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The southern side of the courtyard of Mei Changsu’s manor was the manor’s main gate, and the other three sides were fenced in by large, spacious houses, leaving a square of green-bricked empty space at its center.  This plain and unadorned design without even a hint of greenery was indeed at odds with Mei Changsu’s gracious, scholarly air, and he kept talking about renovating, but as it was still the middle of winter, there was no way to begin construction, and so the manor was kept in its original appearance for now, and although there was not much scenery to boast of, it made a naturally perfect ground for swords training.

Since there was to be a sword dance, naturally there must be a sword.  But the First Young Master Xiao was not a traditional jianghu man, and he was not about to bring a sword with him while he went around paying new year’s visits, so Mei Changsu ordered Li Gang to find one at random for him in the manor .

Soon, this casually-found sword was placed into the hand of the sword-dancer.  The sword was gracefully swept from its shark-skin sheath and balanced delicately in his hand.  It felt a little heavy at first, but as he gently plucked the sword to test its edge, it seemed to move lightly in his grasp, and when he inspected the blade more closely, he saw its watery green luster and finely honed edge and recognized it for the excellent weapon it was, it was only a pity that it had no master.

“Jingrui, you think you look so cool standing there staring straight ahead with your sword held out like that, don’t you?”  Yan Yujin scolded laughingly.  “You’ve held that position for so long without moving, we’re falling asleep over here.”

Xiao Jingrui laughed and returned the blade to its sheath, his left hand undoing his belt as he spun quickly, his clothes flying, and in the next moment, he had taken off his long outer gown and handed it to Li Gang, who was standing off to the side, revealing a brand new silver-embroidered under-robe.  He had always been a handsome young man, and this kind of narrow-sleeved, tight-fitting attire naturally showed off his pleasing figure, so even before he could pick up the sword again, Yan Yujin was already clapping his hands, cheering, “Wonderful!  Wonderful!  Come with me to Spiral Market Street looking just like that, and we’ll see whether you ever make it back out again!”

“Looks like someone’s getting jealous….”  Xie Bi deadpanned, and Mei Changsu felt the corner of his lips twitch in a suppressed smile.  Sunlight flashed off metal in the courtyard as the sword began slicing through the air.

The style of swordsmanship Xiao Jingrui practiced was naturally the Tianquan method passed down in Tianquan Manor.  At the peak of the Zhuo clan’s glory, they had not only dominated the martial arts world in the south, they had even produced two first-ranked military generals, and their renown and power were second to none.  Later, although they retired from the court, they kept their place in the jianghu, and everyone knew the name of the current Chief, Zhuo Dingfeng, who had made the Langya Lists of Martial Arts Experts for the past ten years in a row.  He was currently ranked fourth on the list, and in Da Liang, he was second only to Meng Zhi.

Although Xiao Jingrui would certainly not be Tianquan Manor’s successor, firstly because of his personal history and secondly because he was not the eldest son, Zhuo Dingfeng had never held back because of this in teaching him swordsmanship.  So with the meticulous guidance of such a great master, and with Jingrui’s own natural talent, he had by now achieved the full potential of this set of skills, and though perhaps he could be a little more adaptable when he was truly fighting against an opponent, it was difficult to find any obvious faults in his regular training dances.

It was a festive day, so Mei Changsu had asked Xiao Jingrui to show off his skills mainly to lighten the atmosphere, and did not really intend to discuss swordsmanship with him, and so he only bestowed a few words of praise, commending him for not neglecting his training and admiring how much he had improved.  Among the other spectators, Yan Yujin was less experienced, Xie Bi knew nothing about martial arts, and although Xie Xu received both scholarly and military training, like most sons of noble houses, he mainly practiced archery and riding, and so the three could only stand in admiration, unable to offer any substantial comments.  Instead, it was Fei Liu, sitting on a corner of the roof, who studied the display carefully from beginning to end, his fingers moving restlessly as he dissected each move.

When the sword dance ended, Aunt Ji brought out a plate of freshly-cooked sesame dumplings and everyone returned to the warm room, laughing and talking as they ate.  Xie Xu, bored, only ate a few before finding an excuse to leave.  Everyone saw that he was not quite fitting in and so did not make him stay, but Xiao Jingrui still got up and went to the door, instructing their servants to carefully escort him home before letting him go.

“Jingrui is such a good older brother, I suppose your older Zhuo brother must also be a prudent and cautious man.  I wonder what his swordsmanship is like?”  Mei Changsu prodded the white sesame dumpling in his bowl with a long spoon, inhaling its sweet fragrance as he spoke casually.

“Qingyao dage‘s martial arts are much better than mine,” Xiao Jingrui said admiringly.  “Like in that move, ‘the bird flies out of the forest’, I can only strike seven blows with my sword, but he can strike nine.”

“You are younger, so it is no surprise that you lag a little behind.  But your Zhuo dage‘s name is already quite well-known in jianghu, I heard it often when I was in Lang province.”  Mei Changsu looked as if he had suddenly thought of something, and asked, “What do you usually call him?  Do you call him dage, or brother-in-law?”

“I hear him call him dage,” Yan Yujin laughed.  “But he is both your dage and your brother-in-law, someone outside the family would never understand what’s going on.”

“Jingrui’s story is a household tale by now, how could there be anyone who doesn’t know it?”  Mei Changsu blew on his sesame dumpling and slowly took a bite, the white steam rising before him, his expression a little confused.  “……Will they return to Fenzuo after the first month of the New Year passes?”

“There’s no rush, Fenzuo is less than ten days’ travel from the capital, so they usually stay until the middle of April before leaving.  But this year, only my Zhuo dad is going back, Mum and Qingyao dage are staying to keep Qi mei¹ company……”  As Xiao Jingrui spoke, a happy smile appeared on his face.  “My Qi mei is having a baby, she’s due to give birth in May, so I will be a shushu……ng……and also a jiujiu²……”

“Congratulations,”  Mei Changsu smiled at the two brothers of the Xie family.  “Her Highness the Grand Princess must be worried about the young lady, to have her stay with her maiden family to give birth.”

“That’s right.  My Zhuo dad is a jianghu man, and my Xie dad is a military man, so they don’t care about those customs about not allowing girls to give birth in their maiden homes.  Besides, girls are always most comfortable with their own mothers by their sides, and my Zhuo mother will stay too, so Qi mei will be very well taken care of.”

“Jingrui,” Yan Yujin widened his eyes.  “Why don’t you tell Brother Su why your Zhuo parents always stay until the middle of April before leaving?”

“They, they want to, to spend more time together,” Xiao Jingrui’s cheeks were red, and he glared at Yan Yujin.  “I think it’s great for our two families to live together for a little while.”

Mei Changsu was an intelligent person, and there was laughter in his eyes as he said, “Could it be that there is some important event that takes place in April?”

“Have a guess, Brother Su,”  Xie Bi joined in the teasing.

“Jingrui’s birthday?”  Mei Changsu’s brow furrowed lightly.  “So which day in the middle of April is it then, hm?”

“April twelfth,” Yan Yujin beat the others to the answer.  “But that was too easy, look at Jingrui’s expression, it’s obviously saying to Brother Su, ‘That date has something to do with me!  Something to do with me!'”

“Shut up!”  Xiao Jingrui laughed as he aimed a kick at him.  “When have you ever seen an expression speak?”

“Hunh, it’s not just expressions, sometimes eyebrows, the corner of mouths, fingers, and even hair can speak, and even if you don’t smile or scowl, even if you don’t look at me, I can still tell what they are saying.”

“Are you talking about your precious beauties?”  Xiao Jingrui’s lip twitched.  “Don’t get too cocky, one of these days, someone will come along who can keep you under her thumb, and then I’ll come to watch the show.”

“Don’t hold your breath.”  Yan Yujin purposefully adopted a lofty air.  “We’ll see who’s laughing at whom.”

Mei Changsu watched quietly as the two bantered, and though it was a familiar scene, a strange sadness arose in his heart.  The bowl of hot dumplings in his hand had already grown cool, though he had only eaten two.

“Brother Su, are you feeling unwell?”  Xie Bi leaned over in concern.  “Or are you tired?”

“It’s nothing, I’m always like this in the winter.”  Mei Changsu smiled and placed his bowl on the table, turning his warm gaze onto Xiao Jingrui.  “How do you usually celebrate your birthday?”

“Oh, I’m of the younger generation, so it’s not worth much celebration….”  Xiao Jingrui had just begun when Xie Bi cut him off.

“Oh, come on, if your birthday isn’t considered a celebration, then Xie Xu and I might as well just cry our way through our birthdays!”

“That’s right, Jingrui’s birthday is always a bigger deal than those of the other Xie brothers.  It can’t be helped, he has two sets of parents, so everything has to be doubled.”  Yan Yujin was clearly familiar with the situation.  “Besides the huge pile of gifts, there’s always a banquet every year, with all the friends he wants to invite, and after dinner, when the elders have retired, we can go as crazy as we like.  It’s the only day of the year you can really do whatever you want, isn’t it?”

“In that case, Jingrui’s birthday must be the happiest day of the year.”  Mei Changsu looked at Xiao Jingrui’s expression and knew that Yan Yujin had spoken truly.  And this year he would be turning twenty-five, an important age, and so the celebration could only be even more lively.

“Of course I’m happy to spend time with my friends, doing whatever we like,” Xiao Jingrui looked at Mei Changsu, his face sobering slightly.  “If Brother Su could come too this year, that would be nice….”

“Are you crazy?”  Yan Yujin smacked his shoulder.  “Brother Su will certainly be in the city in April, so of course he must come.  You tried to invite him to your home for New Year’s Eve but you’re not going to invite him for your own birthday?”

Xiao Jingrui was about to reply, but then hesitated, his gaze faltering.  Although Yan Yujin was intelligent, there were some things he did not know.  When he had invited Mei Changsu to his manor for New Year’s Eve, aside from the consideration of the appropriateness of the time and situation, he had neglected another important aspect, which were the respective positions Su Zhe and the Xie manor had taken in the fight for the throne.  When he remembered the events that had taken place in Snow Cottage on Mei Changsu’s last night at their residence, he could not be sure whether this Brother Su whom he respected so deeply would even consent to pass through the gates of the Xie manor again.

But in contrast to Xiao Jingrui’s complicated emotions, Mei Changsu appeared rather at ease as he said, still smiling, “I find Jingrui’s words strange as well……Jingrui, are you really not going to invite me?”

Xiao Jingrui was stunned for a moment before he asked doubtfully, “Brother Su would consent to come?”

“We are friends, and are living in the same city, what reason would I have not to come?  It’s only that I’m a little more advanced in my years, and can’t join in when it gets too exciting, so don’t mind me if I seem a little like a wet blanket, that’s all.”

Xiao Jingrui was delighted, and said hurriedly, “It’s a deal, I will definitely be waiting to receive Brother Su.”

“Hmph, you’ve reaped a profit this time, Brother Su definitely won’t come empty-handed, and he’ll have something good for you for sure.”  Yan Yujin kicked lightly at his friend, and then turned to say, “Brother Su, my birthday is on the seventh of July, don’t forget!”

Mei Changsu couldn’t help laughing, and then began coughing into his sleeve.  “Alright……I will remember……”

“With such a coincidental birthday³, Brother Su couldn’t forget even if he wanted to,” Xie Bi teased.  “If you were born just a few days later, on the fifteenth of July4, that would be even better.”

“Boys born on the seventh of July are known for valuing friendship and affection,” Mei Changsu defended Yan Yujin.  “I think Yujin lives up to this description.”

“Ng,” Xie Bi nodded, his expression solemn.  “He is certainly affectionate towards beautiful ladies….”

“I’m not listening,” Yan Yujin stuck his tongue out in his direction and then scooted over to Mei Changsu, saying quietly in his ear, “Brother Su, when you’ve thought of what you’re going to give Jingrui, you have to tell me first, so we don’t give him the same present.”

Although he spoke in a low voice, it was not low enough to escape the hearing of those beside them, and Xiao Jingrui pushed him, scolding laughingly, “You think Brother Su is like you, always coming up with weird things as gifts?  Anyway, it’s the thought that counts, I’ll be happy with anything you give me.”

“The present is indeed not the most important thing……regardless, I have a feeling that, this year, Jingrui will truly have a birthday he will never forget….”

Mei Changsu spoke warmly and with a light smile on his face, and the three young men laughed with him, unaware of the conflicting emotions in his hooded gaze, which flitted between sympathy, regret, and grim determination.

“Chief,” Li Gang appeared again at the door of the room.  “Prince Yu sent people over with an invitation to a banquet at his manor on the fifth, the messengers are waiting for a reply, I apologize for the interruption….”

The red invitation card was delivered to the table, and the joyful atmosphere in the room immediately dissipated.  Yan Yujin bit his lip, Xiao Jingrui lowered his eyes, and Xie Bi’s face paled.

It seemed their delicate friendship could never escape the looming shadow of reality for long.

“Send a reply to Prince Yu saying that the banquet on the fifth is a gathering of noble guests, and as I have other engagements on that day, I will not disrupt them with my presence.”  Mei Changsu’s gaze passed lightly over the three young men as he answered indifferently.

¹mei = younger sister (equivalent of jie, ge, di)

²shushu and jiujiu both mean uncle, but that’s only because English is lazy 😛  You are probably aware of the crazy intricate Chinese naming system for all the different familial relations.  So shushu is the younger brother of your father, and jiujiu is the older brother of your mother.

³it’s sort of like Chinese Valentine’s day?  here, wiki it

4Chinese ‘Ghost Day’ (yeah just wiki it), so I think Xie Bi is teasing Yujin for being like a ghost lol

Translator’s Notes:

As I was typing “Lang Ya List of Martial Arts Experts”, I accidentally typed “Marital Arts” instead…….and cracked myself up.

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