Far to the north an Emperor is dying - has been dying for the last five months - and the fault lines of his Empire are cracking open. Lords and ministers and generals are choosing their sides and she has the envoys of two princes squatting in her manor, pushing her for her answer.
Qing-er and her generals have been arguing all sides back and forth and she has listened, quietly; another three years and this would have been Qing-er’s choice to make, but now it is hers, and she has chosen to make it here in this mountainside pavilion, where her ancestor had carved in the stone poetry in praise of the vistas revealed by the parting mountains.
Nihuang takes a deep breath, tilts her face up into the sweet wind which blows up from Yunan’s forests and jungles. There is no choice to make, or if there is one she made it nine years ago; she thinks Lin Shu-gege would be disappointed in her, but she has betrayed his memory for the sake of her country once before.
Her generals have fallen silent, waiting; Qing-er’s eyes are bright with excitement and trust.
“Yunan is a loyal vassal state of Da Liang but the Princes’ war will tip this country into chaos and southern Chu is eager for invasion - our first duty is to our people: Yunan will remain neutral.”
The tent stinks of sweat and blood and other relics of a hard fought battle; Yunan's neighbours had not shared their decision to look to their own borders. Nihuang nods to the messenger standing tense and waiting for her and braces herself as her women start unbuckling her armour - a lucky blow had dented it, and she can feel the spreading bruise.
“Urgent news, Your Highness, from Jinling - the Seventh Prince is dead.”
For a moment she is a girl of sixteen again, full of disbelief and denial - but then the years rush back in and she things of stubborn, noble, uncompromising Jingyan and grief settles heavily into her heart.
“Tell me the rest after the ceremony,” she orders the messenger, and he bows himself out.
When a servant makes to bring her tea she waves them away and pours herself plain hot water, cradling the cup in her hand. Waterbuffalo - you two were always rushing on ahead of me, she thinks, and then she downs her cup and goes to accept the Provincial Governor’s surrender.
It is civil war.
Qing-er guards the southern border, come of age too early, and her best generals are with him. Nihuang guards the northern border but the only way to guarantee its security is to win their neighbours' surrender - and beyond that province there is always another, eager for the spoils the chaos offers them.
The Crown Prince and Prince Yu tear the north apart between them and no one knows whether the Emperor is living or dead - but it matters little, now.
Yunan’s border keeps advancing and word is flying ahead of them that under the law of Mu Nihuang there is peace, stability, security. Refugees come, but also military captains, strategists, Ministers, all offering their services to her and she cannot refuse; their army and territory is growing too quickly and she needs their skills and advice.
She is beginning to suspect what road she is on.
The name of the game now is alliances - they have stretched themselves as far as they can and now they must win generals and lords to their side, and Nihuang closets herself with advisors and strategists. Her favourite is a strategist who came to her from the Jianghu - Sir Su is often sickly and his face is marked deeply by some profound grief but his mind is sharper than almost any she has ever known and sometimes he forgets himself enough to let a sly, wicked humour peep out that is as sweet to Nihuang as flowers in spring.
They are reviewing intelligence reports together by candlelight when the news reaches them - Prince Jing is alive.
Nihuang is glad that she is able to feel a moment of pure uncomplicated joy at the news before the implications come flooding in. To the allies they have been gaining she looks like a good alternative to Prince Yu and the Crown Prince but if there is Prince Jing as an alternative - well respected among the military, a son of the Emperor, a man - she risks loosing their loyalty, but the people of the South who follow her - who have started dreaming of a Mu Emperor - will not accept a Xiao.
They need to strategise, to consider their response, and she looks up to share her concerns - and then she sees Sir Su’s face in the candlelight.
She is disappointed, but not surprised, when Sir Su begs leave to attend to some unspecified business in the Jianghu; she know’s he is going to Prince Jing.
If that’s so, her strategist just misses him; Jingyan rides into her camp five days later with a small escort and a limp which is only obvious once he dismounts - and lowers himself carefully into a full bow to her; the whispering starts at once.
She bundles him into her tent where he outlines his plan to her and Nihuang is suddenly forcibly reminded that only most of their mad ideas had originated with Lin Shu: “Marrying me will give your reign greater legitimacy with the loyalists, and will head off any ideas of a coup later in your reign.”
Nihuang shakes her head helplessly; “The ministers and scholars won’t accept it, there’s no precedent for this,” she says, and Jingyan’s jaw sets in a familiar, stubborn line.
“Founding Emperors set precedent,” he says.
Nihuang sits back, thinking hard, and she can’t help but think that the idea has a certain insane elegant logic to it, and its with a wild, daring mischief that she reaches out and touches his hand; “And will you wear the full regalia, when you are my Empress?”
Jingyan’s mouth slants into a slight smirk and Nihuang fights back the sudden, dizzying desire to to put her hand on his cheek and smooth it away with her thumb; “I always thought the Phoenix Crown looked uncomfortably heavy.”
“You’re leaving the Emperor’s to me,” Nihuang says, and Jingyan tilts his head in acknowledgement of her point.
Sir Su bursts into their tent several days later, wild eyed - he pulls up short and just stares down at them while Nihuang waves the guards back, and Jingyan eyes him with cautious interest; she has told him a lot of stories about her favourite strategist.
“Sir Su, please join us - we are discussing how we can best use our engagement to sway the uncommitted ministers, we would welcome your insights.”
“Ni- Princess, Prince Jing,” Sir Su hesitates - “Your Highness - the rumours are true then?” he says, a little helplessly.
“If I am to be Emperor, I must have male consorts,” Nihuang said calmly, and tucks the way Sir Su’s eyes flicker quickly to her then down away for later consideration, “And Jingyan is the best candidate for my-” she hesitates.
“Empress,” Jingyan says peaceably, and Nihuang sighs.
There is a strange sound - Sir Su is laughing, helplessly, has face pressed into his hands, a huge outpouring of emotion as if some great tension had been released. The hairs on the back of Nihuang’s neck prickle and she darts a quick look at Jingyan who looks back at her, the same expression of startled familiarity on his face.
They enter Jinling to cheering crowds; Nihuang lifts her hand to them, acknowledging their desperate hope, the gaping holes in the streets where houses have been looted and destroyed.
The Palace has not escaped the violence; the huge halls are empty and echoing but when they reach the throne room a familiar face is waiting for them.
Gao Zhan’s high piping voice fills the high room: “The Palace greets Her Imperial Majesty!”
“Long life to the Emperor!” the ragged collection of eunuchs and palace maids chorus, and bow down to the ground. Nihuang looks down at their bowed backs; behind her she hears the rustle of clothes and armour as her people follow suit, knows that her boys are at her back.
It is the strangest feeling, as if she has suddenly become the tallest person in the world, and the world itself has become fragile in her hands: she walks to the dragon throne, touches the carved arm with her fingertips, seats herself.
“Rise,” says Emperor Nihuang.