When Liu An had come to be examined for betrothal to the new Crown Prince, she had been a little nervous, but mostly excited. She was not one of the great beauties of the realm, had never even imagined appearing on the List, but she was thoroughly schooled in managing a household, was a reasonable musician with a flute, was even judged fairly deft at body services. She represented quite a good political alliance. And, her own close-held secret, she had actually met Prince Jing. She knew better than to place too much weight on that, but being rescued from bandits certainly made more of an impression than anyone else her parents had spoken of betrothing her to!
So she’d bowed deferentially under the cool, lovely eyes of her prospective mother-in-law, answered her questions softly, and hoped. And, indeed, fate seemed to favor this chance of hers. When she heard she was the one chosen, she’d been nothing but excited, delighted, holding her mother’s hands and laughing at the news.
It wasn’t until she stood before her newly betrothed that she felt a faint shiver of alarm up her spine.
She had not expected to be particularly noticed, that day at the monastery; he’d been seeing to his men, speaking to the priests, had spared no more than a glance to be sure she was not injured. Everyone knew Prince Jing was a man of action, so she hadn’t been surprised. But even here, in the outer rooms of the Eastern Palace, somewhere that should be a place of repose and even triumph for him… he was so stern. His eyes saw her when he looked at her, yes, but he only looked for a moment before turning away again—courteous, but so distant. Intimidated, she spoke only formal words of pleasure, and he spoke brief, equally formal words of welcome, and then he was gone, striding out the doors like someone shrugging out of a cloak, and Liu An bit her lip.
Consort Jing’s arm settled warm around her shoulders, and when she looked up, the Lady wore a small, rueful smile, so she dared to ask, “Mother, is my husband-to-be displeased?”
“Not displeased, child. Simply… distracted.”
Men of the military families were taught to track the movements of armies, but women who were meant for the court were taught to track other things: the flicker of an eye, the passing word, the shift of weight that could say where thoughts marched. Liu An had learned her lessons well; she heard the delicate emphasis Lady Jing placed on her words, and her heart sank. She looked down at her clasped hands and murmured, “Is there another?”
This close, she could feel her mother-in-law’s sigh. “He is Crown Prince, and likely to be Emperor; much of his attention will always be given to his people. As for his heart… even I did not realize how much of that was given to his young cousin until xiao-Shu was gone.” She held Liu An a little closer and murmured into her ear, “If you can be here for him and not reproach him, and accept how much of him is given to his kingdom, his people, the brother of his heart, then it will be well. I believe you can do this. It’s why I chose you.”
Liu An took a breath, heartened by that; it was not another woman she would need to contend with for control of the household. Rather, from what Lady Jing said, it was only that her husband-to-be was a man of duty and… and, perhaps, of grief, if his heart’s brother was gone. “I will, Mother,” she answered stoutly.
It was not difficult, to start with. Her husband-to-be was stern, yes, and reserved, and focused on many things that were not her, but he was courteous when they met, and she started to know how to look for the little easing in the straight line of his mouth that meant he was pleased. Liu An attended closely to her mother-in-law’s quiet directions and demonstrations of what made her son’s relentlessly straight shoulders relax a little. And the Lady was very kind to her. She started to find that Lady Jing’s gentle smiles, when she succeeded in some small thing, like the first time she made hazelnut pastries that the Crown Prince liked, made her almost as happy as they made the Lady’s son. The first time she and her husband-to-be smiled at each other, awkward but sweet for all that, was when Lady Jing kindly complimented her tea brewing in the Prince’s hearing, and Liu An looked away, delighted and a little flustered, only to catch his eye.
Though she had no idea why the Lady’s remark that they both disliked strong tea, so perhaps Liu An would let him have as much water as he really liked should make his gaze turn distant again.
As the days passed, she found herself increasingly in awe of Consort Jing, her knowledge of the court, the graceful calm with which she spoke to this maid, that eunuch, another consort, and thereby opened the way before her son and his advisors, broad and smooth with the good will or self-interest of everyone around them. She attended to these subtle lessons, also, though she doubted she would ever be the master Lady Jing was. And the day Lady Jing laid a quiet hand on her shoulder and murmured in her ear exactly who her long-time nurse was beholden to, Liu An clasped her hands tight together and smiled.
"I will take the utmost care in choosing my attendants," she murmured. "And I’m sure my house’s guards can secure everything that needs to be brought here to the Palace." The tiny, satisfied smile the Lady gave her at her faint emphasis on ‘everything’ made her heart nearly burst with pride.
Making her first moves in the game of court, rather than waiting for another to move her, making a successful move, she understood a little better how some people let themselves be drawn so very deeply into that game. She understood it, but she could not entirely approve of where that so often led (only look at where it had led the Empress and Consort Yue!), and she thought her husband felt the same. And once the wedding was past and she began to take hold of the Eastern Palace as her household, she began to wonder at how often she saw the scholar, Su Zhe, visiting her lord. She knew the whispers of him, of course; who didn’t, after the past few years? The genius strategist, the Qilin scholar, the one behind the rise of the old Crown Prince, of Prince Yu, and then of her husband.
Thinking on what had become of the first two men, she couldn’t help but feel some trepidation. Was her husband only the most recent in some longer game? Would he go down the same way, dropped from this man’s hand when his use was done? Eventually, unable to tell for herself what Su Zhe meant to do, this man who walked so softly and casually through her house, who smiled at her, faint and distracted, and nodded courteously, but whose glance was so sharp it felt like it should slice her skin each time it fell, even glancingly, on her, she went to Lady Jing.
“Su Zhe?” The Lady blinked at her, hand actually paused on her cup, seeming genuinely startled.
“I’m probably being foolish,” Liu An murmured, looking down at the delicate, greenware pot as she set it down, carefully aligned in its corner of the tray. “You must surely have thought of all this already. I just… my lord…” Gentle fingers touched her cheek, and she looked up to find her mother-in-law smiling, affectionate and yet sad. So very sad, and Liu An caught her breath on the sudden understanding of how deep that melancholy that often hung around Lady Jing like an old, faint scent must truly run. “Mother…?” she whispered.
“Be at ease, child,” Lady Jing said, softly. “There is nothing in that man that is capable of betraying Jingyan.”
Liu An nodded slowly, still uncertain. She knew Lady Jing had greater understanding of the situation than she did, but this was so counter to everything she had ever heard of Su Zhe. Her mother-in-law’s smile lightened a little with amusement, and she patted Liu An’s hand. “Here.” She called one of her ladies to bring her a stacked, lacquer box, and set it on the table before Liu An. “Bring them some sweets, today, and watch a little. I think you will see.”
Liu An straightened; this was a lesson, then. “Yes, Mother,” she murmured, gathering her robes to take her leave, taking the box of sweets with her.
Sure enough, Su Zhe was announced that afternoon, and she waited until her husband called for tea, minding her breathing to hold down her nerves. Both men looked up with some surprise when she accompanied the tea in, but as soon as Su Zhe’s eye fell on the box in her hands he smiled, faint but knowing. Liu An tried not to feel like a transparent screen as she bowed and answered her husband’s raised brows with, “Your lady Mother sends these, my lord.”
As she knelt to unpack the delicate sweets and lay them out, Su Zhe’s smile deepened at the corners, and he slid her husband a sidelong look. “Still no hazelnut. Are you going to perish from the lack, yet?”
A sudden smile, albeit half stifled, broke over her husband’s face, startlingly bright, and only years of training kept Liu An’s hands moving smoothly as he elbowed Su Zhe without looking at him, and Su Zhe elbowed him back, both of them positively grinning. She stood in a bit of a daze at this sudden, so very clear friendship between them, holding on to her countenance with her fingernails, and bowed herself out. Her husband’s nod was kind but thoroughly distracted, all his focus on the man beside him.
“I’m sure Mother simply doesn’t want to deal with xiao-Shu complaining over having to spend a week in bed after encountering them,” he said as she turned to go, clearly teasing. That, in itself, was a sufficient shock, coming from her stern, reserved husband, that she didn’t register what he’d called Su Zhe until she was nearly at the door.
A relation, if he was still using diminutives at this age, her social training supplied in calm reflex, regardless of the disorientation of her thoughts. One he was close to, likely had grown up with. Genealogies unfolded before her mind’s eye, the families connected by marriage to the royal line: Yan, Xie, Lin, though no one spoke aloud of that now, of the disgraced family that had seemed so secure and so gifted with talent…
She had to catch herself against the edge of the room’s open screens at the shock of that name surfacing. It shouldn’t be possible, the whole family had died, but that was the only Shu she could think of that Xiao Jingyan would speak to so familiarly. And hadn’t Lin Shu been hailed as a genius? She glanced over her shoulder at them, and got another shock; Su Zhe (Lin Shu?) was looking back at her.
He held her eyes for one long moment, and then gave her a tiny smile and a deliberate nod, and yet another shock ran through her.
He had let her see this.
It had been he who started the teasing exchange in her presence, showed her how close he must be to her husband, possibly (probably!) even known that would prompt the Prince to use that old, familiar name. And had, apparently, judged her accurately enough to know she would be able to unravel the name. And had confirmed all of this in no more than a nod. She clutched the screen’s frame, feeling a little faint, the way she had the first time she’d truly understood the reach of Lady Jing’s influence and control, in the Palace.
It was the memory of her mother-in-law that steadied her, though, because she heard again the Lady’s quiet words, in her mind. There is nothing in him that is capable of betraying Jingyan. She clung to the memory of those words, even as the scope of what her husband might be planning started to expand alarmingly in her mind, and drew herself up, resettled calm around her like a fine robe. When she dipped another bow to the man watching her, straight-backed, she thought she saw a glint of approval in his eyes before he turned back to her husband.
So there were two masters of this deadly game who stood behind her husband, she thought as she walked away. So be it, then.
It wasn’t until she’d gone to bed, that night, settling herself under the summer-light coverlet, that she remembered where she’d heard the name “xiao-Shu” before—it had been when Lady Jing was telling her of her husband’s beloved cousin, who had been lost, and her mouth tilted ruefully in the darkness. No wonder he brightened so, when Su Zhe teased him. Well, at least this answered her unvoiced question—whether the Crown Prince truly intended to force the issue of the Chiyan case. He almost certainly did, if the one Lady Jing had called the brother of his heart had returned from death itself to stand beside him and demand justice. She turned over, pulling the cover closer around her shoulders. It would be dangerous; she remembered whispers of what had happened to those who tried to defend Lin or Prince Qi, and death had been the kindest outcome. She couldn’t deny the fear that wrapped around her throat, when she thought of that. And yet…
Wasn’t justice right? Wasn’t the bright, unyielding conviction of that one of the things she admired in her husband? And hadn’t she thought, just this afternoon, that two masters had both bent their thoughts and skill to this end, supporting him? Very well, then; so would she, as was only right and proper.
Her husband’s unbending integrity was a measure she thought she could willingly raise her children to, and thinking that, she smiled into the darkness and returned Lin Shu’s quiet nod, firmly.
Liu An stood in the entrance of her husband’s rooms, watching over him quietly.
She didn’t know what else she could do.
They had triumphed so greatly, politically and personally, and she had rejoiced with them—her husband, her mother-in-law, her cousin by marriage. Even now, the rest of the country celebrated their military victories, the successful defense of their borders. In these rooms, though, and in the rooms of the Lady Jing, there was grief, grief so heavy in the air she could nearly taste it.
Lin Shu was dead.
Her husband sat quietly, staring straight ahead with a still face, and a casual passer-by might only think him deep in his own thoughts. But he hadn’t moved for hours, and his eyes… she tried not to look too closely, because when she did she had to step back into the shadows of the pillared hall and wrestle back her own tears.
“My lady?” It was Zhao Fang beside her, one of the attendants she’d brought from home, hand hovering under her elbow. She must look in need of it, Liu An supposed.
“I’m well,” she murmured, and a tiny smile tugged at her mouth, at the frankly dubious look on Zhao Fang’s face as she bowed acknowledgment.
“My lady…” Zhao Fang hesitated but finally rushed out, very softly, “My lady, have you told him? It might… it might comfort him.”
Liu An laid her palm against her stomach, biting her lip. They’d only been sure this month, and already the flurry was starting among her attendants, to ensure the harmony of her surroundings and the well-being of her developing child. But the news from the border had come before she could tell her husband. Would this news help, here and now?
She found herself thinking of the man she’d only met a few times, of how his spirit had burned in him, a cloak of fire laid over shoulders that had always been bent under the weight of illness. Even without Lady Jing’s great learning in medicine, Liu An had seen that weight, and honestly been a little frightened by the force of will that drove forward despite it. And yet, even in the midst of all that burning will, he had still teased his cousin, reassured her, been mindful of the hearts around him.
Liu An did not yet have the knowledge or skill of Lady Jing, to match the scope of Lin Shu’s strategies, nor did she have the strength of arms to win victories in war, like Princess Nihuang. But Lin Shu’s mindfulness, that she could carry on, here and now, with nothing but what already lay in her hands. “Leave us for a while,” she told Zhao Feng, and drew a long, slow breath for calm before she turned and walked into her husband’s rooms, steps sure and steady.
It wasn’t a memorial. The time for that would be later, after clean-up had been done and they’d returned to the capital. Tonight was a different kind of tradition—soldiers still in the field, gathering to mourn the fallen at least enough to put the grief aside in the morning and go on.
“Was he always like that?” Jingrui asked, low, eyes on his cup. A ripple of something fond, if too subdued to be laughter, ran through the tent where the northern army’s officers had gathered.
“The entire battlefield at his fingertips, even when he’s in the middle of it?” Zhen Ping asked, with a faint smile. “Yes.”
“Always sure, in an instant, what you should do?” General Meng added, and tossed back his own drink. “Yes.”
“And really thinking about, well, the long term?” Yujin asked, looking around at the older men. “I felt like he wasn’t just looking at the battlefield. He was thinking, the whole time, about all the next steps, and getting everyone home, and…” He broke off, blinking hard, and took a long drink, himself.
“Yes,” Li Gang said, simply, reaching over to pour again. “Those of us left, we didn’t just follow him because we survived together. It’s that he never stopped being our Vice-Marshal. And our Vice-Marshal was always like that.”
Jingrui closed his eyes and took a deep breath, and when he let it out he felt a twist of pain he’d never been able to let go before ease a little. “I’m glad of the chance to know him, this way.” Maybe it was just the change in his own perspective or expectations, but with Lin Shu as his commander, he’d never felt that he’d been set second to anyone or anything, even when it was his unit used as bait or ordered to hold, even when they lost men doing it. Rather, he was an indispensable part of the whole that Lin Shu commanded and cared for. He was grateful for that knowledge, to hold in his heart, the last gift from the brilliant cousin who had pulled he and Yujin into manhood this past year, like it or not.
And it was Yujin who held up his cup and said, softly, “To Lin Shu, Vice-Marshal of the Chiyan Army and commander of the Northern border.”
Everyone in the tent drained their cups, and Jingrui thought that maybe his cousin’s spirit smiled on them, wry and affectionate.
Mu Nihuang had expected the letter.
Of course she had. The words on which she had parted with Lin Shu were not words spoken by a man who thought he would return.
Even so, it took a few breaths before she could force herself to reach out and take the letter held out to her by the girl at her feet, hand shaking. Both their hands were shaking.
She opened the letter only long enough for the characters "Lin Shu" and “dead” to make sense to her, and then her hand clenched on the thin paper, crushing it, and she closed her eyes against the burn of tears, trying to breathe past the pain sawing at her heart.
She had expected this, hadn’t she? Why did it hurt so much?
It wasn’t until the girl whispered, “I should go,” that she managed to regain a small grip on her composure, swallowing hard and wiping half-angry palms across her wet cheeks.
“Rest the night here, at least,” she offered, husky. “You’ve come a long way.” And then she looked down, really looked, and saw the wet tracks on the girl’s own cheeks, the trembling of her mouth, even when the girl’s teeth closed on her lower lip, obviously trying to conceal it. Softer, remembering Lin Shu’s rather plaintive complaints of how determinedly a young woman followed him, even to battle, remembering the girl she’d met just once, offering herself in place of her Chief’s friend, Mu Nihuang asked, “Gong Yu, yes?”
The hint of trepidation in her eyes, when the girl glanced up answered the question, even before she nodded slowly. Mu Nihuang took a deep breath and smiled down at her. “Stay a while, mei-mei,” she said gently, laying a hand on Gong Yu’s shoulder. “We can talk.”
The helpless widening of those eyes was reward enough for pulling herself together, as was the quick hand Gong Yu dashed across her face before looking up again and answering, hesitant and hopeful and maybe even a little awed, “Yes, jie-jie.”
Mu Nihuang knelt down and gathered Gong Yu close, laughing a little with soft, painful recognition when the girl buried her face in Mu Nihuang’s shoulder, armored as it still was, and sobbed. Yes—this she recognized very well. She stroked the loose hair falling down the girl’s back and let her own tears fall into the dark braids wrapped around Gong Yu’s head.
The sun was almost down before they got around to speaking in words, but that was all right. They both knew all the words already.
At the top end of a southern mountain trail, a man in flamboyant layers of white shook his sleeves back, eyes sharp and determined. “All right. Let’s see what we can do.”
Fei Liu nodded, holding tight to Su ge-ge’s hand to keep him from trying to leave again.
Su ge-ge wasn’t going anywhere without him.
For a long time, or what might have been a long time, he was afraid he’d failed, each time he woke. He woke weak, groggy, never able to rouse to full awareness, and he knew that sensation from a decade worth of illness, fought stubbornly against it, as he always had, to push his thoughts past the fog to grip on the world again.
This time, though, he could never force himself past the cloudy uncertainness of almost-dreams. And what did that mean, if not failure, to fall ill again before his last task was done?
As it happened again and again, though, he started to wonder, in the fuzzy way that was all that was available to him, if perhaps it was all a dream—he’d never been so ill for so long. He’d have thought, if he really was this ill, he’d be dead. Or perhaps he was dead, and this not-quite-existing was what came next, for him. He’d been resigned to hell for years, really, and this was surely his personal hell. The one time he actually recognized one of the vague voices around him, it was Lin Chen saying, furiously “If you die, after all my hard work, I’ll revive you just so I can kick you down this mountain.”
An eternity of Lin Chen’s idea of beside manner. Most likely hell, then.
Eventually, though, he started to see things, lost in that fog of half-thoughts. He saw them very clearly, though he was almost sure his eyes were closed. Perhaps this was the vision of spirits?
Green grass, and a sky bluer than he’d thought was possible, and a white sun shining down—not scorching, but gentle.
A carriage with soft, gauzy orange curtains. He could hear every crunch of the wheels over a dirt road, but couldn’t feel the jolts, so he must not be inside it. Somehow this made sense to him.
A red streamer, blowing in the wind. Or a scarf? It moved like silk.
The tiny curve of Jingyan’s mouth that said he was amused, and he felt that curve pull on his chest like drawing a bow, felt the weight of that faint smile so viscerally he tried to speak to it, but he couldn’t move his mouth and no, no, he couldn’t be back to this again, he didn’t have the strength to start over a second time, no.
Air choked him and someone’s voice exclaimed “Idiot!” and he sank down into darkness again with relief.
Feeling returned first. He was lying down on something cushioned. Something heavy was draped over him from chin to toes. Slowly, it came to him that there was soft light on the other side of his eyelids. That he knew what the sounds around him were—not one vast cloud of noise any more, but the rush of running water, the brisk song of mountain birds, the rustle of cloth nearby.
There was a reason all of this should not make sense, but he couldn’t quite grasp it in his head. He tried to open his eyes, hoping sight would spark thought.
His lids were heavy, and slow to rise, but after a few tries he finally kept them open for more than a fuzzy flash of lightness. Half-drawn shades of bamboo hung from above. White screen paper was bright against the smooth, dark wood all around. Slanting sunlight made a glowing bar on the pale quilt laid over him. The fabric was soft under his hands when he finally managed to stir.
Lin Chen was sitting beside him, and lifted his head at the faint motion, brows rising when he saw his patient was awake.
That was the sight that sparked, not just thought, but memory, knowledge, panic, and Lin Shu tried to jolt upright, made a hoarse sound of frustration when he could barely move. Lin Chen rolled his eyes and pushed him firmly back against the bed.
“Of course your very first move would be to try to leap to your feet and gallop off. It’s fortunate I know exactly what kind of fool you can be, or I might have let you wake up before this and then we’d probably be stuck chasing you through the woods until you fell into a river and drowned of stupidity. You really do have a death wish, don’t you? You want to absolutely ruin my reputation as a healer, don’t you? Don’t bother denying it!”
He ignored this, as one was always well advised to ignore Lin Chen once he got going, and finally managed to rasp out of a desperately dry throat, “The border?”
Lin Chen gave him an exasperated look. “The border is secure, of course. You saw to that, before you got yourself stabbed in the side and tried to bleed out on the last battlefield.”
The relief of that was dizzying, and for long minutes, he just lay back and tried to breathe through it. Lin Chen snorted and picked up his discarded scroll again. Eventually, though, enough sense returned that he realized why this all seemed so very strange, and cleared his throat as much as possible to ask, roughly, “Why am I alive?”
At that, Lin Chen threw down the scroll and positively glowered at him. “Did you become stupid, just because you were surrounded by stupidity, in the capital? What did you think I signed up with the army for?” When Lin Shu only blinked at him, not quite able to gather his thoughts enough to explain that this was insufficient information, Lin Chen sighed and leaned over to pick up a cup and feed him water, a sip at a time. More quietly, he said, “I’m not you, so I didn’t think to switch the pills until after you’d already badgered the bottle out of me. And I had to follow after you, then, anyway, to adjust the doses and make sure you didn’t just collapse because I was using less deadly measures to increase your strength.” His mouth twisted, and he added, rather sourly, “And if those hadn’t been sufficient, I have no doubt you’d have gotten the more deadly measures out of me; I only hoped a little, and certainly not enough to say anything to you about it.” A haughty look. “Which you can hardly complain about, now can you, Su Zhe?”
A faint huff of laughter shook him. No, he probably couldn’t. Still. “How?”
Lin Chen smiled at him, sunny and glinting in a way that made him reflexively check the distance to the room’s exits. “You have assisted the study of medicine, Changsu, be proud. Since you were already going to need transfusions anyway, I took a chance.”
Horror crept through him, freezing his lungs, his heart, his blood…
Lin Chen thumped him irritably with a knuckle to the hollow of his shoulder, sending a jolt down his arm and air flooding all the way down in his lungs, and snapped, “Don’t be ridiculous!” The air cleared his head enough, at least, to nod an apology for thinking his friend would use what they’d both agreed was a rightly forbidden procedure, even in extremity. Lin Chen resettled his sleeves, like a bird settling ruffled feathers. “You have your genius, I have mine.” At Lin Shu’s raised brows, though, he sat back a little and expanded. “I know you read the records on how Bingxu grass can be used; did you understand why?” Lin Shu shook his head and looked inquiring, which worked on Lin Chen about half the time. Fortunately, this seemed to be a day for it to work. “It increases your yin energy.”
Lin Shu blinked at this, because… well, he knew medicine wasn’t always intuitive to the lay-person, but still… Lin Chen smirked at him, good humor apparently restored.
“To put it simply, Bingxu grass dramatically increases your absorption. It poisons the system because we are not made or meant to indiscriminately absorb the influences around us. A body that suffers serious enough depletion will benefit from this, briefly, but without any way to filter or balance what is absorbed, any body will collapse into irrecoverable disorder in a few months. I gave you many strengtheners during the campaign, at very dangerous doses, but I didn’t give you Bingxu until I had you back here in Langya, where I could control your surroundings.”
All right, that made sense enough. “And transfusions?”
“Mm.” Lin Chen looked out the propped open windows over the new spring green spreading over the gray mountain slope outside, eyes distant. “Your followers are mostly fools, but even a fool can be correct sometimes. Zhen Ping asked me, during the campaign: if it would take the lives of ten to let you recover, would a tenth of the lives of a hundred not also serve? I had to delegate more of the selection process than I really like, but your Yan-daifu did an adequate enough job.” He looked back down at Lin Shu, gaze dark and steady in a way that held him still under the flow of words. “We found a hundred. And then I suppressed your mind and stimulated your instincts as intensely as possible for seven months, while they came, one after another, to offer a year or two of their health to you. Your instincts, at least, want to live, so there’s a small part of you that isn’t an idiot, I suppose. Enough to accept their gift, at least.”
He still didn’t like the sound of that at all. “Lin Chen—”
Lin Chen snatched a fan out of his sleeve and smacked him over the head with it. “Their health, not their lives! They will all recover with a little care, which is something you made possible for most of them in the first place! Shut up and be grateful!”
“I am grateful,” he protested mildly, rubbing his head with a trembling hand. He held it up to regard the tremors thoughtfully, but had to let it fall after a breath or two, unable to keep his arm lifted longer. His hands were thinner than ever.
“You’ll probably have to re-learn how to walk, after this long bedridden,” Lin Chen supplied. “Perhaps I’ll make a harness for you and give the leads to Fei Liu, to keep you from falling every other step.”
His mouth quirked, and he murmured, “You’ll have to leave off teasing him, then, or he’ll take me flying when he runs from you.”
He hadn’t realized quite how stiff Lin Chen’s shoulders were, until they relaxed, and then he wondered just how close to death he’d been, all this time. Lin Chen, of course, ignored his sharp look and only prodded him playfully with the end of his fan. “It might be good for you. Get your blood flowing properly. For now, though, let’s see how much you can eat without getting sick.” He pushed himself to his feet, shaking his robes straight, and swept out of the room, head high.
It seemed likely he’d been very, very close to death, given that kind of flamboyance. Lin Shu lay quietly, watching the shadows of the ceiling move, and wondered rather tiredly whether he was to find himself carrying the weight of other lives yet again, albeit smaller bits of them.
He didn’t know if he could do that, again.
The answer to how much food he could keep down was “almost none.” It prepared him a little bit for the answers to several other questions, such as how far he could walk (he passed out the first time he tried to so much as stand up) and could he even bathe himself (no). After having even a few months of something approaching his normal strength, again, it was galling. He quickly learned that Fei Liu haunted his rooms, and that waking up when the boy was gone had been very much an exception to the normal state of affairs, which now included Fei Liu being the one to put up his hair, on days Lin Shu was awake enough.
He was reasonably certain, as he ruefully patted at the knots that resulted, that this was a bit of Lin Chen’s revenge for worrying him.
Slowly, as days passed into weeks, he re-learned how to stand, how to hobble, at least, and sent Fei Liu out onto the mountain’s darkening green slopes to cut staffs for him to support himself on. Slowly, as the pines put out soft, new needles and the air warmed, things other than rice started to appear in his rice porridge. Slowly, as the white and pink lotuses bloomed on the verges of Langya’s river, his hands stopped shaking when he tried to hold up even the lightest book.
So very slowly. And for what was all this effort, now?
“You’ve done this before,” Lin Chen scolded him, when he was slow to get up and go for his excruciating hobbles around the broad stone flags of the plaza outside his rooms. “Last time, I had to keep you from breaking your neck by pushing too hard. Never thought I’d miss that,” he finished in a mutter.
Lin Shu rolled over on his back and stared up at the grimly familiar ceiling. “A year of recovery, again, for how much life left? You said it yourself: the body can only take so much.” Lower, he added, “The soul likewise, I think.”
Lin Chen crossed his arms, leaning against the room’s open screens. “True enough. You don’t have any reserves at all. Your tissues have lost almost all elasticity. You’ll fall ill easily. But,” he held up an admonishing finger, “the Poison of Bitter Fire is purged. You may live like a man over twice your age, but you can still live.”
“How long?” Lin Shu asked calmly, having long since learned to listen for what his friend didn’t say.
“Perhaps ten years.”
A crack of laughter escaped him, then, though it wasn’t amused. He hadn’t lied to Nihuang after all. It was no comfort. “Ten years of what kind of life? Should I go back to my loved ones and lay that kind of fate on them, to fret over me for years and then grieve me a third time?”
“I take it all back,” Lin Chen snapped. “You have no understanding of women at all. I think we shall have to reduce your rank on the gentleman’s list.”
The reminder of the other half of his place in the world outside jolted him up on one elbow. “Lin Chen…!”
Lin Chen rolled his eyes. “Oh calm down. Your name hasn’t appeared for two years, and right now you wouldn’t even make the top fifty, let alone the top ten. I’d rank you just below a drowned rat, at the moment.”
“What a relief,” he shot back dryly, propping himself fully upright and trying to catch his breath. Lin Chen eyed him for a long moment and then smiled, smugly.
“There, you see? You didn’t even cough once.”
He snatched up and threw the only thing in reach, which was his staff. Lin Chen slid aside, laughing, and caught it, spinning it deftly up and over to rap him, very delicately, over the head. Lin Shu swept a hand up to deflect, reawakened body memory taking over, however futile it had been for years now, and had to stop still when it actually worked. He could feel the pressure Lin Chen was putting on the staff, but his arm didn’t give way under it. That was what the angle of a deflection was for, of course, but still…
“You see?” his friend repeated, quietly.
He slowly closed a hand around the still-extended staff, taking it back. His grip trembled, and the staff wobbled. But he could still feel the force of actual strength, however small, that had been behind that single, unthinking move. “I could never really go back, though, could I?” he asked, low. “A man over twice my age would be retired long since.”
“Do you think you’re the only one?” Lin Chen shot back. “Your Crown Prince will never take the field again either, will he? Do you think him less for it?”
Lin Shu opened his mouth and then had to close it again to order his suddenly scattered thoughts. “Of course not,” he murmured, distracted by the new constellation those thoughts had fallen into in the wake of Lin Chen’s jarring question. “The work he has now is even more demanding, and…” He trailed off, remembering an empty throne room, and the empty remains of his uncle jabbing a finger at the throne.
Anyone who sits on this throne will change.
And perhaps… perhaps that was true, though he’d bet on Jingyan’s stubborn integrity against the weight of any throne. But change… yes. Jingyan would have to change, had already had to change, was already trapped in the capital as much as Lin Shu was trapped in his body most days. But he knew Jingyan would already be reaching for new footing, a new place to stand strong. He knew Lin Chen’s point was that he should not be less, should not let himself fall to despair either, but there was another thought linking itself ever so softly to the end of that chain.
Was it possible that he and Jingyan, shifting to each find his new footing, could stand in the same place, once again?
The thought spread through him like a fire catching from a spark, one slow lick at a time until it finally flared up in a burst of wanting that stole his breath. If he hadn’t already been sitting, he’d have fallen, dizzied by the very possibility. He would never, could never, ask Nihuang to abandon the field, would never permit another to suggest she open her fingers and release the martial brilliance she was born to, not for any man. But Jingyan… Jingyan was fighting a new kind of battle, now, and it was one Mei Changsu knew the ways of. To serve his dead he’d walked even the most shadowed turnings of that way, but to serve Jingyan, now, what was needed was to find the brighter tracks, the ones that would not consume his heart. And perhaps, just perhaps… Lin Shu could walk those ways with him.
He only realized he was gasping for breath when Lin Chen took his shoulder and shook him a little, frowning. “What idea have you gotten into your head now?”
Lin Shu laughed out loud, for the first time since he’d woken, and smiled up at his friend’s startlement. “Help me up. I need to walk.”
Startlement faded into a rueful twist of Lin Chen’s mouth, and he sighed. “I suppose I should know, by now, to be wary what I wish for, around you. Come on, then.” He hauled Lin Shu upright and handed him his staff, standing on the veranda with folded arms and a wry smile as Lin Shu made his way, with slow determination, around the plaza, staff clacking down firmly on the stones.
Recovery with no goal to work toward had been soul-killing, but recovery that still dragged on once he had a reason to fight through it was infuriating. He’d actually managed to forget just how frustrating it was when he knew he could be better and simply wasn’t yet. It had been quite a long time since he’d had any hint of “better” to look forward to, after all. Fei Liu brightened, though, and started perching in the trees again, to watch over him, instead of huddling stubbornly in a corner of his rooms, never budging outside unless it was to help him walk somewhere, and then refusing to move further than arm’s length away. Li Gang, when he visited, looked less like a man attending a very extended memorial service, and more like a man visiting a sick friend, though he still had a certain air of resignation about him.
Lin Chen had it, too, and finally said, one day while helping him get dressed like a civilized person and not an invalid, “You’re still going to leave your life with us, aren’t you? I can barely call you Changsu, these days.”
He tugged his sleeves straight, slowly, eyes on the soft layers of blue. “My life with you was only ever borrowed.”
“Oh, don’t be more of an idiot than you can help!” Lin Chen yanked his outer sash snug enough to drive a tiny grunt out of him. “You lived by the laws of our world without fault or hesitation for twelve years. You led Jiang Zuo with strength and care, and protected those who had obligation to you. Of course you had your own reasons for it, but what moment of that time was false?”
“No moment, perhaps,” he allowed, quietly, “but the reasons and intent that drove me do not weigh nothing in this. As you say, I am not, now, Mei Changsu.”
Lin Chen sniffed, stepping over his scattered books and scrolls to take a seat at the low table, graceful as he only ever was when he fought—or when he had a point to make. “Lin Shu isn’t completely intolerable, I suppose. Except when he’s moping.” He stabbed a finger at Lin Shu’s tiny snort of amusement. “But he does not make Mei Changsu a falsehood, any more than Changsu makes Lin Shu false.”
The words rang in the air, in his head, the way true things did. He stepped slowly over to the table, lowering himself down on the other side to watch his friend, who watched him back, sharp-eyed. “So, as you say, I have had two lives,” he finally answered, softly. “I will count myself fortunate for them. For you. For my people. But it’s true, isn’t it, that I can only live one at a time?”
For a long moment, he thought Lin Chen would not answer, or would turn aside with a jest. Instead, Chen sighed, propping an elbow on the table, loose hair sliding over his shoulder as he turned to look out at the brightening sky. “You weren’t wrong, you know; Lin Shu is a friend. I will visit him now and then, perhaps, to make sure he isn’t undoing my hard work, and I expect to see him visit here and mock with me all the foolish questions Langya receives. But no—you cannot live as both at once. No man can live in two worlds at the same time.”
It felt like release, like absolution, and Lin Shu took a long breath in. “Thank you.” His smile tilted wryly, but it was still true. “My friend."
“I would be a poor physician if I couldn’t see what my patient required to be strong again,” Lin Chen grumbled, not looking at him. “So? Who have you been grooming to take Jiang Zuo after you?”
It was, Lin Shu had to admit, refreshing to talk with someone who took his foresight and forethought entirely for granted, sometimes. He leaned against his backrest and offered the future a tiny, satisfied smile. “Nie Duo.”
Lin Chen’s head snapped around, and he stared for a breath. “Nie Duo? The brother of that hairy General of yours who married the investigator girl?” Lin Chen was the master of Langya, and almost as good at keeping track of affairs as Lin Shu; he could see the connections linking together, one after another, in those sharp eyes. Nie Duo was a man from a well-established military clan, one who’d grown up learning tactics, troop movements, how to plan a battle at the knees of his elders, who had connections to the military via his brother, to the intrigues of the capital via his sister-in-law. Nie Duo was the one who’d been sent beyond Liang’s borders bearing messages to the further flung members of Jiang Zuo, who was known and trusted by entire networks, who had laid the groundwork for the gambit in Yunnan, years ago, and would be recognized—though not for who he was—by Mu Qing. In short, Nie Duo was a man to make anyone hoping to take advantage of Mei Changsu’s disappearance regret the thought, swiftly and sincerely. Nie Duo was also the brother of a Chiyan General, and would never forget his debt to either his Chief or a revived Lin Shu. And when that last piece fell into place, Lin Chen threw back his head and laughed, open and delighted as he’d ever been with Mei Changsu.
In a softly-lit room of Liang’s Inner Palace, the woman who had become the Palace’s de facto mistress sorted through her day’s correspondence as one of her youngest maids put up her hair. Letters from the agents she’d finally been able to spread outside the Palace went to the side, to go over with Liu An later, once Jingyan’s son was taken off for a nap. Inventories, she glanced over and passed to Li Mei, who would see they came to Lady Hui. The few notes from officials she set firmly in the “not until after I have had tea” pile. That left…
“Shall we use the blue enameled hairpiece today, my lady?” xiao-Lan asked, and she smiled a little at the sparkle in the girl’s eyes. She’d chosen Chen Lan as one of her dressers exactly because the girl delighted so in achieving the proper harmony of fabric and jewelry with the day’s work, rather than simply piling ostentation atop display. It was one less thing for the Empress in all but name to worry about.
“Yes, that will do.” She frowned down at the last letter, though, as xiao-Lan carefully settled and pinned the gold and blue hairpiece in place, turning it over in her fingers. It had the seal of Langya.
She had considered, on more than one occasion, sending inquiries to Langya, especially regarding the balance of power beyond the borders, but every time she did, the value of keeping her own counsel and questions close had weighed more heavily. And now they wrote to her? Perhaps… perhaps there was some last request xiao-Shu had left with them? She broke the seal and unfolded the delicate paper, running her eye down it as xiao-Lan brought over a pair of long but simple gold earrings on a tray.
“Will these suit, my—my lady!”
The tray clattered to the floor as she clutched at her dressing table, trying to steady her breath, her heart, unable to tear her eyes from the few, simple characters on the paper in her hand, even as her attendants caught her arms to hold her upright.
Your nephew lives.
“Call for a physician, quickly,” Li Mei was snapping, kneeling beside her to feel her hands, her brow. “My lady?”
“I will be well,” she tried to reassure them, though she was ruefully aware of how unsteady her voice was, and that she would undoubtedly have ordered herself to bed, dosed with heart-strengtheners, were she her own attending physician. Actually, that was a good thought. “Bring me my red medicine chest.”
Li Mei frowned, but did as she said, and brought a cup of water to help her swallow the two pills she extracted from the upper layer of boxes. She counted breaths out, slowly, and finally felt the easing of her own pulse. “I’m well,” she reassured the girls clustered around her. “There’s no need to trouble the physicians.”
Li Mei’s mouth tightened for a moment, at that, but she dutifully shooed everyone back to their places.
“Are you sure, my lady?” xiao-Lan asked, picking the earrings she’d brought and laying them back on the tray with fingers that trembled just a little. Lady Jing patted her arm, kindly.
“Quite sure. And those earrings will do nicely.” She sat, calm and poised, while the last of her jewelry was placed, and drank her first cup of tea with hands that were perfectly steady.
She had, after all, many more years of practice than xiao-Lan did.
“You look like a housecat in a patch of catnip.”
Lin Shu took another loving breath of the steam rising from his cup and ignored Lin Chen.
“Are you actually going to drink that or not?”
“Good tea deserves to be savored.” Finally, he took a slow sip and nearly sighed with pleasure at the rich, delicate flavor.
On the other side of the room’s low table, Lin Chen held the letter he was reading a little away from him, brows raised. “You know,” he said, slowly, “your noble aunt has quite the vulgar turn of phrase on her, for a woman of the Inner Palace.”
Lin Shu nearly snorted the first mouthful of real tea he’d been allowed in months through his nose. Fei Liu, looked up from the paper menagerie he’d been folding with a worried frown, and only settled back slowly at Lin Shu’s waved assurance. “You wrote to Noble Consort Jing?” he gasped, once he’d finished coughing, sleeve pressed to his mouth. “Lin Chen…!”
“What? You are planning to go back, aren’t you?” Lin Chen gave him his most infuriatingly cheerful smile.
“She is your Prince’s other strategist, isn’t she?”
Lin Shu took a long breath, reminding himself not to argue on Lin Chen’s own terms, and set his cup down with precise fingers, which he was finally, thankfully, able to do. “I was hoping to manage the news of my revival in a slightly more graceful manner than driving a Noble Consort to swear at you in letters.”
His friend smirked at the letter. “Not a problem, really. I’m actually a little impressed.”
After a long moment, Lin Shu decided firmly not to ask. “Does my honored aunt have anything to say, aside from pointing out your lack of manners?”
Lin Chen fanned the letter through the air, looking more smug than ever as he leaned an elbow on the table. “She admonishes you to attend her in the capital with all due haste.”
“Do I take it, from this maneuver, that you think I’m fit to make the trip?” Lin Shu asked rather dryly.
Lin Chen looked him up and down, piercingly, and finally nodded. “You’re recovering more according to normal standards, this time. It will continue to be slow, and you will reach a limit, but that limit will be far less a matter of looking constantly over the edge of death and more a matter of… well, of simple age.”
Lin Shu dared another sip of his tea, this one rather more satisfactory. “Twice my age, hm?”
“That’s how much wear you’ve put on your body, yes. A man of sixty, who’s lived his whole life in war. He may be perfectly well, but he will often ache, he will be slow to recover from any illness, and he won’t be able to bear great stresses on his body.” Lin Chen leaned forward, slapping the table for emphasis, “Because he’s already borne as much as he can!”
“I heard you the first time,” Lin Shu pointed out, mildly, mouth quirking at the snort of disbelief he got.
“At any rate, yes. As long as you go slowly, you’ve reached the point where it would be good for you to be out traveling. I might even let you on a horse.” At Lin Shu’s startled look—this was the first he’d heard of any such possibility—Lin Chen flapped an impatient hand. “You’re recovering better than I expected, actually, and working on practice forms has smoothed your qi considerably. Provided you don’t do anything too very stupid, I’m starting to think you might live as much as twenty more years.”
Lin Shu had to set his cup down, feeling like his hand might start shaking again. Twenty years? That was… it was almost a life. His voice was a little hoarse when he asked, “How is that possible?”
For a long moment, Lin Chen didn’t answer, gazing instead out the open windows at the first flashes of autumn gold, dancing as wind swept through the bamboo on the mountain’s flanks. “The will of those who came to help and heal you is still with you,” he said at last, quietly. “It’s as if the tiniest seeds of a hundred benevolent ghosts gather around you.” After another moment, he shrugged off the sober mood and slanted a smile at Lin Shu. “When I write this procedure up, I’ll have to make very clear that the circumstances and intentions of the donors appear to weigh very heavily on the results.”
“Of course.” Lin Shu folded his hands together, more shaken by this news than he had been by the last two seasons of slow, painful recovery. He was used to slow and painful. Hope was what bewildered him, now. Even he could hear how tentative his voice was, when he said, “I suppose I should write to Meng da-ge to start arranging things, then.”
“Excellent idea!” Lin Chen pushed himself up from the table in a flurry of robes and smiled down at him, sunny and ruthless. “You can think about what to say while you work through your afternoon training form.”
With a glance of wistful regret at the teapot, Lin Shu levered himself upright as well. “As if your standards of proper form leave the slightest space for thinking about anything else.”
“You’d have plenty of mind left for it if you weren’t wasting so much on complaining. Ingratitude!” Lin Chen gestured broadly at Fei Liu, who promptly edged around Lin Shu’s other side. “Just look how pleased Fei Liu is that his Su ge-ge finally knows how to do something useful!”
That got him a very dark look from Fei Liu, who declared, “Fine!”
Lin Shu smiled wryly. He’d insisted as much, himself, for twelve years, flying in the face of all evidence. And now, past any point he’d ever thought to even imagine himself alive in, he seemed to finally be fine again—and barely knew how to deal with it. But perhaps, if all went well, he’d find out soon.
He’d know how fine he could be, he thought, when he saw Jingyan again.
Lady Jing descended from her closed carriage, passing from the assistance of Li Mei’s hand to Xiao Jingrui’s and smiled quiet acknowledgment of his greeting. “Her Highness is gracious to receive me,” she murmured as Xiao Jingrui led her up the stairs of Grand Princess Liyang’s elegant house. “I was worried when we didn’t see her for the Moon Festival. Is she quite well?” Without waiting for a reply, as the doors shut behind them, she added, “Is she truly willing to have this meeting here?”
“I don’t think she’s happy about it, but she’s appreciated your visits and care, this past year,” the young man answered, level. “If it’s true, I think she will be glad for you, at least.”
Lady Jing could well believe that. The Grand Princess had, in the end, loved her husband, but “complex” did not even begin to describe that love. She nodded silently and let Jingrui guide her through the courtyards to Xiao Liyang’s outer receiving room, dark wood lightened today with the pale rose her attendants wore, and the soft green of the tea set waiting on a low table. Xiao Liyang herself, as she rose to exchange greetings, was still in her dark, mourning blue; Lady Jing thought she would probably wear it the full three years, and not for her husband alone. At least one of the agents she’d been able to send out into the world had gone to quietly add Xiao Liyang’s gifts to the ones Xiao Jingrui sent to the Zhou family.
“Do you think this is for real?” Xiao Liyang asked, as they sat, reaching for the tea set.
Lady Jing folded her hands tightly under cover of her sleeves. “I hope so. From what the Master of Langya sent me, it seems… possible.”
Xiao Liyang’s mouth twisted a little as she poured. “I think the heavens must have a purpose for that man, that they return him so persistently to this world.” She looked up, eyes sharp. “Have you told the Crown Prince?”
Lady Jing held back an indelicate snort with the ease of long practice. “No. Not until I’m sure.” There were few things that could break Jingyan as surely as lying hope of his beloved cousin, and that she would not permit.
“They’re coming,” Xiao Jingrui said, from the door, nudging it open and beckoning his younger brother in, along with Meng Zhi and a tall, hooded figure. Lady Jing rose, eyes fixed on them, taking in Meng Zhi’s open excitement, Xiao Jingrui’s slowly brightening face. Thin hands rose to fold back the hood, and Lady Jing had to breathe through a wild rush of emotion—joy and shock and disbelief and a thread of hope that slowly strengthened as the man who stood there smiled, small and wry the way he seemed to have learned to in his second life.
“Xiao-Shu.” It came out husky, and his smiled softened a little as he bowed greeting to her.
“Aunt Jing.” That made her have to blink back tears for an instant; he used to call her that when he was much younger, careless of the protocol of court.
“Come here and let me see,” she ordered, as she had when he or Jingyan or Nihuang had managed to injure themselves training. He smiled for real at that, and came to hold out his wrist, obediently. She nearly held her own breath, setting her fingers over the pulse point, hope and fear of what she might feel tangling together, but long habit composed her to quiet attention.
And his pulse beat, sure and steady under her fingers, no hint of the stumble and catch that would tell of poison, of a body on the verge of collapse at any moment. It was weaker than it should be in a man only just past thirty, but it was steady. “It’s true,” she whispered, for the rest of them, for herself, for xiao-Shu, because she suspected he needed to hear it again, too. The laughing and shoulder-clapping among the men gave her a chance to re-gather herself, and she added, more calmly as she tugged his sleeve back down, “Perhaps I won’t do anything too very dreadful to your friend after all.”
He turned a little red at that, but only asked, “Does Jingyan know?” The rest of the room quieted, Meng Zhi looking hopeful, as if he might volunteer to carry the news this very hour. She gave him the same look she gave overexcited young maids, their first time serving in the Palace.
“He does not. And I believe this is news you should bring to him in your own voice.” Her nephew looked, perhaps, a shade nervous at that, which she honestly felt was to the good. She never wanted to watch her son collapse at her feet again, and one of the only people in the world who could either cause or avert that was standing in front of her right now, hands vanishing into his sleeves as he clasped them.
He’d probably learned that from her.
“If you think it best,” he agreed, quietly.
She gave him a nod of approval and gratitude, and hid a smile when he ducked his head a little; yes, for all he’d learned in thirteen years focused on vengeance and death, he was still their xiao-Shu. “I’ll arrange for the meeting. High Commander Meng, if I could trouble you to bring xiao-Shu to the Eastern Palace at the appropriate time?”
“Of course, Lady Jing,” Meng Zhi agreed, clearly delighted by all this, and she had to wonder whether xiao-Shu had told him, yet, that actually staying here would likely have to wait on the Emperor’s death.
“Very well. If the Grand Princess will permit,” Lady Jing looked a question at her, and Xiao Liyang nodded slowly, eyes flicking between xiao-Shu and her son, whose whole body was turned and focused on xiao-Shu, nearly as firmly as Meng Zhi’s. “Let us sit and talk a little,” Lady Jing finished, gently.
If Xiao Liyang’s son had been captured by Lin Shu’s brilliance, the way the boy’s subordinates so often had been, they would need to speak, later. Xiao Liyang would need reassurance that xiao-Shu returned loyalty given to him without stint—which the events of a year ago should bear abundant witness to, but mere bonds of friendship had been harshly strained to keep that dire loyalty, and the heart often needed these things explained.
Even xiao-Shu’s heart, which was another reason she wanted him to bear this news to Jingyan in person.
Lady Jing took up her tea cup and smiled over the edge, satisfied.
Lin Shu felt distinctly like the lover, in some tale of romantic adventure, being smuggled into the Palace complex. Except that, instead of going to meet a concubine, he was being led through the shadows and back stairs to meet the Crown Prince. His sardonic amusement, every time the senior palace lady they followed hissed at Meng da-ge to walk more softly, was undercut by a certain amount of nerves. Last time he’d come to the capital and sought out Jingyan, he’d had a very clear idea of what would need to happen. This time, all he had was the understanding that both of them were standing at the start of new lives, and the hope that they could lean on each other while finding their way.
Hopes could always fail.
He’d been the one to push Jingyan into this position, though, and if he had honor left after what he’d done to restore the names of his family and his men, it had to lie in supporting the Prince he’d placed here in the Eastern Palace.
Finally, they cleared the maze of gardens and back walks, and the lady waved them across the plaza in front of the Eastern Palace, blue robes vanishing into the shadows as she slipped away. Meng da-ge escorted him across the lantern-lit space, nodding approval at the alert guards, and Lin Shu had to stifle another chuckle at the whole affair. A young eunuch let them in, the slightly wide-eyed expression on his face suggesting that someone, likely Lady Jing but possibly Lady Liu, had had some firm instructions for him regarding what he was to do and questions he was not to ask. In any case, he led them down the halls and deposited them just outside one of the few brightly lit rooms, and took himself off without a word. To them, at least; Lin Shu had no illusions that this whole trip would not be fodder for gossip at once, at least within the Eastern Palace.
He nodded to Meng da-ge , who nodded back, nearly grinning, and stepped into the light. “Your Highness? I brought that visitor your Noble Mother mentioned.” Following behind Meng da-ge, Lin Shu could see the tired look that crossed Jingyan’s face, as he folded and set aside one of quite a stack of report folios on the low table before him before pushing himself to his feet, not even looking up yet.
“Very well. Come in.”
“You’ll like this interruption, Your Highness,” Meng da-ge promised, holding out a hand to usher Lin Shu in. He stepped forward with the gesture, refraining from rolling his eyes at Meng da-ge’s obvious glee.
“I suppose it will be a change at least,” Jingyan started to say, but as he looked up, Lin Shu stepped fully into the light, and for a moment it seemed as if time had stopped. Jingyan stood as if frozen, only his widening eyes telling that he knew what he was seeing. Lin Shu took another step forward. “Your Highness…” started to fall from his lips, because he had drilled that habit into himself as deeply as he could. It hadn’t been deep enough, of course; he knew perfectly well, looking back, when Jingyan had known in his heart, if not his head, who Mei Changsu was, and it had been the moment when he’d called Jingyan by his given name. And so, knowing that, he closed his eyes and took another breath, and said, instead, “Jingyan.”
He could see the simple name go through his friend like a sword, and when Jingyan stepped forward it was almost a stumble. “Xiao-Shu?” Another step, and another, faster, and then he had hold of Lin Shu’s shoulders, holding them tight, as if he were truly afraid it was an apparition in front of him. The shock on his face, and the open, breathless hope cracking through Jingyan’s iron reserve shook Lin Shu down to the heart of him, that his mere existence should be the cause of this.
“How?” Jingyan breathed, voice breaking for one instant on the word, and Lin Shu’s hands came up in automatic response, to close on his arms.
“Lin Chen.” He shrugged a little, as much as he could under the hard grip of Jingyan’s hands. “He tricked even me, this time.”
A voiceless shade of laughter escaped Jingyan. “He had to trick you into living?”
“Well…” Lin Shu’s breath caught as Jingyan shook him a little.
“Be quiet.” Jingyan closed his eyes for a long moment, head bent down, and finally managed, in something closer to a conversational tone. “Of course he did. But—” he looked Lin Shu up and down, hands working a little on his shoulders, and finally asked, hope fragile in his voice again, “you’re well?”
“I’m well,” and it turned from assurance to promise, in his mouth, pulled from him by the tiny shivers of reaction he could feel running through Jingyan, under his hands. “Lin Chen said at least ten years. Perhaps even as much as twenty.” Jingyan’s hands tightened until he could feel his bones creak, and the open relief that swept Jingyan’s face clean wrenched another promise from him. “I will be with you, here.”
The smile Jingyan gave him then stopped the breath in his throat, so bright for such a faint curve of lips that he could only tighten his hold on Jingyan’s arms and let it be what it was.
Eventually, reluctantly, Jingyan released him, and Lin Shu was grateful because he didn’t think he could have pulled himself away and Meng da-ge was still standing by the entry, positively grinning at them both. Jingyan straightened and gave Meng da-ge a grave nod. “This was a very welcome interruption, High Commander Meng. Thank you.”
“It was my honor, Your Highness.” Meng da-ge gave them a parting bow and strode briskly back down the hall, as if the thanks had been a dismissal.
Lin Shu was starting to suspect that Lady Jing had managed and directed this meeting in far more detail than he’d at first thought she would. And that led him to wonder why she should trouble that much, and to think about how Jingyan had looked at him when he’d stepped into the room, and then he had to stifle a wince. He hadn’t the slightest doubt that his aunt was delighted and grateful for his return, but she was probably upset with him at the same time. He’d done his best to hold his loved ones away from him, when he’d thought he would have no choice but to leave them within months. Jingyan…
Jingyan turned back to him, and if Lin Shu had been the sort to observe the world around him only casually, he might have thought he’d imagined the tiredness hanging so heavy on his friend mere moments ago. There was no sign of it, now. A year ago, he’d thought there was no help for it, had done his best to surround Jingyan with others who could stand behind him and support him, even as he himself withdrew. Now it was painfully clear that those efforts hadn’t been enough.
Well, perhaps he could do something about it, now.
“Come.” Jingyan beckoned him through to the inner room. “Tell me what happened.”
They wound up sitting by his bed while Lin Shu recounted his recovery, and then had to go further back and explain how Lin Chen had made off with his body from the final battlefield, with, from what he’d heard, Meng da-ge’s grief-stricken permission, and then Jingyan asked his perspective on that battle and the cushions wound up serving as placeholders for the army’s regiments while the covers were pressed into service as mountain geography.
Lin Shu wasn’t really surprised when he woke up with his head pillowed on Jingyan’s bed and Jingyan on the floor beside him.
He wasn’t surprised, but he did have to stop and breathe carefully for a while, so as not to wake Jingyan with the burst of grief and hope and pain that memory shook out of him—heart memory and body memory of so many mornings like this. His life had come full circle, in a way, but how much had he lost on the path to return here? He buried his face in the bed, concentrating on keeping his breath even, again.
“Xiao-Shu.” Jingyan’s hand was warm, resting on his head, deep voice still rough with sleep, and Lin Shu made an annoyed sound, not looking up.
“You were supposed to stay asleep.”
“I always woke up, when you did.”
At that, he smiled a little, lifting his head. “Yes. I did, too.”
Jingyan smiled back, more peaceful than Lin Shu had seen him in a very long time. All he said, though, was, “It will be time for food. Come eat.”
Liu An had been as shocked as anyone else, when her mother-in-law had told her, very quietly, who would be visiting her husband in the night. She’d had over a year under Lady Jing’s tutelage, though, and as she prepared for bed, herself, she’d turned the thought of Lin Shu’s return over in her mind, examining the angles of it. She had little doubt that her husband would wish to bring the man into her household, one way or another; she approved of Lin Shu’s support for her husband, and did not object to the idea. But Lin Shu (Su Zhe, as was) had been instrumental in forcing the Emperor to face truths and duties he had not wished to face. If Lin Shu entered the Crown Prince’s household, now, she could not see any way to prevent a very sharp downturn in the Emperor’s already brittle relationship with his current heir.
With that in mind, she brought her son to breakfast with her, a wordless reminder of the dynastic stakes still in play within the Palace.
And, indeed, Lin Shu’s first sight of the boy made him stop in his tracks, but she was fairly sure politics weren’t the cause. The flash of shock that broke his faint smile was unmistakably a personal response. She thought, though, that the tangle of melancholy and thoughtfulness that followed might mean his thoughts turning in the direction she wished.
She was quite sure that the flicker of amusement in his eyes when he greeted her meant he knew exactly what she’d been doing. So she dipped a graceful bow of acknowledgment and waited quietly to see how he would answer her.
They had barely started eating when Lin Shu looked over at her husband and said, “I won’t be able to stay for long, not yet.” Xiao Jingyan’s head came up sharply, and Lin Shu raised a hand, holding his eyes. “That was the deal I made with the Emperor. That Lin Shu would not return to the capital. But to be of the most aid to you, I need to be Lin Shu again.”
“Do you think I care how much aid you can be?” Xiao Jingyan asked, quiet and fierce, and a rueful smile tugged at Lin Shu’s mouth.
“No. But I do.” He met her husband’s dark look with perfect equanimity, and Liu An had to hide a smile. “So, there are two ways to do this: the safe way and the fast way.” He waited for Xiao Jingyan to sit back, arms crossed but not interrupting, and continued. “The safe way is to wait for the Emperor to die, and return then.”
“The Lady Jing believes that will be within the next four or five years,” Liu An put in, softly. “His health was already not the best, and it took a blow, a year ago.”
Lin Shu nodded, and the faint light of approval in the glance he gave her lifted her heart so that she understood, abruptly, how this man might inspire such unending loyalty in the men he led, and why an Emperor might, indeed, fear him greatly.
“Five years, then,” he said, turning back to Xiao Jingyan. “It’s longer than I like, of course, but I could, at least, visit discreetly during that time.”
“And the fast way?” her husband prompted. The sparkle that put in Lin Shu’s eyes made Liu An brace herself.
“Well, I should go south and see Nihuang in any case, at least if I wish to continue living. The fast way is for me to return to her openly, as Lin Shu, and let the Emperor order us to the capital so as to keep us under his eye.”
“The Vice-Marshal of Chiyan and the General of Yunnan, united,” Xiao Jingyan filled in, rather dryly. “Yes, that would likely get very fast results.”
“There’s a certain amount of risk in it.” Lin Shu took a sip of his tea and, for some reason, gave her a look of distinct amusement before turning back to the matter at hand. “He will understand quite well that I’m forcing his hand, and if I then stand openly in support of you, his fear may overcome his good sense. Again.”
Her husband’s face turned set and cold, at that. The reminder of Prince Qi’s fate made Liu An think of something else, though. Of a certain memorial tablet, and what her mother-in-law had never quite admitted to doing, to secure it. “Perhaps,” she said, words falling softly into the quiet between the two men, “that need not be a great concern.” At Lin Shu’s raised brow, she lifted her chin, hands clasped tightly in her lap. “You should consult with the Noble Consort Jing, who often has such influence over him.”
She didn’t think her husband knew what she was saying, but Lin Shu went very still for a long moment before nodding slowly. “A wise suggestion, Lady Liu. My thanks.”
She nodded back, trying not to show the tiny shivers running through her at the enormity of what she’d just said might and should be done. The warmth of her husband’s hand covered hers, though, and the small, quiet smile he gave her slowed the quick beat of her heart again. This was her rightful work and duty, to do all in her power to safeguard her husband and children, and if her husband did not yet know all she intended, still he approved of her joining this effort. Liu An drew a long breath and bent her attention to the plans her husband’s brother in heart was setting out.
Mu Nihuang sighed, exasperated, as she sorted through her letters. The Emperor’s tournament for the right to marry her had started a positive flood of ongoing proposals, some subtle and some rather less so. She was starting to recognize some of them by the writing, and those she crumpled and tossed aside unread.
“Is the Qi envoy still bugging you?” Mu Qing asked. “He’s so annoying! I should challenge him, next time we have to host him.”
“Don’t challenge envoys just because they’re annoying me.” Sometimes Mu Nihuang wondered whether she should move her daily work into an office of her own, if only to keep her little brother’s nose a bit further out of her business. The rustle of paper from his table caught her ear and she added, absently, “Read the whole thing, Qing-er.”
He gave her a hang-dog look and pulled back the report of crop plans that he hadn’t spent nearly long enough on to be finished with. Mu Nihuang smiled down at her own table, which had almost certainly been her brother’s goal. He’d gotten more subtle about teasing her, this past year. Perhaps she would move to her own office some year soon, but there were compensations for staying here, for now. She picked up the last letter and almost crumpled that one unread, too; she was almost sure she recognized this writing from somewhere also. But it had no name or seal on it, from the sender, which the diplomatic proposals always did. She frowned at the characters of her own name and title, thoughtfully. Where had she seen this writing before, then?
“It’s almost time for training, my lady,” a soft voice interrupted, and she looked up to see Gong Yu, looking a bit like a shadow in the dark greens she’d worn all year, hovering by the entrance. “Shall I help you change?”
Mu Nihuang’s smile gentled; she was glad the girl had agreed to stay with her, and not only because it was pleasant to have another woman versed in the arts of war to accompany her. Without some kind of task to accomplish, and one she could tell herself would have pleased her Chief, Mu Nihuang thought that Gong Yu might not have survived the year. And she couldn’t deny that it had helped her, too, to have some living piece of Lin Shu’s life to look after. “Yes, just let me see who this last letter is from, and we can go.”
Gong Yu turned white as snow.
“Gong Yu!” Mu Nihuang started to her feet, hand outstretched, wondering if the girl was going to faint.
“That’s the Chief’s writing,” Gong Yu whispered, one hand clutching the frame of the screen beside her, knuckles white. Mu Nihuang felt she might need to hold on to something solid, herself.
“Are you sure?” Her voice rasped in her throat.
Gong Yu hurried across the room and slid to her knees beside Mu Nihuang, eyes fixed on the slip of folded paper, wide and devouring. “Yes. Yes, I’m sure.” She looked up at Mu Nihuang, entreating. “Jie-jie, you know…” Mu Nihuang nodded silently; she knew what it was to recognize something of Lin Shu, to know, at once and without doubt. She took a slow breath and reached out to take Gong Yu’s hand, wondering if her own fingers were as cold as Gong Yu’s.
“Let us see what this is, then, mei-mei.”
Mu Qing had come to hover over her shoulder, anxious, as Mu Nihuang unfolded the letter. Her heart caught as she scanned down the page; if Gong Yu recognized the writing, she recognized the turns of phrase. …truly ridiculous plans… …cannot leave him surrounded by fools… …thought I had better…
“Jie?” Qing-er asked, softly, and she realized there were tears on her cheeks. She wiped them away with a quick palm.
“He’s coming back.” She lifted her head and smiled at Gong Yu, laid a hand over Mu Qing’s, on her shoulder. “I suppose we’d better get ready.” After all, the one thing her betrothed had always brought with him was action—often action that no one else would have dreamed or dared.
It was one of the things she loved in him.
Lin Shu had debated whether it would be best (and even, now he had that luxury, kindest) to send a letter ahead or not. In the end, he’d chosen to write, hoping the shock would be a little less; he had no wish to be mistaken for his own ghost, however briefly. And once he started writing, he’d found himself explaining at some length, writing of his exasperated gratitude to Lin Chen, his concern for how Jingyan could handle the burden Lin Shu had dropped on him, his worry for her. It was when he finished that last, that he had to stop and rest his head in his palms and laugh at himself. He’d spent over ten years winding himself ever deeper into the mindset of a strategist, of a revenger, of one who would do whatever it took to drive a plan through to completion. And where was all that icy focus, now?
Apparently, he’d only ever managed to close Lin Shu up (briefly) in a box that turned out to have the flimsiest of latches.
When he was shown into one of Mu Palace’s inner receiving rooms, he knew he’d been right about that, because he couldn’t make himself turn his eyes away from the hand Nihuang pressed over her lips, the water-brightness of her eyes. The habit of long years still froze him in the entrance until she strode across the room and threw her arms around him, but the warm press of her against him broke that habit and discipline like thin ice snapping in spring, and he caught her close in return, laughing low and helpless into the darkness of her hair until they were nearly giggling together, unstrung by the sudden release of long, long grief and tension.
She balled up a fist and hit him in the shoulder. “You said ten years!” she accused without lifting her head from his chest.
“I was actually right, though I didn’t know it then.” He smiled down at her as her head jerked up and she stared, disbelieving. “Perhaps as many as twenty.” Softer, as her hands closed desperately tight in the fabric of his sleeves, he added, “I will stay as long as I can; you have my word.”
She smiled back, slow and brilliant. “Don’t think I won’t hold you to it.”
“I hope you will.” They finally managed to step back a little, only hands still clasped, and Lin Shu looked up for her brother, wryly aware that he was probably in for some exuberant congratulations and teasing. His attention caught on the completely unexpected presence beside Mu Qing, though, standing with clasped hands and wide, dark eyes. “Gong Yu?”
“She brought me the news, and I convinced her to stay with me.” Nihuang’s smile turned a little wicked, and he automatically braced himself. In the past, that was the look that had accompanied challenges to climb the city walls or race each other across the roofs. “My younger sister’s company has been a great comfort.”
He might, Lin Shu thought distantly, have preferred the roof race to the open gratitude in Gong Yu’s face, quickly replaced by shy hope as she glanced up at him under her lashes. Even in his current condition, it would have been less trouble. “Nihuang…”
“They train together,” Mu Qing supplied, grinning, clearly in on the whole conspiracy. “Gong Yu is the only one of her ladies who can keep up with her, riding.”
That was no small thing, Lin Shu had to admit, but still… “We can discuss that later,” he said, firmly.
Nihuang’s cheerfully unyielding expression made his heart sink a bit. “Yes, we shall.”
He sighed quietly; apparently, he had better start planning for a larger household, in the capital.
Gong Yu had spent her whole life in the jianghu, and a mere year as a palace lady—especially lady to the General of Yunnan—was not nearly enough to wear away the responses she’d absorbed from the time she was big enough to walk on her own. In her bones was the knowledge that Mei Changsu was her Chief, even with a new name and a new, or old, life.
Names were changeable things, in her world, at need.
So when the evening meal ended, and he caught her eye, she followed him out without question, without even glancing at Mu Nihuang. She probably should have looked to her lady, she realized, pacing down the dark walks of the palace behind him, for approval or… or direction? But, then again, perhaps not, if Mu Nihuang meant her for Lin Shu’s concubine. The thought sent a flutter of excitement and hope through her, which she tried to restrain, clasping her hands before her and hoping the chill of the winter night would cool the heat in her cheeks. When her Chief paused, at last, resting fine hands on the rail of the palace’s smaller water pavilion, she stood quietly at his shoulder, waiting for orders and hoping, deep in her heart, for acceptance.
“Nihuang has already fallen prey, once, to the politics of the Inner Palace.” His words fell into the evening quiet like petals falling onto the water. “The thought of someone beside her to watch her back does set me at ease.”
“My lady has a very ardent heart, and does not always guard herself,” she agreed, cautious. It was clearly something he already knew, but the heart was not always sensible. She had no wish to sound jealous, especially of the one who had been so good to her, a goodness she had almost forgotten the taste of over the years of pursuing her revenge.
“You must know that I do not love you.” He did not look at her, so she dared to look up and watch his face, still in the faint glow of lamps across the water. “Do you wish this, even so?”
His bluntness stole her breath like a blow, and yet… he was not denying her. “If I can continue to serve you, I will be satisfied.”
His hand snapped up and caught her chin, not cruelly but very firmly, and dark eyes bored into hers. “Do not ever lie to me,” he said, very softly.
Gong Yu swallowed, heart beating fast, not daring to move, in his hold. “It is not all I wish,” she admitted, voice a little ragged with nerves, “but it’s not a lie! Yes, I would wish you to… to look on me kindly, but if I can still serve you, I will be satisfied! And Nihuang jie-jie… she’s sheltered me. She found a place for me. I would willingly live under her, and guard her from her enemies.”
For a long moment, he only examined her, searchingly, but at last he granted her a slow nod and let her go. “Very well, then. You should know, I have never stood in the way of what my people wish to do—only used those wishes. If that will truly content you…” his hand lifted to rest lightly on her head, “then I will accept you into my house.”
She bent her head, shaking, by now, hard enough that he could probably feel it. “It will content me, my lord,” she whispered. He sighed, quietly, and patted her head, gentle and absent.
“Very well, then. Let us go in and speak to Nihuang.”
She was still shaking a little, when they came to Mu Nihuang’s outer rooms, and when she gave them both a look of rather smug satisfaction and held out an arm, Gong Yu was more than willing to hurry over and bury her wildly vacillating mix of triumph and shock and hope and fear in Nihuang jie-jie’s shoulder. Nihuang jie-jie gathered her in and stroked her hair gently. “There, mei-mei, don’t worry. You get used to him, in time, and I’ll protect you.” Gong Yu couldn’t help the tiny sound that jerked out of her, half giggle and half protesting gasp.
“I beg your pardon.” He sounded amused, though.
“Just like I used to protect Yujin,” Nihuang jie-jie continued, clearly teasing, and Gong Yu started to relax against her side.
“I don’t recall you ever protecting Yujin,” Lin Shu pointed out, robes rustling as he seated himself on the riser beside them. “It was Jingrui that Yujin always hid behind, which was very wise of him.” He was smiling when she dared to look up from Nihuang jie-jie’s shoulder, wry and affectionate, and when his glance fell on her, curled in the circle of Nihuang jie-jie’s arm, it was gentler than before. “Well. How shall we do this, then?”
Mu Nihuang’s smile turned a little vicious and a little dreamy, and Gong Yu perked up to listen. She recognized that kind of look; she saw it often, in her own world. “Perhaps we can write to the Emperor asking his blessing, since he was so very concerned with my marriage prospects, recently.”
Lin Shu’s smile nearly matched hers. “Or perhaps Mu Qing should write to notify him, since it’s technically Mu Qing’s blessing you want, now. I’m sure he’d write very enthusiastically of my unforeseen return from ‘exile’.”
Nihuang jie-jie laughed out loud. “Oh, I like that!” She sobered again quickly, though. “Shu ge-ge… how much of Jingyan’s position will we risk, provoking the Emperor that way?”
“We run a risk now in order to reduce it later.” He turned a hand palm up. “And, too, I have Lady Jing’s assurance that the risk can be… minimized.”
“The Emperor never struck me as that susceptible to his Consorts,” Mu Nihuang said skeptically.
“No. I believe she intends to take more direct action; she’s a physician, after all, and knows very well what would calm him.” His eyes narrowed, thoughtful. “In fact, it’s quite possible she’s already taken direct action and merely needs to modify what she’s already doing.”
Gong Yu was, frankly, impressed. She’d never thought noble ladies could be so iron-nerved and dare such consequences as would come from drugging the Emperor. Nihuang jie-jie shivered, though, perhaps remembering her own close call, and Gong Yu wrapped a shy arm around her, nestling closer. Jie-jie didn’t need to worry about that, not while she was here. Nihuang jie-jie gave her a quick smile and dropped a light kiss on her hair. “All right, then. Let us hold the banquet on the next suitable date, and send the letter.”
Lin Shu’s smile at Mu Nihuang made Gong Yu catch her breath, so soft, and a little wondering. “I never thought this would be possible, you know.”
“It was never yourself you made wonders possible for.” Nihuang jie-jie reached out a hand to him. “But now it can be.” The simple clasp of their hands made Gong Yu blush to watch.
Yes. She thought she could be content with this.
Chief Eunuch Gao Zhan had lived quite a long time in the Palace, and knew its moods. He knew the hushing of everyday sounds that meant the ministers would spend the day glancing nervously at each other, watching for where trouble or change might come from. He knew the sharpening of the palace ladies’ graceful gestures that meant the balance of power had shifted, in the Inner Palace. He knew the sweetening in the air that meant everyone was thinking of the new year celebrations. All those shifting moods focused on or stemmed from the Emperor, which made many people think they were caused by the Emperor. Gao Zhan, however, had served the Emperor himself long enough to understand that, far from weaving all the threads of the Palace’s fabric himself, the Emperor was as enmeshed in them as anyone else, influenced by his ministers, his family, even the shadow of his parents.
And, of course, by the officials like Gao Zhan.
Gao Zhan had been a young man, working his way up the hierarchy of the imperial messengers, when he’d first seen those threads pull tight and start to snap, yanked in two different directions—one the old Emperor, pulling toward governance and empire by brute force, the other the then-Crown Prince, pulling toward policies of strategy and diplomacy. He’d watched the fabric of the Court tear, then, taking with it the life of the Emperor, the guiding hand of the Dowager Empress, and the soul of Xia Jiang. He’d seen how long it took to reweave even a little of the fabric’s sturdiness. And he had seen how the smallest word of comfort to the new Empress’ ladies, or a calm smile to a nervous minister could help.
It was those small words and smiles that had made him Chief Eunuch by the time he was forty.
The second time he’d seen the threads of the Court fabric pull dangerously tight, he’d been new to his position as the one who watched over and minded the Emperor, and perhaps he’d been too cautious with his words, his smiles, his gentle nudging of the Emperor toward one concubine or another. Or perhaps there had simply been no help for it, whatever he’d done. The only one gripping and tangling the threads, then, had been the Emperor, afraid of his own reflection in the mirror of his mind, but they’d snapped all the same.
Gao Zhan had still been at work patching that tear when he’d heard yet another shift in the mood of the Palace, heard the name Su Zhe whispering down the halls like the scent of plum blossoms through winter air. When that name had flared to life, in the Capital, like fire reaching down the threads of the Princes’ rivalries, Gao Zhan had braced himself to preserve what he could, attempting again and again to calm and amuse the Emperor with the stable, everyday foibles of Palace life.
To little effect.
When Prince Jing had seemed to finally lose patience with the resulting tangle, himself, and reached out to lay his hand on the threads of the Court’s fabric, Gao Zhan had blessed the chance and willingly steered the Emperor into Lady Jing’s arms. She was another who understood the power of a gentle word and a calm smile.
In retrospect, he could only salute the Lady; the fabrics she wove from the threads of the Court ran soft and subtle and untorn from end to long end. Which was why, after the crisis had passed, he had come at once when she requested his presence.
“Gao gong-gong,” she’d greeted him, serene as a lily pond, and extracted a small, black bottle from her sleeve, setting it on the table between them without so much as a click, as she spoke. “I believe you know how harshly the Emperor has used his own heart and health over the years. Before any others, the palace officials must be aware of how his care for the Court and the Princes must wear on him.” She’d looked up at him, dark eyes as deep and inexorable as the sea. “I know you must surely wish to ease his way. I beg that you will let me know if there is any way I can assist His Majesty.”
In her words, he’d heard a promise—the promise of an Emperor to come, who would not rip the fabric of the Palace over and over, in his care for nothing but playing one Prince, one faction, against another. The promise of an Emperor who was, in so many ways, already there, doing the work of a ruler with an iron integrity Gao Zhan had not seen through the reigns of two Emperors before him.
So he’d taken the bottle with him, when he’d left, and measured a careful three drops into the Emperor’s tea every morning, and he’d watched the sharpness leach out of the Emperor’s eyes with regret. But not enough regret to throw away that little black bottle. Not when it had been months since the Emperor’s temper last exploded, longer than that since he’d done more than nod upon reading one of the Crown Prince’s meticulous weekly reports, or wave a dismissive hand over Princess Nihuang continuing to lead the southern army in the field. Gao Zhan had begun to hope this Emperor might even manage to die in bed, instead of at his desk, of heart failure.
…though today’s letters looked like they might set that hope back a bit.
Gao Zhan stepped cautiously closer, watching the Emperor’s face twist and redden as his eyes sped down the paper. “Majesty? Is anything—”
“Yunnan?!” the Emperor exploded, fist clenching on the letter. “I tell the damn boy he can’t return to the capital, so he goes to Yunnan instead?! To get married?!” He banged the desk furiously with his free hand, waving the letter in Gao Zhan’s direction while Gao Zhan patted the air with both hands, trying to get a word in edgewise. “Does he think I’m a fool? Does he think I’ll let this stand?”
“Majesty,” Gao Zhan put in in his most soothing voice, “who is this from?”
“Lin Shu!” the Emperor raged, pounding the desk again. “Back from exile, Mu Qing says! Sister delighted, he says! The Vice-Marshal of Chiyan and the General of Yunnan both on the south border in the Mu princedom? I won’t have it!”
“Then surely all Your Majesty need do is order Lin Shu elsewhere,” Gao Zhan said reasonably, hoping that Lady Jing’s drug would take hold again soon enough for reason to actually work. “As the Lin family is exonerated, Lin Shu is legitimately under your command. And if the Princess has finally married him, then she is bound to go with him.”
“I wouldn’t trust the pair of them anywhere!”
Gao Zhan sighed to himself, seeing exactly how this was to go, and in his mind he offered Lin Shu a rather weary salute; the man did plan well. There seemed to be no way around it, so he obediently laid out the next move. “Perhaps the best place is under your own eye, then, Majesty,” he ‘jested’ with a small chuckle.
“Ha! That’s probably exactly what he wants!”
“Then surely he will give you no trouble?” Gao Zhan suggested, watching closely, and nearly sagged with relief when he saw the fire in the Emperor’s eyes begin to dim, losing the struggle against the soft haze of Lady Jing’s drugs. “Surely you’ll feel better with them here under your eye,” he repeated, gently.
“Mm. I suppose.” The Emperor leaned back wearily in his throne, and waved a hand at him. “See to it. Lin Shu and Mu Nihuang are commanded to present themselves before their Emperor…” he rattled off the language of an official order, seeming to lose interest even as he did, and regret nipped at Gao Zhan. Relief was still stronger, though, watching that alarming red fade to a healthier color. Gao Zhan smoothly tweaked the offending letter off the desk and into his sleeve, and bowed.
“I will see to it, Majesty.”
Jingyan had just presented his weekly report on the affairs of court and the Ministries to the Emperor, wondering as always whether his father’s wordless grunt as he glanced over it was approval or pique, when the announcement was called from the door, the one something at the base of his spine had been waiting months for.
“Vice-Marshal Lin Shu and Princess Mu Nihuang request permission to enter the Emperor’s presence!”
The Emperor snapped the report folio closed and tossed it aside on his desk. “About time. Bring them in.”
Xiao-Shu swept through the room’s pillars, Nihuang at his side. He’d laid aside “Su Zhe’s” muted colors, and looked so very familiar, in brilliantly embroidered white over rich, dark blue, that Jingyan couldn’t keep his fingers from curling into fists, as if he could physically grab hold of this new-and-familiar Lin Shu and keep him. Mu Nihuang held her head high, matching his stride, hair swept all the way up for the first time Jingyan had ever seen, and her smile was as fiercely delighted as Jingyan felt. He tried to catch his breath, and calm, as they knelt and bowed to the Emperor, only to have it stolen again by the direct look, straight as a sword, that xiao-Shu gave the Emperor as he straightened.
“You called for our attendance at the Capital, Majesty?”
The Emperor considered them for a long moment and finally shook a finger at Nihuang. “Finally found someone you’ll deign to marry, hm?”
Nihuang gave him the sharpest smile Jingyan had ever seen out of her, and another short bow. “The one promised to me, yes. Thank you for your concern, Majesty.”
The Emperor snorted and eyed xiao-Shu in turn. “Fine, then. You might as well be useful. So you can keep him,” he jabbed his finger at Jingyan, “from upsetting all the diplomatic channels I spent so much trouble creating. That should keep you busy.”
Jingyan didn’t think he was that bad at it, but the thought slipped away when his friend, his brother, turned his head and gave Jingyan Mei Changsu’s tiny smile with Lin Shu’s fire blazing in his eyes. “As my Emperor wishes,” he stated, never looking away. Jingyan couldn’t manage to look away either, and it was to Lin Shu that he spoke when he said, “I will be grateful for the assistance.” And then common sense gave him a jolt and he turned hastily to give his father the bow that went with the words.
The Emperor leaned back with a tetchy sound. “The two of you make me tired. Go away.”
Gao Zhan stepped smartly forward. “His Imperial Majesty’s audience is ended!” he announced, and flicked urgent fingers at Jingyan. Jingyan took the direction, as his mother had firmly instructed him to always do, and bowed along with xiao-Shu and Nihuang, backing two formal steps before making for the doors. They only made it as far as the stairs before they all three stopped and stared at each other.
“You did it.” Jingyan still couldn’t believe it had been this easy.
“I always do. Pay attention, Jingyan.” Xiao-Shu kept a mostly straight face until Nihuang swatted his shoulder, and then he was laughing, soft and bright, throwing an arm around her and leaning against Jingyan for balance as she elbowed him, and Jingyan found his own arms around their shoulders, all three of them ignoring the raised brows of the Palace guards, laughing together in the slanting sunlight.
The leaf buds were barely starting to unfurl, here in the Capital, but it finally felt like summer in his heart, again.