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“What, does Mister Su know this person?  Xia Dong asked, looking at Mei Changsu’s expression.

“Not know, precisely, but we have met before.  He is from the imperial Jing residence, and though I have only visited Prince Jing once, I have developed quite an impression of this dear brother.”

Xia Dong looked a bit surprised.  “A centurion left an impression on Mister Su?  He must have some remarkable traits, then?”

Mei Changsu nodded.  “I wonder whether he has rectified those remarkable traits yet….”

At these strange words, Xia Dong raised her eyebrows and was about to inquire further, but the centurion had already strode over and, ignoring Mei Changsu, cupped his fists and bowed to Xia Dong, saying, “Your servant is Qi Meng, a centurion of Prince Jing’s army, may I ask if Officer Xia has just descended from the mountain?”



Xia Dong eyed him up and down as she answered, “Correct.”

“Did the two of you see a beast on the mountain?”

“A beast?” Xia Dong frowned.  “This area is still within the jurisdiction of the capital, how could there be a beast?”

“There is, it is a beast covered in long fur that has been disturbing the villagers living on the mountain, which is why we received the order to come and capture it.”

Mei Changsu broke in to say, “I remember you have been working on this for some time already, have you still not been able to catch it?”

Qi Meng had originally been a military general of the fourth rank, but the title he had achieved by the blood and sweat of the battlefield had been reduced to centurion with a few cold words from Mei Changsu, so it would be a lie to say he felt nothing towards this man, but at least three of the wise members of the imperial Jing residence had come to him the day he had been demoted, explaining and analyzing the whole event, and he had ended up blushing in shame, with no words left to justify his behaviour.  Now, faced with Mei Changsu again, although there was still some discomfort in his heart and he was not willing to acknowledge him at first, since he had now spoken up, there was no reason for him to shame himself further by refusing to answer.

“These mountains are thick with forest, and the beast is very cunning, and we cannot stand guard here all day every day, we only come when the villagers report another sighting, but when we arrive, there is no sign of so much as the shadow of a beast, I don’t know if the villagers really saw anything….”

Mei Changsu looked around, thinking that these mountainous regions were indeed so dense with overgrown forest and covered such a tremendous area that trying to catch a beast in these parts was like trying to find a needle in an ocean, and so it was small wonder that their efforts had borne no fruit.

“Shouldn’t the Capital Magistrate Office be responsible for the villagers’ reports?”  Xia Dong asked.

“The beast is so fierce that, though fifty people from the Capital Magistrate Office managed to surround it once, half of them ended up injured and they couldn’t capture it in the end, so Magistrate Gao had no choice but to come to my lord.  My lord is the only one who will take up these kinds of lowly tasks that bring no glory or prestige.”

Xia Dong knew in her heart that this centurion spoke the truth, but she bore her own grudge towards Prince Jing and so she was not willing to comment, and only scoffed before turning to Mei Changsu to say, “I will return to the city now.  Until we meet again."

“Officer Xia, please take care.”  Mei Changsu bent forward in a bow, watching as Xia Dong retrieved her horse and rode away, then turned slowly and gave Qi Meng a look.

“What now?”  Qi Meng, frightened by the look, began frantically turning over the last few minutes in his mind, trying to figure out if he had said anything wrong.

Seeing his anxious appearance, Mei Changsu laughed in spite of himself.  “Not bad, not bad, it has only been a few days since I saw you, and you have already learned self-reflection.  It appears His Highness Prince Jing has really been working with his subordinates.  There wasn’t anything improper about what you said to Xia Dong just now, but in the future, avoid saying such things if you can.  His Highness Prince Jing needs to work more and speak less for the time being.  He understands this, and as his subordinates, you should understand even better.”

Mei Changsu was only a commoner, not a strategist of Prince Jing’s household, and had previously had a bit of conflict with Qi Meng, so no matter how you looked at it, he should not have had any right to lecture him.  But for some reason, his gentle scholarly air nonetheless carried its own kind of weight, and Qi Meng found himself nodding and saying, “I understand.”

By this time, Li Gang had ordered for the carriage to be brought over, and now he lowered the footstool and helped Mei Changsu up.  Just as the carriage was about to move, Mei Changsu suddenly drew aside the curtain and leaned out to say to Qi Meng, “Find out from the villagers what this beast likes to eat, and build a trap for it.”

Before Qi Meng could respond, the curtain was lowered and the carriage slowly moved away.

When Mei Changsu returned to his manor, he was told that Prince Yu had actually come in person to extend his invitation, and, refusing to believe that he was really not at home, had insisted on entering into the inner courtyard to look around, but in the end, because he had many noble guests arriving at his own manor, he could not stay long and so had finally hurried away, disgruntled.

When the tenth day of the new year had passed, lanterns began gradually appearing all over the city, in preparation for the Lantern Festival¹.  The palace was no exception, and from the Empress’ palace to the residence of the lowliest concubine, all the manors were decorated in their own unique fashion with the newest styles of lanterns, in the hopes of attracting the Emperor’s attention and admiration on the night of the Lantern Festival.

But to some, the joyful atmosphere lingered only on the surface.  Commander General of the Imperial Guard Meng Zhi was carefully investigating the case of the murdered guards, and at the same time, he greatly increased the protection of the palace, organizing additional shifts to maximize surveillance, and the fruits of his efforts were immediately felt, as they managed to stop two incidents in a row of arson by eunuchs in the palace.  Unfortunately, the captured criminals committed suicide on the spot and no confession could be obtained, but from a study of their identities, they appeared to be eunuchs in charge of internal palace affairs, and not outsiders who had infiltrated the palace.  Because of these incidents, Empress Yan was publicly reprimanded by the Emperor, and had been forced to confess her guilt and beg for forgiveness.  She understood that, as the Mistress of the Inner Palace, anything that went wrong in the palace was her responsibility, not that of the other consorts and concubines, and Consort Yue of course also escaped any hint of blame, so she could only be more careful in the future, and even more strictly monitor the comings and goings of everyone in the palace.  The Empress was the daughter of the previous dynasty’s Imperial Tutor, and at sixteen, she had been married to the current Emperor, who had been still a Prince then, as his official wife, and then made Empress when he ascended to the throne, and she had managed the Six Palaces from that day forward.  Although their love had faded early on and the Emperor had turned his affection and favour elsewhere, and though she had never borne him a son, she had not worn the title of ‘Mistress of the Inner Palace’ all these years for show, and she had her own methods for managing the palace and everyone in it.  And so, if Madam Yue had not been able to cause any great disturbance even when she had been receiving the heavy grace and favour of the Emperor back then, it was even less likely that anyone would manage to upset the peace of the palace now, if she tightened the reins of her control.

Compared to the turmoil in the palace, Mei Changsu appeared much more idle.  After he had identified the few jianghu experts in the capital who had connections with Zhuo Dingfeng, this Chief of Jiangzuo Alliance quietly issued an urgent summons for an unknown swordsman, who arrived in the capital and proceeded to challenge each of the experts, one by one, according to the rules of jianghu, beating them so badly that they could not rise out of bed for half a month, neatly taking care of the problem.  And after causing all this chaos, this nameless swordsman disappeared again as abruptly as he had appeared, leaving all kinds of wild rumours in his wake as everyone tried to guess where he had come from, and whether his name would be on the Langya Lists next year….

Stripped of his assistants, Zhuo Dingfeng was beginning to notice the eyes on him, but the surveillance was so skilled that, though he felt that he was being observed, he could find no proof.  Under these circumstances, he could only refrain from acting for now, forced into a stalemate against his enemy.  Xie Yu was a cautious man, and ensured that he never left any sign of his presence in any of his plots, and so, worried that the Xuanjing Officers had picked up his trail, he too did not dare order Zhuo Dingfeng to act, and as the stalemate dragged on, naturally the city was at peace.

It was traditional on New Year’s Eve to stay up late to welcome the new year, and likewise, it was traditional to go out with friends and family to admire the lanterns on the night of the Lantern Festival.  Although surveillance had been increased both inside and outside the palace, to Mei Changsu, who was running the show behind the scenes, this was no reason to miss out on any of the appropriate entertainment, especially since Fei Liu had put on a beautiful new robe and tied on a bright new hair tie before the sun had even set, waiting eagerly to go out to see the lanterns.

Because there was no curfew tonight, there was bound to be a huge crowd in the streets, and Li Gang was making very anxious preparations, arranging for guards to surround the group from every direction, and even specially instructing Fei Liu to hold on very tightly to Su gege’s hand, and not to get lost.

“Won’t get lost!”  Fei Liu was feeling rather insulted by Uncle Li’s order.

“You’ll understand when you walk out the doors, people have been crushed to death in the crowds on Lantern Festival before, so you can imagine how easy it is to get lost, Fei Liu, you have to be careful.”

“Won’t get lost!” Fei insisted angrily.

Mei Changsu held back a smile as he patted the youth on the head, saying gently, “You misunderstood, Uncle Li means that Su gege will get lost, not that our Fei Liu will get lost.”

Fei Liu was taken aback, and he thought about it seriously for a moment before suddenly gripping Mei Changsu’s hand tightly and saying loudly, “Won’t lose!”

Li Gang finally let out a sigh of relief and mopped at the sweat on his forehead.

When the clocks had sounded the ninth hour, the procession left the gates of the manor and entered the vibrantly decorated streets, immediately becoming surrounded by the crowd, which bore down on them shoulder-to-shoulder.  Brightly-lit fish and dragons danced alike among the houses, their brilliant light spilling out into the sky above the tides of people winding through the streets, who were shouting and laughing with joy and delight.  This was the day in Da Liang in which ranks and titles mattered the least, and there was no marked difference today between the nobles and the commoners who traversed the city admiring the lanterns.  Some members of prestigious houses had even turned the playful tradition of dressing in white and wearing masks while going out to see the lanterns into a fashion of sorts, and while some of the upper-class women and well-bred young ladies used certain styles of cloth to denote their status, many others dressed up as commoners on purpose, their faces half-hidden under large hats as they moved about freely in the city.  It was for this reason that the Lantern Festival was known as the best time for lovers to meet in secret.

Like all children, Fei Liu especially loved bright, glowing objects, and no matter whether they were rabbit lanterns, or goldfish lanterns, or horse lanterns, or fairy lanterns, or pumpkin lanterns, or butterfly lanterns……he gazed in awe at every one, and each time Mei Changsu asked him, “Buy or not?”, he would answer firmly, “Yes!”, so that, before they had even gone down half a street, there were two or three lanterns in everyone’s hands.

“Chief, this is not the way to pamper children….”  Li Gang couldn’t help saying apologetically.  “At this rate, Fei Liu is going to move this whole street into our home….”

“Good!”  The youth agreed immediately, delighted.

“Never mind, after we meet up with them later, have two of our people bring these lanterns back, we have a large courtyard anyway, and we can hang them up along the eaves of the roofs and let Fei Liu enjoy himself for a few days.”  Mei Changsu smilingly placated Li Gang, and then turned to Fei Liu to say, “Fei Liu, according to the rules, these lanterns can only be hung up in the first month of the new year, so after the first month passes, we will have to take them down, understand?”

“Understand!”

Li Gang smiled ruefully, unable to add anything else, and so he craned his long neck and peered into the distance, saying, “There are so many people, how can we find them?”

“Look for the peach lanterns, we said we would meet them there….”

As soon as Mei Changsu spoke, one of the guards shouted, “Look there!”

Everyone turned to look in the direction he was pointing in, and about fifty paces away, there was a giant peach lantern glowing pink and yellow, eye-catching even amidst the thousands of lanterns hung up in the streets.

“It’s so big, we couldn’t miss it if we tried.”  Mei Changsu smiled as he led them over to the lantern, and though it was only a short distance away, it was almost an hour before they managed to make their way over to it.

“Xiao Fei Liu, this peach lantern is for you, do you like it?”  Yan Yujin grinned as he waved the long handle of the lantern.

“Ng!”

“Say thank you to Yan gege,” Mei Changsu reminded him.

“Thank you!”

“There are so many people, it will be dawn before we make it to your Miaoyin House….”  Mei Changsu looked at the massive crowd and sighed.  “I regret promising to come….”

“Don’t worry,” Xiao Jingrui said.  “It is only the main streets that are so busy, if we take the small alleys, we can go straight to the back door of Miaoyin House.  Yujin knows the way best, he takes it almost every other day….”

Yan Yujin rolled his eyes.  “So what if I know it well?  That’s nothing to be ashamed of.  The frankness of true heroes and the honesty of great scholars belies their outstanding natures…”

“Alright, hold on to the outstanding nature, we’d better go now, or the place you’ve booked will be cancelled by the time we arrive….  It’s rare to see Miss Gong Yu in the main hall, and they say she will be performing a new piece today too.”  Xie Bi cut in, and the group began shoving their way through the crowd, only letting out a sigh of relief when they finally arrived at the entrance to the small alley.

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