Prince Qi and his son arrive at Prince Jing’s manor and are led into the halls by Zhanying. Prince Qi inquires about how Jingyan has been recently and patiently listens to Zhanying’s detailed replies. The normally obedient child seems rather agitated as he struggles out of Prince Qi’s hold and sprints into the inner rooms.
Jingyan has just finished verifying the list of arrested Hua people against Mei Changsu’s original roster, and a sudden realization hits him. All the Hua spies they have named were active only after the Chiyan conspiracy. If there was anyone undercover in Prince Qi’s home before then, they would have gone undetected. With Princess Xuanji dead, and there is no Qin Banruo nor her Hongxiu Court yet, those two spies in Prince Qi’s residence must be scrambling to commit something rash.
Jingyan silently berates himself for not having noticed it earlier, and writes a brief order for one of his subordinates to investigate. The man bows in acceptance, then hands Jingyan a letter from Nihuang in the South.
‘I have received word of recent attacks from Da Yu on our borders, and that Lin Shu-gege received various injuries. He told me it was nothing serious, yet I cannot help but worry. There are a thousand miles between the North and the South, months would go by before my letter reaches him again. The capital is where the Divine Ruler resides, thus the center of all information channels. I beg you to pass me the latest news on his health. -Gratefully, Nihuang.’
He didn’t even know that Xiaoshu was injured in the battles against the Yu. There are too many things left unsaid in those simple words of “received various injuries.” What Nihuang does not know is that the last time he and Xiaoshu exchanged correspondence was six months ago, and it was a sad pretense of a letter. When they were younger, every time they parted, Lin Shu would write a thick stack of letters to Jingyan and the other boy would send his reply back on the same day. Wei Zheng often teased Lin Shu that he wrote more letters to Jingyan than Nie Feng wrote to his wife.
Jingyan writes Lin Shu’s name on the envelope, then falls silent when he opens a parchment to write the letter, his hand suspended in midair. In the past life, after Lin Shu died at age nineteen on Cliff Mei, Jingyan spent years in the desolate borders on a self-imposed exile. Whenever he woke up to the howling winds outside the tent, he would be plagued by images of the burning fire on Cliff Mei, and then the scene would change, his mind conjuring up illusions of a world without the Chiyan conspiracy, with Xiaoshu still alive and healthy. He would dream about what would become of him and Xiaoshu, what they would look like, where they would go and what kind of beautiful scenery they would see together.
He dreamt of so many wonderful things.
Yet in this life, he has nothing left to say with the twenty-five-year-old Lin Shu.
Tingsheng watches from the door as Jingyan stares at the empty letter in front of him, his silhouette barely discernible in the low light of a single lamp. He looks like a plum tree at the end of its years, its leaves all but gone and the only thing keeping it upright is its fiery strength. With a shout of “Uncle Jingyan!” Tingsheng sprints into the man’s arms.
Startled out of his trance, Jingyan holds onto the warm figure almost instinctively. He realizes belatedly that his entire body is freezing.
“Jingyan!” Prince Qi enters the room and almost thinks the other man was crying, but upon closer inspection, there is no moisture in those eyes, just dim weariness.
“Brother Qi,” Jingyan stands up to greet him, voice flat, “You are visiting at such a late hour, must be because of the woven vest?”
Prince Qi’s apology is unceremoniously cut off by Jingyan’s polite but distant inquiry. He lowers the arm that had reached out to grab his brother.
“Uncle Jingyan’s hand is injured!” Tingsheng exclaims, then proceeds to pull out a clean handkerchief to wrap around Jingyan’s finger.
In his childish clumsiness, the wound that had only been hastily treated earlier reopens, and blood wells up again. Prince Qi steps forward to take the task from his son’s hands and tries to rebandage the wound. Unfortunately, the father is no less clumsy than his son; Jingyan lifts his hand experimentally and the handkerchief comes undone immediately.
Eyeing the blood on the handkerchief, Prince Qi frowns deeply, “Jingyan, what happened today will not happen again.”
Jingyan nods in calm understanding, there is not a trace of resentment from being wronged in his voice when he says, “It was merely a misunderstanding.”
Tingsheng holds Jingyan’s injured hand to his small face to inspect it carefully and declares with childish puzzlement, “There is a lot of blood.”
Jingyan tugs the child into a close embrace and soothes gently, “Your Uncle Jingyan has seen worse on the battlefield. This little wound doesn’t hurt at all, it’ll be all healed by tomorrow.”
The child looks up at him and says innocently, “But the nanny didn’t bleed this much.”
What seems to be a spontaneous comment sets both men on guard, they look at each other in contemplative surprise. If the blade was covered in fatal poison and placed at such an accessible place on the collar, how was it possible that the nanny received an even shallower cut than Jingyan?
“Chengting, where do you usually keep the vest?” Asks Prince Qi.
“In the same place as all the other treasures Granddaddy gave me,” says the child honestly.
“Those treasures are mostly small trinkets and precious gems. If the vest was not kept with all the other clothes, how did it get pulled out on the same day when they were organizing?” Prince Qi taps his finger pensively, a frown on his face. “The nanny has been with us for years, and her injury seemed so severe this time, apparently the physicians barely managed to save her life, so nobody thought to suspect her.”
“A conspiracy like this would definitely have had more than one key player,” says Jingyan, thinking back to the incident that nearly destroyed his relationship with Mei Changsu. Karma seems to have an interesting way of coming back: now his position is reversed as the one being wronged, yet he has no right to resent anyone. But he needs to know the truth because it concerns his Brother Qi and Tingsheng, “That maid dressed in red who was by the Princess’ side, was she hired around the same time as the nanny?”
Prince Qi falls silent at the question, his mind whirling. He is not oblivious to those schemes although he refuses to participate in them; it only takes him a brief moment to come to the conclusion, “Their goal was never Chengting, it was you.”
“If Brother has not forbidden your people from reporting the incident, I would find myself in the Xuanjing Bureau right now,” admits Jingyan quietly.
“They are....Hua people,” concludes Prince Qi in a wavering voice. They have always had their differences when it comes to the Hua. Prince Qi is firmly against Jingyan’s policy of relentless expulsion, and has begged the emperor on numerous occasions to let the innocent Hua families to return to the capital, and exile only the convicted spies. This, of course, incurred the emperor’s shocked rage, berating him ‘The Hua were trying to kill your son, even Jingyan would not spare them, how could you speak in their favor?!’ Prince Qi was not heartless enough to remain unaffected by the attack on his son, he just has always upheld the belief that one man’s crime should not implicate his whole family, let alone an entire race.
Only now has he truly witnessed what kind of underhanded machinations the Hua are capable of. The usually mild-tempered prince tightens his fist when he considers the consequences Jingyan would have faced if the conspiracy had come to fruition. “Jingyan, I will not let your suffering be in vain. Trust me,” he promises as he stands to leave.
Tingsheng is about to follow suit when he sees the empty letter on the table, its blank space telling a tale of loneliness. He changes his mind and begs, “I want to stay here with Uncle Jingyan…….”
Jingyan thinks about the chaos that would surely ensue when Prince Qi returns home. Whatever he decides to do with those Hua spies, it would not be a suitable scene for children’s eyes. He agrees, “I shall send Chengting back tomorrow morning.”
“Alright. Then I…” Prince Qi grasps for words but realizes that he cannot find any-- Jingyan has grown into a dependable and resilient adult, he is no longer the boy who needs hugs from his brother to comfort him. “I shall take my leave.”
At the same time, Prince Yu is entertaining a young woman in red robes at his manor. She is the very person that has evaded Jingyan’s rigorous search this whole time: Qin Banruo. Ever since the expulsion of most Hua spies from the city, she was forced to be on the run constantly, moving from one hideout to the next with never-ending fear of arrest. When her fellow sister Jun Niang also disappeared without a trace, Qin Banruo finally opened the pouch given to her by Princess Xuanji.
Two years ago, she arrived at Prince Yu’s doorstep with an enormous secret and an offer of alliance.
“Those two women were both trusted disciples of the Princess, they are completely loyal to her. She cultivated them with the sole intention of using them to eliminate Prince Qi one day, so they answer to no one but her. In fact, many other Hua do not know of their existence. They’ve been deeply undercover in Prince Qi’s home and have had minimal contact with the outside. It took them two years to even find out of the Princess’ passing. I have pulled many strings to contact them since I came back from the capital and only succeeded recently. The older woman immediately wanted to follow the Princess in the afterlife, so I suggested that we might as well take advantage of her death to further our agendas, and she agreed.“
”Though I hear she is not dead,” comments the prince.
“It was probably a survival instinct, she must have subconsciously avoided the sharpest part of the blade when she picked up the vest. Fear not, she would not live for long. Prince Qi would not spare anyone who dares to frame his brother,” Banruo’s lips quirk up in a sinister smile. “The younger girl is still willing to do my bidding. She only added a few casual comments here and there during this incident, I don’t believe Prince Qi would suspect her.”
Prince Yu shakes his head in mild disappointment, chuckling, “Their plot this time was far too simple. They were relying on the case being blown out of proportion once it is handled by the Xuanjing Bureau, and Xia Jiang would be able to dig up further accusations to convict Jingyan. They completely underestimated how much Prince Qi would try to cover for Jingyan; even if they gather a mountain of evidence, Prince Qi would never let a word of it escape his manor.”
“That’s why they tried to find a breakthrough in Princess Qi instead, to make her suspicious of Prince Jing. By mentioning the accident three years ago on New Year’s Eve, they were implicating that Prince Jing had orchestrated the whole thing, thus planting the seeds of doubt in the Princess’ heart,” adds Qin Banruo.
“Jingyan managed to uncover the hideout of my Aunt Xuanji, how did he miss those two women?”
Banruo’s eyes gleam with cold malice at the mention of Jingyan’s name, “With his impatient personality, if he knew of their existence, he would have exterminated them right away. The only explanation for how they managed to remain untouched is that he did not know of them.”
Prince Yu nods in impressed satisfaction and says, “This plot of yours is quite clever. Have you made sure that our things have been placed accordingly?”
“The older Hua woman’s death would surely lure Xiao Jingyan into a false sense of security, thinking that he has eliminated one more spy. He would never guess that we have another strike waiting around the corner,” she says smugly.
At that moment, an informant comes in to report, “A carriage has just exited Prince Qi’s manor with those two women in it.”
Banruo startles slightly, “Two?”
“...Both dead. I took a cursory look and they seemed poisoned,” answers the man.
Prince Yu frowns, “The younger one as well? Are we at a dead end then?”
“No matter. Our things are all in place, technically both women are useless to us now anyway,” Banruo takes a sip at her wine, savoring its warmth, “It is barely spring and the cold still lingers, Your Highness, please have more wine to keep warm.”
After Prince Qi leaves the room, a troubled frown begins to form on Jingyan’s face. Having spent decades with the man in the past life, Tingsheng understands his concern immediately. He, on the other hand, is not worried about the fate of those two Hua spies; even if Prince Qi were still merciful enough to spare them, his Mother would never let them leave the capital alive.
“Chengting,” calls Jingyan.
“......Yes?” it takes Tingsheng a few moments to register the name since he is so unaccustomed to it, especially from Jingyan.
“You’ve begun to learn how to read and write, correct?”
“Come here,” Jingyan bids him closer to sit on his lap, the map of the Liang Kingdom open on the table as he patiently teaches the child to read the name of each province, just like many years ago. With every region, he explains in great detail its agriculture, economy and military forces, even venturing into interesting local folklore and anecdotes.
Jingyan knows perfectly well that a child this young cannot possibly absorb all of this, yet he cannot help himself. Because in this life, they are fated to take divergent paths, and there may not be another time in which they can sit peacefully like this, father and son, under the flickering lamp with the most mundane things in mind. So he cannot help himself but pour everything he knows into Tingsheng now, all in one night.
In this life, Tingsheng has a loving mother, a royal status, and the care and affection of everyone around him. He must be so much happier than when he was an insignificant servant rescued by Prince Jing.
‘Now he has everything, I'm glad,’ Jingyan muses, happy for the boy from the bottom of his heart.
There are still so many things left to say, but all he manages in the end is an earnest plea, “I would never harm you...you must remember that.”
“I know,” replies Tingsheng immediately.
Of course he knows; Jingyan has been the same ever since they met in the servant prison, all those years ago. Tingsheng knows that this time around, his innocence is one of the things Jingyan is trying so hard to preserve. After all, Jingyan had always felt guilty towards him, for having left him to fend for himself in the servant prison, where he was forced to learn constant wariness in order to survive at a tender age, and later after the Chiyan case was overturned and their name cleared, for not being able to restore his royal title that was rightfully his.
So this time, Jingyan has given him back everything: his birthright as Prince Qi’s first born, adoring attention from everyone, and only the best of everything.
Tingsheng is well aware that Jingyan wants him to be free from those dark memories of hatred and humiliation, to never become that cautious child always reading between the lines, and to absolutely take for granted everyone’s unconditional affection. If it doesn’t cross his bottom line, he is happy to play the role of the guileless child and never get involved with political schemings of the court. He would live the life his Father wants him to live.
--But his bottom line is Jingyan.
At his young age, there is very little he can do for his Father. He is willing to wait until he is a bit older to tell Jingyan about his identity. At least that was the plan until he saw the lonely figure of Jingyan tonight. He detects something amiss when Jingyan begins telling him about everything he knows with such resignation and urgency that it seems like he was bidding him goodbye.
Not only is the content too sophisticated for a mere child, there is also a calm acceptance in his voice: he is reciting each incident with excruciating detail, yet his mind seems elsewhere. He even reveals the strategies to deal with a drought that wouldn’t come for another few years, utterly unaware that it has not happened yet.
Towards the end, he is speaking for the sake of speaking.
He is bidding his goodbye. He is convinced that Tingsheng and he would part ways, just like Lin Shu did with him. So he must say everything that needs to be said tonight, as if making the most out of this last vestige of their relationship as father and son. Because there will be no other chance.
Tingsheng abruptly closes his fingers around the map, its corner tearing from the force.
“My fault, you are too young to remember all these,” Jingyan is cut off mid-sentence, startled from his trance, and folds the map calmly, “The hour is late, I will have the servants prepare a room for you.”
Pausing before the door, he turns around and adds hesitantly, “That woven vest...please remember to wear it when you join the Spring and Autumn Hunts in the future.”
When there is no response, Jingyan remembers that given the poison incident so fresh in his mind, the child would probably rather throw the vest away than touching it again, “You don’t have to if you don’t like it,” he concedes with a joyless smile.
Tingsheng then replies firmly, “It is a gift from Father, I would rather die than throwing it away.”
There is a puzzled expression on Jingyan’s face, as if disbelieving his own ears; he falters, “Wh--what did you just call me?”
The child kneels in a proper courtesy that a progeny would give their parent, and lifts his head to look Jingyan straight in the eye, his voice resolute, “Prince Qi is my sire, but I only have one Father, in this life and in the past.” 
Silence stretches for a very long moment, long enough for the tea on the table to lose its steam completely, when Jingyan finally snaps out of his stupor and asks in a halting voice, “...Is that you, Tingsheng?”
“Yes, Father, it is me.”