As the two brothers talked, the door to the outer courtyard opened and Xie Qi came in slowly, so they immediately changed the topic, turning the conversation lightly to idle matters instead. When it was time for dinner, Mistress Zhuo came and led Xiao Jingrui away to the dining room, while Zhuo Qingyao and his wife stayed in their own rooms to eat, because it was still difficult for him to move about.
By this time, Xie Bi and Zhuo Qingyi had arrived home, but Xie Yu and Zhuo Dingfeng were still not back, though no one knew why, and they had only sent word saying not to wait for them, and so at dinner, the only elders in the room were the two mothers, and the atmosphere was even more casual than usual.
Xiao Jingrui was the child most doted on by both mothers, and this became obvious at the dinner table, especially with Mistress Zhuo, who always made sure to keep his bowl filled with his favourite foods. Xie Bi, sitting to one side, grumbled teasingly, “Xie Xu and I are here too, can anyone see us?”
Grand Princess Liyang, always reserved, only looked at him and smiled, but Mistress Zhuo swiftly dropped a chicken leg into his bowl, smiling as she said, “Alright, here’s yours, eat up then. Don’t you young people usually eat like wolves?”
Xiao Jingrui considerately put some food into the bowl of his Third Brother, who had lowered his head and was eating silently, as he turned with a smile to Xie Bi and said, “You are going to be my mum’s son-in-law, so you will soon be much more precious than I – fathers and mothers always favour their sons-in-law over their own sons, just like how Mother always favours Qingyao dage over me.”
For purposes of differentiation, when everyone was together, Xiao Jingrui always called Mistress Zhuo “mum”, and Grand Princess Liyang “mother”, and at his words, Grand Princess Liyang laughed in spite of herself and said, “Qingyao has always been more sensible than you, of course I must favour him more.”
Xie Bi was about to speak, but was kicked subtly by a blushing Zhuo Qingyi, and so he changed the topic, talking about the things they had seen on their outing today, and the room filled with warmth and happiness as the conversation went on.
The quietest person at dinner was Xie Xu, his cool and haughty manner taking after his mother, Grand Princess Liyang. He was meticulous and attentive to detail in everything he did, and even at meals, he concentrated on eating and never spoke much. After dinner, he sat quietly keeping them company for a while, and then bowed to his elders and bade his older siblings a good evening before returning to his room to study, so that even the normally steady and unexcitable Xiao Jingrui wanted to call Yan Yujin over and bring him into Xie Xu’s rooms to stir up a bit of trouble.
“Xu’er is so young, and already keeps such orderly habits,” Mistress Zhuo praised to Grand Princess Liyang, “he will certainly be a great talent in the future.”
The Grand Princess smiled, but there was a hint of sadness in her gaze as she said quietly, “Xu’er loves his studies, but he has always thought too highly of himself, and has not yet realized that there are many people in this world more talented than he, so I fear he will have a hard lesson to learn one day.”
Xiao Jingrui and Xie Bi both thought of the little lesson Xie Xu had already received at the Su manor, and their eyes met, but both silently agreed not to mention it. They sat there talking until the second watch of the night, but Marquis Xie and Zhuo Dingfeng had still not returned to the manor. Xiao Jingrui, worried, escorted his mothers back to their rooms and then immediately ordered for a horse, instructing Xie Bi to wait at home while he prepared to go out to look for them. Just as he was about to ride out the main door, his two fathers returned.
“Why are you wearing your cloak? Are you going out at this time of night?” Xie Yu asked with his eyebrows raised, his tone a little stern.
Xie Bi, who had come to see Xiao Jingrui out, hurriedly explained, “Dage was worried because Father and Uncle Zhuo still hadn’t come back, and wanted to go out to look for you……”
“What’s there to look for? Even if something had really happened to us, what could a child like you do to help?”
“Jingrui is a filial son, Brother Xie, don’t be too harsh on him.” Compared to Xie Yu’s sternness, Zhuo Dingfeng always treated the children with affection, and he patted Xiao Jingrui on the shoulder and said warmly, “Thank you for worrying. It’s late, go to bed.”
Xie Yu appeared to be in a good mood tonight, and he actually smiled as he said, “Brother Zhuo, you always spoil the children.”
Ever since the Crown Prince’s troubles recently, Xie Yu practically never smiled at home anymore, so Xiao Jingrui and Xie Bi were both astonished, wondering what had happened to make him so happy but not daring to ask, and so they could only make silent guesses as they bowed and left quietly.
Early the next morning, the Third Young Master Xie Xu left to return to Songshan Academy. In the afternoon, Grand Princess Liyang decided to return to her Princess’ residence¹ to attend to her greenhouses, and all the women in the manor aside from Xie Qi went along with her. Xie Bi was detained by his work in the manor, and so there was only Xiao Jingrui to accompany them as escort. The greenhouses were bursting with spring flowers – winter daphnes, white Yulan magnolias, jaspers, cherry blossoms, lilacs, azaleas, Chinese redbuds, and cherry-apples all in full bloom. Everyone felt that one day was not enough to admire the beauty of all the spring flora, and so they stayed the night in the Princess’ residence, and spent a second day enjoying the scenery, so that it was almost evening by the time they returned to the manor on the second day.
Because they had spent two entire days amusing themselves, the women were all tired, and Xiao Jingrui only escorted them to the door of the inner courtyard before retiring himself. He went first to the western courtyard to visit Zhuo Qingyao, and then returned to his own rooms, preparing to spend the evening reading quietly.
Who could have predicted that, after only a couple of pages, a familiar voice drifted in from the courtyard, calling his name, sounding very excited.
Xiao Jingrui smiled ruefully and put down his book, then went to the door and invited his friend in, asking, “What’s the news? Come in and sit down before you speak.”
Yan Yujin couldn’t wait to sit, grabbing Xiao Jingrui by the arm and blurting out, “I wasn’t mistaken!”
“Wasn’t mistaken about what?”
“The day before yesterday, when we saw that carriage outside the city, the person inside was He Wenxin, I wasn’t mistaken!”
“Oh?” Xiao Jingrui stared at him. “That means he escaped from prison? ……But wait, if he escaped from prison, why would he be heading back towards the capital?”
“He did escape, but he escaped before the new year, so that day when we saw him, he had been caught and was being taken back to the city!”
“Escaped before the new year? But we never heard any news, and the Ministry of Justice didn’t put out any notices for capture….”
“The Ministry of Justice let him out themselves, of course they didn’t send out notices!” Yan Yujin picked up Xiao Jingrui’s cup of tea and drained it. “Let me tell you, He Wenxin’s father, He Jingzhong, conspired with Qi Min of the Ministry of Justice, and found a substitute who looked like He Wenxin and exchanged him for the real He Wenxin, and then hid him far away. Once the Spring Execution arrived, the substitute was to be killed and buried, and all evidence buried with him, and that rascal was going to live out his life under a new identity far away from the capital!”
“That’s not possible, is it?” Xiao Jingrui’s eyes were wide with shock. “That……that is too treacherous……”
“It does sound extremely reckless, but that Ministry of Justice really did it, and now that you mention it, this Qi Min is really something, I wonder whether he came up with this idea all by himself….”
Xiao Jingrui was puzzling over something, and he crossed his arms as he asked, “Yujin……this all sounds like a very well-hidden secret, how do you know about it?”
“It’s not just me, the whole city knows about this by now!” Yan Yujin gave him a look. “The Spring Execution today unfolded like a play, but you always hide away at home so of course you don’t know anything.”
“You went to the market to watch the Spring Execution?”
“I……I didn’t go either……what’s there to see about people being killed……” Yan Yujin scratched his head, embarrassed. “But my friend went, and he saw the entire thing from start to finish so he told me the whole story……do you want to hear it or not?”
“Yes, something as important as this, of course I do.”
Yan Yujin’s spirits immediately lifted, his smile widening with delight as he said excitedly, “They say that there was a massive crowd at the market, and the Ministry of Justice had deployed every man under its command. The supervising official was Qi Min, of course, and he sat on the lookout tower facing the platform, handing down the red-inked names² one by one, and every time a sheet of paper with a name fell to the ground, a criminal’s head struck the ground as well. So they kept cutting and cutting, and then it was He Wenxin’s turn, and after they verified his identity, Qi Min was about to hand over the blood signature when your dad suddenly shouted, ‘Hold!'”
“Who did you say?” Xiao Jingrui jumped in shock. “My dad?”
“Yes, your dad, Marquis Xie. He was also on the lookout tower, and after he shouted for the executor to stop, he asked Qi Min, “Minister Qi, human life is beyond value, are you sure beyond a doubt that this person is the criminal?” Yan Yujim imitated Xie Yu’s manner, copying him with about seven to eight parts accuracy. “As soon as he asked this, Qi Min’s face paled, but the arrow had been strung and he had no way to turn back, so he could only grit his teeth and declare that he was certain there was no mistake, and shout for the executor to hurry and do his job. Your dad then shouted out, ‘Hold your sword,’ and at that moment, a carriage was escorted to the side of the platform by the Capital Patrol, and several of the soldiers dragged out a person from the carriage, can you guess who it was?”
Xiao Jingrui said, “He Wenxin.”
“That’s right! It was the real He Wenxin. But his father and Qi Min both refused to admit it was him, and insisted that this one was the fake. Your dad just laughed and brought out three more people – the head jailer, the middleman for the substitute, and a woman. The woman started to scream and cry, and then the fake He Wenxin on the platform couldn’t stand it any more and suddenly screamed out that he was not the convicted criminal, and that he didn’t want to die…… Imagine it, the place was filled to bursting with spectators, and all of a sudden, the scene was descending into chaos, and Qi Min looking like he was about to faint. The Earl of Wen also came to watch the execution, and when he saw what the Ministry of Justice had done, he was nearly jumping up and down in fury. He grabbed onto He Jingzhong and Qi Min and refused to let them go, shouting about taking them to see the Emperor. In the end, it was your dad who sent in the Capital Patrol to take control of the scene and prevented it from deteriorating. Later, all the ministers went into the palace, and they’re probably waiting outside Taihe Hall to see the Emperor right now.”
This was truly a tale he had never heard before, and Xiao Jingrui sat in a daze for a few long moments before asking, “Do you really think Minister He and the Ministry of Justice came up with this plot to substitute a criminal on death row?”
“I think it’s true.” Yan Yujin lowered his voice. “Your dad is such a cautious person, without iron-clad evidence, the most he would do would be to present this to the Emperor in confidence, he would not have acted so publicly before such an audience. For the Ministry of Appointments, probably only He Jingzhong will lose his position, but the Ministry of Justice is another story……”
“That’s true, if other similar cases are discovered in the ensuing investigation, Minister Qi’s crime and sentence will be even heavier,” Xiao Jingrui murmured. Suddenly, he remembered how happy his father had been two nights ago. Looking back now, that must have been because they had caught He Wenxin……the Ministries of Appointments and Justice supported Prince Yu, and so this prince who had had so much success recently had received two heavy blows with this one case, and it would likely take him a while to recover…….
“These heads of departments are really so despicable,” Yan Yujin shook his head and sighed. “When did the ministers of the court descend so low? With people like this helping the lords rule the kingdom, can the kingdom really be ruled well?”
Xiao Jingrui lowered his head in deep thought, then suddenly said, “Can you blame the court officials? The root of the problem lies in the lords – if the source is pure, the waters will flow clear, but if the source is corrupted, then the waters will be turbid. In this court, anyone who treats others with sincerity is called naive, and anyone who doesn’t play the game of strategy is seen as childish. With an atmosphere like this, what else can they do?”
At his words, Yan Yujin gaped at him open-mouthed, before finally replying, “You’re full of surprises. I always thought you never paid attention to court politics, but then you come out with something like that. Let me offer you a bow to show my respect and admiration.”
“Quit teasing me,” Xiao Jingrui glared at him. “Those words were not said by me, it is only that I keep thinking……he was right……”
“Who?” Yan Yujin thought for a moment, then asked hesitatingly, “Brother Su?”
“Ng. We travelled thousands of miles together, there was nothing we did not discuss on the road. This is something he said to me late one night by candlelight, after Xie Bi had gone to sleep…..I just don’t understand, if Brother Su has such values and principles, why did he choose Prince Yu?”
“He probably didn’t have much choice?” Yan Yujin shrugged. “Is there much difference between Prince Yu and the Crown Prince?”
Xiao Jingrui nodded, looking a little helpless. “Brother Su once said, when you establish a monarch, you establish a set of morals, and virtuous monarchs and upright ministers are the blessing and fortune of a kingdom. Treat your people with kindness and your ministers with courtesy. Monarchs who are always jealous and suspicious, and who act harshly and mercilessly to their subordinates will never be remembered as worthy rulers by the generations to come. I think Brother Su’s struggle lies in not being able to support a lord with values and morals he can respect……”
Yan Yujin’s gaze flashed and he looked as if he was about to speak, but in the end, he only tapped his fingers against the cover of the teapot on the table, fiddling with it idly, and then suddenly stood up, throwing their previous conversation to the winds as he said abruptly, “Jingrui, the moon is beautiful tonight, come with me to Miaoyin House?”
¹I remember there was an explanation about this somewhere but I don’t remember translating it, so it’s probably somewhere from Chapters 1-26 on Levy’s site (I think it’s really early on, because Xiao Jingrui goes to pick her up from this residence the day after he gets back to the capital with MCS). The gist of it is that Liyang has her own residence as a princess, but after she married Xie Yu, she moved in with him to the Marquis’ residence, and her own residence is kept as a kind of private flower garden with greenhouses and everything, and it’s become a popular attraction in the capital for noble ladies.
²it is a Chinese custom to never write names in red, because you only write names in red-ink when you sentence someone to die (something like that); also called a ‘blood signature’