The princes walked briskly past the entrance of the elegant room. Only Xie Duo noticed Han Jiao, but he didn’t stop to greet him.
Han Jiao gained confidence, sure that Xie Duo had seen him. He calmly sat back down and warned the man beside him, “Immediately bring my little brother in front of me, and I can pretend I haven’t seen you.”
“Don’t be so formal!” The man’s smile concealed a hidden intention. “We’re gathered around the same table, sharing a meal and drinks. How can we pretend to be strangers? Brother, my intentions are genuine. I introduced myself right from the start, and I don’t consider you as an outsider. We’re simply having a private conversation about child care. There are no ulterior motives, so don’t misinterpret our intentions.”
“Under the orders of Prince Yan, I am here to verify the accounts. There is nothing to discuss with the Ministry of War.” Han Jiao still refused to relent.
The middle-aged man who had just introduced himself was a low-ranking official in the Ministry of War, named Liu Changqing. Early this morning, Prince Yan’s people had raided the confidential accounts of the Ministry of War. He claimed that it would be hard to explain to his superiors, so he hoped that Han Jiao could quietly return the accounts to the Ministry of War. They would sort out which records they needed and deliver them to Han Jiao.
They were determined to keep the original accounts from being leaked, so they wanted Han Jiao to return them privately, without letting Prince Yan know.
But Han Jiao insisted on personally auditing the accounts, ensuring their accuracy before handing them back to the Ministry of War. After all, there had been numerous fraudulent records, and it was exactly this kind of deception that misled the Emperor. Han Jiao couldn’t accept such arrangement.
Liu Changqing, seeing Han Jiao’s firm attitude, grinned. “No wonder you’re Han Yushen’s son. You’ve got quite the tough temper.”
Han Jiao sneered, “You flatter me.”
Liu Changqing lifted the teacup on the table, took a sip, and gently placed it back with a subtle clink. He spoke in a low voice, “Let me give you the inside scoop, Brother. We know that Prince Yan is investigating Zhao Liang’s case by examining the accounts, but why would they need to take all the financial records from the entire Liaodong border this morning? We can’t justify this to our superiors.”
“What can’t be justified?” Han Jiao mocked coldly. “Which of your superiors is up to no good? Tell me, and I’ll privately return their accounts.”
Liu Changqing wore a sly smile. “These days, who in a government position doesn’t have some hidden agenda? You and your father are both remarkable individuals, living in a world of your own. But you can’t possibly sweep everything under the rug and antagonize us folks who deal with the worldly matters, can you?”
“I have my official duties, and I don’t want to waste time. I’ll be honest with you. I’m auditing the accounts to assist in the investigation of wrongful execution for personal gain. It only concerns Zhao Liang. I don’t have the time to delve into your superiors’ hidden agendas. Even if I accidentally uncover something I shouldn’t, as a mere junior scholar-official from Hanlin Academy, I won’t recklessly provoke trouble and go against the entire Ministry of War. I urge your superiors to ease their suspicions and stop needlessly frightening themselves.”
“You speak the truth, Brother!” Liu Changqing reached for the wine jug to pour Han Jiao a drink, but Han Jiao stopped his hand.
Han Jiao coldly refused, “Let’s not waste time. I need to take my little brother home for dinner. If you bring him here, I’ll host a meal for you and a few of your colleagues right here, consider it compensation for any inconvenience your Ministry of War experienced, due to this.”
Liu Changqing presented a sincere expression. “It’s us compensating you, Master Han. However, we really can’t complete this task, can we? Master Han, you’re reasonable, and since it won’t involve unrelated parties, could we leave the financial records of Qining Pass with you and return the rest to us, is that acceptable?”
Han Jiao knew these people came prepared, and invoking Prince Yan to pressure them wouldn’t work. Tearing up the situation would have dire consequences, so he had no choice but to compromise. “Rest assured, I’ll return the other account records to you within two days.”
“This isn’t a matter for negotiation,” Liu Changqing’s tone grew stern, “If I can’t retrieve the ledgers, the higher-ups won’t let us off easily. Honestly, if you go to Prince Yan and report me, I might lose my position and serve a few years in prison at most. However, I won’t be able to regain what’s already lost, and it would put my whole family at risk. Master Han, like you, I also have a mother and a little brother to care for. Can’t we find a way to accommodate each other?”
This was a veiled threat to Han Jiao, indicating that the Ministry of War was keeping an eye on the Han’s household.
By trying to find a new approach to help Prince Yan thoroughly investigate wrongful execution for personal gain and save his father, he had put his whole family’s lives in danger.
If he abandoned the audit now, he couldn’t explain it to Prince Yan, and his father would be finished.
But at least he might save his little brother and mother.
Could he really save them?
If he lost Prince Yan’s trust completely, these people would become even more reckless, and Han Jiao couldn’t easily escape their clutches.
Abandoning the mission halfway would only alienate both sides. Han Jiao knew he couldn’t turn back now.
Who had the stronger fist, the Ministry of War or Prince Yan? Certainly, the future Emperor had the stronger fist. Han Jiao couldn’t cut off his last escape route.
With these thoughts in mind, Han Jiao made up his mind. He turned to Liu Changqing and lied, “Master Liu, I’ve already made myself clear. I’m truly only investigating Zhao Liang, primarily to see if there are any signs of corruption in the records. In order to do that, I need some past account records for comparison. I absolutely have no intention of involving others.”
“Master, if you’re just looking for evidence, we can do the bookkeeping and send it to you.”
“I don’t want someone else’s bookkeeping!” Han Jiao, feigning the airs of a scholar, raised his hand in a polite gesture. “I mustn’t disappoint Prince Yan’s trust. In this case, I’ll only rely on concrete evidence.”
Liu Changqing became impatient, unable to determine if this young apprentice was shrewd or truly bookish.
Could it be that his master had overestimated this young man?
After all, Han Jiao was entrusted by Prince Yan, and it wasn’t worthwhile to provoke Prince Yan for the sake of a mere nerd. Liu Changqing still didn’t want to escalate the situation, so he had to persist with persuasion.
Han Jiao realized that this wouldn’t lead to a conclusion, so he increased the sternness in his tone and said coldly, “I have no grudge with the Ministry of War, so your sudden appearance here is astonishing! After all these words, if you still don’t trust me, I can swear to the heavens that I won’t involve others. I can also provide you with a written guarantee. Please return my little brother immediately.”
Liu Changqing fell into silence, suspecting that this young apprentice truly didn’t have the audacity to go against the entire Ministry of War. Perhaps his master had been overly cautious. It might be better to promptly release Han Jiao to avoid making the situation worse.
Just then, a stout man who looked like a eunuch entered from outside and bowed to Han Jiao. “Master Han, my young lords invites you to the adjacent room for a drink.”
Han Jiao was momentarily taken aback, nearly forgetting that the princes were also dining at this restaurant.
He didn’t seek help from the passing princes just now because there was still room for maneuver in the situation. After all, his little brother was in their hands. Who knew if these desperate men would act recklessly?
The best strategy was to avoid an outright confrontation as long as possible. Unexpectedly, as he was about to persuade these desperate men, the princes’ sudden invitation to join them for a drink raised Liu Changqing’s suspicions.
Two guards, disguised as vendors, stood on either side of Liu Changqing and immediately approached the eunuch. “Which lords here are so blind? Didn’t you see that Master Han is currently dining with our master?”
There was no reason to invite only one person when there was a whole table. It was quite impolite.
This lack of courtesy and arrogance actually made Liu Changqing more alert, suspecting that the people who invited Han Jiao had special status.
“Unreasonable!” Liu Changqing ordered his subordinates to step back and carefully observed the newcomer. He was surprised when he noticed that the person was dressed in the high-ranking eunuch’s attire from the imperial palace.
This young junior scholar-official had quite a remarkable network. Not only did he know Prince Yan, but he also had connections with palace princes.
No wonder the higher-ups were so wary of this young junior scholar-official. It appeared that he shouldn’t be underestimated.
Liu Changqing put on a smile and told the eunuch who had come to invite, “Kindly convey the message that we’re discussing official matters here. We appreciate the goodwill and understand. Next time, we’ll invite your lords for another gathering.”
Hearing this, the eunuch’s expression immediately turned cold, thinking that these ignorant people didn’t recognize his lords’ status, and they dared to show disrespect.
Talking about inviting his lords next time, they should check their own standing first. Were these princes at their beck and call?
Besides, the prince invited Master Han. What was this person doing here?
He’d file a complaint shortly and get what he deserved!
The eunuch let out a disdainful snort, ignoring Liu Changqing, and instead, he smiled at Han Jiao. “Master Han, would you honor us?”
When the princes invite, one gives face. But his little brother was still in the hands of these desperate men. Liu Changqing was starting to believe him, so he had to keep both sides steady.
Han Jiao turned to Liu Changqing, offering a polite gesture. “I’ll step next door for a drink and return shortly. Would Brother Liu kindly wait here?”
Liu Changqing smiled, leaned closer to Han Jiao, and asked in a low voice, “Who are the people in the adjacent room?”
Han Jiao’s eyes gleamed.
How should he respond?
If he said they were princes, it would likely scare Liu Changqing. Maybe it was better to say they were colleagues from the Hanlin Academy.
However, before he could answer, the eunuch who had come to invite them coldly remarked, “Of course, it’s the palace lords.”
The three Ministry of War officials in the room turned pale instantly, exchanged glances, and gave Han Jiao wary looks.
Was this junior scholar-official going to report to Prince Yan?
It seemed like they were on the brink of a confrontation!
Han Jiao internally cursed his luck, realizing that this might not end well. Without waiting for Liu Changqing’s response, he began to rise, intending to leave with the eunuch. However, Liu Changqing forcefully grasped his wrist and pulled him back into his seat.
Han Jiao was about to warn Liu Changqing not to overstep, but suddenly felt pressure against his side. He lowered his gaze to see that Liu Changqing had a dagger in his right hand, its blade already pressing against Han Jiao’s side.
“Tell the eunuch to go, and let’s finish our business,” Liu Changqing said in a hushed tone. He had a smile on his face, pretending to be slightly intoxicated, and held onto Han Jiao to prevent him from leaving.
Han Jiao furrowed his brows, slowly turning his head to look at the eunuch, attempting to seek help. The pressure from the blade against his side increased, puncturing his clothing.
These people were just startled.
Han Jiao took a deep breath and smiled at the eunuch. “Brother Liu and I still have important matters to discuss. Please convey our apologies, and we’ll gather again next time. Thank the lords for their kind hospitality.”
The eunuch was taken aback. Thinking Han Jiao hadn’t recognized him, he kindly reminded, “Master Han, I’m Zhao Fu, the servant who attended to you at Nansan Hall. I came to collect your essay a fortnight ago, don’t you remember? My lord invites you to have a chat with him next door.”
The blade pressed against Han Jiao once again, causing him to frown. He quickly responded, “I really can’t leave right now. I can’t leave… I can’t leave here.”
Han Jiao feared that any sudden move might lead to an untimely demise and could only use pleading eyes to gaze at the eunuch, hoping he would notice that something was amiss and rush back to fetch the princes to help.
However, the Chief Eunuch of the palace princes had never endured such humiliation. Not to mention a mere junior scholar-official like Han Jiao, even the senior ministers of various ministries wouldn’t have dared to decline his invitation.
Zhao Fu responded coldly, “I apologize for any inconvenience. This servant will take his leave. Enjoy your time, gentlemen.”
With a swift turn of his sleeve, he briskly departed.
Passing through the bustling corridor, he entered the most luxurious private room of the restaurant. Suppressing his frustration, he took a deep breath behind a screen and put on a kindly smile again. He went around the screen and delivered the response to the princes.
“Reporting to the Princes, Master Han mentioned he has official duties and cannot be excused.”
The princes, who were in the midst of laughter and conversation, froze in an instant.
It was unheard of that a junior scholar-official from the Hanlin Academy would simultaneously refuse four princes’ invitations, making it an unparalleled act of defiance. Such a daring act was unprecedented.
“Wasn’t Master Xiaobai on sick leave?” Xie An, still puzzled about the situation, asked, “Why is he discussing official matters in the restaurant now?”
The Third Prince slammed his hand on the table, furrowing his brows as he scolded, “Who cares if he’s free or not? Tell him to come over. This isn’t an invitation. It’s an order!”
Xie Jing hurriedly intervened, “Let it go, Third Brother. I reckon it’s because of the slight to his pride the last time you frightened him. Master Han is young and thin-skinned, so let’s not intimidate him further.”
Just as the Third Prince was about to retort, he heard the sound of chopsticks being set down on a table nearby. He turned to find his ninth brother had already stood up!