Chapter 156 : The Imperial Trial
Three days later.
The sun was shining brightly. Even though it was already late autumn, the weather was uncommonly good. The sunlight lazily illuminated the lovely petals of the garden cosmos which had yet to wither, causing them to look even more charming. In Shu Fang Palace, an alluringly beautiful woman, gorgeously attired, was standing, aloof and detached. Her usual exotic bearing seemed to have been swept away in the twinkling of an eye, leaving only an unconcealed murderous aura behind.
A palace maid offered her tea, saying, “Imperial Consort, after drinking tea, it will be time to attend the imperial trial in the palace.”
Imperial Consort Shu slowly received the tea and took a sip. She had dressed herself with special care today, such that she looked as beautiful as if she had stepped out of a painting. Correspondingly, she also appeared forceful and imposing, a manner which was undoubtedly accentuated by her crimson clothes. For Imperial Consort Shu, the death of Princess He Yi had indeed been a huge blow.
After all these years in the palace, Imperial Consort Shu had never given birth to sons, only Princess He Yi, thus she had never thought about trying to seize the throne. Moreover, everything depended on the Emperor’s favour. From the beginning, even though the Emperor had never loved her as much as Imperial Consort Chen, because she had given birth to a daughter who would be no threat to imperial power, the Emperor had not been wary of her.
Princess He Yi had been bossy and domineering, but, when all was said and done, she was her flesh and blood, born of her own womb. For so many years, Imperial Consort Shu had raised her in the lap of luxury, but such a tragic end had somehow befallen her. Deep in her bones, Imperial Consort Shu was an arrogant and impulsive person. At the time when Xuan Lang confirmed that Jiang Ruan had killed Princess He Yi, she was dying to rush out and tear Jiang Ruan into little shreds. However, Jiang Ruan had already been taken away by the Ministry of Justice, and taking action prematurely would not be a good idea.
However, there was no one in this world whom she could not beat. She had carved out a place for herself among the four palace consorts with her scheming and beauty, and was naturally no soft persimmon. Even Imperial Consort Chen, with whom she had battled all her life, was now in a disadvantageous position. Who was Jiang Ruan? No one but the daughter of a minor palace official. Killing Princess He Yi was a sin she would never be able to seek forgiveness for. After Imperial Consort Shu had calmed down, she was no longer in a hurry to take action.
This case had wide-ranging implications. She had wailed before the Emperor, who had promised her that he would himself preside over Princess He Yi’s murder trial. After so many years of marriage, Imperial Consort Shu was able to ascertain his moods and emotions with some degree of certainty, and could naturally see that the Emperor did not like Jiang Ruan. Moreover, there were witnesses as well as material evidence, so Imperial Consort Shu could let Jiang Ruan die without a proper burial without even having to manage the situation herself.
 死无葬僧地 (si wu zang seng di) – to die without being buried; to suffer a tragic death or severe punishment. In ancient times, it was important to be buried in the earth upon death. If one had committed a heinous crime, one’s corpse would be cremated or pulverised etc and not buried; this was considered to be a cruel punishment befitting those who had committed wicked crimes.
Because all the people involved in this case were members of the royal family, and because Empress Dowager Yi De had also intervened, the Emperor agreed to an imperial trial. Since the founding of the nation, an imperial trial had only taken place once or twice, and those trials had involved major events linked to senior figures in the imperial court. Therefore, this was the first time that an imperial trial had been called for due to a dispute in the royal family. Imperial Consort Shu knew that, among those who pleaded on behalf of Jiang Ruan, apart from Zhao Guang’s family and Empress Dowager Yi De, there was also Jinying w.a.n.g, Xiao Shao, Imperial Grand Tutor Liu Min, and the younger son of the Commander-in-chief fu, Gu Yi. Every time Imperial Consort Shu thought of this, she gritted her teeth in resentment.
When Princess He Yi was in the palace, because she had won the Emperor’s favour, she had made friends with a posse of young lords and ladies from n.o.ble families. Yet, now that she had died so tragically, nary a one stood up to speak on her behalf; those ‘friends’ of hers were all a bunch of turtles hiding in their sh.e.l.ls. True, some of these people had perhaps been warned by others, but it was generally clear that Princess He Yi had made a group of fair-weather friends. On the other hand, Jiang Ruan, while only being the daughter of a palace official and not a true member of the imperial family, still had so many people rushing to protect her. She was indeed a seductive vixen even at such a young age!
“Is Jinying w.a.n.g there?” Imperial Consort Shu asked viciously as she put down her tea cup.
“To answer Imperial Consort, Jinying w.a.n.g has already gone ahead,” replied the palace maid.
Imperial Consort Shu slowly clenched her fists. She did not know how Princess He Yi had died, but she was certain that it had all been Xiao Shao’s doing. Since Princess He Yi had died because of Xiao Shao, Jiang Ruan, as the person in Xiao Shao’s heart, would have to give her life in recompense, no matter what. So what if he had great influence within the dynasty? How could Xiao Shao defy an imperial edict under the watchful eye of the public? He would only be able to look on helplessly as his beloved died a violent death. Thinking about Xiao Shao’s furious expression and Jiang Ruan’s despairing manner, Imperial Consort Shu felt a deep sense of elation.
* * *
Jiang Dan had already entered the palace together with the other consort candidates, and they all lived in the courtyard set aside for them. In the courtyard, sixteen exquisite young ladies twittered away, and the atmosphere was lively. Some were shu daughters from high-ranking families, while others were di daughters from lower-ranked families. Regardless, when families sent their daughters into the palace, they were all, without exception, looking forward to the day when these young ladies would soar like the phoenix and bring their families to glory along with them. This had been the situation since ancient times. It was just that these girls, at present, still had no idea of the dangers that lurked within the palace, and their innocent and unaffected appearance dazzled one’s eyes.
Jiang Dan sat quietly in the front hall of the residence, watching the excited girls chattering away in high spirits, with a lively yet somewhat timid smile on her face. With this appearance, no one would be wary of her, and thus, even though she had very little to add to the conversations, there was nothing to prevent the girls from accepting her as one of their own.
One of them, a shu daughter from an a.s.sistant minister’s family, said, “Ai, sisters, I don’t know if you’ve heard, today is the public trial of Hong’an Junzhu, the Jiang family’s eldest di daughter, for the murder of Princess He Yi.
“Ah, that’s right. I was reminded of it when you spoke, but I didn’t realise it was today,” another girl chimed in. “It’s such a pity that we can’t go out and see what’s going on.”
Regret was evident in her tone, for these young ladies were full of youthful curiosity and regarded this matter with great interest. Thus, they were rather disappointed, and their high spirits lessened.
Jiang Dan watched the scene before her with a faint smile and her usual expression on her face, as if she had never heard of this news before.
“It’s just a murder case, what is there to see?” The father of the young lady who had spoken held a post in the Ministry of Justice, and thus knew something about the work there. She nodded and said, “I heard my father say, there’s almost nothing to investigate in this case involving Princess He Yi. The coroner has made his examination, and with testimony from a witness like Fourth Prince, there’s very little likelihood of overturning the conviction. So what if Hong’an Junzhu is doted upon by Empress Dowager Yi De? Plotting against a member of the imperial family is a heinous crime punishable by beheading, and no one can save her.”
“Hong’an Junzhu is truly too bold; I never imagined she would actually dare to kill someone.” One young lady seemed to remember something, and looked at Jiang Dan to say, “Hey, isn’t she your elder di sister? In your opinion, how did this situation come about?”
Jiang Dan started minutely, then shook her head and said, “This situation . . . I don’t really know, I’m just a shu daughter, where would I have the qualifications to meddle in this matter?”
“Then, is she normally so fierce and shrewish in the fu?” someone asked curiously. “Have you ever been beaten and scolded by her?”
Jiang Dan shook her head, but a hint of terror flashed through her eyes as she replied, “No, Da Jiejie has never struck me.”
Her words caused her evasive gaze to appear even more suspicious. Everyone could see her timid nature and the way her expression seemed to change when she talked about Jiang Ruan, immediately making clear what was in her heart. For a short while, the room was atwitter with the young ladies a.s.serting that Jiang Ruan was entirely to blame. Those of Jiang Ruan’s status had already been somewhat envious of her. In the past few years, her natural beauty and her exceptionally good fortune, such that she had received the protection of Empress Dowager Yi De and had the ‘G.o.d of war’ as her elder brother, had caused their envy to grow. Now that she had fallen from grace, these originally envious people would have no qualms in ruthlessly trampling on her.
Someone was sitting quietly in an inconspicuous corner of the room. She was naturally dainty, but there was an element of indifference in her expression, and even several degrees of disdain. As she listened to everyone else chatter about Jiang Ruan, loathing showed in her face. This was no one else but Dong Yinger.
In the end, she had still entered the palace. Looking at her now, it would seem that that which had originally seemed absolutely repulsive was at present no longer so challenging. There were so many beauties in the palace that it would take some luck for the Emperor to remember her, let alone favour her. If the Emperor never noticed her, such that she could die peacefully in the palace, that would also be a good thing.
When Dong Yinger heard about Jiang Ruan murdering Princess He Yi from her father, she had not believed that Jiang Ruan had done this. Not because of anything else, but that if Jiang Ruan were to murder someone, she would not be stupid enough to do it in front of Fourth Prince. Lord Mayor Dong was an intelligent man. When he was a.n.a.lysing the different aspects of the case, Dong Yinger had heard one or two things, but she was now too far removed from Jiang Ruan..
Now, sitting here, listening to these people disparage Jiang Ruan, and Jiang Dan’s artfully posed slander, Dong Yinger only felt an uncomfortable churning in her stomach. If she followed the inclination of her natural temperament, and considered her friendship with Jiang Ruan, she would step forward to argue with these people. But now, she simply sat to the side, listening to the discussion with great detachment, with no thought of coming forward.
What came to mind was when she was about to enter the palace, and she had sobbed and entreated Jiang Ruan to help her, but Jiang Ruan had stated that it had nothing to do with her.
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There was nothing permanent in this world. For some unknown reason, Dong Yinger felt a faint frisson of glee. Jiang Ruan was imprisoned, was being slandered as having murdered Princess He Yi, could not escape the doom that was spoken of by others . . . what did this have to do with her?
 毛头 (mao tou) – lit. hairy head. Used in ancient times to refer to a boy who had not yet come of age, and who thus wore his hair loose.
In contrast to Zhao Guang, although Empress Dowager Yi De was also concerned about Jiang Ruan, no sign of it showed in her face, which maintained its usual tranquil expression. It was just that her left hand, with its ruby guard, was swiping slowly over the edge of her chair with some unease. This was a habit with her; whenever her heart was not at rest, she would unconsciously do this.
Jiang Ruan had a special place in Empress Dowager Yi De’s heart. At the beginning, she had regarded Jiang Ruan as Princess Yuan Rong, but after three years of interaction, she had some degree of genuine affection for her. Now, Jiang Ruan was also the person in Xiao Shao’s heart. Empress Dowager Yi De had a very clear idea of Xiao Shao’s temperament. Someone like him was not easily aroused to pa.s.sion, but, like his father, once this occurred, he would set his mind on that one person. Since he had committed to Jiang Ruan, he would definitely not allow her to fall into danger.
Xiao Shao was an intense person. Empress Dowager Yi De did not interfere in the matter because she knew very well that Xiao Shao had already made his arrangements in secret; she just did not know how ruthless his methods were. She only hoped Jiang Ruan’s peaceful temperament would be able to steady and regulate him. Indeed, Empress Dowager Yi De could not have known that, in certain situations, Jiang Ruan was a thousand times more ruthless than Xiao Shao.
“Hong’an Junzhu!” It was Commandant of Justice Luo who spoke on the Emperor’s signal. “You have murdered Princess He Yi, this has been verified by both material evidence and human witness. Your heart has been shown to be impure and your motives sinister, you have plotted against a member of the imperial family, a crime of the highest order. What else can you have to say?”
When this case was handed over to the Ministry of Justice, the Imperial Court of Judicial Review had already investigated and heard the case. At that time, the criminal sentence had almost been handed down, but Jiang Ruan had adamantly refused to confess. Thereafter, they had had to resort to this imperial trial, which had delayed the pa.s.sing of the sentence.
“Princess He Yi was not murdered by me,” Jiang Ruan stated.
Her expression bore no trace of panic, and her words resonated powerfully, as if they were irrefutable. People always believe what they see right in front of them, so all those who had steadfastly held the view that Jiang Ruan was a murderer now began to waver slightly – people were always especially tolerant of beautiful ladies.
“What an excellent silver tongue, what an amazing seductress!” Imperial Consort Shu sneered and continued, “You are so young, but you have such a malevolent heart. I have no idea how my He Yi offended you, such that you would kill her like this! I am He Yi’s mother, and must seek justice for my child. Hong’an Junzhu, murderers must pay with their lives!” In an abrupt change of topic, Imperial Consort Shu turned to the Emperor, her eyes misting over, and said, “Your Majesty, He Yi is your daughter, for this concubine, for He Yi who has died, you must be our judge!”
The Emperor lowered his eyes and glanced at Jiang Ruan, who was kneeling in the middle of the hall. Dispa.s.sionately, he said, “Hong’an, if you say that He Yi wasn’t killed by you, then you have to provide evidence. If you cannot do this, zhen can only rule that you have nothing to say in your defence!”
His tone intensified as he spoke his concluding words, and an inexplicable menace was also evident; indeed, the wrath of an Emperor foretold a b.l.o.o.d.y catastrophe. All the officials present were shocked. They knew that this was a precursor to the Emperor’s wrath and immediately bowed their heads, not daring to make a single sound, fearing that his fury would fall upon them. However, the expression of the young lady in the centre of the room did not change. It was as if the Emperor’s thunderous rage was nothing but spring rain that lasted only a moment before calm weather was restored.
 天子一怒伏尸百万 (tian zi yi nu fu shi bai wan) – this seems to be an abridged version of ‘天子之怒，伏尸百万，流血千里’ (tian zi zhi nu, fu shi bai wan, liu xue qian li), lit. when the Son of Heaven (the Emperor) is angry, he will cause the deaths of millions of people, the blood will flow for thousands of miles.
Her gaze swept across the a.s.sembled ministers and rested briefly on a monk dressed in yellow robes by the Emperor’s side. The monk, who looked amiable and held meditation beads in one hand, acknowledged her gaze, dropped his eyes slightly, and prepared to say ‘amitabha’.
“I can testify on her behalf that she has nothing to do with Princess He Yi’s death!”
A clear, bright voice came out of nowhere and resonated in the hall. It was like a thunderbolt had struck everyone present. Xiao Shao frowned minutely, the Emperor’s eyes flashed, Imperial Consort Shu straightened up, and Empress Dowager Yi De’s hand stopped moving.
Jiang Ruan’s eyes suddenly widened, her body trembled, and she turned her head in disbelief.
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