Deep within the imperial quarters of the Meng stronghold, two Emperors knelt beside a daybed, both unconsciously counting the breaths of a man more deity to them, than king.
Complex latticework arched up to meet the intricately carved ceiling of the wide hall, throwing shadow along the smooth polished bamboo floor. Banners proudly displaying the imperial symbol seemed to float in the slight breeze drifting through the room and caused the massive rack of candles carved into the shape of the imperial lotus, to flicker constantly.
The Meng craftsmen were famous for the pale enameled metalwork that decorated the walls of the Palace of Six Phoenixes in Dragon City. There he had other symbols in large relief, like plum blossoms which to him always meant Kunlun and two highly detailed pine trees. Here they had created the fourteen imperial symbols but retained the smooth pale color Shen Wei preferred.
So in a moment of pure irony, the servants had positioned the daybed directly below the imperial fire motif and parallel to a large enamel plum blossom.
The silence was disturbed only when Shen Wei asked, "Has Lord Sha Wei remained in Shangbei?"
Jie Ming glanced at him and the returned his gaze to Kunlun, "He has. I left him in charge. He has orders to portal to here, if there is any trouble."
Lord Sha Wei of the Yinran Tribe had been one of their martial shifu and for the longest time they had served his clan in Shangbei, as they progressed through Gateway training. Later, he was one of Kunlun's main Generals and a fierce loyalist...but Shen Wei knew he was more of a father to both of them.
The Yinran like the Xunxi were one of the Nine legendary tribes, the fourth one to join Lady Li Anujin centuries ago and the first to name her as the queen. They had moved decades ago to a mountain valley where they trained keepers and builders of the Gates. The histories they maintained included a libray of some of the oldest texts of the cultivation world.
Sha Wei had taken the loss of Kunlun badly and blamed Southern Haixing entirely.
"I must ask you something." Jie Ming began lowly.
Shen Wei waited, knowing from his manner that whatever his old friend was likely to say wasn't going to be easy to hear. "Ask."
Dark eyes stared at him intently, "Why is Zhao Xin Ci here?" He asked then held up a hand, "I understand the deal over Guo Changcheng and I respect your decision."
"Xiao Guo was always Xiao Lun's...well my cousin protected him at any rate. He is either the greatest actor in the cultivation world or he was truly lost to Haixing. I have no desire to interfere over that. Xiao Lun will decide his fate, not me. But as of now, Guo Changcheng is here within these walls, so why keep the Marquis?"
"I wondered when you would ask." Shen Wei replied, slowly rising to his feet.
"Zhao Xin Ci claims that he is here for his son."
Jie Ming's eyes narrowed, "He will breathe his last before I let him,"
Shen Wei waved a hand at that. "Not like that. He would be dead if I thought him attempting to gain something from Kunlun, or attempting his life."
Mollified Jie Ming settled and Shen Wei continued, "But you are right. Your instinct is the same as mine. I thought the same at first. I believed he wanted to kill Kunlun, to eradicate the evidence that his own child was in fact the enemy of Haixing...but over time, this period I have been forced to interact with him..."
"You think he has other motives?' Jie Ming queried, concern replacing the protective anger.
Wang Zheng believed so and Shen Wei himself was unsure. He would never trust the man in any capacity...but...
"I think he needs Kunlun."
Jie Ming looked at his cousin and then back at Shen Wei, his tone edged with sharp steel. "For what?"
"Political purposes?" Shen Wei offered the most obvious option then added, "He has believed for decades that Dixing stole Zhao Yunlan."
Jie Ming frowned, "Dixing? He murdered his wife in front of Kunlun. He sent them to die." The Emperor of Shangbei shook his head, his braids falling over his shoulder, "Xiao Lun has always lived with the weight of his own birth name. The shame of being related to him."
He waved a hand frowning down at Kunlun, "I was supposed to always be proud of my father, not that I ever really knew him. A character in a story more than a real person. My cousin had to decide between claiming he was a bastard or saying his father had died. Usually, he could name Ma Liyan as his shifu, but she didn't let him use the Ma surname."
As his own father was also a character rather than a person, Shen Wei understood that sentiment easily, so he nodded.
Jie Ming was staring down at Kunlun and frowned, "Whatever he says, neither of us doubt Kunlun's version of events. He killed his wife and exiled his son."
"No." Shen Wei agreed steadily, "I would never doubt Kunlun and neither would you...but there seems to be a disconnect between what he claims as his motivation for destroying Dixing and the truth that Kunlun has given us." Shen Wei admits, knowing that Jie Ming is too leveled-headed for him take this statement badly. Even speaking in the vaguest of ways about Zhao Xin Ci feels like betrayal and something that hints of positivity just feels wrong.
Jie Ming looked thoughtful and then winced as if he too, felt the same unease. "This Zhang Shi..." He began and then he grimaced fully, meeting Shen Wei's surprised gaze. "I hesitate to even breathe a word on this subject...hesitate even more to give credence to a man as vile as him...but that day....Was it Zhao Xin Ci at all? Was he the one who murdered Shen Xi?"
The enormity of this statement stopped Shen Wei. Staring down at Kunlun, feeling as if he was wronging his love somehow, he found his voice. "It doesn't make a difference...entirely. He was and likely still is Shangbei's enemy....but...Kunlun forgive me,"
Did it make a difference if he murdered Shen Xi? To a child, of course it did. The better question was, could it make a difference with years of bitterness or hate, estrangement and the entire seventeen year war in-between? The scores of Shangbei soldiers and civilians lying in cold graves. The suffering that Kunlun had been forced bear in a hundred little ways as he grew and in dozens of larger still bleeding wounds, the betrayal, the heartbreak?
How much would it hurt rather than heal Kunlun's heart? Would it change anything at all for the child who was bathed in his mother's blood? Who united a nation, forged his own path and enacted bloody revenge on Southern Haixing in her name? Would Kunlun even believe it, even if it was true?
Could Shen Wei or Jie Ming even bring themselves to voice the words? How could they fight for the man who was their enemy?
"During the early years of peace," Shen Wei began skipping over the darkest time of their lives, "Neither of us believed that peace would hold."
Jie Ming nodded and Shen Wei continued, "I believed that one of the loudest voices in opposition to standing down would be the one to break the peace first. Strangely this was not Zhao Xin Ci. This, I found strange considering he was adamantly against surrender and so I ordered my people to find out why."
"During their investigation, my then Chief of Intelligence personally compiled a full report on the man, offering me more information than we ever had during the war. He was sadly killed before I could ask how he found out so much." Shen Wei admitted.
"In this report, he added information about Shen Xi as well." Shen Wei said watching Zhao Yunlan's chest rise and fall.
"I...reading the account felt like betrayal when I realized it didn't match what Kunlun had told me. According to one version of events, Zhao Xin Ci had been arrested by the then-Emperor for harboring a northerner. He paid or asked someone else to hide Shen Xi or to smuggle them out of the city. Another version says that they were ambushed and Shen Xi was killed. A third one says that Zhao Xin Ci tried to fake Shen Xi's death and Zhao Yunlan was lost."
"The Palace believes that mother and child were killed, believing one event more than the others I think. That wasn't clear. No one speaks of it, as Zhao Xin Ci remains highly influential and powerful within the Emperor's court."
Jie Ming lifted the damp cloth and began to wipe Kunlun's forehead tenderly. "You think towards the end of the war, he discovered Kunlun was in fact his child?"
Shen Wei opened his hand in a quick helpless gesture. "Perhaps. Whatever his reasons, he has nevertheless kept Guo Changcheng hostage. If I kill him or throw him out, I am risking more than if I keep him here. He knows about the Fifth Gate, knows Kunlun is alive and claims to have done something to Guo Changcheng as leverage. Which might be a lie."
Jie Ming considered this and glared at Kunlun's hand, "He is not the key to releasing Xiao Lun, but he is enveloped in this somehow. And Chu Shuzhi has waited long enough."
"Do you know why he was with Kunlun?" Shen Wei asked, a thing that baffled him.
Jie Ming grimaced again and shook his head. "The last time I saw Xiao Lun was nearly two weeks before he went missing. At the time we were spread out, enacting the last of his Wing Feathers plan."
"Each of us - myself, Lord Sha Wei, Lin Jing and so on - were to take down the major strongholds of Southern Haixing by stealth." A smile bittersweet and soft curved his mouth. "He never mentioned the Crown Prince or Xiao Guo. He was focused on the last lines of Southern Haixing's primary defense, before we made it to another full scale, open field battle."
To save time and lives, Shen Wei thought. It wasn't the upfront war everyone imagined in many ways. Southern Haixing used stealth and Kunlun was highly successful. Kunlun's portal arrays and the sheer power of his loyalists were a thing of legend, striking the enemy behind their defensive lines in single devastating blows.
Their motive was to win quickly.
Kunlun's motive was to save lives and end the war.
It worked better than anyone could hope. The strongholds and barrier arrays that Southern Haixing had been perfecting for decades, was no longer the defense it had been.
Kunlun and his loyalists like Jie Ming, did more in three weeks, than the entire Allies forces had achieved in seven years.
Turning away Shen Wei glanced at the window. The grey skies above lent shadow to the day, as if night was soon to fall. It gave the hills a gloomy, miserable look that in past years, Shen Wei would have found easier to accept that radiant sunlight. The cold wet weather of autumn here, preferable to the milder climates of the traditional imperial retreats.
Sometimes the glorious beauty of a fine day is as hard to look at, as a naked flame.
Grief followed him here, hand in hand with desperation. There was nothing relaxing or charming about returning here, the last place he had seen Kunlun. The center of his anguish. The place that had once been Wang Zheng's home, now her family's last resting place.
At this point Shen Wei hardly cared about the weather, found it difficult to care about anything beyond this room, the heavy weight of worry writhing with uneasy hope in his heart.
The first battle had been won, now the Fifth Gate had been closed and Shen Wei rejoiced in every moment of that success. Kunlun was back. He was alive.
It seemed so momentous, so precious that Shen Wei half feared he was dreaming. That grief had finally sent him mad or that he might wake at any moment and find himself curled in a cold bed with nothing but fading memories.
Terror and hope should not exist together, but they had found a home in Shen Wei's soul.
The world had a dreamlike quality to it, simple things requiring far more concentration than normal. Thankfully, no one had noticed yet, this distracted, easily riled mood he found himself in. Perhaps because coming here was always painful and he was never his better self when he was steeped in grief.
Steam rose in swirling curls above the jade tea set, as Emperor Shen forced himself to sit before the wide low table of polished grey jade. He poured a cup by habit and breathed in the fragrant steam.
It was only a handful of steps from the daybed where Zhao Yunlan lay, but already felt as if he had moved an entire province from his side.
His love and very reason for living was lying peacefully, but Shen Wei was devoted in ways few understood. He knew Zhao Yunlan, to the point where everything the man did was lovingly observed.
Zhao Yunlan leaned on things and looked otherworldly. He lounged. He sprawled. He effortlessly posed on furniture, rocks and on roof tiles. He occupied space with a majestic, commanding air. Like a cat, he could curl himself into corners and in the rafters of a barn and sleep comfortably. Like Da Qing, he enjoyed lying in the sun.
It was Shen Wei's greatest comfort, joy and singular honor to watch Zhao Yunlan sleep. A time when the man was at his most vulnerable, a time given and entrusted to Shen Wei's care. A gift he cherished, lying beside the man in cavernous rooms and damp tents, or stretched beneath the stars.
He had, other than earliest childhood, always slept alone. War and training had made sure Shen Wei slept lightly and always on his front, a hand to a weapon. When they became lovers, Shen Wei had at first thought sleeping together would be difficult. Surely he would disturb Kunlun's finely honed instincts?
He had no idea about customs and etiquette beyond vague marriage-related comments he had overheard years ago, and to his later embarrassment, had been anxious about making a mistake, that might offend his hero. Of course all that and the tight confines of Dixingian tradition fell away the first time he fell asleep, held in Zhao Yunlan's arms.
He rarely woke Zhao Yunlan, except for the nightmares that come to every soldier and if the reverse was true? Shen Wei would gladly never speak of it. Shen Wei found reassurance in every rhythmic breath, found resilience for all the horrors the day might bring in the warm curve of Zhao Yunlan's body. Found a home in tenderness and a sense of belonging wrapped in those long thin arms.
Holding his love, his hero in his arms and finding love given so smoothly in return, was beyond anything Shen Wei could have imagined before Kunlun.
He knew every expression both awake and asleep, the shift of a leg, the brush of a stray finger, the dark tousled waterfall of his hair....
Zhao Yunlan slept deeply but could be easily woken if a crisis was happening. The strangest of things woke him, yet he could sleep through noise that Shen Wei would be incapable of ignoring. He would often sleep during the busiest time in the camp, if there had been a mission the night before, with horses and soldiers passing his tent, never stirring once. But a candle extinguishing near him, would wake him with a violent start.
If he was cold, he would endlessly complain and grumble until Shen Wei bundled him as close as two souls could be. He would sprawl unreservedly if he was overheated. Often, he would gather Shen Wei into his arms and fall asleep content with the Ghost General's not inconsiderable weight pressing down against him.
If undisturbed, Kunlun slept on his left side for most of the time, then shifted onto his back before waking. Nightmares would bring fitful restlessness and bone-deep exhaustion would find him sprawled almost face down muttering in his sleep, or burrowed so deeply into the blankets he resembled a hibernating creature.
This peaceful, expressionless slumber was terrifying.
Seated beside Kunlun, Emperor Jie Ming scrunched his nose and pressed his chin into his hand, studying his beloved cousin. His dark eyes, so similar to Kunlun's were worried as he held his hand loosely, checking his pulse obsessively.
Shen Wei didn't blame him in the slightest, considering that it was exactly what he wanted to do.
He had thankfully given up the formalities, the hard edges of etiquette that meant nothing in the face of that forced stillness, then unnatural tension in Kunlun's 'sleeping' body.
There was a sound like two crystals knocking together, distracting them both. Shen Wei waved a hand and a Seal formed, striking the main door soundlessly.
A moment later, the golden dragon motif on the door glowed as it revolved slowly, its sapphire eyes glinting in the shadowy light of the corridor. Nice clicks as each pin unlocked, until the massive silvery tiger paws parted, razor-sharp claws retracting from the middle of the seamless door.
It was, to the mind of Shen Wei, both impressive and unnecessary, an uncalled for decadence that didn't match the simple hall built by the Meng craftsmen. Still, the Grand Minister Herald was not one to be denied. After all, Minister Wang Weihua was a man who firmly believed in tradition and the latest in cultivation techniques, somehow blending this with Shen Wei's directive that Dixingian craftsmanship was to be celebrated.
A nine dragon tail lock on his Imperial Gathering Chambers, in the middle of the Hanga Valley was not precisely what he had meant by 'celebrate.'
Kunlun would find it amusing.
Stepping inside with a deep bow, Mo Bingqing in her indigo robes greeted him with a vibrant, 'Your Majesty,"
"Speak," Shen Wei commanded.
She waited a beat until the door re-locked and then dipped her head, "Your Majesty, the Haixingren General is in the hall, awaiting summons."
Mo Bingqing had used her illusion gift to conceal their identity and Shen Wei had excused their presence as a clan from the Middle States, Zhao Xin Ci's accent easily able to pass as being from that region. If anyone had any doubts, the power of the royal command made it clear, that no one would question.
He could give an order now and Zhao Xin Ci would die quickly, never a problem again. The darkness that lived in Shen Wei was tempted, but this was Zhao Yunlan's father and he had a vow to keep. Besides, if it came to it, Jie Ming would end him freeing Shen Wei from breaking that same vow.
"Is the Lord Guardian with him?"
Mo Bingqing bowed again, her hands steepled in front of her, "No, My King."
"Keep back all his people and make sure that no one is watching. Guard the door and then leave us." He ordered.
Mo Bingqing looked vaguely distressed, "Your Majesty, shall Battle Commander Tu Quiyue remain?"
"No. Emperor Jie Ming and I are perfectly capable of killing a Haixingren dog. He is has no escape from here should he try anything."
"Yes, Your Majesty. Your Divine Will shall be done and may my hands serve you always." She agreed using the traditional answer.
Shen Wei poured another cup and glanced at Jie Ming as she backed out of the room. A silent question and Jie Ming shook his head. No, he was going to remain seated beside his cousin. A line of defense perhaps unneeded, but as Jie Ming would gladly give up anything for Kunlun, Shen Wei said nothing.
When the doors opened both Emperors watched coldly, as Zhao Xin Ci entered. Sand and purple robes did nothing to hide the military bearing and nothing could conceal those sharp eyes.
He offered the customary bow that moved neither king and then stopped.
Zhao Xin Ci paused as he stared at his son, glancing around the room quickly as battle experienced demanded and then returned to the daybed where Kunlun lay.
"You demanded of Us in return for Guo Changcheng." Shen Wei said coldly, "Here he is. Lord Kunlun, first king of the reunited Shangbei."
The clinking crystal sound interrupted Zhao Xin Ci and both Emperors looked at the door. Mo Bingqing returned and bowed far more deeply than Zhao Xin Ci, "Forgive this one my King."
"What is it?"
"A fight in the courtyard Your Majesty. Clan Meng Changying has subdued all parties, upon Your Imperial Order, she wishes to report."
Not again, Shen Wei silently cursed. Glaring fiercely, he snapped, "Keep them subdued. If they cannot obey Meng hospitality and Imperial rules, shackle them."
She bowed again and backed out swiftly.
While no one was looking in that split moment of distraction, Zhao Xin Ci used cultivation energy to discreetly drop a black power into the incense censer in the middle of the room. Shaped like a roaring dragon, it stood proudly, smoke curling into the air spreading the Emperor's preferred fragrance, the Imperial Incense recipe.
His face gave away nothing, vital for as soon as he had registered Mo Bingqing at the door, Jie Ming's hostile gaze returned to watch Zhao Xin Ci. As soon as Mo Bingqing closed the doors, Shen Wei's attention turned to him as well.
"Have you nothing to say?" Jie Ming asked idly, replacing the cloth in the jade basin beside him. "Or is staring at my king enough?"
"If that is the case, you may leave." Shen Wei said calmly.
"I doubted," Zhao Xin Ci said in a tight voice, "That you would let me come any closer."
"That was the deal." Shen Wei replied cuttingly.
"Ideally you would not be anywhere near him." Jie Ming said icily.
"I have no intention of harming my child." Zhao Xin Ci said sharply. "I have looked for him since the moment he was torn from my arms. Why would would I hurt him now?"
Jie Ming and Shen Wei glanced at one another, their earlier conversation hovering unheard. Returning to stare at him, Jie Ming only replied, "He is your enemy. Your Emperor has declared it."
"He may be Haixing's enemy, but he is not mine."
"You tried to kill him enough." Jie Ming snapped.
"That was before we knew." Zhang Shi said, gold eyes almost glowing.
"And when was that?' Shen Wei asked curiously.
Zhang Shi did not look away from Kunlun, "The Great Battle. We saw him and we knew."
The Great Battle was the large scale open field battle between Allied forces and Southern Haixing. The Allies were losing until Kunlun brought his forces in from the side. What a time to recognize your child. Shen Wei couldn't imagine it and didn't want to.
Jie Ming simply stared at him, "Good for you." He commented coldly, "Remember this, my cousin is unconscious. He has no say in this."
"Then you act against his will." Zhang Shi said in a cool voice.
Jie Ming smiled with teeth bared, "If I was lying there and you were of help, he would agree."
Accepting that as an invitation, Zhao Xin Ci stepped closer. His dark eyes were switching between his natural color and the gold of Zhang Shi. When he was close enough, Jie Ming said in warning, "Do anything and I will remove your head."
Zhao Xin Ci glanced at him but didn't bite back as Shen Wei expected, or remind him of Guo Changcheng. Instead he asked almost tentatively of Jie Ming, "It is him, isn't it?"
Jie Ming stared back unimpressed, "As in my cousin? Yes. As in your enemy? Yes."
"We are at peace. I have no enemies." Shen Wei raised a scornful brow and Zhao Xin Ci slowly knelt before the daybed while Jie Ming tensed like a scorpion about to strike.
If Shen Wei was gritting his teeth and holding a sphere of near pure dark energy in his hand, that was his secret.