In the evening, at Prince Yan’s residence.
“Eldest Brother and Master Liu, please leave. I will investigate this matter on my own,” Prince Yan said with suppressed anger, dismissing the two.
Master Liu, who used to be Prince Yan’s teacher, had given all the advice he could.
It was hard to understand why His Highness, who used to hold him in high regard, suddenly disrespected his old teacher for a young apprentice who appeared out of nowhere.
Initially, Master Liu was only here on Senior Minister Xu’s orders to deliver a message to Prince Yan. However, at this moment, he couldn’t help but feel jealous of the unknown child prodigy Han Jiao from the depths of his heart.
It was said that Han Jiao now resided in the neighboring mansion next to the royal mansion and had a very close and friendly relationship with Prince Yan. They were not just student and teacher but also friends.
Master Liu had believed that the respect shown to him by Prince Yan was the highest form of admiration from a student to a teacher. But now, when compared to Han Jiao, he realized that he didn’t hold much importance in Prince Yan’s heart.
He was unwilling to leave like this. He subtly signaled to the Eldest Prince sitting across from him, hoping he would step in and persuade Prince Yan.
The Eldest Prince had been pretending to stay out of it all. Now, seeing Master Liu refusing to continue, he reluctantly turned to Prince Yan and advised, “Old Sixth, the evidence is clear. All the kidnappers who survived the ordeal have given the same confession. Are you still in denial? This case was a charade they played with Han Jiao.”
A moment ago, when Master Liu had been presenting the case, Prince Yan had been considerate, choosing not to directly refute it. However, upon hearing his older brother embellishing the story from the sidelines, Prince Yan quickly turned and rebuked him, “I truly don’t understand why you all want to trouble Master Han. He’s just an eighteen-year-old junior scholar-official with no power. He risked his life to offer me advice. You’re fabricating these sensational conspiracies. If Master Han were to hear about this, he’d be heartbroken. If he were to leave in anger and seclusion, where would you find such a brilliant strategist to compensate for me?”
“I don’t understand either, Old Sixth. Why do you trust an outsider with no power, no connections, and no background to solve such a major case? The cleaner Han Jiao’s background seems, the more it raises suspicion. The cunning puppeteer behind the scenes wants you to have blind faith in him, which is why he found such a person. Given the current circumstances and Father Emperor’s deep trust in Senior Minister Li, you should have maintained a low profile, minded your own business, and not treasured the ears and eyes placed by Senior Minister Li, even housing them in a separate mansion next to the royal mansion!”
Prince Yan sneered, “So, who should I treasure? Should I value those ‘insiders’ who advised me to bury the case, endure humiliation, and remain silent when trouble arose? But should I treat the brilliant talent who risked everything to give me advice, who dared to offend the most powerful faction in the court, and who, with a pile of ledgers, single-handedly solved the case in three days, as a threat or a traitor?”
When these words were spoken, it didn’t just hit a nerve with the Eldest Prince. Master Liu sitting across turned red in the face.
Prince Yan was clearly addressing Master Liu, accusing him of doing nothing when he faced trouble but now trying to defame the accomplished Han Jiao.
“I don’t understand Your Highness’ intention with these words,” Master Liu said, his eyes reddened with anger. He trembled as he tried to defend himself, “I came here to deliver a message on behalf of Senior Minister Xu and to present the results of the Ministry of Justice’s investigation. I have never spoken a single word against Master Han. If Your Highness, due to this old man’s advice and the results of the investigation, chooses to vent anger on me, I shall submit my resignation today and, from now on…”
“Master Liu!” Prince Yan frowned as he looked at Master Liu. “Since you wish to hear my opinion, shouldn’t I express my thoughts as well? I’m not blaming you personally. What I said earlier was about other advisers in my household, not you.”
Such an explanation only added insult to injury.
After the incident, Master Liu, acting on Senior Minister Xu’s orders, advised Prince Yan to endure and settle the matter quietly. This “insider” who did nothing, who else could it be if not him?
Seeing his teacher clenching his fists and trembling, Prince Yan regretted his harsh words.
After all, this was his loyal teacher of five years, who took risks to relay messages between Prince Yan and important court ministers.
If it weren’t for the opposition from Prince Duan’s faction, Liu Tong’s qualifications would easily make him a high-ranking official in the Six Ministries. He had willingly remained in the background for many years for the sake of Prince Yan, contributing both with achievements and sacrifices.
Since Han Jiao arrived, Prince Yan had hardly sought Liu Tong’s advice. It was only natural for him to feel some resentment towards Han Jiao.
Prince Yan, feeling a moment of softness, stood up and deeply bowed to Master Liu. “I misspoke earlier. I didn’t mean to offend you. I hope you can forgive my outburst.”
Liu Tong took a deep breath, rose, and also gave a respectful bow to Prince Yan. “Your Highness, your words are too kind.”
Prince Yan, feeling guilty, calmed down and began to explain Han Jiao’s investigative reasoning to both of them, trying to make it clear that Han Jiao didn’t rely on mere fortune-telling or baseless guesses to solve the case. The facts were meticulously deduced by this talented scholar.
“If that’s the case, it’s indeed for the best,” Liu Tong was also moved by the sincerity of Prince Yan and calmly said, “At first, when Your Highness acquired such a prodigious talent, from Senior Minister Xu to people like me, everyone rejoiced. However, upon closer examination, it’s true that the time this child took to solve the case was rather short. Also, with his father recently implicated by Zhou Zhaokun and confessions in the kidnapping case claiming collusion with Han Jiao, Senior Minister Xu was concerned that Your Highness might be falling into a trap. That’s why I was sent to deliver this warning.”
Prince Yan furrowed his brow. “Although I’ve known Master Han for only half a month, I’ve heard him discuss governance daily. I believe he’s a genius for the ages. His swift handling of the case is due to his genuine knowledge and abilities. There’s no doubt about that. As for Zhou Zhaokun releasing prisoners, it’s more a sign of his own guilt and weakness. Moreover, the confessions you’ve brought from interrogations are all secretly conducted by the Ministry of Justice. They don’t dare make them public. Who knows what they might have manipulated? The Ministry of Justice and the Ministry of War have been influenced by Zhou Zhaokun, so can we really trust these confessions?”
“Your Highness, the Ministry of Justice doesn’t reveal these details publicly because it’s our own people conducting these secret interrogations. That’s why Senior Minister Xu wanted you to be cautious.”
Prince Yan’s frustration flared up again. Concerned about speaking out of turn once more, he paused for a while and then argued, “The prisoners who underwent Senior Minister’s interrogations are all desperate characters who can be easily manipulated by Zhou Zhaokun. Besides, I personally questioned my own younger brother, Xie Duo, and he told me that when Han Jiao dueled with the kidnapper, it was he who saved Han Jiao from a perilous situation. Please, consider this carefully. If the kidnapping was a charade, even if those kidnappers didn’t expect a prince to chase them relentlessly, it wouldn’t make sense for them to silence Han Jiao. According to these confessions, after they finished this act and obtained the money, wouldn’t they just vanish? If they really killed Han Jiao, wouldn’t they be in deep trouble?””
Master Liu picked up the interrogation records and pointed out a specific section for Prince Yan to review. “Your Highness, please read this detailed passage. It roughly states that the kidnapper, who was slain by the Ninth Prince, had no intention of killing Han Jiao. He panicked due to the situation getting out of hand, thought about killing the prince to eliminate a witness, and when that didn’t work, he opted for a staged scenario, knocking Han Jiao unconscious before attempting an escape. But in the process, the Ninth Prince killed him. In reality, he had no intention of killing Han Jiao.”
Prince Yan couldn’t help but chuckle and looked at Master Liu with a hint of resignation. “Should I believe these testimonies regarding the kidnapper’s intentions, or should I trust my younger brother’s eyewitness account of the events?”
Master Liu was left speechless once again.
“Well, Master Liu, my Sixth Brother is completely devoted to Han Jiao. Let’s not play the villains here.” The Eldest Prince stood up, looking disappointedly at Prince Yan. “You’re only willing to believe what you want to see. No matter how much others advise you, it won’t make a difference. As your elder brother, I can’t force you to listen, but you shouldn’t cold-shoulder Senior Minister Xu for the sake of a new strategist. He went to great lengths to address your concerns and raise awareness. At least out of respect for Senior Minister Xu, you should have your new strategist move back to his own residence, right? Why insist on moving Han Jiao’s whole family to your secondary mansion? Your consideration goes beyond what’s necessary. Are you trying to be a dutiful son to his parents?”
Blushing, Prince Yan defended himself, “I brought him to my side because Zhou Zhaokun threatened him and his family’s lives!”
“Now that the situation is settled, Senior Minister Li’s people won’t dare harass him again. You should send your ‘genius for the ages’ back home as soon as possible,” the Eldest Prince advised earnestly. “This young man needs to spend over a year at the Hanlin Academy before he can formally take office. Right now, he has no power or influence. Treating him like a precious idol with so many eyes watching over him, aren’t you just putting him in a vulnerable position? The more you do this, the more he becomes a target.”
After a brief thought, Prince Yan asked, “So, all of you want him to stay away from me, don’t you?”
Liu Tong quickly affirmed, “The Senior Minister has that intention.”
Prince Yan shook his head. “Honestly, Master Han himself isn’t too keen on staying in my secondary mansion. Ever since his father was released, he requested to move back to his original home. It’s me who convinced him to stay for a while. If the Senior Minsiter has that intention, I won’t insist next time. No need to worry unnecessarily.”
With this small concession, Liu Tong and the Eldest Prince took their leave.
The sun set in the west.
After practicing cuju for over an hour, Han Jiao rode his donkey back to his residence. His forehead and neck still glistened with sweat.
From a distance, Han Jiao spotted the palace eunuch waiting in the alley. As soon as he saw him, he smiled and respectfully approached.
Han Jiao quickly dismounted from his donkey and asked what the matter was.
The eunuch informed him that Prince Yan had requested his presence. Han Jiao then followed him to the mansion.
Almost every evening, Prince Yan would invite him for tea and conversations, which was not unusual.
“You returned late today, Master. Were you occupied with official duties at the Hanlin Academy?”
“Oh, no, after class, some colleagues and I visited the cuju field,” Han Jiao openly admitted.
“You play cuju?” Prince Yan exclaimed with delight. “Why didn’t you mention it earlier? I’ve been worrying about how to entertain you. You don’t like chess, and you’re not fond of drinking. I had no idea how to please you…”
“I’ve actually played cuju for the first time today. I’m not particularly skilled at it. I’m afraid I won’t be able to challenge you anytime soon.”
“I see,” Prince Yan nodded, then suddenly remembered something and asked, “With which colleagues did you go?”
Han Jiao, without thinking much, listed the names of the fellow officials who accompanied him.
Prince Yan listened carefully, and when he heard one particular name, his lips tightened.
It was only at this point that Han Jiao sensed something amiss and immediately focused his attention on answering Prince Yan’s questions.
“Should I keep my distance from my colleagues?” Han Jiao, after giving the names, proactively inquired about Prince Yan’s thoughts.
After a moment of reflection, Prince Yan candidly replied, “The person you just mentioned, Zhang Chongxi, is from the same hometown as Zhou Zhaokun.”
The newly admitted scholars at the Hanlin Academy had their backgrounds thoroughly investigated by Senior Minister Xu’s people. This Zhang Chongxi had long paid his respects at Zhou Zhaokun’s residence, and naturally, Senior Minister Xu had faithfully reported this information to Prince Yan.
With a slight jolt, Han Jiao promptly stood up and respectfully said, “I have been careless.”
“Ah.” Prince Yan hastily rose as well. “Please, Master, don’t misunderstand. I’ve promised never to doubt you. However, apart from myself, I also need to reassure others. I will go copy a confidential letter from Senior Minister Xu detailing his findings for you shortly. You must be cautious moving forward.”
The willingness to share Senior Minister Xu’s confidential letter with him was a show of utmost sincerity. Han Jiao was initially touched but soon became wary.
Prince Yan appeared to trust him greatly, yet his careful consideration for “others” indicated that these “others” held a significant place in Prince Yan’s heart.
Over time, even the strongest trust could crumble under a continuous stream of malicious whispers from those close to us.
After a moment of contemplation, Han Jiao made up his mind. He looked directly at Prince Yan and inquired seriously, “Forgive my boldness, Your Highness, but may I ask who this ‘others’ are? Why should they be concerned about me? I would like a chance to prove myself.”
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