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[Arc 5: The Case of the Ancient Coffin in Luo River]
Henan was the birthplace of the Yin-Shang Dynasty, and had been basking in glory since time immemorial. After the Great Ancestor of Song, Zhao Kuangyin, had selected Kaifeng as the capital, Henan had turned into the unmatched heart of the realm. All the Emperors of Northern Song had been buried there in sum.
However, in the wake of Song moving down South, Henan’s former status had also incrementally declined. Following the invasion of the Jin people, it then had been the armored Mongolian cavalry’s turn to tread upon the Central Plains. The wheels of history had rolled onward, the commonfolk had suffered the fires of war over and over again, and by the time the Great Ancestor of this Dynasty had obtained the realm, over a hundred years had passed.
Back when the Great Ancestor had passed through Gong County, where the hostilities had just been settled, he had discovered that the once-dignified Song Emperor burial mounds had been met with devastating destruction; almost every one of their surface constructions had been wrecked, the overgrown fields a full mess of broken stone carvings, their original figures long unable to be discerned. Among them, the tombs of the Gaozong, Xiaozong, and dual Emperors of Hui and Qin of Northern Song had been wantonly unearthed and damaged by the former Yuan Dynasty’s implicit compliance. There had been desolation that had stuck out for as far as could see, a tragedy no eyes could have endured.
Purportedly, several Song Emperors had even had their bones dug up and burned, with innumerable treasures offered up to Yuan Emperor Kublai Khan to be used as ornaments in monasteries.
In response to this, the Great Ancestor had ordered these excavated and plundered empty imperial tombs to be filled in once more, as well as repaired. Commoners had been prohibited from gathering resources there. He had also commanded the local government to arrange for defending citizen families for it, and waive taxes for them as seen fit — only that had held the trend of tomb raiding in check.
However, this was an old matter from back at Ming’s founding. Since the imperial tombs were still present, there would always be thieves that would risk it for the sake of getting exorbitantly wealthy overnight. Even the tombs of Qin, whose exact locations were unknown, gave people ideas, to say nothing of the tombs of Song, whose locations were well-defined.
However, what needed particular explanation was that the imperial tombs of Northern Song were a bit different from Dynasties prior.
Prior to Tang, many tombs took on the style of not erecting monuments, instead being buried deep, the palaces placed underground. The most archetypal one was the tomb of the First Qin Emperor.
Following the Han Dynasty, mausoleums had gradually come into fashion, because mountains were as tombs, and chiseling into one was considered hiding it. This style had officially manifested as a system in the Tang Dynasty, where its Emperors had pretty much all carved out their own mausoleums in the hidden depths of the mountains. In one aspect, it had looked rather impressive, and in another, it could lower the amount of grave robbers honoring them with their presence to the greatest extent. (Peoples’ wills were inexhaustible, so that latter function was basically null, of course.)
Coming to Northern Song, they hadn’t done mountain mausoleums like the Tang Emperors on account of consideration to feng shui and geomancy; instead, they had picked out the hills opposite Mount Song, which were up against the waters of the Luo in the North while also not being far from the Yellow River. Adding on to that, all the tombs of the first seven Emperors from before Song moved South were all located there, and not too far away from each other — for those with ill intent, robbing them was awfully convenient.
Hence, despite there being defenders nearby, the Song tombs would still sporadically get plundered.
Sans Yuan, past Dynasties that had obtained the realm had paid particular attention to defending the tombs of previous Emperors, and the present one was no exception. The Court plainly banned grave robbing, but its repeated prohibitions hadn’t stopped it, nor had its full scope ever been surveyed. For that reason, local authorities would arrest anyone after discovering them there, which prevented things from getting to an unmanageable plight.
Recently, however, in Gong County where Song tombs were, something very odd and shocking had occurred.
It was said that starting from a year ago, in the middle of every night, nearby commonfolk would hear bizarre sounds coming from the Eternal Deep and Eternal Shine tombs. At first, they had believed that it was just the wind, but when they had listened in close, it seemed to be the sound of sobs.
Eternal Deep was the tomb of Song’s Yingzong Emperor, Zhao Shu, while Eternal Shine was that of Song’s Renzong Emperor, Zhao Zhen. Zhao Shu had been Zhao Zhen’s successor, but not his son by blood; since Zhao Zhen’s sons had all died by that time, Zhao Shu had to be chosen out of the imperial clan.
None of that was important, though. The real question was: how could there be weeping in an Emperor’s tomb in the middle of the night?
Song’s Emperors had all been dead for years, no filial descendants of theirs to be had for a long time. Even if there were still some, why would they choose to run out here in the middle of the night to mourn the dead?
It had been utterly bizarre.
The citizens of neighboring villages were responsible for moonlighting as tomb guards, so after hearing that wailing for several nights in a row, several villagers had gone to Eternal Deep to check things out.
They had never come back.
The village chief had then realized that something was wrong. While he had mobilized other villagers to go look for the missing people, he had also made a report to Gong County’s authorities, who had then been dispatched to search around, only to not find the missing people. The imperial tombs had been built on the shores of Luo; the authorities had guessed that these few might have accidentally fallen in when walking at night.
With this conclusion drawn, the matter had been left up in the air.
For a long time following this, that sobbing had not echoed out again, the village appearing to return to peacefulness. Aside from the few families whose relatives had died, everyone had gradually forgotten about the event.
However, just half a year ago, that terrifying sobbing had showed up again, and even louder than before, vaguely paired with the sound of thunder. The village chief had dared not be too careless, so he had quickly reported to the authorities again. On account of last time, Gong County’s Magistrate had felt that the chief was making a big deal out of nothing; even though he hadn’t approved, since this involved imperial tombs, he’d had a few county bailiffs go see what was up in the village.
This investigation had uncovered a few thief’s caves near Eternal Deep and Eternal Shine. Apparently, some grave robbers had caught sight of these two tombs some time prior, then had come by for a visit.
When it came to the robbing of imperial tombs, the Magistrate wouldn’t dare to be negligent. He had ordered a few bailiffs to join up with several young, strong villagers to lie in wait near the tombs, in the hopes that the thieves would be caught.
Even though the chief was elderly, he still had a responsibility to the village that he could not have shirked, so he had been amongst the lineup.
After the first day had passed, the surroundings of the tombs had been quiet. The moonlight had been as water, the sound of the Luo River flowing by next to them; apart from that, there had been nothing. Everything had been calm.
The same had gone for the second day that had passed.
On the third day, something had happened.
There had been three bailiffs, six villagers, and the one village chief, totaling into ten people that had left — but, in the end, only two had come back.
One had been a bailiff, the other the chief. One had gone mad, the other stupid.
The mad one was the bailiff. He and the chief, one in front and one in back, had fled from the tombs, but his mind had been in chaos, and he had attacked whoever he had seen. He had not been able to speak comprehensibly, to say the least. The chief had looked terrified, covered in blood; he had been almost about to go join the bailiff in his state.
After a physician’s diagnosis, the bailiff had been determined to have been so severely terrified, he had lost his mind. He would likely stay that way for the rest of his life, as it was untreatable. The village chief was older and frailer, but he had experienced more things in life, which resulted in him being a little more resilient than younger people. After a period of rest, his spirit had slowly recovered.
Even so, whenever the events of that evening got brought up, he would keep silent and refuse to say more. It wasn’t until the County Magistrate had come to personally question him that he had repeatedly chanted things like ‘we saw a ghost’ and ‘there was a monster’, though more questions hadn’t made him say why.
Out of options, the Magistrate had felt there to be a great amount of strangeness about all this, obliged to make all sorts of reports to the capital.
“Saw a ghost? Monster?”
In this small courtyard, Tang Fan mulled over those few words. “Are there grave robbers pretending to be the supernatural?”
Sui Zhou shook his head. “I only just received this case. Going off of the Magistrate’s statements alone is difficult; this would need to be seen in person before a result could become clear. This is within Henan’s governance, too, and will likely be issued to the Ministry of Justice by the Cabinet for investigation, which might just fall upon the Henan Office’s head.”
Tang Fan smiled, pained. “That appears to be practically inevitable.” He stretched out his back. “That’s fine, I was born a lousy fool that shouldn’t stay idle, anyways. I’m tired from sitting in the bureau every single day. If I had chances to, I’d rather go for walks.”
“I plan on going there myself, as well,” Sui Zhou mumbled.
Tang Fan acted like he had received overwhelming favor. “Could it be? Does Bastion Envoy Sui want to fight side-by-side with me? That would be this humble official’s greatest honor!”
Even though Sui Zhou’s real post was just as a Millarch, he was actually the boss of the entire Northern Bastion Office, with Yuan Bin further up. Everyone in officialdom was accustomed to giving high praise when calling out names, resulting in shouts of ‘Envoy Sui, Envoy Sui’ for a long time now.
Of course, when that title came out of Tang Fan’s mouth, there was a bit of a ridiculing undertone to it.
Leaning back into his chair, Sui Zhou took the buckwheat tea Ah-Dong handed over. “Fighting side-by-side might not be necessary. Since I’m the Bastion Envoy, I’m naturally going to have to bastion my surroundings. Since you’re a minor, fifth-rank official, you’ll have to obey my orders.”
The joking undertone of that was even heavier, as was proper.
Tang Fan laughed at that. “I’ll wrangle with you, then! You’re now a fifth-rank martial official, and I’m a fifth-rank civil official. Ever since Zhengtong’s time of our Great Ming, the civil have always commanded the martial. In accordance with the principle that fifth-rank civils can direct fourth-rank generals, even if your Boss Yuan was here, he’d likely have to obey my orders. If not, with how physically incapable I am, what could I even do if I went? I wouldn’t very well be able to go into the fray and snatch vermin myself, would I?”
He then gave Ah-Dong a wink. “That’s correct, isn’t it, little sis?”
She nodded. “Yeah.”
He crossed one leg over the other in triumph. “Having a little sister is great! Look at how considerate my Ah-Dong is!”
“Brother Sui is right, I mean.”
Now, he wasn’t happy. “Why did you betray me?!”
She giggled. “My betrayal was inevitable, since Brother Sui has all of your money. Without him, we wouldn’t even have wind to drink!”
“What do you mean, all my money?!” he had to refute. “I only give him half! Isn’t handing over money each month for you to buy food enough?!”
“Tell us, then, how much do you have right now?” Sui Zhou asked.
Seeing that the two of them were uniformly looking at him with four eyes, he talked big without shame. “A man’s private funds are a secret that cannot be casually asked after!”
“How much money do you have now, Brother Sui?” Ah-Dong questioned.
Sui Zhou did not say ‘you can’t casually ask after that’, instead answering calmly. “I helped him save thirty taels last year, and combining that with the three-hundred and fifty he handed me before, there’s three-hundred and eighty taels. I have some savings accumulated, too, which total to one-thousand, four-hundred taels.”
She exclaimed over and over again. “You’re so rich, Brother Sui!”
“There’s still that Wang Ximeng painting in my room that’s worth more than all his money!” Tang Fan had to protest.
Ah-Dong revealed his secrets with a look. “That was obviously left behind by your parents.”
He went haha. “The weather’s really nice today, huh? That dish of crystal meat has been by its lonesome for a long time, waiting for us to gorge ourselves upon it. Talking about money is much too vulgar! Our mouths will stink of copper!”
Ah-Dong covered her lips as she smiled. “You clearly hid writing payout under your pillow and didn’t hand it over. I thought you would be able to hide it for a long time, but you bought a pile of useless books!”
Tang Fan couldn’t keep his dignity intact. “What do you mean, useless? Those are Zuo’s Commentary on Spring and Autumn Proper! It’s a Song version that money can’t even buy! I had to dredge up a lot to get it!”
She blinked. “There’s another book in there called Spring Tides, though.”
Sui Zhou frowned. “Why does that name sound a bit odd?”
Tang Fan was a tiny bit guilty. “It’s just some true monster stories. Don’t let your mind go in a weird direction!”
He should have stayed quiet, as the more he described it, the more blackened it actually got.
“Bring it over for me to read later.”
Ah-Dong pulled a weird face at Tang Fan. “I want to read it, too!”
Mister Tang was enraged and in pain. “Last time, you took my copy of Warring States Chronicles, and you still haven’t returned it!”
When he had a little spare time, Sir Tang would write light novels to whittle the time away, collecting writer’s money by the by. To say that he solely wrote romance books would really be wronging him, though. Warring States Chronicles, for example, was a historical dramatization written in the setting of Eastern Zhou in the Warring States period, but due to its convoluted content and his lack of free time, he had only completed two-thirds of his writing at this point.
“I haven’t finished reading it yet. I’ll give it back when I’m done,” Sui Zhou answered innocently.
“When are you going to finish?”
“When you guarantee that you won’t hide your writing earnings away next time.”
Anger giving rise to extreme boldness, Sir Tang expressed his defiance and malcontent with this unfair system. “You wouldn’t give me the money, then!”
“Because I don’t have a spending problem,” Sui Zhou said, shortly terminating this entire controversy.
With a clang, his self-esteem was shattered.
In this day and age, the higher an official’s position was, the lower their status in the family would be. How was this any way to live?!
He was going to run away from home…
Seeing that he looked like his ears were drooping, Envoy Sui pet his friend’s dog head with rare affection. “I’m not being greedy for your money, I’m just helping you keep it safe. Who’s the one that makes you get overexcited whenever you see a book? The study almost can’t hold any more stacks of them. You need self-restraint.”
Mister Tang had tears streaming down his face.
Two things then happened at once. Just as Sui Zhou had anticipated, this case got reported to the Cabinet, then transferred to the Emperor. Even he, who hated working, was alarmed, not only communicating how much importance he himself placed upon this to the Cabinet, but also requesting that they send others to ally with the Brocade Guard for the investigation. They had to be sure to find the truth of this matter, and if there truly were grave robbers digging up the tombs, then needed to be caught and punished harshly.
Could it be that the Son of Heaven had seen the light, heartached over these fourteen human deaths?
Of course not. This merely stemmed from everyone involved being an Emperor, and the tombs of Northern Song’s Emperors getting raided was like watching his own fate. He inevitably thought of what would come after he was gone — were he to let this go without a care, would he encourage the grave robbing, getting his own tomb dug up later? — and thus valued thorough inquiry.
The Cabinet deliberated, then passed the matter down to the Ministry of Justice, since, in the final scope of things, tomb-raiding cases fell into the range of its duties.
And, inevitably, as the Henan Office’s leader, Tang Fan could not shaft this task.
Minister Zhang called him over, then told him to bring people with him when he personally went to team up with the Brocade Guard in the investigation.
Ever since Tang Fan had confronted Assistant Minister Liang, Minister Zhang inexplicably found him a sight for sore eyes, generously conveying his own appreciation for him in public settings. Despite the latter knowing that the other was simply not getting on with Liang Wenhua and therefore wanted to use him as a weapon, Tang Fan was not without benefits in this, himself. He had used it to soothe the hearts of those in the Henan Office, at the very least.
No matter how one looked at it, the relationship between Zhang Ying and him was win-win. Of course, as a grand Minister, if he told Tang Fan to do something, the other would not have any room to refuse.
Hence was why Zhang Ying had specifically called him into his workroom. Before anything else, he asked him about how work had been going lately, whether he had encountered any challenges in his job, and to not hesitate in saying whether he had any difficulties, as he, the Minister, could do his best to help him. Naturally, Tang Fan had to answer back that it was thanks to his grace that everything was just fine and whatnot.
With a few empty remarks said from both sides, Zhang Ying got to the main topic. “You are already aware of the robbery case at the Song Emperors’ tombs, yes?”
Tang Fan nodded. “The documents about it were delivered to the Henan Office. This humble official has already read the dossier.”
“What do you think of it?”
“Forgive my bluntness, but this is a bit prickly.”
Zhang Ying lightly sighed. “Yes. Those villagers and bailiffs might not have actually drowned in the river, and this might not be any sort of supernatural trickery, but since our opponent was able to kill over a dozen people in a row, if a human really did do this, they are certain to be a very nefarious sort. This case won’t be simple to crack. But…” He paused. “Regardless of how prickly it is, you need to do all that you can. If you can solve this, I will inform the Solons and get you a merit of appraisal.”
“This humble official will certainly spare no effort. I dare not speak of merits.”
“I heard that all of you call me and the other five Ministers ‘clay figurines’ behind our backs,” Zhang Ying suddenly said. “Is that not true?”
Tang Fan put on an expression of shock. “Where have those words come from? I’ve never heard of them.”
Zhang Ying smiled a bit. “You don’t need to play dumb. I’m not blaming you, I just want to hear the truth.”
“This official isn’t sure about anyone else, but in the third year of Chenghua, you were the Provincial Coordinator of Ningxia in the capacity as Right Deputy Censor. It was precisely due to your advocation and management that its capital changed in appearance, going from mud to brick constructions. Later on, you also personally presided over river channeling by directing the Yellow River’s water to irrigate over seven hundred qing(47km²) of Lingzhou farmland, which benefited countless people. These several instances of benevolent governance are still vivid in the eyes; the citizens of Ningxia regard you like a second father. If you are a clay figurine, then there are truly few great officials that can do anything in this court!”
This was the truth. Although Zhang Ying was filed in with the clay figurine Ministers, he had not been like one at the start. He, too, had once been full of vigor in rendering service to the nation, being good to the commonfolk, accumulating achievements, and flaunting himself as a capable subject. Many saw him now drinking tea to pass his days away, and thus believed that he had always passed his days like that.
Had Tang Fan not looked at Zhang Ying’s career history from Sui Zhou, he would never have known that Minister Zhang had previously had such competence and motivation.
As expected, the other’s expression changed. “How do you know about that?”
Tang Fan smiled. “My teacher is Qiu Jun, who once repeatedly praised your capabilities in my presence. After he heard that I was going into the Ministry of Justice, he wrote to me, saying that I should learn a lot from you.”
This was him purely plastering gold upon his teacher’s face, of course, and giving Zhang Ying a plausible explanation while he was at it. He couldn’t say ‘I saw your work history at the Brocade Guard’, now, could he?
Zhang Ying was a bit touched, as well as a bit ashamed. “I didn’t expect Qiu Qiongshan to have such an evaluation of me. Unfortunately, I’m as aged as Lian Po now, and no longer the me that I used to be.”
“There is no good in besmirching your own reputation. What people say now won’t matter; after a hundred years, the history books will certainly give you a fair evaluation,” Tang Fan said in earnest.
Zhang Ying had long been mixing into officialdom. He used to not be this easy to emotionally move, but Tang Fan’s remarks reached the bottom of his heart. Nowadays, everyone avoided misfortunes, content with just getting by — the longer he acted as an official, the more he saw and the more he experienced, the more he felt discouraged, simply burying all his former zeal, following the others’ leads in doing nothing proper, and growing flowers plus strolling with birds all day long.
As a result of that, others had lined him up in one chunk with Yin Qian, Liu Zhao, and the rest, ridiculing them with the nickname of ‘the clay figurine Ministers’. After hearing that for so long, he had become numb to it.
Yet, on this day, it was a minor Office Chief that had efficiently laid bare the wrongs and depression hidden deep inside his core. How could he not be moved?
With that coming out, their bond immediately drew much closer.
Zhang Ying decided to directly call Tang Fan by his courtesy. “Runqing, don’t view this case as prickly, but as a sign to remain in His Majesty’s presence. If you perform well, that will bring great benefits to your future career.”
As was evident, Minister Zhang now viewed Tang Fan as half-‘his’, else he would not have brought as much up. This was not just because Tang Fan had said stuff that opened up the other’s inner heart, but because he had no foundation at all in the Ministry; having fallen out with Liang Wenhua before, the only one he could rely on was the Minister.
When it came to this clever young official that knew when to advance and retreat, Zhang Ying got the idea to cultivate him.
Implicitly understanding, Tang Fan solemnly paid his thanks. “Thank you for the pointers, Minister. I will expend all of my power in processing this case.”
Zheng Ying nodded in satisfaction. “The sole bit of inconvenience here is in handling the case jointly with the Brocade Guard. I heard that the Envoy of the Northern Bastion Office is going to go in person, as well. The Cabinet means to make you the lead and him the assistant, the both of you being equivalent imperial ambassadors, but the Guard has always been unusual, and may not be willing to listen to all of your arrangements. Though, as you were able to ask the Guard to help you survey the case Yin Yuanhua once handled, you all presumably have a bit of a friendship, so I won’t need to worry after you.”
Tang Fan was a smidgen embarrassed. “This official was impetuous, then, and caused you trouble. Please forgive me, Minister.”
The other smiled. “Liang Wenhua has always been presumptuous, believing that the Ministry goes by his word alone. It was about time someone dampened his attitude. Still, you two have the distinction of a subordinate and a superior — you should act a bit more deferentially when facing him, so as to not let him grab something that can be used against you.”
Tang Fan readily accepted his instruction.
It was best to start on this sooner rather than later, quicker rather than slower. Work was handed over to Dai Hongming, and he was told to take command of the Henan Office for this timeframe, left with two clerks to dispatch for errands. Tang Fan himself took Yin Yuanhua and two other clerks, Cheng Wen and Tian Xuan, with him, then headed for Henan with the men sent by the Brocade Guard.
According to standards, Yin Yuanhua hadn’t actually needed to come with; as Tang Fan’s assistant, it should have been his turn to be in charge of the Office while the other wasn’t there. It was unknown what conniption he’d had, however, as he had applied to go on the trip with Tang Fan on his own initiative. Assistant Liang even chimed in, stating that since the details of this case were important, the head assistant post of the Henan Office should also proceed forwards, in order to express that they placed value upon them.
Like so, Dai Hongming unexpectedly got an advantage. He, in the capacity of a mere Executive, was now temporarily in the post of a Chief that commanded the Office.
At May’s end, their group departed the capital, going for Gong County in Henan Prefecture.
The translator says: Hmm, our boy Yin Yuanhua about to embarrass himself again.