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Note: Not proofread.
These successive events caused everyone to feel somewhat confounded, especially the Lin household. At first, Lady Chen and the steward had half-believed all this, merely believing that Tang Fan was being sensationalist, yet horrible news had genuinely descended upon them. They couldn’t accept this for a minute. Lady Chen fainting aside, even the steward was as still as a wooden chicken, not knowing what to do with limbs.
After Magistrate Fan and Ji Min got over their shock, they simultaneously looked to Tang Fan, the one with the highest post.
“When you all found him, did you search the surroundings afterwards? Where is the Temple located?”
The bailiff, presumably the head of the rest of the bailiffs, answer tidily. “There are two Temples to the City God in this city, allocated into the eastern and western districts. The new temple was built a few years back, and the only one was gradually abandoned, because it’s close to the outskirts. Few people frequent its surroundings, and even if they do, they’re the unfortunate homeless that occasionally take shelter from the rain. This lowly one hadn’t thought that Magistrate Lin would be there, so it took a long time to find that place; when I went searching around the Temple, I found no suspicious figures.”
“Where’s the body?”
“Already brought back. It’s just outside; would you like to see it?”
“Bring it in, quickly!”
The corpse was speedily brought inside. Lady Chen had since been sent inside the back halls to rest; if she saw this scene, she would have another spell of heartrending grief.
Lin Fengyuan had indeed been murdered. He had been stabbed in the back through the heart, leaving a big, bloody gash. Even an immortal would have lost half their life from it, to say nothing of the fact that Lin Fengyuan was no immortal, and couldn’t wait for anyone else to come save him. By the time the Ji’an bailiffs had found him, he had already passed, a big puddle of blood beneath his body in a horrible sight.
There was no need for Tang Fan to verbally analyze this, as many present all had a similar though: That the murderer had killed Lin Fengyuan from behind meant that he had been caught unawares, and when Lin Fengyuan ahd left, he had only one attendant at his side. Now, that attendant was gone without a trace — the murderer was most likely him.
In light of the famously-rumored three-generation grudge between the Lin and Shen families, Magistrate Fan and Ji Min subconsciously looked over at Shen Kunxiu.
Receiving weird looks from the crowd, the latter immediately went fully red, enraged. “What are you all looking at me for?! His and his son’s deaths have nothing to do with me at all! I killed them, may the Heavens strike me with lightning so I die a horrible death!”
Tang Fan ignored him. He was thinking differently than everyone else, and what was most important right now was not Shen Kunxiu. With Xi Ming and the rest around, it was difficult for the other to take flight even if they grew wings.
Therefore, he first asked the steward, “That attendant named Lai Wang — you must not know where he came from?”
“No,” the steward said, grieved. “When Master brought him back and personally appointed him as an attendant, I had some doubts and asked after it, but Master scolded me, so I didn’t dare to ask again. How did… did things come to this…?”
“Does your home have anyone else of unknown origins like him?”
“No. Aside from him, everyone in the family is known down to the roots.”
Tang Fan had him go look for the painting of the great river flowing east, but after going through the whole residence searching alongside the authorities, the painting Tang Fan had seen could not be found again. Not only that, but Tang Fan went to Lin Fengyuan’s study and bedroom to investigate himself, yet never found the hint of a clue, only typical official paperwork. Had it not been for father and son having successive incidents, this would look like the home of a sixth-rank official that could not possibly be any more typical.
At this point, even though no one said it, they all felt that Shen Kunxiu’s suspicion was the biggest.
However, at the same time, him killing the son, then the father, for merely an old grudge was way too insane. If he actually ended up being the one to do this, it would be a massive scandal of the Great Ming’s history: Court officials not working for the people, but instead fighting with each other the day long, to the extent that they plotted against each other’s lives. If that wasn’t a scandal, what was?
Shen Kunxiu had been greatly angered at the beginning, yet now, he was slowly becoming a bit numbed. He stood there silently, gazing up at the roofbeams with his hands behind his back, not making any excuses for himself. Prideful-looking and incompatible with his surroundings, he gave off a heavy sense of, ‘Everyone in the world is drunk, I alone am sober.’
It was fortunate that Tang Fan wasn’t bickering with him. If it were anyone else and they saw his aloof look, even if they didn’t throw rocks at him while he was in the well, they would feel repulsion in their hearts, then ruthlessly chew him out before they would let it go.
At that moment, the maid Xiao Zhou, stood by Tang Fan’s side, suddenly came in close to his ear and said something for a brief moment. It was an intimate look, practically more unbridled than the honorable Cousin Qiao.
It stabbed Lu Lingxi’s eyes to see. However, both Tang Fan and Xiao Zhou could be seen as carefree, as if there was nothing more natural than this.
Seeming to hear what Xiao Zhou said, Tang Fan turned his head to ask the steward, “Is there any area that your Master typically paid the most attention to, that he prevented you all from entering to clean or approaching?”
“That should be the study. It’s where he worked, and he didn’t readily allow anyone in. However, in the daytime, Ji Xiang tidies it up; it can’t be called a forbidden area.”
But Tang Fan had just examined the study, and had made no sort of discoveries.
“Nothing else? Think carefully again.”
The steward did, then let out an ah. “There is another area, but it’s just a miscellaneous storage room. It used to have some junk piled up in it, but for some reason, Master locked it up later on. No one has entered.”
“Bring me there for a look.”
“This way, please.”
He brought him all the way to a building beside a firewood shack in the rear courtyard. Magistrate Fan, Ji Min, and the others couldn’t restrain their curiosity, following behind.
They had long heard of Tang Fan’s brilliance in cracking cases, yet they had never seen it with their own eyes. This case appeared to be simple at the moment, but the reality was that the connections inside it were crossed over each other. Shen Kunxiu held the most suspicion, while Tang Fan had discarded him, beginning to look for an unknown painting of the Lin’s.
Although they dared not get in his way or interrupt rashly, they couldn’t help but disagree on the inside, wanting to see if he really was worthy of his fame of being a god at judging cases.
Without the key, the building couldn’t be opened, but just because the Lin servants were too afraid to open it by force didn’t meant that everyone else was. Lu Lingxi stepped force and kicked the lock, breaking it and opening the door wide.
The inside hadn’t been cleaned in years, clouds of dust filling the nostrils as soon as they stepped in. Everyone automatically started coughing, fanning it away with their hands.
The steward also had people find some candlesticks to place in each other, after which everyone could see what was going on inside clearly.
Just like the steward had said, this was a through-and-through storage room, heaped full of things that had been formerly cast away in the Estate, as well as many trunks. After they were opened, they held various books and some cloth, but both things had been so horribly devoured by insects, that they were wholly unusable.
The steward hesitated. “Sir, if Master didn’t want anyone to see the painting, he likely burnt it long ago. It wouldn’t be left somewhere like this.”
Tang Fan shook his head. “I’m not looking for the painting.”
The other was confused. “Huh? Then, what…?”
Not answering his question again, Tang an turned to Lu Lingxi. “All of you, search everywhere.”
They all agreed, with even Xiao Zhou and Tie Zhu joining the search lineup. The storage room was turned upside down. Right when everyone was thinking that there would be nothing to find, Tie Zhu exclaimed, “Sir, it’s hollow under here!”
They all looked over to see him reach out and rap against a corner tile, then say, “There’s a space here. We need a tool to get it open.”
“I have one, I’ll do it,” Lu Lingxi said.
He took out a dagger that was as thin as a cicada’s wing; a close look at the blade saw it glint faintly with a blue light. It was inserted right into the nearly invisible gap between the floor tiles, and with a little effort, the whole thing was lifted up and out.
When Xi Ming shined the nearby candle on it, everyone couldn’t help but gasp.
Based on his previous experiences, Tang Fan had been thinking that this would probably be another secret passageway or room again, but the truth proved his guess incorrect. There was only a five-by-five chi square compartment below, likely not even big enough for one grown man to lay down in. While the space couldn’t hide anyone, if objects were put in it, there would be a lot.
Beneath the flickering candlelight, silver ingots neatly filled up the interior. They were of beautiful purity, appearing as an expanse of impressive silver.
Tang Fan reached out and took one, weighing it in his hand. Such top-quality silver ingots would likely only be able to be cast by the government, but there was no insignia on them. Evidently, they were not officially cast.
Suddenly seeing such a huge pile of money, everyone went quiet for a time.
“Lin Fengyuan was only a sixth-rank Magistrate, and his ancestors were never in trades! Where did so many taels of silver come from?!” Magistrate Fan exclaimed.
Everyone looked towards the steward, seemingly wanting him to give an explanation, but he was just as stunned, waving his hands repeatedly. “This lowly one knows nothing about this!”
Even though the Lin home had good financials, the furniture in it was more or less the same as that of a family doing just well, all ordinary pear, pine, and cedar wood, none made of red sandalwood or yellow rosewood. There were also no valuable calligraphic pieces, antique pieces, or precious baubles. However, if these taels were to be brought out, it would be more than enough to purchase golden zhennan, let alone red sandalwood. That all made it evident that the Lins really might not have known that Lin Fengyuan had secretly hidden away so much money.
The steward looked to be afraid that no one would believe him, stammering out an explanation. “Master never allowed us into this room. Even the Madam has no idea…”
Magistrate Fan and the rest felt this night to be bizarre. The Double Seventh festival, originally a happy day for everyone, had Lin Fengyuan’s incident happen on it — where a grand Court official had been murdered, and in his own jurisdiction — which had been quickly followed by Shen Kunxiu being forced by Tang Fan to finally acknowledge that he had long known about the imperial exams case, and now a huge pile of silver had been found in the Lin home.
Anyone encountering a case like this would likely give them a slight headache. Magistrate Fan thought to himself that if he were the one to judge this, he would only be able to think of Shen Kunxiu. And yet, seeing Tang Fan’s actions, he didn’t seem to believe that the two deaths were related to that man.
“Sir, do you think this…?”
Noticing Tang Fan’s continuous silence, Magistrate Fan couldn’t help but start questioning, yet that tall maid next to him glared at him coldly. The latter half of his sentence was immediately stopped up in his throat, going neither up nor down, his expression pained from the choke as he thought, When has even a little maid dared to climb over my head? Even so, the other’s frosty-eyed deterring force was quite a bit powerful, causing the stately Prefectural Magistrate to break into a cold sweat, so, despite his mental reprimands, he dared not speak up again.
Tang Fan didn’t raise his head, so he didn’t notice that little interlude. He looked about it carefully, then placed the silver ingot back into its original spot, saying to Magistrate Fan, “Find a case to pack these ingots in, and transport them back to the prefectural bureau.”
“Sir, since these were left behind by our Master, they ought to be the Lin’s property…” the steward couldn’t help but say.
Tang Fan stood, patting the dust from his hands with a fake smile. “These taels of yours don’t even have government-cast insignias on them, so they naturally didn’t come from a proper source. Your Master threw away his life for these things, yet you still want to keep them so you can die, too?”
The steward was taken aback. “This lowly one doesn’t know what you mean, Sir…?”
“What’s there to not understand?!” Lu Lingxi had to interject. “Anyone with eyes can see that your Master had to have colluded with someone in secret and done some shady business that shouldn’t come to light! In the end, the loot was distributed unevenly, which caused a rift, and the other party simply kidnapped your Second Lord, coerced your Master into coming to the Temple of the City God, then killed him while he had the chance! These taels must be the loot!”
Saying so, he turned to Tang Fan with a smile, unconsciously trying to curry his favor. “Was I right, Brother Tang?”
Tang Fan nodded slightly. “That’s mostly it, but you missed a point. Lin Zhen’s death also ought to be related.”
Hearing that, everyone was quite surprised. Ji Min couldn’t help but raise a question, “That can’t be right. If it’s related, then why did he hang himself? And right after the cheating happened?”
“I’m not going to talk about the exam cheating for right now; I will ask Consul Shen to resolve my suspicions later. First, we’ll speak of the Lin family. I inspected Lin Zhen’s body myself just now, and he didn’t hang himself at all, but had another cause of death. Judging by what happened with Lin Fengyuan, it’s extremely likely that he was murdered. This official is quite confused, as prior to him being buried, the body must first be verified by the government coroner that nothin is amiss. Why is there a false narrative of suicide?”
Getting cross-examined all of a sudden, Magistrate Fan stuttered. “U-um… Lin Zhen was hanging from a roofbeam when he died. Many people saw that with their own eyes at the time, then Lin Fengyuan came over and made a huge fuss in a rush to get the body back, so… so…”
Tang Fan didn’t want to argue too much with him about that problem, continuing. “When I visited the Lin home last time, you all were here. Did you pick up any clues off of Lin Fengyuan himself?”
Afraid of his faults being pointed out by Tang Fan again, Fan Yuesheng quickly racked his brains to think back. “He was horribly thin, very nervous, and didn’t want us to remain visiting for long?”
“He really seemed to not,” Ji Min said. “He firmly insisted that it was Consul Shen that forced his son into death, and when you wanted to help him find out the truth, he actually refused. How did such a father come about in this world? It’s really too strange.”
“Right. Thinking back to it not, he was thin and haggard not because of the death of his eldest son, but because of the disappearance of his second son. The other party had killed Lin Zhen and was threatening the life of his second son, so Lin Fengyuan was too afraid to say the truth, contrarily doing all he could think of to cover it up, even shoving Lin Zhen’s death onto Consul Shen’s head. It was out of fear that if anyone knew, the other party would be furious, and he would not lose just one son, but another. Even so, he detested being played to the other’s beat, meaning there was inevitably some flaws within his words. The key point must have been hidden in that painting. Unfortunately, just as we discovered it, the other party definitely detected it as well, which is why Lin Fengyuan was silenced.”
Speaking up to here, Tang Fan and Sui Zhou’s gazes met. The two instantly thought of the same exact thing.
Lin Fengyuan’s death was likely related to the White Lotus Society.
The duties of a Balancing Magistrate were complex. While assisting the Prefectural Magistrate, what was called ‘wielding transactions, forbidding abominations’ was basically the management of provision transport and water conservation.
A few years back, when the case of Huang Jinglong abusing prisoners had come about, the Brocade Guard had hunted down and arrested a whole bunch of people without restraint, yet the Society’s foundation had not yet gone. It could still cooperate with officials in secret to proceed with their own big rebellion plans.
However, their collaboration partners could not be just anyone.
Magistrate Fan was cowardly and fearful, so he probably wasn’t much in the Society’s eyes. Lin Fengyuan, as a Balancing Magistrate, had many things pass through his hands, and his immediate superior was not much to deal with. It couldn’t have been more convenient for them.
Sui Zhou had mentioned earlier that they had received information from the Society’s third-in-command. Purportedly, the Society had secretly mined and cast money in Ji’an’s scope, and now these silver ingots of unclear origin had appeared in the Lin home, of new quality and markless. Combining those two facts, the connections was not hard to guess.
However, even if the Lin home and Society had colluded, that didn’t explain Tang Fan’s assassination incident, nor the tragic deaths of the five evaluators.
Furthermore, would people of repute up and down Ji’an collude with Lin Fengyuan alone? Probably not.
For that reason, there were still many unresolved mysteries at this point in development. Every day those puzzles weren’t solved was one where there couldn’t be a satisfying resolution.
The lone thing that could be determined was that Shen Kunxiu ought to have nothing much to do with the Society, nor the Lin deaths. That was because, firstly, the Consul of Education position had not much exploitable worth to the Society, and secondly, there was no way someone of his personality would collaborate with the Society. It was only due to his moronic son that he had even become involved.
Thinking of that, Tang Fan let out a long exhale.
Using the imperial exam case to fish in troubled waters… the Society’s abacus was truly refined.
Magistrate Fan had people pack the silver up into trunks and carry them away, while the others returned to the Lin’s forehall.
Lady Qiao was sitting there, having tea and snacks. Seeing them return, she wiped the crumbs off her hands and stood up. “You’re back?”
Seeing this, Tang Fan’s mouth involuntarily twitched. Lin Fengyuan’s corpse was still laying right there. Just recently, she had covered her nose and drawn three chi back when the body had been dug up, yet now she was bold enough to eat something when faced with a corpse.
As if seeing his thoughts, Lady Qiao blinked at him, appearing to say, ‘This isn’t a graveyard. The atmosphere is different, so the mood is different, too.’
Before he could grasp what she meant, his line of sight was cut off by someone. He looked up to see the maid Xiao Zhou giving him a bashful and charming smile.
By coincidence, Magistrate Fan and the others coming in behind Tang Fan witnessed that smile, all shuddering at the same time. They instantly felt like ice water had been dumped onto their hands, practically more cooling than iced watermelon.
Fan Yuezheng had once heard of Semu women being amorous. What a shame it was that their shape was a bit too heavy, a flaw within the goodness. Back in the day, he had been entirely regretful, thinking that he wanted to be able to sample that exotic flavor, able to bear with it even if she was a bit big, but… looking at this now…
Yeah, nevermind. That kind of luck with women was something only Mister Tang could enjoy!
Tang Fan had no idea what was going on in Magistrate Fan’s mind. He first ordered for people to bring Lin Fengyuan’s body back to the government, then set his sights on Shen Kunxiu, saying gravely, “Consul Shen, with things at this point, although Lin Zhen’s death had nothing to do with you, you will never be able to shed your connection to the exam cheating, to say nothing of how you consciously went against the law in harboring your son. If you’re willing to come clean quickly, I can still intercede somewhat for you. If you wait until your son gets here and let him speak for himself, I won’t be as polite as I am now.”
“What do you want me to say? The evaluators’ deaths had nothing to do with me or Shen Si!” Shen Kunxiu answered huffily.
Witnessing him still trying to shove responsibility off at this point, Tang Fan became a little angry. “I said before that even if it’s not related to you, you must know something of the inside story! Everything else aside, was the Taiping Daoist that sold the exam answer at Clearwind not your son?!”
Shen Kunxiu startled slightly.
Had he willingly confessed, Tang Fan would have saved him a bit of face, but since the other wouldn’t cry until he saw his own coffin, he felt that there was no use in being polite to him.
Before Shen Kunxiu said anything, Fan Yuezheng curiously asked, “Sir, how do you know that the Daoist was Shen Si?”
“Those of Taiping are also of Chang’an. Chang’an is the ancestral name of Xi’an Prefecture. The Shen family’s ancestral lands are in Xi’an — does that not match up exactly?”
Magistrate Fan let out an ah. He had never thought from that angle, but with all this, it actually made sense.
“Having a Consul of Education for a father should have been glorious. Unfortunately, you have never accepted bribes, and Don Shen loved to spend his days in bars and loiter in brothels. His daily allowances are far from enough, so it’s unavoidable that his thoughts would go astray. Compared to colluding with the evaluators, he must have preferred to sell the exam answers directly. Sadly, you have clean hands that never do such disgraceful things; it’s likely that as soon as he brought it up, you were already pouring dog blood on his head in the form of a scolding. For that reason, he had no choice but to think up another method to make money — in other words, colluding with the evaluators.”
Shen Kunxiu was visibly embarrassed, because Tang Fan had spoken the majority of the truth. As for Shen Si’s private contact with those evaluating officials, Shen Kunxiu had no idea.
Don Shen wasn’t that bad of an idiot. He had known that a snake needed to be grabbed by the neck, and an opponent needed to be struck in the weakpoint. He had found out that Egret Isle Academy’s headmaster position was going to be vacant, and those evaluators intended to contest for it. So, exploiting that bit, he had faked his father’s name to coerce and lure them, making them collaborate with him, after which he had peddled information at Clearwind as a Taiping Daoist.
With Tang Fan’s competence, he had been able to guess all that, which was quite tremendous. However, what Shen Kunxiu said next was greatly outside of everyone’s expectations.
“My unworthy son has not a bit of literary skill, and does things without thinking them through! Everything from start to finish has been entirely because someone took advantage of him!”
The translator says: MXS says Consul Shen has shown up before in the text. I don’t remember, so points if you do.
 “The Fisherman”, from Songs of Chu. (Here’s a full version.)