Those two words shake Jingyan's entire being. His hand gives a violent twitch and almost drops the sword, as he jerks himself to face Meng Zhi who shouted the name.
The Commander startles at Jingyan's intense stare, his mind freezing for a long second before he exclaims, ecstatic in his realization,“Your Highness, you...you know him too!!”
While the two are engaged in their brief exchange, Fei Liu has his feet firmly planted on the only assassin still left on the ground. With a desperate glint in his eyes, the man swallows the poison in his mouth, at the same moment flings a dart using all his remaining strength at Jingyan. Fei Liu reaches out to block it, only to be bested by Meng Zhi, "It's poisoned,”he declares, turning the dart in his hands,“Looks like Xie Yu went all out for this Commander position this time.”
He then glances around to make sure that they are surrounded by Jingyan's trusted men, then says, “I shall stop by to visit Your Highness later today,” turning to the still masked Fei Liu, he asks, “Are you coming too?”
Fei Liu shakes his head without saying a word and leaps nimbly onto a nearby tree. Meng Zhi reaches out to grab him, yet much to his astonishment, misses the boy completely. The small figure disappears from their sight within seconds. His movements seem even more swift and capricious than in the past life, a distinct shadow of Young Master Lin in him.
Jingyan smiles; looks like Lin Chen found him and has treated him very well.
It's well into the night when Meng Zhi climbs over the walls of Prince Jing's residence and stealthily makes it to the inner chambers. In the room, Jingyan's attention is fixed on the dart in his hands. His eyes half-closed in fatigue and his figure slightly hunched over, he almost resembles Mei Changsu of the old days under the flickering candlelight.
Meng Zhi's heart gives a painful lurch as he takes an involuntary step forward, “Your Highness did not have to take on the investigation……”
“If I didn't take it, it would have gone to Brother Qi. How could he have guarded against those underhanded schemes and assassinations? Xia Jiang did not even have to pretend to be sick, given enough time, he can hope that Xie Yu would get rid of Brother Qi for him,”Jingyan sighs.
Meng Zhi takes a careful look at the person in front of him. When was it that he was also unguarded against such manipulations? But in the last life as emperor, he came to understand and then wield the power of machinations, for Lin Shu and Prince Qi, for their kingdom and the Chiyan army.
“If you insist on shouldering those responsibilities, why not ask Xiaoshu to help you instead of pushing him away from the capital?”
Jingyan replies calmly, as if the matter holds no importance to him, “Lin Shu is the only son of Commander General Lin Xie, it is quite obvious whom he would choose, given the choice between Brother Qi and myself. It was for the same reason that I opposed your joining the Imperial Guards two years ago.”
“.......” Silent, Meng Zhi's gaze falls on the red bow on the wall, the bow that Lin Shu gifted Jingyan. In Meng Zhi's world, Prince Jing is his sire, Lin Shu is a good friend, and Prince Qi is the person they all admire and respect. He knows to read between the lines and immediately senses the bitter sadness in those emotionless words, “At that time, I still haven't fully regained my memory.”
“Well, since you remember Fei Liu now, you should be able to understand what I am trying to do. I will not lie to you,”says Jingyan,“I have no intention of becoming emperor, and I would never do anything to harm Xiaoshu or Brother Qi, nor become an opportunistic manipulator like Prince Yu. These past few years, I have endorsed only competent men and eliminated those who truly deserve it. Meng Zhi, I do not expect you to help me, I would be content if you do not become an obstacle in my path.”
“You know...Xiaoshu told me the same thing back then,” muses the other man.
His eyes following the dancing flame of the candles for a long silent moment, Jingyan says, “‘I chose you because I had no other choice’is what he told me. With Brother Qi alive, Xiaoshu would never choose me, be it for personal reasons or political ones.”
“But the road you've chosen for yourself this time, Your Highness, is no less dangerous than the one Xiaoshu walked in the past, plus you have no one by your side to help you.....When everything ends, even if Prince Qi could spare you out of brotherly compassion, what would happen to the years of friendship between you and Xiaoshu? Would you really be strangers then?” Meng Zhi beseeches earnestly.
At the last sentence, Jingyan's impassive facade finally cracks, but only for a split second.
Meng Zhi knows more than anyone that within that body resides a soul that has lived a long life at the most lonely summit on earth. He had the world at his feet, yet he had nothing at all. Now he wishes to preserve everything he had lost, at the cost of himself. The most cruel part is perhaps that he must destroy with his very own hands the Xiao Jingyan that lives in the hearts of Prince Qi and Lin Shu-- the Jingyan that has never changed. Last time, Mei Changsu had no other choice; this time, Jingyan doesn't either.
“What I have done in these past years is something that the Xiao Jingyan of yesteryear would never have done and would never have deigned to do. With what I am about to do in the future, neither Brother Qi nor Xiaoshu would never treat me the same way again,” Jingyan says by way of explanation,“As for what you said earlier, Meng Zhi, do you really think that I need a strategist now?”
For twenty years after Lin Shu's death, he was the pillar that held the kingdom together. He had seen his fair share of conspiracies and faced numerous assassinations, and he settled them one by one.
“You can accomplish more than you think, as long as you are willing to be ruthless to yourself,”he concludes.
“Your Highness, but I heard from Xiaoshu that there is a strategist who was helping you…?” Meng Zhi asks, unconvinced.
“Did he tell you that person's name?” Jingyan swirls the tea in the cup, by now accustomed to its taste though he does not like it, “You would have seen him if you come visit me often, so if Xiaoshu asks, remember to say that you've met him.”
“So who is it?”
“Mei Changsu,” Jingyan smiles.
Meng Zhi clenches his fist abruptly in silent astonishment. Those three short syllables sound like they are weighed down by the entire world. There is probably no other person than him who knows the profound anguish behind those words, yet even he cannot claim to understand more than a sliver of it.
With a heavy heart, he kneels formally and says, “Please allow me to follow you, Your Highness.”
Jingyan turns slowly from his position to face the other man, looking at him directly in the eye, “Do you know what would happen if you follow me?”
“This time I am not bidding my time in the shadows, I am fighting aggressively in the open with the other princes in the court. You will likely be implicated if you choose to help me.”
“There will be no one who thanks you for your efforts. Not Xiaoshu, not Brother Qi, and certainly not the Liang people.”
Meng Zhi has his head bowed in respectful submission, his voice steely with resolve, “I know, Your Highness.”
“Then...you may do as you wish.”
When Meng Zhi opens the doors to leave, he hears a faint sound from and he flips onto the roof to investigate. A few seconds and quite some rustling later, he jumps back down with a protesting Fei Liu in his arms. Fei Liu catches sight of Prince Jing in the room and suddenly remembers that he is supposed to be protecting the man“without him knowing,”so he turns swiftly to escape. This time Meng Zhi reacts in time and snatches the boy back to him before he could disappear. He happily pokes the boy’s face with his stubby beard.
Fei Liu struggles with all his might, but Commander Meng Zhi's strength is not to be underestimated; his face red from the efforts, Fei Liu continues to struggle in vain.
The boy's antics bring a rare, soft smile onto Jingyan's face, he asks, “You are here to protect me?”
Fei Liu stops kicking the man holding him and nods.
“Who sent you?”
The boy shakes his head.
“He told you not to tell?” Jingyan guesses.
“Then I'm thinking it was the Young Master Lin Chen, right?” Jingyan asks, amused, handing the boy a pastry from a nearby table.
“Eh……” Fei Liu's childish face contorts with confusion, Lin Chen didn't say if it was ok to reveal his identity. He turns the pastry in his hand and takes a small bite only after sniffing it carefully to check for signs of it being tampered, “He said not to say.”
Meng Zhi muffles his laugh from behind the two, rather impressed by the way Prince Jing has wheedled information out of the boy. He teases, “So what's your name? Let me guess, it's Fei Liu!”
The boy's mouth is full of pastries and his words barely coherent, “‘S not.”
“It's not?” Both men are utterly surprised by the admission. Meng Zhi takes Fei Liu's face in his hands to scrutinize it, wiping away the crumbs around his lips, “You are our Fei Liu alright, unless you changed your name?”
Jingyan asks with the same patient smile, handing the boy another piece of hazelnut pastry, “Then what is your name?”
Batting his long eyelashes rather coyishly, he pronounces clearly this time, “My name is Pretty-boy.”
Meng Zhi chokes on his tea abruptly.
Later in the evening, Jingyan is at a loss for what to do with the boy who has been standing guard by his bed, eyes barely blinking. Fei Liu used to do the same to Xiaoshu whenever he was ill.
“I don't need you to constantly guard me like this,” Jingyan sighs.
Totally unaffected, Fei Liu throws another piece of clementine into his mouth, “Need to pay special attention at night.”
“Who said that?”
“Then...do you know Mei Changsu?” Asks Jingyan tentatively after a long moment of deliberation, not daring to hope that someone else might know that name in this life.
Fei Liu thinks for a second then nods.
Jingyan's breath hitches, his next question trembling with urgent emotion, “You remember him?”
“Lin Chen-gege's friend, not here.”
“You mean...Lin Chen told you that Mei Changsu was his friend but does not exist in this world,”Jingyan clarifies in a whisper.
Fei Liu nods excitedly, obviously happy that this adult understands him perfectly. Yet the boy does not understand why the other person's expression suddenly crumbles, so anguished that even he could almost taste the despair.
Within seven days, all of Tianquan Manor's top swordsmen have been gravely injured, including the Master Zhuo Dingfeng himself. And no one saw their attackers.
“No one would be shameless enough to admit that they lost to a ten-year-old!” Meng Zhi brags to Prince Jing. He was worried about Fei Liu so he trailed the boy the whole way, and came back completely impressed.
“Zhuo Dingfeng is skilled enough to make it up the Langya List of martial arts experts, how could Fei Liu have defeated him at his young age?” Questions Jingyan, skeptical.
“Of course he wasn't the only one to injure Zhuo, there were several other highly skilled men on his side. Though it was obvious that Fei Liu had specifically practiced the counter moves for Zhuo's swordsmanship, his every strike was aimed at the man's weakest points,”says Mengzhi, ruffling the boy's hair affectionately,“As proud as Zhuo is, he would not challenge Your Highness and your men again after having lost in such a spectacular fashion. We will not fear further harassments from them...but Your Highness has also missed the chance to use Tianquan Manor as a bait. Last time it took Xiaoshu years to construct that trap to finally eliminate Xie Yu, Your Highness……?”
Jingyan shakes his head and replies, “Without the Chiyan case, Xie Yu's power and influence are much less formidable than in the last life, there is no need to put too much effort into him.”
Meng Zhi releases a sigh of relief, “Xiaoshu has always felt guilty for what he had to do to Jingrui…Now if Your Highness could...I'm glad, I'm glad.” He realizes mid-sentence that he doesn't quite know what he wanted to say, but the other man doesn’t seem to mind.
“The crimes Xie Yu committed still left their marks. Even if I do not prosecute him, someone else will,” Jingyan turns to Fei Liu and hands a letter to him, “Please give this to Lin Chen. If Gong Yu wishes to come, I will not object.”