This night, father and son rest in the same bed, chatting well into the wee morning hours. Jingyan remembers that last time when Tingsheng came to live with him, he was already eleven, and was far more mature than other children of his age. He has learned not to burden anyone with anything and rarely sought parental attention, so Jingyan had very few chances to care for him, except once.
That time, Tingsheng had taken ill with a fever, and Jingyan kept him company all night, softly telling him stories. He didn’t know many fairytales or folklores to entertain children, so he told Tinghseng about all the happy and carefree moments he shared with Lin Shu.
Tingsheng grew up hearing so many stories about this Lin Shu that he wasn’t too surprised when he later discovered that he was the same person as Mei Changsu. There was probably only one person who could make his Father smile like that.
When Mei Changsu died on the Northern borders, Xiao Jingyan’s fate was also sealed: for the next twenty years, he was living for the sole purpose of repaying for the debt he never owed in the first place.
That is why, Tingsheng knows exactly what Jingyan is planning to do now and the consequences of doing so. According to Jingyan, Meng Zhi and Lin Chen also have memories from the past life, but like Tingsheng, they cannot do much to help Jingyan. Meng Zhi is the Commander of the Imperial Guards, he has very little say in court politics, and his position would make any private interaction come under close scrutiny. He is also too honest to be involved in their machinations.
As for Lin Chen, although he helped them to eliminate Xie Yu this time, his reasons stem more from the fact Xie Yu had harmed Mei Changsu in the past, than from a genuine desire to help Jingyan with his cause.
“Father, you have very few men at your disposal, if the Langya Hall could send someone useful…” Tingsheng suggests.
Jingyan smiles benevolently, “Lin Chen is not my friend, he is the friend of Sir Mei of Jiangzuo. In the past life, Mei Changsu went to battle in my stead, and in this life, I will make sure that Mei Changsu never exists in this world. Lin Chen must not be happy, but he cannot even blame me for it. Besides, this time I am fighting for the supreme power, it is too dangerous a path to involve the Langya Hall.”
True, Lin Chen never set foot again in the capital for twenty years, except that one time when he came to treat Father’s injuries from the poisoned arrow. The night when Father passed, he stood waiting just outside the capital gates and gave Tingsheng a branch of blossoming plum flowers.
His face was indiscernible in the swirling snow, he merely said, “I dislike bidding goodbyes, give this flower to him for me.”
Tingsheng had only seen the man a handful of times, mostly when he visited Mei Changsu’s house for lessons when he was younger. The Lin Chen of his memories was incredibly talented and shamelessly proud, he was always the fire that warmed the room wherever he went.
This was the only time that Tingsheng had heard him speak in such a soft and tranquil tone.
The incident of the woven vest is resolved within days. Princess Qi has sent away the two women that very night, though words have it that the horse lost its footing in the dark, and the entire carriage tumbled off the cliff. Prince Qi has visited Prince Jing again with some handmade hazelnut cookies from the Princess. Jingyan takes a few pieces, assuring his brother with a smile that he wouldn’t begrudge them at all.
Three days later, news of victory reaches the capital from the frontlines in the North.
Lin Shu had received intel that a group of Yu soldiers was parading as bandits to harass the locals in a small town on the border, so he took a squad of three hundred men to mitigate the situation. They had dried grass bundled on their horse hooves to silence their approach, the team circumvented three sentry towers of the enemy and ambushed the Yu forces across the river. This battle continued from moonrise to dawn, and concluded with the bloody defeat of 2,000 Yu soldiers.
When news reaches the capital, everyone is marveling at Lin Shu’s feat of overpowering an enemy ten times larger than his troops.
A fortnight later, Lin Shu returns to the capital with his men, carrying the severed head of the Yu general as a trophy of their victory. This also happens to be the day before Lin Shu’s birthday, and many people have been invited to the Lin Manor to celebrate, including many of Lin Shu’s friends, as well as Jingyan. The halls are illuminated by a myriad of lanterns, their soft light casting a merry golden hue onto the gathered crowd.
Jingrui and Yujin are also in attendance. After the incident with Xie Yu, Jingrui has matured greatly; the young man now carries himself with a distinctly somber poise. Yujing is his usual chattering self, though his impulsive nature is nicely tempered by a perceptiveness beyond his years. He has attached himself firmly to Jingrui, still concerned for his moody friend.
Xia Dong has come with her husband Nie Feng, and within a few brief exchanges begin to drink to each other’s demise with Lin Shu.
Many other guests have trickled in, most of whom either long-time friends with Lin Xie or followers of Prince Qi. When they spot Jingyan, their attitude is understandably respectful yet rather distant.
Jingyan doesn’t mind it much. The only reason he came here today was to see Lin Shu; although he’s heard that Lin Shu returned to the capital on his horse, which means his injuries must not be serious, yet he cannot help but worry. Now, seeing his friend for the first time in three years, drinking and laughing cheerfully with Xia Dong, Jingyan is finally relieved.
He remembers the short missive he received regarding the Northern battles, imagining Lin Shu rushing through the snowy night on horseback, his long spear a powerful and tenacious force piercing through the enemy formations, a proud laugh on his youthful countenance.
Jingyan thinks to himself that he has made this vivacious and magnificent Lin Shu of today. It is all worth it.
Yujin inches closer to a tipsy Lin Shu and whispers, “Hey, Lin Shu-gege, give me whichever present you don’t want!”
Lin Shu points randomly at the pile of presents, “That one.”
Yujin picks up the package happily, but hurries to put it back after only a glance. Jingrui’s sister Xie Qi whispers curiously, “Yujin-gege, what’s wrong with that one?”
“That present comes from Prince Jing’s manor,” says Yujin carefully.
“Prince Jing...so?” Queries the girl, still confused.
“Lin Shu-gege hates it when other people touches his things, especially ones from Prince Jing. Once I barely touched the spear ornament given to him by Prince Jing, he almost hung me from his front door! If I dare so much as to take this present now, he’d kill me for sure!” Yujin says with a shudder.
The House of Mu has also sent along many gifts, including rare types of tea Lin Shu likes, and various trinkets. There is nothing precious in value, but they all come packaged thoughtfully in a large box.
Lin Shu’s mother smiles contently at the gifts, and a few perceptive guests take this chance to bring up the marriage with Princess Nihuang. She chuckles good-naturedly and says, “I don’t know about other matters, but I will not let him leave the capital again now he is back. It’s so lively here, and you’d be surrounded by all your friends.”
Lin Shu smiles quietly in response, lifting his eyes to scan for Jingyan, only to find no one there. He opens his mouth to ask when a thunder rumbles in the distance. Little droplets of rain begin to fall from the sky, and the guests are all moving into the rooms. Yujin tries to mollify the pouting young Xie Qi who is upset over her new dress that got wet in the rain, saying, “You know spring showers are as precious as gold, just think about all the gold that rained on your dress!”
Jingrui eyes the pouring rain outside with a worried frown on his face, “Everything in moderation is fine, the showers this year seem a bit too much.”
Today was supposed to be a day of rest , yet Jingyan receives an summons early morning for an audience in the palace. When he enters the hall, he notes without any surprise that the Ministers of Revenue, Works, and Defense are all present, as well as Lin Shu. 
“We have had incessant snow and rain since the Spring Equinox this year,” the emperor leafs through the stack of reports on his desk without lifting an eye at the people gathered before him. “There have been reports of flood from various regions. I presume that is why you have come today.”
“The South has seen a few incidents of river flooding, but it is nothing serious yet,” answers the Minister of Revenue. “Though Vice Commander Lin Shu has mentioned that the embankment along the Qishui river was largely corroded when he was on his way back to the capital.”
“Lin Shu, is that true?” asks the emperor.
Lin Shu takes a step forward at the mention of his name and says, “Yes, Your Majesty, the embankment was in terrible condition. As soon as the ice melts, the river water itself would easily overflow, let alone a serious flood.”
The emperor frowns in concern; there has been a precedent of flooding in the Qishui region, albeit many years ago.
The Minister of Works adds, “I have already sent a group of men to inspect the situation. As reported, the river embankment is heavily eroded, and directly downstream are thousands of acres of farmland, and many farmers families. Once the weather warms, the overflowing river may pose a threat to the farms, and come summer, the livelihood of those families may be at stake due to the heavy flooding. The problem is that the resident troops there are few in number, and they are already overwhelmed with the onerous workload during this farming season.” 
“Then tell me about your solution,” commands the emperor.
At that, the three ministers kneel in unison, requesting to take half of the capital troops to repair the damaged embankments. They would be able to finish the reconstruction before summer arrives, otherwise the lives of people in those regions would be at serious risk. It seems as if the three of them have orchestrated their speech, listing every painstaking detail from how to organize the troops to the allocation of funds.
The emperor appears to be listening attentively, though he hasn’t said a word. At the end, he suddenly asks, “Jingyan, what do you think?”
“I beg to differ,” comes his reply.
Lin Shu snaps his head around to stare at Jingyan in shocked surprise.
“The capital troops are our most elite men charged with the serious responsibility of defending the city. If we allow this elite branch to be led elsewhere, the capital would be left vulnerable to any sinister ploys from the less noble-minded men,” Jingyan explains.
The emperor is greatly pleased, nodding and praising Jingyan for his rationality. Lin Shu, on the other hand, cannot help but argue his point. In his memory, Jingyan has never been adept at debating; whenever he disagreed with someone, he would become red-faced with frustration and storm off to brood alone. So Lin Shu would always tell Jingyan, ‘Leave it to me to win the argument, I know what you are thinking anyway.’
Then who is this person in front of him, logical and eloquent to a fault, defending his case without giving Lin Shu a chance to retort? As articulate and well-read as Lin Shu is, he still lacks impenetrable composure that only time can bestow. What chills him to the bone is that no matter the cause, the sovereign should never treat anyone’s life as trivial. Yet the Jingyan before him now is willing to put tens of thousands of lives at risk only for the sake of ingratiating himself to the emperor!
This is not the Jingyan he knows.
His indignation rapidly surging, Lin Shu shouts without a second thought, “And are you just going to sit here in this indestructible capital with the blood of tens of thousands of people on your hands?!”
Jingyan knows perfectly well that the emperor would never let the troops leave the capital; the ministers and Lin Shu could kneel here in supplication until they expire, and still not a single soldier would be dispatched. He also remembers that in this particular year, although there was an alarming amount of rain in the springtime, summer came with a sudden drought, and there was no serious flooding. They could wait until autumn to repair the embankment in the Qishui region, and would not need the help of extra troops since the autumn and winter months are long.
Yet there is nothing he could say to Lin Shu.
“Lin Shu,” the emperor who has been watching the entire altercation suddenly says in a cold voice, “What you just said, was that how you speak to a Prince of the first rank?” 
Lin Shu is stunned back to his senses. Jingyan is stunned as well. The three ministers watch from their positions as Lin Shu’s temper rapidly cools, as the flame in his eyes dim into nothingness.
He kneels to the emperor and bows, “I beg for Your Majesty’s forgiveness.”
The emperor waves him up, only to see Lin Shu turn around to face Jingyan, falling to his knees once again. An uncontrollable shudder runs through Jingyan, staring unseeingly at the man in front of him, images flashing before his eyes, of that stormy snow day, of the severed bell in that secret passage. Of a pale-faced Mei Changsu kneeling before him.
He hears Lin Shu say, “I have offended Your Highness with my rash words earlier, please forgive me for my impudence.”
Jingyan stares at Lin Shu’s bowed head, listens to those quiet words, his entire body frozen with desperate sorrow. His lips tremble, yet no words come out.
The emperor then says sternly, “This matter cannot be delayed. Minister of Revenue, prepare a report with an estimate of the necessary funds. Minister of works, I charge you to devise a plan to shorten the construction period.” The Minister of Defense opens his mouth to say something, only to swallow it forcibly at the emperor’s forbidding glare.
Eyeing the stiff atmosphere between Lin Shu and Jingyan, the emperor heaves a deep sigh. Although he is pleased that Jingyan has sided with him against the other ministers, it was never his intention to strain his relationship with Lin Shu.
“The Grand Empress is feeling under the weather today, go visit her before you leave the palace,” he orders, waving them out.
The Grand Empress has just finished drinking her medicine. She smiles contently when she sees Lin Shu and Jingyan enter the room, calling them closer, “You two are still the same as before, inseparable even for a moment!”
The two men exchange a brief look. They used to be so inseparable, yet now they have been separated for three whole years.
“Xiaoshu...you’ve lost weight!” Exclaims the Grand Empress in dismay.
“Jingyan, Jingyan is even worse! What happened to you two?” The Grand Empress caresses their cheeks softly, her eyes sad, “Come, have some pastries,” then proceeds to hand each of them a hazelnut cookie.
Lin Shu looks up in surprise, staring at the Grand Empress with a sorrowful realization and the maids by their side lower their heads quietly. The Grand Empress has finally reached an age when she cannot overcome the disease of time, now she is beginning to confuse her beloved grandchildren.
When Lin Shu hesitates, she pats his hand affectionately and asks, “Xiaoshu, why are you not eating yours? Isn’t hazelnut cookie your favorite?”
Lin Shu cannot bear to refuse her kindness, so he suppresses his sorrow and lifts the cookie to his mouth. Jingyan snatches it from his hand, turning to the Grand Empress with a laugh, “Great Granny, it’s my favorite too!”
“Jingyan is still the same bully as before, always taking advantage of Xiaoshu and eating his cookies,” she slaps Jingyan’s shoulders with mock reprimand, “Fine fine, Great Granny has enough cookies for both of you. Jingyan...are you married yet?”
“Then is there someone you like?”
Jingyan pauses for a brief moment, then nods ever so softly.
“Well you have to hurry up then...tell me, does this person like you back?” asks the wizened great-grandmother with a warm smile.
Jingyan lowers his head and answers with the same smile, “He used to.”