Chapter 8: Entering the Capital
From Fu Zhou, they traveled for ten or so days via the main waterway of the River Fen till they docked at Ling Gorge. From there it took another ten days or so, over land passing through Hui Zhou, before the walls of Jin Ling came into sight. On the way, all of Mei Changsu’s time was basically split between the two brothers; while on the boat, all of his time was spent with Xiao Jingrui, giving him advice on his martial arts and pointers on handling challenges, eventually moving on to the strategies and the art of war. After they moved to land, all of his time was spent with Xie Bi, who sought advice on economics and politics. Mei Changsu was always occupied and barely ever had a moment of free time. So it was not until the smokey willow trees of the capital appeared before their eyes, did the three realize that the long and distant journey had come to an end – it had felt so short and indolent.
“It feels that time passes by so quickly,” said Xiao Jingrui feeling despondent “…if only Brother Su could stay in Jin Ling permanently.”
“Stop dreaming,” Xie Bi said with a small frown, “What kind of person is Brother Su? He only came with you to rest and recuperate. Even if Brother Su were willing to stay in Jin Ling permanently, the people of Jiang Zuo Alliance wouldn’t want him to.”
Xiao Jingrui blushed, answering, “I am just wishing, not insisting that it will happen.”
The two brothers continued to bicker, but Mei Changsu was not listening. He had his head raised, his gaze focused on the towering and unyielding main entrance of Jin Ling city. On his motionless face, you could not see even a ripple of emotion; the only movements were from his dark hair, tossed in the wind. A few wisps fell on his pallid cheeks giving him an air of profound sadness brought about by the vicissitudes of life.
“Brother Su…” Xiao Jingrui asked with concern, “Is something the matter?”
“Jin Ling, the Royal Capital… I haven’t been here in such a long time, yet it seems that nothing has changed at all…” Mei Changsu’s colorless lips blossomed into a faint smile, “I believe that after we enter the city gates, most likely, it will be as grand as it was before…”
Xiao Jingrui was mildly surprised, and asked: “Brother Su… you have been to Jin Ling before?”
“Fifteen years ago, I received teachings under old Master Li Chong in Jin Ling. However, I have not been back since he was banished from the capital.” Mei Changsu sighed, and briefly closed his eyes as if he were wiping away the memory before him, “In remembering my deceased teacher, I cannot help but lament that the past is ethereal, like a delusion, like dispersed clouds or vaporized water; how can it start over again?”
As he spoke of old Master Li, a great Confucian scholar of the previous generation, Xiao Jingrui and Xie Bi could not help but look on with respect. Even when this great master had accepted a summons to enter the Court to teach the many Princes, he had never forgotten to set up lecterns outside the Palace walls. Of those who received his teachings, there were the noble and rich, the common and poor. He treated them with no difference, so for a time, no man could equal his good name. However, that year, he angered the Emperor for an unknown reason, and was relegated from his status as Imperial Tutor to a commoner. He left in resentful rage and died disheartened; his death was a great loss to all the scholars in the world. Mei Changsu’s depth and breadth of knowledge was unfathomable, and though the brothers both knew that he must be of great origins, they had not imagined that he had been taught by the honored scholar.
“If old Master Li were to know, he wouldn’t want you to be so sad; it’s detrimental to your health,” Xiao Jingrui coaxed in a low voice, “You are not well, and came to Jin Ling in order to relax; if you feel dejected instead, it will make us feel bad. Look at Fei Liu, see how worried he is about you…”
Mei Changsu was silent for a moment before opening his eyes. He first smiled at Fei Liu in a placating manner before slowly saying, “Don’t worry, since we have come to the capital, it is natural to grieve over the desolate circumstances of my late teacher’s setbacks and resentments. But there is no reason for me to be constantly mourning. I am fine, let’s enter the capital.”
Xiao Jingrui carefully examined his expression for a while before being reassured. He fixed the saddle on his horse, leading the way along the road and the three of them entered the city one after the other.
It was close to dusk, the day market had closed and the night market was yet to open; the street was empty and rather peaceful. When they reached the Marquis of Ning’s prefecture, the servants were busy hanging up the lanterns.
“Aiya, quickly go and notify everyone that the eldest and second young master have returned!” An attentive footman cried loudly upon noticing them, before coming up to greet them.
Xiao Jingrui dismounted from his horse, and seeing that Mei Changsu looked rather tired, he quickly helped him off his horse, and instructed the servants, saying, “Send someone to clean up ‘Snow Cottage’1 immediately. All amenities should be replaced anew”.
Mei Changsu smiled faintly, didn’t decline, and instead followed him into the main entrance of the Marquis’ Prefecture. Just inside they came face to face with a screen-wall2 on which the words, written personally by the Emperor, “A Pillar of the Nation’s Defense”, were carved.
“Uncle Qin, are Uncle Zhuo and his family still here?” Xie Bi followed them in and asked an old servant who had come to receive them.
“Second young master, Master Zuo and Madam Zuo returned to Bin Zuo ten days ago. The young lady and young master Zhuo went with them too.”
“What about father and mother?”
“His Excellency is at home, however Madam is attending to buddhist rites today and will be staying overnight at the Princess’s Prefecture. Third young master has returned to Songshan School for his studies and has also left for many days.”
As soon as his little brother had finished his queries about their parents and relatives, Xiao Jingrui immediately interposed and ask: “Do you know if young master Yan has returned?”, after all, he did worry about him very much.
“Young Master Yan returned to the capital ten days ago.”
“Is he safe? Had anything happened?”
Uncle Qin blinked, puzzled: “I didn’t hear anything about anything happening, I saw him yesterday, he looked quite spirited….”
Xiao Jingrui felt reassured and didn’t even realize that he was now smiling broadly and happily said: “Send someone to the Yan Prefecture, and inform him that we are back. Tell him to come over tomorrow.”
“Brother Su, we should go to the study to greet my father, would that be alright?”
Mei Changsu, smiling, answered, “I am intruding upon your household so of course I must greet the Master.”
With serene smiles, the two brothers, one at each side accompanied him through the second entrance gate. Along the way any servant who saw them understood with one glance that this person was an honored guest. However with his white robes, his clear and plain face they could not guess what his background was. They could only tell that the cold and handsome young man behind him was definitely not ordinary; his disposition was inexorably severe, even a glance would cause a feeling of penetrating coldness.
According to customs in noble households, unless receiving an Imperial edict or people of a higher rank, the central gate was usually not opened and none were received in the main hall. Hence, the brothers directly lead their guest to the east hall. While it was still light outside from the glow of the setting sun, inside, the hall was lit by many bright candles. Mei Changsu signaled Fei Liu to stop, and took half a step back himself before following the brothers through the door. Below the warm yellow light, a person, with a scroll held in one hand, was pacing across the mirror smooth marble floor, seemingly deep in thought. Upon hearing the sound of people entering, he stopped and turned, his long beard swaying even though there was no wind.
This was the one whom the Emperor relied heavily upon, the person people referred to as “A Pillar of the Court”, the Marquis of Ning, Xie Yu.
This man, in days past had been described as handsome as “orchids and jade trees”, was now over 50, but his upright face and elegant features still held the comely looks of his youth. He had retained his figure, neither too skinny nor fat, but was instead vigorous and powerful. He was dressed in a slightly aged domestic dress robe, a jade belt tied at his waist with no other ornaments, but this only accentuated his unignorable grace.
Xiao Jingrui and Xie Bi, both rather solemn, bowed down in reverence, and said in unison, “Your child greets you, Father.”
“Rise,” Xie Yu said while gesturing with his hand. He laid his eyes on Xiao Jingrui, checked thoroughly before his tone took a severe turn and said: “You still remember to come home? You’ve even forgotten the Mid-Autumn family reunion. It seems that I have not taught you well…”
Having only just berated Jingrui briefly, Xie Yu suddenly noticed that a fourth person was in the hall and stopped immediately, “Oh, we have a guest?”
“Yes Father”, Xiao Jingrui said while bowing, “This is my friend Su Zhe, Brother Su. He has always looked out for me, so this time, I’ve invited him to Jin Ling to recuperate.”
Mei Changsu took a step forward, and while he greeted the Marquis in the manner befitting one from a younger generation, he did so with an air of self assured confidence, calmly and unhurriedly, saying, “Humbly, this commoner greets Your Excellency.”
”You are too polite, Su-xiansheng4, since you are a guest, and even more, a good friend to my young son, there is no need to address yourself so modestly.” Xie Yu lifted his hands and half-bowed in return. Seeing that even though this young man was sickly and frail, he looked intelligent and elegant with a refined temperament. Since he was also treated generously by his son, he must be one of no ordinary talent; he could not help but take an extra glance. “Su-xiansheng you have a most impressive character, since you have done us the honor of being a guest at this humble prefecture, please make yourself at home, there is no need to restrain yourself.”
Mei Changsu bowed slightly, smiled, and making no further courtesies, slowly took a step back.
Due to the presence of guests, it was unsuitable for Xie Yu to continue reprimanding Xiao Jingrui, not to mention the fact that he didn’t really want to reproach him anyway, so he cast a stern glance in his direction, then lightened up his tone and said, “Our guest has come a long way and must be tired, why don’t you accompany him and make arrangements for him to rest? Tomorrow you are not to sleep in, go to the Princess’ Prefecture and welcome your mother back. After I return from the Court Assembly, come here again; I have some things to instruct you on.”
“Yes father.” The two brothers bowed simultaneously, and retreated from the room along with Mei Changsu. It was not until they were outside the courtyard that they fully relaxed.
Xiao Jingrui knew that since his father did not scold him today, he would not scold him later either. He attributed this deed to Mei Changsu and was very pleased. He turned around and instructed Xie Bi, “Second brother, why don’t you go to bed, I’ll accompany Brother Su back to the Snow Cottage.”
“Why is it that only you will accompany him? I am also going to accompany him! We are all friends; you think that just because you met Brother Su a few days earlier than me, you are the only one who can accompany him?”
“I did not say that I’m the only one who can accompany him!” Even though he knew his little brother was just joking, Xiao Jingrui still couldn’t help but argue, “I just think that since you are managing the housekeeping, and have many things to worry about, that’s why I said that I would accompany him…”
Mei Changsu shook his head laughing, and came to his rescue, “Where exactly is the Snow Cottage? It does not matter who, as long as one of you takes me there; I do feel a little tired.”
It was only then that Xiao Jingrui remembered, smiled a little embarrassedly, and led the way. Seeing this, Xie Bi stopped joking around, and the two of them accompanied Mei Changsu to the Snow Cottage together.
Since they had received orders earlier, the servants of the Xie Prefecture had already cleaned the Snow Cottage, exchanged its amenities for new ones and prepared warm tea and water. The entire cottage seemed homely, not in the slightest like a guest wing that rarely received visitors for a stay.
Because they had eaten dinner too early, the three stayed in the Snow Cottage and had date porridge for supper. Fei Liu did not like eating porridge so Xie Bi ordered some pastries to be made. As everyone was eating, a voice suddenly sounded from outside the courtyard. The person, his bright voice filled with laughter, walked into view and said, “You all certainly took your time, I was about to grow fur while waiting for you.”
Xiao Jingrui was overjoyed. He jumped up, grabbed hold of the newcomer and called, “Yujin!”
“Brother Su seems to look more delicate,” Yan Yujin said after carefully examining him under the candle light, then turned around to glare at Xiao Jingrui, “You must have rushed the journey too much! Did you forget that Brother Su is ill? Didn’t you used to be a very considerate person?”
Xiao Jingrui smiled weakly at Mei Changsu and said, “Brother Su, now do you see how I am always bullied by the two of them?”
“Yes,” Mei Changsu nodded seriously, “Now I know.”
“Yujin, didn’t we tell you to come over tomorrow? It is late, why did you come at this time in such a hurry?” Xie Bi asked from the side in a cool manner.
“Rest assured, Grandpa and Grandma Hu’s case is progressing well, the Emperor has secretly sent an envoy to Bin Zhou, and will not open trial until it has been investigated. There haven’t been any disturbances yet, so there is no need to avoid me so suspicions aren’t roused to implicate you as an accomplice.” Yan Yujin didn’t seem to mind Xie Bie’s coldness, and continued to say happily, “I came this late to see Jingrui and Brother Su, and not to see you; if you can’t accept the fact, then come bite me…”
“Bah!” Xie Bi cried, “Your skin is so thick, who could bite into it?”
“Okay, okay, no more jokes, I have something serious to say,” Yan Yujin dragged a chair over to the table, sat down, picked up a cup and drank the tea in one gulp, “You all probably don’t know, but you couldn’t have chosen a better time to return!”
“At a better time?” Xiao Jingrui blinked, puzzled, “Did we arrive in time for something?”
“Ha ha,” Yan Yujin forcefully patted his friend’s shoulder, “You have arrived in time for a very exciting event!”
Hearing him say this, while it was nothing much for Mei Changsu, but for Xiao Jingrui and Xie Bi, they both looked on with rounded eyes and curiosity written all over their faces. Since the two of them knew Yan Yujin very well, they knew that this son of the Guojiu5 loved excitement more than any other; wherever there was a commotion, he was sure to be seen there too. As he had been part of many exciting events, his expectations naturally arose too, so for him to say that it was very exciting, there would be no way that it wasn’t.
“Don’t leave us hanging, hurry and tell us, what sort of excitement is there to see? Is the Court holding extra imperial exams or naming new military exam champions?” Xie Bi urged him to continue.
“It is more exciting than that,” Yan Yujin waved the comment away, “Do you remember, who we saw when we first met Brother Su outside that little town?”
“We saw…” Xiao Jingrui took a moment to recall, “Ah, diplomatic emissaries from Da Yu!” At this point, he naturally remembered that stolen letter of credence, and turned around to look at Mei Changsu. With so many things to do during the journey, he had actually forgotten to ask the Chief of the Jiang Zuo Alliance, what he stole their letter of credence for…
“That’s right! The goal of the ambassador from Da Yu is about the same as what we had guessed. They are, in fact, here to request a marriage!’
“So this is what you are talking about…” Xie Bi seemed slightly disappointed, “The Emperor will definitely follow the customs and investigate the ambassadors, while this is interesting, it doesn’t seem that it will be very exciting.”
“Don’t you jump to conclusions,” Yan Yujin gave him a sideways glance, “This excitement does not just involve the Emperor and the ambassador of Da Yu, there is a third party that you will not be able to think of! Want to take a guess?”
Xiao Jingrui and Xie Bi had just begun to think, when Mei Changsu said, “Have the Northern Yan ambassadors, also arrived in Jin Ling?”
Yan Yujin seemed a little frustrated, but then quickly gathered his energy again, “Brother Su is right, the size of the Northern Yan ambassador’s entourage is not small either, both sides have already contested with each other openly and secretly for many days, the Emperor was unable to make a decision, or maybe he didn’t want to make a decision, so he issued a decree, that in three days, outside the Zhuque Gate3, there will be a fair competition!”
“This is pretty interesting,” Xiao Jingrui raised his eyebrows, “The diplomatic emissaries from Da Yu should include The Golden Condor, Chai Ming, and the ones from Northern Yan, even if we don’t know if Tuoba Hao came or not, but they would not be too bad either. The competition between them should be worth a look.
“How is it that a competition from two sides, it consists of three parties!” Yan Yujin seemed pleased with himself and smiled.
“What?” The two brothers cried in unison, “Which other ambassador is there?”
Yan Yujin was just planning to keep them in suspense, when Mei Changsu laughed, “I’m guessing that of course, there needs to be the host. A graceful and charming girl is a good match for a gentleman of noble character and integrity6.You think that our own warriors of Da Liang would not want to take this opportunity too?”
Facing the questioning looks of the two brothers, Yan Yujin could only affirm, “Brother Su guessed right, it is these three parties.”
Xie Bi was very surprised and asked, “For the Emperor to make a decree as such it is indeed strange. If he doesn’t agree to the marriage alliance, then he just needs to refuse it, if he agrees, then why drag our own country into the competition?”
“You don’t understand this right?” Yan Yujin, brightening up again, happily continued, “I have already told you, that this is requesting for a marriage, not a marriage alliance! You think that it is like how it was before, that if the Emperor agrees, they’d choose a Princess of the right age to marry, with the other not caring exactly who it was, as long as the wife is of Imperial kin or a royal lady of Da Liang?”
“Listening to what you are saying, Da Yu and Northern Yan have come this time, having a particular person they are seeking marriage with?
“That is correct.” Yan Yujin said using a very mysterious expression, “A very special person, one who they wouldn’t mind beating out each other’s teeth for in order to marry…Why don’t you try guessing who it is…”
He had hardly finished speaking when Mei Changsu, while brushing away the hair on his shoulders said, “My guess is Princess Nihuang.”
Xiao Jingrui and Xie Bi jumped up together, inarticulately exclaiming, “What?!”
Yan Yujin on the other hand, stared at Mei Changsu accusingly, and cried bitterly, “Brother Su, while it’s very admirable that you’re extremely intelligent, your habit of being able to guess everything is a problem, it takes the excitement out of everything, and makes me feel very unaccomplished!”
“I’m sorry, I shall reflect upon my actions, I won’t do it again,” Mei Changsu laughed, “You continue.”
“What else is there to continue on? Just about everything that needs to be said has been said….” The sight of a grown man puffing out his cheeks and whining in complaint, somehow, this actually looked rather cute.
“That’s it?” Xie Bi cried loudly, “What kind of stupid request are Da Yu and Northern Yan making? The Emperor should have rejected them from the very beginning, yet he is setting up a public competition?! The ministers didn’t discourage this? How could Princess Nihuang be married off?”
A hint of a smile so small that it was almost impossible to detect arose on Mei Changsu’s face.
Yes, how could Princess Nihuang marry? She was not an ordinary Princess living in the deep boudoirs of a palace, but a female warrior of rare military genius, a commander in charge of a hundred thousand cavalry, guarding the southern borders. Ten years ago, the country of Chu, a powerful enemy on the southern borders of Da Liang, started a war. The Duke of Yunnan, Mu Shen, who was in charge of guarding the southern border, died in battle. Thus, his daughter, Princess Nihuang, stepped into his place under dire circumstances, and lead the troops, all garbed in mourning dress, to meet the enemy and annihilated thirty thousand Chu calvary outside the Qingmin border pass after a bloody battle. The Court thus issued a decree that Princess Nihuang is to guard the south border in her younger brother’s stead, and to become the commander of the Southern Border Army. The Princess had once vowed that for every day that her younger brother could not bear the heavy burden of becoming the Duke of Yunnan, she would not marry, and so to this day, the twenty-seven year old princess was still single.
2. Screen Wall: Generally, there is a screen-wall inside the entrance to a prefecture so that outsiders cannot see directly into the courtyard.
3. Zhuque Gate: the southern main gate of the Imperial Palace. Zhuque refers to the mythical beast, the Vermillion Bird of the Four Symbols in Chinese mythology. It represents the element of fire, the direction of south and the season of summer. The other beasts include the White Tiger of the West (metal, autumn), the Black Turtle of the North (water, winter) and the Azure Dragon of the East (wood, spring). There is also a fifth beast which is sometimes included, the Yellow Dragon of the Center (earth).
4. Xiansheng: an address for a person you respect, specifically for scholars, it can also be an address for your teacher.
5. Guojiu: brother of the Empress, literally the “State’s Uncle”
6. Quote from the “Classic of Poetry”