While Yan Yujin was at Prince Ji’s mansion enjoying song and dance, Mei Chang Su was in his Su mansion secretly receiving a group of travellers, except that the atmosphere here was a little more dignified.
“I have brought along a total of ten people. Their martial arts skills may not be particularly good, but fortunately they are pretty skilled in qing gong. They are also experts in using drugs to make poison. Chief Mei, do not hesitate to use them as you see fit.” The person who had just spoken was seated to Mei Changsu’s left**, approximately 60 years or so in age. He was lean and wizened, with snowy white hair, but his complexion was ruddy and he appeared to have a lot more vigor and vitality compared to his host.
*a type of martial art ability to make the body light
**the guest of honor usually sits to the host’s left
“I am truly grateful, Chief Su. I apologize for having to act in Chief Su’s name this time.” Mei Changsu smiled slightly and half rose from his chair (to express his gratitude)*.
“What is Chief Mei talking about? Who is Wei Zheng to me? Has he called me an adopted father all these years for nothing? I left the mountain pass with my children* and rushed all the way here for the sole purpose of rescuing him, so what are you thanking me for?” Su Tianshu waved his hand and continued in a straightforward manner, “As for name, reputation and so on, if there is a need to use them, then use them. During such a dangerous operation, it’s hard to say that nobody would slip up, and when the time comes, no matter who is caught, do not hesitate to say that the person belongs to my Yao Wang Valley. There is no need to implicate others. Since Yao Wang Valley is in a remote place far beyond the reach of the central government, I have sufficient resources to wait things out in the forests while they do not.”
*men from his household
Mei Changsu smiled at his words, nodding his head, “This reminds me of the first time I arrived in Yao Wang Valley. If not for Lin Chen, I would have been confused and disoriented, and till today. I would still not have found my way out.”
Su Tianshu burst into laughter, complimenting him in turn, “But Chief Mei, you are truly amazing. Young Master Lin only brought you there once, but when you went there on your own the second time, you managed to penetrate through my defenses. If the imperial court had as much substance as you, I wouldn’t have boasted the way I did earlier.”
“That is because Chief Su looks favorably on my humble efforts.” Mei Changsu picked up the teapot and poured out the tea. “When Chief Su passed by Xunyang, how were things with the Yun family?”
“Don’t worry. The Yun Clan has always had a good reputation and they also have people who would defend them in the royal court. Xuanjing Bureau also has no interest in relentlessly pursuing them. This is why they have not been accused of colluding with traitors, but are only being kept watch by the local magistrate. The Yun clan has been a prominent family in Xunyang for generations, so the local officer would merely turn a blind eye. He would probably make things difficult for them only if they desire to leave Xunyang.”
“If that’s the case, that’s good.” Mei Changsu breathed a small sigh of relief. Just at this moment, Li Gang entered and bowed silently. Mei Changsu immediately understood and got up, saying, “Chief Su, all those participating in tomorrow’s operation have already gathered. Would you like to join me to head over for a look?”
“I am very much obliged. Chief Mei, please lead the way.” Su Tianshu got up and stepped aside. The both of them left the main house together, arriving at a small, narrow, and clean room in the rear court.
Within the room were forty to fifty people, divided into a few groups, studying a few sheets of paper containing blueprints. Upon Mei Changsu and Su Tianshu’s arrival, they came over one after the other to make their salutations.
“Everyone has been working hard.” After taking his seat by the side of a large rectangular table in the middle of the room, Mei Changsu stretched out his hand to flip through the blueprints, asking, “Have you more or less memorised the entire layout and passageways of Xuanjing Bureau?”
“We have discussed all the details of the entire operation extensively these two days, but today our friends from Yao Wang Valley have joined us, so I will explain once again from the beginning.” Mei Changsu signaled for everyone to move closer and said in a smooth and steady tone, “Our operation will take place at midday tomorrow. At this time Xuanjing Bureau will be changing shifts. We have already arranged with Xia Dong to find a way to bring you through the front door. Wang Yuan, you will lead 15 men outside to keep an eye on the state of affairs in the surrounding area. Be prepared to provide reinforcements. Zheng Xu Ting will bring along 30 men to follow Xia Dong. That day, Xia Jiang, Xia Chun and Xia Qiu will not be in Xuanjing Bureau, so it will go very smoothly in the beginning. However, the moment you get to the dungeon’s outer courtyard, there will be pushback, so we would need to put up a strong offensive from this point onwards. All of you must remember that Xia Dong will merely observe and she will not help you. What you will need to do is to break into the dungeon, get to the prison cell mentioned by Xia Dong, then rush back out.”
At this moment, somebody from Yao Wang Valley looked like he had some doubts. Mei Changsu turned in his direction with a slight smile. “Even though there are many guarding Xuanjing Bureau, the entrance of the dungeon is only a narrow corridor. Four or five men would be able to defend it for a long time. When the time comes to breach it, we would then need to rely on our friends from Yao Wang Valley. If we were in the battlefield, these “poison powder worms” would not prevent the continuous attack of a large army, but in the relatively narrow and confined spaces of Xuanjing Bureau, they are very useful. You are all skilled martial arts masters. We just need to loosen their tight defenses a little to break through. Among all the methods, this is the one I have decided on.” He tapped the blueprints on the table a few times with his finger in emphasis. “From here to the back gate, the distance is a little shorter compared to the distance from the main gate, but all along the way, there will be no open ground, limiting the use of crossbows. When they use powerful bows to seal the passageway, deploy the “smoke-inducing powder balls” from Thunder Fire Hall, and when the enemy’s field of vision is confused, you must rush out no matter how much you are blinded by the smoke and dust. Qin De, the ten men with you are skilled at fighting blind. Under these circumstances, they must immediately move to the front to clear the way. As long as we are able to rush out of Xuanjing Bureau’s gates, it will be easier to handle what follows.”
“Why is that?” Su Tianshu pinched his beard and asked, “Once outside, the place is an open plan. Xuanjing Bureau would have the advantage and bring its large military force into play. How would this make things easier to handle?”
Mei Changsu smiled faintly, “Because on that day…….the robbers from the grand heist that the Capital Patrol had been investigating for a long time will suddenly reveal their whereabouts. Two groups of people chasing each other in every direction, jostling against one another, that would certainly be a chaotic scene. For us, the more chaotic it is, the better.”
Su Tianshu immediately understood and laughed heartily, saying, “I can imagine that would definitely make for a very interesting state of affairs.”
“As for going underground after that, arrangements have already been made. That covers everything.” Mei Changsu’s eyes swept across the whole room. “Finally, I wish to reiterate what may seem like an unrelated requirement, which is that I would like all of you to escape unscathed. Do not leave anyone behind, do you understand?”
“Yes!” The rumble of firm and resolute voices raised in assent immediately filled the room.
“Does anyone else have any more questions?”
After a brief moment of silence, some of them countered with all sorts of hypothetical scenarios one after another, and of potentially unforeseen circumstances. Mei Changsu addressed them one by one, providing solutions for each one. Watching him do it so naturally, with such calm and ease, one wouldn’t have been able to discern how much time he had spent strategizing, how much painstaking effort and mental power it had consumed.
“Chief Mei is truly a rare talent,” Su Tianshu exclaimed after hearing this and he couldn’t help but sigh, “You can even think of all these things. This old man really admires you.”
“In the end, this is actually only a small battle,” Mei Changsu smiled faintly, his expression betraying his exhaustion. “Consolidating your military strength, understanding your enemy in detail, exploiting the terrain of your battlefield, designing an appropriate military strategy, predicting the probabilities of advancing in the battlefield……these actually form the foundation for deploying military tactics. There is nothing rare about it.”
“Hehe, Chief Mei is really too modest,” Su Tianshu said. Stretching out his hands to tap at Mei Changsu’s meridian points, he shook his head, “But when it comes to taking care of yourself, this is an ability you greatly lack. Did you not get any sleep last night?
Mei Changsu caught sight of Li Gang and Zhen Ping both turning simultaneously in his direction, their expressions intent on participating in this interrogation, and hastily replied, “I slept, I definitely slept.”
“Perhaps you didn’t fall asleep.” Su Tianshu said with certainty. “I have brought along some medicine which I have left with Physician Yan. You should immediately go and have some and then go to sleep. Don’t worry, these children’s* skills are not insignificant. Recover your vigor so that you will be in good condition to personally take charge of the operations tomorrow.”
*generic reference to all the men under their leadership
Mei Changsu knew that he meant well. Besides, he was really exhausted, so he did not protest, but got up and after instructing Li Gang to take care of the guests, returned to his room, bringing Fei Liu along with him.
That night nobody knew if he slept well or not, but on the surface, he at least appeared to have slept peacefully. His breathing was calm and he did not toss and turn. He was wrapped snugly in a thick quilt and he was as peaceful as an old monk that had entered into a meditative state. After midnight, the snow began to fall, neither lightly nor heavily, breaking into fragments on hitting the roof tiles, its sound akin to the pricking of (acupuncture) needles, falling in drifts until the break of dawn.
At the break of dawn on the fifth day of the Lunar New Year, cold wet rain began to mix with the snow, and a chill wind began to whip up. In the midst of the snow and rain, a woman appeared, dreamlike, on the main street. She was wearing a bamboo rain hat and a rain cloak made of rush draped over her shoulders. She slowly made her way, step by step, towards the just-opened Eastern City Gate. Without exception, all the guards keeping watch at the city walls bowed before her in salutation, their expressions a mix of fear and respect, their eyes following this senior Xuanjing disciple who wore mourning clothes and left the capital at this time every year.
After a period of time, a junior Xuanjing Bureau officer rode by on horseback and shouted out, “Has Xia Dong da ren left the city?”
“Yes, she will be away for a period of time*.” The garrison squad leader who had stepped forward to reply thought the other party was pursuing Xia Dong for some urgent matter. As he replied, he gestured to his men to clear the path. But that junior officer merely turned around and left after hearing his reply.
*time was measured in 12 periods of 2 hours each
After returning to the Xuanjing Bureau office, the junior officer immediately headed straight to the Director’s room. Xia Jiang, dressed in a weathered jacket, was tearing open an envelope to read the enclosed letter. After making salutations, the junior officer said in a low voice, “Director, Xia Dong da ren really left the city.”
Before Xia Jiang could respond, another junior officer hurried in, fell to his knees on the steps saying, “Director, that Su zhe* just left through the West City Gate. He was completely in disguise and almost evaded us.”
*wise man Su = Mei Changsu
“Ng.” Xia Jiang waved his hand to dismiss both of them, lost in thought as he flipped over the letter he was holding, his eyes unfocused. His face bore an odd expression, sinister with ruthlessness, yet at the same time slightly anguished. After a moment, he quickly left the room and headed outside. There, he ordered a mount to be brought to him, immediately jumped astride it, whipped it into a gallop leaving Xuanjing Bureau.
At about the same time Xia Jiang left, a sedan also left Marquis Yan’s mansion, followed by a cart full of joss sticks, candles and sacrificial paper. Yan Yujin rode alongside on horseback to keep guard as it meandered towards Han Zhong Temple in the west of the capital, apparently with the purpose of conducting some sort of religious ritual.
But Han Zhong Temple didn’t seem to be prepared for their arrival. When the master of the temple came over to welcome Marquis Yan, he seemed completely confused. “Uncle Marquis, you did not mention that you were coming today. This old priest is afraid that he has not prepared anything…..”
“You can just prepare a clean room with hot tea and water for me. I intend to receive a friend.” Just as he had finished speaking, Yan Que heard the sound of hoofbeats behind him. Turning his head, he saw that Xia Jiang had arrived.
“Did Xia xiong arrive on horseback?^ Yan Que called out in greeting. “This Han Zhong Temple is probably difficult to find, with its many forks along the way. Even though Xia xiong was on horseback, you arrived later than me in my sedan.”
“Or maybe it’s because you left first, Marquis Yan?” Xia Jiang replied coldly. Not seeing anyone step forward to assist him with his horse, he tied his horse to a post and walked over with large strides.
“There is no need for all of you to remain here. Please do not inconvenience yourselves and leave us.” Yan Que had just uttered these words to dismiss the temple master when he noticed the droop in Yan Yujin’s facial expression. “I brought you here today to kneel before the scriptures. Why are you still following me? Hurry and go to the front (of the temple)!”
“Dad,” Yan Yujin said coquettishly (like a pampered child), “Do I really have to kneel for a whole day?”
“If you complain some more you will have to kneel for two days!” Yan Que glared at his son, about to lose his temper. Met with this unfavorable situation, Yan Yujin ran swiftly away. The way he skipped and jumped about*, one couldn’t be sure if he truly ran to kneel before the scriptures.
*literal translation. Idiom.
“This child,” Yan Que sighed, saying to Xia Jiang, “It can’t be helped, I have pampered him too much, so much so he can not endure any hardship.”
“I think Yujin is still alright. He is very similar to you when you were young, Marquis Yan.”
“How could I have been as well turned out as him when I was young?” Yan Que smiled as he refuted the previous statement, fixing his eyes on Xia Jiang as he deliberately said, “But children always grow up too fast. If Xia xiong’s son was still around, perhaps he would be as old as Yu’er.”
Xia Jiang’s heart felt like it had been pierced by a needle. He experienced a sharp burst of pain, but he pressed his lips tightly together, forcing himself to endure it, his face not betraying any emotion. Instead, he replied coldly, “Yan xiong, did you invite me just to stand around here for a chat?”
“How would I dare?” Yan Que extended his hand to show the way, “The temple has prepared a clean room for us. Please, after you.”
Xia Jiang stepped silently forward. Accompanied by Yan Que, they soon arrived at a clean, well-lit stand-alone room in the back garden. A young Taoist acolyte kept watch outside, probably instructed by his master to prepare the tea when they arrived. Yan Que told him to leave them, took hold of the teapot himself and poured Xia Jiang a steaming hot cup of tea.
“This temple’s tea is one of a kind. Xia xiong should try it.”
Xia Jiang looked directly at him, clearly not comprehending the need for all these formalities. He merely extended his arm to accept the cup of tea but he did not drink. His first words were direct: “Yan xiong, your letter said you know the whereabouts of someone who has been constantly on my mind. Are you referring to my son?”
Yan Que did not reply immediately, but held his own tea cup with both hands, taking two sips before slowly putting it down. “Xia xiong, during that time, for the sake of a pretty face, you ignored all your old friends’ advice, refused to listen to any one of us, abandoning your first wife without a care, causing her to take your son with her and leave without a trace. Now, after so many years, does the heart and mind still miss only the son, but not the woman you first married?”
“These are my family matters.” Xia Jiang sounded cold as ice. “Marquis Yan does not need to concern yourself with them.”
“Since you don’t want to give way to your feelings, why did you come here after reading the letter?”
“I came intending only to ask a question. Since you were unwilling to tell me the whereabouts of my son at the time, why is it that you are suddenly willing to speak of it?”
Yan Que fixed his gaze on him, heaving a long deep sigh. “You really think that we were unwilling to tell you back then. Actually.….sister-in-law* was determined to leave and did not tell anyone of her whereabouts at all.”
*”sao fu ren” – polite form of address for a friend’s wife / married woman of similar age
Xia Jiang sneered and said in disbelief, “Really?”
“I think sister-in-law was extremely disillusioned……” Yan Que looked out the window, his expression indiscernible, “Because of a moment of kindness, she rescued a woman from slavery in Yeting, took care of her like an elder sister, like a mother. She never expected that in this world, such kindness could be repaid with such evil, by a completely heartless person……after receiving such a huge blow, how could sister-in-law trust anyone else? Not telling anyone of her whereabouts is probably her way of fulfilling her desire to sever ties with the past.”
The muscle on Xia Jiang’s cheek twitched a few times, before being forcefully held in check. His tone remained indifferent. “If that is the case, then why did you invite me out today?”
“Please relax.” Yan Que took a quick sidelong glance at him, and replied neither quickly nor slowly, “When sister-in-law left, she did not inform anyone, that was true. But five years ago, she sent me some news.”
“Why did she send it to you?”
“Perhaps of all the old friends, only I remain.” Yan Que’s expression suddenly became fierce, and his gaze was sharp on Xia Jiang’s face. “Xia xiong, this was your own doing. How could you forget?”
Xia Jiang refused to respond to his provocation, and asked further, “What did she say?”
“She said that because of a disease your son contracted in winter, he did not grow to adulthood and died young. She was also seriously ill and had limited time. She hoped that the old friends in the capital would remember her and offer sacrifice for her during Qing Ming*…..”
*Chinese festival to venerate and commemorate the dead
The tea cup in Xia Jiang’s hand shattered, the hot tea spilling through his fingers, but he didn’t seem to feel anything, staring penetratingly at Yan Que with his cold eyes. After a while he said through gritted teeth, “Do you think I would believe this?”
Yan Que took a light yellow envelope from his chest pocket and handed it over, “Whether you believe or not, have a look. You were both fellow disciples. Even if no longer husband and wife, you would still recognize her writing.”
He hadn’t yet finished speaking, but Xia Jiang had already taken the letter out of the envelope, hastily spreading it out to read its contents. He hadn’t even read it halfway through before he tore the letter to shreds, his lips pale, both his hands shaking badly.
Yan Que’s eyes were sorrowful, and he sighed, “This is probably the last thing she left behind. You have really torn it apart.”
Xia Jiang didn’t hear a word he said. He stood up, pressed both his hands down on the table and faced Yan Que with the full force of his rage, said, “Why didn’t you tell me immediately then?”
“This letter was written to me. Furthermore, its contents did not mention that I should keep you informed,” Yan Que’s expression remained calm without a ripple, “Which is why, whether or not to tell you, when to tell you, it was all up to me. I didn’t want to tell you anything at the time, but today I suddenly felt like telling you. That is all.”
At first, Xia Jiang seemed to be so enraged by this sudden harsh and grievous news that his face turned red, his whole body shook, and the hands pressing hard on the table seemed like they would leave an impression in the wood, all these revealing his turbulent emotions. But Xia Jiang was after all, still Xia Jiang. After the first wave of anger passed, he immediately strived to exert control over his emotions and hold them in check, until only his eyes revealed the depths of his resentment and anger, before slowly sitting down again.
“Marquis Yan,” The Xuanjing Bureau Director had recovered his expressionless facade and adjusted his speaking tone so that even though he appeared to be speaking casually, it would make a person tremble. “It seems that Prince Jing is planning a prison raid today, isn’t he?”
^This might seem like an obvious statement since Yan Que saw Xia Jiang riding up on horseback, but it’s a polite greeting similar to us Chinese greeting our neighbours with “Have you eaten?” when we happen to meet around meal times. Then again, in context, it’s also his attempt to make small talk!
I enjoyed translating this. Though it’s hardly emotionally charged as are my preferred MCS scenarios, it does give insight to how MCS would have led a strategy discussion. Calm, collected, precise, detailed and logical. How awesome to watch this brain articulate its plans.