As Mei Changsu had predicted, in the work of a day, the news of Noble Consort Yue’s dismissal and the Crown Prince’s confinement had spread like wildfire through the palace. Because the announcement had been made with overly vague language, only giving the reason for the punishment as “defied the Emperor, gave disrespectful service”, all kinds of strange and creative guesses sprang up over the true reason for the edict, lending proof once again to the fathomless depths of the human imagination.
Some said that the Emperor had a new favourite amongst his imperial concubines, and she had murdered the noble consort; some said the noble consort had offended His Majesty with her constant meddling in the Crown Prince’s palace responsibilities; some said the noble consort had been caught performing witchcraft in the Inner Palace by the Empress; some even said that the noble consort had recently adopted a young dog, who had yet to be trained, and had bitten the Emperor’s honoured foot….
It was those who had the least idea of what had really happened who speculated the most wildly, whereas those insiders who had some idea of the truth kept quiet in fear, not a single one daring to say a word. Because Xiao Jingrui and Yan Yujin had witnessed Mei Changsu’s arrangements in Wuying hall that day, they could guess that the matter involved Princess Nihuang, but were not clear about the exact details, and because they were both intelligent and tactful, neither tried to find out more.
That day’s written test was not postponed or cancelled because of these events, but to both the contestants and the host, this great husband-choosing competition had become somewhat of a farce. Princess Nihuang’s true thoughts and intentions were impossible to unravel. If one were to say that she had had no intention from the beginning to choose a husband in this way, then she would not have consented to have such a competition be hosted in her name. But if one were to say that her heart had truly been moved and she was hoping to find a husband from amongst this multitude of young heroes, then her cool attitude didn’t betray any such intention. She had not showed any particular interest during either the earlier martial arts contests or after the ten finalists had been chosen, nor had she made any effort to get to know these finalists’ characters, and their strengths and weaknesses, or even seemed to care much when others came to talk to her about them. Rather, it was others of the Yunnan Mu household who had eagerly tracked down every last detail about the finalists, and found out both what they should have and what they should not have.
But to the contestants who had fought until this stage, they of course would not give up so easily, as maybe the Princess was only acting aloof, unwilling to outwardly show her preference, and until the last face-to-face fight, there was no way to know her true thoughts. So, although the number of spectators who had arrived to watch the written test were far fewer than before, most of the contestants themselves, aside from those like Xiao Jingrui whose aim was only to fill the numbers, approached the test very seriously.
Among the crowds, those who had arrived with the greatest hopes and would be leaving with the greatest disappointment were the Northern Yan delegation. They had come with the incredibly skilled martial artist Baili Qi, their pride and joy, who, out of all the finalists, had been the one with the greatest chance of beating the Princess. But who could have guessed that a sickly Mei Changsu would appear out of nowhere and completely defeat the outstanding fighter with who knew what kind of sorcery. Even the losing would not have been a problem, and would only really be losing a bit of face1, but for the fact that Baili Qi, for some unfathomable reason, had completely disappeared the second day after his defeat. The Northern Yan officials had searched the whole capital, but had been unable to find half a shadow of the warrior, and had become the laughingstock of Da Liang. They had not only failed to wed the Princess, they had even lost their own candidate, and one could only guess at the humiliation and suffering they would have to endure once they returned to their own country.
Of course, there must be some people who benefit from a competition like this. Some had never intended to really reach the peak to pluck the flower, but had merely used the contest as a platform to show their skills, and as a chance to be make themselves known. And the one who had expended the least effort but reaped the greatest reward was in fact this Su Zhe who had appeared out of nowhere.
Firstly, this mysterious, frail young man had a young bodyguard of incredible fighting skill, and so had gotten to know Commander Meng; then he had trained three children to defeat the first-place warrior of the martial arts contest by some strange methods, showing his own tremendous capabilities; and finally, he had overseen the Princess’ written test with refined wisdom, earning His Majesty’s praise for his radiant talent. Some said he had even been invited as a commoner by imperial order for a private meeting in the royal study, which had lasted almost four hours, and although no one knew what had been discussed, the rich gifts and the honoured title of ‘Guest Minister’ which had been bestowed afterwards showed without a doubt that this newcomer was not someone to be taken lightly, and some even claimed that this Su Zhe had certainly been the secretly determined match for the Princess all along, and that everyone else was really just there for show.
Such gossip naturally raised waves in its wake. Although most of the contestants had not entered for the sake of the true prize, being used as cannon fodder is no laughing matter, and suddenly, the focus of the whole capital had fallen onto the shoulders of this young talent, and if he had not been residing in the heavily guarded residence of the Marquis of Ning, he might have already been skinned for a closer look. But be that as it may, a steady stream of noble sons with no inconsiderable rank arrived daily at the door of the residence, asking for a closer look at this Su Zhe.
“Has the last person been defeated by the princess today?” Mei Changsu pulled the fur cloak around his shoulders closer, and let out a long sigh. “Such an exciting competition finally ended with no result, it’s really a shame.”
Xiao Jingrui stood before him, brows furrowed. The longer he came to know this person, the more he felt as if he didn’t really understand him. You couldn’t say he was a bad friend, because he was warm and considerate and understood his friends well, but if you said he said he was a good friend, you also could not deny that there seemed to be a glass wall before him that none of his friendships could truly penetrate. When Xiao Jingrui saw him again, he was a little ashamed and embarrassed over his own little tantrum the other day, but he discovered that, just as Yan Yujin had said, Mei Changsu had seemingly not even noticed, without any trace of seeming upset by the previous events.
This kind of lukewarm attitude appeared in other situations as well, like in his behaviour towards the Princess. He had clearly taken the matter to heart, and had taken the initiative to give whatever help he could, to the extent that he had become the talk of the capital over the matter, but on closer examination, he truly did not seem to have any other motives, and his hope that the Princess would be able to find a husband from the competition seemed to be sincere, without the slightest hint of hypocrisy.
At this moment, a strange sound was heard from the other side of the footpath, as if someone had been thrown out roughly. Xiao Jingrui glanced over, shook his head, and sighed. The two were currently not in Snow Cottage, but in a small pavilion located not too far from the residence of the Marquis of Ning, which had several connecting corridors and was surrounded by trees and flowers. Because the number of visitors who had come with one excuse or another had grown drastically in the past few days, even if they were repeatedly turned down, they kept finding new reasons to come back, and so to avoid the trouble, Mei Changsu had simply found this conveniently-located pavilion, and, wrapped in his furs and with a warm brazier nearby, sat here reading idly. Those who wanted to come take a look were led over by Xie Bi, and once they had satisfied their curiosity from a distance, they quickly left, and in this way, they had gotten rid of many of the visitors. But there were always a few who weren’t content to simply gaze from afar, and they found ways to break through Xie Bi’s resistance to come closer for a good look. Unfortunately, Mei Changs’s bodyguard, who could hold his own against Meng Zhi, was certainly not just there for decoration, and catching and throwing out those who dared to trespass into the forbidden inner area was Fei Liu’s favourite game of the past few days, so long as he remembered not to hurt anyone.
“I think that’s all the visitors we’re going to get for today. It’s too cold here, Brother Su, let’s go back to Snow Cottage.” Xiao Jingrui watched as Mei Changsu once again drew the collar of his fur cloak closer, and couldn’t help himself.
Mei Changsu slowly shook his head and smiled faintly, then spoke of an entirely different matter: “Jingrui, is that child, Tingsheng, doing well?”
“Oh?” Xiao Jingrui said in astonishment. “You only asked me to go see him this morning, how did you know I had already gone?”
“The bottoms of your shoes are covered in red sand, the kind that is only found in Prince Jing’s training grounds. If you had not gone, where would you have picked that up?”
Because Mei Changsu often somehow managed to know things no one would expect him to know, Xiao Jingrui was not surprised that he would remember the colour of the sand of Prince Jing’s training grounds, and he only lifted his foot for a look, saying, “I was going to tell you tonight, Tingsheng looks very well. There’s a huge courtyard in the back of Prince Jing’s residence, which has always been used to house the orphans of the soldiers who die in battle. Tingsheng is staying there, and has his own room, has masters to teach him, is eating well and sleeping well, and is not mistreated by anyone, so you don’t need to worry.”
A look of approval appeared in Mei Changsu’s eyes. Prince Jing was intelligent indeed, to not give Tingsheng any special treatment but allow him to disappear into the crowd, and only train him personally in secret – this was indeed the best he could have done with the situation.
“Tingsheng is a child who remembers those who were kind to him, and he purposefully came to ask me about your health, and said that he hopes one day to return to your side to learn from you, and even gave me a gift to bring over to you….” Xiao Jingrui pulled out a small pouch and opened it, revealing an eagle carved from tree roots, and although the handiwork was rough, it was nonetheless an interesting trinket.
Mei Changsu took one glance at the object in Xiao Jingrui’s hand and smiled. “He is very thoughtful. Fei Liu is over there on that old cedar, you can give it to him yourself.”
“Eh?” Xiao Jingrui was once again surprised. “How did you know this gift was for Fei Liu?”
“You can tell at a glance,” Mei Changsu couldn’t help smiling. “If he had really wanted to give me something, he would not have chosen this. Fei Liu taught the children for two days, and Tingsheng came to like him very much. I often saw them sitting together carving toys just like this.”
“You really don’t miss a thing.” Xiao Jingrui looked at him and smiled. Now that he thought about it, since the day they had met, Mei Changsu’s attitude towards people and his methods of handling different situations had not changed much, and since he had not changed, then his own dissatisfaction was only a single-sided demand, so how could he put the blame for this on Mei Changsu? Yan Yujin was right, he had treated Brother Su as the kindest teacher and greatest friend in the whole world because Brother Su had always had this capacity and status. But on the other hand, if, by now, Xiao Jingrui still had not been able to achieve the same status in Brother Su’s heart, then this was his own problem, and complaining about the other person’s coldness was really too unfair.
After thinking it through, the turmoil in his heart calmed, and he took a deep breath, feeling his chest loosen. Brother Su’s eyes, which held a faint smile, were just as warm as always. Looking towards the old cedar tree that Mei Changsu had just pointed out, Xiao Jingrui wrapped up the little tree root eagle, turned, and strode over, lifting his head to say, “Fei Liu! Come down and see, what’s this?”
Amidst the depths of the old cedar, which had not seemed as if it had a single branch out of place, a handsome face suddenly appeared, and Fei Liu widened his eyes and peered down.
“Oh, it’s a gift from your little friend….” Xiao Jingrui raised his arm and waved it gently.
“Come down and see, you’ll know if you come down.” Because Fei Liu had gotten used to him, Xiao Jingrui had started to become a gege to him, seeing past the stony exterior to the innocence of the young child beneath.
“What?” Fei Liu repeated, indignant over the gentle teasing.
“Not coming down? Then I’m taking it away….” Xiao Jingrui put the bag behind his back and made as if to leave.
In the next instant, Fei Liu’s feet struck the grond and he somersaulted over. Xiao Jingrui faltered for a step and then dodged, twisting his body as he flipped away in another direction. In the matter of practicing martial artistry, the skills themselves had to be taught, and expertise and inner strength developed through training, but the movements themselves – well, being chased by a master of masters was undoubtedly the best kind of practice, eliciting hidden potential one might not even know he had.
Mei Changsu watched the chase from afar, seeing Fei Liu catch Xiao Jingrui and grab the small bag, pulling out the little eagle and disappearing again into the tree branches, and felt a sense of peace in his heart, a small smile appearing on his face.
But the smile disappeared quickly. A sense of oppression came drifting over slowly, and he instinctively lifted his head, his gaze falling onto the small bridge on the eastern side of the pavilion.
On the bridge, a long silhouette stood quietly, his features difficult to make out because of the distance. The only thing certain was that this person was studying him closely.
The visitor he had been waiting for all day had finally arrived. Mei Changsu stood up slowly, the snowy white fur around his neck sliding off his shoulders, as the cold wind blew across the skin outside his collar, and though it did not resemble the once-familiar sensation of the sandstorms outside the Great Wall, it was nonetheless sharp like the stabbing of knives.
Seeing Mei Changsu rise, the figure did not continue standing still, but turned and strode down the little bridge, entering into the adjoining pavilion. With each step he took, the figure’s appearance became a little clearer to the eyes of the chief of the East River Alliance.
Unlike the time in the grasslands to the west of the city, Xia Dong was now dressed in a lady’s attire, and although they were still sturdy clothes with narrow sleeves and boots, the embroidery on her collar and the tassels on her waist had successfully tempered some of the mysterious air given off by her masculine features, and instead displayed some of her prettiness and charm. Only her long, smooth hair remained tied back by a ribbon, without any hairpins, and the white amidst the sea of raven-black showed up clearly to the eye.
Under Mei Changsu’s quiet gaze, the lady officer of the Xuanjing Bureau strode towards the pavilion, when she suddenly turned gracefully, the dark eyes under her thin brows glancing up, and raised a hand to block the descending strike, which was Fei Liu’s silent, swift attack that that had sliced down so neatly that it had not disturbed even one unnecessary molecule of air.
Amidst the rapid strikes and attacks, Xia Dong laughed loudly and shouted, “Good body movements!” In a fight between top martial artists, breath and endurance are vitally important, and the fact that she had been able to shout out praise amidst Fei Liu’s suffocating attack showed her proud temperament, as well as her attempt at provoking her opponent to open his mouth, so that she could seize the opportunity to attack and look for his weak spots.
Unfortunately, Fei Liu was no ordinary opponent. He had learned from an early age to endure silently and remain unyielding and resolute, and to attack ferociously to seek out his opponent’s weaknesses. When Xia Dong spoke, the rhythm of her breathing was slightly altered, as if a golden net being attacked by knives had suddenly shown a rip, and Fei Liu broke through the weakness of her defense and forced her back towards the east side of the courtyard. As to the challenging tone in Xia Dong’s voice, the youth had not paid even the slightest bit of attention.
By this time, Xiao Jingrui had hurried back to Mei Changsu’s side, and seeing the two engaged in fierce combat, he said hurriedly, “Brother Su, tell Fei Liu to stop, quickly, that person is….”
“The martial arts passed down in the Xuanjing Bureau are truly incredible,” Mei Changsu smiled faintly, his tone leisurely. “Even after making a mistake, they can retreat without losing. If Langya Hall had not received the imperial order long ago that Xuanjing officers were not to be placed onto their lists, there would undoubtedly always be one or more of them on the top ten list of martial arts experts.”
“Xuanjing officers aren’t allowed to be ranked on the list?” Xiao Jingrui had never heard of such a thing, and was greatly astonished. “No wonder, I’d always thought it was because their work was shrouded in secrecy, and Langya Hall couldn’t obtain any information on their fighting skills.”
Mei Changsu smiled and said, “You underestimate Langya Hall. But Xuanjing officers seldom involve themselves in the affairs of the jianghu world, and work in the shadows even in the palace, so not being placed on the lists is a good decision.”
“With Fei Liu’s skills, why isn’t he on the list?”
“Fei Liu never used to leave home much, he will be on the list next year.” Mei Changsu sighed and said, “If only there was a way to ask the master of Langya Hall not to place him on the list, Fei Liu is still a child….”
“That would not be easy, here in the capital, Fei Liu has fought against many experts, and I fear he has long since been…oh!” Xiao Jingrui interrupted himself with a cry. “Since Brother Su knows who she is, then hurry and tell Fei Liu to stop! How could I have kept chatting with you so idly….”
But Mei Changsu shook his head and said calmly, “Let them fight, I won’t stop them.”
“Fei Liu has been instructed long ago not to hurt anyone, what are you afraid of?” Mei Changsu continued indifferently, “The skills and intentions of Xuanjing officers are difficult to predict. If I tell Fei Liu to stop, he will really stop, and if his opponent suddenly lost her temper, wouldn’t that be dangerous for Fei Liu?”
His words caused Xiao Jingrui to hesitate. As he watched, Mei Changsu slowly returned to his long bench and picked up the fur collar that had slipped off when he stood up, his actions leisurely, and knew that he really wouldn’t stop them. But he himself couldn’t quite bear to do the same, and so he only coughed, and then chased over to where the two were still fighting, and called in a loud voice, “Xia Dong jie, will you stop first then?”
But the competitive nature of Xia Dong, who rarely met a worthy opponent, had been stirred, and she ignored him, but kicked back with one foot and raised a great wind, putting all her strength into the “Jiang Flow” attack passed down amongst her masters, sweeping her arms in one great circle and sending a great wave of energy spinning towards Fei Liu. The youth’s cold expression finally showed a shred of emotion, but that emotion was not fear, but rather even more easiness, as his whole body dodged the whirling gust of unimaginable power, like a falling leaf drifting from a tree branch, and his hands reached into the colourless, shapeless blur of motion, slicing neatly onto Xia Dong’s wrists.
Everything ended abruptly, one moment the air was filled with flying silhouettes, and the next, the two had already landed far apart, watching each other warily.
Xia Dong’s left hand was clasped over her right wrist, and her expression was calm, although her face was pale, and she was panting almost inaudibly. Fei Liu looked just the same as always, his face cold and hard, his eyes expressionless, as he pointed at Xia Dong’s feet and said rigidly, “Can stand here!”
Xiao Jingrui stared from one to the other, completely speechless. If there were a mirror in front of him, he would have seen only one word on his own face – shock!
Although he had known all along that Fei Liu’s martial art skills were exceedingly high, although he had known all along that this youth’s abilities far exceeded his own, but…but…this was Xia Dong, a Xuanjing officer of more than a decade, a recognized expert in both the palace and Jianghu. And this young Fei Liu, this youth who was at heart like a little child, this boy who could often be found snuggled up at his gege‘s knee, had actually beaten her!
Compared to Xiao Jingrui’s expression of utter shock, Xia Dong herself was much calmer. She first gathered her inner energy and dispersed the hurt in her wrist, smoothed her hair which had been disturbed in the fight, and then, with a small smile at the corner of her lips, said, “Mister Su, please forgive Xia Dong’s recklessness.”
Mei Changsu’s voice drifted over leisurely: “Fei Liu, let this jiejie come over.”
Fei Liu immediately pointed in Mei Changsu’s direction and said, “Go over!”
Those who knew him naturally understood his nature, but in the eyes of those who did not, this kind of curt speech was incredibly impolite, and Xiao Jingrui hurried forward to say, “Xia Dong jie, don’t mind him, Fei Liu has always been short of speech, and doesn’t mean to be discourteous.”
Xia Dong was of course astute, and after a detailed glance following the fight, had understood Fei Liu’s abnormalities and so was not angry, but strode away to the pavilion.
Mei Changsu had risen to greet his guest, and smilingly invited Xia Dong to sit down at the little table in the pavilion, then went over to the brazier placed to one side and lifted the cover of the copper teapot and peered into its depths, then said with a smile, “Seven parts snow, three parts clear dew2, the water is freshly boiled, would you care for a cup?”
“Thank you.” Xia Dong answered peacefully.
By this time, Fei Liu had disappeared into who knew which tree to play. Xiao Jingrui was a most considerate and sensitive person, and knowing that Xia Dong wasn’t simply here out of curiosity like the other visitors, but had her own reasons, he made some excuse about having arranged to see some friends and left quickly. And so in the pavilion, there now remained only the two persons.
Mei Changsu warmed the teacups, then measured out an exact amount of tea leaves with his instruments, poured in boiling water, removed the layer of froth, then poured away the first cup of water and steeped a second cup3, waited a few moments, and then offered it to his guest with both hands4. Xia Dong accepted it with both hands, inhaled the sweet fragrance, and gently took a sip, letting the taste linger in her tongue and throat, and closed her eyes to enjoy the tea, not saying a word, as if she had truly been invited there simply to drink tea.
She did not say anything, and Mei Changsu also did not speak, but smilingly drank his own tea. After the hot tea had been consumed, his originally pale face showed a hint of pink, and he looked refined and elegant. Xia Dong looked at him for a moment, then said with a soft sigh, “I have some blunt words, I hope you will forgive me.”
“Officer Xia Dong does not need to be polite,” Mei Changsu addressed her respectfully, his tone pleasant. “Please speak freely.”
“Mister Su is certainly an extraordinary talent, and I cannot see your intentions clearly. But…no matter what kind of person you are, I think there are only two options.”
“Ah,” Mei Changsu smiled, “Please continue.”
“You are either a refined and elegant scholar, or a shrewd and sophisticated strategist, but no matter which, you are not a suitable match for Princess Nihuang.”
Mei Changsu’s smile did not falter, as he said softly, “Could it be that Officer Xia has come today after hearing some rumor about my being the Princess’ chosen future husband, and so wanted some clarification?”
Xia Dong smiled, “That is indeed my intention, but it is not because of some rumors.”
“I have known Princess Nihuang for many years, and am familiar with her temper and character. Without some special reason, even if you were the apple of His Majesty’s eye, or indeed of the princes’ eyes, she would not have given you such preferential treatment.” At this point, Xia Dong’s eyes suddenly became cold. “But towards the Princess’ special favour, your response has been disappointing, and in fact, one could say you have not returned the favour in any way, which I cannot understand. There are some in the Mu residence who feel the same as I do, that Mister Su has come across rather arrogant, and has not been polite enough.”
A bitter smile floated across Mei Changsu’s face, and he raised his cup and took a sip, then said slowly, “Officer Xia…I will be blunt as well, you are wrong.”
“The Princess is exceptional and elegant, with such a graceful manner. I am neither deaf nor blind, how could I remain unaffected? But…I am on the one hand sick and frail, and unlikely to live long, and have no intention to wed because I do not wish such a husband on any young lady, much less the Princess. And on the other hand, even if I had such intentions, I fear the Princess would not have such a wish. As Officer Xia has said, no matter what kind of person I am, I am not suited to the Princess. Officer Xia knows this, so how could the Princess herself not know? A person she could hold in her heart must be a righteous warrior, a proud young man, who can ride with her onto the sands of battle, and fight by her side to defeat the enemies of our kingdom; how could she consider someone like me, frail and weak, without the slightest hint of a hero’s air?”
“Princess Nihuang has indeed treated me with unusual kindness, but the reason for this is not that which has been guessed by everyone.” Mei Changsu put down his tea cup and stretched his hands towards the warmth of the fire. “Officer Xia, as an officer of the Xuanjing Bureau, has unusual methods, and must have thoroughly investigated my background, have you not?”
Xia Dong nodded slowly and said, “That’s right. I was shocked to see how young the chief of the East River Alliance was.”
Mei Changsu gazed at the white steam of his own breath and said, “The Princess is also aware of my identity. And the reason she has treated me so favourably is only this, and none other.”
Xia Dong raised an eyebrow in confusion. “Although the East River Alliance is the greatest sect in the world, and has some influence, but, if you don’t mind my saying so, it is in the end only a jianghu sect. With the Princess’ rank, as the commander of hundred thousand soldiers, could your identity really impress her?”
“When has the Princess been impressed?” Mei Changsu laughed in spite of himself. “I would not dare to think like this. But as I have said, the Princess’ preferential treatment towards me is due to my identity as the chief of the East River Alliance, and that is the truth.”
Xia Dong frowned. “The world is not full of people as intelligent as Mister Su. Could you speak more clearly?”
Mei Changsu slowly sat up, took out a few cakes of incense from his sleeve and dropped them into the fire, then picked up the small stove he had been cradling all along, lifted its lid, and placed a few fresh pieces of burning hot coal into it, then wrapped his hands around it again and shifted to a more comfortable position on the long bench, finally saying with a smile, “Although the weather is dismal, with a fragrant stove and good tea at hand, this is quite pleasant. If Officer Xia is not in any rush, would you be willing to sit awhile longer in this pavilion, and listen to a story?”
1to ‘lose face’ is a common Chinese expression meaning to be shamed, or disrespected
2I assume he’s commenting on the steam and froth of the boiling water (froth = snow, water = clear dew)…. And actually, he said “mei snow”, mei as in ‘Meiling’, or meaning plum / plum flower. Yeah, I don’t get it either. My best guess is he’s being literary lol (someone feel free to explain further)
3normal tea steeping rituals
4in Chinese culture, when giving or receiving anything from your superiors or elders (or simply to anyone to whom you want to show respect), one should always do so with both hands to show respect