When Nie Duo took the task to transport army horses to Lin Shu, he decided to take the water route along the river. Much to his trepidation, in just one night, half of the horses mysteriously disappeared, and the ships were left completely empty. He immediately sent his men to investigate, but to no avail-- even pirates would have left some traces, not to mention that pirates in this area were on friendly terms with him.
As the deadline neared, Nie Duo had to travel with the rest of the horses on land. When Lin Shu heard about what happened, he urged Nie Duo to purchase whatever he could from the local vendors to replenish the loss, buying them some time to mitigate the situation. Unfortunately, the emperor received news within days.
Early this morning Lin Shu receives word of Jingyan's arrival. Barely able to contain his excitement, he steps outside in fresh clothes to wait for his friend, only to be stopped by a courier’s message. His expression darkens at the contents, and he storms straight back to the tent. His lieutenant Wei Zheng shakes his head imperceptibly at the others, stopping their curious questions.
The letter bears the latest intel that Prince Jing opposed Lin Shu’s proposal to go to the South to support the Mu army, and that the Noble Consort Chen as well as Consort Jing would be leaving the palace soon for health reasons.
Lin Shu throws everything in his room onto the ground in a fit of incredulous rage. As they shatter into innumerable pieces, he feels his heart sinking. Not being physically in the capital in the past couple of years does not mean he has been completely isolated from its happenings. Words of Jingyan’s sudden rise in the power hierarchy have reached his ears despite the distance. Although the prince was not directly in charge of the selection process for new officials, many candidates he proposed made it to various positions in every ministry. By contrast, thanks to the opportune uncovering of several scandals, quite a few staunch supporters of Prince Qi have been demoted, jailed, or executed.
Even Prince Qi has noticed Jingyan’s rising presence in the court. He is still kind to his younger brother, but there is no longer the unconditional trust that colored their previous relationship. Private interactions between the two also became more and more scarce; for Prince Qi’s birthday this year, Jingyan prepared a generous gift but did not attend the celebrations in person, claiming to be busy with patrol duties.
On political matters, Jingyan would still act as the mediator whenever Prince Qi and the emperor differ in opinion, but his approach has subtly yet irrevocably changed. He still abides by the law, but is no longer stubborn or inflexible.
For one, he disagrees with Prince Qi on his stance to eliminate the Xuanjing bureau of investigation.
Many are surprised by his sudden and aggressive emergence in the court politics, and quite a few have flocked to his camp-- although he is not backed by a powerful maternal clan, he has clearly gained the emperor’s favor. Other officials who are not supporters of Prince Qi are also beginning to see the benefit of working with Prince Jing. For example, while Prince Qi’s words are often challenged by the emperor, the same proposal coming from Prince Jing’s hand can easily get the imperial stamp of approval.
With Noble Consort Chen and Consort Jing away from the palace, Prince Xian’s mother Consort Yue has become the most favored woman in the Inner Palace. However, even with their mothers’ prominent positions, neither Prince Xian nor Prince Yu can hold a flame to Prince Jing’s rapidly rising power in the court.
All of these pieces added together are pointing at a truth that Lin Shu does not wish to admit.
As the emperor’s envoy, Prince Jing arrive at the military base at Bianzhou with an entourage behind him. Lin Shu is already outside waiting with his soldiers.
Since the prince comes bearing an imperial decree, Lin Shu must greet him with proper etiquettes as a subject.
The sound of his knees hitting the soft sand beneath their feet makes Lin Shu’s heart clench. Jingyan’s hands give a twitch around the reins.
After reading the decree, Jingyan hands the scroll to Lin Shu, “I cannot stay for long, bring Nie Duo here.”
Lin Shu’s expression shutters, “......Come with me.”
Lin Shu bids everyone to wait outside the tent and turns to face his friend, “Jingyan, listen to me…”
“Where is Nie Duo?”
“He’s been framed!”
“I am still investigating!”
“Alright, continue with the investigation, but I must bring Nie Duo back to the capital,” Jingyan says without much emotion.
“Is this the emperor’s order?”
“And Brother Qi? Did he also agree to this?” Lin Shu presses.
“...That’s not important.”
Jingyan glances around the tent and his eyes fall on the letter Lin Shu was reading before his arrival. He feels his throat closing up. All those years ago, Mei Changsu sacrificed everything to protect him. Now, when he is in a similar position, he wishes to do the same for the other person. He wants Lin Shu away from the machinations of the court not only because it would lessen the emperor’s suspicions, but also to preserve Lin Shu’s innocence.
Last time, Mei Changsu was willing to die as Lin Shu because he couldn’t live as him.
This time around, when Jingyan has been bestowed the gift of time, he would do whatever it takes to grant Lin Shu that wish. He would never allow him to become Mei Changsu and to be stained by those sordid and unspeakable things.
For the sake of Lin Shu, Brother Qi, Mei Changsu, and himself.
“But this whole thing is suspicious! Nie Duo was transporting supplies to me, not to the front lines of the South! If the enemies did this, they would’ve taken the whole batch, not just a part of it! There is only one explanation, whoever did this, their only aim was to frame Nie Duo!” Lin Shu rushes to explain, his face urgent, “Plus I already purchased enough to make up for the loss, I don’t know how His Majesty knew so quickly….”
“I told him.”
Stunned into silence, Lin Shu takes several seconds to register Jingyan’s words.
“YOU told the emperor about Nie Duo?? Why?”
“He has already committed negligence, and I, as the overseer of all military supplies, cannot turn a blind eye to it! Even if I didn’t say anything, you think no one else would have?”
“I have already made up for what was lost!” Lin Shu retorts angrily.
“Those horses were imperial property, and this is a military matter!” Jingyan corrects him without hesitation, “I am not arresting him, just taking him back to the capital for questioning. If he is truly innocent, I will make sure justice is heard.”
“Xiao Jingyan! Don’t you dare fool me with your political wish-wash! We both know that Nie Duo would not even have the chance to speak if he is sent back to the capital! And don’t you talk to me about military matters, you think I want to be cooped up in this god-knows-where while the real battlefield is elsewhere?! Nihuang is risking her life on the Southern border, even if I cannot go, why don’t you request to go?! Even if you have cut all ties of our friendship, how can you sit idly while a mere eighteen year-old girl is fighting against foreign invasion?” Lin Shu can no longer contain his anger, the thought of Nihuang all by herself in the midst of danger and his own helplessness make all of his frustration bubble to the surface.
“What I’ve heard the most about you in the past couple of years is that you have changed,” Lin Shu takes a clear step back, out of the boundary of friends and into the territory of ruler and subject, “and they are right.”
As soon as the words leave his mouth, both Lin Shu and Jingyan are taken aback. They hold each other’s gaze for a brief moment before Jingyan drops his eyes and walks out of the tent, Lin Shu’s outstretched arm behind him.
The emperor has sent a few men in Jingyan’s entourage to make sure that he does his job properly. They are used to this kind of tasks-- surveillance in the name of protection-- but this time they nearly die of exhaustion. They have traveled without stop from the capital to Lin Shu’s base, and the prince turns right around with the suspect in tow for a relentless march back to the capital. Even Lin Shu has not said a thing to stop him.
It’s nearly sunset when they finally stop at an inn for the night.
Lie Zhanying enters Jingyan’s room with a plate of dinner, saying, “If Your Highness wishes, I can go back to explain things to Vice Commander Lin Shu.”
Jingyan shakes his head, “... There are so many things you cannot explain. Tell me, are you also confused by my decisions?”
Zhanying replies firmly, “Although I am baffled by certain things, I believe that Your Highness have the same intention as always.”
Jingyan lets out a humorless laugh, “You do, but he does not.”
“I have seen what the Vice Commander has not seen. I have witnessed the sleepless nights and struggles Your Highness has gone through,” says Zhanying by way of explaining, hoping that Lin Shu would understand if he knew the truth, “May I ask, why did Your Highness tell His Majesty about Nie Duo?”
“It is not a coincidence that he lost the horses. Since someone plotted the whole thing, they would not let the incident pass peacefully. Now that the Southern border is deeply embroiled in battle, and the Western border is under constant threat from the Yu, Nie Duo’s mistake is a bait, if Lin Shu acts impulsively, His Majesty would immediately conjure up a conspiracy theory that would implicate the Chiyan army.”
It is for this very reason that he cannot join the Southern battles. The emperor’s growing trust in him is built heavily on the confidence that he does not yet control an army, if he commands a troop to support the Mu forces in the South, he would no doubt lose his precarious position in the emperor’s heart.
Another reason, which Jingyan does not share with his vice commander, is that Nihuang’s men are not adept at naval battles. This time the war with the Chu erupted almost ten years earlier than in his previous life. Her armies risk defeat if no help arrives soon, and the borders would be breached.
Last time, Chief Mei Changsu was the one to send Wei Zheng to help Nihuang. But there would be no Mei Changsu this time, and Wei Zheng is still Lin Shu’s sergeant, they cannot be easily separated.
Thankfully there is Nie Duo who is also well-versed in naval battles.
As respected captains in the Chiyan army, Nie Duo and his brother Nie Feng have long incurred the emperor’s suspicions for their military prowess. With the incident of military supply loss, the emperor would no doubt send Nie Duo away from the capital as a punishment, then Jingyan can have his chance to send him to the South to help Nihuang.
But how can he tell anyone about any of this? Especially to Lin Shu? Jingyan clenches his fists tightly enough that his nails are digging into his palm.
He knew this day would come. Yet now it has really come, it still hurts like nothing else. These past couple of years he kept having nightmares, in which Lin Shu’s eyes are staring at him, accusing and disappointed. Now in wakefulness, those eyes are truly looking at him.
Eyes that belong to the person that he has loved from a very, very long time ago.
The same person that now looks at him like a stranger.