Finding a Path
The road that led past the river north of Jinling was a good one for racing on. It got less traffic than the others, and ran fairly flat until it reached the tree line. Yujin had raced Jingrui down this stretch many a time, once they were both old enough to be let out on their own horses without an older cousin to mind them.
Today they gave their horses their heads, but it wasn’t a race. They rode close all the way to the trees, horses running shoulder to shoulder, slowing together as they passed between the first tall trunks. Yujin waited until they were well under the unfolding spring leaves before he spoke.
“It’s really true, then.”
Jingrui flashed a bright smile over at him. “It really is.” And then he looked faintly hangdog. “I’m sorry I didn’t say, in the winter, when he first visited. Aunt Jing made me promise not to.”
Yujin waved that off, scoffing. “Don’t worry so much; of course you kept quiet if she asked.” He did give Jingrui a long, searching look as they turned onto the path to the river, though. “That’s why you’ve been thinking about returning to the military, though, isn’t it?” He’d wondered about that, a little. He knew Jingrui had stayed in contact with some of his men, even once their year-long obligation was up, and he’d been watching the capital patrols with a more and more considering look in his eye all winter.
Jingrui smiled down at his horse’s neck. “A little.” They reined in at the edge of a clearing by the river’s wide bend and dismounted as one. They’d always moved together, like that, but Yujin was starting to wonder how much longer they could do so. His own military experiences, so far, had left him ambivalent, aware he could likely be a good commander but sickened by the waste of every fight, and furious that some ambitious fool’s failure of thought had made it necessary. Though he admitted he’d felt somewhat less of that under Lin Shu’s direction, on the north border.
“Everything I’ve heard says he’ll never take the field again,” he said to his saddle, loosening the reins so his horse could drink from the river. “You would never be under his command again.”
“Not in the field,” Jingrui agreed. “But… well, it’s Lin Shu ge-ge. If he’s back, then…”
Yujin couldn’t help the grin that tugged at his mouth. “Then he’ll be the one in charge anyway.” Only Prince Jing had ever really been able to stand firm against Lin Shu’s impatient assumption of command, and the Crown Prince certainly wasn’t going to be refusing any military distribution the brilliant Vice-Marshal of Chiyan might advise. Not after the battle at the northern border had demonstrated so conclusively that Lin Shu had lost none of his tactical brilliance. Yujin pulled his horse gently back from the water and tied it so he could walk around to join Jingrui at the water’s edge. “You’re sure, then?” he asked, quietly.
“I think so.” Jingrui gave him a bright, open smile, elbowing him lightly. “So, what about you?”
Very few of Yujin’s reservations had ever held up in face of Jingrui’s smile. Not when they were little and stealing sweets off Aunt Jing’s table (with her amused connivance, Yujin had realized years later); not when they were a little older and Jingrui had dragged Yujin everywhere after their glamorous, if also sometimes alarming, older cousins; not when they’d come of age and Jingrui hauled Yujin out onto the roads to wander the country with that very same smile. He could barely imagine leaving Jingrui’s side, at this point. So there was really nothing else to do but elbow him back until they managed to shove each other into the shallows, laughing.
In the end, it was Meng Zhi’s still-pressing need for commanders he could trust without question that quashed the last of Yujin’s reservations. Because he could see the uncertainty, at every gathering he attended, hanging in the air like smoke—the doubt in the eyes of nobles and ministers alike, whenever they looked sidelong at the Imperial Guard, or even the City Guard. He’d learned young how dangerous that kind of doubt and fear could be, and had no intention of letting his loved ones live in that kind of capital again, if he could do anything to help it.
“You’re sure you won’t mind?” he asked his father, a little hesitantly, as they sat together over wine in the evening. “I know our family is a scholarly one, it’s just… I feel as though I could do something, there.”
His father’s mouth quirked faintly under his mustache. “If I’d minded you taking up martial pursuits, I’d have needed to do something about it a long time ago.”
That was not, Yujin had to observe, actually a ‘no’, and he chewed on his lip behind his cup.
This time his father laughed, quietly. “It’s fine, Yujin. You did well, dealing with both politics and battle two years ago, and you obviously already know how to listen for what’s not said.” He settled back a little on his cushion though his eyes were still sharp and thoughtful, resting on Yujin. “The Imperial Guard isn’t a bad place from which to watch the workings of the court and the ministries. I doubt that’s what Jingrui needs or will find in it, but for you… well, go and see.”
Something in Yujin relaxed, hearing that, something deeper than his concern for his father’s approval, the hot thread of outrage that curled tight every time he saw yet another thing about the capital that was still broken in the aftermath of the princes’ fight for the throne. “It just… it makes me so angry, sometimes, to see what always seems to lead up to an actual battle,” he admitted, looking down.
“What, stupidity?” his father asked, blandly, taking a sip of his wine. He smiled a little at the sputter of laughter Yujin couldn’t hold back. “That’s why I’m not worried, boy. You’re true blood of the Yan lineage. You’ll never be content to fix the results when you could be laying hands on the cause.”
Yujin took a deep breath, feeling the words settle into his heart and ring true, there. “Yes,” he agreed, softly. And then he had to sigh a little, as his heart did a prompt and familiar about-face and tugged in the other direction. “Jingrui…”
“Jingrui has to follow his own path.” His father softened the flat statement by laying a hand on Yujin’s shoulder, and added, “That doesn’t mean your paths can’t go in the same direction, if you both choose.”
Yujin paused, suddenly remembering the handful of times he’d heard his father refer to ‘Lin Xie da-ge’ in his hearing, always with affection and fierce loyalty, and nodded slowly. “I’ll remember, Father.” He still didn’t like the thought of not being right at Jingrui’s side, but… perhaps it truly would be enough to travel the same way, if not quite the same road.
He would hope so.
And for now, at least, they could go together. He didn’t have to try to explain another road to Jingrui, yet. He would hold tight to that, while he could.
Li Gang stepped past the house servant who’d shown him through to the Chief’s rooms, here in Prince Jing’s city manor, and gave the Chief a quick look up and down. He looked far less like a man trying to outrun a slowly festering gut wound, these days. He also snorted as Li Gang and Zhen Ping bowed.
“I’m fine, yes, and don’t try to tell me you haven’t been in communication with our members in the Imperial Guard, to get reports on me, all this time.”
Li Gang exchanged rueful looks with Zhen Ping, and didn’t try to deny it. “You called for us, Chief,” he said, instead.
“Mm.” The Chief jotted a note on the lists spread over his writing table, and said, in the thoughtful tone that meant he was saying more than it sounded like, “Neither of you have accepted reinstatement, yet.”
This time, the look Li Gang traded with Zhen Ping was wary. “It didn’t feel right, without you in command.” He could hear the faint edge of entreaty in his own voice, and didn’t try to stifle it, because if the Chief was about to give the orders it sounded like he was thinking of…
The Chief looked up, eyes steady on them. “You had a chance to see a bit of how Xiao Jingrui and Yan Yujin commanded, at the north border. What did you think?”
Li Gang blinked a little, but he was used to not being able to follow the Chief’s quicksilver turns of thought. He settled back and considered. “They’re both strong warriors, and not afraid to lead from the front. They’re not as good, yet, at keeping a whole unit’s position in mind, when they’re fighting, but I thought they both had potential, as commanders.”
“Yan Yujin is better at strategy than Xiao Jingrui,” Zhen Ping put in. “At least right now. Yan Yujin thinks more. But Xiao Jingrui…” He raised a brow at Li Gang and Li Gang nodded agreement.
“Xiao Jingrui has stronger command presence, with the men.”
“It’s not that Yan Yujin doesn’t have it,” Zhen Ping added, “but he doesn’t throw it out into the world, as Xiao Jingrui does. In time, the men would follow Yan Yujin, with a good will, because they’d know he’d make wise choices. But they’ll follow Xiao Jingrui right now, because he calls on their hearts.”
“Romantic,” Li Gang accused, under his breath.
“Not like you don’t agree,” Zhen Ping muttered back.
From the smile the Chief was stifling, he’d heard that.
“There is one thing, about Yan Yujin, though,” Zhen Ping said, slowly. “I noticed it at Jiu An. Most of the time, in the field, he’s a thinker. But he has a streak of savagery in him, when he’s protecting something. That day, with his father, and then Gong Yu, behind him… he never took a single step back toward those stairs. Not one.”
Li Gang’s brows rose; that had been a close, bloody fight, from everything he’d heard. For someone who’d never experienced a battlefield before to hold his ground so hard… yes, ‘savage’ was a good word for it. That could be a helpful tool, in the field, but it could also get a lot of people killed. “It would almost be ideal for them to be co-commanders, then, wouldn’t it?” he mused.
A faint huff of laughter escaped the Chief. “Except for the part where Jingrui is one of those things Yujin would defend to the death,” he pointed out, dryly. “But what is it in Jingrui that makes you think so?”
Li Gang settled himself more firmly into the familiar flow of reporting to the Chief, focused on question and answer, and never mind the side-tracks the Chief himself might dart down. All Li Gang had to do was answer the questions as they came. “He’s protective enough, but he doesn’t fight to protect, and he doesn’t get lost in that urge. He fights for his ideals. What he wants is to help.”
“Hmm.” The Chief settled back in his chair with a distant look in his eye. “Help whom?” he murmured.
“His friends. His people. His nation.” Li Gang thought for a moment, about what he’d seen of the young man, at the north border. “The nation, that part is still unformed. He’s not very fond of the government, and who can blame him? But having traveled as much as he has, he’s seen a lot of the people. His men kept mentioning that he recognized where a lot of their homes were. He values the wellbeing of those people he met.”
The Chief was smiling. “Yes. For a young man who never had the slightest ambition for the scholar’s way, Jingrui does a fine job of embodying righteousness and benevolence.”
“He still assumes those in others a little too much, but,” Li Gang shrugged, “that’s what makes the men respond to him, too. At the north border, he fell very easily in with the brotherhood of soldiers. He just needs to learn not to trust everything reported to him.”
“So Jingrui will be well, with a little more seasoning and a commander he believes in,” the Chief mused. “And Yujin will need someone to watch his back.” He straightened and looked directly at them again, tone slipping out of thought and into command. “Jingrui and Yujin are both considering entering the Imperial Guard, this season. I need some experienced officers under them, to keep an eye on them. Zhen Ping, you’ll go to Yujin. Li Gang, you will go to Jingrui.”
“Chief…” Li Gang half-protested, looking at Zhen Ping for support.
“If we’re reinstated, that isn’t something we can go back from easily,” Zhen Ping agreed, just as anxious as Li Gang felt.
“Nor is the Palace somewhere I can easily return from, any more,” the Chief said quietly.
That halted them both, and Li Gang turned this new charge around, in his head. If the Chief was part of the Palace, now, and they returned into the Jin army, they’d be closer to hand than anyone but the Palace eunuchs could get.
And Li Gang didn’t really want to become a Palace official, at his time of life.
Relief spread, warm, through his chest, and he bowed, Zhen Ping a second behind him. “Yes, Chief.”
“Tomorrow, then.” The Chief gave them a sharp nod that was so very much their Vice-Marshal’s gesture, Li Gang had to brace himself against the spike of nostalgia, so intense it was nearly pain, like hot blood rushing back into a long-deadened limb.
He’d been with the Chief long enough, he didn’t think for one second that it was accidental.
“So, we’re going back,” Zhen Ping murmured, as they stepped out into the slanting, early evening sunlight.
“With yet more of the family, to look after,” Li Gang agreed, a little ruefully.
“At least they can’t possibly be as much trouble as the Vice-Marshal and the Prince were.” Zhen Ping sounded hopeful, but Li Gang winced a little.
“Don’t tempt fate.”
Zhen Ping laughed, quietly. “All right, but at least the capital barracks are supposed to be better than the border cities.”
Li Gang finally smiled. “Now that, I’ll drink to.”
Following a Path
It didn’t actually take Yujin long to settle in to his new work. From his point of view, not a great deal changed.
There was training and drill, but that had always been true, especially once Dong jie-jie had started taking his training seriously. There were suddenly a lot more people he was responsible for, but he’d been the one looking after the Yan household for a long time, and just like he had the steward and housekeeper at home, he had sergeants to help with his battalion.
(The first day he’d met his unit, and watched the man he still thought of as Mei Changsu’s personal swordmaster step forward, with a professionally blank face, to hand over the tally of his men, he’d been startled enough to ask, “What, really?”
“You’re his family, Commander,” Zhen Ping had said, under his breath but apparently quite calm. “Of course he wants to make sure you’re taken care of.”
Yujin hadn’t quite had the nerve to protest, at the time, and he had to admit that Zhen Ping was very helpful.)
And he and Jingrui were both currently assigned to the bulk of the Jin army garrisoned outside the Palace itself. So, really, Yujin was feeling a great deal like this was an extension of his travels with Jingrui, except that both of them actually went home at night.
It was possible that their ‘business as usual’ approach was not endearing them to their superior, though.
“You want to do what, now?” Sun Wen, the Army Vice-Commander they both reported to squinted at them like he might be getting a headache.
“A mock battle,” Jingrui repeated, brightly. “It’ll keep everyone from getting too bored and losing their edge.”
“They like being bored,” Sun Wen pointed out, a bit dryly. “The alternative to bored is called ‘battle’. And frankly, we want hundreds of soldiers all crammed together to have less of an edge to them than a couple of hot-blooded young warriors used to gallivanting around as they please. Just for example.”
That was definitely to their address, and Yujin stepped in to deflect it with a hopeful smile. “Varying the way they train will keep their skills sharper, won’t it?”
“Which is exactly why we have several mock battles a year, out on the plains, about which you’ll be informed in good time.” Sun Wen picked up the report he’d put down when they entered.
“This would be indoors, though.” Jingrui leaned forward, earnestly. “Won’t that be good training for our Palace rotation?”
“Indoors?” Sun Wen looked up at them, brows arched incredulously. “Where, exactly, do you think we have space for two battalions to go at each other indoors?”
“The old Zhang manor, in the west-central district,” Yujin supplied promptly. “Old Man Zhang’s daughter has been trying to convince him to have it knocked down and rebuilt for years. If the army rents it for a while, then he’s happy because it isn’t getting knocked down yet, and she’s happy because they’ll be getting more money to eventually rebuild it, and we get an interior practice area that’s almost as complex as some of the Palace.”
“So everyone’s happy, hm?” Sun Wen eyed the two of them, and Yujin gave him his very best reassuring smile. Sun Wen snorted. “All right, you seem to be reasonably organized about this; you can try it once. But if there are too many injuries out of this, and the physicians come after you, I’m going to leave you to their mercies. Just keep that in mind.”
Yujin immediately thought of Aunt Jing’s scoldings and quailed. From the look of trepidation on Jingrui’s face, he was remembering exactly the same thing. “Yes, sir,” Jingrui hastened to assure the Army Vice-Commander. “We’ll make sure everyone is careful.”
“Do so.” Sun Wen nodded dismissal in answer to their bows, and picked up his reports again. And if he was shaking his head as Yujin left on Jingrui’s heels, well, at least they’d gotten permission to convince him.
Yujin grinned at Jingrui as they clattered down the steps to Wen’s office, and Jingrui grinned back, and they clapped each other on the shoulders, laughing. This should be fun. Also productive, of course, because that’s what they were here for, after all, but it was very gratifying to find that he could still combine the two, now and then.
Perhaps he could find uses for more than his martial skills around here, after all. The thought made him relax under Jingrui’s hand, smiling.
Zhen Ping crept after his Commander through tall, dry weeds beside a weathered breezeway, and had to hold back a smile. He’d wondered, a little, how much of Yan Yujin’s determined pleasure in life would survive something like Jiu An, especially once he took a military post. But his Commander’s eyes were bright, and he grinned as he watched their forward scouts sneak up to the tattered doors of the next hall and signaled Zhen Ping for two more squads to follow them. That cheer seemed to ripple out through the men who caught a glimpse of him, like a gust of wind through grass.
Zhen Ping observed that, and thought about the fact that Yan Yujin did seem to have a good instinct for the morale of his men, and finally asked the question that had been nagging at him. “So, for this exercise, we’re supposed to be rescuing a Minister from kidnappers who are holding him in his Palace offices, aren’t we?”
“Exactly,” Yan Yujin agreed, and added thoughtfully, “It’s really too bad we can’t use the actual offices, but I suppose that would be too much disruption.”
Zhen Ping took a moment to offer silent and fervent thanks that his Commander hadn’t suggested that plan to Army Vice-Commander Sun Wen. Sun Wen had been recalled from retirement to fill one of the two posts left empty (again) after the executions that had followed Prince Yu’s rebellion. He didn’t have a reputation as a harsh man, but the whole Jin army knew that his patience had a definite limit, after how briskly he’d restored order among his battalion Commanders. Thinking on the Army Vice-Commander’s potential lack of amusement with them, Zhen Ping was a little cautious when he asked the next question. “If that’s so, sir, then why do I keep hearing Commander Xiao’s men yelling about having spotted the kidnappers?”
“Because their objective is to defend a Minister against the attack of kidnappers who have penetrated the Palace offices,” Yan Yujin said, quite calmly, eyes on the progress of the men clearing the hall ahead.
Zhen Ping had been afraid that was going to be the answer. “Sir,” he started, searching for a respectful way to put this, “isn’t that a little too…”
“Realistic?” Yujin’s smile was crooked, now.
Zhen Ping had been thinking ‘cynical’ and still was, but ‘realistic’ also worked. “Yes, sir.”
“That’s the all clear sign,” Yan Yujin said, instead of answering. “Come on.”
Zhen Ping ran forward on his heels, keeping a sharp eye out for anywhere around the dilapidated court that bowmen might be hidden. Li Gang believed quite devoutly in extra precautions, and Xiao Jingrui turned out to have a good eye for crossfire positions, as they’d already found out once. Over fifty men had had to retire, grumbling, with ink-spattered armor showing where they’d been shot.
It wasn’t until they were safely under a rear window, with scouts ducking underneath the breezeways to crawl forward again, that Yan Yujin said, quietly, “Jingrui said people fight better if it’s for the right reason. And I didn’t want any of our men thinking too long about being asked to attack the government.” He looked over his shoulder at Zhen Ping, eyes steady. “If anyone asks, we thought it would be a good joke, for both sides to actually have the same objective.”
Zhen Ping couldn’t help giving an abbreviated bow to that level expression. “Yes, sir.”
He still thought that it was Yan Yujin who had the better strategic sense, but the longer he spent at Yan Yujin’s side, the more he heard ‘Jingrui wants’ or ‘Jingrui said’. He was starting to wonder if Yan Yujin ever really did anything on his own account or for his own sake, or if, perhaps, someone should suggest the idea to him.
And then one of the scouts popped out of the long weeds, signaling back that they’d found an opening, and Yan Yujin lit up, laughing. “We’ve got them!” He bounced up onto his toes and dashed forward.
Or perhaps, Zhen Ping reflected, ruefully, as he sprinted after his Commander, he’d better save his worrying for keeping his charge in one piece right now, and let the future take care of itself.
Yujin loved sparring with Jingrui. Jingrui’s sword form was beautiful, full of clean, sharp turns that swept aside any weakness in defense, meeting his blade only to spin aside and suddenly return from another angle. Yujin was, justifiably he thought, proud of the demonstrated effectiveness of his own style, but sparring with Jingrui was like playing a line of music.
Of course, all that sleek economy of motion and momentum did tend to mean that he often got worn down before Jingrui did, when they fought with swords.
“Ha!” Jingrui’s eyes were bright as the line of his sword settled delicately against Yujin’s neck. “Finally got you!”
“What ‘finally’?!” Yujin demanded, laughing and out of breath, as cheers and groans broke out from their spectators around the drill field. “You think you shouldn’t have to work for your win?” He tossed his sword back to his off hand and elbowed Jingrui as Jingrui flung an arm around his neck.
“Should I have to work, against you?” Jingrui teased, leaning against him until Yujin rolled his eyes and shifted his weight to dump him off, one of the most useful moves Dong jie-jie had ever taught him. Jingrui stepped through, graceful as ever, to catch his balance, laughing.
“Time to give someone else a chance, you two,” one of the onlookers called out, and Yujin looked up to see Wan Fa, the Commander who’d been shifted over to take Jin’s Second battalion while Yujin took over the Fourth from him. A little murmur of anticipation ran through the noise of bets changing hands, around them, enough to make Yujin nod to himself.
The battalion hadn’t been in bad shape, when Yujin took it, not the way Jingrui’s had been, with their previous Commander dismissed from service, the company captains anxious or wincing, and the sergeants uniformly grim. But Yujin was used to listening for what wasn’t said, and that wasn’t only useful in keeping a party going cheerfully. He’d watched his men watching him, seen how his captains’ shoulders eased down when he’d called them in, that first month, and asked about the distribution of men and equipment across each company, whether anyone needed him to go argue for extra from the Logistics Bureau or needed to be on light duty while they got new men trained up.
The battalion hadn’t been in bad shape, but it hadn’t been well cared for. It had made Yujin think of what Yan Manor might have been like, without him, for the years his father had had his mind on other things. And that made him smile at Wan Fa with just a bit more teeth than usual, and say cheerfully, “I was thinking of a round unarmed. You interested?”
Jingrui’s brows rose for just a moment, because normally an unarmed match was Yujin’s chance to get his own back from Jingrui, if he’d lost with swords, but one look at Yujin’s smile made Jingrui clap him on the shoulder and agree, brightly, “I wanted to steal Zhen Ping for a little, anyway!”
They exchanged a quick, complicit grin and Jingrui faded back into the onlookers, positively smirking. Yujin sheathed his sword and stepped back out, re-settling himself, waiting for Wan Fa to come at him.
As he’d more than half expected, Wan Fa had no problem with making the first move, and a showy move at that, a broad, circling strike at Yujin’s ribs. Yujin’s smile thinned, and he shifted for a high, sweeping kick, arm snaking out to lock Wan Fa’s against his side as it came in. Wan Fa didn’t quite yelp, but his expression looked like he wanted to as he twisted under the kick, only barely pulling free enough to keep from breaking his own arm in the process.
Mostly because Yujin let him.
Wan Fa was glaring when he came in again, this time with a more focused chest strike. Yujin flipped back out of range, easy and springy, and then, to bait him more firmly, flipped up over Wan Fa’s head. The ‘just swallowed a bug’ expression on the man’s face as he spun around nearly made Yujin laugh. He knew a lot of people looked at his stocky build and assumed his form would be thin on aerial maneuvers, grounded and strength-based.
And it wasn’t as if they were entirely wrong, after all.
Yujin stood his ground as Wan Fa spun into a series of high, scything kicks. He bent back from one, blocked the next cleanly, and then he was far enough inside to wheel on his own center and land a brutal double punch that threw Wan Fa back to the circle of spectators to land in a gasping heap. Yujin came back to a neutral finishing stance, and gave his collapsed opponent a bow and a sunny smile, and whoops went up all around. Yujin laughed and went to give Wan Fa a hand up, as comradely as could be. He wanted to shake the man up, after all, not actually alienate him.
“Dong jie-jie would have twisted your ear off for that flip,” Jingrui told him, grinning, as Yujin joined him at the edge of the circle.
“Dong jie-jie isn’t here, or I wouldn’t have done it.” Yujin jostled through the press of men, as they broke up to return to drills, and grabbed a dipper of water. He turned a little, as he drank, casting a quick eye over the training ground, listening for the tone of it the way he’d listen to the tone of a social gathering. The men of his battalion, and for that matter of Jingrui’s, were mostly grinning, smug. The few who wore darker expressions were still satisfied, just with a far harder edge of pride in it—he’d already marked most of them as soldiers who’d been at Jiu An, and he added the ones he hadn’t known of yet to his mental tally. In turn, Wan Fa’s men elbowed each other and rolled their eyes, some exasperated but most only rueful. That was a good sign. He’d ask Zhen Ping to check on that battalion, and make sure their morale (and supplies) really were being kept up reasonably, but it didn’t look like more energetic measures would be needed.
“Yujin?” Jingrui asked, softly, stepping closer and turning a little to watch behind him. “What is it?”
“Nothing right now,” Yujin murmured, leaning against his shoulder for a moment, warmed by how easily Jingrui still guarded his back. “Just keeping an eye on things.” He grinned up at Jingrui. “Ready to go look commanding, Commander Xiao, and make sure your men are doing their drills properly?”
Jingrui drew himself up, managing to look dignified despite the way his eyes were dancing. “Always, Commander Yan.”
Yujin gave him a mocking bow, and laughed as Jingrui pulled him along across the training field.
Nothing was wrong right now, and that was why he’d keep an eye out. Yujin didn’t intend to be caught in the crossfire of politics and poor choices twice, and he especially didn’t intend to let Jingrui be caught, no matter how much of an uphill battle that had always been, against Jingrui’s lack of self-preservation.
Jingrui looked up with a satisfied smile as the last of his company captains filed in, and waved the letter with their new orders between his fingers. “Get everything polished up, this week; we’re on rotation at that Palace starting next week!”
“Really?” He Niu sounded shocked, and the rest of them were exchanging equally startled looks, some pleased, some alarmed, but all about equally taken aback by the news. Jingrui shook his head at them.
“It’s our turn, in the schedule; there’s no reason to think we wouldn’t be. You can’t be held to blame for obeying your commander,” he said firmly. Again. He felt a bit like he’d been repeating some variation on this at least once a week for months, now. And it wasn’t as though ex-Commander Peng had even been clearly in collusion with Jin’s late, unlamented Army Vice-Commanders. Personally, Jingrui thought it likely the man had just been currying favor with whoever presented themselves above him; he’d seen a lot of similar behavior, since he’d come here, and that, at least, he found understandable, if not at all admirable.
What he found less understandable, and wouldn’t have believed if he hadn’t heard it from Yujin, was the real reason his men never quite seemed to believe him. It still shocked Jingrui down to the core, what the Emperor had almost done to even the surrendered Qing Li soldiers, what had only been averted by the Crown Prince and High Commander’s pleas. To hold a servant to blame for following his master’s orders… Jingrui knew he’d been only a middling-good student but even he knew that struck against both the codes of law and the roots of civility itself. The limits on a servant’s responsibility, or a soldier’s, (or a son’s) were all that made obedience a virtue and not some form of madness. Jingrui had been fresh from the orderly (if rather voracious) atmosphere of his blood-father’s court, when Yujin had told him the story of Jiu An, and the thought that the Emperor, the nation’s source of order, would do such a selfish, chaotic thing had chilled him.
At the same time, and much though the Crown Prince should never have had to do it, Jingyan ge-ge’s example had heartened him. If he could follow that example, give the men he was responsible for some of their moral certainty back… well, he’d think that worthwhile work. No matter how many times he had to repeat himself.
His captains ducked their heads at the reminder, He Niu with a sheepish expression.
“Yes, Commander. Sorry, sir.”
Jingrui smiled at them. “Just make sure the men are ready. The timing of our rotation means we’ll be escort for the Fall Hunt; remind everyone. If there are any who are likely to have trouble at Jiu An, let me know and keep an eye on them.” He nodded dismissal to their bows of acknowledgment, and only shook his head ruefully once they were all gone.
“They’re getting there, sir,” Li Gang said quietly, at his shoulder. “Who else is on this rotation with us?”
“Yujin’s battalion, and Wan Fa’s, and the First and Third too.”
Li Gang snorted a little with amusement. “Everyone Commander Yan has under his wing, then. Probably a good thing.”
Jingrui smiled, only a little wryly for the fact that Li Gang was so very right. “Yujin is good at looking after things.” He touched the pile of tallies and lists on the side of his writing table. “So, I have the inventory reports, reports from the stables, though I want to double-check those before the Fall Hunt, preliminary patrol schedules for the Palace complex, and I’ll be meeting with the other Commanders tomorrow to finalize those…” He looked up at Li Gang with a soft chuckle. “Anything I’m forgetting?”
His sergeant gave him an approving look for asking (he was getting better about that!) and answered, respectfully, “Have you written the City Guard, yet, to arrange the route we’ll take to the Palace complex, sir?”
“No,” Jingrui sighed, reaching for his brush to jot a note to himself. He was coming to realize, this year, that while he was actually fairly good at command, he was not good at bureaucracy. He was working dutifully, if not exactly enthusiastically, to get better, but he was also starting to have a terrible suspicion that he was going to wind up in Marquis Ning’s position some day, buried in reports with a perpetual headache, even if he genuinely managed to avoid politics. He couldn’t see any way around it, not if he wanted to actually have enough rank to do some good for the nation his greater clan ruled.
On the other hand, at least Yujin would be with him, and Yujin was very good at this side of things. Jingrui added the first character of Yujin’s name to his note, and smiled.
They’d manage together, the way they always had everything. He honestly couldn’t imagine it being any other way.
Duty at the Palace complex was a prized and prestigious one. People actually competed for it. There were even rumors people had killed for it, if the High Commander wasn’t careful to maintain even rotations of the duty.
Yujin was incredibly bored by it.
He did, actually, understand Army Vice-Commander Sun Wen’s point that boredom was desirable, especially here. But Palace duty involved a great deal of doing nothing. The Imperial Guard detachment stood rigidly in place at their posts. They escorted palace officials on their very brief trips out into the city, to act as the Emperor’s voice, or more commonly these days, as the Crown Prince’s voice. They patrolled the Palace complex, keeping a careful eye out for any untoward behavior, of which there had not been any, lately.
And Yujin spent most of his time in the Imperial Guard’s offices, writing up duty rosters and patrol patterns without even being able to get out to walk many of the patrols. He’d started debriefing the on-call troops who rode out escorting palace officials, just to have something mildly interesting to do. He’d pulled out all the detailed and confidential maps of the Palace complex their offices contained and baited Jingrui and Wan Fa and Xu Jian and Yuan Kang with the housekeeper’s best snacks until they all sat down and drew up freshly optimized patrol routes to submit to the High Commander. He was actually looking forward to the Fall Hunt. He was also starting to understand why the Palace guard detachment trained so very vigorously; it was probably so they didn’t die of boredom.
Or, in Jingrui’s case, because Meng Zhi was around to train with.
Yujin couldn’t help smiling at the delighted grin Jingrui wore as he spun just a breath past Meng Zhi’s kick, palm driving hard toward Meng Zhi’s ribs. Not that he connected, but Jingrui looked pleased to have come as close as he had. Jingrui really was adorable, when he was around someone who could teach him. Yujin had thought, more than once, that Zhuo Qingyao was a lot of the reason Jingrui had thrown himself so wholeheartedly into being a son of Tianquan Manor, all those years. Jingrui made a good enough big brother, responsible and kind, but he was a lot better at being a little brother.
“Good afternoon, Commander Yan.”
Case in point, Yujin thought, a little wryly, turning to bow to the man who’d come up quietly to stand beside him. “And to you, Vice-Marshal Lin.”
Lin Shu chuckled softly at their formalities, folding his arms and joining Yujin in watching Jingrui and Meng Zhi separate and then close again, twice as fast as before, both of them grinning. “This is my first chance to see how the two of you are getting on,” he murmured. “Jingrui looks to be enjoying himself.”
Yujin had to give him a long look, at that, brows raised. “Have Zhen Ping and Li Gang been forgetting to send all their reports? That doesn’t seem like them.”
His cousin’s mouth crimped up at the corners. “My first chance to see for myself,” he specified. “They’ve only kept me generally informed. It’s not quite the same.” He glanced sidelong at Yujin, smiling. “So, how have you been? Keeping busy?”
Reminded, Yujin made a face and grumbled, “Not very. I’m wondering if the request process over in Logistics and Supply can be streamlined, actually.”
Lin Shu made a sound that may have started life as a snort of laughter. “Is there a particular reason you’re contemplating take-over of a bureau?”
Yujin sighed. Yes, he’d been afraid that was what it would probably take. “It’s not that there are any particular delays, yet, it’s just that I was looking at the timing of fulfillment so I could write up the next few months in advance, since I had the time…” He paused, blinking, because Lin Shu had dissolved into helpless laughter.
“Ah.” His cousin finally straightened up again. “All right, now I see why Meng da-ge asked me to come speak to you.”
Yujin started a little at that. The High Commander had? He glanced up at the practice area where Meng Zhi was throwing Jingrui’s kick briskly back off crossed arms. It wasn’t like he didn’t have plenty of opportunities to speak, himself, now Yujin and Jingrui were on Palace duty. A hand closed on his shoulder and shook him gently, and he looked back to see his cousin smiling.
“What he actually said,” Lin Shu told him, still amused, “was ‘he’s getting almost as bad as you used to be, in camp’.”
Yujin’s eyes widened, and he felt quick heat in his cheeks. Chiyan’s brilliant Vice-Marshal was one person he’d never thought to be compared to, even in exasperation.
Lin Shu patted his shoulder and let him go. “You think too much, for ceremonial duty, is all. It’s not a bad thing.” His mouth quirked up again. “Unless it leads you to start taking over the Ministry of War, one bureau at a time. Save that for when you’re a little older.”
That was not helping Yujin stop blushing. “Shu-xiong,” he protested. “I’m not going to…”
His cousin’s eyes sharpened, and he held up a hand, cutting Yujin off. “Yujin, we both know you won’t let Jingrui go down this path alone or unguarded.”
After a moment, Yujin nodded slowly, mouth a little tight. He wasn’t exactly surprised that Lin Shu had seen that particular motive, but he still didn’t like having it said out loud. Lin Shu’s expression softened a bit. “Don’t worry too much, yet. Jingyan and I are watching. We’ll make sure nothing happens.”
All in a rush, Yujin remembered the warm, easy comfort he’d felt when he was younger, before the Chiyan case, before his first priority had become being able to pull Jingrui back from the capital’s political bear-traps. He’d been sure, back then, that nothing too very bad could ever happen, because his cousins would watch over them—Prince Qi, kind and patient, Prince Jing, so strong and steadfast, Lin Shu, bright and fierce. And had Lin Shu not still watched over him, even after it all? He had to swallow hard, blinking back those memories and the echo of them in his cousin’s quiet assurance. His voice was a little husky when he answered, “Yes, Shu ge-ge.”
For a moment, he thought Lin Shu might ruffle his hair, the way he had back then. Thankfully, given they were surrounded by half of Yujin’s battalion, his cousin only smiled and turned to look back at Jingrui and Meng Zhi’s match, which had now moved on to swords. “For now… hm. Perhaps I’ll ask Meng da-ge to let the Guard escort ministers around the city, again, as well as the palace officials.”
Yujin perked up at that. That would surely make for far more interesting gossip that he could get. “Did we used to?”
“Before the ministries got so enmeshed in the fight for the throne, yes. Now that there’s less danger of the Guard getting pulled in after the ministers, I think it would benefit everyone to take that duty back off the household guards. I’ll suggest it.” Lin Shu winced at the next step Jingrui took, which was apparently an over-extension, because in the next moment his blade went clattering aside and Meng Zhi was at his back with his own sword across Jingrui’s throat. Jingrui shook his head ruefully as Meng Zhi let him go, but Meng Zhi just laughed and clapped him on the shoulder.
“That was better than last time! Try it again.” He backed up, beckoning, and Jingrui’s smile turned brilliant as he scooped up his sword again and flowed into a low stance.
Lin Shu smiled, wry but not quite as bitter as Yujin thought it would have been two years ago. “I’ll suggest it later,” he corrected himself.
Yujin couldn’t help laughing.
It was a little strange, for Jingrui, to return to Jiu An as a commander of the soldiers who guarded the Emperor and his retinue, after so many years as part of that retinue. Everything was brushed with newness and unfamiliarity, seen from this new angle. The mountain and its forests were still wild and full of life, but hunting the wild creatures was not his focus. The fortress itself was still airy, its long halls gracefully shadowed, but he was in a new wing of it, with new shadows.
Some of them in the eyes of the men around him.
It put a little chill down Jingrui’s own spine, to see the bright newness of the gates, set in the middle of the old, scored walls, but some of the men stepped through that new gate into the plaza on the other side and shuddered.
Yujin was one of them.
Jingrui knew he’d been hovering a bit, since they got here. A Yujin who wasn’t smiling or frowning or pacing, always expressive and in motion, a Yujin who paused so still he might not be breathing and wore no expression at all for a handful of heartbeats before turning with a smile harder than it was bright, was a Yujin who worried him a little.
And apparently hovering had actually worked, because Yujin had just rolled his eyes and taken Jingrui’s hand to slap a stack of reports into it, and told him, in a tone of rare exasperation, to go fill in the rest of the injuries log, if he didn’t have anything else to do. That had been more of the usual Yujin than Jingrui had seen since they’d arrived, complete with deeply expressive eye rolling. Jingrui smiled as he scanned down the list of men who’d been involved in xiao-Tingsheng’s little mishap with a yearling boar. There was someone who’d gotten a wrenched shoulder when his horse threw him, Jingrui was sure, but who had it been?
He almost rolled his eyes at himself when he remembered; it had been one of Wan Fa’s men. He was getting as bad as Yujin about casually counting them in among his own.
On the other hand, if they wanted complete accounts, which Yujin clearly did, then he should get the man’s name anyway. Jingrui laid down his brush and crossed the small courtyard of their wing to the rooms Wan Fa had taken, rapping lightly on the open screens as he stepped in. “Wan Fa, can I get the name of the man who was injured in that little scuffle with the boar, the other day?”
His fellow Commander looked up from his own paperwork with a snort. “Yan Yujin has infected you, too, has he?”
Jingrui couldn’t help laughing. “Always, sooner or later.”
And clearly Wan Fa wasn’t that annoyed, because he got up from his writing table willingly enough and opened up a chest to one side. “Just a minute, then.”
Jingrui waited politely while Wan Fa dug out what looked like the list of his whole command, though he couldn’t help raising a brow at the fact that Wan Fa apparently didn’t have any more concise reports of the incident handy. Possibly it was a good thing Wan Fa had his back turned. Jingrui glanced over his writing table, a little curious to see what he was doing, if not writing up the reports he really should have ready. A familiar hand caught his eye, on the top of a letter sticking out from underneath a few other reports. Had Yujin been sending notes over already? Alright, perhaps Jingrui could understand a little huffing, if so…
A chill uncurled down his spine, though, as the realization settled into his mind: Jingrui recognized it, but that wasn’t Yujin’s writing.
It was his sister’s.
Yuwen Nian wrote to him often, and he replied as often and kindly as he could, knowing she was still disappointed that he had not stayed in his blood-father’s court long enough to escort her wedding journey north. Knowing how impetuous she could be, he could well believe she might have written to any Da Liang officer she knew to be in contact with him for more news. What he couldn’t image was why any officer of Da Liang would keep or reply to a letter from the highest ranking Princess of what was, after all, an enemy state.
He stole a quick look at Wan Fa, who was muttering under his breath as he wound through his long scroll, and set his fingertips on the letter, inching it out from under the reports it lay under until he could slide it into his sleeve.
“Ah! That was it, it was Lu Qiang.” Wan Fa turned and caught up his brush to jot down the characters on a bit of clear report paper and tore the strip neatly off to hand to Jingrui. “Was that all?”
“Yes,” Jingrui said, as calmly as he could, taking the slip. “Thank you.” He sketched a short parting bow and made for his own rooms with a quick stride. He hoped this would turn out to be nothing but one of his sister’s headstrong whims, the letter one that Wan Fa simply hadn’t had a moment to burn, yet.
He really hoped.
Yujin was just putting away his sword, after cleaning, when Jingrui burst into his rooms, so abruptly that Yujin nearly drew on him. “Jingrui, what…?”
“Yujin,” Jingrui interrupted, only to stop short, looking over his shoulder. “Not here. Come on.” He seized Yujin’s arm and more or less dragged him out and down the interior passage.
“Jingrui!” Yujin tugged loose once he’d managed to catch up, frowning at the set look on Jingrui’s face. “What’s wrong?”
Jingrui’s jaw tightened. “Not here,” he repeated, and didn’t say another word until he’d led them back into one of the unused inner halls. Once there, where, Yujin couldn’t help noticing, the doors and screens he’d left open in their wake gave them very clear line of sight in all directions, he thumped down onto the hall’s veranda and put his head in his hands.
“…Jingrui?” Yujin settled slowly beside him, watching him closely. “What happened?”
Jingrui didn’t look up, but he did fish a letter out of his sleeve and hold it out. “This. Read this.”
Yujin frowned, quickly turning over, in the back of his mind, the tally of who might have news that could make Jingrui look like this. When he saw the letter was addressed to Wan Fa, not Jingrui, he just blinked. “What…?”
“Read it,” Jingrui insisted, and the flatness of his voice made Yujin settle back and unfold the letter.
My thanks, once again, for your news of my honored brother, Commander Wan. It has been a great comfort to know he is well!
Yujin put down the letter and rubbed a hand over his eyes. “She didn’t really.”
“She really did,” Jingrui sighed. “I’m sure she didn’t mean any harm at all, she just doesn’t think things through sometimes.”
Yujin found that a little rich, coming from Jingrui. Though Jingrui had been getting better. Maybe it just ran in the family? He stifled a groan over how much coaxing was likely going to be required to get Yuwen Nian to stop this—especially when she could, with at least a small amount of justice, insist that she was betrothed to an Imperial prince and could write to Imperial officers if she wanted to—and glanced down the rest of the letter. He froze when his eyes got to the last fold.
“Yes,” Jingrui said, tone suddenly flat and grim again. “That part.”
The last bit was written in a different hand, smaller, as if it had been added as an afterthought. Or, more likely, without the Princess’ knowledge.
We always welcome news from you, and you rise higher in my cousin’s esteem all the time. One hopes that Da Liang values such a perceptive officer as he deserves.
Yuwen Xuan, Prince Ling
Yujin had found out more about the court of Southern Chu, after Jingrui had left to visit there. Their current king, Jingrui’s father by blood, was said to have mellowed a little, as he aged, and was currently concentrated on assimilating Chu’s recent conquests rather than expanding the borders again, but no one believed that would last long. Many of the younger nobles, Prince Ling vocal among them, were in favor of new forays to bite off land to the north. And now Prince Ling had found a path to communicate with an ambitious officer within the Imperial Guard of Da Liang. He’d most likely been the one to provide the Princess, his cousin, with a way to send secret letters north in the first place, and the one who had, almost certainly, given that phrasing, sent this letter on its way with some token of his own ‘esteem’.
In short, the one who was trying to suborn a Commander of the Imperial Guard.
Yujin took a deep breath and let it out slowly, staring at the letter. What a mess. “Well, first we need to convince your sister to stop writing to Wan Fa.”
Jingrui surged up off the veranda and stalked back and forth across the small garden below it, scowling. “No, the first thing we have to do is report Wan Fa! No matter how foolish Nian-er is being, it’s Wan Fa who’s passing information to the prince of an enemy nation!”
“We don’t know that!” Yujin said, sharply, trying not to think about all the gruesome things Dong-jie had let slip, over the years, about how investigations around the Palace usually went. He would have expected Jingrui to be the one most against risking any such thing. “We don’t know that he’s done anything more than send news of you, personally.”
“Which means Wan Fa is passing on information about a Commander of the Imperial Guard. And probably more that was addressed to Prince Ling separately. You saw what he wrote! Admiring how ‘perceptive’ Wan Fa is.” Jingrui’s mouth was tight, and his eyes hard. “And Wan Fa is using my sister to do it, just as much as Yuwen Xuan is.”
Yujin bit his lip for a moment. Now Jingrui’s anger made sense; he’d become doubly protective of his family ties after losing so many of them. “But Jingrui… if we report this officially, the Emperor will hear of it.”
That stopped Jingrui’s furious pacing, at least for a few breaths, though his eyes were still dark. “We can just report it to the High Commander, then.”
“Who’s sworn directly to the Emperor!” Yujin threw up his hands, exasperated. “Do you know what would happen to him as soon as the Emperor got the tiniest hint of him withholding information?”
Jingrui’s temper sparked again. “So we’ll tell the Crown Prince! You can’t tell me he can’t keep a secret from the Emperor!”
Yujin made an inarticulate sound of frustration. He knew Jingrui didn’t always think things through, and it was clearly a family trait, but he had to know better than that. “Like the Crown Prince taking direct action to discipline a Guard Commander isn’t going to be talked about?!”
“We have to do something!”
Frustration pushed Yujin to his feet as well. “If you’ll just stop for a minute…”
“No,” Jingrui said, harshly, eyes burning, hand sweeping up as if to strike Yujin’s words aside. “Not this time!” He started to storm past Yujin, and Yujin reached out to catch his arm, frustration suddenly sharpening into fear, fear that Jingrui would push himself into the Emperor’s notice after all, and all the risk of destruction that notice brought with it.
Jingrui half-turned, sharply, throwing off his hand.
Yujin felt his face turn cold and stiff as blood drained from it, felt his eyes widening, felt his breath stop in his lungs for a long moment as he stood, hand still stretched out toward Jingrui. When he managed to take a breath again, his knees shook, along with the air in his chest, and he stumbled down to the edge of the veranda again. “Jingrui?” This time it was barely a whisper.
At least Jingrui had stopped. At least that.
After a long moment, Jingrui sighed and stepped back toward him. “Sorry. But I can’t just stop this time, Yujin; I have to do something.”
“All right.” His voice was still rough, and all the fear in him had turned over, turned inward, turned sharp and cutting to hear Jingrui say only I. He reached up to catch Jingrui’s sleeve, fingers closing white-knuckled in the fabric. “All right, we will, just…” the words pushed out, and he was shaking too much, inside, to stop them, “don’t leave.”
“I wasn’t… I mean, not leaving leaving. You know that.” Jingrui took another step closer, frowning down at him a little, puzzled. “Yujin?”
“No, it’s fine.” Yujin tried to pull himself together, to brush the spike of cold panic off with a smile, but he could feel it waver, unconvincing.
It probably didn’t help that he couldn’t make himself let go of Jingrui. But Jingrui had left once, even if he’d come back. And he’d been going to leave for the same cause this time, hadn’t he? Family, it was always family with them, and this time it had caused Jingrui to show Yujin his back, just like Yujin’s father always had, for so long. Shouldn’t he be afraid, then? He felt like his thoughts fractured on that question.
“Yujin.” Jingrui sat down again, beside him, hand covering his, still fisted in Jingrui’s sleeve. The warmth of it cut through the tangle of Yujin’s thoughts, and he looked up to see Jingrui looking more concerned than angry. “Are you all right?”
“I’m fine, really.” Yujin felt like this smile was maybe a little more successful. “I’m just… I don’t…” It would be better if he could get his words out in order, but he wasn’t even sure, himself, what they should be. “I didn’t mean to say I wouldn’t help.” That was better.
Jingrui ducked his head a little, looking penitent. “No, I know. I shouldn’t have…” He trailed off, thumb running over Yujin’s still-white knuckles, and he was frowning when he looked up. “Yujin?”
Yujin finally managed to force his fingers open, glancing away as he retrieved his hand. Or, at least, tried to. Jingrui’s fingers caught his again, half way. “Tell me what it was you were thinking of doing, then,” Jingrui said, quietly.
Yujin swallowed to get his heart back down out of his throat, not looking down to see his hand folded with Jingrui’s. “Well. If Yuwen Nian stops writing, then that gets her out of the line of fire, on the Chu end. And Wan Fa will already have had a scare, when he can’t find that letter. If we let him know that we’ll have to report any further communication, I think that will stop him. Without any of this getting back to the Emperor.” He looked back at Jingrui, intent and serious. “Because if the Emperor gets any hint of collusion with an enemy state, we don’t know how many he might order executed, and you’re right in the middle of it.”
Jingrui’s eyes widened, and he flushed red. “Yujin.” He reached out and pulled Yujin close, hands closing tight in the back of his robes. “I’m sorry. I was an idiot.”
Yujin leaned into him, nearly shaking with the sudden release of tension. “Yes,” he managed, against Jingrui’s shoulder, a little husky. “You are. But that’s okay, that’s what I’m for.”
Jingrui’s huff of laughter against his ear, light and teasing, nearly made him melt with relief. “Are you sure? I thought it was for the comic relief.”
Yujin elbowed him, finally managing to laugh, himself, and they both sat back, smiling.
That was all he needed, really.
Jingrui had felt like the worst friend imaginable, when he’d finally realized what Yujin’s real concern was, and all the more so because Yujin’s plan worked. Wan Fa was applying himself strictly to the business of his battalion and had started fading to the back of any gathering that included Jingrui or Yujin with nervous, sidelong glances at them. And perhaps Jingrui’s own guilt over his temper was what made him pay a little more attention than usual. He kept remembering the white-knuckled clench of Yujin’s hand on his sleeve. For whatever reason, he’d really scared Yujin, and he had no wish to do it again.
The reason had finally clicked, for him, a week after they’d all returned from the Fall Hunt, when he’d stopped by the Yan Manor in the morning, to ride in to the Palace complex together.
Yujin had been coming down the stairs of the inner hall, as Jingrui passed through the first courtyard, and he’d laughed and called, “You’re actually out of bed early! Should I mark the date specially?”
Yujin had elevated his nose. “A gentleman maintains moderation in everything. Besides, Father wasn’t here for breakfast, today.”
There’d been a flicker of darkness in his eyes, and it had come to Jingrui, abruptly, that it was the same darkness he’d seen when Yujin was staring at him, stiff and pale, that day. The same darkness Jingrui had seen Yujin push so determinedly away for years, whenever his father came up. The darkness of an empty house, echoing around them, and nobody in it but them and the servants. That was the moment it had come to him that he’d nearly walked away from Yujin, nearly left him in a literally empty hall, that day.
The worst friend ever.
So he tried to stay closer, for a while, to stop in after drills to ask whether Yujin had taken over any more ministry paperwork, yet; to glance at Yujin’s schedule to be extra sure they’d meet in the training yard to spar together; to wrap an arm around Yujin’s shoulders when he pulled his friend toward the gates in the evening, to head home (where, more often than not, he’d stay until Marquis Yan also arrived home). And, perhaps because he was paying extra attention, he’d noticed the thread of tension, in Yujin, that seemed to ease every time Jingrui touched him. Noticing that, of course he’d done it more often, let his arm lay there longer, and taken satisfaction in feeling Yujin’s shoulders drop just that little bit.
Which had gotten them to today.
A late autumn storm had chased everyone indoors who could go, and after making sure that the men had cleared all the equipment off the drill grounds, Jingrui and Yujin dashed for the Guard offices though the cold rain, piling inside on each other’s heels. Jingrui’s arm found its way around Yujin’s shoulders out of growing habit, and they leaned against each other, breathless from cold and laughing a little. Yujin wiped rivulets of rain off his face, leaning into Jingrui more firmly for a moment as he tossed back his head, hands sweeping the wetness back over his hair. Jingrui sputtered as a few drops hit him in the face.
Yujin grinned up at him, bright and teasing. “Hm? Was there something?”
And Jingrui felt his heart turn over, at the same time his awareness of Yujin’s body against his escaped his control and unfurled like eager spring leaves.
“Only the honorable Commander Yan’s lack of manners,” he shot back automatically, and Yujin’s laugh shivered down his nerves, made him tighten his hand on Yujin’s shoulder. Yujin leaned back into him, easy and relaxed, and Jingrui had to swallow a little hard.
Probably the only thing that kept him from doing something rather rash right there in the entry room was the pointed clearing of a throat behind him. He and Yujin finally broke apart and stepped further in, to let Li Gang get inside after them. Jingrui gave his sergeant a slightly sheepish smile in return for his dryly raised brows, and the moment passed.
Jingrui retreated to his writing table to stare at the patrol rosters blankly, thoughts in complete disarray. He’d thought, for years now, that Yujin must not have any interest in men; if he had, well, surely Jingrui would have heard about it, wouldn’t he? He’d teased Yujin, often enough, about the time he spent flirting with shop girls and courtesans alike. So he’d turned his thoughts away from the idea of ever having Yujin like that, sunk himself deeper into the oneness of heart, between them, and refrained from touching too much. But the easy way Yujin leaned into him… was Jingrui deceiving himself, that there was acceptance, and maybe even hunger, in it?
The thought lodged itself in the back of his mind with a firmness that said he wasn’t going to be able to just ignore it any more.
So perhaps… perhaps he could test it, a little, instead? Carefully, of course, but if he was right, if Yujin did welcome his touch, then just maybe…
Jingrui smiled and picked up the top report, bending over it with a better will than usual.
“This is your fault; you jinxed us.”
“I did not!” Zhen Ping looked over his shoulder at where their Commanders had their heads together over a plan for cavalry drill. Yan Yujin had his whole body oriented on Xiao Jingrui, and Xiao Jingrui was stealing soft little glances at Yan Yujin whenever the other man wasn’t looking. “This is not my fault,” he muttered.
“The heavens were listening.” Despite this contention, Li Gang held out a flask to him. “Drink?”
“We’re on duty,” Zhen Ping said, not with a great deal of conviction.
On the other side of the Guard offices, Yan Yujin elbowed Xiao Jingrui indignantly for whatever he’d just said, and Xiao Jingrui threw an arm around his shoulders, laughing, pulling him close for a breath. For the space of that breath, Yan Yujin relaxed against him, grin softening.
Li Gang gave Zhen Ping a speaking look and shook the flask invitingly.
Zhen Ping accepted it with a sigh, and took a long drink.
For the most part, Yujin was pleased with his life at the moment. Palace duty had ended, and he’d left behind a legacy of reporting procedure for all Guards on escort duty. He was fairly sure Lin Shu had been the one to insist it be continued, which he tried not to blush like a little boy over. The Jin army’s field drills, battalion against battalion, had arrived as promised, which was fascinating. Yujin was not a fan of battles, or the idiocy that seemed to lead up to them, but the strategy of maneuver caught his imagination.
Unfortunately, being out in the field, beyond the city, seemed to have revived one of what Yujin personally considered Jingrui’s worst habits—waking him up early.
Yujin was not, by nature, an early riser. Jingrui, however, was, and when they traveled he sometimes decided that Yujin should be as well. Yujin invariably got revenge, one way or another, but apparently it had been too long since he last did, because Jingrui had taken to visiting his tent at ridiculous hours to wake him.
At the first whisper of canvas being pushed aside, Yujin pulled the covers over his head.
“Commander Yan,” Jingrui called, light and teasing. “Good morning!”
Yujin made a wordless sound intended to convey that it was not morning, yet.
“Time to get up,” Jingrui declared, in defiance of all reason, coming to tweak the covers down.
Yujin yanked them back up by reflex. “Still dark,” he mumbled.
“Of course it’s dark, with the covers over your head.” Jingrui yanked them down again.
Yujin swiped at him without opening his eyes and snatched the covers back, diving under them with a growl.
Jingrui had the gall to laugh. Yujin stayed stubbornly still for as long as he could before admitting that he was actually awake, but eventually he had to give in. He shoved the covers back and glared up at Jingrui. “I will kill you slowly,” he declared.
Jingrui positively grinned down at him, eyes sparkling, entirely too awake for not-quite-sunrise. “After breakfast?” he suggested.
“I will poison your food,” Yujin threatened, scrubbing the sleep from his eyes.
“Once you’re awake enough to,” Jingrui taunted, and then chuckled as Yujin pushed himself upright. “You’re a mess, after fighting with the covers like that.”
He ran a hand over Yujin’s hair, hopefully smoothing it down a little, and Yujin was still drowsy enough to lean into it. “Mm. Whose fault is that?” He took a breath and blinked himself a little more alert, only to realize that he was still leaning into Jingrui’s hand, which had settled along his cheek. “…Jingrui?”
Jingrui colored and drew his hand back. “Sorry. Should I not?” He looked disappointed, Yujin realized, slowly.
Yujin was going to blame the way he caught Jingrui’s retreating hand on not being awake, though that wasn’t the whole truth by any means. “No, it’s fine, I just…”
Yujin had been perfectly aware of the silent apology in Jingrui’s increased tendency to touch, to drape an arm over his shoulders, to lean against him. To be honest, he’d been enjoying it very much. But this was different; this was starting to spill over into the kind of thing he’d never expected from Jingrui. At least, not directed at himself.
“I thought it was Lin Shu ge-ge, with you,” he finally said, quietly, trying to stifle any urge to hope. “I mean… even when we didn’t know it was him…”
Jingrui just blinked at him, sitting back on his heels beside Yujin’s bed, hand resting easily in Yujin’s grip. “Well, but that’s different.” Yujin raised both brows, because he remembered very clearly the way Jingrui had always tagged after Lin Shu, with shining eyes, and dragged Yujin along. Jingrui ducked his head a little and added, “You’re the one I never wanted to be apart from.”
The way he smiled, sweet and open, made Yujin’s chest squeeze tight, made him breathless with the dawning realization that this wasn’t a mistake or the result of wanting so much that he saw what wasn’t there. “Oh.” He took a breath and reached up, fingers shaking just a little bit, to touch Jingrui’s cheek. “Me too.”
Jingrui’s smile turned brighter at that, so simply and openly happy that it made Yujin forget to breathe for a moment. “I’m glad.” Jingrui turned his head and pressed a soft kiss to Yujin’s fingers.
Yujin made a small, wordless sound, at that, unable to catch it back, not when everything he’d thought was too much to ask for had fallen suddenly into his lap. Jingrui looked back at him, chewing his lip for a moment, before taking a breath and leaning in. His glance was a little shy, under his lashes, but hopeful, and Yujin was as helpless as he’d ever been to resist that. He leaned forward to meet Jingrui, and the brush of Jingrui’s mouth over his made him close his eyes, every sense narrowing down to this touch, this moment.
“Oh,” he said, softly, as their lips parted, feeling the reality of it all settle into his heart.
“Yes,” Jingrui answered, just as soft.
They sat there, smiling breathlessly at each other as sunrise finally lit the walls of the tent white.
The last exercise, in this year’s field drills, set double battalions against each other, as if they were vanguards clashing in the first engagement of a battle. It was the kind of exercise that was, honestly, more to Jingrui’s taste than maneuver of huge blocks of soldiers, even if he knew that maneuver was preferable to engagement, if it could be managed. This was practice, though, he told himself virtuously, as he urged his horse to the front of their running line, and he needed more practice converting his sword form to the balance of horseback. And also in not letting himself get too caught up in trying to convert everything.
Or, as Li Gang had succinctly put it, after Jingrui’s first few horseback drills, “Less dueling, sir, more hacking.”
And, best of all, today he was paired with Yujin again, could see Yujin’s quick-footed black coming up beside him, from the corner of his eye, could catch the way Yujin was shaking his head but still grinning.
And then it was time to close his knees tight around his horse, shift his weight forward with the sweep of his sword and the momentum of their gallop, and bash one of the other side’s company Captains soundly out of the saddle. It registered, in the back of his head, that with anything but the blunted wood they were given for the drill, it would have been a disemboweling cut, but the thought was distant, subsumed in the urgency of another target in front of him, and then another, the press of horses lunging against and between each other—
—and abruptly, the awareness that he’d outpaced his own men just a little too much.
He ducked under the jab of a spear from one side while blocking the swing a sword on the other, tried to send his horse forward so he could get space to turn, but he was hemmed in too close. This, the back of his head informed him, was why Li Gang kept looking disapproving of how fast Jingrui went during horseback drills. Jingrui gritted his teeth and heaved against the swordsman on his right side, swung his sword around to strike down another jab from the spear, risked pulling one foot free of the stirrup to kick the swordsman solidly in the hip, and that was one side about to be open…
A completely unorthodox but painfully effective sideways sweep from the spear hit him in the ribs and swept him right out of the saddle. The ground smashed the breath out of him, and for a long moment he could only gasp for air and be grateful that his horse was stepping to the side rather than on top of him. A furious shout rang out above and behind him, and he hauled himself up to his knees just in time to see Yujin sweep past him, cutting down the spearman, and the swordsman behind him, with two brutal strokes, barely a pause between them. Zhen Ping galloped past on Yujin’s heels, both swords out, guarding his back as Yujin set his position and two charging soldiers broke against it, one down and the other pulling his horse around to retreat. Jingrui grabbed at his horse’s stirrup to pull himself further up, staring. And perhaps he’d banged his head on the way down, but what was floating through his mind right now was something Zhen Ping had said months ago, when they were all still on duty at the Palace.
He’d been teasing Yujin about how Army Vice-Commander Sun Wen might take his proposed improved patrol routes, and Yujin had been insisting roundly that the logic of them would be obvious to anyone. Jingrui had actually been a little rueful about not being able to see it, himself, before Yujin had explained it, and apparently their sergeants had caught that fact.
“You’ll probably start to see it soon, sir,” Zhen Ping had said, looking up from the gear he’d been cleaning. “You see it clearly on the smaller scale already, don’t you? Where your opponent is likely to step or cut next.”
Jingrui had cocked his head, curious. “You think it’s the same thing?”
Zhen Ping had smiled a little, wryly. “The Vice-Marshal always said it was, and the way he talked about seeing the movement of a battle… I think he’s right. I can’t do it with more than a squad, myself, but it really did sound like the same thing.”
And now, watching the brief, clear wake Yujin’s savage attack left, watching the way the other vanguard was drawing back toward the right like a swordsman shifting his weight, the swift gathering of horses like an arm drawing back to strike, Jingrui did see it. Saw it and saw how it would sweep over Yujin’s position, the opening he’d made, and threw himself back up into the saddle, hauling in a deep breath.
“Third Company forward! Now!“
He heard the horn repeat the order, behind him, saw the company to his left start to move, like his own sword sweeping in to meet the opponent’s, and kicked his horse forward to join Yujin, ignoring the painful jar of bruises. After all, it was the two of them who were going to be the hand that pushed the opponent back off balance.
Yujin looked around as Jingrui came up beside him, Zhen Ping sliding to the side to let him through, and the set, furious darkness of his expression lightened. Jingrui leaned out to clap a hand on his shoulder. “One more push forward?” he called, and was glad to see Yujin’s head come up, turning to take in the field around them, before his friend gave him a firm nod.
Jingrui was grinning as their horses leaped forward again, together this time.
Lin Shu had already gotten reports from both Li Gang and Zhen Ping, so he was unsurprised to hear Vice-Commander Sun Wen’s voice raised, as he approached Meng da-ge’s offices.
“…never putting them on the same side of an exercise again! The physicians are nearly in revolt, half of Eighth battalion is terrified of Yan Yujin and the other half is enamored of Xiao Jingrui, and thanks to the fact that they won I’m going to have to deal with idiots trying to imitate them!”
“Bear with it for a handful more years, if you’d be so kind,” Lin Shu said, stepping into the room and exchanging nods with Meng da-ge, who was looking wryly amused and possibly a bit envious of the fun the boys had had during the field exercise. Sun Wen, on the other hand, looked suspicious.
“And what is it that will happen in a few years, Vice-Marshal?” he asked, a little stiffly. Lin Shu mentally marked down another who was uncomfortable with his lack of a clearly defined position, here in the capital.
“In another few years, I expect Xiao Jingrui will be promoted.” Lin Shu raised inquiring brows at Meng da-ge, who nodded, judiciously. “When that happens, Yan Yujin will retire—from the military, at least. He won’t be able to protect Jingrui without a political position, at that point, and he’s spent far too long guarding Jingrui from politics for it to be imagined that he’ll give it up, now.”
“I can’t argue that he’s fiercest in Xiao Jingrui’s defense,” Sun Wen said, slowly. “That’s where a quarter of the broken bones in the vanguard exercise came from.” He gave Lin Shu a long look. “Are you saying you want us to encourage that, in someone going into politics?”
Lin Shu turned one hand palm-up with a little shrug. “It is what it is, Army Vice-Commander. I’m saying nothing any of us do will change it. Therefore the best course of action is to place the two of them where it will be most beneficial. Jingrui’s leadership and example, his sense of loyalty and righteousness, will be of great benefit in the Imperial Guard, and his presence there will ensure that Yujin’s efforts are bent toward maintaining the integrity of our armies and preventing internal strife.” Sun Wen was looking increasingly sour as he listened to this, and Lin Shu smiled faintly, adding, “It’s also where they’ll be happiest. They wouldn’t stay there, if it weren’t.”
Sun Wen sat back, at that, eyeing him. “I trust you’ll excuse me if I still try to reduce Yan Yujin’s tendency to extreme action, while I have him,” he said, at last, rather dryly.
“Not at all.” Lin Shu tapped one of the taller stacks of report folios on Meng da-ge’s writing table. “You might also consider keeping him busy by putting him in charge of some intelligence and analysis.”
Meng da-ge snorted, obviously remembering Yujin’s rotation at the Palace, and the new reporting structure that had resulted from his boredom, very clearly. “I’ll approve that.”
Lin Shu smiled, satisfied. Yujin needed a new information network, now he had less time to spend in the capital’s social circles. This would be a good start. In another handful of years, Yujin would enter Ministry politics well equipped. And once he had more leverage in the political arena, perhaps Yujin would calm a little from his fever-pitch of protectiveness.
They could hope, at any rate. After all, it had worked on Lin Shu, when he was thirteen and furious over Jingyan going into the field without him.
“…and Zhang Ying will be back on duty next month.”
Jingrui made a quick note on his roster of those injured in the field exercises. “Good; I hoped that wouldn’t be a bad break.” Reminded, he frowned and glanced up at Li Renshu, captain of his Sixth Company. “What about Wu Shen?”
Li looked gratified that his fourth squad leader had been remembered, which Jingrui was pleased to see—six months ago, he’d have been surprised. Every now and then, Jingrui was still possessed of an urge to hunt down these men’s previous Commander and kick him soundly in the ass. Not for the little cravenness of following questionable orders, but for leaving these men so uncertain of their purpose and worth that the smallest gestures reassured them so.
“He won’t be cleared for full-length drills for another few weeks, but he’s back on his feet, Commander.”
Jingrui sat back from his table with a satisfied smile. “We’ll be back up to full strength, then. Good. Is there anything else I need to know of before I write up the battalion’s monthly report?”
His company captains shook their heads with murmurs of “No, sir,” and “No, Commander,” and Jingrui nodded approval and dismissal. He jotted down one last note, as they filed out, and stretched his arms over his head, glancing at the water clock. It was definitely time for him to head home.
The way from his office, through the barracks that housed his battalion’s soldiers, and around their drill field, was familiar by now, and Jingrui absently noted to himself the old planking he’d been meaning to ask to get repaired, nodded to the squads changing watch as they stood aside for him, paused to raise an eyebrow at the wrestling competition that spilled off the edge of the drill grounds into his path, trying to stifle the grin that really wanted to break free. He thought his men might have seen it anyway from the sheepish but unalarmed way they ducked their heads as they scrambled back out of his way. By the time he reached the gate to their block of the ward, his horse was waiting for him.
It felt comfortable, to have his battalion around him. Welcoming and stable, in a way he hadn’t really felt for three years. His mother’s manor still echoed with the breaking of his family, if only because she was there and still mourned. When he traveled outside the cities, he was always a little tense, part of him always watching out of the corner of his eye for any sign of his other family, and flinching every time he caught himself at it, because he had no right. Here, though, he could feel again that loosening in his chest, the complete ease of his breath, that came from knowing without a shadow of a doubt that he belonged to these men, and they to him.
And here, of course, he still had the one constant that had been his all his life, still so one in thought that he wasn’t at all surprised to see Yujin turn onto the central road just ahead of him and rein in to wait for him.
“I bet your monthly report is finished already,” he said, in greeting, and Yujin laughed as he nudged his horse forward again.
“Of course it is. Unlike some, I know how to be efficient. That’s how I caught up with you so easily, despite being born later.”
“Ah,” Jingrui nodded, wisely. “This is what they call the genius of laziness, I see.”
The guards on the east gate of the quarter were stifling grins as they stood back to let Jingrui and Yujin pass. Out of the north-west quarter, the roads were too busy for much conversation, and they rode in companionable silence until they reached Yan Manor. Yujin glanced sidelong at him.
“Will you come in?”
Jingrui’s breath hitched a little at the heat and uncertainty in that look, so close a match for his own feelings, of late, that he couldn’t help the rueful smile that tugged at his mouth. “Yes,” he answered softly. “I’d like that.”
He’d grown up as much in Yan Manor as in his own house, but today he found himself not quite knowing where to step, what to do with his sword, what to do with himself once the doors of the east wing were closed behind them. He looked over to find Yujin looking back, chewing on his lip. Their eyes caught, both wide and uncertain, but as one moment and then another slipped by, Jingrui saw Yujin start to smile, felt his own answering smile spreading, and then they were laughing, reaching out to each other as easily as ever, and when he caught his breath again Yujin was folded tight in his arms and he could feel the solid strength of Yujin’s arms around him.
From there it only made sense to lean in and kiss him.
Yujin’s arms tightened around his ribs, and his mouth opened against Jingrui’s, turning the kiss softer, hotter—a wet, hungry slide of lips and tongue that put a shiver down Jingrui’s spine. When they finally drew back a little, though, Jingrui had to take a moment to understand what he was seeing. Yujin’s lips were parted in a way that made Jingrui want to dive right back into the kiss. But his eyes were wide, soft, wondering, and that made Jingrui stop. He was fairly sure that, of the two of them, Yujin was the more experienced in this kind of thing. Why wondering, then? “Yujin?” he asked, softly.
Yujin shook his head, and this laugh was barely there, just an unsteadiness in his breath. “I never thought…”
There it was, again, and Jingrui freed a hand to touch his cheek. “Why not, if you wanted it?” He had a hard time imagining anything he would deny Yujin. Surely the one person he’d shared the whole of his life with didn’t think a crush Jingrui had always known was hopeless would really stand in his way?
Now Yujin looked exasperated and pummeled him lightly on the shoulder. “Because I thought you were in love with someone else. That you’ve been in love with him since we were barely old enough to know what that meant!” He looked down and added, low, “And I didn’t want to come second.”
That closed around Jingrui’s heart like a fist clenching, and he pulled Yujin tight against him. “Yujin…” He could feel the tension in Yujin’s body, against his, and stroked open hands up and down his back, trying to soothe it. Yujin pressed close, silent, and he spoke quietly, against Yujin’s ear. “I suppose I always have been a little in love with Lin Shu ge-ge. But I’m not actually blind, and I always knew there’d never be anything there, not for me. You…” he leaned his forehead against Yujin’s. “You’ve always been there for me, Yujin. You’re like my breath, my heartbeat.” He laughed, a little unsteady in his turn, arms tightening. “I don’t even know how to speak of love, to you, because you’re so much, to me. You could never come second to anyone.”
He could hear the way that made Yujin’s breath hitch, sharply, feel the tremor that went through him. “Why didn’t you speak, then?” Yujin asked, husky.
“Well, I didn’t think you liked men that way!” Jingrui protested. “I mean it was always the shop girls you were flirting with.”
Yujin dissolved into laughter against his shoulder, and took a while to stop. That was all right, though, because he didn’t let go the entire time. When he lifted his head, Jingrui wasn’t surprised to see wetness on his cheeks, but there was a familiar smile, too, bright and rueful. “Well, I didn’t want to put you off, if you ever did decide to get over him and speak up.” He grinned at Jingrui’s exasperated sound and scrubbed a palm over his cheek.
Jingrui smiled, soft and helpless, and reached up to wipe away the wetness on the other side, and then had to catch his breath at the way Yujin’s whole face softened, expression turning open and unguardedly happy as he turned his head into Jingrui’s hand.
“It’s easier for me to see women’s beauty,” Yujin said, softly, lifting a hand to lay over Jingrui’s. “But I can see the beauty in men, too.” He looked up to meet Jingrui’s gaze, eyes dark. “I’ve seen it in you, for years.”
Jingrui had to swallow at the curl of deep, soft warmth that sent through him, and now he thought he understood the wonder a little better. “Yujin…”
This time, it was Yujin who leaned in to kiss him, hands sliding up over his shoulders to close around his face, and Jingrui was entirely content to relax into that gentle hold. Yujin kissed him again and again, soft little sips of kisses that made Jingrui open his mouth against Yujin’s, tongue darting out to stroke against his and coax him deeper. It seemed to work, because Yujin relaxed against him, and he was smiling when he drew back.
“Jingrui. Let me try something?”
Normally, those words, matched to the sparkle in Yujin’s eyes, might have made him a little wary, but here and now Jingrui couldn’t imagine anything he wouldn’t be happy to let Yujin do. “Of course.”
Yujin laced their fingers together and tugged him through the outer rooms, toward Yujin’s bed. Another sidelong look, questioning and a bit shy, made Jingrui smile, tightening his hold on Yujin’s hand before reaching for his own sashes to undo them. Yujin only let him get his outer robe untied, though, before coming to him, his own inner robe still trailing off his shoulders, and laying his hands over Jingrui’s. Very softly, eyes steady and serious, he asked, “Let me?”
Jingrui’s breath drew in swiftly, a tiny shiver running over him at the earnestness of that question. He had to swallow hard before he could answer, and his voice was husky when he said, “Yes. Always.”
Yujin smiled, quick and brilliant as a lightning strike, and it stole Jingrui’s breath all over again, to see how much it meant to Yujin, that Jingrui would welcome this small intimacy, would promise it to Yujin’s hands and care. He stood quiet while Yujin undressed him, turning with his gentle nudges. Yujin’s hands were so careful, on him, that it made Jingrui have to blink back wetness in his eyes. When he was finally bare, and Yujin had come to stand in front of him, hands resting on his shoulders, the soft satisfaction in Yujin’s smile finally crystallized what this was telling Jingrui’s heart.
“You’ve always been taking care of me, haven’t you?” he asked, softly.
“As well as I could,” Yujin answered, simply.
Jingrui had to swallow again, but he was smiling when he reached out and slid his hands down the open collar of Yujin’s robes. “Will you let me take care of you, now?”
Yujin blinked, very much as if the notion had never occurred to him, but then he smiled, small and pleased, ducking his head a little. “Yes. If you like.”
“Of course I like.” Jingrui tipped his chin back up and kissed him, softly, promising again against his mouth, “Always.”
Yujin’s breath caught, and Jingrui kissed him one more time, gentle, before setting about divesting Yujin of his inner robe and undergarments, just as carefully, as tenderly, as he could, hoping to ease the fragile edge on the hope in Yujin’s face. When he was done, he gathered Yujin tight against him, and repeated softly, against his ear, “Always.” The fierce tightening of Yujin’s arms around him was enough to drive his breath out, and he would have pursued the issue further—surely Yujin knew they were for always?—but Yujin drew back and tugged him down to the bed.
“Let me?” he asked again, pressing Jingrui back against the stacked pillows.
“Of course. Anything you… want…” Jingrui’s answer ended rather breathlessly, as Yujin nudged his knees apart and settled between them, leaning on his elbows. Yujin looked up at him under his lashes, with that wicked sparkle back in his eyes. Jingrui made a wordless sound that was definitely not a squeak, as Yujin leaned down—a sound that dissolved into a moan as Yujin’s tongue ran up the length of him, hot and slick. Yujin made a pleased sound of his own and leaned down further, wrapping his mouth around Jingrui.
Jingrui had already been most of the way hard, just from touching as they’d undressed each other, but now it felt like all the blood in his body was rushing to fill his cock. He could feel every movement of Yujin’s lips and tongue, against him, and each soft, wet stroke sent a thrill of pleasure up his spine, leaving him gasping. “Yujin…”
The vibration of Yujin’s mouth around him wrung a groan out of him, hot sensation bursting wildly down his nerves. Jingrui clutched at the folded covers under him, completely unable to stop the little upward jerks of his hips. After some hesitation, Yujin finally folded his arms over Jingrui’s hips and leaned his weight on them, making a pleased sound as he slid his mouth back down and Jingrui found himself without enough leverage to move. Jingrui moaned out loud at the way that sent heat twisting through him, tight and sweet, and when Yujin sucked on him, hard, it all came undone in a wild rush of pleasure uncoiling. “Yujin!”
He felt Yujin’s fingers tight around him, stroking him through it, and looked up to find Yujin watching him, eyes dark with heat, mouth red, and that wrung him out yet again, until he moaned, breathless. When he finally lay quiet again, undone and panting for breath, Yujin slid back up to wind around him, settling close with a satisfied smile. Jingrui wound slightly shaky arms around him, and laughed. “Have me where you want me?” he asked, husky.
Yujin smirked and snuggled closer. “Pretty much, yes.”
After a few quiet minutes of cuddling, Jingrui regathered enough of his thoughts to stroke a hand down Yujin’s body, a little shyly. “Let me, now?”
Yujin looked up from his shoulder with a smile that had the same edge of shyness in it. “Yes.”
Jingrui gathered him closer and turned them, settling Yujin back against the now-disordered pillows. A little wryly, he added, “Though I’m not sure if I’m ready to try exactly that, just yet.”
Yujin settled back with a small, contented sound, and reached up to brush back Jingrui’s hair. “Of course not. I don’t think I’d have tried it myself, yet, if I hadn’t had advice.”
Jingrui stopped quite still for a long moment. “…advice?”
Yujin’s eyes were sparkling again. “Mm. From the ladies I visit. They thought it was sweet, that I asked.”
Jingrui sputtered. “You… you asked… Yujin!”
Yujin laughed at him, reaching up to pull him down and hug him tight. When Jingrui had given up and stopped sputtering, and Yujin had finished laughing, he added, softer, “If it ever happened, I wanted to get it right.”
Jingrui gave over and held him close, helplessly tender. “Then thank you.” When he lifted his head, he could see Yujin was blushing at that, and cradled him closer, kissing him softly, coaxing. The way Yujin answered him, so open, so willing, made it easy to run his hands down Yujin’s body, slow and caressing, glad to have an answer for the hunger in him. When he wrapped his fingers around Yujin’s length and stroked him, the shaky edge to Yujin’s moan made heat curl through him in response. The knowledge that Yujin wanted this, wanted him, so much, settled warm in his chest, and he worked his hand over Yujin, slow and firm, attending to what made him gasp or arch up against Jingrui.
Yujin liked to be touched firmly. He liked to be kissed while Jingrui rubbed a thumb over the head of his cock. And when Jingrui bit gently at his lower lip, hand tightening on him, Yujin bucked up sharply into his hand, moaning out loud, hands tight on Jingrui’s shoulders as he came undone. Jingrui smiled, pleased, and swallowed the sounds he made in a deep, fierce kiss, stroking him until he stilled.
“Oh,” Yujin said, softly, eyes a little dazed when he looked up at Jingrui. Now Jingrui understood the satisfaction in Yujin’s smile perfectly, and cuddled Yujin close with a contented sound. When Yujin curled into him, relaxed and easy, Jingrui thought he might be perfectly happy to stay this way for always. At some point, no doubt, food and work would get them out of bed again, but for now at least, they could stay here and he could soak up the feeling of Yujin, warm and close in his arms.
Jingrui pressed a kiss to Yujin’s now-mussed hair, and smiled.
Contrary to the image he’d cultivated over the years, Yujin was actually quite well-versed in self-control. A seamless social front was not achieved through lax control, and even less by ignoring the unspoken rules of one’s environment. Nevertheless, he had to admit that it was extremely tempting to ignore them for just long enough to lean over the writing table that held their latest plans for interior drills, and kiss Jingrui. From the way Jingrui was grinning sidelong at him as they sorted lists of archers to decide who got the fixed position and who got to sortie, Yujin was fairly sure he was aware of the urge, which did nothing to discourage the idea. Rather the reverse, actually.
Just as he was about to abandon the personnel lists and kiss that curve off Jingrui’s lips, though, there was a brisk rap on the door frame and Yujin looked up to see Lin Shu standing in it. From the way the corners of his mouth were curling up, he probably knew just what they’d been about to do, also. Yujin sighed; this was what he got for letting his guard down, he supposed. “Lin Shu ge-ge. Hi.”
Jingrui promptly blushed and straightened up with a self-conscious look. Yujin shook his head, smiling helplessly. Jingrui was so transparent. It was adorable, when it wasn’t alarming him.
Lin Shu chuckled and stepped in, taking the seat Jingrui hastily cleared off. “Good afternoon to you. I’m glad I caught you both here.”
“Was there something you needed…” Jingrui hesitated and glanced at Yujin before finishing, more formal than usual, “sir?”
Yujin tried not to let that little bit of thoughtfulness make him smile too foolishly, and settled himself to attend to their cousin.
“Just some clarification, really. We’re finally ready to start clearing out the problems among the lower ranks of the armies, and that overlaps your own work in places.” Lin Shu gave Yujin a level look. “Did you want to keep working on Wan Fa, yourself?”
Yujin froze, reflex panic flashing cold down his nerves; if they knew about Wan Fa, they knew about Jingrui’s involvement…
“Only Jingyan and I know,” Lin Shu said quietly. “We have not spoken of it, even to his mother or wife.” Just as Yujin was starting to take a full breath again, he added, “Not yet.” He sighed and shook his head at Yujin’s hand, suddenly clenched around the list he’d been holding. “Yujin, think. Lady Jing, at the very least, will need to know of this when Yuwen Nian marries Prince Ning, if only to guide her against any repeat.” A little more gently, he finished, “And you have to know you won’t be able to keep Jingrui entirely in the background any longer, now you both have positions in the capital.”
“What are you talking about?” Jingrui was frowning. “Yujin has never…” He stopped at Lin Shu’s raised hand, but he was still frowning, still puzzling at the words, and Yujin took a long breath, trying not to glare at their cousin for letting on so much. That wouldn’t help.
“We’re only battalion Commanders. There’s no reason for anyone but Army Vice-Commander Sun or High Commander Meng to take notice of us, is there?” he asked, tightly, more a demand than a question, really.
“For now,” Lin Shu agreed, so easily Yujin was already wary when he added, “But the two of you are bright and skilled. You can’t imagine you’ll go very long without being promoted.” He leaned over the table, eyes turning sharp. “Especially when we need exactly that, in our officers.”
Yujin bit his lip. He didn’t need Lin Shu to draw it out for him, from there. If there was need, then of course Jingrui would be promoted, quite possibly into Sun Wen’s position; the Army Vice-Commander had made no secret of his desire to get back to his retirement once the Jin army was back on its feet. And an Army Vice-Commander of the Jin army was too high and too close to the Palace to be ignored any longer. The first minister who happened to be nearby the next time Jingrui was irritated over some remnant of corruption that affected his men or their duties would know the kind of vulnerability Jingrui’s idealism could provide, likely before Jingrui got to the end of his sentence. And at that point, Yujin wouldn’t be able to stop whoever it might be from using Jingrui as a lever or a tool, from blackmailing him with the threat of reporting disloyalty to the Emperor, from using him as an unknowing conduit to the Crown Prince’s ear, from using Jingrui’s easy friendship as a counter in the games of court, not unless…
“So,” Lin Shu said quietly. “Knowing what is coming, do you wish to keep working on Wan Fa yourself, or shall I deal with this, for now?”
Yujin closed his eyes. Now he knew what Lin Shu was really here to find out. “I’ll keep this one,” he answered, low. The sooner he got started building his contacts and reputation, the better.
A warm hand covered his wrist, and he opened his eyes to see Jingrui leaning over the table toward him, eyes sharp and rather fierce. “Yujin, what are you talking about?”
Yujin chewed on his lip, looking back. He’d never actually told Jingrui what it was he did. Jingrui had been so angry and upset over the little they’d understood of the fall of Lin and Prince Qi’s household that Yujin hadn’t thought he’d go along with it, and that had never quite changed. But there was trust and belief looking back at him, now, in Jingrui’s level gaze, and he couldn’t betray that.
“Yujin,” Jingrui said again, softly, hand tightening. “You’re about to do something dangerous, aren’t you? Tell me. Let me help.”
Yujin’s mouth quirked. As much as Jingrui didn’t usually pay attention to social (or political) nuances, Lin Shu’s very presence was surely enough to tell him this was dangerous, yes. “I…” He sighed, leaning both elbows on the table. “Ever since the Chiyan case, I’ve tried to keep you away from politics.”
Jingrui blinked at him for a moment, but then, slowly, nodded. “Because you thought it would be dangerous?”
“Because it was dangerous,” Yujin said, flatly. “Idealists die in our court. It’s just what happens. I think…” he looked down at his hands. “I think that’s why my father withdrew to the temples, as much as he could.”
“It was,” Lin Shu put in, softly, and Yujin nodded.
“So I listened, at parties and events, for the names of the people who were playing court games, and I tried to keep you from getting involved, sidetrack you however I could. Which didn’t get any easier when the Marquis started playing both sides,” he added, disgruntled just remembering how much that had complicated his life.
“That was why…?” Jingrui huffed a soft laugh. “Oh, Yujin.” He let go of Yujin’s wrist and laced their fingers together instead, gently. When Yujin looked up, he was smiling. “Thank you. For taking care.”
That gentleness pulled words out of Yujin before he thought to stop them. “Of course I took care. You and my father were all that was left.”
The slow widening of Jingrui’s eyes made him tense again; had that been too much to admit, too much to ask for (again)? But Jingrui’s hand tightened on his, holding him. “Yujin…” Jingrui took a breath and said, steady. “I’m sorry.”
Yujin blinked, caught flat-footed by that, and Jingrui smiled a little, ruefully.
“I’m sorry I didn’t see. I made life harder for you, didn’t I?”
Yujin shook his head. “It was something I chose to do on my own.” Jingrui’s grip tightened again for a moment, stilling him.
“If we’re promoted… it will be harder again, won’t it?”
Yujin took a breath and shook his head again, feeling certainty settle in his chest. “No more than usual. Not if I’m in the ministries.”
Jingrui took a breath to protest—Yujin knew it was going to be a protest—but then he stopped. Slowly, watching Yujin carefully, he asked instead, “Will you be happy, doing that? I know you’re good at it. I know you can. I know you think you need to. But will it make you happy?”
Yujin opened his mouth only to close it again, a little nonplussed at how thoroughly Jingrui had closed down all the answers he’d normally have used to dodge the actual question. Jingrui’s smile, a little chiding and a little coaxing, said he knew it, too. “All right, all right,” Yujin huffed, but had to smile back. “Yes. I think it will.” He waved a hand at his writing table, stacked with more reports than any other Commander in Jin willingly invited, all in the name of knowing what was going on. “It seems to be what I do.”
“All right then,” Jingrui agreed, softly, and lifted their hands to press a kiss to Yujin’s fingers.
Yujin turned very red and shot a quick look at Lin Shu, who was, thankfully, pretending to look at the shelves and not notice. “Jingrui!” he hissed.
Jingrui just laughed, not letting go of his hand, and Yujin gave him a long-suffering look. He didn’t pull away, though.
“Well, if that’s settled,” Lin Shu murmured, looking very entertained, “think about where you’d like to enter, Yujin. Either State Revenue or the Bureau of Discipline would be easy to fit you into, but if you have your eye on another route, tell me.”
“Where are you expecting those routes to go?” Yujin asked, a little cautious. He had cause to trust Lin Shu’s ability to plot these things, and that he was well disposed toward them, but he also had a lively respect for his cousin’s ruthlessness. And however much affection Lin Shu ge-ge had for them, he was the Crown Prince’s man, now. Whatever he did would serve Jingyan’s ends first of all.
Lin Shu rose, shaking his robes straight, and smiled down at them. “Yan has produced two Chancellors, for this nation. Perhaps it should be three, hm?”
Jingrui’s eyes widened, but Yujin smiled, even as he felt his face heat again at that casual vote of confidence. He’d been seen, and seen clearly, and for once he thought he didn’t mind it—not when it meant Lin Shu understood how far Yujin would go to keep his own safe, and was willing to support him in that. “If you think so.”
Yujin ducked his head, honestly flattered by the firm certainty in his cousin’s voice, and Lin Shu ge-ge patted his shoulder as he stepped past, toward the door. Yujin sat back as he swept out, and tightened his grip on Jingrui’s hand, feeling more settled than he had in a long time.
This was his, and this he would guard.
The year had turned, and all through the city families celebrated whatever fortune had favored them, hoped for more in the new year, gathered to drive out the winter darkness and welcome in the new life of spring.
Jingrui wandered through the soft, colored brightness of the Lantern Festival at Yujin’s side, as they’d done so often over the years. This year, though, he found himself suddenly more aware of some things. He’d always teased Yujin about how much attention he tended to attract, during the festival, but this was the first time Jingrui had gotten personally annoyed by the number of matrons and chaperones and matchmakers who found a moment to pause their party by Yujin and Jingrui, and have a few smiling words with the son and only heir of the Yan family. This year, he had to stop himself from ‘accidentally’ stepping between Yujin and the next party they saw that included a girl out for a promenade at the festival.
No sooner did he notice the urge, though, then he also noticed something else. Yujin looked like he was flirting; he smiled and flattered the older women, and said kind things about the young women, loudly enough to be overheard. But he was also, unmistakably, turning them away. It tugged at Jingrui’s attention more and more as the evening drew on, and once he started really watching, he could see that Yujin’s body language turned reserved, straightening into a quiet restraint, every time another party approached them. Without a word spoken directly, one mother or matchmaker after another patted Yujin’s arm and passed on, sweeping the girls along without a backward glance.
And then Yujin would relax, and lean against his shoulder, and laugh openly again.
The more Jingrui saw, as they wound past the stalls of lanterns and the bright-glowing fronts of the capital’s mansions and pavilions, the more he thought back over other festivals or parties or outings he’d seen Yujin at, always smiling and laughing—what else had he been doing, all that time, that Jingrui hadn’t noticed?
Not that he really needed to ask, after Lin Shu ge-ge’s recent visit. Still, when they fetched up at a grove on the edge of the east district’s pond, quieter and a bit darker than the streets if still fairly crowded with strolling groups, he drew Yujin closer and asked softly, “How much of that have you been doing, all this time?”
Yujin’s dark eyes looked bottomless in the evening’s soft glow. “As much as seemed necessary,” he answered, low.
“Necessary,” Jingrui repeated, slowly, turning over the things Yujin had said during that startling meeting. “To keep me safe.”
Yujin just nodded, as if it were perfectly self-evident, and Jingrui couldn’t help laughing, soft and more than a little stunned. “All that… all this time…” Jingrui swallowed hard and reached out, careless of who might be watching, and pulled Yujin close, holding him tight.
“Thank you,” he whispered against Yujin’s ear.
Yujin made a dismissive sound, but his arms wound tight around Jingrui. Jingrui leaned back far enough to look him in the eye, and closed his hands around Yujin’s face, gently, to make sure of it. “Yujin, listen. I’m yours, all right? Whatever happens, whatever it is we do with our lives, I’m yours. Just like you’re mine. You have my word.” He could feel the tremor that went through Yujin, at that, though the only visible sign of his reaction was a little widening of his eyes, and nodded to himself. He thought he was figuring out how to read Yujin properly again, the way he hadn’t, perhaps, since they were much younger. Since before the fall of Lin and Prince Qi.
Thinking that, he listened to the way Yujin’s body swayed just a little towards him, and leaned back in to kiss him, slow and sure, in the warm light of the lanterns—kissed him until the quick clench of Yujin’s hands in the back of his robes eased, until Yujin’s mouth against his softened from the first desperate hunger.
Then, at last, he drew back and rested his forehead against Yujin’s, smiling. “So. Go ahead and take over Jingyan ge-ge’s government, if it will make you happy, and I’ll see to his soldiers. And let me guard your back, as you guard mine.”
Yujin smiled back, brighter than all the lanterns in the streets behind them, and answered, softly, “Yes.”
“Good.” Jingrui stepped back, sliding a hand down to tangle their fingers together, and tugged Yujin back toward the brightly lit streets. As they plunged back into the light, even when Yujin’s grip on his hand eased, as if to obey propriety and reserve, and let go, Jingrui only tightened his hold.
He would never let this go again.