Hello there again,
If you are a social historian of Qing Dynasty China and you've gotten this far (not sure why you'd be reading this anyway--we're almost done, by the way), you have obviously decided this was all an exercise in anachronism and have decided to enjoy this for the satirical, fairy tale, rom-com romp that it was intended to be. You don't know this, but this tale is being retold by 16-year-old girl, of Chinese descent from a long way back, who lives on a South Pacific island, so she is to be forgiven if anachronisms and historical inaccuracies have crept into the narrative. My own meta-message is that people of the Chinese diaspora like me, freely riff on that ragtag fragments of culture that have happened to survive in families, who struggle to live day-to-day primarily, and spend much less time thinking about "What makes them 'Chinese?'"
My own reading of Chinese social history tells me that trials were courts of inquisition, not adversarial with the use of professional advocates like in the West. Disputes between citizens were brought before a magistrate who patiently and wisely investigated the truth of any matter. Chinese literature is full of judges who were legendary for their wisdom and humor in resolving disputes. This is my imagining of one judge on an off day trying to make the time go by in a more interesting fashion.
Thanks for reading,
Judge Kuang’s courtroom was pristine, spare, and orderly, having as little ornament as possible with the exception of unicorns. There were pictures of unicorns hanging on the walls, they were carved into his desk and chairs, and there were statues of them that had been given as gifts over the course of his magistracy. He loved the stories of their uprightness as harbingers and paragons of justice and civil society, and how one had appeared to Master Kung’s mother to foretell the birth of that great philosopher and teacher.
Trials before Judge Kuang were private rather than public affairs, rather more like private office interviews than anything else. He preferred it that way, and so did people appearing before him because it saved a lot of face for the various contestants. That privacy was a double-edged sword, however, because behind his closed chamber doors, he was renowned for his aggressive use of physical stress on all parties to get to the truth of an issue. If there were a formal public accusation of a major crime against the state, he would reserve a large hall, but today’s object was primarily to obtain testimony.
It was an hour before midday when the judge and Seven took their respective places. Seven was set up behind a paneled screen which obscured her full face from view. Kuang asked if she were ready to proceed, to which she agreed, and so he said “Bring in the witness now.”
Two guards entered carrying what appeared to be a small box on a stretcher. They set the box down on the floor. On closer inspection—it was difficult to see at an angle through the eye vents on the screen—Seven determined it was some kind of small cage that appeared to have an animal crouching within. It was barely large enough to contain the animal. She spoke to Judge Kuang.
[Manchurian] “Why is there an animal being brought in? Is this some kind of ritual totem?”
“That,” said the judge, “is not an animal. Princess Court is now in session on the matter of theft and recovery of jewelry from the royal treasury with the Honorable Kuang Wen Sheng supervising and Princess of the Realm presiding. Testimony to be gathered from Wang Three of the Jewel River Valley, along with any supporting witnesses as deemed necessary. Guards, you may release Mr. Wang.”
The turned several latches on the cage and lifted off one side of the box. “Are you able to exit by yourself, sir?”
“What do YOU think?” said Three very impatiently. “I can’t even tell which way is up anymore.” Taking that as their cue, the guards grabbed a side and tilted the cage, rolling Three out onto the floor. His limbs were numb and so he remained balled up and tumbled, eventually sprawling out on the floor as a female attendant stopped him with her foot. He looked up and saw that she was yet another Capital Maiden. “You know young lady, I may be hallucinating, but I feel like we’ve met before. But before you kick me for being so forward, a piece of advice. That’s not a good look for you. Be yourself.” He was glad he was numb because he was pretty sure she had kicked him quite hard.
Seven was appalled. “Why was he in a cage?” she demanded.
Kuang replied coolly, “I had preparatory work done on him this morning. Witnesses do much better when they are put into the proper mood to cooperate. But more on that later. Welcome to Princess Court Mr. Wang. Do you understand High Court Manchurian?”
“I can get by.”
“Excellent. Do you need some assistance getting into a chair?”
“Let me lay for a bit while feeling comes back into my legs. Feel free to proceed.”
“Since you are in Princess Court, your presiding officer will be Her Royal Highness who is seated behind the booth in cognito. This is her first proceeding, so we appreciate your cooperation. I am here to make sure all protocols are properly adhered to.”
“I get a trainee? GREAT.”
Three knew that with returned blood flow came feeling, because he felt the sharp pain of a guard’s kick. He expelled a sudden breath and grunt. “You will show proper respect to the Princess even though you may not see her,” said the guard.
“GUARD!,” said Seven, “Please refrain from all corporal punishment unless I tell you to administer it.” Seven thought it wise to stay in Manchurian and exaggerate her vowels into the northern twang when she spoke directly to Three or within his hearing.
“Yes, Your Highness,” the guard apologized.
“My apologies Your Highness,” said Three. “Seems I got up on the wrong side of bed this morning and nothing has gone right since. I think I can make it to the chair now.” He rose and slowly moved to a chair opposite Kuang’s desk. “So how may I be of assistance to you folks?”
“Your reputation for levity precedes you Mr. Wang,” said the judge. “Do you understand how grave your situation potentially is?”
“I do, and that actually makes all the difference in the world. When death is a certainty and not a threat, it rather loses its persuasive power. Strange? Isn’t it?”
“Fascinating,” said Kuang with great interest. “Do tell me more. I have some followup questions . . .”
“Ahem,” grunted the Princess. “Shall we move on?”
“I made some inquiries,” said the judge. “I understand you are interested in becoming a magistrate yourself, young man. Your credentials are most impressive. You will probably learn a few things today.”
“I’ve already learned a lot.”
“Do you know what we seek, Mr. Wang?” asked Seven.
“Yes. I was asked three times this morning already. Let me bring you up to date. I received a pendant gift from someone. And no, I will not tell you who it was.”
“Is that why you were put into the cage?” asked the Princess.
“You’re asking like you don’t know? I was put in each time I gave the wrong answer. The first time for a quarter hour. Then a half hour. Then a full hour.”
“If you would just answer the question, you would be free to go. Why will you not answer?”
“It’s none of your business. But mostly because I don’t think it will go well for that person if I identify them—seeing as how they’re being accused for theft, whereas I only received such allegedly stolen goods.”
“But the way you’re conducting yourself is putting your own life is at stake.”
“It’s my fault she’s in that position. I take responsibility.”
“By the way, you just said ‘she,’ so you’ve narrowed it down for us,” interjected Kuang.
“Unintended fault. Score one for you,” said Three snidely.
“Allow me to point out at this time,” said the judge, “to you two students of the judiciary, that my methods are effective. You said ‘she’ because you are fatigued.”
[switching back to the common language] “You and Headmaster Wu must’ve gone to the same school,” said Three. “Jackals from the same hill. Sheesh!”
“Back to my point,” said Seven, “You are not the object of our inquiry. We will fairly determine if there was theft or not.”
“I have nothing else to say to this court.”
Kuang went behind the screen to sidebar quietly with Seven. “At this point, dear, you should order the guards to put him back in the cage for two hours or until we have summoned other witnesses.”
“He is NOT going into that cage.”
“But he’s about to break. He’s cracking. You saw it.”
“Am I the judge or not?” asked Seven.
“Suit yourself then. Your call. I suggest at least putting him back in the cell.”
“All right, but what next?”
“We question all palace and perimeter personnel if he was seen with any females in the last few days. Better yet, have the guard walk him around for identification purposes. There will probably only be a couple of witnesses. We’ll question them and get a larger, truer picture of what happened these last few days. Sound fair?”
“You’re tentative. You are fearful of what you might learn—specifically that you will confirm my suspicion that he's just another man. You’re afraid of finding out that he was with someone else.”
Seven snorted. “Guards,” she said decisively, “take him out and about, follow all leads, and round up all witnesses who can testify to his having any connection with any woman the past few days. We will go into recess until you have something to report.” The guards removed Three.
“Excellent delivery, good poise, firm aplomb. A good start, my dear,” said the judge.
“Now what?” asked Seven.
“We wait for the harvest and pick only the fruit that we want. It will take time, but we must be patient and allow the process to work. I’ll meet you and Birdie back in my office and we can map out a interrogation strategy. The order in which you ask questions is very important.” The judge excused himself to speak to a guard.
“When they’ve done parading him, baiting for witnesses, strip him bare and return him to the cage,” said Kuang.
“But, Your Honor? The Princess said . . .”
“I know, I know, but this is going to take much too long. He’s turning out to be quite tenacious and I’m required to be at the Foreign Emissaries Ball tonight, so we have to hurry it.”
“Also, it’s time to increase the intensity. Submerge him, cage and all, into the cold pool at regular intervals for a slow count of 20. Every now and then keep him down for an additional 15-30, but it’s important that it be random, otherwise it won’t work and you’ll waste his time and yours.”
“Just checking. Just up to his chin, right?” Or do we go up to cover his nose too?”
“No you idiot. All the way to the bottom of the pool or we’ll be here all night! If his lips go blue, set the cage out in the sun until they go back to pink and then back into water.”
“Any particular orders on the cage positioning?”
“Do I have to tell you everything? The most uncomfortable. Keep him head down so his body weight makes it difficult to breathe. But do NOT let him drown under any circumstances. My daughters will never forgive me if you let that happen. I’m thinking of him for Silver Joy. What do you think?”
“He’s as tough as I’ve ever seen, sir. An excellent choice.”
“He’ll need to be. When he’s ready to talk, spruce him up and give him one of my good robes. The girls will like that.”
* * *
It was midafternoon when the guards came to retrieve Judge Kuang and Seven. “All witnesses are gathered for your interrogation,” the guard assured.
“Excellent,” said the judge. “Let’s go, shall we?”
“Your Highness?” said the guard, “You will probably want to veil yourself if you wish to maintain anonymity.”
“Why is that?”
“We had to move the venue because of the number of witnesses. There was not enough time to have the carpenters build you one. We did not feel competent to determine which were more important, so we had them all brought up here.”
“How many are we talking about?”
“You’d best just come and assess yourself, but there’s a good hundred or so.”
The judge, a heavily veiled Seven, and Silver Bird as attendant were led through the interior courtyard of the Hall of Justice where there were piles upon piles of merchant bundles and hand carts. There were stacked cages of poultry, buckets of fish, and small livestock roaming at the end of ropes held by children assigned to that duty. All of this scene had sentries posted to watch this inventory.
Past all of this they entered one of the larger halls where sure enough, well over 100 people were waiting. They were all jabbering and gossiping and pointing at the fine furnishings. The guards had set up two large chairs on a platform from which the Princess and the judge would conduct their interrogations.
“These are ALL my witnesses?” asked Seven.
“Yes,” said the guard. “We have arranged them by groups in a kind of chronology. A member of the Dawn Patrol identified him as one who had come on the morning of the Princess Banquet to deliver something to Madame Cui. We took him over to the kitchen and he was swarmed by the staff.”
“Swarmed?” said Seven.
“They ALL knew him. You’ll discover it in your interview. We brought the entire kitchen staff up—they are in the sector to the right. While we were there, a man delivering lobsters arrived. He identified Wang as being in the presence of woman palace staffer at the docks a few days earlier. He and his wife are detained in the center.”
“Who are all the other people with him?” asked the Princess.
“We took Wang down to the docks to see if anyone else had seen him. Nearly all of the open market merchants had seen him in the company of the same woman, so they were all ordered up here. They did not want to abandon their goods for fear of theft, so we had them bring everything up, and that’s what you saw in the courtyard. There were several shop-house merchants who identified him as well, they are in the rear left. He’s apparently a flamboyant dresser, something of a fop and dandy, so many people noticed him.”
The guard continued, “While we were rounding up all of the commercial-area witnesses, a few of them noted that he had been involved in a street altercation on the day after the Princess Banquet. They said he seemed to be defending some old woman and a peasant girl from attack by both foreign sailors and off-duty soldiers in the vicinity of the Red Lantern Inn, a popular brothel in the area.
“When then questioned the staff at the Red Lantern about that incident and they said he had come back late that evening to meet briefly with General Zuo and his officers who are guests there. Staff said he had some sort of encounter with a demon-possessed shamaness who kidnapped him. The alleged witch-shaman apparently commanded a small army of drug-crazed acolytes who carried him off into the night. The stewards, the cleanup crew, and several of the female employees that I shall call ‘hostesses,’ have been gathered, and they comprise the group in the front middle.”
“By coincidence, we had had a guard who was running surveillance on a foreign sailor who turns out to be one of Wang’s associates, who happened to see him exiting the Evergreen Inn,” said the guard.
“Guard. A question?” said the judge. “North door or south door?”
“Abandon that line of inquiry. You never saw that.”
“Did you bring any of Winemaker Li’s people here today?” asked the judge.
“Ah. You are to be commended. Carry on.”
“We have report from the neighborhood constable beat that he visited the estate of Whispering Pine in the company of Headmaster Wu’s addle-brained daughter. I bring this up only as information since we no know women reside or work at that estate.” The guard fell silent.
“Anything else?” asked the judge.
“We don’t think so, but just as we think we’re done, something else comes up.”
“Well then Your Highness,” said the judge, “we have more than enough to begin. Whom would you like to question first?”
Seven whispered to the judge, “Goodness, I have NO idea. He’s been busy. I can’t believe all this.”
“Let’s bring him out so that he can hear the testimony as we interrogate. Guard? Bring in Mr. Wang now.”
“Um, now . . ?.” said the guard tentatively.
“Get him in here NOW. By all human limits he should be ready.”
There was a bit of a delay, but eventually two guards entered hurriedly with a stretcher with a draped box on it. The box was dripping water as if it were a lobster trap just pulled from the ocean. The set down the stretcher, removed the drapery and revealed a cage, which they opened up and dumped out a wet mass of bluish flesh onto the hall floor. The assembled crowed gathered about in fascination and disgust that some monster had been loosed before them. The gasped in terror when they say that it was a naked man, shivering and struggling to unfold himself.
The judge had been making frantic signals to the guards to retreat when he realized what they had brought out, but it was to no avail as they were diligent about their duties.
“What the devil is this?” said Seven, who immediately rose and walked over. The mass was heaving and panting and groaning. It was a man, and oddly, he was wearing her pendant. The guards evidently had put it on him to remind him why he was in the predicament he found himself. It was clutched in his hand. “AI YAH!” she yelled. She pulled off her own robe and threw it over him. “What is the meaning of this? I said no corporal punishment!”
“When working with Judge Kuang,” said the senior of the two litter carriers, “we generally interpret that phrase to mean no breaking of skin, flesh, bones, teeth, nails, or joints—granting that specific privilege of nobility as we prep someone for interview.” The guard cast his eyes out into assembly. “Are there any other nobles among them so that we may likewise treat them preferentially?” The Princess looked out upon a sea of white eyes attached to bodies that all reflexively clutched themselves.
“My apologies, Your Highness,” interrupted Judge Kuang, “I should have been more explicit with the guards.” He continued nonchalantly, “Please clean up Mr. Wang and bring him back as soon as he is ready. We will wait for him.”
“This … this …” Seven had absolutely no words for this situation. “I am going back with him as an observer. We are in recess,” said Seven. Kuang walked alongside Seven as they made their way out of the great hall on the heals of the guards who carried Three out on a stretcher.
“It was not my expectation,” said the judge, “for this to happen, but it can only to be our advantage that it played out the way it did. I guarantee you that all 100 witnesses will be most cooperative and speak right up, loudly and clearly when we question each of them. It should go fast once we get started.”
“Uncle Wen,” said Seven in exasperation, “please let me handle this situation until we reconvene. I am very upset and I don’t want to say anything that I will regret later.”
“As you wish,” said the judge as he halted his steps and allowed the Princess to continue on alone.
* * *
Three was properly dried off, dressed, and groomed. He was given hot water to drink as ordered by the Princess. He continued to shiver, but seemed to be getting better.
“Mister Wang,” said Seven, “I want to assure you that I did not give the order to return you to that … to that … thing.” She could bring herself to say it.
“I didn’t say her name did I?” His voice out as one pleading or begging. “I was trying really hard not to. But I lost track of what was real for a time there.”
“You did not say her name, Mr. Wang. If you had, you’d have been released. Tell me. Did she ask you to protect her?”
“I told you I am going to be silent.”
“I answered a question of yours. You should answer one of my as a fair trade. I have not asked you about identity did I?”
“One then. No, she did not.”
“Then why protect her?”
“That’s question two.”
“Please. I need to understand. You’re my first trial.”
“Just my luck to pull a newbie, but then this whole trip has gone that way. No offense Your Highness, but you should probably hand this one off to someone else. Your inquisition here is trying to reconstruct what I did? I can’t even keep straight what’s happened to me the last few days. Still, if I were entirely in Kuang’s hands, I’d probably be dead right now—so maybe I’m lucky.”
“I apologize for his heavy-handed methods. So are you going to tell me why you’re protecting her?”
“I don’t’ know why I’m telling you. I did something that caused her to take something that she obviously did not own herself to give to me. So it’s my fault. Let’s leave it at that.”
“If she indeed stole something, it was her choice. Not yours.”
“Yeah, but I set it in motion.”
“Maybe she’s not being entirely honest with you.”
“So what. My business partners are all former criminals and pirates. Total honesty is not a realistic expectation in this life. You’re probably still very young to understand that. How old are you?”
“If I answer that, you will know which Princess I am.”
“Not necessarily. Princesses 13 and 14 are twins. But wait, they’re not adults yet. You’re right. But does it really matter? I said I was going to be silent. And once you’re done with me, my silence will be deadening.”
“I think you mean deafening.”
“I definitely meant ‘deadening,’” he said with a smile.
“I don’t know how you can joke about it. I’m 26 by the way.”
“Dog. As am I. You will understand this then. She is my friend. I am loyal to my family and my friends. It’s that simple.”
“I’m reconvening court,” she said standing up. “Tell the guards to bring you in when you’re ready, that is if you want to hear what is said about you.”
As she took a few steps, Three said, “You’re really damn pissed at me, aren’t you?”
“I beg your pardon?”
“Sorry about the colloquial speech—habit. I associates with lowlifes so I probably am one too.” He pulled out the pendant from around his neck. “This is yours, isn’t it? I apologize for this inconvenience. I was told it belonged to the Princess Seven. Do you really want it back that badly?”
“Truthfully? I’ve rarely worn it. If you give up possession, you will probably be freed. Why hold onto it?”
“This is as close as I get to having her. Guess I’m not ready to let go yet.”
“You love her then?”
“What do you think? You obviously know which girl took this. What’s this farcical trial really about?”
“It’s my turn to say that I have nothing to say. Now, if you’ll excuse me.”
[common language] “Do we have room for bargaining here?”
“You think justice is negotiable?”
“Justice is especially negotiable. I was originally seeking out Zuo’s people to try to buy out her marriage contract, but I didn’t know I’d have access to you, so let me give you a shot. I suspect you know exactly how she came by this piece. You want to officially lop off her head for violating your property rights, probably under the guise of cold principle, but she I’ll bet she probably did something to irk you and you prefer to not take her along with your entourage to the north. Or . . . she knows something potentially damaging about you that would jeopardize your arrangement with Zuo? And this is a very convenient way to get rid of her?”
“You have a very sordid imagination, Mr. Wang.” And, she thought, “I detest that you smart and are essentially right.”
“Here,” he said removing the pendant and putting down on the table beside him, “you take your piece back, and how about I take her off your hands. I don’t care about the trinket if I can get the woman. What will it take for you to release her to me so I can take her to the south as my legal wife? You’ll never see her again—I’ll bury her in food and babies. I’m sure we can come up with something arranged in extreme confidence if you need her or me to take the fall for some nominal crime.”
“I have no response to that. My advice to you, Mister Wang, is that if she gave you any instructions, you should follow them.”
“Since we both know who we’re talking about, you know she is NOT the smartest person around. She’s gave me some instruction, but it was bad advice. She’s naïve, kooky, and even a little dumb in some regards.”
“She is not dumb!”
“All right, how about impulsive then? She decides on things quickly, and then plows ahead without thinking things through and causing problems that have to be fixed. I’ll have to think for her and me until I get her up to speed, but after that I expect she’ll be spectacular.”
“I find your lack of faith in her, . . . and your patronizing arrogance, disconcerting.” The word that kept wanting to come out of her mouth was ‘unspeakably irritating.’”
Three rose from his chair and then fell to his knees. “Don’t do anything bad to her. Your Highness. Please.” He put his head three times down to the floor and kept it there.
She came over and stood over him and collected the pendant into her hand. “I have less control than you think. I’m a newbie. Remember? You should not be so ready to casually throw away your life. You need to carefully think how valuable your life is to those who depend on you. It’s very selfish of you to act this way.”
Three got up on one knee. “While I was sitting in jail last night I decided that I’ve been living for the sake of my father, my brothers, our citizens, and others all my life. If the one thing I do for myself causes me to lose my life, I will have no regrets.”
“Then I’m going to ask a selfish thing. Please save your own life. I do not want my first trial to end with an execution.”
“I wish you the greatest happiness in your marriage Princess. My apologies. I was supposed to attend your wedding in the place of my father, but it looks like I won’t make it.”
“You’re hopeless. You make a mockery of highest virtue of loyalty and turn it into a vice. Nevertheless, this girl is very lucky to have you as a friend, Three.”
* * *
When court reassembled Madame Cui requested that the kitchen’s staff’s testimony be taken first since they were being delayed from getting work done for one of the events that evening—and could they please be excused from any witness-priming steps that involved getting undressed, being wet, or being whipped if she vouched that they would all be truthful and quick.
“Girls,” said Madame Cui, “bring up the strings of cash and stand by me.” One by one, in seniority order the female kitchen staff filed up, each bowed before the judge and the Princess, dropping a string of coins at the Princess’ feet. The coins were held together by a small red sash that was threaded through the hollow squares at the centers of the coins.
Cui continued, “On the morning after the Princess Banquet, that young man who was here uh, earlier, came to me and made a request. He said that later that day he was going to ask for one of our coworkers in marriage, and if he were successful, he wanted to bring her by to be congratulated by her colleagues, and he wondered if we’d be willing to hang this lucky money on her in celebration.
“I told him that while it was quite sweet, it was much too bold a gesture, that he had been reading too many novels. And what if her parents rejected him? He said if that were the case, we could just keep the money ourselves. Nobody had any argument with that. He gave us each a package of cassia bark for our trouble. We couldn’t figure out who he was approaching since all of seemed to be present. Then someone suggested wouldn’t it be dandy if it were our Cinderella that he was after.”
“Who is Cinderella?” asked Seven.
“Why, that’s the nickname of the Princess Seven who cooks in our kitchen. She’s as devoted to cooking as any of us, so we consider her one of our own. I shouldn’t say this, but she actually assists in our preparations when she is not prepping her own food. Of course we knew it couldn’t be her since she is marrying the General and all, and that fella was certainly NOT the General.”
“This Cinderella,” inquired the Princess, “does she have any other staff nicknames?”
“Yes, but I wouldn’t want to say them as she is your sister and all and they may be thought vulgar or derogatory . . . but REALLY they’re not.”
“I want to hear them,” said the Princess.
“I’m sorry Your Highness, but I just can’t . . .”
“No offense will be taken. I assure you. Please.”
“She is called,” Madame Cui hesitated, but continued, “the Monkey Princess, Smoke, Wet Noodle, and, … Wandering Bitch.”
“The Eunuchs’ name for her. Try grasping her, but she slips away the harder you try.”
The veiled Princess-judge stayed silent for a moment. Then she asked, “Why do you place all of your lucky money in front of me?
“The young man. He never came back, until today. With a guard, and we all know what that means. We all decided if he’s to pay a fine, or to make restitution, we’d give it to you on his account. One of our chartered jobbers will probably cash us out for the cassia, so we’d like to offer that as well. It’s very high quality so it’ll be much more than that cash there.”
“Keep your cassia,” said the Princess, “it is not needed.” She needed to put her hand up to her eye but deemed that such gesture would make her lose face as a magistrate. As if on cue, Three was ushered back into the hall, fully dressed, and alert. He saw the pile of cash at the Princess’ feet and was disappointed, but he glanced up at the kitchen staff, and bowed in honor to them all.
At that point an old man with the insignia of one of the highest banner offices across his chest burst into the hall, scowling and hitting the floor hard with shoes he had put on just to make noise—it was Finance Minister Long. “Kuang Wen Sheng! What kind of a base, street carnival are you defiling these halls with?”
“Chen,” said Kuang, “we’re running a trial here. Do I go barging into your hearings and or conferences?”
“My office is right upstairs off the courtyard. Now it reeks of a damned barnyard. And rotten fish! And the braying and bleating of Heaven knows what kind of awful beasts. And all this working-class lowlife scum yabbering and arguing in their South Seas-tainted doggerel. I can’t concentrate to get any work done. How long is this going to go on?”
“A few hours, and then we’ll probably have to continue it into tomorrow from the looks of it,” said Kuang.
“Tomorrow? Damn it. Whose case is this anyway?” His old eyes darted about and zeroed in on Three. “YOU? Again? Wang? Jewel River Valley case? Where’ve you been? I ordered you to make an appointment with my office.”
“It seems I’ve been in jail,” said Three.
“Don’t tell me you want him too?” asked Kuang.
“Minister Long?” said Three, “I’m glad you dropped by. If you would be willing to spare a few minutes for expert testimony, I think I can get rid of all this livestock and noise and redeem what’s left of the day for everyone here.”
“This had better be good,” said Long.
“Judge Princess, I wish to offer my confession.”
“At last. Go ahead,” said Seven.
“I admit that I stole the pendant from the Princess Seven when she was wearing it at her banquet. I did the deed just as I was introduced to her in the receiving line.”
“You most certainly did not,” said the Princess.
“The pendant is returned. It’s in your hand there. I just gave it back to you. And now I offer my life in forfeit as required by the law,” said Three.
“I have testimony to prove what you say is false,” said the Princess.
“I am trying to follow the way of selfishness to save myself, Your Highness, but somebody needs to help me out,” said Three. He smiled and tried to convey with his face with everything he could to say “Go along with me.”
For her part, Seven was still angry at him for not trusting her and here he wanted her to trust him with some dangerous ploy—but she relented. “All right. Confession received. Your life is forfeit.”
“And now as we move into the penalty phase, I would like to now open negotiation for substitute payment for my life if the court is willing?”
“Go ahead?” said the Princess.
“Minister Long Chen?” said Three, “You are the author of the treatise On the Worth of Human Life, are you not?
“I am,” said Long.
“Can you briefly state the premise of that treatise?”
“Allow me then. Minister Long developed a sophisticated formula for putting a value in gold on a person’s life based upon their age, health, social rank, occupation, and influence on others. The average man’s life would be about 50 gold. Is that about right?”
“It’s much more complicated than that, but in essence you have it right.”
“The learned Minister Long came up with the amount to help award recompense to families who wrongfully lost a member. One situation he did not address but which I will suggest is that it can be applied to capital cases like mine. Rather than a family giving up its member to execution, they could buy back a normal man’s life with 50 gold. And of course, the more prominent a citizen under conviction, the bigger the ransom. Does that sound like a reasonable extension of your theory?”
“Not bad. Never thought of that application. Novel. It could work so long as there was no vendetta element by the aggrieved party, but I suppose a price could even be put on that.”
“Is there an aggrieved party in my case, Your Highness?”
“I am well acquainted with . . . the Princess Seven . . . and she is not aggrieved.”
“Good, I’d like to propose myself as a test candidate for this theory. My retainer Lucky is fully able to redeem my life for a full 50 gold, but I’d like to make a case for an adjustment.”
“I am a noble’s third son, so my value will differ from the average man. Professor Long? What did your research tell you about nobles’ third sons?”
“They are only held in reserve for use in case both elder sons die, which rarely happens. They tend to cause more expense to the families just to have around than they are useful, generally getting into trouble with public vices, such as gambling, racing, drunkenness, and the like. They actually have a negative worth.”
“If we were to strictly apply my average value as a noble third son, what would my redemption price be?”
“Strictly speaking, the state would have to pay your family 50 gold to even things up.”
“Thank you Minister Long. I humbly ask substitute redemption for the forfeit of my life in the amount of 50 gold to be paid to my family’s representative, which would be . . . ME.”
“Mister Wang!” said the Princess, “This is outrageous. You are saying instead of slicing your head off, we should free you AND pay you? There has to be a flaw here. Judge Kuang?”
“Well done, Wang. You have officially made crime pay. Not as exciting a finish as I was hoping for, but clever. I’ll give you that. Princess, I advise you take the deal, although I was really looking forward to interrogating the Red Lantern girls. Pay the man and let’s get out of here. I’ve got to get ready for the Foreign Emissaries Ball, as do you, Chen. We’re tablemates in case you forgot. You were probably just cleaning your nails up in your office there.”
“Oh shut it you old sadistic gasbag,” said Long. “We can’t afford to kill him anyway—he brings in too much tax revenue. What’s this all about? Some nonsense about a theft?”
“The Princess Seven’s gold dog pendant, was stolen and returned,” said Kuang, “evidently as party hijinks.”
“Royal jewelry?” Long scoffed. “Toys. We’re talking about mere toys. That’s my jurisdiction anyway. Should have come to me in the first place. Dismiss it! In actuality the royals don’t even own their own jewelry. Can’t give it, can’t sell it. They’re just glorified racks made of flesh. Royals have the least amount of freedom and personality in the Empire. The Empire owns them, heh heh. You should read my treatise about THAT. Woe to the man who gains the Mandate of Heaven. Come on boy, I have much to talk to you about. This day is shot! Do you have dinner plans? Cancel them! Wen and I will be heading over to the baths now. Your Manchurian hairline needs a touch up. I have a great barber.”
“As it happens, my evening just opened up. I’ll skip the bath if you don’t mind,” said Three.
“It’ll be hot,” assured Kuang.
“We’ll squeeze him in at our table—I’ll inform the host,” said Long.
“The event manager is right there. Tell her,” said Three pointing to Madame Cui who was laughing uproariously with her staff at the turn of events.
“Are we done?” asked Long of the Princess.
“I suppose we are,” sighed Seven. “Forfeit of life is hereby satisfied by substitute payment. Request for dismissal by Treasury acknowledged. Case closed. And would all open market merchants please move yourselves and your inventory to the palace kitchen receiving platform. Thank you.”
© 2012 by Vincent Way, all rights reserved.