It begins, as monumental things often do, with a tiny act.
The dolphin calf flounders in wet sand, its fins scraping shallow grooves beneath it as it tries and fails to get back into the water. Out in the water, an adult dolphin calls, skimming close to the shore but being forced to retreat each time that the waves don’t bring it near enough. The tide is receding and the calf’s skin is already drying; it won’t survive much longer this way.
It’s a natural part of life. Animals get trapped in situations that kill them all the time, and nature doesn’t discriminate about their ages. This calf’s imminent death will likely feed other animals and its mother will move on in time and have another calf.
All the same, Xiao Jingyan has never been one to stand by and watch a living being suffer, especially not with the calf’s mother still calling in frantic, high-pitched distress.
It’s heavy, but he’s used to carrying heavier. Its tendency to flop and flail makes it far more difficult than it should be, though, and when the water’s lapping at his knees, he gives up and lets the calf slide into the water. It needs another nudge or two before it seems to realise that it’s able to move, and then it gives a tired flick of its tail and glides forward to its whistling mother.
Satisfied, Jingyan turns to wade out of the water, and the world goes blue.
“We thank you for your kindness,” a chorus of voices intones from behind him.
He spins, but no matter where he looks, all he sees is a vast expanse of glimmering blue light.
“A life is a gift not easily repaid,” the voices say. “What wouldst thou ask of us?”
Jingyan opens his mouth, then shuts it again. This is incredibly far out of his experience, and he frankly has no idea what to say. Then, because that seems like a good idea, he tries, “I don’t understand.”
There’s a murmur of something like laughter, soft and fond and inhuman. “You have saved our child. In repayment, we offer a boon. What wouldst thou ask of us?”
Jingyan swallows. He’s heard of spirit stories such as these, of course; who hasn’t? But they’re meant to be pure myth, tales told over evening fires to capture the attention of new recruits. Every new area has its own brand of stories, and the East Sea’s myths tend to revolve around sea spirits that like to test humans on their virtuousness. “So you’d best watch how you act around the young ladies,” they would tell the youngsters, and laugh.
It’s not meant to actually happen.
But the spirit has asked him a question, and as it happens, he has an answer. He doesn’t know if it will be happy with it, but the truth is all he has to offer.
“There’s nothing I want or need in exchange,” he says.
A brief susurration rushes through the blue void, as if water was flowing around him.
“Is our child’s life of no value to you?” the voices ask.
“It’s of too much value,” he refutes. “How can anyone put a price on a life? Nothing I could ask for in recompense would be equivalent, and so I refuse to ask for anything. Besides,” he adds recklessly, “I didn’t save the calf for a reward, so I don’t see the point in accepting one.”
Soft laughter echoes, and something warm tickles his cheek.
“Nevertheless, we do not forget our debts. If a boon in exchange for a life is too great a price to place, then ask a trinket of us.”
He folds his trembling hands in his sleeves. “If that is the case, then may I ask for a pearl the size of a pigeon’s egg?”
A lull in the echoing rustle of wind and water ensues. “A pearl?” the voices ask at last.
Jingyan flushes. “A friend of mine asked me to bring back a souvenir from this place,” he explains. “He asked for a pearl the size of a pigeon’s egg, but I haven’t been able to find anything suitable.”
A rush of wind strokes his hair, and bright laughter chimes like the lightest bells in his ears. “Then a pearl for your beloved you shall have, Xiao Jingyan – Your Highness Prince Jing, seventh royal prince of Liang.”
Each name and title strikes at his chest and forces him to his knees, and then water crashes against him and he chokes, scrambling out of the waves onto the nearby shore.
“Your Highness! Are you all right?”
Jingyan spits out saltwater and looks up into the face of – Lie Zhanying, that’s his name. The young lieutenant had been assigned to his personal guard just a few days ago.
“I’m fine,” he says. “I just slipped.” He raises his right hand to push his wet hair out of his face, then freezes.
“I see Your Highness has found the pearl he wished for,” Lie Zhanying observes. “It’s beautiful.”
Jingyan’s fingers close around the precious pearl with infinite care. “It is,” he agrees, and thinks all the overwhelming gratitude he feels in the general direction of the ocean.
He could be imagining it, but he thinks he hears a whisper of laughter on the wind.
When he returns to the capital, he finds his world upended. His questions get him nowhere; his demands for answers get him demoted; his insistence that a mistake had been made gets him all but exiled back to the East Sea with a thinly-veiled warning that further impertinence would see him destroyed.
The day before he is to leave once more, he sneaks past the guards into Lin Manor. It’s been emptied, and not with any degree of politeness. He wanders through the ransacked hallways to Xiao Shu’s old room. The overflowing shelves of scrolls are empty now; the rack that once held his sword and bow are bare.
Jingyan kneels beside the stripped bed with dry eyes, and absently turns the pearl over in his hand.
The room is blue.
The waves, when they wash over him, are filled with shared grief. A sympathetic resonance, we understand, we understand.
In time, Jingyan wipes his eyes and holds up the pearl. “I think I should return this,” he says, his voice quivering despite his best attempts at politeness. “I have no reason to keep it any longer.”
“A pearl for your beloved,” the voices whisper mournfully. “Our terms have been negated through no fault of your own. Will you not make a new request of us?”
“There’s nothing I want,” Jingyan replies. His hands shake as he extends the pearl. “Please.”
“Do you not wish for your beloved to return to you alive?”
The possibility thrums through him like the hot rush of wine through his veins. Then he bows, still holding out the pearl. “No human should have the authority to make requests of life and death,” he whispers.
Wind and water wash over him.
“Keep the pearl,” the voices instruct him. “It is a token of our gratitude. Our debt to you stands. If ever you have need of us, call and we shall come. You may rely on us.”
Jingyan breathes in blue and exhales into dust. He stares blankly at the shattered remains of Xiao Shu’s rooms, and wonders if he will ever be able to rely on anything ever again.
“You should go,” Jingyan says.
Mei Changsu starts.
Jingyan looks away from the maps he’s perusing for long enough to give him a faint smile. “You’ve given enough of your time and energy in correcting the wrongs of the past,” he says, voice level but gentle. “Perhaps all this time guiding me has made you forget that I’m well accustomed to leading military campaigns –”
“I haven’t,” Changsu protests at once.
“Then trust that I can handle this,” Jingyan insists. “You should take some time to yourself now. Didn’t you say that your friend wanted you to go travelling with him? I’m sure Fei Liu will enjoy it too.”
Changsu glances away. Jingyan reaches out, hesitates, then briefly lays a hand on his arm before pulling back. “Please. It’s far past time for you to rest.”
“I suppose that’s true,” Changsu agrees. His words and tone are perfectly normal, but Jingyan feels a chill run down his spin, and he knows with sudden certainty that Changsu has been lying about his health; has been lying about how long he has left.
He allows no hint of his realisation to enter his countenance. “Have fun,” he says instead, and chivvies Changsu out of the room, then returns to his maps. He stares at them in sheer incomprehension for a good half hour before he’s finally able to focus again.
Changsu leaves a week later. Jingyan takes the time to see him off personally, despite all the work that still awaits him.
Fei Liu hugs him goodbye, which is startling, but Young Master Lin only watches him with unreadable eyes and not even the pretence of a polite goodbye. Changsu doesn’t touch him either – doesn’t offer so much as a brotherly clasp of the arms, and though Jingyan’s heart is in jagged shards that slice through his chest and leave behind gaping, ruined flesh, he still fixes a smile on his face and wishes them well.
The carriage diminishes in size, becomes a distant speck, then vanishes altogether.
Jingyan stands there, looking after it until Lie Zhanying hesitantly clears his throat behind him. Then he turns and heads back to work. He has a war to win.
There are three different armies pressing on Liang’s borders to the north-west, east, and south, all aware of the inner turmoil the kingdom has been suffering, and keen to take advantage of it. They find, to their dismay, that they are in no way prepared for a Crown Prince who has spent well over a decade on the battlefield, or for wily Generals who have been similarly tempered by experience. Inventiveness and talent prove to be a lethal combination – for Liang’s enemies.
Within two months, the south and the east have been secured. Da Yu continues to press weakly against Liang’s armies, but they have been beaten back five times already, and it’s only a matter of time before they concede.
With its sixth loss, Da Yu makes an official request for a treaty. At last, it’s over.
In the capital, Jingyan takes a step back and breathes.
It has been a long time since he’s found himself here. The Lin Manor has been converted into a memorial shrine, and though it’s appropriate, the dissonance of walking in to find tablets and candles still hits him hard. He stops before a tablet covered with red silk, then sweeps past it and heads inwards, towards a familiar room in the back of the house.
He kneels beside Xiao Shu’s bed, and folds his hands in his lap, staring down at his crimson robes. Here, fourteen years ago, he had sought to return the pearl he had been gifted. Now he has been allowed the chance to give it to its intended recipient. The boon he had been granted all those years ago has finally been fulfilled.
Jingyan smiles at the memory of Mei Changsu’s expression and insouciant acceptance, when Jingyan had finally given him the pearl. That attitude was pure Xiao Shu. It was good to see that his inner fire hadn’t been wholly extinguished by the sordid events at the Cliffs of Mei.
Red bleeds into blue.
“Wouldst thou ask a true boon of us?”
The voices carve him open and lay bare his deepest desires for examination. He sits in the middle of Xiao Shu’s room, thinking and dreaming and hoping; bleeding into nothing.
In a small, unnamed village on the eastern edge of Langzhou, Mei Changsu wakes.
He stretches in bed, his joints cracking satisfyingly and his muscles tensing and relaxing with a pleasant ache that fades swiftly. Nudging aside his fur blankets, he sits up. It’s nice and warm in this small room they’ve been offered, and he basks in the sensation for a whole minute before realising that there’s something wrong with it.
When he opens the windows, he finds morning dew clinging to the plants outside. He stretches out and touches a few cool leaves. A brisk wind blows into the room, bringing with it the chill of early spring.
“Are you trying to shorten what time you have left?” Lin Chen demands irritably, reaching around him to close the shutters. “You’re going to freeze.”
“I don’t feel cold,” Mei Changsu tells him.
“Like hell,” Lin Chen snorts, taking his wrist. Then he stops, and stares at Mei Changsu. “You don’t feel cold?”
“I don’t,” Mei Changsu insists. “I woke up feeling warm. Nothing hurts, either.”
“Your pulse is normal,” Lin Chen says, dazed. Then he springs into action, and the next hour is a flurry of needles and medical tests and muttered invectives. At the end of it, Lin Chen packs all his supplies away and pins Mei Changsu with a furious expression. “We’re going to Langya Hall,” he says brusquely.
They go to Langya Hall, where Lin Chen’s father repeats all the tests that Lin Chen had done, plus more besides, then pronounces himself just as baffled as his son.
Against all logic, Mei Changsu has recovered.
No trace of the Poison of the Bitter Flame remains within him. He no longer needs coal braziers to keep him warm; now he has his childhood constitution and natural resistance against the cold, even where normal people would feel a chill. His body is weak only from lack of exertion over the past fourteen years, but when he tests himself, he finds that he can move without much fuss.
He sets himself to re-learning all the physical skills that he has been unable to use for so long, and though it takes time, his body doesn’t rebel against the attempt.
He no longer coughs, and the one time he falls sick, he recovers within three days without complication.
Lin Chen spends a lot of time yelling imprecations at him, between daily checks to ensure that this mysterious healing isn’t going to equally mysteriously reverse itself. But the days and weeks and months pass, and Mei Changsu regains his strength and remains healthy. Four months in, both Lin Chen and his father give up on trying to keep him from running about; he hasn’t keeled over yet, so they have no reason to tell him to be careful. They won’t stop keeping an eye on him, they promise each other, but by all accounts it truly does seem as if the Heavens themselves have given Mei Changsu a second chance.
“Isn’t it more like a third chance?” Mei Changsu asks. Then he shakes his head. “At any rate, I’m going back to Jinling. I want to tell Jingyan and Nihuang. Even if it doesn’t last, I can take advantage for as long as it does.”
“You could just send a damn pigeon,” Lin Chen mutters darkly, even as he packs. The trip to Jinling goes much faster than it ever has before, because they don’t need a carriage this time, and they arrive in the capital city in the fourth month of the year. The Emperor is still alive, and Mei Changsu has no intention of discovering what will happen if he finds that Lin Shu has returned to the capital, so they take a room at a small inn on the outskirts of the city and lay low that day.
Night falls. Under cover of darkness, Mei Changsu makes his way to the Eastern Palace, but is forced to turn away after failing to find a suitable person to contact. He keeps visiting each night, without directly approaching, until he sees a guard he recognises. General Lie Zhanying will be discreet about his presence, and he’s confident that he’ll be allowed in.
Instead, he gets turned away with a cold glare.
Jingyan’s men are clearly as protective of him as Mei Changsu’s people are. He leaves obediently that night, but refuses to give up. He only needs to get word to Jingyan directly. He knows his Prince. If Jingyan hears that he’s in the city, he’ll tell his people to let him in whenever he shows up. No matter how protective General Lie is, he won’t be able to go against Jingyan’s direct instructions.
Discretion being an issue, it takes a week for Mei Changsu to be satisfied that word has reached Jingyan. When he tries again, however, General Lie turns him away once more.
The third try goes marginally better. He’s still refused, but he gets a letter in Jingyan’s handwriting, inviting him to breakfast the next day. Delighted, he goes back to the inn and tries to figure out how to explain his recovery when he still doesn’t know how it happened.
As it turns out, Jingyan doesn’t care about the whys and wherefores of Mei Changsu’s recovery; he cares only that it has happened, and that his old friend is healthy and strong once more. “It’s all that matters,” he says, over a breakfast of light herbal porridge. “I choose to celebrate your health, rather than worry pointlessly about unanswered questions.”
Mei Changsu can’t help but laugh at that. “I’m not usually the sort to let go of questions like this,” he says, “but in this case I find that that’s what I’m doing. Lin Chen and Master Lin are both determined to find answers, in any case. I’ll leave it to them.”
Jingyan smiles faintly, and presses more porridge on him. “Given your newfound health, what are your plans for the future?” he asks.
“I won’t be staying long here, now that I’ve met you,” Mei Changsu says, watching Jingyan’s face for any sign of distress. It remains as placid as ever; he doesn’t quite like that expression, but he can’t put a finger on why. “I did promise Lin Chen that I’d travel the jianghu with him, and I owe him for keeping me alive this long. Besides –” He hesitates for a moment, then ploughs on. “The Emperor instructed me never to show my face here again. I don’t believe it’s safe for me to stay.”
“I understand,” Jingyan says. He lifts his sleeve to his mouth and stifles a cough. “Send me a letter every now and then, won’t you? It’s your turn to send me presents from the places you visit.” He flashes a quick smile.
Mei Changsu sorely wants to kiss that smile. Instead, he ducks his head and changes the topic. Jingyan insists that he has to get to work a little later, so he takes his leave with a polite bow, keeping his hands firmly to himself for fear of what he might do if he touches Jingyan, and departs from the city that very evening.
Jingyan’s clear forgiveness is like wine, suffusing him with heady heat that lingers long after each moment he recalls it. Lin Chen mutters under his breath about fools in love, but Mei Changsu ignores him thoroughly and engages Fei Liu in a series of play-fights as a means of venting some of the restless energy that fills him.
He sends presents to the Eastern Palace, knowing that Jingyan had been joking but wanting fulfil his request anyway. He’d been joking about the pearl as well, and Jingyan had gotten it for him, after all. His dear Prince has always indulged his every whim, and now that he can, he wants to return that tender affection. Every time he sees something that makes him think of Jingyan, he buys it, and when his collection grows sufficiently large, he adds a letter and sends off the parcel with a messenger from the Alliance.
“Exercise some damn restraint,” Lin Chen scolds, when their funds dip a little low thanks to Mei Changsu’s insistence on buying a fine jade ornament for Jingyan, but doesn’t stop him from buying an intricately-engraved silver pin two days later.
He can’t help himself. He’s had to hold himself in check for so long – two years of keeping a distance between them, and twelve years of watching him from afar before that. He wants to be able to spoil Jingyan, and since he can’t be there in person to take care of him and soothe him through the inevitable stresses and agonies of his new position, his only resort is to ply him with these little treasures.
He wants to see Jingyan again, but he can’t. Returning to Jinling means putting himself at risk, and worse, putting Jingyan at risk. The Emperor’s caprices could be lethal, now that he’s on his last legs. Mei Changsu’s only hope now is that Jingyan will receive these gifts and take some comfort in the fact that he remains constantly on his mind.
In the seventh month, Nihuang marries Nie Duo. Given his current standing, Mei Changsu cannot attend the wedding, but he sends a gift of wine and his congratulations on her fine catch. Two weeks later, he gets a message from Nihuang that reads: When are you going to get yours?
Lin Chen mocks him for weeks after.
Three months later, Jingyan’s first son greets the world. Three days later, the Emperor dies.
Despite the fact that the kingdom is technically in mourning, there’s a distinctly festive atmosphere in Jinling when they arrive. Over the last year, Jingyan has instigated reforms of court procedures that have had a knock-on effect on the general populace. Corruption is being slowly weeded out; leaders at every level are encouraged to be stern but compassionate; justice is dispensed with a fair and dispassionate hand, regardless of the wealth or status of either offenders or victims. Where aid is required, it is sent at once. Where the harvest has been bad, taxes have been deferred, reduced, and in one memorable instance, forgiven altogether. Jingyan may be even more beloved in his country than Prince Qi had been.
If any part of that goodwill has anything to do with careful rumour-mongering by members of the Jiangzuo Alliance, it doesn’t change the fact that nothing has actually been exaggerated. Jingyan makes his job easy, Mei Changsu thinks, as he sits at a tea-house and takes in the suppressed air of excitement that reverberates around the city.
He can’t wait to see Jingyan again. Anticipation makes him restless and drives him around the city in circles. Jingyan is crowned Emperor, and still he has to wait, and wait, until at last the immediate furore has died down and he can finally request an audience with Jingyan.
An official invitation to lunch is extended the moment he makes his presence in Jinling known. Mei Changsu arrives precisely on time, fairly thrumming with excitement that he’s doing his best to repress. He knows that this isn’t a job that Jingyan had ever wanted, and had only taken up because he’s too noble-hearted to let his kingdom and people suffer under the only other choices there had been. But he also knows that Jingyan is the best person for it now, and that Liang will flourish under his care. He’ll help Jingyan in any way that he can, and he knows that there will be difficult times ahead, but right now – right now, he’s so proud of his best friend, he feels like he could burst.
All the polite congratulations he had prepared vanish from his mind when he gets his first glimpse of Jingyan in months.
“You don’t look well,” he says, reaching out without thought and putting a hand on Jingyan’s arm. He tries to hide a frown; the thick layers of cloth disguise Jingyan’s frame, but even beneath their bulk, he seems thinner than he had been before. He’s certainly paler, with lines of exhaustion etched into his face. “I suppose it’s been a long few weeks?”
“It’s been a long few months,” Jingyan says, gesturing him to a seat. “Father’s decline was slow.”
“You still have to take care of yourself,” Mei Changsu chides.
“I am, and I will,” Jingyan replies. He pours tea for both of them and Mei Changsu watches, baffled, as Jingyan sips at his cup with obvious relish. “Ah, you might say I’ve acquired a taste,” he adds, clearly noticing his confusion. “It… reminds me of you.”
Jingyan’s gaze flicks downwards, demure and inviting. It’s likely entirely unintentional, but Mei Changsu’s face heats up anyway. “Then I’ll send you tea the next time I find something good,” he says, and takes a sip from his own cup. It’s a good tea; a piquant, warming blend that he’d often drunk back when he’d been ill for its ability to ease his chest pain. Now, he can sit back and enjoy its taste without being beholden to its medicinal properties. He doesn’t think he’ll ever get over these simple pleasures, no matter how much time passes.
Lunch is light and easy on the stomach, and though he would very much like to linger over it so that he can get his fill, Jingyan insists on getting back to work after a short time. “But stay and enjoy the meal if you like,” Jingyan says, laying slender fingers on the back of his hand. “You know that you’re welcome here.”
It isn’t the food he’d wanted to gorge himself on, though, so he leaves right after Jingyan excuses himself. The day’s bright and clear and crisp with the promise of snow, and the chill doesn’t bother him in the least. He wanders back to the inn with a silly smile on his face that even Lin Chen’s relentless mocking doesn’t erase.
He gets regular invitations to breakfast or lunch thereafter, and Jingyan asks him from time to time if he plans on buying a new residence in the city, so his presence is clearly very much wanted. He would like nothing more to stay, but he still worries about being too obviously associated with the Emperor, and what his tainted reputation might mean for Jingyan’s reign.
“Don’t be ridiculous, Changsu,” Jingyan says in response to that concern, with such exasperation that he misses the way Mei Changsu freezes. “Everyone of import already knows your true identity, and knows the extent to which you’ve suffered in order to ensure justice. No one in the palace has anything other than the highest respect for you, no matter which identity you’re talking about.”
“Jingyan,” Mei Changsu breathes.
“What is it?” Jingyan asks.
He laughs breathlessly, overwhelmed anew with desperate longing for the astonishing man before him. “It’s nothing,” he says, and then adds, “I’ll consider a residence here, but you understand I may still have to travel? I do feel a sense of responsibility towards the Alliance.”
“I didn’t expect anything else,” Jingyan agrees, his eyes warm and full of an emotion that Mei Changsu doesn’t dare identify.
“He called me Changsu,” he tells Lin Chen afterwards, still marvelling at the memory of how that name had slid so naturally from Jingyan’s lips.
“It’s your name,” Lin Chen says.
“Not to him,” he replies. “Or at least, I didn’t think it was.”
Lin Chen laughs, shaking his head ruefully. “Then I guess he really cares about you,” he says. “If he can think of you as Changsu, instead of only as Xiao Shu, then he isn’t just seeing the past in you. He cares for the person you are now.”
“I suppose so,” Mei Changsu says. He’s so happy he can’t articulate it.
“Then why are you still waiting around?” Lin Chen asks. “Go do something about it! Drag him into bed with you!”
The best thing about his recovery, Mei Changsu reflects as he does his level best to smother Lin Chen, is that he now has the physical strength to exact his own revenge.
General Lie continues to glower disapprovingly whenever he catches sight of Mei Changsu, and there are some few other men who seem displeased by his presence as well, but they hold their tongues in a clear display of Jingyan’s influence. Mei Changsu doesn’t care what they think of him; Jingyan’s opinion is the only thing that matters.
He knows perfectly well that he doesn’t deserve the forgiveness and trust of someone as gentle and loyal and kind as Jingyan, but he’s selfish enough that he won’t give it up for anything. He continues to take every invitation offered to him, and to bask in Jingyan’s presence, and they fall into a casual pattern of meals together through which they re-establish their intimate friendship.
He does think of pushing for more, as Nihuang and Lin Chen have both told him to, but he still quails at the thought of asking Jingyan for even more than he already has. He’s asked so much of Jingyan already, and most of those were things that Jingyan would never have normally wanted. He drinks up every last scrap of affection that Jingyan offers, but he can’t bring himself to demand anything else.
Instead, he finds that he wants to give. Their relationship has always been marked by Jingyan giving him things, starting from the moment a young Jingyan had given his favourite sweets to his crying cousin in a bid to calm him. Now, Mei Changsu continues the pattern of gift-giving that he’d established during the past year, and frequently arrives to see Jingyan with a new ornament or scroll in hand.
“You don’t have to keep buying me things,” Jingyan had said once, weeks back, bemused at the rare book that Mei Changsu had just given him.
“I want to,” he’d replied, and perhaps he’d given away too much of himself there, because Jingyan’s eyes had softened and he hadn’t pressed the issue any further.
When a package of fine tea arrives at the inn late one evening, therefore, Mei Changsu thinks nothing of throwing on a winter cloak and heading out to Yangju Palace at once to share it with Jingyan –
And there he finds himself stonewalled by servants who had smiled and bowed him in just that morning.
Jingyan could be with his Empress, Mei Changsu thinks despondently, clutching at the package of tea even as he insists on waiting. They might be working on a sibling for their first-born. Or perhaps he simply doesn’t want to see Mei Changsu now that he’s done with work and retired for the night. There must be a reason he’s never invited him over for dinner, or tried to see him outside of court. Perhaps he’s been imagining forgiveness all along, and Jingyan doesn’t actually care to see him.
General Lie approaches him after a short wait. “His Majesty is not taking visitors at this time,” he says, his voice so cold that Mei Changsu wouldn’t be surprised if he got frostbite. “Please return in the morning if you wish to see him.”
“I only intend to give him a present, and shall leave immediately after,” Mei Changsu counters.
“Then please bring that present tomorrow morning,” General Lie says implacably.
“Might I enquire as to what has him so busy at this time?” Mei Changsu asks, and abruptly finds himself on the ground. His ears are ringing. Despite his training over the past year, he hadn’t seen that coming at all.
“What has him busy is –” General Lie begins, then cuts himself off and jerks a hand forward. His expression is venomous. “Get him out of here.”
Two guards escort him out of the compound. Mei Changsu goes silently, reeling more from his new-found realisation than General Lie’s punch.
Jingyan is hiding something from him. General Lie’s ill-feeling, which clearly runs deeper than Mei Changsu had realised, is a result of that hidden something. He’d never thought that Jingyan would keep secrets from him, and as he heads back to the inn, mulling over that startling realisation, he grows increasingly upset.
“You damn hypocrite,” Lin Chen says in disbelief, when Mei Changsu tells him what had happened.
“I am,” he admits, and frantically twists the hem of his sleeve between his fingers. It feels like he’s been skewered through the gut. “But you don’t get it. There’s only one thing that Jingyan would ever try to hide from me.”
“And that would be?”
“His own pain,” Mei Changsu explains softly. Fear grips him anew at the mere act of putting it into words. “He’s hurt in some way, and given the strength of General Lie’s reaction, it’s probably due to me.” He forces himself to let go of his sleeve. “I need to fix it.”
“Some things can’t be fixed,” Lin Chen warns.
“Fei Liu, can you do something for me?” Mei Changsu asks. “I need you to go find out what Jingyan’s doing. But you can’t be seen by anyone, is that clear?”
“Will!” Fei Liu agrees cheerfully.
He comes back two hours later, looking considerably more sombre. “Water buffalo sick,” he announces. “Cough blood.”
Mei Changsu’s own blood runs cold.
“We’ll see about that,” Lin Chen declares. “Get some sleep, Changsu. We’re going to see that stubborn Emperor of yours tomorrow.” He shoves him off to bed without acknowledging the no-doubt pathetic gratitude in Mei Changsu’s eyes.
The next morning, Mei Changsu goes to Yangju Palace again, this time with Lin Chen by his side. They’re greeted by Jingyan himself, who looks as healthy as ever, with only lines of stress weighing him down in any way. They exchange bewildered looks when Jingyan’s back is turned. Fei Liu would never lie to his Su-gege about something like this, but such a complete overnight recovery ought to be impossible.
There’s only one way to find the answer, and Mei Changsu plunges straight into it as soon as they’re seated.
“I came by yesterday evening,” he says, “but I take it you weren’t accepting visitors at that time.”
Jingyan carefully pours the tea. “I never take visitors in the evenings,” he acknowledges. “My people know my standing orders regarding that.”
“Do your people also have standing orders regarding your illness?” Mei Changsu asks.
Jingyan’s hands quiver the slightest amount as he offers a cup to Lin Chen, who accepts it, then puts it down at once in favour of catching a retreating wrist. Resignation flits over Jingyan’s face, and he doesn’t bother to pull away.
“If I didn’t know better,” Lin Chen says eventually, letting go of him, “I’d swear you’d been poisoned.”
“I haven’t been,” Jingyan says.
Mei Changsu reaches for his wrist, and takes in the fluttering pulse with a sinking heart. “When did your illness begin?”
“I forget,” Jingyan says.
“Jingyan, please,” he whispers.
Silence stretches between them.
“Just after Da Yu’s surrender,” Jingyan says, at last.
“Coincidentally, right when Mei Changsu woke up cured one day,” Lin Chen observes. “I’d say it was impossible, but it clearly isn’t. What did you do?”
“Tell me you wouldn’t do the same,” Jingyan says, glancing at Mei Changsu.
“I don’t know what you did, so how can I say that?” he asks.
“I haven’t been poisoned,” Jingyan says. He tugs his hand away, and lifts his tea to his lips. The way his face relaxes out of its pinched expression takes on new meaning, and Mei Changsu wonders dully if this tea is now one of the few things that can ease Jingyan’s pain. “All I have to do is bear your symptoms for a while. It won’t kill me, and in exchange you’ll live out your natural lifespan as it should have been without the poison’s interference.”
“How can you –” He bites off his words, snatches Jingyan’s cup away, grabs his hand and shoves up his wide sleeve. The weight that Jingyan has lost is immediately visible in his thin arm. Mei Changsu puts a hand on Jingyan’s cheek. He’s always been lean of face, so the loss isn’t as obvious there at first glance, but now that he knows what to look for, it’s evident that Jingyan’s wasting away. “Jingyan…”
Jingyan gently covers his hand with his own. “It isn’t as bad as it looks,” he murmurs. “I’m fine in the mornings. There’s a little pain in the evenings, but I make it a point to rest then.”
“This is the first time I’ve heard a patient describe coughing blood as ‘a little pain’,” Lin Chen says.
“It’s always gone by morning,” Jingyan insists. “It isn’t like it was with you, Changsu. This doesn’t linger. You can see for yourself that I’m fine now.” He tugs Mei Changsu’s hand off his face, and gives him a warm look.
Mei Changsu numbly lets himself be soothed, though when he settles back, he sits closer to Jingyan than he had before. He can’t bear the small distance that still exists between them, and aches with the desire to close it; to take Jingyan in his arms and find out what he’d done and undo it.
“What did you do?” Lin Chen asks.
“A small exchange,” Jingyan explains. The arrival of a few servants interrupts them, and they fall silent as breakfast is served. Jingyan dismisses them from the room as soon as their bowls are filled.
Mei Changsu contemplates the porridge, and thinks back on all the meals he’s shared with Jingyan over the past two months or so. They’ve all been light and soft and easily digestible, and often made with medicinal herbs, and it’s so obvious now that he hates himself for missing it all this while.
In the two years that he’d been in Jinling, Prince Jing’s household had shifted to making milder foods whenever Mei Changsu had eaten there, in a process so gradual that he’d barely noticed it. He’d gotten used to sharing this type of food with Jingyan. That’s why he hadn’t drawn the connection sooner – that, and because he hadn’t expected secrets from Jingyan, especially not after Mei Changsu’s true identity had been revealed.
“What sort of exchange?” Lin Chen presses.
Jingyan stirs his porridge about in his bowl. “Back when I first went to the East Sea,” he says, “before I came back to find – well, I happened to encounter a spirit of some sort.”
“A spirit,” Lin Chen echoes.
“I don’t know what it was, but it certainly wasn’t human,” Jingyan says. “It started and ended far too abruptly to have been caused by some sort of drug, and there were other factors that convinced me it was real. In any case, I was offered… a boon, of sorts. I didn’t take it then.”
“But you did a few months ago,” Lin Chen surmises.
“A straight exchange would have done no good,” Jingyan says. He glances sideways. “Eat up, Changsu.”
Changsu lifts his spoon to his lips automatically. He tastes nothing.
“Changsu had less than a month left at that point, according to the spirit,” Jingyan says. “If I had asked to exchange our lives, I would have died a few weeks later, and at least half of what Changsu had spent his life for would be ruined. So I asked for another option.”
“Cut to the chase,” Lin Chen says. “What was the exchange?”
“His health and longevity,” Jingyan says. “In exchange for my bearing the pain he should have felt. That’s all.”
“All?” That’s his own voice, but it doesn’t sound at all like him.
“It’s a small enough thing for me to bear,” Jingyan says, gentle and unyielding. “Tell me you wouldn’t do the same.”
He can’t, and that’s the worst of it.
Jingyan still leaves punctually to see to his work, leaving Mei Changsu behind to try and process what he’s just learned. He can’t, though. He can’t. He wants to undo this but how is he supposed to find a willing spirit and what sort of deal could he make that wouldn’t break Jingyan’s heart?
“Spirits aren’t exactly what I’d expected,” Lin Chen admits quietly, as they walk out of Yangju Palace. “I’m a man of science, Changsu. I don’t know what to do about spirits.”
Mei Changsu nods absently, then speeds up, heading for a familiar figure in the distance. “General Lie, do you have a minute?”
General Lie’s face is foreboding, but there’s a touch of guilt in his face. Mei Changsu knows better than to think it’s directed at him; that’s much more likely to be guilt at having done something that would upset Jingyan, if he knew about it.
“I didn’t tell him,” Mei Changsu says. “But – he told me earlier what he did. What does it entail, though? He only said that he took on my pain, but I’m sure he was downplaying it.”
General Lie considers him carefully. “In the mornings, he’s more or less fine,” he says at last. “Then the coughing starts. By afternoon, it sounds like a normal flu at worst, but he suffers chest and joint pain that he won’t admit to. By evening, he’s coughing blood. He’s re-organised his entire schedule because he can’t move by night-time. He doesn’t sleep any more – he falls unconscious. At dawn, he wakes healed, and it starts again.”
“Just a little pain,” Lin Chen mutters, folding his hands in his sleeves. “He’s worse than you.”
“He said he wouldn’t die,” Mei Changsu says. “Tell me that was the truth, at least.”
“According to the deal he made, it is,” General Lie admits. “However, that spirit warned him that the mental and physical strain would still take a toll on him. He’s shortening his life by doing this.” He frowns, then adds, “But apparently it said that he’d still make it to old age. Who knows what condition he’ll be in by then, though.”
“What’s the extent of the pain, exactly?” Lin Chen asks. “How does it work?”
General Lie lifts his shoulders in a tired shrug and looks back at Mei Changsu. “As I understand it, it would have been about fourteen years you lived with the poison?”
“Those fourteen years are compressed into one day,” General Lie explains. “Right up until the day you should have died. In the mornings, he feels whatever you would have felt in the early years, and it gets steadily worse over the course of the day, as your illness progressed over the years. That’s why the nights are the worst.”
“And – it repeats every day,” Lin Chen asks.
“Until?” Mei Changsu asks in desperation. “There has to be an end to this, surely.”
“It will end when he dies,” General Lie says. “But when that happens, your symptoms will return and you won’t be far behind him, so he’s determined to hold on for as long as he can.”
Mei Changsu takes that in. He feels like he’s about to shatter. “Thank you for telling me,” he manages to say. “I’d like to come back tonight. Would you check with him if that’s permissible?”
Something that might be approval flits across General Lie’s face. “I’ll ask.”
Mei Changsu bows and stumbles away. His vision’s hazy and his eyes are burning.
It’s a bright, beautiful day.
By now, the pain is familiar.
Empress Liu dresses him carefully, tying his robes and knotting a simple accessory to his belt. He’s only heading back to his own rooms, but even that short distance requires some degree of decorum from him. An Emperor’s trappings are far more tiring than even a Crown Prince’s duties could ever be.
“I’ll send for General Lie,” Empress Liu says, stroking his hair away from his face. “You can’t walk back alone like this.”
He manages to dredge up a smile, which she takes for the acceptance it is. She hurries to the door and summons a servant, who dashes off in search of Lie Zhanying.
“I do apologise,” Jingyan says, as she returns and begins to secure his hair for him. “I don’t suppose there’s ever been a husband who had to impose on his wife in such a way.”
“If scheduling your visits earlier than is typical eases your life in any way, I’m more than willing to accept that,” she says. She finishes braiding his hair, and twists it up to pin it in place. A spasm of pain rips through his chest, and though he tries not to react, he can’t help but curl in on himself.
When he can breathe again, he finds her arms around him, rubbing his back in gentle circles. “Please rest, my husband,” she says.
“I will.” He leans in and kisses her forehead, then gingerly climbs to his feet with her assistance.
Lie Zhanying is waiting outside for him, and together they head back to his private quarters. “Is Changsu there?” he asks.
“He arrived a short time ago with Young Master Lin,” Lie Zhanying confirms.
“This will be unpleasant,” Jingyan sighs. He shivers under his thick fur cloak, and hurries as much as he can. It’s still a slow pace he sets, and he feels frozen over when they finally reach their destination.
“Your Majesty,” Lie Zhanying murmurs.
Jingyan reaches out blindly and accepts the supporting arm that’s offered. They’re no longer in the public eye; those here have been carefully curated to ensure their loyalty to Jingyan, and silence regarding his health. Within these hallways, he doesn’t have to pretend.
“Zhanying,” Jingyan pants, as they walk towards his rooms. “Don’t be angry at him. He knew nothing about it. I’m only indulging my own selfish desires to keep him with me by doing this. So don’t blame him – it’s not his fault.”
They walk on. Each step requires an immense effort. He focuses on lifting one foot, setting it before him, lifting the other. His chest spasms once more, and he begins to cough. His knees buckle and he sinks, before being caught in strong arms.
The coughs tear through him, slicing again and again, sharp and deep and dragging all the air out of him until his eyes are wet and he’s gasping, which only makes the cough worse, and on and on it goes. He doubles up on himself, choking on copper and salt, desperate for air.
In time, it ends.
Lie Zhanying silently dabs at Jingyan’s lips with a cream handkerchief that comes away a bright, arterial red. “I’ll try,” he says, his voice low.
By the time they reach his private quarters, Lie Zhanying is all but carrying him. Jingyan has long since given up on resenting his loss of autonomy. There’s little point in mourning his inability to function when he’s the one who’s chosen this. Instead, he prefers to focus on gratitude that he’s surrounded by those who will work with his choice – despite clearly disagreeing with it – and who will care for him to the best of their ability.
He still feels embarrassment course through him when he sees Changsu and Young Master Lin waiting in his rooms. The emotion drains away after a few seconds; exhaustion makes it impossible to sustain. He closes his eyes, focusing on staying upright.
Lie Zhanying’s arms tighten around him for a moment, then relax, and Jingyan feels himself being transferred into another strong set of arms. He opens bleary eyes and sees a familiar chin and jaw, and that’s enough for him, that’s everything he’s ever wanted, that’s the whole reason he’s doing this. Changsu’s strong enough to carry him now, without any sign of exertion.
That’s more than enough.
Heat stings his eyes, and he closes them again, leaning against Changsu’s shoulder. He’s lowered onto soft bedding, and a warm hand strokes his cheek before moving away. His clothes slowly loosen, and he lies there in exhaustion as he’s stripped and re-dressed in sleeping robes.
Another cough spills past his lips.
He’s too tired to control his body, and he jerks with each tearing spasm. Fluid bubbles along his mouth, and he can hear the faint gurgling of liquid caught in his throat, but he doesn’t have the energy to move. Arms lift him and turn his head so that the blood can escape, but the movement makes his vision whirl and dim and then the world goes away.
There’s a warm weight pressed up against him.
Jingyan blinks sleep out of his eyes. His chest feels tight and uncomfortable, reminding him of what’s to come, but it’s nothing he can’t ignore. He turns to see Changsu lying next to him in bed, still fully-dressed, one arm thrown possessively around Jingyan’s waist. His hand is curled loosely around Jingyan’s wrist.
“It looks like you’re dead,” Lie Zhanying had told him once, when Jingyan had asked what happened after he lost consciousness. “You’re not – you still have a pulse. But that’s what it looks like.”
Jingyan extricates his hand with careful precision, then lifts it to touch Changsu’s cheek. Changsu stirs at once, and nuzzles closer with a faint exhalation that sounds like Jingyan’s name.
“Good morning,” Jingyan murmurs, sliding his hand around to cup the back of Changsu’s head.
“Mm. Jingyan…” The words are clearer this time, but Changsu evidently still isn’t quite awake. He noses up against Jingyan’s neck. Warm, wet puffs of air flutter across his skin.
The coppery tang of dried blood still fills his mouth. Jingyan wriggles out of Changsu’s embrace, goes to the next room to rinse his mouth, then takes the opportunity to perform his morning ablutions while he’s at it. He returns to find Changsu sitting up in bed, eyes fixed on the door connecting the two rooms.
“I’m fine now,” Jingyan says, sitting down on the edge of the bed. “You see? I told you it doesn't linger.”
“It isn’t worth it,” Changsu says. His eyes are dark with anguish. “Last night, you – and you’ll go through that every day? Every night for the rest of your life, that’s what you’ll suffer? It’s not worth it, Jingyan!”
“A life isn’t something you can so easily put a price on,” Jingyan says. “But to me, your life is worth any price I have to pay.” He puts a hand on Changsu’s chest and pushes him backwards. He knows perfectly well that he no longer has the strength to manhandle Changsu against his will, but Changsu goes with the motion until he’s lying on Jingyan’s bed again. His hair cascades over dark red sheets in a waterfall of ink. Jingyan sprawls over him in turn, pressing his ear against Changsu’s chest. The strong, steady thumping is the best sound he’s ever heard.
“Jingyan,” Changsu murmurs.
“Let me stay here,” Jingyan whispers. “Just for a minute.”
After a moment, gentle fingers thread through his hair and cradle the back of his head. Jingyan closes his eyes and relaxes, tension escaping his body all at once.
Beneath his ear, Changsu’s heart beats on.
“Goddamn spirits,” Lin Chen explodes, and tosses aside the book he’s been perusing. “What am I supposed to do with spirits?”
“Accept that you can’t reverse this,” Jingyan suggests.
“Can’t you?” Changsu asks. His arms tighten around Jingyan’s waist.
“If I asked, I suppose I could,” Jingyan muses. He tilts his head back to rest comfortably against Changsu’s shoulder, and offers him a smile. “But the more important question is whether or not I will.”
“You won’t,” Changsu says with despondent certainty. He reaches forward and lifts another spoonful of porridge, scraping the edge on the bowl before offering it to Jingyan.
“Your reputation for intelligence is clearly warranted,” Jingyan says, and opens his mouth. He savours the warmth of the porridge as it glides down his throat. The congestion in his chest loosens, and he turns his head to cough lightly, then reaches for his tea to soothe his scratchy throat. He finishes it and leans back into Changsu’s hold, opening his mouth for another spoonful.
It makes Changsu feel better to pamper him like this, and Jingyan rather enjoys the sensation himself – though he could have done without the audience. He glances over to find that Lin Chen has given up utterly on his research and is now lying supine on the floor, staring up at the ceiling in abject misery.
“Ignore him,” Changsu advises in an undertone. “It’s what I do.”
Hot breath flutters over Jingyan’s ear, and he involuntarily shivers.
Lin Chen springs to his feet and points his fan at the two of them. “All right, this is sickening. I’ll leave, so Changsu, you’d better do something about this before I do!” He sweeps out with a look of disgust that doesn’t quite conceal the amused light in his eyes.
“What was –” Jingyan begins.
“It’s nothing,” Changsu interrupts.
Jingyan sits up and turns; Changsu looks away at once, so Jingyan catches him by the chin and tilts his face back. What he sees makes his heart flutter and chest warm.
The spirit had said that the boon Jingyan had asked of it seemed more like a torment. When he’d insisted on his chosen path, it had fallen silent for a few long moments, before laughing.
“Well,” that strange chorus had said. “It does seem that you will find your true reward in time. Look to your future, Xiao Jingyan.”
At the time, he had thought that his reward would be Changsu’s continued existence. Now, he wonders what else the spirit might have seen in his future.
“Is it really nothing?” he asks, running a thumb over Changsu’s cheek.
“I can’t – I’ve asked enough of you,” Changsu chokes out. “You’ve given me too much already, Jingyan –”
“Ask me,” Jingyan says. “It would be a gift to me too, Changsu. Ask.”
“Jingyan,” Changsu whispers. His breath fans over Jingyan’s cheeks and nose and lips with each soft kiss that Changsu presses to his face. “My beloved Jingyan.” He doesn’t say anything else, but his question showers down on Jingyan in the form of tiny, burning touches. May I have you, he asks as his fingers slide down Jingyan’s neck, as he presses Jingyan into the floor. May I keep you?
The remainder of lunch awaits; there’s only another ten minutes of his strictly allotted time left; there’s work he has to finish before he grows too ill for it. He ignores it all and pulls Changsu down on top of him, returning his kisses with as much fervour as his weak body will allow him to express.
You have me, his mouth and eyes and hands say in response to Changsu’s question. You have always had me. Yes, Changsu – my answer will always be yes.