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For the purpose of cracking this case as soon as possible, Magistrate Weng stayed in his office overnight, ordering his workers to find out the ancestral homes of Wei Ce and the other members of the Wei family, then sent himself to the inn at daybreak the very next day.
Tang Fan had had a good night’s sleep, and once done with breakfast, he saw the dark bags under the visiting Magistrate Weng’s eyes. “Come over and eat a bit before I look at those,” he said, a bit embarrassed.
“This humble official isn’t hungry!” the other politely declined with haste.
Tang Fan bowed his head to begin to pore through the dossiers. “Go ahead and say what you know.”
“Very well.” Magistrate Weng took in a deep breath. “Wei Ce is indeed not a local, but rather from Daming Prefecture, where his County Honorate achievement was tested for. He moved to this area over twenty years ago because of his trade. As for the other members of the Wei’s, his original wife had already passed before he came here, so she isn’t registered in this government’s household registry. I would likely have to go to Daming to find it.
“His second wife, Lady Chai, is a local, and her family has been settled in Xianghe for generations.
“At the onset, this humble official investigated all the people of the Wei’s that I could, including the maids, as they still need to be registered despite their life contracts being held in the Wei’s hands. I didn’t discover anything suspicious the whole time — like those two maids of the Wei son, Xiao Lu and Xiao Shuang, who had been born in the family — until I looked into Lady Li, the son’s mother.
“She was found to be from Daming; her grandfather’s generation had fled there to escape famine in Shangxi. By coincidence, Wei Ce had gone to Daming for business discussions, came to know Lady Li’s father, thereby took a liking to her, then brought her to Xianghe as a concubine.”
“She’s the mother of the Wei son. According to reason, she would never hurt her own child, right?” Tang Fan pondered.
“Correct. When he died, I went to the Wei’s for a look, and the woman was heartbroken. It didn’t seem faked.”
“Was anyone else in the home from Daming other than her?”
“Yes. When she married into the Wei Estate, she brought one maid and one nanny. The maid, named Chun Ying, was at her side when the case occurred. The nanny is the son’s wet nurse, Lady Hu.”
Tang Fan’s heart thumped. “Lady Hu is also from Daming?”
“Such was written in the household registry. It shouldn’t be false.”
“What about her husband, mother, siblings? Did you find those out?”
Magistrate Weng shook his head. “I’m afraid that I would have to go to Daming to. Do you suspect her, Sir?”
“Send someone to investigate that first, and we’ll speak more on it later. It’s currently too early to draw any conclusions.”
With no further delay, after discussing things with Sui Zhou, Yan Li and Gongsun Yan were both ordered to go with Xianghe authorities to Daming, and find out Lady Hu’s origins.
This was a play to urge efficiency. If the authorities from the county bureau went alone, they would only have a back-and-forth spat with Daming’s people that would waste who-knew-how-much time. If Brocade Guards set out themselves, though, it would be different — wherever they went, no one would be brazen enough to slight them.
Therefore, even if the Guards’ external reputation was always primarily a vicious one, and they were further regarded as the Emperor’s violent lackeys amongst the clean-stream literary crowd, Tang Fan’s opinion was that if they were used properly, they could be a sharp edge that swept away all things before them. Most importantly was the fact that Sui Zhou was positioned in an intelligence agency, yet was someone with principles and a bottom line, completely unlike Wan Tong’s sort.
A blade being used to save or kill did not depend on the blade itself, but on its wielder. If a negative attitude was maintained towards such due to intrinsic bias, then nothing would be getting done.
Yan Li was presently in a state of excitement because of the progress made on his betrothal to the Eighth Miss, and Sui Zhou didn’t want to see him throw away all of the Brocade Guard’s prestige by running over to climb her wall every single day. Thus, he threw down the order that he was to find out the truth as soon as possible, then come back as soon as possible, as after that, he would get Tang Yu to facilitate a meeting with the Eighth Miss for him to properly express his feelings at.
Once he heard that, Yan Li’s motivation grew unprecedentedly strong, and he brought the others straight to Daming without a second word.
He did not fail Tang Fan’s hopes, either. In a brief four days, before he himself came back, he sent a Xianghe authority back on a quick horse with information.
Just as they had anticipated, Lady Hu truly was from Daming, and her father had once been a locally-famous do-gooder that built bridges and paved roads, being very charitable. However, he had later on met with mishap, getting beheaded because he had been convicted of the crimes of disrespecting someone’s wife and murder.
Even with over twenty years passing, Yan Li and Gongsun Yan had still managed to find a lot of people all over the place that remembered this event. Lady Hu had been married off for years already before her father’s incident, and after it, because her husband had died of illness and she had been at odds with her daughter-in-law, she had gone to be a nanny at the Li’s.
Back when Lady Li had married into the Wei’s, she’d needed a trustworthy and capable person by her side. Many in the family had refused to part from their hometown, while Nanny Hu alone volunteered herself, following Lady Li and Chun Ying to the Wei’s.
In addition to that, the Guards brought another bit of unimaginable news: the one Lady Hu’s father had murdered was Wei Ce’s original wife, Lady Zhang. Purportedly, he had wanted to rape her and failed, and because of her resistance, he accidentally killed her, hence was why he had been sentenced to a beheading.
Hearing this, Magistrate Weng had an epiphany. “Could it be that Lady Hu is the son’s murderer, and used that to take revenge for her father?”
Tang Fan shook his head. “This isn’t that simple.”
The other was confused.
“There is an even more important sentence inside Yan Li’s information; he said that Wei Ce and the Hu family had been in-laws. Wei Ce’s asset situation had been poor, so he had taken his wife with him to seek shelter at the Hu’s, whereupon Lady Hu’s father took them in. Wei Ce stayed there for three years. Think about it; if the father really had tried to be obscene towards Lady Zhang, why would he have born with it for three years before he acted? Presumably speaking, if that hadn’t been the first time he was improper towards her, then she had tacitly allowed it before that point, so why would she resist all of a sudden?”
Magistrate Weng was made a bit dizzy from his walkaround, only able to comprehend his words after a long time had passed. “When you say it like that, it really is suspicious.”
He had just been getting excited due to discovering a trail. Once Tang Fan snapped him out of it, he immediately thought of many points of doubt. “If the Hu father was obscene towards Lady Zhang, then that would mean he was a lecherous man, but, Sir… you see, it says right here that ever since Lady Hu’s mother passed, he had never remarried. There’s clearly a contradiction there.
“The Hu’s were well-off back in the day, so it wasn’t like he wouldn’t have been able to remarry or take concubines if he had wanted to. Since he took no wives nor concubines, that demonstrates that he was constantly thinking about the Hu mother, and not lusting after women. In that case, why would he indiscriminately attack Lady Zhang? Could she have possibly been even more beautiful than Noble Consort Yang?”
Tang Fan nodded in admiration. “Good. That’s logical!” Then, he sighed. “This case is very suspicious, and I don’t even know how it was judged in the first place, to have been cracked and turned into an indisputable charge.”
The Ming Dynasty imposed that death-penalized cases could not receive sentencing from local authorities. After cases were locally determined, they had to be handed up to the capital for the Ministry of Justice to judge, after which they would be submitted for imperial review, then issued through the Cabinet, all before it could be determined with finality.
Even though false charges were inevitable, with the procedural safeguards of multiple layers of reporting to one’s superiors, it at least prevented such things from happening to the fullest extent that it could.
Magistrate Weng checked the dates, then whispered, “The case was determined by Daming in the seventh year of Jingtai. The Ministry of Justice endorsed it the following year, which was the first year of Tianshun.”
Hearing that time period, Tang Fan fell silent.
In the first year of Tianshun, something highly prominent had happened in the capital — the Overthrowing.
Emperor Yingzong, previously under house arrest, had been re-established on the throne with the aid of Shi Heng, Cao Jixiang, and others, following which he had imprisoned his half-brother, the then-Jingtai Emperor. On that very year, the officials that had once supported Jingtai had become deposed in quick succession, the capital’s officialdom had been confronted with a major shuffle of the cards, and every layer of the Court had been in a panic.
Under those circumstances, officials had feared that they would turn into sacrifices with just a little slip-up, none having any thoughts to slack. This case had been so insignificant in their eyes, that the pains to overturn the verdict and investigate hadn’t been worth it at all, making the upholding of Daming’s original sentence nothing shocking.
Seeing that the two of them were silent, Sui Zhou reminded, “First go to the Wei’s and take Lady Hu into custody, then call Wei Ce in for questioning.”
Tang Fan nodded, clapping Magistrate Weng on the shoulder. “Guangchuan’s right. We’ll investigate the Wei son’s case first, then speak more on it. We have to hear Lady Hu’s argument on these age-old events. When you go to the Wei’s, you mustn’t alert the enemy. Don’t tell Wei Ce that we suspect him, only that we have pretty much determined that Lady Hu is the one that killed his child. He’ll certainly ask after the reason; when the time comes, bring up the old event with the Hu family, and watch for his reaction.”
The Magistrate understood. “This humble official will set off.”
After he left, Tang Fan skimmed the dossiers again, presently shook his head, then said to Sui Zhou, “When I was in Shuntian Prefecture, I always came across a lot of things such as this, and would feel like there was truly little that I could do for them. I can only hope that there will come to be more officials like Magistrate Weng in this world, who aren’t afraid of trouble and will investigate things to their ends.”
Sui Zhou poured a cup of tea for him. “Look at it this way; there’s a Magistrate Weng here, so there are countless Magistrate Wengs all over the country,” he answered leisurely.
Spirits raised, Tang Fan took his cup and bumped it against him, smiling. “You’re right. It is I who worries about nothing!”
Sui Zhou shook his head. “Whenever you investigate a case, there inevitably comes times where you hit a wall, while onlookers know everything clearly. Jump out of that point of view, and you’ll be fine.”
“Guangchuan, ah, Guangchuan, you really are my empathetic little flower,” Tang Fan couldn’t help but joke. “What a shame it is that you aren’t a woman, else I’d take you as a wife!”
“This lady has long prepared my dowry. When are you going to take me into your door, Mr. Official?” Sui Zhou asked, composed.
He hadn’t affected feminine mannerisms at all, sitting beside the table in an imposing way while he said such a thing in a deep voice. It should have made one’s skin fill with goosebumps.
Tang Fan laughed aloud. “Once I see you serve me properly, I might consider you for my first concubine!”
Sui Zhou raised his brows. “Why not your primary wife?”
The other winked at him. “I’ll get a few more concubines, and whoever serves me the best will be who gets promoted to that.”
“Who else can cook for you, risk dangers with you, and protect you like I can?” Sui Zhou countered. “You could say that I can be in the kitchen, warm the blankets, get into officialdom, and suffer hardships, all in one. Can anyone else do that?”
Mister Tang was stunned by the questions. He stroked his chin, falling into deep contemplation due to getting snared by his words.
It seemed… like the answer was no?
Unruffled, Sui Zhou watched the other’s conflicted expression, then casually picked up the pot to pour himself a drink.
He had been on no lack of field hunts before, so he knew that there were two ways to deal with prey. One was to catch it in one fell swoop with the momentum of lightning before the thunder, taking advantage of the time before the prey had a chance to react. Another was to instead simmer everything on low heat by trying to get closer to the prey, lower its defenses, then slowly get it used to your presence, after which it would throw itself into the net.
The tea entering his throat, Count Sui felt that… hum, it wasn’t as good as the capital’s, but it did have a special sort of flavor.
The next day, Magistrate Weng sent an invite to Tang Fan and Sui Zhou, saying that he had made major progress on the case.
They came to the county bureau, and the Magistrate personally welcomed them. After exchanging greetings with them, he said, “Lady Hu was already detained, and confessed to everything once this humble official interrogated her. However, she said that she had another old injustice done to her that left murder as a last resort. She wants to meet you, Sir.”
“Where is she now?” Tang Fan asked.
“I put her in a lone cell. If you wish to see her, I can go bring her over.”
“What about Wei Ce?”
Magistrate Weng smacked himself on the head. “Right, I nearly forgot about that part! I intentionally informed Wei Ce of Lady Hu’s background. He was first shocked, then angrily said that he had indeed received the Hu’s grace once, but Hu Hanyin was worse than a beast, attempting to get a piece of his wife only to end up accidentally murdering her, which had come to light back in the day. He hadn’t wanted to remain living in such a heart-breaking area, so he left Daming to move to Xianghe. Never had he expected that Lady Hu was holding a grudge because of her own father’s mistake.”
No flaws could be picked out of those words. “I’ll meet with Lady Hu, first.”
“Please sit for a bit, Sir. This humble official will have bailiffs fetch her. You want to interrogate her yourself?”
Tang Fan shook his head. “No need for that. You are the overseer of this case, we can just listen in from the side.”
Lady Hu was brought over quickly. She was still wearing the garments of a typical woman, and appeared to be relatively put-together. Magistrate Weng had obviously not tortured her, nor treated her harshly.
“Lady Hu, this is Sir Tang, the Left Metropolitan Censor you wanted to see, and this is Sir Sui, Bastion Envoy of the Brocade Guard.”
She showed an excited expression, quickly giving her bows. “This criminal greets you both, Sirs!”
“This official will ask you; you confessed earlier that the one that killed the Wei son was you, wasn’t it?” the Magistrate asked sullenly.
Lady Hu nodded, without any hesitation whatsoever. “Yes.”
He suddenly slammed his striking block down. “Why did you do it? Tell the truth, quickly!”
“It was out of revenge. Even though Wei Ce escaped punishment from the authorities, I want his familial line cut off to make him regret what he did in the past!”
Magistrate Weng frowned. “Your father’s death was entirely his own doing. What revenge could you have to get?”
“That is a long story. Please allow me to tell it in full, Sir.”
“My late father, Hu Hanyin, was a wise merchant of Daming, making him rich many years ago. However, he didn’t hoard his wealth like other merchants, instead donating most of his money to building bridges, paving roads, giving alms of food, and founding monasteries, which made him some fame locally. My late mother died young, and he never remarried, instead raising me up and finding a family for me to marry into.”
Way back when, she had married far off, unable to visit home frequently, until a certain day that her natal family sent someone to inform her that the authorities had arrested her father due to him accidentally killing someone.
As soon as she heard that, she was dumbstruck, and by the time she ran back home, her father had already been convicted by Daming’s Magistrate, who had then reported to the Court that her father was to be sentenced to beheading in the fall.
Major criminals like Hu Hanyin weren’t supposed to be not allowed to have family visit, but she was finally able to see her haggard-looking father in jail after much rushing around, only after which she came to understand what had happened.
He told his daughter that three years ago, a married couple with the surname Wei had come to their home — the man named Wei Ce, and the lady surnamed Zhang — who were in-laws of Lady Hu’s mother’s natal family. Because of their dire financial situation, they had had no choice but to seek help.
Seeing how pitiful they were, Hu Hanyin had taken them in, Wei Ce making progress thereafter. After settling in the Hu home, he had studied strenuously, then earned County Honorate status, but unfortunately failed to get the following Provincial Honorate title. Hu Hanyin had comforted him, saying that few passed on the first try, and he shouldn’t get discouraged. He could live on peacefully, as the Hu’s would never slight them meals.
Hearing this, Wei Ce had naturally shed many tears of gratitude, and said that were it not for Hu Hanyin accepting them, he would never have been able to think about getting scholarly honors, and likely would have perished from poverty long ago. As his parents had both passed, he had hoped to be able to honor him as a sworn father, so that he could show him proper filial respect after he passed his exams with flying colors.
Hu Hanyin had only had one married-off daughter, leaving no relatives at his side. Following Wei Ce’s words, he had been touched; Wei Ce was a County Honorate, and having one of those as a sworn son was a beautiful thing that others couldn’t get if they sought it out. He had agreed.
The two had quickly gone to the authorities with the papers, and Hu Hanyin had officially accepted Wei Ce as his sworn son. However, before he could inform his daughter that was in another locality, something had happened to him that he had never even begun to anticipate would.
One day, when returning home from a pawn shop, he had happened to see the door of his room half-open. Believing that the maids had forgotten to shut it after cleaning inside, he had simply pushed it open.
However, that push had allowed him to catch sight of a woman lying on his bed.
Taking a closer look, he had discovered that she was none other than Lady Zhang, his sworn son’s wife.
She was naked, a knife stabbed into her heart as she stared blankly at the roof, dead with her eyes open.
His soul frightened out of him, he had immediately called out for people to come.
The first to rush over had been Wei Ce. Stunned upon seeing this scene, he had then furiously accused his sworn father of thinking to rape his wife, flying into a rage out of humiliation, and then killing her.
Hu Hanyin had naturally denied it, but Wei Ce had quickly gone to the authorities. After they had come to investigate, they had discovered that the knife stuck in Lady Zhang’s chest happened to be the one Hu Hanyin normally used to cut paper.
She had died in Hu Hanyin’s room, and the murder weapon had also been his. The proof had been conclusive, with no room for doubt.
In that moment, Hu Hanyin wouldn’t have been able to explain himself even if he had been covered in mouths.
After meeting with Lady Hu, he asserted that this accusation was false. He and Wei Ce were sworn father and son; how could he have ever acted against his daughter-in-law?
He told his daughter that she had to get justice for him, but she was a powerless woman, and her husband’s family had no authority to. Despite her having run all over the place, the Court ultimately sentenced a beheading, her father’s life lost to the Yellow Springs.
Listening to the end of that period, Tang Fan then said, “Even though the case looked like it had a lot of evidence, it also had loopholes in it. Had the Daming Magistrate of that time really not discovered that? Why did he insist upon his initial sentencing? Did you not hire a litigator?”
“How could I not have?!” she answered, teeth gritted. “That Magistrate did not practice by logic. He firmly believed in the principle of people using their riches to bully the poor, saying that since Wei Ce was a County Honorate, it was impossible and unneeded for him to lie. On the contrary, because my father was a merchant, he was therefore ‘benevolent on the outside, malicious on the inside’. Not only did he not listen to my defense, but he had me terribly beaten up and thrown out of the bureau!
“I heard that murder charges like my father’s first had to pass through the province, then be reported up to the Court before they could finally be sentenced. Because my injuries were still unhealed then, I held a sliver of hope, and asked my late husband to help me by hurrying to the province. Unexpectedly, heavy rain came down on his journey, making him a step too late, with the case already going from the province to the Court. We had no way to get to the capital, only able to bitterly wait, but all we ended up waiting for was news of my father’s death sentence!
“His kind heart had been in vain. He still believed that Wei Ce was a pitiful man whose wife had been murdered,” she went on, face filled with tears. “Unexpectedly, as soon as the Hu family declined, its assets confiscated by the authorities, he used some ‘unknown means’ to move up in the world in the blink of an eye, then departed Daming without a trace. It wasn’t until later on that I learned that he had asserted himself outside as a wealthy businessman, and had moved to Xianghe!
“For over twenty years, this case has been cold, so I wanted to make Wei Ce taste the pain of having his family line cut off, so as to avenge my father’s unjust death.”
Magistrate Weng furrowed his brow. “Since you plotted this much, why did you only act after over two decades passed?”
“Because I was already a married woman, I had my own husband and son. I couldn’t just abandon them without a care,” she answered sadly. “When my husband died of illness a few years ago and my son grew up, I was able to do whatever I wished with no qualms.”
“After your father’s incident, you once ran all over the place on his behalf. Shouldn’t Wei Ce have seen your face?” Tang Fan asked. “How could he not have recognized you after you came to the Wei’s?”
“At the time, he heard that my surname was Hu and that I came from Daming, so he questioned me about my family history. I deliberately kept it from him by fibbing. On top of that, with so many years passing, my appearance and figure are much different than they had been over twenty years ago, so he didn’t suspect me.”
“You knew that Lady Li was marrying into the Wei’s, so you specifically got close to her?”
“No. At the time, my husband was gone and I was quarreling with my daughter-in-law, so I didn’t want to stay at home all day long. I found a temporary job at the Li’s, where the Madam came to appreciate me because I was a good worker. Later on, I heard that Wei Ce wanted to take Lady Li as a concubine, and the Li’s were looking for people to accompany her. I felt that this opportunity could not be missed, thus offering myself for it on my own initiative. It took a lot of time to gain her approval and become her confidante.”
“How did you kill the Wei son?”
“I, Xiao Lu, and Xiao Shuang were at the Young Lord’s side. They genuinely did see me get called away by Lady Li, but I had the notion to return ahead of time; taking advantage of the period they were both out of the room, I first smothered him, then found a place to hide in until I heard others crying out in alarm, after which I pretended to have just gotten back so that no one would suspect me.”
She had answers for every question, and concealed nothing.
In cases Tang Fan had previously worked on, before they were thoroughly exposed, nearly all murderers and suspects would argue without regard to anything else, as long as they held a thread of hope to escape. This was the first time he had ever seen someone like Lady Hu, who explained everything in immense detail of her own volition.
Hearing all this, Magistrate Weng had to ask, “Did Wei Zhuniang’s death have anything to do with you?”
Lady Hu shook her head. “No. She had nothing to do with what happened before, so why would I kill her? Were it not for her death, however, the Wei home wouldn’t have been in chaos, and I wouldn’t have had the opportunity to do this.”
Magistrate Weng sneered. “You have quite the conscience, to know who does and doesn’t deserve blame. So, why did you intentionally choose to kill the son, who couldn’t even speak?”
“Ever since I entered the home, I’ve been wanting to make use of this chance to kill Wei Ce, but I found that my power alone made doing that really difficult…”
“You could have found an opportunity to sneak into the kitchen and poison his food,” the Magistrate supplied.
She answered with a pained smile. “He is a very suspicious person. All of his meals are first tasted by the attendants beside him, which gave me no chance, as it would very easily be discovered. The Wei home has many individuals in it, so I couldn’t waste that once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. After Wei Ce’s son was born, I felt that just killing him wouldn’t be enough — I would make him feel the hurt of losing his son.”
“After the Wei deaths, did you purposefully spread those rumors outside?” Sui Zhou suddenly asked.
As he had come to hear a trial today, he was dressed in his qilin uniform, sitting with quite some majesty. Lady Hu was very calm when facing Magistrate Weng, but still couldn’t help but take in Sui Zhou’s aura. She kowtowed once. “Answering you, Sir, I did.”
“I knew that these old events would never be believed by anyone at first mention, so I wanted to use Wei Zhuniang and the son’s deaths to fabricate a tale of wronged ghosts that would draw people’s attention. If I had no honorable lords to right this wrong for me, the next step would be to spread the matter of Wei Ce killing his original wife, framing his sworn father, and then conspiring to thieve the Hu’s assets. Even if he ended up getting no sort of punishment, his reputation would at least hit rock bottom. If I had a further chance, I could kill him, then make up a story about ghosts taking his life, blurring the eyes of all the people in the world.”
“Seeing as you’ve planned for everything, how can you be so certain that I’ll help you overturn the case?” Tang Fan asked indifferently. “You should know that there’s only one case known as of right now, and that’s the murder of the Wei son. Since you’ve admitted that you’re the killer, the evidence is concrete, and the case can be closed. There’s no way we can go to the trouble of running all about for a two-decades-old affair.”
In tears, Lady Hu banged her head on the floor several times. “It’s because of this case that I am! I heard at the beginning that even Wei Ce himself didn’t know that it was me, urging you to close the case. It was Mister Magistrate and you two gentlemen’s insistence upon investigating that caused me to have nowhere to hide. I know that good officials like you all don’t disdain hard work, and might become the only hope there is to overturn my father’s charge. Murderers are to repay that with their lives; I know that a death sentence is inevitable for me. I ask for nothing other than that you all show compassion by exonerating my father! He acted benevolently all his life, and never deserved such an end!”
Magistrate Weng looked at Tang Fan. The latter shook his head slightly.
Understanding, the Magistrate immediately banged his striking block. “Put her away for now. We will hear more later.”
After Lady Hu was brought away, he prompted Tang Fan’s opinion. “How do you view this, Sir?”
The other could only say one word: “Thorny.”
Magistrate Weng followed up with a sigh. “It is. That all happened so many years ago; how would we be able to find evidence to overturn it?”
The translator says: Has then been a good husband in this novel yet? I’m sensing a recurring theme. I feel like the only one is Sui Zhou.
 惊堂木 – lit. ‘hall-startling wood’, used extremely similarly to how a gavel is. It’s a rectangular block of wood slammed against surfaces by judiciary officials to either intimidate prisoners or get everyone’s attention. It’s striking because you strike it, and because it draws attention, ohoho.