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Unagreeable Marriages

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„And, hereby, I am proud to announce the official beginning of the engagement selection of my only son and heir to the throne, Jin Yu Zhen!“ The king's booming voice rang through the great halls of the banquet, reaching every corner with his message.

The loud and magnificent applause that followed, nearly deafened Shi Lei. He grimaced as the high collar of his fancy clothing rubbed against the delicate skin of his throat, irritating it further than it already was. His mother had forced him into the finely embroidered robes, the best they could find on the market, specifically for this event.

A candidate for the position of royal consort should look as luxurious as possible, after all, as his mother had reminded him for three entire weeks prior to the actual affair.

Shi Lei rolled his eyes at the overly excessive decorations that basically littered the palace from top to bottom. No matter where he looked he was assaulted with expensive finery and golden details, showing off the wealth the king and his family possessed. Spoiled nobles were stuffing their faces with imported delicacies, annoying the servants with their extravagant wishes that nobody could possibly follow.
Meanwhile out on the streets the poor were suffering from a drought, not certain whether they'd be able to find their next meal.

Shi Lei hated every second he had to spend in this hell hole.

And he hated it even more that he may have to endure more of this in the future as one of the selected eligible bachelors and bachelorettes that had been chosen to compete for the title as royal consort.

The prince had come of age and would soon be coronated as the crown prince. His father, however had become increasingly anxious over the possibility that he might die before his son had married an approved spouse with whom he would lead this country to success.
Or ruin.

Depending on what the prince's morals were.

Shi Lei didn't know anything about this supposed prudish prince, but from what he'd heard in passing rumors was that he was closed off, almost to the point of being unapproachable. He was apparently also quite strict with the people around him and his only friend seemed to be the personal guard he always kept by his side. The feared but respected General Yan Zhao Gang.

So a downright mystery of a person.

And the man Shi Lei might have to marry.
If he was chosen out of all of the ten nobles he would compete with to win over the court's and the people's hearts.
Which he honestly doubted.
There were several candidates, who would be a better fit. They appeared to be more sophisticated than him, prettier and with a lot more political ties than Shi Lei had.

There was no way that either the prince himself, nor the royal council or the king would specifically select him over someone like that.

Meaning Shi Lei only had to go through the next few weeks without causing any major trouble and he could escape this golden nightmare of a palace and return back to the safety of his mother's arms.

But first he had to survive these grueling few weeks in a place filled with people who were technically his rivals and out to get rid of him any chance they could get.
Not that that would bother Shi Lei all too much.
If it meant getting out of there as quickly as possible, he would actually prefer to make as many enemies as he needed.
But it wasn't just his potential marriage on the line.

There was not only his reputation that would definitely take a blow should he be a nuisance, but also that of his mother and their entire clan. It would also mean that Shi Lei would never be able to marry anyone else.

The rules went that, should you be taken in as a candidate for the position of royal consort, and fail at becoming said spouse to the prince, then nobody was ever allowed to court you ever again and you would be condemned to a lonely life of solitude as a spinster until the day you died.

This rule had been tradition since many generations ago and was strictly to be followed lest you wanted to lose your head.

Shi Lei had never understood why such a custom was ever established. It wasn't like they were claiming that the prince was beneath somebody else, it was just that not a lot of people were comfortable with the idea of growing old alone, without anyone by their sides. Some just wanted to fall in love.
It wasn't any disrespect to the crown at all.

Though what Shi Lei thought mattered little to the ones that still upheld these traditions.

The idea of not being able to fall in love ever again after he would be rejected, still sent shivers down his spine.

What would he do after his mother was gone?

Could he truly live in absolute solitude his entire life? Or would he end up going mad from the loneliness?

If Shi Lei was honest with himself, he had always imagined himself marrying the person he loved above all others. He had pictured them growing old together and spoiling their children and children's children rotten.
Now that that wasn't a possibility anymore, his heart broke with every passing minute he stood in front of the one, who was responsible for his misfortune.

Even if he was the chosen one among the ten nobles, he was not sure whether he could find it in himself to love someone like this standoffish man.

Alone the way he stood in front of everyone, elevated by his status, as though he was better than everyone else, made him seem arrogant and foolish. The way his sour expression was obvious for all to see and how he made a point of avoiding any conversation or any pair of eyes that came his way, didn't help either.

The food offered to the prince by his suitors was rejected by his guard, he didn't even deem it necessary to do it himself. And he hadn't uttered a single word this entire night.

The drunkards at the back of the hall had already begun gossiping on his bad manners and Shi Lei was sure that by tomorrow morning the entire city would know of the prince's unfriendliness.

To say that it gave Shi Lei a sort of sick satisfaction, was an understatement.

Grinning to himself, he hadn't noticed the approaching nobleman with his daughter in tow, until his mother nudged his side hard.

He winced slightly, but did his best to put up the best fake smile he could muster.

They bowed to each other deeply to show their respect.

“Madam Lan Juan, what a pleasure to meet you again!” The nobleman said, his face practically beaming with happiness.

Shi Lei was almost blended by his smile, which reached from one ear to the other. Were he to guess he would assume the man had not a single bad bone inside his body.

His mother smiled back, although she seemed far more reserved and polite, rather than pure and unadulterated sunshine.

“My dear Bai Meng, it indeed has been quite a while since we last spoke. How have you been?” She addressed the man.

He waved her question away.

“Let's stop with those awful pleasantries, you must know how much I despise them!” Bai Meng said with a boisterous laugh, reaching behind his back to pull the young woman, who had thus far been standing behind him with a bored gaze sweeping the room, in front of him.
“May I introduce to you my lovely daughter, Bai Xiao Qian. She is here as one of the chosen candidates for the selection!”

He proudly beamed another one of his brilliant smiles at his daughter. She, however, just rolled her eyes. Clearly she had been introduced to about half the room already and was not pleased with it at all.

Shi Lei couldn't fault her, though.
Had he been paraded around like a pretty ornament or an exotic animal by his mother, he would have probably ran as far as his legs would have carried him.

Thankfully, she was a bit more lowkey in her pride compared to other parents.

“And I'm to assume that this must be your own child, Shi Lei? I have to say his beauty is just as magnificent as rumored and I'm sure he'll do well in the selection process! Though I'm afraid my daughter is second to none! Who knows, maybe if you two become good friends she can secure you a spot at court and convinced the prince to make you a concubine or something like that!” Bai Meng spoke once more, his words flowing like a waterfall out of his mouth, a never-ending stream of nightmarish bragging.

He seemed to be the type to continue talking until someone stopped him in his tracks.
Sadly for Shi Lei and Xiao Qian, Lan Juan was in no hurry to interrupt the man's monologue. Shi Lei wasn't even completely certain whether his mother heard a single word the man spewed out. In her eyes was a far away look, which indicated her mind was a million Cun away.

Good for her, Shi Lei thought, half impressed she could manage to mentally drown out the man's obnoxious voice, and half annoyed he wasn't able to do the same.

“Bai Meng!” An unknown person called the nobleman over, finally releasing them from his constant conversation. Bai Meng gave a short apologetic bow before he hurried to a group of people, who appeared to be just as reprehensible, leaving his daughter behind.

She sighed, the prospect of facing even more strangers most likely an unpleasant reality to her.

“You have to excuse my father,” She said, bowing as well. “Sometimes his mouth runs faster than his brain can keep up. I'm truly sorry for what he said, he didn't mean any offense to you.”

“Don't you worry, Childe. You don't have to apologize in his stead,” Lan Juan took both of the young woman's hands into her own and gently patted them to reassure her. “I've been acquainted with Bai Meng for quite some time, I am well aware of how he can get sometimes. Neither me nor my son are angered.”

Bai Xiao Qian nodded in relief, giving both of them a tight-lipped smile, before she drudged after her father.

“What a poor girl,” Shi Lei remarked, as soon as she was out of sight.

“Why do you say so?” Asked his mother, curiously.

“Well, if I had a father, who paraded me around like an expensive object and ensured that I had a lot of enemies even before the actual competition started, I would be feeling sorry for myself as well.”

“Now, now,” Scolded Lan Juan. “You shouldn't talk this way. Bai Meng wants what's best for his daughter, his methods may not be as refined as they ought to be, but he never intends for it to come across as anything but the love of a devoted parent.”

“That might be. Does she know it, though?”

Both of them stare contemplatively after Bai Xiao Qian, witnessing her painfully awkward encounters with various men and women, who apparently didn't know what personal space meant. Pinching and patting at her, fondling her long black hair and putting their arms around the girl as though they had known her for ages.

Shi Lei was about to abandon his mother in favor of going over to the group and saving the girl from these rude strangers and their curiously wandering hands, but his plans were interrupted by a loud clap, which silenced the music and cut of the chattering abruptly.

The sudden quiet built a stark contrast to the enthusiastic festivities that had been ringing through the air, and consequently giving Shi Lei a penetrating headache.

All eyes in the room turned toward the person, who had stopped them in their tracks.

The king had already taken a seat on his impressive throne, towering above the masses, with the prince standing stiffly by his side. A servant holding a scroll was placed on the steps in front of them, looking small and unassuming next to all of the glitz and glamour. The marble steps and the glittering gold and expensive silk of the royalty's robes made him stand out like an outlier, as though he was entirely inconsequential.

He cleared his throat nervously before he lifted the scroll up to his face.

“We are honored to host tonight's important festivities, which will not only influence the future of our beloved prince, Jin Yu Zhen, the heir to the throne, but also determine the destiny of our entire nation and the people fortunate enough to live in it. To inherit the crown the prince was tasked to tie the bond of marriage with an eligible young noble. This union shall benefit both parties and is the most honorable accomplishment a consort can gift their respective families.”

Shi Lei scoffed in irritation. A repressed huff reached his ears and he turned his gaze toward Bai Xiao Qian, who held a hand in front of her mouth to disguise the laughter into a cough. Amusement shone in her eyes as she had witnessed his disapproval. Shi Lei grinned. At least he could make someone's evening a little better with his sour mood.

“We've sent out ten letters, inviting the most distinguished and sought after bachelors and bachelorettes this country has to offer as the selected few contenders, from which the prince will chose one as his bride or husband to be,” The servant droned on.

Invitation? More like a thinly-veiled threat, so we'd comply with whatever they demanded from us, Shi Lei crossed his arms on top of his chest, his eyebrows drawing together in a frown.

“Today for the first time ever they shall be revealed during this banquet!” With a grand gesture the servant threw out both his arms and the hall exploded with applause, most prominently from the more pompous families of said candidates.

“And now I ask of the heads of each clan to step forward with their chosen child, so we can introduce them to the world!”

Lan Juan's hand closed around Shi Lei's arm, a warning for him to behave written clearly in her facial features, and then she lead him to the stairs alongside the other parents. As they assembled in one straight row facing the big crowd of guests, Shi Lei's heart began beating faster and faster. The pounding in his ears rose until he couldn't even hear them anymore. He could barely understand the servant announcing each party and their respective familial ties and it wasn't too long until his own name was called upon.

“Hereby I shall introduce to you the next contender. Shi Lei, son of Madam Lan Juan and Fang Wei Cheng, who is here to represent the Lan Clan!”


Shi Lei's mother must have noticed his sudden panic, because she gently pushed him forward to step out of line when he was being announced. Almost as if on autopilot he bowed deeply to the crowd, hoping nobody would notice anything. But even though he was with his back to the throne, he felt a heavy gaze settle on him and burn into his skin.

He could barely suppress a shudder running down his back.

The roll call went by without a hitch and the festivities continued after they were finally released.

He descended the stairs as everyone's attention finally turned back to their own conversations, hurrying to the giant doors leading outside. Only when his feet met soft grass and the crisp air filled his lungs did he stop to catch his breath. As Shi Lei turned around, he noticed his mother was nowhere to be found. Oh well, he must have lost her somewhere in the bustling crowd. It didn't matter, he was sure he'd find her eventually. As soon as he had calmed down and his face stopped burning with unnecessary embarrassment.

“I'm fine, this is perfectly fine,” Shi Lei muttered to himself, before realizing how he must look to an outsider's perspective. With a face as red as the skin of a tomato and heaving as though he had just escaped a pack of wild dogs. Brushing his rumbled clothes back into place as best as he was able to, he tried pulling himself together.

He shook his head, managing to clear his mind a little.

Looking around he made an effort to gauge where exactly his legs had involuntarily led him.

It was a big beautifully grown garden with giant hedges and the most colorful flowers. Plants he had never seen, nor could he have imagined them in his own head before coming here, sprouted out of every surface around him. Off in the near distance he could make out the partying nobles, their noise slightly muffled, and suddenly he asked himself how he even made it this far without being stopped by at least one of the many guards protecting the premises.

How come none of them had asked him where he was going?
Was it alright for the guest to be here or should he better go back to where he had escaped from?

Eventually he came to the decision that if nobody had said anything so far that it was probably fine and he could continue exploring the lovely garden, which was so meticulously grown and neatly trimmed. Letting his fingers ghost over the bushes, Shi Lei could feel the silky smoothness of each plant, marveling at their gorgeous colors reflecting the light of the moon.

The star-filled evening sky lit up the entire area.

Every once in a while Shi Lei bent down to sniff at the most beautiful flowers, their aroma was subtle and sweet, unlike the penetrating perfumes the people inside had worn. Alone the thought of them had his headache returning with a renewed viciousness.

“Can I help you with something?” A voice asked him suddenly from behind, startling him so badly that he lost his footing on the slippery grass and fell hard onto the ground. The impact rattled through Shi Lei's entire body.

Rubbing his back gingerly, he glared at the rude stranger, who had nearly scared him into having a heart attack. With the moon now partially hidden by the trees overhead, it was far too dark to make out the man's features. Only the expensively decorated fabrics of his clothing shining in the poor light of the torches, gave Shi Lei an idea on who this person may be.

Stumbling over himself in his hurry to stand back up and bow profusely, his foot caught on the hem of his own robes, sending him back onto the ground.

Instead of helping Shi Lei in an sort of way, however, the prince just stood there motionlessly, watching him make of fool of himself. And if Shi Lei squinted, he thought he could make out a smug grin on his face.

Barely suppressing a sharp retort, which would not put him in the man's favor, he dug his nails into the palms of his hands and sucked in a few calming breaths, before climbing to his feet.
This time with a little more dignity and grace.

Dirt and gravel covered the fine clothing Shi Lei's mother had so painstakingly prepared for him and he had half a mind to wince in guilt at the disappointed expression she would surely
have when he showed up.
Not to mentioned that he had humiliated himself and their entire clan in front of the man he was supposed to impress the most.

Why was he so cursed?

With another glance at the heavens, begging his ancestors for forgiveness, Shi Lei steeled himself for an uncomfortable conversation he would surely have with the prince, while he brushed off the grassy stains to the best of his abilities.

Putting on the biggest fake smile he could muster, he addressed the man, waiting for anything Jin Yu Zhen would throw at him.
Instead the man turned on his heel and started casually walking through the garden as if they belonged to him alone.

Well, technically they do belong to him, his brain helpfully supplied.

Shi Lei slowly followed him, taking Jin Yu Zhen's languid gate as an invitation to accompany him.

That's how he found himself walking alongside the prince for a good twenty minutes in complete and utter silence. Only the faint sounds of the party and the shrill chirping of the thousand cicadas surrounding them broke the quiet. Every passing second felt like an eternity.

Shi Lei's eyes kept jumping back and forth from the gorgeous scenery to the prince again. His mind came up blank even though he desperately tried thinking of any topic to talk about.

How was he supposed to engage with someone so clearly above his own standing?

An unreachable person didn't need a commoner like Shi Lei to entertain him. The only thing Jin Yu Zhen had to do was wave his hand and every citizen of this country would lie at his feet and grant him anything he could ever wish for. Hundreds of concubines would be brought in from all over the world if he desired them.

So, why did Shi Lei have to cower for him too?

Still, this was a competition after all. And he had to think about his own image during this important time as well.

Not many could accurately say they had been selected for one of the most prestigious positions this country has to offer. It was an honor to just be considered for it.

Being rejected would be no shame as long as Shi Lei didn't step out of line.
Just a few weeks.
Nothing more.

And until he was allowed to leave he could at least try and be amicable.

Opening his mouth, he prepared to say anything, just to fill the silence.

“What brought you out here?” The prince suddenly asked, before Shi Lei could utter a single word.
“Huh?” Left his mouth eloquently as he exhaled.

Great, that was certainly not what he was attempting to say. It was also probably not the best way to address royalty.
Thankfully Jin Yu Zhen didn't seem to mind and overlooked it for once. Or he hadn't heard him properly.

Either way, the odds lay in Shi Lei's favor.

“I was wondering what you were doing wandering the gardens all alone like this?” Jin Yu Zhen clarified, looking him up and down as though Shi Lei had something to hide.

“I could ask you the same thing!” Shi Lei answered indignantly, almost defensively, his chest puffing out in defiance. And almost instantly he regretted having opened his mouth in the first place.

Stupid! How was one single human this stupid?!

The prince's incredulous face screamed in agreement, before he was able to catch himself and schooled his expression back into one of passiveness, bordering on blatant boredom. Though in Jin Yu Zhen's eyes stayed this strange gleam behind. One that Shi Lei could not decipher for the life of him.

“I'm not sure whether you are aware of the fact that all of this,” The prince gestured around, pointing at various objects here and there. “does in fact belong to the royal family. So consequently, to me also.”

Shi Lei bowed deeply. Partially to apologize for his own frankness, and partially to hide his burning face from the watchful gaze of this infuriating man.

Was this all one big joke to Jin Yu Zhen?

Shi Lei grit his teeth, feeling them grind against each other painfully, willing his ears to stop lighting up with shame.

“Forgive this one for speaking so boldly,” He asked, still not rising from the bow. “I was just...”

A warm hand wrapped around his upper arm, pulling Shi Lei out of the awkward position. The heat spread through his entire body, making his fingers tingle, and the point of contact became almost unbearably hot. As if he had touched a burning iron, Shi Lei ripped his arm out of the hold.

Both of them freeze, staring at one another in shock.

“I'm... I'm so sorry!” He bursts out.

How many more times could he offend the prince and embarrass himself to no end?!
Was he really this incompetent?
Freaking out over a simple touch had never been an issue for Shi Lei, so why did it have to happen now of all times?

“No, it's my fault,” Jin Yu Zhen says, folding his hands behind his back. Most likely to avoid touching the other any further. “It was improper of me to just take a hold of you without your permission. And for that I am terribly sorry.”

Shi Lei couldn't believe his ears.

The prince was apologizing. To him.
The unshakable, stoic future ruler of this country was seriously apologizing to some insignificant nobody like Shi Lei.

He didn't know if this was the best day ever, or the worst.

Possibly a bit of both.

Either way, it would not do for Jin Yu Zhen to beg for forgiveness from a lowly commoner.

Which is exactly the issue Shi Lei voices, watching the prince's face darken in an instant.

“Your Majesty, this humble subject would never dare deny you anything, if you so much as asked for it. Whatever your heart desires I shall be willing to provide,” Shi Lei hurried to reassure the man, noticing the innuendo in his implication too late to take it back. So, he glossed over it quickly in the hopes the prince would not realize what he had just said. “I am unworthy of such attentive words from you for something as trivial as a slight grazing of the hand.”

“Don't say things like that, please,” The prince pleaded while his brows furrowed into a deeper frown, appearing as though it pained him to say anything.

Great, now Shi Lei'd done it. He'd finally managed to piss off the one person he was supposed to avoid pissing off.
Not sure what he had said that upset Jin Yu Zhen so much, he decided it was best to just keep his mouth shut and try and appease the other with his actions rather than his words.

But before he could put his plan into action, his mother's voice rang throughout the night, frightening them both.

“There you are! I have been looking for you for half an hour!” She scolded Shi Lei, clearly not recognizing the prince in the dim light.

“I-” Shi Lei stammered, lost for words. “Sorry.”

He winced, guilt filling him at having abandoned his own mother to the greedy hands of the stuffy nobles stalking the halls. Bai Meng especially must have been more than a bit overbearing and obnoxious. Shi Lei couldn't imagine what horrible conversation she'd probably had to endure while being in that guy's presence.

Not that Shi Lei's own evening had been spent any better than hers.

His gaze wandered to Jin Yu Zhen, who was now standing frozen to the spot, his face closed off once more with no emotion from a few seconds ago visible, observing the man from the corner of his eye. As if guided by his glance, Lan Juan also directed her attention to the prince.

“Your Highness!” She exclaimed, bowing hastily. “Forgive me for not recognizing you!”

Jin Yu Zhen halted her with a wave of his hand, tired lines forming around his mouth.
“No worries whatsoever. It was a mere mistake.”

Lan Juan nodded unconvinced, but unwilling to argue a royal's leniency lest they actually found matter to be angered by.

“I see my son has already found a way to acquaint himself with you personally!” She rushed to grasp at the opportunity to change the course of the conversation, clinging to Shi Lei's arm like a lifeline.

“Yes,” The prince answered, addressing neither of them, really. Opting to instead examine the space around them and look anywhere else. “We've become more ... familiarized with one another.”

His awkwardness did not go unnoticed by Lan Juan, who immediately gripped Shi Lei's arm harder, fearing her son had done offense to the prince.

“What did you do?” She scolded him. He cringed sheepishly, ready to defend himself vehemently. But Jin Yu Zhen jumped in without a prompt and cleared the misunderstanding graciously.

“Your son has been more than accommodating on his part, and I enjoyed his company greatly. There's really no need to berate him.”

A moment of silence passed between the three of them.
No one sure of how to proceed.
The prince cleared his throat, sounding loudly in the otherwise quiet night. Even the noise of the partying guests had died down to almost a whisper, most currently being carried to their carriages that would drive the drunkards home. And those that were still able to walk were likely searching for the nearest tavern or courtesan house to continue the festivities somewhere else, where they needn't worry about impropriety or public image.

“I believe I've held up your time for long enough,” Jin Yu Zhen said to Shi Lei. “It's time I retire to my chambers for tonight. You should do so as well, it's become quite late. Tomorrow awaits you a long day, where you and the other candidates will be shown around the palace and be introduced to the teachers and staff, who will accompany you along your training.”
The prince's words left his mouth in such a rush that Shi Lei could barely follow the information provided to him.

“Well then … I bid you a goodnight.” And without waiting another second for a response from either of them Jin Yu Zhen whirls around and practically flees. His golden robes billowing behind him in the wind and the sound of his footsteps crunching on the gravel growing fainter and fainter.

Shi Lei and his mother looked at each other incredulously.

What was all that about?