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As fully expected, Eunuch Wang responded to this with a cold laugh. “Do I care who you are? In my presence, dragons need to make room and tigers need to lay down! This isn’t somewhere you can sit! Scram!”
Tang Fan lifted his head. He observed that the other two were wearing ordinary clothes, but that couldn’t cover up their fierce and aggressive auras, nor plenty robust builds. They looked like they could be the match of a couple of expert hands.
In an area like the capital, being able to come across characters of note at any place and any time wasn’t outlandish in the least. In the official’s scene, there were those that didn’t want to be seen in the light of day, while in the underworld, there were all sorts of divine creatures and monsters, all running the gamut. On top of that, there was to be no belief that those underworld folk weren’t in the capital, as they existed in the same exact manner — and not only did they exist, but they had contact with authorities at times, even colluding with them. Even though they were inferior in power to the Canal Gang in Jiangnan that could cover the sky with one hand, they were still figures that could walk with confidence in the capital.
This was still ultimately the capital, of course. They didn’t dare to be too impetuous when faced with real high-rankers, but for ordinary officials, they didn’t place much importance on them.
The two before them had airs of cockiness all across their faces. It was entirely impossible to tell whether they were of the overworld or the underworld at first glance.
After coming out of the palace, Tang Fan had followed Eunuch Wang’s suit in changing into normal clothes so as to not be eye-catching. However, for him, a minor sixth-rank in the capital really wasn’t seen as anything much, had little power for scaring the poor commonfolk, wouldn’t have any use against genuine nobles, and would likely just bring some unnecessary troubles.
Still, the result of the clothes swap was that Eunuch Wang hadn’t yet shed his role, which was… bringing trouble.
The other men didn’t take Wang Zhi’s words seriously at all, still sitting and bellylaughing as ever as they heard them. “We’re only taking a seat. What’s wrong?”
Wang Zhi was about to get mad. Tang Fan hurriedly held him back. “Okay, okay. I haven’t eaten all day, just let me do that in peace first!”
He quickly tried to put out the fire on his end, but the other two still didn’t realize what fate they were tempting. Seeing Wang Zhi and Tang Fan together — one as feminine and pretty as a woman, one clearly a refined egghead — one opened his mouth and mocked, “A scholar and a little lady dressing up as a man came out for a walk down the streets, eh? Which family do you come from? This little miss has such a big temper, how will she ever get married in the future? Won’t she have to become a lioness and tame her husband into obedience?”
His partner grinned along with him. “You might be wrong, there. Maybe it’s different behind closed doors. If that spicy energy gets used in bed… hehe, that’d be a real joy. This bookish guy probably isn’t able to handle such a forceful little lady!”
Tang Fan: “…”
He didn’t know how eunuchs’ thoughts worked, but from the perspective of typical men, they would never like to be mistaken for women — especially someone of high power like Eunuch Wang, where he didn’t even respect the Six Ministries. Those that legitimately dared to insult him to his face probably hadn’t been born yet.
As if to verify his conjecture, Wang Zhi subsequently slapped the table. “Sons of bitches! You’re sick of being alive, huh?!”
As was said, power was the most effective aphrodisiac. Even if he was a eunuch and his looks were inviting ridicule from the two men, in reality, his words and acts were superior to men’s. His strength was something Tang Fan had personally learned of through experience, and he was a lot stronger than him.
The table didn’t immediately break into four pieces like how it would in fantasy stories, but all the bowls and chopsticks jumped up, sending broth spraying everywhere. Even Mister Tang’s lapels and sleeves got splashed in places.
Tang Fan: “…”
Who in the world had he angered today?!
Under these circumstances, wontons were no longer desired. Before the other two could get mad, Eunuch Wang directly smashed a bowl of them over their heads.
They were pissed, shouting “You goddamn bastard,” and charged out with their fists, not even pulling back their sleeves.
Wang Zhi laughed mockingly. He had grown up in the Inner Study Hall of the palace since childhood. In addition to teaching the eunuchs how to read and write, their teachers would instruct them in martial arts, so that they could protect the Emperor if there came to be an unexpected situation. The teachers requested by the royal family were naturally not the inferior grade of being ‘all show, no substance’, so Wang Zhi truly wasn’t afraid of these guys. Even if he had no big group of underlings with him, he definitely would not be beaten.
Thus, he fought two enemies head-on, overturning the entire table to smash them with it. Liquid went all over the place, with the dishes, bowls, and chopsticks all noisily breaking into pieces.
They couldn’t dodge it in time, getting splashed a bit. One went around one edge to outflank him from two sides, one went around the other to nab him.
Wang Zhi didn’t step away. One hand caught the fist one threw at him, at exactly the right position to wring the other’s wrist. With only a crack heard, that wrist’s joints were easily twisted; whether it was broken to pieces or dislocated was unknown. The man howled, and Wang Zhi bent a knee to slam it ruthlessly into his crotch. His entire body went limp. Even Tang Fan, watching from the side, felt his pain.
At that instant, the second man’s figure threw itself over. Wang Zhi just nabbed the guy he had taken care of and pushed him forward, making him stumble uncontrollably towards his companion and fall over. The friend was still nimble, directly avoiding him, flipping around, then throwing a punch towards Wang Zhi’s face all the same.
All of this happened in the span of no more than a spark’s life. Both parties were martial artists of keen talent and swift fists; onlookers only saw a bunch of blurs, yet the event was already mostly over.
Wang Zhi gave a sinister “You’re a bit better,” then twisted to the side. Taking advantage of the moment the other was charging over, he snatched the man’s belt while his other hand borrowed the ending momentum of his fist, acting along with it to push, turn, and twist, thus flipping the whole person over onto the ground — a true marvel of using gentleness to overcome strength, and taking another’s power for their own. Before the man had time to get up, Eunuch Wang stepped on his chest, preventing him from moving.
“Are you still going to fight?”
It was currently the best hour of business for the wonton stall, else the two men wouldn’t have not had anywhere to sit, then thought to come up and share a table with Tang Fan and him. However, the men’s mouths were a bit too loose, and they couldn’t recognize the giant before them, resulting in them offending a major demon king.
After the proprietress had learned of Wang Zhi’s identity, she presumably also informed the proprietor. As they now witnessed the tables and chairs getting banged around,plus dishes and ware smashing onto the ground, the pair was too afraid to come over and plead with them, only capable of shrinking back and looking on helplessly.
The bystanders knew nothing, merely watching the three go at it. This burst of battle was big and exciting, and they witnessed Wang Zhi taking two on by himself, the force of his two fists suppressing four palms — it was truly a performance more wondrous than one on a stage. Every bloke watching couldn’t wait to add fuel to the fire, giving Wang Zhi a big round of applause. There was even someone that shouted, “Go again!”
Mister Tang stood to the side with his hands in his sleeves, face blank as he mentally snarled, By the Heavens, by the Earth — I still didn’t get to eat dinner!
To recount, he had come and gone from this wonton stall dozens of times before to eat, yet had never gone through anything like this before. With today’s addition of Wang Zhi, troubles were falling right out of the sky…
Nay. Eunuch Wang had incited all of this to begin with.
The two men couldn’t get up from the ground. One had gotten kicked in the groin, and one had gotten stomped on the chest. At a time like this, though, they couldn’t admit defeat on principle.
“Don’t you know who we are?!” one of them bellowed. “You dared pick a fight with people of the Eastern Depot! You better run, if you can!”
As soon as they heard that, the greater part of the watchers promptly scattered. Only a handful of folks remained standing there stubbornly, wanting to watch the excitement get carried on to its conclusion.
So, they were from the Eastern Depot… no wonder they were so overbearing. Eunuch Wang would definitely be taking that excuse to kick up a fuss.
Tang Fan massaged his forehead. Not only was he hungry, but he had a headache now, too.
The name ‘Eastern Depot’ was, in this capital brimming with officials, supernaturally terrifying. The two men had believed that with the announcement of their origins, their counterpart would presently be throwing himself down into a kneel to beg for forgiveness, yet the womanly-looking prettyboy wasn’t fearful at all. On the contrary, he smiled. “Oh, the Eastern Depot. Which squad leader do you belong to?”
Some people wouldn’t check their Yellow Calendars before they went out. These two were truly unlucky. Relying on the Eastern Depot’s prestige, they sauntered about the capital in normal times, but had run into someone who didn’t fear the Depot today. This was, quite simply, an unheard of situation.
The one continued cursing, wanting Wang Zhi to announce his own name, while the other one finally seemed to get some brains. “What post is your esteemed self in? Please state it clearly!”
They really couldn’t be blamed for not thinking towards him being a eunuch. For one, Eunuch Wang looked feminine, but his behavior wasn’t at all; as could be told from the recent scuffle, he was more vicious than those of the Eastern Depot, entirely honing in on others’ weakpoints. For two, lots of capital eunuchs held high authority, just like their boss Eunuch Shang; they had harkers announcing their arrival, and stars of followers circling them like they were the moon. Why would any of them sit here and eat a couple coins worth of wontons?
Wang Zhi huffed derisively. Before he could respond, a peal of hard-hitting and quick footsteps was heard coming closer.
“Make way! The Five Districts Military Office will take care of this! Idlers, stand by!”
Goodness. Another gang of officials!
Crowd-goers moved aside in succession. A Five Districts official wearing a headcloth and a zhaojia came into view.
There were many bureaus in the capital. When foreigners came in for business and thought to get in good with the locals, they wouldn’t know which one to head to first.
Additionally, the functions of many departments overlapped. Take keeping public law and order, for example; Shuntian Prefecture took care of it, all the Counties managed by the Prefecture took care of it, the Brocade Guard took care of it, both Depots took care of it, and this Five Districts Office that belonged to the Ministry of War — very similarly — took care of it.
That led to chaos, of course. Sometimes, something would happen and they’d all scramble to take care of it. Sometimes, they’d all shirk it off on each other. Thankfully, though, since they were under the Emperor’s feet, this couldn’t get too excessive. As could be seen, the Five Districts man had arrived late, and only after the fighting was already done.
The head official gave an approximate glance around, brows starting to furrow. “What’s going on here?! Everyone state your names! You’ll be coming back to the Office!”
The guy that was covering his crotch with a twisted-up face pointed at Wang Zhi and shouted, “We’re from the Eastern Depot, subordinate to squad leader Zou! He dared to batter us! Arrest him! The scholar next to him, too! They’re accomplices!”
When the Districtman heard ‘Eastern Depot’, he mentally cursed his poor luck, feeling that he had arrived too soon and should have just acted completely deaf and dumb. It wouldn’t be good for him to turn around and leave now, though, so his expression sunk, and he put on a show of asking Wang Zhi, “You two sure have guts, to dare to beat officials up! Do you have no regard for state law?!”
Eunuch Wang straightened out his sleeves, brushed off the dirt on his clothes, and laughed mockingly at the other’s words. “It would be my right to hit even Shang Ming if he showed up, let alone these two goons! If you lot want to handle this, just take them away and have Shang Ming pick them up himself. If you don’t have the nerve to do that, then get lost right now, and quit playing sheep!”
Once the Districtman heard that, he knew that the other had a bit of backing to him, if he was unafraid of offending even the Eastern Depot. With his speech inevitably holding some respect, he cupped his hands and didn’t dare to shout his next question. “What is your distinguished name?”
Eunuch Wang put his hands behind his back and answered coldly, “Western Depot, Wang.”
…’Xi Changwang’? Xi Changwang… when had any notable figures in the capital ever had the surname Xi? And with such an odd given name, too?
While the Districtman hadn’t yet grasped the point and kept mulling it over, the two laying on the ground seemed to have already had their epiphanies. Their faces were pale, and even their teeth chattered nonstop.
Eunuch Wang continued to strike his pose. Tang Fan, seeing that his fight had been fought, people had been scolded, and anger had more or less gone, came over to say to him, “This is just about done, right? You ate and drank enough, so you’re fine, but I’m still hungry!”
Noticing his weak aura, Wang Zhi curled his lip. “All scholars are useless!”
The Districtman finally realized on his end, face morphing greatly. Regret was in his heart. Had he known who they were earlier, he never would have come to mind other peoples’ business. The Eastern Depot versus the Western Depot was nothing other than dogs biting each other… ahem, gods duking it out. What did it have to do with their Military Office?
He quickly gathered before him and pulled out a smile. “This lowly one didn’t recognize your might, nor did I know you would grace us with your presence. However, these two are from the Eastern Depot, and we can’t afford to offend them. Wouldn’t it be better to—“
Wang Zhi huffed coldly, then spoke to the two Depot men. “If you two won’t accept this and want to find a time and place, just go tell Shang Ming to call on me himself!”
With that, he flung his sleeves out and left abruptly.
Exasperated, Tang Fan had to go pick up the pieces Eunuch Wang had left behind. He gave a bit of coin to compensate the wonton stall couple so they wouldn’t need to fear and such.
After comforting them and getting out of the crowd, he discovered that Eunuch Wang was standing not far away in front of a roasted lamb skewer stall, holding a skewer in one hand and eating happily away. Seeing that Tang Fan had found him, he handed over the lamb skewer he held in the other hand, and also mocked him. “You civil officials constantly open your mouths to puff air and scold people sneakier than anyone else, but can’t be counted on when something actually happens!”
Tang Fan accepted the skewer, then sprinkled fennel and sesame on it, their fragrances assailing the nose. Not caring enough to bicker with Eunuch Wang, he speedily ate the meat clean, then held up a hand to the stall owner. “Two more skewers!”
“Got it!” The owner nimbly dabbed oil on the lamb kebabs, flipped them, and added spices evenly to them. When they were golden-roasted and dripping with fat, tender on the inside and fragrant on the outside, he passed them over to Tang Fan.
After the two skewers were in his stomach, Mister Tang finally had the strength to say something. “Eunuch Wang, you are a highly capable person that I can’t compare to, but if you’re going to hang out with me, I’m going to have to inconvenience you with being magnanimous, slightly empathetic, and subdued in your actions, lest the memorials denouncing me pile up into a mountain tomorrow!”
His words were soft, but there was a rigidness within them. He was not at all scared to say something on account of Wang Zhi’s high status. That actually happened to be why Wang Zhi got along fairly well with him; even though the latter was a tyrant with the skills to match, he was willing to concede a bit to people that caught his eye, else he’d get lonely at the top. If there was seriously never even one person he could socialize with, what fun was there in existing?
Hearing him say that, Eunuch Wang objected. “What are you scared of? I’d only need to say some pretty words before His Majesty. Those censors could berate you until the Heavens broke, and it still wouldn’t do anything to you!”
Tang Fan shook his head. Civil officials had need for a particular reputation and face, so it wouldn’t go like how Wang Zhi said it would. Still, he didn’t quarrel more with him about the issue, merely saying, “It’s gotten late. I should go home. I’ll enter the palace again tomorrow, so I’ll trouble you to travel with me then!”
“What? You’re just going home now?” Wang Zhi asked doubtfully.
Tang Fan understood nothing. “What else would I do other than that?”
Wang Zhi’s face said ‘don’t keep acting.’ “Brothels. Don’t you lot like going there the most when the lanterns start getting lit?”
Tang Fan felt annoyed again. “The Dynasty has decreed that officials are not to go wenching.”
Wang Zhi sneered. “Still acting, are you? Tell me, how many of you actually follow that? The last time someone in the Cabinet invited me for drinks, he got a songgirl to accompany him. Could it be that you don’t like songgirls, but rentboys?”
Confronted with the annoying and dictatorial Eunuch Wang, Tang Fan had a mouthful of words he couldn’t say aloud. No matter how good his self-cultivation was, in this guy’s presence, it could all turn into nothing. Tang Fan had no idea how to react to him. “If you have the mood for that, Eunuch Wang, I won’t be keeping your company for it. I’m shouldering an imperial order; how could I dare to be unbridled? I truly am exhausted today. From both investigating the case and running all over the place, then accompanying your brawl, anything further would best be discussed tomorrow.”
“What do you mean, ‘accompanying’? You just stood there and watched!”
“…Sure, sure, sure. I was watching your brawl.”
Seeing that the other looked so tired that he craved death, Wang Zhi had to berate him for his uselessness as he set him free.
Upon parting ways with Wang Zhi, Tang Fan finally let out a sigh of relief.
Once he returned home, he found that a figure was bounding over to come open the door.
“You’re back, big brother? Did you eat? I made cassia-stewed meat and stuffed bitter melon, are you having any?” Ah-Dong started to nag, making a fuss over nothing. “Jeez, how come I was gone for only one day, but you got so haggard? Did you miss me a lot?”
Only then did he remember that she had had a sleepover at the Sui’s. She probably came back during the day, but because he himself had gone into the palace very early for the case, he had forgotten that tidbit.
Following his departure from the palace, the wonton-noodle broth and youbing he had been about to eat were all ruined by Eunuch Wang, and the three kebabs he had were only enough to stuff the spaces between his teeth. As soon as he heard that there was still food, he was practically moved to full-on tears, and couldn’t help but rub Ah-Dong’s head. “Having a sister like you is like having a treasure!”
She giggled happily. “Go and clean your hands now, then come eat! Hey, isn’t Brother Sui coming back to eat?”
Tang Fan cleaned his hands, then sat at the dining table. “No, he went on another abroad assignment.”
“By the way… a few people came over today. They said their surname was Han, and they needed to see you. I said you weren’t here and they left, leaving a card behind.”
Tang Fan raised a brow. “Han?”
“Yeah. One said his name was Han Hui, someone of Young Tutor Han’s family. He had come on his father’s orders.”
Tang Fan nodded. “I see.”
He asked nothing else, nor did he go to read the card. After eating, he washed up, then put out the lights and went to sleep.
At dawn the next morn, he went straight to the palace gates.
He arrived early, but hadn’t expected that Wang Zhi would arrive even earlier. The other was stern-faced, which was to be preserved inside the palace; he had none of the lack of scruples from yesterday.
Tang Fan didn’t have the mind to joke around, either. In accordance with what he had said to Wang Zhi, he first went to the Palace of Celebrating Humanity to start inquiring, then headed along westwards. Any and every place Han Zao might have gone to, he had to individually check.
With a beforenoon of such work, he naturally reaped very little. It was because he was following his agreement with the Crown Prince that he didn’t simply go straight to the West Palace, thus avoiding anyone seeing something off. Now, he was doing his best.
However, Wang Zhi’s judgement was some kind of incredible, as he still discovered the issue even with things like this. “Why do I get the feeling that you’re beating around the bush to go look for someone in particular?”
Tang Fan remained calm. “Han Zao was young and mischievous. Even though the palace is strictly guarded and it would’ve been impossible for him to run all around, he’d still been here for a long time, and was a playmate of the Prince’s, as well. Kids are playful at heart and love to fool around, and others concerned about his status alongside the Prince might not have questioned him. Everyone that had come into contact with him is suspect, so I must interrogate them one by one.”
“You’re saying things I already know,” Wang Zhi answered impatiently, “but open people don’t speak in hidden words. We’re on the same boat now. It’d be best if you didn’t keep anything from me, or else I won’t be able to help you with the fall if something happens!”
Tang Fan knew that Wang Zhi wanted to get in good with the Prince, because he wouldn’t have made him come over to investigate the case, otherwise. However, they were still not familiar with each other to the extent that he would tell him everything. He was also still unsure of where the other’s bottom line lied, and was even less sure of whether he would take this matter for his own gain after the fact, by possibly taking the information about Empress Wu and giving it to Consort Wan for credit. If Consort Wan retaliated against her because of this, that would then be tantamount to him violating the promise between him and the Prince.
Therefore, after pondering things, he still deigned to tell the truth, but only as a: “Be at ease, Eunuch Wang.”
Wang Zhi looked at him coldly for a short moment. It was impossible to say if he saw something or nothing, but he didn’t say anything else.
Tang Fan couldn’t give him a clear explanation, but could still release a bit of good faith to him so as not to actually anger him. If they got split apart from one hit, that wouldn’t be good for either of them. “Actually, judging by the timeframe, Han Zao’s death might not have had anything to do with the palace. I’m just adhering to investigation standards here, then I’ll go to the Han household.”
Wang Zhi’s eyes shone. “Are you saying someone from the Han’s could also be the killer?”
Tang Fan knew what he was thinking from one glance at the look in his eyes. “It’s only a possibility,” he stressed. “From before Han Zao left home to the time of his sudden death, everyone that had been present in that over-two-shichen period is possible.”
Wang Zhi didn’t take it to heart. “Since you’ve said it, I’ll be remembering that this possibility exists.”
Tang Fan had been wanting to understand the Han’s circumstances, so he went with the flow to ask.
“Han Fang took no concubines, and only has one wife, Lady Lin,” Wang Zhi answered. “The couple has a decent relationship, but never had any sons, so they adopted one and named him Han Hui. Unexpectedly, after some years, Lady Lin became an old oyster making a pearl, and birthed a son. In other words, Han Zao.”
“How great was that for them?”
Wang Zhi smiled oddly. “The Han family has been made of officials for generations. Han Fang’s father and brother are high officials in Court. Their ancestors were natives of Jiangxi, but starting from the generation of Han Fang’s father, Han Qi, they relocated to the capital and settled down. Han Qi had three sons; the eldest branch Han Yu, the second branch Han Fang, and the third died young, so I’m not talking about him. All three branches came from Han Qi’s wife, Lady Zhou. However, there’s always been a private theory of the household that said Han Fang’s birth mother was not actually her, but rather a maid-concubine that met an untimely death, whereupon Lady Zhou adopted him.
“Han Qi and Lady Zhou preferred their eldest and weren’t as great towards their second, being just as harsh to their second daughter-in-law, Lady Lin. That further encouraged the rumors to spread, to the point that Han Fang himself believed them. Because Lady Lin couldn’t have children when young, she suffered much torment. The adoption of Han Hui was due to her not being able to give birth on top of Han Fang refusing to take concubines, so Lady Zhou forced them to adopt him.”
“Han Fang actually isn’t Lady Zhou’s, then?” Tang Fan asked, like a gossip.
Wang Zhi side-eyed him. “This has nothing to do with the case, but after His Majesty ascended the throne, Han Fang became his teacher, and his status went rising with the high tide. Lady Lin then birthed Han Zao, meaning she didn’t need to be mistreated any longer, and could stand up tall when speaking with her mother-in-law. For all these years, her relationship with her sister-in-law, Lady Wang, hasn’t been great. Likewise, Lady Zhou had once wanted to make Han Fang divorce Lady Lin on the grounds of childlessness, then marry her niece, Junior Lady Zhou. Han Fang refused to divorce his wife, and Junior Lady Zhou refused to be a concubine, so the matter was left up in the air. Nowadays, though, the Junior Lady is a widow, and has been staying at the Han’s as a guest this whole time.”
Tang Fan simply listened to the tale. “That must mean that Lady Lin has made enemies of a good lot of people.”
In the midst of their talk, they had already arrived at the West Palace.
This was an out-and-out palace of exile: bleak, desolate, and chilling in broad daylight. Weeds overgrew through the cracks in the stone underfoot, no one keeping them in check. The sun shining elsewhere in the palace complex would look golden and splendrous, its magnificence unmatched, but it was only here that it instead had a hint of coldness.
Some imperial concubines of the Late Emperor’s lived in the vicinity of the Dowager’s palace. Lady Wu was the only one that had been spurned and deposed in decades, so they found her easily, heading straight to the room where she lived.
Two attendants stood watch at the West Palace gate. When Tang Fan and Wang Zhi came up, the young eunuch beside the latter stepped forth to announce their identities and purpose. The servants scrambled up right away, stammered out flatteries to Wang Zhi, then enthusiastically led the way for them themselves. Wang Zhi was quite impatient, waving his hand to have the young eunuch reward the two, then oust them.
As it was still midday, Lady Wu had shifted a chair outside to bask in the sunlight outside her room.
There was only a single maid at her side, who was in the midst of padding the other’s back with a soft cushion.
Even though Lady Wu had been deposed, it was impossible for her to be unattended in her everyday life. In accompaniment with her loss of power, some of the maids and eunuchs from her previous Empress’s palace followed her here to continue to serve her. Inevitably, her day-to-day funds were never to conform to their former state again, and imperial concubines dressed to the nines would no longer come pay respects to her in this place. Those originally appointed to serve Lady Wu had believed themselves to have climbed onto a high branch, but in the unexpected blink of an eye, the Empress became a demoted prisoner, and they suffered much of the same.
Hardships manifested peoples’ hearts. Over these many years, some people had pushed open the door and left, while some yet remained by her side. Personnel changed, came, and went, which was normal.
Outsiders had suddenly appeared in the palace of exile, where no strangers had ever come in a long time. The maid paused her hand’s movement, somewhat shocked, and looked at them.
Tang Fan came over and cupped his hands towards Lady Wu. “This humble official is Tang Fan. I have been ordered to investigate Han Zao’s case, and there are some things I’d like to ask Lady Wu about.”
Lady Wu continued to completely ignore him, still looking ahead into the distance.
The Crown Prince had said that, because she had been deposed for a good period of time, she’d been mentally abnormal for quite a while. Neither Tang Fan nor Wang Zhi knew whether it was real insanity or fake madness, but grandeur wouldn’t work against a woman like this.
Tang Fan wasn’t discouraged, proceeding to give a brief explanation of what had happened.
Once she heard the part about Han Zao’s death, Lady Wu’s expression minorly changed, and she finally looked at him.
“Han Zao is dead?!” the maid couldn’t help but cry out in shock.
Tang Fan nodded. Right when he brought up that Consort Wan’s reputation had taken a hit because of this, Lady Wu started to laugh, hehehe. “Good and evil end with payback,” she said out of nowhere, “good and evil end with payback! It’s not that it wasn’t paid back, the time just hadn’t come yet!”
“It was said that prior to his death, he had previously come to the West Palace to play,” Tang Fan said. “I ask that you explain this event so that I can find the real killer out as soon as possible.”
Lady Wu went back to paying him no mind, continuously chanting “good and evil end with payback” on repeat. Tang Fan subconsciously sensed that she wasn’t insane at all, she just didn’t want to talk to him. Still, he knew that this was just her way of protecting herself out of a lack of options. Were she to not have spread talk outwards that she had gone mad, Consort Wan likely wouldn’t let her off.
Right then, the maid came forth. “Gentlemen, I serve by Lady Wu’s side, and I never leave it for a second all day long. Her mind is currently fuzzy, making her difficult to communicate with. Can I answer on her behalf?”
“Of course you may.”
She looked upset. “Some days ago, there was indeed a child that lost his way while playing around, and entered this place by mistake. He was led away quickly, though. I had asked him his full name at the time, and he said he was Han Zao. I didn’t expect that…”
Tang Fan knew that if the Crown Prince had occasionally entrusted Han Zao with visiting Lady Wu under the pretext of losing his way whilst playing, then the maid had surely long been familiar with him. In order to not reveal the relationship between Lady Wu and the Crown Prince, she spoke lies here and now with open eyes, making Tang Fan unable to see through them.
But the grief on her face didn’t seem to be deliberately faked.
The Prince had a special status, and couldn’t drop by in person. Those attending him were also continuously under surveillance by Consort Wan, so he could only trust an outsider like Han Zao with coming here once in a while. This cold palace was lonesome; for this maid and Lady Wu, he had to have been one of their very few consolations.
“Allow me to ask you this; when Han Zao was here, did he come into contact with anyone other than you and Lady Wu?”
The maid shook her head. “He didn’t.”
“His cause of death was bizarre. He died from getting pierced by a broken chunk of needle in his shuifen acupoint by someone else.”
While he said this, his eyes constantly went back and forth between the maid and Lady Wu in observation, only to see that they voluntarily gave expressions of shock that didn’t look at all put on.
He had already done his research; Lady Wu herself had not an iota of medical knowledge, while the maid had entered the palace in the seventh year of Tianshun, having come from a poor family. Just one year later, she was allocated to serve Lady Wu. Prior to that, she had never been to the imperial hospital, nor had she had any sort of contact with its doctors.
“Think carefully. When Han Zao was here with you, did he ever show any signs of having something wrong with him?” he asked.
She did indeed think back carefully on it. “He did appear to constantly have a hand scratching his stomach, then,” she answered with a bit of guilt. “I had asked him, and he said it felt a bit itchy and painful. I merely thought he had been bitten by a mosquito, and never considered other possibilities. If I had found out earlier, his life might have been saved!”
“When he left, who brought him out?”
“An attendant from the Crown Prince’s side, named Yuan Liang.”
 This was never going to translate well; Zhi’s curt and atypical way of speaking was ‘西厂汪’ (western depot/xichang, wang), structured like a typical name would be. Xi is a used surname, while the character for depot 厂 goes pretty much unused in names, as does all characters that share its pronunciation. Hence the guy’s confusion.
 Also known as a ‘cold palace’. There’s no record of any palace ever actually being literally called that, but there have been palaces with that function, which is to store away imperial harem women or exiled royal men that have displeased or fallen out of the Emperor’s favor.