In the depths of winter, on the shortest day of the year, Jingrui woke to small glowing ember of light. It flickered in the blue-black shadows of the Northern cliffs, untouched by the cutting winds that stirred the heavy drifts of snow around them into white fog. In a land where the sun barely tipped over the horizon the glow of a flame was magnetic, and Jingrui could not help but watch it, sleepy and mesmerized.
The candles in Xie Manor had barely even flickered when Fei Liu alighted on the windowsill of Jingrui's childhood bedroom with a summons. Jingrui would not have believed it--the Emperor was not the type of man to whisk his guests from their chambers in the darkest hours of the night--except the shadow of Fei Liu on the latticework was real, and the seal on the letter he bore the same. Jingrui traced the waxy raised plum branches of the personal seal of Xiao Jingyan and allowed Fei Liu to help him across the roof of the mansion and into the darkened palace.
He had heard, because it was his business to hear, and because he had not severed all ties to Jingling, that the borders of the empire were being tested once more. Princess General Nihuang had returned to the Southern border, which might have been explained away to the court if not for the steady trickle of Changlin soldiers to the Western front. The East remain placid amidst the stirrings of these new threats, but the North...Whispers of militants in the North reached the many ears of Jiangzhou, and disappeared, insubstantial, like smoke.
A decade and a half of peace was boring, Lin Chen might have said, though Jingrui thought the lines on the Emperor’s face contested that nicely. Xiao Jingyan did not look as if he had spent the last fifteen years of his reign in soft, boring decadence. He looked, in fact, like a man spread thin. A man who had summoned Jingrui to ask him a favor.
You must not be seen. You must not be heard. There were other hands stirring the pot within the palace now, hands even the Dowager Empress could not control. Only last week an attempt had been made on the life of the Crown Prince within the walls of the city. The Emperor had no men of his own to spare for the long trip North. Protect the envoy at all costs, get him to the Da Yu encampment. Move quickly; you will be watched.
The Emperor had spoken of assassins and spies with a certainty that chilled Jingrui more deeply that the biting winds of the North. You will be watched.
The light in the tent flickered, but did not go out.
“Marquis Yan, the point of traveling with stealth is that no one knows we are here.” Jingrui did not sound particularly commanding burrowed as he was in the warmth of his bedroll, voice still sleep-hoarse "A light guides our enemies to us as surely as if we had left them a trail."
A telltale scratching from the makeshift desk indicated Jingrui’s advice was, predictably, being ignored.
“I made you tea.” The Marquis gestured to the saddest breakfast tray Jingrui had even seen, the lone highlight of which was a steaming cup of tea. He had diligently avoided using Jingrui's name thus far, which Jingrui would thank him for if he weren't busy freezing his toes off. Partisanship did not become the shadowed head of the Jiangzhou alliance; he had sold himself as a man born of two kingdoms and aligned with none. It would not do for his enemies to know where to press.
"You boiled water with a candle," Jingrui said, disbelieving. "How long have you been awake?" Long enough for him to re-pack his things, but not long enough to put on his furs and boots, it appeared.
"Long enough to know that you still snore like an injured bear," the Marquis replied, his words short and clipped. He did not look up from his writing; the stressors of singlehandedly swaying an army were visibly taking their toll.
Jingrui left him to it. He threw on his heaviest winter robes and went to gather the horses, sheltered for the night in the embrace of a scraggly lone pine. The light illuminated the entire tent from within like a lantern, making the shadow of the Marquis easy to pick out in the pre-dawn light.
"It's as if he wants us to be ambushed," Jingrui grumbled as he untied the horses. "He hasn't changed at all, that carefree, air-headed--"
An arrow whistled through the quiet and sunk into the bark of the tree, where Jingrui's head had been a second ago. He turned and caught the second arrow before it landed, watching the dark shapes of his attackers scurry across the slope to a better foothold.
Jingrui planted himself like a mountain between the assassins and the glowing beacon of the Marquis' tent behind him. The Emperor's scouts had located a Da Yu military encampment no more than a day’s ride away under the direction of General Yang, a man who reports indicated would be amenable to honoring the treaty forged in blood by the Chiyan Army. If Jingrui could only deliver the Marquis to him, if only the Marquis could sway the General away from the Northern militants and towards peace…
Five arrows this time, all aimed straight at Jingrui's heart. They burst forth from the darkness, and Jingrui considered leading the fight to the tent, if only so he would have better visibility. The Tianquan style was beautifully suited for knocking aside arrows and long-range weapons, all dizzying jumps sweeping arm work, but it made tracking an opponent difficult.
A crunch of snow to his right was all the warning Jingrui had as the attackers crushed in, bows tossed aside in favor of swords and short daggers. Jingrui counted three at his front and one rushing his unprotected back. There was no honor to be had in fighting these men, who used every dirty trick at their disposal. Not that Jingrui was looking for a match of honor--since entering Jiangzhou he'd had Lin Chen quietly remove him from the Langya List. Rankings drew attention, and Jingrui ran a network whose cardinal rule was discretion.
Instead Jingrui spent their fight examining each move for a telltale technique, some identifying puzzle piece he could lay at the Emperor's feet and say here is the stem, let us rip out the roots. To his unending frustration the men were a muddled mess; a brawler, an archer, and mercenary used to small knives, with no apparent thread connecting them.
Jingrui subdued three of the men, and removed his sword from the belly of the fourth just in time to see the flash of a knife rip through the tent canvas, gutting the candle.
He had forgotten there was a fifth man.
The shadow of the Marquis crumpled. There was no great shout, no dramatics, just an awful, echoing quiet as the wind swallowed all sounds of violence.
Jingrui dispatched the fifth man with a modification to Zhuo Dingfeng's now-infamous technique and noted with a detached interest the way the man's eyes widened in recognition as Jingrui let the sword arc from his grip. A piece of information to file away, then.
He turned his attention to the ruin of the tent.
"Marquis--Yujin?" He clawed his way through the twisted frame. Memories of sitting at a low table, listening to Commander Meng talk about the siege on the hunting lodge flooded him. He had been so far away, he had not even known."Yujin."
There was a rusty cough. Yujin lay on the floor, papers scattered at his feet.
"No one calls me that anymore, you know," Yujin said. A long, jagged knife stuck out of his bedroll, which was wrapped around his chest like makeshift armor. "Good thing I didn't pack yet," he smiled weakly.
Jingrui gave into his urge to hit him.
"Did you get what you needed?" Yujin asked, submitting himself to the tender mercies of Jingrui's medical care.
"A lead, maybe. Nothing solid." Nothing worth risking yourself for, he wanted to say. "You've learned new tricks since I've been away."
"You've been away for a while, your tea went cold." Yujin deftly switched tracks. "How many men were there? I thought I counted four, but I'll be offended if there were any less than six." In the pale light of the snow, blowing on his cupped hands for warmth he looked remarkably like...Jingrui shook his head.
"I have a sudden sympathy for the Emperor, if this is how all his advisers behave." He stood, blood singing. One day's ride until they made it over the pass. He tossed Yujin his furs and his father's staff, which marked him undeniably as an envoy of the Emperor. "Time to go. It's getting light out and we have a lot of ground to cover today."
Yujin caught the staff. It seemed heavier in his hands, and he placed it against the supply packs carefully, so as not to damage it. Jingrui caught his eye. He had heard often enough that he was not either of his fathers. It seemed Yujin harbored similar thoughts about himself.
"We may have some time yet," Jingrui amended. "It would probably help to practice our approach, and your address to General Yang."
"Excellent, I was wondering what to do with the rest of the candles," said Yujin, for which Jingrui felt entirely justified in dumping the honorable Marquis into a snowbank.