"Beautiful'' Yunlan is saying. He never gets weary of saying that although Shen Wei thinks he can never get used to Yunlan's unbridled adoration. He's used to others calling him so many things, things that bring out the sordid nature of human beings but never this simple word of adoration. Yunlan mouths it reverently and sometimes flirtatiously like it is the only truth that he has understood in all these years of companionship. But Shen Wei is still skeptical of the truth behind it even though he is aware that Yunlan will never lie to him.
Now when Yunlan's swift fingers wander mapping and teasing all over his skin, he is more than glad that he could arrest Yunlan's attention this way. To witness the depths of the desire that burn like a furnace in Yunlan's sharp eyes, he swears he can spend his whole life hiding in this cave away from the palace and its inquisitive guards. The cave floor breeds an unforgiving coldness that Shen Wei instinctively wraps his arms around Yunlan to keep him warm. At times like these, stolen moments of passion, Yunlan gets a little more mischievous, showering Shen Wei with kisses as a distraction he chuckles while Wei struggles to pull one of their discarded robes to his side. Shen Wei thinks. It's a miracle that he found Yunlan, even more of a miracle that Yunlan chose him, the silent boring one, no more than a slave in others' eyes.
When Shen Wei was brought in to King Zhao Xin Ci's palace as merely a child, he was a little bundle of fury, refusing to be tamed even with the threat of punishment. From one hell to another, he had thought. Though Dixing was a hell, it was his familiar hell. He bled there. He knew what monstrosity bred there. But Haixing standing tall and strong with its bright and morning sun enchanted him at first. At the same time an antagonism crept into his heart, a feeling of distrust towards the people whose sunburnt skin only symbolized a privilege. This privilege which the children of Dixing could never afford. He eyed everyone with envy. That was until Yunlan.
Being the Prince that he is of Haixing, Yunlan had no obligation towards a child bought from Dixing, nothing more than as a vassal in the palace. But Yunlan, the inquisitive child that he was back then (that he still is) looked straight into his eyes and offered him his companionship, friendship and goodness of heart. Threw tons and tons of questions his way with a genuine effort to get to know more about little Wei which no one wanted to, which no one would ever want to. Pushing his favourite lyre into Shen Wei's tiny hands, he taught him to play. Sordid hands tainting the ethereal lyre was far from Yunlan's concern. From there onwards it was a matter of time. The furious beast was tamed but more than that he was reminded that he too could be loved.
And now in their full youthful vigour, they find solace in each other's arms, the beauty of a forbidden romance. Stealing a few moments from their weapon training sessions, they have learnt to speak in a love language that is uniquely theirs. Even the grandeur and warmth of the royal chamber with its soft beds, fragrant aroma oils fail to content his Yunlan. The way he snuggles close to him, his head under his chin, playing with a loose braid of Wei's hair warms Shen Wei's heart.
It makes him think that in this cave sprawling indecently over their robes, Yunlan is truly his. But not for long. Some insidious voice haunting his mind whispers.
"I heard she's very pretty'' Shen Wei broaches the topic keeping his jealousy at bay because Yunlan deserves better. Always better.
"Not as pretty as you. My Great Beauty.'' Yunlan teases and presses a kiss on Shen Wei's lips, a caress that lingers bringing many a joyful memories into his mind. Yunlan's kisses always leave him breathless, wanting for more and more. The first time they kissed, Shen wei reciprocated full with purpose, pleading for more even when Yunlan's teeth nibbled his lower lip promising the prospect of a wild expedition. That which he promised, he delivered. His Yunlan.
Yunlan had the ability to reduce every maiden there in the palace into a blushing mess. It's his charm and Shen Wei is proud not to be immune to it. Every quirk of his lips, every little change in his countenance, every clever word would have its desired effect. With Shen Wei, Yunlan gave it all with no guile, no taint of insincerity that others accused young princes of Yunlan's age with. It's until the young Prince's marriage, old Chu, his sole confidante, had said one day, dragging Shen Wei into a corner, eyes full of foreboding.
True to that foreboding, the news had come as an arrow to his heart that his beloved Yunlan is to marry an unknown princess of a faraway land. For Yunlan to be trapped in a marriage of political convenience rather than of a union of love, it is unthinkable. Even so, Shen Wei knows it has to be done, even if this means that he has to rip his own beating heart out and cage it never to be liberated, it must be done. Because it is their Queen's heartfelt desire, even if it defies the King's decree. She has one goal in her mind, the safety of her dear Prince. Her dear son. It's a common woe that Shen Wei is happy to share with her Majesty, that no ill should fall upon their hearts' greatest treasure.
The Royal Marriage with Yashou Princess Zhu Hong is Her Majesty's calculated move to keep Yunlan away from an inevitable war between the Dixing and Haixing Kingdoms. Every war is a curse, Shen Wei knows. Mad men blinded by rage, fame, vengeance lead armies after armies to doom. Dixing glorifies this madness by breeding shadows of definite death into young Dixingrens' hearts, making them ghastly soldiers envisioning doom and fall without reason. Yet Yashou have stood steadfast for ages, diligently avoiding wars of madness, fostering peace instead of chaos. Their non involvement in this war would keep Yunlan safe. Shen Wei believes.
But Yunlan being Yunlan had protested vehemently. "I won't hide behind a Princess while you fight a war '' His growls echoed through the Palace corridors earning their King's wrath and their Queen's sorrow.
Even in the face of Yunlan's anger, Shen Wei hid his pain behind his smile, a skill he had mastered too soon as a child. Like always Yunlan had seen beyond his facade, cupping his chin in both coarse hands, he had whispered promises of his love, undying and genuine. Shen Wei never doubted Yunlan but it isn't about his love because such love stories end in tragedies. It's a fate to which Shen Wei surrendered quite early on. It is about Yunlan's safety. It's about his lover's penchant for a premature grave. The dilemma between an untimely death and a long life. Poets have shunned immortality like it's the biggest lie in this world. His Yunlan is like a poet in choosing a path that is true to his heart even if that led him to his demise.
"This isn't about cowardice. This is prudence. You are Haixing's future, Yunlan'' Shen Wei had argued.
"No Shen Wei. The basic dignity of a man is to keep his loved ones safe. How can you expect me to run away when danger befalls on my loved ones? This is my battle as well as it is yours.''
Voicing these concerns only made Yunlan more determined. And when Yunlan set himself on a quest to win over Yashou without the promise of marriage, to have a strong ally besides Haixing in this war, Shen Wei could only watch silently standing beside him. When the diplomatic envoys one after the other failed to bring good tidings, Shen Wei's heart sank. He saw no way out. He still sees no way out.
"Xiao Wei, listen to me. There'll always be another way.'' Yunlan said back then and he is saying it now. The moonlight, silvery in its hue, sneaks in through a crevice, one small opening in the cave wall. It shines on Yunlan's tousled hair strands. Shen Wei itches to touch, to press his face into his hair, to breath in his scent.
If it's Yunlan,the most remarkable tactician that Haixing has ever seen, he'll find a way. But in Shen Wei's bed, he isn't a tactician, he is a passionate lover whom Shen Wei has sworn to protect, to love and to cherish.
"Are you listening to me, baobei?'' Yunlan is whispering, carding his magical fingers through Shen Wei's now messy hair. Yunlan will always have his undivided attention, all that belonged to him belonged to Yunlan. But the darkness of the cave is overwhelming save the bright light that is Yunlan who always rescues Shen Wei from falling into the arms of insanity.
"But Ah 'Lan if you don't consent to this marriage, you'll be sent to war. With only Haixing forces, you are marching to your death.'' His own words leave a bitter taste in his tongue.
"A prince should never fear war, Xiao Wei.'' His warrior's voice sounds strong and gripping. At any other time, Shen Wei would have been beaming with pride but now to hear Yunlan speak of bravery only gives a fresh stab of agony to his heart.
"It's the only thing the Queen has ever requested from you. Are you the one to defy her wishes? Believe me, you'll fall in love with the Princess in no time.'' He lies.
"Xiao Wei, please do not ask me of that. Anything but that. It's my heart. You'll always have my heart. It has been yours ever since I laid my eyes on you. It can only beat for you. I'll rather die than give it to someone else.'' The confession erupts another winter storm inside Shen Wei's heart, wrecking his resolve, it howls and wails refusing to be silenced. A lone tear that escaped is captured in Yunlan's hand. Yunlan smiles bringing it close to his lush lips.
Shen Wei purses his lips. What was he thinking? His persuasion never works well with Yunlan. His thoughts go in the other direction. The instinctive urge to protect Yunlan is what kicks in. Every war is a curse and this one, a necessity. To defend the Kingdom, to save thousands of people from the dark clutches of an unwelcome invasion, Yunlan will go to war. He'll rise as a god even when he falls as a soldier. And Shen Wei's not the one to stand in the way of his Prince's glory.
As the night darkens its black fabric further, Yunlan lies fast asleep, sated and safe in Shen Wei's arms without a single worry about tomorrow. His breaths come out steadily, unlaboured, tickling the skin that lay exposed, his skin that Yunlan thoroughly explored, learned and relearned to his heart's content. Shen Wei cherishes this feeling, the feeling of Yunlan breathing, the feeling of Yunlan's beating heart.
If there's a tomorrow when Yunlan rallies his army into war, Shen Wei will stand as his shield for it is one soul that shares two bodies. He'll tear down enemy defences, drown in a blood bath, unleash a living hell terrifying than Hades' halls lest a single drop of blood will escape Yunlan's perfect skin. It's his oath to take.
Yunlan stirs in his sleep just as Shen Wei takes upon this oath to protect. Shen Wei places a kiss upon his tired lover's temple while urging him to rest until the dawn breaks. Until then, he can have Yunlan in his arms. He tightens his grip keeping Yunlan in place, desperate for this connection like a stranded traveller seeking for an oasis. Oasis, Yunlan has always been that oasis. Yunlan is more than his love, Yunlan is his whole reason for existence and for that keeping Yunlan alive is worth it.
Zhao Yunlan is worth it.