CH 14: Learning

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The Emperor had spoken suddenly.
This was more shocking than Sealbearer Liu Jie being dragged away by soldiers.
Yang Feng turned around forcefully but it was already too late.

Han Ruzi did not want to sit quietly by the sidelines.
He knew that he was just a puppet, without any authority or power, and no one would comply with his words.
But he still wanted to say something for Liu Jie, because this eunuch had once handed him the Imperial Seal.
Even if it was just political theatre, it should have a proper beginning and end.

“We… wish to know who was the assassin, and why the assassination was carried out.
Sealbearer Liu is a servant of the Imperial Palace, let us question him here.
Your Lordships… also have the right to know the truth.”

It was as though an undercurrent surged through the room.
Gazes were darting around, sleeves were undulating, mouths seemed to begin speaking before being shut… Han Ruzi was nervous but also found the situation comical.
After nobody responded for a time, he sat down and looked down.
“Of course, this is just my… Our ignorant opinion…”

Zuo Ji, who was guarding the door to the side room, leaned in to listen for a moment before announcing loudly, “The Empress Dowager has issued an edict: The Emperor’s words are correct.
Liu Jie shall be questioned here immediately.
The truth must be uncovered.”

Once the Empress Dowager had spoken, nobody raised any opposition.
Everyone was relieved.
Shang-guan Xu summoned a clerk to read out the confession of the assassin’s accomplice.

The clerk was from the Southern Army.
He had never expected to one day speak before the Emperor and the senior officials.
He was deeply nervous and knelt on the ground, his voice constantly trembling, as though he was the one who was the assassin’s accomplice.
“Traitor… Shen Sanhua, forty… forty three years old… From Linzhi of Qi Princedom, height…”

Shang-guan Xu grew impatient.
“Forgo these trivialities.
Just state the contents of his confession.”

“Yes,  yes.” The clerk then continued, “The traitor Shen Sanhua has said, ‘In the Summer of Year 35 of the Zhong-miao era of the Martial Emperor’s reign, Qiu Jizu entered the palace and gave me five taels of fine silver and asked me to take care of him’ — Your Majesty, Your Lordships, Qiu Jizu is the name of the assassin — ‘From then on, Qiu Jizu would send me gifts from time to time.
Over ten years, these gifts amounted to around 340 taels of fine silver.
Following my recommendations, Qiu Jizu has held positions at the Laundry Department, Imperial Stables, and Office of Seals.
On the 15th of this month, Qiu Jizu said to me… said to me…’”

“Speak clearly.
Just say what he said.” Shang-guan Xu said encouragingly.

“Ah? My lord, the traitor Shen Sanhua said ‘said to me’ twice.” The clerk was too nervous, so he had literally “said what he said”.

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Shang-guan Xu’s face reddened.
He bowed to the Emperor and the Grand Consort and said, “The confession is long and tedious.
I suggest that a senior official read out the essential portions.”

The Grand Consort agreed.
“May Chancellor Yin read the confession.”

Yin Wuhai dodderingly received the confession.
He flipped through the pages of confession, his actions seemed stiffed but he actually read through very quickly.
The more than ten pages of confession was quickly read, and his facial expression suddenly changed starkly.
He lifted up his head and looked around, finally looking at the Grand Consort.
He said formally, “The assassin Qiu Jizu told Shen Sanhua that he had infiltrated the Imperial Palace upon orders from the Prince of Qi.
For ten years, all the bribe monies were paid for by the Prince of Qi.
One month ago, he received orders to assassinate the new Emperor and cause chaos within the palace, so that the Prince of Qi can seize the opportunity to rise up in rebellion!”

Once these words were said, the entire room was in shock.
The officials abandoned etiquette and started discussing amongst themselves, talking about the “Prince of Qi”.
Only Han Ruzi was an exception.
After the room had quietened down, he asked, “What does this have to do with Sealbearer Liu Ji? Did he receive bribes from the assassin?”

Chancellor Yin Quhai bowed to the Emperor, before looking towards eunuch Liu Jie.
He said coldly, “The confession does not state whether Liu Jie had received bribes.
But yesterday afternoon, Liu Jie caused such a ruckus in the Hall of Diligent Administration, trying to sow discord between Your Majesty and the Empress Dowager, and then that very night Qiu Jizu performed his assassination attempt.
If he had succeeded, the Empress Dowager would be blamed for regicide, how insidious!”

Liu Jie’s face grew pale as he kept silent.
Many years of experience told him that it would be difficult to avoid death.
He lifted his head proudly, “Qiu Jizu was a menial laborer of the Office of Seals.
If he was truly the assassin, then this subject is guilty of negligence and is willing to die for his sins.
But I bear no ounce of treason in my heart, the sun and the moon may bear witness to my absolute loyalty, Your Majesty…”

Han Ruzi was thinking about how to use his very limited authority to protect Liu Jie, when a commotion began outside.
People were shouting loudly, “Assassin!” The assassin actually appeared during the day — all the officials were shocked.
Shang-guan Xu strode out of the door, resoundingly dispatching commands after commands.

The Grand Consort said to Yang Feng, “Take the Emperor away from here.”

Yang Feng bowed in compliance.
He grabbed the Emperor’s wrist, and pulled him into the western side-room.
Prince Donghai started to follow but stopped.
He realized that this was a Heaven-sent opportunity and walked towards his uncle Cui Hong amidst the chaos.

The western side-room had two people.
One was Meng E, guarding the window; the other was the ugly servant-girl who had protected the Grand Consort at the Ancestral Temple, standing quietly in a corner like a forgotten statue.
The two of them paid no respects to the Emperor, and also totally ignored Yang Feng.

“Will Sealbearer Liu be killed?” Han Ruzi asked.
He also ignored the two servant-girls.

“If Your Majesty continues to stand up for him, Liu Jie was surely die.” Yang Feng said sternly, also ignoring the two.

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It was noisy outside but Han Ruzi was not worried about an assassin.
“I don’t think Liu Jie is a bad person.
He…”

Yang Feng interrupted the Emperor and spoke even more sternly.
“I have said this before.
Those who need protection from Your Majesty, are not worth Your Majesty’s protection.
If Your Majesty wishes to act on whims and fancies, you may do so without consulting my opinion.
If Your Majesty wishes to make farsighted plans for the future, you must use farsighted subordinates.
Liu Jie can be said to be brave for protecting the Imperial Seal alone, but he is not whom Your Majesty needs at the moment.”

Han Ruzi was stumped.
Only after a while did he say, “Will I still have the opportunity to use brave men like Liu Jie?”

“”Do not ask for promises from anyone.” Yang Feng’s tone became more gentle.
“What Your Majesty needs to do is to wait quietly.
If no opportunity arises, nobody can help Your Majesty.
If an opportunity arises, Your Majesty must be able to seize it.”

Han Ruzi turned his head towards Meng E.
“Like her?”

Meng E was adept at waiting, remaining stoic to everything around her.

Yang Feng nodded and was about to turn and leave but Han Ruzi called out.
“Hold on.
Tell me something.”

“Do ask, Your Majesty.”

Han Ruzi kept silent for a while.
Everything he said here would be conveyed to the ears of the Empress Dowager but he had to ask.
“Was there really an assassin? Does Prince Qi truly intend to rebel?”

“If Your Majesty wishes to know the truth, it would be pointless to ask me.
I do not know more than the others.
Your Majesty might wish to think about other matters.
When a neighbor’s house catches fire, those with the ability may carry a bucket to help.
Those without the ability should take care of his own house.
Even plundering the burning house might be a viable option.” Yang Feng paused for a moment.
“It was because of Prince Qi that Your Majesty successfully ascended to the throne.”

Han Ruzi glared in shock.
He did not know what Yang Feng meant.

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“When the previous Emperor passed away, both Your Majesty and Prince Donghai could have ascended.
There was no decision for a number of days.
I went to speak with Cui Hong, then Grand Marshal of the Southern Army.
I told him that there were reports that Prince Qi was mustering an army, intending to rise up in the name of ‘supporting the Imperial Clan and eliminating Imperial In-laws’.[1] If the throne remained vacant, the Imperial Court would be unstable, and the Cui clan would be in trouble.
Cui Hong was therefore convinced to voluntarily hand over the Grand Marshal’s seal of office, allowing Shang-guan Xu to take over as Grand Marshal of the Southern Army.
With her brother’s assistance in the Imperial Court, the Empress Dowager was sufficiently secured to let you ascend to the throne.”

The contents of the backroom deal between the Cui clan and the Empress Dowager was surely more than this, but Han Ruzi did not probe further.
He understood one thing: Yang Feng was one who would plunder a burning house, and the house was currently burning.
“Attendant Yang, do forgive me.
I will no longer act foolishly.”

The Emperor displayed a level of self-awareness unusual for his age, and that was what Yang Feng admired.
“It is not yet time for Your Majesty to take action.
Let me carve a path for Your Majesty.”

Han Ruzi agreed, faintly feeling like the two of them had made a deal.

Yang Feng was like a busy broker, going back and forth between various factions and stakeholders, helping each side achieve compromise with one another.
Han Ruzi was a little puzzled.
Yang Feng had gone to such lengths to get himself involved, yet what was his aim?

The door opened, and a reluctant Prince Donghai walked in.
“The assassin has committed suicide, leaving no further evidence.
How convenient…” He saw Meng E and the other servant-girl, and quickly kept his mouth shut.

“May Your Majesty listen more and speak less.” Having said that, Yang Feng returned to the noisy crowd.
The Emperor had to quietly wait for an opportunity, while he had to plunge headfirst into the storm.

“Yang Feng is so insolent! How dare he speak to the Emperor in such a lecturing fashion.
Are you not angry?” Comparatively, Prince Donghai’s tone was actually more disrespectful.
“There is nothing much to listen out for.
Prince Qi is not a good person, indicting him for assassination and rebellion would not be unjust.
Now we shall see whether he dares rise up in rebellion.
The palace is so disorganized, and the assassin was quite strong! He managed to kill seven guards, and made it through three gates before committing suicide.
And he had hidden in the palace for a full ten years! And during this time, three Emperors had died… Heh heh, best of luck to you.”

After finding out that the Empress Dowager had not acted against the Cui clan, Prince Donghai was a lot more relaxed.

Han Ruzi did not respond.
He was listening: listening to the sounds outside.
He understood what Yang Feng meant by his final words: the opportunity may never arise, but in the event that it does, he must make sure that he would be a competent Emperor.
From now onwards, he needed to use every chance he had to learn the art of rulership.

Assassination, rebellion, the Imperial Clan, Imperial In-laws, senior officials… The Chu Empire was faced with grave danger, and the chaos outside was the perfect material for his study.

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Han Ruzi could tell that a few senior officials were acting.
Their panic and angry denunciations were aimed at avoiding responsibility.
They were waiting for others to make the decisions, while they could act opportunistically.
Jing Yao and the other eunuchs were acting with empty bravado, constantly mentioning the Empress Dowager, desperately trying to prove that they were most trustworthy people, having nothing to do with the assassin and Liu Jie.

Han Ruzi had a sudden epiphany.
The person he should pay attention to was not any senior official or eunuch, but the Empress Dowager residing in the eastern side-room.
At this moment, she had a rebellion on her hands, the Shang-guan clan had not yet fully established itself, while the senior officials were torn by dissension and discord… The measures she had available were not many.

If it was me, what would I do? Han Ruzi thought while listening.
He realized that it was truly a difficult position.

Prince Donghai by now had found a place to sit.
In his opinion, matters were simple.
“I don’t understand what they are arguing about.
Just send a great general with an army of a hundred thousand.
That would be sufficient to suppress the princedom of Qi.
Prince Qi had just failed in his assassination, I would guess that he would not even dare rise up.
More likely that he would commit suicide.”

“How would you know whether the general that you send would attack Prince Qi or join forces with him?” Han Ruzi said what he was wondering.

Prince Donghai creased his eyebrows.
“Then send more generals and have them supervise one another.
Or send Shang-guan Xu.
He is the Empress Dowager’s brother, surely he can be trusted.
Unfortunately he is just a fake general with no idea how to fight a war.”

Han Ruzi shook his head.
The Empress Dowager would not dispatch her own older brother, nor would she dispatch a bunch of untrustworthy generals.

The room outside suddenly grew quiet.
An unfamiliar female voice sounded.
“We cannot confirm Prince Qi’s treason based on a one-sided confession.
Grand Tutor Cui is a veteran of the military, and a respected general of the Empire.
May Grand Tutor Cui lead an army to the Princedom of Qi to investigate the truth.”

Prince Donghai leapt up from his seat and growled.
“The Empress Dowager is sending my uncle to attack Qi? She… What is she thinking?”

Han Ruzi immediately realized the Empress Dowager’s intentions.

[1] A reference to relatives of the Emperor by marriage.
For example, in this story, Cui Hong (as brother of one of the Emperor’s consorts) and Shang-guan Xu (as brother of the Empress Dowager) are both Imperial In-laws.
It is a common theme in Chinese history for Imperial In-laws to gain a lot of power when the woman from their clan becomes an Empress Dowager while the new Emperor is still a child, since an ambitious Empress Dowager would have to rely on her own family to control the Imperial Court.

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