The imperial Mu residence’s carriage disappeared into the distance, leaving behind only a trail of dust, which dissipated gradually in the cold, harsh air.
As he stepped out from the nook in the side of the road, strong gusts of cold wind immediately swept around Mei Changsu, blowing his dark hair into disarray.
The middle-aged guard who had been waiting to one side hurried over, reaching out to rearrange the disheveled head, but was gently pushed aside by that pair of ice-cold hands. There was a mild slope before them, the grass long since covered in snow, the few trees bare and stripped of their leaves, looking exceptionally bleak. Mei Changsu looked at the corner of the robe which could just be seen over the peak of the hill, reached out a hand to brush at the hair which had been blown all over his face, then walked quickly to the slope and strode all the way to the top before slowing his steps.
Under the falling snow, Princess Nihuang stood, her jade-coloured cape flapping in the wind, showing that the female commander of the southern border was truly unafraid of the cold.
Mei Changsu had not thought that the Princess would come, but now that she was here, he did not think of avoiding her.
She had once been his little girl, and so no matter how brilliant and impressive she was now, no matter where her love had turned, it could not change that purest, sincerest friendship of the past, nor could it change the guilt and tenderness he felt for her in his heart.
Hearing Mei Changsu’s footsteps, Princess Nihuang turned her beautiful face and smiled warmly at him.
Since they had parted that day in Wuying Hall, the two had not met since. But what had to be said had been passed along by Xia Dong, and with Nihuang’s proud temperament, no matter whether she had decided to sever all ties with that young man or to wait patiently for him, she would not react like other girls, and harbour suspicious misgivings or nag incessantly for answers.
And so, Mei Changsu did not know why Nihuang had taken this opportunity to meet him outside the city.
“Mister Su, it has been awhile, have you been well?” Her first words were always courteous pleasantries, etiquette designed to increase the distance between two people.
“I thank the Princess, everything has been well. Soon after I moved into my new manor, I received the abundant favour and gifts from your esteemed residence, and have not yet come in person to deliver my thanks, please forgive me.”
“You are too polite.” Nihuang took a step closer, radiating health and vigor, as if the troubles of the capital had not left half a mark on her person.
Mei Changsu couldn’t help smiling. “The Princess gives off such a grand air, with a manner as clear as moonlight.”
“How could I compare to your own manner, which is as deep as the sea?” Nihuang laughed. “Even Old Mister Zhou answers your call, the power of Jiangzuo Alliance is truly immeasurable.”
“It is only that fate brought together a few jianghu warriors down on their luck, and so the Alliance was formed.” Mei Changsu glanced at the Princess, and not wanting her to bring up the subject herself, decided to speak first. “My Alliance values justice above all else, and we are not overly strict with our members, and so…the reason he cannot come to the capital is not because he was forbidden, but because there is truly another reason….”
“That is not what I wanted to ask,” Nihuang met his gaze calmly, her gaze shining like stars. “I know why he cannot come.”
“You know?” Mei Changsu was a bit surprised. “You mean….”
“When he came such a great distance to Yunnan to help me that year, and turned disaster into victory, the entire Southern border sang his praises, and so although we knew that he was wearing a disguise, no one even attempted to see his true face.”
Mei Changsu lowered his gaze. He already knew what she was going to say.
“…Later, we built up a close friendship, but he still avoided and refused to address the issue, I asked him many times but he still would not say anything, until finally, he could no longer withstand the questioning and finally showed me his true appearance.”
“Ng…” Mei Changsu’s expression was still as he drew his hands into his sleeve. “And after you saw it?”
“At first, I only thought he looked familar, and it was only after I studied him a few more times and then thought for a long while that I remembered who he was….” Although a small smile remained on Princess Nihuang’s face, there was pain in her eyes. “He is in your Jiangzuo Alliance, you should know his true name too, right?”
Mei Changsu nodded impassively. “Yes, I know it.”
“Then you say it.”
“Nie Duo, one of the generals of the traitorous Chiyan Army, if anyone knew of his survival, he would be a criminal of the court.”
“Then,” Nihuang gazed at him fiercely, “have you drawn such a person into your Jiangzuo Alliance truly to shelter and protect him, or because you are preparing to use him in the future?”
Mei Hangsu took a few slow steps forward and leaned on a barren, half-withered tree trunk, smiling ruefully. “Certainly I will use him. I fear Jiangzuo Alliance has not taken such a great risk in sheltering a criminal simply for the sake of accumulating merit and virtue.”
Princess Nihuang’s brow furrowed and a ferocious expression flashed across her powdered face. “Is that the truth?”
Mei Changsu turned his head, his dark pupils shining like opals as his gaze lifted slowly to the Princess’ face. “And what if it is?”
“If it is, then I must take Nie Duo away, and even if I must use all the power of the imperial Mu household, I will ensure his safety. This is not only for the sake of the regard I bear for him, but more importantly to repay him for stabilizing the situation at the Southern border and saving thousands of my soldiers.”
A smile drifted over Mei Changsu’s lips, somehow conveying grief, emotion, gratitude, and wistfulness all at once, as he met Nihuang’s gaze and gently shook his head. “You are a Princess, he is a traitorous general, how can the two of you join together openly and properly? His Majesty the Emperor would never allow you to marry a jianghu man of unknown origin. Besides, since you recognized him, then naturally others may recognize him as well, so would you really ask him to remain in disguise all his life in order to stay by your side?”
Nihuang bit her lip hard and turned her face away, stubbornly refusing to let anyone see her in weakness. “What other choice is there? Ever since I realized he was Nie Duo, I knew my future would not be easy. I once hoped that he would enter the marriage competition under a false identity and fight his way to me step by step, but in the end, he did not appear…. There were so many times when I wanted to ask you what he really thought, but I feared he had hidden his true identity even from Jiangzuo Alliance, and you might not know who he really was. It was only when you sent Xia Dong to me with your letter that I was certain that you too know his identity, because he had even told you everything between us, and so that meant he has hidden nothing from you.”
“You are correct,” Mei Changsu’s voice was perfectly steady, and seemed to carry a soothing power. “Nie Duo trusts me very much, he has no secrets from me, nor I from him. I hope that now, you can trust me in the same way. I will do everything in my power to ensure that the two of you will be able to one day stand in dignity side by side, holding your wedding ceremony in Yingfeng Hall without masks or disguise, under your true names, and openly receiving the blessing of anyone who wants to wish you well….
“How is that possible?” Nihuang widened her eyes in disbelief. “Unless the Chiyan Army is acquitted, all of this is only an impossible dream.”
“Where there is a will, there is a way,” Mei Changsu said coolly. “Unless you believe the Chiyan Army really were traitors?”
Nihuang took a few steps back, her shoulders trembing slightly. “I do not know…I was very young then…I only know that the few people I knew would never have rebelled against their lord and betrayed their country…but what is the use of discussing this now? The case has an ironclad conclusion, and neither the Crown Prince nor Prince Yu would ever restore the name of the Chiyan Army, because this old case was their greatest masterpiece!”
“Yes, neither the Crown Prince nor Prince Yu would overturn the Chiyan Army’s case.” Mei Changsu gazed steadily ahead of him, a coldness creeping along his skin. “But no one has ever looked to them. …To achieve this goal, there is only one path that can be taken.”
Nihuang’s lip trembled suddenly, her face paling and then abruptly flushing again, as what had previously been clouded in fog suddenly came into sharp relief, showing her the clear conclusion.
“Prince Jing…you…you want to support Prince Jing….”
Faced with Mei Changsu’s silence, Nihuang’s mind was blank. But this commander and veteran of countless battles only took a few deep breaths and quickly gathered her composure, steadying herself.
“You are right, only Prince Jing could do it….” Princess Nihuang bit her lip and paced a few steps. “But it is too difficult… it is truly too difficult, one misstep and you will have carved your own doom, with no hope of turning back.”
“Whoever thought of turning back?” Mei Changsu said indifferently. “In the future, you may ask Nie Duo as well, when has he ever thought of turning back?”
“Nie Duo is different, he is a Chiyan veteran, he must redeem the injustice done to him, but you…” Nihuang halted, as if suddenly realizing something. “You…who are you? Why would you take such a great risk for the sake of this old case of the Chiyan Army?”
Chapter 57 Translator’s Notes: