The lamps in the Imperial Guard’s operational headquarters remained lit until daybreak. Heads spinning from the figures, the accountants from the Ministry of Revenue finally collected every questionable record into a booklet, and handed this in to Fu Linye.
Shen Zechuan read through them all. Fu Linye briskly appended his own report, and sent the lot to Li Jianheng’s desk along with a progress update on the assassination investigation.
The Cabinet convened before the Emperor to address these findings.
Fu Linye said, “Your Majesty, the flavour in a pot can be deduced from a spoonful of its contents. We can see by the findings of this investigation that Xiao Chi’ye has been lining his own pockets for a long time. In the few years of his stranglehold over the Imperial Guard, I fear he may have made many more false accounts like these. Today, when the Imperial Treasury is struggling with its budget, and one province after another falls behind in taxes, to keep a man like him around is to keep fire under a bed of kindling, and to put society in peril!”
Kong Qiu had also read over the booklet, but said instead, “As the assassination remains unsolved, this is no time indeed to create another complication. In my humble opinion, the investigation into this bribery may be postponed for later. At this time, we must focus on the major investigation into the assassination.”
“That’s funny,” Wei Huaixing scoffed, “Why should there be two separate investigations, when both pertain to Xiao Chi’ye? Why not pull all the dirt up in one good heave, so we can sort him out once and for all?”
Kong Qiu, not at all compelled, said, “This investigation has already strayed from its main purpose. Rather than trying to find the mastermind behind this assassination, it seems you gentlemen are using this as a chance to pick off your adversaries!”
Fu Linye immediately snapped back, “The briberies were unearthed while we were following the trail of the assassination. Why is it that when Minister Kong looks into something, it’s a proper investigation, but when we do, it’s persecution? The Censorate’s duty is to inspect and supervise. Am I wrong to file a complaint against him for accepting bribery?!”
Kong Qiu replied, “Wang Xian has not been brought in for questioning. If your word alone is enough to give a verdict of corruption, then what do we need the Three Branches of Justice for? Let’s just have Chief Censor Fu call the ruling all by himself, hey? At the moment, the Ministry of Justice is focused on verifying the evidence which Vice Minister Wei has provided. Barely a night has passed, my witnesses have not even been questioned, and you people are rushing to pronounce him guilty. If he really is guilty, what’s the rush here? If there is a sentence to be passed, then it will be passed after due process and due consideration! Where is the law in this nation otherwise?!”
The three men began quarrelling before Li Jianheng. Unable to put a word in edgewise, Li Jianheng could only look towards Hai Liangyi. Hai Liangyi sat listening with his ear turned to the debate, and when he had heard what each man had to say, he nodded slightly.
Li Jianheng hastened to ask, “What do you think, Elder Hai?”
“What would Elder Hai think?” Shen Zechuan mused, fiddling with a few copper coins. “Naturally, he’d turn away the bribery claim. Hai Liangyi has such a reputation for being rigid that everyone takes him for a straight-shooting, non-partisan monolith. But he was at the helm of the movement to unseat Hua Siqian and instate Li Jianheng. It would be very strange if he hasn’t noticed that something’s going on here. Xi Hongxuan and his folks want to use him to deflect criticism from their operations. What they haven’t realised is that the Elder is an old hand at their games, and he’s been watching them all along.”
“You did well,” Grand Tutor Qi said, sitting at the other end of the small, low table. “Instead of stopping Fu Linye, you let him take the lead, so that he would have the credit all to himself. Impatient at the prospect, he would not be inclined to wait for the right moment, preferring instead to submit his findings immediately, so he can be praised and congratulated. Hai Liangyi, who would have had his suspicions during that pile-on attack, will certainly have guessed by now which individuals might wish Xiao Chi’ye gone for good.”
“It doesn’t take much effort to fan the flames in the direction the wind is already blowing. But this fire isn’t hot enough yet,” Shen Zechuan said. “Forget about Xiao Jiming, it wouldn’t even touch Xiao Chi’ye. Everyone is well aware that any serious investigation into the Quan city silk affair will only find that it’s a bookkeeping error which leads nowhere. What matters now is not the investigation itself, but how the Emperor might be further prejudiced against Xiao Chi’ye.”
“That’s right. The reprimand and suspension may look serious, but they’re only a rap on the knuckles. The idea of stripping Xiao Chi’ye of his command for good has not yet occurred to the Emperor.” The Grand Tutor mused over the game piece in his hand for a moment, then said, “You have to keep it that way. He must never truly consider getting rid of Xiao Ce’an, or we will have laid a grievous trap for ourselves on the road ahead, even if we achieve a small victory here.”
Shen Zechuan toppled his neatly arranged copper coins, then one by one stacked them up again, seeming not to tire of his game. He said, “In Hai Liangyi’s Cabinet, though he places aristocrats like Xue Xiuzhuo in high positions, he also raises a new Imperial college to elevate the lowborn, lesser officials. Master, one slow step at a time, he is trying to build up a counterforce against the aristocrats. For this reason alone, he cannot afford to let Xiao Ce’an fall.”
“And the Xiao family are as unruffled as they are because they understand all of this. Xiao Jiming sits and watches and does nothing, so that the battlefield is confined to Qu Capital this time, and leaves Libei entirely in the clear. This way, things are easier to straighten out, and this way Xiao Ce’an has a little less to worry about.” The Grand Tutor made his move on the board, and said, “For now, everyone is eagerly throwing stones at the man in the well, and while the Emperor is at the height of his anger, he thinks of Xiao Ce’an as a disloyal, unfilial, and immoral man. But when the flames grow to a certain size, they will begin to have the opposite effect. That’s when the Emperor will look around and begin to feel sorry for his poor, “forsaken” brother.”
It had been several days since Li Jianheng got to see Mu Ru. Since the assassination attempt, he had required his rooms to be brightly lit whenever he went to bed at night. All eunuchs were banned from his residential palace, and it was attended only by palace maidens these days.
It was snowing heavily again today. Hai Liangyi was unwell, and therefore unfit to attend the Emperor. Li Jianheng sent Imperial physicians with his returning messenger to ensure he was well looked after, then bestowed quite some amount of tonic medicines upon him, and made earnest promises that he would apply himself as diligently as always, and would not fall behind on his studies.
Mingli Hall’s schedule had cleared up for the day. Li Jianheng made it through a few pages in his books, but was beset with sore muscles and backache. As he got up and looked out the window, he saw snow dancing like wisps of cotton in the sky, and the mood suddenly took him— he called for palace maidens to dress him and bring him his greatcoat, so that he could go out to view the snow.
Li Jianheng went to walk about one of his gardens, and when he came across a lake frozen over with ice, he recalled the ice sleds they used to play with in the palace.
“The ice has set this time of winter, and it’s perfect for sledding.” Li Jianheng asked his retinue, “Why hasn’t anyone reminded us about it this year?”
As the words left his mouth, he remembered— Emperor Xiande had only just ascended to the heavenly courts this year, and there was not to be hijinks during the period of national mourning, or the Censorate will have words about it. On that note, Li Jianheng’s high spirits were dashed. He lost interest in the snow, and asked for Mu Ru to be summoned.
Mu Ru came, capped in her mantle, steadied on a servant’s arm, lithe and lovely as she made her way through the snow. Li Jianheng saw her through the window, and immediately came out to receive her.
“My dear heart,” Li Jianheng said, “You walking in the snow is a picture unto itself! We must have it painted and hung in our palace, so we can look at it every day.”
Mu Ru swept her hood down, and laughed, “That wouldn’t be proper at all.” Then she took a lunch box from her serving girl and said, “It’s a cold day, so I made some soup for liu-lang.”
Li Jianheng’s mood lifted as she called him ‘liu-lang‘, and he took her hand and led her indoors. He dismissed the servants, and sat down upon the throne where he usually conducted office.
As Mu Ru served soup to Li Jianheng, he complained, “Because of that gelded vermin’s attempt to assassinate us, we haven’t slept well these few days at all.”
Mu Ru coaxed, “There’s only the two of us here now, liu-lang, you’re saying ‘we’ again.”
Li Jianheng slapped himself on the mouth lightly, and said, “I’m an idiot!”
Mu Ru took his face in her hands and looked at him closely for a moment, then said, “You do look worn out. Why don’t I stay with you tonight?”
“You’re the only one in the world who cares about me anymore… I thought of Ce’an as a brother too, but now it turns out he’s somehow involved in the assassination as well,” Li Jianheng sighed lengthily. “I’ll just have you by my side, that’ll do.”
Mu Ru said, “The Empress Dowager has been thinking of liu-lang too. For the past few days, she has been chanting sutras and abstaining from meat, so that she may ask for a peaceful new year for liu-lang.”
Li Jianheng caressed Mu Ru’s hand, saying, “I didn’t use to be close to my royal mother. I thought of her as a bad person. I never expected that she would be willing to treat me so kindly today. I… oh, I… it’s all because of that old mongrel Hua Siqian!”
“It really was,” Mu Ru gazed at him with tender sympathy. “Liu-lang went through so much, and it was all that Hua Siqian’s fault. The Empress Dowager counselled him against it over and over, but she was only a woman, and her words were taken lightly. He turned a deaf ear to all of it, and began to resent her instead.”
“They all say not to trust what you hear until you see it with your own eyes,” Li Jianheng said bitterly. “If I had gotten to know my royal mother a little earlier, there would never have been so many misunderstandings between us.”
“There was a time when it might have happened,” Mu Ru seemed to hesitate. “I heard that a great many years ago, when liu-lang was only a baby, the Empress Dowager, who was already raising the late Crown Prince, saw that liu-lang was born with no one to depend upon, and wanted to bring you into her palace to raise you kindly. The late Emperor Guangcheng even said yes.”
Li Jianheng had never heard anything of the sort, and could not help but press further, “Then what happened? Why did she never take me?”
Mu Ru took a moment to soothe him, then said, “It turns out that the Lord of Libei, Xiao Fangxu appealed to the Emperor, and said that as the Empress Dowager was already fostering the late Crown Prince, she carried the heavy responsibility of nurturing the successor to the throne. And as the late Crown Prince was no longer a young child, to foster another prince risks creating trouble within the household.”
Li Jianheng said, “Li… It was the Lord of Libei!”
He had already become unsure of Xiao Chi’ye. Hearing of this bit of history now, and thinking of how Xiao Chi’ye had never brought it up, all sorts of feelings welled up within Li Jianheng. He felt that Xiao Chi’ye kept far too much under wraps, and had never truly opened up to him.
“He’s so… At the end of the day,” Li Jianheng ground out, overwhelmed with resentment, “He’s just like everyone else. They’ve all used me as a stepping stone. Look at me, born into the most divine and powerful family in the land, and I haven’t got even one brother I can depend on!”
Mu Ru took him into her arms, and said, “He isn’t your real brother, after all. Who can treat liu-lang better than His Majesty the late Emperor did?”
“It’s a pity… it’s a pity there are so few in my family’s line that I’m the only soul left today.” And as it occurred to him, Li Jianheng suddenly asked Mu Ru, “Since Pan Rugui was beheaded, your brother has been hidden away in Xue Xiuzhuo’s household. Is everything well with him?”
Mu Ru said, “Yes,” and as soon as she did, turned away began to weep, hiding her face.
Li Jianheng demanded, “Darling Mu Ru, what’s wrong? Why are you crying?”
As Mu Ru dabbed at her tears with her handkerchief, she gazed at him, wet-eyed and endearing, “He’s well, it’s true, but all the same he isn’t by my side, and I only get to see him every few months. And unlike anyone else’s brother, who might be making their way in the world and giving back to their Emperor and their father, at present, he can only… wait on people.”
Li Jianheng would do almost anything rather than see her cry, and immediately said, “Well why didn’t you tell me about this earlier! We’re husband and wife, so your troubles are mine too— whatever it is, I’d be happy to take care of it for you! Not to mention that anyone would understand why you’d be worried. Don’t cry— you’re breaking my heart, darling Mu Ru. I’ll have Xue Xiuzhuo bring him back right away tomorrow, and I’ll give him a post right by my side, how’s that?”
Tearfully, Mu Ru said, “That wouldn’t do, would it? How will you explain it to Elder Hai? And no one else would agree to it. I can’t bear to put you in a difficult position like that.”
Li Jianheng put his arm around her, and said, “I’m the Emperor, and I decide what happens in this Palace! Besides, if we change his name, who’s really going to dig their nails in and make a fuss about him? Pan Rugui’s dead after all!”
He had to soothe and comfort Mu Ru a little while longer, before she finally broke into a tearful smile, and said, “Feng Quan would kowtow his thanks to you if he could.”
Li Jianheng said magnanimously, “He’s family. However you think about it, it’s only right that I should do this.”
A few days later, the assassination investigation was still in progress. Yuan Liu was tortured, and while his confessions were incoherent, he insisted unwaveringly that he had never given Xiao Chi’ye any golden peaches, and never had any knowledge of the dealings with the broker on Donglong Avenue. Under severe torture, he had thought several times that he might as well give in, but as soon as the thought came to him, he would remember that Xiao Chi’ye still held the fate of his entire family in his hands.
Yuan Liu had been in the Imperial Guard for a long time, and he knew that Xiao Chi’ye was two different people when dealing with outsiders and when dealing with his own men. If Er-gongzi said he would look after his sons for him, then he really would see to it that they were well looked after. And if he was to make one wrong statement, then his sons would equally certainly be gone.
Caught in the rift of this power struggle, Yuan Liu had no hopes of living, nor could he end his own life. The only thing he could pray for was that the case would be closed soon, so that the dagger hanging overhead might finally fall on him.
And this chance for closure very quickly arrived.
The situation was escalating. Submissions to the Emperor criticising Xiao Chi’ye came in an unceasing torrent, covering all manners of peculiar subjects. After Li Jianheng personally penned a letter ripping Xiao Chi’ye a new one, the secretary of the Ministry of Justice submitted a report indicating that they had come across a person of interest in their investigations.
This person’s name was Yin Zhu, and he was a eunuch working in the Imperial Confectionary. According to his oral statement, four hours before the start of the State Banquet, as he was delivering auspicious confections to the masters and mistresses of each palace, he came across someone berating Fu Ling outside of Caiwei Palace.
And Caiwei Palace was where Mu Ru lived.
6 thoughts on “Book One, Chapter 56: Fanning the Flames”
Li Jianheng is so unstable as an emperor he’s starting to annoy me LOL
Li Jianheng was not cut out for being emperor, but i can’t blame him for getting wrapped up in his paranoia about xiao chiye when everything escalated and everyone is so adamant about finding whatever they can to put him down. unfortunately for them, this isn’t affecting xiao chiye, and the harder they try to shift their attention to him, the more suspicious it’s going to look and it’ll backfire on them.
Wow OK. Just finished reading this and I want to say thank you sooo much for translating this work. Idk if it’s as beautiful as this in Chinese but wow your work is brilliant. So poetic it sucked me in and I read it in one setting. I’m actually in love with it ❤ I read the other translation (which I liked) and I have no qualms about saying that yours is way better. Ofc I mean no disrespect to any translater I know by experience how hard of a task it is.
I hope that you don't drop this project.
P.S: do you have a Tumblr or twt account that you are willing to share, I'd love following you on those platforms.
Hi Oum! Sorry about the late reply! I’m only trying to convey a fraction of what reading the work in Chinese is like! This project may update irregularly, but it won’t be dropped – the whole reason it even exists is because I only found Lianyin’s translation after I’d started mine, and I couldn’t stop once I’d started 💀💀💀💀💀…..
I’m on twitter as @awanopls. I’m not very good at the twittering though!
Thank you so much for reading and leaving your comment! ❤
I am never going to stop being awe of how great your translation work keeps being!
Thank you for the update and sincerely look forward to each chapter when you update. You are an amazing translator and I am rooting for you. Jiayou~
Thank you Ginny! You give me the serotonin to keep going ❤ ❤ 58 down, 225 to go 💀💀💀