The day Xiao Jingyan became emperor, the enemy had already occupied the capital for three days.
It was early morning and the mist rose from the ground, shrouding the entire military camp in a preternatural silence that muffled the cries and groans of the wounded. However, in the biggest tent at the center of the camp, no one dared to make a sound.
The big tent was filled with the rich scent of sandalwood mixed with the heavy odor of medicine, all of which failed to cover the underlying sweetness of rot and decay.
When Jingyan entered the tent, the physician and the attending eunuch were already trembling in a half-crouch at the entrance. He ignored them. He looked instead to his mother, Consort Jing, who walked up to him, placed a hand on his arm and shook her head without saying a word. In the innermost part of the tent, the emperor laid on a cot with his back to the entrance so that his face could not be seen clearly.
Jingyan breathed in deeply, then walked to the front of the cot, folded his hands, bowed, and said, “This child greets your imperial majesty.”
After he finished speaking, there was no answer. Jingyan didn't straighten from his bow, and he repeated, “This child greets your imperial majesty.”
When there was still no answer, Jingyan whispered, “Please forgive your child for the impertinence,” and then he stepped up to the cot, reached out and slowly turned the emperor over.
Jingyan stared downward, motionless, for a long time. When he placed his hand under the emperor's nose, his fingers trembled. He didn't speak. Finally, he knelt down.
The emperor lay flat on his back on the cot, reddened eyes clouded and sightless, black tongue protruding from the corner of his open mouth, his chest still. His entire face was contorted in a silent scream. It did not look like a peaceful death.
“Father,” Jingyan whispered. The emperor’s suspicion had withered all it touched. This emperor pitted his ministers and his grownup sons against each other, until sworn brothers killed sworn brothers, fathers killed sons, and entire families were wiped out. And thus left undefended the borders of the great empire of Liang. ‘Father, may you reincarnate in your next life as a common man who need never be in a position of power or responsibility,’ he prayed in his heart.
Then, dutifully, he bowed three times, his forehead touching the ground each time.
By now, the physician and the eunuch had prostrated themselves, wailing, on the ground. As Jingyan bowed for the third time, there was a commotion from outside the tent, and then more people came in. He ignored them and finished bowing.
When he stood up, he didn’t look at Mei Changsu who had just stepped into the tent. Mei Changsu calmly walked to the body on the cot, placed his fingers under its nose, and then silently knelt down.
Commander Meng and the group of officers who had followed Mei Changsu into the tent took in the situation at a glance, looked at each other, then all fell down on their knees at the same time, and cried out with one voice: “Sending off his imperial majesty!”
Mei Changsu turned toward Jingyan, folded his hands before him and bowed. “Your highness,” he said, “the empire cannot be without a ruler for even one day. Please fulfill the wishes of the people and ascend the throne as soon as possible in order to lead our army to victory and rescue the capital!”
The military camp had become chaotic by this time. Jingyan looked past Mei Changsu to the tent entrance that showed him the outside. Half-armored light infantry, fully-armored heavy infantry, officers in red-plumed helmets, the heavily embroidered purple silk of those few ministers who had escaped the massacre at the capital to flee with the emperor and the palace guards to the west - they all milled together outside the tent regardless of class and status.
Mei Changsu shouted, “Your highness, please ascend the throne!”
As if this was a predetermined signal, everyone inside and outside the tent - his mother, soldiers, officers, ministers - knelt down all at once and chorused: “Please ascend the throne!”
Everyone bowed down until their forehead touched the ground. Mei Changsu alone knelt upright. Jinyan stood above the crowd, looking over the row upon row of prostrated bodies, until his gaze stopped on the unbowed head of Mei Changsu. He thought of shadows twisting in an empty cell, a red bow, a severed bell.
He stared into Mei Changsu’s eyes as he spoke, “I will fulfill the wishes of the people.”
Mei Changsu lowered his eyes and bowed his head at last. “Long live the emperor,” he said, and the crowd behind him echoed his words with a roar from a thousand throats.
That night he found Mei Changsu in his tent, a flagon of wine and two cups waiting for him. Mei Changsu was seated properly at the low table, but the droop of his eyes and the overly precise movement of his hands told Jingyan that he had been drinking for some time.
“I have come this far, and yet I could not walk to the end,” Mei Changsu said. He poured a thimbleful of wine for himself, raised his cup to salute Jingyan and then tossed back the contents in one gulp. As he reached out to the flagon to refill his cup, Jingyan grabbed him by the wrist.
“Do not drink. Your health.” Jingyan barely recognized his own voice for how hoarse it was. He couldn’t stop himself from pressing down on the wrist bones in his grasp, the weight of it both real and frighteningly insubstantial.
Mei Changsu reached out with his free arm and dragged Jingyan down towards him by the neck of his tunic. There was surprising strength for a scholar; it was barely adequate for the once marshal of an army seventy-thousand strong.
“The souls of the dead will never get justice from the one who betrayed them.” His knuckles were ice against Jingyan’s exposed collarbone. There was a terrible clarity in his eyes that no wine could cloud.
“You’re too cold,” said Jingyan. He dropped down beside him, took his hands and tucked them inside his own tunic, flush against his chest, the way Lin Shu had often done for him and he him in their boyhood when they played too long in the snow.
“Jingyan,” he whispered, “There is so little left.”
Jingyan could not hold himself back anymore. He enfolded Mei Changsu’s body - no, Lin Shu’s body - tightly in his own, pressed his face against the other man’s neck.
“Please,” Jingyan whispered into his skin. “Whatever you need.”
“I am sorry,” Lin Shu said above him.
Jingyan trembled, tightened his hold on the other man. “Don’t,” he commanded. Not tonight. Tonight, he did not want to hear anymore of what Lin Shu had to say.
Tomorrow they would once again hurl themselves bloody against their enemies. Tomorrow he would deal with whatever cruel truth Lin Shu had to tell him. Only not tonight. Whatever the manner his xiao-Shu used to return to him, for whatever reason, for however long - all he needed to know tonight was that he was here. Now.
And it must have been the wine that made Lin Shu so obedient. For the first time in his life, Lin Shu listened to him and did not say anything else, only gripped him tighter in return until the oil lamp in the corner of the tent sputtered and burned out, and still the two men held each other, each pressed down by their own pain until the combined weight of old griefs and the warmth of new bodies sedated them both into an exhausted slumber.