秋风清; a clear autumn breeze @qijing
秋风清; a clear autumn breeze this is cross-posted on ao3 as part of the gl fic exchange !! not sure if i will continue using this platform but i wanted to test it out :] original notes: first of all, thank you to flowerseeker for the prompt!! i originally signed up to write yuexian but i'm so glad to have gotten the chance to write a long qijing fic :') i kind of just took the canon divergence prompt and ran with it....this was definitely supposed to be much more angsty than it is now, but in the end i decided to make it more tender. the characters may be ooc sometimes but it is for the greater good aka a happy ending hdjdjd i hope you enjoy <3 the poem i used in this fic is li bai's qiu feng ci (which translates vaguely to something like verse of the autumn wind) and i edited the translations i found slightly to make it flow more....hopefully it worked haha

There is an old tale, popular among the common folk in the area. It is a well-known story, of an ancient, long-gone kingdom, an Emperor beloved by the heavens, and a love that could overthrow nations. No one knows how much truth lingers in this well-worn tale, after passing through generations of loose lips. And yet, this ancient lore has not faded to the test of time, still told often at the drunken heights of festivities; in the boisterous atmosphere of brightly lit taverns; as bedside stories, shaped into pleasant, lilting tones, by the comfort of the fire.

Qiuyue sits cross-legged on the floor by her great-grandmother’s knobbly knees.

“Laolao,” she says, a murmur softened further by a drowsy tongue. “Tell me a story.”

“Laolao,” she says, a murmur softened further by a drowsy tongue. “Tell me a story.”

“Aiyo, sweet child, this old woman is running out of stories! Ah, no, there is one more I remember, a tale I first heard when I was a little girl just like you… Be good, and listen closely.”

Clear eyes sparkle with anticipation, and thus, the story begins, once again.

“Once upon a time, the land we live on now was part of the great Wei kingdom. This kingdom had an Emperor. The Emperor was wise beyond his years and held a beauty that knew no bounds. Most important of all, he was well-loved by the people. The kingdom prospered under his diligent rule.

This Emperor was the first woman to ascend the throne, but as deeply as she cared for her people and her kingdom, her love for her Imperial Husband was that much greater…”

秋风清,秋月明,

落叶聚还散,寒鸦栖复惊。

autumn breeze clear, autumn moon bright;

fallen leaves heap and scatter, frigid crows roost then flutter.

Chengqi Fourth Year, Tenth Month.

Nangong Jingnu sat behind the Emperor’s desk, a court report splayed open in front of her. A brush, dipped in crimson, lay neglected to the side, scarlet ink congealing on the fine bristles. She appeared lost in thought, unseeing eyes gazing blankly into a patch of empty space. The black characters on the scroll swam sluggishly in her periphery, ignored.

A single knock at the door jolted her from her daze.

“Your Majesty,” came the disembodied voice, muffled by a thick layer of wood. “It is late; the sun has long since set.”

And so, it had. A curious thing it is, the passage of time.

Jingnu turned away from the open window, where darkness spilled past the unlatched shutters. Dimly, she wondered if she — the now sole resident of Chengchao Palace — would be cold. 

The days were cooling rapidly, the crisp fall air shifting in preparation for winter. The warm jade bed was already in the other palace, and the maids had been instructed to keep the fires blazing through the night. There were plenty of mantles in storage if needed, and only the thickest blankets had been set out. But still, Jingnu could not help worrying. It was always cold this time of the year, and this natural chill coupled with that horrid water condition… The only thing that brought Jingnu reprieve was the knowledge of Ding You and Gu Rolan’s presence in the palace. 

There was no need for another to fuss over her.

Jingnu flicked her gaze to the flame dancing mischievously atop the wick of a candle she vaguely remembered lighting. It casted long, trembling shadows onto the opposite wall. Her heart, quiet, trembled along with them.

Liquid pooled at the base of the wick, reflecting a molten gold. The vermilion paper wrapping the candle glowed soft and warm, and something in the cavity of Jingnu’s chest ached. She called to mind the inscrutable pain etched in amber eyes, pulsing with anger and weary resignation both. 

The tightness that had been winding behind Jingnu’s ribs, that had been steadily building over the past few weeks, clenched ever harder, choking a stuttered breath out from ruby painted lips.

For Jingnu, this coiled serpent around her heart was a familiar acquaintance, an indescribable tension that had plagued her for years. She had only recently discovered the reason why.

There was someone Jingnu missed dearly.

Against her better judgement, Jingnu stole another glance at the window, in the direction of a palace now shrouded in a mist of inky black.

Butterfly-quick flutters thumped against the inside of her chest, tugging — not for the first time — towards the person Jingnu loved.

For once, instead of quashing the desire immediately, Jingnu contemplated giving in to this temptation.

The words “Don’t come again, I don’t want to see you again” rang through the recess of her mind, but perhaps, Jingnu could be selfish one last time.

Have you not been selfish enough? asked a small, inner voice. When have you stopped being selfish, from the very beginning, up to now?

Jingnu stamped away the pestering voice resolutely, ignoring it with all the stubbornness she had collected over the years.

This voice was becoming too familiar, and she feared it would not be long before she succumbed to its words.

Jingnu rised from her seat with the soft scraping of wood against polished wood.

“Qiuju,” the Emperor ordered. “Call a sedan.”

“To the Chengchao Palace,” the Emperor said.

And so, they went.

The Chengchao Palace appeared cold, forbidding, within the darkness of night. Too empty. Few lived here, though several months have already passed since the Imperial Husband’s official public return. It was a moonless night, so the servants ran ahead on the short path connecting the two palaces, raising lanterns that swayed in their own warm glow to light the way.

Jingnu lifted the curtain as she felt the palanquin come to a slow stop.

“No need,” she said, her quietly authoritative voice halting the eunuch midstep, before he could announce her presence.

Jingnu spared a glance at the analogging official that had accompanied the escort, and added, “The Imperial Husband is unwell, I do not wish to disturb his rest.”

Understanding flashed across the eunuch’s eyes at the curt words, and he stepped back with a courtesy.

The servants stationed at the Chengchao Palace’s gates were half asleep, and they startled into alertness at Jingnu’s approach. 

Jingnu angled her head, her gaze indecipherable.

“Do not alert the stewardess,” she said at last. “I wish only to check on the Imperial Husband. Everyone else may leave.”

A wave of her hand, and the courtyard emptied, leaving Jingnu alone to gaze upon the grand palace. In that moment, a sudden burst of loneliness seized her heart. She felt, abruptly, as if there was a gaping hole of loss at her side, the person who once stood there with her now swallowed by oblivion. The urge that had pulled Jingnu from her study to this courtyard swelled in magnitude; it was all she could do to press down her rising trepidation and follow its tug, stepping past the imposing palace doors.

It was that night when Jingnu’s world crumbled, shattered by one simple question.

A pair of amber eyes blinked open to a pitch dark night. All was still and silent, but for the quiet, rhythmic breaths that filled the emptiness.

The twin pools of amber sharpened into a steely gaze, narrowing to a point above, shrouded by shadows.

There were two sets of breathing.

Someone else was in this room.

Qi Yan sat up straight, tugging the thin, wayward robes close. She frowned when her fingers made contact with the rich fabric — it felt thick and heavy between her fingertips, but then, how come she felt no warmth? What were these chills running down her body, as if washing her in ice?

Qi Yan shook away these thoughts with the ease of someone used to disregarding their health. Instead, she redirected her gaze to the dark silhouette draped against the side wall. But it was truly too dark on this moonless night, and Qi Yan could only barely make out a faint outline.

For a brief moment, Qi Yan’s attention flitted to what appeared to be a luminescent pearl at her bedside. Though she wracked her memory, Qi Yan could not remember where such a treasure came from. She hesitated, then blinked once. No matter. 

In a fluid motion, Qi Yan tugged off the cloth covering, and the entire room was immediately bathed in light.

When her eyes adjusted to the brightness, Qi Yan was met with the sight of a figure perched delicately on a low stool, a careful distance from the bed. Elaborate robes pooled around exposed ankles, strangely out of place in the simplicity of nighttime. 

Qi Yan dragged her eyes up, past the swirls of intricate embroidery, to a face half concealed by strands of raven hair, fallen loose from the hairpiece. It was a face of youthful elegance — the features and bone structures suggested the image of an adolescent, yet each soft curve carried a hint of weariness, worn down into a tired sophistication.

It was a face that should be familiar, and yet.

And yet, it was not.

“Your… Highness?”

Jingnu did not know why she stayed. When she pushed open the door to the bedchamber and discovered a fast asleep Qi Yan, she should have backed out, as she always used to. Qi Yan deserved her rest, after all.

But this time, when her gaze landed on the figure lying flat and still on the bed, Jingnu’s lips curved into an unconscious smile, and some odd feeling compelled her over the threshold. She found herself pulling over a stool, then sitting down, watching the miniscule expressions that flitted across Qi Yan’s face. 

Something akin to guilt tugged at Jingnu’s heart as she registered the gauntness of the other’s face, all the more visible from close up. Jingnu’s hands bunched into her sleeves, clenching and unclenching with effort.

Please, Qi Yan, Jingnu pleaded, her chest twinging at her own selfishness. Bear with it for just a little longer, and I will be all yours.

I would do anything for you, Qi Yan, don’t you know that?

I’m sorry, Qi Yan. You’ve already suffered so much.

Wait a little longer, won’t you?

Faint crescents materialized against the flesh of her palms, leaving behind lingering imprints.

Not a day goes by when I do not think of you, Jingnu thought, a wry smile tugging the corner of her lips. She held back the urge to lean forward and brush away an errant lock of dark hair. I missed you so much.

Qi Yan, did you miss me?

There was, naturally, no response.

Jingnu sighed softly through her nose, a sound of longing and resignation. Why, though they have already reached intimacy with each other more than once before, did Jingnu feel like an intruder at Qi Yan’s bedside? Jingnu had spent all of the last decade futilely trying to catch up to Qi Yan, this person who seemed to always be just one step out of reach. She had believed, not so long ago, that she had finally succeeded, had finally uncovered the piece that completed the puzzle, only to find this person slipping out from her grasp once more.

Jingnu felt as if there was a great cavern separating her and Qi Yan. If only, if only she could reach out, if only her fingers could brush against the other’s warm body, then perhaps this distance could be closed. But it was a fruitless attempt, she knew now. 

Jingnu had always been gazing at the other’s back, forever chasing after Qi Yan’s shadow. Even as the Emperor, for whom nothing was ever out of reach, Qi Yan still remained an arm’s length away.

Perhaps, it was fate. 

Jingnu shifted her heavy robes. The knot in the back of her throat throbbed, and Jingnu swallowed back her despair. With great reluctance, she steadied herself, and prepared to get up and return to the Emperor’s palace.

She allowed herself one last glance at the sleeping figure… and was met with a pair of indecipherable, amber eyes.

Before Jingnu could properly collect herself, a hoarse voice struck from between chapped lips.

“Your Highness?”

Cheeks that had been flushed red hot with embarrassment just moments ago paled within an instant. Jingnu’s blood seemed to chill as a strange premonition welled up inside.

Jingnu furrowed her brows, shaking off the slippery sensation of wrongness.

Instead, she rose from her seat to approach the bed. 

“Yuanjun?” she asked, reaching out to brush the back of her hand against Qi Yan’s forehead.

She tried not to show the stab of disappointment as the skin beneath her touch tensed. Qi Yan must still be angry. Jingnu let her hand fall to her side casually, as if nothing happened.

“Yuanjun… are you still mad?” 

There was a barely perceptible pause, and Jingnu, staring intently at the other’s face, caught the tail ends of hesitation flickering across shaded eyes. 

Why… why did they look so cold? So… devoid of warmth… so empty…  

“No,” Qi Yan replied, her words carefully cautious. “This subject could never be mad at your Highness.”

You say that, Jingnu cried inside her head, yet you look at me with such a blank expression! You say that, yet here you are, once again putting me at arm’s length, treating me like a stranger. Please, please, could you not just tell me the truth, for once? Must I beg on my hands and knees?

Jingnu sucked in a shallow breath, then schooled her expression.

Think rationally, she scolded herself.

“Yuanjun,” she said, once she had wrested her emotions under control. “I will definitely let you take revenge on those two later. I promise. I know it is hard for you to endure this wrongdoing, but. But I am the Emperor, and the kingdom must always come first.”

Her voice was weary as she spoke this line, one she had repeated so many times before, to both Qi Yan and to herself. She was beginning to tire of this endless routine. She was no longer sure her persuasions sounded convincing to either of them anymore, if they even did in the first place.

But the next words that came out of Qi Yan’s mouth suddenly diverged from the usual script, punching down like a falling boulder. Jingnu’s whirling mind screeched to a halt.

“You… are you her Highness?” 

On the last day of the tenth month, the Emperor did not appear for morning court. 

The officials were gathered in the hall, as always, jade tablets cradled in hand. As the sun grappled its way through the cloudy sky, rising ever higher, an uncomfortable hush draped itself over the crowd. Dozens of pairs of eyes were trained on the beaded curtains at the end of the hall. Who knows how long these officials stood there, the wait stretching on and on without a shadow of crimson sleeves or a whisper of clinking golden beads, before a eunuch finally stepped out from one of the many hidden crevices.

“Passing her Majesty’s spoken order. The morning court is dismissed!”

A murmur of confusion rose like a wave, crashing through the clusters of gathered officials. The six ministers exchanged wary glances but eventually, without a word, they turned to leave. Thus, all the court officials filed out of the court hall without a complaint.

Meanwhile, within the Emperor's palace, in a set of rooms that had not been occupied in years, a lone figure stood, her shadows cutting a forlorn silhouette, even under the beseeching rays of sunlight. 

It had truly been a long time.

Nangong Jingnu cast her gaze around the room she used to call her own, all those years ago. Before ascending the throne, before half the imperial family succumbed to their fate… before Qiyan Agula appeared in her life. Within only a decade’s time, everything had changed.

Jingnu traced the perimeter of the room with a scrutinizing gaze. The palace servants had maintained the rooms well; though the former occupant had not visited in years, everything was still in the same place, not a single speck of dust in sight. And yet, though the picture before her eyes was a familiar one, Jingnu realized that she could no longer feel that same sense of security and comfort that came with being “home”. She had not experienced that feeling in a long time. 

Perhaps, it was because the Jingnu of the present had changed too much… Was there anything left of her past self apart from simple nostalgia, or had she become so completely disconnected? Jingnu could not tell.

There was a window seat at the edge of the room, and Jingnu gingerly lowered herself down onto the cushions. There was another one, identical, in the Chengchao Palace, Jingnu remembered. The former Princess’ estate. She recalled how, during the first days of their marriage, Qi Yan would spend the night curled on the window seat, only slipping into bed with her when morning approached in its quiet steps. 

Jingnu sighed, and silently admonished her past self for putting Qi Yan’s frail body through so much.

It felt like only yesterday, wandering through the streets of the imperial capital, tasting something from each food stand that they passed, marveling at the festival sights, making a wish on the bright sea of lanterns.

How did it come to be like this?

Looking back now, Qi Yan had made so many sacrifices for Jingnu’s sake, sustaining injury upon injury without a trace of complaint. Is this how they had come to this point? Was this, perhaps, the heavens’ punishment?

Jingnu’s brows knit tighter together, and the words “Are you okay?” had barely slipped out of her mouth when a crashing noise drew her attention to the open doorway behind her. There, a frazzled Ding You stood, pupils blown dark and wide, his hastily thrown on robes sliding off one shoulder. 

Jingnu narrowed her eyes at the scene before her, a sneaking suspicion slowly slotting into place.

“Ding You,” she said, dangerous in a way she had learned to sharpen her words. “What is going on. What are you not telling me.”

Ding You’s gaze flickered between Jingnu, standing in the middle of the room, and Qi Yan, sitting vacant-eyed upon the bed. His throat bobbed, a shaky motion, but Jingnu’s stare never wavered, a cool blade of judgement hovering over his head, waiting for the executioner’s call to strike.

The pause seemed to stretch into infinity, a silent face-off between the Emperor and the imperial doctor. Jingnu kept her face resolutely turned from the person on the bed, rejecting her instinct to look to Qi Yan for input. It would not help now, and Jingnu was afraid of what she might find. 

It was Ding You who yielded in the end, his eyes dragging to the side in resignation.

“Your Majesty,” he said at last, his voice trembling minutely. “There is something I must show you.”

Qiyan Agula.

I do not know what is the last thing you remember, but that was your name, as it was mine. As you know, the water condition had never been fully treated. Recently, you have begun experiencing periods of memory loss. I gave this letter to Ding You so that an explanation can be provided. 

Vengeance has been taken. The Nangong family has fallen apart, some dead, others effectively suppressed. You killed Nangong Rang with your own hands. Jingnu is now the Emperor, and you have been sealed as the Imperial Husband. Your identity as the Prince of the Grass Plains has been exposed, but Jingnu took care of the situation. Nomin is alive, and she is happy. Do not take her happiness away. Bayin too is alive, but you will never see him again. There is a young girl, Princess Yuxiao… consider her as your own daughter. The masked person is missing, but for now, she is not a threat. 

It is best to stay in the Chengchao Palace until you regain your memories. Ding You will assist you, and so can Gu Rolan, who is also well-versed in medicine, but she must not know too much. Do not seek out Jingnu. Avoid her at all costs, for she will not be fooled.

However, if there is anyone to trust, trust Jingnu. She is good.

Jingnu read the words over and over again in increasing despair, her fingers curling desperately into her palms. The language was simple, direct, and it should be easy to understand. Yet no matter how many times she swept her eyes over the familiar strokes, the words crumbled to incomprehensible pieces, shattering before they could form a coherent thought.

Slowly, Jingnu lifted her hand and brushed her thumb over the elegant ink strokes. 

“What does this mean,” she said, at last, toneless from trying to suppress the tremors in her voice.

Ding You knelt on the floor, his forehead knocking against wood.

“It is exactly as it says in the letter, Your Majesty.”

Jingnu choked back a vicious scream, stuffing the ghastly monster back down her throat.

“When. Did this start happening.”

Ding You continued to knock his head against the floor. In her impatience, Jingnu finally lost control over her emotions, and she snapped for him to get up.

“This subject apologizes for not informing Your Majesty. It has been a month since the first occurrence.”

A month. A whole month. Jingnu wanted to scream, to yell, to hurl something at the wall, throw a tantrum like she once used to when things did not go her way. But she was no longer Nangong Jingnu, the Zhenzhen Princess, but Emperor Nangong Zhenzhen, and the Emperor must show restraint.

The Emperor must show restraint.

The Emperor must—

“Go,” Nangong Jingnu whispered, her voice coming out a hoarse croak. 

Ding You went.

When she was finally alone, in her old estate, once vibrant with life but now dreary and cold, the Emperor crashed to her knees. In the center of this desolate hall, Nangong Jingnu cried, blinding tears and broken, voiceless sobs pushing past the rim of her lips.

She had already asked for so much… but could she not ask for just one more thing? Is that so wrong? Why, why did it have to be the memories? 

By the time the sun peeked its face into the human realm the next morning, painting the skies a rosy blush, the Emperor had pieced herself back together, once more donning a tranquil mask. But had a palace servant looked closely at the woman stepping into the Ganquan Palace at the break of dawn, they would have noticed a pair of red-rimmed phoenix eyes — all that remained as evidence of the previous night.

Jingnu swept off of the window seat, her expression set in determined stone. She had not slept, but this was of no consequence; she had become acquainted with sleepless nights soon after ascending the throne. Jingnu was no longer the clueless, pampered princess of the past, always relying on others and acting on her first impulse. Since the early morning hours, Jingnu had already put her turmoiled heart to the side, and had instead been quietly contemplating the situation in search of a solution. Many hours later, an inkling of an idea had begun to take root in Jingnu’s mind, a thin thread of hope to cling to.

Jingnu glanced at the sun high in the sky, and flicked her heavy sleeves.

“Bring Ding You to me,” she ordered. “Tell him I have questions.”

It was nearing evening again, and Jingnu was back in the Chengchao Palace. She stood in front of the sliding door, eyes fixed on the shadows stretching down the frame. 

“Qi Yan?” Jingnu called, her tone soft and beseeching. The shadows paused in their motion, and Jingnu held her breath.

I don’t want to see you again, said a whisper from the past. Do not seek out Jingnu, she had written.

“Come in,” the voice of the present said instead, distorted by the wooden partition. 

Jingnu slid open the door and stepped inside, her movements restrained and cautious, as if afraid the tacit permission would be revoked at any moment.

“Qi Yan,” she said again, concern furrowing her brows as her gaze zeroed in on the figure sitting halfway upright on the bed.

“Your… Majesty,” Qi Yan said, a wan smile hovering over her lips as she pushed herself fully into a seated position. “This subject could not greet you properly. Rolan… was very insistent that this subject stays in bed.”

Jingnu had spent years committing Qi Yan’s habits to memory, so she could not help but notice Qi Yan’s stilted dialogue and stiff expression, clearly still not used to the unfamiliar circumstances. 

In that moment, Jingnu realized she was not the only one who had changed over the course of the years. Though Qi Yan had seemed like an invisible pillar for the past decade, even stone pillars must be altered by the passage of time. The person sitting before her now, Jingnu realized, was half a stranger.

But Qi Yan was still Qi Yan, no matter what identity she took on, no matter what memories she possessed, and Jingnu’s heart would always belong to her. A half smile hanging on her lips, Jingnu padded over to perch on the edge of the bed.

“Weren’t you instructed to not let me in?” Jingnu teased, hoping the light words would distract from the thorns in her throat, that her nonchalant air would hide her very real insecurities. “The Imperial Husband, hiding from her wife?”

Qi Yan blinked, seemingly taken aback at the lack of formality. “I wouldn’t dare,” she said, after a moment’s pause, slipping into informal speech guardedly. 

Oddly enough, Jingnu’s vision blurred at that response. She blinked rapidly to hide the wet sheen in her eyes.

“Of course not,” she said instead, voice slightly unsteady, but she pushed out a half chuckle. “Do you remember? You used to claim that you were scared of dying.” 

Her fingers twisting into her sleeves, Jingnu flicked her gaze briefly towards Qi Yan to check the other’s reaction, then continued with a short huff.

“Of course, it was just an excuse, I know that now. You weren’t really scared of dying, were you? Or else, how could you have thrown yourself into all those dangerous situations without even a single thought of the consequences? How could you be so indifferent toward your own health? 

“But then again, it’s all my fault, isn’t it? I was the one who let you… destroy your body time and time again.” Jingnu could not hold back the emotion in her voice any longer, and the words wobbled their way out, wrapped in layers of regret and guilt and pain. “Why did I never stop you? Why?!”

Yet even when Jingnu permitted the raw words and questions that had been tormenting her to spill into the open, she still maintained a facade of restraint. Though her lips trembled with unspoken emotion, her phoenix eyes held tightly to the well of tears, locking them behind closed doors. She held herself stiffly upright, adamantly persevering in her illusion of placidity while ignoring the sore throbbing of her chest. 

Jingnu could feel Qi Yan’s searching gaze upon her, but she stubbornly kept her eyes trained on a point straight ahead.

There was a soft sigh, almost inaudible.

“Jingnu-ah, have you grown up? When did you learn to put on such a facade?”

A cool hand came up to cup Jingnu’s cheek. 

Jingnu almost flinched at the freezing touch, but she had been deprived from Qi Yan’s physical affection for so long that she instinctively tilted her head, leaning into the palm.

A chapped thumb brushed lightly over Jingnu’s cheekbone, and Jingnu’s lashes fluttered shut.

“Who taught you this act? Was it me?”

Jingnu snorted, the sound of Qi Yan’s gentle voice a soothing balm to her aching soul. With Qi Yan’s arm guiding her, Jingnu found herself burying into the other’s chest, all reservations forgotten in favor of seeking comfort in Qi Yan’s embrace. 

The voice floating over Jingnu’s head was unbearably tender, so much of a contrast from the cool indifference of the last few months.

“It seems I had not taught you well. Perhaps it is best for you to not learn from me, hm?”

Jingnu let out a wet sob, dampening the front of Qi Yan’s inner robes with salty tears.

“Why,” she whispered, clutching the sheets pooled around them as if clinging to her life. “Why must this happen? I can’t lose you, I can’t. I know I’m being selfish, I know I have always been selfish, I know, I know, it’s all my fault, but you’re the only one left. Qi Yan…I can’t lose you too.”

Qi Yan did not say anything, only her hand pressing miniature circles into the small of Jingnu’s back.

“I’m sorry, I’m sorry, I’m sorry.” The words that had dwelled in the canyons of Jingnu’s heart welled up, forming into shape against ice cold skin.

The hand at Jingnu’s back offered a gentle grounding reassurance as Jingnu cried herself dry, for the second time that day. But for the first time in a long, long time, she was given comfort in return.

Who knows how much time passed as the two simply sat entangled in each other’s presence, comforting and being comforted. 

At last, Qi Yan spoke up again.

“Your High— Majesty,” she said, a low hum that settled deep into Jingnu’s bones. “I may not be able to recollect our shared memories, and circumstances have changed, but you are still the same Jingnu I know. What do you have to apologize for?”

The image of Qi Yan, collapsed beside the History of North Jing, flashed across Jingnu’s mind, and guilt rose up once again, threatening to drown Jingnu in its unsightly depths. 

Jingnu sniffled into Qi Yan’s neck one last time, taking in the smell of herbs and medicine and that faint earthy tone that Jingnu could never describe properly in words. She prepared to push herself away, to reject herself before Qi Yan inevitably does. But Jingnu had barely raised herself up when Qi Yan’s arm tightened, bringing them both to a standstill.

Qi Yan had always seemed somewhat frail when passing for a man, contributing to her scholarly air, but she was still considerably sturdy for a woman. Yet the arm draped across Jingnu’s back now felt indescribably fragile, almost breakable, as if it could snap at any second. Belatedly, Jingnu realized that she could feel each of Qi Yan’s ribs digging into her shoulder through the thin fabric that separated them.

Another “I’m sorry” spilled from Jingnu’s lips, unbidden. She swallowed, trying to find her composure.

“There’s more to it than that,” Jingnu hiccupped. “There’s— I chose the kingdom over you, Qi Yan, even though they did such terrible things— It’s all my fault, I’m sorry, I’m sorry.”

This time, Qi Yan did not wait for Jingnu to quiet before she palmed the back of her head, fingers trailing a chilling path over the nape of Jingnu’s neck.

“Jingnu, I may not remember what happened, but you read the letter too. The Qiyan Agula who had lived a life alongside you trusts you. She does not blame you, and neither will I. There is much that I do not know, but I will put my faith in my own judgement. Jingnu, she— I still trust you.”

Jingnu grew silent, merely absorbing Qi Yan’s presence. Then, she fell back fully into Qi Yan’s embrace, clinging carefully to her waist.

“Yuanjun,” Jingnu said, muffled into Qi Yan’s collar. “You’ve gotten so thin.”

“Mm.”

“I’m scared.”

“Of what.”

For you.”

“Hm?”

Jingnu closed her eyes, then tugged Qi Yan down so that both of them were lying on the bed.

“Your Majesty?”

“Don’t worry, Qi Yan. Let’s sleep together tonight. Indulge me.”

“…why are you wrapping yourself around me. Are you not scared of overheating?”

“I’m more scared that you won’t get enough heat, silly.” 

Earlier that day, Jingnu had conversed with Ding You with growing dread. It seemed little could be done in the way of treatment. The water condition was so deeply rooted inside of Qi Yan’s body that only the most intensive treatments could be effective.

“But what about the fire toad,” Jingnu had asked, clutching to the final strands. “Is there any chance that it could be found?”

There had been a weighty silence before Ding You answered, each word carefully measured. “According to the previous princess’ books, the fire toad does exist, but it can only be found in the far south of Chiongtai, at the very tip. Moreover, at the slightest decrease in temperature, the toad will immediately die and lose any of its medicinal properties. There is no way of retrieving the toad without Qi Yan.”

Jingnu was silent for a good while, deliberating. Qi Yan was in no condition to travel, but… if this treatment existed, then it was the only hope they had left.

“I got it,” Jingnu said finally. “You may go.”

A plan, outlandish and risky as it may be, was slowly beginning to form.

“Your Majesty, have you gone mad? Da-ge couldn’t possibly survive such a journey! I still don’t understand why we can’t just send someone else to capture the toad instead.”

Jingnu’s lips curved into a mild smile. “Ding You, why don’t you explain to Rolan again. I must speak to Qi Yan.”

Ding You made a noise of understanding, and pulled Gu Rolan aside in a serious manner.

Jingnu walked up to the horse carriage, and rapped lightly against the wooden frame.

“Yuanjun?”

The thick curtains shifted to reveal bright amber eyes from within.

“Your Majesty.”

“I’m coming in.”

“Mn.”

The inside of the carriage was almost suffocatingly warm, but Qi Yan still had a mantle draped around her shoulders. Jingnu sat down next to her before reaching out to wrap the mantle tighter.

“Stay warm,” Jingnu scolded mildly. “You mustn’t catch a cold before you even arrive at your destination.”

Qi Yan simply smiled, lowering her head in acknowledgement.

“Your memories are still not back?” Jingnu asked, taking Qi Yan’s hand between her own.

Qi Yan shook her head. She hesitated, then offered, “Ding You says the periods have been getting progressively longer.”

“Mm,” Jingnu hummed in affirmation, and began to rub the freezing hand between her palms. “Why are you not wearing gloves? Your hands are freezing.”

Qi Yan smiled wryly. “But will you still hold my hand then?”

Jingnu pretended to frown. “I will hold your hand through anything, don’t be silly. Where are your gloves?”

“Qiuju-jiejie went to fetch a thicker pair,” Qi Yan said.

“That’s good.”

The two sat in a comfortable silence as Jingnu continued to transfer warmth from her hands to Qi Yan’s. They faced each other, gazes interlocked, both drinking in the sight of the other.

Finally, Jingnu curved her lips.

“Qiyan Agula,” she said, quietly reverent. 

Qi Yan cocked her head.

“Nangong Jingnu,” she replied in turn.

Jingnu reached out one hand to pull Qi Yan forwards, lightly knocking their foreheads together. The touch, the press of skin, was at once respectfully restrained and strangely intimate.

Jingnu closed her eyes, all her senses tingling. “This is not a farewell,” she said, her voice low but firm. “Soon, you will be healed, and we will meet again.”

There was a beat, then Qi Yan asked, “When?”

Jingnu pressed ever closer. “I once promised myself, that even if I must topple the mountains, overturn the seas, or dig through the earth, I will definitely cure you.” She breathed in deeply. “You said you would trust me, didn’t you?”

“Mm.” Though Jingnu’s eyes were shut, she could still hear the gentle smile in Qi Yan’s voice. “I did.”

“Then, Qiyan Agula, I will see you soon.”

“See you soon, your Highness.”

The Imperial Husband’s carriage set off in the eleventh month of Chengqi Fourth Year. The full details for the excursion were fogged in mystery. The people knew only that the Imperial Husband had a terrible condition and was recommended to leave the capital before the worst of the cold front set in. 

The traveling party was seen off personally by a grand procession, and the Emperor herself. It was rumored that even when the carriage had disappeared from sight, the Emperor still stood at the departing point, gazing down the road with inscrutable eyes, for many long hours after.

“Jingnu has grown up well, hasn’t she?”

“Hm…perhaps.”

“Do you think we will really meet again?”

“Pft, knowing both of your temperaments, you’ll force a reunion even if heaven and earth were against it. If fate tries to refute you, you would simply bend it to your will. You’re both stubborn like that.”

“Ha. I suppose so.”

相思相见如何日,

此时此夜难为情。

yearning for each other— when will we meet?

it is hard to bear this love tonight.

“But what happens next?” Qiuyue’s bright eyes brim with anxiety.

“Next?” The old granny’s hands pause over a half-embroidered plum blossom branch. “I can’t say. I suppose they lived happily ever after.”

She looks at the little girl on the ground, and her wizened face cracks into a small, affectionate smile. She lifts her hand to pat the top of Qiuyue’s drooping head.

“Now, now, your laolao is getting old, her memory is not as it used to be. Come,” she says, rising slowly to her feet. She places the half-finished handkerchief on the low table. There, blending inconspicuously into the shadows, sits a wooden sculpture, its color darkened with age. “Let us sleep, we can think about this more tomorrow morning, hm? Maybe it will come back to me.”

“Mm… okay!”

.

.

“Laolao, can you tell me the story of the woman in the portrait again?”

idk how this site works yet but maybe ?? leave reviews ?? that would be nice haha and you can find me on twt @nangongsunu
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