Qiyan Agula dies for the third time at the dawn of her eighteenth birthday.
It's a silent, solemn, heavy kind of morning, the kind that nurtures thoughts to grow, invites hearts to sigh in yearning and calls for important decisions to be made. Qiyan Agula knows those very well. It seems the vast majority of her life has been made of those mournful moments, a long succession of sorrowful sunrises for only them deign to welcome the tortured souls sleep rejets.
It's a very heavy morning indeed, unfortunately she can scarcely feel its weight. Theirs are too familiar a feeling to have an impact on her hardened mind. Her thoughts need not the room silent dawns provide to grow, they do that well enough on their own regardless of Qiyan Agula's will. Her heart, when she still had one, mastered the art of yearning so thoroughly it did not know how to do anything but sigh.
As for her decision, it has been made a long time ago. It has been waiting by her side for ten years, temporality set aside but never forgotten, unspoken but never silent. And now, its time has finally come.
Light shatters over the surface of the Luo river as the sun raises across the horizon. Looking from above, its stream looks tranquil enough, playful even, almost friendly. Qiyan Agula knows for a fact no water is as treacherous as the Luo river. Her first death has been taken by it, the end of a child drowned with her beloved horse. The river might have spit back the ghost of an avenger, but as far as she's concerned, Qiyan Agula did die there so long ago. Her second death was not directly related to the river, but she did return to it anyway. At least she did if Nagong Jingnu respected her selfish last wishes.
Therefore, considering their history, it's fitting for the Luo river to receive Qiyan Agula's third death. It's fitting that after the child and the woman, the lover and the avenger, the prince would bury her name by its shore once again.
And so a solitary funeral marches on, with only one mourner in attendance, and she doesn't even have the grace to fake weeping. With her bare hands, Qiyan Agula carves out a grave through wet soil and dry tears.
First, she lays down the body of the daughter, removing her earring and necklace. The child born and raised twice by Khagan Sukhbaru and Kathun Furong, marked by their love, trust and hopes. Next, she deposits the remnants of the sister. With the trinkets she leaves in the dirt, she cradles one last time Xiao-Die's mischievous smile, Yuxiao's laughing temper, Jinwushu's quiet strength, and she gently lets them down. Right after come the remains of the Anda, the companion of a lifetime, tainted with the corruption of a betrayal only she remembers. Then the ghost of the rider, this poor excuse for a master who has left Flowing Fire to Yuxiao's care yesterday, is discarded.
All of those shards of a person look quite pitiful, abandoned by their rightful owner in the dirty hole she dares to call a tomb. She didn't have a right to any of those in the first place. Her parents' love, her siblings' admiration, her Anda's loyalty, her Flowing Fire's trust, they all belong to a Qiyan Agula that died a long time ago. This Qiyan Agula is an impostor, a liar, a traitor, an anomaly.
This Qiyan Agula has the nerve to long for another despite having everything handed to her on a silver platter. She really deserves to die alone on a soundless morning.
At last, she buries the prince. Over the years, it has grown to be quite the cadaver to inhume despite its frail stature. Qiyan Agula, son of the Chengli Tribe, Wolf of the Grass plains and terror of the Wei army. The genius child horses love more than freedom. The fool who refused the advances of the most beautiful girl of the grass plains but still managed to win the allegiance of the Tuba tribe. The cold-eyed princeling who led his people to victory against those cowardly dogs of Wei Kingdom, who slaughtered their general Ding Yi and mutilated their commander Lu Quan. The heartless spirit-touched witch who could see the threads of fate and learnt how to weave them to his advantage.
It's more than a body now. It's a legend, and legends are not as simple to bury as mere daughters, sisters, friends or princes. They're hard to catch, and harder to kill. It would be like trying to murder wind, or words. Qiyan Agula will have to settle with silencing the ghost and hope the legend will soon follow it in the tomb.
There are only two remnants of Qiyan Agula left to remove. She sheds out of her clothes first, dropping on the ground her former shell to rot. Tentative sunlight runs across her scarred and banded chest. She didn't cry when she made her father burn the tattoo he has her branded with as a baby. She remembers he did.
The end creeps close, as it's prone to in graveyards, while she tears apart the only thing she has left of herself: the sounds of hers. The name she has been given by the elders of her clan. The name that belongs to her parents, her siblings, her Anda. The name that has been her shelter, her beacon, when she couldn't tell who she was anymore. The name her love whispered into their pillow once Qiyan Agula felt enthralled enough to share the secret of it.
Her name. She leans on the ground, her knees buried in the soil, her mouth a breath away from the pathetic tomb. Softly, with more kindness she ever allowed for herself, she lets it out. Lets it free. Lets it die a more peaceful death than the firsts. The sounds fall down to curl around the broken bones of a grave that will no longer be nameless.
Then, only then, Qiyan Agula breathes her last for the third time. Of the carcass she tore apart herself, there is only left an awkwardly shaped body, stuck between womanhood and manhood, childhood and adulthood, past and future, bent by the weight of memories it should not have to carry, an empty nest where a heart should beat, and another name.
By the river that put her to death once again, Qi Yan crawls out anew.
Qi Yan has been lying before. As anyone who knows her well will tell you, she's inclined to do so. In fact, she does know how to kill legends. Those powerful yet incredibly fickle creatures' survival depends on opinions, and opinions can be changed, given proper investissement, determination and skill. The process takes time however, and influence, a lot of those two. The meager sway she had has been casted aside in the tomb of Qiyan Agula, and her time is better spent chasing her future than tracking down her past.
Giving birth to legends however… that's very much easier. Startlingly simple, really.
She plants the first seed a month after she crossed the Luo river. She has taken time to wander through the land she hasn't set foot in eighteen years, until she felt confident enough in her Qi Yan touch to put it to the test. Her first trial is a poor village by Yong province, far from the Capital. She stumbles in comes the evening with her scholar's tresors packed to her back, rough patches sewed to her clothes, and a frail smile by her lips. It's a familiar dance for her, of course, but she can't help herself expecting the villagers to point her finger at her and yell 'Qiyan Agula! The savage prince!'
That's not what happens. They all eat up her wandering scholar act, without questioning it. Even Nangong Jingnu never was so naive… surely. It's hard for Qi Yan to remember how the girl was before Qi Yan crafted the woman to act as viciously as her 'husband' did.
Poor Qi Yan is short on money, naturally. In exchange for food and shelter, she offers her words. A charitable soul accepts, and soon the whole village is marvelling over her calligraphy. They cannot grasp the value of it, but most can tell it's worth much more than what they provided.
And so the seed of a rumor is planted, the first of plenty. As regularly watered rumors tend to, Qi Yan's brainchild grows and grows, until it's so huge and self-efficient Qi Yan barely needs to attend to it. Within two months, people are actually expecting her arrival and her usual calligraphy trade off. Merchants come from bigger cities to try to negotiate exclusivity to her work, promising wealth and a life of comfort to her. She systematically refuses their proposals with a self-recriminating smile, and the veneer of humility and loftness is eagerly applied to her image.
Her tiny rumor of a Hermit Shepherd is quickly shaping up to become a legend of its own. Soon enough, hopefully, it will reach Qi Yan's intended target.
Unfortunately, it reaches someone else before.
"What," she gasps, genuinely taken aback, "are you doing here?"
"Looking for Gege, obviously," Xiao-Die says in fluent Wei language. "Not that it was very hard. You left such a big trail to follow, Gege, it's very unlike you. I could only assume you wanted us to find you. So we came!"
She's sitting by the windowsill of the room Qi Yan is staying at, one leg swinging outside, the other crooked under her thigh. Her clothes and hair are arranged in the manner of the Wei Kingdom, but there is definitely something other about her figure, her face and predominantly, her attitude.
Qi Yan closes her eyes very, very slowly. "Who's we? Bayin?"
"Aye, of course." Xiao-Die nods, with an inappropriate amount of cheer.
Qi Yan can't tell whether or not that's good news. On one hand Bayin is an excellent fighter, hunter and bargainer, and he would tear out his own heart before he let anything happen to her sister. On the other, it's literally impossible for him to look anything but like a grass plain warrior. Xiao-Die took to Qi Yan's teachings regarding Wei culture like a fish to water, and Bayin… Bayin didn't. He's fluent enough to get by, but could never ever pass for a native.
"Xiao-Die, this is dangerous for you here," Qi Yan says. "You must go back to the grass plains."
Stubbornly, Xiao-Die shakes her head. "It's even more dangerous for Gege."
For the Wei Kingdom, Qiyan Nomin is the kin of an enemy. Qiyan Agula is the enemy.
"We said our goodbyes. You knew this was coming."
When Qi Yan was six, she told her parents she knew of a future that was to come, and proved herself by predicting events she couldn't have known about. She promised she would do anything to keep their family and their clan safe.
She also vowed that should she reach her eighteenth birthday, she would leave them to find her heart. They eventually accepted it, just like Bayin, Nomin and the twins did once they were old enough to understand.
At least Qi Yan thought they accepted it.
"You did, but you never said I couldn't follow."
"Xiao-Die. Go home. Father and mother must be worried."
She smiles. It's a dark and bitter thing, tucked in the shadows of her dimples, a glimpse of the vengeance thirsty creature she once was, in another lifetime. "You can't tell me what to do. Gege isn't gege anymore, remember?"
"Can we come up now?" A familiar voice raises from underneath the window. "I'm bored to death."
"Not yet!" Xiao-Die leans down to shout in response. "Someone is being unreasonable."
This tone of elegant indifference, of barely contained wildness, Qi Yan knows it well. Qi Yan can only wonder why she bothers setting up convoluted plans in the first place. "Jiya. You brought Jiya with you, of all people."
"I didn't," Xiao-Die retorts unapologetically. "Jiejie brought herself. What's wrong with Jiejie anyway?"
"I'm coming up!"
Qi Yan rushes to the window. "Don't you dare."
Jiya has already climbed halfway. Underneath, Bayin is leaning against the wall of the back-alley Qi Yan's cheap inn is located at while he keeps watch. That will teach her to hold on to her penniless scholar habits and not rent decent accommodations. The giant warrior has the gal to wave when he spots Qi Yan, teeth shining through his wolf-like grin.
Like this, she could almost ignore the ghost scars running over a face that only exists in her nightmares.
Looking perfectly at ease dangling so high above the ground, the pearl of the grass plains tilts her head up, and smirks at Qi Yan. "I'm daring."
"I'll push you."
"Gege." Xiao-Die pouts.
"Go ahead," Jiya laughs as her hand reaches the windowsill. "I'll scream and sob like an authentic Wei weakling. We'll see what happens when the story of how the noble Hermit Shepherd likes to bully harmless women spreads."
Qi Yan reluctantly lets her in. "You've never been harmless a day in your life."
"Why, thank you for noticing. I learnt from the best."
Qi Yan knows for a fact Jiya never needed her guidance to thrive in the art of deception and manipulation. She was a natural at scheming, unlike Xiao-Die who had a stubborn but honest heart. Most likely, she was the driving force that led Xiao-Die and Bayin here. They both trusted the Tuba princess blindly, having grown up with her, and Qi Yan… allowed it. That, perhaps, was her mistake. Another one among many.
"What do you want, Jiya?"
"Me?" She sits next to Xiao-Die and leans down to ruffle the younger girl's hair. "I'm a simple girl with simple tastes, I just want to have fun."
"Don't listen to Jiejie," Xiao-Die says. "We want to help."
Her eyes are so light and honest, clear of any form of deception. Looking at them is almost painful, for a tainted soul like Qi Yan's.
"You're not helping me if you're getting me caught, Xiao-Die."
Tears pool by the corners of Nomin's eyes. Qi Yan's resolve, forged by the fires of revenge and love, melts like butter in summer. Her love for this child runs deeper than the waters of Luo river, deeper than any grave she could ever dig.
"You can't be seen by anyone," Qi Yan sighs, resigning herself to never be able to say no to her sister. "And you can't follow me to the Capital."
Even walls have ears in this place. A single false note in her story will be enough to make Qi Yan follow Qiyan Agula in the tomb, and she refuses to let that happen before she can hear her heart beat again.
Some stories are crafted through a slow and careful process. They grow on a rhythm of their own, spreading languidly from one mouth to another. By their nature, they are unhurried creatures, but steadier than most. The Hermit Shepherd is one of those.
Others, however, start with a bang and go up in flames quick as lightning. Stories based on royalty are usually born this way, and this one is no exception to the rule. If anything, it spreads faster than the vast majority of its peers.
Somewhere far from the Capital, in a shabby tavern deep into Yun province, a scholar with no money in his pocket and ink on his fingers, gold in his eyes and no heart in his ribcage laughs and laughs and laughs.
"You're happy," Bayin notices when Qi Yan stumbles back home, drunk on sheer giddiness. "What happened?"
He's the only one to greet Qi Yan. Xiao-Die is dozing off in her cot, and nothing aside from the dead raising will be able to wake her up. Sleep adores her just like it loathes the very sight of Qi Yan. As for Jiya, she's most likely out there spreading mischief and chaos, as usual.
"My heart replied."
"It did?" He straightens, the wooden horse he was carving abandoned on his lap. "That's excellent news! How?"
Another laughter spills out of her throat. "Arson."
Bayin lets a bark out, easily contaminated with her hysterical elation. "That's a response I can get behind! And what did it say?"
It said this: in the Capital, the eccentric but dearly beloved Princess Zhenzhen spent a fortune buying every single one of the Hermit Shepherd works available. Nothing was spared from her manic interest, no expense too great a cost. But once she had gathered all the scrolls, all the fans, all the paintings, she slammed all those priceless works of art in one dirty bag and dragged it in the mud. Then, in the middle of the street, she set them on fire for everyone to see.
It said this: the Princess Zhenzhen loathes the Hermit Shepherd, and he better never show up to the Capital if he values his life.
Jokes on them, Qi Yan never valued her own life before, she won't start now.
Dreamingly, she says: "Roughly, it could translate to: 'I hate you, don't you dare come back, if I ever see your ugly face again I'll carbonize it.'"
"...Anda, your heart is very fierce."
But a furious Jingnu means a Jingnu who cares. A Jingnu who remembers. A Jingnu that holds Qi Yan's heart still, whether she wants to have anything to do with it or not. Qi Yan will take murder threats over indifference or ignorance any day.
Bayin gives Qi Yan's back a vigorous slap that would have sent her stumbling if she wasn't so used to it. "But you will still chase after it, yes?"
What else can Qi Yan do? Keep on living without her? Ignore the Jingnu shaped hole under her ribcage? Pretend she's not someone else's wife for the rest of her life? No. "Yes."
Bayin nods. "We'll be gone by morning then. Good luck retrieving your fierce heart, Anda. It looks like it's going to be a handful, haha!"
Retrieve… Qi Yan has no intention to retrieve anything. But Bayin doesn't need to know that, so she merely smiles and moves on.
Walls of the Capital don't only have ears, they have mouths and eyes as well. Many, many mouths, many many eyes that never sleep, never blink, never falter. They work restlessly to provide their masters with the information they crave. Truly a place from hell, built to feed the powerful and keep each other in check.
Why, Qi Yan hasn't been in the Capital for a week and already she has been found out.
"Does the young master need assistance?" Qi Yan says, her tone conveying her wonder to find such a well-dressed youth by the door of the modest room she's renting.
Gongyang Huai glances around, looking for eavesdroppers. Qi Yan bites back a smile, amused by his child-like warriness. He looks awkward and nervous, but in a tentative way, like a rich and beloved young master who never has to watch his steps before and cannot quite convince himself he's at risk.
"This may sound strange but…" he whispers as he leans forward. Qi Yan, out of pure fondness, does the same. They both look very, very suspicious. "Are you perchance the Hermit Shepherd?"
"Ah," Qi Yan straightens and nods with the gravity the situation requires. "Would you like to come in, young master?"
Gongyang Huai offers a bow. "Please."
Qi Yan invites this stranger of an old friend to come in. He looks startled by the modesty of her accommodations, but quickly hides his surprise and says nothing of it. What a well-bred scholar, truly the paragon of his generation.
"Young master please forgive this scholar's poor hospitality." Qi Yan softly says as she kneels to remove the many manuscripts scattered all over her table. "I have only arrived in the city a few days ago, and have yet to find rooms fit to receive esteemed visitors like yourself "
Baishi can't help himself from glancing at the papers, marked with her now infamous calligraphy. "It's I who should apologize for barging in like this, without even introducing myself. My name is Gongyang Huai, courtesy name Baishi, second lawful son of the Gongyang Clan."
"Qi Yan, courtesy name Yuanjun." She nods, raising up to retrieve her teapot. "Ah, but my Qi clan from Jin Province is too insignificant for the young master to know of, and there are so few of us left in any case."
Gongyang Huai's eyes widen, making the connection between Jin Province's plague and Qi Yan's lack of relatives. His stiff expression softens at the sorrow he imagines in her tone. Really, Baishi is too kind a man to hang with the likes of her.
"There is no need for 'young masters', we are of the same age are we not? Please call me Baishi."
If nostalgia could kill, surely she would choke on the knot tied in her throat. "Then Baishi should call me Yuanjun."
Qi Yan assumed her heart would know of her arrival the moment she stepped foot in the Capital, and expected retaliation, but to send Baishi, ah… Qi Yan intended to leave her old friend out of her machinations this time. He deserves better than to be dragged into the mud again. Really, to plot a move this shameless, Nangong Jingnu isn't playing around anymore.
She pours tea in a cup. "Yuanjun is kind," Gongyang Huai accepts it with a smile. "The reason for my rude intrusion is this: Yuanjun might not be aware, but the Hermit Shepherd is very famous at the Capital."
"Oh?" Qi Yan echoes non-commitally.
"I speak no lies, your calligraphy works are very popular here. Myself, I used to have a fan…"
Qi Yan almost chokes on her tea. A fan, really, Baishi… "This scholar is flattered to hear his humble scribbling attracted such attention. May I ask what Baishi means by used to? What happened to it?"
"The Princess Zhenzhen had it destroyed," Gongyang Huai declares in a mournful tone. He sounds genuinely upset by the loss. "She had them all destroyed."
"How odd." Qi Yan mumbles in her cup. "The Princess must really hate this scholar's writing…"
Innerly, she can't scarcely hold back her elation. Nangnong Jingnu had to work real hard to make such a loud stunt, attracting to herself the disapproval and enmity of the literature officials, just for the sake of sending Qi Yan a message she couldn't miss. Qi Yan's chest feels warm and bubbly at the powerful display of attention.
"You don't understand. The princess Zhenzhen may be young, but she's very influential. It is said she's the closest to the Emperor's heart and ear. Such a bold and extreme action… that's unlike what she has shown us before. The princess has always been… eccentric, but not like this!"
Gongyang Huai leans on the table, losing hold of his manners due to the urgency throbbing in his eyes. "If she finds out about the Hermit Shepherd being in the Capital, who knows what she'll do! Yuanjun, you are in danger here!"
Qi Yan puts down her cup. Gongyang Huai should be more concerned with his safety than a stranger's. "Baishi has such a noble character, to risk his own comfort to warn this scholar."
He blushes. "I. The merit is not mine. An acquaintance of mine from the literature association I attent warned me. He couldn't come himself, but gave me your address."
She laughs silently as she pictures a tiny crossdressed Jingnu manipulating poor Baishi to chase Qi Yan away in her stead. Your majesty, your majesty, you truly are dedicated to the cause!
"This scholar understands what Baishi is saying. He thinks I need to leave the Capital at once. But has Baishi considered… if the princess hates this scholar so much, and if she is that powerful, then she can reach this scholar wherever she wants in the country."
Gongyang Huai frowns, taken aback. "That's… true, however-"
"And, no offence to Baishi, but if he knows about this scholar's presence, surely this powerful person already does as well…" Qi Yan points out.
"I. That's. Not unlikely."
"In conclusion, considering the situation, I believe the wisest course of action would be to seek allies rather than run and hide. You may tell your acquaintance I appreciate his concern, and will keep his advice in mind, but I don't plan on leaving the Capital so soon.
Qi Yan's smile is soft and affectionate. "Now, would Baishi like to hear about this essay I'm currently working on?"
The next morning, less than a day after Gongyang Huai left Qi Yan's humble abode, she wakes up tied to a bed that she certainly didn't fall asleep in.
With her mind foggy still due to the soporifics, Qi Yan doesn't dare move yet, prefering to evaluate her situation in silence. This is not the kind of room Qi Yan the wandering scholar could ever hope to see, nor Qiyan Agula the rogue prince of the grass plains. It's, however, the kind of room the Fuma of the princess Zhenzhen would know very well indeed.
A mausoleum of happier times, preserved from the cruel claws of time.
She takes a deep breath, swallowing the sweet scent that is so typically Jingnu she could get intoxicated with pure nostalgia. The pillow obligingly tucked under her head is parched with it. A pillow, really. She even covered Qi Yan's legs with a blanket, and the ropes tying her wrists to the head of the bed are so soft they can only be made of silk. Who would even call that royal treatment a kidnapping...
A smile blooms by dry lips. Outside, it's a silent, solemn, heavy kind of morning, the kind that sees the rise and fall of kingdoms, the kind that unfolds when an era sheds its skin and morphs into something new. It's a heavy morning, yet Qi Yan feels light enough to fly away, restrained only by silk ropes and the certitude of her love's closeness.
Inside her chest, beating through the silence, she can hear the furious flutter of her heart.
"Your highness?" She croaks. Her voice, her most useful tool save for her mind, seems to be failing her at the most crucial moment.
She crooks her head to the side and tries to catch sight of her elusive spouse. There is nothing interesting to be seen from her point of view, not even a glimpse of her colorful robes. Jingnu made sure of that when she had Qi Yan drugged and dragged to her bed.
No matter. Qi Yan knows her heart is here nonetheless.
"Your highness." Qi Yan fakes a pathetic cough with the distant hope Jingnu might rush to her side to pamper her thanks to sheer habit. "Your highness, this subject's throat is dry…"
The sound of a page turning is the only answer she is given. It comes from the upper corner at Qi Yan's right, behind the curtains draping the bed's angle. What an odd plot twist. To think one day Qi Yan would be the one to impatiently attempt to pry Nangnong Jingnu's attention away from her reading.
Qi Yan settles back against the pillow. She can wait. She has been waiting for eighteen years, and she has always been more patient than Nangong Jingnu. Fifteen minutes pass in silence, broken only by the occasional whimper a book makes when one of its pages is pushed to the side.
Nangnong Jingnu shows no sign of weakening in her resolve to ignore her prisoner. There is only one thing left to do, then.
Qi Yan clears her throat. "Your majesty."
"If you're so thirsty, I suggest shutting up your blasphemous mouth."
She would have chuckled at the striking contrast between the dryness of Nangong Jingnu's tone and the youthfulness of her voice if not for the overwhelming wave of relief transporting her whole being. Qi Yan's wife is here, she remembers, she has not abandoned Qi Yan, she is here.
Pearly tears gather by the corner of her closed eyes, then roll down her cheeks before ending their journey on Qi Yan's collar. With enough vigor to draw out blood, she bites on her lip and swallows back the impulse to sob.
"Ah, this subject isn't so thirsty after all. May I ask what her highness is reading?"
Qi Yan hears the vicious scream of a page being torn out. "Trash."
She hums contentedly while playing with the ropes. Nangong Jingnu must have found Qi Yan's essays. She didn't spend her afternoon explaining the finest points of why everything is wrong in Wei Kingdom to a half fascinated, half horrified Gongyang Huai for nothing then.
"Will her highness burn this one too?"
Nangong Jingnu snorts. "Ah! I would have to apologize to the fire for subjecting it to such idiocy! There is enough salt in there to make a good, honest bonfire die of bitterness if it tries to eat it."
That's not what she said when Qi Yan first showed her the essays she was working on, several years from now. Back then, the female emperor still had patience to spare for her imperial husband's 'idiocy'. Perhaps the difference is that she still had a minimum of faith in Qi Yan's survival instincts at the time.
She doesn't anymore. Not after what Qi Yan did.
"Are you not going to ask to be released?" Qi Yan's jailer finally asks.
Qi Yan smiles. Nangong Jingnu is trying so hard to sound casual, but she'll never be able to fool Qi Yan. She knows her own heart too well. "Why would I? This subject is exactly where she wants to be."
As far as kidnappings go, this one is an upgrade from what Qi Yan is used to. Though, in retrospect, that time Jingnu had her exiled, changed her mind at the last moment and had Qi Yan delivered back to her chambers wasn't bad either...
"Shameless!" the princess hisses. With no small amount of delight, Qi Yan pictures a hint of red on her heart's round cheeks, the petulant curve of her lips when indignation fills her mouth, sparks of fury in her dark eyes shining like meteors on a night sky. What she wouldn't give for a chance to see it again.
"It's her highness who tied me to her bed," Qi Yan points out factually. "This subject can only assume her highness has ulterior motives to justify such an odd choice…"
Qi Yan hears the rattle of a chair against the floor and the ruffle of robes as Nangong Jingnu storms towards the bed. To her disappointment, Jingnu's angry steps stop before Qi Yan can spot anything but a flash of her sleeve.
"What else was I supposed to do? Who knows what crazy things you would say if I let anyone else guard you!" She snarls behind the curtain.
Qi Yan only blinks at that. Clearly, Nangong Jingnu has recruited agents she completely trusts if she feels confident enough to have them drug an unknown man in the middle of the Capital, drag him to her estate without being noticed, and leave him tied to their mistress' bed. If she orders them to ignore Qi Yan, they will, without questions.
This Jingnu is different from the spoiled princess Qi Yan married, different from the sharp emperor she pledged her heart to. This Jingnu hardly needs Qi Yan to plot in her stead anymore, she can do that very well on her own. Qi Yan doesn't know whether to feel proud or sad by this development.
"Nevertheless, there were other ways to restrain this subject." Not that Qi Yan would have run away in any case. "If her highness has no such intentions, then she must care about this subject's health and comfort still."
Her heart throbbing in her mouth, she waits for a denial. It doesn't come. Instead, red blooms by the corner of Qi Yan's eye. She turns her head abruptly, drinking in the sight of her heart standing by her bedside. Qi Yan's past and future stares back without flinching.
Dizziness muddles Qi Yan's eyes. For the last eighteen years, she has gotten used to exist in the gap between what would have been and what is, but this, this is the biggest reality chasm there can be. Nangong Jingnu looks like she used to, like the lively doll made of jade her emperor father loved most, yet she is… other. Something unknown lurks in those phoenix eyes of hers Qi Yan knows so well, something old, worn out, weary.
And it's Qi Yan who put it there. This is more than ten years of betrayal staring at her, accusing her, blaming her, resenting her. And yet she cannot stop her heart from beating for the woman that hates to love her. "Your highness…"
"This is exactly why I didn't want to see you," Nangong Jingnu sighs. "You have always known how to turn my mind upside down."
Qi Yan chokes out a trembling laugh. Your majesty, this subject feels the same, my mind. Except I want so much to your majesty I would gladly die a fourth time for a glimpse of you...
This is not what Nangong Jingnu wants to hear. She's probably exhausted of Qi Yan dying on her.
"Won't her highness untie this subject ?" She inquires softly, tugging on the rope around her left wrist for emphasis. "My limbs feel sore."
Nangong Jingnu's attention immediately jumps to Qi Yan's wrists. In one careful movement, she sits by the edge of the bed, close enough to touch if Qi Yan slightly moved her leg. She does nothing. Instead, she waits patiently for her hunter to approach the harmless prey she caught in her trap.
Slowly, Nangong Jingnu leans over Qi Yan. Her delicate fingers, very unlike Qi Yan's calloused hands, skims over the skin of Qi Yan's exposed arm. She fails to suppress her shudder at the touch she has been craving for so long. Nangong Jingnu catches the end of the rope, lets the white silk dance between her phalanges, then takes away her hand without doing anything.
"Why did you come back, Agula?" Jingnu says, her face hovering over Qi Yan's. "Why? You loathe this place, I know you do. Your family, your friends, your people are in Northern Jing. There is nothing for you here."
Somewhere far away, at the Jing-side bank of the Luo river, a ghost rattles in its tomb.
"Does your highness really need to ask?" Qi Yan frowns. "Your highness is here, that's all there is to understand."
"That didn't stop you from leaving me in the first place, didn't it?"
The thorn in her heart trembles, and a barely cauterized wound bleeds anew. It's nothing Qi Yan hasn't said to herself countless times before. Do hear it from Nangong Jingnu's mouth though, it's a whole different kind of pain.
"I told you not to come back." Nangong Jingnu doesn't hesitate to twist her fingers into Qi Yan's gaping guilt. "Multiple times. Why can't you listen for once?"
Qi Yan stares straight into her heart's angry, angry eyes. "Your highness might not have wanted to see this subject, but this subject cannot claim the same."
"There is nothing for you here!" She repeats as she urgently tugs on Qi Yan's ropes. Her hands shake so intensively she needs several tries to succeed in her endeavor, but eventually, too soon, the smooth bindings fall on the bed, one after the other. "I have freed you from me already, so go!"
Qi Yan doesn't move an inch. One tear falls on her cheek, then another, another. Only then does she put her arm in motion, to reach out for Nangong Jingnu's devastated face. Gently, she cups Jingnu's cheek, her thumb catching the sadness made water pearl on Jingnu's smooth skin. Her heart shudders violently at the touch.
"And I said," Qi Yan whispers, "I'm exactly where I want to be."
A laugh that sounds more like a scream claws its way out of Nangong Jingnu's mouth. She jerks out of Qi Yan's reach with a sob, turning her back to the beast she got shackled to so many years ago. Qi Yan crawls after all like a puppet tugged by strings, without paying attention to the pain in her ankylosed arms, and she hugs her from behind. Her hands slip toward Jingnu's tender belly as she swallows her trembling heart in her embrace.
"Jingnu, darling Jingnu, do not cast this subject away. If you will not marry me, then allow me to remain by your side. If you'll not have me as your ally or your friend, let me be your servant. I'll rather be your shadow than be nothing to you at all!"
"You devious snake!" Nangong Jingnu's fingernails claw into the skin of Qi Yan's hand. it says a lot of how messed up they are that Qi Yan welcomes the pain gratefully. "You know very well that if I let you by my side, in no time you would own me completely. How long would it take for you to have my entire household eating in your palm? A month? A week? How long before you have me dancing to your tune once again? How long before you manage to slip your way into my chamber and make your nest inside my bed? Haha, I'll give it a night, at worst!"
Already, she's melting into Qi Yan's poisonous embrace. Qi Yan clings to her through the waves of her sorrow, unwilling to let go even for a heartbeat.
"Ah, a servant, a shadow, don't make me laugh!" Nangong Jingnu cries out. "As if I could ever resist you…"
Qi Yan can't help herself from whispering into Jingnu's ear. "Then don't resist me."
"You! The nerve of you-"
"This subject failed your highness in their previous life. I didn't love your highness the way she deserved. I abandoned your highness when she needed me. But the gods have granted this subject another chance to fix what I messed up. Why else would it only be this subject and your highness reborn with our memories intact, if not for that purpose?"
Qi Yan releases Nangong Jingnu from her arms to tug on her clothes. Under Jingnu's wide eyes, she spread open her robes, exposing her chest. The majority of the burn is hidden under the bandage holding her breasts captive, but the scar covering the expense of skin where a wolf used to howl is large enough for Nangong Jingnu to see it anyway.
"I have killed off Qiyan Agula for your highness already," Qi Yan vows, like she has vowed to Luo river. "I'm only Qi Yan now. I'm only her highness' Fuma, if she'll have me."
At her bold declaration, Qi Yan expected more rage or tears. She distantly hoped for forgiveness, despite knowing she hasn't earned it yet. She feared for cold, unfeeling rejection, for indifference.
She did not expect to be slammed to the bed by a stoned-face princess.
"You complete and utter fool!" Nangong Jingnu hisses as she holds captive Qi Yan's wrists over her head. "I let you go so you can live the life you were meant to and you do something so stupid! I scheme to keep Northern Jing safe and you throw all my efforts to the wind! How can someone so incredibly smart be so incredibly idiotic?"
Nangong Jingnu's fury truly is a spectacle to behold. "Your highness…"
"Shut up! How dare you offer any less than the entirety of you! Killed off Qiyan Agula, ah? Well, you massive moron, you better go dig her out if you want a chance to marry me again!"
Perhaps it was inevitable that Qi Yan would end up cutting herself over her too sharp mind and sabotage herself. She was so sure she was doing the right thing for Nangong Jingnu. It made perfect sense in her head that Nangong Jingnu and Qiyan Agula, born of two different sides of the Luo river, couldn't be happy together. One of them had to die, and it could never be Nangong Jingnu.
She was so sure, and yet, she keeps on misunderstanding her own heart over and over.
Hopefully, Qi Yan breathes out. "Does that mean… your highness would marry Qiyan Agula?"
Nangong Jingnu's face closes off as she lets go of Qi Yan's wrists and raises up. Qi Yan sits on the bed, missing the weight of her heart already, and she watches her love hungrily.
She's used to seeing Jingnu change, evolve, improve, but usually the process takes longer than the few heartbeats this Nangong Jingnu requires to regain her noble posture. It's an experience to watch the princess rebuild her composure over the ruins of a bruised heart and broken memories.
"I'll consider it," she nods once, without looking at Qi Yan, before she calls out loudly. "Qiuju!"
Qi Yan has the presence of mind to hastily adjust her clothes before the stewardess enters the room and kneels by the door. "You may escort sir Qi Yan out. We're done here."
Qi Yan spares a curious glance to the maid. If the older woman is bothered by the presence of a dishevelled man in her princess' private room, or of the red in her mistress' eyes, she shows no sign of it. How strange it must have been for her to guard the nights and days of a non-child like this Nangong Jingnu.
Still, Nangong Jingnu is too soft on Qi Yan. If Qi Yan were in her place, she would have called Chuntao instead.
Qi Yan falls on her knees and prostrates herself, without caring of what Nangong Jingnu's head maid might think of this pitiful spectacle. "Your highness, please wait for this subject. I'll win your highness' approval, and I'll return as soon as your highness allows me."
"We'll see," Nangong Jingnu says, dismissing the two of them with a flick of the wrist.
Qi Yan drinks at the sight of Nangong Jingnu for as long as she can. She knows it won't be several months at best, years most likely until she manages to claw the hand of his precious daughter out of this old goat of Nangong Rang.
"Qiuju-jiejie needs not to concern herself with this subject." She smiles at the maid once they have left the princess' chamber. "This subject knows the way. I'll see myself out"
There is no time to lose. Qi Yan has bodies to dig out, legends to leash and hearts to conquer.