"Your Highness Prince Yu, since you have already seen that this is His Majesty's imperial will, what more is there to worry about?"
Prince Yu felt something stir in his heart, and he carefully turned over this statement in his mind before answering slowly, “Mister’s meaning is……”
“After Xie Yu was sentenced, I urged Your Highness to exercise restraint in dealing with the Crown Prince. It appears that Your Highness thought I was being soft-hearted, and took my words only as idle chatter?”
Prince Yu thought for a moment and remembered something like this had indeed happened, and hurriedly tried to backpedal: “Mister only mentioned it in passing, I thought it was not important….”
At this, he abruptly stopped himself. Su Zhe was his strategist, this was true, but he had never used a particularly aggressive approach in all their interactions to date, and mentioning something was his way of expressing his advice. As for whether he himself listened, Su Zhe had never insisted, and so it was his own fault for failing to take his suggestions seriously.
“Even though the Crown Prince has committed wrong, he is still His Majesty’s own appointed heir. Recently, Your Highness has been a little too powerful, and have crossed the line to threatening the imperial authority.” Mei Changsu sighed and shook his head. “Has Your Highness truly not noticed that your imperial favour has been waning of late?”
“This is true. Father Emperor has been increasingly cold towards me recently, and I could not understand the reason for it, though I spent much time pondering over the matter.”
“What is difficult to understand about it?” Mei Changsu spoke bluntly. “The Crown Prince of the Eastern Palace has been so thoroughly subdued that he can hardly lift his head in the court, where all the officials now bow to Your Highness’ great talent, no one daring to utter a word in opposition whenever Your Highness speaks. Do you think His Majesty delights when he sees this, and will continue heaping favour and support on Your Highness’ head?”
“But……but Father Emperor has always…….”
“You are correct, His Majesty has always encouraged the competition between you and the Crown Prince. But he never imagined that the situation would progress to its current state. Several top-ranking ministers have been toppled from their position, there was the great court debate on the respective ranks of the sons of wives versus concubines, then there was the illegal fireworks factory, and finally Xie Yu’s downfall – all of this was out of His Majesty’s expectation, and he has attributed every one to Your Highness’ doing. Think, if you were able to plot the undoing of the heir’s greatest supporter and win over the entire court without His Majesty’s support, how could His Majesty not grow fearful and suspicious, and move to suppress your power and influence?”
As he spoke, Prince Yu broke out in a cold sweat, and when Mei Changsu finished, he immediately cupped his hands and lifted them in a half-bow, saying, “I have indeed been a little over-ambitious of late, now that things have progressed to their current state, what should I do to redeem myself?”
“Your Highness does not need to be overly concerned. His Majesty is only heaping favour onto Prince Jing to remind you to calm yourself, and to remember who truly holds power and authority in the palace, and in this way, he is showing that he means to protect and preserve your position. I can see that His Majesty has already rejected the Crown Prince in his heart, and the naming of a new heir is only a matter of time, it is only…… the Crown Prince must be brought down by the weight of His Majesty’s own disappointment and anger, and not by Your Highness’ intervening attacks, trying to seize power and gain prestige by brute force. I trust Your Highness understands this difference?”
Prince Yu was calculating and observant by nature, and adept at reading people and situations, and so he understood what Mei Changsu meant, and sat down again, nodding slowly as he said, “That’s right, the closer we are, the more important it is to act slowly. Father Emperor is favouring Prince Jing, and he is certainly watching for my reaction. If I step wrongly now, the consequences will be difficult to imagine, so it is better to choose passivity as our course of action for the time being.”
Mei Changsu looked approving as he smiled and answered, “Your Highness’ greatest competition at the moment is still the Crown Prince, but we cannot take no action at all against Prince Jing either. Please have Miss Qin keep a close eye on him.”
Prince Yu’s expression had lightened, and now he smiled back at Mei Changsu. “If Mister would consent to move to my palace and be consulted for your wisdom on a regular basis, I can assure you a much higher income and standard of living.”
His invitation for Mei Changsu to move into his palace had been extended eight or ten times by now, but he never seemed angered by the other’s refusal, and seemed only politely interested in recruiting this talent to his household. It was a pity that no matter what form this invitation took, that which could not be accepted simply would not be accepted.
“What I must say and do are not hidden.” Mei Changsu leaned back in his chair, his expression undisturbed. “Even if I were to trouble Your Highness and move into your residence, I would not speak any more than I do now, so what difference could it make?”
Prince Yu immediately took the chance to urge, “I know Mister Su lives in a carefree and leisurely manner, and in fact, there are few rules and regulations in my palace, and Mister would be free to do as he likes.”
A grim amusement stirred in Mei Changsu’s heart. Since he had come to be his strategist, what good was there pretending to be carefree and idle any longer? But he kept the smile on his face as he replied tactfully, “It would not be fitting for Your Highness to cast aside rules and regulations on my behalf…. That’s right, Xie Yu’s case has finally ended, I wonder what Your Highness is preparing to do about the Zhuo family?”
“I will continue to care for them, of course, and help them return to Tianquan Manor to pass their days in peace and quiet. The roots of the Zhuo clan are deep, and they will not require much assistance from me in the end.”
“That is true. Although Zhuo Dingfeng is wounded, the foundation of Tianquan Manor still stands. They will survive this setback, and their days of glory will come again.” Mei Changsu thought for a moment, and then continued, “Though the Zhuo Clan still commands some power in the jianghu, they are now only people who have been used and cast aside by Xie Yu, and will be of no use to Your Highness in the future. Why not let them leave all of this behind and cut a clean break from the court, and so gain a reputation of generosity and kindness for Your Highness meanwhile?”
Prince Yu’s thoughts faltered for a moment. He had indeed meant to make the most out of every resource, and thought that the Zhuo family might still be of some use to him at some point in the future, so on hearing this, he immediately replied, “Although the power of jianghu cannot stand against that of the court, it is still useful in its way, and despite the injuries the Zhuo family has suffered, they still have some influence left, so why….”
“With me here, what is there for Your Highness to fear in jianghu?” Mei Changsu answered calmly.
Prince Yu had been waiting for these words from the Chief of Jiangzuo Alliance, and when he heard them, his face lit up in a pleased smile and he stroked his mustache as he said, “You are right, even at the height of Tianquan Manor’s powers, they could hardly have been Mister Su’s match.”
“Your Highness is over-generous in his praise, I would not dare to speak so boldly.” Though his words were self-depreciating, his expression was grave with a cool haughtiness that seemed to emanate from his very bones, a kind of inexplicable confidence that was almost palpable. When Prince Yu thought about the fact that this mysterious qilin prodigy, revered throughout jianghu, was now working for him, an unspeakable joy and delight welled up in his heart, and the jealousy and anger that had surrounded him like a fog on his entrance into Su Manor now dissipated like smoke into the sky.
The conversation was winding down, and though Prince Yu meant to continue with some idle chatter, he found that Mei Changsu only answered briefly no matter which topic he tried to raise. He did not want to overstay his welcome, and Fei Liu was staring sullenly from a corner, and sure enough, when Prince Yu stood and bid a polite farewell, his host did not object.
After Prince Yu had departed from the manor, Mei Changsu said a few word to Fei Liu, and then left the unhappy-looking youth outside as he himself opened the door to the secret tunnel and slipped inside.
He went down the tunnel to the hidden chamber, but when he pushed open the stone door, the normally unflappable Mister Mei of Jiangzuo started in surprise.
Meng Zhi was not the only person in the hidden chamber. He was standing by the wall, and on hearing the sound of the stone door opening, he immediately stood. Beside him, sitting at the desk flipping through ‘Soaring over the Earth: A Chronicle’ by the light of the lantern, was Prince Jing Xiao Jingyan.
“Mister Su has returned,” Meng Zhi said as he came forward to greet him. “Just now, when His Highness Prince Jing found me here, he was surprised too. I have already explained to His Highness how it was I found myself here.”
Prince Jing put down the book in his hand and asked mildly, “Has Prince Yu left?”
Mei Changsu composed himself, and then walked forward and bowed. “Yes, Your Highness, Prince Yu just departed.”
“Since Mister has already met with Prince Yu, there are some things you must know already….”
“Yes,” Mei Changsu nodded slightly. “I hear His Majesty has commanded Your Highness to take charge of the Capitol Patrol, and intends to raise you to the rank of Royal Prince.”
“Hm?” Prince Jing looked taken aback. “It is true that I have received the imperial order to take command of the Capitol Patrol, but there was not any mention of being raised to Royal Prince.”
“Did His Majesty not give you permission to enter the imperial palace at your leisure?”
“He did indeed…. So in the future, I will not have to wait for the appropriate dates or obtain imperial permission to visit my mother.”
“It is this which has infuriated Prince Yu so greatly. Has Your Highness not noticed that this has always been a privilege granted exclusively to Royal Princes?”
When Prince Jing had received this special privilege, he had only been delighted that he would be able to visit his mother any time he wished, and had not thought about the implications of this honour. But at Mei Changsu’s prompting, a cautious joy rose in his heart, only to be quickly suppressed by doubt. “I truly did not think so much of it…… Today is my mother’s birthday, perhaps Father Emperor was simply feeling generous, and has no other intention in mind.”
Mei Changsu answered, “The matter is all but decided. Your Highness’ promotion to Royal Prince should have happened long ago, and even if His Majesty did not think of it when he bestowed this privilege on you, when the court ministers carry out this imperial edict, they will certainly remind His Majesty that this is the privilege of a Royal Prince. If you are granted the privileges of a Royal Prince without the title, then what favour would that be? Since His Majesty has seen fit to bestow his favour on you, then he will not do things by halves, that would cause more confusion in the end. By the end of this month at the earliest, and the autumn sacrifices at the latest, the elevation in your rank will be confirmed, I am sure of it.”
“That is good,” Meng Zhi said joyfully. “Then Your Highness Prince Jing will no longer have to stand one rank lower to Prince Yu.”
“But…is this the right time?” Prince Jing closed his eyes. “Has Mister not cautioned me all along to keep a low profile in the court?”
“There is a time for everything,” Mei Changsu’s expression was calm. “Your Highness’ current position is still relatively weak, so keeping a low profile would naturally be the best option. But it would not do to hide forever and never take a step forward. We did not fight for the Capitol Patrol, but now that it has fallen into our hands, there is no need to push it away. With the preparations Your Highness has been making for the past year, if we are unable now to absorb the consequences of obtaining the Capitol Patrol, then it will be counted as my failings as your strategist. I stand by what I have said all along: Your Highness cannot move forward prematurely, but neither can you not move forward at all.”
“Good.” Prince Jing nodded swiftly. “When His Majesty gave the Capitol Patrol over to me, I had no choice but to accept, and I have been worried that it would disrupt the rhythm of Mister’s careful plans. Now that it has not, everything has turned out for the best. But as for the Crown Prince and Prince Yu….”
“The Crown Prince is powerless to stop his own downfall, and he only has eyes for Prince Yu now. His Majesty could raise you to a Nine-Jewel Royal Prince, and the Crown Prince would still not spare any energy towards dealing with you. As for Prince Yu, I have taken care of it just now. If he follows my advice, he will not take any action against Your Highness, and Your Highness can take this chance and time to increase your strength. If he only pretended to listen and intends to give in to his jealousy anyway and deal Your Highness a blow, then we will absorb its force and redirect it, and let the matter arrive before His Majesty, so that the person who bestowed this favour onto you can judge the situation for himself.”
“Then no matter what Prince Yu does, he cannot win?” Meng Zhi could not help laughing. “This was an unexpected turn of events, and yet Mister Su has managed to weave such a complete and intricate plan into place, I can only stand in admiration.”
“This is the nature of strategy.” There was no pride or satisfaction on Mei Changsu’s face. “If the chances of success depend on the choices of our opponents, then this is a poor option indeed. It is only when we have plans to counter every choice our opponents may make that we may tentatively say we have the situation in hand. Your Highness is a certain distance yet from this goal, but now the foundation at least has been laid.”
On hearing him say this, Prince Jing was greatly reassured. Ever since he had made up his mind to restore his fallen elder brother¹’s innocence, his yearning and determination for the throne had increased several fold. He had been studying diligently and taking every opportunity to put his learning into practice in the hopes of gaining experience, and so in many ways, he had come to appreciate and depend upon Mei Changsu much more so than before, and so he was purposefully adjusting his instinctive dislike towards strategists, so that this bias would not affect his judgement.
Although Mei Changsu did not comment aloud on Prince Jing’s efforts, he was in fact quite pleased, and had even mentioned as such to Meng Zhi.
But what Mei Changsu didn’t know was that, to Meng Zhi, his delight would always stir up an indescribable sorrow in the Commander General.
“My lady Consort Jing must be happy today.” Meng Zhi saw that the two had stopped speaking, and the atmosphere was turning cool, and so he hurriedly spoke up. “With His Majesty’s new edict, it will be much easier for Your Highness to see my lady in the future.”
He might as well have not spoken at all, so useless was this comment, and so Prince Jing only smiled slightly and nodded in reply. Actually, in all the times Prince Jing and Mei Changsu had met in the hidden chamber before, the atmosphere had never grown cold. After discussing the fight for the throne, the two would inevitably turn to discussing court politics, and the conversation could go on for hours. But today, with Meng Zhi present, Prince Jing did not want to say too much. This was not because he did not trust the Commander General of the Imperial Guard, but because, although Meng Zhi had expressed a willingness to support his claim to the throne, he was still to the bone loyal first to his lord, and only afterwards to Prince Jing. He did not mind declaring his intention to fight for the throne in front of Meng Zhi, but as for the opinions he held over the Emperor’s decisions and manner of handling certain court affairs, these Prince Jing did not want Meng Zhi to hear too much about.
Mei Changsu had already understood Xiao Jingyan’s thoughts and reasoning, and so he had not tried to change the topic. But when he saw Meng Zhi trying so hard to lighten the mood, he could not help smiling. “Does the Commander General have an early shift tomorrow? Your Highness should retire for some rest as well.”
Prince Jing had already accepted that there would be no possibility for their usual discussions at today’s meeting, and so he immediately answered, “We have taken half of Mister’s day as well, you should get some rest. I will return another day to enquire of Mister’s wisdom.”
Mei Changsu did not bother with much courtesy, and only bowed in reply. Meng Zhi, standing between the two, hurriedly turned and cupped his fists in a bow of farewell.
Prince Jing nodded, and then turned to return to his own rooms through the hidden tunnel. At the door, he suddenly halted, and then turned around, reaching over to pick up ‘Soaring over the Earth: A Chronicle’ , which had been lying on the table. “This book is very interesting, and I did not have time to finish it just now. Would Mister mind if I borrowed it for a few days?”
¹it should be noted that this word, ‘brother’, isn’t specified to be singular or plural