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“Would Your Highness mind if one of my subordinates came in to make a report?”  Mei Changsu asked with a small smile.  He had not intended to see Tong Lu for now, but then abruptly changed his mind.

Prince Jing was a tactful person and he immediately stood and said, “Mister Su must be busy, I will take my leave.”

“Your Highness, please stay a little while longer, I think it would be good for you to hear the things he has to say.”  Mei Changsu did not wait for Prince Jing’s response, but rose and called loudly, “Tong Lu, come in.”

Tong Lu, suddenly hearing his voice, jumped in surprise, but immediately steadied himself, then strode quickly up the stairs and pushed open the door.  He was just about to clasp his hands in a salute when Mei Changsu looked at him meaningfully and said, “Greet His Highness Prince Jing.”

“Tong Lu greets His Highness!”  The young man was exceedingly clever, and so as soon as he heard the identity of his guest, he immediately pushed aside his robes and knelt, bending over to touch his head to the floor in a bow.

“Please rise.”  Prince Jing waved a hand, then said to Mei Changsu, “Is this a member of your honourable Alliance?  He certainly has a heroic air.”

“Your Highness is too kind,”  Mei Changsu replied politely, then turned to Tong Lu and asked, “Have you come to see me to report on the matter of the gunpowder?”

“Yes, sir,” Tong Lu stood up.

“His Highness does not know much about this, tell it once again from the beginning.”

“Yes, sir.”  Although he was face to face with a prince, Tong Lu still spoke naturally and confidently, without cowering or flinching.  “It all started when our brothers in the Green Helms of the Canal and the Walkers Sect discovered that someone was smuggling a few hundred jin of gunpowder into the capital, a little bit at a time, mixed in with various different types of deliveries….”

After his first sentence, Prince Jing was already looking a little perplexed, and Mei Changsu smiled, and explained considerately, “Your Highness is seldom involved in jianghu matters and so likely does not know, the Green Helms of the Canals and the Walkers Sect are jianghu sects formed from our labouring brothers who work on ships or in goods delivery; one operates on water, the other on land, and they have a very good relationship with one another.  Although their position is low and humble, they are extremely loyal, and their leader is an honest and straightforward man.”

Prince Jing nodded, eyeing Mei Changsu as he did.  Although he had long since known that this scholar was the chief of the world’s greatest alliance, because he carried such a scholarly air, and looked so delicate and frail, people often forget his jianghu identity, and now that the topic had been raised, an understanding arose in his heart as he began to realize the extent of the influence this man held.

“Because it was such a great quantity of gunpowder, it would have great destructive power if it was used, and so, to ensure the chief’s safety, we traced the delivery of the gunpowder.”  Tong Lu glanced at Mei Changsu, and continued at his signal.  “But in the end, we gained no information from our searching.  Later, by the chief’s orders, we specially investigated the official vessels that have been recently involved in goods delivery, and found that there were indeed traces of gunpowder delivered on them recently as well.  The goods this batch of official vessels were delivering included fresh fruits, perfume, Southern silk, and other similar products used by noble families in the new year, and many residences have places orders for them, so it is almost impossible to trace their deliveries, and thus we have not yet been able to identify a single household as the primary suspect.

“But if they were able to make use of the official vessels, then they cannot be of simple jianghu background, and must have some relation to a noble house.”  Prince Jing said, frowning.  “Are you sure it is not related to the two official transport channels?”

Everyone present understood what Prince Jing meant by the two official transport channels.  According to Da Liang law, the court upheld very strict regulations regarding gunpowder, and aside from the Jiangnan Thunderbolt Office of the Ministry of War, which was in charge of official firearms, and the fireworks factory under the Ministry of Revenue, which produced fireworks and firecrackers, no one else was allowed to come into contact with gunpowder, and so the so-called official transport channels referred to transport vessels which bore the sign of either the Thunderbolt Office or the fireworks factory, with anything else counting as a violation of the law.

“Definitely not, this batch of gunpowder does not even exist in the records of the official vessels.”  Tong Lu said with certainty.  “The goods delivered by the official vessels are spread throughout the city, and it is a very complicated matter to try to trace their paths, and at first, we found it difficult to know where to begin, but without coincidences, there would be no story to tell, and by chance, we happened to come across…”

“Tong Lu, perhaps you can skip to the conclusion,” Mei Changsu said gently.  “His Highness is not here to listen to your stories.”

“Yes, sir,” Tong Lu scratched his head, his cheeks red.  “We discovered that this batch of gunpowder was finally delivered to a large courtyard enclosed by a tall fence in the northern part of the city, where there was an illegal fireworks factory….”

“Illegal fireworks?”

“Perhaps Your Highness does not know, near the end of the year, the price of fireworks skyrockets, and so there is great profit to be made in selling fireworks.  But all the income of the official fireworks factory is recorded and stored, and cannot stay in the Ministry of Revenue, so the previous Minister of Revenue, Lou Zhijing, secretly opened this illegal fireworks factory and smuggled gunpowder into it, and as for the profit from this factory… he took a little for himself, and most of it went to the Crown Prince….”

“You mean the Crown Prince and the Ministry of Revenue conspired to open this illegal fireworks factory for their own profit?”  Prince Jing stood up in his fury.  “What kind of a thing is this!”

“Why is Your Highness so angry?” Mei Changsu spoke impassively.  “Lou Zhijing has already been toppled from his position, and once Shen Zhui assumes his post, he will certainly investigate everything carefully, and so this illegal fireworks factory will not be around for much longer.”

Prince Jing was silent for a moment, then said, “I know there is no point in getting angry, and I have never harboured much expectation towards the Crown Prince, it was only that I could not control my fury for a moment.  Has Mister Su asked me to stay to hear this so that I could understand better what kind of a person the Crown Prince is?”

“It is not like that,” Mei Changsu was taken aback for a moment, and then laughed in spite of himself.  “Before Tong Lu came in, I did not know that they had managed to uncover this.  I only wanted Your Highness to know that there was a batch of gunpowder loose in the capital, so that you would know to be careful when you go out into the city, and also I wanted to give you the little sable….”

"The little sable?”

“Yes, a sable, which will wriggle and squirm in warning if it smells gunpowder.  I originally thought to have it accompany Your Highness around while we did not know where the gunpowder is being held……I had not thought they would uncover the truth so quickly, they have truly exceeded my expectations.”  As Mei Changsu spoke, he drew a chubby little sable from the folds of his robe and passed it to Tong Lu.  “Return it to its previous owner, I have no need of it anymore, and no time to look after it.”

Prince Jing’s expression changes as he asked, “The little sable does not belong to you?”

“No, it belongs to a lady of our Alliance.”

Prince Jing’s lips quirked, but he did not say anything.  Mei Changsu gestured for Tong Lu to retreat, then turned to look at Prince Jing, asking in a low voice, “Does Your Highness think I have acted a bit too coldly?”

Prince Jing’s gaze turned to him, and he answered, “That lady brought you the sable because she was worried you would be injured by the gunpowder, yet you so casually decided to give the little sable to me, aren’t you letting down the care she has shown for you?  But I understand your consideration for my sake, and anyway this is not something on which I should be passing judgement.  It is only that you asked, and so I spoke my thoughts plainly.”

Mei Changsu bowed his head silently, and did not reply.  In truth, it was not that he did not understand these principles of getting along with other people, it was only that he had a goal in his heart he must achieve even with his dying breath, and so everything else had grown dim by comparison.  Since he had chosen Prince Jing as his lord, naturally he must put him first in everything he did, and so he did not have any energy left over to consider Gong Yu’s feelings.

“Your Highness,” Mei Changsu turned his face away slightly, changing the subject.  “Have you said something to my lady Concubine Jing?”

Prince Jing stared for a moment, and then nodded.  “I must tell Mother about the path I have chosen, so she may make certain preparations.  But do not worry, she will definitely not try to dissaude me.”

“I know,” Mei Changsu murmured to himself in a voice too low to be heard.  Then he raised his head and said, “Your Highness, please tell my lady, her power in the palace is too fragile, she must not to attempt to help Your Highness in any way under any circunstances.  There are some things she can only see and remember, she must not ask any questions or attempt to investigate any further.  I should still have some power in the palace, and in a little while, I will find a way to transfer them over to Concubine Jing’s side to protect her, do not worry.”

“You have people in the palace?”  Prince Jing did not even attempt to hide his shock.  “I have truly underestimated the strength of Mister Su’s power.”

“Your Highness does not need to be so surprised,” Mei Changsu turned his gaze back to him calmly.  “The unfortunate can be found anywhere one thinks to look, and it is a simple matter to buy their loyalty with a few favours.  For example, Tong Lu, whom you just saw, was taken in by Jiangzuo Alliance at a time when he was desperate and out of options, and ever since then, he has served me with fierce and fearless loyalty.”

“Is that why you trust him so much that you let him meet with me directly?”

“I trust him, but of course I am not only trusting in his character.” A sliver of coldness arose in Mei Changsu’s gaze.  “Tong Lu’s mother and sister currently live in Lang province, under the care of Jiangzuo Alliance.”

Prince Jig studied him for a moment, then suddenly understood, and couldn’t help feeling his eyebrows twitch.

“I am open with Tong Lu, and am never doubtful or suspicious towards him – this is my sincerity.  Keeping his mother and sister in my grasp, as a precaution – this is my cunning,” Mei Changsu said coldly.  “I do not have to go to such lengths with everyone, but for those closest to me who will come into contact with crucial information, I cannot omit either sincerity or cunning.  This is the point I was making in my discussion with Your Highness just now.”

Prince Jing shook his head and sighed.  “Must you speak of everything you do in such a ruthless light?”

“I have always been this kind of person,”  Mei Changsu said expressionlessly.  “A person can only be betrayed by his friends, his enemies will never have the opportunity to ‘betray’ or ‘forsake’ him.  Even for friendships woven into one’s very flesh and bones, even for friends as close as blood-brothers, there is no way to truly know the heart beneath the shell of his skin.”

Prince Jing’s gaze faltered, as events of the past flashed through his mind, and an ache rose up in his heart as he said through gritted teeth, “I admit, what you have said is true, but others will do to you as you do to them, do you not understand this logic?”

“I understand, but I do not care.”  Mei Changsu gazed into the crimson flames trembling in the brazier, as the light it cast danced across his face.  “Your Highness may use any method you like to test me, to try me, I do not mind, because I know where my loyalty lies, and I have never once thought of betraying it.”

His tone was light, but the meaning behind his words were fierce.  Prince Jing felt a complicated mix of emotions rising in his heart, and he did not know how to reply.  Silence fell over the room as the two sat, face to face, now seeming as if to be deep in thought, now seeming to be just sitting idly, with not much on their minds.

They sat there for the time it took to brew a pot of tea, and then Prince Jing stood and said slowly, “Please take care, I will take my leave.”

Mei Changsu nodded and sat up slightly, one hand bracing himself on the side of the bed, as he said, “Take care, Your Highness, my apologies for not seeing you out.”

Prince Jing had just disappeared when Fei Liu appeared by the side of the bed, a tangerine still clutched in his hand, as he cocked his head and inspected Mei Changsu’s face for a long moment before he peeled the tangerine and held a slice up to Mei Changsu’s mouth.

“It is too cold, Su gege will not eat it now, Fei Liu can have it himself.”  Mei Changsu gave him a small smile.  “Go and open a couple of windows and air out the room.”

Fei Liu ran to the windows and cleverly opened the ones on the west side of the house, through which the sun was shining, and gradually, the air began to stir in the room.

“Chief, it will be too cold.”  Li Gang, who had been standing guard in the courtyard, ran in, looking worried.

“It’s alright, it’s only for a little while.”  Mei Changsu listened for a moment.  “Who’s shouting in the courtyard?”

“Uncle Ji and Aunt Ji,”  Li Gang couldn’t help laughing.  “Aunt Ji has hidden Uncle Ji’s wine gourds again, and Uncle Ji went looking for them secretly and got himself scolded by Aunt Ji, who asked him how he could expect to find them so easily when she has been hiding his things for so many years now….”

Mei Changsu’s hand slipped, and the cup of tea Fei Liu had handed him fell to the ground, shattering into powder.

“Chief, what’s wrong?”  Li Gang was pale with fear.  “Fei Liu, hold onto him, I’ll go find Physician Yan….”

“No need,” Mei Changsu raised a hand to stop him, and then lay back down onto the soft pillows, rubbing his head in deep thought, as a thin sheen of sweat broke out over his forehead.

By the same logic, this was not the first year the illegal fireworks factory had started smuggling gunpowder, and so why had they remained undiscovered in previous years, but were so easily found out by the Green Helms and the Walkers this year?  Was it because Lou Zhijing had been toppled from his position, and some of the controls over the operation had become complacent?

No, it couldn’t be….  The illegal fireworks factory had been operating for so many years, they must have established their own means of delivery, and would not need to resort to the mass transport channels like those of the Green Helms and the Walkers.  Even smuggling through the official vessels would make more sense….the Ministry of Revenue transported huge amounts of goods every year by the official vessels anyway, and they were completely under its control, and so no matter how you looked at it, it made no sense for them to take the risk of using civil transport over water or land, therefore….

…whoever was behind the smuggling of gunpowder via the Green Helms and the Walkers Sect was not affiliated with the illegal fireworks factory of the Ministry of Revenue!

Let’s say……that person knew all along the secret of the Ministry of Revenue’s illegal fireworks factory, then naturally, he would use it to his advantage.  Ideally, his smuggling of gunpowder into the capital would not be discovered, but if it was, he could easily divert the trail to the illegal fireworks factory, and so obscure the truth, because the illegal fireworks factory really was smuggling gunpowder into the capital, and so most people would stop their investigations here, believing that they had uncovered the truth, and would not realize that there was another batch of gunpowder, with a different purpose and destination, that had quietly entered the city….

Who was this person?  What was his goal?  If the gunpowder wasn’t being used to produce fireworks, then it was intended to cause an explosion somewhere.  He had put so much effort into this operation, and had even managed to use the Ministry of Revenue as both his shield and his smokescreen, and so that meant he could not be just a simple jianghu man…… and if this wasn’t related to jianghu grudges, then it could only be related to the court, so was he trying to kill someone, or was he trying to destroy something?  What kind of important occasion was there in the capital recently that could have become this person’s target?

At this point, four words flashed across Mei Changsu’s mind like a bolt of lightning.

The year end’s sacrificial rites……the most important yearly ceremony of Da Liang……

Mei Changsu’s face was pale as snow, but his eyes shone, as if burning with some hidden fire.

He thought of something he had heard.  At the time, he had only felt a faint sense of unease, but had not paid it much attention.  Now, it rose up suddenly in his mind like the key to a locked door.

Amidst the dense fog of confusion, Mei Changsu leapt past every facade and caught hold of the faint light shining from deep within its midst.

Chapter 63 Translator’s Notes:

“Even for friendships woven into one’s very flesh and bones, even for friends as close as blood-brothers, there is no way to truly know the heart beneath the shell of his skin.”

Sobbing.  Remember that Xie Yu was once one of Lin Xie’s best friends, as well as a Chiyan veteran….  The part that breaks my heart is that, for all of Lin Shu’s “I can never truly trust anyone again”, later parts of the novel show that he DOES trust his brothers who have survived Meiling with him [SPOILERS WARNING] – Nie Duo, Nie Feng, Wei Zheng, even Li Gang and Zhen Ping – in a way that he doesn’t with anyone else, not even Jingyan and Nihuang (at first anyway).  And it’s that brotherhood, that loyalty – forged from the fires of hell itself – that really makes me want to cry.

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