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The Long Way Home

Chapter Text

“ ‘Save jiejie!’, he cries” Lin Chen grumbles to Fei Liu.

“ ‘Make her better!’ he sobs.” Lin Chen adjusts the needles he has stuck into the dying Nihuang more aggressively than needed.

“What?” Lin Chen casts a sour look at Nihuang as Fei Liu and Li Gang look on with trepidation “Do I look like the Goddess of Mercy with a vase of miracle-healing-water to you?”

“Mu Qing is what? 40 years old and sobbing like a child.”

“And you!” he turns to the barely conscious Nihuang “I told you to retire 10 years ago!”

“But does anyone ever listen to me?” Rhetorically.

“Oh nooo.”

“But something goes wrong and suddenly it’s tears and running around crying ‘Divine-doctor-Lin-Chen’ and ‘Lin-Chen-gege’ and ‘Lin-Chen-save-my-sister’!’ ”

Lin Chen’s mock-whiny voice is just a little wobbly.

A glance at Fei Liu’s big eyes filled with tears and Li Gang’s drawn, bone-white face finally makes Lin Chen grit his teeth and shut up.

Nihuang lies on the bed in the make-shift tent, having mostly bled out and been wrecked by infection, only semi-conscious now because Lin Chen has wrought some magic with his acupuncture.

Lin Chen arrived a mere 2 days after the Chu ambush. He was led here personally by Li Gang (now head of Jiang Zuo). They must, Nihuang passingly noted back when she was more conscious, have had a person always on her tail all these decades with a pigeon, to have known so quickly and made contingency plans to both have gotten here so fast. Mu Qing arrived a mere day after the attack and Nihuang had to intervene to keep him from murdering her surviving guard.

Nihuang has spent the last two days in considerable pain but found some peace in the knowledge that Mu Qing now, in the 15th year of Jingyan’s reign, has been officially the Grand-Marshall for the Southern Province for a decade, and her own loss wouldn’t be devastating.

Not like Mei Changsu’s was.

Mei Changsu.

It was true that he changed the course of Liang.

With Jingyan, an Emperor who actively cared for his people and took pains to set good policy and a stellar personal example in times of need, Liang was much less corrupt and the people were less oppressed internally.

But it takes more than that to fulfill Lin Shu’s dreams, and the continued war with Southern Chu and Northern Yan continued to drain Liang resources. It has been a difficult 20 years since Mei Changsu died. And Nihuang knows without a doubt, after years of supporting Jingyan in his cause, that the Chiyan army massacre, Prince Qi's loss, and Mei Changsu’s death were all disasters Liang never fully recovered from. Jingrui was just one of many casualties in the subsequent wars, Yujin a cynical diplomat, Jingyan an increasingly embattled Emperor trying to balance the need for more resources for the endless fighting with not bleeding his people dry.

Liang needed them. Liang needed Mei Changsu. Liang needed to be in a totally different place than where the last Emperor had left them: deeply corrupt, bankrupt, exhausted, fighting neighbors on all sides, with a terrible history of blood, terror and hatred behind them, trying to claw their way back to normalcy.

Nihuang mumbles “It’s ok… Lin Chen.”

“OK?!” Lin Chen explodes, “I’ve a good mind to take some of those drugs I gave you. They must be pretty damned good for things to seem ‘OK’ to you!”

“Have you, in your selfishness, considered me?!”

“What the hell am I supposed to go tell THAT ungrateful bastard when I go see him beyond the grave? In a moment of foolishness, at his deathbed, I promised him I’d look out for you!”

A note of real anguish creeps into Lin Chen’s voice.

“Gods! I must have burnt and pillaged your village in my last life, to have to do so much for you two idiots in this life!”

Nihuang tries but fails to smile at Lin Chen’s tone- there is real angst mixed in with the habitual, cranky craziness, and she is nearly too far gone now.

“Sorry… after me…. just you and Jingyan… to continue… Changsu’s work.”

“Don’t you start! Mu Qing is out there pulling his hair out trying to offer me the Mu wealth and his position and half his remaining years of life or whatever, if I can only save you!”

Lin Chen nearly chokes in his mix of half-true, half-theatrical fury and sorrow.

“And now you’re going to be ‘the bigger person’ and tell me that you’re sorry for me and Jingyan that you’re dying?! You can at least die a selfish wretch so we say ‘Good riddance!’ to each other afterward!”

Li Gang silently holds onto Feiliu, who merely says in his usual plaintive manner, “Jiejie. Shu-gege.”

Nihuang struggles to speak “While I can talk… Mu Qing… please…” Li Gang immediately reacts and steps out.

Feiliu gently holds Nihuang’s hand.

“Nihuang…” Lin Chen says suddenly calm and intent.

Nihuang stops.

“After Mei Changsu died, my father and I spent years trying to figure out a way we could have saved him. Perhaps it was a sort of guilt that drove us. We looked in many an arcane text about eternal life and chased many a wild goose in our search, and we did find something…”

Nihuang finds it in her power to whisper “Pipe-dream…”

“Yes eternal life is that. But time is such a subjective, fluid thing… Nihuang, we have spoken a lot about this over the years, but if we could have gone back and done it over again, there is so much that we could do for Liang… for Changsu. So I’m asking you now. If you had the chance, even the slightest to go back and set things right. Would you take it?”

Nihuang doesn’t hesitate even in her state and forces out “Of course … miracle.”

“Rest Nihuang, I’m going to try something on you that if it doesn’t work… well, you wouldn’t be any worse off now. And if it works….it would be that miracle. And if you do go back… tell…tell that Lin Chen… tell that me, how much I loved you and Lin Shu.”

Nihuang’s consciousness starts to fade.

Chapter Text

The images flash in and out of her dreams, but the one she remembers is one where she is back to being a child, playing with Lin Shu in the Imperial gardens. The scent of begonias indicate they are in Great-granny’s palace. But her short, leaden legs cannot keep up with the older kid and no matter how fast she runs, he keeps slipping away, like a smiling wisp of white smoke amongst the improbably tall, vivid flowering bushes.

 

“Wait!” She calls in trepidation.

 

Lin Shu pauses, his grin beckoning, “Nihuang meimei hurry and catch up! Or you’ll be left behind on your own.” Then he is gone. Nihuang searches frantically, but all she finds is his blood-jade pendant, in the middle of its simple red-string knot that he usually carries with him everywhere. Even as she clutches the pendant, Nihuang finds herself suddenly in a bed.

 

The images resolve around her and stop spinning to reveal her room. Instead of the pendant, she is clutching the hand of a young woman.

 

It is her handmaid from her childhood.

 

Nihuang is in her old room in Yunnan lying in her old bed, with her handmaid leaning over her asking her something.

 

“Jun Zhu, what’s wrong? Are you feeling worse?”

 

Nihuang opens her mouth to croak.

 

“Date! What is the date?!”

 

“The…. the 8th Jun...”

 

“The year! And month!”

 

Nihuang trembles at the answer.

 

Three weeks before the Meiling massacre was recorded to start!

 

Nihuang’s maid stares with concern at her young mistress. Princess Nihuang took ill yesterday and has been feverish, tossing and turning all night with dreams, only to awaken at dawn asking strange questions with a desperate intensity.

 

Outside, it is a beautiful Fall dawn, and even here in the South, there is a mild coolness to the air, which is laced with the smell of shed leaves.

 

Nihuang’s mind races.

 

Is it possible?

 

Even as she scrambles upright she feels a surge of dizziness…but she barely registers her fevered state.

 

Who would when the gods themselves have answered your deepest, most fervent prayers?

 

Father… oh gods… Father!

 

Lin Shu, Uncle Lin… even Niefeng … the 70,000 lives of the Chiyan army!

 

They are all alive!

 

Lin Chen… you … you genius! I owe you one in our next lives!

 

She looks around at the bizarrely calm and familiar room. The horse whip on the wall, the candle by the book case…

 

For a moment she’s held by the certainty that she is still dreaming or perhaps this is an unexpected form of afterlife.

 

The dizziness, the feel of a body 40 years younger, the smell of incense that they burnt in her childhood are surreal…

 

Impossible.

 

In her mind she still sees Yunnan as it will be in 40 years at the time of her succumbing to an attempt to kidnap her on her annual trip to Lang Ya Ge.  Nihuang and her small team were not armed for a scaled assault but she was still a woman with a lifetime of fight behind her and she fended them off, although not before she was mortally wounded.

 

No.

 

She shakes off the urge to linger and ponder.

 

She is an experienced general and she doesn’t stop in battle to ask about a miraculous enemy retreat or a lucky change in wind direction. She will not stop now to question the impossibility of her experience.

 

“Fetch my…” she stops. 16-year-old Mu Nihuang has very limited authority. She cannot deploy the Mu troops without her father’s blessing and time was short.

 

Too short. No time for a full troop, much less an army, to gear and stock-up and get to Meiling. She cannot stop this with force. The Lins will even now be fighting off the last of the Northern Yan’s and be sending desperate pleas for back-up to the capital.

 

The thought that she could still mess up the impossible chance she’s been given galvanizes her.

 

“Send the servants to fetch me pen and paper and my best… my father’s best messenger- tell him I want to send an urgent message to Xia Dong jie in the capital. Summon my weapons master, and have someone also go ready my horses- no… ready my entire personal guard, also have the stable master draw rations for 4 weeks for them. If anyone asks why, tell them to come ask me.”

 

Mentally she starts to make lists of things needed.

 

Maps… damn it! Which route would Xie Yu have taken… no, is even now taking? With his full convoy of troops he will have left a week ago at least- to Meiling. We need sweep patterns and fast.

 

She stops her maid and doubles, no triples, the request for horses; they’ll need spares to keep going non-stop. Her mind whirls as her maid scrambles to fulfill her commands.

 

This time.  This time there will be no massacre. There will be no ugly ‘proofs’ of their treachery. No mass graves. No suicides. No poison for Prince Qi. No torment for Mei Changsu. No long widowhood for Xia Dong jie. No grieving Jingyan.

 

No, no and no.

 

Lin Chen has delivered her this miracle and, and by god she was going to make it count. 

Chapter Text

Less than six hours later, before the sun reaches it’s zenith, Princess Nihuang thunders out from the Mu residence at the front of her personal guard. They are in full, Mu-family regalia, flying the crimson flag with gold plum blossom motif proudly from every horse.

 

This is ostensibly a pleasure trip, but she has left a letter for her father asking him to lead a small and mobile, but substantial, advance guard of 5,000 north to rendezvous with her at Meiling in four weeks, readying a larger portion of the army in case they will be needed but not moving them yet.

 

It takes Nihuang's team a full eight days of hard riding to reach the border with Northern Yan, five more days (split into four different search parties) to locate the Xie forces who are traveling with stealth, and another two to set up for their ‘chance’ meeting.

 

By the time Nihuang enters the Xie camp one evening, it is a mere week before the original Meiling massacre.

 

Nihuang plans it down to the fact that she is in a delicate dress and un-armed when she arrives in camp, although her guards are all armed and told to be ready to fight if needed.

 

She kicks such a fuss, complete with tears and tandrum, that the perimeter guards, seeing the Mu family flags, and a crying 16-year old Princess carrying the family Mu jade symbol, are frightened into immediately conveying her to Xie Yu's main tent.

 

There, she throws herself at Xie Yu’s astonished feet tearfully saying how lucky it was she found him… she’s lost… she was terrified that something bad had happened to Lin Shu gege … and what would she do if that happened… and she had come all the way searching for him but she’s been wandering around for days now… and she told the magistrates at all the towns around here that she wanted to get to the Lin army, but they were all under orders not to leave town given the war… so wouldn’t Uncle Xie please escort her there?

 

Nihuang babbles on while Xie Yu looks on with undisguised surprise at this unexpected entrance. This is terrible... (she wrings her hands)... but at least she sent her homing pigeon to her father two weeks ago, so he was probably on his way to fetch her … but, but how was she to know that finding the way to Meiling was so hard?

 

Xie Yu recovers his studied gentle, comforting manner but there is a suspicious glint in his eye as he considers what the chances are that Nihuang’s personal guards can get her lost (regardless of how hapless Nihuang herself is). Or why, if Marshall Mu knew of Xie Yu’s intentions, he sent his daughter of everyone with such a flamboyant display to him.

 

And that’s not even considering the chilling implications of how Marshall Mu found out Xie Yu is heading to Meiling in the first place. Xie Yu doesn't know what's happening, but he does know that there is much more than meets the eye here.

 

Certainly there was no way to carry out his original orders now. Not with the Mus now here as witnesses. Even if he takes the risk of killing Nihuang without explicit orders, it would be dicey given many people know Nihuang is in the area. Not to mention, if Nihuang is telling the truth, Marshall Mu’s vanguard may be as little as two weeks away. There will not be enough time to carry out the Meiling plan and tidy all the 'evidence' before he arrives.

 

In his famously warm, deep voice, he comforts Nihuang and sends for his guards to set her up in a guest tent, but internally this master of intrigue knows that he has been out-maneuvered this time.

 

He quietly sends for his scribe and pigeon carrier. 

 

***

 

The much-feared head of the Xuanjing Bureau crushes the note in his hand in frustration.

 

This should have been a decisive victory for Hua. Prince Qi and the Lins all in one fell sweep. But now.

 

The Mus….

 

It is a surprise. The Mus have always been powerful- so much so that the Emperor secretly fears that Liang’s Southern province will one day be their Southern neighboring kingdom.

 

But in spite of their power, the Mus' staunch neutrality and inactivity in the politics of the court have shielded them from the worse of the Emperor's paranoia. Marshall Mu was not even part of the triumvirate that helped the Emperor ascend to the throne (that honor lay with Marshall Yan and Marshall Lin along with the Emperor himself).   Still the Mu family’s title was old, bestowed in the time of the current Emperor’s great-great grand-father, and held steadfastly, loyally and ably since, so not a family to casually antagonize.

 

What could this mean?

 

The Mu girl has been betrothed to the Lin family’s treasured son from the cradle, so it is possible that there is already an alliance, but how could Marshall Mu have known?

 

Or is this some strange coincidence?

 

Xia Jiang doesn’t believe in coincidences.

 

He sends three short sentences back in a missive.

 

Abort plans. Watch the Mus. Kill the assassin and destroy the note.

 

Unnoticed by Xia Jiang, in the gardens, a few minutes later, Xia Dong accidentally bumps into and causes the message bearer to fall hard on his way to the pigeon coop. She offers to take the message the rest of the way there herself.

 

Within two hours, Xia Dong is riding hard southward, toward the home of a nearly-retired assassin who has, in his household, a prodigiously musical four-year-old daughter called Gong Yu.

Chapter Text

Exactly one week after Xie Yu decimated the exhausted Chiyan army in the original timeline, Xie Yu and his substantive forces are instead in this timeline riding with Marshall Mu and several thousand of the Mu elite forces to reinforce the Chiyan army.  

 

Marshall Lin Xie and Lin Shu ride personally out to greet them when their patrols came back with the jubilant news that their urgent request have been answered and that Liang has sent, to some surprise, both Mu and Xie forces to reinforce their ranks.

 

Lin Shu has barely gotten off his horse before a strange girl jumps off her horse and near knocks him over by grabbing him.   It takes a few moments for him to identify her as Nihuang.

 

Nihuang doesn’t even need to pretend to be crying at the sight of the 19 year old Lin Shu, battle-stained but whole, well, and very, very real.

 

“Lin Shu gege… I.. you… I’ve…I.…” Her plans for a silly speech about missing him, to reinforce the image of herself that she’s been giving Xie Yu, falls apart.

 

She allows herself to just weep and hug him, as if she could, by force of feeling, command that this precious, impossible moment of her dreams be true.

 

Lin Shu is stunned.

 

Nihuang and he have been betrothed since she was 4 and he 7. The Mus took a very liberal view of allowing her to spend much of her days with her soon-to-be-family, and his own parents let her go to lessons and trainings with him and Jingyan. So they have been childhood playmates together, and she has never demonstrated more or less than what a bright, mischievous, affectionate, albeit junior, comrade-at-arms or distant cousin, would toward him. In the last few years, the intensity and excitement at being made the youngest General in Liang at the age of 15 meant that he’s never given her any more thought than he would his own Deputy Neifeng.

 

True, he knew one day they would marry, that through their marriage the Lins and Mus will together hold a combined head count of over 150,000 professional soldiers- the largest army by far in the Central Kingdom. But that didn’t mean he thought of her in a particularly romantic way.

 

Yet here she was, dressed in an exquisite, embroidered white dress in a long soft ladies’ cloak, and jewelry in her hair befitting her station in life, weeping in his arms like … well… like a girl! And, although strange, he shyly decides, it doesn’t feel bad to hold her…

 

Xie Yu gives a dry chuckle and Lin Shu realizes how awkward the situation must seem. Lin Shu hastily recovers his manners, pulls back from Nihuang gently and formally bows to Uncle Mu, Uncle Xie and then, after a moment’s hesitation, also to Nihuang.

 

But it is the correctly respectful bow a youth would give an equivalent generation Princess from a powerful family, and not his usual rough-and-tumble greeting of a junior of his in the army.

 

Nihuang pulls herself together to return a graceful ladies bow, although the effect is somewhat ruined by her having to wipe at her runny nose and eyes at the same time. Lin Shu is amused and a little touched.

 

Marshall Mu is astonished at Nihuang’s behavior. Not only here, but when he first arrived to rendezvous, Nihuang inexplicable burst into tears and kept repeating “I’ve missed you” and "I'm so sorry" over and over.

 

He wonders if all this is about his little girl growing up and whether it’s a sign he needs to think hard about her future. He turns to appraise his future son-in-law’s polite bow to his precious daughter.

 

Could be worse… he decides reluctantly.

 

Then immediately laughs at himself. Lin Shu is the undisputed jewel of the Capital’s younger generation, and he knows the Lin family have long loved Nihuang like their own daughter.  He must be becoming a cranky old father to consider this a situation that “could be worse.”

 

Best of all, he decides watching Nihuang try to suppress her sniffling, his usually unsentimental daughter seems to have grown genuinely attached to Lin Shu.

 

In his musings, he briefly forgets to wonder how it was that Nihuang knew to ask him to bring the troops to reinforce the Lins three weeks ago. When he does remember to ask Nihuang, she will have a partial truth to tell him that involves Xia Dong Jie as her source of news from the Capital.

 

Xie Yu laughs dryly “Well… it seems like all’s well that ends well for our young love birds.”

 

Marshall Lin strides forward “Marshall Mu, Officer Xie- well met! And I’m grateful to have your reinforcements!”

 

He smiles at Nihuang “And Nihuang, how good to see you too!”

 

Nihuang finally remembers to bow to Uncle Lin, stifling additional tears to see the heroic Uncle Lin also well and alive.

 

The sight of Neifeng in the background makes her heart soar for Xia Dong jie.

 

Marshall Lin “Well, gentlemen, there is much to talk about- the Northern Yan’s have been beaten back but are not defeated yet, and my troops are near the limit of their strength. Shall we adjourn to the tent and plan our strategy from there?”

 

Nihuang pulls back with a show of lady-like demurring, but she has given her personal troops instructions to keep discrete, round-the-clock surveillance of Xie Yu’s troops’ movements. The risk is small now with her father here, but she’ll be damned if she let some remote risk ruin everything now.

 

As Lin Shu follows after his father to the tent, he cannot resist stopping for a moment by her and whispering “Nihuang Meimei… what the hell… I mean, what is going on?”

 

She looks him straight in the eyes and whispers back, puzzling Lin Shu although he blushes a little at the emotion in her voice “Only the most wonderful thing that I could ask for Lin Shu Gege.”

Chapter Text

(Six months after the Meiling victory.)

“Lin Shu Gege! Lin Shu Gege! Lin Shu Gege!”

Spring has sprung the trees back to life even here in the capital. And with the warmer weather, the outdoor practice yard near the Imperial barracks are open again. This is where the young men of the nobility train on horse-riding, archery and sword work amongst the other martial arts, and is a favorite summer haunt of Jingyan, Lin Shu and Nihuang.

It is mid-morning when Jingrui and Yujin come barreling down the path screaming Lin Shu's name and, unapologetically interrupting his spar with Nihuang, nearly toppling Lin Shu over into the muddy floor of the snow-melted yard with their excited cries and hugs.

Lin Shu only has enough time to drop his wooden practice sword and half turn before he is bowled into by the ten-year-old Jingrui (forgetting the dignity of his greater age compared to Yujin and running ahead) and little stubby-legged four-year-old Yujin who arrives just a second later.

Even as Lin Shu rolls his eyes in mock irritation at their usual show of hero-worshipping, he ruffles their hair and picks up little Yujin, holding him upside down and causing Yujin to squeal and Jingrui to laugh.

Nihuang takes the opportunity to catch her breath. Leaning on her sword, her eyes light up at the scene. The Yujin and Jingrui she knew were heartbroken by the loss of Lin Shu both as kids and later by the loss of Mei Changsu. And even more, Jingrui’s near death at his ‘father’ Xie Yu’s hand had nearly crushed him physically as well as psychologically.

She promised herself one more time, seeing young Jingrui beg Lin Shu for a ride on his back, that this time, things would be different.

 

Just as she turns, she is abruptly shoved aside and some practice swords are thrown at her feet.

“Wretch - take these ‘practice’ swords back to the armory and ask the arms master to send real ones. I thought the Imperial practice yard in the capital would be well-stocked, but these old wooden weapons are beneath us to practice with.”

 

Nihuang regains her footing, eyes narrowed in annoyance at the group of newcomers to the yard, while their leader, who was the person who had dumped the swords on her prompts, “Well, get on with it! I don’t have all day.”

Nihuang’s voice is icy. “Do it yourself. I’m not a servant, and even if I was, around here we treat serving girls politely.”

An arched eyebrow is the response to her words, tone and Southern accent, which in the capital was considered a provincial manner of speech.

He languidly turns to his companions “Good thing we came today, boys. It seems we’re so short of noblemen trainees here in the capital that we’re recruiting Southern girls to make up numbers!”

Behind them, Lin Shu, noticing Nihuang’s cool tone, puts Yujin down, frowning.

“Better girls from the south who can spar than boys from the capital with no manners.”

The leader’s eyes narrow. “I’ll give you one chance. Take the swords now and leave.” 

“Or what?”

He turns red at the laughter of his peers and at the relaxed, genuinely indifferent attitude of the smaller Nihuang.

But Nihuang speaks first. “Tell you what - I’ll give you a chance to prove me wrong. I challenge you.”

“What?” Real surprise, then he collects himself and sneers, “Speak up… I can’t understand you through that thick Southern accent.”

“Listen closely and try to follow: I. Challenge. You.”

“There must be something wrong with my hearing today. Lads, did you hear the wretch say ‘challenge’?”

Lin Shu starts to step up to stop this nonsense, and Yujin and Jingrui look a little scared at the rough voices. Nihuang holds Lin Shu back.

“I did.”

Somewhere, someone stifles a giggle. A small crowd gathers to watch, most know Nihuang and Lin Shu and are amused that the newcomers do not know who they are up against.

 

“Let me educate you. Unlike the barbarian men down South, we don’t beat women here in the North….” Then with a leer that he must imagine is sexy, “…well, at least not unless they really, really want us to.”

Nihuang doesn’t miss a beat and raps him on one hand with the horsewhip she always carries - lightly, not to hurt him but in warning. He hisses and hops back, clenching his fist. Lin Shu has heard enough “Listen up, you… “

But Nihuang touches Lin Shu to interrupt him.

“Please, Lin Shu gege.” She smiles “This boy is not worth you noticing. Allow me to teach him some manners on behalf of his betters.”

She turns to her opponent but addresses Lin Shu. “Kindly pass him a wooden sword. We’ll see if he can dance better than he can say ‘Please.’.”

Furious at the slurs, he grabs at the wooden sword before Lin Shu can and lunges at Nihuang.

Which is exactly what Nihuang had hoped for. He was older, larger and likely faster than Nihuang, and he was also a nobleman’s son who was raised to draw a sword in a formal challenge…but he was not a soldier with 20 years of bloody field combat experience, and with his underestimation of her, Nihuang has the distinct advantage in a fight without formal rules.

It takes less than 5 minutes for Nihuang to hit him with the wooden sword and her fists, elbows and even head enough times to make him dizzy and finally trip him so he lay sprawled on the ground and Nihuang gets an arm lock on him.

There are calls of “Hao!” from the crowd, while Yujin and Jingrui cheer with wild abandon, “Nihuang Jiejie! Nihuang Jiejie!”

Nihuang wipes a little blood from her lips where he did manage to nick her, but holds the arm lock a little tighter, eliciting a grunt of pain. “Where I come from, we only beat children like you to teach you manners. Now, show the younger ones over there what you say when you make a mistake.”

“I’m so…wr”

“Louder.” She leans into the arm lock.

“I’m sorry!”

Nihuang stands and releases him, although eyeing him warily…she’s too experienced to think it’s a sure thing that he’ll give up just because he lost. But he stays where he is for the moment.

Eyes sparkling in amusement and perhaps a little pride, Lin Shu walks over with a lazy swagger and leans over him.

When he speaks, it is in a casual voice and yet it carries clearly around the yard, sending a clear message to everyone.

“Her name is Mu Nihuang. And I am Lin Shu. If you can’t get used to her being around the Imperial practice yard, then find somewhere else to practice. If you’re smart, you’ll learn manners. But if you or your family want satisfaction from this, you may come to either of our houses to challenge us.”

He grins, “I’ll look forward to it.” 

With that, he turns and, pausing only long enough to give Nihuang a handkerchief to wipe her still-bloodied mouth with, picks up the wide-eyed Yujin. Nihuang takes Jingrui’s hand and together, they walk out of the yard.

On the way out, Yujin’s excited, shrill baby voice can be heard both inside and outside the yard.

“Nihuang Jiejie, Nihuang Jiejie, you were amazing! Would you marry me?!”

Nihuang’s response is drowned out by Lin Shu’s ringing laughter, Jingrui’s indignant protests that he wanted to marry Nihuang Jie first, and Yujin’s shrieks of delight as Lin Shu tosses him up in the air and catches him again.

______________________________________

 

No one notices the nondescript palanquin standing just outside the practice yard where the curtain has been raised in a corner, allowing the figure within to witness the scene.

Xie Yu allows the curtain to drop and signals for his bearers to proceed.

He smiles.

It has taken a little bit of suggestion, selecting the right families’ scions to invite to the Imperial practice yard, and a bit of luck to set this up, but it has played out very well.

The Mus are careless, secure in their generations of governance and military successes in the South.

But they will learn that here in the Capital, where Xie Yu and his allies pull the strings of political power, things are very different.

The pending alliance between the prominent Lin and Mu families has long earned them envy, even fear. What does it mean for the other families that these families will unite to form the largest single private army in all of Liang? Not to mention that the union will now combine the wealth of the arable South with the Imperial connections of the Lins (Lin Shu himself is the Emperor’s nephew and Great-Granny’s acknowledged favorite grandchild).

Xie Yu plans to play on this, and the Mus’ lack of political savvy to ensure that they pay dearly for Meiling.

Chapter Text

To the disciple’s surprise, he is instructed to bring the hooded lady into the inner study at Lang Ya Ge to meet Young Master Lin Chen. This is in gross defiance of regular ritual and he has never seen this happen in all 15 years of his time here.

 

The lady sweeps into a room where Lin Chen sits on the veranda, overlooking an exquisite view of Lang Ya Mountain.

 

He turns at her entry and gestures of his disciple to leave the room. It’s not until they are entirely alone that Nihuang lowers her hood.

 

“Mu Nihuang, daughter to Marshal Mu, beloved of our Imperial Great-Granny, and soon to married into the most illustrious Lin family.”

 

Nihuang responds simply, “Lin Chen.”

 

“Tell me, Mu-lass, do you know how unusual it is for me to allow guests to see me?”

 

“I do.”

 

“And do you know why I’m making this exception?”

 

“I do.”

 

Lin Chen laughs, “I like it! A lady of few words.”

 

Then he turns serious. “I’ll cut to the chase: How did you know which exact 6 provinces the drought this year would hit, and who to go to for aid that wouldn’t be squandered by corrupt officials?”

 

Nihuang placidly sips her tea before responding, “I would be happy to tell you...”

 

She pauses “…for a price.”

 

Lin Chen smiles “Ah…now that I entirely understand. I am in the business of selling knowledge myself, so let’s negotiate.”

 

“But I do not wish to be paid in money.”

 

“Other knowledge then? Political connections?” He pretends to look at her with suggestive interest, “Sexual favors from my dazzling self?”

 

Nihuang cannot help a smile. In spite of everything, Lin Chen is still Lin Chen and it is a relief not to have to pretend to be 16.

 

“Thank you for the offers, your first guess is correct. But it is not for one piece of knowledge but a long-term collaboration.”

 

Lin Chen raises his eyebrows.

 

“It is quite a story…but you were the person who sent me here in the first place, so I hope that you of everyone would believe me.”

 

Four exhausting hours later, after Lin Chen has cross-examined, tested, pushed back and tried to disprove Nihuang’s claims in as many ways as he knew how, he finally conceded that, unlikely as it was, her claim of coming back from the future was the only one that could account for her knowledge.

 

“Mu-lass, I’m still going to have to wait for a few checks I’m going to send out to confirm your information. But it is no exaggeration to say that if you’re telling the truth, you can have anything you want.”

 

“Riches, influence, universal adoration…people would fall to their knees and worship you as a god just for your memory of weather patterns, never mind whatever else you have in that head of yours!”

 

“Yes, but Lin Chen, that is not what I want. I want a better Liang for the people, not just the next 12 years of drought relief; I want to save…people who matter to me who I didn’t save in my timeline. I have been given a miracle and I have a duty to do a much, much greater RIGHT this time around.”

 

“Well, at the expense of stating the obvious - other than to admire my fine looks of course - why did you come here?”

 

“Lin Chen, I need you.” And before Lin Chen can leer at that, Nihuang adds, “Your information networks are unparalleled and although I have foreknowledge, I cannot know if my actions will change this timeline so much that my foreknowledge is not useful. Already, I…prevented a major event, and now I must continue to monitor how much my actions have changed things and when and how! Without that calibration, my knowledge will at best be unreliable, and at worst, be misleading and do more harm than good.”

 

“And why would I help you in what sounds like a very risky enterprise?”

 

“Because,” Nihuang’s voice is urgent but low, so that Lin Chen has to lean in to hear her, “I know secrets that no one alive today could possibly know. And you can turn that knowledge into unimagined wealth or unparalleled influence for Lang Ya Ge.”

 

“Because,” She continues with intensity, “I know a you that you don’t even know. I can tell you things about yourself in situations you will never experience.” Lin Chen starts at this angle that he has never considered.

 

“Because,” Nihuang’s voice carries a sliver of humor, “you wouldn’t be able to stand not-knowing when you know somewhere out there someone else knows!”

 

Lin Chen laughs out loud at this, but underneath the sound, something of the immense curiosity and mischief that Lin Chen is famous for lights up in his eyes and Nihuang knows that she has won this round.

 

“Mu-lass, you’re quite something! I have to admit that I’ve never had so tempting a proposition from anyone in so long that I don’t even remember when the last time was.”

 

“So, I agree! Just so we are clear, I’ll draw up a contract, so we can weigh how much Lang Ya Ge’s knowledge, which I hasten to point out is also unique in this world, can be traded for your own unrivaled…views.”

 

“But let me give you one free piece of advice, Mu-lass,” Lin Chen smiles knowingly. “Sometimes knowing about the world is not as important as knowing about yourself.”

 

Nihuang starts at this as Lin Chen continues, “I’ve met many a person who made the mistake of thinking that all they lack is power to change the world in order to be happy, only to realize afterward that they traded everything for something they never truly wanted.”

 

Nihuang bows her head as this weighs on her.

 

Then she raises her eyes to look out at the sunlit view of Lang Ya Mountain and the sparkling, rushing waters of a distant waterfall, “I thank you, Lin Chen, for your candid advice. But let me give you one in return.”

 

“There are goals that are so right, it doesn’t matter what you want, and doesn’t even matter what you get as long as you’ve given everything in your power toward those goals.” She turns back to Lin Chen, “And if you’re the same Lin Chen I’ve met, you already have some of these things in your heart.”

 

It is Lin Chen’s turn to bow, and after a minute, he smiles, shakes his head and gestures ‘touché’.

 

Nihuang clears a space on the table and places a letter there. “For a start, here is a list of the main players in the imperial court today and some of the ones that rose to power in the next 10 years in my timeline. This describes how they got to be where they are, or will get to where they may go, what their true motives are, who they control and how, some secrets they are hiding, as well as some rough guesses on my part regarding what their key moves will be over the next few years now that I’ve messed up some of their other plans.”

 

“I need from you high surveillance of their moves, their contacts, troop movements, funding sources, as well as key conversations with the Emperor, over the next 5 years at least.”

 

“My immediate goal is to protect Prince Qi, and the Lins. To do that, I need to be in the Capital part of each year, to keep an eye on Xia Jiang and Xie Yu. But also with my father securing the Southern border part of the year. In addition, I need to lay the groundwork for a longer-term plan. The root of the issues lie within Liang, but the devastating outcomes will come from outside.”

 

“Plus,” Nihuang pushes, “my father must NOT be allowed to take part in this directly. I refuse to risk him.”

 

“We must tackle both the short and long term, but very thoughtfully and with the vision to build long-lasting solutions, not immediate relief that falls apart in months. Let’s start with a letter that you will write to Prince Qi today.”

 

“Lass, I like my women aggressive, but you’ve got some guts coming here and telling me what to do and when… still, I’m in the mood to be nice to a pretty gal like you, so I’ll do it!”

 

Nihuang grins. “Ah, a ‘pretty gal’ who just happens to hold the secrets to the future? You wouldn’t be the young master of Lang Ya Ge I knew if you refused.”

 

Lin Chen winks and as they get down to work, Nihuang remembers something.

 

“Lin Chen, now that we are all agreed, the Lin Chen from my time - 30 years hence - had a message to pass to you.”

 

Lin Chen arches his eyebrows. “Not that I’m offering, mind you… but I would give a lot of money to hear it.”

 

“He wanted to tell you that he loved Lin Shu and me a great deal.” Nihuang finishes a little awkwardly, almost shyly.

 

Lin Chen pauses.

 

Then laughs, “Now I suspect you’re trying to manipulate me.”

 

Nihuang laughs too. “You wouldn’t be the Lin Chen I knew if you weren’t suspicious. He always was a crazy, cynical bastard.”

 

She proceeds to give a two minute parody of Lin Chen’s favorite swear words and expressions, complete with dramatic fan-waving gestures, ending with his trademark, half-complaining, half-affectionate “Wretch-with-no-conscience!”

 

And it was at that moment that Lin Chen, watching slacked-jawed as this near-stranger mimics him at his personal finest, finally and utterly believes Nihuang’s ludicrous story.

Chapter Text

In the Eastern Palace, Crown-Prince Qi consults with Marshall Lin Xie.

“Uncle Lin - thanks for coming on such short notice!”

“Your highness, it is my duty…and pleasure to do so. How fares your mother?”

Marshal Lin has always been close to his sister, and now that she lives in the “Back Court”/Imperial harem, his opportunities to see her are few and far between.

“I went to pay my respects yesterday and she was well - in fact she has been talking about how it has been forever since she’s seen Lin Shu and is going to tell Great-Granny to summon the children to the back court to celebrate Great-Granny’s birthday in three months."

Prince Qi pauses “I’m asking you here because I received a very perplexing letter.”

“Oh?”

“Here, please read this here. I daren’t send it from the palace.”

Lin Xie opens the letter and frowns at a story of how Princess Liyang came to marry General Xie, the true parentage of Jingrui, and General Xie’s ploy to use the Zhuo family’s erroneous belief that Jingrui could be their child to his (and Prince Xuan’s) benefit.

“Normally I would dismiss the letter as paranoid rumor-mongering. But…some of the facts and dates…no one but family could know those! That’s why I went to mother to verify some of the more innocent facts in the letter, and they align with what mother knew of Princess Liyang and the Chu Prince’s interactions. If this is fiction, it is very, very well-researched fiction.”

Lin Xie’s frown deepens. “A ploy then? If General Xie truly is Prince Xuan’s man, could Prince Yu or someone else benefit from us learning about this?”

“Keep reading, Uncle Lin…. The funny thing is that the writer details a potential counter-ploy for us, which has nothing to do with succession maneuvering. He want us to talk Princess Liyang into letting Jingrui become a pupil to Marquis Yan and have Marquis Yan groom him to be a future ambassador to Southern Chu. He even has ideas about how we can persuade both Princess Liyang and Marquis Yan that this is a good idea.”

“Although in addition, he hints that we must use our knowledge of this to black-mail Xie Yu into staying out of the succession fight. He implies strongly, without substantiation, that to do otherwise is to invite future grief.”

Lin Xie’s eyebrows look like they are trying to touch his upper lip as he peruses the rest of the letter before he responds.

“May I be frank? I’m deeply divided on this your Highness.”

“On one hand I like it because it is visionary and looks at the long term, even if risky because it is so ambitious.”

Prince Qi nods “If Jingrui truly is the oldest nephew of the Southern Chu King, and if he does go back and is acknowledged… well, I don’t think he’ll be given a title, but at the least, he’ll be seen as credible in the court. And well…it’ll be at least 10 years before Jingrui will be old enough, but when he is, this could be the bridge of trust we haven’t been able to find with Southern Chu. We cannot give up on even a small chance that we can negotiate a lasting peace!”

Lin Xie continues, “On the other hand, I mistrust such counsel. We don’t know the goals of the writer, it reeks of exactly the type of under-hand political maneuvering we have fought against in court and it could be that some of the facts they provide are falsehoods mixed in with the truth to get us to move rashly. Blackmail… to be honest, if the facts are right, then I’m not so scrupulous I’d hold back on threatening a blackguard like Xie Yu, but still to suggest such a thing out of hand without Xie Yu having ever moved against us? Our strategist writer is no principled gentleman.”

He shakes his head “But you’re quite right your Highness, first things first, I can discreetly check on the facts, and if the core ones are true, some of the ideas may be worth adopting…”

Prince Qi hesitates. “However there is also the matter about the Mus….”

Lin Xie goes straight to the point. “They have battled Southern Chu for many years, and our mysterious informant is strongly against them being involved in this on the grounds that they will not be sympathetic to the cause of unity with Chu. In fact he suggests we keep Nihuang in the capital more so we have 'leverage' if we ever need to pressure Marshall Mu.”

It is Prince Qi’s turn to frown. “I’ll be straight, I'm not comfortable with this.  Even setting aside the fact that they are your future in-laws, the Mus are not to be trifled with and… blackmailing scum-of-the-earth is one thing, holding an innocent hostage crosses a line for me.”

Lin Xie laughs “Your Highness, you can rest at ease on this one. Our writer overlooked the obvious answer here. Nihuang is already 16 and one ceremony away from being my daughter, all I need to do is hurry the marriage.   At some point we will involve her and Lin Shu in this work, and once we have Nihuang's buy-in I imagine we'll win over Marshall Mu.”

Prince Qi nods slowly. “That might not be the best way to go about gaining his buy-in, but it's a step up from what he's suggesting.”

He takes the letter back from Lin Xie and they both regard it thoughtfully.

Prince Qi is the first to break the silence and articulate what they’re both thinking.

“This is possibly the most intriguing thing that I’ve ever come across Uncle Lin, and more than anything I want to try to find out more about our source. He suggests that we can contact him by letter to Lang Ya Ge. I’m going to send a few discrete people there to ask if they know anything more about this mysterious ‘Mei Changsu’.”

Chapter Text

“What did mother say to you?”

 

Nihuang was summoned bright and early in the morning to the Lin manor by Grand-Princess Jinyang.

 

Grand-Princess Jinyang is wife to Marshall Lin, mother of Lin Shu, and the Emperor’s sister. No amount of wheedling from Lin Shu would persuade his mother to tell him why she is summoning Nihuang for a private audience that he is very adamantly not invited to.

 

So it is he is left outside, pouting and, if he’s very honest, even worrying a little for Nihuang.

 

His mother, he knows, was brought up very strictly in the palace, and while Nihuang’s and his escapades can be laughed off on his part by their elders as “boys will be boys”, for Nihuang… well, all sorts of ungenerous things get said about her womanhood or her family’s propriety.

 

He and Jingyan challenge that type of talk when they catch wind of it amongst the boys, but they’re helpless to shield Nihuang from insidious talk amongst ladies of the court.

 

So it is that Lin Shu, after waiting a painful several hours in the Lin Manor garden tormenting the willows, rushes to Nihuang when she leaves his mother’s inner rooms. He is relieved to see her unscathed although concerned that her color seems a little high.

 

“She…she didn’t give you a hard time did she?”

 

Nihuang smiles a little slyly.

 

In truth, Grand Princess Jinyang had brought Nihuang in to discuss her and Lin Shu. She and Marshall Lin had of course sent the requisite and proper number of matchmakers to the Mu manor over the years to see to the exchange of engagement gifts at proper times since the betrothal edict, but now the Lins were, as Grand Princess Jinyang put it, “ready to have grandkids.”

 

Marshall Lin would personally go to the Mu manor to raise the question of a formal, elaborate wedding, an auspicious date, negotiate the number of horses and carriages and detail the ceremony so their staff could coordinate, etc.

 

But first, the particularly open-minded Grand Princess wanted to see what Nihuang thought.

 

“I…I’m ready to marry Lin Shu gege. And I’ve no real opinions about the details of the ceremony,” Nihuang stammers honestly, and is a little inexplicably pink.

 

Grand Princess Jinyang beams, “Good…and god knows that half-grown son of mine could use a wife to get him to behave like an adult now and then!”

 

Nihuang surprises herself by blushing a second time when the Grand Princess also gives Nihuang a long sex education talk, on account of Nihuang having lost her own mother young.

 

Nihuang had had lovers in her other timeline but she ended up more impressed with Grand Princess Jinyang’s talk than she thought she would be. Apparently a detailed and very wide range of bedroom skills were considered appropriate to teach consorts and princesses of the imperial family, and the Grand Princess had even given Nihuang a few books with very frank pictures inside on the issue.

 

Wryly she smiles at her own naiveté: How else could it be otherwise? Those skills were one of only a few ways a consort might make herself more attractive to the Emperor and hence safeguard herself and her family. Even if she never bore the Emperor a child, having the recognition of the Emperor visiting her a few nights and ‘indulging’ her would elevate her position over the hundreds of consorts who never get to meet the Emperor in their lives.

 

But she’s not yet ready to discuss that with Lin Shu.

 

“What business is that of yours?”

 

“Why, all sorts of business, she’s my mother and you’re…” Lin Shu pauses then states simply, with a radiant smile, “well, you’re my Nihuang.”

 

The edges of Nihuang’s mouth twitch as she fights a smile. She has forgotten, in her memories clouded by Mei Changsu’s brilliance and grief, the wonderfully innocent charm Lin Shu exuded.

 

“She was giving me advice about being a good wife,” Nihuang pretends to look grim as she continues walking briskly.

 

Lin Shu’s face falls, and he follows along a little anxiously. Nihuang fights another laugh at his openhearted look of worry, but holds her frown.

 

“She said that if we ever fight that I must be careful not to beat you in the face.” Nihuang solemnly continues, “It wouldn’t do to have the Capital’s Brightest Star showing signs of domestic abuse.”

 

It takes Lin Shu a moment to process the joke and he snorts to show what he thinks of that.

 

“What?” Nihuang pretends to be offended by his snort-laugh; “You think you can beat me in a fair fight? Well….you’ll have to prove it first!”

 

And, before she’s even done with the sentence, she tosses a handful of willow at Lin Shu, and takes off at a sprint, laughing out the last few words.

 

“Why, you….” Lin Shu, startled, loses a second before giving chase.

 

Peals of their laughter and sounds of a mock sword-fight carried out with branches of willow erupt from the gardens where Lin Shu finally catches up with her.

 

Truth be told, Nihuang wasn’t gearing for a fight so much as the chance to work off some of her embarrassment and deep, blooming happiness.

 

Today, tempting fate, Nihuang thinks, “Nothing can go wrong again.”

 

Nihuang has plans. Once the two families are united, and Lin Shu and her recognized as adults, they would have power to make overt, real changes. There were Hua spies to root out, corruption at court to expose, Prince Qi’s reforms to support, Xia Jiang’s moves to counter…together.

 

Together, they can change Liang.

 

As she parries and slashes with her branch and watches Lin Shu laughingly dance out of the way, she feels fully alert, alive, confident and so very sure of them.

 

They will change Liang.

 

They will change the world.

 

No prolonged war with Chu and Yan, no blocked trade routes and stifled populations bled like sheep to feed the war efforts, no bloody fight for the throne between the princes with Prince Qi firmly keeping the Crown Prince title. Together the Mus and Lins and Yans can not just uphold but also drive peace and prosperity in their time.

 

They will change history itself.

 

This time.

 

From the shade of her room, the Grand Princess smiles as she watches the two gloriously young and happy not-quite-children-anymore play in the sun and sighs that it’s a good thing they’re setting a date for the wedding.

Chapter Text

The next week, in the middle of the victory feast in celebration of the Meiling victory, Lin Shu takes Nihuang around to the back of the imperial stables where no one goes anymore and kisses her.

 

The Emperor had waited till the weather was warm to celebrate the Meiling victory and there are feasts being held throughout the capital. In the palace, the main feast- hosted by the Emperor himself- honors the Lins' resounding victory.

 

Marshalls Lin and Mu take the chance to announce that they have set a date for the wedding between Lin Shu and Nihuang- to coincide with Great-Granny’s 72nd birthday in a month.

 

This inspires a chorus of congratulations, but also a few thoughtful glances as people consider the implications of the alliance coming to fruition in the wake of the rousing victory in Meiling.

 

Great-Granny is the most inspired, she nearly jumps up to proclaim that she would bestow her own wedding finery, including her gilded, jeweled wedding head gear, which she wore over 50 years ago when she was married to the late Emperor, to Nihuang for the occasion. This causes many gasps at the honor, and Nihuang goes to the front of the pavilion to bow her gratitude.

 

Nihuang is the center of attention as she formally, stately executes her bows.

 

She is dressed today for public presentation, and although it is all in her own preferred palate of greys and cream, the sheen of rare silk, the subtle gleam of exquisite embroidery, an intricate, filigree silver hair-piece draped with sparkling beads and inlaid mother-of-pearl, is unmistakably splendid.

 

Even more than her luxuriant clothing, it is her strong posture, the confident angle she holds her head and, most of all, a radiant smile she has on her face, broadcasting her happiness to everyone in the room, that causes her father to grumble at how “it’s impossible to keep grown daughters” in ill-disguised pride, the women to whisper in envy and the men to pound Lin Shu’s back in congratulations.

 

Lin Shu manages, in the swirl of people and congratulations and servants to make his way to Nihuang and whisper, “Nihuang- the people who call me the capital’s brightest star must be blind.”

 

Lin Shu had had a few drinks, and is flushed with a heady combination of success, youthful exuberance and the general swell of excitement over his up-coming wedding to Nihuang as he and Nihuang sneak out to the stables.

 

When Lin Shu leans in to kiss her, Nihuang takes a few steps backward in surprise at the kiss, and Lin Shu advances until she bumps into a table pushed up against the wall, which Lin Shu gratefully uses to brace her.

 

Although it’s a fumbling sort of kiss, it is tender and carries a certain breathless elation that startles Nihuang. Nihuang is even more surprised by her own heated response and blushes- get a hold Nihuang, you’re not really 16!

 

“Lin Shu gege… “ She tries when they surface for air.

 

Lin Shu gives her a questioning look and Nihuang is breathless, but she smiles and leans forward to nuzzle his ear lightly with her nose.

 

Emboldened by her response, Lin Shu lifts her onto the table and kisses her again. More hungrily and assuredly this time, hands deftly tilting Nihuang’s face upward to savor and taste more of her mouth.

 

Nihuang is caught up in the moment full of mouth and tongues, gasps for air, tangled fingers and hair and clothing. She has long been aware of Lin Shu’s body, lithe and trained from hours in the training yard, and she is now hyper aware of the curve of muscle and tendons along his neck, his arms, his chest, the heat of his skin radiating even through their layers of formal court clothing.

 

Long minutes later it is Lin Shu who breaks the kiss “Let’s go Nihuang.” He gazes at her with a hungry, inviting look that Nihuang cannot mistake.

 

Nihuang pauses a moment, frozen, then giggles… and then breaks out into laughter.

 

After a heartbeat, Lin Shu follows suit.  

 

It is funny.

 

It is a shock.

 

All these years together they had never been more than playmates, although they had always known they were meant for each other. Theirs was a betrothal from the cradle, orchestrated by parents and Great granny.

 

They were children together at play in Great-granny’s household, then, when they were old enough, they were comrades-at-arms and students-in-the-scholarly-arts together in a friendly rivalry to do better than each other.

 

They were the mischief-makers who would get into trouble together and then wait, unrepentantly for Jingyan to come bail them out or Granny to defend them against their elders’ wrath.

 

They were indestructible but also of indeterminate gender.

 

And so it is that, at the ripe old age of 19 and sort-of-16 respectively, it is a marvelous, nearly miraculous, discovery that there is a whole another dimension of their feelings for each other they can explore, that they can make each other feel the amazing things they feel tonight.

 

But even in their laughter, his hands continue to stroke her hair and back, and she leans in as she shakes with laughter so their bodies stay snugly, perfectly fitted together, and the sounds are as much breathless, aroused panting as amusement.

 

This is how it was meant to be Nihuang thinks as she lifts her face to look at Lin Shu. I will write over the grief and the regrets, the longing and the emptiness with pure joy.

 

Nihuang then tilts her head gently back so that her throat is entirely exposed, and playfully, slowly, sensually stretches. Her limbs and clothing askew. Lin Shu’s eyes gleam and drink in the sight of the curve around Nihuang’s throat as it drops into her cleavage and the show of her long legs now loosely parted around him. He tightens his grasp of her, and she responds by pushing her hips in a way that makes Lin Shu gasp.  

 

On the way out, Lin Shu doesn’t forget to ask a servant to pass a message to Jingyan to cover for them till they return in a few hours to the banquet.

 

In Nihuang’s subsequent endless replays of that nights’ events and the two weeks that follow, she clearly remembers some things:-

 

Her restlessness as she waits for the pre-arranged times for her to sneak out to rendezvous with Lin Shu (on pretext of visiting Consort Jing, with Jingyan’s word to cover for them), Lin Shu and her delight at finding a lonely patch of flowers one afternoon not even far from the Lin military camp where they spent an entire lazy afternoon in each other’s arms instead of practicing sword-fighting like they had meant to. And their whispered plans for the future, their vision of love, life, careers, children, the world.

 

But she also cannot remember other things.

 

Like whether she ever saw Xia Jiang’s palanquin parked outside the Mu manor when Lin Shu snuck her out one afternoon, watching them.

 

Or whether she ever noticed a hint of suspicion and speculation in the Emperor’s eyes on her frequent visits to Great-Granny’s palace for her endless wedding robe fittings with the royal tailor.

 

Or, worse, whether she had had one last fight with her father over her mysterious disappearances to Lang Ya Ge. Whether she ever told him afterward how important he was to her.

 

Or whether she ever thanked Jingyan for loyally making up excuses for her and Lin Shu time and again for their romantic escapes in spite of his being a terribly liar.

 

In the long years that follow, she is never sure which of those things happened and which she has made up in retrospect, driven by her grief and guilt.  

 

What she knows for sure is that that night, neither she nor Lin Shu even suspected, walking elated out of that banquet, that before the month is over, Nihuang will be an orphaned fugitive, Jingyan, a corpse and their sparkling future, shattered fragments they will never be able to quite put together again.

Chapter Text

Prince Jing is dead.

The news rocks the capital, and with no official explanation or announcement rumors spread like wildfire, that ranged from the mundane (“I always said his horse was a wild thing…”) to the lurid (“He was caught with whose wife?”) to the arcane (“I knew Prince Qi’s new reforms would invite the wrath of the gods!”)

The most popular explanation that is passed in whispers since it was the most outrageous is that Southern Chu is behind the murder. But the juicy piece of this rumor is that there was a Liang spy involved, and the spy was no other than the illustrious Marshall Mu.

“How else does one murder a prince of the blood right in the Capital?”

“Who else with a Southern connection powerful enough to do this is in the Capital today?”

Long has South Chu protested Prince Jing’s missions to the Eastern States (South Chu’s Northern neighbors) to negotiate port-access rights for Liang.

Port access will allow Liang to go around Chu’s current seaward trade blockade of Liang that is holding Liang hostage to Chu’s demands for concessions on land and access to overland trade rights through Liang up North.

His death will stall the talks at the least, and make a strong statement to Liang and the Eastern States that Chu is not to be trifled and discourage either side from continuing the talks.

In retrospect, much, much later, Nihuang will realize that Hua involvement was nearly certain, and that there were a few things she should have reacted with instantly.

But in the moment, Nihuang’s first reaction is horrified disbelief.

This didn’t happen in my timeline. This cannot happen.

Then it hits her.

Jingyan!

Brave, stubbornly loyal, loving Jingyan. No one else would have dared to put sword to the Crown Prince’s throat to save an old friend, no one else could be the same warm, thoughtful friend and Emperor he became in her timeline…

Nihuang suddenly thinks of Consort Jing… and tears that had been streaming down her face a moment ago from grief and guilt now freeze in a deep, clawing, awful fear.

What have I done?

Oh gods, Lin Shu, Jingrui, Yujin….

She had known that she held great power in her hands with her foreknowledge and her agency in the ‘past’. But it had never occurred to her that if she failed she could make things actually worse than in the original time line.

This timeline doesn’t have a genius Mei Changsu, doesn’t have a driven Li Gang and Zhen Ping, doesn’t have a righteous Jiangzuo alliance, doesn’t have Gong Yu and many, many people whose lives were dedicated to ensure that the wronged would see justice, and stop the Hua tribe from bringing chaos to Liang.

This timeline only has her.

She has prevented 70,000 deaths, but she could easily let tens or even hundreds of thousand others die if she isn’t successful stopping the Hua tribe, stopping Xia Jiang, and redoing everything Lin Shu did as Mei Changsu.

Her mistakes are starting to show.

In her grief and shock she makes another mistake, which she will not realize for several hours: She does not react when she hears the sound of the steward calling for a score of horses and guard to be ready, indicating that her father is leaving home.

Instead she alternates between wallowing in guilt, trying to figure out how she could have known this could happen, and worrying about Consort Jing or Lin Shu. She is in the middle of writing a note to Lin Shu when she receives a pigeon missive from Lin Chen (encrypted in a way to indicate that this is of the highest possible priority).

“Xia Jiang moves. Flee NOW.”

Nihuang pales at the implication but knows she cannot afford self-recrimination. Belatedly she realizes her father had left on summons from the Emperor to the palace and the implications of that.

She runs to Mu Qing’s room where he is playing and, as calmly and reassuringly as she can, explains to the 6-year-old Mu Qing that he’s going on a long trip.

She entrusts him to her best personal guard, with a generous amount of gold and her personal jade symbol (for him to gain help if needed along the way). The guard is given strict instructions to leave instantly, taking nothing but Mu Qing and a note from her, both to be delivered secretly and via circuitous routes (to throw off pursuers) to Master Lin Chen of Lang Ya Ge.

In half an hour they are gone and in another hour Nihuang is on her horse with key documents, mostly secret maps and names of contacts she does not want to fall into unfriendly hands, riding hard for the palace toward her father and what, she is frighteningly sure, is a trap.

Chapter Text

Nihuang is hunched over an alleyway in the Forbidden City, dry heaving.

 

Her mind is repeating one phrase over and over and she can hardly think from the phrase drowning out all other thoughts.

 

Father is dead.

 

Nihuang had intercepted and scared a young eunuch into giving her information.

 

Marshal Mu accepted an Emperor-gifted cup of poisoned wine, whispered the terrified boy.

 

Marshal Mu had volunteered for it after he had been accused of high treason, plotting against the imperial family, and killing Prince Jing.

 

To prove his innocence.

 

His voice was shrill with terror and horror, which mirrored Nihuang’s own.

 

He had asked to be gifted the wine. And in return, he only begged for the Emperor to spare his family based on the generations of Mus who have guarded Liang’s border.

 

But Nihuang knows beyond a doubt that her father had underestimated the Emperor’s paranoia and insane need for control.

 

The Emperor might spare the Mu residence servants and even associated relatives, but Mu Qing and herself were good as dead.

 

If you pull weeds, you must rip out the roots or else they’ll grow again come spring.

 

The Emperor was very fond of repeating that old saying.

 

Nihuang flees the Palace after knocking out the eunuch, but she knows it’s only a matter of time before she is discovered

 

At least Mu Qing should have made it out of the city limits by now.

 

And then,

 

This is my fault.

 

I dragged the family into Meiling, and now father is ignobly dead and Mu Qing is an orphan and fugitive with no future.

 

Why did I not see this coming? It was obvious who would be the targets for the Hua.

 

She is so absorbed in her thoughts and throwing up in shock and horror that she only notices that she is not alone when the cloaked figure is next to her.

 

Nihuang instinctively reacts, attacking the figure with her left hand as her right goes to her sword.

 

But she recognizes the way the figure parries and blocks and she is flooded with deep relief.

 

“Lin Shu gege!”

 

He gestures for silence, and, leading the way, he guides them to a gardeners’ shed further from the main thoroughfare of the Forbidden City and lowers his hood.

 

Her heart falls at his face, ravaged by grief.

 

“Did you know?” His voice is hard and cold.

 

“What?”

 

“Did. You. Know.”

 

Nihuang puts the pieces together “You think I had a hand in Jingyan gege’s death?!”

 

“If not, then why did you send Mu Qing away, why are you trying to run now? My father received a tip… I refused to believe it. I went to the Mu residence to find you, I was afraid that maybe something would happen to you too…and all I found was that you and Mu Qing had fled.”

 

“I am a fool, but I will give you one more chance. Tell me what happened.”

 

Nihuang stammers. “I sent Mu Qing…. I got a message…we didn’t… ”

 

She swallows.

 

“I can’t tell you everything now. You wouldn’t believe me. But you must trust me. Think, Lin Shu! Would I hurt Jingyan? Do you really believe it for a second?”

 

“Jingyan is dead!” Lin Shu nearly screams.

 

“And the scene was…no one but someone close and who he trusted could have done it…”

 

“You think I personally killed Jingyan?! Lin Shu gege, you are mad with grief.”

 

Nihuang is torn between more horror and intense disappointment.

 

She knows that Lin Shu is only 19, but she cannot help being disappointed that he is not Mei Changsu’s equal. Not yet.

 

“Lin Shu gege, listen to me. I didn’t know. I…I should have seen it coming, perhaps I could have prevented it…but I swear neither me nor my father had a hand in this.”

 

“Then who did?! Who could?!”

 

Nihuang swallows hard and refuses to say “Hua”, refuses to say “Likely sleeper spies planted for a decade or more” because Lin Shu wouldn’t believe her and any attempt to explain how she knew at this point would seem insane at best, and blatant lies at worse.

 

“You wouldn’t believe me…”

 

“Try me.”

 

“Please, I need time to think…”

 

“Think?! If you don’t think I can believe you, how can I trust you? Give me a reason to believe.”

 

“Because…” Nihuang swallows again.

 

Because you know me.

 

Because you know I love you and Jingyan.

 

Because in another life, I stood by you for 13 years and didn’t believe what they said against you even when all the ‘evidence’ surfaced.

 

Because I am Mu Nihuang and you are Lin Shu.

 

“Because,” she ends half-heartedly, averting her eyes at the things she cannot say, “the Mus have been faithful for generations. Because you know I would do anything in my power to save Jingyan.”

 

Lin Shu continues to look at Nihuang with haunted eyes but says nothing.

Chapter Text

Nihuang rarely begs, but a pleading tone bleeds into her voice after the strains of the day.

“Come with me.”

“Please.”

“I’ll explain everything, but it is a very long story.”

 

Lin Shu looks away.

“Are you asking me to give up my life, my responsibilities, my family and run away with you? You are insane.”

 

Nihuang’s voice chills. “Would you prefer to hand me over to the Xuanjing Bureau for interrogation? My father chose to take poisoned wine rather than do that and implicate our family with fabricated ‘confessions’.”

 

“Nihuang…how could…” Lin Shu stops and grits his teeth.

“Take my cloak and keep the hood up. Give me your cloak. You haven’t been very careful and the alert is out, but I’ll lead your pursuit away.”

 

“You believe me?”

 

“It doesn’t matter what I believe. Great-Granny would go mad with grief if anything happens to you and Jingyan both.”

“I suggest you find somewhere to keep your head down till sunset - then try to leave the city through the West Gate between the 4th and 5th watch. Captain Meng Zhi is heading up the patrols then, and I think you will find he is willing to be a little short-sighted during his watch.”

 

“Lin Shu gege, I can’t go yet…I must see Consort Jing.”

 

Lin Shu looks at her in disbelief. “You think she’ll want to see YOU?!”

“I…” Consort Jing must be going insane. Nihuang cannot let history repeat itself. Yet she is one person…is one person good enough to go against history?

No, no, Nihuang, you cannot give up on this…you owe Jingyan. How would you face him in your afterlife if, after letting him die, you then let Consort Jing commit suicide?

“Please then tell your father and mother to watch Consort Jing…she mustn’t be allowed to do anything to herself. Tell her that only if she is alive can she hope to avenge Jingyan!”

Lin Shu looks at her warily, eyes narrowed.

“You do know something.”

 

Nihuang hangs her head.

 

Lin Shu’s voice was filled with real hurt.

“When did things become this way between us? When did you start having so many secrets you can’t explain to me? Do you think I haven’t noticed…all these mysterious trips out of town, the strange leap in your fighting skills, the way you watch Uncle Xie and even my Father, and me. The tears you think I do not see… Do you really think me an idiot? A fine idiot to keep in the dark while you carry out whatever plan it is you’re carrying out?”

He laughs bitterly.

“These months… I ignored the signs and thought that you were just growing up, I…I so enjoyed our new relationship that I deceived myself into believing that all I needed was patience. That I would let you come to me with whatever was troubling you…”

 

“Lin Shu….” She touches his arm.

 

His voice comes out freezingly cold as he pulls back his hand.

“Don’t. Don’t bother with more excuses and lies, I have had enough of them for a lifetime. I’ll make sure Consort Jing is fine. Just leave. And do not think because I let you go that I trust you… I do not. No more than you have trusted me.”

Then, after a heartbeat.

“Don’t bother coming back.”

Nihuang is shocked. Mei Changsu was cold, calculating, and devious, and Lin Shu could be brusque but whether Lin Shu or Mei Changsu, he had always, always trusted her, without reserve or conditions.

Everything was all wrong.

 

But that Nihuang hadn’t messed up.

That Nihuang hadn’t had secrets she couldn’t share.

That Nihuang was worthy of Lin Shu’s trust.

Unlike me.

 

There are a million things that Nihuang wants to say as Lin Shu starts to turn away.

In the end, she fiercely whispers banal words that nonetheless said what she most urgently feels, “Be very, very careful, Lin Shu!”

Then, uselessly, when he is too far to hear, to herself. “You’re wrong. I have never stopped trusting you.”

Chapter Text

In retrospect, Nihuang decides there must be something about fate.

 

After escaping from the capital, she spends a harrowing and haunted several months on the run.

She is eaten from within by guilt and despair-

 

What have I done?

 

She said “Of course” to Lin Chen in her timeline without thought - she simply knew things could be better. Would be better. It had seemed so simple. Stop Meiling. Stop the one event and everything would change. She could save the world.

Now she knows better.

In her arrogance, thinking herself so clever, she killed Jingyan, damned her family to disgrace, to death, and sentenced untold others to death and ruin in the South. The South which she knew was now vulnerable and was even now inviting the type of invasion only her family had kept at bay.

 

I thought Liang was a disaster before… but, without Mei Changsu, without Jingyan, without Jiangzuo, without an influential Consort Jing, without the Mu Family, Liang will be worse than it was. We will die like flies.

And Father! In my time, Father died in battle as he wanted, died knowing I would take on his mantle.

Now he died knowing that we were ruined, that Mu Qing will never be the next Mu Marshal.

How could I have failed everyone who loves me so badly even knowing what I know?

 

Then sometimes, a little bitterly,

 

Little wonder Lin Shu doesn’t trust me.

I don’t trust me.

 

But, as if some greater fate moves her, in the pits of her darkest despair and grief and self-hatred, she runs into the unexpected: She finds Fei Liu.

He is being peddled as a street act.

Fei Liu is so much younger, skinnier and so badly beaten that Nihuang can barely recognize him, but his ferocity attracted her attention and something about his blank stare, so disconcerting in a 5-year- old, is utterly familiar.

“Half-starved wild-child who would fight anything (animal, or human) for a fee!” shouts the gleeful street circus master.

Fei Liu is in the middle of savagely tearing up an aggressive dog that was set on him amidst much laughter and cheering when Nihuang spots him.

 

Nihuang starts to cry at the sight.

She vividly remembers Fei Liu in her timeline, how much he loved Mei Changsu, how he liked stealing the cherry blossoms from the Mu gardens, how he nodded when she told Fei Liu that, in that final battle, she was entrusting him with Mei Changsu’s safety…and his holding her hand at her own deathbed.

Fei Liu’s ‘owner’ never stood a chance. Nihuang, in consideration of the need for secrecy paid him off anyway, throwing in a threat of going to the officials to check on the legitimacy of his business to warn him off doing anything like this in the future.

 

“Fei Liu,” she coaxes as Fei Liu shies away from her from within his cage.

“Fei Liu, it’s ok… Jiejie is here to take you away.”

 

Fei Liu nearly succeeds in biting Nihuang’s hand.

 

“Fei Liu,” Nihuang is tearful for the second time that day.

“Fei Liu, there’s just us now. Shu gege is not with us. Father is gone. Mu Qing is barely older than you are. And Jiejie no longer even has a home. But wouldn’t you come with Jiejie anyway? Jiejie promises she will do her best by you.”

 

It is hours before Fei Liu allows Nihuang to carry him away, but before he falls asleep on her shoulder, he manages to croak, “Jiejie.”

Nihuang tightens her hold on his terribly scarred and emaciated body and rocks him all night.

 

(Weeks later in Lang Ya Ge)

 

After tucking a better fed and medicated, although still feral and suspicious, Fei Liu into bed, Nihuang silently thanks the heavens for small blessings…and the reminder that she cannot afford to wallow and give up now.

Too much rests on her.

 

She owes too much to Changsu, to Father, to Jingyan.

She is responsible for Mu Qing losing his inheritance and family at the age of six, for Consort Jing losing her only child, and now, she is the only person caring for little, abused Fei Liu.

Not to mention safeguarding Prince Qi’s vision of Liang.

 

She rises and tiptoes out of the room.

As she crosses the garden, she catches sight of Lin Chen, drinking there.

She joins him.

 

“Ah! Ex-Princess! Is our wild-child asleep? Did I tell you that he ripped and ate one of my best tablecloths today? And then escaped one of my highest skilled bodyguards’ attempts to catch him? It took even me 15 minutes to pin him down… he is quite the genius–retard!”

He pours her a cup.

 

“Thank you, Lin Chen. I wouldn’t forget your generosity these last few months to Mu Qing, Fei Liu and myself.”

 

“Don’t worry, ex-Princess-lassie, I’ve never invested money in anyone at a loss yet… and you know why?” He leans in conspiratorially.

“That’s because I know how much people are worth by just their smell.”

 

He takes a dainty faux-sniff.

 

“And you, my dear,” he gives Nihuang a feral grin, “smell of grand plans and a very, very sizeable fortune.”

Nihuang snorts. “We’re barely better off than tramps right now.”

He winks, “Ah… but you are a tramp with connections.”

He pauses to tap his head, “and a fine mind… plus arcane knowledge.”

Then waves his fan smugly. “And, most of all, you are a tramp who’s playing for high stakes and are willing to do what it takes to win.”

 

He leans back for another sip of wine. “Tramps like you are the type I bet good money on.”

 

It will be years before Nihuang appreciates just how good a psychologist Lin Chen is under his wacky façade, and how shrewd a businessman.

Chapter Text

In the end it was, as Lin Chen predicted, about the money.

There always was illicit trade between Chu and Liang even when the two countries were at war.   Spices, embroidery, preserved fruits and exotic woods from the Southern Isles via Chu’s bustling ports were sold and bartered in exchange for skins, precious stones, horses, perfumes and woolen carpets that flowed into Liang via the Silk Road.

Add to that Liang’s mighty pottery industry and Chu’s endless rice paddies.

Together this created an incredibly lucrative black market for goods crossing the hostile border.

Nihuang had always thought what a waste it was that they spent so much energy preventing the exact exchange that would breathe wealth into both countries over (ultimately) petty border disputes.

Nihuang recreates her vision of “Jiangzuo” as an underground, Chu-Liang, trade-based sect.

 

In the end, it was about information and relationships.

Jiangzuo has several advantages.

Through Nihuang’s agreement with Lin Chen she had access to Lang Ya Ge’s network of information on troop movements, commodity prices and overall political environment.

She personally has immense respect from the people in the region given the Mu family’s many generations of good stewardship. No one local to Yunnan would give away information on Jiangzuo’s ‘illicit’ activities to the authorities.

Plus Nihuang has the Mu family maps that show multiple secret military resupply routes along and through the border. Jiangzuo moves with alacrity across the border.

Finally, and possibly most critically, a few years into the enterprise, Nihuang writes to Shen Zhui, well remembering how shrewd a Treasury minister he made. She recruits him to their cause using what she remembers as his disgust at the rotten Liang court and her offer for him to run the commercial section of Jiangzuo as her deputy and serve the people of Yunnan with her.

Jiangzuo rises to become Liang’s wealthiest sect in less than 5 years.

 

It was about the reputation and the people.

Nihuang (with help from Shen Zhui) sees to it that Jiangzuo develops and maintains a reputation for being fair, generous with their employees, allies and trade partners, and of being direct contributors to the welfare of the common people in the region on both sides of the border.

Up-and-coming, talented warriors and even minor political figures that Liang neglects or Chu rejects, as well as ambitious tradesmen all flocked to the Jiangzuo’s banner. They come for the chance to learn, the chance to do good, or simply the opportunity to be well paid for a job well done without the need to be connected politically.

This means Jiangzuo continues to grow in martial arts power, as well as commercial know-how and creativity.

Shen Zhui’s personal contribution was to actively headhunt rigorous and corruption-free accountants and logisticians. Jiangzuo’s robust internal system of logistics and transparent accounting process, means Jiangzuo, as it grows in scale, doesn’t struggle with coordination, but manages to grow in efficiency with scale. In fact, businesses that do not even do anything with trade start to come to Jiangzuo as a partner to outsource their transport or full supply chain needs, as it becomes evident that not only does Jiangzuo have the ability to protect or move their assets long distance, they can more cheaply track and manage large amount of products than businesses can themselves.

By the time the sect is in their 7th year, they have expanded their operations to Northern Yan, the Eastern port-states, and even further South to have outposts on the islands of the South Sea.

Their coffers, which Shen Zhui continues to report with pride to Nihuang although it is not well known outside of Jiangzuo, rival Liang’s and Chu’s imperial treasuries.

 

It was about political savvy on both sides of the border.

Nihuang makes no secret of Jiangzuo being willing to trade with any and all who come with a fair deal.

In this Chu has long been cannier than Liang. Chu has long tolerated, even encouraged what Liang called ‘illicit trade’ along their border, and saw in Jiangzuo an opportunity to thumb their nose at Liang.

While maintaining a strictly neutral political stance (Jiangzuo turns down lucrative offers by Chu to be a mercenary force for them), still Jiangzuo grows to be so respected by the Chu court for their economic drive that their Crown prince often consults Nihuang on trade policy.

Xia Jiang and the Hua tribe network keep a close tab of this development but consider this ‘piracy’, furthering their goals of driving chaos in the Liang system. As a result, they, as Nihuang hoped, they did not make overt attempts to sabotage Jiangzuo.

 

So it is, seven years after Nihuang flees the Liang capital with nothing to her name, she makes it to 6th on the Lang Ya list of influential people- the first woman ever on the list.

Nihuang laughs when Mu Qing excitedly congratulates her on this.

“Mu Qing, before I’m done, I will be 1st on that list, and the Emperor himself will have nightmares about me.”

“I am already starting to make obvious overtures to Chu’s leadership for collaboration. The Emperor will start to see in Jiangzuo an enemy.”

Nihuang’s voice is resolute.

“Since our Emperor must fear someone, must plot against someone, he may fear us! Only in this way can we shift his paranoid machinations away from Prince Qi. He must come to see Prince Qi as his protection against South Chu, and me as his counterbalance to maintain his own control. Otherwise there will always been the risk the Huas can use his paranoia to eliminate Prince Qi.”

 

Mu Qing considers this and, to Nihuang’s approval, comes to an excellent conclusion.

“Not to mention the Hua will be delighted at this impression of impending chaos and instability- if anything they might choose to support us.”

 

Nihuang nods, “I intend to lure them out with offers of support to conquer Liang.”

With conviction, “Then, we will destroy the Huas.”

Chapter Text

“Xiao Shu!”

 

Lin Shu is in the backcourt today having been specially summoned by Great-Granny.

Her mental health has much deteriorated over the last few years and everyone knows, but dares not say, that this was catalyzed by the tragic “Jingyan business”.

It has been a decade since Jingyan died.

 A decade since Great-Granny, even in her grief, refused to stand by and watch the death sentence on Mu Qing and Mu Nihuang. She knew. She believed.   Whatever the crimes Marshal Mu may or may not have committed, Mu Nihuang and Mu Qing were innocent.

 Great-Granny had gone, walking barefoot the whole way, to the morning court the day she found out about the death warrants. She had slowly lowered herself onto her knees in full view of the court and begged for the Mu scions’ lives.

 Of course the Emperor and the entire court were forced to hastily go on their knees and put their foreheads to the ground before Great-Granny. And at that point, there was nearly nothing the Emperor could do except grit his teeth and rescind the death warrants.

 Out of spite, the Emperor never did send out a full pardon either so that Mu Qing and Nihuang were still stripped of their titles and officially exiled, but Great-Granny had wept in relief that they were not to be hunted.

 

Afterward, the shock of losing Jingyan, Nihuang and Mu Qing all in one tragic day was too much for Great granny and she slowly, but clearly, slipped into a sort of protective dementia. She slipped backward in time, and stayed mentally in the period between the Meiling feast and Jingyan’s death. She would instruct male guards of the right age to marry soon so as not to worry Consort Jing, and hold tenderly onto the hands of rosy-cheeked serving girls, asking them how the re-fitting of her wedding dress was going.

She was still as healthy as one could hope for someone past 90, but the last decade has taken its toll and Lin Shu tries, when he can, to go into the palace to keep her company and talk about neutral topics.

 

Lin Shu has done well himself although he too has been changed by Jingyan’s death. He was Liang’s youngest general at 15, exuberant, energetic, brilliant but also boisterous.

Now, at 30 he is Liang’s most famous general but also somber and nearly scholarly in his inclinations as the years have seen him continue to pursue Taoist philosophy under the venerable Master Zhou, alongside his war strategy studies. In battle, although he is one of the foremost bowmen amongst the nobles, his demonstrated strength lay in his strategic mind.

His most celebrated victories involved little to no casualties on both sides, as he used subterfuge and psychology, playing on the desires and fears of his foes to win the day. He is renowned for his revulsion of tactics that relied on civilian casualties, earning him the title of the “compassionate general”. His troops, and the people of the capital, loved him for it.

 

Each time he returned from battle, the streets of Jingling are lined with people who have come out in force to welcome him.

Niefeng once boasted, quite accurately, to Jingrui and Yujin that there are more beautiful, young women who jostle, throw gifts, send letters and shout for Lin Shu’s attention in the streets on those days than there are beauties in the Imperial harem competing for the Emperor’s notice.  Jingrui quietly reproved the older Niefeng that nothing related to the Emperor was up for joking, earning an eye-roll from Niefeng at the younger man’s overly serious tendencies.  Jingrui then frowned as Yujin cheekily asked Lin Shu if he could join in Lin Shu’s return march one day to wave back at all those hopeful ladies that Lin Shu politely, quietly ignores.  This caused Yujin to grumble to Niefeng that Jingrui might aspire to be a Taoist monk, but when Yujin himself is older, he planned to be a flirt.  This earned him laughter from everyone and a look of deep chagrin from Jingrui.

 

“Xiao Shu… come over here.” Great-Granny pats the cushion next to her. “My goodness! How tall you have grown! I do believe you’re now already taller than Jingyan.”

Lin Shu steels himself to smile and sit and hold Great-Granny’s hand.

 

“And how are you, Granny? Is your hip doing better?”

Great granny waves his question aside “Ha! My hip- how good can an 80-year-old hip be? Never mind my hip! How are you doing?”

Then she lights up in a smile, “How go the wedding preparations? Oh yes… I must show you something! This is the whole reason for having you come here today!”

She signals to her head serving lady, who brings forth a silk-draped tray.

 

Granny leans toward Lin Shu and whispers conspiratorially.

“You mustn’t tell your mother that you’ve seen this, but the royal jeweler was here asking if I wanted anything made, and I thought: Lin Shu may be my ‘external’ great-grandson, but my great-grandson anyway so I’m going to go with the traditions of my hometown and be the person on the groom’s side who sponsors the ‘five-articles of gold’ that every groom’s family must present the bride. So I specially had him make this.”

She pulls the red silk off the tray and on it, sparkling and glittering, was a set of slightly-old-fashioned, but beautifully and lovingly-made gold jewelry.   There was an elaborate hairpin, an intricate necklace, with matching bracelets and earrings, and the last, an oddly empty gold setting for a jade piece.

The artwork was immaculate. Clearly the royal jeweler had worked day and night to make Great-Granny’s rushed order.

 

Lin Shu stares at this and, lost in reverie, misses what Great-Granny was saying.

“… and I told him it has to be done before summer! What good is a wedding gift that comes after the wedding?”

 

Lin Shu goes slowly onto his knees, head bowed so that granny cannot see his face.

“Great-Granny. I thank you… Nihuang would love this. She will know how much you love her and me that you did this for us!”

 

Great-Granny laughs and pulls Lin Shu to have him sit back down.

“Wait, I haven’t told you the best part yet!”

She picks up the empty setting.

“This is my special idea. Instead of anklets, and you and I both know, Nihuang would lose them in a day the way she runs around, I had him make this.”

She hands it over to Lin Shu.

“It’s sized to exactly fit your blood-jade pendant. The one I gave your mother when you were born. The one you always wear around? I know you Lin men. Not a single romantic bone in your body, sometimes I wonder how my little Jingyang puts up with Lin Xie! You do realize that you need to give her something to represent your eternal love and protection right?”

Great-Granny gives Lin Shu a gentle smile that causes his years of carefully constructed armor to crack just a little.

She adds “I think this would make a perfectly romantic gift.”

 

In Lin Shu’s mind, buried memories of Nihuang swirl, seeping in-between the cracks.

Romantic.

 

Until the very end, theirs wasn’t much of a romance. They have known since they were children that they were meant for each other. It was a cornerstone of their lives, the reason why Nihuang could go anywhere Lin Shu was.

Little Nihuang wanted to go everywhere with her Lin Shu Gege, take the same classes, do the same training, even if it took her twice as long, being younger, she never held back. Somehow, in the years of being together, he had assumed that she…well…loved him in some way. Romantic or not.

In retrospect, he could see that he took her for granted. Not in a flagrant way, but in the same way children take parents for granted, Lin Shu knew that Mu Nihuang was on his side and would always be.

They had played together, read together, impressed their teachers together, fought together, defied their elders to climb trees together, stole fruit together, got into trouble together, then cajoled, lied, and sweet-talked their way out of trouble again together.

Even after Meiling, when their relationship grew into an exhilarating romance, he hadn’t had to do anything for her, or give up anything. At 19, he knew without a doubt that Nihuang was his simply because that was the way the world worked.

 

Then Jingyan died, Nihuang vanished, and he was left with unanswered questions that hurt and tasted of funeral ashes.

At first, he held onto his hard, grim suspicions and wished only to reject the Mus out of loyalty and love for Jingyan. He harshly refused to think about Nihuang and what she must be going through.

Over the years, as he learned more about the court and saw more of the Emperor’s paranoia, he came to question all that. Marshal Mu’s guilt remains unclear. Even today, no one dares broach the matter to the Emperor, much less demand his evidence for his sentence.

Many times in the last few years he wondered how much of his early fury was truly righteous and how much grief over Jingyan plus personal hurt that she had ‘betrayed’ them, or at least kept him in the dark, when he had shared everything with her.

He longed to reach out to Nihuang, to ask her how she was, to ask her what had really happened. But each time he got fresh news of her successes leading Jiangzuo, he was reminded that she was better off far from the court and the Emperor’s reach.   Great-Granny had saved her once from being hunted down by the Emperor, but the Emperor’s paranoia was an unpredictable thing. Far better that she never comes into contact with anyone at court, that he never gives the Emperor reason to remember that the Mus ever existed much less are in touch with the Lins.

And she had never made any attempt to reach him. Over time, Lin Shu began to believe that that was for the best for everyone.

 

“Xiao Shu? Am…am I to late? Is the wedding already over? I…I know it was meant to be near my birthday, and my birthday is in the summer…but it’s so cold today… is it already autumn?”

 

Lin Shu realized that his silence had gone on for too many seconds and Great-Granny was looking at him with confused concern. He hurries to reassure her, taking the setting from her.

“Oh no, of course not! Great-Granny… the timing is perfect! Remember, the wedding is next summer - so there is plenty of time!”

He stops to look at the small, filigree metal, cold in his hand and forces a smile. “This is so beautiful!”  He fumbles for his jade pendant. He has held this uncounted times but somehow, his fingers, usually so assured and deft with a brush or a bow, are shaking and clumsy.  He finally gets the jade into the setting and holds it up for Great-Granny to admire.

“You should keep the rest of the jewellery to give to Nihuang at the wedding, Great-Granny, but this one I’ll keep. I’ll give it to her. And I’ll tell her that this comes with love and protection”

Softly, after another pause “Yours and mine.”

 

Great-Granny’s eyes light up, and she clasps Lin Shu’s hand.

“Make sure you don’t forget, Xiao Shu”

Chapter Text

Coincidentally, the same week, on a beautifully, crisp autumn day, Grand Princess Jinyang summons Lin Shu to her inner rooms to discuss the matter of his marriage.

 

“Mother.”

 

Grand-Princess Jinyang is no-nonsense and direct.

“I know Jingyan and Uncle Mu’s deaths were great blows to you. Yet, over the last 10 years, you have channeled all your passion to your work, and done extraordinary things. I don’t think it’s a secret that you have made us proud and brought great honor to our ancestors.”

Before Lin Shu can respond she continues.

“However, there is one matter that my heart still cannot rest easily on and you know what I’m talking about.”

 

Lin Shu pointedly does not sigh. “You are referring to the matter of my marriage.”

 

“Xiao Shu, I simply cannot understand it. You have been spending time with several ladies of varied high houses, and any of them would make an excellent wife, or if you so choose, several wives, yet each time I broach the subject of formally proposing a marriage arrangement you drag your feet. And spare me your protestations of innocence, I have made enquiries and know how you spend your time and with whom. Don’t patronize me just because I am your mother.”

 

Lin Shu is silent and expressionless.

 

Grand Princess Jinyang sighs, “My stubborn only child.”

 

At Lin Shu’s continued obstinate silence Grand Princess Jinyang’s voice lowers her voice and gently starts, “I know you and Nihuang were very close…”

 

Lin Shu is startled into interrupting “Mother.”

He takes a breath. “Mother, I’m not patronizing you. Never that.”

 

Grand Princess Jinyang holds her pose of dignified, pointed silence.

 

Lin Shu loses the mute battle and speaks.

“Tell me Mother, do you think Uncle Mu really plotted to kill Jingyan?”

Grand Princess Jinyang starts at the seemingly irrelevant turn in topics.

“Do you really think he decided, after all those generations of Mu loyalty to the throne defending Liang’s border to collaborate with the Chus for personal gain and murder a Prince of Liang just to make a point about trade negotiations?”

 

It is Grand Princess Jinyang’s turn to be silent and expressionless. It is treason to talk of such things and she knows, better than most, the extent of her brother’s insane need for control and refusal to accept even the slightest hint of criticism.

Lin Shu continues ruthlessly, “Is it possible that my dear Uncle Emperor wanted to believe that Uncle Mu did all that because that was the only way he could prevent the Mu-Lin alliance that would come from my marrying Nihuang?”

“Is it possible that my Uncle didn’t want Cousin Qi to be, in addition to a popular and powerful Crown Prince, to also be aligned with the largest combined army the Central Kingdoms have ever seen?”

 

Grand Princess Jinyang breaks out into a harsh whisper. “Enough! I forbid you from talking about your Uncle in this way!”

Grand Princess Jinyang is pale with fury and fear. She knows that her brother’s spies are everywhere. They are likely safe in her room, but there are no guarantees and she will not risk Lin Shu’s life.

 

Lin Shu smiles humorlessly.

“Alright, then let us speak of my marriage.”

“Right now I, and the army I represent, am ‘uncommitted’- we have cut back dramatically on overt interactions with Prince Qi, and when we do contact him it is very quietly, very carefully done. Not only that, I am courting today two ladies of high houses as you mentioned, who are aligned with Prince Yu and Prince Xian respectively. So long as it looks like I’m on the verge of marrying into one of those alliances, the hungry princes hesitate to plot outright against us.”

“More importantly, this raises doubt about the Lins’ commitment to Prince Qi and hence diminishes his perceived position. Making him less of a threat, less of a target.”

 

Grand Princess Jinyang has long unconsciously understood all this, but she has refused to believe that her only child has become so cynical as to turn his romantic attachments into political maneuvers. It pains her that in spite of all their wealth and influence, Marshal Lin and her have not been able to give Lin Shu leave to do something so simple as fall in love and marry for love.

“Xiao Shu, stop this. You don’t understand. You do not have to do this. We are not so desperate that you need to make your courtship stakes for political gain and...”

 

“You are wrong,” Lin Shu’s voice is angry, “I do understand!”

“And if only I understood all this years ago. I could have saved Jingyan! Uncle Mu would still be Marshal, Nihuang…” Lin Shu forces his fists to unclench.

 

In a flat tone he continues, “No. Instead I flaunted the Lin-Mu alliance. In my idiotic exuberance I rubbed the fact of our power, our influence, our victories and our immense potential into the faces of everyone. I noticed and ignored the pointedly expressionless faces on the high Princes’ faces when Great-Granny bestowed us largesse at the Meiling feast, I made fun of the boys of noble birth who taunted Nihuang in the practice yard… I practically painted a target on the Mus and dared everyone to do something about it.”

Lin Shu is staring into the air in front of him. “And Jingyan and Uncle Mu paid the ultimate price for my folly.”

“No, Mother, I think I now understand much too well, and I cannot let Prince Qi or our family follow suit. One day I, Prince Qi, father, all of us will be able to change the rotten state of politics here, but until then I will not rest in my vigilance. If Jingyan is watching us from somewhere beyond, I will not disappoint him again.”

 

Grand Princess Jinyang closes her eyes in pained regret. She knows her son, knows that he is relentless in his notions of justice and ferocious in his protectiveness of those he loves.

 

After a very long pause, in which she forces herself to accept things she cannot change, she opens her eyes, gives Lin Shu a wry look and archly says “So… you’re telling me all those evasions have nothing to do with Nihuang?”

Lin Shu’s expression and stance doesn’t give away anything. “Of course it does. Nihuang was a victim, as everyone in the Mu family was.”

 

The Grand Princess privately sighs at her son’s stiff upper lip, but she well knows when discretion is the better part of valor.

Chapter Text

“Who is this visionary Mei Changsu?” Lin Shu asks.

 

“That,” Lin Xie sighs, “is the question.”

 

Lin Xie turns to watch Lin Shu’s reaction to this revelation.

It has been 16 years since Lin Shu was made General at the age of 15, and he has dramatically proven his worth in battle after battle both as a fighter and a strategist. He has just been made Marshal himself- not only making him the youngest Marshal in Liang, but the Lin family is also the only family to have two actively serving Marshals.

Prince Qi has secretly told Lin Xie that, come his time to ascend to the throne, he considers Lin Shu his foremost candidate to be his Prime Minister, second in power only to Prince Qi himself. Lin Xie and Prince Qi decided together that it was time to bring Lin Shu into their confidence regarding the continued, sporadic missives from their mysterious benefactor.

 

“But… why… how…” Lin Shu pauses and collects his thoughts then proceeds to analyze the situation.

“I can see why you are concerned. My first concern is his motivation. If we dance to his tune, where are we headed?”

“The second concern is how he is getting this information- he must be an ‘insider’… it is possible he is even now a member of the imperial family. And must have been for a long time. How else would he know about Jingrui’s birth story, or the case of the corpses in the well, or the gun-powder production?”

 

He turns to his father “Has he asked for anything in return? Do you suspect him of having political ambitions? Is he using us to attack his political enemies? Is he a vigilante? Or do you sense he has more sinister reasons to take a decade in gaining our trust?”

 

Lin Xie shakes his head “The bottom-line is that we just don’t know. Our first assumption was that he had political ambitions- but he has refused our offers of political support for his person, or when we offered him opportunities to meet Prince Qi. We even hinted at a high position for him within court if he would meet us, all to no avail.”

 

Lin Shu is thoughtful. “He’s hiding something. Something about his identity is so damning he cannot come out in the open, or even reveal who he is to us.”

 

Lin Xie continues, “Our only way to contact him is through Lang Ya Ge, but Lang Ya Ge has been immovably silent on questions regarding Mei Changsu, and no one we have ever discretely enquired with has ever heard of Mei Changsu. We are almost certain the name is a false one.”

 

“Spies?” Lin Shu suggests the obvious first.

 

“Lang ya ge is a large but incredibly loyal organization… we have been able to plant spies in the lower levels, but the leadership there is made of people either fanatic to their cause or perhaps simply so well-paid, nothing we offer has met success. Again no one we have spoken to has heard of Mei Changsu.”

“We have however, one weak but consistent clue...”

 

Lin Shu arches an eyebrow at his father’s uncharacteristic roundabout manner.

 

“Nihuang and her Jiangzuo are very well-known and Prince Qi, unlike the Emperor, is very interested in the type of power and influence Jiangzuo is starting to have. We keep a rough tabs on Nihuang’s location albeit very secretly. We noticed that Nihuang makes discrete visits to Lang Ya Ge a few times a year… and all of them that we know of roughly fall within 2 weeks of us getting a missive from Mei Changsu.”

 

Lin Shu draws a sharp breathe. “So… it is possible this is related to Jiangzuo in some way.”

He leaps to the next conclusion “And you’re wondering if it is mere coincidence that his first note turned just weeks before Jingyan died. An event that also had something to do with the Mus.”

“Plus, why would he, if he has the depth of information he does, focus us on Jingrui rather than Jingyan in his first note? Is it a decoy? Is it that he has this critical blind-spot? Or is he allied with whoever wanted to destroy Jingyan? The working hypothesis is still that it was Southern Chu although we continue not to be able to prove that.”

Lin Shu ends heavily, “and then Nihuang has built a wildly successful sect with overt Chu connections.”

 

Lin Xie nods in satisfaction at Lin Shu’s acumen “Yes. The connection to Nihuang is circumstantial but seems stronger than mere coincidence.”

 

“And,” Lin Shu puts together the dots, “… you want me to contact her.”

 

“Prince Qi and I have spoken about this. It’s… I still don’t understand what happened 12 years ago when Jingyan died. But we need to know more about Mei Changsu to see if we can continue to follow his instructions if we suspect that he’s somehow involved in Nihuang and has nefarious long-term goals.”

Lin Xie give a frustrated sign “Damn it! I don’t want to have to spare you on such a task… but his suggestions all make sense and his input seem to be honest but how can we be sure that this has all been a scheme to build trust and then crush us? We cannot tolerate the fact that we don’t know why or even how he is doing what he’s doing!”

 

Lin Shu agrees grimly

“Father, I agree. Something is not adding up here. I don’t know what it is but something is terribly suspicious, and it all seems to lead back to Nihuang and Mei Changsu. If there is a link between them, we must explore it. I will set off tomorrow for Lang Ya Ge to try to make contact.”

 

Afterward, as Li Gang pours Lin Shu and Lin Xie tea, he notices Lin Shu absently fingering his blood-jade pendant and the filigree encasing around it.

Chapter Text

One of the joys of trading, is that Nihuang gets good access to writings from far-off lands; Foreign travelers’ journal entries from the islands deep in the Southern Sea, Buddhist scripture written in Sanskrit from the Southwestern Indian continent, fiction in Arabic from the deserts of the far Northwest.

Jiangzuo trading units know that Nihuang has an appetite to read and often make hand-copies of books they come across in translation for her. 

Today Nihuang is reading Persian poetry in translation when Mu Qing comes running in- a 19-year-old now, forced by circumstances to be more mature than in her first timeline, although just as mischievous.

 

He looks angry and nearly spits as he says “Jiejie, Lin Shu wants to meet you.”

“He is in Lang Ya Ge and Lin Chen has sent word that Lin Shu plans to wait for you there.”

 

To say Nihuang is surprised is an understatement.

In all her years away, Lin Shu had never made any attempt to contact her.

In the first few years Nihuang was afraid that this was because Lin Shu blamed her still, and she longed to contact him. She wanted to explain, to apologize, to warn him to be careful, and sometimes just to talk to him, to bask in his sharp mind and boundless energy. She used to wish she could introduce him to Fei Liu, and laugh with him at Lin Chen’s antics, share with him her worries about Mu Qing.

But she knew that with the disgrace of the Mus, the Lins were in dubious standing with the Emperor, and doubtlessly the Huas kept Lin Shu under close scrutiny. Her missives to Prince Qi via Lin Chen as Mei Changsu were necessary, but already put them all at too much risk.

Over the years, she accepted the silence. News of Lin Shu’s success and his continuing to fulfill his potential reassured her that all was well on his end.

She reminds herself that what he thought of her, if he thought of her, wasn’t that important.

 

Mu Qing, knowing only that his beloved sister was once betrothed to Lin Shu, is indignant.

“He certainly is a shameless one. All these years he has never even bothered to send a message, and NOW he expects you to go and meet him at his say so?”

 

Nihuang smiles at Mu Qing’s protectiveness “To be fair Qing-er, Jiejie hasn’t contacted him either.”

 

“But Jiejie, you’ve been trying to survive! You’re the one who’s been out here working your way from nothing, sustaining injury and taking risks… while he’s a princeling in Jinling where girls line the streets when he returns from battle throwing flowers at the ‘brightest star in the capital’.”

“Even if were not once his betrothed, you grew up together… you’d think he could bother to ask how you were doing once in a decade!”

To Mu Qing, Nihuang is not just his entire family, she is his heroine. And he knows of the long nights when Nihuang would gaze and finger the cloak that Lin Shu left her when they parted ways. He realizes a little of what that means.

“Mu Qing, we are fugitives, he’s a soldier. He’s not in a position to be our friend.”

 

But Mu Qing is determined to say what he thinks about this ‘Lin Shu Gege’ who, in his view, flagrantly broke his beloved sister’s heart.

“Jie, don’t go see him. Send the bastard a message to say he has women aplenty in the capital, and tell him to crawl back to wherever it is he came from!”

 

For a moment Nihuang can’t decide if she should laugh, or give Mu Qing a dressing down about his language, but settles on ruffling his hair to the annoyance of the self-consciously-of-age Mu Qing.

With the Mus’ fall from grace, and Lin Shu’s rising importance, Lin Shu is the most eligible man in the capital. News about marriage offers to the Lins, rumors of marriage negotiations or affairs, and jokes about humorously blatant attempts by powerful houses to set up their daughters with the Lin family scion are staples of Capital gossip. Nihuang can hardly be unaware.

Nihuang also realizes that her feelings of hurt and possessiveness are misplaced. 12 years is a long time considering Lin Shu was only 19 when they parted ways with terrible mistrust on his end.

 

“Jiejie knows what to do- I’ll go meet him, but just to set the record straight and send him on his way, ok?”

 

After Mu Qing leaves, Nihuang reflects on the many incarnations of Lin Shu, of her, and of them. Words from the Persian poet she was reading echo in her mind.

“If you find me not within you, you will never find me. For I have been with you, from the beginning of me.”(1)

 

(1) Jalāl ad-Dīn Muhammad Rūmī, a Persian poet, Islamic scholar, Sufi mystic of the 1200’s.

Chapter Text

“So you are Mei Changsu?”

 

Lin Shu has been in Lang Ya Ge a week now, and thoroughly enjoys walking around the grounds.

Lang Ya Mountain lives up to it’s name as a heaven on earth, and this holds for both the natural scenery all along the way to Lang Ya Ge, but also for the gardens that are within the grounds of Lang Ya Ge.

In the garden that adjoins his guest room, exquisite bonsai plants and small artificial waterways artfully placed amongst the rockery mimic the real life mountains, pines and waterfalls beyond, give a surreal impression of one looking upon a mountain-within-mountain from a great height in the sky.

In fine calligraphy carved into one of those miniature stone mountains, Lin Shu recognizes the words from Hanshan’s Encounter with Cold Mountain.

I’m on the trail to Cold Mountain.

Cold Mountain Trail never ends.

Long clefts thick with rock and stones,

Wide streams buried in dense grass.

Slippery moss, but there’s been no rain,

Pine trees sigh, but there’s no wind.

Who can leap the world’s net,

Sit here in the white clouds with me?(2)

Lin Shu is impressed. As Master Zhao’s protégé, he recognizes a masterful artistic rendition of a Taoist concept when he sees one.

 

A servant gently coughs to get his attention and then bows low in apology to interrupt him, but informs him that “Young Master” wishes to meet General Lin Shu.

Lin Shu has not yet met anyone except the messengers and servants since arriving and this piques his interest.

The servant leads him through a winding path past more beautiful gardens, and he arrives at a bamboo courtyard where a man sits drinking, while two teenage boys play by his side. He can tell from their movements that all three are highly skilled in the martial arts, particularly the man.

 

The smaller boy sits there, seemingly entirely engrossed in staring at the sprigs of cherry tree branches in his hand. But it is the older boy, young man really, who catches Lin Shu’s attention. He is the spitting image of General Mu, and Lin Shu can only conclude that this is Mu Qing.

 

However, it is the elegant if desultory-postured man dressed all in white that Lin Shu addresses provocatively when he speaks.

“So you are Mei Changsu.”

 

Lin Chen and Mu Qing laugh at that and even Fei Liu looks up curiously at Lin Shu.

Ignoring his words, Mu Qing walks over to Lin Shu, blatantly looking him up and down.

“Hmm…. Well, I guess you ARE a good-looking one!” He finally says grudgingly, making Lin Shu smile at the presumptuous statement from the teenager.

 

Lin Chen adds “Not only is our Little-Marshal Lin dashing, he is also exceedingly witty. ‘So you are Mei Changsu.’ he says….brilliant!”

Mu Qing laughs at that since “Little Marshal” is quite accurate (he is the younger of the two Marshals in the Lin family) yet “Xiao Hou Ye” is a homonym for “little monkey lord.”

Fei Liu simply says, “Shu Gege.”

 

The edges of Lin Shu’s mouth curl…there is a charm to all this madcap conversation that is somehow endearing.

 

Before Lin Shu can speak, Mu Qing turns to Lin Chen and grumbles, “But Jiejie could do better!”

“Now THAT is the truth. Why, the male songstress I introduced to her the other day, he was a real work of art! But she keeps smiling and waving away all those juicy offerings… ”

 

Fei Liu starts to smile at the mention of Nihuang and repeats “Jiejie” to Mu Qing. He then gathers all his sprigs of cherry blossoms and takes off onto the roof, intent on making the sprigs of flowers a gift.

Mu Qing gives Lin Shu one more disdainful look before turning away and taking off in pursuit of Fei Liu, leaving Lin Shu and Lin Chen alone.

 

Lin Shu arches an eyebrow. He knows the man he is speaking to is Lin Chen, the mysterious but influential young master of Lang Ya Ge.

He had hoped to provoke a response with his statement about Lin Chen being Mei Changsu (it is one of the theories he is testing) but he wasn’t expecting this. Lin Chen’s words implied a level of familiarity with Nihuang that he hadn’t known of, which was… interesting.

 

“Mei Changsu… “ Lin Shu begins.

 

Lin Chen pours himself another drink “I am not Mei Changsu, Little-Marshal.”

Then he grins and lowers his voice, as if telling Lin Shu a secret, “The truth is: You are!”

 

Lin Shu smiles benignly, “I’m afraid riddles are not my forte, you must save your ‘truths’ for others. Although, I would dearly like to know who Mei Changsu is.”

 

Lin Chen considers what Lin Shu says with a somber expression. Lin Shu cannot decide if Lin Chen is being serious or mocking when he responds, “The truth indeed needs saving. But not by me.”

Then, “Tell you what, Little Marshal, I genuinely admire your reputation as ‘The Compassionate General’. How Zen and clever of you to win so many battles without the loss of a single life - all that strategic brilliance! So, I’ll offer you a useful tip for free!”

 

Lin Shu laughs and then, in a decision made on instinct, he responds “I am also a great admirer of your reputation, Master Lin Chen - brilliant if enigmatic young master of Lang Ya Ge. Your truths are worth their weight in gold, and I wouldn’t cheapen them by offering you nothing in return.”

 

He fishes out a small, engraved wooden block with his stamp engraved on it.

“Unfortunately I have nothing much of value on me, but this is my personal symbol of authority. Of the generals under me, only Niefeng and Li Gang have one of these for uses in an emergency. Its’ worth is that one can command any one of my troops in my name simply by showing this to the commander on duty.”

He offers it to Lin Chen.

 

Lin Chen looks at Lin Shu and for the first time thinks that, in another timeline, he would have been happy to be his friend. He shakes his head; he has another friend he is looking out for here.

In a rare expression of solemnity, he accepts the pendant, and then says

“You are asking the wrong question - it is not Mei Changsu that you need to find.”

 

Lin Chen follows up by saying another few sentences to him very quietly before he strides off, fanning himself and shouting.

“Fei Liu! Fei Liu, you little ungrateful minx! Where are you?”

 

Lin Shu is left bewildered but thoughtful. Over the years, he has learnt to trust his instincts about people.

There is method behind his seeming madness, and I believe him when he says he is not Mei Changsu. But who could be? Why is everything linked to Nihuang? What happened 12 years ago?

Perhaps, he reflects, we are asking the wrong question. Perhaps we should instead begin by asking “Who is Mu Nihuang?”

 

It is Lin Chen’s final words, however, that follow him the rest of his time at Lang Ya Ge.

“Believe in Nihuang. Because she believes in you.”

 

(2) 8th to 9th Century Taoist poet, and this translation of his work is sourced from this site: http://www.poetryintranslation.com/PITBR/Chinese/HanShan.htm

Chapter Text

For all her bravado in front of Mu Qing, as she nears the room where Lin Shu waits, Nihuang’s breathing quickens and she starts to rub her right thumb against her second finger in an unconscious nervous habit she picked up from Lin Shu long ago.

She is separated from him by just a few feet and watches him through a crack in the door.

This is a Lin Shu she has never seen before… gone was the vibrant, confident, bursting-with-energy but gangly youth and in his place, a tall, commanding man with a body that spoke of long hours in the training yards, stance that spoke of utter relaxed confidence, eyes that glowed with intense intelligence and yet a cynical twist to his mouth that said he was no innocent. This Lin Shu is a combination of the old Lin Shu with a flavor of Mei Changsu, without the broken body or tortured eyes.

This takes Nihuang’s breath away.

 

If only Jingyan could be here to see this.

 

The memory of Jingyan hardens her resolve.

We have not tackled the Hua issue and any link between me and the Lins or Prince Qi, any hint that we support him now or in the future will make them seem more powerful, and increase the danger for them all.

She steps inside.

 

****

 

Lin Shu experiences his first in a series of shocks as he watches Nihuang walk in. She has a livid, white scar running down the side of her sun-and-wind seasoned face.

He had heard that early in Jiangzuo’s founding, Nihuang had had many a battle to assert Jiangzuo’s position, and that she had sustained serious injuries in that process. But in his mind, Nihuang is immortal. She had been a16-year-old spitfire, but also a beloved and sheltered Princess. He was not prepared to see physical proof of this new reality: A 30-year-old woman who has had to fight her way to success on the strength of her arm and her wits for the last decade.

Gone is the girlish Nihuang, and in her place, is a woman who moves like the deadly fighter she is, with scars to show for it, broken in some ways but unbowed.

In a moment of self-reproach, Lin Shu's fists clench at the memory of himself promising to love and to hold her. There was more than a little irony in Marshal Lin Shu- genius general, defender of Liang- failing miserably in defending the one woman he had promised to.

 

“Princess…” Lin Shu bows deeply.

 

Nihuang interrupts rudely, “I’m no princess. Tell me what you want.”

Lin Shu's shock at Nihuang's appearance, and his formal tone do not go unnoticed by Nihuang. She is surprised by a pang of self-consciousness and hurt, and she nearly smiles at her own vanity.

What were you expecting instead? That Lin Shu would somehow, suddenly be here to fall at your feet after all these years? 

 

To his credit, Lin Shu doesn’t react to her rudeness; instead, he simply and directly asks to meet Mei Changsu.

 

Nihuang feigns belligerent ignorance, “I don’t know what you’re talking about but Prince Qi certainly has chutzpah. All of you. All of you who stood by while my father was falsely accused and my family punished for a crime we didn’t commit. And now they send you to ask me for help in some absurd wild-goose chase?”

She laughs.

“Did they pick you because they thought I would be overwhelmed by the honor of doing something for the genius Marshal Lin Shu? Or did they simply expect me to swoon, like all the other girls in the capital, and throw myself at your feet the moment you walked in?”

 

She walks slowly up to Lin Shu. “Look at me Lin Shu ‘Gege’.”

Nihuang manages to make the “Gege” sound ironic, but Lin Shu shows how much the years have changed him by not reacting with anger. If anything, acceptance and sorrow light his eyes as he looks squarely at Nihuang.

“I am not that little girl who followed you around wanting to be like you anymore. I have given back all the privileges of my youth to the Liang court, and earned every inch of where I am today. I owe nothing to any of you.”

 

“Get out.”

Nihuang opens the door, holds it open for Lin Shu in mock politeness and coldly says,

“I’m only meeting you today because I would like to say to your face what you once said to me. Back when I was without hope or kin or support.” She pauses then continues. “Leave and don’t bother coming back.”

 

That strikes a hard, jarring chord in Lin Shu. He feels nauseous at the full emotional impact of the truth in what Nihuang says.

I abandoned her, willfully, at a time she had nowhere else to go, no one else to turn to.

Jingyan and Great-Granny would be ashamed of me if they knew. Even if it had been true, and Nihuang had hid from us horrible truths about Marshal Mu, she was 16!

And I had promised her, promised Great-Granny, that she would have my love and support for the rest of our lives.

 

“I have no defense against those truths. I am sorry to have come to trouble you- you are correct. You owe us nothing and we will somehow have to solve our own mysteries without relying again on you,” He says quietly.

Then, in an equally level, but personal voice, “But Nihuang, no matter what the past, I hope one day you’ll let me help you.”

“I know that’s what Jingyan would have wanted from me. From us. And if you give me the chance, I’ll do my best to undo all the ways I’ve failed you. Failed him.”

He slips the jade pendant with gold filigree from his waist and leaves it on the table.

“I promised Great-Granny to give you this so I will leave this for you, even if my other promises to her about you I have not kept. She had this set for you two years ago for the ‘wedding’. This represents her great love and protection of you, I hope you will cherish this for her sake.”

 

After he leaves, Nihuang picks up the pendant and allows her hands to tremble.

Great-Granny, if only I could also show you a little of the love and protection you have always shown me.

Lin Shu Gege, you do help. The thought that I could let what happened to Jingyan Gege happen to you, or Prince Qi? That drives me every single day.

 

By the end of the year, Mu Nihuang makes 4th on the Lang Ya list.

Chapter Text

It is another bad year for the harvest in Yunnan and her neighboring provinces both within Liang and in Chu.

Flooding has always been a problem here. The downside of living by a fertile, slow-flowing, navigable river is that agriculture is concentrated on a flood plain.

Fortunately, this is one of those floods that Nihuang remembers and it plays out close to what happened in her original timeline so that Jiangzuo has made preparation for this. Jiangzuo is now out in force distributing emergency rations to areas official aid reaches hardly at all.    

 

At least, Nihuang reflects, riding with today’s batch of rations, the officials are giving her enough ‘face’ to turn a blind eye to Jiangzuo’s open presence here this month. Then, more cynically, she thinks

It helps that this means they can keep more of the official rations for themselves.

Partly, she’s here today to examine the extent of the damage, and better plan the type of aid, not just to solve the immediate crisis, but to get the peasantry back on their feet.

New seed grain, she mentally counts, at least one bag every 4 acres of land, and additional medicines for the coming few months. Everyone knows that bellyaching diseases and fevers follow after floods ebb. She has already written to Lin Chen who cheerfully supplies all of Jiangzuo’s medical needs with top quality medicines (at only mildly inflated prices).

Partly, she is here today to try to persuade the people of a new idea.

 

“Princess Mu! Princess Nihuang!”

The crowd that is gathered in hopes of the rations cheer her as she enters behind the carts. The common folk here recognize her here as they do in most places in Yunnan and have never gotten over calling her Princess even if she officially hasn’t held that title in well over a decade.

They lack city polish but everyone attempts various versions of bowing. Some push their foreheads into the mud to honor her.

 

Nihuang jumps from her horse onto the nearest cart.

“Dear all, I’m glad to be remembered, and Jiangzuo today is here to help. But today I am also here to ask for your help!”

She gestures around her “This cannot continue. We cannot continue to lose one harvest in four to these disasters and rely on distant aid each time. If the court cannot now help us, we must help ourselves!”

 

“This year, we at Jiangzuo will collect payment for the food and medicines that we can bring in.”

There is a murmur of shock and even anger that their help should come with strings attached.

 

Nihuang continues, “We know you can afford nothing right now, but what I ask is this: For a month of food and medicines for each family, said families with a healthy adult will commit 1 month of labor from this adult to Jiangzuo after the next successful harvest.”

The murmuring now turns to confusion.

“There is a new invention that is being talked about all up and down the Yellow River. It is a special clay that has been discovered that is both waterproof and doesn’t require kiln baking, just the sun, to harden”

“If we build high banks for the river with that type of packed clay. Then we can at least delay and reduce the floods if not prevent them altogether.”

“Will you help us do this?”

 

Nihuang knew the terms were more than fair, but she also knew that this was a big change. Which was why she was painstakingly going village to village in the most affected regions to advocate for this.

She knew, once she got 10 villages to implement the change and the other villages saw the benefits of those banks, then, by the next flood, everyone would be clamoring for this sort of support. Perhaps even the officials themselves will see the tax value of doing something similar.

 

Change.

It takes time and patience, resources and an early success… but it also takes relationships, sweetened by a little short-term gain for everyone.   The head of the village agrees to the terms. Nihuang hasn’t yet seen anyone turn away the ration carts over it.

 

Before she leaves, the village chief stops her to say,

“We don’t care what they call you, Princess. Fancy people from the city say you’re a traitor, some say you’re a patriot; others tell us you’re a pirate. We don’t care what you call yourself or whom you work for.   For us rough folk, the Liang and Chu Emperors are far and the mountains are high. Your family have always held us in your protection, so we will always be your people, and you will always be our Queen.”

 

This is the year, fifteen years after she fled the Capital in disgrace that Nihuang makes 2nd on the Lang Ya list. She is not only the first woman to make it that high, but also, at 31, the youngest person to do so.

Chapter Text

Great-Granny is dying.

Nihuang is caught unprepared. Great-Granny lasted in this timeline beyond what she had in her timeline. The news from the palace via Lin Chen’s sources were clear - Great-Granny, who has now outlived Jingyan by 16 years, will not last another month.

 

“You’re mad.”

 

“Lin Chen, I must.”

 

“Remember you asked me to tell if you were being crazy? Well, now you’re crazy.” Lin Chen’s cheerful demeanor is unwavering, but Nihuang knows he is worried.

 

“Lin Chen, I appreciate your concern, but this isn’t a choice. I must see Great-Granny one more time before she dies. After all she did for me, it is the least I can do.”

 

“Hold a minute, Nihuang” Lin Chen looks incredulous. “You have refused to communicate with Prince Qi all these years, except in secret, coded missives, and now you want to physically go to the Palace? The backcourt of the palace! Why don’t you just go to Xuanjing bureau and turn yourself in and be done with it?”

He throws his hands up in exasperation.

 

Nihuang is fingering the blood-jade, in its now much-worn filigree casing.

“It is mad. It is a risk. But, to me, Great-Granny is special.”

“More than anyone in this world she believed in me from start to end. I have brought her grief… she and Consort Jing are the two people who loved me and trusted me who I have let down without any hope of repayment.”

Nihuang decisively puts the jade piece back in her belt.

 

“I’m going to be incredibly careful, but I’m going. And I’m going to take the chance to also visit Consort Jing.”

 

“Sure, why not? Hang for a lamb, hang for a sheep! See if I care!”

 

Nihuang smiles humorlessly. “Don’t worry, Lin Chen. Don’t forget, money can make spirits turn grind-stones.”


It certainly helped to have command over the immense resources of Jiangzuo and connections of Lang Ya Ge to arrange the clandestine meetings.

 

Eunuchs are bribed just the right amount to keep them willing and silent. Just the right amount so they never even asked who it was who they would be turning a blind eye to, but not so much that it would draw attention from the Huas or Princes. Experienced older palace maids (carefully checked not to be Hua agents) earned the equivalent of several months’ pay to reschedule the junior staff, or create diversionary work so that Nihuang essentially walks into the Forbidden City late on a balmy summer night.

 

It was a rare cloudless, moonless day in the capital and only a stunning array of stars over the silhouette of imperial roofs watch as Nihuang, cloaked and silent, makes her way through the familiar gardens of Great-Granny’s palace.

 

The scent of begonias and the memories it stirs nearly chokes Nihuang.

As she enters the room at the prescribed time, Nihuang drops her cloak, but carefully drapes her head with her scarf so that her scar is hidden.

Great-Granny is in bed, the sound of labored breathing and the occasional stir of sheets as Great-Granny struggles in her fretful rest, are accompanied by a chorus of cicadas in the background.

 

Nihuang kneels quietly beside the bed and watches Great-Granny.

Great-Granny has lost much of her hair, and is much thinner than Nihuang remembers her.

“Great-Granny,” Nihuang whispers, “It’s me. It’s Nihuang here to see you.”

 

Great-Granny stirs and frowns in her dream.

 

“Great-Granny,” Nihuang takes up one of her deeply-veined hands, terribly light and brittle, in her hands. “Great-Granny, wouldn’t you like to talk to your Nihuang?”

 

“Ni…”

Granny opens her eyes but struggles to speak.

Nihuang helps prop her up a little.

“Ni… huang…”

Granny manages a lopsided twitch, which Nihuang knows is a brilliant smile.

“Ni… huang…”

 

“Nihuang has been unfilial, Great-Granny, she has been busy and not come to see you in so long.” Nihuang draws back a little to slowly kowtow.

 

“How… what… busy…”

 

“Nihuang has been well, Great-Granny!” Nihuang hastens to assure her. “In fact… I’ve… been busy preparing for the wedding. You remember the wedding we’re having in summer for your birthday?”

Nihuang was rewarded for her lie by Great-Granny’s eyes lighting up at the mention of the wedding.

She hastily pulls out the blood-jade and presses it into Great-Granny’s hand.

“Look, Great-Granny! Lin Shu finally gave me this, and said it was also from you. It is the most beautiful thing I have ever seen and I’ll wear it at the wedding along with your wedding dress. The dress… now fits perfectly and… looks beautiful on me… everyone in the capital will talk about the wedding for years to come! You’ll be so proud.”

Nihuang swallows tears as Great-Granny’s hand manages to close around the jade and Nihuang’s fingers.

“Great-Granny… Nihuang doesn’t know how she can thank you for everything. Your goodness and love for Nihuang, she cannot repay in this life. In Nihuang’s next life, the heavens willing, Nihuang will be your descendant in truth, born of common family, so Nihuang can stay by your side and serve you, to repay your kindness to her.”

 

“Good…” Great-Granny is fading, “… good…”

“Good….” She repeats and, with another twitch of her lips that could be a smile, she sinks back into her troubled, pained sleep.

A discreet knock on the door tells Nihuang that Great-Granny’s bedside maid is returning soon and Nihuang needs to be gone before then.

 

Nihuang rises and performs a formal bow of gratitude and parting. Her movements are blurred by tears but are elevated beyond ritual by the grace and weight of her true thankfulness and sorrow. As she presses her head for the third and final time against the cool stone floor, next to where her warm tears now smear the floor, she quietly affirms, “The promises of this lifetime, I’ll fulfill in my next.”

Chapter Text

An hour later, Nihuang is on her knees once more, this time in front of Consort Jing.

 

“Don't call me that. I'm no 'Aunt' of yours.”

“It wasn’t me.”

 

“I know.”

 

“It wasn’t my father.”

 

“Of course not.”

 

Nihuang bows her head “But that doesn’t change anything.”

 

Coldly “No… no, it doesn’t. You knew something. Said nothing. And whatever your reasons for doing so, the consequences were what they were and I will never forgive nor forget.”

 

Consort Jing was surprised in her sleep, but manages, even disheveled and clutching her night robes around her to seem godly in her anger.

“But you did not come to comfort me. State your business and be on your way. If you did not have that letter from the old Master of Lang Ya Ge, I would never have even given you these few minutes here with me.”

 

Nihuang remains on her knees, head bowed.

“I have come to beg you to help me.”

 

Consort Jing is silent.

Then slowly and reluctantly she speaks, “You think I could be your ally.”

Heavily, “It has occurred to me that whoever it was who framed you and your father, might be the same people who killed my Jingyan.”

Consort Jing stops and collects herself.

“But why should I care? Whoever it was… it doesn’t matter now. Nothing matters anymore.”

 

Nihuang looks up, “But some things do! You love Consort Chen, and you watched Prince Qi and Lin Shu grow up. Do you think that the people who killed Jingyan and my father will stop there?”

 

Consort Jing takes a sharp breath.

“You’re telling me that you know something is about to happen to them.”

 

“Yes.”

 

Consort Jing’s eyes bore holes into her. “Why now? After all these years? Tell me what you know!”

 

“Consort Jing, I… I owe you all the explanations in the world, but I must ask two promises from you before I speak.”

 

Consort Jing snaps, “How dare you!”

“You KNEW something, you knew it before they killed Jingyan, otherwise you could never have escaped in time! And yet you never, never thought to tell me, tell someone! You could have saved Jingyan! Jingyan loved you and you didn’t save him. And now you want me to make you promises before you will speak to get my help to save the others?”

“How dare you!”

She is shaking with anger, and maybe more… Nihuang has never seen Consort Jing look so old, so sick… Nihuang feels a sudden fear not of the Consort but for Consort Jing.

 

“I only dare because it must be so or others will die.”

Nihuang’s voice is choked, “I cannot give you back anything of what you have lost, but believe me that I didn’t speak because I thought it best, and that I never, ever dreamed that they would harm Jingyan.”

“But they did and they’ll harm Lin Shu and Uncle Lin and the Grand Princess… even Prince Qi… they will stop at nothing.”

 

Consort Jing’s anger is not appeased, but she knows when it is time to negotiate with the devil.

 

“What are your terms?”

 

“You cannot ask me how I know.”

“You cannot tell anyone else what I tell you. There are too many of them… and too many I don’t even know about.”

 

Consort Jing laughs again “How convenient. You will tell me all these ‘facts’ that I cannot probe, cannot check….”

 

“No, I didn’t say that. I’ll give you facts that you can check, but you cannot speak of what you know to others.”

“Please. I have risked much to come and plea with you, and not just my personal safety.”

“This knowledge is a burden. Letting the Lins or even Prince Qi have this would only put them at more risk because the enemy keeps them under constant scrutiny.   The only reason I have escaped is that, for years now, I was far away from court. That is why I cannot let you share it with them.”

Nihuang presses her forehead against the cold palace floor. It throbs in time with her knees.

She has gambled a great deal on Consort Jing, but this Consort Jing is a very different woman from what Nihuang remembers as a gentle, strong, wonderful mentor to Nihuang herself. Someone who was a genius at setting things up behind the scenes so that the leading actors on the stage of court life spoke her lines, acted out her script, without even knowing that the script-writers were not themselves.

This Consort Jing is hard-edged, bitter. She is someone who has lost so much that she might snap at any moment.

Nihuang closes her eyes and braces herself.

 

“I agree.”

 

Nihuang opens her eyes in surprise.

 

“Goodness knows I have no reason to believe you, but the head of Lang Ya Ge is an old friend. He taught me everything I know about medicines, and I cannot believe that he and his son would back a person with ill intention.”

“Now tell me. What can I do to save Prince Qi and Lin Shu?”

 


 

 

On her way away from the Palace, still well before sunrise, Nihuang stops a moment to pay her respects and leaves flowers at the foot of Jingyan’s tablet.

 

When Nihuang was 14, she was thrown by her horse whilst out riding with Lin Shu, and Lin Shu had piggybacked her the whole way back. Jingyan was famous for having no patience for flowers, but even so Jingyan had shown up the next day at the Mu Manor, holding, awkwardly, a random (and, if Nihuang was to be honest, ugly) bunch of wildflowers that he had picked himself on the way over.

Nihuang had laughed long and hard at the sight and told him honestly afterward that his gift was the one that she loved best amongst the precious herbs and jewels she had received as gifts while convalescing. That response seemed to make him happy.

 

Today, she had carefully picked a few of the ugliest wildflowers she could find on her way to the palace to lay at his tablet.

Jingyan, I hope that, somewhere, you are laughing at my flowers too.

Chapter Text

Nihuang is in her study at Jiangzuo headquarters absently putting Fei Liu’s hair up while perusing Jiangzuo’s accounts, when Fei Liu suddenly jumps up and jubilantly runs out with a call of “Chen Gege!”

This is Nihuang’s usual sign that Lin Chen is here to visit.

Even before Nihuang gets a chance to step out to welcome him, Lin Chen has, characteristically, invited himself into her study and is in the middle of loudly complaining about how Fei Liu is getting unruly and the standards of welcome at Jiangzuo are slipping even as he steps past the threshold.

Fei Liu follows him back in happily as Lin Chen talks to him. Fei Liu doesn’t understand most of what Lin Chen is talking about but Lin Chen is one of the few adults who doesn’t distinguish between Fei Liu and anyone else- dishing out his complaints and insults freely to Fei Liu as he would Shen Zhui or Nihuang herself.  Although Nihuang is Fei Liu’s whole world and Fei Liu goes everywhere Nihuang does, he has a particular affection for his Chen Gege that Lin Chen seems to reciprocate.

Nihuang smiles at the sight of them both.

 

Then, as if it is another passing comment and not the real reason he is here, he casually comments to Nihuang “So…. I hear the peace pact talks went very well last month in Chu.”

 

Nihuang resists rolling her eyes. She has been expecting Lin Chen to come by about that.

One of the reasons why Lang Ya Ge is so successful is that Lin Chen has an insatiable curiosity. For the truly important events, he craves interviews with people who have experienced them firsthand. This way, by triangulating between reliable sources, he eliminates a lot of biases in his reports and the ‘truths’ he sells are well-vetted.  Lang Ya Ge's reputation for the finest, if most expensive, information in the world is not an accident.

Nihuang knew he would be by to snoop the moment he could.

“Very. Marshal Yan’s prowess goes without saying, but I was surprised at how eloquently Jingrui spoke on the need for a more open border, specifically on lower cross-border taxation and reduced paperwork for permission to import/export between Liang and Chu.”

 

Ten years ago, when Jingrui was 17, he was told the truth of his heritage by his mother, Grand-Princess Liyang.  This was strongly supported and encouraged by Marshal Yan and Prince Qi who hinted that the secret was out and that it was best Jingrui hear the truth from her. 

Grand-Princess Liyang, knowing that if he stayed he would risk being made a hostage by her brother, the Emperor, the moment the next hostility broke out with Chu, also supported Marshal Yan’s offer to Jingrui to take Jingrui with him to Chu where Jingrui could get to know his family there, as well as work as part of the ambassadorial team from Liang to Chu.

Now, at 27 he is a key member of the Chu-Liang peace negotiation delegation, led on the Liang side by Marshal Yan, and on the Chu side by one of Jingrui’s Royal Uncles. They are tasked with negotiating a long-term peace pact. This is a major endeavor and the negotiations that started eight years ago are expected to last several more.  Already the relationships that Jingrui has been able to foster within the two negotiating teams have borne fruit: A truce that has lasted 8 years, key pilot collaborations, particularly with regard to trade and information-sharing.

Nihuang and Lin Chen have zealously monitored these developments to ensure that the Huas stay out of this.  It helps immensely that the old Princess Linglong's influence did not extend to Chu, where most of the negotiations take place, although Nihuang had to get Prince Qi to step in to squash several attempts to infiltrate the ambassadorial team.  Of course, Jiangzuo also has the negotiation teams on both sides of the border on round-the-clock protection.

Nihuang herself is a regular at the Chu court these days in her role as trade advisor and Marshal Yan had specifically requested that she be part of the discussion on the peace pact regarding Chu-Liang trade. She, more than anyone else in either empire, understands the ebb and flow of trade across the border, and truth be told, with the expansion of Jiangzuo beyond the two countries, really trade anywhere in the Middle Kingdom.

 

“La-la-la, I know all that. What I want to know is whether the rumor is founded. Is Princess Yuwen Nian, Jingrui’s half-sister, going to be sent to Liang to marry Lin Shu?”

 

Nihuang stiffens a little but then only gestures to Fei Liu to come sit by her so that she can continue combing his hair.

“Yes.”

 

Lin Chen’s eyebrows rise. “The Princess is the Chu Emperor’s favorite niece, and Jingrui’s half-sister, so that all makes sense. But why Lin Shu?”

 

Nihuang focuses on Fei Liu’s hair but responds evenly, “It isn’t difficult to see why. Although Niannian’s father is a very influential Royal brother of the Emperor of Chu, still Niannian is a niece, not a daughter, of the Emperor, so the Liang princes are excluded.”

Fei Liu winces as Nihuang brushes his hair a little too hard.

“Lin Shu is not only the Emperor’s nephew, but Liang’s foremost Marshal - and, possibly more importantly,” here Nihuang smiles wryly, “Jingrui’s hero.”

“Jingrui can’t stop talking about how amazing Lin Shu is to Niannian, and Niannian herself was half in love with Lin Shu, sight-unseen, by the time they started talks about a potential marriage alliance.” Then Nihuang's smile turns cynical, "Personally I also think it's because the competition between the Princes to win the Lins to their side by marriage alliance has been getting heated the last few years, and the Emperor was looking for a neutral way to stop their squabbling."

 

Fei Liu hops off to look at his new hairdo in the pond outside and, smiling at the result, comes running back in to sit by Nihuang, lean on her and say happily, “Jiejie.”

Nihuang is the first person who was ever kind to Fei Liu and, she knows that for him, possibly even more than for Mu Qing, she is his entire universe.  Just as Mei Changsu was for Fei Liu in her original timeline.

Nihuang has developed Fei Liu’s martial arts skills so that he is well able to match most at Jiangzuo, but not to the same extent as the Fei Liu from her original timeline. That Fei Liu suffered for many more years being ‘trained’ before he was discovered by Mei Changsu.

This still mentally-deficient but gentle, loved, and nearly socially-functional teenage Fei Liu is less bodyguard to her, more doted-upon younger brother, which is, in Nihuang's view, how things should be.

Nihuang pats Fei Liu’s head tenderly but continues intently in a line of argument that, truth be told, she and Lin Chen have already gone over many times before, as if to remind herself of what is really important in all of this.

 

“This will be the final cement to the peace pact between Liang and Chu that we have all been planning for and hoping for this last decade and more.  If this is a success, if we can show that this brings long-lasting peace and benefits to both countries, then North Yan, and other major kingdoms and even tribes in the Middle Kingdom will start to take notice.  They will ask themselves 'Why only them and not us?'  They will say 'This is more lucrative than trying to snatch what we want and fighting over control of the land.'  This could be the start of a new era for the Middle Kingdoms.”

 

Lin Chen swivels and looks sharply at Nihuang, “And you didn’t object.”

 

“Object? Object to what? On what grounds would I object?”

 

Lin Chen pretends to think about it, “Wait… let me think. Oh yes- you might object because you’re technically Lin Shu’s betrothed. You might possibly point out that Great-Grand Dowager has never rescinded her betrothal edict.  And the fact that the Lins have turned down many splendid offers of marriage this last decade might lead one to wonder if someone in the family hasn’t quite given up on you.”

Lin Chen then turns serious for a moment. “Don't pretend you don't understand my question Nihuang. You held Lin Shu in your heart more than 30 years in your old timeline. Why are you giving up on him now?”

 

Nihuang is silent. Fei Liu lifts his head to look at her quizzically, and then around them warily. He can tell Nihuang’s moods, but he is uncertain about who or what is making Nihuang Jiejie suddenly sad.

Nihuang smiles reassuringly at Fei Liu.

“Lin Chen. I know better now.”

“Mei Changsu in my timeline tried to explain it to me but I was stubborn. Then, I told myself, that no matter what had changed, my heart had not, and that was going to be enough. I was going to be able to, with my determined heart, take us back to the way we were.”

“But people die, people grow older and wiser, and the stakes change.”

 

Lin Chen gives an exasperated sigh.

 

“Lin Chen, I don’t think you truly understand how it feels like to be me here.”

Her eyes turn unfocused as she looks back at a past that only she can see. “I have saved many people in my time here, but I have also caused many deaths and much sorrow.”

She looks down at her hands “Sometimes I dream that Mei Changsu in my timeline comes to me, sees what I have done in this timeline, sees how badly I messed up, how stupid I was, and sees my hands covered with blood…. my father’s…. Jingyan’s….”

Nihuang bows her head.

 

Lin Chen scoffs. “He’s a jerk to blame you since you did all that to save his sorry ass!”

 

“In my dream, he doesn’t blame me,” Nihuang says quietly. “He just weeps inconsolably.”

 

A brief silence ensues. Nihuang's face is held in a carefully neutral expression as she holds onto Fei Liu, and she appears to be listening to the sound of the wind through the pine trees. Lin Chen's expression is a mix of complicated emotions.

Then, stubbornly and irreverently, Lin Chen snorts “Humph… you and your boring Lin Shu dreams! Can’t you have nice, sexy ones like everyone else?”

 

Nihuang ignores his comment, “I deprived Jingyan of a long, wonderful life. I cannot make up to Consort Jing the loss of decades of happiness with her son and grandchildren. Nor to Mu Qing, Lin Shu, Great-Granny and others the void that my father and Jingyan and the others that were killed left behind.”

“I would give my life to reverse some of the harm I’ve caused.”

She turns to Lin Chen and gently finishes, “And to your question: The truth is, I gave up all my rights to object against this 17 years ago, when I first failed and then fled, leaving others behind to grieve and deal with the mess.”

“Besides,” Nihuang continues kindly, “I like Niannian. She is loyal, intelligent and courageous under fire, also a fine martial artist in her own right. She’s the sort of person Lin Shu could admire.”

 

Then with conviction, she adds.

“But, most of all, this is the perfect bait. The Huas will be desperate to stop just such a peace treaty, they will never allow the wedding to take place, especially since it’ll happen right in the capital, their stronghold.”

“We will pretend to offer to aid them to overtly rebel.” Nihuang gives a small, tight smile.

 

“Then we will see, in this Jianghu, exactly who it is who calls the shots.”


 

 

Nihuang steps out to take Fei Liu to play in the garden, but behind her Lin Chen rolls his eyes.

“Mu-lass, you are tough! But don’t try to distract me, your problem is that you have a martyr-complex streak a mile wide…”

Then, loudly so that she can hear him although she is halfway across the garden by the time he finishes, “…and a bloody, stiff upper lip!”

Chapter Text

By the time Nihuang meets Qin Banruo, it is autumn of the 19th year since Meiling.

 

Nihuang is here to propose an alliance.

An attack on the Emperor and Prince Qi during Lin Shu’s and Princess Yuwen Nian’s wedding.

Taking with them all the supporting nobility in one fell swoop.

Prince Yu will lead the rebellion with Jiangzuo’s martial artists supporting, along with Jiangzuo’s financing for weapons and additional mercenary troops and (most of all) putting Jiangzuo’s political support (including from Southern Chu) behind Prince Yu after the death of the Emperor and Prince Qi to take over Liang.

“In return, we require that you give us access to your spy network. Informants to let us know what Prince Qi is doing, spies within the Lin family to track the schedule and location of each and every person during the ceremony, and also every sleeper agent you have in the palace as well as other key supporters of Prince Qi in the Liang Court.”

 

Banruo is quietly shocked at how much Nihuang already knows about their network, but she is too experienced to let it show on her face.

“You don’t understand Madam Mu, we do not have much in the way of martial prowess. We deal in subterfuge and daggers-in-the-dark.”

 

“Ah… but you do have the Xuanjing Bureau.”

Banruo’s eyes twitch and Nihuang knows that she has made her point.

 

“How do you know all this?”

 

Nihuang laughs, “Qin Banruo, as a successor to Princess Xuanji…” Banruo’s eyes nearly pop out of her head “…you are less than I expected. I know much, much more… Princess Xuanji had even more agents than you know about.”

And here Nihuang pulls out her ace, “My mother was a Hua agent.”

 

“Lie.”

 

“Truth.”

“I was not the child of Lady Mu as is widely told, but of one of my father’s concubines that is not favored. Lady Mu took me as her own, but I never forgot my mother’s grief. I was not at all surprised when Liang turned against my father either, and when I fled, I knew that, one day I would be back for revenge for all those wrongs.”

Nihuang delivers this speech with controlled passion - just as you might expect from a powerful Hua agent. She has spent years planning and practicing.

Key witnesses have been planted. The crown jewel of these being Consort Jing herself who is known to be very bitter against the Mus, having gotten talkative in the last few years, ‘her old age’ leading her to pass on rumors from the old days that General Mu’s wife had been barren and Nihuang and Mu Qing were the children of lesser concubines. Consort Jing even let her handmaiden know that she has seen the tattoo that the Huas have, tattooed on Nihuang’s inner thigh, when she was a child.

Nihuang, of course, now sports a tattoo that is disguised to look old.

“Use your spy network. Find out if this is true. I can show you my tattoo, but I know you will and can verify this in other ways.”

 

Banruo had dismissed the information as unfounded rumors, but she frowns now and wonders.

Outwardly, all Banruo says is, “And how do I know I can trust you? Prove to me your earnestness.”

 

“How would you like me to prove it?”

 

“Kill Princess Yuwen Nian before the wedding. Make it look like a Liang plot. Ruin the peace pact.”

 

Nihuang pretends to consider this for a moment, “I can do better… I’ll send you a goodwill present that you cannot mistake.”

 

“I await your gift impatiently.” Banruo throws over her shoulder as she sweeps out of the room.

 


 

 “Fei Liu, what should I do?”

Fei Liu is playing with pebbles in the corner, but hears the pain in Nihuang’s voice and immediately drops his toy, and is alert and concerned, scanning around for danger. When he doesn’t immediately sense any, he looks back at Nihuang “Jiejie.”

 

“Jiejie has a difficult choice to make. Niannian and Lin Shu Gege are too critical - they and Jingrui are the lynchpins of the new peace pact. We cannot lose them now. But we need to lure the Hua out… once and for all, or we cannot build a stable, prosperous Liang without deep risks that they will sabotage and destroy everything. Their aim is chaos or the corrupt Prince Yu on the throne… and so long as they will not change course, we must destroy them.”

For that, we need their trust. And for that, we need someone else more disposable to offer them…

And then, with a chill and shiver, she knows.

She looks down at her hands.

 

When she was young… truly young, so many, many years ago now in her own timeline, things were so simple. There was right and there was wrong, the people who were right saved lives, brought about peace and happiness, and the people who were wrong did the opposite for their own nefarious purposes.

“I can’t tell anymore… what’s right from wrong… all I know is that there is so much blood on these hands and more to come.”

Fei Liu grasps Nihuang’s hands and looks worriedly at them, repeating, “Blood.”

“Yes, Fei Liu, blood… nothing that you can see but blood there nonetheless. Jingyan’s blood. My father’s blood. And now… oh gods when will this end?”

This is a familiar horror. In her timeline, she was a general, embattled and in self-defense, she had shed her share of blood. That had always tormented her… the senseless waste of life. And now? Still she washes her hands with the blood of innocents… she buries her head in her hands in tearless agony.

 

But Nihuang knows what she needs to do next.

Out beyond ideas of wrongdoing and rightdoing,
there is a field.

I'll meet you there.

When the soul lies down in that grass,

The world is too full to talk about. (1)

She only needs now to accept it.

 

She picks up her brush and writes a short letter with trembling hands…

 

“Dearest Xia Dong Jie….”

 

(1) Jalāl ad-Dīn Muhammad Rūmī, a Persian poet, Islamic scholar, Sufi mystic of the 1200’s.

Chapter Text

“This is an impressive gift. Most impressive.”

 

Three weeks after Banruo and Nihuang meet, Xia Dong dies. The public version of the story is that she died of sudden illness, but the truth is, she committed suicide.

She leaves behind evidence (now kept jealously secret by Xia Jiang) of her betrayal of her Shifu all these years starting from her tipping off General Mu regarding the Meiling plans.

The evidence is very convincing… from her copy of the missives that Xie Yu and Xia Jiang wrote to each other, to proof of her helping raise Gong Yu in secret, to copies of missives she wrote to Prince Qi as ‘Mei Changsu’ giving away plans only Banruo or Xia Jiang could have known about.

Nearly every leak in the last 20 years of their plans could be traced to this one, deep, sleeper agent.

 

“Tell me Nihuang, how did you know that Xia Dong was the agent? Xia Jiang is truly shocked. He was convinced, given how she was brought up by him that he knew her through and through and that he might be betrayed by anyone else, but not her.”

 

“You have your means and I have mine.”

 

“And you managed to ‘persuade’ her to die so… dramatically. Poison consumed in front of her Shifu with a full confession, complete with proof… I admit I’m half afraid of what else you may be capable of.”

 

Nihuang’s voice is cold, “I’m not here to make you feel safe. The question is whether or not you are convinced that I am a worthy ally with the common intention of toppling the current Emperor, Prince Qi and their lackeys and putting Prince Yu on the throne.”

 

Banruo makes a placating gesture, “There’s no need to be impatient. You have convinced us of your … value. Let us talk about the plan. Here is the list of my agents within the Qi household and Chiyan army, as well as other key families in the court.”

 


 

 Deep amongst her personal items back in Jiangzuo headquarters, Nihuang has buried a letter from Xia Dong that she received in response to her missive.

 

Nihuang, don’t blame yourself.

 

You saved Niefeng all those years ago, and I have, as you instructed, never told anyone about it… but I know what would have happened if they succeeded. I saw the letter. You have given us many happy years that I would not have had, children I wouldn’t have seen, and now, after me, Niefeng will continue our lives’ work.

 

I consider this more than fair trade.

 

Truth be told, I have struggled mightily with my betrayal of Shifu. I regret it not at all, but this life of mine was something he saved from death when I was a child, so, in some ways, I cannot say how fitting it is I return it to him with some of the truth of my ingratitude.

 

Nihuang, I know you have many dark secrets. You never share, but I have sensed, even from your occasional letters, the great weight on your shoulders.

 

Allow me to take some of those to the grave with me.

 

Your friend,

Xia Dong

PS I know I do not have to ask, but I will anyway: Watch over Niefeng for me.

Chapter Text

Mei Changsu warns Prince Qi about the plans. They decide together that no one else should know, particularly not the Southern Chu delegates and the Lins. Those parties would be under intense scrutiny day-in-day-out until the wedding, so better they go through the event in total ignorance than risk the Huas becoming suspicious.

 

When it happens, it happens remarkably quietly.

Ordinary guests are told that due to unfortunate circumstances, the wedding is postponed and are shown, politely but firmly, to the door by Xuanjing Bureau staff. Key guests are detained. Prince Yu’s men, stationed outside beforehand, capture the few high-level martial artists in Prince Qi’s and Marshal Lin’s employ that manage to break out to go for help.

The Emperor, with Prince Qi (protected in secret by some of Jiangzuo’s top martial artists), is held in one part of the Lin Manor, while the Lins and their staff are herded to the main banquet hall.

 

Princess Niannian is being held ‘hostage’ by Jiangzuo martial artists in the bridal procession. Nihuang herself is in the glamorously large wedding carriage next to the swaying Niannian who was first held at sword-point, then drugged to be only semi-conscious.

Nihuang is aware that somewhere in the capital, Lin Chen is having a laugh at the irony. Nearly twenty years after she was meant to marry Lin Shu, Nihuang is now sitting in the wedding carriage lumbering its’ slow, musical way to the Lin Manor.

 

By the time the carriage makes it to the Lin Manor, the Huas, supported by Prince Yu’s troops, have mostly taken control of the event.

 

Prince Yu is in the backroom with Prince Qi and the Emperor. He wants to tell them why they are dying. He insisted that he owes his mother that much. Nihuang is relieved -this means that she still has a little time.

The Lins and Yans, along with other important guests, are being given a choice. Swear fealty to the new Emperor, including giving child hostages to be ‘fostered’ in the Palace.

Or fall on their swords to join their old Emperor.

 

There are pockets of resistance holed up in various parts of the Manor, notably Lin Shu and Wei Zhen have barricaded themselves in one of the more heavily fortified weapons rooms. Xia Jiang is awaiting his ramming equipment to force his way in, failing which the idea is to try to burn the whole thing down, when Nihuang walks into the main banquet hall.

Nihuang sees her chance. She knows why Lin Shu picked that weapons room. Unbeknownst to most people, there is a secret passage that leads from the manor to the outside from that room. In the old days, Jingyan and Nihuang used to sneak in from that passage.

Nihuang knows that the next three hours are critical. She needs to hold Xia Jiang and Banruo’s attention to events within the manor. They cannot be allowed to notice that outside, her people are rallying General Meng’s troops to spring a surprise attack on Prince Yu’s forces.

And she wants to do all this with as low a body count as possible, with a particular focus on keeping Niannian and Lin Shu safe.

 

Nihuang gives a laugh as Xia Chun conveys to her the updates of events within the manor.

“Excellent! Lin Shu is still resisting? Allow me to go. Perhaps seeing his lovely bride in my hands will prove… persuasive.”

 

Xia Jiang looks wary, but finally nods -it was agreed from the start that he would control the situation today and no one would make moves without his approval.

Nihuang drags a stupefied Niannian with her as she strides out to the gardens. She doesn’t miss the fact that Xia Jiang gestures to Xia Qiu to follow her as she leaves.

 

Outside the weapons room, Nihuang raises her voice.

“Lin Shu! Lin Shu you coward! Are you hoping to hide from your old fiancée by holing up in the weapons room? Open the door and face me!”

She uses her sword tip to raise Niannian’s face as one of her subordinates holds Niannian.

“Or I might get impatient and do something to the looks of your beautiful new bride.”

 

Inside they hear a stirring and then a voice.

“Don’t touch Niannian! Even if you win the day, Jingrui and the Chu Emperor will demand your head as negotiating stakes at the next Chu-Liang meeting if you do! But we can talk. Bring Niannian in here with you, and we agree to negotiate.”

 

Nihuang laughs. “Charming! Listen to that Princess, your fiancé is offering to negotiate for your pretty face.”

 

Xia Qiu moves to follow Nihuang but Lin Shu’s voice sounds from inside again. “Just Mu Nihuang and Niannian. No other. Or we have enough explosives in here to take most of the people in the manor with us as we die.”

 

Nihuang thanks her lucky stars that she will not be forced to try to kill Xia Qiu while trying to convince Lin Shu to take Niannian and make a run for it.

The door cracks open, and Nihuang enters, pushing Niannian in before her roughly.

 

Xia Qiu whispers to an underling to inform Xia Jiang of the new development.

Chapter Text

Nihuang pushes Niannian into the room and kicks the door shut behind her.

Lin Shu is sitting down and, incongruously, setting out teacups. Wei Zhen is watching the outside from a crack in the window, but curiously neither pays her any mind.

 

Nihuang should be wary but she’s mostly relieved that neither seems injured.

Nihuang quickly lays Niannian down and then checks the room for spaces where people could be listening.

Deciding that they are secure, she turns and, gritting her teeth, starts, “Lin Shu…”

 

Lin Shu smiles and interrupts “Would you like a cup of tea?”

 

Nihuang is floored. “I…”

What can I say that will convince Lin Shu, that I’m, after all, really an ally? That he needs to flee with Niannian, rendezvous with Jiangzuo warriors? That I need Niannian’s costume so I can go out in disguise to create some sort of diversion?

“You… are certainly taking this well. Are you not afraid in the least for yourself, or Niannian?”

 

“I’ve had time to think this through over the last hour since Wei Zhen told me that Jiangzuo is involved in this coup, and I realized something that I should have realized a long, long time ago.” Lin Shu sips from his teacup.

 

You are Mei Changsu.”

 

“It all makes sense… the secrecy, your success with Jiangzuo, the fact that Mei Changsu went silent the first few months when you fled. Somehow, somewhere you found a source of information and realized the extent of a shadow organization with deeply-covered agents within Liang, including, apparently Prince Yu and the Xuanjing Bureau.”

 

“There is still a lot I do not understand. But my best guess is that ‘Mei Changsu’ engineered today’s events… perhaps even with Prince Qi’s cooperation. So, why would I worry?”

 

Nihuang is silent a moment, processing this.

You knew me after all. When you came back as Mei Changsu, 10 years after parting, it took me several meetings to find you out. You recognized me after just two meetings.

“How did you figure it out?”

 

“You and Lin Chen gave me dozens of hints.”

“Instinctively I knew, after I met you in Lang Ya Ge, that something was amiss. Mu Nihuang may change, but even if she were bitter, why come all the way just to alienate me?”

“Besides, this is the Mu Nihuang who made it Jiangzuo policy to be welcoming of all aid, including Southern Chu who used to be the Mus’ sword enemies, to stabilize Yunnan and grow Jiangzuo. Why push me away so hard? What could it be, except a show to distract whoever was watching… even me and Prince Qi, so we wouldn’t suspect the link any more than we already did.”

 

“If I wasn’t so… emotionally distracted by my own guilt I might have realized it right at the meeting. But I missed it. Instead, this whole time I buried the memory of that meeting, focused on the peace pact, and since ‘Mei Changsu’ went quiet, it wasn’t so urgent to figure ‘him’ out.”

 

Lin Shu smiled, nearly apologetically at Nihuang, “But then Wei Zhen told me that he recognized some of Jiangzuo’s top experts passing through the courtyard about 2 hours ago. And suddenly it all fell into place… the Lang Ya Ge connection, Lin Chen’s words, why you never contacted me, why ‘Mei Changsu’ was so secretive, why ‘Mei Changsu’ seemed so concerned about Jingrui, Yujin and me, why ‘he’ tried to engineer keeping Mu Nihuang in court at first...”

 

“So,” Lin Shu finishes his cup of tea and concludes, “the urgent question is: What would ‘Mei Changsu’ like for us to do now?”

 

There is a lot to say, but Nihuang knows time is short so she quickly outlines the goals of today’s work and who are involved, ending with, “…take Niannian and slip out the secret passage. Don’t fight unless you have to!”

“Leave your outer garments but take the sword” Nihuang draws out a bundle from her sleeve, “Wear these… it’ll be easier to disappear into the crowds without your red robes.”

 

Without argument Lin Shu immediately starts to unpack the bundle that carries clothing, a map and… an old cloak.

 

Lin Shu picks up the cloak in shock, recognizing, in the corner of the cloak, a small embroidered “Lin,” in a design their family used two decades ago. This is the cloak Lin Shu had given to Nihuang when she fled the capital.

 

He slowly turns as if to say something, but stops instead when he discovers that Nihuang is in the process of exchanging her own clothes with Niannian’s.

As he watches, Nihuang is transformed into a vermilion, feathery figure, covered with embroidered golden phoenixes. At the base of her neck hangs a golden necklace twined with pairs of mandarin ducks, symbols of eternal companionship. The golden, spiked headgear is hastily but firmly secured to her hair- she may be in disguise, but she will not be distracted when she needs to fight by flimsily attached clothing. Nihuang turns around and spares Lin Shu a smile.

Lin Shu is lost for a moment in the magnificent sight: A phoenix dressed resplendently in the Mu-family red-and-gold colors, like a ghost from past dreams back to haunt him.

 

When Lin Shu finds his voice, he doesn’t mention any of that, and instead says, “You’re going back in.”

It is not a question.

 

“Yes, that’s my half of the plan. You are plenty to deal with the few, unfortunate strays you may meet along the way.”

Nihuang draws a short, curved knife, as is commonly used by the tribal people of Southern Yunnan and hides in amidst the blood-red folds of the bridal dress.

“I’ll be out front, veiled and pretending to be Niannian. Ideally, I’ll try to ‘escape’ close enough to Xia Jiang that he’ll personally capture me. Then, I’ll kill him.”

She tightens the belt over the knife to secure it.

“Failing that, I will fight him and hold his attention as cover for you and Niannian, as well as General Meng’s advance.”

She flashes a grim grin, “You will be happy to know that the symbol of authority that you gave Lin Chen is the main reason we are totally confident that we can activate the city’s guards without any questions asked.”

 

Nihuang’s voice is light, but it is clear to them both that her own martial powers and Jiangzuo warriors notwithstanding, the scenarios where Nihuang walks unscathed from close combat with the immensely powerful and experienced Xia Jiang, as well as the myriad powerful martial artists of Xuanjing who are here in force, are few.

 

Lin Shu’s voice is equally, deliberately unaffected as he drops the cloak

“I have a question.”

Lin Shu picks up his sword and fastens it to his wedding outfit.

“What makes you think I would let you go out there by yourself?”

 

Nihuang smiles, “Lin Shu ge… Lin Shu, there’s no need for that.”

“You saved my life years ago, luring the guards away, wearing my cloak. I’m only returning the favor- after today, we’ll be square, you and I.”

 

“Not true.” Lin Shu’s voice is resolute. “Now you’re treating me like a fool. Do you think I don’t realize ‘Mei Changsu’ has saved Jingrui, likely saved Prince Qi, possibly myself and my family multiple times over the last twenty years?”

Then he pauses with a wry smile, “I suppose it’s fair enough even if you do think me a fool. Goodness knows I’ve done enough to deserve it.”

 

Nihuang hears a hint of pain in his words, and, for the first time, Nihuang realizes that she is not alone in carrying a burden of guilt all these years.

She tries a different angle.

Indicting the Princess lying on the ground she continues, “The important thing is that you are correct: If anything happens to Niannian, whether she dies or is taken, the Chu Emperor will never believe Liang didn’t have anything to do with this. The peace pact we have worked for so long for will be ruined.”

 

Lin Shu takes a hold of Nihuang’s arm with a grip so tight it hurts, “then you take Niannian and leave! You’re on the Lang Ya list, you should be protecting her. I’ll stay to handle Xia Jiang and secure Prince Qi.”

 

Nihuang shakes her head. “Xia Jiang will be guarded against you. He knows your strengths well. He will be much less guarded, against a half-drugged, Chu princess. He might even be careful not to hurt ‘her’ at first –she is more valuable alive as a hostage.”

 

Lin Shu shakes his head in turn. “That doesn’t work. If your aim is to deflect suspicion and buy time, then having ‘Niannian’ go out without me would be the worse way to do so.”

He grins “I hate to boast, but letting my bride into danger without me? That reeks of a ploy by me, and Xia Jiang will be guarded. So if you must go back, send some of your people to defend Niannian, I’m coming with you. They’ll think that Wei Zhen and I overwhelmed you, and are trying to make a break for it with Niannian. They will be focused on fighting us, and you can slip away towards an exit near Xia Jiang.”

 

Nihuang starts to protest but Lin Shu pre-empts her with a slow, arrogant smile that makes him suddenly look like the 19-year-old Lin Shu she knew.

“Besides, my first question stands: What makes you think you can stop me?”

 

A rush of memories stills Nihuang. A willow-branch fight one sunny day, and echoes of happy, breathless laughter reverberate in her head. In the unguarded moment, she frivolously wonders if he remembers all those days as well as she does.  She blinks hard and refuses to look at Lin Shu.

"Alright, you can come.  But only on the condition that you let me deal with Xia Jiang. I've been training for the last few years for this.  And I don't want you hurt.  I don't know if you understand just how much Liang needs you!"

 

Whatever Lin Shu is thinking, his expression softens and, stepping close to her, he whispers.

“I'll do whatever Mei Changsu thinks best... but Nihuang. Nihuang meimei. Whatever you do, don’t shut me out." 

He takes her hand and holds it in his warm ones.

"Let me in. Let me help.”

He turns her to face him. “You don’t need to hold this up all on your own.”

He turns her face toward his, “Forgive me Nihuang.”

Then, even more softly, “Forgive yourself.”

 

“Jingyan and Uncle Mu would.”

 

There is a long silence filled with soft breathing, a murmur from the troops outside, and the creak of floorboards as Wei Zhen shifts his position to check on the developments from the opposite windows.

Nihuang suddenly realizes that there are tears streaking down her face.

Jingyan.

Father.

Jingyan.

Father.

The words have, over the years, become her incantation of guilt and sorrow.

Underneath her protestations of doing what was good for the people, for Liang, for Chu, is a deep, clawing need to make up for the horrors of what and whom she lost. The need to justify, make meaningful, with her accomplishments, their sacrifice.

 

Nihuang feels light-headed with the sudden outpouring of self-aware grief.

 

Lin Shu gently folds the swaying Nihuang into his arms with an assuredness, warmth and gentleness that come from profound understanding.

 

Eyes squeezed shut, and fingers clenched, Nihuang cannot speak except in an incoherent whisper, “I’m so sorry… so, so sorry. Jingyan gege… Lin Shu gege…so sorry…I…”

 

Lin Shu tightens his hold on Nihuang and his voice is equally low.

“It’s ok Nihuang meimei. We have both made mistakes, you and I. We’ll make it better. Together. Today. I promise.”

Then, after another few slow heartbeats. He continues. “Master Lin Chen is a remarkable man. When I was at Lang Ya Ge he reminded me of a fact I have always known.”

Lin Shu looks right at Nihuang. “That I believe in you.”

 

Nihuang final allows herself to lean into that embrace, into that reassurance and weep freely. Lin Shu holds her tightly.

 

In that embrace, there is mutual understanding about their individual years of sorrow and struggle, the winding paths they have taken to come back to the here and now. There is acknowledgement that they will never recover the wasted decades now between them. There is acceptance that the future is a shifting, uncertain thing.

Yet, beyond any distress over the past, beyond any hopes or fears for the future, beyond words and promises that can or cannot be kept, there is an enveloping, nearly overwhelming peace from their having, after traveling a long way, come back home.

 

Nihuang cannot tell how many minutes have passed, but Wei Zhen signals. Xia Jiang has joined his men in the garden to monitor the situation.

 

Lin Shu pulls back a little to wipe Nihuang’s eyes. Then, he leans over to pick up the last piece of Niannian’s wedding dress -the veil -and, drawing it over Nihuang’s head, gently fastens it to her headgear so that she is fully covered from sight. His fingers drop down her back and linger on the blood-jade pendant in its filigree setting that she is wearing at her waist.

Then, blinking back tears, he whispers, “Welcome home, Nihuang meimei.”

 

They take up each others hands and turn to face the door.

 

Nihuang holds back a moment more, “There’s three things I’d like you to do, in case anything happens to me today.”

 

Lin Shu bows fractionally, although he frowns at the implication. Nihuang feels rather than sees his movement and his distress, since her vision is entirely blocked by the red, silk veil.

 

“Tell Neifeng that Xia Dong jie died a heroine.”

“Trust Lin Chen, he’ll tell you the truth.”

“In addition to Qing-er, I have an adopted brother, his name is Fei Liu. Take care of them for me.”

 

His hands tighten over hers. “Regardless of what happens today, you have my word on all three.”

Then, he adds. “And if anything happens to me, Nihuang, I only want you to know that wherever I may be, from there will I love you. As I always have.”

 

Neither can see each others face, but they imagine each other smiling.

 

Lin Shu signals to Wei Zhen, leans in to support in one arm his ‘drugged’ Princess, and, together, they step out of the room into history.

Chapter Text

The hefty, scholarly publication “A Personal History of the 6th Emperor of Liang,” written over 100 years after Emperor Zongming’s death, was a very detailed work, whose footnotes took up more than half the entire volume. It contains this excerpt in “Chapter 8: Path to Ascension.”

 

“The most infamous event of then Crown-Prince Qi’s ascension to the throne, before he became Emperor Zongming, is the ‘Wedding Rebellion’.

Five years before Emperor Zongming ascended the Dragon Throne, his younger brother- then Prince Yu of Liang (see footnote 1002)- staged a rebellion during the wedding of future Prime Minister, Lin Shu (see footnote 245) to his wife, the Chu Princess Yuwen Nian (see footnote 1003).

 

It is recorded how the wise and intelligent Emperor Zongming was well aware of the plot, and had positioned top martial artist, once-noble-Princess-of-Yunnan, Mu Nihuang (head of the powerful Jiangzuo sect, see footnote 1004) as his spy amidst the rebels. He also arranged to have General Meng’s troops waiting in the wings to move in and destroy Prince Yu’s troops.

These actions not only destroyed the rebellion, but also, due to Lin Shu’s heroic, some say romantic, rescue of his bride, Princess Yuwen Nian, cemented the good will between Chu and Liang that set the stage for a Chu-Liang-Yan trade pact, latter formalized by Ambassador Xiao Jingrui (see footnote 1005) and Trade Minister Shen Zhui (see footnote 1006). This pact is now widely considered a cornerstone of the prosperous Golden Age of Liang, which ensued under Emperor Zongming’s reign.

 

In a move immortalized in many operas, ballads and poems since, Mu Nihuang feigned holding Princess Yuwen Nian hostage, later disguised herself as said Princess and helped Prime Minister Lin Shu (then Marshal Lin) kill the cunning and powerful Xia Jiang, then head of the Xuanjing Bureau (see footnote 1007) in what proved to be the pivotal event of the rebellion. However Mu Nihuang was tragically poisoned by Xia Jiang during the fight. She died a week later in Lang Ya Mountain.

Lin Shu and General Meng subsequently rescued Prince Qi, then-Emperor Xuanming and other members of the wedding delegation including then-Chu-Princess Yuwen Nian in a dramatic show-down with members of the Xuanjing Bureau, the Hua conspirators (see footnote 1598) and Prince Yu’s army.

 

The subsequent dismantling of the Xuanjing Bureau was a decisive step that marked Emperor Zongming’s personal dedication to the ideal that there was one and only one law in the land, and no one, not the Emperor himself, could have a process that allowed force-of-arms action outside of the law, as represented by the Ministry of Justice.”

 


 

 

The very detailed appendix contains this section, footnote 1004, for Mu Nihuang, founding leader of the wealthy Jiangzuo Sect.

 

“Mu Nihuang was the founding leader of the powerful, trade organization: Jiangzuo Alliance. She started her life as Princess Mu Nihuang of Yunnan, but she and her family were disgraced when her father was framed for the murder of Prince Xiao Jingyan (see footnote 867) the year she turned seventeen. She died at age thirty-six, a hero of the Wedding Rebellion (see Chapter 8).

 

Mu Nihuang was already second on the Lang Ya list when she played her part in the Wedding Rebellion, and she was posthumously made first on the Lang Ya list.

Vast numbers of the peasantry in Yunnan, who had long revered her as their ‘Queen’ even after she lost her title as Princess, wore mourning colors for years after she died. They also immortalized Mu Nihuang as a semi-deity in their oral tradition of songs and stories. To this day, there are those who believe her spirit wanders Yunnan protecting them, and believers pray to her for relief from flooding and for luck in business.

The restoration of the Mu family’s stewardship of Yunnan was one of Emperor Zongming’s first acts when he ascended the throne.

 

It has been proposed, but never proven, that Mu Nihuang was secretly a supporter of Emperor Zongming (then Prince Qi) even prior to her undercover work. Some historians argue that there is evidence Mu Nihuang played an instrumental role in the rise of Emperor Zongming and Prime Minister Lin as far back as a Chiyan army victory against Northern Yan in Meiling, nearly 20 years before the Wedding Rebellion. However that claim is disputed given Mu Nihuang was then just 16 years old.

An interesting fact, that few now remember, is that Mu Nihuang and Prime Minister Lin Shu (see footnote 245) were betrothed in their childhood. The two were never married because her father was disgraced and she was made a fugitive just weeks before their planned wedding.

In honor of Mu Nihuang’s sacrifice, and their old betrothal agreement, then-Marshal Lin Shu obtained special dispensation to bury her at the Lin family tombs as his deceased wife and postponed his marriage to then-Chu-Princess Yuwen Nian by a full year.  He also personally swept Mu Nihuang’s grave every year at Qing Ming for the rest of his life.

In this ceremony, four people often accompanied him: Marshal Mu Qing (see foot note 1034), Fei Liu, Minister Lin Shu’s adopted brother, Master Lin Chen, the legendary physician and leader of Lang Ya Ge, and Grand-Consort Jing (see foot note 899), who was Emperor Xuanming’s consort, and mother of Prince Xiao Jingyan.

In a move that raised eyebrows in his time, Prime Minister Lin Shu arranged to be buried, when he died decades later, next to Mu Nihuang and had both their tombstones inscribed with the character ‘Mei’, for reasons that will now never be known.”

Chapter Text

To Lin Chen, my dear, old friend,

 

By now the funeral should be over, and peace should have returned to Lang Ya Mountain. Even as I write this, a wind carrying the cool, clear scent of pine trees, which will always remind me of Lang Ya Ge, stirs my room.

 

I’m glad that, of all the places I could come to die, it was to Lang Ya Ge, and to you, again, that I came to let go of this life.

You have been my source of miracles in both my timelines, creating Mei Changsu, saving us time and again, and then sending me back so I could try to redo history.

If only people could know that, before Prince Qi or Lin Shu or me, it is you who saved us all. In action and in word, you have been the pillar of Liang, the power behind Jiangzuo and the best, truest friend I’ve ever had, that no one will ever acknowledge.

 

I wish I could stay to watch the other miracles that you will create. It is not to be, but don’t think that our agreement is ended just because I am dead! If there is an afterlife, I will be there waiting to hear all the information from you as you promised. When you think of me, think of me as simply being out there holding up my end of the bargain: Scouting out the future for you.

 

With love,

Mu Nihuang.

Chapter Text

To my Lin Shu gege,

 

By the time you read this, it should be a year since I’ve died, and the cherry trees in Mu Manor might already be in bloom once again.

 

I write this because there are some things better said after the lapse of some time.

 

The first and most important: Forgive yourself.

I know you. You who, in another life, stubbornly pursued justice for those you loved for 13 terrible years at immense cost to yourself. Do not judge yourself so harshly. Allow me to exorcise, with this letter, my own ghost.

 

Second: Give yourself and Niannian a chance.

You are both capable of so much love. Do not let guilt and old memories rob you of a beautiful future.

 

Third: Forgive me.

Forgive me for not having the courage to come to you all these years, and for not being able to stay now. I know what it feels like to be left behind, but I also know beyond the shadow of a doubt, that of us two, you are, and always were, the person most important to Liang. So forgive me for leaving to your care the most important part of our work- the future, for everyone.

 

 

You once asked me, “Who is Mei Changsu?”

When Lin Shu in my timeline died and returned as the tormented Mei Changsu, still he did a hundred different things to watch out for and fend for me. When he died again 14 years later, he left me in the care of Xia Dong jie, Li Gang, and Lin Chen who supported and loved me till I died myself.

So, when you told me at the wedding that, even if anything happened to you, you would love and defend me from wherever you were, I wanted to tell you: “I already know that.”

My Mei Changsu is a guardian phoenix, perishing in fire and reborn only to perish again. You are my Mei Changsu.

I am your Mei Changsu. I would like to believe that some part of me exists today as you read this, and will exist in all the todays ahead of you, so that my love and protection of you will also still exist.

 

I wish I could stay.

I want to walk beside you. I want to see and touch and build that shining future for Liang alongside you, alongside our friends. I want to share with you stories from my timeline about that ridiculous Lin Chen, that loyal Jingyan, that brave Jingrui, that loving Great-Granny, that witty Yujin, that steadfast Xia Dong jie, that innocent Feiliu, and the others you will never meet or even hear of now.

 

But Lin Chen tells me that I have only a few days left.

So I leave you with my love and my hopes that you will be happy, and go on to fulfill all those dreams that we dreamt together so long ago.

 

I’m comforted because I know it will be so.

You wouldn’t let me down. You never have before.

 

As always,

Your Nihuang meimei.