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Ghosts

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Lin Chen was walking by the study hall when he heard bamboo clatter to the floor inside. A few moments later an angry man came storming out of the hall, only to stop abruptly when he saw Lin Chen.

"Oh," the man said and stared at him.

Lin Chen hid his hands in his sleeves and raised his eyebrows. "Now who are you?"

The man suddenly seemed to remember his manners and bowed hurriedly. "I'm Meng Zhi," he said. "I'm a new student."

Lin Chen mustered him critically. Meng Zhi didn't have the typical look of most of their new students; in fact, Lin Chen would have taken him for a soldier. He carried himself with a lot of confidence in his body, and a straightness in his stance that came from exercising in an army. "A short-tempered one, huh?"

"I just needed to clear my head. I'm not made for sitting indoors all day reading," Meng Zhi said, with no small amount of frustration.

"Yet you came here to study. That doesn't seem like you made a good choice."

"No!" Meng Zhi said hastily. "No, it's fine. I need to be here. I'll get better."

"Oh, you need to be here. What terrible thing is going to happen if you aren't? You won't get to enjoy this beautiful view anymore?" Lin Chen asked, gesturing toward said view. It really was beautiful this time of the year, with dew still hanging on the leaves making the green even more vibrant. Now that he was back from his trip he planned to take an entire afternoon looking at it. It would take a while until he'd have the time for it, but it was good to have goals.

"My friend is going to die," Meng Zhi blurted out. He shut his mouth sharply, looking as if he regretted what he'd said.

"Oh? Because you'll bore them to death with your company?" In Lin Chen's experience, it never helped to assist people in taking themselves too seriously.

Briefly, Meng Zhi looked outraged, then he took a deep breath and visibly calmed himself down. "I'll do my best to be a better student," Meng said with a bow.

"You do that. Otherwise teaching you would be a waste, and I hate," Lin Chen leaned forward, "people wasting Langya Hall's time. Do you understand?"

"I understand."

"Good," Lin Chen said and walked off. He made a mental note to ask the overseer of the novices about Meng Zhi. Somehow he was sure that there was an interesting story to be discovered, and Lin Chen loved interesting stories.

 

Meng Zhi used to be a member of the Chiyan army. Lin Chen whistled quietly and put the roll down. He'd been a low-ranked lieutenant and transferred about a year before the massacre, which had saved him, but before that he had spent several months under Young Marshall Lin Shu's command. Meng Zhi certainly knew him, and knowing Lin Shu he probably knew Meng Zhi too.

It was much too soon to tell Changsu, of course. The man was still recovering from his treatments and urgently needed rest. He was terrible at it, constantly trying to communicate and ask for information. Lin Chen probably shouldn't visit him as often as he did, as his presence did nothing to help Changsu relax. However, Lin Chen was fairly confident that he saved Changsu from going mad with boredom. If he was being honest, he enjoyed his visits too. Changsu managed to be entertainingly sarcastic even with without speaking a word and with very limited movement, and once he got his speech back it would be even more fun. Even at Langya Hall there weren't many people who could easily keep up with Lin Chen's mental leaps and moods, but Changsu could.

Checking up on Changsu had been one of the first things Lin Chen had done upon returning to Langya Hall. For a change, he found Changsu sleeping deeply. As a physician he approved, of course, but part of him had still been disappointed. Fortunately there would be many more opportunities.

The overseer of the novices shifted slightly, interrupting Lin Chen's thoughts. Ah yes, he'd asked about Meng Zhi. "How is he as a student?" he asked.

"He's not stupid," the overseer said cautiously.

Lin Chen snorted. "What a ringing endorsement."

"He thinks along very straight lines," the overseer says. "He can solve concrete puzzles quickly. However, complicated problems with several angles often confuse him, and learning doesn't come easily to him."

"So why did you accept him as a student in the first place?"

The overseer grimaced slightly. "He's very stubborn. He refused to go away until we told him he could join."

It was almost too easy to imagine Meng Zhi obstinately standing in front of the main door and refusing to move until he was granted admission. Lin Chen smirked. He almost wished he could have seen it.

"He takes it seriously, at least," the overseer continued. "He tries hard, and he follows orders. He trains often, but he doesn't want anyone to watch, so he steals away into the woods in the evenings."

Lin Chen immediately decided to follow him one day.

"He asked after you when he arrived, actually. He said he'd heard of you, but refused to say where."

Lin Chen drummed his fingers against his arm. He'd have to keep an eye on Meng Zhi.

 

Being the Master of Langya Hall, in addition to trying to find a cure for a certain white-furred man, took a lot of time. What with one thing or another, Lin Chen didn't think about Meng Zhi again for several days, until the Ghost Festival.

The ceremonies had lasted until deep into the night. The sky was already becoming brighter again when Lin Chen, on a hunch, took to the roofs one last time before going to sleep. To his surprise he did spot one lonely figure sitting on top of the entry gate. He jumped over to join them.

"It's you," Meng Zhi said. He was drunk and listing forward. A few open full bottles of wine stood in front of him and several empty ones next to him. Meng Zhi raised a cup of wine toward Lin Chen as if in greeting and then took another huge swallow.

"You're supposed to address me as Master Lin, you know," Lin Chen said.

Meng Zhi grimaced. "I know." He refilled his cup. His eyes were unfocused, but his hands were surprisingly steady.

"You've had enough wine." If Meng Zhi tried to open another bottle Lin Chen would throw it off the roof.

Maybe some other time he'd try to find out what was bothering Meng Zhi, but it had been a long day of thinking about the dead and Lin Chen was exhausted. He'd spent a long time sitting by Changsu's bedside, imagining that he could almost touch the ghosts of the thousands of wronged dead hovering around the man. It was difficult for Lin Chen, but it must be near unbearable for Changsu.

Not that that would stop him. Changsu had already endured far more than most people would survive, and some of it even willingly. Lin Chen doubted his ghosts properly appreciated the sacrifice, yet he knew Changsu thought it was simply what he had had to do.

Stupid, stubborn man.

"It's not fair, you know," Meng Zhi said, looking at the sky. "Why couldn't I get one more year? Why send me back in the first place when I arrived too late? So close but too late. Why was I too late?"

"You're drunk," Lin Chen said impatiently. He grabbed Meng Zhi's arm and hauled him to his feet. "Go sleep it off." Changsu wouldn't be happy if he let the idiot fall off the roof.

"Okay," Meng Zhi said. He steadied himself and without further arguing headed back to the students' dorm in a surprisingly straight line.

He left the wine bottles behind. Lin Chen took the half empty one and sniffed. It was good wine, so he'd take it. Whoever Meng's ghosts were, hopefully they could be satisfied with the offering they'd already received.