Edited and Proofread by KitKat
Xiao Zhige was right, in less than two days, no one dared to mention the Marquis’s name in public. The New Year was around the corner but the streets were deserted and cold. No more were the lively scenes of people crowding around the storytellers listening to their tales.
The bookstores hid the scripts that were displayed in the front all the way to the back. If it weren’t a regular customer who came to buy, they would not dare to sell.
On Yong Le Lane, a small modest carriage passed by slowly. The Imperial Supervisor sitting inside had a determined smile on his boney face as he carefully put away a paper fold fully filled with words.
The next day, a testimonial account regarding Marquis Wu was presented before the Emperor.
At the same time, the deng wen drum1 of the Imperial Palace sounded. A ragged old woman knelt before the drum and kowtowed repeatedly. Her tears fell as she cried desperately, “The Wu Manor has no regard for human lives. Is there justice under the Emperor’s reign? The Wu Manor has no regard for human lives. Is there justice under the Emperor’s reign…”
The old woman was disheveled and mournful. With each bow, her head hit harshly onto the stone floor. Not long after, the ground was stained with blood from her forehead.
The drumming eventually spread to the palace hall. Emperor An Qing was holding the testimonial fold in his hand and had a look of discontent, “Who is making all that noise?”
“Your Majesty, it’s an old woman.” The person who responded glanced at Marquis Wu and hesitated.
“An old woman?”
“… She’s accusing the Wu Manor of disregarding human lives.”
Emperor An Qing flung his hand and threw the lengthy fold onto the floor and demanded angrily, “Marquis Wu, what do you have to say?”
Marquis Wu frantically stepped out and bowed. Picking up the testimonial fold on the ground, he read the first few lines and immediately knelt down and exclaimed, “Your Majesty, this is a setup. I am being framed!”
Emperor An Qing had always disliked complicated matters. He sat back lazily on the dragon throne and pointed to the Imperial Supervisor, “Minister He, you tell me.”
The Imperial Supervisor stepped forward and bowed. He listed slowly and audibly the sins that the Wu Manor was accused of, “The charges for Marquis Wu’s family are as follows: The Marquis’s brother- murdering and stealing someone else’s wife. The Marquis’s son- unlawful seizing of land. The Marquis’s wife- murdering three women from respectable families…”
Marquis Wu’s face turned whiter with each line the Imperial Supervisor read. By the time he had finished reading, his face was as white as a sheet. With much effort, he calmed himself and insisted, “This is all slander! Even if you held a grudge against me for what happened to my first wife, you can’t make such serious accusations!”
The Imperial Supervisor remained indifferent. He lifted his hem and knelt down, “Your Majesty, everyone knows that my daughter died of illness, why would I hold a grudge against Marquis Wu for that? What’s being written here could all be verified and traced, if the Marquis still can’t accept it then please have the Da Li Court investigate!”
Marquis Wu choked up. He looked around and his eyes, filled with expectation, landed on An Zhi Ke.
At this time, Emperor An Qing also addressed An Zhi Ke, “What does Minister An think?”
An Zhi Ke stepped out and weighed in on the matter, “Right or wrong, it’s best to have the Da Li Court decide.”
“Approved,” Emperor An Qing said, “This matter will be left to the Da Li Court and the Imperial Supervisor will oversee the progress on my behalf.”
“I have received my orders.”
The Da Li Court worked with great efficiency under the supervision of the righteous Imperial Supervisor. In no time, the crimes committed by the people in the Marquis’s house were proven and the three were detained. As for the Marquis, his crime of enabling and covering up for his family would be judged by the Emperor after it was reported.
When the Da Li Court bailiff apprehended the people from the Wu Manor, a large number of people went to watch the excitement. The Marquis could not contain his rage looking at the apathetic Imperial Supervisor. He growled in a low voice, “You should be lenient for future’s sake; it’s unwise to burn all your bridges.”
The Imperial Supervisor gave him a look of contempt, “Marquis Wu thinks that this is the end?”
The Marquis was slightly baffled, “What do you mean?”
The Imperial Supervisor said, “Marquis Wu is the pillar of this family, it won’t fall if you’re still standing.”
Having said those words, he flung his sleeves and left.
The next day, a female corpse was found by the Yejing River. After sending it to be autopsied, the identity of the corpse was revealed to be the widow who had torn up the Wu family. The people were in an uproar. The widow who had abruptly disappeared right after the incident, as it turned out, was already dead.
The head officer from Da Li Court who was about to deliver his report to the Emperor had to rush off to the city court to investigate the woman’s murder. By following the traces before her death, he was able to source out the killer – a man who had the blood of many more victims on his hands.
Under the torturous interrogation of the Da Li Court, the man revealed that he was Marquis Wu’s confidant, tasked with handling his dirty work.
The head officer reported the whole truth to Emperor An Qing, making him furious and demanded severe punishment be passed out.
Marquis Wu was stripped of his title and sentenced to be executed with his brother and wife at noon in the public square. Wu Juan Shu, the son of his concubine, was demoted to become a commoner and would never be permitted to hold a governmental position. All the businesses and properties under the Wu Manor were seized and the remaining family members were evicted from the house…
The storytellers who were previously locked up under the Marquis’s order were released. The chief magistrate who had taken orders from the Marquis was also demoted by three ranks to become a common officer.
With the storytellers back in business, the Wu family’s fall from grace had spread beyond the gates of Yejing and eventually became a famous opera performance.
An Chang Qing sat across Xiao Zhige, snickering away happily while peeling pine nuts. After peeling a full plate, he eagerly passed it to Xiao Zhige, “Thanks to Wangye, there won’t be a turning point for Wu Juan Shu.”
In his original plan, the most that could be accomplished was to give Wu Juan Shu and the Wu family an ugly scandal and nothing more. After all, public opinion tended to sail with the wind. As long as the Marquis still stood, the Wu legacy would live on and Wu Juan Shu would have still been the son of a Marquis.
If Xiao Zhige had not taught him to borrow the Imperial Supervisor’s hand to bring down the Wu family, it would’ve been a very long time before he could avenge this grudge from his previous life.
Xiao Zhige’s eyes carried a smile. He ate one pine nut and passed the plate to An Chang Qing, “You eat.” He then took the plate with unpeeled nuts and continued peeling.
An Chang Qing rested his chin on his hand and gazed at Xiao Zhige. After a while, he moved closer and said, “Can Wangye continue to teach me about warfare?”
After many times being taught by him, An Chang Qing felt that Xiao Zhige was profoundly wise and thoughtful, something that he could not compare to even after two lifetimes. Having such a good teacher as his bedside man, it would be a waste not to learn more.
Being stared at by his bright eyes, Xiao Zhige looked away awkwardly, “I can but military books are long and boring.”
An Chang Qing shook his head, “I don’t mind.”
Xiao Zhige responded with an ‘en’ and got up to retrieve three thick books from the bookshelf, “Read these three first. If there is anything you don’t understand, you can ask me.”
The volumes of books when stacked together were as high as the vase next to it. An Chang Qing’s eyes drooped and he casually flipped through a few pages, “…”
He closed the book sharply and looked at Xiao Zhige, “Can’t Wangye just explain to me?”
Xiao Zhige shook his head, “The art of war is based on the path, not the theory. In warfare, the situation is ever changing. I can offer you advice but you have to figure out for yourself the best solution.”
An Chang Qing pouted with an ‘oh’ and decided to figure it out slowly. He called Anfu to take the books to the main room for him to read later.
The books were incredibly thick. When Anfu tried to wrap his arm around them, he accidentally knocked over the vase on the table, causing two painting scrolls inserted inside to fall spread out on the ground.
An Chang Qing went to pick it up and when he saw its content, he raised his eyebrows and asked dubiously, “Why is this painting with Wangye?”
This was the painting Hu Shifei drew of him in exchange for treating his mother.
His eyes were then drawn to the other scroll. It was also a painting of him but when put together, even An Chang Qing, who had no understanding of the arts, could tell the difference in finesse between the two.
Hu Shifei’s painting was clearly more refined, one could tell that he was quite a seasoned painter. The other painting also had a distinct style but the strokes were too rigid.
An Chang Qing transferred his focus from the two paintings to Xiao Zhige who stood there in silence with a dark cloud looming over him. Anfu was shivering like a quail and dared not squeak.
“Anfu, you can leave now.”
After being with Xiao Zhige this long, An Chang Qing could tell whether he was truly angry or simply trying to hide his embarrassment. He spread out the two paintings on the table and pointed to the other one, “This piece is not bad, it looks better than me.”
“…” Xiao Zhige was still brooding but responded a moment later, “The actual person looks a lot better.”
An Chang Qing was beaming. He said to Xiao Zhige, “I still think this painting looks better. I wonder who drew this? Someone in the manor? An artist?”
Xiao Zhige’s eyes subtly sparkled and he replied, “No.”
“Then who?” An Chang Qing made a curious expression and asked deliberately, “Could it be Wangye who drew this?”
“…” Xiao Zhige did not answer.
An Chang Qing remembered the time when he came back to the study and caught Xiao Zhige trying to hide something in a hurry. It was probably this painting. He leaned in close and blinked at him, “Why did Wangye secretly draw a painting of me? And this painting, wasn’t it the one Hu Shifei drew? Why is Wangye keeping it here?”
Xiao Zhige, “…”
Seeing that Xiao Zhige had remained silent and kept averting his eyes, An Chang Qing put the painting away and spoke to him earnestly, “I like this painting very much, why doesn’t Wangye give it to me? You can draw another one for yourself.”
The man who had been keeping quiet looked at him and finally said, “The painting is not good.”
An Chang Qing smiled, “But I like it.”
Xiao Zhige seemed to find his breath again as he watched An Chang Qing admiring the painting that he drew while Hu Shifei’s had long been put back into the vase.
As though there was a gentle stream of warm water flowing into his heart, Xiao Zhige heard himself say, “If you like it, I will draw another for you.”
In fact, Xiao Zhige was not keen on the arts. The hand that was used to handling weapons all these years was inept when it had to pick up the brush. But every time he looked at the painting Hu Shifei drew, he couldn’t help but think that since his Wangfei was so captivating, he should preserve his beauty in a painting so he could still savor it when they were old and grey.
But for some reason, he simply did not like the idea of having someone else draw his Wangfei. And so he had picked up the brush and began drawing his Wangfei from memory. It was just that his drawing skills were rusty and even after finishing it with painstaking effort, he did not have the confidence to show An Chang Qing his final work.
And yet it was as though his Wangfei could never make him feel disappointed, he took his painting and said that he liked it.
Xiao Zhige only felt a reverberant warmth in his chest.
1↪ 登闻鼓(Dēng wén gǔ) A drum usually placed outside the judicial courtroom in feudal China. Whenever someone had any grievances, they would beat it and have the magistrate mediate.