[If you’re not reading this on chichilations, then you’re reading a stolen copy. Reposts are not allowed anywhere or for any reason!
Links for mobile viewers: Ko-fi Donation — Chichi’s Twitter — Project Index — Digital Version Library
I see all your likes and comments~ Thanks in advance~
The sponsors of this large-sized (6k) chapter are: Jenn R. (10), Sina E. (2)!
(Click here for details on how sponsored chapters work.)]
No one would have imagined that Wang Zhi, who held overwhelming power in all of Datong and could make people cower once they saw him, would show up in such a manner.
When Pang Qi led him in, Tang Fan didn’t notice the man in plainclothes behind him, simply smiling and calling out, “Old Pang, have you had breakfast yet? Come and eat with me!”
“What time is it? You’re still eating?! You trying to fatten yourself to death?!” a familiar voice came from behind Pang Qi.
Tang Fan nearly snorted his sip of soy milk out of his nose, coughing over and over.
Sui Zhou rubbed his back to help him regulate his breathing, glancing over with a cold eye. “You’re dressed like you’re up to no good.”
Wang Zhi strode out from behind Pang Qi, sat right down at the table, and smiled in anger at that. “If I wasn’t afraid of being found out, why would I need to disguise myself like this?”
No longer coughing, Tang Fan looked at the doorway. “Where’s Ding Rong? Does he know that you’re out?”
“No, I distracted him. Though, speaking of which, I don’t understand why you’d want me to hide from even him. He’s been following me for years, I have no need to doubt his devotion. He’s plenty trustworthy.”
“Before the truth is made clear, everyone is suspicious. If I didn’t know that you wouldn’t do something like this, your suspiciousness is greater than Ding Rong’s or anyone else’s, actually.”
Wang Zhi glared at him. “When have I ever been suspicious?!”
Tang Fan drank down all the soy milk, accepted the damp kerchief Sui Zhou passed over, and wiped his mouth off. “First of all, you are Datong’s Defending Supervisor, you have immense authority in Datong City, and no one can control you, not even Wang Yue. If you wanted to convey information, it would be fairly easy. Second of all, when I was still in the capital, I heard that someone denounced you and Wang Yue for communicating with the Tartars, claiming that your previous victories all arose from their surrender, whereupon you provided them with cloth, horses, money, and food in return for the transaction.”
“Who said that?! He must have sinister intent!” Wang Zhi shouted, enraged.
“Sinister intent, indeed. But don’t think that I’m just spouting alarmist rhetoric. The most fetching trees in the woods will be ravaged by the wind, and your performance in Datong has been too eye-catching; many don’t want to see you get promoted and rise up in the world, so they have to find ways to cause you to stumble a little. I saw no lack of memorials like these while in the Inspectorate. Since so many don’t want you all to establish merits, nor watch you return to the capital, the best method for them is to blacken your names and get you removed from your posts.”
Seeing that Wang Zhi was remaining quiet, he continued on. “There is no way Wang Yue and you have communicated with the enemy, of course, but just because I have faith in you doesn’t mean that others do. Also, can you completely guarantee that the servants at both of your sides are all unconditionally loyal? Thank you for trusting in me; since you followed my words exactly, I will do my best to investigate this to avoid the war from being dragged out.”
Tang Fan finished his righteous speech. Before Wang Zhi was allowed to get slightest bit emotional about having a good friend, though, he picked up a bun and chomped on it. “Alright, I’ll have to bother you with talking about what happened yesterday.”
Wang Zhi’s hand itched a little witnessing this, but because Sui Zhou was nearby, he couldn’t beat him up again, so he just glared. “We checked out Steward Wang. The reason he went to the pawnshop yesterday was because of poor cash flow for him recently, which resulted in him pawning things Wang Yue had gifted him.”
At that, Tang Fan showed a puzzled look.
“He’s always been a bit of a gambler and frequently owes gambling debts, but the amount is never large. The gambling den was pressuring him hard, and he didn’t want to trouble Wang Yue with it. That’s why he went pawning.”
Tang Fan swallowed a bite, then drank down soy milk, smiling at the one next to him that had poured more for him, expressing his thanks. “Did he have dubious movements upon entry, then?”
“We haven’t noticed any for right now. Why did you keep an eye on him?”
Tang Fan took another bite. “When I was following him, I encountered a thief that stole from me, who happened to delay just enough time so that I couldn’t get to trailing him again. Tell me, how could that be a coincidence?”
“Even so, when the thief was located yesterday, he was already dead.”
“How did he die?”
“I have to ask you about that.”
Tang Fan blinked. “Huh?”
“At his time of death, he was still clutching your coinpurse. The coroner said that the silver was daubed with poison. The thief had put the silver in his mouth to verify their authenticity, ended up ingesting the toxin, and fell over dead on the spot.”
The silver ingots cast by the government were made of the purest silver and had government stamps on their surfaces, but they were generally in the possession of rich households, which would elect to store them away and spend the less-pure ones, first. At the level of civilian circulation, because these silvers were too heavy, they would get pinched into several chunks by weight. There was no lack of privately-cast taels amongst the populace, but their quality was certainly not comparable to government-issued silver.
To distinguish between purities and the authenticity of silver, the simplest and easiest method was to bite on it.
“…All this talk, and it wound back around to me? Where’s the silver? Did you bring it?”
Wang Zhi brought out a small bundle wrapped in a kerchief, which he opened, revealing the few pieces of silver within.
“Which are poisoned?”
“Take a guess.”
Tang Fan silently glanced at him, then pointed at the two largest pieces amongst them. “Those two aren’t mine.”
“I see. Those are the ones smeared with poison. If you shine the light of the sun on them, you can see that there’s a layer of gray, foggy color on their surfaces.”
“Who gave these to him? All he did was rob me. What did he know that would cause someone to silence him?”
The silent Sui Zhou suddenly spoke. “You just said that he chose the coincidental time of you following Steward Wang. Could it be that the steward, in order to keep you from catching up to him, found a thief to steal from you, then killed him to prevent him from confessing?”
Tang Fan shook his head. “That’s too obvious, and not really necessary. Steward Wang was walking so quickly, I was almost unable to keep up with him. Why would he specifically find someone to draw me away? It doesn’t make sense…”
Then, he looked at Wang Zhi. “Can you find Steward Wang for questioning?”
“It would be best not to. As you said, we don’t know who the traitor actually is, and Wang Yue isn’t in Datong right now. If I supersede him and go straight into apprehending someone of his, it wouldn’t be excessive to say that that could easily alert the enemy. Still, having said that, I feel like it isn’t too likely that Steward Wang did such a thing, because he used to be Wang Yue’s bodyguard during his youth. Due to Wang Yue having suffered many injuries, he treats him like family. There’s no need for him to betray Wang Yue. I also already sent people to investigate him, and he has no suspicious behaviors aside from going to the gambling den on occasion.”
Tang Fan paced around the room.
If it wasn’t Steward Wang, then it had to be someone else, but what was with that coincidence? What was the thief’s murderer trying to cover up?
He remembered standing at the apothecary’s entryway, watching Aunt Xing leave, then catching sight of Steward Wang…
He abruptly turned to look at Wang Zhi. “Aunt Xing!” he blurted out.
Wang Zhi was confused. “What?”
“Aunt Xing was weird! Miss Du clearly stated that she lives in rural Guangling County. When leaving the city, she should go from the south or east gate, and she said that her husband was waiting at home for her to decoct medicine. Yet, after she went out, she headed west.”
Sui Zhou gave it thought. “Maybe she remembered something she forgot to buy, so she made a special detour to the city’s west.”
Tang Fan nodded. “That’s possible, too, but I just recalled something else. Now, I just need to confirm my guess.”
Wang Zhi wanted to catch the traitor more than anyone else here. “What’s your guess?”
Tang Fan looked to Sui Zhou. “Prescriptions brought in by each customer are typically copied by the apothecary. Can you go get Aunt Xing’s from Miss Du?”
“I can, but before it can be proved that she isn’t guilty herself, getting the prescription will definitely cause her to have doubts and make unnecessary guesses. If she has a connection to the traitor, that might alert the enemy.”
Tang Fan was startled, but that seemed to be about right, when he thought about it. He became a little vexed.
“It isn’t impossible, though,” Sui Zhou said, gaze turning towards Wang Zhi.
“Hm?” Tang Fan hummed.
“Just wait a minute! I’ll get you the prescription tomorrow!” Wang Zhi said, suddenly malicious-sounding. “I can’t stay here for too long! I’m leaving!”
Not waiting for the others to react, he got up and went straight out.
Tang Fan was still a bit confused and at a loss. “What riddle are you two spinning?”
Sui Zhou smiled lightly. “Things will be fine, as long as Zhongjing Hall catches fire or suffers theft. Theft would be a bit of a hassle, however, since the apothecary would certainly be watched at night. As stealing the prescription isn’t too convenient, starting a fire would be much easier. Leaving something like this to him is most suitable.”
He ended that with seamlessly throwing shade at Wang Zhi.
Tang Fan was speechless. That method was certainly not something he would ever think up. “You two really are…”
He tried to consider his wording, barely managing to change ‘unethical’ into: “Creative.”
“You’ve overpraised me. The soy milk got cold, don’t drink it.”
Sui Zhou casually took the cup out of his hand, replacing it with a bun.
Eunuch Wang’s actions were truly nimble. At daybreak the next morning, Tang Fan and Sui Zhou heard that Zhongjing Hall had caught fire last night. Thankfully, it had been discovered early, and no lives had been lost, just some herbs, files, and prescriptions, which was a great blessing within this misfortune. In result, a signboard was hanging in front of the Hall today that declared the business closed, while Du Gui’r was currently leading people in the clean-up.
Tang Fan and Sui Zhou did not leave, merely spending time chatting in the inn. At noon time, Pang Qi returned from the outside; in addition to bringing in a huge pile of snacks that Tang Fan had instructed him to buy, he had a couple prescriptions.
Tang Fan looked them over. As it turned out, Aunt Xing had gone to get supplies from the Hall several times before. There were five prescriptions in total, each clearly sorted according to the dates on them.
“Look here,” Tang Fan said, pointing at the papers. “This is strange. The materials in these prescriptions are all different, and the symptoms they treat are all completely different, too. No matter how frail and sickly someone is, there’s no way that they would get completely different illnesses every time.”
Sui Zhou picked one sheet up. Judging from the date, it ought to be the one Aunt Xing had gotten the time before last. “What do they treat?”
He knew that Tang Fan was well-read, had dipped into a wide range of topics, and had a smattering of knowledge about medicine. It could not be said that he had reached the extent where he could accept patients, but it was sufficient enough for him to be able to distinguish medicinal properties and illnesses from prescriptions.
“Chuanxiong, thorowax root, angelica root, red nutsedge, peony root, bush-cherry seed, white mustard, liquorice root…” Tang Fan recited aloud, frowning a bit. “This is a prescription for megrim dispersant.”
“It’s an ancient recipe that specially treats migraines… wait, where in the Prefecture did the Tartars go last time?”
White and slender knuckles rapped against the table. Tang Fan mumbled the name of Pianguan County over and over again. “Pianguan, ‘side pass’… it’s named after a pass in its scope. That pass is called…”
“Pian Pass. Also known as Piantou Pass.”
The two exchanged glances. Tang Fan quickly grabbed the most recent prescription. “Oxknee, liquorice root, golden honeysuckle, false starwort, cinnamon twig, goji, oyster, sandseed. This one ought to primarily be for nourishing the stomach, warming the spleen, and promoting blood and qi circulation. Yesterday, Aunt Xing said that because her husband had been in the mountains all night, he caught a chill and now has joint problems, so he self-prescribed this. It fits the symptoms, and there’s no allusion in it…”
He creased his brow, feeling that this discovery was just a coincidence. While he rubbed his forehead, thinking hard, Sui Zhou reacted a bit quicker than him. “Oxknee, huai niu xi. Sanseed, sha ren. Take the first and last characters, and it’s Huairen.”
Tang Fan had an epiphany. “Right! The news that Wang Zhi deliberately spread out before happened to say that Huairen County has the weakest military force!”
Thinking about it this way, these prescriptions were evidently code. Either the materials used created a signal, or the decoction was taken as a metaphor — all of which were related to military affairs!
This method was quite concealed.
Firstly, when the entire city had been searched, even if the soldiers had found Aunt Xing’s prescription, they would never know that it had hidden information in it. Even Tang Fan, had he not happened to see her at the apothecary yesterday, would not have noticed the ordinary woman.
Secondly, the goal of Zhongjing Hall was too conspicuous. Sui Zhou had also kept an eye on it precisely because of its connection to Wang Yue and that it could come and go freely at the city’s gates. As was said, those below large trees enjoyed its shade; with the Hall around, as well as those spies that had been caught with hidden letters before, everyone’s attention had been diverted. The hidden thread that Aunt Xing was could not have possibly been buried any deeper.
Tang Fan grabbed the prescription, then walked about the room. “So, the thief that stole my coinpurse yesterday, then died, was definitely not a coincidence. There had to be someone instructing him. That instructor was…”
He suddenly looked at Sui Zhou. “It was the pawnshop’s shopkeeper!”
The other’s pupils contracted. “What?”
By means of Aunt Xing, the entire thread was able to be strung together, making Tang Fan a little excited. “Yes, that’s it! I’m almost positive it’s him! Do you remember what Miss Du said yesterday? Every time Aunt Xing comes to fetch medicine, she goes to the pawnshop to pawn things first to get money for the medicine. That pawnshop is located on the corner of the Hall’s street, and many people have to pass by it to get there. Yesterday, I saw Steward Wang come out of the shop, and when I caught up, I happened to pass by the doorway, where the shopkeeper saw me.
“If Steward Wang is fine, then Aunt Xing is the issue. That shopkeeper must have seen me pursuing someone and believed it to be her, so he got that thief to rob me, thus giving Aunt Xing time to throw me off and escape. However, he didn’t think that the one I was chasing was actually Steward Wang, and he just ended up exposing himself in his guilty conscience.”
Regardless of whether his inference was true or not, the shopkeeper’s suspicion was immense. Aunt Xing, Steward Wang, and Tang Fan himself — their only point of intersection was the pawnshop.
Sui Zhou got up. “I’ll bring people over now.”
“I’m going with you.”
“I heard that Zhongjing Hall caught fire last night!”
“Eh? Was anyone killed?”
“No. The worker on night watch found the fire early, and it only burned a few items.”
“Amitabha, that truly is the Buddha’s protection at work. Doctor Du is kind, giving people check-ups without payment often. Benevolence is indeed rewarded with benevolence!”
“I’ll say. When that fire broke out in the city’s east last time, it burned all five members of a family to death in it. That scene was tragic, tsk— I didn’t dare to take a second look at it! Shopkeep Jin, as I see it, your pawnshop has a good location and practice. With Zhongjing Hall here, those that don’t have the money to get a check-up will come here to pawn stuff.”
Listening to his neighbor go on and on, Shopkeep Jin speedily tallied up on his abacus without even looking up. “According to what you said, is it that as long as my business is doing well, yours will be doing poorly?”
“Haha! Thanks to Zhongjing Hall’s blessing, no one is doing poorly. Good times are ahead! As long as the Tartars don’t show up in a few days, everyone will have a peaceful life!” the shopkeeper of the fabric store nearby answered with a grin.
“Speaking of which, if you count the days out, aren’t they about arrive?” said the jewelry shopkeeper, who was opposite the fabric store.
“You’re a freak. You’re scared when they get here, yet you’re still looking forward to it?”
“Don’t say that. Whenever spring came before, the Tartars would always come over to loot. If they don’t come, I’ll forever have my heart in my throat! I need to hear that they’re coming so that I can be at ease!”
“They ought to be too afraid to come here,” Shopkeep Jin spoke up, never pausing in his actions, the abacus making clacking sounds. “Since we have Commandant Wang overseeing our Datong, the Tartars will have to hold back a little.”
“Did you not hear that Commandant Wang and Eunuch Wang had a falling out a little bit ago, and he brought people out to Cloudriver Post in a fit of anger? Oi, so senseless… what was the point of it?” the jewelry shopkeeper shook his head.
“You just don’t understand. Officialdom has always been about infighting and killing people without seeing blood, just like us businessmen. We inevitably fight with customers on the regular, and what’s the point of it? Fame and fortune!” the fabric store owner pouted.
Shopkeep Jin finally finished calculating his accounts, raising his head and smiling. “That’s not what we should be concerned about. Setting our business aside, as long as we can live well, that’ll be good. Regardless of whether it’s Commandant Wang or Commandant Zhang, the Tartars will come anyways. Aren’t we all running off to the countryside?”
“That’s not the same,” the jewelry shopkeeper said. “Last year, I didn’t run away. Commandant Wang being here meant the Tartars were too afraid to come into the city…”
He paused before he finished. The idle chatterers looked towards the outside as several hefty men suddenly came in, causing all of their voices to stop.
Shopkeep Jin was startled, quickly hanging a smile upon his face. “Gentlemen… dare I ask what business you may have? Would you like to pawn things, or…?”
One glance at their appearances told that these newcomers had no good intentions — there was no way they had come to pawn things at all. The men didn’t make a peep as they blocked the doorway, then made a path for two people behind them to come in.
“Shopkeeper, do you remember me?” Tang Fan cheerfully asked.
Shopkeep Jin carefully looked him over, then shook his head. “I don’t.”
“I passed by the door of your shop yesterday. We saw each other’s faces.”
The shopkeeper smiled awkwardly. “Well… this old man has a decent memory, but I wouldn’t be able to memorize everyone who passes by.”
“Then, are you familiar with Aunt Xing?”
“I am. She often comes here to pawn things.”
Tang Fan took a kerchief out of a pocket, then shook two pieces of silver out onto the counter. “Do you recognize these?”
Shopkeep Jin smiled bitterly again. “You must be making things hard for me on purpose. How could I recognize specific silvers out of the millions handled by the pawnshop each day?”
“Seems that a clear explanation isn’t coming out of you for right now. How about you come back with us so you can be nice and thorough?”
As soon as Tang Fan said that, two men came up from behind, then clamped firmly down on Shopkeep Jin at either side, making him unable to move.
“Wh-what are you doing?! Datong City has laws to abide!” Shopkeep Jin cried out in shock.
“Aren’t you gents being too harsh?! If you have any disagreements with him, you can go discuss them with the authorities! This is not the place to resolve private disputes!” the jewelry shopkeeper stood up, unable to hold back.
The fabric store shopkeeper wanted to silently leave, only to find that the door was blocked. He automatically started shouting. “How can you just come in here randomly and arrest people?! I personally know the County Magistrate!”
“The Brocade Guard does not need the permission of local authorities to act,” Sui Zhou said, stopping everyone’s mouths from moving.
Once that name was said, it was not only Shopkeep Jin that did, but the other two immediately shut up, too, faces gone pale with fear.
Sui Zhou ignored their reactions, waving his hand to have the other two brought away. Tang Fan and he remained in the pawnshop.
Tang Fan looked at Shopkeep Jin. “What connection does Aunt Xing have with you? Did you get that thief to rob me yesterday?”
Shopkeep Jin smiled in pain. “Sir, the Brocade Guard shouldn’t accuse people so wrongly! This lowly one is a decent shopkeeper; I only work for the boss part-time, being diligent here every day. Why would I know any thieves? As I said, Aunt Xing often comes here to pawn things, so I’ve come to know her. As for anything else, I really have no idea!”
Adept in self-restraint, Tang Fan kept on a faint smile. “Before we came, we checked out your background. You’re not a local, hm? You came here a few years back because you were fleeing famine. Working in Lucky Note pawnshop as a shopkeeper gives you a high monthly salary, yet you don’t go drinking or whoring, nor do you even have a wife or children. You’re all alone, with no wants nor desires. Were it anyone else, wouldn’t you think that they’re odd?
“Your reaction just now actually sold you out. Normal people would be like those two — scared, angry, and too scared to resist — but you? After hearing us proclaim our identity, you remained calm. Did you never think that if you were too calm, you would just end up exposing yourself?”
Shopkeep Jin continued to argue. “Sir, I’m not a youth in this job. I’ve experienced much of the ways of the world, so it’s natural that I’m a little more level-headed. What’s so surprising about that?”
Tang Fan raised a brow. “You’ve experienced much of the world? Those two shopkeepers also work on this street. Do they not experience the same as you every day? Could it be that they’ve seen less of the world? Why is it that they flew into a panic, yet you remained collected?”
“Why are you talking so much to him? Once we use some torture, even the Heavenly Emperor wouldn’t be able to stay quiet!”
Alongside that voice, yet another person walked in from outside. Strangely enough, the Brocade Guards guarding the doorway did not stop him.
Upon seeing the newcomer, Shopkeep Jin finally showed a bizarre expression. To him, regardless of how flourishing the Guards’ fierce reputation was, it paled to Wang Zhi’s power of these two years in Datong. Many citizens could recognize Supervisor Wang anywhere.
A person’s name was akin to a tree’s shade; as soon as Wang Zhi appeared, even Shopkeep Jin felt fear.
Wang Zhi was a straightforward one. Seeing that the other wasn’t saying a peep, he simply raised his knee, then specially stomped down onto a certain vulnerable spot.
All that was heard was a muffled sound. The hearts of everyone present skipped in its wake.
Shopkeep Jin’s face quickly warped, but Wang Zhi took a rag out of who-knew-where and stuffed it into his mouth, preventing him from yelling even if he wanted to. The man could only make sobbing sounds.
Hearing that noise, Tang Fan felt that something inside that certain area had burst. Out of a certain mental sympathy, he accordingly gave an expression of finding this too terrible to watch.
Wang Zhi noticed. “What’s with that look? You’re not the one I stomped on!” he said disdainfully.
The translator says: This chapter was originally titled ‘Ball Pain’.
RIP on that Huairen bit, by the way. That was never going to work in pure English.