Chapter 176 : The Mantis Stalks the Cicada, Unaware of the Oriole Behind
Xia Jun was extremely shocked and in his heart he silently screamed that this was not right, but before he could utter even a single word he realized that one of his own men had taken out his sword. Loudly, he yelled, “PUT DOWN YOUR SWORD!” But the man seemed to not have heard him and began to attack.
The passionate charge to kill and the glint from the sword created a highly infectious atmosphere. It was almost like a signal which made those standing to the side to immediately flash their swords and enter into the fray in a frenzy. The crowd was in absolute chaos, and all that could be heard was the sounds of combat. The official, who sat atop a huge horse, was both alarmed and angered when he saw the spectacle. He bellowed in a loud voice, “Everyone, listen to my command. Capture all these miscreants who have set fire to the granary. If there is any resistance, execute them on the spot!”
Upon hearing those words, the group of subordinates that Jiang Chao had brought along became panic stricken. Ignoring Xia Jun’s objection, they doubled their efforts to resist. However, for as many as there were of them, these men were merely night time marauders, so how could they stand up to the imperial guards that were on patrol. In less than fifteen minutes, most of the subordinates that Jiang Chao had brought with him had been arrested, and the area was completely in shambles. At the same time, the granary fire had grown too big to be contained, but people were still lugging water to douse the flames, though their efforts amounted to merely a drop in the bucket*. They could only watch helplessly as the raging inferno swallowed up the entire warehouse and the hundreds of military supply wagons were reduced to ashes.
*杯水车薪 (bēishuǐchēxīn) – lit. a cup of water on a burning cart of firewood (idiom); fig. an utterly inadequate measure.
The huge fire kept burning throughout the night, but the people in the capital of Great Jin had a good night’s sleep; they were all completely unaware that what had transpired hid a surging dangerous undercurrent. No one knew that the granary had caught fire until the shopkeepers and hawkers, who got up early the next day, saw thick smoke rising from the place where once stood the granary. All the military wagons were now reduced to debris and the whole area was thick with ash; obviously, there weren’t any provisions or rations left.
The day after the fire, the news spread throughout the capital that Jiang fu’s Second Young Master, Jiang Chao, and Xia fu’s Second Young Master, Xia Jun, had set the granary and all its military provisions on fire. Jiang Quan was at his fu when he heard the news. His hand trembled and he almost overturned the contents from his teacup. Incredulous, he stared at his new wife, Xia Yue, who was sitting beside him, “What did you just say?”
Xia Yue looked timidly at Jiang Quan. She was merely a distant female cousin of the Xia family and originally had a childhood sweetheart. However, the Xia family wanted to continue their relationship with the Jiang fu, and since their ties were cut off when Xia Yan died, they had married her off to Jiang Quan. It was just that Xia Yue herself was only about seventeen to eighteen years of age and was at an age when a flower bloomed. To marry Jiang Quan who was old enough to be her father- naturally she was resentful. Moreover, she had just married into the Jiang fu a short time ago and the fu already had such shenanigans happening. Xia Yue was filled with indignation and resentment but as she was now living under another person’s roof, she did not have any choice but to lower her head in submission. Jiang Quan might look for all the world to be a gentle and tenderhearted person, but when his temper exploded, it would terrify a person. Thus, she replied, “Laoye, this is all true as the news has spread throughout the capital.”
She had spoken so earnestly, much like making a solemn vow, that Jiang Quan was unable to not take her word for it. Indignantly he said, “That imbecile! He is hell-bent on destroying the Jiang family!”
“Laoye, don’t be overwrought,” Xia Yue thoroughly abhorred and despised how Jiang Quan was always quick to ‘blame the gods and accuse others’ when matters like this were to arise. Veiling the disdain in her eyes, she said, “I heard that Old Marquis Xia has already entered the palace to seek an audience with the Emperor as this matter is not something to be taken lightly. Setting fire to the military provisions in the warehouse is a big offence, especially when those tens of thousands of soldiers at the border are urgently in need of those provisions and funds. Of all things, Second Young Master had to do such a thing at such a time as this. It would not be hard for others to be highly suspicious.”
Jiang Quan became alarmed. Just now he had been busy ranting and raving because he was so infuriated by Jiang Chao’s reckless action, but now that he truly grasped the enormity of the situation, fear began to creep in. That’s right, there were tens of thousands of soldiers at the border desperately awaiting these provisions, yet Jiang Chao and Xia Jun had burned everything. For something like this to have happened in the middle of the night, if one were to say that it was unintentional, no one in their right mind would believe it. But even if it was intentional, why in the world would an official’s di son make such a move. Presently, the war between Great Jin and Tian Jin was a sensitive matter for the Emperor’s and for Jiang Chao to make a mess of this was obviously taking a stab at a vulnerable issue; it was almost as if he was forcing the Emperor to think that he (JC) had colluded with the enemy and betrayed their country. Otherwise, why would he burn all of the provisions and have Great Jin soldiers suffer the loss of ammunition and food which they so desperately needed to fight the war.
Jiang Quan was restless, breaking out in cold sweat that seemed to saturate him from his neck down to the middle of his back. The Emperor’s suspicions and doubts were like a huge sword suspended above the head of the Jiang fu. However, at this point, he only had this one son, so it was impossible for him not to care.
Suddenly he asked Xia Yue, “Why did Marquis Xia enter the palace?” Although Xia Cheng only had this one grandson, Xia Jun, it did not explain the speed in which he had rushed to the palace to gain an audience with the Emperor. Until everything had been investigated and verified, Xia Cheng would not react without cause. For him to rush to meet with the Emperor, something important must have happened.
Xia Yue looked at Jiang Quan and softly replied, “It was said that last night when Second Young Master Xia went out, he took the Xia family’s private army with him. And those soldiers were involved in a fight with the city garrison guards. When the Emperor heard the news, he was extremely furious and had both Second Young Master Xia and Second Young Master Jiang thrown into the imperial prison.”
Jiang Quan almost fainted when he heard this. Most high-ranking officials in the city had their own army that were like personal bodyguards and their numbers weren’t great. As such it was not considered a big issue to have a private army and the Emperor also tacitly approved of it. But for two people to set out to torch the granary while bringing along their own private troops to aid in setting the fire, this was a greater offence than if it were just the two of them acting by themselves. If it were just the two of them individually, then it could be argued that it was Xia Jun and Jiang Chao’s own plans, but once it involved a personal army, then it would immediately implicate the entire fu, making it a bigger issue. Especially when there was a fight against the city garrison guards. This was truly stepping on the Emperor’s feet and being brazen about it, so what would the Emperor infer from all this? Naturally he would believe that they had long since had intentions of revolting!
Jiang Quan grabbed hold of Xia Yue, “Did you hear the news accurately, that it was only the Xia fu’s private army, and there are no ties to the Jiang family?”
Xia Yue felt even more contemptuous in her heart. To think that at this junction, Jiang Quan’s only concern was about himself and he was only afraid that the situation might implicate the Jiang fu. He was truly self centred and egocentric. However, when considered from another point of view, Xia fu and Jiang fu’s relationship was based on a marriage alliance for mutual benefits. After Xia Yan died, they had given her in marriage to the Jiang fu, but if it was only for the sake of common interests that they had arrived at this juncture, where would there be any familial relations?
“There was none of the Jiang family’s private army present, so Laoye can put your heart at ease.” Although she was thinking as such, Xia Yue couldn’t resist smiling. But immediately she knitted her brows, “However, Laoye, seeing as how things are, shouldn’t you also enter the palace to intercede on behalf of Second Young Master? This, after all, is not a trifling matter.”
Jiang Quan did not move from where he sat, his eyes seeming to waver with indecisiveness. If this was before, he would have tried any means and ways to rescue Jiang Chao without any hesitation. However, presently the Jiang family was not like it was and its reputation had long since been tarnished within the capital. Even the Emperor’s attitude towards the Jiang family tended to be slightly critical. This time Jiang Chao had upturned a truly huge basket, and this matter was so big that there was no way Jiang Chao could escape unscathed. What was even more worrying was the Emperor’s current state of mind. If he were to rush into the palace to intercede on Jiang Chao’s behalf, would the Emperor think that the Jiang family was also in cahoots and a part of this debacle. Originally, only the Xia family was suspected of treason, but if he interceded, it would implicate the Jiang family as well. Therefore, after taking all of this into consideration, what would be the best course of action?
“No,” Finally after much thought, Jiang Quan resolutely came to his decision, “from what I see, this is not a good time to go. I want you to help me write a letter and have it sent to the Jinying Wangfu. Just state that Jiang Ruan is to make haste and return to the fu as her Second Brother has gotten into a huge problem. She has to find a way to save a life.”
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Before Xia Yue entered the Jiang fu, she had already heard about many of Jiang Ruan’s achievements and exploits. She actually applauded how Jiang Ruan was able to subjugate the Xia family and Jiang Quan, and praised her (JR) in her heart. Now upon hearing Jiang Quan’s request, she couldn’t help but feel an additional trace of contempt in her heart. Why did he have to speak with such a pompous air when he did not have the guts to personally make the request, yet he expected his daughter to personally come over. Jiang Ruan and Jiang Chao had never gotten along, and Jiang Quan was well aware of the fact, so why would Jiang Ruan willingly go out of her way to help Jiang Chao with his transgression. She wasn’t sure if it was because Jiang Quan was overtly anxious that he had become this preposterous.
* * *
In the imperial prison, in the darkest recesses of the building were two prison cells that were adjacent to one another, separated by a thick iron fence. The faint firelight not only failed to give even a sliver of brightness to the already dark prison, but instead seemed to make the place even more eerie.
On either side of the iron fence were two people leaning against the wall. One had his head hung low dispiritedly as he sighed continuously, while the other’s eyes were dark and cold and his face had sunken so deep that it was able to draw water out.
Jiang Chao looked towards Xia Jun, totally unable to hide his anxiousness, “Cousin, what are we going to do now?”
“What can we do,” Xia Jun laughed bitterly, “we are like meat on someone’s chopping board, totally at their mercy.”
Jiang Chao took note of Xia Jun’s perfunctory manner and his anxiety began to escalate, “How did things turn out this way? Where in the world did we go wrong? Damn it, how did the city garrison guards happen to rush to the scene so quickly?”
Xia Jun’s head hung low as his gaze wavered. Since yesterday, his heart had sensed an ominous premonition and seeing their current predicament, it had proven that it had all come to pass. He had felt that everything was transpiring way too smoothly, and their deception was so successful that it had raised red flags in his mind. Jiang Ruan had not once tried to stop nor obstruct their plans, thus, in reality his feeling could not be justified. But now he finally understood from whence those strange inexplicable feelings had begun. All this started three years ago when he tried to ambush Jiang Ruan, and as long as it was related to Jiang Ruan, she never ever lost. She would never lose, so how could they expect to come out victorious so easily? All of this was just one of her schemes.
“We have fallen into a trap.” After a short pause, Xia Jun bitterly continued, “This whole entrapment, from beginning to the end, was set up to target us. Our opponent has known all along what we planned to do, and with a convenient nudge, the time has come for the nets to be hauled in with one fell swoop.”
Jiang Chao looked baffled, his brain becoming more and more muddled, “Cousin, what do you mean?”
“Last night. The fire that broke out at the granary was rather suspicious; it is obvious that someone intentionally started the fire with the purpose of putting the blame on us. When the city garrison guards arrived, I specifically gave the order to our personal guards not to recklessly engage with the city garrison guards. Yet, someone took the initiative to draw his sword and charge forward. In hindsight, all of this is highly suspicious, and shows that someone infiltrated our ranks, to intentionally stir the waters.”
That person had infiltrated the private army and had incited the clash between the Xia private army and the city garrison guards. The intention was to blame the Xia fu’s army as inflicting injury against the city garrison guards, and ultimately earning them the reputation of rebelling against the Emperor. The criminal charges for arson added with their insubordination and resistance against an official was indeed reprehensible. This could be seen as blatantly conspiring against the state and plotting a rebellion.
“But... how did they even know about our plan to switch out and steal the military provisions?” Jiang Chao was surprised that there was actually someone like the oriole who was behind the mantis that was stalking the cicada because there were less than five people who were aware of their plan. So how was it possible that their scheme was leaked out?
The mantis stalks the cicada, unaware of the sparrow behind
The mantis stalks the cicada, unaware of the oriole behind.
“It’s very strange isn’t it, even I feel that it’s very strange. It does not appear that they heard the news that we were the ones setting the fire, but rather like they knew from the very start what we were planning to do. Not only that, they were able to give us a nudge in that direction. Upon reflection, Zhang Ji’s play that day at the imperial court seemed to have played out too perfectly. I think, at that time, we had already fallen into the trap set by the other person without us even being aware of it,” Xia Jun stated.
Jiang Chao shook his head, “Cousin, what you’re saying is completely outrageous. And if what you’ve said is in fact true, then who is this person? Who would have such capability?”
“Who?” A charming and beautiful face appeared in front of Xia Jun’s eyes. Those slightly arching raised enthralling eyes seemed to be mocking them for thinking that they were so clever. Could it be her? Even though it was highly inconceivable, Xia Jun had an intuition that she was somehow involved in this whole debacle. In this world, there was no one who was capable of knowing the future but why was it that she could have known about their plan? It was almost as if she had completely seen and discerned their every intention. This was undeniably very frightening. She was even able to prevent Zhao Yi from being involved in last night’s patrolling duty because the person who had arrested them was another old official who was famous in Great Jin for being strictly impartial and incorruptible. If it was Zhao Yi, then it was possible that the Emperor might have suspected that this was because of the past feud between the Zhao and Xia family. But since it had been changed to this old official, then it had completely circumvented such a possibility. Since Jiang Ruan had even taken such minute details into consideration, then there was absolutely no possibility to overturn the situation.
“Do you want to know what the scariest part of all of this is?” Xia Jun laughed bitterly, “We carelessly set fire to the granary, which means we will receive the criminal charges of colluding with the enemy and betraying the country. Those provisions were meant to help alleviate the urgent need at the border, but the fire completely decimated everything. We have no means to compensate for the loss. There is only one way left for us.”
“What way?” Jiang Chao anxiously asked.
“Wait.” Xia Jun said, “We have to wait for Eighth Highness to exchange those provisions that were initially swapped out and find a reason to bring them back, explaining to the Emperor that what we were burning was in actual fact moldy rations and not the actual military provisions. Then this whole debacle will be easily resolved.”
“That would be good.” Jiang Chao breathed a sigh of relief, “Eighth Highness still has use for the both of us, and he wouldn’t want to lose the Jiang and Xia family, so naturally he will not remain indifferent and just sit by and watch the proceedings.”
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“Hopefully.” Xia Jun looked at his own hands, it’s just that.... His heart secretly wondered, did Jiang Ruan really just do this little bit? When she took action, she was ruthless and heartless, and if this debacle was the work of her hands, then how was it possible for all these things to come to an end so easily? Was it merely to have them suffer a little bit? Xia Jun’s heart once again arose that indistinct feeling of unease, and after clenching his fist, he stopped talking.
* * *
At the Eighth Prince fu, the advisor quietly withdrew to the side, not daring to say a word. Originally what was an absolute surefire plan somehow got into trouble at the most critical moment, especially when they were caught red handed. Moreover, that city garrison official was well known for being upright and outspoken, and there was practically no opportunity to cry out a grievance. There was no way they could send those moldy provisions to the border anymore, so this was a lose- essentially ‘one careless move and the whole game is lost.’
Presently, the expression on Xuan Li’s face was unsightly. He had strategically placed his own people into various offices and departments, so how was it that the city garrison official suddenly arrived at the scene commanding a troop of guards. Even now, he had not been able to make heads or tails of everything that had transpired. He was totally unable to fathom what had gone awry with his plans that had given others an opportunity to capitalise on the loophole. As it was, the situation had developed beyond his expectations so much so that he didn’t even know how to close the net.
“Your Highness, why don’t we think of a plan to rescue Xia Jun and Jiang Chao?” the advisor spoke up. “Right now, the situation involves the Xia family, and should we decide to sit on the side and not interfere, then His Majesty will severely punish the Xia family. At present, Your Highness still has use of the Xia family, so we must not cast them aside so easily.”
The fact that the Xia family’s private army was caught at the scene was already an irrefutable fact. If left to its own development, then it could be expected that the Emperor would completely wipe out the entire Xia family. At present he had not accomplished his grand ambition, and he still required the influence and power of the Xia family, so how could he lightly cast aside this very important chess piece? Should the Xia family suffer a loss, not only would it dampen the morale of other officials that were in his faction, it would also result in losing more than half of his influence and might. They could not afford not to save the Xia family.
The advisor noticed that Xuan Li did not say anything, so he continued, “At this point, we need to think of a way to return the military provisions, and speak up on behalf of Xia Jun and Jiang Chao, stating that what they burned were stale rations in the hopes of protecting the military. As long as we are able to smooth out the sharp edges and tidy up loose ends, it can actually be a win-win situation.”
Xuan Li startled, almost as if he had an epiphany. His gaze deepened as he said, “No”.
The advisor looked at him in disbelief.
Xuan Li sneered, “If I were to really do that, then I would really fall into the opponent’s trap. While you can say that Xia Jun did it to protect those provisions, others could say that Xia Jun swapped out the military provisions in order to fill his own pockets. I think that the mastermind behind this- probably right when I figure out how to explain this to Imperial Father- will bring forward even more evidence to substantiate Xia Jun’s charge of swapping the military provisions. By then, Imperial Father would be extremely annoyed and might even blame me for being an accomplice. Moreover...” He thought of something but did not continue speaking.
Following suit, the advisor became worried as he asked, “If Your Highness were to do that, then does it mean that you have decided not to care about the life and death of Xia Jun and the Xia family?”
“One has to abandon the army to protect the commander-in-chief.” A sliver of ruthlessness coasted across Xuan Li’s face. “At present, I really don’t have any other option.”
* * *
Jiang Ruan put down the writing brush in her hand, her refined and elegant calligraphy strokes beautiful and graceful. Finally, the purple dressed young man sitting opposite her could not resist and asked, “What if Xuan Li finds some means to rescue him? The Xia family would not suffer a great loss, but would hate you even more. After all that effort, to achieve such a mediocre outcome.” He had always been used to his stratagem to implicate everyone involved in one swoop but this was a first for him to be used by someone else. To the extent that he was not privy to the whole plan and the nuances, he had done everything according to Jiang Ruan’s instructions, yet he was mostly in the dark, completely unable to fathom what she was trying to accomplish.
“I’ve long been mortal enemies with them, so isn’t it a waste of time to even discuss any feelings of hatred?” Jiang Ruan casually lifted the writing paper, angling it to dry, “Why would Xuan Li rescue him?”
“If the Xia family falls , Xuan Li would not benefit at all since his grand ambition still requires the support of the Xia family. Furthermore, should the Xia family suffer any injury, that would be tantamount to losing his right-hand man, so how could he be content with that?”
Jiang Ruan looked at Qi Feng and suddenly smiled, “Is that so. Young Master Qi, how about I make a bet with you?”
“What bet?” Qi Feng was startled by her reaction.
“Let’s bet that Xuan Li will not lend a hand to rescue the Xia family,” Jiang Ruan stated.
“How can that be?” Qi Feng was flabbergasted.
“To him, losing the Xia family would only be a loss of a key aide, but to save the Xia family means he might have to put an end to his grand ambition.” Blandly Jiang Ruan elaborated, “Xuan Li is essentially a highly suspicious and paranoid person. There is an opportunity to come to the aid of the Xia family, but he will hesitate. He will believe that we have intentionally dug a hole with the intent for him to get a taste of his own medicine. As such, the more he hesitates, the more he will not dare to act rashly.”
“Afterall, right now he only harbours a suspicion, but it can’t be that he will not dare to even investigate.” Although Qi Feng was skeptical concerning Jiang Ruan’s familiarity with the character and inner thoughts of Xuan Li, he still persisted.
“Naturally he doesn’t dare.” Jiang Ruan suddenly smiled and she turned her head to look at Qi Feng. Her eyes sparkled and were filled with a deep satisfaction, “Do you happen to know the whereabouts of those eight hundred military wagons right now?”