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When Yujin is younger, his father is around.

He’s distracted and busy and does not seem to have much time for him. But he’s not cold or cruel and he does not raise his hands against Yujin no matter how many messes he gets in. However, neither does he come for him no matter how much he cries.

His mother died when he was so young that she’s more of an impression than a person, more a memory of a memory than anything else. She laughed often. Her hands were warm. She seemed lonely.

He made her less lonely, he thinks. He loved her laugh, and he remembers that she told him once that she loved his laughter too. Or maybe that’s just something he told himself and time and a child’s memory have melted the words into her mouth.

Either way, it’s all of her he has left, so he tries to laugh often, tries to make others laugh, and hopes that if his mother sees him that she’s laughing too.

Father isn’t interested in laughing.

He’s not interested in his training schedule or his academics or his friends. He’ll frown and arrange a tutor if something dips below acceptable levels, but excellence gets not reaction at all.

Eventually, he figures out that what Father really, truly wants is a son that he doesn’t have to worry about. One that he doesn’t have to think about.

Yujin wants his father to be happy.

So that’s the type of son he becomes.

~

Jingrui is his best friend.

Yujin’s house had always been quiet, but it becomes a living tomb after the Chiyan army, after his father leaves for the temple and it’s just him, thirteen years old and alone with the servants and everyone dead, Uncle Lin and Lin Shu-gege and Jingyu-gege all dead.

Consort Chen is dead too. He doesn’t understand the implication of that then, doesn’t understand the connection between her death and his empty home. He will, later.

Jingrui’s home is never quiet. Not with a younger brother and sister, not with all the important people always visiting Marquis Xie Yu, or his other set of parents and his older brother who visit for nearly half the year.

Jingrui has a lot of parents and they all expect a lot from him. He has to be a martial arts master worthy of Tianquan Manor, and to have the academics of a son of a marquis. Even when they’re still children, Yujin can see how it rounds his shoulders and tugs his lips down at the corners.

Yujin wants his friend to smile. He wants to be someone who makes Jingrui smile.

He has to spend all his time focusing on studying scrolls and swords, so when they’re together Yujin tries to get them to do anything but, enduring all his friend’s eyerolls and gentle teasing about his laziness. He does not mind, after all. It’s no hardship.

A son who’s known for being clever gets noticed. A son who’s known for being an above average fighter gets noticed.

His father doesn’t want him to be noticed. If other people start noticing Yujin, then he might be forced to notice him too, and that’s not what Father wants.

The only thing worse than being unwanted is to be both unwanted and a burden, after all. Currently he’s only one. He refuses to become both.

It’s no hardship.

He truly loves music, and drinking is of course quite fun, and the women he meets are very nice too. He never goes overboard. He never does anything that would be considered embarrassing or dishonorable or even a vice, really. He’s just a fun young man who enjoys the finer things.

Father’s shoulders loosen, just a little. He gives Yujin access to more money than his friends, than he probably should, and never asks him to spend less. Yujin buys beautiful instruments and expensive wine and his father seems relieved to be able to give him what he wants.

He’d trade it all for one evening where his father really looked at him.

There’s no use in wanting what he can’t have.

It’s better for everyone if he wants what he can have. So that’s what he does.

~

Jingrui worries about Yujin.

At first, it’s because he’s littler than everyone else, because Lin Shu-gege keeps picking on him and making him cry, because he has curious eyes and sticky hands and he’s the loudest kid Jingrui has ever met, including his sister, who’s so small that all she does is scream.

Then it’s because Yujin’s mother is gone and his father is busy and Jingrui worries, sometimes, about how his friend is always, always smiling. Sometimes he wants to push his lips into a frown just so the rest of his face will match the look in his eyes.

Then Jingyu-ge rebels. Then the Chiyan army is killed. Then Jingyu-ge swallows poison in a prison cell. His mother holds him close like she used to do in his earliest memories and Yujin’s father leaves and nothing that’s happening is fair, nothing is right. Advisors and nobles are sentenced to death for defending the Chiyan army, for trying to tell the emperor he’s made a mistake, and Jingrui is thirteen and scared and mad and he doesn’t know what to do.

Yujin shows up at his door, finally, once Mother starts letting people in again.

He smiles at him like he’s swallowing blood and Jingrui can’t stand it. They’re at the age where they’re too old for this, where they should probably start being embarrassed by it, but he’s tired and sad and his best friend is here an alive and not burning on a snow covered cliff or swallowing poison in a prison cell.

He lunges for Yujin, wrapping his arms around him and holding him as tightly as he can without breaking something, determined that nothing he’s able to hold onto will be taken from him.

“Jingrui?” Yujin whispers uncertainly, returning the hug with more strength than Jingrui thought he had. “Are you okay?”

“No,” he says.

He’s thirteen years old and it seems like everything is falling apart and he’s losing things he didn’t think it was possible to lose and he won’t let Yujin be one of them.

 ~

Yujin may not want to draw too much attention to himself, may not want to be known for anything besides his good humor, but he doesn’t let himself slack off of course.

Not really.

What if one day he needs to be able to lift a sword and mean it? What if he has to be more than fun? What if he has to be useful and he can’t? Then what will they do with him? He is the son of Marquis Yan and the grandson of Grand Tutor Yan. His family is made up of nobles and even royals. It’s one thing to look useless. It’s quite another to be useless.

Scrolls he can study on his own. His father has an extensive library and anything else he needs he can send one of the servants to borrow. He loves history more than he should, probably, it’s one of his favorite things to sink into a story of people long gone and peel back the layers of what they did, to understand their reasoning and desires in reverse, like putting a puzzle back together backwards. The stories of Lin Xiangrui are his favorite. He dreams of being that good, that clever and powerful and kind.

He tries not to talk too much of boring old histories with Jingrui, because his friend will let him ramble on for hours without stopping, and then Yujin will realize that they’ve spent all this time together and Jingrui hasn’t laughed once, has just sat there listening to Yujin, and maybe he’s smiling while he does it but he’s not laughing.

Yujin loves Jingrui’s laughter. So he tries to talk about it less, changes the subject whenever Jingrui asks him about a piece of history that he knows he loves in a teasing sort of voice, and eventually Jingrui stops asking.

Sometimes, he talks to the girls who wear too much perfume and linger at his table in the music halls. “Let’s just talk,” he murmurs, subtly sliding a coin against her palm.

She frowns, just for a moment, then pours him another cup of wine and says, “Of course, my lord. Whatever you want.”

It’s not a joke, but he almost laughs anyway. It would be the wrong kind of laughter, not the kind he’d want his mother to hear, so he swallows it.

Women are more than willing to accept coins to keep their clothes on and faun over him, to give him the reputation of being familiar with their company even though he rarely truly spends the night with one of them.  

He’s out late at night so often, after all. What else would he be doing if not enjoying the company of beautiful young women?

Well.

To be fair, he is in the company of a beautiful young woman.

Scrolls he can study on his own.

The sword he cannot.

He’s twelve years old when he finds a solution to that problem. Things were a lot easier then, when he didn’t have to sneak around with her at night so no one would ask any questions.

He’s twelve years old and grief stricken and heart sick and all alone, and Jingrui’s mother isn’t letting his best friend leave the grounds. So he goes and finds someone he thinks can help him, someone who is also grief stricken and heart sick and all alone.

Xia Dong is still reeling from the loss of her husband when Yujin finds her. He bows lower than he had to anyone not within the royal family and says, “Please teach me how to fight. Like you.”

She says no, because of course she does. She has no reason to say yes.

But he doesn’t accept that.

He finds her, every day. Sometimes on patrol. Sometimes in the home she shared with her husband that’s now seems as empty as his own. Sometimes just while she’s at market. And he asks her again, and again, and again.

“Why?” she demands, towering over him, terrifying in her grief except that he knows the shape of loneliness too well to be frightened by it. “Why me? I’m not a teacher. I have my own duties. Your father could get anyone to teach you. You could join Xiao Jingrui’s lessons. His father isn’t teaching him any secret techniques yet. Why won’t you leave me alone?”

He blinks at her, then turns to the petrified tea seller who’s stall they’re yelling in front of, and asks, “Do you have anything to settle someone’s nerves?” He pauses, weighing his options and how much he values his own life, then adds, “She’s a little stressed. As you can clearly see.”

The tea seller looks at him as if he’s lost his mind but then Xia Dong snorts. Her lips pull back into the first smile he’s seen from her since she heard of her husband’s death. “You’re such a brat.”

That sounds like something Lin Shu-gege would say, almost falls out of his mouth, but he holds it back, instead just raising an eyebrow and rolling back on the balls of his feet.

“Alright,” she says, throwing up her hands. “Fine. Are you happy now?”

“Yes,” he says and then buys her some tea.

He doesn’t say that it’s impossible to be happy like this, with so many of their people dead, with the emperor having ordered the massacre of so many people he cared about. He doesn’t say that he’s not doing this because it’ll make him happy. He doesn’t talk about how much he misses his father, about how much he wants to crawl in his lap and cling to him like he thinks he used to do to his mother, but how even if he got the courage to try, he couldn’t. Because Father isn’t here.

Xia Dong is still smiling.

He wants her to keep smiling.

They can’t hide it completely, of course. People know he’s been pestering her. She can’t exactly sneak away unnoticed.

So people know he’s being trained by Xia Dong. Jingrui assumes it’s Father’s doing and consoles him, saying that it won’t be that bad, that Xia Dong won’t really hurt him, but he can see the way he’s fretting over him. Jingrui has been forced to train since practically the moment he managed to stand, while Yujin just knows the basics.

Which is why it’s so easy for everyone to believe that Xia Dong is trying to bring him up to an acceptable level of skill for a young noble, easy for everyone to shake their head at his misfortune and to be able to gossip about something easy and light that doesn’t matter, that doesn’t hurt. Everyone knows he trains with Xia Dong.

They don’t know how frequently.

They don’t know how much he improves.

They don’t know how good he is.

He never beats Dong-jie, of course. But being worse than Dong-jie still being better than a lot of people.

Sometimes he fantasizes about being able to spar against Jingrui and mean it, but he knows he won’t. Fighting isn’t fun for Jingrui, even when it’s just sparing, even when no one’s lives are on the line. It’s wrapped up in too much responsibility, too much expectation. Jingrui likes being good at something. He even likes showing off a little. But the actual fighting part isn’t something he enjoys for its own sake. He might have, once, if he’d ever been able to experience it without the crushing weight of his father’s expectation on him.

Yujin doesn’t want to become another person making Jingrui do things he doesn’t want to do.

Well. Not the important things, like upholding the traditions of both his families and working himself into the ground to try and be the best of both. Forcing him to do things like trying the new pastry shop and going to performances and showing him the best new liquor that just landed at the docks – those are okay. Those are good things.

Those things make Jingrui laugh and smile, so they’re alright.

Dong-jie still comes to him in the night to spar with him, even though he’s past the age when they have the excuse of training him just to be acceptable, but they always meet anyway. People say he spends the these nights with girls from the music house, and he doesn’t mind that. It’s a normal thing for a healthy young man with access to a bit too much money to do, after all. No one will think poorly of him, or his father, or Jingrui.

“You could do something with this, you know,” she says, crossed blade to blade and a grin that’s nearly manic stretching across her face. “You’re not half bad.”

High praise, coming from Dong-jie.

“I am doing something,” he says, “I’m going to win tonight, Dong-jie!”

She laughs and then they’re pushing apart, then coming together all over again.

He doesn’t win, of course. But he doesn’t quite lose either.

It’s hard to consider the night at loss when Dong-jie leaves it still smiling.

~

The person who doesn’t know him at all and yet knows him better than possibly anyone else is Prince Ji.

Yujin is a teenager still, barely old enough to walk through the door of the music house. He’s familiar with Prince Ji, of course. This isn’t even the first time they’ve been to the same music house.

But this is the first time they’re seated side by side. It makes sense. They’re the two highest ranked people here and it’s crowded enough that they’d been willing to ask Prince Ji to share his side of the room. Yujin likes Prince Ji. What’s not to like? He’s generous and funny and he never takes offense to anything, which is why the staff had been willing to ask him to share in the first place. He’s not a lazy prince, exactly, but he is an indulgent prince. He likes fine things and fine wine and fine food and if he never had to perform another royal duty again, well, he wouldn’t exactly complain about it.

A very beautiful woman is sitting by Yujin’s side, her hands like two pale birds as they pour his wine, and he’s gotten better at talking to beautiful women by now, knows to call them pretty and to let his eyes wander so they believe it but to keep his hands to himself unless they touch him first. But there’s a lull between acts and he read this really interesting book last night that he can’t seem to understand, so he tells her about it, because she’ll pretend to be interested no matter what he says and sometimes he just wants to talk things through out loud, because it had been a very beautiful story that had seemed to make no sense at all.  

“Talking to a sweet faced girl about military tactics?” Prince Ji booms. “Yujin, what shall we do with you?”

Yujin’s head snaps to the side, eyes widening. It had been about military tactics, hadn’t it? Just clothed in metaphor, and oh, he’s such an idiot, he should have realized that already. Now he’s going to have to reread the whole thing.

He has all those thoughts lightning fast, and he’s looking at him when Prince Ji seems to realize his own mistake. His eyes widen then narrow, and for a split second they’re staring at each other, catching the other in the act of being a little bit too smart. Then Yujin smiles and says, “Ah, Prince Ji, I just don’t want to embarrass myself. If I talk about something she knows nothing about, then she won’t be able to tell how little I know myself!”

They both laugh, too loud, and that’s the start of watching each other too closely.

The emperor had more than one brother, once.

They’re all dead now.

Only Prince Ji remains, because he poses no threat to the emperor, because he’s younger and foolish and has no interest in power.

His ignorance is what keeps him safe, his vices are what keep him safe, and Yujin almost laughs when he figures it out. They’re both playing the same game, albeit for very different reasons. Prince Ji is playing for his life. Yujin just doesn’t want his father to be disappointed in him, just wants his friends to keep smiling.

They’ve never discussed it, never even mentioned it, but Yujin knows that Prince Ji is smarter than he looks and Prince Ji knows the same about him.

But mostly what they know about each other is that they like good music and good food and it’s comfortable to be around Prince Ji, like it feels around Dong-jie. Prince Ji never risks getting friendly with ambitious young men and everyone knows that Yujin is anything but ambitious. So they can sit next to each other in music houses and Yujin starts getting invitations to Prince Ji’s home to be fed delicate deserts by his vain and sweet wife as they discuss the newest musical works.

They’re friends, real friends, but Yujin is too smart to watch without learning. Sometimes he thinks Prince Ji invites him over specifically just to teach him something, although he often doesn’t figure out what for several weeks later.

To himself, and never out loud, he thinks to himself that Prince Ji could have been a good emperor.

At the very least, if he’d been emperor, Jingyu-ge and Lin Shu-gege and Uncle Lin would still be alive.

Consort Chen would still be alive.

His father would be here.

Lots of people would be here.

He can’t drown his traitorous thoughts with wine, but he can try

~

The last time Changsu saw Yujin was before he left to fight, back when he was still Lin Shu. He’d been eleven years old, all knobby knees and pointy elbows and determined to be as annoying as possible no matter how often Changsu would stick him in a tree or trip him into a lake.

Jingyan would always help him get down or pull him out, because he was soft like that, and Yujin would sniffle and look at them with these big tears that Changsu didn’t believe at all. Jingrui would get so mad whenever he’d pick on him, which was hysterical all on its own. Jingrui tried to be so polite and proper all the time, but nothing got him angrier than Yujin’s crocodile tears.

Now he’s standing in front of him, twenty three years old but with that same laughing grin, and Changsu feels himself returning it without thinking.

He listens to Yujin and Jingrui talk all the way to the capital and it’s an ache and a balm to him all at once. They’re still best friends, Yujin is still smiling and mischievous, and Jingrui still polite and too serious except for when Yujin can goad him into something different.

Even in the poisonous capital, not everything has been tainted. Yujin and Jingrui are just the same.

~

Great Grandmother doesn’t get things mixed up.

Yujin’s smile is frozen on his face as she looks at Mei Changsu and calls him Xiao-Shu. She forgets things constantly, Yujin visits her at least twice a week and she forgets his name every time, but she’s never thought that that he was someone he wasn’t.

He forces a laugh, because if the silence stretches on people will begin to wonder, and that’s enough, all the ladies laughing softly enough that no one could accuse it of being mocking, but laughing all the same.

He sees Mei Changsu hold Nihuang-jie’s hand and not let go and it’s impossible, it’s so impossible that he shouldn’t even be thinking of it, and yet.

Great Grandmother can’t remember much, but she knows people, it’s why she always asks who’s child he is. She knows she loves him, she just doesn’t know why, and she has never once called him by his father’s name or his cousin’s, has never once called him anything but Xiao-Jin.

It’s been twelve years since he saw Lin Shu-gege, he was just a kid really, and it’s possible that he really wouldn’t recognize him if he saw him again, if he’d lived and aged another twelve years. But everyone else would. Everyone in that room had known Lin Shu. Nihuang-jie would know if she were speaking to her the man she was once supposed to marry, the man she’d never moved on from.

That’s not Lin Shu’s face.

That’s not Lin Shu.

“Are you okay?” Jingrui asks him after they leave, his eyebrows pushed together. “Don’t worry too much about Great Grandmother. We’ll come back tomorrow and you can see she’s fine, okay?”

“Okay,” he says, pushing his face into a smile and pushing the thought out of his mind.

Lin Shu-gege is dead.

It’s impossible.

~

Xia Dong doesn’t think she would have survived her husband’s death if not for Yan Yujin.

She had been drowning in her grief, in her pain and her anger and her rage, and she hadn’t been able to find a single reason to pull herself out of it except for the knowledge that her husband had loved her and would want her to live. But it was hard to hold onto that, to hold onto a memory that was at once a reason to live and also a reason to die.

Then Yujin-er had decided to bother her, to stalk her through the town, at work and at home, and she couldn’t even grab him by the back of the neck and shake some manners into him like she wanted to because he was the only son of Marquis Yan. Instead she’d endured until she snapped, until she’d finally agreed to train him, until his determination to be happy had slipped past her defenses, until she’d found herself capable of happiness again too. Now one of her greatest sources of happiness is grabbing his ear and twisting it in public where he won’t do anything but whine and beg Xiao Jingrui to save him. He insists on being known as respectably competent rather than what he really is, which is quite good.

Between Nihuang and Yujin-er, she hadn’t lost herself when she’d lost Feng-ge.

“Are you going to enter the competition?” she asks him idly, the moon high in the sky while he lies on his back and groans. Quite good still isn’t good enough to beat her, after all.

“For Nihuang-jie?” he asks, not pretending to misunderstand like he might if they weren’t alone. She doesn’t understand any of his choices. Being a strong and clever noble is a good thing. “Jingrui and I both are. It would be rude if we didn’t.”

“But are you going to really try?” she pushes, holding out a hand to pull him to his feet. “You might be able to beat her.”

He raises an eyebrow. “Jingrui and I can’t beat her when we’re facing her together. I definitely can’t win against her on my own.”

“You’ve never fought her seriously before,” she says. He’s never fought anyone seriously except for her and anyone dumb enough to attack him when he travels. “She thinks she knows what to expect from you. She won’t go all out against you at first because she won’t think that she has to, and if she doesn’t at least give everyone a chance to beat her the emperor will be upset. If you surprise her, you have a chance.”

Yujin-er is quiet for a long moment as he cleans off his sword and puts it back its sheathe. “Nihuang-jie doesn’t want to get married.”

“The emperor doesn’t care what she wants,” Xia Dong says, her feelings about that getting caught at the bottom of her throat. “She has to marry someone. It might as well be you.”

“Thanks Dong-jie,” he says, rolling his eyes.

“I think you’d be good for each other,” she insists, not willing to let this drop. Nihuang is her best friend and she hates the thought of someone winning her, of her marrying a man who won’t respect or care for her. Xia Dong knows that she got lucky with her own husband, that there aren’t many marriages built on love and respect and kindness like hers was, but she wants Nihuang and Yujin-er to be lucky too, and she thinks they could be. They’re both such good people, and maybe Nihuang could settle Yujin-er a little.

Yujin-er sighs then says. “Dong-jie. I won’t live as my mother lived.” She doesn’t understand and he must see that because he adds, “Maybe I could grow to love Nihuang-jie as a husband loves his wife. But she could never love me.”

“You don’t know that,” she says, but the words sound false even to her own ears.

He smiles at her, a smaller, more private thing than she’s used to seeing on him. “Could you love another man? Could you love anyone besides Nie Feng?”

“That’s different,” she snaps. “He was my husband.”

Yujin-er reaches out for her, but pulls back. “Yes, it’s different. But do you think Nihuang-jie’s heart knows that difference?”

No. She doesn’t. No matter how much she doesn’t want to think about it, she knows that Nihuang is still in love with the traitorous Lin Shu.

“Don’t worry so much,” Yujin-er says, walking forward enough to knock their shoulder together. “Something tells me that Nihuang-jie will find a way to get out of this again.”

Xia Dong can’t decide whether she’s irritated or relived when he turns out to be right.

~

Changsu takes evaluating the essays of Nihuang’s suitors seriously, even though of course none of them will end up as her husband.

Jingrui’s is as expected. It’s solid logic, even if it relies a little bit too much on Pugilist combat history. That might be his bias coming through, however, since if he wasn’t the leader of the Jiangzuo Alliance he’d probably be impressed at its inclusion.

Yujin’s is almost as expected. It’s solid work that reflects his above average education and his status as the grandson of Grand Tutor Yan, and it reflects his love of art in the style of writing, in the way it flows from one subject to the next. But it’s not particularly revolutionary or surprising.

Except for one part of it.

There’s a throwaway reference to a battle that Changsu has only ever seen referenced in one very old and very boring scroll, and even then more as background information than anything else. Its use is appropriate, which is nearly strange, because Yujin has never shown himself to have a grasp on obscure political military minutia.

He must have done something truly terrible for Marquis Yan to force that book on him as punishment.

Still, the fact that he remembered anything from it at all is quite impressive.

He wonders if that means Yujin is smarter than he thinks he is or if he’s just that desperate to please his father.

~

When the assassins attack them in the forest, Yujin knows, logically, that leaving Jingrui behind is the smart thing to do, that dividing them is better than standing and fighting them all at once, that Dong-jie wants to act as if she’s near collapse, so he has no reason not to go and try to get her out of here, but he hates it.

By the time he finishes with his own group of assassins, Jingrui has too, and it’s fine, and then they’re both running after Dong-jie.

Later, when she comes over to kick his ass, she says, “If you want to look average, you probably shouldn’t take down seven trained assassins with your bare hands. Xiao Jingrui and I at least used blades.”

“Shut up,” he groans, and for once she doesn’t hit him for it, but only because she’s too busy laughing.

It does open up a question that he hadn’t thought to ask.

He goes to Jingrui the next day, as he does most days, but this time Jingrui frowns when he sees him and asks, “What’s wrong? Dong-jie isn’t hurt, is she?”

He shakes his head, almost says nothing, but he’s been saying nothing for a long time. “You didn’t say anything. About the people I killed.”

Jingrui stills. “Did you want me to say something?”

“Only if you have something to say,” he says, then pulls a face because they’re just talking in circles now. “It’s not something that – I just mean. I haven’t fought like that, before.”

There’s silence for a long moment and Yujin risks a glance up to see Jingrui smiling at him. “Of course not, Yujin. You wouldn’t mess around with me and Dong-jie in danger, not like you usually do.”

“You knew,” he says, and he means for it to come out accusatory but he’s too surprised for that.

“I’m the son of the master of Tianquan Manor and I’d be a pretty poor one if I couldn’t tell when someone was holding back on me,” Jingrui says, grinning. “Besides, do you really think I would have let you go off without me if I didn’t know that you could take care of yourself?”

“You never said anything,” he points out, trying to eke out some sort of coherent emotion from the warmth spreading through his chest.

Jingrui shrugs. “A man is entitled to his secrets.” He pauses, then adds, “Like how you still stay up late reading more nights than you’re out late at the music hall. You don’t outgrow being curious, Yujin.”

“Jingrui!” he hisses, looking around in case there’s someone around to overhear them.

He just laughs. “We can talk about that too, if you want. Sometimes you show up with bruises beneath your eyes looking like you have a lot to say, but we always do something else.”

He really hopes he’s not this transparent to everyone. Surely someone would have called him out by now if he was, surely it’s only Jingrui who knows him this well. He’s spent so long keeping everything to himself that he’s not even sure what to do with the idea that he doesn’t have to, that Jingrui has known just who he was all this time and liked him just the same. “You already have to spend so much time studying because of your fathers. Won’t you be bored?”

Jingrui laughs and swings an arm over his shoulders, crushing him against his side for a moment before loosening his grip. “Ah, Yujin, when am I ever bored when I’m with you? Tell me of the last book you read and we’ll work our way down from there.”

~

When Prince Ji witnesses the murder of Minister He’s son, Yujin tries not to find it strange. Prince Ji is often in the music hall, after all. If a murder is to occur in the music hall, statistically it’s not strange at all for him to be there when it happens.

They don’t talk about things like this, but he asks him about it anyway, casually, as if it means nothing, in a way that Prince Ji can easily brush off if he wants to.

“Oh, you know I don’t involve myself in those things,” he says, eyes dark and the grip on his cup tense rather than loose. “I just tell my brother what I see and what happens next is up to him.”

“Of course, of course,” he says before changing the subject.

~

Jingrui hates the new year.

That’s not true, exactly, of course. He loves his family and the celebrations and the food.

He hates how Yujin starts every year bowing to his ancestors and his father and is then left alone in his big house. Uncle Yan won’t even share a meal with his son on the first day of the new year and Jingrui knows that Uncle Yan is a good person but sometimes he wishes he were a better father.

He’s not exactly subtle when he’s talking to Su-xiong, mentioning how there were won’t be enough people in his house for the new year. But it still gets Yujin an invitation to Su-xiong’s home, which means that Yujin won’t have to sit in his big house eating alone.

Jingrui wishes Yujin would just come over to his house instead, but he always refuses. He says it would reflect poorly on him and his father if he spends the first day of the new year in Marquis Xie’s home, where everyone will see him and see that he’s not with Uncle Yan.  

Secretly, Jingrui thinks that a bit of bad gossip might do him some good, that maybe if Uncle Yan can’t be bothered to pay attention to his son for one day out of the year, then maybe its what he deserves.

But he knows that’s not fair, he knows that Yujin is a good and filial son, but knowing doesn’t make the fist around his heart feel any looser.

~

When Yujin complains about the envoy from Yuqin, Changsu can’t help but be surprised at his knowledge about the area. Yujin’s disgust at the man trying to curry his favor is one thing, because while he hasn’t heard Yujin speak this poorly of someone in such a serious tone before, it fits what he knows of Yujin.

This is more surprising. It’s not just his anger at a personal slight, at the idea that he is the type of person that can be bribed, but it’s more professional than that. He’s upset that the man is bad at his job, upset that he’s such a poor representative from Yuqin, a small enough territory that Changsu wouldn’t have been surprised if Yujin hadn’t recognized the name immediately. But not only does he recognize it, but he’s familiar with it, with its size and its politics.

It’s a strange thing for him to know off the top of his head.  

When he asks Yujin what types of attributes an enjoy should have, Jingrui looks up at his friend, his face fond and expectant, his lips curled up at the corners. It’s as if he already knows what Yujin is going to say.

He speaks quickly and passionately of Lin Xiangru, a name Changsu hadn’t expected him to know. A name that, if he had known, he surely would have mentioned in his essay to win Nihuang’s hand. Then again, having knowledge and knowing when to apply that knowledge are two different things.

After Changsu has told them of one the feats that made Marquis Yan famous, of a story that he would have expected Marquis Yan to share with his son when he held so many strong opinions, he says it’s a shame that Marquis Yan is only interested in Taoism now.

Then Yujin does something else that he doesn’t expect.

He shoves aside his hurt and confusion at hearing this story for the first time, and demands why, exactly, Changsu has come to see his father.

For a single moment, Yujin’s face is different. His smile is gone, his eyes narrowed in suspicion, and his whole face is hard. Jingrui looks confused, but Yujin just looks fierce, in this one moment. He looks at him like Changsu imagines he just looked at the envoy from Yuqin. Changsu searches his face in turn, wondering if perhaps there’s something about the boy he’s missed.

He’s not used to being surprised by people. He works hard to make sure he never is.

Yet Yujin is surprising him now.

Then Marquis Yan comes home and Changsu pushes those thoughts from his mind. One moment of insight does not a clever man make, after all.

~

Yujin worries that he showed his hand when he got angry at Su-xiong, but that story, and his comment about Taoism – something was off. Whatever they talked about, it wasn’t the new year festivities, although of course this time Yujin keeps those thoughts to himself.

Later, when Jingrui is upset and pacing, speaking of the lesson Su-xiong taught him that he doesn’t seem to follow, he turns the words Su-xiong said to Jingrui over in his mind.

To choose a ruler is to choose virtues.

If that’s something that Su-xiong believes, then Jingrui is right. His choice of Prince Yu makes no sense at all. While Su-xiong can’t avoid the machinations of court while he’s at the capital, the truth of the matter is that he does not have to be at court. There are other places with warmer weather if it was truly about his illness, and considering how often he’s out and about after falling ill, it doesn’t seem like he’d go this far from his people and his home just for his health.

So if Su-xiong is here, it’s because he’s choosing to be here. It means he’s choosing Prince Yu.

But why would he do that? Prince Yu seems amiable enough, but so does a snake up until it strikes. Yujin has lived in the capitol his whole life and there is nothing in Prince Yu that he finds valuable enough to encourage.

If it doesn’t make any sense for Su-xiong to support Prince Yu, maybe that’s because he doesn’t. Perhaps the easy answer is the correct one.

But even if that’s true, that doesn’t explain his actions. Just sabotaging Prince Yu would help the Crown Prince, who it makes even less sense for Su-xiong to support. He could just be trying to cause chaos at court, but if that’s what he wanted there would be several much better ways to go about it.

If Su-xiong were to support a ruler who’s virtues aligned with his own, who would he pick?

Yujin thinks first of Jingyu-ge, but he’s dead, and Su-xiong wouldn’t have even known him. There’s Jingyan-ge, who’s so difficult and uncompromising in his morals that the emperor sends him all over because he can’t keep his thoughts to himself. But that’s an impossible thing for Su-xiong to know with any certainty. Although. That he and Jingyu-ge were close is fairly well known, and it wouldn’t be hard for someone like Su-xiong to figure out the reasons behind the emperor constantly sending him on long military campaigns.

Still. That’s not a lot to choose an emperor on, not a lot to travel to a foreign city and get himself tangled in court politics on. But Jingyan-ge has been getting into less trouble than usual. He’d even overseen affairs on the emperor’s orders, which has never happened before. That’s something that Su-xiong was definitely capable of arranging, if he wanted to. It makes sense except for the part where it didn’t make any sense at all.

If Yujin were to choose a prince to be his emperor, he’d pick Jingyan-ge too. He’d always been the one to save him from Lin Shu-gege’s teasing even though Nihuang-jie would just laugh at him and –

“Jingrui,” he says urgently, “do you think that Su-xiong isn’t actually…”

He stops himself, turning away and saying he’s overthinking, when really it’s that he’s not finished thinking.

Great Grandmother doesn’t recognize people as being someone they’re not.

It’s impossible. He knows it’s impossible.

And yet.

What if the reason Su-xiong would pick Jingyan-ge is because he does know him? What if he was once the person that knew him better than anyone?

If Su-xiong is Lin Shu-gege, everything he’s done makes sense. If he isn’t Lin Shu-gege, then nothing he’s done makes sense.

Perhaps the easy answer is the correct one.

“I don’t think he’s actually helping Prince Yu,” he tells Jingrui, desperately trying to think back twelve years, trying to remember everything he can of Lin Shu-gege and searching for similarities to Su-xiong. There aren’t many, but he supposes there wouldn’t be, would there? If it were obvious, if he were like the person he was, then someone might recognize him. If he’s recognized as being Lin Shu, he’ll be killed.

Jingrui’s eyes widen and looks around before leaning forward. “Why do you think that?”

What can he say to that? That it’s because he believes that Su-xiong is actually their Lin Shu-gege, that he thinks he’s come back to put his best friend on the throne? And what reason does Yujin have to believe any of that, really?

“A feeling,” he answers seriously, and Jingrui sighs, clearly not believing him, and that stops the rest of the words he’d been planning to say, that stop him from blurting out who he thinks Su-xiong really is.

It’s insane. If he’s wrong, he looks insane.

If he’s right – if he’s right, he’d just be putting Lin Shu-gege’s life in danger all over again.

Either way, it seems the best thing to do is to say nothing at all.

At least, until he has something more to go on than a feeling.

~

His father shares a meal with him on New Years Eve and they greet the new year together.

His father tells him what he’d been planning to do and why. He tells him what Su-xiong spoke to him about, he tells him what he said and what he promised not to do.

It doesn’t confirm anything, really, if he tried to explain it to someone they’d wouldn’t believe him, but Yujin knows he’s right.

As Prince Yu’s advisor, as someone wanting to cause chaos in the capital, Su-xiong’s actions don’t make any sense at all.

As Lin Shu, his actions make complete sense.

He goes to Su-xiong the next morning. He bows and looks him in the eyes, searching for Lin Shu-gege in Su-xiong’s face. He can’t find him there, but it doesn’t matter. When a man’s face and words say one thing, and his actions say another, it’s the actions that reveal the truth.

He says something true – that his father does not regret his actions but is also glad to have been stopped – and says that this is something Su-xiong must understand. He worries for a moment that he’s being too subtle, but Lin Shu-gege was always smart and Su-xiong is brilliant, and he smiles.

Su-xiong talks about things not being so easy to be split in two, of things not being so black and white, and Yujin almost tells him that he knows, almost calls him Lin Shu-gege, but he stops himself. If Su-xiong wanted him to know the truth, he would have told him, and he’s already uncovered one secret of Su-xiong’s.

So he says that deeper meanings have nothing to do with him, that he’s not one to get involved in court affairs, and promises to remember Su-xiong’s kindness. He promises to keep his nose out of court affairs and not interfere with whatever game he’s playing with Prince Yu.  

He hopes it’s enough. He hopes Su-xiong succeeds and he’s able to greet him properly one day.

There’s a large part of him that wants to run to Jingrui and tell him that Lin Shu-gege is alive, that wants to sit him down and make Jingrui believe him even if all he has to go on is feelings and the knowledge that this makes more sense than anything else.

But something is wrong with Jingrui, probably something with his family since he hasn’t told him about it. Yujin doesn’t blame him. He trusts Jingrui more than anyone, but he’s still not about to tell him what his father did.

Still. He’s going to need to Jingrui to be in the right mood for this, is going to need him to be open and patient, not distracted and melancholy, so for now he says nothing.

It’s not like Su-xiong is going anywhere.

~

Changsu has underestimated Yujin. He really is his father’s son.

Yujin has figured out that he’s not loyal to Prince Yu.

No one else had realized that, not without being told, and yet Yujin, who’s only been peripherally aware of the comings and goings of court, has figured out that Prince Yu doesn’t hold his loyalty.

He wonders if he’d suspected before or if it had been his conversation with his father that filled in the rest of the pieces for him. If Yujin is smart enough to know that he’s manipulating Prince Yu, he’s smart enough to ask several other questions, and to maybe discover the answers. The most obvious being that, if he’s not working for Prince Yu, who is he working for? The Eastern Palace would be the obvious answer, if the incorrect one.

Changsu almost wants to ask, almost wants to sit him down and have it explain it, to hear how much he’s figured out and how he did it. But Yujin vows to keep his silence, to remember his kindness to his family above all else, and Changsu drinks tea with him in the early morning and decides it’s better for both of them to let it all lie. Yujin is not a dishonest person. If he’s saying he won’t pry any further, then he won’t, and asking him questions only gives him an opportunity to ask questions in return, which Changsu can’t have.

Still. If Yujin ever feels like growing up, he’d probably be a good advisor to Jingyan.

Personally, he likes to think he encouraged Yujin’s problem solving skills by sticking him in the tops of all those trees when they were kids.

~

Jingrui is struggling.

He knows Yujin has noticed. He’s cheerfully determined to get a rise out of him and he acts even more ridiculous and over the top just to try and make him laugh. He even goes so far as to tell Su-xiong that Uncle Yan forgot to give him his allowance, as if money isn’t the one thing he’s always given him, and promises Gong Yu that she can play his mother’s instrument before Jingrui can even open his mouth. That one does make him laugh, because he remembers how Yujin would beg and plead his mother to let him hold it. She only agreed after Yujin took several months of music lessons to ensure he wouldn’t damage it and he could appreciate it properly. He thinks Mother assumed his flighty friend would never dedicate so much time and effort for so small a reward, but she’d been wrong in the end, and had let Yujin hold it and play a simple tune on it.

He wants to tell Yujin the truth. His friend is smart, he might be able to explain his fathers’ actions even when he can’t make sense of them, might be able to make faction fights involving good men make sense to him.

There are so many things happening that he wants to tell Yujin, but he’s a good son too, and he knows it would be a betrayal to his family, and he can’t do that. He cannot tell his family’s secrets to Yujin. He wants to, though, he wants his friend to sit him down and explain his fathers’ and brother’s betrayal like he’s talking through old court politics from a hundred years ago.

But he can’t.

So he tries not to frown too much, he tries to let Yujin goad him into a good mood, tries not think too hard about things he doesn’t understand.

He’s not as successful as he’d like.

~

Yujin knows as soon Prince Yu is mentioned that Su-xiong planned this. He better have a really good reason for doing this to Jingrui, on his birthday of all days.

It’s possible that he signaled Fei Lu to cut all the bow strings as soon as the Southern Chu delegation arrived. That Fei Lu actually managed to cut over eight hundred bow strings in that short amount of time is less possible, but he’s seen Fei Lu doing seemingly impossible things before, and this could be among them.

But there’s no way Fei Lu could have cut all the bows and sent a message out to Prince Yu in time for him to gather his soldiers and appear at his door. This is something that he must have arranged in advance, which means all these terrible things are being revealed because Su-xiong wants them to be revealed.

More secrets get revealed, things that probably explain Jingrui’s mood these past few weeks.

He does not remember Lin Shu-gege being this cruel, but just because they’re not on a battlefield doesn’t mean that he’s not fighting a war. The kinder thing would have been to let all these things stay a secret forever, perhaps, but only for Jingrui. For all the people that the Marquis was planning to hurt, using Zhuo Dingfeng or otherwise, this is better. Yujin understands that taking down an evil man makes for a better world.

But Jingrui is crying and it’s hard for him to care about anything else. It’s hard for him to care about the world when his best friend is on his knees.

When the fighting starts, he forces himself to stay still. Jingrui is his best friend and Jingrui is not moving. Yujin doesn’t want to stand there and watching good people die, but he won’t get involved if Jingrui doesn’t want him to.

When all this ends, when the dust settles from this terrible night, Jingrui is going to need to know that he has people who will choose him first and always.

A sword is coming for Madame Zhuo and Yujin can only feel relief when Jingrui puts himself between that sword and the woman he’s called his mother for his entire life. He doesn’t hesitate then, doesn’t bother to hold back now. He throws himself in front of Gong Yu, because she’s still the same woman who he’s known for months, who spoke with him and played for him, then he presses forward.

He does not want to die. But he’d rather die supporting his friend than live a coward.

Later, trapped on the dock and sitting between a shell shocked Jingrui and a foolish Southern Chu princess, a terrible part of him can’t help but be a little bit – not jealous, because it would be a terrible thing to be jealous of his friend’s misfortune, but he does feel a certain amount of longing to be loved as Jingrui is loved.

Yujin doesn’t know how relationships will change after tonight, but the Zhuo family has claimed Jingrui as one of their own for twenty five years, even with the chance that he was not theirs by blood, and Yujin will think less of them if the confirmation changes anything. Now there is another father wanting Jingrui to come with him, a sister who is willing to travel across a nation and risk her life just for the chance to bring him home. Jingrui’s mother did a terrible thing, but he she did it out of love.

It’s unfilial thought, but he can’t help having it. If his father had needed to go to any effort at all to keep him alive, he wouldn’t be here.

He wishes his mother was there suddenly, painfully. He was so young when she died that maybe all his soft memories of her are more make believe than reality, but he thinks she loved him. He wishes she was here, now, so he could bury his face in her skirts and convince himself that he was wanted, once.

The Zhuos spare Gong Yu. He hopes that means they will spare Jingrui too, that they won’t shun him for not being their son, that they will not blame him for the choice the Grand Princess made.

Arrows come falling for them and Yujin is sure this is the end. The man he’s called his uncle, that Jingrui has called father, is going to kill them. It looks like he will get the chance to be comforted by his mother since he’ll be seeing her soon.

Except.

It all stops.

And his father is here.

Father is here and really looking at him for once, as if he’s seeing him and not just seeing through him. There’s genuine worry in his eyes and he’d come here, for him. Prince Yu’s men had stood behind him, taking a step for every one that he took, and he’d meant it. Prince Yu couldn’t force their way in on their own, but with Father’s backing, it would be much easier to explain to the emperor, because they could pin some of the blame on him. Father has risked that, had risked having to grovel to the man he hated or be killed by Marquis Xie, and he’d done it because Yujin had been in danger.

It’s a terrible night. So much has been torn apart and lost.

But his father is looking at him.

~

Yan Que has spent twenty three years as a father, twenty three years with a son who manages their home and greets him warmly and who might spend the majority of his time on frivolous pursuits but has never given him a reason to worry. Yan Que has never come home to a house empty of family even though that’s the type of house Yujin grew up in.

When he hears of the commotion at Xie Yu’s manor, he’s terrified.

His son is inside that house and he knows, down to his bones, that Xie Yu is not the type of man to leave behind witnesses that he can’t control.

Yujin is a good son.

He will tell him everything, if given the chance, and Xie Yu knows it. Even if he believes he can control Yujin, he knows that he can’t control him.

Standing in front of Xie Yu with Prince Yu’s army at his back, he understands Mei Changsu’s anger at him in a way that he hadn’t at the time. He was willing to kill the emperor because he believed he has nothing to lose.

But he has his son.

His son and sister are the only family he has left. His sister has done terrible things in her quest for power.

Yujin hasn’t done a single terrible thing.

He was a fool and he knows it, and that’s made even clearer to him when Yujin looks surprised to see him, when he asks what he’s doing here like the idea that he came for him is unthinkable.

Yan Que is sorry for Jingrui, but he doesn’t let Yujin linger, not when staying can get him caught up in something else dangerous. He brings his son home and find he can breathe a little easier but that he doesn’t know where to go from here. He doesn’t know much about this boy with his name.

That’s made even clearer to him when the Grand Empress dies.

He visits his sister, because it’s the proper thing to do, and he she looks at him, tired around the eyes and almost human. “Don’t let Yujin get too caught up in his grief. With the Grand Princess keeping Jingrui at her side and music not being allowed during the mourning period, he’s probably unsure of what to do. Give him a distraction.”

Yan Que bristles at being told what to do by her, of all people, but for all her faults she did raise a son who loves her and it’s possible she’s offering this advice genuinely. He forces his voice to remain measured when he asks, “Was he close with her?”

He’s expecting her to spout off something about filial duty, and about how it doesn’t matter how little he knew her, of course he’s grieving. But instead, a mocking look steals across her face. “What an odd question for you to ask, Da-ge. I believe it would be strange of him to visit her as often as he did for so many years and not be close to her.” He stares, and she continues, “Why, he visited her more than all the other children. Of course, he has fewer responsibilities than the others, so I suppose he had the time.”

Another time, he’d address the insult, but he doesn’t care about that right now. “That must have been good for your reputation, to have such an attentive nephew.”

“Not much,” she says, surprisingly candid. “She couldn’t remember things from one day to the next. She never remembered when she saw him last and kept asking after his marriage and children, but she also called him Xiao-Jin and gave him sweets, and that seemed enough for him.” Some of her sharpness falls away and she sounds sincere when she says, “I think he really loved her. He was always kind to her, and even if she had been in a position to grant him any favors, everyone knows Yujin isn’t interested in playing court games. The most Yujin has ever asked of me is if I can find him a copy of a book that he can’t get himself. He really is your son, Da-ge.”

His sister knows more about his son than he does.

He should fix that. Somehow.

When he goes home, Yujin is wearing mourning white and staring at scroll seemingly without reading. He sits across from him and his son startles before he smiles at him. He looks like he’s not getting enough sleep, something that Yan Que should have noticed before now and hadn’t.

“Father,” he greets, his eyebrows pushing together. “What’s wrong?”

“I don’t know you as well as I should,” he says, because he knows it and Yujin knows it and there’s no use in denying it.

He blinks and then frowns. “No,” he agrees slowly, “but some of that is my fault.”

“Yujin,” he says tiredly, because he doesn’t need his son making excuses for him, but Yujin shakes his head and stands.

“One moment,” he says, then has quick conversation with a servant quiet enough that he can’t make out the exact words. He almost asks, but then Yujin says, “Father, come with me. Please.”

He stands, and Yujin leads him to their library, walking about three quarters of the way down before touching a shelf and saying, “I’ve read all of these.”

“On this shelf?” he asks, surprised. He knows his son likes the arts, but that’s an awful lot of dense poetry, most of it with historical and political meanings, although there are volumes that are simply beautiful.

“No,” he says, then gestures down the room. “All of these. I started at the first shelf, and now I’m up to here. I’d meant to read every book we have by now, but sometimes I get interested in something, and I just try and find more information on that instead.” He grins, the first real smile he’s seen from him since Jingrui’s birthday party. “We have quite a few more volumes on the wine making process and the history of several famous distilleries than we did before. Uh, and about half a shelf’s worth more on the Pugilist world. Most of those are from Jingrui. If the spine is red it’s not one we should talk about owning because it will probably make someone angry if they know that we have it. Plus some other subjects.”

When his sister had said that Yujin would ask for her help getting books, he thought she meant the newest drama or obscure musical scores.

He hadn’t expected this.

A servant enters and bows. “Executive Officer Xia Dong is here.”

Before he can get too alarmed, Yujin looks at him and says, “Don’t worry, I asked her to come. There’s something else you should see.”

Xia Dong bows to him when she sees him then turns to Yujin. “Finally done hiding?”

“I wasn’t hiding,” he says, exasperated, and it sounds like the beginning of an old argument between them.

“Don’t let him draw you into a debate about fourth century flinting techniques,” she says, as if that’s the type of thing that ever comes up in normal conversation. “You won’t win.”

“Dong-jie!” he groans, but then he looks her up and down. “Is there something we should be worried about?”

For a moment, Yan Que doesn’t know what he’s talking about, but then he notices the tense way Xia Dong is holding herself and the angry set of her shoulders.

“No,” she says, not very believably, then, “Are we going to fight or not?”

Yujin sighs. “Father, come to the courtyard. Please.”

He wants to question it, because he knows that Xia Dong has been training his son since he was a child, but he also knows that in spite of that tutelage he doesn’t possess any great skill of his own.

Except Xia Dong tosses Yujin his sword and says, “Stop fighting with your bare hands whenever you get into a real fight. It’s worse than if you’d just use your sword.”

“I don’t do it on purpose,” he grumbles. “I just don’t usually carry my sword with me and I don’t like using my enemy’s.”

“Well, I don’t like dead students, so either start carrying a sword or get over that,” she says bluntly. Yujin rolls his eyes, stands straight, and tilts his head in a clear invitation for a fight.

Outside of Xie Yu’s door he’d said he wouldn’t worry about his son if he had Xia Dong’s skill.

He’s not up to that level.

But he’s not much worse than her either.

He’s probably closer to Jingrui than not, and it’s a strange thought, that his son has a skill nearly that of a son of Tianquan Manor, that he can fight and hold his own against Xia Dong, even if not for long.

After, he looks at his son and asks, “Why?”

He shuffles his feet and says, “I didn’t want you to have to worry about me. It’s easier if I’m just what people expect me to be, isn’t it? I don’t get noticed that way.”

Yujin has hid his skills all these years as a way to make life easier for him, because that’s what he thought his father wanted.

He’s a good son.

Now it’s Yan Que has to learn how to be a good father.

~

Gong Yu returns to Miaoyin Court and tries not to feel too lost.

She’s gotten her revenge.

While Xie Yu may still be alive, he’s lost everything, and what’s left of his life will be short and painful. It’s not snapping the neck of the man who took her father from her, but it’s enough. She can stop now.

But she doesn’t know what to do with herself.

She’s loyal to Chief Mei, of course, but even if she could be happy following his orders forever, his health is getting worse, and that’s not something she can depend on.

She got her revenge and all she had to do was destroy two families to do it.

Yan Yujin is kind. The girls love when he comes because he’s always sweet to them and treats them well, they never have to worry about their enjoyment or their safety when they catch the eye of Yan Yujin, and that’s not a small thing, not in a place like this for people like them. He loves music, genuinely, and he’s quick witted and funny and has never done anything but treated her with kindness and courtesy. In return, she’s ruined his best friend and put his life in danger.

Yet, when he’d entered the fight at Marquis Xie’s home, he’d stood in front of her. He’d protected her. He’d just seen her fight, he knew that she wasn’t someone helpless that he was duty bound to help, but he’d done it anyway. He’d pushed four trained guards away from her with no weapon and put his back to her, like he trusted her not to stab it, when she’d just proven she couldn’t be trusted at all.

Then, on the docks, when she’d offered to let the Zhuos kill her, he’d taken a step forward. They’d granted her mercy and he’d relaxed, but she thinks that maybe he would have tried to help her, even then, even though he had no reason to, if they’d decided only her death could make up for their son’s.

With the Grand Empress’s death, they’re not holding any concerts, but people can still get together to drink tea and discuss music, can pour over old scores and entreat the musicians to sit by them and give their opinions. It’s not much, only people truly passionate about their work will show up, but it’s enough to keep the money and information flowing through their hall.

Yan Yujin shows up.

She should have expected it, perhaps, but she hadn’t. There’s a tenseness around his eyes, but he when she sees her, he doesn’t get angry or yell or even act coldly. He greets her as enthusiastically as ever and calls her Miss Gong, as if nothing she’d done to him matters.

She can’t stand it.

When it gets as busy as it’s going to, she corners him in the hallway, and hopes that no one sees them. Everyone knows that she does not go off alone with customers. Why she’s gone off alone with this one would be hard to explain.

“I don’t understand,” she tells him. “Aren’t you angry with me?”

He tilts his head to the side, looking her up and down as if he’s evaluating her in a way that has nothing to do with her looks. “You had a duty to your father. I understand that. You have a duty to Su-xiong. I understand that too.”

He – why is he – he can’t know. She opens her mouth, but he shakes his head, and she closes it.

“If you weren’t there, then things wouldn’t have come to light,” he says gently. “He could have planted you there, he could have just been using you without your knowledge, but I think you’re too smart to be used like that. I think that you would have spoken up sooner if you’d been truly ignorant of Su-xiong’s plan. I know he came along with us here to make it look like you were just another pawn in this game, and I suppose you were, in a way. But you chose this too.”

“Isn’t that more of a reason to be angry with me?” she asks. “I hurt your friend for my own gains and for Sir Su’s. You are a loyal friend. You should hate me.”

“Should I?” he asks, smiling. “I don’t believe so.” He bows to her, and she hurries to return it, but he just says, “We should return before people start asking questions.”

He’s such a strange man.

Such a kind man.

If she had been found alone with him, maybe it wouldn’t have required any explanation at all.

~

When Yujin hears that Jingrui has left the capital with Yuwen Nian, he jumps on their fastest horse and doesn’t look back, determined to catch up with him, determined not to lose him.

Jingrui smiles at him like he doesn’t hate him and Yujin grabs his wrist and yanks him over to his side, refusing to let him get back on that horse and leave them all behind.

Then he explains, that it’s just a visit to honor his father’s dying wish, and the panic starts to recede a little. A visit he can tolerate. It’s not like Jingrui hasn’t gone traveling for long months without him before. It’s never their favorite thing to be separated, but they’ve weathered it just fine before and they’ll do so again. But things are different now.

“There’s something I’ve been meaning to tell you,” he begins, not sure how to say it, not sure even if he can say it with Yuwen Nian standing close enough to overhear them.

He wants to tell Jingrui the truth about Su-xiong, to try and explain that this is about more than just the fight for Prince Yu. It won’t change how much Jingrui has been hurt, but maybe if he knows the truth, maybe if he understands that it’s Lin Shu-gege doing what he feels he has to in order to get Jingyan on the throne, it might hurt a little less.

Except Jingrui isn’t interested in listening. Yujin tells him not to take the actions of the night to heart, hoping to lead him to talking about Lin Shu-gege, and instead he thinks that Yujin is telling him not to hold his family and their pain in heart, to let it go, and he won’t let Yujin interrupt to correct him.

He wants to tell him the truth, but when Jingrui is still like this, still torn apart and bleeding, he doesn’t think it will do him any good. He’s not Su-xiong. He can hold onto the truth for a little longer, until Jingrui is strong enough to bear it.

Tears fill Jingrui’s eyes as he looks away and tells him that he can’t be the person he was before that night, like he expects that Yujin won’t want him anymore, as if Yujin loves only the ease of their friendship and not the person Jingrui is, down to his bones, no matter the circumstances.

Yujin tells him otherwise, that it doesn’t matter if they change, because of course they will, all that matters is that the affection between them does not change. It’s not until he reminds him that they’ve been friends since before Jingrui could walk, that they’ve already changed so much throughout their lives and still stayed by the other’s side, that he breaks. Jingrui laughs and looks at him again and promises not to forget him and Yujin pulls him forward. Jingrui returns his embrace with enough force that Yujin imagines that he can feel all his bones groaning in protest, but he doesn’t complain. Being the person that Jingrui can hold onto is as central to his personality and who he is as being his father’s son.

He doesn’t know what Su-xiong says to Jingrui, only hears the last statement about his pure heart and sees the agonized look on Jingrui’s face.

You did not choose wrongly, he wants to tell him. Lin Shu-gege loves us. It hurts him to hurt you. It doesn’t excuse what he’s done, but do not take it to heart. He is still a good person. You have not misjudged him.

But that’s a conversation that will have to wait until Jingrui returns.

It’s an uncharitable thought, but he hopes the king of Southern Chu dies quickly.

~

Jingrui doesn’t know what to make of his father.

He’s a striking figure even as he’s dying. If nothing else, the features they all share, him and the king and Niannian, make it clear that they’re family. King Yuwen asks him to sit by his side and to tell him stories of his childhood. He asks after his mother with an affection and longing he’d never heard in Xie Yu’s voice.

He talks about Yujin a lot. He doesn’t mean to. It’s just that Yujin has been there for so much of his life that it’s impossible to tell the story of his life without him.

It does not take him long to miss him. He writes his first letter not long after he arrives, including as much detail about his visit as he can, because he knows that if Yujin were able to speak to him, then he’d ask him a thousand questions.

The reply isn’t exactly as he’d expected.

He talks of how he and Uncle Yan will talk late into the night, and how he observes his training with Dong-jie, all good things that let Jingrui breathe a little easier. He talks about their mutual friends and makes only the vaguest references to court matters and doesn’t mentions Sir Su once.

But buried in between the innocuous words is a message, one that’s half code and half references only they could understand.

Tell me more about Yuwen Xuan.

So he does, carefully coding his messages just as Yujin had. He keeps an eye on him, giving him attention that in his grief and the flurry of meeting his father and all the new people of Southern Chu, he hadn’t been able to spare.

Something’s off about him. His words and his actions don’t quite match up, even at home in the palace of Southern Chu.

He’d been too busy to notice before, but Yujin had, picking it up just from his casual comments in his first letter.

It makes him miss his friend that much more desperately.

He can’t forget who he is. He may be the son of King Yuwen, but this place does not hold his loyalty, nor should it. His mother does. His brother. Yujin.

If there’s a threat to them here, he’ll stop it before it starts.

~

Changsu hasn’t seen Yujin since Jingrui’s birthday party and he’s not sure what reception he’ll receive from Jingrui’s best friend.

But Yujin greets him like nothing has changed. There’s a moment there, where he almost seems to want to say something, and then instead makes a reference to the changes time has wrought that makes him wince. It seems as if Yujin has not completely moved on from the events of that night. Except when he brings up Jingrui, instead of digging the wound deeper, Yujin reassures him instead.

He doesn’t have time to dwell on it, because then Marquis Yan is there. He invites Yujin to sit with them. Changsu thought he’d be pleased by that, but instead he just looks nervous.

He quickly understands why.

Yujin hasn’t told his father that Changsu is not truly loyal to Prince Yu. He even tries to change the subject when Marquis Yan questions his attitude. Then he grimaces before bringing up Jingyan, and Changsu almost smiles.

So he’d figured out who Changsu was really supporting and kept that a secret too.

He’s apparently taken his promise not to get involved in Changsu’s political machinations seriously, to the point of keeping them a secret even from his father. Likely because he knew a man who’d been willing to kill the emperor might not be able to keep himself from getting involved if things were not what they seemed.

But then Marquis Yan asks if he’d been part of Prince Qi’s household and Yujin flinches.

It’s nearly enough to distract him from the question. Yujin had figured out that he wasn’t supporting Prince Yu and that he was supporting Jingyan. Is it possible that he’d figured out something more?

No. He can’t have. Yujin knows his father had been loyal to Lin Shu’s father. If he knew the truth, he wouldn’t have a reason to keep it to himself. How would he have stumbled across the truth anyway? None of his people would have told him. It’s a ridiculous thought.

Marquis Yan tries to give Yujin an out. He knows he’s never gotten involved in faction fights, and he doesn’t want to force his hand. Yujin refuses, saying that if his father wants them to support Prince Jing then that’s what they’ll do.

Yujin understands much of what happens at the court without getting involved in any of it.

Part of him can’t help but be curious to see how Yujin will navigate this new role, if he’ll be as clever as Changsu believes him to be.

He hopes so.

Jingyan is going to need good, clever people by his side when he’s emperor. He hopes Yujin can be one of them.

~

Yujin doesn’t like lying to his father.

But he has no proof, and even if he did, he can’t be certain what he would do with it. He loves his father, but there is much that he doesn’t know about him, and he can’t risk Lin Shu-gege’s plan or his life.

He tells Father that he didn’t know Jingyan-ge well and he believes him because he was not there, he wasn’t home when he and Jingrui would go and annoy Jingyan-ge and Lin Shu-gege and Nihuang-jie. Perhaps all Yujin knew was the person Jingyan-ge used to be, but it’s enough. Father’s responses are encouraging, at least.

Maybe he’ll be able to tell him the truth soon. Maybe he’ll be able to pin Su-xiong down and get him to admit who he is properly so he can go to his father with more than the certainty in his heart. He hopes it will be a comfort to him, at least, that his dear friend’s son survived.

He wants to talk to his father and Su-xiong about what’s currently going on in the Southern Chu palace, but he holds himself back. So many things are happening and as long as King Yuwen has breath in his lungs, it’s an issue that can stand to wait.

When Su-xiong tells him to bring Prince Ji to Gong Yu’s home, there’s a problem that he doesn’t think Su-xiong has anticipated.

Prince Ji knows when he’s being manipulated and he knows that Yujin is smarter than he looks.

He cannot bring him to Gong Yu without him figuring out that there’s a deeper meaning to it. Even if he does, Prince Ji will definitely understand what’s happened when he’s forced into whatever plan Su-xiong has for him. He likes Prince Ji. He does not want to make his life difficult, or to betray him, but neither can he put the rescue of Wei Zheng in jeopardy.

Luckily, he’s certain of something else that Su-xiong probably doesn’t know well enough to trust.

Prince Ji is a good person.

When Yujin gets him to send all his servants away, he’s already wary, because Yujin has never done this to him before. So for a single moment, he lets his face slip. He lets his worry and his desperation show before folding it back under a familiar smiling façade. Prince Ji relaxes at that, and there’s a wry twist to his lips as they go through the motions for any of the eavesdroppers that are surely listening in, to make sure their own reputations are safe if word of this conversation were to leak into unsympathetic ears.

But he still goes.

Yujin tries to insist that he go with him to report it to the emperor. He doesn’t say it, but it’s not fair for him to ask Prince Ji to put himself in danger, to risk his brother’s suspicious nature, if Yujin isn’t willing to suffer the same fate.

Prince Ji refuses, giving him a too knowing look before stepping into the carriage. Yujin sighs but lets it go, knows the best way he can protest Prince Ji is to let everyone – Su-xiong and Father and Gong Yu – believe that Prince Ji is ignorant of all their plots and machinations.

No wonder Su-xiong is falling sick all the time. Keeping everyone’s secrets from each other is exhausting.

Although. Father’s smile when he’d suggested they hide Xia Jiang and Xia Chun’s horses as well as their carriage instead of leaving is enough to get rid of the headache building behind his eyes. Father called him clever and meant it and even if their whole plan falls to pieces there’s that, at least.

~

Yan Que knows that his son has spent his life avoiding faction fights and court politics in general. When they make the decision to get involved, he’s grateful for this.

Yujin is good at it. At times, he even seems to enjoy it. If either the former Crown Prince or Prince Yu had managed to secure his son’s loyalty, he thinks Mei Changsu would have had a much harder time when he’d arrived at the capital.

Mei Changsu is something that Yan Que doesn’t quite understand. Specifically, Yujin’s regard for him.

Disregarding everything else, he would have thought that Mei Changsu’s actions towards Jingrui would have been enough to earn him Yujin’s disdain, regardless of what he’s done for their family. Yet he still greets him warmly, still calls him Su-xiong, and holds his opinions in high esteem. He knows that his father doesn’t trust or like him, yet he neither alters his opinions nor attempts to defend Mei Changsu.

It’s strange. It’s as if Yujin knows something about him that he doesn’t, which is entirely possible. His son is smart and used to keeping things close to his chest. It’s possible that this is one of them.

He won’t ask, for now. Yujin hasn’t asked him to change his judgement or explain himself, and so he’ll extend him the same courtesy.

His son has never given him a reason to be suspicious of him, so he won’t be.

~

Yujin is less surprised about Su-xiong being invited to the Spring Hunt than he is that he accepted. He doesn’t join the other hunters because he hasn’t in years, and even when he had, everyone had known it was just because Jingrui was dragging him along with him. Jingrui isn’t here, so there’s no reason to get involved.

Tingsheng is far more interesting. He hadn’t paid much attention to him before, but the way he and Su-xiong are interacting is strange. The other children that helped out in Nihuang-jie’s engagement aren’t here, only him, which means he’s different from the others, and that difference has somehow made him interesting to Su-xiong. He asks him about it after Su-xiong explains the rules of the hunt to Tingsheng, and Su-xiong even admits it that he’s teaching him, which he hadn’t expected. “You’re so biased,” he says taken aback and defaulting to the whining tone he used to bring out to get him out of surprising situations. “You never taught me.”

Su-xiong looks away and asks, “Who was it that first taught you the rules of the hunt?”

Yujin blinks, thinking back. He went on his first hunt young because it was Jingrui’s first hunt too and they’d begged to be able to go together. But he thinks it was – “Lin Shu-gege.”

Su-xiong looks away then, an ache in his expression that doesn’t belong to a Pugilist strategist. Careful, Lin Shu-gege, he thinks. Your true face is showing.

Later, when he hears about the commotion with Su-xiong, Jingyan-ge, and Aunt Jing, it tells him two things. Aunt Jing knows the truth of Su-xiong’s identity and Jingyan-ge doesn’t.

He’s not really sure what to think about that.

Obviously some people know Su-xiong’s identity. Nihuang-jie’s actions are incomprehensible unless she knows who he truly is. Meng Zhi is someone that gets involved in plenty of Su-xiong’s plots, which is another strange thing because he never gets involved in faction fights, so it’s possible he knows too. He hadn’t thought of it really, but if he had, he would have thought that Jingyan-ge had known. Why wouldn’t Su-xiong tell him? How could Jingyan-ge spent so much time with the man who he loves more than anyone else and not know him just because he wore a different face?

He would know Jingrui. If everything familiar about him was stripped away, Yujin would know him just the same.

Whatever the reasoning, Aunt Jing must agree with it, otherwise she would have told Jingyan-ge herself.

Still. Yujin hopes he’s far away when Jingyan-ge discovers the truth. That’s an explosion that he has no interest in getting caught in.

He tries to distract himself by going to Prince Ji, who is normally an excellent companion for ignoring political problems, but instead he asks him a bunch of questions about Tingsheng. Which means that there’s definitely something going on with that kid.

The day is getting close to ending and there’s nothing much else to do, so he goes and makes a nuisance of himself in Su-xiong’s tent. Unfortunately, they’re reading, and Yujin has already read the scroll Su-xiong offers him so it’s very boring. When Su-xiong barks at Tingsheng to sit up straight, Yujin’s own spine snaps in place before he’s even fully registered what Su-xiong has said. It’s a good thing that he already knows his real identity, because if not that would have done it. Lin Shu-gege was always nagging him about his posture and would hit him with his sword sheathe until he was sitting properly.

Su-xiong’s little smirk in response is atrocious. It’s a wonder everyone doesn’t recognize him like that. Then again, people tend to think of Lin Shu-gege as a general and tactician and not a bully to small children and Yujin in particular.

He tries to ask him about Tingsheng again, this time mentioning Prince Ji, which gets him a reaction but no explanation.

No one can blame him for going off with Jinagyan-ge’s people to find a mythical beast.

That’s Gong Yu standing outside of Su-xiong’s tent and that’s another argument waiting to happen that he refuses to get involved in.

~

Changsu doesn’t want Yujin to fight.

He’s one of the few people from the noble households here with any combat experience at all, even if it’s just scuffles with vagabonds on his travels. He’s been trained by Xia Dong. He’s not helpless. But not helpless and ready to fight in a war are very different things.

He could hide with the rest of them. It’s what Changsu had expected him to do. He’s highly ranked enough and untrained enough that it wouldn’t be dishonorable for him to stay with the imperial family, to stay with his father, where it’s safest. The princes are there, and Yujin isn’t a prince, but he’s the Empress’s nephew and Marquis Yan’s son and another person that Changsu doesn’t want to lose. He tries, but Yujin gently dismisses it, not even taking offense like he could, as if he’s trying to be kind to him in this moment.

Changsu hates it.

He feels like history is repeating itself.

Jingrui is off in a foreign land and Yujin is here, in the midst of a rebellion he’s not prepared for.

Jingyan had left a peaceful nation to go to Don Hai and Lin Shu had left to go to war and had as good as died there.

He’s taken so much from Jingrui. If Jingrui loses Yujin like this, when he’s a land away and can’t do anything, when by the time he hears what’s happened Yujin is long dead, it will break him like it broke Jingyan.

It can’t happen again.

He tells Fei Lu to keep an eye on him and hopes it’s enough, that he’ll be able to keep Yujin alive through this battle.

When its over, he finds Fei Lu and tells him he did a good job at protecting Yujin. But Fei Lu huffs and rolls his eyes and says, “Yujin-gege didn’t need much help.” He pauses, then adds grudgingly, “Good at playing.”

He stares.

When he sees Gong Yu, he asks if she’d seen Yujin in the battlefield or if he’d only found her after the fighting had stopped.

She lowers her eyes and says, “He saved my life. I faltered. He stood in front of me and protected me until I could regain my strength.”

He keeps on underestimating Yujin.

~

Sir Su tells him that his son is still alive, but Yan Que can’t breathe properly until he sees him for himself. Yujin is covered in blood and soot, but he’s walking easily as he helps carry the bodies of fallen soldiers. It’s not a task that anyone would ask of a noble and yet he’s doing it without complaint, his mouth pressed together in a grim line to match his grim work.

“Yujin!” he shouts, uncaring of the way heads turn in his direction as he hurries forward.

His son looks over and wipes his hands on his borrowed armor before hurrying to meet him. “Father! What are you doing out here, are you hurt, is something wrong-”

He grabs Yujin by the back of the neck and pulls him in, uncaring of mess it makes of his robes or the uncomfortable armor digging into him. His son’s pulse is strong beneath his fingers and he’s solid in his arms and not a corpse that someone has to pick up and drag to the side.

Yujin returns the hug slowly, his fingers digging into his back. “Father?”

“You’re not allowed to ever pursue a military career,” he says, blinking in an effort to halt the pressure he can feel building behind his eyes. “I forbid it. I’m an old man. My heart can’t take it.”

Yujin laughs, a breathless, choked off sound. “Okay, Father.”

~

Yan Yujin visits her in the medical tent the next day, back in his noble silks with his soft smile, as if he hadn’t been determined and strong and deadly as he stood in front of her with his sword raised. “Miss Gong, you’re looking better,” he says. “You’ll be up and around in now time.”

“Why are you doing this?” she asks. “Why are you here?”

He pauses, glancing around them before leaning forward, his elbows on his knees. “Do you want me to leave, Miss Gong? It’s alright if you do. I won’t be offended.”

She shakes her head. “That’s not what I’m saying. Answer the questions.”

“Aren’t we friends, Miss Gong?” he asks.

“Are we?” she challenges.

He smiles at her again. She doesn’t know what to do with all his smiles. “I think so. We’ve spent so many hours talking of music. We’ve worked together to help people we care about. We’ve spilled blood together. Wouldn’t you think that makes us friends?”

“Why would you want to be friends with someone like me?” she demands.

He lays his hand on her bedside, palm up in a clear invitation. “I like you. It doesn’t have to be more complicated than that.”

She looks at his hand, not sure what he’s asking, what he’s offering. “You never asked,” she says, referring to the months and months he spent coming to see her play before he knew that she was part of the Jiangzou Alliance.

“You never offered,” he answers simply. “I like you. I think you’re talented and interesting. You’re an exceptional fighter. A loyal person. And, of course, you’re very beautiful. It doesn’t have to mean anything. I doubt I’m the first man to fall for you, Miss Gong.”

No, he’s not. But he’s the first to try and protect her. He’s the first to step in front of a blade when she needs it and to step aside when she doesn’t. He knows music so well and he’s so smart and she doesn’t know the type of relationship the daughter of a common assassin could have with a Marquis’s son, but she’d be willing to find out.

Except.

Chief Mei hasn’t completed his mission yet.

“I can’t,” she whispers. “I’m sorry.”

He pulls his hand back, but he doesn’t get angry, or go cold, or leave. He just says, “You don’t need to apologize, Miss Gong. I understand. What did the doctors say about you wound?”

He’s a good person.

She’s not.

But she thinks that maybe she could try to be, if it kept his smile on her.

~

Jingrui hears about Prince Yu’s rebellion three days before he received a letter from Yujin. He spends it pacing and irritable and scared, having to convince himself not to go running back home as quickly as he can. He has to return soon, now. But if Yujin is still alive – he has to still be alive – then he won’t want Jingrui to leave just yet, not until several things are set into motion.

King Yuwen is still alive, although not for much longer.

When he receives Yujin’s letter, he looks at the date first, and the relief at seeing it that it’s from after the rebellion is enough that he needs to sit down before he can read the rest of it.

It’s sparse on the details of the rebellion, of course, but Yujin and Uncle Yan are alive and okay and that’s enough. Instead, the letter is filled with a rambling story reminiscing about a river they used to visit as children.

Part of him thinks that what Yujin is asking him to is too much, that it’s too extreme, that if they’re wrong it could lead to chaos, that no matter what many people will die because of this.

Of course, if Yujin is right and they do nothing, then the death toll will be worse.

He receives news of Marquis Xie’s death and knows that he can’t put it off anything.

He hopes Niannian is ready.

~

There’s not a lot news he can get out of the palace that other people can’t get faster and more accurately, but Yujin has spent a lot time being smuggled into the royal libraries so he could read a book that doesn’t exist anywhere else.

Which means that when there’s a massive search in the library for any and all references to the Poison of the Bitter Flame, he hears about it.

But not for the first time.

He rushes to the family library, frantically searching for the medical text Jingrui had given him several years ago. It’s old and handwritten and had been filled with strange ailments that had seemed more nightmare than reality. Jingrui had apparently won it in a duel.

In it is information about the Poison of the Bitter Flame.

Including how to cure it.

Yujin knows Lin Shu-gege. He’ll lead men to their death for war, and his men will die for him as their general, but knowingly draining the life out of ten loyal men? Impossible. He’ll never do it.

They’ll need to find Bingxu Grass, and the chances of that are slim to none, but not zero. They need a way to get ten people’s worth of blood into Su-xiong without killing ten people and to find a plant that no one ever finds and then just maybe he won’t have to mourn Lin Shu-gege all over again.

If Su-xiong had this illness and is now talking with a normal face, it means that he’s dying. Su-xiong is dying and that’s not fair and Yujin can’t do anything about the unfairness of the world except refuse to give in to it.

~

Gong Yu would never betray Chief Mei.

But Yan Yujin is asking her questions and he somehow already knows so much and he might have a solution and they’re running out of time.

“We have Bingxu Grass,” she says. “But Lin Chen sent people out for a lot of other strange ingredients. I think he’s planning to do something with it. If you want to stop him, so we need to move quickly, and you’re going to need mor than just an idea to convince him.”

~

Jingrui hasn’t been able to leave mother’s side which is why he’s so relieved when Yujin shows up at their door.

“You’re back and you didn’t tell me?” Yujin scowls but before Jingrui can explain he’s being yanked into a painfully tight hug and then patted down for injuries, which is ridiculous since he’s not the one that fought through a rebellion.

Jingrui shoves him back so he can look him over, but he doesn’t look like anything too terrible happened to him, which means that he doesn’t feel bad about punching him in the arm. “I got back yesterday! What took you so long to get over here? You can’t have just heard. You’re a better gossip than that.”

“Miss Gong and I had a conversation and then I had to leave the capital to for a few days to talk to some old friends at some distilleries,” he says, which sounds like a lie but he says it seriously. “I have to tell you something important.”

“Me too,” he says, because this is bigger than his family’s reputation, and everyone is going to know soon anyway.

Yujin must hear something in his voice that sets him on edge because he says, “Alright. You first.”

When he finishes, Yujin is pacing, a fierce look on his face that he doesn’t usually let other people see. “You don’t look surprised.”

Yujin shoots him a look and Jingrui bites the inside of his lip to keep from smiling. “Are you? We’ve always known.”

That’s true. But there’s a difference between knowing and having the cold truth of it laid out before them. “Mother’s going to do it.”

“I know,” he answers. “But this changes things with Southern Chu. If they’re not already in the middle of a war by the time they hear about this, they could decide imperial family infighting is the perfect time to strike against us instead.” He pauses, then adds grudgingly, “I would.”

“So we’ll send a message,” he says. “Things should be underway already. Niannian and Yue Xiuze won’t let them get distracted. It’s just as bad for them if Southern Chu attacks our borders instead as it is for us.”

He shakes his head. “A letter won’t get there in time. What we really need is a messenger bird, but I,” he stops, looking off at something he can’t see.

“Yujin?” he prompts gently.

“There’s a Southern Chu tea trader the next town over,” he says. “Luo Jun. He’s a spy, isn’t he?”

Jingrui has never mentioned his name in his letters. It would have drawn too much attention to him. “How do you know that?”

“His tea isn’t very good,” he answers. “He’ll have a way to get in contact with her, won’t he?”

“Yes, but he won’t listen to you, no matter how many secrets you tell him,” he says. “I’d go with you, but I can’t leave Mother unprotected, even if it’s just for a day.”

Yujin grins, sharp and bright, like how he always is before getting them into interesting bits of trouble. “I know someone who can help with that.”  

~

Lin Chen is about to add the Bingxu Grass to the tincture when there’s shouting from the front of the house.

He puts the bottle down, intrigued when the shouting continues but there’s no sounds of swords being drawn or bodies hitting the floor.

Gong Yu is standing there, head held high and a steely look he’s not used to seeing in her eyes.

Behind her stand a dozen people who don’t look drunk but certainly smell it.

“What’s going on here?” he asks. “Can’t a man work in peace?”

Gong Yu sees him and goes into a deep bow. She has two books in her hands and she holds them out to him. “Young Master Yan has an idea for how to save Chief Mei. Please listen.”

One of the books is his father’s own medical journal, something he’d thought was lost forever. The other is a scientific explanation of the process of strengthening alcohol.

“That Yan Yujin,” one of the old men grumbles. “Who’s ever heard of a distilling emergency? What nonsense.”

“If this is what he wants to call his favor in on, don’t complain about it,” a young woman advises. She throws her shoulders back and looks him in the eye and asks, “What do you need us to do?”

He looks down at the books to the people to Gong Yu and feels real hope start to unfurl in his chest.

“You know,” he says to Gong Yu, “I think I really like this kid.”

She smiles and looks down. “I believe Young Master Yan would like you too.”

He laughs, jams the books under his elbow, and claps his hands together. “Let’s get some paper. We’re gong to have to invent something interesting to get this to work.”

Gong Yu slips out the door, which is strange because he’d have thought she’d want to be here for this, but he doesn’t focus on it. They have medical miracle to figure out and not a lot of time to do it in.

~

Yan Yujin is her friend. She doesn’t understand what could have been so urgent that he and Xiao Jingrui had saddled their horses and left as soon as they saw her, but that doesn’t matter. He’s her friend. Friends help each other.

She has a sword strapped to her back and knives under her sleeves as she bows and says, “Greetings, Grand Princess Liyang.”

Keeping her alive helps Chief Mei too. This is a small favor, between friends.

~

Changsu comes home after Prince Qi and the Chiyan army’s names have been cleared, tired and euphoric and relieved and desperately sad.

Some of that turns to confusion when he sees a dozen drunk strangers leaving his property while loudly arguing about something involving blood and fire.

“Terrible news,” Lin Chen says cheerfully when he sees him. “You’re going to have to live with the consequences of your actions. So sorry.”

He’s exhausted and doesn’t have time for games. He’s about to demand a straight answer when Li Gang comes and says that Jingyan, Meng-ge, and Nihuang are here. He nearly sends them away, not sure how much more he can take today, but Li Gang almost seems nervous so he just gives a tired nod and sits in front of the fire.

All three of them march in and Changsu feels his spine stiffening just from the expressions on their faces.

“Southern Chu is preparing for war,” Nihuang announces, sitting next to him. Lin Chen sighs but makes room for her. “I just got the report.”

Changsu’s eyes widen before they narrow. “It’s impossible for them to have heard of this already. It can’t be why.”

“It’s not,” Jingyan says tiredly, sitting down across from him. “It seems like things started moving after Prince Yu’s rebellion. They must have decided that was a sign of our weakness.”

“Well, they’re wrong,” Meng-ge says angrily. “The Mu Army is as strong as ever. They held the border before and they’ll do it now.”

Qing-er is barely of age. He wasn’t supposed to have to join the battlefield this soon.

Still. “Meng-ge is right,” he says. “This isn’t a war that Southern Chu can win.”

The door is shoved open, causing all of them to look over, and Li Gang says, “Sorry, Chief, they wouldn’t wait-”

Jingrui and Yujin are standing there, windswept and in their traveling clothes. He starts to stand. “Jingrui, Yujin. Is something wrong? What are you doing here this late?”

“Will it work?” Yujin asks intently, looking past him to Lin Chen for some reason.

Lin Chen bounces to his feet and walks over to throw an arm around Yujin’s shoulders. “You. I like you. You should come work for me. Or maybe I should come work for you! This is clever.”

“I know it’s clever,” Yujin says impatiently. “But will it work?”

“Why do so many people involved in the creation of liquor owe you favors?” he asks.

“Look, you two, we’re in the middle of something important,” Meng-ge interrupts.

Lin Chen rolls his eyes. “The war with Southern Chu can wait for a couple minutes.”

Changsu expects the news of war to get their attention, but Yujin waves a dismissive hand. “Southern Chu isn’t important.”

Jingrui winces. Changsu feels dread pool in the bottom of his stomach. He doesn’t know how they could possibly be involved in this, but he knows what Jingrui looks like when he’s guilty. It used to be just of letting Yujin drag him into stealing sweets from the kitchen, but he doubts this will be that small. “What did you two do?”

“That’s not important right now,” Yujin says, as angry as he’s ever seen him. “Lin Chen. Stop playing around. Will it work?”

Lin Chen softens. “I don’t know. No one’s ever don it before. But it’s a good idea. It could work. I think it will work. But I do not know. I’ll try.” Yujin’s shoulders loosen and Changsu is about to demand an explanation for this and Southern Chu and all the rest of it when Lin Chen continues, “Relax, Yan Yujin. You’ve done everything you can for your Lin Shu-gege.”

For a moment, no one says anything at all. He’s not certain anyone is even breathing.

“LIN CHEN!” Meng-ge roars, but Changsu only has eyes for Yujin and Jingrui.

Jingrui stares at him, wide eyed and disbelieving, as expected.

Yujin is looking at everyone else.

He’s checking their reaction. He’s trying to see if everyone here already knows.

“You knew,” he says numbly. “You knew who I was.”

Yujin grimaces but doesn’t deny it. Jingrui looks away from him to turn hurt eyes onto his friend. “You knew he was Lin Shu-gege? Why didn’t you tell me?”

“I tried,” he swears. “But you weren’t ready to hear it before you left and then you came back and we had to work on everything else. I was going to tell you, but then you told me what your mother was going to do, and it’s not like we had much time after that!”

Jingrui frowns before groaning. “That’s what you were trying to tell me before I left? I should have let you finish!”

“It wasn’t the right time,” Yujin repeats.

Lin Chen is clearly enjoying the chaos he’s created, but Changsu can’t focus on that right now. He’s known since before Jingrui left that he was Lin Shu? How? “Yujin. How did you know?”

“I didn’t,” he says. “Great Grandmother did. I spent a lot of time with her. She forgot me a lot, but she never thought that I was someone I wasn’t.”

“That day was enough for you?” Nihuang demands. There’s a look on Jingyan’s face that Changsu doesn’t want to examine too closely. “Just Great Grandmother?”

“Well, no,” Yujin admits. “But once I figured out that he wasn’t supporting Prince Yu, I figured he was actually supporting Jingyan-ge, and if he was supporting Jingyan-ge that only made sense if he knew him. So of course he was Lin Shu-gege.”

There’s a moment of silence, then Lin Chen says, “I think there might be a few gaps in your logic there.”

“Is there?” Yujin challenges. “I was right, wasn’t I?”

“That’s it?” Jingyan asks. “That’s all you needed to know who he was?”

Yujin shrugs. “I mean, once I was paying attention, there were other things. It made sense and nothing else did.”

“You never said anything,” Changsu says.

“You didn’t want me to know,” he answers. “If I’d confronted you about it, you just would have kept lying to me. You being Lin Shu made everything you were doing make sense, so why would I question it?”

Yujin is surprising him. Again. This has to stop happening.

“What do you know about Southern Chu?” Nihuang interrupts. “And what were you talking about with Lin Chen earlier?”

Jingyan and Yujin meet each other’s eyes. Yujin gives a small shake of his head while Jingrui’s mouth thins into a stubborn line, an exchange he saw between them so often as kids that Changsu can’t help the pang of fondness.

“Yujin figured out that Yuwen Xuan planned to start a war against us once he was named king,” Jingrui says. “So I convinced my sister not to let that happen.”

He can’t be saying what Changsu thinks he is.

“So the war they’re preparing for,” Nihuang starts, before cutting herself off, like she can’t bring herself to say it.

“Is against each other,” Yujin confirms. “Princess Nian is rising against her cousin for control of the kingdom. They’re going to be too busy with each other to bother with us. Don’t worry about Southern Chu.” He glances nervously at Jingyan before saying, “This is better. Princess Nian has ties to our country through Jingrui, and she’s even planning to honor her marriage contract to Prince Ning if she wins, which should help settle most of the border disputes. He’ll have to go to her, of course. It’s a little ironic, isn’t it? The one prince who was never going to be eligible to the throne is going to end up as Prince Consort to the Queen of Southern Chu.” He elbows Jingrui in the side. “You and Jingyan-ge are going to be brothers.”

Jingrui grimaces. “Let’s not talk about my family tree. It was complicated enough before all this.”

Yujin snorts, but his smile fades as they all just continue staring at him and the silence stretches out.

“Well,” Lin Chen says. “At least you won’t have to worry about things falling apart while you’re gone. Yan Yujin seems more than capable enough of manipulating everyone for their own good until you recover.”

“Hey,” Yujin protests, but Changsu ignores him to give Lin Chen a hard look. He doesn’t want to hurt everyone by telling them the truth, but giving them false hope won’t help things either.

“Oh, right, I hadn’t mentioned,” Lin Chen continues cheerfully. “It looks like Yan Yujin’s come up with a theory for an alternate cure for the Poison of the Bitter Flame. One that doesn’t kill anyone.” He frowns. “Well, it won’t kill your blood donors. You still might die if it doesn’t work, but that’s never stopped you before.”  

“A cure?” Meng-ge asks eagerly, and then they’re all speaking over each other, demanding more details, while Jingrui yanks angrily on Yujin’s sleave while yelling at him.

He and Yujin catch each other’s eyes, identical grimaces on their faces, and it makes him laugh, the sound coming out of him too loud and startled and unprepared.

~

Chief Mei has to leave the capital both to comply with the emperor’s orders and to receive the treatment that might save his life.

Gong Yu bows before him, pressing her head into the floor, and says, “Chief. My father is avenged and your goal has been completed. I request you allow me to leave the Jiangzuo Alliance.”

There’s a moment of shocked silence. “Gong Yu,” he says. “Sit up. What’s going on?”

She rises enough to settle back on her knees. She meets his gaze squarely, taking a moment to appreciate the concern in his face. “If you won’t allow me to leave, then you must demote me,” she continues. “To belong to the Jiangzuo Alliance is to be loyal to it first before all else. But there is something I want to be loyal to instead.”

He relaxes. “Something? Or someone?”

She doesn’t answer, although her cheeks flare with heat.

“You aren’t a noble,” he says gently. “Things will be difficult.”

“I’m not afraid of difficulty,” she answers.

He smiles at her. “Very well, Gong Yu. I release you from your duty to the Jiangzuo Alliance.”

It doesn’t take her long to find him, arguing with ministers twice his age in a private room in the music hall while Jingrui tries to pretend he’s annoyed rather than charmed. He excuses himself when he sees her and follows her out into the hall. “Miss Gong?” he asks. “What’s wrong?”

She looks at him, tracing the path of his cheekbone to his jaw and his lips with her eyes before holding out her hand between them. “Yujin. I like you.”

His lips part in surprise before they pull back in a blinding smile. He grips her hand in his own, threading their fingers together. “I like you too, Yu-jie.”

It doesn’t have to mean anything if they don’t want it to.

She wants it to mean something.

~

Years pass.

The emperor dies.

Jingyan-ge is the emperor now.

Lin Shu-gege returns to the palace.

The latter he finds out when he’s summoned by their new emperor and he sees Nihuang-jie sitting on one side of him Lin Shu-gege lounging on the other, in light robes and color in his skin and a smirk on his face that usually meant Yujin was going to get thrown into a lake.

He’d said he was doing better in the letters, and Lin Chen had even confirmed it, but it’s different to see him sitting there, looking almost like the Lin Shu-gege he remembered, like how he’d looked on the Spring Hunt before everything had gone wrong.

He doesn’t get thrown in a lake, but it’s just as bad.

“I’m too young to be a marquis!”

He should probably get out of the habit of yelling at Jingyan-ge now that’s he’s really the emperor, but it’s not like there’s anyone else here.

“Well, Xiao-Shu won’t accept the title and someone needs to,” Jingyan-ge says, like that’s a reason to run around giving people titles. “You’ve certainly earned it. For a start, you put a stop to the decades long animosity between us and Southern Chu while protecting us from a war that never got the chance to start. Not to mention all the work you’ve done for me since then. Almost all our ministers have morals these days. I couldn’t have managed that without help.”

“Jingrui helped too!” he protests. “Make him a marquis.”

All three of them share a glance, just like they used to when he was a little kid throwing a temper tantrum. He’s going to throw something if they keep this up.

“I’ll make you a deal,” Nihuang-jie says, leaning forward. He has to resist the urge to take step away even though she’s not close enough to hit him since she’s all the way over by the throne. “If you accept the position, I’ll have Qing-er adopt Gong Yu into our family.”

He’s about to demand what good that will do anyone when Jingyan-ge adds, “I’ll oversee your marriage to her myself. No one will be able to say it’s anything but perfectly proper.”

“Well, they’ll certainly say it,” Lin Shu-gege interjects, “but they won’t be able to do anything about it. Who would be stupid enough to attack a marquis’s wife, after all?”

He opens his mouth, but nothing comes out.

Unbelievable. They’re unbelievable.

~

Jingrui doesn’t know why the emperor has summoned Yujin. Uncle Yan must, because after his son leaves he chuckles to himself and then leaves to go meet up with Minister Cai.

Yu-jie frowns in a way that usually means she’s considering solving her problems with violence. “Didn’t you say you were working on a new composition?” he asks to distract her. Normally he’d offer to spare with her, but when she’s worried about Yujin she’s vicious while he just becomes distracted and they’ve learned from experience it’s a terrible combination.

It’s barely afternoon when Yujin returns, stomping his way through the house so they hear him before they see him. They both turn to face him, Yu-jie settling her hands in her lap and tilting her head to the side.

“Jingyan-ge doesn’t fight fair,” Yujin says viciously. He really has to stop calling the emperor that. One day the wrong person is going to hear him and the emperor is going to have throw him in the dungeon for a few days to keep up appearances.

“Of course he doesn’t,” Jingrui answers instead of telling Yujin something he already knows. “He probably learned it from Lin Shu-gege.”

Yu-jie hides her laugh behind her sleeve and Yujin’s scowl softens. He flops down between them. “I should have just let Lin Shu-gege drown me in the lake and saved myself the trouble.”

“That never would have happened,” Jingrui tells him while Yu-jie laughs outright. “I always saved you.”

Yujin leans over to knock their shoulders together. “Yeah. I know.”

So much has changed since then, since they were children running after Nihuang-jie and Lin Shu-gege and the emperor, but this hasn’t, and those terrible changes have led them here, so he does his best not to regret them too much.

Those terrible changes has given them the promise of a bright future, after all.