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the very first words of a lifelong love letter

Chapter Text

To subdue the enemy without fighting is the supreme excellence.

 

Jingyan falls in love with Xiao Shu in the spring.

No, that's not strictly true.

Jingyan has absolutely no prior experience with this feeling that steals his breath and makes it seem as if his heart is turning somersaults in his chest, but even he knows that it’s rooted too deeply to have developed that recently.

But it’s in the spring that Jingyan races back into Jinling from Donghai, chest tight and breath shallow, clutching the missive that had been waiting for him at the army’s first stopping point on the way home; the missive that simply says that his father is dead and his eldest brother, who had been Prince Qi when Jingyan left the capital, is now the new Emperor.

Eyes burning both from the cold wind tearing at his clothes, and the tremendous sense of loss that is weighing down on his heart, Jingyan rushes to the city gate and impatiently waits to be cleared for entrance.

Once through, he resumes his frantic pace through the streets, urging his horse on to the Palace, and upon arrival is promptly ushered into the court room, where his brother is waiting for him.

“You’ve done very well, Jingyan,” his brother the Emperor says, after taking Jingyan’s report from Gaozhan-gonggong and giving it a brief read-over. He raises his eyes from the page to meet Jingyan’s and nods once, gravely.

“I’ll have some of the eunuchs send a reward to your residence – I think, Gaozhan, perhaps the jade–”

“You know I don’t care about that!” Jingyan cries, goaded beyond endurance. He comes back to himself after a cough and reproving look from Gao-gongggong, and hastily adds, “Your Majesty.”

His brother’s gaze softens and he gives Jingyan a sad smile.

“We knew we wouldn’t be able to get word to you in time for you to return for the mourning period,” he explains gently. “And we didn’t want you to have to fight while bearing such a heavy grief. I’m sorry, Jingyan.”

“What happened?” Jingyan asks raggedly, voice choked from the effort of holding back the tears that are suddenly welling up in his eyes. Because even if they’d never spent much time together, even if he was (had been) the least-favoured son, the Emperor – the late Emperor – had still been his father. And as a son, he should still have been there for the funeral rites, to mourn – to do something more than find out months later and come back to find that everyone else in the capital had long moved on.

“This is not a good place for you to hear the story,” his brother says, shaking his head and glancing briefly at the five ministers waiting just outside the door for their turn at an audience. “Go see your mother – she’s still in Zhiluo Palace, we haven’t gotten around to moving her yet – and speak to her. Then go home, and take some time to rest. I’m sorry for only being able to give you a few days – there’s still a great deal to do, and I’ll need your help.”

“Of course, Your Majesty,” Jingyan mumbles, bowing. “I’ll take my leave.”


Jingyan leaves his mother’s palace with his head reeling and staggers to his horse, blankly allowing his body to go through the motions of mounting and directing it homewards. With all the new information swimming around in his mind, there’s no room even for grief anymore. He just feels numb.

“Your Highness!”

Startled out of his reverie, Jingyan turns his horse to find Lie Zhanying, as well as a handful of other officers who’d followed him back from Donghai, running towards him from just outside the Palace gate.

“Your Highness, what’s happened?” Zhanying asks, when they reach him. “We tried to ask one of the eunuchs as he was leaving on an errand, but he was in a rush and kept mumbling, so we couldn’t make head or tail of what he said.”

The last thing Jingyan wants to do is stop to talk to them about what he’s just heard, but his men are in the same position he’d been in not long before, with the added frustration of being denied answers for an hour, so Jingyan nods and suggests that they return to his residence, to speak there.

“So it’s true about Marquis Xie, then?” Zhanying asks, when they’re all seated in Jingyan’s sitting room.

Jingyan nods.

“My mother wasn’t especially clear about the details either – it seems that the inner Palace received a version of events that was watered down – I think she was hinting at something, but I wasn’t quite thinking straight, so–”

“We’re military men ourselves, Your Highness, so subtleties are pretty much beyond us, anyway,” Qi Meng rushes to assure him, earning himself a cough and a sideways glance from an exasperated Zhanying.

Jingyan nods, for want of a better response to give, and continues.

“It seems that Marquis Xie – no, just Xie Yu now – in league with the director of the Xuanjing Bureau, Xia Jiang, went to the late Emperor with a letter they claimed was from Commander Nie Feng, requesting aid to counter a Chiyan army rebellion. Xie Yu then set out with his own force and waited above a narrow pass just before the Meiling battleground, planning to attack the Chiyan army when they were weak with exhaustion after successfully defeating Da Yu in battle.”

“Fuck, Marquis Xie – I mean, Xie Yu!” Chen Hao mutters under his breath from the back of the group. “To think he was capable of this level of treache – Ah! Sorry, Your Highness,” he adds hastily, cutting himself off. “I know he was married to your Aunt, but–”

That’s right, Jingyan thinks, now that the fog of shock has lifted and his mind is beginning to work properly. Xie Yu was his uncle by marriage.

Shit.

“In any case,” Jingyan says, choosing to continue rather than to dwell on the fact, “somehow the plan went awry – possibly something to do with a sudden snow storm.”

He frowns for a moment, looking around at his audience, who are, unlike his royal consort mother, all military men.

“My mother says she heard about this from Princess Jinyang, who heard it from Field Marshal Lin and Xiao Shu, who in turn heard it from Commander Nie, since they only got there afterwards,” he says apologetically, by way of disclaimer, acutely aware of how strained the relationship between his account and the truth has probably become at this point.

“But it seems that the snow caused irregularities in the movements of the troops, so the force that Xie Yu ended up attacking was only a very small, incomplete vanguard, leading the horses and supplies that hadn’t been bogged down. Their cries were heard by the bulk of the force, who were lagging behind, and Xie Yu was discovered, overpowered and killed.”

A few of the men heave sighs of relief at this news, and begin nodding and smiling at each other, now that a happy ending to the story has been assured.

“Later,” Jingyan continues, “Nie Feng himself came back to court, swore up and down that he had never seen such a letter. The Xuanjing Bureau was abolished, and its head Xia Jiang arrested.”

“And the Hua princess, Xuanji ?” Zhanying asks, eyes wide. “Was she really in the Palace?”

“And found to be in league with Xia Jiang,” Jingyan confirms. “Plotting revenge on the Chiyan army for the destruction of her people. But she escaped.”

Amazed murmuring breaks out, mostly too low for Jingyan to hear, aside from one, “So that is why his wife left him. Who knew?”

“After her mainstay in court influence was eliminated, Princess Xuanji then bombed the Palace courtyard during the New Year celebrations,” Jingyan says, when the commentary subsides.

“Gunpowder in the incense holder,” Zhanying whispers, nodding. “We got that much from the eunuch.”

Jingyan nods in agreement.

“Yes,” he says. “The Emperor–”

He takes a deep breath and forces himself to say the words.

“The Emperor was killed. The Empress and Consort Yue, who were standing nearest to him, also died. It seems Princess Xuanji was intending for Prince Qi to die, too, which would leave Prince Yu as the heir apparent.”

“What?” Qi Meng blurts out, frowning. “But he’s only the 5th Prince, isn’t he?”

“He was the former Empress’s son,” Zhanying reminds him. “And the 3rd Prince suffers from ill health. The 4th Prince …” he trails off, glancing at Jingyan, and then clears his throat, evidently deciding that the most prudent course of action would be to refrain from discussing any of the 4th Prince’s relative merits.

Or lack thereof, Jingyan can’t help himself from thinking, which was most likely the direction Zhanying had been going in.

“What I don’t understand,” Jingyan says aloud, frowning as the question suddenly occurs to him, “is why Prince Yu? I don’t think my mother mentioned a reason.”

“Oh, the eunuch did,” Zhanying answers unexpectedly. “Qin Banruo, that advisor of his – she’s Hua, too. Apparently they’ve been grooming him for a while. He’s always been their choice.”

Jingyan hums . That makes some sense, but he still feels like something is missing.

Perhaps Xiao Shu will have some answers.


At the Lin residence, Jingyan is greeted by Auntie Jinyang, who fusses over him, ushering him into her elegant sitting room, and plying him with food and drink, which inadvertently makes him feel guilty for entering her house while still in his dusty, travel-worn clothes.

“Jingyan, my boy!” Uncle Lin exclaims, poking his head in the doorway on his way past and beaming with pleasant surprise.

“Uncle Lin,” Jingyan says, half-rising from his cushion.

“No, no, sit down, sit down,” Uncle Lin says, waving him back down. “No sense in bothering, I’m not staying – just stopped in for lunch, you see. I’m sorry I can’t chat, but this Hua business waits for no one.”

He turns and calls down the corridor for someone to bring his cloak.

“Heard you did very well in Donghai, though. I see you’ve done us all proud, eh?”

“I had very good teachers, sir,” Jingyan replies, and Uncle Lin’s cheeks pinken with pleasure.

“Well, now,” he says modestly, accepting his coat from a maid and then looking towards his wife. “Jinyang, I’m leaving. Jingyan, I’m sure I don’t need to ask you to come over for dinner sometime, when you’re free. We’ll catch up then, eh?”

Uncle Lin gone, Jingyan turns back to Auntie Jinyang.

“Auntie, is Xiao Shu–?”

“I’m sorry, Jingyan,” Auntie Jinyang replies, shaking her head. “He’s out helping with the Hua investigation as well, working with – you remember Uncle Thirteen, of course. Prince Ji and Marquis Yan are also involved – I expect the Emperor will have you doing the same, in a few more days.”

She reaches over and pats his hand.

“You should go and rest, for now,” she tells him. “I have to go and see Consort Che – no, sorry, the Empress Dowager, I keep forgetting. With all the disorder caused by the Hua work, we’re still moving consorts around the palaces in accordance with the new order.”

She sighs heavily and rolls her eyes.

“And with the death rites and the coronation having to be organised in the middle of the New Year celebrations, the old men at the Ministry of Ceremonies have had more work than they can cope with – waiting on advice from them has been a joke. Well,” she concedes magnanimously, “I shouldn’t say that. They’re doing their best – their hearts probably couldn’t cope with working any harder.”

Xiao Shu can be pretty harsh, and Jingyan supposes he had to have gotten it from somewhere. Even so, he allows himself a small wince on behalf of the poor, maligned men and their old, maligned hearts.

“In any case, it’s an unbelievable mess,” Auntie Jinyang says, shaking her head. “And there’s the Emperor’s new baby as well, so it’s not as if the Empress Dowager doesn’t have enough to worry about already–”

“WHAT?” Jingyan exclaims, eyes wide.

“Oh, no one’s told you yet?” Auntie Jinyang laughs. “It’s a boy, they named him Tingsheng. You really picked a good time to be away, didn’t you?”

Head reeling again after being struck by this new and unexpected blow, Jingyan does not feel like it is really the time to be laughing.

“Now be off with you,” she says, still smiling as she ushers him up onto his feet and towards the door. “Go home, get some rest – you look exhausted. You haven’t even washed up yet!”

Jingyan nods dumbly and allows himself to be herded out, but has absolutely no intention of following the rest of her instructions.

How can he possibly be expected to go home and rest, when he’s still got so many unanswered questions to think about, and she’s just gone and casually added ten more?


Unable to find anyone else, Jingyan ends up speaking to Yan Yujin, who’s alone because his best friend Jingrui hasn’t been wanting to come out to play with him lately.

“Well, that’s understandable,” Jingyan says reasonably, glancing sideways at the morose little figure hunched over next to him. “One of his fathers is both dead and a criminal, after all.”

Yujin heaves an explosive sigh and uncurls, tilting his face up to the sky.

“And the other one’s a criminal, too,” he says, swinging his legs gently over the side of the wooden platform they’re sitting on. “Yeah, I know, I know.”

“What,” Jingyan demands flatly, more statement than question, because this he definitely did not know.

Yujin brings his chin back down and squints at him suspiciously.

“You seriously haven’t heard?” he asks incredulously.

Jingyan just looks at him.

“Oh yeah, that’s right, you’ve been away,” Yujin says, answering his own question and nodding to himself. “Sorry, I forgot. Yeah, Master Zhuo was the one who assassinated the guy who forged the letter from Feng-ge, you know, for Uncle – I mean, Xie Yu.”

He pauses for a moment and then shakes his head.

“That guy, though – I can’t believe I’ve been calling him ‘uncle’ all these years!”

You’re not the only one, Jingyan thinks wryly, although outwardly, he contents himself with humming in response.

“And then they found out that he was doing all this other assassinating, too,” Yujin continues. “Of Marquis Xie’s political opponents and stuff.”

Well, Jingyan thinks. Shit.

Suddenly, going home and sleeping for a week sounds like a wonderful idea.

Even so, Jingyan chooses to press on.

“What else can you tell me?” he asks Yujin.

“What else do you want to know?” Yujin asks archly in return.

“Let’s start with why the court version of the story is so abbreviated,” Jingyan suggests.

“Oh that,” Yujin says knowingly, before launching into an explanation in a more authoritative manner than Jingyan thinks a 12-year-old really has any business having.

“Well, firstly, there’s Auntie Liyang, Jingrui, Qi and Bi. Prince Qi asked the Emperor for mercy on their behalf, to not extent any of Marquis Xie’s punishment to them. The Emperor agreed, because they’re family – so they’re not living at the Xie residence anymore, they’ve moved into a place that Auntie Liyang owns. But obviously, everyone still knows they’re Marquis Xie’s family, so the Emperor ordered the officials overseeing the investigation to suppress whatever information possible, aside from the core details of the case, to make it easier for them.”

Jingyan nods slowly. That makes sense.

And,” Yujin continues, with relish. “Turns out the Palace is full of Hua spies, but Auntie Yueyao hasn’t finished identifying them and doesn’t want to do anything until she can evict all of them at once, so everyone’s probably being pretty careful of what they say, at the moment.”

But that, Jingyan thinks. That makes much more sense.

“Right,” Jingyan says, only now thinking to look around the Yan compound to see if anyone might be listening in. He looks back at Yujin to find himself the recipient of a pitying look.

“So what really happened at Meiling?” he asks, because yes, he deserved that one.

“Well, what I heard,” Yujin says confidingly, shifting closer with an excited gleam in his eye, “is that there was a humongous snowstorm at the end of the Da Yu battle – after we’d won, obviously,” he adds.

“Obviously,” Jingyan murmurs.

“Everyone on both sides was forced to hole up and wait out the worst of it,” Yujin says, either not noticing Jingyan’s tone or choosing to ignore it. “And when Xie Yu arrived at the pass, he obviously couldn’t do anything, because there was no one there, but when they finally did appear, there were more storms and he couldn’t see properly, so the attack failed.”

Jingyan blinks and then frowns into Yujin’s expectant face.

“… I don’t know how likely all of that is,” he ventures after a moment. “I feel like Xie Yu would have just not attacked if he couldn’t see.”

“Yeah, but the army behind him really believed they had to subdue the traitors, didn’t they?” Yujin answers, shrugging. “Anyway, that’s what I heard! And clearly, he did attack, because now he’s dead.”

Jingyan’s not sure if the exceedingly casual tone Yujin’s using to talk about the death of his best friend’s father (traitor or not) should make him laugh or cry.

“BUT!” Yujin cries suddenly, sparing Jingyan from having to decide, “I also heard that Xie Yu himself fired an arrow at Feng-ge, but because of the wind and snow, Feng-ge’s horse stumbled and he fell off into the snow, so it missed him, saving his life! Nature itself safeguarding justice–”

“Yeah, that’s definitely not true,” Jingyan says flatly. “Xie Yu would not have been the one firing arrows – that’s what archers are for.”

“But that’s what I heard!” Yujin insists, and Jingyan has theories about impressionable, wide-eyed young boys and the kinds of stories they get told by other people, but settles with saying,

“Right.”

“But yes, all right,” Yujin says irrepressibly, “it might not be true. The other story I heard, though, is that Xie Yu didn’t realise that Feng-ge and his troops were well-rested because of the first storm, and he needed them to be exhausted, because his plan was to slaughter the entire Chiyan army, not bring them back for trial, and–”

He continues explaining, but Jingyan can’t hear the words over the rushing in his own ears – can hardly force himself to breathe through the thought that Xiao Shu might have died out there at Meiling, betrayed and then himself branded a traitor–

“Are you all right, Jingyan-gege?” Yujin asked, peering up into Jingyan’s face apprehensively. “You look kind of pale, suddenly.”

Firmly telling himself that Xiao Shu is fine and forcing himself to shake off the moment of panic, Jingyan waves off Yujin’s concern and asks him hoarsely to continue.

“So they sent the vanguard through,” Yujin resumes, although he’s still eyeing Jingyan uncertainly, “and the first couple of lines looked okay, but in the row behind that, some of the supplies fell off the cart – or the cart fell off the horse? – because someone’s fingers were too cold to tie them on properly, which shocked some other guy into letting go of his cloak or something, and that blew into someone else’s face – anyway,” he says, gesturing expansively with his arms. “People were tripping over each other, horses were falling over and it was a disaster. So when Xie Yu attacked, he thought he was taking Feng-ge’s full company by surprise, but everyone who got held up was far enough back that they warned by the screams up ahead and sent for help.”

“Well,” Jingyan says after a moment. “That could have happened, I suppose.”

In an, “it sounds so stupid that it must be true” kind of way.

“I also heard,” Yujin says (and where is he hearing all of these things? Jingyan wonders wildly), “that because of the snow, the top of the cliff overlooking the pass was slippery, and then Xie Yu’s horse lost its footing, and they fell off the cliff, and he was crushed and died.”

“His horse slipped off a cliff and he was crushed and died,” Jingyan repeats sceptically.

“Yup,” Yujin agrees, nodding cheerfully.

“… yeah, that definitely did not happen,” Jingyan says bluntly, shaking his head.

“–And then he ALMOST CRUSHED FENG-GE, BUT THEN FENG-GE’S HORSE TRIPPED TOO–”

“NO!” Jingyan shouts.

“Yeah, it’s probably not true,” Yujin agrees easily, settling back down onto the platform. “But maybe there’s an underlying thread of–”

“No,” Jingyan insists, and Yujin responds with an easygoing shrug.

“The other one I heard,” he says, sounding like he’s enjoying himself tremendously, “is that after being warned by Feng-ge, the Chiyan army built piles of snow to hide behind, and made decoy shapes of themselves to fool the enemy, so that when Xie Yu’s men got to the battlefield and it was snowing again, they couldn’t tell what was an actual Chiyan soldier and what was a snowman. And Feng-ge was going to be shot, but he stepped into a snowhole and the arrow missed him.”

Jingyan is speechless.

“Yeah,” Yujin sighs, after shooting him a sideways glance. “Dong-jie said it was stupid, too. And not to talk about any of it in front of Jingrui. And then she hit me.”

He rubs his shoulder and grimaces in remembered pain.

Jingyan snorts and affectionately musses Yujin’s hair.

But that reminds him–

“Hey, Yujin,” he says, “is Dong-jie still suspended from duty?”

“Yeah, I think so,” Yujin answers, frowning thoughtfully. “She said that, after the Xuanjing Bureau was dissolved, its people were going to be transferred into the Ministry of Justice, but I don’t think they’ve done it yet.”

“I might pay her a visit,” Jingyan muses. “Thanks, Yujin.”

“You’re going, now?” Yujin asks plaintively, grasping at a corner of Jingyan’s sleeve, suddenly looking forlorn.

“Yeah,” Jingyan says regretfully, although he’s reluctant to break Yujin’s hold on him. “I also need to go home and have a wash. I know about Jingrui, but is there no one else for you to play with? Aren’t Nihuang and Qing-er around?”

“Nihuang’s helping Auntie Yueyao with the Hua stuff too, but they said I was too young,” Yujin says, lips pursing into a moue of discontent.

“And Qing-er?” Jingyan prompts gently.

“I guess I could,” Yujin muses. “But Father’s not here, and I’m not allowed to leave the house alone.”

“Tell you what,” Jingyan says indulgently, “you go run inside and tell someone where you’re going, and then I’ll drop you off at the Mu residence on my way to see Dong-jie.”


Happily for once, when Jingyan arrives at Nie Feng and Xia Dong’s house, he manages to catch them both at home, and at leisure to entertain.

“Prince Jing, Your Highness!” Feng-ge says cheerfully, both he and Dong-jie standing to greet Jingyan as he’s shown into the sitting room. “To what do we owe the pleasure?”

“You’re not helping with the Hua work?” Jingyan asks, somewhat surprised to see him.

“Oh, I am,” Feng-ge assures him, gesturing at Jingyan to take a seat before lowering himself back down onto his own cushion. “Met up with Uncle Thirteen this morning, but there’s nothing else I can do today, so here I am, spending time with my wife.”

“To be honest, I’m getting kind of sick of his face,” Dong-jie says wryly, pouring Jingyan a cup of tea and pushing it across the low table. “So it’s good that you’re here.”

“Hey!” Feng-ge exclaims, clutching his chest in feigned injury.

Dong-jie ignores him and takes in Jingyan’s appearance more carefully, her gaze sharpening as it runs over his light armour and dust-covered robes.

“You arrived today?” she asks shrewdly. “And you’ve spent every moment since trying to squeeze the happenings of the last few months out of people, I expect. That must be a lot to digest at once.”

“Yes,” Jingyan answers honestly, nodding. “But I only really managed to get a detailed account from Yujin; everyone else was busy, and the Palace–”

Dong-jie laughs.

“He’s quite thorough, isn’t he?” she comments amusedly. “Manages to scrape together a lot more information than you’d expect of a 12 year-old, although he’s not so good with separating fact from fiction, yet. Give him a few years, though, and I think he’ll be quite the authority.”

“He told me some story about you at Meiling, Feng-ge,” Jingyan says, turning to face the commander. “Something about tripping in the snow, dodging an arrow and saving your own life?”

“HONESTLY,” Feng-ge cries explosively, over the top of Dong-jie’s loud cackling. “I fell on the way home, it wasn’t anywhere near the battlefield! There was a loose rock, completely hidden by the snow, and my horse and I were tired!”

He raises his hands to the heavens in exasperated anguish.

“You fall once, and you never hear the end of it!”

“I heard from Wei Zheng that it was a pretty spectacular fall, though – a real shock to the soldiers around him,” Dong-jie says to Jingyan, eyes dancing with mirth. “He slipped from his horse and then just SHOOM, disappeared completely into the snow.”

She glances at her husband and sighs wistfully.

“Wish I could’ve seen it, it sounds wonderful.”

“It was not wonderful!” Feng-ge bleats shrilly. “You’re all horrible people!”

After more teasing from Dong-jie and plaintive protests from Feng-ge, Jingyan asks, “So what is this Hua investigation actually about? Besides the spies in the Palace, now that Xia Jiang’s been arrested, is there really anything else to look into?”

“Oh, Yujin didn’t tell you?” Dong-jie asks, looking surprised. “During the confusion caused by the explosion at the Palace, Princess Xuanji broke Master – Xia–”

She stutters to a stop, mouth a tight, hard line, her hand clenching into a fist on the tabletop. Beside her, Feng-ge leans over to give her a companionable nudge, and Jingyan notices for the first time that she’s sitting much closer to Feng-ge than she usually would.

“–Xia Jiang out of prison,” she says, enunciating the syllables of his name with determined care. “We know she has people everywhere, and she undoubtedly has outstanding plans. Now that she’s been exposed and has so much less to lose, we need to find out what she’s plotting, and quickly.”


After thanking Dong-jie and Feng-ge for their time, Jingyan finally heads home to bathe and rest. Exhausted both emotionally and physically, he asks to be woken up for dinner before settling down for a much-needed nap.

He’s pulled out of sleep, an indeterminate period of time later, by the feeling of something warm pressing down on both his waist and chest. Groggily, he opens his eyes to find Xiao Shu grinning down at him from his position astride Jingyan’s waist, his hands braced against Jingyan’s chest for balance.

“So you’re finally back!” Xiao Shu remarks cheerfully. “You really need to work on your defensive instincts, you know. I’ve been sitting up here for ages and you’ve slept right through it. Jingyan, what kind of soldier are you?”

A warm feeling that has nothing to do with the hot fingers splayed against the thin material of his sleeping robe spreads through Jingyan’s chest at the sight of Xiao Shu smirking down at him, close and healthy and alive.

Instead of giving voice to any of this, Jingyan rasps out, through a throat rough from sleep, “One who sped home from Donghai while barely sleeping, after receiving news that his father is dead and his brother the new Emperor? And then ran around for half the day trying to find someone to explain just exactly what had taken place while he was gone?”

“Ah,” Xiao Shu says, flashing him a small, sympathetic grimace. “That’s a good excuse. Are you feeling all right now?”

He leans forward and peers into Jingyan’s face, forehead creasing into a concerned frown. He doesn’t, however, move from his position atop Jingyan’s torso. Jingyan doesn’t do anything about it either – the feel of his friend, solid against him, is a comforting weight after all the shocks of the day.

“Yes,” he sighs in response, nodding as best he can with his head still flopped back against the pillow. “I’d mostly worked through the grief on the way back from Donghai, anyway. Instead of sleeping.”

He lies there, just enjoying the quiet companionship of the moment, before he remembers the other reason he wanted to see Xiao Shu.

“Right, get off me,” he says, and starts to shove at his friend so that he can push himself up. “I have something for you.”

Xiao Shu goes easily enough, perching on the edge of the bed while Jingyan swings his legs off it and moves across the room, stretching his shoulders and scratching his head absently.

He shuffles over to the cabinet, picks up the little box he’d placed on it earlier and turns, holding it out to Xiao Shu with one hand.

“Here.”

“What is it?” Xiao Shu asks curiously, taking it from Jingyan with a questioning tilt of his head.

“I hope you appreciate how difficult it was for me to find one that big,” Jingyan says, as Xiao Shu lifts the lid and cries, “Ah! My pearl!”

“I had to look all over Donghai for it – I used up almost every spare moment I had.”

He’d also had to endure a lot of sly looks and queries after “the lucky lady” from his subordinates, who’d responded to all his protests about it being for a friend with a lot of airy hand-waving and comments to each other in overly-earnest tones.

(“Yes, didn’t you know, Lieutenant, that His Highness wants one for a friend.”

“Well, it must be a very, very good friend, then, Captain!”

“Naturally. No one would go to all this trouble just for any common friend.”)

But he’s not going to mention that.

Xiao Shu looks up from the box with a brilliant grin, eyes creasing at the corners in sheer delight.

“You’re the best,” he says roundly, looking back down at the pearl and laughing. “This humble young marshal is very fortunate to have a friend as good as you.”

He laughs again, pure and joyful, and Jingyan’s traitorous heart skips a beat.

Occupied with crowing over his new treasure, it takes Xiao Shu a moment to notice Jingyan’s sudden silence, but when he does, he tucks the box into his robe, cocks an eyebrow and asks what the matter is.

“Nothing,” Jingyan says quickly, shaking his head and hoping that Xiao Shu doesn’t notice the heat rising in his cheeks.

If Xiao Shu does, though, he doesn’t comment on it.

“Hm,” he says instead, stepping towards Jingyan.

“You know,” he says, tucking his arms behind his back and pointedly leaning into Jingyan’s space, chin tilted upwards and a familiar challenging light in his eyes.

Jingyan swallows reflexively.

“There’s an interesting rumour going around the barracks,” Xiao Shu continues conversationally. “Something about you having a sweetheart, whom you spent all your time trying to find a token for? All your subordinates know about it – so, why haven’t I, your best friend, heard anything about this?”

Jingyan finds himself pinned by Xiao Shu’s questioning gaze, completely at a loss for what to say.

Then Xiao Shu’s mouth twitches.

“You bastard,” Jingyan exclaims, shoving Xiao Shu’s shoulder as his friend dissolves into laughter, although he’s unable to keep from smiling himself. “You knew that all those rumours started because of you and your stupid pearl!”

“Shall I give it back, so you can win her over, Jingyan?” Xiao Shu asks teasingly, dancing out of reach of Jingyan’s answering swipe. “You can owe me forever, and then name your firstborn son after me as thanks!”

Jingyan surges forward and tackles Xiao Shu to the floor, pinching at Xiao Shu’s ticklish belly and sides as punishment, and making his friend shout with laughter. Hooking one of his legs around one of Jingyan’s while distracting him with a few well-placed nips of his own, Xiao Shu gains enough leverage to flip them over so that he’s perched on Jingyan’s waist and grinning down at him once more, though this time he’s pinned both of Jingyan’s wrists back above his head.

“Gotcha,” he says, sounding supremely self-satisfied.

Looking up into Xiao Shu’s lightly flushed face, Jingyan feels his heart turn a double-flop in his chest. A heavy feeling of realisation creeps up his spine.

Motherfucker, he thinks numbly.

He's completely and utterly fucked.

Chapter Text

The victorious strategist only seeks battle after the victory has been won, whereas he who is destined to defeat first fights and afterwards looks for victory.

 

After Jingyan has the opportunity to visit his father’s altar and perform his share of filial mourning (which promptly gives rise to a relapse into grief, during which he allows Xiao Shu to first push Jingyan’s face into his own shoulder to let him cry, and then wipe it with his sleeve afterwards, because, “We don’t want anyone else seeing you like this, do we?”), he spends his remaining rest days at home, properly digesting all the news he’s received.

Only when he’s managed that does he let himself think about his terrifying new feelings for his best friend.

So after the initial panic has worn off, and once he’s completed the morning’s martial arts training, Jingyan sits down in his study to have a good, long think. He stares down at his writing desk, back kept straight out of habit (“Discipline!” he can hear Uncle Lin barking, causing Xiao Shu to jerk upright before slouching right back down again as soon as his father’s back is turned), and takes stock of his options.

It might also, he considers, taking out a brush and some paper after a moment’s pause, be a good idea to take notes.

Jingyan’s first instinct is to simply walk right up to Xiao Shu and confess. He’s always preferred to approach situations honestly and directly – his eldest brother has always tried to live by that principle where possible, and Jingyan fully intends to do the same.

But, he thinks, reconsidering the idea almost as soon as it’s formed, what exactly would he be trying to achieve with that? Does he think Xiao Shu is going to then fall straight into Jingyan’s arms, declare his own undying love in return and promise to be Jingyan’s forever?

What if Xiao Shu doesn’t feel the same way? What if Xiao Shu doesn’t feel the same way, and Jingyan’s confession strains the relationship between them – not because Xiao Shu will think any less of him (because Xiao Shu would never), but because he’d feel apologetic, start being careful and considerate, treat Jingyan gently and a little distantly, and start editing himself away–

Jingyan would rather hide his feelings forever and die alone.

Evidently, he needs to find out how Xiao Shu feels, without Xiao Shu finding out about his feelings first.

Right.

All Jingyan needs is a plan.

And to also stop being so shit at plans.

What Jingyan needs is a plan, and someone to help him make that plan.

The first person he usually turns to for help in any given situation is Xiao Shu, but given that that’s obviously not an option – Nihuang? She’s fairly good at strategic thinking.

However, she also has particularly obvious feelings for Xiao Shu herself, not to mention their engagement (which is a problem Jingyan delicately lays aside for examination at a later date).

No, Jingyan thinks. Not Nihuang, then.

His subordinates are out of the question – their relationship (and predilection for gossip, more importantly) would make the request inappropriate.

Meng-dage is good at military planning, but not so much any other sort (or more specifically, any other sort requiring subtlety), while Uncle Lin and Auntie Jinyang are also no good for obvious reasons. Dong-jie and Feng-ge would probably just laugh at him, and he can’t consult Great Grandmother or their tutor either, Xiao Shu having always been a great favourite of both.

(And, in Great Grandmother’s case, there’s the not inconsiderable problem of the aforementioned engagement. But he can worry about that later.)

He stares down at the page before him, completely at a loss.

He’s saved from his own lack of productivity by a royal summons, which instructs him to see the Emperor after first visiting his mother. Who, according to the messenger, has since been moved into the palace directly neighbouring the Empress Dowager’s own.

“What point would there be in being Empress Dowager, if I couldn’t even abuse my power to live near my sister?” the woman herself says airily, after dropping in unexpectedly just as Jingyan’s mother is laying out the impressive array of snacks she always has waiting for him when he visits.

If he was going to ask his mother for general advice and reassurance before, he’s certainly not going to do it now. Not with the way Auntie Yueyao is with gossip, Jingyan thinks to himself, chewing on his third hazelnut pastry and reaching for his fourth. And uncanny ability to sniff it out based only on the slightest hint of embarrassment.

Sometimes not even that, he reconsiders, as Auntie Yueyao’s gaze flickers from the pastry dish to Jingyan’s mouth and her eyes narrow. Sometimes it’s just got to be pure, primal instinct.

He pulls back the hand currently reaching for his fifth pastry and places it into his lap, as casually as possible.

It must be something to do with being a Lin, he muses, because Xiao Shu is, in fact, exactly the same. Uncle Lin isn’t so obvious about his interests, but Jingyan has his suspicions. The man knows too much about the personal lives of the court ministers to have simply happened upon the knowledge incidentally.

Studiously avoiding Auntie Yueyao’s gaze, Jingyan limits himself to short, respectful answers as she starts on a series of subtly probing questions. He may not be the greatest at people, but Jingyan knows from experience that in situations like this, the only way to escape is to refuse to engage.

Thankfully, his mother takes pity on him and gently directs the flow of conversation away by asking if Xiao Shu has managed to worm his way back into his mother’s good graces again.

And so, instead of emotional support, Jingyan is treated to the story of Auntie Jinyang finally discovering who, exactly, had eaten all of the mandarins in the Lin residence and left her exactly one, which led to her chasing Xiao Shu all over the Empress Dowager’s garden before making him kneel by the Lin kitchen doorway throughout dinner preparation, forbidden from eating until everyone else had finished, to teach him a lesson on greed.

(It is, all in all, an acceptable substitute.)

When he finds that Xiao Shu has not yet arrived at the royal apartments a short while later, Jingyan briefly considers asking his brother for help.

He even gets as far as saying, “Hey, Brother–”

But when the Emperor, who is spending his hard-earned free time trying to keep his son from shoving a tiny first into his mouth, turns with an answering, “Yes?”, Jingyan abruptly thinks better of his plan and settles for a quiet, “never mind”.

Which leaves Jingyan on his own.

That’s all right; he’s studied military strategy, after all. He knows about siege tactics – surely at least some of the principles are the same.

It’s in that moment that Xiao Shu blows in through the door, scoops Tingsheng right out of the Emperor’s arms and whirls around the room with him, making the crown prince squeal in joy.

Jingyan stands with his brother and watches, pretending to be smiling at the baby and not Xiao Shu, until the Empress comes in, confiscates her son and swoops out, taking all the servants with her and leaving the three men to the work they were supposed to have been getting on with for the past half-hour.

“First order of business,” the Emperor says, when they’re all seated. “Jingyan, I’m going to have you promoted – we’re just waiting for the Ministry of Ceremonies to check the edict, and then you’ll be able to come into the Palace to see your mother whenever you like. It’s ridiculous that this has been left so long,” he adds, with a small huff of irritation. “Father should have formally legitimised you long ago.”

Completely blindsided by this announcement, all Jingyan can do is gape at his brother, unable to find the words to convey his gratitude. The Emperor looks both angry and sad for a moment, and then the look of resolve on his face strengthens.

“Don’t worry,” he tells Jingyan seriously, giving him a reassuring clasp on the arm. “Big Brother is going to take care of this. I’ll adopt you myself, if I have to.”

“Can you adopt me too, Big Brother?” Xiao Shu asks cheekily, setting his elbows on the table and leaning forward, chin resting on his hands.

“What,” the Emperor says, raising an eyebrow, “is the jade pendant I gave you for access to the Eastern Palace not enough? Do you think I just give those out to anyone?”

“Well, it’s no good anymore, is it?” Xiao Shu answers, shrugging. “Now that you’re living here.”

The Emperor sighs.

“No, it isn’t, is it?” he agrees. “I must remember to check that the Eastern Palace been properly closed up – Tingsheng certainly won’t be using it any time soon. Well, there’s another thing to add to the list,” he sighs again, shaking his head. “Honestly, moving everyone around like this has been the most meaningless waste of time and resources I’ve ever seen.”

He glares grimly out towards an unknown point for a moment.

“I wonder if I can ban it?” he mutters.

“The Ministry of Ceremonies would stage a revolt,” Xiao Shu says blandly. “But not, like, a nice cheap military coup, or anything. It’d be scholarly debate after scholarly debate on tradition, and the moral good of respecting the ways of our ancestors, and then, even if you succeeded, Auntie Yueyao would be angry at you for making her do all this work for nothing.”

The Emperor sighs heavily, but Jingyan notes that he doesn’t argue.

“Fine!” he declares instead, giving the table a businesslike smack with one palm. “Give me back the useless pendant, I’ll grant you another. Hopefully you’ll get more than a year’s use out of this one. Field Marshal Lin would be angry if I tried to adopt you away from him, anyway.”

“No need to sound so beleaguered about it, Your Majesty,” Xiao Shu snorts. “Less than a year or not, you must admit that the last one paid for itself, in the end.”

The Emperor sighs and glances at Jingyan, who’s feeling more than a little lost, and is well on his way to becoming heartily sick of the feeling.

“I suppose this is a good a time as any to tell you the rest of the story, Jingyan,” his brother murmurs, glancing at Xiao Shu and receiving a noncommittal shrug in response. “You’re going to need to know before we get to the rest of today’s business, anyway. Right. As you already know, the failure of Xie Yu and Xia Jiang’s plot revealed the existence of a little Hua problem we hadn’t previously been aware of. At the end of last year, Xiao Shu was on an errand for Uncle Thirteen, who was put in charge of our counter-Hua information network–”

“And turned out to be some sort of spy management master,” Xiao Shu interjects, giving a small awe-filled headshake. “Truly, he was wasted before this.”

“Be that as it may,” the Emperor gracefully concedes. “One of the things he had his people do was to monitor the illegal gunpowder shipments, as well as their ultimate destinations in the city–”

“Illegal gunpowder shipments?” Jingyan exclaims incredulously.

“Yes,” the Emperor affirms, in a manner that Jingyan feels is far too casual to be used in connection with illegal gunpowder shipments. “It’s an extremely lucrative business during the New Year celebrations – there are a few small groups who set up black market fireworks every year to avoid the tax. Everyone knows about them, but it’s fairly low down on the priority list for investigation, so as long as their operations stay small, they mostly get away with it.”

“Anyway,” Xiao Shu says, smirking at Jingyan’s indignant expression, “Uncle Thirteen’s men noticed an extra shipment that they didn’t manage to trace. So I was running around the city like a madman, trying to work it out, and one evening, when I was on my way out of the Palace–”

“–Bothering me about it–” the Emperor interjects wryly.

“–I saw someone sneaking away from the New Year’s preparations in the main courtyard,” Xiao Shu continues, ignoring him. “I didn’t really know what to think, but on the day of the ceremony, I was on my way to the Palace again, not,” he says, looking pointedly at the Emperor who holds up his hands in a conciliatory gesture, “bothering His Majesty this time, and when I passed by Prince Yu’s residence, I noticed his advisor Qin Banruo trying to use some really odd excuses to prevent him from leaving.”

He glances down at himself for a moment, looking suddenly irritated.

“I miscalculated,” he confesses to Jingyan, with a self-disgusted headshake. “I thought that, because Prince Yu used to always stand right next to him at the ceremony, Prince Qi was the main target of the plot. So I ran to the Eastern Palace and stopped him and his retinue just as they were leaving.”

“We were already running late,” the Emperor explains to Jingyan, “because your sister-in-law was feeling unwell, due to the pregnancy. My mother was also with us, having come to visit earlier–”

“She was not happy with me,” Xiao Shu says ruefully. “You know how much Auntie Yueyao hates being late. But I took it like a man–”

“He kicked up an unbelievable fuss,” the Emperor says, casting a sideways glance at Xiao Shu and shaking his head. “Even now, I’m still not entirely sure what he was raving about – eunuchs, maids and even guards were running over from the neighbouring palaces just to see what the commotion was about. You didn’t have to be that loud, you know,” he tells Xiao Shu mildly.

“I didn’t have any proof, so I couldn’t throw accusations around, and I wouldn’t have been able to stop you, otherwise,” Xiao Shu says dryly.

“Even so, I feel like the begging and wailing was a little unnecessary,” the Emperor returns, voice equally dry. “Although the promises to wash my horse, clean my riding equipment and perform maintenance on all of my weapons for a month if you were wrong and I was punished for being late were very touching.”

“That is the depth of this humble subject’s devotion to you, Your Majesty,” Xiao Shu agrees serenely, before turning back to Jingyan and saying confidingly, “As it was, I was running out of options. I was seriously considering just starting a fight, but then–”

“We heard the explosion,” the Emperor finishes quietly, the smile of the previous moment fading abruptly into a tired, sombre expression. “We all went running to the courtyard, and found the Emperor, the Empress and Consort Yue all dead, together with the eunuchs and maids standing closest to them. Prince Xian was hit by some of the debris, although his injuries weren’t serious, and everyone else was a little charred and bruised, but mostly fine.”

“And then we received the news that, in the confusion that followed, Princess Xuanji had broken Xia Jiang out of prison and they’d both escaped into the city,” Xiao Shu says.

“And Banruo?” Jingyan asks, frowning. “Did you catch her?”

“Couldn’t pin enough on her to make the arrest,” Xiao Shu answers regretfully, shaking his head. “We thought about taking her in for questioning, but we didn’t think she’d give anything up, and she’ll be more useful if she doesn’t know that we know about her involvement.”

Jingyan exhales heavily and scrunches his eyes up in frustration.

He feels a warm clap on his shoulder and looks across to find his elder brother’s sympathetic smile.

“What I don’t understand, though,” Xiao Shu is saying, “is why Prince Yu? Why not Prince Xian? Surely he’d be the obvious choice – he has no opinions and no strength of will, so he’d be the easiest to manipulate by far. Not to mention that he’s also a complete idiot–”

“Xiao Shu!” the Emperor says reprovingly, before turning to beckon to a patiently waiting Gaozhan-gonggong, who enters, sets a tea service down on the table between them and begins to make tea.

“What? It’s true!” Xiao Shu says unapologetically. “You’d have his mother to contend with – she was certainly not an idiot, but she was also a big favourite with the old Emperor, so that would’ve cancelled out. What reason would they have to back Prince Yu?”

At that moment, Gao-gonggong, in the midst of setting a cup down in front of Xiao Shu, uncharacteristically fumbles it and sends tea spilling across the table.

“Are you all right, Gao-gonggong?” Xiao Shu asks, immediately reaching for the old eunuch’s sleeve after recovering from his instinctive jump backwards.

“My deepest apologies!” Gao-gonggong exclaims, sounding absolutely mortified and already hastily beginning to mop up spilled tea with a piece of cloth he produces from the folds of his sleeve. “I don’t know what came over me! Oh, Your Majesty, please forgive me–”

“It’s quite all right, Gaozhan,” the Emperor says, gently taking the cloth out of his hands and placing it down on the table. He takes Gao-gonggong by the hand and turns the old eunuch to face him. “But this isn’t like you. Are you feeling unwell?”

Gao-gonggong stares down at their joined hands quietly for a moment, before seeming to come to a decision, and then raises his face to meet the Emperor’s worried gaze.

“Your Majesty,” he says quietly, “I promised the late Emperor to never speak of this, but I think it’s something that you need to know.”

Haltingly at first, but with gradually increasing confidence, Gao-gonggong tells a story that is so entirely unexpected that it leaves Jingyan unsure about which part he should be the most shocked about. Prince Yu the son of his father and the Hua Princess Linglong? His father coming to the Daliang throne through Hua support? His father then betraying the Hua by sending the Chiyan army to destroy them?

Even Xiao Shu seems to be at a loss, rubbing absently at the edge of his sleeve and staring first at Gao-gonggong, then down at his teacup, as if its contents might hold the answer to not being so completely shocked.

“I don’t think the late Emperor ever told Field Marshal Lin or Marquis Yan about this,” Gao-gonggong is saying, when Jingyan finally recovers sufficiently to make sense of his words again. “I doubt they know much, if anything at all, about his dealings with the Hua. And Prince Yu, of course, has no idea. His Majesty intended for the secret to die with us, but who knew the Hua would–”

He shakes his head, before bowing deeply and murmuring about other duties. Consumed in thought, the Emperor nods absently and, bowing once more, Gao-gonggong takes his leave, leaving thick silence behind him.

Jingyan hardly knows what to think, let alone what to say. His brother doesn’t say a word either, instead frowning at the floor, still deep in thought.

“Well,” Xiao Shu speaks up suddenly. “Now we know how to get to Princess Xuanji, at least – straight through Prince Yu.”

The statement cuts through the fog of shock in the room with the ease of a sword slicing through paper.

“Xiao Shu!” Jingyan exclaims, scandalised.

“You’re a cold man, Xiao Shu,” the Emperor says, his tone half-horrified and half-admiring.

“You say that,” Xiao Shu says, “but you also know that, given the opportunity, he’d undercut you so fast–”

“Be that as it may,” the Emperor allows. He sighs and then shrugs. “But yes, you’re right, we’d be idiots not to use this. I don’t think I need to tell the two of you to keep it to yourselves – well, actually, Xiao Shu, you should probably tell your father and Marquis Yan, too. But be extremely careful – the last thing we want is for Prince Yu to find out about his heritage. It’s only going to upset him, and Father’s not here to provide any sort of explanation.”

A sudden thought seems to occur to him, and he grimaces.

“That’s not even mentioning the fact that we’re thinking of using him as a pawn – if there’s a sure-fire way to incite that revolt you were joking about, Xiao Shu, it would be this.”

Xiao Shu and Jingyan nod obediently, and the Emperor looks at them both for a moment, before nodding himself, satisfied.

“Now, before anyone else comes in and interrupts us with another shocking secret,” he says, pausing to pour each of them another fortifying cup of tea. “Jingyan, I need to talk to you about what we’re doing about the Hua. The Ministry of Justice is, of course, dutifully working away at finding Xia Jiang, Princess Xuanji and her network of people – who I believe are calling themselves the ‘Red Sleeve Recruits’ – using all the official channels.”

Jingyan nods and raises his cup to his mouth to take a sip – that’s only to be expected.

“Of course, Princess Xuanji and Xia Jiang are both very familiar with those, having lived in the Palace for so long,” his brother continues. “So we don’t actually expect the ministers to find anything. And so, in the meantime, I’ve tasked various people – most of whom you know – to carry out investigative work in secret. As for you, I think the best thing would probably be to have you help Xiao Shu with his work – what do you think, Xiao Shu?”

“It’d be the easiest to manage,” Xiao Shu agrees, cradling his own teacup between both hands and inhaling, but not drinking. “In terms of keeping everything a secret. Everyone already knows that Jingyan and I spend a lot of time together, and also that we spend a lot of time with you, Your Majesty. No one will think twice about us continuing to visit you, no matter how regularly, and Jingyan’ll be one more pair of legs to run information from my father, Uncle Yan and Uncle Thirteen to you.”

“Good, good,” the Emperor says, putting his own empty teacup down and picking up the teapot to refill it. “Jingyan, Xiao Shu can explain it all to you in more detail later. Officially, however, I’m going to start giving you more government work. I know Father never set you anything prestigious, and used to send you off to do work you never received recognition for–”

He purses his lips, opens his mouth to add something, and then shakes his head, as if thinking better of it.

“There’s nothing we can do about that now, but I need people I trust in the court. I, of course, already know how capable you are, and that any promotion and responsibility I give you is well-deserved, but other people need to be shown that, too. So, since you have some military experience already, I’ll start you off with the reorganisation of the armies, which we’ve needed to do since the force Xie Yu took out to Meiling was so comprehensively defeated. If you can see any room for further reform, you may as well implement that too, while you’re at it.”

Jingyan straightens his back and nods seriously. He’s determined to live up to the trust his brother has in him – if the Emperor is willing to entrust him with this task, then he’s absolutely going to live up to, if not exceed, expectations. He absolutely must prove himself to be the kind of person his brother can rely on, who can support the Emperor in building the court and the country he’s dreamed of for so long.

His brother rewards him with a warm smile.

“I’ll send the edict to your residence tomorrow morning,” he says. “I have faith in you, Jingyan. I know you’ll do well.”


Already running over plans in his head and making a list of all the things he knows need to be done as he and Xiao Shu leave the Emperor’s apartments, it’s only when they’re walking out through the Palace gate that Jingyan remembers his other set of plans.

“You should come back home with me,” he blurts out abruptly, almost startling Xiao Shu into tripping over the final step. Jingyan grabs him by the arm to steady him, and adds, “so we can discuss things further.”

“All right,” Xiao Shu agrees slowly, giving Jingyan an odd look. “I’ve got nowhere else to be today. Let’s go, then.”

Jingyan nods, satisfied, and they set off, Jingyan leading the way to his home. Xiao Shu starts a conversation about Meng-dage’s adventures in trying to decide how to shape the beard he’s decided to grow and asks Jingyan to offer an opinion, based on any prevailing beard fashions he may or may not have seen in Donghai.

Jingyan responds wryly that if Xiao Shu had wanted him to search for those as well, he should have told him earlier, so that Jingyan would have known to divide his energy between both pearls and beards, instead of just focusing on the former. Xiao Shu laughs, and it’s almost like normal, apart from the considering head-tilts and thoughtful looks that Jingyan keeps finding himself the target of.

(Except for the moment when Xiao Shu jokes that, if Jingyan had really searched for both pearls and beards, the rumours circulating through his subordinates would have been of an entirely different flavour, and certainly wouldn’t have featured any lucky lady.

Jingyan only narrowly avoids choking on his own spit.)

When they finally make it to Jingyan’s residence and into his study, Jingyan collapses onto a cushion and Xiao Shu drops down right behind him, sprawling heavily against his back.

As one, they exhale.

“Honestly,” Xiao Shu says, after a moment. “Who knew there could be so many layers of betrayal piled up over a single situation? It’s good that you invited me over – I definitely need to talk about this.”

“You’d better get it all out of your system here, then,” Jingyan warns. “You heard what my brother said, we can’t let Prince Yu find out–”

“I know, I know,” Xiao Shu answers, dismissively. “At least I’ll get to talk about it again when I talk to Father and Marquis Yan. It’s all so big – the old Emperor, with Princess Linglong. And then he betrayed her and the Hua people don’t even have a country left – no wonder Princess Xuanji’s angry.

“Although,” he says, leaning his head back to rest it against Jingyan’s shoulder, “that doesn’t explain why Xia Jiang went and got himself involved. I heard it was because he fell in love with Princess Xuanji, but–”

“Oh, that’s why his wife left him?” Jingyan exclaims, jerking forward and then straightening again when Xiao Shu makes a small noise of complaint. “I thought it was just because she’d found out about his plotting against the throne.”

“So you’ve heard about it, too?” Xiao Shu asks, raising his head off Jingyan’s shoulder and half-turning with a small huff of laughter. “Yeah, people keep talking about how beautiful she is. She’d better be a bloody goddess, though,” he grumbles, “if that’s the sole reason Xia Jiang decided to betray his Emperor and his country. Ah, I’m going to have a lot more work to do now.”

He lets his head flop back down and heaves a sigh.

“Work?” Jingyan asks curiously.

“Oh, right!” Xiao Shu says, “I haven’t explained it yet. I’ve been given the task of hunting out Xia Jiang. Father, Marquis Yan and Uncle Thirteen are looking for Princess Xuanji – well, Uncle Thirteen is sort of helping everyone, really – we’re supposed to divide and conquer them, and they all decided that Xia Jiang would be the easier one to find, so they gave him to me.”

Jingyan doesn’t have to be able to see to know exactly the kind of face Xiao Shu is pulling right now.

“The city gates were immediately sealed by the guards who heard the explosion,” Xiao Shu continues, “and the Emperor ordered that security measures be tightened to the highest level as soon as he got word that Xia Jiang had escaped, so they’re definitely still in the Capital. So we’re looking for them, and Uncle Thirteen has other people out working to identify the Red Sleeve Recruits. The Empress Dowager is obviously one of them, and she has your mother helping her, too.”

“My mother?” Jingyan exclaims.

“Yeah?” Xiao Shu says, in a tone that implies that he doesn’t know what Jingyan is so shocked about. “She’s really good at reading people.”

Which she is, Jingyan admits. But it’s just – she’s his mother.

“And we also think they’ve probably got at least one Hua woman in the residence of everyone with enough of a connection to the royal family,” Xiao Shu explains, matter-of-factly. “Auntie Jing, being the mother of a prince, is definitely harbouring one. Mother identified the one in our residence basically the week after the explosion – I don’t remember what excuse she used to dismiss her, only that she was really angry she couldn’t give out a harsher punishment, because we couldn’t let Princess Xuanji know that we’d found her spy.”

Jingyan thinks for a moment, and then tentatively ventures, “Do you think I…?”

They look out the doorway to the male soldier standing guard down the hall, and the three other male soldiers at the other end, who are speaking to a very male group of Jingyan’s subordinates and raising their voices to be heard over the sounds of the male company training in the courtyard.

“… I’m going to take a guess and say probably not,” Xiao Shu says, as the guards are relieved from their shifts by yet another set of men. “But it’s possible that more than one of your people has married a Hua woman, so I’d be fairly careful with what you say, anyway.”

Jingyan nods and they lapse into thoughtful silence.

“So,” Xiao Shu says at length, finally levering himself off of Jingyan’s back and holding himself up of his own accord, and shuffling around to face his friend.

Jingyan glances up with a questioning look.

“This sweetheart you’ve got that you’re absolutely not in love with,” he says, almost scaring Jingyan out of three years of life in the moment before he realises that no, Xiao Shu is not talking about himself, he’s talking about rumours that are still spreading thanks to his subordinates. “Tell me more about it.”

“We’ve been over this,” Jingyan says, keeping his voice deliberately even while he tries to calm the pounding of his poor, strained heart. “There is no sweetheart.”

“I don’t know about that,” Xiao Shu says, eyes glinting and lips pulling up into a mischievous grin. “I spoke to your subordinates again, and they’re definitely sure that one exists.”

His shitty subordinates. Who will definitely be running extra laps tomorrow morning.

“Can we stop this, already?” he asks, letting out a frustrated noise and shoving at Xiao Shu’s shoulder with his own. “You know that’s because of you and your stupid pearl.”

Xiao Shu laughs.

“I’ll give you that one,” he concedes, “but I don’t know. Are you sure there’s nothing else? You’ve been a bit distracted lately. And you’ve been spending more time than usual alone.”

“I’ve had a lot to think about, you know that,” Jingyan says reasonably and only a little defensively.

Xiao Shu gives a non-committal hum in response.

“All right,” he says, slanting a glance at Jingyan out of the corner of one eye. “So what’s … THIS?”

He lunges sideways and snatches a piece of paper from where it’s wedged under a stack of books their tutor had assigned as reading before Jingyan left for Donghai.

Which is exactly where Jingyan had put it earlier this morning, after being summoned to the Palace.

“AH!” Jingyan yelps, diving after Xiao Shu, but his friend springs nimbly away and out of reach, like the shittiest of mountain goats.

“Test the waters by–” he reads aloud, between dodging Jingyan’s attempts at retrieval. “By – what? Find out–”

He steps backwards, eyes still scanning down the page, effortlessly ducking and weaving to evade Jingyan’s increasingly desperate attacks.

“Only seek – wait – Xiao Jingyan, are you trying to apply military tactics to win over someone you like?!” Xiao Shu screeches delightedly.

Xiao Shu,” Jingyan yells, snatching wildly at the piece of paper Xiao Shu is still reading from, and being held back out of reach by a hand planted firmly against his face. “Give it back!”

As slippery as an eel, Xiao Shu wriggles out of Jingyan’s hold and skips backwards, still reading.

“Find someone to advise – hahaha, you’ve got that part right, at least –”

“XIAO SHU!” Jingyan bellows, and finally succeeds in tackling Xiao Shu to the ground. He snatches the page out of his friend’s hand, swiftly crumpling it up and throwing it behind a cabinet.

Xiao Shu is lying on the floor and looking up at him, still pink-cheeked from laughter. Arms braced on either side of Xiao Shu’s head, Jingyan is breathing heavily, red-faced and humiliated.

“Aw, don’t be like that,” Xiao Shu says, reaching up to pat Jingyan on the cheek. “I’m sorry I laughed so much, Jingyan. I’ll help you, don’t worry. To be honest, I’m a little insulted that you didn’t come straight to me at the outset – aren’t we best friends?”

Jingyan panics and draws a complete mental blank.

“No, it’s fine,” he says, after a desperate moment of internal scrabbling. “You’re really busy, so–”

“Jingyan,” Xiao Shu says sternly, reaching up to cup Jingyan’s cheeks so he can direct his face firmly towards himself. “I am your best friend. I am the person who is the most invested in your happiness. I will always have plenty of time for you. And anyway,” he says, continuing in a lighter tone, “I can’t, in good faith, stand by and watch you try to water buffalo your way through this one. Who knows what you’ll do – lay a siege or something?”

He snorts, shaking his head. Jingyan prudently chooses to say nothing.

“No,” Xiao Shu tells him, “Lin-shifu will help you.”

“No, but– ” Jingyan tries again, but Xiao Shu doesn’t even let him finish.

“Jingyan,” he says. “We’re almost like brothers. We do everything together. What reason could there possibly be for us to not do this together?”

The fact that I have feelings for you that are absolutely not brotherly at all, Jingyan thinks hysterically, but cannot say.

The moment of silence draws out, and Xiao Shu gives him a pointed look.

“… fine,” Jingyan grits out eventually, cursing himself for being unable to think of any way out.

“This is going to be so great,” Xiao Shu crows, beaming and patting Jingyan on the arm. “With me on your side, there’s no way this can lead to anything but GREAT SUCCESS. Now, you’ve got to tell me all about–”

“Can we do this later?” Jingyan begs, pushing himself backwards onto his heels and pulling Xiao Shu up as well. He shoots Xiao Shu a desperate, pleading look and tries to will him into understanding how completely mortified Jingyan still feels, and how much time he needs for his heart to recover.

As well as to think up an excuse to wriggle out of this agreement.

Xiao Shu looks at him levelly for a moment, and then, to Jingyan’s immense relief, nods.

“Fine,” he says. “But later, you’re going to tell me EVERYTHING–”

“Yes, absolutely, whatever you say,” Jingyan agrees, pushing Xiao Shu back towards the writing desk. “Now the Hua, please, let’s just talk about the Hua–”

Chapter Text

If you know the enemy and know yourself, you need not fear the result of a hundred battles.

 

Jingyan returns to his residence from the Palace in a rage. He storms through the corridors to his study and flings the door open, stopping short when he finds Xiao Shu on the floor, looking up at him in surprise over the top of a book.

“Jingyan?” Xiao Shu asks, putting his book down and rising to his feet. He peers into Jingyan’s face and frowns. “What’s wrong? What happened?”

“It’s that – that old dotard in the Ministry of War!” Jingyan explodes, whirling around to brace his hands against the wall and just breathe, in an attempt to calm himself down.

“Ah,” Xiao Shu says from behind him, understanding filling his voice. “I take it you found the Ministry less than co-operative when you went to request the personnel redistribution materials, then?”

“They were supposed to be ready and waiting for me to pick up this morning!” Jingyan cries, spinning back around to face his friend. “The reports were supposed to have been completed months ago, when the Chiyan army first returned – all they needed to do was take the list that the Emperor sent them last week and compile them, but he said they needed more time – would you believe he tried to tell me they needed a week?” Jingyan demands, and Xiao Shu’s expression says that yes, actually, he can easily believe it.

“I told him I wouldn’t give him more than two days,” Jingyan continues, voice lowered to a growl, “which is generous as it is, and he tried to feed me some story about being low on resources. The Ministry of Justice is low on resources, but all our border conflicts have been concluded – the Ministry of War has nothing to do but file reports and carry out stocktakes.”

Jingyan flings his arm down against his side in frustration.

“But when I tried to call him out on his lie, and point out that the imperial request should have been top priority, he kept twisting my words around to make it sound like I didn’t know what I was talking about, or that I was making completely nonsensical requests!”

“And then?” Xiao Shu prompts.

“And then I decided to try another department, of course,” Jingyan says, and Xiao Shu nods approvingly. “I thought I’d pick up some materials regarding possible reforms instead, but it seems like the Minister went and told all his friends about our encounter, and they all closed ranks – none of them would agree to give me anything in fewer than five days. I know those materials are available – Meng-dage told me he walked in without prior notice and took them out just last week, with no trouble!”

“What did you say the first Minister’s name was, again?” Xiao Shu asks.

Zhu,” Jingyan growls, spitting the name out like so much garbage.

“Ah, that makes sense, then,” Xiao Shu says, nodding to himself. He clasps Jingyan by both shoulders and gives him a little shake. “Don’t feel so bad. He’s one of Prince Yu’s people – he was out to get you from the beginning, there’s nothing you could have done to make him any easier to work with. The Emperor knows it, too.”

“You mean he was purposely trying to delay my work,” Jingyan demands incredulously, “and failing to do his job because of Prince Yu’s power games?”

“Yes,” Xiao Shu answers simply. “It’s barely a risk for him, as long as he doesn’t stretch the delay out for too long. The most he’ll get is a slap on the wrist.”

Jingyan grits his teeth, clenches his fists, and restrains the urge to break something (preferably Minister Zhu’s face).

How can he possibly live up to his brother’s expectations when people are deliberately going out of their way to obstruct him for their petty power plays, and there’s nothing he can do about it?

How can he dream about supporting his brother, when he can’t even–

“Hey,” Xiao Shu says, smiling ruefully. “It’s all right, they won’t be able to drag the request out forever, and a few more days aren’t going to make much of a difference, especially given how quickly you work. Maybe next time though,” he says, hands sliding down Jingyan’s arms to gently uncurl Jingyan’s unresisting fingers, “try not to be so easy to rile up. If you get angry, you’ll play right into his hands, and he’ll tell everyone that you’re stubborn, unreasonable and disrespectful, and that you’ve been off at war too long and don’t understand how things in the capital work. All the other ministers know him, but they don’t know you, and so he’s the one they’ll believe, and he’s the one they’ll sympathise with when he makes your life difficult.”

He reaches up a finger and pokes the spot right between Jingyan’s eyebrows, making Jingyan’s eyes cross as he tries to focus on it.

“You know you’ve already got a reputation for being stubborn.”

“How can I just stand there and let him lie to my face?” Jingyan demands, though he’s already most of the way to calming down. “This isn’t the way a minister should behave–”

“Yeah, I know,” Xiao Shu agrees, taking his hand away and then laughing softly at the little red spot Jingyan knows he’s left behind. “You can’t do anything about him, but I can help you with the others. You’ve just got to approach them in the right order, that’s all. Here, give me a look at the list of people you need materials from, and I’ll tell you how to deal with them. Also, it wouldn’t hurt to be a little more conciliatory.”

“I’m not going to grovel to these people just so that they’ll do their jobs,” Jingyan protests, but Xiao Shu just hums indulgently and tugs at the collar of Jingyan’s robe to straighten it from where all the enraged gesticulating had pulled it askew.

“Never mind that for now,” he says, pulling Jingyan down to the floor. “I’ve been looking over some information Uncle Thirteen passed on, and I wanted your opinion on it. Come and tell me what you think about this.”

Jingyan doesn’t pay much attention to the passing of time as he and Xiao Shu discuss Uncle Thirteen’s new intelligence about the Red Sleeve Recruits and Xia Jiang’s movements, so he’s quite surprised when his stomach rumbles and he looks up to find that the sky has grown completely dark.

“Are you staying for dinner?” he asks Xiao Shu, who looks out the window as well and raises his eyebrows at what he finds.

“Yeah, that’d be good,” he says, looking down at his stomach as if surprised to discover that he is, in fact, quite hungry. “Lend me someone to send a message to my mother?”

They end up taking Jingyan’s task brief out with them to dinner, reluctant to let even that much time go to waste.

“You can also play the ministers off each other,” Xiao Shu says around a half-mouthful of rice. “See, this guy here,” he points to a name, “hates that one there, because he feels that the guy’s position should rightfully have been his. So if there’s any way to show the guy up, he’ll do it – all you have to do is drop the name. And this one,” he says, circling another name, “hates this other guy, because of … you know, I don’t actually remember. I think it may have been something to do with either a woman or a horse–”

“Those are … two very different things,” Jingyan feels the need to point out, chopsticks frozen midway towards his vegetable side-dish.

“You’d think so,” Xiao Shu agrees, “but with some of these ministers, it turns out, not really. Oh, and it matters which official you see in any given department, as well. Did you say earlier that you went to see Minister Sima?”

Jingyan nods.

“Yeah,” Xiao Shu says, shaking his head, “try not to see him anymore, he’s the laziest bastard in the entire Ministry – got the position because of his father. But he’s also a heavy late-night drinker – very frequent visitor at the brothels, or so I hear, so he’s not at his best in the mornings. And therefore, he’s never the one they send out to see external visitors. Go in the morning, and you’ll be guaranteed to speak to literally anyone else.”

“It shouldn’t have to be like this,” Jingyan grumbles, before taking another mouthful of food.

“Well, you know, under the old Emperor, with all the power struggles–” Xiao Shu shrugs. “But your brother’s going to change all of it, so it’ll be all right. Hopefully won’t be this way for long.”

He reaches across and deftly steals a slice of pork from Jingyan’s plate, eyes creasing into half-moons when Jingyan cries, “hey!” and belatedly tries to defend against the incursion.

“Here,” Xiao Shu laughs, holding out a slice of beef. “I’ll give you this instead.”

Grumbling good-naturedly, Jingyan reaches out to take it, and gives an indignant yelp when Xiao Shu swiftly pulls the meat out of reach before Jingyan’s chopsticks can close on it.

“Didn’t you just say–” Jingyan demands, and Xiao Shu nods and holds the piece out to Jingyan again.

“And so I did. So, say ‘ah’–”

Jingyan stares at the slice of meat Xiao Shu is waving temptingly beneath his nose.

“Come on, then,” Xiao Shu says cajolingly, still holding it out.

Jingyan looks at his friend, who raises an eyebrow and stares right back.

Jingyan seriously contemplating just cutting his losses and running.

Xiao Shu waves his chopsticks expectantly.

Eventually, Jingyan steels himself, leans over and takes a delicate bite from Xiao Shu’s chopsticks, settling back into his seat to chew with his face burning.

Xiao Shu, on the other hand, just goes back to his meal as if nothing whatsoever has happened.

Maybe it hasn’t.

Jingyan doesn’t feel like he knows anything, anymore.


Later, when dinner has been taken away and Jingyan and Xiao Shu are poking half-heartedly at a spread sheet of writing but mostly resting, one of Jingyan’s men brings out the tea – which Jingyan stocks for Xiao Shu’s benefit, and drinks to keep Xiao Shu company.

Xiao Shu makes a pot with calm concentration and surprisingly graceful movements. Against the soothing background noise of crackling coals and water being poured, Jingyan finds himself mesmerised by dark eyes, long fingers, strong wrists and the delicate curve of the nape of Xiao Shu’s neck as he fills both their cups.

They drink their tea in comfortable silence while looking through the open screen door, out to the starry night sky, Xiao Shu refilling their cups as they empty. Eventually, he pours himself the last of the tea and, after downing it, looks knowingly towards Jingyan’s abandoned cup. Wordlessly, he pulls it towards him and finishes that, too.

Jingyan is about to ask if Xiao Shu thinks he has any space left for fruit, when his friend suddenly says, “You know, Jingyan, if that’s how embarrassed you get with something as small as eating from someone else’s chopsticks, what are you going to be like when it actually comes to holding hands, or even kissing?”

Jingyan’s cheeks promptly burst back into flame.

“What?” he manages to choke out.

“We should find out,” Xiao Shu says thoughtfully, half to himself. “Jingyan,” he says imperiously, beckoning with one hand. “Demonstrate your skill for me! I need to know what I’m working with.”

“I haven’t even told them I like them, yet!” Jingyan splutters. “And I haven’t told you anything about them! Shouldn’t we perhaps start with that, and wait until there’s some sort of understanding between us, first, before leaping straight into kissing?”

“Oh,” Xiao Shu says archly, “so you want to tell me all about them now? Because that sounds good to me, we could definitely start on that.”

Jingyan opens his mouth, but no sound comes out.

“See, that’s what I thought,” Xiao Shu smirks. “I knew you’d be like this, and being the amazing friend that I am, I decided to give you the time your tender little flower heart needs to prepare before you pour it all out to me. But,” he says, raising a decisive finger, “that doesn’t mean we should just leave your problem and do nothing in the meantime. We can work on technique! Train!”

He beckons Jingyan towards him again.

“Now show me what you can do. I want to see if you can close the deal.”

“Love is not a contract that I fulfil with the delivery of kissing services!” Jingyan protests desperately, wondering if he can escape by diving out of the doors into the garden.

“That sounds like something someone with no kissing skills would say,” Xiao Shu says sagely, and Jingyan wonders, if he just takes the slight to his (admittedly non-existent) kissing skills, will Xiao Shu leave him alone?

He looks into Xiao Shu’s expectant face.

Probably not, he sighs inwardly.

“And … how am I supposed to show you, exactly?” Jingyan asks grimly, dreading the answer.

“Kiss me,” Xiao Shu answers simply.

Jingyan closes his eyes for a moment. This is exactly what he was most afraid of.

“We’re best friends, it’s fine,” Xiao Shu assures him, evidently giving up on Jingyan coming towards him and shuffling over himself instead. He reaches over and pats Jingyan’s chest. “You and I, we’re already bonded at the heart! All other forms of intimacy are inferior.”

Jingyan just shakes his head at Xiao Shu in silent refusal.

“Jingyan,” Xiao Shu says, clapping a hand onto Jingyan’s shoulder. “Don’t be afraid!”

And Jingyan knows this is a bad idea. He knows. He knows that there’s no way this can end well, knows that he should find an excuse to refuse, anything, even if he has to go so far as to throw a tantrum like Xiao Shu did when he was trying to save Prince Qi.

But he also knows that, as with all things, he’s not going to win if Xiao Shu is his opponent; that he’s not going to be able to hold his resolve, not if Xiao Shu insists. Be it sooner or later, he’s going to give in.

He gives in.

It’s intensely awkward, kneeling in front of a cross-legged Xiao Shu, who’s looking up at him and waiting patiently. Taking a deep, shuddering breath, Jingyan leans in, heart feeling like it’s trying to pound all the way through his chest, and as quickly as possible brushes his lips against Xiao Shu’s before throwing himself backwards.

Xiao Shu looks shocked for a moment, blinking at Jingyan with wide eyes before he snorts and shakes his head ruefully.

“Ah, Jingyan, Jingyan,” he says reprovingly. “You’ll never be able to keep someone with that.”

He pushes himself to his feet, striding over to where Jingyan’s sprawled in a corner, and crouches down in front of him so that they’re at eye-level with each other.

“Luckily,” Xiao Shu says, “you have me. I’ll show you how it’s supposed to be done.”

“How do you know how it’s supposed to be done?” Jingyan demands, a hot wave of irrational jealousy suddenly rising up in his belly at the thought of Xiao Shu gaining kissing experience with anyone who’s not Jingyan.

“I’ve read books,” Xiao Shu replies airily, waving a hand around carelessly.

Jingyan is simultaneously relieved and extremely worried.

“What books?” he asks suspiciously. “We don’t have access to any books like that – I would’ve remembered seeing them in my brother’s library, or Uncle Lin’s study, if there were any there.”

“Oh, I went to visit Langya Hall with Father to ask for some advice on the Hua, as well as some help with finding someone while you were away,” Xiao Shu says, shrugging. “They have a very extensive collection.”

Jingyan finds himself with no choice but to believe him.

“All right, sit up,” Xiao Shu tells him, pulling Jingyan up by the shoulders, giving a critical head-tilt, and then pushing his legs apart as Jingyan watches on in alarm, helpless to do anything but allow himself to be arranged to Xiao Shu’s satisfaction.

“Yes, good,” Xiao Shu says approvingly, as he shuffles in between them.

At this level of proximity, Jingyan can feel the heat radiating from Xiao Shu, and his own heart is pounding uncontrollably with the thrill of it. His breath is shallow and he feels hyperaware of every part of his body – Jingyan has been to war and it wasn’t as terrifying as this.

His eyes jerk up to meet Xiao Shu’s as two warm palms come up to gently cradle his cheeks, and he’s almost too afraid to breathe when Xiao Shu brings their faces together.

“What did I say, Jingyan?” he huffs gently, when their noses are almost brushing. “Don’t be afraid.”

And without giving Jingyan any opportunity to respond, Xiao Shu leans in and brushes his lips against Jingyan’s once, softly, questioningly, before tilting Jingyan’s head up and sealing their mouths together.

Jingyan doesn’t manage to stifle the whimper that escapes him as Xiao Shu’s lips part and he begins to suck on Jingyan’s lower lip. He doesn’t know what to do with his hands, either – they flit indecisively from hovering in the air, to clutching Xiao Shu’s upper arms, to resting on Xiao Shu’s lean waist.

A tongue licks inquiringly at the seam of Jingyan’s lips and he inhales involuntarily, lips parting in surprise, and then Xiao Shu’s tongue is in his mouth, exploring every part of it with great thoroughness. Not wanting to just sit there and remain a passive participant, Jingyan presses forward as well, reaching out with his tongue to meet Xiao Shu’s, their mouths sliding together.

It’s hot and slick and wonderful, and Jingyan never wants it to end.

He’s not sure how much time they spend, just sitting on the floor of his study, kissing, but a after a stretch of time that is both interminable and much too short, Xiao Shu pulls away, cheeks flushed and breathing heavily. Jingyan’s body immediately feels the loss of heat, touch and Xiao Shu in his space. His arms and chest immediately feel empty without Xiao Shu pressed flush against him.

“Pretty good for a night’s work, if I do say so myself,” Xiao Shu comments breathlessly. He licks his lips and Jingyan’s eyes are immediately transfixed. “You’ve got some work to do, but I think you’ve got some promise, too. All right,” he says, clambering up to his feet. “I should be heading home, now. Don’t bother coming with me to the door, I’ll let myself out. See you tomorrow!”

And with that, Xiao Shu takes off, leaving Jingyan staring at the space where he’d been just a moment ago, lifting shaking fingers to touch his swollen bottom lip.


Thus begins a time of great distraction for Xiao Jingyan.

Xiao Shu begins to finish all of their discussions in Jingyan’s study with a kissing lesson, and it’s not long before Jingyan’s body learns to expect it, to long for it as the only satisfactory ending to a busy day. On the days he doesn’t see Xiao Shu, he feels antsy and unfulfilled. Jingyan does his best to ignore the discomfort and desire both, because it’s not as if there’s a shortage of work to be done, but he can’t help the thrill that bubbles up inside him when he hears Xiao Shu’s cheerful voice at the gate, hailing Jingyan’s men and announcing his arrival.

As if this weren’t bad enough, as soon as Jingyan thinks he’s regained his balance, Xiao Shu escalates and starts ambushing him when he’s out and about, because, “You can’t just know how to kiss when you’ve been able to plan it, Jingyan – the mark of a true master is to be ready to display your skill at a moment’s notice”.

And so whenever he’s around the Palace (which is a great deal more frequently lately, between the army project, the Hua work and his new promotion in rank), Jingyan finds himself pulled into alcoves and pushed behind buildings before being ruthlessly kissed. He’s an accomplished fighter, but these days Jingyan feels like he’s all elbows and knees, until Xiao Shu pulls him right in and presses their chests together, and Jingyan feels his body go limp and pliant, the burning in his chest calming for a while. Once he adjusts to the shock, Jingyan’s arms develop the habit of sliding around Xiao Shu’s waist and pulling the two of them flush together, which Jingyan has learned gains him a pleased hum and, sometimes, if they come together in the right way, a hitched breath as well.

He also finds his mind developing a habit of wandering over to their encounters whenever left to its own devices. He loses his train of thought while training, and often comes back to himself, standing frozen, mid-strike and staring at nothing. He becomes distracted during a meeting with the Emperor, looking at Xiao Shu’s mouth, and after jerking back to attention, glances up to find Xiao Shu watching him knowingly.

As he’s watching Xiao Shu leave early for a meeting with Uncle Thirteen, he half-catches Gao-gonggong murmur something that sounds like, “That child always did love to tease people he liked”, but when he asks Gao-gonggong to repeat the statement, the eunuch just smiles, shakes his head and softly excuses himself.

And then, suddenly, just as he thinks he’s (sort of) becoming accustomed to all of it (if he’s honest, he doesn’t think his heart is ever going to ever stop its habit of performing acrobatics whenever Xiao Shu is near, but he’ll take what he can get), the visits and ambushes stop, and Jingyan is left with loneliness and longing, wondering what exactly it is that he’s done wrong.

So pre-occupied is he with this question, that Jingyan completely misses the sly remarks and veiled insults Minister Zhu sends his way during their next meeting. He only notices something is amiss when Zhanying stiffens next to him, but even Minister Zhu balks at repeating himself, instead smoothly demurring and retreating into polite formalities.

(Later, Jingyan hears that Minister Zhu has been sourly telling all the ministers who will listen that the Emperor’s 7th brother is slow.)

(A while after that, he hears that the noble family that had been making overtures about betrothing their daughter to Minister Zhu have abruptly withdrawn their attentions, after hearing about his … unusual interests. Xiao Shu’s expression is remarkably innocent when the Emperor questions him about this.)

That aside, Jingyan’s work with the Ministry seems to be becoming easier, for some reason.

Even when he becomes momentarily distracted by an item in a document while working with one of the Ministry aides, and abruptly realises that the aide has been staring at him and patiently waiting for an answer, his profuse apologies are met not with the censure he was expecting, but a kindly, “It’s only to be expected that you’d still be processing all the events that took place while you were away. Don’t worry about it.”

Confused, but relieved, Jingyan nods and throws himself doubly-hard into the work.

He only discovers the reason for this change when he’s returning some materials to Minister Huang.

“I must thank you for the tip you sent over with that subordinate of yours – you know, Your Highness, I didn’t know you had an interest in music.”

When Jingyan looks at him questioningly, he merely laughs and says, “Don’t try to fool me, young man. If you didn’t have any knowledge in the area, you would never have guessed that I would be looking for that manuscript for my collection, let alone known where I could acquire it! Indeed, I’d been searching for months! If you don’t mind my impudence, I don’t know why they say what they do about you – I think you’re a very thoughtful and hardworking young man.”

Too confused to protest, Jingyan murmurs a few cordialities before taking his leave.

When a few more ministers begin to express thanks for small pieces of advice Jingyan doesn’t remember ever sending, he sends Zhanying to make inquiries, to see if he can discover what, exactly, is going on.

On the whole, he manages to maintain his focus when it comes to his work, but over time, the irritation of not knowing why he never sees Xiao Shu outside of meetings with the Emperor grows, as does the desire for his company. Jingyan begins to wonder if Xiao Shu has gotten sick of him, if all the kissing has caused their relationship to become strained, if Xiao Shu has found someone else (better) to do things like that with, and something tight and horrible grows in his chest.


“Jingyan?” Auntie Jinyang asks, when Jingyan turns up at the Lin residence, bearing a bag of fruit. “What’s this?”

“One of the ministers I’m working with at the Ministry of War sent these oranges over,” he answers, following her inside and dutifully emptying the bag into the dish that one of the maids brings into the sitting room. “He said it was an especially good batch – he was very insistent about me accepting them, wouldn’t take no for an answer. So I sent some to my mother, and then I remembered how much you and Uncle Lin liked them, so–”

“Oh, that’s so sweet of you,” she says, smiling warmly and patting his arm. “Sit down, sit down. I’d have a servant fetch your Uncle Lin, but I think he’s discussing business with Marquis Yan, so we’d better not disturb them.”

She looks at the oranges speculatively.

“Do you think I would be a bad wife if I started without him?”

“I think you should probably eat what you can before Xiao Shu sees them,” Jingyan says dryly. “Unless the kneeling outside the kitchen–?”

That boy,” Auntie Jinyang grumbles, raising longsuffering eyes to the heavens and reaching for an orange. “If only it were that easy. Just last week he ate all of the walnut cookies and left me two.”

Jingyan coughs out a startled laugh.

“He was really proud of himself, too,” she mutters, offering Jingyan an orange slice, which he declines.

“Is he home?” Jingyan asks, unable to keep the corners of his mouth from twitching. “I’ve actually come to see him about something, as well.”

“He’s should be in his room,” Auntie Jinyang says, nodding at Jingyan permissively and waving him out the door.

Jingyan heads down the corridor and turns onto the very-familiar path to Xiao Shu’s room. When he reaches the door, he allows himself one fortifying breath, before he pushes the door open–

–and promptly freezes on the doorstep, a little taken aback at the sight that greets him.

Almost every surface is littered with papers and books of various types, some spread flat and others in stacks and piles of various shapes and sizes. In the middle of it all sits Xiao Shu, cross-legged in the tiny circle of space around him, leaning over one knee to frown at the document spread out just next to it.

“Oh it’s you, is it, Jingyan?” he asks, smiling when he looks up and sees Jingyan frozen in the doorway. “What are you doing here?”

“I feel like I never see you anymore,” Jingyan says honestly, drinking in the sight of Xiao Shu there in front of him, and feeling relieved that his friend seems to be happy to see him.

“Ah yeah,” Xiao Shu says, scratching the back of his head sheepishly. “Sorry, I got busy.”

He gestures at the chaos around him and Jingyan believes him.

“Hold on a moment,” Xiao Shu says, and moves around the floor, shifting books and papers until he’s created a matching circle of space for Jingyan to carefully step into after closing the door.

As it turns out, Xiao Shu has been reading up on the Xuanjing Bureau, taking out books and documents borrowed under the name of one of the ministers from the Ministry of Justice to hide his involvement in the investigation.

Jingyan picks up a volume that’s sitting by his feet and examines it curiously.

“But this doesn’t look like it’s from the Royal library,” he says, unfolding it and scanning its contents.

Xiao Shu glances up from his own book.

“Oh, I borrowed that one from Langya Hall when we visited,” he explains. “Father is friends with the Master.”

“I see,” Jingyan says, putting the book back down in the place where he found it. “Well, if you’re busy, then I won’t bother you – I didn’t have anything important to see you about, anyway, I just–”

He’s not sure what is showing up in his face or his voice, but Xiao Shu is suddenly looking at him, gaze sharp.

Before Jingyan can say anything else, Xiao Shu shrugs and says, “I can bring some of this over to your study to read there, if you like? It doesn’t really matter where I work on this. You can do your army work, and we can keep each other company.”

Jingyan agrees (too) gratefully, and after waiting for Xiao Shu to pick out the documents he most needs, they make their way out, to let Xiao Shu’s parents know where he’s going.

They find Auntie Jinyang and Uncle Lin in the sitting room, eating oranges with Uncle Yan.

“Whatever, whatever, just go,” Uncle Lin says, waving them both off with a chuckle. “It’s almost like he’s your son too, Jingyan, with all the time he spends over there.”

As soon as they reach Jingyan’s study, Xiao Shu slumps down into his favourite position, with his back against Jingyan’s, and promptly resumes reading. After being denied Xiao Shu’s company for so long, Jingyan is hyperaware of his presence – his breathing, the smell of him, the warm weight of Xiao Shu’s body against his.

After allowing himself a few moments of this, Jingyan forces himself to shake off the reverie and return to work. There’s a lot still left to be done, after all.

They read and work steadily in companionable silence. Jingyan manages to make his way through a very respectable number of the documents in the pile on his desk. He’s just straightening them up when Xiao Shu startles him by making a sudden noise and stiffening. Jingyan jerks his head around to see what the matter is, but Xiao Shu is already bent over the sheet of paper spread out on the floor beside him, jotting down notes in his strong, bold hand.

“Is it really necessary for you to read through that many documents?” Jingyan asks, when they break for tea and some of his mother’s snacks.

“Research is key!” Xiao Shu insists around a mouthful of cake, narrowly avoiding spraying crumbs onto Jingyan’s floor. “You’ve got to know your enemy,” he continues earnestly once he’s swallowed. “Learn all there is to know!”

Jingyan gives a small huff of laughter. There’s no reasoning with Xiao Shu when he gets like this. It’s going to be just like the time he convinced himself the best way to anticipate an enemy strategy would be to familiarise himself with every military strategy ever used in the history of ever, all over again.

“Can you learn all there is to know while staying for dinner?” Jingyan asks dryly, half-turning to glance at Xiao Shu.

“Not this time, sorry,” Xiao Shu says apologetically, dusting his hands off and rising to his feet. “I need to go and send a letter – need to contact Langya Hall about something I’ve found.”

As if sensing Jingyan’s disappointment, he adds, “Next time, though, I’ll stay the night. Then we can see about taking your training to the next level.”

Jingyan is honestly not sure whether he should be happy about that or not.

Chapter Text

When we are able to attack, we must seem unable; when using our forces, we must appear inactive.

 

“I’m sorry to interrupt your morning training, Your Highness,” Zhanying says, stepping into the courtyard and executing a neat bow. “But Minister Wu won’t be able to attend your meeting today, as he’s injured his back and cannot yet leave his bed. The messenger he sent to make his apologies met me on the street – I told him I would come and inform you myself, sir, if he had other people to see. I understand that the Minister had quite a number of appointments scheduled in for today.”

“Very good,” Jingyan says, sheathing his sword and turning to give Zhanying an approving nod. “Send someone over to the Wu residence tomorrow, to ask after his progress. How did you say he injured himself?”

“Yes, sir,” Zhanying says. “And I didn’t, sir – according to the messenger, he was admiring the blossoms in his garden, when a bee flew into his face and startled him into bending over backwards too quickly.”

Jingyan stares at Zhanying, who looks back at him without a hint of anything other than absolute sincerity.

“… I suppose it must be true,” Jingyan says after a moment, looking out towards his own garden blankly. “He’s not the kind of man to just cancel appointments because he doesn’t feel like working.”

“He is very old, after all, Your Highness,” Zhanying agrees. “And bees can be quite a shock.”

Jingyan shoots his subordinate a suspicious look, but a faintly inquiring expression is the only thing showing on Zhanying’s face.

“Yes, well,” Jingyan says, narrowed eyes still trying (and failing) to find any sign of a crack in Zhanying’s composure. “Was there anything else?”

“Yes, Your Highness,” Zhanying replies, stepping forward and lowering his voice. “I made those inquiries. None of the ministers ever saw the messenger themselves, but each of the servants who did was given the same name. It’s not one I recognise – Mei Changsu.”

“Mei Changsu?” Jingyan murmurs quietly, sounding out the syllables of the unfamiliar name. It doesn’t bring anything to mind. He turns back to Zhanying. “Did you manage to obtain any kind of physical description?”

“He was dressed in our uniform,” Zhanying says, lips pursing in mild concern, “but none of the spare supplies are missing. It could still be one of our men, of course, using another name–”

“But which of our men would be capable of giving such well-directed information to so many people?” Jingyan asks, frowning and looking out at the garden again, as if it might provide an answer.

When he turns back, Zhanying is shaking his head, similarly at a loss. Jingyan sighs and abandons that avenue of inquiry.

“Did anyone mention any other defining characteristics?” he tries.

“They said he was young,” Zhanying offers, not very hopefully.

“Which most of our men are,” Jingyan sighs, nodding.

“And also good-looking,” Zhanying adds.

At this, Jingyan raises an eyebrow.

“If you’re suggesting,” he says dryly, “that I separate our men into groups of ‘good-looking and ‘not good-looking’ in order to continue this investigation, I’m telling you now, Zhanying, that I’m not going to do it, not even to find out who this Mei Changsu is.”

“I would never, Your Highness,” Zhanying murmurs, eyes downcast.

Jingyan snorts.

Deciding that he’s probably not going to get any more training done, he beckons to Zhanying and turns to head inside for some breakfast.

“That said, Your Highness,” Zhanying offers, following him down the walkway, “I don’t think it’s malicious. Whoever it is, he’s obviously trying to smooth your way forward with the Ministry, and he’s doing it purely through the provision of information – he must know how you feel about securing goodwill through gift-giving.”

“Mm,” Jingyan says noncommittally, although he does make a mental note of the point, to consider more properly at a later date. “Well, I’m sure that if he wants something, he’ll make himself known eventually. So I suppose we’ll just have to wait and see.”

“Perhaps it might be someone from the Emperor?” Zhanying suggests.

“My brother? It could be, I suppose,” Jingyan muses, glancing back at Zhanying and nodding. “It doesn’t seem like something he would usually do, but he did talk about needing to show people my capabilities.”

He wonders for a moment if this means that the Emperor doesn’t trust him to succeed on his own after all, but then immediately dismisses the thought. The Emperor told Jingyan he had faith in him, and Jingyan’s brother wouldn’t say that if he didn’t mean it.

“In any case, Zhanying,” Jingyan says instead, pushing the insecurities from his mind, “you’ve done well. Don’t stop looking out for further information, but don’t make it a priority, either. For now, do we have any word on the progress of the report I asked for – the one on the distribution of military funding?”

“I know it was still unfinished yesterday, Your Highness,” Zhanying replies promptly, “but I’m not sure how much they’ve done since then. I’ll go now and find out.”

He bows and takes his leave.

Left alone, Jingyan stops by his study on the way to breakfast, not seeing why he shouldn’t make full use of his time by taking a preliminary look over some Ministry records while he takes his meal. He only needs one hand to eat, after all.

After he finishes with the food and reports both, he steps back outside and sits down in the sunlight for a brief period of meditation before he truly starts the day. Closing his eyes, he focuses his attention on his breathing, and lets his mind slowly clear.

Five breaths in, a light breeze starts up, which is pleasant right up until it blows a strand of hair into his face. Jingyan wrinkles his nose against the tickling sensation, but doesn’t move to do anything else about it, gritting his teeth with determination to overcome the distraction through the strength of his own will.

Then something – someone brushes the strand of hair gently to the side and tucks it behind his ear.

Jingyan’s eyes open and he finds Xiao Shu squatting down in front of him, grinning into his face.

“Just got word,” Xiao Shu says cheerfully. “The Emperor has taken my advice and sent Prince Yu to deal with that landslide cleanup he told us about. So, in two days, Prince Yu will be beyond the reach of Princess Xuanji’s information network and we can start to move without worrying about what she might tell him if she gets desperate enough.”

“The landslide?” Jingyan asks, frowning. “Won’t that look suspicious? From what I saw of the governor’s missive, the damage sounded quite serious. If His Majesty is sending Prince Yu, especially after that Treasury report about his history with administering disaster relief – you know, the one written by that ministerial aide–”

“Shen Zhui,” Xiao Shu agrees, nodding, and surprises Jingyan by adding, “He’s been sent along to supervise, actually.”

“Sent along?” Jingyan exclaims, eyebrows shooting up. “After what happened to the secretary who wrote the last–”

“With a good set of bodyguards, of course,” Xiao Shu adds quickly, with a small grimace. “We had Meng-dage hand-pick them, don’t worry. But it means the whole thing will look like the Emperor is testing Prince Yu while he decides what to do with him – which everyone, including Prince Yu, was expecting, anyway. The fact that the posting happens to be for two months, and in what’s basically a glorified country backwater, is just going to look like damage control.”

Jingyan nods slowly to himself. “That makes sense,” he says finally, looking up at Xiao Shu again.

“My plans always do,” Xiao Shu agrees smoothly, and jumps nimbly out of reach when Jingyan promptly takes a swat at him.

“Come on, then,” he laughs, stepping back in again to reach down and offer Jingyan a hand. “We’d better move. We’ve wasted enough time already.”

“Where are we going?” Jingyan asks, though he places a palm in Xiao Shu’s and allows himself to be pulled to his feet nonetheless. “Do we need to start making preparations already?”

“Nah,” Xiao Shu says easily, shoving a cloak into Jingyan’s hands and waving down a servant to prepare Jingyan’s horse. “We’re going to visit Great Grandmother. Have you seen her since you got back?”

“I saw her on the second day,” Jingyan answers, patting himself down quickly to make sure he has everything he needs as Xiao Shu begins to drag him along the walkway and towards the gate. Just as well he’d decided to get ready before meditating, and not after.

“Did you, now?” Xiao Shu remarks politely, glancing back at him and sounding completely unsurprised. “Well, then I suppose you’re coming to see her again.”

Much too used to Xiao Shu to think resistance is anything but futile, Jingyan sighs, shrugs and follows him out into the street.


They arrive to the sound of Great Grandmother’s voice coming through the open door.

“Someone’s here?” she asks from somewhere inside. “Who is it? Go and see, Jinyang, there’s a good girl.”

Auntie Jinyang appears in the doorway just as Xiao Shu makes it up to the top step, Jingyan three steps behind him.

“It’s Xiao Shu!” she calls back, before leaning into her son and grabbing his arm. “Xiao Shu, you’re late,” she mutters under her breath.

Her eyes flicker over his shoulder to meet Jingyan’s.

“Xiao Shu?” Great Grandmother says delightedly. “Bring him in, bring him in!”

“Auntie,” Jingyan says respectfully, giving a small bow.

“Jingyan!” Auntie Jinyang says, blinking in surprise before grabbing his arm, too, and dragging them both into the room where Jingyan’s mother and the Empress Dowager are sitting with Great Grandmother.

“Look, Grandmother,” she says, “and he’s brought Jingyan with him, as well.”

They barely have enough time to finish their bows before Great Grandmother is beckoning to them with impatient excitement.

“Come here, come here to Great Grandmother, both of you!” she says happily, waving them over to sit at her feet. As soon as Xiao Shu and Jingyan are within reach, she takes both their hands in hers and pats them fondly.

“It’s so good to have the two of you back together,” she tells them, glancing from one to the other, her kind face all smiles. “My lovely grandsons – Jingyan, have you grown taller again?”

Jingyan offers her a tentative shrug, and she laughs, patting his cheek.

“You’ve always been such a strong, healthy boy – and now you’ve grown so handsome, too! It does Great Grandmother’s heart good to see you.”

She takes his hand again, and her expression turns shrewd.

“Now,” she says purposefully, “Xiao Shu obviously has Nihuang, whom he’s waiting for, but you, Jingyan – you haven’t been engaged to anyone yet, have you?”

“Er,” Jingyan says and coughs awkwardly. “Er, no, Great Grandmother, no, I haven’t.”

“Jingyan!” she says, gently scolding. “You need to hurry! If you don’t, all the good girls will be snapped up and gone!”

She gives his hand a squeeze.

“Now, you tell Great Grandmother,” she tells him earnestly. “Did you meet anyone nice in Donghai?”

“Er,” Jingyan stutters, glancing at Xiao Shu, who’s hastily muffling a snigger in his sleeve, and not making any move to help at all, the bastard. “No, Great Grandmother. No, I didn’t.”

“After all that time you where there?” she exclaims, eyes wide. Jingyan feels his face heat, and he looks down, frowning as he always does when he’s feeling embarrassed.

“Stop that!” Great Grandmother chides, rubbing at the crease between his eyebrows to smooth it out. “You’ll scare all the nice girls away if you always look so grumpy, and then no one will want to marry you, and then what will you do?”

Having successfully rubbed his frown away, she proceeds to beam at Jingyan and pat his cheek again, saying, “There, that’s much better.”

“Don’t worry, Great Grandmother,” Xiao Shu pipes up from beside him. “If that happens, I’ll take Jingyan as my second wife.”

“What do you mean, second?” Jingyan demands, whirling around to face a grinning Xiao Shu.

“I was engaged to Nihuang first, remember?” Xiao Shu says flippantly, “so obviously she’ll be the first. Did you want to fight her for it?”

He raises his eyebrows questioningly.

“Fine,” Jingyan allows grudgingly. “But I’d better be your favourite then,” he adds, with a lofty tilt of his chin. “I’ve been friends with you for much longer than she has, so if you have any proper feeling left–”

Both Great Grandmother and Xiao Shu burst into laughter, hers helplessly fond and his loud, boyish and bright. Jingyan feels the corners of his mouth curling upwards despite himself.

“You’ve always gotten along so well,” Great Grandmother chuckles, squeezing their hands and shaking her head at them indulgently.

She’s prevented from saying anything further by the sound of footsteps, and all three look to see a line of maids file in, bearing trays of tea and snacks.

“Oh!” Great Grandmother exclaims approvingly as the servants begin to set up small tables beside each of their mistress’s guests. “Good, good, they’ve arrived. It’s time for everyone to eat something!”

She turns to Xiao Shu as a maid sets a platter down between them.

“Here,” she says, pushing it towards him and urging him to take something with one hand, while she waves down another maid with the other. “I had them bring all of your favourites, Xiao Shu. Yes, Xiao Ying,” she says, as the girl shuffles over from her position next to the wall and bows. “Run out and bring back some of those hazelnut pastries the kitchens sent over yesterday, quickly! Don’t worry, Jingyan,” she tells him seriously, “Great Grandmother remembers your favourites, too!”

She beckons to their mothers and to Auntie Yueyao as well, plying everyone with as much food and drink as they’ll accept. To please her, Xiao Shu and Jingyan dutifully allow her to push sweet after sweet upon them, placing food into their hands almost faster than they can eat it.

They’re saved from death-by-pastry by a sweet, high voice outside the door, calling, “Great Grandmother, I’m heeeeere!”, followed closely by a lower, “Yujin! Mind your manners!”

“Yujin!” Auntie Yueyao says with mock-severity, rising from her seat to block his path. “What’s all this?”

“Hi, Auntie Yueyao!” Yujin says, grinning cheekily up at her. “You’re looking very beautiful today.”

“Cheeky scamp,” Auntie Yueyao snorts fondly, and sits down again, waving him on to a waiting Great Grandmother.

“Auntie Jinyang, Auntie Jing!” Yujin chirps, darting past her. “Great Grandmotheeeer!”

“Little Yujin!” Great Grandmother laughs delightedly. “Come over here and eat a little something, there’s a good boy. So, you’ve come to see me too, have you?”

Marquis Yan follows his son into the room, at a much more sedate pace.

“Imperial Great Grandmother,” he says, bowing deeply as soon as he steps inside the door.

“Imperial nonsense!” Great Grandmother says exasperatedly. “How long have I known you, Yan Que?! Just ‘Grandmother’ will do!”

“Of course, Grandmother,” Marquis Yan says obediently, hiding a smile behind another bow, before turning to greet the other court ladies. “Please accept my apologies on behalf of my mannerless son, Princess Jinyang, Consort Jing–”

He freezes as his eyes meet Auntie Yueyao’s, obviously not expecting to find her there.

“Empress Dowager,” he murmurs, almost soundlessly, bowing again.

“As Grandmother said, there’s no need for formalities. We’re practically family, after all,” Auntie Yueyao says mildly. “Que-gege, I hardly ever see you anymore.”

Marquis Yan’s eyes drop briefly in deference, before he looks up again. “My apologies, Your Highness. I’ve been busy.”

“Surely not too busy for the occasional visit?” Auntie Yueyao inquires politely, setting down her teacup to face him fully. “Or has my thoughtless son failed to leave you even a few moments to yourself, outside of all the important state business he has you managing? If so, I’ll be sure to have words with him–”

“No, Your Highness,” Marquis Yan demurs, shaking his head. “The Emperor has always treated me with great consideration. It is just that I–”

“–Have become too enlightened for ordinary company, after all that time spent studying scriptures?” Auntie Yueyao asks, raising a challenging eyebrow. When Marquis Yan responds with a small smile and says nothing, her expression softens.

“Come and visit more often, Que-gege,” she says, relenting. “And bring Yujin, too, you know I always love to see him. He can come and play with Tingsheng – I hear that he’s been lonely lately, with his usual playmate still grieving and all the older children running errands for Jingyu.”

Marquis Yan looks at her for a long moment, and then nods in acquiescence.

Jingyan glances sideways at Xiao Shu, who has stopped mid-chew, gaze fixed unwaveringly on this exchange while the fingers of his other hand rub away absently in his lap.

The moment, however, is interrupted by Yujin’s loud whispering.

“Great Grandmother,” he says, eyes fixed beseechingly on her face, “you need to get Jingrui to come and visit you, too. I haven’t seen him in weeks; I don’t think any of them have left home at all!”

Great Grandmother nods seriously and pats his hand, bending slightly to whisper conspiratorially back.

“I’ll send someone to tell Liyang to bring the children to visit me next week,” she tells him. “And then we’ll bully your father into bringing you, and your aunties, Xiao Shu and Jingyan will come too, and then we’ll all be together again. How’s that?”

“Great Grandmother,” Yujin says confidingly, wriggling closer and taking one of her hands in both of his, “you’re my absolute most favourite person, have I ever told you that?”

Great Grandmother laughs.

Jingyan exchanges a smile with Xiao Shu, who’s munching happily away on his piece of cake again, and reaches for another hazelnut pastry. Settling in against Xiao Shu’s side to listen to the cheerful burble of chatter around him, he smiles to himself, feeling content.


“So?” Xiao Shu asks expectantly, holding his arms out to the sides. “What do you think? No good?”

Jingyan opens his mouth and tries to think of something to say.

Xiao Shu has decided that the best way to achieve their aims going forward is to cultivate an image of being (off the battlefield at least) a young man of leisure. Xia Jiang probably doesn’t spend much time thinking about him as it is, he tells Jingyan assuredly, but Xiao Shu wants to make sure that when he does, he thinks of a young man who has succumbed to the attractions of Jinling’s numerous amusements, and is wasting both his time and energy on play.

(“If everyone sees me spending all my time playing around,” Xiao Shu explains, “then no one will think that I’m involved in anything like the counter-Hua effort, because they simply won’t believe that I have the time.”

“And what will you do when you actually do need the time, being that you actually are involved?” Jingyan asks, raising an eyebrow.

“I’ll just have Father tell everyone he’s grounded me for being a useless son,” Xiao Shu says, shrugging placidly.)

In pursuit of this, Xiao Shu has recruited a true master in the area – Prince Ji – to publicly and visibly initiate him into the ways of the entertainment district. But before they can set out to be seen, he first needs to deal the problem at hand, which is that all the clothing he currently owns is either his distinctive white daywear or that one set of hilariously ornate, formal robes Auntie Jinyang made him wear for her entertainment on her birthday last year.

Which is why he needs new clothes.

Which is why Jingyan has to be here, in his room, watching him try on new clothes.

It doesn’t sound so reasonable when it’s not coming out of Xiao Shu’s mouth.

“Well?” Xiao Shu demands impatiently, turning this way and that to better display the muted blue outer robe he’s currently wearing, because “I want to be seen, Jingyan, but I don’t want to be seen that much.”

“You look like a scholar,” Jingyan says finally, looking Xiao Shu up and down. “Especially with your hair up like that.”

Xiao Shu looks down at himself critically.

“Hm,” he says, frowning at the edge of one sleeve. “You’re right. Perhaps if I let some of my hair down?”

Jingyan watches as Xiao Shu fiddles with the knot of his hair-tie and resignedly abandons his plans to visit his mother. If he’s honest with himself, he knows he wouldn’t have gotten any advice from her, anyway – it’s not that Auntie Yueyao is always there when Jingyan is, but she always appears so suddenly and unexpectedly that the fear of her is always present, even when her person is not, which means that Jingyan has so far been too afraid to even mention Xiao Shu’s name to his mother, let alone Jingyan’s feelings for him.

“Hey, Jingyan,” Xiao Shu says, vigorously shaking his hair out and turning to present Jingyan with his back. “Can you help me with this?”

And so, instead of seeking his mother’s advice, Jingyan helps Xiao Shu brush and tie his hair.

“Being seen around the city looking into shops and visiting teahouses is one thing,” he says as he works, “but are we seriously going ahead with the brothel plan?”

“Princess Xuanji has people in every single pleasure house,” Xiao Shu says, carefully keeping his head still as Jingyan begins to divide his hair, “which means that Xia Jiang has never needed to bother with any. And Uncle Thirteen has already started interfering with their lines of communication, so if we want to drive a wedge between them, the brothel plan is the best choice. Oh, that reminds me,” he adds, turning his head and making Jingyan tsk with mild irritation when the movement disarranges the hair he’s trying to gather. “Don’t let me forget that I need to look like a chatty drunk.”

Jingyan hums in absent-minded agreement, most of his focus on the knot he’s trying to tighten without pulling on any hair. After a final tug to make sure the hair-tie is secure, he gives a grunt of approval and steps back.

Xiao Shu turns around and looks at him expectantly.

“Well?” he prompts, flicking a stray strand back over his shoulder. “How does it look now?”

“You look even more like a scholar,” Jingyan replies honestly, trying not to let his eyes linger too much on the way the fall of Xiao Shu’s hair brushes against his neck. And also trying not to think about how much he likes it.

“Damn,” Xiao Shu says ruefully, rubbing the back of his neck. “I thought that would do it, for sure. I mean, Lin Chen—”

“Lin Chen?” Jingyan asks, frowning.

“Oh, he’s a friend,” Xiao Shu says absently, turning to pick up another set of robes – this one grey – and hold it up, squinting thoughtfully.

“I’ve never heard about this friend,” Jingyan comments lightly, trying to pry for further information.

To his disappointment, Xiao Shu simply murmurs, “No, you wouldn’t have,” and starts hunting through his drawers for accessories.

Jingyan ruthlessly quashes the bud of jealousy that starts to unfurl in the pit of his stomach, telling himself that he’s being unreasonable. It’s only a friend, after all – of course Xiao Shu is allowed to have friends that Jingyan doesn’t know, and having one new friend doesn’t mean he’s going to abandon Jingyan, or anything. It’s absurd that he should feel jealous.

Besides, he doesn’t have the right.

“It’s probably not going to get any better than this,” Xiao Shu says, finally throwing up his hands and giving up. “Ah, well. Scholars have sex too, I suppose.”

Xiao Shu!” Jingyan exclaims loudly, scandalised.


At some point, Jingyan thinks to himself, he really needs to stop letting Xiao Shu pull him along and actually do something proactive about furthering his own interests.

Kissing and kissing lessons aside (“I think you’re probably all right now,” Xiao Shu says, breaking away from Jingyan’s mouth, breathing heavily. Before Jingyan can respond, however, his eyes brighten with a speculative gleam, and he adds, “But there’s this other thing I’ve read about, that sounded slightly more advanced. You want to try it?” Quite obviously, Jingyan thinks, already leaning in, the answer is yes), Xiao Shu’s behaviour towards him hasn’t really changed. Jingyan has no idea if that means he’d be interested in more than friendship, or the exact opposite.

Which is why he begins to watch Xiao Shu more closely, taking care to stand a little bit closer than usual, to touch Xiao Shu’s arm to get his attention instead of calling his name, to allow their fingers to brush whenever Jingyan hands him anything.

Xiao Shu, who is so perceptive when it comes to everything else, doesn’t seem to notice anything amiss, however, leaving Jingyan at a complete loss as to what to do next.

“Oh look, dumplings!” Xiao Shu exclaims delightedly, catching Jingyan’s sleeve and pointing. “Come on, let’s go and buy some.”

Holding an arm in front of him with an elbow turned delicately out in what Jingyan has come to call his Young Master Pose, Xiao Shu gives a practised flick of his robes and strolls towards the stall, a studiously benign expression on his face.

“You’re the one who wants to look like a young man of leisure,” Jingyan grumbles half-heartedly, following closely behind like a grumpy crimson shadow. “I don’t see why you always need to drag me along, too. This is the exact opposite of the image I’m supposed to be trying to cultivate.”

“You’re very eye-catching,” Xiao Shu answers serenely, glancing back at him with a small half-smile that makes Jingyan’s heart speed up in his chest. “And not just because of the red – it’s in the way you carry yourself. Like a charging water buffalo,” he adds somewhat unnecessarily, eyes dancing. “It helps me get noticed, even when I’m appearing to be the kind of person who isn’t terribly noticeable.”

They take their dumplings and head down the street, wandering aimlessly and taking in whatever sights cross their path. Jingyan stops to admire a row of blossoms on a tree branch and, just as he’s about to mention Minister Wu’s bee story, feels something brush gently against his hair.

Glancing back, he finds Xiao Shu’s attention fixed on a point at the back of his head. After a moment, Xiao Shu meets his gaze, smiles and holds up the leaf he’s picked out from Jingyan’s hair.

It’s not an unusual thing for Xiao Shu to do, Jingyan thinks. But now that he’s paying attention, he realises that it is a fairly intimate thing for a best friend to do. To be honest, a great many of the things Xiao Shu does with him seem to rank pretty highly on the “taking liberties” scale, now that Jingyan thinks about it. Eating off his plate, feeding him with chopsticks, straightening his clothes, brushing hair out of his face, drawing his sword from his hip to point at things – are those things that best friends normally do?

“Don’t Dong-jie and Feng-ge live in this area?” Xiao Shu asks suddenly, disrupting Jingyan’s train of thought. “Why don’t we go and visit them, since we’re already here?”

Filing his thoughts away for a later time, Jingyan shrugs and follows Xiao Shu on the familiar path to Dong-jie’s door.

When they arrive, Dong-jie laughs and ushers them in, telling them that Meng-dage is there too, out somewhere in the garden with Feng-ge, having a friendly spar. Xiao Shu clearly wants to consult Dong-jie on Xuanjing Bureau-related matters, so Jingyan excuses himself and wanders off to find Meng-dage and Feng-ge instead.

“Not bad, Nie Feng!” Meng-dage shouts happily as Jingyan steps into the courtyard, parrying a kick from Feng-ge and immediately following with three quick punches of his own. “You almost had me there!”

“I know you’re trying to make me feel better,” Feng-ge grunts, staggering back a few steps from the force of Meng-dage’s jumping kick as it lands against his raised forearms. “But you can stop pretending now! We both know you could’ve had me five moves ago.”

He flips backwards to evade a series of leg sweeps and spinning kicks. “And three moves before that!”

Meng-dage gives a booming laugh and intercepts a punch, ducking and using the strike’s momentum to flip Feng-ge over his shoulder.

“You’ve improved a lot, though!” he says brightly. “Been practising with Xia Dong, ha – ah!” he exclaims suddenly, turning and spotting Jingyan. He absently grabs Feng-ge’s leg mid-kick as it sails towards his side and pushes hard, sending his opponent flying back. “A visitor!”

“Aren’t you also a visitor?” Feng-ge snorts, landing lightly on his feet and immediately making for Jingyan. “Your Highness, it’s good to see you. What brings you here today?”

“Xiao Shu wanted to speak to Dong-jie about something – probably Xuanjing Bureau torture and interrogation methods,” Jingyan says, thinking of the way Xiao Shu’s been grimacing a lot more lately while doing his reading.

Though it hasn’t stopped him from eating his way through all of Jingyan’s snacks, Jingyan thinks fondly.

(He’s doomed.)

“Don’t let me interrupt you, though,” Jingyan tells Feng-ge and Meng-dage. “I was happy just watching.”

“I think I’ve had enough humiliation for one day,” Feng-ge says wryly, eyeing Meng-dage. “Would you like to take a turn instead?”

Meng-dage’s face lights up at the prospect of more fighting.

Jingyan shrugs. Why not?

After he’s been cheerfully and thoroughly defeated, he sits down with Feng-ge and Meng-dage to have a post-training drink of water, and receive some brotherly fighting tips.

“You have a tendency to pay attention to what’s happening on your right side more than your left,” Meng-dage tells him, draining his cup and setting it down on the table with a satisfied sigh. “It makes you very easy to take by surprise, and your opponents are going to take advantage of that. In fact, Xiao Shu already takes advantage of it, when he–”

Feng-ge clears his throat meaningfully and elbows Meng-dage in the side, cutting him off with a surprised “oof”.

“When he–?” Jingyan asks pointedly, eyes darting from one to the other suspiciously.

“Ah!” Meng-dage says, giving a nervous laugh and busying himself with pouring more water. “When he fights you, of course. Like an opponent!”

Jingyan frowns at him, but Meng-dage is now determinedly avoiding his gaze, suddenly absorbed in drinking water.

Feng-ge simply shakes his head at Meng-dage and refuses to explain any further, saying enigmatically that he refuses to involve himself in the mating dances of idiots.


When Xiao Shu has exhausted Dong-jie’s store of knowledge, they return to Jingyan’s residence, where Xiao Shu has arranged to stay for the night.

Leading the way down the corridor to the guest quarters, Jingyan is just about to turn and wish Xiao Shu a good night, when hands hit his chest, his back hits the wall and he finds himself being held down and fiercely kissed.

His muffled cry of surprise turns into a moan when Xiao Shu pushes a knee between his legs and presses up against him, rubbing against him teasingly. Taking advantage of the fact that Xiao Shu isn’t wearing his arm braces, Jingyan slides his hand into one of Xiao Shu’s sleeves and strokes lightly against the skin he finds there.

Xiao Shu shudders.

“A bold move,” he murmurs approvingly, pressing closer. “Your recovery time is improving.”

A noise from somewhere in the garden startles them both into breaking apart, and Jingyan takes the opportunity to push Xiao Shu in through the door. Once inside, it’s Jingyan’s turn to corner Xiao Shu, crowding him backwards into the room, their eyes locked, until the backs of his thighs hit the edge of a chest of drawers.

He stops Xiao Shu’s delighted laugh with his mouth, leaning forward to brace his hands on the flat wooden surface and pen Xiao Shu in. Xiao Shu responds by leaning back and tilting his head up, mouth warm and uncharacteristically pliant, so really, Jingyan should’ve expected him to suddenly push forward forcefully and chase Jingyan’s tongue back into his mouth.

Xiao Shu takes advantage of Jingyan’s surprise to shove him backwards and into the bedroom, launching himself after and tumbling them both down onto the bed, laughing again. Determined not to be outdone, Jingyan rolls them over so that he’s on top, shifting up to straddle Xiao Shu’s waist. He opens his mouth to speak, but is caught by the sight of Xiao Shu smiling up at him, hair fanning over the pillow, and he freezes, heart too full to do anything but stare.

“What’s wrong?” Xiao Shu asks, pushing Jingyan back just enough to sit up and reach out a hand to touch his cheek.

And it’s too much, Jingyan thinks, chest suddenly tight. They’ve gone too far. It must be too far; it can’t be right for him to go on with Xiao Shu in this way, not when he feels like this. He needs to – he needs to–

Jingyan pauses, unsure.

“Jingyan?” Xiao Shu says, peering into his face, expression suddenly serious. He brings his other hand up to Jingyan’s face as well, pulling it gently towards himself until their foreheads are pressed together.

“Jingyan,” he begins. “Don’t–”

“Don’t tell me not to be afraid!” Jingyan barks.

Xiao Shu chuckles and pinches Jingyan’s cheeks, making him scrunch up his face in protest.

“Did we go too quickly?” Xiao Shu asks gently, when Jingyan is looking at him again. “Shall we slow down?”

“No, I–” Jingyan begins, but then he falters, unsure of how to finish.

Confessing everything all at once would surely be too sudden. Not to mention that he still doesn’t know how Xiao Shu is likely to respond – and if Xiao Shu isn’t interested, everything about their current situation would make it very difficult for him to extricate himself. Jingyan doesn’t want him to feel trapped.

Xiao Shu seems to be enjoying the kissing – but does that mean that he’ll be more likely to think of Jingyan romantically the longer they continue? Or just more likely to get sick of him, particularly so when Jingyan oversteps the boundaries of his offer?

Jingyan closes his eyes for a moment, feeling frustrated and miserable. He needs – he needs –

He needs more time.

He opens his eyes and nods mutely.

Xiao Shu smiles softly and nods back. Leaning backwards, he lowers himself back onto the bed again, pulling Jingyan down with him. Tucking Jingyan’s face into his neck with one hand, he strokes Jingyan’s back comfortingly with the other, warm palm rubbing slow, soothing circles through the fabric of Jingyan’s clothing.

Jerkily at first, but steadily calming under the effect of Xiao Shu’s ministrations, Jingyan breathes.

Chapter Text

All warfare is based on deception.

 

“Jingyan!” Xiao Shu shouts, bursting into the study, robes and hair fluttering around him.

“What? What?!” Jingyan cries whirling around from the bookshelf, fumbling and only narrowly avoiding dropping the book he’s holding.

“The letter we were waiting for came from Langzhou today,” Xiao Shu declares. “I’ve sent someone to Prince Ji, and he says he’s free–”

He cuts himself off with a small huff of laughter.

“What am I saying,” he says amusedly, “it’s a pleasure house; he’s always free for those. In any case, we’re going tonight.”

“Letter?” Jingyan repeats faintly. “Pleasure house? Tonight?”

His fingers tighten convulsively on the volume in his hands. His heart is not prepared for this.

“He’ll meet us in the city,” Xiao Shu continues, either not noticing Jingyan’s reaction or simply choosing to ignore it. He helps himself to a book from the pile beside Jingyan’s desk and settles down to read. “So finish up whatever you’re doing, get changed, and then we’ll go.”


“The mourning period was so difficult to bear,” Prince Ji laments, shaking his head in remembered pain as they stroll into the entertainment district. “Music and dancing banned, no entertaining at home and no going out to seek entertainment – no joy to be had anywhere!”

Then he raises his head, looks around them and sighs happily.

“But now – music! Dancing! And the company of the girls! Come along, boys,” he says gesturing to them in sudden impatience. “We’re wasting time – the girls are waiting for us!”

“Relax, Jingyan,” Xiao Shu says, taking Jingyan’s arm as they follow Prince Ji towards one of the brightly-lit buildings. “You look really tense. People are going to notice.”

“How can I?” Jingyan demands in a fierce undertone. “Look where we are! And you’re not even of age!”

“I’m going to listen to some music, watch some dancing, and drink, Jingyan,” Xiao Shu says mildly. “I’m not going to buy a woman.”

He glances around and then leans in more closely.

“Do you remember what you have to do?” he murmurs into Jingyan’s ear.

Jingyan throws him a quick sideways look and then nods curtly.

Xiao Shu gives him a small half-smile in acknowledgment and continues towards the door.

“Right!” he cries, when they reach it, turning around and clapping his hands down onto Jingyan’s shoulders.

“Remember, Jingyan,” he says seriously, giving Jingyan a little shake. “Don’t be afraid.”

“WHO’S AFRAID?” Jingyan shouts, shoving a sniggering Xiao Shu away from him with great indignation. “What do you take me for? As if I would be afraid of something like this!”

“That’s only because you haven’t thought about what would happen if your mother found out, yet,” Xiao Shu smirks, quickly stepping inside when he looks up to find Prince Ji waving impatiently at them.

“What, are you going to tell her, and risk facing the disappointment yourself?” Jingyan asks pointedly, though he hurries after Prince Ji as well, and then they’re too busy being ushered into a private room by an over-attentive madam to continue.

Jingyan finds himself seated next to Xiao Shu at a low table, watching a group of six girls dancing as a group of five more play a collection of instruments in a corner. Prince Ji is seated a short distance away, a girl on each arm, already looking like he’s having the time of his life.

At the sound of the door opening, Jingyan glances up to see a pair of pretty young girls being shown into the room. The first heads over to Xiao Shu’s other side, smiling coyly and introducing herself as Biyu. Xiao Shu smiles at her, shifting sideways and inviting her to take a seat. When she accepts, he asks her to tell him about herself, and then allows her to pour him some win, tuck her arm into his and nestle into his side.

Jingyan knows it’s just her job, and he knows that Xiao Shu is only pretending to be charmed. But even so, Jingyan thinks, glancing over when Xiao Shu laughs in response to a flirtatious comment, he hates her already.

The other girl kneels down on Jingyan’s other side and refills his cup, introducing herself softly as Lanlan.

“Just leave the wine and go,” Jingyan tells her brusquely, attention still mostly on Xiao Shu and Biyu.

“But–” she protests faintly, wide eyes flying up to his in surprise. “But, Your Highness–”

He turns to look at her and she quickly bows her head.

“If I am not to Your Highness’s liking,” she says haltingly, “would Your Highness like for me to find a replacement?”

“Ah,” Jingyan says awkwardly, suddenly struck with remorse. “No, I just – it’s not you, you haven’t done anything wrong. I’m just not–”

She remains kneeling there, eyes downcast. Jingyan notices that she’s begun to tremble faintly.

“Why don’t you go and join Prince Ji?” he tries, making an effort to gentle both his tone and expression. “I’m sure he’d be glad to have your company,” he adds, when she looks up at him uncertainly.

Hesitantly, she rises, bows, and then shuffles towards Prince Ji, who welcomes her enthusiastically and urges her to take a seat, patting the cushion next to him invitingly.

“Why don’t you go and ask Prince Ji which wine we should order next?” Xiao Shu suggests to Biyu from beside him. “I think we’ll run out, soon, and I don’t want to make any decisions without his approval first.”

After she goes, he leans into Jingyan, making a show of pointing at one of the dancing girls and laughing while he mutters through his teeth: “Can you look a little less like you hate everything about this? I’ve seen men being flogged who looked happier than you.”

So has Jingyan – that residential alleyway in the western part of the city is an eye-opening place to stumble upon by accident at night.

“You know what I mean,” Xiao Shu says. Judging from the accompanying snort, he knows exactly what Jingyan’s thinking about. “But seriously, you’re going to start a fight with one of the other patrons if you leave the room with that angry bull face.”

Jingyan tries his best, but judging by Xiao Shu’s frequent eye-rolls, he still fails miserably.

“Xiao Shu!” Prince Ji exclaims suddenly, when the music changes again and the dancing girls begin a different style of dance. “This song has just reminded me – the new star at my favourite musical hall does an amazing rendition of it – truly moving!”

He closes his eyes for a moment and smiles wistfully in remembrance.

“In any case,” he continues earnestly, “now that we’re allowed, I’m hosting a small party at my residence on the fifth of next month and I’ve engaged her to perform. You should come along!”

“If she’s a music hall star,” Xiao Shu says easily, accepting another cup of wine from Biyu, “and you’ve given me so much notice, how can I refuse? Of course I’ll–”

“No, you can’t,” Jingyan interrupts brusquely, setting down his empty cup and pouring himself more wine.

No?” Xiao Shu demands, turning to stare at him. “Why ever not? I’m sure Prince Ji meant to extend the invitation to you, too, Jingyan.” His mouth curls into a smirk, and he adds, “Well, as long as you don’t bring that angry bull face you’ve been wearing all night!”

Biyu and a few of the girls around Prince Ji titter softly.

“Jingyan, don’t be like that,” Prince Ji says, waving a conciliatory hand in Jingyan’s direction. “Of course I meant to invite you, I wouldn’t have mentioned it in front of you if I didn’t! You’ll enjoy her playing, too, I’m sure.”

“I can’t, either,” Jingyan says, shaking his head. “We’re taking Yujin out to play on the fifth.”

“Oh, that’s right!” Xiao Shu exclaims, slapping his palms together in realisation. “I completely forgot.”

“Taking Yujin out?” Prince Ji asks, frowning, taking an arm back from the girl massaging it to take another sip of wine. “And you can’t reschedule your play date?”

“No,” Xiao Shu says, shaking his head apologetically. “It’s because Marquis Yan is going out to the temple again.”

“That man,” Prince Ji says, shaking his head as the girl resumes her ministrations. “He should just go and become a monk, already.”

“It’s not even that, this time,” Xiao Shu says, laughing. “Apparently, he’s meeting someone there. He was supposed to take Yujin out for a day; they’ve been planning it for weeks, but he suddenly received this letter and had to cancel. Yujin was inconsolable, so Marquis Yan bribed him with us.”

“Ah, so it’s like that, is it?” Prince Ji says, nodding. “Who’s he meeting, then? A monk?”

“He wouldn’t mention any names,” Xiao Shu says, frowning thoughtfully and taking another sip of wine. “He did say it was the son of a friend, though. Stopping by on his way to the North from somewhere – the South, I suppose?”

“No,” Jingyan corrects him. “It was the West. He’s being sent north to live with relatives.”

(“Xia Jiang has always suspected that his wife took their son and went west,” Xiao Shu says, in Jingyan’s study, in the midst of their preliminary planning. “She knew more people there than he did. So he’s always focused a large part of his search efforts on that area. Obviously she knew that, and that was exactly the reason she didn’t go. But Xia Jiang is arrogant, and overly-confident in his own abilities, so if we confirm his suspicions, he’ll feel that the story is more likely to be true.”)

“Yes, that’s right,” Xiao Shu agrees easily. “The son is staying the night at the temple. Not sure why he doesn’t just stay in the city – at Marquis Yan’s residence, even. There’s nothing improper about that. But instead they’re making Marquis Yan travel all the way out to see him – it’s strange.”

“His friend is probably a monk,” Prince Ji says dismissively, waving his hand at them.

“How can you say that?” Xiao Shu laughs. “If he were a monk, how would he have a son? But also, I think the friend is actually a woman. She’s ill and dying – that’s why she’s sending her son away.”

“It happens,” Prince Ji says significantly, his face assuming a knowing expression. “But all right, a nun, then. Or maybe the son wants to be a monk.”

The thing is, Jingyan thinks, taking another sip of wine, Prince Ji isn’t even overselling the “monk” point. Marquis Yan really has been living a very monkly life for a great many years, and everyone in the city knows it. Apart from the fact that he has to waste a lot of time ostentatiously setting out to visit this temple or that one before doubling back in secret, it really is an excellent cover for the work he’s currently doing for the Emperor.

“Well, he’s six,” Xiao Shu says dubiously. “So I doubt it. Do you think she’s deliberately keeping him out of Jinling, for some reason? Maybe he’s someone’s secret lovechild.”

“Who knows,” Prince Ji says, shrugging expansively. “Dying people do strange things. Why are you thinking so hard about this, Xiao Shu? You don’t even know her. Whatever – more music is what we need, more music!”

“Of course, Your Highness!” the girls chorus, fluttering around the room to make the arrangements.

Studiously not turning in her direction, Jingyan nevertheless notes that, although she’s recovered very well now, Biyu had gone very quiet while they’d been talking.

He glances at Xiao Shu, and receives an almost imperceptible nod.


Jingyan and Xiao Shu arrive at the Royal Apartments the next morning for a debrief, but find the Emperor temporarily out on other business.

The Empress is there with Tingsheng, however, and upon spotting Jingyan, she strides over to him and shoves her son into his arms.

“No!” Jingyan shouts, but it’s too late; his arms close automatically around the baby and the Empress darts backwards out of reach, cackling.

Jingyan stands stiffly and awkwardly, staring down at Tingsheng, who is staring right back. A low-level panic is rising in his stomach but Jingyan is too afraid to move because, not only is Tingsheng a baby, impossibly small and delicate, he’s also the Emperor’s baby – what if Jingyan drops him?

Having done his fair share of babysitting toddlers and taking small children on outings, Jingyan likes children and is reasonably good with them. But Xiao Shu’s always been the one who holds the babies; Jingyan only really feels comfortable with children once they’ve learned how to walk.

Tingsheng chooses that moment to start crying.

“No!” Jingyan says desperately, not even sure of how to free a hand to comfort him. To be honest, even the gentle rocking motion he’s instinctively started up seems like a terrifying risk when he has so little idea of what he’s doing.

Sister-in-law,” he pleads, trying to move towards her and hand the baby over, but she dances backwards, eyes sparkling. “Take him away from me, this is dangerous! Xiao Shu,” he bleats next, turning his head towards his friend. “You’ve got to take him, look, he hates me!”

“He doesn’t hate you,” the Empress laughs. “And if he does, he’ll get over it.”

“You’re doing fine,” Xiao Shu adds, exchanging a grin with her. “You’ve got to learn how to hold a baby sometime.”

The face that Jingyan pulls just makes Xiao Shu and the Empress laugh more.

Surprisingly, Tingsheng does get over it. Sobs subsiding into hiccups, which then stop completely, he looks up into Jingyan’s face curiously and Jingyan’s pounding heart slows. Slowly, carefully, he shifts Tingsheng into a more comfortable position and gingerly frees one of his own arms to gently wipe the tear-tracks from his cheeks.

When a chubby fist closes around some hair and pulls, Jingyan snorts and gently unfolds the tiny fingers, extricating his hair and giving Tingsheng a finger to hold onto instead.

He looks up to find the Empress and Xiao Shu standing together, watching them and cooing.

“Is everyone torturing Jingyan again?” the Emperor asks, stepping into the room, his entrance announced by the sudden bowing of all the servants. “You should really stop doing that, it’s kind of mean.”

“Oh, you’re here now?” the Empress asks, scooping her son out of Jingyan’s arms and freeing him up to make his own bow. “Then we’ll go and visit the Empress Dowager and Great Grandmother. You can tell me all the details later.”

Shifting Tingsheng higher up onto her shoulder, she bows as well, then summons all the servants and troops out.

“So, you wanted to speak to me?” the Emperor asks, gesturing towards the cushions on the floor before taking a seat himself. “This is unexpected. Didn’t we already have a meeting scheduled for tomorrow?”

“The letter came early,” Xiao Shu says, plonking himself down on the floor and crossing his legs. “We thought we may as well start early, to give us more time later.”

“… Yeah,” the Emperor says hesitantly after a short moment, “I’ve had a lot of things to do since our last meeting, so I must confess that I no longer have any idea of what you’re talking about. What letter?”

“Did I not tell you–?” Xiao Shu asks, tilting his head up thoughtfully, before continuing with, “Oh that’s right, no I didn’t, because I wasn’t sure if it would work out, and then I forgot. Sorry! Do you remember how I mentioned that Langya Hall found Xia Jiang’s wife, a Madam Han?”

“Yes, I remember,” the Emperor nods. “Marquis Yan was looking to get a list of Hua spy names from her.”

“That’s right,” Xiao Shu agrees, helping himself to one of the oranges sitting in a bowl on the low table between them. “You also know that Father and Uncle Yan have successfully kept Princess Xuanji holed up in her hiding place by co-ordinating teams from the Ministry of Justice, the city patrol patterns and whatever else they’re using. But they’ve also been able to keep Xia Jiang from going to see her in person. He’s been quiet up until now, but we’re not sure how long he’s willing to remain that way, and it’s obviously better for us if we have some measure of control over his movements. And I thought, since we’ve contacted his wife, why not take full advantage of that – why stop at the names? Everyone knows that Xia Jiang’s been searching for his son for years and that it’s his biggest weakness. So I decided to dig into his pain.”

“Seriously,” the Emperor comments to Jingyan, with a sad shake of his head. “Stone cold.”

“So I sent her a letter,” Xiao Shu continues, well-practised at ignoring them now, “asking if she could write a fake letter to Uncle Yan, for us to bait Xia Jiang with, and she agreed. Or rather, she wrote the letter, and Uncle Yan received it yesterday.”

“And this letter will tell Xia Jiang that …?” the Emperor prompts.

“Well, he’s not going to receive it just yet,” Xiao Shu says, taking out a small knife from somewhere and beginning to peel the fruit. “Yesterday, we went with Prince Ji to that brothel and dropped just enough hints to get Princess Xuanji’s people investigating.”

“We’re fairly certain that the girl attending Xiao Shu was one of them, and that we caught her attention,” Jingyan says, shaking his head when Xiao Shu offers him a segment after the Emperor has already taken one. “I suspect the one on Prince Ji’s left as well, but I wasn’t sure.”

“Oh, you noticed her, too?” Xiao Shu asks, chewing and swallowing. “In any case, Your Majesty, the full story, once we allow Xia Jiang to ‘discover’ it, will be that Madam Han is sick and dying, and that her son will be travelling to the North to live with relatives after she dies.”

“I never asked,” Jingyan says, as the thought suddenly occurring to him. “Does she have relatives in the North?”

“Strangely enough,” Xiao Shu says, turning to point an orange segment at him, “yes, she does. Lucky, isn’t it? Anyway, the letter states that her son, Xia Zhuo, will be arriving in the Jinling area because he has to, but won’t be coming into Jinling itself because his mother is worried that it’s too close to Xia Jiang, and therefore will be staying at a temple a short distance away, where Uncle Yan will go to check on him.”

He takes another bite of orange before continuing.

“And that puts a nice little limit on the time that Xia Jiang has to break out of the city, if he wants to collect his son as he passes through.”

“So you’re hoping the emotional distraction and the need to rush will make him careless?” the Emperor asks, rolling his eyes and pushing the bowl of oranges toward Xiao Shu when he finishes his last segment and looks down at the empty peel sadly.

“Yes,” Xiao Shu says, picking up a second orange and taking up his knife again. “I wanted to ask you, actually, Your Majesty – I’ve never had much to do with Xia Jiang, but you’ve worked with him before. Do you think it will work?”

The Emperor thinks for a moment.

“Yes, probably,” he says, nodding. “Is that all you’re aiming for?”

Xiao Shu snorts.

“Do you even know me?” he asks, and then it’s the Emperor’s turn to snort, because of course there’s more. “So Princess Xuanji obviously knows that this is Xia Jiang’s biggest weakness, and that they can’t afford to be careless if they don’t want to be caught,” he says, eyes fixed on the white strands of pith he’s picking off the outside of his fruit.

“Particularly with Father and Uncle Yan’s men closing in. Since the information has gone to her people first, finding out enough to confirm that this boy truly is Xia Zhuo will place her in a very interesting position. Does she tell Xia Jiang, and risk him getting distracted? Or does she keep the one thing that is dearest to his heart from him, and risk being exposed for her betrayal? Obviously,” he says, between bites, “if she chooses the second option, we will make sure that Xia Jiang discovers her betrayal.”

“And if she chooses the first?” the Emperor inquires.

“Well, then Xia Jiang will be distracted,” Xiao Shu says, shrugging. “Well, actually,” he amends after a moment, “given our plan to leak the information, quite clearly he’s going to be distracted either way.”

He laughs.

“Stone cold,” the Emperor mouths to Jingyan.

“And then, regardless of what happens,” Xiao Shu says, waving the partially-eaten orange segment in his hands in emphasis, “we’ll use the names that Madam Han gave us, and the information Uncle Thirteen has discovered so far, to uproot all the Hua spies that Xia Jiang is supposed to be aware of, all at once. Princess Xuanji will think he betrayed her – her sister was already betrayed by a Liang man, after all, and Xia Jiang now has his son for a motive to separate his interests from hers.

“We’ll also take out one or two of his people,” Xiao Shu adds, “but only the ones he can most afford to lose. “That,” he says, grinning, “will make her absolutely certain that he’s betrayed her. And that’s why I’m hoping for the second option – because then they’ll each have betrayed the other. Double betrayal. No, wait,” he says suddenly, looking down with a stricken expression. “If she gives him the information, and then he betrays her, she’ll feel doubly betrayed anyway.”

He raises his head again, eyes lighting up in realisation.

“Either way,” Xiao Shu says fervently, “I win!”

“Seriously,” the Emperor says, rubbing his arms and looking like he doesn’t know if he wants to laugh or cry.

“Wait,” Jingyan says, before his brother can finish his sentence. “I know we can arrange for spies to see the letter and pass the information back, but Xia Jiang will want to see it himself, to check that it really is his wife’s handwriting. What can we do about that? Plan another brothel trip and pretend that you’ve ‘borrowed’ and then ‘dropped’ it?”

“No need for that,” Xiao Shu says, looking amused. “We’ve planted a fake spy at the Yan residence – like the one we have at ours, to stop Princess Xuanji from trying to send a real one in. Actually, at the Yan residence, we have two – one pretending to be one of Princess Xuanji’s people and one pretending to be Xia Jiang’s. We’ll see how Xia Jiang and the princess play it out, and then we’ll have one of them ‘steal’ the letter from Uncle Yan’s study.”

He takes another bite of orange.

“Don’t think that gets you out of further trips to the pleasure houses, though,” he adds after he swallows, smirking. “That’s definitely happening again.”

“And no one is going to suspect Madam Han?” Jingyan asks, choosing to ignore the point about the brothel.

“No,” Xiao Shu answers, shaking his head. “They believe that if she wanted to betray them, she would’ve done it the first time – she knew enough and was certainly resourceful enough to do it. Apparently Xia Jiang had people on alert everywhere the year after she left, ready to intercept anything she put into motion. But she chose a quiet life in the country with her son, so.”

He shrugs.

“And yet she’s agreed to help you. What changed her mind?” the Emperor asks curiously.

“To be honest,” Xiao Shu says directly, “it was you.”

The Emperor raises an eyebrow.

“As it turns out,” Xiao Shu explains, raising both of his own in earnest response, “Madam Han is actually quite patriotic. And apparently, even under the late Emperor’s rule, she’s always strongly believed that it would be you who would lead Daliang to peace and prosperity.”

He looks down at his hands, the cheeky look fading from his face.

“You know,” he says thoughtfully, “I don’t think she ever expected Princess Xuanji and Xia Jiang’s plotting to get very far, so she decided that it would simply be enough for her to avoid all involvement. When we told her about the Chiyan plot, and then the bombing afterwards–”

Xiao Shu clears his throat and turns back to the Emperor with a grave expression.

“What I’m trying to say, Your Majesty, is that it was your legendary popularity that was behind this woman’s change of heart. Please allow this humble subject to express his complete and utter respect for you.”

He raises his hands and bows deeply over the bowl of oranges.

“Thank you, Xiao Shu,” the Emperor says dryly, turning to Jingyan with an exasperated expression that has long been extremely familiar to all three of them. “I’m truly flattered. If you write back to Madam Han, make sure to tell her so, and give her my deepest thanks.”


Jingyan has decided that he really hates pleasure houses.

Xiao Shu determines that the best way to keep Princess Xuanji and her information network occupied is to spread a little panic amongst them. Accordingly, he asks the Empress, Empress Dowager and Jingyan’s mother to start rumours that the Emperor has finally found the time to decide Prince Yu’s fate, and recruits some of the ministers to spread them using the Hua spies Uncle Thirteen has identified in their homes as well.

Xiao Shu and Jingyan then proceed to embark on a series of trips to the entertainment district with Prince Ji, ostensibly to relax after being forced to attend gruelling meetings with the Emperor and his counsel on the issue, and the careful theatrics begin.

Xiao Shu, having succeeded in his aim of cultivating a reputation for being a chatty drunk, begins to let slip a comment about a different wasteland, country backwater or conflict-ridden border being considered for Prince Yu’s ultimate destination every time he’s out.

To keep up the charade, Jingyan invariably responds by hurriedly shushing him, and Prince Ji follows by languidly waving off Jingyan’s concerns, because, “We’re all friends here, Jingyan, don’t worry so much. All the girls here are good girls, they know how to keep secrets!”

(“Oh, they’re very good,” Uncle Thirteen says later. “Each rumour is relayed across to Princess Xuanji within a day; it’s very impressive. By all accounts, she’s dividing her time between trying to influence the ministers she thinks are involved in the decision-making, and making contingency plans for every possible outcome.”)

Jingyan, on the other hand, has inadvertently succeeded in cultivating his own kind of reputation, which is much less useful, and yet, perversely, much more widespread.

(“Jingyan,” his brother says, expression suspiciously bland. “This rumour that’s going around about you being Xiao Shu’s jealous boyfriend who’s following him to every pleasure house to prevent any of the girls getting too close. An interesting ploy to go with.”

“It’s so bad, you don’t even know!” Xiao Shu half-groans and half-laughs, while Jingyan gapes at his brother, mortified. “I thought, the first time, it was just because he was nervous, but no, every time we go, he sits there, glowering at everything and drinking his way through bottle after bottle. Every time a girl tries to touch him, he glares at her like it’s an affront – aside from making sure he’s always got plenty of wine, they all give him a wide berth now, and I really can’t blame them.”

“Oh, Jingyan,” the Emperor says, with fond pity.

Jingyan stares at his feet, only grateful that Xiao Shu hasn’t mentioned how much harder Jingyan always glares at the girls who touch him.)

After this is all over, he’s never setting foot in another pleasure house again.

He sighs and pours himself some more wine.

Beside him, Xiao Shu, who has been steadily appearing to be drunker and drunker throughout the night, drains another cup and sighs happily.

“It’s so nice to be able to finally relax,” he says, placing his cup on the table and leaning back just a little unsteadily.

“So it’s all settled, then?” Prince Ji asks, over the music.

“Yes,” Xiao Shu says absent-mindedly, eyes fixed on the row of girls performing for them. “I thought the meetings were never going to end. Prince Yu’s wife won’t be happy, of course.”

“Because her husband will be sent away as soon as he returns?” Prince Ji inquires. “Well, she’ll still have a week or two to spend with him while he prepares, and while the people at wherever he’s headed to prepare to receive him, won’t she?”

“No, that’s all done already,” Xiao Shu answers, shaking his head. “And thank goodness, too, it certainly took us long enough. As soon as the announcement is made, Prince Yu will be sent directly from the earthquake relief effort to his new destination; he won’t be coming back to Jinling at all. Minister Shen will make the report to the Emperor in his stead.”

“So quickly?” Prince Ji exclaims, glancing curiously at the girl on his left, who has suddenly frozen in the middle of massaging his arm.

“Well, we don’t want to give him any time,” Xiao Shu says, turning to give Prince Ji a significant look, which Prince Ji returns.

Biyu takes this opportunity to come over and pour Xiao Shu some more wine.

“You must be tired from arranging all of the preparations,” she says, settling down behind him, placing her hands on his shoulders and beginning to rub and knead.

“I complain more than I should, really,” Xiao Shu demurs, flashing her a crooked smile. “It was no different from the usual military preparations, really.”

“Were you chosen to help because of your military experience then?” she asks, wide-eyed with coquettish curiosity. “I hear that your track record is very impressive.”

“Mm, no thank you,” Xiao Shu murmurs.

“Sir?” she asks, taken aback.

“Hm?” Xiao Shu asks, turning around to face her. “Oh, I’m sorry, I was distracted – what did you say?”

“Ah,” she says, averting her eyes and smiling shyly. “It wasn’t important, it was only. I was only curious, and my question was a little impertinent– ”

“Well, that’s all right then,” Xiao Shu says, smiling at her and turning his attention back to the dancing.

She looks up in shock and Jingyan quickly directs his eyes down to his wine, pretending to be immersed in drinking.

After a moment, he glances back up and continues watching as Biyu tries to probe Xiao Shu with a different line of questioning, to no greater success. Xiao Shu deliberately strings her along, giving seemingly useful answers before promptly contradicting them all in the next breath, or, alternatively, pretends to be either too immersed in the music or too entranced by the dancing to give a proper answer.

As Biyu’s frustration visibly builds, one of the girls by Prince Ji makes her excuses and steps out of the room, returning with a bottle of wine, which she exchanges for Jingyan’s spent one before smoothly inserting herself between him and Xiao Shu.

Drawing Xiao Shu’s attention with a gentle touch on his arm, she asks if he’d like her to fetch him anything and takes the opportunity provided by his polite refusal to strike up a conversation.

Again, Xiao Shu begins by listening attentively, but whenever the topic wanders over to anything that might be of interest to Princess Xuanji, he’s conveniently distracted, or has timed his answer just right, so that it’s drowned out by a sudden burst of laughter from Prince Ji’s side of the room.

“More wine, sir?” Biyu asks, holding up a bottle, ready to pour.

“Yes, thank you,” Xiao Shu says, setting down his cup and pushing it towards her.

“Oh look!” the girl on his other side exclaims suddenly, pointing to something in the musicians’ corner of the room, and Jingyan sees Biyu take advantage of the diversion to slip something from her sleeve into Xiao Shu’s cup.

He jumps from his seat, pushing the girl between them aside, and grabs Xiao Shu’s wrist to stop him from lifting the cup to his mouth.

“Jingyan?” Xiao Shu asks, looking up at him in genuine surprise. “What’s wrong?”

“Don’t drink that,” Jingyan snaps, taking the cup from Xiao Shu’s unresisting hand and pointing an accusing finger at Biyu, who blanches. “She put something in it!”

Lurching up to his feet, Jingyan strides to the door, flings it open and calls loudly for the madam, determined to make the biggest fuss possible, so that they’ll have an excuse to take Biyu in for questioning.

“What’s going on?” he can hear Prince Ji ask from behind him. “What happened? Jingyan? Xiao Shu?”

“Your Highness?” the madam asks anxiously, rushing in. “Whatever is the matter to make you shout so, did something happen–”

“Is this how you treat your guests?” Jingyan demands, deliberately pitching his voice so that it carries through to the area outside. “Drugging their wine, so you can – what, steal from them? As if we haven’t already paid you enough–”

“Your Highness, what are you saying?” the madam pleads, half-bending and pressing his arm with both hands in an attempt to placate him. “Your Highness, you are our honoured guests, who would dare–”

This girl,” Jingyan thunders, glancing out from the corner of his eye at the patrons he can see gathering outside the door. “I saw this girl drop something into my friend’s drink.”

“Biyu?” the madam gasps, turning to her.

“I didn’t, madam, I didn’t,” Biyu says, eyes wide. “I only poured the wine–”

“Then drink it,” Jingyan says, holding the cup out to her.

She stares at the cup, and then looks uncertainly up at Jingyan, who raises an expectant eyebrow.

Then she knocks the cup out of his hand and runs.

“Stop her!” he can hear the madam shouting behind him, but Jingyan is already giving chase, pushing past shouting guests and confused girls, eyes fixed on the fleeing girl ahead of him. Halfway down the flight of stairs, he puts one hand on the banister and then springs off it, flipping neatly over the heads of the crowd in front of him and landing right in front of a running Biyu, blocking her path.

She skids to a stop, and then, a determined expression coming over her face, raises her fists and runs at him to deliver a flying kick. She’s good, Jingyan admits, blocking the kick and locking his hands around her ankle, twisting from side to side to dodge the kicks she aims at him with her other leg while his hands are occupied. But she’s no Meng-dage, he thinks, letting go of her leg to launch his own attack, and Jingyan is military.

Defeating and restraining her is no challenge at all.


Jingyan’s mother looks at him silently from across the low table, her face absolutely expressionless.

With no idea of what he’s done to merit such a frosty reception, Jingyan sits up as straight as he can and fights the urge to fidget nervously with the skirt of his robe.

“I’ve heard,” she begins quietly, and Jingyan blanches at the complete absence of warmth in her voice, “that you have been visiting pleasure houses as of late.”

He freezes.

“I had been wondering,” she continues, gaze unwavering, “what you were so busy with, to keep you from visiting me.”

Jingyan is absolutely mortified. Crushing guilt, sharp embarrassment and a hysterical plea of, “It’s not what you think!” fight for dominance in his chest, as he stares into the face of his mother’s heavy disappointment.

“And I had thought,” she says, mouth pursing, “that Xiao Shu–”

“I was with Xiao Shu!” Jingyan blurts out desperately. He cuts himself off short and glances quickly at the maids standing with their heads bowed along the far wall, unsure of what he’s allowed to say while they’re present.

His mother looks taken aback.

With Xiao Shu–” she says frowning, eyes flickering to follow his gaze. Realisation dawns for a brief moment on her face before she hastily suppresses it. “Oh,” she says, nodding. “I understand now.”

To Jingyan’s great relief, her eyes soften and warmth returns to her voice.

“I suppose Xiao Shu went for the music he’s so fond of – with Prince Ji, I assume?”

Jingyan nods emphatically and she smiles at him.

“Were you bullied into going as well, then?” she asks sympathetically.

“Xiao Shu insisted,” he mutters, frowning down at his hands, and his mother laughs.

“You never did learn how to say no to that boy, did you?” she says, sounding amused. “Well, I suppose that also explains the rumours about you being mostly there to protect Xiao Shu’s virtue from the pleasure house girls.”

She pauses and looks down for a moment, gazing thoughtfully at the tabletop before lifting her eyes to his again.

“So then,” his mother says carefully, “how true is the story about you fighting one of the girls because you were jealous of how close she was to him?”

Jingyan wants to die.


Taking leave of his mother after spending an hour being coddled and spoilt twice as much as usual in apology for being unjustly accused, Jingyan catches sight of Xiao Shu and Meng-dage disappearing around a corner ahead of him while on his way out of the Palace.

He quickens his stride, wanting to catch up to them, but as he draws nearer and their words become audible, he slows at the sound of what he hears.

“You need to tell him,” Meng-dage is telling Xiao Shu urgently. “Just put him out of his misery, already. Everyone can see the way he’s struggling! You love him, he loves you – don’t think everyone hasn’t already noticed. I don’t know why you always insist on making things so complicated! I was speaking to Nihuang, and even she thinks you’re idiots–”

Xiao Shu laughs.

“The shine on her hero-worship wore off very quickly, didn’t it?” he remarks.

“Well, this is you we’re talking about,” Meng-dage says flatly. “You’re extremely smart, but you’re also a walking disaster, so I don’t know what you were expecting. Especially with this business. I am not a delicately-minded man, Xiao Shu, and I can tell you that even I, myself feel extremely uncomfortable watching the two of you like this.”

“I’ve already told you,” Xiao Shu sighs, “he’s got more important things to concentrate on at the moment. This is a crucial point for both his projects, he can’t afford to be distracted by–”

Look at him, Xiao Shu,” Meng-dage hisses. “He’s already completely and utterly distracted!

“Do you think he’s the type of person to get less invested once he discovers that his love is returned, Meng-dage?” Xiao Shu asks pointedly. “If you think he’s bad now–”

Meng-dage sighs gustily.

“Xiao Shu–” he says, but Jingyan has stopped listening.

His mind is whirling and his chest hurts, too many different emotions churning around it at once.

Xiao Shu isn’t interested in more with Jingyan, because he’s already in love with somebody else.

Xiao Shu is in love, and, if Meng-dage’s was telling the truth, everyone’s noticed. Everyone except Jingyan. Jingyan, who hasn’t even noticed who the object of Xiao Shu’s affections is, let alone how they’ve been struggling.

Some best friend, he thinks bitterly.

Xiao Shu’s in love, and he hasn’t said a word about it.

That also hurts, but can Jingyan really blame him? After returning from Donghai, Jingyan has just incessantly needed help with one thing after another. First he needed help with his grief, then he needed help with the work assigned to him by the Emperor, and then he was so transparent and useless that Xiao Shu felt he needed to spend his time helping Jingyan with his love troubles instead of working on his own.

At which point, exactly, does Jingyan expect that Xiao Shu would have felt able to tell him and ask for help in return?

It’s just as well that Jingyan never managed to confess – how much worse would that have made everything?

There’s one thing, at least, that Jingyan has managed to do right.

“And look,” Xiao Shu is saying to Meng-dage when Jingyan is able to make sense of sounds beyond the roaring in his ears, “it’s not as if my feelings for him haven’t been completely obvious. You can’t say I’ve been hiding them, what with the–”

Completely obvious, Jingyan thinks, feeling his face go hot with self-directed disappointment and shame. If Xiao Shu had been trying to hide his feelings, that would have been one thing, but – completely obvious.

And Jingyan didn’t notice a thing.

He truly is, Jingyan thinks through a wave of self-disgust, a stupid water buffalo.

Unable to bear hearing anymore, he turns on his heel and runs.


He’s not able to avoid Xiao Shu for very long, having agreed to attend dinner at the Lin residence that evening.

Which is just as well, Jingyan supposes, being that he needs to put a stop to the kissing training and allow Xiao Shu to pursue his actual love interest. Something Jingyan should have done long ago.

He arrives at the Lin residence early and is just about to ask Xiao Shu if he can have a word in private, when there’s a shout at the gate and a young man dressed completely in white saunters in.

“Changsu,” he calls to Xiao Shu when he spots them, waving jauntily and strolling across the courtyard in no particular hurry.

Jingyan frowns. The name sounds familiar, but he can’t quite place it. Where has he heard it before?

“My father left Langya Hall with your Wei Zheng about a week after I did, so he’ll be arriving due course. I trust that fits in with your plans?”

“Yes. In fact, it does,” Xiao Shu says, smiling. “It’s good to see you. Thanks for coming all the way.”

He gestures to Jingyan.

“This is Prince Jing – Xiao Jingyan. I’ve told you about him.”

“Ah, so this is His Highness, Prince Jing,” the man says, looking Jingyan up and down critically.

“And you are?” Jingyan inquires.

“Insurance,” the man supplies promptly.

“Against what?” Jingyan asks, raising an eyebrow.

“Changsu’s bad decisions,” the man says, rolling his eyes at Xiao Shu.

“This is Lin Chen,” Xiao Shu says, rolling his eyes right back.

So this is Lin Chen, Jingyan thinks. He looks – well. Jingyan understands why Xiao Shu thought that wearing his hair loose would make him look like a dandy, now.

“Why do you keep calling Shu-gege ‘Changsu’?” Nihuang asks curiously, coming out from inside the house and walking up to join them.

“Oh, it’s my pugilist name,” Xiao Shu says. “Mei Changsu. Can’t just be using your real name while you’re running around the countryside. Also, Father had one, from when he was travelling with Uncle Yan, so I needed something that matched.”

“Changshu, did you say?” Jingyan asks, squinting at Xiao Shu incredulously. “You changed your name from ‘Little Shu’ to ‘Long Shu’?”

“No, not Changshu, Changsu,” Xiao Shu corrects him. “Su, as in basil? My dad picked the surname, went with a naturalist theme – you know, Mei being plum, and he’s got another plant in his name as well. So I felt like I needed to continue it.”

Jingyan is speechless.

Nihuang opens her mouth, seems to think better of it, and closes it again without saying anything, choosing to shake her head instead.

“Yeah, you never explained that before,” Lin Chen says blandly, the only one who has retained any power of speech. “Wow.”

“What? I think it’s a wonderful name!” Uncle Lin declares, striding in through the gate, Auntie Jinyang and an amused-looking Marquis Yan following behind. “Good work, son!”

Marquis Yan looks at the stunned faces around him and huffs a small laugh.

“His father’s is much worse,” he says, with a rueful smile. “Mei Shinan. Plum, Rock, Nan Tree. He literally just pointed randomly at things that were around us when he was trying to think of a name, and he’s been using it in the pugilist world ever since.”

Auntie Jinyang is the first one to break the silence that follows.

“Why couldn’t I have had a daughter?” she asks no one in particular, shaking her head disbelievingly before taking Nihuang by the arm. “Here, come inside with Auntie, Nihuang. You can sit by me at dinner and comfort me, so I don’t have to think about my family being this big idiot and his son, the little idiot.”


After dinner, Uncle Lin dismisses the servants and they all settle down to talk about business.

“Your Uncle Thirteen has informed us that Princess Xuanji has now cut all ties with Xia Jiang,” Marquis Yan says to Xiao Shu. “And the young lady he introduced into my household has also reported that Xia Jiang has obtained possession of the letter, and believes it to be genuine. What are you planning to do next?”

“Well, this is likely the most distracted he’ll be,” Xiao Shu says, rubbing his fingers together thoughtfully. “While the impact of both those things is still fresh. I need to take full advantage of that.”

He purses his lips for a moment.

“ I think it’s time to start dropping hints and allowing myself to be caught around his people, then,” he decides, glancing up at Marquis Yan. “Just enough that he begins to suspect that I’m secretly investigating him, and sends resources after me – you and Father wanted him spread as thinly as possible, didn’t you?”

“So he wouldn’t have enough people to keep up with Thirteen’s activities, that’s right,” Marquis Yan agrees.

“Right,” Xiao Shu nods. “You shouldn’t have to worry about that – he’ll start to suspect that I was the one who orchestrated the breakdown of relations between him and Princess Xuanji fairly soon, with all the talking I did at the pleasure houses, and Jingyan catching her spy. Then, after he’s grown to hate me enough, and we allow him to discover that the ‘man of leisure’ ploy was a ploy, he’ll be too busy thinking he’s clever to have found my mistakes to look any further into whether or not I, in fact, want to be discovered. That, and his need to start planning to meet with his son, should be enough to keep him occupied for a while.”

Marquis Yan nods approvingly.

“Your son is all right, isn’t he, Lin Xie?” he remarks, glancing at Uncle Lin.

“I’m pretty fond of him, yeah,” Uncle Lin agrees, and proceeds to seek Lin Chen’s opinion on their plans to entrap Princess Xuanji.

“What a picture they make, sitting together and both dressed in white like that,” Auntie Jinyang comments, indicating Xiao Shu and Lin Chen, who are sitting side-by-side, raising questions and problems for Uncle Lin and Marquis Yan to consider. “Lin Chen has always been very well put together, and with Xiao Shu’s recent habit of wearing his hair down and ornamented – I know he’s my own son and that he’s an idiot, but it’s very pretty. Don’t you think so, Nihuang? Jingyan?”

Jingyan mumbles something that might be mistaken for grudging assent, and Nihuang rolls her eyes at him.

“You are such an unbelievable blockhead,” she mutters, giving him a judgmental look for good measure.

Jingyan doesn’t argue, because – well, it’s not untrue. But he is going to do something about it.

So when Lin Chen starts to make noises about turning in for the night, and Marquis Yan agrees, adding that he’ll take Nihuang home on his way, Jingyan follows Xiao Shu to his room to have a word.

“What did you want to talk about?” Xiao Shu asks, closing the door behind them and then moving to his desk to straighten the papers strewn all over it. “Obviously, I can’t come home with you tonight because we have a guest and all. But if you’re not tired, you don’t have to go home just yet, we can–”

“That’s what I wanted to talk about, actually,” Jingyan cuts in, before he can get any further. “I don’t think we should do this anymore. We should stop.”

WHAT?” Xiao Shu demands, whirling around to face him, shock written all over his face.

“Well,” Jingyan says, blinking in surprise, feeling a little taken aback by the force of Xiao Shu’s response. “It’s – I just feel like it’s a very big imposition, and I’ve imposed on you long enough–”

“I’ve told you, it’s not an imposition,” Xiao Shu says dismissively, stepping forward and making a careful study of Jingyan’s face. “I’m your best friend. I’m the one who suggested it.”

“Yes, but that doesn’t mean I should keep taking advantage of the offer,” Jingyan argues, not sure why he’s feeling so cornered, or why Xiao Shu is arguing with him about this at all. “Other best friends don’t–”

“Xiao Jingyan, when did you start modelling your behaviour on what other people do?” Xiao Shu asks pointedly.

“I–” Jingyan says helplessly.

“If those are the only reasons you had,” Xiao Shu says, “then–”

“I overheard you and Meng-dage today,” Jingyan blurts out.

“What?” Xiao Shu whispers hoarsely, growing pale.

“So I know that you’re in love with someone,” Jingyan forces himself to say, “and I agree with Meng-dage, you should tell him. I don’t–” he stops and takes a breath, “I don’t want to stand in the way of that. You should be doing this kind of thing with him, not wasting your time with me.”

“Wait,” Xiao Shu says, raising a hand towards him, “Jingyan–”

No,” Jingyan says, having gained momentum now. “I’m sorry I didn’t notice, but I can’t believe you didn’t tell me. Everyone else knew, didn’t they? And I was the idiot, taking up all of your time and keeping the two of you apart – why did you let me do that to you? You don’t always have to put yourself last, I don’t want to be the kind of friend who does that to you, not just with this, but with the Ministry of War as well–”

Jingyan stops short, suddenly remembering where he’s heard the name Mei Changsu before.

“Jingyan,” Xiao Shu says, stepping closer and reaching for his arm. “Just let me explain–”

“IT WAS YOU!” Jingyan exclaims, pulling his sleeve out of Xiao Shu’s grasp.

“What?” Xiao Shu asks, urgent expression changing to one of bewilderment.

“Sending all the advice to the ministers!” Jingyan says, pointing. “To improve my relations with them, so they wouldn’t–”

“Well, yes,” Xiao Shu admits, “but–”

This is what I’m talking about,” Jingyan shouts, eyes beginning to prickle now. “Look, I’m not a child, we’re supposed to be friends, I’m supposed to help you, too–”

His voice breaks and he cuts himself off, feeling sad and sick, breath coming hard as the feeling of wetness grows on his cheeks.

“Let’s–” Jingyan swallows and starts again. “Let’s just not do this anymore, all right? And maybe don’t speak to me for a while, either. I need–”

He stops again, and shakes his head.

“I’m just going to go.”

Wait, Jingyan–” Xiao Shu says desperately, but Jingyan turns, throws the door open and runs for the exit.

Vision blurred with tears, he almost runs right into Uncle Lin on his way out, and is stopped by the bracing grasp of Uncle Lin’s solid hold on his forearms.

“Jingyan?” he asks, looking concerned. “Are you all right?”

“Sorry, Uncle,” Jingyan says quickly, scrubbing at his face with a sleeve. “I don’t feel so well suddenly, I think I’d better go home–”

“Well, don’t just take off by yourself,” Uncle Lin says. “Let me send you in a–”

“No, it’s fine, thank you,” Jingyan says, already breaking away. “It’ll be quicker for me to just go, and the fresh air will do me good.”

Not leaving Uncle Lin any time to argue, Jingyan makes a quick bow and takes off across the courtyard.

Jingyan!” he hears from somewhere behind him, followed by a “What, where do you think you’re going?” and an “Ah, Father, don’t – let me go!”

Taking advantage of the delay caused by Uncle Lin’s interference, Jingyan puts on a burst of speed and runs out into the night.

Chapter Text

If your enemy is secure at all points, be prepared for him.
If he is in superior strength, evade him.
If your opponent is temperamental, seek to irritate him.
Pretend to be weak, that he may grow arrogant.

 

Jingyan has almost reached the gate of his own home, when he hears the rapid thudding of steps behind him.

“Jingyan!” Xiao Shu calls, hurtling around a corner into sight. “Wait!”

Go home, Xiao Shu,” Jingyan shouts, not turning around. “Leave me alone.”

“Jingyan–”

“Just go home! I–”

“XIAO JINGYAN, YOU STOP RIGHT THERE,” Xiao Shu shouts, sounding angry, and Jingyan is surprised enough that he stops and spins around.

“YOU CAN BE SUCH AN IDIOT SOMETIMES,” Xiao Shu continues to bellow. “IT BEGGARS BELIEF THAT I LOVE YOU SO MUCH.”

He stands there, shoulders heaving, hands clenched into fists and eyes wild, staring at Jingyan.

“What?” Jingyan asks faintly.

Xiao Shu sighs heavily and deflates, lifting a hand to rub at his already-disarranged hair.

“We’d better take this inside,” he says, jogging up to close the distance between them. “We’re disturbing your neighbours.”

He reaches over and takes Jingyan’s arm, using it to pull him firmly inside. Too stunned to react, Jingyan lets him.

Leading the way up the steps and in through the gate, Xiao Shu heads straight for Jingyan’s bedroom, dragging Jingyan across the courtyard and down the corridors before pushing him inside and slamming the doors shut behind them.

They stand there for a moment, staring at each other, and then Xiao Shu sighs again.

“I’ve been in love with you since the start of last year,” he says directly, having apparently decided to not waste any more time beating around the bush.

Last year?” Jingyan repeats incredulously, feeling his eyes widen.

Xiao Shu nods curtly.

“And I knew you felt the same, even if you hadn’t noticed yet,” he continues.

“Then why didn’t you say anything?” Jingyan demands, and if there’s one thing he cannot understand, it’s this. “Why didn’t you tell me?”

Xiao Shu’s eyes soften and the corner of his mouth quirks up into a crooked smile.

“Did you think you were the only one afraid of how your feelings might be received?” he asks gently, and Jingyan frowns, taken aback. “About how a confession might affect things between us?”

He pauses, and his smile takes on a slightly sad note. “Did you think you were the only one who decided that you would rather keep the secret for the rest of your life if you couldn’t guarantee that speaking up wouldn’t hurt our relationship?”

Jingyan gapes at him. It’s not that he thought that Xiao Shu didn’t care, but – well, it’s just that Xiao Shu’s so good with people, and – to be honest, Jingyan didn’t think he was afraid of anything.

“I thought that things would go over better if you were a little more aware of your own feelings, first,” Xiao Shu continues, crossing his arms and looking ruefully towards the door as he speaks. “That I’d be less likely to scare you off completely, perhaps. So I tried to hurry you along a bit.”

He gives a light snort.

“We can both see how well that worked.” Xiao Shu sighs and folds his arms behind his head, tilting his face up towards the ceiling. “I don’t think you picked up on a single one of my hints.”

“Hints?” Jingyan asks, frowning. “What hints?”

“Jingyan,” Xiao Shu says, sounding exasperated, “do you really think it’s reasonable for a man to ask his friend to bring him back a pearl the size of a pigeon egg? From a military expedition, no less?”

Jingyan blinks at him.

“But you said you wanted to use them as marbles–” he protests and Xiao Shu gives a small huff of laughter.

“This is what I’m talking about,” he says fondly. “You don’t even question it; you just accept everything that I do. Can you see what I was worried about, now? What if you just went along with my feelings before you were even sure of what yours were?”

At a loss for something to say in response, Jingyan gives a helpless shrug of his shoulders and Xiao Shu snorts.

“I really worry about you, sometimes,” he says, shaking his head. “All the liberties I took with you – I made you eat from my own chopsticks, that’s so far beyond what’s acceptable within the normal boundaries of friendship, Jingyan, and you never noticed–”

“I noticed,” Jingyan mumbles, looking down and feeling his cheeks heat.

“Oh?” Xiao Shu asks challengingly. “When?”

“Last month,” Jingyan mutters. He glances up to find Xiao Shu giving him a meaningful look.

“And,” Xiao Shu continues, raising an eyebrow, “I’m guessing that you only noticed how you felt when you got back from Donghai. My bets would be on the first evening,” he says thoughtfully. “Your reactions were getting a little odd towards the end of that night.”

Jingyan neither confirms nor denies it, but, judging from Xiao Shu’s smug expression, he doesn’t really have to.

“So the ‘helping’ me,” he says instead. “What was that about?”

“To be honest,” Xiao Shu says, looking up towards the ceiling again, “I wanted to punish you a little bit.”

“What?” Jingyan gapes indignantly.

“I was feeling a little frustrated, after so many months of you not noticing,” Xiao Shu explains, shrugging and still not making eye contact. “I probably went too far, though. Meng-dage even told me off for it. I’m sorry about that.”

“So the conversation I overheard,” Jingyan says, “was about–”

Xiao Shu just looks at him, and Jingyan closes his mouth with a small click.

“I was going to come straight out and tell you after we finished with the Hua work, actually,” Xiao Shu says. “I was telling Meng-dage the truth – you really can’t afford to be distracted right now, especially with what we’re about to do with Xia Jiang. We didn’t talk about it at dinner, but confronting him will be dangerous. No matter how distracted he is, he’s still the man who was the director of the Xuanjing Bureau for years and years. I wanted to spare you the extra worry.”

“That’s stupid,” Jingyan says bluntly. “As if I wouldn’t be just as worried about you as a friend–”

“I don’t want to raise a fear that you obviously haven’t thought of yet,” Xiao Shu says, smiling sadly. “But I also didn’t want you to live with the fear of losing a love so soon after you’ve discovered it. Not,” he adds firmly, “that I’m going to allow myself to be defeated that easily.”

He steps in towards Jingyan, who seems to have completely lost his ability to move, and gently wipes at the tear tracks on his face with a corner of his sleeve.

“But now,” he murmurs softly. “Now you know, hm?”

Dropping his arm, he steps in closer, but this time Jingyan scrambles back.

“What are you doing?” he demands, moving out of reach.

“Well,” Xiao Shu says patiently, giving a small tilt of his head. “I was going to kiss you. Now that you know that I love you, and I obviously know that you love me, I was thinking that it might be the natural thing to do.”

“I didn’t say that I’d forgiven you!” Jingyan says desperately, as Xiao Shu closes in again. Xiao Shu just looks at him, and Jingyan is forced to admit that, yes, they both know that if it hasn’t happened yet, it’s going to happen very quickly.

Watching him steadily, Xiao Shu takes another step closer, and when Jingyan doesn’t move away this time, advances right up to press a kiss to his mouth, heartbreakingly tender at first, but quickly becoming more and more heated.

Xiao Shu slides his hands down Jingyan’s arms and curls his fingers around Jingyan’s wrists. Mouths still joined, he moves Jingyan backwards until his back hits the wall, at which point he immediately lifts Jingyan’s arms up and pins them above his head.

With Xiao Shu’s tongue possessively mapping every last part of his mouth, Jingyan suddenly comes to the realisation that Xiao Shu has always been very gentle and controlled when they’ve kissed, as if afraid that Jingyan will spook at any moment if he goes too far. Even when he pins Jingyan down, it’s never too hard, and he’s always careful to leave space for Jingyan to withdraw.

Now, with his arms held firmly above his head, and Xiao Shu leaning heavily into him and sliding a leg between his, Jingyan’s not sure he could get away if he wanted to.

It’s just as well he has no interest in escaping, Jingyan thinks, shivering as Xiao Shu nips at his lip before roughly deepening the kiss again (Was he holding himself back all of this time?), his mouth burning hot and his body a warm, hard line boxing Jingyan in. Leaning back, Jingyan allows himself to go limp and pliant, tilts his head up and lets Xiao Shu direct him in whichever way he will.

Eventually, Xiao Shu breaks away, chest heaving, and Jingyan instinctively follows, not wanting to let him go far. Xiao Shu chuckles, and then leans forward and gently presses their foreheads together, keeping them close while still allowing them a moment to catch their breaths.

When Xiao Shu finally pulls back, Jingyan opens his eyes and suddenly finds himself unable to look away from his face; more familiar than any other, and so, so dear.

Xiao Shu raises a challenging eyebrow, and Jingyan suddenly feels an overwhelming urge to kiss him.

So he does.

Heart feeling like it's too big for his chest, Jingyan surges into Xiao Shu with so much eagerness that he loses his balance, only saved from knocking their heads together by Xiao Shu’s steadying hands on his arms.

Gently pushing Jingyan back onto his feet, Xiao Shu huffs out a gentle laugh and his lips curl into a smile against Jingyan's mouth.

When Jingyan pulls back, face warm with embarrassment, Xiao Shu's eyes are half-lidded with so much fondness that it makes his face heat up further, and he looks away, focusing his gaze on Xiao Shu's shoulder instead, in an effort to calm himself down and regain his composure.

He's only three shaky breaths in when calloused fingers stroke along his jawline and curl under it to gently turn his head back. When their eyes meet, Xiao Shu bites his own lip against a smile and hooks a hand around the back of Jingyan's neck to reel him in for another kiss.

Then he laughs.

“Ah,” he says, in response to Jingyan’s questioning noise. “I was just remembering how cute you were, when you were running around all desperate and confused, and had no idea what to do about it.”

Jingyan bites him.


“We’ve found a point of contact for Xia Jiang,” Xiao Shu declares, sliding into his seat and taking a handful of the nuts they all know the Emperor has left out especially for him. “Minister Fan, by the way, Your Majesty, if you want to press charges.”

“I will make a note,” the Emperor says mildly, nodding. “But it can wait until later. More importantly for now, how did you manage that?”

“We’ve been watching everyone Xia Jiang was known to have dealings with before his arrest,” Xiao Shu answers, munching on a nut. “And their families as well, of course. It turns out that one of our household staff – Auntie Ji, not sure if you’ve met her – knows Madam Fan from somewhere, so we arranged for them to bump into each other at the market, and sent Uncle Thirteen along to do some light probing. Minister Fan thinks his wife doesn’t know about the fugitive he’s been meeting with,” he comments, examining a nut for blemishes before shrugging and popping it into his mouth anyway. “But there’s nothing that goes on in her house that she isn’t aware of. A little exchange with Uncle Thirteen, and everything was out.”

“I might have to recruit this man into the secret intelligence service,” the Emperor muses, scratching his chin. “If this is how powerful his skills are, I don’t think I can afford not to.”

“Anyway,” Xiao Shu continues, “what Father and Uncle Yan wanted me to tell you is that the body double has been set up in the Ministry of Justice’s prison, and we’ve leaked the information that Princess Xuanji has been arrested and that a royal edict for her execution is being drafted. According to our sources, Xia Jiang is quite desperate now – if they can catch Princess Xuanji, they can most certainly catch him, and now that his son is so close and he has nothing else to lose–”

He pauses thoughtfully.

“It’s possible,” Xiao Shu admits slowly, “that I went a little too far. I think I underestimated the emotional attachments Xia Jiang had to both Princess Xuanji and his son.”

“This!” the Emperor cries, pointing at Xiao Shu in emphatic censure. “This is what comes of being so ruthless! Now you know! It’s just as well,” he says severely, “that you listened to me when I told you not to go ahead with your additional ‘Your son has been attacked by bandits on the road and is now dead’, ploy. Can you imagine what might have happened?”

The Emperor raises a hand to his forehead and makes a pained noise.

“He’s such a cold man, though,” Xiao Shu says, by way of defending his actions. “Who knew he’d have so many feelings? In any case, we found his people testing the outer wall defences with renewed dedication – more than one was actually killed after being discovered by the city patrol, so you know he’s seriously trying to escape, now. We’re also increased the hints that Lin Shu, with his influential father who is also your uncle, Your Majesty, might be an easy target to lure in to use as a hostage. And I’ve allowed myself to be caught by his people, sneaking around.”

“At Minister Fan’s residence?” the Emperor asks, “because–”

“No,” Xiao Shu says, shaking his head. “At various points in the city, but beginning to circle in on Minister Fan’s residence. With the abject failure of his attempts at the walls, Xia Jiang has latched onto the idea of using a hostage to bargain his way out, and is already making plans to lure me in.”

“Xiao Shu,” Jingyan says, a chilling thought only just now occurring to him. “You’re not actually going to –”

“Yup,” Xiao Shu answers easily, with an accompanying nod.

“WHAT?” Jingyan explodes.

“We still don’t know where he’s hiding,” Xiao Shu says reasonably, giving a shrug that, in Jingyan’s opinion, has no business looking so unconcerned. “And we need to hold him and his closest people in one place, unsuspecting and for long enough that our forces can arrive and arrest them. Father also wants Xia Jiang completely distracted while he and Marquis Yan actually target Princess Xuanji – they don’t want to take any chances on them discovering our ruse and making up.”

“But,” Jingyan protests, “Xiao Shu–”

“Don’t worry, Jingyan,” Xiao Shu says, in a soothing tone that is not soothing at all. “He needs me as a hostage, he’ll keep me alive.”

“Yes,” Jingyan agrees, “but I saw some of those books you were reading about the Xuanjing Bureau’s interrogation methods. Even if you don’t die, you could–”

“It’ll be fine,” Xiao Shu assures him, offering a nut that Jingyan just stares at speechlessly. “He won’t have me for long enough to do anything that bad. We’ve been planning this for a long time, we’ve accounted for everything. That said, Your Majesty,” he says, popping the nut into his mouth with a shrug before turning to Jingyan’s brother, “perhaps it would be a good idea not to tell Jingyan when we actually go out to do it.”

“Oi!” Jingyan yells.

“He’s got a point,” the Emperor agrees, turning to Jingyan apologetically.

Brother!


On the day of the plan, Xiao Shu, dressed in his blue scholarly robes, sets out from the Palace and heads into the city towards the Fan residence, secretly tailed by a backup team composed of various Chiyan soldiers, and led by Zhen Ping and Li Gang.

An hour later, at roughly the expected time, Zhen Ping sends word to the Palace that Xiao Shu has been captured and chained up in disused shed near the Fan residence, but that most of the force Xia Jiang has posted around it has been neutralised, and the situation is more or less under control, with all their team members watching from their pre-assigned places, ready to intervene should the need arise.

Jingyan, on the other hand, is wasting time pacing around the courtyard at home, waiting for Zhanying to relay any news that reaches the Palace because, despite his repeated (and increasingly desperate) requests, it was decided that it would be best if he were excluded from the backup team.

(His brother and Xiao Shu have patronisingly allowed him to be “the backup’s backup”, but it’s not like Jingyan can’t see through their flimsy attempt to placate him.

That doesn’t mean he’s not dressed and ready to go out at a moment’s notice if something goes wrong, however.)

Zhen Ping is supposed to send out periodic missives to the Emperor and Uncle Lin, so that they can ensure that the movements of all their teams are synchronised. And he does – the first three messengers all arrive within the expected time frame, with reports that Zhanying immediately carries over to an anxious Jingyan. It helps, somewhat, that each of these reports state that everything is going according to plan.

But then Zhen Ping misses one.

The next report doesn’t arrive either.

And then Uncle Lin sends a messenger to the Emperor, querying the two missed dispatches.

And Jingyan can’t stand it anymore.

He saddles his horse and goes charging towards the Fan residence, leaving his mount a few streets away from the supposed location of the shed before running the rest of the way. Creeping around the outside wall of the property, he moves around to the back before scaling the wall and jumping down behind the cover of a group of trees.

Eyes fixed on what he presumes to be the shed Zhen Ping had mentioned, he pads forward, eyes darting around warily, and is suddenly grabbed from behind and pulled into a group of bushes.

“You idiot,” Zhen Ping hisses, sense of propriety completely erased by panic. “You’re not supposed to be here!

“What happened to your messengers?” Jingyan demands in his own harsh whisper. “You missed two in a row!”

Zhen Ping sighs, shaking his head.

“We got caught up with disposing of some unexpected reinforcements,” he says, turning back around to face the direction of the shed. “And then things inside started to escalate, so I thought it would be better if we had as many people as possible on hand, just in case.”

Escalate?” Jingyan exclaims, feeling a sharp stab of alarm and spinning back towards the shed.

“It’s fine,” Zhen Ping insists, pushing him back down with a hand on his shoulder. “I was just playing it safe.” He looks at Jingyan exasperatedly. “And now there’s you–”

He sighs heavily.

“Well, now that you’re here, you may as well stay,” he says resignedly. “Just don’t do anything stupid.”

“I–” Jingyan begins, but the sound of voices starts up again from inside the shed and Zhen Ping hurriedly shushes him.

“Lin Shu,” Xia Jiang says silkily. “I suppose you think you’re clever, pretending to be a man of leisure and using it as a front to both spy on me and feed me false information? And am I correct in assuming that you were behind Princess Xuanji severing ties with me, as well?”

“Seeing as you’ve only worked it out after the damage has been done,” Xiao Shu sighs disinterestedly. “I would say that it does make me very clever, wouldn’t you?”

“Not clever enough,” Xia Jiang says grimly. “I’ve seen through your ploy before being caught.”

“You say that,” Xiao Shu says offhandedly. “But you’re quite old, aren’t you? Your eyesight can’t be what it used to be.”

There’s a rapid series of thuds and a winded “oof” from Xiao Shu. Jingyan tenses and a hand immediately claps down on his shoulder again. He turns to find Zhen Ping shaking his head at him in silent disapproval.

“It’s probably not a good idea to let your mouth just run off like that,” Xia Jiang is saying menacingly, when Jingyan turns his attention back to the shed. “Not when I have you so completely in my power.”

Xiao Shu coughs wetly, and then says, “I think I’m fairly safe. I’m a valuable bargaining chip to you alive, and worthless to you dead. What are you going to do to me?”

“Oh, you know that much, do you?” Xia Jiang says, with a humourless chuckle. “Well, I’m sorry to inform you that there’s still a lot that I can do to you. You’d be amazed at what the human body can live through.”

“I’m sure I would be,” Xiao Shu agrees easily. “And it’s not that I want to decrease my own value in your eyes, but I was just wondering – when you hand me over to them, what makes you think they’ll just take me and let you go?”

Xia Jiang laughs again.

“Do you know what this is, boy?” he asks, after a moment.

“Rabbit poo?” Xiao Shu asks blandly, and promptly receives what sounds like a slap for his impertinence.

“It’s a Wujin pill,” Xia Jiang says, after a moment. “After you swallow it, you’ll have seven days to live unless you can access the antidote. I’m going to make you take this, and then when His Majesty’s people come for you, I’m going to offer him a choice. He can let me go, with plenty of money and provisions, and if I am satisfied after three days of travel that I am not being followed, I will send the antidote back with a messenger, and you will live.

“Or,” he continues, “the Emperor can refuse my offer, try to find the antidote himself, and after seven days of futile searching, you will die. I think, given who your father is, it would be wise for him to choose the first option.”

Jingyan lunges forward and is stopped by Zhen Ping’s arm against his chest.

“If His Majesty lets you go,” Xiao Shu asks curiously. “How will he know he can trust you to send the antidote back after three days?”

“He’ll have no choice,” Xia Jiang says sharply.

Xiao Shu hums thoughtfully. “And if I’d rather die for my country?”

“I’d give it a day,” Xia Jiang says scornfully, “of staring death in the face. In my experience, courage tends to diminish rather rapidly after that.”

“Well, that doesn’t sound very pleasant,” Xiao Shu remarks. “Are you sure there’s no alternative option you’d rather pursue?”

“I am determined to pursue this one,” Xia Jiang says resolutely.

Xiao Shu sighs.

“I was afraid of that. I’ve never been a very lucky person.”

“Take the pill,” Xia Jiang orders, and Jingyan can hear the sound of chains clanking before Xiao Shu says,

“Wait, wait! Does it have hazelnuts in it?”

What,” Xia Jiang bites out, sounding supremely unimpressed.

“I’m very allergic,” Xiao Shu says, “so if it does, I’d be dead within the hour; let’s not even talk about seven days.”

“It does not,” Xia Jiang tells him flatly.

“Well, that’s good,” Xiao Shu remarks. “Is it bitter, though?”

“Just open your mouth and take the pill,” Xia Jiang snaps, sounding like he’s coming to the end of his patience. “Stop stalling for time.”

“Look, what’s the big hurry?” Xiao Shu asks. “You have me chained up, nobody knows I’m here, and I’m staring death in the face – that’s the kind of thing I’d prefer not to rush.”

“Just open your mouth–” Xia Jiang growls, and Jingyan leaps to his feet, only find himself being held back by Zhen Ping’s hand on the back of his robe. He shoots a furious glare at Zhen Ping for his audacity and Zhen Ping glares right back, before pulling Jingyan pointedly back down to sprawl on the grass beside him.

A pause follows, during which Jingyan is so tense that he almost feels like he’s going to vibrate out of his skin, and then there’s another rattle of chains before Xiao Shu says, “Oops,” in a tone that doesn’t sound very regretful at all.

There’s another series of thuds, dispersed with a few grunts from Xiao Shu.

“Do you think I only have one?” Xia Jiang asks, laughing humourlessly. “As you can see here, I have an entire bottle–”

“Yes,” Xiao Shu allows, “but I also know that there’s a very specific herb required to make the Wujin pill – I’m sure you know the one I mean; used for quite a number of different things, isn’t it? It usually comes up from the Yaowang Valley, but there’s been a shortage lately. There was that blight last year, and the weather hasn’t been good this year, and as a result, the entire stock has been consistently snapped up by buyers before the Yaowang herbalists even make it halfway to the capital. You’d never do anything like keep records of your Wujin pills in the general Xuanjing Bureau ledger, of course, but judging from the Bureau expenses reports and the prisoner records, my guess is that, including the pill I just squashed, there were two, maybe three left in that bottle, at most?”

“That’s still at least one more I have to use on you, though,” Xia Jiang says. “And don’t think I’ll be so careless as to let that one drop out of your mouth as well.”

The chains rattle again, followed closely by a few more thuds and the sound of Xiao Shu gasping for breath, and Jingyan can’t bear to listen to any more. Thrusting Zhen Ping aside and ignoring his panicked, “Your Highness, no!”, Jingyan leaps over the bushes, bursts into the shed, and is greeted by the sight of Xia Jiang’s hand on Xiao Shu’s chin, holding his mouth open as he tries to force a small round pill in, the two of them frozen mid-struggle, as they’ve both turned their faces to stare at Jingyan.

Xiao Shu, who is sitting on the floor, arms chained up to the wall behind him, has evidently been quite badly beaten. His blue robes are stained with red, his face is swollen on one side and there’s blood trickling out of the corner of his mouth.

With a snarl of rage, Jingyan launches himself at Xia Jiang, pushing him away from Xiao Shu and raining blows down on his head and torso. Taken by surprise, Xia Jiang fails to block the first volley and is driven backwards, a lapse that Jingyan takes full advantage of, landing as many hits as he can. Blocking Xia Jiang’s first counter-attack, he readies himself to deliver a kick–

–and is promptly tackled from behind by a girl who drops down from somewhere in the eaves, draws Jingyan’s sword from his hip and rolls over to Xiao Shu, pulling back his head and holding the blade to his exposed throat.

“Xiao Jingyan,” Xiao Shu groans, straining back as best he can from the sharp edge. “You have so many good intentions, but WHY DON’T YOU HAVE ANY BRAINS?!”


“You may not be a lucky man, Lin Shu,” Xia Jiang says, after he’s had time to catch his breath and compose himself after being subjected to Jingyan’s beating. “But I suppose I must be, given what’s just fallen straight into my lap. The Emperor’s favourite brother is a much better bargaining chip than a mere Field Marshal’s son, wouldn’t you agree?”

He turns to Jingyan, who is standing in the middle of the floor, watching him warily, fists clenched in helpless frustration.

“I’m sure you heard my explanation while you were eavesdropping outside,” he says. “So let’s save some time and not go over it again. The important thing is, with your precious friend’s life at risk,” he says, gesturing towards Xiao Shu, who is eyeing the sword in front of him with grim focus, “you’re going to take the pill all by yourself, aren’t you?”

Xia Jiang reaches into his pocket and holds out his open hand to Jingyan, a Wujin pill sitting innocuously in the centre of his palm.

Gritting his teeth against Xia Jiang’s superior smile, Jingyan reaches resolutely for the small, black ball–

–and is suddenly shoved back by Xiao Shu, who has somehow burst free of his chains, kicked the girl threatening him into a wall, and taken a dive at Jingyan and Xia Jiang. In one smooth motion, he snatches the pill out of Xia Jiang’s hand and swallows it.

Jingyan stares at him in shock.

“Fuck,” Xiao Shu says, coughing and thumping his chest. “I hope it was two, and not three.”

From Xia Jiang’s inarticulate shout of rage, Jingyan would presume so.

How did you get free?” Xia Jiang demands, almost purpling with fury.

“Ah, well,” Xiao Shu says, trying for a careless shrug and promptly wincing due to his injuries. “That underling you have, the one you ordered to chain me up? Yeah, I bought him off. Sorry.”

He smirks, looking anything but.

With a fierce growl, Xia Jiang starts towards Xiao Shu. Jingyan immediately moves to intercept him, but at that moment, the door bursts open and Zhen Ping and his team pour in, swarm around both Xia Jiang and his subordinate, with Li Gang shouting orders for them to be clapped in chains and delivered to the soldiers waiting outside.

Moving towards the door, Xiao Shu winces again and Jingyan is immediately at his side, draping one of Xiao Shu’s arms over his shoulders, and wrapping one of his own around Xiao Shu’s waist. Pulling Xiao Shu towards himself to take on more of his weight, Jingyan leads him outside, to where they can find some form of transport to take him back home to be treated.

As they step through the doorway, Xiao Shu suddenly staggers and doubles over, his hand clutching convulsively at the fabric of Jingyan’s robe.

“Ah,” he gasps. “The Wujin pill. Must be starting to take effect already.”

Jingyan’s heart stops.

Chapter Text

The general who wins a battle makes many calculations in his temple before the battle is fought. The general who loses a battle makes but few calculations beforehand.

 

Xiao Shu is rushed back to the Lin residence in a flurry of anxious subordinates and panicked shouting. Jingyan has no memory of carrying Xiao Shu out into the courtyard and making the arrangements, although he knows he must have – all he remembers is Xiao Shu’s face, chalk-white under the blood and bruises, and Xiao Shu’s hand, clutching weakly at Jingyan’s collar.

Refusing to leave Xiao Shu even for a moment, Jingyan stays glued to his side for the entire journey; helping him out of the carriage upon arrival at the Lin residence, before half-carrying him across the courtyard to his bedroom, where preparations have already been made to receive them. There, he remains at Xiao Shu’s bedside, clutching his hand tightly while they wait for a physician to arrive.

“How did it go with Princess Xuanji?” Xiao Shu asks weakly, lying against the pillow and smiling up at Auntie Jinyang, who is sitting by his head, gently stroking his hair back from his face.

“We caught her,” Uncle Lin says from the doorway. “She and her Red Sleeve Recruits fought until the end. No match for us, obviously, but it makes you think – heading an army, never mind a country, she could have been a truly formidable leader. It’s a bit of a pity that it came to this, really.”

“So they’ve all been delivered to the Ministry of Justice?” Xiao Shu asks, trying to rise to face his father, and being gently but firmly pushed back down by his mother.

“We have all the remaining Red Sleeve Recruits,” Uncle Lin says. “And the Empress and Empress Dowager will have moved by now, and rounded up all of the spies she had in the Palace. Qin Banruo tried to escape, but Lin Chen managed to retrieve her; we’re holding her with the rest.”

“And Princess Xuanji?”

Uncle Lin shakes his head. “Princess Xuanji took her own life, rather than allow herself to be taken captive.”

Xiao Shu nods, but his next question is cut off by Lin Chen and an older man bursting into the room in a whirlwind of white robes and fluttering sleeves. With a parting squeeze, Jingyan reluctantly lets go of Xiao Shu’s hand and moves aside to give the physicians room to work.

Changsu,” Lin Chen hisses, making straight for the position Auntie Jinyang vacates by Xiao Shu’s head, his face twisted in fury. “Changsu, can you not be like this?!

“Son,” the older man – who is presumably the master of Langya Hall, then – chides mildly, placing a pacifying hand on Lin Chen’s arm. When he looks down at the bed, however, his expression makes Xiao Shu’s face pale even further.

“I was careful to not let any bones get broken?” Xiao Shu offers, with a conciliatory smile, as the Master sits down and lifts his wrist to take his pulse.

“STOP SPEAKING,” Lin Chen orders, pointing an imperious finger at Xiao Shu’s face. “You do not deserve to speak!”

“Don’t abuse the patient,” the Master says admonishingly, and promptly sticks a needle into Xiao Shu’s chest with a firmness that makes Xiao Shu cry out in protest. “And you,” he says severely. “Don’t make stupid decisions about your health.”

“Don’t worry, Auntie, Uncle,” Lin Chen says to Auntie Jinyang and Uncle Lin, who are standing together at the door, watching anxiously as their son is tended to. “Father has everything he needs; all the preparations were completed weeks ago. Xiao Shu will be fine.”

He turns and sees Jingyan.

YOU,” he declares, voice rising once again. “I heard what happened from Li Gang and Zhen Ping, don’t even get me started on you!”

He spends a moment silently glaring at Jingyan, as if he simply can’t find words to convey what he wants to say.

Jingyan knows the feeling; no one can blame him more in this moment than he blames himself.

“Get out!” Lin Chen orders finally. “Out! Out! Out! We can’t work with you hovering around like this and getting in the way!”

Allowing himself to be verbally abused and physically pushed out the door (he would willingly allow himself to be subjected to a great deal more, if it meant that Xiao Shu would get better), Jingyan throws one last uncertain glance over his shoulder at the bed and meets Xiao Shu’s eyes.

“Go on,” Xiao Shu murmurs, smiling reassuringly even as he’s forced to grit his teeth against another wave of pain. “It’ll be all right, Jingyan. Don’t be afraid.”

Jingyan closes his eyes against the tightening of his chest and the feeling of his throat closing up at the sight of Xiao Shu trying to comfort him, even while wracked with pain and being slowly killed from the inside. But, unwilling to argue and furthermore unable to bring himself to speak, Jingyan just nods weakly and leaves.


He spends the next few days alternately consumed with guilt and worry. He practically lives at the Lin residence; only going home to bathe and sleep, and always returning first thing the next morning. He spends every moment he’s allowed at Xiao Shu’s bedside, and when Lin Chen insists that he leave, only goes as far as he’s made to.

It’s during one of these periods of exile that Jingyan finds himself sitting in the outer chamber with Nihuang and Marquis Yan, as well as Yujin and Jingrui, who are sitting beside him, unnaturally quiet with worry for their Shu-gege.

“Ah, Nihuang,” Marquis Yan says, to break the heavy silence. “I’ve been meaning to ask: how did your visit to Xia Jiang with Commander Meng go?”

Nihuang clenches one of her hands in the skirt of her gown, face taking on a murderous expression at the mention of Xia Jiang. Confused, Jingyan looks at her in a silent request for explanation.

“We heard that the antidote used to be held at the Xuanjing Bureau,” Nihuang says, raising her eyes to look at him, voice clipped with anger. “So we went to look for it. But Xia Jiang must have removed it before he was arrested, because it wasn’t there. He obviously didn’t have it on his person when he was arrested, but none of the Bureau’s officers could – or, more likely, would,” she adds darkly, under her breath, “tell us where he may have hidden it.”

“And did you have any success asking the person himself?” Marquis Yan inquires politely.

“He wouldn’t tell us when we asked. And wouldn’t consider any bargains short of his own freedom. So,” Nihuang says, looking up at Marquis Yan with a defiant tilt to her chin, “we tried to beat the information out of him.”

“We didn’t really expect them to succeed,” Marquis Yan says, giving Jingyan a small, humourless smile. “But we thought it might be worth it to let them try. At the very least they might be able to vent their anger, a little.”

“I’ve plenty more,” Nihuang says darkly. “If you need us to go again.”

Jingyan straightens, with more than half a mind to offer his own services.

Marquis Yan laughs softly.

“We’ll be sure to keep that in mind,” he says, quietly amused. “But I have a feeling that we won’t be relying on him for the answer. Xiao Shu anticipated this outcome; apparently he asked Langya Hall to look into an alternative cure months ago.”

“Will it work, though, Uncle Yan?” Jingrui asks worriedly. “If it’s not the original one?”

“The Langya Master is a very accomplished physician,” Marquis Yan tells Jingrui and Yujin both. “He’s been making preparations ever since he first received Xiao Shu’s request. I’m sure Xiao Shu will be fine.”

“Of course he’ll be fine,” Lin Chen says, flinging the doors open and flicking his hair over one shoulder before crossing his arms and raising his eyebrow at the five sets of anxious eyes that immediately fix themselves upon his face. “My father just tested his blood – there’s no longer any poison left in his body.”

Jingyan lurches unsteadily to his feet, feeling lightheaded now that the weight on his chest disappears and he can finally breathe.

“In fact,” Lin Chen continues,” you can all go in and see him for yourselves now. Quietly,” he adds sternly, when Yujin and Jingrui leap up in a whirl of limbs and stampede across the room.

“The poison may be out of his body, but he still needs a month of rest to give his body sufficient time to recover,” the Master is saying to Uncle Lin and Auntie Jinyang when Jingyan and Nihuang enter the room. “No duties and no taxing activity – either physical or mental. He can undertake some light, light,” he says, glaring pointedly at Xiao Shu, who immediately assumes his most innocent expression, “martial arts training after two weeks.”

“See, everyone?” Xiao Shu says, looking towards the doorway and smiling at the group of new arrivals. “I’m fine! I’ll be completely better in no time.”

Nihuang elbows her way into the room and smacks his shoulder.

“That would be thanks to all our hard work,” Lin Chen comments acerbically from the door, over Xiao Shu’s cry of “ouch!” and injured rubbing. “After you decided to take reckless gambles with your body. You do know that you only get one of those, don’t you, Changsu?”

Meanwhile, Yujin and Jingrui have also ducked their way inside, and are clamouring to talk to their Shu-gege and ask him questions about his confrontation with Xia Jiang. Their chattering is interspersed with Xiao Shu’s laughter and Nihuang’s scolding, which interrupts their barrage of words whenever they grow overexcited or too loud.

Jingyan just sinks down beside the bed and rests his forehead against the covers in relief.

When Marquis Yan has ushered Yujin and Jingrui from the room (“Because the Langya Master said that Shu-gege needs to rest, Yujin, and how can he do that with you bothering him?”), Nihuang turns to Xiao Shu and Jingyan, and gives them each a sharp smack on the arm.

“You idiots!” she snaps, over their cries of protest. “You said you were going to be careful! Do you call this being careful? Neither of you get to make decisions anymore! When I come of age, I will be the one who makes all the decisions; the two of you clearly cannot be trusted with more than what to eat for dinner!”

“What?” Xiao Shu yelps, sounding injured. “Jingyan I understand, but,” Jingyan makes an offended noise, “me too? Why can’t I make decisions anymore?”

Especially you!”Nihuang says sharply, whirling on him. “You went and chose to eat poison.”

Xiao Shu shrugs helplessly, but concedes to her point.

Wei Zheng, who has returned to Jinling after serving as the Langya Master’s escort, chooses that moment to come in and make his report.

“Field Marshal, Princess,” he says bowing to Uncle Lin and Auntie Jinyang, before turning and bowing in the direction of the bed as well. “Prince Jing, Duchess. Young Marshal. The men are very glad to hear that you’ll make a full recovery.”

“Good work, Wei Zheng,” Uncle Lin says approvingly. “The Langya Master was very happy with you, and has requested that you be his return escort when the time comes.”

“Yes, sir,” Wei Zheng says. “Thank you, sir. I also have a letter for you from the Master of the Yaowang Valley, Su Tianshu.”

“Tianshu?” Uncle Lin asks, sounding surprised.

“We stopped on the way back to collect some herbs from him, sir,” Wei Zheng says. “He was very insistent about his letter being passed to you.”

“How quaint,” Uncle Lin says, holding up the letter to show Auntie Jinyang, who shrugs. “I wonder what it could be about? Maybe I’ll just read it now.”

“I’d rather you didn’t, sir,” Wei Zheng says.

“Oh? And why is that?” Uncle Lin asks absently, ignoring him and unfolding the thin piece of paper, eyes beginning to scan quickly over the lines of characters. “It was good to see my adorable boy again – haha, he still calls you that, does he, Wei Zheng? – He arrived at the same time as the Yun familyfamous clan of physicians – oh, are they, Jinyang? I didn’t know that – made a good impression, yes, yes … send him to see us more often? … I suppose he’d miss you quite a bit, doesn’t he, Wei – their little girl wants to see him again?” He suddenly chokes, eyes widening. “SHE WROTE HIM THIS LOVE POEM–”

Uncle Lin bursts into a fit of booming laughter.

Jingyan quickly looks away and muffles his snort in Xiao Shu’s bedcovers. Out of the corner of his eye, he sees Nihuang quickly cover her face with her mouth, whereas Xiao Shu’s face suddenly goes suspiciously blank.

“You bastards,” Wei Zheng mutters at them out of the corner of his mouth, red-faced.

“That’s amazing,” Uncle Lin says, wiping away a tear and still chuckling. “Good work, Wei Zheng. You’re dismissed.”

“It’s time we went, too,” Nihuang says, grabbing Jingyan by the arm and pulling him to his feet. “Shu-gege’s had enough excitement for today. We’ll be back tomorrow, though,” she promises, sounding like she’s making a threat, “to make sure you’re following the Langya Master’s instructions – don’t think I don’t know what you’re like!”

“You’re going to return him to me when it’s time for me to get married,” she mutters to Jingyan as they leave the room. “Or find me an upgrade. You owe me.”

Jingyan nods. He can’t really argue with that.


“Very well done, Jingyan,” the Emperor says, putting the report down and looking up at Jingyan with an approving smile. “I am very satisfied with the work you’ve done here. The ministers also speak highly of your work and dedication.”

He turns his head. “Gaozhan.”

Gao-gonggong steps forward and bows.

“Arrange for the silver, jade and silks we discussed to be sent to Prince Jing’s official residence,” his brother says, and Gao-gonggong bows his acquiescence.

“Thank you, Your Majesty,” Jingyan says, bowing as well.

“Jingyan,” the Emperor says, turning back to him. “Together with your performance in Donghai, I think this has shown that you truly deserve the promotion in rank you’ve received. I will certainly be assigning you even greater responsibility, going forward, now that you’ve more than shown that you can be trusted with it.”

“Thank you, Your Majesty,” Jingyan says again, heart swelling. “It will be an honour to serve you.”

“Your Majesty,” one of the ministers speaks up, bowing and stepping forward. “With the promotion in rank, might it be time to consider a marriage for the Prince? Prince Jing is yet unmarried – does not even keep a concubine, if I’m not mistaken – and will come of age this year. Should we begin to compile a list of candidates …?”

Jingyan freezes, but the Emperor just laughs.

“We can probably leave that for a while,” he says, casting Jingyan a knowing glance and chuckling. “After all, Jingting is also unmarried – we should worry about him, first. And as you said, Jingyan’s only just coming of age this year – you’re not in any rush, are you, Jingyan?”

Jingyan gives his brother a vigorous headshake.

“No, Your Majesty,” he says, trying to speak as clearly as possible without shouting.

The Emperor smirks at him.

“Well, then, I think we can adjourn the court. Jingyan, you can go and see your friend – as I know you’ve been waiting to do for the entirety of this audience. I’ve heard that he’s mostly recovered now – give him my regards; we’ll be looking forward to a visit as soon as he’s well enough.”

Jingyan bows himself out of the audience room and rushes straight for the Lin residence.

He finds Xiao Shu in the garden, wrapped up in a warm, fur-lined cloak, hair worn loose over his shoulders.

“Should you be outside right now?” Jingyan asks worriedly. The morning breeze feels a little chilly.

“Jingyan,” Xiao Shu says exasperatedly, rolling his eyes in longsuffering. “It’s the beginning of summer. I am wearing the thickest cloak we own. I’m not almost dying; I’m fine!”

Pursing his lips in dissatisfaction, Jingyan bends down and tucks Xiao Shu’s cloak more firmly around him.

“Argh, stop it!” Xiao Shu yells, batting his hands away. “I’m overheating!”

Jingyan responds by sitting down behind him, stretching his legs out on either side of Xiao Shu’s waist, and pulling his friend back into a bear hug.

“ARGH!” Xiao Shu shouts.

He starts a light tussle in his bid to escape, which Jingyan mostly lets him win, still extremely mindful of his friend’s health. When the struggle is over, Xiao Shu ends up leaning against Jingyan’s chest, the cloak hanging down over both of them.

Resting his chin on Xiao Shu’s shoulder and looking out contentedly at the garden, Jingyan feels a light touch on the side of his jaw, and turns just in time for Xiao Shu to meet his lips with his own.

Xiao Shu was right, Jingyan thinks, closing his eyes. It is kind of warm.

When they break apart, Xiao Shu looks at Jingyan for a moment, his expression turning sly, before thoughtfully grinding back against him and making Jingyan gasp.

“Can you please not go around starting things you can’t finish?” Jingyan asks, giving Xiao Shu’s thigh an admonishing pinch.

“Who said I wasn’t going to finish?” Xiao Shu asks challengingly, before promptly grinding back again.

“You’re still recovering!” Jingyan protests, trying to wriggle back out of reach.

“It’s been two weeks,” Xiao Shu points out. “I’m supposed to start on light exercise now. So I was thinking, if we go to my room, and you do most of the work–”

Well. Jingyan knows when it's prudent to concede defeat.

 

He will win who knows when to fight and when not to fight.