“I suppose I should see if the Lin manor can be reclaimed and repaired,” Lin Shu mused, hands clasped behind him as he, Nihuang, and Jingyan walked slowly through the palace complex’s roofed walks toward the Eastern Palace and Jingyan’s waiting work. Jingyan was the one walking slowest, he was rather amused to note.
“And perhaps beg some staff from someone,” Nihuang put in ruefully. “We came on so fast we left almost the entire rest of our train and escort a day or two behind, and we don’t keep more than a handful of people at the Mu house here, regularly.”
Jingyan nodded to a small herd of ministers who crowded out of their way and bowed—and started whispering as soon as they’d passed, Lin Shu noted. “Go to my house in town, then. It’s almost fully staffed.” His mouth quirked at the corner, the quieter relative of that irreverent grin Lin Shu had always loved to pull out of him. “Since none of my officers really wished to enter the ranks of the Palace officials at this point in their lives.”
“Jingyan! You didn’t actually suggest that to them, did you?” Nihuang asked, eyes dancing.
“No.” Jingyan’s smile faded. “I wasn’t in the mood for laughing, at the time.”
Lin Shu laid a hand on his shoulder, squeezing tight for a moment. “I’m here,” he said, softly. “I will remain here.”
Jingyan took a quick breath and visibly settled himself. “Yes. And I said it a long time ago, didn’t I?” he added, more briskly. “What’s mine is yours, including that house. Stay as long as you like.”
It was Lin Shu’s turn to feel his breath catch, though he knew it should be no surprise that Jingyan also remembered.
Nihuang slid a thoughtful look back and forth between them, and finally smiled. “We will, then.” At Lin Shu’s raised brows she tucked a hand into his and otherwise ignored him, still smiling, which meant she wanted to tease him over knowing something he didn’t. It probably said something about his own nature that he found that endearing. He laced his fingers with hers, ignoring the sidelong glances of passing officials and the faint quivering of Jingyan’s shoulders that said he was trying not to laugh at them. It was their own business if they wanted to take this delayed opportunity to act like youngsters in love. “You should join us, in the mornings, for practice forms” Nihuang added, to Jingyan.
Lin Shu winced, pride twinging a bit, but Nihuang just gave him a stubborn look. He knew she was right, that a partner closer to his own build would probably help him re-find the edges of himself more quickly, but he still had to take a moment to stifle the internal wail that said he didn’t want Jingyan to see how much he’d lost.
Jingyan, for his part, had stopped still in the middle of the open walk between buildings, eyes wide. “Xiao-Shu… you can do forms again?” The first, faint stir of delight in his voice, and the aching hope in those words snuffed any remaining protest like a pinched-out candle.
“My sword forms are still appallingly stiff, and I can’t complete any but the lowest leaps.” Lin Shu’s mouth tilted wryly. “The Lin swordmaster would weep. But yes. Every morning.” Looking away, through the pillars of the outer walk ahead of them, he admitted, softly. “You would be welcome.”
“Then I will come,” Jingyan told him, just as softly.
“Excellent,” Nihuang declared, looking downright smug as she caught their arms and towed them back into motion. “For now, then, you can show us what’s giving you a headache, Jingyan.”
“Nothing is giving me a headache.” Jingyan disengaged from her grip, nearly rolling his eyes.
“Then show us what would be giving you a headache if you were not Lady Jing’s son,” Lin Shu specified, and shared a knowing look with Nihuang when Jingyan’s gaze slid aside. More seriously, he added, “Jingyan. This is exactly what I came back in order to help you with. Let me.”
Now Jingyan returned his gaze, steady and serious. “Even though you hoped to be done with being the strategist, after my brother Prince Qi’s and Lin’s and Chiyan’s names were restored?”
For a long moment, he was silent, because that had been true. “I did finish with it, though,” he said at last, slowly. “And I returned to my old self, my own world, long enough to die there. I thought that would be the end of it, and I still believe I was right about that. This,” he swept a hand around, at the palace, at the ministers and officials and ladies moving through the halls and gardens, each intent on their own ends and ambitions, and the three of them in the middle of it all, “this is what comes after that end, another new life.” He gave Jingyan a tiny smile. “Now, what I can do, all that I can do, is for you and with you, nothing held back. That’s as it should be, and I have no wish to be done with it.”
Jingyan paused at the turn in to the Eastern Palace’s garden walk, and Lin Shu saw true relief in the faint easing of his shoulders. “Xiao-Shu,” Jingyan said, softly. “Thank you.”
“If you thank me too often, I’m going to start calling you Your Highness again,” Lin Shu warned.
Jingyan laughed at that. “Fine. Come on, then.” He gestured them down the walk, and Lin Shu exchanged satisfied smiles with Nihuang. Her eyes were dancing, like she was laughing at them, again.
Eventually, he’d have to figure out what it was she thought he didn’t know.
Things that were attempting to give him headaches took them all the way through dinner, and for once Jingyan didn’t feel bad for complaining. Nihuang might not be any more of an adept at politics than he was, but they all knew how to read a situation and xiao-Shu seemed to know most of what he said even before he said it.
“Of course Zhu Yue still bears a grudge; he’s actually quite aware of the city’s political currents, even if a mole would have a better view of the country’s larger concerns.” Xiao-Shu pointed a sliver of dried apricot at Jingyan. “As far as he’s concerned, you’re directly responsible for his sister’s death.”
Nihuang rolled her eyes and pushed his hand toward his mouth. “I’ll hardly deny that it was our actions that brought Prince Yu down, but even if Lady Zhu had really died, that would have been her own choice; she wasn’t condemned with him.”
“I did say Zhu Yue had a narrow view.” Xiao-Shu finally popped the bit of apricot into his mouth. “He’ll bear watching, even demoted, but I doubt he’ll go beyond a little obstructionism. She was always the one with the most courage, in that family.”
Jingyan sat back, trying not to laugh as Nihuang nudged a dish of dumplings under xiao-Shu’s hand without looking. “Are you practicing for your future children?” he finally asked. It was at least the fourth time she’d done it, this meal. Nihuang snorted inelegantly.
“Hardly. It’s that this one has gotten careless,” she aimed a quelling look at xiao-Shu’s indignant sound, “and always forgets that he has an appetite again, or what one is supposed to do with an appetite.”
“I eat,” xiao-Shu protested mildly. Jingyan eyed the dishes around them; xiao-Shu’s were, perhaps, half as empty as his and Nihuang’s. At his raised brows, xiao-Shu sighed and reached for another dumpling. Nihuang gave Jingyan a pleased, complicit nod, and Jingyan made a note to see how soon he could take xiao-Shu to his mother, who could give authoritative orders about how much to make sure he ate—orders that xiao-Shu might even follow, coming from her. It was xiao-Shu’s open amusement and the laughter in Nihuang’s eyes that he took to bed with him, though, the still-strong wonder that the brother of his heart had returned to him, and when his eyes opened on the soft light of early morning, he was smiling.
It was good, so very good, to step out into the cool air and see Lin Shu and Mu Nihuang standing in the middle of his house’s open training ground as if they had never left. Good to settle into his stance beside them without needing a word spoken, and move as one, hands sweeping up in the opening movement of the first form they’d all been taught. Good, above all, to watch Lin Shu out of the corner of his eye and see steadiness in the slow sweep of his feet over the dusty ground, true calm in his eyes and not the brittle, desperate edge of a year ago.
They were all quiet for a long moment after closing, all three of them, he thought, basking a little in having regained this peace together. At last, though, Nihuang stretched and nudged xiao-Shu with her shoulder. “You should do paired forms with Jingyan, today.”
“Are you all right continuing?” Jingyan couldn’t help asking, a little hesitant to even bring it up but remembering all too well the days of illness that had come after even small exertions, last year.
Xiao-Shu chuckled, sweeping one hand up to guard and beckoning. “Amazingly, yes. I can’t come close to full speed or force, and Lin Chen threatened some fairly grisly things if I dared break a bone while practicing, but we haven’t even been out here for half a shi. I’ll be fine.” His smile turned into a flashing grin that nearly knocked Jingyan’s breath out with the weight of years suddenly rolling back. “Just be gentle with me, hm?”
“Yes, of course.” Jingyan couldn’t even blame Nihuang for stifling laughter as she took up a practice sword and stepped apart, ruefully aware that he’d answered far more earnestly than the joke probably called for. But that, too, was familiar, and he was smiling back as he stepped forward, letting that old shock of contact roll over him as his arm met xiao-Shu’s and his other hand drove in, past xiao-Shu’s shoulder as he turned, not as light on his feet as he’d once been, not as sure, but still fluid in a way Jingyan had given up hope of seeing again.
Their rhythm was different now, and the shape their forms took against each other. Jingyan had always been given to driving through the center, but had also always kept his own center, been careful not to overextend. Xiao-Shu used to work around the edges of him, forcing him to turn, breaking his footing, leaping to catch his back. Now there were no leaps or lunges, only the fluid swirl of Lin Shu’s movement around and past his strikes, so that any strike immediately edged on overextension, ran the risk of giving xiao-Shu his back. It was… exhilarating. Now, their rhythm together demanded all his skill, just to keep xiao-Shu from controlling it completely.
Perhaps it was exactly that which led him to push a little faster, and then a little more. In the end, it was xiao-Shu’s step that stumbled, tangled, and tripped. That snapped Jingyan out of the form’s focus, and he lunged forward to catch xiao-Shu before he fell. They stopped there for a long moment, clutching each other and leaning together, panting for breath. “Was that too fast?” Jingyan finally managed to ask.
“A little,” xiao-Shu admitted, in exactly the same tone he’d used to allow that his first sword wound hurt ‘a little’. He huffed a bit at Jingyan’s dark look, and pushed himself upright. “I wasn’t exactly complaining.”
“You never do. That’s why we worry,” Nihuang pointed out, closing her sword drill to come and wind her fingers with xiao-Shu’s, tugging a little. “Come wash up, both of you.”
“Fine, fine,” xiao-Shu agreed, tolerantly. “But if either of you try to treat me like glass tomorrow, you’ll regret it.”
Jingyan smiled, reassured by the familiarity of the threat. “All right.”
He thought he could get used to having xiao-Shu around again very quickly.
Lu Jian, one of the better architects in Jinglin if he did say so himself, stood in the first courtyard of the Lin Manor, hands planted on his hips, and turned on his heel to get a sense of the place. Six courtyards and three gardens, one of them a water garden—he wasn’t looking forward to that cleaning job—not counting the tangle of the kitchen gardens, now an impenetrable riot of herbs and gourds. The bones of the place were still elegant, but rich paint was weathered off and peeling, everywhere, the metal sheathing at the feet of the pillars was grimy, and tile and shingles were cracked on nearly every surface they covered.
“This is going to be a pretty big job,” his senior foreman, Shi Ping, said, squinting up at the underside of the inner gate. “We’ve never worked on someplace let to rot for quite this long. The framing will need checking, everywhere.”
“Make sure you check the supports before you let anyone up on the roofs.” Shi Ping gave him a patient look in answer, and Lu Jian laughed. “I know you know, but there’s always someone on the crew who thinks he can rush.”
“If there are any, I’ll give him a scythe and send him out to clear the west field; looks like they kept that one trimmed down.” Shi Ping was circling the courtyard, and paused when he got to the inner hall, on the north side. “Or maybe make them work on this hall.”
Lu Jian blinked at that; the steps didn’t look in that bad of shape. “Why that hall?” He strode across the courtyard to join his foreman, kicking debris and broken clay shingles out of the way as he went. When he got to the steps, though, he stopped short. “Oh.”
Some attempt at clean-up had been made at some point, but there was still a wide stain on the landing, just before the doors to the hall, where something dark had seeped through the paint, blistering it up and soaking into the wood. Someone had died on these steps, without question; died and been let to lie for a time.
“The Lin family have a hall of remembrance,” Lu Jian said, quietly. “You remember; last year, the Emperor himself led the first prayers. And their son has surely performed all the rites, since he returned.”
Shi Ping, kneeling beside the steps to check for warping, gave him a speaking look, and Lu Jian sighed.
“No, you’re right. We’ll make an offering, before we start.” He rubbed his arms briskly, where goose-flesh had risen at the sight of that stain. “And we’ll replace these steps first thing, I think.”
Shi Ping grunted approvingly, as he stood. “Good idea. This is going to be a tough enough job, as it is.”
Cai Quan knew that, objectively, his life was far easier now than it would have been under Prince Yu or, thank the Heavens for forbidding it, Prince Xian, or even the Emperor had he still been the one whose hand was on the reins of the Ministries. He knew this. He knew that having a reasonable assurance of being able to take action when he uncovered some bit of corruption in his ministry was a gift, that the full-blooded support of a Crown Prince like Xiao Jingyan was a blessing. He knew that.
It just didn’t make the apparently unending parade of peculation and bribery and misappropriation and plain old incompetence any less frustrating.
He exchanged bows in passing with a palace official, as he stalked down the breezeways to the Eastern Palace, and tried to ignore the obvious amusement in the man’s smile. Yes, he was here a lot. Yes, he was usually annoyed over the reason. That was not actually a good thing! He stumped up the steps and waited for his presence to be called; at least the Crown Prince’s close attendants were more sympathetic than amused. They undoubtedly got to watch the ongoing struggle to bail out the exceedingly leaky boat of the government from much closer up, and with the immediacy of it being their own master who was getting blisters from hauling the buckets.
Cai Quan shook off these rather frivolous mental images as Zhou Wei, who had taken over managing the Eastern Palace after the debacle of the old Crown Prince, gestured him in, pulling his thoughts back to the day’s business. “Your Highness…” He only got halfway through his greeting before the presence of the man beside the Crown Prince’s desk registered, and then he nearly swallowed his own tongue, staring. “…Su-xiansheng?” he finished, a little weakly. The clothes were different, finer than he’d ever seen on the man he’d only met once or twice, at the Prince’s own manor in the city, the expression was different, the stance was different, but that was the face he remembered throwing a litany of betrayed history in the Emperor’s teeth.
Su Zhe only smiled at him, a slow curl of lips that nearly made him take a step back. “I’m afraid you’ve mistaken me for someone else, Minister. I am Lin Shu.” He bowed gracefully in greeting.
Cai Quan fumbled a bow back, stunned. Lin Shu? Lin Shu? He’d speculated, with Shen, that their Prince’s brilliant strategist had to be someone from Prince Qi’s or the Lin’s service, but the Vice-Marshal of Chiyan, himself? How was it possible?
The Prince directed a tolerant look at the impossible man standing at his side, and Cai Quan had to admit, dazed, that it was exactly the kind of look one would give a cherished but mischievous younger relative. “Vice-Marshal,” he finally managed. “Congratulations on your return.” He was most definitely dragging Shen Zhui out drinking this evening; this was news that called for alcohol along with it, and perhaps Shen Zhui’s advice on how much to say to anyone else.
“You had something for my attention?” the Prince asked, and Cai Quan shook himself back to the business at hand.
“Yes, Highness.” He fished the report folio out of his sleeve and proffered it. “Evidence of some long-running misappropriation has come up, in the southern Qing Li supply depot. Investigations have only started, but this is a list of the missing equipment so far.” His mouth twisted. “I learned only recently that the Ministry of War might have suffered some delay in passing the information on to you.”
The Prince flicked open the report, frowning more and more darkly as he read down the fairly extensive list. “You think someone there is involved?”
“As I said, Your Highness, the investigation has only begun.” At the Prince’s sharp look, though, Cai Quan admitted, “I think it likely.” Shen Zhui would complain about quick judgments, but really, what else could it be?
Su… rather Lin Shu, was reading over the Prince’s shoulder. “Mmm. This was probably sold off to the Dao rebellion in Southern Chu.”
The Prince looked up at him, brows raised, and Lin Shu’s mouth quirked up. “Look.” He leaned over the Prince’s shoulder to tap the start of the list. “There’s plenty of horse-gear taken, yes, but it’s all basically replacement straps, no saddles, no stirrups even; that lot was taken to be resold for money.”
“And without that all the rest is skirmishers’ gear or food,” the Prince murmured. “I see. You think it goes back that far, though?”
“If it wasn’t critical before now…”
“…then it was a trickle over time, yes, but I thought Qi would be the ones to support Dao…”
“It’s Northern Yan that’s keeping Qi standing firm…”
“…which means they’d have the most stake in making sure Southern Chu was distracted…”
“…but also be the place hardest to get supplies out of.”
The Prince sighed and settled back in his chair. “We’ll need to check for Xuanjing involvement, then.”
Cai Quan shook his head a little, trying to catch up with that rush of shared thoughts weaving back and forth like currents in one river, and asked, “Xuanjing?” He would put little past the shadow agency, but selling off their own nation’s gear?
“Putting Dao in their debt, and possibly implicating Northern Yan in Chu’s internal politics, would have been a desirable move, from the viewpoint of the network of Hua agents that Xia Jiang wanted to keep control of,” Lin Shu supplied, and Cai Quan’s jaw tightened. Even dead, that man was still trouble.
“My investigators will be alert for the possibility.”
“Good.” The Prince nodded brisk dismissal, and Cai Quan took himself out, tallying up the wagon-load of extra documentation and background he’d probably need to have his people find, to unravel this one, and which of his inherited agents he might need to keep away from it lest old loyalties interfere. Perhaps he should put Xia Dong in charge of it…
He was definitely dragging Shen Zhui out for a drink, today.
“Nihuang!” Xia Dong strode through the pale hangings and dark wood of her outer rooms in the Nie manor to catch Nihuang in a quick hug before taking her shoulders and holding her a little away, eyeing her up and down, and finally smiling. “You look well. It’s true, then?”
Mu Nihuang smiled, the way she sometimes felt she hadn’t actually stopped smiling for months, now. “It’s true.” The smile faded a little as she reached out for Dong-jie’s hands. “And I wanted to speak with you about that.”
Dong-jie looked at her, dark and steady, for two long breaths and then nodded. “Come on, then.” She gestured Mu Nihuang toward the inner rooms and made shoo-ing motions at her attendants.
“Dong-jie,” Mu Nihuang admonished, laughing a little when Xia Dong rolled her eyes.
“I’ve never been the inside type, you know that.” She settled Mu Nihuang on one of the stools by her well-piled writing table and pulled up another. “Now. Tell me.”
Mu Nihuang folded her hands in her lap and took a breath to organize her thoughts. “There is a cure. It’s not a sure thing. It depends on finding enough people who will with all their hearts for him to live, who are willing to give a little of their own lives. And I know that is a weight on Shu-ge.” She looked up to meet Dong-jie’s sober gaze. “And it’s not… I mean, it’s…” She had to bite her lip to still its stubborn trembling. “It doesn’t erase anything of what they went through, before.”
“Oh,” Dong-jie whispered. “Oh, Nihuang…” She leaned forward, winding her arms back around Mu Nihuang, and she let herself cling tight for a moment while Dong-jie rubbed her back. Finally Dong-jie asked, gently, “I imagine touching is a difficult thing for him, still?”
Mu Nihuang nodded, sitting back just enough to blot her eyes on her cuff. She’d thought Dong-jie would probably understand; Nie Feng had almost certainly been dealing with the same thing.
The first time Shu-ge had come to her bed, after their so very long-delayed banquet, she’d been startled by how hesitant he was. He’d seen to her pleasure all right, with slow hands and mouth, but when she’d reached for him he’d flinched. And then apologized in a stifled, helpless voice while she’d been frozen, stricken. Only when she’d insisted had he told her, one slow, painful burst of words at a time, about thirteen years of pain and exhaustion and honest forgetting that pleasure of the body was even possible. Of feeling nothing but fury and betrayal for his own flesh. Of bitter, bone-deep knowing that he’d have nothing to give any lover, and the shock and blankness of mind he’d felt the first time his flesh stirred, after he’d woken up to this new life. They’d wound up huddled together among the covers and pillows, crying in each other’s arms, that night.
“The memory of pain is slow to leave,” Dong-jie said quietly, stroking her hair back with light fingers. “You’ve recovered from injuries before; you know.”
Mu Nihuang blinked hard and nodded. “A little. Yes. But Dong-jie, thirteen years…” Those light fingers touched her lips, hushing her, and Xia Dong’s smile was tight and tilted.
“Yes. It took… a long time before Feng-ge could even lie in the same bed with me, let alone anything more.” She huffed, half amused and half annoyed. “Of course, part of that was convincing him his appearance wouldn’t disgust me, silly man.” She took a deep breath, shoulders straightening. “But we have time, now, Nihuang. Time and peace that we’ve all fought for and won. So take it.”
Mu Nihuang took a breath of her own, telling herself to trust Dong-jie’s wisdom, which was what she’d come for, today, after all, and nodded, smiling through the wetness still in her eyes. “Yes, jie-jie.”
“Better,” Dong-jie said, firmly, and grinned at her. “And I hear you have a younger sister in your household, now, to help you?”
Mu Nihuang laughed, only a little damply. “Yes. She was so annoyed that I made her watch over the rest of the train while we came ahead; I’m going to have to make it up to her, when they get in.”
“Bring her to visit,” Dong-jie told her. “Or perhaps I’ll come see you. I still have to thank her for taking my place in the prison.”
“You’ll like her,” Mu Nihuang predicted. “She’s a lot like your agents.”
“Hmm.” Dong-jie got a speculative glint in her eye. “Perhaps she’d like a job…”
Gong Yu directed the unloading of the last horse with the same paper-thin smile she’d used on importunate clients when she was an entertainer, and stalked up the stairs of Prince Jing’s manor (which she knew her way around very well, thank you), and made for the inner halls, tugging the sleeves of her travel robes irritably straight. She still couldn’t believe she’d been left with the baggage, and yes, she knew that there’d been a definite chance of attack on the train of Lin Shu and Mu Nihuang, but really! She knew for a fact that two of the servants were men of Jiangzuo, and could look after affairs just fine without her!
“Jie-jie, the baggage is all disposed of,” she reported, a bit sulkily, as she entered Nihuang-jie’s rooms, and then stopped short in the entry. Nihuang-jie had company. And her company was the most beautiful woman Gong Yu had ever seen.
Gong Yu knew that she was considered very beautiful, and by classical standards she supposed it was true. She’d certainly used the fact often enough. But the woman standing to greet her was slim and straight as a sword, had swift, graceful hands that settled into place like the flick of a knife, and her sharp features were alive with a wicked, sardonic amusement.
“Thank you for taking care of the train, mei-mei,” Nihuang-jie was saying. “Come and greet Xia Dong, third rank official in the Ministry of Justice. Dong-jie, this is Gong Yu.”
Gong Yu hurried forward, and nearly wobbled as she dipped a bow of greeting. “Madam Nie.”
“Gong Yu.” A light touch under her elbow made her look up. Xia Dong’s smile had softened, and Gong Yu could feel herself blushing. “I didn’t get a chance, a year ago, but I wished very much to thank you for enabling me to leave the prison and see my husband.” She gave Gong Yu a bow, swift and precise as every other move she’d made. “My thanks.”
Gong Yu returned it hastily, unaccustomedly flustered, heart beating quick. “It was my honor to assist, Madam Nie.”
Xia Dong gave her a wry grin, and Gong Yu’s breath caught. “You’re part of the clan, now. No need to be so formal.”
Gong Yu blushed deeper, cheeks hot, and clasped her hands tight, wetting her lips. “Xia Dong jie-jie,” she amended, obediently.
Xia Dong clapped her lightly on the shoulder. “Better. Come tell me about how the roads are; it looks like I’ll be headed a little south soon, myself.” She sank down cross-legged by a low table with a tea set sitting out, fluid and graceful, without a single second of wasted motion. Gong Yu tried not to stare.
“You have a case?” Nihuang-jie asked as Gong Yu settled on the cushion beside Xia Dong, carefully graceful so as not to look like any more of a fool.
“Theft from one of the rear area army depots. A leftover from Xu Anmo’s style of leadership, I’m guessing.” Xia Dong’s mouth twisted expressively.
“Ah. That case.” Nihuang-jie poured more tea, passing Gong Yu the third cup. “Jingyan is angry over that one. He was in the field long enough to know well what happens to the troops who have to meet action when their supplies are interfered with.”
“Minister Cai isn’t too happy about it, either.” Xia Dong sipped her tea, and her mouth curved like a drawn bow, sweet and deadly. “That’s why he’s sending me.”
“The roads are clear near the capital,” Gong Yu supplied, hoping she didn’t sound breathless, “though they’ll be worsening soon, as the wet season sets in. I hope your case goes swiftly.” And that Xia Dong returned swiftly; it was a real shame she couldn’t do something about that directly, any more.
“I shall see that it does.” She give Gong Yu a knowing, sidelong smile. “Would you like to help?”
Gong Yu truly couldn’t help the way a smile took over her face. “Oh! May I?” She turned to Nihuang jie-jie, who was laughing behind her hand. “Jie-jie, may I? Oh, but…” she drooped on her cushion. “My lord wished for me to guard you, in the capital.”
Nihuang jie-jie made a hmph sound, setting her cup down with just a little more force than necessary. “Shu-ge can just learn that I can guard myself.”
Gong Yu nibbled her lip, somehow doubtful that this would satisfy Lin Shu.
Xia Dong shook her head, smile wry. “You’re in little danger, now. Tell you what, we’ll ask Lady Jing to have a few of her girls keep an eye out. Xiao-Shu won’t have qualms about her arrangements.”
Nihuang jie-jie positively smirked with satisfaction. “That should work.” She leaned over and patted Yu’s hand. “Go have fun, mei-mei.”
Gong Yu barely managed to hold back a squeak of excitement.
Lin Shu looked down at the woman in the circle of his arms, brows raised. “Are you telling me Dong-jie stole my concubine?”
Nihuang burst into such gales of laughter that he had to wonder if that was more accurate than he’d thought. “It will be good for her,” she said, when she’d finally recovered. “Gong Yu is used to having more to do; she gets impatient with nothing but household duties to occupy her.”
Lin Shu smiled, stroking back her loose hair with gentle fingers. “Like you?”
“Like me,” she agreed easily. “Only without the military training and experience that will keep me in place as one of the generals of the nation. This will be good for her. Besides,” she smirked, “Gong Yu has a crush on Dong-jie.”
When he murmured thanks to his ancestors, she swatted his shoulder, and he laughed, gathering her close. “I hope they have a good time together, then.” Against the darkness of her hair he added, still a little hesitant, even after their months together, “Come to bed?”
Her smile this time was sweet and brilliant, and she stood on her toes to kiss him. “Yes.”
They helped each other out of over- and under-robes and, more slowly, undergarments. He still had to go slowly, when he actually started touching her skin, had to steady his breath and remind himself that it had always caught like this when they’d kissed, that it was normal, and even to be expected, surely, that the softness of her skin under his fingers would make any man a little dizzy. When she tucked herself under his chin, arms wrapped around him, and just settled there with a pleased sound, he had to hang on in return and close his eyes for a moment, nearly overwhelmed by the warmth of her pressed against him.
She waited for him. Waited for him to convince himself, again, that this was real. Waited until he stopped trembling and could slide his hands gently down the curve of her bare back to smile up at him and tug him toward the bed. As they stretched out together, he murmured against her shoulder, “Thank you.”
“Oh hush.” The words were impatient, but her voice was gentle and her hands were slow as they slid up his chest. “We have time.”
“Even so.” He kissed her softly, and laughed at the faintly exasperated sound she made into his mouth.
His awareness of his own body still came and went sometimes, but tonight, when she hooked a leg around his hip and rocked against him, slow, heavy heat curled at the base of his spine, and it felt… sure. Immovable. As steady as the knowledge of where his own center was, when he took a step in their training forms. And so, tonight, he slid his fingers into her hair and kissed her deeper, open and openly wanting, moving with her, sliding against her until she shivered, arching against him, and murmured, “Shu-ge…”
“Oh yes.” He almost didn’t recognize his own voice, rough and husky with the urgent heat running in his veins. She was wet against him, now, and the sound she made when he pressed into her was nearly a growl. The heat of her filled his mind, his lungs, and all he could do was catch her closer, drive into her, let the tide of sensation take him and trust that the ferocious intensity of it would be pleasure. Nihuang ground up against him, strong arms winding tight around him, and the burst of brilliant heat as her body tightened knocked the breath out of him in a wordless groan, drowned everything else in the wild surge of his body’s response.
Other sensations settled back into place slowly. His mouth was dry from panting. Nihuang was pressed tight against him, shuddering as her body settled from her own pleasure. Her hands were stroking up and down his back, the slight scrape of callouses reminding him again that this was real.
“There,” she finally said, voice just as rough as his, “see, we’re getting better at that.”
And, at that, he couldn’t do anything but laugh, helplessly, and kiss her again.
While Jingyan had been entirely correct about how easily he could become accustomed to having xiao-Shu always near, again, apparently this was not the case for his officials and ministers. Nearly a month after his arrival (or re-arrival) in the capital, whispers still followed Lin Shu through the halls of the Palace like an over-robe trailing off his shoulders. Xiao-Shu only smiled at them, though, small and amused, so Jingyan paid it as little mind as he could.
The distraction of half the officials reporting to him, he was less willing to ignore. He tapped a finger meaningfully against his desk, and the Minister of Personnel started a little, gaze jerking back to him from where it had been wandering off to the side. Admittedly, the tangle of tables and shelves which was slowly engulfing one side of Jingyan’s outer receiving room, all stacked with books, scrolls, ink, bushes, and the occasional candle tree, was worth a second glance. But He Jingzhong had seen what Jingyan couldn’t help thinking of as xiao-Shu’s command center before, and there was other work to get through, today. He raised pointed brows, and He Jingzhong cleared his throat.
“Ah. Yes. So, all the ladies the Crown Princess requested be inducted to the Palace staff have been approved.” He bowed and offered a report folio. Jingyan refrained, with what he felt was admirable self-discipline, from rolling his eyes, and flipped through it quickly. Everyone Liu An had discussed with his mother was, indeed, present.
“Very good.” He nodded a dismissal, and He Jingzhong took himself off, a little slower than was really necessary.
Jingyan gave in and rolled his eyes.
From his own desk, xiao-Shu chuckled, finally looking up from the stack of reports and letters he had been giving every appearance of being completely engrossed in. “Give them a little longer to become accustomed, before you start thinking of distant posts you can banish people to.”
“I wasn’t thinking of banishing anyone,” Jingyan said with dignity, if not with entire truthfulness. Xiao-Shu laughed out loud, at him.
“Of course you were. It’s exactly the same little lines between your brows that you always got when dealing with idiots. It’s probably the same look Nihuang is giving the Ji army generals at this very moment.”
Nihuang had declared, when offered her own work space in the Eastern Palace, that she had just escaped a princedom’s worth of paperwork, and demanded some field work to clean the paper dust out of her throat. Jingyan had sympathized too heartily with the sentiment to argue, and had asked her to inspect the armies posted to the interior. He trusted that she would bring back reliable accounts of whomever she didn’t terrorize into shape on the spot. And also that her return would make Lin Shu stop looking softly distracted and then a little disappointed immediately after. As he was, for example, at this moment. “She’ll be back in ten days,” Jingyan offered.
Xiao-Shu actually blushed, and Jingyan couldn’t help laughing. “Liu An thinks the two of you are adorable, you know.” Actually, so did he. The two of them had only recently grown out of teasing each other mercilessly, when everything went wrong, and he treasured the chance to see them acting properly lovestruck. And because that clearly meant someone else would have to do the teasing for a while, he added, “Mother thinks you’re adorable, too.”
Xiao-Shu snatched up a report folio and threw it at him, half-laughing and half-glowering. Jingyan grinned as he caught it, and ignored Zhou Wei’s faint sigh from the side of the room. He didn’t think the man actually disapproved. He did turn back to his work, though, because there was just so much of it to get through. “Do we have that review of boat-masters shipping under an Imperial charter yet?” he asked.
“Yes. You’re holding it.” Xiao-Shu smirked at him sidelong, and Jingyan snorted. All right, fine, yes he should know better than to try and get the better of his cousin.
That did not, of course, mean he would stop.
Jingyan was smiling as he bent over the endless reports.
Li Len climbed the steps to the Eastern Palace in Cai Quan and Shen Zhui’s wake. The two of them were already, or perhaps still, arguing.
“You should have gotten rid of Tian Gen as soon as you knew he was corrupt!”
“The point is that I didn’t know; I can’t just purge my ministry on suspicions.”
“Suspicion is good enough for demotion, and then he couldn’t do as much damage.”
In a way, Li Len could see why the Crown Prince favored the two of them together. They did provide a fairly balanced view of any topic if you let them argue long enough, but it was a little nerve-wracking to be around, and he could do without extra nerves on any visit to the Crown Prince. At least Cai Quan and Shen Zhui stopped arguing long enough for their entrance to be called.
That didn’t actually help Li Len’s nerves any, though, because Lin Shu was at the Crown Prince’s side, today, as he was so constantly since he’d returned, leaning casually on the Prince’s writing table and pointing something out over his shoulder. As someone who’d survived by strict adherence to protocol for decades, Li Len freely admitted to getting twitchy over how easily the Prince accepted Lin Shu’s unpredictable shifts between knife-sharp observance of protocol and casual disregard of the same. How was a man supposed to know how to keep his head on his damn shoulders without at least a few guidelines?
He salved his nerves with a rigidly proper bow, along with Cai Quan and Shen Zhui, and took a deep breath. Today was going to be tense enough as it was.
“Ministers,” the Crown Prince greeted them, sitting back. “I take it you have something significant to discuss, today, to have all three of you here?”
“Unfortunately so,” Shen Zhui agreed. “Your Highness will recall the misappropriation from the Qing Li southern depot. We seem to have struck an impasse, on it.”
At Shen Zhui’s nod, Li Len stepped forward. “Minister Cai’s investigator determined which of the depot officers was responsible for the theft, and he has been remanded to prison already. Unfortunately, he has not yet been persuaded to give up the names of who else he worked with.” He spread his hands, half helpless and half frustrated, and tried not to wince at the way the Prince’s always-stern expression was turning dark and hard. “I am willing to approve sterner questioning, but…”
“I doubt it would be of use,” Cai Quan finished for him, clearly and entirely frustrated. “If he’s this resistant to interrogation, to begin with, we’d have to use extreme measures, and the information that comes from that is always questionable. We do have a suspect, one Tian Gen, but I will admit that the evidence is very circumstantial.”
“I see.” The Prince’s increasingly cold gaze turned to Shen Zhui . “Someone from your ministry, then?”
Shen Zhui nodded rather wearily. “What we do know points that way. Sergeant Yang covered his appropriation of supplies by reporting a good deal of spoilage, more than would have normally gone without question or inspection of the depot’s storage itself. Investigation traced that money, and some of it was sent back to someone in the capital, but the trail ends at a pick-up point and a false name, and we have not been able to get a definitive description of the man who picked up those moneys.”
“But you assume it’s Tian Gen,” Lin Shu murmured from where he stood by the Prince’s chair, arms crossed, eyes distant, as though he were reading a scroll no one else could see.
“He’s the one who should have overseen reports from that area.” Shen Zhui gave Cai Quan, who was nearly bouncing on his toes, a patient look, and added. “And he rose very quickly under Lou Zhinjing. I will admit that many of those who did likewise have been… less than reliable. But it is not evidence.”
“He fits the description we do have,” Cai Quan grumbled.
“So do a quarter of the men in the city!” Shen Zhui pointed out, exasperated. “I can’t throw the man out of the ministry just for that!”
“I can,” the Prince stated flatly, and Li Len saw Lin Shu’s head jerk up.
“Jingyan,” Lin Shu said, sharp and warning, and Li Len tried not to actually pale with shock. He knew the man was sometimes casual with the Crown Prince, but this…!
Beside him, Shen Zhui sighed and murmured, under his breath, “Oh dear.”
The Crown Prince nearly exploded up out of his chair, rounding on Lin Shu. “If he should have had oversight, he’s guilty in any case!”
“Then let him be tried and removed for that,” Lin Shu snapped back. “You cannot set a precedent for removing officials at your whim!”
The Crown Prince gestured sharply, as if to strike that aside. “This is hardly a whim!”
“It is if you don’t wait for evidence!”
The two men glared at each other for a long moment before the Prince turned away and planted his clenched fists on the table, head lowered. Li Len wondered, a little distantly, if he could sneak out now and pretend he’d never witnessed this. He jumped a little when Shen Zhui patted him on the arm. “Calmly, Minister,” Shen Zhui said out of the corner of his mouth, nearly whispering. “They do this now and then.”
Before Li Len could ask how, in that case, Lin Shu was still alive and walking around free, Lin Shu sighed and stepped forward, anger falling away as he laid a hand on the Crown Prince’s shoulder. “Dong-jie is very good at what she does,” he said, quietly. “She’ll bring you what you need, to act on this. Trust the people we’ve chosen.”
The Crown Prince didn’t answer, but did lift a hand and lay it over Lin Shu’s. When he straightened again, his fury seemed to have washed away, or at least eased into a focused calm. “Minister Cai,” he said quietly, “when do you expect Xia Dong to return?”
As if there was nothing at all strange about the Crown Prince, and de facto emperor, having a public shouting match with his closest advisor, Cai Quan answered, “Likely another month; she’s following the matériel trail to see whether we can trace more conclusively where the goods went. She sent the girl who accompanied her back, along with her interim report, though.” He made a dubious face. “She suggested we try the girl on Tian Gen, actually.”
Lin Shu smirked, where he was still standing close at the Prince’s shoulder, and put in, “Gong Yu was one of my agents in the Capital for years. She’s very good at getting men to talk.”
“Ah.” Cai Quen bowed briefly. “With both of you vouching for her skills, sir, I’m willing to let her try.”
“Do so,” the Prince approved. “Let me know when you have more information. You will have my support for whatever needs to be done, to clear this matter.”
Li Len bowed acknowledgment, along with Cai Quen and Shen Zhui, and followed them out the door, finally releasing a relieved breath, when they were clear. And then he spun to Shen Zhui and demanded, “Exactly how often is ‘now and then’?!”
Shen Zhui and Cai Quan exchanged thoughtful looks. “Twice?” Shen Zhui suggested.
“This time makes three, that we’ve seen.” Cai Quan clapped Li Len reassuringly on the shoulder. He thought he must look as horrified as he felt. “Don’t worry so much!”
“They both obviously have the family temper,” Shen Zhui put in, more quietly. “Better they use it to keep each other in check than otherwise, yes?”
“I suppose so,” Li Len had to agree, albeit a little weakly. He shook himself and continued down the steps with them. After a few more, in which he recalled the lack of space between the two men, and the gentleness of Lin Shu’s tone, he added, “Do you think the two of them are… that way, perhaps?”
“You have to think,” Cai Quan agreed. “Considering.”
“Oh certainly,” Shen Zhui murmured. “Just as soon as one of them notices.”
Li Len and Cai Quan both stared at him, Li Len picturing Lin Shu’s easy hand on the Prince’s shoulder and the Prince’s hand covering his. “You think they haven’t?”
Shen Zhui chuckled. “Remember your son’s courting, if not your own. Not quite yet, I don’t think.”
Li Len considered how his own son had behaved, when he’d finally noticed his betrothed was a girl, and a pretty one at that, and rubbed his forehead. He could feel a headache coming on already.
“My turn to host drinks,” Cai Quan stated firmly, and Li Len let the two of them steer him toward the gates with gratitude. He felt badly in need of a little fortification.
Lu Jian was knee deep in slimy mud, the day Princess Mu Nihuang, Madam Lin, visited, debating with the boss of his garden crew whether the bed of the water garden needed to be dredged. By the time he’d scrambled up the ladder and over the edge, he was even muddier. The Princess only smiled, returning a courteous nod to his bow. “Your message said you wanted someone who was familiar with the manor to look at something?”
Lu Jian tried not to goggle at her, and hastily bowed again. “One of the servants would have done, Milady!”
She waved this off. “There aren’t many left, and none in the city at this time. What is it?”
“Well…” Lu Jian ran a hand through his hair, hoping against hope to neaten it after his morning climbing in and out of muddy holes. “I was hoping to speak with someone who knew how the manor was furnished. I know the family belongings probably can’t be recovered, but… well, I was hoping to at least come close.”
Her smile warmed, and Lu Jian suddenly understood why one of the premier generals of the nation also had so much poetry written about her. “That is a kind thought, and one I will be pleased to assist with.”
“Yes, Milady,” he agreed, just a little faintly, before he pulled himself together and called for the senior secretary on site.
He tried to make the tour of the premises quick, but the Princess herself kept pausing, considering the Inner Hall for a long moment before telling him that the candle trees had been four-tiered, sighing at the eastern garden’s disarray before telling him that the Royal Princess Jinyang had favored azaleas and roses there, touching the fresh timber of the main hall’s rear supports with light fingers before confirming that they had been stained a deep black. By the end of it, Lu Jian felt somewhere between guilty for making the lady relive the past to answer his questions and delighted that he now had a chance to match her memories (and thus Vice-Marshal Lin’s memories) so closely.
It was not a comfortable mix.
“Anything for me to take to the suppliers?” Shi Ping asked, once he’d seen the Princess off.
“Quite a bit, actually.” He gestured for his secretary to pass over the list. “This renovation might just restart the fashion for painted hangings.”
“Well, at least they’ll be less expensive right now,” Shi Ping pointed out, practically. “I’ll see about these. You go talk to the garden crew again. Whatever we save on hangings, I’m thinking we’ll have to spend on rock to re-line the water garden.”
Lu Jian groaned at the mere thought of the expense, but he couldn’t actually argue; a water garden with that kind of slime built up at the bottom had to be cleaned out completely, or it would just pollute the new water and kill off any new plantings. You couldn’t argue with the facts of nature—only work with them. He turned and made for the third garden.
He was probably going to need two baths by the end of the day.
More and more often, lately, Lin Shu found himself remembering Prince Qi, the brother Jingyan had idolized, the Prince that Lin Shu himself had thought to serve. Once in the field, the Emperor had been a distant, abstract sort of memory. It had been Jingyan at his side, his father in command, and Prince Qi’s orders, thoughts, ideals guiding them. Now that management of the whole nation, rather than just one army, had fallen on he and Jingyan, he cast his thoughts back to those ideals whenever he could.
He also found himself wondering how Prince Qi had possibly been able to keep his relatively cheerful disposition when buried in the paperwork of government.
He believed in staying informed as much as the next man, and considering the next man was often Lin Chen this was saying something, but he would be happier if more officials and ministers spent a season or two writing via messenger pigeon to master the art of concise language.
The explanations for official expenditures ran especially long, and he was seriously considering sending sub-minister of Public Works Huang a note advising him to simply put “bribe to expedite construction” in his next report. Both honesty and efficiency would be served well, thereby, and he wouldn’t have to comb through his own height in paper just to find out which shippers were building up unusual funds and might, therefore, be trailed back to foreign sources he could use to track future goods smuggled out of the country.
“Xiao-Shu.” A firm hand fell on his shoulder and shook him out of his concentration, and he blinked up at Jingyan.
Jingyan was smiling down at him, openly amused. “Nihuang only returned yesterday. If you miss dinner because you were reading reports, I hesitate to imagine what action she’ll take to rectify matters.”
“Ah.” Lin Shu straightened in his chair, glancing around at his stacks of reading, and he had to smile himself, a bit wryly. He was, perhaps, too used to working alone with a small network, still. “Yes, all right. I suppose the rest of this can wait.” As he stretched upright, all the muscles in his back registered their agreement.
There was definite approval in Jingyan’s voice when he said, “Good.” He squeezed Lin Shu’s shoulder and let him go.
Perhaps it was only that Lin Shu was already paying attention to what his body was telling him in the moment, but when Jingyan’s fingers brushed against the bare skin of his neck, drawing away, that one moment of contact poured a warm shiver straight down his spine to pool low in his stomach, hot and startling.
Or… perhaps not startling, exactly, because Lin Shu could remember many moments like this, when they were younger. They spilled through his mind, quick and visceral, those moments of heat, of awareness, that had accompanied Jingyan’s hand in his hair, on his neck, on his wrist, moments so easy to fold into his love for his cousin, his desire to always be near, the easy knowledge that Jingyan would never deny him. Now… now he had fourteen years of separation, of fiercely ignoring his body and its pain, of ignoring everything he knew he could never have again. Now it stood out.
And what did he do with it, now?
“Xiao-Shu?” Jingyan had turned back, half-way to the entrance to the inner rooms, brows lifted. Lin Shu shook himself and stood.
“Yes, of course.” He made his way to Jingyan’s side and tried not to let his breath catch at the easy nudge of Jingyan’s shoulder against his as they passed within.
What on earth was he going to do with this now?
Nihuang eyed her husband thoughtfully, as they ate, aware of Jingyan doing the same, with, perhaps, a shade more concern. Of course, Nihuang was fairly sure she knew what was behind all the moments when Shu-ge hesitated just a bit longer than usual before answering someone, when his hand stayed poised just a beat too long before actually conveying food from dish to mouth. The decisive clue, she thought, was that, in each one of those moments, Shu-ge’s eyes slid toward Jingyan and then snapped away an instant later. Even Liu An was giving him a puzzled look, now and again. Nihuang caught her eye and gave her a reassuring smile, rolling her own eyes toward both the men. Liu An looked down quickly, stifling a giggle, and relaxed again.
She and Nihuang had talked about this before Nihuang had ever left the capital.
And tonight, Nihuang thought she might just be able to get through another of the necessary discussions to untangle her husband from his own uncertainty. So as soon as they’d finished, she reached out to twine her fingers with Shu-ge’s and said, “Come and talk. I’ve missed you.”
Jingyan chuckled at that, which made her think he’d been teasing Shu-ge about her, which was an encouraging sign. Shu-ge only smiled, though, small and warm. “Yes, of course.”
So she tugged him off to her own rooms and promptly snuggled close as soon as he sat. It was entirely true that she’d missed him, after all, and missed the way he gathered her into the curve of his arm and pressed his lips to her hair. There were other matters that were overdue to be seen to, though, so as soon as she was settled to her satisfaction, tucked up against him, she asked, “Shu-ge, is something wrong? You spent all evening not looking at Jingyan.”
He huffed softly. “I suppose I should have expected you to see it.”
“So what is it?" She nudged him and added, leadingly, "You must know he’d never disapprove of anything you wanted to do.”
“It’s not like that. I just… That is, today…” She waited while he took a long breath and let it out. “Today, when Jingyan touched me, I remembered how it used to be, back then.”
“Ah.” Now they were getting somewhere. She smiled and cuddled closer. “You mean when, every time he touched you, he was smiling like the dawn sun, and, every time, you looked back at him like he was the world’s first sunrise?” His arms tightened around her sharply, and she reached up to touch his cheek and make him look at her. “And how is that in any way different from how it is now?”
After a long, wide-eyed moment, he smiled down at her. “Well. I’d forgotten how it felt.”
“So now you remember.” She stroked her thumb along his cheekbone, gently. “Shu-ge, do you remember what we used to talk of, back then? That we’d find another girl of a military family for Jingyan, and all live together in one house, and be together always?”
A soft, unsteady laugh escaped him. “And that we’d all four take the field together, and be as fierce as legends, and sweep the enemies of the nation before us?”
She smiled back, a little unsteady herself with the sweetness of those memories. “And look at us, now. All in the same house, much of the time. And if Liu An isn’t of a military family, she is the one who understands best the other ways you fight, now.” She reached up to cup both hands around his face, finishing in a whisper, “And have we not swept our enemies before us?”
He caught her close, burying his head in her shoulder, and she could feel him shaking a little in her arms. “Yes,” he answered, low and rough. “Yes, we have.”
“Then be as fierce as the legend we will become,” she told him, completely sure of this one thing. “What is there to fear, after all this?”
Finally he lifted his head, eyes a little wet though he was smiling. “You’ve grown so wise, my heart.” He still hesitated, though, and she cocked an eyebrow. “I know you were jealous of him, sometimes,” he said, low.
“Sometimes, when we were first betrothed,” she agreed, quietly. “Yes. But Shu-ge… do you know how you looked at me, back then?
He smoothed back a strand of her hair with light fingers, eyes soft. “How?”
“Back then, you stopped in your steps, now and then, and looked at me like I’d just stepped out of the sky itself to take your hand. And I looked back like you were the beating heart in my chest.” She leaned up to kiss him, softly. “And that, too, is no different, now, than it’s ever been.”
He caught her closer, tight enough to drive her breath out, this time. “No different at all,” he agreed, husky, and kissed her back, slow and tender. Against her mouth, he murmured, “So, may I be legendarily fierce tomorrow? I believe I’d like to stay here, for the the rest of tonight.”
She laughed, free and open, and twisted to pull him down to the bed with her, hands buried in his hair as they kissed again, sweet with the fierceness that was always at the heart of her brilliant boy, even when he didn’t see it. That was all right. The ones who loved him saw it for him.
And she had always known that Xiao Jingyan was a true partner, in that.
Predictably, Lin Shu found himself even more distracted the next day. It felt like the first few weeks after he’d returned to Nihuang, all over again. His eyes constantly strayed to Jingyan, to the tilt of his head as he read, to the movement of his hands over paper, to the occasional curl of his mouth. His memory, now thoroughly stirred up, insisted on recalling all the other times he’d seen Jingyan smile, so many of them at him.
Of course Jingyan noticed.
“Xiao-Shu?” he finally asked, quietly, once they’d sent the sub-minister of Rites away with a quelling promise that Marquis Yan would review his recommendations, coming to stand close. “Are you all right?”
And, of course, that was where Jingyan’s mind would immediately go; he should have anticipated it. Lin Shu reached out, in unthinking reassurance, and rested a hand on Jingyan’s chest. Just as unthinkingly, Jingyan’s had rose to cover it. “I’m well, I promise,” he soothed. “I just…” he paused as the warmth of Jingyan’s hand on his finally registered, and looked down at his own hand on Jingyan’s chest. They were standing so close, and he hadn’t even noticed, because that was how they’d always been. Always, save for a year ago, and that had been two solid years of restraining himself at every turn from stepping closer, reaching out, knowing that Jingyan would never deny him if he did. That Jingyan hadn’t denied him, once he’d known. Jingyan’s voice wound through his memory, low and sure, stating like a fact, We are as one person.
Now he felt like a bit of a fool.
“Xiao-Shu?” Jingyan asked, softly.
Lin Shu took a breath and let it go, uneven with the thread of laughter in it. “Sometimes I miss the obvious, it seems. In my defense, I never even thought to be alive, here and now, let alone returned to you.”
“You, miss something?” Jingyan asked, straight-faced and teasing. “Surely not.”
Lin Shu shoved at him, lightly, and then turned his hand to catch Jingyan’s, smiling. “Say rather I wasn’t letting myself remember. This,” he added, as Jingyan started to ask, and lifted their clasped hands to press a kiss to Jingyan’s fingers. In the quiet of the room, he could hear the quick draw of Jingyan’s breath. When he looked up again, Jingyan was standing very still, eyes wide and dark.
It was little more than a whisper, but the weight it sank into his chest like a sea anchor in a storm. “You said it, didn’t you, a year and a half ago?” he answered, low. “We are as one.” Agreement and promise and apology wrapped together in the simple words. “I won’t forget again.”
Jingyan’s stillness finally broke, and he stepped closer, free hand lifting to curve around Lin Shu’s nape. Gentle as he was, the gesture caught Lin Shu’s breath short with the heat that curled through his stomach in answer. He was remembering now, all right, but he wasn’t used to this any more.
A faint, meaningful cough from the direction of the doors reminded him that they were also standing in Jingyan’s outer receiving room in the middle of a work day, and that Zhou Wei was probably going to give them both long-suffering looks for days, over this. He leaned his forehead against Jingyan’s, trying to hold back laughter, which would only make the long-suffering last longer. Jingyan’s mouth curled in an answering smile, and he murmured, low, “Later, then.”
Well, there was his concentration gone for the day, Lin Shu reflected, ruefully.
He did make it through the rest of the day without any really egregious lapses, but by the time Zhou Wei firmly closed the Eastern Palace’s main doors his expression had turned from long-suffering to downright exasperated. Jingyan thanked him, with, perhaps, just a bit of suppressed merriment in his eyes, and calmly set his hand on Lin Shu’s back to guide him toward the inner rooms. Lin Shu swore he could hear Zhou Wei rolling his eyes behind them.
By far the majority of his attention was on the heat of Jingyan’s hand through his robes, though, not a light touch, not the pro forma gesture of everyday courtesy, and he had to concentrate a little to put one foot steadily in front of the other. By the time they reached Jingyan’s rooms, he felt as though all his skin was sensitized to that simple, steady touch. “Jingyan,” he said, softly, not entirely sure what he meant to say after that. Whatever it might have been was lost as Jingyan turned to him, smiling, and drew him close with that hand on his back.
“Do you remember this?” he asked, low and intimate, just the sound of his voice enough to stroke a finger of heat down Lin Shu’s spine. Even so, even a little breathless, he had to laugh, because Jingyan was teasing him.
“I certainly do.” Which was true. It hadn’t been at all unusual for them to end up pressed together, and sometimes, if training had devolved into rough-housing, tangled together. And he remembered the times Jingyan had pulled him close, triumphant or laughing or… just leaning together at the end of the longest days. He slid his hands up Jingyan’s arms and over his shoulders. “I wondered, a few of those times, whether I shouldn’t do something rather like this.” He leaned in and kissed Jingyan, light and questioning—the same question he’d had in his heart, those times, wondering if the beloved cousin who gave his world a center would wish this, also.
Jingyan’s hand slid up to cradle his head, mouth unhurried and sure on his, kissing him back until he was a little dizzy with the thoroughness of it, the slide of Jingyan’s tongue through his mouth, tasting him slowly. When Jingyan finally drew back, he answered Lin Shu’s half-forgotten question, softly, “I would have welcomed you then, too.”
The assurance unwound something deep in Lin Shu’s chest—the lingering wonder whether Jingyan would have merely indulged him or actually wanted him in return. He’d been used to being wanted, really, but Jingyan was the one, the only one, he’d never been able to easily move to his whim. The one who really counted. Jingyan must have felt him relax, because he shook his head, mouth quirked wryly. “Xiao-Shu. You have always been my heart and soul,” he said, quiet and easy.
Lin Shu’s breath stopped for a moment, as those words sang through him, resonating in his own heart. “Jingyan…”
“It’s true,” Jingyan told him, perfectly serene, gathering him close. Lin Shu settled against him willingly, smiling small and true. Jingyan rubbed slow fingers up and down his neck and made a satisfied sound when Lin Shu unwound a little more, leaning against him. “Will you come to bed, xiao-Shu?” he asked against Lin Shu’s ear, low and warm, sending a little shiver spilling down his spine.
“Yes,” Lin Shu answered, husky.
Jingyan stayed close as they undressed, hands sliding down Lin Shu’s arms and chest as he took each layer away, as if he wanted to re-learn Lin Shu’s body. He was far more careless of his own clothing, tugging belts loose quickly and shrugging out of all his layers together as soon as the ties were undone. That simple motion fixed Lin Shu’s eyes like nothing else could have, though. Jingyan had always been beautiful to him, and he’d grown into something magnificent, the hard muscle of one campaign after another shifting under his skin, sleek and powerful as a tiger prowling, as he stepped through the muddle of silk toward Lin Shu. He reached out for Jingyan because he could scarcely help it, and Jingyan gathered him close again with a smile. The heat of Jingyan’s bare skin against his, the line of Jingyan’s back under his palms, took up all of his awareness, at least until Jingyan’s mouth found his again for a slow kiss, this one so unmistakably possessive that it pulled a soft, wanting sound out of him.
“My own,” Jingyan said against his mouth, answering Lin Shu’s want as easily as he always had.
“Yes.” Lin Shu pressed close, arms tightening hard around him. “I wish that.” He had wished that, even when he’d carefully slipped away, determined that those he loved would not have to watch him die. And now… He gasped, breath driven out by the force of Jingyan’s arms closing around him.
“Then I will not let you go.” Jingyan’s words felt like they burned into him, fierce and hot as the kiss that followed, and he answered with all his heart, moaning out loud as Jingyan’s mouth moved down his jaw to his throat. The pull and soft sting of Jingyan sucking a mark into his skin, nearly made his knees give way. Jingyan made an agreeable sound against his skin and let them both down to the bed, leaning over him on one elbow. “You like that,” he observed, satisfaction clear in the curve of his lips as he ran a slow finger over the tender skin he’d marked. A hot shudder ran through Lin Shu, in response, and he reached up to pull Jingyan down against him, to another kiss.
“I do,” he finally answered, when that burst of heat had eased a little, settled by Jingyan’s weight over him. He was so hard he was dizzy with it, in fact.
Jingyan smiled, slowly, eyes bright. “Well, then.” He leaned down, nuzzling under Lin Shu’s jaw until he tipped his head back, and kissed slowly down the line of his throat, biting gently here and there until Lin Shu was pushing up against him, breathless little sounds catching in his throat as need and pleasure danced down his nerves.
“Jingyan…” He nearly whimpered as the wet heat of Jingyan’s mouth continued down his chest and stomach, and he should really have remembered how much trouble they’d almost always gotten into when Jingyan got that look in his eyes. When Jingyan settled between his legs, broad shoulders pushing them apart, arms curled around his thighs, he moaned out loud. “Jingyan.”
“Xiao-Shu.” Jingyan looked up at him, and this smile was quiet and sure. “It’s all right.” The assurance in that deep voice settled over him like summer sunlight, warmth and comfort and security sinking into his bones. Jingyan made a pleased sound as he relaxed, and pressed a soft kiss to his inner thigh, and another, and then slowly sucked a mark there.
Relaxed as he was, the answering rush of heat went through him like the breaking of a storm-front. “Jingyan!” Jingyan only purred, marking his inner thighs again and again, holding him gently in place as Lin Shu tried to spread his legs wider, to press into his hold. He kept going until Lin Shu was twisting breathlessly against the bed, hands closed tight in the soft blankets under them, half wild with the hypersensitivity of his skin under Jingyan’s mouth and the knowledge that Jingyan wanted to lay such a thorough claim on him.
When Jingyan’s mouth finally closed over the length of him, hot and wet, he was so overwhelmed by sensation that all he could do was groan, wordless, and all it took was Jingyan’s mouth sliding down him, slow and sure, to undo him completely. Pleasure shook him senseless for endless moments, left him wrung out and panting, muscles trembling under the warm stroke of Jingyan’s hands.
“Mmm,” he finally managed, reaching for Jingyan, and sighed with satisfaction as Jingyan’s weight settled against him again. Jingyan smiled down at him, fingers sliding gently up into his hair.
“Looks like I guessed right.”
“Very right,” Lin Shu agreed, softly.
“Good.” Jingyan slowly tugged loose the pin of his hairpiece and unraveled the snug twists of Lin Shu’s hair until he could run his fingers all the way to the ends. “Do you remember this, too?”
“Mmmm.” Feeling nearly liquid under the slow, easy strokes, Lin Shu wound his arms more snugly around Jingyan. “Of course. You always liked to take my hair down.” He could feel the vibration of Jingyan’s silent chuckle, this close.
“Well, you put it all the way up so young. I didn’t think you needed to, to be taken seriously.” He pressed a kiss to Lin Shu’s forehead, and murmured, “And I liked being the only one who got to see it down, when we were in the field.”
Lin Shu smiled up at him, sliding his hands up the broad line of Jingyan’s back. “And is that all you wish of me, right now?” Lying this close together, it was fairly clear that it wasn’t.
“Do you want more?” Jingyan countered, hand sliding gently down his neck, thumb stroking over tender, marked skin. “Or is this enough, for now?”
The curl of heat that answered that caress actually startled him, and he pulled in a quick breath. “Oh…” Jingyan’s eyes on him darkened, hot and focused, but he still waited until Lin Shu reached up to cup his cheek and answered, “My desire for you has never had an end. I just never thought I’d be able to feel it like this again.”
Jingyan caught him close, at that, and his mouth on Lin Shu’s was fierce and hungry, this time. “Then you need do nothing but feel.” Those words, wrapped in Jingyan’s deep voice, stroked down his nerves like a fine brush, dark and soft, and left him flushed and breathless against the bed as Jingyan slid away to reach for the small cabinet beside it. When Jingyan gathered him up again, one hand sliding under him, slow and slick, he pressed close, accepting Jingyan’s word and letting that touch fill his mind and senses, clinging to it just as fiercely, now, as he’d pushed sensation away for years. It was easier when Jingyan’s fingers pressed into him, intimate enough to leave him gasping for breath against Jingyan’s shoulder, and completely new. Jingyan went slowly, working his muscles open with gentle, relentless fingers until he was thoroughly unwound, hands flexing against Jingyan’s back with each slow push in.
When Jingyan set his teeth on Lin Shu’s throat and bit down softly at the same time, the sensation took fire all in a rush and it shook an open moan out of him. “Jingyan.”
Jingyan kissed him, deep and sure. “Yes.”
The feeling of Jingyan’s hands sliding down the marked skin of his thighs, to catch his knees and press them back and open, put a hot shudder through him and he was already breathless when Jingyan pushed slowly into him. The hard stretch and slide of it stole the rest of his breath and most of his thoughts, leaving only want and the anchor of Jingyan leaning over him, dark eyes intent on him.
“Just feel,” Jingyan told him, low and husky, rocking into him slowly, over and over. “Xiao-Shu. I have you. Just feel.”
“Jingyan…” It was almost a plea, and Jingyan leaned down to kiss it off his lips, gentle.
“Just feel,” he repeated, deep voice soft and coaxing, and reached down, wrapping still-slick fingers firmly around Lin Shu’s length.
Lin Shu didn’t think he could help it, as pleasure spiraled through him in a dizzy climb that jumped with every stroke, every slow thrust. And it was Jingyan with him, in him, holding him, so he didn’t try—just let the rush of pleasure take him, groaning out loud when it finally burst through him in a wash of fire down every nerve. Jingyan’s deep moan answered him, and he looked up, dazed, to see Jingyan arched over him, flushed and gorgeous, lips parted. Every short, hard thrust into him sent another shock of pleasure up his spine, and he clung to the sweetness of feeling so much, so close.
When Jingyan drew back a little, easing his legs back down to the bed, Lin Shu shivered and reached out, not wanting to be parted even that little bit. Jingyan smiled and settled over him, holding him tight even as Lin Shu wrapped around him. His fingers slid through Lin Shu’s loose hair, slow and easy, familiar and soothing after that wild surge of sensation.
“My own,” Jingyan murmured against his ear, and the reminder relaxed him further, that he didn’t have to lose this.
“Yes.” He touched Jingyan’s cheek to turn his head, and caught his mouth for a slow, open kiss. “As I always have been.”
Jingyan positively purred at that, mouth curling in a satisfied smile. “Then I will keep you. My treasure.”
Lin Shu felt his face heat at that, and bent his head, laughing. “Jingyan!”
“It’s true,” Jingyan said, calm and immovable, and Lin Shu gave in with a sigh, settling against him. He couldn’t deny that the part of him that had always turned to Jingyan, always sought him as Lin Shu’s personal pole star, was warmed and settled by every tender word.
“My heart,” he admitted, softly, winding closer around Jingyan. He could feel Jingyan’s lips curve against his temple, and smiled helplessly against his shoulder in return.
Now, now he truly felt he was all the way home.
When he’d been selected as the head of Prince Jing’s attendants, on Xiao Jingyan’s creation as Crown Prince, Zhou Wei had been pleased. Possibly even a little excited. Whatever his reputation for bullheadedness, Prince Jing was clearly the rising star of the Palace, and Zhou Wei would be the one responsible for looking after his affairs. It was even possible, given the Prince’s equal reputation for rectitude and loyalty, that this would put Zhou Wei on track to become Chief of the palace officials, when Gao Zhang stepped down. Gao-gong had even spoken with him personally, about the appointment, and had a few quiet words of advice, which Zhou Wei had taken firmly to heart.
He had sought out Lei Zhanying, the Prince’s left hand, and asked him how the Prince preferred to be served. Thanks to that discussion, Zhou Wei kept himself close to the Prince, whenever he was in the Eastern Palace, but unobtrusive. He firmly discouraged the other palace officials from attempting to fawn, the way the last Crown Prince had liked, and hustled ministers and officers in and out of the Prince’s presence as expeditiously as possible.
Thanks to Gao-gong’s advice, he’d also sought out the Noble Consort Jing and made himself known to her. The Lady had smiled, faint but warm, and invited him back a month later, to what had turned out to be a strategy meeting with the young Lady Liu. That had been invaluable, and only the suspicion that Lady Jing would dislike fawning as much as her son had kept him from truly effusive thanks. Wei and the Crown Princess now sent each other at least weekly notes about the Crown Prince’s health, temper, and schedule.
The last piece of advice Gao-gong had given him was to never, ever speak ill of Prince Qi or Chiyan or Lin or, most especially, Lin Shu. To think of Lin Shu, in particular, as his Prince’s dearest brother.
That advice had served Zhou Wei very well, indeed, in the months following the Crown Prince’s ascension, and had made him careful of his Prince’s grief during the year that followed.
It had not, however, quite prepared him for Lin Shu’s return.
Suddenly, the man was everywhere, never apart from the Prince except when he was boring through some unfortunate Ministry’s records like an arrow through straw. A few of the younger officials actually hid when they saw him coming, now, and the keepers of the Royal Library looked pained, because no one could stop him. Lin Shu might as well be an extension of the Crown Prince. If the Prince was in the Eastern Palace, so was Lin Shu, and if Lin Shu was in the Prince’s city manor, so was the Prince.
And they were really not discreet in the slightest.
Zhou Wei caught a rustle of robes from the room behind him and resisted the urge to rub his forehead. He knew without looking, without even looking at the half-delighted, half-scandalized expressions of the door attendants as they peeked past him, that Lin Shu was stealing another kiss from the Prince. They’d been doing it all morning, and sooner or later someone besides their own attendants was going to notice. Zhou Wei made a mental note to speak personally with the Crown Princess about how to manage the rumors. A note was not going to be sufficient this week.
A messenger started across the plaza to the Eastern Palace steps, and Zhou Wei sighed, stepping back into the outer receiving room. Sure enough, Lin Shu was leaning over one arm of the Prince’s chair and the Prince’s hand was curled around his nape, fingers sliding under the collar of his robes.
“…been able to feel the marks of your mouth on my thighs with every step I take, all day,” Lin Shu was murmuring, as Zhou Wei got back into earshot. Zhou Wei attempted to quash that mental image, violently, and made sure to kick a bench in passing. The Prince, at least, had the grace to flush a little when the two of them looked up at the little clatter and saw him approaching. Lin Shu just smiled, straightening up slowly and folding his hands.
“A ministry messenger for you, Highness, Sir,” Zhou Wei said, trying not to sound harassed. From the upward crimp at the corners of Lin Shu’s mouth, he didn’t entirely succeed.
“Let him in,” the Prince ordered, reaching for one of the report folios on his desk, as if he’d been paying any attention to them at all, today. Zhou Wei sighed and waved at the door attendants.
He’d entered Palace service, among other reasons, because he didn’t want to deal with a family and children. Why did he suddenly feel like he was getting all the annoyances of parenthood anyway?
The messenger bowed quickly. “Message from Minister Cai, Highness, Sir. He says the lady is in place.”
Gong Yu stepped lightly through the halls of Jinglin’s second best brothel, a demure smile settled over her like a fine headdress, drawing eyes and clearing her way at the same time.
She’d forgotten how much she enjoyed this work.
The actual arts of the body she found merely tiresome. Give her a sword drill any day. But this—the careful tension between a welcoming smile and averted eyes that kept all the clients at just the right distance for her to stalk her prey—this was almost like the strings of a zither under her fingers.
Today, she’d painted her cheeks darker, to make them look thinner, sharpened the line of her jaw, dressed her hair up high to lengthen the lines of her head and neck. No one had recognized her as Miao Yin’s finest musician, least of all the rather discontented looking man watching the dancers in the public room. Gong Yu exchanged a nod across the room, with the house’s Madam, and folded herself down beside him in a sigh of fine silk, leaning in just enough to suggest intimacy without touching him. “Does our company not please you this evening, good sir?”
He harrumphed and tossed back his cup of wine. “Apparently,” he said with heavy sarcasm, “all the private rooms are taken. What kind of House is this, to keep clients sitting out so long?”
She poured him another cup and lifted it in her fingertips to offer with a smile. “How unfortunate, good sir. Perhaps you will deign to allow me to entertain you while you wait, then?”
He finally looked at her properly, and the tight line of his shoulders relaxed a bit. “Hm. Well, now, that’s a little more like it.” She smiled back, sweet and winsome, and leaned a little closer, playing the developing tension in the air between them, delicately.
And all the while she cooed and snuggled at this fool, she held close in her heart the memory of Dong jie-jie’s teeth flashing as she bared them in a fierce grin the day Gong Yu had gotten past her guard during morning training, the hardness of her eyes when they’d finally pinned down when Qing Li’s southern depot had started losing goods—just a year after the man beside her had gained his current office in the Ministry of Revenue. Even more than that, the sober confidence in her voice when she’d told Gong Yu to return to the capital without her and close this half of the net. She made her smile bright with that memory and poured more wine.
Tian Gen was getting to what Gong Yu privately thought of as the usefully drunk stage—expansive but not so loud or sloppy that the House’s attendants would start trying to nudge him outside. “I have plenty of money for the best room here!” he declared, waving his empty cup in a broad gesture.
Gong Yu promptly filled it again, making her eyes wide and impressed as she hung delicately on his shoulder. “Truly?” Dong jie-jie would have laughed long and hard at the breathless note in Gong Yu’s voice, she reflected.
“Ha! I have more money than even a Second Rank Minister, these days! And no one knows how!”
Gong Yu molded her body a little closer against his side. “But… how can no one know, good sir?”
Tian Gen smirked and leaned toward her, clearly woozy though he kept his voice down, and Gong Yu leaned in with a conspiratorial giggle. “I was smart, see. I never touched the money myself. I sent my man to get it for me.”
Gong Yu covered her mouth with her fingertips. “Oh!” Really, it was a good thing Tian Gen was this drunk; surely no one sober could have kept from laughing at her performance. She leaned on his shoulder, lips just brushing his ear, and breathed, “Are you sure he won’t tell anyone? If it’s that much money…”
Tian Gen laughed out loud, wrapping an arm around her, and Gong Yu deliberately called to mind the feel of Dong jie-jie’s hands closed around her face and the gentle kiss she’d given Gong Yu in parting, letting that memory flush her cheeks and make her eyes soft. Tian Gen grinned down at her. “A-Deng has been with me for fifteen years. I’ve no worries about him!”
Gong Yu smiled up at him, and if that smile’s brilliance was due to the fact that she had a name to bring back for Dong jie-jie and her lord, well, Tian Gen didn’t need to know.
She hoped Dong jie-jie’s hunt was going as well.
Xia Dong crawled out of a drainage ditch in the Northern Yan capital, spat out muddy water, and wondered yet again if she should have kept Gong Yu with her after all. Trying to infiltrate another country’s capital and steal the financial records of one of their royal factions was not a solo job. Though she had to admit, the contact Gong Yu had sent word of her to wasn’t doing too badly.
Her current associate, Wen Ru, landed in the slick grass beside her, breathing hard. “I think we’re clear.”
“Good. Do you know where I can get a fast horse?”
His grin winked in the darkness. “Who do you think you’re talking to, again? One of the stable-boys at Prince Kang’s manor is Jiangzuo.”
Kang being the prince who had lost the succession race to Northern Yan’s present Crown Prince, which would nicely derail any suspicions that it had been a Liang agent who’d raided the secret records of Duke Ma, the Crown Prince’s strongest supporter. She hauled herself upright and made a dash for the nearest alley, Wen on her heels. “I like the way you think.”
“It was the Chief who set it all up.” He grabbed her arm to hold her back while a city patrol passed. “How is he doing, by the way?”
Xia Dong paused in the shadow of a wagon and gave him a sidelong look. “With Jiangzuo’s information network, I’d have thought you knew better than I.”
“I know he lived, and that he’s making himself busy in the Capital.” Wen Ru jerked his chin up and leaped for the top of the wall beside them. She followed, landing light-footed and careful on these unfamiliar tiles. “What I don’t know is if he’s happy.”
She shot him a searching look at that, but even in the moonlight up here she still didn’t recognize him. “Were you one of his men?” she asked as he led the way over one ridgepole after another.
A faint snort answered her. “I suppose that was obvious, yes.” They both froze, flat to the roof tiles as a clutch of servants passed by below. Xia Dong was very glad of a guide who knew his way, by the time they got to the edge of the manor, and its stables; alone this would probably have taken her past dawn, and then things could have gotten… exciting. Instead, a few low words from Wen Ru got them both into Kang’s livery and onto some of his horses in short order.
Once they were into the streets again, she said, quietly, “I think he is happy, yes. There’s a great deal of foolishness to deal with, in the Court, but he’s with the people he loves. That makes a very great difference.” As she had cause to know.
His answer was a sigh in the darkness. “Good.” For a long moment, she thought that would be all, but eventually he added, “He made a home for we who had lost ours; that’s what Jiangzuo is, for we few who survived. But it never was for him. Madam Nie,” she had to stifle a start at being recognized when she swore she hadn’t known him, and he gave her a wry smile as they turned onto a torch-lit boulevard, “for the sake of what you regained, too, look after our Vice-Marshal?”
She swallowed back the memory of those cold years without Feng-ge, along with a lump in her throat, and nodded. “I will. As will others, as well.”
He nodded back solemn acceptance of her word, and lifted his reins. “Then let’s get you and your information out of here.”
Xiao Jingyan and all his people were fortunate that xiao-Shu had returned, bringing back much of his old fire as well as his new and formidable network of alliances and loyalty. As they trotted briskly toward the city gates, though, stolen armor rattling, Xia Dong’s hard-trained suspicious side had to wonder just who was going to end up ruling Da Liang, when xiao-Shu’s reach was already so much greater than Xiao Jingyan’s.
Lu Jian wished that, just once, they could all get through a job without anyone trying to argue Shi Ping (and by extension him) into cutting corners.
"But if we don’t trim the ends short, we won’t be able to get the beam into place without cutting into the roof again!"
"Not the roof," Shi Ping stated. "We’ll cut the wall to bring it in upright."
Xu Hai, Lu Jian’s soon-to-be-ex head carpenter ignored the flatness in the foreman’s voice and positively wheedled, "It will be just as stable once it’s in place…"
"We are not going to shim the foot of a load-bearing beam," Lu Jian snapped, ducking into the ‘office’ they’d set up in the south-western hall. "Have some pride in our work, man!"
Xu Hai jumped a bit at his arrival, but only sulked at his words. "How can we be sure we’re even going to get paid for doing that kind of work, this time?" he muttered.
Shi Ping only looked a little weary at this; Lu Jian, less reserved by nature, groaned out loud. "Is the entire crew doing nothing but listening to court gossip and rumors?" he implored the heavens. "Look, if the Crown Prince doesn’t know his own childhood friend, surely the Princess must know her own betrothed! Isn’t she the one who refused to marry anyone else for years? You can’t seriously think the Vice-Marshal is really some kind of impostor."
Too late, he caught Shi Ping’s urgent throat-cutting gesture and saw the gleam of an avid rumor-monger in Xu Hai’s eye, as the man leaned forward eagerly. "But what if he really is Su Zhe? He was supposed to be such a brilliant courtier and scholar, and then he just vanished into thin air, and now there’s another brilliant courtier showing up. What if it’s him?"
"If it is, then he’s obviously got the Crown Prince’s favor, and we’ll still get paid," Lu Jian said, with as quelling a glare as he could generate. "And that means we are doing to do this job right, so stop gossiping and get back up to the main hall. I want calculations by the end of the day, on where to cut the back wall, to bring in a new support beam without having to do any stopgap shimming once it’s in!"
Xu Hai deflated and allowed Shi Ping to herd him out at last, while Lu Jian scrubbed both hands over his face. "Why can’t anyone just do the job?" he muttered.
Shi Ping, ducking back through the door, clapped him lightly on the shoulder. "At least our client is probably doing his job, if there are this many rumors flying around," he offered.
As he’d probably intended, Lu Jian laughed. "We’d best do ours, too, then. Once that support is replaced, we’ll be ready to re-roof the main hall. Is the last load of shingles in?"
Properly tallied figures and solid workmanship, that was the thing that would always win out, in the end.
Gao Zhan had many years of experience with Palace politics, and knew well the importance of having either an impenetrable smile or an equally impenetrable blank stare at all times. It was solely due to this long experience and habit that he was able to refrain from rolling his eyes at Pan Bai, the under-minister from the Palace Affairs Bureau, who was slowly edging his way toward a point that Gao Zhan, for one, had seen coming two ke ago.
“…so the Crown Princess’ new additions to the palace ladies are very well thought-out, really, she is clearly a wise and accomplished lady.”
“Of course she is,” the Emperor said, impatient, tossing the redundant report the man had brought onto the edge of his table.
“Surely, then, she should not be slighted or set aside…?” Pan Bai suggested, raising his brows in what he clearly thought was a meaningful, way.
The Emperor frowned at Pan Bai. “Obviously not; there’s been no thought of such a thing.” He sounded rather offended on Lady Liu’s account, which clearly heartened Pan Bai. Gao Zhan stifled a sigh.
“Even though the Crown Prince and Vice-Marshal Lin Shu are…” the man trailed off and coughed delicately. “Well, it does seem to have become clear that the Vice-Marshal is a man the Crown Prince would cut his sleeve for…”
The Emperor snorted, sitting back in the throne with an audible huff. “If the idiot boy would take a cup of poison for him, I fail to see how that should surprise anyone.”
Pan Bai’s eyes bugged out, and Gao Zhan had to bite back a snicker. He returned the man’s stare blandly, not offering the tiniest clue what the Emperor might be speaking of. He’d had a good deal of practice doing so, in the past year, as Lady Jing’s drugs did loosen the Emperor’s tongue just a bit.
“I… that is… Then, ah…”
“Is that all you had to report?” the Emperor demanded, cutting off Pan Bai’s stammering.
“Yes, Majesty,” he answered, sounding a bit dazed, and bowed himself out at the Emperor’s brusque wave.
The Emperor settled back with a disgruntled look. “Do they think I have time for idiots wasting air, just because Jingyan is dealing with the day-to-day work?”
“Perhaps it will entertain Your Majesty to watch how Lin Shu deals with them, then,” Gao Zhan suggested, just a bit slyly, he would admit. He’d observed that, much as the Emperor complained about Lin Shu, he also seemed obscurely proud of the young man’s political ability. And, indeed, his suggestion drew a smirk from the Emperor.
Gao Zhan smiled with satisfaction, and made a note to see about sending young Zhou Wei some extra help at the Eastern Palace, to compensate for the increased headache his charges were about to become.
Dinner had become a more cheerful affair, over the past months, which Jingyan had to admit he enjoyed. This particular evening, though, his young wife appeared to be stifling actual giggles, which was a little unusual. “Liu An?” he inquired courteously, and quietly, leaning a little toward her. He was a bit disconcerted when that made her turn very pink. Xiao-Shu, on the other hand, seemed to understand, and gave her a conspiratorial smile across the dishes and trays.
“How are our rumors progressing?”
Liu An burst into helpless giggles behind her sleeve. Xiao-Shu seemed to think this was a good sign, or at least he sat back with a satisfied expression. When Liu An caught her breath again, she glanced up at Jingyan, eyes dancing, and said, “Lady Hui thinks the two of you are romantic.”
Xiao-Shu definitely smirked. “Romantic, hm?”
“Returning to your love from beyond the grave,” Liu An recited. “Realizing your heart is too full to refuse your second love. Finally requiting the Crown Prince’s silent yearning. Oh, and the Princess Nihuang is very noble and generous; that’s a new one to encourage.”
Nihuang and xiao-Shu both burst out laughing.
Jingyan was still halted over the mental image of the royal Consorts gossiping over his bed affairs. “Xiao-Shu,” he started, because he had no doubts whatsoever who the planner behind this was.
“Jingyan, there are going to be rumors,” xiao-Shu told him, pulling himself back to some semblance of dignity. “We need to steer them as much as possible, and that means indulging the Palace’s taste for drama. Besides,” he smiled, gentler this time, “Lady An is very good at it.”
Liu An blushed pink again at the compliment, and peeked up at Jingyan, hesitant and hopeful. Jingyan gave in with a sigh, and rested a hand over hers. “Very well, then.” He almost felt guilty, seeing how she relaxed and brightened, at his approval. They were still learning their way around each other; he supposed he should be grateful that xiao-Shu and Nihuang had so clearly accepted Liu An into the family circle.
If only they hadn’t also infected her with their terrible senses of humor.
“Speaking of rumor,” Nihuang put in, picking up a piece of melon and nudging the plate toward xiao-Shu, “one of the officials from Personnel tried to sympathize with me, today.”
“Ah.” That was all xiao-Shu said, but there was such a weight of understanding and satisfaction in it that Jingyan raised his brows. Xiao-Shu smiled, sharp as the edge of a knife, and selected a melon slice for himself. “I was wondering whether the Chancellor would use Personnel or Rites, for this.”
All three of them were looking questions at him, now. “None of Chancellor Yu’s assistants have been involved in any of the rumors, so far,” Liu An said, slowly.
Xiao-Shu’s smile widened. “Exactly.”
Liu An nodded, eyes turning distant and calculating for a moment. “I’ll speak with Zhou Wei about watching that, then.”
“What could the Chancellor possibly have against you?” Jingyan demanded, annoyed. “Aren’t you only making his job easier?”
Now the other three were all looking at him with varying degrees of amusement. “Even I know that no minister is going to be happy about someone else touching his work,” Nihuang pointed out. "Even to help."
Jingyan knew it was true, but that didn’t make him any happier about it.
“It’s more than that, actually.” Xiao-Shu leaned against his back-rest. “The Chancellor, and the entire Department of State Affairs really, has had to deal with the Emperor’s secretiveness, and his preference for using off-record methods like Xuanjing’s agents to solve a lot of internal issues. Now, just when they thought they were done with that, here I am, bringing an unknown network of unknown strength with me. From the outside, would I not look very much like your private action or enforcement agent?”
“Then the rumor that you are the Crown Prince’s lover…” Liu An said, slowly, frowning.
Xiao-Shu nodded. “Makes some of them fear that either I will be unassailable, if they let me become entrenched, or even that I will seek to become the true ruler by manipulating Jingyan from behind the throne.” He opened a hand, palm up. “Chancellor Yu is a good enough man, who has done his best to stay out of factional strife after being promoted to this position, but all men have their limit. He’s reaching his. So he will use Personnel and Palace Affairs to put pressure on me, to set me off balance, and then attempt to cut the ground out from under me, when he sees a chance.”
“Can you prevent him, then?” Liu An asked softly, still looking a bit worried. “Without impairing his function as the Chancellor, I mean?”
Xiao-Shu gave her an approving smile. “I believe so, yes. He’ll be far less trouble than the ones who are merely trying to safeguard their own personal power, of which we still have an unfortunate number.”
“And I suppose there’s still no hope of getting me eighteen more like Cai Quan, to put under the Inspector of Discipline,” Jingyan grumbled. That would fix a lot of problems, he was still convinced.
“We can work on it,” xiao-Shu told him, smiling.
Nihuang nudged him with an elbow. “You couldn’t have just gotten him some peaches? You had to get him a government, instead?”
Xiao-Shu colored a little, at that, but shot back, “Governments last longer, at least if you’re doing it right.” He paused, then, and looked down at her, suddenly serious, lifting a hand to brush her cheek with light fingers. “Nihuang…”
She leaned just a little into the touch, smiling up at him, so softly that Jingyan picked up his cup to have an excuse to look away and give them a little privacy. “Don’t be silly, Shu-ge. Didn’t I tell you, already? You still look at me that way; that’s all that matters.” The softness of her voice suddenly turned bright and wicked. “Besides, I already share the care of you with my younger sister. Why should I object to sharing with a brother, too?”
Jingyan nearly choked on a swallow of water, Liu An squeaked, eyes wide, and xiao-Shu caught Nihuang close, laughing out loud against her hair. “If I need a charge to break the ministries’ ranks, I’ll definitely call on you,” he promised, eyes bright.
She leaned up to kiss him, with a satisfied smile. “Good. Do so.” She pushed to her feet. “Now, you haven’t spent the night with Jingyan all week. I am going to make sure Gong Yu doesn’t actually sleep out in the mews, waiting for word from Dong-jie.”
Liu An promptly stood, as well, eyes dancing as she bowed to Jingyan. “I will bid you a good night, then, my lord.”
Jingyan gave her a faintly exasperated look, but had to allow, in justice, that she was only following the example of her elders. Unfortunately. “Yes, yes. Good night, then.” He drew her close and dropped a light kiss on her hair, and she smiled up at him, sweet and happy, before following Nihuang out.
Xiao-Shu was still laughing. Very quietly so, but Jingyan could tell, and eyed him thoughtfully, stepping around the trays to close the distance between them. “So. It appears that I’m the one who’s joining your household, then?”
Xiao-Shu rose to meet him, almost straight-faced as long as you couldn’t see how bright his eyes still were. “It is the business and expertise of the ladies to arrange these things; I try to always trust in my experts.”
Jingyan reached out to catch his hips and pull him closer, smiling at the slide of xiao-Shu’s hands up his arms, slow and firm, as if xiao-Shu wanted to memorize how he felt. “Do you trust my expertise, then?” He bent his head and nipped gently at xiao-Shu’s neck, making a pleased sound when xiao-Shu’s hands tightened sharply on his shoulders.
“Entirely,” xiao-Shu answered, a little husky with the way he tipped his head back as Jingyan kissed down his throat.
“Good,” Jingyan murmured against his skin, and sucked a mark into it, just under the line of his collar. Xiao-Shu’s body arched taut against his, like a bow drawn by his hands, and the sweetness of feeling xiao-Shu answer him so freely made Jingyan smile and stroke his tongue over the mark he’d left.
“Jingyan.” Xiao-Shu pushed him back a little, flushed and dark-eyed. “Bed.”
Jingyan grinned at him, pleased, and agreed. “Bed.”
There were times, he had to admit, when he showed his own share of his family’s sense of humor.
Xiao-Shu had recovered his composure by the time they were both undressed, and came to press close against him, catching Jingyan’s mouth for kiss after heated kiss, murmuring between them, “You make me want, so.”
“What is it that you want?” Jingyan asked against his mouth, hands sliding down the lines of xiao-Shu’s body, still lean but no longer so desperately thin.
Xiao-Shu’s slow, wicked smile warned him to brace himself as xiao-Shu leaned in and spoke against his ear. “I want you to fuck me.” Hearing xiao-Shu’s smooth voice wrapped around the kind of barracks language they’d both learned from soldiers in the field sent a shock of heat through Jingyan, and he caught xiao-Shu closer as xiao-Shu leaned against him, laughing.
“If that’s what you wish,” he agreed, a bit breathless, and drew xiao-Shu onto the bed, pressing him gently to his knees.
Xiao-Shu smiled that slow, heated smile again and bent over, stretching his arms along the bed for a moment before folding them loosely and resting his head on them. “It is what I wish.”
Jingyan knelt behind him, sliding his hands down the arch of xiao-Shu’s back, slow and easy. “Then feel,” he urged quietly, the way he’d learned he had to coax xiao-Shu along to do just that. After a moment’s thought how best to effect it, he smiled, perhaps a little wickedly himself, and settled his hands on xiao-Shu’s lifted rear, spreading him gently open. The faint catch of xiao-Shu’s breath turned fast and shocked when Jingyan leaned down and stroked his tongue slowly over xiao-Shu’s entrance.
“Shh,” he said softly, hands tightening a little as xiao-Shu shivered. “Just feel.” He lapped, soft and slow, at xiao-Shu’s entrance, and made a satisfied sound as xiao-Shu slowly unwound, under him, with a low moan. He listened to xiao-Shu’s breathing as it turned deeper, faster, waiting for the muscles under his hands to relax. It wasn’t until they finally did, accompanied by a soft sigh, that he slid a thumb down, working the pad of it against xiao-Shu’s entrance in slow, firm circles, urging those muscles further open.
“Jingyan…” Xiao-Shu’s arms were unfolded, now, thrown out along the bed as his hands flexed slowly in the covers, and Jingyan could see that his eyes were closed, his lips parted. “Jingyan, please…”
That went through him like a stroke of fire; xiao-Shu still asked for so few things. Jingyan’s voice was rough and low as he answered, “Yes, my own.” He leaned over the side of the bed to rummage out the sealed jar of seaweed gel (one of the few medicinals he did not get from his mother). The slickness of his fingers sliding down his own length made him shudder, hot anticipation pooling low in his stomach. The tightness and heat of xiao-Shu’s body around him as he pushed in made him moan, low and open. And the wordless, entreating sound xiao-Shu made drove his hips forward, sinking all the way in, leaving them both gasping for a moment.
“Xiao-Shu,” Jingyan breathed, when he had his voice back, leaning down to wrap his arms around xiao-Shu, curling his body over his lover’s until he could gather xiao-Shu in against his chest and nuzzle the curve of his neck. All the gathering tension in xiao-Shu’s body loosened again, and he moaned softly as he unwound to lie quiet and breathless in Jingyan’s arms; the trust implicit in that relaxation caught in Jingyan’s chest. “Thank you, my heart,” he whispered against xiao-Shu’s shoulder.
Xiao-Shu laughed, soft and breathless. “Why thank me for the things you do to me?”
Jingyan smiled against his shoulder. “Because you let me.” Before xiao-Shu could argue with that, which he knew was a distinct possibility, he slid a hand down xiao-Shu’s stomach to wrap around him and stroke, slow and firm. Feeling xiao-Shu lose his breath on a soft moan, feeling the way his body tightened, braided pleasure down Jingyan’s nerves, and he rocked into xiao-Shu, sure and hard.
The sounds xiao-Shu made were breathless and openly wanting, and Jingyan couldn’t help but catch him closer, drive into him harder, drawn on by how rarely abandoned xiao-Shu was, tonight. The flex of xiao-Shu’s body under his was so open, so wanton, it took his breath, and when xiao-Shu tightened around him with a low moan, Jingyan let pleasure sweep him down, as well, shuddering as heat burst through him.
Eventually, they both lay quiet, catching their breaths together. When he had the sense to, again, Jingyan eased back and stretched out on his side, and promptly gathered xiao-Shu back against his chest, pressing a soft kiss to his nape. “My treasure,” he murmured. This close, he could feel xiao-Shu’s skin heat as he colored, and smiled. “It’s the truth.” He found himself repeating that a lot, to xiao-Shu, but that was all right; he was perfectly willing to repeat himself until xiao-Shu believed it.
And perhaps that was closer than he’d thought, because although xiao-Shu didn’t answer, he did cuddle deeper into the circle of Jingyan’s arms. Jingyan held him closer, breathing in the warmth of that simple acceptance, and closed his eyes. Nothing undid him like these small moments of closeness and trust, the reassurance that his xiao-Shu was returned to him, whole and entire.
He cradled xiao-Shu closer and let the sweetness of his presence sink into his bones and soothe away the chill that had grown there over the year and more he’d had to bear the growing shadow of the throne’s weight alone.
Normally, Cai Quan rather liked seeing Xia Dong stalking into his offices. She was undeniably his favorite official, in his own Ministry, and the knife-sharp smile she wore when she’d secured unarguable evidence of some wrongdoing never failed to cheer him. Today, though, her expression was darker, fiercer, and Cai Quan braced himself as he accepted her report folio.
“I tracked the goods,” she said, flatly, folding her hands behind her, “and the money. It came from us.”
Possibly, he had not braced himself quite enough. “Did you find from what faction?” he asked, grimly, not looking forward to the scandal and infighting this could spark.
“I recognized the name given by the courier.” Her jaw was tight. “He was one of Xuanjing’s agents.”
Cai Quan’s hands closed tight on the edge of his writing table as a cold wave of fury and reflex fear washed over him. “This… this was approved by the Emperor? Undermining one of his own armies?”
Now he understood perfectly the hardness in her level gaze. “The Emperor never favored the military. This is the man who approved the execution of Chiyan’s commanders when, as far as he knew, the Da Yu army was still a threat on our northern border. I suspect he would have thought the extension of Xuanjing’s network and influence beyond our borders a decent trade.”
As Xia Jiang would have, Cai Quan added to himself, as Xia Dong probably would have added if she ever spoke Xia Jiang’s name, these days. He glanced over her summary report and scrubbed his hands over his face with a resigned sigh. “Their Crown Prince’s faction, wonderful. I’ll probably have to bring the Chancellor’s office in on this.” That was never pleasant. The whole of that office tended to an approach they called ‘pragmatic’ and he called ‘morally questionable’. Well, no help for it. He straightened and gave her a firm nod. “I’ll probably call for you, when we go before the Crown Prince. For now, get some rest and catch up with yourself. And also with that girl you recommended.” He had to smile a little, remembering. “She’s impressive, but she also drove the mews-keepers to distraction, waiting for word of you.”
The tight line of her mouth softened a little, at that. “Gong Yu gets very focused,” she agreed, and took what looked like her first full breath in a while. “I’ll be standing by, Minister.” She gave him a short bow, and strode out.
Cai Quan contemplated the tangle of military, ministries, and imperial plotting that an apparently straightforward case of misappropriation had developed into and indulged himself in one heartfelt groan before picking up his brush and starting to write his requests for time and information from the other ministries.
Jingyan was beginning to be just a little sympathetic to his father’s tendency to shout when arguments broke out in front of him. Not terribly sympathetic, but he was aware of a growing urge to gag his ministers with their own hats.
“This wouldn’t have happened in the first place if military officers were paying more attention to their duties than to promotion!”
“This isn’t about the Ministry of War, this is about a history of corruption in State Revenue…”
“We can’t just strip either Ministry, this is going to take time to fix…”
“The real point here is that this was approved at the highest levels…”
“No, the real point is that Northern Yan’s Duke Ma is threatening reprisals, and we don’t have enough money to support another extended campaign, yet…”
“And he only knows because your agent was careless!”
“Duke Ma and their Crown Prince clearly knew the source of that money.” Xia Dong’s voice cut easily through the bickering. “It’s a safe gamble, to accuse us.” She stood straight and calm at Cai Quan’s shoulder, not bothering to defend herself further, for which forbearance Jingyan was grateful.
And, through it all, xiao-Shu sat out of the way, at his own desk, reading reports and correspondence with a calm smile, not even looking up at the racket of the ministers arguing. Jingyan was starting to suspect, a bit darkly, that xiao-Shu was willing to indulge the Court’s taste for drama, at least in part, because he enjoyed it himself. Jingyan drew a fortifying breath and waded in.
“Sergeant Yang Liu and under-minister Tian Gen are already in the custody of the Ministry of Justice, and their trials will be conducted according to the law,” he started, and waited until Li Len and Shen Zhui had bowed acknowledgment. “Minister Cai has already judged the competence of his agent in this matter, and I have accepted his judgment.” Cai Quan and Xia Dong bowed in their turn, and Jingyan turned to Yu Qiao, the Chancellor of the Department of State Affairs, for the past two years. “Chancellor Yu. What, exactly, is Duke Ma saying to us?”
Yu Qiao stopped giving Xia Dong a dark look and drew himself up. “Highness. He is insisting that we were clearly behind the recent raid on his sealed records, and demanding recompense under threat of a military raid. I believe that we can still negotiate with him, though, if Your Highness will empower an envoy.” His gaze flicked sidelong at xiao-Shu, who appeared oblivious, only looking up to take a handful of paper from the Eastern Palace attendant xiao-Shu had unofficially annexed as his secretary and courier, who had sidled in and along the side wall. Xiao-Shu glanced over it all, nodded, handed back a sealed note, and went back to reading. Jingyan thought he saw a flash of satisfaction in Yu Qiao’s face before it smoothed into respectful entreaty. “The Department of State Affairs has many officials who are experienced in diplomacy, Highness. If I may suggest Huang Fu? We may have to make some gifts to Northern Yan, to smooth this unfortunate affair over, but Huang Fu will be able to prevent the matter from escalating to Northern Yan’s Crown Prince.”
“On the contrary,” xiao-Shu called, from his desk, still not looking up from his reading. “Involving the Crown Prince is precisely what we wish.”
Yu Qiao’s turned to glare at him. “There is no benefit in forcing an international confrontation to a higher level!”
Finally, xiao-Shu looked up, smiling. “Chancellor Yu. I understand very well your frustration, and I have no wish to add to it, but I have a responsibility to my own people. My workings cannot all be transparent to you.” He stood, brushing his robes straight and laying aside his papers. “I am, however, willing to make the results transparent.”
Jingyan thought that Yu Qiao suddenly looked less angry and more wary.
Xiao-Shu stepped out onto the floor before Jingyan’s desk. “You fear that Northern Yan’s Crown Prince stands behind Duke Ma, is using the Duke to test us, our cohesion, our readiness to war or to words. The reality is that, on the contrary, Ma is the one who wishes to test us. The Crown Prince will restrain him.”
Yu Qiao drew himself up, face hard. “Vice-Marshal, I ask that you not interfere in state matters on the basis of such wild supposition.”
“Supposition?” Xiao-Shu raised his brows at Yu Qiao, looking quite entertained, and Yu Qiao’s temper snapped.
“There’s no way you could possibly know—!”
“Under-minister Huang Fu requests entry!” one of the door attendants called. Yu Qiao turned away from xiao-Shu, every movement sharp and annoyed, and bowed to Jingyan.
“Highness, Under-minister Huang undoubtedly has news of this matter.”
Jingyan eyed xiao-Shu, who folded his hands and stood calm and smiling, and had to stifle a snort. Clearly, xiao-Shu’s game was still in play. “Very well. Let him enter.”
Huang Fu hustled through the room and bowed hastily to everyone. “Your Highness, Sir, Ministers. Chancellor Yu, we just received a letter under the seal of the Crown Prince of Northern Yan.”
Yu Qiao stiffened. “Already? What is he…”
In the resulting silence, Huang Fu proffered a folded letter. Yu Qiao slowly accepted and opened it, looking more and more baffled the further he read.
“Well?” Jingyan finally prodded.
Yu Qiao shook himself and looked up. “Highness. It’s as Under-minister Huang said. Northern Yan’s Crown Prince states that there is evidence this matter is internal, and apologizes for Duke Ma’s hasty judgment.” He stared at the letter for another long moment before it seemed to sink in, and then his head whipped around toward xiao-Shu. “How…?”
Xiao-Shu was still smiling, but it was a sharper, fiercer smile, now, and his voice was dangerously soft when he answered. “I know, Chancellor Yu, because I was the one who set their sixth Prince there, to be a friend and ally to my Emperor.”
Something like a shiver ran through the room. Everyone there knew it was not the current Emperor that xiao-Shu spoke of, and long years of stepping softly around the Emperor’s paranoia made xiao-Shu’s fierce candor chilling. Yu Qiao was looking wary again, perhaps even a little afraid. Xiao-Shu considered him for a long moment, and finally shook his head, smile turning wry. “Peace, Chancellor Yu. I understand your concerns, but, really, does this affair not assure you that I work only for the benefit of my lord?”
Jingyan tried very hard not to turn red at the familial title xiao-Shu used, especially when Shen Zhui started ‘coughing’ behind his fist and Dong-jie smirked outright. Trust xiao-Shu, he reflected, ruefully, to use everything to his advantage, even this. Yu Qiao opened and closed his mouth a few times before finally throwing up his hands. “Fine! You work for His Highness’ benefit. Have it as you will!”
“Only when it’s important,” xiao-Shu murmured.
Jingyan really did snort this time, at the magnitude of that untruth. Xiao-Shu nearly always got his way, and always had.
Yu Qiao’s expression said that he also doubted xiao-Shu’s words very much, but he only bowed to Jingyan. “It appears my Department’s concerned are resolved, for the present, Your Highness.”
“Then we’re done, here.” Jingyan held out a hand for the letter Huang Fu had brought. “I will respond to this myself.” After all, if xiao-Shu had arranged this alliance, for him, he should probably do his part to secure it.
Yu Qiao surrendered the letter with good grace and all of the ministers bowed themselves out. Finally. Jingyan contemplated the letter in his hands for a moment, and cocked a brow at xiao-Shu. “To be my friend and ally, hm?”
“We could use some,” xiao-Shu pointed out, dryly, leaning a hip against his writing table. “Northern Yan and Southern Chu were not the only places your father sought to keep busy by funding one faction against another. Admittedly, Prince Ren didn’t refuse the funds, or the plot, but he’s the sort that prefers fair dealing, when it’s possible.” He smiled at Jingyan, small and warm. “You make it possible.”
Jingyan smiled back, helpless, as always, to respond otherwise. “Very well, then. Let’s begin it here.” He unfolded the letter and spread it out over his desk, and xiao-Shu came around to read over his shoulder. The warmth of him against Jingyan’s side eased all the muscles that the morning’s arguments had pulled tight, and Jingyan settled down to read.
His ministers would hopefully learn this, in time: Lin Shu was the best hope they could have for an Emperor who would stay sane.
It was one reason that, while he would be glad for xiao-Shu’s sake, Jingyan wasn’t actually looking forward to the Lin Manor repairs being finished.
Lu Jian took a last turn through the Lin Manor, once everything was done. He always did this, with any project he worked on, making sure the blinds and dividers were all rolled evenly, picking up the bits of wood and paper that were always missed in shadowed corners, putting away the pails and scrub brushes that inevitably got left out. Shi Ping didn’t protest, or call him ‘fussy’ for it, just followed after him with a sack for the scraps, which was why Shi Ping was his senior foreman.
The Lin Manor wasn’t perfect. It was clear that major repairs had been done, and some of them showed, especially where he’d had to replace support beams and parts of walls. There were still places where the paint didn’t quite match, where the newer tiles stood out. This was still a manor that had been neglected for fourteen years before being repaired. Even so, Lu Jian was proud of the job they’d done. The place was solid and safe; it was even beautiful again. The gardens were clean and growing to some good order again. The sharp lines of each hall’s framing were softened and graceful with hangings. Lu Jian watched the breeze send ripples across the pools of the water garden and nodded, satisfied. “This was a good job.”
“Do you think they’ll actually use it?” Shi Ping asked, as they turned back toward the gates.
Lu Jian blinked at him. “Why wouldn’t they?!” He gestured around at the just-finished and, frankly, quite expensive renovation they’d completed, and been paid for by Lin Shu.
Shi Ping examined the roof-lines, as they passed through the second courtyard. “You hear rumors.”
Lu Jian rolled his eyes. “Rumors are only rumors. And even if it’s true,” he had to clear his throat, because some of the rumors were downright lurid, “they commissioned repairs. Someone is intended to live here.” He patted a pillar of the inner gates as they stepped through. “They aren’t living at Mu Manor either, are they, but that certainly isn’t being left to rot.”
Shi Ping looked satisfied, and Lu Jian shook his head, amused. Shi Ping invested a lot more in each job than anyone who’d just met him would ever realize from his laconic manner. “Lin Manor has a master again, and one that cares about the house” he said, firmly, as they stepped through the main doors and he turned to pull them shut, pausing to rub a stray speck of paint off the bronze ring. “That’s what keeps a house alive.”
His foreman knotted the sack of trash and tossed it over one shoulder. “Well, then. On to the next job.”
Lu Jian laughed and clapped him on the other shoulder. “As always!”
Lin Shu’s fingers paused, unfolding the accumulated night’s notes over breakfast. “Lu Jian writes that the repairs are finished,” he said, quietly.
Sound around the room hushed, just like the sound in his head felt like it had. Jingyan looked up, sober, hand a little halting as he set down his cup. Gong Yu clasped her hands tight, dark eyes watching him intently, waiting for a cue. Liu An was biting her lip, just a little, glancing back and forth between Lin Shu and her husband. After a moment, Nihuang reached over and closed a hand over his, tight and sure. “Shall we go and see, today, then?”
He took a breath, trying not to be obvious about how much he needed the moment to settle himself, and nodded, turning his hand up to lace his fingers with hers, anchoring himself. His eyes slid back toward Jingyan as if pulled there, though, and Jingyan caught them. When he smiled, small and warm, and asked, “Shall I come along?” it felt like release through his chest and down his spine.
“If you have time.” That was disingenuous, of course. He needed them both with him, very much, these two who had been there, who shared so many of his memories. Fifteen years ago, he’d have said so. Fortunately, both of them still understood him perfectly well, at least if the exasperated looks they both gave him were any indication. He bent his head with a slightly unsteady chuckle. “Yes, all right.”
Nihuang leaned against his shoulder, warm and steady. “Watch over things while we’re gone,” she directed Gong Yu, who nodded seriously, as if she’d heard more than just the words Nihuang had said. If Lin Shu hadn’t spent his entire life observing every man of his acquaintance have just as little control over what was allegedly his own inner court, perhaps he’d be worried about that. As it was, he took a moment to be rather smug that his mother had chosen so well, for him.
It was a moment’s distraction, anyway.
He continued focusing firmly on little things, as they made their way out through the north-east district—the brightening of the gray sky as morning drew on and lit the overcast clouds, the tug of the leather reins in his hands as his horse tossed it’s head at a passing wagon, the steady chime of the bells on Nihuang’s horse’s chest-band. And these little things brought him, without panic, to the steps of Lin Manor.
The last time he’d seen the entrance, it had been overgrown, even in winter, untrimmed bamboo running wild, flowering trees sprawling messy and unpruned, doors hanging open and a little askew. Now the summer-green trees framed the fresh, dark paint of the doors neatly. It looked like someplace people might live, where he might expect a house servant to open the door at any moment and bow greeting. Except that they wouldn’t, at least not the servants he remembered. Not more than a bare handful, if they even wanted to return, by now.
Jingyan’s hand on his shoulder brought him back to the present with a jolt, and he swallowed the shock of it, nodded, and put his foot on the stairs. And another. And another. Until he could touch the doors, and see Nihuang’s hand beside his. When he glanced over, she was looking up at him, eyes dark, and gave him a steady nod. He returned it as well as he could, and together they pushed open the doors.
The house was bright and clean. As he stepped through to the inner gate, feeling like he might be walking through a dream, he saw fresh paint, washed flagstones, scrubbed tile everywhere he looked. The first courtyard was neatly swept, autumn flowers just starting to show buds in the lining beds. The deeper into the house he walked, the more he felt like these simple sights were knocking his breath out.
He didn’t quite realize it was literal until Nihuang pushed him down on the steps of the west breezeway and rubbed his back, frowning. “Shu-ge, look at me.” She studied him intently, when he looked up, and pursed her lips. “Well, you’re not in shock. Yet. Sit and catch your breath for a minute, though, all right?”
He took a deeper breath and nodded, trying to ground himself in the warmth of her hands, and of Jingyan’s hands when he knelt in front of him and took his shoulders.
He flinched at the way Jingyan’s voice echoed in memory and the present both, and Jingyan frowned, worried. Lin Shu reached out to rest his hands on the sleek, heavy silk of Jingyan’s robes, so much finer than anything he’d have bothered to wear back then. It helped.
“I’m all right,” he finally managed, husky.
“Should we leave, for today?” Nihuang asked, still rubbing his back slowly. He shook his head.
“I want to see it all.” To see and know, and not wonder later. Nihuang and Jingyan exchanged not entirely pleased looks over his head, and he huffed a faint laugh. “I need to see it all as it is, now.”
“All right,” Jingyan sighed, and held out his hands to pull him upright.
Lin Shu took them and stood, and was grateful that both of them stayed in contact once he was up, Nihuang’s hand wrapped around his arm, and Jingyan’s resting on his shoulder. It helped remind him of what was real as they circled the mansion slowly, passed through the third and fourth courtyards, newly painted red framing gleaming gently in the day’s indirect light, echoing with the memory of his younger cousins running down the outer walks, laughing, calling for Lin Shu ge-ge to hurry up.
They took one turn through the rear building and started back toward the gate through the main hall. His steps slowed there, caught by the memory of his father leaning one elbow against a backrest, cup half-forgotten in his fingers as he argued strategy with his generals, of the sweep of his mother’s sleeves as she gestured, laughing together with Aunt Yueyao, when she visited.
The inner hall was easier, in a way; the room for the family shrine was empty, but he’d seen the hall where the tablets did stand, now, had finally performed the proper rites for them. That was a memory he could hold on to without being cut. There was new wood here, too, he noticed as they stepped out. It was smoothly set into the landing, and the whole steps and landing re-painted, but it flexed a little differently under his feet than the older wood. He wondered what had happened to it; the framing, and sometimes walls, had been replaced elsewhere, but not the floors.
A memory slid past his mind’s eye, of his mother standing at the top of these steps, smiling, hands held out to welcome him home.
Something that wasn’t a memory, something made of whispers and rumor and horror, followed—his mother, at the top of these steps, sword drawn, watching strange soldiers burst through her home. His mother’s blood spreading and pooling over the wood, sinking in and staining, too deep to ever plane away. His knees hit the steps, and he reached out, half expecting his hand against the wood to turn red.
It took long, long moments to remember where he was, and when, and why, to understand why there were arms around him, why the shoulder under his head was wet and the hand against his neck was shaking just as badly as his own were. It took long, gasping breaths before he could gather himself enough to lift his head, to see Nihuang and Jingyan looking back, faces just as wet as his. “I can’t,” he whispered, voice rough and choked. “Not where Mother…”
Nihuang pulled his head back down, arms tightening around him fiercely. “Then we won’t. It’s all right.”
“So stay in the home you already have,” Jingyan told him firmly. “With me.”
He looked up again at that, with a faint, helpless laugh. “Zhou Wei really will resign if we try to do that.”
“Nonsense,” Jingyan said at the same time Nihuang was saying, “Don’t be ridiculous.” They smiled at each other in a way that made him laugh again, rough in his throat after the tears. Jingyan reached out to wipe the wetness off his face with a gentle palm, and he couldn’t help leaning into the touch, the reminder of what he still had, here and now.
“Most of the Court already knows perfectly well that you’re lovers,” Nihuang pointed out, rubbing her hands gently down his arms. “And half the ministers already treat the two of you like you’re some eight-limbed beast named Highness-Sir.”
Jingyan snorted over that, mouth tugging up in a wry smile. “True enough.”
Lin Shu shook his head a little, thoughts turning over again, albeit a little slowly still. “Maybe that will work for now, but when you take the throne…”
“Then our rooms will be further apart,” Jingyan stated, flat look daring anyone, including Lin Shu, to argue. “I won’t say that I’ll like that, but I also won’t let it make any more difference than that.”
Lin Shu felt too wrung out to argue with Jingyan’s stubbornness, especially backed by Nihuang’s. Perhaps he’d best leave that to Gao Zhan. Yes, surely Gao Zhan would have the wisdom and patience to argue them back to reason.
He couldn’t. Even if it would be the wise thing to do, he couldn’t. Not now.
They both smiled, obviously feeling the tension in him slacken, and he rolled his eyes and let them help him to his feet, keeping his back carefully to the inner hall. By the time they’d reached the outer gate, he managed to say, quietly, “Perhaps we could keep some staff here, if anyone wishes to return.” He didn’t want to see Lin Manor fall into disrepair again, just because he couldn’t bear to walk here again.
Nihuang smiled up from where she’d ducked under his arm, eyes a little wet again for a moment. “Yes. Let’s do that.”
Stepping back out into the city, feeling the support of Jingyan’s arm around his shoulders, and Nihuang’s warmth against his side, he took what felt like his first free breath all day, and turned toward the horses that would take them home.
Gao Zhan smiled benignly at the youngsters gathered in the inner receiving room of the Eastern Palace, folding his hands. “Why yes, I don’t see why not.”
The Crown Prince smiled with immense satisfaction, and the Princess Nihuang exchanged a pleased nod with the Crown Princess, while Lin Shu stared at Gao Zhan with a betrayed look.
“Gao gong-gong,” he started, nearly sputtering. Gao Zhan waved dismissive fingers.
“Palace Affairs may complain a bit, at first, but, really, it’s hardly the first time this has happened. They’ll find precedents, and then they’ll be happy again.” And if they weren’t, well, they would be once Lady Jing was finished with them. Gao Zhan’s smile may have broadened a hair at the thought, and the young Vice-Marshal threw up his hands.
“All right. All right! Fine!”
Gao Zhan bowed, hiding the urge to laugh outright at the young man’s dramatics. “If that was all, then I will take my leave.” He patted Zhou Wei on the shoulder, on his way out, and got a harried look in answer. Yes, they were all settling in quite well. Zhou Wei had always needed a challenge to bring out his best.
He strolled back through the Palace complex, enjoying the late-summer warmth of the evening, reflecting on how pleasant it might be to have an Emperor who loved, rather than feared, those nearest to him, and was loved by them with such fierce loyalty. Gao Zhan liked the thought quite a bit. He thought the Court and country would, too, once they got accustomed, and if time had taught him anything it was that people did get accustomed if you just gave them a little while. He smiled up at the first stars coming out in the darkening sky, and though he’d never gained the learning of the royal scholars who read the skies, he felt deep in his heart that those stars agreed with him when he murmured softly, aloud.
“All will be well.”