Because he had gone to bed late the previous night, Mei Changsu remained in a dazed sleep late into the morning. Fei Liu stood guard outside his door, refusing to let anyone enter to wake him up. As the time to enter the palace grew nearer, the others grew more and more worried, gathering agitatedly in front of Mei Changsu’s door. In the end, it was Yan Yujin who came up with an idea. He shouted through the courtyard’s wall, “Wake up, Brother Su!” Fei Liu leapt up in a fury and began chasing him around the courtyard, whereupon Xiao Jingrui took the chance to sneak towards the door. Who knew Fei Liu could move so fast – in the next moment, he had reappeared before Mei Changsu’s door to block Xiao Jingrui’s entrance. But on the other side, Yan Yujin unabashedly kept shouting, and Fei Liu in a sudden frenzy of frustration flew towards Xiao Jingrui and began fighting him. The poor Xiao Jingrui began fending off Fei Liu’s attacks, all the while yelling, “Why are you hitting me? I’m not the one who’s shouting!”
Xie Bi, who had hid himself in a far corner, analyzed the situation: “Fei Liu wants to knock you unconscious so he can go after Yujin….”
On hearing this, Yan Yujin shuddered and redoubled his efforts, on the one hand calling loudly for “Brother Su!” and on the other shouting encouragement to his friend, “Hang in there a bit longer!”
In a few minutes, the situation in the courtyard had disintegrated into a complete mess, and no matter how deeply asleep Mei Changsu was inside, he couldn’t help being woken by all the noise.
When the servants saw him open the door and tell Fei Liu to release his victims, they hurriedly carried in hot water and breakfast. Yan Yujin opened his mouth as soon as he entered Snow Cottage, but was stopped by Xiao Jingrui, who waited until Mei Changsu had finished his congee and put down his bowl before gesturing at his friend to proceed.
“Brother Su, this morning there was an order from the palace saying the written test will be delayed until tomorrow.” Yan Yujin was fairly bursting with the news.
“Because today you need to take care of this Baili Qi!” Yan Yujin threw open his fan with the ease of practice and had just begun to wave it when he noticed Xiao Jingrui glaring at him. He stared blankly back for a moment before realizing that the wind from his fan was causing Mei Changsu to flinch back, and hurriedly closed it again. But he continued to hit the fan against his palm with a dashing sort of air, almost as if he was the one who would be taking care of Baili Qi.
Xie Bi, seeing that the Young Master Yan was busy trying to look cool and didn’t seem about to keep talking, hurriedly seized the opportunity to continue the conversation. He explained, “It’s like this. His Highness Prince Yu stated even that if Brother Su’s young boys defeat Baili Qi today, Baili Qi’s status as a finalist wouldn’t change and he would still have to undergo the written test. However, having just been beaten, his emotions would naturally be in a turmoil, which would make the situation unfair. Since this issue of choosing a husband isn’t all that urgent, why not postpone the written test by a day, to avoid the Northern Yan from taking this excuse to spread gossip about the situation?
“This is a well-thought out suggestion. Has His Majesty allowed it?”
“Oh,” Mei Changsu nodded. “Thank you. The hour is not early, I should get going. I will say goodbye to you all.”
“Say goodbye?” Xiao Jingrui dazedly handed him his coat. “We can leave together.”
Mei Changsu gave them a look. “Where are you going?”
“To see how you’re going to defeat Baili Qi!”
Mei Changsu couldn’t help laughing. “Wuying Hall is an imperial hall, not one of those entertainment halls you usually visit. Last time, you went because you were summoned by His Majesty. Originally, you would have gone with me today because of the written test after the competition. Now that the written test has been cancelled, what reason would you have to go to the Wuying Hall? Even though you are well-respected noble sons, you still at least need an imperial decree to enter, no?”
“Ah!” Yan Yujin cried out in frustration, jumping to his feet. “I forgot! And we’ve wasted so much time! I must go request an invitation. I’d rather die than miss this show!”
Xie Bi didn’t seem to care much – he hadn’t wanted to go in the first place. But Xiao Jingrui was frozen in indecision, turning on the one hand to follow his friend out, and turning on the other hand towards Mei Changsu.
“Don’t worry,” Mei Changsu smilingly gave him a push. “Xie Bi will arrange the horses and carriage for me. Go and request your invitation. You don’t want to miss the excitement, do you?”
Xiao Jingrui’s face lit up in a smile, and he ran out of the courtyard after an enthusiastic “No!”
Xie Bi watched him leave and sighed, “He’s becoming more and more like Yujin. He never used to enjoy excitement like this….”
Mei Changsu didn’t want to try to explain the appeal of this particular fight to Xie Bi, who wasn’t very knowledgeable about martial arts. He fastened his coat against the wind, spoke quietly to Fei Liu, and then led the three children, who had long since been standing ready to one side, out of the courtyard.
The horse and carriage were waiting outside the mansion door. Xie Bi looked around, then said with a smile, “Princess Nihuang didn’t send a horse and carriage today. Brother Su, aren’t you a bit disappointed?”
Mei Changsu smiled in reply and drew the curtains of the carriage shut. The driver cracked his whip, the sound echoing crisply, and drove towards the palace.
There were far fewer people in Wuying Hall today than the last time. Apart from Baili Qi, none of the other finalists were present, and only a couple representatives of the Da Yu delegation had arrived. Prince Jing was there early, because of Tingshen, but neither the Crown Prince nor Prince Yu was anywhere to be seen. They were probably with the Emperor, and would arrive with him later. The Mu siblings had no reason to be early either, and so it was that when Mei Changsu brought the three children into the hall, he received no other greeting aside from a nod from Prince Jing. It was indeed a great contrast to the excitement of the previous few days.
But Mei Changsu actually preferred the peaceful environment. He led his three pupils into a corner, grasped their hands one by one, and smiled and spoke encouragingly to them. Before long, their bulging eyes and terrified gazes had settled into serious nods, as they promised to do their best, and to make use of this opportunity to leave behind their status as criminal slaves.
Around half of a quarter hour later, Princess Nihuang and Mu Qing came in, radiating an aura of health and vigor. Mei Changsu welcomed them, smiling, and privately wondered how these two managed to glow with energy no matter where or when he saw them – such a contrast when compared to the languidly graceful air the nobility of the capital were used to putting on. Only Prince Jing held a similar sort of presence to these two.
“From Mister Su’s expression, looks like you’ve got a card up your sleeve?” Mu Qing had spoken first. He stepped closer and bent over to the three children. “Tell me, what has Mister Su been teaching you?”
Mei Changsu thought there was nothing wrong with letting the children become familiar with some of the people in the hall, so he didn’t stop Mu Qing, instead indicating with a glance for Princess Nihuang to follow him a few steps away.
“Some secrets to tell me?” The commander of the Southern border smiled.
“I’ve been asked to warn you.” Mei Changsu spoke in a quiet voice. “Since it looks like it will be impossible to marry you, some in the palace are planning to force you to submit. Beware of Prince Yu and the Empress……if they invite you to dinner alone, try to decline if possible…….”
“Force me to submit?” Princess Nihuang looked shocked for a moment, then laughed proudly. “How do they want to force me?”
But there were some things Mei Changsu couldn’t explain in detail, so he only said vaguely, “You must not underestimate the methods of the Inner Palace. Be careful of anything you put in your mouth…….”
He was about to continue, when suddenly footsteps sounded from outside and Yan Yujin rushed in, dragging Xiao Jingrui after him. “We made it, we made it,” he laughed. “Brother Su, it still hasn’t started?”
Mu Qing, unhappiness written all over his face, blocked his path and frowned. “It hasn’t started. Mister Su was talking to my sister – don’t disturb them!”
However, his vehement protection actually stopped Princess Nihuang from returning to their private conversation. As an unwedded girl of the royal family who had yet to select her husband, such behaviour might not be considered appropriate.
Fortunately, the embarrassing moment passed quickly as just then, the royal carriage was announced.
As everyone had predicted, the Crown Prince and Prince Yu were supporting the Emperor on either side, with Princess Jingning following behind, and Commander Meng standing guard. After the Emperor had been seated, the two princes and Jingning descended the jade steps and led everyone in the hall in the ceremonial bows before separating to take their seats.
“Subject Su,” the Emperor smiled at him. “How are your results?”
“Your servant will not waste words. I pray Your Majesty will watch the following events.” Mei Changsu gestured to the three children, who came forward and knelt in a line.
The Emperor eyed the three small figures, and looked again at the heavily-muscled Baili Qi, and, unable to help the stir of uncertainty in his heart, turned to Commander Meng.
“Your Majesty, shall we begin?” Commander Meng, bowing, took the opportunity to obtain the imperial decree.
The arrow has already been strung; it must be fired. The Emperor, eyes filled with worry, nodded his head.
The three children rose, drew out their swords, and stood in a cluster. Their stances were perfectly steady, their solemn concentration a stark contrast to the trembling terror they had displayed two days ago. The spectators were startled.
Baili Qi stepped forward, empty-handed, and eyed his opponents disdainfully before casually striking a starting pose.
“Begin!” As soon as Meng Zhi gave the command, a sudden wind rose up in the hall, as the three children spun like tops, their steps crisscrossing, and their previously crisp silhouettes becoming indistinct. Those less skilled in martial arts saw nothing but blurs of motion.
Jin Diao Chai Ming1 of Da Yu was instantly interested. He sat up straight and was about to focus his eyes to examine the fight closely when he suddenly felt a wave of intense hostility hit him from the side. He felt a shiver deep in his heart, and turned his head in confusion, but only saw Da Liang’s first-ranked fighter, Commander General of the Jinling Imperial Guard Meng Zhi glaring at him fiercely. The fury in his expression was equal to the kind of hatred one might feel for someone who had murdered his father or stolen his wife. Chai Ming couldn’t help shuddering, and carefully focused on calming his mind as he thought carefully on how he might have offended him.
Princess Nihuang’s martial arts were also known to be splendid, and she was captivated immediately by the blurring silhouettes. She was just leaning forward to watch carefully when a sudden “Aiya!” sounded from the Mei Changsu beside her. She reflexively glanced over, and saw that he had knocked over his teacup and was busily trying to avoid the tea that had spilled all over his table. His clumsy efforts were such a contrast to his normal effortless grace that the Princess couldn’t help smiling.
Just as the two experts’ attentions were simultaneously diverted, a few stifled groans rose up from the fight, and then with a final thump, the three children sheathed their swords and leapt back. The blur faded, and when the spectators could see again, Baili Qi was half-kneeling on the floor, supporting his weight with his arms, his face filled with fury.
Yan Yujin and Princess Jingning cried out together joyfully. Even the Emperor gave a small smile.
Chai Ming, who had been focusing on calming his mind and heart against Meng Zhi’s wave of fury, suddenly felt his whole body relax. Meng Zhi’s expression, which had previously been directed towards him with such irreconcilable hatred, suddenly eased into a sincere, friendly smile. In that instant, he wondered whether he had just woken from a dream.
“Warrior Baili, are you alright?” The Northern Yan messenger shouted in urgent fury.
“The honoured messenger does not need to worry. We would not hurt guests.” Mei Changsu smiled, and then said to the three children, “Shouldn’t you thank His Majesty?”
The three small fighters immediately fell to their knees in a bow. The Emperor, greatly pleased, said, “You have worked hard. We will not go back on our words. You will be absolved of your status as criminal slaves, and may be placed into a department, and may receive help from relatives and friends.”
Princess Jingning was overjoyed, and said immediately, “Father Emperor has such integrity and benevolence!”
The Emperor eyed his daughter and had a sudden thought. “Jingning, do you really care about these children so much? Since they have this training, why not have them castrated and sent to wait on you? They will be stronger than your average bodyguards on the one hand, and they will not need to worry about providing for themselves on the other hand, and can live in some comfort….”
As soon as he had spoken, Mei Changsu and Prince Jing both paled, especially Prince Jing, who was about to jump to his feet, and who was only stopped by Mei Changsu’s forceful glare.
“Your Majesty, this is inappropriate.” Unexpectedly, the person who objected was Xiao Jingrui, who stood up and bowed, and then continued loudly, “Your Majesty has already bestowed your mercy in allowing them to leave the Secluded Court, and to allow them to be free in the future. The Imperial mouth has spoken; how can it take back its word? And anyway, they are not familiar with the rules of the Inner Palace. And it is not permitted to use weapons when waiting on the Princess, so their training is useless. Thus, Jingrui believes even Princess Jingning herself may not wish for them to be castrated to enter the Inner Palace.”
Princess Jingning hurriedly added, “Yes, that’s right. My palace only has eunuchs; what use would these three be? Let my Father Emperor bestow another gift to me.”
The Emperor had always doted on Xiao Jingrui, and was not angered by his blunt words, but rather waved a hand to return him to his seat and didn’t raise the subject again. A thin film of cold sweat had already covered Mei Changsu’s body.
“Mister Su has shown good teaching methods and exemplary work. Once the written tests are over, we shall bestow other rewards.” The Emperor was in such a good mood that he personally poured out a cup of wine and sent it to Mei Changsu. “We first raise a toast to you, to celebrate this battle.”
Mei Changsu thanked the Emperor and accepted the cup. He drained its contents, and couldn’t help coughing. His face flushed red as he used all his strength to suppress the coughs.
The Emperor spoke some superficial words of comfort to Baili Qi and the Northern Yanmessenger, and happily left to return to the palace. As soon as he left, Mei Changsu covered his mouth with his sleeve and coughed so violently that he bent double over himself. Xiao Jingrui leapt over the tables to his side, holding him upright and patting his back. The Crown Prince and Prince Yu also hurried over.
“It’s alright……the fragrance of His Majesty’s wine was too overwhelming…….” After coughing for a good amount of time, Mei Changsu finally uncovered his mouth and, leaning on Xiao Jingrui’s shoulder, lifted his head. The Crown Prince and Prince Yu, to show their concern, had stepped quite close. But in contrast to the last time at this Wuying Hall, there was not the slightest trace of perfume on their person, which was certainly not a coincidence.
Mei Changsu was once again certain – one of Prince Yu’s people had to be spying for the Crown Prince.
“You’re not in a hurry, are you? Would you like to rest before leaving?” Princess Nihuang, who had just been taken aside by a palace servant, had hurried back now.
“No matter,” Mei Changsu smiled faintly. He turned to the Crown Prince and Prince Yu, and said, “Your Highnesses must be very busy with the affairs of the kingdom. I could not bear the consequences if you were delayed on my account.”
It seemed as if the two indeed had other affairs, and in any case did not want to cause too much bother, and so they turned and left after exchanging a few more polite words. Mu Qing pulled Yan Yujin away with one hand, and reached out to push at Xiao Jingrui with his other, but the latter would not budge.
“Brother Su isn’t steady on his feet yet.” Xiao Jingrui understood that Mu Qing wanted him to give his sister and Mei Changsu some privacy, but he steadfastly stood his ground.
Princess Nihuang couldn’t help smiling, and eyed the Young Master Xiao with interest, before leaning down to speak quietly to Mei Changsu. “My Lady the Empress has invited me to dine at her palace. I cannot refuse this; I must go.”
“Princess!” Mei Changsu hurriedly tried to stop her, but found after a few moments of thought that he had nothing else to say, and finally only sighed, “Please take care.”
After Princess Nihuang left, there were not many people remaining in the great hall. Mei Changsu felt very unwell, and as it was not permitted to use paladins or carriages within the Forbidden Garden, he could only sit and rest, with Xiao Jingrui and Yan Yujin naturally by his side.
Princess Jingning had been talking to Prince Jing, and when the conversation ended, Xiao Jingyan came over to see how he was doing. After they ran out of things to say, Prince Jing took the opportunity to take Tingshen off to one side for a few words.
Because the Emperor had left straight for the residence of the concubines, Meng Zhi had not followed. And because he was worried about Lin Shu, he had not left, but stayed inside the hall and called the other two children to him to demonstrate their sword dance. Yan Yujin was greatly interested and went over for a closer look, while Xiao Jingrui alone remained by Mei Changsu’s side. Seeing the cold sweat continuously breaking out on Mei Changsu’s forehead, he leaned over and asked quietly, “Was the cup of wine really that strong? Is your illness acting up?”
Mei Changsu was fighting to suppress his internal pain and anguish. He knew in his heart that the wine had indeed caused the old wounds to flare, and didn’t want to speak, so only sat quietly with his eyes closed. Meng Zhi, after repeatedly glancing in his direction, finally couldn’t stand it any longer and hurried over.
“How is Mister Su?”
“I’m not sure,” Xiao Jingrui was so worried that his voice shook. “He has rested for such a long time, but he doesn’t seem to be getting better.”
“Let me see.” Meng Zhi reached out and grasped his pulse, and instantly his brow furrowed. He gathered his energy, and then thrust a portion of strength into him, helping him subdue the injury.
By now, Yan Yujin, Prince Jing, and Princess Jingning had all realized something wasn’t right, and hurried over together. The three children also gathered around, faces drawn with worry.
Almost an hour later, Meng Zhi let out a long breath, his face clearing up. Mei Changsu withdrew his wrist and thanked him quietly. His voice seemed a bit stronger, his words less broken up than before.
“You really scared me….” Yan Yujin hated this type of somber atmosphere, and let out a loud sigh. “I’m glad that ended well. Brother Su’s health is really too frail; you must rest and let it recuperate. Jingrui, let’s hurry and take Brother Su home. And I guess we won’t be able to make it to our polo match today….”
“Of course not! How can you still have the heart to play polo?” Xiao Jingrui was extremely unhappy.
“I don’t want to play, but we must let Liao Tingjie know; after all, we promised to be there.”
“You go tell him then. I won’t go.”
Mei Changsu listened to the two of them talking, and felt a fleeting sense of strangeness pass over his mind, but he couldn’t catch it in time, and his brow furrowed in thought.
“What’s wrong? Are you feeling unwell again?” Xiao Jingrui asked hurriedly.
“No……you were saying……you promised to play polo with someone?”
“Liao Tingjie – you wouldn’t know him, he’s the heir of the Marquis of Zhongsu….”
The strange feeling he had been feeling since sometime in the morning suddenly welled up, and like a flash of light passing through, Mei Changsu suddenly understood, and his chest filled with turmoil.
The Princess had been invited into the palace, and by logic the Empress and Prince Yu should have long since made their preparations. So why……why would Liao Tingjie, the man Prince Yu’s camp had designated to become the Princess’ husband, have time to arrange to play polo outside the palace?
Everything the Grand Princess Liyang had spoken the previous night flew through his mind, and instantly, he grasped the strangest point.
The Grand Princess had said that the reason she knew about the plan was because she had seen Xie Bi’s troubled expression and had forced it out of him. But this morning, Xie Bi had seemed cheerful, and had even joked about Princess Nihuang when they were leaving. He had not appeared to have even a shred of discomfort in his heart.
And from another point of view, the risks the Empress and Prince Yu would have to take with this plan were huge, and so only the few people directly involved would know about it, to minimize the risk of others finding out. Xie Bi couldn’t possibly contribute to this kind of Inner Palace business, so why would Prince Yu tell him anything?
Therefore, Princess Liyang had lied about this part – a part she had thought wasn’t vital to the information itself, but that she had found inconvenient enough to lie about. And because the source of her information couldn’t have been Xie Bi, then the source should have come from her husband, the Marquis of Ning, Xie Yu.
All those years ago, only a few people had known about the methods of the then-Empress, but Xie Yu was one of them. If he had been overheard by Grand Princess Liyang this time giving instructions to his servants, then even if the instructions had been curt and coded, she would have understood immediately.
And the most important mistake lay in this final part.
To hide her source, Princess Liyang had named Xie Bi, but Mei Changsu was very clear that Xie Bi was on Prince Yu’s side, so naturally, he had believed that the person behind this plan to drug the Princess was the Empress. What he had overlooked was that, actually, the whole thing had nothing to do with Xie Bi, but rather, was the work of his father, Xie Yu.
And as for which side Xie Yu had chosen……which side Xie Yu had chosen….
Mei Changsu’s breathing had become rapid, and he clenched his teeth.
Staying neutral? Keeping himself out of the fight for the crown? Others may not know, but he himself knew most well what kind of person Xie Yu was. Xie Yu was tainted by his history, and knew that he could not remain a simple official, so with the Emperor slowly aging, how could he not plan for the future? Xie Bi was already well-known to be one of Prince Yu’s supporter, so he had long since offended the Crown Prince, and if the Crown Prince succeeds, then the Xie Clan would be punished accordingly. Thus, remaining neutral in such circumstances would be completely meaningless. With Xie Yu’s intelligence, there was no way he would do something meaningless. But the fact remained that he had played dumb, and had let his son support Prince Yu while he himself seemingly kept himself out of the fight for the crown. That meant he must have some other flawless plan up his sleeve – a plan that would let him emerge victorious no matter who won in the end.
Xie Bi openly supported Prince Yu; Xie Yu secretly supported the Crown Prince. Then he could tell the Crown Prince that Xie Bi was spying on Prince Yu, and occasionally support this claim with some information. He could show that he was fooling Prince Yu, and please the Crown Prince even more.
As long as he could keep up the pretense, the future would be secure: if Prince Yu won, the Xie Clan would survive because of Xie Bi. If the Crown Prince won, both father and son would be celebrated, with even better results.
Therefore, underneath it all, Xie Yu must be genuinely supporting the Crown Prince.
At this point, Mei Changsu’s forehead was dripping with cold sweat.
The true danger, therefore, was not with the Empress in Zhengyang Palace, but with the Crown Prince’s birth mother, Noble Consort Yue, in Zhaoren Palace. If the Princess was only careful with the Empress, would she lower her guard with Noble Consort Yue and walk into the trap laid before her?
Perhaps there was yet time enough to prevent the worst from taking place….
“Your Highness Prince Jing, please enter the palace immediately and ask whether the Princess has entered Noble Consort Yue’s Zhaoren Palace. If she has, you must go there immediately, and find her no matter the cost.” Mei Changsu stood up abruptly and gripped Prince Jing’s hand tightly, saying fiercely, “Princess Nihuang is in danger right now. I will explain everything to you later, but now you must go! Hurry!”
Although Xiao Jingyan was entirely baffled, when he saw the intensity of his expression, he immediately believed him, and turned and hurried away.
“Princess Jingning, please, you must go right away to Great Grandmo– ……to the Grand Empress Dowager, and ask her to immediately attend Zhaoren Palace. This is also to save Nihuang. You must not waste a second……” Mei Changsu had turned to Xiao Jingning, his tone still urgent. “Your Highness may remember she still owes me a favour; please repay it now.”
Xiao Jingning took a few steps back, somewhat at a loss, but on hearing that this was to save her Nihuang jiejie², her heart shuddered and without further thought, she immediately sprang into action.
“Commander Meng, please immediately arrange for some of your men to wait in ambush outside of Zhaoren Palace, and to immediately arrest the noble son of Wei, Sima Lei, if he appears, for the crime of trespassing on palace grounds. Can you do that?”
Meng Zhi also didn’t waste time on words, simply patted his shoulder and said, “Don’t worry,” before flying out the door.
In the great hall, only the two noble sons were left, bewilderedly wondering what had just taken place, and staring at Mei Changsu.
“Brother Su…this…what’s happening?” After a while, Yan Yujin managed to speak.
Mei Changsu closed his eyes, looking very tired, and released a somber sigh. He murmured, “It’s my fault…I was mistaken about something…I can only hope now…that the worst has not yet happened….”
1Jin Diao Chai Ming (from Da Yu) is ranked number five on the Lang Ya Bang Top Ten List of Martial Art Experts. Meng Zhi is ranked number two. Nihuang is ranked number ten. They are by far the greatest martial arts experts watching the fight, aside from Lin Shu himself. That should be enough for you to understand what was really going on.
²Jiejie = older sister (affectionate), female equivalent of “Gege” as in Fei Liu’s “Su Gege”