Perhaps because the backgrounds of those who reporting the findings were not simple, this ‘corpses in the well’ case which had been accidentally discovered by these gentlemen immediately raised even greater waves than usual both inside and outside the capital. In addition, when the Magistrate Office members rushed to the scene for a closer examination, they discovered no fewer than ten sets of human skeletons, all completely decomposed, and which all seemed to be female, based on preliminary investigations. When these shocking details were made known, the entire city was stunned. Capital Magistrate Gao Sheng was ordered by his superiors to take over the case and given a strict deadline, and he was soon up to his earlobes in the investigation.
As the current owner of the manor, Mei Changsu was summoned for questioning more than once, but as he really did not know anything, repeated questioning did not produce any new directions of research, and anyway Gao Sheng did not dare to inconvenience him too much on account of his recent fame, and so turned the focus of his investigation onto the business owner who had acted as middleman instead, and at the same time sent people to carefully seek out the purpose and owner of the manor before it had disintegrated to this degree.
Around seven to eight days later, the results of the investigation were back: the manor had changed hands twice this year, and was originally owned by a man called Zhang Jin, of unknown background, who had once owned numerous houses of entertainment in the capital, and who was low-key, but nonetheless powerful in his wealth and relations. He had died of sickness four years ago, and his businesses too gradually died off, and so this manor had been released for sale.
Gao Sheng immediately sent people to the Zhang family to detain everyone associated with this matter for further questioning. At this time, a man named Shi Douguan suddenly came forward to the Magistrate Office and claimed to have been one of Zhang Jin’s trusted aides before his death, saying that he had received death threats regarding this case and begging for protection from the court. Gao Sheng was delighted, and planned to stay up all night questioning him, but he had only just begun when a servant appeared to say that a message had arrived from the Crown Prince.
Gao Sheng curiously changed his attire and came to the main hall, where a young eunuch was waiting, and after he had bowed, the eunuch said crisply, “An order from the Crown Prince: I have heard about the case of the ‘corpses in the well’ in our royal city, and in such a matter as this, it is not possible for me, as the head of the government, not to inquire further, and therefore I hereby summon Capital Magistrate Gao Sheng to enter the Eastern Palace tomorrow to discuss this matter in person. End order.”
“Your servant Gao Sheng receives the Crown Prince’s order.” Gao Sheng hurriedly bowed.
After the eunuch messenger had left, Gao Sheng turned the matter over in his mind uneasily. To have been made an official in Jinling, a city overflowing with princes and nobility, Gao Sheng naturally had an astute mind and his own smooth set of skills. The Crown Prince suddenly intervening in the case was unlikely to be solely due to his responsibilities of governance, and there were perhaps some hidden details that he had not yet perceived. After some thought, Gao Sheng ordered for Shi Douguan to be brought from the interrogation room and took him into his personal room in his own house, and in the subsequent interrogation, purposefully dismissed all his subordinates and servants from the room.
As Gao Sheng was questioning Shi Douguan late into the night, a lantern also burned in the study of Prince Yu’s residence far into the early hours.
“This Shi Douguan really has a list of names on his person?” Prince Yu Xiao Jinghuan paced back and forth. “Are we certain of this piece of news?”
“Your servant can guarantee it.” A middle-aged person dressed in gray stood before him, and said with assurance, “That manor is called the Lan Manor, and is in name the private residence of Zhang Jin, but in reality, was the secret venue for his business. Some officials of the court didn’t dare to openly enter certain houses of entertainment, and so relied on Zhang Jin’s private arrangements. No matter what request the customer had, he was able to fulfill it. With time, it was not unusual for some of those who enjoyed themselves too much to make a miscalculation, and accidentally kill the girls they had taken for amusement, and the corpses found are part of that group. Five years ago, when Zhang Jin died, those kinds of exchanges were halted, it was just that no one could imagine that he had disposed of those corpses so carelessly, or that he had actually recorded the events in writing.”
A dim light grew in Prince Yu’s gaze . “So, the names on this list….”
“They are all people of renown and repute, and some are even important members of the court….”
“I think there are people from both sides, but…” The person in gray gave a hidden smile. “His Highness the Crown Prince and his people have much more reason to worry….”
“When your servant found Shi Douguan, he wouldn’t hand over the list, but to gain my trust, he told me a few of the names of those guests who had taken the lives of those girls, and one of them is Lou Zhijing.”
Prince Yu’s eyes shone, and he let out a great laugh. “Lou Zhijing is really on there? Haha, the Crown Prince must be panicking.”
“Lou Zhijing knows what he has done, and your servant believes he will tell the Crown Prince everything and beg for protection, Your Highness, why did you not take Shi Douguan into your residence, but let him go to the Magistrate Office? What if the Crown Prince….”
“Don’t worry,” Prince Yu said coldly. “The Crown Prince still has not yet managed to control the capital. Gao Sheng may not look like much, but he is no ordinary official, and no matter how the Crown Prince pressures him, he will still be able to withstand for two to three days at least.”
“Your Highness’ meaning is….”
“Our intervention must not be too obvious, or my father Emperor will become suspicious.” Prince Yu gazed at the light before the window, his eyebrow raised, and motioned for the person in gray to draw close, whispered a few names in his ear, then said, “I must trouble you further tonight to go in my place to speak to these people in secret, and ask them frankly whether they have had interactions with Zhang Jin in the past, and whether they have killed anyone, and if they are honest, I will naturally find a way to keep them safe, but if they lie, then they will deserve their punishment when they are found out.”
“Yes, Your Highness.”
“As long as these few are not on the list, I don’t care about anyone else being found out, if we are not willing to sacrifice a few of our people, how could we catch the great wolf?”
The person in gray was accustomed to his careless abandonment of his pieces, and did not comment, only answering, “Yes, Your Highness” before withdrawing.
Prince Yu paced a few more times around the room, deep in thought, appearing uneasy. After a long while, he was heard saying to the lamp on his desk, “Mei Changsu bought the Lan Manor and uncovered this case, perhaps this is no coincidence? Since he has done this, is he trying to show that he is leaning towards me?”
He was alone in the room, and he appeared at first to be speaking to himself, but not long after he had spoken, the thick velvet curtain on the eastern side of the room trembled gently, and the soft, clear voice of a woman said quietly, “Not necessarily. Perhaps he is only settling a personal grievance, and the matter has nothing to do with Your Highness.”
Following the words of this beautiful voice, a graceful, elegant figure appeared. From her appearance only, her looks could not perhaps topple kingdoms and countries, but paired with her dainty air, she could indeed stir the hearts of any who looked upon her.
Prince Yu turned to her, and although his expression still looked slightly uneasy, he quickly recovered his composure. “Banruo, have you discovered anything?”
Qin Banruo pursed her thin, red lips, paused, and said, “Is His Highness aware that Lou Zhijing once served as the governor of Yi province?”
“This I know.” Prince Yu’s mind turned quickly. “Yi province is within the area controlled by Jiangzuo Alliance, have they had conflicts in the past?”
“Lou Zhijing is a rare talent, and therefore has become a trusted confidante of the Crown Prince, but his uncontrollable lust is not something that can be easily changed. I have found out that when he was in Yi province, he forcibly took a pair of twin sisters into his residence, but their older cousin was a lowly member of the Jiangzuo Alliance, and he begged his lord to personally ask Lou Zhijing to return his younger sisters¹. Lou Zhijing consented, and then returned to his residence and first violently raped the sisters before releasing them from his manor. The two young ladies committed suicide in shame, but Lou Zhijing denied his crime, and the Jiangzuo Alliance could not find any proof, and so could only watch him evade the law, and thus were born the seeds of this case. But these events were never made public, and few know about them…”
Prince Yu waited a long while, then saw that the young woman had no intention of continuing, and asked in surprise, “There’s only this bit of enmity?”
“Your Highness feels it is not enough?”
“Of course not,” Prince Yu couldn’t believe it. “Lou Zhijing is the Minister of Revenue and the Crown Prince’s trusted adviser, and Mei Changsu would make an enemy of him just for the sake of the sisters of one lowly member of his alliance?”
Qin Banruo was silent for a moment, then said, “Does Your Highness truly want to recruit Mei Changsu?”
“Why do you even need to ask, of course I do.”
“Then Your Highness should better understand how Mei Changsu works.”
“To Your Highness, those two sisters may not mean much, but to Mei Changsu, it was a great insult and offense. Jiangzuo Alliance was able to quickly become the greatest sect in the world not only because of their skills in the Jianghu world nor because their loyalty and chivalry has captured the hearts of commoners, but most importantly, because they have carefully honed their power and authority over the years. If Jiangzuo Alliance had not appeared to personally request this favour, then they would likely not have cared even if Lou Zhijing had behaved even more cruelly. But it was precisely because Lou Zhijing looked down on this jianghu sect and paid them lip service before enacting this grotesque drama that he committed the great taboo against Jiangzuo Alliance, and so naturally his actions were regarded as provocation.”
Prince Yu was listening closely. “So that means, Mei Changsu was only enacting a personal revenge, and wasn’t trying to favour me at all?”
“I do not dare comment on this. The actions of this person recently are a mystery, and I have not yet been able to interpret them clearly.” Qin Banruo sighed lightly. “The first time Your Highness expressed a desire to recruit him was in the seventh month, correct?”
“The Crown Prince’s invitation could not have been much earlier than that of Your Highness. From the information I have gathered, when he received the invitation from the capital, Mei Changsu was a jianghu man through and through, and I cannot find any evidence of any interactions or relationships with any persons from the court. But afterwards, Mei Changsu on the one hand declined the offers of the Crown Prince and Your Highness, and on the other hand left the heart of the Jiangzuo Alliance and finally moved into the capital, what is he trying to do?”
“He probably knows that talents that gain the attention of the Crown Prince and myself only have two roads to choose from. As the chief of the Jiangzuo Alliance, this top-ranked gentleman of the Langya lists has led a contented life, why would he want to choose a dead end?”
“But the road he is walking now, does Your Highness think it is a way to survive?”
Prince Yu was startled, and stayed silent.
“Right now, is the Duke of Qing the heaviest stone in Your Highness’ heart?”
Xiao Jinghuan’s eyebrows furrowed. ‘Banruo, why do you ask what you already know?”
“Most of those in the military have remained neutral, and the few military officials that are truly loyal to Your Highness are the Duke of Qing’s people. If he falls, then there will remain in your hand only quills, and no swords….”
“This I know,” Prince Yu sounded impatient. “You don’t need to say anymore.”
“From Mei Changsu’s actions so far, he is very familiar with the power balance in the court, and it is impossible for him not to know how important the Duke of Qing is to Your Highness. Even if Xie Bi was right and they only came across the accusers on the road by accident, if Mei Changsu had the slightest inclination to favour your Highness, he should not have gone out of his way to make sure those two arrived safely in the capital.”
Following her steady words, sweat broke out over Prince Yu’s forehead, but he only silently clenched his fist, and did not say a word.
Qin Banruo lightly wiped away the sweat beading over his hairline, and a sigh escaped again from her cherry red lips. “When he made that choice, he offended Your Highness and seemed to favour the Crown Prince. And so at that time, I confidently told Your Highness that it was very likely that, on entering the capital, Mei Changsu would choose the Crown Prince….”
“But…” Prince Yu spat out the word, but could not continue.
“But his actions now have truly exceeded my expectations.” Banruo lowered her head and arranged the tassels on her sleeve, a white jade bracelet glistening on her wrist, its snowy brightness as mesmerizing as her skin, but out of the beautiful woman’s mouth came only the cold analysis of strategies. “If he has slightly offended Your Highness over the matter of the Duke of Qing, then over the matter of Princess Nihuang, he has greatly offended the Crown Prince….”
Prince Yu’s eyes widened. “What, Banruo, you think that Mei Changsu engineered the matter of the Princess?”
“Does Your Highness truly believe it was coincidence that you came across him on the street walking by himself that day?”
Prince Yu took a step back, sat down on a round chair, and beat his fist hard against his leg twice, his face full of uncertainty. “That is only your deduction. The events of that day involved too many people – Prince Jing, Jingning, the Grand Empress Dowager, the Empress, Meng Zhi, and me… who among this list could be so easily manipulated by Mei Changsu?”
“Then Your Highness’ conclusion is….”
“Perhaps some things were coincidence,” Prince Yu looked to be deep in thought, speaking slowly. “Perhaps he did not arrange anything, and only came across the news, or perhaps he was not attacking the Crown Prince at all, but only wanted to save Nihuang….”
What could not be denied was that, although Prince Yu had underestimated Mei Changsu’s control over the situation, his guesses regarding what had truly happened that day were not far from the truth.
Qin Banruo thought for a moment, and agreeing that it was unlikely that Mei Changsu had been able to single-handedly control the matter of the Princess, nodded her head.
“But now I realize that I have been careless.” Prince Yu smiled coldly. “Contact Duan Jin tomorrow, I have some news the Crown Prince should hear, and make sure she acts as naturally as possible.”
Banruo only stared for a moment before understanding. Prince Yu only knew that Mei Changsu had been involved in the matter of the Princess because the Empress had deceived Jingning, and found out from her that it was Mei Changsu who had asked her to bring the Grand Empress Dowager to Zhiluo palace. None of the others involved had even mentioned this Mister Su. Now, although the Crown Prince and Noble Consort Yu hated Prince Yu, hated the Empress, hated Prince Jing, and even hated Princess Nihuang, it would never occur to them to hate Mei Changsu, because they didn’t even know that Mei Changsu had been involved in the outcome of the event. And therefore, there was great advantage to letting them know what Mei Changsu had done.
Prince Yu took one look at Banruo’s expression and knew she had understood his meaning, and said smiling, “It’s said that Bi Gan² has a seven-chambered heart³, but I see that Banruo has more than seven.”
Qin Banruo smiled sweetly and looked neither humble nor proud, her beautiful figure shining under the light like jade, and Prince Yu felt his heart stir, but when he reached for her hand, she stepped aside lightly.
“You are still unwilling?” Xiao Jinghuan said with a small frown.
Qin Banruo said indifferently, “Although Banruo has experienced much, I once swore to my shifu4 that I would not wed in this life, pray Your Highness forgive me.”
Although Prince Yu had fallen for her long ago, he still had some principles and was not willing to force any lady, and also deeply enjoyed Qin Banruo’s wisdom and insight, which helped him collect and analyze much of his information, and so he only controlled his impulse and let out a deep sigh.
Prince Yu’s consort was of high birth, her fathers and brothers were all officials in the court, she had long ago bore children, and she was heavily favoured by the Empress, so even if he himself was captivated by Qin Banruo’s beauty, he had given up the idea of abandoning his wife for her sake, and besides, there was a long future ahead of them, and there was no point to rushing anything now, so he poured a cup of fresh tea for her and said with a smile, “I have been rude.”
Qin Banruo understood everything he had been thinking, and so smiled and continued the previous conversation. “The reason Banruo cannot understand Mei Changsu is because his actions follow no logic. In the matter of the Duke of Qing, he chose to offend Your Highness, but in the matter of the Princess, he chose to offend the Crown Prince, and now with this Lan Manor, the case that has been uncovered implicates both sides. Isn’t it because Your Highness was worried that the name lists would include someone important to us that you sent the Gray Hawk to investigate tonight?”
Prince Yu’s brow furrowed, and he absently raised the cup he had poured for Banruo and drained it, saying dazedly, “Could it be…that he is actually…”
“What?” Qin Banruo raised an eyebrow.
“He is testing me and the Crown Prince?”
Qin Banruo’s heart shuddered, and she sank into deep thought.
“And perhaps also to showcase his own abilities….” As Prince Yu thought, he became more and more certain, and hit the table with his hand. “The thoughts and actions of these great talents are always a bit strange, especially when coming across narrow, petty-minded masters. It is not strange that he would first want to test us. And if the Crown Prince, even knowing that Mei Changsu had destroyed his plans for Princess Nihuang, still persists in his respectful attitude towards Mei Changsu, or even gives up Lou Zhijing as a demonstration of his magnanimity, then I fear even if Mei Changsu’s heart is hardened, he would not fail to be moved…. And if Mei Changsu decides to work for the Crown Prince, he will certainly act quickly, to make up for the wrongs he has done to him so far and to gain his absolute trust, and then, we will naturally bear the brunt of his attack.”
As he spoke, Prince Yu felt more and more uneasy, and finally stood up in a frenzy. “This person’s strategies are truly unlike any other, I definitely cannot let the Crown Prince seize him first.”
Qin Banruo sat down slowly and said pensively, “Then if Your Highness can take Mei Changsu as your subordinate before the Crown Prince can act, are you willing to trust him unconditionally?”
Prince Yu had only been thinking of how to acquire this chief of the Jiangzuo Alliance, and had not put much thought into what to do with him after the fact, and was silent for a moment.
“What would be the benefit in such a talent as this if we do not dare to use him once we have him?” Qin Banruo was exceedingly clever, and after these words, she did not dig deeper but turned away to look at the moon, leaving Prince Yu to his thoughts.
A long while later, the lantern on the desk sputtered, and the smell of burnt oil drifted out. Qin Banruo stood, removed the lantern cover and delicately trimmed the candle, watching Prince Yu out of the corner of her eye.
“If I cannot even tame one Mei Changsu…then what use would it be to talk about grand plans for ruling the kingdom?” Prince Yu seemed not to see her gaze, but his voice rose now. “Banruo, you must watch the Crown Prince’s movements for me, I…must have this Mei Changsu.”
¹in Chinese familial naming conventions, your cousins born of your father’s brothers are called your brothers and sisters (because you share a surname with them)
²the Chinese god of wealth
³it’s part of a legend / folktale, and the meaning is essentially that the person is very wise
4you probably know what shifu means lol (if only from Kung Fu Panda) but it basically means ‘master’ in the sense of teacher and apprentice, not owner and slave. Xia Dong/Qiu/Chun all call Xia Jiang “shifu”, and each other “shi-mei” (apprentice-sister) or “shi-ge” (apprentice-brother)