When he arrived back at his own manor, Mei Changsu was shaking all over, breathless and weak, but he hung on grimly as he gave instructions for Yan Que to be closely monitored before finally relaxing and lying dizzily back down onto his bed, apologizing to Physician Yan all the while.
Physician Yan completely ignored his apologies, his face still dark as he performed acupuncture on his patient, and Li Gang, watching from the side, worried that in his anger, he would stick his needles into places they should not go.
After resting like this for three days, Mei Changsu appeared to have recovered a little of his energy. Perhaps it was because his subordinates were afraid to disturb him, or perhaps it was really that nothing of much significance happened during this time, but the capital seemed quiet over these three days, the only news being an edict from the Emperor stating that the Empress had taken ill, and so would be replaced by Gracious Consort Xu in the year’s end ceremonies.
According to rumour, the Emperor had wanted Consort Yue to take the Empress’ place, but Consort Yue had personally written to him saying that her rank was low and her titles insufficient, and suggested that, by due of her superiority in both rank and years in the palace, Gracious Consort Xu should take over the ceremony.
This letter was written with reason and passion, as well as an ostentatiously grand manner, and the Emperor, greatly impressed, personally bestowed upon her a new pearl hairpin as a reward. When the news spread to him, Prince Yu was livid.
But despite his anger, these kinds of plays were not uncommon in the fight for the throne, and in any case, it was no great victory and there was not any substantial loss, and as the end of the year was near, both sides were too busy to continue the fight for now.
The Su manor was also preparing busily for the new year, but this was not something that required Mei Changsu’s attention, as Li Gang was more than capable of handling these kinds of internal affairs, and on Mister Shisan’s end, there was Gong Yu to order several carts of goods for the new year, including most of the newest and most interesting toys on the market, and soon, Fei Liu was playing frantically from dawn to dusk.
The imperial Mu residence, imperial Yu residence, Yan residence, Xie residence, and the Commander General’s residence also sent over new year’s gifts, and even Prince Jing sent over one of the senior members of his residence to bring over new year’s greetings and several tokens of appreciation.
For most of the gifts he received, Mei Changsu only glanced over the gift list before letting Li Gang deal with them. He even let him handle the sending of gifts in return, and did not seem interested at all in the details.
But amongst all the gifts, Fei Liu’s special favourites were the seven boxes of fireworks sent over by the imperial Mu residence, each stick as thick as a young child’s arm, which gave off bright and colourful displays when set off, and Fei Liu spent at least an hour every night setting them off, so that before new year’s eve had arrived, he had already used them all, and when Li Gang sent someone out to buy more, they discovered that the imperial Mu residence had sent over special imperial fireworks, which could not be found in the markets.
And so, to placate Fei Liu, the first letter the barely recovered qilin prodigy wrote when he finally rose from his bed was to Nihuang, asking her to buy ten more boxes of fireworks on his behalf.
The day after he sent out the letter, the carriage bearing the fireworks arrived at the back door of the Su manor. Fei Liu was delighted, and Mei Changsu too was pleased.
This was because, after he had written to Nihuang, it was really only the imperial Mu residence who sent over fireworks, and neither Prince Yu nor any other residences tried to curry favour by doing the same, which demonstrated how strictly Nihuang governed her household, as evidently, gossip and information did not spread easily without her knowledge and consent.
New Year’s Eve finally arrived. That long-awaited sacrificial ceremony, which had stirred up so much conflict both open and hidden in the preceding days, proceeded smoothly and without the slightest complication, and aside from the Empress’ absence and Consort Yue’s demotion, did not vary greatly from the previous year’s ceremony.
After the ceremony, the Emperor returned to the palace and began the process of bestowing the new year’s gifts, as the princes, the imperial household, and the court ministers all knelt outside Yinan gate to receive his favour. In accordance with the usual conventions, the Crown Prince would receive the highest level of honour, followed by Prince Yu, and then followed by the other princes, with the remaining members of the imperial household and the court ministers receiving gifts befitting their respecting ranks. This year was no exception, except for the fact that, in addition to receiving the same gifts as the other princes, Prince Jing was also gifted with a silver suit of armour. But his recent performance had been very good, and this additional honour still did not bring him anywhere near the level of Prince Yu’s prestige, and so this did not end up attracting much attention.
The new year’s feast that night was laid out in Xianan Hall, and the Emperor went first to Cian Palace to pay his respects to the Grand Empress Dowager before returning to the hall to celebrate the new year with his concubines, consorts, princes, and imperial household. He also made arrangements to send a portion of the dishes to the manors of some of his most important ministers. To receive the gift of a dish from the Emperor’s table on New Year’s Eve was a sign of supreme imperial favour, and only the noblest and wisest of the officials could hope for such an honour.
No one could have known that this ‘dish-giving’ ritual would lead to so much trouble.
Confetti littered the ground and fireworks lit the sky over the capital city on this new year’s eve, as families gathered in celebration, and the glow of lamp-light filled every window. It was certainly lively, but the atmosphere was very different from the night of the lantern festival, as this time, everyone gathered with his family at home, and aside from a few children lighting firecrackers outside the doors of their homes, there was no one out on the street.
The guards in charge of delivering the gifted dishes were dressed in yellow and departed the palace in groups of five, riding through the deserted streets and spreading out as they headed towards their destinations – the manors that had been selected for this great honour.
Besides the guard holding the case of food in the center, the four guards around him carried bright, coloured lanterns that were specially made in the palace, and huge red lanterns also lit the sides of the main streets. But compared to the dazzling sunlight of the day, the light of these lanterns still could not illuminate every dark corner, and the tall palace walls cast looming shadows over the paths on which they rode.
The danger came from this darkness, and the whirling shadows were so quick that even its victims could not see where that fatal flash of a blade had come from, nor where it disappeared to.
The bodies fell heavily to the ground, but the horses kept riding forwards, and the blood was left to cool in the cold winter’s night, the weak cries drowned out in the noise of the firecrackers, unheard and unnoticed.
The dazzling fireworks spiraled into the sky. It was nearing midnight, the point at which the old and new years met, and even the guards of the palace night watch slowed their steps and turned their gazes to the blossoming flowers opening up all over the night sky, as the racket of firecrackers in the city neared the height of its frenzy.
Mei Changsu took hold of a long stick of incense and personally lit the largest firework, which Fei Liu had saved especially for him, and a streak of light flew across the night, burrowing deep into the darkness before erupting into glorious colour, lighting up half the sky in its splendour.
“Happy new year! Happy new year!” The cries rang out in the Su manor, and even the normally composed Li Gang produced a horn from somewhere and blew on it loudly, as a few of the younger guards began beating on drums and gongs.
“How appropriate, this is indeed the time for horns and drums, if I were to pick up the zither now, it would ruin the atmosphere,” Mei Changsu said, smiling as he returned to his chair on the porch and picked up a few chestnuts, peeling them idly as he gazed into the sky lit with fireworks.
As the midnight bell finally ceased its tolling, everyone gathered in the courtyard, and even Aunt Ji came hurrying out from the kitchen with a big ladle in her hand, as they all lined up behind Li Gang and took their turns coming before their Chief to make their new year’s bows, receiving a red packet in return. Most of them were Mei Changsu’s close bodyguards and had accompanied him for many years, but there were a few who had been in the capital all along and so had never received anything in person from the Chief himself, and afterwards, they wandered around speechless with excitement, earning themselves a fond head-rub and a teasing by their seniors, as everyone gathered around, laughing and joking.
From his time in Lang province, Fei Liu had grown accustomed to being the last in line (because he was the youngest), and now he came forward, kicked aside the cushion on the ground, and knelt directly onto the green-bricked ground, calling loudly, “Happy new year!”
“Be good this year!” Mei Changsu smiled, and placed a red packet into his hands. Although Fei Liu did not understand what this red-wrapped package was for, he knew that everyone was happy when they received it every year, and so obligingly gave a big smile in response.
After receiving their new year’s greetings, Mei Changsu rose and went over to Physician Yan to pay his own respects. The old physician looked as if he was still angry at him, and his face tightened at first, but even he was not immune to the joy of the new year, and finally, he puffed on his beard and smiled, patting Mei Changsu’s shoulder. “You’re one to talk, you have to be good this year too!”
“Yes,” Mei Changsu held back a smile, and when he turned back to the courtyard, he discovered that it had dissolved into a chaos of mutual bowing and shouts of new year’s greetings.
“Time for dumplings! All you young lads, come and help carry them!” Aunt Ji called from the doorway, and immediately, the crowd flowed towards her. Mei Changsu took Physician Yan by the arm, and the two of them went inside first with Fei Liu, where several large tables had been set up, on which jugs of wine and dishes heaped high with food had been laid out. Steaming plates of dumplings were carried over to the tables, their fragrance filling the room.
Aunt Ji had prepared small plates filled with green onion and vinegar for everyone to put their dumplings in, but the young men pushed aside the little plates and picked up large bowls instead, and Fei Liu, eyes wide, copied them and exchanged his plate for a bowl.
“It looks like only the two of us old men have any manners,” Mei Changsu murmured jokingly to Physician Yan, laughing when he was poked in the side by a sharp finger. He lifted his chopsticks and dipped them in the plate, and at this signal, the crowd leapt forward and quickly demolished the first round of dumplings.
“Why the rush, eh?” Although Aunt Ji’s tone was scolding, she was smiling broadly, happy that her dumplings were in such great demand, and brought out the second round of dumplings straight from the pot, pouring them out onto the empty plates. She carried the two feet wide iron pot, filled to the brim with boiling water and dumplings, without any difficulty, and in any other situation, this feat would have caused jaws to drop in shock, but today, everyone only had eyes for the dumplings themselves, and some even began wielding their chopsticks as swords as they fought over the dwindling pile.
“At least they still know how to take care of their elders.” Physician Yan watched this pack of wolves and tigers, laughing as he shook his head. There was a plate of dumplings before him and Mei Changsu, so they did not need to join in the battle. But as they sat back and watched, it did rather seem like the plates of dumplings on the other tables smelled even better.
“Come, Fei Liu, have this one.” Mei Changsu took a dumpling at random from the plate before him and slid it into Fei Liu’s bowl. Although the youth was second to none when he went to grab for the dumplings, he was afraid to eat them when they were too hot, and so ate very slowly, and after two rounds, he had still only had about ten, and now as they waited for the third round, he could only stare glumly at the empty plates, as everyone around him tried to suppress their smiles.
“The ones on the Chief’s plate aren’t hot any more, Fei Liu, you can eat them in one bite!” Uncle Ji urged.
Fei Liu lifted his bowl obediently and swept the dumpling into his mouth, but he had just bitten down when his eyes widened, his mouth working furiously for a few moments before he spat out a shining copper coin, which dropped onto the table with a loud plink.
The room erupted into cheerful laughter as many hands suddenly reached towards Fei Liu, their owners crying, “Touch for luck, touch for luck!”
The youth didn’t know what was happening and so his instincts took over, and he flew up onto the rafters, immediately prompting a hectic chase, which could not be halted even with the appearance of the third round of Aunt Ji’s dumplings. But in the narrow house, although there were many people flying about, not a single ornament was destroyed, and no one succeeded in so much as grasping a corner of Fei Liu’s robes. Finally, Mei Changsu stretched out a hand and beckoned the youth over to his side, and held his hand out for everyone to touch.
“Have to touch?” Fei Liu looked as if he was learning a whole new rule, his face full of astonishment.
“That’s right, our Fei Liu found the copper coin, which means he is the luckiest person this year, and so everyone wants to touch you for luck.”
Fei Liu cocked his head in thought, and suddenly said, “Didn’t!”
In the entire house, only Mei Changsu understood what he meant, and he laughed before answering, “Last year, when Lin Chen gege spat out the copper coin, you didn’t touch him, is that right?”
“Then it was Lin Chen gege’s fault, and next time we see him, our Fei Liu can go and touch him to get it back!” Mei Changsu suggested seriously, and everyone in the room who knew Lin Chen was already clutching their bellies and rolling on the floor in laughter.
Fei Lou thought about it seriously for a moment and couldn’t help shuddering, and shook his head, saying, “Don’t want it!”
“Hurry and finish the dumplings, they’re getting cold!” Aunt Ji swatted at a few of the young men beside her, shooing them all back to the table, and exchanged Mei Changsu’s plate with a set of hot dumplings, urging, “Chief, have a few more.”
“That’s about enough,” Physician Yan stopped her. “Aunt Ji, bring in the congee, Master Su can have a bowl before he retires, although it is the new year, you must not stay up too late.”
Mei Changsu was indeed a bit tired, and so smiled in agreement, slowly finished his bowl of hot congee, and returned to his room to sleep. It was entering the early hours of the morning, but the clamor in the city had not died down, and in the excitement, no one noticed the delicate flakes of snow that had begun drifting down from the cold night sky.
I live for chapters like this.