Mei Chang’s voice was very low as he spoke into Yan Que’s ear, his gaze locked onto his face, taking note of his every expression.
But surprisingly, Yan Que’s face was still, as if those abrupt words had not disturbed him in the slightest, and his calm was so absolute that Mei Changsu almost believed that he had come to the wrong conclusion entirely.
But this feeling passed quickly, and he soon knew he had been correct, because Yan Que had lifted his head to look him in the eye.
Those permanently lowered eyes which concealed all thoughts were not as calm as the rest of his expression, and in those clear pupils, an unusually complicated mix of emotions was stirring. There was shock, despair, resentment, grief; the only thing not present was fear.
But Yan Que should have been afraid. No matter how you looked at it, what he had planned counted as treason worthy of a death sentence up to the ninth generation, and evidently, this great crime of his now lay within the grasp of the refined scholar standing before him.
And yet, he was not afraid as he continued to stare at Mei Changsu, but though his face was expressionless, his eyes were filled with fatigue, sorrow, and a deep, unquenchable resentment.
In that expression, it was as if he was climbing a mountain, having braved countless dangers and unfathomable suffering, and just as he was finally nearing its peak, he suddenly came across a wide chasm impossible to breach, which said to him coldly, “Turn back, you cannot cross over.”
Mei Changsu stood before him now, informing him of his failure. In this moment, he could not spare any attention to the consequences of this failure, because there was only one thought in his mind.
I could not kill him. And if I could not kill that man this time, then I will not have another chance in the future.
By this time, Yan Yujin and Xiao Jingrui had run over, and were looking curiously at the two of them.
“Yujin, is there some place quiet, I have some things to discuss with your esteemed father, and I do not wish to be disturbed by anyone.” Mei Changsu asked quietly.
“Yes…the Painting Building at the back….” Yan Yujin was extremely intelligent, and simply from their expressions, he knew something was wrong. “Brother Su, please follow me….”
Mei Changsu nodded, and turned to Yan Que. “Marquis, after you.”
Yan Que smiled ruefully, then lifted his head and took a deep breath, saying, “Please, after you.”
The row of people walked silently, and even Xiao Jingrui tactfully kept quiet. When they arrived at the Painting Building, Mei Changsu entered with Yan Que, indicating with a glance for the two young men to wait outside. The innermost room of the Painting Building was a small, plain Painting Room, adorned with simple furniture, and aside from a wall filled with bookshelves, there was only a table, two chairs, and a long couch by the window.
“Marquis,” Mei Changsu came straight to the point once the two were seated on the chairs. “Have you hidden the gunpowder in the sacrificial altar?”
The muscles in Yan Que’s face jumped, but he did not answer.
“Of course, you may deny it, but it is not difficult to prove, I have only to let Meng Zhi know, and he will conduct a thorough search of the entire sacrificial altar.” Mei Changsu pressed on relentlessly. “I think the reason you have spent so much time meditating at the Daoist temples is to divert attention away from your interactions with the master in charge of the rites, is that right? And these masters are naturally your accomplices as well, or perhaps I should say, you have helped all your accomplices to become masters, am I correct?”
Yan Que looked at him and said coldly, “It is said that the wise die young, Mister Su possesses such intelligence, are you not afraid of shortening your lifespan?”
“The span of one’s life is determined by the heavens, why should I worry?” Mei Changsu returned his gaze carelessly. “As for the Marquis……did you really believe you could succeed?”
“At least before you appeared, everything was going very smoothly. My masters have already hidden the gunpowder without anyone noticing, under the guise of rehearsing for the ceremony, and the fuse has been placed in the furnace. As soon as the Emperor lights the incense to worship the heavens, he will ignite the fuse hidden in the furnace, and the entire altar will explode.”
“It is indeed as I thought,” Mei Changsu sighed. “When the Emperor lights the incense, although the princes and ministers will be kneeling at the base of the altar, nine feet away, and will thus escape the explosion, the Empress must stand on the altar as well……and even though the two of you have been estranged for so many years, you still retain some brotherly love for her, and so you found a way to prevent her from attending the ceremony, right?”
“That’s right,” Yan Que answered plainly. “Although she has committed many sins, in the end, she is still my younger sister, and I cannot condemn her to such a cruel fate…… Did Mister Su begin to suspect me because you thought her illness too strange?”
“Not entirely. Besides the Empress’ illness, Yujin also said something which aroused my suspicion.”
“One night, he sent me a few baskets of Lingnan tangerines, and said that they had been delivered via official vessels and so were very popular, and it was only because you had pre-ordered some that the Yan residence managed to acquire any at all.” Mei Changsu glanced over, his gaze sharp as the edge of a knife. “You claim to be devoted to the temples and the gods and to have given up worldly affairs, and do not even spend New Year’s Eve with your family, so why would you purposefully order fresh fruits to celebrate the new year? You were only using this as an excuse to confirm the arrival date of the official vessels, so you could arrange for your gunpowder to enter the city at the same time as the Ministry of Revenue’s smuggled gunpowder, so that if anyone noticed anything strange, you could neatly divert the trail to the illegal fireworks factory, because as long as the timing was right, it would be very difficult for anyone to see through the deception.”
“Unfortunately, you still saw through it,” Yan Que said ironically. “Mister Su is truly a great talent, it is small wonder that everyone is trying to acquire you for his own.”
Mei Changsu paid no attention to his mocking, but continued quietly, “The Marquis has taken such a great risk to assassinate the Emperor, for what purpose?”
Yan Que stared at him for a moment, and then suddenly laughed out loud. “I have no other motive, I only want him to die. Assassinating the Emperor is my only goal. This is because he should die, I care nothing for treason or heavenly mandate, as long as he is killed, there is nothing I will not do.”
Mei Changsu gazed into the distance, his voice low. “Is it because of Consort Chen?”
Yan Que’s entire body trembled as he stopped laughing suddenly and turned his head towards him. “You……you know about Consort Chen?”
“It was not so long ago, is it so surprising that I know? In that year, the eldest son of the Emperor, Prince Qi, was sentenced to death, and his birth mother Consort Chen committed suicide in the palace. Although no one mentions them now, it was still only twelve years ago….”
“Twelve years…” Yan Que’s smile was full of sorrow, his eyes burning with unshed tears, “It is long enough. Besides me, who is there left to remember her now….”
Mei Changsu was quiet for a moment before he said, “Since you harboured such deep feelings for her, why did you stand by and watch as she entered the palace back then?”
“Why?” Yan Que gritted his teeth. “Because that person was the Emperor. The Emperor we had all once protected with our lives, whom we had helped onto the throne. We had been friends since we first began studying together as children, as we learned martial arts together, and later as we saved Da Liang from danger together, but once he became Emperor, there was only lord and servant. The three of us……we had sworn so many times to walk together in sorrow and in joy, to support each other all our lives, to remain loyal unto death, but in the end, he did not keep a single one of his pledges. The second year after he ascended the throne, he stole Yueyao from me, and although he knew we were in love, he did not even hesitate. Lin dage counselled me to be patient and endure, and so I could only endure, and when Jingyu was born, and Yueyao was raised to the title of Consort Chen, I even thought I could let go of her entirely, so long as he treated her well……and in the end? Jingyu dead, Yueyao dead, even Lin dage…… he ruthlessly struck them down, one by one. If I had not fled in despair from all worldly affairs, he would not have so much as blinked before taking my life as well……such a cold, despicable Emperor, do you not think he deserves to die?”
“And so you plotted for so many years, simply in order to kill him.” Mei Changsu looked into Yan Que’s aged gaze. “And after you have killed him, then what? When the Emperor has been blasted into smoke and dust on the altar, leaving chaos in his wake, the Crown Prince and Prince Yu fighting viciously, raising confusion in the court and instability on our borders, in the end, who will suffer, and who will reap the reward? The tainted names of the ones you love will still rest on their shoulders, without any hope of redemption. Prince Qi will still be guilty of treason, the Lin family still guilty of rebellion, and Consort Chen’s soul will still wander alone, without a plaque to her name or a place to rest on this earth! You will have overturned heaven and earth and doomed our nation, all for the sake of killing one person!”
Mei Changsu had come today in spite of his own illness, firstly because of the urgency of the situation, and secondly in order to save the Marquis. Now, his voice was raised with fury, his cheeks flushed and his heart stirring with passion. “Marquis Yan, do you think this is revenge? No, this is not true revenge, you are only venting your anger and personal spite, all for the sake of soothing your hurt feelings, and heedlessly destroying countless lives in the process. Was the Xuanjing Bureau established just for show? If the Emperor is assassinated, will they not pour everything they have into the investigation? And if I can trace the source back to you before anything has even happened, you can be sure they will be able to do so afterwards! You may not care whether you live or die, but why should Yujin have to bear the consequences of your crime? Even if he was not borne of the woman you loved, he is still your own son, and to say nothing of the fact that he has not grown up with your love and affection, can you really bear to sentence him to the heavy crime of treason and the cruel death of beheading at such a young age? You accuse the Emperor of being cold and despicable, then tell me, are you truly any better than he?”
His harsh words seemed to pierce right through the skin, and the corner of Yan Que’s mouth trembled as he raised a hand to cover his eyes, murmuring softly, “I know Yujin does not deserve this……it was his misfortune in this life to be my son……perhaps it is his fate then….”
Mei Changsu laughed coldly. “You have no hope of success now, so if you have even the slightest remorse for Yujin’s sake, why not turn back while you still can?”
“Turn back?” Yan Que smiled bitterly. “The arrow has been strung. How can I turn back?”
“The sacrificial ceremony has not yet begun, the Emperor’s incense stick has not yet fallen into the sacrificial furnace, why can you not turn back?” Mei Changsu’s gaze was deep, his expression solemn. “However you planted the gunpowder, remove it by the same method, and then deliver it to a location near the illegal fireworks factory, and I will send someone to take care of it from there.”
Yan Que lifted his head, his gaze full of astonishment. “What do you mean? Why would you involve yourself in waters as muddied as these?”
“Because I am working for Prince Yu, and if you commit this treason, it would be difficult for the Empress to escape blame as well. Taking care of the matter at its root is the best option,” Mei Changsu said indifferently. “If I had not intended to give you a way out, would I have come all this way to talk to you in secret? Wouldn’t it have been easier for me to go directly to the Xuanjing Bureau?”
“You…..” Yan Que’s gaze shimmered as he looked at the frail scholar sitting before him for a long moment, as if in deep thought, before he seemed to grow distant once more. “Of course it would be good if you were to let me go, but I must tell you honestly, even if you behave leniently towards me today, even if you hold me in your grasp, I will never work for your lord.”
Mei Changsu smiled. “I had not thought of asking you to work for Prince Yu, it is enough for you to continue visiting your temples in peace. As for the affairs of the court, I only ask that you observe them carefully in the days to come.”
Yan Que looked at him incredulously, shaking his head as he said, “In this world, there is no kindness without a cost, you are letting me go without asking for anything in return, what are your true intentions?”
Mei Changsu’s gaze was unreadable as a bleak smile played around his lips. “The Marquis has not forgotten Consort Chen, for the sake of love and passion, and has not forgotten Commander Lin, for the sake of friendship and righteousness. There are too few left in this world who still hold love and friendship in their hearts, so if I can save just one, then it is still worthwhile to me……. I only ask the Marquis to remember my words today, and not act hastily again.”
Yan Que looked at him deeply for a long moment, then took a deep breath and smiled broadly. “Good! Since Mister Su has already acquired such a nobility of spirit in your young age, then I will not persist in my absurd conjectures. I will find a way to remove the gunpowder beneath the sacrificial altar, but the day of the ceremony is drawing near, and the guard around the altar grows stricter by the day, and if I am so unfortunate as to be caught in the act, I ask you to remember your friendship with my son, and save his life.”
Mei Changsu smiled. “Marquis Yan, you are old friends with Commander Meng, and in these festive days, he will not be looking very seriously to catch anyone, so as long as you are cautious, there should be no problem.”
“Let us hope it will be as you say then.” Yan Que cupped his hands and bowed, smiling, having completely regained his composure. He had just received such a great fright and held a conversation that would determine his life or death, and which had neatly put an end to years and years of careful planning, and yet he had managed to steady his emotions so completely and in such a short period of time. Mei Changsu couldn’t help smiling in admiration at the extraordinary courage of the man before him.
The conversation was finished, and any further words would be superfluous. The two rose together without speaking and strode out of the Painting Building. As soon as the door opened, Yan Yujin rushed over, calling, “Dad, Brother Su, you….” He suddenly faltered, not knowing how to continue.
“I’ve already talked with your esteemed father, and the two of you will greet the new year together this new year’s eve.” Mei Changsu gave a small smile. “As for Fei Liu, I must trouble you to bring him out to play another time.”
Yan Yujin looked first at the one, and then at the other, and knew in his heart that the secrets they had discussed inside the room were certainly not as simple as this, but he was wise and insightful beneath his cheery exterior, and so he only stared for a moment before he shook aside his questions, and then smiled brightly, nodding his head enthusiastically. “That’s great!”
Mei Changsu smiled back, and then looked around. “Where is Jingrui?”
“His Zhuo dad and mum are arriving tonight, he has to go welcome them, so I sent him home.”
“Zhuo Dingfeng has arrived….” Mei Changsu’s eyebrows trembled. “Do they come every year?”
“Once every two years. Sometimes, they will come two years in a row, because Uncle Xie is busy in the court and cannot always leave the capital, and so the Zhuo family has to come here more often.”
“Oh,” Mei Changsu nodded slightly, feeling Yan Que gazing at him searchingly, but ignored him, and lifted his head to look up at the sky.
The sun was setting in all its splendour, and this long day was finally nearing its end. He wondered whether tomorrow would bring any unexpected new waves.
“Yujin, go and bring Mister Su’s palanquin in past the doors. The wind is rising, he should not step outside,” Yan Que calmly instructed his son, and waited for him to turn and leave before turning his gaze back to Mei Changsu, and asking in a low voice, “I have just thought of something else, it is not Prince Yu who has asked you to conceal my crime today, is it?”
“Prince Yu does not even know about this,” Mei Changsu replied honestly. “Actually, before I came to see the Marquis, even I was not entirely confident.”
Yan Que closed his eyes tightly and sighed. “Who is Prince Yu and what has he done to deserve a talent such as you? I only fear that the world of the future already belongs to him….”
Mei Changsu glanced at him. “The Marquis and the Empress are brother and sister, what is wrong with Prince Yu ruling the world?”
“What is wrong?” Yan Que’s eyes flashed, and it was as if a layer of frost had been painted over his clear features. “They are all the same, cold and unfeeling, using harsh and cutthroat methods to achieve their goals. I am no longer young, and have lost all those close to me, and though I have striven to live until now, I still have no way to redeem their names and overturn the injustices done to them. And so, since there is nothing left for me now, why should I care who rules the world?”
A dim light glowed in Mei Changsu’s gaze as he asked, “The Marquis knows that I am Prince Yu’s man, are you not afraid of the repercussions of these words?”
“Prince Yu has always known how I felt, but he also knows I do not involve myself in court affairs, and the Empress has ordered him to ignore me, so he has done nothing to me, nor I to him.” Yan Que laughed coldly, “With your talent and intellect, it would be a simple matter to destroy me, but do not think you will be able to control me or use me for Prince Yu’s sake.”
“The Marquis is mistaken, it was only an idle question, nothing more.” Mei Changsu’s face was calm, his expression peaceful. “As long as the Marquis does not act hastily again in the future, I will not mention today’s events again. As for Prince Yu, I have never held out any hope for the Marquis’ assistance in any way.”
Yan Que stood, a distant look in his eyes, not knowing whether he should believe Mei Changsu’s promise or not. But until Yan Yujin returned with Su Zhe’s palanquin, he did not say a single world, only looking silently towards the snow-covered steps in the courtyard.
Only as the palanquin rose to leave did Mei Changsu hear the long, heavy sigh let out by this heroic figure of days gone by.
The sound of his sigh drifted into the distance, as if it could carry his memories and regrets backwards in time.
Chapter 65 Translator’s Notes:
Finally. We finally get [a tiny bit of] Consort Chen / Lin Yueyao backstory.
And oh, my heart. MCS keeps such a tight rein on his emotions that it’s such a shock (and so heartbreaking) when he finally loses a little of his control. (Try counting how many times MCS raises his voice in the whole entire novel. I think this is the first time?)
(Also, I know everyone always uses Hamilton quotations on Lin Shu, but seriously, someone should make a gifset for Yan Que with the whole “death doesn’t discriminate between the sinners and the saints…” Too bad I’ve already submitted my prompts for the 😂😂)