Xiao Jingyan stood at the base of the steps of the secret passage, gaze caught on the dangling length of the bellpull he’d just cut. The severed end was clean—no fraying or ragged threads. Much like the edges of Jingyan’s anger. No regrets. Mei Changsu had proven himself to be exactly what Jingyan had first expected – a strategist. The sort of person who thought nothing of using others, of hurting them, to achieve his ends. If it had been anyone but Consort Jing caught in Mei Changsu’s schemes, if it hadn’t been one of Lin Shu’s trusted lieutenants that Mei Changsu had just refused to help, Jingyan might have hesitated to cut the cord. Such was the insidious allure of the Divine Talent’s brilliance. But Jingyan had no forgiveness for anyone who threatened his mother, and no respect for any man who would place Jingyan’s political rise over the well-being of a loyal soldier from the Chiyan army.
Not even if the offender was a man Jingyan had started to think of as a friend like he hadn’t had since the massacre at Meiling.
It is better this way, he told himself. His goals hadn’t changed. He would still clear the names of Prince Qi, the Lin family, and all the others destroyed by Xia Jiang’s plotting. He would even, perhaps, if Heaven willed it so, become Crown Prince and Emperor. Perhaps he would even use Mei Changsu to do these things.
But any possibility, any illusion, that there might be a bond of fraternal love between them was severed this night as surely as the bellpull dangling loose against the wall.
Jingyan glared at the kneeling Mei Changsu, fingers flexing around the sword he’d taken from General Lei. Some part of him was pleased at the surprise that broke Mei Changsu’s impenetrable façade. You do not know me, he thought. You have never really known me, or you would have known this would be the result of your schemes.
“There is no common ground for understanding between people of differing principles,” he said. Mei Changsu’s breath caught on a gasp as though Jingyan’s words cut as surely as his sword.
Jingyan turned and mounted the stairs. The sweep of his robes caught the fallen bell. It rolled away with a dull tink. Ignoring it and the pleas from Mei Changsu that rose in his wake, Jingyan left the secret passage and sealed the door shut behind him.
Jingyan had only just sent General Lei to learn more about Wei Zheng’s situation when his steward came scurrying up to the threshold to announce a visitor. That was fast. Too fast for it to be Mei Changsu come to slyly wheedle his way back into Jingyan’s good graces. Jingyan was curious enough that he relented and gestured for the steward to speak rather than leave.
The steward folded his hands before him and bowed lower and longer than etiquette demanded. “Your Highness, a man has come to the gate and requests to meet with Prince Jing.”
That the steward came at all meant it was someone of enough importance to make such a request. That he did not give the name meant it was someone controversial, and that he was two degrees short of falling to his knees meant it was someone who would upset Jingyan.
So, not Mei Changsu, but there were many mouths these days that spoke with Mei Changsu’s voice.
“I do not welcome any from the Su household,” Jingyan snapped. His steward should fall on his knees for interrupting him with this. He should have known better. Jingyan returned his attention to the supply report spread out before him.
His steward remained in his bent posture. “Forgive me, your Highness, but it is not… that is… the visitor introduced himself as Master Lin Chen of Langya Hall, and says he comes with a gift and a message.”
Jingyan’s fist came down hard on his desk, rattling the candle and causing the flame to dance and flicker. Drops of hot wax spattered across the back of his hand, but he felt no pain. His anger was hotter than any wax. “So, Sir Su resorts to bribery,” he said.
To his credit, the steward barely flinched. That alone gave Jingyan pause. If the steward remained staunch in the face of his master’s anger, then perhaps there was something that gave him confidence that Jingyan would welcome this particular guest.
At the very least, he could hear what Mei Changsu’s emissary had to say, and then send him back with a reply that could not be misunderstood. “Very well. I will meet the Master of Langya Hall.”
“Yes, your Highness.” The steward backed away, leaving Jingyan to peel cooling wax off his hand and desk.
The Master of Langya Hall, when he was brought to Jingyan, was not like any courtier or minister Jingyan had ever met. Lin Chen walked with a loose grace, glanced around Jingyan’s study, eyes bright with curiosity. His bow was almost insulting in its informality, and he sat across from Jingyan as casually as though they were old friends.
He was as unlike the careful, restrained, calculated Mei Changsu as it was possible for a man to be. And this was Mei Changsu’s envoy?
At least Lin Chen’s lack of concern for propriety freed Jingyan to be frank. “The Master of Langya Hall honors this manor with his presence, but I fear he has wasted a trip. The gardens here are plain and honest, not the intricate paths of those at the Su estate. Perhaps he should find his way there, instead.”
“No, your gardens aren’t much to look at, are they?” Lin Chen said, fiddling with his fan as he peered out into said gardens. Snow had begun to fall in thick, feathery clumps. In an hour, even the winter greens would be blanketed in white. Before Jingyan could do more than bristle at being taken literally, Lin Chen dug into his sleeve, putting away the fan and pulling out a parcel. “But I would not be able to deliver this if I visited the Su gardens.”
Nonplussed, Jingyan accepted the parcel being shoved into his hands. “What is this?”
“A book written by my father’s master—The Divine Healer. Langya Hall received a request for it on behalf of Consort Jing some time ago. And of course, I could not allow such a gift to be delivered by just any messenger.”
Jingyan blinked down at the parcel. His mother had often spoken of the skill of the physicians of Langya Hall, something Jingyan had mentioned to Mei Changsu only in passing. And now the master of that hall came in person to deliver a gift that Jingyan’s mother would prize more than a hundred bolts of silk brocade. Was there no end to the strategist’s ploys?
And yet, Mei Changsu’s faults were not Lin Chen’s. Shame coupled with new fury heated Jingyan’s cheeks. He set the parcel carefully on the corner of the desk, folded his hands, and gave Lin Chen an abbreviated nod. “The Master of Langya Hall has shown great care in delivering such a precious gift himself, and Prince Jing has greeted him poorly. Please let me offer tea, and tell me of this gift. Consort Jing will be disappointed with me if I cannot answer all her questions in full.”
Lin Chen did indeed answer all of Jingyan’s questions, and that allowed Jingyan to wave off his steward when he brought news that Sir Su had come and was waiting at the gate. Lin Chen’s tea cooled, the steward came again, and Jingyan sent him away with a glare. The snow fell, Jingyan scraped the bottom of his meager medical knowledge, and eventually Lin Chen noticed General Lei hovering at the threshold.
“But Prince Jing has business that I am keeping him from. The book is not the only gift I brought. That is for Consort Jing. This is for her son.” He dug into his sleeve and set a small, carved box before Jingyan. “Prince Jing knows of the answers that Langya Hall gives to supplicants, yes?”
Who did not? It was just one of the many mysteries that set the jianghu apart from everywhere else. “Does Langya Hall often deliver such messages? And to those who have yet to ask a question?” Jingyan asked warily, even as curiosity drove him to open the box and unroll the slip of paper inside.
“The answer is for me,” Lin Chen said. “I deliver it because it is about you.”
Such was clear when Jingyan studied the script.
To heal a deadly ill, Xiao Jingyan must seek the Divine Healer in secret.
A deadly ill. Jingyan did not need to be a strategist to guess that the greatest ill the Master of Langya Hall might wish to heal was the one that consumed the body of the Chief of the Jiangzuo Alliance.
No, he wanted to say, and feed the script to the warming brazier.
He is nothing to me, and I am nothing to him, he tried to tell himself. Why should he aid Mei Changsu when Mei Changsu had refused to help Wei Zheng?
But Jingyan was not Mei Changsu. He was not the sort of man to throw someone away because to help them would be dangerous or inconvenient. A flash of blue reminded him that General Lei still stood, waiting. That Mei Changsu waited in the courtyard. The snow was falling more heavily. Guilt cooled the remainder of Jingyan’s anger. His pettiness had left a sick man waiting in the cold.
“The Master of Langya Hall is correct that business must be attended to. If he will wait for my return, perhaps he can tell me more about where this Divine Healer might be found.”
Jingyan said nothing of Lin Chen’s visit or the message from Langya Hall, not during the fraught audience with Mei Changsu, not during the conversations and planning that followed. Any other time, he would have expected Mei Changsu to somehow know, but whether from distress or distraction, nothing was said. And Jingyan was glad he had decided to help before Mei Changsu agreed to help Wei Zheng—before Jingyan learned that one attempt to rescue Wei Zheng had already been made and failed. He didn’t have to consider whether he was acting out of anything other than his own adherence to the demands of honor.
Which was why, in the following days as they waited for Xia Dong’s return so that they might implement Mei Changsu’s plan, Jingyan found himself engaging in a minor subterfuge of his own.
It was easy enough to lead General Meng to believe that Jingyan was with General Lei, and to convince Lei Zhanyin that Jingyan was with Meng Zhi. Just as it was easy to commandeer a mask, inconspicuous robes, and a hooded cloak, and ride outside the city with nobody the wiser. Lin Chen had said that the Divine Healer was in hermitage, seeking healing herbs on the slopes of Gushan mountain. It was only a half-day’s ride from Jinling. Jingyan could be gone and back before the sun touched the western horizon.
Or so he had hoped. Lin Chen had not warned him just how many huts and hermits there were on Gushan mountain, and Jingyan hadn’t considered how thick the snow would be.
“Divine Healer he must be if he can find anything green under all this white,” Jingyan muttered to his mare as they clopped toward yet another humble shack. Juniper and pine trees stretched snow-laden boughs over a frozen pond fed by a waterfall of ice. Smoke tickled Jingyan’s nose, and the promise of warmth made him dismount quickly to announce himself.
“A petitioner comes seeking the Divine Healer,” he called, voice ringing more loudly than he intended in the quiet mountain clearing. He coughed and spoke at a more reasonable volume. “On the instruction of the Master of—”
“Yes, yes. Lin Chen sent you. I was wondering when he’d get around to it. Come in before you freeze your toes off. I don’t want to have to treat you for hypothermia.”
The woman who stood in the doorway of the hut was nothing that Jingyan had expected. She was a woman, for one, with hair as red as a fox’s pelt, and dressed oddly. He’d seen hanfu like that before, on the envoys from Goguryeo he’d met when he was training the army at Donghai. Her accent was strange as well, and the words she used…
“Ha… po…” He tried and failed to wrap his tongue around the rest of the word.
“Nevermind. Come in.” She waved for him to enter and, nonplussed, he complied.
Plaster covered the walls inside the hut, and whitewash smelling strongly of lime made them a pristine white. One set of shelves held the neatly-labeled bottles and pots that he might expect to see at an apothecary, but another shelf held metal devices like he’d never seen before, and one of the whitewashed walls was bare of any shelving, but covered in strange, geometric designs, all circles and straight lines. They almost looked like they could be writing, but it was like no writing Jingyan had ever seen.
Her lodgings were as strange as her dress, and her manner was stranger than both. Granted, he hadn’t made his true rank or name known to her, but her dismissive informality made Lin Chen seem as refined as Mei Changsu.
“I have come seeking the Divine Healer,” he tried again. Perhaps the doctor was out collecting herbs, and this young woman was his student or servant.
“Yes. That would be me. We don’t have much time. Lin Chen really put this off to the last moment, didn’t he?” She rummaged through a satchel made out of no silk or hide that Jingyan had ever seen.
Jingyan did his best to hide his surprise. His mother would chastise him for assuming this woman wasn’t a doctor, but if she’d trained Lin Chen and his father before him…
“The Divine Healer is younger than would be expected,” he blurted, and winced. Just because she behaved so casually gave him no excuse to do so.
“I’m older than I look,” she muttered, voice muffled by the flap of her bag. “Ah. Here.” She held up a smaller rolled packet, boiled leather with softer leather ties holding it closed. “This needs to be administered to ten people who are close to Chief Mei. Preferably who are in Jinling right now so we don’t have to go running all over Liang looking for them. Give me your arm.”
While she’d been speaking, she’d unrolled the packet to reveal eleven liquid-filled tubes with needles on one end. Before he could ask what she was about, she grabbed his wrist and pushed up his sleeve to expose his forearm.
“What are you doing?!” He yanked out of her grip and stumbled back, holding his arm to his body, though she’d not yet stuck him with one of the needle-tubes.
“I’m administering a mild strain of…” She trailed off, then closed her eyes and sank her head into one hand, muttering to herself in a language Jingyan had never heard. “Lin Chen didn’t explain anything to you, did he?”
Jingyan would have said yes, that Lin Chen had explained quite a bit, but Lin Chen’s explanations apparently hadn’t covered the important information. “The Master of Langya Hall brought me a message—an answer to a question he had asked. It said that to cure a deadly ill, Xi—er. That I should seek the Divine Healer.”
“That man,” she muttered, and then more in her strange language that Jingyan would bet his fifth pearl was cursing. With a great sigh, she held up two hands, one empty and supplicating, the other brandishing the needle-tube. “There isn’t a cure yet, but there can be. The problem is that I need samples for testing, and those need time to incubate. Chief Mei doesn’t have that time. That’s where you come in. This,” she shook the needle-tube, “needs to be injected into ten subjects—people with very strong chi who do not easily get sick. It’s an inert form of the paras—nevermind. Doesn’t matter.” She tapped an eleventh needle-tube at the end of the packet filled with a liquid of a slightly different hue. “This one is an extract of qinghao su. It needs to be injected into Chief Mei. If you do this, then Lin Chen and I should be able to make a cure and administer it before it’s too late.”
Jingyan hesitated. He shouldn’t trust her. She was unknown, her language strange, and now that he thought on it, he only had Lin Chen’s word that either of them were who they claimed or could do what they promised. He had not even checked with Mei Changsu, had not told anyone that he was leaving. This could be a plot of Prince Yu’s to assassinate him.
And yet, something about the woman reminded Jingyan of his mother. Not her mode of dress, and certainly not her countenance or comportment. No, it was her confidence. Whatever else she was, this woman was a doctor who knew her trade.
“And you wish to make me one of the ten?” he asked.
“You’re healthy. You’re close to Chief Mei. You’re here. And it will be easier for you to do this if I can demonstrate.”
“Very well.” Jingyan pushed up his sleeve and offered her his forearm, paying close attention to her instruction.
“If you can, you’ll want to clean each needle with boiling water before you use it,” she said, wiping a patch of skin at the bend of his elbow with an unguent that stained it yellow. “It’s best if you can manage a sterile injection site, but it’s more important that you aren’t discovered, because… well… you’ll understand soon enough.”
He expected there to be some pain, but he barely felt the needle. He did feel a chill, and then heat under his skin, as she pushed the other end of the tube and the liquid inside flowed into his body.
“I must do this secretly?” The idea of that sat poorly with Jingyan. Those around Mei Changsu would throw themselves at any chance to save their Chief. Why was it necessary to lie?
“Mm. It is absolutely vital that nobody discovers that it’s you. Especially Chief Mei. Here.” She handed him the leather pouch and the larger satchel she’d drawn if from. “There are some other things in there that you might need. There’s a cave behind the frozen waterfall. You can take your horse in there so it’s out of the cold. When you’re done, come back here, and I’ll explain what I can.”
Strange woman, but kind if she was concerned for his horse standing out in the cold. “Very well.” He placed the pouch in the pack and left the hut. The mare whinnied and stamped her hooves, the frozen ground crunching beneath them. Whispering apologies for leaving her, Jingyan took the reins and led her along the ledge that passed behind the waterfall. The sunlight shone strangely through the ice, making the air shimmer with color so bright he had to squint against it.
They passed through it like it was a veil of light, leaving them in the darkness of the cave beyond. Jingyan waited a few moments until the darkness soothed his eyes and the warmth of the cave chased away the chill of winter outside. The distant sound of thunder spurred him to movement. He tied a quick hobble around the mare’s fetlocks so she wouldn’t wander and fall into the frozen pond. Then, shouldering the doctor’s satchel, he headed out of the cave.
A storm cloud must have passed over the sun. That was his first thought upon leaving the cave. There was no blinding shimmer as before, and the thunder sounded even louder, close enough to touch. Then cool spray struck his face, and he realized the strange rush of sound wasn’t distant thunder, it was a sheet of falling water shielding the mouth of the cave. Puzzled, he edged around from behind the fall. He fell to his knees when he beheld the rest of the glade.
Spring had come in a matter of moments. The pond was swollen with thaw, rising up past the lip of its banks to weave like threads of silk over the black of thawed earth and through the bright green of new grass. The junipers and pines had sloughed their snowy mantles. Pink-tinged buds dotted the bare black branches of the plum and cherry trees taking shelter beneath the evergreens. All around him were the scents and sounds of a world waking from winter—loam and moss, birds chirping and squirrels chittering.
And nothing else. There was no hut standing next to the pond, no smoke, no doctor in sight.
Fist tightening on the strap of the satchel the Divine Healer had given him, Jingyan wondered furiously just how much of their plan had she and Lin Chen failed to share.
Jingyan found out that answer soon enough, with the first peasant farmer he met at the base of the mountain, but it took several more confirmations, the last with a capital guard at the gates of Jinling, before he would believe it.
“You are saying that it is the forty-third year of the emperor’s rule? That Prince Xian is Crown Prince, and that seventh Prince Jing is reviewing the fortifications along the border with Da Yu?” Almost three years. Somehow, Jingyan had come back to a time almost three years before he left.
The guard nodded, giving Jingyan the sort of wary look that promised Jingyan might soon find himself detained. It was only caution and fortune that had kept Jingyan’s hood up and his face in shadow, otherwise, detention might be the least of his worries. If Prince Jing was meant to be at the Da Yu border, then his presence in the capital city would be a gross dereliction of duty. Would be desertion.
Would be treason.
“Thank you.” Belatedly, he remembered to fold his hands before him and bow to the guard as any common visitor to the city might. “There is little care for such matters in… in the jianghu.” He stuttered over the lie, but it banished the guard’s wariness.
“Ah, you are with the great Tianquan Manor?” At Jingyan’s hesitation, he said, “Or perhaps… there are rumors that the Jiangzuo Alliance has become very powerful.”
“Yes.” It was teetering on the edge of truth, but better to let the guard think Jingyan was from the Jiangzuo Alliance than chance that Zhuo Dingfeng might be called on to verify Jingyan’s identity.
“Then you must be with that other fellow.”
“Other fellow?” The question caught in Jingyan’s throat. This was the price of dishonesty; it could never be hidden forever. The truth would out.
“In the teahouse. I will take you.”
So, the guard’s acceptance of Jingyan’s story didn’t extend to letting him wander alone. Which meant Jingyan could either flee now like a base criminal, or follow and have his lie exposed.
“Please,” Jingyan said, gesturing for the guard to lead.
Jingyan wasn’t certain who he expected to meet at the teahouse, but he certainly hadn’t expected to recognize them.
“Master Lin,” he grated out, sketching the most perfunctory of bows. The room he’d been brought to was at the back of the house, private. Bare of ornament as most public tea rooms tended to be, but clean and warm, with multiple braziers to chase away the spring chill.
Lin Chen stood, folding his hands and bowing, more respectful than he’d been at their last meeting. “My friend has arrived. I did not expect him to be so timely.”
If it was meant as a joke, it fell flat. Jingyan had no time for the strangeness that ruled the jianghu. He tugged at the wrap covering the lower half of his face. “Can you explain—"
“Wait!” Lin Chen caught his wrist and lifted the fabric back in place. He shook his head, tutting at Jingyan. “I have waited to meet a mysterious stranger. How am I to do that if he reveals himself at the first moment?”
“You know who I am,” Jingyan said.
“I do not, and I do not want to. Come sit and join me for tea.” Lin Chen resumed his seat, leaving Jingyan little choice. If he wanted answers, he would have to humor the enigmatic and increasingly irritating Master of Langya Hall.
He sat, glare fixed on Lin Chen as he busied himself pouring tea. After he was done, he reached into his sleeve and pulled out a familiar-looking box.
Jingyan took it. It was not the same as the other box he’d been given by Lin Chen. The grain whorled in a tighter pattern, the bronze latch was engraved with a mask instead of a butterfly. And the message written on the slip of paper inside was entirely different, though equally cryptic:
At the House of the Single Leaf, a mysterious stranger holds the answer. Leave the mystery unanswered, and the answer will come in time.
“You see? The less I know of you, the more likely I am to find other answers that matter more to me.” Lin Chen lifted his teacup for a sip. His lips mirrored the curve of the rim when he lowered it. “Assuming you are the correct mysterious stranger. It would be inconvenient if there was more than one.”
Jingyan left his tea untouched, not caring how rude that might be. His preference was for water, and he was not made for these games. “You seek a cure for the illness suffered by Mei Changsu, Chief of the Jiangzuo Alliance.”
Lin Chen’s teacup dropped to the floor with a sharp clatter. Jingyan smiled beneath the wrap covering his face. Perhaps some small part of him was made for this. “Yes, I have the answer you seek. But I need your assistance in delivering it.”
Lin Chen was his first, and Jingyan took perverse satisfaction in blindfolding him, pricking him with one of the Divine Healer’s needles, and answering none of his many questions, no matter how he pouted or glared or scolded Jingyan with his fan.
Over the next several weeks, Lin Chen found them accommodations in Jinling and gathered information on the individuals specified by Jingyan. For his part, Jingyan returned when he could to Gushan mountain. He found nothing but an empty clearing and cave—no hut, and no shimmering veil of rainbow water to take him back to when he belonged. He resigned himself to the possibility that he might have to live these three years again, in hiding, until he could resume the life he’d been torn away from. In the meantime, he got down to the business of the cure.
With Lin Chen’s help, Jingyan was able to sneak into the manor houses of Jinling and administer the doctor’s needle to General Meng Zhi, Marquis Yan and his son Yan Yujin, Xia Dong, and Mu Qing. Others, he considered, but Xiao Jingrui would be gone to Southern Chu by the time Jingyan received his mission. Mu Nihuang likewise would be far away. And since the Jingyan of this time was off at the border, there was no way to administer the cure to any of his lieutenants. Shen Zui and Cai Quan were competent and loyal, but they were ministers, not martial experts of the jianghu. And more than that, their loyalty was to Da Liang, not to Mei Changsu or Prince Jing. The others, he rationalized, would offer their aid without reservation if they knew, but he could not in conscience force Minister Shen or Minister Cai to the same choice.
“Who next?” Lin Chen asked nearly a month after their meeting at the tea house.
Jingyan scratched at the stubble growing under the half-mask he habitually wore now. It chafed, not just his face, but his spirit. Where was the honor in this subterfuge?
And yet, he had committed himself to it, to helping Mei Changsu, so it was best to do it well.
“There is nobody else in Jinling who will do.” Jingyan hadn’t told Lin Chen why he needed people, only that they must have a strong spirit and be near Mei Changsu when the time was right.
“Then we go to the Jiangzuo Alliance.” Lin Chen swept up his sleeves and rose to his feet as though he meant to leave Jinling that very moment.
“Wait.” Jingyan rubbed the silk of his mask between his fingers. “I cannot.”
“If you seek those close to Mei Changsu, then the best place to find them is close to Mei Changsu.”
Jingyan transferred his rubbing to his brow. The past few weeks had been simple compared to the challenge he must soon face—the challenge he’d been trying to avoid. How was he to fool a Divine Talent whose business was to know—and predict—everything around him? And yet, Lin Chen was correct. The people he most needed were the ones hardest to get to. And the person he needed most of all was Mei Changsu himself.
“Not everyone will be as accepting of this as you,” he said, indicating his mask.
“You leave that part to me,” Lin Chen said, and with that Jingyan had to be content.
Jingyan had never had particular aspirations to making the Langya List, but when he and Lin Chen came upon a rabble of bandits attacking a small caravan on the border of Northern Yan, neither could he sit back and allow harm to come to innocent travelers. Without waiting for Lin Chen’s opinion on the matter, he leapt into the fray. He kept his blade sheathed until the first attacker parried Jingyan’s strike with a blow meant to kill.
So, it was to be that sort of fight. Jingyan unsheathed, knocking aside a second strike with his lacquered scabbard, and was about to slide his blade under the man’s guard when he spied a familiar hand drawing back the curtain of the litter, a familiar face, lean and pale, peering out to observe the fight.
Jingyan pulled his strike, shifting out of the style he’d been trained in since his first practice blade was placed in his hands. His opponent’s shorter blade came sweeping down and would have sliced through Jingyan’s clothing if he hadn’t rolled away in time. He kicked out, disarming his foe. A sweep of his leg, and the man went down. A strike to the head, and he stayed down.
Jingyan came up on one knee, hand flat on the ground to steady himself, and looked up at Mei Changsu. Gaze met gaze, both assessing, both concealing. Jingyan wanted to look away, but that was the mark of a dishonest man. A shiver danced across his skin, spinning into a tight knot below his belly. He held that perceptive gaze, almost daring Mei Changsu to recognize him. To know him.
Moments passed in light breaths and unblinking eyes. The sounds of fighting continued around them, muffled and indistinct. Yet for Jingyan, there was nothing else in the world but this man. This moment. This lie that of all lies he must maintain.
And then the hand withdrew. The curtain closed. The tightness in Jingyan’s gut eased. Whatever Mei Changsu had seen, he hadn’t connected it with a out-of-favor prince who would never be found brawling in a mask on a road far from Jinling.
A shadow of fabric flickered at the edge of Jingyan’s vision. He turned toward it and launched himself at another of the bandits.
As the fight wound down—the bandits either dead or fled—Jingyan found himself facing another sort of battle.
“Go!” Fei Liu told Lin Chen, crossing his arms and jutting out his lower lip far enough for a rooster to perch on it.
Lin Chen met Fei Liu’s disgruntlement with an avuncular smile and spread arms. “Now, is that any way to greet a friend?”
“Hmph.” Fei Liu caught sight of Jingyan approaching and leapt for him. Jingyan braced himself for a sound beating. He knew well that he was no match for the boy.
“Fei Liu!” Mei Changsu’s sharp tone was better than any martial block. “Stop.”
Fei Liu pulled up short, one foot touching down on the ground before Jingyan. He used the touch to leap back, landing on top of a wagon and glaring down at them all.
“Master Lin is correct. That is not the way to greet a friend.” Mei Changsu made his slow way down from the litter and across the road, assisted by Li Gang, the steward Jingyan knew from the Su estate in Jinling. He bowed to Lin Chen, ignoring Fei Liu’s grunt and pout. “Though it is surprising to meet such friends here. What brings the Master of Langya Hall to the lands of the Jiangzuo Alliance?”
“I had not realized the Jiangzuo Alliance’s borders stretched this far north. And I must wonder that their chief is attacked in his own lands.”
A soft smile played across Mei Changsu’s lips. “There is still some disagreement on the location of the border.” He turned as another man Jingyan knew, Zhen Ping, approached. “Was anything lost?”
“They made off with one of the wagons.”
Mei Changsu frowned. “Not the one with my books?”
“No. The one with the wine.”
“That can be replaced.” He turned to Lin Chen as though there had been no interruption and no theft. “But I wonder that you have come to Northern Yan. Langya Hall is nowhere near here.”
“Perhaps I came to check on you,” Lin Chen said, wrapping his sleeves around his arms and tutting around Mei Changsu with his fan like a hen with a chick—poking, prodding, taking his pulse. “Though I could have given you my diagnosis from afar: you are working too hard, staying out in the cold too long, and neglecting your health.”
Mei Changsu’s lips pursed. He took a deep breath and sighed without wheezing or coughing as Jingyan expected him to. It was strange to see him like this. In Jinling he’d been quiet, reserved, and Jingyan ascribed that to his nature. Seeing him now, batting away Lin Chen’s hands and meeting Lin Chen’s smiles with long-suffering frowns, Jingyan had to wonder: was it simple respect that drove Mei Changsu’s reserve when he was with Prince Jing, or had his health deteriorated so much in three years?
“Enough.” Mei Changsu gently—but firmly—pushed Lin Chen’s hands away. “As you say, no need to leave Langya Hall to know those things. So…?” He cast a sidelong, speculative look at Jingyan—the first acknowledgement that he was standing there.
“Ah, yes. Zhan Long is accompanying me on business for Langya Hall.”
“Secret business. Or did you think that you were the only one with a dozen schemes running at any one time?”
“And the mask?”
Jingyan watched in puzzlement as Mei Changsu flinched and looked away. “I… see.”
“Not even Langya Hall can cure every ill,” Lin Chen said softly, an undercurrent passing between the two men that Jingyan couldn’t interpret.
Mei Changsu coughed softly. “This I know.”
“But enough of my business. Tell me yours. How goes the succession in Northern Yan? Have you made the sixth prince Crown Prince yet?”
“I have only just started. Even for me, it will take some time.”
“And yet you allow yourself to be distracted by border disputes…” Lin Chen usurped Li Gang’s place at Mei Changsu’s side, leading him back to the litter and steering him away from Jingyan and any questions his presence might raise.
Leaving Jingyan alone with Fei Liu, who was glaring at his mask as though he was moments away from ripping it off and absconding with it like an untrained monkey.
Luckily, Jingyan had been preparing for this meeting. If there was one person closest to Mei Changsu, it was Fei Liu. Jingyan knew how to cultivate his goodwill, and he was not above using that knowledge.
“Would you like one?” he asked, pulling two small melons from his pack.
Eyes widening, Fei Liu looked at the fruit, looked up at Jingyan, and then back at the fruit. Smiling brightly, he snatched them both up and leapt away after his master.
Jingyan followed more sedately. That there would be more questions, he had no doubt, but the first two obstacles were cleared.
Now to use the remaining needles without drawing more of Mei Changsu’s attention. And perhaps also, to learn what had driven Mei Changsu to approach Jingyan and offer his support in the fight for Da Liang's throne.
As it turned out, Mei Changsu’s small retinue had not set out to patrol the borders of the Jiangzuo Alliance. Rather, they were traveling to their new household in Northern Yan, where ‘Chief Mei’ had set himself the task of taking the unpopular sixth prince under his wing and elevating him to the position of Crown Prince. So Jingyan was easily able to learn from Zhen Ping.
“Is that something your Chief Mei does often?” Jingyan asked Zhen Ping. They were catching their breath between unloading crates of books and papers from one of the wagons that had followed Mei Changsu’s litter. He tamped down on a strange surge of jealousy on learning he wasn’t Mei Changsu’s first. Perhaps it really was as he’d once believed—that Mei Changsu merely craved a challenge for his abilities. He would succeed with Northern Yan’s prince. Jingyan knew as much from his own time. But Northern Yan’s court was relatively stable. It did not suffer under the duplicity and intrigues of Prince Yu and Prince Xian. It did not cower under the gaze of a paranoid emperor. Perhaps it was just that, having defeated one challenge, the Divine Talent had sought an even harder one.
“No,” said Zhen Ping to Jingyan’s question rather than his thoughts. He ran a sleeve across his brow, drying the sweat there. Jingyan wished he could do the same, wished the breath caught by his mask didn’t leave him twice as heated. But he couldn’t risk lifting his disguise to get some air. Every moment he remained in Mei Changsu’s retinue was another moment he might be discovered.
“It’s not even the goal. It is practice,” Zhen Ping continued as he shifted another box to the lip of the wagon.
Jingyan lifted it, grunting—how many books could one man need?—and used the effort to cover the intensity of his interest. “Practice?” he asked, depositing the crate next to the others.
“For the real battle that’s to come in Da Liang.”
It was lucky for Jingyan that Zhen Ping was busy lifting down the last crate. Not even a mask could disguise the tension that seized his limbs and the shock that widened his eyes. “And who does Chief Mei hope to see on the throne of Liang?” he asked, faint. Breathless. It was still two years before the first whisper of the Divine Talent would come to Liang. Surely, surely it couldn’t have started this early.
“You wouldn’t believe me if—”
“Zhen Ping. See to the horses before Fei Liu sets them loose. Again.” Li Gang stood in the open rear gate of the small manor that was to be the Mei household during their stay in Northern Yan.
Zhen Ping groaned. “Not again!” he wailed, and ran off to presumably deal with said horses.
“And you. Zhan Long?” Li Gang turned on Jingyan, examining him long enough that only military discipline and long hours of kneeling at his father’s pleasure kept Jingyan from fidgeting. “Master Lin has said he would be happy to lend you to our household’s service for as long as he stays.”
The mask was good for hiding the tensing of Jingyan’s jaw when he clenched his teeth. “And I am happy to serve,” he managed to say and almost sound like he meant it.
“Good, then follow me with one of those crates. You can bring them to the chief’s study.”
As irritating as it was to be volunteered for labor, Jingyan found that he didn’t mind the task. The effort of carrying crate after crate left his back and arms aching and his hands red-chapped and burning, but it kept his thoughts from racing in circles around his new knowledge—that Mei Changsu’s plans for him dated back to long before Jingyan would ever have imagined.
But that still did not explain why.
So lost was he in subsuming these thoughts under physical labor that he failed to notice he was not alone in the study when he carried in the last crate.
“Zhan Long’s help is appreciated,” said Mei Changsu from beside one of the empty shelves. He had prized open one of the crates and was thumbing through a book plucked off the top. He lowered it, finger marking his place, and studied Jingyan with a more quizzical air than the intense one from the road. “Though it is possible that Master Lin volunteered where Zhan Long might not have.”
Now Jingyan did blot his face, as much for the extra concealment as to catch the sweat dripping from his brow. “It is not why I am here,” he said, voice rough from exertion, which made him realize that this was an aspect to his disguise that he had not considered. He resolved to speak through gravel and lower his speech as he never would if he were himself. It didn’t bear thinking, what might happen if he were discovered. His best disguise was that nobody would believe he could be here, but why test the limits of that? “But I don’t mind helping as long as I am here.”
“And why are you here?”
“Business for Langya Hall.”
“And what business is that?”
“Secret business.” Jingyan’s lips twitched as he echoed Lin Chen’s reply, and Mei Changsu’s lips curved slightly in response.
Which left Jingyan unprepared for the next question: “Does that business have anything to do with my business in Northern Yan?”
“What? No,” he blurted, surprised by the direction of Mei Changsu’s suspicions. Mei Changsu’s smile expanded from his lips to his eyes, and Jingyan realized that luck and his own lack of deviousness had inadvertently carried him past another hurdle.
“Good. Then I am grateful for your assistance. Perhaps you might start by helping to unpack and organize my books? Master Lin will yell at me if I do it myself, and I find I cannot settle until they are settled.”
Certain there was another trap buried in the request, Jingyan nevertheless nodded and began prying open another crate.
Some time later, Jingyan paused to stretch his back and survey their progress. It was less than heartening. “Why is it that a mess must always be made before order can be achieved?” he mused aloud, taking in the empty crates crowding the room, the piles of unshelved books, and the general disorder of the study. His gaze passed over Mei Changsu, who had donned his own mask against the dust, and who was giving Jingyan a curious, searching look. “Do you have any insight into this?”
Mei Changsu’s gaze broke, and he huffed a sound somewhere between a chuckle and a cough. “No more wisdom than that it is true.”
Jingyan couldn’t help himself from prodding. “But you also know well how to draw order from chaos.”
Another of those curious, arrested looks. “This, too, is true. Though it is a puzzle that you know so much about me.”
This time, it was Jingyan who broke gazes. He flipped through the books in his hands, treatises on strategy of the sort that usually only appeared in a general’s collection.
“Rumors of the Jiangzuo Alliance have spread throughout the jianghu and beyond. Also,” Jingyan looked up, knowing Mei Changsu couldn’t see his grin, but suspecting he could read it in his eyes. “Master Lin likes to demonstrate that he knows everything.”
Mei Changsu groaned and shelved a pile that Jingyan had sorted. “This is, unfortunately, very true.”
“Yes, well—Lao Zifeng’s The Tide at Ebb and Flow? I thought that—” That no copies existed outside the Emperor’s own library, such was the threat of Master Lao’s understanding of the shifting sea of politics. The only other copy Jingyan knew of would have been destroyed when the Lin household was ransacked.
“You know it?” Mei Changsu had come up beside him. He plucked the book from Jingyan’s grip and held it close, almost protectively.
Jingyan knew it, but there was no way Zhan Long would. “I had heard of it. I thought it was a myth.”
“Langya Hall keeps a copy of every book ever written. Master Lin was kind enough to allow me to transcribe this.”
“Ah.” That explained the book, but not Mei Changsu’s sudden coolness or the tremor in his hand as he shelved the book. “The reward of being friends with man who likes to know everything?”
Nodding, Mei Changsu said, “Even so.”
“And the price, I think, is being subject to nagging. Chief Mei should sit and allow Zhan Long to finish under his direction.”
“Chief Mei is fine—”
“Unless he wishes Master Lin to yell at us both.”
Chuckling, Mei Changsu relented and allowed Jingyan to guide him to his desk. He raised no protest when Jingyan fetched tea and pulled a brazier closer to warm him, nor when he draped a cloak over Mei Changsu’s shoulders.
Jingyan’s hands lingered there, taking in the nubby texture of the cotton, the warmth, the shiver underneath of a man who was never truly warm. His gaze traced the lacquer black of Mei Changsu’s hair against the ice-cut line of his jaw, and he tried to puzzle out why all this felt so familiar, enough to make his heart seize. Mei Changsu had never, would never have, accepted such personal attention from Prince Jing, any more than Jingyan would have offered it to his cold-hearted strategist.
Turning his head, Mei Changsu glanced up. “Zhan Long is acclimatizing quickly to the Mei household,” he said, amused.
Jingyan snatched his hands away as though burned, backed up and bowed. “The Mei household has been warm in its welcome.”
Covering his smile with a teacup, Mei Changsu said, “That is something I am rarely accused of. Warmth.” He held Jingyan with his gaze for several more breaths, shifting only when the brazier fire cracked and sent up a spark. “The travelogues go on that shelf there.”
Unwilling to examine too closely what had just passed, Jingyan quickly shelved the travelogues.
Identifying where Zhen Ping and Li Gang slept was easy enough, since Lin Chen somehow managed to wheedle a pallet for Jingyan in the same room. Pricking them with the Divine Healer’s needles proved to be a bit more of a challenge, but with the amount of work necessary to set up a household—and the aid of a soporific tea courtesy of Lin Chen—both men slept deeply enough that Jingyan was able to manage it with nobody the wiser.
Fei Liu proved more of a challenge. Lin Chen could offer no assistance there. Any overtures made by him were certain to send Fei Liu fleeing over rooftops. The boy was too canny to be caught sleeping unawares, and even if he could be, Jingyan wasn’t certain he could go through with it.
Fei Liu took the decision from him when Jingyan returned to his shared room one evening and found Fei Liu with the contents of the doctor’s satchel strewn all around him and the packet of needle-tubes unrolled across his lap.
“No!” Panic gripped Jingyan, first at being caught, and then with the fear that Fei Liu might have done something to the final two needles.
But no, Jingyan spied them whole and unharmed in their pockets at the end of the roll of leather. His shoulders sagged in relief.
“Melons,” Fei Liu said, tossing the packet aside since it did not contain what he’d come in search of. Jingyan caught it before the tubes could break.
“No, there are no more melons,” Jingyan said slowly, looking from Fei Liu to the needles and back. It was a gamble, but at least it would be an honest one. “But… I will get you more melons if you help me with my task for Langya Hall.”
“Yes, it has to be a secret. You can’t tell anyone. And I’d have to blindfold you while I carried it out. To keep the secret.”
“Hmph.” Fei Liu hopped up from the floor and headed for the doorway, leaving Jingyan to worry that he’d made a grave error in judgement.
Fei Liu stopped in the doorway. Turned. “Why task?”
Not what, but why. Jingyan exhaled. In some ways, that was the more dangerous question. But even more risky would be lying to Fei Liu and losing this chance. The boy had a knack for seeing through deception with the clarity of a child. “To help Chief Mei. To help him get better.”
Instead of looking pleased by the prospect, Fei Liu crossed his arms, glowering. “Lin Chen,” he grunted, and Jingyan saw his mistake.
“No. It was a task given to me by another.” And then, desperately because Fei Liu looked ready to flit off. “A woman doctor, with red hair.”
After a breathless pause, a beatific smile lit Fei Liu’s face. “Yoo Eun-soo!”
“Er. Yes,” Jingyan agreed, though he couldn’t be certain the words were a name or some nonsense known only to Fei Liu. “She is the one who said it must be secret. Will you help?”
After another heart-racing moment of consideration, Fei Liu assented with a grunt and a sharp nod.
The tightness ebbed from Jingyan’s shoulders. “Good. Thank you.” He tossed Fei Liu the scrap of cloth he’d used as a blindfold for Lin Chen and readied the next-to-last needle. “I’ll need your arm.”
That night offered no chance to use the Divine Healer’s last needle, nor the next night, nor the night after that. There was too much work, too much hauling and lifting of furniture, polishing of floors, repairing of screens, beating of linens. Even years in the military, setting and tearing down camp with his men, was nothing compared to the work of setting up a household. It was good, he thought, because nobody would expect to find Prince Jing of Liang scooping leaves out of gutters at a manor in Northern Yan.
He saw little of Mei Changsu, and that too was good. He’d made mistakes during the unpacking of books, first in recognizing titles that he probably shouldn’t have, and then in his habits and methods of organization, which Mei Changsu had remarked upon favorably. It hadn’t given him away, but it had attracted Mei Changsu’s interest.
Jingyan did his best to counter that by being supremely uninteresting: working hard, talking little.
“You were in such a rush before,” Lin Chen murmured a week after their arrival, coming upon Jingyan while he packed Mei Changsu’s braziers with fresh wood chips for fuel. “Is there a reason you now delay?”
Jingyan studied the grooves of his knuckles, black with ash from a morning of cleaning and refueling the braziers, the kitchen ovens, the boiler that heated water for the bathhouse. If he strangled Lin Chen now, everyone would know it was Jingyan who’d done it.
“I do not know.” Jingyan brushed ash from his hands with fastidious distaste. “Perhaps you can tell me how I might sneak up on a man who sleeps lightly and is under constant guard.” He took the dipper of water that Lin Chen offered and slid it under his mask so that he could chase away the taste of ash.
“You could always sleep with him.”
Water spewed, some of it catching the edge of Jingyan’s mask, but most of it spraying over the dry wood in the brazier. Lin Chen, miraculously, managed to shift out of the way. Only a few spatters landed on his hand. He flicked them off, smiling serenely.
“That… I couldn’t… he wouldn’t…” Jingyan sputtered, even as his body responded with interest to a proposal that his mind had never entertained.
“Hm. No. I suppose that is an unlikely plan.” Lin Chen waved his hand again, dismissing the suggestion as quickly as he’d made it. “I only know of one man whom Mei Changsu might consider allowing that intimacy, and you are not him.”
Who? Jingyan swallowed down the question and packed away the wild ‘what ifs’ that swelled in its wake. Lin Chen had not been serious. Lin Chen took nothing seriously. See only how he wandered off now with a nod and a murmured, “Take a bath. You smell like a flame pit,” leaving Jingyan with a heart full of questions and no answer to his real problem: how to get close to Mei Changsu.
Jingyan’s distracted wanderings led him to the bathhouse. The ash had dried to grit, runnels of it streaking down his arms and spattering his feet. He suspected his face was no better where the mask hadn’t covered it.
The household was busy, and he’d tended the fires for warming the water for the soaking tub. He felt no guilt at making use of it.
He washed his mask and hood first with cold water from the pump, and dunked his head to wash away any grit that had found its way under the hood. Once he’d donned them again, the wet silk clinging to his head and cheeks, he scrubbed his clothes and the rest of his body more leisurely—or as leisurely as any man was willing to scrub in water cold enough to make his balls take shelter.
The steam of the bathhouse when he opened the door chased away his shivering. It wasn’t until he’d entered, hung his clothes to dry over red coals, and turned to the soaking tub that he realized he was not alone.
“Sir-Su-Chang-Mei—” he stuttered to a stop and gave himself a breath to recall which name he should be using and in what order. “Chief Mei. I—I did not realize you would be in here.”
“Doctor’s orders. The heat is meant to help. Please.” Mei Changsu waved to the rest of the large soaking tub. “Easier to join me now than restoke the fires later.”
It shouldn’t have been awkward. Jingyan often bathed with his generals and other men near his rank. It was only made awkward because they weren’t of rank, so far as Mei Changsu knew. And because of the mask and hood Jingyan wore that made him feel ridiculous in his nakedness. And because of Lin Chen’s recent suggestion.
“Doctor’s orders,” Jingyan muttered to himself as he climbed into the tub and settled across from Mei Changsu. He wasn’t certain which annoyed him more—that he’d been manipulated, or that it had been done with such a glaring lack of subtlety.
“You also find it odd? He expends so much effort to discourage me from asking questions about you, and yet now he all but shoves us into privacy together. I wonder why.”
Jingyan said nothing. What could he say to that statement that wasn’t a disparagement against Lin Chen’s sanity?
“You still cover your face, even to bathe.”
“Is the scarring so bad?”
Jingyan grunted and pretended great interest in the rippling water and the tendrils of steam rising from it.
“Strange that such disfiguring scars should touch your face and leave the rest of your body unmarred.”
Jingyan fell still, suddenly very aware of Mei Changsu’s eyes not on his face, but on his bare shoulders and chest. He had a few scars, of course, but they were scars earned in battle, not the sort of disfiguration that came of disease.
This was why he preferred honestly. Lying forced one to cleave to absurdities as though they were fact.
“It’s not scarring,” he said, lifting his gaze to meet Mei Changsu’s. The satisfaction of being right that blossomed there unaccountably annoyed Jingyan.
“I thought not. Why hide your face, then?”
There was truth, and there was truth. Jingyan dredged up the worst truth he could imagine. “I am a deserter.”
Silence fell, punctuated by the slow drip of condensed steam returning to the tub. All expression of satisfaction wiped clean from Mei Changsu’s face, leaving him looking… young. Almost innocent. A man who could not imagine such an act of dishonor.
What changed you, my strategist? Jingyan wondered, even as he said aloud: “If I am seen, if I am recognized, I will be killed.” Also true, for so many reasons.
The shocked expression was shuttered away. The water swirled as Mei Changsu shifted, leaning forward to better see Jingyan through the steam. “Why did you desert?”
Jingyan studied Mei Changsu in turn, something shifting in the bedrock of his self-understanding. He had lied, masked his identity, slipped into households in secret to administer strange drugs to unsuspecting people. Even if he removed his mask and hood now, he wondered if Mei Changsu would recognize him. He wondered if he would recognize himself. He exhaled, releasing the reluctance, the reticence, the irritation, the hesitation. He had done what had to be done. Now he would do what he needed to do.
“To help a friend,” he breathed, realizing that this had never been about honor.
“You would desert for friendship’s sake?”
Jingyan nodded. “That, and much more.” Including seducing his friend, if that’s what was needed.
Three days later, Fei Liu came down with a fever and chills, a result of the Divine Healer’s cure, Lin Chen suggested, but one that Fei Liu would quickly recover from--if he ate enough melons. The suggested cure mollified most of Fei Liu’s frustration at being sick.
They found Mei Changsu hanging outside Fei Liu’s room when they emerged.
“Fei Liu is never sick,” he said, peering anxiously over Lin Chen’s shoulder.
“No, but you will be if you insist on getting any closer,” Lin Chen warned with a glower. “He will be well again soon enough if you leave me to care for him.”
“Won’t!” came Fei Liu’s protest.
“And the sooner he is better,” Lin Chen said, voice raised for Fei Liu’s benefit, “the sooner I will leave him alone.”
Lin Chen grinned. “You see? I am both doctor and incentive.” He tugged Mei Changsu away while Jingyan slid the door closed. “There’s no cause for worry. You can go a few days without Fei Liu, yes?”
Mei Changsu’s tight expression suggested otherwise. “I had planned to travel to the border to put that issue to rest,” he said, sitting and pouring the tea that Jingyan brought to him.
“Can you not take Zhen Ping and Li Gang?”
“They are preparing things here in the city.”
“And it cannot wait?”
Mei Changsu lifted his cup, frowning into it. “The timing is… delicate.”
Guilt warred with amusement in Jingyan’s heart. Not even the Divine Talent’s careful plotting could account for all variables—like a sudden and unexpected illness. Strangely, that human fallibility made Mei Changsu seem infinitely more approachable. He did need others sometimes, as more than just pawns in his schemes.
“I will go with you,” he found himself saying. When both men glanced at him in surprise—had they forgotten he was there?—he folded his hands and bowed. “Fei Liu has no equal, but perhaps Chief Mei can make use of Zhan Long in his stead.”
“There you go!” Lin Chen said as though Jingyan’s offer solved everything, so quickly that Jingyan wondered momentarily if Fei Liu’s illness might have some other cause. A Lin-Chen-related cause.
Sipping his tea, Mei Changsu studied Jingyan with that same curious look, like he was a puzzle box that Mei Changsu was hesitant to pick up for fear he’d never put it down unsolved.
“There I go,” he said slowly, nodding his assent.
“This was your great strategy?” Jingyan asked, eying the single horse, pony, and open cart askance.
Mei Changsu glanced at him, one brow raised. Jingyan ducked his head when he realized he’d spoken as to a subordinate. “Chief… sir,” he mumbled.
“My great strategy was to draw out the bandit leader with what looked like an inferior force, so that Fei Liu could capture her.”
Jingyan knew his strengths, and he knew their limits. “And Chief Mei’s plan now is to draw out the bandit leader with what is an inferior force, so that Chief Mei can be captured?”
“Very close.” Mei Changsu’s smile was that of a teacher with a prize pupil. “With a minor difference. The bandit leader will not be capturing me.”
Tapping Jingyan’s mask, Mei Changsu said, “You will.”
No amount of argument could dissuade Mei Changsu from his plan, though Jingyan was also stymied by the requirements of etiquette. He couldn’t end this madness with an emphatic ‘no’, couldn’t change Mei Changsu’s course with a cut bellpull, and with no authority to dissuade him, Mei Changsu remained adamant.
The gloomy weather reflected Jingyan’s mood as they struck out to the south. It would be most of a day by horse and pony cart, Mei Changsu said, before they would abandon the cart and put him, bound, on Jingyan’s horse.
“And how are we to keep the bandit leader from killing the Chief of the Jiangzuo Alliance?” Jingyan asked, resigned to this madness, as he checked Mei Changsu’s bonds to make certain he could free himself if needed. Even loose, the ropes left red marks on the tender skin of his wrists. “How are we to get away?”
Jingyan mounted behind Mei Changsu, arms encircling him as much to hold him in place as to keep hold of the reins. He couldn’t see Mei Changsu’s face when he said, “I expect she’ll let us go.”
He couldn’t see Mei Changsu’s face, but he could hear the laughter in his voice. “You’re enjoying this.”
“It’s rare that I get to take such an active role in my schemes. Usually I have several people trying to stop me. But with Fei Liu ill and Zhen Ping and Li Gang occupied, there was nobody but Lin Chen to argue, and he seemed disinclined to do so.” Mei Changsu turned his head, cheek close enough to brush the silk of Jingyan’s mask. “Why is that, I wonder?”
Jingyan leaned back in the saddle and spurred his mare to move on. “I can’t begin to guess why.”
“Mm.” Mei Changsu leaned back also, nestling into the steadying curve of Jingyan’s arms. “You’re warm.”
The spring air grew cooler, the foliage thicker, as they deviated from the main road to a rocky path that meandered through the woods at the base of the mountains. Twilight came early thanks to the trees above and the iron-grey clouds above that. A light mist that could hardly be called rain beaded on silk and skin. Mei Changsu shivered, and Jingyan pressed closer, trying to provide warmth as well as balance.
The distraction of having Mei Changsu curled against him was soon overtaken by the distraction of trying to maneuver a horse along a forest path at twilight with a bound prisoner… curled against him. Jingyan was almost relieved when Mei Changsu’s soft ‘They’re here’ was followed by a rustle of bushes and the whisper of steel drawn.
“Who goes? State your business,” came a gruff voice from the trees ahead.
“Zhan Long comes with a gift for Hsu Shining of the Red Eyebrow Gang.”
It was another thing they had argued over. Mei Changsu felt that being shoved off the horse was the best course. Jingyan won for the simple reason that Mei Changsu was bound and couldn’t argue. He dismounted and dragged Mei Changsu after him. “The Chief of the Jiangzuo Alliance.”
A burst of chatter arose from the bushes, like wrens reluctant to take flight. Could it be…? It looks like… How did he…? Who is he…? Will Chief Hsu reward…? We could take… Leave the other for dead—
“I would not recommend that,” Jingyan said before the bandits could talk themselves into tearing Mei Changsu from him. He tugged Mei Changsu closer, let his real disdain for the bandits color the lie he was forced to maintain. “Unless you think you are a match for a Divine Talent.”
If he hadn’t been holding Mei Changsu so closely, Jingyan might not have noticed the jolt that passed through him. However, he had no chance to question it. There were bandits to deal with. “Why don’t you let Hsu Shining make that decision?”
Such was Mei Changsu’s reputation that the bandits quickly agreed it was better to let their boss take the risk. They confiscated Jingyan’s mare, rooting through the bags for anything of value, and came up with a jug of wine that Lin Chen had sent them off with ‘to keep warm.’ They passed that around as they prodded Jingyan and Mei Changsu off the path and along an overgrown track through the trees. Jingyan pressed a hand to his side, feeling the shape of the packet with its one remaining needle, and was relieved he hadn’t left it on the horse.
The bandit camp consisted of little more than a few tarps strung between trees, shelter to the piles of straw where the bandits slept. The mist had become a drizzle by the time they arrived, sending most of the bandits to gather in clumps under the tarps. Torches guttered and sizzled in the rain, throwing out more smoke and steam than light. In the center of the trampled, muddy clearing was a ramshackle hut, its walls at a slant, its roof tilted askew and likely to slide off as the rain slid off it. Bandits, masked only with wispy beards or dirt, looked up as Jingyan and Mei Changsu entered the clearing with their escort. A few left their pallets to greet the new arrivals, but most remained lounging where they were, sleeping, perhaps, or just hung over. Jingyan found himself fighting disappointment. As a force, it was underwhelming.
“This is the looming threat that Chief Mei has set out to destroy?” he murmured against Mei Changsu’s ear.
“A tick, once embedded, is difficult to remove,” was Mei Changsu’s mild response. “Better to flick it off before it burrows in.”
One of the bandits must have run ahead to act as herald. He scurried out of the hut, followed by a leather-faced woman of middling years. She carried a long iron pipe as solid as a cudgel. Smoke rose from the bowl as she puffed away on it.
“So, this is the great Chief Mei?” Tapping the embers from her pipe, she used the bowl to lift Mei Changsu’s chin. “Rumors say you are sickly and weak. It seems for once that rumors are correct. And this is—”
Jingyan caught the pipe and yanked it from her hand before she could use it to lift his mask. “Someone who is neither sickly nor weak,” he said.
Hsu Shining’s eyes narrowed, and her lip curled in a sneer. “So it seems. You wish to join the Red Eyebrow Gang?”
Jingyan’s fist clenched around the stem of the pipe. He knew what he should say, but…
“No,” he said instead. Next to him, Mei Changsu sighed softly and shook his head. “We came to put an end to the Red Eyebrow Gang.”
Jingyan’s initial denial wiped the sneer from Hsu Shining’s face. His explanation replaced it with an incredulous grin. “You came to… Ha! Do you hear this?” she demanded of the bandits who’d gathered around them. They responded with obliging laughter. She turned back to Jingyan, “And how do you plan to do that?” she asked, smiling dangerously.
Jingyan looked at Mei Changsu, whose smile was all the more dangerous for its subtlety. “Not planning to,” Mei Changsu said. “It is already done.”
The bandits’ laughter surged like a wave, rising to a crest and then crashing and ebbing to silence. Mei Changsu continued to smile his enigmatic smile.
“What have you done?” Hsu Shining growled.
“You said yourself. I am sickly. It is only by the efforts of the Master of Langya Hall himself that I live. That is well known. By now, the men who attacked my caravan last week will be in the worst throes of the sickness.” He nodded towards the pallets, where the dozens of prone and groaning men took on a more sinister cast. “Those who captured us this evening will soon join them. An apothecary might be able to use a tincture of burdock root to stave off the symptoms… if you can make it to one before you die.”
Hsu Shining was paler than Mei Changsu by the time he finished.
“You’re lying,” she spat. “You—”
“Uh. Chief,” said one of her underlings.
“—have built your alliance through trickery and—”
“—exaggerated tales of your ill health, but no man would—”
Her lackey’s answer was spewed across her feet.
A crack of lightning broke everyone from frozen horror. As the sky opened up to pour rain down upon them, the camp exploded into pandemonium—the bandits who had caught Jingyan and Mei Changsu doubled over with retching. Other bandits scrambled away from their ailing fellows, grabbing torches, gear, horses, whatever came to hand, and fleeing into the night, or fighting for more, or simply crawling away, if they were too ill to stand. Jingyan caught Mei Changsu’s arm—he’d already shrugged off his bonds—and dragged him to the negligible shelter of a tarp beneath a tree. It did little good, as they were both already drenched. Even so, he removed his cloak and draped it over Mei Changsu’s shoulders.
Between the rain and the fleeing bandits, few torches remained. In the shadow of the tree, Mei Changsu was a paler blot of darkness. “Are you alright?” Jingyan asked, dropping all pretense of formality. “The rain—”
“I am fine. Watch your back.”
Jingyan heard a whoosh and raised the iron pipe to block the blade descending. Sparks flew as metal struck metal. He turned to face a snarling, furious bandit queen.
The last few, flickering torches cast her face in tiger stripes of orange and shadow. “They are fools, but I know it for a lie,” she said through clenched teeth, bearing down on her blade as though she could hope to match Jingyan for strength or skill. “This is no illness. You poisoned them somehow.”
Jingyan thought of the stolen wagon that Mei Changsu had shown no concern for, the jug of wine that the bandits had confiscated. Poison. Of course Mei Changsu would resort to such means. “It was not my doing,” he said.
“No, it was the man you serve,” Hsu Shining hissed.
Jingyan didn’t have time or interest in debating the ethics of Mei Changsu’s plan with a bandit chief. He had to get Mei Changsu into shelter and warmth. He yielded, diverting her blade to one side. A twist and a loop of the pipe, and the blade went sailing off into the darkness of the camp.
Before she could go for another weapon, Jingyan hooked the pipe around the back of her neck. He yanked, slamming her face into the heel of his hand once, twice. Bone crushed. She’d find it difficult to smoke in the future.
A third time, and she stumbled back. She didn’t return for a fourth, choosing instead to flee. Jingyan let her bolt into the night. Grasping Mei Changsu’s wrist, he headed for his horse—
—or rather, where his horse had been. The camp was empty, all the bandits fled and taking the tarps and torches with them. And, it seemed, everything else of value, including Jingyan’s horse.
He was debating going in search of other options, forcibly, if necessary, when Mei Changsu broke his silence with a fit of coughing.
Jingyan supported him through it, doing his best to shelter him from the downpour. “We have to get you out of this.”
“Afraid that Lin Chen will yell at you?” Mei Changsu’s feeble laugh spurred another coughing fit.
“More afraid that you won’t.”
“You would deserve it. You had to tell them the truth?”
“You should have known I would.” Without any better options, Jingyan led Mei Changsu to the hut.
“Should I have?” Mei Changsu murmured, ducking his head to enter.
It was even darker inside, but dry, and somewhat warmer. The scant light through the doorway outlined shadow shapes of furnishings. There were no lamps or braziers lit, though the reek of pipe smoke was strong, embedded in the wood.
A gust of wind blew rain through the door, chasing away what little heat remained and making even Jingyan shiver. He shut the door. Better to fumble in the darkness than freeze in the wind. He shucked his outer robe, letting it fall to the floor with a wet slop. The next layer was only damp, but he removed that as well, tucking it away carefully after making certain that the doctor’s leather packet was unharmed.
“I think there’s a bed here,” Mei Changsu said. “And blankets.”
“With as fond as Hsu Shining was of the pipe? I suspect she smoked all the vermin out.”
“What about a lamp?”
There was a rattle, a thump, and a sharp hiss of breath. “I have found one, but not the means to light it.”
Jingyan snorted. “Shouldn’t a true Divine Talent have had the foresight to bring the means with him?”
“Alas, I have not yet been named so in the Langya List. Perhaps you know something I do not.” Mei Changsu left a pause just long enough for Jingyan’s stomach to lurch. “More likely, this is Master Lin’s sense of humor, playing a joke on the both of us.”
“He would be laughing to see us now.”
“Oh, I suspect this also is part of his—” Another fit of hacking and wheezing cut their banter short.
Jingyan felt his way to Mei Changsu’s side. “Fleas or no, we must get you dry and warm.” Methodically, he began stripping away layers of wet robes. “And then into the bed.”
He was down to the last layer of silk when he realized Mei Changsu had stopped shivering. Had stopped breathing, it seemed. Cold fingers touched Jingyan’s jaw, sliding under the damp silk of his mask and feathering up his cheek.
“And what about you?”
Jingyan stilled under Mei Changsu’s touch, his cheek twice as warm in contrast to the coolness of those fingers. How had he thought the hut cold? His own body was on fire. “Ch-chief Mei’s well-being is more important.”
“It’s Chief Mei now, is it?” The caress trailed over the shell of Jingyan’s ear, sending a shiver through him that was not owed to the cold. He tilted his head toward it. Had he considered some ploy to seduce Mei Changsu? Wiser would have been to consider what to do if Mei Changsu seduced him.
“It is… whatever you will allow,” he said.
“Ah. And what will you allow? This?” Mei Changsu’s finger hooked over the top edge of the mask, tugging it down with weight alone. Instinct brought Jingyan’s hand up to catch Mei Changsu’s wrist. They stood close enough that he could feel Mei Changsu’s breath warm on his skin, but he could see nothing. The darkness was absolute. And he was tired of the lie between them.
“Yes,” he said, and released his grip.
The wet silk caught on Jingyan’s nose, his lips and chin, before sagging around his neck. Something warmer followed, brushing his brow, his cheek—Mei Changsu finding his way by touch to Jingyan’s lips.
They traded kisses as soft as the darkness, and more warming than any brazier. Jingyan’s fingers clenched against something firm. Mei Changsu’s hips, where his hands had come to rest. He slid them around Mei Changsu’s back, up to his shoulders, pulling him closer and deepening the kiss. Jingyan willed heat into him, and stole the shivers for himself. They spread over his skin, settling in his gut and groin. Heat rose in response and that, too, he pressed into Mei Changsu.
Mei Changsu’s nails scraped across Jingyan’s scalp, calling up more shivers. His guan fell to the floor with a soft thunk, and damp hair cascaded around his shoulders. Mei Changsu’s followed, and they fell after it, landing in a tangle on the pile of bedding.
The jolt was enough to break them apart. Serrated breathing cut the haze of need that filled Jingyan. There had been a purpose to this—something beyond keeping Mei Changsu warm or delivering the doctor’s cure. Something that had pricked at him since their first meeting, irritating as a burr that would not let him settle the truth of Mei Changsu in his mind.
“Why?” he rasped, even as his fingers sought the ties of Mei Changsu’s last layer and pushed the garment off over silk-soft skin. “Why” between kisses, teeth scraping, lips catching, hard and hungry. “Why?”
“Because you are a mystery, and I cannot leave a mystery unexplored.” Mei Changsu’s words tickled the bare skin of Jingyan’s neck and pooled in the hollow of his clavicle. “Because you are what I cannot be: warm. Honest.” His hands trembled as he removed the rest of Jingyan’s clothing. Healthy, they said, though Mei Changsu did not.
Jingyan shook his head. Those were not the answers he wanted, perhaps because Mei Changsu could not understand the question he’d asked. You do not know me. You have never known me. Not as Jingyan wished to be known. Not as Lin Shu had known him.
And that was the crux of his anger at Mei Changsu. Jingyan wanted him to be Lin Shu, and he wasn’t.
Squeezing down with his entire being against the hopelessness of that thought, he flipped Mei Changsu beneath him, straddled him, held him in place even though heat and hardness demanded movement. He wanted to end this. He wanted to lose himself in it. He hesitated on the edge of despair and desire, hand pressed flat against Mei Changsu’s chest.
It rose as Mei Changsu took a breath to speak. “Because you remind me of someone,” he said, a voice in the darkness. He lifted Jingyan’s hand, threading their fingers together as Lin Shu sometimes had done.
With something between a sob and a groan, Jingyan tightened his grip and pulled himself down into desire. His free hand traced a path for his lips to explore, up Mei Changsu’s chest, his neck, chin, ending at a mouth that curved beneath his kisses.
“You smile?” Jingyan could imagine it, that gentle curve that hid the workings of a brilliant mind. He deepened the kiss, as though exploring that smile could reveal the thoughts behind it. A feather-light touch trailed down Jingyan’s side, and he tore away from the kiss, fighting laughter.
“As do you.” Mei Changsu released Jingyan’s hand and felt his way to Jingyan’s face, tracing his brows, his nose, the bow curve of his lips.
“Because you tricked me into it,” Jingyan growled, catching those fingers with his teeth and sucking down on them. He wished he had an image to go with the gasp and groan that drew from Mei Changsu, but he had to content himself with the stuttered breathing, the lifting of Mei Changsu’s hips, the slide of his fingers as he slow-fucked them into Jingyan’s mouth.
The feather touch slid lower, across Jingyan’s abdomen to rest where their cocks rubbed against each other. “One cannot fool a man who has not already made himself foolish.”
Jingyan’s arms trembled, not from bracing himself above Mei Changsu, but from the urge to drive into that touch. He gave in, heat building between them that was half need and half friction. Lifting his mouth from Mei Changsu’s fingers, he kissed his way down his arm, tasting the rapid pulse at his wrist, the soft skin at the bend, and up and up. Cupping Jingyan’s head, Mei Changsu guided him to his shoulder, his neck.
“Is that the wisdom of the Divine Talent?” Jingyan asked, only half aware of the words he spoke.
“Of a Divine Talent. Master Lao Zifeng, whose works you thought were myth.”
“Do you always bring politics to your bed?”
Mei Changsu stilled, his touch fluttering off their cocks like a butterfly taking flight. “I do not, as a habit, bring anything to my bed.”
So Lin Chen had said, and yet Mei Changsu had made Jingyan his exception. He sucked a bruise into the skin beneath Mei Changsu’s jaw. “I am sorry. I warned you that I prefer straightforward dealings. It often makes me rude.”
A huff of breath ghosted across his ear. Mei Changsu lifted Jingyan’s head, both hands cupping his cheeks, thumbs pressed to his lips. “Well, I did say you reminded me of someone.”
Covering Mei Changsu’s hands with his own, Jingyan spoke against the thumbs that would block his rudeness. “I would prefer you here with me, rather than imagining him in the dark.”
An intake of breath. “How did you—”
Jingyan turned his head, kissing one palm, then the other. “Perhaps I am simply coming to know you,” he said. And myself, he thought. It was unfair of him to hold Mei Changsu to Lin Shu’s standard, to wish for the one when he was with the other.
Setting thoughts of Lin Shu aside, Jingyan bent to kiss Mei Changsu. “You said there was a lamp. Do you think there might be oil?”
Laughter bubbled against his lips. “I do not know, but finding out will be an adventure.”
There was oil, and they managed to get it mostly on themselves rather than the bedding.
“You will tell me if you cannot…” Jingyan whispered, fingers working inside Mei Changsu, spreading him, preparing him.
Mei Changsu pressed down harder, demanding more. “You already know that I will not.”
Groaning, Jingyan let his head drop to Mei Changsu’s chest. No, Mei Changsu would never let those around him know if he had overstretched his limits. His mind was stronger than his body, and his will stronger still. That, at least, Jingyan well knew.
An oily hand bumped Jingyan’s forehead, found its way to his cheek. “Don’t. Don’t treat me as less than I am. As less than I want to be.”
Jingyan nodded. Someday, if the doctor’s cure worked, Mei Changsu would not struggle against such limits. Until that day, “I will not.”
Withdrawing his hand, he rose up, bracing above Mei Changsu, sliding in. The shell of him might be ice, but the core of him was fire, hot and tight. He wrapped around Jingyan, drawing him in again and again, and consuming them both.
And if, as Mei Changsu climaxed, he whispered something that might have been Jingyan’s name, Jingyan dismissed that as his own imagination.
And if, as Jingyan followed, he thought fleetingly of Lin Shu, he released that thought as a dream whose time was long over.
After they finished, after they were sated and drowsy with warmth and tangled as much with each other as the bedding, Jingyan waited. He waited until Mei Changsu’s breathing eased and then crept from their bed to search for the doctor’s packet. Mei Changsu shifted and murmured nonsense in his sleep as Jingyan felt his way in the dark to the place for the needle to go in, but he didn’t so much as stir at the needle’s prick.
Jingyan found his mask, donned his clothes, and waited outside the hut. As he suspected, Mei Changsu had made arrangements. Li Gang and Zhen Ping arrived near dawn with a litter, bearers, and warm, dry clothing for them both. Jingyan took the clothes, and Zhen Ping’s horse, and quietly slipped away before Chief Mei emerged from the hut.
He traveled back to Gushan mountain and waited. After a week of late spring rains, he visited a town long enough to get the tools he would need.
He built the hut where he would meet the Divine Healer, and he waited.
The seasons passed. The bells rang in Jinling for the death of the Grand Empress Dowager. Jingyan donned mourning clothes and burned incense and fasted. And waited.
Eventually, the waterfall cast a shimmering veil of light, and the Divine Healer emerged. She expressed little surprise at meeting him, even though it was the first time for her. She asked him questions. He answered. She took his blood and began drawing her strange symbols on the whitewashed wall he had prepared for her. She told him the waiting was over, that he should go before his younger self arrived, that it was time to resume his life.
She was right on the second and third counts, but not on the first one. He returned to Jinling the same afternoon he had departed—and yet also, almost three years after he had departed. He met Mei Changsu again, with no masks between them, heart beating as fast as a flight of butterflies… and Mei Changsu did not know him.
You have never known me, his heart cried, but he stifled it. Three years had wrought changes in Mei Changsu that Jingyan had forgotten about—he was weaker, his skin more translucent. The sometime-wheeze from Northern Yan now threaded under every breath. It took every bit of strength Jingyan had not to ride back to Gushan mountain and urge the Divine Healer to hurry, Hurry, HURRY!
Instead, Jingyan waited.
Even harder to get through was the shock of learning Mei Changsu’s identity. Xiao Shu! And everyone had known, it seemed, but Jingyan himself. He spent that night huddled at the foot of his bed, sobbing like a boy. He thought of all the times he'd spoken of facing Lin Shu in the afterlife, of all the times he'd condemned Mei Changsu for being everything Lin Shu was not. It must have been like a knife, flaying him alive and leaving his bones bare, and yet Mei Changsu—Lin Shu?—said nothing. Jingyan relived every moment of their interactions—Lin Shu collapsing into Mei Changsu collapsing into Lin Shu—trying to draw from his confusion some continuity of understanding. He had worked so hard to think of them separately, he did not know how to think of them as one person.
Who had he embraced in the darkness? Mei Changsu, a memory, or both? And more than that, who was it that Mei Changsu had been embracing? Had that whispered name been more than Jingyan’s imagination?
You knew me. It is I who did not know you. He should have known. How had he not known? And yet, Mei Changsu had never said anything, not about his true identity as Lin Shu, not about a night three years past in Northern Yan. Perhaps it was as he said that night, that Zhan Long only reminded him of someone—reminded him of Jingyan.
Shame kept Jingyan silent. He had long ago chosen the time to draw down the mask concealing this last deception. He would wait.
Eventually, the Emperor was pressed into clearing Prince Qi of all charges, and the Lin family, and the Chiyan Army. Lin Chen arrived with the cure, a cure that Mei Changsu refused because war threatened Da Liang on multiple borders, and Mei Changsu was under the delusion that he was the only general worth that title in the land.
There were benefits to being the Crown Prince, and one of them was the ability to place your best friend under house arrest and order him to take the damned cure you’d spent three years of your life getting for him.
Jingyan gave the order. He did not reveal his part in making the cure.
One autumn day, three and a half years—or nine months—after he’d left for Gushan mountain, the Crown Prince of Da Liang made a visit to the Su household. He was met cordially by the steward, Li Gang, received a respectful bow from Zhen Ping and a less-than-respectful pout from Fei Liu. Lin Chen smirked as they crossed paths in the garden. Jingyan decided that he couldn’t execute a man for a murmured ‘about time’ no matter how much he might be tempted to.
The man who had been Lin Shu and had become Mei Changsu rose from his desk when Jingyan entered, folding his hands and bowing. There was a sparkle in his eyes, a flush to his cheeks that was not due to fever. His breathing rose and fell freely with no echo of illness marring it, and the air around him fairly crackled with contained energy.
And yet he held all that in check, because he was no longer seventeen-year-old Lin Shu meeting his friend Jingyan.
“The Su household is honored to receive the Crown Prince. How may we serve?”
He was the strategist Mei Changsu greeting his Crown Prince.
Right. They would see about that.
“I have come to borrow a book,” Jingyan said, watching Mei Changsu closely.
Straightening, Mei Changsu raised one brow. “Is this to be another Records of the Land of Xiang situation?” He gestured for Jingyan to sit, pouring water for Jingyan and tea for himself.
“Not unless you plan to send General Meng to retrieve it.”
Mei Changsu smiled and lifted his cup to drink. “You know what is mine is yours. Which book?”
“Lao Zifeng’s The Tide at Ebb and Flow.”
Mei Changsu’s cup stilled mid-air.
Reaching into his sleeve, Jingyan pulled out a scrap of black silk and laid it on the table before Mei Changsu. “Let there be no more masks between us.”
Slowly, Mei Changsu set aside his teacup and lifted the mask. He turned it over in his hands, tested the silk between his fingers, as though doubting it could be the same.
“How?” he asked, gaze meeting Jingyan’s “You should have been…” his brow furrowed as he searched the past in his memory.
“Reviewing fortifications on the border with Da Yu. I was. I was also in Northern Yan. With you.”
Mei Changsu’s hands fell into his lap. His mouth opened, closed, opened again. “How?”
Jingyan’s lips twitched in the beginnings of a smile. It wasn’t often he enjoyed the pleasure of knowing an answer to a mystery before his friend. “The jianghu is a strange place, and the Divine Healer is an even stranger woman.”
“Zhan Long’s mission…”
“Was your cure.”
Worrying the mask in his lap, Mei Changsu shook his head. No doubt that mind of his was turning over all the ways his own plans could have been ruined if Jingyan had failed or been discovered. “Why? Why would you risk… why?”
“Because you reminded me of someone.”
Mei Changsu stilled, eyes wide, breath caught.
Jingyan could have given him time to understand, but Jingyan was done with waiting. Rising to his knees, he leaned over the tea table and answered the rest of Mei Changsu’s questions with a kiss.
Lips parting, Mei Changsu yielded with the ambivalence of a man who put the concerns of the mind over the demands of the body. Jingyan stopped pushing, and Mei Changsu pulled back enough to meet his eyes, to search them for understanding.
“What does this mean?” he asked, because they were no longer boys, nor were they mysterious stranger and jianghu chief. They were Crown Prince and Divine Talent. Masks might have been discarded, but there were other things between them. There were the expectations of rank and duty. There was Jingyan’s future empress; there was Mu Nihuang.
None of which mattered to Jingyan as much as the friend of his heart who sat before him. “It means… whatever you will allow,” he said, touching Mei Changsu’s cheek.
“Everything. For you, always, everything.” Lifting his hand, Mei Changsu threaded their fingers together, as Lin Shu used to do. A smile curved his lips. “And this time, we will not be feeling our way in the dark.”