Xiao Shu loses his seat on the third day of snow.
It has been bitterly cold for nearly two weeks now, the ground well-frozen and a bite hanging in the air. The world seems smaller in this cold, like it has curled in on itself, the rivers pulling back from the banks, the trees clinging tighter to the earth. Meng can feel himself curl inwards, his arms tucked closer to his body, his fingers curled into fists. The cold is difficult even for him, the way that it cuts through the soles of his boots when he is standing on the frozen ground, the way it knifes through his clothes when he is standing still, the way it scrapes, raw and cruel, across his skin when he moves.
Meng feels the cold bitterly, like every other man in the camp, from waking to sleeping, from sleeping to waking, and he wonders how Xiao Shu feels it.
Then, on the third day of snow, Xiao Shu loses the seat on his horse, and Meng doesn’t wonder any more.
Xiao Shu’s breath has been labored the past few days, and his skin has grown white and thin-looking, as delicate as paper. This morning, when the sun had broken through the clouds, Meng had looked at Xiao Shu’s face and had thought, for a moment, that he could see the blue veins of blood beneath Xiao Shu’s skin, in the space between the corners of his eyes and the temples of his forehead.
“I’m fine,” Xiao Shu had said when Meng had hesitated, holding the reins of Xiao Shu’s horse. “I’m well enough to ride to the ridge. I need to see the snowfall myself.”
“Yesterday’s scout,” Meng had begun to say, and Xiao Shu had interrupted him:
“The wind will have created new drifts. I’m dressed warmly, I slept all night—” And when Meng had still hesitated, Xiao Shu had said, “Brother Meng. Let me do this.”
They are only halfway to the ridge when Xiao Shu’s breathing takes on a sharp edge, like he is about to cough. Meng pulls hard on his reins, wheeling his horse back around toward Xiao Shu. Xiao Shu’s body is locked tight, and Meng can see the way the muscles of Xiao Shu’s throat are spasming, the way his fingers are convulsing, reins and the horse’s mane twisted in his hands.
“Mister Su,” Meng begins, but before he has managed more—before his horse has taken more than another two steps closer—Xiao Shu is gasping, and choking, and falling from his saddle.
Xiao Shu’s horse shies away from him, its hooves landing too close to Xiao Shu’s body for comfort as it moves agitatedly, and Meng lunges forward in his saddle, reaching far enough over his own horse’s withers that he can catch the reins with his fingertips.
“Get him up!” he shouts at the scouts, and their small patrol becomes a flurry of motion, two soldiers dismounting as their horses’ reins are caught up by others. By the time Meng has turned both his horse and Xiao Shu’s in a wide circle, Xiao Shu’s horse still rolling its eyes and snorting nervously, Xiao Shu has been collected up from the snow.
“Commander General,” the lieutenant says when he reaches Meng’s side, standing on foot on the far side from Xiao Shu’s shying horse. The lieutenant is holding up his hand, and Meng gives him the reins before he slides from his horse’s saddle, the snow sinking beneath his feet when he lands.
Xiao Shu is clutching a soldier’s arm, his head bowed close to the ground as he coughs. His back is spasming with his coughs, and Meng touches Xiao Shu’s shoulder lightly, then more firmly, gathering up the folds of Xiao Shu’s cloak in his fist as he slides to his knees.
It is a long time before Xiao Shu can breathe easily. The snow melts beneath Meng’s knees and then, when Meng shifts so that he can wrap his cloak around Xiao Shu, it melts beneath his hip. The sun moves higher into the sky, near its zenith, and the snow is blinding around them. Meng stares past it, to a smear of purple that he can pick out from between the trees. It is the northern mountain ridge, he thinks—a few days’ ride, if one follows the river.
“Commander General Meng,” Xiao Shu says when the morning is nearly gone. Meng looks down at him, long enough to consider the thinness of his eyelids, the paleness of his mouth, the spasm still rippling along his throat.
“Commander General Meng,” Xiao Shu says again, his mouth turned high enough in the corners to be called a smile; his eyes are closed, though, and his face is turned away, like he cannot bear to look at Meng. Meng can understand—he can only just bear to look at Xiao Shu.
“I thought,” Xiao Shu says softly, wrapped in both his cloak and Meng’s, resting in the melting snow in the northern ranges of Great Liang, “that I could go farther than this.”
“I thought,” he says later, when the morning is gone and the afternoon is passing quickly, when Meng is walking on foot beside Xiao Shu’s horse, a hand resting on Xiao Shu’s knee to steady him in his seat, “that I could last further than this.”
Meng’s messages to Jinling and Jingyan are short and carefully edited. He writes about the skirmishes that lead to battles and the battles that lead to stalemates. He writes about the snow, how it drifts in the valleys and low places, how it melts beneath the sun and freezes again during the night. He writes about his generals, his lieutenants, and his captains. He writes about his strategist.
He writes, Mei Changsu is a skilled tactician. His insights have led to profitable battles with low casualty rates. He silently mouths to himself, He can no longer ride a horse. I don’t know how he will travel back to Jinling, and then writes, With Mei Changsu’s assistance, we will win this war quickly and with lower costs than anticipated.
He says to himself, “Mei Changsu is the cost,” and then covers his mouth with his hand, the scales of his gauntlet pricking at his skin.
Xiao Shu’s armor has not been moved from the corner of his tent for nearly a week now. Xiao Shu has little strength to carry his own body, and even less to carry the weight of his armor. The first days Xiao Shu had gone without armor, Meng had fretted ceaselessly, imagining an ill-aimed arrow or a unexpected sword. There is, however, not much to fret over—Xiao Shu’s tent is in the center of the camp, pitched alongside the map tent, across from Meng’s own tent.
There are always guards—Gong Yu, Li Gang, Zhen Ping, and always Fei Liu and Lin Chen—and when Xiao Shu emerges from his tent, there is nearly always someone holding his arm, holding him steady on his feet.
Xiao Shu’s danger, Meng realizes, is not in the absence of his armor; it is in the absence of the strength for his armor.
The slower and weaker Xiao Shu’s body grows, though, the faster and fiercer his mind seems to become. Xiao Shu seems like a trapped beast when he is in the map tent, rising from beside the brazier to pace restlessly for as long as he has the breath and the strength; then, when he is forced to return to his place by the brazier, he seems to burn even hotter, making and discarding plans with a speed of mind that leaves Meng’s ears buzzing.
“Can we catch them in the lee side, then?” Meng asks, and when Xiao Shu nods sharply, Meng asks, “Is it the best option?”
“Yes,” Xiao Shu says, and he turns his head, studying the map; Meng studies his profile, the jut of his jaw, and watches as Xiao Shu says, “Leave early enough before dawn, and you will be able to attack when the sunlight is hitting the snow. Come from the east, and they will be snowblind.”
Mei Changsu does well in the camp, Meng writes to Jinling. Mei Changsu is leading us well, he writes to Jingyan.
“Mei Changsu,” he says to himself, “is driving himself to his death.”
“He won’t rest,” Lin Chen says sharply when Meng questions him. Lin Chen is thinner now, and his face looks wan; Meng thinks that Lin Chen’s sleep must be as light and broken as Meng’s, waiting and listening for the sound of Xiao Shu choking on his own breath, drowning in his own bed.
“There are herbs,” Meng says slowly. “Medicines. Things to make him sleep.”
Lin Chen scoffs, looking disbelieving. "Do you think he would forgive you? Being made to do anything—that is something he is slow to forgive.”
Meng nods slowly, sighing heavily. His shoulders feel heavy, like the weight of all the abandoned armor in the camp has been added to his own. He sighs once more, then rolls his shoulders forward and back, like he can dislodge that exhausting weight.
“You’re right,” he says to Lin Chen. “I was wrong, and I misspoke.” He breathes in through his teeth, the whistle low and airy. “I think Mister Su would scold me for thinking so simply about things.”
“Ha,” Lin Chen says, and when Meng lifts his chin questioningly, Lin Chen says, “I’d thought of it, but I don’t know if his body would survive it.
“I didn’t,” Lin Chen says as Meng’s stomach fills with ice, “dare risk it. I didn’t know if he’d wake again.”
Meng manages to be kicked by a horse the next day.
He’s sitting in his tent, a physician wrapping a poultice around his shoulder and upper arm, when Xiao Shu rushes into his tent. Fei Liu’s arm is wrapped around Xiao Shu’s waist, holding Xiao Shu upright, and both of Xiao Shu’s hands are grasping tightly at Fei Liu’s sleeve; his knuckles are bony and white, and he is out of the breath, his face looking strained, as white and cadaverous as his knuckles.
“Mister Su,” Meng begins, but Xiao Shu is interrupting him, saying in awful-sounding gasps,
“I heard you were kicked. That you were kicked, that you were carried to your tent—”
“Sit,” Meng says sharply, and to Fei Liu: “Set him there, on that mat. Sit,” he says again when Xiao Shu hesitates. “It was a glance. Sit, Mister Su.”
Meng tries not to stare when Xiao Shu sinks onto the mat, or when Xiao Shu has to tuck his head down close to his knees, gasping wetly for breath. When the physician hesitates, Meng leans away from him, far enough that he can cover his shoulder with his own hand.
“It’s enough,” he tells the physician, and when the physician begins to reply, Meng says, “I can finish it. Go.”
The physician is still sneaking peeks toward Xiao Shu from the corner of his eyes, but he bows and leaves the tent quickly enough that Meng can’t be bothered to follow after him to dress him down. Instead, he busies himself with the wrappings of the poultice, tucking the ends of the wrappings as neatly as he can. He takes as long as he can with the task, worrying the ends until they have begun to fray and the throbbing of his arm has grown nearly unbearable.
(He remembers how Xiao Shu used to sulk and nurse his hurt pride as a young man, how he’d scowl and speak sharply whenever offered pity or kindness for his hurts. He remembers how proud Xiao Shu was, and so he keeps his face turned away, as though averting his gaze will somehow—)
When Xiao Shu’s breathing has calmed enough, Meng says in a voice low enough that it won’t be heard beyond the tent walls, “Xiao Shu.”
Xiao Shu breathes in sharply, then laughs feebly. His shoulders are curled, and Meng watches as they shake, like they’re being rattled by the wind.
“I thought,” Xiao Shu says at last, “that you’d been kicked in the head. I thought that—
“If you’d died,” Xiao Shu murmurs, “Great Liang would be lost. Jingyan would be lost.”
For a moment, Meng thinks of the sickening crunch it would have been, if the hoof had connected with his skull; he wonders if he would have been dead before he hit the frozen ground, or if he would have lived long enough to realize what had happened; if he would have bled out in the horses’ paddock, or if he would have died after weeks of convulsions and blinding pain. He thinks of how easily—how quickly—how close it was, that if he had turned a moment later, or if the horse had spooked a moment sooner—
“There are other generals,” he says, his voice gritty with the sick fear that is building in his throat, the countless if— if— if—
“Generals.” Xiao Shu clicks his tongue at Meng and says in that slow, fond way he has when he’s more teasing than scolding, “What greater man does Great Liang have than her commander general?”
And then, again using that awful tone he had used only moments before, Xiao Shu continues lowly, “How could I trust anyone as I trust you?”
Meng can only say dumbly, “Xiao Shu.”
The moment is fleeting, though; Xiao Shu’s eyes flick down toward Meng’s arm, and Meng watches as Xiao Shu grimaces.
“Your arm,” he asks shortly, and Meng answers,
“Only bruised, a little scraped. It was a glance. I would have been untouched if not for my armor—” He laughs shortly, rueful and still uncertain. “The hoof caught my armor, and it managed to bend the lowest plate. The chains were pinched, and my arm. That’s all.”
And when Xiao Shu’s face remains pinched, his mouth set in that awful grimace, Meng repeats, “That’s all. I swear it.”
That must be enough—Xiao Shu takes a sharp breath, then lets it out in a heavy burst. His face is still pinched looking, but he offers Meng a smile that looks as rueful as Meng feels. Meng returns it as steadily as he can.
“It is sobering,” Xiao Shu says, his body slowly sinking to the side, in the direction to which Fei Liu is sitting beside him, still holding him upright, “to think of how easily you could—” He nods toward Meng’s arm, then closes his eyes wearily. “There are so many things I cannot control. There were times in Jinling that I thought I’d lose all the threads, that one unexpected word or action would bring us down.
“I thought,” Xiao Shu says as he opens his eyes again, meeting Meng’s gaze, “that I had lost everything. I cannot lose you, Brother Meng, and neither can Jingyan.”
And Meng wants to promise himself, wants to swear that Xiao Shu has Meng until his dying breath—but that is the problem. Meng is only a mortal man, and for all his strength, he can be brought down as easily as any other man, whether by steel or winter, or by the unlucky kick of a spooked horse.
“You have me,” he murmurs in a low voice, and no more than that. This place on the borders of Great Liang and Great Yu is a place where promises cannot easily be made, nor kept.
When Xiao Shu reaches out with his hand, Meng moves close enough that Xiao Shu can touch Meng’s arm. Xiao Shu’s fingertips are cold to the touch, and when he lays the length of his fingers along Meng’s upper arm, where the lower edge of the bandage gives way to Meng’s skin, it feels cool and soothing. Meng closes his eyes, sighing heavily.
“I’ll have Lin Chen come to you. He is skilled with poultices,” Xiao Shu says. When Meng begins to frown, Xiao Shu scowls fiercely, looking as peevish as he did when he was a thwarted child.
Meng bites back his desire to demur and instead says, “I’d be indebted to you.”
Xiao Shu lingers in the tent for a while longer, until his breathing has settled and his face looks less white. When he makes to leave, Meng rises alongside him, saying, “I’m sorry for the worry I caused you, Xiao Shu.”
Xiao Shu's smile is fleeting, difficult to see in the low light of the tent, but Meng catches it before it has faded away.
“I think,” Xiao Shu says before he leaves, “that I have caused you an equal amount of worry, if not a great deal more.”
“Has he been coughing blood for long?” Lie Zhanying asks as he tucks his helmet beneath his arm. Meng’s fingers are chilled to the point of clumsiness, and he is far slower to take off his own helmet, the armored plates scraping painfully across his fingertips and knuckles.
It feels as though there is something as cold and sharp as ice stuck in his throat, threatening to choke him whenever he thinks of how quickly Xiao Shu is—
“Since yesterday,” Lin Chen says. He looks as peevish and harassed as he did when Meng and Lie Zhanying had ridden out of camp three days ago. Meng blinks, then presses a knuckle against the bridge of his nose, telling himself that nothing has changed, that nothing—
“What will be done?” Lie Zhanying asks, and Meng finds himself achingly grateful for the steady way Lie Zhanying moves through life, for the level way with which he views everything, no matter how small or large, as one more task to be completed.
“I’m taking care of it,” Lin Chen snaps, and Meng watches the way Lie Zhanying nods, as unaffected by Lin Chen’s sharp voice as he would be with a bird’s cry, or perhaps a dog’s warning bark.
He wonders if they are all tasks for Lie Zhanying, problems to be solved and tools to be used. If a tool, then he must be a sword—a tool useful in battle, and awkward outside of it. If he is a sword, then Xiao Shu is something far more necessary. A map, perhaps, or an abacus; a brush and a pot of ink, ready to remake the world with only a stroke.
“The maps,” Meng says, thinking of how Xiao Shu holds his sleeve when he writes, thinking of the way Xiao Shu’s fingers sometimes spasm, his characters crooked and weak. “The drifts should be noted.”
“Where will you take him?” Meng asks Lin Chen when Lie Zhanying has left them, taking himself away to carry out his next task. When Lin Chen tilts his head, frowning, Meng clarifies: “Mei Changsu. Where will you take him?”
Lin Chen breathes in, a hissing breath sucked in through his teeth, and looks over his shoulder in the direction of Xiao Shu’s tent. When he looks back at Meng, his frown is deepening.
“No where,” Lin Chen says, and when Meng tries to object, Lin Chen slaps his hand against his hip. “It’s too late. He’s not strong enough to travel. He’ll stay here—” Lin Chen jerks his chin in the direction of the tent. “—until the end.”
Meng’s hands feel numb, like he thrust them into frozen water, and he curls his fingers inward, turning his hands into fists. It does nothing—his hands still feel numb, distant and frozen and dead. “How long?”
“Not long. Weeks.” Lin Chen nods, maybe to himself, or maybe to Meng. “You need to win this war, Commander General.”
Xiao Shu never leaves his tent again.
Meng meets his advisors, his lieutenants and captains, elsewhere in the camp: in his own tent, in the map tent, outside in the blinding snow. He looks over the maps, considers the reports, then he returns to Xiao Shu’s tent, ducking in through the tent flap as quickly as he can, wary of bringing the winter wind into the tent with him.
The tent is a dark place now, the lamps heavily papered to make the light gentle for Xiao Shu’s eyes. The brazier glows red day and night, the coals from Meng’s tent diverted to this tent instead. Meng stirs the coals when he enters, turning a handful of glowing embers over, then steps over to Xiao Shu’s bed.
Xiao Shu’s eyes are open, his face turned in Meng’s direction, and when Meng sinks down to sit beside his bed, Xiao Shu breathes deeply, closing his eyes.
“The drifts have shifted,” Meng tells Xiao Shu. When Xiao Shu moves his fingers, a flick of his first and second fingers, Meng recites everything he learned outside the tent: the depth of the snowdrifts, the slow freezing of the rivers; the smoke from beyond the nearest hill, the tracks that were swept away by the night’s wind; the numbers, and the degrees, and the calculations.
“General Lie will take the western hill,” Meng says, and watches as Xiao Shu’s fingers pluck at the furs of his bed.
“Send Zhen Ping with them,” Xiao Shu tells him, and when Meng gives his assent, Xiao Shu murmurs, “He will know what to send me. He was with me before, when we—he will know the land, and how it has changed.”
“I’ll send him,” Meng says again, and Xiao Shu nods, the motion slight and nearly imperceptible. His fingers are still plucking at the furs that tucked around him, and Meng watches as Xiao Shu’s thin, trembling fingers pull at the hairs.
“The river flows too swiftly through the gully.” Xiao Shu turns his face against his pillow, and when he speaks, his words are slow and slurred. “If General Lie can take the western hill, he can pin Greater Yu’s southern force against the river. The ice will break,” Xiao Shu says, “when they try to flee back to Greater Yu. They will drown, or freeze.”
“And the eastern arm?” Meng asks. Xiao Shu’s fingers slow, then still; they are pale against the dark furs, and Meng thinks that, in the dim light from the lantern and brazier, he can see blue in the tips of Xiao Shu’s fingers, in the beds of his fingernails.
“Let them come to us,” Xiao Shu answers. “We have the higher ground. The drifts will only deepen in the low places. Let them struggle to us. They will lose more men to frostbite and low morale than they can afford. Brother Meng,” Xiao Shu asks sharply, and when Meng looks at his face, Xiao Shu’s eyes are focused on Meng’s. “You are sure of the numbers?”
Meng dutifully reports the numbers once more, and he waits patiently as Xiao Shu frets over the armies he cannot see, the land he cannot touch, and the air he cannot taste. When Xiao Shu is finally satisfied, or has at least exhausted enough lines of inquiry to be certain of his plans, Meng nods and says, “I will follow your advice, Mister Su.”
Before he leaves the tent, he fetches Xiao Shu’s warming pot. He fills it with brightly burning coals, and the coals wink red until he covers their light with the warming pot’s lid. When he returns the warming pot to Xiao Shu, he kneels beside the bed, reaching out to catch Xiao Shu’s hand.
“Brother Meng,” Xiao Shu says as Meng folds the warming pot into Xiao Shu’s hands, then tucks Xiao Shu’s hands and warming pot back beneath the furs of the bed. “You must tell me when news arrives—the winter here is unpredictable. It will be a disadvantage if we react too slowly—”
“I will,” Meng says, and when Xiao Shu sucks in a heavy breath, Meng can hear the whistle of his lungs, the rattle that the winter winds drove into Xiao Shu’s body. Meng lowers himself slowly, buckling over until his forehead is pressed against the edge of Xiao Shu’s bed. The fur is pinpricks of warmth where it brushes against his temples, and the touch is soothing. Meng has closed his eyes, thinking of resting for just a moment, when he feels Xiao Shu’s cold fingers brush along the back of his bare neck.
Xiao Shu’s fingertips are light, more a thought than anything real, but still—they are still there, resting against the back of Meng’s neck. When Meng weeps, tired and quiet and cold, Xiao Shu’s fingertips press more firmly—a little more real, a little more present—and Meng feels himself rock beneath a pressure that is as flimsy as a wisp of fabric, blown away by the slightest breeze.
“Brother Meng,” Xiao Shu says when Meng has calmed his breathing and stopped his tears. Meng doesn’t lift his head, but he nods, his forehead still pressed against the furs of Xiao Shu’s bed.
“I will rely on you,” he tells Xiao Shu, “to lead us through this winter.”
Fei Liu is sent from Xiao Shu’s tent for longer and longer stretches. For all that Fei Liu is a quiet child, he sulks in a large, loud manner, stomping his feet and huffing his breath. Meng isn’t sure who is caring for Fei Liu—someone, surely, must be ensuring that Fei Liu is eating and sleeping, but Zhen Ping and Li Gang come and go more often than anyone else in the camp, carrying messages and secrets and tasks for Xiao Shu.
When Meng sees Fei Liu sulking in the snow, half-heartedly wrapped in furs and kicking at the snowdrifts, he hesitates, then turns away from his tent.
“Fei Liu,” he calls as he strides toward him. Fei Liu’s face brightens, then just as suddenly darkens into a scowl, and Meng smiles at him, asks him, “Fei Liu, have you eaten?”
He manages to cajole Fei Liu into eating porridge that has been simmering over a cooking fire. Every bite feels like a victory, especially when Fei Liu turns to look toward Xiao Shu’s tent more than once, each time asking, “Brother Su?”
“We’ll take him a bowl,” Meng says, and when Fei Liu leaps to his feet, Meng reaches up, grabbing onto Fei Liu’s arm.
“First,” Meng says quickly, letting go of Fei Liu’s arm when Fei Liu scowls at him, “you should finish eating. Your brother Su will want you to eat, right? You don’t want him to scold you.”
There are letters to be read, reports to be listened to; there are decisions waiting for him. His tent is a cold, dark place, with an empty brazier and a bed almost barren of furs. There are so many things that must be done, so many things waiting, resting upon his shoulders. He is so tired.
He digs his knuckles into his right temple, where a headache has been building, and asks Fei Liu, “Are you done? Should we take your brother some porridge?”
“He ate,” Meng tells Xiao Shu when Fei Liu has proudly presented the bowl of porridge to him, “though not much.”
Someone—Li Gang, perhaps, or Zhen Ping—has found an armrest, and Xiao Shu is leaning heavily on it, a cloak slung over him. Xiao Shu’s eyes look bright and feverish, and while his lips are pale and cracked, there is color in his cheeks. Meng doesn’t have to touch him to feel the heat of his fever—it’s present in Xiao Shu’s fidgeting hands, the way he keeps rearranging his cloak, bothering with the folds in the most minute of details.
“That’s good,” Xiao Shu says, and then louder, turning toward where Fei Liu is amusing himself on the other side of the brazier, “That was good, Fei Liu. When Brother Meng asks you to eat with him, you should eat with him—” Xiao Shu takes a quick breath, shuddering, and Meng can hear the whistle of his lungs.
“No fun,” Fei Liu snaps back from the other side of the brazier, and Meng watches as Xiao Shu smiles.
“If you eat the same things as Brother Meng,” Xiao Shu says, “then you’ll be the same strength. Don’t you think, Brother Meng?” he asks, turning his face and lifting an eyebrow at Meng.
Meng lifts his eyebrows back at Xiao Shu, then nods slowly, saying loudly for Fei Liu’s benefit, “That is certainly how strength works. I used to eat the same things as my teacher—”
And late that night, when Fei Liu is sleeping on a pallet near the foot of Xiao Shu’s bed, Meng settles on the floor by the bed and asks Xiao Shu, “What will happen to him?”
Xiao Shu is sitting in the middle of his bed, bent at the waist. When Meng had returned that evening, after meeting with the other generals, he had found Lin Chen tapping Xiao Shu’s back and chest in order to loosen the lungs. It doesn’t escape Meng’s notice that, for all the bloody phlegm that Xiao Shu had coughed up and spat free, Xiao Shu’s breathing is neither smoother nor easier than it has been for the past week.
Xiao Shu sighs now, his head hanging low, chin pressed against his chest. When he shakes his head, his hair—loose for days now, since the last time he was strong enough to rise from his bed to dress—slips forward over his shoulder, veiling his face. Meng thinks of shifting so that he can see Xiao Shu’s face, then just as quickly discards the idea; there are some things that he cannot bear to see.
When Xiao Shu answers, it is to say, “Lin Chen. He will take Fei Liu to Langya Hall. It’s the best option.”
Meng considers Xiao Shu’s words, the way that his thumb is rubbing over the furs lying in his lap. He asks: “Is it the only option?”
“Yes,” Xiao Shu says, and immediately afterward, “No.” His thumb runs over the furs once more, then he lifts his hand and rests it on his knee. When Meng lifts his eyes from Xiao Shu’s hands, he sees that Xiao Shu has turned his face to look at him. “It’s not the only option, but it’s the best.
“Fei Liu,” Xiao Shu says in a low voice, when Meng is helping him lie down on his side, propped up so that his lungs do not suffocate him, “will forget me. It will take time, but he’ll forget.”
Meng swallows, then turns his face away so that he can look elsewhere, at anything other than Xiao Shu’s pale face. When he reluctantly looks back, Xiao Shu is still watching him, his eyes fever-bright and brilliant, like strategies are still running through his mind with the swiftness of a river in the spring thaw. “I’m sorry for it,” Meng manages to say, his voice gruff even to his own ears.
“I’m not,” Xiao Shu answers, and Meng watches as he closes his eyes and sighs, his face going lax. “I’m only sorry that others will not forget Mei Changsu.”
“Commander General,” Xiao Jingrui says when Meng ducks into Xiao Shu’s tent, blinking away the sunspots left by the snow-glare. Xiao Jingrui is sitting at a distance from Xiao Shu’s bed, turned toward the entryway, and Meng catches the way Jingrui’s hand has tensed, his knuckles white from his grip on his sword. Jingrui’s grip looses quickly, though, and he rises smoothly to his feet, repeating, “Commander General,” as he bows respectfully.
“Sit,” Meng says as he straightens in the tent, nodding at Jingrui. Jingrui hesitates, glancing toward Xiao Shu’s bed, and Meng says, “I’m not here to interrupt. Please, sit.”
The tent is an odd tableau: Jingrui is sitting at a studied position between the closeness of friends and the distance of strangers, and while he casts quick glances toward Xiao Shu’s bed, his body is turned toward the tent’s entrance. Yan Yujin is a perfect contrast—he’s sitting so close that he’s pressed against Xiao Shu’s bed, his weight propped half on the bed as he leans forward, speaking to Xiao Shu with a level of intensity Meng hasn’t seen in the camp for weeks. Fei Liu is curled on the bed like a child half his age, his head resting in Xiao Shu’s lap, and his back is turned toward the tent at large; Meng wonders if Fei Liu is drowsing, or if he’s sulking at this intrusion.
And Xiao Shu—Xiao Shu is the center of all this. Xiao Shu is resting on his bed, his arm propped on the armrest, and a heavy cloak has been carefully tucked about him. It is not unlike, Meng thinks for a mad moment, Xiao Shu is an emperor holding court—his favorites, his supplicants, and his guards all present in the men brought together in this little tent.
“Where is Lin Chen?” Meng asks as he straightens from his bow to Xiao Shu, unable to keep from smiling as he thinks of Lin Chen as a minister, or a eunuch—some sharp-tongued official of the court, scolding and cajoling Xiao Shu in equal measure.
“Commander General,” Xiao Shu says, turning a curious, tired-looking face toward Meng. Xiao Shu’s fingers twitch, an aborted gesture of some sort, and Meng takes it as a gesture to sit. He seats himself at the midway point between Jingrui and the bed, at an angle where he can easily see both Yujin’s and Xiao Shu’s faces, and sighs heavily as his body settles gratefully to the floor of the tent.
“—he’ll return with Li Gang,” Xiao Shu finishes, and Meng nods. “From where do you return, Commander General?”
“From a battle over a warm fire and a pot of porridge.” Meng can feel his smile grow when Yan Yujin laughs, and he leans back on an arm, stretching his back lazily. It is warm in the tent, from the brazier and the sun-beaten tent walls, and Meng can feel the warmth seeping into his bones, as heavy and comfortable as a cat drowsing on a porch.
“Did you fight valiantly?” Yan Yujin asks with a laugh, and Meng chuckles shortly, saying,
“It was hard fought, but well won. Have you eaten?”
Xiao Shu demurs when Yan Yujin offers to fetch a bowl for him; when Yan Yujin leans forward, throwing more of his weight against the edge of Xiao Shu’s bed, Meng catches another, aborted movement to his right. It is Jingrui, settling back down from where he had begun to rise. His face, Meng thinks, looks unhappy—there is something there, in the tightness of his eyes, or maybe in the corners of his mouth; something that makes Meng pity him, because Meng knows intimately how painful helplessness can be.
“Yujin,” Jingrui says in a low voice, as though no one but Yujin will take note of him, so long as he speaks lowly enough
“You’re certain?” Yujin asks, and as Xiao Shu demurs again, Meng watches Jingrui. Jingrui has turned his face to the side, his chin low, but his eyes are looking sidelong toward Xiao Shu’s bed. The corners of Jingrui’s mouth tighten, his frown growing firmer, as he looks away as quickly as he had looked toward Xiao Shu.
“I’ll bring a flute next,” Yujin says as he begins to rise from his seat. When Xiao Shu makes an inquisitive sound, Yujin says cheerfully, “There have been games of skill, and I’ve won a flute—”
“They’re not games of skill,” Jingrui interrupts, his face beginning to crease with his frown. “They’re betting games—”
“And I’ve won a flute,” Yujin repeats, speaking louder over Jingrui’s interruption, “amongst other things. I’ll bring it, though I’m not so skilled as you, Brother Su—”
“Gambling,” Jingrui says, seemingly to no one as he rises. When Meng rises as well, Jingrui bows quickly to him, then says, with his eyes firmly fixed on the far tent wall, “We should go—we’ll leave so that you can rest, Mister Su.”
“Will you tell them?” Meng later asks, when he is looking over a map with Xiao Shu. It’s been an hour—maybe longer—since Yan Yujin left the tent, Xiao Jingrui following close behind, and it only takes a moment for Xiao Shu to make the connection and to frown at Meng.
“Would you have me do so? Is it better,” Xiao Shu asks, “to know that I’m Lin Shu?”
When Meng is folding the map, running the side of his thumb along the creases, Xiao Shu says, “They’ve talked of Lin Shu before—they’ve told me about him. I wonder,” Xiao Shu says as he shifts on his bed, leaning more heavily on his armrest, “if Jingrui—”
Meng holds his tongue, keeping his face turned down toward the floor. He listens as Xiao Shu breathes, the quick-slow-quick tempo that is Xiao Shu’s body failing him. When Meng has waited long enough, his hands lying motionless on the half-folded map and his eyes tracing the inked lines of rivers and hills, Xiao Shu continues:
“Jingrui is a good child. He forgave me after I destroyed his father’s house—he said that he would be at fault, if he was angry for not being chosen first. He thought,” Xiao Shu says in a bleak tone, something more suitable for the small hours of the night, rather than this bright, snow-glared afternoon, “that he was passed over by a friend he’d newly made. By someone who’d been nearly a stranger only a year before.
“Brother Meng,” Xiao Shu asks, “would it help him if he knew it was his Lin Shu who passed him over?”
Meng covers his face then, the heels of his hands pressed against his mouth hard enough that he can feel his teeth cut the inside of his lips. When he digs his fingertips into his scalp, the pricks of pain from the pulled hairs are bright but short-lived. He can’t speak—can’t think of what is the right thing to say: I’m sorry, or I didn’t know?
He would understand, he thinks, because he’s certain that Jingrui would—but in terms of better, in terms of helpful—
He knows that he views the world differently than Xiao Shu. He knows that he is too swayed by his emotions, that outside the field of battle he reacts based on his heart and his desire to be honest and fair to those he loves. He knows that he’s selfishly naive, that he’s stubborn to the point of obstinance in doing what feels right to him, and that he’s as equally as stubborn and selfish in his dogged, unquestioning loyalty. He knows that in Xiao Shu’s eyes, Meng’s loyalty is compounded with foolishness and a certainty that in time—in time—in time—
So he says nothing. The unspoken words rest, dry and dead, on the back of his tongue. He swipes his thumb over the map, a raspy brush of skin against paper, then stills his hand again.
When Xiao Shu asks, “Why do you ask me these things,”
Meng answers as he does every time he sees the world differently than Xiao Shu: the years he spent silently mourning the Blazing Army, the years spent biting back the names of the dead; the stranger who came to Jinglin with Xiao Shu’s message and a new, yawning pit of anger and pain; the confusing distance that lies between him and those lost in the Blazing Army case—the world he sees differently because of a transfer made a year before Plum Ridge.
Meng looks down at the half-folded map, the ink-drawn world he can’t divorce from his heart, and answers, “I’ve never understood, and I want someday to understand.”
(“I don’t want to be remembered this way,” Xiao Shu says in the small hours of the night. The tent smells of blood and sickness, and the only light is that cast by the brazier. The light is faint, but it glimmers in Fei Liu’s eyes, which are open and watchful from the far side of Xiao Shu’s bed.
Xiao Shu is only a layer of shadows, only the suggestion of tiny movements.
Meng wonders if this is real, or if it is another dream.
“Mei Changsu,” Xiao Shu says, “was a tool, a weapon. He was never meant to be real—he was never meant to be loved, or remembered. I hate him,” Xiao Shu says, his shadowy figure trembling with what Meng imagines must be fury, “and I hate that people love him. I hate that people will remember him—”
When Meng reaches out to touch a glowing ember, it burns—the blisters are already forming by the time he has shoved his fingertip into his mouth. As his fingertip throbs, he wonders if Xiao Shu’s nightmares also burn.
“I wanted to die,” Xiao Shu whispers in the dark, “as Lin Shu. I wish I’d died on Plum Ridge.”)
“My lord,” his guard says, bowing beside the tent flap, and when Meng nods at him to continue, the guard says, “Young Master Yan has asked to speak with you.”
Meng bites back his groan. He’s only just returned to the camp, and he had just begun to unfasten his first gauntlet when his guard had ducked into the tent. He can feel the long hours of the past few days in the sweat, ash, and blood that is caked on his skin and beneath his nails, and what he wants, more than nearly anything else, is to rid himself of his armor and wash the past few days away.
“My lord,” his guard says again, and Meng rouses himself enough to say, as he strips the gauntlet from his hand,
“Come and help me with my armor, then show him in.”
Meng doesn’t miss the way Yujin glances over the contents of the tent when he enters, looking from his left to his right—the sleeping pallet that has been pared down to a single, heavy fur blanket, the brazier that hasn’t been lit for days, the table that is lit with Meng’s only lamp, and which is stacked with documents: letters, rosters, and maps. Yujin’s eyebrows lift, but when he turns his face back toward Meng, his mouth is carefully free of either smile or frown.
Not for the first time, Meng is struck by the similarity between his wife and Yan Yujin, and he wonders what thoughts must lie behind their eyes. He wonders what it must be like, to glance at the world and to know so much about other people with an instinct that seems as easy and reflexive as the beating of their hearts; he wonders how they can understand so much about other people, and neither remark nor act upon any of that. With his wife, he knows that it’s kindness. With Yujin, he wonders if it is kindness or a desire to avoid heartache; he thinks it might be both.
“Brother Su calls you Brother Meng.”
It’s not what Meng expected to hear. He hesitates, then motions for Yan Yujin to sit beside the cold brazier, then sits before him. Yan Yujin’s face is smooth, still empty of either smile or frown, and Meng thinks that he is not quick-witted enough for conversations like these, with men like Yan Yujin.
“Does he?” Meng asks a little weakly, and Yan Yujin’s mouth makes a very small, very crooked smile. Meng thinks it must be an affectation—there is very little about Xiao Shu that leads to anyone smiling.
“When he is half-asleep, or when he is delirious. The fever,” Yan Yujin says, “was very bad last night. He asked me when Brother Meng would return.”
“I see.” Meng sighs, then looks at Yan Yujin’s face again. “And?” he asks; he’s unsure what he’s prompting, unsure where he wants this conversation to go.
“I think I understand. Jingrui won’t,” Yan Yujin says, leaning forward toward Meng, just enough that Meng could touch him if he lifted his hand. “I don’t think Jingrui ever would, but I do.
“Do you know,” Yan Yujin continues, sitting back now, turning his face away from Meng’s, “ Lin Shu would scold us? Constantly, all the time. He would yell at Jingrui, and at me. But Brother Su—” Yan Yujin pauses, and Meng catches the way that Yan Yujin’s mouth moves, like he is mouthing names silently to himself. When Yan Yujin glances at Meng, it is out of the side of his eyes, like he is playing at being a shy child.
(Meng thinks of his wife and how she speaks to him sideways, gently turning problems over, slow step by slow step, until everything seems right again; he thinks of how Yan Yujin leans on Xiao Shu’s bed, turned toward Xiao Shu like Xiao Shu is the sun. He thinks, Who would ever deserve you?)
“Brother Su,” Yan Yujin says quietly, as Meng is folding his hands in his lap, aching for the gentle kindness of his wife, “was always very gentle. He would never scold us, not like—not like Lin Shu.”
Yan Yujin falls silent then, looking at Meng expectantly. All that Meng can offer in turn is his truth: “I don’t know what to say,” he says, and Yan Yujin’s smile in return looks forced.
“Will he die?” Yan Yujin asks, with his forced, brittle-looking smile, and Meng repeats his miserable little truth:
“I don’t know what to say.”
Meng takes a step back so that he can see the map in its entirety. He thinks of the river, freezing even in its fastest stretches; he thinks of the trees that have been bursting with sharp, firecracker pops, the sap frozen beneath the bark; he thinks of how quickly a man would freeze to death in the winter air.
He thinks of Great Yu’s soldiers, bunked down in a winter camp, hiding from the cold just as Meng’s army is.
(He thinks of Xie Yu striking from the rear, slaughtering the Blazing Army as it huddled on a frozen ridge.)
“We could finish this,” he says slowly, and when Lie Zhanying turns toward him, Meng nods toward the flap of the tent and says, “The freeze hit too fast. We can’t move camp, but neither can they.”
“Then—” Zhen Ping says, but when Meng looks at him, Zhen Ping is looking away, avoiding his eyes. Zhen Ping is frowning, his jaw tight and his mouth thin, and Meng thinks that maybe Zhen Ping is also thinking of Plum Ridge.
“They wouldn’t risk their men,” Meng says slowly, testing the words as he says them, searching for a snag. “Their losses have been too heavy—between the river,” he says, nodding at Lie Zhanying, “and the last few skirmishes, they’ll have grown cautious. They won’t move.”
“You’ll attack their camp,” Lie Zhanying says. His voice is steady and his face is calm; as Meng watches him, he nods and says, “If you attack at night, the sound of your approach might be confused with the cracking of the trees.”
“If the freeze holds,” Meng says, and Lie Zhanying agrees, “If the freeze holds.”
And Zhen Ping says, “It’ll hold.” Zhen Ping clears his throat, then says, “It won’t break. It never breaks that quickly, not here. It’ll last another week at the least.”
Zhen Ping falls silent then, and Meng holds his tongue, thinking of another week of this type of cold. He wonders how many of his men will die, their spirits cracking beneath the heavy freeze like the trees past the camp.
“We could leave.” Lie Zhanying’s face is calm, and he says, “We could move further south, out of the foothills. Great Yu won’t follow, not for weeks yet—maybe not for the rest of the winter. We could wait for spring.”
“No,” Meng is saying before Lie Zhanying has finished speaking. He licks his lips—cracked and bloody from the cold—and says again, “No. Not now. We’ve lost enough. We’ve sacrificed enough.
“If we wait for the spring,” Meng says, “we will only sacrifice more. We can finish this and be done.”
“A massacre,” Zhen Ping says in a low voice, and Meng agrees, “A massacre.”
Lie Zhanying looks between Zhen Ping and Meng, and Meng thinks that perhaps Lie Zhanying is thinking of Plum Ridge, too, of men bleeding and burning in the snow. Meng isn’t Xiao Shu, but he still catches the way Lie Zhanying’s eyebrows pull in tight. A frown, maybe—worry, or disgust, or maybe just a calculating thoughtfulness.
“How many men do we need?” Lie Zhanying asks, and his voice is politely questioning. Meng nods at the tone before he realizes it, grateful for Lie Zhanying’s studied coolness.
“Any strong enough to make the ride.” Meng crosses his arms, tapping his right fingers against his side as he studies the map. “Half again as many horses as men. We’ll rotate the horses as we go, keeping most of them strong enough for the return. Do you remember Great Yu’s horses?”
Lie Zhanying frowns, then nods, saying, “They had a fair number a month ago. They’d be fresher than ours.”
“Good. Find the lieutenants, get the number of men strong enough for a straight ride.” Meng nods to himself, casting his gaze downward, then to the side. “We’ll organize three formations—find a lieutenant who’s fought winter campaigns for the third formation.
“We’ll leave in two mornings. If we send a few scouts ahead, we can be sure to strike them in the night.”
“I understand,” Lie Zhanying says, and when Meng tells him to go, Lie Zhanying bows, then hurries from the tent, his cloak pulled close to his body as he ducks through the tent flap
“You’ll stay with the camp,” Meng tells Zhen Ping when Lie Zhanying has left the tent. Zhen Ping is facing the map, head cocked to the side as he considers it, and he turns toward Meng when Meng speaks. Meng nods his head toward Zhen Ping and says, “Both you and Li Gang will stay with the camp.”
“With the young commander,” Zhen Ping notes, sounded certain and maybe resigned, and Meng nods. Zhen Ping makes a strange face, then asks, in a questioning tone, “And Xiao Jingrui and Yan Yujin?”
Meng can’t keep himself from looking away to avoid Zhen Ping’s eyes. He can feel a flush on his face, and his embarrassment annoys him. “Yan Yujin has been unsteady recently,” he says, unable to stop the sharpness of his tone.
Zhen Ping seems unconcerned by Meng’s tone. “Of course, Commander General,” Zhen Ping says, as though Meng’s orders are reasonable, as though Meng isn’t making blatantly emotional decisions.
“Tell me,” Meng asks in a rush, more desperate than he’d realized, “is this foolish? I’ve lost—” He stops, his mouth feeling awkward and empty, like it is gaping open. He breathes in sharply, then says, “I’ve never done this before. I’ve never lost my—my perspective before. Not like this.
“I don’t,” he says, “know how to fight a battle on two fronts. Not like this. Not out there, and then—” He waves his hand toward the eastern wall of the tent, where—past a short stretch of snow—Xiao Shu’s tent rests. “I can’t remember ever feeling this tired before. This cold.” He blinks, then lifts his hands to his face, pressing his palms hard against the headache building behind his eyes. “I don’t know if this is all foolishness—if I’m just desperate to get us back to Jinling.
“To get Xiao Shu back to Jinling,” he finishes in a low voice, and he moves his hands so that he can rub a knuckle against his right temple. He can feel his exhaustion growing by the moment, like each word he spoke was another long night sitting vigil in Xiao Shu’s tent.
“It’s not foolish. If it works, it’ll work well,” Zhen Ping says after a moment, like he’s offering something up. Meng snorts, then asks, feeling a tired sort of amusement:
“And if it doesn’t work?”
“If,” Zhen Ping says. He hesitates noticeably, then glances sideways at Meng, saying, “The young commander won’t know what’s happened to you before he dies.”
It feels like ice has been thrust into Meng’s stomach, a painfully sobering jab. Meng takes a breath, then a second, and asks, “Less than a week?”
Zhen Ping shakes his head, then says, “He won’t outlast the freeze.” Zhen Ping’s smile looks rueful, or maybe just bitter; Meng has never been good at these tiny differences, not like Xiao Shu was. Not like Xiao Shu is.
“Maybe,” Meng says in a slow voice, all the desperation draining away to the exhausted hopelessness that began to burrow into his bones weeks ago, “it is ill luck. He survived fourteen years ago, but he might still die during a winter massacre.” Meng rubs his knuckle against his temple once more, then wipes his hand over his mouth, sighing. “Maybe I’ve brought ill luck back to him.”
“He’ll approve. You remember,” Zhen Ping says, his voice too firm to be a question, “how relentless the young commander was.”
“Relentless—is that the word?” Meng asks.
“Relentless.” Zhen Ping shifts in front of him, turning so that he is facing Meng head-on. “Cruel, if necessary.”
Meng breathes heavily, then nods, feeling his resolve firm. “If it works,” he says, “it will work well. You’ll tell him?”
“When you’ve left.” Zhen Ping looks toward the tent flap, then looks back at Meng, smiling. “I think he’ll find the humor in it. He likes symmetry, I think it will amuse him.”
Meng laughs shortly, reaching out to grasp Zhen Ping’s shoulder, gripping it tightly. “You have my thanks,” he says. “Someone will be with him?”
“Always,” Zhen Ping replies quickly, fiercer than Meng expected, and Zhen Ping seems as surprised at his fierceness as Meng. Zhen Ping hesitates for a moment, his mouth parted, and when Meng withdraws his hand, he seems to shake himself. “We’ll watch for you, Commander General. If there’s no word within a week, we’ll send out riders.”
“Good. Send in General Qi Meng. My thanks,” Meng says again, and he watches as Zhen Ping bows, then leaves the tent.
It is nearing dusk when they reach the camp. It has been a long, cold week, and it takes long, cold moments for Meng to focus his eyes enough to pick out the tents from the glare of sun and snow, and a few moments more for him to catch the movement of figures moving through the camp.
He waits, still mounted on his horse, as his men disperse into the camp, the injured and frostbitten led toward the central physicians’ tents as the remaining horses are taken toward the western paddocks. The muffled jangle of tack around him is dreamlike, and the voices of the camp seem to come from a great distance.
He can’t decide if it’s warmer or colder to sit on his horse, motionless as the soldiers swarm around him; his fingers are curled deep in his horse’s mane, though he can’t feel much of the horse’s warmth through the thickness of his gloves. His face feels as though it’s been rubbed raw from the dry winds, and his eyes feel swollen and sore from the snowblindness.
“You look awful.”
Meng blinks, then reaches up, rubbing as gingerly as he can beneath his eye, trying to dry the tear that has leaked from his sore eye before the winter air will turn it cold and painful.
“Don’t rub your eyes,” Lin Chen snaps, and when Meng has obediently stopped rubbing his eye, Lin Chen reaches up, tugging the reins of the horse out of Meng’s other hand. “Is everyone as snowblind as you?”
“Enough,” Meng answers, and when Lin Chen lifts his eyebrows expectantly, Meng says, “The frostbite is worse, and the cold exhaustion. We won’t be able to move camp for weeks.”
“Will we need to?” Lin Chen asks, and Meng smiles at his sharp tone, clenching his hand into a fist to keep from rubbing his eyes.
“No,” he says, and he can’t help chuckling breathlessly for a moment. “No, we won’t need to. Great Yu is no threat to us now.”
“Well,” Lin Chen says, and Meng huffs another half-hearted chuckle, nodding.
The nod makes his head spin for a moment, like his neck has lost its strength, like his chin can’t be lifted from his chest. He takes a moment, closing his eyes and breathing out through his nose slowly before he lifts his head, opening his eyes to the stabbing pain of the snow-glare.
When Lin Chen touches Meng’s leg, firmly enough for Meng to feel it through the heavy layers of his clothing, Meng turns his head enough to look down at him. Lin Chen’s face looks concerned, a look Meng has learned well from the weeks spent in Xiao Shu’s tent; Meng feels a strange sense of being disconnected from himself and his place, as though his body and his mind are in different times and different places.
“Did you sleep at all?” Lin Chen asks, and Meng answers,
“Enough. What I needed.”
Lin Chen nods, as decisive and thoughtless to station in this as he is in everything he does, and Meng watches as he folds the slack of the reins up in his hand, tugging the horse’s head closer. The horse’s breath comes as a white plume, rising in the cold air, and Meng watches it, feeling entranced.
“You can rest in Mei Changsu’s tent,” Lin Chen says, and Meng feels all the more disjointed as Lin Chen begins to walk toward the center of camp, leading the horse. “It’s the warmest tent.”
Meng has managed to wave Lin Chen off by the time they’ve reached the center of the camp, dismounting under his own power. He even manages to snag a passing soldier to take his horse and to summon Meng’s generals, and then he ducks into the cold, dim map tent, clapping his hands together for warmth as he waits for Qi Meng.
By the time Lie Zhanying has brought the list of wounded and dead, Qi Meng and Meng have sorted through the lists of supplies and horses. They tally numbers once, and twice, and thrice for safety; Qi Meng balances the inkstone on the rim of the brazier to keep the water from freezing, and Meng watches the well of the inkstone, wondering if it will heat enough to steam.
He warms slowly—or maybe it is just that he grows a little less cold, huddled in his cloak the way he is, leaning as close to the brazier as he dares. Lie Zhanying is hunched over the far side of the brazier, his face pale and cold looking, his hands held close to the coals of the brazier.
“I’ve heard,” Qi Meng says between brushstrokes, his head ducked close to the paper in the dim light of the brazier’s coals, “that the freeze will break in a day or two. It won’t,” he says, “be this cold for much longer.”
He enters Xiao Shu’s tent hours later, when the sun has sunk below the horizon.
There is something horrific in his reluctance—something horrific in the prick of disappointment that Xiao Shu is still laboring through life. There is something horrific, something awful and dark and sickening, in the way that Meng wishes that—what? That Xiao Shu had died when Meng was gone from camp? That Xiao Shu had died without Meng by his side, the way he had been said to have died at Plum Ridge?
That this impossible task had been taken from Meng’s hands—that this endless, breathless waiting had come to a close.
He had lingered in the map tent as long as he could, and then in his own tent. His tent, though, had been no warmer than the map tent, and the icy prickles running along his spine had felt too much like dread and anticipation. He had thought, briefly, of lying himself down to sleep on his pallet, but when he had stood before his pallet, he’d thought, Will I wake again?
He is tired, but he thinks it might be more than that—he thinks that the cold has sunk too deeply into his body, that the waiting has clawed too deeply into his mind. He thinks that maybe he’s poisoned himself in his heart, that his hurt and heartache has festered into something monstrous.
He wants to lie down and sleep. He wants to walk out of this tent and out of this camp. He wants to sleep in the arms of his wife. He wants to be warm again.
(He wishes he had died with the Blazing Army.)
When Meng enters Xiao Shu’s tent, he feels what little strength he had desert him. He crumples to the ground, hearing his own breath leave him like the whine of a dying animal. He can’t stop it—can only crouch on the cold ground, covering his sore eyes as he tries to catch and steady his own breath, to catch and steady the painful beating of his own heart. He wonders if he will die like this, too.
“Rest,” Lin Chen’s voice says.
When Meng lowers his hands, he sees that Lin Chen’s back is bent; he is bowed over Xiao Shu’s bed, his dark hair falling over his shoulder. Meng cannot see his face from here—the lamplight is low, shaded to ease the pain in Xiao Shu’s eyes, and so all the tent is cast in shadows. When the lamp’s flame flickers, the shadows move slowly, gently, like the softly breathing body of a sleeping cat.
“Xiao Shu,” Meng says. His eyes are burning from the endless miles of blinding snow, from the endless nights of keeping watch, from the endless moments when he thinks, This is it, this is it—his breath is gone, he’ll never catch it again— He rubs a knuckle against his right eye, hard enough that he sees starbursts. “The night will be too long, too cold—”
“Rest,” Lin Chen says again. He moves, sending new shadows breathing against the tent walls as he rises enough to lean over Xiao Shu, to press his fingers in the dark space between Xiao Shu’s neck and throat. Three beats, and on the fourth, when Fei Lui is shifting restlessly beside Xiao Shu’s bed, Lin Chen sits back, nodding.
“Will he?” Meng asks, and Lin Chen is rising from his seat, crossing over to where Meng is still crouched, cold and tired and bitter. Lin Chen’s hand is heavy when it lands on Meng’s shoulder, heavy enough that it pushes Meng to the ground—or maybe it is that Meng is too tired now, too cold and too bitter to resist, his heart rotting from the inside.
Meng lies still and pliant as Lin Chen tugs at his cloak, arranging it so that it is tucked around Meng’s shoulders, the heavy fur collar resting between Meng’s cheek and the frozen ground. Meng turns his head, enough that he can see Xiao Shu’s bed, and he watches the shadows breathe as gently as a cat. He can feel his heart beating where his temple is resting on the ground; it feels like the heavy beating of drums, cracking his skull from the inside.
“Rest,” Lin Chen says for the third time, and his hand—cold and firm—presses against Meng’s forehead, then slides lower to cover Meng’s burning eyes, closing out the tent’s shadows. “I’ll wake you when it is time.”