After conversing with Concubine Jing, the Emperor felt tired and sleepy, and he moved to the bed to sleep. Concubine Jing put down the sheer curtain, changed the incense in the burner, and sat down. As soon as she did, she felt worry rise in her heart.
As the saying goes, the mother knows her son best. Concubine Jing couldn’t be more clear about her son Xiao Jingyan’s temperament. Although she did not know who Wei Zheng was, on the basis of his identity as a deputy general of Chiyu Battalion, Concubine Jing knew that Jingyan would not sit idly by.
But what could he do….plead with the Emperor for mercy? There was as yet no hope of redress for the Chiyan case, simply no grounds whatsoever of pardoning the traitors. Would he, for Wei Zheng’s sake, go to great lengths to reopen that which has been closed? Xia Jiang, the Director of Xuanjing Bureau, had deliberately laid this net, waiting for him to run into it, no doubt to use military force to rescue Wei Zheng? This was a most undesirable strategy, with no second chances if the execution were to fail.
Unable to arrive at a conclusion after approaching it from all angles, Concubine Jing heaved a sigh to get rid of her chaotic train of thoughts, stood up erect, and walked to the wing of the outer hall, where she ordered someone to bring her fresh plum flower pistils. Then, she sat down and sieved through them with her hands, selecting the ones she wanted, preparing to steep them to make plum cakes.
At this time, Xin’er the maidservant walked over, carrying in both her hands a wooden box. After making her salutations, she said, “Niang niang, these are top quality hazelnuts that the Inner Court Department just sent over. Would you like to have a look at them?”
Concubine Jing merely cast a brief glance at them and said, “Leave them.”
“Yes.” Xin’er put the wooden box on the shelf, and returned to help Concubine Jing shake the sieving board. Smiling, she said, “Niang niang, are the hazelnuts not good? You have not made any hazelnut shortbread for Prince Jing in a long time. Didn’t you say that it is His Highness’s most favourite?”
Hearing this, Concubine Jing stopped selecting the plum flower pistils, narrowing her gaze.
How long had she not made them? She had not been making them since she started making twice as much the number of food boxes…..Jingyan was a good son who was not choosy about what he ate. His so-called “most favorite” was no more than just because that would be the first item he would pick out when given a large quantity of food. If it wasn’t given to him, he would also not particularly take notice. As a result, she didn’t realize this change.
Reflecting on it, it was really interesting. They were undoubtedly a great pair of friends, but while one loved to eat hazelnuts, the other would turn red all over and struggle for breath if he accidentally ate any, and they would have to use medicine to induce vomiting before he was better. This was probably the only thing the both of them disagreed with…..
Hopefully that person could hold Jingyan back from his impetuousness in this current situation and find a safe way to get him through this.
“Niang niang, on the way back just now, this servant passed by Concubine Hui’s carriage on the road. Her face was swollen, like she had been crying,” Xin’er lowered her voice. “According to Eunuch Qi, she had just come from Zhengyang Palace. She must definitely have been scolded harshly by the Empress.”
Concubine Jing frowned. “Why did you inquire about such things?”
“This servant did not inquire, “Xin’er hurriedly replied, “It is Eunuch Qi himself who told this servant. If niang niang does not believe, ask Eunuch Qi.”
Concubine Jing smiled faintly. “It is not a big matter, but I must remind you again that the Palace has its own code of conduct. Don’t find trouble for yourself.”
“This servant understands.” Xin’er stuck the tip of her tongue out delicately and covered her mouth with her hand in an exaggerated manner*.
*It’s a face she makes when she’s trying to act adorable to avoid further reprimanding
Actually, the affair Xin’er spoke of was something Concubine Jing was already familiar with. Concubine Hui was the mother of Prince Xu, the Emperor’s third son, and though she had spent many years in the palace, she was not well-favored. Last month, Prince Xu took a fancy to a minor official’s daughter and wanted to make her his concubine. Verbal arrangements were made, but before the betrothal gifts could be sent out, the uncle of Prince Yu’s Consort, Zhu Yue, took a fancy to her. As that minor official coveted Prince Yu’s power and influence, he quietly delivered her to the Zhu mansion, whilst falsely claiming that his daughter was ill in order to hide the truth from Prince Xu. Later when this news leaked and Prince Xu found out, he conceded and did not put up a fight for her. But he was after all, a prince, and in his anger, he sent someone to question the minor official. In his fear, the minor official ran away through the back gate and when given chase, he slipped, fell into the water and died. His daughter wept in sorrow when heard the news. To help his young concubine give vent to her emotions, Zhu Yue raised a petition through an imperial censor he was friendly with, accusing Prince Xu of murder, and at the same time also passed a report through Prince Yu’s consort. Because it was the new year, the case was temporarily retained and not issued, but Concubine Hui, because of the charge of not bringing her son up well got a harsh scolding**.
Concubine Jing had never said a word or done anything about matters in the Imperial Harem, and she only listened to what Xin’er said. Remembering that tomorrow was the first day of the lunar new year, and that there would be so many important occasions, after considering for a while, she immediately got up to look for two medicine bags and a box of ointment. She instructed Xin’er to bring them discreetly to Concubine Hui’s palace and teach her how to treat her swollen eyes in order to avoid letting the Emperor see that she had cried on the first day of the new year, else it would only add to her troubles***.
When the afternoon finally arrived, the Emperor woke up and had his afternoon meal with Concubine Jing in attendance. Because he still had to confirm the final details of the sacrificial ceremony with the Minister of Rites, he did not remain for much longer and departed for the court.
As soon as the Emperor left, Concubine Jing began to hope that her son would enter for a time, so she could say some things to him, but though she waited until the evening, there was still no sign of Prince Jing. Presumably he wouldn’t be coming.
While Concubine Jing was waiting hopefully, the person Prince Jing had narrowly missed meeting the day before, Mei Changsu, was glad to receive news that Prince Jing was waiting for him in the secret chamber.
His health and physical condition had taken a slight turn for the better that day and he was on the road to recovery. He could even walk a circle around the garden that morning, his body no longer feeling the effects of the deep and serious illness of the past few days. However, just to play safe, Li Gang and Zheng Ping still insisted on getting him to bring Fei Liu along with him when he entered the secret chamber.
Opening the door of the stone chamber, Mei Changsu had taken only a step in when he was startled by what met him. Prince Jing was not waiting alone.
“Greetings Your Highness Prince Jing. General Lie has also come along….” Although he was a little taken by surprised, Mei Changsu immediately circled back, stepped forward and said in greeting, “My broken body is sick and has suffered many days of severe and lingering illness, so I am afraid that I have missed many matters concerning Your Highness and seek forgiveness.”
“Sir, please do sit down,” Prince Jing rose slightly from his seat politely in welcome. “You are still recuperating and should not be disturbed. It’s just that I have an urgent matter and have no choice but to come ask you for a plan.”
“Your Highness is too polite,” Mei Changsu said without any preamble, getting straight to the point. “This is about the matter of Wei Zheng’s arrest, isn’t it?”
Prince Jing couldn’t help but be surprised. “Sir, how did you know?”
Mei Changsu fixed his eyes on the person behind Prince Jing, whose expression was worried and anxious, the General Lie Zhanying, and said casually, “I have already accepted Your Highness’s orders to investigate the previous years’ Chiyan case of long standing, how could I dare not take it to heart? But I only got to know about Wei Zheng’s arrest a few days ago. Jiangzuo Alliance spared no effort to rescue him, but did not succeed, so Wei Zheng is now held under arrest in the capital. Presumably Your Highness received this news today. According to what I know, General Lie in those years had a relatively good friendship with Wei Zheng. Now that he has purposely come along, it is definite that the purpose is to discuss this matter.”
“You are right,” Lie Zhanying spoke urgently. “It is certainly to discuss this matter. I had always believed that Wei Zheng was wronged and died a tragic death. Fortunately he is still alive, except that he is now behind bars, his life in the hands of someone else, so we must intensify rescue efforts. His Highness frequently said that Sir’s wisdom in strategy is unparalleled, so we really need to trouble you and request for you to think it over and give us some advice.”
“General Lie’s deep affection for an old friend is very touching, but you are Prince Jing’s most trusted aide and should put His Highness’s interest first before everything else.” Mei Changsu’s manner of speaking was slow and deliberate. “This so-called injustice is something we can only speak of here. But to the public, Wei Zheng’s identity is that of a traitor. This is something nobody can deny so can you deny it?”
Lie Zhanying replied urgently, “It is precisely because he has been falsely accused as a traitor that is why we need to make this request….”
“General, please stay calm.” Mei Changsu made a placating gesture. “I understand your feelings, but ask that you think it over carefully. No matter what plan I come up with, it will still ultimately require His Highness to personally put it into effect. Think of all the grief His Highness had endured all these years of being suppressed because of the Chiyan case. Surely you understand that once he acts personally, it would be difficult to avoid triggering the Emperor’s memory, and cut off the very good imperial favor he currently possesses.”
“Today, in His Majesty’s presence, I already made Father Emperor angry over this matter,” Prince Jing responded harshly, “So Mister Su does not need to be overcautious. Just think of a way to resolve this dangerous situation.”
“Is that so….” Mei Changsu shot a glance at him. “First, I would like to request for Your Highness to please recount the details and specific circumstances.”
Prince Jing had a good memory and began speaking of the details of the event from the beginning to end. What was said by each person present that morning was repeated by and large. His face turned dark towards the end as he clearly recalled to mind his anger.
“Your Highness,” Mei Changsu sighed as he shook his head, “Xia Jiang was setting up a trap to draw you in, did you not sense it?”
“I know,” Prince Jing gritted his teeth, “But as far as I am concerned, some things should not be swept aside.”
“Today, Xia Jiang and Prince Yu had originally planned for you to have a fierce clash with His Majesty, but they were interrupted halfway. You also practised some self-restraint, which is why they did not manage to get the effect they had anticipated, and were in all likelihood very disappointed. But since Wei Zheng is still in their hands, they would still be on the offensive. No matter what plans Your Highness may have of rescuing Wei Zheng, Your Highness will still fall into their trap, does Your Highness realize that?”
Prince Jing nodded his head. “I definitely understand this without a doubt. This old Chiyan case casts the longest shadow between me and Father Emperor. Though this matter of Wei Zheng, Xia Jiang intends to incite me to take action, to make Father Emperor realize that I still cherish this old resentment in my heart, that I desire to reverse the verdict, and now that I have been given power, influence and status, I then become a prince who is a threat and danger to Father Emperor, because when all is said and done, the person most responsible for the previous case was Father Emperor himself.”
“It is good that Your Highness is clear about this,” Mei Changsu’s eyes were like a frozen lake, his face still and cold. “You have always sympathized with the people at the heart of Chiyan. Your Highness’s stance is well known by all. To sum up this point, your clash with His Majesty today was very normal. He is unlikely to overthink it and will tolerate it, but Your Highness must understand that this is the limit. His Majesty is not a soft-hearted person. Once he believes that you are genuinely provoking his authority, he will put you in your place without the slightest hesitation and show no quarter. If this happens then the setback that Prince Qi encountered will be right before Your Highness’s eyes.”
“In that case….,” Lie Zhanying interjected, stammering. He turned to look at both the men and asked, “What do we do about Wei Zheng?”
Mei Changsu had some difficulty replying. He shut his eyes briefly, and gradually said, “General Lie is very clear on His Highness’s greatest undertaking today. The place of difficulty with respect to Wei Zheng lies in the ties of affection, and that is all. In advancing Prince Jing’s interests, rescuing Wei Zheng affords no advantage whatsoever. His Highness must naturally give this up for the sake of the greater plan.”
Lie Zhanying’s expression paled and he took a step back. Unable to find words to refute this, he opened and closed his lips a few times attempting to respond, before managing to squeeze out these few words: “Not….not resuce him?”
“Zhanying,” Prince Jing stood up, his face cold, “Let us leave.”
“But Your Highness…..”
“Hasn’t Mister Su already made his opinion very clear?” Prince Jing laughed bitterly, his every word seeming to spit forth from between his teeth. “I once believed Mister Su to be a different kind of advisor, and did not expect to see clearly in this moment that you also seek to gain the advantage at the slightest pretext, seemingly without human feelings or conscience. If I comply with Mr Su’s intention, give up morality, justice and the friendships in my heart, my heart and soul intent only on pursuing and seizing that mighty position, then what becomes of my original purpose of seizing that position? If I indeed become so heartless I leave someone cold, wouldn’t you worry that I would cast aside the ties of affection* that I had built with you due to your support of me, for the sake of other advantageous gains in future? As matters stand, you are unwilling to provide any assistance, and there is nothing more for me to say. You had already dispatched Jiangzuo Alliance to rescue Wei Zheng, and I have counted that in the heart, so just pretend I had never spoken on this matter.”
“Your Highness!” Mei Changsu a few anxious steps forward to block Xiao Jingyan’s way out, but because his breathing was uneven, he had difficulty speaking, and started to cough, gasping violently for breath. Although he was angry, upon seeing Mei Changsu’s sickly body and his apparent difficulty in supporting himself, Prince Jing felt his heart soften and feel bad for him, so he stopped and did not force his way out.
After coughing for a spell, Mei Changsu caught his breath and said in a low voice, “Hearing Your Highness speak, you have made up your mind to rescue Wei Zheng?”
“Even if, for the sake of rescuing him, you may incur great cost and suffer great disaster, to the extent of possibly risking your life if you proceed, yet without guarantee of succeeding?”
“If we do not try, how would we know?”
“Wei Zheng is merely one of Chiyu Battalion’s deputy generals. Is it worth it?”
“When I meet Lin Shu after I die, if he asks me why I never rescued his deputy general, how could I give him an unworthy reply?”
“Your Highness attaches great importance to affection, I already know this very well,” Mei Changsu held in check his tumultous emotions, taking a deep breath, “But it is still impossible.”
“What?” Prince Jing was just about to erupt into anger but felt a hand pressing down firmly on his arm, a hand that was weak and lacked strength. He stepped back, not knowing why he didn’t force it away.
“Your Highness must not save him. You will also not be able to save him.” Mei Changsu looked directly into Prince Jing’s eyes, and said resolutely, “I will do it. I will think of a way to rescue Wei Zheng.”
*Ties of affection. This is my translation of the phrase “情义” (qíng yì). I recall Lang Ya Scribe mentioning in one of her earlier chapters that it is a concept that runs deeper than love or friendship. “Ties of affection” was the translation Pleco gave me, and I found it most apt, for ties they are indeed, deep and abiding ones that cannot be broken, even across time. Ties that bind two people together for all time. If you can think of an equivalent English term, I would appreciate it if you could please leave it in the comment section!
**How well a child behaves (or not behave) is considered the responsibility of a mother. In this case, Concubine Hui was being accused of not teaching her son right, of being too lax in his upbringing.
***Crying or pulling a long face is considered unlucky on the first day of the Lunar New Year.
Lie Zhanying reminds me of Meng Zhi. Not as bright or intelligent, the perfect foil to MCS and XJY, and the perfect vehicle for Hai Yan to articulate the thoughts in MCS or XJY’s heads when he prompts for clarification.