With the new year’s arrival, Xiao Jingrui, Yan Yujin and Xie Bi finally returned to the capital from the Huqiu hot springs. They had just been back for a day when, to their shock, they realized that, although they had only been away one month, the situation in the capital had changed rapidly, and was now even more excited and chaotic than it had been when they left.
The fight between the Crown Prince and Prince Yu had largely reached a stalemate in recent years due to the balance of their power, and everything seemed peaceful on the surface, with neither side causing any great ripples. Who could have thought that such a great storm had been building beneath the surface, which had only needed the slightest push before erupting into open war. Consort Yue’s demotion, Lou Zhijing’s fall from grace, the Duke of Qing’s collapse, He Wenxin’s death sentence…wave after wave broke over the capital so rapidly that one couldn’t seem to catch a breath in their midst.
Now, Consort Yue’s position had just been restored, and imperial officials were already lining up to accuse the Ministry of Rites of improper handling of the sacrificial rites, and Prince Yu took advantage of the situation to invite many famous and renowned scholars into the palace for a court debate to discuss the special treatment Consort Yue had received for so many years, as well as the lack of respect the Crown Prince had shown towards the Empress in the ceremony.
Everything aside, even just the ten or so old gentleman Prince Yu had invited were men of great renown and honour, and it was clear that the effort he had put into courting these scholars over the years had not been in vain, and he had managed to accumulate quite a following. One of these was the elderly Mister Zhou Xuanqing, who resided in Lingyin¹ Temple to the west of the capital, and who was truly one of the most prestigious and well-respected scholars of this age. Normally, he refused all visitors, royal or common, and so it was a shock when he consented to come personally to Jinling this time, and his arrival prompted many people to regard Prince Yu with a whole new level of respect.
But strangely, after entering the capital, this old Mister Zhou did not stay in the residence Prince Yu had set aside for the visiting scholars, Liuhe² Courtyard, but at the imperial Mu residence instead.
And, according to rumor, Mister Zhou had been personally escorted to the capital from Lingyin Temple by the little Lord Mu, and once he entered the Mu residence, he had not received a single visitor, and even Prince Yu was no exception.
But the most important part was not who had really invited old Mister Zhou Xuanqing or whom he had received, but rather the prestige and honour of his reputation, which made even the Emperor defer to him in court, and with his thorough learning and extensive knowledge, not many people could stand up to him in the debate.
And so, the Ministry of Rites could not avoid disaster this time, and even Yan Yujin, who usually paid little attention to courtesy and etiquette, was able to predict the Crown Prince’s imminent defeat.
The debate finally ended after three days and arrived at the following conclusion: Although Consort Yue’s position had been restored, she should not stand beside the Emperor and Empress on the sacrificial platform during the ceremony, and after the Crown Prince had sprinkled the ceremonial wine, he should kneel and touch the robes of the Emperor and Empress. The Ministry of Rites had been neglectful of its duties, and Chen Yuancheng was to be relieved of his position, but because of his age, he would be allowed to retire from the court without further investigation. The Crown Prince, whose identity as a concubine’s son had been emphasized by Prince Yu repeatedly during the debate, couldn’t control his fury and actually slapped Prince Yu across the face, which earned him a severe scolding by the Emperor in front of the entire court. In all the chaos, only Prince Jing stood quietly, watching coolly from the sidelines, and with his tranquil expression and unflappable nature, he left a very good impression in the minds of many court ministers who had not noticed him before.
And so, not long after the Ministry of Revenue had changed hands, the Ministry of Rites became the second department to receive a new head.
When Chen Yuancheng reached out with trembling hands to remove the minister’s cap he had worn for almost twenty years from his aged white head, it was as if Prince Jing could see the pale hands gently stirring in the background, and the clear face with the calm expression which never seemed to change.
And yet, most people had no idea that Su Zhe, who had gradually faded away from public perception, had played a role at all in this event.
Two days of sunshine did nothing to raise the temperature, and the cloudless sunrise dawned colder than ever. The city gates had just been opened when the guards and soldiers saw an extremely luxurious carriage approaching, escorted by almost a hundred mounted guards.
Even if they did not recognize the sign of the imperial Mu residence on the front of the carriage, they would still have known that this was no ordinary guest, and so the leader of the guards hurriedly ordered his men to clear the road, and then bowed the large group out of the city.
Because the weather was so cold, those escorting the carriage blew out white steam with every breath, but the curtains of the carriage were thick, and with a warm stove inside, the interior of the carriage was not very cold.
There were two passengers in the carriage, one very elderly in age, one still in his youth, one in simple cotton robes and shoes, one dressed in embroidery and pearls. The elderly gentleman had closed his eyes to rest, but the young man seemed impatient with the journey, and was squirming about restlessly.
“Grandfather Zhou, would you like some tea?”
The old man, without opening his eyes, shook his head.
After a while: “Grandfather Zhou, would you like some pastries?”
The old man once again refused it silently.
After another while: “Grandfather Zhou, would you like to try this candy?”
Old Mister Zhou Xuanqing finally peeled open his eyelids and looked at him. There was an innocent smile on Mu Qing’s face as he held out the piece of candy. “This is very tasty.”
The little Lord Mu seemed completely unaware of and unaffected by the solemn and strict air that this old Mister Zhou had cultivated over many years. From the beginning, he had treated this old gentleman as just a normal old grandfather, and even after Zhou Xuanqing had rendered all his opponents speechless in the court debate and succeeded in landing the blow for his sister, at the most, he had altered his perception of the gentleman to “a very capable normal old grandfather,” and so in their daily interactions, he treated him casually, like a family member, and did not uphold strict courtesy or keep any formal distance.
The little Lord Mu was a charming and intelligent young man, with a lively and cheerful disposition, and did not harbour the slightest sign of arrogance as a result of his noble rank, and so Zhou Xuanqing was very fond of this adorable member of the younger generation, and it was only that his solemn air gave off a rather severe impression, as he shook his head in refusal expressionlessly in response to the sweet inquires of the young man.
“This kind doesn’t stick in the teeth.” Mu Qing explained. “Try one?”
“The little lord should eat them himself.” Zhou Xuanqing answered, his narrowed gaze turning towards the tassels on the roof of the carriage, and after a few moments, he suddenly asked, “Little lord, that token, could I see it once more?”
“Oh,” Mu Qing hurriedly swallowed his mouthful of candy and wiped his fingers with a handkerchief before taking out a small cloth bag from his person and handing it to Zhou Xuanqing.
The bag was opened and upended, and an intricately carved jade cicada tumbled out, its surface exceptionally bright, clearly made of an extremely expensive type of precious jade.
But for Zhou Xuanqing, the worth of this jade cicada did not lie in its monetary value.
“Little lord, you said that the person who asked you to bring this jade cicada to me is waiting outside the city?”
Mu Qing nodded. “That’s what he said in his letter. He said he would meet you once on your journey back to Lingyin Temple from the capital.”
Zhou Xuanqing gave a “Ng,” tightened his hand around the jade cicada, and closed his eyes again.
About an hour later, the carriage suddenly drew to a stop. Mu Qing glanced out the curtain, and then turned around and said, “Grandfather Zhou, the person you want to see is here.”
Zhou Xuanqing’s brow furrowed, and he grasped Mu Qing’s arm for support as he tottered off the carriage. He was just looking around when a middle-aged man came forward and said reverently, “Old³ Mister Zhou, my master is waiting over there, please come with me.” As he spoke, he took Mu Qing’s place and supported the old gentleman by the arm, carefully helping him over to an inconspicuous nook by the side of the road which was also out of the wind, where Mei Changsu waited with a smile, his black hair dark against the white fur of his coat as he bowed gently in greeting.
Zhou Xuanqing narrowed his eyes, carefully appraising him, and then held up the jade cicada and asked, “This jade cicada, is it yours?”
“How did you come to have it?”
“It was given to me by Li Chong, Mister Li.”
“Who was Li Chong to you?”
“I once had the honour of being taught by old Mister Li.”
Zhou Xuanqing frowned. “In those years, although Brother Li was the royal tutor, he did not reject commoners as his pupils, and his teaching extended far beyond the walls of the palace. His students number in the thousands if not millions, and naturally may be found all over the kingdom. But in the end, there were not many who truly made him proud, and as his good friend, I know them all, but you…I do not recognize….”
Mei Changsu smiled faintly. “I was not a proficient pupil and brought no honour to my teacher’s name, and did not spend much time under his teaching, so it is only natural that you do not know me.”
Zhou Xuanqing looked at him doubtfully for a long moment, then sighed. “No matter, you have Brother Li’s token, so of course I will help you, I just never would have thought that I would see my old friend’s jade cicada again after so many years for the sake of matters of the court…. Back then, when Brother Li was stripped of his position, he left the capital full of anger and bitterness, and I only wonder whether he would have approved of my coming to the court this time….”
Mei Changsu’s gaze was calm as he said quietly, “That year, the crime of my teacher lay in his blunt words, which became his downfall. Although he knew his words would offend the imperial countenance, he persisted in speaking his mind and expressed his views without regret, acting in accordance with the conduct of great scholars. Therefore, it is my belief that there is dao to be followed in everything in this world. There is dao in the hidden places of mountains and forests, and there is dao in the lofty palaces and courts. As long as one’s heart is pure, and one does not betray his convictions or speak contrary to his beliefs, what does it matter where one stands?”
Zhou Xuanqing raised an eyebrow, a light shining in his aged gaze as he nodded and said, “Although you were not his student for long, you understand him to the bone, and I see that he was wise to bestow this jade cicada upon you. Do you know why Brother Li used to wear this cicada on his belt?”
Mei Changsu’s hands twisted slowly, his chin furrowing as he murmured, “‘The dew of the night dampens their wings, the wind softens their cries; no one believes my noble conduct, who will reveal to me his heart’?4”
Zhou Xuanqing closed his eyes lightly, as if silently settling his thoughts for a long moment, while Mei Changsu gazed calmly into the horizon. The two stood quietly in the crisp winter air, without the slightest trace of awkwardness, as if they had only met to reminisce upon certain years of the past.
“To be able to meet again one of the distinguished pupils of Brother Li in my old age is truly beyond what I could have hoped for.” Zhou Xuanqing slowly placed the jade cicada into Mei Changsu’s hand and said lowly, “I do not know which way the wind is blowing in the capital, but I only hope that you will not forget the pure and honest reputation of your teacher, and take good care of yourself.”
Mei Changsu bowed, his face filled with respect. “I will remember your valuable advice. You have braved the snow and cold to answer the call of old friendship, I am truly grateful beyond words.”
Zhou Xuanqing waved a hand. “For this jade cicada, a trip to the city is nothing, even journeying to the distant lands would not be too much to ask. Now as your requests have been fulfilled, it is time for me to return to the temple. We will part here.”
Mei Changsu hurriedly raised a hand and beckoned to the guards waiting to the side, gesturing for them to support the old gentleman, as he himself bowed and said, “Please take care.”
Zhou Xuanqing gave a “Ng,” and took a few steps forward, supported by the guards, and then suddenly stopped and turned around. “In those years, Brother Li had a most beloved disciple, who, despite being the high-spirited son of a military general, was also unusually intelligent and an avid scholar, and if you had been present then, perhaps the two of you would have made a formidable pair.”
Mei Changsu’s face was pale as snow, and a brittle smile drifted over his lips as he said quietly, “The old Mister is too kind. It is my misfortune, that fate has not allowed me to admire this person with my own eyes.”
“Yes, this person…will never be seen again….” Grief clouded Zhou Xuanqing’s gaze as he turned and walked away without looking back.
¹literally: Hidden Spirit Temple
²literally: Crane Courtyard
³in Chinese, the word is used to denote respect (i.e. seniority and age)
4oh my God I did not sign up for translating ancient Chinese poetry LOL. okay, so MCS is quoting the last two lines of a four-line poem titled ‘Cicadas Singing in Prison’ [在獄詠蟬], which I will TRYYYYYY to translate below (oh God):
‘Cicadas Singing in Prison’ by Luo Binwang (駱賓王) of the Tang Dynasty
The cicadas’ songs drift from the west, my longing for home is deep
In their black hair and black beards, they sing to my whitened head
The dew of the night dampens their wings, the wind softens their cries
No one believes my noble conduct, who will reveal to me his heart?
Don’t even ask me what it means. Or why Li Cong chose the cicada as his symbol because of this poem. Clearly, I am not of the same intellectual capacity as MCS. (Someone please help me out in the comments XD)
Chapter 56 Translator’s Notes:
I just want you to know that MCS is using INCREDIBLY BEAUTIFUL CHINESE when he talks to Zhou Xuanqing, especially in the paragraphs when he talks about Li Cong, and I CAN’T TRANSLATE IT AHHHHHH. Sorry 😦 Just imagine it being the most beautiful literary phrases you can imagine. He’s literally speaking in perfect formal language, and I can barely understand it, much less do it any semblance of justice.
ARE Y’ALL READY FOR THIS.