Chapter 132 : The Li Family’s Downfall
Du Juan trembled as she looked at Jin San who smiled sincerely and continued, “However, I really like beautiful women like you. If you listen obediently to what I say, I am happy to ensure the success of this fated marriage. If you don’t obey me,” Jin San continued, her tone turning glacial abruptly, “your little lover will be implicated because of you.”
“I agree,” Du Juan hurriedly pressed out. At the time, she had been extremely hesitant to help Cai Que frame Jiang Ruan. Cai Que was not born into a servant family, so the date for her to leave the fu naturally needed to be reckoned. Du Juan’s family members were still employed in one of Jiang fu’s rural residences, and for their sake, she ought not be involved in such matters. Later on, though Young Master Wang reluctantly agreed to this matter, her heart was still hesitant in the end. Thus, on that day, when Old Jiang Madam had tasked her to pack up the tea leaves, she took the opportunity to linger in the interior as long as possible. Afterwards, when questioned, she had simply said that she had not personally seen anything clearly, and kept up a misleading appearance.
Now, Du Juan felt herself relaxing slightly. It was fortunate that she had listened to her conscience had at that time, otherwise she too would end up like Cai Que. Looking at Cai Que in a heap on the floor of the mourning hall, Du Juan could not help but shudder.
Jin San and Jin Yi finished their work and left. At the same time, Tian Zhu leapt into Ruan Ju. Bai Zhi, Lian Qiao, and Lu Zhu had been waiting for an interminable period in a state of high anxiety, so all three of them heaved a sigh of relief upon her return. The past few days, several older servants had been keeping watch outside Ruan Ju, so it was a good thing that Tian Zhu knew martial arts and could avoid their notice.
Bai Zhi asked, “Has the matter been settled?”
Tian Zhu nodded. For her to plant arsenic powder in the fu was no challenge. She had also wanted to plant some in Jiang Dan’s courtyard, but Jiang Ruan had made clear that no matter what happened next, Jiang Dan must still emerge as clean and innocent. That being the case, as they had no way to deal with all of their opponents in one fell swoop, there was no need to alert Jiang Dan prematurely. Although Tian Zhu was not entirely reconciled to this course of action, she still tolerated it.
Lian Qiao said, “So we just have to wait for Wangye’s good news tomorrow.”
* * *
The night passed, with everyone lost in their own thoughts. Early in the morning of the second day, a troop of officers and men arrived at the prison, and the officer in charge was a complete stranger. He was highly deferential on meeting Jiang Ruan, saying that there had been a mistake, and that he hoped she would not seek to punish them.
Xiao Shao certainly moved swiftly. Jiang Ruan did not make things difficult for the officer, and as she walked towards the prison gate, she saw Zhao Yuan Feng waiting for her there. When he saw her emerging, he rushed up to her and looked her over carefully. Once he had ascertained that she was safe and sound, he nodded in satisfaction and said, “He really thought of everything.”
Jiang Ruan said softly, “Third Uncle.”
Zhao Yuan Feng beamed at her, waved his hand, and said, “Ruan’er, since you have come out today, let me take you to watch a good show.”
Jiang Ruan smiled slightly and said, “All right.”
* * *
Early in the morning, the servants of Jiang fu had risen to carry out the daily cleaning when they heard heavy knocking at the fu’s main door. When the young manservant, who was on duty as the gatekeeper, opened the door, he saw a line of officers with swords at their belts, looking brutish. A longer-serving older servant rushed forward to say, “Officers, what is this, for no reason . . .”
The officer rudely waved her off to one side and said, “Get lost, this official is attending to matters on imperial orders to catch a criminal of the court!”
 朝廷钦犯 (chao ting qin fan) – 朝廷 = imperial court; 钦犯 = criminal whose arrest has been ordered by the Emperor. A possible equivalent modern term is ‘federal criminal’.
The old servant was so scared that she began quivering. In the fu, apart from Jiang Quan and Jiang Chao, no one else held a government post, so how could either one of them be called a ‘criminal of the court’? Could it be that something had happened to Master? Thoroughly frightened, the old servant kept silent. The officers paid her no heed and unceremoniously entered the fu to conduct a thorough search. Not long after, Second Yiniang was escorted out of the fu.
“Officers, injustice has been done, this concubine has not done anything.” Second Yiniang did not understand what was happening; she had been waiting for news of Jiang Ruan’s situation, but instead this troop of officers had arrived. What’s more, the officer in charge was not Li Qiang, and this man glared at her ferociously as he said, “Shut your mouth! If you have anything to say, you are coming with us to Yamen and say it!”
The officer was truly fierce, and Second Yiniang was so intimidated that she immediately fell silent. Meanwhile, on hearing the news, Jiang Quan had hurried there with some men to investigate what was going on. He surveyed the officers and frowned as he asked, “May I ask what crime this lowly person’s concubine has committed?”
 贱 (jian) – humble form of ‘me’, ‘I’.
Due to Jiang Quan’s rank, when they saw him, these officers should have tried to ingratiate themselves with him, or at the very least, show him some measure of deference. However, this was not the case today. The officer in charge merely glanced at him before replying, in a tone dripping with heavy intent, “Jiang Daren, it is best that you do not interfere in this situation; take care not to stir up trouble for yourself.” Having said this, he called out to his subordinates, then turned and left without a backward glance.
Jiang Quan felt his insides turn to ice. That officer’s tone was full of hidden meaning; that they had taken Second Yiniang away signified that this was a serious matter. What trouble could she possibly have stirred up? And surely it was too much of a fuss over a minor issue to bring so many men to take Second Yiniang away? He was a seasoned veteran due to the challenges of being in officialdom for many years, so a suspicion immediately arose in his mind – could something have happened to the Minister of Appointments?
Second Yiniang followed the officers to Yamen. Two officers remained to watch her, while the officer in charge led his subordinates in. Second Yiniang was tremendously perturbed. She thought for a while, then hardened her heart and removed two jade rings from her fingers. Previously, she had pawned all of her jewellery in order to bribe Li Qiang, but these two rings had been given to her by Jiang Quan just after he had brought her into the fu, so she had been reluctant to pawn them. Now that the situation was urgent, she could no longer care too much about such things. She pushed the rings into the hands of the two officers, smiled obsequiously, and said “Officers, may this concubine venture to ask why you want to arrest me?”
The jade rings were of excellent quality. If pawned, they would fetch eight hundred to a thousand taels. These bailiffs would ordinarily never see such goods, so a tacit understanding would naturally be reached. Yet, today, this move proved to be ineffective. The two baliffs exchanged looks but did not accept the jade rings.
When Second Yiniang saw this, her heart sank. She was not fearful of them wanting more, but of having what she offered rejected. Had the situation developed to such an extent? What had happened such that these two bailiffs did not dare to accept what she offered?
Second Yiniang’s expression changed minutely and she asked, smilingly, “Officers, that… May this concubine know where your Li Qiang Daren is?”
One of the bailiffs looked at her in astonishment. “Li Daren? I didn’t see anything of him the entire day yesterday, and there is no one in his fu. There has been a change of personnel at the top level, and even if he returned, he no longer has his position.” After some thought, he told Second Yiniang, “You had better not play any tricks on us, save your energy for when you go to the judicial court.”
“Why are you wasting your breath on her?” the other bailiff cut in impatiently.
Second Yiniang felt even more apprehensive. They waited for an undetermined length of time before they heard someone beating heavily on the ‘drum of justice’ outside; each beat seemed to pound right into people’s hearts.
 昭冤鼓 (zhao yuan gu) – people with grievances could beat the drum placed outside the yamen to voice their grievances and demand justice be served.
The voice of the ‘drum of justice’ only resounded when there was a big case. In general, such cases involved officials of the imperial court. Once the drum stopped, Second Yiniang was taken to the judicial court.
Bailiffs stood in a line on either side. The presiding authority was not the person Second Yiniang was familiar with, but was someone who looked very stoic. However, this was not what shocked Second Yiniang the most. Seated at centre left was a figure that she was highly familiar with. Jiang Ruan’s make-up was simply and appropriately done, she had changed into light blue clothes, and she looked as beautiful and charming as before. At present, an ambiguous smile was playing on her lips as she gazed back at Second Yiniang. Where could one find fault with how she presented herself?
Second Yiniang’s heart sank, and she deeply loathed the fact that Jiang Ruan was able to dodge yet another calamity. Her heart swelling with indignation, she glared at Jiang Ruan with eyes as lethal as sharp swords dipped in poison.
When the others in the law court noticed Second Yiniang’s expression, some were greatly displeased. Zhao Yuan Feng coughed lightly before saying, “I believe that the criminal has not yet fully understood her status in this court. Is that not so, Magistrate?”
 罪妇 (zui fu) – specifically refers to a female who is accused of being a criminal
Ke Xiu Ran, who was presiding over the proceedings, quivered in shock and looked at Zhao Yuan Feng. Everyone knew that the Zhao family’s Third Master was arrogant and obstinate. Furthermore, whilst he was of the Zhao Family’s lineage that had three generations of military commanders, he was notably capable in his own rights. Anyone who offended him was simply asking for trouble in the imperial court in future. That aside, since Zhao Yuan Feng had personally come to observe the proceedings today, would that not indicate his public support of Hong’an Junzhu? If Ke Xiu Ran gave him this favour, it would be much easier to get things done thereafter. After pondering thus, Ke Xiu Ran rapped the wooden gavel and shouted, “The accused in court, do you know your crime?”
Totally panic-stricken and helpless, Second Yiniang shook her head and said, “This lowly concubine does not know what crime she has committed?”
Ke Xiu Ran called out, “Bring in the witnesses!”
The officers brought in two maidservants. One of them, whose hair was unkempt like wild grass, was mumbling to herself, “This servant was wrong, Old Madame, this servant did not harm you on purpose, it was Second Yiniang who made this servant do it, Old Madame, this servant was wrong . . .” Already delirious, this was Cai Que.
On the other hand, the other person knelt down and said in a clear voice, “To answer the Magistrate, this servant Du Juan bears witness. At that time it was Second Yiniang who bribed Cai Que to poison Old Madame in order to tarnish Junzhu’s name. Second Yiniang even threatened this servant that if this servant revealed the truth, then all of this servant’s family members in the rural residence would be killed.”
“You’re talking nonsense, when did I –” Second Yiniang interrupted, unwilling to stand by passively.
“Second Yiniang gave Cai Que a big sum of silver. If the Magistrate doesn’t believe this, the Magistrate can search Cai Que’s room.”
“No need, this official has already checked,” Ke Xiu Ran responded with a wave of his hand.
The investigating officer diligently said, “Second Jiang Yiniang, you have murdered people for money; you have fatally poisoned Old Jiang Madam; you do not desire to repent; and you have conspired to frame Hong’an Junzhu. As if this were not enough, you wanted to kill people to silence them and hired assassins. Such a heart is evil beyond even that of vipers and scorpions, and such a temperament is vicious, like that of a ravenous wolf. This cannot be tolerated. Heaven’s law is clear on this, how can this official forgive you? The law must be carried out, a murderer must die. Today you are sentenced to be executed by beheading.”
 是可忍，孰不可忍 (shìkěrěn, shúbùkěrěn) – if this can be tolerated, what cannot? (idiom) / enough is enough.
When the three words, ‘executed by beheading’, were pronounced, Second Yiniang seemed to lose her backbone. Her body could no longer support itself and she slid numbly to the ground. Although vicious, she was a coward, and at present she no longer had the strength to try to defend herself. Only one thought stood out in her mind, that her plans had failed and she was utterly exposed. But, she then considered that her own father was the Minister of Appointments and might have some way of saving her. At once, she brightened and called out, “This concubine has been wronged, this concubine has been wronged! This concubine begs the Magistrate to allow her to see her father!”
Jiang Ruan smiled faintly when she heard these words. Second Yiniang had clearly set her heart on relying on her own family, or perhaps she thought Hu Qian Qiu would help her. However, the Li family would find it challenging to defend itself now, and as for Hu Qian Qiu . . . she was afraid that there would no longer be such a person in the Censorate in future.
Ke Xiu Ran once again rapped the wooden gavel, his eyes flashed with deep intent, and he called out, “Bring in the guilty official Li De Xing!”
Second Yiniang looked as if she had been struck by a bolt of lightning.
She saw the officers bringing in a person dressed in prison garb and handcuffed. It was no one else- it was truly Second Yiniang’s father, Minister Li, followed by her brothers.
Minister Li cut a sorry figure, obviously having met with much suffering. When he saw Second Yiniang, he spat at her fiercely and cursed, “You scourge!”
Second Yiniang was shell shocked. She stammered, “Father, this is . . .”
“Get lost!” Minister Li yelled, highly irritably.
“Silence!” Ke Xiu Ran rapped the wooden gavel again with an utterly grave expression.
Minister Li ground his teeth. Under normal circumstances, would Ke Xiu Ran have dared to treat him this way? Early this morning, on imperial orders, the officers had raided the Minister’s fu. As if this were not unbelievable enough, the news which the officers had divulged shocked him to the core. All his past matters had been dug out- even those past business transactions which he considered to be flawlessly conducted had been dragged out into the light. There was no need to talk about anything else – for a court official to form private factions was a major crime against the Emperor.
Minister Li’s entire life could be said to have gone as smoothly as flowing wind and water; he never imagined that someone would cast a cloud over him. There were some matters that he himself could no longer clearly recall, but they had all been exposed. In prison, the accusations to which he had had to plead guilty were lined up one after the other, such that Minister Li almost suspected that one of his trusted aides had sold him out.
The charges also implicated Hu Qian Qiu, stating that Hu Qian Qiu had taken Second Yiniang’s silver, and that Second Yiniang had obstructed official business. At that time, Minister Li had thought it strange, for how had the charges against him involved Second Yiniang’s affairs? He and the jailor were on friendly terms, and so the jailor warned him in kindness, saying, “Minister Li, if anyone is to blame, it is your daughter. It’s not a good idea to provoke anyone, but she just had to provoke Hong’an Junzhu. The person behind Hong’an Junzhu is not someone Minister Li can afford to offend.”
Minister Li had asked who this person behind Hong’an Junzhu was, but the jailor did not dare to answer. However, Minister Li knew one thing for sure – this situation was wholly due to Second Yiniang. In other words, Second Yiniang had ruined the entire Li family.
Now, when Minister Li looked at Second Yiniang, he was bitterly disappointed that he had not drowned her at birth. All the Li family court officials had been destroyed by this daughter who was as stupid as a pig! Then, he noticed Zhao Yuan Feng and had a momentary suspicion – was it possible that the Zhao family was behind Hong’an Junzhu? Jiang Ruan was the Zhao family’s grandchild through Zhao Mei, so it was only natural that they would help one another. However, the Zhao family had always conducted its affairs in a straightforward and upright manner, and would also not be so ruthlessly vicious to doom an entire fu when taking action.
The investigating officer took his stance firmly and enunciated every word clearly. “Li De Xing, you are an official appointed by the imperial court. Despite this, you have deceived and disregarded the law, harmed people, and participated in embezzlement and bribery. While appearing irreproachable, you were in reality deceiving the people, by diminishing their wealth and colluding with the higher authorities. This official sentences you to death by beheading without proper burial, that you may rot with the plants, be eaten by insects and rats, and be feasted upon by flies.”
“In the Li family, the men are thieves and the women are harlots: immoral in both character and deed, wicked and an offence to morality in all your ways, refined and educated degenerates, a disgrace to the heritage of our sages. This official has decided that the younger generation of the Li family will be stripped of their positions as court officials, and the Li family are forever banned from participating in the imperial examinations to serve in the court.”
“No –” Second Yiniang called out in alarm. How did it come to this? It was her own plot that had come to light, how had Li fu also been attacked, how had the charges which the presiding authority had enumerated come about? She lifted her head to look at Jiang Ruan. Jiang Ruan was sitting calmly, and the smile playing on her lips was so charming yet full of deep mockery, as if she were looking down on their sorry situation from a lofty height.
“It was you . . .” Second Yiniang murmured.
“Bring in Hu Qian Qiu!” called out Ke Xiu Ran.
This time, the person the officers brought in was indeed Hu Qian Qiu.
The first thing Hu Qian Qiu did on being brought in was to glare ferociously at Ke Xiu Ran. He had been the one to promote Ke Xiu Ran on seeing that he was someone with talent. Who could have expected that in recent years Ke Xiu Ran would become an increasing threat to his position. He was certain that Ke Xiu Ran had played a big part in his dismissal on suspicion of corruption.
Ke Xiu Ran noticed Hu Qian Qiu’s glare but looked quite pleased with himself. He called out, “Hu Qian Qiu, listen to the judgement. You acted rashly in your position as a government official, colluded with another person’s concubine, and framed Junzhu. You are truly muddle-headed, unable to distinguish right from wrong, and too shameful to be an official. Today, you are stripped of your status as a government official and demoted to the status of a commoner. You will never be allowed to hold a position as an official again.”
Hu Qian Qiu felt choked. Although he knew he would definitely not be able to keep his official post, when he heard that he would never again be able to hold a position as an official, his chest felt as if something was tightening around it, and he spat out a mouthful of blood.
“Qian Qiu!” Second Yiniang lost her head and scrambled over to Hu Qian Qiu’s side.
“Get lost!” Hu Qian Qiu showed no evidence of his past tenderness and deep affection. He shoved her aside and looked at her as if she were his worst enemy, saying, “B*tch!”
If not for her, would his magnificent position as the Censorate’s Regional Inspector have fallen to such depths? He had even thought about using her to latch on to the Jiang fu in order to rise up the ranks. Now that his official career was in tatters, who in the capital would dare to countenance him in future?
Second Yiniang stared blankly at Hu Qian Qiu, who now seemed to be a stranger. She could not understand how everything had changed in the space of one night. Now, the entire Li family had been reduced to such a state, Hu Qian Qiu was unable to protect his official post, and all of them regarded her with utmost hatred. Was it she who had harmed them to this degree?
Jiang Ruan sat in the hall with a little smile on her face, as if nothing could shake her calm demeanour. She looked like a beautiful lady who had separated herself from worldly affairs, and was now looking down with indifferent mockery at everyone’s struggles.
When she felt Second Yiniang’s gaze, Jiang Ruan turned her head, and her clear eyes, uplifted at the corners, were completely devoid of emotion. However, Second Yiniang could read them well. She was saying, if you agree to bet, you must agree to lose.
If you agree to bet, you must agree to lose . . . if you agree to bet, you must agree to lose . . . Second Yiniang laughed bitterly, and the raucous sound grew louder and louder, until everyone present could not help frowning. Second Yiniang kept on laughing until her face was full of tears.
She looked at Jiang Ruan and said, “Eldest Miss, you’re ruthless! I can’t fight against you and win. Even at death’s door, I can’t win.”
Jiang Ruan said nothing as Second Yiniang laughed plaintively. She was in the wrong; she had only herself to blame; she had brought about the absolute ruin of her own family and her childhood sweetheart; she had brought about the tragic death of her own daughter in Langzhong fu. Her skill was inferior to others’, and she had been provoked by others; she was so stupid that she had caused the entire Minister’s fu to be buried with her.
However, if she was in the wrong, did that mean that others were not in the wrong?
As one who was born of a concubine, she had no way to decide on her own husband, and could only be given away to another person by her father like a present. In Jiang fu, the main wife had kept her under control, and the other concubines were all vying for favour. Her sole daughter could only, like her, endure a life-long status as a shu daughter! In order to enable her daughter to live a better life, she had striven valiantly, and seized someone else’s fated marriage. However, retribution had fallen on her daughter. She had schemed to take the culprit down with her but, ultimately, she had dragged in the entire Li family.
Now, at the end, she had become the sinner whom everyone loathed. She was in the wrong, but she had also been forced into it!
As she broke down, Second Yiniang clutched at her hair, pulling apart the dainty bun which her long hair had always been coiled up in. With her hair in a mess and her messy face, she looked like a mad woman- nothing at all like her former astute and beautiful self. In a daze, she caressed her long hair, and her eyes were unfocused as she whispered, “Li’er, don’t be afraid. Mother will bring you home at once.”
Her expression was already confused.
Among the crowd present there were those who could not help being moved, and they sighed inwardly. On the other hand, when Hu Qian Qiu and Minister Li saw this, they were even more disgusted. Zhao Yuan Feng subconsciously looked towards Jiang Ruan, thinking that he would find some other emotion on her face. However, Jiang Ruan’s expression remained cold and indifferent while her lips seemed to be hiding a smile, and there was not the slightest hint of any unnecessary emotion in her gaze. It was as if nothing that happened in the world could move her.
Zhao Yuan Feng sighed quietly to himself. On thinking about it, looking at what she had been like during that day’s happenings, she had not been completely unfamiliar with what had gone down. Perhaps, this niece of his had even had a large part to play. He had known early on that Jiang Ruan’s heart was as hard as stone, but this degree of detachment was truly fearful. The young ladies from other families at this age were blossoming like flowers, laughing and making merry every day, but his own niece was unshakeable even when buffeted by great waves, like . . . like an old woman who had lived for a good many years. Zhao Yuan Feng shook his head. He did not know if she would be able to meet someone, one day, whom she could open her heart to.
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Translated by : Shl
Edited by : Anks & Ely