As they walked from the courtyard to the main house where Mei Changsu resided, Li Gang tried repeatedly to learn from Fei Liu why their Chief had summoned them, but Fei Liu, apparently still holding a grudge, either ignored him or gave short and strange answers that were impossible to understand.
They arrived at the house and opened the doors to discover that Mei Changsu was neither alone in the room nor resting in bed. Instead, he was reclining on a long couch in front of the lotus-coloured screen placed at the southern end of the room, wrapped snugly in furs and cloaks with only his arms exposed, the sleeves rolled up high where Physician Yan was bent over him intently, performing acupuncture.
“Many thanks,” Mei Changsu smiled, rolling down his sleeves when the last of the needles was removed from his arms. His condition during the day was usually not too bad, certainly not suggestive of someone gravely ill, but at night, he burned with fever, his limbs ice cold, often gasping for breath and coughing up blood. Fortunately, with Physician Yan’s careful ministrations, the worst seemed to have passed.
“Chief, you called for us?” Li Gang asked softly, approaching slowly after Physician Yan had packed up his medicine box.
“Ng,” Mei Changsu gestured to the stools beside him. “Sit, both of you.”
Li Gang and Zhen Ping exchanged a glance but didn’t dare speak as they sat silently.
“Tell me the truth,” Mei Changsu gazed steadily into the distance, his voice a little weak. “Has something happened to Wei Zheng?”
He had cut so sharply to the issue at hand that his two subordinates could not help jumping to their feet.
“Fei Liu said a ‘Wei jiejie‘ had come to the manor….” Mei Changsu raised a hand to placate the two of them and continued, “I thought about it, and there is no other lady with the surname Wei who could obtain your permission to enter, and the only person I could think of was the wife of Wei Zheng.”
“It is true that Mistress Wei has come,” Zhen Ping answered quietly. “Chief has needed to rest and take care of his health, and so we did not….”
“Even if Yun Piaoliao was not travelling with Wei Zheng, and had come to the capitol alone, since she has come to Su manor, she should have come to see me….” Mei Changsu’s gaze rested gently on Zhen Ping. “She has not come…because you did not wish for me to know that she is here, is that right?”
Li Gang and Zhen Ping lowered their heads as one.
“Do not worry,” Mei Changsu’s voice was light and peaceful. “I know that my health is not well at the moment, and that it would not do for my emotions to be agitated. But surely it would neither be a good thing for me to continue guessing blindly like this? Tell me what has happened to Wei Zheng. I am not so fragile yet that I will collapse from one blow.”
By this time, he had grown a little short of breath, and he coughed lightly and closed his eyes for a few moments before opening them again to meet the slightly dubious gazes of his two subordinates. He asked softly, “Fei Liu said Wei jiejie was not wearing mourning clothes, so at least that must mean Wei Zheng is alive…… has he…been captured?”
Li Gang’s hand clenched and unclenched on his knee several times before he answered, “Yes, he was arrested half a month ago.”
“Never mind…… start at the beginning, both of you.”
“Yes.” Li Gang did not want Mei Changsu to waste his breath asking question after question, and so he began to tell in detail how Xia Qiu of the Xuanjing Bureau had ambushed and arrested Wei Zheng, how Jiangzuo Alliance had heard the news, how their two rescue attempts on the road to the capitol had failed, how Yun Piaoliao had entered the capitol, how they had made one final attempt before the city gates which had finally failed as well, etc. etc.. At the end, after he had recounted the whole affair from beginning the end, he added consolingly, “General Wei’s injuries did not look severe, pray Chief do not worry.”
Mei Changsu, who had been pale to begin with, did not show much change of expression after hearing all this, although his breathing was a little rapid, but when Physician Yan came forward to massage his chest, he was pushed gently aside.
“And what else?”
“Has anything else happened in the capitol?”
Li Gang and Zhen Ping exchanged another glance, and the latter bent forward slightly in a bow before answering in a carefully mild tone, “Nothing of much importance, it is only that I mentioned to Chief last time that Tong Lu seemed to be acting a little strange, and no one could have guessed that this would turn out to be true…. Prince Yu’s camp likely realized that Miaoyin House has been working for Chief undercover, and so they sent some soldiers to search the place. Fortunately, Mister Shisan caught word early enough and sent everyone out in time, and they are all safe in hiding now without a single loss or injury.”
“It is time for Chief Mei to take his medicine.” Physician Yan chose this time to interrupt, handing over a crimson pill for Mei Changsu to take, and then watching closely as he drank, sip by sip, the entire bowl of medicinal soup. After this interruption, when Mei Changsu once again turned his attention back to the perilous situation at hand, his emotions were much calmer.
“Have there been any abnormalities on Nie Duo’s side?” This was Mei Changsu’s first question after draining his bowl of medicine.
Li Gang, taken aback, answered, “Not at present.”
“Send a coded message to him immediately with orders for him to stay in Yunnan no matter what news he hears. He is not to leave the province under any circumstances.”
Mei Changsu paused, his expression pained. “Back in those days, the Chiyan Army had no shortage of talent and courage, with as many great leaders as there are clouds in the sky. But now, amongst those who were fortunate enough to survive, only Wei Zheng and Nie Duo remain out of those whose reputation was so great that they might still be recognized today…. But just in case, send word to the veterans in Lang province, no matter what rank they used to hold, they are to stay hidden for the time being, and not make any sudden movements.”
“As for the two of you….” Mei Changsu turned to look at Li Gang and Zhen Ping beside him, about to continue when they both suddenly fell forward and knelt.
Zhen Ping said, choking a little, “We are both of us orphans, and grew up from a young age in the Chiyan army. In that year, we were only lowly sergeants¹, and more than a decade has passed since then so our appearances have changed as well, so no one of any importance will be able to recognize us. Chief, pray do not send the two of us away, especially at a time like this!”
Mei Changsu knew that the two of them had no families, and that the chance of their being recognized was exceedingly small, which was why he kept them by his side in the open, and so far, there had not been any problems. Besides, as things were developing at present, it was true that he could not manage without their assistance, and so he only sighed and warned helplessly, “The two of you must be careful.”
“Yes,” Li Gang and Zhen Ping promised loudly, sighing in relief.
Suddenly, there was a knock on the door, and Fei Liu, who had disappeared as soon as they entered the house, called brightly from outside, “Arrived!”
“Since when did Fei Liu learn to knock?” Zhen Ping wondered, and when he went to open the door, he found that standing outside was not the youth, but Yun Piaoliao.
“Mistress Wei, please enter,” Mei Changsu said warmly. “Li dage, please bring another chair.”
Yun Piaoliao walked up to Mei Changsu and curtsied before sitting and saying gently, “Chief Mei has asked Fei Liu to summon me here, what orders does he have for me?”
Mei Changsu looked at this strong and beautiful lady, and for a moment, it was as if he saw Nihuang before him, and both grief and tenderness filled his heart. “Wei Zheng has come to harm. I am truly sorry for the trouble this has brought upon you.”
Yun Piaoliao’s eyes glistened with tears, but she did not allow them to fall as she shook her head and replied, “Wei Zheng remained safely in hiding in Yaowang Valley² for so many years …… it is from our Yun clan that a traitor has emerged, and so it is I who have brought trouble upon him….”
“The Yun clan has grown like vines along a trellis, and it is natural for there to be one or two rotten tendrils amongst the batch. Compared to the love and loyalty you have borne for him over so many years of hardship and suffering, what is a little risk if it means the chance of seeing you again?”
“Now he is still alive, and so there are still ways.” Mei Changsu looked frail, but his words were firm and his gaze steady. “Mistress Wei, do you trust me?”
Yun Piaoliao immediately stood, about to answer, but Mei Changsu smiled gently and cut her off. “If Mistress Wei trusts me, then she must return immediately to Xunyang.”
Li Gang said hurriedly, “Chief, the Yun clan in Xunyang has been surrounded in secret, as soon as the capital gives the order, they will be arrested. If Mistress Wei returns at this time, won’t she be walking directly into the Xuanjing Bureau’s ambush?”
“That is correct, as soon as Mistress Wei returns to Xunyang, she will be arrested for certain.” Mei Changsu’s expression was clear, his gaze deep as he continued, “But arrest does not equal conviction, whereas fleeing from arrest may be seen as self-admission of guilt. I know what it is like to become a fugitive of the law, to be forced to flee after you have been convicted of a crime, and unless there is no other option, we cannot choose this path. Besides, even if Mistress Wei manages to escape, what about Old Uncle Yun? What about the rest of the vast Yun clan? Harbouring a traitor is a crime of which one might be convicted guilty by association, and if you tried to flee, then this accusation will seem to gain validity, and if the Xuanjing Bureau decides to take Old Uncle Yun as hostage, then what will you do? Will you turn yourself in or not?”
Yun Piaoliao’s face was pale as snow as she stammered, “Then Chief Mei means for me to… allow myself to be captured, and then maintain my innocence?”
“Yes. Wei Zheng was branded traitor thirteen years ago, yet you have only been married for a little over a year, and everyone knows that it makes no sense for the Yun clan to knowingly harbour a fugitive. You would be well within reason to defend yourself by saying you only knew that he managed the household of Yaowang Valley, and did not know of his traitor status. Aside from the statement made by the Yun clan informant, the Xuanjing Bureau cannot prove that the two of you have known each other for many years. Internal conflict within large clans is nothing new, and you are the only daughter of the eldest branch of the family, and so it would be perfectly reasonable for you to suggest that they have somehow managed to uncovered Wei Zheng’s true identity in order to disinherit you and claim the property that would have been yours. Besides, the Xunyang Yun clan is no ordinary household, and you know better than I how many noble families have benefited from you and your esteemed father’s medicines and draughts. As long as someone initiates the plea for leniency, you may be sure that an outcry for your innocence will follow. The Yun clan has done much good for the people over many years, and you may depend upon the common people’s support, as well as His Majesty the Emperor’s own favour towards all of you. If the Xuanjing Bureau does not have the definitive proof to refute your defense, it will be difficult for them to secure the conviction of harbouring a traitor. It is only that……though there is hope for the Yun clan to escape a guilty charge, as for you yourself….”
Yun Piaoliao nodded, understanding his meaning. The Yun clan was an aristocratic family well-known for its medicines and healing draughts, and its prestige and reputation made it difficult for anyone to convict it of guilt by association without ironclad evidence. But she herself was Wei Zheng’s wife, and even if she did not know of his traitor status beforehand, no matter what anyone said, she was still the wife of a criminal.
“I think what Wei Zheng fears the most now is that you may be implicated in his crime by association, and so, even for him, you must not be stubborn, and must insist that you did not know anything, so that even if you are convicted guilty by association, it will be a lighter sentence. So long as your life is preserved, once you are released from the Xuanjing Bureau’s prisons, arrangements will be made and we will ensure that you suffer as little as possible.”
“Do not worry, Chief Mei,” Yun Piaoliao smiled faintly. “I am no pampered lady, and am not afraid of suffering. So long as there is the hope of seeing Wei Zheng again someday, I can endure any hardship. But……even if the Yun clan is spared from this disaster, Yaowang Valley….”
“I am not particularly worried about Yaowang Valley,” Mei Changsu smiled. “Valley Chief Su is not to be underestimated, and I am certain his self-preservation instincts are still intact. The smoky lands to the West are vast, and the towering mountains and ridges countless in their numbers. Valley Chief Su may enter the court to cry his innocence, or he may hide himself in the rainforests, we can only wait and see what he chooses to do. In any case, if the Xuanjing Bureau wishes to topple Yaowang Valley, I fear they do not have the power, and at most, they might close the transport routes for their medicines, and encircle Yaowang Valley in the mountains.”
“Close the routes and encircle the valley?” Yun Piaoliao looked worried. “Then will they not….”
“It is no matter, Yaowang Valley has the resources to easily last three or four years in siege without even noticing the inconvenience. Besides, who do you think is more familiar with the Western lands, the Xuanjing Bureau or Valley Chief Su? The Bureau might be able to obstruct a few routes, but to shut down all of them? That is easier said than done.”
Yun Piaoliao let out a sigh of relief. “That’s alright then, as long as his foster father does not come to much harm, Wei Zheng will not feel too guilty or ashamed.”
“Li Gang, go and make preparations for an escort to accompany Mistress Wei out of the city before the beginning of the dusk curfew today.”
“Mistress Wei, you must be very careful on the road. If you are captured anywhere else, the Xuanjing Bureau may claim that you were caught escaping arrest. Only if you return to the Yun manor will they be unable to make any such claims.”
“That’s right, what kind of escaping prisoner heads back to his own home?” Li Gang said with a laugh. “The necessary arrangements will be made along the way, Mistress Wei, you do not need to worry.”
“One other thing you must beware: Wei Zheng was arrested on the road while transporting medicinal herbs, and then escorted to the capital under guard. Throughout the whole process, his criminal charge was never made public. Once you are captured in the Yun manor, you must act as if you do not even know why you are being arrested, and so long as no one informs you outright of Wei Zheng’s traitor status, you only know him as Su Xuan, and nothing else, do you understand?”
“I thank Chief Mei for the direction.” Yun Piaoliao got up and bowed, and then wished him good health before following Li Gang out the door.
As soon as they had left, Fei Liu drifted over, a cluster of bright red plum blossoms held tightly in one hand, and began removing the two-day old blossoms from the largest vase in the room and replacing them with new flowers.
Mei Changsu watched him absently for a few moments before suddenly saying, “Fei Liu, there are no red plum blossoms in our courtyard. Where did you get those?”
“Other people’s homes!” Fei Liu answered brightly.
Mei Changsu, whose thoughts had been heavy and pained up until now, didn’t know whether to laugh or cry at this response. He coughed a few times and then waved Fei Liu over to him. “Fei Liu, go to the hidden chamber and knock on the door, and then wait for a little while. If someone comes, then come back and help me over there, alright?”
Fei Liu cocked his head. “Water buffalo?”
“It is his Highness Prince Jing!” Mei Changsu scowled at him fiercely. “How many times have I told you, and you still will not listen?”
“Easy to say!” Fei Liu said defensively.
“Alright, never mind whether it is easy to say or not, no matter what, you must not call him that again. Now go, quickly.”
The youth spun lightly and disappeared behind the hanging screen in the blink of an eye.
¹taking some creative liberty here; the term literally means someone in charge of ten men (‘decurion’, according to Roman army terminology, like how a centurion is in charge of a hundred men)
²literally Medicine King Valley