It was four years now and time had passed without him, as if he were but an observer of it. “I think now,” he said to an attendant standing nearby, and the man left promptly. Every year during this time there would be a visitor. The visitor waited in an adjacent room, sitting silently before the tea, his hands on his knees and ready to rise at a moment’s notice. It was not that he thought it would ever come, having resigned himself long ago to the vagaries of a mind he both knew better than anyone’s and not at all. It was just that either way he was prepared. For the last three visits, he’d only lowered his head silently when dismissed by the attendant. He’d risen then and thrown on his cloak and left. On the road, he stopped as little as possible, heading to the capital. He didn't glance back, but some part of him never came on this journey away from the waiting room. “Your Majesty,” he heard when he got back and the hands helped him disrobe and no one said a word when he punched a hole in the rice-paper door. There would be whispers, of course, but the Dowager Empress made sure it was only loyal servants by his side in these moments. Another year would pass then. He would dream about the room. The slight rustling from next door that he either imagined or was real, who knew?
It felt to His Majesty sometimes that he was on the threshold between two realities—one where he sat on the throne, another where he begged by a door—and neither could quite come together which meant he was not wholly present in his own life. His distance from others only his mother knew, she who was also distant all her life, and even now perhaps unmatched in her intelligence except for one other person.
She’d said after the second visit, “There are those we love, but must let go.”
“How can I let him go?” he’d said in reply.
“He said you must wait.”
“I wait and I wait…”
“He’s not a man who changes his mind easily.”
“No, you’re right. But neither am I.”
Why make him wait? Who knew how long either of them had? Just last year there had been an assassination attempt on His Majesty. His guards had been overwhelmed, and he’d been surrounded when a dark shadow threw itself into the fight. He’d caught a glimpse of the man under the hat—
“Zhen Ping,” he’d said.
“Your Majesty,” Zhen Ping saluted him. “We’ll find out who they were.”
“Please, let Meng Zhi know if you learn anything.”
Well, he was still managing a few things in the capital. His Majesty wrote angry letter after letter and tore it to pieces. In the morning, someone had cleaned the study and there was no evidence of his night-time anguish.
He didn’t wonder anymore what he would say to him if he saw him again. He knew the words did not matter, what came forth from his tongue, it was his eyes that were hungry for him. Lips, too, but—that was not anything he would impose on him.
The fourth year came, and he sat by himself in the room. This year a plot had played out involving the Minister of Education, the famous Donghai Jiang brothers, and a weapon smuggling operation. It had begun before the start of court after New Year and lasted until the end of the year. His Majesty sighed, and said, “I did what I thought you would do.”
It seemed there were little clues in his mind, things he’d not known that he’d known, and one day his mother looked down to his hands and said, “Jingyan,” in wonder and he realized he was rubbing his fingers together. Well, when Lin Shu used to do it, it felt like he had caught him in those fingers. It wasn’t the same, but it made him feel warm nonetheless. He’d done his best, but what he lacked, he knew, was passion for the work that his advisor had even at his most worn and weary. His Majesty could do it and despite how it made his mother look sad, his heart—“your dear heart,” he'd said before leaving him—survived that fourth year.
“If only you’d give me—” just a glimpse. A word. He’d go into the fifth year and not turn back. The door slid open and a crack of light as he looked up.
“It’s time,” said the attendant and led the way as His Majesty walked on shaky legs. The man left him at the threshold as His Majesty opened the door and got down on his knees.
“Did I do it right? Lin Shu?”
“Come closer,” said the low voice. He walked into the dark room and felt two hands grab his face. There was warm breath on his cheek.
“You did,” he said and His Majesty closed his eyes tight. “You did so well. You don’t need me anymore.”
“No,” His Majesty said in anguish, “I do.”
“I’ll be here then until you let me go—”