In a genius move by the Royal PR team (which currently only consisted of Yan Yujin and Gong Yu, but he was working hard on recruiting Jingrui), the palace released an official statement, which contained a rose-tinted, fairly romanticised version of Mei Changsu's involvement with Prince Jing's (now emperor) ascent to the throne.
Xiao Jingyan was adamant that Mei Changsu should be able to stand proudly beside him. However with his lowly position of strategist and his refusal to reveal his true identity as Lin Shu, their friends and family urged him to reconsider. In fact Mei Changsu was the most vocal with his objections, but the young emperor was not called a buffalo for nothing. His stubbornness and his royalty to Mei Changsu could possibly move mountains.
Touched by the display of platonic love (Gong Yu coughs), Yan Yujin declared that he could change people's perceptions of strategists and show Mei Changsu as the hero he was. His father shook his head and said that he wanted nothing to do with this nonsense. Yujin was not deterred. He was not sure why Gong Yu joined him, but there was a strange glint in her eyes. He took it as her determination to the cause.
The written statement portrayed Mei Changsu as a bright eyed hero who left the pugilist world in order to use his talents as the leader of the Lang Yan ranking board to serve his country. It detailed Mei Changsu's unwilling capture and subsequent detainment by Xie Yu on behalf of the former Crown Prince (a much hated figure due to explosions in the city). The statement described his meeting with the emperor, back then a prince of no power or influence, and his absolute faith in the emperor's character and ability to rule the empire with compassion and justice from the very first meeting (well, some part of the statement had to be true).
Gong Yu offered to proof read the final draft and added some further notations. She described the relationship between the emperor and strategist as one of true brotherhood. It was the epitome of male bonds - two men against the world, all for honour and the good of the empire. It was a tale of friendship and sacrifice. Once the completed statement was plastered onto the city walls, Meng Zhi even found some of the guards wiping away a manly tear or two while reading it.
The curious thing was that, while men were moved and motivated by the tale, it seemed to cause a different sort of reaction from the women of the city.
‘Oh,’ one housewife said when her husband presented her with a copy of the statement which was now floating all around the city.
Something glistened in her eyes and she asked her husband if she could keep the copy. Her husband shrugged.
The next day she showed the statement to her friends.
‘Oh,’ they said when they read it. Something also glistened in their eyes.
‘I … can see the appeal,’ Princess Nihuang said. Then she glanced at the confused faces of the emperor and Mei Changsu. She looked away.
‘This is… this is unacceptable. It is a crime to write about royalty in such … in such an indecent manner. This is treason!’
Mei Changsu rolled his eyes at the emperor.
‘There is no need to get so excited, Your Majesty. I’m sure they mean no harm.’
‘But… Xiao Shu –‘
‘What are you going to do? Execute half of the women in the city?’
Xiao Jingyan opened and then closed his mouth. He huffed loudly and then sat back down onto the throne.
‘Well, actually I believe more than half of the women in the city are involved. There were also some men who were found in possession of the book –‘
Mei Changsu glared at Meng Zhi who immediately shut up.
‘Did I say something wrong?’ He whispered to Lie Zhan Ying, who stood beside him.
‘I think having general Meng raid every household within the city was enough to scare the populace into never spreading such stories again. I suggest you order that all copies of the books be burned. There is no need to go any further,’ Mei Changsu said.
‘Besides, I have read this... book. There is nothing incriminating in it. It may be a little… suggestive, but that is as far as it went. Besides it does not name us. It only mentions a prince and a strategist.’
‘You’ve read it?’ Xiao Jingyan asked in surprise.
‘You haven’t?’ Mei Changsu asked back.
‘How could you read … this … this filth?’
‘How could you send general Meng to raid every household in the city when you haven’t even read it?’
Everyone else in the room shared a look. Princess Nihuang was the bravest and was the first to speak up.
‘Your Majesty, if there is nothing further I will take my leave. There is some official business I would like to speak with general Lie Zhan Ying about.’
Xiao Jingyan barely spared her a glance before locking glazes with Mei Changsu again.
Zhan Ying quickly followed Nihuang out of the hall, whispering his thanks. Meng Zhi waved his fists angrily at both of their retreating backs.
‘Your Majesty, if there is nothing further – ‘
‘Just go,’ Xiao Jingyan snapped and waved a hand at him.
Meng Zhi all but ran out of the hall.
‘Your Majesty?’ Mei Changsu called softly as the opened the door to the emperor’s private study.
Xiao Jingyan did not even look up from his paperwork. Mei Changsu bit his lip to stop himself from smiling. The stubborn buffalo was still angry.
He padded quietly until he reached the emperor’s side and then took a seat. He picked up the grinding stick and in slow precise movements, started to grind the ink on the ink stone.
Jingyan continued with his paperwork until the very last document was marked. Then he lowered his brush and turned towards Mei Changsu.
‘I couldn’t stand that people were writing these things about you,’ he said. ‘After everything you have been though, anyone who dares to ridicule you deserves to be put to justice.’
Mei Changsu smiled.
‘No one is ridiculing me,’ he said. He reached over and straightened the documents on the desk.
Mei Changsu pulled a familiar looking book from beneath his outerwear and placed it in Jingyan’s hands.
‘Read it, you’ll see.’
The book was a little warm in Jingyan’s hands, probably from being in close contact with Mei Changsu’s body heat. Jingyan tightened his hold.
That night, as Xiao Jingyan lay in his bed, he took a few deep breaths before turning to the first page of the book titled: ‘The Emperor and the strategist.’
The next day saw bags under the emperor’s eyes as he conducted official business in the morning. Mei Changsu found him in the study some time in the afternoon, looking a little worn around the edges.
‘Jingyan, are you alright?’ he asked when it was just the two of them in the room.
‘You’re here,’ Jingyan said as he raised his head from the paperwork. He beckoned Mei Changsu closer and held out a document.
‘I wanted to hear your opinion on this.’
Mei Changsu reached for the document and their fingers brushed lightly against each other.
The prince felt his entire body warmed by the accidental brush of their hands as they reached for the tea pot at the same time. He looked at the strategist in front of him and thought to himself, if he could feel this warmth beside him always from this moment forth, then he would have the strength to win any battle.
The words from the book he read the night before appeared in his mind without warning. Xiao Jingyan dropped the document in alarm. Caught by surprise, Mei Changsu did not tighten his grip in time and the document fell noisily onto the table between them.
‘Jingyan, are you alright?’ Mei Changsu asked again.
Xiao Jingyan could feel his ears burn.
‘I’m just a little tired today, Xiao Shu. I think… I think I’ll take a rest now. You may go.’
Mei Changsu reluctantly took his leave.
‘- so I really do think you should make it clear who is to be teaching Ting Sheng in terms of fighting style. Meng da-ge, Lie Zhan Ying and Dong jie are all in some competition against each other and using teaching Ting Sheng as an excuse to get one up on each other. Ting Sheng told me that just the other day Dong jie asked him if her technique was easier to learn than Meng da-ge’s. Imagine how confusing it would be for someone his age to be – Jingyan are you even listening to me?’
Xiao Jingyan snapped his head towards Mei Changsu.
Mei Changsu glared at him.
‘You weren’t even listening were you?’
‘I’m just… tired.’
Mei Changsu’s expression immediately turned from annoyed to worried. A few quick strides with his long legs and he was in front of the emperor. He raised a hand and pressed it against Jingyan’s forehead. He placed his other hand on his own forehead.
‘You are ill because you have been working too hard. I should not have let you push yourself so hard for my sake,’ the prince said.
The strategist, who lay bedridden, tried to rise up, but he did not have enough strength.
‘Your highness, I work hard, not just for you, but for the future of the entire empire, for I believe you will bring the empire great prosperity and peace.’
The prince locked gazes with the strategist. There was much heat and passion in his eyes.
‘I promise I will not let your efforts go to waste.’
Xiao Jingyan jolted back in his seat. Mei Changsu’s hand was left suspended awkwardly in mid air.
‘I’m tired. You can take your leave now.’
Mei Changsu wanted to argue, but Jingyan’s face did look a little hot. He took his leave and sent a note to the palace physician to check up on the emperor.
Xiao Jingyan then began to avoid Mei Changsu. The first few times general Meng Zhi refused him entry to see the emperor, Mei Changsu thought that perhaps Jingyan really was sick and needed rest. Then he learned that Jingyan was continuing his official duties as normal and the officials he spoke to all noted that while the bags under the emperor’s eyes did seem to get darker with every passing day, he seemed otherwise in good health.
‘Let me pass,’ Mei Changsu said to general Meng Zhi.
‘His Majesty is unwell so –‘
‘Let me pass,’ Mei Changsu gritted his teeth.
‘Let me pass or I will stand here until you do.’
They stood deadlocked for a good while before the sky darkened and heavy rain drops began to fall. Meng Zhi watched as spots on Mei Changsu’s light fur collar darkened with each rain drop.
‘Fine,’ he said, resigned. He knew that the emperor would be mad at him for letting Mei Changsu through to see him despite specific orders not to, but he would probably be thrown in prison if Mei Changsu got sick on his watch.
Xiao Jingyan was just wrapping up his discussions with a few officials when it was announced that Mei Changsu wished to see him. He quietly cursed Meng Zhi for being weak, and dismissed the officials. When he saw the look of thunder on Mei Changsu’s face as he entered the hall, he hurriedly dismissed all the servants too.
‘Xiao Jingyan, you are avoiding me?’ Mei Changsu asked. His voice was calm, but there was ice dripping from each word.
‘I … have been unwell.’
‘And yet you are well enough to be discussing official business just moments ago.’
‘Or perhaps, you are only unwell when it comes to seeing me.’
There was not just anger in his voice now, there were also traces of hurt. Xiao Jingyan stood up and walked around his desk towards Mei Changsu.
‘It’s not like that, Xiao Shu.’
Mei Changsu would not meet his eyes. Xiao Jingyan suddenly felt a little panicked. He had really upset Xiao Shu. Although all he wanted was some time to sort out his own feelings, he had hurt Xiao Shu in the process.
‘If Your Majesty does not wish to see me, then Your Majesty should make it clear. There is no need for excuses; I am not so pathetic that I would bother you now that I know I’m not wanted.’
He turned to leave, but Jingyan grabbed his sleeve.
‘Just listen to me.’
Mei Changsu refused to meet his eyes.
‘I read the book.’
Mei Changsu blinked in surprise.
‘You know… the Prince and the … Strategist.’
Mei Changsu raised an eyebrow. Then he looked at the way Jingyan was standing awkwardly and he said quietly:
‘It made you not want to see me?’
‘No!’ Jingyan cried, ‘I would never not want to see you. I just… I just needed some time to think.’
Mei Changsu’s face fell.
‘You were disgusted by it.’ He said, it was not a question.
Jingyan squeezed his eyes shut and then opened them again. He looked at Mei Changsu, at his eyes, the shape of his nose, the curve of his pale neck before it disappeared into the fur collar.
‘No,’ he said. Then in a quieter tone:
‘That’s the problem.’
Mei Changsu’s eyes widened.
‘Oh,’ he said simply. Then he smiled.
‘What are you going to do about it then?’
Xiao Jingyan flushed. He said honestly:
‘I don’t know, the book didn’t go that far.’
Mei Changsu laughed before reaching up to place his palm against Jingyan’s cheek.
‘Then let’s write our own story.’
That night, somewhere outside of the palace walls, Meng Zhi sat with Zhan Ying, a bottle of rice wine between them.
‘Should we tell His Majesty that there are other more… explicit books floating around?’
They looked at each other.
‘Let’s … just get rid of them before he ever finds out.’
Then they drank to that.