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[Arc 9: The Case of Suzhou]
The case originated from the eighteenth year of Chenghua, specifically in the between period of last year’s spring and autumn. For several consecutive months, there had been no rain, and many fields had become barren, their crops running out and withering one after the other. That alone was not much, as Suzhou Prefecture had always been wealthy and of ample food reserves, able to endure several months of famine, but come the spring-fall transition of this year, harsh rainfall had abruptly come down, causing Lake Tai to disastrously overflow.
This time, not only had the fields been unable to yield a thing, but the citizens’ homes had all been submerged. The flood waters had not receded for a long while, leading to the propagation of disease in a very heavy tragedy.
The Court had ordered Suzhou Prefecture to open its granaries for disaster relief, and ordered South Zhili’s Patrolling Censor to aid with surveying from nearby. Following the course of one winter, the situation logically should have taken a good turn.
According to the rules, after the event’s completion, the Court would have to dispatch another censor to conduct a review, then report the results of the disaster relief. This was for the sake of preventing collusion between local officials and the deception of the Court, which was justifiable.
However, at this time, a public case broke out: the South Zhili Patrolling Censor and County Magistrate of Wujiang had sent memorials denouncing each other, one after the other.
The Censor, Yang Ji, denounced the Magistrate, Chen Luan, for ineffectual disaster relief, while the Magistrate argued that he had done everything within his power, it was just that the money and provisions coming from up above hadn’t been enough; even a clever wife would find it hard to cook without rice. His implication was that his counterpart was standing up and saying stuff, yet his back wasn’t hurting from work.
Both sides each had their own statements, refusing to come to an agreement. The Court had ordered that the Prefectural Magistrate of Suzhou, Hu Wenzao, send a statement, but he expressed that he knew nothing of the situation, and stated that not long after Wujiang and other areas had been flooded, the Prefecture had opened its granaries, so that reasonably should have been enough for disaster relief. However, his argument was much too weak and powerless; it didn’t prove his own innocence, it just made the Court think that he was shirking his responsibilities.
On the basis of these memorials alone, the truth was very difficult to see. At this point, the Patrolling Censor, County Magistrate, and Prefectural Magistrate had separate stories, making it impossible to determine.
After the Cabinet discussed it, it requested the Emperor’s confirmation, as its ultimate decision was to have a censor from the Inspectorate go out to investigate the disaster situation, and clarify right from wrong while he was at it.
Taking this chance, Right Capital Censor Qiu Jun recommended Tang Fan. Within this, there was no small amount of his desire to keep his young student far away from the capital turmoil, and temporarily shunning the limelight from him. It was currently difficult for Tang Fan to make any moves in the capital, and he was just putzing around. It would be better for him to walk around more outside, as that might get him a change of fortune.
The Chenghua Emperor quickly consented to this. Maybe, in his view, Tang Fan’s expertise laid within cracking cases, as opposed to teaching the Crown Prince. Now that an unsolved case had shown up somewhere, he hadn’t needed anyone else’s reminder — the first one in his head had been Tang Fan.
In Tang Fan’s own opinion, this was both a good and a bad thing.
The good was that even the Emperor had to concede that he was a competent official. Unlike other ones that were lackluster and replaceable at any time, Tang Fan had a genuine field of use.
The bad was that the Emperor’s impression of him had stagnated. Being competent didn’t mean one was virtuous. To be able to govern the country peacefully, a higher official needed to have both talent and virtue; in other words, every day this Emperor was in power was another day that Tang Fan wouldn’t be joining the Cabinet.
Still, having said that, he was not alone in being so unlucky. Many people, on account of having opposed the Wan party or been unable to tolerate its tyranny, had suffered relocation or dismissal, and he was simply one of them. It made no difference to add or subtract him, with the sheer number of them all, and it was only because he had foiled the party several times that it even wanted to single him out.
Compared to the worries and discontent others had, he could think open-mindedly. With a decree, he packed his things fittingly in preparation to head for the South.
However, a minor mishap happened for the trip. Amongst the bodyguards accompanying him out of the capital, there was not the inseparable Sui Zhou from before, nor was there a single familiar face from the Brocade Guard.
The good relationship between Tang Fan and the Northern Bastion Office was something many knew, while some didn’t wish to see him and the Brocade Guard walk too closely. Hence was why Tang Fan had left accompanied by two Eastern Depot wardens, instead, under the beautified name of ‘protection’ — but as for whether it was actually for protection, or surveillance, was something only the Heavens knew.
On the day of their departure, Tang Fan brought Qian San’r to arrive at the city gate early with him. However, they waited and waited until the sky broke daylight and even the tea hut nearby opened for business, yet no Eastern Depot silhouettes were seen.
Tang Fan had always known these big oafs to put on big airs, but he hadn’t expected those airs to be so big, that they would even regard an imperial assignment as unimportant due to relying on Shang Ming’s support.
With nothing to be done about this, he ordered tea at the tea hut and ate while he waited.
It came to be noon. The Depot people were way past overdue. When they saw him, they dashed over to bow, smiles across their faces. “We didn’t know you came early, Sir. We hope you can forgive us for coming late!”
Tang Fan lightly smiled. “You didn’t come late. It was I that came early.”
The two exchanged looks. They could have come here earlier, but had instead gone to eat breakfast at a place not too far from the city gate for over half a shichen. They had predicted that this would anger Tang Fan, yet he was instead bearing with it.
“Your magnanimity is something we subordinates are greatly thankful for!” the two gratefully replied.
“After we leave the capital, we’ll be bearing the responsibility of an imperial assignment, and thus be crowded onto the same ship. You two don’t need to be polite with me; this is nothing more than us meeting for the first time and familiarizing ourselves.”
The two affirmed, then introduced themselves. One was Zeng Pei, the other Wu Zong, and the two of them were Eastern Depot wardens. Such ‘wardens’ specialized in arrest and interrogation, and were the most commonly-seen position in the Depot.
They were here, yet Tang Fan was in no rush, inviting them to sit down for tea, then leave after having lunch.
Now, it was they that couldn’t sit still, repeatedly urging for him to get on the road and admitting their faults over and over again, saying that they shouldn’t have been late. Only then did he have horses reined in preparation to get on the road.
At exactly that moment, someone called out behind him to stop him. He turned his head back to see Pang Qi, Millarch of the Brocade Guard, galloping over on a quick horse, nearly coming to be in front of the tea hut before he stopped.
Not even glancing at Zeng Pei and Wu Zong, he requested that Tang Fan come to the side.
“It’s good that I caught up, Sir Tang! Brother told me to give you this.” He passed over an object. “This is a token of correspondence. After you arrive at Suzhou Prefecture, if you have any issues, you can seek help from the Brocade Guard post in Wu County.”
Tang Fan was taken aback, forced to ask, “Where is your Brother? Why didn’t he come?”
For some reason, ever since Sui Zhou had nicked his jade pendant, the man’s attitude had gotten even worse than before, having a current of indifference to it. Tang Fan couldn’t wrap his head around it.
Lately, Tang Fan had not only been busy presenting memorials defending himself, but Sui Zhou had been similarly busy. Despite living under the same roof, they weren’t as close as they used to be.
Human nature was a rotten thing. Sui Zhou had pressed in close by steps at the start, and Tang Fan had retreated by steps. Now the man had completely let him go, and Mister Tang only felt a loss-like frustration.
Like this time, for instance; after Tang Fan’s trip out of the capital had been decided, Sui Zhou had not expressed anything whatsoever, not even bringing it up, as if he didn’t care at all. Tang Fan had asked if he would be going with him, but he said that since many knew of his relationship with the Guard, for the sake of avoiding suspicion, the Emperor would not agree to have the Guard go south this time.
Even with that, he didn’t get to see the guy’s figure upon departure, which was rather alienating, and much too unpleasant.
Pang Qi cupped his hands.” He was ordered to go to the Battalions today, which he had to leave from a different gate for. Time was tight, which was why he didn’t have any to see you off with, having me take his place. Please take care on your journey, Sir Tang!”
“Sir Sui’s been pretty busy lately, to have not been showing his face as much,” Qian San’r couldn’t help but mutter beside him.
Concealing the odd feeling in his heart, he ignored Qian San’r to smile at Pang Qi. “You’ve been troubled with coming over. Thank you!”
Noticing the looks of impatience Zeng Pei and Wu Zong had, Tang Fan drawled on in idle chatter with Pang Qi, until Wu Zong had to implore him. “Sir, we should be on the road. Time waits for no one, and we need to get on a boat for Tongzhou!”
They had made him wait before, but now, it was ‘time waits for no one.’ Tang Fan sneered on the inside, yet knew that these two had come specially to give him a headache, so he said nothing on it, merely nodding. “Let’s go, then.”
After saying goodbye to Pang Qi, the four left the city, went all the way to Tongzhou, then went through the canals southwards via boat.
Going by water was not just faster than by land, but more steady. If going by land, one would have to stop to seek shelter from rain on rainy days, while boats could simply keep going without obstruction to the journey.
As people on an imperial assignment, they were using a government vessel, naturally. It had two decks, which was plenty spacious enough for their group plus all the boatworkers. Tang Fan’s room and the wardens’ room happened to be on opposing ends of the second deck, leaving them with no need to pass by each other’s rooms to come and go. They all happened to be at loggerheads to begin with, so this avoided the misery of having to see each other’s faces on the daily.
The ship sailed down with the currents, its speed incomparably better than that of land travel. Qian San’r had seldom ever stepped into the South’s haunts, and saw that all along the way, the scenery of both shores differed from everyday stuff — mist-like willows, painting-like bridges, stylish banners, and jade-green drapes. The people on the shores were especially so, as he could occasionally see peasant girls carrying clothes to the riverside for laundry, all grouped up and talking and laughing merrily. Their figures were soft, clothes were thin, and looks vibrant, completely different from the bold and bright makeup of the North. He looked on, dumbstruck, eyes unable to turn away.
When they came to Yangzhou, night was about to fall, and travel by boat was not recommended. The vessel moored at the shore alongside some civilian vessels of all sizes, as they would leave after evening passed.
It was at the almost-dark of day, yet the shoreline still had a young girl calling out that she was selling fresh flowers.
Hearing her, Tang Fan had Qian San’r invite her onboard. She was around Ah-Dong’s age; having seen the government vessel, she could guess a thing or two about their status, and beamed at them. “Will you buy flowers, Mister? These ones were picked today. Looking at water and trees the whole journey is boring; it would be better to stick a few flowers in your cabin to liven it up a bit!”
She was eloquent in speech, with a soft and suave accent. Qian San’r went mute hearing it.
“These are ginger lilies?” Tang Fan asked.
She let out a gasp. “They are! They smell nice. Can you smell them, Mister?”
With that, she raised her basket up.
There was really no need for her to do that, as ginger lilies had a strong aroma, the pungent odor able to be smelled from getting only slightly close to them.
The opinion of the nearby Qian San’r might be that the flowers had no intoxicating aroma, but the person herself did.
Tang Fan smiled. “Hearing your accent… are you from Suzhou?”
“Why did you come to Yangzhou? Is Suzhou no good?”
She lightly creased her furrowed brows, seemingly a bit uncomfortable.
“I’ll buy the basket of flowers,” he continued. “How much?”
The girl immediately brightened up. “Not much! Ten coins will do!”
“San’r, give her five coins.”
She opened her limpid eyes up wide, seemingly wondering how she had come across a cheapskate.
He laughed. “Don’t worry, I’m about to head to Suzhou, and I’m not too familiar with the place. I happen to have some questions to ask you.”
The girl was relieved. After getting the money Qian San’r handed over, she brightly asked, “What do you want to know, Mister?”
“Suzhou is such a good area. Why are you not there, but in Yangzhou?”
“My home was next to Lake Tai. Last year, there first came a drought, then a massive flood, which wiped out my family. Grandpa brought me to Yangzhou to seek shelter with relatives, and they’re not wealthy, so I’m selling flowers to help Grandpa earn more of a living!”
“Where was your Suzhou home located?”
“Was the flood there heavy? Has it still not improved at this point? Did your grandpa not think to bring you to see it?”
She shook her head, sadness across her features. “My family all starved to death. I was almost sold by my papa, but Grandpa protected me and didn’t let him. Grandpa and me are doing great in Yangzhou, we don’t need to go.”
He asked some more questions relating to the disaster, but the other was young and didn’t know much, only able to speak of what she had seen along the road.
According to her, it had been truly miserable in Wujiang last year. Following the flood, it had congee stations set up at government institutions, but there had been too many people and not enough congee, quickly leading to demand exceeding supply. All to snatch that watery congee to eat, many homicides had even taken place. While even less people had congee to eat, what had come next were plagues, death, and illness. After winter had come, the spread of the plague had finally eased a little, but with the weather freezing up, the vagrant commoners had suddenly started freezing and starving to death in high amounts. Many families had gradually used up their previous food stores, the situation turning increasingly dire, and those without means for further survival had sold their own children, some even straight up cooking them to eat.
Hearing that part, it was not only Qian San’r that was horrorstruck, but even Tang Fan’s brows twitched, showing a faint trace of anger. “Is what you said the truth?”
The girl bit her bottom lip. “I dunno. Grandpa told me about the cannibalism part, but papa wanting to sell me was real. I heard it with my own ears.”
“What about now? Is Wujiang any better?”
She shook her head, repeating that she didn’t know. She hadn’t returned since she had left with her Grandpa, so it was natural that she wouldn’t.
Tang Fan wasn’t going to make things hard for her, and after a few more words, he had her go.
As soon as she left, Qian San’r started, “Sir, Wujiang—“
Tang Fan slightly raised his hand, indicating for him not to speak.
Qian San’r immediately went on the alert, turning his head to discover that Zeng Pei and Wu Zong had been standing beside them all this time.
“It’s hard to spend the night outside of Yangzhou City. Why don’t you two go into it and see what’s fun?” Tang Fan called out to them with a slight smile.
Zeng Pei smiled back. “You live quite the carefree life, Sir Tang. Those flowers are short of being pretty, and they have a plainer color.”
Tang Fan passed the basket to Qian San’r. “They would either be fragrant, or they would be beautiful. There is no such thing as having both in this world, but getting the height of one aspect isn’t too bad.”
The other laughed. “You sure are a scholar, and great wisdom comes with every opening of your mouth. Coarse men like us are no match. However, you’re not too familiar with what’s going on with Suzhou, and this subordinate has some things to discuss with you beforehand, lest you take a winding path and hit roadblocks.”
Tang Fan reached out his hand in a gesture of ‘please do.’ “Be frank with your words, Brother Zeng.”
“With your knowledge, Sir, how is the Suzhou case to be investigated?”
Tang Fan raised a brow. “You two mean to instruct me?”
“What are you saying, Sir? How could we instruct you? The case already had the Patrolling Censor on it before, so there likely won’t be any major blockades. The Court having you and us come down to re-check is nothing more than a stroll through the scene, then a question for a result. The Suzhou region has been wealthy since ancient times, and is an important ground for national grains taxes. If there is too much of a fuss, the Court’s reputation will have no luster. Do you understanding my meaning, Sir?”
These two were Tang Fan’s subordinates in name and bore the responsibility of protecting him, yet they figured that with the Eastern Depot’s backing, they could not only snub him at the start, but even completely disregard him on the trip.
They had long been hearing that while Tang Fan held the name of an imperial ambassador going on a patrol, the truth of it was that he was in an exile situation. They had no belief that he would dare to contend with the Eastern Depot, so these words were softness carrying steel, containing menace both overt and covert. Their intent was to warn him that water here was deep, and to not investigate at random, else the ending would be difficult to sort out, and people that shouldn’t be offended would be offended.
“Many thanks for your very precious words, brothers, but there is something I’m not clear on.”
“Please state it.”
“Is the phrase ‘a stroll through the scene’ your idea, or the Court’s?”
Zeng Pei was speechless for a moment, face slightly dark. “What do you mean, Sir?”
“If that is the Court’s will, then I will follow it, though I don’t really understand,” Tang Fan answered calmly. “His Majesty and the Court’s ideas were both to have me find out the truth; why did that idea distort when it came to you? Did His Majesty issue different confidential orders to the Eastern Depot?”
“We gave you a friendly warning!” Zeng Pei raged. “Why are you twisting each and every aspect of our goodwill?!”
Tang Fan laughed. “I do understand your goodwill. However, someone that understands the truth would say that you two are treating me well, while someone that didn’t would likely think that you’re impeding the way I handle the case. That getting out and affecting Director Shang’s reputation would probably bring a hundred losses without one gain, your good hearts resulting in something terrible that would only cause calamity for your Director.”
Ever since the capital, the two had deliberately menaced Tang Fan, yet had earned the opposite result, getting schemed against by him.
While interacting on the road, they had also found that Censor Tang was not easy to contend with, even more difficult to handle than those who only knew how to curse them unto their deaths. The man’s speech and conduct shunned neither gentleness nor toughness, and he would inconceivably turn hostile, making one that wanted to poke at his shortcomings have nothing to poke.
It was little wonder as to why their Director viewed him as an important target to be defended against, and had ordered them to pay extra attention to him.
They had believed that the other’s investigative process would at least be a little more discreet than those hardheads, where he would know that some things couldn’t be done at random and some people couldn’t be provoked, but now, it seemed like they had been laughably incorrect. How was he any different than those above-board officials? He was exactly like them, down right to the bone, only a little more cunning!