First they came to seal her palace. Then they came for her.
“Do you understand the position you are in?”
The syllables were spat out with forceful fury. The polish of the wood flooring was cool to touch. At this close distance, its golden shine shimmered in her periphery. Her trailing robes provided only slight cushioning against the ground, but she welcomed the discomfort. Here, she needed all of the awareness that she could draw around herself, like a winter’s cloak. Protection from the elements.
“Yes, Your Majesty,” she said.
“Well?” the Emperor snapped. “What have you to say for yourself?”
She heard a flurry of movement: the court, quailing from the Emperor’s rage. She held herself still because her dignity did not allow her to tremble. And even less so, if for artifice.
“What can I say, Your Majesty?” she said. “I did not know, but I cannot prove the absence of my knowledge.”
Xie-ge once warned her that this veiled pride of hers was dangerous for a concubine. She had smiled and nodded at the luxurious furnishings of her palace and said: well then, it seems like I fit here perfectly, no?
“How could you not know?” the Emperor screamed. “You were good friends with Consort Chen. You were close with the Lin family. This treasonous plot, you mean to tell me that you didn’t know anything about it?”
“Your Majesty knows that I would never put my son in danger in such a manner.”
“Perhaps you were hungry for power. Perhaps you thought that your son would be better positioned. Tell me,” the Emperor said, his voice rising like wind in a storm, “why I should not execute you where you kneel.”
She glanced up quickly; the Chief Eunuch stood behind the Emperor. He tilted his head. She bent down again, slow and deliberate.
Her breath, she let out from her ribcage in measured increments.
“I am your consort,” she said. “Of course I will accept whatever punishment Your Majesty deems appropriate.”
“Hmph,” said the Emperor.
A funny thing, power: the display of it drew attention to one’s vulnerability. A lowly concubine, collapsed in prostration — yet there was an art to acquiescence.
Of the two of them, there was only one face hidden.
The Emperor sighed. “Well, it’s true that you’ve never been interested in politics, anyway. And Jingyan has been at Donghai all this time.”
They took her back to Zhiluo Palace, and they sealed the place again. Her servants cried in relief. They told her that the worst was over. They told her that as soon as they cleared her name, it would be just as before.
She smiled at them, added a brave quirk to her lips, and asked for a delivery of hazelnuts at the earliest opportunity.
Days later, her gates were reopened. Months later, she found a note slipped in with one of her packages: Prince Jing has returned to Jinling. He has refused to receive my messenger and has sought an audience with the Emperor.
Perhaps this was how it ended: the punishment for the ambitions of a mere medic.
Later, she didn't cry when her own son collapsed on her lap. Helplessness and grief was cloaked over him like a patina of age-worn dust. She framed his scalp in her hands, and her fingers extracted his coronet from his hair. Then, she let the strands fall loose on his back. She ran her hand down its length, over and over.
When all the tangles were smoothed out, she pushed his hair from his face. She tilted his chin up.
“Look at you, my poor son,” she murmured. “What would Xiao Shu think?”
The fresh round of tears were expected, but she could not relent. In a battle, when you saw an opening, a handicap, a chink in the other’s armour — you pressed forward. Against the enemy, Jingyan would have pressed forward.
She pressed her fingers against the wetness on his face.
“Xiao Shu would tell you to stop crying,” she whispered. “Xiao Shu would tell you about the position that you find yourself now. Xiao Shu would tell you that you were lucky with the emperor today.”
“Xiao Shu— he—” Jingyan’s hands fumbled. With jerking motions, he pulled a small lacquered box from his clothing. She felt its sticky glossiness as she took it from his hand. His fingers were cold. “He told me to bring back a pearl for him. The size of a pigeon's egg. Mama, I did what he said.”
“Look at me, my son.” She let her voice harden fractionally. “Xiao Shu would want to save you.”
Finally, Jingyan fell silent. She gathered his hair to tie up again. She told him how.
Of course, he could not stay at Zhiluo Palace. Later, when he had already left, she realised that the wooden box was still in her hand. She looked at it helplessly before tucking it behind her mirror.
Afterwards, it all happened as she expected: Noble Consort Yue’s son was named as the Crown Prince. Jingyan fell even further from favour. Eunuch Gao’s glances were tinged with a distinct sympathy, a quiet apology; but in her heart, she thanked him.
There was an art to acquiescence, as there was for girls learning to hold their figures to their best advantage. And there is also some power in the appearance of vulnerability: no one saw you as a threat.
Jingyan’s powerless status was what protected him the best. The further her son was from the throne, the better. The future of Da Liang be damned: it would wilt and become even more diseased under the future reign of Crown Prince, but the battlefields were safest for Jingyan, when the alternative was the dichotomic political treachery of the high-ranked princes.
And she could protect him from the court by having him sent away, but she couldn’t protect him from the monsters inside his mind: the darkness which took the place of his best friend and closest brother. At least on the battlefields, he had no time to dwell; back in Jinling, his grief swirled like an assassin in the dead of night. With every day he spent in within the walls of the city, she could see that her son was dying a slow death.
“It feels like nothing matters anymore,” he told her once, when she pressed him harder than usual. She suspected that it was the only honest answer to her questions through the years.
She swallowed, then. She wanted to say: I feel the same. She wanted to say: of course it can never be as it was before. And she wanted to say: I’m worried for you.
What she did was offer him one more bowl of soup, and quietly place that lacquered box between them on the table. She looked away as he made a choked noise. She imagined a Jingyan with colour in his face and light in his eyes, with more doors open than shut in his mind.
What she said was: “We can only move forward.”
Denying her son her own pain: she knew that was her greatest cruelty. And yet, if they had any cause to be suspected—
“Don’t worry, Mother,” Jingyan had said. He had smiled slightly at her, beautiful and strong and ugly and fake. “We’ll be fine.”
What a foolish child. Through all these years, what could she do but worry? She knew how to slip into the background, another accessory in the mise en scène of the court, but Jingyan’s stubbornness was a blaze that she had never been able to extinguish. What use was a good son if he was dead?
She thought she would be satisfied with playing this role. She thought Jingyan’s safety would be enough; she had forgotten about the things worse than death, the things which weighed down only good men.
Her only consolation was the time spent with her son. Moments like these were hard-won and sweet. She watched him as he put down his teacup.
“The other day, I met someone...” Jingyan trailed off.
“Who?” she prompted. “Who did you meet?”
Eventually, Jingyan said, “No one important. It was— strange, that’s all.”
Later, she sent one of her handmaidens to find out more about the encounter. Her son looked better these days — less of that gauntness and more of that fire, however repressed — but it had, still, been a very long time since Jingyan showed a particular interest towards anything.
When the young girl reported back, she was packing her freshly-made sweets into a container. The cadence of the rain outside had lulled her into a bittersweet nostalgia. Its earthiness had mixed in with the sweet aroma of the pastry.
“It was the guest of the Xie family, Mistress. He was with Princess Nihuang and he goes by the name Su Zhe, but—” the girl bent close to her ear, lowering her voice, “—it’s said that his real identity is Mei Changsu, the chief of the Jiangzuo Alliance.”
"Mei Changsu," she repeated carefully. “What are the characters?”
“Mei as in plum flower. Chang as in longevity. Su as in revival.”
“Is that so,” she said.
Outside, the rain had stopped and the clouds were clearing. The sun peeked out shyly. Light glanced off from the wet surfaces, which glittered like countless tiny gemstones. From the nan tree in the courtyard, liquid glass dropped like plump fruit.
She placed the last of the hazelnut pastries into the box, and snapped the lid shut.