Three years later.
The now six-year-old Tingsheng is beginning to learn archery and horseback riding. Prince Qi watches fondly as his son shoots every wooden arrow precisely into the bullseye; it seems like only yesterday when he was watching the young Jingyan and Lin Shu perform the same exercises. And now, Lin Shu has been stationed at the Northern borders for the past three years, and Jingyan...though they see each other frequently, there is no longer any material for conversation.
Nihuang is past her mourning period, and the Grand Empress has brought up her marriage with Lin Shu again to the emperor. Lin Shu’s mother has also urged him on numerous occasions. Yet the two people involved seem utterly disinterested-- one of them working in the North, and the other one defending the South. Prince Qi remembers that when Lin Shu first received news of his betrothal years ago, he insisted on arranging for an appropriate match for Jingyan as well. They would get married on the same day and parade the city together. Then, whenever Prince Qi teased the two boys about marriage, Jingyan would become really quiet and storm off.
Tingsheng lowers the bow and exhales deeply. It’s been six years since he last wielded a bow, his skills have truly become rusty. He’s done the exercise ten times today, and his Mother hurries over to wipe sweat from his face, gushing with compliments. Not hearing any word from Prince Qi, Tingsheng turns around and finds the man staring at him with a distant expression.
They are probably both thinking about the same person.
He used to wield a steel bow with ease and was always the one to present the largest bounty to his Father during the Spring and Autumn Hunts.
“I made that little wooden bow you are using when I was your age,” Prince Qi finally says. “You are doing very well. Your Uncle Jingyan also learned archery in this very place.”
His Mother’s face darkens at the mention of Jingyan. Last winter, a team of ambassadors from the Southern Chu came to the capital and exposed the true identity of Xiao Jingrui. Although it was not widely known, it was still a scandal that involved foreign dignitaries and was a serious affront to the royal family. The emperor himself did not pass down any punishment, but the Xie and Zhuo families have completely severed ties, and Princess Li Yang moved into her own manor with the children. Since then, the house of Xie and Tianquan Manor have rapidly lost their influence in the capital and the pugilist world.
Princess Qi has heard from one of her maids that the girl who accused Xie Yu of hiring assassins used to frequent Prince Jing’s residence.
“It’s thundering,” Tingsheng says.
“Yes,” Prince Qi smiles hopefully at the low thrum of distant thunder, “we should have plenty of rain this year, let’s hope it bring a bountiful harvest.”
“You are going to inspect the local farmlands?” asks Tingsheng.
“Indeed. His Majesty has taken ill, so the duty falls to me. I am not going far, only for two or three days. The Grand Empress is also feeling under the weather, remember not to go bother her these few days.” Prince Qi smiles contently at his son who nods obediently and returns to his archery practice. It is hard not to love the child, he really is perfect-- he is always vivacious without being troublesome, obedient yet not timid. Everyone from the emperor and the nobles to the servants dotes on him incessantly. Especially after the pond incident three years ago, they are still haunted by the fear of losing him, and have poured more and more affection into him. For one whole year afterwards, Tingsheng received the medicated oil massage several times a day, and as a result, does not have any lingering problems from the fall. Jingyan, however, would often suffer from painful joints during the colder months.
Yet even with this kind of undivided attention, Tingsheng has grown into the most respectful and humble child of his generation, without any of the arrogant ego found in many other noble boys.
The family’s peace and quiet are disrupted when a guard hurries towards them with an ashen-faced maid.
“Your Highness, the young Prince’s nanny cut herself with something when she was organizing his things. She’s fainted and won’t wake up! Looks...looks like she was poisoned!” The maid prostrates herself on the ground and stutters.
The warmth on Princess Qi’s face vanishes upon hearing those words, and she demands in a harsh voice, “Which object cut her?”
“It...it was the steel-woven vest of the young Prince.”
The arrow that Tingsheng was aiming at the bullseye suddenly veers off course and embeds itself into the crimson pillar on the side.
Jingyan receives a message today from Prince Qi’s manor, saying that the Princess Qi would like to invite him for a visit. When he enters the house and realizes that Prince Qi is still away and Tingsheng is studying in his room, doubt begins to form in his mind.
He finds the Princess in the side hall, surrounded by a few of her maids playing string instruments and chatting casually about flowers. She smiles when she sees him and bids him to sit down at a nearby table. Nothing seems out of the ordinary.
“Jingyan, Chengting has started learning the art of archery these days, and he is using that same wooden bow your Brother Qi made for you. He always holds you very close to his heart, and has kept that bow for all those years,” says the princess warmly, “our manor used to be so lively with you and Xiaoshu here. But these past few years, Xiaoshu is far away, even you do not come often anymore.”
She casually glances up at him to gauge his reaction and continues, “Thankfully we still have Chengting here to keep us company, otherwise it would be so lonely!”
“Chengting is a smart and polite child, everyone likes him a lot,” Jingyan agrees.
“Yes. Three years ago when he fell into the pond, it was you who jumped in to save him despite the freezing waters. I hear that you still have knee problems. Your Brother Qi has always felt guilty for it.”
“Brother Qi has sent me many precious herbs and remedies already. It is nothing serious, in fact with a bit more time it will be cured completely,” Jingyan says calmly.
“That’s good to hear, otherwise your Brother Qi would always be worried when it snows,” the princess pushes a plate of hazelnut cookies towards Jingyan and urges him, “Try some, I made them myself.”
The movement of her arm catches the corner of a box on the table, causing it to tip over and spill its contents on the ground. Jingyan notices that the maids don’t seem inclined to pick it up, so he crouches down to grab it, only to see the steel-woven vest he gave to Tingsheng years ago. His hand falters.
“I remember that you gave Chengting a vest like this for his first birthday. I cannot be sure if this is the same one, why don’t you open it to see?” asks the princess.
Slightly baffled by her request but decides to do it anyway, Jingyan shakes the garment open then gasps in surprise. When his hand passes by the collar, something sharp nicks him and blood wells from the small wound. Startled, Jingyan brings the vest closer to inspect it, and much to his consternation, finds a thin blade hidden in the collar. His heart stops as he realizes its implications. The blood stain on his finger seems to extend all the way to his heart, weaving a crimson net of pain around the still beating organ. Jingyan suppresses a bitter smile; so this is why Princess Qi invited him today. Judging by her accusatory attitude, she most likely already has a conclusion in mind; whatever he says now would be deemed as guilty excuses. Jingyan forces himself to quell the rising nausea and focus on the matter at hand, he must find out who is trying to harm Tingsheng. “This is the vest I gave him,” he admits quietly.
The Princess covers her mouth in feigned surprise, “Really? Then why is there a sharp blade on the collar?”
“I inspected it thoroughly before giving it to him, the blade was most definitely not there. May I ask where it is stored and who usually takes care of it?”
A maid answers, “It is stored along with the other clothing of the young prince. Due to His Highness’ young age, he has never worn it.”
“Then how did you find out about the blade?”
“The nanny cut herself on it when she was organizing the items.”
“And where is she now?” Jingyan presses.
“Your Highness does not know?” The maid throws the question back at him.
“How would I know?” Jingyan replies with a scoff, his voice not raised but a steely quality has entered it. The maid takes a step back in submission, her lips trembling. The Princess answers instead, “She was poisoned and is still in a coma.”
So the blade was poisoned, yet he is still fine despite being cut just like the nanny. It would mean that they had the blade changed with the sole intention of testing him. Jingyan’s hand hangs limply by his side, the blood dripping onto the ground silently.
“I see. Princess, so you called me here to convict me today,” Jingyan says softly, as if to himself.
“Jingyan, I wanted to trust you, but I was so afraid---”
“If you believe me to be guilty, then please feel free to submit the vest and the witnesses to either the Ministry of Justice or the Xuanjing Bureau for investigation,” Jingyan stands and bows a goodbye. “That is all. Please excuse me.”
“Your Highness!” The same maid who answered earlier calls after him, “May I be so bold as to ask, when the young prince fell into the pond that time, was Your Highness the only person present besides the maid who died of poison?”
Jingyan stops dead in his tracks. Not because of what the maid just said-- it really doesn’t matter whether it was her own curiosity or a question the Princess wanted her to ask-- but because he suddenly sees Tingsheng’s figure behind a pillar.
The child who would always rush towards him with a huge smile on his face whenever Jingyan visited him in the Servants Prison, the one who would always beg him to help him practice swords or play a game of go, the one who was the last person by his side on his deathbed, the one who called him “Father,” and the one he is willing to protect with all of his life...
That child would hate him now.
Suddenly, Jingyan feels as if he is drowning in an endless expanse of freezing waters, and for the first time regrets his choices in this life.
Brother Qi, Xiaoshu, Mother…….and now Tingsheng…they are all gone.
After Jingyan has left, Tingsheng walks out from his hiding spot. He ignores the chaos in the hall, his Mother’s soft cries and the maids scrambling to comfort her. He crouches down in front of the dark crimson spot by the table, staring at it with unblinking eyes.
Prince Qi has been worried about the situation at home during his entire trip. As soon as the inspection was over, he left a few trusted men to take care of the aftermath and hurried back to the capital.
The first person he sees when he enters the manor is a puffy-eyed Tingsheng.
His heart gives a sudden lurch, he hasn’t seen the child cry since his infant years. Lifting his son into his arms, Prince Qi inquires about what happened, and the child answers with barely restrained misery, “F-father, I really like that woven vest, please do not let Mother send it to the Xuanjing Bureau!”
“What did you say?” Prince Qi is shocked. He had to leave for the inspections right after the nanny was poisoned, so he left a brief but firm order to investigate it within the household and not to publicize it. How would his son know about it and what is this about the Xuanjing Bureau?
“What happened?” He turns to the maids who were about to go find the Princess and demands in an icy tone. “Tell me!”
Never having seen the usually good-natured Prince so enraged before, the maids fall onto their knees and hurry to explain, “This afternoon the Princess invited Prince Jing for tea, and brought out th--the vest, and asked the prince about it.”
“Then what of the Xuanjing Bureau?”
“Prince Jing said it himself. He said that if Your Highness truly suspects him, then please let the Xuanjing Bureau investigate…….” Her voice trails off in apprehension.
“Do you not remember who saved my son three years ago when he fell into the pond on New Year’s Eve??” Prince Qi bites out the harsh question to a roomful of trembling servants, their heads bowed low and no one dares to make a sound.
Then Tingsheng says quietly, sniffling, “That maid...she asked Uncle Jingyan today that when I fell into the pond, was he the only person there besides the poisoned maid?” The child pronounces each word with precision, his dark eyes trained on the pale face of the kneeling maid.
Princess Qi arrives at the scene at that moment. As a smart woman, she had her own suspicions, but a mother’s instinct did not allow her to overlook any possible threat to her son. The testimonies of the nanny and the maids, plus what she has heard of Jingyan in the past few years, made it difficult not to suspect him. She knows perfectly well that her husband would not allow her to interrogate Jingyan the way she did. Before conducting any investigation, he had already dismissed the possibility of Jingyan’s involvement. He’s forbidden anyone to report the incident to the Ministry of Justice and any attempt to question Prince Jing’s staff. He has been always like this, unable to tolerate any derogatory comments towards Jingyan.
Yet how many times has Jingyan betrayed his brother’s unconditional support and trust in these past years?
The only way to eliminate her suspicions was to ask him herself. However, the moment that Jingyan picked up the vest with no hesitation and cut his finger on the blade, her doubts were mostly extinguished. She had crafted her every question carefully to make sure that no word sounded overly accusatory. Except she did not anticipate what the maid said at the end.
There are so many things still left to be explained, yet she cannot formulate anything before her husband climbs onto his horse with their son in his arms.
Before he leaves, he turns to her and reiterates the same thing he has told her numerous times before, which seems like she will never truly understand, “Jingyan is my brother.”