全文是直接按照AO3上自带的下载功能转换的，所以除了文之外还有我放到那边的译过的 @橡树洞 太太的两张条漫，美到哭的就当做彩蛋啦 ^^
文件夹里有PDF，MOBI 和EPUB格式，其中PDF最大程度保留了脚注，MOBI为零还原。。EPUB好像把我脚注里的中文全部自动改成了拼音 😂
因为文中各种html排版的关系我没有弄 txt 格式，希望大家不要介意呀
As per tradition, the Crown Prince should pay his respects to the Empress Dowager every three days. Today, sounds of chatter and soft laughter reach Tingsheng’s ears before he even opens the doors.
“Chengting, there you are,” beckons the Empress Dowager with a smile. “Come and help us look through those portraits, we can’t even begin to choose.”
“Greetings, Grandmother, Dowager Consort,” bows Tingsheng obediently before stepping closer and seeing more than a dozen portraits scattered across the table. An vague idea materializes in his mind, but he still queries, “What are these?”
“Picking a Consort for your seventh uncle! This matter has long been neglected for all those years, and now with his weakened health, he needs someone to take proper care of him.”
“Jiejie, I don’t think there is any rush.” 
“No rush! You being his mother, how can you be so nonchalant about this? Jingyan is past the age thirty, Jingting already has two children yet Jingyan doesn’t even have a concubine in his manor.” The Empress Dowager pauses, “Now I think about it, odd things do come in pairs; Xiaoshu still remains unmarried. Last time when I asked my sister-in-law, she also said there was no rush.
“Xiaoshu has always been a picky child. If we line them up, a queue of his female admirers would wind around the street, more than enough to fill a harem if he wanted. But the strange thing is, how come he shows no interest in any of the beauties in the capital? Though given his family’s esteem and his own merits and attributes, everything added together, it is truly hard to find a suitable match short of a princess.”
Dowager Consort Jing chuckles lightly, “So wouldn’t it be nice if Yujin were a girl?” 
“Actually, if Jingyan were a princess, he might be the best match for that imp. Just look at all those years of friendship, they are closer than some true brothers.” Laughs the Empress Dowager to herself, not noticing the slightly odd expressions on both the Crown Prince and Dowager Consort Jing’s face. “Compared to a well-bred damsel who knows nothing but embroidery, perhaps Xiaoshu likes a confident and suave girl who matches him in martial arts. How come he isn’t interested in Nihuang either? That child has standards as high as the sky, but it’s not like we can actually find him the top beauty of the pugilist world!”
Dowager Consort Jing has held her silence long enough, she soothes, “...The children are all grown, they have their own ideas, just let them choose for themselves.”
“Well, then we must provide them with enough choices to choose from,” declares the Empress Dowager promptly. She picks up the portraits and leafs them through once more, “Despite his young age, Chengting has a sharp eye for many things, let him weigh in for us.”
Tingsheng approaches the table, his eyes giving a cursory sweep of the portraits and he pronounces, “These are all good, but none good enough for my Uncle Jingyan.”
The two women share an amused glance, laughing, “Speaking truly like someone who lives in Jingyan’s manor, no one will be good enough for his Uncle!”
“Chengting has always been an obedient child but never too affectionate for his age. I was a bit anxious when Jingyu sent him to Prince Jing’s Manor-- both uncle and nephew are stubborn as an ox, they wouldn’t give an inch in an argument. Now it seems that my worries were unfounded. Just look at him, the groom has yet to give his opinion, he’s sent all the prospects away already!” Lin Yueyao takes a breath to calm herself and pulls out one of the portraits from the pile, asking casually, “Well then, tell me, how is this girl ill-suited for your uncle?”
“She is dressed in ostentatious clothing, excessively ornamented, even the objects in the background are all rare collectibles. She lacks the virtue of frugality.”
“What about this one?”
“Her eyes are dull and appear disinterested, clearly with a boring disposition.”
“This one looks more peppy.”
“Perhaps overly so. There are mostly loud men of the army in Prince Jing’s Manor, they spend hours in vigorous exercises, she may be frightened of all the ruckus.”
Dowager Consort Jing nods approvingly as he voices his opinion on several portraits, satisfied that despite the blunt remarks, he does not judge the girls based on the stature of their families.
“And this one?”
“What’s wrong, no comment? What do you think of the granddaughter of Chancellor Liu Cheng?”
“I’ve met this girl once,” says Dowager Consort Jing. “Seems poised and gentle-hearted, content with quietude. She is also rather learned, fairly accomplished in the scholarly arts and well-mannered, too.”
“Jingyan needs someone who can take good care of him. Look at his manor, it’s full of unrefined soldiers whose entire life is the battlefield. The only reliable one, Lie Zhanying, has also moved on to the Imperial Guards as Vice Commander. Although you are a considerate child, you cannot stay by his side all the time…”
Tingsheng knows that as soon as he gives his reply, he would never see his younger brother again in this life.
A maelstrom of emotions swirls inside Tingsheng at the thought of that innocent child: envy, jealousy, affection and longing all warring for dominance. He was the legitimate son of Father, his childish features bearing a great resemblance to the man. He would trail behind Tingsheng ever since he learned to walk, calling him in that sweet baby voice, ‘Tingsheng-gege.’
He recalls when that child was first born, how he had envied his status, envied the fact that he could legitimately call Jingyan “Father” in front of everyone, envied the expectations and attention he received from the moment of his birth. But all those dark thoughts were summarily soothed by Jingyan.
‘Tingsheng, you are an elder brother now.
A long time ago, I had an elder brother too. Those times with him by my side, protecting me and guiding me, were the happiest days of my life.
And I hope this child can be as fortunate as I was.’
Tingsheng gives a slight cough to cover his momentary lapse in attention.
A man’s life is filled with gains and losses. If Tingsheng was one of the “gains” in Jingyan’s last life amidst his many losses, then this child would be a loss in Jingyan’s present life.
Tingsheng knows who should rightly stand by his Father’s side. His hesitation is nothing but a gesture of goodbye.
“This Lady Liu had written a poem some years ago illustrating her resistance towards marrying into nobility, it had once gained overwhelming popularity amongst the female circles.”
“It was no more than a poem written in jest, not to be taken seriously.” The Empress Dowager glances at him in slight surprise, “You are not usually one to pay much heed to such gossips...did Yujin say something to you again? That man...already a grown adult yet never ceases to cause trouble! Now polluting young minds too!”
“...The poem mentioned Qishui.”
The Empress Dowager and Dowager Consort Jing have only a hazy knowledge of what had transpired that year regarding Qishui. They later heard from Jingyu that Jingyan had many unspoken difficulties in his position at the time, though many years have passed since then, they cannot reasonably reopen the case to prove Jingyan’s innocence. So whenever the subject of Qishui comes up, Jingyu’s expression would invariably darken with much more displeasure than Jingyan himself; if he found out that this Lady Liu has held a wrongly placed grudge for so long, he would be extraordinarily unhappy. The Empress Dowager heaves a reluctant sigh, “If that’s the case...then it really would be unwise to mention her to Jingyan.”
“Actually, I’ve suggested Lady Liu to Jingyan once before, he rejected the idea right away. He said that he feels inexorable guilt towards her for having taken her nanny during the expulsion of the Hua from the capital.” Dowager Consort Jing placates softly, “Jiejie, please don’t dwell on this matter. For me, I would be more than happy as long as Jingyan is safe and healthy.”
“I heard from my Brother that he sent some herbs from Western Li to Jingyan, supposedly quite efficacious for healing the bone. These children, no matter how much they grow up, we’d always worry for them.” The Empress Dowager grabs the Crown Prince’s hand and pats it affectionately, “Now we have one more to worry about. Already so picky at this young age, you are all taking after Xiaoshu and Yujin!”
Tingsheng ducks his head in obedient acquiescence, smiling and pouring a fresh cup of tea for both women, and steers the conversation to another topic.
Xiao Jingyu sits on the imperial throne, a smile curling up his lips when he opens the next report.
The handwriting tapered and strong, the argument logical and succinct, he recognizes Jingyan’s handiwork at once.
The two brothers still have their disagreements on political matters, but Jingyan would always articulate his opinions directly to him. Like this time, with the recruitment of new officials, his has pointed out in his report the issue of ambiguous stipulations regarding using talent from lower births, his reasoning impeccable and his recommendations precise.
Jingyan has poured all his energy into helping him govern the kingdom, yet he, as elder brother, has no means of recompense. If they were any ordinary lord and subject, it would be enough to award gold or property, antique collectibles, rare books or weaponry-- whatever his subject fancies.
But Jingyan doesn’t truly desire any of these things, they would only collect dust in his manor.
As a brother, he can give Jingyan love and affection; as a ruler, he can give him unparalleled trust. Yet none of this can hold a candle to the sacrifices Jingyan has made for him.
Although to everyone else, he has already elevated Jingyan to an unsurmountable height, but compared to what the man deserves, it is far from enough.
Whenever Jingyan comes into the palace, Xiao Jingyu can only ask him to wear more layers, to take care of himself. Now he truly finds himself in a predicament: he wishes more than anything to give Jingyan more, but Jingyan needs nothing else.
When it comes to clothing, Jingyan is not particular and pays little attention to accessories. Perhaps as a result of military training in his early years, he is never picky about food, either; the only things he favors a bit more are commonplace desserts like hazelnut cookies.
When it comes to his residence, Jingyan still lives in the same manor as before, next to Lin Shu’s place. Though a few months ago, the latter had purchased the house next door as well, busy with rebuilding the space for a while.
When it comes to travel, Jingyan’s injury on his left leg is still not fully healed, so Jingyu has forbidden him to come to the palace during inclement weather.
He knows well that Jingyan truly wants for nothing else, but this very realization saddens him immensely.
At this moment, Vice Commander Lie Zhanying enters to deliver his report on some recent military matters. The man is detailed and reliable, Jingyu nods in satisfaction at his work.
A muffled rumble of thunder interrupts their conversation. Jingyu raises his head and sees a steady blanket of rain beginning to pour from the sky.
Lie Zhanying turns his attention to the outside as well and sighs, “The clouds are coming from the east, the rain will persist for a while. We are already in late autumn, this kind of chilly rain is most unbearable.”
Something occurs to Jingyu and he asks, “Where is Jingyan right now? I recall that he and Lin Shu left the capital yesterday to evaluate some war horses donated by several lords. Is he on his way back now?”
“The gates have just sent word that His Highness is already back.”
“The mansion he visited was to the east of the city, he must have gotten wet on his way back.” Jingyu frowns in worry, “I’ll go pay him a visit.”
Jingyan’s manor has always had very few servants, he does not need people tending to him, even on his sickbed. The few additional maids and servants bestowed to him by Dowager Consort Jing after his return to the capital all work in the outer rooms.
“His Highness encountered a storm, several people of his entourage have fallen ill from the cold. His Highness is also a bit under the weather, he might have already gone to rest.”
“I see, I will go see him briefly.”
The emperor’s visit to Prince Jing’s manor is already a frequent occurrence, the servants know not to ask much. They bow their retreat after leading him to the entrance of the inner chambers.
Jingyu approaches Jingyan’s bedroom and sees a single lamp still lit inside, indicating its occupant is still awake. He opens his mouth to call out, only to hear whispered voices coming from inside.
Upon closer examination, he recognizes Lin Shu’s voice.
Through the slightly unlatched window, he sees the two men squeezed together on the same bed, each with a book in hand.
Jingyu notices an empty medicine bowl on the low nightstand, the bitter scent of herbs still lingering in the air. Lin Shu is wrapped tightly in a thick blanket, his face slightly flushed as he gives a few light coughs. So it is Lin Shu who’s caught the cold.
Lin Shu and Jingyan have always been very close since their youth, and they’ve often slept in the same tent during military excursions. Jingyu has long since known their intimacy, yet the scene in front of him strikes him as odd.
Lin Shu is holding the book with his left hand, his right hand clasped tightly with Jingyan’s left one, fingers laced together. Jingyan seems rather accustomed to the gesture; despite the difficulty of flipping the page with just one hand, he makes no move to extract his hand from Lin Shu’s.
Jingyu is suddenly reminded of when he first taught the two boys The Book of Songs, when they heard the stanza “Take thy hand and with thee I age”, how Lin Shu had immediately gone to grab Jingyan’s hand.
‘So we’d never be apart.’
Silence stretches in the room when Jingyan frowns, guilt written all over his face, “If you hadn’t lent me your cape, you wouldn’t have fallen ill.”
“Nah, there are some servants in my manor that got sick a few days ago, I caught it from them. Besides, I’ve never gotten sick when I was in the North, which was so much colder than here.” Lin Shu coughs again, whining, “But I think I’m burning up.”
He reaches up to rub his forehead shamelessly against Jingyan’s head, then proceeds to plant a soft kiss on Jingyan’s lips.
Jingyu stumbles back, his boots stepping into a shallow water puddle, the crisp splash! resounds in the quiet night.
At the sight of Xiao Jingyu outside the window, Jingyan and the usually unflappable Lin Shu are both frozen in shock.
“You…” Xiao Jingyu feels the blazing ball of anger deflate into nothingness as the first word leaves his mouth.
He’s always known that the two were close, but he’s never once divined their relationship in that fashion. On his way here, he was still preoccupied with Jingyan’s health, thinking that he must personally pick a Consort for him by next year. He’d already made a mental catalogue of all the suitable girls in the noble circles, but they struck him either as too prudish or too immodest, none was good enough for Jingyan.
His head still whirling with such thoughts, he suddenly finds the candidate for his sister-in-law already decided in front of him.
As the elder brother, he is understandably furious at the blatant display of immorality from two of his dearest brothers, yet the rebuke dies in his throat after the first word.
The scene he had just witnessed was indisputably clear-- it was no frivolous flirting, but the natural intimacy from deeply ingrained affection.
Seeing that Lin Shu only has a light robe on, Jingyu takes a step backwards and waits in the courtyard.
Lin Shu feels worry gnawing at him. Although Jingyu is a man that respects tradition and moral codes, he is far from being inflexible. But Jingyan means so much to the man that his judgment would inevitably be clouded by his feelings.
Lin Shu’s original plan was that in a few years, after the political landscape has stabilized and Jingyan’s health much improved, they would go travel together and inform Jingyu via letter. By that time they will have stayed in the pugilist world for two or three years, with Auntie Jing and his mother’s persuasive tactics, even if he is still mad, Jingyu-gege might slap him around a bit, but he wouldn’t blame Jingyan anymore.
But now they are practically caught red-handed, Lin Shu worries that Jingyu would give Jingyan a harsh reprimand.
Sensing Lin Shu’s distress, Jingyan soothes him, “When we go outside, you stay quiet, I’ll admit to everything.”
Lin Shu feels a sharp spike of anger at Jingyan’s gross misunderstanding and his ridiculous intention to shoulder all the blame, he snaps, “I’m still here, where do you think you are going by yourself?”
“Don’t worry, Brother wouldn’t actually punish me...you should go back home.” Jingyan says calmly, “Whatever happens, I won’t let harm come to you.”
Lin Shu’s heart melts at the words, yet he cannot help but feel exasperated at the Buffalo’s sheer stubbornness. He settles for grabbing the man closer and bites on his ear tip, half in admonition and half in jest, saying, “You should do well to remember that we will always stay together, through life and death.”
Jingyan walks outside with Lin Shu beside him. At one glance of Jingyu’s stormy expression, he knows that his Brother, honorable and principled to a fault, would never tolerate such flagrant disrespect of moral propriety. He begins, “Xiaoshu has nothing to do with the incident today, I will accept any punishment Brother sees fit to dole out.”
He then proceeds to lower himself into a kneel.
Before his knees could touch the ground, however, he is forcibly grabbed by Jingyu’s hand.
“Nonsense! The ground is freezing, do you want to ruin your legs?!” Jingyu scolds, his brows knitted together in displeasure.
The night has completely fallen, the ground is covered in a thin layer of ice, how can Jingyan’s injured legs withstand such chill?
“...We’ll talk inside.”
The three of them go back into the room. Lin Shu helps Jingyan settle into a plush chair, and Jingyu tosses a cape to Lin Shu, who wraps it around himself.
After everyone is comfortable, the previous tense atmosphere has also dissipated.
Though Lin Shu is the ill one, Jingyan’s face is lined with obvious fatigue as well. Jingyu sweeps his eyes across the half-finished scrolls on the desk, his mind wandering back to everything that has happened; he heaves a sigh, all criticisms vanishing from his mind.
He remembers the aftermath of the news of Jingyan’s fall, how Lin Shu had rushed to Langya Hall to keep Jingyan company at the first word of his survival. He remembers that when Jingyan came back to the capital, how Lin Shu had mobilized all his resources to search for medicinal herbs, how when he heard that hot springs were beneficial to the healing process, he had pleaded and begged for Prince Ji to give him a resort, where he would take Jingyan every month.
Jingyu would often think, it is truly a blessing of a lifetime that Lin Shu and Jingyan met and became friends in their youth, grew up in each other’s company, and have stayed so faithfully by the other’s side through the most difficult times, being the sword and shield for each other’s back.
Jingyu himself has his share of close friends too, but their relationships have never strayed beyond gentlemanly interactions. They would share a pot of tea or a jug of wine, conversing about various refined topics, yet a part of him would always feel the sharp tug of envy at the sight of Lin Shu and Jingyan, always together with palpable intimacy between them.
Now Jingyu realizes that their intimacy goes far beyond friendship.
He realizes that his decision now would dictate Jingyan and Lin Shu’s future.
Yet he doesn’t really have a choice, does he?
If he disapproves, the two would be forced apart, and he cannot bear to see his younger brother unhappy.
Jingyan has never wanted for much, now all he wants is Lin Shu.
If he denies him that wish, Jingyan will truly be alone.
He remembers that when they were young, Jingyan was his most carefree self with Lin Shu around.
If it’s with Lin Shu, perhaps Jingyan will finally be happy in his life.
He glances at the two before him, heaving a long sigh of resignation, and says, “...I will talk to Auntie Jing and the Lin family.”
Both Jingyan and Lin Shu are stunned into silence once again by the unexpected rejoinder.
Lin Shu has already drafted a detailed plea in his mind. No matter what, they have finally come together after all the hardships in this life, he would never let go of Jingyan’s hand.
Yet before he could verbalize any of his supplication, Jingyu has cut him off. Even the clever Vice Commander of the Chiyan army has moments of utter bewilderment; he lets out several involuntary coughs before asking, “Say what?”
“You, come with me,” Jingyu points at Lin Shu, “I’ll tell you what I mean.”
Time seems to stretch on as Jingyu and Lin Shu stand in the courtyard, facing one another.
Jingyu considers the young man before him: since he was a child, the precocious and clever Lin Shu has never dimmed his own brilliance even in front of imperial princes like Jingxuan, while Jingyan was born with an unrelenting sense of dignity; it was quite a miracle to see those two bond as the closest of friends. Jingyu’s head is still reeling from the recent revelation, yet a part of him is hardly surprised by the development.
What does he still need to tell Lin Shu?
Lin Shu already knows everything he would say.
Does he need to extract some kind of vow from Lin Shu?
But Lin Shu would never change anyway.
After much deliberation, Xiao Jingyu settles for saying, “You are Jingyan’s only close friend. If you become lovers, he would lose a friend.”
Lin Shu’s face blossoms into a smile, “We were inseparable friends first before we became intimate lovers, nothing will change.”
Jingyu savors Lin Shu’s words for a few moments; he does not have any friend of this kind, but he is immensely grateful that fate has brought Lin Shu and Jingyan together.
He reaches out to draw Lin Shu’s cape closer, assuring him, “Don’t worry, I will make certain that everything will be fine.”
When the Empress Dowager and Dowager Consort Jing hear that the emperor has requested their audience after his late-night visit to Prince Jing’s manor, they hurry outside to greet him despite matching expressions of puzzled surprise.
The emperor flips aside his robes and falls into a formal kneel in front of them, startling both women into action. “Jingyu! What is this for?!” “Please rise at once! Be seated and we shall talk.”
Jingyu refuses their earnest objections and remains kneeling, recounting with great care Lin Shu and Jingyan’s story.
“Jingyan lost almost everything for my sake. As his elder brother, I cannot bear to also take Lin Shu away from him.”
As he finishes, he touches his forehead to the ground with solemnity, “Jingyu begs Aunt Jing and Mother for your gracious approval.”
After receiving the blessing from the Empress Dowager and Dowager Consort Jing, Jingyan should pay a formal visit to the Lin family, as tradition dictates.
Jingyu’s concern flares up again and he insists on accompanying him.
Dowager Consort Jing pulls Jingyu aside and bids with a smile, “There is no need for you to go to the Lin Manor. Let Xiaoshu and Jingyan go by themselves tomorrow.”
“Aunt Jing, why not?” Jingyu cannot ignore the nagging worry and repeats, “Xiaoshu is the only child of Commander Lin. He carries extraordinary expectations...if Commander Lin is incensed by the situation, my presence there should offer some protection.”
“You have always looked out for Jingyan since he was young; I understand your anxiety. But since Jingyan’s return, judging by the way Commander Lin and Princess Jin Yang have treated him, they should have already perceived the truth long ago.”
“But Jingyan told me that they still don’t know--” Jingyu stops himself mid-sentence, realization hitting him. A chuckle escapes him-- so it seems that the entire Lin family have been clued in, his silly brother is the only one left in the dark.
“They both hold prominent positions and are both male. Neither cares for the superficial show of a marriage ceremony anyway. As their elders, it is enough to give them our blessings without drawing unwanted attention.”
Jingyu nods in understanding, he takes a few steps forward before turning back, “There is still one thing I would like to do for them.”
The night before going to the Lin Manor, Jingyan spends the whole evening awake, Lin Shu naturally ends up in a similar state with him.
So before Princess Jin Yang could voice a single word, an amused chortle escapes her at the sight of dark bags under both men’s eyes. After a brief tea ceremony, she summarily sends them back to get some proper rest. 
Jingyan has never imagined that his relationship with Xiaoshu would be accepted by their closest families; he spends the next few days in a complete daze, before remembering to harass Lin Shu for not telling him that Lin Xie and Princess Jin Yang had been aware of their liaison this whole time.
Then, Lin Shu’s manor catches on fire.
It is no major catastrophe-- only a storage room is burnt to ashes, though the flames have lit up the entire street.
Worried about Lin Shu’s safety, all irritation flees Jingyan’s mind as he hurries over to help him clean up the aftermath with a dozen of men. Yet within a fortnight, a woodshed catches on fire again.
The next day, the head astrologer reports that the Red Phoenix is gaining strength in the Southern sky, heralding a period of fire. He urges for stronger vigilance against conflagrations in the city.
Words on the street quickly connect the dots together between the prediction and the recent fires at Lin Shu’s manor.
Today, the Crown Prince leads a taoist priest to Lin Shu’s place to evaluate the reason behind the persistent fires. The priest concludes that the Vice Commander of the Chiyan army is born with fire, yet named with wood. Wood mutates in the presence of fire, the only recourse would be to build a passage in his manor that would draw water to the household, bringing balance to fire.
Jingyan eyes Lin Shu’s enthusiastic expression with mild suspicion as they listen to the priest’s ramble, “They are going to tinker around your house, why are you so excited?”
“The Blue Dragon represents water, ‘Jing’ means peace, it even has the character ‘blue’, and the Master of the House is the rightful descendent of the dragon-- where would my passage go to get water, don’t you see, Your Highness?” 
Jingyan chokes on his water and is consumed by a coughing fit.
He moves to stand up to put an end to this madness, only to be caught by Lin Shu, who shoves him back to his chair and says, “It’s His Majesty’s idea. What if I’m too old to climb over walls in fifty years?”
He continues, “Her Highnesses have already named the passage, too.”
“You command more than 50,000 men and I am a Prince of the first rank. What would people think if we have our houses connected?!”
“Jingyu-gege is different from the late emperor,” says Lin Shu. “As for others, our conscience is clear with regards to the heavens, the kingdom and our families, that will be enough.”
“...I need to see Brother to ask him to rescind the decree.”
“Too late,” Lin Shu blinks innocently. “Your walls have already been torn down.”
The Empress Dowager and Dowager Consort Jing have collectively named the passage: Qushui.
The hidden troughs on the side have also been cleaned and filled with fresh soil. Lin Shu favors the plum flower, so they’ve planted the sides full of plum trees from the blossoming ones in Prince Jing’s manor.
Within a year, the new plum trees are flourishing with beautiful flowers.
Lin Shu loves the sight; he would drag Jingyan to the pavilion at the end of the passage to spend hours there, sipping on wine and enjoying the scenery. Sometimes Yujin would join them with Jingrui to see the flowers too.
Today, Mu Qing is also present. The group of men are sitting around the table, drinking the Zhao Dian Hong wine courtesy of Jingrui, as Yujin says, “When I passed by Mei Lang today, I saw the plum flowers at the peak of their beauty! You could tell that those were personally planted by Lin Shu-gege, now Mei Lang is quite a sight to behold!”
Jingrui nods, “I think that the white plums are the most exceptional; they bloom in the harshest weather, not fearing even the coldest snow!”
Lin Shu chokes on his wine, “What Mei Lang, what the hell is Mei Lang?!” 
Yan Yujin ducks his head in terror at the outburst, while Mu Qing, who has never tasted Lin Shu’s iron fist, replies nonchalantly, “Oh, it’s that passage connecting your two houses! Since it’s lined on both side with plum blossoms, everyone calls it ‘Mei Lang’ now.”
“What do you mean, ‘everyone’?! Her Highness named it!”
“It’s a good name alright, just too hard to say,” Mu Qing sticks out his tongue for good measure. “When I went to visit Her Highnesses yesterday in the palace, they both said that they’d like to come to your manors someday, to see ‘Mei Lang.’ Oi, Lin Shu-gege, why the long face?”
Later, since more and more people have taken to the nickname, the emperor himself has penned the words “Mei Lang” on a framed board, which is then placed above the passage connecting the two manors.
But that’s a story for another time.
1姐姐 (jie jie): endearing honorific for an older female, can be used alone or attached as a suffix after names, like 宸妃姐姐 (chen fei jiejie), lit. Sister Consort Chen.[return to text]
2It was mentioned at the end of the drama (and perhaps more explicitly in the novel), where Prince Ji casually said that Yujin was promised in marriage to another family when his mother was pregnant with him. But once he was born and turned out to be a boy, the betrothal was dropped since the sex didn’t work out. Yujin never found out who his supposed “husband” was, but it was implied that it was Lin Shu.[return to text]
3The original here is 执子之手，与子偕老 (zhi zi zhi shou, yu zi xie lao), a very well-known stanza as part of a longer poem in the anthology 诗经 (shi jing), The Book of Songs, the first collection of poems of its kind, encompassing poetry and rhymes from 11th century to 6th century B.C. The original poem is called 击鼓 (beating drums), which expresses the lament of soldiers far from home in an extended military excursion with no return in sight. The full stanza reads: 死生契阔，与子成说；执子之手，与子偕老, lit. “Whether life or death, I’ve made this promise with you; [I will] take your hand and grow old with you.” In ancient times, when warfare was a long and unpredictable process, parting between soldiers from one battle to the next could mean permanent farewell. This poem describes the ardent wish of the speaker to stay with his friend on this lonely journey, even if they may never return to their hometowns. In modern reference, however, this last half quoted here has taken on a distinctly romantic connotation to mean essentially “ ‘til death do us apart.”[return to text]
4The practice of 敬茶 (jing cha, offering tea) is an important part of traditional Chinese wedding ceremony, still commonly used today. All four parents of the newlyweds would be presiding over the ceremony, where the groom first offers tea to his father-in-law, then his mother-in-law, followed by the bride performing the same to her in-laws. This is also the first official meeting of the parents to the new addition to their families, and where the couple formally change their address of both pairs of parents to “mother” and “father.” Sources suggest that since the Song Dynasty in the 12th century C.E, tea has been considered a symbol of permanence and fidelity for the fact that tea trees could not survive transfers once they were unearthed. [return to text]
5朱雀 (zhu que), lit. red bird, is one of the four mythological creatures in Chinese folklore, along with 青龙 (blue dragon), 白虎 (white tiger) and 玄武 (black turtle). In later Taoist practices and astrological diagrams, each of the creatures would preside over one of the four cardinal directions: Red Phoenix in the South, Blue Dragon in the East, White Tiger in the West, and Black Turtle in the North. [return to text]
6Lin Shu’s “Lin” is written as 林 (forest)，which is composed of two 木, meaning wood. [return to text]
7靖 (jing) as in Prince Jing contains the character 青, which means blue, the same as in 青龙 (blue dragon). The emperor is considered to be the earthly personification of the Dragon, so naturally all his children are descendants of the dragon. [return to text]
8People are calling the plum passage quite literally 梅廊 for convenience, but Lin Shu mistakes it for its homonym 梅郎, which is Sir Mei, as in Sir Mei of Jiangzuo. XD [return to text]
感谢 @擂文 大大给我们带来这么好的故事，外网的读者们都看得如痴如醉的，前几章虐得都快把心掏出来了 （然而我表示这个锅我不背
@大夫你看这人还有救吗 “校对”一词真是远远低估了你对这篇译文的贡献！亲你一手承担了解答疑难，帮忙构思造词句式，以及充当我经常掉线的阅读理解功能，没有你的帮助我恐怕一章都不敢po出来 (捂脸
In the fifth year of Yuanyou, new emperor Xiao Jingyu is officially coronated, naming the new era “Changjing,”1 with prayers for peace along the borders, prosperity for the kingdom and welfare for the people.
The second year of Changjing opens with an abundance of rain in the early spring, bringing a flourishing season for the crops and an auspicious start of the agricultural season.
Another excellent piece of news reaches the capital in the beginning of the year: the crushing defeat suffered by the Northern Yu in the battle with the Liang had exacerbated their domestic strifes, leading to inability to pay the fiscal agreements in the truce treaty. Combined with the unrelenting pressure from both the Liang ambassadors and the border guards, they have settled to cede territory as recompense. The borders of the Liang Kingdom have been expanded almost overnight by hundreds of miles in the north.
Yan Que is enjoying a quiet day at home, tea in hand, when he hears a knock at the door.
Ever since the inauguration of the new emperor, the head astrologist at the Taichang Temple2 has been living under an intense anticipation of doom-- he was the one who predicted major rainfall at Qishui that year, leading to the demotion and subsequent exile of the then Prince Qi. When the imperial summons reached his door earlier today, he could practically taste his own demise; so he rushed to beg his old acquaintance, Yan Que, to enter the palace with him, in a desperate hope to preserve himself.
Yan Que knows well that the current emperor would not summon the man merely to air old grievances, but he is also hesitant to trust an astrologist. At this juncture, a messenger arrives from the palace with a summons for him as well.
With the exception of urgent matters, the emperor would usually stop by Yan Que’s residence for a private discussion on his way to Prince Jing’s manor. Yan Que accepts the summons and sets out to the palace after tidying his clothes.
Their carriage passes by Prince Jing’s manor, which remains under careful maintenance by the prince’s old followers. Several branches of plum blossoms poke through the walls, still blooming cheerfully in the lingering winter.
There are children scampering through the streets on their bamboo horses, singing childish tunes, some of which Yan Que had once sung himself when he was young, others he had heard from the young Jingyan and Lin Shu, when he and Xiao Xuan sat together to watch the boys.
The passage of time has a curious ability to filter out the painful spikes from memories, leaving only the gentle and pleasant parts that he could slowly savor with his eyes closed.
He arrives at the palace through the beautiful signs of spring, and yet another sight greets him.
He has not seen the emperor smile in a very long time. Struck by the sudden loss of both his father and younger brother, the soft-hearted and elegant man rarely smiled in the past year and half, but his face now is filled with unbridled joy.
Yan Que sees a letter clutched in one of his hands and a snowy pigeon resting on the window sill. The last pigeon of such extraordinary beauty he saw was the one Prince Jing sent to him, asking him to save Brother Lin Xie from trouble.
It is the messenger pigeon of the Langya Hall.
The astrologist had prostrated himself onto the floor as soon as he entered, not even daring to glance at the emperor. So it is to his complete befuddlement when he hears the command to choose an auspicious date. He raises his head in confusion and asks, “What is the auspicious date for?”
“Father, I heard that--” the doors to the Yangju Hall are suddenly banged open by an unusually flustered young prince, who almost stumbles in his haste.
Yan Que casts a look at the poor, dazed astrologist, and a smile stretches on his face.
Inside the Langya Hall, the Young Master leisurely strolls up the stone steps to the highest part of the mountain.
An emaciated man in ebony robes sits in the middle of the room. Injuries and illness have robbed him of good health.
A year ago, when he was brought back along with Fei Liu from Northern Yu, the man was covered in cuts and lacerations, some of which already black from poison, his left leg broken in the fall. Fei Liu had managed to hide them both in snow dunes for several days.
Despite the pills Fei Liu fed him to keep him alive, Lin Chen, as a physician, could easily imagine his perilous state.
It would take no more than a sigh of fatigue and closing of his eyes, and he would never wake again. To be able to survive under those circumstances was entirely due to his iron will and his subconscious desire to keep breathing.
Even with the man sitting within an arm’s reach to him now, Lin Chen cannot help but feel that they have come in a full circle with these two lifetimes.
A servant boy passes Lin Chen with a bowl of fresh medicine in hand and stops in front of the other man’s bed, raising the bowl respectfully to help him drink.
The patient, however, takes the bowl in his still mobile left hand, gulps the content in one go.
Lin Chen chuckles at the sight. “For someone who has been the emperor there and back, how can you be so unaccustomed to servants?”
At Lin Chen’s voice, the man turns his body with great difficulty to face him. “It was always like this since my days in the military...I’m used to it. And I still have use of my left hand.”
Lin Chen closes the distance and examines the injured right hand, saying, “There would be some more time before this hand could wield a sword again. By the way, those in the capital should have received the letter, though I’m not sure if your Brother liked me imitating your handwriting.”
In the missive, he wrote that Jingyan was trapped in a valley near the Yu borders after his fall. After being rescued, he was invited on a trip to the pugilist world with the Young Master of the Langya Hall, and would return to the capital in a few months.
There was no mention of his injuries.
Lin Chen asks with a laugh, “Do you suppose your Brother and the others would believe it? Then again, I had thought that you’d become a recluse in the farthest part of the pugilist world, and wouldn’t tell them that you are alive for at least a few years.
“I still have the Jiangzuo Alliance, you know. You’ve ruled a kingdom before, a measly little pugilist organization would be-- “
“I’m going back to the capital.”
The smile disappears from Lin Chen’s face. He asks, “You want to go back or need to go back?”
“...It’s the same thing.”
“It’s not. You are going back out of concern that if news of your survival reaches the capital but your person is not there, the populace might begin to have misgivings about the emperor. You are not sure whether they would genuinely wish to see you again, or if you even wish to see them. It is the rational part of your mind that is telling you to go back.
“Everything is settled already, everyone has a happy ending like you wanted. It is utter stupidity for you to live your remaining decades for the opinions of others!”
Jingyan shakes his head, “...I am intimately familiar with the anguish of losing a loved one. It is more painful than any battle wound could bestow...and it is endless.”
“You think I don’t understand? One time was enough, and I nearly had a second time.” At Jingyan’s raised eyes, Lin Chen inches closer and adds with a smirk, “I mean Fei Liu.”
“I know you mean Fei Liu.”
Lin Chen is struck speechless by the serious response, finally he manages, “...You...are so absolutely dull!”
A year ago, when Jingyan fell from the cliff, he had grabbed onto the sharp rocks on precipice to slow the force of his descent, barely alive when he reached the bottom. Fei Liu, who had been surreptitiously following him the whole way, was the one to eventually find him after taking a circuitous path down the cliff himself.
The way from which they came was still blocked by remaining Northern Yu soldiers, so Fei Liu took the unconscious Jingyan in the northwest direction, stumbling across the Yu borders in their haste. Their unintentional entry into enemy terrain had fortuitously helped them evade their pursuers. For more than a fortnight, they were on the move constantly from one snow dune to the next within the valley.
Fortunately, heavy snowfall had quickly covered their tracks and blood stains.
One day, all the Northern Yu forces suddenly headed to the East. Fei Liu took Jingyan in the same direction, and when they were about to be devoured by wolves that flocked to the smell of blood on the flatlands, Lin Chen arrived.
Jingyan’s unstable condition did not allow for further traveling, Fei Liu was also exhausted, so Lin Chen settled themselves in a nearby valley, where Physician Yan used to frequent to collect rare herbs. Inside the valley, they had mild weather and an abundance of medicinal herbs, but the only exit was blocked by heavy snow that only melted in early summer. The three of them sustained themselves in the valley for eight months, until the spring of the following year.
For several months, Jingyan remained in a deep coma due to the severity of his injuries. Although Fei Liu had just a few scratches, the physical exertion and days in the snow had taken a toll on him-- the normally healthy boy fell ill immediately. Lin Chen was constantly tormented by his worry for Fei Liu and the responsibility of healing a battered man; his days were consumed with the repetitive tasks of chopping, brewing and feeding medicine to his incapacitated companions.
Whenever he is reminded of those months, Lin Chen’s expression would invariably darken with lingering annoyance, but Jingyan remembers when he finally woke from his coma, the way Lin Chen’s face lit up with a relieved smile.
Lin Chen finishes changing the bandages around Jingyan’s injuries and shifts the freshly prepared plate of snacks to the man’s left side, before asking, “This letter was sufficient for those in the capital, what about Lin Shu?”
“This past year, he has been stationed as guard on the border with Northern Yu. From time to time, he would send search teams into the Yu territory. After a year of “guarding,” the Liang borders have been expanded northwards for more than a hundred miles. If you keep the truth from him for another few years, he’s going to guard all the way to the gates of the Yu capital!”
“Do you have paper and a pen?”
“You are going to write it yourself?” Lin Chen casts a dubious eye at his still bandaged right hand, passing him the stationary nonetheless.
On the parchment, Jingyan uses his left hand to slowly trace out two misshapen characters: “Yan” and “Shu.”
He hands Lin Chen the letter.
“Lin Shu should recognize your writing with left hand, and the message would be delivered with Langya Hall’s pigeon. Knowing that you are still alive and seeing the symbol of Langya Hall, no more words are needed in the actual letter.”
Fei Liu skips into the room at this moment and looks over Lin Chen’s shoulder at the piece of paper in the man’s hands. The boy has extensive experience with pigeon-catching and letter-reading, so he immediately announces, “Not right.”
Lin Chen ruffles Fei Liu’s hair affectionately and says, “He means that the names of the sender and recipient seem to have been reversed. But no matter, you can give it to him personally later.”
At Jingyan’s obvious puzzlement, Lin Chen clarifies, “Last month, he found something during his search in the North-- your crimson bow.”
Although the bow had lost its full functionality after being severed once, Jingyan has always kept it on his person until he fell from the cliff.
“Fei Liu knew how much you treasure it so he brought it along the whole time you were fleeing from the Yu. When I found you both, the bow was too much hassle so I tossed it by mistake,” Lin Chen pauses for dramatic effect, then adds with a smirk, “tied together with my fan ornament.”
“Lin Shu has never seen my fan ornament, but he could probably deduce that only I would go to the Yu battlefields in the middle of winter with a fan. So he must have rushed here without a moment’s pause.”
Fei Liu chimes in, rather well-timed, “Su-gege, foot of the mountain.”
The journey from the North to Langya Hall would take an ordinary man on horseback at least twenty days, but Lin Shu made it in less than ten.
Lin Chen snickers at Jingyan’s growing discomfort, “Oh come on, for someone who’s died twice, what are you afraid of?
“Spill it, if you truly don’t want to see Lin Shu, I can easily make him go in circles in the mountain for a week. Don’t be fooled by the beautiful serenity of this place, it can transform into precarious terrain if needed.”
“...I just don’t know how to apologize to him.”
“He lied to you once, you also withheld truth from him, the debts cancel out, you are a match made in heaven!”
“If I did not ask Nie Duo to help Nihuang in the Southern battles, Nihuang would not have reneged on her betrothal promise to Lin Shu...I robbed him of his happiness.”
Lin Chen has always prided himself of his brilliant mind, able to divine the next ten sentences out of a man’s mouth from his first one. Now, he finds his self-confidence shattered to pieces as he is struck completely speechless by Jingyan’s response.
“...You! Xiao Jingyan…”
He points at the injured man resting on the bed, lips floundering helplessly for words. Eventually he sighs, “Listen, at Lin Shu’s speed, he’d be here in a couple of hours, don’t you dare repeat those words to him.”
Lin Chen straightens himself in his seat, saying with complete seriousness, “I’m concerned that he’d be really pissed but would never lay a fist on you, so he’d vent on me instead. But I am forewarning you, if he hits me, I am most definitely hitting him back.”
Lin Shu arrives in less than an hour. He is led by a servant boy straight into Jingyan’s rooms.
Outside the room, Lin Chen stands with a bowl of medicine in hand, fulling expecting an onslaught of dramatic wails and angry questions, yet the two men inside merely sit across from one another, having a peaceful conversation.
“I heard that Marquis Yan was not the ambassador to negotiate with Northern Yu regarding details of their truce agreement.”
“Yujin was sent instead to reassert our dominance. He truly lived up to the name of the Yan family, his talent with words rivals that of his elders in their prime days.3 But the Yu strategist remains a threat. I’ve been turning over the details of the battle in my head these past few days, his moves were completely unexpected. No matter what, the Yu forces should not have abandoned Nie Feng’s legion and attacked you instead. Even though you were the Crown Prince at the time, sacrificing the lives of 50,000 soldiers and two highly competent generals was too high a price to pay. There is only one explanation: they must have believed that you posed a threat greater than simply being a Crown Prince.”
”That strategist remembers certain things from the last life.”
There is no more need to conceal things from Lin Shu, since Jingyan heard from Lin Chen that he and Brother Qi already found out everything from the emperor’s letter. “When I...was emperor, I initiated warfare against Northern Yu several times, even arriving right at the gates of their capital. Perhaps he has a vague recollection and so was especially wary of me.”
Nothern Yu would never have mercy on the emperor who almost annihilated their kingdom.
During those twenty years on the throne, Xiao Jingyan had pulled the Liang Kingdom out of chaos and slowly restored prosperity, while the Northern Yu suffered from a series of natural disasters and domestic woes, in addition to the constant threat of the Northern Yan, they eventually yielded to the Liang’s dominance.
However, Xiao Jingyan refused the proposal of a marriage union with the Yu. All three wars during his rule were waged against the Yu, during which the Liang Kingdom suffered almost no losses, while the Yu were forced to cede their independence and five provinces to plead for peace.
The reasons behind such aggressive measures certainly included the Yu’s constant raids on the Liang borders, their greedy intentions only increasing over time. Although Jingyan has not divulged the other reasons, Lin Shu understands.
In two separate battles with the Yu, Jingyan had lost both Lin Shu and Mei Changsu.
Lin Shu says, “That man is too dangerous, he must be eliminated.”
“He is already dead. That day, when he forced me onto the cliff, I hurled my sword at him. Although the strike did not kill him right away, he sustained significant injuries.” Jingyan’s expression never wavers as he speaks of events of that day, yet the much of the horror of those moments remain unsaid.
“As long as I do not take the throne, his prophecy would be moot. The Yu are not overly suspicious anyway, he was only useful to them as a military strategist. They had already prepared for the one last strike in this battle, only to end in a crushing defeat and the death of two talented generals. He was summoned back their kingdom as a convict, but he died of his injuries on the road.”
“Second dose of today.” Lin Chen sighs from his place as an observer and steps into the room. Lin Shu takes the bowl without a pause into his own hands, removing the spoon from the liquid and then places the bowl in Jingyan’s left hand. Jingyan mutters a thanks and drinks the medicine in one gulp.
“You certainly know him well.”
Lin Shu smiles and says, “He doesn’t like bitter things.”
Lin Chen drawls a long ‘Ohhhh’ in mock understanding.
Lin Shu says to him, “Thank you for saving Jingyan.”
Lin Chen shakes his head. “Not me, Fei Liu saved him.”
“Fei Liu too…”
“I have never commanded Fei Liu one way or another.” Lin Chen says. “I just told him to take care of himself first, and protect Xiao Jingyan at his convenience.
“I told him to use his heart to decide on other matters,” Lin Chen pinches Fei Liu’s cheeks, hard, who is busy peeling an orange, “It was entirely his own idea to secretly follow your Xiao Jingyan to the North.
“I did not ask Fei Liu to save him, it was Fei Liu who wanted to save him.”
Fei Liu knows that Lin Chen is talking about him, but the man’s face is unusually somber, apparently speaking about real business. He doesn’t understand their serious talks, so he turns his attention back to the orange. After eating the whole thing, he shows the handful of peels to Lin Chen, “Finished!”
Lin Shu places the largest orange into his hand, moving so that he is sitting formally in front of Fei Liu, eyes locked with the clear, bright orbs of the boy.
“You might not understand all of what we are saying, but you should know that you saved many, many people.”
Fei Liu cocks his head and points at Jingyan, “One.”
“No, many more people, including me.” Lin Shu says. “Thank you for bringing him back.”
Never having been thanked so formally before, Fei Liu grabs Lin Shu’s hand and turns his head to Lin Chen with unsuppressed pleasure on his face, “Su-gege!”
Lin Chen glances at Lin Shu before crouching down to say to the boy, “Right, your Su-gege is complimenting you, you are amazing.”
After the departure of Lin Chen and Fei Liu, the room falls back to silence.
A gust of fresh wind from the mountains breezes past them, shuffling the pages on the table, one of which flutters into the air and is snatched by Lin Shu’s hand.
It’s the “letter” Jingyan just wrote to Lin Shu.
A letter of two words.
“Shu” as in Buffalo and “Yan” as in Fireball.
Crumpling the parchment tightly in his hand, Lin Shu slams his fist into the ground, his long-suppressed frustration finally unleashed.
“I made a vow to never spare anyone that dares to harm you...But in the end, we are the ones who have hurt you the most, and you are the one who’s been your own most merciless enemy.”
In this past year, Lin Shu spent every minute in the frozen terrains of the north, contemplating on how Jingyan has changed since he was nineteen-years-old.
Every little thing, every single word.
“How could someone be so utterly ruthless to himself?” He queries softly, perhaps to himself or to Jingyan. “One misstep and there would never have been a Xiao Jingyan in this world again.”
“Xiaoshu.” Jingyan cuts him off, “You are all well, and that is enough.”
Such a casual response delivered so airily lands on Lin Shu’s heart like a barbed sword, shredding the organ into pieces.
In this life, everyone is well.
He asks in a trembling voice, “...What about you?”
At that, Xiao Jingyan falls silent in obvious contemplation, as if he has never seriously considered this matter before.
The scene today bears an eerie resemblance to that day when he stood in front of a calm Mei Changsu, eyes red and voice strained, demanding why he was unwilling to regain his identity as Lin Shu.
Their roles seem to have been reversed: he is now as serene as the flowing stream in the mountains, while Lin Shu’s eyes are so red that he seems to be on the brink of tears.
In Jingyan’s memory, the man who has commanded 10,000 men into battle and the most brilliant youth in the capital is not one to shed tears lightly.
So he curls his lips into a smile, placating in a soft voice, “I’ll be fine. I’ll go back to the capital after a bit more recuperation.”
“Why would you go back?!”
Jingyan looks up at the unexpected outburst, eyes wide with befuddlement.
“After you are well enough, you should go.” Lin Shu lowers his voice and says, “Go wherever you want, I’ll accompany you.”
“But I've lived through this so I could go back. Mother and Brother...and you are all in the capital, where else are you telling me to go?”
“Then stay here. Lin Chen is a good man, he wouldn’t hurt you...like how we have hurt you.”
“Xiaoshu...there are many things you don’t know.” Jingyan turns his eyes to the outside, to the green mountains surrounded by undulating mist-- the same scenery that greeted Lin Shu’s eyes when he was here all those years ago.
That man had suffered through pain many times his own.
“When our roles were reversed in the past, I made many mistakes, yet you never blamed me for any of it. What I have done are all things that I’ve wanted to do and must do,” says Jingyan. “Just as some men live for power, others for money, I am no different. I have been doing everything of my own volition, living of my own volition.
“To be able to trade my life for your happiness and still be blessed to see you standing in front of me, healthy and spirited as always...you have no idea how happy that makes me feel.” Jingyan places his hand gently on Lin Shu’s, emphasizing the sincerity of his words, “Really, Xiaoshu.”
The hand that rests on Lin Shu’s left hand is so emaciated that the blue veins are clearly visible, it is no longer the strong hand that can wield a sword and shoot an arrow.
Lin Shu fixes his gaze on that hand, trying to imagine all the pain and hardships the man has endured through all those years, pain that Jingyan would never share with him.
In the past, Jingyan would at least cry when the pain became intolerable.
Now he has even lost the ability to cry.
“In injury in your right hand goes deep to the bone. I remember reading that the South has a special herb with extraordinary healing properties for this kind of injury, I’ll go get it for you. Wait for me.”
Jingyan’s expression dims at the mention of the South.
For a man who can talk casually about his deplorable health with barely a frown, Lin Shu cannot fathom what could make him show such obvious regret.
“Xiaoshu, I’m sorry. Nihuang and Nie Duo are getting married.”
Jingyan averts his eyes and says, “They were barely acquaintances in the last life, since you sent Wei Zheng to help Nihuang in the naval battle. This time Wei Zheng was still serving under you when the Southern battle happened, I had no choice but to send Nie Duo instead. Nihuang had told me afterwards that Nie Duo would go to the South to help her train the navy, but I didn’t anticipate that...she would fall in love with him.
“I knew that a person could change...but I didn’t think that she would change too.”
He was the one who robbed Lin Shu of his happiness, of the woman with whom he had promised to see the world together in the next life.
He cannot even begin to imagine Lin Shu’s anguish.
“Jingyan,” Lin Shu interrupts him. “You love me.”
It is his deepest secret that he has never even thought of verbalizing, a secret that had been interred in the imperial mausoleum along with his body in the last life, far underground, far from exposure.
Yet Lin Shu has so cleanly unearthed it, laying it open in the sunlight.
Lin Shu lays a hand behind Jingyan’s skeletal back to prevent his involuntary retreat, “You know many things that I do not, so now I am going to tell you something that you’ve never known.”
He inches closer, placing a chaste kiss on those bloodless lips, meeting Jingyan’s unfathomable eyes.
“I’ve loved you since before you were nineteen. My feelings for you have not changed even if my body was transformed into another, and my name irrecognizable. You believe that only the nineteen-year-old Xiao Jingyan could love Lin Shu, but you forget that you are the very reason for which I can stand in front of you as I am now.” Lin Shu takes Jingyan’s hand and flattens it against his own chest, the rhythmic beating of his heart and the warmth of his body flush against those fingertips.
The sound of the heartbeat is strong and steady, unlike the irregular tremors of an ailing man plagued by rare poison. Yet the hand on the chest is pale beyond belief, without the calluses from years of wielding a sword.
As the last word falls from his mouth, Lin Shu trails a gentle kiss on each of Jingyan’s eyelids.
The warmth from those lips is like a flame that suddenly melts the barrier of ice in his eyes, releasing all the memories that he thought he had put behind, memories that he thought did not hurt anymore.
When he lost Xiaoshu and went to the desolate borders by himself.
When he received news of Mei Changsu’s death, and the subsequent endless days of reconstructing the Liang Kingdom on his own.
When he broke the crimson bow in half; when he opened the blank letter from Brother Qi.
When he held his dying Father’s hands in his own.
When he bid his goodbyes to his Mother.
These memories suddenly begin to hurt.
He feels as if the breath is knocked out of him, as if his frozen body is abruptly thawed in front of Lin Shu, its imprisoned contents spilling out uncontrollably.
When the first tear escapes from his eyes, he can feel the ice chains that he had bound himself with since the last life begin to shatter.
As the tears land on Lin Shu’s hand clasped in his own, Jingyan senses a ball of warmth slowly permeating from his chest to his entire body.
It is in this moment that he has truly begun to live.
Nie Feng is stationed in the North, freeing Lin Shu to remain in the Langya Hall.
Lin Chen has given him a few tasks for him to do as payment of his stay, since the man claims that Lin Shu is neither a guest nor a patient. So Lin Shu would occasionally leave the mountains to settle some matters, taking advantage of his anonymity in the pugilist world.
Most of his time, however, is spent in Jingyan’s rooms.
Langya Hall in the summer is a prosperous world of greenery, where the only sound is the constant showers beating on the succulent leaves in the mountains.
Days of rains has exacerbated Jingyan’s discomfort with the healing injuries, so Lin Shu has taken to sit with him on the porch, watching the rainfall and chatting about anything and everything.
He would recount interesting anecdotes that happened during his years on the borders. No matter what story it is, be it bizarre, strange or suspenseful, Lin Shu has a way of storytelling that imparts his own compelling touch to it.
Lin Shu mentions that of the chance encounters he has had in the pugilist world, once he had learned of an unique sword formation.
Jingyan is reminded of the sword formation that Tingsheng and other two boys employed to defeat Warrior Bai Liqi. He asks Lin Shu if two people could make it work.
Lin Shu mulls over the question and replies that the fundamentals of the formation would be the same, it would just be less variable with two people. He takes a piece of paper and draws the basic diagram on it;4 he and Jingyan begin acting out the steps with their fingertips.
Jingyan misses a move and their fingers become intertwined with each other.
Lin Shu’s palm has the scar from grabbing the emperor’s dagger, and Jingyan’s fingers bear the cuts from when he held onto the sharp rocks of the cliff.
Fingers intimately entangled, neither makes a move to let go.
Come autumn, news reaches them from the capital that the eldest prince, Xiao Chengting, has been named Crown Prince.
Word has it that the Dowager Consort Jing had been the one to suggest it, and the formal request was initiated by Marquis Yan. Since Jingyan had once been the Master of the Eastern Palace, when he returns so soon after the new ruler’s ascension to the throne, the emperor must have a contingency plan to anticipate any insidious plots involving Prince Jing’s past role in the Court. Thus, naming the Crown Prince now serves to both stabilize the political scene as well as to protect Jingyan.
Jingyan is well aware of the good intentions behind the carefully orchestrated plan, his expression brightens with unadulterated happiness and relief at the news.
After the formal ceremony to present the Crown Prince to the imperial ancestors, the emperor sets out to inspect the harvest season in the fourteen provinces of Jiangzuo.
On his way back to the capital, the emperor has specifically changed his carriage into an understated one, taking a circuitous route to the foot of the Langya Mountain. He raises his eyes to look towards the peak behind the clouds.
How could he not have deduced that Jingyan’s delayed return is due to debilitating injuries, rather than some excuse to travel the pugilist world, as he claimed in the letter?
Every time he was hurt when he was a child, he would hide in the Lin Manor, afraid to have his Brother and Mother see the injuries at home.
He has not changed one bit.
Thankfully Lin Shu is still with him.
As for him...it is the greatest blessing to simply know that his closest family is still alive and well.
Xiao Jingyu will always remember that blank letter he sent to Jingyan.
As emperor, he can reflect on his decisions with a clear conscience, but as a brother, he has done so poorly.
Xiao Jingyu stands like a statue for about four hours at the foot of the mountain, before finally returning to the carriage, watching as the Langya Mountain fade into the dark night.
Before the horses could go far, however, he hears two consecutive clank!s.
Two pebbles have dropped onto the top of his carriage.
Followed by two more.
Jingyu orders the carriage to stop and looks up again into the mountain. Two shadows on horseback trot through the darkened paths.
Jingyu descends the carriage and hurries towards the figures.
As Jingyan dismounts the horse, Lin Shu extends a supporting hand behind his back quite naturally.
In the dim lights of dusk, Xiao Jingyu pretends not to notice the knife scars on his brother’s wrist and the right hand that still appears unable to hold the reins, he only smiles warmly and reconfirms a return date to the capital in a month.
Xiao Jingyu takes Jingyan’s horse before departure, saying, “The view along the way is quite nice, I’d like to return on horseback. Xiaoshu, take Jingyan on your horse back to the Langya Hall, be careful on the slippery paths in the mountains.”
Then, he cannot help but add to Jingyan, “Don’t move around too much while your injuries are still healing. You are most definitely forbidden from riding by yourself.”
Xiao Jingyu takes a few steps to leave before pausing abruptly, as if remembering something. He turns around to face them.
“Who threw the pebbles on the carriage just now?”
Lin Shu replies immediately without even batting an eyelash, “Not me.”
Jingyan shoots Lin Shu a glance, “...It was me.”
Xiao Jingyu looks at the two before him, finally a laugh breaks free from his chest.
It is October when Langya Hall sees the first snowfall.
The first snow of the season is barely perceptible, the tiny snowflakes still carrying the lingering fragrance of autumn leaves, melting before they meet the ground. Only after an entire night would the courtyard be covered in an endless white.
The Langya Hall has gained a lively atmosphere with Lin Shu’s presence, silence has become a luxury only in early mornings, the sole sound being the soft footsteps of the servant boys treading through the stone steps covered in snow.
Tomorrow they would go back to the capital. This night, Lin Chen has invited Lin Shu to the peak with a jug of wine.
The two drink well into the night when Lin Chen says, “I went to Dong Ying5 to look for some herbs for Fei Liu, hoping to alleviate some of the poisons he ingested during childhood. There was an accident with the ship so I was delayed for half a year. When I returned, the two of them had already gone to Northern Yu.
“Thank goodness I found them…” Lin Chen stares at Lin Shu, but he seems to be looking at someone else, “He has always called you ‘Su-gege’... perhaps in his mind, you really are the same person.”
The next morning, Jingyan has everything packed and the servants have brought out the horses to the gate.
They are going back.
Lin Shu returns the fan ornament to Lin Chen, who immediately puts it back on his fan and proceeds to fan himself experimentally, the cold gust of wind startling Fei Liu from his nap by Lin Chen’s side.
Lin Shu makes a sloppy snow ball and hurls it at Fei Liu. The boy is quickly engaged in the game, tossing the snow ball back to Lin Shu.
Lin Chen trots closer to Jingyan with both arms nestled in his sleeves, whispering, “I’m going to ambush Lin Shu later, you are forbidden to help.”
Jingyan raises a challenging eyebrow at him, and Lin Chen’s expression darkens, “You are forbidden to play with snow, doctor’s orders!”
Completely unbeknownst to him, the two in the snow fight turn in unison towards Lin Chen, firing two giant snow balls simultaneously at him with amazing accuracy.
“Hey you traitor! I fed you three sweet melons yesterday, how dare you betray me today?! Lin Shu, if not for me, you’d be a widower by now!”
“......” Jingyan crouches down to make a snow ball with his left hand. As soon as Lin Chen ducks behind a tree to evade Lin Shu’s attack, Jingyan aims the snow ball at the top of the tree.
A blanket of snow tumbles down from the tree at the impact. The person standing below it is instantly covered in white.
“Another traitor. It’s only been a few months and you are already in his camp.” Lin Chen shakes the snow from himself, turning to Fei Liu to ask with mock seriousness, “Your Su-gege is going back to the capital. What are you going to do?”
“Go.” Fei Liu responds.
Lin Chen’s lips curl up in a bitter smile, “I knew that you--”
“To see him off.” Fei Liu finishes, then blinks at Lin Chen’s momentary stupor, “Not ok?”
October of the second year of Changjing, the Seventh Brother of His Imperial Majesty, Xiao Jingyan, returns to the capital from the North, the emperor leads all court officials to welcome him home at the capital gates.
Spring of the fourth year of Changjing, the emperor and his entourage march towards Jiu-An mountain.
The year when Mu Qing reached his majority coincided with another invasion from the Southern Chu, both he and Nihuang have been occupied with affairs in the South, and have not been able to come to the capital. Now that the three-year mourning period has passed, he came to the capital with his sister, where they have organized for the formal ceremony for him to inherit the lordship and the House of Mu.
This Spring Hunt is the first of its kind after the mourning period, the younger ones have been looking forward to it for months. So when the ceremonial arrow is fired to signal the beginning of the Hunt, their whole lot gallop eagerly into the woods with bows raised.
The fifteen-year-old Crown Prince, Xiao Chengting, has already reached an impressive height for his age. He is the top of his generation in both horseback riding and archery; he catches a deer shortly after the Hunt began.
As per tradition, the Crown Prince should present his first prey to the emperor as a show of filial piety.
Jingyu accepts the deer head and bids the Crown Prince to distribute the remaining parts of the deer to other elders of the imperial family.
Tingsheng takes a deer leg and cleans it personally, before giving the rest of the animal to the servants. He figures that he’d go catch some more hares and roast them all together for Jingyan.
When he returns, however, he is startled by the sight that the emperor is already done roasting the deer leg.
And managed to burn it.
Jingyan, Lin Shu and Nihuang have had a bountiful hunt in the morning, Jingyan has even shot a deer himself. The three of them have tied the animals to the back of the horses like they used to in their youth, slowly strolling along the river towards the base, reins held loosely in hand.
A wild goose crows above them. Jingyan reacts in a flash, pulling an arrow and placing it on the bow aimed at the bird, but as he’s drawn the bow taut, the movement seems to tug painfully at the freshly healed wound on his chest. He hisses in pain, brows knitting together.
In the blink of an eye, Lin Shu steps behind Jingyan, putting his right hand on Jingyan’s to maintain the drawn bow. The moment when their arrow locks onto its target, they release the arrow simultaneously.
The arrow soars through the air with a whoosh, taking the wild goose from the sky.
Nihuang cheers at the success, and Lin Shu turns to her, smiling, “I know a recipe for wild goose soup, let’s go clean it up in the river, and I’ll make soup for you two!”
“My marriage is set for this autumn. Your Highness, may I have your permission this time?” Nihuang asks with a stony face, before breaking into a laugh, “When the time comes, Lin Shu-gege and Jing-gege, you owe me double the gifts, and I expect both of you to be there too!”
“Of course, eight carriages full of gifts, including your favorite candied figures!”
“Then I’ll hold you to your promise. If you don’t come, I’ll put two giant buffalos outside the gates, with red strings wrapped around their horns.” Nihuang extends a hand, “Let’s clap to seal the vow.”
Yujin still remembers that Lin Shu once said he wanted to catch a sable to use its fur to make a cape for Prince Jing. So he’s dragged Jingrui along into the woods, and much to their surprise, they manage to catch one.
Watching amusedly as the small white sable struggles in Yujin’s hands, Jingrui chuckles in exasperation, “It’s so small that it doesn’t even have enough fur to trim a sleeve, nevermind a cape collar! Only you have the guts to give it as a gift.” Then he mutters that his younger sister had just come back to the Xie Manor with her children and Brother Qingyao, their mother is immensely grateful for the help Prince Jing provided all those years ago. Jingrui muses that he should perhaps prepare a thoughtful gift as well.
“Hey, I have an idea.” Yujin’s eyes glimmer with mischief, “I’ll give him the sable alive. Right now the weather is mild in the spring, come winter this little guy will be bigger, he’d be a natural heat source whether wrapped around the neck or curled up on the lap. And he’s so small that it doesn’t take much effort nor space to keep him, look at his little beady eyes, so cute!”
Jingrui sighs, speechless at his friend’s simplicity. Yujin skips with the sable in hand in front of Jingyan, offering, “I found it when we were walking around the woods, perhaps Your Highness would like it?”
Jingyan has occupied himself with roasting the meat since coming back to the base. He glances back at the small sable dangled in Yujin’s hands, stabbing the knife onto his roast and shakes his head, “I don’t know, never had it before.”
Before Yujin could register his words, Lin Shu and Lie Zhanying both step closer, saying, “That’s simple, you gotta give it a try.”
In the end, after a vicious struggle, Yujin succeeds in regaining ownership of the sable from Lie Zhanying’s claws. He brings it back home and keeps it as a pet, naming it quite aptly, Unpalatable.
Mu Qing has a vague recollection of his time spent in the capital when he was small. He was too young to remember much, only that Yan Yujin-gege had teased him to no end, and Lin Shu-gege took them out to eat, from there catalyzing a whole chain of events.
Regarding Prince Jing, he has only heard occasional comments from his sister, never more than a few words, so he has always harbored childish curiosity towards the man.
‘This prince seems so serious, he probably doesn’t like sweets.’ Mu Qing muses, then his eyes light up as he remembers something in his pocket.
“Oh yeah, Your Highness, I have a letter here that Lin Shu-gege wrote to my sister, do you want to read it?”
Although Lin Shu has been engaged in conversation with Nihuang, his eyes have never left Jingyan. When he sees Mu Qing fish out a piece of paper from his robes with a smirk, he snaps, pointing a finger at Mu Qing, “Fei Liu, toss it over!”
Lin Shu means the letter, but Fei Liu hurls Mu Qing over instead.
The nineteen-year-old Lord Mu is still in a blissful state when he is suddenly flung in the air, still holding the letter used as a candy wrapper, and lands rather hard onto his soon-to-be brother-in-law, who has hurried over to catch him. He and Nie Duo end in a tangled mess on the ground.
The flurry of activities finally quiets down by sunset.
Yan Que had told Yujin to pass a message to Jingyan, saying that he has something to give to him by a sand dune along the river.
The sun has set and Lin Shu insists on accompanying Jingyan.
Along the way, they run into Lin Chen, who is struggling to keep a hold of a reluctant Fei Liu. The boy had originally escaped to the capital to flee from Lin Chen’s bitter medicine. Now the man has found him and quite determined to bring him back to continue treatment.
As for the actual efficacy of the herbs Lin Chen had gone through many troubles to find, even he cannot say.
“Of course it’s impossible for him to become as smart as I am, but maybe enough for him to realize that ‘Pretty Boy’ is not such a nice name.”
“ ‘S nice!” Fei Liu wheezes out the words as he continues to struggle.
Fei Liu and Lin Shu have already made an pact to go fishing together in the summer, and Lin Shu promised to teach him to use intricate traps to catch fish. Now is but a temporary parting. Lin Chen throws Fei Liu onto his shoulders and waves a hand at the two in goodbye.
At the foot of the Jiu-An mountain, there is an unnamed empty grave. Inside is a set of clothes of Prince Yu that Qin Banruo had buried. After the battle on Jiu-An mountain, she made her way back here even after her escape.
She said that this was the place closest to what Xiao Jinghuan had strived for.
Yan Que stands there and stares at the barren dune across the small stream.
He hands a box to Jingyan. “This is the decree to revoke your title as Crown Prince, given to me by the late emperor before his death. He made Gao Zhan burn the original one. Although this one is now null, I felt that Your Highness should see it.”
Of the two decrees the emperor gave Jingyan, he had never opened the one to revoke his title on the grounds of brotherly betrayal.
He opens the box, the decree that greets his eyes says, “The Crown Prince is want of virtues, incapable of perceiving my imperial wishes, insistent upon personally going to battle and willfully endangering the future of the throne. This shall be his divine warning.”
“In want of virtues and aptitude, though they are words of censure, they are his way of protecting you.6
“As a ruler, a friend and a husband, he was far from faultless, but as a father, at least in the end he tried to fulfill your wish.”
Jingyan’s eyes are fixed on each trembling stroke of the words on the decree, scanning the text over and over, until he feels his hand being grabbed. He raises his head in a daze and meets Lin Shu’s concerned eyes.
He is not used to sharing any of his feelings.
Without Lin Shu, there was no one else with whom he’d wanted to share.
But Lin Shu is here now, whether he says anything or not, he would understand.
“He...until his death...he’s always wanted to save me.”
This whole time, in Jingyan’s memory, this was the Father that killed Brother Qi and accused Lin Shu of being an insidious traitor in front of him. He only remembers that he ordered him to discard every single one of Lin Shu’s belongings after his death, only remembers his cold negligence towards Mother, and merciless detachment for Princess Qi’s death.
But he has forgotten that it was the same man who took him horseback riding, who held his small hand in his big one to teach him to write. It was the same man who held tightly onto Jingyan before sending him to Prince Qi’s manor, murmuring that he could not bear to part with his little one...
Lin Shu says softly, “Remember when we used to get into fights when we were young? In front of others he always chastised you and sided with me, but when everyone left, he would pinch my nose hard and say, ‘Don’t you dare bully Jingyan, or I’ll pinch your nose off.’
“When I was the Vice Commander of the Imperial Guards, I’d visit Great Granny often, and see him there sometimes. Once he said to me, ‘Today during the court session, I heard Jingyan cough a few times, I wonder if he’s ill.’”
At that, Jingyan’s suppressed tears finally spill onto his cheeks. Desperately trying to muffle the sound, he clutches onto Lin Shu’s robes, like a drowning man latching onto his only chance at survival, his voice breaking, “Next life, in an ordinary home, he would be a good father.”
The two of them remain by the stream for some more time. The last lights of the dusk are slowly fading, and bonfires are already lit in the base. In the warm breeze of the spring evening, people have congregated around the fires outside, where the low tables are laden with roasted meat and various homemade items.
Nihuang and Xia Dong are having a drinking contest, neither Nie Duo nor Nie Feng can get a word in edgewise.
Yujin is still playing with his newly acquired sable, only to see that little animal zoom into Mu Qing’s clothes, making the younger man squeal in fright.
Looking at the scene of happy festivity, Jingyan cannot help but feel that he has seen the same thing before in his dreams.
Back then, he was standing like he is now on a sand dune, watching them from afar.
The man beside him in the dream had asked, ‘In this life, have you fulfilled your wishes?’
“Jingyan, Auntie Jing and Jingyu-gege are waiting for us.” Lin Shu walks over and takes his hand, “Let’s go back.”
Jingyan nods, “Okay.”