Of the three pleasures houses on Spiral Market Street, Miaoyin House and Willow House had longer histories, but the fame and reputation of the newer Crimson Sleeve House was spreading quickly.
This was because the music of Miaoyin House and the dances of Willow House appealed to those with specific tastes, but Crimson Sleeve House’s selling point – beauty – was of a rather more universal appeal.
In this world, there may be men who do not appreciate music or dance, but there are none who do not appreciate beautiful women.
The ladies of Crimson Sleeve House had always been famed for their beauty, and if you grabbed one at random, even if she could not sing or dance or recite poetry or draw or debate or converse with particular intelligence, at the very least, she would certainly be beautiful.
Beautiful, gentle, and never putting on airs – these were the characteristics of the ladies of Crimson Sleeve House. If Miaoyin House’s Miss Gong Yu had shut the door in your face, or if you didn’t want to wait in line at Willow House for the privilege of a day in the company of the ladies Xinyang and Xinliu, then you could come to Crimson Sleeve House for consolation.
The ladies here did not put on strange, arrogant airs, and never put any guest out of their door, so long as you could pay, of course.
Beautiful ladies are naturally expensive – and the more beautiful, the more expensive. But Jinling has never lacked for those with more money than they knew how to spend.
The mysterious and beautiful Qin Banruo, one of the most trusted and reliable members of Prince Yu’s household, was the owner of Crimson Sleeve House. But she herself was not involved in the affairs that went on in Crimson Sleeve House, and only served as its owner.
Although she too had beauty enough to break any man’s heart, Qin Banruo had never openly shown her face at Crimson Sleeve House, and no more than three people in Jinling knew that she was in fact the true owner of this entertainment house.
Aside from the money that rolled in, the Crimson Sleeve House brought Qin Banruo another rich source of income – intelligence.
People were always at their most relaxed when enjoying entertainments of this sort, and their tongues were naturally loose as well, and so with a little bit of skill, many things could be learned in these moments.
The ladies of Crimson House had all been specially trained, and had been taught how to coax their guests into sharing all manners of secrets, which they then wrote out from memory and reported once a day.
The majority of Qin Banruo’s time was spent in going through these unfiltered reports, over a hundred each day, and sifting out those of use and then focusing on them for further investigation.
But this was not Qin Banruo’s only source of information. Aside from those working in the entertainment industry, Qin Banruo had also specially trained a group of clever young girls and found ways to wed them into the households of court officials, as a source of fresh intelligence regarding persons in the court.
To Prince Yu, the importance of this gorgeous, cunning lady was not inferior to that of any one of the strategists of his household, and of course, he wished in his heart that, in the not too distant future, this beautiful lady could become more than just his strategist.
This time, Qin Banruo had discovered the problem from one of her routine reports.
One of the guests had been teasing one of the ladies when he said casually, “The purpose of coming out to places like this is to enjoy oneself, and if one lady is occupied, then we can find another, there is no need to become so fixed on one apple on the tree. Look at that He Wenxin, getting into a fight over a girl, what is he pretending at? Even Miss Xinliu is not worth the price of his life, and he actually thought he could escape a death sentence because of his father, what arrogance….”
Qin Banruo had instantly been alerted by his words and so had immediately sent someone to investigate this guest, and had found out that he was a senior historian from the household of the Emperor’s imperial brother, Prince Ji, and was well-known for his lecherous ways; he had been at Willow House on the day of the crime, though he had not been at the actual scene.
Qin Banruo’s suspicions had not been put to rest by this, and so she had sent more people over to inquire, and had ended up discovering a frightening fact.
From the information that she had gathered, Qin Banruo realized the gravity of the situation and so immediately went to see Prince Yu.
“You say the Earl of Wen has an important witness within his grasp, and has not used him yet only because he is waiting to see how the Ministry of Justice will proceed?” After hearing only a few words, Prince Yu had raised an eyebrow. “How has he resisted for so long?”
“Because the Earl of Wen has lost all faith in the Ministry of Justice.” Qin Banruo spoke confidently. “From the current situation, the case does not lack for witnesses, and if the Ministry of Justice had even the slightest intention to judge the case fairly, it does not need one more witness to pass the sentence, but if the Ministry of Justice wants to acquit He Wenxin, then even if the Earl of Wen revealed this one witness, it would not change anything, but would rather allow the Ministry of Justice time to prepare a defense.”
Prince Yu nodded slowly. “I see, your meaning is, the Earl of Wen is waiting for the Ministry of Justice to conclude the case, and then, if the outcome is not to his satisfaction, he will bring this witness directly to the Emperor and claim the case was handled wrongly?”
“Would the Emperor believe it?” Prince Yu laughed coldly. “The Earl of Wen thinks the situation is simple, why have you let him convince you as well? The Ministry of Justice’s conclusion will not overlook any detail, so what would be the use of the Earl of Wen dragging one more person before the Emperor?”
Qin Banruo’s delicate brows furrowed. “If it were anyone else, it would be of no use. But the Emperor will listen to this witness.”
Prince Yu saw her solemn expression, and couldn’t help being startled into silence.
“Please forgive Banruo for neglecting her duty, the situation on that day was chaotic, and the witnesses were many, and though I put all my efforts into the investigation, I have overlooked the fact that the Capital Magistrate Office omitted one person when summoning all the eyewitnesses for questioning….” Qin Banruo’s mouth twisted, a small dimple appearing in her cheek, lending her serious expression a hint of charm. “Afterwards, one of the senior historians of Prince Ji’s household was overheard at Crimson Sleeve House making suspicious comments, and so I investigated the matter anew, and discovered that it was not that Capital Magistrate Gao Sheng had made an error and overlooked this person, but that he simply could not summon this person….”
“You keep speaking in circles, who is this witness?”
Prince Yu jumped in fear. “Uncle Prince Ji?”
“Yes, there were two guests in the building where the crime took place, and one of them was Prince Ji. He probably…saw the events unfold with his own eyes….”
“Aiya, that makes things difficult!” Dark clouds seemed to be forming over Prince Yu’s head. “Although Prince Ji stays away from palace affairs, only caring about poetry and music and the like, he has an honest character, and if the Earl of Wen asks, he will certainly speak the truth before the Emperor….”
“That’s right. Perhaps he felt there were already many witnesses and he would not need to step up himself, and so for this reason took his wives with him away to his manor near the hot springs the day after the crime took place. He does not know about the situation with the handling of the case, and has not raised any fuss, and therefore led to our failing to realize that he has been one of the witnesses all along.”
“Ai…” Prince Yu leaned over the table, pinching the bridge of his nose with his fingers, his expression troubled. “Uncle Prince Ji is no easy enemy, and I cannot come to conflict with him over a court official’s son. If the Earl of Wen has truly convinced him to speak to the Emperor, nothing good will come out of it for the Ministry of Justice. It seems…He Wenxin cannot be saved….”
“I have come to the same conclusion, no matter what, we cannot save a little to lose much more.” Because she did not harbour any good feelings towards the spoiled, malicious He Wenxin, Qin Banruo did not feel that this was any great loss. “Even if Minister He is useful, this is merely something his own son has brought upon himself, he cannot expect Your Highness to save him at any cost. If he collapses over the death of a son, then he is not worth the regard Your Highness has given him.”
Prince Yu looked at her and sighed. “I understand what you mean, but He Jingzhong is really still of some use, and this son of his is his pride and joy – it is his only son, what family would not be the same? Of course, you are right as well, what cannot be protected must be sacrificed. I will speak to Qi Min, and tell him to subtly sound out Prince Ji, and if Uncle’s attitude is firm, then he should not force the matter. Since there is no way out, then we must pay for a life with a life.”
“Your Highness is wise.” A smile spread across Qin Banruo’s delicate features.
Prince Yu reached out and grasped the beautiful arm, saying softly, “I am fortunate to have you, nothing escapes your wise gaze. Not long ago, you discovered Xie Yu’s true allegiance, and today, you have stopped the Ministry of Justice from falling into this trap, how shall I reward you for such outstanding work?”
Qin Banruo’s brow flickered and she gently took a step back, drawing her jade-like arm out from Prince Yu’s hand, and then let her fingertips trail across his chest gently, seeming both intentional and casual at once, and replied with a proud smile, “Banruo is a woman, but has always been interested in the romance and wonders of the rise and fall of rulers and lords; however, as I was born a girl, my talent and position are limited, and I cannot enter the picture myself in this lifetime. Now, under Your Highness’ grace and kindness, I can do my part for the future ruler of our kingdom, so my wish has already been fulfilled, and I dare not ask for any more reward.”
“If I ascend to the throne in the future, you will be my most senior minister, and even half of the royal bed can be yours, there is nothing I will not give you.” A hint of teasing crept into Prince Yu’s tone. “I only fear that you would not like it, who can tell?”
Qin Banruo gave a small smile, and was not angered, but also did not continue the conversation, instead bowed and said quietly, “Regarding the matter of Prince Ji, it would be best if Your Highness spoke to Minister Qi soon. Banruo has matters still to deal with back at the house, so I will take my leave.”
The way she kept him at a distance increased the itch in Prince Yu’s heart, and he longed for her tender affection, but he also truly treasured this girl, and so did not want to act rashly, so he only coughed, forcefully suppressing the wild desire in his heart as he watched her leave with glowing eyes.
Very quickly, the Minister of Justice, Qi Min,L received the news from the imperial Yu residence. Originally, he had been discussing with his assistants how best to bribe the witnesses, reword their oral confessions, and alter the appearance of the corpse…. Their work had been almost completed when it was suddenly halted as if a pot of cold water had been thrown over them.
As soon as he heard that Prince Ji was an eyewitness, Qi Min’s head seemed to double in size. Although Prince Yu had meant for him to first try to explore Prince Ji’s stance, Qi Min knew what the stance would be whether he explored it or not. Prince Ji’s frank and straightforward manner was well-known, and even if he wasn’t so straightforward, he still could not perjure himself for the sake of a murderer. Even if the Earl of Wen did not ask anything of him, once the Emperor questioned him, he must speak the truth.
But since Prince Yu had ordered him to explore, then it would not be good for him to not even make an attempt, and so Qi Min took two days of leave and prepared to make a personal visit to Prince Ji’s hillside manor near the hot springs.
Even before he left, Qi Min had already prepared himself for the possibility that he would be making this trip in vain. But he had never thought that this conclusion would be made so early and so quickly.
The reason for the Minister of Justice’s fruitless return was not Prince Ji’s stubborn words; to tell the truth, at the moment Qi Min knew that he had made the journey in vain, he had not even seen Prince Ji yet.
The situation was not complicated, but was quite coincidental.
Huqiu was the holy land of hot springs, and was located deep in the forests of the mountain, and among them, Prince Ji’s courtyard was the largest and the most comfortable. Anyone who was friendly with Prince Ji would choose to stay at his courtyard when they came to Huqiu.
Such as Yan Yujin, who had forged a long and deep friendship with Prince Ji due to their shared appreciation for the romantic and tendency to lead carefree lifestyles.
When the cheerful young master of the Imperial Uncle’s household, the rather depressed first young master of the imperial Ning residence, and the somewhat dismayed second young master of the imperial Ning residence gathered outside his courtyard requesting to visit, Prince Ji immediately and joyfully invited them in.
Though they were of different generations and there was a large gap in their ages, Prince Ji, a born romantic, had kept the confident ease of his youth and so maintained a pleasant relationship with the younger generation, and it was as if there was no distance at all between them.
With the arrival of such vibrant guests, one of them being his favourite little Yujin, Prince Ji was delighted, and entertained his guests with wine and laughter, and when everyone was high in spirits from the drink, naturally there was nothing they did not talk about.
The first topic of conversation fell to the fragrant, powdered faces of the opposite sex. When it came to judging the beauties of the capital, Prince Ji’s insight was on par with that of the master of Langya Hall, and he became increasingly animated as the conversation went on. Yan Yujin also harboured a deep appreciation for the fairer sex, and the lady he admired most was Gong Yu of Miaoyin House, and so as the two talked happily, the conversation turned gradually from Miaoyin House, to Willow House, and then to the murder that had taken place at the latter.
Prince Ji slurred, “I know, I was…was…there….”
Yan Yujin’s eyes widened. “You…you were there? What…what happened?”
Although Prince Ji’s tongue was slurring, his mind was still clear, and not only clear, but aroused, and so when Yan Yujin asked, he immediately began vividly recounting the entire story from beginning to end.
The other two members of his audience didn’t make much difference, but Yan Yujin was a person who made friends easily and loved to gossip, and so the next day, when he went out to visit the other noble courtyards of Huqiu, he inadvertently began spreading Prince Ji’s eyewitness account of the murder case.
And so, when Qi Min arrived at Huqiu, practically all the nobles who had come there for a respite from the capital knew that He Wenxin had committed murder and that Prince Ji had seen the whole thing with his own eyes.
Under these circumstances, further exploring Prince Ji’s stance had become completely meaningless, and the Minister of Justice could only sigh in his heart: Oh Minister He, it is not that I have not tried my best to help you, it is only that your son…has truly terrible luck….
Chapter 52 Translator’s Notes:
Okay, maybe Banruo’s growing on me a little (especially since she dislikes He Wenxim too). But I still feel nothing at all for Prince Yu. Yan Yujin redeemed this chapter for me, tbqh; I otherwise spent it pining for MCS (although you can see his hand “stirring the pot” in this chapter!)