Fire erupted from the third pirate ship as the wave of drones swept past, then again and again on the far side, until the entire spacecraft blossomed into a ball of fire. The silent explosion glimmered off the surfaces of the other ships, already defeated, with the boarding pods clinging like metal parasites to their airlocks.
"That's the last of it," Li Gang reported, turning from the combat monitors to meet Mei Changsu's eyes. "We've repelled the boarding party here, and Prince Jing's troops are reporting full control over the remaining slavers' ships."
Changsu smiled slightly. Even three raider ships working together weren't enough to win against a single Ancestor-built Imperial ship under Jingyan's command. But then again, it hadn't been a fair fight even before that.
"There's also a message for you."
Changsu gestured for him to continue.
"Prince Jing requests that our captain greet him on the Changzheng as soon as they are satisfied that conditions are safe." Li Gang stared at him with a preemptively disgruntled look on his face – Li Gang was the captain, but they both knew who was actually going over to the Changzheng.
"Send a confirmation, and prepare a shuttle for me," Changsu said – all according to plan. Yet for all his planning, he couldn't stop his heart from beating a little harder, nor his fingers from rubbing the worn spot on his command chair just a bit more threadbare.
In the twelve years since the Chiyan case, Jingyan had made no mention of the Chiyan Fleet, Lin Shu, Prince Qi, or anyone else killed in the conspiracy: nothing in his reports or public data, no appeals or records requests, not even a word in his personal correspondence – although that had shrunk to regular vids to his mother, and obligatory birthday greetings to various family members and a few military acquaintances. Mei Changsu had reviewed them all personally, everything that his spy network could intercept or hack. Jingyan was stiff, unhappy, and completely silent on the one thing that Lin Shu had believed he would never remain silent about.
There was other evidence to weigh, of course. The emperor kept Prince Jing out of the capital on near-constant military assignments – but that could be mere paranoia on his part, based on Jingyan's old connection to the Lin family and Prince Qi, compounded by the emperor's lack of love for Jingyan or his mother. Jingyan had stopped communicating with most of his old friends, even Nihuang – but wouldn't a man who thought his best friend had betrayed the empire come to mistrust his other friendships, too?
He was unlikely to be under threat of blackmail or violence to his mother: Jingyan was still offensively blunt about other matters of corruption and dishonesty, rigorously honorable in his own affairs, a talented and fair military leader, and in all other ways remained the man that Lin Shu had known, the prince that Mei Changsu rested his hopes on.
But belief and hope were not a stable enough foundation upon which to build this kind of war. He had waited and waited for that final proof while he gathered his secrets and lined up his pawns, but he couldn't wait any longer. Mei Changsu had to know. Would Jingyan help him bring justice to his army of dead – or did he believe justice had already been served?
So Changsu had arranged this little ambush – first the ambush on his own ship, whose flight path had been carefully leaked to one of the slave raider crews that the Jiangzhou Alliance had made desperate, and then the second ambush by Prince Jing's forces, also carefully led to this area by planted reports and falsified sensor data. Jingyan's habitual courtesy had made the invitation aboard into a foregone conclusion.
He was prepared.
He wasn't prepared enough.
Changsu had spent so much time on the small new-build ships that Jiangzhou Alliance used that he'd forgotten how distinctive the Ancestor-built ships were. Stepping aboard the Changzheng was like stepping back in time. Even the smell was the same – that specific acrid tang of the bulkhead alloy that current tech couldn't replicate, the hint of ozone from the engines, the scent of human bodies in a pressurized space. He could almost be back on the Chiyan. He could almost smell the smoke now, hear the screams as the fire of the explosion roared down the halls and forced him out the last airlock, ripped from his father's grasp. He could feel the cold sinking into his damaged pressure suit, the agonizing crawl of the emergency medical nanites under his skin as they tried to repair the damage, fire and vacuum and radiation burning and freezing and burning–
“Sir?” A voice spoke in the darkness, and someone touched his arm. He controlled his flinch, focused on the feeling of warmth and pressure, and blinked his eyes back open.
“My apologies. A moment of dizziness,” he said, his lips numb.
The officer looked down at his clothing – fashionable and heavily layered robes, expensively made from natural fibers, warm but impractical on a spaceship – and Mei Changsu could see him draw the desired conclusion: a weak civilian who couldn't even handle the minor shift in antigrav that came from walking from the shuttle to the ship. “Of course. This way,” he said.
Changsu forced his mouth into a smile and followed.
He had to be prepared. Seeing Jingyan was going to be much worse – especially if his gamble turned out to be wrong after all. There were many paths to revenge without Jingyan, but none to true justice. Changsu tucked a fold of his robe between his fingers and gripped harder.
The officer led him through the ship, and Changsu realized that unless he was remembering the schematics wrong, they were heading not to the captain's ready room off the bridge, but to Jingyan's personal quarters.
The door slid open at the officer's touch, and Jingyan was there, clad only in his underarmor skin as he deactivated and folded his combat armor into its case, every movement pairing grace with efficiency. Changsu's breath caught. Even with his back turned, even after a dozen years, he would recognize him anywhere.
The unrelieved black of the skinsuit emphasized his slenderness – Jingyan had always been built lean, but now, despite the muscle that military life had put on his frame, he looked like he didn't have an ounce of spare flesh. Changsu had seen the spy reports on the Ministry of Defense and its cavalier attitude towards rationing troops sufficiently, but seeing the evidence on Jingyan, a prince of Da Liang, like this....
Jingyan turned, and Changsu swallowed down his heart at the sight of his beloved face, the familiar planes drawn into harsh immobility, revealing nothing. Jingyan said, “Forgive the informality of meeting here, but my officers had need of the ready room. I'm sure you understand, Captain...?” He cocked his head in inquiry.
“Sir Mei Changsu of Jiangzhou, Your Highness,” Changsu said, bowing slightly.
Jingyan went still. “Ah,” he said. “That explains some things.”
“I thought perhaps it might,” Changsu said.
“Your ship isn't registered to the Jiangzhou Alliance.” His eyebrows pulled into a suspicious frown.
“A failed attempt to pass through this sector without detection, I'm afraid. We were fortunate that your patrol was so close.”
Jingyan hummed, and reached for a packet on the table – a old-fashioned chemical cold pack. He crushed the packet and held it in his hands while it activated. “Indeed. The Alliance has done a great deal to stabilize this region and reduce the illegal slave trade. I'm not surprised your work has created enemies here.”
“I have been fortunate to make friends in the area that can act on these things, and gratified that they accept my advice in such matters, despite my personal lack of combat skills.” Changsu dipped his head humbly. Interesting. Jingyan was more aware of the Alliance's work than he'd expected – his military assignments were usually focused on border conflicts.
“I am curious,” Jingyan said, his eyes full of distrust, “how a man with no martial skills came to lead such a bold group.”
“They recognized that my ability to make enemies was only surpassed by my skill at defeating them.” Changsu allowed a small smile to curve his lips. “But such work becomes tiring after too many years. That is among the reasons that I have decided to visit Jinling and live planetside for a time. For my health.”
Jingyan stiffened. “Oh? Are you staying with...friends there?”
“With Xiao Jingrui, Your Highness, at his father Xie Yu's estate.”
Down at his side, Jingyan balled his hand into a fist. “The Marquis Ning. Exalted company indeed. You should be able to meet many people in the upper ranks.” His lip curled. “I'm sure you are proud that you have been so successful.”
Changsu kept the smile on his face with effort. It was a good sign that Jingyan clearly hated the Marquis, and soft-handed strategists like Changsu. It was good that Jingyan could read between the lines like this, could see the hidden agenda, the sheathed knife. It was a good thing, a thing that would keep him alive.
It was so far from who Jingyan had been, when they last parted. Who they both had been.
“I wonder why someone with your talents chose to spend so many years outside the capital. Rescuing slaves is surely beneath the notice of a man like you.” Jingyan turned away a little and seemed to realize that he was still holding the cold pack in his clenched fist. He reached up and tucked it inside the shoulder of his suit. The zippered front gapped open for a moment: there was something there, small and black below the hollow of Jingyan's collarbones....
Hot rage froze Changsu for a moment. “Is that a–?” He clamped his teeth over the word, sickened.
Jingyan tracked his gaze, stilled for a moment, and took one long stride across the small room to grab Changsu by the wrist. He squeezed – in warning? in threat? Changsu could barely read him anymore – and shook his head sharply. Lifting his free hand, he tapped his ear and gestured at the room: someone's listening.
Changsu swallowed hard, and brought himself under control. He could not indulge himself like that again. “Is that a question, Your Highness?” he said lightly, and reached for Jingyan's collar, pulling the neofabric gently aside.
It was a choke. The dark cluster of circuitry crouched over the vagus nerve like a spider. Most people would mistake it for a last-generation comms unit by the arm going up to strangle the voicebox, but there was the tell-tale second branch going down to threaten the heart, in case the person was forced to speak of forbidden topics. Changsu had seen them many times – on slaves.
“Yes,” Jingyan said, staring at him. Changsu felt numb with shock, and distantly wondered what was showing on his face. He'd considered so many possibilities for Jingyan's silence, but never something as hideous as this. Only one person had the power to do something like this.
...Perhaps he should not be surprised after all.
“It is not difficult to understand that the freedom of one benefits all,” he said carefully, trying to answer both the spoken question and the unspoken one. “Especially when one is able to observe the results personally. I would be happy to tell you some stories – perhaps you would care to join me for a meal on my ship? My personal physician could join us – he has done a great deal of work with freed slaves at Langya Station, and I'm sure he'd be delighted to share his experience with you.” Changsu touched the choke lightly and raised an eyebrow.
Jingyan studied him for far too long, and Changsu cursed himself for mentioning Jingrui and the Marquis so early – it had been a part of the plan, but he couldn't have known, he couldn't have known he'd need Jingyan to trust him this intimately at this stage, all of his calculations were thrown off....
“Very well,” Jingyan said, pulling away. Changsu let his hand drop, his fingers rubbing together at the loss of touch. Jingyan looked down, paused, and said, “I need four hours to finish with matters here. Is that sufficient?”
“My cook will be delighted to have such a broad canvas of time for her art,” Changsu said, stepping back and bowing again. “I will leave first to let her know. Thank you again for your assistance with the pirates.”
Jingyan nodded and turned away, zipping his suit closed over the choke – a centimeter less and Changsu would never have known, how could they have missed this – and pressed the intercom to summon Changsu's escort back from the corridor.
Changsu bowed his way out, and the door slid closed over Jingyan's slim figure, standing alone against the backdrop of stars.
“You're an idiot,” Lin Chen repeated as they waited for Jingyan's shuttle to dock. “If we do this and then someone finds out his choke has been disabled, he'll give you up and your whole ridiculous web of lies will go up in smoke.”
“If you can disable it in the first place,” Changsu diverted.
“Of course I can disable it! And stop trying to change the subject. Or, no, you only do that when you know you're doing something stupid but don't plan to stop, so really, you're admitting that I'm right.” Lin Chen tucked his hands into his sleeves smugly.
“We can discuss the relative merits of the procedure with Prince Jing once you determine whether the choke has a safety,” Changsu said.
Lin Chen paused. “Ah. You really think the Emperor would do that?”
Changsu just looked at him.
“Good point.” Lin Chen shrugged. “He's an even bigger idiot than you are.”
“Mm. An idiot who managed to hide this secret from your network for twelve years,” Changsu said. He was still furious about it, even though it wasn't truly his friend's fault.
Lin Chen sucked in an outraged breath. “You–!”
The airlock alert shrilled out as Jingyan's shuttle connected, and their conversation stopped. The pumps hissed and thumped as they cycled air, and Changsu grounded himself against the intrusive memories, pinching the fabric of his sleeve between his fingers and focusing on the texture as he rubbed.
Jingyan stepped through the lock as soon as it opened. He was trailed by a narrow-faced young officer, too highly ranked to be a regular shuttle pilot, and therefore likely to be someone Jingyan trusted. Changsu bowed, welcoming them both.
“May I present Lin Chen, my personal physician?” said Changsu. Lin Chen bowed, precisely but without any care, as he usually did.
Jingyan bowed back respectfully. “I am honored. I didn't know the young master of Langya Station had the time to act as anyone's personal physician.” His eyes cut to Changsu, still fiercely wary.
Lin Chen barked a laugh. “Not usually, but I can't resist a challenge. Now, you and Mei Changsu can talk in circles for awhile if it will make both of you more comfortable, or we can head straight to the medical bay. Lie Zhanying here can come along, too.”
The young officer started at being called out by name and Changsu pressed his lips together in annoyance. Lin Chen was such a showoff: he had not only made the same calculation that Changsu had about the officer's trustworthiness, but apparently recognized him from some intelligence report that he hadn't shared. He didn't know why they were friends sometimes.
“No, that's alright,” Jingyan said. “Stay with the shuttle.” He gave Lie Zhanying a significant look, but Changsu knew that the order was more to protect his officer than it was to guard his escape route, because Jingyan had always preferred to place the most risk upon himself, regardless of his status. Jingyan must be desperate, to trust them this little and yet come so far.
They walked to the medical bay in silence. Changsu was grateful that Fei Liu was still distracted by the transfer of the pirate boarding party to Imperial custody and had been willing to leave his Su-gege unguarded for awhile, because Jingyan was radiating lethal levels of tension and looking like he was braced to fight his way out at any moment, his eyes flicking around the empty corridors in search of enemies.
Outside the medbay, Lin Chen halted and turned to Jingyan. “As your doctor, I'm obliged to tell you that you can have Mei Changsu stay out here, for your privacy.” Changsu stiffened in outrage – they had not discussed this, and as if he wouldn't just use the security feed to watch anyway: just because he was legally dead didn't mean he wasn't still Jingyan's medical proxy – before Lin Chen continued, “However, he came up with most of our code to bypass the choke programming, so it will go faster if he stays.”
Jingyan looked between the two of them, and Changsu could see the moment his mental scale tipped in favor of keeping them both where he could see them. He nodded.
“Great!” Lin Chen slapped the door panel open cheerfully. “This is all incredibly illegal anyway, so it's good that we're not standing on formality. That sort of thing gets you caught.” He gestured Jingyan towards the lone exam table and then swept around the room collecting items, turning on equipment, and rearranging things to his satisfaction. Once Jingyan deigned to perch on the edge of the table, Lin Chen stuck a biosensor on his wrist pulse point and reached for his collar – only to have Jingyan intercept him, keeping him away with a hand around his wrist. His expression was blank, but his jaw was tight and his other hand was clenched around the side of the bed.
Lin Chen was pushy, but he wasn't stupid. “Unzip that top and lie down. You really don't want to be upright if we set off the choke by accident.”
“I know,” Jingyan said, face set in harsh lines, and Changsu turned away to the computer console to catch his breath. He ignored the quiet rustle of movement behind him and kept his eyes fixed on the output window until it started to scroll with data – Lin Chen had hooked up the bypass device.
The specific lingual parameters of the choke were encoded, of course, but the shape of the programming was quite clear. Lin Chen peered over his shoulder and saw it instantly, too.
“Well,” he said, a rare seriousness in his voice, “Prince Jing, you have several options, depending on how obvious you want it to be that someone helped you with this choke. The absolute minimum that I insist on is creating a safety mechanism, so that if you are forced to speak your trigger words under duress, there's no risk of a fatal backlash, only a disabling one. The choke is currently configured to have a non-fatal base punishment, but there's no safety to protect you from extenuating circumstances.”
Jingyan's eyes closed briefly, but he didn't look surprised at the news. His father had been reckless with his son's life for twelve years now, sending him to every hot zone in the system with scant support from the Ministry of Defense, so this could hardly be a shock. It still made Changsu burn with rage.
“At the other extreme, we can remove the device completely, with minimal scarring–”
“No,” Jingyan said, staring grimly up at the ceiling. “I'm scanned every time I report to Jinling, to verify that the choke is still intact and operational. Gao Zhan always repairs any mechanical damage and reports it faithfully to the Emperor.”
“Hmm. Does he force you to trigger the choke, or does he just hook up diagnostics?”
“The latter,” Jingyan said, turning his head. Changsu, caught watching, turned back to the code.
“In that case,” Changsu said calmly, taking the lead back from Lin Chen, “we have a range of options to disable the choke without removing or mechanically altering it. We can even provide you with the means to switch between them, if you think you might be tested and wish to retain the illusion of the device being active.” Freed slaves usually wanted them as fully removed as possible, but the switch programming had proved invaluable for their undercover operatives. “I assume you wish to have the power to speak freely in private, or else you would not have agreed to this.”
Jingyan nodded once. His face was still locked down, but his eyes burned when Changsu met his gaze.
Changsu looked away again, trying to make it seem casual. He feared it was too late for complete damage control, after that first shocked break in his facade, but he had to try. If Changsu was correct in what he guessed the choke was suppressing, Jingyan couldn't trust him, or like him, too much: it would endanger his plans, the true justice he sought for the Chiyan dead. Jingyan must think Changsu was a cold-blooded strategist for as long as possible. That was more the truth now than his identity as Lin Shu, anyway.
He ran the program through a filter, picking out the relevant data. Luckily, this choke was an old model, one they'd cracked years ago, and it took hardly any time at all to patch in the safety and variant coding, reprogram one of the suitably innocuous dosage remotes in the cabinet to control the choke, and top it all off with an adaptive false-diagnostics skin that could fool even a deep probe. He allowed himself a tiny smirk of satisfaction. Someone would have to completely wipe and reset the device to make it work again, and that was unlikely, since they'd also have to reprogram all the words that the Emperor was so keen to never have spoken again.
Walking over the medbed, Changsu offered the remote to Jingyan where he lay and said, “Press your thumb here, Prince Jing.” Jingyan reached out, his fingers brushing against Changsu's as he let the dosage remote set itself to his biometrics. His skin was more callused now, but he still had the most beautiful hands, warm and elegant and strong. Changsu felt like a greedy, creeping serpent, wanting to curl his own frigid fingers into that warmth. He held still.
The remote beeped. Changsu belatedly pressed it into Jingyan's grasp and pulled away. “There are three settings,” he said, tucking his hands into his sleeves and stepping back. “From top to bottom: normal function but with the safety, moderate punishment to act as a warning system when you wish to only fake the effects but fear accidentally using a trigger phrase in front of others, and off.”
Jingyan flicked the remote to Off almost as fast as the word came out of Changsu's mouth – then he hesitated, his knuckles whitening around the device.
Lin Chen said, “You should try a trigger phrase, to check that the patch worked,” and Changsu forgave him for half a dozen things on the spot for taking over for Changsu in his distraction.
Jingyan clenched his jaw, staring up at the ceiling again. “Jingyu-dage,” he whispered, “xiao-Shu.” His voice broke on the last syllable, and Changsu's heart broke with it. Jingyan squeezed his eyes shut, a terrible grief washing over his face before he threw his legs over the far side of the table, coming up to sit with his back to Changsu and Lin Chen. His shoulders heaved once, twice, and he choked out, “Aunt Chen. Lin Xie. Lin Jinyang. Princess Guimin. Xiao Wuying. Xiao Wenjun,” and then kept going, the terrible litany of his brother's murdered household bleeding into the Chiyan dead, from his acquaintances like Wei Zheng down through the rest of Lin Shu's unit, and on to people that he knew Jingyan had never met, names he must have memorized silently in the long years since their names had been forbidden to him.
As Jingyan's voice grew hoarse and wet with tears, Changsu felt his own eyes sting with grief that he couldn't shed. He remembered all of them, their faces rising in his memory as Jingyan named them, the brave men and women who had fought for him, for Father, for Da Liang – brave, and betrayed.
Jingyan stumbled to a halt at last. Then, so low that Changsu only heard because he still stood too close, Jingyan whispered, “Forgive me.”
Changsu flinched and had to turn away, and caught Lin Chen watching him. Lin Chen had told him, before this trip, not to waste his time testing the waters like this, but now he made a rueful face, the closest he'd ever come to admitting he was wrong.
Cloth rustled as Jingyan stood up, and Changsu turned back. Jingyan had dried his face while he wasn't watching, but his eyes were still red and wet as he bowed deeply. “Thank you, Sir Mei, Doctor Lin. I am in your debt for this.” He took a long, shaky breath. “But I must make another request, one that has gone unspoken for too long. Langya and Jiangzhuo are known for their information networks – I beg of you, can you tell me the truth of what happened to the Chiyan Fleet all those years ago? I cannot believe that they were traitors – could not believe it – but then I could not even question it.” His hand came up to clench at the base of his throat, then he forced it back down, pinning Changsu with his gaze. “I will pay any price. Name it.”
Changsu traded glances with Lin Chen. He should have planned for this – but he hadn't thought past the urgent need to discover why Jingyan had kept silent, to know if he might support their cause far down this treacherous road to justice, or only be another stone on the path to revenge.
Yet here was Jingyan, at the start of the journey, already laying his desperate hunger for truth at Mei Changsu's feet, ready to do anything in its cause.
“I have no evidence that might clear the names of the dead, but I can share what truths I do know. And there is one matter that only Your Highness can help me with,” Changsu said, and set the storm into motion.