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Tang Fan was quiet for a long while. “You wanted to avenge Lady Ji, but why did you kill Han Zao?”
Yuan Liang sighed. “Beside the Prince as I was, no matter what I did, I would end up implicating him as well, so I couldn’t act. Even if I loathed Consort Wan to the core, I had to bear with it. Then, one day, her elder maid, Fu Ru, came looking for me, and asked if I wanted to take revenge for Lady Ji. I said yes, and then she said that she would persuade Consort Wan to send some soup over to the Prince. Whatever song and dance I made up when the time came would be entirely up to me.”
“Wait!” Tang Fan interrupted. “Why did Fu Ru betray her? And if she was angry at her, why didn’t she just poison her? She served at her side, it would have been simple.”
The other shook his head. “I don’t know. She’s a strange person. Before the birth, she was the one the Consort had ordered to give Sister Ji the abortifacient. She was supposed to have made someone beat her with a club, because if she was beaten to death, His Highness naturally wouldn’t survive, either. Yet she only made Sister Ji take the drug, and the bowl was only half-full, which allowed him to survive by luck. Speaking of… she had been kind to him, which is why I believed her. The Consort often hits and berates her people. Fu Ru couldn’t escape that even by being an elder maid — the frequency of it was just less. Maybe she held a grudge, but was too afraid to do it herself for the sake of her own life, so she needed my help to use such a roundabout technique.”
Tang Fan gave a hm. “Go on, then.”
“I thought that this was a good opportunity, but the Prince couldn’t be involved. The one dying would best be someone around him, and they needed to be of status, else it wouldn’t be enough to attract His Majesty’s attention. As that was so, the only candidates remaining were the Prince’s teachers, and Han Zao.
“There are a lot of teachers that give him lessons. They’re headed by a Great Scholar of the Hall of Literary Brilliance, followed by the educators, junior educators, and other men of the Court of Education. Every day, they alternated in teaching him, and he would usually gift them food as a form of respect. However, that food was all prepped and sent from the kitchens, which were irrelevant to Consort Wan. If I wanted to pick an exact date, Han Zao alone stuck with the Prince on the daily, and because of their good relationship, they shared food a lot; when the Empress Dowager gave them any, she typically made two portions. That’s why I ended up picking Han Zao.
“Poison is too crude, though, and easy to detect. My death is unimportant, but His Highness couldn’t be dragged down. Whenever I took Han Zao into the palace, he would usually bring up the bad things his mother had done to his adopted brother. Han Zao was kindhearted and respected him, feeling that his mother was behaving poorly, yet having no power to dissuade her. He was quite distressed, and once I got familiar with him, he told me everything.
“After hearing enough, I knew that unless Han Hui was a saint, there was no way he wouldn’t hold resentment against his mother, so I came up to him and told him that if Han Zao died, the second branch would be cut off. He would then be the sole successor, and break his mother’s heart, satiating his hatred that way. He was horribly frightened at first, not seeing Han Zao off for a few days after, but I wasn’t worried, since he hadn’t directly rebuked me at the time. That meant that he had the idea deep in his heart. I took a step back, since even if he refused, I still had another way.
“As expected, after some time, he sought me out to agree to my previous proposal. What happened after, you already know.”
With that huge chunk of words said, his face got even harder to look at. The sound of the breaths coming out of his throat was very hard on the ears, like broken bellows that were doing all they could to suck in air.
“You had to kill someone completely blameless in order to avenge Lady Ji?” Tang Fan couldn’t help but rage. “Han Zao had nothing to do with what’s happened in the past, so what was the use of killing him?! Isn’t that just benefiting the enemy, and not your kin?!”
Yuan Liang smiled miserably, with tears. “I know he was innocent, but this was forced from a lack of other choice! I had been born a crippled and purposeless man, then was poisoned twice when I tested for it on behalf of Sister Ji. By a miracle, I didn’t die, but my health was ruined. The imperial physician said that even if I took meticulous care of myself, I would only last a few years! If I couldn’t witness Lady Wan falling on hard times before my death, what face would I have to see Sister Ji when I got to the Nine Springs?! I can’t kill that woman myself, so I had to choose this indirect method! As soon as Han Zao died, she was certain to be suspected for it, and everyone would think that she was going for the Prince. Conspiring to kill the heir apparent is a huge crime, and her deposition would be inevitable! She’s made uncountable enemies in the palace! There’s so many people that want her dead! If she’s no longer in the position of Consort, or the Emperor’s favorite, I won’t even need to do anything!”
Wang Zhi, who hadn’t said anything this whole time, couldn’t help but speak up in a cold voice now. “That’s indeed a serious crime. If you had tried your plan out in the Great Ancestor’s era, or even the Late Emperor’s Court, she really might have been deposed like you said, but your error is in underestimating the weight she has in His Majesty’s mind! He deposed his Empress for her sake, and even his own mother can’t speak out against her. I’m afraid that the weight the Prince has in his mind isn’t as heavy as you imagine it to be.”
“But it’s not that light, either, is it?” Yuan Liang looked deeply weary. “I heard that after Han Zao’s death, His Majesty had a big row with her. Is that not right?”
Wang Zhi said nothing.
The man laughed a bit. “If you won’t say, then it’s true. Many things are gambled for, really. When we helped hide the Crown Prince, that was a gamble. When his identity was revealed later, we didn’t know how His Majesty would treat him, so that was also a gamble. Now, I’m simply using my life to take a gamble. If I really can pull Lady Wan off her horse, then the Prince’s future will be smooth-sailing from now on, and he’ll never need to worry about assassination again. What a shame… that I gambled on the wrong thing.
“Ah, nevermind. As long as you don’t implicate him, I was the one who staked my life, so I’ll be the one that dies. Han Zao was guiltless, so my death can be considered an equal exchange of life. His Highness is a good person, and will be a wise ruler… too bad I will never see that day.”
Wang Zhi sneered. “Are you not afraid that I’ll unveil everything you’ve said before Consort Wan?!”
Yuan Liang shook his head. “I know you won’t, else you wouldn’t have come to question me ahead of time. Thank you, Eunuch Wang. I had always looked down on you because you were one of hers, but now I can see that you still have virtue in your heart.”
“Bah! You murdered Han Zao, so don’t you lecture me about ‘virtue’! Besides, I’m not doing this for you, I’m doing it for the Prince!”
The man’s expression was murky. “Yes… that’s why I’ll repay him with my life now. Your protection of His Highness is something I can’t pay back, though…”
Noticing that his voice was getting fainter and fainter, blood spilling out of the corners of his mouth, Tang Fan stepped forward, grabbed him, and hefted him up. “What about Fu Ru? Do you know what her history is?! Did she want to trip Consort Wan up solely because she was unhappy with her?”
Yuan Liang shook his head, looking increasingly dazed. His eyes also gradually lost focus. Due to the pain, his face twisted up horrifically, and then he breathed no more in a final groan.
Tang Fan let him go, setting him back down on the bed.
The man had been beyond heinous. To avenge Lady Ji and frame Consort Wan, he didn’t hesitate to drag the innocent Han Zao down into the fray, then ultimately testified that all he had done was a complete waste. Consort Wan was foreordained to shirk all responsibility, and Han Zao had died for no reason.
Yet, he had also been quite piteous. Everything he had done was not for himself, nor for the pursuit of fame, wealth, or lust, but to repay the kindness Lady Ji had given him. How many people had received the grace of others in their lives, and how many of them would remember it? Yuan Liang had not only remembered his, but securely engraved it into his heart, not sparing to wager his own life for it.
“Yuan Liang died of sudden-onset illness, where it was too late to even call for a doctor,” Wang Zhi said. “What a shame.”
Tang Fan’s heart jumped, immediately understanding what he meant. “What about Fu Ru?”
Wang Zhi was expressionless. “She was upset because the Consort had insulted her, so she urged her to send soup to the Crown Prince, then used Han Zao’s death to frame her.”
That basically eradicated Yuan Liang’s role in this.
Tang Fan shook his head. “That won’t do. There’s too many holes in it. Don’t forget about Han Hui; Fu Ru is in the palace with the Consort, so how would she ever be able to contact him? Yuan Liang’s part has to be put in the middle.”
Wang Zhi thought for a bit, then clapped his hands together. “Let’s do it like this, then! After Fu Ru got berated by the Consort on the regular, she held a grudge, but didn’t dare to retaliate. Yuan Liang was Fu Ru’s lover, and after hearing her grumble, he happened to know that Han Hui had the mind to kill his brother, so he came up with this plan. First, he would have Fu Ru urge the Consort to send soup, then he would have Han Hui put Han Zao’s death into motion ahead of time. The three conspiratorially staged such a play for the purpose of framing the Consort.”
He had taken great pains to excise suspicion from the Crown Prince.
Tang Fan was quiet for a bit. “If you explain it like that, will His Majesty and the Consort believe you?”
“Why wouldn’t they?” Wang Zhi countered. “Now that Yuan Liang is dead, he can’t give a testimony. The truth that Fu Ru and Han Hui were linked is concrete, and they won’t raise any waves with that no matter how they deny it. I may as well be honest with you; His Majesty had never wanted this to burgeon into any huge punishment. In his mind, now that the Prince is older, he’s the son he finally managed to get. Even if he’s not as important to him as Consort Wan, he still has his niche. He doesn’t want blame for this on the Prince’s head. The key component is the Consort, but as long as there’s no proof, she can’t use this as an excuse despite any grudges she has towards the Prince.”
He paused, then said with regret, “If only I had just arrested Junior Lady Zhou and been done with it! Why is this so endlessly troublesome?! I shouldn’t have listened to your random ravings, Tang Fan. I wanted to get in good with the Prince, but the end result of that is that I can’t get off the boat I’ve gotten on, and can only forge ahead to parts unknown… I had been one of the Consort’s people, yet now I’m helping you lot deceive her. If she learns of it, my end won’t be any better than Yuan Liang’s!”
Tang Fan was similarly disquieted by Yuan Liang’s incident, and had to sourly console him. “Not necessarily. I’ve been getting the general sense that Fu Ru’s aim in all this isn’t so simple. Someone harboring a grudge against the Consort would be well aware that since both sides were going to die, they could just get in close to her and stab her with a knife. Why wind around in a big circle to set her up? If you can dig up anything on Fu Ru, you might be able to fully get rid of the Prince’s suspicion.”
Wang Zhi huffed coldly. “You’re thinking too simply. Yuan Liang having been the Crown Prince’s man is enough; no matter what other causes or motives there are, the Consort’s suspicions towards him will never be erased. You need a reason to like someone, so don’t you also need a reason to hate someone?”
Tang Fan couldn’t comprehend her strong fear of the Prince, but Wang Zhi had clearly grasped the idea better than him.
They really didn’t say much more than that. Not long after Yuan Liang’s death, Wang Zhi left the East Palace to head for the Depot and interrogate Fu Ru.
Tang Fan looked at the corpse quietly for a good minute, then went out, saying his goodbyes to the Prince.
As it happened, the boy didn’t need to study today. He sat by himself inside the hall, dazed. After seeing Tang Fan come in, he dismissed the nearby attendants. “Judge Tang, Attendant Yuan is…?”
Tang Fan cupped his hands. “His heavy illness couldn’t be treated, and he just now passed.” This was his acquiescence to Wang Zhi’s proposal.
The Prince’s eyes quickly turned red.
“Please quell your grief, Your Highness.”
He looked calm on the surface, but his mind was also in a tangle.
According to his own work principles, everything should be dealt with impartially. Why Yuan Liang had died, and how everything had gone from start to finish, should have been reported in its entirety to his superiors, then handled according to national law. How could the innocent Han Zao, senselessly killed, be at rest with all this coverup?
But, he also knew that if Consort Wan learned of Yuan Liang’s motive of avenging Lady Ji, she would definitely think that the Prince was entirely surrounded by such people, and also that he had always held a grudge against her for the death of his birth mother.
Did anyone have a good enough heart to keep someone around that forever hated them, let alone Consort Wan? Her simply not prompting the Emperor to depose the Prince would be fine by itself.
That was why Tang Fan’s mental principle of ‘impartial handling’ would instead be equivalent to giving Consort Wan an excuse to purge the harem.
Pursuing fairness for certain things would only kill even more people.
Under these circumstances, what should he elect to do?
That he was aware of this concept was exactly why he was so conflicted.
In a world such as this, wanting to be an incorruptible, selfless official that enforced the law impartially… was very difficult.
He heard the Prince speak. “I know… that everything he had done was for my mom.”
“How much do you know, Your Highness?”
“I know that Xiao Zao’s death was wrongful, and that it had nothing to do with Consort Wan. Attendant Yuan refused to tell me anything, but I guessed it anyway. He also thought that I had already forgotten my mom’s death, but I haven’t. I know that Consort Wan had something to do with it. I just don’t want revenge.”
He sniffed, choking up. “I know that if I take revenge, someone will die, and I don’t want them to. Why do I have to take revenge? What good would it do anyone? My mother in Heaven definitely would have wanted Attendant Yuan to live well! She wouldn’t have wanted him to kill Xiao Zao for her!”
Tang Fan sighed. “From the moment you were born, you were destined to have an extraordinary future. Everyone has placed great expectations onto you, and also hopes that you will become a wise ruler later on, so they want to use their own lives to pave the way before you. That way, when you walk it, it won’t be too difficult for you.”
“But human lives shouldn’t be exchanged for that, right?” the Prince asked, tearful.
Tang Fan was silent for a moment, then nodded. “You’re right.”
The ways of the world had never been complex; only human hearts were.
“However, since Attendant Yuan has already given his life for you not to be implicated, please don’t disappoint his wishes. This matter ends here. No matter who’s asking you, you have to say that he died of sudden illness.”
Upon coming out of the East Palace, Tang Fan felt physically and mentally exhausted, as if he had gone in and on and out and around the palace literally the entire day.
Processing Yuan Liang’s corpse was easy. The East Palace had always been tight-lipped and loyal, so his cause of death was known only to the Crown Prince, Tang Fan, and Wang Zhi. Provided that the Prince didn’t divulge anything, only a sudden-onset illness would get reported to the outside world, and then the body would be sent out of the palace for burial.
However, Tang Fan hadn’t foreseen that on the very next day, he would be getting the news that Fu Ru was dead.
The translator says: “sister ji, i killed an eight-year-old to avenge you. it failed but i had a good reason, right. why are you floating away”