Three days later, the court released three imperial edicts all at once.
The Crown Prince was permitted to return to the Eastern Palace, where he would continue his confinement.
Consort Yue was restored to her position as Noble Consort, as reward for her repentance and regret.
Concubine Jing was raised to Consort Jing.
Both court and commoners were thrown into a frenzy, as everyone tried to guess what their unfathomable Emperor meant by issuing these edicts.
Compared to the blinding spotlight of Consort Yue’s restoration to Noble Consort, Concubine Jing’s elevation in rank did not attract much attention. After all, she had lived in the palace for more than thirty years and had never brought any shame to herself, and furthermore, her son was a grown prince who had his own imperial residence, so in truth she ought to have been made consort long ago, and it was only that she had been neglected for many years. The ladies of the Inner Palace came to pay their respects and congratulations, but after fulfilling this courtesy, most of the crowd rushed away towards the Noble Consort Yue’s Zhaoren palace. Only a very few of the most astute were able to put together Prince Jing’s additional new year’s gift with Concubine Jing’s promotion and come forward eagerly to curry favour, recognizing that a new power was emerging.
But both Consort Jing and Prince Jing seemed nonchalant, appearing polite but distant, and Consort Jing in particular only received her guests with her usual courtesy, and refused all congratulatory rites and bows. Aside from the change in her position in the arrangement the ladies adopted for their visits to the Empress, it was difficult to tell what practical advantage she derived from this elevation in rank. Some even postulated that the Emperor had only carelessly bestowed this promotion onto her in order to make Noble Consort Yue’s restoration seem less conspicuous.
Prince Jing had a somewhat different approach. He knew well that his understanding of the court ministers was insufficient, and he had complete trust in Mei Changsu’s analysis and strategy, so he adhered strictly to Mei Changsu’s list as he went about making friends. He displayed the same courtesies to everyone he encountered, but hidden within the courtesies were slight variations of familiarity and distance.
Mei Changsu knew that Prince Jing’s approach to gaining support would require more time, but he also knew that it would also rest on a stronger foundation.
A few months ago, after Qingming, Princess Nihuang and Mu Qing had requested to return to Yunnan, but the Emperor had refused, holding them in the capital until now. But a few days after the Chu ambassadors entered the capital, he approved their request and permitted Nihuang to return to guard the Southern Border, but commanded Mu Qing to stay, with the official reason being that he had just come of age and the Grand Empress Dowager couldn’t bear to part with him yet, and wanted him to stay awhile longer.
This transparent attempt at holding a hostage in the palace stirred up great waves in the imperial Mu residence, as every general of the Southern Border who had accompanied the two into the capital felt their hearts stir with rage and fury. It was Nihuang who remained calm and subdued her household, ensuring that no inappropriate words were spread beyond the gates of the manor. She then chose a few trusted confidants to stay in the capital with her younger brother, to whom she gave careful and thorough instructions, and it was only after all of these matters had been taken care of that she began to make plans for her own return to Yunnan.
Before her departure, she went around the capital bidding her friends farewell, and finally, she arrived at Su manor.
The warm spring sunshine spilled into the newly renovated gardens of the Su manor. The cherry apple trees had shed their fruit, the peaches and pears had fallen from their branches, and a sense of grief hung in the air amidst the springtime flourish.
A single glance was enough to convey the trust between the two, the kind of intimate faith that endured beyond the borders of life and death. A small smile was enough to communicate the depth of feeling they shared, the warmth and affection that overflowed from their hearts. Today, Nihuang was not heavily made up, but was dressed in a wide-sleeved gown with a white jade pendant hanging from her belt. There was a plain camellia tucked into her hair, the simple adornment emphasizing her grace and natural beauty. Only the faint expression in her beautiful face revealed the thousand-tonne weight on her shoulders and the heavy burdens in her heart.
“Lin Shu gege, when Nihuang leaves this time, we will not see each other again for some time. Our Yunnan Mu clan still has some connections in the capital, this yellow jade pendant was handed down to me by my father’s father, and even Mu Qing is bound to follow the commands of he who holds this pendant. Today, I am entrusting it to dage, please, I beg of you, do not refuse it.”
After these earnest words, Nihuang fell forward onto her knees, a gleaming jade pendant cupped in both hands. The character ‘Mu’ was carved into its surface over a shimmering pattern of ripples and waves.
Mei Changsu’s gaze was solemn as he looked down slowly at the pendant. He understood that the girl before him, who shouldered the Yunnan Mu clan alone, was not only entrusting to him this jade pendant, but also the safety of her beloved younger brother in the capital. If he accepted it, a heavy responsibility would fall onto his shoulders. But the moment did not allow for hesitation, and he had never thought of hesitating in the first place, so his only response was to quietly accept the pendant and raise Nihuang to her feet.
“Don’t worry, the Emperor is only trying to restrain your power, he does not harbour any suspicions. Mu Qing may not have had much experience, but he is a bright and agile child, and as long as I am in the capital, he will not come to any harm.”
A soft dimple appeared in Nihuang’s cheeks, but her gaze, as bright as moonlight, held the shine of tears. “Lin Shu gege, you……must take care too….”
Mei Changsu smiled gently at her. There was nothing more to be said, and even Nie Duo did not need to be discussed. As long as they both understood the other’s worry¹, and knew, too, the purest and softest parts of each other’s hearts – that was enough.
On the tenth of April, Princess Nihuang departed the capital at dawn, accompanied by an envoy from the palace as a sign of the Emperor’s favour. Aside from these ministers who had come for ceremonial purposes, people like Xiao Jingrui, Yan Yujin, and Xia Dong had also naturally shown up, but there was no sign of Mei Changsu’s shadow amongst the crowd that had gathered to see the Princess off. Instead, they encountered another person, who seemed at first unexpected, but on second thought, perhaps should have come as no surprise.
The head ambassador of Da Chu, Yuwen Xuan, had the typical build of the Southern Chu – thin eyebrows over almond-shaped eyes, a tall stature, and narrow shoulders, giving him a somewhat lanky appearance, but once he started moving, the strength within the wiry frame became apparent.
The royalty of Da Chu did not lead their own armies, and so Yuwen Xuan had never fought directly against Princess Nihuang, but everyone knew of the centuries-long enmity between Da Chu and the Mu clan, who had guarded the Southern Border for generations, not to mention the late Lord Mu had died fighting the Chu army, and Princess Nihuang herself had undergone many difficult experiences on the battlefield.
And so this Prince Ling of Da Chu had some guts indeed, daring to show up at the gates of the capital of Da Liang to see off the lady general of the Southern Border who had been his nation’s enemy for many years.
As soon as he saw the Chu attire of the new arrivals and the Chu-styled decorations on their carriages, Mu Qing’s expression darkened, but in contrast, a faint smile drifted over Princess Nihuang’s face.
“Greetings, Princess Nihuang.” Yuwen Xuan got down off his carriage and hurried forward in a bow.
“Your Highness, Prince Ling.” Nihuang returned the courtesy. “Are you leaving the city?”
“Oh no, I came especially to see the Princess off, in order to express my thanks to the Princess.” The corner of Yuwen Xuan’s eyes crinkled in a smile.
His words were unexpected, and Nihuang couldn’t help raising an eyebrow. “Thank me for what?”
“It is said that when countries go to war, the ones who suffer are the common people. I have always striven for peace between our two nations, that each might not invade nor disturb the other. However, the monarch of my humble country has always envied the glory of Jinling, and is forever striving northward. If not for the Princess’ formidable strength in suppressing our invasions, I fear far more turmoil and chaos would have fallen upon us by now, and so, I must convey my deepest gratitude to the Princess.”
The logic of his words seemed correct, but spoken from the mouth of a member of the imperial family of Da Chu, they came out strangely, and made one uncomfortable. He seemed to be expressing genuine goodwill towards Nihuang, but there also seemed to be a hidden mocking beneath his speech, and yet if one were to try to refute him, there was nowhere to begin.
“Alright, His Highness Prince Ling has spoken his courteous words, pray take your leave now, there is still much we have to discuss with jiejie.” Mu Qing could not be impolite because of the other’s status as ambassador, but neither could he muster up any sort of amiable appearance.
“This is…” Yuwen Xuan eyed him dubiously, clearly not recognizing him, and it was not until an assistant came over and whispered in his ear that he seemed to light up with understanding. “Ah, so it is the little lord Mu. Please forgive my carelessness, you know, we Chu have always only heard of Princess Nihuang, and did not know about this lord Mu. Jiejie has fought all your wars for you, the little lord is fortunate indeed, what does he like to do in his spare time? Embroidery? It is a pity my younger sister did not come, embroidery is her favourite….”
Even the most sophisticated might not have been able to withstand this deliberate baiting, and so the young hot-blooded Mu Qing didn’t stand a chance, and he flushed with fury and jumped to his feet. His sister held him back.
“Your Highness Prince Ling is also unfamiliar to me,” Princess Nihuang said coolly. “Nihuang has never encountered so much as His Highness’ shadow on the battlefield, and if he does not go to war, perhaps he too spends his days amusing himself with embroidery?”
Yuwen Xuan laughed carelessly. “I have always been a pampered prince who spends his days idling about, so I do not go to war – what of it? But the little lord Mu is a lord who guards the border, and yet he has never appeared on the battlefield to fight under the banner of his king, if this is not fortune, what is? I must say, I do envy him….”
Mu Qing couldn’t contain his fury. He shoved off his sister’s hand and rushed forward, drawing his sword and pointing it straight at Yuwen Xuan’s throat as he shouted, “You listen to me, when I succeed to my father’s place, of course I won’t let my sister bear the burden for me. If you are a man, then prove yourself to have more than just a sharp tongue, and let us meet on the battlefield!”
“Hahaha,” Yuwen Xuan jeered, “So easily angered? Our two nations are currently arranging a wedding union, what cause for battle is there left? Even if we are so unfortunate as to enter into open war again in the future, I have already said that I myself will not be found on the battlefield, so we will let Lord Mu have his fierce words. As for whether I am a man…haha, I fear a little boy such as Lord Mu would not be able to tell….”
Princess Nihuang’s brow furrowed. This Yuwen Xuan had a quick tongue, and was obviously trying to rile Mu Qing up, but aside from being designed to anger, there was nothing else offensive about his words. The best way to deal with people like him was to simply remain indifferent and ignore him, but Qing’er was young, and how could he be expected to keep his calm in the face of such ridicule? If she let this go on, she would find herself in a difficult bind – if she stopped Mu Qing, she would be encouraging the Chu‘s influence and extinguishing her brother’s spirits; if she protected him, that would give this person yet another reason to tease Qing di for hiding under his sister’s wing; yet, if she did nothing, she knew Qing di was not this person’s match when it came to this game of words….
As she stood there deliberating, Xiao Jingrui stepped forward and said, smiling coldly, “Your Highness Prince Ling, since you already know that the two of you will have no opportunity to meet on the battlefield, then why waste time on these useless words? The little lord Mu has only just come of age and inherited his father’s position, and in the future, he is sure to be found under the royal flag in his own right. If you truly envy his place as general and commander of such a formidable army in the future, while you can only content yourself with embroidery, you have only to say so. I believe the little lord Mu would not deprive you of the chance to engage with him in person, I only do not know whether Your Highness Prince Ling would dare to accept such an invitation?”
Mu Qing gritted his teeth and added, “That’s right, keep your nonsense to yourself, what honour is there in provoking others with backhanded insults? You and I can fight, right here, right now, and if you don’t have the guts to fight me, call any of your men, call more than one if you like!”
Yan Yujin saw that Yuwen Xuan was slender in build and walked with a floating step, and it was evident that his martial arts training was far inferior to Mu Qing, who had been raised in a military household, and he understood that Xiao Jingrui meant to end this battle of wits where they were at a disadvantage, and neatly move the battleground to a physical fight, and so he jumped in to help. “We in Da Liang are of a different breed compared to those from your esteemed nation. We like to talk with our fists, and dislike empty words, the men in particular. Your Highness Prince Ling, you are in our country now, and ought to follow our customs, so perhaps you could spend less time spouting flowers from your lips, and put your money where your mouth is?”
¹can’t translate this word right, but it’s literally like ‘hanging’, as in hanging on someone’s heart (so worry = worry about each other)
Thank you for all the incredibly lovely messages while I was gone. I’m sorry I didn’t have time to reply to them all, but I read every single one.
(P.S. I passed.)