Nie Duo is escorted back to the capital ten days later. Unlike what Wei Zheng predicted, the pugilist friends in the Jiangzuo region were not successful in their rescue attempt. Apparently they were all gathered around the river, ready to strike, when they were stopped by an unknown group of men.
The emperor sentences Nie Duo with a predictable demotion for failing in his duties, all the while placating Lin Shu with many extra army horses and supplies.
Three months later, someone with the name Yun arrives at the Southern borders with brilliant strategies to best the Chu in naval battles, ensuring a swift victory for the Mu forces. The imminent threat of invasion is quickly dissolved.
When Lieutenant Lie Zhanying brings the good news to Prince Jing, he releases an internal sigh of relief as the troubled frown that has been lingering on the prince's face finally disappears. “We have arranged for a substitute to take Nie Duo’s position where he is supposed to be. However, we still haven’t found out the identity of the people who stopped the rescue attempt in the Jiangzuo region.”
“......No matter, it isn’t critical anyway, perhaps it was just some petty pugilist conflict,” Jingyan says, kneading his forehead with one hand tiredly.
“My investigation revealed no major pugilist organization in the Jiangzuo area, there are mostly small groups of rogues. Your Highness, you have been working day and night on the appropriation of war trophies from our victory with the Southern Chu, please take some time to rest,” Zhanying ventures in a concerned voice. “The New Year is approaching, and Her Highness the Consort Jing would also be returning to the palace for the celebrations. She would be saddened to see that you have neglected your health.”
Jingyan gazes at the hand holding the pen over a thick stack of parchments and sighs, “You are right. I barely have time to hold the spear and arrow these days. Prepare the horse, I shall take her out for a ride today.”
Lin Shu opens the envelope from Nihuang to find the latest news from the front lines along with the usual greetings. There is also an unsigned letter in the same delivery, written in Nie Duo’s unmistakable scrawl, asking Lin Shu to keep his Chiyan bracelet for the foreseeable future. The captain has filled a whole page with naval battle strategies and details of how they defeated the Chu army, adding with emphasis at the end, ‘Our swift victory was only possible thanks to the ideas of Sir Mei Changsu.’
There is no mention of Jingyan anywhere in the letter, but upon reading the name Mei Changsu, Lin Shu immediately pieces everything together. Wei Zheng, who is reading over Lin Shu’s shoulder, says in a bewildered voice, “So we misunderstood Prince Jing…..”
The letter crumbled into a tight ball in his hands, Lin Shu presses his lips together and does not utter a word.
At night, Zhen Ping opens the flaps to enter the tent, only to be hit in the face by a waft of alcohol. Lin Shu is never one to overindulge in the army, but today he is totally drunk. Everybody has tried to talk him out of it, yet he just continues to down one glass after the other, eyes red and wild.
“Zhen Ping….” his voice muffled. “Do you think I was wrong?”
Lin Shu realizes that the other person would never gossip about an imperial prince in front of him, so he switches tactics, “You were pensive when we returned from the inn that night, did you find something odd?”
Zhen Ping startles, not realizing that his slightly off behavior was picked up by the Vice Commander. He did find it odd. That night, both he and Lin Shu were masked, and Lin Shu never addressed him directly by name, yet the Prince had so accurately identified him. Although he has been in the Chiyan army for a while, he has never had direct interactions with Prince Jing. How was it possible that the Prince recognized him with just a silhouette, instead of mistaking him for Lieutenant Wei Zheng, who is the one by Lin Shu’s side most of the time?
Without evidence, it would be meaningless to bring his suspicions to Lin Shu, but since he was asked, Zhen Ping replies instead, “When His Highness said that another envoy had already escorted Nie Duo back to the capital, I wondered why he wasn’t concerned about possible rescue attempts from Nie Duo’s pugilist friends along the river. Then it turned out that the attempt was intercepted by another group of men. Perhaps...perhaps Prince Jing had pugilist support all along…?”
Lin Shu glances at Nie Duo’s open letter on the table and murmurs, face disturbed, “Must be him.”
“Zhen Ping, I must find this Mei Changsu person.”
“He is pushing Jingyan over the precipice!” Lin Shu shouts with barely restrained anger. “I don’t know how he managed to convince Jingyan to fight for the throne, but if he is as brilliant as rumored, he must know that Jingyan is not as tolerant nor mature as Brother Qi, he is not suited to be emperor! There are people who would gloat at having the kingdom at their feet, while others would find it too heavy a burden to carry. The latter would become capable rulers, but would not be happy doing so.”
He adds in a small voice, “And I cannot bear to see him unhappy.”
Jingyan has been on bed-rest after catching a nasty cold when he went horseback riding that day. Many nobles and friends have sent gifts along with get-well wishes, even Prince Qi sent along some precious medicinal ginseng. Yet the Prince himself could not make time to come.
In this rare period of respite, Jingyan leans against the headboard with a cup of tea in hand, while the other reaches for the battered travel journal, Xiang Di Ji. It came to him amongst many other books he asked for three years ago, when he was recuperating from the emperor’s punishment. Lin Shu, who barely left his residence during those months, would come and read the book with him whenever he was tired from swordplay. He would also transcribe Jingyan’s notes into the book, since the other boy’s injuries kept his hands weak.
“How come I don’t know that you’ve been to those places? You are not making all this up right?” Lin Shu had asked him, “You’d be making a fool of yourself if someone finds loopholes in your notes, and I’ll just say I had nothing to do with it!”
Jingyan replied casually, “A friend of mine likes to travel around, he’s told me a lot of stories.”
Lin Shu’s face darkened in a scowl when he realized which “friend” Jingyan was talking about, “Hmph, you certainly have an infallible memory when it comes to this friend’s tales, how come you never displayed any of this amazing talent when our teacher was beating you with his ruler for not remembering the textbook?”
“We were young at the time.”
He remembered the notes so well from this book because he was so curious about what secrets it harbored that he spent days copying all its contents over and over again. Even after he ascended the throne, he would flip through it from time to time.
He dictated word by word, watching Lin Shu’s pen move swiftly across the pages.
Lin Shu paused when he heard the words “Zhen Ying waterfalls,” and raised a hesitant eyebrow, “Can you write this part instead?”
Jingyan looked at him baffled, and the other boy explained with a laugh, “It is the same as my Mother’s maiden name, and I always reduce a few strokes when I write it, out of respect for her.”
“.......” Jingyan fell into a silent daze, then smiled as if finally relieved.
“What’s wrong?” came Lin Shu’s curious question.
“Nothing, just realized something that has been bothering me for a long time.”
Coughing softly, Jingyan flips the book to that very page, his fingers caressing the inked words.
This must have been the clue that made Mother suspicious of Xiaoshu’s identity all those years ago. If he was a bit more observant, would things have been different?
He takes another sip of the ginger tea, feeling its warmth spread across his body, and closes his eyes with the book cradled in his arms.
In his dream, ten years have gone by.
Lots have happened in those ten years: the Xuanjing bureau has been eliminated, Xie Yu demoted, and the Southern Chu declared defeat.
Brother Qi is already the Crown Prince, surrounded by a group of highly competent officials, including Shen Zhui in the Ministry of Revenue, Cai Quan in the Ministry of Justice.
Lin Shu is still the same Lin Shu, his features barely changed from ten years ago, or perhaps he’s gotten a little taller. There is no Jiangzuo Alliance, no secret passage between the House of Su and Prince Jing’s residence, and no more Sir Su, whose pale face always lit up in a smile when he saw Jingyan.
Five years ago, Lin Shu and Nihuang were married. The wedding between the Vice Commander of the Chiyan army and the Princess was the most extravagant spectacle the capital had seen in ages; there were flowers lining the streets and miles of marching musicians playing a symphony of happiness.
The thirteen-year-old Tingsheng is already quite proficient in archery; he caught a deer during the Spring Hunt and presented it happily to Prince Qi. Lin Shu made roasted venison for everyone.
Mother and Noble Consort Chen are chatting softly under a blossoming photinia tree, their faces soft and content.
Jingyan stands at a distance from the crowd, silently observing. A man in blue robes is next to him, his eyes peaceful and warm when he looks at Jingyan, “This time around, have you fulfilled all of your wishes?”
“Your Highness, it’s time to go.”
Jingyan opens his eyes in the darkness of his room, the bright sunlight from his dream still a fresh vision.
His body aches from the fever he has had for the past few days. The ginseng from Prince Qi lies unattended on the table, the half cup of ginger tea has long gone cold, and the only illumination comes from the lanterns in the garden, their flickering light filtering through the window panes.
Xiang Di Ji is still loosely held in his hand, open at the same page, though the handwriting is not what he remembers from the past.
He opens his mouth, about to say that he just had a really nice dream, that everyone in the dream is really happy. Yet his lips tremble without making a sound.
Because there is no one by his side to hear the words.