“Stop!” Shen Zhenzhu put the teacup onto the side table next to the chaise with a sharp thud. Perhaps it was because of the sternness that she had never seen on Shen Zhenzhu’s face, Cui Caiping fell silent and let go of Yu Shu. No-one else uttered a word.
“Younger Sister, as this has occurred, and my maid is involved then of course I will treat this fairly and give you an answer.” As for Liu Run and Cui Caiping, one knew what was going on but was enjoying the show from the side, the other was determined to stir up more trouble. All eyes were now on the new Princess Consort to see how well she can manage conflict within the household. After a short pause she suggested to Cui Caiping, “I know younger sister that under your good management, your maids are all well-behaved. Today’s matter is not serious so shall we just investigate it here in my quarters?” What she meant was rather than moving them all into the main meeting room for all to see, she would prefer to keep it a quiet affair.
“Of course that’s fine! I don’t want people to say that I, Cui Caiping is so useless that not only have I become a concubine, that I couldn’t even protect my own maid from harm. I’ve only married His Highness for a few days!” Cui Caiping continued to complain. She was direct and a little simple-minded so did not realise the deeper meaning in Shen Zhenzhu’s words.
After getting her agreement, Shen Zhenzhu finally turned to Liu Run. “Good, then Butler Liu are the guards on patrol this morning the same guards who were on sentry duty last night?”
“Yes, they only changed over an hour ago,” Liu Run confirmed with a nod of his head.
“Good. Hurry and bring the Lieutenant here!”
Soon, Lieutenant Yan Ming arrived. He was around thirty years of age and muscular and alert. Yesterday eve it was his turn to rest. He only returned to the manor before he was called over to the Princess Consorts’ quarters, so he had no idea what happened. As soon as he arrived, he lowered his head to listen to orders.
As a Lieutenant, he was a sixth ranking official and was responsible for the security of the entire manor and the management of the guards. Mindful of his position Shen Zhenzhu politely told him, “Lieutenant Yan you have worked hard, please can you take two secret guards to guard the side door. If anyone sneaks in, arrest them and bring them here.” Yan Ming did not dare to delay and hurriedly went off to carry out the order.
As expected less than fifteen minutes later, the guards brought someone in, Cui Caiping took a close look and it turned out to be Yin’e. It was as if her face was hanging by the thread. Unable to contain her embarrassment, she ran over to slap her in the face. “You idle maid! Where were you hiding?!”she grabbed Yin’e’s hand and started to drag her out of the room. “I will teach you a lesson for this!”
“Wait!” Shen Zhenzhu stopped her. “Younger sister, Yin’e has broken the household rules! We need to question her properly to see why she did this and punish her accordingly!”
With a wave of Yan Ming’s arm, several guards came in from the external room carrying two bound men in guard’s clothing and pushed them onto the ground onto their knees. As it was due to his dereliction of duty, Yan Ming also got on his knees. “I neglected my duties, please punish me.”
“Only strictness will produce good soldiers, lax rules will only produce idle soldiers. Lieutenant Yan, although I have only been here for less than half a month, but I have had the honour once to observe how you train your men. I should not have spoken up, but I would like to suggest that although kindness and generosity is a good virtue to have but when it comes to training guards and managing the household, if one is too generous then the rules will not be followed.”
As a woman, she should not have involved herself in political matters. Instead she should hide her true intelligence and bid her time for the right opportunity. But she quickly indicated to Liu Run to help Yan Ming up and continued the questioning. “Have we got an answer?”
“Your Highness, we do. Yesterday eve, brothers Wang Ping and Wang You who were on sentry duty accepted a bribe from Yin’e to allow her to let her out of the manor secretly.”
“If I remember correctly a normal guard is paid 3000 taels per month, correct?” she asked Liu Run.
Liu Run replied with a yes.
“Butler Liu, I believe you can answer better than me, but with Chang’an’s living standards how many scoops of rice and rolls of fabric can three thousand taels buy?”
“Your Highness it can buy fifteen scoops of rice and over twenty rolls of fabric.”
“And is that enough for a normal family to go by for a month?”
“More than enough.”
Shen Zhenzhu then turned to Yin’e, “Tell me, how much did you give those two guards.”
Yin’e was already shaking with fear, her head bobbed up and down as if crushing garlic. “Y-Your H-Highness, I….I gave them t-twenty coins each….”she stuttered.
Shen Zhenzhu slammed the side table so hard that the teacup fell off the table and shattered to pieces, making even Cui Caiping jump. Shen Zhenzhu’s face was expressionless but the aura she gave was enough to intimidate everyone in the room. “We treat our soldiers well but a small bribe is enough for them to neglect their duties, so what is the use of them? General Yan, you are the Lieutenant, tell me, how would you deal with this?”
Yan Ming hesitated for a moment before clearly stated, “According to the rules, Wang Ping and Wang Rou must both receive forty lashings, each and lose a month of their pay and thrown out of the manor immediately. As for I, I must receive forty lashings also and lose a month’s pay!”
“Lieutenant Yan, you do not need to increase the severity of your punishment. According to the rules, you only need to receive twenty lashings,” Shen Zhenzhu told him.
By this time, Yin’e was completely consumed with fear. “Your Highness please show mercy! Please show mercy! Please do not throw me out!” she cried as she kowtowed to Shen Zhenzhu. The guards were thrown out because they neglected their duties, but she was bought by the Cui family when she was a child and had no home to go to if she was thrown out. Meanwhile, Cui Caiping stood anxiously rubbing her hands together as she watched the events unfold. Despite always having something to say, she did not know what to do in this circumstance.
Shen Zhenzhu gave Yin’e a cold look. “As for you, although I do not know why you left the manor without permission, but rules cannot be broken lightly. As you are Lady Cui’s maid, you will receive twenty lashings and do three months of menial labour in the Buttery.” The Buttery was responsible for cooking the meals of almost thousand people every day and the work was extremely hard. But Yin’e knew that she was shown mercy and gratefully thanked Shen Zhenzhu before leaving to take her punishment.
Soon after, everyone had left except Liu Run who remained where he was with a half-smile on his face. “Butler Liu you must be weary too. You may go and rest.”
Only then did Butler Liu break out with a smile, the wrinkles on his face crinkling up, making him look even more like an ugly, deviant old man. He kowtowed to her before praising, “Your servant greatly admires your intelligence.”
“You must have enjoyed the show,” Shen Zhenzhu commented lightly.
“Your servant does not understand why you did not question Yin’e’s whereabouts last night,” he continued with a smile.
If a maid secretly snuck out at night but did not elope with anyone, then it was likely that she was having a rendezvous with a lover. As she was Cui Caiping’s maid, Shen Zhenzhu felt she should save Cui Caping some face. “Then where is Miss Dugu? Why do I not see her all day?” Shen Zhenzhu retorted.
Liu Run paused for a moment a little surprised by her response. “That….You will have to ask His Highness. His Highness has granted her special permission, so she is not managed by me.”
He let out a couple of coughs before continuing, “Consort Wei is as sharp as before. Your Highness has the ability to run a country.”
“Consort Wei?” It was Shen Zhenzhu’s time to be surprised but her facial expression remained the same. She gave Hong Rui a look who immediately shooed the other maids and guards out of the room and away from hearing distance.
It was then that Liu Run got on his knees, tears streaming from his eyes as he kowtowed to her. “When Consort Wei was the Crown Princess, she saved me and I owe her a debt I could never repay. She ordered me to be loyal to you and to support you as much as I can. Today I overstepped my position by testing your capabilities, so please forgive me.” With that, he pulled out an item from his sleeve. It was a golden comb with an exquisite engraving on. Towards the teeth was a small character “Wei”. Only then did Shen Zhenzhu believe his words a little more. She helped Liu Run up and in a sad voice, she told him, “I have not seen Her Highness for a while too. The last time I saw her, she had become frailer.”
“As long as I still have one breath, I will avenge Lady Wei and her family!” Liu Run swore through gritted teeth.
That was one year ago, Li Linfu sent a secret report to His Majesty accusing the then Crown Princess Wei’s elder brother, Wei Jian was colluding with the military governor of Hexi Huangfu Weiming. Furious, the Emperor stripped Wei Jian of his position as the Minister of Punishments and demoted him to become the Governor of the Jinyun district for “neglecting his duties”. Huangfu Weiming was also stripped of his titles and demoted to the position of the Governor of the Bochuan district for “creating a rift between Emperor and subject”. His entire family also lost their titles too. Later Li Linfu, together with in-palace enquiry censors launched a campaign that led to the death of Huangfu Weiming and Wei Jian and his brothers. The Crown Prince was forced to depose of his wife for “irreconcilable reasons”. From then onwards, Crown Princess Wei was imprisoned in a nunnery and forced to become a nun. Many ministers and clans who had close relations with the Wei clan were implicated by it, only the Shen Clan remained untouched due to the low profile they had kept and remained in power. Liu Run knew about what had happened and had a keepsake of Consort Wei’s. It seemed he could be trusted. Only Shen Zhenzhu was uneasy about how angry he was about the injustice Consort Wei had suffered.
Although Yin’e’s case was kept quiet however within half a day the entire household knew that the new Princess Consort was intelligent, fair and skilling running a household. The servants became more diligent and took their work more seriously.
 Face hanging by a thread: Face in this instance means one’s reputation and honour, the image someone presents to others. In the past, some fathers would force their daughters to become a nun if they did something that brought shame to their family and made them lose face i.e. eloping with someone inappropriate. In this case, because Yin’e is Cui Caiping’s closest handmaid and help her maintain her reputation and honour so anything she did that was inappropriate would taint Cui Caping’s reputation and honour too as she was the one who trained her.
Consort/Lady Wei: The Crown Prince’s deposed Crown Princess. Although she was initially a Lady Ru (high ranking concubine) of Li Heng before he was made Crown Prince and was later his Crown Princess and primary wife. Because Li Linfu who was the Chancellor at the time supported another prince and was worried that Li Heng would become a threat so he set up Consort Wei’s elder brother, Wei Jian in an elaborate scheme, hoping this would help him overthrow the Crown Prince Li Heng as well. He accused Li Heng of colluding with Wei Jian and Huangfu Weiming and plotting a coup to overthrow Emperor Xuanzong. Then he would be able to make the prince he supported Li Mao, Prince of Shou, the Crown Prince. After Wei Jiang and Huangfu Weiming were stripped of their titles and killed on their way to their new governing districts, Li Heng realised that he might be next so he asked to divorce Consort Wei who was taken to a nunnery and forced to be a nun. Because of the divorce she was never given a title.