Jingyan’s sons both looked up with guilty expressions when he came in with Eunuch Gao behind him. Jingyan smiled at the picture they made. Tingsheng looked more like his father every year; most people now assumed he was Jingyan’s own illegitimate son, though there were a few who had counted carefully enough and known Jingyan at eighteen well enough to have cleverer guesses. “What do you have there?” he said. “Sweets, hmm? Where did you get those, did your grandmother make them for you?”
“We went to the market with -” began the Crown Prince, who at age seven was already showing clear signs of Jingyan’s own incurable honesty.
“Shh!” said Tingsheng.
“Are you encouraging your brother to lie to me, Tingsheng?” said Jingyan.
Tingsheng immediately bowed. “Never to lie, father, but the mind of an emperor should not be burdened with trifles.”
Jingyan raised his eyebrows, trying not to smile. “Perhaps the Crown Prince should run along and greet his mother,” he suggested. Tingsheng winced. “He can tell me more about his adventures later. No, take your sweets. I am sure they are delicious.”
The Crown Prince paused and solemnly handed Jingyan a hazelnut confection on his way out. He forgot to bow.
Tingsheng on the other hand had started bowing again as soon as his brother turned away and still had his head down. “Father, forgive my thoughtlessness. Little Brother wanted to meet my teacher, whom I had told him about before. He is a well-travelled and pleasant gentleman who tells many interesting stories.”
“Get up, get up. One of the scholars you met in your travels?” said Jingyan. “Why did you not invite him here?”
“He would not have been willing to come; he is not of a character which values such things. However he is very fond of children, and I knew he would be happy to meet Little Brother.”
“And then you went to the market,” said Jingyan. The whole thing was a perfectly harmless and silly little adventure, the kind of nonsense Jingyan himself had gotten into with Xiao Shu plenty of times. Tingsheng had obviously set it up as a treat for his brother. He was most impressed that his adopted eldest son had somehow managed to smuggle a seven-year-old out of the palace and then back into it again without anyone coming to have hysterics at Jingyan about it. Travelling in the pugilist world had plainly taught Tingsheng much. “Let the guards know next time. Tell them you have my permission for such visits. That way even if your teacher is not willing to come here, you can take your brother to see him without having to look so guilty about it.”
“Thank you, father,” said Tingsheng, and bowed again.
“Remind me, what is your teacher’s name?” said Jingyan.
“His name is Chang Lin, father,” said Tingsheng.
Jingyan tucked his hands into his sleeves and said with serene and infinite calm, “I am going to kill him.”
“Commander Meng,” said Jingyan, “please seal the city. No one is to enter or leave by any gates. And then please go yourself and arrest the gentleman who is staying at an address Tingsheng will give to you. Bring him to the palace and have him put into comfortable quarters, but kept under guard.”
“Father,” said Tingsheng nervously. “My teacher’s health is not strong, and he has done nothing wrong -”
“Calm down, I’m not actually going to kill him,” said Jingyan. Something in his voice made Commander Meng turn and give him a wide-eyed look. “Commander Meng, quickly, please.”
Commander Meng worked his jaw a few times, and then he said, “Two armies saw him die in single combat with Da Yu’s general, mortally wounding him too. I saw it myself, your Majesty!”
“Of course you did,” said Jingyan. “I only want a word with Tingsheng’s teacher, whom the Crown Prince likes so much as well.”
Commander Meng stared at him a moment longer and then hurried out. Jingyan heard him shouting to his men already as he rushed down the steps. Tingsheng looked appalled. “Go and help Commander Meng,” Jingyan said to him.
Tingsheng retreated still giving him worried looks. The minute the doors closed behind him Jingyan slumped on the throne and started to laugh. He laughed and laughed until Eunuch Gao said, “Your Majesty,” concerned and faintly disapproving. Then Jingyan gulped in a couple of breaths and put his face in his hands for a moment.
“Your Majesty,” said Eunuch Gao again.
“What do you think?” said Jingyan.
“I would not presume to contradict your Majesty’s wisdom,” said Eunuch Gao. “But I think that if it is as your Majesty supposes, Commander Meng will not be successful.”
“Oh, no, he won’t have run away now,” said Jingyan. “If he didn’t want me to know, I wouldn’t have known.”
“Or,” Eunuch Gao ventured, “the gentleman is simply an ordinary scholar. I believe your Majesty’s son knew Su Zhe well. He would surely have noticed if -”
Jingyan turned and looked at him.
Eunuch Gao hesitated. Suddenly he laughed. “Or perhaps not,” he admitted, and said no more.
“I’m not going to kill you,” said Jingyan.
The man face down on the floor said, “I am grateful beyond measure for your Majesty’s wisdom and mercy. I should not have taken the young prince to the market. Please forgive my unspeakable foolishness.”
“Nihuang might,” said Jingyan. The man on the floor didn’t look anything like anyone. His robes had been carefully patched several times.
“I know of no offence one as low as myself might have given to the Princess Nihuang,” said the man called Chang Lin. “Please be gracious to your servant.” He raised his head just enough to give Jingyan a beseeching, terrified look. Nothing in his face was familiar, not even the eyes. It occurred to Jingyan that it was not impossible he actually was just terrorising an ordinary wandering scholar for no reason. Most people would have said it was by far the most likely explanation of what was happening. If he kept this up, rumours would start to spread that the Emperor was unjust in his actions, or unbalanced in his thoughts.
He sat down.
“What did you think of my son?” he said. “Be honest with me.”
“He is a young person of outstanding righteousness and remarkable intelligence,” said Chang Lin to the floor.
Jingyan snorted. “Sit up. If you are supposed to be a scholar, then speak as a scholar. I will not be offended.”
Chang Lin sat up slowly and said after a moment, “He is a very honest child.”
“I know,” said Jingyan. “He gets it from me. He has only just learned that he cannot shout ‘wig!’ whenever he spots a lady of the Inner Palace thus adorned.”
Chang Lin made a faint stifled noise.
“As a father I despair. I was much more well-mannered than that,” said Jingyan. “Even at that age I was never the one who shouted it.” It had been Lin Shu, of course.
“Your Majesty’s self-restraint is justly famed throughout the land,” said Chang Lin.
Jingyan snorted. “What recommendations do you have for his education?” he said. “I assume that is why you came.”
“I do not know what your Majesty means,” said Chang Lin.
“Presume that my mind is wandering because of the exhausting business of attending to state affairs unassisted night and day,” said Jingyan, “if you like. But answer my question.”
“Surely your Majesty has plenty of able assistants -”
Jingyan rolled his eyes. “Just tell me, Xiao Shu.”
Chang Lin did a very good impression of an ordinary man trying desperately to conceal his alarm at being trapped in a room with a complete stranger who had turned out to be a lunatic as well as his emperor. It was extremely convincing. Jingyan was almost convinced. After a moment the man began to speak, haltingly and with several apologies and polite references to his own inadequacy and Jingyan’s great wisdom, of the principles of education that should apply to a Crown Prince.
“Wait,” said Jingyan. “I’ll make notes.”
Jingyan gave orders for the scholar to be given plenty to eat. He nearly ordered the kitchens to send up some hazelnut pastries along with the rest of the dishes, but restrained himself at the last moment. Being spiteful was unworthy of an emperor and would disappoint his mother; and besides, he was perfectly confident of Lin Shu’s ability to make it look like he’d eaten the pastries.
“Are you sure it is Xiao Shu?” said Commander Meng. “Your Majesty, I mean - he doesn’t even look like -”
“It’s him,” said Jingyan, instead of pointing out that it hadn’t looked like him last time either.
“How do you know?” said Commander Meng plaintively.
“When Lin Shu didn’t want me to know, I didn’t know,” said Jingyan. “Now I know; so he must want me to know. It’s him.”
Commander Meng blinked at that for some reason. It seemed perfectly obvious to Jingyan. “Make sure his chambers are guarded,” he said. “The windows, too. Please keep watch yourself.”
“I don’t think the gentleman has the skill to disappear from the palace so easily, your Majesty,” said Commander Meng.
“I’m not worried about him,” said Jingyan. “I’m worried about Fei Liu.”
Commander Meng stared at him some more. “Fei Liu,” he echoed hoarsely, and then abruptly his eyes were wet. “Your Majesty -”
“I know, I know, you were there,” said Jingyan. “But listen to me. I can believe that Xiao Shu could die. I can even believe that he meant to die. But I don’t believe he could die in combat, the way it is said to have happened; not unless Fei Liu had died first.”
Commander Meng went to one knee. “Your Majesty, he did. He was overwhelmed by an entire battalion of the enemy, who -”
“That’s just it,” said Jingyan. “Brother Meng, think about Xiao Shu. Would he have let Fei Liu die?”
“Even Xiao Shu could not control fate,” said Commander Meng, but his eyebrows were starting to scrunch together.
“Of course not,” said Jingyan.
There was a pause.
“I will keep guard personally, your Majesty,” said Commander Meng.
“Thank you, Commander Meng,” said Jingyan. “I appreciate that.”
Chang Lin did not disappear from the palace that night, or the night after that, or the night after that. He remained locked in his comfortable guest quarters and guarded at all times. Jingyan let Tingsheng visit him, and the Crown Prince too when he begged. He himself went to see the man in the afternoon most days.
“Let us walk in the garden,” he said on the fourth or fifth afternoon. He offered Chang Lin his arm, so Chang Lin had to take it. The eunuchs and guards all averted their eyes in horror from the breach of protocol. “It is a beautiful day.”
“Your Majesty,” Chang Lin said faintly, and walked beside him with a petrified air. Jingyan had sent him some nicer robes to wear than the patched one he’d had when he arrived. They sat down in the pavilion, and were brought some tea, and Jingyan watched Chang Lin’s hands, which were folded in his lap and perfectly still while they talked of the loveliness of the season, the beauty of the scene, some poetry which Chang Lin had been reminded of and which he recited in a slightly embarrassed way for Jingyan to hear.
After a while the conversation fell off, but there was no discomfort. Chang Lin sat quietly looking out at the gardens, and Jingyan did the same.
“I still think the pearl was brutal,” he remarked out of nowhere just as Chang Lin picked up his teacup.
Chang Lin did not spill the tea.
“It worked, of course. But it was not kind. And I think the letter to Nihuang was almost worse. You know that she is married now?”
Chang Lin murmured in assent.
“She is happy,” said Jingyan. “And I am happy, of course. Everything is as it was arranged.”
“Your Majesty,” said Chang Lin, “forgive my presumption, but it seems to me that you carry sorrows with you. Sorrows are often lightened by being shared, and the comforts of philosophy are many.”
Jingyan said, “I would be very glad to hear some of the comforts of philosophy, Sir Chang.”
Chang Lin bowed. “Your Majesty.”
“We shall walk again in the garden tomorrow.”
They did, tomorrow, and the day after that, and thereafter most days, except those when it rained. Chang Lin’s health did not seem extraordinarily frail, but Jingyan remembered that Tingsheng had worried and was considerate.
Chang Lin spoke in his quiet way of the comforts of philosophy. He recited more poetry, and after some coaxing on Jingyan’s part confessed that it was his own work and accepted Jingyan’s compliments with an air of bashful pleasure. Jingyan arranged that he should be brought any book he desired from the Imperial Library. He arranged that Tingsheng should go and study with him every morning. He would have liked to send the Crown Prince to Chang Lin too, but favour so great shown to a poor wandering scholar would have offended those whom Jingyan knew better than to offend. An Emperor did not have the luxury of doing what he liked. Instead he gave his notes on Chang Lin’s recommendations to the Imperial Tutor, who saw that they were in the Emperor’s own handwriting and asked no further questions.
Two weeks of this went by. Doubt began to grow in Jingyan’s heart. When he thought of Su Zhe, he remembered above all how extraordinarily bad at concealing himself Lin Shu had been - how many times Jingyan had hesitated on the edge of the impossible, dragged backwards by one lie or another, before finally being pushed over the cliff of understanding. He had spoken now with Chang Lin for many hours, sat with him as he thought and read and spoke about his studies, seen the way he ate and drank, listened to his efforts at poetry, which ranged from the thoroughly pedestrian to a few works which touched the edge of the sublime. He watched Chang Lin’s hands often, and they never tormented the fine fabric of his new robes once. Jingyan took to telling him of state affairs, explaining knotty problems and asking him questions. Chang Lin answered hesitantly, and some of his advice was simply wrong.
Some was not; but then of course he was a scholar. Of course he was a clever man.
After two weeks had gone past Jingyan made a decision.
“Sir Chang,” he said as he sat with his guest - who was still, more or less, his prisoner - and Eunuch Gao brought them tea. “I owe you an apology.”
“Your Majesty must not be concerned over me,” murmured Chang Lin.
“When we first spoke,” said Jingyan, “I must have seemed to you to be somewhat confused. I fear I caused you unnecessary distress.”
“Your Majesty, no,” said Chang Lin.
“Give us some privacy,” said Jingyan over his shoulder, and the maids and eunuchs withdrew. “Sir Chang, you spoke wisely when you spoke to me of the burden of sorrow. For many years I have carried such a burden. With your wisdom and your kind spirit, you will understand easily when I say that for a long time now I have missed a certain dear friend. It was a brief folly on my part to convince myself that you were that friend.” He looked away and added, “You are not very similar; but he would have liked you.”
“Grief is hard to bear, your Majesty,” said Chang Lin with his hesitant kindness. “But you should consider the many blessings which the heavens have granted you, and take heart.”
“Yes,” said Jingyan. “You are right.” He met Chang Lin’s eyes again, and smiled, and put his hand over Chang Lin’s hand. “And I find myself still in need of a friend,” he said.
Chang Lin’s eyes widened slightly.
Jingyan leaned in. He paused at the last moment. “Please understand that I will not be offended if you refuse,” he said. “I promise you this.”
Chang Lin said nothing, so Jingyan went ahead and kissed him.
After a second Chang Lin kissed him back. His hands, which were long-fingered and uncalloused, went uncertainly to Jingyan’s shoulders and rested there. Jingyan put his arms around him. He was slender, but warm. Lin Shu’s body had been lithe and powerful; Mei Changsu had seemed to be frozen to his bones. Of course Jingyan had never held either of them in this way.
He continued to kiss Chang Lin carefully, in the same slow and considerate way that he kissed Empress Liu, who was very dear to him. Chang Lin made slight noises of - pleasure? Surprise? Not of protest, which was the most important thing; and eventually one of his delicate hands found its way to the nape of Jingyan’s neck and rested there, which was pleasant in itself.
Jingyan could not afford to spend too long here. Time was a luxury not permitted to an Emperor. He disentangled them at last and admired Chang Lin, who turned red under his scrutiny. “Sir Chang,” Jingyan said, smiling a little. “I have caused you embarrassment.”
“Not at all, not at all!” said Chang Lin at once.
Jingyan smiled more and inclined his head. “You are kind to say so. It is good to have friends,” he said. “I will see you again tomorrow.”
“Your Majesty,” said Commander Meng, “forgive me if I say the wrong thing, but - what are you doing?”
“I am going to speak with my friend,” said Jingyan, and kept walking, eunuchs scurrying behind him.
“Is he Xiao Shu or isn’t he?” Meng burst out.
Jingyan said, “How could he be Xiao Shu? Didn’t Xiao Shu die in single combat against Da Yu’s general, in front of two armies?”
“Yes!” said Meng.
“And would Xiao Shu be so cruel as to deceive his friends about such a matter, and pretend to be dead for many years, and return at the last only as a stranger with his mouth full of lies?”
“No!” said Meng, and then he frowned and said, “- wait.”
“Please continue to keep watch, Commander Meng,” said Jingyan, and let himself into Chang Lin’s rooms.
Chang Lin came at once to greet him. Jingyan had managed to persuade him to be less formal in private than he would have to be in public. Instead of kneeling he only bowed very low, saying, “Your Majesty.”
“Rise,” said Jingyan, and he went and reclined and patted the spot next to him for Chang Lin to sit. He ducked his head and smiled as he watched Chang Lin settle himself and arrange his robes. The scholar had a fussy manner which Jingyan found rather endearing. “What have you read today? And how was Tingsheng?” he said, catching Chang Lin’s hands in his as he spoke.
Chang Lin cast him a wide-eyed look, and then began to explain the text he had been making Tingsheng copy, and his reasons for choosing it. He had a scholar’s orderly mind and spoke clearly. Jingyan liked to listen to him. He also quite liked to interlink his fingers with Chang Lin’s and press his thumb in slow circles into the palm of his hand. “Your Majesty,” said Chang Lin, breaking off in mid-thought, and turned to him.
“Yes, here,” said Jingyan somewhat foolishly, which would have made Lin Shu stop to mock him. Chang Lin only looked startled, even though by this point it could hardly surprise him anymore when Jingyan kissed him.
He left the scholar’s chambers late in the evening and returned to his own bedchamber. Commander Meng gave him a harassed look as Jingyan passed him in the hallway, and Eunuch Gao was even more placid than usual, which was often a sign that Jingyan needed to calm down. “I am quite calm, Eunuch Gao,” he explained.
“Of course, your Majesty,” said Eunuch Gao, bowing deeply.
“Tell Commander Meng he need not keep a guard on Chang Lin’s chambers any more,” Jingyan said.
On a sweet-scented early summer night a month or so into the affair, Chang Lin would not meet Jingyan’s eyes. “What is it?” said Jingyan.
“Would you - do you -” began Chang Lin, and then took a breath, and then said, “Perhaps it would please your Majesty if -”
“Oh,” said Jingyan. “Oh, of course, please.”
The activity Chang Lin had suggested was one Jingyan had not had cause to indulge in for some years, and it seemed wisest to be patient and slow, especially once he began to suspect from Chang Lin’s shivers and his half-wild expression that he had never done it before at all. “Do not let me hurt you,” Jingyan instructed him. “You must talk to me.”
“Your Majesty,” said Chang Lin.
“On second thoughts, don’t talk to me,” said Jingyan. He would just have to pay close attention. That was not a hardship. After a time he said, “Lie back - trust me -” making his touch as gentle as if he were handling an unbroken horse.
“Of course I trust you,” said Chang Lin, faintly breathless, “your Majesty -”
A masked figure all in black leapt through the window.
There was a crash as several fine porcelain vases were dashed to the floor to shatter in pieces at the wind of his passing. Jingyan without a thought moved to put himself in front of Chang Lin. The masked man twisted to catch the last of the falling vases in his hands and set it delicately back on its stand. Then Commander Meng burst through the window behind him, shouting, “Your Majesty, your Majesty!” and broke that one too.
“Huh!” said the masked man, and attacked. Commander Meng fell back before the sudden flurry of irritated blows.
Jingyan stared. Chang Lin was sitting up, flushed, pulling up his robes around his shoulders. Commander Meng all of a sudden stopped blocking the hail of precise strikes aimed at him. The masked man immediately picked him up bodily and flung him to the floor, where he landed with an ungainly crash.
There he rolled over, scrabbled up onto his elbows, and said almost in tears, “Fei Liu?”
“Hm!” said Fei Liu, pulling down his mask. He was grinning his broad child’s smile, odder than ever in the face that after eight years was plainly the face of a young man. “Still fun!”
Jingyan felt almost as if he were standing outside himself watching the next moment, when Commander Meng’s head turned as if pulled by a string to stare at Jingyan and Chang Lin.
Jingyan turned to Chang Lin too. He did not bother trying to gather up his clothing around him. It seemed a bit late for that, really. “Brother Meng, can you go and stop the guards from bursting in?” he said.
“I - uh - yes!” said Commander Meng, still sounding overcome. He scrambled to his feet and stood there staring a moment more. Then he grabbed Fei Liu in a brief heartfelt embrace - Jingyan saw the young man’s alarmed expression over the commander’s shoulder - before he hurried out with one more backwards glance towards Jingyan and Chang Lin.
Jingyan looked at Chang Lin for another moment and did not say anything to him. He put his hand on Chang Lin’s arm instead, in case he tried to do something really stupid like get up and run away, and turned back to Fei Liu. “It’s good to see you again,” he said.
“Water Buffalo,” said Fei Liu politely. It felt like the most sincere greeting anyone had given Jingyan in years.
“What brings you here?” Jingyan asked. “May I help?”
Fei Liu shifted his weight from one foot to the other, scratched his ear, and then said, “Bored.”
“I understand,” said Jingyan. “Would you like a job? You could be a warrior here, and spar with Brother Meng every day.”
Fei Liu snorted loudly.
“Your Majesty,” began Chang Lin.
“I am sorry your Su-ge has been so inconsiderate and left you on your own for so long,” said Jingyan. “Do you know what he did to his face this time?”
He was still holding onto Chang Lin’s arm, and so he felt him stifle a twitch. Fei Liu rolled his eyes, stomped over to the couch, and jabbed Chang Lin hard in the neck with two fingers, ignoring Chang Lin’s weak, “Your Majesty -” and his subsequent considerably stronger, “Hey!”
Jingyan said, “Hey what, Xiao Shu?”
Lin Shu glared at him out of his own face, Mei Changsu’s lean face, and said furiously, “You didn’t know!”
“Illusion,” said Fei Liu helpfully.
“Get out of here, Fei Liu, you’ve done enough,” said Lin Shu bitterly. “Go and bother Brother Meng.”
Fei Liu made a questioning noise.
“And yes, then you can find Tingsheng,” Lin Shu said.
Fei Liu grinned. Then he adopted an attitude of supreme unconcern and flicked Lin Shu’s ear as he walked past him to the door.
“Fei Liu,” said Lin Shu warningly.
Fei Liu stuck his tongue out at him. After a moment, with a speaking glance at Jingyan, he added an unmistakeably obscene hand gesture. Jingyan bit down hard on his lip, feeling something overwhelming rising in his chest and trying to break out of him. Fei Liu turned on his heel and sauntered out, and Lin Shu glared after him balefully.
“I let him spend too much time with Lin Chen,” he muttered. Abruptly he rounded on Jingyan. “And you - !”
It was too much. Jingyan couldn’t hold it in anymore. All at once he collapsed into bone-shaking eye-watering entirely helpless laughter.
“You didn’t know,” said Lin Shu. “Stop laughing. You didn’t know!”
“I didn’t know,” Jingyan agreed, and he even tried to stop laughing, but he really couldn’t control it. It kept bubbling back up out of him. He had to catch himself on Lin Shu’s shoulder to keep from falling off the couch. The grab half dragged away the robe Lin Shu had quickly pulled up over himself.
Lin Shu tugged it back into place and glared at him. “If you’d known you wouldn’t have -” he said, and waved at the couch and also at Jingyan himself, who was not dressed. Lin Shu himself was still faintly flushed; it looked rather different on Mei Changsu’s bony face. “And you didn’t plan this. You couldn’t plan Fei Liu! No one plans Fei Liu except me.”
“Of course not,” said Jingyan. “I didn’t know, and I didn’t plan anything. I promise.”
“I don’t need you to promise!” spat Lin Shu. Jingyan hadn’t seen him this outraged in decades. Above all things he hated losing. “I know you didn’t! And stop laughing!”
“I’ve stopped, I’ve stopped,” said Jingyan truthfully, although the laughter was still there inside him, dancing down in his belly. “Why are you so upset? I have to be Emperor now, you know, and it’s hard work. Would it be very bad if I’d grown clever enough to outsmart you?”
“No,” said Lin Shu unconvincingly.
“I didn’t,” said Jingyan, and then he nearly started laughing again, and then he gathered all his Imperial self-control and made himself stop. “I didn’t outsmart you, Xiao Shu. You did.”
“Stop talking nonsense,” said Lin Shu.
“You could have stayed away altogether,” said Jingyan. “You could have waited until the Crown Prince was older - you have time now, don’t you?” He would have to find some way to thank Lin Chen, who was truly a great doctor. “Or else you could have used someone who was not Tingsheng, you could have made the boys finish their sweets before they got back to the palace, you could have used a different name -”
“But you didn’t know,” objected Lin Shu. “You couldn’t possibly know. I fooled you. You - seduced me!” He glared. “You kept complimenting my poetry!”
“I really do like your poetry,” said Jingyan. He spread his hands and smiled. “Either Chang Lin was Lin Shu, and you would tell me to stop; or he was not Lin Shu, and - I was lonely.”
“You have twenty-seven concubines,” said Lin Shu. “And an empress - a very good empress! I picked the best one!”
“My mother is under the impression that she picked the best one,” said Jingyan. “But I like her very much; thank you.”
Jingyan said gently, “Did you have to bring Fei Liu to the capital with you?”
“Lin Chen is a fussy hen,” said Lin Shu, which was not quite yes.
“Did you really forget that he gets bored?”
“Yes. No. Yes,” said Lin Shu. He wouldn’t look at Jingyan.
“Xiao Shu,” said Jingyan. “I said it to Commander Meng before: when you didn’t want me to know, I didn’t know - but this time, since you wanted me to know, I knew.”
“Shut up,” said Lin Shu. His shoulders were hunched. “I didn’t want you to know. I can’t be here, by your side, making you into my marionette. I’d ruin you. I’d ruin everything. I had it all arranged perfectly - I went back and did it properly -”
“Died,” said Jingyan. “You mean, died properly.”
“It was right. It was how things had to be,” said Lin Shu.
“You will have to tell me how you did it,” said Jingyan. “I am sure it was very clever.”
“It was quite simple, I -” began Lin Shu, and then stopped and gave him another outraged look.
“It was not kind to involve Fei Liu,” Jingyan said. “His friends were greatly saddened.”
“Everyone was perfectly fine,” said Lin Shu.
“Xiao Shu,” said Jingyan, “those words are not true.”
There was a pause. Lin Shu convulsively tugged the robes tighter around his shoulders. He still wouldn’t meet Jingyan’s eyes.
“What’s wrong with you, anyway,” he said at last, “throwing yourself at some scholar Tingsheng found on the street. What if Chang Lin had been an assassin? Don’t be so lonely you’re stupid. Visit your concubines more.” He gave Jingyan a sidelong glare. “Talk to your brothers.”
Jingyan gave him a bow. “I will strive to follow your advice.”
“Did you really mean for me never to know you were alive?” said Jingyan. “I believe that you value the truth very much.”
Lin Shu looked down at his hands. They were twisting into the scattered fabric on the couch; Jingyan’s discarded robes, mostly. “I couldn’t think of a plan that would make you forgive me,” he said.
Jingyan really was startled then. “I’ll always forgive you.”
“How was I supposed to know you’re still too stupid to get angry?”
“That’s not what I said,” said Jingyan.
“Nihuang won’t forgive me,” Lin Shu flung at him, like a challenge.
“How sad,” said Jingyan. “Dying so often has made the Divine Talent stupid.”
Lin Shu snorted and did not reply. Jingyan thought about trying to reach out and touch him, but he knew better. Even if eight years of being Emperor had not taught him to take the measure of a situation, he had known and loved Lin Shu all the years of his life. There was nothing he could do now but wait.
At last Lin Shu caught Jingyan’s eye and shook his head and smiled. “Well. That’s that. I’ll leave, then. Just let me collect Fei Liu.”
It was just as well that Jingyan hadn’t expected a word of apology anyway. “All right,” he said.
Lin Shu paused in the act of standing up. “All right?”
Jingyan inclined his head.
“You’re not going to try to stop me?”
“Xiao Shu,” said Jingyan, “who knows better than I that not even an Emperor can stop you from doing what you want to do?”
Lin Shu stood still a moment. He closed his eyes. Jingyan sat and looked up at him, all the lean badly-knitted bones of him, still only half dressed, though the flush of their earlier activities had faded entirely from his thin face now. He would leave, or not leave: but he was alive in the world, watching Jingyan’s work with his own eyes, and while keeping it a secret even from himself he had schemed a way to let Jingyan know. This knowledge was like having a scar opened up and the last fragment of a barbed arrowhead drawn from the wound. Jingyan felt no sorrow.
“Oh, fine,” said Lin Shu suddenly, and he took the robes off instead of pulling them the rest of the way on and climbed back onto the couch. “I’ll leave tomorrow,” he said.
“Tingsheng will miss you,” said Jingyan.
“And I’ll come back in six months,” said Lin Shu grimly. “And you’d better not have picked up any more scholars off the street by then.”
“What if they might be you?” said Jingyan.
“You used to be less annoying than this,” Lin Shu said, and kissed him. He did not kiss sweetly, like Chang Lin. It was halfway to a bite.
“Yes,” said Jingyan, once he caught his breath. There were porcelain shards all over the floor, and Lin Shu was here in front of him again. “But then you made me your Emperor.”
“So explain your plan, then,” said Lin Shu, sneering a little on plan as if he just could not help himself. His cheeks and chest were still pink in the aftermath of their exertions. He had plainly found Jingyan’s gentleness with him very irritating. Jingyan put his thumb casually over his pulse, as he had several times in his conversations with Chang Lin. It was good to feel its steady beat. “You knew that if Chang Lin refused to let you seduce him, he must be me,” Lin Shu said. “But I knew that you knew that. But you knew that I knew that you knew, although I of course knew that -”
“Honestly,” said Jingyan, “I was only hoping to kiss someone nice.”
Lin Shu was speechless.
“I see now where I went wrong, of course.”
“Your wife is nice!” said Lin Shu. “Your concubines are nice!”
“Yes,” agreed Jingyan, “but those people are not you.”
“I wasn’t me!”
“Really, Xiao Shu,” said Jingyan gravely, “how was I supposed to know that?”