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Chapter 20: Baili Qi

Mei Changsu did not go to watch any more matches during the next few days. He stayed behind and rested at the Snow Cottage with the excuse of his poor health. Thankfully, after appraising him the other day, both the Crown Prince and Prince Yu did not think Mei Changsu to be someone who would easily yield to favour or might. As they have yet to come up with a new way to lure him to their side, neither party came forward to pester him. Mei Changsu spent his days reading books and playing the guqin, and focused his entire energy on recovery. As a result, he really began to look much healthier.

Since Xiao Jingrui and Yan Yujin had signed up, they had to fight in the tournament every day, and could not keep Su company as a result. On the other hand, Xie Bie appeared to have lots of free time. He would find some time every day to come over and chat about this and that with Mei Changsu. Their topics ranged far and wide, but not a word was mentioned about Prince Yu.

However, the Snow Cottage would liven up every day after dusk. Yan Yujin made enough noise for ten people, and would narrate the day’s competition to Mei Changsu like a story. He would become especially animated when describing his and Xiao Jingrui’s battles, using exceedingly vivid descriptions. It was as if he was describing some momentous, earth-shattering event, or some pivotal battle that will alter the tide of the martial arts world. It was probably more spectacular listening to him than seeing the event in person.

Xie Bi would frequently nudge his brother’s arm and criticize, “Aren’t you embarrassed by him? Is Yujin really talking about you? It sounds to me more and more like the deity Erlang[1] has descended to earth. All you’re missing is a celestial dog at your side.”



Xiao Jingrui would usually give a wry grin, but he not once did he stop Yan Yujin or shattered his enthusiasm.

In contrast, Feiliu would exclaim “Impossible!” from time to time, as he sat and stared at the sky coldly.

Yan Yujin mulled over it for awhile before he finally understood Feiliu’s meaning. From then on, he did not dare to make wild exaggerations as he was describing specific attacks.

Although Yan Yujin was guilty of bragging, he and Xiao Jingrui were undoubtedly first class in their strength. They had subdued their competitors without much effort in the first few rounds. There had been a few scares in the past two days, but they still ended their matches in victories.

The Emperor would appear punctually upon the Phoenix Building every day in order to attach importance to the event. Although everyone knew that he would watch one or two matches at most before leaving, they still felt very honoured by his presence. Marrying Princess Nihuang was not the sole aim for most of the young men who entered the tournament. After all, the position only had one opening, and the difficulty was too great. Most people used this tournament as an opportunity to present their talents, hoping to improve their fame in the martial arts world through battles, or to improve their status by catching the eye of some high authority.

Just like that, the tournament proceeded along merrily, with everything according to plan, and attracted the eyes of the entire world as anticipated. Every day, someone would leave the stage dejectedly, and some rookie would rise to fame with a single battle. The final result represented the combination of fame, fortune, and power. Compared to that, this entire process could not be described as dull. At most, it was not unexpected enough.

However, though the unexpected arrived late, it arrived nonetheless.

At dusk during the seventh day of the tournament, Mei Changsu realized that something astonishing must’ve occurred when he saw the solemn expressions on the faces of Yan Yujin and Xiao Jingrui, who rushed into the Snow Cottage.

“Su! Su!” The one making a racket as soon as he entered was, of course, Yan Yujin. He had run there, giving his cheeks a pinch of redness and his forehead some droplets of sweat. He rushed in, dragged a bamboo stool over, and sat down. He spoke hurriedly before he had a chance to catch his breath, “Oh no, there’s a huge problem!”

“What’s wrong?” Mei Changsu placed down the book in his hands and sat up. “Did you and Jingrui lose?”

“What’s the big deal even if we lost? But Shangzhi lost today!”

“Qin Shangzhi?” Mei Changsu raised his eyebrows nonchalantly. “Even though he is a skilled combatant amongst the young men, he certainly has yet to reach the pinnacle of martial arts. Why should it be so astonishing for him to lose?”

Xiao Jingrui had sat down beside Mei Changsu as well, and replied very seriously, “It’s not astonishing for him to lose, but he was defeated in a single move!”

Mei Changsu was shocked, “How’s that possible? Even if his opponent was Commander Meng himself, he shouldn’t be defeated in a single move.”

“That’s why I said there’s a huge problem!” exclaimed Yan Yujin with a stomp.

“Could it be that the person who defeated him is not a citizen of Liang?”

“We wouldn’t be so worried if he was a citizen of Liang. This person is from the northern Yan empire. His name is pretty weird, called Baili Qi[2]. He was pretending to have a lot of difficulties in the previous rounds, but he suddenly became fierce today, with tomorrow being the last round. It appears that not only is he looking to win, but he also plans on shaking up the remaining competitors during the process.”

Mei Changsu frowned, “Besides Tuoba Hao, the Yan actually have someone of such caliber?”

“This person is practising a sturdy form of martial arts. His looks are coarse, and he’s covered in steel-like muscles. Shangzi took him lightly as a boor, and was rather careless. As a result, Baili Qi received his first attack head-on without even attempting to dodge. Then, before he had a chance to retreat, Baili Qi dislocated his shoulder with one palm strike, which rendered Shangzi unable to move his arm and thus forced to admit defeat.” Xiao Jingrui was just as worried, but his anxiety was not as exposed. He only showed a darkened face, and continued with a rather stable tone, “It’s a bit unfair to say that he was defeated in a single strike, but it’s true that Baili Qi possesses outstanding strength. He may not have much of an advantage if he uses his brute force on someone with a solid foundation and intense inner energy like Commander Meng, but…”

He paused as he reached this part in his speech, as if unwilling to state it clearly. Still, Mei Changsu had already discerned the meaning of his unspoken words.

Princess Nihuang was, after all, a woman. Her nature of combat focused on technique, and was only supplemented with strength. She would be greatly disadvantaged if she faces an opponent who practised a sturdy form of martial arts like Baili Qi. If she happens to make a blunder, then there really will be a huge problem.

“Don’t freak out yet,” cut in Xie Bi, who had already been in the Snow Cottage before the two arrived. “This is not necessarily a hopeless case going by the procedure of the tournament. Even if that Baili Qi enters the top ten in the martial arts tournament, the literary arts tournament is still at the discretion of the Emperor. It’ll be fine if His Majesty just ranks him as the last candidate.”

Mei Changsu’s gaze grew a bit more focused. He shook his head, “But this way, there would be no guarantee that the tournament will conclude according to Princess Nihuang’s own wishes. Originally, if she did not like a candidate, she only had to defeat him. If she did not like anyone within the ten candidates, she didn’t have to marry. However, with the appearance of a skilled fighter today who is both someone so difficult to defeat and someone she would never wish to marry, he remains a threat even if he was placed in the last position. To prevent the possibility of losing to him in the end, the Princess will be forced to choose a husband from the nine candidates before him. I’m afraid that it would be an utter humiliation for someone so proud to be forced to face such a situation.”

“The last round will take place tomorrow, and the final ten candidates will be chosen. Why don’t you come take a look as well, Su?” Xiao Jingrui leaned in closer to Mei Changsu and continued quietly, “Your knowledge in martial arts far exceeds ours. Perhaps you would be able to judge the level of danger Baili Qi poses, and figure out how to deal with him.”

“Are you or Yujin going to face him?”

“No,” denied Xiao Jingrui, shaking his head. “Neither Jingrui nor I am in the same group as him. Regardless of our victory or defeat tomorrow, we will not face him. However, if he wins tomorrow, then he will definitely be in the top ten. I hope you would agree to observe him, so as to give Princess Nihuang some helpful suggestions.”

“That’s right that’s right,” echoed Yan Yujin. “Jingrui’s martial arts wasn’t necessarily better than mine before, but he actually shot above me after receiving Su’s advice during their journey.”

Mei Changsu smiled lightly, “The Princess already possesses top rank combat skills, so the suggestions I can make will be limited. She’s different from Jingrui. Jingrui’s skills weren’t as great as hers, so there was more room for improvement.”

“Su,” grimaced Xiao Jingrui, “Can’t you say it a bit more delicately? That stung…”

“However, it really is too dangerous for Princess Nihuang to immediately face off with an unfamiliar yet skilled fighter after just the one round tomorrow.” Mei Changsu’s two neat brows knitted together. “We need to think of something in order to add another barrier in between.”

“Do you already have a plan, Su?” pried Yan Yujin impatiently.

“Before the last round tomorrow, the Emperor can issue an edict to add in an additional two days of challenge rounds.”

“Challenge rounds?”

“Yes. The reason will be to eliminate any unfairness in the tournament due to the division of groups. The final ten champions tomorrow will be the ones to be challenged. Any of those who were defeated during the past few days can challenge any champion outside of their group at will. If he wins in a battle, then he can replace the original champion’s position and become a new person to be challenged. The final ten candidates after two days of battles will be the actual people who can partake in the literary tournament. None of the people with the guts to challenge the champions will be mediocre. Even if they cannot defeat Baili Qi, it will at least create some more experiences for the Princess.”

The three noble gentlemen bobbed their heads up and down. “That’s a great idea!” praised Yan Yujin.

“However, someone would need to enter the Palace tonight and ask the Emperor to issue an edict immediately,” reminded Mei Changsu off-handedly.

Yan Yujin rushed to answer without even thinking, “That’s a piece of cake. I’ll enter the Palace right away!”

“No need no need!”, said Xie Bi, stopping him quickly. He was a bit embarrassed, but he still begged with a flushed face in the end, “Can we have Prince Yu go to His Majesty?”

Nobody seated was stupid. They immediately understood what he was planning as soon as he spoke. They glanced at him together, and nobody spoke.

The Emperor had probably received a report on Baili Qi by then, and was likely anxious as well. If someone were to raise this suggestion before the Emperor, His Majesty would certainly be delighted. The Princess will naturally be indebted to this person as well. A new opportunity will land in the laps of the defeated candidates, so of course, they would be even happier. Even the ten champions will mind their reputation, and would refrain from strong opposition to maintain their strong front. So, regardless of how you look at it, this suggestion was in everyone’s best interest. It’s no wonder that Xie Bi was willing to embarrass himself in order to snatch this opportunity for Prince Yu.

“Since Xie Bi wants to offer his legs on this run, then go,” permitted Mei Changsu lightly after awhile.

Xie Bi was overjoyed. He gave his thanks again and again, then stood up swiftly and left without any further delay.

An odd silence descended upon the room after he left. Mei Changsu leaned his head back on the warm pillow and closed his eyes to recharge. Xiao Jingrui had never enjoyed associating with this sort of business. Besides, it was his younger brother, so he could only stay silent. Even though Yan Yujin wasn’t aligned with any party, he was still somewhat connected with Prince Yu due to Empress Yan, so he couldn’t exactly make any comments either. All of a sudden, the air became rather still.

Quite a bit of time passed before Yan Yujin finally had enough of sitting around in silence. He thought of another question and asked, “Say, isn’t it strange? Going by Baili Qi’s display yesterday, he should be able to squeeze into the world’s top ten no matter what. How come there isn’t a hint of him in the Langya Rankings?”

Xiao Jingrui spoke before Mei Changsu had a chance to answer, “You don’t know, huh? And you dare to call yourself cosmopolitan. Langya’s List of Martial Artists has stated from the start that it only ranks the martial artists based on the skills that they have already displayed. Those who remain obscure and never reveal themselves to the world will not be considered by Langya Hall as long as they do not use their skills, even if they are peerless martial artists. Of course, sometimes the rankings will astonish people, but that is only due to Langya Hall’s amazing ability to collect information quickly and thoroughly. They can obtain the results of many covert and private battles, so there will be some discrepancies with the general perceptions. With such attentions he’s attracted, Baili Qi will definitely enter the List of Martial Artists next year.”

“Psh, aren’t you just relying on the stuff you learned from Su? To think that you’re even lecturing me now.” Yan Yujin puffed his cheeks, unwilling to accept the loss. “I’m going to move into the Snow Cottage tomorrow!”

Xiao Jingrui laughed, “You’re even noisier than a crow. Even if Su can bear with you, Feiliu would not be willing…”

Before his voice faded away, a chilly voice suddenly sounded from the treetops above, “Feiliu not willing!” It gave Yan Yujin a big fright, and he quickly shuffled closer towards Mei Changsu.

“Feiliu’s back.” A smile appeared on Mei Changsu’s face. He began to raise his hand, and Feiliu leaned into him in a flash.

“Is it fun outside?”

“Not fun!”

“Feiliu doesn’t like the idea of Yujin coming to live here?”

“Doesn’t like!”

“Why not?”

“Very similar!”

Yan Yujin blinked with curiosity, “Very similar to what?”

Mei Changsu laughed, “He’s saying you feel very similar to Lin Chen of our East River Alliance. He’s a person who Feiliu absolutely cannot stand.” He turned back to Feiliu and teased, “Why do you think they’re similar? Yujin has never teased you, has he?”

Feiliu glared at the Empress’s nephew coldly. His voice was like a block of ice as he answered, “He wants to tease!”

“Oy oy oy,” protested Yan Yujin, waving his hands hastily, “The virtuous doesn’t make a judgment based on imagination. You’ll kill off an innocent person this way…”

“That’s right,” laughed Mei Changsu, gasping for breath, “Don’t mind him, Feiliu. There are snacks left for you inside, all of them your favourites. Go in and eat.”

Feiliu said an “okay”, then glared at Yan Yujin again before disappearing in a flash.

Xiao Jingrui looked at his good friend’s expression and bowled over in laughter. It was a long while before he slowly ceased his laughter, and patted Yan Yujin’s shoulders in consolation.

Yan Yujin put on a gracious air and waved his hand, “You seldom have the opportunity to laugh at me, so I’ll just let you laugh to your heart’s content.” He turned to Mei Changsu again and asked, “Then will you go tomorrow, Su?”

“Since there’s such entertainment, of course.” Mei Changsu smiled gently at him and continued, “However, this idea of a challenge round will create inconveniences for you two. I do apologize.”

“It’s much better this way! Everyone will be relying on their actual abilities,” responded Yan Yujin. He gave a hearty chuckle, “It really didn’t sit right with me, having people taking care of us.”

Xiao Jingrui asked, dumbfounded, “What’s this about being taken care of?”

Yan Yujin gave him a sidelong glance, “You’re this dense, and you still had the gall to laugh at me?”

“Jingrui,” said Mei Changsu in a low voice, patting his hand, “This is a tournament to choose a husband, not a soldier. The Court would naturally take care of young men like you two with good looks, good personality, and good family backgrounds.  Don’t you think that the people in your groups are especially weak?”

“Oh?” Because Xiao Jingrui was had a kind and gentle nature, he never liked to analyze too deeply into any matter, and really did not realize. He was stunned.

Yan Yujin pounced on this opportunity and spoke darkly by his ear, “You thought you were pretty impressive, didn’t you? Whether it’s in your travels or in the capital, who would believe you if you deny receiving any benefits from your identity?”

“Yujin!” Mei Changsu smiled while frowning, “What kind of best friend are you? Do you want to continue until Jingrui gets upset?”

“Su, you shouldn’t coddle him so much,” said Yan Yujin, shaking his head, “It’s better for him to see certain issues clearly. Jingrui is a bit too honest. That’s not good. He needs to be like me. Even though I’m carefree, I can’t be muddled in the things that must be understood clearly.”

Mei Changsu’s gaze suddenly turned complex. He sighed softly and said, “You certainly are a whimsical and easygoing person. It would be great if Jingrui can be like you…”

Xiao Jingrui looked at one, then at the other. He couldn’t help raising his hand between them, and said with displeasure, “Stop! Stop! What are you guys talking about? It’s not like I’m stupid. Besides, even if I’m a bit naïve, I should at least be better than this heartless person here, right?”

Mei Changsu replied warmly, “You are, of course, an amazing person, and I hope that we can always get along with each other like this. However, you really value relationships by your nature, and this will inevitably hurt you in the future. We are only worrying for you in advance.”

Xiao Jingrui saw that he spoke sincerely. A warm feeling surged into his heart, and he replied immediately, “Please rest assured, Su. Life is full of ups and downs that serve to hone one’s spirit. No matter how feeble I am, it is not to the extent that I would worry my friends by falling into perpetual despondency when I face a problem…” After he finished, his tone suddenly changed. He looked at Yan Yujin from the corners of his eyes and said, “As for you, save it. Stop copying Su and pretending to be profound.”

“Oy oy,” said Yan Yujin, planting his arms on his hips, “You’re moved to bits when Su is worried about you, but when I worry about you, you glare at me? Isn’t the difference a bit too much?”

“What pride could I have to speak of,” said Xiao Jingrui, looking at Yan Yujin from the corners of his eyes still, “If I let a pampered thing like you fret over me? Get away from me.”

“You dare to look down on me? Let’s fight!” Yan Yujin rolled up his sleeves and pounced. The two wrestled together like schoolboys, fighting noisily without using any proper techniques. Even Feiliu was alerted by the clamour and poked his head outside to see the commotion.

Mei Changsu watched them with a faint smile. Yet, there was some unfathomable expression in the depth of his eyes.

———

[1] A famous Chinese warrior deity. See https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Erlang_Shen.

[2] His name is literally “hundred li marvel/oddity”, where 1 li = 500m. Basically, a strange guy.


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