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Chapter 178 : Jiang-Xia’s Death
In the end, not even three days had passed when in the early afternoon of the second day, the soldiers in charge of escorting the exiled prisoners sent a flying pigeon to pass a missive. It stated that all three generations from the Xia family, as well as Jiang Chao, had committed suicide to escape punishment en route to their exile.
Although this was what was said, what the truth was or whether it was a falsehood- no one would ever know. It’s just that no matter how noble and far-reaching they all once were, they had already become corpses, and so no one cared about the truth. Thus, a generation of Marquis fell into decay. Meanwhile, the common people were all clapping their hands in satisfaction — for such people to have destroyed the urgently needed military provisions in a single fire, they were truly guilty of terrible crimes. Moreover, who knew what other kinds of intentions they might have harboured?
When Qi Feng shared the news, he noticed that Jiang Ruan merely replied with a faint noise of affirmation. So, he asked, “Third Sister-in-law, why do you seem so unbothered? Aren’t you afraid that they might have been rescued by someone?”
“When crafty rabbits are dead, then the hunting dogs are useless.” Jiang Ruan seemed utterly unfazed as she checked the account book before her. Ever since she had entered the fu, Steward Lin had begun to treat her as the mistress of the Jinying Wangfu. It wasn’t just having authority over every matter, everything had been handed over to Jiang Ruan to take care of. Even if she was predisposed to decline, the ledger and the storeroom keys were still handed over to her in the end. Initially, she had not wanted to bother with these matters, but in the end this was Xiao Shao’s Wangfu. Even if she was given free rein, to wash her hands of this was not too good either. So now, on a daily basis, she had one more thing to look over. She then continued, “The Xia family has been Xuan Li’s blade in the imperial court for so many years that they have too many sworn enemies. Once Xuan Li began to regard them as discarded goods, it was impossible to expect that he would do anything to help them. To be killed en route to being banished; finding any means as they wish to frame it as them dreading punishment and committing suicide is not bad either. Only it’s a pity that they were absolved of their crimes this quickly.”
 狡兔死走狗烹 (jiǎo tù sǐ zǒugǒu pēng) – it means when someone has no use of a person, they would immediately dispose of them.
“Actually, you’ve guessed wrong this time.” Qi Feng chuckled, “It wasn’t the enemies of Xia family who did this.”
“It was Xuan Li then,” Jiang Ruan responded indifferently, “he has the guts to do so.”
“How did you know?” Qi Feng was stunned.
“Xuan Li wants to protect the secret passageway, so dares not let this secret be exposed. Therefore, he sacrificed the Xia family and Jiang Chao. Furthermore, they had done so much over the years as Xuan Li’s underlings, which meant that they must have more or less known about Xuan Li’s end goal. So naturally, they would have some leverage. This being the case, how could he possibly allow the Xia family to live? Xuan Li murdered them to both silence and prevent them from divulging his secrets.” Jiang Ruan continued, “Speaking of which, the Xia family must have assumed that being exiled was due to Xuan Li. They must have thought that they could eventually make a comeback after obediently not resisting their sentence. Yet, they actually set themselves on a road of no return.”
Qi Feng rubbed his nose, “To think you’ve actually guessed pretty closely.” He continued, “The Jinyi Guards who were sent were watching attentively. Once the Xia family and Jiang Chao realized that Xuan Li had sent people to silence them, their complexions changed. Unfortunately, we were just a little too late, but there wasn’t any time to regret. Third Sister-in-law, I acted on my own initiative and had Xia Jun’s and Jiang Chao’s severed heads collected and brought back,” he looked at Jiang Ruan closely, “How does Third Sister-in-law want to handle this?”
Hearing Qi Feng’s words, Jiang Ruan felt a little astonished. She had not thought that Qi Feng would do this. Truthfully, the fellow apprentices of Xiao Shao’s all had the same habit of defending their own despite knowing that that person was in the wrong. Guan Liang Han and Mo Cong had rather obliquely and abstrusely critiqued her. Yet, after getting along with Qi Feng recently, he was genuinely and sincerely blessing Jiang Ruan. He had always been this sort of outstandingly intelligent person and had always admired those who were as smart-witted as he was. In his eyes, Jiang Ruan was extremely wise, almost as if she were a witch or a demon, so he was truly, extremely respectful. Since he now considered her as his own person, he had listened on the sly about the conflicts that Xia Jun and Jiang Chao had with her in the past. He was filled with indignance upon hearing Jiang Ruan’s various experiences and had only then understood why she had thus wanted to suppress these two people. He did not feel that Jiang Ruan had done anything wrong, not in the slightest. Rather, he admired her temper that haggled over every cent, and naturally he wanted to help her vent a breath of resentment, any that she felt. If she wanted to do something, he would naturally help.
Qi Feng had presumed that with Jiang Ruan’s past conflicts with Jiang Chao and Xia Jun, she would feel regretful that she was unable to kill her enemies with her own hands. To have brought their severed heads over was perhaps his way of wanting to compensate her a little. Though Jiang Ruan was surprised, she said indifferently, “It doesn’t matter, you can do what you want with them?”
“You don’t hate them?” Seeing how she was so calm, Qi Feng was startled as he asked with uncertainty.
“They are already dead. I’ve already gotten the result that I’ve wanted, so to still give them any more thought would merely be a waste of time,” Jiang Ruan replied.
Qi Feng thought for a bit, “Alright, then I will have the two heads burnt cleanly to crisp in a fire, since I’m unwilling to have them be buried.”
This person had always put on a steady, wise and farseeing appearance that it was rare to see him speaking with such a child-like tone. Jiang Ruan was bemused as her lips curled up slightly. On an average day, her smile was adorned with some chill to it that did not reach the depths of her eyes. Yet with this relaxed smile, her eyes curled slightly as the upraised corners of her eyes were somewhat lowered. This gave her a different sort of bright and glamorous beauty. Qi Feng could not help but be stunned foolishly, as if his heart had been moved by something. As he lowered his head at lightning speed, he spoke somewhat evasively, “Since this is the case, then I’ll consider it as letting this matter pass. Third Sister-in-law, I still have some things to do. I’ll leave first.” After saying that, he hurriedly left.
Although Jiang Ruan was somewhat puzzled by why he left so abruptly, she did not continue that train of thought. Now that the Xia family had fallen before her very eyes, she did not know what Xuan Li must be thinking right now. She gave a slight smile as a thread of glee emanated in her heart. Xuan Li, for the time being you just have to wait, wait and watch as your great undertaking to establish that dynasty of yours, slowly slowly, slowly becomes destroyed within my hands.
* * *
In the Eighth Prince fu, for the first time ever, Xuan Li’s face revealed a dispirited look. The tea cup in front of him had long since been toppled over. It was evident that the master of the household had just blown his top in rage.
“Your Highness, please quell your anger.” Seeing their master this way, the group of subordinates advised one after another while stepping forward, “Although the Xia family has fallen, that does not mean that by taking a wrong step with this chess piece, the whole game has been lost. Until now, Fifth Prince has not shown too many signs of activity either. Your Highness, please do not harm your body in anger, where there is life, there will be hope.”
“What do you all know!” Xuan Li’s face was as heavy as ice. “For one Xia family, I would not go as far as to be this dismayed, but what I am angry about is that after this long, you still have not ferreted out the mastermind behind everything. What a bunch of rubbish!” He spoke rather anxiously, and his voice was broken by gasps for air. The subordinates before him looked at each other in dismay, however, the atmosphere did not allow for any of them to dare to leave.
By his own accord, Xuan Li personally sent people to kill the Xia family as his way of eliminating any future troubles. With this action of his, it was nothing other than severing his own limb. Although he kept on saying that the Xia family was not important, after so many years, many of his matters had been taken care of by the Xia fu. This was a very convenient and good blade of his that he had been accustomed to. And now, seeing that seizing the throne was close at hand, it was abhorrent to him to switch to another blade at the very last moment. Moreover, the Emperor had searched for and confiscated all of the Xia family’s wealth, which meant, in consequence, that all of the silver that he got from the Xia family every year was completely gone.
From now on, where would he get the silver to coax officials?
What was even more frustrating was that this time everything had been completely planned to perfection. Yet it was unknown at which step of the plan some mistake had happened. On the surface, it seemed as though Xia Jun and Jiang Chao had handled matters unsuccessfully. However, Xuan Li clearly knew that there was definitely another reason for those city garrison guards to arrive so abruptly. Only, he was unsure about the reason. He had already taken an indirect approach to make some inquiries and ask around. Unfortunately, it was a pity that the official was an iron blockhead. No matter what he did, he could not pry his lips open or perhaps, he truly did not know anything. This situation definitely had someone controlling matters from behind, but when he thought about how cunning this person was to be able to give him a taste of his own medicine, Xuan Li could not help but feel terrified.
All along, he had maintained a gentle and refined attitude and even when he had to execute matters ruthlessly, it was usually when his enemies were in the open while he remained hidden. He had always been able to advance gradually and entrench his position at every step. Still, whenever he did something recently, he would always be met with some obstacle: Xuan Lang’s death, He Yi’s death, Xia family’s downfall, Imperial Consort Chen’s loss of power. Even now, he did not know when it had started happening that all of his advantages began to completely vanish. It was as if an invisible hand was manipulating all of this, as if they were just targeting him alone. He was in the open while the other was hidden in the dark as if they had regarded him as a prey, step by step luring him into a trap.
Xuan Li had always been enduring silently as he came up with his plans, but this was the first time that he felt so anxious in his heart. With a series of unsuccessful events that seemed like a pile of huge boulders, his tranquil heart began to riot.
Before Xuan Li, the most astute of his subordinates were all looking at him with worry. Xuan Li had always been more steady than anyone else, but now that his heart was in a mess, there was a huge dread. Once one’s heart was a mess, it was easy to make mistakes. If everything was truly being manipulated by someone behind the scenes, then that person would definitely not let this slip by……
Xuan Li’s face was clearly showing signs of irritability because he had sent many people to investigate yet they were unable to find anything. How big was the influence of the person behind all of this to be able to conceal themselves this deeply? Originally, the matter of snatching the crown was something that only he and Xuan Hua had a chance of doing. But now he was even unsure when the Emperor had started to place importance on Thirteenth Prince, Xuan Pei. Initially he had thought that with Xuan Pei’s lowly status, without any maternal family to support him, he would not have any qualifications to be able to battle over the position of heir apparent to the throne with him. However, now he felt otherwise. With how closely and intimately the Emperor was treating Xuan Pei, even the once doted upon Fourth Prince was nothing much. In addition, he had gotten the Crown Prince’s Imperial Grand Tutor, Liu Min, to tutor him. This was not a good development.
Seeing that Xuan Li’s expression was fluctuating unpredictably, and he looked more and more gloomy, the subordinates hurriedly comforted him, “Your Highness need not be too worried. No matter how much that person possesses any remarkable abilities, at least with those eight hundred wagons of military provisions, as long as we still have them, then Your Highness has not lost yet.”
Military provisions? Xuan Li slowly calmed down as he thought about the military provisions and even his melancholic air dissipated considerably. That’s right, he still hadn’t lost yet. With the provisions still in his hands, as long as he sent them to Tian Jin, he would still be able to gain substantial benefits from the situation. To use the Xia family’s silver for a new batch of military provisions would take some time, and in this war, he would definitely not be the loser. Although it could not be said that he would be able to catch all of the Jinyi Guards in his net, at least, their win wasn’t guaranteed either. At the moment, the military provisions were being transported without rest through the secret passageway towards the relay stations outside the capital. As long as they reached it, those eight hundred wagons of military provisions would never reach the Jinyi Guards.
Composing himself, Xuan Li was about to summon someone to ask about the status of the provisions when he saw a bodyguard frantically coming forward in a flurry. His expression was agitated as he stated loudly, “Your Highness, it’s not good! Something has happened! There’s been a mishap!”
Xuan Li vaulted out of his seat and stood. All at once, his heart raced as he motionlessly stared at the bodyguard, “What happened?”
“The military provisions, the provisions -” That bodyguard’s voice seemed like it was on the verge of tears, “They’re missing–”
“Bang!” With that sound, Xuan Li’s tea cup immediately fell to the ground.
* * *
Unlike the Eighth Prince fu that had chickens flying and dogs jumping in chaos, another place was entirely different and at this moment, it was filled with an air of jubilation.
 鸡飞狗跳 (jī fēi gǒu tiào) – lit. chickens flying and dogs jumping (idiom); fig. in chaos.
Jin San sat on the ground, patted off the dust that clung to her clothes, and said, “Young Furen is supremely clever to have thought of this sort of plan to wrest food from the tiger’s mouth. If I was that nuisance, gentle prince, I would have long since hung myself with a rope. To not be able to compare to a young lady from the boudoir, how could I consider myself to be a hero!”
Jin Si shook her head, “What young lady from the boudoir. The way I see it, in this entire land, most men would be unable to compare to her. For Xuan Li to pick on Young Furen to be his opponent, he’s truly down on his luck. To have even considered His Majesty’s thoughts into her schemes, I’m afraid no one else would have such courage ah.”
Hearing both of them speaking as such, Lu Zhu immediately showed a pleased smile as she puffed her chest out and added, “That’s natural, my Miss is the best. Although it can’t be said that she has everything in the grasp of her palm, at least when she has something she wants to do, she will definitely be able to do it. My Miss is not only intelligent, she was also born beautiful. If one surveys the entire capital, who would be able to compare to Miss’ national grace and divine fragrance? Whoever marries my Miss is truly picking up a gem!”
“Listening to your words, it’s as if you are saying you’re this smart too.” Jin Er who had been standing at the side walked over as he rapped Lu Zhu once on the head, “It’s just that, although Young Furen is smart and beautiful, it’s a pity that the maidservants beside her aren’t anything much.” Saying this, he purposefully took a long measure at Lu Zhu, “Sigh, whoever marries you, they will truly be out of luck.”
“Lecher-” Lu Zhu immediately exploded in fury, “who are you talking about?”
As these two bickered, they did not notice the teasing looks on the faces of everyone around them. This was also a secret passageway, but it was not Xuan Li’s. Jiang Ruan had previously instructed that they should have someone sent to guard over Xuan Li’s secret passageway, and once the eight hundred wagons arrived, they would then send people to block Xuan Li’s men and eliminate them. Originally, the Jinyi Guards were assassins, so this was naturally a walk in the park for them. Then, using Xuan Li’s secret passageway to bring the military provisions out of the city, they would subsequently redirect them to the secret passageway of the Jinyi Guards.
 轻车熟路 (qīngchēshúlù) – lit. to drive a lightweight chariot on a familiar road (idiom); fig. to do something routinely and with ease / a walk in the park.
Every organisation has secret chambers and passages. Although Jiang Ruan was unfamiliar with the Jinyi Guards, she knew that there would definitely be such a thing. Truthfully, as she had expected, there was this spot. The Jinyi Guards had taken the provisions and transported them to their passageway, then they had used other methods to take another road and pretended to be merchants to send them to the border. This not only solved the problem at the frontier, but would also make Xuan Li angry .
Based on Xuan Li’s temper, once he caught wind that the military provisions had gone missing without a good cause, he would definitely fly into a terrible rage. This matter would seem fishy yet with the Jinyi Guards’ means, at least for a short time, Xuan Li would be unable to thoroughly investigate. Thus, everyday, Xuan Li would be immersed in puzzling over this matter. Moreover with his paranoid temperament, he would definitely begin to suspect that his secret passageway had been discovered. This was the true way to murder someone without revealing a hand. Letting a person be immersed in fear every day, no matter how tough that person’s mind was, was still a form of torture.
 这才是真正的杀人不见血 (zhè cái shì zhēnzhèng de shārén bùjiàn xiě) – lit. to kill someone without drawing blood; fig. harming someone with extremely treacherous and murderous means.
“What I am most baffled by is how does she know about Eight Prince’s passageway?” Ye Feng muttered to himself. For many years, this passageway had not been used by anyone so the Jinyi Guards had not been able to discover it. Now, it would appear that this was also the first time Xuan Li was using it yet Jiang Ruan seemed to have already long known about this matter and kept it close to her heart. For her to know every path in extreme detail, for the Jinyi Guards who relied on intel as their reason for existence with a hundred percent return in success, it was truly somewhat unimaginable.
Jin Er and Jin San both looked at Lu Zhu and she noticed their expressions as she retreated a step, “Why are you looking at me? I am Miss’ maidservant but I’m not the roundworm in her tummy.” Pondering for a bit she then continued, “Moreover, now that Miss is the Jinying Wangfu’s Wangfei, she’s also your master. What do you have to be suspicious about?”
“Right,” Tian Zhu also stood up as she surveyed all those around and replied, “She’s also your master, mind your status.”
Ye Feng lowered his head in embarrassment, still harbouring some suspicions in his heart. While it had only been such a short time, Jiang Ruan had easily subdued the hearts of so many of those around her. The Jinyi Guards that were under Xiao Shao were actually not meant to be used to participate in the struggles of the imperial court, and after all these years they had not. Nonetheless, Jiang Ruan had involved them in this, but no one had objected. This too was actually a marvel.
* * *
At the frontier, thousands of miles away from the capital, everything was proceeding in an orderly manner. Unaware of the happenings in the capital, at this moment, the outside of the tent was unusually lively. As the burning bonfire’s heat and flame shone on each person’s face, a group of soldiers were currently cheering and enjoying life’s pleasure. At times, there were beautiful tribal ladies dressed in skimpy clothes attending, singing and dancing.
No matter how brave the soldiers of the Great Jin dynasty were, they could not withstand the perils of the desert grassland. With their provisions quickly dwindling down, not anyone would be able to endure it with nothing to replenish it. As for Tian Jin, since they occupied an advantageous position they did not have the worries of Great Jin’s soldiers. Moreover, from the news that they had received, Great Jin’s military provisions had been completely burned by someone and temporarily, they did not have any means of getting any replacement of rations and fodder. What this meant was that in the confrontations in the days ahead, it was extremely possible that Great Jin would be left without ammunition and food, in desperate straits, losing the fight without even actually going into battle.
So today, these soldiers were celebrating. They were lifting their voices in song and drinking wine as victory seemed to be in their grasps. For the most part, they were unsure if this war would still be continued — after all, those hundred thousand Jinyi Guards would eventually become their captives, just like the person within that large tent.
Yuan Chuan, the man dressed in a grey cloak, was quietly standing far from the bonfire yet his gaze was somewhat gloomy. At the side, a young soldier was currently holding onto a glass of liquor to salute him, “Military Counselor, with a quick victory this time, it was all thanks to Military Counselor’s protection, I salute you!”
Yuan Chuan smiled as he accepted the drink and drained it in one gulp. As the fire sketched his figure in a mysterious yet elegant glow, that chin of his was filled with beauty. He turned his gaze to look towards the soldiers who were singing in a clamour and merrymaking around, everyone was filled with joy. Only… Why did Great Jin’s information get cut off after they received news about the military provisions being destroyed? This was not a usual affair, and didn’t those Central Plains people, who had always assumed themselves as superior, love to commit treachery? Could it be that this alliance was not as reliable as it seemed on the surface? Or could there have been some unforeseen event that has happened? Yuan Chuan slowly lowered his head.
In the tent, a young man watched as a young woman beside him was bustling about, frowned slightly, and said, “You don’t have to do this, put it down.”
“Deputy General Jiang, I am your maidservant, this is what I ought to do,” the young girl Jin’er replied to him with a smile. These days she seemed to have played the role of his personal maidservant pretty well if one did not look at the shoddy mistakes she displayed.
Where would there be any servant who would not even know how to clean up bowls and chopsticks, nor not know how to serve food and to even be unaware of the established rules and courtesies? Her darning and washing was even more of a mess; for instance at this moment when she was tidying the tent, she had managed to make the entire tent filled with dust.
“This is the desert, doing this, you only scatter the dust everywhere.” Jiang Xin Zhi could no longer watch and couldn’t help but speak up to stop her.
Jin’er was stunned and put down the work she was doing as she somewhat embarrassedly stuck out her tongue, “Sorry, Deputy General Jiang. I will stop right now.” If it was not for the large eyesore of a scar on her cheek, this expression that she had made should have been charming and adorable. Her temper was rather good and no matter how coldly Jiang Xin Zhi treated her, she was able to happily finish what she did by herself. Although she was more of a hindrance than a daily help, sometimes when Jiang Xin Zhi watched how she was bustling about in a confused flurry, he thought she was a little cute.
Every few days, Yuan Chuan would grab Jiang Xin Zhi for interrogation. The interrogation process was naturally horrible. When he returned, he would be covered with bruises all over. Jin’er would look with watery, welling eyes as if she could not feign the distress in her eyes. Gradually, Jiang Xin Zhi felt that this Jin’er did not seem to be the enemy’s spy at all.
Noticing how he seemed dazed, Jin’er served the dishes sitting at the side, “Today, they are all celebrating outside so today’s meal is rather good. Deputy General Jiang, please do have some.” Saying this, she opened the food basket and momentarily, a spell of aromatic fragrance wafted to his nose. Inside, there was a plate of roasted beef and there were even a few dry pastries.
Jin’er blinked her eyes, “I went to steal some pastries, and I asked for some beef from others. Please eat some.”
Ever since Jin’er had arrived, Jiang Xin Zhi’s meals would frequently have more side dishes, which were naturally Jin’er’s ‘good intentions’. Although it was not necessary at all, Jin’er was still extremely dedicated to adding onto his meals, and she even insisted on seeing him finish the light refreshments that she had brought.
He was sure that these dry pastries today were also of such, the South Xinjiang people would definitely not prepare these for him and he could not be bothered to argue about it. After eating some mouthfuls, he then asked, “Why are they celebrating?”
Jin’er was stunned as she turned her head away, “Who knows, perhaps they think that victory is within their grasp so they’re recklessly celebrating. Deputy General Jiang need not pay heed, these people will eventually be defeated under your hands.”
Seeing this expression of hers, Jiang Xin Zhi was surprised and immediately somewhat understood. To have only spoken that Great Jin’s army had been defeated again, his heart was somewhat heavy and he couldn’t eat any further. He merely looked at the pastries thoughtfully.
Jin’er noticed that her casual remarks had caused him to grow quiet and she felt anxious, and said, “Deputy General Jiang, please don’t think too far. You must not give up. This war will end soon, and you will also be rescued. These people are just merely clowns hopping on a bridge, they will eventually suffer a crushing defeat.”
Her tone was serious and full of hope. As Jiang Xin Zhi looked at her, the fire’s glow in the tent shone a soft pearlescent halo on her that seemed to even blur that terrifying scar away. That pair of eyes that seemed to be as transparently clear as spring water on the young girl’s face was oddly yet emotionally moving.
Jiang Xin Zhi quietly looked at her and suddenly asked in a low voice, “Just who are you?”
Jin’er was stunned and looked at him as she asked, “What?”
“The South Xinjiang people have been drugging my food that makes my muscles go soft, and I have been unable to use my martial arts in full force since. After you arrived, the amount of the drug has decreased and my martial arts is slowly recovering. You did this on purpose, who are you?” Jiang Xin Zhi stared at her without blinking. He had guessed that Jin’er was not any ordinary person, but to find out who on earth could she be, he had no clue. Looking at her appearance, she did not seem part of the enemy but could she be someone of his own? Yet, she also seemed a little strange.
“I… I…” Jin’er was being oppressed by that probing gaze of his as her face slowly reddenned in a stammer, “I am Ruan Meimei’s friend….. I’ve come to save you.”