“To encounter the Princes here by chance is a great honor,” Han Jiao grumbled to himself as he respectfully saluted the big boss.
A chance encounter?
Xie Duo asked with confusion, “What brings you here?”
“To find this Prince, of course.” Prince Yan quickly walked out from the side hall. “Master Han, why are you here? Have you encountered any difficulties?”
Han Jiao eagerly stepped forward, nodding in acknowledgment. “I have important information to report.”
“So soon?” Prince Yan’s eyes lit up. He handed the recently retrieved Ministry of Justice interrogation book to his ninth brother and instructed, “I have important matters to discuss with Master Han. Go to my study and fill in everything you know.”
The kidnapping case was still being investigated. To reduce how often Han Jiao was questioned by the Ministry of Justice, Prince Yan specially summoned his “informed” ninth brother out of the palace to assist with the investigation.
Since the Ministry of Justice couldn’t interrogate a Prince, Prince Yan instructed the officials to write down the questions they needed to ask Han Jiao in the interrogation book and bring it back to the palace for his brothers to fill in.
The Ninth Prince was completely surprised to be called by his sixth brother, only to make things easier for the child prodigy. He slowly lowered his head to look at the interrogation book and when he raised his eyes to look at his sixth brother, his eyes turned as sharp as a sword.
Sixth Brother was starting to treat Old Ninth as less than a person!
“What’s this?” Third Prince reached out to take the interrogation ledger from Ninth Brother and, after a quick look, raised an eyebrow. “Old Sixth, you called us here just for this?”
When Prince Yan was young, he used to be one of Third Prince’s followers. Even now that he’d left the palace and established his own residence, he still respected his third brother greatly. Hearing this tone, he quickly turned to explain, “I only asked Old Ninth to make a quick visit, when would I dare trouble Third Brother?”
Xie Duo, on the sidelines, issued a stern warning to Sixth Prince, “Old Ninth is not someone you can casually trouble.”
Prince Yan completely disregarded his younger brother’s warning and continued to wear a smile while addressing his fierce older brother, “Since you’re here, Third Brother, why don’t you sit for a moment? I just acquired a sword the other day. They say it’s an ancient divine sword, untouched by rust for a thousand years. Later, I can have Li Sheng bring it to see if it’s genuine.”
Thinking that the mastermind behind the kidnapping case had been discovered, Third Prince had come along to personally reprimand the villain who nearly harmed his own brother.
Unexpectedly, the case was still under investigation. A little disappointed, the Third Prince turned to Ninth Brother and said, “Come, let’s go to the study first and fill out this thing. We can come back later to see what your Sixth Brother is up to, acting foolishly, even talking about an ancient divine sword. Old Sixth really dares to do anything…”
The Third Prince, who had his doubts about Prince Yan’s intelligence, shook his head with disdain, put his arm around his Ninth Brother, and walked toward the study.
Xie Duo was led away with an arm around his shoulder, but he looked back, puzzled, at Sixth Brother and the little child prodigy.
“Let’s go, we’ll talk inside,” Prince Yan gestured to Han Jiao.
Han Jiao nodded in agreement, allowing Prince Yan to lead the way. Unaware of a certain boss’ displeasure, he followed Prince Yan into the room.
Prince Yan quickly skimmed through the stack of documents handed over by Han Jiao, his brow furrowing deeply.
He had initially thought that this thick pile provided a summary of clues related to the case of wrongful execution for personal gain. To his surprise, these documents contained nothing but lists of accounts.
Han Jiao had overlooked the fact that Prince Yan wasn’t skilled at comparing financial records.
Nevertheless, the Prince asked patiently, “Are there any issues with these accounts?”
“It’s a long story,” Han Jiao said solemnly. “First, let me show you an overview of the evidence, and then I’ll explain the problems one by one.”
Prince Yan nodded. “Please proceed.”
Han Jiao gestured for Prince Yan to hand the stack of documents back to him and swiftly found the first page of accounts he had organized. He presented it to the Prince and began explaining, “This is the military expenditure for various expenses at Qining Pass in the seventeenth year of Tiansheng. Apart from the increased military supply at the end of the year due to the Tatar invasion, the overall expenses remained consistent with the previous two years.”
Prince Yan nodded, encouraging him to continue.
Han Jiao turned to the second page. “This is the military expenditure reported by Qining Pass in the tenth lunar month of the eighteenth year of Tiansheng. Due to the two Tatar invasions, Qining Pass recruited an additional ten thousand soldiers starting from this month, resulting in an annual extra cost of ten thousand troops.”
Prince Yan glanced sideways at Han Jiao, as if urging him to get to the point.
Han Jiao pointed to the name Zhao Liang in the bottom left corner of this account. “Zhao Liang was transferred to Qining Pass in the seventh lunar month of that year, taking up the role of a General. This means he led a military expedition just three months after assuming his position.”
Prince Yan furrowed his brow slightly and patiently said, “Recruiting soldiers wasn’t his decision, I know this. It was an order from Father Emperor, so it’s not Zhao Liang’s fault.”
Han Jiao seemed oblivious to Prince Yan’s dissatisfaction and turned to the next page of accounts. He elaborated, “The initial disbursement of funds for the new troops was allocated by the Ministry of Revenue in the second lunar month of the following year. Please take a close look at this particular account.”
He retrieved the first page of accounts and displayed both side by side for Prince Yan to examine closely. Then he asked, “Can Your Highness spot any differences in the military expenditure items between these two accounts?”
Prince Yan disregarded Han Jiao’s guidance and issued a direct command, “Please clarify, Master.”
Initially, Han Jiao had hoped that Prince Yan would follow his lead and uncover the truth himself, making Han Jiao’s conclusion more convincing.
Explaining a bunch of convoluted evidence directly might leave Prince Yan perplexed.
However, it appeared that Prince Yan had little patience for that.
Unfortunately, Prince Yan might still view Han Jiao as too young to discover any crucial evidence.
Therefore, Han Jiao had no choice but to point out an unusual expense in the accounts himself. “This ‘expenditure for the disassembly and repair of firearms and cannons returning to the capital,’ is unprecedented before the eighteenth year of Tiansheng. Except for the expenses related to transporting grains and the like, the remaining costs were consolidated under the Ministry of War, and the receiving official was the Left Deputy Minister of War, Zhou Zhaokun. This expense amounts to a whopping sixty thousand taels annually.”
As soon as Senior Minister Li’s son-in-law’s name was mentioned, Prince Yan immediately turned his keen eyes to the bill. He murmured with seriousness, “Do you think this firearms maintenance cost is a cover, and Zhou Zhaokun actually embezzled it? Do you have any evidence? Firearms are much more costly to maintain than regular weapons. Without regular maintenance every year, they need to be completely replaced every few years, which would be far more than sixty thousand taels of silver.”
Han Jiao swiftly found another account marked in red from the documents. “The firearms at Qining Pass were previously maintained by the Office of Liaodong’s Command, inspected every eighteen months, and the cost was always within ten thousand taels or less. Unless there were conflicts with Tatars that year, requiring ammunition supplies, the expenses at most reached twenty thousand taels of silver.”
Prince Yan’s eyes lit up as he received the page Han Jiao had retrieved, examining it carefully. After a while, he spoke softly, “This is intriguing, but it falls under the jurisdiction of the Ministry of War, and Zhou Zhaokun is in charge. He can find a pretext, like military research and equipment modifications, to insist on spending a few extra thousand taels of silver. We can’t do much about it.”
“Your Highness,” Han Jiao took the document back from Prince Yan and signaled him to listen closely. “My investigation into this expenditure’s purpose is not about confirming if the sixty thousand taels of silver were used for firearm repairs, but about how Qining Pass managed to allocate such a large sum.”
This statement jolted Prince Yan.
“Right.” Prince Yan looked at Han Jiao. “Where did they get so much money for military firearm maintenance? The funds for preparing and fortifying the border are always requested from the Ministry of Revenue. Where did they find the extra money to show favor to Zhou Zhaokun?”
“That’s the point!” Han Jiao said firmly. “Sixty thousand taels of silver is roughly equivalent to one-third of the annual military pay for about three thousand border soldiers recruited by Zhao Liang.”
Prince Yan paused. “Are you saying that Zhao Liang withheld military pay? That’s impossible. Each soldier’s annual pay is just under twenty taels, and the Ministry of Revenue meticulously calculates it. There’s not much room for squeezing out extra silver. Not to mention one-third of the military pay, that would lead to starvation and potential unrest. Zhao Liang wouldn’t dare.”
Han Jiao nodded. “Your Highness, please remember this conclusion – Zhao Liang did not embezzle military pay.”
Upon hearing this, Prince Yan had a strong gut feeling that this Wonderchild Han was indeed extraordinary. He gazed at him intently and urged, “Go on.”
“Your Highness, do you recall the contents of the urgent message that the Investigating Censor sent back to the capital when investigating the case of wrongful execution for personal gain?”
“Of course, I remember! The Investigating Censor, while examining the battlefield, discovered many women and children among the enemy corpses. This led to suspicions that the victory reports from Qining Pass might be inflated.”
Han Jiao added, “That’s the first important detail in the Investigating Censor’s confidential message. There is another. The Investigating Censor provided a detailed account of the battle process, stating that the Tatar forces launched a surprise attack on one of Qining Pass’ border gates at night. After a brief retreat, our defending soldiers counterattacked, annihilating over twelve hundred Tatar invaders, while our casualties amounted to three thousand soldiers. This isn’t considered a major victory. In fact, our casualties were more than twice that of the enemy.”
Prince Yan shook his head. “Tatar warriors are brave and skilled in combat, especially during a night raid. It’s not surprising that our losses exceeded theirs. Being able to counterattack and wipe out the enemy is still a significant achievement.”
Han Jiao fell silent for a moment, waiting for Prince Yan to process all the information from earlier. Then he spoke up, “Exactly three thousand casualties, just half a month before Zhao Liang was scheduled to leave Qining Pass, and coincidentally during the Tatar night raid that killed three thousand of our soldiers. It perfectly balances the sixty thousand taels of military pay!”
It was as if a bolt of lightning had struck a clear sky. Prince Yan suddenly stood up, staring at Han Jiao in shock. “You mean… You mean…”
Han Jiao promptly rose from his seat, his expression resolute as he locked eyes with Prince Yan. “Your Highness, the situation has become quite clear! Two months ago, the court proposed replacing Zhao Liang as the commanding officer of Qining Pass. One month ago, the victory report from Qining Pass reached the capital. Half a month ago, the Investigating Censor discovered something fishy among the enemy corpses. That’s when the case of wrongful execution for personal gain started to unravel.”
Prince Yan felt a surge of excitement and continued Han Jiao’s words, “So, your point is that Zhao Liang manufactured a case of killing innocent people and claiming false merits not for the purpose of keeping his position, but to cover up the military funds he embezzled every year by drawing a false salary before Senior Minister Xu’s people arrived!”
Han Jiao nodded. “Senior Minister Xu’s sudden reassignment left Zhao Liang with no choice. The three thousand soldiers he had falsely reported couldn’t be recruited on the border within just half a month. He feared that his embezzlement would be exposed and lead to Zhou Zhaokun’s involvement. That’s when he urgently manufactured a war.
“In reality, Zhao Liang likely carried out a nighttime raid on a Tatar tribe. He didn’t engage the main Tatar forces to avoid excessive casualties. Instead, he attacked a tribe with no combat capabilities, comprising elderly, women, and children. The corpses of Tatar enemies may not even be border residents, especially as Qining Pass couldn’t have so many people available at once. This also explains why there were no surviving victims to expose the false report. Zhao Liang did indeed kill Tatar enemies. What was faked were the deaths of our three thousand soldiers!
“These three thousand soldiers never existed. Their annual military pay, totaling sixty thousand taels, was shared among four border military officers and the Ministry of War’s Left Deputy Minister Zhou Zhaokun.”
At this moment, Prince Yan stared at Han Jiao with awe. “Why did these five people tamper the accounts instead of dividing the spoils after they got their hands on the military pay?”
Han Jiao smiled wryly and replied in a hushed tone, “Your Highness, have you forgotten? When military funds are disbursed, there are inspections by Censors at each checkpoint along the way. Our Great Chu’s Founding Emperor set up multiple checkpoints in the verification process to prevent embezzlement. When military pay is distributed, headcounts must match, and any surplus funds would never reach Zhao Liang. Besides, too many people were aware of the process, and there were many Censors to bribe. Zhao Liang and others exploited every checkpoint’s varying scope of inspection, intercepting the surplus funds in advance under the guise of official procedures. To be honest, what they did in the accounts is far more complex than what I’ve described. In order to make it clear to you, I’ve only listed the largest fabricated entry, but there are other convoluted entries…”
Han Jiao pulled out his four “sample” accounts from the thick stack and handed over the remaining authentic accounts to Prince Yan. He continued in a low voice, “They are all here. I’ve meticulously audited the military expenditure variations for different checkpoints over five years. I’ve added up all the suspicious accounts from Qining Pass, and the total almost matches the annual military pay for the three thousand ‘deceased’ soldiers.”
Prince Yan was left in stunned silence as he received the stack of accounts.
Han Jiao provided a final suggestion, “Your Highness, you can immediately dispatch an Investigating Censor to go to Qining Pass, dig up the so-called graves of the three thousand fallen heroes, and verify if they truly exist. If they don’t, this fabricated victory report, along with all the officials implicated in this corruption scheme, as clearly listed on the accounts, can be held accountable without any implication on your part.”