As they talked and laughed, it was as if they had returned to the early days of their friendship, when there had been no walls raised between their hearts. The time passed quickly, and before they knew it, it was getting dark. Mei Changsu brought out wine and invited them to stay, and the three did not decline, so the room filled with pleasant chatter as they talked about everything under the sun, except for politics and court affairs.
The wine was a strong brew from the north, and scorched its way down the throat. Yan Yujin cried out, “This is wine fit for a man to drink!” and downed a large cup in one go before choking and gasping with pain. Comparatively, the two brothers of the Xie family behaved in a much more civilized manner, and although he had a great taste and an impressive tolerance for wine, Xie Bi only sipped from a small cup slowly. At some point in time, Fei Liu had appeared in the room, and he was now peering curiously at the liquid on the table.
“Xiao Fei Liu….” Yan Yujin was a little drunk, and did not mind the cold air around Fei Liu, but held up a cup of wine and beckoned to him. “Have you tried this before? It’s very good….”
“Don’t play around with him,” Mei Changsu, who had been drinking soup because of his illness, laughed and stopped him hurriedly. “Our Fei Liu is still young.”
“I started drinking wine when I was fourteen, what are you afraid of? Fei Liu is a boy, and if he doesn’t learn to drink, he will never become a man.” Yan Yujin carelessly waved him over. “Come come come, come try a cup.”
Fei Liu looked at Su gege, and seeing that he was smiling and did not seem inclined to stop him, he came forward, accepted the cup, and took a sip. His mouth filled with the prickling of tiny needles, and smoke seemed to rise up from his head.
“Tastes bad!” Fei Liu, feeling that he had been tricked, flung the cup down and hurled himself towards Yan Yujin fist-first. The son of the Imperial Uncle shoved the table aside and jumped up to dodge his attack, and the two began flying around the room in a frenzy. At first, Xiao Jingrui was worried, but when he saw that Fei Liu was only chasing him around to let out his fury, and had no intention of really hurting him, he finally relaxed.
“Ever since I came to Jinling, Fei Liu has not had much opportunity to play like this,” Mei Changsu was smiling. “So every time you come over, he is really very happy.”
Xiao Jingrui had never felt that Fei Liu was happy to see them, but it was true that this residence seemed a bit empty and quiet, and so he couldn’t help asking, “Brother Su, will you only have these few in your household around for the new year?”
“For new year’s eve, yes, this is about it. But on the third or fourth day of the new year, I will invite some guests over, you will come too, right?”
“I will come anytime,” Xiao Jingrui looked at Fei Liu, then looked at Mei Changsu, and said sadly, “But if there is only the two of you here for new year’s eve, that would really be too lonely. Come to my home for the new year, my Zhuo dad and his family will be in the capital too, and it will be very lively.”
“Thank you,” Mei Changsu smiled at him warmly. “But whoever said it would only be the two of us around? Didn’t you see when you came in, there were at least twenty people in the courtyard?”
“But those people…aren’t family….”
“Are you saying the people in your esteemed manor are my family?” Mei Changsu had inadvertently spoken a little too sharply, but he realized that he had overreacted and softened his tone. “New year’s eve is a time for family to gather, your entire family will be there, what place would I have? Besides, the head of the imperial Ning household is your father, it wouldn’t be appropriate for you to invite an outsider into your family gathering without his approval.”
Xiao Jingrui had spoken on impulse without much thought, and on hearing this, he knew he had been rude, and so he lowered his head and said, “Brother Su is right.”
“What silly things have you said now that Brother Su had to teach you a lesson?” Yan Yujin had returned to his seat after his exercise around the room, and had caught the last sentence.
“Jingrui means well, and was worried that Fei Liu and I would be lonely during new year’s eve.” Mei Changsu smiled faintly, as if wanting to let the topic pass by unheeded.
“You didn’t invite Brother Su to your home for new year’s, did you?” Yan Yujin had shot the arrow through the bulls’ eye on the first try, and he leaned over and knocked his fist against Xiao Jingrui’s forehead. “Do you have any brains?”
“Older Brother just forgot to consider all the different aspects.” Xie Bi had always gotten along well with Xiao Jingrui, and after he had discovered the truth behind their father’s deception of him, he had relied totally on his older brother’s comfort and support, and so of course he leapt to his defense now. “You may have brains, but don’t you waste them all on food and pleasure anyway?”
Yan Yujin shook his head. “Brother Su has never liked excitement, and anyway, there is Fei Liu to keep him company, if you’re going to feel bad for anyone, feel bad for me, every year, as soon as the bows to the ancestors have been completed, I’ll be left at home all alone….”
Mei Changsu asked curiously, “And your father?”
“He goes back to his room to meditate.”
Mei Changsu was taken aback. Old Master Yan¹ and Yan Yujin’s mother had both passed away, and he did not have any brothers or sisters, so if his father really left him to go meditate in his room, this child who so loved excitement must be left feeling lonely indeed….
“Why are you fishing for sympathy?” Xie Bi scolded him with a smile. “You’ve always been a carefree little playboy, aren’t you happier without your dad around telling you what to do? You spend your time in fragrant parlours surrounded by crowds of beautiful ladies, how could you be lonely?”
Mei Changsu lifted his tea cup, breathing in its clean fragrance, and sighed in his heart. Xie Bi was, in the end, a child who had grown up under the sheltered wings of his family, and had never experienced true loneliness his whole life. How could the clamour and excitement of romantic parlours compare to the warmth and love of a home and family?
Yan Yujin did not refute Xie Bi’s words, his ever-present smile still lingering on his lips, as if he took nothing to heart. “Brother Su, do you want to come with me to the entertainment houses of Spiral Market Street this year? Look, Fei Liu is almost grown up….”
To his surprise, Mei Changsu raised an eyebrow and answered, “Alright, I cannot go as I am still recovering, but you may bring Fei Liu with you.”
“Bring him all by myself?” Yan Yujin jumped in fright. “That won’t do. What if he gets angry when the ladies touch him, who would be able to hold him back?”
“He wouldn’t, our Fei Liu has a very good temper,” Mei Changsu smiled. “After you have offered the sacrifices to your ancestors, come over here to my place and we can have some wine together, and afterwards, you can take Fei Liu out to play. This year, we are not in Lang province, and I have just gotten sick, so Fei Liu must be feeling a little out of sorts.”
“Tingsheng!” Fei Liu suddenly shouted.
“You want to bring Tingsheng out to play?” Mei Changsu stroked the youth’s hair.
“Tingsheng…this name is very familiar, where have I heard it before….” Yan Yujin scratched his head.
“He is one of the three children who defeated Baili Qi,” Xiao Jingrui remembered very clearly. “After he was released from the Secluded Court, he was taken in by Prince Jing to be his bodyguard, right?”
“That’s right, all three of the children are at the imperial Jing residence now.” Mei Changsu nodded. “They should be able to come out if they ask for a holiday from their commanding officer, right?”
“I think it should be alright,” Yan Yujin said loyally. “They were saved by you, after all, and when the time comes, I will go to pick them up in your place, and see if anyone dares to refuse to let them out.”
“Thank you,” Mei Changsu turned back to Fei Liu. “Is there anyone else you want to invite?”
Fei Liu thought seriously for a moment. “Big Uncle!”
“The big uncle can’t come, the big uncle has his own family, he has to stay with them for the new year.”
“Which big uncle?” Xie Bi asked.
“The first person in this city who defeated Fei Liu in a fight.”
The three young men were shocked. Yan Yujin looked at Fei Liu and shook his head. “From a little criminal slave to the Commander General of the Imperial Guard, I think you are the only one in the whole world with such a strange guest list.”
“In Fei Liu’s eyes, there is only like and dislike, what does he care about distinctions in rank and identity?” Mei Changsu said. “Isn’t it more simple like this?”
“It’s too bad there aren’t many who can see the world like this…” Xiao Jingrui sighed lightly. “Identity is like a person’s second skin, and if it is torn, I fear he would be changed beyond all recognition….”
Mei Changsu’s brow furrowed, as if some thought had arisen from these words, and his face was a bit pale, as his unfathomably deep gaze turned towards Xiao Jingrui.
“Alright!” Yan Yujin stretched lazily and jumped up. “Good wine should satisfy the spirit, but it should not bring too much joy, or everything that comes afterwards will seem bland by comparison. I see that you’ve all grown a bit melancholy after a few drinks, and if we keep drinking, are you going to start weeping and singing sad ballads? Brother Su looks tired, it’s time for us to go back.”
“You’re right.” Xiao Jingrui stood up as well. “Brother Su is still ill, so you should rest more to recover. We have disturbed you for so long, it is time for us to leave.”
Because he was indeed a bit tired, and because of the nameless grief and melancholy that had arisen as a result of Xiao Jingrui’s words, Mei Changsu felt his emotions had been aroused and that he needed some time alone to settle them, and so he did not ask them to stay, but quietly invited them to visit again another time, and prepared to rise to see them out.
“The wind is strong and it seems to be snowing again, Brother Su, you don’t need to come out.” Xiao Jingrui hurriedly helped him into a chair. “You don’t need to be polite with the three of us, we are all friends here. Take good care, Brother Su, and we will come see you again soon.”
Mei Changsu smiled and did not insist, but called Fei Liu over to see them out instead, then leaned back against his pillows, preparing to close his eyes for a rest. Perhaps it was because this day had been too tiring, soon, his mind grew muddled and confused, as he drifted in and out of a restless sleep, his whole body burning with heat one moment and then seeming to be soaked in ice water down to the bone in the next, as he tossed and turned for what seemed like an endless amount of time before he felt a sudden pain twist around his heart, and his whole body jumped as he awoke abruptly, opening his eyes to see three faces peering down at him from above.
“What are you all doing here?” Mei Changsu looked around and discovered that he was lying on his bed, already dressed in his sleeping robes and wrapped in a soft blanket.
“You fainted and have been unconscious the whole night, don’t you know?” Physician Yan stroked his white beard furiously. “Look out the window, the sun is already up, are you trying to scare us all to death?”
“……ah? ……I didn’t feel anything much, and I feel quite alright now……” Mei Changsu tried to sit up from the pillows, but Fei Liu wrapped his arms around him, and so he could only fall back onto the bed, as he patted the youth’s back comfortingly. “Fei Liu, don’t be scared, Su gege was just sleeping, help me up, alright?”
“You still want to get up?” Physician Yan thundered. “If I let you get up from your bed before three days has passed, my name is not Yan!”
“Physician Yan, that won’t do, these few days are very busy, there are many things that must be done….”
“I don’t care, I made a bet when I came to take over your care, and if you keep acting like this, I’m going to lose!”
Mei Changsu was going to tell him that he had special pills made by Doctor Xun Zhen that would prevent any great problems from arising if he took them regularly, but he was afraid there might be some disagreements between doctors, and that he would only make things worse if he brought it up, so he didn’t say any more, but lay down again under the fire of the elderly gentleman’s wrath, turning his head to Fei Liu to say, “Can you recognize Uncle Meng’s home?”
“Go ask Uncle Meng to come over for a visit, will you? And go secretly, don’t let anyone see you, alright?”
“Alright!” Fei Liu saw that he was awake and looked as he always did, and so his simple heart was immediately reassured, unlike Physician Yan and Li Gang, who were standing to one side. Having received his orders, he immediately flew out the door.
“Li dage, I must trouble you to send a message to Mister Shisan for me, and ask him to investigate all the official vessels which have docked at the harbour recently to see whether they have any connection to the gunpowder smuggling.”
“Yes, sir!” Li Gang was his subordinate in Jiangzuo Alliance and did not dare to defy him the way Physician Yan was doing, so although he was also extremely worried, he too did not say any more, but immediately left to carry out his orders.
“Are you done making noise?” Physician Yan grabbed his wrist roughly and began feeling his pulse, frowning for a long moment, then took his other wrist and felt it again, then peered under his eyelids and looked at his tongue. He did not say anything about the course of his illness, only lecturing scoldingly about young people these days who didn’t know how to take care of their bodies, and how a person’s health was the most important thing, and how he had to keep his mind and spirit calm and avoid any excitement…. Mei Changsu watched him quietly, not saying half a word of protest, and from his expression, looked to be listening very seriously indeed.
But even Physician Yan himself knew in his heart that the mind of this diligent young patient of his had long since turned to other matters….
¹I think he means Yan Yujin’s grandfather
Chapter 61 Translator’s Notes:
Ahh, I’ve missed our sunshine boys.