"He's not a bad man," says Sun Quan, and Shang Xiang gives a little huff of amusement because her estimation of what makes a man good or bad has changed since the war.
She leans back so that she is no longer so close to her brother, and she surveys the dinner scene. Zhou Yu and Zhu Ge Liang are being their usual brilliant selves, leading the guests in a conversation about military strategy and moral philosophy. Lord Zhu Ge has his famous feather fan out, and he is idly tapping his knee while he shakes his head at a particular comment of Lord Zhou's that sends the hall into peals of laughter.
Sun Quan watches his men benevolently, hand curled around a cup of dragon tear tea. Victory makes him cocky, Shang Xiang thinks, but even as he annoys her more, a cocky Sun Quan is a thousand times better than a Sun Quan who mopes about his own youth and uselessness.
So her response to him is mild. "Of course Liu Bei is not a bad man. He is our treasured ally. It doesn't mean I want to marry him."
"You have a better suitor in mind?" Sun Quan asks.
"One who hasn't already been married twice would be nice," she says.
"In that case, I'll go right into the army and pick out the first soldier I see," Sun Quan says sarcastically, though Shang Xiang doesn't see what's so bad about marrying a foot soldier. She was one, after all. She says so out loud, and Sun Quan's head whips around as if he's worried someone will hear, drawn by the faintest whiff of unfeminine behaviour. No one heard, she wants to tell him in exasperation. They're all too drunk on rice wine and Zhou Yu and Zhu Ge Liang. No one cares that the lord of Eastern Wu is having a private conversation with his sister. Or that despite their best efforts, their knees are brushing beneath the table laden with small meats and soup noodles.
Shang Xiang may be a princess – or something like it; she's never been clear on the terminology when the world and its forces are so shaky – but she has no interest in marrying a great man like Liu Bei. She's lived her entire life but for a few weeks in a palace compound, and those few weeks have given her a terrible thirst. There is a world outside the silks and genteel talk; a world that produced men like Pit, who is by her reckoning the best man she has known. Not Liu Bei. Not Zhou Yu or Zhu Ge Liang. Not even her estimable brother with his newfound cocky attitude and desire to shape the world as he sees fit.
Shang Xiang finishes her tea. It's still hot, and her body flushes with the energy of fresh qi. She decides right then that she is not marrying Liu Bei, damn what Sun Quan thinks! She outwitted Cao Cao's entire army; she can outwit one over-zealous older brother.
Sun Quan's knee bumps up against hers again. She looks at him, eyes bright.
"Little Sister..." he says, and it sounds like he's in a mood to lecture.
"No," she says. Then she smiles slyly. "Besides, I know you, Big Brother. You don't really want me to marry. You'd be so lonely."
She's startled Sun Quan again. He does another quick sweep of who may be listening. Shang Xiang sighs and steals a piece of pork from his bowl. "Stop being so jumpy. No one knows," she says, clacking her chopsticks in front of his nose. He's told her multiple times that he finds it bothersome and unladylike, which is why she does it.
"They might," he retorts, but she shakes her head.
"No one even guesses."
It's said that even great men can become reckless with wine. Well, Shang Xiang hasn't drunk any wine but she feels reckless anyway. Her handmaids prepare her for bed, but after they leave, she puts on her slippers and peeks into the hall. There is a guard on duty but he is loyal to her, and when he sees her walk by – hair loose, wearing her sleeping robes – he just nods. Song Kang won't give away her secrets.
The room is on the other side of the miniature courtyard. There are still a few people milling around at the late hour, sitting underneath the trees having quiet conversations. There are a few lovers too, who think they are being sneaky hiding in the wall spaces but really aren't. Shang Xiang evades them all, and climbs through the window on the eastern wall.
The man in the room is reading. When he sees her, he stops.
"Oh, I'm so sorry!" Shang Xiang says. "This is the wrong room. I was looking for someone else."
The man's robe is untied, and she catches a glimpse of a smooth, flat stomach. Shang Xiang eyes him openly, and then she lets a mischievous smile curl her upper lip. "But maybe I'll stay," she says. "I've already put so much effort getting here. I'm sure you can indulge a lady's mistake?"
She walks to him and straddles his lap. The man's fingers fan out and he drops the book.
"You are very brazen, my lady," he says, and while he sounds surprised, he's not displeased. His hands fly up to her hips and hold her steady. "What is your name?"
"You can call me Night Blossom," she says. "And I have a yen to call you Wooden Staff. Can you guess why?" She grinds down on him and sure enough, he's hard for her. Men are so easy. She bends down to kiss this stranger's mouth, which is quite beautiful. Just looking at it makes her want to do dirty things to him. When their lips meet, he groans and pushes upwards. She feels his erection even more prominently against her robes, and she circles her hips twice as she kisses him fiercely, using lips and tongue and teeth. This is what she wants. This is what she will take for herself.
The man's gorgeous mouth trials down her neck tendon, his eagerness growing as he bites down on her collarbone. Sun Quan will be so angry if he sees this tomorrow, she thinks, and giggles. Her giggle turns into a breathy sigh as the man lifts them up from the chair. He is strong. Shang Xiang wraps her legs around his waist and nuzzles the side of his neck as he carries them to his bed, over which a small lantern sways. It is dim and soft as he lays her down, and she beams at him, this considerate stranger.
She reaches up and slides her hand into the parting of his robes. She touches his flat stomach; her fingers trail upwards to smooth over his nipples. He trembles when she does that. He is holding himself above her but his arms shake and his tongue peeks out to lick his lips. None of that, she thinks. She wants his tongue for herself, so she kisses him, even as she continues playing with his nipples and his breath grows ragged, uneven.
Finally, she slides his robes off his shoulders, and there he is. So easily naked for her. Shang Xiang kisses his broad shoulders, tanned from weather and war. She runs her tongue over a small pearl scar that lies over his shifting muscles. He groans again. She wants more. She kisses her way down his stomach and to the curls between his thighs. There is a liquid sliver of precome on his cock, and she laps it up delicately.
"Oh!" he breathes, and it's as if no one has ever done this for him before, which must be untrue. He's too beautiful to not have ladies lining up for the opportunity to take him into their mouth and feel him throb there, qi and heat and musky desire.
She sucks him gently at first, letting him grow accustomed to it as his toes curl and his back bends. Then she takes him even deeper into her mouth, and loves the way he whimpers for it, so needy. She hollows out her cheeks and listens to the cadence of his cries; she licks the vein traveling up his cock and he shakes so hard that she is sure that he will shatter. This is a man who has needs that he cannot name, and that thought makes Shang Xiang so hot that she decides she cannot wait any longer. She shimmies out of her robe and lowers herself onto his cock, her hand gripping his shoulder for balance.
"Fuck," he says, and his voice breaks. "Fuck, my lady, are you sure? This—this is madness."
"It's too late now," Shang Xiang gasps, and she throws her head back and starts to ride. His thighs are muscled and strong, but so are hers. Her hair streams down her back as she raises and lowers herself onto this stranger, whose real name she does not know or care to know. What matters more is that he lets her fuck herself on him. Sweat sneaks up onto her skin; the lantern sways as the bedposts rock. Shang Xiang fucks the man faster. At one point she looks down at him and finds that he is staring at her, his gaze so lost that her heart breaks and she kisses his brow tenderly, much too tenderly for how roughly she is taking him.
"You, you're so—" he says.
Shang Xiang bites her lip. Then she angles herself in a different way; gasps when the man's cock hits her sweet spot even more directly. "Yes, like that," she says, more to herself than anyone else. Her hand on his shoulder grows even tighter, and she sees blood from where she's digging her nails into his skin. "Push up," she orders.
He does, and she watches celestial thunder behind her eyelids.
"Good," she croaks. His hips start to move and he starts fucking back, slamming his cock into her wetness, sliding right where she wants it the most. She starts clenching around him, and he goes a little wild after that; his rhythm staggers and he grabs her hips and lifts her up, up above him as he rocks himself more like a tiger than a man of the court.
"Oh, oh, oh, fuck," Shang Xiang groans, heartfelt. She lets go of his shoulder and grabs the posts, hanging on as the man tries to fuck into her and out the other side. He seems longer and bigger than when they started, and he swells inside her as his orgasm hits him and he screams, actually screams her name.
"Don't!" she says, but his last huge thrust wrings her own climax and then she's lost, insensate. Her blood heats in her veins and she whites out, body shaking uncontrollably as she shoves down, not wanting to waste any part of him. She lets go of the posts; she falls forward onto his chest, shuddering, her fingers splayed wide around his nipples.
The man is quiet after, his long hair slick with sweat. She slides off him, his semen beading on her thighs, and he can't quite look at her properly.
"This is shameful," he says.
"Should have said so sooner."
"I was taken aback when you came through the window. I couldn't think."
"Too bad," says Shang Xiang. "I have no interest in being your shame." She slips back into her robes and turns to leave, but the man grabs her wrist. She aches when he pulls her back, aches at the gentleness and the fear. She prefers it when matters are simple and straightforward; perhaps that is why she made such a good warrior.
"What is it?" she asks.
"I—I would marry you. If I could," he says. His other hand settles on her stomach, and Shang Xiang bites back a sob. "Would you say yes?" he asks.
"Would I have a choice?"
He flinches, and her heart is twisted up with so much love for him, heavier than any weight she has ever borne before. He is insufferable. He is the lord of Eastern Wu. He is Sun Quan, her moody, self-important brother who scolds her for every little thing she does. And for this – and all the times before it, all the fumbling in shadowed chambers, furtive; his hand curled around her breast – she knows that she is lost.
Shang Xiang bends over the bed. She kisses the corner of Sun Quan's wondrous mouth. "I would choose you, always," she promises, and though her original plan was to sneak out before any of the servants could notice them together, she decides to stay a little bit longer.