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that ruthless love

Chapter Text

“You haven’t even seen him yet? The wedding is in three weeks!”

Liu Yuzhuang’s sister-in-law gives her an appalled look.

She raises a mild eyebrow and reaches over to pluck Qiuniang’s abandoned needle from the cream-colored brocade in her lap.

“Then I’ll see him in three weeks,” she says. “If you’re not going to work, don’t just stick that anywhere, you’ll damage the fabric.”

This makes Yuzhuang’s younger sister Ruoshen snort with laughter. Yuzhuang shoots her a glare, to no effect; Ruoshen has been delighted by even the most tenuous innuendo ever since the imperial edict declaring Yuzhuang’s engagement finally arrived last week.

“You shouldn’t even be listening to this,” she tells Ruoshen. “You’re not married.”

“Neither are you, yet! And if you send me away, you’ll never finish in time; I embroider faster than all three of you put together.”

This is tragically accurate, but Yuzhuang attempts to maintain a high ground. “You should sew in your room then. You’re only sixteen.”

Ruoshen rolls her eyes. “Oh, help, the Princess Consort is rectifying my morals! Shall I go copy a sutra in penitence? The Inner Palace will quail before you.” She places two tiny, faintly sarcastic stitches in a golden peony. “Anyway, the best light in the house is here, you wouldn’t want me to ruin my eyes.”

“I heard the Crown Prince doesn’t even have any concubines for Yuzhuang to order around,” their elder sister Lanying interjects from her privileged seat by the south window. “He’s thirty-three! Is there something wrong with him?”

“Jiejie, how would we find out if there was?” Ruoshen says, mock-innocently. “Yuzhuang is too polite to even ask Noble Consort Jing any questions about him.”

“The propriety is excessive,” Qiuniang agrees. “Of course, it’s very filial of him to let his mother choose his wife without a word of objection, but he should at least make sure he likes the look of her. The second time I visited Mother, she arranged for your brother to drop by and she let him escort me home.”

She sighs fondly at the memory. Ruoshen makes a mock-sickened face, but in truth they’re all used to it; Yuzhuang’s brother is a stern and reticent city magistrate whose only concession to vice is his wild attentiveness towards his wife. “Yuzhuang, you’ve entered the palace six times in the past month alone, what is the Noble Consort thinking?”

“She told me he’s very busy with his new responsibilities,” Yuzhuang says repressively. “And he has a concubine, she’s just been ill for years and doesn’t receive visitors. The Emperor never gave him another because –” she stops, realizes that he was too close to Prince Qi, who was, as I learned last week, framed for treason is inappropriate for the ears of her two maids sewing in the corner, and concludes hastily, “He wasn’t highly favored. Besides, he was barely in the capital for twelve years, when would he have found time?”

“I hope he knows his way around, is all. An experienced husband makes for a happy marriage.” Qiuniang delivers this adage with an expression of matronly benevolence. Yuzhuang ignores her. Ever since her sister-in-law’s second son was born in May she’s been insufferable.

“On our wedding night, my husband was so nervous he tripped over his own clothes on his way to the bed, and fell flat on his face,” Lanying reminds everyone. “We had to wait for his nose to stop bleeding. If it weren’t for the red bedspread it would have been a true disaster.”

“How did it go after that?” Ruoshen inquires pruriently – she was too young for this gossip when it was fresh two years ago.

Lanying screws up her nose at the memory. “So badly! He finished in about two minutes and wouldn’t listen to any of my advice about what would satisfy me; by the time we gave up I was too sore to try again for days, and his fingers had gone all wrinkled –”

“Please!” Yuzhuang hisses in desperation, “No more details!”

Lanying laughs. “We worked it out eventually. Yuzhuang, you’re red as a beet; if you’re going to keep the Crown Prince’s attention you can’t be too bashful.”

Yuzhuang has to undo a stitch she’s pulled too tightly. “I’m not bashful about sex,” she insists. “I just don’t want bedroom advice from my sisters.” Or, she thinks to herself, any more fuel for speculation about what might go wrong. Not that anything will. Noble Consort Jing and an excessive number of her relatives have all assured her she and the Crown Prince are well suited. Their birth charts were auspicious. Not even a whisper in the rumor-saturated capital links Xiao Jingyan to cruelty, greed, or any vices whatsoever. Yuzhuang fills in the petals of a chrysanthemum determinedly. Everything is going to be fine.

“Has Mother made you sit through her marriage lecture yet?” Lanying asks, a touch gleefully. She flops out one hand and peers at Yuzhuang with an eerily accurate impression of their mother’s near-sighted concern. “Now dear, it’s all right if you like being on top at first, but my grandmother always reminded me that you’re most likely to conceive a son if you let him set the pace…”

Ruoshen howls with laughter; Yuzhuang gives up attempting to sew and presses both hands to her ears. “Don’t remind me! She tried to give me erotica from the Han Dynasty! I thought I was going to melt into the floor. At least Father just makes ominous remarks about how if I don’t give birth to a son within three years some favorite will supplant me and rob the state of virtue and stability.” Remarks which Yuzhuang always remembers late at night when she’s trying desperately to sleep.

“Does Noble Consort Jing give you advice, about, you know…” Ruoshen asks, wide-eyed.

Even the thought of her soft-spoken, impossibly dignified mother-in-law talking to her about sex, let alone sex with the Crown Prince, her only son, makes Yuzhuang blanch in horror. “No! Of course she doesn’t!”

“Then what do you talk about?”

Governing the Inner Palace, Yuzhuang thinks. Buddhism. Cooking. The past, these last two visits, as if there’s something she’s preparing to tell me. But those serious answers, like the tranquility of Zhiluo Palace, fit awkwardly among her boisterous sisters.

She shrugs. “Before the engagement was settled, she just asked me questions about our family. You know, the backgrounds of Uncle’s concubines, how we were educated, things like that.”

“Boooooring,” Ruoshen declares.

“Grandmother told me you were so formal on your first visit it was like you had eaten an etiquette manual,” Lanying says. “Is Noble Consort Jing very intimidating? My mother-in-law seemed fine at first, but lately she’s taken to interrogating me about how much my clothes cost and whether my husband gets enough sleep.” She shudders.

The lead-up to Yuzhuang’s first visit to Zhiluo Palace had felt very much like their brother’s final weeks of cramming for the Civil Service Examinations, except that she was the achievement to be graded. Essays would have been a relief by comparison. Her mother had taken to barging into her room and critiquing her makeup every morning. Every time her father had passed her in the halls he patted her awkwardly on the shoulder, as if she was ill. Even her old nanny had emerged from their sister-in-law’s nursery and clucked over the travails of a royal marriage. But Consort Jing’s warmth had proven impossible to resist.

“She’s not intimidating,” Yuzhuang says quietly. Qiuniang looks skeptical, and she amends, “Well, I think she could be, to anyone with ill intentions. But she’s been so generous to me, and she loves the Crown Prince very much. Last week, she told me not to listen to any of the rumors about him; that he’s actually very kindhearted.”

“Well, any mother would say that.”

Yuzhuang shakes her head. “She meant it. I think if he was going to treat me badly, she would tell me.” Wouldn’t she also tell you if he had asked about you, wanted to meet you? Why he hasn’t sought a wife for so many years? Yuzhuang rubs her hand over the silk in her lap, trying to get a grip.

“He had better not treat you badly,” Ruoshen mutters. She grins at Yuzhuang. “Jiejie, let’s make a pact; if the Crown Prince doesn’t love you, I’ll enter the palace too, and become his favorite, and then break his heart as revenge.”

Yuzhuang’s lip twitches despite herself. “I would rather have him ignore me than deal with you as a co-wife! Besides, you can’t break the Emperor’s heart, that’s treason. My duties will be the same no matter how much the Crown Prince favors me.”

Lanying snorts. “Yuzhuang, you talk about getting married like gege talked about his first post in the Ministry of Justice.” She pulls a serious face. “Oh, how burdened I am by my noble responsibilities to Serve the People, Rectify Wrongdoing, etcetera! As it says in the Classic of Poetry, something something wheat! You’re allowed to want your husband to like you.”

“I do! Want that,” Yuzhuang says, a little flustered. Too much.

“Well, you could at least ask someone what he looks like, then,” Qiuniang interjects, unable to let go of her original point. “If not the Noble Consort, then during all those closed-door political meetings you’ve been having with Father and Grandfather.”

“Yes, sister-in-law,” Yuzhuang shoots back, “I should interrupt Grandfather while he quizzes me on the family trees of every duke for five generations, and ask him if my husband, the future Emperor, is handsome. That will certainly fill him with confidence in me.”

“He is handsome, actually,” Lanying said, with the air of someone making a winning weiqi move. “I saw him yesterday at Minister Shen Zhui’s full moon party.”

This creates an instant uproar – both maids gasp, and Ruoshen actually screams and throws a spool of thread at her sister. “How could you! You’ve been holding out this whole time!”

“Well, I was going to say, before Yuzhuang came over all sanctimonious and we got distracted,” Lanying drawls.

Yuzhuang looks down industriously at the scales of a nearly finished dragon, trying to appear disinterested.

“He had a whole conversation with my husband.” Lanying continues. “He was very polite. I tried to eavesdrop for your sake, Yuzhuang, but they were standing across the garden and all I could hear was something about flood management.” She turns a sleeve inside out to tie off a thread. “He barely drank and only offered one poem, and that because the Minister of Revenue pressed him to – not at all like the former Crown Prince. Between the two of you, the Eastern Palace will not be lively.”

“But what did he look like,” whines Ruoshen.

Yuzhuang glances up at Lanying – she can’t help herself.

“He has the loveliest eyes – his eyelashes are longer than mine,” Lanying says, relishing her new authority. “And you can see he’s no bureaucrat. That man definitely has muscles I can’t even find on my husband. And he’s half a head taller than you, Yuzhuang, he could pick you up and put you wherever he wanted you.”

This sets all her sisters to giggling; Yuzhuang is horrified to realize she’s blushing again.

“Oh, Yuzhuang likes that idea!”

“I do not!”

“Does red and gold suit him as well as it did Prince Yu?” Qiuniang asks. “What?” She protests, seeing their shocked faces. “He did rebel, but you can’t deny his wife was a lucky woman before all the, dying in prison.”

“Prince Jing is much better looking than any of his brothers,” Lanying says quickly, before Yuzhuang can verbally disapprove of Qiuniang for being attracted to a man who is married, recently dead, and evil. “And if he’s a little stiff by comparison, that will suit Yuzhuang.”

This of course sets Ruoshen off again. “Get it, jiejie,” she says, waggling her eyebrows at Yuzhuang. “Don’t you want a… stiff husband?”

Yuzhuang abandons all restraint and throws a cushion at her. A scuffle is only averted by Ruoshen’s unwillingness to get up and disturb her delicate handiwork. She sticks out her tongue instead.

“Really though,” Lanying says, “I’m sure you have nothing to worry about, Yuzhuang.”

Yuzhuang smiles, but she cannot prevent the nervous flush that rises to her cheeks. “Only if we finish these in time for the wedding,” she replies.

This is marriage is going to go exactly as planned, she thinks to herself as all the women bend their heads to their sewing. There’s no reason why it shouldn’t. Right?

 

~*~

 

Lin Shu looks up from his book as a muscular arm reaches past him, depositing a log on the smoldering brazier.

“Ah,” he says. “You’re awake.”

Jingyan makes an inarticulate noise and retreats to the bed, trailing blankets. “It was burning too low,” he says, face down in Lin Shu’s pillows. “Temperature changes are bad for your health.”

Lin Shu does not dignify this with a response; he has thus far elected to ignore Jingyan’s whispered consultations with Lin Chen, conducted in random corners of the house and abruptly cut off whenever he spots them. He can’t decide which possibility is worse – that they’re only discussing his treatment, or that they aren’t.

“If my lord slept more at night,” he points out, by way of revenge, “you would not be so tired now.”

Jingyan turns to face him, covers sliding off his shoulders. “If you would spend more time in the Eastern Palace,” he says implacably, “My work would be done more quickly, and my own bed much more attractive. Maybe your influence could even dissuade Cai Quan from calling on me at midnight with urgent reports.”

This argument again. Last week, Jingyan had offered him, or rather Mei Changsu, an official post. Yesterday it had been an intricate corruption case currently baffling the Ministry of Justice. “Everything is almost in place for the Emperor’s birthday,” Lin Shu says, deliberately turning away to steep another pot of tea. “We cannot afford for you to be seen with me publicly, let alone late at night in the Eastern Palace.”

“Then you can get used to my non-public presence here.”

Lin Shu looks around at the rustle of bedclothes. Jingyan stretches luxuriantly, gilded by the afternoon light. “You were glad to see me two hours ago,” he adds, eyes dancing. “Did I not work hard enough to earn my keep?”

Despite himself, Lin Shu’s face heats: he busies himself with pouring another cup, trying to avoid looking directly at Jingyan’s mouth. He had forgotten that Jingyan, whose stony manner causes such consternation among the Imperial bureaucracy, could flirt. He had forgotten a great deal. It occurs to him for the thousandth time that in failing so catastrophically to keep Jingyan at arm’s length after his identity was revealed, he has bitten off more than he can chew.

“Nevertheless,” he says, keeping his voice cool. “I don’t want to pull you away from governing. Can I persuade you to try this? Lin Chen brought some of the first spring harvest from Langya Hall.”

Jingyan makes a face. “Your tea blandishments are wasted on me. But I will take some water.”

Lin Shu, resigned, pours him a plain cup from the kettle. As Jingyan takes it, his expression grows more serious. “Xiao Shu, if you ask me to leave you alone and attend to my duties, I will. But only if that’s what you really want.”

Lin Shu fidgets with his sleeve. What he really wants? Since Jingyan stormed into his house a fortnight ago, he has done nothing but want, and most of those wants are impossible. He is awash with grief and longing; he feels like a jug of water broken open, seeping into the summer earth. These afternoons are the fragile riches of some other man with some other fate. Even sitting at his books while Jingyan sleeps is almost too much – glancing over to see his friend’s face soft and untroubled.

“I think we’re past that point,” he says, a little rueful. “If I told you to go, you would know I didn’t mean it. But I do fear the consequences.”

He looks at Jingyan, and knows that at the very least, they fear the same things now. Failure, unrest, death, the tightening bonds of Imperial power, Lin Shu’s weakening body. To sit here together is to defy all of it. Some of that defiance tugs at the corner of Jingyan’s mouth, and Lin Shu suddenly cannot bear to hear him voice it.

“Besides,” he goes on, raising an eyebrow, “Perhaps your highness should consider the other impending demand upon your time.”

Jingyan stares at him in confusion for a beat and then groans, scrubbing a hand through his hair. “Please don’t remind me.”

Had Jingyan genuinely forgotten? Lin Shu narrows his eyes and presses his advantage. “You can’t avoid thinking about this forever. The wedding is, what, this week?” He knows precisely when the wedding is; he has three agents spread across the Liu family households and they send him daily reports. “Don’t you think your new wife would be surprised if you brought me home with you one night? It’s not like promoting an officer, Jingyan, she won’t leave for the barracks at the end of the day.”

His friend has fallen back onto the bed and is covering his face with his hands, as if he can make his impending marriage disappear by not looking at it.

“I know what a wife is, xiao Shu, I got married the first time while Lin Chen was still rearranging your bones.”

Faintly alarmed by this new ability to joke about the poison of the bitter flame – Lin Chen is a blight upon his domestic peace – Lin Shu raises an eyebrow. “Nominally. Do you even see Consort Fu? Her wing of your house is curiously… separate.”

“I see her. Sometimes. She’s not well,” Jingyan adds defensively, as though he has not spent the past two weeks determinedly seducing an invalid. “I bring her medicines from my mother, and she says her maids keep her company. The arrangement works fine.”

“Ah, but you’re the Crown Prince now,” Lin Shu persists. “Liu Yuzhuang is your future Empress; you can’t just give her an allowance and stop talking to her. If nothing else, it will make the Emperor extremely suspicious. As your advisor, I have to remind you that at least one son in the next few years, and preferably more, would do wonders for the stability of the dynasty. Are you sure you’re up to it?”

This provokes Jingyan to sit up in beleaguered outrage.

“Oh, as if you’re an expert on what to do with a woman,” he says. “I seem to recall you sermonizing to Nihuang on the virtues of chastity prior to marriage. Which reminds me, are you still avoiding her? Let alone that ‘musician’ who mooned after you all the way to the Hunting Lodge.”

“Technical chastity,” Lin Shu points out, ignoring the jab about Gongyu, whom he does not intend to discuss with Jingyan. His… personnel issues are his own business. “I was just trying to stay out of trouble.” This is an exaggeration; he and Nihuang had done little more than steal kisses in the Lin family gardens, shoving their hands into one another’s clothes and blushing. “Really,” he says, watching Jingyan’s stubborn face, “is getting married such a terrible fate?” He had certainly never considered it so as a young man – but he had been engaged to Nihuang. The thought twinges in his spine, an old, sharp ache.

“Does it matter? It’s my fate regardless.”

There is an edge to Jingyan’s voice that gives Lin Shu pause. He says, trying to be reassuring, “Jingyan, I know the timing is unfortunate, but being given a beautiful, well-born bride hardly makes you a sacrificial animal. I’ve watched you shoulder much more onerous obligations without blinking.”

“You think so?” Jingyan gives him a wry look. “I know what kind of woman is raised for the Inner Palace. According to my mother, this girl is barely twenty, packed with accomplishments, the most beautiful of all her sisters and, I am sure, aware of that fact. The Liu have been aiming her at a royal marriage since she was a toddler. If we had lost to Prince Yu, she would probably be his second consort already, and well content with it.”

Lin Shu tilts his head. “That’s unwarranted; Grand Secretary Liu is too shrewd a man to have ever sent his granddaughter into such a snake pit. Have the Liu not proven their loyalty to your satisfaction? They’ve know about our plans for the Chiyan case since the engagement was announced; frankly, Grand Secretary Liu suspected it anyway. We’re co-conspirators, now.”

“All that is just politics,” Jingyan says mulishly. “Of course the Liu will keep our secrets – we’re giving them an Empress.”

“For someone who’s never met her, your judgment is curiously fixed,” Lin Shu points out. “Do you think Aunt Jing – who is far more of an expert on the Inner Palace than either of us – is such a poor judge of character? Do you think I’m such a poor judge of character?”

Jingyan sets his jaw, which means he concedes the point but doesn’t like it. “You’ve never met her either.”

Lin Shu dismisses this with a wave of his hand. “I know she’s the best candidate – I’ve been considering the problem of your future Empress for more than a year.”

Jingyan is still sitting tensely on the edge of the bed, looking like he’d rather be sent to repel a border attack next week than get married. “All I’m saying is that she’s clearly ambitious. I get enough scheming in court; there’s no reason for me to welcome it into my bed.”

Lin Shu has to carefully set down the teacup he is holding. Their eyes meet, and Jingyan looks suddenly stricken. The ghost of the young marshal hangs between them. The shadow of Mei Changsu, strategist, kingmaker, hangs there also.

“Damn my temper,” Jingyan says, under his breath. “Xiao Shu, I didn’t mean – you were different. You are different. Everything you were given, you deserved.”

Lin Shu shrugs his thin shoulders. “And what I wasn’t given, I’ve taken any way I could.”

“For justice,” Jingyan insists. “For Prince Qi and the Chiyan army.”

“Was what I did to Jingrui just?” Lin Shu’s voice rises. “He lost his father. His sister died in childbirth. I am not – my hands are not clean, Jingyan.”

He expects Jingyan to protest, or even to recoil. But Jingyan has done a number of things Lin Shu did not expect, lately. His friend sighs, looks away. Says in his low voice, “I know. I remember what you did to get us here, xiao Shu; everything you did. I would try to help you bear it, if you would let me.”

They both watch the log glowing in its brazier. Lin Shu wants to reach out a hand, pull Jingyan to him, thank him for – something, everything. He hesitates a moment too long. Jingyan shakes his head, letting it go. He reaches for his robes piled at the end of the bed and adds repressively, “You don’t need to worry about my marriage.”

Lin Shu smiles. “Just try to be a little less formidable, for Liu Yuzhuang’s sake. It might not be so bad.”

Jingyan is too well-disciplined to roll his eyes, but he looks as if he wants to. “You sound like my mother. I know how to behave myself.”

As Jingyan leaves, having dawdled putting on his clothes while Lin Shu describes what he’s been reading, he rests a hand on Lin Shu’s back for the space of a breath, steady and reassuring. His touch sparks a wild impulse in Lin Shu – he wants to say, tell me about Shen Zhui’s projects; tell me your troop movements, which generals need reining in. Take me with you to the Eastern Palace. Instead, he shifts on his cushion as the door shuts and turns back to his books, the stillness of the house. He reminds himself that he came to Jinling with one purpose, and one purpose alone. It isn’t his job to solve Jingyan’s problems anymore. It can’t be.