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Lilies That Bloom

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It’s not yet midday when they arrive at Yan Manor, Liyang in her carriage and Jingrui riding beside her. Jingrui helps her down. Liyang smooths her clothes. She doesn’t know why she is so nervous. She is only calling on an acquaintance, after all. Only decided to accompany Jingrui on a whim.

“Let’s go in,” she tells Jingrui, who nods.

Yujin appears first, skidding into the entrance hall soon after they’re announced. His sunny face splits into an even bigger smile when he sees them, and he bows.

“Grand Princess! What an honor! Though Jingrui often graces our virtuous home with his humble presence, it’s rare to see the Grand Princess here!”

“Rascal! Don’t you mean ‘our humble home with his virtuous presence?’”

“Aiya, what does it matter? Trust you to fuss about trivialities.”

“What’s all this ruckus?” Marquis Yan has appeared in the entrance hall. He sends a quelling look at his son before inclining his head at Liyang. “Grand Princess.”

She returns the bow. “Jingrui so often disturbs you here, it is past time for me to call and thank you for the trouble.”

The marquis demurs. “How can a fine young man like Jingrui be trouble? If anything, he’s a good influence on this son of mine.” He pauses, his gaze on Liyang perceiving. “This season’s tea arrived from Langzhou yesterday. Perhaps the Grand Princess would accompany me in trying it?” He turns to his son. “Yujin, you had something to show Jingrui, I recall.”

“Yes, a new flute!” Yujin seizes Jingrui and begins to drag him toward the door. “It has the most divine timbre!”

“But—” Jingrui resists, turning to Liyang.

“Go,” she reassures him, hiding her smile. “I will stay and chat with the marquis.”

Since it is a fine day, summer waning and the bite of autumn not yet arrived, Marquis Yan has the Langzhou tea brought to a pavilion overlooking the fish pond. He pours it and passes a cup to Liyang, who accepts it graciously.

Settling into his own seat, he says, “The results of the retrial must come as a great relief to the Grand Princess. After all, it was her voice and her great courage that led to it.”

Liyang’s hand shakes before she can bring the cup to her lips. The memory is still fresh. The fear and exhilaration. And beneath it all, the hard, pure knowledge of what was right.

But there is still one thing.

She sets her cup down. “Marquis. You must have heard. The crown prince was the first one allowed in the Lin memorial, accompanied by the princess, General Meng — and Mei Changsu.”

The marquis looks at her through half-lidded eyes. “What is it the Grand Princess wants to ask?”

Here it is again. The trepidation, the wavering, the will to shrink away. And underneath, the desire for truth, as clear and demanding as a river rushing from a mountain spring.

Liyang says: “Who is he?”

Marquis Yan draws a breath, nodding thoughtfully. “I thought once that Mei Changsu was Prince Qi’s man,” he says slowly. “Only that day, when he could have defended the old crown prince, he spoke of General Lin instead.”

Yes. In the fire of his rhetoric, his allegiance and his obsession had been revealed. The scholar’s mild façade had hidden a conviction as deep and furious as the storms of heaven. A tempest that Liyang allows herself to understand.

She says, “Do you think he could be…”

She doesn’t say the name her heart insists on.

“Connected to the late general?” supplies Marquis Yan. “Of course. But who? Although his household kept few servants, there were seventy-thousand soldiers in the Chiyan Army. And Su Zhe has been careful lately not to drop any more hints.”

Liyang takes a breath. Yes, a former soldier. That makes sense.

The marquis says, “Only…”

Only. That determination, that intellect.

Voices and footsteps drift up the path, the children approaching.

“What are you two talking about?” Yujin asks happily, swinging his sleeves as he steps onto the pavilion. All traces of deference have disappeared, Liyang notes with amusement.

“Have you visited your friend Sir Su recently?” Marquis Yan inquires in lieu of an answer. “I hear his household is making preparations to leave.”

A heartstring twinges inside of Liyang. She hadn’t known.

“Sir Su?” Yujin asks, in apparent surprise. Beside him, Jingrui has stilled. Matters between him and the chief of the Jiangzuo Alliance are still complicated, and Yujin looks at his friend before continuing, “Not yet… What with everything going on, it’s been a little busy.”

“Perhaps you should. You once were rather close.”

“It’s just… well.” Yujin glances around, but there’s no one else in sight for yards. He lowers his voice anyway and says conspiratorially, “It’s that I can’t help thinking he’s actually Lin Shu-gege.”

Yujin steps back, as if expecting the others to be shocked, or impressed.

Liyang’s heart is thudding in her throat. Neither she nor Marquis Yan move a hair, but Jingrui obliges. “Lin Shu-gege! Yujin, did your brain spring a leak? Even if he’s connected to the case, how can they be the same person?”

“It’s just a guess!”

“You—!”

Liyang makes a ladylike clearing of her throat, and rises. “It’s getting late, and I have intruded on Marquis Yan’s hospitality enough. I’ll be leaving now. Take your time, Jingrui.”

*

Liyang doesn’t go back to her manor. She redirects the coach to the palace gates, and a eunuch escorts her to the mausoleum where minor royals are interred.

She lights incense, pours wine, and stays until she feels the chill of the not-quite-autumn. It was a victory, this return of justice, but in her mind she cannot extricate its course from the passing of her daughter. She has not seen her grandson since the night he was born.

A faint sound makes her look around. Someone else is in the courtyard, standing near the gate. He looks like he has been there a while. Liyang turns back to her vigil.

Soft footfalls and the rustle of a cloak, and the newcomer kneels next to her.

Her eyes still fixed on the headstone, Liyang says at last, “You would carry her the fastest, of all the older children.”

Beside her, there is a jerk and a sharp indrawn breath.

“She would pester you all for piggyback rides whenever she could. I used to watch you sprinting with her, afraid you would fall… Of course you were only running to get it over with, so you could go back to wrestling with Jingyan or racing horses with Nihuang. But it made her happy.”

She senses eyes on her, and finally turns to Xiao-Shu. His skin is ice-pale and his expression full of remorse. “I have much for which I cannot face the Grand Princess and her daughter.”

Liyang sighs. “Not everything can be your fault.”

And he’s not the only one with this brand of ache. She reaches out, grasps his forearm, and can feel its frailty even through layers of fabric.

“Xiao-Shu… Can you forgive me?”

His eyes widen. “Forgive?”

“I lived with him all those years.” Gradual tears are wetting her face. “I knew in my heart what kind of man he was.”

“The one who approached the emperor was you.” Shock has made his voice rough, stripped the refinement from it. “Xie Yu’s sins are not yours. I have never blamed you.”

She had needed to keep her children safe.

“Mother wouldn’t blame you, either.”

Liyang’s hand slips from his sleeve. She closes her eyes and nods. The wind lifts water from her cheeks. “Then, that’s good.”

*

“I’m getting used to seeing Mother astride a horse,” Jingrui says merrily, from his own mount. Next to them, Xie Bi hovers anxiously.

It is the spring after a fraught winter, and the horses’ hooves have made mud of the soft ground in front of the stables. Liyang turns her mount, just for the familiar-unfamiliar feeling of it. Learning to ride again has been difficult, but she has relished the challenge.

“Are you certain you want to go?” asks Xie Bi without much hope. “The road to Southern Chu is dangerous.”

Liyang smiles. Bi-er is a filial child, if a bit rigid. “Don’t fret. Your brother will be with me. And the Jiangzuo Alliance is sending people, too.”

“I don’t trust them,” Bi-er grumbles. The horse snorts.

“You’ll take care of your sister’s grave while I’m gone?” Her own anxiety.

“You know I will.”

“Bi-er is a good son,” Liyang says, and he softens.

It was lifetimes ago: nights spent poring over maps of Southern Chu, whispered stories of its wonders. She will finally see them, and the flowering dogwood planted in her name. Niannian will meet them there, in lieu of the father who died over the winter.

Jinyang, Qi-er, Xie Yu, Yuwen Lin. Liyang doesn’t know why fate has allowed her to live, out of all of them. But it has. She has survived.

She is alive.

“Let’s head out,” says Jingrui, and they urge the horses to the gate, out into the world beyond.