Su Zhe—Mei Changsu, Jingyan corrected himself fiercely, Chief of the Jiangzuo alliance and conniving strategist, not Su Zhe, kind gentle scholar, whom he thought he had met on a sweet night underneath an eave—looked straight at him, and said, “I choose you. Prince Jing.”
“I see,” Jingyan replied.
He tried to listen as Sir Su explained why he had been chosen as the candidate for the throne to support, the one Sir Su in no way preferred but would make do with. But all he could hear was the rush in his head, and all he could see was the paranoia lining up in one clear hurtful pattern, and he was stupid, so stupid, to have trusted someone who had been entirely a stranger to him. No wonder Xiao Shu had called him water buffalo, slow and clumsy and still liable to be led by the nose, when great losses should have taught him better by now—
Sir Su finished his speech, and Jingyan asked, curtly, “Was that night with me all an early plot to approach and investigate me?"
Sir Su’s enforced calmness slid entirely off his face. He reeled back as if he had been slapped. It should have been satisfying, but instead it made something twist in Jingyan’s stomach.
“I would never,” Sir Su said, hiding his fingers inside his sleeves and pressing his lips thin. “If you remember, my men were as taken aback by my presence as Prince Ji’s party was. My decision was made in the moment, when I saw you there tense and alone.”
And then he seemed to remember himself, and amended, “Your Highness.”
Tense, Sir Su said. Alone, Sir Su said.
“I see,” Jingyan said, “A lark, then”— silently to himself, he added, pity—“I beg your forgiveness for having bothered you, and thank Chief Mei for taking the time to introduce me to new experiences.”
How silly Sir Su must have thought Jingyan, pining after him like a courting teenage boy, hoarding gifts for his beloved, sending out scouts as if he were a lost child and not someone spurning unwanted attentions.
Sir Su had left early that morning even. Why had Jingyan willfully refused to take the hint?
He has never been good with people, but surely that signal had been as obvious as the stars.
Jingyan almost wished that it had been a ploy of some kind. Then, it would have meant that he had a place in Sir Su’s mind, a more permanent one than the opportunistic passing pleasure he truly was.
“It was not a bother, it was—” Sir Su started, and then paused. “You were… lovely. I only regret that it is an experience that cannot be repeated in our current capacity. In truth, I am surprised and flattered you remember me, after so long a time has passed. I am sure there would be… others in the capital who would be pleased to capture your attentions.”
His voice trailed off there at the end, until it was almost a question.
“Certainly. I appreciate Sir Su’s forthrightness,” Jingyan said simply. He had long been used to a solitary existence. This was only a return to the status quo.
Inexplicably, Sir Su’s mouth tightened, as if that answer displeased him somehow. But that was all Jingyan could think to say to him.
Jingyan took a cup of steaming tea that had been poured for him, just to have something to hold, and turned to the window. He emptied his mind of everything but his most rational thoughts, and considered this offer from every angle.
Unlike his brothers, he has never coveted the throne. Even if it had, he had never had the resources to seek it. And yet—here was the path to save Da Liang from the greediness that bled the people and tore at him, every time he conducted inspections around the country; here was the tool to restoring the honor of the noble dead, if he bided his time; here was a responsibility that would atone for how naïve and careless he had been more than a decade ago, when he rode to Donghai and abandoned his family to the machinations of the court.
But this man who promised to reveal his path to the throne was at best a risk, at worse a danger. And the path would undoubtedly rely on despicable plots similar to the one that had cost him everything.
Jingyan turned back and looked at Sir Su’s subdued figure. For all that he knew that Sir Su must be a fox—a wolf, even—in the dress of a lamb, his instincts still told him that this man could be trusted. Their mess of a one-night affair was only Jingyan’s misunderstanding, after all.
In all ways thus far, the man had only demonstrated that he was sincere, capable, and honest.
And even if Jingyan played cautiously and ignored his instincts, could he live with himself afterwards, knowing that he willing let slip the chance to live out the legacy his brother and Xiao Shu should have had?
“Successfully secure Tingsheng’s release, and I will consider your offer,” Jingyan said, and they both knew he meant yes.
They might never share a bed again, but together they would craft a future.
“Your Highness is so worried about Sir Su!” General Meng said, and laughed uproariously.
It was impossible for General Meng to know, but Jingyan felt himself flushing anyway. Sir Su, sitting by his side, choked on his hot tea and coughed.
Against his better sense, Jingyan turned immediately, one hand coming up to steady Sir Su’s teacup so he would not spill hot liquid on himself, the other to sooth down his back.
“Are you all right, Sir Su?” Jingyan said. His concern was only reasonable. His strategist, so susceptible to the cold, had spent almost a full night awake and outdoors while being shot at by arrows.
If anything, Sir Su coughed harder. Jingyan’s hand on his back tightened, and he moved closer. But Sir Su was turning his head in the opposite direction. He shifted, just out of the range of Jingyan’s hands and—right. Of course.
He sometimes forgot that what Sir Su desired of him was only the behavior of a distant liege.
“Perhaps Sir Su is still tired from last night,” he said, his voice even. “I will leave you to your rest. Let’s go, Zhanying.”
He rose smoothly and made for the tunnel entrance where Zhanying stood, always present. He was, inexplicably, standing as upright as a clay soldier, and glaring daggers at Sir Su, who was busying himself next to the brazier.
“Zhanying? Is something the matter?” Jingyan said, touching his shoulder lightly and turning his eyes back towards Sir Su, whose eyes flicked towards the two of them and returned to the brazier with a dark expression. His hand moved even closer to the glowing embers.
General Meng shouted, “Careful!” at the same moment as Jingyan yelled, “Sir Su!”, and Sir Su hissed and pulled his right hand back from the brazier. He spread out his fingers in front of him, and let out another low hiss as he stared at the unnaturally red tips.
Jingyan made two abortive steps towards him, and then—remembering himself—, stopped. But he couldn’t help still asking, “Are you hurt, Sir Su?”
“I am fine,” Sir Su said. He continued to bend his head over the brazier, so Jingyan could not read his face from a distance. “My joints were only a little stiff from the cold. I should have been more careful.”
Jingyan nodded, though Sir Su could not see him.
“I could bring you salve, for your aches,” he couldn’t help offering. “My mother made me many for the long campaigns.”
It was a mildly ridiculous habit, showering those he cared for with gifts. But he’s never been able to help it. For his mother, he often brought medicinal herbs—nothing conspicuous, nothing to earn another’s envy, but useful and valued. Xiao Shu had received the most ingenious strategy books and well-crafted weapons, and Jingyan had been forever racing to gift them before Xiao Shu acquired them for himself.
When Sir Su was only the mischievous Su Zhe whom Jingyan sometimes thought wistfully about, he had hoarded weiqi sets, music scrolls, embroidered robes in shades of cream and blue. He still had them.
But what he could offer now was only the salve.
“Zhanying would sometimes rub it on me, after long days riding in winter weather,” he added. “The heat soothes stiff muscles very well— Sir Su, be careful!”
Sir Su’s hand, drifting dangerously close to the brazier’s coals again in a rigid grip, pulled sharply back. He tucked his hands back into his sleeves, and grimaced. Jingyan had not been aware Sir Su was so clumsy a person.
“Your Highness,” Zhanying said, and though Zhanying’s voice was pleasantly neutral, Jingyan turned to him with a furrowed brow, because Zhanying was his adjutant for a reason. He too, rarely spoke unless there was reason to.
But Zhanying’s gaze remained intent on Sir Su, who was still refusing to look at them both. “Perhaps you might with the salve also send over the fur cloak which you had me find for him three years ago? I was unsuccessful in delivering it to him then, but perhaps Sir Su will find the gift more useful now, given Jinling’s colder winters.”
It hurt his pride, in a way, to send over what had clearly been acquired as a love token. But the fur cloak, and the other items which languished in his manor, had of course been acquisitioned for the use of one particular person, who had done nothing to be deprived of them, except fail to want what Jingyan did.
Jingyan nodded. He paused again, and then added, “Bring also the other items meant for Sir Su.” Zhanying bowed in assent, throwing another odd look over at Sir Su. Jingyan would have to speak to Zhanying at another time about his inexplicable behavior.
To Sir Su, Jingyan said, “I hope you understand they do not obligate you to me in any way. Do not feel that you must refuse these gifts.”
“Your humble servant is grateful,” Sir Su said, in a strangled voice.
Jingyan inclined his head, and left Sir Su’s quarters, following Zhanying’s burning candle into the tunnel.
“Imperial Uncle,” Jingyan said, bowing.
Then he blinked, and registered that there were many more people in the fair open room than he had been expecting when he finally accepted Prince Ji’s invitation to enjoy famed qin player Miss Gong Yu’s latest compositions at Miaoyin House. There was only so many times he could refuse before he appeared insolent towards Prince Ji.
At the front of the room, his uncle sat. On a platform nook to his side, a beautiful lady, with a face as gently curved as the crescent moon, undoubtedly Miss Gong Yu, was running her fingers across her instrument. To the right, Yujin and Jingrui rose to their feet with bright smiles and greeted him with twin voices.
To the left, there was an empty seat and Sir Su. Who was still sitting in neglect of decorum and staring at him in astonishment and dawning horror.
Jingyan suddenly understood what was happening, and regretted that he had finally accepted this invitation after all.
If there were a bright spot, it was that Zhanying, who would have otherwise accompanied him, was not present and therefore unable to witness his embarrassment. Zhanying had begged off for the occasion, saying that his sweethearts disapproved of him making visits to pleasure places, even those with good reputations like Miaoyin House.
“Nephew! You have arrived! Come, sit!” Prince Ji’s voice boomed out. He waved insistently to the seat next to Sir Su, as if there were any other empty seat on offer. “I hope you don’t mind that I invited a familiar face along!”
Sir Su finally remembered his manners, and bowed. His motions were smooth, but he looked sickly pale, nothing like the fineness of moonlight and jade Jingyan often associated with him. “Prince Jing,” he murmured.
And still, Jingyan could not tear his eyes from him. He felt a strange sense of déjà vu, even as he knew that Miaoyin House had little resemblance to that gauzy pavillion, which seemed only an old memory now.
Prince Ji laughed, and Jingyan with a start remembered his own manners. He bowed low to his uncle, who inexplicably only grinned wider and again gestured him to his seat.
Trapped, he could only grimace and do as he was asked.
As he moved, he gave Sir Su a quick silent plea for aid. But Sir Su, who was always ready with a plan of action, who had rescued him last time, only looked back at him with the exact same expression.
This time, it appeared they were both the targets of his uncle in full form, and there would be no escape.
The moment Jingyan settled on his cushion, a female attendant approached and made for his cup. He meant to stop her, only to have Prince Ji unexpectedly beat him to it.
“No need, no need,” Prince Ji said, waving her away with a hand and beaming at him again. “I am sure my nephew would not appreciate it. And anyway, Sir Su is right next to him. He could easily pour Prince Jing a drink if needed, isn’t that right, Sir Su?”
“Prince Jing has done remarkably well in court recently. He certainly deserves a toast in his honor,” Sir Su replied, a slight strain evident in his voice.
Yujin was looking from Jingyan to Sir Su and back again, his brow furrowed.
“Of course Miss Gong Yu’s music is quite a draw,” he said slowly. “But I have to admit, I’m surprised to see you here, Prince Jing. I don't think I've ever seen you in these places. I was under the impression you and Sir Su have only met in passing since he came to Jinling, but are you actually better acquainted than that?”
Jingyan couldn’t help closing his eyes at Yujin’s unfortunate phrasing.
“Oh ho ho,” Prince Ji said, becoming impossibly more gleeful. “You two have already been reacquainted since Sir Su came to the capital? And here I thought I had set up such a nice surprise for you both!”
“Miss Gong Yu was just preparing to show us a new composition of hers, on the reflection of the moon in the still waters of a winter lake,” Sir Su intercut, rather smoothly—only to have Jingrui ruin his efforts by continuing the conversation’s previous thread.
Jingrui looked down at his cup, with a downward tilt of his mouth, “You two knew each other before he came to Jinling, when he was in the jianghu? Brother Su had not mentioned it.”
“A passing meeting only,” Sir Su said, which was indeed true, and might have transitioned them from the topic but for Jingyan, who said at the same time, “Our brief acquaintance was renewed entirely unexpectedly when Sir Su entered the capital.”
Sir Su shot him a look that was so mild that it was in fact full of spite, and Jingyan realized that two protestations together became something very different.
Prince Ji, of course, boomed with laughter again.
“Of course, of course! Forgive this old uncle for trying to meddle in your arrangements, when you had things perfectly in hand!” he said. “It was only that I was so surprised, when I came out of a shop the other day with Yujin here and unexpectedly caught your Su Zhe’s carriage as it passed! To think that your Su Zhe was the same Su Zhe the entire capital has been abuzz about! I should have known that if a well-known figure like Sir Su had taken the effort to come to Jinling, he would have already organized his own reunion with you!”
Miss Gong Yu, who had been strumming experimentally on her qin, played a note that twanged out-of-tune in the air, while Jingrui and Yujin both turned scarlet.
Jingrui regarded Sir Su with sorrowful eyes, and Yujin stared at them with shameless curiosity.
But Jingyan could feel none of their amusement. His hands clenched underneath the table at the reminder that the truth was so far away from what his uncle thought, and he refused to look at Sir Su.
“Sir Su has far too many concerns to come to Jinling on my account,” he said, and hated how brusque and bitter his voice came out. He was meant to have learnt to hide his emotions better than this year ago. When would he ever outgrow Xiao Shu’s old nickname? “I am sure the details of our first meeting were forgotten quickly after.”
He bent his head and knocked back a cup of wine, and immediately poured himself another. The hazelnut snacks in front of him did not taste as good as his mother, but at least they gave himself something to do.
Silence lingered awkwardly in the air.
“Miss Gong Yu,” Sir Su said, a wildness Jingyan hadn’t previously heard in his voice. “Would you give us the pleasure of some of your music? Prince Ji, please tell me more about these musical scrolls you recently purchased."
After a beat, the music and conversation both began again.
Delicate notes and trills washed over Jingyan, as he continued to occupy himself with what was on his table, drinking too much and eating too fast. It was not that he did not like music—he did appreciate beautiful music, and this was indeed beautiful, but his thoughts on music were rarely more complex than that it was good, and he liked it.
Instead, he focused his attention on enduring this agony, until enough time had passed for him to excuse himself from being in the same room as his well-meaning uncle and the first man whom he’s made senseless exceptions for in thirteen years.
A man that did not want him.
Jingyan did not know how many songs had passed by the time he tilted his wine container, and only a single droplet plopped down to the bottom of his cup. He turned, to frown at the spout, only to catch Sir Su watching him with a burning intensity from the corner of his eyes.
Their eyes connected.
Face flushing, Jingyan turned back.
But then Sir Su was leaning over in one graceful motion, and Jingyan did not know what he meant by that. He pressed against Jingyan’s side, and poured him another cup from his own wine container. One fine hand pulled back a wave-embroidered sleeve, to show off the elegant bones of his upturned wrist, and it was so blindingly erotic that Jingyan suddenly understood why poets wrote about such things.
He shifted in his seat, and accepted the cup.
Sir Su was too close, smelled too strongly of herbs and fragrant tea leaves. The scent only became more enveloping as Sir Su leaned closer still to Jingyan, and whispered, looking straight at his eyes so there was no way to avoid his gaze, “You cannot truly think that I would or could have forgotten about you, Your Highness.”
And Jingyan was drunk, and so all he could do was laugh a humorless laugh.
“Sir Su has traveled to many places and met many strangers, surely,” Jingyan replied. “I am certain the memory of me, tense and alone, could not have lingered past the next morning.”
Sir Su stiffened. “When I said that, I only meant that it seemed so unfair to me, because you were so lovely,” he said, with an unexpected note of urgency to his voice. Sir Su searched his face. "Do you know how many courtesans glared at me as I left with you?”
Jingyan blinked, because all faces that night that were not Sir Su’s were only a blur to him.
“And am I not, any more?” he said. He let himself tip just a little closer, his eyes fluttering shut.
Whatever Sir Su’s reply would have been was interrupted by a large cough. Jingyan blinked, and tried to refocus.
He realized, as if rousing from dream, that they were still in a private room at Miaoyin House, that Miss Gong Yu had stopped playing some time ago, that the other three men in the room were refusing to look directly at him, and that Sir Su and he were pressed as close they could be without Sir Su being in his lap.
Prince Ji, who was the one that had coughed, gave an exaggerated yawn.
“I am suddenly very tired,” Prince Ji drawled. “Yujin and Jingrui, would you escort an old man home? After the recent murders, I just don’t feel safe. Nephew, I have an account here you are free to draw from, if you find yourself too tired to return to your own residence.”
Before Jingyan could do more than stare in disbelief, Prince Ji was rising and moving out of the room with all his attendants. As he passed Jingyan, he clapped him on the shoulder, his voice sincere but far too loud, “Remember nephew, that too many people lack the chance to be happy.” Then he swept out of the room.
Yujin and Jingrui bowed, and followed as well in hasty retreat, the tips of their ears still red. Even Miss Gong Yu was rising, if reluctantly. Her eyes lingered for too long on Sir Su, but when Jingyan’s eyes flicked to him, he was occupied with examining the blue emerald patterns of his teacup.
Finally, she too swept out of the room on graceful footsteps, and only he and Sir Su remained in the room.
The sound of the revelry in the nearby chambers seemed only to underscore the awkward silence in theirs.
In truth, they often spent a significant of time alone, and there always lingered in the room an awkwardness that would encroach if either he or Sir Su paid it too much attention.
But here, right now, in this place of beauty and pleasure, the tension between them was oppressive and inescapable.
At last, Jingyan said, “We are also free to leave. Sir Su need not stay on my account this time.”
He expected Sir Su to nod, and also to rise to his feet. He did not anticipate that he would instead turn to him, and reply, incongruously, “Did you really think I had planned our meeting and… what happened afterwards, the night that we met?”
Jingyan flushed, because it was unexpected and he was caught off-footed, but also because because those suspicious words had shamed Jingyan almost from the moment they were uttered.
“I apologize for those words,” he said, earnestly. He raised his gaze to meet Sir Su, so that he would read the truth in Jingyan’s steady eyes, and stressed his next words as best he could. “They were said in anger and rashness. I know Sir Su is an honorable man. You have kept my secrets, you have dealt with me favorably, and you have been kind where you could. I trust you.”
Because Jingyan did. He has trusted him, from the first moment that they had met, when he had become so uncharacteristically taken with that ethereal figure bending over weiqi stones in the moonlight, who had resembled nothing so much as a fox spirit breathed to life in his fur-lined cloak, but who had rescued Jingyan with gentle mischief.
That trust has only grown in their recent months of collaboration, even if they had never approached again that first night’s intimate caresses.
But that choice, Jingyan could not—would not— not begrudge Sir Su.
Mei Changsu stared at him, his mouth tight, and it was impossible to tell how he felt about the pronouncement.
Silence settled over them again.
Jingyan looked down, and placed his hands on the table to refuse himself the ability to fidget. He forced himself to say the rest, because he has always prided himself on his candor.
“It was only that at the time, I struggled to understand why Sir Su might have chosen to give his attentions to me that night. But I have since thought through the issue more clearly,” Jingyan said. “You were in your kindness assisting me in a difficult situation, and I am told that decisions on one’s companion for the night need not be made with any particular intention beyond that evening.”
He had barely managed to finish his sentence before Sir Su was on him.
His world tilted, the momentum catching him by surprise, and despite the difference between Sir Su’s scholarly build and his war-hewed body, Jingyan found himself sprawled on the wooden floor, a seat cushion under his back and Sir Su on top of him.
Sir Su’s weight was light, and yet his presence was substantial, looming. Overwhelming.
“You are a prize, Your Highness,” Sir Su said. He cupped Jingyan's face with cold possessive hands, and Jingyan shivered. “And those who have neglected you are fools. Soon, all of Da Liang will know this.”
His voice was low and intense, and it felt like a gift, to have that exquisite attention honed on him again. It was all the more delicious now, when Jingyan had the full knowledge of all that absolute attention was capable of: playing melodies so beautiful one ached; regarding Fei Liu with indulgent eyes; forcing shackles on abusive ministers; unveiling secrets to the light of justice.
Jingyan leaned forward then, because Mei Changsu’s lips were right there, as tight as a bowstring and as taut with potential.
But as he was closing the distance, Mei Changsu ducked his head, choosing instead to lave attention on his neck. The kisses trailed down his neck, and Jingyan thought, when he could spare attention from the pleasure overwhelming his mind, Oh, and Don’t forget these boundaries.
“Has Your Highness learnt anything more of the southern style?” Sir Su said, to fill the awkwardness of the abortive move.
Jingyan turned his head and caught Mei Changsu’s eyes. But he only stared steadily back, and Jingyan could read nothing of the process from his inscrutable mind, except that a decision had clearly been made.
Mei Changsu leaned down, and busied itself undoing Jingyan's belt with nimble fingers. His other hand buried inside Jingyan’s robes and raked fingernails against a nipple, sending lightning sparking along Jingyan’s spine.
Jingyan gasped, and forced out a “No” in reply. He could almost feel Mei Changsu’s smile against his thigh, and he was bared to Mei Changsu’s gaze, completely at his mercy.
“I see,” Mei Changsu said. “But Your Highness must know of course, that there are many ways to give pleasure.”
With those words, the image of taking Mei Changsu came unbidden to his mind.
Mei Changsu on his back, every fleeting expression caught by the light, Jingyan’s face buried in black hair as fine as silk, the two of them intoxicated on the heat and the hypnotic rhythm of their movement.
But even as he flushed at the image, Jingyan knew he did not want that moment here—he wanted it in one of their chambers, where Mei Changsu could be warm and comfortable, where Jingyan could take precautions with plenty of oil, and make the experience as pleasurable as Sir Su made it for him.
Before he had finished contemplating the image, however, let alone voice any opinions on what activities they could indulge in as substitute, Sir Su was already taking him in a firm hand.
“Let me show you,” he said, darting a quick look up at Jingyan under lowered lashes. Then, he moved gracefully closer, and enveloped Jingyan without display in the wet heat of his mouth.
“Ah!” Jingyan cried out, and felt that all of Miaoyin House must be able to hear his shouts. “Sir Su—do not, ah. That is not—”
He meant to push Sir Su off of him. It was inappropriate, wrong, beneath Mei Changsu—Jingyan had heard of such acts, of course, in furtive whispers among men who patronized pleasure houses. But it was only something to ask of disreputable courtesans, not concubines, nor wives, nor those whom one cared for.
But his hand, which had intended to move Sir Su’s head from between his legs, moved instead to grip the back of his neck tightly and urge him forward.
It was so warm, and so wet. Noting like being in his concubine, and nothing like anything he had ever experienced. The patterns Mei Changsu’s wicked tongue drew scattered his thoughts, and each time Mei Changsu pulled off to make eye contact with him as he moved from root to tip, and savored him, as if Jingyan tasted as delicious as any delicacy Jingyan has ever unsubtly brought to the Su household, Jingyan eclipsed the maximum of pleasure he thought possible to experience.
Jingyan knew he was gasping wantonly into the still air of the room, but he could not help himself. He could only hope the revelry of others in neighboring rooms hid his sounds.
The edges of his vision were beginning to blur, the end was just out of reach, and Jingyan pushed his hips up between Sir Su’s swollen-red lips, just a little more—
Sir Su made a strangled noise and pulled off abruptly. He turned his head away from Jingyan quickly, but not fast enough that Jingyan could not see he was wracked with coughs. His shoulders heaved and his thin body shook with each wave of coughing, and, Oh God, Jingyan thought, how could he have been so selfish as to subject Sir Su and his frail health to such an appalling act.
“Sir Su!” Jingyan said, reaching out, all sense of pleasure evaporated. “Are you all right?”
“I am fine, Your Highness,” Mei Changsu said, after a moment. When he turned back, two points of red were high on his cheekbones. “Please do not concern yourself,” he continued, but his voice was hoarse.
“I beg your forgiveness,” Jingyan said, mortification making way for the shame creeping up his spine. “To selfishly allow you to commit such acts for my pleasure, and then to hurt you further by my carelessness—“
“Prince Jing,” Mei Changsu said. Inexplicably, he squeezed his eyes shut. His flush deepened.
When he opened them again, Mei Changsu said, in a much calmer voice, “It is an act I wished to participate in, and one I found enjoyable—truly—,“ he emphasized, when Jingyan’s eyes slid doubtfully to his throat. ”I only overestimated myself. Now, might we resume?”
There was a pout that Jingyan had never heard in Mei Changsu’s voice, and though Jingyan’s qualms remained, alcohol was still moving through Jingyan’s system, and he ached to have the weight of Mei Changsu back and keep his rare levity around just a moment longer.
Slowly, he nodded, and Mei Changsu seemed to breath a sigh of relief.
“But,” he said, giving Mei Changsu a sharp look, “Not that again. Something more equal, and less strenuous.”
Before Mei Changsu could open his mouth, Jingyan forestalled any reply by reaching forward and beginning to unfasten Mei Changsu’s belt.
He heard a sharp intake of breath above him, and he looked up at Mei Changsu, as he took the comfortable weight of him in his hands. Mei Changsu’s eyes were riveted to where Jingyan was holding the two of them and lining them up, his long fingers easily able to encircle them both. He moved forward, experimentally, and the friction was so good he had to groan, biting his lip.
Mei Changsu leaned forward too. He let out soft pants of approval, and they moved together, Jingyan’s hips relearning an old rhythm it’s almost forgotten, the slickness on Jingyan from Mei Changsu’s previous ministrations turning the slide sloppy and easy.
“Where might you have learnt this, then?” Mei Changsu asked, low, and Jingyan could not tell if he were serious or teasing.
“It isn’t entire new to me—ah—but it has been—many years. And common enough among the men, when our route is particularly isolated,” Jingyan said, between pants. He could feel the warmth that had dissipated previously gather again, low in his belly.
Sir Su chuckled on a moan. This time when he spoke, it was certainly teasing. “Is that not a matter of concern for army discipline?”
“The need for touch is natural, and between two men who are dutiful in all aspects, there is nothing shameful about desire,” Jingyan replied, breathless and surprisingly coherent for how close he felt himself, hearing the echoing gist of what Xiao Shu had told him long ago.
Mei Changsu laughed, tightened his hold on Jingyan’s shoulders, and with a groan came all over Jingyan’s hands.
Or love, Jingyan added silently to himself, looking at Mei Changsu’s expression of aching pleasure, and marveling that he was still capable of such bleeding emotions, after more than a decade. With a gasp and a stutter, he followed him over the edge.
Miraculously, their rash decision that day did not spread from mouth to mouth at Miaoyin House and then out to Jinling the next day.
Jingyan strongly suspected it was because of timely intervention by Mei Changsu. When they had both been doing a poor job of putting each other’s robes to rights—it turned out watching servants straighten sleeves and tie knots everyday did not in fact transmute to active knowledge—, Jingyan had wondered out loud how their façade of an alliance with Prince Yu could now be possibly upheld when news of their tryst leaked, only for Mei Changsu to quirk his smile in that inscrutable way.
“As you have thus far trusted my guidance, let this also be your strategist’s concern, Your Highness,” he had said with a bow, and the only thing Jingyan had registered was how much your strategist sounded like something very different, when it came from Mei Changsu’s swollen lips.
How Mei Changsu had in fact accomplish the deed of keeping their actions quiet that day, Jingyan could only speculate over in the end. But he presumed it had something to do with the long reach of the Jiangzuo Alliance’s network here in the capital. And if Yujin, Jingrui, and Prince Ji gave him expressive looks whenever they incidentally mentioned Mei Changsu, it was never enough for others to catch onto. They held their silence, as if someone had forced common agreement between them. In any case, Jingyan let it go.
The two went on much as they had before. The changes were almost imperceptible. They continued to have meetings in the tunnel between their manors, if with greater frequency, and with more comfortable furs furnishing the space. They continued to spend late nights together, though such tea-scented nights were no longer spent entirely over dense court documents. They continued to work in tandem with surprising ease, despite Mei Changsu’s glares each time he caught Jingyan’s eyes lingering a little too long over Mei Changsu’s gesturing hands. That always made Jingyan huff a little in annoyance, because he had observed that that particular problem ran both ways.
And yet, in truth, Jingyan doubted their affair was in any way imperceptible.
The Su household, always polite, was now more gracious and accommodating to him than his own servants. Zhanying had lost his initial and inexplicable ill-will towards Mei Changsu. Even General Meng, who caught things only at their third mention, never seemed to pass an opportunity when both Jingyan and Mei Changsu were in front of him to loudly proclaim how close the two of them had gotten, while shooting meaningful looks at Mei Changsu.
Jingyan could not discern what about his demeanor that was giving him away—and of course it was him, Mei Changsu’s disposition was far too composed and cautious to let anything slip. But he was glad that they almost never crossed paths outside the confines of their respective manors.
Sometimes, Jingyan felt guilty.
On nights when he woke up from dreams with a sharp twelve-year-old ache, he would tilt his head up to the ceiling, and recount the names and memories of the dead, again and again, until those feelings of loss followed him back into sleep. It shamed him to think that he might let the fury and grief that had fueled him through every slight for so long, that even now silently underwrote his path, disperse at the touch of hands peeking out of pearl-colored sleeves and eyes as formidable as the spring melt.
On those days, a small corner of his mind resented Mei Changsu.
But most of the time, Jingyan felt—content. He had almost forgotten what it was like.
He still did not have all of Mei Changsu, and did not afterwards repeat his abortive attempts at kissing.
He was still climbing crimson steps towards the throne, so that he might hold the brush to correct history.
But Jingyan woke up in the morning feeling light like the coming spring, in a way that made it feel like everything he was—is—would have been—was shifting under his feet.
He tried not to look at Mei Changsu and wonder if Mei Changsu felt the same, or if the strategist had plans for these eventualities as well.