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Thirteen Pearls

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Sometimes, in the dark watches of the night, Jingyan allows himself to dream.

 

*

Lin Shu is speechless, jaw dropped, and eyes wide, and Jingyan smiles , watching him. Lin Shu shakes his head and laughs, plucking the pearl out of its case and rolling it through his fingers. “You actually found one,” he says, and -


*

He rushes to Jinlin as soon as he receives the news but -

“You didn’t actually believe all that nonsense did you?” xiao-Shu laughs, but he’s gripping Jingyan’s hand just as hard as Jingyan is holding on to his. “You better not have forgotten my pearl, Jingyan!”

“I’m sorry we couldn’t get word to you in time,” Jingyan’s brother says gently, “But thankfully the deception was a success and the traitors have all been identified. Of course father would never - “

*

He rides for Meiling, dread pounding in his heart. He searches, tracking back and forth between bodies charred fire and frozen under frost and Lin Shu is not there, he is not there. He stumbles upon a peasant’s house, set under the cliffs some distance from the main battlefield. The man is strangely nervous, defensive, when Jingyan asks leave to shelter there for the night. Exhaustion pulls at him but he turns to leave, unwilling to force his presence on someone who cannot say no -

There is someone in the bed tucked against the corner of the room and there is something, something about the curve of the shoulder, the fall of the hair - Hope is a dagger through his heart and he stumbles forward, falls to his knees besides the bed. Lin Shu is more bandages than exposed skin. When Jingyan touches his cheek his eyes fly open. He starts away with a painful gasp, then freezes, staring. “Lin Shu?” Jingyan whispers and Lin Shu licks his lips and smiles back.

“Jingyan.”

Very carefully Jingyan leans forward, puts his arm around Lin Shu’s shoulders and Lin Shu rests his head against him. “I found you,” Jingyan tells him. That reminds him and he fumbles the pearl from its pouch, presses it into Lin Shu’s hand. “I found you, I found you,” and Lin Shu laughs at him and says -

*

The clash of swords and the screams of men and horses fill the air. “To me!” Jingyan shouts and his men surge and form up around him once more. Escape is hopeless he acknowledges grimly, the enemy has cut his small force off and they are surrounded on all sides. They can only sell their lives as dearly as they can and he wonders, in one quiet corner of his mind, if Lin Shu is watching him.

A horn sings through the chaos of battle and he turns to see what new reinforcements their enemies have brought but the device that snaps on their banner is strange to him. The new force pours down the ridge towards them and their commander rides in the vanguard in white and silver and Jingyan - the cry bursts from his throat, that beloved name, and -

*

His duties, and his father’s command, at last sends him to the Southern army. He admits to himself that he is looking forward to seeing Nihuang, to spending time with someone who knows and shares his grief. He feels increasingly isolated by the rage and grief that still burn in his heart, that the world and his father would forbid him to feel.

But when Nihuang greets him he sees a light dancing in her eyes that he had thought extinguished forever, and the warm greetings he had prepared turn cold and stiff. Nihuang doesn’t seem to notice.

When the formalities are done she tucks his hand into her arm and draws him towards her tent, ignoring his stiff legged walk. “I’m sorry we couldn’t tell you sooner,” she murmurs,”but we couldn’t trust this to letters.” He falters and looks down at her confused, but she pulls him into her tent and lets the flap fall.

The soldier who had been examining the map turns and -

All the breath leaves Jungian’s body in a rush. He has grown a beard, and a fierce scar bisects his right cheek, but Jingyan recognises him, he knows him at once and yet he can only stand there frozen.

“Jingyan!” Lin Shu cries out and leaps across the room. He slams into Jingyan and flings his arms around him. Jingyan staggers but his own arms are around Lin Shu, holding him so tight that their armours creek. Lin Shu, Jingyan thinks, pressing his face against xiao-Shu’s hair, Lin Shu. This is xiao-Shu in his arms, xiao-Shu’s body rising and falling with every breath, xiao-Shu here, alive. Alive.

He opens his mouth but his voice is frozen, his heart too full, and the first thing he says to Lin Shu, miraculously resurrected Lin Shu is -

“I found the pearl you wanted.”

Lin Shu lets out a great shout of laughter; Jingyan wonders how the tent could hold it. “Waterbuffalo!” Lin Shu is smiling, and their are tears on his cheeks as well. “That is all you can think of to say to me?”

Then Nihuang slams into them as well and they collapse in a tangle of limbs and weaponry all three of them laughing, all three of them crying, and Jungian’s heart is cracking open with joy -

 

The letter arrives with all his other messages, and sits there for hours before he reads it.

No battle wound has ever pierced him as hard as the first line of that letter. He keeps his face expressionless, as he has learned to, and orders his aides to leave. He reopens the letter with hands that shake.

Waterbuffalo, the letter begins, and Lin Shu tells him that he has survived, that he has left Da Liang, that he never intends to return, but that he cannot leave Jingyan thinking he is dead. He asks Jingyan to remember him fondly. They will meet again in the next life.

The next week, Jingyan carefully packages up the pearl and sends it to Langya Hall, with the request that it be sent on to the person who wrote the letter. But he does not wish to see me, Jingyan writes, very carefully, so you are not required to share his location with me -

*

His father dies. His brother ascends the throne. Jingyan leaves his name behind and steps into the Jianghu. The skills he has honed, of command and logistics and politics, mean nothing in this world. His gong-fu skills have grown rusty and he suffers bruises and defeats but he learns. His long neglected skills return to him, and then he surpasses them.

There is another warrior he often meets. This warrior wears a white mask, smiles brightly, weaves stratagems to trick and catch their enemies, and smiles with a wicked glee that Jingyan can’t help but find endearing when they succeed. They meet once by chance, taking down the same corrupt official, and then again and again until Jingyan expects to glance at the space beside him and meet dark eyes laughing at him behind a white mask. They fight together as easily and naturally as two terns wheeling in the same sky and every time they meet Jingyan’s heart beats faster and a hope that had begun as just an idle thought grows stronger.

The camp one night before besides a rushing stream and in the morning Jingyan watches, as tense as a bow string, as his companion wakes, yawns, blinks sleep from his eyes - then freezes, staring. Next to his pillow the pearl rests on a leaf, glowing softly in the dawn light.

Jingyan waits, his hands clenched on his thighs; The mask hides his companion’s face and the dark fall of his hair his eyes, and Jingyan cannot read him. Until.

He laughs suddenly and looks up, one hand already reaching up to sweep his mask aside.
“Well it took you long enough Waterbuffalo,” xiao-Shu says, and -

*

The pleasure house is lovely, no doubt, but all Jingyan feels is uncomfortable. He stares fixedly at the dancers, counting down the minutes until he can politely make his excuses.

A body drops down next to his and an arm slips around his waist and he turns, scowling, ready to blast this person for their impudence.

“Play along, Jingyan,” Lin Shu says, grinning up at him from beneath a delicate headdress of white plum blossoms. “Do you know how hard it is to approach you where none of your soldiers will see?”


*


The border was taken three days ago. The armies are massing on Liang provinces. The Northern Yan have grown strong, these past few years. Both rumour and carefully considered intelligence give credit to a new general, a young military genius, who had appeared from nowhere and risen swiftly through the ranks.

“Zhanying,” Jingyan says and his second, ever attentive, steps forward.

“You Highness?”

Jingyan places the box in his hands. His own hands do not tremble.

“Have this delivered to the Northern Yan General.”

“Sir,” Zhanying says, confused but obedient. “Is there a message?”

“Tell him,” Jingyan says quietly, “That Prince Jing is a loyal son of Liang Da.”

But it was not betrayal I felt, or anger, when I saw him gallop his horse across the plain and his armour flared white-gold in the light of the setting sun -

*

It is Lin Shu, but he looks at Jingyan like a stranger.

“I am sorry, your highness,” Lin Shu says politely. “But I have no memories from before a few years ago. Did we know each other, once?”

It takes a moment before Jingyan can speak. “Yes,” he says, and his voice comes out hard and cracked. “Yes, we knew each other.” He falls silent.

The man stands there, his hands folded in his sleeves, waiting patiently. Lin Shu, patient! Jingyan wants to shake him, scream at him, until that careful reserve falls from his eyes, until that polite distance dissolves. Of all the hells Jingyan has ever imagined, Lin Shu forgetting him is not one of them.

But if Lin Shu did remember, what life would he have to return to? His family, dead. Himself, a branded traitor.

Jingyan takes out the pearl in its pouch and holds it out. “This was yours,” he said quietly. “I am glad to have this opportunity to return it to you. I will leave you in peace.”

He turns away.

Behind him there is a quiet rustle and a soft gasp. And then a voice says:

“Waterbuffalo?”


*

A masked man, a Jianghu warrior, appears before him one evening when Jingyan is leading a patrol back through the woods towards the main army.

He gets his sword up barely in time to block the man’s swing. The clash reverberates through the woods. The masked man leaps back, Jingyan vaults lightly from his horse - his mount will not give him advantage in a battle like this. As soon as his foot touches the ground the man is on him and Jingyan finds himself hard pressed. He knows himself a good soldier but he has never aspired to the Langya List. This man fights like quicksilver and he is continually on the defensive.

His men shout but they cannot risk coming close.

Their blades clash and lock and they strain against each other.

“Tell me,” Jingyan demands, “What is your grievance against me?”

“Grievance?” The warrior laughs, furious. “When you are the one who serves in silence and complacency while your brothers and seventy thousand souls are branded traitors. You ask me what grievance I have?”

Jingyan’s heart lurches. He stares into those burning, furious eyes over their straining blades and he knows them.

He hears Zhanying cry “Draw!” and he wrenches his gaze upwards, sees his men with their bows drawn and aimed.

Jingyan screams for them to hold but it is too late too late, the arrows slam home and the warrior crumples the ground. His mask splits and falls apart and it is Lin Shu, Lin Shu. Jingyan collapses to the ground, gathers him in his arms; he is keening an ugly unearthly sound. Lin Shu’s eyes are wide and staring, blank. The pearl falls from its pouch, rolls, comes to rest by xiao-Shu’s curled, still fingers -

*

Jingyan sets the box down on the table in front of his strategist. Mei Changsu looks across at him in mild enquiry.

“Please,” Jingyan says, gesturing. Mei Changsu lifts his eyebrow at him but reaches for the box, opens it.

Watching him intently, Jingyan sees him still. One heartbeat, two, and Mei Changsu swallows, reaching out to touch the lustrous curve of the pearl with fingers that barely tremble. Jingyan's fists are clenched so tight his hands ache.

Mei Changsu looks up and Jingyan chokes on a breath which is half sob, half laugh.

“You found it,” Mei Changsu says. “Jingyan.”

“Yes,” Jingyan says hoarsely. “xiao-Shu.” They reach for each other in the same moment and -

*

A white pigeon brings a message.

Plum blossoms really are the most annoying, stubborn plants.

Jingyan sets out the next day and the pearl is in a pouch about his neck, over his heart.