After his victory over the Crown Prince in the court debate, all of Prince Yu’s worries over Consort Yue’s restored position vanished. In his excitement, this prince who was known for his great generosity naturally had to hand out gifts and rewards to his hardworking subordinates, especially Mei Changsu, who had worked quietly in the background without any recognition, and who had generated all of this success with only a single letter to the imperial Yu residence.
At first, Prince Yu sent some of his men over with boxes of gold and silver and bolts of silk and brocade, but these gifts did not even make it past the door of the Su residence before they were politely refused, the given expanation stating that there was no place to put them.
Prince Yu knew he had been foolish, this was a noble and virtuous scholar, so of course he would not accept such gaudy, tasteless gifts, so the next day, he personally selected a variety of pearls and treasures made by famous jewelers, each piece a unique and priceless work of art. But not long after he sent them over, these too were returned, the Su servants claiming once again that there was no place to put them.
Seeing that jewelry was not this man’s cup of tea, he decided that scholars must favour the elegant, and immediately chose several of his most treasured ancient scrolls of painting from his extensive collection, and though he felt a pang of regret in parting with them, he ordered his men to deliver them over for a third time. To his dismay, the speed with which these were returned was no less than that of the two previous rounds of gifts, and he was told that, this time, the polite decline had claimed that there was no place to hang them.
When Prince Yu was told about the refusal of the third set of gifts, Qin Banruo happened to be by his side, and she covered her face with her sleeve and laughed quietly. Prince Yu glanced at her out of the corner of his eye and immediately asked, “Why are you laughing?”
Qin Banruo’s eyes were shining as she sighed, “Your Highness is truly not as talented as the Princess Consort when it comes to choosing gifts. You have tried so many times, but the gifts have still not gotten past the front doors. Does Your Highness not know that gifts must be adapted to their recipients?”
“But this person is unfathomably deep, how am I suppose to know what he likes? It’s not as if I have boxes and boxes of Li Chong’s manuscripts lying around my manor……what, by your expression, do you know what he likes?”
Qin Banruo smiled sweetly and said, “Even for the most unfathomable of persons, one only has to analyze carefully their speech and manner in order to find some things they will like. Let me prepare the gifts, and I guarantee that they will get past the door this time.”
Prince Yu knew that Qin Banruo was perceptive and wise, and so gave the matter over to her. The next day, Qin Banruo prepared a box of new and curious toys, including a duck that could walk, a cat that could spin and other such novelties, all interesting in design and well-crafted, as well as impossible to find in the public markets, and had it sent over.
Sure enough, this time, the gifts passed through the front doors, the box was opened, and the toys were given to Fei Liu. The youth began playing with them delightedly in the back courtyard while Mei Changsu personally wrote a reply, and though it was not long, it was still a formal letter of thanks.
After Prince Yu received it, he was amazed, and couldn’t help heaping words of praise onto Banruo.
Qin Banruo only smiled modestly and said, “This is only another way to please a person. If you truly do not know what he likes, then you only have to pay attention to the person most important to him. This youth by Su Zhe’s side may be a bodyguard in name, but is in reality treated more like a beloved younger brother, and pleasing this child is naturally much simpler than trying to discern the thoughts of Su Zhe’s heart.”
Prince Yu smiled. “Leave it to women to handle matters of the heart. No one else in this manor would have been able to come up with an idea like yours.”
Qin Banruo sighed, “But about Su Zhe himself, we truly know too little. If we cannot understand what he is really trying to do, how can Your Highness harness him in the future?”
“That is precisely what I am worried about. This Su Zhe is such a talent, I am finding him more and more valuable every day, but his thoughts are truly too deep to discern, and gives me a feeling that…although he is aiding me with his strategies at the moment, I do not think he is truly loyal to me….”
“But if he was the type of person to come as soon as he is called, and strive for glory and riches under Your Highness’ favour, then he would not be the qilin prodigy.” Qin Banruo smiled sweetly. “Acquiring and using people is Your Highness’ specialty, Banruo will not comment further.”
“But obtaining intelligence and information for my reference is your specialty.” Prince Yu leaned slightly into the fragrance, and said lowly into her ear, “Pay close attention to everything about Mei Changsu, no matter how distant or insignificant, I want to know about it.”
“Yes, Your Highness.” Qin Banruo bowed, and seeing Prince Yu rise and put on his cloak, asked hurriedly, “Is His Highness going out?”
“I am going to the Su residence.”
Qin Banruo was taken aback, and sat in silence for a moment.
“Although your gift was very good,” Prince Yu looked closely at this talented lady and smiled, “it is still not enough. It may bring a smile to his face, but it will not be remembered in his heart.”
Understanding dawned in Qin Banruo’s gaze, and she bowed, saying, “Your Highness is indeed thoughtful, Banruo is ashamed of her unworthiness.”
Prince Yu reached out a hand to her and said warmly, “You do not need to say that. I am going over personally not only to give my gratitude. From the report of those who went to the Su residence, Su Zhe seems to have caught a chill, and is unwell. I am going to visit him.”
“Take care, Your Highness, Banruo will leave as well.”
“Then let us leave together,” Prince Yu said teasingly. “It’s always a pleasure to spend more time in the company of beautiful ladies.”
Qin Banruo smiled but did not reply, and stood to drape a heavy robe around herself. The two strode out of the study side by side, and were walking along chatting with great pleasure when suddenly, as they were passing through the orchid garden, they happened to come across Princess Consort Yu.
“My lord.” Princess Consort Yue handed the flowers she was holding to the serving girl beside her, and came forward to bow.
“What are you doing here?” Prince Yu put a hand on her arm and raised her from her bow, looking around.
“Tea made from the melted ice water of orchid flowers is my lord’s favourite. Yesterday, there was fresh snowfall, and so this morning, I thought to hurry to the snowdrifts to gather some of the flowers and the snow, to save them for my lord,” Princess Consort Yue replied gently, smiling and nodding at Qin Banruo, who had knelt in greeting.
Prince Yu saw that her beautiful hands had turned red with cold from the time spent gathering orchid blossoms in the snow, and felt something stir in his heart. He quickly grasped her hand in both of his and said softly, “Leave these matters to the servants, you do not need to come yourself.”
“The servants are not careful enough, I fear they would spoil the taste of the tea, and make my lord unhappy.” A gentle smile played around the lips of Princess Consort Yu, and, seeing that Prince Yu was dressed for going out, she hurriedly asked, “My lord and Miss Qin have some business to attend to outside? Then do not linger here, I have already gathered several blossoms, and have nearly finished.”
“I am going out to visit a friend who is sick, Miss Qin was just returning to her house.” Prince Yu didn’t know why he was explaining this to her. “The wind is cold here, return quickly to your rooms. The new year is approaching, and it would not do for you to fall sick.”
“Yes, my lord.” Princess Consort Yu turned obediently and ordered her serving girl to gather up the blossoms, and then reached out a hand to neaten the ties of Prince Yu’s cloak as she said quietly, “Then I will return to my rooms. My lord, Miss Qin, take care.”
“Ng,” Prince Yu answered uncomfortably, watching as she turned and left, and as he continued on with Qin Banruo, for some reason, he did not feel much like speaking.
At the door of the manor, they each went their own way. Qin Banruo, who had walked a few steps behind him since they had met Princess Consort Yu, looked calm as she came forward to see Prince Yu off in his carriage. She had just turned to step onto her own palanquin and was about to leave when a serving girl suddenly ran out from the gate of the manor, a vase of flower blossoms clutched in her hand, shouting, “Miss Qin, please wait!”
Qin Banruo hurriedly stopped the palanquin and pulled aside the curtain, leaning out. “What is it?”
“My lady the Princess Consort invites Miss to taste this year’s fresh snow.”
Qin Banruo was surprised, but the clear, beautiful face showed no sign of disturbance as she smiled and said, “This is snow from orchid blossoms picked by the Princess Consort’s own hand, how could I dare tk refuse? Please tell the Princess Consort, Banruo is honoured to receive her gift, and will return another day to bring my gratitude to her properly.”
The serving girl widened her eyes, and who knew if she would really remember to convey the message, but she handed over the vase before running back into the manor.
Qin Banruo held the small vase, her finger tracing along its icy pattern idly, her face expressionless, staring for a moment before she lowered the curtain and ordered the palanquin to leave.
When Prince Yu arrived at the Su residence, Mei Changsu had just awoken from a nap, and was looking frail and weak. His hospitality towards this honoured guest was also not as generous as it had been previously, and he only exchanged a few polite words before drinking his tea silently. Since Prince Yu had come to visit him out of concern for his health, and had known he was ill, he of course did not find it strange, but inquired after his well-being warmly and offered to bring a physician over to treat him.
“It is only a little sore throat and stuffed nose, it will be better with some herbal medicine, there is no need to trouble the imperial physician.” Mei Changsu leaned on his chair, which was filled with soft pillows, his eyes half-closed as he said, “Your Highness has come personally to visit me, I must apologize for the trouble I have caused you.”
“You are really too courteous. I have gained much recently as a result of your wise advice, but have not been able to meet your tastes with my gifts of gratitude, and though I have been wanting to convey my thanks to you, I have not been able to express them adequately,” Prince Yu said modestly. “The weather is turning cold, and one cannot be too careful in this season. Your health is not good, you should have a physician staying in your residence to look after your health.”
Mei Changsu turned to him and smiled. “I thank Your Highness for your concern. Your Highness is astute indeed, the elders of our Alliance sent over Physician Yan just yesterday, and though he is not young, he is much more robust than I. He is also long-winded, and enjoys ordering people around, does Your Highness not see that I have been confined here today by his command?”
Prince Yu looked at him, so firmly wrapped in so many layers of clothing, and couldn’t help smiling. “The esteemed physician is truly concerned for you.”
Mei Changsu smiled and did not reply, his gaze drifting over to the window. Prince Yu followed his gaze to where Fei Liu was leaping about in the snow of the empty courtyard, once in a while extending a foot to nudge a wooden toy duck, which was waddling around aimlessly. In the corridor behind him, the other servants of the manor were bustling about busily. Prince Yu thought back to the renovated courtyard he had seen when he entered. People had been walking around hanging up lanterns and decorations, and in one corner, a cart was delivering vegetables and fish and other products to the manor, and he felt a slight sense of bafflement arising in his heart.
Was this Su residence really looking as if it meant to stay in the capital for some time?
He was just about to speak when Fei Liu’s figure suddenly flashed by, and in the next moment, he was pinning a manservant, who looked to be about twenty years old, down onto the ground in the snow.
“Fei Liu, let him go, that person has come looking for His Highness Prince Yu….” A middle-aged man shouted, hurrying over from one side.
It was then that Prince Yu recognized the servant from his own manor, and he raised an eyebrow, a sense of foreboding welling up in his heart.
What urgent matter had arisen that he had come to this place looking for him?
In the next instant, the person was scrambling up from the snow and running towards him, plunging to the floor in a bow as he tried to catch his breath.
“Steady yourself, why are you in such a panic?” Prince Yu eyed Mei Changsu, feeling as if he had lost some face before him, and said, “Who sent you here?”
“The Princess…Princess Consort….”
“The Princess Consort?” Prince Yu knew very well that his wife had always paid much attention to propriety and etiquette, and did not easily overreact, and so immediately stood up and asked, “What has happened in the palace?”
“The Princess Consort sent this one to find my lord,” the servant swallowed hard. “She begs my lord to enter the palace immediately, the lady Empress…the lady Empress has fallen ill!”
Prince Yu shuddered, terror rising up within him, and he swayed for a moment before grabbing the servant, meaning to ask him more questions, but realized that he would not get much information out of him and so threw him aside before hurriedly turning to Mei Changsu to say quickly, “Please take care, I must first take my leave!” He did not even wait for a reply before rushing out into the courtyard, his servant following behind him, hastily settling his heavy cloak around his shoulders as they walked.
“The Empress is ill? At a time like this….” Mei Changsu’s brows furrowed gently, looking a bit surprised, and he sank into deep thought for a long while before calling out loudly, “Is Li dage outside?”
“Chief,” the middle-aged guard appeared at the door. “Do you have orders for me?”
“Has that Tong Lu from Mister Shisan’s place arrived?”
“He arrived with the vegetable cart and has been here awhile, but because Prince Yu came, he has been waiting in the outer courtyard.”
“Please bring him in.”
Mei Changsu leaned back against the soft pillows and closed his eyes, his thoughts troubled.
The news Tong Lu was bringing should not be anything unexpected, but as for the palace…he had not expected more trouble to arise. He wondered whether the Empress was truly ill, or whether she had some hidden plans in mind. If she was truly sick, could she recover within five days? And if the Empress could not recover in time, then who would replace her in the sacrificial rites?
He did not have enough information, and Mei Changsu only felt his head ache and his cheeks burn, and he raised a hand to feel his forehead, but found that it was not very hot. He was only a little dizzy, and his thoughts a little blurry.
His own bout of illness had arrived at an inconvenient time as well….