Outside the city of Jinling, the western, southern, and northern borders were largely flat plains with the occasional rolling hill, but the eastern side was covered by a mountain range, which, although not very tall, extended well into the distance.
Gushan¹ was the mountain closest to the capital, and from the eastern Dongyang gates of the capital, it was less than an hour’s ride on a fast horse to its foot. In the fall, the mountain came alive with red and gold leaves, but as it was now deep winter, the trees stood in the snow with their barren trunks, lending a bleak and desolate atmosphere to the scenery surrounding the winding mountain road. Beyond a flight of stairs in a quiet corner of the mountain’s peak, there was a simple pavilion, lined by a fence of twisting vines. About a hundred steps south of the pavilion, there was a gentle slope, slanting towards a cliff, and on the slope, there was a grave built out of stone. Before the grave sat two baskets of fresh fruits and three lit sticks of incense, the spark of their flames shining like stars as thin lines of smoke spiraled up into the sky.
This year, the new year had arrived late², and so the weather was already warming a little. But on the peak of Gushan, the mountain winds were strong, and the cold seemed to pierce into one’s very bones.
Xia Dong stood silently before the grave, dressed in a long robe of raw silk and plain cotton, the black skirt of her robe fluttering in the wind. The long hair that normally rested on her shoulders was piled high on her head, the streak of white still clearly visible, which, along with the slight wrinkles around the corners of her eyes, betrayed the passing of her youth.
Paper ash filled the air. The fragrance of the incense was dissipating, and the wine that had been poured into the earth had long since sunk deep into the dirt. Only the name on the grave stone still gleamed a blinding red, although it had already been traced a thousand times by those pale fingers.
She had been standing there since the sky slowly lit at dawn, burning paper and talking softly, and now the sunlight penetrated through the branches of the trees above onto her head, its brightness almost dizzying. The mist in the valleys below had disappeared, and the outline of the city beyond was gradually becoming visible, its silhouette emerging slowly from the misty landscape.
“Nie Feng, another year has passed….”
Ever since he had departed, each day felt as long as three seasons. Nevertheless, a year had slowly gone by.
As she stood before his grave, letting him watch as, year by year, she succumbed a little more to the passing of time and age, she wondered whose tears burned more fiercely, and whose heart ached more keenly – the person lying within the grave, or the one standing without?
Perhaps, when you can cry no longer, tears turn into blood, and when you can feel no more, pain turns into anesthesia.
She let out a long breath. Seeing him again had become her most luxurious wish on this earth.
Xia Dong’s finger traced the familiar lines once more, her ice-cold fingertips brushing against the coarse surface of the stone, and with every stroke, she felt a spasm in her chest, as if her heart was throbbing.
The wind whistled by her ear, but beneath the sound, she heard faint voices drifting over from the direction of the mountain road.
Xia Dong’s long thin brows furrowed, a frown appearing over her face.
Few people ventured onto Gushan in the winter as it was, and this was an especially remote part of the mountain, and further more, it was still only the fifth day of the new year. In all the years she had come to burn her sacrifices, this was the first time she had been disturbed.
“Chief, there is only a little path in that direction, the main peak is this way, look, you can already see it….”
“Never mind, I want to walk on the little paths, the trees are thicker here, and the shadows are dancing in the sunlight, isn’t it more interesting?”
“Yes……be careful, there is snow on the ground, it is easy to slip and fall.”
“With you holding on to me like this, even if I slip, I won’t be able to fall…….”
The light voices drifted over clearly in the quiet. Xia Dong took a deep breath and turned slowly, her face expressionless.
“Officer Xia….” The newcomer looked surprised. “What a coincidence….”
“Mister Su must be in good spirits to have come climbing a mountain in the dead of winter.” Xia Dong’s voice was peaceful as she spoke. “But I seem to remember there was a banquet today….”
“It was because I wanted to avoid the excitement that I came out here to hide from the city. If I stayed in my manor, I wouldn’t be able to turn down the invitations,” Mei Changsu said bluntly, not bothering to hide his intentions. “Besides, I have recently recovered from illness, and my physician advised me to walk in the mountains to regain my strength slowly, as a form of treatment. Gushan is closest to the city, so I decided to come here. Have I disturbed you?”
“Gushan does not belong to me, of course anyone can come,” Xia Dong said coolly. “This is my husband’s grave, and people seldom wander to these parts, so it is only a little unexpected.”
“This is where General Nie’s bones are buried, then?” Mei Changsu took a step forward. His voice was steady, but his long lashes lowered, hiding the expression in his eyes. “He was truly a glorious general of his generation, and I have always admired his might and honour. Since fortune has brought me here today, would you allow me to make an offering, to show my respect?”
Xia Dong was taken aback, but reflected that, as he had arrived here now, and with the friendship they had developed talking in the snow that day, it would be lacking in manners for him not to pay his respects at the grave of her departed husband. As for his reverent words, it was not worth wondering whether they were genuine or not, so she nodded and said, “I am indebted to Mister’s kindness, please go ahead.”
Mei Changsu nodded to her, then walked slowly to the grave and knelt. He scattered herbs of incense onto the ground, then clasped his hands and bowed deeply three times. He turned his face slightly and asked in a low voice, “Li Gang, I remember you carry a flask of wine by your side?”
“Lend it to me.”
“Yes.” Li Gang reverently removed the silver flask from his waist belt and bowed as he held it out.
Mei Changsu took the silver flask and removed the stopper. Then, holding it in both hands, he cried out in a clear voice, “The general of a hundred battles has fallen in defeat. At the river, he turns his head towards his kingdom, a thousand miles away, and bids his old friend farewell. The water flows desolate, the wind blows cold, as the white-shrouded figures line the shore. The song of mourning for the warrior hero will never come to an end. If songbirds knew of such grief and sorrow, they would weep rivers of crimson blood. Who is left to drink with me now under the radiant moon?³ ……The general’s heroic spirit is here, and if his soul is willing to receive my own, please accept this wine!”
As he spoke, he poured wine onto the ground, then lifted his head and swallowed a large mouthful. He coughed once lightly and suppressed the rest of the coughs fiercely as he wiped the corner of his mouth with the back of his hand. His gaze trembled a little as an uncontrollable surge of grief welled up in his chest, and he let out a light sigh in spite of himself.
Xia Dong was standing behind him, and though she could not see the expression of the person kneeling before the grave, she was moved by his sincerity and lost her composure for a moment, turning to lean against a nearby tree, her tears turning to ice as they fell.
“Mistress Nie, I am sorry for your loss.” A moment later, the gentle voice sounded by her ear, and the pain in her heart only deepened when she heard the change in the way he addressed her. But Xia Dong was not a dainty widow, and her pride would not allow her to show weakness before anyone she did not know well. She took a deep breath to control her erratic breathing, raised a hand to wipe at the tears on her face, and slowly calmed herself.
“I thank you for your great kindness. Please accept this bow in return.”
Mei Changsu bowed back, replying, “Sacrificial offerings are only to show the affections of the heart, I see Mistress Nie is dressed lightly and has no cloak, please allow me to escort you back down the mountain. General Nie’s soul in heaven would not want to see the mistress bring suffering to herself.”
Xia Dong had already finished her sacrifices and was preparing to leave anyway, and so did not refuse, and the two turned slowly and walked along the stone-paved path side by side. As they walked, they did not speak, and the only sound came from the wind howling through the falling snow.
As they neared the foot of the mountain, a straw tea-hut came into view with a horse tied in front of it, and Xia Dong asked, “Is mister returning to the city?”
Mei Changsu smiled. “It is early yet, still before noon, and too early to return. I hear there is a beautiful stone carving in an old town nearby, I wanted to take the opportunity to visit.”
“The stone carving of Chixia town? It is indeed worth a visit.” Xia Dong halted. “I have matters to deal with back in the capital, and so cannot accompany you.”
“Officer Xia, please do not trouble yourself on my account.” With the change in environment, Mei Changsu had automatically switched back to his former manner of address. “The case of the murdered guards is indeed a difficult one, and with the hard work ahead, you must take good care of your health.”
Xia Dong’s gaze swept over, sharp as a knife. “What does Mister Su mean by this?”
“What? Has the case not been given to the Xuanjing Bureau?”
Xia Dong’s face grew colder. The case had been openly handed over to the manor of the Commander General of the Imperial Guard, and the imperial edict she had received had been sent in secret. But since she had alreadyy begun the investigation, it was only a matter of time until the news was out. But still, this Su Zhe had really found out a little too early.
“This is indeed a strange case, perhaps the Xuanjing Bureau will develop an interest in it later,” Xia Dong replied, neither confirming nor denying his guess. She went on to ask, “But with such a clean murder, the assassins must have been jianghu experts, does Mister Su have any wise opinions on this?”
“The people of jianghu are so vast and varied that even Langya Hall must renew its lists every year, so how could I dare to comment? Besides, when has the Xuanjing Bureau ever bowed to Jiangzuo Alliance when it comes to knowledge of the masters of jianghu? Surely, Officer Xia knows better than I which martial arts experts are currently residing in the capital?”
Xia Dong’s icy gaze turned away, her expression guarded. Xuanjing Officers served directly under the Emperor, and so naturally took no part in the fight for the throne, and were not allowed to harbour any bias. This Su Zhe could basically be counted as part of Prince Yu’s camp by now, and so she had to be extremely careful if she was to continue this discussion with him.
The corner of Mei Changsu’s lip curled in a smile, and he turned his gaze away slowly. He of course knew what Xia Dong was thinking. In the whole of the capital, aside from those who understood his true goals, everyone else had changed their attitudes towards him ever since they discovered that he had joined the fight for the throne, and even Yan Yujin and Xie Bi were no exception. The only one who had continued to treat him with the same earnest sincerity was Xiao Jingrui.
To everyone else, he was first Su Zhe, the qilin prodigy. But to Xiao Jingrui, he was only Mei Changsu, no more and no less.
No matter how much of his skill he displayed, no matter how great the ripples he raised in the capital, the friendship this young man had forged with him from the very beginning did not seem to change in the slightest.
Xiao Jingrui had looked upon this game of thrones all along with mild distress, though he had never forgotten his place. He did not think his father had chosen falsely, and also did not think Brother Su had picked the wrong side, he only grieved that the two could not stand together, and refused to give up his friendship with Mei Changsu because of this. He persisted in his frank and trusting attitude, and no matter what Mei Changsu asked, he always answered truthfully, never stopping to wonder about the meaning and intention behind Brother Su’s question. This was not because he was not able to think in this way, but because he chose not to.
And in his invitation to his birthday banquet, Mei Changsu could clearly see the pure intentions of this young man: You are my friend, and as long as you are willing to come, I will guarantee your safety.
Xiao Jingrui did not want to defy his father, but neither did he want to change Mei Changsu, he only wanted to make his own friends in his own way.
The clear wind blows under the clouded moon. It was only a pity that such a person had been born into the Xie manor.
Mei Changsu shook his head and sighed, forcing his thoughts to a halt. The wheels of fate were drawing near, and there was no point to any more thinking, because there was not a single person in this world who could reverse the fruits of time.
Xia Dong had not noticed his silence. Her gaze had fallen onto a winding path in the distance, as she let out a light, “Oh?”
Mei Changsu looked in the direction of her gaze and raised his eyebrows in surprise. About a hundred soldiers were gradually emerging from the depths of the dense forest, some with swords in their hands, some holding spears, and some carrying coils of rope on their back. From the snow and mud on their clothes and boots, it was evident that this group had been traversing through the forest for some time.
“Have you found it?” A tall, broad-shouldered officer emerged from the back of the group, his clear voice echoing in the quiet. From the insignia on his clothing, he looked to be a centurion.
“We saw nothing……”
His subordinates looked disappointed.
“Didn’t the villagers say they saw it here before? Damn it! Missed it again!” The centurion cursed loudly, and as he lifted his head, his gaze fell onto the two in the distance, and he looked taken aback.
A bright smile spread across Mei Changsu’s face as he nodded in greeting.
It was truly a small world when, whether by intention or coincidence, it was so easy to run into people you knew….
¹Gushan (孤山) = Solitary or Lonely Mountain
²the lunar calendar obviously does not follow the solar year, and therefore shifts a little every year. Like, for example, Chinese New Year can be anywhere from mid/late January to mid-February.
³oh God, I can’t even get mad at him this time because it’s NIE FENG’S GRAVE.
Right, so this poem is called ‘Congratulating the Bridegroom’ by Xin Qiji (賀新郎 (辛棄疾)). Don’t ask me why. And MCS recites the second half of the poem. The full text (and analysis) can be found .
For the sake of completeness, the first half is something about the mournful cries of the birds in the trees and the withering of all the flowers, and how none of that can compare to the pain and grief of the parting of death. And it goes on to describe this beautiful concubine who plays her pipa (Chinese lute) as she rides into the barren wilderness, and an empress sadly leaving the palace, as someone (the Emperor?) who is staying behind to defend the country watches them go. (I assume, from the context of the second half, that there’s war or something coming.)
Here’s the part that MCS recites:
The general of a hundred battles has fallen in defeat.
At the river, he turns his head towards his kingdom, a thousand miles away,
and bids his old friend farewell.
The water flows desolate, the wind blows cold,
as the white-shrouded figures line the shore.
The song of mourning for the warrior hero will never come to an end.
If songbirds knew of such grief and sorrow,
they would weep rivers of crimson blood.
Who is left to drink with me now under the radiant moon?
So many tears. Nie Feng. Xia Dong. Xiao Jingrui. Cannot even.
(But also: coincidence my butt, MCS.)