In the outside world, no one could detect what was going on in the government office of the Xuanjing Bureau. However, the great commotion that was the prison break was public knowledge, and the ensuing news of Prince Jing being ordered back to his household to reflect on his conduct had immediately spread like wildfire across all levels of society. Even news of Concubine Jing’s confinement without an imperial decree, which should have remained secret in the imperial harem, had leaked out and become widespread.
The Prince Jing of today was no longer as insignificant as he once used to be. He was no longer an easily forgotten princeling, but a Seven Pearl Royal Prince who stood shoulder to shoulder with Prince Yu. Although he hadn’t quite proven himself yet*, the Liang Emperor’s increasing favour in him and his growing prestige in court made him a strong contender for the Eastern Palace**. This matter of the life and death of such a royal prince naturally shocked the people and set off a wave of alarm and unrest.
*Hai Yan uses the term “although he hadn’t pierced through some window paper yet”, which seems almost analogous to losing one’s virginity
**the official residence of the Crown Prince
Against this tide of widespread rumors, deadlock in Xuanjing Bureau and internal strife in the imperial court, Elder Prince Ji’s carriage rumbled away from his mansion, past a group of common folk, making its way towards the palace.
Elder Prince Ji was the current Emperor’s younger brother, younger than him by 12 years. When the Liang Emperor ascended the throne, he was still underaged. Age-wise, he was also the youngest of the previous generation. He had an easygoing nature, with a frank and straightforward character. He was one to speak his mind freely and had no love for deception. Overall, he was an inherently leisurely and idle royal uncle. For this Liang Emperor, who had wrested the throne by killing the designated heir, having such an unthreatening brother made him a subject of great affection. Amongst all the princes, he received the most tolerance and privileges from the Liang Emperor, and he lived everyday freely and happily, surpassing even the gods and immortals.
But even gods and immortals cannot enjoy peaceful and uneventful days all the time, and it was during this most lively and happy New Year period that this royal uncle encountered something he simply couldn’t ignore.
Prince Ji’s carriage swayed along the snow-covered streets of the capital city. In the carriage, Prince Ji cradled a small heating stove, deep in thought. By his side sat another person.
“Royal uncle, shall I enter the palace with you?” Yan Yujin asked tentatively.
“Why do you need to go in? It will just complicate matters. Huang xiong* will definitely believe what I say, and even if he doesn’t, so what? I just need to say what ought to be said. I don’t care about what follows, nor can I control it anyway.” Prince Qi heaved a deep sigh. “To tell the truth, I really don’t want to get involved in these matters, but I don’t have a choice. I cannot pretend that I haven’t seen what I saw.”
*royal elder brother
“Me too. I was speechless with panic after seeing it.” Yan Yujin also heaved a sigh. “Speaking of which, it was truly coincidental. If you hadn’t gone with me to call on Miss Gong Yu, we wouldn’t have encountered this matter…..”
“In any case, I am unable to keep this to myself. Once I tell huang xiong what I saw clearly and in great detail, I would feel more relaxed. You can alight when we pass by the Western Path. Don’t follow me into the palace and get mixed up in this. Huang xiong is a very suspicious person. The more people involved, the more suspicious he would be.”
“Alright.” Yan Yujin nodded, his lowered eyes seeming to conceal some profound and complex thoughts, but his expression was calm. Once they arrived at the mouth of the Western Path, he took his leave, raised the curtain and alighted.
The carriage continued forward, turning eastwards at the palace gates, before finally arriving at Dan Xi Gate. According to Liang etiquette, unless one was specially conferred the Son of Heaven’s sedan chair, one had to go on foot from this point, which is why it was only after Prince Ji had ordered men to find out where the Emperor was at that moment that he leapt out. Wrapped in thick fur and supported by two attendants, he strode in.
The Liang Emperor received his younger brother in the Warm Pavilion of Qianyi Hall. Without Concubine Jing’s care, he looked even more tired, but the pair of eyes beneath the thick and grey eyebrows still shone with an intimidating light that was difficult to ignore. Seeing Prince Ji enter, the Liang Emperor’s face broke into a smile. He half rose in greeting and invited him to sit down, saying warmly, “It’s such a cold day, and about to snow. The court is still on break. You only needed to send a note to pay your respects. Why did you need to come all the way here?”
“This younger brother should actually have come more often to pay his respects,” Prince Ji had always been informal. He walked to the seat indicated by the Liang Emperor and sat by his side. “Besides, there’s a matter I need to report to huang xiong. If not, this younger brother’s heart would be uneasy.”
“What happened? Who offended you?”
“Nobody offended me.” Prince Ji sat closer, lowering his voice. “On the fifth day of the new year, this younger brother saw something. It didn’t seem to be a big deal at the time, but with the news of the recent commotion..…..”
“The fifth day?” The Liang Emperor’s eyebrows quivered, his senses piqued. “What is it? Take your time and speak clearly!”
“Yes. Huang xiong knows that this younger brother has some commoner friends with whom he has occasional contact. Since there was nothing going on at home on that fifth day, this younger brother was restless and went to pay a visit to such a friend. She lives at Dengjia Alley…..huang xiong, you wouldn’t be familiar with that place….in short, it’s a secluded private house, very small. If you opened the window, you would be able to see the alley outside*. At that time, this younger brother was there, happily enjoying a conversation with her when we heard the sound of movement from the outside. We opened the window to have a look, but never thought that we would see an acquaintance……”
*usually, private dwellings opened into inner courtyards rather than outwards towards common spaces
“Xuanjing official, Xia Dong. She was coming from another direction with a group of fighting men dressed in green, each of them holding either knives or swords. They were carrying someone in their midst. After a while of waiting, a carriage appeared and after they had loaded the man onto the carriage, they left. Because Xia Dong was leading them, this younger brother thought it was Xuanjing Bureau arresting a criminal at the time, so he did not pay much attention to it.” At this point, Prince Ji took a deep breath. “But then….this younger brother realized that it had happened on the same day as the prison break to rescue Wei Zheng.….and after taking a look at the pictures plastered all over the four city gates, this younger brother realized that they looked exactly like the person Xia Dong and her men had taken away…..”
The Liang Emperor tried very hard to control the muscle twitching on his cheek and said, “Are you absolutely sure?”
“If not 100%, then at least 90%* sure. While they were in the alley waiting for the carriage, that person suddenly choked on his blood, and he was supported upright. That’s why this younger brother saw his facial features very clearly……”
*technically, they went by a 10 point system, so it should have been “if not 10 points, then 9” but this read better
“Xia Dong….” The Liang Emperor gritted his teeth, “The prisoner rescued by the rebels from the Imperial Court of Justice, how could he have been in Xia Dong’s hands? And transferring him secretly in a secluded alley? What is Xuanjing Bureau trying to do?”
“This younger brother also could not understand, which is why I came to report it to huang xiong.” Prince Ji heaved another sigh. “After all, this isn’t a small matter. I heard that huang xiong cannot rest or eat in peace due to this. This younger brother is worthless for not being able to share in huang xiong’s burdens and cares, but I cannot hide what I have seen with my own eyes. But…..for the sake of caution, maybe huang xiong can summon Xia Dong here for an inquiry. Maybe it would be clearer once she has explained this?”
The Liang Emperor was obviously not as optimistic as Prince Ji. His expression became as deep as a deep pond in winter. He was silent for a while, then shouted, “Gao Zhan!”
“Your servant is here.”
“Send men to Xuanjing Bureau…..” the Liang Emperor stopped mid-sentence, then paused to think before saying, “Summon Meng Zhi in first.”
The Commander of the Imperial Guards was just outside the hall making his rounds of inspection, and immediately hurried in when he heard the summons, falling to his knees in obeisance. “Why has Your Majesty summoned your servant?”
“Go personally to Xuanjing Bureau, bring Xia Dong back to see me. Remember, you need to be quick and this has to be kept a secret. Do not delay, and do not allow Xia Dong to come into contact with anyone along the way, in particular Xia Jiang.”
“Your servant obeys Your Majesty’s command.” Meng Zhi was a martial arts practitioner, and he stood up and walked out in one fluid movement. Prince Ji was not used to such situations and felt a little uneasy. The Liang Emperor’s heart was churning with suspicion at the time and he was too preoccupied to pay him any attention. Both men remained silent, and the atmosphere in the hall was tense.
Ordering the Commander of the Imperial Guards to fetch someone was a wise move. His actions were swift and didn’t allow time for any response. When Xia Jiang received the report and rushed over, Meng Zhi was already astride the horse with the Xuanjing lady officer. Throwing out the words “Imperial command to summon Xia Dong for an audience”, he immediately galloped away like a whirlwind, leaving behind only a cloud of dust.
When Xia Dong entered the Warm Pavilion of Qianyi Hall and paid her respects, she received the same reception as Prince Jing did not too long ago. The Liang Emperor similarly let her remain in her prostrate position for a long time. It was only when the tense and repressive atmosphere became sufficiently dense that he asked in a stern voice, “Xia Dong, on the fifth day of the New Year, when the prison break happened, where were you?
“Your servant was away from the city offering sacrifices to her deceased husband…..”
“When did you return?”
“Nonsense!” The Liang Emperor said angrily, “Someone saw you with his own eyes at that…..that….what alley?”
Prince Ji hurriedly reminded him in a whisper, “Dengjia Alley.”
“What were you doing in Dengjia Alley?”
Xia Dong’s complexion was a little pale, but she persisted in saying, “Your servant did not go to Dengjia Alley. Perhaps that person was mistaken.”
Initially, Prince Ji had no real opinion about the whole incident. He suggested calling for Xia Dong only because he wanted to hear from her if she had a reasonable explanation, but he hadn’t expected her to completely deny being at Dengjia Alley, making it seem as if it was him, the dignified royal uncle who was speaking nonsense. This annoyed him, and he raised his eyebrows resolutely, saying, “Xia Dong, I am absolutely certain I saw you. Accompanying you were no less than 20 men,and although they weren’t wearing Xuanjing Bureau uniforms, they obeyed your orders. You were also guarding someone who looked exactly like the traitor Wei Zheng, lifting him onto a carriage. Do you really dare to deny it?”
“Xia Dong!” The Liang Emperor shouted loudly, “You dare to utter falsehoods in my presence! Your Xuanjing Bureau, is it still my Xuanjing Bureau?! In your eyes, other than your shifu, do I still matter?!”
These last words were very severe. What little colour Xia Dong had remaining in her lips completely disappeared, and she immediately kowtowed again, her fingers trembling against the floor.
“I believe His Highness Prince Ji wouldn’t falsely accuse you. Speak. What were you doing in Dengjia Alley?”
This pressure from the Emperor’s personal interrogation was different from other occasions. The person who had recognized her was a royal prince of great standing, one who had the Emperor’s unreserved trust. Even though Xia Dong gritted her fine white teeth as hard as she could, she couldn’t stop her lips from trembling as she admitted, “Your servant……your servant went to Dengjia Alley……”
The Liang Emperor’s anger surged with the force of a current, and he pressed further, “Was that man Wei Zheng?”
Confessing to these two points was equivalent to confessing to everything else. After thinking through the whole thing, the Liang Emperor could more or less piece everything together.
“I had thought it very strange all along. The prisoner was already well locked up in Xuanjing Bureau, guarded by a few hundred soldiers. Unless they rebelled, nobody would have had the ability to break in and rescue him. But in the end, he was moved unexpectedly to the Imperial Court of Justice,” The Liang Emperor bent over, scrutinizing Xia Dong with murderous eyes, “You……speak…..that day’s surprise attack on Xuanjing Bureau, those men, were they under your command?”
Xia Dong whispered, “Yes…..”
“Well…..well……” The Liang Emperor’s entire body shook, “You’ve all played it well. The mighty Xuanjing Bureau, broken into by rebels, yet not one was apprehended dead or alive, rebels who supposedly escaped because the Capital Patrol created a confusion….Xia Dong, I’ve always had faith in you. You’ve certainly demonstrated yourself here*!”
*in Chinese, this is actually a bit of a sarcastic comment. This is the closest I could come to articulating it.
Meng Zhi, who hadn’t left since bringing Xia Dong in, couldn’t help himself at this point and interjected in a low voice, “Your Majesty, your servant believes that this is too big an affair for Xia Dong to be solely responsible. There should probably be someone else taking the lead?”
“That goes without saying!” The Liang Emperor brought his hand down hard on the dragon table in front of him, and pointed at Xia Dong, “Take a look at her, who is she? Who else could make her do this? Don’t you know who she has been taking orders from her whole life?” At this point, he was so upset he couldn’t continue. After Gao Zhan stepped in to massage his back and smoothen his anger, he continued, “Then what about Wei Zheng? After you pretended to remove Wei Zheng, where did you send him?”
“Your servant has killed him.”
“Wei Zheng was from the Chiyan Army, my mortal enemy for having killed my husband. He had stayed alive for so many years. Your servant was not willing to let him live another day…..”
“You……Wei Zheng is guilty of a capital crime (and needs to be punished accordingly), do you know that?”
“Wei Zheng was only a deputy general, and not the principal offender. Your Majesty favours Prince Jing so much today. If he were to give a full account of the event, there was no guarantee that Your Majesty wouldn’t take action for his sake. Your servant was unwilling to see that happen, which is why your servant took preemptive action.” As Xia Dong spoke, her complexion gradually returned to normal. She raised her head and continued, “Your servant acted of her own accord. This has nothing to do with your servant’s shifu, so please do not blame him…..”
“Be quiet! At this point, you’re still trying to incriminate Prince Jing. You’re truly a good disciple! How could you have acted on your own? Could you hide your transfer of Wei Zheng to the Imperial Court of Justice from Xia Jiang?” The Liang Emperor’s face was as hard as a sheet of iron. “Xia Dong, Xuanjing Bureau’s most important tenet is loyalty to the Emperor. But you all…..you’ve been deceiving me from the very beginning!”
“Huang xiong, please calm down. You’re not in good health. It’s more important to take care of yourself. Whatever the case might be, it’s fortunate that we were able to get to the bottom of it.” Prince Ji sighed as he gently urged the Emperor.
The Liang Emperor took a deep breath. When he was slightly calmer, he looked at Prince Ji and said, “Fortunately you caught this by chance, otherwise Jingyan would have suffered great injustice this time. He is inflexible by nature, and reacts rashly to provocation. One misstep and it’s easy to lure him into a trap.”
“With huang xiong’s insightful and wise scrutiny, what would Jingyan have to fear?” Prince Ji smiled, then turned to look at Xia Dong, “Xia Dong has also suffered a lot these past few years. It’s a little difficult to avoid going to extremes. Huang xiong, be a little lenient on her.”
The Liang Emperor sneered, his anger aroused again. “I don’t wish to deal with her now. Meng Zhi!”
“Your servant is here.”
“Bring a thousand Imperial Guards with you and immediately seal Xuanjing Bureau. Put everyone under house arrest, regardless of their rank, and kill whoever dares to make a move!”
“Your servant obeys.” Meng Zhi bowed and asked, “What about Xia Jiang? Does Your Majesty want to see him?”
“Why would I want to meet him when he has dared to act so recklessly to deceive his Emperor?” The Liang Emperor was already enraged, and the mention of Xia Jiang only served to stoke his anger further. “He…..and this Xia Dong, lock them both up in Sky Prison!”
Meng Zhi bowed to receive this command, but hesitated a while before saying, “When your servant was at Xuanjing Bureau just now, he caught sight of Xia Qiu supporting Mei Changsu to the prison cell. Mister Su appeared to have been tortured…..”
“Tortured?” The Liang Emperor was startled, “I only told him to conduct an inquiry. Why was he imprisoned? Why was he tortured?”
“Your Majesty, Xia Jiang is within his own Xuanjing Bureau. Of course he would have no qualms with such behavior……”
The Liang Emperor was stunned. He heaved a deep sigh. “It would seem that Mei Changsu had nothing to do with this matter. Looks like Xia Jiang wanted him to substantiate Jingyan’s indictment…..in my impatience, I have caused him to suffer under Xia Jiang’s hands. When you go over this time, rescue him as well and return him to his residence to recover.”
“Yes.” Meng Zhi bowed again. Just as he was making his way out of court, a eunuch hurried in to report, “Your Majesty, Minister Cai Quan is waiting outside. He says that he has an important matter to report to Your Majesty.”