Ensnared Chapter 8 ( Chapters 1-8 posted: Incomplete)
Category: M/M, M/F
Relationship: 苏靖/靖苏 [无差], etc
As Liang's sacrificial lamb to the restored Hua Kingdom, Xiao Jingyan finds himself embroiled in more conspiracies than he could try to avoid. So, between the deadly strategist Mei Changsu and military powerhouse Xia Jiang, Su Zhe seems to be the only person on his side. NiF spinoff.
I'm pasting the text here because some people said they can't go on AO3. The format is much better there, though.
At the end of the dark passage was a room identical to the secret alcove in his court.
For all of Jingyan’s trepidation and anticipation, nothing happened. He kept a hand on the wall and followed the sound of Su Zhe’s footfall through the unobstructed passage until dimming sunlight split the darkness. They exited into a crumbling structure with moldy beams and tangled spider webs, a deserted court with a backdoor into the mountains that rose on the east border of Hua.
Jingyan followed Su Zhe through a grassy meadow and into a forest.
Sometime in the middle of their walk, the last rays of the sun slinked behind the horizon and left them in the shadows of the gnarled oak trees. Twigs and fallen leaves crunched under his boot as Jingyan picked his way through the damp moss of the forest path, dodging sagged branches and stepping over surface roots. The wind was beginning to pick up, gently rustling the thick, dark green leaves of the shrubs nearby. Su Zhe walked on his right, body obscured by his oversized cloak.
"Don't you have anything to say to me?" Jingyan's question broke the silence that'd hung about since the hidden corridor was revealed.
“When you follow me without a question or comment," said Su Zhe. “Was it trust?”
Jingyan glanced at Su Zhe. Trust was a heavy word. He didn’t dare to trust, but being by Su Zhe’s side brought him no small amount of familiarity and amenity. For some reason, he knew Su Zhe meant him no harm and when the passage was revealed, he'd wanted to know more about it. At the end of the long pause and forest trail, Jingyan answered, “Part curiosity and part boredom.”
Ahead of them, the trees thinned and Jingyan saw hundreds of tiny, flashing blue lights glowing in the air.
Upon closer inspection, Jingyan saw that they were insects. The end of their abdomens lit up the dark sky with an ethereal blue glow as they danced in the air and within the grasses. There were no longer any trees to block the luminous glow of moonlight and Jingyan could see clearly again. Jingyan bent toward a few insects that rested on a particularly tall stalk of grass and saw that their anatomy resembled those of a dragonfly rather than firefly.
Then, they flew away and dispersed in a firework of blue to join the others swirling in the sky
“Blue Glider Dragonflies,” said Su Zhe. He adjusted his cloak around himself and Jingyan noticed with a degree of respect that Su Zhe’s cloak had remained completely spotless despite their long trek through the muddy ground and wet grass. “Unlike fireflies, they come out in the end of autumn.” He added, “They are also quite quiet.”
“I’ve never seen anything like this before,” said Jingyan.
His breath caught as dozens of dragonflies circled each other in a vortex of whirling blue lights, then dispersed again. Nearer to him, a dozen or so dragonflies chased each other between reeds of swaying grass. A tiny dragonfly caught on to a much bigger one and hitched a ride as the bigger one flew around trying to throw it off.
Jinyan watched as Su Zhe gently approached a cluster of dragonflies and while most flew away, a couple flew closer and rested on Su Zhe’s extended arm. Surprised, Jingyan followed the suit, but all the dragonflies he drew near flew away.
“Your Highness scares them,” said Su Zhe.
He spun around until he faced Jingyan and began to walk backwards, taking a step back for every step Jingyan took forward. Jingyan glanced to check that there was nothing Su Zhe could walk into, then turned his attention to how the dragonfies moved. Su Zhe passed through the blue lights with minimal disturbance, but Jingyan cleared a dark path wherever he stepped. It couldn't be how he moved - almost thirty years of martial arts training had to lend some grace to his natural movements. As another cluster of dragonflies flew away from him, Jingyan gave up.
“I just don’t smell like ginger and lavender the way you do,” Jingyan finally sighed.
“What a keen sense of smell Your Highness has,” said Su Zhe.
“Well, I-,” said Jingyan. The clumsiness of his words struck him and he wondered why he tend to only use half his possessed intelligence whenever he was with Su Zhe. “I wasn’t, I wasn’t paying special attention to you or anything. It’s just the kind of thing I notice.”
Make that half his possessed intelligence and none of his verbal articulation.
“I only said you have a keen sense of smell,” Su Zhe said mildly. Jingyan faintly noted the lack of honorific with a dash of pleasure.
Jingyan’s face heat up when Su Zhe broke out in peals of laughter. Even though Jingyan hunched his shoulders and looked another direction, he had to admit – he’d asked for it and Su Zhe had a pleasant laugh. After a few seconds, Su Zhe’s laughter turned into loud, hacking coughing that sounded wet and painful. Jingyan quickly turned back to see Su Zhe wipe his mouth with a handkerchief and hide his hand under his cloak.
A tiny part of Jingyan would have commented that it served Su Zhe right for laughing at him, but his intuition alarmed him. Whatever made Su Zhe coughed until his back was curled over his knees was much more than choking on saliva or a mouthful of wind. Jingyan crouched on the ground, wanting to reach over, but unsure if Su Zhe would feel invaded.
Softly, Jingyan said, “It's getting colder. Maybe we should go back.”
“No,” Su Zhe protested. A hand shot out from under his cloak to grip Jingyan’s arm. “Let's keep going."
They stopped at the edge of a cliff.
In a large expanse of ground beneath them, was the remains of a recently collapsed piece of land. For as far as Jingyan could see, the serpentine fissures that spanned the width of a house wound out from a steep sinkhole in the center of the land, creating an additional depth to the already sunken land. There was a heavy stench of lingering gunpowder and the fissures were filled with uprooted trees and crumpled earth.
According to the maps, Jingyan once committed to memory, this was where the old Xu Qing coal mine was. Xu Qing was a coal mine that the Hua Kingdom won from North Qi in the third year of their rule. From then, the mine was a source of wealth for the restored kingdom.
Two years ago, spies reported that the mine was exhausted.
"So this was why the music was so loud at the festival," said Jingyan. Since the smell of gunpowder still lingered, the fissures were both man-made and recent. “But where did this huge supply of gunpowder come from?"
"Does Your Highness not wonder why Lord Yu collapsed this old mine?" questioned Su Zhe.
Jingyan observed the slanted edges of the ruins, the tangle of trees, boulders and bushes that piled on top of each other, making the path impossible to cross for miles. Jingyan recalled the military maps he saw of Hua's geography and strategic routes. Jingyan said, "When spring comes, this crater will be filled with rainwater that will flow toward the capital of North Qi."
On the edge of the ruins, Jingyan saw carved stones and wooden beams. Based on appearance, it seemed as if Hua was attempting to build docks on the high grounds. In addition to being close to the imperial palace, this area was surrounded by forests and mountains for the miles. Under normal circumstances, no one had any reason to wander into the area.
"If North Qi hears about this, Hua gains another enemy," said Jingyan. Despite the distance between Jingyan and his Royal Father, it became a matter of pride that a Liang prince was held captive. East Wei was never going to forgive Hua and the clever strategy to ambush North Qi's capital was as good as a declaration of war. "Immediately before one's eyes, everything appears to be a good idea, but..."
One kingdom against an empire and two other kingdom was always a bad idea.
Silence settled after his words. Su Zhe seemed fixated on the collapsed mine before them, his eyes skimming over the lit torches, the construction and the rubble. Jingyan stole a glance every now and then, turning away almost as quickly. If this was Liang, he would have the power and responsibility to take action, but in Hua, he had neither. The most interesting aspect of the current scene was not Hua's conspiracy, but the perplexing man next to him.
Without offering any warning that he was going to speak, Su Zhe said, "There are horizontal ridges in your fingernails, Your Highness."
Jingyan lifted his hand and found them, several horizontal depressions across the fingernail of his thumb and middle finger. There was a half-formed one in his pointer finger, a barely there depression. Not one to examine his nails, Jingyan never noticed them, but he knew they weren't there when he trimmed his nails a week ago. Was that why Su Zhe took his hand earlier?
He asked, "What does this mean?"
"Astaris Poison is more of a contamination than a poison," said Su Zhe. "Its weakening effects on the body is used to keep one out of fights."
Jingyan cringed. The ugly emotions, typically suppressed by willpower and logic, rose to the front of his mind, overriding all the self-restraints he'd forced into place. His fingers began toying with his sleeve again, helplessly mauling the silk as he tried to calm his quickened breaths. He wanted to yell at Su Zhe for being so composed and impassive but the words were constricted in his throat.
While Jingyan tried to figure out what to say or do, an airy melody began to play.
He hadn’t noticed when Su Zhe moved, but the hollow quality of the notes told him that Su Zhe was playing a jade flute. He was right - even under the overcast of shadows, the green of the instrument was visible. A tassel of a woven jasmine flower weighted down by strands of plaited red silk, dangled from the end of it. Like Su Zhe, the music was graceful but delicate. It didn’t pierce into Jingyan’s heart and captivate him, but the notes wrapped around him like a warm blanket.
After Su Zhe’s fingers stilled on the flute, Jingyan asked, “What are you grieving the loss of?”
Su Zhe didn’t speak for a moment. Then he said, “Plum Blossom Prelude celebrates high moral integrity and endurance.”
Jingyan reflected on that for a moment, watching the tassel at the end of Su Zhe’s flute flutter in the wind. Strange that the tassel was a jasmine when Su Zhe only grew plum blossoms in his garden and appeared to have a special fondness for the winter flower. Jingyan’s mind drifted back to Liang, back to his own court, where he grew what people praised to be the most beautiful plum blossoms in the city.
Finally, he said, “They’ve always been my favorite.”
Plum blossoms represented strength and nobility. The only flower that could bloom beautifully against the stark white of snow, steadfast as the harsh winter winds crippled every other plant. Xiao Shu’d often teased him for the attention he bestowed on his flowers and garden when he first received his court.
“They have always been in my dreams,” said Su Zhe and Jingyan could tell he wasn’t going to elaborate.
The flute was lowered and Su Zhe stored it in a fold of his cloak. Jingyan thought it was strange – Su Zhe’s music was flawless, but Su Zhe handled the flute like a foreign object. There was an invisible distance between the scholar and the flute, as if it wasn’t his own. Jingyan thought: a prodigy who does not truly love music.
“Did you used to use a sword?” Jingyan asked.
Su Zhe was visibly surprised, but his voice was steady when he said, “Why would Your Highness say that?”
“You recalled your flute the way a warrior would recall a short sword,” said Jingyan. It was the way Su Zhe flipped the flute around before he slipped it under his cloak. The move was smooth and sharp, with remarkable resemblance to sheathing a weapon.
Su Zhe held up a hand, displaying skeletal fingers that were too pale and seemed to be shaking from just the effort of holding itself up. Jingyan knew, if he reached out and grasped it, Su Zhe's skin would be cool and his grip would weak. Su Zhe said, “I can’t lift a sword.”
Jingyan lowered his eyes, sorry that he asked.
"But I don't remember," said Su Zhe. "I haven’t been able to remember my childhood for years. Only in the recent years have more memories return to me."
Jingyan's eyes widened and he turned to Su Zhe, ready to express words of sympathy and surprise. But Su Zhe, with solemn acceptance and pride in every line of his body, did not appear to need them. So Jingyan said instead, “I find myself frequently thinking about the past lately.”
“Anything in particular?”
“A friend. You saw his bow,” said Jingyan. He clasped his hand behind his back. “I’ve accepted that he left me behind but, for whatever reason, the closer we become, the more I remember him.”
Jingyan glanced over. Su Zhe’s features betrayed nothing. The man stood with dreamlike tranquility, cloak fluttering in the wind as he stared at nothing in particular. Friend? Is that really what you think? Xiao Shu’d said that, his words as cryptic as the fingers lightly splayed against Jingyan’s cheek.
“Best friend,” said Jingyan. He forced his mind to focus.“Brother.”
Su Zhe turned to face him.
Jingyan’s instinctive response was to look away before he was overwhelmed, but he forced himself to look back. He hadn’t expected to feel so vulnerable, but he didn’t resist as Su Zhe held his gaze, searching him and reassuring him at the same time. It felt as if Su Zhe was caressing away his doubts to probe his soul. The attentiveness he saw in Su Zhe’s eyes –warm but pained, strained yet determined- made breathing difficult.
He thought Su Zhe was going to move closer.
Instead, Su Zhe was first to turn away. His gaze flitted down briefly, lingered for a second, and then trailed up to the stars.
“Perhaps you feel for me what you did him,” said Su Zhe. After turning away, he lifted the instrument to his lips again, his fingers poised over the smooth jade. In the same even tone, Su Zhe went on to elaborate before the sorrowful notes started: “Friend. Best friend. Brother.”
“Your Highness’ cheeks are flushed. There is mud at the bottom of Your Highness’ robes,” Zhanying spoke as soon as Jingyan unlocked his bedroom door and stepped into the guest reception room. He hadn’t looked up, but Jingyan was in his peripheral vision. “How was Your Highness’s adventure outside?”
It didn't take a genius to figure out that Zhanying was upset. Jingyan stepped into his guest reception room, pulling off his cloak to drape it on a surface nearby. This late at night, only a few candles were lit and Jingyan saw the returned medicine box on the table. Zhanying knelt on a cushion near it, a cloak draped around his shoulder as if he'd been debating going outside. A book opened before him but Jingyan noticed he was still on the first line of the first page.
“There’s a passage behind the bookcases in my bedroom,” said Jingyan. “It leads to the remains of the Court of Joy.”
“I suppose Your Highness knew because you merely followed Su Zhe out."
His words sounded like an observation, but Jingyan could hear the veiled accusation, the spark of infuriation. Jingyan swallowed, the terseness provoking him even though Zhanying had every right to sit and criticize his impulsiveness. Jingyan slid the jade flute fully up his sleeve and out of view before he answered, “I was careful.”
“Shen Zhui came, I told him you were sick. I also told the servants you were sick,” said Zhanying. His eyes finally lifted from the book to meet Jingyan’s, “Su Zhe is not someone you can afford to be blind to.”
The emotional response was expected. Jingyan looked away. His gaze settled on the vase of replaced plum blossoms. A few flowers had fallen on the lacquered wood of the drawer. The pink blooms were a cheerful contrast against the plain white of his wall, a spark of color in the otherwise dull interior of the guest room.
“I’ve noticed the cost of Su Zhe’s residence and the competency of his attendants,” said Jingyan. The cryptic way Su Zhe spoke and conduct himself hadn’t escaped Jingyan either. “I’ve not been... blinded.”
Zhanying didn’t look convinced, but Jingyan knew Zhanying's devotion to him would override his personal feelings on the matter. In the recess of his own mind, Jingyan hoped that any jaundice was simply his own paranoia and Zhanying’s misgiving. Underneath his sleeve, Jingyan ran his thumb over a horizontal indent on his middle finger.
“What do you know about Astarsis Poison?” asked Jingyan.
"A drug used to weaken fighters. It was used as a mean to cheat in fighting contests,” said Zhanying. “Mostly used in the lower ranks of the Lang Ya Mountain’s martial art contest. A drop or two can last hours or days and large doses can last until an antidote is applied.”
“Lang Ya Mountain,” Jingyan repeated. The largest intelligence network known to man, hidden behind a glamour of mysticism and headquartered within the tallest mountains. Each year, Lang Ya Mountain produced a top ten list of the strongest martial artists, deadliest sword techniques, most captivating poets and dozens of other titles. In the past ten years, Mei Changsu topped the Lang Ya ranks for intelligence and military strategies.
His eyes narrowed, "Mei Changsu."
Jingyan didn't try to evade the move when Zhanying snatched his wrist. What he tried to hide fell from his sleeve as Zhanying lift his fingers to the candlelight. They watched the flute land with a dull thud on the embroidered rug. Zhanying gave him a wordless glare and turned his attention to the telltale signs on his fingernails.
“I know,” Jingyan spoke before Zhanying did.
“But-,” said Zhanying. Zhanying held on, all his guilt and self-blame transparent on his face.
“I know.” His voice was softer this time.
Jingyan reached out to clap the other on the shoulder, ready to reassert that he was going to be careful and that Astarsis could be cured. Before any words made it out of his mouth, Jingyan found himself toppling into a tight, awkward embrace. As Jingyan steadied himself and relocated his center of gravity, Zhanying said, "Since I woke up this morning, my eyelid's been jumping and I felt out of breath. Then you disappeared."
A soldier's intuition, Jingyan thought. He'd felt the same way on the day Captain Zhu died, but nothing happened today. Then, he understood something else. He'd came here out of necessity, but Zhanying was the one who truly volunteered to leave behind a comfortable life in Liang to join him in this chilly snakepit.
"I'm alright," said Jingyan. Lifting his hands, he briefly returned the hug and patted Zhanying on the back. Unexpectedly, Zhanying did not immediately let go. Puzzled at the uncharacteristic behavior, Jingyan settled until the first hint of embarrassment appeared on Zhanying’s face and he was abruptly released. After a quick glance at the rigidness that tensed Zhanying's entire body, Jingyan stepped away without any comment.
He picked up the flute and placed it on the table next to the medicine box. Jingyan opened the box, noting that the contents were obviously searched, but everything was replaced in place. There were no secret messages or hidden additions. Jingyan lightly touched a packet, running a finger over the waxy paper. Then he addressed Zhanying again.
"Tell me what Shen Zhui told you."
As the hour of the snake crept into the hour of the horse, he told Zhanying to return and rest. He stood and yawned, heading toward the direction of his bedroom. In Hua, he had no duties or assignments, but he always went to bed feeling drained and woke up feeling lethargic. Behind him, he heard Zhanying move around, blowing out the last candles in the guest reception room and replacing their cloaks in a wardrobe near the entrance.
Once inside his room, Jingyan detected that something was off. The room was chillier than he remembered, a sign that the windows had been opened recently. The flame on the single candle lit in his room was also flickering, an indication of recent movement. Before Jingyan's eyes could sweep the room, a blade was pressed against his throat with expert precision. He could feel the cold of the metal biting into his skin, but the blade was a hair's width from drawing blood.
"Don't move, or I'll slit your throat."
The words were spoken by a man positioned behind him. Only the assailant's black sleeves and the plain handle of a dagger were visible but the hand holding the dagger was coiled with ready-to-release tension. Jingyan could feel the murderous intent seeping into the air around them. In the background, Jingyan heard another set of doors open and close, a sign that Zhanying left the house to return to his own.
The voice was familiar. The obnoxious drawl was no longer there, but the timbre was memorable. Quietly, Jingyan said, "Your martial arts skills are better than what I expected, Noble Fan."
"Pretty smart, aren't you?" said Noble Fan. With the dagger still trained closed to Jingyan's throat, he stepped forward until his face was visible and he forced Jingyan to step backwards until they stood in the empty space in the middle of the room. Against an opponent trained in martial arts, that would have been a fatal mistake, but Noble Fan moved with a level of nonchalance, as if he was certain that Jingyan wouldn't be able to fight back. Noble Fan said, "Don't get cocky."
"Do you really dare to kill me?" asked Jingyan. Stripped of the colorful silks, jade decorations and haughty expression, Noble Fan appeared to be an entirely different person. His lips were pressed into a stern line and his gaze was steady as he scrutinized Jingyan from head to toe. "You probably can't escape afterwards."
"You don't have to try so hard," said Noble Fan. He then lowered his dagger fractionally, until it was about an inch away from Jingyan's skin. The move appeared comforting, but Jingyan knew the dagger could still kill him in a single movement. Noble Fan said, "I want to know what happened to Ah Ning. What was she doing when she committed suicide in your court?"
Without any shifts in his expression, Jingyan observed Noble Fan's profile. His eyebrows were slightly furrowed, and there was a glimmer of unmistakable anguish that the other tried to disguise as anger and violent intent. Almost automatically, Jingyan's fingers twitched toward the hem of his sleeves again. Before he opened his mouth, Noble Fan added, "Just tell me the truth."
Jingyan remained silent, dropping his gaze to the dagger next to his neck. The Hua metal gleamed its unique glint, catching the shadows in the room. After twenty years on the battlefield, he'd never expected himself to be at the mercy of a dagger. He'd never even knew he could feel threatened by one.
The night was too silent around them. If he called out, he would be dead and Noble Fan would be gone before the first servant reached the door. If he moved, he was taking a gamble with his unreliable strength and he would agitate Noble Fan.
Faintly, words from a decade ago sounded in his mind: great warriors fought with their body, but the best warriors fought with their mind.
"Your father arranged Ah Ning to get herself killed at my court," said Jingyan. He repeated what Zhanying told him earlier, information that Shen Zhui discreetly gathered for them. "So his adultery would not be revealed to your stepmother."
His words had the intended effect on the other.
"What?" Noble Fan visibly paled. The hand holding the dagger began to shake, violent tremors that Noble Fan attempted to still with apparent effort. There was shock and unwillingness to believe in the other's eyes, but Jingyan could see there wasn't disbelief. When Noble Fan spoke again, his voice was low and dangerous, "Even if that is true, you can't possibly know that much. You're lying."
"I'm an honest person," said Jingyan. A sour emotion rose in him as he gauged Noble Fan's flickering reactions, rapidly reading and filtering until he calculated an approach. He forced himself to stay completely still and he kept his tone light. "Unlike you, who hide behind a mask of foolish aggressiveness and grandiose."
"Don't talk about me like that," said Noble Fan. His voice was wavering, so Jingyan ignored his words.
"It's loneliness and self-preservation, isn't it?" said Jingyan. He'd heard from Zhanying that Fan Dou wedded a North Qi princess in order to gain more influence in the Hua court, but the powerful young woman was not attractive and infertile. Jingyan could imagine the young boy's life after his stepmother joined the household. In addition to that, Fan Dou had a not-so-secret affair with Ah Ning.
Jingyan was sure Noble Fan knew about his father and Ah Ning, but there was no guarantee Noble Fan wouldn't kill him right now, for the sake of revenge. He needed an upper-hand in the exchange, needed to nourish the permanent wounds he'd uncovered in order to make sure the blade didn't pierce the delicate skin of his throat. Quietly, he added, looking Noble Fan in the eyes, "I know what it's like, I know how you feel."
Noble Fan watched him with haunted wariness and Jingyan could almost see his mind racing around in tiny circles. He could see the effect of his words on Noble Fan. For a man who rashly rush into another's guarded chambers for the sake of principles, Jingyan could see that humanity and compassion were probably the most effective appeal. Unable to help himself, Jingyan reached for his sleeve again, addicted to how the mindless movement could sooth him.
Mindlessly, Noble Fan's eyes trailed to his movement. Silence settled thickly between them, only broken by Noble Fan's rattled breaths. After what felt like hours, the dagger was shakily lowered and Noble Fan stumbled a step back. Jingyan himself also stepped back, placing himself out of the man's immediate reach. The action placed him near his bedpost, a foot away from where Xiao Shu's bow hung. There was still no way he could escape or call for help, but he felt better without the blade near his throat.
Almost as if he was only speaking to break the silence, Noble Fan said, "My name is Yuan."
"Yuan," said Jingyan. Hope. Wish. He'd heard that Fan Dou never wedded Fan Yuan's mother even after the birth of their son. Fan Yuan must've been named by his mother. Jingyan said, "Xiao Jingyan."
"Why would you introduce yourself by your birth-name, Your Highness?" asked Yuan. The wariness in the young man's eye was fading, giving away to a sliver of amenity. His posture was more relaxed and he wasn't gripping his dagger as tightly.
Jingyan laughed softly, "Whatever you dare to call me, I'll dare to answer you."
"You're strange," said Yuan. The tension in the air was easing. He cracked a stuttering smile, "I'm sorry for shoving you the other day."
"I thought it was strange that a fool had such strength," said Jingyan.
"But no one ever thinks twice about a loud fool. I bet I never crossed your mind after that day," said Yuan. Then he added, "I should go."
In a blur of shadows, Yuan was gone and the only sign that the window had been opened was the sudden breeze of chilly wind. It slowly dawned on Jingyan that Yuan moved so fast the window didn't have a chance to creak. Shivering, Jingyan walked over to his bed to nestle into his blankets. He stared blankly at the single candle that burned in his room, barely enough to light anything but enough to let Jingyan see a flicker of light should he open his eyes in the middle of the night.
Yuan was the only son of Imperial Secretariat Fan.
If you know the enemy and know yourself, you need not fear the result of a hundred battles.
Imperial Secretariat Fan was Xia Jiang's rival for military power.
The enemy of mine enemy is my friend.
Briefly, his own voice echoed back to him: It's loneliness and self-preservation, isn't it?