“Last night? But last night was New Year’s Eve, what could possibly happen?” Mu Qing asked, jumping to his feet.
“Does the little lord know about His Majesty the Emperor’s custom of bestowing twelve new year’s dishes to different houses?”
“Yes, we received a bowl of pigeon’s eggs……couldn’t the Emperor have sent us something better……”
“Xiao Qing!” Nihuang said reprovingly. “You’re always fooling around and making jokes, let Herald Wei finish.”
Mu Qing shrank back, not daring to say another word.
“The new year’s dishes are delivered by internal guards, five to a group,” Wei Jingan continued. “Last night, naturally twelve such groups were sent out. But by sunrise, only eleven had returned. When they received the news, the Imperial Guard and the Capital Patrol set out together, and discovered five bodies just outside the palace walls.”
“Bodies? They were killed?” Nihuang raised an eyebrow.
“Yes, the assassins were extremely skilled, and killed them with one stroke, so that the expressions of the dead looked peaceful, their clothes clean and undisturbed, with no sign of a struggle, as if their lives had been extinguished in mid-air.”
“This kind of skill must be the work of jianghu experts.” Nihuang thought for a moment, then asked, “Is there any direction of inquiry? Was there no clue or sign left behind at the scene?”
As soon as these questions left her lips, she saw Mei Changsu solemnly hold up a hand to stop her.
“We may leave the matter of the assassins to a later time,” Mei Changsu’s gaze fell onto Wei Jingan’s face. “Tell me first about Commander General Meng, how is he?”
Wei Jingan saw that Su Zhe had immediately grasped the reason he had hurried over to give this report, and a look of admiration appeared over his face. “Commander General Meng is not doing so well. The incident took place on the eve of the new year, just outside the palace, virtually at the feet of the Emperor, and the murdered were imperial messengers and internal guards, so it is indeed a severe provocation of the imperial might and power, and His Majesty was livid when he heard the news. Because the events took place on the near shore of the river, just outside the palace wall, it was still within the territory guarded by the Imperial Guard, so Commander Meng must bear the responsibility for the incident. His Majesty accused him of neglecting his duty and failing to provide sufficient guards and protection, leading to such an inauspicious murder on the eve of the New Year, and sentenced him to twenty lashes by the rod on the spot….”
“Lashes by the rod?” Mei Changsu’s eyebrows furrowed. “Still as ruthless as ever……what happened after that?
“He ordered Commander Meng to solve the case and capture the persons responsible within thirty days, or else……there would be further punishment.”
“What is the Emperor thinking?” Mu Qing had leapt to his feet again, unable to help himself. “Commander Meng is loyal and devoted, his work in guarding the palace all these years has not gone unnoticed, and even if he is to blame for these events, the Emperor cannot vent all his anger onto him, how can he be so unfair….”
“Xiao Qing!” Nihuang’s voice was stern. “You presume to doubt your lord, do you think before you speak?”
“There are no outsiders here….” Mu Qing mumbled, and then swallowed the rest of his words.
Nihuang concentrated for a moment, then turned to look at Mei Changsu, who was sitting quietly in deep thought, rubbing his forehead, and didn’t dare disturb him, but turned again and said in a low voice, “Herald Wei, please continue to investigate this matter, and if there are any new developments, come report them immediately.”
“Generals, please feel free to take your leave, this news will spread soon enough, but I do not want to hear anyone in the imperial Mu residence gossiping or discussing these events. I must depend on you all to restrain your subordinates.”
“We will follow your orders!”
“Xiao Qing, go back to your room right now and face the walls and meditate for four hours. How many times do I have to scold you before you change that reckless, impatient temper of yours?”
In the blink of an eye, the crowd in the room had receded away like the tide, and finally, Nihuang walked slowly back to Mei Changsu’s side and knelt down in front of him, asking in a low voice, “Lin Shu gege, you and Commander Meng are very close, is that right?”
Mei Changsu raised his eyes and nodded lightly, “Yes.”
“Do you want Nihuang to go into the palace to beg for mercy on his behalf?”
Mei Changsu sighed lightly and shook his head. “This is not necessary for now. I am not worried about his current condition, but for how these events will play out in the future….”
“In the future?”
“Although the imperial power is difficult to fathom, the Emperor is not a foolish man, and he will not remove Meng Zhi from his post over the Imperial Guard and his power over the palace’s protection because of this one case alone. He may scold him and sentence him to a lashing, but he is only venting his rage, and Commander Meng is able to endure this. Unfortunately, this beating is not the end, and if he does not solve the case within thirty days, or, if new cases continue to occur in the future, then the Emperor’s regard for Meng Zhi will become lower and lower, and therein lies the true danger….”
“New cases?” Nihuang was astonished. “You’re saying there will be more….”
“This is only my feeling.” Mei Changsu reached out a hand and pulled Nihuang up to sit by his side, explaining, “Think about it, there must be a motive behind any murder, so why would anyone want to kill five internal guards? A crime of passion is certainly impossible, and as for revenge? What kind of great enmity could an ordinary internal guard create, that would get him killed so publicly just outside the palace walls? Robbery? They would not have much money or any valuables on their persons, and their clothes were not disturbed…… After eliminating the most common motives for murder, there is one more reason for killing in the world of jianghu, and that is the fight between experts, where each tries to elevate his name and reputation, but these five internal guards were outsiders without any reputation, and did not have any martial art skills to speak of…… so in the end, the reason they were killed cannot be related to their persons, but rather to their positions.”
Nihuang nodded as she listened. “That is to say, the assassins only wanted to murder internal guards sent out of the palace by the Emperor, but didn’t care which guard they killed.”
“That should be the case.” Mei Changsu was thinking aloud. “But why did they want to kill imperial messengers? To infuriate the Emperor, as a show of force against him? To test the power of the Imperial Guard, as a preparation for further action? Or…was it all along a direct blow towards Meng dage, to shake the Emperor’s trust in him…… no matter which of these was the true goal, they will not stop at killing these five guards.”
“But…just from the information we have at present, there is no way to predict the true motive of the assassins?”
“Nihuang, you must remember, if you do not know in which direction your enemy is going to fire his arrow, you must first protect that which is most crucial to yourself. As long as you do not die by the first stroke, there will be time to take care of other matters, and to rectify them slowly.” Mei Changsu smiled faintly. “Like now, we must first protect Meng dage, and once we have more information, we can consider how to retaliate. Besides, as long as Meng dage still commands the Imperial Guard, nothing worse than this can happen in the palace.”
Nihuang thought it over, and gradually, her eyes brightened. “I understand. We first presume that their target is Commander Meng, in order to verify what our next step should be.”
“Very good,” Mei Changsu smiled in praise. “From the current situation, the murder of these five guards does not really affect the safety of the palace, so their most likely goal is to weaken the Emperor’s trust in the Imperial Guard, and the goal behind weakening the Imperial Guard is of course to control the palace. So if we extrapolate one step further, the people who want to control the palace must naturally be those closest to the center of power.”
“The Crown Prince and Prince Yu….” Nihuang murmured.
“Yes, one of the two. But Prince Yu does not have anyone in the military, so even if he brings down Meng Zhi, he would not be able to find anyone he trusts to take over the position. As for the Crown Prince….” Mei Changsu glanced meaningfully at Nihuang. “He does have someone….”
“The Marquis of Ning, Xie Yu!” Nihuang’s palms came together as she suddenly understood. “Xie Yu is a first-ranked military marquis, is beloved of the Emperor, holds the Capital Patrol in his hands, and has plenty of people in his command, so if the Imperial Guard is suppressed, or if Commander Meng loses his position, he is the only one who can take over….”
“This is the logical conclusion. But……the Emperor is not so confused yet, he has an exceedingly great amount of trust in Meng Zhi, and no matter how much he shouts and rages, he is still far from stripping him of his position….” Mei Changsu’s brow wrinkled. “And so I think, if this is truly Xie Yu’s work, he will definitely have other plans in store….”
“Would it be as you said just now, creating an incessant downpour of new cases, murders every day, so that the Emperor will lose his trust in the Imperial Guard’s abilities?”
“From this day forward, Meng Zhi will certainly reorganize his troops and tighten his control, so another murder will be difficult to accomplish….”
“But in such a large palace, there are always neglected places, and sometimes, it is simply impossible to defend against people as malicious as Xie Yu.”
“You have a point….” Mei Changsu closed his eyes, resting his head on the back of his chair as he murmured, “But if I were Xie Yu, I would not stop at something as simple as murder……if I were to remove the Emperor’s faith in Meng Zhi, then I must target the Emperor’s weakness….”
Mei Changsu’s eyes flew open, his dark pupils staring for a moment before he suddenly rose from his chair.
“Lin Shu gege?”
“The Emperor’s weakness is his suspicion!” Mei Changsu took a deep breath and then spoke quickly. “The reason he trusts Meng Zhi so much is because he is certain that Meng Zhi has always been completely loyal to him, and has never had private relations with those two little masters. But if, at this crucial moment, Xie Yu tricks Prince Yu into going before the Emperor to plead for Meng Zhi, then the situation will deteriorate.”
“Would Prince Yu fall into his trap so easily?”
“Prince Yu is too desperate for a sword. Ever since the Duke of Qing fell, he does not have a single shred of military power in his grasp. Even if everyone knows he is on good terms with Prince Jing now, it is still only a symbolic support, but if he could attain the support of the Commander General of the Imperial Guard, he would be laughing in his sleep.” Mei Changsu’s brows were furrowing tighter and tighter. “To trick him into doing this is not difficult at all, you only have to find a way to get the news to him, saying that Commander Meng was scolded and beaten by the Emperor because this murder case took place within the palace boundaries, and that His Highness the Crown Prince hurried over in secret to protest against the unfairness of the treatment, and then do you think Prince Yu would be content to sit aside and let the Crown Prince steal away this precious means of support? He would definitely rush into the palace to defend Meng Zhi before the Emperor, so that, even if he cannot obtain the Commander General’s gratitude, at least he will not let him be seized by the Crown Prince….”
As Nihuang listened, her face gradually paled. “With His Majesty’s suspicious nature, and with the way the wind is blowing, as soon as he sees Prince Yu defending Commander Meng so fiercely, he will immediately suspect that there is some deep relationship between them. And if the Commander General of the Imperial Guard, who is responsible for protecting the palace, has any kind of relationship with a prince who is fighting for the throne, then this is something the Emperor would definitely not tolerate.”
“This is a ruthless game of chess, and the target of the pieces is the Emperor’s heart.” Mei Changsu gritted his teeth. “Xie Yu is actually capable of such a move……Nihuang, keep an eye on the situation, I must go immediately to the imperial Yu residence.”
“Yes.” Nihuang knew of Mei Changsu’s eloquence, and knew that stopping Prince Yu from falling into this trap without leaving a trace of his own involvement would not be a difficult task for him, and so did not ask any further, but accompanied him to the main gates, watching as he hurried onto his palanquin before turning to return to the study, summoning Wei Jingan over to discuss how best to conduct the next steps of their investigation.
But neither Nihuang nor Mei Changsu could have predicted that, although they had already received the news very quickly, and had analyzed the situation and predicted the actions of everyone involved with perfect accuracy, they were still one step too slow.
One hour before Mei Changsu arrived at his manor, Prince Yu had already left for the palace.
Arghhhhhhhhhhhhhh is that a glimpse of how Lin Shu used to treat his little Nihuang, sitting her by his side and explaining intricacies only his prodigious mind could grasp, and teaching her how to play the game of strategy and politics? T__________T my heart.
Also, knowing the kind of genius Lin Shu was, it says a lot about Nihuang and Jingyan that they were even able to be his peers. In the light of Lin Shu’s talent, we often forget how accomplished and talented and intelligent Nihuang and Jingyan are, in their own right. Nihuang’s ranked on the Langya Lists for her martial arts, and she single-handedly took over command of one of the greatest armies of their nation at the age of seventeen. Jingyan has wicked martial arts skills when he cares to show them, is an incredibly accomplished military general for all he is denied the proper rewards and acknowledgement, and seamlessly transitions into an outstanding court official when he starts taking up royal duties and court politics after twelve years away from court. Like, damn. This is a trio of geniuses, not Lin Shu & co. (Even Meng Zhi is wayyyy more intelligent than we – or the show – often give him credit for! The poor guy is just placed beside Lin Shu a little too often.)