Chapter 11

Incense
After a deep breath and a single perfunctory knock, Wan Zongran stormed into Prefect Wu’s spacious office in the morning with a square of paper crumpled in his fist. “Sir.”

 

“Chief Constable Wan, I see you've read my note,” said Prefect Wu when he glanced up from watering his bonsai by the window. His ratty little eyes were bloodshot, but Wan Zongran doubted that it was due to work; the prefect had probably spent the night at the brothel again.

 

Incense smoke curled lazily from a small bronze censer set on a side table to perfume the air with sandalwood, but Wan Zongran was in no mood to be soothed. “Of course I've seen the note. It was on my desk. My desk which had been cleared of every single piece of paper overnight, except for that – that note!”

 

The prefect raised an eyebrow. “I'd have thought you'd understand why I had it done.” He ambled over to his desk and sat down with a grunt. Even in his tailored official uniform, he looked like a comic actor on stage. All he was missing was white face paint.

 

“Consider me a dullard. Why, sir, have you confiscated everything on my desk?” He wanted to slam his hands onto the wide pearwood table in front of the weasel-faced prefect, but there was reasonable outrage and there was insubordination. His indignation was mostly feigned, anyway; everything he needed on the case were safely hidden in pickle jars and stuck under his bed. Thank the gods Kun De kept his ears open.

 

“Because you are no longer allowed to investigate the Hu case,” said Prefect Wu. He motioned for the younger man to take a seat. “You are too close to the family. Sworn brother to Master Hu Yuan, if I recall.”

 

Wan Zongran did not sit. “Yes, sir, I’ve been his friend since we were at school, as I’ve told you from the beginning. I don't understand. You let me run the manhunt when the boy was missing. Why is my friendship with Hu Yuan a factor only now when I am trying to find a murderer?”

 

The prefect worked his jaw from side to side, like he was trying to shell a walnut in his mouth. Eventually, he leaned forward to rest his elbows on the desk. “Honestly, Jizu, I’d be more than happy to let you run the case, but alas, a higher power has ordered me to order you to recuse yourself from it. Since all the papers on your desk were pertinent to the case, I simply had them taken away to be handed over to the one in charge.”

 

Wan Zongran tempered his instinct to snap at the prefect for using his courtesy name this lightly, like they were buddies. Prefect Wu got his job because he was good at taking tests and at buttering up the wealthy citizens of Ping An, but entirely useless at governing. At least he knew enough to leave them alone and let them exercise a number of initiatives with minimal oversight. The constables were satisfied with the annual bonuses and biennial salary raises, as well as the small bribes of food and drink that Wan Zongran allowed his subordinates to take.

 

“Sir, I need to be on this case,” said Wan Zongran. “No one knows the details better than I do. I don’t even need to run it. But I must be on the case.”

 

“It’s not an option, Chief Constable.”

 

The prefect's gaze slid past Wan Zongran to someone at the door. His face was immediately wreathed in smiles as he rose to his feet and hurried around to welcome the guest. Wan Zongran turned around to see who it was that had the weaselly prefect slobbering all over himself to curry favor.

 

It was a swarthy, middle-aged man with a thick, full beard, his hair plaited with leather in the manner of the Lieh people. His beard and hair were shot through with silver. He towered over Prefect Wu and was half a head taller than Wan Zongran. Although the man wore the robes of an officer from the Hall of Justice, but there was no rank button, which made Wan Zongran suspicious.

 

“Please, have a seat,” said Prefect Wu, keeping himself at a half-bow like he had hurt his lower back, and offered his own chair to the newcomer. “Lord Shangguan, this is such an honor. What would you like to drink? I have very good wine, or tea, if you prefer tea. Would you like something to eat? I'll order one of the junior officials to run to the Deyi House for their dumplings, they are the best-”

 

“Be silent and leave the office. I wish to speak to the chief constable alone,” said Lord Shangguan. He did not even acknowledge the prefect's profuse apologies, merely shutting the door in the man's face. Then he took the other guest seat in the office. “You. Sit.”

 

The word carried more authority than the prefect had in his entire body. Wan Zongran sat. His chair creaked.

 

“Lord Shangguan,” he said politely, though the curt command rankled. He had heard of the man, but only in stories.

 

Shangguan Yixiao was one of the Emperor’s most trusted aides, but refused high office in the court. Instead, he asked for the post of special investigator and took on the most challenging crimes.

 

The one case Wan Zongran studied most fervently as a rookie had been about Protectorate General Liu Qu. General Liu had killed or threatened anyone who could provide testimony against his corruption; Lord Shangguan had nonetheless gathered enough evidence to prove the man’s guilt, and was granted an edict for General Liu’s head. The general then revolted and rode out against the Emperor. Two months later, on a battlefield in the north, Lord Shangguan himself battled the general and decapitated him. The supporters of the general were all executed by the Hall of Justice the very same day.

 

That had been at least two decades ago. Strange to think a man he had read about as a hero was right here, taking his case away from him. Part of Wan Zongran was feeling quite ill-used, while another part of him was trying not to show how awestruck he was that the legendary Lord Shangguan was in Ping An.

 

The older man scrutinized Wan Zongran 's face. A small smile curled his generous mouth. “I have read your notes. Thank you for the meticulous records.”

 

To hell with it. Honesty is proof of character, as Doctor Fang says, and I’m not going back on my word to Yuan. Wan Zongran clasped his hands in his lap. “You're welcome, Lord Shangguan, but frankly I'd rather have them back. They are my notes, after all, and it is my case.”

 

“It was your case until it became a murder of an innocent child,” said Lord Shangguan, holding up a datapad, much slimmer and sleeker than the ones the constables were using. He leaned back in the chair. “You have no leads, no suspects. That’s not even taking into account your friendship with a Master Hu Yuan. Your records may be meticulous but, to be very blunt, there’s very little meat I can use.” He flashed a brief smile. “The Hall of Justice will take over. I have access to data that a common Chief Constable does not.”

 

Though he felt the sting of the insult, Wan Zongran made himself calm down and studied the other man. Lord Shangguan had presence. He practically loomed while sitting still in a chair. His attire was defiantly plain for an imperial official and a favorite of the Emperor, as if to prove through contrast that the man dressed in these clothes was extraordinary. Even the saber hanging from Lord Shangguan's belt seemed like a standard issue weapon for senior constables. This man was confident in his abilities and did not feel the need to impress anyone.

 

“And I am a Lieh warrior, fifty-nine years of age, and left-handed as well.” Lord Shangguan's smirk told Wan that he had been watching the younger man form his deductions. Wan Zongran forced himself to remain still and smoothed out his expression. Lord Shangguan raised his chin. “While I cannot include you in the investigation since you are close to the family, I would prefer to have on my team people that you trust to do the job with diligence. Who would you recommend? The prefect does not know his men at all.”

 

Wan Zongran pretended to consider, though he already knew who he wanted on the case. “Kun De, my second. Senior constables Wang Fu, Yi Dapeng...” He rattled off another eight names, three from the day shift and five from the night shift. “They're experienced and have contacts throughout the city.”

 

“Brave?”

 

“Not so brave as to be reckless, not so cowardly as to back down from a challenge.”

 

“Good.” Lord Shangguan stood. Wan Zongran rose to his feet as well, keeping his hands behind him, right wrist wrapped in his left hand. “I like you, young man. You seem the responsible sort. You’ll go far.”

 

“Thank you, Lord Shangguan. That’s high praise, coming from you.”

 

At the door, Lord Shangguan paused. Looking over his shoulder, he said, "A word to the wise, young chief constable. In case you were thinking of having your men pass you information? Don't. Or you will be relieved of your command permanently.”

 

Good thing you weren’t here yesterday. Despite the threat and his misgivings, Wan Zongran kept his expression bland and his tone even. “I'll explain the circumstances to my deputy. He'll keep them in line. And I will not ask them for details of Hu Yao’s case.”

 

“Very good. Pleasure to meet you, Chief Constable Wan.”

 

“It’s an honor, Lord Shangguan.”

 

Once the man had left, the prefect scurried in. “You made him smile. That's good. Very good. We don't want him to be unhappy with us, you hear? If he’s kept happy and we help him solve the case, he may put in a nice word for us at court. We may be promoted!”

 

Wan Zongran snorted. “Sir, I'm off the case, remember? I can't help him. You're going to have to assist him on your own.”

 

Prefect Wu's beady eyes gleamed with shrewd purpose. There was something to be said for how reliably opportunistic the prefect was. “Of course, of course. Now go ahead and... I don't know. Take a holiday. Go to Master Hu’s wake. Have a late breakfast. I’ll be along after I make sure Lord Shangguan has everything he needs.”

 

“Thank you, sir. If it’s alright, I’d like to take the rest of the day off.” Wan Zongran saluted and left once the prefect waved him off. He dared not risk a message over his datapad to Kun De, and decided to take a detour to visit Mrs Kun before going to the wake.

 

Shangguan Yixiao, what are you really up to?

 

*

It seemed like everyone in Ping An would be attending the wake of Hu Tianyi. The wealthiest local merchants arrived first, dressed in fine brocades of black or dark blue. Servants placed extravagant gifts of condolence in a side hall while their masters offered incense. The less well-off had to work, so they would presumably arrive later in the day. The salt miners would come at night, and they would have the next seven days off work.

 

At a small table set a little way behind the coffin that was surrounded by a moat of white chrysanthemums, Wan Zongran sat alone with a pot of tea growing cold next to him. It was the best position at the wake to observe the entire courtyard. He watched the attendees out of the corner of his eye while folding joss paper into lotuses. The steward Hu Dan called out the attendees’ names as they offered incense and bowed to the Hu brothers.

 

The brothers knelt by the side of the coffin, clad in the proper mourning attire of straw and rough linen, and both were barefoot. Hu Yuan thanked each of them sincerely for paying their respects; Hu Wen barely acknowledged their presence.

 

“Where is his daughter-in-law?” one of the merchants asked another. “I’d have expected her to be here. Heard she’s a great beauty.”

 

Another murmured politely, “She’s just lost her son too, Master Quan. Perhaps she is ill with grief.”

 

“Pity. We won’t have another chance like this,” said Master Quan.

 

Wan Zongran rolled his eyes. The visitors that he recognized he dismissed immediately as possible suspects; outside of the fact that they did not practice martial arts, almost every one of them had been interviewed and had alibis. The ones he did not know he wrote their names down on his personal notebook. He would pass the names on to Kun De later in the evening. No one came to sit with Wan Zongran, perhaps mistaking him for a servant; he had changed out of his uniform and into a dark blue robe and black pants.

 

Around lunchtime, Hu Yuan brought two plates of vegetarian food to Wan Zongran.

 

“You don’t have to do that, you know,” Hu Yuan pointed out as he sat down next to his sworn brother and started on his meal.

 

“Keeps me busy,” Wan Zongran answered. Glancing around, he saw that no one was watching them. In a low voice, still pretending to be making idle chitchat, he said, “Lord Shangguan Yixiao is in town and he’s taken over the case.”

 

“Lord Shangguan? Surely we are beneath his notice.” Hu Yuan noticed how nonchalant Wa Zongran was acting and mimicked his composure.

 

“Apparently not.” Wan Zongran put aside the final joss paper lotus he was folding and picked up a pair of chopsticks. “The autopsy report given to him made no mention of the wounds in Hu Yao’s back. If you can ask your sister-in-law to hide her wings for the duration of the investigation…”

 

Hu Yuan looked dubious. “But Lord Shangguan might know who is interested in the wings.”

 

Wan Zongran did not know how to explain the tickle of suspicion in his belly when it came to Lord Shangguan, but he was certain that the official was not in Ping An merely to solve the murder. “Yuan, please. I need you to trust me. Or I can tell her myself. Where is she?”

 

Although Hu Yuan’s lips thinned with disagreement, he nodded. “Wen claimed Yao’s body, at least, and they buried him earlier today.” He stabbed at a morsel of radish and exhaled slowly. “I have yet to speak with her. She was with the Abbess Ren Hui since they came back. But she won't show the wings. There are outsiders today."

 

That would explain Leng Xiang’s absence. Wan Zongran did not have fond memories of Hu Tianyi and suspected that Leng Xiang did not either, since he had heard the old man disparaging or cursing her, even in Hu Yao’s hearing. She would not be eager to show up at the wake. The brothers probably would not feel the loss too deeply either. For all that Hu Tianyi was adept at running his family business and strengthening the family's ties with the imperial court, he was not a good father.

 

Wan Zongran had had a great relationship with his own father, and even now grieved the man’s passing. He had learned a great deal about the work involved in being a constable from his father, and even more from Doctor Fang’s stories about him.

 

Not that I can do my work now. The thought rankled. He suspected that Lord Shangguan would set a tail on him, so he would need to be extra careful. Since he was technically on a leave of absence, he ought to travel away from the city. The weight in his pocket was both reassuring and discomfiting.

 

It was after lunch when Leng Xiang emerged from the main house, clad in the rough white linen of mourning. Wan Zongran was relieved that her wings were not on show. Beside her was Jiang Hong, her curly hair left loose over her shoulders, dressed in a dull blue. With some suspicion, Wan Zongran watched her help Leng Xiang to kneel on the rough grass mat and wondered if Jiang Hong went out earlier to case other wealthy households. It would be the perfect opportunity for her, since everyone’s attention was on the wake. She seemed to sense his scrutiny and turned to glare at him, sticking out her tongue like a bratty child.

 

Leng Xiang kept her gaze on the ground throughout the day. No matter who came to pay their respects, she merely bowed when told and stayed silent. A puppet would have more life.

 

*

 

Later, when the heat of the late afternoon drove the morning’s attendees back to their homes and the household staff took their break, Hu Yuan got around to finally drinking some water. He was surprised when Wan Zongran asked the family for a private moment. The constable stared at Jiang Hong for a beat longer than polite, and she ignored him, flouncing away to get some refreshments for herself.

 

The dim anteroom behind the main hall was cool, and Hu Dan brought in a pitcher of iced tea with fruit slices before excusing himself to ready the catering staff for the evening crowd.

 

“What is it you wanted to tell us?” Hu Yuan asked, filling a narrow cup with the refreshing beverage. It really was too stuffy under the tent.

 

In a few sentences, Wan Zongran filled Hu Wen and Leng Xiang that he was taken off the case and that Lord Shangguan was in charge now.

 

“From today on, I no longer have access to future developments,” Wan Zongran said. Then he handed Hu Yuan a small booklet. “This, I found in the city’s archives yesterday.”

 

It was a list of names, dates and locations. Hu Yuan handed it to his brother, who flipped through the pages, a frown on his brow.

 

“I looked up people who died around this time in the past, and then narrowed it down to children around Yao’s age. There are three of them on record.” Wan Zongran looked out the door and window, as if concerned about eavesdroppers. “Each were sixty years apart. I wrote down the details of their dates of birth and death.”

 

“Does Lord Shangguan know about this?” Hu Yuan asked. He did not want his sworn brother to lose his job.

 

Wan Zongran shrugged. “He wasn’t here when I looked those up, and besides, those are cold cases. I can’t risk going back to the archives but they’re open to the public, so you can look those names up specifically. Maybe you'll find something useful.”

 

Leng Xiang’s fingers brushed over the booklet. Her pale cheeks flushed and her iridescent eyes glittered darkly. “Thank you, Chief Constable Wan.”

 

“Yes, thank you.” Hu Wen covered his wife’s hand and pressed his mouth to her temple, murmuring something too quiet for the others to hear.

 

As his brother and sister-in-law shared a moment, Hu Yuan motioned to Wan Zongran to go with him to the other side of the room. Hu Yuan whispered, “I know you too well. Who do you have on the inside?”

 

“Kun De.” Wan Zongran leaned in and added, “Lord Shangguan took pains to remind me that if I receive information from the inside, I will be relieved of my command. But it makes no sense. Why exclude me from a case I’ve been working on in the first place, and yet use my men? He has to know they’ll keep me in the loop.”

 

“You think he’s baiting you so he can fire you.”

 

“Perhaps. I can’t read him. I’ve only just met the man,” Wan Zongran said. “I’m fairly sure that he is here in Ping An for something else. Maybe he’s here for your family, or maybe I’m just paranoid. I don’t trust him at all.”

 

Hu Yuan exhaled heavily and nodded. “I see.”

 

Before either man could say more, they heard a commotion among the servants. Hu Yuan and Wan Zongran exchanged a look as the couple joined them. Leng Xiang had regained her composure by then.

 

“Were we expecting trouble?” Hu Yuan remarked. He signaled one of the servants who rushed away towards Hu Yuan's living quarters.

 

“My associates would have sent word,” said Hu Wen, though a muscle started twitching under his left eye.

 

Hu Dan ran in at a brisk clip, panting hard. “Master Yuan, there’s a pregnant lady making a scene outside the main doors. Miss Jiang is barring her from the wake and they seem about to fight.”

 

“Ah, fuck.” Hu Wen groaned. “Not her.”