Jingyan has had this dream before.
It’s nothing solid, just a whisper of familiarity like the brush of a hand against his, sensations that are familiar in some half-remembered way: the prickle of grass on bare skin, Lin Shu’s hands picking plum blossoms out of his hair, the warmth of the bright spring sun filtering through the leaves. A rare sensation of luxurious, uncomplicated happiness.
Jingyan is drowsy, on the cusp of sleep even in the dream, and he can’t quite keep his eyes open. Lin Shu’s hands in his hair are careful, gentle, even as he whines at Jingyan for being boring.
“I can’t believe you’re sleeping in the middle of the day like an old man.” The rebuke is punctuated by the soft trail of fingertips across Jingyan's forehead, brushing away stray hairs.
“I’m not asleep,” Jingyan manages through a yawn. “I’m just resting my eyes.”
“You’re like one of those cows that lies down in the middle of the field,” Lin Shu muses. “No; you’re too stubborn to be a cow. A water buffalo?”
Jingyan pinches him in the side and Lin Shu just laughs.
“I’ll have to find ways to keep you awake then.” The hand carding through Jingyan’s hair drifts down his neck to flirt with the collar of his robes.
Jingyan blushes. They’re outside, anyone could see. “Xiao Shu.” He interrupts where Lin Shu is plucking hopefully at his outer robes, covers his hand with Jingyan’s own.
“Tell me a story?” Lin Shu always has the best stories.
“Well,” he starts, fingers rubbing small thoughtful circles as he sorts through heroes and monsters, discarding each option until he finds one he thinks Jingyan won’t have heard. “Have you heard the story of Su Zhe?” When Jingyan shakes his head no, Lin Shu squeezes his hand excitedly.
“He was a musician--brilliant, funny, looked a little like me, I think--and very talented with his flute.”
“So, nothing like you,” Jinyan murmurs, hiding away his smile when Lin Shu demands that he repeat himself, that he stop interrupting, and really, whose story was this anyway.
The story goes something like this: once upon a time a handsome, talented, charismatic young man was engaged to his childhood sweetheart, who had terrible taste in teas but surprisingly refined tastes when it came to fiancés. It was a charmed life until on the eve of their wedding the fiancé was bit by a snake, with fatal results. Su Zhe, stricken with grief, wandered the across the kingdom for ten years, twenty years, an age. His music was so moving it brought even the gods to tears, and they agreed to open the gates of the afterlife to allow him to bring his fiancé back to the land of the living.
There was, however, one condition: Su Zhe was not to turn back until he was safely in the realm of the living. He could not look behind him at his fiancé, only trust that they followed behind. If he gave into temptation or doubt, his fiancé would disappear.
“Well? Did they make it?” Jingyan asks when Lin Shu grows quiet. He's not sure why he asks when he knows the answer. He's had this dream before. It doesn't offset the thread of panic that sets in when his limbs grow heavier, too heavy to move.
“No.” There’s a hand on his cheek, a touch like ice. He moves away but the touch follows him. “Jingyan,” Lin Shu’s voice echoes slightly then fades, as if from far away, more an impression of a voice than the voice itself. “Jingyan. I'll be back soon. Don't be afraid.” The lazy heat from before is needling him with the first blush of a fever now, sending pinpricks of sweat running down his spine.
“Stay,” Jingyan begs, even as he knows it won’t do any good. The dream is ending soon, slipping between his fingers in fits and starts. The sun is brighter now, hotter, with rays of light licking his skin like flame, consuming him. Jingyan is burning up a fever, familiar and horrible. Again, he pleads. “I won’t look, I promise.”
It's an easy promise to make when Jingyan is afraid to open his eyes. The part of him that knows this is a dream knows that it won’t matter; Lin Shu has been gone a long time. A smaller, darker part of him worries that if he opens his eyes now he might retrace the lines of Lin Shu’s face wrong, that he might open gaps where time has eroded the exact curve of Lin Shu's jaw in Jingyan’s memory, that Jingyan will turn him into something unrecognizable.
“So stubborn.” A laugh that’s lost to the wind, and then Jingyan is alone. It takes a few moments to convince himself that it’s okay to open his eyes, to sit up.
The south-facing window is unlatched, stirring the papers in the office with a cool breeze. His guards will gently bully him later for leaving himself vulnerable to attack, but Jingyan finds little room for care. It offers him an unobstructed view of the harbor, awake even before Jingyan with fishermen and merchants scurrying about port. A low-hanging mist clings to the sea below, but the waters are smooth in anticipation of a mild spring day, wine-dark under a rosy-fingered dawn. Even as he shakes away the ghost of his dream Jingyan feels an ache; this kingdom is his. He loves it fiercely, down to every root, to each tombstone. He stands, hair loose, before the window and watches the sun rise and the surrounding islands unfold themselves from the mist. Still, today, like the many days before it, there is no sign of the returning Chiyan army flag on the horizon.
Jingyan dresses for the day in silence and without attendants, a military habit he still can’t seem to shake. Indeed, the renovated study is much smaller than his old quarters, though it's a small price to pay for a space free from ghosts of the past. A smart rap at the door announces Zhen Ping, captain of the watch, and Jingyan waves him in for the morning’s report.
“I’m afraid I don’t have much for you this morning, your highness,” Zhen Ping sighs. Jingyan likes Zhen Ping: he's efficient, honest, and still loyal to the Lin house nearly a decade after Jingyan absorbed him into his household staff. Jingyan presses a hot cup of tea on him, which he accepts with a wan smile. “The town is quiet. The roads remain clear of bandits. Marquis Yan thought he heard an intruder last night, which turned out to be the neighbor’s cat.”
“Any progress on the, ah, private line of inquiry I made earlier?” Jingyan was not expecting rumor to bear any true leads, but he cannot help the tide of disappointment that washes over him when Zhen Ping shakes his head.
“I apologize, your highness. It seems to have been a case of mistaken identity. The man resembled Wei Zheng greatly.”
If Lin Shu’s lieutenant truly had escaped the fighting at Cliff Mei alive then maybe there was a chance, however slim...but no. Jingyan rides out the swell of emotion in his chest and waits until he is sure his voice will not quaver to answer. “You have done well. Rest and set the men at half-strength patrols tonight.”
Zhen Ping bows, and then hesitates. Jingyan pauses in pouring a second cup of tea.
“Was there something else?”
As he watches Zhen Ping clearly reconsiders whatever he’s about to say at least twice. Finally he manages, “the suitors grow restless, your highness.”
“They are always welcome to leave,” Jingyan snaps before he can stop himself. He wishes they would; he wants none of them.
“I don’t think they will,” Zhen Ping says, at once an apology and a rebuke. “Your highness made it very clear you would not make your decision until after Lady Jing finished weaving the memorial shroud. They intend to take advantage of the guest-custom for as long as they can.”
“And she has not finished, so they will wait. Just because I cannot legally throw them out of my halls does not mean I will bow to their will. I cannot trust them with my back--I refuse to let them into my bed.” Jingyan’s teacup cracks under the strength of his grip. His anger ripples underneath the surface of his skin just thinking about the snakes in his front hall drinking their way through the manor’s stores, scheming about ways to appeal to Jingyan so they can prop themselves up in the empty space beside his throne. Their backhanded nature and blatant disrespect makes Jingyan’s stomach turn.
“If these men desire to woo me they can do so by doing their jobs and removing themselves from my front hall. In the meantime, I have a kingdom to run.” He picks up a book from his desk--a travelogue of some sort--to indicate this conversation is over, and catches a glimpse of familiar handwriting in the margins. It hurts, quick and sharp, like the casual nick of blade to bare skin. He thought he’d moved all Lin Shu’s things to the master suite years ago, yet every now and again he stumbles across something he's forgotten, a stray needle unobserved until he steps on it. Truly, he muses, the past is determined to not let him rest today.
“Your highness?” Zhen Ping trails off, a his face pinched in concern.
Jingyan smiles, strained. “Please inform our guests that I will be taking breakfast with my mother. I will join them for luncheon.”
Zhen Ping looks as dissatisfied with that announcement as Jingyan feels, but he bows and goes to deliver the news.
A handmaiden appears in his wake to inform Jingyan that his mother is expecting him. He tucks the book into his sleeve and tails her through the manor, past the main hall where he can already hear a great roar of noise from the men encamped there, and into the inner rooms.
Lady Jing sits at her loom, and she startles when Jingyan enters, tucking a trail of loose threads into the sleeves of her robes as she rises to greet him.
“I wasn’t expecting you so quickly.”
“Mother.” He makes a formal bow, hands clasped together. “I hope you slept well.” Jingyan does not comment on the shroud, which has progressed only nominally since suitors began arriving in their halls, in defiance of his mother's usual speed and skill. They have a silent agreement that Jingyan should know as little about this as possible.
“Jingyan, get up there's no need to be so formal.” She takes his hand and allows him to guide her to a low table laden with food. “You've been so pale lately, are you feeling ill?”
“I haven't been sleeping well,” he confesses. “My dreams…” He trails off, gaze caught in the folds of the shroud, funeral white delicately interwoven with the red of the house of Lin. The edges where she must have ripped the threads out earlier are still ragged, not yet repaired. Jingyan changes the subject.
"Yan Yujin is visiting today.” He dutifully accepts the hazelnut pastry his mother dumps on his plate and devours them while she looks on in satisfaction.
“It will be lovely to see him again,” she says while Jingyan’s mouth is stuffed with food so he cannot argue.“I haven't had the chance since his engagement was announced, though Gong Yu tells me he is among our guests frequently.” Her words are more curious than pointed, but Jingyan's ears burn.
“He is not a suitor ,” he hastens to clarify. Lady Jing raises an eyebrow. “The Yan household is widely respected,” she says mildly, lips curling in a small smile, and though Jingyan does not choke it is a near thing.
“I asked him some weeks ago to gather information on a few men of interest. He grew up with many of them, and knows their habits and their characters far better than I.” Though he had done his best to gather information himself, many of the men seeking to court Jingyan wore a different face entirely when he was in their presence. Yujin was more perceptive than many gave him credit for, and Jingyan trusted his judgement. It was work that needed to be done; these men were sitting in Jingyan’s house, eating Jingyan’s mother’s food, and taking advantage of Jingyan’s hospitality. He would like to know if they were all snakes, or, should worst come to worst, if one could be trusted enough to form an alliance. Not a love match--that ship had sailed quite literally when Lin Shu had been called to war--but a partnership. His mother cannot keep ripping Lin Shu’s shroud apart forever, Jingyan could not bear it.
Lady Jing must see some of this in his face, because she seizes the opportunity to load his plate with a mountain of food.
“Eat,” she commands, and so he does. Quail eggs, sweet soups, delicate cakes decorated with camellia petals, all vanish between the two of them, with occasional breaks for tea, or reports from the maids. When he can no longer avoid putting in an appearance outside he surrenders his wrist for her to take his pulse.
“No irregularities.” She frowns in concentration. “That could change though if you do not take care of yourself.” Jingyan remembers all too well that burning sickness that kept him trapped in bed, too weak to move while around him the kingdom mobilized for war. His body had been devoured by starbursts of white-hot pain, a searing blaze that had raged across his skin as if he were walking through fire until every breath had been complete agony. By the time he'd woken clear-eyed and woozy with the absence of pain Lin Shu had taken his place on the frontlines, and Jingyan could do nothing.
“I will prepare some incense for you, to help with the dreams,” Lady Jing squeezes his hand and sees him to the door. Jingyan doesn’t even get as far as thanking her before the doors to the chamber open.
“Yan Yujin has arrived early,” Zhen Ping announces, throwing himself into a breathless bow. “And he's brought a guest I think you will want to meet.”
“He arrived on our doorstep last night, claiming to have served with Prince Qi at Cliff Mei.” Yujin looks nervous, as if he’s not sure he did the right thing bringing this man to the manor. “He insisted on an audience with the Lady Jing. Father questioned him for hours, but couldn't find any holes in his testimony.”
Jingyan appraises the man prostrated in the doorway. His clothes are well cared for, if ragged and a bit plain. Everything else about him is wild, from his long knotted hair to the bruises blooming across his knuckles. A fearsome beard obscures most of his face. He looks as if he's been dragged head-first through a storm, one of Jingyan's ghosts made real. He can feel the hairs on the nape of his neck stand up because there is something familiar in the lines of him, something that tugs at Jingyan’s memory and won't let him alone. If he had encountered this man before on the parade grounds or in his brother’s guard wouldn't Jingyan recognize him? Why is he at Jingyan's door instead of Lady Chen's, where Prince Qi's memorial is kept?
Jingyan allows himself the space of three breaths before he folds away the knot of emotions in his chest. He must approach this matter with a clear mind to find out what this man is hiding.
“You’ve done well Yujin,” Lady Jing says, laying a benevolent hand on his shoulders. “Please, make yourself comfortable in the main hall. I’m sure we won’t be long.”
Yujin shoots Jingyan a look he cannot interpret, and makes his exit. Once the doors close behind him Lady Jing approaches the man with deliberate, measured strides. She stands before him unbending, and Jingyan knows for a fact that the delicate silks his mother dresses in hide a core of solid steel. This man may be wild, but Lady Jing has weathered wilder
“What is your name?”
The man does not lift his head. “Su Zhe, my lady.”
As aliases go it’s not bad--He does rather look like a man who has crawled through hell--but for this man to come to Jingyan’s halls and request an audience and then lie to his face is one road too far.
Jingyan crossed his arms. “Your knowledge of the classics is impressive. Try again.”
The man laughs. It is not a pleasant sound.
Lady Jing moves forward to help him up, and Jingyan watches her hesitate before laying a gentle hand on the man’s elbow. He keeps one hand on his sword.
“You are a guest in our home, and custom dictates you are under my protection. Speak honestly and without fear.”
The man raises his eyes to hers, and something passes between them, unspoken. Finally, “My lady’s reputation for kindness was understated, please forgive me for being cautious. I am Mei Changsu.”
“Mei Changsu,” she rolls the name around in her mouth. “I do not recall anyone by that name in Prince Qi’s household.”
Mei Changsu--somehow, Jingyan does not believe that is his true name either--goes very, very still at the mention of Prince Qi. It is not without reason; the name of the Prince, the very words ‘Cliff Mei,’ are taboo within the walls of the empire. While speaking them aloud might not land land a man on the execution block, those who break the fragile silence are swiftly and quietly removed. Sometimes this means a relocation outside the city gates. Historically for Jingyan it means relocation to a war zone, or a particularly remote mountain.
“I was not a part of the prince’s household, my lady. Just a soldier who admired him,” Mei Changsu says, sidestepping the issue neatly.
“But you fought with him at Cliff Mei,” Jingyan hears her say, as if from a great distance. Everything in the room sharpens to a point, at once too bright and too loud. Jingyan can feel himself straining towards the man at the center of the room, every nerve in his body alight waiting for his answer.
Mei Changsu tenses, but eventually manages a weak, “yes, my lady.” For the first time since entering the chamber, he seems affected.
“And yet you have requested an audience here, and not with Lady Chen at the memorial site,” Lady Jing pushes gently, after a silence. “We welcome you as an honored guest, though I am curious--what brings you to our shores?”
Mei Changsu gathers himself, and when he speaks his voice is dry as crackling under the strain of some emotion Jingyan cannot name. “I heard the prince was looking to remarry.”
In the entire time he is speaking he has not looked over at Jingyan once. Jingyan is torn between fury and a choking shame; more than any of his stories, his cold treatment of Jingyan is what stands out as truth. If his absence from Cliff Mei was unforgivable what this man must think of Jingyan now, ensconced in his manor, surrounded by his wealth and a house full of suitors tearing down his doors. He wants to scream, to beg, to explain that he would switch places with Lin Shu in a heartbeat, that the memory of waking up and finding Lin Shu had taken his place on the frontlines is burned into his bones, never to fade.
This man blames Jingyan for the Chiyan Army’s massacre at Cliff Mei, and what is worse is he is right. Jingyan should have been there. How will he ever be able to face his brother, his loyal men, in the afterlife? How can he ever face Lin Shu, especially now that he is being pressured to remarry?
“Excuse me,” Jingyan cannot be here. If he stays he will lose the tight grip on his emotions, and there will be no shred of his dignity left to be found. He throws open the doors too quickly for the guards to pretend like they weren’t listening and makes for the one place he knows he will not be disturbed.
The ancestral hall is dark and blissfully cool at this time of day. Sounds of revelry from the main hall are distant echos here, and Jingyan can finally let go of the jagged sob caught in his chest with no one around to witness it. Surely the ancestors will not judge him too harshly.
He had, after much turmoil, made a headstone for Lin Shu. It sits underneath the ancestral tablets in a cabinet with the headstones for General Lin, Lady Jingyang, and the rest of the Lin household. A quiet act of rebellion.
“Their ghosts will have no peace otherwise,” Lady Jing had said at their commissioning. “His Majesty understands this well.”
Jingyan suspected that this meant the emperor would have no peace otherwise. It was difficult, he imagined, to sleep without dreaming of the dead when with one hand you blamed loyal subjects for the botched campaign at Cliff Mei that had gotten them killed, and with the other hand raised their suspected killers to a place at the imperial table.
He watched his mother’s face, as pale as her funeral whites, go carefully blank each time an imperial messenger stepped foot in the manor.
Nevermind that many of the bodies had been unrecognizable, or missing altogether. Nevermind that rumors of incompetence and mismanagement by General Lin and Prince Qi turned changed the ‘Cliff Mei Massacre’ to the ‘Cliff Mei Accident.’ Nevermind that rumors of Jingyan faking his illness to avoid military service spread throughout the kingdom.
The chief concern for the emperor was that despite unsavory rumor of his draft-dodging, Jingyan now had sole control over the remnants of his and the Lin house’s forces. This made him a threat to be controlled or eliminated, and as Jingyan stubbornly refused to be eliminated, the emperor had decreed that it was long past time for him to remarry.
“As long as you keep xiao-Shu in your memories he’s alive,” his mother counseled, and her hands on his had been unbearably kind. “He lives in your heart.”
And Jingyan remembered saying, I don't want him alive in my heart I want him alive in this world , which had the benefit of not only being true, but derailing the conversation entirely while both of them blinked down at the floor and pretended very poorly that no one was crying.
In the present Jingyan burns incense while he tries to regain some sense of equilibrium. There are always duties that need attending to; patrols to organize, a township to oversee, a thousand small daily tasks that he has to complete. Today the ghosts of the past seem determined to grab at the sleeves of Jingyan’s robes all at once, and it is overwhelming, true, but it is an anomaly. Some coincidence of fate and bad luck has pushed all these memories to the surface on the same day, and Jingyan cannot play the coward and hide from them forever. He will force himself back into the hall, he will interview Mei Changsu to learn what he can, and he will deal with the suitors as he must, because Jingyan does not have much left but he has his honor.
Eventually he rises, rubbing the stiffness from his joints, and thinks wryly that even if his heart has been dropped back in time ten years his body is still stubbornly grounded in the present.
“Xiao-shu, when did I get so old?” Jingyan mutters as he heads outside. The sunlight is momentarily blinding. For a moment he thinks he sees a familiar figure waiting for him on the low garden wall, but he blinks again and instead it is Mei Changsu.
“Your highness,” he says, all the earlier prickliness gone from his voice.
Jingyan feels a hot sting of shame begin to rise in his throat; first he’s lost his composure in front of this man, now here he is performing his duties as a host so poorly as to leave an army veteran like Mei Changsu sitting alone in his garden. What would Prince Qi say if he could see him now?
Mei Changsu cuts a pitiful figure against the soft buds of the plum trees.
“Forgive me,” he says, quietly stealing the words before they can leave Jingyan’s mouth. “I have upset you.”
During one of their first campaigns along the eastern border Jingyan was thrown from his horse and separated his shoulder. After the main battle, and a second no less painful battle with Doctor Yan detailing at great length Jingyan’s stubbornness and stupidity, the doctor had finally reset it so the shoulder could heal properly. Jingyan remembered bracing himself, jaw clenched, in anticipation of the pain. If he knew the pain was coming, he reasoned, it would hurt less. He could prepare.
Lin Shu had disagreed. “It doesn’t work like that,” he’d said, lips pressed together, bloodless. “The pain still hurts, even if you know it’s coming. If it were me, I wouldn’t want to know. Just get it over with so that it’s done before you realize it. A clean break.”
“Disagree,” Jingyan had gritted out. “Though I’ve been told i’m a little bit stubborn.”
Lin Shu had laughed, but he let Jingyan hold his hand anyway and didn’t even mention the terrible noise Jingyan made as his shoulder snapped back into place, which meant he was more worried than he was letting on.
In the present he says, “there is nothing to forgive. I behaved poorly towards you, and for that you have my apologies. You will be treated as an honored guest for as long as you choose to stay here.” Surely he won’t be staying long if his opinion of Jingyan is as low as he indicated earlier. Honestly, Jingyan doesn’t understand why he chose to visit at all.
“Come,” he gestures for them to walk back through the garden together. “We will get you some food, and perhaps a change of clothes.”
Mei Changsu hesitates, and looks back towards the ancestral hall. Ah , Jingyan thinks, it might be that simple after all. Mei Changsu might have served under Prince Qi, but General Lin was just as well-liked and well-known.
“That would be most welcome,” Mei Changsu tears himself away from the hall with visible effort and follows Jingyan back into the manor. “I’ve been travelling nonstop these past few years. Sometimes it feels like I’ve forgotten how to walk without the deck of a ship underneath me.”
“Where are you headed?” Jingyan asks, his polite interest masking a genuine desire to know. His mother seemed taken with the man, and Jingyan trusts her judgement of character, but he doesn’t trust Mei Changsu. Every word that comes out of his mouth feels heavy with double and triple meanings. “I would be honored to help a brother of the Chiyan army, should you require assistance.”
“A generous offer your highness, but I’m not too far from home.” Jingyan blinks, surprised, because that sounded almost truthful. He slipped out of answering the question again, Jingyan noticed. Straightforward questioning won’t get him anywhere with Mei Changsu, which means Jingyan will need to watch him carefully and notes his tells, find out when he’s lying and investigate from there. Maybe, Jingyan thinks, there is more than one reason Mei Changsu will not look him in the eyes.
Jingyan orders the guards to keep a strict watch over Mei Changsu’s new room, and to escort him to Jingyan’s table in the hall when he’s finished changing. Then he takes a deep, fortifying breath and heads into the main hall.
If the ancestral hall was the quiet eye of the storm, the main hall is the very teeth of the hurricane. The hall is sparsely decorated, with clean lines of marble and heavy wood that lean towards the austere. Today almost every inch of floor is obscured by men lounging on pillows, men clustered around low tables throwing dice, and yet more men with cups of wine in hand harassing the maids attempting to clear away platters of congealed food.
Jingyan swallows his disdain at the loose orbit of courtiers he picks up as he makes his way to the dais. According to the reports of the guards, the same men fawning over him now are the first ones to whisper poisonous things behind their sleeves once Jingyan leaves the hall. Watching them shamelessly ingratiate themselves he's struck once more by how he is a means to an end. To these men Jingyan is a lever to be pulled, something bitter to swallow in their never-ending climb to power.
Guest custom is strict in its instructions, and almost as ancient as the kingdom itself. For Jingyan to simply toss the lot of them out would be the deepest disrespect, and during the day they toe the line between rowdiness and outright belligerence. Their glittering eyes turn towards him now, not unlike so many rats caught in the light of a lamp.
Fortunately Jingyan is spared the pain of making further conversation with them by Yujin, whose normally sunny smile looks a little forced.
“Any new leads?” Jingyan gestures for him to join Jingyan on the dais, drawing the ire of a dozen men camped at its base.
Yujin helps himself to a hazelnut pastry with a frown. “You have uniquely terrible luck in suitors.”
“Suspiciously terrible, even,” Jingyan murmurs.
“It’s hard to believe they were hand-picked by your brothers.” Jingyan looks at him askance.
“You’ve met my brothers.”
“True.” He sighs. “Jingrui has family in the Southern Chu, we could send another envoy. That would buy some time at least.”
Jingyan huffs out a laugh. “He’d be looking a thousand years before any of the Southern nobles would ever consider marrying me.”
“I’ll make one up.” Yujin says waving his cup of tea around in growing agitation. “He’ll be a recluse, no one will ever have to see him.”
“It’s nothing against your matchmaking skills,” Jingyan rolls his eyes and steals back some of the pastries before Yujin devours them all. “A marriage to the south would alienate Mu Manor, Father will never allow it.”
“What about…” Yujin trails off and Jingyan looks up to see him biting his lip, uncharacteristically hesitant.
“If you have an idea now would be the time to share it,” Jingyan begins before he sees what's caught Yujin's gaze.
Mei Changsu is shuffling along the edges of the hall, newly dressed in fine robes of purest white. His hair is still wild, and his skin is deathly pale. He looks out of place--a mourner caught in a group of revelers.
“No.” Jingyan says flatly.
“He’s Prince Qi’s man, he can’t be that bad,” Yujin says.
He won’t even look at me . Jingyan is grimly resigned to a loveless marriage, but he's like to be able to at least look his husband in the eye.
“No what?” Mei Changsu appears.
“Sir Su,” Yujin greets him with considerably less nerves than he had earlier. “I was just telling Prince Jing that Jingrui and I will be travelling south next month to visit family across the border. Have you ever been there?”
Mei Changsu lowers himself down carefully into the empty seat at Jingyan’s right hand. The men in the hall are definitely watching now. Jingyan has never played favorites before. He tunes out Yujin’s prattling about his plans for his honeymoon and watches the suitors watch Mei Changsu with ugly, jealous expressions.
“Your highness.” Mei Changsu offers up a glass of water and their fingers brush. It sends a jolt of something racing through his skin, a sensation that cuts him to the quick. Jingyan stares, blinking stupidly for a moment before taking the cup. He drains the first glass, then the second, but his throat stays dry.
“It sounds like Sir Su has travelled all over,” says Yujin in the increasingly awkward silence. “I’d love to hear all about your adventures.”
Mei Changsu folds his hands carefully in his lap and leans away from Jingyan. “If his highness doesn’t object.”
“Not at all, I love stories.” He wants to laugh, or maybe to cry. It’s a complete reversal from his dream where he goaded Lin Shu into telling him a story. Now Jingyan’s eyes are open, and Mei Changsu is the one looking away, somewhere over Jingyan’s shoulder, wetting his lips and starting with, once upon a time...
The sun falls quickly after that, the sky turning a dusty gold as evening shadows swallow up the hall. The suitors, who are impossible to move from their cushions unless they’re being sick in the garden shrubbery, are gathered in a tense knot at the back of the hall whispering amongst themselves. Their sudden quiet makes the hairs on the back of Jingyan’s neck stand up.
“That can’t be good,” says Mei Changsu, following Jingyan’s eyes. No sooner has he spoken than Zhen Ping appears at the foot of the dais, clutching the pommel of his sword in a white-knuckle grip.
“Your highness,” he chokes out. “I tried to stop them, I didn’t realize--”
Jingyan is out of his seat and moving before Zhen Ping even finishes speaking.
“--they saw the shroud. They found the thread. They know.”
Jingyan pushes through the center of the commotion and feels his blood run cold. One of his mother’s maids lies trembling on the floor, while next to her one of the suitors holds something in his fist out for the crowd's inspection.
Red and white threads.
They could have come from anywhere--Jingyan would have sworn all the members of his mother’s household were faithful, they would not betray her like this--but the damage is already done. The suitor’s anger is almost palpable; they are prideful, self-important men, and they do not take deception kindly. Jingyan could separate himself from this plot as was his mother’s intention, but here in the face of their anger he knows he cannot leave her to suffer the consequences alone. He has always known this and he thinks, as he tries to restore order in the hall, that if these suitors knew him at all they would realize that they are dangerously close to crossing a line from which they cannot return.
Before the furious crowd can even attempt drag her from her rooms, Lady Jing appears on the stairway flanked by Zhen Ping and the manor guards. Jingyan can hear the rustle of her train of silks in the sudden hush that falls across the hall. It is not often that his mother appears in person before the crowds, and Jingyan knows what it means that she is choosing to do so now: there will be no more unraveling of Lin Shu’s shroud. There are no more wars left for him to fight,no more time for planning , no more excuses. Jingyan must choose here and now the man he will let into his bed.
He bows to her with his neck exposed and vulnerable, and it feels like the breath between stepping on the executioner’s block and the final blow of the sword.
“It is finished,” his mother says, waving forward two attendants carrying the completed shroud. She is right in more ways than one. The suitors whisper among themselves--they were expecting her to draw the charade out further, not finish the shroud so quickly.
“The commander was a great man. I thank you for your patience, in allowing us to fully honor his memory.”
She bows to them, and Jingyan can do nothing but grit his teeth.
“Many worthy candidates have put forth a suit,” Jingyan says, prevaricating. Something in him balks at lying so baldly, but he needs more time. “It will not be easy to choose from among so many contenders.”
Across the room Mei Changsu still sits where Jingyan left him. His attention is on the camellia cake in his hands, never on Jingyan, yet he looks absolutely at ease. For a moment Jingyan hates him.
“Perhaps a demonstration of skill will help narrow the field,” Lady Jing says, and squeezes Jingyan’s wrist tightly. “After all, this is a military household. Jingyan why don’t you fetch the commander’s bow.”
Jingyan can’t hide his surprise at this request, but can recognize when his mother has a plan. He dislikes leaving her in the hall with the suitors, but she would not ask him to retrieve it from where is lies in the closed master bedroom, in a heavy lacquered box at the end of Jingyan’s marital bed, unless it was of utmost importance. The master suite is now a collection of odds and ends from a former life, pieces of memory that Jingyan has carefully curated and then shut away in order to keep moving forward. He has to pick his way through stacks of old books to get to the bed, which dominates the room. Jingyan does not remember the long weeks spent carefully carving the bed's shape from the living roots of a ginkgo tree, only the expression on Lin Shu’s face when he’d presented it to him: a mixture of exasperation, glee, and a steady, quiet pride that filled Jingyan head to toe with warmth.
Jingyan tries not to look at it now.
The bow itself is a gorgeous feat of engineering, from the showy red decoration at the tips to the beautifully balanced way it sits in in his hand. Jingyan grips it tight, his mind spinning; his mother knows, as Jinyang does, that the draw weight on Lin Shu’s bow is heavier than is usual, calculated specifically for Lin Shu’s strength and grip. It will not be easy for these soft courtiers--who have never known the blood of a battlefield on their hands--to release even a single arrow. Jingyan wraps it carefully, already cringing at the thought of the suitors pawing at it, smearing their greasy fingerprints across the delicate plum branches etched on the back. Lin Shu hated people messing with his things.
He returns to find his mother holding the center of the floor while the suitors prowl along the shadows of the hall, circling. Mei Changsu is sitting exactly where Jingyan left him, hands folded serenely in his lap, seemingly oblivious to the tension that grips the rest of the hall. His bowed form is an island of calm in a sea of restless impatience.
“This bow belonged to the great commander, Lin Shu.” Lady Jing gestures Jingyan forward, and he obediently holds the bow out for inspection. “Any man wishing to prove his character must be able not only to draw it, but to find his target. Only the man whose arrow passes through all seven rings to the target will win the hand of the prince.”
A flurry of maids emerge. Seven silver rings are set before a straw target, each no larger than the width of a hand. A difficult challenge, Jingyan thinks, but not impossible.
One by one men stepped forward from the shadows to test. Xie Xu’s hands tremble so badly he cannot draw past his rather noticeable chin. He Wenxin, a minister’s son, fails to even string the bow. Each failed attempt is met with mocking jeers from the other suitors, though as the contest goes on, more and more men fail to even loose an arrow. Lady Jing magnanimously suggests warming and greasing the bow, to increase its flexibility, but to no avail. None of suitors are able to put their arrows through the rings, much less hit the target. The mood in the hall turns dangerously sour, and whispers of intentional sabotage begin to filter through the crowd.
Sima Lei takes the bow. He is favored among the suitors for his good looks and his close ties to the Crown Prince. All eyes in the hall turn to him as struts forward to choose his arrow, and he makes a production of inspecting the bow, checking it over for flaws.
As Jingyan watches, Sima Lei draws, arms shaking. The weight of the bow forces him to release his arrow too early. It hits the last of the seven rings and falls to the floor, impotent.
Noise explodes across the hall. Men are shouting that the contest is rigged, that Sima Lei is the clear winner, that everyone should be given another chance tomorrow after they have made the proper offerings to the gods. Amidst the noise and confusion Mei Changsu steps forward to rescue the bow from being trampled on, and presents it back to Jingyan. There are a few fresh scrapes and a mess of oily fingerprints around the grip. Nothing that cannot be fixed, he reminds himself, even as anger burns like hot coals in his belly.
Thank you,” he manages after a moment. He can feel Mei Changsu watching him, and cannot escape the feeling that he is being weighed and measured.
“I would like to put myself forward as a candidate,” he says eventually, and skirts a quick bow. He still refuses to look Jingyan in the eye. “If your highness would have me.”
“I-yes,” Jingyan starts. He cannot hide his surprise, but he does not object. What Jingyan knows of Mei Changsu paints him as man of honor, loyal to his Chiyan comrades, and possessing a sharp tongue and a sharper mind. What prompted the man, he wonders, to reverse his opinion of Jingyan so strongly and quickly that he’s making a show of competing for Jingyan’s hand? He searches out Lady Jing in the crowd, but her expression is calm, her figure a peaceful as if she's used to mediating this level of chaos.
Zhen Ping and the guards quickly restore order, and Jingyan cedes the floor to his last, unexpected suitor. He watches Mei Changsu shuffle around, settling in to the right position like a dog to its bed. His movements spark something in Jingyan's recognition, but the memory is slippery, and eludes him when he tries to grasp it.
The suitors laugh when they notice their last competitor approaching. His shuffling walk, his coarse appearance, none of them are suited to this fine hall, much less to Jingyan’s bed. Mei Changsu pays them no mind, which only serves to infuriate them further.
“He is embarrassing himself,” one of the men calls out. They laugh, all except Sima Lei, who is very poorly hiding his self-satisfied expression.
“Surely I couldn’t hurt your chances,” Mei Changsu demurs, and the crowd laughs louder. "Are your prospects so poor you begrudge an old man his shot?"
“Get on with it!” One of the men shouts from the back of the hall. “We’ll be as old as him before he’s even notched an arrow,” murmurs another.
Mei Changsu strings the bow with an expert’s quickness. His hands are far more honest than his words, Jingyan has noticed. “You’ve kept it in good condition,” he says, rubbing his fingers in thoughtful circles over the quiver of arrows before plucking one with a jaunty red fletching.
“It is a treasured possession,” Jingyan replies, watching his hands closely. “It belongs to someone I love dearly. Please treat it gently.”
“Of course my prince.” His tone is impressively even, but his hands give him away. They stutter and stop, long enough for Jingyan to notice a mole on Mei Changsu’s left wrist, as familiar to Jingyan as his own hands.
Mei Changsu still won’t look at him, but Jingyan finds he doesn’t need to, that when he turns to face the target that nagging, glowing ember of memory in Jingyan sparks into flame. Mei Changsu is no longer a hunchback old man. He is unfurling, broad and powerful, rolling his shoulders back and notching his bow with a smooth, practiced motion. He is one hundred old memories overlapping as he stands and draws: Lin Shu and Nihuang climbing the roof to pick peaches, Lin Shu sparring with Prince Qi, Lin Shu’s hands cool on his forehead while he burned with fever.
The whispers die out one by one as every eye in the hall turns to the man who stands before them, impossible and alive.
He draws the bow back until his fingers brush his cheek, the picture of unhurried ease. Jingyan is frozen to the spot, cannot move, cannot breathe, can only watch as the arrow flies through all seven rings and buries itself deep in the center of the target.