Mei Changsu had initially planned to first persuade Prince Yu not to plead for Meng Zhi, and then to make a trip to the Xuanjing Bureau to ask Xia Dong whether the Emperor intended to have the Xuanjing Bureau assist in the investigation. But now that he had arrived a step too late, and Prince Yu had likely already reached the palace, he feared any move he made would be seen as acting on Prince Yu’s behalf, so the best option was to hold still for now and watch how things developed.
On the road back to the Su manor, Mei Changsu sat with his eyes closed on his palanquin, re-examining the current situation from every angle. Prince Yu entering the palace to defend Meng Zhi would certainly raise the Emperor’s suspicions towards the Commander General of the Imperial Guard, and although he would not express this sentiment in his actions for now, at the very least, the Emperor would not allow Meng Zhi to continue the investigation of the murder of the internal guards alone, and would definitely send the Xuanjing Officers to investigate the case simultaneously. Since Xie Yu had made his move knowing full well that the Xuanjing Officers would become involved sooner or later, that meant he was very confident that he had not left any evidence behind at the scene of the crime. As a first-ranked military official, even if Xia Dong suspected him, she could not report him to the Emperor without proof or evidence. Besides, in the current delicate atmosphere of the fight for the throne, any accusation without proof or evidence would be called out by the opposite side as “purposeful framing”, and would not only fail to attain its goal, it would even have the opposite effect.
So now, the most crucial step was to find evidence, but this was extremely difficult. The assassins’ work had been swift and clean, without leaving behind any hint of their identities, and naturally no proof could be found there, not to mention that the murder had taken place on New Year’s Eve, and the roads surrounding the palace walls had been empty, and so there had been no witnesses. Aside from assuming that Xie Yu was behind it all and by extension carefully investigating Zhuo Dingfeng, there were practically no leads to be followed.
Mei Changsu let out a deep sigh, and feeling that the palanquin was a little stuffy, he reached out a hand to draw aside the curtain, intending to let in some fresh air.
It was near noon, and there were many people out on the streets, most of them hurrying about dressed in new clothes for the new year, gifts in their hands and bright smiles on their faces, as if all worries and troubles had been put aside because it was the first day of the new year.
Mei Changsu smiled ruefully and was just about to lower the curtain when he suddenly caught sight of a grey-robed youth.
The youth, around twelve to thirteen years old, was average in height and dressed plainly, and would ordinarily not have caught Mei Changsu’s attention. But what made him stand out from the crowd was that, as soon as he caught sight of the little green palanquin, he immediately stood off to the side of the road, lifting his arms and bending over to bow respectfully in the palanquin’s direction.
“Stop.” Mei Changsu hurriedly ordered the two guards who were serving as his palanquin bearers to stop at the side of the road, and then pulled open the curtain and leaned out to wave at the youth.
The youth was taken aback for a moment, then immediately hurried over at a half-run and knelt and pressed his head to the ground, bowing to Mei Changsu as he said lowly, “I bring New Year’s greetings to Mister Su, and wish him great fortune and good health in the coming year.”
“Oh, it’s Shuhong, have you come out by yourself?”
Shuhong was one of the two criminal slaves who had been rescued from the Secluded Court along with Tingsheng. At the time, when the three were being taught the martial arts steps they needed to fight Baili Qi, Fei Liu was the one who had taken over the majority of the training, and Mei Changsu had spent most of his energy on Tingsheng, and had not paid much attention to the other two children. In addition, Shuhong had a quiet character and did not speak much, and since he had entered the imperial Jing residence with its structured but comfortable lifestyle, where he was provided with abundant food and clothing, he had grown tall and strong, and so Mei Changsu had not immediately recognized him.
“I hear Tingsheng is ill, is he feeling better?”
“The doctor said the cold energy has already dissipated, and he will be able to leave his bed after two more doses of medicine.”
Mei Changsu nodded. He had initially planned to have the three children over to the Su residence on New Year’s Eve, but the plans had been cancelled because Tingsheng had fallen sick and couldn’t get out of bed. But he knew very well that Prince Jing would take good care of Tingsheng, and so had not been worried, and now that he heard what Shuhong had to say, he knew it was likely just an ordinary bout of illness.
“Did you come out to buy medicine for Tingsheng?” Mei Changsu asked, looking at the medicine bag in Shuhong’s hands.
“The three of you went through difficult times together in the palace, so you must take care of each other, and support each other.” Mei Changsu reached out to pat Shuhong’s head, saying gently, “You are two years older than both of them, so you must bear the responsibility of a dage.”
“Ng!” Shuhong nodded firmly, his gaze filled with admiration. “Mister Su, I have been studying and training hard, and in the future, whether on the battlefield or in the scholarly arts, I will not let you down.”
“Very good, boys should have ambitions and heroic spirits, in the future, it will be up to you to serve our Emperor and our country,” Mei Changsu said encouragingly. “It’s cold, hurry and go back. Remember to take good care of Tingsheng.”
“Yes!” Shuhong answered as he retreated to one side, then stood still at attention. Mei Changsu saw how serious this child was about etiquette and courtesy, and knew that he would not leave if he himself did not leave first, and so smiled at him and then ordered the guards to continue on their way.
When the palanquin stopped in the inner courtyard of the Su manor, Li Gang came forward to support him, asking, “Chief, why have you come back so early? Prince Yu has not come yet….”
“I know, he will not come today.” Mei Changsu hurried indoors, pulling off his cloak as he walked. Although the house was empty, the brazier burned brightly, spreading warmth through the room in preparation for the return of its master. Mei Changsu sat down onto the soft chair, and Li Gang was already ordering people to bring in hot towels and freshly-boiled soup.
“Has Tong Lu come today?”
“Yes. He wanted to wait for the Chief, but I didn’t know you would be back so soon, so I sent him away……does the Chief wish to see him?”
“No matter. Tell the Heaven’s Secret sect of our alliance to find out, as soon as possible, which martial arts experts Zhuo Dingfeng has had contact with recently and which among them have entered the capital, and tell Mister Shisan to closely monitor all of the swords-masters in the capital, no matter what sects they belong to. And put a surveillance around the Xie manor, I want Zhuo Dingfeng and his eldest son Zhuo Qingyao’s every move reported back to me immediately. Understand?”
“I understand.” Li Gang had an exceptional memory, and he fluidly repeated the instructions once before immediately leaving to carry them out.
Mei Chang leaned back in his chair, picking up the visiting cards on the little table beside him and flipping through them absently. They likely belonged to some of the officials in Prince Yu’s camp who had sent people over to pay the required respects. Likely, Li Gang had felt it unnecessary to report these, and so had placed them to one side for Mei Changsu to peruse at his leisure.
Fei Liu appeared noiselessly into the room, a snowy white messenger pigeon on his arm, his handsome little face pulled tight as he came to Mei Changsu’s side and handed the pigeon to him before dropping to the ground beside him and burying his face into Su gege’s leg.
Mei Changsu smiled as he stroked the youth’s neck, then he took out a roll of paper from a tube on the pigeon’s foot and unfurled it. A gleam of light flashed across his eyes, but in the next instant, he resumed his deep, calm gaze as he casually tossed the paper into the brazier.
The little pigeon was startled by the flame, and cocked its head as it cried out, “Gu, gu.” Mei Changsu patted its little head with his fingertips as he said, “Don’t cry, Fei Liu has been unhappy ever since he saw you, if you keep crying, he will pluck out your feathers.”
“Don’t any more!” Fei Liu protested, raising his head suddenly.
“But our Fei Liu wants to pluck them very much, it is only that he does not dare.” Mei Changsu pinched his cheek. “Last time you were locked in the dark room, wasn’t that because you hid one of Lin Chen gege’s messenger pigeons?”
“Won’t any more!” Fei Liu’s cheeks were puffed in anger.
“I know you will not do so again,” Mei Changsu praised him with a smile. “You were very good today, even though you were unhappy, you still brought it in to see me, and didn’t hide it like last time….”
“Yes, very good. Go bring Su gege a piece of paper, and the dip the smallest quill in ink, alright?”
Fei Liu jumped up, and very quickly, paper and quill were brought over. Mei Changsu wrote a few small words onto the edge of the paper, tore out the strip, rolled it up and placed it into the tube, then gave the pigeon back to Fei Liu.
“Fei Liu can go and release it, alright?”
Fei Liu got up slowly, a little unwillingly, but when he saw Mei Changsu smiling at him, he obediently took the pigeon out into the courtyard and threw it up into the air, watching as it flew a few circles around the yard before disappearing into the distance.
As the snowy white pigeon flew further and further away, becoming nothing more than a spot, Fei Liu still watched, his head lifted towards the sky. Li Gang, a gold visiting card in his hand, was coming in from the outer yard, and seeing Fei Liu standing there in this posture, he couldn’t help laughing. “Fei Liu, are you waiting for a fairy to drop out of the sky?”
“No!” Fei Liu’s tone was a little angry.
“Alright, alright, alright, you take your time waiting.”
“No!” Very angry.
Li Gang grinned as he dodged Fei Liu’s punch, but once he passed the doors of the house, he immediately grew serious.
“Chief, Master Yan has come to visit.”
Mei Changsu eyed the visiting card doubtfully and laughed in spite of himself. “He has always come in directly laughing and shouting, when has he learned such courtesy? I fear he has something to say, ask him to come in then.”
“Yes.” Not long after Li Gang retreated, Yan Yujin strode in quickly, dressed in a bright red cloak, giving off his usual elegant and radiant air, so that if you did not look closely, you would not have found anything unusual about his expression.
“Yujin has arrived, please sit.” Mei Changsu’s glance passed casually over the faintly pink eyelids of the son of the Imperial Uncle, and he ordered Li Gang to have refreshments sent up.
“Brother Su, you do not have to be polite.” Yan Yujin half-rose out of his chair to accept his tea, but when Li Gang and the rest of the servants left, he put down the tea cup and rose immediately, clasping his hands towards Mei Changsu in a bow.
“I don’t dare, I don’t dare,” Mei Changsu smilingly rose to lift him up. “You and I are of the same generation, this is not the correct bow.”
“Brother Su, you know very well Yujin’s bow is not for the new year,” Yujin said with rare seriousness. “It is to thank Brother Su for saving the lives of the entire Yan clan.”
Mei Changsu patted his arm, indicating for him to sit, and said slowly, “Marquis Yan has already….”
“Last night, Father told me everything,” Yan Yujin lowered his head, his face pale. “If I say that Father has neglected me in the past, then as his son, I have never known the suffering in his heart, and I cannot claim to be a filial son….”
“That the two of you have been able to come to a mutual understanding is indeed a cause for joy and celebration,” Mei Changsu smiled warmly. “As for the matter for which I saved your esteemed father, you do not need to hold it in your heart. The affairs of the palace are changing rapidly, and the unrest is becoming unmanageable, so it was only that I did not want your esteemed father’s actions to cause any further disturbance and lead to uncontrollable chaos, that’s all.”
Yan Yujin looked at him closely. “I do not want to look closely into the reason behind Brother Su’s decision, but I believe there is friendship in it. To tell the truth, even now, my father does not regret the plans he made and the actions he took, but he is still grateful that you stopped him. Although this sounds contradictory, a person’s feelings are often this complicated, and it is not a matter that can be easily divided into black and white, nor neatly cut into two halves by a knife. But, no matter what, the peace of the Yan clan has been kept, and I have only to remember Brother Su’s goodwill. As for other, more complicated reasons, what do they have to do with me?”
Mei Changsu looked at him for a long moment, and then suddenly laughed in spite of himself. “You are indeed even smarter than I imagined. Although you may appear a bit frivolous, you are still a dependable pillar of support to those you count as your friends.”
“Brother Su is too kind,” Yan Yujin smiled back. “No one can predict the fate of our clan, or what we will face in the future. The only thing in our grasp is this heart, and nothing more.”
“Well-said, that deserves a toast.” Mei Changsu nodded, smiling. “Unfortunately, I am still taking medicine, and cannot accompany you.”
“I will drink for Brother Su.” Yan Yujin said brightly, and he rose and went to the courtyard to find Li Gang, asking him bring them a casket of wine and two cups, and so with a cup in his left hand and one in his right, he lightly knocked them together, and then drained them both.
“You and Jingrui are such good friends, but you have very different temperaments,” Mei Changsu couldn’t help sighing ruefully. “But he is also working hard, he must be taking care of four parents at home these days.”
“He never comes out on the first day of the new year, he has to keep them happy,” Yan Yujin said with a smile. “Even if I want to find him, I have to wait until the second day of the new year.”
Mei Changsu glanced at him and said casually, “Then bring him over here tomorrow. You see how quiet it is here, I don’t have many other friends.”
“Of course, I only fear Xie Bi will want to come as well. That’s right, Xie Xu has come back from his academy for the new year, have you met him yet?”
“The third son of the Xie family?”
“That’s right, although he is the youngest, he is the best at classics and history, and Uncle Xie hopes he will achieve top rank in the imperial examinations, so he sent him to study at the Songshan Academy, he only comes back for the new year, and it’s always Qingyao dage who goes to pick him up.”
“I’ve heard it said that after Zhuo Qingyao married the eldest Xie daughter, Xie Bi will also be marrying the daughter of the Zhuo family?”
“Ng, I think Jingrui has said there is such an arrangement.”
“The Xie and Zhuo families have married their children, and there is Jingrui, so they have really become like one family.”
“That’s right. Although they once fought over Jingrui, now they have become as close as a family, it’s a classic example of good coming out of bad.”
Mei Changsu smiled indifferently and did not continue the topic, but casually turned the conversation to another subject. Not long afterwards, Physician Yan came in with a bowl brimming full of medicine, and Yan Yujin was worried about disturbing Mei Changsu’s rest, so he got up and took his leave.
After drinking the medicine, Mei Changsu leaned back on the soft couch and slept for four hours, and after he woke up, he received a few trivial guests before going back to his book.
As night fell and the lamps were lit, Fei Liu started setting off fireworks in the courtyard again. Mei Changsu, smiling, watched from the room until he finished, and then lightly waved him over.
“Want to play?”
“No, Su gege doesn’t want to play,” Mei Changsu smiled as he leaned close to his ear. “Fei Liu, let’s go secretly visit Uncle Meng, alright?”