When Meng Zhi finished his shift in the palace and returned to the commander’s residence, he felt something wrong as soon as he entered his room, and although he continued casually changing out of his palace uniform and into normal clothes, his whole body was stiff with tension, like a cheetah on the alert, preparing to defend against an attack at any moment.
But he quickly understood that the reason he had so quickly identified the presence of his uninvited guest was because that person had not bothered hiding from him.
“Very slow!” The youth who drifted down from the beams of the roof had an unhappy look on his face.
“What very slow?” Meng Zhi was not Mei Changsu, and couldn’t understand Fei Liu’s patterns of thought. “I was very slow to return, or very slow in changing?”
Meng Zhi laughed loudly, and swiftly tied on his belt. “Xiao Fei Liu, did you come by yourself?”
“To do what? To practice martial arts with me?”
“Call me?” Meng Zhi thought for a moment. “You mean, your Su gege is calling me over?”
Meng Zhi was suddenly worried. A few days ago, he had heard that Su Zhe had fallen ill, and had been just about to go over for a visit when Mei Changsu sent a messenger over to say that it was nothing serious, and that he should not visit so frequently, and so he had restrained himself. Now that Fei Liu had been sent purposefully just to call him over, he was afraid that the illness might have taken a turn for the worse, and asked hurriedly, “How is your Su gege doing?”
“I know he is sick, but how is he doing?”
“Sick!” Fei Liu repeated himself unhappily, finding this uncle really a bit slow, since he had already answered the question once.
Meng Zhi shook his head helplessly, and knew in his heart that Fei Liu wouldn’t be of much help, and so quickly gathered his things and hurried out the door, jumping into his saddle and riding swiftly away towards the Su residence.
As soon as he entered the front gates, someone came forward to take his horse, and Meng Zhi strode directly into the inner courtyard, rushing straight into Mei Changsu’s room. The room’s owner sat on a heated brick bed, wrapped snugly in his furs, holding a bowl of steaming medicinal soup in his hands as he sipped it slowly, and though his face was a bit pale, he looked otherwise rather well.
“Xiao Shu, are you alright?”
Mei Changsu half-rose out of his chair, gesturing with an arm. “Meng dage, please sit, I’m alright, I only caught a chill, and the physician wants me to sweat it out.”
“You really gave me a fright.” Meng Zhi finally let out a sigh of relief. “I thought you called me over so urgently because something had happened to you. What’s the matter then?”
Mei Changsu placed his empty bowl onto the table beside him, then accepted the cup of tea Meng Zhi handed to him and took a swallow to rinse his mouth, before asking, “I hear the Empress is unwell?”
Meng Zhi stared at him. “News certainly travels to you quickly. She just fell sick yesterday, and apparently it came on very suddenly. But I cannot enter the Inner Palace unless I am guarding the Emperor, and so I am not too clear about the details. I only spoke to the imperial physician briefly when he came out, and he said it isn’t anything serious.”
Mei Changsu’s brow furrowed, as if there was something he didn’t understand. “When they brought the news to Prince Yu, he was with me here, and if it was really only a trivial illness, they should not have been in such a panic….”
“It’s probably because it came on so suddenly, and so it appeared to be serious at first glance, and everyone made a bit of a fuss.” Meng Zhi thought for a moment. “According to the imperial physician, it is not life-threatening.”
“Why she fell sick, and how long it will take her to recover – did you ask about these?”
“Oh….” Meng Zhi scratched his head, embarrassed. “I didn’t know you would want to know about these, and so didn’t ask especially….”
Mei Changsu murmured to himself, then said, “How about this, Meng dage, you can use the excuse of paying a visit to Princess Nihuang to enter the palace and investigate a bit more, and find a way to bring me a copy of the imperial physician’s prescription. You might also be able to glean some news from Princess Jingning……as for Prince Yu, don’t worry about him, I will remind him to pay careful attention to the Empress’ food and drink….”
“Are you suspecting that the Empress’ illness is man-made?”
Mei Changsu nodded. “It is too much of a coincidence, I cannot rest until I investigate the matter thoroughly.”
“If anyone wanted to poison the Empress, Consort Yue and the Crown Prince should be at the top of that list….”
“You are not wrong, but there are still several ways in which this conclusion does not make sense.” Mei Changsu wrinkled his brow. “First, it is precisely because they are the most likely suspects that they are the least likely to succeed. In all these years that the Empress has been in the palace, her most important task has been to compete with Consort Yue, and so she is always extremely alert and careful around her, and if Consort Yue could not accomplish something like this at the height of her power, then it would be simply impossible for her to succeed now. Besides, the Empress’ illness this time is not life-threatening, and if this were really the work of the Crown Prince and Consort Yue, surely they would not have acted so half-heartedly, if they had the chance to poison her, they would definitely have poisoned her to death, what would be the point in simply making her sick for a few days?”
“Perhaps their goal is simply to prevent the Empress from participating in the sacrificial rites, so that Consort Yue can take her place….”
“What good could come of that? There is no practical gain to be had, only a soothing of their anger from losing the debate. If they had the chance to make the Empress sick, why not kill her outright and reap the benefits in the long run? Not to mention, don’t forget that Consort Yue has only been restored to consort, but not imperial Noble Consort, and currently in the palace, Gracious Consort Xu and Moral Consort Chan¹ both rank above her, and although these two ladies have only birthed princesses and so have never dared to compete for power in the palace, they currently outrank Consort Yue in both name and years, and so who is to say Consort Yue would be the one to replace the Empress in the sacrificial rites?”
“Then……you mean to say, the Crown Prince and Consort Yue are innocent this time?”
Mei Changsu sighed quietly. “It is too early to draw any conclusions now. Perhaps there is some benefit to replacing the Empress in this year’s sacrificial rites that I have not thought of……or perhaps the Empress has truly just happened to fall ill……there are too many possibilities, and therefore I require more information.”
“But there are only a few days left until the year end’s sacrificial rites….”
“So we must make the most of this opportunity….” Mei Changsu’s expression was serious as he pressed his fingers against his temples. “I have a feeling that there is some secret going on behind all of this…”
Meng Zhi immediately stood up. “I will go and investigate for you right away.”
“Thank you, Meng dage.” Mei Changsu raised his head and smiled at him. “Let me know immediately if there is any news.”
Meng Zhi had always been a man of action, and so he only answered, “Right,” before turning to leave.
Mei Changsu let out a long sigh and leaned back against his pillows, falling into deep thought again. He felt an exhaustion in his mind and spirit, as he began to grow light-headed and a little dizzy, and so to preserve his energy for later, he forced himself to stop thinking, to let go of the complex thoughts in his mind and enter into sleep instead. However, he could not sleep very deeply, and only drifted dazedly in and out of consciousness, as the time passed by unheeded, and when he finally opened his eyes again, it was noon.
He could not sleep any more even if he wanted to, and so Mei Changsu wrapped his furs around himself and sat up, ate a bowl of the congee Physician Yan had prescribed, and picked up again his book of Confucian scriptures and began reading slowly. Fei Liu sat beside him peeling tangerines, and quiet fell around them as the sound of the wind blew through the room.
There was no news from either Mister Shisan or Meng Zhi.
This was not surprising, since he had given his orders only a few hours ago, and some things were not so easily uncovered.
But for some reason, Mei Changsu still felt dimly that something outside of his expectation and control had occurred quietly, but when he concentrated and tried to understand what it was, it seemed to slip from between his fingers, neatly avoiding his grasp.
He was deep in thought when Li Gang’s voice drifted in from the outer courtyard. “Please, follow me this way.”
Mei Changsu’s brows leapt lightly. Although someone had arrived, it could not be Meng Zhi, for whom he was waiting, and it was clearly not Tong Lu either.
That was because, if it had been either one of these two, Li Gang would not be leading the way for him with such courtesy and politeness.
“Fei Liu, go and bring that chair over here to Su gege’s bed, alright?”
Fei Liu took the tangerines in his hands and crammed them all into his mouth, then obediently got up and moved the chair into the indicated position. Just as he finished, the door to the room was pushed open, and Li Gang called from outside the door, “Chief, His Highness Prince Jing has come to ask after your health.”
“Your Highness, please enter.” Mei Changsu said loudly.
Following his words, Xiao Jingyan strode into the room, but Li Gang did not enter, and had probably already retreated away.
“Mister Su, don’t worry, no one saw me coming in here.” These were the first words out of Prince Jing’s mouth. “How is your health? You have been ill.”
“It is nothing. It is only because I have been instructed to undergo this sweating treatment, and so cannot get up, pray Your Highness forgive my discourtesy.” Mei Changsu stretched out his hand and indicated the chair beside his bed. “Your Highness, please sit.”
“Don’t worry about courtesy and discourtesy.” Prince Jing took off his cloak and sat, and then immediately got to the point, saying, “You are investigating the matter of the Empress’ illness, is that right?”
Mei Changsu gave a small smile. “How did Your Highness know?”
“By your calculating nature, I do not think you would let a single unexpected event slip by uninvestigated….”
“Does Your Highness also think the Empress’ illness this time is not an ordinary sickness?
“I do not think, I know.” Prince Jing’s thin lip curled. “That’s what I have come to tell you, the Empress has been poisoned by ruan hui grass.
Mei Changsu was mildly surprised. “Ruan hui grass? The ruan hui grass that makes a person weak in the limbs and diminishes one’s appetite, but whose effect wears off in six or seven days?”
“Why is Your Highness so certain?”
Prince Jing looked calm, and his voice was steady as he said, “I entered the palace to visit Mother today, and she was the one who told me. When the Empress fell ill, she was at Zhengyang palace with the other concubines and consorts on one of their routine visits, and she was standing not far from the Empress, and so saw the whole thing clearly.”
Mei Changsu’s gaze flashed, but he asked softly, “How did Concubine Jing realize that it was ruan hui grass?”
“Before Mother entered the palace, she often saw this type of herb and is familiar with its smell, as well as the symptoms it causes when ingested.” Prince Jing looked at Mei Changsu’s expression. “Perhaps you do not know that my mother was once a physician. She will not be wrong.”
“Your Highness is mistaken, it is not that I do not trust Concubine Jing’s judgement, I was only thinking……who would dare poison the Empress, and yet only use this kind of weak herb to do so?” Mei Changsu frowned in quiet thought, a thin layer of sweat breaking out over his forehead, and in his worry, he had unconsciously begun rubbing a corner of the blanket between his fingers, so that the tips of his fingers were turning red with the exertion.
“It is not anything serious, why so troubled?” Prince Jing frowned at Mei Changsu’s expression, as if he couldn’t bear his worry. “And it is not only you and I who are investigating. Although Prince Yu does not know the reason for the Empress’ sickness, he has begun investigating this matter in the palace, and perhaps it will not be long before he finds the person responsible for the poisoning.”
Mei Changsu closed his eyes and smiled faintly. “Your Highness is correct, the worst that can happen is that the Empress will not be able to attend the sacrificial ceremony, and that is indeed not anything very serious in the long run, so it does not matter if we do not fully understand everything….”
“When you are thinking, do you often rub your fingers like this without knowing?
Mei Changsu’s heart seemed to stop, but his face showed no sign of disturbance as he smiled. “Yes, this happens often, and even when I am not thinking about anything in particular, my fingers often move. I think many people have this habit, no?”
“Yes….” A nostalgic look passed over Prince Jing’s gaze. “I know a few people who do this as well….”
Mei Changsu drew both of his hands into his sleeve, then changed the subject. “I have neglected my courtesy, how has Your Highness been recently?”
Prince Jing looked at him closely for a moment. “I have been busy with the things you left for me to do, of course. My household and army have been undergoing reorganization and training, and as for external matters, I have been making friends with the people on your list…. You certainly have a keen eye, everyone you have chosen is a steadfast official with a heart for serving his country, and I have enjoyed my interactions with them. That’s right, a few days ago, I was at the Zhenshan temple, and happened to save the granddaughter of Liu Cheng, the Head Secretariat¹, was this also planned by you?”
Mei Changsu stared at him for a long moment, then suddenly smiled. “Does Your Highness really take me for the devil?”
“Ah….” Prince Jing had guessed wrong, and now looked a bit uncomfortable. “I have been too suspicious….”
“But Your Highness has reminded me, it would be good to plan carefully and identify a few important people to target, and improve your relationship with them.”
Prince Jing smiled grimly, as if he did not quite agree. “If there is no truth in a relationship, what good is it? It would not do to use too much cunning when associating with honest officials like these. As long as I treat them with respect and sincerity, how can I complain if they do not develop a good impression of me? Take more time to rest, and do not waste your efforts worrying about this.”
“It is said that this is the weakness of a gentleman – that he has only sincerity, and no cunning.” Mei Changsu looked at the glimpse of ice in Prince Jing’s gaze, and answered him in a tone even colder than his had been. “In matters like the fight for the throne, if it were only a question of sincerity and goodwill, then why are the scrolls of history soaked crimson with blood? Your Highness has only begun to show your abilities, and may yet remain hidden for a while longer, but as soon as the Crown Prince or Prince Yu notices you, all tender feelings will be a thing of the past.”
Prince Jing sat in thought, his face hard, and after a long while, he said slowly, “I understand your meaning. Since I have already stepped onto this path, I am of course not this naive. I spoke as I did just now only because there are many types of people in this world, and for some, the more effort you put into it, the less likely you will be able to befriend them.”
An almost imperceptible smile hovered around Mei Changsu’s lips as he said quietly, “There has never been a universal rule when it comes to dealing with people. I have my ways, and Your Highness has your strategies. I measure talent, Your Highness judges virtue; sometimes talent takes precedence, sometimes virtue is of greater importance. It all depends on where Your Highness chooses to use someone, and when.”
Prince Jing’s brow furrowed as he lowered his head and pondered these words. He had always been gifted at perception and comprehension, and soon, he understood the meaning behind Mei Changsu’s words. He lifted his gaze and admitted defeat, saying, “Mister’s knowledge and experience are truly superior to Jingyan’s, please continue to teach and advise me in the days to come.”
Mei Changsu smiled, and was about to speak a few soothing words when suddenly, he saw Tong Lu through a crack in the window, pacing back and forth in the courtyard, which meant that he had something to report, but knew that there was a guest in the house and so didn’t dare to enter.
¹I have chosen to translate "陳" as ‘Chan’ even though it should be spelled 'Chen' in order to distinguish her from Consort Chen i.e. Lin Yueyao
Also, I am going to quote directly from from ao3 by ofsevenseas:
“Inner Palace Rankings:
Empress (official wife, highest in status unless there are dowager empresses living, but officially given control over the inner palace)
Imperial consorts (four places, primary first rank)
Consorts (nine places, primary second rank)
Imperial Concubines (twenty seven places)
Concubines (eighty one places)
Imperial consorts (夫人), comprising of 贵妃 (guifei/noble consort), 淑妃 (shufei/'ladylike' consort), 德妃 (defei/'moral' consort), 贤妃 (xianfei/'virtuous' consort).”
I have used her suggested translations, except for changing ‘ladylike’ to ‘gracious’.
²the Head Secretariat [中書令] is head of the Executive Secretary Bureau, one of the three strange departments I translated a few chapters back. If you want to know why this dude is important (and if you, like me, don’t remember from the drama), you can check the glossary for spoilers! Otherwise, just remember his name 😉 It will come up again in……maybe a hundred chapters or so XD
Chapter 62 Translator’s Notes:
Well I’m glad Jingyan gets it because I sure don’t. Anyone care to enlighten me? (Update after translating Ch. 63: never mind, it will all make sense later! See, I told you I’m reading as I translate 😂😂)