When Su Zhe first appeared in the capital, many people asked, “Who is this person?” The answer was quickly discovered – Su Zhe was Mei Changsu, the chief of Jiangzuo Alliance, the world’s number one sect. This answer brought everyone great satisfaction and seemed to explain many things, and so not a single person continued to ask, “Then Mei Changsu…who is he?”
Mei Changsu had not thought that the first person to ask this question would be Princess Nihuang. Now, her sharp gaze bore through him like a sword, fixed on his face, watching for the slightest shift in expression as she waited for his reply.
Should he dodge the question and refuse to answer, or deceive her even further? It was a difficult choice.
There was a weariness in Mei Changsu’s expression as he slowly turned his head, as if to avoid the Princess’ question, and said lowly, “A veteran. Like Nie Duo, a veteran who survived.”
Nihuang’s gaze was like crystal as she continued to stare at him. “If you are a Chiyan veteran, why don’t I recognize you?”
“The soldiers of the Chiyan Army were countless in number, how could you remember them all?”
“But you are now chief of the Alliance, and even Nie Duo serves willingly under you, obeying your orders. If you say you were only a nameless soldier back then, I do not believe you.”
“Perhaps it is because…the matters we deal with now have no relation to the battlefield….” A self-mocking smile lingered at the corner of Mei Changsu’s lip. “Nie Duo is not talented in this way, and besides he is known by too many people, so it would not be convenient.”
Nihuang looked at him steadily for a long while, and asked suddenly, “Do you know Lin Shu?”
Meo Changsu lowered his eyes. How could a Chiyan veteran not know Lin Shu? And so he could only reply, “I know him.”
“Did he really die on the battlefield?”
“Where did he die?”
“His body and his bones – where were they buried?”
“To those seventy thousand soldiers, the sky was their tomb, and the earth, their graves.”
“Not even his bones were gathered?” Nihuang shut her eyes tightly, her fingers clenching around her robes. “Not even a single piece of his remains were found?”
“Such is the bitter reality of the battlefield, where corpses stack as high as mountains. Who could have known which among them was Lin Shu?”
“Yes….” Nihuang nodded dazedly. “I know what the battlefield is like. In all the battles of history, how many have returned with their bodies wrapped properly in shrouds?”
Mei Changsu’s gaze fell warmly onto her. “If the Princess wishes to offer sacrifices in his memory, there is no place his noble spirit would not accept your offerings¹.”
“You are right, he would not have minded this.” Nihuang murmured to herself, then suddenly looked up, a fierce expression in her eyes. “But if you are a Chiyan veteran, you should have referred to him as Young Marshal, why did you call him by his name, Lin Shu?”
Mei Changsu’s gaze seemed to tremble slightly, his already pale lips whitening even further. Whether it was because he could not longer hide it, or because he could not bear to hide it any longer, he did not answer her question, but turned his face away.
“Whenever Nie Duo mentions his chief, his loyalty and devotion are immediately apparent, and it does not appear to be a simple matter of division of labour, as you claim.” Nihuang stubbornly turned to face him, staring at him insistently. “I have never understood the depth of Nie Duo’s pain, even if I were the betrothed of his comrade who died in battle, it is still not reason enough for this kind of struggle and despair, unless…unless he knows….”
“Nihuang,” Mei Changsu stopped her impassively. “Nie Duo has only dug himself into a corner. He will get better slowly, you do not need to be overly suspicious.”
Nihuang stared at him, a terrible sorrow on her face, and as she breathed out hard in the cold air, the white fog seemed to blur her vision. Taking a deep breath, she suddenly grabbed Mei Changsu’s right arm, pulled open the tassel binding his sleeve and forcefully pushed back his thick fur robes, all the way up to the elbow.
Mei Changsu let her manipulate him and did not push her away or cover his arm, but a mournful bleakness had appeared in his dark gaze.
Nihuang grasped his arm and turned it a few times, inspecting it carefully, but the skin was clean, without any scars or marks.
She released his arm in bewilderment and was silent for a long moment, but Nihuang was still unconvinced, and so she reached out a hand to pull at Mei Changsu’s collar, closely inspecting the area around his neck.
….the skin was still clean, unmarked and unscarred.
The young girl’s tears finally fell, trailing down her face continuously, as if the teardrops would freeze in the bitter wind and crystallize into mermaids’ pearls.
Mei Changsu looked at her gently, unable to come closer, unable to offer any comfort. The icy wind crept along his opened sleeve and collar, burrowing deep into his skin, seeming to chill him straight to the bone, as if it might at any moment penetrate into his heart and force it to a stop.
“Are you very afraid of the cold?” Nihuang asked softly, watching as he tightened the fur robe around himself.
“Yes…I cannot stand the cold….”
“He never used to fear the cold before, everyone called him ‘the little fireball’,” Nihuang’s face was pale, her eyes still brimming with tears. “What cruelty is this, that can remove the very scars from a person’s skin, and turn such a robust young man into someone so afraid of the cold….”
“Nihuang…” Mei Changsu’s expression was still tranquil, his voice low. “What you have seen is already enough, do not imagine any more. If you let your imagination run wild, you will create much pain for yourself – pain that is not yours to face or bear. Lin Shu is dead, it is enough for you to believe this….”
“But a woman’s intuition has always been this irrational,” Nihuang gazed into his face, her tears falling thick and fast. “Even if there aren’t any scars or marks, we can still know… perhaps, the fewer marks there were, the more certain I became…. Lin Shu gege, I’m sorry, I won’t leave you again, I will never, ever leave you again….”
“Silly child.” The corners of Mei Changsu’s eyes trembled as he drew his little girl into his embrace. “I know you miss Lin Shu gege, but that is not the same… time that has gone by, and a heart that was once stirred – they are like the waters of a river that has passed away, which can never reverse its flow. I have been tired for twelve years, and I don’t want to see the people important to me suffer any more for my sake, so, this way, my burden is greatly lightened as well, don’t you agree?”
Nihuang wrapped her arms tightly around his waist, her tears soaking into the front of his robes. For the past ten years, she had been the source of support and the pillar of strength for everyone else. Before her little brother and the army of the Southern border, she had always stood firm and unwavering. Even Nie Duo could not make her lower her barriers completely.
Only this person, only this embrace, could return her to the gentle innocence of her youth, as she gave in to her tears and allowed herself this one indulgence. She felt no burning passion or surge of desire, but only the soft warmth of trust, like sunlight in winter, as if she could close her eyes and become again that forever-innocent little girl, whom he had once borne on his back and carried, everywhere they went….
Putting aside their respective identities, putting aside the betrothal that had been decided by the grown ups, Lin Shu gege was still Lin Shu gege. No matter how many years pass, no matter how the world changes, even if, one day, they each fall in love and marry someone else, and even when their children have grown up and their own heads have grown white with age, Lin Shu gege will still be her Lin Shu gege.
“Nihuang, listen to me,” Mei Changsu held her quietly, gently stroking her hair. “Don’t ask me what happened all those years ago, one day, I will have Nie Duo tell you everything, but for now…… can you listen to me, and go back to the imperial Mu residence, and not tell anyone about our meeting today, not even Xia Dong or Prince Jing? If we meet again, I am still Su Zhe, and you are still the Princess, and no one can notice anything unusual, can you do that?”
Nihuang wiped her face with her sleeve and gathered her composure, then nodded. “I know, the things you must do now are very difficult, I will not make this harder for you.”
Mei Changsu gave a small smile and reached out a hand to smooth down her tousled hair, saying softly, “After Qingming, go back to Yunnan, I will have Nie Duo go there as well, and the two of you can wait there quietly for my news, alright?”
“No,” Princess Nihuang’s brow trembled. “Your strength in the capital is limited, at least I must stay to help you….”
“There are things you can do in Yunnan too,” Mei Changsu coaxed gently. “When I need your help, I will definitely call for you, because you are not an outsider, so we must work together.”
Nihuang was silent for a long moment, then she nodded slowly. “Alright… if I return to Yunnan, I can take control of the situation there, and perhaps be of more use than if I stayed in the capital. And after I leave, all the power the imperial Mu residence holds in the capital is at your disposal.”
Mei Changsu gazed at her smilingly and praised, “You have truly gained much experience in these years. You have become perceptive and clear-minded, with a very accurate grasp of the situation in the court. With you in the South, much of my burden in the capital will be lightened.”
Nihuang looked at his pale, wan complexion and peaceful smile, and felt a rush of grief well up in her heart, but she did not want to upset him any further and so she forced it down and said, in a voice that trembled only a little, “Lin Shu gege, please take care….”
Mei Changsu patted her arm comfortingly, then pulled out a handkerchief, brushed aside the top layer of snow on the ground beside him, and wrapped some of the clean snow underneath in the handkerchief, making a cold pouch, which he then pressed against Nihuang’s eyes, saying gently, “You are the fearsome lady commander of the army, you cannot return like this with your eyes all swollen²….”
Nihuang smiled shakily and took the cold pouch from him, holding it against her eyes, the grief that had welled up subsiding somewhat. She watched as Mei Changsu drew the hand that had touched the snow back into his sleeve, his lips growing pale, and couldn’t help saying worriedly, “Lin Shu gege, you must be very cold, go back to your carriage and return to the city first. I will wait here awhile, and by the time Xiao Qing comes back from escorting Old Mister Zhou, my eyes will have recovered. Don’t worry, he won’t notice anything.”
“If even Mu Qing could notice it, then that would be really something,” Mei Changsu joked lightly. He really was starting to feel very cold indeed, and so spoke a few more words to Nihuang and then turned to walk back down the hill.
The guard who had been waiting at a distance immediately came forward, and, seeing his signal, understood and ran to shout for the driver to bring the carriage over. When it arrived, he lowered the foot stool, and helped Mei Changsu up into it.
Mei Changsu leaned against the side of the carriage, turning his head back to look at the hill, and when he saw Nihuang lift a hand to wave to him, still holding the cold pouch, he hurriedly raised his own arm in reply.
The carriage swayed gently and then lurched forward, and the heavy curtain was drawn, shutting out the hillside scenery as well as Princess Nihuang’s gaze.
Mei Changsu only felt icy needles of pain pressing on his chest, and, unable to hold back any longer, he lifted his sleeve and coughed into it violently. When he finally managed to stop with much difficulty, the snowy white fabric of his sleeve was stained deep red.
“Chief!” The guard cried out, coming over to support his body.
“It’s alright,” Mei Changsu smiled faintly. “The weather is too cold, after we get back, boil some hot water for me, and I will be fine after I warm up….”
¹in Chinese tradition, you offer sacrifices to the dead by burning incense (among other things) at their graves (eg. Xia Dong’s visits to Nie Duo’s grave)
²I can’t not comment on this: there’s a Chinese word “哦” which is used at the end of sentences in an affectionate way, and which is entirely impossible to translate into English because there simply isn’t an equivalent. (There are lots of words like this actually, and they’re used to give context and a specific tone to the rest of the sentence. I don’t know how to explain it better than that.) Anyway, MCS so far has only used this when talking to Fei Liu. And now he’s using it with Nihuang. <33333333333333
Chapter 58 Translator’s Notes: