The city of Jinling was famed for its royal brilliance, with the Royal Palace of the Emperor of Liang at its centre. After exiting the South Victory Gate and following a slanted red brick road, one would find themselves before an exquisite manor, independent yet seemingly one with the palace.
The manor is not extraordinarily large, yet a dire mistake would be made should one deduce the owner of the manor by its size. The main gate of the manor was closed year-round. Above them hung a pure black sign with gold edges. The sign reads, “Manor of Liyang”.
Princess Liyang, the only living sister of the Emperor, the wife of the Marquess of Ning.
Everyone in the capital with some years to their names could clearly remember the grand occasion of the Princess’s marriage that stirred up the city. The couple who gazed upon the commoners atop the Phoenix Building could be accurately described as a hero and a beauty. Twenty-four years flew by, and the couple remains attentive and loving. They reared three sons and one daughter, all of whom are intelligent and respectful. This was the perfect model family in everyone’s eyes.
According to the customs of the royal family, Xie Yu should have relocated to the Princess’s manor after marriage, and be referred to as a “Prince Consort” rather than “Marquess”. The late Empress Dowager did not approve of Princess missing the joys of family life without due to her high status. In accordance with the Princess’s own wishes as well, she moved into the Manor of the Marquess of Ning after their marriage and paid proper respects to her father- and mother-in-laws. The Princess was dignified and virtuous in nature. She ordered servants to refer to her as Madam within the manor, being especially strict in this regard with her own servants. Later, Xie Yu was decorated for his military feats, elevating further within the Royal Court. As the Princess kept a constant low profile, people slowly became accustomed to seeing the relationship as “Marquess” and “Marchioness”, rather than what should have been “Princess” and “Prince Consort”.
This Manor of Liyang was constructed when the Princess was fifteen and had been left idle since her marriage. Princess Liyang felt it a pity to leave the manor vacant, so she ordered all types of unique plants and flowers to be nurtured there. The manor was fragrant year-round, and was a top attraction within the capital. Royal Concubines and noble ladies frequently requested to sightsee during flowering seasons. The Princess would rest there for a few days to pay respect to Buddha, or to accompany the visiting Grand Empress Dowager.
Their mother happened to be staying at her manor when Xiao Jingrui and Xie Bi returned from their journey,
In the early morning, the two brothers obeyed their father’s command and went to greet the Princess at the Manor of Liyang, then escorted her royal carriage back to the Manor of the Marquess of Ning. As the old Marquess and Marchioness have passed away, there was no need to greet them. Princess Liyang instructed the party to return straight to her usual dwellings in the main building of the inner courtyard.
The party walked along the corridor, passing by the side courtyard. Sweet osmanthus trees were planted along the walls, which had some late blooms and lingering fragrance. Princess Liyang slowed down, apparently enjoying the fragrance in the breeze. Right at that moment, a whisper of guqin travelled over the walls. The music was indistinct as it came from quite some distance, but the tone was clear and spirited, whisking the listeners away to a greater realm.
“Who is playing the guqin? The musician is remarkably talented.”
Xiao Jingrui leaned over for a closer listen. After a moment, he replied, “This is a friend of mine. His name is Su Zhe. Upon my invitation, he came to Jinling to rest and recuperate. He is currently staying at the Snow Cottage.”
“Does Mother wish to meet him?” asked Xie Bi quickly.
Princess Liyang smiled softly. “Since he is Jingrui’s friend, he is naturally under the care of you two. Why would there be a need to meet me?”
“But it’s hard to hear the music properly here. Why don’t I ask Su to come to the inner courtyard to play for Mother?” suggested Xie Bi.
Princess Liyang frowned slightly, but her voice was still gentle. “Bi, this Mr. Su is a guest here, not some entertainer to summon here and there. If it is meant to be, I will hear him play again. If fate dictates otherwise, then it cannot be forced.”
Xiao Jingrui felt similarly to Princess Liyang at his brother’s suggestion, and was rather upset. However, as their mother has already rejected the idea, he decided to stay silent. Of course, it was not Xie Bi’s intention to be rude. He was accustomed to having people oblige his mother’s wishes due to her high status, and didn’t really think about his suggestion. His face flushed from the resulting rebuke.
They arrived at the main building of the inner courtyard. Princess Liyang sat down on a long couch by the window. She was naturally clever, and her perceptive eyes saw that her sons appeared to have other matters to attend to, and did not keep them for long. After some idle chatter, she sent the two away.
Due to the circumstances of his birth, Xiao Jingrui had long since renounced his right to the Marquess title, insisting the inheritance for Xie Bi instead. As Xie Bi grew older, it became evident that he was better than his brother in political affairs and managing relations. For the past few years, the Marquess of Ning has been delegating the majority of the family affairs to Xie Bi and having him be the representative in many important occasions. Thus, Xie Bi was constantly under a pile of work, and disappeared as soon as he left the inner courtyard. The comparatively idle Xiao Jingrui instead rushed to the Snow Cottage.
Mei Changsu had abandoned the guqin and was reading under a tree. He raised his head and smiled brightly towards the courtyard entrance when he heard hurried footsteps. Spots of sunlight slipped between leaves to dance softly upon his face, making the smile appear exceedingly radiant.
Xiao Jingrui smiled as well, and gave a slight bow in greeting. He asked, “Did Su rest well last night?”
“Were you worried that I won’t be able to sleep well?” Mei Changsu motioned for him to bring a chair over to sit. “I’m not picky with my beds. I only slept in due to staying up late, thinking about the ‘huge event’ Yujin spoke of. Feiliu said that you came here in the morning as well?”
“Mhmm.” Xiao Jingrui looked around, “Where’s Feiliu?”
“Oh, I let him go play outside since it’s his first time in Jinling,” answered Mei Changsu mildly.
Xiao Jingrui broke out in a cold sweat. Although Feiliu was mentally a child, his combat skills were those of a master. What a daring person Mei Changsu was, to allow Feiliu to go play so easily.
“Don’t worry, our Feiliu wouldn’t cause any disturbances.” Mei Changsu smiled, as if reading Xiao Jingrui’s mind. “With his skills, he can disappear in a flash even if he made a mess. People wouldn’t be able to come trouble this manor.”
“You know I’m not concerned about being troubled,” defended Xiao Jingrui with a smile, “Su is attaching false blame on me again.”
Mei Changsu didn’t respond. Instead, he knocked on the table and said, “Since you’re here, why don’t we battle a bit in a game of Go?”
Xiao Jingrui stood up immediately and went indoors to fetch a Go set. He set up the game on a stone table under the tree. Even though Mei Changsu was incredibly talented, he is not perfect, at least not in his skills in Go. Xiao Jingrui had perfect understandings of his capabilities from their trip together. He did require full power to force Mei Changsu to frown in deep thought and slowly contemplate his next move.
Three rounds later, Mei Changsu was in absolute defeat. Xiao Jingrui laughed while clearing the mess of stones, “Su, although you’re not bad at Go, you don’t have an instinct for counting. I can safely boast that you won’t be able to win against me in this lifetime.”
“Don’t get haughty now. Just wait until I teach Feiliu, he’ll be making you cry. Feiliu’s mind is not as bright and complicated as others, but his focus is astonishing. Out of all the people I know, no one can compare with him in that regard.”
Xiao Jingrui ignored his attempt to preserve dignity, and raised his head to look outside. He asked, “Where did you send Feiliu? It’s already noon now, and he hasn’t returned.”
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