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Living With a Tiger

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When he was very young, Shen Yuan’s mother sat down on the boy’s bed, took her third son’s hands in hers and explained his unique situation to him. The terms of this first explanation were vague and euphemistic, conveying what Shen Yuan needed to know to be safe in a fashion he could understand at the time. The facts of the matter were simple enough: shortly after Shen Yuan’s birth, fortune tellers of high repute and various celebrated artefacts had declared him to be the long-awaited fated match of the emperor himself. The two of them had been born for one another, and so someday, they would marry. This was a great secret, which Shen Yuan must take care not to reveal indiscriminately. Doing so might endanger Shen Yuan, because an emperor, of course, had his enemies. Tragedy had cut destiny short before now.

This explained a good many things which young Shen Yuan had never thought to question. It was why the modestly-wealthy Shen family’s home was so perfectly appointed: not lavish, but exactly-crafted. In the whole estate, there wasn’t a stick of furniture or a cake of tea that wasn’t of the best. It was why some of their maids were well-heeled demon girls, as quick-thinking and dab-handed with a knife in the street as they were in the kitchen. It was why Shen Yuan had already begun the cultivation lessons that promised to give him the foundations of a lifespan to match that of his intended, and why every year on Shen Yuan’s birthday, the boy received a marvellous present from a mysterious sender. It was why this year, that present would be delivered by the giver himself. 

“Then how is it I’ve I never met the emperor before?” Shen Yuan asked, his expression of serious attention giving way to a pout. 

“Well,” his mother said, worrying her lip, “actually, you have. You won’t remember it, though. You were so young at the time.” 

Madam Shen pulled the unresisting boy into her lap and stroked his hair.

“What will be, will be; not even the emperor can argue with destiny. But before that future comes to pass, he wants you to have the opportunity to grow up for yourself, my love.”

“If he wants that, then why send presents?” Shen Yuan asked, guileless. “Why visit? If he only wanted to ensure we were safe, he could just as easily leave us to A Mei and Baozhai. You said they were really his servants, not ours.” 

Sometimes, Shen Yuan would make strange, sharp comments like that—would reach conclusions which not even Madam Shen, with an adult’s experience, had thought to articulate in quite that way. Children often had such directness. A Yuan, though, could be as clear and cutting as a shard of broken glass. 

Love her child though she did, at times Madame Shen found A Yuan disconcerting. When such ungenerous thoughts occurred to her, she wondered whether she was just imagining things; she’d been told of the boy’s destiny before they’d even celebrated his Hundredth Day, and it could hardly help colouring her impressions. But for all that, she couldn’t see either of Shen Yuan’s elder brothers saying anything quite so knowing. 

Truly, the emperor did seem ambivalent about the arrangements he’d made for Shen Yuan, and his division revealed itself in such particulars as Shen Yuan himself noted. He wanted the boy safe, but Shen Yuan’s presence in what ought to have been the safest place in the world—the emperor’s own well-fortified palace—would be conspicuous. It could make the boy a target for the dwindling remnants of the Imperial Harem: what the centuries had not taken care of, retirement to nunneries, to cultivational seclusion or to far-off manors with titles and appropriate sinecures had whittled down to a score of key political contacts and stubborn hangers-on. 

Madam Shen suspected that few, if any, of the mistress of the rear palace would remain in situ by the time Shen Yuan came of age—which was curious, given that none of the Shens could have meaningfully objected to the boy’s being spoken for under any conditions. The emperor’s very graciousness in all aspects of staking his claim unnerved Madam Shen; it felt less trustworthy than a blunt demand would have done. His unwavering gentlemanliness struck a false note. A man with too much power to need to perform any role was playing one to the hilt. It only made any sense at all when Madam Shen considered that his Majesty had heavily implied he’d like young Shen Yuan to hear good and think well of him. Something of a tall order, given the emperor’s formidable and chequered reputation. Outright impossible, in the factional environment of a crowded harem: an emperor with countless wives was no one’s husband, not really. He was something like the Yellow River, giving fecundity and taking life according to its own mysterious and devastating courses.

The emperor knew that a boy could hardly develop well in his own long shadow. He freely acknowledged as much to Master and Madam Shen. Yet the emperor seemed unable to entirely keep himself away. Unrecognised for what he was, beyond a friend of the Shen family, the emperor had grilled the boy’s tutors more thoroughly than the Shens themselves had thought necessary. His presents were always suited to A Yuan’s age, but they clearly aimed at outshining all the boy’s other possessions, that Shen Yuan might associate the emperor even with his beloved stuffed Black Moon Rhinoceros Python (it spat the detachable cloth snake when you pulled its tail: the infant Shen Yuan had been completely enamoured with it). The emperor hung back, yet demanded the boy’s attention: couldn’t bear to let the child out of his sight for long, or to be far from his intended’s mind. And now the emperor wanted to offer up birthday greetings in person, if the Shens were amenable—as if they could afford not to be amenable, given who Luo Binghe was! 

Presented to his sovereign on the occasion of his birthday, Shen Yuan flushed. He bowed, formal as you could wish, then nervously hid his face in his mother’s skirts. Madam Shen swallowed hard, worried that the temperamental emperor would be offended. Yet when she glanced at him the man’s expression was almost apprehensive, as though it meant a great deal to him that this little child should take to him. The emperor had blown in on a wind of aggressive, boisterous charm; now he came over soft-spoken and gentle. Would Shen Yuan show him the house (a place that the emperor knew perfectly well, having visited on several occasions)? 

Given a job to do, young Shen Yuan took on a bright, bossy air. He claimed the emperor’s hand—as though this weren’t the height of impertinence—and contentedly tugged him ‘round, taking special care to draw the emperor’s attention to all his own favourite things. The emperor smirked to himself when he recognised many of Shen Yuan’s infant treasures very well, but the expression dropped when Shen Yuan cooly glanced up at him and said, “But I suppose my rhino’s from you, isn’t it? So you’ll have seen it already. You needn’t pretend you haven’t.”

“Clever little thing,” Luo Binghe said, giving the impossibly small hand clasped in his own a squeeze and tilting his head, considering. “I don’t suppose you like games, A Yuan?”

The boy’s eyes widened. He bit his lip, nodding eagerly. 

“Don’t let me win,” Shen Yuan said as he propped up his elbows on the study’s table and his chin in his hands, the better to see the weiqi board that Luo Binghe had asked his maid Baozhai to bring them. “I hate that. Now, star corners,” Shen Yuan sung to himself, placing his first stone—the substantial handicap Luo Binghe had offered him enabling white to begin.

Shen Yuan lost with frowns of concentration, nodding when Luo Binghe explained why such and such a move was cunning, or foolish. Luo Binghe laughed at the gleeful crab’s pincer Shen Yuan made of his hand as it advanced towards a stone the child had managed to capture. He glanced up to find Shen Yuan staring at him, rapt, before the boy blushed and looked away. 

The excitement of the party (Fireworks! For his birthday!) dazzled Shen Yuan, who was easily caught up in others’ giddiness. By the end of the evening, Shen Yuan had climbed, ecstatic and then exhausted, into the emperor’s lap, where he’d fallen asleep clutching the man’s robe. The emperor unpeeled the fingers that gripped his lapels so gently that the boy hardly stirred in his sleep, and passed his betrothed into his mother’s arms with delicacy.

“He’s so pretty,” Shen Yuan whispered shyly to his mother when she put him to bed properly, waking her son to change him out of his best birthday robes. “Mama, isn’t he the prettiest person you’ve ever seen?”

Madam Shen huffed a laugh. Of course the emperor was infamously handsome—one just didn’t think of such a formidable figure in those terms, any more than one stopped to remark that the way the sky changed colour before a cyclone dropped was ‘pretty’.

At first, the emperor paid his respects only on his intended’s birthday and on the most important festivals. When Shen Yuan was thirteen, the emperor felt it appropriate to call once a month. At fourteen, twice. He spun stories of his exploits, and Shen Yuan could not have been more enthralled by them: he hung on Luo Binghe’s every word, as sensible of each of the account’s dangers as though the proof of the man’s survival wasn’t sitting there before him, narrating. Shen Yuan took the emperor very seriously. If the man sent him a qin, then Shen Yuan would practice it single-mindedly until he could be considered a credit to an adult’s fine instrument. He treated the emperor rather like a favourite uncle: with fondness and awe, responding to him with childish needling and adolescent embarrassment by turns. 

Over supper one night, Madam Shen was surprised when her son mentioned that the north-western border skirmishes had nearly come to an end.

“How do you know that?” For no one else in town did, she was certain. It was the first significant conflict in decades; everyone was listening out for news.

“Oh,” Shen Yuan waved a dismissive hand. “Binghe told me.”

“But he’s not been able to come this month, on account of the siege.” She frowned (at Shen Yuan’s wildly familiar ‘Binghe’, as much as anything else). “Did he write?”

“No,” A Yuan shook his head. “Just in a dream.” Upon catching his mother’s incredulous expression, Shen Yuan amended this. “When Binghe was my age, he trained with a nightmare demon. He sends me messages that way, when he needs to.”

“Ah. And is that—all he does?” Madam Shen asked, feeling a thrum of anxiety drumming up in her stomach. The man was emperor. In a way, he’d have been within his well-established rights in violating propriety. But this was her son. Shen Yuan was still a child. The emperor cared for the boy, but he was a dangerous man: it was perhaps the most fundamental thing he was.

Madam Shen had known him for fourteen years now, and in the whole of that time, the emperor had offered her the faultless civility of a perfect son-in-law. She knew he was ‘inhuman’, but he seemed it in a way the demonic families that ran the local bakery and butcher shop never did. His facade had cracked only once, when he’d caught her older sons roughhousing with Shen Yuan. The emperor wasn’t a stupid man; he’d almost immediately understood the scene as merely a game that had grown too boisterous. His reaction had been momentary and deniable. Yet his “all right, A Yuan?” had chilled Madam Shen’s blood, for her sons’ sake. The emperor’s tone had remained soft, but the light in his queer red-tinted eyes had been wild. It was the only time Madam Shen had ever thought him fully honest. 

A Yuan blinked up at his mother. “He helps me study cultivation, sometimes, or asks about my day. Oh, and he complains. He hates army rations, and he doesn’t like my Jiu tangge much either. He says I shouldn’t spend time with such a misery-guts no matter how good he is with a qin, lest I pick up bad habits myself.” Here, Shen Yuan rolled his eyes most disrespectfully. “Anyway, he’ll be sending me an instructor from the capital when he returns. I meant to tell you to expect her.”

(“Jiu tangge is so tediously exacting and pretentious,” Shen Yuan had complained in such a dream, after a New Years’ visit with his extended family. “So am I, of course. But I wear it better, don’t you think?” He’d given Luo Binghe his most polished smile. 

Luo Binghe had, of course, thought of killing Shen Jiu a second time. It would sour relations with his in-laws most inconveniently, though, and might make Shen Yuan feel unsafe. Ultimately, it wasn’t worth the trouble. And after having met a version of Shen Yuan’s soul wearing his former shizun’s face, Luo Binghe found the prospect of striking him down a second time strangely difficult to stomach.

Infinitely more charmingly,” Luo Binghe had agreed, dryly.) 

Even with his own mother, Shen Yuan was somewhat more careful now with his words than once he had been. It was the side-effect of ceaseless training, which Shen Yuan—who called himself lazy, even as he sought out challenge at every turn—had taken to like anything. The young man was a voracious reader, with an excellent memory, an analytic turn to his thinking and a taste for rhetorical flourish. When Luo Binghe returned from the front as promised—qin instructor in tow, an elegant tree spirit who slept cradled in a willow when not teaching her charge—the emperor presented his betrothed with what had to be at least the boy’s third potent magical sword. A war-prize, apparently. Luo Binghe suggested they spar with it, that the emperor might show his fiancé its virtues. Shen Yuan dryly remarked that if the emperor grazed him, he’d surely bleed Analects

“Nothing but He Yan since the year turned—unless you count Han Fei as a break, and I do not. Honestly, Binghe, what I’d give for an entirely unedifying novel—” He pouted, strategically. 

Luo Binghe relented not an inch on the matter of Shen Yuan’s tutors (only exacting a promise that the boy would tell him immediately if he ever felt disrespected by them). The emperor remarked that having fair instructors actually teach you something was a privilege not everyone enjoyed. His subsequent appearance was, however, accompanied by a ribbon-bound stack of novels of the Liu Su Mian Hua variety. Tamer fare, in deference to the boy’s age, but with no greater pretensions to gravitas.

Shen Yuan had grown up a little flirtatious, and—in a modest, matter-of-fact way—unshakeably confident. The young man’s future was spoken for: was laid out before him with the admirable exactitude of a formal garden. Shen Yuan was betrothed to the emperor, who was interested in and fond of him. If Shen Yuan had no fixed impression of the depth or fervour of the regard of a man who’d always been in his life, yet always held himself at a distance, he was nonetheless convinced of his fiancé’s care. 

Shen Yuan thought about Luo Binghe often, in the man’s absence. Of the emperor’s large, deft hands whisking fashionable powdered dian cha to a perfect froth, and the crisp whack he gave the whisk against the rim of the bowl to shake off the drops. The breadth of Luo Binghe’s shoulders in armour, when he’d visited before riding out to the border with his cadre to relieve the siege on his garrisons there. The pooling softness of his curls. His eyes, the deep rich-gleaming red of a fox’s luxuriant pelt. The self-assured but satisfied way he smiled under a compliment. What a bitch he could be when Shen Yuan said something foolish—Luo Binghe expected little quarter, and unless he’d decided to reserve his judgement strategically, he afforded others none. Most teenaged boys discovered their erotic inclinations; Shen Yuan was not exceptional in that regard. He asked A Mei what men did with one another, and A Mei, frank and sympathetic, outlined the basics. That information tessellated in Shen Yuan’s mind, and he elaborated upon it in the lonely watches of the night, when sleep evaded him. What might it be if Luo Binghe watched and wanted him, even as much as he wanted a cup of hot tea he drank down on a biting winter day—when his red eyes shuttered with relishing it?

Shen Yuan might have felt more sedate about these stirrings if he’d not been given a handsome man with a cooly amused expression, who could lift Shen Yuan with one hand (and had done, to show Shen Yuan the weakness of his unbraced sword-stance), to assign them to. If he hadn’t been told that he belonged to someone. If he hadn’t had that someone before him, waking and sleeping, in all his considerable glory. But as it stood, some nights, when his candle guttered, Shen Yuan bit his lip and touched himself in bed. He thought about what the emperor would do to him, and about when he’d deign to do it. In a hazy, unshaped way, he dreamed of a Luo Binghe who met his own fumbling desperation with an equal and answering abandon: who cared far more about Shen Yuan than was seemly.

On Shen Yuan's fifteenth birthday, when the rest of the household had retired and Shen Yuan and his emperor sat alone in the receiving room (Luo Binghe making a throne out of the house’s finest chair), Shen Yuan slipped into his sovereign’s lap. His cheeks burned hot and red but his eyes held Luo Binghe's, determined and steady. Shen Yuan didn’t speak. He waited. Luo Binghe’s large right hand drifted up to rest on his waist. It spanned the better part of his back, and Shen Yuan shivered under it.

“Hm,” Luo Binghe said, as he flicked dark, considering eyes over Shen Yuan. “You haven’t done this since you were nine. I was under the impression you found it ‘childish and undignified.’”

He’d begun to grin; Shen Yuan took it like a slap. Of course Luo Binghe was too experienced not to laugh off the clumsy seduction of a sheltered boy—especially one he’d sheltered, under his own branches.

“What I’m suggesting certainly isn’t child’s play,” Shen Yuan corrected his emperor, blisteringly ashamed, but stubborn in it. He dug his claws in; let Luo Binghe prise them out himself. “‘If you truly hold such high moral standards, what is your humble servant to do?’ Men can marry at fifteen. It’s your law, not mine. Or do you intend to wait until I’m thirty, as the Confucian scholars advise?”

“Not thirty. And the age of marriage is only as low as it is because of the famine last century,” Luo Binghe reminded him. “We had a population crisis.”

“Well,” Shen Yuan shot back, “I’m not sure how he intends to accomplish it, but since my lord has yet to produce an heir, I’m certain he’ll manage to get me pregnant in due course.” Shen Yuan laid his head on Luo Binghe’s shoulder. “Gege can do anything.” Striking wild, now, trying to find chinks in Luo Binghe’s formidable armour.

And maybe he had done; Luo Binghe’s hand tightened on Shen Yuan’s waist. 

“Careful, A Yuan,” the emperor cautioned him. “You’re yet a child yourself. These years are a gift to you, which I won’t allow anyone to spoil. Not even you." He dropped a kiss on Shen Yuan's forehead. "Fortunately I have several lifetimes’ worth of experience, and have thus learnt something of restraint.”

“Experience,” Shen Yuan scoffed. “Yes, I’ve heard all about your experience.”

“Have you, now?” Luo Binghe asked, his voice mild and low. He brought up his free hand to toy with a lock of Shen Yuan’s hair. “You weren’t supposed to. In fact, I do believe I forbade all discussion of it in your presence. I thought it might upset you.”

“Even you can’t control whispers. And I’m not upset,” Shen Yuan hissed.

“No,” Luo Binghe placated him, dropping the tress he was fondling and running the hand resting on Shen Yuan’s back over it in soothing strokes. Tugging Shen Yuan more fully flush against his torso—trying to make a chaste embrace out of a proposition. “Of course not, A Yuan.”

Incensed by the gentle mockery, Shen Yuan resisted Luo Binghe. He pushed himself backwards with a hand on Luo Binghe’s chest. “Whispers aren’t the only thing you can’t control. If you can be experienced, then why shouldn’t I be? If you’re too preoccupied to spar with me, then perhaps I ought to find another partner.”

Eyes narrowing, Luo Binghe regarded Shen Yuan steadily. “Is that what you’d do, A Yuan? Is that what you’d like? A fumble with a farmer’s daughter, perhaps?” He considered it. “Or maybe that little succubus who slipped you an extra sesame ball at the bakery? Would you cuckold me with a scholar passing through en route to the imperial exams, who’d grin at me behind my back in my own court?”

Shen Yuan looked away, embarrassed by Luo Binghe’s frankness. No one talked to young, well-bred third master Shen like this, not ever. No one spoke to him of such things. Shen Yuan knew better than to make such rash threats; he didn’t mean them. And he wasn’t upset, he was just—just frustrated, he—

“If you won’t have me, then it doesn’t really matter what I’d like, does it?” Shen Yuan countered. “Only what’s on offer.”

“Mm,” Luo Binghe said, taking the hand Shen Yuan was pushing hard against his chest and plucking it up lightly and easily, as though Shen Yuan had been exerting no strength whatever. He brought the fair palm to his lips and kissed it. “You could try that, of course. I don’t believe you’d enjoy the result, and I’m certain you wouldn’t like the consequences.”

When the emperor spoke, his lips brushed the sensitive heart of Shen Yuan’s palm. The huff of air turned Shen Yuan’s ordinary, innocuous hand into something vividly sensitive: the most present part of Shen Yuan’s body. Shen Yuan—who’d felt twitching and hard-up, all year, and worse when they sparred (worse still when Luo Binghe casually brushed Shen Yuan’s hair back behind his ears with a proprietary hand)—felt almost nauseated with a lust he didn’t understand how to process. A hard ache of want was poured lead in Shen Yuan’s stomach. He was trembling and wretched with it, and still Luo Binghe sat unmoved. Complete and perfect in his own right: needing Shen Yuan for nothing at all.

Shen Yuan wrenched his eyes up from his own hand to meet Luo Binghe’s steady gaze.

“You’d never hurt me,” Shen Yuan said, absolutely confident. He knew a hundred wicked things the Emperor had done at the instantiation of his reign; things his tutors carefully avoided mentioning to him, but that tea-shop gossip and underhandedly-passed books yielded up easily. And there again, Shen Yuan had known Luo Binghe his entire life. He was surer of his safety in Luo Binghe’s keeping than of anything in the world.

Luo Binghe regarded him with pitch-dark eyes. “I’d never hurt you, my little heart,” he agreed. 

Shen Yuan drew back his hand. He let Luo Binghe gather him into a tight embrace and whisper, “Ssssh. There we are. Don’t spoil your birthday, my dearest—” against the shell of his ear. 

Shen Yuan swallowed a gasp. He felt grateful that, tucked as he was against Luo Binghe, the man couldn’t see the hard bob of Shen Yuan’s throat. 

“Twenty,” Luo Binghe said, sounding as if he were announcing how many chickens he’d seen in the market that morning. “When you receive your courtesy name. That’s when we’ll be married. It’s not so long to wait.” 

Shen Yuan opened his mouth to dispute the seemingly-arbitrary delay. 

“Let’s not argue any more tonight,” Luo Binghe pre-empted him, tugging on his blood in Shen Yuan. When he’d been very young, Shen Yuan had drunk a little cup full as a precaution and been given a sweet afterwards for being brave. Now Shen Yuan felt a slow and steady heaviness seeping through his limbs, relaxing him until the fight drained out of him.

“Cheating,” Shen Yuan groused. “That’s so unfair.”

“Yes,” Luo Binghe admitted. “But when you’re old enough to contend with me properly, in any respect, I imagine that a little thing like this will hardly give you pause.”

At sixteen, Shen Yuan was formally betrothed. The contract was still a secret, but the negotiations were concluded and the results recorded. The blood-sealed scroll on which they were engraved was given over to the private care of the Minister of Rites. Shen Yuan was somewhat confused by Luo Binghe’s tense, evident desire for him to approve of the arrangements. What did it matter if Shen Yuan held the deed for such a manor? If such an industrial concern were signed over to him, for his maintenance and support? He’d been raised in cosy luxury, but not in opulence. His tastes were personal and exact rather than oriented towards baroque social display. The living allowance Luo Binghe had afforded him was exceeded what he could imagine using several times over, even given the demands attendant on his eventual office.

If Luo Binghe should die after their marriage, Shen Yuan knew he might or might not survive his own fall from power, and that the matter would depend more on the disposition of the moment than anything he could do to prepare for an unknowable catastrophe. He and Luo Binghe’s fortunes were one, so why worry over-much about such provisions as though the death of a great man could play out like the end of a small one? Perhaps concubines escaped a collapsing rear palace with their jewels; empresses generally didn’t. Shen Yuan had not trained all his life to be a concubine.

Shen Yuan’s perfunctory acceptance of the betrothal seemed to sour the emperor’s mood. This resulted in a rather queer situation. Shen Yuan had realised some time ago that when he was restless, or irritated, the emperor of the Three Realms found it soothing to share dreams with his betrothed. He tempered his foulest moods by confiding in Shen Yuan. For him, it seemed enough to hear the boy talk about poetry, or the fox den by the river, or of nothing much at all. The emperor was thus now forced to sulkily seek out the very person he was currently irate with. 

Shen Yuan had fallen into the routine without comment. He might be just a distraction or a pet to the emperor, but still, that was something. People liked their pets. Shen Yuan had managed to make himself—not necessary, to his betrothed, but at least useful. He felt closest to Luo Binghe, at such times.

One day, when Shen Yuan was seventeen and his parents were occupied in town (arguing with an itinerant ice demon who’d sold them a cool-chest with wonky qiankun lining), he received a visitor. Upon the man’s admission, A Mei and Baozhai, the family’s now-married pair of women of all work (or imperial guards, depending on whether supper was finished), exchanged a look. Baozhai slipped around the partition, and from the corner of his eye Shen Yuan watched her disappear with a talisman.

The stranger called himself a wandering cultivator, and claimed to be in need of refreshment after some days on the road. No wandering cultivator Shen Yuan had ever seen dressed half so respectably, and no traveller was anything like so immaculately free from dust. The man looked oddly like Shen Yuan’s tangge (who, for his part, looked quite a lot like Shen Yuan). The stranger was older, though, and his expressions were entirely unlike Jiu tangge’s. He held his body and face like Shen Yuan did when he was trying to convince the people tutoring him to be a good empress that actually, he didn’t need tasked with additional homework, because he had this firmly in the bag.

The cultivator took tea with gracious thanks and asked after Shen Yuan with great civility. He inquired about Shen Yuan’s studies, his health. Whether he was well-looked-after, here. Shen Yuan’s eyes narrowed. It was fairly obvious what, or rather who, the stranger was avoiding alluding to. But how did he know? No one but Luo Binghe’s hand-picked servants ought to have any notion that the emperor came here. And what did he mean by his indirect questioning? 

Shen Yuan knew that with A Mei’s help, he could protect himself against almost anyone until Baozhai returned with Luo Binghe. Defence was easier than offence, when one was out-rivaled. And this cultivator, politely muffled though his qi signature was, carried himself with an authoritative air of being a match for anyone going. Shen Yuan ought, then, to drag out a civil conversation for as long as he could, to give Binghe time to—

“Shizun,” a warm voice said from the doorway. “What a pleasant surprise.”

Both Shen Yuan and the stranger glanced around towards the speaker. Shen Yuan watched the stranger’s expression automatically bloom, affectionate and open, and then, almost instantaneously, slam shut again.

“You’ve no cause to address me as such,” the stranger said. His tone was cool and direct. All very ‘neither of us is fooling the other, so let’s abandon the pretence.’ 

“You know, Shizun,” Luo Binghe continued, ostentatiously ignoring him, “I actually thought you might drop in one day.” He crossed the room, seating himself next to Shen Yuan. “In fact, I had my guards here keep a special lookout. How are you enjoying my realm?” Idly, Luo Binghe claimed Shen Yuan’s hand in his own

“I might ask how you’re enjoying—” the stranger stopped his mouth, but couldn’t stop his eyes from flickering to Shen Yuan.

“Binghe,” Shen Yuan said, keeping his tone polite, “I suppose this is one of your Experiences?”

“Oh, I wish,” Luo Binghe replied pleasantly, enjoying how the both of them looked identically indignant. “A Yuan,” he extended his free hand to gesture towards the cultivator, “let me introduce you to yourself. This Shen Qingqiu’s soul is another incarnation of your own. Some years ago, I chanced to discover that under certain circumstances, Xin Mo allows me to travel to realities other than ours. In such a world, I found an inferior version of myself—”

“Excuse me?” 

“Shizun, interrupting is so rude!” The emperor tsked. “You wouldn’t want to set a bad example for young A Yuan—ah, and there’s the cross forehead furrow. Delightful every time.”

Simultaneously, Shen Yuan and Shen Qingqiu stopped making the expression.

“As I was saying,” Luo Binghe continued, with considerable cheer and still greater self-satisfied theatricality, “I found dear little BingMei blissfully married to a man I briefly believed to be another version of my former master. After my counterpart objected to my presence in his—home—”

Shen Yuan rolled his eyes. “Just say ‘bed’.”

Shen Qingqiu bristled; Luo Binghe pretended not to have heard this Shen, either. 

“I found myself barred from returning to that world, and thus unable to press my suit. So, I determined Shen Qingqiu’s true identity, and asked a seeress of high repute to tell me whether any such person existed in my own reality. I hoped he might be yet unclaimed by rivals, and unfettered by settled affections. She told me no, not yet, but that if I was only a little patient—if I let the great wheel turn on for a the span of a mortal life, or two—then such a person, crowned by fate and destined to sit at my own right hand, would be born into the world. And so you were,” Luo Binghe said, turning to glance at Shen Yuan while pressing the younger man’s hand in his own.

“And you just waited patiently, like a good boy?” Shen Qingqiu sneered. “You?

“I can be patient, when I must be." Luo Binghe countered, turning back towards Shen Qingqiu, his mouth flashing with a vulpine grin. “And I’d have been the best boy for Shizun, if only he’d permitted me.”

“Binghe!”, in stereo. 

“You make it too easy,” the emperor said with a grin. “Anyway, you’ve cause to know how reliable Madam Meiyin is. From your own memories, I recall—”

“Yes, yes,” Shen Qingqiu said, snapping open a fan he was holding and giving it tight, irritable turns.

“My imitator must be well,” Luo Binghe said, pouring himself a cup of tea as though he owned the place. “I can’t imagine how else you’d come to be here. Looking after yourself, I take it?” He swept his eyes towards Shen Yuan.

“I’m finding that difficult, actually,” Shen Qingqiu confessed. “He’s cagey. Besides, you can be very convincing. Especially given that the other party is so very young—”

“Shizun, are you accusing me of cradle-robbing?” Luo Binghe asked with evident scandalised delight. “You, of all people?”

“I’m not being coerced,” Shen Yuan put in, somewhat offended. “Practically everyone has an arranged marriage, and I could hardly do better than the Emperor.” 

Shen Qingqiu opened his mouth to ask another darting question; Shen Yuan intercepted him.

“His majesty has never in my life mistreated me.”

“Even if that’s true, he has plenty of other people’s blood on his hands,” Shen Qingqiu snapped. “I suppose you’re aware of all that?” His expression was dubious, redolent with outright scorn for his own sheltered youth. 

“He’s never wronged me, that I’ve some right to forgive him,” Shen Yuan snapped right back. “I said he was emperor, didn’t I? I know what that entails. Ming Chengzu began his reign steeped in the blood of the Four Martyrs, yet rose to rebuild the Grand Canal and died a pillar of Ruism. People change. The realms merged centuries ago—all my life, we’ve lived in peace. One border scuffle in decades, the entire demonic agricultural crisis brought to an end. How many lives did that save? I can’t presume to count them. Am I supposed to care they weren’t human?” 

Ming? In a xianxia? The timeline of this world is a hot mess,” Shen Qingqiu groused to himself. “Anyway, relativism is an awfully convenient refuge, I’m sure—” Shen Qingqiu began.

“I suppose your husband’s never spilt blood?” Shen Yuan countered.

“There’s a difference you’re in no position to appreciate,” Shen Qingqiu insisted. “Binghe’s grown so much from what he was. What he and I are building together—”

“Then let me try,” Shen Yuan interrupted his elder self. “All my life, I’ve trained for this. I’m going to pass the three tiers on my own merits—I’m Anshou now. I can build something. I want to. What can any of us do about the past but mend the present? We work to do better, and that’s it. That’s the whole truth of the world.”

Shen Qingqiu paused, and began to look at Shen Yuan somewhat differently. Not as a reflection of his own sense of having been inadequate—nothing, before he’d had to grow up for Luo Binghe’s sake—but as he might look at a student: at someone who’d been given his own path, and had laid claim to it. The quality of Shen Qingqiu’s regard softened, and some of the tension spilled out of his shoulders.

“I was what you might call a gongshi, in my time,” Shen Qingqiu offered. “See if you can better it. I expect you will.” He rose. “Walk with me, Binghe.”

Shen Qingqiu swept out the door, and the Emperor of the known world followed directly behind him. Over Shen Yuan’s protests, and with little more than a pat on the cheek and an admonition for the young man to behave himself, Luo Binghe sealed off the house with a ward, preventing Shen Yuan from following and eaves-dropping. 

In silence, Shen Qingqiu and Luo Binghe put some distance between themselves and the cottage. It was all private park land here, encircled by a series of spelled stone walls. Luo Binghe could walk as far as the river with his betrothed without fear of being either identified or interrupted.

It was autumn, and the leaves of the scholar tree in the outer courtyard had turned burnished-gold. The slope of the hill they came to laid bare the silver slip of river below. Even at this great distance, one could see the bright gleam of the capital’s porcelain tower in the sunlight. Shen Yuan had only to stand here to take in a panorama that showcased the far-off sprawl of the world’s largest city: the Empire’s shining heart. What had once been gilded, over-opulent Huan Hua sect, and now housed millions of human and demon subjects. When Shen Yuan had been just a boy, Luo Binghe had pointed out the silhouette of the Imperial City: where Shen Yuan’s betrothed was likely to be, at any given hour, and the child’s own future home. Shen Yuan, he’d said, was never truly alone, like other children might be. If he ever felt friendless, then he had only to look here, and know otherwise.

“A fair prospect, isn’t it?” Luo Binghe asked conversationally. His pace was leisurely, now. “I had a hand in the garden’s design. ‘Green, green, grass on the riverbank; lush, lush, willows in the courtyard’—”

“He was born here?” Shen Qingqiu interrupted Luo Binghe unceremoniously, stopping short and forcing Luo Binghe to do the same. “In this world, I mean? You didn’t steal him from another, and then set him up in this house?”

“What an interesting assumption, Shizun. The things it suggests about you are fascinating.” Luo Binghe gave Shen Qingqiu a calculating once-over. “It does explain how you come to be in Shen Jiu’s body, and when you might ever have excelled yourself in a national exam. Were you a ‘Yuan’ originally too, I wonder?”

Shen Qingqiu didn’t answer. Luo Binghe disliked being ignored at the best of times. When Shen Qingqiu disregarded him, irritation crawled in Luo Binghe as though he were punishingly churning his own blood.

“Did you come here because you were worried I’d snatch up some defenceless, unprepared copy of you?” Luo Binghe mused, drawing closer to Shen Qingqiu. “Did you drop in, now and then, to check up on me? And did you never think to call on me yourself, when you knew I’d have given cities to see you? Did my good Shizun feel guilty about awakening such an unanswerable hunger in me, and then locking himself up safe behind high walls and impenetrable gates?” 

When he’d last seen Shen Qingqiu, the flood of memories Luo Binghe had received from the man’s dreams had not yet had time to ferment in him. The intervening years had allowed Luo Binghe to understand the shape of his longing for something impossible, built on something very real. Luo Binghe would rather wield the wound of it as a weapon than try to play it off before the very man who’d struck him down so easily, with a blow that had shaken his foundations to their core. He’d seen his double employ the strategy; seen how it had worked on Shen Qingqiu, who loved Luo Binghe too tenderly, and wore his guilt where anyone might see it.

Shen Qingqiu glared at the emperor. Luo Binghe took a step still closer to him, linking his fingers behind his back in an almost boyish fashion, and continued. 

“Did you suppose that I found some childless couple and gave them an infant I’d stolen from devastated parents in another world? Really, I might have been a little more cunning about it—I could give them an unloved orphan from my own land, in recompense. Would they ever know the difference? Does that suit your idea of me, Shizun?”

“I don’t know why you think to make a joke of your capacities,” Shen Qingqiu said bluntly. “I’m not that poor dressed-up figurine in your doll’s house. I’m perfectly aware of what you could and would do, and what you have done.”

Luo Binghe’s fond, indulgent smile hardened into something unnerving. “Are you? One day you really must tell me how it is you’ve come to know me so well. But if that’s the case, then you must also know I won’t let anyone take what’s mine. Not even you, Shizun.”

Shen Qingqiu gave him a cold look of blatant evaluation. Luo Binghe returned it. He faced a potential enemy with considerable resources, and a matched copy of the emperor’s own abilities, besides: another Luo Binghe, doubtless within summoning range, who’d fight to the death at this man’s command. Shen Qingqiu was cunning and formidable. If he decided to steal Shen Yuan away, it wasn’t impossible that he’d manage it. 

“Do you love him?” Shen Qingqiu asked. Luo Binghe opened his mouth to answer, and Shen Qingqiu shut it up again with a look before he could. “Don’t be glib; don’t spout poetry. Binghe, I need to know this.”

What strategy to employ in the face of this opponent? Luo Binghe wavered between obsequious assurance, proud denial, cool distance. Schemes of deception came readily to his mind. The threat was too serious for him to even consider the question. He could only fix on determining only the optimal move. 

In Luo Binghe’s instant of analytic paralysis, Shen Qingqiu turned Xiu Ya on him. The cultivator was balanced precisely in such a way that if Luo Binghe activated his own blood parasites in Shen Qingqiu’s body, the very action of Shen Qingqiu’s faltering could split Luo Binghe’s windpipe. Luo Binghe could heal from almost any wound, but Xiu Ya was not an ordinary weapon. Not even Luo Binghe knew whether he’d survive decapitation. 

“I’ll spare you,” Shen Qingqiu said, “if you let me put your child-bride out of his misery instead.” His tone was calm and flat. 

There was a suggestion of murder in the offer, but that was outright ridiculous—clearly just meant to panic him. Shen Qingqiu wouldn’t. He was, however, quite capable of taking A Yuan somewhere far away, and of then relying on whatever method he’d employed to seal his realm off from Xin Mo to protect them both. And Luo Binghe would try everything, he wouldn’t stop. But in those first years after meeting this Shen Qingqiu, hadn’t he already exhausted his options in this respect? That could well be the end of it. His A Yuan might be irretrievably lost to him, never even to reincarnate in this world, and—

Shen Qingqiu lowered Xiu Ya. Sheathed it.

“Your eyes kept flickering back to the house,” Shen Qingqiu said, by way of explanation. “You weren’t concentrating on the threat I presented to you at all. You were only worried about him.”

“I’d only have allowed you such an opening in the first place,” Luo Binghe pointed out, defensive.

Shen Qingqiu smiled, ruefully. “Be that as it may, the fact remains that you love that boy more than your own life.” He heaved a sigh, straightening himself. “I didn’t know whether you’d be able to. Really it would have been fair enough if you hadn’t, given all that you’ve been through. But if that’s how it is, then I suppose the two of you probably will be all right, in the end.” 

“The voice of experience,” Luo Binghe mocked, feeling patronised—ashamed to be fallible and transparent before Shen Qingqiu. 

“Bitter experience,” Shen Qingqiu agreed. “You’ll have seen that, in my memories. I hope you learned from them.”

“And is this Shizun’s blessing?” Luo Binghe asked. It was said like a jibe, yet Luo Binghe observed Shen Qingqiu with care.

Shen Qingqiu shook his head. “Why should the man who ripped the heavens down to the earth ever require my approval?”

“Nevertheless,” Luo Binghe insisted, swallowing hard and reaching out to capture the hem of Shen Qingqiu’s sleeve. “Give it to me, nevertheless.” Luo Binghe made little effort to conceal the genuine plea in his voice. A wound he chose to show to good effect became his, a blade turned back: unbearable honesty made into a performance. Besides, Shen Qingqiu knew Luo Binghe; he’d even married a more nakedly-weak version of him. A lie would be useless, in the face of such mastery.

“Shizun, whose approval could I care for but yours?” Luo Binghe asked his other love to understand.

To Luo Binghe’s surprise, Shen Qingqiu extended his hand and laid it on his cheek—touching the emperor as no one had quite dared to since Shen Qingiqu himself had last done so, scores of years ago. Even Shen Qingqiu’s own young reflection lacked the man’s adult assurance. 

Binghe,” Shen Qingqiu sighed, “live as well as you can. Let this be the marriage that makes you happy. I’ve always wanted that for you.” Shen Qingqiu looked away, a curious redness rising along his cheekbones. “I didn’t—only come here to assure myself that you weren’t getting up to anything more than usually nefarious, you know.”

Luo Binghe laid his own hand on top of Shen Qingqiu’s. “As it happens, I didn’t know,” he admitted. “But I’m glad of it.

Compassion seemed to come so easily to Shen Qingqiu and Shen Yuan both. It never stopped jarring Luo Binghe—shaking things loose in him he’d buried years ago. Reminding him, to his commingled horror and wonder, of the capacities and resources of his own long-calcified heart.

Back inside the house, Shen Yuan seethed at having been “kennelled like a yipping lap dog”. Luo Binghe found his betrothed well-supplied with plenty of barbed comments for the version of himself who’d just slipped back to his own universe—and, by extension, with ample passive aggression to level at Luo Binghe. Luo Binghe spent the whole of his afternoon soothing ruffled feathers: preening his disgruntled little mate, as birds did. He rather liked it, with Shen Yuan. It wasn’t a chore, the way it had been when Xiao Gongzhu had decided to take umbrage with something or other. If you had to gentle and coax someone, it could sometimes mean they cared. If you cared too, even the burr-catch of someone’s irritation could sting pleasantly.

Weeks later, Shen Yuan took up and began regularly using a fan. Luo Binghe’s heart constricted with the realisation that his Shen Yuan was lingeringly jealous of his own assured, accomplished, experienced older self: determined to do anything Shen Qingqiu could do better, even down to affectations. Perhaps he was jealous of Luo Binghe’s unconcealed interest in the older man—how sweet, how delightful. Luo Binghe rode the high until spring, when an eighteen-year-old Shen Yuan arrived at the imperial seat for his first round of examination. (Brought there by the fabled blade of the emperor himself: carriages took too long, flying such a distance was too dangerous, why was Shen Yuan being so stubborn about such a slight matter? Just to prove his independence? Ridiculous, when it was so easy for Luo Binghe to simply—)

At the emperor’s strong encouragement, the Shen family lived close to the capital: close enough that Shen Yuan’s provincial exams were held in the city itself. Luo Binghe had never taken Shen Yuan to see the metropolis. There were so many people about, and Luo Binghe himself was so recognisable therein, that it had never felt sufficiently safe for Luo Binghe to accompany Shen Yuan personally (or for Shen Yuan to explore on his own as a commoner with a light, inconspicuous guard, but no particularly convincing pretext for being there). Why did he need to go to the city when Luo Binghe would bring him anything it had to offer instantly, if Shen Yuan but said the word? Luo Binghe was paranoid, and Shen Yuan had thus far been massaged and distracted into putting up with it. 

As a civil servant, however, Shen Yuan could easily be assigned an inconspicuous post managing some aspect of the capital’s municipal affairs. If he passed on this first attempt, an appropriate position would be found for him in the Imperial City itself. Luo Binghe looked forward to being able to take his meals with Shen Yuan every day; to coming up with excuses to look in on the young man’s work. 

It would be something of a relief to no longer have to dance around Master and Madam Shen whenever Luo Binghe was restless and wanted to relieve his tension by going riding with Shen Yuan—to no longer have to fix his tired face in a polite smile and negotiate invitations and permissions, when all he really wanted to do was extend a hand to his partner and slip away from the world for an hour with the only person whose company never felt onerous. He could tell that as generous as he’d proved over the years, the Shens found their emperor’s attention overbearing as it was, by virtue of his position if nothing else. They’d never really warmed to him—too conscious of his status, and probably somewhat aware of how grotesquely much he wanted what he wanted from them. Luo Binghe might have charmed them perfectly, had he less cause to wish to. But they failed to appreciate that this was Luo Binghe at his most restrained. He wanted Shen Yuan at his side at all hours: wanted to worry him in his hands like the Guanyin pendant he’d lost as a boy.

So Shen Yuan sat down with all the other would-be juren, took up his standard-issue brush and doggedly outperformed every other applicant. The scholars grading the essays didn’t so much as know his name, and afforded him no partiality on account of it: he wrung their approval out of them. Shen Yuan was not competitive, per se—not for its own sake, at least. As long as a competition had more than ten entrants, for his part, Shen Yuan was content to wind up somewhere in the top ten. This held true in a group of either eleven or eleven-hundred. He’d excelled in his Tongsheng Shi with just the same attitude. 

But a boy who was more interested in playing good weiqi under the shade of a pleasant tree with a pot of good tea than in winning every time had ground himself into the dirt, preparing for this examination. Had been tired and dull even during Luo Binghe’s visits, these last weeks. Had seemed able to think of nothing but this. Had accepted none of Luo Binghe’s reassurances about his youth and the many opportunities before him—had sneered at Luo Binghe for joking that their betrothal gave Shen Yuan rather a steady job to fall back on.

Luo Binghe insisted on delivering the good news himself, greedily snapping the report out of the hand of the eunuch who’d brought it to him. He cut a portal to the inn-room Shen Yuan was staying in and, with a grin, offered his betrothed his congratulations on advancing from A Yuan to jieyuan. To his surprise, however, Shen Yuan’s waved the whole thing off as though his own success was cheap. His thanks were merely perfunctory; he looked scarcely less tired and worried than he had done when he’d arrived in the city. 

“Two more to get through, still,” he observed. “The huishi next year, the dianshi the year after.” Shen Yuan exhaled, thinking of cewen and Sima and not of his emperor. 

Luo Binghe gave the young man his brightest smile, trying to jolly him out of his mood. “Jieyuan, though!” He moved to stand behind Shen Yuan, resting a hand on the boy’s shoulder. “In and of itself, that’s no small accomplishment.”

“There is, of necessity, one in every province, every three years,” Shen Yuan observed, shrugging petulantly out of Luo Binghe’s hold. “You won the Immortal Alliance Conference, even if you weren’t there to collect your prize. What’s that but a wujieyuan? I’ve never heard you gloat over it.”

I might have liked to, Luo Binghe thought. He was trying to give Shen Yuan at least the chance to enjoy the moment he’d never had: someone who valued him telling him that he’d done well, and that they took pride in him. The wider world acknowledging his worth.

“At any rate, you needn’t rush these,” Luo Binghe pointed out, somewhat concerned that Shen Yuan’s mind was already fixed on the coming huishi. “People take years to pass through the cycle. Thirty is green, for a full-fledged jinshi. You ought to enjoy your youth.” Luo Binghe had been careful to shelter it, after all. It had been so important to Luo Binghe that Shen Yuan be raised simply, in a cottage with his family. His mother. Those years, lean as they’d been, had represented perhaps the only time in his own life before Shen Yuan had entered it when Luo Binghe had felt truly happy. 

He’d never told Shen Yuan as much; that he’d begun more humbly even than Liu Bang had. He’d never detailed the parameters of his time under his first master’s hands, or said how he’d come to the Abyss and what exactly had befallen him there. Shen Yuan believed Luo Binghe couldn’t control whispers; Luo Binghe let him think it. It was true, and it wasn’t. The matters of the private man he had then been were of necessity less discussed than those of an emperor. Old tongues were still, and Luo Binghe had outlived his own contemporaries. Every secret of his past had since been occluded in seemly fictions: only the most sanitised versions of Luo Binghe’s first disappearance from the world now circulated. 

Luo Binghe wanted Shen Yuan to respect him. How could he, knowing all that? How could delicately-reared Shen Yuan ever think of the desperate, sobbing, filth-crusted and hopeless wretch Luo Binghe had been and love him? Any creature that had ever lived on the street knew that a pretty, smiling child got rice while a surly, ugly thing starved.

“I’d rather get the exam cycle over and done with,” Shen Yuan said bluntly. “All this pointless preparation, to no end but determining whether I’m fit to actually do anything.”

“Shall I move the examinations forward?” Luo Binghe asked, grasping for something to answer Shen Yuan’s flat, joyless tone. It was no good being adept at pleasing people, if his betrothed—who normally let himself be pleased, most gratifyingly—was in no humour for it. “It doesn’t give you much time to prepare, but I could issue a zhiju to that effect—”

“No, no,” Shen Yuan dismissed the whole notion with a distracted wave of his fan. “I should be seen to earn this, as other men do. That’s the whole point. It’s how I’ll garner the authority to revitalise the Wang Anshi reforms. The exams aren’t fit for purpose; they completely lock out demonic candidates, not to mention any human foolish enough to be born to a lesser family. I know the civil service all came up that way; they like holding onto the reins. It isn’t worth the trouble it’d cause you to budge on an accommodation you reached with their grandfathers and lose their good will. But they can’t say I’m an outsider, or only bitter, if I’m human, and if I’ve won the accolades, and I still think they’re worthless. I’ll be able to help you, like this—to go where the emperor can’t.” If he carved a space for himself at Luo Binghe’s side, then Shen Yuan could make himself necessary to his husband; if Luo Binghe didn’t need Shen Yuan as a person, then he could still need him as an able partner. It was no small thing, to be a true help-meet.

Shen Yuan paced over to his trunk. 

“There’s some fucking reception tonight too, isn’t there? And you’ll be gracing us with the Imperial Presence, I expect. What should I wear?” Shen Yuan began to root through his qiankun bag, dumping garments he’d not yet bothered to unpack out on the bed. “I’ve brought nearly everything you’ve given me inside the last year—”

“I’ll be in blue-gold summer court dragon robes,” Luo Binghe commented, helping Shen Yuan sort through the piles of luxurious silk and brocade. Biting his tongue about how this reception wasn’t actually held every year new juren were chosen, as some matter of course.

Shen Yuan nodded. “Right. So anything but blue.”

Luo Binghe frowned at him in question. 

“So we don’t match,” Shen Yuan reminded his lord. “To give no one the impression that we spoke to coordinate, or that I’m wearing your colours.  

“That alone won’t compromise your safety,” scoffed Luo Binghe, who quite liked the idea of Shen Yuan in the royal blue robes, with their filagree of gold embroidery, that Luo Binghe had given him at the Dragon Boat Festival. They were almost the inverse of the emperor’s own costume, and would thus provide a striking compliment to it. Someone perceptive might see the elegant, graceful young scholar and the emperor in conversation and remark that they looked of a piece with one another: as though they belonged together.

“No,” Shen Yuan admitted, selecting a striking red, white and black layered affair that always made him look older than he was. “Not in and of itself. But eventually someone will see us together, and with enough such minor slips, they’ll assume I fucked my way into office. And since you won’t even let me try, you should go. It’ll take me ages to change into this.”

Luo Binghe rolled his eyes. “I’ll fix your guan,” he said, reaching forward to tug the pin of Shen Yuan’s current, plain affair out of his top-knot. Shen Yuan’s hair was one of his finest features. When they were alone together, Luo Binghe loved to see it loose. It wasn’t quite proper, but Luo Binghe was often the one to delicately set or unbind it. He allowed himself the intimacy. If a servant girl who was nothing to Shen Yuan could carelessly touch him like that, why shouldn’t the emperor enjoy the privilege? At least he knew how to value it.

Shen Yuan turned, slipping away before Luo Binghe could grab the pin. 

“I’ll leave it up until I’ve changed, it only gets in the way. Hadn’t you better dress? The dragon robes take even longer than this does.”

Luo Binghe pursed his lips. Everything Shen Yuan said was reasonable. Nonetheless, he was being thoroughly dismissed. By Shen Yuan, who knew him best—who forewent protocol with him on account of it, and who was taking advantage of their intimacy to inform the emperor that his presence was unwanted. Luo Binghe departed without further conversation, troubled by a simmer-spike of wavering anger. It felt like Xin Mo hadn’t in a century: small and poignant, creeping and undismissable. 

He told himself that it only was nerves rendering Shen Yuan battened-down and cold, and that the reception would be better. It was worse. Shen Yuan avoided so much as being ‘introduced’ to his sovereign, disdaining even eye contact. Luo Binghe wouldn’t publicly countermand his future empress’s wishes, or force an issue before he properly understood its shape. 

Shen Yuan's hair and eyes shone in the imperial reception room’s bright lantern-light, rendering him an alternating vision of gleaming darkness and moon-pale skin. He had grown into the long, elegant lines of his hands and face at last. He was well-proportioned rather than gangly, as Luo Binghe had been at his age. He looked exquisite in bruise-red silk robes, at once the simplest and finest in the room: as resplendent and gorgeous as a bridegroom. Cautious, prudent little Shen Yuan, Luo Binghe thought with a sneer, ought to tone that down, since he was so worried about making himself conspicuous. Not out of a healthy concern for his own safety, but because it’d look better to people whose opinion he truly needn’t value anything like so highly as he did; Luo Binghe himself didn’t.

But then, Luo Binghe considered with a flash of chagrin, how was Shen Yuan supposed to know how normal people, or even other aristocrats, dressed? The boy had been swaddled in brocade since birth. He and his family had always worn the finest Luo Binghe’s money could buy (and thus even their servants, the finest cast-offs) before human and demonic villagers who couldn’t tell the difference between ‘rich’ and ‘conspicuous’. Luo Binghe imagined that Shen Yuan was internally making shame-faced calculations regarding his error of judgement, when he ought to feel only pride in his accomplishment, tonight. And Luo Binghe could have told Shen Yuan all about such things, if he’d but asked. Shen Yuan had asked things of him, when he’d been younger—had wanted things for himself. Novels and delicacies, rather than tools for his future.

Having spent so much time with Shen Yuan alone in his home, or lightly chaperoned, Luo Binghe had grown very used to having his betrothed’s complete attention. They’d hardly ever been together in more company than simple family festivals afforded. On such occasions everyone had paid due attention to the most highly-ranked person in the room, but Shen Yuan had always eagerly sought Luo Binghe’s conversation, his approval—his, and not ‘the emperor’s’. 

‘We are of one mind', as the ancient poets said: no one but Luo Binghe himself could quite keep up with his Shen Yuan. No one else entered so readily into Shen Yuan’s games and suppositions, no one else fixed upon topics with such hungry curiosity, such tireless enthusiasm. No one but they two seemed so readily sparked to emotion, or so able to forcibly recall themselves to thoughtful consideration. Talking to Shen Yuan had been like teaching him to dance; the years had but grown his grace.

Yet in the evening’s throng, Shen Yuan exerted himself mightily. The young star of the hour was a complete unknown. He spoke to everyone who wanted to speak to him, and plunged into crowds and sought out other partners besides. Witty, the company’s fresh jieyuan: calculated and confident. Flirtatious, but judiciously so. He promised nothing, after all. Mysterious young Shen Yuan was going places, and everyone was learning his name. 

From the dais, Luo Binghe watched him move. Tracked him darting about in black, white and red, like a sore-wounded magpie. Whirling, faster and faster. Evidently Shen Yuan would dance with anyone, so long as they weren’t his betrothed—who he’d seemed so terribly bored with, of late. People Shen Yuan conversed with sometimes stuttered, in answering him. Sometimes stared after the youth when he left. Luo Binghe watched their heads turn to follow Shen Yuan's departing form, and learned to hate decent men who’d spent their lives in his service.

Luo Binghe had hardly ever had to fight for a woman’s attention. When he had, the contest had scarcely been emotionally involving for him, beyond being a game he’d wanted to win. Largely, the women involved had felt the same. Marriage was a transaction almost everyone made at some point in their lives: securing the emperor on contractual terms could hardly be considered less than a victory. 

Sometimes, matters between Luo Binghe and a woman had been more than that: an interest had flared bright, before it ebbed. Sometimes, he’d wanted. In the first, desperate years of his rise to power, Luo Binghe had thought he could love enough to exhaust his own hatred. He’d imagined each fresh conquest might complete him. He’d performed more than he could force himself to feel. It had not been the kind of performance wherein truths of different kinds had been layered like thin sheets of pastry, then crisped by the heat of frisson into some delightful new thing that yielded and snapped. It had not been the kind of play that had built whole new realities from sentimental exchange. It had, instead, been a mere concealment of absence. Luo Binghe had always found a lack in his wives, and, more fundamentally, in himself. Even after he’d grown old enough to know better, on rare occasions, Luo Binghe had found someone, somewhere, and hoped.

None of that at all resembled his involvement with Shen Yuan, who Luo Binghe had cared for deeply for almost two decades, now. Whose very birth he had awaited. At first Luo Binghe had worried that one day, coldness would set in between the two of them—that he’d fail Shen Yuan like he’d failed Yingying and Mingyan, when the bright crush of their romances had given way to gentle amiability. He’d worried he’d break the small, wondering heart in his hands, or that he’d smother the fresh, wick growth of it by being unable to help doing what he always did: looking at someone and weighing them, relentlessly. That he’d let his own interest slip away from him. That he’d hold himself in reserve, or ask more than anyone would or even could give him. 

Long ago, Luo Binghe had learned how to win. In exchange, he had forgotten how to let himself be conquered. His heart had retained its childish, tenacious voracity, but the art of making himself lastingly lovable had been lost to him. He could have, and could not hold. Luo Binghe had sufficient resilience to make a life out of far barer materials than this; his adulthood had not been without measures of fondness, satisfaction and pleasure. But the more he’d gained, the more opportunity Luo Binghe had been afforded to discover the particular dimensions of his own inadequacy. He’d never thought to ask whether he was happy until he’d stumbled into a world where another Luo Binghe was, and realised how little resemblance that happiness bore to his own triumphs. 

So Luo Binghe had pinned his tattered hopes, the frayed remnants of his banners, on a memory, a child, a prophecy. It was ludicrous, he knew. But as Shen Yuan had grown into himself, all those welling worries had just—slipped, from Luo Binghe. He’d not so much answered them as forgotten even to think of them. That vein of boxed-in stewing bore so little relationship to his life now. What swum through Luo Binghe’s mind instead were the particulars of taking care of Shen Yuan. What he needed, what he might need in future. The business of the day: whatever they’d last discussed. The weight of Shen Yuan’s hand in Luo Binghe’s. His best means of retaining the boy’s regard and approval. Sliding a jade pin into his someday-lover’s hair with precision. Smoothing the backs of his knuckles over the nape of Shen Yuan’s neck with possession. 

Luo Binghe took no wife and dabbled with no plaything, while Shen Yuan grew. It would have felt disrespectful. Vapid, even outright undesirable. A fully-realised heavenly demon, he was thoroughly Xin Mo’s master, not the other way around; his reliance on the blade had lessened as his rule had stabilised. And so the sex Luo Binghe hadn’t had for years and years simmered in clasped hands and interlaced fingers. The pout of his own lips around a ‘Yuan’, the innocent curl of the boy’s body against his own when they sat on the river bank, coiled together like the foxes sleeping in their den below. Sex lingered in the press of the flat of Luo Binghe’s palm against the jade ornaments at Shen Yuan’s waist when he drew his betrothed’s back against his own torso before a bronze mirror, adjusting the ties of the new trinket he’d given his intended. “Isn’t that lovely,” he’d murmured against Shen Yuan’s ear, and Shen Yuan had shuddered in his hands like a bird in a predator’s mouth.

Occasionally, Shen Yuan truly threatened his composure. Most of the time, it wasn’t hard to wait. What were these years to two centuries? Luo Binghe could chastely brush Shen Yuan’s hair until it shone, could kiss his forehead, and could go home and bring himself off to the thought of wrapping those locks around his cock like so much silk and then painting them with his spend. Shen Yuan left gasping, indignant, red-cheeked, whining “Binghe!” and wanting soothed. The memory of the catch in Shen Yuan’s breath when he stumbled while walking and Luo Binghe caught him was more to Luo Binghe than a chieftain’s daughter enthusiastically offering herself up to the harem in tribute.

Luo Binghe was sensual by natural inclination. He understood his own feelings by the catch in his stomach when Shen Yuan gave him one particular, lazy smile. In the sea-sick pitch of his heart when Shen Yuan had offered himself, petulant and ridiculous and tempting—it felt like being seventeen again, or like what that would have been, if seventeen had been kind to Luo Binghe. That surge of feeling, but surer and stronger. There was no need whatever to question whether he’d want Shen Yuan as his betrothed deserved to be wanted until the end of their days: at least for Luo Binghe, Shen Yuan was impossible not to cherish. The love Luo Binghe had once tried to dig for in himself, like men hacking into the earth for a seam of gold that even if discovered would eventually give out welled up ceaselessly, with the slightest provocation. He didn’t have to hope that Shen Yuan would complete him; in his presence, Luo Binghe simply found himself whole. 

But because Shen Yuan had become so necessary to Luo Binghe, he had likewise become Luo Binghe’s chiefest weakness. In the middle of the party he himself was throwing, nominally for all the provincial exam’s victors and actually just for Shen Yuan, Luo Binghe realised, in a way he never quite had before, that he had no idea whether Shen Yuan preferred him to all others. Whether Shen Yuan even saw him as more than an uncle he had to be polite to, and who’d amused Shen Yuan when he was more easily pleased. He had always seemed to like Luo Binghe. Had that been a child’s whim, an adolescent fancy? 

Some prescient worry of that kind had snaked through Luo Binghe’s mind when Shen Yuan had attempted to yield himself up: a fear that Shen Yuan might regret having done so, in this fashion, and that if he did, it would be the only rejection that had mattered to Luo Binghe in (other people’s) lifetimes. Terrified and barely seventeen, Luo Binghe had lost his own virginity to a girl he’d known mere hours. He’d barely liked it; he’d no fondness for the memory or the person. What if Shen Yuan should regret him like that? Luo Binghe ached for Shen Yuan with the resigned constancy with which people missed an absent limb, but he had acted to protect himself almost before realising he was doing it. 

Shen Qingqiu had adored that knock-off, certainly, but everything about their relationship had been different. Luo Binghe looked perhaps ten years older than his own Shen Yuan, and was in truth an immortal, ageless boy-king who held dominion over the world without ever having fully managed to leave his own childhood behind him. He was two centuries his destined partner’s senior. Not an unheard of difference, among demons and cultivators, but neither was it trivial. So why shouldn’t Shen Yuan prefer to associate with these lesser men around him now? Men who were less brilliant, and who'd done less wrong: pleasant, uncomplicated people. ‘Keeping company with the sovereign is like living with a tiger.’ Shen Yuan had been born into Luo Binghe’s den—he’d never chosen to walk in and stay.

Luo Binghe could dazzle Shen Yuan. Luo Binghe looked at beasts in the wild and habitually evaluated how he might come out the victor should they make an attempt on his life. Luo Binghe looked at people and saw how he might win or destroy them, as necessary. But Luo Binghe also knew from bitter experience that enchantment melted like morning dew come noon, lacking the lasting force of affection. He’d been trying to build that finer thing between them. And yet he’d never wanted to seem less than awe-inspiring, in Shen Yuan’s young eyes. Too ambivalent, Luo Binghe had wanted to be close and remote: at once intimate and magisterial. 

Yet even in a divided, curtailed form—hadn’t Luo Binghe been a real version of himself? He had given Shen Yuan eighteen years to see him. Perhaps Shen Yuan had, and in so doing, had ultimately found him either too much work or as unremarkable as furniture. Even being emperor was worth so little, in truth. It had yet to make any wife truly value Luo Binghe, who honestly didn’t see what more he might accomplish in the world to capture and keep Shen Yuan’s regard. Perhaps it didn’t even make sense that a part of Luo Binghe’s own soul should like him. It wasn’t as though he usually liked himself.

Morosely, Luo Binghe drummed his fingers on the arm of his throne and smoothed the course of his blood in Shen Yuan. That reassuring, possessive little hitch normally made Shen Yuan settle, like stroking a cat along its spine. This time, however, Shen Yuan didn’t so much as twitch. Luo Binghe frowned. A minute later, when Shen Yuan's conversation had wrapped up, he shot Luo Binghe a hot glare. ‘Will you stop that?’, as cleanly-conveyed as flag-signals between warships. 

Luo Binghe glared right back. Shen Yuan turned his back on him and swept away, determined to have it out with his fiancé later. When the emperor announced his retirement a tense hour afterwards he plucked his blood in Shen Yuan as though it were a qin string, leaving the younger man vibrating. He couldn’t have told Shen Yuan to wrap it up and attend to him more high-handedly if he’d bellowed the command across the hall. 

When Shen Yuan strode into his rented room and slammed the door behind him, he found Luo Binghe lounging indolently on the bed, waiting for him. 

“What the hell is wrong with you tonight?” Shen Yuan asked, smacking his fan against his hand for emphasis.

“Does it amuse you to make me jealous?” Luo Binghe asked instead, in a pleasant tone that boded no good to anyone—not even the man employing it. 

Shen Yuan gave him a bewildered look. “Of who? My cohort? You were there the whole time; we were only talking.”

The way he acted as though he couldn’t conceive of Luo Binghe’s meaning grated on the emperor’s already thin patience. But he’d never once raised his voice to Shen Yuan, and he’d no intention of beginning now. 

“Have a care to keep it that way,” Luo Binghe said silkily as he rose from the bed and approached his betrothed. With precise fingers, he plucked the young man’s hairpin free and unspooled the long whirl of lustrous black. 

Even if Shen Yuan didn’t reciprocate his own feelings (and really, how could he?), Luo Binghe would have him. Neither of them could escape destiny, though Luo Binghe would have ripped any grand design that included his giving up Shen Yuan to pieces and forged a new order in his place. Shen Yuan did not have to like Luo Binghe to marry him. Anything Shen Yuan wanted to feel about the matter was his right, so long as it happened nonetheless. So long as he didn’t come to despise Luo Binghe. Some of his wives had, in the end.

“I have to make connections,” Shen Yuan muttered, already preoccupied. Far away, even as Luo Binghe was touching him. “I’ve been too sheltered,” he said, and Luo Binghe heard accusation in it. Who but he had kept Shen Yuan in private tutelage in a rural idyll, at a remove from other young aristocrats? “I dressed all wrong, you saw it. I don’t have half the social capital I’ll need. These people all know one another, and passing the exams doesn’t guarantee a post.”

“A Yuan,” Luo Binghe laughed, his temper gentling a degree. Feeling helpless with fondness, despite himself. “You outperformed every competitor. Of course you’re guaranteed a choice position, even before I say a word about it. I’m going to have someone write you letters of introduction to the proper people, so you’ll be granted a fitting office in the Imperial City.” 

Had Shen Yuan been worried about being dispatched somewhere far away? Banished to the Northern Territories, where they were always hungry for talent? Luo Binghe could understand that—the thought of being so far from Shen Yuan, and for so long, made him deeply uneasy himself. If Xin Mo cracked, there were talismans. If his cultivation failed, two days’ hard ride would still bring him to his intended’s door. It was a comfort, to a man used to planning for awful eventualities.

“The Imperial City?” Shen Yuan frowned at Luo Binghe, shaking his hair loose and tossing his formal guan down on the dressing table. “No, that won’t be impressive enough. I need to serve somewhere else in the empire for a year—another of the great cities, probably. Someone told me tonight that there’s an interim role in Mobeijun’s court. It needs filled while his cousin guards her mother’s tomb. That would occupy the year before the exam precisely. Do you know what I’d have to do to secure an audience with Mobeijun?” Shen Yuan took off his belt-ornaments, placing them on the table. “Who do I petition?”

Luo Binghe felt the muscle of his cheek twitch, hard. 

“If you truly want to spend the next year in the Northern Territories, I’ll tell Mobeijun the position is yours. I didn’t nearly splatter the man’s half-frozen brains out in his own throne room two centuries ago for my empress to go begging at his feet.” 

Surely, Luo Binghe thought, trying to calm down, he could simply seem to acquiesce, and then charm and rationalise Shen Yuan out of his course.

“Why are you being so uncooperative?” Shen Yuan snapped, ripping off the top layer of his ensemble—the wedding-red silk—and throwing it towards his trunk. “You’re far too clever not to take my meaning, yet you refuse to understand me!”

A shot of panic stripped through Luo Binghe at the idea of their being so misaligned, of his falling out of step with Shen Yuan. It was a problem they’d never had.

“On the contrary,” Luo Binghe said through gritted teeth, “I’m being as obliging as possible, even about your ridiculous notion of spending the next year on the fringes of the demonic realms.”

“Look,” Shen Yuan said, sitting down on the bed and letting his shoulders slump. “For the rest of our lives, everyone will say I didn’t win the throne as you did. Fine: I didn’t. I was just born lucky. You ensured I had the best tutoring, and I’ve passed my exams on account of it. But I don’t want not to deserve this at all. Never to be respected enough to be effective, never to live up to it. For the whole work of my life to be a bad joke. I won’t be useful to you, if I can’t—” Shen Yuan trailed off.

“You needn’t worry about not being as well connected as some imagined minister, the lustre of whose name comes from his lineage rather than his personal accomplishments,” Luo Binghe dismissed his concern. If anyone disrespected Shen Yuan they’d be dismissed; it was that simple. “As yourself, you are invaluable to me.”

Shen Yuan laughed at that, a little unkindly. “Like a favourite pet, I know. But a pet can’t help you reform these exams.”

“Fuck, I wish you’d heel like you knew you were anything of mine!” Luo Binghe snarled, coming to stand in front of Shen Yuan and clenching his fists so that he wouldn’t seize the youth’s chin in his hand. “If only you’d kneel and beg for attention, rather than leaving me to do it. I’ve raised you from a kitten, and you’re still like this —so calm, so indifferent!” Luo Binghe scoffed. “Telling Shizun you’ll marry me because ‘you can hardly do better’—I’ll bet he pitied me . Calling fucking exam reforms ‘the work of your life’. I’m the work of your life! You’re the work of mine.”

Lou Binghe swallowed; his voice was too fast and unsteady. “You’re the reason I exist,” he managed in a small, spiteful tone.

A fresh panic crested in him. He’d never cursed before Shen Yuan (like the wretched street child he’d once been); never raised his voice. He’d never wanted Shen Yuan to see him wrathful, unstable, uncontrolled. Needful. To be afraid of him, to think less of him. And if clear-sighted Shen Yuan hated him for such faults, that wouldn’t be Shen Yuan’s fault. It’d be Luo Binghe’s, for their being true. 

He could salvage this, at least this first time. Luo Binghe had always known he’d be able to cajole and seduce Shen Yuan into going through with a marriage that would bind them more thoroughly than Luo Binghe had allowed his earlier, partial marriages to. But he’d hoped that he couldn’t love someone so much without them liking him back.

Shen Yuan blinked at Luo Binghe, looking as though his worldview had been shattered. “You’re actually upset.”

Luo Binghe took the observation like a backhand from his first master, in silence. 

“You want me?” Sitting on the bed, Shen Yuan looked up at Luo Binghe. His expression was almost scandalised.

His seeming-surprise shocked an ugly laugh out of Luo Binghe, who hadn’t laughed with that edge of hysteria in it since he’d been only a little older than Shen Yuan was now.

In the face of that response, Shen Yuan seemed to feel himself foolish. He flushed. Looked away. “I assumed you didn’t—or at least, not yet. You looked at Shen Qingqiu,” he sneered the name, “like you were a breath away from throwing him against a wall. For all I know, you had him against the scholar tree in the garden. You’ve never looked at me like that.”

“Because I don’t allow myself to look at you in that fashion,” Luo Binghe said, turning away and bracing the lean line of his back against the corner-pillar of the room’s box-bed. “I can’t.” 

If Luo Binghe hadn’t already been bewitched by another, adult form of Shen Yuan, he would have suspected himself of having lost his ever-tenuous grip on sanity when they’d met. He’d clutched a month-old child to his chest with sexless, animal, physical need, ‘thinking give him back, put him down’ for whole minutes before he’d managed to make himself do it. Before he’d been able to convince himself that it’d be fine, that Shen Yuan was his, and that no one was strong enough to hurt him or take him away. Did Shen Yuan—who’d grown strong and fair, kind and quick—ever feel less than wanted? The prospect was so stupid, and so distressing. 

“Since you held my hand,” Luo Binghe blurted, robbed of his habitual, thoughtless elegance. Stripped of poetry, ragged as he’d been in the gutter and defenceless as he’d been before the Abyss. “How you managed to find me worthy of your trust. When you said you’d carry my child, I know it was half a joke to you, but—A Yuan, I’ve wanted you.”

Necessary to Luo Binghe as his power was and unable as he was to relinquish it, he did understand that it would have been better to have been an honest and true-hearted farmer than an emperor who couldn’t even bear to sire children. A cultivator's control of his body was such that he could avoid bringing life into the world as easily as breathing. A Heavenly Demon would live until he was conquered, and so there was no pressing reason for Luo Binghe to provide himself with inheritors. But more fundamentally, Luo Binghe hadn’t known he could love an heir rightly—hadn’t known, absolutely, that he could serve them a better hand than the one he’d been dealt, in higher and holier terms than simple material provision. If he couldn’t love like his mother had loved—starving and yet spooning food into a child’s mouth, cold and yet taking the wind, tucking something against his body that needed him—then Luo Binghe was broken beyond repair, like Shen Jiu had been. Then he deserved no such thing as a child, however much he thought that tending to a family might well be the whole point of him as a person. If he couldn’t manage being a husband, how would he ever manage being a father?

But now he knew he’d die, for any dear thing of Shen Yuan’s. Die easy, die glad. He was ready. He was sure. He awaited this eventuality with a small, bright joy that sat at the core of his heart, and with a yearning like gutting hunger: one day, Shen Yuan would give this to him.

Shen Yuan observed Luo Binghe, his great dark eyes shining with a film of tears. When he spoke, he sounded confused.

“But none of that,” Shen Yuan tried, “is physical. I knew we were going to be married. I’m someone you watched grow up; I never doubted you were fond of me. But do you just. Do you only. Do you not…”

Shen Yuan’s voice trailed away.

Luo Binghe exhaled. “I can’t—cleanly separate these things. I don’t think of it like that. I want you to take my qi when you’re ill, and my cock when you’re well, and it’s the same, for me. It feels selfish and gratifying in the same ways.” He thought about not continuing; made himself. “I don’t think you know that I’ve been terrified to have a child, with anyone but you. The thought of anything like that repulsed me. But you told me I could, and that I’d find a way. And I have, since. And sometimes I come to the thought of you taut with our get, full of the child and me, and your own come slicked all over the swell of your stomach. How,” Luo Binghe asked, with a trembling edge to his voice, “can you think I don’t want you, when I’d lost hope I could want anyone like this?”

Shen Yuan looked at him, compassion creeping into his expression.

“Have you been like this, all this while?” Shen Yuan murmured. “Not just perfect, but—like this?” Shen Yuan shook his head, wondering. “It never occurred to me that I could touch you. If I couldn’t really hurt you, how could I really make you happy?”

Suiting action to words, he took Luo Binghe’s hand and tugged it, as if testing whether Luo Binghe would come. He did. Shen Yuan pulled, and Luo Binghe dropped down to his knees on the floor before him, tilting his head up at him. Defiant and brave.

“Oh,” Shen Yuan said, startled—raising his unclaimed hand to cup Luo Binghe’s face. “Oh, Binghe.” He bit his lip. Released it. “Do you know you’re my world? My favourite person? Yours is the first face other than my mother’s that I can remember having thought beautiful. Does everyone say that kind of thing to you?” Shen Yuan laughed weakly. “They all must, I know. What else? Well,” he was so embarrassed, but he pressed on, “you’re—the companion of my thought, of course. I try not to dream of you, for fear you’ll see. And look at me, I only realised it when it was too late to do anything about it, I’m, I just—” 

He cut himself off, and Luo Binghe realised that out of a widely-varied wardrobe, Shen Yuan had not dressed to match the emperor as he appeared before company. Instead, he’d dressed in the colours Luo Binghe preferred when they were alone with one another. Red and white and black, and Luo Binghe surged up to kiss him, clacking their teeth inexpertly in his fervour before reigning himself in, reminding himself that the emperor of three realms had not cut his teeth on a hundred and a hundred wives to fail to give Shen Yuan a master craftsman’s turned-out best.

Shen Yuan let himself fall back on the bed, inching and sliding up it. Luo Binghe followed, hungry, poised over Shen Yuan like a predator. 

Shen Yuan linked his hands behind Luo Binghe’s neck. 

“Might a humble jieyuan please his emperor? Or will you have your wife tonight, Luo Binghe?”

Luo Binghe froze in the middle of dipping his hips to roll his stiffening cock against Shen Yuan’s thigh. That—was a point.

“A Yuan, we’re not yet married.”

He watched Shen Yuan swallow a bitchy comment—probably that he’d noticed not having sat through a grand imperial wedding, actually.

“But for as long as I can remember, I’ve known we would be. And I have given,” Shen Yuan pushed his own leg up against Luo Binghe’s cock, making Luo Binghe suck in air through his teeth, “such a lot of thought to how my husband’s going to have me.”

A Yuan,” Luo Binghe tried, his voice stern. The tone made Shen Yuan shiver, and he let Luo Binghe watch him do it. 

“In my childhood bed,” Shen Yuan mused, as though he were talking to himself. Undaunted, as he slid his hips against Luo Binghe’s. “Maybe on the river bank in summer, with the insects droning. Broad afternoon, in the heat, when no boats are passing by. After that other me showed up, six feet of pompous, I wondered whether he'd taken his disciple as a cauldron. Wouldn’t that have been a scandal! Of course,” Shen Yuan admitted, “I didn’t know what a brat you could be, until tonight. Now I understand perfectly why he might have resorted to that sort of discipline. Some people need it, don’t they Binghe? Not me, of course—I’ve always been good for you. Haven’t I, Binghe?”

“The fuck you have,” Luo Binghe hissed, stripping off his own dragon robe with a clumsy hand, trying not the rip the stupid fucking thing in the process. “How did you learn to talk like that? Who raised you?”

Shen Yuan helped not at all. He just aligned their cocks, continuing to blithely frot. He had the audacity to pout at Luo Binghe when the emperor’s efforts to liberate himself occasionally misaligned them.

“Well you did, in part,” Shen Yuan reminded him. “Which is why I’ve been planning this for such a long while. The first time I ever came, I was thinking about sucking you off. My favourite thing to think about was the way you used to hold me in your lap. Just once, on my birthday, I felt how big you were, Junshang. To think you made me beg for a present, and then wouldn’t give me so much as a—”

“I gave you a pony!” Luo Binghe hissed, finally liberating Shen Yuan from his annoying remaining layers of robe. 

“And what a splendid sight you were, on your bay,” Shen Yuan said with a sigh, shrugging out of the fabric and flinging it to the floor. “I think such terrible things about my emperor—of his riding me like I’m his war horse.” He glanced at Luo Binghe, as if testing his effect, or the thickness of the ice he was treading on. “I’m told it’s degrading, to be taken like a girl. But surely you’d have to be mad not to take Luo Binghe any way you could get him. Would you feel degraded, Binghe? Would you mind, terribly?”

“Hush,” Luo Binghe snapped, shoving two of his fingers into Shen Yuan’s mouth. The young man blinked up at him, confused, and Luo Binghe dragged the digits to the rim of Shen Yuan’s plump lip before shoving them back, across his tongue and down his throat. 

Oh, Shen Yuan thought, oh, I’m supposed to

He began to suck, a little experimentally, and Luo Binghe, through touch, urged him wet and noisy, slurping. He slid his fingers around on Shen Yuan’s tongue so he’d get the hint and curl it around them. Fucked that pert mouth with hard, regular thumps of his knuckles against Shen Yuan’s lips—showing the boy what he’d do to him.

“No one undoes me like you,” Luo Binghe found himself admitting. “I ought to know what I’m doing, by now. What you can do to me is terrifying, do you know that? I hate it,” he said, running his free hand all over Shen Yuan’s bared chest, sliding it down to play with Shen Yuan’s lovely cock. “No one makes me weak,” Luo Binghe said with a huff of desperate laughter. “A Yuan I hate this, I love you so.” 

Without taking his eyes from Shen Yuan’s face, Luo Binghe extracted his wet fingers and dipped them in the liquid oil pooling in the cup of of the burning lamp on the table. It was too hot, but Luo Binghe healed from a little thing like that just as soon as he burned from it. In fact, he found the pain grounding. He blew on his hands, then brought warm oil-and-water slick digits to Shen Yuan’s hole, sliding them around and around the edge.

“My Binghe,” Shen Yuan rasped muzzily, his throat already agitated by Luo Binghe’s long fingers. “My emperor. Of course it’s difficult. Love’s not a small or an easy thing to bear.”

Shen Yuan tilted his head up for a kiss, and Luo Binghe, with something he wanted to be a smirk, but which verged on a helpless smile, gave him one as he began to fuck into Shen Yuan with the tender tips of his fingers.

“Of course it’s frightening,” Shen Yuan whispered, and Luo Binghe acknowledged that he’d never once won anything of worth without danger. Naturally he’d have to crack his own fossil-calcified ribs open, to let the love in—to dip his fingers in burning oil and trust that he had it in him to heal, and that the prize would be worth the pain.

“I’m frightened too,” Shen Yuan admitted. “But I want it.” He reached his own hand down, sliding past Luo Binghe’s to palm the man’s cock. “I want you.”

Luo Binghe took a shaking breath and slid his fingers deeper into Shen Yuan, who was now stroking the closer target of Luo Binghe’s chest, examining the muscles of Luo Binghe’s shoulders as though they were the withers of a powerful horse he’d purchased.

“Pretty,” he muttered to himself. “Still so pretty.”

Luo Binghe couldn’t help preening.

“I can take more,” Shen Yuan said too soon, trying to sound more experienced than he was. 

“Do you think so?” Luo Binghe asked, amused. Conversational. “I suppose you’ve tried, with your dainty lotus-root fingers. Very impressive, I’m sure.”

“I had toys,” Shen Yuan stubbornly insisted. 

Luo Binghe stopped short. “Did you now?”

Shen Yuan snorted. “There are ballads about the emperor’s two great blades. Of course I started with the Three Character Classic before I tried to read the Analects.”

Luo Binghe let out a little huff of laughter, too besotted to sulk long. Shen Yuan had wanted to hide away his bumbling awkwardness, and so he had done. He didn’t understand yet what Luo Binghe had now come to—that shame was only another part of one another the two of them reciprocally owned. He’d have to be taught. There was time for that. 

I wanted that,” Luo Binghe pouted. “Your awkward firsts, your everything—”

“But I thought of you, gege,” Shen Yuan cooed, horribly expert at sliding out of Luo Binghe’s clutches. “Who else but you? Though my poor fingers didn’t feel anything like so good in me as yours do.” 

Manipulative little wretch. Luo Binghe knew that he himself was excellent at figuring out what made people tick and leaning into the wind—who had Shen Yuan picked this up from, if not him? How good was he, by now?

“Did you annoy me to get this, on purpose?” Luo Binghe asked, twisting his knuckles up against the rippled rim of A Yuan, the chrysanthemum-clutch of his fever-warm core. “Did you slut about that reception to madden me? Because you wanted me that badly?”

“No,” Shen Yuan laughed, looking up at him through glazed eyes: his breath hitched, his throat trembling. “No, I was too stupid for that, if you can believe it. I wish I’d known it would work, or I’d have tried ages ago, of course—”

“Don’t you dare,” Luo Binghe cooed, all sing-song danger. A command and a tease, but with the heavy gaze of someone who couldn’t help meaning it, who was giving away his vulnerabilities in making the threat at all. But Shen Yuan was the sort of deep, ineradicable and precious weakness worth being strong for. He was the best part of Luo Binghe—the only part Luo Binghe really loved.

Acknowledging everything Luo Binghe was making clear would have been an awful mess, and Shen Yuan didn't want either of them to cry tonight for sorrow. Shen Yuan came up alongside him, instead. 

“Then keep me busy,” Shen Yuan said, his voice soft. “I just get so distracted, Binghe—”

Luo Binghe took Shen Yuan face to face, so embarrassingly sentimental in it that his own cheeks heated with a hateful shame he’d thought burned out of him by age, by the twin fires of his tribulation and his ambition. Luo Binghe could not fucking believe that he was babbling as he rutted. “Kitten”, “baby”, “didi”, every wretched thing in him spilling out. He fucked the harder for it; perhaps he could stop Shen Yuan’s registering or remembering this (though the idea of Shen Yuan not remembering Luo Binghe’s claiming him shocked Luo Binghe a bolt of white-hot rage). 

He lost track of his rhythm—he’d never— he said outright maudlin things. Utter shit, pure nonsense. “Yeah?” again and again: as though he were asking a pointless question, only to earn Shen Yuan’s frantic nods of acceptance in answer. Luo Binghe’s hips rabbited as though he were the teen, he was overwhelmed, he couldn’t stop. He’d never wanted it so bad as this, never waited so long—his whole life. Shen Yuan came for him and just dug his nails into Luo Binghe’s arm because he expected, he knew they weren’t done. Braced and ready, Shen Yuan looking up at his betrothed. His eyes were clear and focused, now. Luo Binghe’s groan was too much a sob.

“You make me—” Luo Binghe rasped, his mind stumbling, his tongue tripping over itself as he neared the edge—as Shen Yuan squirmed, panting. 

Good again, Luo Binghe wanted to say. But better than he’d ever been. Who he’d hoped to be when he was himself a child—the kinder lord a kinder world deserved. The wheel had turned, and landed here at last. Shen Yuan kissed the heart of Luo Binghe’s palm where it had been laid on his mouth, and everything ended in this.

Shuddering in the aftermath, braced over Shen Yuan on sharp knees and unsteady elbows, Luo Binghe cursed his heart, inside and beneath him both.

“I can’t believe you tricked me,” he groaned. “Twenty. I said twenty!

“You also said,” Shen Yuan reminded him, giving his fucked-out muscles a satisfying stretch, “that when I was ready I wouldn’t need to fear the blood control, because I’d contend with you ably despite it. And I have done, haven’t I?” He drew a bare foot up Luo Binghe’s calf. “Go on—”

“I’ve lost,” Luo Binghe conceded, as though he were putting his two black weiqi stones down on the board of Shen Yuan’s come-spattered stomach.

Very magnanimous,” Shen Yuan praised. “Don’t feel too bad about it. After all, this was the midpoint of our suggestions—with a whole half-year in your favour, too.”

Shen Yuan won the Battle of the Northern Court, as well. He was right about the political advantage to be garnered thereby, and Luo Binghe knew it. Perhaps the emperor didn’t need to rely on guanxi, but not everyone could pull that off. As Shen Yuan saw it, his own reserved care and regard for what others thought of them could compliment the favoured son of heaven’s audacity. They would be as each other’s eyes, as one another’s hands: Shen Yuan would live so as to earn the place and the love he’d been born into. The separation was but one year out of Luo Binghe’s hundreds, and Luo Binghe’s confidence in Shen Yuan’s affections seemed to lessen the distance between them. Luo Binghe could let Shen Yuan out of his sight, so long as he knew that Shen Yuan kept Luo Binghe in his thoughts: in the auspicious-red chambers of his heart. 

They married when Shen Yuan was twenty, as promised—an event that stirred up more confusion the closer it drew. The emperor had once had so many wives. True he’d slowed down, clearing out the clutter of his sprawling, brawling harem, but he certainly had form in this regard. So what was another? A young man, was it? Well, few men with the means to cater to such appetites would say no to a ripe and dripping bitten peach. Of no known family, no celebrated line? Curious, but not unprecedented. Crowned empress? Now that was unheard of. And the prodigious young huiyuan, too? 

Unfortunately, a quirk of timing made it convenient for the emperor to marry soon before the jinshi exam. Madam Shen came into her son’s bedroom to brush his hair before the ceremony, only to hastily swing back out the door upon spotting the emperor already in residence. Really, he oughtn’t to be! It wasn’t proper, and the ritual correctness of an emperor’s wedding was important to the health of the state. Shen Yuan was telling him as much, like a good boy, though his tone was far too indulgent. To Madam Shen’s complete shock, the emperor whined under the rebuke. A sulky little “if my wife loved me—”

“You don’t have a husband, at present!” Shen Yuan tapped the emperor with his fan, right on his demonic sigil. “And you never will, if you don’t let me alone to get ready. My mother’s coming in here any minute, do you want her to find you in my bridal chamber?”

“I’m not actually doing anything terribly scandalous,” the emperor pointed out. “Though if that was one of your coded suggestions, I could certainly ‘visit your bridal chamber’—”

“Out, you wretch,” Shen Yuan hissed, batting at the emperor’s chest with weak slaps as though he weren’t a capable cultivator, and as though Luo Binghe wasn’t the strongest man anyone could name.

The emperor rounded the corner wearing a grin, coming face to face with his soon to be mother-in-law. 

“Ah,” the emperor said in a strangled voice. “Madam Shen. Good evening. I—”

Behind him, Shen Yuan burst out laughing. Luo Binghe swivelled his head to glare fiercely at him, then managed an “excuse me” and scuttled away, looking like an indignant crab in glorious robes. 

In a dark but shapeless way, Madam Shen had always worried for her son in the emperor’s keeping. But how different were the two men, really, from any other couple about to wed? She might easily have mistaken their conversation for one between her eldest son and his wife. She now wondered whether she might have let suspicion get the better of her, in some respects.

Shen Yuan had taken his juren more anonymously and properly than a god walking among mortals in disguise. A few weeks after his wedding, however, Shen Yuan positively limped into the jinshi examination right before the shi turned: hair mussed, neck kiss-bruised and in the emperor’s own robe. 

“Empress,” the proctor stammered. “Is this really—”

Shen Yuan’s eyes narrowed. “I tried to get a good night’s sleep,” he told the horrified proctor, “and he does this! You’re offended? I’m offended! Take it up with him!” He snapped test paper out of the poor official’s hand, practically fell in the examination cell set aside for him, wrote the fresh courtesy name he’d yet to grow accustomed to on the paper and prepared to out-strip Shen Qingqiu’s gongshi performance.

“Did you provoke him?” the mousy friend he’d made in his year in Mobeijun’s court, seated in the cell next to him, asked as he ground his own ink. 

“As if the emperor needs provoking,” Shen Yuan huffed under his breath. In fact he had, inasmuch as he’d been pacing holes through their carpets, stewing and muttering to himself about possible questions. Luo Binghe had put up with his tension and foul temper for some hours before deciding that his husband would benefit from being fucked unconscious. Annoyingly, he’d been right.  

“Typical Binghe,” Shen Yuan groused, absolutely not still thinking about Luo Binghe’s very generous definition of what constituted ‘a kiss for luck’. 

His friend hummed, noncommittal. “I see. You’re very much the wronged party, here. Rumour has it he’s your soulmate. Curious that your tastes would be so misaligned! I would have thought it impossible, but perhaps I’m wrong.”

“Shut it, A Shang,” Shen Yuan said sweetly, with the easy, smug munificence of a man who’d been rimmed for a good quarter-shi the previous night. No one mentioned how long Luo Binghe’s tongue was, in the various sordid ballads: it was long. And muscular. And slithering effective. Like the python part of a— Anyway, the jinshi exam!

Poor Shang Hua had unwisely tried to make a friend during his stint in an unpromising minor clerical role in the frozen Northern Court. Shen Yuan absolutely glittered in assemblies. In private life however, though generally kind, he possessed the social skills of a man who’d never had a friend before. (Which, when he’d eventually told Shang Hua that he’d never in his life talked to anyone not previously vetted by the blood-curdling demonic emperor, had actually begun to make sense.) Shang Hua had persevered against this general cluelessness (and unwarranted, brutal criticism of friends’ literary efforts), only for the jerk in question to turn out to be the literal and actual empress-presumptive (now realised). Shang Hua was stuck like this, now: the confidant of the kind of jerk whose idea of a helpful problem-solving tip was ‘find a devastatingly attractive demon lord to rail you until your mood improves—that always works for me.’

“Yes, Empress,” Shang Hua agreed, demonstrably not ‘shutting it’. “Of course, Empress. As you say, Empress.”

He easily ducked the fan Shen Yuan chucked towards his head.