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A few minutes later, Li Gang returned with a robust young man in his twenties, dressed in coarse hemp clothing, who came and bowed to Mei Changsu, saying, “Tong Lu greets the Chief.”

Tong Lu came from a farming background, but because his younger sister had caught the eye of a tyrant, their whole family had fallen into calamity, and had only been saved by the fortuitous intervention of Jiangzuo Alliance.  Now, his mother and younger sister were in Lang province, but as he himself was quick and capable as well as tenacious in character, Mei Changsu had noticed his abilities a few years ago and sent him to Jinling.  Mister Shisan was well-known in the entertainment industry and so could not move about easily, and so the clever and reliable Tong Lu became messenger in his place, and came to the Su residence bringing his vegetables almost every other day.

“You’ve worked hard, sit down and let us talk.”  Mei Changsu waved a hand.  “Have there been new developments in the prison?”

“Yes, sir.”  Tong Lu spoke quickly and clearly.  “They have already found a suitable person.  Everything was arranged by Qi Min’s most loyal subordinate, a man called Wu Xiaoyi.  The person is now being held at Wu Xiaoyi’s home, and really does resemble He Wenxin in seven to eight parts, and is only a bit too thin, and so is currently being stuffed with wine and good food.  He Wenxin has also suffered a bit in the prison, and so doesn’t look as white and plump as he used to, and so when the time comes and his head strikes the ground, I fear they will be able to pull off the trick.  The Earl of Wen could never have guessed they could have something like this up their sleeve, and besides he has never been very familiar with He Wenxin, and even if he came to the execution in person, he would not be able to see through the deception.”

“Ng,”  Mei Changsu murmured.  “Keep a very close eye on that Wu Xiaoyi, the family of the substitute, and the guards in the jail, but make sure we are not noticed.  After He Wenxin has been rescued from the prison, he will be immediately escorted out of the capital.  When that happens, you must not lose his trail under any circumstances, no matter what.”

“Yes, sir.”

“Previous cases of the Ministry of Justice secretly substituting prisoners on death sentence before their execution – how many have you found?”

“We have found seven cases with witnesses and evidence.”

“Keep working hard, we must obtain the most crucial witnesses.”

“Yes, sir.”

“Tell Gong Yu to pay attention to Qin Banruo.  Do not let her realize that we are investigating these old cases.”

“Yes, sir.”

After saying all this, Mei Changsu felt his gaze darken, and hurriedly closed his eyes for a brief rest.  He would let the Ministry of Appointments and the Ministry of Justice enjoy their new year, and when the Spring Execution came around, the show would really begin.  He only hoped that this uncooperative body of his would not let him down when the time came.

“Chief….”  Tong Lu saw that he had turned pale, and was extremely worried, and asked in a small voice, “Should I call for Physician Yan?”

“No need… Physician Yan would only give me more medicine.”  Mei Changsu smiled, “It’s alright.  Does Mister Shisan have anything else to tell me?”

“Yes.  There is news from the Green Helms of the Canals and the Walkers Sect¹.  In the past few months, gunpowder has been making its way into the capital smuggled amidst other goods, delivered through various routes and by different businesses.  Although the amount is small each time, put together, there is already around two hundred jin².  The brothers of the Walkers sect are pretending not to have noticed anything, and have only reported it in secret to Mister Shisan, and Mister Shisan is now investigating whether there is any relationship between these businesses.  He will report any new developments to you.”

“A large quantity of gunpowder?”  Mei Changsu’s eyebrows rose.  “Is there any connection to the jiangnan Thunderbolt Office3?”

“We have not discovered any connection yet.”

“Where is this gunpowder being stored after it enters the capital?”

Tong Lu lowered his head, looking ashamed.  “The people in charge of the delivery were too cautious and very cunning, and after the packages changed hands a few times, we actually lost the trail….”

Mei Changsu abruptly straightened in his chair.  “You mean, we do not know where this gunpowder is now?”

“Yes… in this matter of the gunpowder, it looked to be some jianghu conflict at first, and not anything related to us, and so Mister Shisan initially did not want to alarm you.  But now that the location of the gunpowder is unknown, and its purpose also unknown, and Chief, you are always moving about the city, we are afraid….”

“The capital is so large, would my luck really be that bad?”  Mei Changsu couldn’t help smiling.  “Be vigilant in your investigation, but do not be overly worried either.”

“Yes, sir,” Tong Lu answered.  He rummaged in the folds of his clothing for a long while, and finally produced a little sable the size of a palm.  The little sable wagged its tail, then turned its head and, seeing Mei Changsu, jumped into his lap.

“Why have you brought this little sable?”

“Oh… Miss Gong Yu said this little sable should follow the Chief for the next few days,” Tong Lu, his head lowered.  “It is very sensitive towards gunpowder, and if it smells any, it will start squirming restlessly, so if the Chief brings it with him wherever he goes, Miss Gong Yu would not worry so much.”

Mei Changsu shook his head and couldn’t help laughing, but he knew they all meant well, and seeing Tong Lu’s expression, he knew he had probably been scolded severely by Gong Yu for losing the gunpowder’s trail, and didn’t to make any more trouble for him, so he nodded and replied, “Alright, the little sable is very obedient, it can stay for a few days.”

Tong Lu’s face lit up in a smile, and he clasped his fist in a bow.  “Thank you, Chief!”

“What are you thanking me for?”  Mei Changsu waved a hand smilingly.  “Alright, you can go back and tell Mister Shisan……and Miss Gong Yu, I have almost fully recovered, they can stop reporting back to Lang province about my health….”

“Ah…”  Tong Lu’s face was pale.  “We didn’t….”

Mei Changsu didn’t listen, and closed his eyes to rest, and so Tong Lu didn’t dare continue, but retreated quietly, making a face to himself.

The little sable crawled up to Mei Changsu’s shoulder and kneaded his ear with its tiny claws, but there was no response, and so it crawled back down into the folds of his robes and promptly fell asleep.

Two fingers suddenly reached over and plucked up the little sable by its ear, dangling it in mid-air, and the little animal twisted furiously, its stubby little legs flailing as it squeaked in protest.

Mei Changsu opened his eyes, and said warmly, “Fei Liu, what’s the matter?”

“Those three!”

“Oh,” Mei Changsu rubbed his temples for a moment, then gathered himself and said, “Bring them in.”

“Alright!”  Fei Liu let go, and the little sable fell into Mei Changsu’s lap, and although it was not hurt, it was nonetheless quite frightened and curled into a ball, shivering and squeaking.

“There, there, don’t be scared, Fei Liu likes you….”  Mei Changsu patted it with a smile, then tucked it into the folds of his sleeve once more.  “Tonight, you can sleep with Fei Liu, how about that?”

It was a good thing the little sable could not understand him, as it continued to stare at him with its black, beady eyes, or it would have fainted away in fear.

Footsteps sounded in the corridor, varied in their strength and rhythm, just like the characters of their owners.

“Brother Su, are you feeling better?”  Yan Yujin was of course the first to speak.  “I brought back several baskets of the freshest citrus fruits from Lingnan, they can help to soothe the bitter taste you get in your mouth when you get sick.”

“Stop making so much noise,” Xiao Jingrui shoved at him, frowning.  He looked at Mei Changsu’s pale complexion and said worriedly, “Brother Su, you don’t need to get up, just stay seated.  Getting sick at this time of year is no small matter, has the physician’s medicine helped?”

“I am almost recovered, I’m sorry to have bothered you three to have come all this way to visit me.”  Mei Changsu gave a small smile.  “Come and sit, I haven’t had a chance to talk to you in such a long time.”

The three came forward and sat down in nearby chairs.  Suddenly, the little sable began squirming around in the folds of Mei Changsu’s robes, its little claws raking around furiously, and Mei Changsu felt his heart leap.

“The hot springs were really so comfortable, Brother Su, you should go give them a try, they would be very beneficial for your health.”  As Yan Yujin spoke, he took out several tangerines from his sleeve and placed them on the table.  “The other baskets have been brought around to the back, I just took a few for you to try.  The skin is thin and easy to peel, and the fruit is juicy and sweet, Brother Su, I’m sure you will like it.  I’m planning to plant a few of their trees in my own courtyard….”

“Citrus fruits only grow in the south, in the north, they will grow nothing more than thorns,” Xie Bi rolled his eyes.  “Have you studied anything?  If you tried to plant any at your home, you might end up harvesting bitter melons instead….”

Xiao Jingrui and Mei Changsu both laughed, the latter reaching out a hand to take a tangerine.  He held it in front of his nose and sniffed gently.  Beneath the crisp sweetness, there was the faintest whiff of sulfur, detectable only with very careful examination.

Mei Changsu thought he knew the reason for this.

“These tangerines are very fresh, have they really come all the way from Lingnan?  They must have come by boat, then?”

“That’s right, they came directly from Lingnan by official vessels via the Fu river, and do not have to stop along the way for inspections, and so naturally travel much faster than ordinary transport vessels.  Many of the imperial households in the capital like this kind of tangerine, and ten whole vessels of the fruit were divided up so quickly, it was a good thing my dad ordered some in advance, or we wouldn’t have been able to grab any.”

“So that’s how it is…then I must really thank your great kindness.”  Mei Changsu spoke politely while his mind worked quickly.  So besides the Green Helms and the Walkers, even the official vessels were secretly smuggling gunpowder into the city.  An ordinary jianghu quarrel shouldn’t be able to do something like this….

The little sable moved about restlessly in his robes, and Mei Changsu reached up and patted it comfortingly, and, probably because the smell of gunpowder was very faint, it settled down finally and went back to sleep.

“Brother Su, are your hands cold?  Do you want me to help you peel it?”  Xiao Jingrui asked concernedly, looking at Mei Changsu, who was holding the tangerine very still in his hand.

“……Oh, no need, Yujin is right, this skin is very easy to peel.”  Mei Changsu quickly peeled the golden yellow skin and put a slice of the fruit into his mouth.  As he bit, the cool juice filled his mouth, a perfect mix of sweet and sour.

“Is it good?”  Yan Yujin asked with his mouth full.  “It feels so great to sit here by the fire, all warm, and eating these tangerines.”

“Look at you, Brother Su has only eaten one bite, and you’re already on your second tangerine.”  Xie Bi teased, “Are you planning to finish that basket before you go back?”

“They’re good!”  Yan Yujin ignored his teasing and turned to Mei Changsu.  “If Brother Su likes them, I can send a few more baskets over.”

“These will be enough, we don’t have many people, and most of them only like eating meat anyway.  But tangerines are Fei Liu’s favourite, so I will thank you for him first.”

Yan Yujin looked around.  “Fei Liu was just here, where did he go?”

“Probably to the back courtyard to play.”  Mei Changsu looked at this son of the Imperial Uncle and suddenly thought of something, and said nonchalantly, as if casually continuing the conversation, “How did you have the time to come visit me today?  With the lady Empress ill, shouldn’t you be visiting her in the palace?”

“The lady Empress is ill?”  The shock on Yan Yujin’s face looked genuine.  “No way, I was in the palace just yesterday, she looked fine then, how could she be sick today?”

“Perhaps she has caught a cold from the weather,”  Mei Changsu smiled faintly.  “The weather is so cold, if one is not careful, it is easy to catch a chill in the night.  But there are so many people in the palace to look after her, the Empress will surely recover quickly.”

“Oh……”  Yan Yujin looked up at the sky.  “It is too late now, I will go visit her tomorrow.  If she is indeed badly ill, I will have to send a message to Dad and ask him to come back for a visit.”

“Oh?  The Imperial Uncle is not in the city?”

“He has gone to the Daoist temples outside the city to offer sacrifices.  My dad doesn’t pay any attention to palace affairs these days, and only cares about his Daoist rituals.  If he didn’t have me around as a son, he would definitely have turned our home into a Daoist temple as well,”  Yan Yujin grumbled helplessly.  “But I guess the good thing is that no one’s around to pay attention to me, so I can do anything I please.  Aside from a brief spell earlier when my dad suddenly wanted to shove me into Forbidden Dragon Army to serve as a messenger, he’s never paid much attention to my future.”

“For the son of a noble family like you, the future has never been anything worth worrying about,” Xie Bi said.  “But your dad is really becoming more and more distant, this whole year, he hasn’t even entered the palace more than once or twice, and this time, does he not even know about the Empress?”

“I don’t know….”  Yan Yujin scratched his head.  “You now as well as I do the two of them were never close, my dad likes quiet and medication, and if it were not for the fact that our ancestral shrines are in the capital, he would probably want to move to the mountains.”

Xiao Jingrui added, “If the two of you didn’t look so alike, who could tell you were father and son?  Uncle Yan is mild and peaceful, like a crane leisurely surfing the wind above an open field, whereas you, you run towards excitement and trouble, to say nothing of the manner of a crane, you are more like a stray cat!”

“Yes, the young master Xiao has a noble manner,” Yan Yujin said with a shrug.  “I am a stray cat, and you are the well-behaved domestic cat, happy?”

Mei Changsu couldn’t hold back a laugh.  “It’s been so long since I heard the two of you bickering like this, what a familiar feeling.”

¹These are names of sects that are a part of the Jiangzuo Alliance.  They will be introduced a little more in a couple of chapters from now.  I’m going to translate them into English so they at least mean something to you haha.

²measuring unit of ancient China (斤), 1 jin = 0.6 kg (according to google)

³explained in Chapter 63

Chapter 60 Translator’s Notes:

Thank you guys so, so, so much for all your comments.  They are my encouragement and inspiration to keep translating.  I can’t believe so many people are reading and enjoying this.  I hope you’ll forgive me if I can’t reply to them all (it’s replying to comments or translating, and I think we both know which we prefer lol), but I swear, I read every single one of them.  ❤

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