The warm, subtle scent of sandalwood perfumed the air in the Lin family shrine as Lin Shu, the last of his house, finally returned to give respect to his ancestors.
Jingyan had personally prepared the ancestral hall for the ceremony, placing the ancestral tablets and lighting candles and incense, unwilling to leave such an essential task to an outsider. Most of the tablets were new. Few original tablets had survived the Emperor’s destruction of the Lin household, and fewer still survived the fifteen years of neglect that followed. With Consort Jing’s help, Jingyan had ordered the reconstruction of all the ancestors that they remembered or could locate names for, as well as commissioning the construction of new tablets for those lost at Meiling and afterwards.
Jingyan stared at the placard for Xiao Shu for a long moment before the man arrived. Ordering it had been unavoidable. Xiao Shu was barely willing to acknowledge his former identity to his dearest friends; no one else had been told, and the affection between Jingyan and Xiao Shu had always been well known within the capital. Of course Jingyan would see the Lin ancestral hall set to rights, and of course he would see that Lin Shu received a place of honor within it. Of course he would.
He draped a red cloth over the placard, trying very hard not to think of Xiao Shu’s illness and wonder how soon he might have to pull the cloth away again.
Lin Shu entered in silence, Mu Nihuang and Meng Zhi close behind him. They bowed briefly to Jingyan, who returned the bow and stepped solemnly aside to let Lin Shu enter. It was hard to describe the look on Xiao Shu’s face just then – a curious mix of sadness and joy fighting for control of his face. In accordance with tradition, Xiao Shu stepped forward and made the traditional bows to the Heavens and his ancestors.
It was only when Xiao Shu’s shoulders started shaking that Jingyan realized he had never seen Xiao Shu – whether as Lin Shu, Mei Changsu, or Su Zhe – cry.
~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~
Lin Shu would never be able to say precisely how long he stayed in the Lin ancestral hall on his first visit after the Chiyan case had closed. This was in equal parts because the overwhelming emotion of the day clouded its memory, and because his body could not handle the strain and he eventually lost consciousness, still bowed before his noble family’s placards.
Mei Changsu opened his eyes to a proprietary hand around his wrist. The hand gripped tight, fingers digging for his pulse. Mei Changsu tried to shake the hand off impatiently.
“I’m fine,” he mumbled as he finally succeeded in pulling his arm free. He rubbed at his wrist with his opposite hand.
“Well, I suppose for some definitions of the word fine – “ replied a high and strident voice. “No, not even then. You shouldn’t lie to me, Changsu.”
Mei Changsu opened his eyes and blinked up at Lin Chen. “I’m not any worse than I was this morning, then?”
“On that, at least, we might agree.” Lin Chen held out his hand impatiently and Changsu let him grab his wrist. Lin Chen closed his eyes momentarily in concentration, then released Changsu. “I suppose you’re well enough to make it more trouble than it’s worth to keep those people out.”
Lin Chen nodded to Li Gang and Zhen Ping, who opened the doors to admit Jingyan and Nihuang. Mei Changsu rolled on his side, intending to sit up. Lin Chen’s fan landed on the side of his neck. Changsu glared up at Lin Chen and got a particularly skeptical glance in return. Disgruntled, he settled back against the pillows.
“Xiao Shu,” Jingyan said as he drew close, eyeing Lin Shu as though he were contemplating grabbing Lin Shu’s wrist to check for himself that Xiao Shu was all right. He paused by Lin Shu’s bedside instead. Jingyan smiled sadly, and Lin Shu’s face echoed the expression. “Sleeping in the middle of the day – you are like an old man already.”
“Everyone gets old eventually, Jingyan,” Changsu replied softly. “I just got there faster than most.”
Nihuang laughed, the corners of her mouth lifting up slightly. “How like you, to be rushing on ahead of us.”
Jingyan laughed humorlessly. He looked away for a moment, recalling when Xiao Shu arrived to tell him that things would not be the same after the verdict was overturned. Jingyan, for me, once the case is redressed, it is the end, Xiao Shu had said. You cannot have a strategist like Su Zhe at your side and These past thirteen years, I have done so much, I am a bit tired now. He looked back at Xiao Shu, observing the fine lines marring his young face, the subtle sloping of his shoulders. He inhaled once, releasing the breath slowly before speaking.
“When will you be leaving?” he asked.
“Leaving?” Nihuang echoed.
Lin Shu refused to meet Jingyan’s eyes, glancing instead over Jingyan’s shoulder to where Fei Liu was playing. “Tomorrow.”
“Tomorrow?” Jingyan’s brow furrowed.
Lin Shu laughed. “Didn’t Nihuang just comment on how I like to move forward quickly?”
Jingyan settled silently onto Lin Shu’s bedside, and brushed back an errant lock of Lin Shu’s hair.
“You’re not allowed to stay away for four or five years,” Jingyan said, frowning. “If you do not visit in at least two years, I will come and find you. Understood?”
“Of course, your highness,” Mei Changsu replied, with a mocking tilt to his mouth and a laughter in his eyes that belonged entirely to Lin Shu and took the sting out of his overly formal words.
“And what about your promises to me, huh?” Nihuang asked stridently, stepping past Jingyan and folding her legs under her so that she knelt beside Lin Shu’s bed. “Didn’t you promise not to leave me again? And you didn’t tell me that we’re heading out tomorrow?”
Mei Changsu averted his eyes, glancing at the foot of his bed.
“Eh, what’s this?” Lin Chen looked back and forth between his friend and Nihuang. “The Mu princess is joining us and you didn’t tell me?” He snapped his fan shut and waived it accusingly at Mei Changsu. “I see, I see – this is why you were so resistant to the idea of bringing Miss Gong Yu along with us! You were only being considerate of her feelings.”
Nihuang glanced up at Lin Chen, eyes wide. “Miss Gong Yu? The young woman who guarded Xiao Shu’s tent during the Spring Hunt?”
“The very same!” Lin Chen leaned down and said in a voice too loud to be a whisper, “Li Gang and Zhen Ping do not trust Fei Liu and I to take good care of their Chief, so we suggested that she might join us. Perhaps they will be satisfied with you instead?”
Li Gang stepped forward immediately and bowed. “We would of course be more at ease with someone as sensible as the princess accompanying the Chief. If you please, princess.”
“Please,” Zhen Ping said, bowing as well.
“What are you talking about?” Mei Changsu interrupted, glaring at his retainers. “The Southern border –“
“ – will be well looked after by Mu Qing,” Nihuang said smoothly. She grabbed her fiancé’s hand. “It’s time I let him manage it by himself for a bit anyway, or else people will say that the young Mu lord must rely on his older sister for everything. To go on as we have would interfere with his prospects for a good bride.”
“True, true,” Lin Chen chimed in, a smile crossing his face. “The young lad must be allowed to stand on his own. Isn’t that right, Changsu?”
Mei Changsu pursed his lips and narrowed his eyes at the lot of them.
“Princess – “ he began.
“Who are you calling princess?” Nihuang cut him off, shaking her head and pulling his hand from side to side as she did so. “I will not put up with such courtesies from you any longer. In fact,” she smiled, her eyes flashing brightly as she held his gaze, “if I am to travel with you, I should adopt a different name altogether, the easier to travel.”
“Princess Nihuang –“ Mei Changsu tried again, struggling to sit up with only one hand free to support himself.
“She’s right, Changsu,” Lin Chen interjected, pushing him gently but firmly back down onto the bed by the shoulder. “Whether we stay in the country or make it out into the Pugilist world, it will be easier to travel with an anonymous female warrior than with the justifiably famous Mu Princess.”
“Mr. Lin is too kind,” Nihuang replied.
“Please,” Lin Chen replied, “if we are going to travel together, there is no need to be so polite.”
“You know that isn’t – “ Mei Changsu began once more.
His voice cut-off abruptly. He looked down to the hand now covering what had been his free hand, tracing it up an arm covered in red cloth to Xiao Jingyan.
Jingyan waited until Xiao Shu was looking at him, then waited a beat more, before saying, “Please, Xiao Shu?”
Mei Changsu took stock of the room. Li Gang and Zhen Ping were still bowing towards Mu Nihuang. Nihuang and Jingyan were both holding his hands tightly, and Lin Chen was giving him a terribly knowing look. He sighed.
“Fei Liu,” he said after a moment, “Nihuang-jie wants to come traveling with us. Is it okay?”
“Okay!” Fei Liu shouted back, never pausing in his game of marbles. Mei Changsu sighed again.
“Well, if Fei Liu says it’s all right,” he said, as though that had been the only concern, and tried very hard not to be irked by the smiles on literally everyone’s faces around him.
“As for our departure,” Lin Chen began. Mei Changsu huffed out a breath through his nose, tilting his head down as eyes focused solidly up at the young master of Langya Hall. Lin Chen smiled. “It would be unkind to expect the princess to leave with so little notice, Changsu, and especially when today has already been so trying for you, I do not think it would hurt to stay one more day this time.”
Xiao Jingyan shook the hand that he still held back and forth slightly when it looked like Xiao Shu was about to open his mouth to protest this, as well. Xiao Shu sighed.
“Very well then,” he said, “but the day after tomorrow, we leave without fail. No more excuses!”
And he glared at each of them in turn, though he was met with only indulgent smiles.
“Don’t worry,” Nihuang said warmly, glancing at Jingyan and Mei Changsu’s subordinates, “I would have been ready if it were tomorrow.” She glared down at Mei Changsu, her smile gaining a wicked, satisfied edge. “And I was there when he figured out most of his tricks, so he won’t get away with not resting as he should.”
Li Gang and Zhen Ping exchanged smiles. The looked back at the princess and bowed again.
“We will leave him in your care,” said Zhen Ping.
“Princess,” said Jingyan, bowing deeply to Nihuang.
“Water buffalo,” Nihuang said, bowing back, and laughter filled the room until Xiao Shu’s broke down into a coughing fit and Lin Chen forced them all from the room.
As they headed out of the Su residence, Nihuang stopped Jingyan, her hand resting lightly on his elbow.
“I really will look after him,” she said softly. The setting sun caught her hair, making it shine with reflected hints of gold. She smiled. “He’s not… he probably won’t ever be really well. But he said the doctors told him he would likely live another ten years, and perhaps we can stretch that.”
Jingyan looked into the distance for a moment, watching a flit take flight.
“For thirteen years,” he said eventually, “I prayed for just one more day with Xiao Shu. It would be ill gratitude to the heavens, when I have already had so many more than I even asked for, to complain that I am not getting endless days to come.”
Nihuang squeezed his elbow once, smiled, and left the Su residence.
~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~
For want of a better idea, Jingyan headed back to the Eastern Palace, but his mind was restless and his footsteps led him in circles until Lie Zhanying subtly turned him toward Zhiluo Palace instead. The maids informed him that his mother was inside and his father was not, and he wandered past them up the steps into the palace even as a maid ran ahead to announce him. Lie Zhanying followed him to the door, but slipped quietly back to the foot of the stairs with the maids who his mother was sending out even as he walked in.
“Jingyan,” his mother said, taking his hands, “it’s unusual for you to come see me so late at night. What’s wrong, Jingyan?”
He smiled sadly at her. “Xiao Shu…”
“What has that child done now?” His mother asked lightly. “Don’t tell me he’s been eating hazelnuts again.”
Jingyan laughed without meaning to, then sighed. “He’s leaving, mother. From the day after tomorrow, he will be gone again, to rest and recuperate. It may be years before I see him again.”
Her body tensed for a brief instant, but he could feel it through their joined hands, see it in her face. A hard knot of suspicion formed in chest.
“Mother?” He said, squeezing her hands. “He will be able to return if he truly takes the time to rest. Won’t he?”
His mother smiled, letting go of his hands and rising to her feet. She turned away, shaking her head.
“Of course,” she said, “it’s just that it makes me sad to think I may not have the opportunity to see him before he goes.”
Jingyan rose as well, searching her face carefully as he approached her. Xiao Shu had said that complete recovery was unlikely. Unlikely was not impossible, but more than that… His mother had said that Xiao Shu could not survive the failure to clear the Chiyan case again, but he had written that down to Xiao Shu’s emotional state affecting his illness. His mother was indeed skilled at keeping her expression calm, which in retrospect made her reaction to Xiao Shu’s pulse all the more alarming.
“I will bring him to visit tomorrow,” Jingyan said, the words slipping out before he could stop them. “Or you can go to Auntie Liyang’s place, and I will arrange for him to meet you there.”
She shook her head. “It would be inappropriate for your aunt to host anyone so early in her mourning period, and more so to bring Xiao Shu to visit so soon after the revelation of her husband’s crimes.”
“Then I will bring him here,” Jingyan promised, and after a moment’s reflection, his mother nodded.
“All right, then,” his mother said, “I’ll see you both tomorrow.”
~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~
Yan Yujin and Xiao Jingrui were walking down the main thoroughfare in Jinling when someone turned a corner and nearly knocked them both off their feet.
“Watch where you’re going!” Yujin shouted as they dodged out of the way.
“If no one was hurt, there’s no problem,” replied a familiar voice. Yujin looked up from the hemline he’d been examining for mud into the distinctive features of the young Mu prince.
“Mu Qing?” Yujin asked, surprised. “Where are you headed in such a hurry?”
“Ah, Xiao Jingrui, Yan Yujin, I’m so sorry,” the young Mu prince said. He shook his head. “You won’t believe what my sister’s up to! Honestly, Nihuang-jie never used to be so impulsive!”
Mu Qing stepped to the side of the street to join Jingrui and Yujin, letting the other citizens and various carts resume their paths along the street. He was frowning, and kicking at the dirt like the spoiled child he had always been.
“Oh?” Jingrui replied. “What is Nihuang-jiejie up to?”
Mu Qing threw his arms out wide as he exclaimed, “She’s going travelling with Mr. Su!”
Jingrui and Yujin exchanged looks.
“You mean to say that Mr. Su is leaving Jinling and Nihuang-jie is going with him?” Yujin asked. “But how can that be? Surely they would have told us!”
“I don’t know about Mr. Su’s plans,” Mu Qing grumbled, “but Nihuang-jie literally came home last night and told me that I should be prepared if anything happens with Nanchu because she’s taking time off to travel with Mr. Su! And his doctor and his bodyguard and no one else! I told her it’s terribly improper and her eyes lit up and she told me to take care of her supplies because she had an errand to run.”
Jingrui and Yujin looked at one another uncomfortably.
“Perhaps one of the women from their household will be going along?” Jingrui suggested.
“It didn’t sound like that from what my sister said,” Mu Qing said. He crossed his arms over his chest, turning aside, then turned his head back as his eyes took on a conspiratorial look. “Hey, hey, you don’t think that Nihuang-jie likes him, do you? I’m not very happy about this trip, but I don’t know that I’d mind if she married him.”
“It’s probably a bit early to be speaking of marriage,” he replied. Yujin closed his eyes and nodded slowly, sagely along.
“Regardless, I may have to speak with Mr. Su about his intentions,” Mu Qing continued, facing them properly once more. “And quickly! They’re leaving tomorrow!”
“Tomorrow?” Yujin asked, eyes popping open. His hands dropped to his side and he looked away briefly, then back at Mu Qing. “Are you sure?”
Mu Qing scowled. “Why do you think I was in such a hurry? Nihuang-jie gave me such a long shopping list I wonder if she’ll be back any time this year!”
“… I suppose Mr. Su always did intend to return home,” Jingrui said, his brow furrowing, “but I’m not sure his illness is any better yet. Is this really a good idea?”
Mu Qing waved dismissively. “Apparently the whole trip was his doctor’s idea. He’s from Langya Hall, so he probably knows what he’s talking about.”
“If anyone would have information on how to treat an unusual illness, it would certainly be Langya Hall,” Yujin agreed. “You see, Jingrui? It’s probably just a matter of trying something new since Jinling doesn’t seem to have healed him yet.”
“I guess so…” Jingrui replied.
“Besides,” Yujin said, slinging an arm around Jingrui’s shoulders, “didn’t he come here for peace and quiet? He’s been held hostage three times this year alone! You can’t say it’s been very restful…”
“No,” Jingrui said, pursing his lips, “I suppose we can’t say that.”
“Still,” Yujin continued, “I don’t like the idea of letting Mr. Su leave without at least saying goodbye. It would be poor gratitude. I’ll talk to my father and we will have everyone who knows Mr. Su over for a farewell dinner tonight. Does that work?”
“Excellent idea!” Mu Qing replied. “I will bring Nihuang and be able to speak with Mr. Su for myself.”
Jingrui raised his open palms toward Mu Qing. “Just remember its impolite to pick a fight with a guest in someone else’s home, and that Mr. Su is a respected but delicate scholar. I doubt he could force Nihuang-jie to do anything she didn’t want to do.”
Mu Qing glared mulishly for a moment. He expression eased into something closer to rue as he said, “I know. If anything, it sounded like Mr. Su was planning to go with just his doctor and his young bodyguard, and my sister forced her way into going along. And he did save her from that bastard Sima Lei last year, as well.”
“Ah, I heard about that!” Yujin exclaimed. “I didn’t know Mr. Su had been involved with that as well.”
“I think there is very little that has happened the last two years here in Jinling that Mr. Su was not involved in somehow,” mumbled Jingrui.
“What, Jingrui?” Yujin asked, raising a hand to his ear and leaning closer to his friend. “You must speak louder.”
Jingrui shook his head. “It’s nothing. We should get going if you truly want to host Mr. Su tonight.”
“Ah, right, right!” Yujin agreed. “Mu Qing, we’ll see you this evening!”
“Till then!” Mu Qing replied. They exchanged bows and parted.
~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~
Consort Jing spent much of the morning baking, filled with a restless energy that would not be eased no matter what she did. Once finished with all her desserts (all hazelnut free, for now), she took a moment to check over the protective charm that she had had her maid fetch from the temple for her. The peach wood pendant had a single loop, inscribed on one side with “心安身健”, and on the other with images of peonies and plum blossoms, a pair of magpies nesting among the branches. She had threaded the leather string through it herself, and clasped it now tightly between her hands, calling for all her departed loved ones – those who had loved Xiao Shu as she did especially – to be with him and watch over him on his journey.
“Madam,” called her maid, and she lowered her hands, tucking the pendant away in her sleeves.
“Fetch some tea and the desserts, and then you are excused,” said Consort Jing, paying little attention the murmured agreement around her. She walked impatiently toward her door, struck still in the entryway.
How many years had it been? Thirteen at least, but between their separate journeys out of the capital, perhaps closer to fifteen years even. She could see them in her mind’s eye as they had been, two strong young men of roughly equal height, Xiao Shu teasing her Jingyan, then darting ahead to avoid the quick swipe of Jingyan’s hand when he at last pushed too far, laughing and dodging. Her Jingyan had laughed in return, unwilling or unable to stay angry at that rascal, who would spot her watching them and suddenly take up a proper stance, falling into step beside Jingyan with a mostly sober expression on his face that might have fooled the Grand Dowager Empress but certainly didn’t fool her.
Xiao Shu wasn’t laughing or dodging now.
She would never get used to how different he looked – so far from the young Mei Shinan who had once saved her life and who Xiao Shu had always closely resembled. Xie-gege and Jinyang-jiejie would never forgive the Emperor or any of the culprits for the changes that had been wrought in their precious child. Xiao Shu walked slowly, hunched over in a way that made him appear much shorter than Jingyan. He was as careful of the placement of each step as a baby goat on a mountain. Jingyan walked a fraction behind him, hand not quite outstretched to support Xiao Shu, but clearly ready to spring into action at a moment’s notice. Xiao Shu paused and looked up, smiling at the sight of her in the doorway as Jingyan at last caved to the impulse to put one arm around Xiao Shu and gently support his elbow with the other hand. Xiao Shu looked away when Jingyan’s arm made contact with his back, but he did not shake off the touch, focusing on his feet as they headed forward along the path and up the stairs to Zhiluo Palace.
“Mother,” said Jingyan as they reached the top of the stairs, “I have brought Su Zhe to see you as you requested.”
“Please come in,” she said, gesturing the two of them inside. Consort Jing glanced around the room, observing tea and snacks on the table and no maids to be spotted. She stopped Xiao Shu before he could move past her by placing her hand on his arm. “Welcome home, Xiao Shu.”
Xiao Shu blinked oddly at her for a moment, then smiled and bowed to her. “I’m home, Aunt Jing.”
“Come,” she said, gesturing toward the table where the tea and snacks had been arranged. She seated herself on the far side of the table, Jingyan helping Xiao Shu to settle on the other side before seating himself. She poured the tea, offering the first glass to Xiao Shu. He lifted it to inhale the fragrance of its bouquet.
“Auntie Jing,” he said as she offered a cup to Jingyan and poured a glass for herself, “you have such excellent taste in tea! Why must you waste it on a water buffalo like Jingyan?”
“Leaf water,” Jingyan grumbled as he took a sip, and for a moment they were thirteen again. She blinked and the moment was gone.
Consort Jing pulled the pendant from her sleeve and offered it to Xiao Shu. “Xiao Shu,” she said, “here, this is for you, for your journey.”
“You’re too kind,” Xiao Shu replied, taking the pendant from her with both hands, carefully examining the inscription on each side. He smiled with laughter in his eyes. “So many people have wished me a peaceful mind on my journey that I fear I will offend the heavens if I have anything else.”
“The heavens have forgiven you many insults in the past,” Consort Jing answered with a smile, “I imagine they will forgive you again if it is truly necessary. But for now, please wear it, with my blessings.”
“Of course, Aunt Jing.”
Xiao Shu reached up to tie the pendant’s string behind his neck, but the position was awkward. Jingyan unthinkingly reached out and grabbed the endings from Xiao Shu’s hands, easily creating a strong knot that would hold. Consort Jing watched as the hands that Xiao Shu had lowered to his sides curled up into balled fists, though his face did not move a millimeter.
“Unfortunately,” Xiao Shu said, “we will not be able to spend the entire evening with you. It seems that word got out to Yan Yujin and Xiao Jingrui that I will be leaving tomorrow, and the Marquis Yan is now insisting that he host a farewell party this evening for me.”
“That is as it should be,” Consort Jing replied, “no one should leave home without a farewell party.”
Xiao Shu made a face, but did not disagree.
“I’m afraid that I won’t rest easy letting you leave if I do not check your condition myself,” she said, smiling ruefully. She turned to her son. “Jingyan, would you mind waiting outside briefly?”
“Of course, Mother” Jingyan said. “I would feel better as well if you could assure me that all will be well while Xiao Shu travels.”
Jingyan rose to his feet and swiftly exited the palace. Consort Jing observed his departure until her son had exited the building, giving it a few additional moments for him to descend the steps. Then she held her hands out to Xiao Shu expectantly, waiting until he offered her his wrist.
“Xiao Shu,” she asked softly as she took his pulse, “truthfully, how much longer does your doctor believe that you will live?”
His heart skipped a beat, and even with an irregular rhythm, there was no way that she could not have noticed it when his pulse rate began to speed up.
“Auntie Jing…” he said quietly, looking away from her, his head down. She reached out to touch his face, turning it towards her. He leaned into her palm, his eyes closed. She watched his throat work, swallowing slowly. He opened his eyes. “It is unlikely that we will meet again.”
She wrapped her arms around him, pulling him tightly to her without even thinking, tears falling unbidden down her face.
“Oh, Xiao Shu,” she said, and words deserted her. After a moment, she felt his arms wrapping around her in return.
“Aunt Jing,” he said, “please don’t be sad. I should have died thirteen years ago. It is not so bad, when all my wishes have come true, that my road is ending.”
“Never think it,” she replied fiercely. Consort Jing had held Xiao Shu many times – was, in fact, the first to hold him when came into the world, flailing for freedom and screaming his existence to all with ears to hear. She had held him as a little boy, squirming away to play with his cousins when he got bored with saying hello, and as a young man returned from his first battles, strong and not quite sure of himself. Never had he felt so frail. “Every day you draw breath is a blessing.”
She closed her eyes, burying her face in his neck. His hand rubbed hesitant circles between her shoulder blades.
“I am in no hurry to leave this world, Auntie Jing,” Xiao Shu replied, “but you know that the Bitter Flame poison is mysterious. When I was first treated, I was told to expect perhaps ten years of life. To have made it so many is indeed a blessing. To have lived to see my family’s honor cleared, and their memorials restored – it is already more than I believed I could obtain.”
Consort Jing relaxed her grip enough to lean back and look into his face. “With all of this being accomplished, with nothing to keep you away, why would you leave? I do not like to think of you behaving like an old man in a famine, slinking off to die alone in the mountains!”
Xiao Shu smiled at her. “I am not going alone. Do you remember Lin Fa? His son, Lin Chen, is coming with me – “
“So it was Lin Fa who treated you after the battles at Meiling?” Consort Jing interrupted. Xiao Shu nodded. She patted his arm absently. “That is well. The Old Master of Langya Hall’s skills in medicine are second to none. I have heard the Young Master is also skilled – he will be looking after you?”
“Yes, Aunt Jing,” Xiao Shu replied, bowing his head to hide a smile that she spotted nonetheless. He looked back at her, not bothering to force the corners of his mouth down. “Also with us will be Fei Liu, a boy who I have taken into my house, and Princess Nihuang.”
“Princess Nihuang is going with you?” she asked. Xiao Shu nodded again, and Consort Jing sighed. “Well that’s well, then. She can protect you and look after you both. Does she… I know you haven’t told Jingyan, but – “
“No, I haven’t told her yet,” he said, and years of familiarity let her read the guilt plain as day on his face.
“Xiao Shu,” she scolded, “I understand why you haven’t – why you cannot – tell Jingyan, but how can you keep this from her? Especially when she will be traveling with you.”
He sat back, his arms slipping from between her hands like the east wind, and looked at the ground.
“You know,” he said after a long moment, “that I cannot tell Jingyan because he would not be able to focus on his tasks if he knew. Even without knowing my identity, he stayed up all night with me when I was sick at Mount Jiuan. It is better that he will hear of it from a distance – easier – that he will not watch me die by millimeters, slowly deteriorating and unable to care for myself. I would give Nihuang the same peace of mind if I could.”
Consort Jing balled her hands into fists to keep from slapping him.
“What peace of mind?” She asked, her voice loud enough to break the spell of near silence that had formed around them. “And what of you? Will it not be better for you to have someone who loves you there?”
“Aunt Jing – “
“No!” she yelled, banging her hands against the dais. “Xiao Shu, for those who are left behind in this world, more comforting to your friends than the lies that you did not suffer will be the knowledge that they were of aid to you and soothed your hurts as best they could. You will promise me now that you will not try to drive Nihuang or the others away from you on this trip, or I will tell Jingyan not to let you leave the city because your health is too frail for travel!”
Xiao Shu looked back up at her, eyes wide. “Aunt Jing – “
“Promise me, Xiao Shu!” she demanded. She hardened her features against his puppy eyes as she had not since he was a child trying to beg off having to do chores for staying out late and getting into trouble with Jingyan again. He recalled the expression – she was certain of that when he at last bowed his head and nodded before meeting her eyes head on.
“All right,” he said. “I promise that I will let them stay by my side.”
“Good.” She patted his hands. “Very good. Now wait right here while I go and get Jingyan, and we will talk until you have to go see your uncle.”
“Yes, Auntie Jing,” he sing-songed behind her as she headed to the door to call Jingyan back in.
She smiled. Honestly, that child, Xiao Shu.
~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~
“Stop looking so sour, Changsu,” Lin Chen admonished as they walked toward the Yan household. “It’s not like there was anything left to eat at your place after the kitchen staff packed up the household.”
Mei lowered his head slightly so he could look at Lin Chen from only the upper left corners of his eyes, raising his brows as he did so. Xiao Jingyan, who was walking on the other side of Mei Changsu, observed the scene and began to laugh, which caused Lin Shu to turn the same expression on him.
“Ah, Xiao – Mr. Su, please don’t be angry at me,” said Crown Prince Jingyan, still laughing. “It is only – I had not seen you make that expression in many years. I am glad to see that you still know how to make it.”
“And this is why you’re so spoiled, Changsu,” Lin Chen interjected, waving his fan in the prince’s face. “Because you act like a brat and the people around you smile with joy.”
Xiao Jingyan laughed all the harder.
“Ah, we’ve arrived,” Mei Changsu announced, looking up at the large manor of the Yan family. “I shall go in and see if anyone inside appreciates my presence more than those out here.”
“You – “ Lin Chen protested, but let Changsu enter ahead of them. He shook his head at Xiao Jingyan and gestured with his fan that the prince should enter first into Marquis Yan’s home, but the prince remained still. He glanced at the door, where Changsu had disappeared into the building, then back at Lin Chen.
“You will take care of him, right?” The prince smiled, though the expression was absent from his eyes. “You’ll make sure that he’s happy?”
Lin Chen sighed.
“You should know better than anyone that he’s only happy when he wants to be,” he replied, crossing his arms and turning his face away, eyes closed. “But so far as it’s in my power, yes. And if I cannot, I will unleash Fei Liu and Nihuang on him. All right?”
Xiao Jingyan smiled. “All right. Please, go in.”
And with a courtly bow, he waited until Lin Chen had entered before turning and following along himself. When they arrived inside, exchanging pleasantries with the Marquis, there was already a fairly loud discussion going on in the center of the room.
“Nie Dong!” Mei Changsu exclaimed. “How good to see you freed your imprisonment at last! And how is your husband?”
“He is well, but insisted that he finish the packing and that I come alone tonight,” the woman once known as Xia Dong replied, bowing slightly. “We are very much looking forward to traveling with you again.”
“Traveling with me?” Mei Changsu asked.
“Yes, of course.” Nie Dong replied. “Did Nihuang not tell you?”
Mei Changsu stared at her for a moment before turning to Nihuang.
“I invited Dong-jie and Feng-ge to join us on our trip,” Nihuang explained with smile. Her eyes were full of challenge as she continued, “Qing-er reminded me that it would be inappropriate for a woman like myself to travel alone with only three men for company, and I thought that since Feng-ge’s illness is similar to yours, what is healthful for you might also be healthful for him. It’s not a problem, is it?”
Mei Changsu did not immediately respond.
“Ah, Mr. Su!” cried Yujin, “it looks like someone has at last gotten the upperhand on you in planning!”
“We would understand if Mr. Su objects to our company,” Nie Dong said softly, a sad smile on her face that seemed to recall how long she had spent cursing Lin Shu’s name. “Though I know my husband would prefer to travel with you, we can of course head in a separate direction if you insist.”
Yujin shook his head, saying, “Mr. Su! How ever will you maintain your place on Langya’s List if you churlishly refuse the company of old friends! I myself would challenge their rankings as false!”
“I only thought – “ Mei Changsu began, but was cut off by a strident voice from the doorway.
“He’s right, Changsu!” Lin Chen replied. “In fact, I may have to tell father to lower your ranking for even considering it. How could you be so cruel as to deny your friend Nie Feng the opportunity to heal along our travels? Do you want me to go with the Nie couple intead?”
Mei Changsu favored Lin Chen with a particularly unfriendly look that Lin Chen utterly ignored until Mei Changsu turned back to Nie Dong.
“Of course, you are welcome to come with us, if it is all right with Fei Liu,” he said, bowing politely to Nie Dong.
“See,” Nihuang said, clapping a friendly arm around Nie Dong’s shoulders, “I told you it wouldn’t be any inconvenience! It is always well when old comrades can travel together.”
“How unfortunate for Jinling, to lose so many capable young people to one journey!” remarked Marquis Yan. Xiao Jingyan and Lin Chen turned to offer bows of greeting to their host, which were promptly returned. The marquis gestured to the next room, saying, “Commander Meng and the others who were available on short notice are within. Shall we join them?”
The group agreed and moved inside to find both their fellow guests and a banquet waiting for them. At Marquis Yan’s direction, they seated themselves and the feast began. When the meal was at length concluded, after much light conversation and delicious food, Marquis Yan rose and lifted his glass.
“A toast,” he said, “to Mr. Su, who will be leaving us so soon, and who has done so much good for our empire, in particular for our fallen heroes in the Chiyan army.”
Marquis Yan turned to Lin Shu and looked him straight in the eye as he said, “Brother Lin Xie would be proud to have had the assistance of one such as Mr. Su, who used cleverness to restore the good names of himself, his men, and our Prince Qi. His wife, Lin Jinyang, would likewise have considered herself fortunate. And so as you leave, I drink to your renewed good health and safe travels. May you live a hundred years, have children as numerous as the stars, and know nothing but joy until we meet again. To Mr. Su!”
“To Mr. Su!” chorused the assembled guests, raising their glasses and drinking the full cup, placing the glasses upside down on their tables.
Half-frozen, Lin Shu stared across the room into Marquis Yan’s eyes. After a very long moment, he bowed his head to his not-quite-uncle, lifted his glass, and drank it as everyone else had. He rose to his feet.
“Marquis Yan is too kind,” he said, and smiled at the assembled crowd. Yujin and Jingrui seated side-by-side, and Nihuang with Jingyan like a memory from childhood come to life. Shen Zhui and the other ministers he had picked to counsel Jingyan. Meng Zhi and Lie Zhanying, who would keep Jingyan safe. Lin Chen, Fei Liu, and Nie Dong, who would take him from this place and keep him from dying too soon. No, there wasn’t much he would change about this.
Lin Shu poured himself another glass and raised it to the crowd. “To our generous host, Marquis Yan, and to all of you who have joined us here today. Until we meet again!”
And the guests toasted again with enthusiasm, for what was certainly not the last time in a night filled with merriment and farewells that lasted late into the night.
~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~
It was early the next morning when Mei Changsu and his companions went to the city gates to depart on their journey. While at the party, Mei Changsu had indicated that they would be leaving closer to noon to anyone who had asked. He had privately (and forcefully) communicated to his traveling companions that he would be leaving at first light, with or without them, and would be most displeased if he were obliged to say his goodbyes a third time.
(“You mean a second time, Changsu,” Lin Chen had replied, and Mei Changsu had glared at him until he relented and promised.)
In spite of this, Xiao Jingyan was waiting with Lie Zhanying at the gates. Mei Changsu glanced at his companions, all of whom looked sufficiently surprised to pass muster.
“Your highness is up quite early today,” Mei Changsu said as his group halted just on the far side of the castle gate, where Jingyan had been waiting for them.
“The first to arrive is the first to accomplish the task, isn’t that right?” Jingyan replied, a mocking smile on his face as he raised an eyebrow at Xiao Shu. “You seem a bit early as well, or does the term noon mean something different in the Pugilist world?”
A tiny smile flashed across Mei Changsu’s face, and Jingyan smiled back.
“If you will excuse me a moment,” Changsu said to his fellow travelers, “it seems that I have a few last minute words to say to his highness.”
“We’re in no hurry,” replied Lin Chen, making shooing motions at Mei Changsu. “Go talk to your friend. We will wait, won’t we?”
“Of course!” Nihuang said as Nie Dong and Nie Feng nodded. Mei Changsu gestured for the Crown Prince to proceed him as they walked some distance away, with the prince gesturing to Lie Zhanying that he should stay where he was.
“I left a letter for you,” Mei Changsu said when they were some distance away, “but it wouldn’t hurt to repeat it in person.”
“A letter?” Jingyan asked, tilting his head. “Is that really how you wanted to say goodbye to me, Xiao Shu?”
“You must be careful,” the strategist replied. “The empire has just survived an insurrection by one of its princes after abolishing another for immoral behavior, and exposed the framing of a third for treason. These kinds of internal strife invariably make a country seem weak to its enemies, of which Liang has many. To have had so many calamities, people will say that the emperor has lost the will of heaven.”
“Xiao Shu – “
“You should send Jingrui as your envoy to Nanchu and see if he cannot use his shared bloodlines to create a new ally. It will be easier because Nihuang will be away, traveling with me, and – “
“Xiao Shu!” Jingyan did not actually stomp his foot, but the expression on his face indicated how close it had come. Lin Shu stopped, startled. Jingyan placed a hand on Lin Shu’s arm and stared at him, running his eyes over Xiao Shu’s features as though to memorize them. “I will read your letter when it comes and pay close attention to your advice.”
“All right,” Mei Changsu replied, blinking slowly. Jingyan remained silent for a long moment. “Your high-“
“Shh.” Jingyan said, shaking his head. He swallowed slowly once, twice, and then nodded. “Since you’re the one who is going traveling this time, you will have to bring me back something.”
Lin Shu smiled. “Oh? And what should that be, when I don’t even know our whole route, never mind any of the local specialties.”
Jingyan paused again, considering. “I suppose there’s really only one thing outside of Jinling that I cannot acquire for myself these days.”
“And that is?”
“You,” Jingyan replied without hesitation. He squeezed Lin Shu’s army as tightly as he dared, conscious of the man’s weakened condition and not wishing to leave a bruise. “Bring yourself home, safe and sound, and we’ll call it even for all the time I spent looking for that stupid pearl for you.”
Xiao Shu used the arm of his free hand to cover Jingyan’s hand on his arm and squeezed it in return.
“All right,” he said, “I’ll do my best.”
~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~
Mei Changsu’s group made one final stop on their way out of the area. Meng Zhi and Wei Zheng, who had recently been reinstated to the army, were waiting for them. The remainder of the memorial’s guard was composed entirely of Xiao Jingyan’s most loyal soldiers and restored soldiers of the Chiyan army. Meng Zhi and Wei Zheng gave particularly deep bows as Lin Shu approached.
The pavilion was just as he remembered it from prior state funerals. Nihuang, who had kept watch over the Memorial for so many months, took his hand and led him forward.
“Great-grandmother,” she said softly to the tablets before them, “look. Your Xiao Shu has come to visit you.”
Together, they made the proper obeisance, bowing respectfully low as the incense burned around them. Xiao Shu did not cry. The grief here was sharp but clean, a pain that stung still with newness even after a year, but without any of the more complicated feelings that had been lanced at his family’s memorial days earlier.
“She always loved you best,” Nihuang said when they rose after completing their pious respects, her hand lightly under his elbow as support and insurance against a collapse.
Xiao Shu swallowed carefully around the lump in his throat. “Her love was returned.”
“Great-grandmother told me to look after you,” she replied without glancing toward him. “I will have to do a better job from today onwards, or I will never be able to face her in the afterlife.”
Xiao Shu turned to her, catching her hand in his. “She would not blame you for what has happened.”
Nihuang searched his eyes with hers.
“Even if she would forgive me such dereliction of duty,” she said, “I would not. Great-grandmother chose me to receive her most precious treasure, after all. I will take care of it in any way I can.”
Xiao Shu had no words. He nodded once. They stepped out of the hall and headed back down the path to where their traveling companions waited for them, the open road waiting beyond.
Their journey had just begun.