Prince Yu’s mood was very good these past few days, and ever since he had sent Gray Hawk to confirm that none of his most vital supporters were involved in the ‘corpses in the well’ case, he was preparing to calmly enjoy the show of the Crown Prince’s panic. The Minister of Revenue, Lou Zhijing, was young and vigorous, and managed to acquire vast sums for the Crown Prince through mysterious avenues every year, and was thus a highly valued ‘gold mine’ of the Crown Prince, so now, watching as this treasure chest was about to be destroyed, Prince Yu was so delighted that he often started from his sleep in joy, his cruel laughter ringing out too many times to count.
What he had not expected was that his laughter would soon turn to ashes, as the same trouble was about to descend upon his own head, and although the situation was not as serious, it was still enough to cause him great distress, so that he was no longer in any mood to laugh.
“Your Highness! Your Highness! I’m begging you…the three generations of my family…only have this one heir….” The purple-robed minister kneeling in the receiving pavilion of Prince Yu’s residence, tears flowing freely, was the Minister of Appointments, He Jingzhong, and his son He Wenxin had beaten to death Qiu Zhengping, the son of the Earl of Wen, and afterwards, although he had successfully escaped home under the protection of his servants, he couldn’t hide forever, and the next day, the Capital Magistrate Office sent people over to arrest him. He Jingzhong had relied on his status as a minister of the first rank¹ to refuse them entry, but who would have guessed that this little eighth-ranked constable from the government office would be such a character – he wasn’t ruffled in the least by the refusal, but calmly stood before the gate of the residence with his warrant of arrest, reciting loudly, “By order of the law, I hereby arrest the criminal He Wenxin for the crime of murder at Willow House yesterday night, open your gates!” He stood there repeating himself over and over, and when he grew tired, someone else took his place, and as the crowd before the gates of the residence grew and grew, for fear that soon half the capital would be gathered at his door – which was not only embarrassing but might also bring down imperial attention – He Jingzhong could only submit for now and hand his screaming, crying son over to the officials, fiercely commanding them not to harm his person, and then hurry over to Prince Yu’s residence to plead for help.
The events had taken place at Spiral Market Street, which was where most of Qin Banruo’s subordinates and spies were located, and naturally she was able to quickly gather the details of the case and report them quietly to Prince Yu. As soon as he heard that the murder had taken place in front of numerous witnesses, and there was no shortage of evidence to be produced, Xiao Jinghuan also became distressed, and paced a few times around the room in silence, his brow furrowed and his face full of worry.
“Your Highness,” He Jingzhong saw Prince Yu’s expression and grew even more panicked, and wiped his tears before saying, “Your servant knows I have not taught my son well, and he has indeed brought disaster upon us this time…but pray Your Highness remember your servant’s devotion and loyalty these many years, I am no longer young and only have this one son, who is the pride and joy of my elderly mother, and if anything happened to him, I fear she could not take it…Your Highness, Your Highness…….”
Prince Yu glared at him coldly, wondering if he was worth the trouble, but then, his own interactions with those ministers loyal to himself had always been based on favours and rewards, not to mention that since this He Jingzhong had been made Minister of Appointments, he had guarded his right to appoint and dismiss officials so closely that the Crown Prince had not found any way to intervene, and now seeing him weeping so miserably, it seemed that this worthless son of his was really his weak spot, and Prince Yu couldn’t stand by and do nothing, so he softened his voice and said, “You have truly been too lax in your discipline. In this capital city right under the foot of the Emperor, how can one act so rashly and violently? If he had killed a commoner, so be it, but the victim is the son of an earl, and although he has no place in court at the moment, he still stands in the shadow of his ancestors’ prestige, so the Earl of Wen has the right to take this to court. Even if I tried to protect you then, leaving aside the matter of whether any officials would take my side, the Earl of Wen himself wouldn’t let the matter rest, and if this came before the Emperor himself, no good would come of it for neither you nor me.”
He Jingzhong beat his head on the ground and cried, “Your servant knows I am causing Your Highness great inconvenience, but if it were only a matter of killing a commoner, how would your servant dare to trouble Your Highness? It is because the victim was a member of the Earl of Wen’s household that your servant knows he has no power in this matter and came to beg Your Highness for help. Highness, you know that the Earl of Wen has always been a coward and fears to make trouble, if Your Highness personally appeared to persuade him, I expect he would not dare to refuse….”
“You speak simple words, but is this a simple matter? You love your son, does he not love his? When a man has been incited to such fury, is there anything he will not dare to do?” Prince Yu scolded, and then took a breath. “You need to calm down, they will not sentence him to death the day after his crime, why are you panicking?”
“Your servant is afraid that once the Capital Magistrate Office passes the sentence, the situation will be difficult to recover….”
“The Capital Magistrate Office?” Prince Yu laughed coldly. “You think the Capital Magistrate Office wants to deal with your case? Gao Sheng must be having a terrible headache.”
Prince Yu was not wrong, and if Gao Sheng could hear him now, he would certainly cry out in agreement. First there was the ‘corpses in the well’ case which had so greatly agitated the Crown Prince, and now there was this murder case which implicated one of Prince Yu’s beloved ministers, and if one were to look for the person in the capital with the greatest headache at this moment, it is likely one would have to look no further than this lowly third-ranked official of the Capital Magistrate Office, Gao Sheng.
He Jingzhong wiped his face with his sleeve and took a deep breath. “Your servant was truly too panicked. Perhaps Your Highness does not know, when the capital office sent their men over to make the arrest, they weren’t inclined to give even the slightest bit of face to me or to take any consideration of our feelings, and so I was worried….”
“This is where Gao Sheng is outstanding.” Incredibly, Prince Yu was smiling in admiration. “This case involves you on the one hand and the Earl of Wen on the other, and therefore may be raised to a higher authority at any moment, not to mention that the evidence is clear and obvious without any room for doubt, so he must be decisive and fast in his arrest, because if he delays and you send your son away, the responsibility falls to him, and then how could he answer to the Earl of Wen? Now that he has arrested him, he can take his time and first assess carefully which way the wind is blowing, because if he sentences your son to death, then it doesn’t matter how much he has offended you now, but if he absolves him of all crime, then he has done you a huge favour, and you would no longer care how he offended you when he came to arrest your son. So, don’t think that being a magistrate official in Jinling is any easier than your post of Minister of Appointments.”
He Jingzhong was well-versed in the art of politics, and it was only because he had been so shaken by his son’s arrest that he had failed to make the connection, and now on Prince Yu’s prompting, he immediately understood, and the anger that had arisen as a result of Gao Sheng’s cold actions subsided, and he bowed and said, “Your Highness is truly wise beyond measure, your servant has been foolish.”
“Never mind, you don’t need to try to appease me. Your case is difficult, and at this moment, I cannot think of any solution.” Prince Yu turned and saw that he was about to cry and beg again, and hurriedly waved a hand. “Go pay a visit to Old Master Ji and come up with an idea, and then I will see whether it is feasible.”
He Jingzhong saw that Prince Yu’s tone had softened, and joy rose in his heart as he hurriedly bowed in thanks and then went quickly to the side courtyard, where he found the aforementioned Old Master Ji. As a prince with the ability to compete with the Crown Prince, Xiao Jinghuan naturally had many sources of wisdom and strategy in his possession, and he had mentioned Old Master Ji because this particular gentleman had a background in criminal law and his specialty was dealing with legal matters, so perhaps he might be able to come up with a plan.
After hearing He Jingzhong explain the details of the situation, the two white brows of Old Master Ji furrowed into a woolly spherical shape², and combined with his wrinkled face, his appearance was decidedly comical, but He Jingzhong was in no mood to pay attention to anyone’s appearance at the moment, and only gazed at him anxiously, and the tighter the woolly sphere became, the greater the fear in his heart grew.
After enough time had passed to brew a pot of tea, Old Master Ji let out a long sigh. “This disaster that your son has wrought is truly no small matter….”
“This I know,” He Jingzhong said impatiently. “But even if I were to discipline him, it must wait until this matter has been resolved!”
Old Master Ji stroked his beard and said slowly, “My advice is to let the Capital Magistrate Office first pass their sentence….”
“What?” He Jingzhong immediately leapt to his feet.
“Minister He, please be calm.” Old Master Ji reached out a hand. “First listen to my explanation.”
He Jingzhong calmed himself and said, “Please continue.”
“Firstly, although the Capital Magistrate Office is responsible for the law and order of our royal capital, it is still only a local office, and cannot afford to offend either you or the Earl of Wen. It is true that Gao Sheng would not dare to find your son guilty, but to find him innocent, would Gao Sheng dare to single-handedly bear this responsibility? If he delays in his management of this case because he is afraid to offend either side, then the person who will suffer is your son. So, you must yield the first step and give Gao Sheng a way out of his dilemma – let him conclude the case, and do not pressure him to change his verdict, but let him find your son guilty of murder.”
“Minister, do not be afraid, a sentence passed by the Capital Magistrate Office is nothing to fear, what we must fear is a case with an ironclad conclusion. Once you have yielded a step, Gao Sheng must naturally reciprocate, and although the case has been deemed a murder case, the evidence within the case can be muddled a bit, and the witness statements can be made inconsistent, and anyway the Earl of Wen will only know that the Capital Magistrate Office has judged this to be a murder, but not the details of the evidence itself, and so since Gao Sheng can gain your approval on the one hand, and will not offend the Earl of Wen on the other, he will certainly not refuse this.” Old Master Ji gave a sly smile. “Minister, think about it, once the Capital Magistrate Office has passed a sentence of murder, what will happen next?”
“The Ministry of Justice….”
“Correct. He must report it to the Ministry of Justice.” Old Master Ji knocked his fingers against his desk, speaking in utter contentment. “This case cannot be concluded in the hands of the Capital Magistrate Office. Firstly, he would not dare, and secondly, his status is too low and he could not bear the responsibility. But the Ministry of Justice is different, their power is far greater, and most importantly, it is Prince Yu’s backyard, and so would Minister Qi not work even harder than Gao Sheng in this matter?”
He Jingzhong suddenly understood, and struck his thigh with one hand while saying admiringly, “Old Master Ji is wise indeed!”
“Although this case involves people of importance, in the end, only one person died, and it is just an ordinary criminal case, and so no matter how hard Minister Qi works, he still has no reason to raise the case to the Ministry of Justice, and thus he can only wait for the Capital Magistrate Office to report it themselves. If they report a case with an ironclad conclusion with evidence piling up like a mountain, then there would truly be no hope, but if the evidence and witness statements are found to have errors and inconsistencies, then the Ministry of Justice would have more than enough reason to re-open the case, and then our room for maneuvering will have grown drastically, and once your son has been transferred over, he will certainly suffer less as well, don’t you think so?”
He Jingzhong said with deep gratitude, “The old master’s plan is truly miraculous, I will go to His Highness and ask him to speak to Minister Qi. But, as for Gao Sheng….”
“You do not need to worry. Officer Gao has long since been completely absorbed by the ‘corpses in the well’ case, and he will definitely be eager to pass your bombshell to someone else.” Old Master Ji smiled. “His current master is my old friend, it will be no trouble for me to make a visit on your behalf….”
He Jingzhong hurriedly bowed. “I have troubled the Old Master. If all you say comes to pass, I will certainly repay you with rich gratitude.”
“We are all working for His Highness, there’s no need to be polite.” After these words, Old Master Ji rose to see his guest out. Because He Jingzhong was Prince Yu’s beloved confidante, he did not dare to delay, but sorted out a few matters and then ordered for a small litter to be prepared and departed for the Capital Government Office.
¹the ranks of the ministers and officials of the court range from first rank (highest) to at least eighth rank, and probably more.
²yes, I’m translating it literally