Mu Qing gets how important it is to be subtle. So he grins and fights down the giggles.
He knows all the recent giggling is undignified for the now-of-age heir to the Mu family army, but it’s really not his fault.
Across the room, Nihuang is entertaining the talented Mr Shu. Anyone else would tell you that there’s nothing funny about drinking tea and discussing oranges being shipped up for the New Year.
But Mu Qing is the younger brother who hero-worships a sister described understatedly as “awe-inspiring”. He has spent his entire life watching Nihuang's facial expressions: The intensity as she discussed options for supplying the army in different offensive/defensive scenarios with their father, the quiet pride the first time she beat their armsmaster in single-combat, the odd sadness when they light lanterns over New Year’s … Mu Qing knows Nihuang’s expressions like no one else.
And the way she acts around Mr Shu is subtly, utterly hilarious.
Today she curtseyed at Mr Shu’s arrival.
Mu Qing nearly burst a blood vessel trying not to laugh. (Nihuang would kill him if he did. Bad enough the scolding Mu Qing got when he went cheerfully to Mr Shu to get her out of her predicament with the barbarian suitor.)
And it gets funnier.
Her eyes flicker to him at his every move as if she is afraid to miss something. There is a funny catch to her voice when Mr Shu started to quote a line from a poem and she completed the couplet.
If Nihuang Jie starts to learn to cook, Mu Qing knows he’s going to have to strangle himself to not-laugh.
But Mu Qing is really happy for Nihuang. It’s been so long. Mu Qing was really young when Nihuang lost her fiancée, and he remembers very little about Lin Shu who betrayed them and died.
But he has seen Nihuang Jie miss him these 13 long years.
Sometimes she would stop in the middle of sword practice and look like she wanted to weep, only to start up again with a cold ferocity that she was famous for on the battlefield.
Sometimes she would sit and gaze at random things for so long, Mu Qing used to think Jiejie had turned to stone: A fish-shaped lantern, a bow, a map, a poem, news about Prince Jing’s exploits on the battlefield.
The worst was when she was conferred the title of Princess just months after “the incident”. Everyone knew it was to distinguish the important Mu family from the destroyed Lin family and mother had been particularly relieved when it happened (mother thought that the eunuch was here to 'gift' Jiejie poison for her association with the Lin family).
Nihuang Jie was furious. Mother and Father spoke all night to her to discourage her from doing anything stupid.
When the incident first happened, no one could stop her from rushing to the battle site. She spent weeks there with her core battle team scouring the area for survivors and a hint of what could have possibly happened. She refused to believe the evidence as it showed up in court. She was joined by Prince Jing when he came back from his mission abroad. Mu Qing was too little to be allowed to follow, but he overheard grave, whispered conversations between mother and father about how the two of them were mad with grief and courting disaster with their behavior.
She eventually returned, still furious, still sure she was right, that the universe had wronged the Lin’s against all logic, but she knew her place in the world and came back to her duty. (Mu Qing knows how Jiejie gets whenever the word “duty” comes up- if “duty” were a sibling, Mu Qing would only be Jiejie’s 2nd favorite one.)
But when it was announced that she would be made Princess and the Emperor himself might bestow a handsome betrothal to erase the memories of the past ‘errors’ she refused. Rudely. Mu Qing was naively impressed. She looked like she wanted to hit the smug Eunurch who had come with the edict.
It took a lot of bribes and political finagling to politely refused the betrothal and silence the news of her initial rebellion when Nihuang jie finally bowed to her duty and took the title.
Mu Qing looks on as Jiejie and Mr Shu start up a conversation about Feiliu stealing cherry blossoms from their garden.
In a fit of generousity Mu Qing decides that when Mr Shu marries Nihuang jie, he’ll give ALL the cherry trees in the garden to Feiliu. In fact, Mu Qing airily decides- Feiliu can have the mansion! Mu Qing has secret plans to get Mr Shu to move south after the marriage anyway.
Mu Qing looks at Jiejie and sees her face light up in a mischevious smile. Mischievous! But the responding smile from Mr Shu seems sad.
Hmm…. Mu Qing decides that he’s just going to have to be less subtle in his hints to Mr Shu (although he thought that he had been plenty obvious already, what with the suitor challenge and all).
Tomorrow he’ll get the family treasurer to add the mansion to the dowry he’s been secretly preparing and ask Jingrui to test Mr Shu’s feelings about moving South. Mu Qing is sure it would be good for Mr Shu's health.
Mu Qing allows himself a smug grin as he secretly watches Nihuang (unseen by any but him) nudge the fire urn closer to Mr Shu. It’s a good thing Nihuang jie has a brother to look out for her in so many subtle ways.
Subtle. That’s him.