A traditional Chinese balcony, fully integrated with the indoor space
Mei Changsu’s initial misjudgment over the Princess Nihuang incident rose Prince Jing’s suspicion of his character.
Thus he laid ground rules for their cooperation: you may play party politics, but you must not hurt the people who spilled their blood and risked their lives to defend the nation.
Mei Changsu was deeply hurt.
Snow Cottage’s courtyard in Marquis Xie’s mansion
Marquis Xie, the host of the Snow Cottage, was secretly working for Crown Prince. After the Princess Nihuang incident, he called in a kung fu man to assassinate his guest, Mei Changsu.
“If we can’t make him work for us, we must destroy him,” he explained to his in-law, the head of the kung fu sector Celestial Spring Villa.
Princess Nihuang introduced an alternative garden residence to Mei Changsu
Mei Changsu was fully aware of his dangerous situation, so he decided to move out.
Hearing the news, Princess Nihuang was the first to offer her help.
A rundown traditional Chinese garden residence with an outdoor theatre
The garden residence recommended by Princess Nihuang was way too big for a single man without a family.
After going through a pile of promotional brochures sent to him by various real estate agencies, he eventually picked a rundown garden residence that had been unoccupied for a number of years and looked more like a haunted ghost house than anything else.
It turned out indeed to be a ghost house: more than a dozen female skeletons were discovered in an old well during the site inspection by him and his two loyal friends, Jingrui and Yujin.
A traditional Chinese commercial street at night – the white stripes were signboards, one marked as a garment shop, another as a hotel, and the small one at the left specifies as a bar with the character “wine” on the board.
A team of police detectives was called in to recover the evidence from the well and record the Mei Changsu group’s testimony.
After all, matters were settled down, the sky grew dark. Mei Changsu walked through a commercial street to return to the Snow Cottage.
But he was attacked on the way by three kung fu men. Fortunately, once again, he was saved by his teenage bodyguard and Royal Guards Commander Meng Zhi, as the two were always somewhere nearby whenever he went out.
An ancient Chinese city mayor’s office
Upon preliminary investigation, it is found the garden residence was used as a private brothel catering for high government officials who were prohibited by law to publically visit such venues.
The further probe also revealed that the Minister of Civic Work was one of the chief patrons and responsible for the death of three girls working there.
An escort agency in ancient China; a covered carriage waiting at the front gate for the call girl to meet her client
Escort agency Red Sleeve Seduction was headed by call girl Lady Qin. But she only answered one man’s call, that was Prince Yu, and the nature of their meeting was never anything else but purely politics. She was actually Prince Yu’s top political consultant and her Red Sleeve Seduction was, in fact, an all-women spy agency.
Now the top-ranking call girl was on her way to attend an urgent meeting with Prince Yu. They were going to deliver a crushing blow to Crown Prince.
The music parlour Wonderful Tune Studio was also a secret spy agency, but it worked for Mei Changsu. The targets of their surveillance included the Red Sleeve Seduction located on the opposite side of the street.
In ancient China, there was always a pair of drums in front of the city or county office. Anyone who wanted to launch a lawsuit could beat a drum, and the head of the city or county would have to hear the case immediately upon hearing the beating sound.
Prince Yu and his call girl consultant successfully motioned the former private brothel’s filekeeper to launch a lawsuit.
In classic China, a lawsuit was considered the last resort in any dispute resolution and the plaintiff could receive severe punishment if his case was deemed as not worth a hearing.
The city mayor promptly attended to the file keeper’s case and asked whom he was accusing.
“No one, Your Honour,” the file keeper replied.
“Are you making fun of me?” the mayor was furious and called his officers, “Boys!”
“Yeah Sir!” the officers lifted their cudgels.
“Give him 20 sticks to teach him a lesson.”
“Wait, Your Honour,” the file keeper cried out, “I come to turn myself in.”
And that was how the link between the Civil Minister and the female skeletons was publicly exposed. As a result, Crown Prince lost his most valuable ally in the cabinet.
Having escaped several assassination attempts from his host, Mei Changsu eventually moved into his own garden residence away from Marquis Xie’s mansion but adjacent to that of Prince Jing.
However, since the entrances to the two properties were located on different streets on the two sides of the city, no one would suspect a close relationship between the two households.
A tunnel was dug out linking the premises, which allowed the king-would-be and the kingmaker to meet secretly.
The front entrance to Mei Changsu’s garden residence
Prince Yu was the first to personally congratulate the new owner of this moderate garden residence that was titled Su House.
The sitting area of Mei Changsu’s garden residence
Since Mei Changsu destroyed Crown Prince’s chief cabinet ally by discovering the female skeletons in a former private brothel, Prince Yu was convinced the man was standing by his side and thus formally invited him to join his team.
Mei Changsu did not decline, and offered the prince his first advice: If Prince Yu wanted to fulfill his political aspiration, he would need a powerful ally within the royal family, therefore, he should help a marginalized Prince Jing to rise to prominence.
Like his father, the emperor, and his older brother, the crown prince, Prince Yu never liked Prince Jing and regarded him as an idiot. But he believed in Mei Changsu and decided to follow his advice.
Prince Yu expressed his gratitude to Mei Changsu in a traditional Chinese way
Not realizing the political master that Mei Changsu actually worked for was not him but Prince Jing, Prince Yu sincerely thanked the consultant for his advice and promised he would do his best to help Prince Jing to secure a better position in the government.
Looking into Su House from the entrance: a space that is loosely divided by gateways and verandahs creates rich visual layers
When walking the guest to the front gate, Mei Changsu offered to visit Prince Jing on behalf of Prince Yu with the objective to forge a political liaison between the two brothers.
Prince Yu was terribly moved by Mei Changsu’s commitment to his course.
Prince Yu’s royal-style horse-drawn carriage
Since then, Prince Yu became the most frequent visitor to the Su House and, before long, everybody in the capital knew Mei Changsu was working for Prince Yu.
Mei Changsu’s bedding area in his open-plan residence
That night, Mei Changsu dug out his precious “Golden Silk Soft Armor”, which was made of metal threads, as his gift to Prince Jing’s adopted son when he visited Prince Jing for the first time after he returned to the capital.
The boy was actually the son of the original crown prince, who was sentenced to death for the alleged crime of being disloyal to the throne.
“Twelve years, twelve years have passed …. yet nothing has changed,” Mei Changsu moaned when he arrived at the front gate of Prince Jing’s mansion the next day.
In Prince Jing’s private meeting room, Mei Changsu noticed a familiar bow hanging on the wall like a souvenir. Yet when he stretched out his hand towards the weapon, he was stopped by Prince Jing.
“Do touch it!” the prince warned sternly. “It’s from my late friend. He didn’t like his weapon to be touched by strangers.”
Mei Changsu was wakened up by the warning. He knew Prince Jing’s best friend was Lin Su.
“Sorry …” he apologized.
After the purge of the Civic Minister, the power balance in the cabinet has tipped heavily towards Prince Yu.
Thus one day when the only son of the Personnel Minister visited a brothel, he was told the two sisters he wanted to meet were not available to see him at the moment.
The Personnel Minister was the chief cabinet ally of Prince Yu, and his son was known as a bully of the first order in the capital and had once bashed his boy servant to death in a fit of rage. But since he had a powerful daddy, he was never charged with the killing.
It was somehow super convenient for the son of the Personnel Minister to discover that the two sisters did not take sick leave but were drinking wine in a VIP room with the son of a retired high official, also a murderous bully in the capital.
Felt humiliated, the son of the Personal Minister bashed his rival to death.
The killer received the death penalty while his father the Personnel Minister was also prosecuted, along with the Law Minister, for plotting to send a homeless man who looked like the accused to the execution ground.
The crown prince and his military ally Marquis Xie were celebrating Prince Yu’s misfortune of losing two key allies in the cabinet.
The meeting hall was always the most imposing building in the Chinese palace
It is a long-held tradition in China for an emperor to host daily cabinet meetings with his ministers, consultants and other high officials.
The meetings were usually conducted in the early morning when the first light from the sun reached the palace (or the equivalent time on cloudy or rainy days), and the officials would have to wait at the front entrance of the palace before dawn every day.
In the meeting hall, the officials stood at two sides, but when someone needed to conduct a dialogue with the emperor or debate before the throne, he would have to step out of the row and come to the floor in the middle.
The white slips the officials and generals held in their arms during the cabinet meeting were inscribed with their name and position, serving as a personal ID
Now since Prince Yu lost two ministers and a military commander, the political balance tipped back towards the crown prince again, so Mei Changsu decided it was time to get rid of the Culture Minister, the crown prince’s other chief ally in the cabinet.
Thus Prince Yu, following Mei Changsu’s advice, motioned a consultant to table a bill accusing the Culture Minister of neglecting his duty by arranging an inappropriate annual prayer presentation that favoured the crown prince’s mother, and proposed to invite the kingdom’s top scholars to join the debate on the matter in a cabinet meeting.
The scholarly debate before the throne over an issue that high officials could not agree upon with each other is also a Chinese tradition, and the emperor had no choice but to grant Prince Yu’s proposal.
While Prince Yu was busy to secure the emperor’s permission for a cabinet debate, Mei Changsu made a time to appreciate plum blossoms in Princess Nihuang’s private garden.
“I know you’re unhappy with the emperor’s decision to pardon the crown prince’s mother,” Mei Changsu expressed his sympathy to Princess Nihuang.
The princess was previously drugged by the woman. On top of the emperor’s lenient penalty for the offense committed by his favourite wife, the Culture Minister, the ally of the crown prince, further proposed to restore the woman’s presence at the annual prayer ceremony next to the emperor.
“I can help you prevent Crown Prince’s mother from being restored to her former glory, but I need your brother’s help.”
Princess Nihuang readily agreed and got a note handwritten by Mei Changsu.
The traditional Chinese way of addressing an envelope
After Mei Changsu left, Princess Nihuang returned to her bedroom and fetched a letter she kept for more than 12 years.
It was a letter sent to her by her fiance Lin Shu.
She compared the handwriting on the old envelope and the note freshly produced by Mei Changsu…..
They looked so different.
“I must be crazy,” she questioned her own sanity.
The pair of cone-shaped earthen structures capped with a tiled roof served as a symbolic gateway for the city of capital in ancient China
With Mei Changsu’s letter and a jade cicada, Princess Nihuang’s brother successfully invited the kingdom’s most prestigious Confucius scholar to join the debate. As a result, the Culture Minister lost his position for deliberately misleading the throne and the cabinet.
The old scholar was promised that the man who wrote the note and sent the jade cicada to him would meet him at a pavilion outside the city.
The owner of the note and the cicada met the old scholar at the roadside but the scholar found he didn’t know the man at all.
“From where did you get this cicada?” the scholar questioned.
“From my late teacher,” Mei Changsu replied.
“I met all his best students, but I don’t remember ever seeing you?”
Mei Changsu’s teacher was the emperor’s top consultant and the old scholar’s sworn friend. For the original crown prince’s audacity to question the emperor’s decision, to defend the interest of the common people against the establishment and to have a good relationship with Marshall Lin Xie, the commander of the kingdom’s most formidable military force, he was suspected by the emperor, disliked by many in the cabinet, feared by the privileged, and hated by the powerful legal professionals.
So a conspiracy was plotted, and the original crown prince and Marshall Lin Xie were ruthlessly destroyed along with 70,000 Red Flame Amy officers, based on the false accusations of treason, of staging a political coup, of abusing their power and of bribery and corruption.
Their wives died, and their children were either killed or forced to live in disguise.
All those who defended the crown prince and the marshall’s innocence were either killed, jailed, fired, or forced to leave their office. And Mei Changsu’s teacher was one of them — he walked out of the capital Jinling and vowed never to return because there was nobody there deserving his service.
Mei Changsu told the old scholar since he attended his late teacher’s studio at a rather late stage and he was not a particularly bright student, the old scholar might fail to notice his presence.
The old scholar signed. “Now I returned to the capital to help one prince against another since I promised my old pal as long as I saw his cicada, I would answer the call …… But I’m not sure whether he would approve my today’s action of meddling in the state affairs that he determined to leave behind.”
Mei Changsu replied, “Everything in the world is the expression of Dao. Whether we are living as a hermit in the wilderness or working in a government office, as long as our heart is pure, our words are true, we are doing Dao’s work.”
The traditional Chinese way of receiving a gift from one’s senior
The old scholar was awed by Mei Changsu’s answer. “Do you know why your teacher loved cicadas?”
Mei Changsu returned with an ancient verse: Cicadas chirping at the top of the tree, not for being seen, just enjoying singing.
“Give me your hand,” the old scholar demanded, and solemnly placed the jade cicada on Mei Changsu’s palms. “You’re the best person to keep it.”
Since the time of the First Emperor of Qin 2,200 years ago, the road system in China was regulated and horse-drawn carriages were standardized to allow postmen, military troops, merchant caravans and everyone in the kingdom to travel at relative ease.
Along the government-built roads, pavilions for travellers to take a rest when feeling tired, to take shelter from the storm, were structured every few kilometres.
The old scholar bided his farewell to Mei Changsu. But before leaving, he paused and signed again, “You remind me of Lin Shu, your teacher’s most bright student.”
Lin Shu was the son of Marshall Lin Xie and the young marshal of the Red Flame Army.
“He’s about the same age as you. If he is still alive, you two would be like a pair of con columns before the capital … Pity I’ll never have a chance to see him again!”
Mei Changsu’s face turned pale.
The old scholar left, but Princess Nihuang appeared.
Mei Changsu told her she didn’t need to come in such cold weather to see off the old scholar. “I’m here to say goodbye to him and that would be enough.”
“I’m not coming here to see him but you,” Princess Nihuang replied. “Why a great hermit who couldn’t bother to meet anyone would answer your call? Who are you exactly?”
“Yes, as you’ve suspected, I’m a wanted man,” Mei Changsu admitted bluntly, “a survivor of the Red Flame Army.”
“Then you must know Lin Shu?” Princess Nihuang pursued.
“I did,” Mei Changsu admitted again. “He was my commander.”
“Did he really die in the fire?”
“He did, in Plum Valley 12 years ago.”
“Not even a piece of bone from him to be found?”
“70,000 badly burned bodies … no way you could tell which bones belonged to Lin Shu.”
Princess Nihuang surveyed Mei Changsu’s face. “You said he was your commander, if so, why did you address him by name?”
“Name or official title, they are all just symbols … nothing really matters,” Mei Changsu struggled to explain. He struggled because he knew it mattered a great deal in Chinese culture.
In Chinese tradition, it was (and still is) disrespectful for a junior to address his/her seniors in the family, workplace or general community, by name. In ancient times, the Chinese would avoid writing or speaking out the character that formed part of their parents’ given name.
Tears streamed down Princess Nihuang’s face.
“Although your face changed completely, I still can tell who you are.” She went to hug the man tight. “Please don’t leave me again, Lin Shu, my love.”
Nirvana in Fire (2): A Wanted Man