“This one!” A large, oval pear drifted into view, looking plump and moist and very tasty.
“Why give me this one?” Mei Changsu smiled at the youth.
“The biggest one is for Su gege?”
Mei Changsu’s gaze skipped to the side and seeing Meng Zhi, who was sitting to one side, raise his cup to his lips, he smiled to himself and asked loudly, “Fei Liu, tell Su gege, what colour is this kind of pear?”
Meng Zhi spat out his mouthful of water with a “Phoo!” and stared at Fei Liu, coughing vigorously. “Dark…dark what?”
Fei Liu gave a dismissive “Hmph!” and turned his head away, ignoring him.
“You know, our Fei Liu is very talented at inventing new words.” Mei Changsu’s gaze was full of warmth as he gently ruffled Fei Liu’s hair, and Fei Liu, sensing his affection, leaned over and held out the pear again.
“Fei Liu, these can’t be eaten now,” Mei Changsu said, still smiling. “These are frozen pears.”
“We freeze them so that they can keep longer, and when we want to eat them, we have to first let them sit for awhile and grow warm again, otherwise we won’t be able to bite into them.”
Fei Liu’s eyes widened, and he looked at the pear in his left hand, then at the one in his right, and finally raised the smaller one to his mouth, bit into it, and froze, stunned.
“Can’t bite into it, eh?” Meng Zhi had recovered by this time, and came over, saying, “You have to soak them in water to warm them up, so that they grow soft enough to eat.”
Fei Liu processed these words for a few moments, and then suddenly disappeared.
“Actually, that pear isn’t the biggest I’ve seen.” Meng Zhi shook his head. “Isn’t the biggest sphere-shaped object in the capital at the moment the head of Capital Magistrate Gao Sheng?”
Mei Changsu couldn’t help laughing. “Meng dage certainly has an amusing way with words. Even if Officer Gao had not come across these troublesome matters, wouldn’t his head still be larger than a pear?”
Meng Zhi couldn’t hold back a laugh either. “You’re one to talk, you bring two such difficult cases to him, yet you yourself are keeping idle. Watching you tease Fei Liu, I know you are in a good mood today.”
The two were currently in an elegant little tea house in the southern part of the city, which was near the main streets, but not too noisy, and each tea room was its own single bamboo building, decorated tastefully.
Ever since the ‘corpses in the well’ case had been reported to the court, everyone in Jinling knew two things. One, there were corpses in the well in Lan Manor¹, and two, the newly famous Su Zhe was looking for a residence.
Lan Manor was an abandoned wasteland, and now had become the scene of a vicious crime, and therefore was certainly no longer fit to live in, so Su Zhe needed to buy a new residence. And so, no matter whether it was because they wanted to take the opportunity to make his acquaintance, or because they genuinely wanted to make a helpful recommendation, or because they simply had a residence for sale, the number of offers pouring in with possible manors for sale were too many to count. But as he was still staying at the Xie residence, most of the inconvenience was shouldered by Xie Bi, and Mei Changsu had only so far visited the ones recommended by the Yunnan Mu family and Xia Dong, and so this was only his third such outing.
“What do you think about the residence I chose?” Meng Zhi asked, leaning closer.
Mei Changsu glanced back at him. “Is it possible that you are really planning to sell me this place?”
Meng Zhi grinned playfully. “It does kind of seem like I’m rushing to build relations with a new celebrity, but you have really given me a lot of face, being willing to come out personally with me for a tour.”
“What kind of prestige does Commander Meng carry, that I would dare not to give you face? You saw how natural Xie Bi thought it was when I accepted your invitation today; if I had refused you, how shocked do you think he would have been?” Mei Changsu smiled back. “Not to mention, the bit of fame I have acquired in the capital, isn’t it all due to that fight between you and Fei Liu? Although it was not my arrangement, it was nonetheless an unexpected gain.”
“This child Fei Liu is truly a wonder, I haven’t seen him for a few days, and he seems to have improved already. I hear he even defeated Xia Dong recently?”
“Ng,” Mei Changsu made a noise of agreement, as if he didn’t care much. “He is a calm child, and so naturally picks up martial skills quickly and easily. But he is still young, and his inner strength is not yet pure enough, and so when he comes up against such experts such as yourself, it would be difficult for him not to lose.”
“That’s no problem, he still has plenty of time to train.” Meng Zhi picked up his tea cup, and asked a second time, “What do you think about the manor I picked?”
Mei Changsu thought for a moment. “I can tell it was picked by you.”
“You shouldn’t be so mean, even though I don’t know much about estates and aesthetics, I know you, which is why I spent so much effort finding you this place, shouldn’t you be a little grateful?”
“That’s what I meant,” Mei Changsu looked at him kindly. “Meng dage, you are really the one who understands what I want.”
Meng Zhi had originally been feeling quite satisfied with himself and proud of his work, but now, faced with such blunt words of gratitude, he was a bit embarrassed, and he scratched his head, saying, “I do know the scenery of this manor isn’t the best….”
“The scenery will have to be redone, otherwise people will wonder why I managed to pick this manor out of the hundreds and thousands I was given to choose from. But its one advantage is better than ten manors with beautiful scenery. Meng dage, you have truly outdone yourself.”
“I really didn’t put any special effort into it,” Meng Zhi was still a bit embarrassed. “I was only wandering around aimlessly when I discovered it myself, that the back wall of this manor is less than a hundred feet away from the back manor of Prince Jing’s residence, with the intervening space being shaded ground surrounded by thick forest, and in addition, the main doors of these two manors open onto difference streets, so the two residences seem to be in different areas of the city entirely, and it is really not easy to realize that they are actually located so close to each other. Xiao Shu, don’t you have people who are skilled at construction? Once you’ve moved in, you can build a secret passage between the back courtyards of your and Prince Jing’s manors, and then even if you do not meet in public, he can come through the hidden passage at night secretly for your private meetings²….”
Mei Changsu looked helplessly at the first-ranked martial arts expert of Da Liang, and didn’t know whether to laugh or cry. “That is indeed a good suggestion, but can you not pick up Fei Liu’s manner of using words? Private meetings?”
“Close enough³…” Meng Zhi thought for a moment, and then asked, “So you don’t intend to make your declaration public? After the matter with the Princess last time, the Crown Prince will realize sooner or later that it was you who destroyed him with one blow. He is not a tolerant person, and will probably try to take revenge on you, so hadn’t you better pretend to join Prince Yu’s side for now, and at least benefit from his protection so you won’t have to suffer both sides as your enemy?”
“Don’t worry, they are both busy at the moment, and don’t have time to deal with me.” A cold smile drifted across Mei Changsu’s face. “It is said that those who only defend will always lose4. Since Prince Yu has used the ‘corpses in the well’ case to attack the Minister of Revenue, Lou Zhijing, the Crown Prince must naturally hold on equally tightly to He Wenxin’s case. I think…He Jingzhong will definitely find a way to raise his son’s murder case to the Ministry of Justice for re-sentencing.”
“The Ministry of Justice is Prince Yu’s backyard, can the Crown Prince compete?”
“Prince Yu has the upper hand, it’s true, but He Wenxin’s case is much too black and white, and with the Earl of Wen’s fury roused, it will be difficult for the Ministry of Justice to tamper with the case.”
“You must be happy to see them turning on each other.” Meng Zhi saw Mei Changsu tucking his hands into his sleeve and hurriedly pushed the small brazier closer to him. “But even if the Crown Prince manages to sentence He Wenxin to death, in the end, it is still not He Jingzhong himself who must die, and to Prince Yu, there is no great loss.”
Mei Changsu smiled meaningfully and answered lightly, “If he knew how to restrain his subordinates from going too far, then He Wenxin’s case would not do him much harm…. His greatest weakness right now still falls on the head of the old Duke of Qing.”
Meng Zhi hit his fist against his thigh. “That’s right, I wanted to ask you about this. I thought, with Xia Dong’s return to the capital, she would have already gathered most of the evidence, so why has there been no word of the ‘land infringement’ case up until now, what is the Emperor thinking?”
“He is thinking…about who he should appoint to manage this ‘land infringement’ case….”
Mei Changsu stretched out a hand and wrapped it around the brazier, his face calm, as if he was chatting about some idle matter. “The Emperor has to deal with this ‘land infringement’ case because this custom of powerful court officials taking over whatever land they like has been getting out of hand, and is starting to affect national affairs. But the question of who he should appoint to manage such an important case is a difficult one. I think he has not decided on a suitable person, and that’s why there has been no mention of this case so far.”
As the commander of the imperial guard, Meng Zhi was naturally not unintelligent, and after thinking it over, he nodded, and said, “That’s right, Xuanjing officers only have the right to investigate, but cannot pass judgement, and this case is so important that it can only be handled by the Executive Secretary Bureau, the Imperial Censor Office, and the High Bureau of Justice5…but….”
Mei Changsu laughed grimly. “His Majesty the Emperor knows in his heart that the three heads of these departments will judge the case, but without someone of neutral position and a strong will to oversee them, this ‘land infringement’ case will become a cat-fight, and his intention to use this case as an example and a warning against similar future incidents will be wasted.”
Meng Zhi frowned and sighed. “No wonder the Emperor is having trouble deciding, this is really a difficult situation.”
Mei Changsu looked at him. “So, it must fall to you to lift the Emperor’s burden.”
“Me?” Meng Zhi was taken aback. “What kind of solution could I come up with?”
“Of course there is a solution.” Mei Changsu wrapped his arms around the brazier, picked it up, and leaned back, the corner of his lip twitching. “You can suggest someone to the Emperor.”
Meng Zhi stood up abruptly. “What did you say?”
“No court official would be able to hold his own against those three heads, it must be someone of royal birth. If the Crown Prince was picked, he would raise such a fuss that this case would never be closed, and if Prince Yu was chosen, he would let it fade into the background and dissolve into nothing. Prince Jing has kept himself far from palace politics for many years, and has always been upright and outspoken, and only if he handled the case would it be able to achieve the purpose the Emperor intends.”
“But wouldn’t Prince Jing offend many people by taking on the case?”
“If he wants to enter into the fray, how can he avoid offending people? The important consideration is whether it is worth it.” Mei Changsu’s tone became light and cold. “This case is perfect: first, he will gain the love of the common people; second, it will raise his power and prestige; and third, it will showcase his ability and competence. Not to mention, if he offends some people, he will naturally gain the support of others. If he keeps standing off to the side, no one will remember he exists….”
Meng Zhi watched him closely for a long time then finally let out a long sigh. “Once you have made up your mind, you are never wrong. Nothing in this world is certain, and I know you have already prepared every step. But what if the Emperor doesn’t agree?”
“You are so sure?”
“He will, because he has no better option.” Mei Changsu tightened his mouth and swallowed the sigh that had slid to the edges of his lips.
Aside from there being no other choice, there was actually another reason. It was because the Emperor did not love Prince Jing very dearly, and so would not think or care about the difficulties Prince Jing would face in accepting this assignment, and thus, it would be easier for him to make up his mind.
And as for Prince Jing, this would be his first step onto the path of no return.
From this point on, there would be no turning back.
¹this seems to be the real name of the ‘wasted manor’ MCS & co visited in chapter 37 (the name is revealed by Gray Hawk in Chapter 38, but I only just realized it now lol). ‘Lan’ (蘭) means orchid.
²it has a seductive / sexual undertone, like ‘rendez-vous’
³LOL that one’s for all those MCS/XJY shippers out there – Meng Zhi’s on your side!
4similar meaning to “offense is the best defense”
5it’s very complicated but basically, all you need to know is these are official titles from Chinese historical times (a very specific time period corresponding to the time-setting of this novel) referring to certain highly ranked government departments of the court that serve basically directly under the Emperor, something like that.