Barking Up the Wrong Tree – Conscience Training
“Okay, please answer my following questions,” said Su Xiao, taking out a small notebook and holding a brush in his mouth.
Strictly speaking, Su Xiao meddled partly because he felt bad for Sister Niu, meaning it wasn’t all business for him. He struggled to write down “Twenty-seventh, twelfth lunar mother, thirtieth year of Yuan Sheng’s reign”, impressing Sister Niu and company with his nice handwriting.
“Yeah, it looks good, but I can’t recognise a single character. All those swirly squiggles just resemble paintings if you ask me.”
Su Xiao went red in the face. His handwriting tended towards a style embracing beauty and grace, as it was his mother who taught him to write for the most part. In essence, it was virtually a girl’s handwriting. It was his handwriting that swept Liu Yuan off his feet during his initial visit to Liu Shan Men. He mulled on it since and opted to write textbook style. Alas, habits weren’t easy to change; his characters continued to take on a swirly style.
Su Xiao cleared his throat: “Sister Niu, why did you cry your husband was framed and break down in tears as soon as you set foot into the Ministry of Justice? What exactly was the problem? Also, what exactly happened to your husband? What do you mean he was kidnapped?”
Thanks to Su Xiao’s appearance and gentle tone, Sister Niu saw “her” in a positive light right from the start. Though young, she saw the virtue a commoner wouldn’t possess within Su Xiao. And so, she recounted the story from beginning to end.
“My husband’s last name is Niu. His full name is Niu Shuanzi. We are all from the countryside, specifically Zijin County’s Big Cow Village. Two months ago, my husband came to the capital to look for work, since there was none back home. It wasn’t long before I received a letter from him saying he already found a job at a martial arts club. It immediately struck me something was bizarre. He was paid decently; however, my husband isn’t a refined man and has a one-track mind. If he offended the people there, who were martial artists, he would not survive the beating. I told him to find a different job, and he sent back five taels of silver. He told me the club asked him to fight; they paid one silver tael just for fighting one match.”
Su Xiao felt sorry for Sister Niu after hearing her story. It wasn’t uncommon for those with her background to view money in a cynical light. However, she didn’t just look unwell; she looked very tense, too. The martial arts club didn’t pay just five silver taels. Anyhow, the information confirmed Niu Shuanzi did participate in fights.
According to what Su Xiao knew about the capital, a martial arts club would only pay a master a few silvers. Niu Shuanzi’s earnings were ludicrous given his ordinary background. Logically, he had to be fighting in the underground circle. Underground fighting wasn’t against the law, nevertheless, so he couldn’t have been convicted for that. As such, Su Xiao didn’t mention it.
Sister Niu cried as she elaborated: “We were all happy he made money. My husband loves his family. He sent a letter every few days. Eventually, the frequency of the letters continued to drop until he vanished without a word. Scared and anxious, I prepared to come here to search for him. Little did I know Shuntian Prefecture already sent me a notice. I learnt my husband wasn’t in the capital but taking part in underground fights at a martial arts club in Wuhua County. He supposedly made a name for himself in the two months he was there.”
Su Xiao lamented the case given to him. The Emperor gave him exactly that: a case on the recent rise in underground fighting’s popularity. Due to its popularity, he was handed many scrolls listing past cases. He read a lot – arguably learning half of the underground fighting circuit’s business.
Normally, martial arts clubs involved in underground fighting trained their own fighters in addition to bolstering their ranks with hired martial artists. Of importance was that winning and losing wasn’t the main source of income. Their main income came from betting odds on fighters. If the fighter with bigger odds lost, the club would pocket a big sum, while their fighters would also be treated handsomely. So accordingly, some fighters staged fights to rack up a win streak in order to raise their own worth. Once they lost, they would earn loads from the gamblers. Niu Shuanzi might’ve been part of such a scheme because of his background. The question was, why him when he was weak and honest?
“My husband has been framed, Miss! My husband is an honest gentleman. He would never fight. He must have been framed. My husband is innocent. Please clear his name.”
Su Xiao smiled: “Sister Niu, calm down. Let me explain the situation to you. Although the imperial court didn’t start underground fighting, there’s no law banning it. In other words, he wouldn’t have broken the law if he did fight.”
“Really? Really?” asked Sister Niu, grabbing Su Xiao’s thin arms as though they were the last straws for her to grasp. “He’s okay? He’s okay? So, so when will he be released? The office said I can’t visit him!”
“If he is found innocent, he will soon be released. I now need to ask all of you a few questions.”
Su Xiao questioned all of the villagers to verify everything Sister Niu claimed, proving their stories aligned. He couldn’t identify any oddities.
Mao Dali, who still felt the caning, fumed, “What’s with all of the questions? When are you going to release Brother Niu? Just tell as it is already.”
“Last question. If there’s no issue, I’ll go and ask Shuntian Prefecture to release him straight away,” stated Su Xiao, trying to maintain a smile to hide his fear. Putting on a calm front, he asked, “Sister Niu, did your husband kill anyone in the fights he participated over the two months?”
Two hours ago.
“You’re going to look for the villagers, aren’t you?” asked Secretary Leng, head down in the books.
The sudden question that hit the nail on the head startled Su Xiao, resulting in him dropping his brush. He wondered how Secretary Leng read his mind.
“It wasn’t hard,” said Secretary Leng, pausing his writing. He continued as if he was just finishing off a statement: “Your bright eyes gave it away. You’ve been out of sorts, restless at work and continue to peer out the door ever since you met them. I would be a failure if I couldn’t read you with so many blatant signs.”
Though surprised for a second, Su Xiao reasoned it wasn’t surprising Secretary Leng could read him when considering the latter’s status. Having recollected himself, Su Xiao replied, “Teacher, since you are attentive down to minute details, why did you not help them? She lost her husband. Moreover, based on what they said, we should learn what happened, since it pertains to Shuntian Prefecture. I had a look through past cases and found the Ministry of Justice has dealt with cases where officials were accused. In my op-“
“Su Xiao, remember where you stand,” interjected Secretary Leng, with an imposing undertone. “You are my subordinate and student. You should not be questioning my decision.”