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what he can't say

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Ten years old and freshly disturbed from a fitful sleep, he’s too drowsy and cross for the messenger’s words to make sense to him at first. “What are you even saying?” he mutters, and squints at a dream image that fast fades from his mind’s eye: see, Great General Mu Qing! He who can terrify ten thousand with a glance, resplendent upon his horse! See the enemy masses flee before his army’s charge! That’s right, he thinks. Just like they would at the sight of Father. “He said he’d return soon.”

“Young Master,” the messenger says, his head still bowed—out of respect, or out of a desire to avoid observing Mu Qing’s reaction. “Little Prince Mu…”

All that day he cries, the skin under his eyes reddened by tears, and finds that he can’t breathe through his stuffy nose—stupid thing! What’s the point of having one if it can’t do its job? He ignores the white clothing laid out for him, as if an unworn outfit can stave off the unimaginable for just a moment longer. “Where’s jiejie?” he says. “I want to see jiejie.”

“The Princess will come when she can,” he’s told.

“Why can’t I go to her?”

“Little Prince Mu,” he’s told. “It’s not yet time for you to step onto the battlefield.”

He drifts around the manor, so unhappily wrathful that he might as well be channeling Father’s troubled spirit—of course he’d be troubled, Mu Qing tells himself, of course, how can he rest when Southern Chu still fights jiejie at the border—and when Nihuang at last comes back to Yunnan, clad all in funeral white like a living ghost, he throws his manners to the wind and nearly trips when he runs to her. “Qing-er,” Nihuang says, “are you all right—“

“You’re here!” he blurts out, burying his face in the fur lining of her cloak which masks her armor. “I heard we killed ten thousand—and more—“

“Ten thousand times three,” Nihuang says, her voice weary, and gently passes her hand over Mu Qing’s hair. “At Qingming Pass. We’ll have to see if Southern Chu decides it’s enough and sues for peace.”

Even Great General Mu Qing can’t do that with a glance in his dreams. Mu Qing desperately wishes he could possess a look as deadly as his sister does.

“But Qing-er…” She shakes him loose and kneels so she can look him in the eye. “Do you really think those deaths make me happy? Does that make you happy?”

“… No.” Father could not return.

“What would make you happy?”

“When are you going away?” he asks. “Jiejie—take me with you. Jiejie, don’t leave me alone.”



“You’re already all grown up. Why are you speaking like a child?” Nihuang chides him. “You’ve already become an adult. There are… some things I don’t need to say anymore.” I trust that you can take care of our people here. I trust that you can take care of yourself. I trust in our reunion.

Mu Qing desperately wishes this all to be true. But his father, too, had told him: I’ll return soon.

So, twenty years old and running on a night’s fitful sleep, he only tells her what little he can before his sister leaves. “Jiejie, don’t worry—it won’t be long before the Emperor lets me go back. Jiejie, there’s no need to miss me.”

The Emperor has given his orders to the Mu family. Mu Qing knows what he can’t say.