It had been raining all day, gray skies roiling with clouds and lightning, but the storm had finally abated by dusk. When the carriage reached the palace gates, they opened out into a quiet, moonlit night.
Two guards rode on horseback next to the unmarked carriage, wearing the nondescript uniforms of a security detail accompanying courtiers out on an evening promenade. A third guard was in the driver’s seat. All things considered, they made for an inconspicuous party. Nobody would look at them twice and think, there goes the royal couple. They certainly would not look at them and think, there goes another rebel mission.
Shen Wei took a deep breath as they left the palace grounds behind. This was probably a terrible idea, and yet...
“Did you pick our disguises to match today’s lovely weather?” Zhao Yunlan asked, playing with the silver-gray mask he held; it was made of the same silky fabric as the hooded cloaks they were both wearing.
“These are just to get us through the transitory location, before we head to the mission proper,” replied Shen Wei.
“Right. I swear I was paying attention to Chu Shuzhi’s briefing, but I don’t think he said why this color?”
Shen Wei felt his face heat up. The delicate detail had been mentioned earlier, though Chu-ge’s impassive tone left no room for awkwardness at the time. He hoped his blush would not be visible in the dark interior of the carriage. “The color is supposed to match our booking at the Long Taofang House - in this case, the Silver Suite. The proprietors consider it part of our pass, along with this,” he said, taking out an ornamented silver key from his belt. It shone as the moonlight caught it.
“I see. A clever way to maintain anonymity,” Zhao Yunlan said. A moment passed in loaded silence before he added, sounding amused: “So... we are posing as adulterers.”
Shen Wei tensed. It had been a few weeks since Zhao Yunlan had unveiled the truth of his Crimson Lotus identity, and while their personal relationship had progressed in ways that made Shen Wei almost dizzy with joy, the time he had spent lying to his husband was still a sore spot on his conscience. The first months of his marriage did feel like adultery of a kind. “That is the assumed cover. Unlike similar establishments, this pleasure house caters to high-profile clients in need of a discreet space to meet concubines or paramours they cannot see in public.”
Zhao Yunlan leaned in until Shen Wei could discern a mischievous grin on his face. “Like the crown prince of Haixing, married to Dixing nobility, yet jeopardizing his marital contract over a dalliance with the Black-Cloaked Envoy?” he whispered dramatically.
Shen Wei made himself smile back, though he couldn’t help lowering his eyes at Zhao Yunlan’s words. “I suppose. Still, nobody will know our identities. The alliance checked this place for as much as a rumor of corruption or breach of privacy. Unless we need to prove we were there for whatever reason, nobody but our guards will know about it.”
They drove past a brightly illuminated opera house, whose lights shone in through the fine curtains on the carriage windows. Shen Wei saw that Zhao Yunlan was giving him a considering look. “The alliance seems to have some excellent strategists on its side.”
“We try our best to protect people. It takes some planning, but that is at the heart of it.”
“The heart indeed,” Zhao Yunlan said. They’d turned the corner, and it was too dark again in the carriage to see his expression, but his voice sounded warm. Shen Wei let himself relax a fraction. Perhaps tonight would go well after all.
This was the first mission for Crimson Lotus since the Jade Forest raid. Shen Wei had jumped at the chance to get out of the palace. He needed a distraction while he waited for Ye Zun to heal from his injuries and hopefully return to his senses. Dixing was full of members of nobility who wished ill upon the members of the Zhao dynasty, but most didn’t share Ye Zun’s rage, justifiable as it was, and his white-hot determination to act against the Haixing crown as violently and immediately as possible. Shen Wei hoped that his twin was receiving the care he needed to recover, in body and mind. Meanwhile it was good to be reminded that other people needed help too and that Shen Wei could be useful elsewhere.
It was also the first mission since Zhao Yunlan had revealed he’d uncovered Shen Wei’s rebel identity. Shen Wei had been so relieved he no longer had to keep the secret from the man he loved that he’d vowed to be as honest with Zhao Yunlan as possible. But when he’d announced he would be going out that night as Crimson Lotus, his husband’s eyes lit up. It seemed he, too, needed a distraction while they waited for the court investigation to examine all the evidence of the late General Zhu’s criminal activities and those of his collaborators. Sitting around for days and listening to various ministers opine on the alleged corruption at the heart of the Haixing government was taking its toll on the crown prince’s nerves. He had immediately asked - or rather, insisted - to come along.
It took quite a bit of persuasion to convince Shen Wei, though. Zhao Yunlan reminded him that they had already gone on a far more dangerous assignment together. Then, Shen Wei had to endure a silent battle of wills against an extremely disapproving Chu Shuzhi. But in the end, Lord Commander of the King’s Army, His Royal Highness, Crown Prince Zhao Yunlan got briefed and equipped for a rebel mission... again.
Chu Shuzhi had insisted on going ahead so he could add certain security precautions to the night’s plans. Shen Wei saw him off to the stables, expecting fury and dissuasion, but Chu-ge gave him the details on the plan adjustment and then stayed silent, which was somehow worse. Once in the saddle, he’d heaved an eloquent sigh, glared down at Shen Wei from his horse, said: “May the heavens protect the foolhardy tonight,” and rode off. Shen Wei hoped that the heavens would grant Chu-ge’s appeal. It should have been a low-risk mission, but Zhao Yunlan’s presence now meant the stakes were considerably higher if anything went wrong.
The carriage turned a corner and slowed as they approached their first destination. They put on their silvery masks. Zhao Yunlan winked at Shen Wei, who found it impossible not to grin in the face of his excitement.
The pleasure house was an elegant building at the end of the street, in one of the city’s affluent business quarters. It took up the width of at least five townhouses and rose two stories. The construction used architectural elements of the lands beyond the northern sea: simple, solid façade of sand-colored brick, tall and narrow windows, and curves rising around structural corners that looked like towers hidden under the building’s surface. The design appeared plain next to the ornate offices up the street, with their panelled gates and decorative arches, but every choice was intentional. Here, the lanterns were placed at a thoughtful distance from the entrance, opaque curtains covered all windows, and the sign on the marquee was just a stylized drawing of a dragon. The personal carriages waiting down the street spoke of patrons with discerning tastes and wealth to match.
Shen Wei and Zhao Yunlan disembarked, leaving their security detail with the carriage, and walked up to the entrance. Shen Wei showed the key to the guards at the door. They were let into a foyer filled with exquisite furniture and wall hangings, where an attendant greeted them as “Silver Suite guests” and led them upstairs.
The staff was obviously trained to keep their eyes on the color-coded cloaks of the clients, because neither the guards nor the attendant looked at their masked faces directly. Shen Wei had heard of the royals in the kingdom of White Islands, whose subjects - court, staff, even relatives - were forbidden from ever making eye contact on threat of execution. He wondered how one could spend an entire life that way: seen but not seen, being looked after while going through life like a ghost. The thought felt uncomfortable and close, like a sudden icy draft against the nape of his neck. Shen Wei suppressed a shiver.
They reached their suite, marked with a banner over the entrance featuring silver-gray embroidery. The attendant requested the key, which he used to open the solid wooden doors. Inside the antechamber was a small rosewood table with a box and a bell on it, both made of silver. The attendant placed the key into the box and explained that the bell should be used if they required anything at any time that night. Then he performed a flawless bow and left them alone.
Shen Wei lowered the bar over the door and marched through to the large bedroom, removing his first disguise, and reaching into the black silk bag which had been hidden underneath his cloak for the second, that of the Crimson Lotus. He needed to focus on the next steps, to be taken while wearing the identity of one of the land’s most wanted criminals. When he’d scouted this location during an earlier trip to Haixing, he had barely noticed his surroundings in the suite. Yet the details were now attacking his senses, as if somehow amplified by the heightened stakes of the night’s mission.
Zhao Yunlan was just a few steps behind, looking around the softly lit room. Shen Wei couldn’t help but catalog the furnishings through his eyes.
The floor was covered in thick ornamental rugs, in the same gray-blue colors as the rich curtains drawn firmly closed. In front of the covered windows was a chaise longue made of mottled bamboo and upholstered in shimmery dark blue velvet. Shen Wei had lowered his bag onto it. A few steps ahead was a dining set of similar design, with plates of bite-sized delicacies and pitchers of water and imported wine, the seats around it covered with velvet pillows. A wisp of incense was gently perfuming the air. In one corner, partly obscured by a glossy kuancai screen, was a cedar bathtub topped with a lid to keep the water warm.
In the other corner was a large canopy bed of deep brown ebony. Its elaborately carved lattice stood out against the silvery gossamer fabric draped over the sides. At either end of the headboard were built-in side tables that Shen Wei hadn’t noticed before, with small vials atop each. Underneath were single drawers containing... well, Shen Wei was sure Zhao Yunlan would be able to imagine their contents better than he could.
He glanced away, embarrassed to have wasted time looking about, but Zhao Yunlan did not seem to notice. He had followed Shen Wei’s lead and begun to change as well. They were both armed with swords and wearing covert lamellar plates under their black robes. Shen Wei checked on the items stored in his hidden pockets and finally put on his Crimson Lotus mask. After the insubstantial silkiness of his previous disguise, the leather felt comforting against his face, shaped to his contours like personal armor.
“Long time no see, Brother Black Cloak,” Zhao Yunlan said, grinning at him.
Shen Wei laughed with surprise at the greeting and ducked his head. When he looked up again, Zhao Yunlan’s eyes were still on his face, tracing his smile with a look akin to wonder, and Shen Wei suddenly had to look away. He walked over to the far corner of the room, where he moved the screen away from the wall.
The door was camouflaged by silk wallpaper, but the lock was still visible under the carefully applied paint that made it blend in. Shen Wei retrieved the lock picks from his belt. Behind him, Zhao Yunlan let out a low whistle. “So much for guaranteed privacy.”
“This is a privacy measure,” said Shen Wei, working on the lock. “If any of the guests had to depart without being seen, the proprietors would let them use the hallway behind this door. It leads to an exit through a building down the street, so even if anyone staked out the alley, they would only see people leaving the business offices.”
The first two pins yielded easily, but the third seemed to be stuck. Shen Wei held his breath, feeling the resisting shape at the end of his pick. With a sharp instrument in hand and an immediate task before him, he could feel his body’s energy settling into the flow and flux of the mission, keeping him sharp, patient, and alert. The mask helped too; its eyes outlined his sight and narrowed it into focus. He knew that soon enough he’d stop noticing its dark frames on the periphery of his vision.
The lock finally gave way and the door clicked open.
“You’ll have to teach me how to do that,” Zhao Yunlan said over Shen Wei’s shoulder, adjusting the simple black mask that now covered his features.
“Maybe for the next mission,” replied Shen Wei, putting on his gloves. “Let’s go.”
Behind the door was a narrow windowless hallway, empty and dimly lit. They followed it to a spiral staircase heading down to the ground level, and through another passage that led them out the back exit of a nearby building. In the dark alley, a small carriage was already waiting. It was one of the black fiacres available for hire all around town, a one-horse, enclosed four-seater with oiled paper windows thick enough to blur their view, but also hide them from any passersby. The rebel in the driver’s seat nodded at them in a wordless greeting and, as soon as they were aboard, took off toward their next destination.
Their mission was the destruction of documents on eleven fosters whom the alliance had gotten out of the Haixing program over the past year. The fosters had since been smuggled across the borders and returned to relatives in Dixing and Yashou. Per the alliance’s intel, the Haixing Constabulary had noticed a pattern among their disappearances and opened an investigation with the goal to retrieve and return them to the adoptive families. Chief Constable Yuchi had proclaimed that he suspected a slavery ring, mostly because the sensational phrase made him quite popular with the newspapers. However, since there was no evidence of any such thing, the investigation would have to take a more pedestrian approach and follow the paperwork. The program documentation would eventually lead the Haixing authorities to the doors of the fosters’ kin. It was critical to get rid of it, and soon.
They traveled in silence for a while. Shen Wei was mentally reviewing the steps ahead, contingencies in case of obstacles, and contingencies upon contingencies if the mission got complicated in unexpected ways...
“There is only so much you can try to predict, you know,” Zhao Yunlan said, and Shen Wei wondered how long he’d been reading his mind.
“I know. But it helps to make me feel prepared.”
“That may be, but in the end, it comes down to the speed of your wit and your weapons, a little bit of luck, and the eye of whoever is watching your back. So that’s one less thing for you to worry about.” Zhao Yunlan’s voice sounded like a wink, Shen Wei thought, and had to smile in the darkness at his own fanciful thinking.
“Very true. I am glad to have you with me tonight, Zhao Yunlan.”
“Oh! That reminds me. I need a code name! It wasn't necessary last time, but now it's just the two of us. What if you need to call out to me in the middle of the mission, and someone overhears?”
“That is a good point,” Shen Wei conceded. “What would you like your code name to be?”
Zhao Yunlan paused. “I didn’t realize a person could pick their own. I thought it might be a rite of passage. You do a test mission, prove your mettle, and you’re given a code name by the alliance. Something that expresses your core strength as a rebel...”
In the darkness of the carriage, Shen Wei let himself grin over Zhao Yunlan’s imaginings. They sounded delightfully romantic and reminded him of his own, years ago.
“...speaking of, how did you get yours?”
Shen Wei laughed at his tentative tone. “Not exactly a name that strikes fear in people’s hearts, is it? When I first asked to meet with the rebel leaders to offer my services, my contact told me that the secret password to give at the door was ‘crimson lotus’ - except there was no password and there was no door. She was just playing a little joke, because when she approached me that day, I was in the middle of making a flower arrangement. So when they took the bag off my head in the cave, and I faced the alliance for the first time, I inadvertently introduced myself as... a flower.”
“Oh, I bet they loved that,” Zhao Yunlan chuckled.
“One of the leaders especially looked like she couldn’t decide whether to be offended or amused. Her code name was Blue Lotus, although of course I had no idea at the time. And the others probably would have thought me rather pompous, had I not laughed once I’d caught on. But I had taken an immediate liking to the name, and so it stayed.”
Zhao Yunlan hummed. “It suits you,” he said, and Shen Wei waited for him to elaborate, suddenly curious, but Zhao Yunlan stayed quiet. It took Shen Wei a moment to remember how they got onto the topic.
“As for your code name, whatever you pick, I’m sure you will provide admirable service watching my back on this mission.”
“In that case, I shall be - Guardian!” proclaimed Zhao Yunlan with a flourish to his voice. “A temporary name, of course, until we come up with something suitably magnificent. But for tonight, it will do.”
“So be it. Welcome, Lord Guardian,” said Shen Wei. Still, he privately thought of the mission as his turf and of himself as Zhao Yunlan’s protector.
“Good! Glad that is set. So how much longer until we arrive?”
Shen Wei tried to peer out the window. “I think we are about halfway there. The fostering office is in the main market quarter.”
“All the way out there? I thought all administrative buildings were close to the palace?”
“Not the ones considered to be of minor importance,” said Shen Wei, not bothering to keep the bitterness out of his tone. “The office is supposed to provide assistance to the fosters should they have any issues with their placement. Yet it is located so far away from any of the residences where they end up that they are not even able to reach it, let alone ask for help. I suspect that is not a coincidence.”
Zhao Yunlan was quiet for a long moment. When he spoke, his voice was somber, tension underscoring it like the edge of a blade. “Thank you for letting me come with you tonight.”
“Thank you for volunteering, my lord,” Shen Wei said.
They drove the rest of the way in silence, each with his own thoughts.
The Haixing Fostering Center was a dull building tucked away in the grid of merchants’ offices that surrounded Dragon City’s main market. In daytime, the place buzzed with the traffic of trade: its hundreds of stalls were loaded with fresh produce, handmade crafts, household goods, and a variety of prepared foods, filling the place with noise and color. But after sundown, there was barely any sign of life in the quarter. Its only human inhabitants were a few tradespeople burning the midnight oil over their books, the city’s beggars looking for a meal among the day’s discarded foodstuffs, and a handful of laborers spending their wages at a noisy tavern.
The night shift at the quarter’s constabulary, located half a dozen blocks from the fostering center, consisted of only five officers. Shen Wei hoped they were having a lazy night.
The windows of the buildings they passed were dark and streetlights appeared scarce, but the moon provided some illumination along the way. The carriage drove past the street with the main entrance to the fostering office, and instead stopped at the mouth of the alley at its back, too narrow to drive into. Shen Wei jumped out of the carriage and into the shadows. Zhao Yunlan’s quiet steps were right behind him.
Their entry point was the farthest window on the second floor, left unlocked by the contact who worked there as a clerk. Shen Wei whispered, “Can you - ?” but Zhao Yunlan had already leaned against the wall under the window and made a step with his hands. Shen Wei reached for him and got the leg up. He supported himself briefly on Zhao Yunlan’s strong shoulder as he got the window open, and then climbed in over the ledge, helped by a sturdy push against the sole of his foot.
He landed into the musty darkness of a small storage room and stood still, waiting for his heart to stop its sudden pounding in his chest so he could listen. There was no guard on the premises, but Shen Wei made sure he was alone before swiftly making his way into the hallway and down the stairs. A minute later, he opened the back door and let Zhao Yunlan in.
They moved carefully through the dark, empty offices. All the documentation on the missing fosters was collected in the main meeting room on the ground floor. Chief Constable Yuchi had claimed the space for this case to avoid having to move paperwork to his own headquarters. Shen Wei had met the man once and could too easily imagine him enjoying the attention of all the bowing clerks. The staff here probably spent the day serving him tea and blushing with excitement as he called them “the joint task force” and asked for recommendations for the best lunch spots at the market. Shen Wei suspected that very little work had been done so far.
They made sure all the shutters were firmly closed, then lit a pair of lanterns and placed them onto the large meeting room table. On its surface was the compiled research: several messy stacks of paper that appeared to be aligned in chronological order of disappearances. Shen Wei removed his gloves and did a quick count. The number matched that of the fosters rescued by the alliance. Each stack consisted of the contract filed by the Haixing government at the time of placement, including the agreement collected from the host family with the details on their household, the foster’s name and origin, plus the report submitted when the foster went missing, in some cases accompanied by brief statements from the household staff. A few also contained a sheet of spare notes from the initial cursory investigation.
“It looks like the contract and the agreement are the only papers mentioning the originating family,” Zhao Yunlan said, thumbing through one of the piles on the other side of the table. “Also, this is unacceptable constabulary work, if you don’t mind me saying so.”
“Not at all. Yet in this case I choose to welcome it since it works in our favor,” Shen Wei said dryly. “We still have to go through them all to check if the documents contain any other relevant details. It should be easy to pick them out.”
Shen Wei found blank paper and ink on the writing desk by the window. “Also, we must make sure there are no other copies. The archive is right across the hall, and the filing system is organized by year of placement.” He quickly wrote down the years and the names of the fosters. “Here, you can check against this list. Just take any document that mentions the original family name.”
Zhao Yunlan slowly took the paper, staring at him. “You know all eleven names by heart?”
“Yes,” said Shen Wei. “I’ve met some of them, and memorized the rest this afternoon while I was preparing for the mission.”
“You’ve met some. You mean rescued them.”
Shen Wei tried to read Zhao Yunlan’s expression under the mask. “Correct.”
“As in, you got them out from heavily guarded estates of some of the most powerful families in Haixing.”
“Or in some cases, I simply organized their transport back home.” This felt like a conversation for another time, Shen Wei thought, feeling vaguely nervous, as with any talk that revealed in greater detail the deception he’d lived as the Prince Consort - and with it more reasons why his husband shouldn’t trust him. But Zhao Yunlan just laughed, shook his head, and headed across the hall.
They worked in silence for a while, each in his own small circle of light. The quiet was only interrupted by a few loud sneezes from the archives. Shen Wei cringed in sympathy: they were probably caused by the dusty decorative scrolls hanging from the walls and the ceiling. He had just finished going through the documents on the table when Zhao Yunlan returned, holding two pieces of paper.
“One of these is a form that was apparently copied because someone spilled tea on the original here. And the other is written in such poor calligraphy that I can’t really make out the name, so - better safe than sorry.” He dropped the papers atop the pile Shen Wei had already set aside.
“Also, for the record,” Zhao Yunlan added cheerfully, “I hate paperwork! I can’t believe that you did the swashbuckling rescue missions, and here I am on administrative duty!”
Shen Wei responded to the mock outrage with the most serene look he could muster. “And yet, without this administrative work, all of the swashbuckling rescues would be easily undone.”
Zhao Yunlan pointed a finger at him. “While true, I am sure that is beside the point.”
“Lucky for you, the next part is a bit more exciting,” Shen Wei said, picking up the few dozen papers to be destroyed. He looked at Zhao Yunlan with utter seriousness. “It involves crafts.”
They spent the next few minutes folding the papers by length into zigzag pleats, each fold about two fingers wide. Shen Wei had brought in a large porcelain spittoon from the main office, thankfully clean. He took the first paper, sharpened the middle creases a little, and set it to stand upright in the bowl like a miniature crescent-shaped screen. He then produced a matchstick, ignited it in the lantern, and in quick succession touched its flame to each upper crease along the top of the page.
The blaze rose for a mere second before spreading like liquid along the horizontal edge, low and even. There was barely any fire and just a hint of smoke. The page seemed to melt, still standing upright but slowly curling down into messy ribbons of ashes. It was a neat trick and a useful one when burning paper indoors. Shen Wei remembered how much it impressed him when he’d first seen it done. He caught Zhao Yunlan’s eye.
“I’m doing the next one,” Zhao Yunlan said, and Shen Wei had to grin at his enthusiasm. He wordlessly handed him a match.
“You know, next time you tell a fellow rebel that his assignment will be crafts, maybe you could clarify that you mean spycraft,” Zhao Yunlan said as the next document began to crumble into ashes.
“I could, but what would be the fun in that?” replied Shen Wei, and was rewarded with Zhao Yunlan’s chuckle.
They had made a noticeable dent in the pile when Zhao Yunlan asked: “So why not just take everything out and burn it in a big fire around the corner?”
“Because, as years of experience have taught us, the risk of discovery during a mission is the highest at getaway,” said Shen Wei. “If I got caught with the documents, every foster named in those pages would be considered connected to, or even implicated in, my crimes against the crown.”
Zhao Yunlan scoffed. “You, get caught? As if that could happen.”
“Just because I got away from you doesn’t mean I’m invincible,” Shen Wei teased.
Zhao Yunlan clutched his chest theatrically. “Brother Black Cloak, you wound me! Surely if I couldn’t capture you, nobody else in the world stands a chance.”
“As flattering as that sounds, there are no guarantees - even with the most thorough planning and the bravest backup. Besides, I couldn’t risk them that way.” Shen Wei nodded at the pile between them. When he looked back up, Zhao Yunlan’s eyes had grown serious.
There was a scent of smoke in the room now, fragrant like incense but far from overpowering. Zhao Yunlan picked up the next page.
“Wait, this one has two names on it. How did one estate get two fosters?”
“It’s just the one boy,” replied Shen Wei. “The adoptive family changed his name. Most of them do, in an effort to erase the fosters’ lives and identities prior to placement. They rarely bother to document it, though.”
He heard Zhao Yunlan’s sharp angry exhalation. The page continued to burn, crackling as the fire reached places saturated with thick red ink of the official stamps.
“How do you find the fosters to rescue? Through the contact here?” Zhao Yunlan asked.
“Yes, the same clerk who left the window open for us tonight has been providing the alliance with information for the past three years, since he got this job.”
“Won’t he get in trouble over the window?”
“Apparently the clerks often use that storage room to smoke. It’s not permitted in the office due to risk of fire, but when the weather is bad like today, rather than go into the courtyard where the boss can see them taking a break, they sneak upstairs and have a pipe by that window. It’s been left open overnight on more than one occasion. And our contact should be above suspicion since he doesn’t smoke.”
“Nicely done,” said Zhao Yunlan. “I’m assuming he gave you the details on the placement of fosters?”
“It’s how we know where each foster in the program is located throughout Haixing. Then we plan rescue missions based on - urgency.”
Zhao Yunlan froze. “You mean, if they are being mistreated.”
The page in the porcelain bowl had disintegrated. Shen Wei lit the next one. “Our contact in this office doesn’t have that kind of information. But the alliance pays attention to the rumors around the placement households. Servants know things. They see changes in appearance or behavior. They witness punishments or attempts to escape. I just wish...”
“You wish you could get to them before any of that happened,” said Zhao Yunlan, eyes intense in the low light of the room. “We will.”
Shen Wei suddenly didn’t trust his voice enough to respond to Zhao Yunlan’s words. He simply nodded.
They spent another minute watching the paper burn before Zhao Yunlan spoke again. “Your contact, is he Haixingren?”
“Yes, and so is everyone else employed here,” said Shen Wei. “Some among your subjects support the alliance, though they work for the crown.”
“I’m glad I got to join them, even if shamefully late,” said Zhao Yunlan and looked away, his jaw tense below the mask. “You must think me a heartless fool to have spent so much time looking away from the injustices of my father’s regime. Even beyond the corruption we’ve uncovered, there are so many legal things that I should have paid attention to, done something about the wrongdoings sanctioned by his very laws - ”
“Do you know how often I reprimand myself for not doing enough?” Shen Wei interrupted, staring at the quiet fire. “For spending months debating issues with condescending ministers, feigning ignorance while leading them to stumble upon policy problems themselves, and only perhaps propose change - for the sake of appearing smart, rather than improving people’s lives? For sitting around day in and day out, listening to court gossip instead of working directly and immediately against oppression? For spending night after night asleep, when I could be organizing rescues of every single foster in Haixing?” He didn’t mention his brother’s imprisonment in Jade Forest. The pain of that guilt felt too sharp, too private.
He looked at Zhao Yunlan. “In the beginning, when I first joined the alliance and started to learn about the many fronts on which we were fighting, the struggle felt endless. There was so much to do, and the rebels were taking calculated steps with every mission to minimize threat and avoid escalation. It took time to research and plan each rescue and raid, time that meant suffering for those in need.”
Shen Wei leaned in and held Zhao Yunlan’s gaze. “It comes down to protecting people: both those who need help and those who take risks to provide it. Very few in the alliance are as privileged as we are. And protection means taking the time to do it right, so that it can be done again and again, for greater numbers of people, on a higher and more impactful level.”
He paused, trying to channel the truth within his heart into words as accurately and frankly as he could. “If I hadn’t believed that, left to your own devices, you would recognize that your principles matched those of the alliance - if I hadn't felt sure of your sense of justice ever since that day we first met, in the street in Dixing - I would have found a way to avoid getting married to you.” He took a breath, letting the words sink in. “It doesn’t help to dwell on the days already behind you. You had to travel your own road to get here, Zhao Yunlan, but you are here now.”
“Ay, call me Guardian,” Zhao Yunlan replied. “We are on a mission, after all.” The mask hid much of his face, but Shen Wei could still recognize the way his husband smiled wryly through a vulnerable moment. He smiled back.
Soon enough, the final document had been reduced to ashes. Shen Wei stood up. “Time to go,” he said and extinguished the lanterns.
He heard Zhao Yunlan’s huff of laughter. “You couldn’t have waited to do that until we reached the door?”
“It’s better if we let our eyes adjust to the lack of light before we step outside.”
“Ah, good thinking. I am learning all sorts of things on this mission, Brother Black Cloak.” Zhao Yunlan’s voice sounded amused but softer somehow, as if the dark invited a more intimate tone. Shen Wei suddenly became aware of the sound of their breathing in the quiet room.
He busied himself with a routine check, inspecting his weapons by touch and putting on his gloves. Before his eyes, darkness had begun to separate into shadowy shapes, vague yet indicative enough to give him a sense of his surroundings. He took a few steps toward the hallway.
“If you can’t see yet, can you follow the sound of my footsteps?” he asked Zhao Yunlan.
Shen Wei stopped to wait for a reply, but instead he felt movement to his side. A searching touch of a hand landed on his shoulder, traced down his arm, and finally grasped his fingers. Shen Wei felt the warmth of its grip through the thin leather.
“Possibly, but you could also lead the way,” Zhao Yunlan murmured, close in the darkness.
Shen Wei swallowed. Since that first night, they’d barely been able to keep their hands off each other when they were alone, even outside their chambers, but now was not the time nor the place... “Follow me then,” he said and stepped forward, guiding Zhao Yunlan behind him.
By the time they reached the door at the back of the building and stepped outside, they could both see well enough to cast a cautious look around. The carriage was out of sight but would be close, circling a few streets away to avoid suspicion. The rattle of wheels sounded somewhere nearby, approaching at a leisurely pace. As they stepped out of the alley to walk in its direction, a voice rang out from the shadows across the street: “Stop! Who goes there?”
Shen Wei already had a sword in hand as he whipped around to face the man headed their way. His other arm instinctively shot to the side to push Zhao Yunlan behind him. He heard him inhale sharply in reaction but didn’t have time to think about it, because the man - a nightwatch in constable’s uniform, he could now see by moonlight - was running toward them. He was blowing a whistle, its sound piercing the desolate darkness of the quarter. “Rebels! Stop!” he yelled, raising his sword.
Shen Wei’s blade clashed against the first blow in an easy parry. The nightwatch was young, strong, and solidly trained to the constabulary standards of swordplay, which meant that in a few counters he realized he was greatly outmatched. Shen Wei sensed his fear, followed by determination as he tried to make up in sheer speed what he lacked in skill. It was a brave attempt, but Shen Wei was in a hurry too. He stepped out of the way and blocked one strike after another in a fast dance, his retreat maneuvering the fight away from Zhao Yunlan and toward the mouth of the alley. There, he disarmed the constable in two brisk moves. The man froze in panic as his sword flew out of his hand and into the middle of the street. Shen Wei used the moment to leap forward and knock him out with a few jabs to qi points.
As the constable sank to the ground, another shout rang out behind Shen Wei. Two other officers, a man and a woman, arrived from the other direction. Their swords were drawn and they were rushing at Zhao Yunlan, who had turned to face them, his own blade in hand. Shen Wei’s heart skipped in his chest, and he ran to intercept them, knowing he was too far away to make it. But Zhao Yunlan deflected the first blows with such force that the officers jumped back, exchanged a look, and split up.
Zhao Yunlan moved backwards, trying to keep them both in his field of vision as they surrounded him cautiously. Shen Wei stepped into the circle and backed up against him. In the corner of his eye, he caught a flash of Zhao Yunlan’s grin over his shoulder. They stopped, back to back, and faced their attackers.
The woman before Shen Wei was in her fifties. She had the impeccable stance that spoke of a lifetime of training and skill rarely encountered among constables. Shen Wei guessed that she was the leader, because the officer on Zhao Yunlan’s side waited for her to make a move before attacking from his end. Shen Wei forced himself not to split his attention. The Lord Commander could hold his own against the man who was still wheezing a little after his run to the scene.
Shen Wei concentrated on his opponent. She was making exploratory attacks that he countered with intentionally sloppy parries, looking for flaws in her technique in return. He quickly recognized that she was a smart fighter and could tell he was feigning weakness. He’d made repeated counters to suggest he favored his right side, and yet she sidestepped and blocked the strike from the left with formidable ease, clearly expecting it.
They parted. She raised an eyebrow at him. Shen Wei inclined his head in a gesture of respect.
In the second round, the clash of their swords sped up as neither held back anymore. Shen Wei aimed his strikes for indirect impact, making her move in a meandering line, step by step, until her feet snagged on the rocks he’d noticed earlier along the side of the road. Losing her balance broke her focus for a split second, but that was all he needed. With a quick spin of his blade, he pushed in and twisted her weapon out of her grip.
They stopped, breathing heavily after the intensity of that last bout. Shen Wei’s sword was pointed at her throat. Behind his back, an uneven-sounding fight came to a close when the clang of metal turned into what sounded like a scuffle, ending with a punch and a thud to the ground. A moment later, Zhao Yunlan appeared at his side.
“Finally! I was wondering how much more time I’d have to kill. Did you two have a good fight?”
The woman blinked at his words. Shen Wei closed his eyes briefly, schooling his expression.
“It was an exceptional fight,” he replied, addressing the constable, “and an honor to face an opponent like you. Please turn around. I promise that you won’t be hurt.”
She tilted her head, looking at him. “The rumors are true then. Black Cloak has a soft heart.”
“Yes, he does, and you’re welcome,” said Zhao Yunlan brightly. He removed the whistle from around her neck, and motioned with his hand as if formally presenting the wall behind her. Once she turned to face it, he used the silk cord of the whistle to fasten the woman’s wrists behind her back. Shen Wei noticed him checking that the bonds weren’t too tight. Zhao Yunlan looked up and caught his eye. “It would be a shame to damage the instruments of such impressive swordcraft,” he murmured defensively.
Shen Wei smiled. “Well done, Lord Guardian. And now it’s time to go.”
The unhurried clatter of hooves and wheels sounded about a street away. They ran to meet the carriage at the corner and jumped aboard, just as another constable rode up to the scene on horseback. He glanced at the carriage, but got off his horse and rushed to check on his colleagues.
“He’s not following us, but he might have sent for reinforcements. Hold on,” said Shen Wei and grabbed the edge of his seat.
The ride quickly turned into a gallop, the carriage bouncing over the uneven pavement in a way that made Shen Wei’s teeth chatter. Their driver wound a path through the grid at enviable speed. After one particularly sharp turn that made them both topple against the side, Zhao Yunlan burst out laughing. “A sword fight and now a wild chase! I’m getting all my wishes for adventure granted tonight!”
“I’ll remind you of that if they catch up with us!” replied Shen Wei. At least it was too dark in the carriage for Zhao Yunlan to see the answering helpless grin on his face.
Finally, they felt the horse ease into a trot. Through the dim windows, Shen Wei saw lights ahead and heard noises. Across from him, Zhao Yunlan tensed.
“It’s fine,” said Shen Wei. “We’ve reached the intersection where the tavern is located.”
“So... we want a bunch of drunk witnesses seeing the carriage go this way?” Zhao Yunlan sounded dubious.
“It’s all part of the plan. I just haven’t had a chance to tell you about it,” said Shen Wei apologetically.
At that moment, another fiacre for hire - of the same make and color as theirs, even pulled by a similar-looking horse - emerged from behind the tavern and trundled by them, heading back the way they’d just come from. As if waiting for its signal, two other lookalike carriages appeared and crossed their path at the intersection, before driving away in different directions.
Their driver rolled past the tavern and continued down the street that would take them out of the quarter by the most direct route.
Zhao Yunlan was grinning. “That is quite the sneaky getaway, Brother Black Cloak.”
“Chu Shuzhi set up the decoys, so we’d be difficult to follow in case we got spotted.”
“I will make sure to thank him,” said Zhao Yunlan and leaned back in his seat. They were back to traveling at a comfortable pace, too slow to appear suspicious. Shen Wei could feel the post-mission buzz of excitement in his limbs; it would take some time for it to ebb away. They had left behind the sporadic lights of the market, and the night had filled the interior of the carriage with soft moonlit darkness. The smell of smoke lingered on their cloaks, infusing the air between them with an intimation of heat and fire.
Shen Wei could feel Zhao Yunlan’s eyes on him. He waited.
“You sound different when you’re Crimson Lotus, you know,” Zhao Yunlan said, his own voice taking on the hushed timbre of secrets spoken in the shadows. “I heard it when we were burning the papers, and again with the constable you fought.”
Shen Wei frowned. “I haven’t been trying to sound different.”
“I know, it doesn’t seem to be on purpose. Well, sometimes it has to be, and much more pronounced, like all those times you were meeting me as the Envoy. But you had a reason for that.”
Shen Wei winced. Of course Zhao Yunlan would remember. “I am sorry I deceived you, but...”
“No, don’t - I wasn’t saying that to - ah, Shen Wei,” Zhao Yunlan sighed.
Shen Wei felt him lean forward, his voice suddenly closer. “I noticed tonight’s difference because it reminded me of how I address soldiers during training. There must be some memory hidden in my mind, some notion of how a commander is supposed to sound, and when I’m in front of the troops... well, it’s still my voice. I just spontaneously begin to speak like my idea of a commander, whatever that may be.”
Shen Wei thought about it. “I’m not sure that’s the case with me. I can’t think of an equivalent memory or idea. It just happens, I suppose, when I need to become someone else.”
Zhao Yunlan hummed thoughtfully. “When you’re on a mission, do you think of yourself as Shen Wei or Crimson Lotus?”
Shen Wei blinked, momentarily thrown. In the days since the revelation of his secret, he and Zhao Yunlan had spoken about the alliance, the flower code, the missions, and the escapes. Shen Wei had been preparing himself to give difficult answers, defend his choices, and ask for forgiveness. Yet somehow he wasn’t ready for this question, which sounded perfectly reasonable and entirely too personal all at once.
“I don’t think of those as separate, just different sides of myself. Though I suppose... “ he paused to untangle his own thoughts. “On low-risk missions, especially if I’m with someone who knows me, I don’t even think about it. But if it’s a complex operation, or the stakes are particularly high, or if there are distractions from my daily life, then it’s easier to be just Crimson Lotus. To put everything else aside and simply become what the mission needs me to be.”
“That makes sense,” came the soft reply. Shen Wei expected him to ask which of the two was the case tonight, not really knowing how he would respond; but Zhao Yunlan had grown quiet.
Shen Wei focused on making himself relax. The excitement of their escape was still thrumming through him, high energy only now starting to fade under his skin. He looked blindly out the window and tried to breathe through the itch of it.
The carriage rolled down the dark streets, taking them back to safety.
The alley behind the pleasure house was still quiet. They slipped back in via the same passage next door and retraced their steps, through the stark hallway and into the opulence of the Silver Suite. Shen Wei wondered if Zhao Yunlan felt the contrast between one space and the other more strongly upon return than at the beginning of the night. He himself had always experienced the luxurious surroundings of his daily life as somewhat foreign after missions, ill-fitting for his frame of mind.
He pulled his gloves off with his teeth and set to locking the door again. Behind his back, he could hear Zhao Yunlan putting aside his weapons. A muffled clanging sound made him turn. Zhao Yunlan was dropping pieces of lamellar armor atop his discarded cloak.
“No reason to keep wearing these, right?” he said, and Shen Wei shook his head before returning to his task. Zhao Yunlan finished removing the armor and made stretching noises. Shen Wei heard him walk across the room and start to rummage through the table spread.
When the door was securely locked once again, Shen Wei turned around. Zhao Yunlan had poured himself a cup of wine and was taking a deep drink. “Not bad,” he said, licking his lips, then looked over at Shen Wei. “Water for you?”
“I’ll try the wine,” Shen Wei heard himself say. It was warm in the suite, and he reached up to untie the strings of his cloak.
Zhao Yunlan approached, handed him the cup that still had a few sips left in it, and stepped to his side to assist. He pulled back Shen Wei’s hood and lifted the cloak off his shoulders, folding it over one arm, and proceeded to remove his weapons and armor with the brisk, impersonal movements of a professional soldier. Shen Wei reached up by habit to pat down his hair, which he’d kept neat with half a dozen thin braids. Zhao Yunlan had used a similar style tonight, he noticed.
The mouthful of golden liquid tasted rich and honey-sweet, warming its way down. Shen Wei handed the empty cup back to Zhao Yunlan, exchanging it for the items in his arms. “Thank you. I’ll pack this up and then we can head back.”
“What, already?” Zhao Yunlan asked, returning to the table. “We have this place for the night, don’t we? It might be suspicious if we left too early.” He poured water for both of them and downed his own cup immediately. Shen Wei’s eyes followed the long line of his throat as he drank.
“Maybe it’s the smell of smoke from earlier, but I feel like my beard is full of soot,” Zhao Yunlan said, rubbing his chin. He placed the other cup into Shen Wei’s hand as he walked by him. “I’ll go wash my face.”
Zhao Yunlan approached the cedar bathtub and took off the lid, releasing a finely scented cloud of humidity into the room. He dipped his fingers into the tub, sighed in satisfaction at the temperature, and shook off his black robes, staying in the pale green inner ones made of fine silk. He sank his arms in to the elbows, splashed a few handfuls on his face, and ran wet hands over his neck.
Shen Wei remembered the cup in his hand and drank the water in a few gulps, more thirsty than he’d realized. He lowered the cloaks and weapons next to the bag on the chaise longue and started to pack them away.
By the time Shen Wei finished, Zhao Yunlan had seated himself at the table. He was eating a small piece of peach cake and sighing happily.
Shen Wei washed his hands and joined him. After all, they weren’t in a rush, and he could use another cup of water.
Zhao Yunlan was picking the candied orchids off another cake and nibbling on them with evident pleasure. Some of his braids had started to come loose, and a few strands of hair stuck wetly to his temples.
“So how did the rebels even find this place?”
Shen Wei put down the cup and wiped his lips with the back of his hand. “One of the staff is a sympathizer. His sisters have been in the alliance for years. We gather reliable intel on locations that could help in getaways or provide an alibi if needed. Then we do a few trial runs to confirm the safety and practicality of the venue, be it a tailor shop, a tavern, or - a place like this.”
Zhao Yunlan narrowed his eyes. “It also makes for perfect clandestine premises, doesn’t it? I wonder how many spies use this suite as nothing more than a convenient meeting room.”
Shen Wei looked around. “Well, it is certainly nicer than the one we broke into tonight.”
Zhao Yunlan raised an eyebrow. “And yet, if that’s all they use these rooms for... what a waste.”
Shen Wei swallowed. Zhao Yunlan’s eyes dropped to his throat and then traveled up to his lips. He sprawled back in his chair, looking at Shen Wei for a long moment with that almost-smile dancing on his face. He glanced around the room again, until his gaze finally stopped upon the bed.
“Wonder what it’s like to work at such a place. And I don’t mean holding meetings with spies.”
Shen Wei looked down at the table, stifling a sigh of disappointment. His body had predictably reacted to Zhao Yunlan’s earlier words. Their lovemaking was still a new experience, the very thought of it enough to ignite desire. Shen Wei had been rather proud of himself for not getting too distracted by his husband’s closeness during tonight’s mission. But he had heard such innuendo before from hopeful suitors who liked to imagine him as a courtesan and were displeased when he wouldn’t play along. They seemed to think being desired was the ultimate fantasy for anyone with a pretty face and decent manners, which was enough to ensure quite the opposite.
Zhao Yunlan got up and walked over to Shen Wei, who turned in his chair to face him and tried to smile politely. But before he could think of what to say to thwart this line of seduction, Zhao Yunlan sank to his knees in front of him. He sat back on his heels and looked up at Shen Wei, head slightly tilted.
“So, my lord,” he murmured, and Shen Wei blinked at the address. “How much would you pay for my company tonight?”
All breath left Shen Wei’s body in a rush. Zhao Yunlan kept his eyes on him, his expression without artifice. He was still holding a piece of candied flower, and he finished it, slowly licking the sweetness off his fingers as he waited on his knees for a reply.
Shen Wei’s mouth felt dry as a desert. “Anything,” he whispered. “Everything.”
Zhao Yunlan moved closer, placing his hands on Shen Wei’s knees. Two fingers on his right hand were shiny with wetness. He smiled lightly, but his eyes were serious. “How flattering to be appreciated so, by someone as brave as you.” He looked over Shen Wei’s face, tracing a pattern around his eyes...
It was only then that Shen Wei realized he was still wearing the Crimson Lotus mask. He reached for it, ready to apologize, but Zhao Yunlan stopped his hand.
“You left it on for a reason, my lord,” he said, his voice low, eyes receptive. “Perhaps you’d like to keep it on for a while?”
Shen Wei felt the current run through him, like the first time he’d put on the mask for a mission and slid into another identity. It was still him, and yet it wasn’t. Crimson Lotus the rebel did things that Shen Wei, Dixing nobility and courtier extraordinaire, could never do, would never want, shouldn’t even dream about. Except he did, all those things and many more. The mask hid Shen Wei, and it set him free.
And Zhao Yunlan was now at his feet, trusting him in that freedom.
After months of lies and deception, and a thousand reasons why Zhao Yunlan should doubt him - he was offering himself to Crimson Lotus. Away from the palace guards, on neutral ground and in anonymity, he knelt at the feet of an outlaw, rebel, criminal; everything that Shen Wei was used to hiding. The prince had put his life in Crimson Lotus’s hands earlier that night; and now he was offering to put his body into them as well. Possessive desire swelled in Shen Wei, heavy and elemental.
He reached out to cup Zhao Yunlan’s face, his thumb tracing the sharp line of cheekbone.
“I meant what I said,” he spoke, hearing the change in his own voice now. “I’d give everything I have for a night with you.”
Zhao Yunlan’s breath hitched and his eyes grew darker. “Sounds like a princely sum.”
Shen Wei let a whisper of a smile touch his lips. “That is what you are, isn’t it? Seems only fair.”
A quick grin spread over Zhao Yunlan’s face, but Shen Wei caught a flash of shadow in his expression. “Even so, I fear that you value me too highly, my lord.”
“You’re worth it,” Shen Wei whispered, his hand drifting down Zhao Yunlan’s cheek, thumb gently following the curve of his full bottom lip. “You’re worth everything to me.”
Zhao Yunlan looked back at him, wide-eyed. Then he blinked slowly, his lips parting, and he took Shen Wei’s thumb into his mouth.
The air in the room pulsed with heat. Shen Wei’s awareness funneled into the soft wet suction that enveloped his thumb to the first knuckle. His eyes closed at the sensation, but he forced them open. He wanted to watch.
Zhao Yunlan rubbed his tongue against the pad of Shen Wei’s thumb as he sucked, the slow curl of it hollowing his cheeks. Shen Wei began to follow the motion, circling around the tip of that skillful tongue, and then he pushed it deeper into Zhao Yunlan’s mouth.
He could feel the slight tremor in his lips, which remained gentle, but Zhao Yunlan’s grip on Shen Wei’s knees had tightened. The pull of his mouth intensified, the roll of his tongue grew stronger and more insistent. Then Zhao Yunlan pulled off and placed a small kiss to his fingertip.
“My lord, may I touch you?” His voice was raspy with lust, lighting up Shen Wei’s senses.
It was a relief to know he wasn’t the only one desperate for this. Shen Wei acquiesced and sat back as Zhao Yunlan moved closer, kneeling up between his legs. His hands, a little less steady now, began to undo Shen Wei’s collar, opening up his robes just enough to reach skin. He locked eyes with Shen Wei as his fingers finally slid beneath the cloth, caressing gently. He leaned in close, nosed at the cord of the pendant around his neck, and pressed a soft kiss to the hollow of his throat, his body lightly brushing against Shen Wei’s own. His lips carefully followed the narrow downward trail uncovered by his fingers.
Shen Wei could smell the faint floral scent of the suite’s bathwater upon Zhao Yunlan’s skin. He felt the warmth of him against the inside of his thighs, all the way up his torso, as wet kisses traveled down his chest. After each button undone and more skin touched and tasted, Zhao Yunlan looked up through his eyelashes, seeking Shen Wei’s eyes.
It was tentative in a new way. Zhao Yunlan didn’t seem to be affecting inexperience or lack of knowledge about Shen Wei’s body. Yet it felt like exploration of new desire, with Zhao Yunlan looking for reactions, which were probably harder to read on a masked face. Shen Wei’s cock twitched at the thought: this wasn’t the prince reassuring his husband, vulnerable after the reveal of secrets. This was the prince making himself vulnerable, putting his warrior body into service of pleasuring the rebel leader. He was trying to find out what Crimson Lotus wanted and how he wanted it. Shen Wei was curious about it himself, he thought dimly as Zhao Yunlan’s hands reached his waistband.
Shen Wei watched as strong fingers undid the ties at the front of his trousers. He shifted lower in the chair, hips tilting up for easier access, and Zhao Yunlan bit his lip. Shen Wei had been growing hard since their conversation at the table, and there was dampness at the tip, soaking obscenely through the inner layer of fabric. Zhao Yunlan was looking at it with hunger. Pink blush of arousal was spreading from his face down to his chest. He was so beautiful that Shen Wei couldn’t look away.
“I can’t believe I get to have you,” Shen Wei said without thinking. Zhao Yunlan raised his eyes, looking momentarily surprised. He gave Shen Wei a crooked smile. “I assure you the feeling is mutual, my lord.” Then he put his hand inside Shen Wei’s underwear and pulled out his cock.
They both inhaled at the touch. Shen Wei felt like he was burning up, the air in the room cool against his arousal. Zhao Yunlan tightened his grip around him and looked up again, silently asking permission. Shen Wei gave him a tremulous nod; it felt like a plea. Zhao Yunlan leaned down, closed his eyes, and took him into his mouth.
Shen Wei grabbed the sides of his chair for balance.
Zhao Yunlan’s lips were firm but slow, tasting him rather than setting a rhythm, his tongue mapping the underside in long licks. Strands of his hair, escaped from a half-unraveled braid, were catching at the fabric of Shen Wei’s robes and clinging to the spit-wet flesh under Zhao Yunlan’s mouth. Shen Wei suddenly needed to undo the braid all the way. He reached for it with a careful hand.
After the first braid came another, then another. The feel of silky hair between his fingers was spellbinding, his hands untangling it in fluid, repetitive motions, a reflection of Zhao Yunlan’s exquisite mouth moving on his cock. Shen Wei kept going until all of Zhao Yunlan’s tresses were free, falling around his shoulders in an abundant, messy cascade.
As Shen Wei’s fingers finally sank into Zhao Yunlan’s hair without obstacle, he felt him moan around his mouthful and begin to suck harder, taking him in deep, the grip of his hand moving in tandem with his lips. Shen Wei was almost instantly overwhelmed, and pleasure began to roll through him like an irresistible force.
“Wait,” he choked out, and Zhao Yunlan let go immediately, sitting back on his heels. Shen Wei reached out to touch his face. “Let’s slow down a little,” he managed hoarsely. Zhao Yunlan nuzzled at his palm in assent, the warm curtain of his hair falling over the caress. His lips looked raw and his eyes were feverishly bright. His inner robe was barely clinging around his trim waist, hanging open nearly to his navel and exposing smooth curves of muscle underneath.
Shen Wei yearned to have him come undone.
“Take off your clothes,” he said. “I need to see you.”
Zhao Yunlan took a sharp breath. His lips spread into a languid smile as he leaned back.
Not taking his eyes off Shen Wei, Zhao Yunlan reached behind, loosened, and tugged off one of his boots, then the other. Next, his hands went to his own waistband underneath his inner robes. He undid the cord with unhurried movements, letting the trousers fall down his thighs. His underwear followed, with some necessary maneuvering. Shen Wei could see his arousal straining against the thin green fabric.
Zhao Yunlan stood up in a fluid movement, letting the garments that had crumpled at his knees drop to his feet. He stepped back, kicked them off, and stood barefoot on the soft carpet.
Shen Wei’s eyes kept moving over him, from the dark mane framing his face, to the flimsy inner robe that barely covered him from shoulder to thigh, to the long bare legs beneath. Zhao Yunlan paused for a moment, then leisurely reached to undo the ties at the front of his robe, finally opening it all the way. His cock, pink and firm, jutted out from a flat thatch of dusky hair. Shen Wei unconsciously licked his lips.
Zhao Yunlan peeled the robe off his shoulders and let it slink down his arms behind his back, briefly pausing as it bunched up at his hands. Shen Wei imagined the fabric wrapped around his wrists, binding them together, and the thought made him tighten with some deep dark hunger. At last the robe joined the pile of clothes on the floor.
Shen Wei had seen Zhao Yunlan naked a number of times in recent memory. Yet there was something about him undressing on command and standing before Shen Wei to let him look his fill, that made his nudity on display more stunning than ever before. Through the mask, the act of watching and wanting felt sharper somehow, shameless and deliberate.
Zhao Yunlan stood in contrapposto, bare from head to toe and carefully relaxed. He was returning Shen Wei’s gaze with eyes heavy-lidded and wanton, but Shen Wei caught a nervous movement of his throat and a flutter of something almost shy behind his expression.
“Do I please you, my lord?” Zhao Yunlan asked, his voice husky and quiet.
The question vibrated through Shen Wei’s bones, lifting to the surface his own naked desire. Something inside him ached for this: a reversal of roles, with Shen Wei as the audience and his beloved revealing himself. The cautious hope on Zhao Yunlan’s face looked like a mirror, and it felt like a balm upon Shen Wei’s heart. He himself had nurtured such hope for months, plagued by crippling uncertainty that his feelings could not be returned due to the gravity of his secrets. And here was the crown prince, looking apprehensive about being worthy of a rebel’s love.
Zhao Yunlan’s willingness to reveal himself this way was more intoxicating than all the wine in the world. His husband was standing exposed before him, but Shen Wei felt like he was the one being seen.
“You take my breath away,” he told him, standing up and pulling Zhao Yunlan into his arms to kiss him.
This, too, was new. They were usually similarly undressed when intimate, but now Shen Wei reveled in the sensation of Zhao Yunlan’s nakedness against his own mostly clothed body. Zhao Yunlan melted into him, tilting his head to deepen their kiss and rubbing his face over the leather of the Crimson Lotus mask. Shen Wei’s palms mapped the expanse of warm skin; they slid down Zhao Yunlan’s lower back to the curves below, pulling him closer. Zhao Yunlan arched into him, straining for more contact with bare flesh between Shen Wei’s partly undone robes and the open triangle of his trousers. They both groaned into the kiss as their erections touched.
“My lord, will you please take me to bed?” Zhao Yunlan asked against his lips. His eagerness tasted as sweet as his mouth, Shen Wei thought with a smile.
He found and grasped Zhao Yunlan’s hand. “Lead the way,” he said.
They walked to the bed together. Shen Wei stopped at the foot of it, kicking off his boots and watching as Zhao Yunlan crawled over the silk covers. He turned around to drape himself over the pile of pillows arranged against the headboard, limbs relaxed and spread into an open-armed invitation. In the hazy light filtering through the gossamer canopy, the lines, curves, and planes of his body looked smooth and golden.
Shen Wei climbed onto the bed and approached, running a possessive hand from Zhao Yunlan’s ankle upwards, until his knees were between Zhao Yunlan’s thighs. He stopped again to admire the view, all the more enticing because he knew so well the strength within the pliant beauty before him.
Then Zhao Yunlan lifted his arms over his head, tendons standing out under the thin skin of his inner wrists. He tangled his fingers into the elaborately carved headboard. “Anything you want,” he whispered, “it’s yours.”
Shen Wei was hit by a wave of lust so strong it almost pulled him under. He forced himself to wait it out. It was tempting to fall upon Zhao Yunlan’s body and rut against him until they were both spent, but he didn’t want this night to end so quickly.
He lowered himself onto his arms, kissed Zhao Yunlan sweetly on the lips, and proceeded to put his mouth on every tantalizing spot he could think of, his pendant dropping against bare skin like an amber echo of his kisses. They had explored each other this way before, though generally with more direction and purpose. After all, there was much to learn, and Zhao Yunlan had been providing tender guidance to shared satisfaction. But for now, Shen Wei just wanted to taste, his lips pressing mine like an invisible stamp all over the supine body before him.
Shen Wei kissed the cherished scar on the collarbone. He gently bit the firm bicep on Zhao Yunlan’s raised arm and brushed his lips over the soft patch of hair in the hollow underneath, breathing in the sharp saltiness of sweat. He licked at a pink nipple that slowly pebbled between his teeth.
Zhao Yunlan sighed at every open-mouthed kiss, squirming with impatience. He’d bracketed Shen Wei’s calves with his feet, his soles rubbing against the fabric of Shen Wei’s trousers as if to bring him closer between Zhao Yunlan’s spread legs. But Shen Wei had spent months living within Zhao Yunlan’s realm, arranging his life to meet the crown prince’s approval, hiding his own desires. He now wanted to take his time and relish the power he held over Zhao Yunlan’s pleasure.
“Stay still,” he said, heard a shaky inhale, and felt Zhao Yunlan’s toes curl. Shen Wei smiled against warm skin. To feel him trying not to move and failing was delectable in an unexpected way.
He kissed a slow diagonal path over Zhao Yunlan’s belly. When he reached the angle of hip, he lowered his face into the musky scent at the groove between groin and thigh, the private, heady smell of Zhao Yunlan’s body, and felt him shiver at the sensation of the mask’s hard leather against naked skin. He spent a while lazily sucking Zhao Yunlan’s cock, feeling it grow harder between his lips, drinking in the bodily responses elicited by his mouth. Every groan, barely stifled jerk of the hips, and leaked drop of precome quickened his own desire.
Shen Wei pulled off before they both got too worked up and kissed the dip at Zhao Yunlan’s waist, then the slope of his ribs. As he reached a spot on the side of Zhao Yunlan’s chest right by the underarm, he felt the body beneath him quake in reaction. He looked at Zhao Yunlan, whose face was scrunched in a strange grimace. Shen Wei grinned, delighted at the discovery.
“You’re ticklish! Tell me where else.”
Zhao Yunlan looked at him with mild panic and then sighed. “Well, I did say anything you wanted... Inside my elbow, just the right one,” he said, quivering against Shen Wei’s mouth as it found the place. “Behind my ear - ah!” Shen Wei’s tongue traced and found each spot mentioned. “And at the bend of my knees,” Zhao Yunlan said finally, eyes shut tight, already bracing himself as his fingers clutched the headboard in a white-knuckled grip.
Shen Wei sat back, lifted one of Zhao Yunlan’s legs and rested the calf upon his shoulder, feeling the light tickle of leg hair against his ear. His hand formed a semi-circle around Zhao Yunlan’s knee, thumb resting in the crook. Zhao Yunlan gasped at the gentle pressure. Shen Wei moved his fingertip in a small targeted caress, searching. “Here?” he asked, and Zhao Yunlan shivered under him, his cock jumping untouched against his stomach.
Shen Wei put his hands on the underside of Zhao Yunlan’s thigh and calf and pushed back, stretching out the leg until his mouth could reach the inner bend of the knee. He pressed his tongue against it and proceeded to worry the sensitive spot with his mouth until Zhao Yunlan was moaning and writhing against the sheets.
Shen Wei did the same with his other leg, head spinning with the impact of his ministrations. When Zhao Yunlan muttered, “I have to - I need - ”, Shen Wei replied, “Do it,” without hesitation. It took him a moment to realize that Zhao Yunlan wasn’t asking to take himself in hand. Instead, he was holding a small vial, one of those from the side tables within easy reach. He’d opened it and was pouring oil onto his own fingers, and then he reached down, below his cock and under his balls, beneath - between - into the opening of his body.
Shen Wei couldn’t blink, couldn’t look away.
Zhao Yunlan was rubbing oil into the crease, panting with pleasure. He pushed two, then three fingers in, hips bearing down onto his own hand. His legs were still held in place by Shen Wei, thighs spread open beneath him.
“Please, I need you to... oh, will you?” Zhao Yunlan asked breathlessly.
Shen Wei shifted on his knees, trying to balance himself so he could offer his hand. They had done this to each other entangled in the dark, fingertips finding the pleasure points within and drawing out release, deep and intense. But instead, Zhao Yunlan wrapped a hand glistening with oil around Shen Wei’s cock, making him gasp at the touch. He pumped a few times, making him slippery and ready, except they hadn’t done it this way before, Shen Wei hadn’t done it before, and...
“I need you inside me, will you - please?” Zhao Yunlan’s voice broke on the last word, and Shen Wei shut his eyes, trying to collect himself. He tried to remember what Zhao Yunlan did, how he made it feel good, but all his memories were flooded with the pleasure and fullness he’d felt at the time.
“I... I don’t think... I won’t know what I’m doing,” he said, his voice full of gravel.
“It’s fine, I do. And I know you can do this. You always take such good care of me,” said Zhao Yunlan, and Shen Wei felt himself twitch in his grip at the words. “I can tell you want to. Don’t you?” he said, his hand moving again on Shen Wei’s cock, slick and persuasive.
Of course Zhao Yunlan would know what to do, of course he’d done it before; it was a good thing at least one of them knew their way around the bedroom, thought Shen Wei. He tried to will away the surge of jealousy at the thought of Zhao Yunlan with other lovers, but it felt like a toxic accelerant to desire, making his blood burn. It made Shen Wei want to claim him, fill him up, drive the hard shape of his arousal into him over and over until it left a permanent imprint, became the only shape Zhao Yunlan’s body would remember or crave ever again. Shen Wei shook his head. The lust in his veins felt wild, violent.
“I don’t want to hurt you.”
“You won’t hurt me. I know you won’t,” Zhao Yunlan said. He stilled, clear-eyed, and held Shen Wei’s gaze. “I trust you, my lord. Will you trust me back?”
“Yes,” said Shen Wei, and he meant it with his whole heart.
Zhao Yunlan beamed at his reply, his smile pure and happy. “Good.”
Shen Wei’s pulse was thundering in his ears. He leaned over Zhao Yunlan, palms planted on the bed on either side of his torso. The mountain of pillows lifted Zhao Yunlan’s upper body into a half-sitting position, and his long legs ended up casually hooked over Shen Wei’s arms. Shen Wei’s knees spread and shifted closer, cradling the curve of Zhao Yunlan’s bottom. They fit together well, Shen Wei thought dizzily, feeling hot and tense all over. The fabric of his clothes felt grounding between them, and he was thankful for the minute sense of separation the layers provided.
Zhao Yunlan reached down and aligned Shen Wei’s cock with his opening, then deliberately clenched for a long moment. He let his body relax and at the same time said, “Now.”
Shen Wei moved bluntly against him, slipping past the rim on the first try and rubbing along the warm crevasse. The contact felt staggeringly illicit. Zhao Yunlan shifted a little, adjusted the angle, and Shen Wei pushed in.
The oil eased the slide, and elastic heat opened and stretched around him. Then he felt resistance that made him stop, shaking with the effort of it. The head of his cock was inside, but the pressure around it was so great...
Zhao Yunlan had shut his eyes, brow furrowed - in concentration, or discomfort, or a mixture of both. His breath had gone quick and shallow.
“Keep going. Slowly, please.”
It was too overwhelming to watch where they were joined. Shen Wei looked at the line of Zhao Yunlan’s jaw instead, keeping an eye on the tension in it. He moved again and felt himself sink a little deeper, then a little more, stopping to try and adapt to the intensity of it.
Zhao Yunlan’s legs convulsed from the strain. Shen Wei’s knees tensed on reflex and he pulled out a little.
“That’s fine, that’s... I just need a moment,” said Zhao Yunlan before Shen Wei could manage to ask. He felt Zhao Yunlan clench purposefully around him, and relax again. Shen Wei somehow forced himself to ride out the rush of pleasure brought on by it and focused again on Zhao Yunlan’s expression.
“If it hurts, should I - ”
“No, just... the stretch burns a little, but it will go away soon. Please, don’t stop.”
Shen Wei dropped a gentle kiss on his clavicle and pushed further in. Zhao Yunlan’s face wasn’t relaxing, but it also wasn’t looking more pained. Shen Wei pushed a little more, and gasped at the sensation of Zhao Yunlan’s insides spasming around his length, the contraction pulling him in. He shuddered, suddenly overcome by this response of Zhao Yunlan’s body, and let his hips be drawn in by the momentum of the pull, plunging deeper until he was all the way inside.
Shen Wei groaned into Zhao Yunlan’s shoulder, for a moment afraid to move, then looked up at his face. There was still a sharp line between his eyebrows, but his lips were parted, his breathing fast.
Shen Wei felt like a taut string over the bow of Zhao Yunlan’s body. He nuzzled at his jaw, feeling the soft scratch of beard against his lips. “Are you all right?”
“Yes,” Zhao Yunlan murmured. “So full, it’s almost too much... just, stay like this for a bit.” Shen Wei kept still with difficulty, waiting. He made himself focus on the eye outlines of his own mask, trying to remove himself slightly from the overpowering awareness of flesh.
Eventually Zhao Yunlan’s eyes slid toward Shen Wei. “Can you move a little? Don’t pull out, just...” He tightened his legs over Shen Wei’s arms for some leverage, and ground against his pelvis.
With all his might, Shen Wei concentrated on Zhao Yunlan seeking relief from discomfort and asking him to provide it. He rolled his hips into him, staying deep inside that impossibly hot grip, watching his face closely.
Zhao Yunlan was biting his bottom lip and clutching the fabric of Shen Wei’s sleeves with both hands. Shen Wei kept his eyes upon the tick of heartbeat on the side of his neck, trying to match his movements to its rhythm. He could feel his inner robes clinging to his back with sweat.
Zhao Yunlan’s legs jerked again and Shen Wei spontaneously moved back a bit to give him room, the smooth drag of his cock inside making them both grunt. Instinctively, he pushed back in.
“Oh,” Zhao Yunlan said, “do that again,” and Shen Wei pulled out further this time, trying to remember how he searched by touch for the pleasure points inside Zhao Yunlan’s body, wondering if...
He stopped, only the head of his cock still lodged in, and slowly pushed all the way back inside. Zhao Yunlan whispered, “Again,” his eyes sliding closed, this time not from the strain. Shen Wei repeated the motion, changing the angle a bit between measured strokes, shifting his weight incrementally from one knee to the other, until Zhao Yunlan sucked in a breath and latched onto his arms.
“Ah, like that...” and Shen Wei stayed exactly where he was, rebalanced himself with care so he could wrap one arm low around Zhao Yunlan’s waist, anchoring his body in place, and began to fuck him in earnest.
He tried to focus on the mechanics of it and on tracking Zhao Yunlan’s responses, in a hopeless effort to distance himself. It was as if the sensation of tight heat had been keeping him near the edge for hours. Zhao Yunlan’s head was thrown back, his hair wild against the pillows, skin shining from exertion. His mouth was open, lips red and swollen, trembling with the thrusts of Shen Wei’s cock inside him. It felt like a gift, that forceful possessive desire channelled into this closeness. Their coupling was under Shen Wei’s control, but it didn’t feel selfish; instead, Zhao Yunlan was letting Shen Wei give him what he needed. Their movements rose out of their hunger for each other, and turned into this bright and intermingling togetherness, erotic beyond anything he could have imagined. Shen Wei craved all of it with every filament in his body.
He licked at Zhao Yunlan’s neck, savoring the salty taste. They tried to kiss but couldn’t do much more than touch lips, exchanging the warmth of thready exhales. The fabric of Shen Wei’s robes moved between them with the motion of his hips. The places they touched skin on skin felt even more intimate in contrast. Shen Wei could feel Zhao Yunlan’s arousal growing thicker between their bodies. He shifted over him a little, increasing the rub against his lower stomach on every stroke. Zhao Yunlan moaned. His eyes were on Shen Wei’s face now, the heated look under heavy lids too close, burning through him.
Overcome, Shen Wei made the mistake of looking down, and his hips stuttered at the sight: Zhao Yunlan naked and spread wide, his body open, tight and hard and wanting. Shen Wei had to pause and pull out nearly all the way, so he could squeeze the root of his cock almost to the point of pain to stop from coming. He dropped his face to the curve of Zhao Yunlan’s shoulder, panting with the effort of staving off the pressure within.
Their hair had tangled together on the pillows around them, strands wet with sweat. They were both trying to stay still, but tremors kept coursing through their bodies.
Shen Wei felt an arm wrap around his neck, holding him close.
“Will you please come inside me?” Zhao Yunlan said, his voice so ragged and needy that Shen Wei shivered with pure want. I made him sound like that, he thought, wishing he could drink it in.
“Yes,” he growled. His mouth was against Zhao Yunlan’s throat. “But I need you to touch yourself, Yunlan. I want to feel you come for me first.” He felt in his lips the vibration of Zhao Yunlan’s answering groan.
Zhao Yunlan’s hand slid into the narrow space between their bodies. Shen Wei had to glance down again as Zhao Yunlan grabbed the head of his own cock, glistening with precome, and began to fist it roughly. He was closer than Shen Wei realized. “Come with me, please, spend in me, I want you, I want your everything...” he keened, his eyes unfocused with lust, and Shen Wei’s hips moved on their own, pushing in deep and falling into a fast rhythm.
Shen Wei tried to split his awareness, let it sharpen and narrow to the different points of experience. The taste of Zhao Yunlan’s tongue, licking blindly at Shen Wei’s mouth. The firmness of his lower back under Shen Wei’s hand, rocking into the cushions with every hard push of hips. The sound of Zhao Yunlan’s breaths, interspersed with soft grunts, hot against Shen Wei’s face. The slick noises of friction, of Zhao Yunlan’s hand on himself and of Shen Wei’s cock inside him. Their skin, slippery with sweat that made them slide against each other as they moved in unison, except Shen Wei was losing track of individual senses, their movements becoming a sensation in itself, blending tight and soft and hard and smooth, until Zhao Yunlan cried out and clenched around him, body quaking with hot spurts of his release. The responding pleasure coiled inside Shen Wei in a chain reaction, unleashing a climax so strong it flared through him from head to toe, pulse after long pulse deep into Zhao Yunlan’s body, until he collapsed into his arms spent and shaking.
They clung to each other, side by side, riding out the quiver of aftershocks together.
“Is it always like this?” Shen Wei had asked, barely able to form words around what he felt.
“It’s never been like this,” Zhao Yunlan replied, his voice sounding wrecked, and drew him closer.
They kissed, slowly and tenderly, until the trembling subsided and their embrace turned languorous. Zhao Yunlan moved his head back on the pillow and looked at Shen Wei, smiling a little. “That was new. I liked it.”
“So did I,” said Shen Wei, unable to take his eyes off Zhao Yunlan’s face.
Zhao Yunlan raised his hand, tracing the curve of the mask against Shen Wei’s cheek with his fingertip. His expression grew serious, and he was biting his bottom lip. Shen Wei watched him think, waiting to see if he’d share what was going through his mind.
Zhao Yunlan finally looked into his eyes. “When you’re with me, I hope you’ll feel free to wear any mask you wish, whenever you wish it. Or wear none at all; whatever you need. I just want... well, anything and everything you are, in any guise.” He was smiling softly. “It seems I’ve already fallen in love with every side of you.”
Shen Wei took a shuddery breath, unable to speak. He reached up to remove his mask, but once again Zhao Yunlan stopped his hand.
“May I?” he asked, suddenly apprehensive again. Shen Wei nodded.
Zhao Yunlan’s touch upon the red-stitched leather felt gentle, almost reverent, as he uncovered Shen Wei’s face. He smiled at the sight, wonder and familiarity blending in the warmth in his eyes.
“Hail and well met, Your Grace,” he whispered.
“Hail and well met, Your Highness,” Shen Wei replied in the voice of Crimson Lotus, moving in to kiss his husband deeply. The love he felt was too immense for words; he hoped his kisses would speak it instead.
It was the middle of the night by the time they finally got cleaned up and dressed, donning their temporary silvery-gray disguises. The pleasure house guards at the door, alert and courteous, bowed at their departure. Down the street, their own guards were dozing off next to the carriage. They scrambled to their feet as Zhao Yunlan whistled sharply to signal their approach.
Shen Wei caught sight of a familiar dark figure emerging from the shadows across the street. The man glared at them quite clearly somehow despite the cowl that shielded his face, then jumped onto horseback and rode off. Shen Wei felt a pang of guilt. Chu Shuzhi must have waited to be sure they’d made it back safely from their mission. An explanation for the delay certainly wasn’t necessary, but Shen Wei owed him a heartfelt apology in the morning.
The ride back to the palace was quiet. They had removed their silk masks as soon as the carriage turned the corner. Zhao Yunlan sat next to him, holding his hand. Shen Wei leaned on his shoulder, feeling tired and happy.
They drove back through the palace gates. Shen Wei smiled at their post-mission return, how easy it was not needing to sneak back onto the palace grounds through the tunnels; and then he remembered...
“Let’s get out by the eastern entrance to the gardens,” he said.
Zhao Yunlan looked at him with a question in his eyes, but only nodded when Shen Wei didn’t offer an explanation. He knocked against the roof as they approached the eastern garden, and the carriage stopped.
“I know what this is,” he teased Shen Wei. “You’ve missed your flowers today, haven’t you? So now we must pay them a midnight visit?”
“Something like that. Come on.”
Shen Wei led him down the winding garden paths, through velvety darkness that smelled of earth and rain. They stopped at the conservatory off the library wing, a small warm space that housed a few tropical plants. Some months before, Shen Wei had set aside a corner in it for a special flower.
He made Zhao Yunlan wait outside while he went in. Suddenly nervous, he looked in indecision over the dozen or so spindly white blossoms left on the branches; all were already beginning to close, sensing the approach of dawn. He finally cut one and walked back out into the night air where Zhao Yunlan was standing under the stars and waiting for him.
Shen Wei presented the white flower wordlessly to his husband, who blinked, looking confused but pleased. Then he caught its scent and his eyes widened. “This fragrance - I know it. I’d walk into our sitting room some mornings and try to figure out which part of the bouquet on the table was responsible for it.”
“This is kadupul,” Shen Wei said as Zhao Yunlan took the flower from him. “I’ve been growing them for some years now. They only open at night, so by morning all that is left is the sweet scent and a faded, closed bud.”
Zhao Yunlan lifted the flower and turned it around in his hand. “They certainly look different at this hour.”
“You had only ever seen it wilted; I wanted to show it to you in bloom.” Shen Wei ducked his head. After everything they had been through together, it still took courage to say certain things. “On the nights I snuck out on missions, I’d bring one of these upon my return and add it to the bouquet between our rooms. I wish I could have left it by your bedside. It was - a kind of an offering. In lieu of...”
“Apology?” Zhao Yunlan said softly, his voice already renouncing any need for it.
Shen Wei swallowed and met his eyes, seeing in them the boy he’d met on the street all those years ago. “Fealty. Even though you didn’t know it yet, I was on your side. Because I never doubted your heart.”
Zhao Yunlan looked at him for a long moment, his eyes glittering in the moonlight. He took Shen Wei’s hand and pressed his lips to it.
“It is an honor to accept, my lord.”
Hand in hand, they walked across the garden back to their rooms.
Kadupul, a.k.a. Queen of the Night