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Chapter 22: Emperor of Liang

That day, Mei Changsu stayed and watched until the very last round before returning home. He barely ate any dinner due to his fatigue, which made Xiao Jingrui and Feiliu very worried. Still, he insisted on watching the challenge rounds in the next two days from beginning to end, saying that he cannot betray the Princess’s trust.

The addition of challenge rounds was clearly effective. Three of the final ten contestants were eliminated after being challenged. The final ten champions drank their Royal Wine and received their rewards of golden flowers. They were to enter the Royal Palace for the literary tournament after resting for three days.

“Su, you look like you’re not satisfied with any of us within the final ten,” commented Yan Yujin that night, twirling his golden flower. The group was gathered in the Snow Cottage.

“You guys are pretty much the cream of the crop,” sighed Mei Changsu, “But whenever I think of the magnificence and grace of Princess Nihuang, I feel that the candidates are still lacking in some ways.”

“Are Jingrui and I lacking something too?” challenged Yan Yujin, unwilling to accept the judgment. “We’re probably the most likable people in the capital, whether it’s in terms of character or looks!”

Mei Changsu glanced at the two and refuted with certainty, “You two are too young.”

Yan Yujin rolled his eyes at the response. “How can you hold our age against us? It’s not like we wanted to be born a few years after the Princess!”

“Oh, stop messing around,” said Xiao Jingrui, giving him a shove. “We only entered to fill the numbers anyway, so that we could filter out some more unqualified candidates for the Princess.”

“Oy, don’t drag me into this ‘filling the numbers’ business, okay? I’m actually serious!” Yan Yujin put on a solemn expression.

“When have you ever been serious in all your years alive? Even if you are, it’s useless. What lady would like a husband younger than her?”

“Ha!” snickered Yan Yujin. “Look at you lecturing me. Ms. Yun is older than you by six years. Count it out, how many years have you pursued her for?”

Mei Changsu saw Xiao Jingrui freeze from the retort and interjected hurriedly, “Jingrui is a candid person. Regardless of how much he cared for Ms. Yun, he was never forceful or persistent, nor did he pestered her in any way. You should mimic him now and allow the Princess to make her own decision, as a truly carefree and upstanding young man.”

Yan Yujin clasped his hand over his heart and complained bitterly, “You finally found someone to support you, Jingrui. It’s going to be hard to bully you in the future with Su protecting you…”

Everyone cracked up over his dramatic display, and the atmosphere immediately relaxed.

While everyone was happily chattering away, a servant suddenly dashed inside in a panic. He said while panting, “A eunuch from the Royal Palace arrived to announce an edict. The Marquess asked everyone to hurry to the front hall…”

These people were all used to seeing Royal Edicts and were not alarmed. They stood up and began to say their farewells to Mei Changsu.

“N… No…” said the servant hastily, “It’s mainly Mr. Su… Mr. Su needs to receive the edict…”

“Me?” Mei Changsu was startled, but after some thought, he figured that he wouldn’t be able to get any answers from the servant anyway. Hence, he stood and changed his attire, then followed everyone to the front hall.

The eunuch standing before the front hall did not carry a Royal Edict. He waited until everyone bowed to the ground, then flicked his long brush and announced in a high voice, “By the Emperor’s decree, Su Zhe is summoned to appear before His Majesty tomorrow after the Morning Court Session.”

Everyone paid their gratitudes and rose. The young men guessed that Princess Nihuang must have made a report to the Emperor, and were not surprised. Princess Liyang was not in the manor that night. Thus, the only person who felt surprised was the Marquess of Ning, Xie Yu. He usually buries himself in politics and pays no attention to other affairs. As such, he did not pay much mind to this guest in the Snow Cottage, and was naturally confused by why the Emperor would wish to summon a commoner. However, it would be rather rude to ask that, so he pondered for a moment and asked politely, “Would Mr. Su happen to know why His Majesty wishes to see you tomorrow in the Palace? It would allow me to assist you in making any necessary preparations.”

Mei Changsu understood his intent and replied lightly, “I have no special talents, and only receive some undue admiration for my perception. Two days ago, Princess Nihuang had invited me to help her in overseeing the literary tournament. I am guessing that this is likely the reason behind the Emperor’s summons.”

Although Xie Yu was shocked, he quickly realized that there was nothing to be bewildered about when he remembered the renowned talent of Mr. Mei of East River. He felt immediate relief, and returned to the back courtyard after giving a slight bow.

The next morning, a carriage from the Manor of Mu arrived for Mr. Su, confirming everyone’s conjectures. Although the noble young gentlemen were of high status, the Royal Palace was not exactly the marketplace after all, and they could not accompany Su simply because they wanted to. So, even though the worried was worried and the curious was curious, in the end, Mei Changsu entered the carriage alone. He even tossed a task at Xiao Jingrui along the way—taking care of Feiliu.

The carriage rode to outer walls of the Palace, then it was switched with a litter covered in blue silk. Mei Changsu suddenly felt his emotions swell. He hastily closed his eyes to meditate and restore his calm and clarity. He exited the litter after entering the Righteous Gate. According to the route, he was probably heading to the Hall of Military Eminence. Just as he turned at the corner of the hall, he met another group of people turning out from the side corridor.

The young man amidst them was dressed in a princely robe with embroidered dragons. He was handsome and graceful, and his youthful features did not damper his dignity. Even from a distance, he stared up and down at Mei Changsu with curious eyes. He smiled immediately when he saw Mei Changsu looking back at him. His expression was extremely friendly, just like a younger brother meeting his new brother-in-law for the first time, which drew an amused yet helpless smile from Mei Changsu. Yet, when Mei Changsu saw the Princess grinning mischievously, he knew with certainty that this female general had done it purposefully.

“Mr. Su, you look great today,” said Princess Nihuang, strolling over. “Here, let me introduce you—this is my younger brother.”

“Greetings, Prince Mu.”

Mu Qing hastily reached out to support him. Usually, people call him the “little Prince Mu” due to his young age. Mei Changsu’s removal of the word “little” had made him very happy. Besides, this was the man his sister was fond of, so it wasn’t as if he dared to be arrogant in front of her. He was already brimming with smiles, “I’ve heard much about you, Mr. Su. You certainly do justice to your famed elegance.”

Mei Changsu gave a pained chuckle and said, “I am but a sickly man who dares not receive such praise.”

“Oh? Prince Jing has arrived too?” said Princess Nihuang suddenly.

Mei Changsu turned around and saw Prince Jing, Xiao Jingyan, striding over. The two men met eyes briefly, then their gaze diverted.

“Thank you for allowing me to take up your precious time, Prince Jing,” said Princess Nihuang with a smile. From her words, Prince Jing appeared to have arrived upon her invitation as well.

Mei Changsu looked at the two people standing shoulder to shoulder. The man was mighty and tall, with a valiant air of a mighty beast. The woman was noble and heroic, and possessed the air of a blazing phoenix. Mei Changsu’s eyes glimmered involuntarily, and he felt his heart quiver.

Prince Jing was a man of few words. He only replied with a polite response, then stood silently.

“Do we need to wait for someone here?” inquired Mei Changsu.

“There’s no need. Look, they’re all here.” Princess Nihuang smiled sweetly, “These two really act as one.”

Mei Changsu knew who she was referring to without even needing to turn his head. Just as expected, the Crown Prince and Prince Yu’s laughter rang in succession a moment later, as if they were competing in who can act more gracious and benevolent. They greeted the group at the corner of the hall pleasantly.

Theses two were royalty, so everyone stepped forward to greet them with bows. Prince Yu had made the Emperor very pleased by presenting the suggestion of challenge rounds a few days ago, so he was naturally very happy to see Mei Changsu. Although the Crown Prince was displeased, he knew that he could not place blame on Su Zhe for the situation. It was his fault for not having any eyes or ears near him, so of course he had to show that he held no resentment. Mei Changsu made sure not to neglect Princess Nihuang and Mu Qing while chatting with the two Royal Princes. He performed gracefully in the intricate dance of conversation, and engaged all parties perfectly. Xiao Jingyan stood at the side and stared at the scene coldly, an expression of noticeable disgust in his eyes.

The people grouped up and entered the hall together. Wine and food were already laid out on banquet tables positioned inside the hall. Due to customs, the party could not take their seats as the Emperor had yet to arrive. So, they stood around in groups of two or three and chatted away.

Due to their rivalry, neither the Crown Prince nor Prince Yu wanted to give the other the chance to be alone with Mei Changsu, so the three were unexpectedly gathered together. Mu Qing had always looked up to Prince Jing’s military feats, and also felt that men should discuss topics of might and blood, so he began to consult Xiao Jingyan on military affairs. Princess Nihuang wandered between, listening on this side for a bit and chatting with the other for awhile, ending up as the most relaxed of them all.

About a quarter of an hour later, a golden chime sounded softly outside the hall. A ceremonial official announced loudly, “The Emperor has arrived—”

The hall became silent at once. Everyone stood orderly according to customs, and Mei Changsu backed away into the corner. He waited for the figure in yellow robes to take a seat upon the main seat of the hall, then followed everyone in bowing down to the Emperor.

The Emperor of Liang was over sixty. Strands of white hair scattered at his temples, and his face was wrinkled. However, he still carried himself with a mighty air, without any hint of the frailty of old age. He ordered everyone to rise, then his gaze automatically rested upon the figure furthest away, Mei Changsu.

To the revered Emperor, the Chief of the East River Alliance or the world’s biggest sect were all distant affairs for him, far away from the grandeur of the Royal Court. The only reason he was interested in Mei Changsu was because he was under the same misunderstanding as Mu Qing and thought that he must be the one Princess Nihuang had secretly chosen.

With his first look, he found this person to be handsome and elegant, without any hint of nervousness in his actions. It’s no wonder that the Princess was partial to him.

With his second look, he found his face to be overly pale and his figure under the fur cloak to be slight and thin. It’s unlikely for him to enjoy longevity. He seemed a bit inadequate.

With his third look, he found his two eyes to be very serene. They were sort of clear and yet sort of complex. Even though they were silently downcast, as if meditating, they were full of spirit.

The Emperor of Liang smoothed his grey beard and nodded to himself. He called out, “Su Zhe.”

“The commoner is present.”

“The Princess has recommended you to me, saying that you are exceptionally talented. The Crown Prince and Prince Yu have also given you much praise. I have here with me three essays. Read them, and point out the superior one for me.”

“The commoner obeys Your Majesty’s command.”

Mei Changsu received the essays from a eunuch and skimmed over it roughly, almost reading ten lines with one glance. He finished quickly and said, “Reporting to Your Majesty, An Essay on Central Governance is the finest.”

“Oh? Why so?”

“This essay has the air of a sovereign. How can I dare to criticize it as a mere commoner?”

The Emperor of Liang reared back with laughter. He looked very pleased, and praised Mei Changsu, “You really do have an eye for talent. I will entrust the Princess’s literary tournament to you. Although you do not have a position, you should still have the title of a Guest Official since you are working for the Royal Court. There is no need to refer to yourself as a commoner anymore.”

Mei Changsu pondered for a slight moment before saying, “The official obeys Your Majesty’s command.” These words were said in a very cool tone, as if he paid no mind to the Emperor’s benevolence and only acted to obey customs.

“Someone, present a seat for Mr. Su next to Princess Nihuang.”

“Thank you, Your Majesty.”

Mei Changsu bowed and entered his seat. The Princess shot a smile at him immediately, and an expression of “so that’s how it is” appeared on everyone in the hall.

At that time, the Commander of the Royal Guards, Meng Zhi, appeared at the entrance of the hall. He served directly under His Majesty and did require an announcement to enter the hall. He headed straight into the hall and reported, “Reporting to Your Majesty, the two envoys from the Yu and Yan empires as well as the ten final candidates have all arrived at the Royal Palace, and are waiting outside the hall for Your Majesty’s instructions.”

Mei Changsu had already heard the news that the goal of the banquet was not solely to see him. More importantly, it was held to study the candidates for the position of Prince Consort in advance. However, the news had not been confirmed until now, so he was rather happy for it to be true.

While he was pondering, the Emperor of Liang had already issued a summons. Meng Zhi received the command and turned around. In the brief moment of his gaze turning, he gave a slight nod to Mei Changsu, unnoticed by all.

Mei Changsu relaxed slightly knowing that Meng Zhi had been successful, but his expression gave no hint of change while he sat serenely. A few moments later, a eunuch announced the arrival of Princess Jingning. The Emperor of Liang smiled happily and asked his little daughter as soon as she entered, “Ning, weren’t you whining yesterday about how you wanted to join the banquet? How come you’re late today?”

Princess Jingning’s delicate brows were knitted together, and a dark cloud hung over her face. Her expression was extremely gloomy. After she finished her greeting to the Emperor, she answered sullenly, “I saw a snow-white Persian cat on my way here and chased after it, and was thus delayed.”

“You really love cats, don’t you? Are you unhappy because you did not catch it?”

Princess Jingning pondered silently for a moment, then answered quietly, “No… I was chasing that cat, and accidentally went into the Secluded Courtyard. I saw the people there performing hard labour and looking very miserable, and thus felt a bit sorry…”

Prince Jing’s heart quivered upon hearing her mention the Secluded Courtyard, and threw a quick look at Mei Changsu. However, the latter was very calm, as if he never heard it at all.

The Emperor of Liang’s face darkened slightly. He said reprovingly, “How can you enter a place like that as a Princess? Besides, the people at the Secluded Courtyard have their crimes, and thus deserve the hardships of labour. You need not feel such compassion for them.”

“Yes, Father,” said Princess Jingning, hanging her head. “It’s just that there were also young children there, who were frail and pitiful. I was thinking, what kind of crime could they have committed at such a young age…”

“There’s no need to speak further!” bellowed the Emperor of Liang, cutting her off. “I’ve really spoiled you too much. Why are you bringing up those criminals during an occasion like this? Take your seat now. The envoys will arrive soon. You must always remember your status as a Princess. Look at Princess Nihuang, and how tactful she is with her noble bearing…”

“Your Majesty thinks too highly of me,” laughed Princess Nihuang immediately. “Jingning is a pampered little Princess. Your Majesty wouldn’t be able to bear it if she really were to fight on the battlefields like me.”

The Emperor of Liang’s eyes appeared very affectionate, and said, “I can’t bear to have you endure such hardships either. Now that Qing has inherited the title, I will be at ease after I choose a good husband for you.”

“I am infinitely grateful to Your Majesty’s kindness and benevolence. Even my father in the afterlife must feel the graciousness of Your Majesty and feel deeply indebted.” Princess Nihuang had governed over Yunnan for many years, and certainly did not build her success solely on bravery and might. Even a simple phrase of gratitude was transformed into such sincere and pleasant words by her.

The Emperor of Liang smiled warmly. At that time, the envoys from Yu and Yan had entered the hall. They took their seats after bowing to the Emperor. The ten final candidates entered after them. Each wore unique outfits, and some wore anxious expressions. Clearly, they had been spontaneously summoned early in the morning, and were not prepared in any way.

Compared to them, Xiao Jingrui and Yan Yujin who were used to entering the Palace were naturally a lot more relaxed. Their eyes searched around as soon as they entered the hall. Even though they did not dare to voice a greeting once they found Mei Changsu, they smiled at him in unison.

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