Because of the nature of their business, Xuanjing officers kept a low profile, and Xia Dong’s return to the capital was no exception. But to those who cared to find out, it was not difficult to keep track of her movements. To those eyes that watched either openly or in secret, Xia Dong did not purposefully hide her actions, but went freely between the palace, the residence of the Marquis of Ning, and the Mu residence, and then afterwards, retreated deep into the residence of the Xuanjing officers and was seldom seen out again.
But what was surprising to both the court and commoners alike was that the expected bombshell of Xia Dong’s return to the capital, the ‘Land Infringement Case’ had not exploded immediately; yet this ‘calm before the storm’ feeling was difficult to bear, and the old Duke of Qing had long since taken leave from the court and was lying sick at home, and according to the imperial physicians, his illness was no pretense.
Another event that everyone had been expecting also failed to materialize, as, although the reputed chosen husband was still staying as a guest at the Marquis of Ning’s residence, and the Emperor had bestowed upon him two pieces of calligraphy and once summoned him into court to play the zither and have tea, there was nonetheless not the slightest whisper of an engagement. Instead, Princess Nihuang, after being visited by Xia Dong, sent someone to deliver a letter to him. No one could understand what these people were up to.
The Crown Prince, who had been confined for reflection, was on his best behaviour, and although he could not publicly apologize to the Princess because the true reason for the prior events had been concealed, whenever the people of the Eastern Palace met their counterparts from the Mu household, they would bow and yield with extreme politeness, rendering the Mu household members, who had been brimming with fury, speechless instead, and so the relations between the two households did not publicly deteriorate. Noble Consort Yue also milked her suffering for all it was worth, and her speedy transformation into a wan, sallow aging woman stirred up pity in the Emperor’s heart, and his anger was no longer as great as it had been previously.
It was at this time, when events seemed to have slowed to a stop, that Su Zhe, who had become famous in the capital, leisurely chose a fine, sunny day, and invited several of his young friends to accompany him out.
Mottled white walls and crumbled ledges with the occasional gap in the walls, on which crawled a splendid mess of rose and ivy vines surrounded them. Looking around, wild grass and half-dried lotus ponds filled the view as far as the eye could see, along with collapsed rock gardens and promenades covered in spider webs. Only the outer wall, which was built along the sloping grounds, still stood firmly, surrounding this little manor which had been neglected for far too long. In the middle of the manor, there seemed to be a silhouette of a curved flowerbed, which no longer held any flowers, but was instead overrun by weeds on yellow, withered soil.
It was on this wasted ground that several people stood in splendid clothing, forming quite a contrast to their surroundings, as they looked around, as if in admiration of the desolate view.
“If it were not for the fact that you can see the spire of Chongyin Tower if you look up, I really wouldn’t know where I am….” The speaker was the son of the Imperial Uncle, who stood handsomely with his fan despite the fact that it was winter. “I never thought there was such a desolate place in the city of Jinling. Brother Su, how did you find this place?”
“I did not find it myself,” The young man who replied smiled ruefully. “I only found an estate business and said I was looking to buy a manor in the city, and their boss recommended this place, and said it was very good….”
“Very good….” Xie Bi echoed the two words, looking around dazedly, his gaze stopping at the half-collapsed flowerbed not far away.
“He said it was very good and you believed him? Didn’t you look at the place before you paid? Or is Jiangzuo Alliance really so rich nowadays?” Ya Yujin fired off his questions, expressing his disapproval.
“I…I sent Fei Liu over for a look, he said it was very good too….”
“Very good…” The echo came again, and Fei Liu’s figure flew by and disappeared into the maze of collapsed rock gardens, where he seemed to be playing with keen interest.
Yan Yujin crossed his arms and fixed his gaze on the refined gentleman. Buying a house through an estate business and only sending a child over for a look before paying, this was how the qilin prodigy worked? He really was different from normal people….
“Really, this place isn’t too bad,” Mei Changsu smiled. “At least the location is good, and is overall appropriate, and as it has not been lived in for awhile, it’s no surprise that it has deteriorated to this degree. I have only to have it cleaned up a bit, and it will be quite beautiful, and anyway, Fei Liu likes it too…don’t you think so, Jingrui?”
The person who had not spoken a word until now gave an affirmative “Ng,” as if in agreement.
“What?” Xie Bi came closer. “It’s obvious Brother Su has been tricked into buying this place, so why do you look even more dismayed than he does?”
Yan Yujin glanced over at his friend, and did not join Xie Bi in teasing him as he had so often done before, but continued slowly hitting his closed fan against his palm, and wandered a few steps away, as if to inspect the manor more closely, but he had not gone far when, with a sudden “Oh!”, he disappeared.
Everyone jumped in fright and ran over to the place where he had mysteriously vanished, and Xiao Jingrui’s agility being the best, he naturally arrived first, shouting all the while, “Yujin! Yujin!”
“Here…” A muffled voice drifted up from below ground. “Give me a hand up….”
After Xiao Jingrui had pulled him up by the wrist, the son of the Imperial Uncle’s splendid robes were caked with dark soil and withered grass, and as Xiao Jingrui brushed him off, the air filled with dust.
“It’s a dried up well, looks rather cold and dark….” Xie Bi carefully pulled aside the grass obscuring the mouth of the well and peered down. “The well platform has completely eroded, it’s no wonder you didn’t notice it…”
“It’s a good thing I was quick and caught the edge,” Yan Yujin brushed at the grass stems in his hair, looking unhappy. “What terrible luck!”
Xiao Jingrui said thoughtfully, “It’s good luck that it was you who fell, if it was Brother Su, he definitely wouldn’t have caught hold of anything, and would have fallen straight to the bottom….”
Yan Yujin gritted his teeth and looked at his ungrateful wretch of a best friend, and said angrily, “What do you mean it was good luck that it was me who fell? You heartless….”
Mei Changsu had also come over to help him brush off the dirt, and asked warmly, “Are you injured?”
“No, no, how could an expert like me be so easily injured?” Yan Yujin laughed and waved his arm carelessly.
“That’s true,” Xie Bi nodded his agreement seriously. “He’s very good at hanging off objects in mid-air, you could often find him dangling in the air back in those days in Shuren Court….”
Fei Liu had also appeared at some point, and was staring with wide eyes at Yan Yujin, who was looking quite pitiful indeed.
“It’s difficult to know what dangers there are in a desolate yard like this, we had better walk on the stone path on our way out,” Xiao Jingrui warned, and then turned to look at Mei Changsu. “Brother Su, you should walk in our footsteps.”
“You are being too careful,” Xie Bi said with a smile. “However bad this place is, it still cannot be not full of wells.”
“One cannot be too careful.” Mei Changsu smilingly spoke up for Xiao Jingrui. “Although the wild grass is dense, if Yujin had been more careful, he might not have lost his footing. The ground is uneven here and has been covered by grass, it would indeed be better to return by the main path.”
The words of seniors have their weight, and after his suggestion, everyone returned to the main path, and slowly continued on to the areas they had not yet seen, but no matter where they went, the manor was just as desolate. The courtyard was not large, and they quickly arrived at the back door, which was closed firmly with a thick steel lock. Aside from Fei Liu, no one wanted to walk back through the courtyard, so Xie Bi, who was in front, stretched out a hand to pull the door open, but as soon as he pulled, the entire door came loose.
“Good heavens, it’s deteriorated to such a state, I suppose only those brick buildings are still acceptable.” Yan Yujin shook his head. “There isn’t a single place that doesn’t need fixing….”
“The doors and windows of the buildings also need changing, even if they have not rotted, they are far too filthy.” Xie Bi added, “Brother Su, how could someone like you live in such a crude manor? I hear there’s a good place in the eastern part of the city….”
“Never mind,” Mei Changsu cut him off with a smile. “The money has been paid, what more is there to say? As Yujin said, our Jiangzuo Alliance isn’t wealthy enough to buy a few manors in the capital and have them sit empty.”
Xie Bi added hurriedly, “You would not need to pay for the manor in the eastern part of the city, His Highness said….”
“Xie Bi,” Xiao Jingrui sounded a bit fed up. “Brother Su will handle this himself, why are you saying so much?”
Xie Bi was getting angry too, and was about to retort when Mei Changsu slipped in between the two and said with a playful smile, “Even if this manor isn’t good, I have already bought it, and I must live in it no matter what, or my brothers in the alliance would scold me for spending money recklessly, and you don’t want to see me receive a scolding, do you?” As he spoke, he pondered which ‘Highness’ Xie Bi had meant.
“I’m afraid it will be at least a month before this manor is fit to be lived in.” Yan Yujin smiled. “But Brother Su has said he is in no hurry, and Jingrui doesn’t want you to move out so soon either, look, we’ve only come out to see the place today and he already looks so unhappy.”
Xiao Jingrui bit his lip and did not counter Yan Yujin’s words, but thought for a long moment and then finally asked slowly, “Brother Su, are you really…moving out?”
“I think I will be staying in the capital for awhile, and if I continued to take advantage of your hospitality, I would not feel comfortable.” Mei Changsu’s questioning glance was gentle, but he spoke with his normal courtesy.
“Snow Cottage is our guest cottage and doesn’t affect the main residence, what disturbance would it be?” Xiao Jingrui said with melancholy.
Mei Changsu smiled faintly. “I know the Marquis and the Grand Princess would not mind, but it is still not too convenient….”
Although his words were simple, they hid a deeper meaning. No one present was stupid, and remembering that he would eventually become an important adviser of one of the palaces, they understood what he meant by the inconvenience, and silence fell over the group.
“Moving out is good too, and anyway it’s not far. As for me, coming here to visit Brother Su is even more convenient then going over to the Xie residence.” After a moment, Yan Yujin’s joyful laugh broke the solemn atmosphere. “But although this place isn’t big, it is still a whole manor, how could you and Fei Liu live here alone? You should find some servants and guards.”
“I’ve never liked being waited on, and Fei Liu has always taken care of himself. But we do need some people to take care of the place, and that won’t be difficult to arrange…. As for guards, there’s Fei Liu for one, and for another, I have some friends staying in the capital at the moment, and can invite them here as guests.”
Xiao Jingrui remembered that Yan Yujin had mentioned that the four expert fighters who had escorted them to the capital had not left, and understood, and though he still felt a little upset, he was also greatly relieved.
“It would be good to have a few more people, but…” Who knew what Yan Yujin was thinking, as he grinned mischievously. “Such a forsaken place like this may be full of goblins and witches. Brother Su, you and your friends must be careful in the future, if you ever see a beautiful woman knocking on your window in the middle of the night, you must stand firm, and avoid even opening the window for a closer look, in case your soul is stolen away.”
“Psh,” Xie Bi scoffed, “If you don’t even take a look, how would you know it’s a beautiful woman?”
“If an evil spirit can change its appearance, of course it would choose a pretty one, otherwise if it chose the looks of the Minister of Appointments, Minister Sun, then it might as well just keep its original appearance.”
The whole capital knew of the coarse features of the Minister of Appointments, Minister Sun, and the young masters Xiao and Xie thought of his appearance and couldn’t contain their laughter, though Xie Bi scolded through his smiles, “Judging people by their appearances, how cruel of you! You think you’re so handsome, but what has Minister Sun done to you?”
Yan Yujin huffed and threw open his fan dashingly and gave it a wave, turning to face the wall with a pleased look on his face. “Spirits and goblins, listen well, if you must change your shape, then take on my appearance, and I guarantee you will be praised for being handsome and elegant….”
His words would have been amusing any day, but especially at this moment when, although his face was handsome, his entire body was covered in soil, his hair a tangled mess of grass and roots, and his appearance so far from being handsome and elegant that it should rather have been described as a wind-blown chicken’s nest, his two friends couldn’t help bending over in hysterical laughter, and even Mei Changsu turned his face away, his shoulders shaking gently.
“How could this enthralling manner of yours be learned in such a short time?” Xie Bi had laughed until he choked, and now spoke through his coughs. “You’d better ask Brother Su to clean up one of the cottages just for you, so you can come and stay a few days and let those gobins and spirits have a nice, long look….”
“I won’t keep talking to you,” Yan Yujin turned to Mei Changsu with a very serious expression. “Those two have been bullying me since I was young, I’m used to it.”
“Yes,” Mei Changsu nodded solemnly. “I also feel that they are bullying you.”
“Hurry up and go change your clothes,” Xiao Jingrui punched his friend in the arm, feeling his heart much lightened after this episode of laughter. “It wasn’t easy acquiring the reputation of the capital’s fanciest embroidered pillow, so you’d better hang on to that title.”
“Obviously, I’m beautiful both inside and out, alright? You envious man…” Yan Yujin sighed dramatically and brushed at his soiled clothing, but he had only just begun when his hands suddenly froze.
“What is it?” Mei Changsu immediately knew something was wrong, and asked hurriedly.
“My jade moon chain….”
“Ah?” Xiao Jingrui and Xie Bi both knew how precious his jade moon chain was to Yan Yujin, and both stepped forward. “Maybe you didn’t bring it out with you?”
“The jade moon chain was hung on this belt, and the belt was on my waist, so how could I not have brought it out with me? I felt it here before I came to find you guys….” As Yan Yujin spoke, his face grew pale.
Although Mei Changsu didn’t know what he was talking about, seeing the expressions of those present, he understood this was no ordinary object, and said quickly, “It must have fallen. We can retrace the steps you’ve taken today, and probably can still find it.”
“Yes, that’s right,” Xiao Jingrui added, patting his friend’s back comfortingly. “Even if we don’t find it today, don’t worry, with careful searching, we can certainly find it again.”
Yan Yujin’s heart was full of worry, and he didn’t say any more, but turned and jumped over the door that had fallen to the ground, returning to the ruined courtyard and began turning over grass and rocks as he carefully retraced his steps.
After Mei Changsu had quietly inquired after the appearance of the jade moon chain from Xiao Jingrui, the three also bent over the path and began looking closely. Fei Liu hung from a tree branch high up in the air, peering curiously down at this strange scene that he couldn’t make sense of.
The return journey through the desolate manor took almost two hours longer than their arrival, but despite carefully retracing their footsteps and leaving a mess in their wake, there was still no sign of the jade moon chain.
Finally, everyone straightened their aching backs, and their gazes fell as one onto a specific place.
The dried well covered by wild grass and rotting wood.
“It won’t be such a coincidence, would it?” Xie Bi said uneasily, “It would be difficult to search inside the well, even if there’s no longer any water, there’s probably still a thick layer of mud….”
Xiao Jingrui’s brow creased and he gave his younger brother a shove, then turned and patted Yan Yujin’s shoulder with a smile, then said lightly, “What’s so difficult about an old dried well? Let me go down, and I can definitely find it for you!”
“I can go down myself,” Yan Yujin understood his good intentions and returned a faint smile. “My clothes are already dirty anyway, what’s the point of dragging you through the mud as well….”
“Psh,” Xiao Jingrui half-jokingly gave him a punch. “They’re just clothes. It’s dark down there, and my night vision is better than yours, and anyway, isn’t the young master afraid of snakes? In this kind of dark and wet place, there will be plenty of snakes….”
At these words, both his brother and his friend rolled their eyes, and he was a bit confused, when Mei Changsu said quietly from the side, “Jingrui, it’s winter, snakes hibernate in the winter….”
“Never mind,” Xie Bi gave his brother a look. “I’ll go find some rope, no matter who goes down, he should be tied tightly.” As he spoke, he turned to leave, but was stopped by Mei Changsu.
“Fei Liu has already gone to find some, he is rather quick….” He had just finished his explanation when the youth’s shadow descended quickly, his hands clasping a coil of thick rope.
Xiao Jingrui grabbed it and wound one end around his own waist, and as Yan Yujin knew he was blind in the dark, he didn’t protest, but reached out to help him make sure the knots were tied tightly, and only said quietly, “Be careful.”
“Ng,” Xiao Jingrui promised, then turned to see Mei Changsu picking dried grass from the ground, and asked curiously, “Brother Su, what are you doing?”
“Making a small torch from dried grass and wood, so you can bring it down with you.”
“No need, I can see very well in the dark, they all say I’m like an owl.”
Mei Changsu gave a startled laugh, then shook his head. “It’s not to give you light, this well doesn’t look shallow, and the mouth has been covered by wild grass, so the air flow must be poor, and the air down below is probably foul and turbid, if the torch goes out down there, then you cannot stay long, or it will be easy to suffocate.”
The masters Yan and Xie were badly frightened, and hurriedly bent down to help pick wild grass, and the torch was quickly prepared. Mei Changsu took out a small flint stone from Fei Liu’s person and lit the torch, then handed it to Xiao Jingrui, who was slowly lowered into the mouth of the well. Xie Bi and Yan Yujin held onto the rope tightly, letting it slowly down, while Mei Changsu knelt by the mouth of the well, following the descent of the bright light.
Since the jade moon chain was an ornament hung from the waist, it was naturally quite small, and although Xiao Jingrui had gone down for quite some time, he only kept calling for them to let him down further, as if he had not found anything yet.
“Stop, I’ve reached the bottom, the mud is really quite thick.” A while later, Xiao Jingrui’s voice drifted up from the bottom of the well, echoing against the mossy walls and coming out slightly distorted. “It’s difficult to search down here, it might take me awhile, and the torch is just about used up so if you see it go out, don’t worry….”
“But…” Yan Yujin bit his lip, worried, and was about to continue when an arm fell across his shoulder, and he turned to see Mei Changsu’s smiling eyes.
“Don’t worry, the torch has been burning steadily all along, it should be fine.”
Looking into that knowing gaze, Yan Yujin couldn’t help lowering his eyes, saying quietly, “Jingrui…has always loved being clean….”
“It is only the mud of the well, and will easily wash off,” Mei Changsu smiled. “He doesn’t mind, what are you minding for? Is the jade moon chain very important to you?”
“Ng,” Yan Yujin nodded. “It’s an heirloom handed down in my family, my grandfather gave it to me before he died….”
“So,” Mei Changsu was still smiling faintly, “Finding something important to his friend is also very important to Jingrui.”
Yan Yujin looked at him for a moment and suddenly smiled, then crawled to the edge of the well and called down in a loud voice, “Jingrui – since you have this rare chance to do a favour for me, you better look hard down there – ”
“Damn you!” The cheerful curse drifted up from below. “Just wait ’til I get out and shower you in mud!”
Mei Changsu couldn’t restrain his smile, and Xie Bi also shook his head with a grin, and the mood lightened considerably. After a long while, there still seemed to be no sign of success.
“Jingrui, if you can’t find it, just come back up, there’s no need to stay down there….” Yan Yujin called.
“A bit longer….” Xiao Jingrui’s voice echoed up, but the sound had not yet faded when suddenly shook, and a surprised “Oh!” sounded from below.
“What is it?” Yan Yujin was terrified, and leaned half his body into the well, shouting loudly, “Jingrui! Jingrui!”
A reply came from somewhere down the well: “I’m alright….”
“Then what did you do that for, you scared me to death!” Yan Yujin couldn’t help scolding, and turned to say to Xie Bi, “Let’s pull him up!”
“Wait,” Xiao Jingrui hurriedly stopped them, “There are still some places I missed, I’ll be done soon….”
Mei Changsu quietly added, “Don’t worry, if there’s anything wrong, Jingrui would tell us. Since he’s gone down, he might as well have a careful look.”
Yan Yujin’s brow furrowed as he sat down again by the mouth of the well, and a few moments passed before he heard the voice call again, “Pull me up!”
Coming up was naturally much easier than going down, and in the blink of an eye, Xiao Jingrui’s head emerged, his body predictably covered in mud, and both arms covered in soil as well.
Yan Yujin silently grasped one of his hands and brushed roughly at the dirt with the inner side of his robes. It was Xie Bi who finally asked, “Did you find it?”
Xiao Jingrui raised his other blackened hand, which had been tightened into a fist, and slowly opened it to reveal a hard, moon-shaped object covered in mud.
“Oh, it really did fall in there.” Xie Bi pulled out a handkerchief from his sleeve and wiped the jade moon chain clean, then returned it to Yan Yujin, who glanced at it before slipping it into his pocket.
“I’m glad you found it, and now you two smelly monsters can go back for a bath!” Xie Bi let out a sigh and slapped them both on the back.
“Brother,” Xiao Jingrui turned his head, his gaze serious. “We will go back and bathe, but I must trouble you to make a run to the Capital Magistrate Office.”
“The Capital Magistrate Office? What for?” Xie Bi didn’t understand.
“To report a case. I saw down in the mud of the well…there were human skeletons….”
“What?” Everyone was shocked. Yan Yujin said in a hush, “When you cried out just then, was that when you found the bones?”
“Then why didn’t you come up right away?!”
“I saw just then a glint of green in the grass on the other side. The jade moon chain is so small, if I came out then and let others go in to remove the remains, it would be covered and lost, so I wanted to find it first, and luckily, I did.”
“Stupid!” Yan Yujin scolded through gritted teeth. “It must smell so bad, hurry and go bathe.”
“Human remains in a dried well…” Xie Bi’s face had slowly become pale. “Even hearing the words is terrifying. You really have some guts, to stay down there for so long…if it were me, I’d have climbed out right away….”
“Can you compare to Jingrui? After all, he’s half a jianghu man!” Yan Yujin had quickly found a new object of attack.
“Yes, and I’m only a useless man of the court!” Xie Bi replied self-mockingly, then shrugged. “Let’s go, Brother Su.”
Xiao Jingrui looked at him strangely. “Where are you taking Brother Su?”
“To report the case to the Magistrate Office!”
“Can’t you go by yourself?”
Xie Bi raised an eyebrow. “Big brother, this manor has been bought by Brother Su, it would be best if he reported the case in person, no?”
“Xie Bi is right,” Mei Changsu’s gaze drifted over to the well hidden amongst the wild grass. “I should really go myself.”
Xiao Jingrui thought about it and saw the logic, and anyway he was extremely uncomfortable in his current dirty and smelly attire, and didn’t say anymore. The five split into two groups, and each went their own way after leaving the manor.