The lights of the Imperial Army’s office compound remained lit until dawn. The men from the Ministry of Revenue audited until their heads spun. At long last, they sorted out the problematic accounts and handed them over into Fu Linye’s hands.
Shen Zechuan reviewed them all. Fu Linye attached the memorial and submitted them together with the progress of the assassination case to Li Jianheng’s desk.
The Grand Secretariat then discussed this matter before the Emperor.
Fu Linye said, “Your Majesty, one can know the flavor of the entire pot by sampling a morsel.1 It can be seen from this case that Xiao Chiye has been taking bribes for a long time. The power and authority of the Imperial Army has been in Xiao Chiye’s control over these years. I’m afraid there are still many more falsified accounts like this one. The state treasury is now hard-pressed for money to disburse, and the local tax arrears owed have been piling up one after another. Keeping this kind of people around is like putting a fire under a pile of firewood—a danger whom I fear will jeopardize the state.”
Kong Qiu had looked through the books too. But he said, “The assassination case is still pending. It’s really not fitting to complicate matters at this time. In this subject’s opinion, the investigation for the bribery case can be postponed. At present, we must focus on the assassination case.”
“How strange.” Wei Huaixing scoffed. “It’s all related to him, Xiao Chiye. So why should we investigate the cases separately? We might as well pull out the radish along with the mud2 and make use of this opportunity to conclude the cases together!”
Kong Qiu remained unwavered and said, “This case has already deviated from the main point. The way I see it, you people do not want to expose the mastermind behind the assassination, but to use this chance to root out dissidents!”
Fu Linye immediately retorted, “The bribery case is the melon we followed the vines to dig out.3 Why is it that when Minister Kong investigates, he is investigating the case; but when we do it, we are attacking his faults? The duty of the Chief Surveillance Bureau is to supervise. Was it wrong of me to impeach him for taking bribes?!”
Kong Qiu said, “Wang Xian has not yet been put on trial. If we can pass a judgement on the bribery case just based on your words alone, then what need is there for the Joint Trial by the Three Judicial Offices in the future? We might as well let Your Excellency Fu make the rulings alone! What the Ministry of Justice has to investigate now is to verify the confession statement presented by His Excellency Wei. By the end of the night, I have not even examined the witness testimony and you people are already so anxious to convict him. What’s the hurry? Even if he was at fault that you want to sentence him, you still have to follow the rules and regulations! Otherwise, where does the law stand?!”
The three men began to quarrel before the Emperor. Unable to get a word in, Li Jianheng could only look at Hai Liangyi. Hai Liangyi sat and listened with his head inclined. Once he finished listening to what everyone had to say, he gave a slight nod of his head.
Li Jianheng hurriedly asked, “What does the Secretariat Elder think?”
“What did the Secretariat Elder think?” Shen Zechuan fiddled with the copper coins. “Naturally, he would dismiss the memorial for the bribery case. Hai Liangyi has been stringent for so long that everyone regards him as a straightforward minister who is his own man. But he’s the first one who brought down Hua Siqian and supported Li Jianheng. It’d be strange if he still can’t tell something’s up. Xi Hongxuan and the others want to use him as a shield to make their move this time. Little would they imagine that the Secretariat Elder has long been sitting on the fishing boat4 keeping a constant eye on the brewing storm.”
“You’ve done well.” Grand Mentor Qi sat at the other end of the small table. “Instead of stopping Fu Linye, you let him make the decision. This credit is all his alone. He is bound to get anxious, and subsequently, he’d be unwilling to wait for a good timing. He’d want to present the memorial right at once in an attempt to earn praises. From that round of denouncement before the Emperor, Hai Liangyi would already have gotten an inkling of what’s happening. By now, he must have already guessed who are the ones who want to take down Xiao Chiye.”
“Just blowing the fire with the wind.5 This fire isn’t raging hard enough.” Shen Zechuan said, “It can’t even burn Xiao Chiye, let alone Xiao Jiming. The Quancheng silk case, if they were to investigate it seriously, is a bookkeeping mess that everyone knows all too well. The important thing now is not to reverse the verdict and clear his name, but how to make His Majesty partial to him.”
“That’s right. The reprimand from the suspension of the waist tablet may seem serious, but in truth, it’s merely a superficial slap on the wrist. His Majesty definitely has yet to harbor the notion of stripping away Xiao Chiye’s military power.” Grand Mentor Qi grasped the chess piece and pondered over it for a while before he said, “You have to let him stay this way. Never let him entertain the intent to take down Xiao the Second. Otherwise, it will be a great disaster in the making even if this is a small victory.”
Shen Zechuan pushed over the copper coins that had been neatly arranged and began to stack them up again, one at a time. Tirelessly enjoying himself, he said, “Hai Liangyi has control of the Grand Secretariat. Although he has placed men of noble birth like Xue Xiuzhuo and the others in important posts to use them, he has also set up an Imperial College and is promoting the minor officials from humble backgrounds. Teacher, he wants to take the progressive approach and confront the noble clans slowly. Just based on this alone, he cannot let Xiao’Er fall.”
“The Xiao Clan is keeping their composure because they understand these all too well. Xiao Jiming is simply sitting and watching without doing a thing because this battlefield is limited to Qudu; it doesn’t extend anywhere near Libei. That makes it easy to resolve, and Xiao the Second would have fewer issues from home to worry about.” Grand Mentor Qi placed the chess piece down and continued, “Everyone is now excitedly kicking a man when he’s down. His Majesty is still angry and so thinks of Xiao the Second as a disloyal, unfilial, and unrighteous person. But once the fire is big enough, it will reverse.6 Then His Majesty ought to change the status quo and come to pity his buddy who is ‘all by his lonesome self’ instead.”
◈ ◈ ◈
Li Jianheng had not seen Mu Ru for a few days. After the assassination attempt, he had to sleep with his surroundings brilliantly lit. Not one of the eunuchs were allowed to step into the sleeping chamber, and those attending to him at present were all palace maidservants.
It was snowing heavily again today. Hai Liangyi was sick, so he could not go near the Emperor. Li Jianheng got the Imperial Academy of Medicine to head to his residence to take a look at him and even bestowed upon him a good deal of tonics. He also assured him repeatedly that he would study hard as usual and not fall behind on his studies.
Ming Li Hall had quietened down. Li Jianheng flipped through a few pages of the book before he felt his back aching. He got up to look out of the window and saw the snow flying all over the sky like cotton. Suddenly in the mood, he summoned the palace maidservants to dress him and drape his cloak over him so he could head out to appreciate the snow.
Li Jianheng roamed the garden with his entourage. When he saw the ice frozen over the lake, he recalled the ice bed he used to play with in the palace.
“It’s just the time to play when winter water freezes into ice.” Li Jianheng asked around him. “Why didn’t anyone bring this up to me this year?”
The moment the words left his mouth, he remembered. Emperor Xiande had just passed this year, and it would not do for him to create a disturbance or cause trouble during the state mourning period. Else, the Chief Surveillance Bureau would scold him. Thinking about this dampened his mood again. No longer wanting to see the snow, he sent someone to call for Mu Ru.
Mu Ru arrived wearing a cape with a hood. Her posture was graceful as she walked among the snow with someone supporting her. On seeing her through the window, Li Jianheng immediately stepped out of the door to meet her.
“My darling.” Li Jianheng said. “The view of you walking in the snow is truly a sight to behold! I have to get someone to draw it down so that I can hang it up in the palace to look at it every day.”
Mu Ru lifted the hood of her cape and said with a smile, “How would that do?” She took the food container from the maidservant’s hands and said, “The weather is cold. I’ve made soup for Liu-lang.”7
Li Jianheng’s mood soared when he heard her calling him “Liu-lang”. He led her inside by the hand and dismissed the attendants, then took his seat at the dragon throne, which he used to handle governmental affairs.
Mu Ru ladled out the soup for Li Jianheng, who groused, “The assassination attempt by the castrated traitor the last time scared me so much that I could hardly sleep well these days.”
Mu Ru coaxed him, “There’s only just the two of us here now. So why is Liu-lang using such a formal term8 again?”
Li Jianheng gave himself a light slap on his own mouth and said, “This husband of yours is so muddle-headed.”
Mu Ru cupped his face in her hands and looked carefully for a moment before saying, “You do indeed look haggard. I’ll keep you company tonight, alright?”
“You’re the only one in the entire world who dotes on me… I originally treated Ce’ an as a brother, but who knew that he would now be implicated in the assassination attempt?” Li Jianheng let out a long sigh. “Just stay with me.”
Mu Ru said, “Her Majesty is very concerned for Liu-lang too. She has been chanting the sutras and going on a vegetarian diet these few days, all to pray for a peaceful new year for Liu-lang.”
Li Jianheng caressed Mu Ru’s hand and said, “I wasn’t close with the Imperial Mother in the past, and I saw her as the villain. Who knew she could still treat me so kindly today? I, I… alas. It’s all the fault of that old dog, Hua Siqian!”
“Who said it isn’t?” Mu Ru looked at him fondly. “Liu-lang has suffered much all because of the trouble that Hua Siqian stirred up. Her Majesty admonished him every way she could back then, but in the end, she’s still a woman whose words hold no weight against a man’s. He brushed off her advice and even blamed her instead.”
“They say what you hear is just hearsay, only seeing is believing.” Li Jianheng said regretfully. “If I could have gotten along with Imperial Mother earlier, there would not have been so many misunderstandings between us.”
“There was an opportunity in the past.” Mu Ru seemed to hesitate. “I heard that many years ago when Liu-lang was still an infant, Her Majesty was already raising the former Crown Prince. But seeing that Liu-lang had no one to rely on, she thought of taking Liu-lang back to her palace to raise as well. Emperor Guangcheng gave his agreement too.”
Li Jianheng had never heard of this and could not refrain from probing further, “Then what happened later? Why didn’t she take me back?”
Mu Ru soothed him for a while before replying, “Later on, the Prince of Libei, Xiao Fangxu, submitted a memorial saying that by adopting the former Crown Prince, Her Majesty had the heavy responsibility of nurturing the heir apparent to the Eastern Palace. The Crown Prince is all grown. Raising another prince might be just inviting internal strife.”
Li Jianheng said, “Li… so it’s the Prince of Libei!”
The seeds of discord had already been sown between him and Xiao Chiye. All sorts of mixed feelings instantly welled up in him when he heard of this old matter and thought about how Xiao Chiye had never once mentioned it. He felt that Xiao Chiye was too unfathomably shrewd and had never really opened his heart to him as a friend.
“He’s so… When all is said and done,” Li Jianheng said bitterly. “He’s the same as everyone else who treats me as a stepping stone. How pitiable am I to be born a noble, yet not even have a buddy I can rely on!”
Mu Ru hugged him and said, “You aren’t biological brothers after all. Who can compare to the former Emperor when it comes to treating Liu-lang well?”
“A pity… A pity the imperial heirs of our Li Clan are few and far between. There’s only me left now.” At this point, Li Jianheng suddenly asked Mu Ru, “Your younger brother has been hiding at Xue Xiuzhuo’s residence ever since Pan Rugui was beheaded. Is he doing fine now?”
Mu Ru replied, “yes”, then turned around and covered her face to sob.
Li Jianheng hurriedly asked, “My dear Mu Ru, what’s wrong? Why are you crying?”
As Mu Ru wiped her tears with a handkerchief, she looked at him tearfully and said, “He’s doing fine, but he’s not by my side after all, and I can only see him once every few months. He isn’t like any other brother who can still make meritorious contributions to serve the sovereign. All he can do now is to… wait upon others.”
Li Jianheng could not bear to see her cry the most. He immediately said, “All you had to do was to tell me earlier, and it’d all be fine, wouldn’t it? We are husband and wife of the same mind. I’m willing to do anything for you! What’s more, this is human nature. Don’t cry. My heart is going to break from your tears. My dear Mu Ru. I’ll get Xue Xiuzhuo to send him back tomorrow and put him on duty at my side, okay?”
With tears in her eyes, Mu Ru said, “How could that do? How are you going to justify it to the Secretariat Elder? The others won’t agree either. I can’t bear to put you in a difficult spot.”
Li Jianheng held her in his arms and said, “I’m the Emperor. I have the final say when it comes to affairs in the palace! Besides, if we get him to change his name, who can really insist on digging up his past? Pan Rugui is already dead!”
Mu Ru let him coax her for a while before she broke into a smile and said, “Fengquan would want to kowtow his thanks to you too.”
Li Jianheng said generously, “We are family. By all sentiment and logic, it’s what I ought to do.”
◈ ◈ ◈
A few days later, the assassination case was still under investigation. Yuan Liu was tortured, and his confession was overturned, yet he insisted that he had never sent golden peaches to Xiao Chiye and did not know a single thing about the shady deal with the Donglong broker. Several times under heavy torture, he thought of giving in and getting it done and over with. But the moment the thought crossed his mind, he would remember that his entire family’s life was still in Xiao Chiye’s hands.
Yuan Liu had been with the Imperial Army for a long time. He knew Xiao Chiye was a different man when it came to treating outsiders versus insiders. The Second Young Master said he would take care of his son on his behalf, and that meant that he would truly look after his son for him. If he so much said a wrong word, his son would be a goner too.
Yuan Liu was caught in the middle of this power struggle, unable to seek life or death. All he could hope was for the case to conclude as soon as possible so that he could be given a quick end.
The opportunity to conclude the case soon came.
The matter kept taking a turn for the worse. Memorials impeaching Xiao Chiye came thick and fast. Strangely enough, after Li Jianheng personally took up his brush to berate Xiao Chiye, the Secretary for the Ministry of Justice submitted a report before the Emperor and said that their investigation had led them to a person.
This person’s name was Yinzhu. He was a eunuch from the Imperial Bakery. According to his oral testimony, he had been distributing fortune candies to the various imperial concubines four hours before the Feast of A Hundred Officials was due to start when he saw someone rebuking Fuling at the side of Caiwei Palace.
And Caiwei Palace just happened to be the place where Mu Ru resided.
- 尝鼎一脔 i.e., infer the whole from a part
- 拔萝卜带出泥 i.e., a metaphor in which the investigation of the criminal who was arrested first leads to the exposure of other criminals.
- 顺藤摸瓜, i.e., track down something by following the clues.
- 久(稳)坐钓鱼台 i.e., stay calm during tense situations; keeping a cool head in a crisis
- 因风吹火 i.e., doing something by making use of the opportunity available, or going with the flow
- 物极必反, i.e., things will develop in the opposite direction when they become extreme or hit their limit.
- 郎 Lang, young man; a form of address. Also used as a term by a woman to address her lover or husband. The Liu refers to “sixth” here; presumably Li Jianheng is the sixth prince.
- In this chapter thus far, Li Jianheng has been using “朕” to refer to himself. It’s an imperial term for “I” exclusively used by the Emperor. It differentiates the monarch from all his people and subjects.