For the last ten years, Jingyan had counted out his life in increments. Long months on campaign, mud and dust and the fierce comradeship of soldiers. And Jinling, home, short weeks and months of warm baths, his mother’s sweets, and Lin Shu constantly at his side.
It was strange to ride through the streets towards the Palace and know that, if all goes well, he won’t be leaving again for months at time.
If all goes well, he would rarely leave the capital ever again.
His horse shifted uneasily under him. Jingyan soothed it and looked up. They were approaching the Palace gates.
His brothers were both with their Father, when Jingyan entered to deliver his report. Xiao Shu was there too, and the Emperor was still chuckling from something Lin Shu had said as he waved for Eunuch Gao to bring Jingyan’s report to him.
Jingyan waited. Prince Xian was eyeing him maliciously. “Jingyan, I heard you entered the city several hours ago. Why did you wait so long to greet Father?"
The Emperor looked up, his eyes narrowed.
Jingyan opened his mouth but Lin Shu’s laughter interrupted him. “Prince Xian, do you mean Jingyan should have come before Uncle still stinking on the road? I’m afraid my nose is grateful he stopped to wash first.”
The Emperor hmphed and looked back to the report.
Prince Xian hesitated for a moment then turned back.
"Jingyan, I am impressed that you were able to fulfill your duties. Given the amount of time your have spent persecuting my cousin.
Jingyan straightened his back. "Commander Xu Anmo ignored orders and fled the field of battle, leading to the unnecessary destruction of two battalions."
"Ah?" Prince Yu said mildly. "How fascinating. How far has the case progresses?"
"How dare you accuse my cousin of cowardice! Jingyan, you have always been unruly but to go this far-"
"If Prince Xian would like to review the witness reports I would be happy to provide them-"
"Enough!" The Emperor slammed his hands down on his desk. "Bickering, bickering, bickering - like a gaggle of hens. Why can't any of you be more like Prince Qi?" For a moment his face crumpled in grief and he put his hand to his forehead.
Jingyan thought that, if his brother was still alive, Xu Anmo would have long since gone to the executioner.
“Sought this out among yourselves. Jingyan.” The Emperor regarded him sternly. “You are still too stubborn. Make sure you remember who Jingxuan is to you, hmm?”
Jingyan bowed, his jaw clenched, and left.
Lin Shu would help him make sure Xu Anmo did not escape.
“You have to let Commander Xu Anmo go,” Lin Shu said.
Jingyan stared at him. “Let him go? Xiao Shu, he is a coward who turned and fled when the battle seemed to be turning against him. His forces were in disarray. Thousands of them died. The enemy overtook two villages before they were stopped. How can I face their spirits if I let him escape justice?”
“I understand,” Lin Shu said, his voice low and desperate. “Jingyan, don’t you know that I understand? But the Emperor thinks this is just your attempt to undermine Prince Xian. He doesn’t understand - he doesn’t care about the military. He thinks this is just faction infighting. If you continue to fight Prince Xian on this, he’ll think you are just the same as him and Prince Yu.”
Jingyan exploded to his feet. He stared down at Lin Shu, his fists clenching and unclenching, then turned and stalked to the door. Bird song mingled with the distant sounds of his men at weapons practice. Behind him he heard the rustle of heavy silk and soft footsteps as Lin Shu came to stand behind him. Silent. Waiting.
“Xu Anmo”, Jingyan said, “Is a coward unfit for command. If he is permitted to keep his rank, men will die who would have lived under a competent commander. Soldiers will die. Lin Shu, would you tell me to sacrifice their lives in order to win the Emperor’s favour?”
“Yes,” Lin Shu said. “As you would sacrifice a battallion as a distraction in order to lead an army to victory.”
Jingyan stared out in the garden, throat tight. Abruptly he slammed his fist against the doorframe. The wood shook; a small scattering of dust fell from the rafters. “My soldiers at least know when they are on a battlefield.”
Lin Shu was silent for a moment. And then he said, slowly, “Do you think we can win this fight simply with good intentions? If battles for the throne are so simple, why are the histories full of blood?"
Jingyan watched a bird hop and peck among the grass. "Very well," he said at last, harshly. "I will allow Prince Xian to save his cousin."
A hand touched his shoulder. Jingyan twitched, but didn’t shrug it away.
“Suggest a post in one of the interior armies,” Lin Shu said quietly. “Prince Xian will view it as a promotion, and the Emperor will be pleased by a show of conciliation. He will be able to do less damage there, until you become Crown Prince. Then we can have him removed.”
“When I am Crown Prince,” Jingyan repeated softly. He turned to face Xiao Shu and tried to smile. "I'm sorry. Not even a day and I almost refused my most best advisors' advice."
Lin Shu smiled but it looked shaky. Jingyan burned inwardly thinking of the harsh words he had said. "You wouldn't be a water buffalo if you weren't slow sometimes Jingyan. Just keep your pure heart and leave the thinking to me."
Jingyan knocked his shoulder and Xiao Shu shoved him back and they smiled at each other and some of the tight knots in Jingyan's heart relaxed, knowing that he was forgiven.
"Sit down while I call for tea," he said. "And then you can tell me the rest of your strategies."
Lin Shu seemed lost in his thoughts as the attendants came with the tea sets and left again until he picked his teacup up absently and sipped. He stopped and looked at it in surprised approval. Jingyan, watching carefully, hid a smile behind his own cup.
"This is excellent tea!" Lin Shu exclaimed
Jingyan smiled. “The local magistrate at my last posting recommended the local tea to me,” he said.
Lin Shu laughed. “I thought for a moment Aunt Chen and Aunt Jing had actually managed to drum some taste into you.”
Jingyan decided not to reopen the argument about whether there was any meaningful difference between leaf flavoured water. “On matters other than tea, what do you advise I should do next?"
“You must greet my mother, of course, but go no more often than propriety demands. My mother continues to lobby for my father, and to fight to ensure the Chiyan Army receives the supplies it needs from the Ministry of Defence. If the Emperor hears that you are close to her, he will think that you are seeking Father's support."
JIngyan frowned. "Won't he think the same if I spend more time with you?"
Lin Shu sighed. "Unfortunately we're too well known to be close friends - people would be more suspicious if we suddenly stopped spending time with each other."
“I am not pretending not to be your friend for however long this takes," Jingyan said flatly.
Lin Shu flashed him a quick smile and Jingyan suddenly realised how grim Xiao Shu had become. "Don't worry, I won't strain your acting abilities! But we must be careful how we meet. That's why Young Master Lin Shu is taking his too-serious military friend for some fun and relaxation at their UNcle Ji's hot springs next week."
"Next week?" Jingyan said, dismayed. "Xiao Shu, I've only just returned to the capital, I need to ensure my men are settled -"
Xiao Shu pointed at him. "There!" He said triumphantly. "Just make sure you make that face whenever anyone mentions it, and they won't think anything more of the trip!"
"And that will be enough to ensure the Emperor does't think that I am courting General Lin through you?" Jingyan asked sceptically.
Lin Shu shrugged lightly. “The Emperor knows that I’ve distanced myself from the Chiyan Army. Trust me, Jingyan, as long as we make sure we are seen to simply meet for entertainment and pleasure he won't have any cause to worry."
Something about those words made Jingyan feel uneasy but Lin Shu had much more to say, and the uneasiness slowly faded as he and Xiao Shu bent their heads together and his friend spun out his deductions and plans and strategies. They sat in Jingyan's Manor in the heart of Jinling, and yet Jingyan felt as if he could feel the chill of frost, the smell of horses, the shifting noises of a military camp. When he was you young he had thought he would have these things forever.
Xiao Shu's hands sketched alliances in the air, his eyes focused and intent, and Jingyan felt something deep inside his chest settle.
As Lin Shu was leaving Jingyan gave him half the remaining tea leaves.
The rest, he took with him to the palace.
Concubine Jing's official residence was Zhilou Palace - Consort Chen guarded her sister's privileges more fiercely than she did her own - but Jingyan's mother could more often be found at Consort Chen's Palace
As soon as Jingyan had finished greeting her Consort Chen caught his hand and drew him closer, her fierce gaze running up and down his frame. Jingyan submitted to this inspection meekly, and used the opportunity to surreptitiously test the strength of her grip. Consort Chen narrowed her eyes at him.
"Stop that," she ordered, releasing his hand with a light slap and settling back against her backrest. Concubine Jing smoothly tucked the slipped furs back about her shoulders. "What crime did I commit to be afflicted with two such fuss birds?"
JIngyan smiled up at her. "Lady Aunt, I am glad to see you looking so well.”
“With such a dedicated doctor, how could I dare be otherwise?” Consort Chen sniffed. She released Jingyan’s hands and Concubine Jing immediately took them up, beaming.
Jingyan returned her smile. “Thank you for the sweets Mother.”
Concubine Jing laughed. “So Xiao Shu kept his promise and didn’t eat them all. Jingyan, you’re injured.”
“It’s almost healed,” Jingyan reassured her, already turning so that his mother could inspect his shoulder to her own satisfaction.
“And you’re too thin,” She murmured, frowning.
“The Minister of War cares more for his perfectly balanced books than he does for well supplied armies,” Consort Chen said sourly. “And the Emperor cares so little for the military that he is able to get away with it! These days you have to lick Xis Yu’s foot if you want your forces to be well resourced.”
“Corruption in the court is only growing,” Concubine Jing agreed. Jingyan met her eyes, and saw the unvoiced question there.
"Xiao Shu spoke to me when I arrived in the city, before I came to greet Father. I know it’s time.”
“And it’s your own decision? My brat of a nephew didn’t push you into this?”
“It is,” JIngyan said. He smiled at them. “You have been fighting for justice all these years, allowing me to defend the borders without worry. I have decided. For Jingyu-gege, for all of you, for the people. I will fight for the throne.”
“You know you have our support,” Consort Chen said, briskly. “Consort Yue has the Emperor’s ear now, but she has still been unable to make her son Crown Prince. We’re not without influence yet!”
For a little while they sat in silence, the two women and the son they had raised together. Jingyan felt the weight of his decision settle on him again but it felt easier to bear, now, with his mothers on either side of him.
At last, Concubine Jing handed him a hazelnut pastry - the ones she couldn’t send to him in her dessert boxes for fear Xiao Shu would steal them - and Jingyan accepted it with a smile.
“The majority of the Ministers are now members of the two factions,” Concubine Jing said. “Only one or two still remain from when Prince Qi managed the Court, and they are soon to retire.”
“Xiao Shu will be able to brief you on that mess, there’s no need for us to waste our time here with that,” Consort Chen said. “We now have a point of crisis, and opportunity. There will be no better time for us to move.”
“Xiao Shu told me that Princess Xianji passed away three months ago,” Jingyan said. He met their eyes squarely. “Was her death natural?
“As natural as your brother’s was,” Consort Chen muttered.
JIngyan’s head snapped up, but Concubine Jing shook her head. “We’ve never found any proof,” she said. “Jingyu’s illness could very well have been natural.” Consort Chen laughed bitterly, and Concubine Jing caught her hand and squeezed gently. “It is also very likely that the Emperor will soon no longer be able to avoid appointing a successor.”
"The Ministers are pressing him to name a Crown Prince, and he rebukes them with demands to know which of his remaining sons can match the honour and ability of Prince Qi.” Consort Chen's eyes flashed. "He didn't hold him so close when he was alive!"
"The MInisters' concerns for the succession are legitimate," Concubine Jing said. "Prince Yu is only the Empress' adopted son - if the Emperor was to die unexpectedly and she was to name Prince Yu as his heir, Prince Xian's faction would resist. The only outcome would be civil war."
“Father is right in this,” Jingyan said. “I can never be the Prince that Jingyu-gege was, but I refuse to allow Prince Xian or Prince Yu to take his place.”
Consort Chen sighed and took his hand. ”My son would have been a great Emperor." She cupped his chin and Jingyan met her fierce gaze.” "I see so much of him in you, more and more each year. He would have spared you this burden, if he had lived. But I believe you are more than worthy as his heir.”
Prince's Ji's people bowed themselves out discretely when Lin Shu asked for privacy. Lin Shu was already in the pool, shameless. Jingyan looked away and let himself slip into the water. The heat engulfed him, soothing to sore muscles, and he sighed, tilting his head back. He opened his eyes. Lin Shu was staring at him, a strange look in his eyes.
"What is it?" Jingyan asked. He glanced down at himself. The heat of the water had turned the jagged line of his recent wound bright red. Other, older scars stood out in dark pink. "It's alright," Jingyan told Xiao Shu, touched. "It wasn't as bad as it looks, and it's nearly healed."
"Ah!" Lin Shu laughed. "Of course. You have been in so many battles. I won't worry about your most recent one then."
Jingyan looked at him sharply. Lin Shu had closed his eyes and sunk down in the water up to his nose. His pale skin was flushed pink by the heat, smooth and almost without blemish. Even the jagged scar along his side, where Jingyan had pressed with all his terror given strength to keep Xiao Shu's blood inside his body, had faded.
Jingyan gritted his teeth, thinking about how much strength and cunning the army had lost with Young Marshall Lin Shu taken from them for ten years. They would never fight side by side again, but he would give Lin Shu back his battlefield.
After their bath they are led to a pavilion on a raised mound where a brazier is burning merrily and they can watch the moon rise unimpeded by surrounding trees - and also had a clear view of their nearby surroundings to be sure they have no eavesdroppers.
Xiao Shu handed him a list of officials. "You should make friends with them," he announced.
Jingyan looked at him.
“What's that look for? Xiao Shu demanded. "They’re all noble, idealistic, and stubborn - just the kind of people you like.
“Xiao Shu,” Jingyan said, “After I promoted Zhanying to my second you had him followed for two months."
Lin Shu opened his mouth then paused, frowning.
“Your mother told me about it,” Jingyan said. “Zhanying was concerned someone was attempting to assassinate him in order to weaken our forces. You've never encouraged me to make friends anyone."
"I wanted you to make friends with Nihuang!"
“Yes,” Jingyan said, “your fiancé Nihuang."
Lin Shu raised his hands. "Alright! I admit I may have been a little possessive when I was younger-"
"When you were younger?" Jingyan murmured.
"But," Lin Shu continued pointedly, "You won't be able to win this fight without support in court. And I know," he said, rolling his eyes and holding up his hand before Jingyan could even open his mouth, "I know you don't want to build a faction. That's why I'm telling you to become friends with them. They're all people who have been overlooked because they don't like to play Prince Xian and Prince Yu's games, so you just need to be yourself, help them when you feel they should be helped, and that will be enough."
Jingyan nodded reluctantly and tucked the list away to memorise later.
"Now, speaking of factions…"
Jingyan listened grimly as Lin Shu listed off all the civil ministries. Prince Xian and Prince Yu had evenly divided the departments between them. Only the Minister for Rites and the Minister for Defence were neutral, and the Minister for Rites had passed the age to retire while the Minister for Defence was more likely to serve his own interests than that of a faction. Lin Shu wrote each each name on a piece of paper as he worked his way through the officials, tossing each one into the brazier when he had finished with them to burn up in a brilliant flair.
When Lin Shu had finished he still held two pieces of paper. He held one up. "Duke Qing," he said. "Prince Yu's only sword. He and his family have stolen land from peasant families near their estates, and have massacred those who resisted."
Fury burned through Jingyan. He gritted his teeth, resisting the urge to stand up and pace. “Does Prince Yu know this? Of course he does.” He looked at Lin Shu, his stomach twisting. “And do we have to allow this one to escape justice as well?”
“No.” Xiao Shu’s smile was sharp. His eyes glittered. “The Emperor is becoming increasingly concerned about the practice of land grabbing - if strong protectors were able to escort witnesses to the capital, and they were able to present evidence to the Ministry of Justice…”
Jingyan managed a smile. “Your doing?"
"No," Lin Shu said grimly. He held up his last piece of paper.
Jingyan stared. "General Xie Yu?"
Lin Shu nodded. "He is supporting Prince Xian. Mother made sure news of the land grabbing and massacres came to his attention, and he will ensure that the Zhuo family escort the witnesses to Jinling.”
Jingyan’s mouth twisted into a cynical smile. “The noble, neutral, Pillar of the Empire,” he murmured.
“Other than Xia Jiang, Xie Yu is our strongest opponent.” Lin Shu looked down at the paper. Fire flight flickered over his face. “It was not a surprise. Mother has been fighting his influence in Court for years to protect Father and the Chiyan Army.”
“You have as well,” Jingyan pointed out.
“Mmm.” Lin Shu shrugged and dropped the paper in the brazier. He looked up, a fierce gleam in his eyes. “But Xis Yu will have to wait! Our first steps will be…”
After they returned to the city Jingyan found himself thinking wistfully of these few days at the hot springs, despite the slow uncovering of corruption and betrayal. He had now been in Jinling for longer than he had been in years and he was slowly picking up useful work for himself and his men as he built relationships and connections with the ministers Lin Shu had recommended to him. Small tasks that had gone neglected because they didn’t offer prestige, or because those involved didn’t have the money or connections to draw official attention. Jingyan was aware of greater needs and greater tasks looming in the future, but he was a military commander - he had the stores of patience needed to build a strong campaign.
No, what had his thoughts drifting wistfully back to the hot springs was how little he saw of Lin Shu.
Whenever he had been back in the capital before for short rests between campaigns Lin Shu had monopolised his attention and Jingyan had given himself over to him gladly, savouring the opportunity to share his time and thoughts with his best friend. But now a week or more could go by without seeing him, and every encounter must be carefully justified.
Lin Shu dragged him out to pleasure seeking activities - visits to the music houses, moon viewings, games of polo. (“Make sure you look long-suffering Jingyan - perfect!”) Jingyan was not surprised to find that Lin Shu was the leader and trend-setter of the young noble set - Xiao Shu would never allow himself to be less than excellent at anything - but he was amused to discover that Yan Yujin has set himself as Xiao Shu’s rival, with long suffering Jingrui and the far-too-amused Lin twins caught between them.
It does, however, give Lin Shu the perfect excuse to become exasperated with their company and declare that he and Jingyan have had enough of babysitting.
“Yes it does, doesn’t it?” Lin Shu says, studying Yujin’s back thoughtfully. Yujin shudders and looks around nervously and Lin Shu obviously sets that thought aside and takes Jingyan in to meet Gong Yu.
Gong Yu was supremely elegant and faintly terrifying and Jingyan took to her immediately, which Lin Shu seemed faintly put out about. She was also one of the rare people Xiao Shu was completely unable to charm.
“Gong Yu came to Jinling to assassinate a certain person last year,” Xiao Shu said, nibbling indolently on a sweet. Gong Yu sipped her tea, cup held at an angle that looked like a declaration of war. “Mother and Mister Shisan took her under the their wings.
“Who was it?” Jingyan asked, interested.
“Better not to share,” Lin Shu said. “The pieces are all still coming together - I’ll let you know when we have a full picture.”
Jingyan accepted that with a nod. Gong Yu’s hands moved gracefully over her qin, her eyes low.
When they left, she pressed a embroidered pouch into Lin Shu’s hands to give to his mother, the faintest blush on her cheeks.
“Sometimes I think mother is just eager to have this resolved so she can official adopt Gong Yu,” Lin Shu grumbled as they made their way though the darkened streets.
“It would be good for you,” Jingyan said mildly. “You’re far too spoilt as an only child.”
Lin Shu squawked indignantly.
Those were the best times, when he felt closest Lin Shu. And yet sometimes he started awake from dreams, starting into the darkness, feeling as if he Lin Shu’s was slipping away from him, no matter how hard he fought to hold him close. The unease followed him into the daylight but he did his best to set it aside. Lin Shu was Lin Shu, no matter the disguises he put on on the false trails he laid for others. Jingyan had always trusted that.
Even among the idle young noble’s set people flocked around Lin Shu, eager for a little bit of his light to reflect off them.
He saw his brothers’ poisonous looks when Xiao Shu walked with him, talking and laughing freely, like a twisted reflection of their childhood, when Jingyan had taken a childish pride in knowing that he was Xiao Shu’s favourite. Now Jingyan only gave them back a stone face, something within him burning that they could dare to presume they could add Lin Shu to their factions.
The constant attempts to persuade or pressure Lin Shu into marriage were less entertaining than Lin Shu had made them sound in his stories, now that Jingyan was forced to witness them himself and Xiao Shu had forbidden him to interfere. Jingyan forced himself to stop worrying and to concentrate on his own tasks. He could trust Lin Shu to look after himself.
When Jingyan went to greet his father one morning Lin Shu was already there, leaning over the Emperor's desk to admire a piece of calligraphy spread out there. The sight gave Jingyan pause. Not because it was unusual. He knew that the Emperor kept Xiao Shu close, but since returning home he had realised just how often his friend was to be found at the Emperor's side, smiling and light hearted and warm.
It made him uneasy.
"Jingyan." The Emperor eyed him sternly but there was a rare indulgence lurking beneath his disapproving expression. "I hear you visited a brothel yesterday evening. Is this correct behaviour for a Prince."
Jingyan flushed red. "I," he managed, before stumbling to a halt, tongue tied.
"Oh please don't blame Jingyan too much, Uncle," Lin Shu protested. "I'm afraid it's my fault. I insisted on dragging him to see a particularly fine new musician."
"Hmm," the Emperor leaned back in his seat. "Yes, you boys have recently been reunited. But Xiao Shu, be sure not to lead Jingyan into your flighty ways, hmm?" And he waggled his finger in Lin Shu's direction.
Something hot and furious surged in Jingyan's chest and he had to bite his tongue. Lin Shu laughed merrily. "Jingyan is too serious! It does him good to spend some time away from grim soldiers."
"Hmph." The Emperor looked up suddenly. "Jingyan come," the Emperor beckoned him forward. "See, Xiao Shu has written this fine poem in praise of the Autumn flowers." The Emperor chuckled and looked knowingly at Lin Shu. "Or perhaps it is one flower in particular?"
Lin Shu ducked his head, smiling slightly. "Uncle, although flowers may be beautiful, how could they compare to a soaring phoenix?"
"Hmm," the Emperor said, looking disappointed. "Still, the language is very fine. Jingyan, what do you think?" Jingyan moved forward grimly to admire the work, his heart tight, as Xiao Shu politely protested the Emperor's praise.
When Xiao Shu had been made a hostage, only a few months after Prince Qi had died, Jingyan had sat with him under the plum blossoms in Lin Manor's gardens. The faint sound of Marshall Lin Xie and Princess Jinyang's arguing drifted through the air. Lin Shu stared intently into the distance, slowly rubbing the hem of his robe between his fingers.
Jingyan was burning inside with fury and betrayal and sick, twisting fear. Of course Lin Xie and the Chiyan Army were loyal, of course there should be no danger to Xiao Shu - only the indignity of being stripped of the command, of having the core of his life's purpose taken from him.
Yet in the months since his brother had died, Jingyan had become more and more aware of the cracks and fissures in the court that he had never had cause to notice before. The Lin family were not the first victims of his father's paranoia. It should have been impossible to imagine that the Emperor might come to believe the Chiyan Army would rebel.
It wasn't, any more.
"Alright," Lin Shu announced suddenly and Jingyan startled and looked at him. Xiao Shu looked back at him, very pale a part form two high spots of colour on his cheeks. His eyes were burning. "I'm the Chiyan Army's first line of defence. The more reluctant Uncle is to kill me, the more protected they will be. I have to make sure he loves me."
Three days later, the decree was delivered ordering Jingyan to prosecute the land grabbing case.
For once, they were in the gardens of Jingyan's manor, Lin Shu having decided that it had been long enough since their last visit. The leaves were turning red and gold and Lin Shu was nursing his wine cup with smug self-satisfaction as he related how he had solved Jingyan's problem with obstructionism within the ministry of justice.
“And so Prince Yu was showing me the writings he’d invited me to see, and just happened to wonder if I might put in a good word for Duke Qing to the Emperor, and then I laughed and said that would be impossible, given the number of times the Emperor has complained to me about land grabbing.”
“And that was enough?”
“Well, I might have mentioned that my friend Xiao Jingyan, who I’m very proud of because the Emperor appointed him to this case, was having trouble with the Ministry of Justice. And that I thought he was a much better Military Commander than Duke Qing. He looked very thoughtful when he showed me out.” He looked at Jingyan sideways. “It would be useful if Prince Yu thought you were on his side for a while. Could you go easy on his supporters?”
“No,” Jingyan said simply. “How would I face my brother?”
Lin Shu sighed. “Stubborn water buffalo.”
“Prince Yu didn’t try get anything else out of you?”
Lin Shu shrugged lightly. "Well, I met his consort's sister while I was there. Pure unfortunate coincidence of course, we ran into each other along the veranda.” He propped his chin on his fist and sighed. “I suppose now I’ve given face to Prince Yu, I’ll have to accept an invitation to one of Prince Xian’s parties again. I’m sure there will just happen to be a woman or two there for me to meet as well.”
There was the pattering of feet across the tiles and Jingyan tensed, looking up.
”Lin-Gege!” In a rush of swirling skirts a young woman dropped down from the roof top to land next to Lin Shu. It took Jingyan a moment before he recognised Xie Qi; in the year since he had last seen her she had changed from little girl to young lady. She was beaming and clutching a small lacquered box.
"Xie Qi," Lin Shu said and Jingyan whipped his head around to stare at him; Lin Shu's voice had gone soft and doting and he was giving Xi Qi a fond look that Jingyan had previously only known him to give to puppies and dogs. "Are those the sweets your were working on for Zhuo Qingyao?"
"Yes! These ones are for you, Lin-Gege. They’re not as good as Concubine Jing's."
"Anything Xie Qi makes will be good," Lin Shu said firmly. He popped one of the sweets into his mouth.
Xie Qi blushed. "I used the special ingredients you gave me in the other batch. Do you think that's okay?"
"Of course," Lin Shu said soothingly. "Its other people's responsibility if they take sweets that weren't meant for them."
Xie Qi heaved a relieved sigh, relaxing. "Thank you for your guidance Lin-Gege! Hello Jingyan-ge it's good to see you I've got to go now, my brothers will be stealing their batch of the sweets I made soon!"
She waved to them both and bounded off over the wall.
Lin Shu sighed contentedly "Xie Qi is such a good girl."
Jingyan looked at him sideways. "Does Aunt Linyang know you are tutoring her.?"
Lin Shu sniffed. "Of course! She is going to marry Zhuo Qingyao, and Aunt Linyang was concerned about how well she would manage marrying into a Jianghu sect, so she asked Mother if I would give her some tutoring."
Jingyan wondered if Aunt Linyang knew what kind of lessons her only daughter would be learning from Xiao Shu. Knowing Aunt Linyang, she probably did.
He glanced over at Lin Shu, smiling. Lin Shu was staring down at his wine cup, his eyes distant. “She’s a strong girl,” he said quietly. “She will be able to survive.”
Xie Qi’s father was supporting the Prince Xian, and had used her future Father-in-Law to take out his rivals. “We will protect her and her brothers as much as we can.”
Lin Shu smiled brightly. “Yes,” he agreed. “We will always protect our little cousins.”
Building the case against Duke Qing and his family made grim work, but there was also a deep satisfaction in working with honourable officials on a worthy cause, to seeing how they slowly blossomed and revealed their talents as they learned that Jingyan tolerated no corruption under his eye.
They were going over the evidence gathered so far when one of the officials, Cai Quan, mentioned a new case that was taking up the Ministry of Justice’s time
“It was appropriate for the Magistrate to refer the case up,” another official argued. “The Minister for Finance is now implemented, and it would be inappropriate for the City Magistrate to investigate him.”
Jingyan glanced up, attention caught. “The Minister of Finance?”
“Yes,” Can Quan said. “A group of young nobles discovered female skeletons after one of them fell into a well in an abandoned manor. There is evidence that they were victims of a brothel which the Minister of Finance as well as other officials attended.
“I believe the discovery was made during a treasure hunt organised by Young Master Lin and his cousins,” another official offered.
“At least this one didn’t involve pigs running through the streets,” someone murmured. A ripple of laughter ran around the room.
Cai Quan snorted. “Half the disturbances in the capital can be attributed to Young Master Lin’s entertainments. It is a true shame that he didn’t live up to his early promise.”
The brush Jingyan was holding snapped. All the other officials suddenly found themselves very busy with the reports.
Cai Quan winced but held Jingyan’s gaze fearlessly.
Jingyan had always admired Cai Quan’s honesty.
“Forgive us, Your Highness,” another man said hesitantly. “It is well known that you and Young Master Lin are close friends.”
Which meant that this was a belief held by the majority of people.
Jingyan clenched his jaw. He wanted to take by the shoulders and shake them. He wanted to shout that Lin Shu was the most talented, most courageous, most loyal person in the Empire, that none of them understood what Xiao Shu had sacrificed for them, that the reason they were all here in this room, working to bring justice to murdered souls, was because Lin Shu had made it so.
…if he did Xiao Shu would be furious at him. This was the reputation that Lin Shu had carefully cultivated for years. Jingyan had always known that, and yet somehow it had never occurred to him that people would fall for the disguises he saw through so easily.
“Let us review the testimony from the door guard,” he said abruptly, and his team turned back to their papers in relief.
Thankfully, it was his day to enter the palace tomorrow. He could trust his mothers to help him sort out the truth, and what he should do next.
“Qing Si Rao?” Jingyan repeated.
“Xiao Shu came to greet us after visiting Great Grandmother three days ago,” Concubine Jing said, frowning. “We gave him the information then, and he said he would discuss it with you at once.
“I haven’t seen Xiao Shu for seven days.” Ice curled through Jingyan’s stomach. “What is Qing Is Rao?”
“It is a drug which turns a woman’s perceptions against herself. She’ll believe the person next to her is her beloved and begs to be embraced.” Concubine Jing folded her hands together. “It is one of the vilest potions to exist.”
“We have been attempting to identify who might be the target,” Consort Chen said.
Jingyan shook his head. “No,” he said numbly. “Who is it that the Emperor is most eager to see married? Prince Xian is about to loose his Finance Minister, and all Jinling knows that Xiao Shu was one of those to discover the case.”
Concubine Jing and Consort Chen paled. “The Emperor wouldn’t tolerate one of his son’s attempting to control Xiao Shu and his connections,” Consort Chen protested.
“If the deed was presented to him completed, he might,” Concubine Jing said quietly, “for the sake of severing the ties between the Mu and the Lin. And once it is done, there is only Xiao Shu’s word against his. But if Xiao Shu was to resist just enough, to ensure an investigation while the drug was still in his system, the Emperor wouldn’t be able to avoid censuring Prince Xian.
Xiao Shu would do it, Jingyan thought. He pictured Lin Shu laying out the strategy, counting the costing, weighing the benefits, deciding that yes, this risk was acceptable. It wasn’t difficult. He had seen LinShu do the exactly that so many times over the last few months.
But this time the person being risked was Xiao Shu.
“Go,” Concert Chen said. Her voice cracked. “And bring him here with you tomorrow so I can scold him for being an idiot.”
Jingyan bowed and went.
“Zhanying,” Jingyan said softly, “Ensure it is known I am in my residence all night.”
His second didn’t question him, just nodded acknowledgement.
In his manor Jingyan paused only long enough to change into clothes suitable for an anonymous night raid, and then he slipped out over the rooftops, heading for Lin Manor.
The moment he stepped through the door of the pavilion there was a sword pointed at his throat. Princess Jinyang studied him for a moment, then lowered it. “What’s happened?”
“Aunt Jinyang, where is Xiao Shu tonight?”
“He’s attending a banquet hosted by Prince Xian. An escort came for him half an hour ago.”
Dread clawed at Jingyan's heart. “Three days ago Mother and Aunt Chen told him that Consort Yue has managed to get hold of Qing Si Rao. He didn’t tell me.”
Princess Jinyang paled. “That foolish boy. Xiao Yan, you must not be seen.” Jingyan nodded grimly and turned to go.
“Wait.” Princess Jinyang took a jade chain out of her desk and fastened it to his hood. “The men in his escort from our household will know you come from me. Bring my son home safely.”
Jingyan bowed quickly to her and leapt away over the wall.
The travelling party was well lit by lanterns. Jingyan tracked it from the rooftops, studying it grimly. Xiao Shu rode in a palanquin with a young member of Prince Xian’s household, talking lightly. For a moment Jingyan tried to look at him with a stranger's eyes, to see what others saw which made them think Lin Shu was no better than this shallow courtier.
There were guards from Prince Xian ranged around the party, but the closest guards were those from the Lin household - Jingyan recognised two who were Xiao Shu’s favourite escort.
Jingyan checked the jade clasp was visible and drew his sword.
The courtier shirked when Jingyan hit the roof of the Palanquin, knowing it and his bearers on its side. Lin Shu was already struggling to free himself from the tangled curtains. The guards where turning, drawing their swords.
One of Lin Shu’s guards swung at him; Jingyan saw his eyes flick quickly to the jade clasp on his hood, and at his next blow the man let himself be bowled over backwards, falling directly into the advancing guards. As they swore Jingyan grabbed hold of Lin Shu’s arm, hauled him upright, and put his sword to Lin Shu’s throat.
“Seize him!” One of Prince Xian’s guards shouted, starting forward.
“Fool!” Lin Shu’s guard knocked him back. “He has the young master.”
Lin Shu attempted to break free but Jingyan strengthened his hold and he stilled. Jingyan’s heart broke a little. Once, he would have been hard put to restrain Young Marshall Lin Shu.
The guard spread his hands, his eyes flicking briefly to the jade clasp, approaching slowly. “You, what are your-“
Jingyan gathered himself and leapt high in the air to the rooftops. Shouts faded in the distance and he trusted the Lin guards to lead the rest astray and kept running.
Streets away in an abandoned manor Jingyan touched down to the ground and released Lin Shu. Lin Shu pulled away at once, spinning around into a fighting stance, his eyes blazing with fury.
“How dare you?” he demanded. “Show yourself!”
Jingyan pulled down his mask.
Lin Shu froze, staring at him, his mouth working furiously. “You - you - WATERBUFFALO!” he shouted. “Do you have any idea what you have done?”
“Was my plan any worse,” Jingyan asked through gritted teeth, “then allowing myself to be drugged by Qing Si Rao?”
Lin Shu’s eyes shifted for a second but then he set his jaw and firmed his stance. “It would have been the perfect opportunity to take down Prince Xian and now instead we’ve got to come up with some reasonable explanation for why a random brigand kidnapped me in the middle of Jinling-“
“Was this the only opportunity?” Jingyan asked grimly, ignoring Lin Shu’s attempt at deflection. “Was this the only way you could see to bring down Prince Xian?”
“Yes,” Lin Shu said defiantly, and Jingyan laughed.
It was a bitter, twisted thing and it made Lin Shu hesitate, for the first time disturbing is mask of righteous indignation.
“Are you trying to tell me you didn’t already have strategies in place that didn’t rely on this chance? Because forgive me, Xiao Shu, but I won’t believe you.”
“I have other plans,” Lin Shu said. “What of it? Why is this one any different from the rest?”
Jingyan ground his teeth. “Because failure was too likely. Because the consequences of failure were too high. Because you meant to use yourself as the sacrifice."
“Why not?” Lin Shu asked defiantly. “I have put others in danger. People have been died because of my plotting. Why should I simply hide in the dark and stir the pot? Why shouldn’t I put myself in danger too?”
“Because you don’t sacrifice your general to win a victory you could win by sacrificing a company.”
Lin Shu laughed wildly. “Soldiers know when they’re in a battle! They’re not innocents who suddenly find their lives destroyed because a strategist in the shadows has decided they are acceptable sacrifices. I’ve known about the brothel murders for two years Jingyan, ever since Tong Lu came to Jinling looking for his sister, and I allowed them to lie there in the mud with no justice because I didn’t have a good candidate in position to replace the Minister of Finance yet.”
Jingyan was silent for a moment, letting himself feel the pain of that, letting himself consider all the implications of it, to weigh up those costs and benefits. He felt the weight of it settle on his shoulders. “I understand,” he said simply. “I agree with your decision.”
Lin Shu made a strangled noise. He lifted his hands, fists curled, as if to throttle Jingyan. “You’re not meant to understand!”
Jingyan snorted, strangely amused. “Did you mean to keep me an innocent, pure of the blood spilled in winning the throne?” Lin Shu’s sudden silence told him he was correct. Jingyan sighed. “Xiao Shu, you know I won’t let you do that.”
Lin Shu muttered something that might have been ‘that’s why you weren’t supposed to find out.’ He took a deep breath and put his shoulders back, looking Jingyan square in the face. Jingyan thought he had never seen Xiao Shu look so fragile. “It’s better this way,” Lin Shu said steadily. “You must not change, Jingyan. You need to be uncorrupted, honest, honourable when you take the throne. I-“ for a moment he wavered. “Young Marshall Lin Shu is dead. I killed him. I have dragged his reputation through the mud for ten years. He can’t stand by your side again, so let me use myself however I can now to win the throne for you.”
"You are right," Jingyan said quietly. "You are no longer the Young Marshall Lin Shu of the Chiyan Army." Xiao Shu drew in a shuddering breath, began to speak. Jingyan stopped him with a hand over his mouth. "You are not the Young Marshall of the Chiyan Army. You are the Pillar of my Empire, my Commander General.” He took his hand away gently. At last Lin Shu was silent. He looked at Jingyan as if he had just been pierced through the heart, and he was waiting for Jingyan to draw out the blade. “For the last ten years you’ve carried the whole Empire on your shoulders,” Jingyan said softly. “You have sacrificed your name and reputation and the place that should have been yours for the sake of the Empire, and I value that far more than one who has kept his name in the peoples’ eyes and sacrificed his honour.”
Tears were sliding down Lin Shu’s cheeks.
"I wish I could give you back Young Marshall Lin Shu. I wish I could give you back the Chiyan Army. But I cannot go back to being simply the young Prince Jing, and I need my Commander General.
“I haven’t told you all my plans,” Lin Shu said hoarsely. “Jingyan, Xie Qi, Xie Bie, Jingrui… they will be hurt, hurt terribly. I can’t see any other way. I will destroy Jingrui.”
“I trust you,” Jingyan said again. “I trust you to avoid all unnecessary suffering. I trust that if innocents must be harmed, that you truly see no other option.
And,” he raised his voice slightly when Lin Shu tried to interrupt, “we will bear those deeds on our shoulders, but we will bear them together.”
Lin Shu let out a longer shuddering sigh. He tilted forward, his head coming to rest on Jingyan’s shoulder. “Together,” he said softly.
“Yes,” Jingyan said, and put his arm around him, and held him close. “Wherever we may go, we’ll go together."