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The Western Depot folk looked at each other awkwardly. One amongst them cupped his hands. “Sir Tang, the Chief Eunuch ordered us to invite you into the palace. He’s currently waiting for you at its gate!”
His tone was polite. That wasn’t because the fiendish Depot wardens had suddenly switched natures into becoming docile and pure, but because they had witnessed Tang Fan’s assignment to a palace case. Even Wang Zhi had never ordered him around during it. They thus went with the direction of the wind, showing him some degree of courtesy.
Of course, if Tang Fan refused to go with them while they still had Wang Zhi’s orders, they would be exactly like they had been on the night Tang Fan was called into the palace, carrying him away without another word.
That was called being soft first, then rough; using etiquette first, then force.
Tang Fan understood that much, and had no choice but to stand up. Rubbing his stomach, he felt like it wasn’t as bloated as it had just been. “Let’s go.”
“Many thanks for your consideration. Do you want to ride a horse, or sit in a litter? We’re prepared for either!” the other smiled, asking after his opinion.
If there was a litter, he certainly wasn’t going to affect politeness. He immediately climbed onto the empty one that had two porters in the front and back of it.
Perhaps they had been pressured by a volatile boss like Wang Zhi for too long, as the Depot’s work efficiency was really not lagging in least. As soon as Tang Fan was settled in, he felt the chair suddenly lift up into the air like it was ascending, then start advancing at lightning speed. Uniquely, the vehicle swayed only slightly, even less prominently bumpy than level ground itself. He raised the curtain to peek outside; the surrounding scenery seemed to fly backwards, swooshing by in a flash. It was too much for the eye to see. After watching it for a good minute, he felt dizzy, so he quickly put the curtain down and availed himself of this time to shut his eyes in rest.
Once he did, he fell right to sleep. He was later woken up by getting pat on the shoulder a few times, then saw that a Depot warden was leaning into the litter. “We’ve arrived at the palace gates, Sir.”
Upon opening his eyes, he felt a lot better, and the ache in his stomach had disappeared with his short nap. He couldn’t help but stretch out his back, stooping over to disembark the chair.
Wang Zhi was waiting there, face full of impatience. Seeing that he had finally arrived, he turned and walked inside without room for argument. “Come quick! If you’re late, you’re not getting seen!”
“What?” Tang Fan was flabbergasted at that out-of-nowhere sentence.
“Yuan Liang killed himself by swallowing gold.” Wang Zhi shot him a glance.
Huh? He was actually quite shocked at this. “What did you do?”
“What did I do? I didn’t do anything!” Wang Zhi raged.
“What went on, then? How come I was only gone for half a day, but he… does the Crown Prince know?” he quickly asked.
Wang Zhi had called him in, so he surely wanted him to understand all that had happened. He used the journeying time to the Palace of Celebrating Humanity to sum things up.
Tang Fan then learned that after he and Wang Zhi had parted ways, the latter went right to find Yuan Liang and ask him about Han Zao’s cause of death.
The man gave three ‘I don’t knows’ to every question, of course, shoving the blame entirely elsewhere.
As he refused to confess, Wang Zhi had said to himself, I’m worried about the Crown Prince and intend to cover for you all. Since you still refuse to admit it, you can’t blame me for this.
He menaced Yuan Liang, saying that he already knew about his scheming with Fu Ru. If he refused to tell the truth, he would go report this to Consort Wan, and then his death would be even more terrible, with the Prince, deposed Empress, and the rest likely getting implicated alongside him.
Despite the threat, he wasn’t thinking to actually go and do that.
Han Hui had killed Han Zao, but he still had to choose the exact time that Consort Wan would be sending soup. There was bound to have been cooperation on both sides for this.
One was Yuan Liang, who had sent Han Zao into the palace, and was also the only one that could have interacted with Han Hui.
The other had to have been someone on Consort Wan’s side that had prompted her to send the soup, having discussed with him ahead of time and decided on this period to execute it.
The entire sequence was precisely what Tang Fan had predicted to Wang Zhi.
Consort Wan was an expert at envy and could really hold a grudge. When she hated someone, she would hate them to the bone, never to change her mind. Take the Crown Prince, for example; before Zhu Youcheng’s appearance, harem women that had heirs would only get wiped out by Consort Wan. Because the Emperor favored and approved of her, none of the major officials in Court dared to say anything. It got to the point that the Emperor didn’t have a single son as his age advanced, his family line about to be cut off right before his very eyes.
Then, a Crown Prince had shown up, surprisingly already six years old. In other words, Consort Wan had been kept totally in the dark by a bunch of palacegoers, while he had grown up right under her nose. A feeling of betrayal of that magnitude was unbearable to she who had always tyrannized the harem, so even if she knew that the Prince was sensible, she would hold a grudge afterwards, to the extent that she put his birth mother, Lady Ji, to death. Zhang Min, the eunuch that had helped conceal the Prince’s existence, even killed himself by swallowing gold out of fear of her retaliation.
Inferring from her conduct and personality, she would definitely prefer to help another concubine’s son be the Crown Prince than allow Zhu Youcheng to be it.
Since she didn’t want him to be it, why would she ever send him soup to buddy up to him? Obviously, that hadn’t been her own original idea. Someone close to her side must have repeatedly urged her to do it in order for her to change her mind.
The candidates able to attend her side and advise her into action were quite few in number. Fu Ru, an elder maid that she relied upon in no small measure, was certainly one of them.
Tang Fan and Wang Zhi hence deduced that if Yuan Liang had plotted with someone from Consort Wan’s side, Fu Ru was definitely the most likely.
Wang Zhi couldn’t directly go to Consort Wan and explain the situation, however. If he did, their collusion would come to light, and since Yuan Liang was the Prince’s attendant, Consort Wan would inevitably think that this was him trying to frame her, then would inevitably try to settle the debt with him, after which Wang Zhi would not be able to attain his goal of smoothly getting in good with both parties.
Furthermore, Fu Ru was her maid. Why would she collude with Yuan Liang for no reason to do something like this?
As that was so, Wang Zhi had to think up a way to pick the murderer out from behind the scenes, while also not giving Consort Wan an excuse to purge the imperial harem again.
This wasn’t because he had a compassionate heart, of course. He wanted political congeniality.
Well… it didn’t matter what kind of heart he had, really. In short terms, he put in the work.
He wanted to take Yuan Liang straight back to the Depot for interrogation, but if he did that, the disturbance would be even greater, alerting Consort Wan to it. He had to take the opportunity of the prior investigation to have people secretly check out Fu Ru, while he himself simultaneously sought out Yuan Liang in private, then told him that Fu Ru and Han Hui had already confessed. That would thus give Yuan Liang the sense that he should have a bit of tact by confessing as well, so as to avoid dragging even more people into this, or shouldering all sorts of torture where he couldn’t die even if he wanted to.
Wang Zhi had dumped everything out. Yuan Liang could dispute nothing, yet looked quite calm, merely telling Wang Zhi that he had acted completely on his own, and was hoping that no one else would be implicated. Lady Ji had entrusted him with watching the Crown Prince grow up, so he couldn’t pull him into the muck over this.
Wang Zhi had said disdainfully, Did you need to justify yourself that much? If I had wanted to blow this up, I would have long gone to Consort Wan and taken the credit there.
Receiving his guarantee, Yuan Liang said that he wished to be able to see the Prince one more time, as he still had something to say to him.
Wang Zhi had agreed. After that, he rushed out of the palace and made Tang Fan come over.
Done listening, Tang Fan was quiet for a short moment. “He killed himself after meeting with the Prince?”
The other nodded. “Swallowing gold isn’t an immediate death. There’s still some time. Only us two understand the story behind this from its start to its finish. I had you enter the palace because I want you go ask for clarification on what he did this all for, and see whether it stemmed from a personal reason or some other scheme behind him. Also, we need to discuss how to handle Fu Ru while keeping it from the Consort.”
Ever since Yuan Liang had requested the meetup with the Prince, Wang Zhi had anticipated that he would do this, because if he wanted to safeguard the boy, he alone needed to die to clean everything up. After that, Fu Ru would be encased with the crime, Han Hui would get punished, and dead men simply could not tell any tales.
During their exchange, they had arrived at the Palace.
The Prince quickly came out to see them. His eyes were a bit red around the edges, expression as calm as ever. It was unclear if he knew anything, as he simply said to them, “Insubject Wang, Judge Tang. Attendant Yuan is seriously ill. H-He wants to see you…”
Putting on the whole production, Wang Zhi nodded with histrionic earnestness. “Please lead the way, Your Highness.”
It had to be said that the group serving the Prince in the East Palace had a high degree of loyalty, since they had pretty much risked their lives back in the day. Keeping Consort Wan in the dark, secretly helping Lady Ji raise the Prince, then watching him grow up — at the time, no one knew if he could be the Crown Prince, nor did they know if the child might die prematurely, but they were well aware that if Consort Wan found out, complete catastrophe awaited them. They had still done it, even so.
There was no reason for it. All that could be said was that no matter how dark a place was, there would still be kindness within it. It was precisely owed to them that the Prince did not go astray, still looking towards the light with a pure and good heart. Tang Fan had made out his innermost character from just his essay and calligraphic style, and similarly believed with conviction that the boy hadn’t a thing to do with this.
The East Palace became its own little world, disregarding the wind and rain outside. Many used their own lives to shield the young Prince, and that wasn’t something that money and treasures could shift. Even Wang Zhi’s forces had never pierced it.
Truthfully speaking, with such a place and such a group, Tang Fan was confused as to why Yuan Liang would do this.
The Prince brought them to a small, unremarkable room in the East Palace.
Yuan Liang was currently laid back on a bed, his complexion waxy and yellow. He looked like a completely different person from before. Breaths coming like spider silk, it seemed like he didn’t have much time left.
Suicide by swallowing gold was a more horrible and painful death than either hanging or poisoning. However, in the palace, hanging oneself was not a very easy task, as one needed the tools, and to also not get discovered. Poison was even harder to find. Swallowing gold was much easier in comparison. With a position like Yuan Liang’s, he was bound to have accumulated a lot of private funds over the years; as long as he had some gold pieces cut up into small bits and then mixed into wine, he could accomplish his aim of suicide by drinking it. It was a common method used by palacegoers, in fact; Zhang Min had used it himself back in the day.
Bringing the subject back, Consort Wan’s temper was awful, and she often beat and scolded the maids serving her. Were it claimed that Fu Ru got the mind for revenge because she couldn’t stand the woman’s behavior, Tang Fan could believe it, but why wouldn’t she just poison her, as opposed to this roundabout path? That was another point of doubt yet to be resolved.
Even if Yuan Liang was stepping into death, he was consistently tranquil. Seeing them arrive, he first asked the Prince to leave, then spoke of his own accord before they could ask anything. “I know what you want to ask. I’ll explain it all, but I beseech you for one thing. His Highness never had a single thing to do with this. After I die, please don’t get him involved, okay?”
Wang Zhi was expressionless. “Don’t talk nonsense, and explain quickly. Why did you do this?”
Yuan Liang sighed, miserable-looking. “When I had first entered the palace, I was assigned to the library to help and clean. I was young, then; insensible, often offending people, and then getting beaten. With fortune, Sister Ji of the library constantly defended me, and even taught me how to read. When I was punished with no food, she would split her daily portion with me. I will never forget her kindness for all my life.
“One day, I noticed that she was a bit off. She couldn’t eat, and vomited often. I worried that she was ill, but after asking her over and over again, she told me that she might be pregnant.
“After learning that the child was the Emperor’s, I was both happy and concerned for her. Happy, because there were no heirs in the harem at that time, and if she had a male, she was certain to become a concubine, and the boy might be granted the title of Crown Prince. Concerned, because Consort Wan ruled the imperial harem, even deposing the Empress because she offended her. The Consort had no offspring then, so how could she tolerate her having any?
“Indeed, not long passed before Consort Wan heard the news that Sister Ji was pregnant. She sent a maid over to compel her into an abortion. Sister Ji was nice, and those that had received her kindness, like me, were many. After the maid forced her to take the bowl of abortion pills, we pled with her no more, but reported directly to the Consort, saying that she had already taken it, yet had no reaction — she must have taken ill, and not been pregnant.
“Infinite blessings made the pills not do much, and His Highness was born. You can now see that the hair on top of his head is sparse. That’s a leftover effect from the attack of the abortifacient.”
As he recalled the past, the look in his eyes became distant, moist.
“Once he was born, Sister Ji hid him every day. Her health was poor, and she received no rations. His food wholly relied on us to search for, while we also hid him from the Consort’s eyes and ears; every day, we were scared out of our minds.
“This went until he grew to six years of age. Zhang Min announced his existence to His Majesty, and then he was dubbed the Crown Prince. We were all elated, happy for her, because we thought that her good life had finally come. Unexpectedly, a few months after he was established, she died.”
His tears dripped down, every word seeping blood. “Everyone says that good people get good karma, but… I don’t understand. She was such a good person. Why didn’t she get a good end?”
That question, he couldn’t answer. Even Tang Fan couldn’t.
There were always a good deal of people in this world that would maim other’s interests, even their lives, for their own personal gains.
Consort Wan couldn’t birth a son, then the Crown Prince was established. Was there any benefit in killing Lady Ji, to her?
Standing at her position, she would surely say that there was, because she hated Lady Ji for having a son while she couldn’t; because she hated her for hiding that son’s presence from her for so many years, and hated being taken as an idiot; because she feared that when the Crown Prince ascended, Lady Ji would then be the Empress Dowager, while she would only be a Consort…
Even with all of the above, she could still come up with a further basketful of reasons if need be. In her heart, the words forgiveness, lenience, and concession did not exist.
All the current officials in Court, including the high-up Viziers of the Cabinet, did nothing the whole day long. They could get by in life, but could their full halls of descendants enjoy the utmost of splendor?
When Consort Wan eradicated the harem women and imperial heirs, their positions as pillars of the nation were in vain. They made not a peep, afraid that Consort Wan would say something on the pillow and cost them their official’s hats, which allowed her to do as she pleased.
In contrast, it was the eunuchs and maids of the palace that civil officials typically looked down upon who staked their lives to protect the Crown Prince, yet they had no good endings.
Was it a truth that since the beginning of time, loyalists would be met with persecution, while traitors would get all the luck?
The translator says: HOW IS KILLING AN EIGHT-YEAR-OLD RELEVANT TO THAT, THOUGH