When Mei Changsu left his residence, he had calculated that Prince Jing would have just about finished dealing with his military matters by the time he arrived, but when he entered Huying hall, he saw that it was filled with Prince Jing’s most capable subordinates, most of them familiar faces, although there were a few he did not recognize, and all of them renowned and accomplished veterans of his army. When Prince Jing entered, they all immediately clasped their hands in a salute.
“This is Su Zhe, Mister Su.” Prince Jing introduced him simply, then seemed to think for a moment before adding, “He is my friend…I ask you all to look after him in the future….”
“Yes sir!” Everyone answered together.
Mei Changsu smiled and bowed slightly in reply. Friend? Well, he could only say he was a friend, it was not as if he could announce to his subordinates, “He is my strategist.”
“Zhan Ying, I leave you in charge of the rest of the meeting,” Pringe Jing said to the general standing closest to him, before turning slowly back to Mei Changsu. “There is a meeting going on, I will accompany Mister Su to the study to talk.”
Mei Changsu nodded and the two walked out of the hall side by side onto the green-bricked main path. For some reason, they both remained silent as they walked, neither inclined to raise some topic to lighten the mood.
Actually, one did not have to pass by Huying hall to reach the study, and Mei Changsu knew that there was another path. But from the scene in Huying hall, it appeared as if his visitation request had arrived in the middle of their meeting and everyone present had been curious to have a look at this recently famous Su Zhe, and so Prince Jing had obliged by bringing him over on his arrival.
He wondered what impression his sickly appearance had given this group of fierce generals, as most people in the military tended to look down on those too delicate and weak to withstand physical hardship. That year, when Uncle Nie had first joined the Chiyan Army, hadn’t he too been dismissed by himself and Jingyan, until he had won several hard victories in a row for the army?
His gifted strategies had led to numerous victories against their enemies. This wise soul of the Chiyan Army always seemed to come up with strange and wondrous ways of using their troops, but the last words he had spoken in this world had been uncharacteristically simple.
“Xiao Shu, you must live….” He had said this as he thrust Lin Shu into the snow pit with all of his strength, a charred column of flame pressing down onto his thin shoulders. That pair of bright, clear eyes had held only hope, no hatred. Because, he had only wanted Lin Shu to live, and as for what he would do after he survived, Nie Zhen had held no demands.
But although the dead make no demands, the living cannot forget.
“Is Mister Su feeling unwell?” Prince Jing’s voice drifted over from one side. “You look very pale.”
“It’s nothing, it is only that I feel it is even colder today than it was yesterday.”
“Of course, today is the winter solstice.” Prince Jing looked as if he had thought of something, and waved a hand to summon a soldier standing guard a good distance away, ordering, “Bring a brazier to my study.”
The soldier bowed and left, and Mei Changsu said with a small smile, “Thank you.”
“I usually do not keep braziers in my study, and forgot that you become easily cold, and so overlooked this.” Prince Jing’s voice was calm. “I hear you moved into a new residence recently, please accept my congratulations and my apologies for not coming in person to wish you well.”
“Did Princess Nihuang mention this to Your Highness?”
“No, it was Jingning.”
“Oh,” Mei Changsu nodded, as if in sudden understanding. “No wonder I saw him in Huying hall just now.”
Prince Jing quickly turned his head and looked at him. “What did you say?”
“I mean Guan Zhen, is he now under your command?
Prince Jing’s eyes shone as he stared at Mei Changsu for a long moment, before he let out a breath. “You even know about this….”
“It was incredibly clever of Princess Jingning to bring Guan Zhen into your command. Neither the Crown Prince nor Prince Yu’s power is guaranteed, so she could not take the risk. Not to mention, Guan Zhen is not someone gifted at flattery and politics, and would not be of much use to either of them. Only here under Your Highness could prestige and honour be gained by strength alone. But…even if Your Highness took especial care of him, the distance between Guan Zhen and the Princess is too great, and Jingning is already seventeen, and cannot delay for much longer….”
“In a few days, I will send Guan Zhen to the northern mountains to eliminate the bandits and robbers in the area, and he can make his way up the ranks slowly.” Prince Jing gazed steadily ahead of him. “Guan Zhen also has a stubborn temper, and with this infatuation, he will not give up until the very last moment. Who can say whether it was fortunate or unfortunate for Jingning to have come across him?”
Prince Jing’s words were a lament rather than a question, and so Mei Changsu did no reply. After turning a corner, the study came into view, and the brazier had already been brought over, but it had clearly not been there for long and the coldness of the air within the room had not completely dissipated, so Mei Changsu found the chair nearest the brazier and sat down, but when he raised his head, he caught a glimpse of Prince Jing, whose gaze had just flitted across the old chair by the southern window, and a pain rose in his heart.
That was the place he had always used to sit in, but though objects did not change with time, people did, and even if he wanted to sit there now, he feared Jingyan would not allow it.
Once tea had been served and the customary courtesies observed, the conversation immediately turned to the topic at hand.
“Prince Yu hinted that I should find a way to indicate to you, in the matter of the ‘land infringement case’, you can act freely, and do not need to worry about him.”
Prince Jing replied coldly, “I was not planning to worry about him.”
“You received the imperial edict yesterday?” Mei Changsu continued unconcernedly, his tone still peaceful. “It has been a day, have you had any thoughts?”
“The evidence the Xuanjing Bureau has brought back is sufficient, and the case is not difficult to judge.” Prince Jing’s voice was cold and stern. “The Duke of Qing did not only indulge the practice, he is the main culprit.”
“But he is a first-ranked military official, and has the right to request for pardon.”
“The case involves the murder of three people, he will not be pardoned.”
“He has always been in the capital, and was not personally involved in the murders.”
“The village of the Zhu family, Tu village, have submitted his secret letter as evidence.”
“The secret letter was not in his own handwriting, but rather that of one of the old masters of his household.”
“I invited the old master over last night, and he had already confessed today, he wasn’t very stubborn.”
“Did you really invite him over so politely?” There was a look of approval in Mei Changsu’s eyes. “Your Highness was able to ascertain that this old master was the missing piece of the Xuanjing Officer’s evidence, and acted so swiftly and decisively to seize the opportunity – I stand in admiration.”
There was no trace of satisfaction in Prince Jing’s expression. “It is because the Duke of Qing thought that his secret letter had already been destroyed and did not know it had fallen into the hands of Xia Dong, or he would have long since killed the old master to silence him.”
“But has Your Highness considered that if the Duke of Qing’s case is dealt with severely, in many other areas in which blood has been shed, there will be numerous cases reported in imitation of this one? Previously, the provincial offices would refuse such cases, but now they would not dare, and do you have confidence in handling the great headache that will arise afterwards?”
“We counter soldiers with arms, and water with earth¹, is there anything that cannot be handled?”
Mei Changsu had come to visit today originally to encourage Prince Jing not to fear the difficulties ahead, but the way the conversation was going, it seemed that this person still retained his flaw of regarding dangerous terrain as if it were level ground, and so did not need his encouragement.
“Your Highness’ self-confidence is praiseworthy, but there are some aspects worth considering in dealing with the practical matters at hand,” Mei Changsu urged seriously. “The great noble houses have always kept apart, and had their own ways of handling matters, but that is because they have never come across a force against which they needed to unite. If Your Highness could show some subtle variation in the way you handle these different cases as they arise, and seem to favour some with a lighter sentence while punishing others with a heavier one, then the benefit will be distributed unevenly among the noble houses, and as no clear pattern can be found, they will not be able to form an alliance. You will be able to halt this trend of land infringement without inciting any great united resistance from the noble houses, and stabilize the peasants’ discontent while reducing the number of refugees, and so when everything concludes according to His Majesty’s wishes, then he will certainly take notice of your achievement.”
Hearing this, Xiao Jingyan looked shaken, and he was silent for a long moment before he said lowly, “Your words are truly inspired. I had only thought to treat everyone the same, and so perhaps would have not been able to achieve the desired results.”
Mei Changsu smiled, and then added, “Since Prince Yu wants to lend you a hand, don’t be too aloof, and when you come across claims against his people, you may choose one or two for a lighter sentence, as a show of gratitude.”
Prince Jing’s thick brow furrowed, and he said wonderingly, “He should be using all of his power to protect the Duke of Qing, why would he take this treasure of his and use it as a gesture of magnanimity to such a piece of rock as me?”
“Because he knows, this time, he cannot change His Majesty’s will.” Mei Changsu reached out his hands to the fire on the coals, a faint light shining in his eyes. “Without the Duke of Qing, and now knowing that Xie Yu has chosen the enemy’s camp, he cannot help feeling afraid. Right now, to him, you are very important.”
“In order to showcase my importance, you have gone to such lengths to remove the Duke of Qing and to expose Xie Yu.” Prince Yu scoffed. “I must really thank you.”
“What, Your Highness is not willing to count this service of mine?”
“It is only…I do not want people to think I am with Prince Yu…I do not want to stand beside the Crown Prince or Prince Yu….”
“Though I must cause you this grievance, I guarantee there will not be anything overly unacceptable for you to do. Besides, you have been suppressed for so many years, people should be able to understand….”
“I do not care about the opinions of people in this world,” Prince Jing gritted his teeth slightly, his gaze a little unsteady. “But the dead still have their noble spirits, and I do not want them to see something like this….”
A rush of fiery heat rose up in Mei Changsu’s chest, and it was a long time before he was able to speak again. “The souls of the departed do not look only at what is on the surface, they will know your heart, not to mention, these are only means to achieve an end.”
“To be honest, I understand. It is my own choice, and not about feeling wronged or causing grievance.” Prince Jing took a deep breath. “I will act according to your arrangements, do not worry.”
Mei Changsu smiled, reassured, and turned to a new topic. “His Majesty’s will is for Your Highness to choose officials from the Three Departments to aid in the investigation?”
Prince Jing nodded.
“Has Your Highness made your selection?”
“Please advise me,” Prince Jing answered bluntly.
Mei Changsu took out a folded sheet of paper and handed it to Prince Jing. Xiao Jingyan opened it and studied its contents for a long while, in deep thought.
“What does Your Highness think about these choices?” Mei Changsu asked slowly after letting him think quietly for a period of time.
“Very good.” Prince Jing appraised concisely.
“These people are all worth getting to know well.” Mei Changsu laughed, “But in the future, they will certainly not become Your Highness’ wingmen.”
Hearing this, Prince Jing did not show any surprise, but rather seemed to agree, indicating that he had already understood the meaning behind Mei Changsu’s words.
“In terms of strategists, Your Highness has me, and that is sufficient; we do not need to worry about the military; in the palace², there is Princess Jingning, and she is not very noticeable and so is an especially strong source of support. As for the court…I believe Your Highness does not need supporters, because the earlier you gather supporters, the earlier you will be discovered by the Crown Prince and Prince Yu. What Your Highness needs is nothing more than pure, steadfast ministers.” Mei Changsu’s tone was low, but his every word was clear. “The more such ministers there are, the fewer plots and schemes there will be in the court, and the more space Your Highness will have to uphold your true temperament. Besides, interacting with the people on this list will not make you feel uncomfortable.”
“But these people…it is difficult for any of them to rise in status….”
“Under the Crown Prince and Prince Yu, it may be so, but I hope Your Highness will be able to change these circumstances. These people do not lack for ability or intelligence, only opportunity. By their natures, although they would not be willing to attach themselves to any camp or side in the future, they will nonetheless remember kindnesses done to their person. Your Highness only has to interact with them naturally and genuinely, and if there are any plans we must involve them in, I will handle it.”
“You…” Prince Jing looked at him dazedly for a long while. “Is there such a need for you to do something like that?”
Mei Changsu gave a small smile. “This has always been the role of a strategist. I would not rest easy if Your Highness had to deal with such matters yourself.”
“I understand….” Prince Jing seemed to think of something, and said in a low voice, “That day, when you sent a letter asking me to go to Jiyun Tower and sit for half a day, it was because of this….”
“That’s right,” Mei Changsu smiled. “You two have met already?”
“Yes. I sat there for a long time, and he was very conspicuous.” Prince Jing shifted in his chair into a more comfortable position and continued. “Everyone goes to Jiyun Tower to eat, but he called over the host and asked about the price of every item they sold – wood, rice, oil, salt, meat, vegetables and eggs. I could hardly fail to notice him.”
“The Ministry of Revenue oversees the national treasury and taxes, which affects people’s livelihood and welfare. But it has become a giant cesspool under Lou Zhijing, and this person is the only one left who truly cares to investigate the prices of daily necessities, and works solidly and reliably in the department. If he were not the son of the Duchess of Qinghe, and of high birth, he would have been transferred away long ago.” Mei Changsu sighed. “After you met each other that day, did you have an enjoyable conversation?”
“We seemed well-suited to each other.” Prince Jing looked at him closely. “Lou Zhijing has been implicated in the murder case, and is unlikely to last much longer as the Minister of Revenue, do you have something planned?”
“What does Your Highness think?”
“Shen Zhui is currently a third-ranked assistant minister, and it would not be impossible for him to be raised by one rank and inherit the title of Minister of Revenue, but he is neither the Crown Prince’s man nor Prince Yu’s, you want to push him into this position, is it possible?”
“It is because he is not biased towards either side that this opportunity can fall onto his head.” Mei Changsu’s smile was confident. “Of course, there are many things still that must be done, but there the outcome is relatively sure. Prince Yu has been waiting for this chance for many years, and he will certainly prevent the Crown Prince from appointing another one of his own people. As for the Crown Prince, the loss of Lou Zhijing is already a mighty blow, how could he let Prince Yu take this chance to raise someone of his own into the post? And while these two fight over the seat, the fisherman will reap the benefit³.”
“Yes, the situation seems to be as such, and with your help in the matter, Shen Zhui is certainly fortunate.” Prince Jing looked up and laughed. “You truly have unusual methods, and live up to your name of qilin prodigy.”
A hint of bitterness arose in Mei Changsu’s expression, and he lowered his gaze but made no reply. Talent? He was in truth no better than anyone else, it was only that he had put all his thought and effort into this for so many years that he naturally had a much more thorough grasp of the situation.
“But Shen Zhui is truly a breath of fresh air, and it is my wish as well to raise him to this position.” Prince Jing turned his gaze to him and cupped his hands in a courtesy. “I am grateful for your consideration of my situation.”
Mei Changsu bowed in return, and said, “Shen Zhui is only the first step, in the coming days, there will be openings also in the Ministries of Appointment and Justice, and those I favour are all on the name list I have given to Your Highness. I ask Your Highness to take this chance while investigating the case together to make acquaintances of and observe these individuals, and to give them opportunities to showcase their efforts, so that the Emperor will form a good impression of them. They are all intelligent, and will understand that Your Highness is allocating them this work as an opportunity for promotion in rank without your mentioning it explicitly.”
“Shen Zhui’s opportunity is already rare, how could the Ministry of Appointment and the Ministry of Justice also have openings?” Prince Jing had just asked this when he suddenly remembered that the source of the Minister of Revenue Lou Zhijing’s topple from power had emerged from the manor that this Su Zhe had so casually bought, and he suddenly understood.
“Nothing will happen in the near future, Your Highness can first take care of the ‘land infringement case’ without worry.” There was a hint of fierceness in Mei Changsu’s gaze. “After the new year arrives, I will invite He Jingzhong and Qi Min4, as well as their master, to join the game….”
¹an idiom that means adopting measures appropriate to the specific situation
²I think he means the Inner Palace
³from a Chinese idiom about a bird and an oyster on a beach, where the bird tried to eat the oyster and the oyster closed its shell around the beak of the bird, so the two were stuck in stalemate, when a fisherman walked by and snared both of them. (i.e. “when two parties fight, the third party always benefits”)
4the previously mentioned “Minister Qi”, the Minister of Justice (Prince Yu’s man)