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Chapter 177 : Xia Family’s Downfall
Qi Feng shook his head when he heard her question. By this point, even the Jinyi Guards had completely cast him aside, their military advisor, to the back of their minds and were wholeheartedly committed to Jiang Ruan and fulfilling her tasks. Just like when they had not given him so much as an inkling as to what they were doing after Jiang Ruan had Jin Er select a few secret guards to infiltrate Xia Jun’s posse of men to instigate a clash with the city garrison guards. If Qi Feng had known earlier about Jiang Ruan’s plan, most likely he would have prevented it from happening. He was used to having a full grasp and complete understanding of the whole stratagem, whereas Jiang Ruan’s strategies were like interconnecting links with high risk. To even concoct such an audacious plan, even in retrospect, Qi Feng could not help feeling an overwhelming sense of disbelief and shock. And now she was even asking if he knew the whereabouts of those eight hundred wagons of military provisions. Qi Feng was absolutely flabbergasted. In all honesty, he too was unsure about the whereabouts of those wagons because this was no small number and Xuan Li could not have been able to dispatch them out of the capital so swiftly. As for storing them at another location, the capital was only so big, and if there was an investigation, it would only be a matter of time before they were found. So how could Xuan Li be so stupid as to hold on to such incriminating evidence?
“Eight hundred is not a small number,” Jiang Ruan languidly continued, “Many years ago, Xuan Li dug a secret pa.s.sageway that extends out about 500 meters from the capital. There, he has arranged his own relay station to help him dispatch the provisions out to other places. If I am not wrong, my guess would be that the military provisions are currently sitting there.”
All of a sudden, Qi Feng hastily stood up, unable to hide the shock in his eyes, “What did you say?!”
He was well aware that Xuan Li had his own relay station just outside of the capital and a few years back the Jinyi Guards found out about this place through their investigation. But there was not a whiff of this secret pa.s.sageway and yet Jiang Ruan had spoken resolutely as if it was a known fact. At this juncture, Qi Feng’s heart became ever more suspicious. He glared pointedly at Jiang Ruan, “Is what you’ve said true?”
 斩钉截铁 (zhǎndīngjiétiě) – lit. to chop the nail and slice the iron (idiom); fig. resolute and decisive / unhesitating / categorical.
“Absolutely, and if you do not believe me, you can have your own men go investigate.” Jiang Ruan replied.
“How did you come by this information?” Qi Feng doggedly pursued his line of questions, “The Jinyi Guards and Bai Zhang Lou don’t even know about this. Third Sister-in-law, please do not deceive me, but what is your relations.h.i.+p with Xuan Li? If there really is a secret pa.s.sageway, then why hasn’t there ever been any hint of such a place? Even if Xuan Li was able to keep everything under wraps, there is still no way to not leave any trace.”
“There is not a trace because he has never used it.” Contrary to Qi Feng’s anxiousness, Jiang Ruan remained completely unperturbed, to the point that she could be described as tranquil. Her smile was shallow, yet every word she said was like a hammer forcibly battering Qi Feng’s heart. She continued, “The secret pa.s.sageway has been there for many years but back then it was a mining tunnel abandoned by a wealthy merchant. When Xuan Li found out about it, he had the tunnel enlarged and extended out beyond the city but he has never used it before as it is just a backup plan. It is there for the day when it can be used to aid his grand ambition, and as it so happens, it has come into use earlier than expected.” Jiang Ruan gave a halfhearted smile as she looked at Qi Feng, “As for your question regarding how I have come about this information, sadly I am unable to tell you. However, Young Master Qi, you can be rest a.s.sured that now that I have entered the Jinying w.a.n.gfu, from this day forth, I will protect the Jinying w.a.n.gfu with my life and will not do anything that would cause harm to the w.a.n.gfu. Since you and I are on the same side, why should you be anxious?”
 未雨绸缪 (wèiyǔchóumóu) – lit. before it rains, bind around with silk (idiom, from ‘Book of Songs’); fig. to plan ahead / to prepare for a rainy day.
Qi Feng was utterly shocked by Jiang Ruan’s remarks. She had repeatedly stated that she had a firm grasp on Xuan Li, and what’s more, her understanding and knowledge concerning Xuan Li was far beyond what the Jinyi Guards were ever able to discover. It was difficult for one to not feel suspicious about her true ident.i.ty. But then again, from all appearances, Jiang Ruan seemed to show a great animosity towards Xuan Li and almost at once Qi Feng had an epiphany- as long as Jiang Ruan was alive, she would use whatever possible means she had to prevent Xuan Li from achieving his goal. As for Xuan Li’s grand ambition, it would never be able to come to pa.s.s.
This young lady’s thoughts were tactful and exquisite, her strategies were able to raise anyone’s hackles, her appearance was beautiful and alluring, but her heart was desolate; as if nothing could capture her eyes and nothing was able to make her alter her expression. There was such an aura of mystery around her that a person couldn’t help but be attracted to her.
Jiang Ruan didn’t notice Qi Feng’s gaze as her thoughts wandered to that faraway place. In her previous life, Xuan Li’s secret pa.s.sageway had not been made use of this early in time. Back then, it was almost time for him to seize the throne, as the Crown Prince had already died, and Fifth Prince had been imprisoned. His grand ambition to rule the world was imminent, and that was when he had made use of the secret pa.s.sageway to disseminate information out of the palace. This pa.s.sageway was a very valuable bargaining chip, and for a person who prided himself on being someone who always planned for a rainy day, he would always leave a way out for himself. This was his trump card. At that time, Jiang Ruan had accidently stumbled upon the secret, and that was also the first time that Xuan Li had directed his fury at her. It was only after she apologized profusely and repeatedly vowed to not say a word about it to anyone that made Xuan Li finally forgive her. It was just that shortly thereafter, he sent two new servants to her palace. Initially she had thought that Xuan Li was being considerate and wanted to pamper her, but in hindsight, those two servants were sent by Xuan Li to keep an eye on her. Xuan Li was a highly suspicious person, and he never wanted anyone to know about his trump card, so the fact that he had not silenced her immediately but allowed her to live was already an act of benevolence. However, when she thought about it, she could not help feeling the irony that everything was a mockery.
Qi Feng was perceptive enough to note the change in Jiang Ruan’s eyes that showed ridicule and self-loathing, along with a profound sliver of iciness. After composing himself, he continued, “So that’s the case. No one would have thought that he would actually hide the military provisions in a secret pa.s.sageway.”
“That’s right.” Jiang Ruan collected herself and slowly lowered her head, “He has to protect this pa.s.sage, so he will never lend a hand to help the Xia family. Once the truth is exposed that the fire only burned moldy provisions and that the original military provisions were still around, he would not be able to keep his secret any longer. Moreover, if it were exposed, the Emperor would naturally know that he has an intention to rebel. As such, he will not take a risk and gamble. He will not come to their rescue, as his self-preservation comes first. Thus, he has to sacrifice the Xia family.”
Qi Feng suddenly came to a realization.
Presently, everyone in the capital was focused on those provisions. However, should Xuan Li come up with some plan to explain to the Emperor that this was all a misunderstanding, and that what Xia Jun and Jiang Chao had incinerated were moldy provisions, how would he explain where the original military provisions had gone? With so many eyes on this matter, it was almost impossible to have those missing military wagons brought back. And once Xuan Li’s secret pa.s.sageway was revealed, the Emperor would become aware of his treasonous intention, and he would definitely suppress him. By then, this grand ambition of Xuan Li would come to an end.
He could not lend a helping hand. Therefore he had to avoid any involvement in order to protect his secret, which meant that he must sacrifice the Xia family even if the influence of the Xia’s was something he needed. As a consequence, all of the effort that Xuan Li had put in all these years had been in vain. Qi Feng wanted to laugh as this move of Jiang Ruan was extremely ruthless. Xuan Li was presently caught in a position where he could neither move forward nor retreat, and whichever move he made, he would still suffer a great loss. Most likely he was now jumping up and down in a fit of anger.
“So what should we do now? Do we find a way to let the Emperor know of Xuan Li’s secret pa.s.sageway?” Qi Feng asked.
“If we expose this now, Xuan Li will be able to come up with a hundred and one reasons to refute that he had anything to do with it. Moreover, if this was made known, and should the Emperor investigate further, it would inevitably implicate the Jinying w.a.n.gfu. The position of the Jinying w.a.n.gfu is already quite precarious within the imperial court and should it be implicated in this matter, it would cause more harm than benefits.” Jiang Ruan explained, “The most important thing is..”
“Then what should we do?” Qi Feng noted that she had irrefutably dismissed his suggestion, so he was sure that she must have already come up with another plan. He pressed on, “Does Third Sister-in-law have a better idea?”
“I have said it before, this time I want them to suffer a great loss, yet be unable to commiserate and seek redress.” A trace of hostility flashed across her eyes, “Xiao Shao still has urgent need for those eight hundred wagons of military provisions. I actually have to thank Xuan Li for having those provisions in place and ready to deploy because I want that batch of military provisions!”
“You…” Qi Feng looked at her in disbelief, and in a split second, he suddenly burst out laughing. His laughter was carefree and between his laughs he interjected, “Third Sister-in-law, you have such a delightful straightforward disposition, and show great audacity. Your ideas are even more amazing. If I were Xuan Li, after all of this is successfully accomplished, I would be so furious that I would not be able to get out of bed. You truly are… formidable!”
Jiang Ruan chose not to make any further comments, and just then, Lu Zhu pushed open the door and walked in. Seeing that Qi Feng was there, she curtsied before going forward to deliver a letter. In a soft whisper, she said, “Miss, Master has sent a letter.”
Jiang Ruan took it and did not seem to mind at all that Qi Feng was present. Without even asking to be excused, she took out the letter and quickly perused its contents. After she had finished reading, she did not show any change in expression before handing the letter back to Lu Zhu, “Take it and burn it.”
Without further ado, Lu Zhu went out, while Qi Feng looked at her, “Third Sister-in-law, did something happen?”
“It’s nothing. It’s just that my father feels that since Second Brother has been thrown into prison, as his younger sister, I need to do my part and help rescue him.” Her words did not indicate any sarcasm. However, the contents of what was said felt very brusque in Qi Feng’s ears and he felt compelled to ask, “What kind of logic is that? As a father, even if it was to speak on behalf of Jiang Chao, still it should not be you who goes and makes the plea. You’re still a boudoir young lady, how can you be involved in such matters? Has Jiang Quan gone crazy?”
“He is merely naive, that’s all.” Jiang Ruan scoffed, “Save him? I only want to watch him walk step by step to the point of no return. He has lived long enough, and this time, I want his life.”
* * *
In Nan Hua Yuan, the Emperor waved his hands and the eunuch who was about to announce his arrival held his tongue. Eunuch Li herded everyone away. Once the Emperor stepped through the door, he immediately spotted the young man who was practicing calligraphy in the room.
To say that he was a young man would be a tad premature as he looked in fact more like a child. He was gifted with an exceptional grace, and everytime he looked at him, he seemed to be even more steadfast and earnest when compared to the last time. The Emperor took quiet light steps and when he had gotten closer, he was able to see what the child was writing on the snow-white sheet of writing paper:
The love and desire of man is like grasping a torch and walking against a headwind, inevitably he will suffer the misfortune of burning his own hand.
His penmans.h.i.+p was pretty good and as graceful as he was- with no noticeable sharp edges- but this did not mean that the young man was really as harmless as his writing. In reality, everyone has a certain temperament, and it can be seen and observed from an early age through their penmans.h.i.+p. However, in regards to this young man, his intentions were totally unclear.
The Emperor looked about his surroundings and recalled the moment when Eunuch Li reported back to him that the side hall where Xuan Pei lived was the most remote in the palace, and was not even comparable to the private residence of a seventh-rank official. Later, he took over the residence of Fourth Prince and bestowed Nan Hua Yuan upon Xuan Pei. Back then, Fourth Prince had received the Emperor’s favor and if it were not for the incident that had occurred, he could never have imagined this present outcome. This recent maneuver of the Emperor had attracted a lot of speculation within the imperial court and those with some degree of intuition began to investigate this little to unknown Thirteenth Prince who looked to be without any influential backing.
Even though he had now received the Emperor’s favor, Xuan Pei lacked the strength of an influential maternal family, thus, he wasn’t favorably looked upon by those within the palace. Nevertheless, looking at how well maintained and managed Nan Hua Yuan was, with its decorations meticulous and detailed without being extravagant and ostentatious was sufficient enough to suggest that Xuan Pei was someone who had the means and was a person with sound judgment and decisiveness. The Emperor looked at this not quite cared for son of his, and an unexpected complex and unsettling feeling arose in his heart.
Xuan Pei seemed to have sensed his presence, but when he turned back to look, he had to quickly recover from his mild surprise to pay his respect, “This son greets Imperial Father.”
“You may be excused.” The Emperor waved his hands, “Zhen has come to see you.”
There was an undisguised tiredness that could be seen on his brows. Such a major incident had happened in the capital, that is, Jiang Chao and Xia Jun’s burning of the granary, which had incensed the ma.s.ses, and needless to say this had also angered the Emperor beyond words. What was even more vexing was the Xia family’s obvious disdain and disregard for the Emperor and his authority, so much so that the Xia family’s private army would dare to engage and retaliate against the city garrison army. The sheer audacity was beyond description. Xia Cheng had come initially to plead for leniency but was immediately thrown into prison by the Emperor. While it might seem that the Emperor had acted impulsively, the Xia family had offended and angered the nation, and if he had not apprehended them then it would be very hard to pacify the anger and upheaval of the people. Moreover, this country still belonged to his Xuan family, therefore, why was it up to the Xia family to gesticulate and give suggestions. As an emperor, it was necessary for everyone to know that if he wanted to squash a Xia family, it was as easy as flattening an ant.
Over the years, he had been well aware that the Xia family was secretly becoming restless, but he had turned a blind eye so as to keep a sense of equilibrium. But from the looks of things, it was evident that some actions shouldn’t be tolerated. The Xia family had taken the initiative to remove this layer of subterfuge, and so naturally he would do his utmost to suppress them.
Having to deal with the Xia family wasn’t the biggest concern for the Emperor, however. The most worrying issue was the matter of the military provisions and funds. As it was, the war had put a lot of strain on the treasury, and it wasn’t too long ago that they had a drive to gather provisions from the common folks. Consequently, if they were to push for another round, how could they appease the ma.s.ses. With his deep thoughts, the Emperor once again knitted his brows.
Seeing this, Xuan Pei thought for a while, then said, “Imperial Father, are you worrying about those provisions?”
The Emperor suddenly looked towards Xuan Pei. At times, this son’s intuition was highly perceptive, especially considering that he was so young of age, so how was it possible to feel as though he was facing a mature young man? Slowly he replied, “Thirteenth Prince, what are your thoughts regarding this matter?”
“The Xia family has been disrespectful, and has committed a great sin, so naturally it is up to Imperial Father to administer justice.” Xuan Pei gently avoided the main question, “To my thinking, the most pressing of all of the current issues is not about the Xia family or their punishment, but rather it is a question of the urgently needed provisions at the border.”
If he had earlier suspected that Thirteenth Prince might have had other intentions, hearing Xuan Pei’s words were sufficient enough to allay all misgivings. He did not bring up or make an issue about the Xia family’s guilt but rather he addressed the situation about the military provisions. Based on a person’s position and standpoint, one would consider what is beneficial to his cause and naturally emphasize and focus on that particular issue. Take Xuan Hua for example, when he was made aware of the situation, all his court submissions were about the Xia family and the nature of their offense, without any regard or consideration for the tense situation of the war. Xuan Pei, on the other hand, was able to set aside his own interests and benefits to take into account this point. It was possible that this was because he was still young in age, or possibly because he possessed an apt.i.tude for the art of politics.
The Emperor’s gaze softened and his manner of speech relaxed and became more gentle. It was almost as if he was really an ordinary father speaking with his son, with the intention to a.s.sess and test his child about his homework. He said, “That’s right, with all the military provision reduced to smoldering ashes, our soldiers now have nothing to eat, so what are your thoughts on this?
“The soldiers of the Great Jin dynasty are risking their heads and pouring out their blood to help Imperial Father defend and protect our country, but now they have been deceived by their very own people. The Xia family has disappointed and let them down, but the royal family cannot do likewise, otherwise who will step forth to protect and defend our land?” There was a slight undertone of childishness in Xuan Pei’s manner of speech but his gaze was steady, “However, if we were to continue making demands for more grain without any care for the lives of the common people, this would also incite unrest. But then again, the national treasury is unable to provide a huge amount of money to buy new provisions, so we will have to look at other places to get what we need.” Xuan Pei lifted his head to look at the Emperor. His eyes were naturally beautiful and at this moment, as if he had thought of some brilliant idea, his eyes were s.h.i.+ning, causing the beholder to melt. Like a child presenting his treasures, he said with a smile, “This son thinks that Imperial Father can raid the Xia fu and seize their wealth. Since the Xia family has stood strong in the Great Jin dynasty for so many years, naturally they must have ama.s.sed lots of silver. Therefore, if we seize all of the silver from the Xia family, and then seek out merchants to buy new rations, we can reorganize a new batch of military provisions to be dispatched without further ado. As for the Xia family, who have been officials in the court for many years, Imperial Father can spare them the death penalty and banish them instead as a form of punishment. This in turn will give them a chance to atone for their crimes through this meritorious deed and also show Imperial Father’s benevolence. What does Imperial Father think?”
The Emperor was silent for a while, not speaking at all, yet concealed the deep inflection in his eyes. This idea of Xuan Pei was something he had also considered but at that time he was still unable to make an executive decision. However, hearing Xuan Pei’s discourse enabled his heart to make a final decision. It was just that…. He looked at Xuan Pei and saw Xuan Pei looking back at him filled with hope, almost as if he was waiting for his father to praise him for being a good child. Slowly he reached out his hand and patted Xuan Pei’s head. Immediately Xuan Pei’s body stiffened as if he was not used to such intimate contact, but he stood still. The Emperor sighed, “You have spoken well. Zhen feels that this suggestion of yours is not bad at all.”
The Xia family’s influence in the imperial court was too far reaching, and it would indeed scare the snakes and cause unnecessary troubles if they were wiped out all at once. Thus, Xuan Pei’s suggestion was acceptable. This would demonstrate the benevolence and kindness of the royal family, and would not alarm the other factions. At the same time, it would give the Xia family a reprise from being overtly oppressed. Over the years, the Xia family would have ama.s.sed countless wealth sufficient enough to secure and provide for a new batch of military provisions.
The Emperor was highly impressed with Xuan Pei’s political ac.u.men at such a young age. Although his ideas on this matter weren’t completely comprehensive and developed, even with a few loopholes the overall trajectory of his plans were good and in the right place. From the point of view of a child, this was exceptionally good.
He continued conversing with Xuan Pei for a while longer before leaving in a hurry. With the Emperor’s departure, Xuan Pei stretched his body as he looked at the words spread out on the desk before instructing the young eunuch attending at the side to take the calligraphy and throw it away. He then took a seat as his hands played with a paperweight and smiled.
Xia family…. Your end is near.
* * *
Within the capital, the burning of the granary had erupted into a huge sensational controversy affecting the imperial court to the common folks, yet without waiting for the court officials to discuss and come to a decision, the Emperor’s edict was suddenly announced. The first order was to send Zhao Yi, the eldest grandson of the Zhao family, to lead troops to seize and secure the Xia fu, confiscating all the silver from Xia fu for the state treasury to then be redirected towards obtaining new military provisions. Also, there were one hundred and eighty-three people in Xia fu, all of whom were to be exiled. Likewise, Jiang Chao and Xia Jun were also exiled to the desolate lands in the northwest.
Even after committing such a huge blunder, and even though the Emperor’s edict had been swift and decisive, it had not demanded for the lives of the Xia family. From this the people saw the benevolence of the royal family. However, from the Emperor’s reaction and decision, the court officials sensed a profound and significant s.h.i.+ft and they didn’t dare to act rashly for a while.
Jiang Ruan was in her house having tea when she received the news. Upon hearing the information, she was slightly shocked, and whispered to herself, “How did it happen so quickly?”
Just as she was pondering, she saw Qi Feng rus.h.i.+ng in from outside. Because he had been recently dealing with the Xia family, he would frequently come here to discuss matters with Jiang Ruan. Today, his demeanor was very solemn, yet embodied in his solemness was a small degree of glee. “Third Sister-in-law, the matter has been completed.”
“This time it has been exhausting and tough on you.” Jiang Ruan smiled, “Your a.s.sistance facilitated the smooth execution of this matter and its success.”
“I was just about to inform you about this,” Qi Feng quietly said as he surveyed the surroundings before shaking his head, “Regarding this matter, I never got around to initiating my plans, and it wasn’t me who whispered any suggestion before the Emperor. My people had not even begun, and so the person who was the catalyst for the Emperor’s edict was someone else.”
Jiang Ruan knitted her brows, “Who was it?”
“Thirteenth Prince.” Qi Feng was also curious, “From what I heard, the Emperor visited Thirteenth Prince’s palace and when he came out, he went directly to the imperial study to draft the decree. I believe that he must have heard something while he was with Thirteenth Prince and then came to a decision.”
The teacup in Jiang Ruan’s hand trembled, and some tea spilled out. Qi Feng was taken aback by her sudden movement, “What’s wrong Third Sister-in-law?”
Jiang Ruan lowered her eyes. Why would Xuan Pei suddenly become involved in this matter? Presently he was safe in this lifetime, and was merely a naive child. However, since the time in the palace when he made an appearance, she had felt that something was amiss, and now he was even able to antic.i.p.ate and influence the Emperor’s actions. She had gone out of her way to ignore any news regarding Xuan Pei, wholeheartedly wanting to prevent bringing any trouble to him. However, upon thinking about it, things had been rather peculiar, almost as if without her knowing, she was missing out on a very important factor. Suddenly an audacious and preposterous thought appeared in her mind… Could it be….
Xuan Pei seemed to be in one accord with her, almost to the point that with this incident, he had helped pave the way for her plans. And his aid had unwittingly given the Xia family a fatal blow, and if it was because of the reason she had surmised, then nothing was impossible.
Qi Feng closely observed her, not for a moment missing the minute expression that crossed her face. However, it flashed past quickly as Jiang Ruan lifted her head and smiled, “Regardless, we have obtained our desired outcome.”
Qi Feng felt a sense of regret that he was unable to unravel Jiang Ruan’s thoughts, but he was well aware that this young lady before him was not one to wear her emotions on her face. So in relief, he replied, “That’s right, I am sure that this time, the Xia family will not be able to escape from this calamity.”
Lian Qiao, who was sitting to the side sewing, was mystified by what was said, “Miss, what do you mean? His Majesty did not sentence the Xia family to the death penalty, so obviously that is letting them off easy.” When Lian Qiao had initially heard the news, she was indignant. In her opinion, the Xia family had exchanged the military provisions with an intent to frame the Jinyi Guard. This was truly reprehensible. Even if they were to die ten times over, it was still not enough.
“It’s because we don’t want to leave behind any traces that can lead back to us, so we did not take action.” Qi Feng laughed as he helped explain on Jiang Ruan’s behalf. “Not to worry though, there is no need for us to take action as naturally there will be someone who will want to take the lives of the Xia family.”
The Xia family had been involved in the imperial court for many years, and while it was indisputable that they had a lot of connections within the court, they had also made many enemies over time. For example the people from Fifth Prince’s faction- they would obviously hate them with a vengeance. On the way to exile, there are high mountains and long rivers, so for them to arrive safely in the northwest desolate land, that in itself was challenging. Therefore, they were confident that within three days, the entire Xia family would undoubtedly die.