Chapter 89 Aid
Ever since that day when he departed from the banquet, Pei Ji secretly ordered Huangfu Jing to withdraw the individuals who had previously been tailing Chen Ying Shao’s daily activities near his residence.
Regardless of the acquaintances Chen Ying Shao had in Puzhou, after observing for over half a month, especially during that extravagant feast, Pei Ji had gained a clear understanding.
The city had imposed a curfew, although not as stringent as Chang’an. It was inconvenient to follow closely during the night. Fortunately, they withdrew, avoiding the risk of being discovered.
Next, he would have to wait patiently without arousing suspicion.
Before departing from Chang’an, he had already devised a plan. He divided his entourage into two groups. The officials responsible for frugal matters would continue their regular visits to Puzhou. As for the remaining subordinates, numbering around seven or eight, they carried his father’s personally penned missive, journeying towards Youzhou, where they would deliver it to the inspector entrusted with overseeing patrols in the region. Their covert investigation into this matter was expected to yield results in due course.
Amidst the passing of day and night, Pei Ji sat under the glow of a lamp, writing a letter destined for Hedong.
Yesterday, he received a letter brought by General Zhang’s messenger, which mentioned a series of recent minor Turk incursions along the border, all occurring in Youzhou. This year, the territories north of Hedong appeared to be somewhat quieter compared to previous years.
Just as he sealed the paper and handed it to Shi Quan, a guard stationed outside entered the room and said, “General, Minister Chen’s men have brought a lady. They claim she wishes to sing and entertain you, to relieve fatigue…”
The guard’s tone lacked the usual confidence, gradually lowering his voice as he spoke, all the while glancing at Pei Ji with a mixture of confusion and caution.
It should be noted that this young general, while navigating the realm of officials and military, had always maintained his integrity, refraining from indulging in the company of women. In Chang’an, he had earned a reputation for his coldness and detachment. How could Minister Chen forget about this after leaving the capital?
Pei Ji frowned, momentarily lost in thought. It then dawned on him that Minister Chen might genuinely believe he had developed an interest in a young lady named Yun-niang. In the past few days, he had refrained from any other actions and abstained from revelry with them. It was likely that they interpreted it as a subtle signal.
However, not only did he lack interest in others, even if he did harbor other intentions, he would never accept the person sent by Chen Ying Shao.
Considering their official positions, he currently held a position in the Ministry of War, while Chen Ying Shao happened to be the Minister of War. In terms of hierarchy, Chen Ying Shao was his immediate superior. However, due to his appointment by imperial decree to oversee the construction of the pontoon bridge in Pujin Crossing, it made Chen Ying Shao wary of him.
How could a superior send attractive women to their subordinate officials? It was clearly a ploy to drag him into trouble. He possessed a clear mind and would never commit such a mistake.
Observing his silent contemplation, the guard cautiously asked, “General, about that lady—?”
Pei Ji straightened his attire, settled back on the couch, and gestured with his hand, saying, “Send them back, do not allow them to enter.”
Following the orders, the guard was about to depart when Shi Quan hurriedly rushed in from the rear entrance, presenting a letter in his hand. “General, it’s from Youzhou!”
Pei Ji’s gaze sharpened, and without delay, he unsealed the letter, swiftly reading its contents.
The letter arrived from the Inspector in Youzhou, meticulously detailing the threads of evidence discovered during the past lunar month. It formed a coherent chain, almost confirming the suspicions that Fan Huai’en had been secretly amassing wealth through the iron ore transport scheme. Some of the ill-gotten gains had passed through the hands of his trusted subordinates, either converted into hasty fortunes or exchanged for lavish estates, captivating entertainers, exquisite wines, and precious treasures, all lavishly presented to Chen Ying Shao.
Most notably, a cache of account books and receipts was seized from Fan Huai’en’s faithful confidantes.
The accumulation of evidence on both sides was nearing completion, laying the groundwork for swift apprehension.
However, rather than fading away, the peculiar sense of unease in his heart intensified. Despite the case’s prolonged investigation, the progress had been astonishingly smooth. From the initial covert transactions with Chen Ying Shao to the involvement of Yun-niang, every piece of evidence seemed to effortlessly converge towards implicating Fan Huai’en.
But could the situation truly be that straightforward?
Pei Ji paused briefly, then set the letter aside. He retrieved the memorial he had prepared a few days ago, swiftly adding a couple of sentences before handing it to a messenger. Simultaneously, he ordered his subordinates to discreetly inform a few trusted colleagues. Meanwhile, he instructed Shi Quan to lead a group of men to Chen Ying Shao’s residence.
“We needn’t concern ourselves with the city’s curfew any longer. Take immediate action to apprehend the individuals involved, but ensure nothing in the mansion is disturbed. Let the officials from the Inspectorate handle the case. Tomorrow morning, we shall return to the capital.”
As Shi Quan prepared to leave, Pei Ji called him back. “Wait, intercept that Yun-niang and bring her back to Chang’an for questioning.”
Regardless of the circumstances, it was necessary to bring the matter into the open. Pei Ji would continue to monitor the internal situation closely and conduct a thorough investigation upon their return to the capital.
There were two reasons for his urgency. First and foremost, he had personal motives. He wanted an early return, hoping to seize an opportunity to see Li Zhi.
Secondly, he had heard of the intensifying conflicts among the court officials in recent times.
Within Zhengshi Hall of Daming Palace, Xiao Ling Fu and Pei Yan concluded their discussions on state affairs with the officials. They instructed the palace attendants to neatly organize the selected memorials before sending them to Yanying Hall. Subsequently, each person became engrossed in their individual tasks.
Wang Chun, the Deputy Minister of the Ministry of Personnel, hurriedly trailed behind Xiao Ling Fu. The two conversed in hushed tones, their footsteps quick and steady.
“Prime Minister, among the memorials presented to His Majesty, there are numerous pleas for leniency on Minister Du’s behalf and advisories to His Majesty. Should we consider reducing the number of such submissions?”
As the Prime Minister, Xiao Ling Fu’s duty included the selection of significant memorials from the officials to be presented for the Emperor’s review. Due to the collective decision-making system prevalent in Great Wei, even the foremost Prime Minister lacked the authority to make unilateral choices. Therefore, tampering with the selection of memorials was a task seldom undertaken. Particularly concerning matters of military, disasters, and harvest reports from various regions, no one dared to withhold crucial information.
Nevertheless, when it came to memorials advocating for Du Heng, Xiao Ling Fu possessed some discretion in adjusting their quantity. With Pei Yan’s limited energy, he only reviewed the memorials related to pressing matters. As long as the memorials regarding Du Heng were submitted, it would not be considered an intentional act of concealment.
Wang Chun worried that an excessive number of memorials might genuinely sway the Emperor’s sentiment and result in the recall of Du Heng to the court.
Nevertheless, Xiao Ling Fu shook his head and remarked, “No need for that, this is the way to handle it. I have a sense of propriety.”
Since the day Pei Yan’s intercession on behalf of Du Heng was disregarded by the Emperor at the court meeting, the officials aligned with the Du family were truly astounded for two days. However, they held back from taking further action.
Yet, it lasted only two days. Starting from the third day, whenever there was a moment during the court meeting when the Emperor couldn’t directly disperse the gathering, someone would rise and bring up the matter of Du Heng, putting pressure on the Emperor.
Although the Emperor displayed a cold face on several occasions, deferring the discussion for another time, the issue would be raised again the following day.
The Emperor resolved to confront them head-on, refusing to yield for several consecutive days. In a fit of frustration, the Emperor decided to cancel the grand court assembly altogether, citing health concerns. Instead, the memorials would be sent to the palace for review. If necessary, a few officials would be summoned to Yanying Hall for discussions.
However, the officials aligned with the Du family were just as determined. Since they couldn’t personally meet the Emperor and present their pleas, they resorted to submitting memorials day after day, without interruption.
Over the span of a month, the Emperor felt increasingly cornered, growing weary of the constant pressure. Even during deliberations in Zichen Hall, his restlessness and unease became evident.
This was exactly the situation he had hoped for.
As the imperial throne had been passed down through several generations, the stability of the empire had increased, and the people had grown more settled. The authority that had once solely belonged to the monarch was gradually being shared among the officials. It was a slow and gradual transition, a give-and-take process.
In this prosperous era, there was no need for an overbearing ruler. The officials sought nothing more than a monarch who adhered to established norms, embodying the image of a wise ruler that had been revered for centuries.
It was no surprise that the Emperor wanted to break free from this situation, while the Du family refused to yield.
As for him, there was a large group of talented young individuals eagerly awaiting his mentorship and hoping to advance in their careers. Amidst the power struggles, the Xiao family could simply observe from a distance, occasionally fanning the flames if necessary, and reap the benefits.
Wang Chun had followed Xiao Ling Fu for over a decade, and it was Xiao Ling Fu who had brought him into the Ministry of Personnel. Seeing his leader’s unwavering resolve, Wang Chun refrained from further inquiries but brought up another matter, “Recently, there have been private discussions about the issue of establishing a Crown Prince and offering advice to the Emperor. According to the Prime Minister’s wishes, I have instructed them to temporarily set it aside and not rush into action.”
“Hmm.” Xiao Ling Fu placed his hands behind his back and led Wang Chun along a secluded path. Speaking in a low voice, he advised, “Keep your composure. We can’t bring up the matter of establishing a Crown Prince ourselves. It must come from the Emperor.”
The Emperor was suspicious by nature and wouldn’t easily trust the advice of others. Just like Immortal Ancestor Yuan, we needed him to make the decision willingly, without leaving any traces.
“Prime Minister, there’s another matter.” Wang Chun glanced around, ensuring no one was around, and whispered even more quietly, “Among the followers of the Du family, it seems that a few individuals have started contemplating the issue of the Crown Prince position—according to my observations, it seems they have the intention of supporting Prince Rui for the role.”
Xiao Ling Fu’s eyelid twitched, and he immediately stopped in his tracks. “Who are these individuals?”
Wang Chun leaned in closer and whispered a string of names. They were relatively young and held positions around the fifth rank.
“We don’t know if Prince Rui himself is involved, but… I believe there might be some connection between this matter and the Princess of Wuyang.”
Xiao Ling Fu’s eyes flashed as he suddenly recalled the Princess of Wuyang, who had been banished to the imperial mausoleum by the Emperor. Amidst the recent tumultuous events, she had nearly slipped from everyone’s minds, including the Emperor himself, who likely had little time to spare for his own sister.
He had forgotten that this princess, due to past grievances, likely held deep resentment towards the Emperor. She could serve as a powerful ally in uprooting the Du family and supporting the Crown Prince!
“Prime Minister, should we obstruct their plans?” Wang Chun feared creating unnecessary complications and unintentionally allowing Prince Rui to seize the opportunity. After all, the Eldest Prince was young, while Prince Rui was in his prime. Throughout history, there were instances of older brothers yielding to their younger siblings, which could be justified by ethical principles.
“There’s no need to obstruct them.” Xiao Ling Fu shook his head, a significant smile slowly appearing on his face. “Not only should we refrain from obstructing them, but we should also provide them with additional support.”
Approaching the end of June, Pei Ji finally rushed back to Chang’an from Puzhou.
The memorials had been returned several days ago, and the Emperor had issued an order for a thorough investigation. The Imperial Censorate promptly took charge, and after consulting with the Ministry of Personnel, the two chief advisors decided to temporarily appoint a Deputy Minister of the Ministry of War to oversee the casting of iron bulls in Puzhou. Additionally, another Deputy Minister from the Ministry of Works was dispatched to provide assistance.
Regarding Youzhou, the deputy under the governor would temporarily assume the responsibilities until the matter was investigated thoroughly. Only then would suitable candidates be selected to fill the position.
The case and its proceedings were completely unrelated to Pei Ji. After returning home, he skipped the opportunity to freshen up and rushed to greet his grandmother and mother. Following that, he recounted the recent events to his father and listened attentively to the latest happenings in the imperial court over the past two months. The relaxed expression on his face faded significantly.
After the father and son finished their conversation, Pei Ji stood up and declared, “I’ve been away from the capital for quite a while. I must visit the palace, have an audience with the Emperor, and pay respects to the Empress Dowager.”
Pei Yan looked up and assessed him, “You’ve been exhausted from your two-month absence, and the cases are already under examination. It wouldn’t be a problem to go tomorrow.”
However, Pei Ji shook his head and explained, “I’m concerned about His Majesty’s well-being and the Empress Dowager’s illness. I must leave immediately.” After a momentary hesitation, he added, “If it’s convenient today, I’m afraid I’ll remain in the Imperial Guards. After being away for two months, I feel ashamed that the responsibilities of a high-ranking general like myself have been entrusted to others.”
Pei Yan furrowed his brows slightly, let out a sigh, and nodded in agreement. “Go then, be cautious in all matters, and don’t let your guard down.”
Pei Ji immediately saluted and left. Just as he was about to leave the house, he suddenly stopped and turned back.
“General?” Shi Quan exclaimed in surprise.
Pei Ji glanced down at his dusty attire from the journey, then waved his hand and said, “I am going to the palace for an audience with His Majesty. I must ensure my appearance is presentable. Prepare some water for me. I need to bathe and change clothes.”
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