brilliant imagination.
Cases like this were always the most headache-inducing to officials, and were liable to end up placed as a pending case, or cause a random person to get arrested so that they could complete it for the sake of their career review. However, because all persons involved in this one were of extraordinary identity, even if there was no outline to be had, a trail still needed to be found, and even if there was no path, it still needed to be stepped upon.
“Shave his hair away and take a look,” Sui Zhou suddenly said. “If there’s nothing, dissect him.”
Tang Fan understood him. Sui Zhou must have remembered his experience in the Marquis Estate case when they had found a dent at the top of Zheng Cheng’s head, since most average people wouldn’t pay attention to an area covered by hair.
Autopsies were trifles, and the Depot had forever used many methods to do them, but in consideration of the identity of the one in question, Bian Yu hesitated. “That wouldn’t be great, yeah? What if the Han family refuses to…”
Tang Fan thought a bit. “Shaving the head beforehand is fine. Things as they are now, there’s only one goal, and everything else is discussable. I’ll handle the Han’s end.”
With those words, Bian Yu didn’t say anything further, directly ordering someone to bring a razor. The coroner brandished it himself. Its edge was seriously sharp, and in a quick few turns, strand by strand came off until Han Zao had a bald head.
One’s body came of the flesh of one’s parents. Even if the one in question was dead, this was still awful. As Doctor Sun watched Sui Zhou and Tang Fan set to task feeling about Han Zao’s head, the corners of his lips pulled down, and he turned away, unable to bear with looking.
At this instant, he heard Tang Fan gasp, and couldn’t help but turn back to look. He then saw him stooping in close, pointing at the spot of the anterior fontanelle. “There looks to be a little red here. Did the razor accidentally nick him just then?”
“No, this lowly one shaved it very carefully,” the coroner answered. “Moreover, he’s already dead…”
He, too, got in closer for a look, and was somewhat bewildered. “Why does it look like there’s a slight contusion there?” After that, he reached out and felt it. “But there’s no injury at all!”
“Wait! No one move!” Doctor Sun suddenly called out.
His voice was so loud, it made everyone turn and look at him at the same time.
A little embarrassed, he quickly walked over. Without paying attention to cleanliness, he felt the area for a spell, then narrowed his old eyes in scrutiny.
“A contusion, a contusion…”
He mumbled on and on. Tang Fan couldn’t help but ask, “Have you realized something, Old Sun?”
Doctor Sun nodded, then shook his head. “Wait a minute, wait a minute.”
Seeing him be like so, the others all paused in their movements, watching him feeling about and deliberating.
They saw his hand descend from Han Zao’s fontanelle, then go down his forehead, jaw, neck, and sternum to ultimately stop a cun above his navel.
After that, everyone observed as he leaned over and took a careful look. As he slowly pressed on it, his expression went from calm and serious to shocked and enraged, fluctuating without cease while he mumbled, “That really is it! It really is!”
“What did you find, Old Sun?” Tang Fan asked.
The doctor beckoned him over. “Come take a look, Sir Tang.”
Tang Fan walked over, and Doctor Sun pointed out with a hand to have him use his own and feel at the previous spot, copying him mechanically.
Tang Fan didn’t understand his reasoning, but still went along with it. Han Zao had been dead for a day and a night, so his body had since gone stiff and lost elasticity. Even like that, though, once Tang Fan pressed down, he felt something off.
Something was underneath!
He looked at Doctor Sun, who nodded. “It feels like a half-needle, but it needs to be extracted to know for sure.”
The coroner took over, touching the spot Doctor Sun had told of. Soon after, he took out a small, sharp knife, then carefully made an incision.
The skin split apart, but no blood flowed out. The coroner swiftly pulled out the strange object using tweezers.
Taking a closer look, they all couldn’t help but be surprised.
It was a silver needle not even half a cun long, and could be described as the width of a mere hair.
It was as thin as down, so small that it would be very hard to see if dropped onto the floor.
Yet, such a needle had shown up in Han Zao’s abdomen, which was way too odd.
Doctor Sun sighed. “Cruel. Truly cruel. Doctors have the hearts of parents, so how could one be cruel enough to think up such a way to kill someone?!”
“Old Sun, can you explain what you mean?” Tang Fan quickly asked.
Generally speaking, when a needle of this thinness and shortness got stuck into someone’s body, they might not feel a thing, a bit of faint pain at most. How could it have been used for a murder plot?
Furthermore, what relationship did the needle have with the contusion at Han Zao’s anterior fontanelle? And how could Doctor Sun notice the abnormality with that contusion, then follow the melon vine down to find the needle?
The translator says: Wang Zhi ain’t fooled for one minute.
 It’s like an olde-timey police badge. It was typically a big charm on a string with a name/words on it, put to hang on the waist or kept hidden.
 This is why ancient Chinese people often had really long hair, sometimes nails, and disliked tattoos; bodies were believed to be gifts from one’s parents, and to do purposeful damage to it was to disrespect them, which is A Big No-No.