On the morning of the first day of the new year, the cheerful atmosphere still lingered in the air, and after he got up, Mei Changsu personally selected a lotus-coloured new robe for Fei Liu to wear, and matched it to a light yellow hair tie, a white fox-fur scarf, and a yellow jade belt, dressing up the youth beautifully.
“Fei Liu, Su gege‘s going to take you out to pay some new year’s visits, alright?”
Li Gang came in from the courtyard. “Chief, the palanquin is ready, are we leaving now?”
Mei Changsu looked at him. “Li dage, you will stay in the manor today, you don’t need to go out with me.”
“Chief….” Li Gang stared blankly at him.
“I am keeping you here because I have things for you to do. I don’t usually go out, so most people will think I have stayed home, and come here to pay their new year’s visits. All others aside, if Prince Yu came knocking at our door, you are the only one I trust to receive him on my behalf. I leave this in your hands.”
“I will follow your orders.” Li Gang hurriedly bowed. “Is there some particular reason for Chief going out on purpose to avoid Prince Yu? Please instruct me so I may make adequate preparations.”
“There is no particular reason,” Mei Changsu said indifferently. “I just don’t want to see him on a day like this. Drinking poison is uncomfortable at the best of times, and this is the new year, I want to be in a good mood.”
“Yes, sir….” A flash of sadness passed over Li Gang’s gaze. “I understand. Don’t worry, Chief, I will take good care of the manor in your absence.” Mei Changsu stretched out a hand and patted his sturdy shoulder gently, then turned, a light smile on his lips as he said, “Fei Liu, let’s go.”
On the morning of the first day of the new year, the streets were scattered with the torn fragments of ceremonial burning paper. Although many people were out on the streets, there was not a peddler in sight, and most of the shops were barred shut, except for a few stalls selling candles. Mei Changsu’s little palanquin wound through the crowds inconspicuously, finally arriving at a manor half a city away from his own.
Compared to their imperial commander’s residence in Yunnan, the imperial Mu residence in the capital was a little smaller, but because it had been built by imperial order in one of the earlier dynasties, it was still very grand. The guards in front of the manor wore the uniform of the cavalry, standing rigidly up to attention, staring straight ahead with stiff alertness.
When Mei Changsu’s visiting card was delivered into the manor, although it was not ignored because of its plain appearance, it nonetheless disappeared quickly amongst the pile of cards from high-ranking officials who had come to pay their respects on the first day of the new year, and was slipped in between two similar cards in the stack handed to the little lord, who invited each person in one by one, offering him tea and chatting with him for a little while before sending him away. This went on for almost an hour before he finally came to the card bearing the name “Su Zhe”.
At first, Mu Qing stared at the card, turning it this way and that, but he finally decided that there was really only one person in this world who would send him a card with the words “Su Zhe” written on it, without any other title or explanation of identity.
“Little lord?” The steward looked uneasily at the changing expressions passing over his master’s face. “You do not want to see this one?”
Mu Qing lifted his head dazedly and glanced at him, then his lips twitched and he suddenly leapt to his feet, shouting “Jiejie!” loudly as he ran towards the inner courtyard.
Moments later, the herald of the Mu residence, Wei Jingan came out and brought all the other guests into a side hall where he took over the task of entertaining them, and Princess Nihuang and Mu Qing personally came to the outer gates to receive Mei Changsu, who was falling asleep on his palanquin.
“Mister Su, my deepest apologies, I didn’t….” Nihuang began apologetically, but was stopped by Su Zhe’s smile.
“It was only a little wait, no matter, and anyway I have much time at leisure today.” Mei Changsu said reassuringly as he walked into the little parlour, side by side with Nihuang, and sat down in the guest seat. Mu Qing saw Fei Liu standing beside Mei Changsu and hurriedly ordered for a chair to be brought for him, but Fei Liu was not willing to sit, and after standing there for a little while, disappeared to who knew where.
“Fei Liu finds this place new, so he will run around to look and play,” Mei Changsu explained when he saw Mu Qing look around him in surprise, guessing what he was thinking. He added, “Would that be any trouble?”
“No, no, let him go wherever he likes.” Because Mu Qing was similar in age to Fei Liu, he had always been curious about this young bodyguard. “He is so quick, I couldn’t even see how he left.”
“So now you’re envious of other people? Why didn’t you listen when I told you to go practice your martial arts? I told you you were being lazy,” Nihuang scolded.
“Jiejie,” Mu Qing wheedled, “I’m not lazy, I’m just a slow learner….”
“It is said that diligence is the cure for clumsiness, since you know your weakness, all the more reason to work harder to compensate for it.”
Mu Qing scowled. “Jiejie, it’s the new year and there’s a guest here, don’t scold me….”
Mei Changsu looked at his little Nihuang, who had grown up into such a fierce older sister, and who was now even teaching her younger brother, and a mix of grief and amusement rose in his heart as he broke in to say, “The Southern border is peaceful at present, so Lord Mu does not need to go out to battle, and you can take your time refining your martial arts, it is more important to study military command and strategy as well as the ruling of the South.”
“Did you hear that? Remember well Mister Su’s words. If you keep acting like you haven’t grown up, how can I hand Yunnan over to you in the future?”
“The Princess does not need to worry,” Meo Changsu said soothingly. “Lord Mu only lacks training, he already possesses the air of a general. Why not take advantage of the peace at the borders and gradually transition some of the ruling duties to him, and in time, I am sure he will be an outstanding lord.”
“Jiejie has already given me many things to do. Like the guests who came today – I was the one who met them all, that’s why you were accidentally overlooked.” Mu Qing laughed, then turned to Nihuang. “Jiejie, you spent so long back there, have you finished making them?”
Mei Changsu couldn’t help asking curiously, “Making what?”
“Jiejie is personally making new year’s cakes for us to eat.” Mu Qing answered. “She never used to enter the kitchens, but I guess she sees that I’ve grown up, so these past two years, jiejie has started learning to cook.”
Mei Changsu smiled. He knew very well why the mighty lady commander of the Southern border had begun trying her hand at the culinary arts, and although things were still slightly awkward between them at the moment, his happiness for her was completely sincere.
“In that case, I have come just in time, how could I miss the opportunity to taste the Princess’ handiwork?” He turned to Nihuang and lowered his voice. “Don’t worry, I know his tastes, I can give you some suggestions.”
Nihuang lowered her eyes, a complicated mix of feelings clouding her gaze, but she knew this was not the time to argue about certain matters, so she only smiled and rose, saying, “Then I must go, there is still one more step, I will go finish. Xiao Qing, take good care of Mister Su.”
“Alright.” Mu Qing waited for his sister to leave, then waved all the servants away before shifting to a seat beside Su Zhe to say quietly, “I always thought that person was you? Is it really not you?”
Mei Changsu was taken aback. “What? The lord has never seen that person?”
“No, when they went off to war, they said I was too young, and left me behind to look after our home, and it was only afterwards when I heard Zhangsun talking that I found out jiejie had been in such great danger, and that such a person had appeared. Although he has saved our Southern border army, he actually dared to run from a goddess like my sister, so he can’t amount to much.”
“The lord’s words are too harsh. Each person has his own difficulties, who is anyone else to judge? He is one of my closest friends, I know him very well……the lord does not need to worry, he is a kind and honest man, loyal, righteous, and brave, as well as a rare prodigy of a marines officer. He has a bright nature, and a dignified and handsome appearance. He is certainly worth the Princess’ regard and admiration.”
“But why did he run?” Mu Qing was still pouting. “He’s your subordinate, isn’t he? Tell him to come to the capital….”
“Lord Mu, this is your sister’s private matter, she will know how to handle it, you only have to support her decision, and as for the rest……do not interfere too much.”
Mu Qing scratched his head. “I know all this, but I can’t help caring about it……actually, there are plenty of admirable men in our manor, why doesn’t jiejie like one of them, like Zhangsun….”
“Don’t say anymore,” Mei Changsu reminded him softly. “The Princess is coming.”
Mu Qing jumped up in fright. “Jie……jie, jiejie!”
“Are you saying bad things about me? Why do you look so scared?” Nihuang, leading two servant girls bearing boxes of food towards them, eyed her younger brother suspiciously.
“No……how would I dare……”
Mei Changsu couldn’t help silently praising Nihuang’s deft and thoughtful handling of the situation. If the Princess’ handmade new year cakes were only offered to Su Zhe, it could easily lead to gossip and speculation, but now as she invited all the other generals of the imperial Mu residence over to join them, it became just another new year’s celebration.
In a little while, the five generals and two historians of the Southern border army who had entered the capital with their commander followed Mu Qing over to pay their greetings, and the little parlour rapidly grew crowded. But although there were many people, Nihuang had made two full boxes of the cakes, and so there was certainly enough to go around.
“Mister Su, please.”
Mei Changsu smiled as he took a piece, then turned his head and called, “Fei Liu, come try some.”
“Fei Liu’s here?” Mu Qing quickly raised his head, looking around, but a blur flew past him and then the handsome youth was already seated by Mei Changsu’s side, reaching out to take a piece of cake from the box and placing it into his mouth.
“Everyone, please, help yourselves.” Nihuang smiled, “How do they taste?”
By this time, everyone had tried a piece, and the compliments came trickling in: “The Princess is a great cook….”
“The taste is exquisite…”
“Truly sweet but not too rich….”
“Crisp and delicious….”
Amongst the words of praise, Fei Liu suddenly interjected coldly, “Tastes bad!”
The entire room froze, and even Mu Qing began sweating, not knowing what to say to lighten the mood, afraid to lift their heads to look at the Princess’ expression.
But this awkward state did not last for long, as Mei Changsu snorted and began to laugh, one hand covering his mouth, until he started coughing. Following closely behind him was Princess Nihuang herself, who laughed so hard she bent over double, and everyone else exchanged a glance before following suit, so that soon, the room was filled with their laughter, the earlier embarassment having dissipated completely.
“Finally, someone speaks the truth,” Nihuang wiped at the tears in her eyes. “I tried some myself before we came out, and I was just thinking, if you all kept raining down compliments like that, then I’ll make them for you every day!”
“It’s really not so bad, there was only a little too much sugar, they look very nice anyway,” Mei Changsu said encouragingly. “You will find the right amount with a bit more practice.”
Mu Qing was about to chime in when he suddenly saw Wei Jingan hurrying towards them, his face very serious, and was taken aback, asking, “Old Wei, what’s wrong?”
“Princess, little lord,” Wei Jingan cupped his hands and bowed, then continued lowly, “I have just discovered that something happened last night just outside the walls of the palace.”
Omg, MCS’s idea of new year’s fun is visiting Nihuang 😭😭😭😭
RIGHT. We’re up to Book 4 (!), and I have some good news and bad news. The bad news is that we’re going to have to go to weekly updates from here on out. My life is getting significantly busier, so I think that’s going to be the best option for me for the foreseeable future. The good news is that I have no intention of stopping this translation, partly because all of you have been so amazingly supportive, but also largely because I am having way too much fun.
So thank you so much for all the love ❤ And let’s keep going forward!! (albeit at a slightly slower pace!)
P.S. Do you guys have a preferred day of the week for updates? I’m thinking Sunday?