“I’m sorry,” Mei Changsu said.
Nihuang shook her head.
“I suppose,” Mei Changsu said, “I thought I was being brave. Doing what was best for you. It felt like it had to be brave because…” His voice shook slightly. “…it was hard. Keeping everything from you—my identity, and then the truth about my condition. It hurt to lie to you, so I thought it had to be the right thing to do. I had gotten into that habit, you know, of keeping secrets.”
“I didn’t ask you to explain yourself to me.”
She hadn’t. In the days after Lin Chen had spilled the beans about how long Mei Changsu really had to live (a few years if he was very careful, a few weeks if he exhausted himself, a few days if he were particularly reckless or unlucky), she hadn’t even brought it up. The first day she hadn’t contacted him. Then the next couple days she had come over to the Su Residence again and again on flimsy excuses and hovered in his vicinity, talking about tangles personal and political, from how best to support Jingyan in his new position as crown prince to how she could keep Mu Qing from getting too exuberant over her recent victory against Prince Yu’s forces. She had not so much as brought up concern over Mei Changsu’s health when he went into a coughing fit, only looked extremely pained.
“You didn’t owe it to me,” Nihuang said. “Just because it hurts me doesn’t mean you owed me anything. I’ve never thought you did.”
Mei Changsu looked at her helplessly. “Nihuang, you have to understand…”
“I cling to the relationship we had in the past. You’ve told me before that couldn’t be our future. You never tried to deceive me in that way.”
She had turned away. Mei Changsu studied her back, the pale gray embroidery on white silk, the way the cloth hung over her body. She was such a mature, elegant woman now. He had heard so many stories about her from the intelligence branch of the Jiangzuo Alliance. Stories of her feats in battle; of her skill in diplomacy, too, dealing with both Southern Chu and Jinling’s politics. He'd known when he heard those stories that feisty, cheerful, practical Mu Nihuang was slowly becoming a different person than the girl she used to be, just as he was becoming someone less and less like Lin Shu.
“I thought about telling you,” he said quietly. “Back when…” He coughed. “After the Chiyan massacre. When I was still recuperating, I came up with a lot of ideas. I thought I might go to you and hide out in Yunnan. You could shelter me while I came up with a way to take revenge and prove my father’s innocence. It wasn’t my worst plan.”
Nihuang turned around. Her eyes were teary. “I would have taken you in. I would have protected you, no matter what it took.”
“By the time I was well enough to travel, to put any plans into action, I knew I couldn’t put you or Yunnan in that kind of position. I had to shut the idea of you away. You had to exist in another world from me—I had to be a person with no relationship to you. That’s who Mei Changsu was, originally. A person with no relation to anyone outside the jianghu. The person I created was a stranger even to myself. I wasn’t alone—I had the Jiangzuo Alliance, and I had Langya Temple and Lin Chen. But there were ties I had to cut off. I know it doesn’t help to hear this when you were one of those ties. At the time it was all I could do, and now… Now I am that person, Nihuang. I am Mei Changsu.”
“I know,” Nihuang said. “I know who you think you are. But you’re still my Lin Shu-gege too. And I still care about you.”
Mei Changsu smiled. It hurt his face. “When I met you again, when I first saw you again—the feelings I had shut away came back. I thought I was right to try to ignore them. But I see now I was being selfish. It’s more frightening to let you in now than to keep you out. But I should have told you the truth. You’re wrong; I did owe you that much.”
“It isn’t about owing,” Nihuang said. “I don’t want you to owe me. I just want—I want everything I can have from you, Lin Shu-gege. Even if it’s just a few years, or a few days. And maybe I couldn’t have protected you back then, but I can now. Please. Let me stay by your side. Let me support you.”
“Well,” Mei Changsu said, “that depends on whether the emperor will keep you in the capital, but…”
“I will stay in the capital,” Nihuang said firmly. “Even if he doesn’t want me to. Your plan is on the verge of success, but you’re still in danger, and your health is poor. I’m staying. I will find a way.”
Willful, steely—all right, Mei Changsu capitulated. This Nihuang really was not so different from the Nihuang of his childhood. Though certain traits had perhaps calcified with time.
Her steady eyes on him made him wince a little. Too much sincerity today. Mei Changsu was tired—Lin Shu, who rarely got any chance to exercise, exhausted—Su Zhe took over in their stead. “We will see. If it comes down to it, come to me before doing anything too extreme. You’re in the emperor’s good graces now, so there’s a good chance he will keep you here after all. The recent rebellion has him wary, while your loyalty is in his eyes secured.”
“Oh, my loyalty is secured,” Nihuang said. “It is securely in the hands of you and Prince Jing.”
Su Zhe smiled politely. “Princess Mu’s support is invaluable.”
Nihuang smiled back, conspiratorial. “I’m glad to see you value it. Then you’ll be pleased to hear I’ll be visiting daily—or whenever I can—for the foreseeable future. I will also be consulting with Lin Chen and Physician Yan on certain matters, and with Li Gang…”
“The Jiangzuo Alliance’s affairs…”
“Can no doubt benefit from my invaluable support. And more importantly, so can you.”
Letting Su Zhe fight Lin Shu’s battles wasn’t going to work after all. Mei Changsu sighed and shook his head. “Do as you please, Nihuang. I can’t say no to you.”
Nihuang outright grinned.
(If there was still a hint of sadness in her grin, neither of them was going to mention it.
Nor did Mei Changsu respond when Nihuang murmured, before leaving, “You do know I forgive you.”
But he was glad to hear it.)