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Days in the Sun

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The Minister of Personnel, with his face full of creases and perpetual demand to speak up, young man!, has announced his intention to spend the remainder of his years indulging his passel of ebullient great-grandchildren. His allies and disciples in court will find themselves a new leader, maybe one as shrewd and unassailable, maybe one who also looks at the court like a game of weiqi, and Jingyu has no doubt that he will turn his intricate mind towards spoiling the great-grandchildren rotten in the face of parental protests. The old minister is very good at getting what he wants. As he did today, to Jingyu’s chagrin and weary respect. His mind is still in court even as he hurries towards the palace of the Grand Empress Dowager.

Through scrubbed red walkways and painted cypress pillars, passing by maids and eunuchs who kowtow as he passes. He steps through the final set of ornate pillars and bowing servants, and enters the chamber of the Grand Empress Dowager, where Tai-nainai is already making silly faces at the twin babies in her lap. They are Jingyu’s son and daughter, born six months ago, on the eve of Jingyu’s twenty-fifth birthday.

The Crown Princess — Yang Lizhen in private — sits calmly at the old woman’s side, in white and deep pink, ready to take the babies at a moment’s notice. The twins are old enough to sit up and laugh, and right now they are demonstrating it for Tai-nainai in a rare moment of united contentment. Every one of Jingyu’s troubles vanishes in a throb of affection, and he greets the women correctly and wholeheartedly.

“Come here, xiao-Jingyu,” Tai-nainai says, “We’ve been playing without you.”

“Have the children behaved with Great-grandmother?” Jingyu inquires.

“Oh of course, your children always behave,” Tai-nainai says warmly, and Jingyu glances at his consort, who responds with a rueful twist of her mouth.

“Babababa,” burbles the child on Tai-nainai’s right knee, raising her arms toward Jingyu, and Jingyu is reaching for her without even remembering to ask the Grand Empress Dowager.

“I hope Great-grandmother doesn’t mind,” the Crown Princess murmurs as Jingyu lifts the baby up, and the little princess opens her mouth wide and laughs.

 


 

When they step out of Tai-nainai’s receiving room, one sleeping baby is propped against the Crown Princess’s shoulder and the other against Jingyu’s. Behind them, the great-grandmother has fallen asleep as well. A bevy of maids trail after them.

“You looked tired when you arrived,” his consort observes. “What happened in court?”

Jingyu exhales. “The Minister of Personnel.”

“What’s that troublemaker done?”

In the shifting tides of palace politics, Yang Lizhen sways with currents Jingyu barely understands, seemingly as changeable as the moon, as yielding as a rabbit. Today she’s wearing lighter colors than usual, heavy silk sleeves trailing from where she’s holding the child lightly at her breast, her hair twisted into a plain gold ornament. A veritable flower. Jingyu shifts the boy in his own tiring arms, shaking his head at the maid who scurries forward.

“As you know, he announced his retirement somewhat abruptly. As everyone and their uncle has an opinion on the replacement process, the actual selection has stalled.”

The Crown Princess nods, and Jingyu goes on about the soon-to-be emeritus Minister of Personnel. “Minister Gao has been trying to, um, speed things up. By insulting every official in His Majesty’s court. Subtly, of course, but everyone knows it.”

The Crown Princess makes a noise that sounds like a choked-off laugh.

“You would think it funny,” Jingyu says mournfully. “What an unsympathetic woman I married.”

“How did those dry-bones take it?”

“I’ve never seen such a ruckus. Even upstanding public servants care most when it comes to their own reputations. And that belligerent Official Hu even stood up to say that I, as Crown Prince, have been derelict in my duty to keep the court in order. It’s a nightmare. Minister Gao has won; I’ll put all my efforts into finding a successor to recommend to Father.”

“He said it was your duty to keep the court in order?” the Crown Princess asks, a little sharply. “Even though His Majesty was present?”

“Now that you mention it, that is a little odd.”

“At least His Majesty took no offense,” the Crown Princess muses, with a pitch to her voice that Jingyu can’t quite parse.

“If anything, he should be glad the burden falls on my head and not his.”

“Yes, I suppose his Majesty would be glad of that,” she agrees. “Still, what Official Hu said, it isn’t respectful. He ought to be warned.”

Jingyu glances at his consort. He’s learned to value her advice and weight her observations heavily, so he’ll take Official Hu aside and reprimand him for disrespecting His Majesty, but Jingyu can’t quite convince himself it’s necessary. He will enjoy rebuking the official, though, petty though it may be.

They’ve reached the grounds of the Eastern Palace now, walking alongside stands of whispering bamboo. The entourage makes its sedate way up the wide path, the Crown Prince and Crown Princess, the maids trailing in green and white. The elegant papered doors of the palace open from within, two servants bow them inside, and Jingyu reluctantly relinquishes his son to the nursemaid.

 


 

Jingyu has four outstanding candidates for the position of Minister of Personnel; after asking his secretary to research the family circumstances of each, he strikes two for a recent inauspicious death and a scandal unbefitting of a high minister. That leaves Hu Huan, the same Official Hu who called Jingyu out in court earlier today — and Jingyu has half a mind to strike him, too — and a brilliant young man named Wang Ziting, who has been Jingyu's favorite throughout this whole process.

After arranging interviews with the final two candidates, Jingyu takes his evening meal with his brother Jingyan, who has officially lived in Jingyu’s household since he was twelve, and unofficially since the Emperor bestowed a manor upon Jingyu, on his seventeenth birthday. Now Jingyan is fifteen and almost as tall as Jingyu, as skinny as a crescent moon, and can eat shocking amounts of food (for which the Concubine Jing has adjusted accordingly). Jingyu has watched this brother grow from babyhood, has taught him how to string a bow and how to soothe a horse, has had him and his best friend underfoot since Jingyan could walk and Lin Shu could crawl. Jingyan is far and away Jingyu’s favorite brother, and if it weren’t for fear of the sin of pride, Jingyu would think that he’s also the best of all the Emperor’s sons.

He’s quiet today, Jingyu notes.

 


 

The northern border with Da Yu, always Da Liang’s most volatile, has achieved a precarious ceasefire lasting several months now. Da Liang and Da Yu will both send envoys to the border again, in a grindingly slow progression toward a more stable peace. The envoys leave tomorrow at dawn, along with Lin Xie, Commander General of the Chiyan Army, and a two-hundred-man military escort, which is what Lin Xie arrives at the Eastern Palace that evening to talk about.

He’s a tall man, powerfully built, pocked with scars, and ill at ease in his gray robes, as if he were born to live in armor. He insists on paying his respects to the twins, but they’re screaming and the Crown Princess shoos them out. So he and Jingyu retreat to the main hall with a pot of fragrant tea between them, which Lin Xie declares wasted on him — and Jingyu knows it’s true, his uncle can’t tell the finest import from the cheapest street mix, not the first pour from the last, and definitely not the expensive Langzhou leaves in front of him from whatever he drinks on the march. Jingyu can’t help plying his guest anyway.

“Next time I’ll tell Auntie Ma to find the worst tea in the market, and make sure to serve it to you,” he says, pouring for them both, “but for the time being, you’re stuck with this season’s newest green.”

“What’s the point of having a tongue of mud if Auntie Ma has to spend time looking? Just tell her to buy whatever she sees first!” Lin Xie-jiujiu raises the cup as if in a toast, and downs half the scalding tea at once.

They spend two hours reviewing details and expectations, Jingyu's secretary recording any changes from previous agreements. When they’re done and the secretary has rolled up his papers and gathered his brushes, it’s nighttime and Lin Xie convinces Jingyu to swap the elegant tea for wine. A servant boy brings a strong wine for Lin Xie and the weakest in the house for Jingyu (he’s learned his lesson about drinking with Lin Xie). Inevitably, they begin to revisit decisions made long ago, warm with wine.

“I understand the importance of taking soldiers,” Jingyu asserts, cup in midair, “but it’s counterproductive. How can there be any trust if both sides are armed to the teeth?”

Lin Xie shakes his head and throws back his cup of potent liquid. “Da Yu will strike if they sense weakness. They’ll be bringing soldiers and archers, you can be sure of that. Would you risk the lives of your envoys? Will you risk ransoming them?” It’s an argument they’ve had many times, sometimes Jingyu on the side of force, sometimes Lin Xie, but each time reaching the same, unsatisfactory conclusion.

“It’s barely a conversation,” Jingyu says wearily, taking up the familiar thread, “just two sides pacing each other like wolves and finally agreeing not to eat each other. The pressure on the northern border is too great right now; this won’t be enough.”

“Drops become a rivulet; rivulets become a river; rivers become the ocean,” Lin Xie intones.

Jingyu sighs. “You’re right, uncle. The drops of our work will eventually make an ocean.”

“Sand becomes stones, stones become a wall, walls become mountains.”

“…Do they?”

“They can!” Lin Xie assures him. “Of course they can.” He waves his hands happily. “Jingyu, maybe I’ve never told you this, but when your father and Yan Que and I wandered the jianghu…”

Jingyu gestures at the servant boy in the corner, water.

When Jingyu’s respected uncle finishes the oft-told story, he adds without segue, “After this outing, I’ll start taking xiao-Shu with me on campaigns. He’s been pestering me.” He pours himself another cup, his grip unfairly steady. “He’s been going on inspections with me since he was eight.”

Jingyu stares at him. Xiao-Shu, at thirteen, only comes up to Jingyu’s chin. Even Jingyan tops him by half a head. He has neither his adult strength nor reach, and frankly, Jingyu doesn’t think he’s mature enough to take on an adult role.

“You think he’s too young,” Lin Xie-jiujiu says, his keen eyes on Jingyu, seeming all of a sudden not the least bit drunk.

“And you don’t?” Jingyu asks. He thinks. Xiao-Shu, who used to be as small as his own son and daughter. Xiao-Shu, who is the only reason respectful Jingyan constantly gets into trouble. Xiao-Shu, who excels at fighting and philosophy and everything in between. Talented, terrible xiao-Shu. “Will my aunt allow it?”

“She’s allowed it. He may march and scout and cook, things like that. Not fight. He’s still no match for a grown man with a spear.”

If there exists a thirteen-year-old who can survive the military so prematurely, it’s probably Grand Princess Jinyang’s willful son, under Lin Xie’s skeptical eye.

Jingyu reaches for the other jug, suddenly wanting something much stronger.

 


 

Jingyu only has a slight headache when he sees his uncle off at sunrise, as the general marches through the city gates with Honorable Envoys Bai and Wu and two hundred soldiers. A supply cart trundles after them, its wheels making ruts in fresh mud, and the clear, weak morning light turns the dull bronze of the soldiers’ armor bright. Jingyan will be in such armor soon, Jingyu realizes. And so will Lin Shu. The thought of the twins is suddenly a pang in his chest, so sharp he can hardly breathe.

 


 

The interviews with the two candidates for Minister of Personnel go both smoothly and unexpectedly.

Hu Huan, the pugnacious Secretariat official who caused Jingyu so much of a headache yesterday, pleasantly surprises Jingyu with unorthodox questions that he’s never thought of before. But the man only seems to be patchily familiar with the classical theories of governance. Official Hu comes from a good family and must have had the best tutors, and Jingyu aims to find out why he hasn’t seemed to have learned them. And — Jingyu wants to be fair, but he also knows that appointing Official Hu to a minister’s position will make Jingyu’s own life much more difficult.

Wang Ziting and Jingyu spend most of their interview discussing political philosophy, Wang Ziting having no trouble at all with the classical schools of thought, and Jingyu comes out of the interview with interesting new insights. Wang Ziting entered public service a year and a half ago, and murmurs among the officials say that his is the kind of mind that only comes around once a generation. But his detractors are correct, too. Of all the men who have been considered for the position of Minister of Personnel, Wang Ziting has had the least practice in actual governance.

“Should I give someone a chance, even though he hasn’t had much experience?” he asks his consort, after he arrives back at the Eastern Palace and a manservant whisks away his outer cape.

She has been poring over some books over the table in their inner chamber, and her brow furrows at his voice, then clears. “Is this about Wang Ziting?”

“He's brilliant, but it's been less than two years since he entered the government, and I'm afraid he won't be able to carry the burden.”

She makes a thoughtful noise, clearing the books to the side of the table, and Jingyu settles down across from her. “Your father handed you many responsibilities in court when you came of age. You didn’t know much then.” Yes, Jingyu remembers, thinking back to those overwhelming days, his jaw tightening. He muddled through, but some expensive mistakes were made. “Jingyu,” the Crown Princess is saying now, “Jingyan and xiao-Shu missed all their lessons today.”

“They what?”

“They didn’t go to any of their lessons. Imperial Tutor Yan and Martial Instructor Xia are beside themselves.”

“So what did they do instead?”

“That’s the thing. xiao-Shu hasn’t gone back to Lin Manor, and Jingyan hasn’t come home yet, either.”

Dread seizes Jingyu’s heart. A general’s son and an Imperial prince. What a ransom they would fetch, and what a lever they could make, to move Da Liang.

“I spoke with Aunt Jinyang and Aunt Jing. We don’t think they’re in danger,” the Crown Princess says gently. “xiao-Shu apparently left a message with their head cook last night — I'll be watching the next two dawns in the cold, he said — but the cook took it to mean that xiao-Shu was waking from the chill, and sent more braziers to his room.”

“I have never known xiao-Shu to complain of the cold,” Jingyu says incredulously.

“Aunt Jinyang thinks they went off by themselves. We’ve sent search parties out. She’s also beside herself.”

“How’s Aunt Jing?”

“Outwardly calm, but she’s anxious. All she said was that Jingyan was too immature and she would need to speak seriously to him. And then she smiled and asked me about the twins.”

“Yes, she always changes the subject when she’s upset,” Jingyu says, feeling more and more upset himself. Was he just thinking with pride that Jingyan was intelligent and diligent, and most of all tenacious in matters of right and wrong? How could he have done something so childish and irresponsible?

Xiao-Shu pulling something like this, though, is another matter. Jingyu feels vindicated in his initial response to General Lin. The boy isn’t ready to do anything.

 


 

Jingyan doesn’t come home all that night, and Jingyu spends the black hours awake in his bed, waiting for news, cycling through anger, exasperation, and terror. Finally in the gray predawn he throws a cloak over his sleeping garments and treads quietly to the Crown Princess’s chamber. She is awake, too. Her eyes are open in the darkness, and silently she shifts over on the big carved bed.

He eases himself down next to her, his cloak sliding to the floor, and she slips into his arms, her head against his collarbone. He listens to her wakeful breathing, feels it feather-light against his neck. Slowly it deepens and grows even.

Eventually, he falls asleep, too.

 


 

Before Jingyu begins the day’s tasks, he visits Concubine Jing, and finds his own mother in attendance as well.

“Aunt Jing, are you well?” he asks earnestly, after bowing to both women. They are both as immaculate as ever, even though Jingyu guesses they slept even less than he did. His own consort was still having her face done when he left, and he has no doubt she will be smooth-skinned and bright-eyed when he returns, but he saw what she looked like when they both rose at dawn.

Behind her serene mask Concubine Jing’s eyes are troubled, but the warmth in her voice is genuine. “Better now that you’re here, rascal.”

“Jingyan and xiao-Shu —”

“We will find out soon enough,” she interrupts firmly. Either they will walk through the door — or we will receive a notice of hostage, she doesn’t say. Or their adventure has gone awry and they are injured and stranded, leagues and leagues from home. This is the possibility that frightens Jingyu the most. Xiao-Shu is prodigiously adept at getting into trouble; he cares less about getting out of it. Jingyu can only hope that Jingyan’s influence will curb the worst of this predilection.

“Tell us, what is happening outside?” Mother interjects. Give us something else to think about.

So Jingyu tells them about how the aged Minister of Personnel managed to offend a court full of officials yesterday, focusing on the minister’s antics, exaggerating the victims’ reactions. He can tell by the women’s wan smiles that he’s only half succeeded in distracting them.

“That must have been hard on you,” Mother observes, and it’s Jingyu’s turn to smile tiredly.

“Mother is perceptive,” he allows. “Father has made it clear that the choice of successor falls on me, and that I will have to make a recommendation soon.”

“And the people you’re considering, are they capable and loyal?”

“Both would be a credit to the Ministry of Personnel. It’s a difficult choice.”

“Tell us about them,” Concubine Jing says, speaking up for the first time, and Jingyu feels like his distraction has more than half succeeded now. He briefly lists the exemplary points and not-so-exemplary points of the candidates, and feels their interest warming, so he keeps on talking.

“...doesn’t have much real experience, but is very bright and much more amiable. Mother, Aunt Jing, what do you think?”

“Intelligence is praiseworthy,” Mother says, “but amiability is neither competence nor virtue.”

“However, it helps in some situations,” Aunt Jing adds gently, and by the lifting of Consort Chen’s lips, Jingyu thinks this must touch on an old topic between them, as well-worn as the conversations Jingyu has with Lin Xie-jiujiu. “It may serve Wang Ziting well,” Concubine Jing continues, “should he become Minister of Personnel. But do you like him because he is qualified, or because he agrees with you?”

“He —” Jingyu starts, but pauses. “He is qualified.”

“Then amiability is helping him already, isn’t it?”

“Aunt Jing,” Jingyu says, slightly indignantly, “I’m all mixed up now. I want to say you’re right, but I don’t want to.”

Consort Chen doesn’t quite laugh, but she comes close to it. “My sister has that talent. Without her insights, I would be lost in the palace.”

“Lost as a wild doe,” Concubine Jing agrees, her smile opening up fondly and brilliantly, and now Jingyu thinks he’s succeeded all the way.

 


 

Jingyu doesn’t bother going to bed that night, and neither does Yang Lizhen. Instead they sit at the low table, Jingyu with his paperwork and Lizhen with her embroidery, both wrapped in furs against the chilly night. A fat candle burns between them. Jingyu’s stomach twists as it grows smaller and squatter, the shape more fantastic as wax melts and dries. Two dawns, xiao-Shu said, and they are nearing the third. It’s irrational to weight xiao-Shu’s words so heavily, but it’s all they have.

Yang Lizhen looks at the brush that he has been holding above the paper for five minutes, at his eyes on the shrinking candle, and sets aside her embroidery to hold his hand.

The candle gutters down, the sun grows round like an orange and detaches itself from the horizon, and there are still no tired boys trooping through the front doors. But there’s a man galloping up on a horse, a messenger in Chiyan colors, who shouts that he has a message from General Lin Xie.

Jingyu and Yang Lizhen meet him in the main hall, and read the short missive that the messenger presents to them. The letter says that the General has discovered Young Master Lin and Prince Jing among his soldiers (or, in the case of xiao-Shu, in a grain sack). The general urges everyone in the capital not to panic and deeply apologizes for the worry they must have caused. He concludes with a request for his wife, to please devise a most excruciating discipline for their offspring, to be executed upon said offspring’s return.

Jingyu closes his eyes in relief, visions of various calamities disappearing in wake of the news. General Lin’s closing request has long been fulfilled, he suspects, if only as a distraction for Aunt Jinyang. He suddenly feels tired to his bones.

“Thank you for bringing this message. You may go,” he tells the soldier, who executes a brisk, precise bow and retreats from the hall.

The Crown Prince and Princess look at each other.

“I need to sleep,” Jingyu says, at the same time Lizhen yawns.

There are cases to hear today and interviews to review. The twins are waking up, and soon they will be demanding Yang Lizhen’s attention. But surely, a nap wouldn’t hurt. Just one hour...

A baby squalls, a bell rings, and the idea of sleep melts away. Jingyu’s weary arm around Lizhen’s tired shoulders, the Crown Prince and Princess go to their chambers to dress and begin the day.

 


 

Three petitions pass by in a tired blur. Jingyu stands at the foot of the royal dais, says things automatically, and marshals his thoughts with effort when he can’t. He doesn’t see the Emperor casting concerned glances his way, but someone does.

“Here, your Highness.” Jingyu looks down and sees a drink being presented to him, and Eunuch Gao hunched into his perpetual bow, his vapid grin at odds with the insistent press of the cup into Jingyu’s hands.

“Thank you,” Jingyu says. He spares a moment to wonder if Eunuch Gao wants to poison him, but he is too tired to follow that train of thought. It smells like one of Aunt Jing’s herbal concoctions, anyway, foul-tasting things his mother made him drink when he wasn’t feeling well as a child. Back when Aunt Jing was Aunt Jingyi, and she came from outside the palace.

A throat softly clearing brings him back to Yangju Hall, where Eunuch Gao is still watching him befuddledly but somehow pointedly as well. Jingyu takes a sip. Eunuch Gao clears his throat again, and, feeling much like he’s seven years old, Jingyu holds his breath and drinks the whole bitter mess in one pull.

 


 

Whatever Eunuch Gao gave him, it makes him energetic, if a little jumpy. It doesn’t do anything for his powers of cognition, but at least he isn’t fighting his body anymore. The fourth petition goes much better, and when it’s over, Jingyu steps forward to hand over a report on his public works project, which is to improve the horse paths in the poorer southern provinces.

Father grunts, skimming over the report. “It’s within budget,” he comments.

“As far as we can tell, this has been good for trade and morale.”

“Yes, yes, very good,” the Emperor says. He puts the report down. “You’re doing very well, Jingyu — what is it?” he says to the attendant who has just entered.

“A rider is here, your Majesty, from Honorable General Lin Xie of the Chiyan Army, who wishes to deliver a message!”

“Eh? Lin Xie? Is it about Jingyan and xiao-Shu again? Bring him in.”

A soldier in armor strides in, pays his respects to the Emperor.

“You may rise.”

“Thank you, your Majesty.” The man begins his message, and the Emperor rises from the throne in agitation.

Lin Xie’s men have discovered a network of supply lines in the borderlands that are undeniably preparations for an assault, the messenger says, a network forged during the tenuous peace of the long negotiation. The envoys’ escort have destroyed a vital link, and the general will lead his soldiers around the border segment, he says, to scour the area for more.

Lin Xie expresses his disappointment that the dream of peace has collapsed, but adds that now they’re aware of Da Yu’s plans, they are in a militarily superior position. He urges the Emperor to send five thousand soldiers to the northern border to reinforce this position and guard against a possible rushed attack.

“Send the order immediately —” begins the Emperor, but stops. He looks at the messenger, long and hard. “No. Send a rider to Lin Xie, confirm his story.”

“Father,” says Jingyu in astonishment.

The Emperor says, “Lin Xie rides to the north with two hundred men, conveniently stumbles across a Da Yu conspiracy. Why didn’t we have any inkling of this before? And he asks for five thousand armed men. It’s only due diligence. Nothing else.”

“Father!”

Father’s eyes narrow, and Jingyu’s heart chills. Father’s cold, hard temper he has observed twice in his life, but never turned against those he loves. “Jingyu, you doubt me?” Father says slowly, every word a warning. “You wish to contradict me?”

“I —” Jingyu swallows the words on his tongue. This is not being a good son, a good subject. “If I may speak about matters of safety.”

“Then speak.”

“A fast rider will take a day to arrive at General Lin’s location and a day to come back. If Da Yu decides to send soldiers to the border, then they have two days’ lead time. We can’t afford that.”

The Emperor doesn’t reply at first, but Jingyu knows he has heard him. “Very well, then,” the Emperor says at last. “Mobilize five thousand troops — of the Jili army, under General Bo. They are to leave immediately for the northern border.” He raises an eyebrow at Jingyu. “Will that do?”

Jingyu bows, numb. “Father is wise indeed.”

The Emperor nods. “You are a filial child, Jingyu.”

Jingyu bows again.

 


 

When Aunt Jing moved into the palace, Jingyu was overjoyed, but Mother was so distraught that she hardly seemed to notice anything, not what she was wearing, not that she had to eat, not what Jingyu said to her unless he repeated it over and over. She even raised her voice against the Emperor of Da Liang when he came to them, merry and benevolent. Whatever was said between them, Father didn’t visit for a full month. Then two months. Then three, and almost a year.

When Jingyan was born, it was like the sun coming out again. Jingyu had seen his other brothers, but their mothers whisked them off and locked them away (as if Jingyu would contaminate them, or something). But Jingyan stayed, this little scrap of a human who only seemed to eat and cry and sleep and soil his diaper cloths. Jingyu was captivated.

And then Father came back too, bearing the gift of Jingyu’s first horse.

Unbidden, those days come back to Jingyu as he waits for his mother in her central chamber. It is the way he remembers, perfumed faintly with the sweet olive that grows in her garden, the draperies bright and bold, spring green and sunny yellow, in contrast to the pale colors Aunt Jing favors.

Mother floats in, today in a deep green overcoat and looped braids, still looking like she’s never missed an hour of sleep in her life.

“You look tired,” she says, by way of greeting. “And anxious. Is it your uncle’s news?”

“Yes, I had hoped that we — that Da Yu — well, it’s impossible now. Mother,” he says carefully, “there was more.”

Consort Chen’s maids chorus in acknowledgement when she dismisses them, filing away obediently, leaving only the consort and the Crown Prince. “Come, sit,” she says, leading Jingyu to the sandalwood couch at which she usually receives guests.

Next to his mother, enveloped in the scent of her garden and in the light of her airy chamber, the afternoon’s events seem to lose their urgent shadow, even as Jingyu relates Father’s unusual reaction to Lin Xie-jiujiu’s request. But Mother’s frown grows deep, her eyes dark.

“Mother?”

She catches his hands, pressing with sudden fierce strength. “Jingyu, you are loyal, fair, diligent, and understanding. These qualities serve you well as crown prince. I am proud of you.”

“I — ”

“And when you are Emperor —” her eyes glitter when Jingyu catches his breath at the treason in her words — “When you are Emperor, remember, above all, to put this country and its people first.”

“I...”

She releases his hands. “You will be a good emperor, Jingyu.”

 


 

Mother’s words ring in Jingyu’s ears long after he leaves the Inner Palace. He doesn’t think he will ever stop hearing them. He sits down in his study almost in a daze, and with great effort, looks at the papers he has just unrolled, his notes on regarding the selection of the next Minister of Personnel.

The old minister, Gao-qing, has been allowed to retire, and his former deputy put in charge, which gives Jingyu some breathing room, but now that the end is in sight, Jingyu doesn’t want to delay further, so with effort he brings his tired, agitated thoughts into focus.

It turns out that belligerent Hu Huan really isn’t that informed about classical political theory, having had a patchwork of tutors as a young man, and having learned his role by doing, not by studying. Jingyu admires this, if only for the sheer audacity, but wonders that Official Hu never bothered to remedy the gaps in his education, even after he became a public servant. Between him and Wang Ziting, one likes theory too much and one not enough!

But Official Hu is competent, that much is clear, and creative besides. If anything, he’s shown that one doesn’t need to follow the classical schools of thought to be effective in the government.

Jingyu unrolls a new sheet of paper, dips his brush, and, with a sigh, begins writing the recommendation.

 


 

Lin Xie arrives back in the capital fourteen days later. In that time, Jingyu has submitted his recommendation, Hu Huan has been declared the new Minister of Personnel, the twins have picked up and vanquished a minor cough, and a cryptic message from Lin Xie has reached Jingyu through Aunt Jinyang. Jingyu is waiting at the city gates for the general and his company, but he almost doesn’t recognize Jingyan as he troops through the city gates, still wearing his appropriated armor. Only Lin Shu trudging alongside him, in dirty, formerly white clothing, gives him away.

“Your royal Highness Prince Jing,” Jingyu says loudly. He maneuvers his horse through the muddle of townfolk, carts, soldiers, and sundry to ride beside his errant sibling. Both boys look up at him, and Jingyu is astonished at the quantity of grime on Jingyan’s face, and the extent of weariness in it. Even Lin Shu looks exhausted. He fights the sudden urge to laugh; it looks like the two of them got more than they bargained for. Instead, he scowls at Jingyan. “Home. Immediately.”

“Father says we have to reach the barracks and be formally dismissed,” xiao-Shu says tiredly.

“Does he.” Jingyu brings his horse forward through Jinling’s crowded streets, catching up to Lin Xie-jiujiu’s own steed. And Lin Xie tells Jingyu a story that makes his jaw drop.

It was xiao-Shu who uncovered the treachery, says Lin Xie, from the general’s own scout reports (which he’ll secure better, once he finds out how xiao-Shu got into them), but Lin Xie and his lieutenants adamantly dismissed xiao-Shu’s logic as too complicated and far-reaching. Until an officer burst into his tent on the northern border, where he was in the middle of roaring at the newly-discovered stowaways, with the news that there were wagons and enemy soldiers hidden in the bluffs. A minor skirmish, and both were captured.

“And why pull Jingyan into this?” Jingyu asks, torn between severity and wonder.

“I have no idea,” Lin Xie says. “But my impression is that it was Jingyan who actually convinced that officer to stumble upon that canyon.” Which softens Jingyu’s temper, but —

“They still shouldn’t have worried us all like that.”

“No,” says Lin Xie, his eyes crinkling into an inexplicable smile, “they shouldn’t have.”

Jingyu sighs.

Jingyan looks much better after a bath, in a fresh hanfu, hair is still damp but wrangled into a partial topknot. He bows deeply when Jingyu enters the side hall. “Your Highness, Crown Prince. Jingyu-gege.”

Jingyu doesn’t go easy on him. He lets the full weight of his disappointment come through, he lists the ways in which Jingyan has flouted the responsibilities of a royal prince, and he brings Aunt Jing’s worry and his own to bear. Jingyan listens with his head bowed but his shoulders straight, slumping only at the mention of Aunt Jing’s distress.

“But you did the country a service, you and xiao-Shu,” Jingyu finishes. “And although I cannot think of another way with as great a chance of success, I wager there was one. Jingyan, as the elder, you must put your foot down when xiao-Shu comes to you with these schemes.”

To which Jingyan, inappropriately, snorts.

“Lin Xie-jiujiu will begin to take him on campaigns,” Jingyu adds gently, at which Jingyan looks up. “You won’t be able to protect him forever, as if he were still three years old and you five.”

“What if — what if I ask to join the Chiyan army too?” Jingyan asks, staring at Jingyu. With rather dramatic despair, Jingyu thinks.

Jingyu raps his little brother hard on the head. “Don’t worry about xiao-Shu. He’s more than capable of taking care of himself. You’ll see.”

 


 

In the end, he sentences Jingyan to copying sutras, enough that Jingyan will be busy for weeks, maybe months. In addition to this are the punishments that Aunt Jinyang, Aunt Jing, and the Emperor have doled out. And Aunt Jinyang canes xiao-Shu so hard he can hardly walk the next day. (The day after, though, xiao-Shu leads little Yan Yujin up a tree and strands him there.)

The Emperor also bestows expensive gifts upon Prince Jing and the Lin household, and Lin Shu receives an official rank in the Chiyan army.

Jingyu looks into the study, where the door is open to a courtyard clothed in tremulous plum pink, piles of fallen petals not yet swept away, the spring air just chill enough to bite. Jingyan should be just inside, copying scrolls upon scrolls of text at the low desk put there for him. But when Jingyu walks in, there are two dark heads, not one, bent over the precious sutras, two sets of brushes flying over paper. He opens his mouth — and decides to let them be.

The twins are squalling again, and normally more competent hands would soothe them, but the usual trusted maid is ill, so the Crown Princess lets him take one crying baby while she rocks the other. Slowly, slowly, his daughter’s wails subside into hiccupping sobs, then to placid calm. Jingyu is struck anew by how small she is, this little princess, how important she is to him.

Maybe the child in Yang Lizhen’s arms will become Emperor one day, and the little princess a Grand Princess. Maybe they’ll get into as many scrapes and misadventures as Jingyan and xiao-Shu, as Jingyu and Lizhen, have had. Maybe by the time the little prince and princess are grown, the kingdom of Liang will be known for its stability, prosperity, and justice.

Maybe, maybe, maybe.

Jingyu shifts his daughter onto his shoulder and twines an arm around Yang Lizhen, who leans into him, and he wants to keep this forever, his wife and son and daughter all in his arms, on this golden afternoon with the afternoon sun filtering in.

The world isn’t perfect, and they have a long way to go, but right now, the future seems lovely and limitless.