“The famed swordsmanship of Tuoba is truly sharp as the winds of the desert, and powerful as the waves of the sea,” Meng Zhi paid the compliment solemnly, but his tone grew cold again as he said, “But General Tuoba must still answer the question I raised before – why have you come here to the capital of our nation?”
Tuoba Hao’s cold gaze fell onto Mei Changsu, as he replied, “My country’s embassy came with the good intent of a marriage request, but now one of our strongest warriors has gone missing, when has your noble nation given us an explanation?”
“You mean that Baili Qi?” Although Meng Zhi knew the truth behind Baili Qi’s disappearance, his face betrayed no sign of it. “He walks on his own two feet, how could we know where he has gone? If General Tuoba feels he has the right to demand an explanation from our country, why not come with the credentials of a diplomat and ask openly?”
“Hmph, you people of Da Liang have always been skilled orators, no good would come of such questions. I only wanted to come to see what kind of person could make Baili Qi ashamed to return to his own country.”
The corner of Mei Changsu’s mouth curled as he said, “And has General Tuoba’s method of ‘seeing people’ always involved baseless accusations and cracking open the roofs of palanquins?”
Tuoba Hao said proudly, “I never regret the things I have done, and since I have offended Mister Su, say what you want me to do, but say it openly.”
“Of course we…” Meng Zhi was about to say that of course they would first have to arrest him and go from there, but suddenly feeling Mei Changsu pinch his waist, he reacted quickly and continued, “Of course we should let Mister Su, whom you attacked, decide what to do….”
Hearing these strange words, Tuoba Hao couldn’t help being surprised, and his gaze turned again to Mei Changsu. Whether by rank or by age, the person with the right to make the decisions should have been Meng Zhi, could it be that this Su Zhe’s position in Da Liang was so unusual that even the commander of the imperial guard would listen to him?
“The commander has given me another difficult task.” Mei Changsu took in Tuoba Hao’s expression at a glance and understood why he was surprised, and couldn’t help smiling, but continued lightly, “General Tuoba’s sword only fractured the roof of the palanquin and did not hurt anyone, and he did his best not to harm the servants and guards, choosing not to use any of his killing strokes, which shows that he had no intention to cause any real trouble. But as for the matter of Baili Qi, I truly know nothing, and if he decided on his own to leave, how could the General have so easily found this out in so short a time?”
Tuoba Hao was not unintelligent, and immediately understood the meaning behind Mei Changsu’s words. He had come to find Su Zhe for the sake of Northern Yan‘s reputation, and not because he wanted to get to the bottom of Baili Qi’s disappearance, and so he took his cue from him and replied, “Since Mister Su says he knows nothing, I have no reason not to believe him. Please do not worry, I will immediately leave Jinling, and will be back in my country within ten days, and will not stop anywhere on my way.”
“Good!” Meng Zhi said in a deep voice. “I believe General Tuoba is a man of his word. As such, we will part here, and meet again in the future!”
Although Mei Changsu had already expressed his intention to let him go, Tuoba Hao had not expected Meng Zhi to agree so readily, and his preparation to undergo an intense battle in order to leave was in vain, and he stood stunned for a moment. But he knew that, since his identity had been exposed, he could not stay in Jinling a moment longer than necessary, so he quickly regained his composure, clasped his fist in farewell, and did not waste any more words, but turned and disappeared from view.
When he felt from the air that this Northern Yan master had really gone away, Meng Zhi bent to examine the wounded on the ground and discovered that they had only fainted, and had not come to any great harm, and then finally, he turned and pulled Mei Changsu to one side, asking quietly, “Why did you let him go?”
Mei Changsu gave him a look. “Is the commander confident that you could have captured him alive?”
“Well…it would probably have come to a difficult fight…but as he said, this is my territory, and it is not a jianghu duel, so I would not have needed to go against him on my own.”
“And after you have captured him, what then?” Mei Changsu spoke indifferently. “Kill him, or imprison him indefinitely?”
Meng Zhi had not thought about how to handle the situation, and hesitated.
“He is one of the great generals of Northern Yan, a beloved minister of the Yan Emperor, and whether you kill him or imprison him, neither the Yan Emperor nor the head of the Tuoba clan would sit by and do nothing. And then, for the sake of one Tuoba Hao, if the two nations came to war and the border comes under threat, who will be sent to defend it?” Mei Changsu sighed. “It wouldn’t be the Crown Prince or Prince Yu, would it?”
“Oh,” Meng Zhi understood. “That’s right, at that time, of course we cannot let Prince Jing be sent away to lead the troops….”
Mei Changsu turned his gaze towards the direction in which Tuoba Han had disappeared, a faint expression of annoyance drifting across his face, and his brows furrowed as he said coldly, “I have not met him in battle before, and do not know what his military tactics are like. Someday, when such a chance arises, I will take the opportunity to try my hand against him.”
“Not bad,” Meng Zhi smiled. “It would be immensely satisfying to meet such a person in battle. When the time comes, don’t forget to let me lead your vanguard.”
Mei Changsu smiled back at him, the momentary fierceness disappearing as he resumed his customary calm, quiet air, and then he turned his head and asked, “Weren’t you summoned into the palace? Why did you think to come back?”
“That messenger was an impostor, I found out on the road, and realized it was a plot to lure the tiger away from the mountain, and so hurried back, and thankfully you hadn’t come to any harm….”
“An impostor?” Mei Changsu’s long brows furrowed.
“Yes, his acting skills really weren’t bad, even I mistook him for one of my men, and so he fooled me at first. If I had not suddenly thought to ask him to do something for me, I would not have realized the trick until I arrived at the palace gates.”
Mei Changsu took a few steps forward, and pressed the tips of his fingers together, seeming to be in deep thought. A moment later, he turned back and said firmly, “Meng dage, you must enter the palace immediately and report your meeting with Tuoba Hao to the Emperor.”
“Oh? Why? Haven’t we already let him go?”
“It is precisely because we have let him go that you must go to court and report it, and also plead for forgiveness.” Mei Changsu’s eyes were fathomless and dark. “Because, if you do not report it, there will soon be someone arriving before the Emperor to accuse you of smuggling one of the high ministers of another nation in and out of the capital.”
“How? Would Tuoba Hao be so careless as to be caught on his way out?” Meng Zhi was astonished. “And how would you know?”
“Meng dage, do you think that the person who masqueraded as an imperial messenger was sent by Tuoba Hao to lead you away from me?”
“Was he not?” Meng Zhi thought about it carefully, and gradually understood. If he knew that the Emperor had a habit of summoning people to court without warning, and knew who among the imperial guard was responsible for passing along imperial commands, and could copy that person’s appearance and actions so well that he had fooled even Meng Zhi, then this person had an intimate knowledge of many different aspects of Jinling, and could not be an outsider like Tuoba Hao, who had only been in the capital for a few days. It was already no simple task for Tuoba Hao to have found out that Su Zhe would be going out today and to hide in wait for him on the road he would take on his return journey.
Mei Changsu saw his expression and knew he had understood, and continued, “What I have concluded is this: someone was waiting to attack while I was out, but was afraid of the consequences if you stayed by my side, and so came up with a plan to lure you away. But they did not expect Tuoba Hao to turn up so suddenly and disrupt their plans, and before they had a chance to react, you had discovered the trick and hurried back. And so in the end, these people have not dared to show their faces. But even if they have not drawn near, Tuoba Hao’s swordsmanship is too frightening, and we cannot take the risk that they have not noticed everything that has happened. So you must hurry ahead, and report these things to His Majesty.”
“Ng,” Meng Zhi rubbed the stubble of beard on his chin and nodded. “His Majesty has no ill intent against the Northern Yan at the moment, and as you say, if Tuoba Hao had been publicly arrested, it would have been difficult for the court. Forcing him to leave Jinling quickly actually causes the least amount of trouble, so His Majesty should not punish me for acting of my own accord.”
“This is only if you return immediately and report everything to him. If it seems as if you released him in secret, then no matter what you say, the Emperor would be suspicious.” Mei Changsu pushed at his shoulder. “Stop lingering, go quickly.”
“But the people here….”
“It’s about time for them to wake, Fei Liu and I will wait here a bit and then return ourselves.”
“That’s no good, what if those lying in wait for you have left yet, what then?”
Mei Changsu looked at him, a little amused, and said quietly, “Commander, do you really think you are the only protection I have in Jinling? Don’t worry, nothing will happen to me.”
Meng Zhi stared blankly for a moment, then laughed, embarrassed. He had never been a person to make a great fuss, and so, after hearing Mei Changsu’s words, he didn’t delay any longer, but said, “see you later,” and flew away.
Mei Changsu took Fei Liu with him as he inspected the people lying on the ground, ordering the youth to press a few of their vital meridian points. Tuoba Hao had not wanted to truly hurt anyone in Da Liang, and he had been careful with his attacks, and so soon, they had all regained consciousness. It was not far to the Xie residence, and so Mei Changsu did not let them bear him again on the palanquin, but leaned on Fei Liu and walked by himself to the gate of the manor, where he turned and dismissed all of Meng Zhi’s guards.
It had left in good shape but returned like this, and Xie Bi stared at the roof-less palanquin for a long while in a daze before thinking to ask Mei Changsu what had happened.
As for the people who had lured Meng Zhi away to strike against himself, Mei Changsu did not even need to investigate to know that they were connected with the Crown Prince. After all, since he had arrived in Jinling, the only ones he had truly offended were the Crown Prince’s people; since Prince Yu still dreamed of acquiring the qilin prodigy, it was unlikely that he would resort to murder at this point in time. He supposed the Crown Prince had finally discovered his role in the Princess’ rescue, and had given up any hope of recruiting him to the Eastern Palace, and so had succumbed to this ‘if I can’t have him then I’ll destroy him’ mentality.
And if this was the Crown Prince’s brushstroke, then it must be related to Xie Yu, and perhaps the route the palanquin-bearers of the Xie residence had taken had also been planned in advance, or the false imperial messenger would not have so easily found Meng Zhi among the vast, numerous streets of Jinling. But faced with Xie Bi’s worried inquiries and seeing his reaction to his own simple explanation, the young man truly seemed to have no idea of the plot and trap behind the day’s events. And from his observations of Xie Bi so far, Mei Changsu could be almost certain, given Prince Yu’s intelligence, the reason that Prince Yu had never once doubted Xie Bi’s loyalty was because this heir of the Marquis of Ning truly believed that his father wanted him to support Prince Yu, and so his speech and his actions were all genuine. In other words, Xie Bi didn’t know that his father was using him to keep a foot in both boats in order to secure a good future no matter what the outcome.
Thinking of the depth of Xie Yu’s cunning, that he would so callously use even the son he loved most, a chill grew in Mei Changsu’s heart, and now, faced with Xie Bi’s questions, he grew warm with sympathy.
“Is there really no hint we can pursue to find out who did these things?” Xie Bi could not know the thoughts passing through Brother Su’s mind, but was thinking very seriously. “Not even a single person was caught?”
“When Commander Meng appeared, who dared to linger? Naturally, they were all scared away.” Mei Changsu smiled wearily. “Let him investigate, I won’t bother.”
“But the attack was aimed at you,” Xie Bi continued hurriedly, “How about I go tell His Highness Prince Yu, and ask him….”
“No need.” Mei Changsu’s firm gaze fell onto Xie Bi, stopping him. “A case like this with no lead, no good will come of investigating it, and we will not catch the true masterminds anyway. I will be more careful in the future, that’s all.”
Xie Bi thought dazedly for a long moment, then blurted out, “Could it be….”
Mei Changsu cut him off, and said, closing his eyes, “Xie Bi, I’m a bit tired, and want to rest for awhile. When Jingrui comes back and finds out about this, please help me tell him what happened, I don’t want to repeat it all again.”
Xie Bi looked at his pale skin and withered appearance, and knew that he was not lying about being tired, and so did not bother him any further, but said quietly, “Brother Su, rest well,” and slowly left Snow Cottage.