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Doctor Sun pointed at the spot the needle had just been drawn out of. “There’s an acupoint here called shuifen. As Northern Song’s Bronze Figures have long stated, ‘If there’s edema, moxibustion is very effective. Use seven to a hundred moxa, no more. Do not stick with a needle, as hitting the fluid inside will prompt death.’ For that reason, it’s claimed that it can only have moxibustion on it, not acupuncture, but the truth is that it can be needled; it’s simply that some are unskilled at the craft, and it’s easy for them to stick it in too deep, leading to tragedy.”
Tang Fan and the rest understood in an instant. Every single acupoint on the human body had a use, like shuifen; massage it with the fingers or perform moxibustion, and it could treat symptoms of edema, diarrhea, and so on. However, on the flipside, it was also a major acupoint like baihui and taiyang, so if the treatment was inadequate, damage could be caused to the body.
“Shuifen belongs to the ren meridian, and happens to share a channel with the anterior fontanelle,” Doctor Sun provided. “When a needle punctures it, a contusion appears on the fontanelle. Previously, I had only heard my teacher speak of it, so if I hadn’t seen it myself today, I would have never believed that someone could actually come up with such a way to cause suffering! This individual is certain to be familiar with medical scriptures, and might even be a physician, but… their skill wasn’t used to save someone, but to kill them! Infuriating!”
Doctor Sun remained enraged about the murderer’s crime, while everyone else became grave.
They had believed that Han Zao had died of poison, not at all expecting that a needle would be in a key acupoint of his. With how covert the method of killing was, if it weren’t for Doctor Sun being present today and able to recognize the fine connection between shuifen and the anterior fontanelle, they likely wouldn’t have found the problem even if they had gotten to a dissection, let alone from shaving just the head. Due to the needle’s small size, plus their previous concentration on poison, they would have only gone for the larynx and chest when the time came for the dissection, not taking note of the shuifen spot.
“If Han Zao had a broken needle piece in his body, would checking his pulse reveal that?” Tang Fan asked.
Understanding what he was getting at, Doctor Sun shook his head. “It would’ve been impossible to maintain it that long. When I checked on him a few days back, he was confirmed healthy, which is to say that the onset time would have been very fast. The needle is small and short, but in that particular acupoint, the time period for the incident definitely couldn’t exceed half of a day.”
Tang Fan was mystified. “What you’re saying is that Han Zao’s needle had been stuck in him that very day… but if that’s the case, he wasn’t a baby that couldn’t speak. How could he not feel it at all when it happened?”
“Firstly, the needle is thinner than an acupuncture one. When an ox-hair-thin object like this pierces the body, one may not get a very prominent sensation of it. Secondly, it’s broken, so if it’s completely concealed in the body and Han Zao couldn’t have discovered the problem, others would only take it as unusual abdominal pain. The way he died was so out of the norm, few would put two and two together.”
Sui Zhou picked up where Doctor Sun left off. “Using me as an example, I could easily stick that needle through clothes and into someone else’s body without them noticing. If the one in question is a naive child on low alert, it would be even easier.”
Hearing all that, Tang Fan’s brow creased. “In that case, the issue now pertains to who came into close contact with him on the day of his death. They’re most likely someone he knew, else it would otherwise be impossible for them to get close enough to stick the needle in.”
This wasn’t Doctor Sun’s sphere of expertise, entailed a broad variety of fields, and possibly involved a public figure in the palace beyond that. Not wanting to give him a hard time, Tang Fan had Bian Yu get someone to send Doctor Sun back.
“As I recall,” Tang Fan said to Sui Zhou, “Han Zao had entered the palace at daybreak, the time of the Rabbit.(5-7am) At around ten minutes into the time of the Dragon,(7-9am) the Empress Dowager sent bamboo-shoot pastries over. At twenty minutes in, Consort Wan sent the mung-lily soup over. At forty minutes, Han Zao said his stomach hurt, then died suddenly. In other words, taking the start of the time of the Rabbit as the beginning point, the time period is altogether that whole shichen, plus about forty minutes.”
“Wrong. There’s also the time before he got up in the morning and left.”
Tang Fan thought about this. “You mean that the Han family is also suspect?”
“I’ve done a lot of cases before. It often ends up being someone that’s the least eye-catching. This is just to ensure we get everything, and add another possibility.”
The other nodded. “Typically, getting up, freshening up, and getting ready to go into the palace happens at the time of the Tiger.(3-5am) Old Sun also said that with the shuifen acupoint punctured, it would get deeper into the body in the wake of motion, making the onset period quick. It can’t be any longer than those two shichens plus forty minutes.”
At this moment, someone from the East Palace came in from the outside, saying that His Highness the Crown Prince wanted to see Sir Tang.
Tang Fan wasn’t surprised. Even if the Prince hadn’t gone looking for him, he would have gone looking for the Prince.
On account of last night’s experience, he didn’t feel much upon going into the palace again. Also, his brain was currently full of clues on the East Palace case, so he didn’t care to look much at the palace scenery, either.
He had seen the Crown Prince last night, as well, but it was naturally a lot easier to observe him in the daytime.
He had just turned eight this year, but in order to hide from Consort Wan’s view when he was younger, he had to hide all over the place in the palace, and all the food he ate was economized from the maids’ and eunuchs’ rations, resulting in his body developing frail. He only looked about five or six, the East Palace robes he wore being somewhat distressing in their emptiness.
Despite his birth not being one of extravagance, it could be seen that he was extremely diligent and worked hard, his etiquette and mannerisms both up to standards, not a nit to be picked. After Tang Fan’s bow, the Crown Prince immediately ordered, “Come, move a chair over for Judge Tang. Grant him a seat and serve him tea.”
“Many thanks to Your Highness for your empathy. This subject is fine with standing,” Tang Fan rejected.
“You are handling a case for Father Emperor, and thus bear an imperial mission. There’s no need to be polite.”
Tang Fan was no longer courteous, thanking him as he sat.
“Have you discovered anything about the case, Judge Tang?”
He had only been casually asking this, since it had been no more than a day; what could he have found, really? Yet, he didn’t expect to hear: “I indeed have.”
Tang Fan explained Han Zao’s cause of death. The Prince’s eyes went wide, and he couldn’t help but stand up from his seat. “How could that be? How?! This is too inhumane to Xiao Zao!”
Regardless of how restrained and hardworking he was, he was still just an eight-year-old kid. He had experienced all sorts of hardships since childhood, but upon hearing that his young, previously day-long companion had died tragically, he couldn’t hold back his tears.
“Judge Tang, have you found out who is responsible for killing him?”
While he spoke, Tang Fan was attentively observing him.
One’s words and mannerisms couldn’t be used as solid proof, but they could be used for supplement and consultation.
The amount of suffering the Prince had endured in his childhood was more than the average person’s. He had faced death threats at all times, so he was forced to follow his devoted maids and attendants in relocating all over the place to avoid Consort Wan’s persecution. That all might have been an overly-contrived plot when placed in fantasy stories, but in the Chenghua Court, they had been real events.
His birth mother, Lady Ji, had died suddenly three years back, the same year he was made Crown Prince. At that time, no one had jumped out to call for a thorough investigation of it as they all tacitly understood the truth, and believed that he wouldn’t take it to mind since he was so young.
But how could an early-maturing child not know what his own mother had undergone? How could a palaceful of gossip not reach his ears?
Even with enduring so much bumpiness in life, he still didn’t turn gloomy because of it, contrarily giving off a peaceful, gentle vitality. His eyes were so clear, one could see their bottoms, not contaminated at all by the dangerous complexities of the world.
Tang Fan had also experienced many vicissitudes of life and peoples’ hearts for himself. From his observation, what the Crown Prince had expressed upon learning of Han Zao’s true fate ought to lend him to having nothing to do with this case. At the bare minimum, it wasn’t like how Consort Wan suspected, where he was deliberately framing her for revenge.
Whenever a villain saw a noble, they would forever judge the noble’s mind based on their own villainous heart. They wouldn’t understand what the noble was thinking, nor could they understand how nobles thought.
He shook his head. “Only the cause of death has been sussed out at this time. Even if you hadn’t come looking for this subject, Prince, I was getting ready to come over and request a meeting with you. I would like to know; during the period of time starting from his entry into the palace to his death, what all had Han Zao done, and who had he met?”
The Prince blinked, dumbstruck for a good minute, then just shook his head. “No one. He had been studying with me the whole time and never went anywhere else.”
Tang Fan was both annoyed and amused. At a glance, His Highness was not great at lying. “Are you telling the truth, Your Highness? This is a highly important matter. If the culprit wasn’t merely aiming at Han Zao, but rather had some other intentions, I’m afraid that you’ll also be in danger.”
The Prince went quiet.
Tang Fan resolved to compel him. “If you refuse to speak truthfully, this subject will have no choice but to go ask for His Majesty’s presence.”
That said, he got up, cupped his hands, and made to leave.
The Prince swiftly called out to stop him, even forgetting himself in order to chase after him. “Don’t go, don’t go! Wait!”
Tang Fan turned around.
The boy bit his lower lip. “I can tell you, but that person would never harm me, and Xiao Zao even less so. You have to promise me that you will never let Father Emperor know.”
Tang Fan nodded. “Given that they have nothing to do with this case, nor the murderer, I of course won’t look deeply into them.”
The Prince didn’t make a sound, standing there in hesitation. Tang Fan waited with his sleeves gathered, not rushing him.
A good minute later, the Prince dismissed his attending palace-goers, then said to Tang Fan, “After Xiao Zao entered the palace at the time of the Rabbit, we were studying in one place, and then I had him go somewhere to see someone partway through. A round trip there is only less than half a shichen, and that person would never hurt him, or me!”
“Who are they?”
Tang Fan didn’t realize for a second. “Which Lady Wu?”
“The one that’s Father Emperor’s first Empress.”
Oh, that Empress Wu.
Tang Fan remembered that she had been deposed by the current Son of Heaven because she had reproached Consort Wan, thereupon entering the West Palace. Following that, her name was seldom heard either inside or outside the palace. The woman seemed to have been completely forgotten in the minds of all.
“Lady Wu lives in the West Palace. There’s often a lack of food and clothes there. It’s difficult for me to go there myself, but Xiao Zao was young and had a special identity, so he wouldn’t get anyone interrogating him. That’s why I would sometimes ask him to go deliver things.”
With how clever Tang Fan was, he understood with that bit of guidance. “Has she helped you before?”
The Prince said nothing, dark eyes peering at him accusatorily.
“Be at ease, Your Highness. This subject will not spit out one word about things unrelated to the case,” Tang Fan said warmly. “I’ll treat it as if I’ve never heard it. However, I will still need to take a trip to the West Palace.”
The boy grew anxious. “You can’t! When Father Emperor learns about where you went, the Consort will definitely know, too! If they ask you why you went asking for her, what happened in the past will get brought up again, and then the Consort won’t let Lady Wu go free!”
“Then I’ll say that Han Zao loved to fool around and had taken advantage of an opportunity midway through studying to slip out to play, so I need to investigate all the routes he might have taken. At that point, not only will I visit the West Palace, but everything nearby. If Empress Wu is unrelated to this, Consort Wan will naturally not suspect that she had fostered and helped you before. How about that?”
The Prince’s mouth was slightly agape as he looked at him in disbelief, like he couldn’t believe that a subject would discuss deceiving the monarch right to his face.
Tang Fan smiled some. “This isn’t the deception of a monarch, it’s just a bit of accommodation for the circumstances. I’m taking you into consideration, Your Highness, so I ask that you keep this quiet for me.”
“Aren’t you afraid of offending the Consort? Nowadays, no one in the whole Court dares to offend her. Why aren’t you afraid?”
“It isn’t that this subject isn’t afraid, but that a noble is defined by what they do and don’t do. Empress Wu’s benevolent act in aiding you has nothing to do with this case, and should be kept a secret. There’s no one in this world that deserves retribution because they committed a good deed. I’m investigating for the sake of finding the killer, not to cause good people to suffer in the name of ‘righteousness’. Of course, if she actually is related to it, then please forgive me for not keeping that private when the time comes.”
The Prince nodded repeatedly. “She’s a good person, she would never do anything like that. However, she’s lived in the West Palace for a long time, and her mind is in a bit of a haze. She does deranged things at times. Please don’t mind her, Judge Tang.”
Tang Fan cupped his hands. “Don’t worry, Your Highness. I will take my leave.”
He withdrew a few steps, then turned to go.
“Wait!” The Crown Prince shouted, chasing after him with quick steps.
Tang Fan turned, not sure what he wanted.
“Judge Tang, you just said… that in this world, no one should get retribution for good deeds. I like that phrase, and think that you make a lot of sense. Will there be another chance for you to enter the palace later on? I want to chat with you some more.”
The man smiled. “That isn’t something this humble subject can do of my own accord. However, His Majesty has talents gathered at his side, and they’re all men of knowledge and talent greater than I. My negligible self really shouldn’t be anything to your eyes.”
The Prince gave a tiny smile, too. His delicate face didn’t resemble Chenghua’s much; Tang Fan guessed that he probably looked more like his deceased mother. “You are too modest, Judge Tang. I’ve heard of you before. The roll call in the eleventh year of Chenghua, yes? I read your essay, too. It was written quite well!”
“Thank you for the praise, Your Highness. If I have a chance later on, I’ll be sure to come pay my respects to you.”
The Prince nodded. “Okay, I’ll be waiting. I also request that you discover the murderer, so that Xiao Zao’s soul in the Heavens can be assured.”
Tang Fan cupped his hands. “This subject will do all that I can.”
He wasted no more time, coming out of the Palace of Celebrating Humanity and busily going for an audience with Chenghua.
His Majesty was typically fine with just muddling through major events in Court politics, but this case was of major concern. The goal of the true killer behind the scenes was unknown, and the manner of Han Zao’s death was bizarre, which incited a lot of his interest. Once he heard that there was progress made, he quickly agreed to an audience with Tang Fan.
In spite of that, Tang Fan still had to wait outside for an age before he was allowed in.
Upon seeing him, Tang Fan did not have the appearance of a minor official graced by royal countenance, so excited that he had the mind to try currying favor, but instead got straight to the subject at hand.
The cause of Han Zao’s death had certainly already been reported to Chenghua by the Western Depot folks while he was visiting the Crown Prince, so Tang Fan only briefly mentioned it, after which he jumped into explaining his own analysis, as well as requesting that some areas in the palace be opened to him so that he could investigate them.
In reality, this was only for the sake of going to question the deposed Empress, but that was hindered by Consort Wan’s hatred of her. If she knew that Empress Wu had once helped the Crown Prince and he had been sending someone to sneakily visit her, she would definitely take retaliatory measures against her. Since Tang Fan had promised the Prince that he wouldn’t expose Lady Wu, he had to take a detour.
Chenghua had an acquired fear due to Daoist Li’s spying on the inner palace and attempt on his life way back when. When hearing of Han Zao’s death, his first reaction was to infer that the assassin was going for the Crown Prince, or possibly even himself. It was without much hesitation that he agreed to Tang Fan’s request, but, in light of the other being an outside official, Chenghua stipulated that he must have an accompanying eunuch when walking the palace, and couldn’t leave a fixed area as he wished to run off to another without prior notice.
Tang Fan obviously agreed to all that, and individually. By the time he got out of the palace after that set of complications, the sky was already near-dark. Pitiful Mister Tang had been completely busy running about all day, not even getting to eat any meals. With his low official’s post, even if he was on a royal assignment, he didn’t receive the treatment of getting food there. If he were a major scholar of the Cabinet or employed by one of the Six Ministers, he definitely wouldn’t have been treated like this.
Yet, despite him foaming at the mouth, he didn’t go slip away to find food, but instead first went to the Western Depot. That was because when he left in the morning, Han Zao’s corpse had still been lying there.
Bian Yu quickly came over after hearing that he had returned.
“When did Centarch Sui leave?” Tang Fan asked him.
“Soon after you did. Later, he sent someone over to tell me to inform you that there was a last-minute errand at the Bastion Office, and he’s going on a faraway trip. It’ll probably take several days to half a month, so you don’t need to wait for him.”
Tang Fan sighed. “This was really not a good time for him to leave… where am I supposed to find a cooperative, understanding old chap to help me out on such short notice?”
“Don’t I still exist?”
Companion to that voice was the Great Ming’s own Director of the Western Detainment and Investigation Depot, the Eunuch Wang Zhi, pushing the door open and coming inside.
Tang Fan was pretty much speechless. This guy really liked hanging around.
“You must be swamped with official business, Eunuch Wang. Why would you specially come accompany me?”
“Oi. Am I seeing that you’re not too happy about this? Aren’t you wanting to go into the palace for investigations? His Majesty is having me keep an eye on you so you don’t go where you shouldn’t be going! Do you think Sui Guangchuan could follow you all around the palace? What kind of place is it? He may be a relative of the Dowager, but his face isn’t that big!”
Wang Zhi laughed at him. In contrast to his caution and respect before the Emperor, he had no use for politeness when he spoke to Tang Fan.
“What is it? Is having me as company displeasing to you? You’ve received a blessing that everyone asks for but doesn’t get! Do you know how many people want to see me, and can’t?!”
Unlike the dark clothes and plain cap from last time at Immortal Cloud, Wang Zhi was currently donning an imperially-granted, qilin-decorated yesa. Its style was similar to the Brocade Guard’s flying fish uniform, but the patterning differed, and the degree of importance plus represented rank also differed. These robes were incomparably gorgeous; Eunuch Wang stood in front of Tang Fan with his hands behind his back, swaying like a fancy peacock.
“Starting from now and going until the case is concluded, I’m going with you. If there’s anything that needs done, I’ll send the order down. The efficiency of the Western Depot is much higher than that nuisance of a Brocade Guard, Sui Guangchuan — he’s a mere Centarch, for that matter. Don’t you worry, I won’t get in your way. Since you were handed this case to make decisions on, you have the full power to make those decisions.”
With all that stuff done coming from Wang Zhi, what else could Tang Fan even say? “The palace gates are now shut. I’m not anxious to go investigate for the time being, so I’m obliged to leave it for tomorrow,” he had to helplessly answer.
Wang Zhi mn’ed.
Noticing that he still wasn’t leaving, Tang Fan inquired, “Have you eaten already, Eunuch Wang?”
“Yes. What the heck. Do you want me to treat you to something? That’s not happening.”
“…I’ve skipped two meals. If you don’t hate the idea, you can come with me for more food.”
Tang Fan had been thinking that Wang Zhi would inevitably fling his sleeves out and leave because of that, but the Chief Eunuch actually just changed his clothes, even giving him a set of casual robes and allowing him to change as well. After that, he followed him all the way from the Western Depot to the wonton stall in the city’s north.
By the time Wang Zhi had sat down on a stool next to him, Tang fan was still feeling a bit of disbelief.
He wasn’t afraid of him, but also wasn’t sure why the magnificent Western Depot Director, an arrogant figure that normally opposed the Six Ministries and Cabinet, now somehow had the free time to eat wontons with him here, resisting all attempts to drive him away.
Did Eunuch Wang take the wrong meds today?
What’s more was that Mister Tang, who was expressing that he wasn’t at all familiar with Wang Zhi, felt awkward being tailed by an imperial eunuch like this. He had been wanting to turn into a bookshop along the way to see if there were any new books, but how could he go do that now?
Being hand in hand with an imperial eunuch while going to look at romance stories… wouldn’t a world like that be a bit too fantastical?
“What are you looking at me for? Do you not want to treat me to dinner? Don’t forget that I had treated you two to Immortal Cloud last time! The price of one dish alone there is enough for you to buy a hundred rounds of wontons here!”
Tang Fan felt powerless. “Please, go ahead and order what you’d like to eat, Eunuch Wang. This humble official will be beyond happy to treat you.”
“This isn’t that bad, but couldn’t you have done any better than this? It’s just wontons!” Wang Zhi grumbled.
“You’ve really got it wrong, then, Eunuch Wang. The owner here is famed for making wontons, but his noodles in broth are also good. The long-simmered bone broth in particular really can’t be beat. Immortal Guest might not even have his sort of attentiveness. They opened this as a mom-and-pop shop; the boss’s wife is in charge of rolling and pulling noodles and the boss is in charge of wrapping wontons, but now that it’s gotten so late, they’re probably sold out of noodles. There might be leftover wontons, still. If you can try bone-broth wontons with sprinklings of cilantro and sesame, you have to do it!” When speaking of food, Mister Tang was bound to list them off like he was listing off family heirlooms.
The stall’s business was indeed booming; they had only just sat down, and the proprietress came over and cleaned off the dishes left behind by the customers before them. This was in regards to Mister Tang being a frequenter of theirs.
“Do you want the usual, Sir Tang? And what will this other customer have?” the proprietress greeted with a smile.
Tang Fan smiled back. “You’re so unkind to me, Miss Yu. It’s obvious that only wontons are left, so why ask us what we want?”
She gave a hey. “You’re accusing me unfairly! We made too many noodles today, and there’s still some left, plus newly-fried youbing. Why, do you want some of them?”
“I do, I do! Four youbing!” he answered in a rush.
He turned to ask Wang Zhi, “Do you want wontons or noodles?”
Wang Zhi was slightly caught off guard. “Wontons, then!”
Tang Fan went back to the proprietress. “One bowl of wontons, one bowl of wonton-noodles, and extra cilantro!”
“Got it!” She smiled again, casually poking fun at him. “Sir Tang, you’ve really got a lot of friends from the Bastion Office. That one time, it was Sir Xue, and after that was Sir Sui. Why’ve you got another new person this time?”
He lightly coughed. “I’m not giving you oldies canvasses for business, but this isn’t a Brocade Guard. He’s Sir Wang of the Western Depot.”
When doing business rooted in the Imperial City, information about everyone was a bit rampant. In the whole of the Western Depot, there was only one person surnamed Wang. Upon hearing the title, the woman went blank, after which her face immediately morphed. Shivering out a “Sir Wang,” the soles of her feet seemed to instantly get smeared with grease, and she vanished along with her cleaning rag.
Before they had even fully settled in, two bowls of wontons in broth and four large youbing were carried over to them. The portion sizes looked to be twenty-percent bigger than usual.
Tang Fan had to smile. “Seems like Sir Wang’s reputation is a might that quakes the four seas. Even a wonton stall gives you more to eat!”
Wang Zhi snorted. “Seems like when I’m with you, I have to watch out for you using my name to show off and scam people!”
Whenever other civil officials saw him, they all trembled in fear, or were on ample guard. Tang Fan was the sole exception to that. He spoke with wit and eccentric words, teasing when he should. It was never disrespectful, instead making one feel extraordinarily amicable and happy. People like Wang Zhi that had stayed in high positions for a long time had some snobbery at their cores; when others treated him reverently, he didn’t regard them as much, but if they were like Tang Fan, he felt it novel.
Tang Fan pushed the plate of youbing in front of him, grinning. Right when he thought to say something, other people came up on the other side. Seeing as all the tables were filled up yet these two alone still had two seats remaining, they thus stepped forward and sat down without asking.
Wang Zhi glared. “Are you blind? There’s still people sitting here!”
The other chortled. “You’re pretty arrogant. Is your name written on this table so that we can’t sit on it? Do you not know who we are?”
They’re done for.
Sir Tang lowered his head and sipped the broth, silently observing a moment of silence for the other party.
The translator says: Wang Zhi is most extra creature I’ve ever seen.
 This one goes straight down from right below the lips to the perineum, which 24 points rest on. I would normally just link to a diagram, but all of them include naughty bits…
 Specific term for this is 玄幻/xuanhuan, a catch-all term for anything involving specifically Chinese fantastical elements. It’s like the lowkey fantasy to xianxia’s hardcore fantasy.