Book One, Chapter 57: Case Closed

“It was a cold day, heavily overcast, and very windy too. I was out delivering sweets for good fortune to the mistresses and masters of every palace. When I came out of Caiwei Palace, Lady Mu was just leaving with her entourage, so I stepped into a corner to keep out of the way. It was then that I heard someone speaking sharply, and when I poked my head around, I saw that the Head Eunuch of Caiwai Palace was arguing with Madam Fu Ling.”

“Why did you say nothing of this at the initial questioning?”

There was silence in the hall, but for the whisper of the scribe’s brush. Several lamps lit the place. Working through the night, Kong Qiu had lost count of the number of pots of strong tea he had gone through at this point. He sat now, hands clasped, asking this question of Yin Zhu, who knelt beneath the step.

Yin Zhu’s lips quivered. “To answer Your Honour, I thought this was only a meaningless piece of gossip. Besides, it was very windy that day, and I truly could not hear what they were arguing about, and was afraid I’d give the wrong answer.”

“If that’s so, why then are you suddenly disclosing this information?” Fu Linye demanded.

Yin Zhu wrung at the hem of his clothing, swallowing fearfully, and with much difficulty finally said in a thin voice, “I’m fearful of Master Turnkey’s whip…… I’ve heard floggings every night since I came in here. My godfather’s been beaten half to death. They say we have to tell everything, down to the tiniest detail. I really am afraid…”

“This is a court of high justice. How dare you say first one thing and then another, and make such a muddle of your testimony!” Fu Linye snapped.

His sharp tone made Yin Zhu jump, and the kneeling man stammered, “I… I didn’t know she was going to do such a beastly thing!”

“It’s easy for them to make up stories under severe torture. We cannot trust this man’s words,” Fu Linye said to Kong Qiu. “How are we supposed to submit a testimony like this to His Majesty?”

“All proceedings from the joint hearings of the the Three Branches of Justice are transcribed and documented. His Majesty will make his own divine judgement on the truth of the matter,” Kong Qiu said. “After the duplicates are created, Elder Hai must have a copy too.”

It had never occurred to Fu Linye that a nuisance like this could fall out of the sky at this late stage in the investigation. He had gone ahead and trod on Xiao Ce’an because he had been certain that Xiao Ce’an would not be able to retaliate. Yuan Liu could not be washed of his sins, and therefore neither could Xiao Ce’an. But who would have thought that Caiwei Palace would be dragged into this too? Great, now everybody’s in the mud. Who’s going to keep digging into this case now?

Fu Linye sensed it immediately: this Yin Zhu was probably nothing like what he seemed, either. Waiting till the joint trial to come out with a thing like this— he had likely been planted here as a trap waiting to be sprung!

Fu Linye was frantic. He was not like Wei Huaixing— Wei Huaixing had the Wei family behind him, which had other families tied to them. There was no untangling him from them, so the worst he would get was an official investigation and a penalty. But what about him? He didn’t have any noble families to fall back on!

Watching the expressions shift across his colleague’s face, Kong Qiu said, “Caiwei Palace is part of the Inner Palace after all, and inaccessible to outside officials like us. We shall have to discuss this with His Majesty. Master Fu, go home and get some rest, and we shall meet again before the Emperor.”

Fu Linye got up. Anxious as he was on the inside, he still managed to put a smile on his face as he bowed to Kong Qiu, then left hurriedly.

The sun had not yet risen, and it was terribly cold. Hurrying his carriage driver on, with the fresh snow creaking under his wheels, Fu Linye soon arrived at Ouhua Lodge. He alighted and hastened up the stairs.

Xi Hongxuan specialised in opera music, and was just now talking over his new composition with Shen Zechuan. Shen Zechuan, sick of the Brocade Guard’s uniform robes, was dressed in a tunic with sweeping sleeves as he sat reclined in a chair listening to Xi Hongxuan, the folding fan in his hand opening and closing idly.

When Fu Linye barged in, he had not expected Shen Zechuan to be there.

Shen Zechuan gently closed his fan, pretending not to have noticed his moment of discomposure. Neither did he rise to greet him, and only said pleasantly, “You’ve come a little late, Chief Censor Fu. The best hours of the night have passed.”

Xi Hongxuan looked a little annoyed. He waved away the madam who had come running in Fu Linye’s wake, and had her close the door behind her. He did not get up either, and simply had Fu Linye make himself comfortable, saying, “We weren’t expecting you, Linye? You should’ve sent word! We’re only a few streets down. You didn’t have to come tearing over like this, it’s poor form.”

Fu Linye was not only older than Xi Hongxuan, but also his superior in rank. To be scolded like this by Xi Hongxuan, as though he was a child to be reprimanded, incensed him. He loathed Xi Hongxuan’s condescending manner from the bottom of his heart.

“I have the most urgent news!” As though he had not heard the remonstration in Xi Hongxuan’s tone, Fu Linye laughed as he took a seat, saying, “I’ve literally just come out of the Ministry of Justice and come running straight to you. Now tell me how urgent that is, Young Master!”

Xi Hongxuan finally asked, “Well, what is it?”

Fu Linye looked towards Shen Zechuan.

Shen Zechuan twirled his fan in his fingers and said, “It seems I’m intruding here.”

He made to get up.

Xi Hongxuan quickly said, “What are you doing, Lanzhou? Sit down. We’ve weathered everything together. What’s anyone got to say that you can’t hear? Linye, go on! This is Shen Lanzhou, don’t you know him? He’s our family’s master advisor!”

Fu Linye had taken Shen Zechuan for one of the many hangers-on of the Xi family who did their legwork as a matter of survival. He had never guessed that Xi Hongxuan held him in such esteem.

Granted, Fu Linye had also dropped in at an unfortunate time tonight. If he had come a little earlier, or a little later, Xi Hongxuan would not have flattered Shen Zechuan quite so much. But tonight, they had just agreed on the next phase of their plan to edge out the Yao family. They were now firmly tethered to the same rope, and Xi Hongxuan was keen to butter Shen Zechuan up a little in the moment, talk him up some. In future, it would no longer do to casually refer to him as a brother.

Shen Zechuan looked at Fu Linye, smiling. And Fu Linye, who knew what was good for him, immediately said, “Please sit, Master Adjudicator.”

Xi Hongxuan repositioned his leg. With the tiger-skin rug underfoot, he said, “Go on then, what’s the emergency?”

Fu Linye said, “I was sitting in on the witness questioning at the Ministry of Justice, and heard this: apparently, that palace maiden who instructed Gui Sheng to assassinate His Majesty, Fu Ling, has some sort of connection with Caiwei Palace. And if you remember, Young Master, it’s Lady Mu who lives in Caiwei Palace! This will be reported directly to His Majesty tomorrow morning, and when that’s done, this case will no longer be a simple matter of running after Xiao Ce’an!”

Arm braced on his leg, Xi Hongxuan was silent for a moment, then said to Shen Zechuan, “You won’t know this— I forgot to mention before. That Mu Ru has connections to our people.”

Likelier than not, he had not so much forgotten as declined to bring it up, cagily keeping his silence the whole time.

Keeping his thoughts to himself, Shen Zechuan only said, “Wasn’t Mu Ru one of Pan Rugui’s people? I remember her brother.”

“She was.” Reluctant to give up the truth, Xi Hongxuan only told half the story. “But since Pan Rugui died, she became homeless, didn’t she? When they raided his house they were going to put her out as a government courtesan, but His Majesty was sweet on her, so he had me intervene. On my bit of acquaintance with Yanqing, I had her switched out, and tucked the pair of siblings in a house out of sight. Later on, His Majesty couldn’t help himself and insisted on bringing her into the Palace. Elder Hai kicked up a fuss about that, if you recall.”

Shen Zechuan seemed rather indifferent to all of it as he nodded, “I’ve heard a thing or two about that. Well, that’s no good. The case was all ready to be wrapped up. Why has it suddenly come up with a new tangent?”

As he said this he looked at Fu Linye, and though he spoke with a smile, there seemed nevertheless to be a hint of reproach in his words, accusing Fu Linye of allowing this to slip by him.

Xi Hongxuan, too, frowned and said, “Aren’t you the co-examining censor? Can’t you just find some way to quash this? It’ll be nothing but trouble once it gets to His Majesty.”

Fu Linye was no less disgruntled than either of them, but could only say, “Young Master, I’m a nobody to them. You know Kong Qiu! He’s hard as nails, and one of Elder Hai’s people. Why would he listen to a word I say? The top priority now is to figure out what to do next. If Lady Mu gets mixed into all this, who’s going to keep going with the investigation? His Majesty will be having second thoughts too!”

Xi Hongxuan brooded over this irritably. Then he asked, “Where is this Yin Zhu?”

Reading his mind at once, Fu Linye waved his hands hastily. “You can’t kill him! Young Master, Elder Hai has already got his guard up. If we kill someone now to silence them, it’ll be proof that something’s up with us!”

“It was all going so well, how did Caiwei Palace come up out of nowhere!” Xi Hongxuan set the lid down on his teacup hard, and said, “No, this investigation can go no further. Tomorrow morning, we have to banish all thought of pursuing the matter from His Majesty’s mind.”

He had major plans for Mu Ru. She must never be allowed to be done away with here.

Twitchy in his seat, Fu Linye said, “Yes, we’ll just pin it all on Fu Ling, that’s for the best! The sooner it’s all over, the sooner everyone can take a breath. But the way Kong Qiu was looking, he’s clearly determined to get to the very bottom of this!”

“The crux of the matter comes back to Elder Hai,” Shen Zechuan pressed his fingers against his teacup for warmth. “Kong Qiu’s Imperial Examination essay was assessed by Hai Liangyi, back in the day. He can be regarded as a half-disciple of Hai Liangyi’s, was promoted by him, and has always held him in the highest esteem.”

“Hai Liangyi would love to have him in the Cabinet. His investigative work is spectacular, he’s exactly the right age, and he hails from a common family in Chi county. He ticks all of Hai Liangyi’s boxes,” Xi Hongxuan said. “What a shit piece of luck! When we went after Xiao Ce’an, they were all snickering in the shadows, waiting for a good show. And now that something’s gone sideways, these freeloaders want to be cute about it.”

“How about this,” Shen Zechuan said. “At the report tomorrow morning, Chief Censor Fu will say nothing of Caiwei Palace, and simply reiterate that the Imperial Guard remains tarnished by corruption. Yuan Liu hasn’t admitted to his crimes, has he? That there is your chance. As long as Yuan Liu exists, Xiao Ce’an is guilty of receiving bribes. He can’t clear himself from the suspicion.”

Rubbing his thigh, Fu Linye said, “But even if I don’t say anything, Kong Qiu will! We can’t stop it from getting out!”

“But we can make the best of a bad situation,” Shen Zechuan smoothed out his fan fold by fold, then closed it again. He said, “Last time, your words to the His Majesty were full of righteous concern about the country and its people. If you change your tune now simply because of a set of unverified claims, even His Majesty will begin to question your loyalty. Rather, tighten your grip on Xiao Ce’an, and you’ll come across as a man of principles instead.”

“That’s right!” Xi Hongxuan said. “We can’t lose our heads now. Since you’ve already come forward, it would be a clumsy business to pull out now. Go on just as he’s told you, and I’ll take care of the other aspects. It’ll be daybreak soon, and you can’t hang around. Go home, have a bath and change your clothes. When you go to His Majesty, just read the room and improvise to suit.”

Fu Linye came in a hurry, and before he could take one sip of tea, was gone again in a hurry. The moment he was gone, Xi Hongxuan spat in his wake.

“If he hadn’t been so near-sighted and glory-grabbling that he reported Xiao Ce’an’s Quan city silk affair without a word to any of us, Hai Liangyi might not have caught on!” Disgust rose in Xi Hongxuan, and he said, “These drecks that come from common families see no further than the ends of their noses! For that crumb of credit, he’d blindside us all, and now what? We’ve wasted the move Yan Qing left for us! After this, Xiao Ce’an is going to guard his ledgers like his life depends on it, and it’ll be much harder in future to get to him that way.”

“Fame and fortune are a disease of the nouveau riche,” Shen Zechuan said. “For now, we have to keep him in check. How are things going with the Eight Battalions?”

“Han Cheng’s brother has taken up the position,” Xi Hongxuan said. “Xiao Ce’an has arranged the Eight Battalions into a closely guarded web of connections, and it doesn’t budge easily. It’s remarkable how he’s managed to establish such a secure hold over all the key positions in such a short time. It’s a hassle even to dismantle them now.”

“Even so, there are members of the Eight Families amongst the men he chose to use,” Shen Zechuan said easily. “We do have some room to manoeuvre.”

When Shen Zechuan emerged and climbed into his carriage, he found a guqin inside.

Qiao Tianya flipped the curtain up. Wearing the face of a burly roughneck, he said, “That qin‘s mine, Master, don’t throw it out. Took me quite some doing to con it from the place.”

“Looks expensive,” Shen Zechuan left it where it lay. “Where’d you get the money?”

Qiao Tianya smirked, “The ladies tipped me.”

But evidently, that qin was something that even money could not buy. If Qiao Tianya did not want to talk about it, it probably had something to do with his family, and so Shen Zechuan dropped the subject.

As had become the rule, the carriage brought Shen Zechuan home to freshen up, and after a change of clothing, he went to the Palace.


Li Jianheng dismissed Morning Court, and asked his ministers to seat themselves in Mingli Hall. He read through the confessions by himself, and said nothing for a good while.

Hai Liangyi was only just recovered, and Li Jianheng had a bowl of warm goat’s milk brought up for him. He took a few sips, and no one in the hall spoke.

Li Jianheng asked, “Why is Caiwei Palace mixed up in this now? We haven’t even got to the bottom of Yuan Liu yet.”

Kong Qiu replied, “As it concerns the Inner Palace, Your Majesty must adjudicate in this matter.”

Li Jianheng flared instantly. “What’s there to adjudicate? Even if she went to Caiwei Palace, she can’t…have anything to do with Lady Mu. Who knows if he’s even telling the truth?”

Hai Liangyi said evenly, “Of course he is not.”

“Yes, it’s a lie!” With Hai Liangyi behind him, Li Jianheng’s voice gained resonance. “Eunuchs are most crafty. What kind of story couldn’t they spin to save their own skin? He thinks he’ll live just because he’s brought Lady Mu into this? Quite the contrary— we’ll have his over-imaginative head!”

“All the same,” Xiao Jiming, who had until this moment never offered a word on this case, lifted his eyes now. “When it concerns Your Majesty’s safety, some things must not be taken lightly.”

He had opened his mouth and gone straight for the jugular.

Wei Huaixing said, “Of course we won’t take this lightly. Weren’t we just about to look into Yuan Liu…”

“The primary examiner on this case is the Minister of Justice, with the Left and Right Chief Censors and the Brocade Guard as co-examiners. It is unsuitable for Vice Minister Wei to repeatedly intercede.” Xiao Jiming was gracious as he spoke, even leaving time for Wei Huaixing to interject— but as Wei Huaixing did not have the nerve to respond, Xiao Jiming continued, “As this case touches upon both the Imperial Guard and the Inner Palace, it should never have been allowed to break out into a public dispute. It is not your reputations which are at jeopardy here, gentlemen, but His Majesty’s dignity.”

“More than ten days have gone by since the crime was committed. We have one Imperial Guard Justice whose actions cannot be determined, and one set of pleasure-house witnesses whose testimony cannot be verified. Instead, both of these are held up in the hands of the vice minister of the Court of Judicial Review, while he is distracted by every other pursuit. It looks to me like neither the primary examiner nor his co-examiners are performing their functions. Setting aside the waste of time and manpower, the real problem here is an overreach of authority.”

Fu Linye recalled Xi Hongxuan’s words from last night, but face to face with Xiao Jiming, he began to waver again. However, as Li Jianheng made no remark, and Hai Liangyi did not seem inclined to come to his aid, he could only press on with a calm he did not feel. He said, “My lord the scion has long made his home in Libei, but Qu Capital is different from the border territories after all. In the handling of many affairs, the implications are different, and so naturally—”

“If an overreach of authority occurs in the military, it is known as insubordination, and the punishment by law is execution.” Zhao Hui, who was a ranking officer, stepped out now to say, “By rights, my lord the scion should not have been the one to bring this up. But it has been so long, and yet not only has no one thought to remind His Majesty of this fact, even the vice minister himself seems to have fallen into the land of dreams, and goes about his work as if in a stupor! The Governor-General has been suspended from his duty for more than ten days, and the vice minister has conducted three separate inspections. Has he found anything? Surely there must be some sort of an accounting here.”

Fu Linye said, “We found that issue with the Quan city silk, didn’t we?”

“We’re asking you about the assassination!” Li Jianheng threw the stack of confessions down. “Why are you still blathering on about these other things!”

Fu Linye blurted, “All the problems trace back to Xiao Chi’ye, and it comes back to him one way or another. Your Majesty, the assassination must be investigated, but the matter of his bribe-taking cannot be brushed aside either!”

“What bribe has he taken?” Li Jianheng stood up, and pointed a finger at Fu Linye. “Quan city silk, Quan city silk! Do you think we were unaware of that whole affair? We were still cruising the streets with him back then! We know more about it than you do! The assassin was a hairsbreadth from our face, but you’re not fussed, all you care about is that petty nonsense. It looks like the safety of your Emperor doesn’t matter much to you, does it!”

Fu Linye had not expected the man— who had only days ago elaborately denounced Xiao Chi’ye— to turn around today and bite his own head off. He shuffled forwards on his knees in a state of panic and cried, “Your Majesty! Your Majesty, you are my fatherly monarch, and I should be overcome with pain were you to come to the slightest harm. Your Majesty!”

“Some matters must take precedence over others. For the sake of the assassination investigation, Minister Kong has worked through the nights,” Xiao Jiming said. “Ce’an has also handed in his badge. To avoid undue influence on the investigation, he has not even dared to ask about its progress, and spends his time at home with his face to the walls, reflecting on his actions. Where do things stand now? How far has the investigation come, and what form will future investigations take? It would be good to have all of these matters clarified, so that my household may at least be prepared.”

The vice minister of Ceremony, Jiang Xu, stepped out of the ranks to say, “This is a straightforward case which involves the Imperial Guard, but has nothing to do with the Lord of Libei’s manor. Who went to carry out an inspection at the Lord’s manor? That was poorly done. If word should get out, it would appear as though His Majesty wished to investigate the Lord of Libei. That would damage the goodwill between Qu Capital and the border territories.”

Li Jianheng knew about the raid on the manor, but he had to pretend not to. As slow as he was, it had dawned on him by now that Xiao Jiming had been paying attention to everything that had gone on in the past few days, and if they should continue to harass Xiao Chi’ye, they would find themselves with a problem.

Li Jianheng quickly aimed a few kicks at Fu Linye and scolded, “How dare you! Who gave you the authority to search the Lord of Libei’s manor? We told you to investigate the Imperial Guard’s headquarters!”

Fu Linye, suddenly assaulted, cried in a panic, “It wasn’t me, I didn’t go! Adjudicator Shen was the one who went!”

Shen Zechuan blinked, and said in bemusement, “When I was sent by His Majesty to assist you, Chief Censor, it was you who advised me that “the Imperial Guard is almost watertight in their secrecy”, that you “fear that there may be hidden duplicates kept of many of their accounts”, and that you wished me to “conduct a very close search of the manor”, so that was what I did. There were quite a few servants present in the hall at the time. Summon any of them, and they too will recall that those were your instructions, Chief Censor.”

Fu Linye ground out, “I only told you to search carefully. I never mentioned the manor!”

Shen Zechuan said seriously, “As I serve the Son of Heaven, I speak no lies before His Majesty. If I had gone to the manor without your orders, Chief Censor, how could I have had an assisting censor with me at the time?”

Fu Linye saw danger in Shen Zechuan’s eyes, and realised that he had struck out at the wrong person in his panic. Looking all around him, he said, “Vice Minister Wei, didn’t Vice Minister Wei—”

At once, Wei Huaixing barked, “Be quiet! How dare you throw wild accusations around before His Majesty when it was all your own doing! Don’t you have any self-respect? The delay in this investigation you have caused is nothing compared to the strain on His Majesty’s friendship with Libei! Have you no sense of proportion?”

Fu Linye had realised by now that he had been kicked out into the cold. He had to take the fall for Li Jianheng, for Wei Huaixing, for Xi Hongxuan, for everyone else! There was not a single man amongst them he could afford to offend. This was a battle amongst deities, and he was left with no option but to pick up after them.

Fu Linye kowtowed immediately, and said, “It was my thoughtless error, Your Majesty!”

“How dare you try to worm your way out of it when you know you’ve been thoughtless!” Li Jianheng scolded, pointing at him. “Though Ce’an has been suspended, before everything is cleared up, he remains the Governor-General of the Imperial Guard! If you investigate him, then investigate him! How dare you show contempt to the Imperial Guard? It seems to us that you’re not conducting an investigation at all. You are clearly persecuting a political opponent!”

Outside of his tirade against Xiao Chi’ye that day, Li Jianheng had not lost his temper since, and his tongue-lashing now made Fu Linye shake from head to toe. Fu Linye, it must be said, was cooperative, and knelt there with tears streaming down his harrowed face, so that the loss to Xiao Jiming’s dignity was recompensed to the fullest.

Xiao Jiming waited until Li Jianheng had gotten it all out of his system before he said, “The Chief Censor was anxious for answers, it’s quite understandable. Since this investigation has wound up in such a state, it may be better now to simply dismiss Ce’an from his position. All the complaints submitted by the Censorate these past few days seem well-justified to me. It’s undeniable that he must be responsible for his negligence, and it is truly no longer appropriate for him to serve amongst His Majesty’s closest.”

Then he smiled again.

“All the evidence points towards him. If he is genuinely responsible for such an atrocious deed, by law his family must be annihilated to nine degrees of relation. Before everyone here today, so that I may avoid causing bias, I, Xiao Jiming, will submit my badge of command for the Libei army for confiscation as well. I have already written to Libei to ask my Lord Father to unbind his hair and shed his robe. He will come to the Capital with my wife, dressed in undyed clothes, to stand trial as they should.”

As soon as he finished speaking, Li Jianheng panicked. He could not respond to that, but neither could he fail to respond to it, so he did the only thing left to him and turned towards Hai Liangyi.

Hai Liangyi and Xiao Jiming looked at each other for a few moments, and the old man suddenly smiled, saying, “You are teasing us, my lord. Hasn’t this case already come to a close? Why make fun of an old man like me!”

Kong Qiu steadied himself, and very quickly chimed in, “Yes, the Elder is right. Though Yuan Liu did buy a house on credit from a broker at Donglong Avenue, that was a private affair between himself and Fu Ling, and he would not have advertised it. The Governor-General has twenty thousand men under his command. How can he be expected to investigate every cause in person? Furthermore, with regard to the bribery, Yuan Liu has maintained his denial, which means we cannot take Xianghui’s one-sided story for the truth. According to my investigations, I have found that Xianghui likely grew resentful towards the Governor-General due to unrequited love. Her account cannot be trusted!”

Li Jianheng came up personally to say, “Since it’s all been resolved, there’s no need to talk about it any more! Please rise, Lord Scion!”

Li Jianheng had also given up on the investigation. To draw Caiwei Palace into this was to draw Mu Ru into it. If they could kick Fu Linye out without thinking twice, then Mu Ru weighed even less in these people’s eyes. If she really became implicated, then he, Li Jianheng, would truly be in peril!

Li Jianheng looked at these men, still talking cheerfully amongst themselves, and felt as though none of them were truly human. Behind them all stood a colossal entity which transcended his throne, like the unrelenting floodwaters, or unassailable winds.

An Emperor was not free. Every movement he made caused ripples in the political terrain, and everything he raged at or rejoiced in could be made a deadly vulnerability. He was no master of himself. He was a prisoner immured upon the dragon throne.

It was terrifying.

In the depths of his heart, Li Jianheng wrapped his arms about himself.

He stood beside these people as upon thin ice. If he should lose his footing one day and fall through, he would in an instant be trampled into a bloody pulp under the hooves of their furious contest, just as his royal brother had been.

Whether he lived or died was of no consequence at all. The only thing that mattered was the fact that he happened to bear the last name Li.

But if there was another person in this world who bore the same name?

Li Jianheng was spooked into tremors by that notion. A cold sweat came over him in an instant.

That’s impossible.

He said darkly to himself.

That’s impossible.

5 thoughts on “Book One, Chapter 57: Case Closed

  1. everyone was so quick to throw fu linye under the bus when he became inconvenient for them. and as a result xiao chiye gets away with little repercussions. but now li jianheng is absolutely terrified at the possibility of someone else with the surname Li; who could drag him down from the throne and sit in his place instead.

    Liked by 1 person

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