“Fine. You can have his job.”
He keeps his eyes fixed firmly on Mulan, refusing to acknowledge Chi Fu’s histrionics. Once upon a time, the younger man’s tears would have moved him deeply. He had been a sapling then, rooted in place yet fragile, wavering. But he was a mountain now, and he would not bend to the wind.
He had not been a young man then. He had been a father of three and an emperor in his prime. His vigor had been tempered by experience, but he was not yet wise. When he met Chi Fu for the first time, he felt a storm crash through his spirit, screaming and wailing and rending everything asunder. A wise man would have known to be wary of storms, but he was simply caught in the tempest.
Perhaps it was curiosity that pulled him along. More than anything else, the Emperor was a scholar. Had he not been born of the heavens, he would have dedicated his entire life to the pursuit of knowledge. Where other noblemen wrote love poems to women, he composed yuefu to questions, the little mysteries that alighted upon his soul like a dragonfly on water, with movements so small and yet ripples so vast.
There was nothing of the dragon in Chi Fu; he was a stone thrown into the water. What was it about this mid-level bureaucrat that elicited a level of feeling he had never had for any woman, much less a man? The younger man was neither attractive nor charming, nor was he womanly in any way. He had no confidence to recommend him; he came to the Imperial Palace as a country bumpkin, awed by the grandeur around him and his proximity to the Emperor. Yet even in his ignoble wonder, Chi Fu was not unique. Many bumpkins had come to the palace, to gape and marvel at its wonder.
But the Emperor could still feel the warmth of his hand from when they posed for the imperial artist. He rarely stood for such paintings, but Chi Fu had asked with such innocent fervor that the Emperor found himself agreeing before realizing that the words had left his mouth. The younger man’s grip had been too tight, his palm sweaty from excitement, but the Emperor had felt lost when the artist had finished and Chi Fu had let him go.
It became an obsession with him. The Empress did not care. When it had become clear that she would bear him no sons, she had retreated to her own wing of the Imperial Palace, and he left her to her solitude. It seemed the kindest thing to do. He scheduled long meetings with Chi Fu, pretending to need his input on some decision. And while the official yammered on, the Emperor studied him, trying to identify whence came this fascination, but the answer still eluded him.
Their nights together waxed like moon. At some point the Emperor didn’t know, Chi Fu had become aware of his fascination, and their meetings together filled with tension, as delicate as a dragonfly’s wing. And the Emperor finally found that word he had been seeking - passion. The reason was a mystery, but he could not deny that the tempest in his spirit was longing.
When his other advisors began complaining that someone of such low status received so much of his attention, the Emperor promoted Chi Fu to chief advisor to silence them. Chi Fu was supremely unqualified for the position, but the Emperor trusted his own wisdom. He did not need his advisor’s insight, only his presence.
The ceremonial distance they kept between them grew smaller and smaller, until Chi Fu knelt only a few feet away from the Emperor’s throne, and he felt a thrill of wonder as he realized the official’s feelings had progressed from the naive awe of a country bureaucrat to the feelings of a man.
Wonder did not beget joy. They could never be more than what they were now, for he was the son of heaven. Yet Chi Fu did not seem to realize this. He could not directly express his desires, but his behavior grew more outlandish as they failed to be realized. This only drove home to the Emperor how ill-advised a relationship with him would be. He could not compromise the security of his kingdom in such a way. A stronger man would have demoted Chi Fu and sent him away, but though the mighty oak was strong, it still bent in the wind. The Emperor kept Chi Fu by his side, though it hurt them both, because he could not bear for them to part.
It was with the skill of many years that the Emperor hid his disappointment that Mulan had rejected his offer. She was young but wise, clever and determined. She would have been the chief advisor that Chi Fu never could be, and that he only realized now the kingdom needed. Not that his disappointment was entirely unselfish, for her rejection also robbed him of an easy way to cut the cord that bound him and Chi Fu together, choking them by inches.
Disappointed as he was, he had to admire her as well, for knowing what she needed for herself. She did not accept his offer for the sake of honor or pride or dignity. She walked the hard road of self-realization. How could he, the leader of an entire nation, do anything less?
It was time for him to wade into the water, to remove the stone from the floor. The thought shook him to the core, but he was no longer a sapling nor a mighty oak.
He sent young Shang away and turned back to Chi Fu. His advisor had pulled himself from the floor and faced him with eyes that brimmed with betrayal. It cut the Emperor deeply.
But he was the mountain, and though the storm may rage and wreck havoc on his surface, it could not break him.