These words that Mei Changsu had spoken so casually caused Meng Zhi to sit in stunned silence for a long while, and the more he thought about it, the more he felt how heart-chilling these partisan politics really were, and when he looked at Lin Shu, sitting there with his pale forehead slightly lowered, he couldn’t help the complex feelings rising up in his heart.
Could the rare and prodigious talents of the shining Chiyan Young Marshal of those days now only be spent on things like this?
“Meng dage, you do not need to worry about me.” Mei Changsu gently raised his head, as if looking through the roof into the dark void beyond. “They are all watching me from above, I must continue down this path.”
“I understand.” Meng Zhi nodded heavily. “But you must remember, in all things, you must place your safety first, and if there is anything I can help with, you must tell me.”
Mei Changsu couldn’t help smiling. “When have I ever been polite with you?”
“That’s difficult to say, your thoughts are so serious now, no one knows what you’re really thinking.” Meng Zhi looked at him, unconvinced. “Last time when you went to the imperial Jing residence, why didn’t you take me with you?”
“Did you want to hold me upright and teach that bunch of hotheads a lesson for me?” Mei Changsu laughed out loud. “You’re right, they are all hardened soldiers who only respect heroes and warriors, if even Commander Meng seemed to admire me, none of them would dare look down on me again.”
“That’s what I mean! But you went alone without a word, and made yourself some enemies. The imperial Jing residence is where you will be settling down to do your work in the future, how could you offend them on your first visit?”
“Don’t worry, the more intelligent among them will only thank me, and will not hold a grudge. The ones who are feeling insulted have brawn but no brains, and I don’t want to care about people like that for now, one day they will be in my hands, and I will mold them then. You forget, managing rough, wild generals like these is my specialty.”
Meng Zhi thought for a moment and couldn’t help smiling. “You do have a point.”
“…That’s right, I’ve been meaning to ask you, in the imperial Mu residence, aside from the little Lord Mu leaving teeth marks all over the place, how did the others react?”
“Of course they were all furious. His Majesty only sent an internal messenger to pass on a verbal message, telling the Princess not to be oversensitive, and seemed to mean that if she harboured any dissatisfaction over the edict, she would be doubting her lord in her role as his subject¹.” Meng Zhi looked uneasy. “Whose slander has His Majesty been listening to, that he’s treating such a loyal, outstanding minister so haughtily?”
“How was the Princess?”
“The Princess was actually very calm, and didn’t betray any sign of anger at all.”
Mei Changsu sighed lightly. “Nihuang has been commander for so many years, I think she has seen through the situation. For those who hold military power, if they do not accomplish anything, they are scolded for being useless, but once they achieve great deeds, they are feared for their power and influence. No matter what a military general does, he cannot avoid the endless checks and balances his lord will impose upon him. Now that the Southern border is relatively quiet, if the Emperor doesn’t remind her of his imperial power and control now, when would he have the chance?”
“But the little Lord Mu cannot seem to control himself, and is talking about requesting for permission to return to Yunnan.”
“The Emperor would not give it.” Mei Changsu shook his head. “Besides, the new year is near, if they leave in a hurry now, it will appear as if they are angry at the Emperor, and it will only raise suspicion and rumor. Go and convince Mu Qing, even if he wants to leave, he must at least wait until after Qingming², and offer the ceremonial sacrifices in the capital before going.”
“When has that boy ever been wiling to listen to me? Besides, if anyone is to be convinced, shouldn’t it be Princess Nihuang?”
Mei Changsu’s gaze stilled, the expression in his eyes fathomless as he nodded slowly, and answered in a low voice, “You’re right. Then I will write a letter, and will trouble you to bring it to Nihuang. She is wise and astute, and will understand immediately.”
As he spoke, he turned and patted Fei Liu on the shoulder. “Su gege needs to write, Fei Liu can grind the ink³, alright?”
“Yes!” Fei Liu jumped up and bounded over to the desk, grabbed the stick of ink, put it up to his mouth and breathed on it, and then began grinding furiously. He was putting all his strength into the task, and his grinding motions were fast, and soon, the whole table was covered in ink flakes.
“That’s enough, that’s enough,” Mei Changsu turned a warm smile on him. “When Su gege finishes writing, you can paint, alright?”
Mei Changsu drew two sheets of snowy white letter paper from the pile of books on the desk, dipped his brush in the ink, and murmured to himself for a moment before filling two pages with writing, then lifted the sheets and blew them dry gently before folding them into an envelope, but did not seal it before holding it out to Meng Zhi.
“Aren’t you afraid I’ll read it?” Meng Zhi did not take it, but said with a smile, “You didn’t write anything I’m not supposed to read, did you?”
Mei Changsu lowered his head and said expressionlessly, “Meng dage, you must not make such jokes again. The Princess is like a sister to me, nothing more.”
Meng Zhi was taken aback. “Why do you say that? I know there are any difficulties ahead and many things you must do, and so you do not want to tell her who you are for now, but in the future…you must tell her one day….”
“Who knows how far away that day may be?” Mei Changsu lifted the brush again and absently drew a dozen lines on the sheet in front of him, but before he had finished, he had already picked it up and crumpled it into a ball before tossing it into the brazier beside him, closing his eyes, “It is impossible to live in the past…there are some things in this world whose coming cannot be predicted, and cannot be controlled, all I can do is to try to bring them to a good end, even if it is an end in which I have no part….”
“Xiao Shu,” Meng Zhi grasped his arm, “you mean….”
“Meng dage, you must also consider Nihuang’s position, I have hindered her for so many years, I cannot continue to do so. If I had once thought to try hard to return to her side, then ever since two years ago, I have abandoned all such intentions.” Mei Changsu gripped Meng Zhi’s hand tightly, a thin but incredibly sincere smile on his face. “My existence has not brought her joy in the past, but at least, it will not become her grief in the future. If I can achieve this, I will be very happy….”
“But….” Meng Zhi’s face crumpled. “This is too unfair to you!”
“When has there ever been anything absolutely fair in this world? If you say it is unfair, then it is a problem of fate, a misalignment of the stars, and no matter what, it is not Nihuang’s responsibility.”
Meng Zhi looked at him for a long time, and then stamped his foot and sighed. “I cannot interfere in your personal affairs, let it be as you say then.”
Mei Changsu smiled and pushed the letter into his hand. “Alright, deliver this letter for me, and don’t say another word, if you keep spouting nonsense, I will be angry.”
“Yes, Young Marshal. I’ll be like Fei Liu, and speak two words at a time!”
“Cannot!” Fei Liu said loudly.
“Look, Fei Liu says you can’t.” Mei Changsu ruffled the youth’s hair with a smile. “Well-said, we won’t let him copy you!”
“Oh you,” Meng Zhi let out a sigh. “How can you still laugh?”
“If not laugh, then what? Do you want to see me cry?” Mei Changsu looked at him, then drew out another sheet of paper and wrote quickly.
“What are you doing? Didn’t you finish?”
“The ink is still wet, I’m writing to Prince Yu.”
“You don’t have to be this surprised, do you?” Mei Changsu straightened and cocked his head at him. “Don’t you know I am, to some extent, leaning towards Prince Yu?”
“I know you have already offended the Crown Prince for Nihuang’s sake, and so of course you must pretend to support Prince Yu…but what are you writing?”
“I think it is time for old Minister Chen to take a break from his duties, and so am preparing to hand this job over to Prince Yu.”
Meng Zhi’s eyes widened. “Does Prince Yu listen to whatever you say now? You can order him to do anything you like?”
“It’s not like that,” Mei Changsu didn’t know whether to laugh or cry. “This is not an order, only a piece of advice.”
“That’s right, Prince Yu is fuming over Consort Yue’s restored position and wants to retaliate, but doesn’t know how. It would be good for me to point out Chen Yuanchen’s weakness to him, so he can vent out some of his anger.” A hint of coldness flitted across Mei Changsu’s bland expression, and as he spoke, his hand kept writing. “The Empress has no trueborn son, and so has fallen out of favour, while Noble Consort Yue has always been highly honoured, and the two are almost always held at an equal position in many matters of the Inner Palace, and so it seems that everyone has forgotten the difference between imperial wife and concubine. Besides, the regulations of the sacrificial rites are complicated, it is difficult to even know how the Empress and Prince Yu’s relationship should be interpreted, and there have never been any references to consult. So, Prince Yu can invite several learned scholars and authorities into the palace for a court debate, and as their words have weight, once they have clearly determined the precedence of the imperial wife over the concubine in the sacrificial rites, the serious mistake committed by the Ministry of Rites these past few years will be revealed, and Chen Yuancheng will have no choice but to resign. With all this, Xie Yu will lose another one of his helpers, Noble Consort Yue’s restored power will be greatly limited, the Empress’ position will be even more respected, and the Crown Prince’s recently restored arrogance can be suppressed a little….”
“Then isn’t all this…going to benefit Prince Yu? Are you really putting all this effort into helping him?”
Mei Changsu gave a cold laugh. “Are there any trades in this world with only gains and no losses? Prince Yu’s losses are in a place that is not easily seen or understood.”
Meng Zhi tried to think about this, but gave up after awhile. “What place is this?”
“The heart of His Majesty, the Emperor.”
“The one who began this practice of raising an imperial concubine to a rank equal to the imperial wife is His Majesty. It is because he favoured Consort Yue so heavily and did not give the Empress enough respect in the Inner Palace that everyone has the mistaken impression that, because Consort Yue has the Crown Prince for a son, she is as honoured as the Empress. When Prince Yu brings up this issue, he will not only be revealing the Ministry of Rites’ error, he will also uncover His Majesty’s fault, but his position will be well-grounded and so His Majesty will not say anything against him, and may even bestow a few words of praise. But deep in his heart, His Majesty will not be happy, and may even behave even more coldly towards the Empress for this defiance. I will not mention this loss for now, and see if Prince Yu notices it himself.”
Meng Xhi said thoughtfully, “There are many talented people by Prince Yu’s side, perhaps one of them will see it.”
“Even if they see it, it doesn’t matter, Prince Yu will still do this.”
“Because the gains greatly outweigh the losses.” Mei Changsu had finished the letter, and was blowing on it lightly. “He will only lose His Majesty’s favour, which can be slowly regained. But if he wins the debate, he will greatly increase the Empress’ honour and lower Consort Yue’s, and more importantly, Prince Yu can use this opportunity to emphasize something the court has forgotten: the Crown Prince, too, was born of a concubine, and in this respect, he is no different from Prince Yu. The position and honour he holds now is because he has received the title of the Eastern Palace, and not because of his birth. If His Majesty the Emperor were to take this title away in the future and give it to another, there is no need to raise a fuss, because the Crown Prince is not the trueborn son of the imperial wife, and so there is nothing untouchable about him.”
“But then, it is still Prince Yu who reaps the benefit….”
“Is it only Prince Yu?” Mei Changsu turned his head, his eyes bright. “Is Prince Jing not the same? Since they are all sons of concubines, no one can accuse anyone else of low birth. The Crown Prince, Prince Yu, Prince Jing, and the other princes are all more or less equal in birth ranking, and even if there is some small difference, it is not at all the same kind of distance found between the sons of imperial wives and concubines, and so isn’t even worth mentioning.”
“That’s right!” Meng Zhi clapped his hands. “How did I not realize, when Prince Yu pulls the Crown Prince down to his level, he is at the same time pulling Prince Jing up, because he wants to emphasize that, while birthright may be an unbreachable gap between the sons of imperial wives and those of concubines, between the sons of concubines themselves, it is no longer the most important consideration, and though this reminder benefits himself, it applies just as well to Prince Jing!”
“I’m glad you understand.” Mei Changsu smiled, and this time, firmly sealed the envelope. “Fei Liu, go out with Uncle Li and deliver this letter, alright?”
Meng Zhi glanced at Fei Liu. “You’re letting them deliver it?”
“Li Gang is a gifted speaker, and there is Fei Liu for security, going out to deliver a letter like this is a waste of their talents.” Mei Changsu nonchalantly placed the letter in Fei Liu’s hand, his gaze passing over him leisurely. “The rest is up to Prince Yu….”
¹remember the idiom we talked about last chapter? similar language.
²the Chinese holiday for remembering / paying respects to the dead and one’s ancestors; takes place somewhere in the 4th-6th month of the Chinese lunar calendar
³in case you are unfamiliar with brush-and-ink writing, you have to rub or grind a stick of ink against an ink stone and mix it with water to make ink
Also, the title is an idiom that literally translates to ‘deploying soldiers’ but also figuratively means sending a team out to perform a task. In case you’re wondering what troops lol.
Chapter 55 Translator’s Notes:
I know we’ve seen the depths of MCS’s strategic genius, but what blows me away here is his understanding of people, especially the Emperor. It’s kind of heartbreaking, because you wonder if these are insights he picked up from his childhood in the palace, or whether they were understood and analyzed in retrospect after the Emperor finally showed his true colours. MCS understands the Emperor possibly better than anyone except Gao Zhan. And it kind of slowly creeps up on you that the true enemy, the true villain of this story, is not the Crown Prince, or Prince Yu, or Xie Yu, or even Xia Jiang, but the ruler of Da Liang himself. And it’s the characters who see that – MCS, Yan Que – who are, in my opinion, truly extraordinarily wise.