At this moment, the tense atmosphere at Zhiluo Palace was at its peak. The people attending to Concubine Jing had been driven to the outer courtyard, and they were all kneeling on the ground en masse, buffeted by the cold wind. Empress Yan sat on the southern seat* in Concubine Jing’s bedchamber, her face overcast with displeasure, her eyes narrowed in anger. Tossed at her feet was a wooden memorial tablet, bearing a few cracks from being thrown forcefully on the ground. It was facing upwards and the words written on it, “Yue Yao from the Lin Clan Formerly Concubine Chen of Great Liang”, could be clearly seen. Connected to the bedchamber’s western wall was a clean room that served as Concubine Jing’s Buddha Hall**. In normal times, the door to this room would be closed, but today, the doors were wide open and from within, an overturned altar table could be seen, with fruits scattered messily all over.
*The owner / host’s usual designated seat, presumably also the seat of “power”
**Room used for worship & making spiritual offerings
Kneeling to her side was Concubine Jing. Compared to Empress Yan’s icy demeanor, Concubine Jing was her usual picture of calm, her expression respectful and polite, revealing no trace of fear.
This was the scene that first greeted the Liang Emperor as he stormed angrily into Zhiluo Palace, his eyes sweeping across the room.
And when he had had a clear look at the interior of the side room, he immediately understood what the matter was.
At this moment, any changes to the Liang Emperor’s emotional state was known only to him, but on the surface, his expression remained unchanged, and he still looked as grim and gloomy as before.
“This wife greets Your Majesty.” Empress Yan got up and stepped forward to make her salutations.
“You are in charge of the harem. Why do issues keep cropping up? What’s the commotion now?” He hurled these words at her, shaking his arms at her in anger, the wide sleeves of his coat flapping violently*. The Liang Emperor strode past her to sit on the southern seat.
*The actual term used for his anger was “swinging his sleeves”
Empress Yan’s eyebrows lifted involuntarily. She felt that there was something off with his tone, but since she had a firm handle on Concubine Jing, she kept her composure.
“Your Majesty, this wife is incompetent. Even though this wife had done all she could to enforce discipline in the imperial harem, this wife was still unable to suppress all petty traitors. Concubine Jing had committed the greatest treason of secretly setting up a memorial tablet for the criminal Lin Yue Yao in her Buddha Hall. This wife had failed to notice this and discovered it only today. This wife has neglected her duty and begs for pardon.”
The Liang Emperor glanced coldly at her and said, “How did Concubine Jing explain herself?”
Empress Yan’s eyes inadvertently revealed some resentment at being posed this question. She was obviously being rebuked.
“Your Majesty, Concubine Jing knows that she is guilty of the crime and has not said a word to defend herself since she was apprehended.”
The Liang Emperor’s mouth tightened. He had already anticipated such a reply and was a little moved by it. Looking at Concubine Jing, he felt his heart soften further.
Since Xia Jiang had evoked his memory of past events, the Liang Emperor did not have any peace in his heart for three whole days. He would wake from his dreams with a pounding heart in the middle of the night, and when he was awake, vague and indistinct fragments of the dream would linger. What’s more, in that space between sleep and wakefulness, he would see a woman’s silhouette swaying to and fro before his eyes, causing him to tremble in terror. When Concubine Jing had tried to soothe him, asking if maybe he dreamt of Concubine Chen because he missed her, it hit the mark on the burden he carried in his heart. But the Liang Emperor did not want his fear of Concubine Chen’s soul to become hearsay, for it threatened the dignity of the Son of Heaven. This was why Concubine Jing suggested offering up sacrifice to Concubine Chen in secret in order to pacify her soul. Of course, the Liang Emperor immediately approved of this, and sure enough, he slept peacefully that night, all the way until dawn. He didn’t expect to have this whole arrangement turned upside down after two days of peace.
Concubine Jing knelt on the ice-cold floor, dressed plainly, her hair loose^. In order to conceal the Liang Emperor’s secret, she had given up the right to defend herself, willingly accepting this serious accusation. Realizing this, the Liang Emperor felt a little inadequate at heart.
Of course, he couldn’t proceed to vindicate Concubine Jing just because of this feeling of inadequacy, but he could think of a way to shield her.
“Where did Concubine Jing set up this Lin memorial?”
“In the Buddha Hall in her bedchamber. Your Majesty, please have a look. All the fruit and wine had already been prepared. She was obviously going to hold a memorial ceremony in secret.”
“Since she had been holding the memorial ceremony in secret, this would naturally not have been public knowledge. How did you find out about it all the way from Zhenyang Palace?”
His tone of voice sounded even more off. Empress Yan muttered involuntarily to herself, then said, “Concubine Jing’s palace maid was indignant with such treasonous behavior and came to Zhenyang Palace to report the matter in advance.”
“Oh?” The Liang Emperor took another look around the room again, and saw Concubine Jing’s personal maidservant Xin’er kneeling in the corner. He hadn’t noticed her earlier. She was all curled up, trying her best not to attract attention. “Telling on your mistress is treason. How can such a creature remain in the palace? Guards, drag her out and beat her to death!”
At this command, a burly eunuch immediately appeared and dragged Xin’er to her feet. The terror stricken young palace maid cried out in a shrill voice, begging for mercy. “Your Majesty, spare your servant’s life…..Your Majesty…..niang niang……Xin’er has been handling your affairs, you must save Xin’er……” Her wailing continued to be heard as she was dragged away, but it gradually faded until it became inaudible.
Empress Yan’s face flushed crimson. The way the Liang Emperor handled this was tantamount to a slap to her face. She had always exercised restraint, but this time she couldn’t help herself and stepped forward, saying, “Your Majesty has entrusted this wife with the order in the imperial harem, so it is natural to prohibit violations of etiquette and the law. Concubine Jing’s crime has been clearly established and it is irrefutable. As the head of the six palaces (in the imperial harem), this wife cannot tolerate this. If Your Majesty has another perspective, please enlighten this wife, otherwise this wife can only act according to the law.”
“You want my perspective?” The Liang Emperor looked coldly at her. “Why do you need my perspective on such a small matter? Do you want everyone to say that the imperial harem is unruly? Is this how someone who is supposed to set an example for virtue and moral excellence assists me? Do you know how valuable the peace and harmony of the imperial harem is?”
“Your Majesty thinks that this is a trivial matter, but this wife dares not treat it as a trivial matter. By setting up a memorial in the palace to offer sacrifice to a criminal in secret, Concubine Jing is clearly showing contempt for Your Majesty. Her intentions are truly alarming. How could such a big crime not be dealt with?”
Thus provoked, the Liang Emperor felt his anger rise, close to erupting, but he suppressed it. Turning to Concubine Jing, he said, “Concubine Jing, do you understand your crime?”
“This concubine understands her crime.” Concubine Jing kowtowed, and said calmly, “This concubine was confused by affections for her old friend and wanted to reminisce in secret, with no intention of showing contempt for Your Majesty. But this does not adhere to palace rules after all, so please confer blame on this concubine.”
The Liang Emperor snorted disapprovingly, slapping the table, intentionally responding with anger, “You call yourself a traitor then say that you were merely confused by affection for an old friend. How is this understanding your crime? You obviously do not understand! Guards, confine Concubine Jing in Zhiluo Palace to reflect on her errors. She is not allowed to leave her palace without an imperial decree. I will return when you have thought it through clearly.”
“Your Majesty!” Empress Yan called out urgently to him.
“I have already handled this matter as you had requested. What else do you want?” The Liang Emperor cast a sidelong glance at her, waving his hand. Looking at the memorial tablet on the floor, he looked at Concubine Jing meaningfully and said, “You are now atoning for your guilt and the privilege of serving your Emperor will be halved. Clean this mess up yourself and put everything in order.”
Concubine Jing’s eyes flashed her understanding. She bowed again and said, “This concubine obeys.”
(Speaking to Empress Yan,) “You’ve worked hard too. Return to your palace.” The Liang Emperor stood up, his face weary. “There have been so many matters to attend to recently. You must learn to share my burden. Gao Zhan, the Phoenix Tail silk received as tribute over the Lunar New Year, have you delivered it as I ordered?”
Gao Zhan replied quick-wittedly, “Your Majesty, there was a delay in settling the inventory today. Your servant will immediately arrange for someone to deliver it.”
“Just make sure you remember. Let’s depart.” The Liang Emperor did not look back at Concubine Jing. Assisted by Gao Zhan, he proceeded out. Empress Yan saw him out to the carriage according to etiquette. As she watched the imperial dragon carriage wind its way away, anger blazed in her heart, but there was nothing she could do about it. All she could do was cast a hateful glare back at Zhiluo Palace’s quiet and beautiful vine covered gates, swallow her anger and return to her own Zhenyang Palace.
“Your Majesty, are you going back to Wuying Hall? Or are you going back to the Warm Pavilion to rest?” Gao Zhan walked timidly over to inquire when the imperial dragon carriage arrived at a fork after passing by the Phoenix Pond. The Liang Emperor hesitated for a while, his expression uncertain.
When he had first departed Wuying Hall to attend to the report, he was enraged. But now that his anger with Concubine Jing had evaporated, his anger at Prince Jing had also subsided substantially. At the same time, his suspicions had arisen over how both these matters concerning Prince Jing and Concubine Jing followed so closely one after the other. Since he had realized that one of them had been wronged, then what about the other?
“Go to Wuying Hall.” The Liang Emperor rubbed the area between his eyebrows, leaning back in exhaustion. He was beginning to miss Concubine Jing’s gentle massages. “This matter still needs to be dealt with. There are still things I need to clarify.”
“Yes.” Gao Zhan dared not say anything more. He gestured forcefully with his hand to notify the eunuchs to turn right and exit from Xin Jian Gate, and they soon arrived at Wuying Hall. Xia Jiang and Prince Jing were still waiting, one standing, the other kneeling, unchanged from before. Seeing his footprint on Prince Jing’s torso, he couldn’t help but feel a little soft-hearted.
“Father Emperor, please take your time with your questions. Don’t get angry again. It’s difficult for your son to watch…..” Prince Yu did not waste any time, saying these words earnestly as soon as he had paid his respects. But the Liang Emperor’s expression seemed a little calmer at this moment, making him a little uneasy, and he couldn’t help but open his mouth to try to provoke him again.
“Your Majesty,” Xia Jiang didn’t expect the Liang Emperor to return with such a calm and mild expression, and he asked softly, “That urgent matter reported by niang niang…..”
“My wife was merely creating a fuss in the imperial harem. It wasn’t anything serious. There’s no need to ask further.” The Liang Emperor cut him off with these words and said with a grim voice, “Continue with the confrontation. Where did we stop?”
Xia Jiang had been serving the Liang Emperor for many years, and had been cut off in a similar manner a few times in the past. He immediately sensed that something had gone wrong, that events were not unfolding as expected. It was quite possible that the storm they had deliberately set off in the imperial harem had achieved the opposite effect.
Who would have thought that the quiet and unassuming Concubine Jing would have such ability to persuade…….
He didn’t attempt to pursue this thread of conversation. Prince Jing had already raised his head and begun speaking. “We had spoken until the clash between Xuanjing Bureau and the Capital Patrol. For now, let’s disregard who is responsible for causing this conflict. The conflict happened right in the middle of the streets. Is Director Xia saying that my Capital Patrol was trying to break the prisoner away on the main streets?”
“Before the Xuanjing Bureau soldiers had left the building in pursuit, the perpetrators had already broken into Xuanjing…….”
“Is that a joke?” Prince Jing’s expression was cold. “Is Xuanjing Bureau the kind of place that one can simply break into if he chooses? Your Majesty, you are fully aware of Xuanjing Bureau’s military strength. What kind of men do I have in my command? None of my men left my mansion without permission today. The officers in my command are registered with the Board of War. Perhaps you would like to examine their records to see who among them is skilled enough to break into Xuanjing Bureau? What’s more, everyone is well aware that your dungeon has multiple layers of security to prevent anyone from escaping. Even if I really wanted to rescue Wei Zheng from within, I must also have the ability to do so!”
Hearing this, the Liang Emperor frowned, “Explain clearly, Minister Xia. How did they manage to break into the dungeon?”
Xia Jiang straightened, hesitating a while. “Your Majesty, Wei Zheng……was rescued from the Imperial Court of Justice…..”
“What?” The Liang Emperor asked in confusion. “How did the Imperial Court of Justice get involved?”
Xia Jiang did not bring up the Imperial Court of Justice earlier in order to set up a trap for Prince Jing. He had hoped to trick Prince Jing into being the first to mention it but had failed, and his words caught up with him, putting him in an awkward position.
“When this old minister came in, this old minister reported to Your Majesty that Xuanjing Bureau and the Imperial Court of Justice were attacked in succession. The criminal was broken out of the Imperial Court of Justice prison as he had been transferred there.”
Prince Jing’s eyes were ice-cold, and he replied dispassionately, “Not imprisoning such an important prisoner in Xuanjing Bureau but in the Imperial Court of Justice. Did Director Xia intend for someone to break the prisoner out or not? Alright, let’s say the prisoner was rescued from the Imperial Court of Justice, then does Director Xia mean to say………that my Capital Patrol also created chaos outside the Imperial Court of Justice to obstruct your pursuit, under the pretext of arresting the bandits?”
The soldiers of both Capital Patrol and Xuanjing Bureau were of course not in the surrounding neighborhood when the conflict happened in the Imperial Court of Justice, which is why Xia Jiang was made speechless for a while. Prince Yu couldn’t help himself and interjected, “Jingyan, I was already here when Director Xia entered. He didn’t actually say anything other than explaining the facts of the matter to Father Emperor, that the prisoner had been broken free, and that the Capital Patrol was outside Xuanjing Bureau obstructing the pursuit. That’s all. As for holding you suspect, that is of course according to Father Emperor’s sage wisdom and ability to immediately grasp the truth of the matter. That’s why you were summoned to this confrontation. If you are innocent, all you needed to do was refute this. Why are you being so aggressive towards Director Xia?”
Prince Jing sneered. “Prince Yu xiong, were you there at the time of the incident?”
Prince Yu was stunned by this question. “Why would I have been there?”
“Did Prince Yu xiong receive an imperial decree to take charge of the Wei Zheng case?”
Prince Yu froze again. “No, no…..”
“Since Prince Yu xiong is neither an eyewitness nor the person in charge of the case, this matter has nothing to do with you. Father Emperor is here. Why are you so anxious?”
Prince Yu did not expect Prince Jing to be so unyielding. His face turned green, and when he noticed the Liang Emperor being deep in thought, he felt his anxiety mount, and could not help saying in a loud voice, “Prince Jing! Father Emperor said that you don’t recognize him either as Emperor or father*. I see that this is really true. I am your royal elder brother. How can you speak to me like this? With your wilful and disobedient character, I foresee that you would not be able to evade this responsibility! What kind of person is Wei Zheng? He is the deputy general of the traitorous Lin Shu. At that time, you were such good friends with that Lin Shu and were like hand in glove. Who doesn’t know that? In this capital, who else could cause such a big upheaval other than you?”
*Corresponds to what the Emperor said in the earlier chapter, “no Emperor, no father”.
As Prince Yu was redirecting the topic under discussion, Xia Jiang had already slowly recovered himself. He knew that moving the prisoner to the Imperial Court of Justice was his error, and could not continue to pursue this line of thought in His Majesty’s presence. Before the Liang Emperor could speak and inquire further, he quickly stepped forward and fell to his knees, saying, “Your Majesty, this minister knows that he did not obtain substantial evidence and had originally no intention of speaking irresponsibly. It’s just that Your Majesty had commanded this minister to speak, so this minister dared not stay silent. But in the face of such accusations, His Highness Prince Jing must naturally spare no effort in defending himself, so it would be difficult to arrive at any conclusion. On the contrary, these arguments would only continue to provoke Your Majesty’s anger. But…..breaking into a government office to rescue a traitor is a very serious matter, and cannot be ignored simply because it is difficult to examine it closely. Xuanjing Bureau lost hold of the prisoner. In this matter, this old minister bears full responsibility. If this minister does not carry out a full investigation and get to the bottom of this matter, this minister would feel ashamed to face Your Majesty. It’s just that the situation is complex and involves members of the royal family and nobility. This old minister would like to prevent anyone connected to it from obstructing investigations. Please grant this favour.”
The Liang Emperor glanced at Prince Jing and muttered briefly to himself. He was feeling suspicious again, and this statement hit straight at the heart of this matter. In any case, he wanted it properly clarified, and if anyone was wronged in the process, he didn’t care.
“Then Minister Xia will be responsible for investigating this thoroughly. But……there is no need to investigate Prince Jing’s men if they had not left his mansion. If you intend to involve anyone under him, you should still inform him first beforehand. Jingyan, you must understand that you are now still the lead suspect. If Minister Xia informs you beforehand who he intends to interrogate, you cannot obstruct him.”
Xiao Jingyan’s face was stretched taut, but there was nothing more he could say. He could only kowtow, saying, “Your son obeys.”
“Many thanks to Your Highness Prince Jing.” A cold smile that looked like it had been tainted with the poisonous waters of hell flitted across Xia Jiang’s face, before he replied, each word and sentence deliberately spoken. “This minister now intends to summon a very important person to Xuanjing Bureau. Your Majesty, please grant permission to leave. I’m afraid if I’m a step too late, this person would anticipate this and take the opportunity to escape punishment……”
“Oh,” The Liang Emperor raised his eyebrows in curiosity and looked at him. “Who are you talking about?”
“Su zhe.” As Xia Jiang spat out these two words, he fixed his eyes on Prince Jing. “If we can pry this person’s mouth open, this matter would be made very clear, no matter how complex.”
^The etiquette for a concubine who has committed a major fault. They would kneel to beg for forgiveness, their hairpin removed leaving the hair loose and luxurious clothes are replaced with plain ones.
In the midst of translating this chapter, one of the readers, Heiyun, reminded me of the TV series. I had been so absorbed in the translation that my primary go-to now is the novel and not the TV series. So I went back to Rakuten Viki to catch a few episodes subbed by the Lang Ya Bang English subs team. They were VERY GOOD! I thought about revising my translations after, but decided against it. After all, if all you wanted to do was read that version, as Heiyun well pointed out, then might as well watch that series right? Especially since I prefer to give more literal translations of some of the metaphors! 🙂 Anyway, for those of you who have only caught the YouTube English subbed-series, the one on Rakuten Viki has better subs. But there might be a need for a VPN to access it because it’s restricted in some countries.