When Lan Wangji entered the defendant’s lobby, he was greeted with the sight of Mo Xuanyu physically holding back a little girl half his size from kicking Xiao Xingchen.
“You didn’t do it!” she was yelling. “Stop trying to confess!”
“It’s okay, A-Qing,” Mo Xuanyu reassured her. “If he didn’t do it, then there’s got to be evidence, and if there’s evidence, then I can prove he didn’t do it. Just leave it to me, okay?”
A-Qing finally slumped back against him, crossing her arms with a huff. “So stupid,” she grumbled. “He didn’t do it…”
“I know, I know.”
Xiao Xingchen’s smile was tired, even with his eyes hidden. He patted A-Qing’s head affectionately. “Thank you for believing in me.”
“If I let you go, will you try to kick him again?” Mo Xuanyu asked.
“I’ll see what I can do,” A-Qing replied wryly.
Mo Xuanyu chuckled and let her go. He looked up and waved when he noticed Lan Wangji. “Ah, Hanguang-jun! How nice of you to visit!”
A-Qing’s face darkened and she immediately bolted in Lan Wangji’s direction, but Mo Xuanyu caught her by the arm before she could get anywhere.
“No kicking the prosecutor,” he scolded. “Hanguang-jun is here to help. Right?” He shot Lan Wangji a smile.
Lan Wangji stared back blankly for a few seconds before he was able to remind himself why he was here. Glancing down where his focus would be easier to protect, he took a file from his briefcase and held it out.
“The autopsy report,” he said, keeping his eyes on the paper. “It was just released.”
Lan Wangji waited until Mo Xuanyu’s face was hidden behind the file before looking up.
“Hmm…” Mo Xuanyu fiddled with the corner of a page. “Victim was stabbed through the stomach at an upward angle, murder weapon punctured a lung, cause of death was drowning due to internal bleeding, entry wound is abnormally large, no signs of other defensive wounds… I see.” He snapped the report shut and his eyes crinkled with his smile. “Thank you for delivering this. You could have sent your assistant, you know… Did you come yourself just to see little old me?”
Lan Wangji turned around and left without replying. He refused to lie, but he wasn’t willing to say “yes” either.
Back in the safety of the prosecutor’s lobby, he spotted Lan Sizhui going over the court record.
“Oh, you’re back.” Lan Sizhui had a knowing expression on his face, but politely didn’t ask any questions.
“Have the test results come back?” Lan Wangji asked.
Lan Sizhui nodded and showed him the paper. “You were right. The spot on the floor was the victim’s blood.” His eyebrows knit together in thought. “If the victim was stabbed in the middle of the room, how did one drop of blood get all the way over to the wall? Did it splatter when the weapon was removed?”
“Perhaps,” Lan Wangji said. It was unlikely though. If it was splatter, then there would probably be several drops of blood, but instead there was only one.
Lan Sizhui sighed and began tidying up his notes. “Well, we have to think of an explanation quick because it’s time to go in.”
Lan Wangji shut his eyes, giving himself a minute to center his breathing.
It had been many years since he had been excited to stand across from someone in court.
“Court is now in session for the trial of Xiao Xingchen,” Nie Huaisang announced with a meek tap of his gavel. He squinted at the paper in front of him and then looked at Lan Wangji. “Is this correct? Has the defendant already confessed to the crime?”
“Yes, Your Honor,” Lan Wangji replied simply.
“Oh.” Nie Huaisang paused, but when Lan Wangji didn’t offer any further explanation, he cleared his throat awkwardly and said, “Okay then. Uh, do you have an opening statement?”
“The victim was stabbed through the stomach with a sword. The defendant claims he is responsible.”
Another long pause.
“Ah.” Nie Huaisang shook his head. “Succinct as usual… Your first witness, then?”
“The prosecution calls the defendant, Xiao Xingchen.”
Across the courtroom, Mo Xuanyu was already singling out various things from his pile of evidence as Xiao Xingchen took the stand. Lan Wangji wondered what he was planning on objecting to first.
“Name and profession,” he prompted.
“Xiao Xingchen. I am currently a martial arts teacher.” Xiao Xingchen seemed like he was going to add something else, then stopped. Presumably he had decided not to add that he was formerly a detective.
“Witness, you plan to confess to this murder?” Nie Huaisang asked.
Xiao Xingchen nodded. “Yes, Your Honor.”
“Okay… Please tell us about what happened.”
“I arrived home late that night,” Xiao Xingchen began. “I spent longer with a student than expected, so I was delayed coming back. When I entered my apartment, I could tell that someone else had been there because it was messier than I had left it. I couldn’t see it, of course, but I stepped on broken glass right when I walked in. I thought it was a robber. I was concerned that the intruder was still there so I went to get one of my swords for protection. As soon as I had grabbed my sword, I heard breathing and then somebody came rushing at me. I reacted by thrusting out my sword without thinking and-“ He stopped suddenly, like his throat had closed up. He swallowed and went on. “I didn’t hear any noise – I must have hit a lung – but I felt the body slump against me and I happened to touch his hand. I recognized him by a ring he was wearing: it was my friend, Song Lan.”
“You say you couldn’t see,” Nie Huaisang said. “You are blind, correct?”
“Yes, Your Honor.”
“Thank you for the clarification.” The judge turned to Mo Xuanyu. “Mo-xiansheng, you may begin your cross-examination.”
Mo Xuanyu thought for a moment, tapping his knuckle against his chin. Then he asked, “Xiao Xingchen, are you right-handed?”
“Yes,” Xiao Xingchen answered.
“And the stabbing occurred as soon as you grabbed the sword, is that correct?”
“So that means you were still standing next to your weapons’ display,” Mo Xuanyu reasoned. “Facing the closet?”
“Yes. I suppose Song Lan must have been in or in front of the closet when he came at me,” Xiao Xingchen said.
Mo Xuanyu frowned. “Can you add that clarification to your testimony?”
Xiao Xingchen nodded and said dutifully, “I was standing next to the weapons’ display facing the closet when the intruder rushed at me.”
Mo Xuanyu slapped his hand down over a printout of a map of the crime scene.
He was still frowning, an expression that seemed to say, I have no idea where this will take us but here goes nothing.
“The body was found in the center of the room,” he said, pointing at the figure marked ‘victim’ on the map. “If it went as you say it did, then the body should have been found here,” he pointed at the closet, “right in front of the closet.”
“Did you move the body?” Lan Wangji asked Xiao Xingchen.
“No,” Xiao Xingchen replied, sounding confused. “I had no reason to.”
“It wouldn’t make sense anyway,” Mo Xuanyu argued. “The pool of the victim’s blood was in the center of the room too. That was definitely where he was murdered.”
“Perhaps the witness misremembered,” Nie Huaisang suggested.
Mo Xuanyu shook his head. “No way. He was really certain and specific about his actions in that moment: the stabbing happened immediately after he grabbed the sword. Even if he was facing a different direction, it couldn’t have been in the center of the room.”
“I don’t understand,” Xiao Xingchen said in a small voice. “What does this mean?”
“It means,” Mo Xuanyu said on slowly, as if he were figuring out the answer as he was speaking, “you stabbed Song Lan… but you were not the murderer.”
Nie Huaisang gaped in shock. “How could that be?”
“Well, it would only make sense if the victim…” Mo Xuanyu paused and his eyes suddenly lit up. “The victim was already dead when the defendant stabbed him!”
There was a burst of conversation in the gallery that had to be quieted by Nie Huaisang’s fragile pleas for silence.
As soon as he wasn’t competing to be heard, Mo Xuanyu went on excitedly, “By the time the defendant returned home, the victim had already been stabbed and killed in the center of the room. The real murderer moved the body to the closet – the breathing the defendant heard must have been the murderer’s, not the victim’s – and when the defendant came close, the murderer pushed the body into him and that was when the defendant was tricked into believing he killed the victim.”
“But there is only one stab wound,” Lan Wangji pointed out.
“Yes, but-!” Mo Xuanyu held up the autopsy report and jabbed his finger at one of the lines. “The wound was reported to be ‘abnormally large.’ I don’t know if the murderer planned it or just got lucky, but when the defendant’s sword went through the victim’s body a second time, it went through the original stab wound so it seemed like he had only been stabbed once. But in actuality, he was stabbed twice and the second stabbing made the wound bigger.”
“What…?” Xiao Xingchen sounded faint.
“But I have another question,” Mo Xuanyu declared. “Xiao Xingchen, you said you thought there was an intruder because you stepped on glass when you arrived. How come you weren’t tipped off before then?”
Xiao Xingchen swayed the slightest bit on his feet. “What do you mean?”
Mo Xuanyu elaborated, “Your apartment is on the third floor so it’s unlikely an intruder would climb in through the window. The victim must have entered your apartment through the front door. Did you not find it strange that the door was unlocked when you came back?”
Xiao Xingchen was silent.
“Where are you going with this?” Nie Huaisang asked, bewildered by this turn of events.
“You either left the door unlocked when you left the house because there was someone else still inside, or you were expecting someone else to have let themselves in while you were gone,” Mo Xuanyu said. “Either way, there was someone you expected to be in your apartment and it wasn’t until you stepped on the glass that you realized something was wrong, isn’t that right?”
“Who do you propose this person is?” Lan Wangji asked.
Mo Xuanyu flashed a grin. “Oh Hanguang-jun, you are so lucky you’re handsome enough to get away with asking silly questions. It was the murderer, of course!”
Xiao Xingchen had gone deathly still and pale as a sheet.
Mo Xuanyu was apparently oblivious to his client’s distress – and Lan Wangji’s own minor heart attack over being called handsome. He was beaming as he turned to Xiao Xingchen, like he was expecting a pat on the head. “Well? I’m right, aren’t I? Come on, who was it?”
Xiao Xingchen shook his head mutely.
This made Mo Xuanyu stick out his lower lip in a pout. “What? Why are you hiding this person’s identity? Out with it, out with it.”
Nie Huaisang also seemed troubled behind his fan. “If there was someone else there, we would like to know.”
Before this could go further, Lan Wangji – having recovered from his heart palpitations – cut in to point out, “This only proves that the defendant was expecting someone. There is no evidence that the person the defendant was expecting and the intruder are the same person.”
He paused, then decided to bring up a second point.
“Furthermore, the evidence proving the victim was stabbed twice is circumstantial. The defendant is blind and could have misremembered his location. Even if there was a third person present, it hasn’t been proven that this third person was the killer.”
“It definitely wasn’t him,” Xiao Xingchen finally spoke up quietly. “Mo-xiansheng, you were right that I wasn’t surprised the door was unlocked because I was expecting one of my students to be there. But he wasn’t there when I got back. It’s like the prosecution says: if someone else was in my apartment, then it was probably a stranger.”
Mo Xuanyu leaned his elbows on the desk with his fingers interlocked and rested his chin on top of them. “I don’t know about that,” he said lightly. “Sorry, Hanguang-jun, Xiao Xingchen, but I think the third person had to be anyone but a stranger.”
“Why is that?” Lan Wangji asked.
“Well…” Mo Xuanyu shifted his chin to rest on just one fist so he could use the other hand to count each point out on his fingers. “First of all! The apartment was all messed up when the defendant arrived. But the person who messed it up must have known the defendant was blind. They didn’t just knock things over, they went out of their way to carry a glass all the way from the kitchen and smashed it right in front of the door so the defendant would notice something was wrong right away. If they didn’t know the defendant was blind, there would be no reason to do this.”
“The victim could have done it,” Lan Wangji suggested.
Mo Xuanyu flashed a toothy smile as he shook his head and held up a second finger. “The mess had to have occurred after the victim was stabbed, silly. One of the items moved was a couch and the victim’s blood was found underneath one of the legs. The couch was too heavy for the blood to have gotten underneath if it was already there when the victim was stabbed. Therefore it must have been moved when the blood was already there – when the victim was already dead. So it couldn’t have been the victim that moved it.”
Nie Huaisang’s eyes were flicking between the defense and the prosecution. “So… Where does this leave us?”
Mo Xuanyu put his hands on his hips, exuding smug confidence. It was unfairly attractive in combination with the slender tapering of his waist.
“The person who messed up the defendant’s apartment must have been someone other than the victim who knew that the defendant was blind, and they must have done it after the victim died. In other words: there was a third person.” He tilted his head at Xiao Xingchen. “And I think it’s about time the defendant told us about who this third person could be.”
“It wasn’t my student,” Xiao Xingchen protested. “He didn’t arrive until after I did.”
Nie Huaisang snapped his fan shut and tapped it instead of his gavel. “That may be the case,” he said, “but I believe we should hear this person’s testimony regardless.”
Xiao Xingchen sighed, leaving a long, reluctant pause before answering quietly, “His name is Cheng Mei.”
After a short recess, Cheng Mei was found to have been at the courthouse, apparently there to support his teacher. Lan Wangji interviewed him briefly, and then put him on the stand when court resumed.
“State your name and profession,” Lan Wangji instructed.
“Cheng Mei,” the witness replied dutifully. “I’m a student of Shifu’s. Don’t do much outside of that.”
He was a smiley person, and his voice had an affect of good humor from being pushed up by his mouth. This cheerful attitude seemed to be reflected in the thin crescents of his eyes but to Lan Wangji, there was something off about it. Perhaps it was because he never seemed to look directly at anyone, instead turning his head so that he was always looking from the corner of his eyes. It seemed like there was a sense of distrust buried deep beneath the pleasant surface.
“Testify as to what happened when you visited the defendant on the night of the murder,” Lan Wangji said.
“I was running late, got a bit caught up running errands,” Cheng Mei began. “I arrived at Shifu’s apartment a few minutes later than I was supposed to. When I went in, the place was a mess! I almost didn’t notice Shifu there in the middle of the floor. He was holding someone’s body and Shuanghua was there beside him, all bloodied. I was shocked and asked what happened, but he wouldn’t tell me. He insisted on calling the police right away.”
“Hold it!” Mo Xuanyu twisted a lock of hair around his finger, tugging at it intermittently. “You say you were there when the defendant called the police, but you weren’t there when the police showed up. Why did you leave?”
“Shifu told me to,” Cheng Mei answered easily. “I wasn’t involved anyway and he didn’t want me to be pulled into the investigation unnecessarily, so he said I should leave. He knows I don’t really like cops.”
Mo Xuanyu scrunched up his nose at that, but let it pass. “Okay, second question. You said ‘Shuanghua was there’ beside the defendant… Are you referring to a sword?”
Cheng Mei nodded. “That’s the name of Shifu’s favorite sword,” he said. “Of all the weapons on his wall, Shuanghua is the only one he’s ever used.”
“I see.” Mo Xuanyu thought for a moment. “Can you repeat the part of your testimony when you entered the apartment?”
“When I went in, the place was a mess,” Cheng Mei recited. “I almost didn’t notice Shifu there in the middle of the floor-“
“Objection!” Mo Xuanyu let go of his hair to slap a hand against his desk.
Cheng Mei blinked, but otherwise was not startled. “Hm?”
“The middle of the floor, you say?” Mo Xuanyu leaned forward, putting his weight on his hand pressed to the desk. The corner of his lip was quirked up in a restrained smile. “The defendant testified that the stabbing occurred near the edge of the room, not the middle.”
Cheng Mei was unfazed. “It’s just an expression. When people say ‘middle of the room’ they don’t exactly mean the middle. I don’t remember where exactly Shifu was because the whole apartment was so messed up, that’s why I said the middle.”
There were stirrings of noise in the gallery. Mo Xuanyu stood there with his hand still on the desk, blinking silently, and it took Lan Wangji a moment to realize that he wasn’t speaking because he didn’t have a comeback prepared.
Well that was new. This witness hadn’t given him the testimony he wanted and had actually managed to stump him.
Lan Wangji consciously put his thoughts about the defense attorney on the backburner and reminded himself he had a job to do.
“Why does it matter where the witness saw the defendant?” he asked. “If the witness saw him in the middle of the room, then that accounts for the location the body was found in. If the witness saw him near the wall, then that matches up with the witness’ testimony. There isn’t a contradiction in either version.”
Mo Xuanyu was frowning now. He stood up straight to fold his arms, bringing one hand up to tap his knuckle against his mouth in thought.
“It doesn’t make sense,” he said, quietly enough that it was just as likely he was talking to himself as the rest of the court. “The victim had to be stabbed first in the middle of the room because that’s where the bloodstain is. But the witness had to have stabbed him near the wall because of the location of the sword…”
“The defendant could be lying,” Lan Wangji pointed out once again. “Or he could have simply been disoriented due to his blindness combined with the stress of the situation and misremembered.”
Mo Xuanyu shook his head. “He wasn’t lying, he planned to confess. He had no reason to intentionally make a mistake.”
“It could still have been unintentional.”
That made Mo Xuanyu go quiet again. He was now pressing his knuckle against his mouth rather than tapping it.
Cheng Mei stuck his hands in his pockets, looking bored. “Uh, hey, do you still need me, or can I leave?”
“If the defense has no further questions…?” Nie Huaisang said tentatively.
Mo Xuanyu’s mouth was hidden by his hand, but the increasingly deep lines of his face betrayed his frown.
“I still have a question,” he announced, his confident tone at complete odds with his uncertain body language.
He looked at Cheng Mei, scrutinizing the witness with his intense, unmoving gaze. To his credit, Cheng Mei met this gaze with equal stillness, conveying no sense of nervousness whatsoever.
“My question is…” Mo Xuanyu spoke slowly, clearly buying time. “… Witness, did you wear a coat?”
That finally startled a reaction out of Cheng Mei. His eyebrows went up, adding tension to his otherwise relaxed expression.
“Yes,” he answered after a moment. “It was chilly.”
Mo Xuanyu’s eyes narrowed. His mouth was still covered by his hand. “But not cold enough for more layers than that, right?”
“Right,” Cheng Mei replied, glancing over at Lan Wangji as if to ask where this was going.
Mo Xuanyu’s eyes flashed open wide and the way the light illuminated them so suddenly, turning the dark gray of his irises to a silver glow, made it seem as if a spark of brilliance had taken physical form. His hand lowered from his face, revealing a hint of a smile.
“Your Honor! Can that be added to the witness’ testimony?”
Nie Huaisang fanned his face, unsure. “You mean, the fact that he was wearing a coat?”
“Yes, Your Honor.”
“I… can’t say I see where this is going, but if you’re that adamant, I don’t see why not.” The judge turned to Cheng Mei. “Witness, please add the… state of your outerwear to your testimony.”
“Okay?” Cheng Mei shifted in place, perplexed but still smiling. “I was wearing a jacket when I came to visit Shifu.”
“Hold it,” Mo Xuanyu cut in smoothly. “Follow-up question: did you leave wearing this jacket?”
Cheng Mei’s smile remained, but his eyes narrowed and the shadow of his eyelids gave them a colder sheen. “I wore it there, didn’t I? Why would I leave it behind?”
“There were no coats found in the living room closet,” Lan Wangji supplied. “The defendant was wearing his at the time, and no one else’s coat was found at the scene.”
Mo Xuanyu shook his head and leaned his cheek on his palm, giving his smirk a cute sort of charm from the slight squish. “What about the victim’s?”
Lan Wangji hesitated. He sorted through his neat folder of papers and found the pictures of the body.
“Well?” Mo Xuanyu prompted.
Lan Wangji didn’t reply right away as he tried to follow the line of thought. “The victim does appear to have worn two layers of jackets.”
“And? What do the blood patterns look like on each of them?”
He scrutinized the pictures. “Both jackets have similarly large bloodstains on the outside. The inside of the inner jacket has a relatively smaller stain, while the inside of the outer jacket has a large stain.”
“The fabric of the jackets is pretty thick and semi-waterproof, right?” Mo Xuanyu guessed. “The stain on the inside of the inner jacket – let’s call it the first jacket – makes sense. The blood stained the inside a bit around the hole, but mostly gushed out to leave a puddle. The stain on the outside of the outer – second – jacket also makes sense because the victim was lying on his back in the puddle, so the imprint of that puddle left a much larger stain. But!”
He leaned across his desk so far that he was practically hanging off the edge, pointing vaguely in the direction of the picture Lan Wangji was holding.
“The first jacket also has that huge puddle stain on the outside! If the victim were wearing the second jacket over top when he fell down dead, how would the first jacket have gotten that kind of stain?”
Nie Huaisang had half his face hidden behind his fan, but he was leaning forward in his seat too, waiting for the answer with bated breath. “How?”
Mo Xuanyu pushed himself back upright to retain some of his dignity for the rest of his explanation, but didn’t bother straightening out his messed up shirt.
(Lan Wangji valiantly kept his eyes on Mo Xuanyu’s face and not at all on the sliver of pale skin that could be seen just above his waistband. This was not the time.)
“Here’s how it happened,” Mo Xuanyu said. He laid both his hands flat on the desk, almost predatory as he directed his words pointedly at Cheng Mei. “The victim was only wearing the first jacket when he was stabbed. He falls down, stains the outside in the puddle of his blood. The second jacket is then put on him over the first and he is laid back down in the puddle. The second jacket at that point receives both a stain on the outside from the puddle, and a stain of equal size on the inside from being pressed against the first jacket.” He slapped his hand once. “That’s what happened.”
Cheng Mei’s face had gotten progressively darker over the course of this discussion, even as his smile grew painfully to show the points of his canines. “Are you accusing me of something?”
“It’s your jacket,” Mo Xuanyu said bluntly. “I’m sure if we run DNA tests on any leftover hair follicles in the fabric, we can confirm that it’s yours. You were the one who put the second jacket on the victim.”
The gallery exploded into commotion. While Nie Huaisang valiantly fought down the noise level with as few bangs of the gavel as possible, one of Cheng Mei’s canines caught on the corner of his lower lip and a thin trickle of blood nudged down his skin. After a beat, his tongue flicked out, snake-like, and licked it away.
“Okay,” he finally said when the noise had died down. “Fine. I tampered with the body… after the murder.”
Mo Xuanyu’s nose scrunched up like he had just smelled something foul. “What?”
“I said okay, you got me.” Cheng Mei put his hands up innocently. “I put my jacket on the body after he’d already been stabbed. But you got no proof I stabbed him, do you? I mean, it’s not like my fingerprints are on the murder weapon.”
Lan Wangji watched Mo Xuanyu’s eyes hone in on the conspicuously gloved hand that Cheng Mei had just revealed. He watched Cheng Mei see that Mo Xuanyu had noticed and wave two fabric-clad fingers tauntingly.
Of course his fingerprints wouldn’t be on anything if he wore gloves at that point like he was now. But they all knew that kind of speculation wasn’t evidence.
Lan Wangji considered the situation and then asked innocuously, “Why?”
Cheng Mei’s eyes darted over to him without moving his head. “Huh?”
“Why did you put the jacket on the body?” Lan Wangji clarified.
“Oh.” Cheng Mei shrugged. “I don’t know. Felt like messing with the cops I guess. I do random shit like that all the time.”
Mo Xuanyu began twirling a strand of his bangs again. “Hmm…”
“Is that explanation not adequate to you, Mo-xiansheng?” Nie Huaisang asked.
“No,” Mo Xuanyu said, a little distant as his gaze drifted off somewhere else with his thoughts. “That’s not the kind of hassle anyone would go through without a reason. He must have had a reason…”
His eyes strayed back down to his desk and then suddenly froze when he spied a loose paper. Suddenly excited, he dug it out and held the paper close enough that it touched his nose.
“That’s it!” Grinning, he showed the paper to the court. It seemed to be a picture of the weapons’ display. He was pointing at a spot near the bottom of the picture, where a bit of the floor – though not the focus of the photo – was visible.
Nie Huaisang squinted. “Which part of this photograph are you referring to?”
Mo Xuanyu jabbed more insistently at the spot on the floor. A closer inspection revealed the little brown smudge Lan Wangji had noticed on his own inspection of the crime scene.
“This is a bloodstain,” he said, puffing up his chest proudly. “The victim’s blood.”
Lan Wangji nodded. He had Lan Sizhui confirm that himself. “What does it mean?”
Mo Xuanyu fixed the pad of his finger on the bloodstain, then dragged it up in a straight line to where an outline of the missing murder weapon had been added to the picture. The line connected the bloodstain to where the tip of the sword would be if it were placed on the wall.
He laughed softly as he put the picture down and said, “I’ll spell it out for you. The witness stabbed the victim with the sword in the middle of the room, where the puddle of blood is. The victim fell into the blood, staining his jacket. The witness then picked up the victim and put his own coat on the victim’s body to keep any additional blood from leaking out when he moved the body to the closet. Then, knowing that this sword is the only one used by the defendant according to his testimony, the witness put the sword back on the display wall. When the defendant came home, he instinctively grabbed this same sword and stabbed the already dead body with it. When he was busy calling the police, the witness moved the body back to the puddle of blood without removing his own jacket.”
He tapped the photo on the desk.
“This tiny bloodstain on the floor is from when the murder weapon was put back on the display wall. It still had the victim’s blood on it and a bit dripped off the edge of the blade. The jacket was a clever trick to keep from tracking blood over to the location of the second stabbing, but this little smudge still got over there and proves that everything was moved.”
There was utter silence. Cheng Mei’s canine was pressing dangerously into his lip.
Leaning his elbows on the desk, Mo Xuanyu clasped his hands together and rested his chin on his interlocked fingers.
“Here’s the full story of what happened,” he said conversationally. “Cheng Mei arrived at Xiao Xingchen’s apartment first, just as expected. But while he was waiting for Xiao Xingchen to come home, something unexpected happened: the victim, Song Lan, came to visit. Something occurred between the two that ended with Cheng Mei stabbing Song Lan. Knowing that Xiao Xingchen would be coming home soon, Cheng Mei wrapped the body in his coat and hid it in the closet. He also replaced the sword and messed up the apartment so that Xiao Xingchen would immediately be on guard for a dangerous intruder when he entered. He then waited in the closet with the body.
“As expected, when Xiao Xingchen arrived, he was alarmed by the mess and immediately went to his weapons’ display for protection. As soon as he grabbed the sword, Cheng Mei threw open the closet door and pushed Song Lan’s body into Xiao Xingchen, causing Xiao Xingchen to stab the already dead victim a second time. While Xiao Xingchen was distracted by this, Cheng Mei escaped through the open window and used the drainpipe to get down – which, you will notice, is now nearly pulled out from the wall from being used to support the weight of a person. It rained before the murder and the drainpipe was working at that point, so this is when it was damaged.”
“If all of this is true, why did the witness return to the scene of the crime after escaping?” Lan Wangji asked.
“He had to move the body,” Mo Xuanyu replied. “Remember, the bloodstain is in the middle of the room, but Xiao Xingchen stabbed the body near the wall. It wouldn’t match up. He had to return so that he could close the closet door and move the body back to the bloodstain while Xiao Xingchen was distracted calling the police.”
He smiled condescendingly at Cheng Mei.
“But in your panic, you made mistakes, didn’t you? You left your jacket on the body when you moved it back, and you didn’t notice the tiny bloodstain on the ground from the murder weapon. You didn’t plan this murder at all, did you?”
Cheng Mei was dangerously silent. His tooth bit into his lip harder.
“You let your emotions get the best of you,” Mo Xuanyu went on, tone thick with saccharine. “For whatever reason, Song Lan scared you so badly that you lashed out without thinking and-“
The witness bit through his lip and blood burst from it violently, dying his insidiously wide grin a stark red. He slammed his gloved fist on the podium and there was an ominous crack as the last two fingers snapped in half. It must have hurt him, or perhaps it was simply the visceral pain of defeat that caused him to let out a bone-chilling howl that seemed as if it shook the foundation of the courthouse. He tore off the glove, revealing a hand with only three good fingers as the two broken false ones fell out, clattering across the floor.
Xiao Xingchen suddenly stood up from the defendant’s chair, nearly stumbling in his haste as he said in a voice thin without breath, “That scream… Are you…?”
“Xue Yang,” the witness said with a calm made murderous by his bright red teeth. “You got me. I did it.”
Mo Xuanyu tilted his head, apparently unfazed by this entire reveal but nevertheless still bothered by something enough to make him frown.
“But why did you do it?” he asked. “What drove you to kill Song Lan and frame Xiao Xingchen?”
Xue Yang laughed. A few spittles of his red saliva sprayed from his mouth as he laughed, and the way the icy sound rang out into the courtroom, it almost felt as if the walls might be splattered with his blood.
When at last his laughter calmed, he slumped forward over the podium and looked Mo Xuanyu straight in the eye.
“Revenge,” he said.
“Well, that was quite the trial,” Nie Huaisang commented, fanning himself rapidly. “Lan-xiansheng, where is Xue Yang?”
“He has been taken into custody, Your Honor,” Lan Wangji replied, “pending a new trial.”
Nie Huaisang sighed and flicked his fan shut. “This is all far too much excitement for me...” He turned to Xiao Xingchen, who now stood at the witness podium. “Have you been paying attention thus far?”
Xiao Xingchen didn’t seem to have heard the question. There was no hint of emotion in the lines of his face and, in combination with the mask of his dark glasses, he seem far away.
“Xiao Xingchen?” Mo Xuanyu verbally nudged him in as gentle a voice as possible.
After a beat, Xiao Xingchen inhaled audibly and tilted his head at the judge. “Yes… Yes, Your Honor.”
“It seems you were framed and did not commit the crime of which you were accused,” Nie Huaisang summarized.
Xiao Xingchen nodded, foregoing a response in words. His arms were politely at his sides, but his hands had a white-knuckle grip on the fabric of his pants.
Nie Huaisang frowned and patted his palm with his fan. “There’s just one thing I still don’t understand. What did Xue Yang mean by ‘revenge’? What exactly was his motive?”
Xiao Xingchen shook his head, his shoulders hunching up slightly with tension. “I don’t know,” he said faintly. “I… Song Lan and I, when we were detectives, we arrested him many years ago. But those charges were dropped due to lack of evidence. Why would he want revenge when he was never punished…?”
“It is troubling,” the judge agreed. “Hopefully it will be resolved during his trial. In the meantime, I believe I can safely announce my verdict for this one. I find the defendant…
Mo Xuanyu was still picking confetti out of his hair in the defendant’s lobby when Lan Wangji stopped by.
“What a trial, huh?” he was saying, laughing as he shook his head like a wet dog.
A few colorful scraps hit A-Qing and she scooped them up to throw them back in his face. “Stop looking so happy!” she hissed.
Mo Xuanyu blinked at her. “Huh? But we won.”
She scrunched up her nose and jabbed her thumb at Xiao Xingchen meaningfully.
In the end, even though he had won his trial, Xiao Xingchen had still lost a friend and been betrayed by his dear student on top of that. Indeed, the man was motionless where he stood, silent and alone with his thoughts.
Lan Wangji wondered if he was thinking that it would have hurt less if he had just been allowed to confess after all. He could have lived the remainder of a short life never knowing that he had been betrayed, and then ultimately been given rest from the pain of Song Lan’s death with a simple injection. Was it really better this way, having to go on knowing the horrible truth?
Lan Wangji could only hope that someday, Xiao Xingchen would come to the same conclusion that he had so many years ago.
“We fought,” Xiao Xingchen whispered after a moment. His voice was fragile and halting, wispy flakes of snow that could be crushed with a mere gust of wind. “The last time I saw Song Lan. We fought and then I left the force and I never spoke to him again. He died never… never knowing that I didn’t mean for it to turn out that way.”
“He forgave you,” Lan Wangji spoke up by way of announcing his presence.
Mo Xuanyu seemed to startle at his voice, but the awkwardness that had pinched up the corners of his eyes into his eyebrows melted away immediately. “Hanguang-jun!”
“How do you know?” Xiao Xingchen asked, disbelieving.
“He came to visit you,” Lan Wangji said simply.
Xiao Xingchen’s shoulders drooped, pulling his chin down into defeat. “You have no proof of what he meant to say.”
“I do,” Lan Wangji replied. “You said you recognized him by the ring he was wearing?”
“Yes… When we were students together, we received our ceremonial swords,” Xiao Xingchen said, slow and distant. Even without seeing his blind eyes, one could tell he was looking into the past. “My Shuanghua, and his Fuxue… We swore we would use them to seek justice for those who couldn’t do it themselves. We had rings made of the leftover metal, my ring made of Fuxue and his made of Shuanghua. They symbolized our promise. When I left…”
His voice strained into silence. He cleared his throat and continued.
“When I left, Song Lan tore the ring off his finger. He said I was breaking our promise so the symbol didn’t mean anything anymore.”
“Song Lan was wearing the ring when he came to see you,” Lan Wangji pointed out. “He still remembered your promise. He wanted to recommit to that oath with you.”
Xiao Xingchen took a shaky breath. “Truly…? He forgave me?”
“He did,” Lan Wangji said firmly.
A few trails of tears rolled down Xiao Xingchen’s face. A-Qing yelped in surprise and hugged him around the middle, as high as her little arms could reach.
“Shifu no! Don’t cry!”
Mo Xuanyu abruptly grabbed Lan Wangji by the arm and dragged him out into the hallway.
“We should probably leave them be now,” he said with a nervous laugh. “They’ve got some things to sort out, they don’t need an audience.” He hesitated, then went on, “Hey, thanks for stepping in. For a man of so few words, you sure knew what to say when I didn’t.”
Lan Wangji watched Mo Xuanyu’s fingers around his forearm, waiting for them to relax and slip away from his skin. Every moment that they continued to stay there, clutching at him, the pool of satisfaction buried deep down in his stomach rose a little higher.
“I understand his grief,” he said.
Mo Xuanyu’s eyebrows rose in surprise and he finally, regretfully, let go as he looked Lan Wangji up and down. “Oh? What does that mean?”
Lan Wangji elected not to answer that one and said instead, “You won today. Congratulations.”
Mo Xuanyu snorted in acknowledgement of the obvious change of topic, but didn’t press the question further. “Thanks. Felt pretty good to be in court again, not gonna lie.”
He stretched his arms above his head, once more revealing a flash of pale skin under the rise of his untucked shirt before he swung his arms back down.
“The last time, you were being accused of murder,” Lan Wangji said, and he was quite proud of how dry his tone was despite the threat of saliva in the back of his throat.
Mo Xuanyu grinned. “That’s true, huh? Hey Hanguang-jun, are you proud of me for becoming a defense attorney? Pretty amazing I passed the bar without even studying, right?”
Lan Wangji tilted his head, the polite equivalent of a shrug. “It would be more amazing if you had not already passed it before this.”
Mo Xuanyu’s eyes went wide even as his smile remained in place. “Huh?”
There really wasn’t a point in continuing this charade any longer when he was going to keep making it so obvious.
“Wei Ying,” Lan Wangji said with grave seriousness, “you already passed the bar over a decade ago with the highest score of anyone else that year. This time was just a formality.”
Wei Wuxian’s smile fell open into a gape. “What- How did you know?”
“Mo Xuanyu was a spirit medium,” Lan Wangji supplied.
“But?” The pitch of Wei Wuxian’s voice was rapidly rising. “Huh? But even then, how could you know it was me?” He pointed a finger at Lan Wangji, waving it up and down rapidly. “Where’s your evidence? I demand your proof!”
Lan Wangji succinctly replied, “Think.” He allowed himself a pinch of smugness as he turned and walked away without any further elaboration.
Wei Wuxian sputtered there for a full minute before taking off down the hall after him. “Hey- Hey wait a minute, that’s not how this works! Lan Zhan? Hold it, Lan Zhan! I object! Show me your evidence! Objection!”