It was really very much like a jianghu faceoff, notwithstanding the imperial guards outside the hall, and the grandeur of the room.
The man standing on the far end would have seemed ordinary at first glance. Until one looked closer, and saw that the plain grey gown he was wearing was of the very finest Su silk, and the white jade hairpin in his hair would have fed a thousand peasants for an entire year.
The finery on other man in the room was less subtle, though perhaps because of that, he seemed less ostentatious. Nonetheless, his appearance routinely struck fear and respect in the hearts of anyone who say him.
Imperial robes were designed to look imposing as of right.
"Don't you 'majesty' me."
The plainly-dressed man merely bowed lightly, even ironically, and then straightened, his hands still clasped together, as though to say, 'As you wish.'
Despite his usual authority in the palace and the entire country, the emperor did not feel that he was going to get the upper hand in this round, either. "I had to learn about you from that rapscallion Yu-jin," he started, trying to regain control. "And he informed me that he'd been getting regular updates from that-that jianghu doctor."
"I don’t think his subordinates on Langya are going to be pleased at the way you referred to Lin Chen as 'that jianghu doctor'."
"Never mind that." He strode towards the other man, not certain if he intended to shake him thoroughly or to give him a hug. Only the soft, amused expression on the other man's face stopped him. "Damn it, Xiao-shu. You made me think you were dead!"
The Jiangzuo Alliance held itself out to the world as no more than a pugilistic sect, but its wide reach and influence were known to the more observant members of jianghu, earning it admiration and in some quarters, fear. More than that; the Alliance was well-known for its wide information network, which enabled its members to be mobilized swiftly and quietly as needed. It was why the Alliance had continued to hold sway in jianghu for the last twenty years when many other sects had risen to prominence and fallen into disarray in a fraction of that time.
Nowhere was the Alliance's capabilities were even more obvious, if even more subtle, than in Langzhou, the imperial prince thought. He had entered the territory only two hours ago in the guise of an ordinary nobleman, and already he had been shepherded into what was, he judged, one of the most discreet and well-appointed inns situated not too far away from the city's noisiest areas. Well, perhaps 'shepherded' was putting it too strongly. He had been expertly guided through the city, through the jostling crowd and vendors shouting about their wares, away from the murkier districts, to this place. Looking around the room and lost in thought, he couldn't help appreciating at how subtly it had been done.
He turned at a discreet knock at the door. "Who is it?"
"I have your tea, sir. And a light meal, as you ordered."
"Come in. Just leave it on the table."
Once he was alone again, he went to sit down at the table, where the dishes had been laid out and the tea already cooling on a cup. There was just one oddity: the serving tray had been placed at the side, as though the servant had forgotten to take it away with him after removing the dishes. An unlikely mistake, given the careful way everything else had been arranged. He sipped at the tea meditatively, then took the tray in both hands, finding the hidden compartment under it..
By evening, he set out.
Nobody knew where the leader of the Jiangzuo Alliance resided. He was known to be reclusive, especially after a two-year stay in the Da Liang capital Jinlin more than seven years ago, when he was said to have all but retired from the business of leading the Alliance. Many had speculated that powerful as the Alliance was, it was best for him to lay low after whipping up such a ruckus in Jinling.
Disturbances in Jinling; cabinet ministers indicted for corruption and various crimes one after another; the expose of the once-powerful Xie Yu; the downfall of the then Crown Prince; even Prince Yu's ruinous attempt at a coup. The capital was turned upside down, and rumours ran wild.
They said, Mei Changsu, the Divine Talent, was the person behind all them all.
Some said he made the capital too hot to hold him, and when the then Prince Jing was made Crown Prince, he was asked (politely) to leave. Some said when the country was facing attacks on multiple fronts seven years ago, he offered the use of the Alliance resources – not surprising, as many of the Alliance members were subjects of Da Liang – to repel the enemies. He disappeared from Jinlin after that. Rumours of his death, however, turned out to be premature.
Despite his efforts, the imperial prince could not detect anyone trailing him, but there must have been someone, for as soon as he left the city, a middle-aged man appeared out of the trees by the side of the path and made a bow. "Your highness," he said as he straightened, "our apologies for not receiving you earlier."
As he spoke, two other men appeared, as though conjured by the deepening twilight, leading a small carriage with them, and made similar bows.
The imperial prince took in the courtesies, and inclined his head in return. "May I ask if Sir-" he cut himself off at a tiny headshake from the first man, "-he is free to receive visitors?"
The first man nodded. "We have instructions to act as your guide, your highness. Please come with us."
He climbed aboard the carriage and the first man followed after him. He could tell by the way it moved that the horses were remarkably fast. Then again, it was unremarkable that the Alliance prided itself on swift transportation, especially as he recalled how much its leader relied on them. He turned to the first man, who was obviously waiting for him to speak. "You are Li Gang, aren’t you? Section Chief of the Jiangzuo Alliance."
Li Gang's face softened in a smile. "I'm honoured that you still remember me, your highness," he said.
"How can I not? You were always kind to me when I visited." He hesitated. "How is he, these days?"
"The chief is well, many thanks for your highness' concern. He was ill for a very long time, and all of us in the Alliance feared the worst, but thankfully, he made it through."
He heaved a small sigh of relief. "I look forward to seeing him again," he admitted.
"So does he, your highness. Please be patient, we shall be reaching soon."
Indeed, less than an hour had passed before the carriage came to a stop, and he fairly jumped down from the carriage in his eagerness. Li Gang followed, and led him through an imposing set of gates, into a winding garden, down a wide corridor and finally to a study that was so familiar that he felt startled.
It was not exactly the same, of course. For one, it was much bigger and wider, though there were still high and low bookshelves arrayed in a harmonious placement, books and rare curiosities placed on the shelves. And despite the fact that it was barely autumn, there was a brazier of cheery coals, making the room almost too hot. The man seated by the brazier was reading.
"Chief," Li Gang greeted with a deep bow. "I bring his highness to you."
Sharp, dark eyes flickered upwards from the book he was holding, taking in both of them. "Any problems?"
Li Gang looked between the two of them for a moment, then evidently took his cue to leave with another bow.
Once the door had closed, Mei Changsu closed his book and put it to one side. "It has been a long time, Ting Sheng."
To hear his name pronounced by someone that he never thought he would ever see again after the events seven years ago made old memories well up in his mind. He swallowed again and again, feeling like the twelve-year-old who had just met his savior and mentor and didn't know how to express his gratitude. Finally, he blurted, "I'm not a traitor!"
He did not miss Mei Changsu's gaze sharpening for a second, before he motioned to the space opposite him. "Sit down."
Nervously, Ting Sheng complied.
"How did you know about your real parents?" Mei Changsu asked, his gaze searching. "I know that Jingyan would not have told you."
Ting Sheng tried not to wriggle under his appraisal, somehow not at all shocked that Mei Changsu had committed the apparent heresy of referring to the emperor by his given name. He rubbed the edge of the cushion that he was seated on, a nervous gesture. "Someone," he mumbled.
He had forgotten how stern that soft-sounding voice could be.
"I was digging into what happened when the Chiyan were falsely accused, and-" he said, watching Mei Changsu's expression, "-someone contacted me. She said she was my mother's maid."
"Who somehow escaped the massacre of the entire Qi household?"
He thought he ought to have expected that question from his old teacher, but it was still disconcerting. "I didn't think of it until later."
"I have the records of the Hua women who were in imperial and noble households in Jinlin," Mei Changsu said.
Ting Sheng felt that he would never get used to how his old teacher simply knew things. "Oh," he said. "Was my mother a Hua woman?" he asked.
"And why are you bothered by this?"
"Because-" he started, then looked down and away from his old teacher. When he set out on his journey, he knew very well that more than anything else, he was running away from the truth. "It was a Hua woman who caused Xia Jiang to plot with Xie Yu against Marshal Lin Xie and-and Crown Prince Qi."
It felt disrespectful to refer to his birth father in that way, but he had already made that mistake once.
"Not true. Qin Banruo was an ally of Xia Jiang, but the conspiracy was solely the work of Xia Jiang and Xie Yu, and they had counted on the late emperor's paranoia for the conspiracy to be successful. However," here the change in Mei Changsu's voice caused Ting Sheng to look up, and meet that enigmatic gaze, "because of the events twenty years ago, you have lost the place that ought to be rightfully yours."
"N-no!" he exclaimed, even though he could not help remembering the initial hours of what-could-have-beens with mortification. "I am not-" He forced himself to take a deep breath. "Crown Prince Qi is already dead. The fewer people who know my birth identity, the better."
"Are you certain you wish that? You are an imperial prince, but to the world, you will never be made crown prince, as only Jingyan's own sons have the birthright."
He found strength to shake his head. "Even if I had entertained such thoughts, it would divide Da Liang in two, and I could not do that." He thought back to the years when Mei Changsu had been in Jinlin, to the time he left. Young as he was, he could not help but be aware of the vicious infighting for the throne that had been ongoing, and he had seen the effects of the attempted coup by then Prince Yu. "I think there is no such thing 'rightful' place," he said slowly. "Teacher Mei, even if those events had not happened, there is no guarantee that I would have the virtue to deserve a greater position."
He saw the hint of a smile on Mei Changsu's face. "Virtue?" Mei Changsu echoed. "I wonder if that's from Brother Qi or Jingyan."
Mei Changsu's smile widened, and for a moment, he was the kindly, yet strict teacher that Ting Sheng remembered. "I'm glad you are here, Ting Sheng."
The emperor of Da Liang did not travel privately, and even if he did, it would not be to Langzhou, which was many weeks of travel away, even by the fastest carriage and ship. Besides, even the leader of the powerful Jiangzhou Alliance could be said to be subject to the emperor, even if he came incognito.
If 'incognito' meant being accompanied by well-hidden agents of the Alliance throughout the entire journey, with only a pale-faced youth for a bodyguard. Or being granted an audience to the emperor immediately. Then again, it could be said that 'Mister Su Zhe' was not exactly a stranger to the court.
If the palace guards were allowed to gossip, they would surely have had a field day with the way the emperor had unceremoniously ordered them out of the great hall. Since the imperial prince returned from an unscheduled trip outside of Jinlin a month ago, the emperor had clearly been waiting for someone. And the announcement of Su Zhe had raised eyebrows among the older guards.
After the first exclamation, conversation had grown quieter inside.
"And you're still keeping secrets up your sleeve, Sir Mei. Even I did not know that Ting Sheng's mother was a Hua woman."
"At that time, there were plenty of Hua women who had entered royal households as concubines and servants. You ought to be glad of that. It was probably because his mother was a Hua that she had the skills and connections to ensure his survival. Besides, as far I as I knew, she took no part in the conspiracy against Brother Qi. I thought it was better to let sleeping dogs die."
"Are you certain that the plot involving Ting Sheng has been resolved?"
"That was why I came to Jinlin personally."
"It seems like Hua plots will never end."
Mei Changsu bowed. "Old hatreds die hard," he said, "but for what it's worth, I believe that after this, there will be very few left who will see it as a priority to restore the Hua, or at least, they will no longer target Ting Sheng to do so in the future."
The emperor made a sound of acknowledgement, then renewed his glare. "If it weren't for this mess with Ting Sheng, you would never have contacted me."
"You have been fine without me."
"Xiao-shu!" It was very nearly a shout.
Mei Changsu shrugged. "Lin Chen has done much for me, but he cannot work miracles. I still do not expect to live a long life, Jingyan. I do not wish to disrupt your life."
The exasperated sigh and rolled eyes was at least familiar. "You- but we are friends. It would not be a disruption. Even if you persist in returning to your identity as Mei Changsu, haven't you thought that I might like to see you again?"
Mei Changsu smiled, then sobered for a moment. "Jingyan, by the time you were made crown prince, the whole world knew that I was the one who helped you there. Do you think that the virtuous, upright officials in your court today would look kindly upon your continued association with someone who is known for his amoral and manipulative plotting?"
"But I- that was why I wanted to restore you as Lin Shu!" the emperor said gruffly.
"And as I reminded you, it would be too confusing for people to accept that Lin Shu had come back to life, since my appearance has changed so drastically."
"-would be nothing more than a fantastic tale to most people."
The emperor narrowed his eyes. "Do you know, you are the only one who will defy me these days?"
Mei Changsu bowed, "Your majesty, I would not dare defy you. But it will not be a wise decision. As your loyal subject and-" he paused significantly, "-your friend, I must insist."
The emperor regarded his best friend. "I see that there is no persuading you. You are just as stubborn as you have always been."
Mei Changsu said nothing.
"Come and see Mother before you leave Jinling, then."