The days before the turning of the year were particularly cold, and it snowed so heavily that the entire capital was covered in a sheet of white. Mei Changsu’s old illness flared up again, and he could often be heard coughing through the night. He had met Prince Jing once in the hidden chamber, coughing the entire time, and ever since then, Xiao Jingyan had not come again, either because he was too busy with his own year’s end affairs, or because he was purposefully giving Mei Changsu some peace and quiet to recover his strength. In contrast, Prince Yu had come to visit several times, his manner and tone as concerned as ever as he enquired after Mei Changsu’s health, as if there was no bitterness or ill-feeling between them. However, no matter the face he presented, no one was foolish enough to believe his pretence, and as the situation had developed to its current state, Mei Changsu was not so impractical as to think that Prince Yu remained as clueless as he had been before.
“Chief, Tong Lu is here.” Li Gang was out of the manor today handling affairs under Mei Changsu’s orders, so it was Zhen Ping who came to report on the new arrival.
“Let him in.”
Tong Lu strode forward in huge steps, bringing a gust of chilly air in with him. Zhen Ping, who was second to none in his attention to detail, grabbed him and pushed him over to the stove to warm up before allowing him to proceed to Mei Changsu’s side.
“It looks like there’s nothing urgent to report today,” Mei Changsu smiled and gestured at his table. “Come and have a cup of tea.”
Tong Lu rubbed his warming hands and hurried over with a smile, picking up his cup and draining it in two large swallows. Zhen Ping scolded with a laugh, “Manners of a cow!”, before leaving the room to continue his work.
“There are two items Mister Shisan has ordered me to report to the Chief.” Tong Lu knew this was important, and he wiped the tea stains from his mouth as he spoke quickly. “Xie Yu has recently been ambushed multiple times in his exile, requiring us to rescue him, and he is now frightened out of his mind. Also, Xia Dong’s whereabouts outside of the capital these past few months have been identified. She has gone to find Xie Yu’s former Left Deputy General, Wei Qi, the current Commander of the Jiaxing Mountain Pass. However, we received news yesterday that before she could reach Jiaxing Pass, Wei Qi was found dead mysteriously in the middle of the night.”
“Dead?” Mei Changsu’s expression was like ice. “Was it Xia Jiang’s work?”
“Very likely……but we are currently still investigating.”
Mei Changsu closed his eyes in thought. In fact, though Xie Yu’s Left and Right Deputy Generals had been involved, they had only been following orders, and knew no more about the truth of the events of that year than he himself did, and so whether they lived or died was not a matter he had to take to heart. Only…… that year, when Spirit Valley was raided, Wei Qi had not been there. If Xia Dong was simply investigating Nie Feng’s death, why would she have gone to him? Unless……this Xuanjing Officer had decided, for the sake of her dead husband-general, to re-investigate his commanding officer’s entire case from beginning to end? And Xia Jiang’s swift silencing must mean that he still very much cherished this already-suspicious student of his, and did not wish to embark on a road that would end in the breaking of their ties.
It was a pity Xia Jiang did not know that, on a certain cold day in the dark cells of Sky Prison, Xia Dong had already heard the deadly confession from the mouth of Xie Yu himself.
And so, no matter how much he attempted to conceal the truth now, from the moment he struck the murderous blow all those years ago, the breaking of their ties had already become an unavoidable reality – the inevitable end to the road they were now on.
“Alright, I understand. You may return now.” Mei Changsu shifted the little stove resting on his knee a little, one finger rubbing its top absently as he continued, “Tell Mister Shisan, Qin Banruo is not a person who gives up easily, and against her……we must not let down our guard.”
“Yes.” Tong Lu bowed and took his leave.
He had just left the room when Zhen Ping came bearing a bowl of medicine, placing it gently in Mei Changsu’s hands and watching as he drank it with a pained expression, before handing him a cup of tea to rinse his mouth.
“Physician Yan’s medicines have been getting more and more bitter. Have I offended him recently?”
“Chief’s illness is already an offense to Physician Yan,” Zhen Ping answered with a smile, placing the empty bowl back in the tray. He thought for a moment and finally asked hesitatingly, “Chief, did you think Tong Lu……seemed a bit different…?”
“Hmm?” Mei Changsu spat out his mouthful of tea into the rinsing basin and turned to look at him. “I hadn’t noticed. What is it?”
Zhen Ping scratched his head. “I can’t put my finger on it……it’s just that he seems to be in more of a hurry than usual, as if he’s always in a rush. Just now, when he was saying goodbye on his way out, his steps never even slowed. It’s not his usual manner, and it’s like his whole person is much more energetic¹ than he used to be.”
Mei Changsu thought about it. “To my recollection, Tong Lu has always been energetic.”
Zhen Ping laughed. “That is true. When I mentioned this to other people, they also did not see any difference in Tong Lu. I suppose I’m making my usual mistake of seeing things where no one else has seen anything. I remember when I first came to Jinling and saw Aunt Ji, I told her she’d gained weight, and she was so mad, she came after me with her spatula….”
“Aunt Ji has gained weight?”
“Of course she has, her waist circumference has grown by at least two units²!”
“Aunt Ji’s waist must span nearly three feet, and you can see a difference of two units?” Mei Changsu couldn’t help laughing as well. “No wonder she hit you, you know Aunt Ji is most afraid of gaining weight.”
“That’s why I’ve been spending the past few months getting back into her good graces.” Zhen Ping winked and stood, gathering the bowls and basins. “Chief, get some rest, I’ll take my leave.”
Mei Changsu nodded and watched as he turned and made his way out of the room. Suddenly, he called out, “Zhen Ping, tell Mister Shisan to pay attention to what you said. You have always been attentive, and these intuitions are usually not formed without reason.”
“Yes,” Zhen Ping bowed to receive the order, and then added after a moment’s thought, “Don’t worry, Chief, Tong Lu will not notice anything.”
Mei Changsu knew that Zhen Ping was one of the smartest people currently by his side, and some things he did not have to say for him to understand, and so he smiled and nodded his reply before allowing him to leave.
The room was silent and peaceful, with only the sounds of the crackling fire in the stove, and of Fei Liu crunching on a pastry. Mei Changsu closed his eyes to rest, but after a while, he couldn’t help opening them again to say with a smile, “Fei Liu, if you keep on eating like that, you will turn into a little pig.”
Fei Liu, sitting on a small stool beside his couch, turned to him with a pastry in his mouth and mumbled, “Tastes good!”
“Of course it does,” a wistful look came over Mei Changsu’s face. “We all used to love her pastries….”
Fei Liu cocked his head in thought, and then bounded over and brought back the entire box of pastries, holding it out in front of Mei Changsu. “Eat!”
“Surely not? You’ve already eaten so many, will you still be able to eat your dinner after this?”
Mei Changsu smiled again and selected a small cake and placed it in his mouth, biting into its familiar sweetness. The first time Prince Jing had brought over a box of pastries, he had declined tactfully, but Jingyan wouldn’t listen, and had only said something about not disobeying his mother’s orders, and had put down the box and left. After that, a new box arrived nearly every month, and its arrival had slowly become a routine occurrence.
Once, the box had held an unusually large assortment of pastries, with more than a dozen different types, and so Mei Changsu had said with a smile, “Has His Highness made a mistake, and given me the box meant for himself?”
Prince Jing had answered without thinking, “Both boxes are the same, so there can be no mistake to make.”
Mei Changsu’s expression did not change at this reply, but inside, he felt a kind of fear stir in his heart.
Xiao Jingyan had never been the kind of person who paid much attention to what he ate, and so he had not yet discovered the change that had occurred within the boxes of pastries ever since Consort Jing had begun preparing double the usual portions. But Mei Changsu did not dare to hope that he would remain ignorant forever.
Because of this worry, when the box of pastries that Fei Liu was currently enjoying had arrived at the manor, Mei Changsu had requested Prince Jing to pass on a message to Consort Jing, asking her not to prepare any more pastries for him in the future, as he found himself unable to repay such an honour.
But Xiao Jingyan had taken his humble words at face value, and jokingly replied, “Mother is showing her appreciation for your rare talents, and enticing you with these bribes on my behalf, since she knows I will not indulge in bribery of any kind.”
Mei Changsu, afraid of drawing even more attention to the pastries, did not dare press the matter, and only smiled in answer.
Fortunately, ever since his promotion in rank, Prince Jing’s responsibilities had suddenly increased many times over, and as he was occupied with his duties every day from morning to night, he apparently did not have much time leftover to contemplate such trivial matters.
“Plum blossom biscuit!” Fei Liu said suddenly, leaning against his leg as he rifled through the box.
“Oh, our Fei Liu recognizes the plum blossom biscuit? Who taught you that?”
Fei Liu pressed his lips together, obviously unwilling to answer, and when Fei Liu refused to give an answer, the answer was usually glaringly obvious.
“Alright, you had better not eat any more,” Mei Changsu hid a smile as he patted him on the head. “Go and see whether Uncle Li Gang has come back, alright?”
Mei Changsu was surprised. When Li Gang left, he had been given orders to come straight to Mei Changsu upon his return, so how could he have not known he was back?
“When did he come back?”
“Just now!” Fei Liu cocked his head to listen. “Coming in the door!”
Mei Changsu understood and had just started laughing when Li Gang’s voice was heard through the door. “Chief!”
The door was pushed aside, and Li Gang entered, snowflakes dusting the shoulders of his navy cotton robe, gusts of snow blowing in the wind behind him through the open door.
“From your expression, it seems everything went smoothly?” Mei Changsu gestured at the stool beside his couch. “What did Marquis Yan say?”
“At first, when Marquis Yan heard that Chief is supporting Prince Jing, he was shocked, but quickly calmed himself and even said “no wonder” a few times out loud. I explained to him directly Chief’s plans, and he thought for a long time and finally made a request, and said that it was his hope that when Prince Jing succeeds in the future, he would not treat the Empress badly.”
“His request does not make things difficult for me. ……After all, the Empress is still the Imperial Mother, and though there is the enmity of the old case between them, the majority of the blame does not fall on her, and once Prince Jing has succeeded to the throne, if only for the sake of filial piety, he will not mistreat her out of spite. So, Marquis Yan……does indeed favour Prince Jing.”
“Yes. Marquis Yan only made this one request before agreeing to everything Chief proposed. He will use the cover of the new year’s visits to different manors to observe the opinions of the court officials towards Prince Jing.”
“I am glad he agreed.” Mei Changsu relaxed into his seat. “Marquis Yan is powerful and well-respected, not to mention eloquent, and with a reputation for staying out of court politics. He is the only one who could accomplish this task without leaving the faintest trace of suspicion. Not to mention, when it comes to matters of perception and judgement of character, he has no peer.”
“By my observation, Marquis Yan only turned away from politics to seek the Dao because he has grown bitter with the Emperor, the former Crown Prince, and Prince Yu. In his heart, he still cares deeply about the court of Da Liang and its proceedings.”
Mei Changsu nodded slightly. “That is only natural. Marquis Yan was raised in an aristocratic family, and once spent many years in his youth fighting for noble causes. How can the fires of such passion ever be truly quenched? I cannot allow my communications with Marquis Yan to be discovered, so in the future, I must trouble you to act as messenger between us.”
Li Gang answered hurriedly, “A thousand deaths could not prevent me from carrying out Chief’s orders. Why is Chief being so polite with me today? It is making me feel very uncomfortable.”
Mei Changsu placed a hand on his shoulder and squeezed lightly without speaking, and then, fatigue passing over his face, he reclined back onto his pillows and closed his eyes. Grief rose in Li Gang’s heart as he thought about how hard his Chief worked even during his illness. He turned his face hurriedly to the side, and his gaze landed on Fei Liu, sleeping peacefully on his Su gege‘s leg, sated on pastries, his handsome face innocent and peaceful. The pain in his heart swelled.
“Last night, you did not sleep until the early hours of the morning, you had better go and get some rest as well.” Mei Changsu, sensing that Li Gang had not left, had opened his eyes again. “Though there is danger in the night in times like these, you do not need to stand guard overnight yourself, or what did you spend all that effort training your brothers for?” Let the night watch fall to Ah Qing and the others.”
Li Gang raised an eyebrow. “The guard and defensive arrangements of Su manor have been agreed upon by myself and Zhen Ping. Chief does not need to worry about this, on top of everything else.”
“Alright, alright, alright, it’s my fault, I won’t worry, you all do as you like.”
A sudden smile broke through Li Gang’s scowl. “I know Chief only wishes the best for us, but we do not want Chief to spend any more energy worrying over matters such as this. Besides, since Chief knows I did not sleep until the early hours of the morning, then that must mean Chief himself also did not sleep well last night?”
“My sleep was already much improved actually, it was only that I woke a few times in the night,” Mei Changsu answered lightly. “It is just the weather, I will be better once spring arrives, so don’t you spread any nonsense in your letters back to Lang province.”
Li Gang couldn’t bear arguing with him, and so he lowered his head and watched until Mei Changsu had once again closed his eyes before lightly stepping out of the room.
The snow was still blowing wildly out in the courtyard. Zhen Ping was standing in the corridor, his back to the room, but when he heard the door opening, he turned his head.
“What is it? Why do you look so distraught?” Li Gang walked over and slapped him on the back. “What, has the cold finally gotten through your leather skin and iron bones?”
Zhen Ping lowered his eyes and said softly, “Just now, Physician Yan asked me to arrange for someone to keep watch inside Chief’s room at night….”
“Isn’t Fei Liu there?”
“Physician Yan meant to arrange for someone in addition to Fei Liu, someone a bit more quick-witted….”
Fear leapt in Li Gang’s heart as he grabbed Zhen Ping’s arm. “What’s that supposed to mean?”
“The cold is even fiercer this year than last, and this blizzard is particularly bad. It has already snowed for five days without stopping. Physician Yan was performing his exam this morning when he discovered that the cold poison of Chief’s illness seems to be recurring, and he had no choice but to start prescribing his strongest medicines. And so, these coming few days will be very dangerous……but as long as he can endure past this period, then there will be no serious harm.”
Li Gang stood stunned for a long while, and finally shook his head roughly and took a deep breath. When he spoke again, he did not know whether he was talking to Zhen Ping or to himself. “It will be alright, he will endure, he must. Chief was in good spirits just now, I saw it myself.”
Zhen Ping gathered himself and answered, “Tonight, when it is time for Chief to take his medicine, we will ask Physician Yan to come, and tell him that he must take this time to recover from his illness, and must not be allowed to handle anything at all, or allowed any visitors, whether they be Prince Jing or Tong Lu. And as for you and me……we must keep a steady heart, and see this through.”
Li Gang pressed a hand to his forehead, and was silent for a long moment. “Zhen Ping, it is truly fortunate that you came……if it were only me, I fear I would be even more afraid….”
“You think I am not afraid?” Zhen Ping pulled on his arm forcefully. “Come on, we’ll continue our discussion in the Western courtyard. We can’t have Fei Liu overhearing us here.”
Behind them, the main house was silent, as Mei Changsu and Fei Liu slept on peacefully. Li Gang and Zhen Ping did not walk along the corridor, but turned and walked outside into the fierce wind, as if hoping the bitter cold would calm the turmoil in their minds.
It was just as well that they had no way of knowing that a certain piece of shocking news was on its way to the city, and would arrive coincidentally just as Mei Changsu’s illness took a turn for the worse….
¹an inadequate translation; a more complete explanation of the term used here would be to describe one’s whole mind and spirit as full of vigour and vitality
²one unit is equivalent to 0.33cm according to Chinese google
First, thoughts about 114:
Okay not going to lie, the last chapter gave me serious feels because can you see how great of a leader Lin Shu would have been in the court? But also, if he had not gone through what he did as MCS, he wouldn’t have that understanding of what life is actually like for the grassroots people, and I suppose he would face the same struggle that Prince Jing does of making grounded policies that can actually give help to the people who need it in a time of crisis. (And no, this sentiment is not especially poignant to me because of certain current world fiascos, why do you ask???)
Sarcasm aside, I am also seriously, deeply grateful for my new collaboration with Lily because that means she did 114, and the only thing I hate more than translating action sequences is translating whole chapters of prose and plot. Lily, you’re the best ❤ Thank you for letting me skip straight to this chapter of my favourite things (the MCS household, cute dialogue, and brotherhood feels and shared angst over MCS).
And on that note, comments for 115:
Ten thousand points to Zhen Ping, a new favourite, who managed to see things that eluded even Mei Changsu himself.
Also, Li Gang and Zhen Ping worrying about MCS, and that throwaway line that implies basically the entire Brotherhood is one large house of bros stressing over their Chief’s health……their loyalty, my heart.
As for the current world situation, I don’t even know what to say, except:
I’m thinking of all of you, all around the world. I’m worried about all of you. And I hope and pray that you and your loved ones are safe.
And, speaking as a citizen of the city that survived SARS-COV-1 and is doing an actually decent job of containing SARS-COV-2 despite having both one of the highest population densities in the world AND a literal backdoor to China:
If you have access to one,
for God’s sake, wear a f*cking mask when you go outside.
(And yes, I know the argument that says they told the public mask-wearing doesn’t protect you against COVID-19 because they were trying to save masks for health care workers. I get that. But I hardly think straight-up LYING and saying masks give no protection at all was the correct approach here. And now look, the world is reaping the consequences. I’m sorry, I have a lot of feelings about this.)