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How could He Lin ever withstand being rebuked in front of everyone by his brother-in-law? He immediately bent over and picked up the rod, gritting his teeth. “This is a He family affair! You have no power to intervene! My son is mine to discipline, it doesn’t matter if I beat him to death!”
Despite his vicious words, once he saw Yan Li and Gongsun Yan glaring fiercely at him from behind Tang Fan, he couldn’t think of a way to get to swinging the rod.
“Silence! It isn’t your place to speak here!”
Patriarch He was the one to admonish him aloud. Not looking at his son’s red face, nor the rising crowd, he said to Tang Fan, “Good nephew, I have a few things to ask you that have nothing to do with what happened today, so please step off to the side.”
Tang Fan was quite a courteous one, but he did not comply with that, merely smiling. “If you’ve something to say, Uncle, it’s fine to do so here. Gentlemen have no secrets.”
First, it had been Yan Li, and now, it was Tang Fan. Neither of them could be persuaded. Helpless, the Patriarch could only explain himself. “You came here for a visit, which this old man had welcomed, but now that I’ve learned that you have Brocade Guards accompanying you, it’s inevitable that I’d ask some more questions. Please understand, nephew.”
Tang Fan nodded. “I know what you want to ask. These two Guard brothers worried that I wouldn’t be safe journeying alone, so they specially came with me. This has nothing to do with the Court. You needn’t be afraid of the He’s getting implicated.”
The Brocade Guards were a sensitive subject, and questions about them were normal upon learning of them. Also, Patriarch He had been treating him the same even after he had learned of his dismissal; regardless of whether that camaraderie was directed at his late father or if there was some other cause, Tang Fan kept it in mind.
For that reason, in spite of his revulsion towards his brother-in-law due to what he had seen and heard — particularly in regards to the other’s indiscriminate beatdown of his son — he could still differentiate people, and would never be rude towards the Patriarch.
“Our Bastion Envoy and Sir Tang have a very close friendship,” Yan Li said from the side, “so us two were specifically sent with him to act as deterrents and help protect him. There’s no need to be too wary, Patriarch He.”
Upon hearing their explanation, the questions in Patriarch He’s head, instead of dwindling, increased in number.
Tang Fan having a good relationship with a Guard wasn’t that strange, but what kind of friendship was required for Guards to serve as his bodyguards? Also, looking at these twos’ expressions, they weren’t begrudging to do this in the least, which showed that they were obeying Tang Fan.
What was actually going on? Could it be that Tang Fan had netted an unbelievable backer in his years at the capital?
No one else thought like he was thinking. They only heard of Yan Li and Gongsun Yan’s statuses, saw the twos’ deference towards Tang Fan, and became immensely shocked, their impressions of Tang Fan immediately rising from ‘thwarted man of officialdom’ to ‘mysterious man of unfathomable backing’.
To have and not have backers were two hugely different things. Even if Tang Fan had no official job for the time being, as long as someone in officialdom was willing to cry out their support for him and help him by presenting memorials to plead for him, when the time was right, he would be able to make a comeback whenever.
Thinking of all that, even the anger-filled He Lin had to relax some of the strength he held his rod with.
Tang Fan wasn’t interested in what any of them were thinking, though. He stooped down to help his sister and nephew up, then gently lifted He Cheng’s chin to look over the state of his injuries. “Do you hurt, Qilang?” he softly asked.
He Cheng nodded, but also shook his head, firmly clenching his teeth, not letting even any grunts loose. He usually looked fragile and introverted, but he was abnormally strong in his bones.
Before he had gotten his mother’s protection, he had suffered a couple of strikes. They hadn’t been heavy, but he was young and soft-skinned, which meant he wasn’t as sturdy as an adult. Seeing that he had one hand covering his other forearm, Tang Fan gently rolled up his sleeve to see to it for him; catching sight of the red bruise swelling up there, he lightly pressed on it, and He Cheng couldn’t resist letting out a low cry.
Tang Yu was so heartbroken, she let out tears. Restraining his rage, Tang Fan looked up at Yan Li — the latter implicitly understood, stepping forth to check. “There’s no injury to the bone and muscles. We can just apply some ointment onto him.”
“I just said that I didn’t hit him hard…” He Lin said upon hearing that, but before he could finish, two stern sets of eyes shot over, promptly strangling him with his unfinished words.
One set had come from Tang Fan, and the other, Patriarch He. The latter lightly coughed. “Nephew, since the Wei’s have already retrieved the authorities over this, how about we leave this to the Magistrate to handle?”
Even though the Patriarch would never be condescending, if this had been before, where he hadn’t known that Tang Fan had Brocade Guards standing behind him, he wouldn’t have asked such a thing, as regardless of whether He Cheng had a thing to do with this or not, he was a He. According to current customs, things were exactly as He Lin had said; fathers had a right to beat their sons.
As it was, if Tang Yu’s natal family had been strong — like if her dad was the Head Vizier or one of the six Ministers — she wouldn’t have been living without even enough daily expenses at the He’s. It was none other than the feeling that her natal family was powerless that the He’s had turned a blind eye to that, frankly speaking.
Now that Tang Fan was around, though, the situation was quite different. Since the Patriarch knew that he had a close connection to the Brocade Guards, he needed to be more polite whenever he spoke to him.
Tang Fan gave a nod. “That is reasonable, Uncle.” However, right after he said that, he cupped his hands towards Magistrate Weng. “Brother Weng, this matter wasn’t mine to manage, and I shouldn’t meddle much, but I ask that you let me assist, because this has dragged my nephew into it. As his uncle, I cannot sit back and watch him be accused unjustly.”
Magistrate Weng nodded. “You may, of course.”
This interlude came to its conclusion, and the Magistrate began to interrogate on the case.
People of this time period knew that the scene of the crime was of extreme importance whenever deaths occurred; unless absolutely necessary, the corpse wasn’t to be brought to the county bureau for further investigation, since that would cause many clues from the environment to be overlooked. Thus, the Magistrate first had his bailiffs encircle the rear courtyard, disallowing anyone from entering or exiting, then ordered that the main gate of the Wei’s be strictly guarded. No matter whether someone was man or woman, they weren’t getting out for right now.
That had, naturally, incited a lot of grumbling in the guests.
The area Wei Zhuniang had played in before was located in the rear courtyard’s garden. It didn’t reach where the women had been feasting in said courtyard, and was also quite a distance away from the banquet in the front hall. The quite-spacious place had flower and fruit trees of various colors; children that frequented the Wei home liked to come here to play.
Wei Zhuniang had been accompanied by a maid previously, who had since been found and was kneeling on the ground, sobbing. Magistrate Weng questioned her on why she hadn’t been at her master’s side at the time of the incident.
“It was the Fifth Miss that asked this maid to go to the rear kitchens and find her something to eat,” she answered. “She said that she wanted to eat golden-silk jujube cakes, but there were none at the party. Because she often played here, and that the Misses of the He’s and Zheng’s and others were also around, I left. But, before the cakes were even made, I heard that… heard that she…”
The Misses of the He’s and Zheng’s she had spoken of were He Yuan, daughter of He Xuan and Lady Wei, and Zheng Qingqing, daughter of Provincial Honorate Zheng. The Young Lords of several families had also been present. All of them had heard what Wei Zhuniang had said to the maid, so they verified her words as true.
He Yuan and Zheng Qingqing were called for further questioning. They were both scared stiff and stammering due to this event, unable to speak successfully for a long time. Although they normally hadn’t found the pretty Wei Zhuniang to be pleasing to the eyes, that had just been jealousies of little girls — neither of them had ever wanted her to die, obviously.
They had actually already been interrogated for one round by Magistrate Weng before, and what they said now was not too different from what Yan Li had reported before. Both claimed that they had heard the fight between He Cheng and Wei Zhuniang; following it, they had happened to be in the rockery, and felt that they couldn’t come out because it would definitely be awkward if Wei Zhuniang saw them. Despite the youth of the high-born little girls, they already knew a lot of the ways of the world.
They had hence left in the opposite direction from the rockery, then gone back to look for Wei Zhuniang after playing elsewhere for a minute. They had not seen her in her former spot, so they had thought that she had run away, until the group of boys that had picked flowers and birds for her returned and couldn’t find her anywhere, either. After that, the Wei’s maids were dispatched to search.
It was a maid that had discovered the pearl earrings Wei Zhuniang had dropped beside the well, and from that, the abnormality had been detected, the girl getting fished out of the well afterwards.
Magistrate Weng creased his brow at this. “She should have cried for help after falling in, then. Did none of you hear her?”
They all said that they hadn’t.
While Magistrate Weng was questioning, Tang Fan walked over to the well, leaned over, and gazed down into it.
He found that it was very possible that no one had heard Wei Zhuniang crying for help, because the well’s water level was extremely far down — one look would only give one a stretch of black, no reflection on the water to be seen. Furthermore, after the little girl fell in, she would only have been able to thrash around a bit with a faint voice. Had no one happened to pass by at right that time, nobody hearing her wouldn’t have been impossible.
He looked down intently for a long time, then walked to Wei Zhuniang’s side, lifted off the white cloth covering her body, and took her hand for a closer examination. Since there were two Brocade Guards at his side, everyone simply watched him poke at the corpse, too afraid to say anything.
At the same time, the Magistrate had already questioned many people, and all of their testimonies lined up.
When Wei Zhuniang fell in the well, no one had been around. Before she had, though, she had fought with He Cheng, which he himself had admitted to. So, the question was: had she fallen in by her own carelessness, or had someone pushed her in? If she had been pushed, was that person He Cheng, or no?
“Where did you go after fighting with Wei Zhuniang?” Magistrate Weng asked He Cheng.
The latter had gradually calmed down via his mother’s reassurance, not seeming so scared anymore. “I was in the garden.”
“What were you doing there?”
He Cheng lowered his head and said nothing. Seeing his son’s cowardly appearance, He Lin got angry, but with the previous scolding he had gotten, he had to bear with it.
Still, He Cheng’s refusal to speak made even the Magistrate frown slightly. Any who saw the boy stopping and starting, wanting to speak yet not, would automatically become doubtful. Only Tang Yu was convinced that her son was not such a person, ever persuading him to speak.
Right then, Tang Fan got up from the corpse’s side, took the dampened cloth Qian San’r passed over to him, and wiped his hands clean. He then walked over to He Cheng, voice warm. “Tell your uncle, Qilang. Where did you go after the quarrel?”
He Cheng still didn’t answer.
Tang Fan smiled, petting his head like he was soothing him, apparently not minding that he wasn’t talking. “Wei Zhuniang was indeed pushed in, but He Cheng isn’t the murderer,” he turned and said to everyone.
“Don Tang, I know that he’s your nephew and you want to defend him, but whether he’s the murderer or not seems to not be your call!” Wei Ce raged.
“You’ve said as much, Brother Tang, but is there any evidence?” Magistrate Weng asked, as well.
“There certainly is.” Tang Fan nodded, then walked over to the corpse, letting the crowd look at Wei Zhuniang’s fingernails. “There’s no moss. Regardless of whether she tripped in or was pushed, she would certainly have struggled fiercely prior to her death, her fingers desperately clutching to things surrounding her. However, her fingernails are much too clean.
“Also, her neck was broken at the nape. This indicates that she must have had her nose and mouth covered up, and after her neck was broken, she was tossed down. For that reason, she didn’t struggle at all during this process, let alone make any noise, as before she fell, she was already dead.”
That result was so sky-shaking, everyone couldn’t resist letting out gasps. Many got in closer for a look, indeed seeing that the corpse’s fingers had no moss, just some blood staining them.
Seeing that they all had accepted his explanation, he continued. “Since that’s the case, her death was a premeditated murder. It doesn’t matter whether she and He Cheng merely had a fight, or he had such a deep hatred for her that he insisted upon killing her. A much more important bit of evidence is that his stature isn’t that much bigger than hers. Let me ask something; could he have had the strength to cover her mouth, preventing her from making any sound at all, then break her neck, drag her over, and cast her down?”
Everyone looked at He Cheng, then at Wei Zhuniang, all of them thinking that to be pretty improbable.
“Even going by the strength of a typical woman, this would be impossible to accomplish,” he went on. “That means her murderer is exceedingly likely to be a very strong adult man, which He Cheng is not.”
Once he said that, many quickly had epiphanies.
“You deserve to have been appointed to the Ministry of Justice, Brother Tang,” the Magistrate sincerely conceded. “In such a brief amount of time, you’ve already set everything out so neatly.”
Tang Fan smiled. “My mind was harried by concern. Please don’t mind me stepping beyond my station, Sir. I can’t thank you enough.”
Ashamed, Wei Ce came over to apologize. “This Wei misspoke just now. Please forgive me, Don.”
Tang Fan waved him off. “You’re mourning your daughter’s death. What crime is there? The most urgent matter now is to find out who the killer is.”
“Your wisdom is like Zhuge’s, Don. I beg you to point out the clear path to me; who is the actual murderer?”
Tang Fan didn’t answer, looking at Magistrate Weng.
The latter knew that he was doing so for him to show off his prestige as a Magistrate, so that he wouldn’t misunderstand Tang Fan as robbing his limelight. Grateful at heart, he did his part. “The blood under the fingernails.”
Seeing that everyone was puzzled, he clarified. “The blood indicates that Wei Zhuniang must have given a desperate struggle before her death, and very likely broke open the skin on the arms of the murderer. We can thus start filtering out men using that as a range.”
There had been an instant breakthrough in the case. Though the later remarks made by the Magistrate had redeemed some face, anyone with working eyes could see that if Tang Fan hadn’t patiently started things off, everyone would likely still think that He Cheng had done this.
The case hadn’t originally had anything to do with Tang Fan, so were it not for the sake of washing his nephew’s blame away, he would never have spoken over Magistrate Weng. Now that the trail had been found, he stopped interfering, simply whispering a few things to the Magistrate, then taking his leave.
Patriarch He looked at the Tang siblings, then at his own disappointing son, and mentally sighed, stepping forth to speak to Tang Fan. “Nephew, Ganyu didn’t handle this appropriately. He had just been anxious to defend the He’s reputation, hence why he wrangled with you. Please don’t take this to heart.”
‘Ganyu’ was He Lin’s courtesy name.
Tang Fan’s expression didn’t change. “Your words are so serious, Uncle. That had nothing to do with you, so why are you apologizing on his behalf? I’m unworthy of such. Moreover, the reason for my anger was not at all that my brother-in-law was rude to me, but because he, as Qilang’s father, had baselessly affixed him with a crime! Mister Magistrate hadn’t yet made a conviction, yet he had been so impatient. If there was even a bit more suspicion placed upon Qilang, would he have beaten him to death right in front of my sister and I?”
The Patriarch felt slightly awkward. He had thought that admitting his mistake would make Tang Fan go down along those steps, but he’d just lowered his standing in front of everyone, instead. He couldn’t help but get a little angry.
Still, Tang Fan hadn’t spoken incorrectly. No matter what, He Lin had to be blamed for being stupid.
Tang Fan looked towards He Lin, who was similarly shamed, angry, and embarrassed. In front of the He’s, he said coldly, “Brother-in-law, Qilang is your son. Not even vicious tigers would eat their own cubs. You’re his father; why do you not understand what his character is like? Even I, someone who’s been here for only a few days, know that he’s usually shy, doesn’t speak much to strangers he meets, and thus makes people unfamiliar with him think that he’s of a brooding and introverted nature, but elders that understand him must also know that he’s a boy that could not possibly be more kindhearted. My sister said that when his pet rabbits die, he even cries for half the day — how could a child like that have ever pushed Wei Zhuniang down the well?!”
He Lin clenched his fists, not saying a word. Tang Fan’s each and every word was an accusation of him failing to uphold his duties, while Patriarch He, the He’s head, his own father, watched all of this, hands tucked in his sleeves, not calling out to stop Tang Fan.
Getting splashed over his skull with criticisms from his brother-in-law, he felt like his face was getting completely peeled off, the pain scorching. And, those that were watching this scene were not only He members, but Wei members, authorities, and guests from today’s banquet…
After saying as much, Tang Fan didn’t pay him any more attention, instead bending down to hug He Cheng. “You can tell your uncle now, Qilang. Where did you go after your fight with Wei Zhuniang?”
After the ointment Yan Li had brought had been applied to the swelling on He Cheng’s cheeks, it appeared to have disappeared. He looped both arms around Tang Fan’s neck, snuggling softly into his arms, and was silent for a bit before he whispered, “I picked up a bangle she dropped, but didn’t want to bring it back to her, so I threw it into that pond over there.”
“You were afraid that your parents would scold you if they knew, so you were too afraid to say?”
He Cheng nodded, then gave Tang Yu a timid look.
Tang Yu couldn’t cherish him enough right now; why would she scold him? She dared not kiss him on his cheek out of fear of touching his injuries, so she tightly held his hand and caressed it.
Noticing that, Tang Fan said to Patriarch He, “Uncle, Qilang is hurt and needs rest. My sister and I will bring him back.”
There would be no sense in the Patriarch not agreeing to that. He quickly told one of his own servants to lead them home, and instructed Tang Yu and He Cheng to rest well.
“Let’s also find a doctor to treat Qilang, so that there’s no hidden problems left behind,” Matriarch He spoke.
“Mom, we still have some high-tier medicinal materials in the storeroom,” He Xuan said. “Ask the doctor if they can be used for Qilang, and if so, give him some supplements.”
Tang Fan wasn’t blindly polite with them. “Thank you all very much.”
The Matriarch smiled warmly. “We’re all family here. No need to be so estranged, Runqing.”
The He’s consciously fixing things with Tang Fan, in order to not have a rift remain between them because of all this, was ultimately because they were looking at the two Brocade Guards behind him. He was well aware of that, but still wasn’t going to refuse the goodwill of others.
Whilst even the formerly-irrelevant He Xuan had taken it upon himself to show benevolence, He Lin — the one who should have been most concerned over his wife and child — solely stood in place, unmoving.
Patriarch He really couldn’t stand him anymore, shouting. “You’re not going after them? What are you doing here?!”
He Lin looked up at them, then threw the rod in his hand down hard, turned right around, and pushed his way out of the crowd, not looking back as he left.
The Patriarch was so enraged, he puffed out his beard and glared. Were it not for everyone’s staring eyes, he would likely be cursing him as an unfilial son.
Now, the He’s longstanding reputation had been completely thrown away.
Tang Yu watched this play out. She lowered her head, gaze landing upon He Cheng. It was unclear what she was thinking of.
Tang Fan helped her up. “Sis, come on. Let’s go back.”
The He’s had arrived in excitement and left in defeat, unspeakably melancholy. Because Wei Zhuniang was Lady Wei’s little sister, He Xuan and her remained at the Wei Estate to help her father arrange for the funeral, while the rest of the He’s went back with Tang Fan’s group.
Instead of bringing his nephew and sister to their own residence, Tang Fan brought them to the bamboo courtyard he was staying in. He asked a maid to bring He Cheng away to rest, then told the rest to withdraw. “Sister, if this incident hadn’t happened today, how long were you going to keep this from me? The disagreement between you and your husband didn’t happen over a day or two, did it?”
Following this incident, Tang Yu had an exhausted look that she couldn’t conceal, but he knew he couldn’t give her any time to rest and think, else she’d certainly find excuses to escape. He thus cruelly decided to open her wounds.
Since the hurt was going to come eventually, instead of dragging the pain out, it would be better to make it hurt a little more now so that it could heal a little faster.
Tang Yu sighed. “He didn’t used to be like this. When I had just married into the He’s, he genuinely did treat me well. He even said to me that although it’s common for men of large families to take concubines, it would be enough for him to have me. I had thought he was just joking, but as you can see now, despite us fighting like this, he still hasn’t brought up getting any concubines. I’ve always remembered that sentiment, so even after his personality underwent a drastic change, I never got other ideas. I didn’t want to cause you worry, but I hadn’t expected that today, he would treat Qilang like…”
The instant she thought of He Cheng’s wounds, her heart hurt to the point that she couldn’t say anymore.
Her husband was no longer kind, and her little brother had been far away, making her son become her only hope.
The Great Ming Code stipulated that all men over forty without heirs needed to take concubines. That was not to say that one could only take them once forty and sonless, but that men of forty with no children needed to take them to continue their bloodlines.
Of course, there were some who weren’t yet forty and had heirs from their wife, yet still took concubines, as well as some that spited the restriction of that law, defended their wives wholeheartedly, and adopted heirs from elsewhere in the family, at most. Concubinage did not really go by the law, but by the human heart.
In the views of many men in big families, that clause didn’t need to go to waste — if they could have a forest, why would they need to stand by just one tree? The Eighth Miss of the He’s that Yan Li had taken a fancy to, for example, had been from the Patriarch having a concubine-born daughter despite his age. It was truly rare for He Lin to be able to make the promise to not take concubines, and persevere in keeping it.
After hearing her say as much, Tang Fan’s expression finally mellowed out. “He isn’t without redemption, then, it’s just the reality of him trying and failing for years has caused repeated setbacks for him, giving rise to a madness where he did something so nonsensical.”
The most important thing to a man was his reputation. Upon having seen He Cheng beaten, Tang Fan had said that He Lin was a multi-time failure right in front of everyone, which was equivalent to having a complete falling out with his brother-in-law. With He Lin being angry at Tan Fan, he would definitely take that out on his wife and child later.
Noticing how crestfallen she was, he then asked, “How about I go back and apologize to him?”
She shook her head. “What would you apologize for? You said everything that I was unable to. I should be thanking you for venting my anger for me!” Then, she paused, looking dismayed. “You don’t need to say anything nice to him. Qilang is my everything, yet he was so vicious to him for the sake of his own and the He’s face. Regardless of how much affection there is between us as husband and wife, he would still allow him to be beaten to death…”
As she had finally woken up to the truth, Tang Fan no longer bore with it, comforting himself a bit. “What do you plan to do now, sister?” He gripped her hand. “I was getting ready to bring you and Qilang away from here to stay in the capital for a while, but that isn’t my final say to have, it’s yours. No matter what, you won’t need to worry; as long as I’m around, you’ll forever have a natal family to support you.”
Tang Yu couldn’t help but hug him, beginning to cry. He patted her on the back, laughing. “I haven’t told you this yet, but even though I have no official post, I am not without friends in the capital. You learned of Yan Li and them’s identities today; the Bastion Envoy of the Guard is actually my good friend. If the He’s or He Lin dare to make things hard for you, I could have people turn their entire family upside-down. So, really, don’t worry. You don’t have to feel sad about that gossip all by yourself from now on. Who would dare to say you have no support, when the entire Brocade Guard is your family? Is anyone in the Great Ming more mighty than you?”
She was fully aware that he was easing her anxiety, and spat out laughter from his jokes, her tears cutting off into a smile. “My dear Fluffy, I know that you adore Qilang and I, but even if I think to leave, I can’t do so just like this. Tell me, can I separate from your brother-in-law and bring Qilang away?”
She was looking at him expectantly. He wanted to say it was possible, but could ultimately only answer, “You wanting to separate or divorce would be possible, but if you want to bring Qilang with you afterwards, that would likely be a bit difficult. No matter what, he’s a member of the He’s, and even if your husband is willing, the Patriarch and the rest won’t be. There’s no reason in us taking charge of it, regardless of which direction we come at.”
Tang Yu was a little disappointed, but she knew that he was well-versed in law and would never deceive her. “What should be done, then?” she asked.
“If you can’t separate for the time being, but just leave in the name of returning to your natal family, would you be willing to do it?”
She nodded without another thought. For Qilang’s sake, she had bitterly born with it all for several years. Now that her little brother was here, she seemed to gain a backbone, and didn’t want to bear with anything anymore.
Receiving her positive answer, Tang Fan grew excited. “I’ll think of a way, sister. You just need to wait for the good news.”
In the midst of their speech, Qian San’r knocked on the door outside. “Sir, Magistrate Weng sent someone over.”
“Let him in,” Tang Fan answered.
Tang Yu dried her tears, then hid away further in. Qian San’r brought someone inside; the other’s surname was Huang, and he was a companion of the Magistrate. Tang Fan had just met him.
The man bowed to pay respects. “Don Tang, our Sir has invited you to the Wei’s.”
Tang Fan was caught off guard. “Didn’t I just come from there?”
Old Huang looked quite vexed. “You did, but another has just died.”
The translator says: MXS’s author notes say that people can be multifaceted, but this doesn’t make He Lin forgivable. She also thinks men that beat up their wives and children are the most worthless. Agreed! Highly!
Tang Fan: Sis, let’s talk about this. Can you not call me by that nickname when outsiders are around anymore?
Sui Zhou: I’m not an outsider.
He Cheng: Neither am I, Uncle Fluffy.
Wang Zhi: Heh, I won’t call you that. ‘Fluffy’ is inferior to fooltot, eh?
Tang Fan: …