About ten miles west of the capital, there was a stretch of rolling grassland, with a clear, winding brook weaving along its side, and a thick forest on the far shore. Because of its beautiful scenery, well-formed terrain, and close proximity to the palace, it has traditionally been the preferred training ground of the noble sons of the royal household1 – a place where they practised riding and shooting, and simply enjoyed themselves.
Hoof-beats fell like rain as two riders raced along the riverbank, one in front of the other. They were riding gloriously, as if carved into the saddle, their horsemanship complementing each other beautifully, when suddenly the one in front turned his horse and plunged into the river, waves erupting in his wake and soaking his clothing.
“Jingrui! Are you crazy? It’s winter, get out of there!” The person on the shore shouted, pulling hard on his horse’s reins.
The rider in the water didn’t seem to hear him, letting his horse splash deeper into the river, the water already reaching his horse’s flank.
“Fine!” The person on the shore sounded annoyed. “You’re not coming up? Then I’ll come down, and at worst, catch a cold, and become ill again like before….”
Following these words, the person on the shore plunged forward unhesitatingly, and his companion finally reacted, turning his horse and riding over to stop him. The two rode up the small incline side by side, crested a small hill, and then Xiao Jingrui suddenly threw down his reins and jumped down from his horse, ran forward a few steps, and then fell to the ground, burying his face into the thick grass.
Yan Yujin shook his head and also got off his horse, walking over to kick him gently in the stomach. “Hey, you playing dead?”
The person on the ground didn’t make a sound, his raven-black hair falling around him, shielding his face as effectively as the wild grass all around his head.
“Fine, you win.” Yan Yujin sat down beside him, absently plucking a stand of grass and sticking it into his mouth. “Haven’t you always given off an air of generosity and magnanimity since you were a child? Who doesn’t know that the Young Master Xiao is broad-minded and gentle, a rare, modest gentleman? What’s this tantrum about, then? Brother Su didn’t say much; what’s got you so upset?”
Xiao Jingrui flipped over angrily, his face drawn tightly, eyes fixed straight up at the sky.
“So you’ve tanned your back, and now you’re tanning your belly?” Yan Yujin sprawled down beside him, laughing, and tickled his ear with a piece of grass. “Your socks and shoes must be soaked, right? Take them off and tan your feet too.”
“Go away, stop bothering me!” Xiao Jingrui pushed his hand away.
Yan Yujin immediately raised an eyebrow. “Hey! Take a good look, it’s me, I’m not your punching bag. You’ve been offended by some other friend, fine, but don’t take it out on me. I’ve never had the habit of being someone’s scapegoat!”
Xiao Jingrui turned over, sat up, and glared at him furiously. “What did you say?”
“Am I supposed to be scared when you glare at me?” Yan Yujin glared back, his voice rising. “You’re angry because you got snubbed! Ever since Brother Su said to you, “Jingrui, don’t ask any more, this isn’t any of your business”, you started feeling uncomfortable in your heart, right?”
“Now that it’s just me, you can stop pretending.” Yan Yujin retorted. “And then, leaving the palace, he didn’t want to take the carriage, but said he wanted to walk slowly by himself for a while, to think carefully about some things. You didn’t see your expression then…. And then you ran after him, and he rejected you, right? He wasn’t being polite, but really rejecting you, clearly saying he didn’t want you to follow him, so how can you still not understand?”
“If you understand, then why are you still angry? At that time, you sounded like such a child: “Then go by yourself, I’m going to play polo.” What did you want him to say? Did you really expect him to say, “Jingrui, don’t be like that, I’m already ill, and you’re going to abandon me to go play?” Come on, how old are you? Brother Su was right when he said you can do whatever you want to do, without telling him first. That was only the truth; you didn’t have to whirl around and leave in such a huff, you know?”
“But we’re friends,” Xiao Jingrui bit his lip. “Shouldn’t friends care about each other?”
Yan Yujin said, frowning, “You still don’t get it? Let me tell you, when Brother Su said that to you, he wasn’t trying to reject your concern for him, but rather because he really, truly, wanted to walk back by himself! As for why he wanted to walk through the streets alone, I don’t know. I was originally going to follow him to see, but you, dummy, turned and left, so I had no choice but to chase you over here.”
“You mean….” Xiao Jingrui said dazedly, “Brother Su wanted to walk by himself not only for some time to think, but for some other reason as well?”
Yan Yujin laughed and looked at his friend. “Jingrui, you don’t still believe that the reason Brother Su came to Jinling with us was to rest and recuperate, do you?”
“I…” Xiao Jingrui faltered a moment. “Of course I’m not that slow…. But he never seemed to be trying to hide anything from us on purpose, but rather just let everything happen naturally….”
“Brother Su entering the capital and getting sucked into this whole mess must not have been a coincidence. Everything he does has a purpose; it’s just that we don’t know what he’s trying to do.”
Xiao Jingrui’s thick eyebrows furrowed, his forehead wrinkled, and he let out a long sigh, “I think I know….”
“You know?” Yan Yujin’s eyes widened, and he abruptly dropped on top of Xiao Jingrui. “Let’s hear it!”
“I found out from Xie Bi that the ‘qilin prodigy’ he mentioned before actually came from the Master of Langya Hall. And the reason both the Crown Prince and Prince Yu are falling over each other to recruit him also came from there.” Xiao Jingrui shoved at the weight on top of him, couldn’t budge it, and gave up. “I think, with Brother Su’s abilities and the power of Jiangzuo Alliance, there’s no way he only found out about this after he came to the capital….”
“Ng2,” Yan Yujin nodded. “Makes sense, continue.”
“Since Brother Su knew all along that the Crown Prince and Prince Yu were interested in him, then even if he didn’t come to the capital, trouble would still come knocking at his door. And then, not only would he have to get involved, the whole Jiangzuo Alliance probably would as well.”
“So in order not to bring trouble to Lang province, this great chief decided to come to the capital personally to handle everything?” Yan Yujin shook his head and laughed. “That still makes sense, and it’s an answer someone like you would think of.”
“Of course I’m not that naive!” Xiao Jingrui smacked the head lying somewhere above him a little resentfully. “But Brother Su has been very passive in all of this! The power of the Crown Prince and Prince Yu is not something that can be countered by a Jianghu3 sect, not to mention Brother Su is an incredibly learned and resourceful strategist, well-deserving of the reputation of qilin prodigy. Even if he really came to the capital to choose a liege-lord, there’s nothing wrong with that. What person in this world does not want to build a name for himself, to obtain glory and honour? Besides, you and I can both see how important his Jiangzuo Alliance is to him, and if he succeeds here, that would mean the Jiangzuo Alliance would receive the support of the court, so this must count as one of his goals as well….”
“Then what are you going to do?” Yan Yujin watched him closely. “He is a Jianghu man, but wants to dive into the fights of the court to make a name for himself. You are the son of a noble house, but want to stay far away from these palace politics. The two of you are running in opposite directions, so why do you care about him so much?”
“They’re two different things! I care about him because he is a person worth befriending, what does that have to do with whether he enters the court in the future?”
“But the path he has chosen isn’t one commonly picked by scholars.” Yan Yujin’s tone took on a certain coolness. “Jingrui, Brother Su is clearly planning to enter into the fight for the throne. Don’t you feel uneasy at all?”
Xiao Jingrui thought for a long while, then sighed quietly. “Yes, I am worried, what if the side he chooses should come to fail….”
“That’s not what I meant,” Yan Yujin cut him off immediately. “I may not care which side he chooses, but you? Aren’t you afraid the stance of the Xie household might be the opposite of the one he chooses?”
Xiao Jingrui had honestly never considered this aspect, and he was stunned for a long time, before finally saying, “That shouldn’t be a problem. Although Xie Bi is a bit biased towards Prince Yu, my father is still very neutral….”
“Your father can’t remain neutral forever!” Yan Yujin asserted. “Your father is not like my father. Although my father has the status of a marquis, his position barely has any obligations. But your father is the head of the military officials, the pillar of the court. Recruiting ministers to their side has always been the most important concern of the members of the royal family; how could he so easily remain out of these matters?”
“But…but…” Xiao Jingrui considered carefully and thought of the worst outcome4, suddenly feeling goosebumps rising over his arms and cold sweat breaking out over his body.
“Hey, hey,” Yan Yujin hurriedly slapped his pale cheeks. “It’s a fifty-fifty chance, that’s not too bad, you don’t need to scare yourself like this so early, do you?”
Xiao Jingrui pushed his friend aside, his face solemn. “That’s it, I’m going to go convince Brother Su, these palace waters are really too murky, he would do better not to enter them….”
“Psh, you said yourself he is the passive one in all of this. Even if he promised you not to get involved, have the Crown Prince and Prince Yu promised?” Yan Yujin brushed off the bits of grass in his hands, and sat up, crossing his legs. “Jingrui, to tell you the truth, the situation has long progressed beyond something that can be influenced by you or me. I was only reminding you, in the future, it’s hard to say whether he will be a friend or an enemy, so don’t become too attached to him now.”
Xiao Jingrui stood stiffly, shaken because he didn’t understand why Yujin had said such things, or perhaps because he had understood the deeper meaning behind his words. He stared dazedly at Yan Yujin for a long time, not saying a word.
“Ai,” the rarely-serious son of the Imperial Uncle5 showed a solemn expression now, his hands grasping Xiao Jingrui’s shoulders heavily as he said quietly, “You should understand, Brother Su is not like us. We simply cannot fathom how deep, how hard his heart is, and what kinds of thoughts are held within. You are different – your heart is too warm, too soft, too practical. So listen to me, keep a bit of a distance and remain casual acquaintances, alright? He is no longer the Brother Su you brought into the capital, the one you promised to look after while he recovered his health. I can guarantee that his mind has not the slightest space left in it to consider you now, and if you continue to warmly treat him as your good friend like you did in the past, then, in the future, the person who will come to grief, the one who will be hurt, will be you, do you understand?”
“I am only telling you this as your friend. From now on, you must tell yourself, Su Zhe is just a stranger you met by chance, a friend without any deep connections to you, with whom you came to the capital, and who is now a guest in your home, and that’s it. You cannot keep one-sidedly treating him as an intimate soulmate6. How much he cares for you, I don’t know; I only know that in his eyes, you cannot be the same kind of soulmate to him. To be blunt, Brother Su is a person of unfathomable depths, and even if we gained unlimited grandeur or renown, neither you nor I would have the right to become his confidant.”
Xiao Jingrui had almost never seen Yan Yujin speak to him with such seriousness, and couldn’t help being shaken. He lowered his head and thought for a long while, and found nothing wrong in his words. But could the subtle feelings and relationships between people really be so clearly analyzed and explained in a few sentences?
“Alright, I’m done speaking, take your time thinking then.” Yan Yujin jumped up and pulled Xiao Jingrui up by his arm, letting a carefree smile spread over his face again. “Come with me to Miaoyin House7 to listen to music! I haven’t been in so long, Miss Gongyu must be missing me, and I heard Mister Shisan has composed a new song. And then tonight, we can take a boat to look at the lights along the river, what do you say?”
“What can I say?” Xiao Jingrui gave him a look. “The Young Master orders me to come, dare I refuse?”
“Haha, that’s more like it. I guess you’re not cold even though you’re still wet all over. Come on, you can change when we get to Miaoyin House….”
“I think I’ll go home to change…”
“Please, your home is in the middle of the city, Miaoyin House is by the west gate, can’t you tell which is nearer?”
Xiao Jingrui’s gaze fell to the ground as he mumbled, “I want to go back first to see…Brother Su was walking alone…to see if he has arrived home….”
Yan Yujin crossed his arms, his expression exceedingly helpless.
“When I turned around to leave, did you see what his reaction was like?”
“There was no reaction.” Yan Yujin said, looking displeased. “He was really in deep thought at that time, and didn’t even notice you were angry, but just kept walking slowly further and further away.”
“You know his old illness flared up after he drank that cup of wine, and he was walking slowly because he wasn’t feeling well. Even just as a casual friend, as you said, one should still care about this. What if he fainted somewhere? The capital is not Lang province, and Fei Liu didn’t go with him, and he is not familiar with the people or the surroundings here…”
“Fine, fine,” Yan Yujin raised his arms in defeat. “You make it sound like I’m really heartless. So according to you, we’ll look for him, and if we find him unconscious somewhere, we’ll first take him home and then go listen to music, is that what you mean?”
“No matter what I say, why do the words always come out so awkward when you repeat them?”
“Is it my words that are awkward or you?” Yan Yujin made a dismissive noise. “What kind of person is this chief of Jiangzuo Alliance? Since his true purpose in coming to Jinling wasn’t to recover his health, then he certainly could not have only brought a Fei Liu with him. I don’t know anything else, but I bet even just the four jianghu experts who escorted us into the capital haven’t left.”
“I just want to have a look, just in case….”
“I already said we’ll do it your way, what are you being so long-winded for?” Yan Yujin turned and pulled their horses over, then tossed Xiao Jingrui his reins, and , holding onto his own saddle, put his left leg into the stirrup and was just pushing off with his right when he suddenly let out an “Aiya!”
“What is it?” Xiao Jingrui turned his head.
“I slipped on this rock.” Yan Yujin pushed the rock aside with his foot, and then sent it flying with a kick.
The rock landed in a depressed area in the field, and as the grass was thick, it didn’t make much noise as it landed. Instead, the rustling sounds of the grass nearby were heard clearly.
“Who’s there eavesdropping?” Yan Yujin’s brow furrowed as he shouted in a clear voice.
“I arrived before you, so who’s eavesdropping on whom?” A serene voice drifted over. “I already did my best not to disturb you, but when a rock falls out of the sky, you can’t blame me for dodging, can you?”
Following these clear words, a person stood up slowly before the eyes of the two noble sons. He wore simple, pale-coloured robes, his figure tall and thin, his hair half tied back, his eyes hidden with an unreadable expression. Although his face was clearly young, there was a streak of white near his forehead amidst the sea of black, giving him a soft, gentle air.
1referring to not just the Emperor’s sons, but the other related children of his household, eg. Lin Shu, Xiao Jingrui, Yan Yujin (all nephews of the Emperor)
2a sound of affirmation, pronounced kind of like “Hmm”
3Jianghu = the world of the martial arts fighters, sometimes translated as the ‘pugilist’ society (but I don’t like that word – it gives off the wrong vibe to me); it’s a whole different world or society made up of martial art fighters, kind of like the mafia (but more neutral), with its own ‘laws’ and rules of chivalry and brotherhood; it’s made up of different ‘sects’ with their own styles / traditions / history of martial artistry, and sometimes sects join together in alliances (like Jiangzuo Alliance under Mei Changsu); and in Chinese stories of this genre, it’s a common trope for the Jianghu world to be completely separate from the political world, where those with power in the Jianghu world are never interested in political power (and hence, never a threat to the throne), and with the Emperor never interfering with the wars and feuds of the Jianghu sects.
4I think it means, if Xiao Jingrui and MCS end up on opposite sides of the fight (i.e. the ‘worst outcome’, according to Jingrui lol)
5Marquis Yan (brother of the Empress, therefore ‘imperial uncle’ to all the sons of the Emperor)
6I’ve never known how to translate this term, 知己. Literally, it means ‘know oneself’, so it refers to the kind of friend who really knows you, the most intimate of friends, a ‘best friend’. (It’s not exactly ‘soulmate’, but there’s no better English term that I can think of.)
7literally “miracle/wonderful music house”