Shen Wei was twenty when he met General Kunlun.
The city around him was burning, his brother was nowhere to be seen, and everyone knew that help was not coming – the lord has abandoned the city in the morning, not bothering to evacuate the people under his rule. The invaders came soon after, with no warning.
Shen Wei was twenty, getting ready to take the examination for imperial scholar, and instead he was going to die on a street, alongside his neighbours, not knowing what happened to his twin, not knowing if he was even good enough to pass the test.
Not knowing if his life had any worth.
He was running down the street, searching for anyone, any sign of life, anyone he could still save, when he realized that there were no enemies around. He’s been expecting to die any moment, willing to trade his life just to give a chance to someone else, but aside from a few injured people who were standing there, as bewildered as he was, there was no one here.
Shen Wei knew he should run. Silence during the battle was probably not a good sign, and his mind was busy trying to recall from his studies any particular military strategy that involved stopping the winning attack right in the middle of it, especially when there was no resistance, but his memory failed him. Maybe there was something to be learned from this. Maybe, if he survived, witnessing whatever happened here would teach him something new. Maybe that would be the experience that would redefine his future career.
It was, in a way.
Because when Shen Wei made his way towards the nearest, Northern gate, fully expecting to be struck down any moment, he was greeted with an unexpected sight.
There were men in the city, bearing the banners of the Northern Province and shouting something, their voices triumphant. Then, there was a sound of hooves on the stone, and the soldiers' screams got louder, happier.
They were celebrating their leader, Shen Wei realized, and looked towards the gate.
“KUNLUN!” the men roared and a lone figure on the horse entered the city, his armour wearing marks of use, but betraying his high status.
The leader, Kunlun, took off his helmet and Shen Wei expected to see an old, war-hardened face of an older, experienced general.
Instead, his stare was met by a pair of youthful, beautiful eyes on an equally pleasing face of a man slightly older than him, judging by the beard.
“There are survivors!” Kunlun exclaimed happily, and jumped off his horse, approaching Shen Wei in large strides, a smile on his face.
“Are you alright?” He asked and Shen Wei was too awed to reply.
He barely remembered what happened later, the evacuation, finding his brother again, everything was a haze – the only thing he remembered was his wish to meet General Kunlun again, this time on an equal footing.
“The General of the North has returned!” The courtier announced and Shen Wei could feel his heart speeding up. Out of frustration, of course.
Once again, Zhao Yunlan has disregarded all of Shen Wei’s advice and advanced on his own. Maybe the man had some kind of a death wish. Maybe he simply didn’t respect Shen Wei as tactician.
Shen Wei made his way to the throne room, to witness the general’s audience with the Emperor and listen to his explanations, positively fuming.
When he entered, Zhao Yunlan was already inside the chamber, a satisfied smirk, unbefitting of his position, firmly on his lips. Even though he was kneeling, he still looked like a victor. Shen Wei couldn't tear his eyes away. As usual, he blamed it on Zhao Yunlan’s semblance to General Kunlun, his predecessor.
He truly looked like a copy of Shen Wei’s saviour, but his short facial hair, his quick wit and mischievous glint in his eye gave him the air of a trickster, a wild card, not a trusted, experienced general. According to the archives, Zhao Yunlan took over the title of the General of the North at the age of twenty, four years after Kunlun had saved Shen Wei’s city, and for the last eight years made a name for himself, earning the emperor's favour for his brilliant victories.
His victories that seemed to be more luck than actual skill and planning. Shen Wei has never met a general so reckless, and he has been at the imperial court for more than a decade. He’s never seen Kunlun again – the General of the North was tasked with protecting the border, and was summoned to the court very rarely. Even after Kunlun mysteriously disappeared from the records, it took Shen Wei years to meet his replacement.
In fact, Zhao Yunlan appeared in Shen Wei’s life a few months ago, when the threat of the Wolf Tribes became a reality – Shen Wei could still recall his shock upon seeing a familiar face on a man who was nothing like the benevolent Kunlun.
That day, for a second, he had just stared at the man presented to him by Minister Gao, and the fact that the name didn’t match didn’t register with him initially, so happy he had been at seeing his saviour after such a long time.
But then the illusion was broken by Zhao Yunlan opening his mouth – Kunlun would never be so carefree. Still, the resemblance was uncanny, so despite his better judgment, Shen Wei was drawn to the general’s figure whenever he appeared at the court. Was he trying to find all the differences to finally convince himself that this wasn’t Kunlun? Or was he searching for the similarities to fool himself even more?
Shen Wei didn’t know.
All he knew was that right now, Zhao Yunlan was the most frustrating man he had to work with.
“General Zhao. We’ve heard about your victory at the Phoenix City and while a victory fills our heart with joy, the court would like to hear an explanation. You received Tactician Shen’s order, have you not?” The Emperor asked, and though Shen Wei whole-heartedly agreed with the accusation, he still felt an irrational spark of anger on Zhao Yunlan’s behalf, at being addressed this way, as if he was an unruly child and not a victorious leader.
“Your Majesty, this general has received the orders and has obeyed them,” General Zhao replied, his smile growing despite the hostility in the room. With his black armour and his long hair free of the helmet, he looked more like a hero from poems than an officer being reprimanded by his rightful ruler and lying to his face about it.
“Maybe General Zhao didn’t understand the instructions, then?” Shen Wei asked, trying to hide his irritation. “I’ve clearly suggested evacuating the city and leading the people to the Turtle fortress, there was nothing about defending the city.”
General Zhao didn’t look away from the Emperor, thankfully knowing at least the basics of proper conduct, but he visibly perked up at being addressed by Shen Wei. If it wasn’t for the fact that Zhao Yunlan wasn’t actually stupid, as he has proven often, Shen Wei would start to wonder if he disobeyed orders specifically to get Shen Wei’s attention, so proud he was whenever he got it.
“And this general obeyed Tactician Shen’s advice – the people have been safely escorted to the fortress, protected by one third of the army at this general’s disposal. Tactician Shen didn’t require abandoning the city, just protecting its habitants, which was done,” Zhao Yunlan replied, bowing to the Emperor in what was almost a mockery of blind obedience.
The advisors started whispering among themselves but Shen Wei wasn’t paying attention to them, his attention firmly on the man who had the audacity to side-step a direct order and brag about it in front of the Emperor.
“So you claim you have obeyed the order and defended the Phoenix City, despite the fact that you were to oversee the evacuation?” The Emperor asked, his voice cold but not infuriated.
The Emperor wasn’t sure what to make of the situation, it seemed. Knowing Zhao Yunlan’s way with words, he wouldn’t be punished this time. As if to confirm Shen Wei’s suspicions, the general kowtowed and answered:
“This general agreed with the order to evacuate the people, for the risk was too great. But while we were escorting the last contingent of people, this general received intelligence that changed the situation – the enemy was weakened due to internal strife. Protecting the city, banning the invaders from food, water and accommodation, was what this general believed to be the right decision.”
All mockery disappeared from his voice. General Zhao certainly knew when to hide his claws and air of insubordination, as long as it furthered his agenda. And quite predictably, after a few more moments of this interrogation, the Emperor even commanded him for the decision, adjourning the meeting.
Good thing that he did, because Shen Wei was itching to get Zhao Yunlan alone and let him know exactly what he thought of the general’s decision.
Predictably, he didn’t even have to reach out, the man sought him out on his own.
“Tactician Shen! Can I trouble you for some conciliatory tea?” Came a voice behind him and Shen Wei steeled himself before turning to face the general.
“Why would we need conciliation? I’ve heard General Zhao’s explanation, the Emperor himself has accepted it…” he trailed off, surprised by the dimming of the general’s smile.
“So cold, Tactician Shen! When all I want is to live in peace with you!” The man exclaimed, but there was something off in his tone, something that made Shen Wei reconsider.
“I suppose one meeting would be acceptable then. For the sake of our peaceful cooperation in the future,” he allowed and tried to convince himself that he didn’t do it just to see the smile return to Zhao Yunlan’s face.
“Would you like to accompany me to the teahouse? House Zhao doesn’t keep a mansion in the city so whenever I visit I have to rely on the hospitality of my cousin, Da Qing, and I’m sure I can find a teahouse that would suit Tactician Shen’s tastes,” Zhao Yunlan promised and Shen Wei was a bit moved by his earnestness.
“I prefer to meet at home. Feel invited to my quarters in the evening,” Shen Wei replied, trying not to think too much about what he’s just agreed to and why.
He turned away to return to his work, his mind very decidedly not stuck on Zhao Yunlan’s happy smile.
Shen Wei shouldn’t have been surprised by it, it was the most logical guess to make, but his mind didn’t make the jump back then, and was now taken aback but the sight of General Zhao in normal robes, out of his armour.
He's always thought that the rich black armour was part of general Zhao’s image, an element that made him recognisable on the battlefield both to his own people and to the enemy, a banner and a target at the same time. He never assumed that it hid the man’s mortality as well.
Without his armour, Zhao Yunlan was a tall, thin man who looked at home in the robes of an imperial scholar, and who could be killed with one well-aimed knife. It shouldn’t be such a shock to Shen Wei, he logically knew, but the General of the North was always larger than life. An impressive, imposing figure that defied logic and fate.
To see him in light robes, without a sword and his best protection against the world was not something Shen Wei was prepared for.
It made the anger in him resurface.
“Tactician Shen, does my appearance displease you?” Zhao Yunlan asked, sitting at the table and looking at Shen Wei with an inviting smile. This time, however, Shen Wei’s fury burned brighter than whatever emotion the General of the North managed to invoke in him normally.
“What displeases me, general Zhao is your disregard for my orders,” he started, and Zhao Yunlan’s relaxed expression fell.
“Tactician Shen, I have already-“
“Yes, I heard your explanations. You’ve sent one third of your men away and decided to protect a doomed city with your army divided,” Shen Wei continued, merciless, uncaring that he dropped formalities; why couldn’t this man see his actions for what they were – reckless, unnecessary?
“We managed! Phoenix City is still ours!” Zhao Yunlan protested, his good mood completely gone.
“What if you didn’t? What if all that was left of the Northern army was that one third that was barely fit to protect the refuges?”
“I made sure we had the advantage. I am not a rookie, I know my men and my terrain,” the general refuted, his tone serious and cold. He has no right to be offended, Shen Wei decided, not when he refused to see the errors of his ways.
“What about you? What if we lost you over a city no one wanted protected? We’ve all agreed that Phoenix City is an acceptable price to pay for the safety of its citizens and the good shape of the Northern army in case of an another, better prepared attack. And then, after we’ve all made peace with this loss, we would hear of your unnecessary death.” He tried to say it as calmly as possible, but his voice wavered a bit at the last word, his heart gripped with fear.
“Then you would name my successor and move on. I am good, but not irreplaceable,” Zhao Yunlan replied, shrugging, and Shen Wei was rendered speechless.
How could he ever think this man was anything like Kunlun?
How could he just sit there and declare that his life was just another eventual casuality of war?
Shen Wei was trying to collect his thoughts, to voice his reasons, to make him see, but suddenly there was a hand covering his own.
When he looked up he was met with the eyes he’s spent too much time watching, this time devoid of any mirth. It was a strange experience to see Zhao Yunlan sincere.
“Are you angry because I disobeyed you, or because you are worried?” he asked quietly, and all thoughts, all the fight left Shen Wei in that moment.
“I don’t want your death on my conscience. Not when I prepared a way to avoid it, not when I made sure that you stayed safe – you disregarding my advice is more than a matter of personal pride, it’s my wasted effort,” he confessed, not moving his hand away from Zhao Yunlan’s. It was strangely pleasant, warm even, to have these calloused fingers rest gently on his knuckles. Reassuring.
“Shen Wei. It almost sound like you actually care for me,” Zhao Yunlan whispered, his voice carrying a mocking undertone.
Momentarily, Shen Wei took his hand away.
“You infuriate me,” he bit back in reply, but for some reason it lacked any heat. Maybe because all the heat travelled to his ears all of a sudden.
“I will try to avoid doing so in the future,” Zhao Yunlan promised, his following chuckle betraying the insincerity of the promise. “Tea?”
Shen Wei accepted the drink in silence and searched for a change of topic.
General Zhao didn’t stay for long and left the Dragon City a week after his arrival, returning to his post and promising not to take unnecessary risks.
Shen Wei found that hard to believe.
After General Zhao’s departure, he decided to engross himself in work, to come up with strategies that would benefit the Empire and keep the unruly general out of trouble, but it was hard to concentrate. His thoughts were often drifting to the general and he caught himself paying special attention to couriers coming from the North, awaiting any information regarding Zhao Yunlan’s movements. There were none.
The North has always been a bit remote, a little more unruly, governed more by the local lord than the emperor himself, that was why the general of the North was granted certain liberties at the court – Northern rebellion was something that the imperial court has feared for decades, but thankfully both Kunlun and Zhao Yunlan remained loyal so far – losing Zhao Yunlan however might cause more than mere discord. So there were very good reasons for Shen Wei to pay attention to the news from the North.
Then, a fortnight or so after Zhao Yunlan has left the Dragon City, the spies of his Imperial Majesty reported that people were appalled at the order to abandon the Phoenix City.
It certainly caught Shen Wei’s attention, mostly because his message had been sent directly to Zhao Yunlan, and the man was too smart to announce the orders he decided to disobey to the citizens he was evacuating. Unless he actually wanted to rebel, though it seemed rather unlikely.
So that left the possibility of someone else planning a revolt, intercepting Shen Wei’s letters and spreading their contents to manipulate the masses.
As long as General Zhao remained loyal, people would listen to him – he was well-liked and he had a bit of influence with the local lord, his father, which he used to help the Northerners to the best of his ability. A logical step for anyone to provoke the North would be to get rid of Zhao Yunlan and better yet, make it seem as if the order to kill him came from Dragon City.
Shen Wei was determined not to let it happen.
First thing he had to check, was the messenger. He had given his last correspondence to a young man called Chen Ling, as his personal notes informed him, and there was no reason to suspect the poor boy of any misconduct – from a good family, had a rather average military career, no mention of any misconducts in the past. Still, someone had read the message, whether as it left the Dragon City, or after it had reached Zhao Yunlan. Of course, it was possible that one of the ministers leaked its contents, but that would require a second messenger following Chen Ling and reaching the camp next to the border undetected. A worrying option, but not the most likely one at the moment.
He decided to check Chen Ling first.
It took him a while to compose a message that would telling enough for Zhao Yunlan, and cryptic for anyone who might intercept it, but finally it was ready:
Revered General Zhao,
Regarding our previous conversation, I have recalled the name of the teahouse we could visit next time you visit the Capital. It is rather private and not many customers know of it, so our talk would not be overheard, unlike the last time we have spoken.
Could you tell me more about your retainers? The court searches for a representative of a Northern army to join the council in these uncertain times where North is constantly attacked – an expertise of someone well acquainted with the life there would be invaluable. We shall take your recommendations into consideration.
Regarding our previous bet - Please give the messenger a token I have won to return with, if he comes back without it, he shall be executed immediately for losing such a precious memento.
Wishing you good fortune,
He hoped that Zhao Yunlan was smart enough to remember that while they did not discuss teahouses during their last conversation, they have talked about military codes, which would make the allusion to someone overhearing them clear to the general, and to the general only. The rest of the message was less easy to understand, but Shen Wei hoped Zhao Yunlan would read in it a suggestion to look for the traitor in his own troops. Even if he didn’t and simply described his officers, getting a few names to look into would still be something. The bet was obviously made up and was meant to check if Chen Ling checked the contents of the message – Shen Wei really hoped Zhao Yunlan would see his intentions.
He sent Chen Ling off, feeling that maybe he was putting too much faith in the General of the North. Maybe the resemblance to Kunlun made Shen Wei’s opinion about him too high? Only time would tell.
The next weeks, Shen Wei was busy convincing the council to send reinforcements to the Western border, because the usually peaceful neighbour of Haixing, Yashou kingdom, has recently lost its Empress, with a few families fighting over the succession. Though the conflict was contained to Yashou border for now, there was no telling which family would seize the throne and whether they would like to continue the alliance with Haixing.
The matter of the letter almost slipped his mind, when one night, there was a soft knock at his rooms and an attendant informed him that Chen Ling has returned and was ordered by General Zhao to deliver the message immediately upon his return.
His heart in his throat, Shen Wei got up from the desk and went to the courtyard to meet Chen Ling, who looked dead on his feet.
“Tactician Shen, I apologize for disturbing you, but General Zhao claimed this was urgent,” the boy stammered out, and Shen Wei thanked him absent-mindedly, taking the message out of his hands. He ordered the attendant to find some food for the messenger and walked back to his room, his hands gripping the message tightly.
Only after he sitting down did he realize that the messenger didn’t give him any token. Did that mean Chen Ling was trustworthy?
He opened the envelope.
Esteemed Tactician Shen,
This General is thankful for the good news and would be happy to meet you at the chosen teahouse – thankfully this time our conversation was nothing scandalous, even though bits of it are still circling around the camp, to my greatest embarrassment.
I am truly happy to learn that the Capital is considering nominating one of our own for the position of an advisor. I cannot put forward one candidate, so I shall arrive within a fortnight with three of my most trusted retainers, to allow the council and His Majesty to make their own judgment.
Your messenger forgot to remind me of your prize so I shall bring it with me, I beg you to have mercy on him.
At your service,
Shen Wei could feel the tension leave his body. So his faith in Zhao Yunlan’s mind was not misplaced.
He read the letter again.
It seemed that the spy was hidden within the Northern army, which was both better and worse – it would be hard to pretend the Capital had anything to do with the general’s eventual death, at least for now, so aside from leaking the information, the spy could not do much more damage. On the other hand, the moment anything changed, the spy was right next to General Zhao and would act before Shen Wei’s warning could reach the North.
It was a good idea for Zhao Yunlan to come and discuss the matter personally, exchanging vague letters would work only so far. What interested Shen Wei the most was the matter of the three retainers – were they really the only ones the general trusted for now, or quite the contrary, were they the ones he suspected of treason and wanted to keep close?
He would have to wait until the general explained that to him in person.
The following days Shen Wei spent listening to reports concerning the Yashou – general Zhao’s arrival, though announced, didn’t interest the council too much. Shen Wei wasn’t lying about the idea to introduce one of the officers as a new council-member so no one suspected any other motivations for General Zhao’s visit. Meanwhile, the three strongest Yashou families had all sent their envoys to the Dragon City, vying for Haixing’s support for their candidate, and the court was busy taking bribes and having meetings with all the representatives, trying to either estimate their political worth, or, more pragmatically, their financial appeal.
Shen Wei, being assigned the role of a tactician, was thankfully exempt from these meetings, mostly because his influence regarding the matter of trade was almost non-existent. Still, he kept a watchful eye over the delegation and different ministers they’ve met with, just in case. His proposal to move more troops towards the Western border was still hanging in the air, unapproved and unrefuted, seemingly ignored for the time being.
He was on his daily walk around the gardens in his estate, when his attendant announced a visitor.
Though it was too early, Shen Wei first thought was Zhao Yunlan, and he felt a bit ashamed at his excitement when he realized that his unexpected guest was not, in fact, the General of the North.
“Greetings, Tactician Shen,” The woman standing in the yard said, bowing slightly. Her rigid posture suggested rather a military officer than a court official and her robes in a rather unusual colour for the Dragon City suggested that Shen Wei was in the presence of one of the Yashou representatives.
“I am Ya Qing,” she continued, her tone anything but cordial. House Ya was more concerned with raising good warriors than skilfull politicians, it seemed.
Shen Wei returned the greeting and invited the woman inside, as good manners required, though her presence here perplexed him.
“I must confess, I wasn’t expecting a visit from you,” he started, ordering the attendant to bring them tea.
Sitting down at the table, Shen Wei noticed that the woman was looking around while trying to be subtle about it. A spy, then?
“I know my kin is busy charming the other ministers and your impression of us might be… unfavourable, but Ya family prides itself on gathering knowledge and information,” Ya Qing replied, not even looking at the teapot and bowls the servant was currently setting on the table. She wasn’t here to play politics. It was a bit refreshing, in Shen Wei’s opinion, but then again, it might have been just a ploy to make him less suspicious.
“What kind of information would you like to obtain from me, lady Ya? I am a tactician, I have no interest in succession or trade,” he replied, trying to sound polite without being too cordial.
“And yet you try to send more troops to the Western border, tactician Shen,” Ya Qing pointed out and Shen Wei barely stopped himself from betraying his surprise. Either the Ya family had very good spies on the court, or someone from the emperor’s court was trying to cause as much mayhem as possible. Though Shen Wei had initially disregarded that option, a traitor among the ministers was now a possibility.
“I would like to ask you where did you hear a rumour like that, Lady Ya,” he replied politely, hoping that this direct question would confuse the woman at least a bit. It didn’t.
“Your walls are not as impenetrable as you would like them to be. We hear a lot of things.”
“I can assure you, we are not planning an invasion, if that is what you worry about.” Ya Qing gave him a rather disbelieving look.
“Oh? Why is the General of the North heading back to the Dragon City then?”
Indeed, the walls were not as impenetrable as the imperial court liked to think. Though Zhao Yunlan’s return and Shen Wei’s insistence on reinforcements on the Western border were unconnected events, delivered together could truly be seen as a threat to Yashou, a country already weakened by internal strife.
“I hope your source of information told you that the proposal to move troops to the Western border is just that, a proposal? Which neighbour wouldn’t reinforce their side of the fence when looking at the family next door fighting and throwing things around?” He replied, and took a sip of his tea, radiating calmness he did not feel.
“And General Zhao?” Ya Qing pressed, out-rightly glaring at Shen Wei. She definitely wasn’t made for politics.
“He is visiting me personally, on my invitation.”
He realized how his words might have been taken only after Ya Qing’s eyebrows travelled up, in obvious surprise.
“I was led to believe you weren’t friendly with each other?”
“Your sources must be not as reliable as you’ve thought them to be,” Shen Wei replied with a smile so fake his cheeks started to hurt.
Still, if his apparent… friendship with Zhao Yunlan could introduce bit of confusion to the court, Shen Wei was willing to pay this price. Whoever was feeding information to people in the North and here should be at least a bit surprised, they might even pass the fake information around. Maybe that was a way to catch them.
“I… Understand.” With that, Ya Qing got up and left, her cup of tea untouched.
Shen Wei was left alone with his suspicions.
Shen Wei was getting ready to go to bed, when there was a frantic knock at his door. Without waiting for an answer, the door opened and Zhao Yunlan barged in.
A shout of indignation died on Shen Wei’s lips, as he took in the sight in front of him.
The general was out of his armour again, cradling his left arm to his chest and looking as if he had been through hell.
“I’m sorry for not notifying you, but someone was waiting for us on our way and as you can see, they got quite lucky,” Zhao Yunlan said, in lieu of a greeting, and collapsed onto the floor, his back leaning on the door and his head tilted up to look at Shen Wei.
Not bothering with propriety and the fact that he was only in his night robes, Shen Wei was next to him instantly.
“What happened?” He whispered, checking Zhao Yunlan for wounds. There was a long gash on his forearm which was bleeding profusely, but he seemed otherwise unharmed.
“I don’t honestly know. We were attacked by a group of people in the forest, but I wasn’t their target – one of my retainers was, though which one, I will never know, all of them were slain. Someone was worried about them coming to the capital,” Zhao Yunlan said, and closed his eyes, as if trying to remember more details.
“I think one of my retainers was cooperating with someone here. When they learned that I was bringing all three of them with me, that person might have panicked and decided to clean all the traces. Why not me, though?” Zhao Yunlan wondered out loud, and Shen Wei was torn between scolding him and getting him to bed.
He decided to do both.
“Would you prefer it was you?” He demanded and tugged Zhao Yunlan to his feet, leading him towards his bed.
“No, but I don’t like not knowing who is using me as pawn and in what game. My survival was intentional, whoever killed my people wanted me alive as a witness,” Zhao Yunlan said, but did not fight Shen Wei when he forced him to sit down.
Making sure that his bed was out of the view, Shen Wei called for a servant to bring him a basin of water. He would prefer bandages as well, but the general came to him in secret and his presence shouldn’t be advertised. Asking for water after a supposed nightmare was normal, at least for Shen Wei, so the man, old Shu, didn’t ask any additional questions as he went to fulfil the task.
“Where is your armour?” Shen Wei asked, turning to look at Zhao Yunlan who made himself comfortable on his bed.
“Hidden in your stables. I don’t know who to trust right now, so I came straight to you. I will have to disappear in the morning so it made sense to put it there,” the man replied and closed his eyes.
Shen Wei was hit with a sudden realization that he was alone, dressed in his undergarments, with a beautiful man in his bed.
His conversation with Ya Qing came back to him and he involuntarily looked down, to hide the way his face heated up at the thought.
He welcomed the servant’s return with relief.
He accepted the basin and a towel, and thanked the man, closing the door behind him, waiting for the familiar sound of departing footsteps.
“Get up and take off your robe,” Shen Wei whispered, and Zhao Yunlan cracked one eye open, a lascivious smile on his face.
“Oh, gladly, Tactician Shen. I am very good at obeying orders after all, especially from you,” he teased.
Shen Wei felt very hot underneath his own robes.
He decided to pay more attention to the wound and looked away while Zhao Yunlan undressed. Thankfully, he was wearing pants underneath the outer robe, so Shen Wei didn’t have to deal with a naked general in his bed.
Zhao Yunlan kept quiet while Shen Wei cleaned the wound, though his eyes were trained on Shen Wei. Shen Wei didn’t dare to look up, but he could feel the gaze on his face.
“What now?” The general finally asked, when Shen Wei was done with the wound and got up to put the basin away.
He planned to talk about it later, after his unexpected guest had rested, but Zhao Yunlan was very alert and frankly, Shen Wei was also eager to discuss their future steps. For some unexplainable reason, he trusted Zhao Yunlan, more than anyone else in the Dragon City at the moment.
So he told him everything about the conversation with Ya Qing.
Predictably, Shen Wei’s proclamation regarding Zhao Yunlan’s visit made the man smile, but he quickly schooled his expression into something more serious, proving once again that underneath the recklessness and bravado, he was a very sharp man.
“Someone really wants to stir some trouble at the borders. The problem is determining which one is more crucial. Are they aiming for a rebellion, or a war with Yashou? Both?” Zhao Yunlan said, all traces of amusement gone from his voice.
“We have nothing to gain from going to war with the Yashou. The conflict would eat up resources and if it’s aimed at the Emperor, then before the war reaches Dragon City, His Majesty would already have the army back in the city,” Shen Wei pointed out, sitting down on the bed next to him.
“But why would they need me here alive? If they want the North to rebel in my name or whatever the plan is, it would be better to kill me on the way to the capital and claim one of the ministers orchestrated it. It doesn’t make any sense,” Zhao Yunlan pondered, sounding a bit tired.
“For the time being, we should go with your explanation. Me bringing the retainers was just an excuse to see my lover, that would confuse them for a while. We will have more time to figure out who is trying to do what,” he added, and his eyes crinkled with something.
“What about your reputation?” Shen Wei asked immediately because while it was rather common for scholars to take on male lovers, a general…
“Ah, I’ve never had a good reputation, as Tactician Shen knows,” Zhao Yunlan teased, and Shen Wei felt a bit ashamed at that.
“I apologize if I somehow offended you. I just… I kept comparing you to your predecessor, expecting you to be him,” he confessed, not looking at Zhao Yunlan at all, afraid of what he might see. Disappointment? Hurt?
“My predecessor? Shen Wei, you’ve never met him, why would you…?” He sounded surprised, and Shen Wei couldn’t help but look at the pure confusion on the face that was so similar to Kunlun’s. How could he not know?
“I met him once. He rescued Dixing from the wolf tribe. We didn’t expect anyone to show up and aid us, but there he was. He even had a similar armour to yours,” Shen Wei says, hoping to trigger the memory that Zhao Yunlan had to have somewhere. Didn’t he know anything about the previous man holding this title?
There was a bewildered smile on Zhao Yunlan’s face.
“I’ve met my predecessor. He was my father, who was granted the title of the Lord of the North for his victories on the battlefield and for his loyalty. He stopped being the commander of the troops twelve years ago when he was succeeded by his only son,” he explained patiently but Shen Wei didn’t understand anything.
“His only son, sixteen at the time, had illusions of grandeur, a few military successes under his belt as his father’s officer, and big shoes to fill. So he made everything he could to seem older than he was. He changed his voice, posture, even his appearance to prove that he was the right person at the right place. He even changed his name, so that no one could claim he got his position only because of his father.”
Shen Wei just looked at him.
Could this be true? Could his saviour be a boy in disguise, a boy who grew up to be the man so similar and yet so different to Shen Wei’s memory of him?
“I thought I recognized you when I first met you as the imperial scholar, but then you started to be so cold towards me... Were you comparing me, to me? It’s very flattering and very confusing to hear from your own lover,” Zhao Yunlan said, and Shen Wei was too caught up in feeling everything at once to fully register his meaning, until only a small gap separated their bodies.
“We are not really lovers,” he managed weakly, feeling Zhao Yunlan’s breath on his cheek.
“I know. A shame, really. Why lose your reputation if you can’t even enjoy it,” Zhao Yunlan whispered, and Shen Wei, who seconds ago had plenty of reasons why they shouldn’t continue, could not recall a single one.
Then there were lips on his and Shen Wei found himself unwilling to stop.
They fell back on his bed together, tangled in each other.
“You are aware it’s a trap, aren’t you?” Shen Wei seethed, and Zhao Yunlan turned to face him, his armour already on, his expression serious.
“What do you want me to do, Xiao Wei? Disobey a direct order from the Emperor himself?” He replied, and Shen Wei hated the acceptance in his voice.
“You’ve never had a problem with disobeying mine.”
Zhao Yunlan took a step back, as if physically struck.
“That was when I knew I could save other people. I won’t commit treason just to save my own hide.”
“Why do you think your life is less important?” Shen Wei asked, his despair clear.
Zhao Yunlan sighed and came closer to him, cradling Shen Wei’s face in his hand.
“Because this time you may be the one to suffer the consequences of my insubordination. And I can’t risk that. Not when we don’t know if it’s a trap or not.” Shen Wei leaned into the touch.
It’s been three months.
Three months since Zhao Yunlan came to him, three months since he invited the general to stay. Three short months of them being together. Yes, the court was set ablaze with gossip, and Zhao Yunlan seemed to thrive on it, not bothering to hide that he has moved his residence from Chancellor Da Qing’s estate to Shen Wei’s. It worked out for them in a way – scandalized and confused, the court has seemingly forgotten the retainers Zhao Yunlan was supposed to bring with him.
Yes, he had a private audience with the Emperor regarding the attack on him, but nothing constructive had been decided. Instead, he was ordered to stay at the Dragon City until the spy has been found. So far, no luck. Shen Wei, though not affiliated with the Intelligence Bureau, was doing everything he could to find the traitor, or at least to discover his plans. He had nothing, aside from reports from the North that Lord Zhao started to wonder if his son has been imprisoned. They were running out of time.
And now out of the blue, Shen Wei’s plan for sending troops to the Western border was approved, with the additional order for Zhao Yunlan to lead them.
A General of the North who came to the Dragon City to see his lover and was detained for it for whole three months, was suddenly being sent away from the capital and from his own land, to lead men he didn’t know. It couldn’t be anything else but a trap.
They had only had three months together.
And now Shen Wei was sure that if he let Zhao Yunlan leave, he would never see him again. So he did the only thing he could:
“Let me go with you.”
Zhao Yunlan protested. Of course he did. He claimed Shen Wei had no military training, no way to protect himself, but Shen Wei was determined.
He even managed to convince the Emperor that his presence at the Western border was required, and with the Emperor’s edict in his hand he began preparation for the trip. Maybe the spy would follow them, maybe they will make their move against Zhao Yunlan and Shen Wei will be able to discern who they were working for, he had said to the Emperor, and the Emperor agreed. Maybe they will even manage to interrogate them.
Shen Wei was busy instructing old Shu regarding the keeping of his house during his absence, when there was a loud noise of a gate being crashed open, and a horse carrying Zhao Yunlan on its back ran into the yard, foaming at the mouth.
“Yunlan!” Shen Wei was next to the man almost immediately, but the general jumped off the horse and caught his hand, waving away his concern.
“We need to run. Now! The Emperor!” For a second, Shen Wei thought that maybe the Emperor had been killed, judging from his lover’s agitation, but the paleness of Zhao Yunlan’s face, the fear on his face, told a different story.
“We need to get your letters, it’s the only proof we’ve been spied on,” Zhao Yunlan explained, out of breath, and they both ran inside, heading straight for Shen Wei’s room, their room, looking for the evidence Zhao Yunlan needed.
“The Emperor wants an excuse to crush the North. He wants my father to attack him and wants to subdue him once and for all,” Zhao Yunlan managed between breaths, as they searched for the two envelopes Shen Wei was sure he kept in his room." I went there to ask him to ban you from leaving with me and I heard... Too much, it seems."
“He doesn’t have the army… The Yashou!” Shen Wei exclaimed, as the full picture finally appeared in his mind.
Zhao Yunlan riding to the border with an army after Shen Wei promised a Yashou representative they had no plans of invasion, could be explained as North’s aggression.
Zhao Yunlan’s death at the Western border would be suspicious for Lord Zhao, but he wouldn’t have enough evidence to back it up. But the people, already furious at the capital for detaining their general would force him to act.
And then the Yashou would aid the Emperor- whichever family he decided to support with his authority would make sure to pacify the North.
“We should go to the North, warn your father,” Shen Wei said and Zhao Yunlan just nodded. That’s why they needed the letters. As proof that they were not committing treason.
But the letters were nowhere to be found.
“They were here. Since you gave me back my own, I kept both of them here, in the cabinet,” Shen Wei said, filled with dread.
Aside from them, there was only one person that knew where everything was in the room.
Zhao Yunlan seemed to realize it too, because he stopped moving the things around and reached for his sword.
They have run out of time.
There were voices coming from the direction of the courtyard.
“I’m sorry I dragged you into this,” Zhao Yunlan whispered, his voice barely heard over the commotion from the outside.
Shen Wei wanted to tell him so many things. That he loved him. That the only thing he regretted was not realizing the Emperor was the one they should be wary of. That these three months were the happiest in Shen Wei’s life.
But as the imperial soldiers reached his quarters, the only thing he managed to say was:
“I enjoyed it.”
Shen Wei is having a terrible day.
The interviewer has once again managed to set his brother off and what was supposed to be a normal day promoting their latest album changed into a nightmare, with Ye Zun shouting at him all the way back to their apartment. After two hours of listening to everything his brother wanted to accuse him of today, Shen Wei has had enough.
He felt for his brother, he really did, and he hated what media made him into, but there were moments like this, when it was too much.
So he went for a walk and has been walking for two hours already.
Thankfully, with a cap on his signature hair and with big shades on his face, he is almost unrecognizable, free to walk around Dragon City undisturbed.
He is walking rather aimlessly, trying to get the interview out of his head, not paying attention to his surroundings, when he hears it – an enchanting, gentle melody, coming from the pub right next to him.
It’s charming, in a way that warms Shen Wei’s soul. Then, the melody is accompanied by a male voice, and Shen Wei goes in, needing to hear it better.
As he walks inside, he almost misses the poster proclaiming that today, at 4 p.m the pub is hosting a concert of a local band. Almost.
When he looks at it, he notices the name Kunlun of the Mountains and feels a jolt in his heart.
He goes further into the club, allowing the man’s voice to soothe him.