这章有好多地方我都有用斜体字，lof上面貌似木有办法显示出来，将就下啦 ^^ （强迫症排版请移步AO3）
In the endless days on his sickbed, Xiao Xuan is oblivious to the turbulences in the palace. Yet, his suspicious and wary nature has given him a keen sense of observation, picking up the undercurrent of unease from the subtle changes in demeanor of the people around him.
Today, Noble Consort Jing has not made her routine visit, but sent along freshly prepared medicated porridge nonetheless. The emperor forces the medicine down and takes a few small bites of the food, before fatigue overtakes him.
His day is increasingly occupied by long hours of sleep; during those brief waking moments, he feels only deep exhaustion, even more so than when he spent the whole day hunting with Brother Lin Xie and Yan Que in their prime years.
Xiao Xuan knows that his end is approaching.
Fortunately, sleep has been an entertaining activity in itself. The dreamscape that used to be vague and jumbled has now become so clear that he can make out the faces of everyone in it.
He’s seen everyone he wants to see again, like Jingxuan and Jinghuan.
There's also Chengting. Yet for some reason, he’s dressed in the rags of a lowly servant, scurrying after Meng Zhi, the usual cheer on his face replaced by a timid wariness as his eyes dart around the surroundings.
Suddenly, the child’s eyes land on someone in the seated crowd, and a gleam lights up those dim orbs for a brief second. Despite his downcast head, Xiao Xuan picks up the momentary change.
It is the same gleam in young Jingyu’s eyes when he looked up at him. It is the same way a child would look at his father, full of admiration, trust and longing.
Xiao Xuan follow’s the boy’s gaze, thinking that he would find Jingyu at the other end-- who has never appeared in those dreams.
Yet he finds Jingyan instead.
It is the first time that he’s seen Jingyan in his dreams. He is dressed in the robes of a second-rank prince, no trace of merriness on his face, and the fingers grasped around the wine goblet bear obvious calluses of a warrior whose life is spent on the battlefield.
He sits there quietly by himself, as if an invisible being in this lively feast that does not include him. Yet he seems rather used to the solitude, sipping slowly at the wine with disinterest.
Su Zhe is seated not too far from him, the usual calculating animosity in his penetrating gaze vanishes and is replaced by warm affection whenever it lands on Jingyan ever so casually.
Xiao Xuan heaves a sigh of relief-- Jingyan is here, then he is not Su Zhe, not that traitor.
But where is Lin Shu then?
Jingyan used to be inseparable with Lin Shu, when had he become...like this?
That’s right, Lin Shu is the Vice Commander of the Imperial Guards, he is as good as a stranger to Jingyan nowadays.
Much like Brother Lin Xie and himself actually.
He remembers that Jingyan and Lin Shu used to play together all the time, they were practically attached at the hips.
He remembers when the young Jingyan picked up his first wooden sword, he proclaimed in that boyish voice of his that he’d always protect Xiaoshu. He remembers how that scene had reminded him of his much younger self, standing by Lin Xie’s side with his sword drawn, facing the wild beast together.
At the time, he had said to Lin Xie that they’d grow old eventually, and wouldn’t be able to shelter the children forever. Then it’d be up to them to support each other in life.
Lin Xie had only smiled, saying that Xiaoshu was blessed to have the seventh prince by his side.
Xiao Xuan knows the meaning of that smile now.
Because in the end, he had betrayed Lin Xie, betrayed Yan Que; as both their lord and friend, he had failed their expectations and betrayed their trust. He was only able to attain the throne with their generous support. But now, despite having the entire kingdom in his possession, he has nothing to repay their debts.
Their aspirations and promises are still resounding in his ears as if it were yesterday, Yan Que and Lin Xie are still true to their vows, while he is irrevocably changed.
How could Lin Xie not begrudge him, how could he not rise up in rebellion?! That’s why he amassed his own troops, that’s why he endorsed Prince Qi, that’s why he colluded with the Northern Yu!
The dreamscape begins to collapse at those two words.
One face after another flashes across his eyes.
Princess Li Yang kneeling in the center of the Great Hall, arms raised with a scroll of denunciation, voice filled with righteous urgency, “Thirteen years ago, Xie Yu colluded with Xia Jiang to accuse the Commander General of the Chiyan army, Lin Xie, of high treason, and further framed Prince Qi to be the instigator of the rebellion. Their conspiracies have done Commander Lin and Prince Qi a grave injustice, leading to the unfair execution of their entire families.”
Each word is like the terrifying ancient beast of pu lao, its roars quaking the very earth itself. 1
Xiao Xuan suddenly realizes that he is in the Great Hall with all the others, and Jingyan, dressed in crimson robes, is standing firmly in front of Su Zhe.
Jingyan...who has the tip of a sword pressed against his chest. Xiao Xuan lowers his head ever so slowly and sees the hilt of the sword held in his own hand.
The sword falls onto the floor.
He points a trembling finger at Su Zhe, rasping, “You are that resurrected traitor!! So you are that--”
It is he who helped Jingyan gain the position as Crown Prince.
He has always been by Jingyan’s side.
Xiao Xuan opens his eyes from the dream, still whispering those names so freshly etched into his mind.
Princess Jin Yang.
As each name tumbles from his lips, his eyes become more and more lucid.
Those who have never appeared in his dreams...are the ones he has personally condemned to death.
Until the last name leaves his tongue: Lin Shu.
The nearby Eunuch Gao hears his voice and approaches the bed, asking in a soft tone, “Your Majesty?”
“Gao Zhan, summon the Crown Prince here.”
Eunuch Gao pauses in brief hesitation and ventures, “Your Majesty, the military situation is currently very tense, His Highness has been working endlessly in the Eastern Palace everyday, I am afraid that…”
“Go and ask him, does he still remember that day during my birthday celebration, we have an unfinished game of go?” At Eunuch Gao’s indecision, the emperor pushes himself from the bed with great difficulty and says, “Just go ahead and ask. Help me change, I cannot see him like this.”
When Jingyan steps into the Yangju Hall, he sees the emperor dressed in his stately imperial robes, leaning against the bed, a game of go beside him.
“We agreed to finish the game after the feast,” the emperor places the pieces one by one on the board, pausing here and there in contemplation. “But then I smashed the board as soon as I returned, do you still remember how the white pieces were arranged?”
“It’s been too long, I do not remember.”
“...True.” The emperor gives up the task and tosses the remaining pieces back into their box, gesturing for Jingyan to come sit on the bed.
Jingyan moves the board aside and stands in front of the emperor, silent as the other man scrutinizes him as if seeing him for the first time.
“How come I’ve never really looked at your eyes before?” chuckles the emperor, more to himself, “The eyes of those who have sat on that throne have a different quality than others. I should have noticed it much earlier. Since the year with the Qishui incident...no, even earlier, perhaps the year of Cliff Mei, right?
“If I’d remembered earlier, you wouldn’t have wasted so much energy all these years,” the emperor pins a mocking gaze on him, “I would have killed those conniving traitors like Xie Yu and Xia Jiang myself.”
“You would have also killed Commander Lin and Xiaoshu, and everyone who had opposed you in the last life,” says Jingyan camly. “My mother and I would not have escaped the same fate, either.”
“......” The emperor muses for a long while and then concedes, “That’s correct. You are right. If I had regained my memories a few years ago, I certainly would not have tolerated your existence. Mei Changsu had told me once that I did not understand Jingyu, and even less you...Ha! I’d love to invite him to look at you now, how you’ve changed!
“You’ve become the same conspiring, scheming man, never revealing your true emotions to anyone, you’ve become just like him! What a pity that Lin Shu did not live to witness your transformation. Jingyan, if he had lived till your coronation, you would have treated him like I did Lin Xie...year after year, when he is completely disillusioned, he would betray you.”
“Commander Lin is still guarding the Western borders despite his injuries, Marquis Yan has also returned to the capital. They are both still protecting your Kingdom.”
The emperor’s eyes widen a fraction at the mention of Lin Xie’s injuries, his lips flounder for a few seconds, yet he only manages to ask an unrelated question, “You’ve already allowed Jingyu to return to the capital?”
“The matter with the heir is far from immutable...if he comes back now, he would bear the condemnation of contending for the throne that is not rightfully his. Hmph, you’ve certainly thought this through for him.” The emperor sneers at the analysis, “But you are the Crown Prince. After I pass away, even if you were to abscond the throne with the support of Lin Xie and Lin Shu, as self-righteous as Jingyu is, he would never accept this charity. What do you plan to do?”
“...I have said before that I would never leave Brother Qi in such a dilemma.”
“You would make yourself disappear from the world. I have no legitimate primogenito, and none of the three princes in the capital you spared has any talent to speak of. So then, whether it is based on seniority or merit, reputation or accomplishments, the best candidate would be Prince Qi, no one would contend it...The machinations of Mei Changsu, you have truly mastered them through and through!” The emperor shakes his fingers at Jingyan in mock disappointment, “But you cannot threaten me. That Qin Banruo feared you so because she believed that you are someone who would relinquish his own life to achieve his goals, never mind those of others. So when you threatened her with the lives of the Hua people and her own, she immediately confessed everything.
“But that was because she did not truly know you. For you, there are many things greater than life itself...and there are too many people you care about to die so casually. Death is but your last move in a stalemate.”
The emperor raises a gnarled hand and points at Jingyan, almost sighing, “But you miscalculated one thing, Jingyan.
“As emperor, I loathe all of your machinations, but as a father...I want to spare your life.” The emperor’s lips are trembling uncontrollably, as if speaking these words has drained all his energy. “I will write a decree to revoke your title as Crown Prince, and name Jingyu the next emperor. But the Crown Prince is the heir apparent, lord of the Eastern Palace, he cannot be easily replaced except in cases of severe transgressions. Tell me, what crimes have you fabricated for yourself?”
“Injury upon an elder brother.”
The emperor snaps his head up, “What did you do to Jingxuan?”
Jingyan smiles faintly at the accusation-- he no longer balks at such misunderstandings these days.
“Concubine Yue sabotaged Brother Yu. The carriage he rode to his exile was tampered with by her. I have remained silent to her crimes.”
The words give the emperor pause, he nods mechanically and admits, “True, with Jingxuan’s personality, he wouldn’t be able to recover from his utter defeat without external help. As upright as you are, you wouldn’t bother with him after his expulsion. I see...it really was her who killed Jinghuan…”
“......” Jingyan decides against revealing the other facts he discovered during the investigation: like the hidden needle deeply embedded in the horse’s leg that fell down the cliff, while Prince Yu had ridden in his wife’s carriage after his own was damaged by the rocky roads.
Concubine Yue’s crimes were true, and Qin Banruo is already dead, it is no longer important whether or not the emperor knows the full truth.
“I know her too well. She was malicious but not smart enough, often forgetting to save herself in a scheme to sabotage others. You are the same. Have you considered all implications of this? Omission of a crime can be tried as collusion; even if your life is spared, you can never return to the capital again. I know Jingyu’s personality well; although he is benevolent, he would never forgive you for such a grave crime of betrayal between brothers.
“When Prince Qi ascends the throne, his supporters would never tolerate your presence as someone who used to be the heir. Even Lin Shu...even he would have his own political stance, unlikely to help you. Lin Xie and Jingyu, and Lin Shu, they are all men with lofty ideals,2 you have long carved a divergent path from them with everything you’ve done...Do you understand all this?”
The emperor bursts out in hysterical laughter, only to end in terrible coughs that wrack his entire frame.
“All those years ago, I placed my faith in traitors, wronged Jingyu, wronged Lin Shu and Lin Xie...There was too little I could do in the last life as recompense. This time, I’ll give the throne back to him, give them a virtuous and merciful ruler, a peaceful kingdom without strife...this shall be my atonement.
“I’ve fulfilled everyone else’s wishes, what about yours?” The emperor’s voice gains a sudden tremor as he says in a whisper, “Jingyan, can you forgive your Father?”
Jingyan looks at the aged man in his resplendent imperial robes-- he does not need them, even without those robes, in Jingyan’s eyes, Xiao Xuan has always been the emperor.
Yet the paternal part of him is too far away from Jingyan, far before his entire world came crashing down more than a lifetime ago.
Xiao Xuan would probably never understand: a child who had never been touched by conspiracy or death, never been polluted by political schemes and machinations, suddenly found his world upended, his dearest friend and most respected brother killed; and the Father he used to depend on...was the orchestrator of every tragedy! His persistence and struggles gained him nothing but eleven years of exile and alienation.
Jingyan kneels onto the floor, with a brief moment of hesitation, he reaches out to take those cold, wizened hands in his own.
He says softly, “My wish is also fulfilled.”
The emperor startles at the response, saying nothing for a long while before heaving a deep sigh, “You may go...I still have things to arrange with Gao Zhan.”
The emperor pens two new decrees. On the one to revoke the Crown Prince’s title, his hand freezes above the freshly inked words “fraternal betrayal.”3 He crushes the parchment in his fist and tosses it into the burning brazier, starting anew with a blank page.
Along with the decrees, he’s also written a long letter, towards the end of which his pen is trembling so much that only with Eunuch Gao’s steadying hand is he able to finish the last lines.
“Gao Zhan, give these two decrees to Jingyan...As for this letter, you must keep it with you at all times. After Jingyu ascends the throne, give it to him at an opportune time.”
After watching the old eunuch tuck away the letter carefully in his robes with silent tears running down his face, the emperor lies back to the bed with a relieved sigh.
In both lifetimes, he has done very little for this son of his, they have long been estranged as father and son.
At the very end of everything, he has come to realize that after shedding his imperial robes, as a father, there are so few things he can still do for his son.
He whispers in a final semblance of a vow, “Jingyan, I’ll give you back your Brother.
“This is everything your Father can do for you…”4
Jingyan takes the two scrolls from Eunuch Gao and only opens the one to appoint Prince Qi as the next emperor. He scans it briefly before saying to the eunuch, “There is no need to report my departure to battle and any related news from the frontlines. I do not wish to disturb His Majesty’s recuperating health.”
Eunuch Gao glances at the other unopened decree in Jingyan’s hands and bows respectfully in reply, “Your humble servant shall do as commanded. Please rest assured, Your Highness.”
The night before leaving for battle, the Crown Prince traverses through the darkened streets alone on horseback and knocks on the heavy gates of Marquis Yan’s home. Both Yujin and Jingrui have left for the Northern Yan with Lin Shu’s fleet, the rustling sound of withered leaves in this late autumn month adding to the lonesome atmosphere of the manor.
As expected, Marquis Yan is home. He is dressed in black, a steaming pot of tea next to him, perhaps for himself or for the anticipated guest.
“Madame Han just came by. She brought her son to the capital to settle matters with Xia Jiang, then sent him away to the battlefield. She was finally relieved,5 but her mind remains preoccupied with untied ends. No matter who you are, as long as you possess a heart, you can put ‘physical matters’ to an end, but not ‘emotional entanglements.’
“I have anticipated Your Highness’ arrival, but I cannot foresee the nature of your visit. Is it about ‘physical matters’ or ‘emotional entanglements’?” As he utters these words, Marquis Yan runs his measuring eyes down the future ruler of the Liang Kingdom.
He does not believe that physical proximity would construct a more lucid picture of one’s inherent nature, yet he cannot help but scrutinize the man in front of him. If he were to liken his image to something, Xiao Jingyan is an unfathomable pond-- everyone thinks that its opacity is from excess impurities, but if one approaches the pond and scoop up a handful of water, he would be astounded to find its absolute transparency.
The young man in front him has lived no more than three decades in this mortal world. As an imperial prince, his life has not been a smooth sail but not extremely turbulent, either. So what is it that has molded him into the inscrutable person of today?
Take tonight-- Marquis Yan has foreseen his arrival, but he does not know what the Crown Prince would demand from him. In the capital, there is an ailing emperor and three incompetent princes.
The state of the Court is like an interrupted game of go-- the more unsalvageable the quandary seems, the more crucial each step becomes.
He and Jingyan both know that asking Yan Que to use his influence to stabilize the volatile political scene is a necessary move, but at this moment, even Yan Que himself is at a loss as for whether it is the right one.
“What is Your Highness afraid of? If it is the chance of a coup, although I am no military commander, but with 5,000 men, I can guarantee peace in the capital. If it is disturbances in Court operations, all six ministers are extraordinarily competent men hand-picked by Your Highness, they will keep things running smoothly.
“Or perhaps,” pauses Yan Que, resting his inquisitive eyes on Jingyan to gauge his reaction, “You are afraid that the Eastern Palace will be taken by another in your absence?”
“It is as they say, Marquis Yan is exceptionally sharp at reading a man’s nature by judging his motives, experiences and aspirations.6 I am here today merely to ask the Marquis a question.” Jingyan does not answer Yan Que’s inquiries, posing one of his own instead.
He stands there with his back straight like a plum tree that does not bend in the worst of storms, poised and tenacious. “Prince Qi and I, who is better fit to bear the imperial mantle?”7
Yan Que is silent for a long time.
Years ago, when he was the sole ambassador tasked with the arduous duty to sever the alliance between three kingdoms, each word he uttered was a sharpened sword that chipped at their bonds. He knows that now, whichever name that falls from his lips would carry the same weight, if not more.
“If your positions were reversed, Prince Qi would not have asked the same question. As a ruler, one should engage in constant self-reflection, not self-flagellation. With every decree, one might think that he is infallible, another would dread the very possibility of a mistake. With every failure, one might treat it as a lesson learned, another would count it as a personal defect.”
Yan Que does not know what reaction awaits his long answer. He fixes his gaze on the Crown Prince, not missing any minute changes in his expression. Yet those dark eyes are as unfathomable as ever, as if he already knew Yan Que’s reply and was merely waiting for him to verbalize it.
Jingyan takes out a silk box from his robes and places it in front of Yan Que solemnly.
“I will leave this decree in Marquis Yan’s trustworthy hands.”
Yan Que lets out an incredulous laugh, “Your Highness knows that my inclinations lie with Prince Qi, yet you are asking me to safeguard the decree...it would be better kept with the Noble Consort Jing…” At this, Yan Que stops abruptly as a realization strikes him. Stunned, he stutters, “Wait, unless this…”
Jingyan gestures for Yan Que to open the box and check its contents. “This is a decree to name Brother Qi the next emperor, penned by His Majesty himself.”
It is not until his eyes rest on the phrase “naming the eldest prince, Xiao Jingyu, as heir to the throne” does Yan Que truly believe this unexpected turn of events.
As a man of his intellect, he immediately understands the intentions of the Crown Prince for him to keep the decree at this critical juncture.
Revoking Jingyan’s title as Crown Prince would have to take place first, but in such turbulent times fraught with outside threats, they cannot risk affecting military morale with any mention of shifting the imperial authority. So everything would have to wait until the war has concluded.
Yan Que also understands the unsaid implications-- the emperor’s health may not allow him to wait until peacetime.
“With this battle, my return date is unpredictable. If His Majesty...here is another decree to revoke my position as Crown Prince. When the time comes, I leave everything in your hands. If His Majesty is still in good health when I return, we will proceed with naming another Crown Prince first. Whatever the situation may be, the decrees will be safer in Marquis Yan’s possession than in the palace.”
Yan Que nods, then another thought comes to him. “Your Highness, when the time comes, I can initiate the denunciation against you as an unfit candidate for the throne.” Yan Que takes a step forward and says, “Although I do not know what Your Highness has planned, but a crime severe enough to challenge your position in the Eastern Palace is no trivial matter. Perhaps it would be better if I were to direct the efforts.
“It would be better to have fought valiantly and lost, than passively accepting the impeachment and be forced to cede.” Yan Que adds when Jingyan shows no sign of assent, “For both you and Prince Qi.”
Unmoved by the other man’s earnest proposal, Jingyan says instead, “I would like to ask one more thing of Marquis. Under no circumstances can Brother Qi return to the capital while I am away.”
Yan Que nods in comprehension-- Jingyan would publicize the decree to reappoint a Crown Prince upon his return from the battlefield, having Prince Qi in the capital at that time would inevitably draw suspicion upon his ulterior motives.
“I am entrusting everything to you, Marquis.”
Yan Que bends at the waist in a deep bow to Jingyan, voice solemn as he pledges, “Your humble subject will do everything in his power to fulfill your wishes, Your Highness.”
In late autumn of the year of Yuanyou, the Crown Prince leads a total of 120,000 men, comprised of 70,000 reserve troops and 50,000 resident troops, into battle against the Northern Yu.
In the roster of generals, there inked in black letters on white parchment, is the name of official strategist for the military, Mei Changsu.
When the first gust of biting wind hits his face on Cliff Mei, Jingyan feels that it is even colder than he remembered.
He had come here when he was nineteen-years-old, one man and one horse rushing to prevent a certain tragedy.
In the blink of an eye, another twelve years have passed, and he stands here again.
This is where Mei Changsu began and ended.
His blood and flesh shall be redeemed by two lifetimes of annihilation of the Northern Yu.
Sir Su, please help me along this one last journey.
Spring of next year, when news of victory from both the Northern Yan and the Western borders reaches the capital, the Liang troops gains a decisive win over the Northern Yu by decimating 70,000 enemy forces. At the same time, the severely injured Crown Prince Xiao Jingyan has fallen from a cliff, his whereabouts unknown.
Noble Consort Jing bids Eunuch Gao to pass on the news to the emperor.
While consumed by grief, the emperor recognizes that the Eastern Palace cannot remain unoccupied, so he issues a summons for Prince Qi to return to the capital.
---------Footnotes that you're probably crying too hard to read-----------
1. 蒲牢 (pu lao) is the name of the fourth offspring of the ancient dragon in Chinese mythology. It’s known for having a very loud roar.
2. 自命清高 (zi ming qing gao): [referring to a person] having a holier-than-thou attitude, with a self-proclaimed moral high ground. Definitely has a negative connotation.
3. 不悌 (bu ti): lit. not respecting one’s elder brother. 悌 is a highly regarded virtue similar to 孝 (xiao), which is filial piety to one’s parents. Both reflect the cultural emphasis on familial obedience towards one’s elders, especially males.
4. In this final conversation between Jingyan and the emperor, the latter has used the common term for “Father”, 父亲, to refer to himself, rather than the more standard appellation 父皇 (imperial father). With the strict hierarchy in ancient China, Jingyan would first revere Xiao Xuan as his lord (君), only then would he see him as a father (父).
5. 释然 (shi ran) is another difficult-to-translate phrase. The equivalent meaning would be “relieved” or “at ease,” but literally 释 means to give up, and 然 is an adjective that describes the state of something, here that of having given up [something]. This is the kind of relief that comes after a long period of being burdened by unresolved stress. It usually implies a voluntary action to let go of these issues and finally come to terms with the situation.
6. The first direct quote from Confucius in this fic! The original here is 观其所以，观其所由，察其所安 (guan qi suo yi, guan qi suo you, cha qi suo an). This is the Confucian method to judge one’s character, talents and ability: first assess his motivations and goals, then his experiences, and what he would be happy doing. In Confucius’ opinion, this is a comprehensive technique to truly know a man. Of course, by citing the venerated philosopher, Jingyan is giving Marquis Yan a great compliment.
7. Originally: 堪大任 (kan da re), where 堪 means “able to,” “can,” but its modern usage is mostly in compound words and literary situations, one does not use this verb in trivial matters like “I can swim.” 大任 literally means “great task,” or “great responsibility.” Again, it’s a fairly formal word, often referring to public duties on a grand scale.