When Xiao Jingyan entered the door of the Xie residence, it was Xie Bi who came forward to receive him. The first words out of his mouth were, “Your Highness has come personally? Please come in. Brother Su is at Snow Cottage.”
Prince Jing was slightly taken aback, and asked, “What, Mister Su knew I was coming?”
“Oh, it’s not like that,” Xie Bi smiled. “Brother Su just came by to say hello, and said that His Highness Prince Jing was going to take charge of the three children from the Secluded Court to train them to become his personal guards, and so would be sending someone to collect them soon. I just hadn’t expected Your Highness to come personally.”
Prince Jing let out an “Oh,” and then took his cue from Xie Bi and continued, “I am interested in Mister Su’s methods of teaching swordsmanship, and mainly came to ask him about that, but can take the children away with me while I’m here.”
“Your Highness is known for your brilliant military achievements, so naturally you would be interested in those martial techniques. Now as for me, I wasn’t gifted with that talent.” Xie Bi led the way, talking all the while. The two arrived at the door of Snow Cottage and stood waiting to be announced. Fei Liu appeared immediately and looked at them coldly, his gaze like icy needles, which made Xie Bi very uncomfortable.
“Go in!” The youth said stiffly.
Xie Bi forced a smile, then said to Prince Jing, “It’s better for Brother Su to have quiet while he’s ill. I won’t go in to disturb him. Your Highness, please make yourself at home.”
Prince Jing hadn’t wanted anyone else’s company anyway, and so nodded and entered the small courtyard. Mei Changsu was already waiting beside the stairs, and aside from the three children lined up behind him, there was no one else present.
“Your Highness,” Mei Changsu bowed, and Tingshen and the others followed suit.
“Please rise,” Prince Jing said coolly. “My carriage is at the gate. The three children can wait for me there.”
On hearing this, Mei Changsu immediately understood that Prince Jing had something he wanted to discuss in private, and ordered Fei Liu to call over a servant of the Xie household, who led Tingshen and the others out, while he invited Prince Jing indoors and served up tea.
“Princess Nihuang’s narrow miss today, do you know about it?” Prince Jing asked coldly, seeming not to see Mei Changsu’s outstretched arm inviting him to sit, but instead remaining standing with his hands behind his back.
“Hasn’t she already been rescued safely?”
“If I had arrived just one step later, the Princess would have already been led deeper into the palace, and then no matter what force I used, I would not have been able to save her. Did you know that?” Prince Jing stepped forward, his tone growing severe.
Since Prince Jing had entered Snow Cottage, Mei Changsu had sensed that he was harbouring some hidden fury, which he had originally thought was leftover anger towards Noble Consort Yue and her son, but now, he was realizing that it was instead being directed towards himself.
“Although there was danger in the process, everything has ended well. Why is Your Highness in such a rage?” Mei Changsu pondered, then suddenly paled. “Unless the Princess became angry after her humiliation…”
“Do you really care about the Princess’ feelings?” Prince Jing laughed coldly. “Warning her in advance to prevent everything from happening would have been a small favour, but it would not have given Noble Consort Yue and the Crown Prince the chance to commit such a crime, so of course you were not satisfied. Now the result is perfect – I fought desperately to save her, the situation was full of excitement, and the Princess is endlessly grateful to me, so that in the future if any conflict arose, the Yunnan Mu clan would undoubtedly choose to support me. This is everything you hoped for, isn’t it?”
Mei Changsu felt palpitations stir in his heart. He turned slowly, and after a long while, said, “Could it be that His Highness believes I purposefully concealed the truth from the Princess, and let everything happen in order to reap the greatest benefit from this plotting?”
“Are you telling me that’s not what happened?” Prince Jing fixed his gaze tightly on him. “You knew the events would take place at the Zhaoren palace, and you had an opportunity to warn the Princess beforehand, so why didn’t you tell her? You had time to tell her to beware the Empress, but didn’t have time to say two more words, ‘Consort Yue’?”
Seeing Prince Jing’s menacing expression, Mei Changsu’s thoughts were scattered. He had honestly never thought Prince Jing would misunderstand him in this way. A person’s thoughts were truly deep beyond all fathoming, and you could never really say that you had grasped the mind of another person. Even the most intimate relationship between a father and son could be eroded by rumours and gossip¹.
The fire of Prince Jing’s rage was fueled by Mei Changsu’s distracted, indifferent expression, and he took his silence for affirmation of his accusation. When he remembered Princess Nihuang lying fallen on the steps, her face full of pain and shame, he couldn’t suppress the fury that rose up in his chest, and he reached forward and grabbed Mei Changsu by the collar, pulling him close, his other arm gripping his shoulder tightly, as if the heat of his rage could melt the ice-cold skin of the person before him.
“Listen well, Su Zhe,” Xiao Jingyan’s words were spoken through tightly gritted teeth. “I know that you strategists not only act treacherously and shamelessly, but also that not even the most powerful can stand against the cold arrows of your plotting. But I must warn you, since you have accepted me as your liege, you will be clear about my boundaries. Princess Nihuang is not like those who only wallow in power and fight for wealth. She is the commander of a hundred thousand soldiers of the Southern border; she has shouldered the military responsibility of protecting the country. It is the blood she has shed on the battlefield that protects people like you, so that you may scheme and plot safely in this flourishing capital! How could someone like you, who only seeks power and profit, understand the iron blood of a soldier, the hostile smoke of the battlefield? I will not allow you to take people like her as your chess pieces, to use and dispose of as you will. If you do not even know how to respect these veterans who have paid the price on the battlefield with their blood, then I, Xiao Jingyan, will never be associated with you! Do you understand?”
A wave of heat rose in Mei Changsu’s chest, and a hint of a bitter smile lingered at the edges of his mouth. Not understand what it means to be a soldier? Not understand the battlefield? Perhaps, in the snow of that bitter winter twelve years ago, his heart had frozen, and his blood had frozen, but the things that had been burned into his very bones – had they frozen too?
But at this moment, he did not have to think anymore about this, and neither did he have to answer the posed question, because in Mei Changsu’s trembling field of vision, Fei Liu’s furious face had suddenly appeared.
The youth’s palm sliced through the air with murderous intent, trailing cold air in its wake, aimed at Prince Jing’s neck like the scythe of the reaper himself.
“Stop!” As he shouted sternly for Fei Liu to stop, Mei Changsu shoved Prince Jing to one side with all of his strength, putting his own body in front of him as a shield.
Fei Liu’s ferocious slice was descending when Su gege suddenly appeared in the target area of his attack, and, knowing that he wouldn’t be able to take the hit, he was horrified and immediately pulled back with all of his strength, blocking his right arm with his left. But the cold energy of his attack still assaulted Prince Jing’s side and Mei Changsu’s shoulder.
Prince Jing had been through regular endurance training, and his muscles and bones were strong as iron, so this small piece of much reduced cold energy didn’t do much to him, but to Mei Changsu, it felt as if he had been struck with a shower of ice cold needles. There was a sudden sweetness in his throat, and he felt a surge of fresh blood rush into his mouth, which he forced back down doggedly.
“Su gege!” Fei Liu cried loudly.
Mei Changsu ignored the pain in his chest, gathered his composure, and said severely, still standing guard in front of Prince Jing, “Have you forgotten everything I’ve said to you? Have you forgotten that you promised me to never, ever hurt this person, to never touch even one hair on his head?”
“But he…” Although Fei Liu’s face was rigid, his wide eyes were filled with the hurt of a child.
“Don’t argue!” Mei Changsu reprimanded sharply. “What is forbidden is forbidden! Apologize to His Highness Prince Jing!”
Fei Liu’s whole body trembled. He pressed his lips tightly together, his lovely face stretched taut, and twisted away stubbornly.
Prince Jing had not the slightest shred of antipathy towards Fei Liu, and said with a crease in his brow, “You don’t need to force him.”
“No,” Mei Changsu’s face was like ice. “He must remember this. Fei Liu, are you going to apologize or not?”
Fei Liu rarely received this kind of stern, forceful scolding from Mei Changsu. His face was flushed, his breath heavy, his chest heaving, and his teeth were gritted so hard that the muscles of his face were stretched taut and veins were showing in the skin of his neck. If he had not been trained from childhood to show no expression on his face, he would certainly have been close to tears.
Mei Changsu sighed, his heart softening, and he walked forward slowly and wrapped his hands around Fei Liu’s face, rubbing gently, and said quietly, “Don’t grind your teeth, you’ll get a headache…”
Fei Liu’s lips pursed, then he rushed forward and fell into Mei Changsu’s embrace, wrapping his arms tightly around his waist.
“Alright, alright…” Mei Changsu murmured. “Is Fei Liu going to listen to Su gege?”
“Then apologize to His Highness.”
Fei Liu thought for a moment, head bowed, then suddenly raised his head and glared at Prince Jing, saying stiffly, “Him first!”
Prince Jing raised an eyebrow in confusion, but Mei Changsu had already instantly understood Fei Liu’s meaning.
“Don’t speak nonsense. Why would His Highness apologize to you?”
“Not to me neither….”
“He hit you!”
“He did not hit me,” Mei Changsu rubbed his shoulder helplessly. “He was only a little angry, and drew a bit close to me while speaking….” “He apologize!” Fei Liu insisted.
“I am not going to apologize.” Mei Changsu had not yet answered when Prince Jing unexpectedly spoke up. Xiao Jingyan’s expression was serious as he turned to face Fei Liu. He did not take advantage of the boy’s intellectual disadvantage to tease or deceive him, but instead continued in a solemn voice, “Everything I have said just now was from the bottom of my heart, not one sentence was false or wrong, and so, I will not apologize. But, Su Zhe, neither will I ask this young brother to apologize to me. He was only fulfilling his responsibilities as a bodyguard, and did not do anything wrong. I think, however, that you owe Princess Nihuang an apology.”
Mei Changsu looked at him, deep in thought, and then asked, “Does Princess Nihuang also think I purposefully deceived her?”
Xiao Jingyan was startled. “Actually, no, she thought you were disrupted before you could finish….”
“Then what is the use of apologizing now and frightening her for nothing?” Mei Changsu said indifferently. “The Princess has already suffered much in the capital. Must you add to her grief?”
Prince Jing had not considered this, and stood in a daze.
“I will remember Your Highness’ words well, and I will take care in the future.” Mei Changsu continued, “But I also have a few words for Your Highness. You cannot reject all strategists as one. Against people such as Prince Yu and the Crown Prince, one cannot succeed with only a heart full of passion. Sometimes, we must be ruthless, treacherous, cruel; if we are complacent for even a moment, we will lose everything, with no hope of recovery. You will not fail to understand this point, am I right?”
Xiao Jingyan’s brows were furrowed tightly, but he knew there was truth to these words. He only felt as if his chest were stuffed tightly with something, a disgust and hatred he could not easily express.
Mei Changsu had been watching the changes in his expression closely, and continued in a cold, hard voice, “Your Highness cannot help feeling uncomfortable on occasion, but you must bear it. I know your boundaries, and I will not cross them. But I also have my own methods and ways of handling matters, and I am afraid Your Highness will have to get used to them slowly. You and I share the same goal, and for the sake of this, is it really too much to ask for us to sacrifice some of our personal feelings?”
Prince Jing raised his head and took a deep breath, closed his eyes for a moment, then slowly opened them again and directed his shining gaze towards Mei Changsu. “This is what you really believe. I understand. I will also share with you this truth: I no longer harbour the slightest trace of brotherly love or affection towards the Crown Prince and Prince Yu. Against them and those who do their will, I do not care what methods you choose to use.”
“Your Highness speaks frankly, to say these words in front of me.”
“Since I am working with you, what is the point of hiding anything? If you truly wanted to do me harm, then simply knowing Tingshen’s secret would have been enough to tie my hands. Although you work in the shadows with poisonous scheming, you are nonetheless truly talented. If I did not have someone like you by my side, then what power would I have against the Crown Prince and Prince Yu? But in all of our Da Liang, and in the royal court, there still remain ministers who are pure of heart, and who have not participated in the fight for the crown, and against them…”
“I must still use them.” Mei Changsu spoke coldly. “But, to the best of my ability, I will not also harm them.”
Prince Jing stared at him steadily, and slowly nodded after a long moment, then said, pronouncing each word carefully, “See that you remember.”
Mei Changsu smiled faintly, understanding that this day’s discussion had come to an end, and stepped back and bowed. Prince Jing didn’t waste any more words, but turned and strode away towards the courtyard. At the door, he stopped suddenly and said, without turning his head, “Thank you, for saving Tingshen.”
“You’re welcome.” Mei Changsu continued indifferently, “I hope Your Highness will not overindulge him out of pity for his sufferings, but send him into the army for training, that he may learn from an early age the rigors of manhood, and not turn out like me, with a mind filled only with plots and schemes….”
Xiao Jingyan’s figure seemed to freeze for a moment, but in the end, he didn’t reply, and only walked away into the courtyard.
Fei Liu’s furious glare had been fixed on him all along, and even after his shadow had disappeared, he continued to glare in that direction, unwilling to turn away.
“No, Fei Liu.” Mei Changsu took the boy’s hand, and pulled him forcefully into the middle of the room. “Su gege will say it one more time: you are absolutely forbidden to hurt this person, no matter what, do you understand?”
“Su gege is very upset about what happened today….”
“He’s bad!” Fei Liu sounded hurt. “He hit you.”
“He did not hit me. I would never, ever let him hit me….” Mei Changsu rubbed Fei Liu’s head and said, “If he had hit me, Su gege would be angry. Look at me, do I look angry?”
Fei Liu looked closely, then shook his head.
“To tell you the truth, Su gege is actually very happy.” Mei Changsu smiled and pinched the boy’s cheek. “Really, very happy.”
“Happy…” Fei Liu cocked his head, looking doubtful.
“Because, he still hasn’t changed.” As Mei Changsu spoke, his eyes gradually became misty. “Although he doesn’t speak or laugh much now, although he is not as cheerful or as bright² as before, although his heart has been filled with fury and revenge, still, in his bones, he is still that warmhearted Xiao Jingyan, he is still…that good friend, who sometimes bullies me, and is sometimes bullied by me….”
“Hmm? What is it?”
“Alright,” Mei Changsu took a breath, still smiling, and used a finger to lightly brush at the corner of his eye. “I won’t cry. After all, we are very happy.”
“Happy!” Fei Liu suddenly forgot his previous troubles and pointed outside. “Sun! Can play!”
“Alright…let’s go play.”
Despite agreeing to play, Mei Changsu only sat on the long bench under the tree, enjoying the weak warmth of the sunshine of an early winter’s afternoon. Fei Liu sat in the shade, playing joyfully with the shadows of the tree branches, and returning periodically to his Su gege‘s side for Mei Changsu to mop his sweating forehead with a gentle handkerchief.
Suddenly, it was as if the flow of time had reversed, and he had returned to the careless days of his youth. He was taming horses, bare-chested, on the grasslands, the yellow earth flying by beneath the wild hooves of his horse. Jingyan, standing outside the fence, tossed him a sack of wine, which he caught and upended over his face in one smooth motion. The wine splashed over his chest, and his father came over, smiling, and rubbed at his forehead with his own handkerchief, gently wiping it clean….
“Su gege….” Fei Liu’s clear eyes were wide as he called his name.
“It’s alright,” Mei Changsu replied gently. “The sun is so warm. I’m falling asleep….”
“Then sleep!” Fei Liu jumped up and brought a blanket over, lightly spreading it over Mei Changsu’s body, then curled up beside him, resting his head on his knee.
As the day drew to a close, the entire Snow Cottage suddenly became unusually quiet.
But for Mei Changsu, who had already been sucked into the storms of deceit and deception, as time went on, peaceful moments like these would only become rarer and rarer, and shorter and shorter….
¹I don’t get it either. Is it an explicit reference to Prince Qi or is it just an example to emphasize his point? (But then, when had Prince Qi and the Emperor ever had an ‘intimate’ relationship? I thought they’d never understood each other.)
²referring to mood, not intelligence