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Steward Xu’s expression morphed. The others might not have reacted yet, but he knew what idea Tang Fan had immediately. The iron guarantee garnered exemption from the death penalty in all cases but conspiracy and rebellion — and that was exactly where the problem lied. If saddled with the crime of conspiracy, not even the guarantee would protect them.
“Tang Fan, don’t you forget that Ji’an’s boundaries are not where you have the final say!” Steward Xu said in a fit of rage, even calling out his name directly.
“Xu Sui and Shen Si, in order to frame Lin Zhen, plotted the exam cheating case. That’s now happened. Beyond you all resisting arrest, you’ve also threatened a Court official and planned to resist authorities with martial force — if that isn’t a conspiracy, what is it?” Tang Fan countered. “Consul Shen has already confessed that when he worried that the evaluators would spill, he sought help from Xu Bin, who told him there was no need to worry, and then those five later ended up dead. What is your family’s explanation for that? The wounds on the five were exactly the same as the ones caused by my previous assassination attempt. If you didn’t collude with traitors, how could you have supported such tremendous killers? This official even suspects that those assassins are affiliated with the White Lotus demons!”
“Y-you just want to pile accusations on, not shying away from any charge!” the steward raged.
“You don’t want accusations to be piled on? We’ll need to search to know for sure, then. Get searching!”
Lu Lingxi led the charge, rushing forth with the bailiffs. Watching as they surged up, how could the crowd of Xu servants dare to oppose? Their attacks softened, and then they were broken through all at once, where Lu Lingxi’s group charged in.
Steward Xu’s face was extremely ugly, and the look in his eyes he was giving Tang Fan had a bone-deep hatred.
Tang Fan’s kept his hands in his sleeves, bowing his head slightly and not saying a word.
Under Lu Lingxi and Xu Ming’s leading hunt, the Xu residence was overturned, not even the inner household where women lived left alone, yet nothing was discovered. A while later, they came out of the rear courtyard empty-handed, lightly shaking their heads at Tang Fan.
Steward Xu sneered. “Great! So great! Didn’t you say that there are traitors in our family? How come you didn’t find anything?!”
Tang Fan glanced at him. “Where’s your Young Lord?”
“You did the searching! Wouldn’t you know better than I if you found him?!”
The other raised a brow. “It seems like you already sent Xu Sui away? I yet advise you to bring him back as soon as possible. Scheming to fraud the imperial exams is a big crime; fleeing the charge is another level of crime entirely.”
Steward Xu looked at him coldly, silent.
Magistrate Fan and the others were a little ill at ease. They hadn’t wanted to come here to begin with, and now that Tang Fan had tasted defeat, reaping absolutely nothing, their former schadenfreude had turned into worry about whether they would be implicated.
“Sir, at this point, it would be better to go back and talk this over at length. Staying here is…” Millarch Tan said quietly.
In the eyes of bystanders, Tang Fan had indeed been a bit impetuous tonight. He had come over so impressively, ignored the Xu’s retrieved iron guarantee, stubbornly set them with the charge of colluding with the White Lotus Society, insisted upon searching their residence, and ended up finding nothing, losing all of his prestige and making a fool of himself.
To his fave, none of them dared to say anything, but they had to castigate him on the inside. Everyone spoke of him judging cases like a god — had he once had a reputation of relying on such brutish investigations?
Tang Fan appeared to have been waiting for a stage exit like that, nodding. “Very well. You will be let free for right now. I do hope you all can rectify your errors by handing Xu Sui over as soon as possible, avoiding more suffering.”
Hearing this, Steward Xu only laughed coldly. “Just you wait, Tang Fan. When our Master returns, this great humiliation will be repaid with interest!”
Tang Fan just acted like he didn’t hear, leaving with the others.
Once out of the Xu’s main gate, Magistrate Fan had to say, “Sir, Xu Bin must have gone to the capital to seek help. Forgive this humble official’s directness, but even if Xu Sui is related to the fraud case, it’s his business alone. There was no need to involve the entire Xu family!”
He spoke very suavely, yet in reality, he was accusing Tang Fan of being overly impulsive and barbaric; after believing Shen Kunxiu’s one-sided account, he had run to find the Xu’s crimes, yet now there were no crimes found, instead staining him with a full-body stench.
Shen Kunxiu laughed mockingly hearing that. “Xu Sui is a son of the family. Without Xu Bin supporting him, would he have dared to be so easily arrogant? If he was by himself, him killing the five evaluators is even more unlikely. Who would believe that this matter doesn’t have Xu Bin’s interference in it?”
He hated to the utmost that Xu Sui had instigated Shen Si in committing something this major, but before this, when his son hadn’t been exposed, he had done all he could to cover it up. Now that Shen Si had been dragged out, if nothing happened to Xu Sui, Shen Kunxiu would not be okay with it whatsoever. Hence was why he was doing all he could to drag Xu Sui into the water.
Appearing to not notice everyone’s different thoughts, Tang Fan instead generously consoled Magistrate Fan. “Don’t you worry so much, I’m well aware of all that. I’m heading this investigation, so I will naturally bear responsibility. None of you will be implicated.”
Magistrate Fan laughed dryly. “What are you saying, Sir? How could I be such a self-serving villein?”
“The case’s situation is not yet clear. Before the Court reaches a conclusion, I’ll have to ask you and your son to relocate to the posthouse I’m staying at, Consul Shen. It’ll make it easier to look out for you nearby,” Tang Fan said. “Han Jin, you will return with him to ensure their safety.”
By ‘look out for you’, he really meant ‘monitor you’.
Shen Kunxiu was surprisingly easy to speak to right now; he must have anticipated this long ago. At this, he grunted, then turned and followed Han Jin out.
After his departure, Tang Fan said to the rest, “There are still many unclear areas of this case at present, but there is no doubt that the Xu family has a crucial role in it. Consul Shen precipitously repenting, turning back from the coast, is great, of course. If the very rich Xu’s have conspired with the White Lotus Society, this will be a case big enough to attract the Court’s alert. At that time, not only will Shen Si get off lightly, but all of you will be commended and promoted in accordance.”
His implication was that the institutional exam fraud case was a minor one, not on the same level as fraud in a county or metropolitan exam. Even if Shen Kunxiu confessed and Shen Si faced punishment, the results would be more or less the same. If a major case could be solved, everyone would then receive a major contribution.
Everyone else felt this ridiculous. You couldn’t even get a grip on the Xu family; what major case are you going to make this into?
With that previous event, they were all having some regrets towards coming out with him tonight, already starting to think of what excuses they would use to refuse the next time he wanted to make things hard for the Xu’s.
Confronted with their absent-minded reactions, Tang Fan paid no mind, gave some more orders, and had them disperse with their respective troops.
After returning to the posthouse, he said, “You all must be tired from tonight. Go and rest a bit earlier.”
Xi Ming had been sent by Wang Zhi to assist Tang Fan; just because he didn’t speak much didn’t mean that he couldn’t think. At this moment, he had to say, “Sir, there is no evidence at all of collusion between the Xu’s and the Society, and the deaths of the five evaluators are only a one-sided statement. It is difficult to situate the Xu’s with a crime based on the Shen’s testimony alone.”
He had thought that Tang Fan would be unhappy hearing this, but the other just nodded. “Right. They might have been related to the evaluators’ deaths, but might not be masterminds in collusion with the Society.”
Xi Ming was taken a bit aback. In that case, you just arbitrarily accused the Xu’s of a crime — does that not give them something on you? What was the actual purpose of all this mess?
“As I see it, you’re using the Xu’s to divert other peoples’ attention, Brother Tang?” Lu Lingxi asked.
Tang Fan smiled, not denying that. “Truth be told, I hadn’t linked the Society with the imperial exam case at the beginning. They can be regarded as two independent, if linked cases for right now. The starting reason was Xu Sui and Shen Si both wanting to snare Lin Zhen into cheating, thus causing him ruin, which Shen Kunxiu has confessed to. None of you object to that, right?”
Everyone shook their heads.
He dipped an index finger into his tea cup, then drew a line onto the red sandalwood table, followed by another branch in the middle of it. “They only wanted to ruin Lin Zhen’s reputation so that he could no longer participate in the imperial exams; there was no reason at all for him to be killed. Therefore, starting from Lin Zhen’s death, another case can be branched out.”
Lu Lingxi pondered this. “Lin Fengyuan insisted that Lin Zhen had been forced into suicide by Shen Kunxiu, saying it so definitively that it was suspicious. Also, we saw his body with our own eyes; he didn’t kill himself, someone else killed him. Lin Fengyuan clearly knew all of that.”
Tang Fan nodded. “Right. He not only knew it, but he had deliberately divulged it in his words and actions, causing us to pay attention to that painting.”
Lady Qiao, her chin rested in her hand as she sat beside the table, asked curiously, “You all keep talking about that. What kind of painting is it?”
Glancing and Tang Fan and seeing that he had no dissent, Lu Lingxi said, “A landscape one, with mountains, water, trees, a person, and a boat. There was a poem on it, too.”
She creased her brow. “Aren’t paintings like that common? What’s the issue?”
“The two lines of that poem — Far trees in two rows, a reflected mountain, a light boat rowing horizontally — combine to create one word,” Tang Fan said.
Before this, no one had been thinking in that direction. They had been believing that there was a secret in the painting itself, or even that the figure might be of the killer.
As soon as Lu Lingxi heard this, he immediately mimicked Tang Fan by dipping his finger into the water and drawing on the table. “A reflected mountain (山) should be the ji radical (彐). Tree… does tree imply mu (木), for wood? Or feng (丰), for abundant?”
“Feng. One feng is one row, two fengs are two rows. A light boat is the ya radical (乚), and when a light boat travels on water, droplets will splash out (心).”
There was no need for Tang Fan to unlid the riddle, as even Lady Qiao had a reaction. “Is it hui (慧), for wisdom?”
Lu Lingxi jumped. “He wanted to say that it’s Fang Huixue?!”
“In light of those silver ingots found at the Lin home, Lin Fengyuan and the other party have been collaborating for a long time,” Tang Fan said. Supposing that Lin Zhen’s death and the disappearance of the Lin’s second son are related to this, when we visited last time, Lin Fengyuan was using this method to hint to us. It was just a shame that we didn’t notice it at the time, and he was murdered after the fact, with even that painting missing. The other party must have silenced him.”
“I remember that when we spoke to Lin Fengyuan, that attendant of his was around, too!” Lu Lingxi said. Pausing, he then furrowed his brow. “But I don’t really understand. From the start of this until now, it seems like Fang Huixue has had no connection. The people that killed the evaluators and tried to assassinate you were from the same group; on the contrary, the Xu’s are much more suspect.”
Faced with his fully doubtful expression, Tang Fan laughed. “Don’t look at me, I’m not some divine immortal. Just like you, there are many problems that I can’t figure out.”
Lady Qiao giggled. “As I see it, you’re amazing enough as it is, cousin! Being able to infer so many things from one word puzzle is something I couldn’t do!”
Lu Lingxi: “…”
What he had wanted to say had been stolen from him. Anyone would be a little depressed.
Tang Fan only shook his head. “If I really was amazing, I would have discovered this back when Lin Fengyan had been acting strange, but now he’s dead, and the Xu’s are provoked. When the time comes, who knows what troubles will await me.”
He stood. “It’s late in the day. All of you rest; anything else can be said tomorrow morning.”
Lady Qiao seamlessly glanced at her maid, quirking her lips into a pout as she said, “Cousin, we’ve been apart for so many years. You’re always busy, and we’ve had a private talk before!”
All of a sudden, a hand stretched out from nearby, blocking Lady Qiao’s body that was nearly plastered to Tang Fan.
“Miss, please have self-respect,” came Xiao Zhou’s voice, which had been silent all this time.
Lady Qiao stomped her foot out of bashfulness. “We’re betrothed! Why do you have to talk so much?!”
Xiao Zhou was expression. “Men and women are not to be too close.”
She laughed coldly. “Xiao Zhou, are you thinking that he’s bound to take you as a concubine, so you don’t regard even me as important? You’re daydreaming! Every day we aren’t married is a day you won’t even think about getting close to him!”
Wh… what kind of opera was this?
Everyone stared at this act, tongue-tied.
They had yet to be officially wedded, yet mistress and maid were fighting amongst themselves? Tsk, tsk — his luck with women was truly great!
What ‘luck’ was it, though? Watching their performance, Tang Fan felt a little numb, only able to put a hand on his forehead. “Cousin, you go and rest too. I’m tired.”
Lady Qiao dared not play around too much, inwardly sticking her tongue out as she laughed prettily. “Okay, cousin! I’ll cook some nice food for you myself tomorrow, how about that?”
“Fine, fine, fine!” Tang Fan agreed, then said to Xiao Zhou, “Xiao Zhou, we’ll head back to the room. I have something to ask you.”
Tang Fan turned and walk to his room, Xiao Zhou following close after. With a look both full of unwillingness and a fear of stopping them, Lady Qiao viciously glared at Xiao Zhou’s back, then snorted and left in a rage.
Lu Lingxi, meanwhile, stood in place, watching the figure of the main that appeared to be a little taller than Tang Fan. His expression was a bit dazed, having mentally suffered a blow.
C-could it be that this was the type of woman Brother Tang liked…?
After half a day of turmoil, he looked all around, saw that everyone was gone, and couldn’t help but go in the direction the two had gone, all the way to the outside of Tang Fan’s room. A candle was already lit up inside, its faint light coming through the window, ever flickering.
One side of Lu Lingxi felt that he shouldn’t listen, yet the other couldn’t stop his own footsteps and curiosity. The closer he got, the clearer the voices were; and upon a carful listen, it seemed like the maid was talking.
“Sir, would you prefer to wear your clothes, or take them off? This maid believes that off would be better…”
Right then, he heard Tang Fan cough lightly. “Clothes on is fine.”
They’ve gotten to this point?!
A buzzing was in his head, making him a bit muddled.
After that, the voices became a lot quieter, but Lu Lingxi already had no will to continue listening. He left as quietly as he had come, only dispirited, making his footsteps a little disordered.
Inside the room, upon seeing the slightly upward curve of his counterpart’s mouth, Tang Fan felt exasperated. “Someone running away out of annoyance makes you this happy?”
Truthfully, there was no such ambiguity as others might have thought, being nothing more than one person rubbing the shoulders of another. And yet, a certain somebody had caused a misunderstanding for no good reason.
Sui Zhou gripped his chin, leaned over, and kissed him. “Of course it does.”
Tang Fan calling him in alone had not been for him to rub his shoulders, of course, but some something else important. Since Sui Zhou’s identity had not yet been made clear, though, he could only allow Lu Lingxi to misunderstand for right now.
“You should send people to keep an eye on Fang Huixue’s place. Xi Ming, Lu Lingxi, and the rest have already shown their faces; if they go, he’ll know at once that we already suspect him,” Tang Fan said.
Sui Zhou hummed in affirmation. “I’ll move staff tomorrow to survey him in secret. What do you plan to do with the Xu’s?”
Tang Fan smiled bitterly. “What is there to plan? I can do nothing more than send a memorial stating that I’m handling the case on my end, but Xu Bin is definitely not going to let this lie. I hope that Eunuch Wang can help me stave off for a time. Once the White Lotus Society are punished, all the water will recede to show the rocks, the truth becoming clear.”
Sui Zhou rubbed his temples for him. Even though he said nothing, his intent to comfort was clear.
Even though Tang Fan had done this all on purpose, his raid of the Xu’s would be, in the eyes of people that didn’t know the score, inevitably seen as far too reckless.
They were quiet, yet the atmosphere had a somewhat rare warmth. Ever since they left the capital, it had been hard for them to have such leisure time for peaceful interactions, so they cherished this quiet interval.
In not long a time, Tang Fan roused his energy. “Actually, you don’t need to worry about me. There are many points of doubt in this case, but Shen Si and Xu Sui have concrete evidence to their crime, so it’s not completely without gains. As long as Xu Sui can be found out, it’ll be solved.”
Sui Zhou smiled lightly. “I never doubted that much.”
Tang Fan, wooden-faced, brought his hand away from under his collar. “Xiao Zhou, you should go back.”
Sui Zhou bent down and breezily looped around him, hot breath puffing onto his ear, his low voice alluring. “Do you not want me to wait on you in bed, Sir? I can service you all night long, whether you want me to massage your shoulders, or some other spot… as long as I’m alive, there’s nothing I can’t do.”
Tang Fan’s mouth twitched. “Do you know what I’m thinking of saying?”
“‘Miss Xiao Zhou, your stubble is peeking out.’”
However depressed Miss Xiao Zhou was over her internal injuries aside, the capital was ultimately a thousand li away from Jiangxi. Despite Steward Xu releasing a harsh statement and Magistrate Fan’s group feeling that Tang Fan had acted inappropriately, even if Xu Bin had sky-reaching power, Wan An pleading for the Xu’s to the Emperor — and causing a headache for Tang while he was at it — would at least take the five to seven days for the Court’s decree to arrive here.
During this time period, Tang Fan personally interrogated Shen Si, sent up a memorial clarifying each and every fact of the case, including Xu Sui’s escape as well as all the points of suspicion, hoping that the Emperor would give him a time limit to discover the truth.
Due to the lack of concrete evidence, Tang Fan did not bring up the White Lotus Society in his memorial, but Sui Zhou received a piece of information possibly related to it on his end.
Purportedly, a few days ago, villagers neighboring some mountain at Luling County’s outskirts had suddenly heard waves of thunder in the middle of the night. When they went to investigate it in the daytime, they had discovered that there was new cave cracked open by lightning at the mountain’s base. Bolder villagers had gone in to investigate, only to find many corpses inside, after which successive rumors had spread about there being human-eating monsters in the mountains. The more they spread, the more mysterious they became, frightening the villagers. Also fearing that they would be held responsible, they had quickly made a report to the authorities.
In accordance with government procedure, after learning of this, Ji Min should have discussed with the Prefectural Magistrate, then reported it up through the layers until it reached the capital, where the Cabinet would ultimately issue an order to either have the locals investigate on their own, or send the Brocade Guard over. This process would take a month or two, at the minimum.
Even though Tang Fan was an imperial ambassador, he was only responsible for investigating the imperial exam fraud case, having no authority to ask after this matter. For that reason, Ji Min, Fan Yuezheng, and the rest did not need to report to him.
Still, even if they said nothing, it wasn’t like the Guard would have no methods of knowing this. Sui Zhou believed that this event was extremely likely to be related to the Society’s private mining and casting of money, so he left half of his men to watch the Fang residence while the other half followed him out to investigate.
In any case, Tang Fan put on a show of having Lu Lingxi, Xi Ming, and the rest of them to search for hints of Xu Sui, while he found trouble for the Xu’s off-and-on, secretly keeping an eye on the Fang’s movements.
Fang Huixue was said to have caught windchill, and had not taken even half a step out of the Fang household in days. Because of their status in Ji’an, people were coming nonstop to visit him in sickness; Tang Fan sent a gift over, too. It was reported that the one who had come to receive it was the Fang’s steward, with Fang Huixue not showing his face.
This was quite normal. Had Tang Fan gone in person, Fang Huixue certainly would have come out to greet him himself, but since it had just been someone he sent, he hadn’t need to show up.
On top of that, no unusual changes had happened in the Fang household. People still came and went every day. Fang Huixue had two sons and one daughter; the daughter was the second wife of the Envoy of Education, and of the two sons, one had married and had a son, while the other was still in school, supposedly to earn scholarly honors. The married-off daughter excluded, the two sons’ figures frequently coming and going from the residence was something everyone had seen. All of this had passed into Tang Fan’s ears from the mouths of those observing.
Even so, Tang Fan always felt that something was off, having an unspeakable sense of oddity that could not be dispelled.
That was, until Lu Lingxi brought him information about Fang Huixue’s daughter.