For Gu Yun, it all began during an argument with Yan Bei Wang, a pleasant change, when most of their other encounters ended in a frustrating stalemate… and a powerful desire to shake some sense into their opponent.
Before then, if anyone had told him that Yan Bei Wang might be the one person present in the moment that proved to be a turning point in his life, it would have received a variety of reactions from him, depending on when they chose to make such a ridiculous claim.
If he had only recently emerged from one of their frequent arguments, he might have laughed angrily and said “When I spend all my days arguing with him, anything else that happens to me has to share the time he takes.”
If he was in a more mellow temper, and only anticipating his next argument with the man, he would probably have written the speaker off as a lunatic and paid it no mind.
And if he was truly drunk, he might, just for a moment, have thought longingly of Yan Bei Wang’s misdirected but brilliant mind and sharp wit. He might even have wished that instead of someone incapable of distinguishing high fantasy from reality, he could be talking to that one person whose absence was echoed in every empty room of the Marquis Manor, and in his life.
Because, the unfortunate truth of the matter was that he missed the Grand Prince, once his own adoptive son, but now, a brilliant, glittering star who was rapidly rising through the ranks in court. Gu Yun had once overheard a minister compare Yan Bei Wang to a spider, each of his eight legs firmly planted in the branches of governance. As cruel as that description was, the idea of him spinning a careful web around the court did not seem quite so far off the mark.
Gu Yun could see, even if Li Feng could not, that his younger brother was slowly eroding all the opponents who were placed to stand in his way. The Prince was not so much building a faction as turning the court into a gathering of his admirers. Few detractors remained, and Gu Yun was forced to admit that those that did were somehow worse than the Fourth Prince was.
Strangely, his Highness had never yet tried to exert any of that charm or diplomacy in Gu Yun’s direction, instead choosing to do all he could to antagonise him. There was no conflict, no campaign, not even a single patrol that the man did not spend weeks arguing about, and should he lose that battle, haunting meetings and almost taking up residence in the armoury in the days leading up to Gu Yun’s departure from the capital.
Yet, the Black Iron Camp, the most usual subject of his exhaustive, and exhausting, reviews- had never been as badly impacted as Gu Yun expected them to be. Whenever he applied for the necessities required to keep them functioning, he would do so with no hope of success, and then watch the requests be granted with an efficiency that seemed out of place in their creaking old court.
They even received funds within the necessary time, despite Yan Bei Wang’s painstaking efforts to audit each individual account, it almost seemed as though he worked through the nights to ensure that happened.
Gu Yun did not think there was a single grain of military ration that had passed the lips of any of his soldiers that Yan Bei Wang had not personally counted out. He seemed to spend his days in a sort of fevered delusion that something had to be wrong with the preparations around Gu Yun and his army, satisfied only when he found what it was.
“Zi Xi,” Shen Yi had once said, gazing at Yan Bei Wang’s determined efforts with a sort of uncomprehending admiration, “You could save on the salaries of three dozen spies if this one man decides to come work for us.”
“Who is employing three dozen spies.” Gu Yun had shot back, disgruntled.
The number was higher than that, of course, but Shen Yi did not have to say it around a Prince whose scrutiny of fodder for their horses was reminding Gu Yun of the dogs who were trained to sniff out Ziliujin. Espionage had been the one department he hadn’t yet tried to interfere with too much, and Gu Yun preferred to keep things that way.
In the end, such diligence might just have been what endeared the Prince to his brother to such an extent: the way he seemed to leave no breathing space for a single military commander, least of all Gu Yun, and in return, earned all their combined ill will.
And if Gu Yun had found himself resenting him, it seemed Yan Bei Wang could barely tolerate the sight of him. He had managed to refine the act of not noticing Gu Yun into an art, something that always rankled a little with Gu Yun who was vain enough to take admiring, and intimidated, gazes as his due.
It was only on those issues that they could never agree upon, while they argued, that he found himself the sole focus of Chang Geng’s attention, able to look him in the eye and talk to him again. Those arguments always ended with Li Feng sending them off to resolve things between themselves like a pair of misbehaving children, or with cowering subordinates (or an exasperated one in the form of Shen Yi) interrupting them to point out that nearly half the day had gone and did either of them perhaps have anywhere else to be?
It was a strange estrangement for them to have come to, when he was the one responsible for bringing Yan Bei Wang, then simply called Chang Geng, without a family, surname or any idea who he might be, to the capital.
In those days he had let himself imagine what life might be like if Yan Bei Wang could be given to him as a son, something Yuan He had clearly wanted. He could have protected the boy and made sure he grew up without the political forces of the court or the Manor being permitted to warp him.
Perhaps the old emperor had made his own calculations, assuming Gu Yun would be the best person to watch over a half Barbarian child, secure in the belief that Marshal Gu would never allow such a person to misbehave. It was a lie that Gu Yun, who did not trust any other person in the capital to overlook Chang Geng’s lineage, had allowed him to believe.
In those days, Chang Geng had not yet turned against him, and Gu Yun had wanted so badly to watch him grow into the man he seemed like he could be.
He missed the way Chang Geng used to look at him in the past. The fond curve to his eyes and happy little light that seemed to shine even when he was scolding Shiliu, the sad, unhappy expression he had perfected that prickled Gu Yun’s conscience like anything else ever could. Even Chang Geng’s frowns were a fond memory when compared to the impassive Yan Bei Wang who never showed any expression at all.
Initially, on his rare trips back to the capital, Gu Yun had tried to speak to him, but the replies returned were dripping with such unnecessary politeness, they had felt like a rejection in themselves. It was how you behaved with someone too distant to relax your guard against, not someone who was meant to be family.
And so Chang Geng had remained at a monastery, learning the ways of the bald donkeys within it, and then travelling in their company. And Gu Yun had remained away from the capital, aware that since that day he had left his home behind, he had also managed to lose his way back.
This story truly began on a gentle spring day, with the scent of fresh blooms in the air, and the bright birds flitting between trees as though those flowers had taken flight. It was the kind of weather in which to take walks amidst fragrant gardens; the kind of weather where a General could extend training sessions of soldiers by a few hours, safe in the knowledge that it would not lead to a mutiny within the ranks; the kind of weather where one might drink underneath the trees or out on a flower boat.
In every sense, it was not the kind of weather that suited Gu Yun’s mood as he sat across the table from De Liang’s greatest pest. He wished it was a little darker, more dreary, perhaps with the welcome sound of thunder to drown out the droning of his companion. It might also stop gilding said companion’s dark hair with a lovely little halo, bringing out lighter shades of brown amidst the soft-looking locks.
“Well Marshal Gu, forgive me for being too slow-witted to understand all your complicated military hierarchies and protocols…” Yan Bei Wang, the pest in question was saying.
He had been saying similarly inane and senseless things for too long and had Gu Yun been a more suspicious man, he might have wondered if the entire meeting was a petty conspiracy to confine him indoors on a beautiful day, or perhaps while some major scheme against him was carried out. Sheer boredom might yet turn him into such a man.
Slow-witted, he thought unhappily, Unable to understand the military’s complicated hierarchies.
Was he supposed to have forgotten how Yan Bei Wang, then aged thirteen, had gone searching for General Zhong and begged to be his student? If their teacher were to hear him speak like that, he might yet ask the Prince to run a few dozen laps around the training field in full armour in the sun— a form of punishment that Gu Yun had often been subjected to.
In theory, Yan Bei Wang might well know all that Gu Yun did, only Li Feng ensured that he would utterly lack the practice that should have come with knowledge.
And even if he had not learned enough then, his years of overseeing military accounts with the zeal and determination of a tigress watching over her cubs could have taught him the rest.
The tigress in question was sitting with his back to the window, making it far more difficult for Gu Yun’s eyes to discern any part of his appearance. But the sunlight that caressed his hair also caught at his robes, illuminating his body through the loose fabric. Gu Yun wondered if he had lost weight, and then tried not to let it trouble him.
“As far as I can see, the hierarchy is quite clear. His Majesty has given me a command, and I intend to follow it.” Gu Yun said, thinking longingly of all the things he would rather be doing.
(One of his fellow Generals had only recently returned from the east and had invited him to taste the wine he had brought back. He could be drinking that wine.)
Yan Bei Wang’s hand jerked upwards, towards his chest, and Gu Yun thought he saw him rubbing the region over his heart. He tried to tamp down the traitorous whisper of concern that lodged itself behind his throat. It was probably only an itch.
(There was a beautiful new performer the capital had been praising ever since she had arrived in the city the month before. He had wanted to witness her art before he was forced to leave again.)
“My duty is not to become a guardian sculpture on Western frontier gates, I can be sent wherever his majesty chooses.” He said, as Yan Bei Wang’s arguments grew more and more flimsy, surely the meeting had to be close to its end.
Belatedly, he tacked a “Your Highness,” to the statement.
“Marshal Gu, surely even you know you’re being set up?” Yan Bei Wang burst out, uncharacteristically direct for a man who never used three words if he could confuse others with three dozen.
“I… what?” Gu Yun found himself jerked out of his daydreams of practising new moves his more experienced soldiers and staring at the Prince in surprise.
“You heard me.” Yan Bei Wang said quietly, “This entire farce is to enforce that ridiculous Drumming Order, and even I need more time to work around it this time. Why are you choosing to step so cheerfully into a trap?”
Gu Yun narrowed his eyes, peering at Yan Bei Wang in suspicion. Of course, he knew escorting Minister Sun was intended to remove his claws as much as Fu Zhi Cheng’s, it was all Yan Bei Wang with veiled threats and barely concealed slights had let him think about over the past week. Even the iron puppets in the Marquis Manor might have gotten the message by then.
Yan Bei Wang’s hand was back on his chest, rubbing with more urgency, and Gu Yun found the second prickle of worry to be more of a stab, impossible to ignore.
“Your highness, are you alr—”
He never got a chance to finish the question. With a sudden helpless sound, Yan Bei Wang pushed away from the table between them, rising as though to get to the door. He only managed a single step.
“Chang Geng!” Gu Yun was out of his chair and by the Prince’s side before he even registered that he was moving, just in time to catch his arm and help him back on his chair.
The Prince gagged, as though he was choking on something, but there had been no food on the table, and no liquid to offer him as treatment. Yan Bei Wang did not drink, so Gu Yun’s flask of wine was utterly useless, but water? There had to be water somewhere in the damn place.
Another moment, and the Prince had doubled over, his hand at his own throat, the other covering his mouth as though to hold back his coughs. Gu Yun was worried the Prince might strangle himself in his struggle.
Yan Bei Wang looked pleadingly up at Gu Yun, through eyes that had already begun to water.
Gu Yun knew what he was asking for of course, for some reason the man who was seemingly choking to death on thin air desired privacy in which to do it. Truly, the Fourth Prince could be the most brilliant mind in Great Liang sometimes, and sometimes, Gu Yun wondered just how someone that vigilant had allowed so much water to leak into his brain.
And then, with one final, wrenching cough, Yan Bei Wang brought his hand away from his mouth, something small and white falling away before he could close his fist around it.
Gu Yun watched the object fall, unable to believe just what he was looking at. On the floor lay a small perfect little plum blossom, looking as though it had only then been plucked out from a tree.
He blinked in surprise.
Fresh Plum blossoms?
Surely it was too late in Spring for those, the flowers he had been able to see through his window had long since wilted away, leaving behind only the promise of a fruit.
He looked up to see Yan Bei Wang’s eyes wide with a horror that seemed disproportionate to a delicate little flower. The Prince’s gaze darted between Gu Yun’s face and the flower, and for once, none of his usual composure came to his aid. It was painfully clear that Gu Yun was seeing something he was not meant to see. It was like seeing a turtle without its shell, or as though he had aimed at a blow at armour, only to feel the blade sink into the softness of flesh instead.
And then Chang Geng did something he had never, in all the years Gu Yun had known him, done before. He ran away from a fight.
One moment, he was sitting frozen in horror, looking a pitiful mix of tired, unhappy and afraid. The next, he was already at the door, hoarse words taking his leave scattered haphazardly into the air around him.
Gu Yun watched him depart, wondering if he should chase him down to see if he was alright. But there were Yan Bei Wang’s own guards stationed outside, and no need to make a greater scene than they had to.
Instead, he crouched down and inspected the flower, it looked neither chewed nor digested, but it seemed to have fallen from the man’s mouth regardless. The Prince’s usually large sleeves were, on that day, gathered too close to his wrists for there to be any space within them, and his hair…
He would look rather lovely with flowers in his soft hair but it was unlikely that he would wear any to the Ministry of War, or to see Gu Yun.
Regardless of where he had conjured it out of, Yan Bei Wang had managed to step on it in his panicked flight, and it now looked rather small and broken, the nectar making it look as though it had bled onto the floor. Abruptly, Gu Yun was reminded of a little boy he had once found lying on the snow, bleeding and wounded.
Lost in the memory, he gently picked up the flower. He could still remember the way little Chang Geng had felt in his arms all those years ago, so small, fragile, and almost weightless. Gu Yun had been afraid he could crush him if he held too tightly.
With great care, he stroked one bent petal with his finger, trying to straighten the crushed folds in that flower. The petals were soft, the way he thought Yan Bei Wang’s skin might—
He shook his head, determined to dislodge that thought. “You’re growing senile.” He muttered to himself.
But when Shen Yi visited the manor later, he found the bloom carefully placed in a shallow bowl on Gu Yun’s desk. That was to be only the first of many times that he would see such a flower be carefully preserved by his friend.
Gu Yun tried to put the incident from his mind, and consequently, he spent the rest of the day thinking about it. Yan Bei Wang’s face as he choked back on a flower, the look of horror in his eyes, the way he had pleaded to be alone. Did he still ask to be alone when in pain or was it just Gu Yun, someone he seemed to avoid as much as he could, whom he could not bear to be around?
He had always been that way, Gu Yun remembered, thinking of Chang Geng fallen on the ground beside a collapsing wall, refusing to utter a single word even as Gu Yun reset his dislocated ankle.
When he checked the Black Iron Camp barracks, the armour that enthusiastic new soldiers were still learning to put on reminded him of little Chang Geng. His frown of disapproval turning into delight as he realised Shiliu had gifted him a Xiu Zhong Si. Gu Yun had not got a chance to teach him for very long, but his little prince had always shown so much promise. He wondered if exchanging physical blows with him was as exciting as a battle of wits could be.
Later, as he weighed his empty cup in his hand, all he could think of was the weight of a tiny plum blossom on his palm.
Still later, flowers that the dancers wore in their hair made him think of Yan Bei Wang and his damn plum blossom, and how they might look in his hair.
The next morning, Gu Yun found himself directing his horse to the Manor beside his, where five years ago, the former emperor had ordered the construction of Yan Bei Wang‘s Palace.
At the time, Gu Yun had expected a future where the two Manors could remain connected. Perhaps someday Chang Geng’s own children might have visited his Manor, serious and surly versions of their father, little tyrants for him to distract from their lessons and to indulge.
He had thought of Chang Geng visiting the Marquis Manor as he grew older, or after he was gone, the one family he would leave behind. He could never have imagined a future for himself that did not involve Chang Geng, within and beyond his lifetime.
It had taken less than a month for reality to exceed the limits of imagination, and the wall between their houses seemed to stretch beyond even his ability to climb.
“I bet he leaves me waiting for the next half hour,” Gu Yun muttered to his horse, losing that bet almost immediately as the servant rushed out to escort him into what seemed to be a sort of study. He decided that the horse did not have to know, since it was unlikely the silly animal could collect.
To be betting against it anyway… perhaps whatever was wrong with the Prince had addled his mind.
Yan Bei Wang chose to completely forgo any civil greetings in favour of a comment that Shen Shiliu had grown very used to hearing in Yanhui, but Gu Yun did not usually get to hear in the capital.
“There’s a cold wind blowing outside.” He said disapprovingly, his long straight eyebrows bunched into a familiar frown, “What was so urgent that the Marquis could not wait until a more suitable time.”
“You aren’t in the cold wind though, you’re indoors.” Gu Yun pointed out, and then felt compelled to add, “It’s not even that cold outside.”
Yan Bei Wang inclined his head in agreement, “Not if you dress appropriately perhaps.”
Something Gu Yun took care not to do.
Determined not to rise to the bait, he offered the Prince a sunny smile in response to his utter lack of warmth.
“As delightful as it would be to talk to Your Highness on the decency of various forms of clothing, you will likely find elderly ministers at court more receptive, I hear that they had wanted a stricter dress code fifty years ago. But as it happens, I did not come here to pick a fight.”
He wondered how much of his speech had been heard at all. Yan Bei Wang’s eyes had widened in surprise, gaze dropping down to his mouth. He was still staring as Gu Yun finished talking, looking a little dazed.
Chang Geng had spent most of their short time together, hiding how he felt, as though afraid of allowing anyone to know his heart enough to hurt him. But his eyes had always been the traitors that gave him away.
In all the time that had passed, Gu Yun realised he had never stood close enough to Yan Bei Wang to be able to see his eyes, though it seemed they remained as expressive as ever.
“Tea.” the Prince said suddenly, with all the determination of a man who had found a lifeline and intended to cling on to it, “May I offer the Marquis tea?”
It was likely all he would offer, Gu Yun thought mournfully, for the second time in as many days lamenting the fact that the upright Yan Bei Wang did not drink wine.
“Of course.” He said dully, “There’s nothing I like more than… tea.”
Despite the lack of enthusiasm, it seemed Yan Bei Wang of all people had the power to make him enjoy even that hated drink. Gu Yun took a hesitant sip and then stared down at the cup in surprise.
“Actually, I think I do like this tea.”
A muscle twitched in Yan Bei Wang’s jaw, and he stared intently at his own cup as he said, “It’s meant to calm the mind, if the Marquis likes it then I will have someone bring it over to the Marquis of Order’s estate.”
All things considered, a calming drink was perhaps the most appropriate choice for the two of them. It did not make much sense to nearly come to blows with the man whose health you were trying to ask after.
“No! That’s not, uh.” Gu Yun paused to suppress a yawn, “very necessary, Your Highness. I seem unusually susceptible to this brew.”
This time, it was Yan Bei Wang’s eyelids that twitched, and there was a pause before he directed his next comment to a point on Gu Yun’s left, “Perhaps… that is because of the tranquilising incense, let me put it out.”
Calming tea and tranquilising incense… It seemed Gu Yun would find it difficult to escape the tigress's den without falling into a stupor. He wondered if he would have to be carried out of Yan Bei Wang’s manor on a stretcher, and what kind of entertaining rumours that might give rise to.
“I did not intend to keep you awake, Your Highness.” He said, “I did not realise you prefer to sleep at noon.”
Yan Bei Wang seemed surprised, and a little offended. “I don’t! There’s too much work to do.”
In his mind, Gu Yun could picture Li Feng spending an idle afternoon needlessly dodging shadows cast by trees outside the palace in a fever of paranoia, even as Yan Bei Wang oversaw ministries that seemed to belong to him. Hastily he banished that treasonous image and focussed his attention on the man in front of him.
Despite what people said, it was difficult to see any hint of the alleged spider in the Fourth Prince. He looked more like a man who had picked up a heavier burden than he could hold, and who could not find any place to put it down.
He watched as Yan Bei Wang doused the flames of a censer, wondering how he had never noticed how pretty his wrists were before. Well shaped and with just a hint of the delightful muscles that must rise on the forearm above them, an Archer’s muscles, which were easy to picture from experience.
And then he began to wonder just why he was thinking of anyone’s wrists, let alone Yan Bei Wang’s. He hastily set down his teacup, deciding it had to be what was to blame for his muddled state of mind.
“May I ask why the Marquis did visit me?” Yan Bei Wang asked, coming to sit across from him once more. His hands were neatly placed on his lap, the wrists still a little too easily visible.
Gu Yun raised a brow, and stifled another yawn, “Can I not simply want your company?”
The Prince took a placid sip of his tea, “Are you not in my company every day? I did not realise the Marquis was pining after more of me.”
Who’s pining? Gu Yun grumbled to himself, I am not pining any more than you are, your Highness.
“I wanted to visit you to see if you were alright, after what happened yesterday.” He said instead.
“Nothing happened yesterday.” the Prince said, addressing the now doused censer instead of Gu Yun.
He then looked up to meet Gu Yun’s eyes again, “Though I fail to see how it is any concern of the Marquis of Order.”
Gu Yun decided this was the last time he ever did something out of concern for someone, or at least when it came to the Fourth Prince. It was a decision he had made after each successive rebuff all those years ago, and stuck to for barely a day before he was sending a subordinate to watch over the wandering prince again.
“We might not always agree,” he said, “But that does not mean I want to see you as unwell as you had seemed that morning.”
“Don’t worry,” Yan Bei Wang said sweetly, “You will not be seeing me unwell.”
It would be pointless to insist that was not what he meant, the easier course was to pay him back in his own coin.
Gu Yun lowered his cup to the table, keeping his eyes downcast as he said, “I am aware of my illness and the limitations it places on me, but is it appropriate for Your Highness to mock?”
There was a flicker of acknowledgement in Yan Bei Wang’s eyes, but it was gone in a blink. “I thought the Marquis did not come to argue.” He said mildly.
Gu Yun nodded in agreement, “And I did not, I was simply following the lead of my host.”
“Very inconsiderate of your host.” Yan Bei Wang murmured.
Gu Yun realised he might be enjoying the back and forth more than he was supposed to, and that it was not an unfamiliar feeling. Talking to Yan Bei Wang was almost as delightful as sparring with someone, only with marginally lesser bloodshed. Perhaps that was why he could never resist indulging in it.
It seemed Yan Bei Wang was enjoying himself just as much, if the slight smile curving the corners of his lips and the absence of the usual tightness around his eyes were any indication.
Not yet willing to confront any of those realisations, Gu Yun tried to bring the subject back to the reason for his visit. “And how inconsiderate of me not to realise you were unwell.”
“I’m not.” Yan Bei Wang said immediately.
Even the tea and tranquilliser suggested otherwise, but perhaps that was just the strain the Prince put himself under.
Gu Yun nodded, “I’m relieved to hear it.”
The silence hung between them for another moment before Yan Bei Wang spoke, “I did not think you would care.”
“Of course I do.” Gu Yun.
And as the silence stretched on, he found he wanted to fill it. It was unlikely that the Prince would appreciate concern from him, however, so he said instead,
“Your imperial father trusted me to watch over you once, despite what happened, it has been my duty to ensure your safety, it’s what I want to do.”
“Your duty.” Yan Bei Wang repeated dully, “To my father.”
He said father much the way another man might say leper. Somehow, between one word and the next, his eyes had once again grown shuttered, no longer letting Gu Yun read him the way he had been permitted to until then.
If not for the tea he had been offered, Yan Bei Wang might already have had him escorted out. But he was nothing if not polite, even when he was arguing.
“Yes, my duty.” Gu Yun repeated firmly.
“Marquis, your duty to my father ended when I came of age. Please do not concern yourself wi—”
That was all he managed to say, and even as he had been speaking, the tension in his body and the slow, deliberate pauses between each word were warning enough. Gu Yun was not surprised when another fit of coughing descended on him.
It took all his strength to remain seated where he was, and not rush to help in some way. He did not think the Prince would appreciate the gesture if he did. Even the glare Yan Bei Wang aimed at him over the edge of the handkerchief made him feel as though the coughing was somehow his fault.
Finally, his Highness lowered the handkerchief, wrapping it around something that seemed suspiciously like flowers. Except, how could that be? People did not simply cough out flowers.
“Ch- Your Highness…”
Are you sick? What happened to you? Aren’t you taking care of yourself?
Any overture he might have tried to make was cut off by the look that was directed his way, Yan Bei Wang’s narrowed eyes just daring him to comment. Though intangible, that look at all impact of a hand placed in the middle of his chest, pushing him back with all its strength.
Which was to say, no effect at all.
“Your highness, your body is precious, I only want to ask you to take care of yourself, and let me help if I can.” He said gently.
“If that is all…” Yan Bei Wang said.
“It is,” Gu Yun admitted, “I can hardly ask your Highness for an explanation.”
Yan Bei Wang seemed impassive as he said, “You might ask, but I don’t owe you an answer, Marquis.”
“It’s true, you don’t owe me anything.” Gu Yun sighed, “I hope you have someone to help you, even if it is not me. Your Highness, I should take my leave.”
Yan Bei Wang nodded stiffly, barely looking at him. It was only as Gu Yun was at the door that he heard Yan Bei Wang call out to him. He turned, quick enough to catch the look on Yan Bei Wang’s face, something a little sad and lost, smoothed away so soon Gu Yun might have imagined it.
With reluctant steps, Prince came closer, pausing just in front of him.
“I know I owe you,” he said quietly, “and someday, I will repay that debt.”
He had repaid it when he saved Gu Yun’s life, even if he did not even realise what he had done.
Gu Yun had the strangest urge to reach out and cup his palm around Yan Bei Wang’s cheek for comfort, remembering how soft and round it used to be once. Chang Geng would always complain and sulk when his cheek was pinched, but he could never remain angry for very long. There were times he even leaned in, allowing the weight of his head to rest on Shiliu’s unreliable palm.
“There is no debt.” He now said to Yan Bei Wang, arms firmly by his side, “Your highness, please do not give it another thought.”
Gu Yun did not make it far when someone else stopped him, and he realised it was the pretty girl he had seen emerging from Yan Bei Wang Manor sometimes… not that he made a point of watching the gates of his neighbour’s home.
This close, the girl seemed extremely familiar, and he wondered if seeing her face too often had created such an illusion.
Then she opened her mouth and Gu Yun realised this was no pretty stranger, but a face he had once known well. Little Cao Niangzi. Hadn’t Chang Geng once rescued him from a paradoxically wet and fiery death?
He tried to remember what name they went by now, sure that someone had to have mentioned it.
“Xiao Cao?” He asked.
Their face broke into a radiant smile, long lashes fluttering up at him. “Yes! Though it is Cao Chun Hua now… My Marquis remembers!”
“Of course I do!” He lied, “Xiao Cao, You’ve grown so big already. Tell me, how have the years passed for you?”
They raised a hand, tilting it side to side, “Not too bad, not too good. But I did miss seeing the Marquis’s beautiful face so close.”
Gu Yun tried to keep his expression appropriately beautiful, unnerved by just how intent their gaze seemed to be. He felt a little like a sculpture someone had left for public display.
“Only you? Or did my son miss me as well?” He teased.
Cao Chun Hua shrugged, “Doesn’t the Marquis see him often? How does he seem?”
Not at all well. Gu Yun thought, remembering the coughing and the dark shadows that ringed his eyes.
“Stubborn as ever, but quite impressive in his court robes, I believe those are you doing.” He said, and Cao Chun Hua beamed at him.
“My big brother never even notices,” they complained, “When we returned to the capital, he froze at the Manor gates and looked so unhappy. I thought something was wrong with the house, but when asked, do you know what he said to me?”
They paused for suspense.
“I thought he would read out an execution order, but all he said was, ‘Someone has to get formal robes.’ Of course, I had to make sure he had suitably beautiful pairs.”
“My big brother has always been all work, no fun. It only got worse after…” They stopped speaking abruptly, as though only noticing Gu Yun was the person they were speaking to. “After we left the capital.” They finished, though it was clear that had not been what they meant to say.
Gu Yun sighed, “I remember how he used to be. Grumpy, bossy, tight-lipped, too quiet. Someone had to draw him out even then. The child never could indulge himself or let anyone see he was hurting. Somehow, it does not seem like he’s changed.”
If he had hoped to draw out an agreement from his companion, he was only partially successful.
Cao Chun Hua smiled fondly, “True, big brother can be quite frustrating.”
It was more reassuring than it should be to know Chang Geng still had people around him who adored him, and all his more frustrating qualities, though Gu Yun couldn’t say why that should be. The entire court seemed to worship him anyway.
“What is he frustrating you about now?” He asked, unable to hold back his amusement.
Their smile dimmed a little, and Cao Chun Hua shook their head apologetically. “Only petty household matters, Marquis. Please, don’t let me waste your time, they will only bore you.”
Gu Yun was beginning to think he was already wasting his time. It might even be easier to bribe a servant or lure away a guard than to draw information out from Yan Bei Wang’s pet spy.
“Don’t you trust your Uncle Shiliu?” He asked, making a further effort.
“My uncle Shiliu did not exist, Marquis.” Cao Chun Hua said quietly.
If only those children knew how much more genuine Shiliu had been compared to the invulnerable Marshal Gu. He wondered if even Chang Geng, who had once possessed an ability to understand him better than anyone else ever did, knew.
Cao Chun Hua came to a stop near the tree, close to the main Manor gates, judging by the quick dart of their eyes towards the manor, it seemed they were hoping to avoid Yan Bei Wang’s eye. Gu Yun began to suspect that perhaps there actually was something that they wanted to tell him.
“You know I won’t ask you to betray his Highness’s secrets,” he coaxed, “I only want to ask how he is.”
Uncoaxed, they eyed him warily, “Why would the Marquis like to know?”
Dipping into his well-stocked reserves of charm, Gu Yun directed a radiant smile toward them, attempting to project trustworthiness and innocence as best he could. It should have come easier, considering how pure his motives happened to be in this instance.
“Because he was not well when we met yesterday morning, he hasn’t been well for some time,” He said, “He needs help, and you can trust me, xiao Cao.”
Seeing the wide eyes directed at him, Gu Yun dimmed his smile a fraction, out of consideration for young eyes that had not yet grown as ruined as his own, and nodded to them, as though they were co-conspirators already.
“Just tell me, what’s wrong with him?” Gu Yun said gently, leaning back against the tree.
For another moment, Cao Chun Hua stared at him, and then they averted their eyes. “I could say there is nothing wrong with my elder brother.” They said, sounding defensive. “He is wonderful just the way he is.”
Some people might strongly dispute that assertion, Gu Yun thought, but he only said “That is true, but what about his health?”
“Did the Marquis come all this way because you were worried about big brother’s health?” They asked.
“Why wouldn’t I?”
“You did not seem to worry for the past five years.” Cao Chun Hua pointed out. They seemed to have learned the ability to hold grudges from their beloved big brother too.
Scolded by one child, disapproved of by another, perhaps the third member of the trio was hiding somewhere to deliver his own set down. Not that it was entirely undeserved.
“I’m making up for lost time.” Gu Yun said, never one to offer excuses.
He moved a little further into the sunshine, deciding it wouldn’t hurt to let Cao Chun Hua get a better look at his face if they were still as susceptible to beauty as they used to be. After all, Gu Yun had not gotten to where he was without using every weapon in his arsenal.
It seemed to do the trick, Cao Chun Hua sighed, looking a little dazed. Gu Yun nodded encouragingly at them, tilting his head to let a loose lock of hair fall over his face.
“Xiao Cao, you know I won’t hurt him.” He said gently.
They shook their head but seemed reluctant to look away. After a moment, they said, “Marquis, please put that face away. I'll tell you, I’ll tell you.”
Gu Yun laughed, settling himself more comfortably against the tree. He rather thought Cao Chun Hua had lost their train of thought again.
“Your big brother…” he prompted, “Anything floral for instance?”
“Hmm, strange that you should find out. He has been coughing up those flowers for a while now.” Cao Chun Hua admitted.
“And how long is a while?”
They glared, “If I knew I’d tell you. I know he began coughing like that three years ago, and my big brother never gets sick. At first… Ah Chen and I thought he had caught a cold, but time passed, and every time he would cough, he would go and lock himself up in the monastery to fast and pray. The flowers… he said, were given by a merchant, or that they came from a private garden, or that we had mistaken just what flowers they were.”
Gu Yun raised a brow, “And did you believe him?”
Cao Chun Hua scoffed, “Of course not. He has clearly got the flower sickness.” They paused and then added loyally, “Anyway, he’s never taken a gift from a merchant.”
At Gu Yun’s continued silence, they muttered, “Legend says the flower sickness is supposed to be caused by unrequited love. There, now you know everything.”
Perhaps Xiao Cao had turned into a better liar than Gu Yun had first imagined, even the Northwest Flower’s charm seemed to be failing to get an honest response.
“You can not be serious.” Gu Yun protested, convinced his time had really been wasted.
Pushing off the tree, he made as if to leave but Cao Chun Hua ran around to block his path. “You wanted to help him, didn’t you? Ask Doctor Chen if you don’t believe me.”
He frowned. xiao Cao did not seem to be lying, and surely Miss Chen would not lie either. But unrequited love? No wonder Chang Geng had refused to tell him anything. How embarrassing to spew flowers over a crush. But why ask Miss Chen, and wasn’t 3 years too long to be sick over a crush?
“Has he consulted Doctor Chen?” Gu Yun asked.
“He had to.” Cao Chun Hua muttered, “He was sick a few months ago, I think around the time you were called back from the Lou Lan. The flowers made it hard for him to eat anything, drink, or breathe back then. He made me write a letter to her since he didn't seem able to.”
Their distance had begun as him letting Chang Geng have his space, just long enough for his resentment to cool. But as Gu Yun continued to give him the space he seemed to require, Chang Geng had only pushed him further away, until they could barely meet without all the unfinished conflicts mounting a barrier between them. But for them to grow so far apart he missed even this?
He opened his mouth to ask further questions, but Cao Chun Hua’s attention had already been drawn toward something within the Manor. They turned a pleading look in Gu Yun’s direction, “I’m not a doctor, Uncle Shiliu, please leave something for Miss Chen to answer.”
“I will.” He said, stepping away.
There was a tinkle of small chimes, and Cao Chun Hua who had seemed so eager to be rid of him suddenly ran and planted themselves in his path. Again.
“What now?” Gu Yun asked in exasperation.
He saw them square their shoulders, their throat bobbing as they swallowed, even their hands were clenched into determined little fists. Whatever they had to say next seemed to require a lot more courage.
“If you hurt him, I will ruin you.” They said sternly.
Gu Yun suspected they meant that in a more literal sense than most might. Whispers of Cao Chun Hua’s flawless ability to disguise had reached even him, as had their shamelessness. One unrestrained day in the skin of anyone they bore a grudge against, and they would burn enough bridges that the person might very likely never be able to look their fellow men in the eyes again.
Even in a nation as vast as Great Liang, there were not many people who dared to look him in the eye while threatening him. He had always known, even all those years ago, that xiao Cao was fiercely loyal to their elder brother Chang Geng, possibly the only person whom they held more important than beauty.
Though Yan Bei Wang had grown up to be a Great Beauty in himself.
“I’m trying to help him.” He reminded gently. “I don’t want to hurt him.
As he stepped around them again, he thought he heard Cao Chun Hua mutter something behind him. It sounded almost like, “… might kill him either way.”
Gu Yun shook his head. His sense of hearing had always been unreliable.
On the trip southwards that Yan Bei Wang had despised so much, Gu Yun gained a Governor at the cost of his bow, surrendering it to a stranger who smelled like plum blossoms and travelled in the company of a monk. As Yan Bei Wang had warned, the Drumming Order came into force with all the inevitability of an arrow once the bowstring was released.
Breaking away from his company, Gu Yun followed the stranger who had helped him in the bandit’s den to a very familiar door. The Chen family… currently headed by a woman called Chen Qing Xu.
By then, Gu Yun was sure that there was only one person the stranger could have been, but why did Yan Bei Wang decide to follow him to the Southwest, after all that he had done to prevent him from coming.
Perhaps he simply could not resist the chance at further investigation, not simply before and after the mission, but also during. Or perhaps, it had been the Chen family and not Gu Yun whom he wanted to find.
He would not be the only one, Gu Yun also owed the Chen family a visit, or by the schedule that they had given him, four visits. It was a full day before Miss Chen seemed ready to meet him, and by then his Prince was already gone, only the lingering scent of plum blossoms to give away the fact that he had been there at all.
Miss Chen was there, and after taking one look at Gu Yun and began to interrogate him with a single-minded determination he wished he could instil in some of his own recruits.
She kept a small bundle of papers in front of her as he talked, frowning and making notes for every other word. It reminded him of the teachers who could spend hours testing him in his youth, and he knew just why he had avoided meeting her for so long.
“I believe I have found a way to weaken some of the Marquis’s headaches,” she said, once she ran out of questions, “If you like, I could administer the treatment whenever you next need to take the medicine.”
“Tomorrow morning, then.” He said, “I will need it for the journey back to the capital.”
Chen Qing Xu nodded, her eyes drawn back to the notes she held. “The efficacy of the Marquis’s medicine has been declining, and I would advise you to use it less frequently. My apprentice has been assisting me in finding a cure, but we haven’t yet found one.”
She seemed to take that inability as a personal failing, and Gu Yun almost told her none of her uncles had found a cure either.
Shaking off the embarrassment, she looked up at him from the notes, “By the way, he lives in the capital for most of the year, so he should be able to help you if you need the Chen family’s help.”
“Your apprentice.” Gu Yun repeated, “Do I know any of your apprentices?”
The soldiers assigned to follow Chang Geng had mentioned he was taken in by Miss Chen as an apprentice, but what would he need to talk to Miss Chen about his cure for? More thoroughly maintained files? And yet…
“I have only one, Marquis.” She said.
Don’t flatter yourself, he must only help her because she is his teacher, he probably does not even know it was for you.
Chen Qing Xu continued, “He came to me to ask how he might help someone he knew who was sometimes affected by deafness and blindness, and sometimes not. When I could not give him any answers, he decided to join me to learn what he could do to help.”
There could not be a second Yan Bei Wang in the capital, she could only have been talking about the same man who took every chance he could to antagonise Gu Yun… and then scolded him for not avoiding traps laid for him.
Gu Yun’s personality had always been incredibly (some would say irritatingly) resilient, like a plant that needed only a little bit of sunshine to grow. Already, Chang Geng’s old concern over him gave him hope and gave him further reason to offer him the same help.
In the silence, Chen Qing Xu asked “Was there something further you wanted to know, Marquis?”
“There is. Miss Chen, I wanted to ask, is it possible for someone to… regurgitate flowers?”.
“Anyone who eats flowers can regurgitate them, Marquis.” Chen Qing Xu said slowly. “But I doubt that is what you are asking.”
“It isn’t.” He replied, “But I think you know who I am asking for.”
She watched him carefully for a while, as though weighing him in a mental balance, and then she said, “The person you mention wanted to know if I had found a better treatment for headaches that certain medicines might cause. How strange that you should come here to ask after him, but it is your headaches that seem to concern him most.”
“And did you tell him a lot about me?” Gu Yun asked.
At the look on his face, she added, “Marquis, I must teach my apprentice all that I know, or else the Chen Family’s knowledge dies with me.”
Unexpectedly, those words caused an unpleasant weight to settle on his chest, knowing that they echoed his situation too well. After Chang Geng had left, he never tried to train another person to be his successor, and unless he did, the Gu family’s duty and knowledge would someday be buried on the frontier with him.
It was strange, how often things seemed to circle back to Chang Geng.
“And if I want to learn how to help him in return?” Gu Yun said carefully.
Miss Chen raised an eyebrow, “The entire capital thinks you hate him, the question would be: do you want to help him?”
Everyone just had to keep asking him that.
Gu Yun shook his head, “There are many fantasies that the capital believes, that belief rarely seems to coincide with the truth.”
He’d heard people even call Li Feng a financial genius, a tribute that anyone who attended court would find themselves unable to offer the emperor.
Chen Qing Xu remained silent, and he added, “And of course, I want to help him.”
Miss Chen stood up. “In that case, there is a book in the library, if the Marquis would prefer to accompany me.”
The Book in the library turned out to be a muddy green object, the words written with brighter green ink on…
“Leaves?” He asked, holding the object at a distance from himself, as though afraid he too might begin to spit leaves if he brought it too close.
Another book, this one made of real paper, was extended towards him. Miss Chen seemed to be laughing as she said, “Perhaps the Marquis might prefer this? My apprentice made copies of that book for ease.”
Yan Bei Wang’s frustrating bureaucratic tendency to not even permit a bird to leave droppings in his domain without making a note of it in triplicate was of some use, after all, Gu Yun thought, flipping over the pages.
The handwriting was not what he had expected, nothing like official ledgers and memorials where every word seemed measured with a ruler. This looked like the practice sheets Chang Geng used to bring to Shen Yi, burning his day’s work cheerfully just to keep their home warm.
Writing that he had modelled on the Marquis of Order’s and shared so eagerly with Shen Shiliu.
Slowly, the ache of familiarity that came with the way the book was written dulled into the background, and the words written within it started to gain greater significance.
“Love?” He asked in something approaching disgust, “All this is really because he’s in love?”
Poor Cao Chun Hua had not been lying. And yet, of all the things he had imagined might be wrong with Yan Bei Wang, somehow unrequited love had not made it as any item on the list.
Miss Chen nodded, “Strange as it seems.”
“He’s not so bad.” Gu Yun muttered, “Who wouldn’t fall in love with him in return?”
Miss Chen did not reply, and after some time, he looked up from the book, “Is that all? The person he loves just needs to fall in love with him?”
Any matchmaker in the city could have helped the silly fool find a cure. Trust Yan Bei Wang, who had grown up with only bald donkeys for company, not to know how courtship worked and nearly die because of it. He might even serve as a cautionary tale against consorting with monks.
Looking too long causes dizziness, and hearing too long causes a loss of common sense. Remembering master Liao Ran, Gu Yun added a third consequence, Smelling too long causes nausea.
“That is not an option for him.” Miss Chen said, “Naturally it was the first suggestion I made. But it seems there is no hope for him there.”
Gu Yun scoffed. “No hope… who has standards so high he can’t meet them?”
He put the little booklet down with more force than necessary, grumbling to himself, “Isn’t he attractive? Who wouldn’t want an unreasonably handsome prince, one who is brilliant despite the frustrating uses he puts his brain to, and he has the skills you have taught him, doesn’t even seem to have any bad habits if you don’t count brooding over military files like his life depends on it. Every other person you see will go into raptures about how kind he has been. Who wouldn’t fall in love with him?”
Miss Chen stared at him, seemingly surprised by the defence, and said uncertainly, “Who indeed, Marquis. Only his Highness can answer that.”
She was not the only one who was surprised, Gu Yun was also wondering just where that outburst had come from. Perhaps it was the last lingering remnants of paternal pride. With an impatient breath, he set aside the incomprehensible lack of love Chang Geng seemed to suffer from and picked the book up again.
“Then the treatment?” Gu Yun asked, “This says here that…”
“… the flowers will be gone once every last bond between him and the person he loves is severed.” She finished. “He did not speak to me for nearly a year when I suggested that.”
An entire year?
“How long has this been going on?” Gu Yun asked, his throat strangely dry.
Three years, Cao Chun Hua had said, but they had also said Chang Geng only consulted Miss Chen only months ago.
Miss Chen looked up from where she was placing a new sheet of paper on the desk, “I believe there were signs of it soon after we met on the ship, three-four years ago? I tried to help soon after he was given to my care.”
Gu Yun stared at the little book unhappily, and the calligraphy on it seemed to stare back with an equal lack of joy.
“And I never noticed.”
“There can be a lot that people fail to notice.” Chen Qing Xu agreed.
The book suddenly seemed too short, and Gu Yun flipped through the pages again, searching for any other alternative to the ones that ridiculous boy had already rejected.
“Hacking out flowers like that… to death….” Gu Yun glared at the pages, as though they had personally offended him. “Where do they even grow?”
Chen Qing Xu looked apologetic. “The cure is largely in medicines and herbs, no one has ever attempted to dissect a sufferer to see.”
“They haven’t?” Gu Yun asked, surprised.
“The flowers disappear after death, and it does not seem worth it to… attempt such a process on a living subject when the cure is largely medicinal.”
Her words conjured up an image of Chang Geng, with the flowers that could kill him fading away once they choked the life out of him. Or of Chang Geng, lying gutted before a physician in a search for flowers. Or Chang Geng split apart by a tree that…
Gu Yun closed the book with a snap, disgusted at his morbid thoughts.
“He can’t just die.” He insisted, “They’re flowers, they clearly can’t be growing inside him, there isn’t any magical sensor for them to detect what happens around him, how can they just…”
“Not every poison is well understood, especially not ones that occur as a result of another poisoning, or for the sole purpose of feeding off it.” She said pointedly.
Of course Yan Bei Wang would not be satisfied with a single layer of poisoning, he had to acquire the entire collection. He had always been frustratingly thorough, it would be so unlike him to only endanger his own life a single unreliable, curable time.
With great care, Gu Yun set the book down in front of him, before he could give in to the temptation to throw it across the room. And only then, already knowing he would not like the answer, he asked:
“What other poison afflicts him?”
Miss Chen turned to the bookshelf once again, asking over her shoulder, “Marquis, have you ever heard of Wu Er Gu?”
The key to any successful military campaign was gathering intelligence, and it was for that purpose that Gu Yun climbed over the wall that divided his estate from Yan Bei Wang’s and settled down on a tree with a view of the Prince’s quarters.
Reconnaissance, he had told himself as he changed into deep green clothes usually intended to camouflage within forests.
Though he had suspected it during his single visit, it was this arboreal view that convinced Gu Yun that the neighbouring grounds were a perfect mirror of the Marquis Manor.
As a Prince, especially after his elder brother’s rebellion, Yan Bei Wang could not have the same large stretches devoted to training grounds that a military household was grudgingly permitted, so instead, he had dedicated those stretches to what seemed like an extensive garden for herbs.
“He could be a poisoner if he likes.” Gu Yun muttered.
But Yan Bei Wang seemed to have no desire to poison anyone, and most of his herbs seemed harmless. Gu Yun had watched him pick some that morning, Ge Pang Xiao trotting at his heels the way he used to so often in Yanhui, chattering all the while.
Gu Yun, who had also felt no shame in appropriating his Qian Li Yan peered at the duo through the lens, surprised when he lipread the name of master Zhang Feng Han from the Ling Shu institute. Ge Pang— no, Ah Chen, Yan Bei Wang called him. Ge Chen, then? Gu Yun had heard that the famous recluse had suddenly decided to set aside his machines and isolation to take a young man surnamed Ge to be his apprentice.
Yan Bei Wang would have a loyal supporter planted even in the Ling Shu institute, despite the way master Feng Han already went around singing his praises. He had even been singing them the previous day when Gu Yun had met him the previous day.
“… twice a day,” Yan Bei Wang was saying, cutting out the leaves with deft, practised movements.
Gu Yun noticed absently that his slender fingers looked exceptionally graceful when he held the scissors like that. Even his obvious expertise with medicine was quite impressive. Yet, somewhere in Da Liang, there was someone who managed to resist that. How strange.
“My teacher will appreciate this very much!” Ge Chen said, with an enthusiasm Gu Yun remembered from Yanhui, “He said he had been worried he might infect someone at the Northern Camp yesterday when he went—”
Yan Bei Wang paused in cutting the herbs, the scissors quickly dropped into the basket Ge Chen held. A moment later, he was once again spilling plum blossoms into that handkerchief of his.
Instantly, Ge Chen was by his side, one arm hovering behind his back, and the other hand almost touching the Prince’s arm. That gesture reminded Gu Yun of Shen Yi’s palm that would cup his elbow when he couldn’t see, the gentle pressure of it as his best friend tried to help him without seeming to.
Ge Chen moved away as soon as the coughing and wretching subsided, leaving a respectful distance between him and the Prince. At some point, without Gu Yun even noticing, his little wolf cub had managed to raise himself and his two little admirers so well.
Ge Chen seemed to have said something, but with his back towards Gu Yun, it was impossible to read any of the words on his lips. He could only see the Fourth Prince’s reply.
“I’m not actually unwell, Ah Chen.” Yan Bei Wang was saying, seemingly determined to pretend he was not held upright by the tree beside him. “Prepare the herbs the way I taught you, go.”
It was only after Ge Chen had finally gone indoors that Yan Bei Wang allowed himself to fully lean against the tree, his chest still rising and falling rapidly as he caught his breath. He carefully unwrapped the handkerchief, staring at the flowers within before scattering them onto the ground and looking up again.
… directly at the Marquis Manor.
He seemed a strangely lonely figure in that moment, he looked as though he had spent too long in just such a state. Suddenly, Gu Yun wanted to stand beside him and accompany him in silence, but all he could do was lie on his branch and wish the Prince did not seem quite so alone.
Finally, his Highness gathered himself again and retreated into the house. It was soon after that Gu Yun saw Ge Chen emerge, a box held carefully in his arms. Yan Bei Wang hurried out soon after, most likely on his way to Court— a clear indication that it was time for Gu Yun to attend to his own neglected tasks.
Barely two days later, he again watched from his perch as Yan Bei Wang carefully scooped up a bird that had been waddling around on the Manor grounds for some time, and carried it inside.
Gu Yun had watched the door he disappeared through, intent as a hawk until finally, he saw the young Prince return. In his hand was a cage, and Gu Yun once more brought out his Qian Li Yan, unsurprised to see that the bird’s wing had been carefully splintered.
‘Wu Er Gu’ is meant to instil cruelty and ruthlessness. Miss Chen had said. The nightmares and fear slowly warp a person into someone only capable of disaster and chaos.
Gu Yun thought of all the accounts the Prince seemed determined to review personally, yet never allowed to be delayed. The herbs he nurtured and brewed into medicines, sweating in his little apothecary before his day at court, trying to resolve generations of chaos into order. Chang Geng had not even given up his old habit of pushing himself too far in training with the sword, even if his form and technique had improved beyond recognition.
The only person Yan Bei Wang ever treated ruthlessly seemed to be himself.
He could remember a younger Chang Geng, bringing home an injured bird once, looking unhappy and worried until Shen Yi had taught him just how to fashion a splint. Of course, in those days Shen Yi had been going more off the way mechanical birds were built than any real knowledge of anatomy. And that reminded him of the times little Chang Geng, usually so distant and aloof, would patiently mend the other village children’s toys, those were an expense of cost or labour no family in Yanhui could spare a second time.
He waited for the familiar ache of longing to hit his heart, longing for someone whom he thought did not exist anymore. The ache never came, after all, wasn’t that still the same Chang Geng in front of him?
There was a story his soldier had once told him, of Chang Geng treating a young woman’s father-in-law without charge and then paying to have them taken home. He had even held the spittoon for the man himself.
A few weeks later, the nobleman dispossessing that family of their farm had been left no time to hold on to his usurped land, too busy holding on to all the parts of his own physical body.
In his mind, Gu Yun tried to once again trace the pattern of ruin that Yan Bei Wang left in his wake, identifying and carefully placing each person within their former places.
Da Liang’s loyal ministers, not mine. Yan Bei Wang called them. And it was true, even though scheming to replace most of the court through underhanded means was wrong, none of those who left were any great loss.
“You just want to see the best in him.” Gu Yun tried to tell himself, and a small voice in his heart replied “It’s about time you do.”
For all the chaos that he seemed to live to cause, it was difficult to forget the image of Chang Geng doubled over in pain, trying to hold the flowers back. The years when he had left Chang Geng behind in the capital had clearly not been easy on him, sometimes he wondered if even the boy’s home in Yanhui had allowed him any measure of ease.
Those two little tails from Yanhui were devoted and worried, but they were also easily bullied by their big brother, the foremost contender to being the most stubborn man Gu Yun had ever met. Then who would look after him?
In that moment, his mind was made up. Someone had to protect little Chang Geng and his foolishly soft heart, they had to stand by his side and refuse to leave despite anything Chang Geng threw at them.
“After all, it’s what you should have done long ago.” He muttered.
Chang Geng chose that moment to look up towards his tree; as though he could sense him there, and Gu Yun flattened himself against the branch, cursing internally. There had been enough reconnaissance, it was time to strike.
He struck later that evening.
Perhaps those building Yan Bei Wang’s manor had been obliged to accommodate the resident flora as they constructed it, but the place was full of conveniently placed trees to spy from, lean against or climb while breaking in.
Just such a tree stood close to the Fourth Prince’s window, a window that was shockingly unlatched.
The moment when he perched upon one of that tree’s branches should have been his last chance to reconsider, perhaps try to approach Yan Bei Wang through more conventional means, or even let him choose to deal with his floral problems all on his own. But Gu Yun did not reconsider.
Despite everything, his fondness for Chang Geng was like a deep-seated vine, even after the branches had been cut cleanly away and the soil turned over, the roots hidden beneath had slowly begun to sprout again, and already it seemed to wind around his heart.
He had also been in the capital for nearly half a year and was bored almost to death.
So, instead of looking before he lept, Gu Yun swung in through the window… and instantly found himself face to sharp-and-deadly-arrow-tip with a crossbow.
“Is this any way to welcome visitors?” He asked, looking up at the man holding the crossbow.
It seemed surprise had slackened Yan Bei Wang’s grip as he stared at Gu Yun. The sharp point of the arrow tip almost pointed floorwards, but it was still not low enough for comfort.
After a few false starts, Yan Bei Wang finally managed to give voice to a single word. “You?” He asked, as though he had forgotten what to even address Gu Yun as.
“Me.” Gu Yun agreed.
Yan Bei Wang blinked. “Y- what is the Marquis doing here?”
“You have been avoiding me, your Highness, what was this subject to do?” Gu Yun spoke absentmindedly, too busy inspecting the fascinating room around him.
“Take the hint?” Yan Bei Wang suggested.
He didn’t sound too upset, and even the crossbow was set aside, as though the struggle between being angry or being bewildered left no room to bother with weapons. And of course, that made sense. The Prince must never have had cause to imagine Gu Yun near his bed or anywhere else in his room.
Especially since that room resembled an office in which someone placed a bed by accident, rather than a sanctuary for someone to find rest within. All it held was a desk, a few shelves stacked with books and scrolls, and a single uncomfortable-looking cot. For the man who controlled nearly all of Da Liang’s economy, Yan Bei Wang lived a lot like an acetic.
A small stool had been placed by the bed, mismatched enough to seem like an afterthought, and on it sat a censer with faint smoke coming out.
During his visit to the Chen Family’s home, Miss Chen had finally demystified the calming tea and the tranquilising incense for him, and now the sight of it made the vines around his heart give it a little squeeze.
There was something a little too vulnerable about a person’s room, and Gu Yun began to wonder why he had to choose this room to break into. At the time, it had seemed like the safest bet, but why was that?
“Marquis, If you had to inflict your presence on me, could you not have done it by walking in through the door.” Yan Bei Wang was asking, his voice pitched high and urgent.
It sounded as though he wanted to draw attention to himself. But what could he be trying to hide…
“Your Highness, do you want people to know how often we meet?” Gu Yun asked.
“We don’t meet often.” Yan Bei Wang snapped, coming to stand in front of him, filling most of Gu Yun’s vision.
“No, we don’t,” Gu Yun agreed, “But that is about to change.”
And then he saw it, beside the bed, and tucked almost behind the curtains. At first, Gu Yun only stared, unsure what he was seeing. But the shape was rather unmistakable.
“Is that Black Iron armour?” He asked.
Yan Bei Wang did not speak, and Gu Yun found himself walking closer to the wall. On closer inspection, he realised it was not just Black Iron Camp’s armour, it was his Black Iron Armour.
“You kept this?” He asked.
“The shape makes a convenient vessel when I’m nauseated.” Yan Bei Wang said, “In fact, I think I need it now.”
“Is it to be flowers?” Gu Yun asked, hopefully.
Gu Yun laughed, “In that case your highness, let me take my leave. I would not want to interrupt something so enjoyable for you.”
In any case, there was no point in overstaying his welcome further, not on the very first night.
“Leave the window unlatched for me.” He called out as he left.
“I did not think you would leave the window unlatched, Your Highness,” he said, as he entered the room the next evening.
“I did not think the great Marquis of Order would be shameless enough to return to a place where he was not welcome.” Yan Bei Wang said as he lowered his crossbow.
Gu Yun feigned a look of surprise, “Oh but I am welcome here, why else would you keep my armour as a keepsake.”
“For vomiting into.” Yan Bei Wang said shortly.
“Ah, yes.” Gu Yun agreed. “Into the armour and out through the holes.”
Yan Bei Wang let out a tired sigh, looking at Gu Yun without enthusiasm. “Is there a purpose to these visits, Marquis?”
“I thought I could talk to you about flowers.” Gu Yun suggested.
The room did not allow for many places to sit, he realised. He could plant himself on Yan Bei Wang’s bed, his desk, or his lap. None of those options seemed particularly appropriate.
He thought he heard Yan Bei Wang say something like “I did not know the Marquis had a fondness for horticulture.”
“No, those flowers.” He said absently, “The ones you presumably pour into my armour.”
He could feel Yan Bei Wang go still.
“What is that supposed to mean?” the Prince asked.
“Will you ask me to sit?” Gu Yun suggested.
He suspected that of all the surfaces in the room, it must be the Prince’s lap that was most comfortable. How awkward.
“No. I will ask you to leave.” Yan Bei Wang said.
“Then it seems I must return tomorrow.”
Gu Yun then paused with one leg out of the window, taking a final look around the room, less in aesthetic criticism and more for practicality. “Your Highness, can I ask for better seating arrangements next time?”
The next evening, he was somewhat later than usual. Perhaps there had not been any need to return from the Northwest Camp barracks on the same night, it was something he hadn’t done in the five years since Chang Geng had left. Yet, on that day, none of the invitations from his generals seemed quite as tempting as that one hopefully unlatched window in the neighbouring manor.
To make up for his lateness, he added an extra little flourish to his entrance through the window, flipping over and coming to rest in a neat crouch that he knew looked quite attractive.
“Your subject Gu Yun,” he announced, “Late to the—”
But there was no one to admire the effect created. Yan Bei Wang had fallen asleep at his desk, brush in hand and plum blossoms scattered around him.
With a sigh, Gu Yun rose to his feet, dusting off his robes as he did so. He came to stand beside the desk and poked Yan Bei Wang experimentally in the shoulder. It was only a gentle poke since it was obvious his Highness needed his rest, and Gu Yun found himself reluctant to wake him.
With such a gentle poke, Yan Bei Wang could only continue to sleep.
Half-heartedly, Gu Yun tried to shake the shoulder next, only for the Prince to… press into his touch.
“You can’t spend the night there, silly.” Gu Yun muttered.
A quiet snuffle was all the response he got.
Gu Yun eyed Yan Bei Wang assessingly and decided it would not be difficult to extricate him from the chair. Which was fortunate, since he found himself extremely reluctant to allow him to continue sleeping in such a place.
“If you wake up and fight, I will drop you.” He warned in a whisper.
But one look at the peacefully sleeping face was enough to tell him he would not be able to carry out any such threat. Far more likely that they would both be thrown onto the floor.
A fully grown Chang Geng, unsurprisingly, was not as light as he had been the last time Gu Yun had carried him. Contrary to all predictions that he would, just to make things more difficult, wake before they ever made it to the bed— hissing, kicking, and clawing like a cat— he continued to sleep. He even seemed to relax into the embrace, burrowing into Gu Yun in an achingly familiar way.
Gu Yun set him carefully down on the bed and then hesitated. It made most sense for him to leave. While he might break into the Prince’s home every day in an attempt to wear down his defences enough, Yan Bei Wang was usually conscious during those visits, capable of calling for his guards or his housemates if he wanted to.
It was different to stay in his room when he was asleep, and thus unable to protest or make his desires known. Without the force of his personality, he also seemed smaller somehow, as though his imposing height was only half the reason he seemed to tower above everyone around him.
Two other reasons would be that too tight bun and the shoes he was still wearing.
“Knowing you, you’d probably spit blood if anyone’s shoes touched your bed, even your own.” Gu Yun said.
Considering his dog’s nose, he hoped Chang Geng’s great love for cleanliness extended down to his toes.
Fortunately, Yan Bei Wang did prove to be very clean, and Gu Yun dropped his shoes to the side and moved back up to look at his hair.
I definitely don’t have to do this, he thought, already bending low to slide the hairpin out.
At least Yan Bei Wang had already divested himself of his heavy court attire, wearing only a light, pale yellow robe. There would be no harm in allowing him to continue wearing it through the night.
Gu Yun was already on his way to the window when a quiet sound stopped him in his tracks, something small and wounded, and impossible to disregard. Instead of disregarding it, he turned towards the sound and walked back over to the bed.
Chang Geng seemed to still be asleep, his expression had turned into a pained grimace. His sharp panicked breathing would not have been out of place on someone who had been chased through the city by some horrible fate, but definitely was out of place on someone deeply asleep. One of his hands clutched at the edge of his pillow in a grip that had turned his knuckles white.
And yet, he did not wake up.
With a sigh, Gu Yun lowered himself to sit down on the edge of the bed, placing one hand over Chang Geng’s shoulder. Unsure what to do, he patted gently and made a shushing sound.
But Chang Geng was hardly a child, and it seemed strange to shush him like one. “It’s only a dream.” Gu Yun told him quietly, “Don’t be afraid.”
Perhaps it was the warmth rather than the words that helped, but Chang Geng’s grip on the pillow eased a little. And so, Gu Yun leaned down and talked to him, until his breaths grew deep and even and his face relaxed into something calmer.
By then, it seemed natural to reach down and brush the hair back from Chang Geng’s damp forehead, and to leave his hand there, gently stroking his hair.
“Sleep,” Gu Yun said again, “I’ll watch over you.”
Chang Geng made a quiet sound and turned so his face pressed against Gu Yun’s side until the sharp point of his nose dug into his flesh. Gu Yun couldn’t hold back a chuckle, “That tickles, little brat.”
But he couldn’t move away.
“Wu Er Gu,” Miss Chen had called it, “It shows a person nightmares that slowly bleed into their waking hours until reality and fears and delusions are impossible to differentiate, eventually it drives them mad.”
According to her, that was the fate in store for Chang Geng.
“Don’t worry about the poison.” Gu Yun said quietly, “I will help you find a cure.”
He ran his thumb gently over Chang Geng’s temple. I don’t think I can leave you again, he thought, whether you turn into a fool or a madman, you’ll still be stuck with me.
When he woke up next, the sky outside was already lightening, a delicate shade of pink and gold touching the dark shadows of the night with gentle fingers. Strangely, it reminded him of Chang Geng’s hair with its familiar gold crown and the delicate blush that sometimes suffused his ears. Or of Chang Geng, the bright little star who seemed shadowed by his poisons.
Gu Yun’s eyes flew open, and his head snapped to his side. Yan Bei Wang was still fast asleep, his arm wrapped around Gu Yun’s waist, face resting against his shoulder. He looked terribly young like that, his face unlined and still soft. He seemed not to carry the burden of the court or of the nightmares that had haunted him the previous night.
But that was hardly time to admire his beauty. Over the past week, his Highness had been understandably unhappy to have his room intruded upon, it did not bear thinking how he would react when the invasion was into his own bed.
And worse, Gu Yun had fallen asleep on Chang G— no, on Yan Bei Wang’s bed, with Yan Bei Wang still in it. At that moment, he truly wanted to hurl himself out of the window.
But even that was impeded by the hold around his waist. Carefully, by slow degrees, he raised the arm that had been thrown over him, watching Chang Geng’s face for any sign of alertness. And it was Chang Geng now, not Yan Bei Wang. At least for Gu Yun, the distance of a title that had separated them seemed to have shrunk to nothing, like the shadows outside were shrinking underneath the first rays of the sun.
It was only after he left through the window, in a perfectly safe and non-self-destructive fashion, aiming for the usual tree rather than the ground, that Chang Geng opened his eyes again. He lay still, staring at the place where Gu Yun had last been, even as the sun rose steadily through the sky, and until its bright glare falling directly on his eyes almost made them begin to water.
“Marquis, have you ever kept falcons,” Chang Geng asked as Gu Yun entered the next evening.
Gu Yun was surprised. “Not yet, why?”
Chang Geng seemed to think it was obvious. It was with a long-suffering sigh and an air of patience that made him seem like a teacher lecturing a particularly inept pupil, that he said:
“Because you’re tormenting me like one.”
Ah, the entire key to taming falcons was not allowing them to sleep, until their spirit could be broken. But-
“I even helped you sleep just last night!” Gu Yun protested.
He came a little further into the room and noticed a chair had been placed on the other side of the bookshelf, a table and an unnecessary brazier on either side of it. Such arrangements were almost luxurious in that otherwise austere room.
Despite the chair, and his protest, Chang Geng seemed unmoved by the argument.
“I was already asleep.” He said, and while it was not strictly a lie, Gu Yun couldn’t help but feel that it was not the entire truth either.
He planted himself on the chair that had been provided and thought it might be an even better chair than the one in front of Yan Bei Wang’s desk. He wondered where it had been acquired from.
“I see these visits more like that time I tried to befriend a feral little cat.” He admitted, “I sat next to it daily, and it hissed at me daily, but a little less viciously each time. And then one day, the weather was cold, and it came and curled up next to me.”
He smiled as he remembered that warm presence by his side, and the softness of hair under his stroking fingers.
Chang Geng leaned forward, a spark of interest in his eyes. “What happened to it?”
Gu Yun looked apologetic. “I had to give it away.”
The spark died.
“Of course you did.” Chang Geng said bitterly.
“I still missed it, you know.” Gu Yun said quietly. If he thought they were still talking about a feline, he might have mentioned that he had only been six years of age at the time.
When the Prince did not respond, Gu Yun continued, “I still kept a watch over it.”
“You did not think the cat deserved to know?” Chang Geng asked.
Gu Yun shrugged. “The cat seemed to be doing fine without me.”
That earned him a frown, “Well, the cat didn’t tell you that.”
The conversation was getting just a little bit ridiculous.
“Because the cat did not have thumbs or the knowledge of how to write, as it could have if it had been a grumpy teenager. In fact, my little cat had not even rejected me to go wandering off with monks.”
“Well people don’t always know if they’re welcome, and they don’t usually” here Chang Geng shot a scathing look at Gu Yun, “climb into people's houses if they won’t be welcome. Unlike cats.”
His eyes had begun to widen by the end of that statement, and the words grew faster, not with anger, but with a desire to get the statement out of the way as fast as he could.
And then the coughing that usually heralded a shower of flowers began again.
Gu Yun quickly rose and moved towards the bed to grab something from beside it. Then he offered the Prince that shoulder armour, only to get a murderous, albeit tearful, glare in return.
Hoping the stubborn man did not choke to death on flowers behind his back, he set down the armour and walked over to the pitcher of water that had been left beside his chair.
It was perhaps a testament to how miserable it felt to hack up flowers that Chang Geng took the cup from his hand without protest, and drank the contents down quickly.
Gu Yun knelt in front of him, still as fascinated by the flowers as he had been the first time.
“Don’t touch that, do you know where it has come from?” Chang Geng scolded, his hand catching hold of Gu Yun’s wrist.
“No,” Gu Yun admitted, “But then again neither do you.”
He made no move to free his wrist, rather enjoying the warmth of Chang Geng’s fingers on his cooler skin. It seemed even Chang Geng had noticed the difference in temperatures, and he shifted his grip until his hand cradled Gu Yun’s.
He did not seem to notice as his other hand joined the first, its fingers rubbed the warmth back into Gu Yun’s, touching not only the acupoints but slipping into the webs between his fingers, as though he could simply not help himself.
“You need help.” Gu Yun said gently, “Just let me help.”
Chang Geng gave him another of those frowns, “Even if I do cough them out, there’s nothing wrong with flowers. You have no reason to worry about it.”
“Nothing wrong with them on trees. When they seem to be growing inside you, I do have a reason.”
Had they not already had this conversation? It felt as though all they could ever do was run around in circles, always centred around the same point, but never able to meet in the middle.
Chang Geng shook his head, “No one has to know that, I might have eaten these.”
He was the first to avert his eyes, and he looked back down towards the flower, instead catching sight of their joint hands. With a muttered apology, he snatched his hands away, withdrawing what seemed to be curled fists into his sleeves. Gu Yun missed the warmth as soon as it left him, his other hand still feeling hopelessly cold by his side.
But he followed Chang Geng’s gaze towards the flowers littering the floor. “It is still summer.” He said softly.
“The seasons haven’t changed since the last five times you said that.” Chang Geng snapped.
It wasn’t as though he had pointed it out in a single conversation. Gu Yun knew he had spaced his announcements quite economically over the course of weeks.
Chang Geng folded his arms across his chest, the pink tinge to his ears making that gesture look pitifully defensive. “Are you saying it is acceptable for me to cough out flowers in Winter or Spring?”
Gu Yun mirrored his pose, only without the blush. “Are you finally admitting you should not cough out flowers?”
“You make it sound like it’s a bad habit I need to be discouraged from.” Chang Geng complained, “I’m not trying to turn into a tree you know?”
“Then let me help you.” Gu Yun suggested, “Chang Geng… it seems as though these are happening more and more frequently.”
Chang Geng looked resigned, “Of course they’re happening more frequently.”
“How do you intend to help me?” He asked before Gu Yun could question him further. He seemed to have lost a lot of the defensive shields he usually seemed to cling to. For the first time, he looked hopeful instead.
No one could be proof against a look like that.
Gu Yun beamed at him, “So glad you asked, young man.”
And while Chang Geng was still blinking in surprise at that term of address, Gu Yun pulled out the set of needles he had brought with him every day.
“No need to look like that. Let me tell you, I learned how to do this from your teacher, and I’ve been practising on old dummies I found in the Manor while you didn’t let me work on you.”
“You’ve been practising on the iron puppets?” Chang Geng asked. He sounded endearingly confused.
Gu Yun shook his head, trying to judge whether it would be better to take his chair to the bed or simply sit beside Chang Geng on that bed.
“Of course not the iron puppets, silly, I found some older dummies from before the invention of the puppets. I think my great grandfather used those in training. And well, those older generations were quite particular about anatomical accuracy, you should have seen the- uh, but never mind that.”
He looked up and caught a flash of nervousness cross Chang Geng’s face, smoothed away to something that the poor boy probably assumed was indifference.
“I didn’t use these needles, though. Do you know, you really are as finicky as a cat sometimes.” He added.
The Bed, he decided. It would be the best place to sit. It gave the most access to Chang Geng and his back. Also, once you had already fallen asleep on a bed, what was the use of hesitating to sit on it anymore?
“Strip.” He told Chang Geng.
Chang Geng remained frozen. “Ah?”
The sound of complete unfeigned incomprehension that Gu Yun, someone truly incapable of hearing, had spent years perfecting seemed to come naturally to him. Perhaps it was his mellow voice, he sounded too sweet to disbelieve.
“Get up.” Gu Yun repeated patiently, “And then go and lie down on the bed. Without the top half of your clothes.”
Unsurprisingly, Chang Geng did not allow him to perform any acupuncture that night. Instead, Gu Yun found himself tucking his needles back into his robes and making a strategic retreat through the window, the glare directed at his back making not just his hand but his entire body burn.
Initially, he had intended to allow Chang Geng a day to recover from the shyness before making any attempt to climb in through his window. But after the episode in the court that morning, he decided to make another attempt that same evening.
Yan Bei Wang had taken a deep breath, clearly intending to deliver one of his usual set downs to the poor sap who had incurred his disdain. Then, he suddenly pressed a hand to his mouth, groping frantically for the handkerchief. Gu Yun watched, his heart knocking somewhere behind his teeth. He watched Chang Geng shudder, somehow using that movement to bow as low to Li Feng as he could before running out of the court as though for his life.
There had been stunned silence for another moment, some ministers had clearly wanted to follow him out, but none of them could dare to make the attempt once Gu Yun placed himself on the way to the hall’s doors. By then, the emperor had instructed Zhu little feet to follow his younger brother and see what had gone wrong.
It was not clear what explanation he had later offered to Li Feng, but his Majesty awarded him the rest of the week off as a reward for how diligently he worked. By that single act of kindness he had very neatly doubled Chang Geng’s load of work for the next two weeks.
When Gu Yun entered Chang Geng’s room later that day, he saw that despite being on leave, the Fourth Prince’s desk was littered with papers. Even the chair and table that had been placed for Gu Yun’s benefit had been repurposed to catch the spillovers.
“Your highness?” He said when Chang Geng did not acknowledge his entrance.
There was another beat of silence and he stepped closer to the desk, “Chang Geng?”
The brush on the paper was still, the way it had been ever since he entered, and judging by the dryness of the ink, even before that.
“That’s enough work, go and lie down. You can’t go on like this.”
The brush seemed to straighten a little, as though Chang Geng’s grip had tightened. But he still did not turn around. Gu Yun noticed that the knuckles of his hand were white.
“Would you like me to show another person how?” He asked, “I wouldn’t have tried to do anything… inappropriate, but if you want, I can show someone else how to perform the acupuncture.”
Finally, Chang Geng turned, he looked up at Gu Yun with an unreadable expression and said “I know you won’t try anything inappropriate.”
If Gu Yun didn’t know better, he might have said Chang Geng’s voice carried with it a note of regret.
“You can perform the acupuncture, I just need you to not look at me.” Chang Geng said finally, without meeting his eyes, “Not until I ask you to.”
It would be impossible to place any of the needles without seeing, but perhaps less impossible for Gu Yun who had long since accustomed himself to working by touch alone.
“Of course, I wouldn’t.” He said and watched as Chang Geng’s death grip on the brush eased.
He then took a deep breath and let it out in a brisk exhale. It was time to begin. “Alright then, your Highness, up you get.”
“You can not just come into my room and order me?” Chang Geng protested, even as he pushed back from the desk and stood up.
I can’t?” Gu Yun asked, a brow raised, “I’m sorry, it seems I have learnt my manners from a little wolf cub who used to do so.”
Chang Geng muttered something that Gu Yun graciously chose to ignore, though the word insufferable was used quite often.
“I could have you removed.” He said half-heartedly.
“You haven’t yet.” Gu Yun pointed out.
There was an impatient click of the royal tongue, even as those deft fingers worked loose the ties of his robes. Chang Geng had long, slender fingers, callused in just the right places for an archer and a scholar. With effort, Gu Yun forced himself to look away. Even though no clothes had been shed yet, the direction of his thoughts seemed to require it.
Chang Geng’s belt was laid carefully on the back of his chair, his lovely voice saying “Clearly, I do not wish to humiliate the military p- wai- what are you doing?”
The words ended with a higher pitch than he had begun speaking with, his outer robe gaping open as he rushed towards the screen Gu Yun had been heading for.
“Where am I supposed to wash my hands?” Gu Yun asked.
Young Chang Geng had always been a stickler for cleanliness, and Chen Qing Xu had spent a long lecture stressing just that point to him, as though he was a child who could not be clean enough on his own.
“That’s not the right direction!” Chang Geng called out, but it was already too late.
The screen did not demurely hide somewhere to undress or clean one’s hands. Instead, there was a second smaller chamber that seemed to hold a strange collection of keepsakes. Gu Yun had time to notice a familiar Lou Lan dagger, a basin with fresh plum blossoms, and an oddly shaped pouch before his attention was caught and held by something far larger and far more prominent.
It was clear Yan Bei Wang had, for good reason, assumed no one else would ever see the inside of his rooms. Why else would the pride of place be given to the same bow that a stranger had taken off Gu Yun’s hands in the South?
“I knew it was you.” Gu Yun murmured.
Yan Bei Wang chose not to acknowledge the statement. “You’re going the wrong way for that.” He said, “The basin is towards the other side.
Undaunted, Gu Yun followed the direction indicated, still keeping his eyes dutifully averted.
Perhaps it was the respect towards hygiene, or perhaps it was Gu Yun’s adherence to the conditions he had set, or perhaps even the absence of any mention of the contents of the small side chamber… regardless of reason, Chang Geng seemed to be a little more reconciled to what lay ahead of him when he finally called out to Gu Yun.
He had arranged himself on the bed, chin pillowed on his crossed arms which still seemed covered by sleeves. It took Gu Yun a moment to realise his Highness had simply worn his clothes the wrong way, and the flaps that should have been towards the front now lay open to expose his back.
His shoulder blades jutted out a little, giving away the tension with which he was holding himself.
“Relax, your highness.” Gu Yun teased, “I intend to insert needles into you, not daggers.”
A surprised laugh broke from Chang Geng at that, and it seemed like he had relaxed a little. It was a small victory, but a victory nevertheless.
Gu Yun had long experience being on the receiving end of treatment for all his various injuries and maladies, and he had noticed that talking always helped. It provided a distraction or a place to vent.
He sat on the edge of the bed, and then said conversationally, “I can’t help but feel like I am missing a few steps.”
“With the treatment?” Yan Bei Wang asked, sounding alarmed. His shoulder blades had drawn close together again, pressing against his skin as the muscles in his back tensed.
Gu Yun tried to smile, “No, with convincing you.”
He watched as Chang Geng slowly eased a little again, perhaps even a little more than he had last time. Gu Yun realised his inability to look away might not simply be due to the task at hand.
“It was too easy.” He said, “I thought I would be climbing that tree without success for another couple of days.”
Chang Geng shrugged a shoulder, the movement elegant and rather charming with his bare skin that looked like it would feel soft to touch, and the well-defined swell of muscle shifting beneath. His strong shoulders gave way to a slender neck, graceful like that of a swan, or perhaps the goose he shared a title with, Gu Yun thought with amusement.
He wanted to see Chang Geng’s shoulder move just like that again, and tried to imagine how he might look from the front, the sharp planes of his collarbones giving way to the round curve of…
“Marquis… Marshal Gu? Zi Xi?” Chang Geng seemed to have been calling out to him for some time.
“Hmm? Oh right.”
Perhaps the Prince had been right to ask him to look away.
“Any second thoughts?” He asked, spreading open the case in which the needles were arranged.
“No, I trust you.”
That was a surprise.
Gu Yun stared down at Chang Geng’s back, the lovely column of his neck suddenly seemed that much more vulnerable. The little strands of hair that could not be caught up in his bun seemed particularly sweet for some reason, a small patch of disorder amidst his pristinely neat appearance.
“If our roles were reversed,” Gu Yun said slowly, “I would also trust you.”
For a moment, Chang Geng’s shoulder blade twitched again, as though he had already been bracing for a blow to land. Gu Yun looked down at him in confusion, uncertain as to what he could have said this time. And then he realised.
Chang Geng had not qualified his trust, as though he did not just mean Gu Yun’s objectively dubious skills with needles, but Gu Yun himself.
Do you trust me so much? Gu Yun thought, startled as the question was echoed in a moment from their past.
Young Chang Geng’s hand had held on to his blade even as he fell, even as the edges cut into his skin, it was only when Gu Yun had picked him up and held him close that grip loosened. The small bloodstained hand had left an imprint on his white fur cloak that day, and the act of trust had left an even more deeply etched mark on his heart.
Trying to keep his voice as light as it had been, he added, “Though of course, if our roles were reversed, I would be entirely at your mercy, I think you know that.”
Chang Geng seemed to have laughed again, and Gu Yun’s hand paused over his back, waiting until he was still.
“You forget, I have seen you fight without the ability to either see or hear your opponent, Marquis.” Chang Geng said into the pillow. “It would still be me at your mercy.”
Despite that, he seemed a little better than he had been. Even his back had almost relaxed, despite the needles that were slowly sinking into the flesh.
Gu Yun wondered why he felt the desire to soothe away the remaining tension until Chang Geng was left boneless and open in front of him. It did not feel like a very paternal or purely friendly impulse.
Focus. He reminded himself.
Yan Bei Wang’s hair was still in the same severe bun he had begun to favour at the same time as he entered the court. It seemed painful to even look at, making a person’s scalp ache in sympathy. Gu Yun realised missed the way his dark hair had spread over the pillow.
But his hair would only get in the way, it was better this way.
“You dealt with the Southwest Governor remarkably well.” Chang Geng said after a while.
Gu Yun did not speak until the next needle was in place. Chang Geng’s skin was warm against his, a tingling warmth that seemed to travel through his fingers and up his arm at every accidental brush. He did not need the added distraction of wading through the conversation.
Needle in place, he paused and then said, “I had help.”
There was a hum from Chang Geng, and it seemed he did not intend to deny his involvement.
“You were also travelling with a monk, I think I remember the two of us meeting him here in the palace, and in Jiangbei. Have you travelled so extensively in his company then?”
Another hum, “I had to learn about how the world worked, about how this nation worked and what my place could be in it. It is said that unless you tend to someone on their deathbed, you might find a minor scratch to be the end of the world. You can not understand hardships without experiencing true poverty. Without seeing the consequences of war, all one knows is the glory of victory.”
As the monks were so fond of saying, Without knowing suffering, one can not believe in the Buddha.
It was impossible not to be moved by his words, in the time they had been apart, Chang Geng had grown into someone he could not just respect as an equal, but even admire. To think Chang Geng had kept all of this hidden away as he insisted on showing Gu Yun only the worst sides of him, sides which seemed so difficult to find the more one got to know him.
Gu Yun carefully stuck the final needle in place, and then released a breath it felt he had been holding since he began the acupuncture.
It was only as he was wiping his uncharacteristically damp hands that he said, “I heard that you used to provide medical treatment to the people you met if they required it. And that you never charged them for it.”
Chang Geng made a sound of assent. “Wealth is meaningless to the followers of the Buddha.”
A strange sentiment for Yan Bei Wang, even now engaged in the mammoth task of reviving Da Liang’s ever-weakening economy.
“It seems Master Liao Ran has managed to impart as much worldly wisdom to you as spiritual. That makes a person question what kind of monk he is.” He said.
Chang Geng’s nose scrunched up. “A very malodorous one, I assure you.”
It pleased a petty little part of Gu Yun that he could talk like that about monks, a small jealous part of him that had never forgotten how Chang Geng seemed to prefer the company of those bald donkeys above him.
“You’ll rest easier without your hair in a vice.” He said suddenly, “Let me undo the bun.”
And Chang Geng had permitted him, lying still as Gu Yun freed his hair from the band around it. He did not even protest when Gu Yun ran his fingers through the soft silken strands, ostensibly to untangle them.
“Are you intending to join the monks?” He asked,
Chang Geng sighed, “I had considered it, quite seriously. But even if there wasn’t more work for me to do in this world, it seems I am not cut out to follow the path laid out by the Buddha.”
“Desire is the cause of all suffering.” Chang Geng recited quietly, “Aren’t we here suffering because my desire is stronger than I am?”
“Don’t say that.” Gu Yun scolded, in a voice that took all sting out of the rebuke.
“Sometimes it’s worth the suffering.” Chang Geng murmured.
His voice was slow and deep, as though he might be falling asleep. Even his eyelids were drooping, Gu Yun noted with a flush of fondness that made something in his chest grow warm.
I trust you. Chang Geng had said.
Presumably, he also trusted Gu Yun to keep his eyes contained to appropriate locations.
Unlike Master Liao Ran, Gu Yun was no monk, and there was only so long he could resist the sight of Chang Geng’s bare back and the delightful curves that it ended in. Light from the lamps in the room fell gently against his skin, lending it a warm golden glow that made Gu Yun’s fingers itch to touch.
Desire is the cause of all suffering.
In all the world, he could not desire this one person, or Chang Geng might just decide they were better apart. Resigned, he leaned back and closed his eyes, he could not desire what he did not know.
For a second night in a row, he fell asleep in Chang Geng’s bed.
It had been as he carefully took the needles out and replaced them, that Chang Geng’s hand had closed around his wrist. It was a move that was growing almost familiar.
“It’s already so late,” he said gently, “And you look tired. Would you stay?”
And so Gu Yun had stayed.
There had been no reason for him to visit Chang Geng the next night. None, except that he wanted the young Prince’s company, almost as much as he wanted to rest his eyes on his pretty face.
To his surprise, he found Chang Geng at the desk, expectantly watching the window for him. There was a cup of warm herbal tea waiting for him, set out carefully beside his chair.
“It’s medicinal.” Chang Geng said in greeting, “You sounded a little hoarse this morning.”
Only because they had almost shouted at each other. Quietly, Gu Yun sat in his chair and drank the tea.
For a third night, he did not sleep in his own bed.
Shen Yi returned to the capital towards the end of Summer, no more than two weeks after the first time Gu Yun clambered into Chang Geng’s room through the window.
The post of the Southwest Governor was naturally not the same as that of Gu Yun’s subordinate, and it was only reasonable to expect that he would have new visitors to contend with. It was barely half a day before his return that Gu Yun found himself inundated with bird after bird, all pleading with him to rescue a soldier in distress.
Deciding it would do him good to learn the consequences of rank, Gu Yun waited another day before paying a visit, despite the birds that seemed to crash into each other as they flitted to his manor and back to Shen Yi’s to carry the next distress call.
Despite what Shen Yi had said, Gu Yun was well used to visiting his friend at all odd hours of the day and finding only the eccentric old master Shen. He had not expected the queue to see him to be quite so long, or for one particular person to be amongst the visitors.
“Your Highness.” He said, bowing to Yan Bei Wang in greeting.
In the first instant of meeting Chang Geng, it had felt impossible to stop the smile from stretching over his lips, something that to outsiders would have seemed uncharacteristic for either of them, unless they were mentally plotting the other's demise. After all that had happened, it seemed difficult to remember they were still supposed to be strangers.
“Marquis, you….” Chang Geng began and then paused, eyes fixed on someone behind Gu Yun.
“Zi Xi!” Shen Yi called out, beaming as he bore down upon them. It seemed all his other guests, as well as his annoyance at such a late response, had already been forgotten.
And this time Gu Yun did not have to stop the instinctive smile that seemed determined to plant itself on his face. Over the years, Shen Yi had almost become as much a part of him as a hand, and it was only the severance of the limb that had shown to him his reliance on it.
With Chang Geng present, and not intending to move, Shen Yi’s conversation was constrained. He might frequently have asked Gu Yun to mend bridges with the Prince, but until that could happen, there were things he just could not say to either of them. Ultimately, the constraint managed to make him babble.
“Did you know his Highness is an accomplished archer? I don’t know how we went from talking about archery to talking about you, ah, remember that Ling Shu bow you were assigned some time ago? I think his Highness would be up to the challenge of pulling it, he’s grown up so- ah, but I apologise, I was talking too freely.”
Gu Yun turned to meet Chang Geng’s eyes over Shen Yi’s rapidly turning head and tried to fight back a smile. Chang Geng’s face remained impassive as always, as though nothing that happened in the world around him could ever hope to touch him, but his eyes were shining with humour.
Gu Yun heaved a mournful sigh and shook his head, “Look at you Ji Ping, abandoning old friends the moment you rise in the world. Your old Marshal barely entered your house and must already leave again.”
With a pitiful look at Chang Geng, he added, “Your Highness, look how poorly this subject is treated.”
Chang Geng nodded, “The Marquis rest assured, I am taking notes from General Shen.”
“You are too diligent.” Gu Yun muttered, trying not to laugh.
Shen Yi, who had been looking between the two of them now turned to Gu Yun, but whatever rebuke he had been intending died on his lips and he turned back to Chang Geng, who seemed to have more of a conscience than Gu Yun.
“I have heard a lot about that bow General Shen,” he said slowly, “If the Marquis is willing, I would love to see it.”
Once they were out at the gates of Shen Yi’s manor, Chang Geng stopped him with a hand on his arm. “There is a cold wind blowing, it is not healthy to ride.” he said, “Why don’t you join me in my carriage?”
Gu Yun looked at the still leaves on the stationary branches of the utterly immobile trees around them, and then back to Chang Geng.
“Too much sun can not be good for the Marquis.” His Highness added, still smiling without a trace of shame.
Letting himself be led towards Chang Geng’s carriage, Gu Yun looked up at the clear evening sky, “And the impending storms possibly do not make it safe to travel either. I thank Your Highness for your concern.”
Chang Geng raised a hand towards him as he began to step into the carriage, it was a move that was quickly aborted but left Gu Yun wondering whether the young brat had intended to help him into the carriage.
And wouldn’t that have been a joke? The infirm Marquis of Order is not only unable to ride home on a clear, pleasant evening but also requires the assistance of a civilian to climb into a carriage.
Perhaps Yan Bei Wang was too used to travelling with elderly scholars and revered monks and had simply developed a courteous habit.
He spared no effort in making Gu Yun feel like an elderly scholar once he began to offer him water and cushions, fussing with the curtains to ensure the sunlight streaming in was just right, asking if the heat or the cold might not have got too much.
“How unfortunate that I seem to have misplaced the bow that General Shen was so eager to show you.” Gu Yun said, cutting through what seemed like an endless stream of questions to his comfort.
It seemed two weeks had been all it took for all of Chang Geng’s mother hen tendencies to come rushing back to him.
“Did you… tell him…” Chang Geng began, uncertain, and half his mind presumably still on the right arrangement of the cushions around Gu Yun.
Gu Yun let the ridiculousness of such an idea show in his expression. “Not my story to tell, Ji Ping does not know about… anything that happened recently.”
But he did know about the past, and he was also the one person who knew just how much Chang Geng had once meant to Gu Yun. Just how much he might still mean to Gu Yun.
“Then he…” it was unlike Chang Geng to be so at loss for words, and Gu Yun wondered just what secrets Shen Yi had spilt to him.
“He has always wanted us to reconcile, I believe this was his attempt to ensure we did. Now the question is: do I tell him his efforts came too late, or do I let him gloat first before I tell him his efforts came too late?”
Chang Geng arranged his face into a suitably disapproving expression, given away only by his eyes, “How cruel.”
“I must take my entertainment where I find it.” Gu Yun insisted.
By then they were already close to the Marquis Manor, and whatever response Chang Geng might have made was set aside. He seemed reluctant to part, but even if he was not, Gu Yun was.
“Would you like to come in with me?” He asked, “I want to show you something.”
Despite being the one to extend the invitation, he had not expected just how strange it would be to lead Chang Geng through the manor for a second time. All the small changes that the children had brought with them had been like the blooming of flowers with spring; all of it had already faded into a drier, harsher season until even the puppets seemed to wilt.
It was a mercifully short journey to the study, and from there into the small room used to keep his belongings safe. Once there, he led Chang Geng to one particular shelf in the room and brought down a large box from it.
The box was barely in his hands for a moment before Chang Geng had taken hold of it, a murmured “Allow me.” the only concession that consideration made to courtesy.
“Take them, they are yours anyway.”
Chang Geng looked up at him in surprise, and then stared at the top of the box as though attempting to see through it into whatever was hidden underneath.
“Open it.” Gu Yun suggested, gesturing to a table that stood some distance away.
Obediently Chang Geng did.
It was clear that whatever he might have been expecting, the contents of that box had not ever occurred to him. Not many men above twenty would ever expect to see toys and weapons offered to them.
And those were the contents of that box, neatly arranged to prevent them from breaking.
Gu Yun came closer, and then touched the sheath of a dagger gently, tracing the delicate pattern engraved on it. Next to it was a compass, and beside that, a carved wooden wolf. He had been the one to carve it, soon after he had left the capital, at a time when his thoughts had been full of one particular white-eyed wolf cub.
“Were these all for me?” Chang Geng asked unsteadily.
He lifted an empty bag, staring at the oil stains and then looked at Gu Yun for explanation.
“Sweets.” Gu Yun said with a wry smile, “I could hardly save those, my horse ate them. I guess I kept the packet for the memory. Maybe I assumed it would remind me I owed you those sweets.”
Maybe I wanted a reason to hold on to anger and betrayal.
“Why?” Chang Geng’s voice was barely a whisper. He cleared his throat and said more clearly, “Why would you get all these… for me.”
As though it wasn’t obvious.
“I don’t have anyone else in my life to spoil, you know?” Gu Yun rubbed his nose awkwardly, “There was only ever you. And I had developed the habit of buying you little sweets and trinkets. So… sometimes, I saw things I thought you would have liked, and I bought them anyway. I think I had some idea of sneaking them to you without bringing up my name.”
He shrugged. It had not worked out like that, and perhaps it was too late to give them now, to someone who had so clearly outgrown them. But if Chang Geng still held on to the bond they had once had, perhaps he might even add them to that little room where other gifts from Gu Yun were kept.
The moment was broken as something else dropped out of the box, caught in the folds of a shawl that merchants from the South had brought with them.
Gu Yun tried to catch it first, but his hand collided with Chang Geng’s and the ill-begotten bamboo flute fell onto the floor. He wondered if that was how Chang Geng had felt when the shoulder armour was discovered.
“Should I recognise this?” Chang Geng asked, crouching down to pick it up.
And perhaps that was how Chang Geng had felt about Gu Yun’s fascination for the flowers that he had crouched down to pick up, just like that.
“Not unless you were secretly a soldier watching me carve it.” He lied, realising too late that nowhere in the Western Regions did bamboo grow.
There was a smile in Chang Geng’s voice as he said, “Your workmanship is too rough.”
He continued to run his fingers carefully over the cracked surface of the flute, as though he could still recognise the peculiarities of that specific bit of wood. “Why don’t I make a new one.”
“You may.” Gu Yun told him, firmly extracting the flute from his hold. “But until then, this is mine.”
“I believe this is little Miss Yao’s.” Chang Geng said mildly, his voice low enough that Gu Yun could pretend he had not heard.
He had only ever had that flute to remember Chang Geng by, and it had travelled everywhere he had gone. But if he was promised another flute… perhaps he could preserve this one, allow it to live its final days in a single piece without utterly disintegrating.
“All this time… I thought I was alone.” Chang Geng murmured as he watched Gu Yun carefully tuck the flute away. He sounded thoughtful, and perhaps the words were not meant for Gu Yun’s ears at all.
“I was also alone.” Gu Yun told him quietly.
Chang Geng smiled sadly at him, “You don’t have t—”
But that was as far as he got. The flower tumbled out with the words, seemingly surprising both of them. It was only the first.
Another flower followed close after it, and Gu Yun realised the absence of coughing suggested Chang Geng had utterly forgotten to hold them back from emerging. Did that mean he willingly made it harder for himself each time?
A fourth flower, a fifth, and that seemed to be the end of it. Five small flowers, but they seemed to have cost Chang Geng. What part of him did they bleed from that their emergence always left him so weak?
Chang Geng himself followed the path of those flowers, sinking into the floor, and curling inwards so his forehead rested on his knees. Gu Yun sat beside him and wrapped an arm around his shoulders.
Chang Geng leaned into his arm, and let Gu Yun rub small circles into his back as he caught his breath again. From the floor, those tall shelves seemed to loom over them, almost as guardians, and it felt as though they could hide from the world where they were.
“It’s getting worse, isn’t it?” Gu Yun asked.
He felt Chang Geng nod and then heard him say, “It is. But that’s not your fault.”
It’s not your fault either that this is happening to you.
He only had to tilt his neck only a little bit to rest his cheek against the top of Chang Geng’s head, so the soft hair rubbed against his cheek. This way, he could smell the familiar scent of plum blossoms and tranquillisers when he breathed in.
And the tranquillisers reminded him of Chang Geng’s room. Which reminded him…
Gu Yun raised his head a little so he could look at him, “Hey, it has been nearly ten days, why don’t you come to your old room? I will bring the needles.”
Chang Geng’s head came off his shoulder, and he stared in surprise. “Is it still there?”
Though the Gu family had once been numerous and prolific, not many had survived until the current generation. Gu Yun could be considered the last member left, rattling around in that too large, too empty dwelling like a single pea in a drum. Of course, his adoptive son’s old room had never been changed. But even if there had been people to visit and rooms to be used, it was likely that this one part of the Marquis Manor would have remained for one person alone.
“Of course it is.” Gu Yun told him.
It was one of the few rooms in the Manor that the elderly staff still cleaned diligently.
Chang Geng had already settled himself on the bed by the time Gu Yun returned with the needles, and he had brought the box of gifts with him.
It warmed something within Gu Yun to realise he had remembered his way. It seemed as though some frozen part of him thawed a little more with every moment he spent in Chang Geng’s company.
“Your highness, What’s running around in that busy mind of yours?” Gu Yun teased.
Chang Geng turned his head to look up at him, “May I ask you something?”
“Didn’t you already?” Gu Yun replied, “Alright, you may ask me another question.”
Chang Geng looked away again, not speaking, and it seemed as though whatever question he wanted to ask was not an easy one.
Gu Yun let him take his time while he directed his own focus to the needles, and not at all to the lovely expanse of well-sculpted back in front of him. It seemed somehow worse to notice that in what had been a younger Chang Geng’s room.
But whenever he tried not to notice the shape and definition of Chang Geng’s back, his eyes would be drawn to something else instead.
Over time, he had noticed that there was a scar across Chang Geng’s shoulders that seemed to extend towards his chest, another that must once have been a deep cut that peeked from within the folds of the robe close to his waist, and even the small of his back seemed to have a burn that seemed too regular and neat to have been an accident.
They were strange injuries for him to have, and Gu Yun did not think he would welcome questions about how he had come by them. But he could still make a guess as to who was responsible, knowing the poison that Hu Ge Er had not hesitated to force into him.
“Did you ever send orders to… remove me from the Marquis estate?” Chang Geng asked into the silence, his voice a little rough from disuse.
Gu Yun’s hand holding the needle paused, the words refusing to resolve themselves into a meaningful question no matter how much he replayed them in his mind.
He barely recognised his voice as he said, “No. I did not.”
“Someone did.” Chang Geng said with a small sigh, “It was why I had to leave.”
Almost mechanically, Gu Yun inserted another needle in place, and then followed it up with the next, and the one after it. He did not speak until he was done, and this time it was Chang Geng who waited and allowed him the time he needed. He had to wait until the needles were all carefully placed.
It was not difficult for anyone to guess who had given such instructions, the person who would least want Chang Geng to be intimate with the Black Iron Camp.
It seemed that Li Feng had for once in his life not failed to see the strategic implications of an act. Of course, it had to be the one time in Gu Yun’s life that he had hoped for his ruler to display his characteristic lack of foresight.
He felt pity stir his heart as thought of the kind of blood relatives Chang Geng had been saddled with. Neither his aunt, nor his mother, nor even his brother seemed to have much kindness or faith in him. And as for his father… but it was better not to think of Yuan He, and all the people he had betrayed.
“I was not well at that time,” he admitted, “When I received your letter…”
It saved me.
He realised his hands were playing with the ends of Chang Geng’s hair, twining the dark stands between his fingers, and letting the curls spring free. If it bothered Chang Geng, he did not show it, and Gu Yun realised he did not want to pull away. There was something comforting in the contact, hopefully as much for Chang Geng as for me.
He had done the same to Shen Yi sometimes, hadn’t he? Strangely, that had never felt quite so intimate.
“My letter?” Chang Geng prompted, pulling him out of his thoughts.
“… I realised there was still someone who relied on me, how could I bear to drive you away?” Gu Yun asked, his voice gentle.
“Did you still want me at the manor?” Chang Geng turned to look at him in something like surprise.
When he was in court, it was easy to forget just how young he was, even for those who remembered his past. With the hope now suffusing his voice, he sounded even younger, as though it was not him but the Chang Geng of six years ago asking the question.
Gu Yun nodded. He watched in detachment as his fingers followed the path of a lock of hair, up to Chang Geng’s scalp. He had always had restless hands, and the softness of Chang Geng’s hair was too great a temptation.
“It gave me a place to come home to.” He confessed.
He sighed, trying to brush aside that admission, “I thought you were safe at the Marquis Manor. It was only when I was well again that a letter from Uncle Wang arrived, saying you had already gone, and would stay in the monastery until your manor was completed. It seemed strange at the time, but you had reason enough to resent me, I thought you had just then realised that you were permitted to.”
Chang Geng made an effort to raise himself then, despite the needles on his back, and Gu Yun pressed him back down on instinct.
With his neck underneath one of Gu Yun’s hands, his wrist captured in the other, he looked strangely submissive. They had been the only places to be found that did not have needles sticking through, but the effect now made him look rather like a bullied puppy.
His instant obedience when Gu Yun snapped “Be still!” Did not help at all.
Quickly, Gu Yun released his hold, “I apologise, your Highness.”
Chang Geng made a quick sound of dissent, presumably in lieu of shaking his head, and said “Nothing to apologise for. But Yi-uh, Zi Xi, I could never resent you.”
“Even after everything that happened?” Gu Yun asked
“Even then.” Chang Geng said, “I had my reasons for pushing you away, and perhaps, someday, I might be able to tell you. Please don’t ask me now.”
Gu Yun had never enjoyed waiting very much, especially for an indefinite amount of time, but he could recognise the need to do so in most things. He could wait for Chang Geng to be ready.
“What made you think I wanted you to leave?” He asked instead.
He was unprepared for the way Chang Geng looked up at him as he said, “I had found out just what happened at the Black Iron Camp, twenty years ago.”
Perhaps Chang Geng had only been waiting for permission to return, for some sort of reassurance that he was not unwelcome within the Marquis Manor.
Ever since that day, Gu Yun became the one more likely to find an intruder in his room.
The first time it had happened had been a surprise, though perhaps the scent of Chang Geng’s tranquillising incense should have been warning enough, even before Gu Yun saw him sitting on his bed. It might have been, if not for the medicine he had drunk on his way indoors.
“I have been neglecting my duty.” Chang Geng said, watching Gu Yun stagger in.
“What duty?” Gu Yun muttered.
Chang Geng smiled sweetly up at him. “Remember? My teacher taught me how to perform acupuncture for those headaches of yours.”
Only half listening, Gu Yun sat on the other end of the bed, eyeing the pillow and then Chang Geng’s thigh placed right beside it. It was unfortunate for him that the latter seemed far more inviting than the former.
As though he could read his mind, Chang Geng patted his lap invitingly, and his voice was soft as he said, “Come my general, allow me to help you.”
Right then, Gu Yun did not have the ability to even pretend he could refuse.
They spent the next few months like that, visiting each other’s rooms in the dead of the night, maintaining the pretence of antagonism throughout the day. But more and more, Gu Yun could see the concern and worry that had dictated Chang Geng’s aggravating behaviour.
The attack on the Northern Camp Barracks during the fifteenth year of Yuanhe had been the work of the court, and as much as it might seem to keep Gu Yun in check, Yan Bei Wang’s diligence over the years had been a barrier between Gu Yun’s army and those who would sabotage even their own defences for gain.
Anything that Gu Yun might not yet have noticed, the keen eyed tigress would… a comparison that Gu Yun realised was far more apt that he had ever realised.
Chang Geng still seemed to have his secrets, every time Gu Yun learned something new about him, he saw that just behind that were two fresh questions that had remained unanswered. Yet, they were making progress, and that was all that he could hope for.
He should have known even then that Li Feng was only waiting, axe in hand, for the worst possible moment to hack off the branch that his Majesty himself perched on.
It was raining when the summons from the palace came. And then there had been a message from Chang Geng waiting for him, at the Palace gates, delivered by Cao Chun Hua (dressed in the uniform of Imperial Guards with a subtle grandeur and neatness that Gu Yun thought even the elite Black Iron Camp could learn from.)
All those years, he had fought with Yan Bei Wang, whose unreasonable demands went a few steps further than Li Feng, an iron puppet for him to beat against before acceding to Li Feng’s original demands, the only fool in the situation seeming to be the emperor’s younger brother.
Without Chang Geng’s buffer, Li Feng’s foolishness seemed all the more breathtaking.
In the end, despite the warning, he was ordered out into the downpour for his refusal to obey. He watched as those bald donkeys from the Hu Guo temple came rushing to the palace, and were instantly admitted into the Warm Pavillion. He sensed Yan Bei Wang’s hand in the matter and yet resented their involvement.
Whatever they said to the emperor had the desired effect, and he found himself permitted to rise and return to the Marquis manor.
Chang Geng was waiting for him in his room, seeming to grudge even the two hours he had spent kneeling in the rain. Gu Yun’s reassurance that he had endured worse even in childhood did not have the desired effect of calming him down at all. If Chang Geng had seemed to watch over accounts like a Tigress over her cubs, he now made even that seem negligent.
“Should have been more careful.” He muttered, stomping across Gu Yun’s room, collecting an unnecessary amount of pillows and blankets, radiating the scent of plum blossoms and an air of misery.
Gu Yun followed the sound of clattering dishes and clinking vials, to see him bringing a steaming cup back, muttering to himself all the way, “Stupid brother, didn’t imagine even he—”
It was all so hopelessly domestic, so much like family, it sent a wave of longing crashing against Gu Yun’s chest, leaving his heart feeling strangely bruised. Even the fussing was adorable, a reminder of the leisurely days they’d spent together in Yanhui.
And then Chang Geng dropped into a crouch in front of him with a glare, and demanded, “Let me see your knees.”
At some point on that eventful night, Gu Yun had shaken off the blankets and kicked away the pillows, trying not to think of how much better he felt because of the ointment Chang Geng had insisted on dabbing over his sore knees.
“Would the great Marshal Gu prefer to spend his old age limping around on shaky legs?” Chang Geng had hissed, and Gu Yun, vain to a fault. had possessed no argument against him.
The letter he had sent to Li Feng had seemed, at the time, to be a masterpiece of incompetent diplomacy, full of clumsy words to be expected from a hot-headed commander who had been brought back to earth with a jarring thud.
The fact that Li Feng swallowed it made Gu Yun wonder if they had grown up together at all. Perhaps he even allowed his advisors to frame his memories for him now.
The next time he met Chang Geng was at the hot spring resort, towards the North of the capital. The Prince carried with him a report of the situation at the capital, and a message from Li Feng.
“He sent over the one person who hates me the most, it seems he is not letting me off lightly.” Gu Yun said, smiling fondly in the direction he thought Chang Geng must be.
The quality of the silence suggested Chang Geng was looking glumly back at him.
“Would you like to join me?” Gu Yun asked, “You’re always wound up so tight, you could take the chance to rest a little. Perhaps this evening, we could even visit the performers in this area, if I take my medicine.”
“You will Not take your medicine.” Chang Geng told him, “It is not good for your health, it causes you pain, and it is definitely not for frivolous occasions like this.”
He spoke loud enough for even Gu Yun to hear him without difficulty, as though anger had lent him the volume necessary.
“What kind of a life would it be if I could only see the battlefield and the barracks clearly? Or if I could only hear cries from injured men or the explosions on a battlefield?” Gu Yun asked, “Those are not the moments that should define a person’s life.”
He had expected, hoped, that at least Chang Geng would understand.
A moment later, he felt Chang Geng kneel beside him and knew he was being watched. Someone touched his chest carefully, the dulled sensation against too sensitive skin told him Chang Geng was tracing the rather unseemly scar that traversed the length of his chest, all the way up to the neck.
Strangely, with Chang Geng’s gentle touch, it did not seem quite so unseemly. Instead, he found himself thinking that it could be rather nice to have the least likeable parts of you treated with such care all the time… the way Chang Geng seemed capable of an endless amount of gentleness and care.
Gu Yun tilted his head towards one side, wondering if he had only imagined Chang Geng speaking.
“What did you say?” He helpfully extended a palm toward Chang Geng as an encouragement to simply write what he wanted to ask. The Liuli glass would not be of any use in the steam that rose from the springs.
Chang Geng took his hand, holding it carefully within his. Gu Yun waited for him to write, but instead, the grip on his hand slackened.
He felt the shift as Chang Geng’s body must have convulsed, and his blurry form doubled in on itself as the coughing began again, faint echoes of it audible even to deaf ears. Gu Yun wondered if the sulphurous fumes rising from the water had somehow set him off.
He had been soaking in the hot spring for too long, and it was something of an effort to make loosened muscles obey him enough to rise out of the water. He reached out for the liuli glass, brushed away the foggy lens with his fingers, and then clipped it over his nose.
Chang Geng came into focus, his eyes damp with sweat or perhaps tears, leaning forward on his hands as the coughs shook his body. Small flowers had already scattered around him, tinged an unusual shade of red, more like the fruits of a plum tree than flowers.
“Put some clothes on.” Chang Geng wheezed, barely able to breathe through the coughs.
Ungrateful brat, haven’t I seen your bare back every week for the past few months?
But Chang Geng’s body was different from his.
There wasn’t much to look at when it came to Gu Yun, as beautiful as his face was, the rest of his body had long since been relegated to a weapon. Ugly stories of each battle he had fought and each sparring session he had failed in were imprinted on him in the form of scars. They were not even particularly interesting stories.
Chang Geng on the other hand, was like someone had breathed warmth and life and softness into a perfect statue carved out of jade… even his scars could not detract from the sheer loveliness of him, they perhaps even lent him a certain charm, something so human and vulnerable about him that once seen would make a person want to protect him.
For reasons he couldn’t yet confront, Gu Yun always had to force his eyes away from Yan Wang. And for reasons he could confront, and wholeheartedly supported, he wanted to protect Chang Geng.
“Clothes.” Chang Geng said again, “Please.”
With one final attempt to make sure Chang Geng would remain reasonably alright, he stood up and walked over to the spot where he had left his robe. He bent down to pick it up and felt a sudden movement behind him.
The movement turned out to be Chang Geng, who had given up on his attempts to hold any flowers back and was being violently sick in the bushes. How unfortunate that there was no convenient shoulder armour at hand for him to use.
Gu Yun moved closer, intending to protest that his body could not be quite so repulsive, but the words died on his tongue.
The blossoms had not been an unusually dark colour, they had been stained with blood, and flecks of the same bright red stained Chang Geng’s mouth.
The book had warned of it, Miss Chen had also warned him of it, and yet he found himself unprepared.
The poison is like a weed, it slowly drains the life out of a person. The roots of it might push in too deep, and if they do, they can draw blood. It’s… not a good sign.
And at the sight of that blood, the first sentiment within him was anger. Why was it that he had just found Chang Geng again, and already stood at risk of losing him for good?
But the warmth of anger did not stay for long, even as he stood there in the steam rising from the water, fear that had accompanied the realisation he might lose Chang Geng for good made the breaths in his chest freeze. Even the stones beneath his feet seemed to have grown colder, shaky like the ground on which he had built the last few months.
Mechanically, he walked back to the rooms that abutted the hot springs, lifted the vial of medicine he had intended for that evening’s entertainment and swallowed it down, waiting for it to take effect. Once it did, perhaps he might be better able to do something.
He had carried the booklet Chang Geng had transcribed back with him, and even if he remembered every single page as though it was imprinted into his mind, there might be somewhere else to look, if he only found the right word, or the right place.
When the headache came, he barely noticed it, at least not until Chang Geng followed him into the room and tried to coax him onto the chair. But there was something about the ache that grounded him, and he welcomed it.
“Only five days have passed.” He said quietly, “When did it get so bad?”
Chang Geng shook his head, stubbornly not replying.
“Tell me, your highness, when did things get so bad?” Gu Yun repeated.
With a weary sigh, Chang Geng gestured towards the bed, “Lie down, I’ll tell you then.”
It was on the tip of his tongue to demand to know, let out a threat of “you Will tell me.” He even considered childishly snapping “why don’t You lie down on the bed.”
But neither option would achieve anything. Gu Yun was not good at sitting— or lying— idle when someone needed help, but inactivity had never been as unbearable as it was when Chang Geng needed help.
But it seemed the compromise was all he could do if only to avoid their old dead ends.
For once, Chang Geng did not bother with needles, he simply placed his fingers carefully over Gu Yun’s temples, pressing against the acupoints, forcing the worst of the headache to recede.
He seemed subdued, his eyes fixed on a spot on the sheets, not looking away for even a moment. He did not speak a single word either. If not for the steady motion of his fingers, it could be said that he did not remember Gu Yun was there at all.
“Chang Geng?” Gu Yun called quietly.
Those eyes slowly moved to his face, the only sign Chang Geng had heard him at all.
Gu Yun asked again, “How long?”
“I’m not sure.” Chang Geng replied, “This is not any effect of the treatment, so it’s not your fault. I already asked Miss Chen. It seems… this is a natural progression.”
It couldn’t be natural for him to get worse. That was just not acceptable.
“You can not let anyone reduce you to this.” Gu Yun said kindly, “You do know you can put a stop to this, right?”
There was a wry little twist to Chang Geng’s mouth as he said, “Are you saying I can think this curse away?”
It was just what he seemed to be doing with his other curse, keeping Wu Er Gu at bay with only the strength of his will. Miss Chen had expressed her doubts that he found any rest even in sleep, some part of his consciousness forever fighting a battle within his mind.
Gu Yun sighed, “No. You know just what I am saying. You can end it, Chang Geng.”
“I can’t do that.” Chang Geng protested, sounding miserable.
His face was scrunched up into an unhappy expression, but he seemed determined to smooth away Gu Yun’s frown with just his fingers.
“But why not?” Gu Yun asked, trying to keep the frustration from his voice.
He had never asked Chang Geng who it was that he pined after this way, but he had given him the chance to say the name, as much as he could without forcing the issue. Eventually, he had just accepted Chang Geng’s refusal to answer.
Perhaps a part of him did not want to know the answer at all. To put a name, and perhaps a face, on that person would be to give him someone else to take his frustration and his fury out on, and he knew that would make Chang Geng sad.
“I keep thinking someone who would allow you to be this way without ever doing anything to help, they don’t deserve you.” He admitted.
Surely even Chang Geng could see that.
Those blank white sheets seemed to hold all the answers to life, judging by the intent way Chang Geng was staring at them again. His jaw clenched, but his fingers remained as careful as ever.
Finally, he said, “If by that you mean he deserves better, I can agree.”
“Of course I don’t mean that.” Gu Yun snapped.
Chang Geng looked away from the sheets to meet his eyes, “I know it’s difficult to understand but… the person I love, he is worth it. I’m sorry I give you trouble over this, and I don’t expect you to continue helping a lost cause, but…”
If Chang Geng would not have seen such a gesture as rejection, Gu Yun would have moved off his lap and… paced? Kicked something? Tried to go out and pick a fight? What could dull the sharp prickle of restlessness stinging at his limbs?
“You’re not a lost cause.” He told Chang Geng, “Not at all, and never to me.”.
The fingers jerked to a stop as Chang Geng stared at him, shock written plainly on his face. “Zi Xi…”
Gu Yun sighed, “It is a stupid curse.”
Chang Geng laughed, “That I can agree with.”
Gu Yun shot him a glare, “You’re not permitted to laugh. You’re being stubborn.”
“Zi Xi, tell me what kind of a life would it be if I could not hold even one person in my heart without selfishness or insincerity?”
It was an echo of Gu Yun’s own sentiment, returned to him
Except… it was not the same sentiment. To lose his ability to see the world around him, to lose the ability to hear any sound at all— he felt as though he was only half living his life in moments like that, spending every moment waiting for the burst of light and colour and noise.
Chang Geng seemed to have read his mind. “The cure for this… would be to remove the one thing that gives me strength to fight Wu Er Gu. What other choice can I make?”
The blood he had seen on Chang Geng’s mouth should have been the most important thing to worry about, and as long as he was on his extended vacation in prison, it was. But then the city wall had crumbled around them, Great Liang’s defences collapsing under the assault, already overburdened by the weight of poor decisions even Chang Geng had not been able to prevent Li Feng from making.
During the battle, Chang Geng might have refused his brother’s last-minute attempt to shrug off his responsibility and his crown, but between the emperor and his prince, it was painfully clear who generals and ministers alike preferred to follow. Perhaps not to Li Feng’s fear-addled wits, but to all those who might have looked to their peers for guidance on what to do.
Even simmering grievances against the too diligent bureaucratic pest that Yan Bei Wang could be was forgotten in the face of his competence and courage in battle… and perhaps, Marshal Gu’s suddenly obvious respect for him.
For his part, Gu Yun had kept the plum blossom that fell from Chang Geng’s mouth in his armour, for the first time in his life treasuring a token for luck.
Perhaps it had been lucky, since it was only after the arrow to his shoulder (and not, as had been intended, his heart), had allowed the tiny plum blossom to fall away, disregarded, that things began to grow worse, finally fading to black in a haze of agonising pain.
When his eyes had opened again, he found Chang Geng sitting beside him.
Your flowers. Gu Yun had wanted to say, ready to offer his help even if he could not possibly move even a finger against the leaden weight of his limbs.
Someone had written on his palm, only three characters, Chen Qing Xu, but those had allowed him to sink back into unconsciousness. If Miss Chen was there, he was not required. She would look after Chang Geng, she wouldn’t allow him to remain unwell.
Gu Yun might have been forgiven for assuming that being run over by a Western Chariot was the worst indignity in store for him, but the newly minted Yan Wang soon proved him wrong.
If being tenderly scrubbed clean with a silken cloth by someone who had clearly done that enough to gain practice was not bad enough, there was the way Chang Geng had taken Gu Yun’s hands in his, rubbing the warmth back into his skin with an intimacy that made him feel like he was being taken advantage of. Never before in his life had Marshal Gu been the one to feel flustered.
The worst of it all was how he could not even seem to find any anger within himself to scold Chang Geng with. It had taken a single smile, the soft curve of his eyes, a hint of a too-long canine, and Gu Yun found himself too helplessly fond to find the proper scolding words.
And then, Chang Geng had subjected him to the greatest indignity of all.
Shen Yi, who was returning right at that moment, had taken one look at Gu Yun, swaddled in blankets and carefully cradled in Chang Geng’s arms like a little child, and hopefully realised his matchmaking was no longer required. The rift of all those years had slowly been shrinking, and now it was a barely perceptible line in the sand, to be trampled upon at will by his Highness Yan Wang’s royal foot.
For some incomprehensible reason, Chang Geng had chosen to place Gu Yun underneath the plum tree out of all the options in the manor.
“Would you like me to pluck you some?” He asked, looking up at the branches laden with fruits.
Gu Yun glared, “I would like my neighbour not to poach my fruit, but grow his own.” He grumbled.
Chang Geng laughed, “I am trying to grow my own.”
He only laughed harder at Gu Yun’s horrified silence, but it was difficult not to notice the way he did not try to clarify where he was trying to grow them.
The smile faded a little as he confessed, “When I was younger, I tried to bring you the flowers once, but it turned out you had already left.”
There was more to that story, Gu Yun knew, but he was not sure it was the right moment to ask. Much like the identity of Chang Geng’s beloved, this too seemed like something it was not his place to question.
“Let me make it up to you now.” Chang Geng told him, already reaching up towards one of the lower branches.
He left soon after, not to the court, but the manor kitchens, promising to bring something healthy that even Gu Yun might find palatable, and Gu Yun was left underneath the plum tree, staring at the plums Chang Geng had deposited on his lap before he left.
Plums, flowers or fruits, were not meant to be a thing of comfort, nor of luck. They were killing Chang Geng, each one seemed to cause him greater pain and bleed away more of his strength.
Gu Yun tried to make himself see them that way and completely failed. Much like the tranquilliser, he had already associated plums with a certain someone who shared that name and now, in spite of all his attempts, they felt like a representation of Li Min and his seemingly endless, if self-destructive, capacity to love.
Gu Yun was not sure how long he waited for Chang Geng to return, drifting in and out of consciousness. He woke as someone gently squeezed his hand, and found Chang Geng holding a tray that contained not just noodles but also, for some reason, a white jade flute.
Much like its predecessor, this new flute also remained with him when Chang Geng could not. It accompanied him on his way to the military camps, it accompanied him in battles. When he retreated to his tent at night, more tired, more injured and more alone than he had the luxury to admit, he would take out the flute and trace over the carefully carved shape of it until he fell asleep.
It felt like having Chang Geng, with his gentle smile and his well-intentioned fussing right there with him.
As he sat on his cot and looked at the flute, tracing yet again, the engraving of his surname on it, he couldn’t help but laugh.
“You silly child,” he said softly, “When did I ever tell you I could play?”
It was towards the new year that Yan Wang visited the army barracks near Jiayou gate to deliver provisions. He wore sombre unadorned robes of black, and the shadows beneath his eyes seemed almost to match his clothes.
Gu Yun, who had run towards the tent to see him again, was horrified to discover just how much worse Chang Geng looked. Even the scent of tranquillisers seemed to have faded away, and all Gu Yun’s dog nose could sense was plum blossoms.
His horror was nothing compared to Chang Geng’s once the full magnitude of Gu Yun’s skill with the flute, or rather his absolute lack of it, dawned upon him.
Gu Yun watched with amusement as the Prince floundered for something polite to say, and was amazed that he even tried.
It was not long after that he dragged an oddly tongue-tied Chang Geng to his tent, determined to find out the extent of his illness and to administer whatever treatment he could.
Instead, he found himself divested of his armour, and lying on his front. “I met Miss Chen on the journey here,” Chang Geng had said mildly when Gu Yun had attempted to manoeuvre him onto the bed, “Now tell me, when did you last take your armour off.”
“I thought Miss Chen did not perform the acupuncture on you, because it was inappropriate.” Gu Yun said, bracing himself up on his elbows to watch Chang Geng putter around the tent, arranging things. He realised he had missed the easy familiarity of it, of Chang Geng treating Gu Yun’s space as though he too belonged there.
His question made Chang Geng pause in the middle of arranging armour back onto the iron stand it was supposed to rest on, when it was not giving Gu Yun those crippling deformations that would haunt him in his old age.
“What do you think Miss Chen does when she sees her male patients?” Chang Geng asked, “Does she turn them away if their injury happens to be somewhere inappropriate?”
“No, of course not. But that’s what she said.” Gu Yun protested, “To be honest, I assumed the maidenly modesty was yours, not hers.”
Chang Geng did not look up from where he was carefully scrutinising a breastplate, his fingers gently tracing the outer surface as his other hand followed the same motion from inside. Gu Yun couldn’t help but be reminded of Yan Bei Wang and his extensive inspections of the armoury. He wondered if Chang Geng had even then gone through such excessive lengths to make sure he could be safe.
Why couldn’t you just have asked me? Gu Yun thought.
Finally, with each piece of armour carefully arranged and inspected, Chang Geng walked back to the bed, a gentle press of his palm between the shoulder blades pushing Gu Yun to once more lie flat. But then he walked away again.
“I had my reasons for refusing.” He said, fiddling with a censer that he seemed to travel with. He must have lit some of that tranquilliser, Gu Yun thought, breathing in deep to fill his lungs with it.
Chang Geng moved towards the lamps next, dimming the brightness as far as he could— it was a welcome respite to Gu Yun’s already tired eyes. He wondered whether his little quack was avoiding the self-assigned medical mission of mercy, and if that meant he himself was spared, Gu Yun raised himself on his elbows once more, in preparation for sitting up, but that seemed to be all provocation Chang Geng required.
Annoyance replaced any hint of hesitation he might have had, and he stomped back to the bed with a glare. Gu Yun lay down again, resigned to the ordeal that lay ahead of him.
“Just look at the state you’ve reduced yourself to.” Chang Geng grumbled, in the disgusted tones of voice usually reserved for inviting someone to view clogged drains that were becoming too pungent.
“It’s not so—” Gu Yun cut himself off with a gasp, “It wasn’t so bad until you did that.” he lied.
Chang Geng’s response was long, needlessly graphic, and seemed to heat his temper enough to motivate him with all the force of a steam-powered machine.
Gu Yun could feel his back wilting under the humiliation of the less than flattering things being said about it. Or perhaps, he grudgingly admitted, that was because of Chang Geng’s careful fingers easing out the aches and stiffness he had not even noticed building.
After some time, even the scolding did not seem so bad, not with the concern in Chang Geng’s voice, or with the way Gu Yun had missed hearing him speak. Sights and sounds he cherished were a precious commodity, one that might at any moment be lost.
“You don’t notice anything wrong yet, but what are you even going to do when you grow old, hm?” Chang Geng asked quietly, seemingly winding down from the lecture.
Gu Yun decided not to mention the fact that he had not expected to grow old, and was only slowly confronting such a concept… all because of Chang Geng.
But he did not have long to confront his own mortality, the press of Chang Geng’s fingers against a sensitive spot made him flinch away.
“Zi Xi,” Chang Geng asked, concerned, “Did I hurt you?”
For a moment, he considered lying. It would hurt Chang Geng, and it would put an end to something that was turning out to be a lot less unpleasant than he had feared, but lying would also allow him to walk away with some dignity.
Gu Yun blew out a breath, and then reluctantly chose Chang Geng’s feelings over his own dignity, “You didn’t. It tickled.”
“Tickled.” Chang Geng seemed almost unreasonably delighted at that, gazing down at him with bright eyes and a fond smile.
The knowledge was a weapon he was extremely glad Yan Bei Wang had never possessed in the past. How long would his initial nightly visits have lasted if this weakness was known?
Even now, concern for his old age and comfort seemed to have utterly vanished from Yan Wang’s mind, those lovely fingers felt intent on finding only the places that would make Gu Yun squirm and laugh helplessly until his eyes watered. The release of pent up emotion might even have been nice if not for the damn discomfort and disrespect of it all.
“You quack.” he gasped, caught between anger and helpless laughter, “Stop or I will break your hand.”
“I’m not doing it on purpose.” Chang Geng protested, “It’s not my fault you can't distinguish an itch from an ache.”
He paused for a moment, just to allow Gu Yun to catch his breath, and then said, “You could talk to me if it helps to distract you.”
And so Gu Yun did, and to his credit, Chang Geng seemed to be trying to behave. It felt reassuring to talk to someone whose mind, and outspokenness, he could rely upon.
He looked over his shoulder to say as much, “It’s nice to talk to about work when you aren’t treating me like a criminal.”
Chang Geng’s hands froze and he leaned to one side to look at Gu Yun’s face. “I was only trying to protect you.” He said quietly.
“I know.” Gu Yun replied, offering up a reassuring smile.
A moment later, the smile froze as Chang Geng pressed the acupoint on his waist, making Gu Yun push up from the bed like a startled fish.
He glared back over his shoulder again, wondering if the entire night was an overly elaborate revenge for the way he had treated Chang Geng over the previous year.
“Try to endure it,” his tormentor insisted, “I’ll be more gentle.”
Who needs gentleness. Gu Yun thought disconsolately, refusing to consider it could be himself.
“By the way, your highness,” he said, trying to ignore Chang Geng’s second attempt, “I heard about your Feng Huo Tickets.”
And I hope you’re a better economist than you’re a doctor, you quack.
“I’ll give you a letter for Uncle Wang, you remember him, right? Tell him to look under the beds and the doors, and collect up some silver to exchange for those tickets of yours.”
Chang Geng sighed, and despite the unimpressed twist to his lips, his eyes seemed fond.
“All the wealth of the Silk Route passed underneath your watchful eye for nearly five years. Marshal Gu, this prince believes only you could have remained so determinedly impoverished in spite of it.”
Gu Yun wondered whether to be flattered or offended and in the pause that followed, Chang Geng continued, “Why throw away what little you have to support me anyway?”
By then, his hand was pressing a little too low on Gu Yun’s back, or rather below it, for propriety. Gu Yun caught hold of it as he turned over, and meeting Chang Geng’s eyes he said “It’s because I trust you.”
There was a lull after the victory at Jiayou pass, and Gu Yun found himself back in the capital. It was as he entered his room that he noticed something out of place. His calligraphy was still on the wall, the few articles of furniture were clean but utterly unchanged, and someone was already on his bed.
The scent of tranquilising incense was missing from the room when he entered, and as a result it was a surprise to find Chang Geng there, face pressed into Gu Yun’s pillow as he slept.
With a shrug, assuming there would be some explanation, Gu Yun lowered himself onto the chair beside the bed, wincing on his way down. Shortening a four day journey to only two had seemed a much better idea before departure than it did after arrival, but against that was the fact that he was finally home again. He was also finally able to see Yan Wang, though the meeting had occurred far sooner than he could have hoped.
Hardly the first time I have slept with, ah no, slept next to Chang Geng, he thought as he painstakingly set aside the weapons and parts of an abbreviated armour from his person.
That done, he bent over the bed and patted Chang Geng gently on the side, “Shift a little, you can’t hog the entire bed, you brat.”
“Don’t,” Chang Geng mumbled, “Please… No..”
“I'm not trying to wake you, silly, only trying to claim an inch of my own property.” Gu Yun whispered.
“Cutting it out.” Chang Geng muttered, “Stop cutting it out.”
He raised up a hand to shield himself, and nearly ended up slapping Gu Yun.
“Chang Geng.” Gu Yun said soothingly, giving up his claim, “It’s only a dream, no one’s cutting anything.”
With another protest, Chang Geng opened his eyes, sitting up in bed. Gu Yun barely had a moment of relief before he realised something was very wrong. There was a reddish tint to Chang Geng’s eyes, and four pupils were glaring up at him.
He had seen the flowering sickness so often, but had never met the other half of it, Wu Er Gu.
There was no time for introductions however. Without warning, Chang Geng sprang up from the bed, and tried to punch him.
“You can’t take it away!” He repeated, almost frantic.
Gu Yun dodged another blow, this one aimed at his face. “That's my bed, who’s taking it away?” He protested.
He caught hold of Chang Geng’s fists, and found himself stepping back to dodge the kick. The whole time, Chang Geng kept begging some unseen person to not steal something away from him.
The Flowers. Gu Yun realised with a start. It seemed he was still caught in a nightmare about the treatment for those flowers. He had never realised just how strong was Chang Geng’s reluctance to cut away all the bonds that connected him to his loved one.
Over time, Gu Yun had often wondered how it would be to spar with Chang Geng, exchanging blows only as a mutual challenge. Both before and after their reconciliation, he found himself thinking of Chang Geng, his travels across the nation, and the teacher they shared, and how delightful talking to him could be, and how all of that would translate to combat.
He had never imagined it would be like this, with Chang Geng fighting with all the strength and ruthlessness of… a madman might be an apt descriptor, but it was not one Gu Yun wanted to use. And he knew he could not hurt him in turn.
“Chang Geng!” He called out, “Wake up.”
It had no effect, and he was forced to use all his own strength and skills to subdue the man. And finally, he had Chang Geng pressed up against the wall, writhing and bucking, but unable to hit him again when facing an unyielding surface like that.
“If I wanted to fight for my life like this, I wouldn’t have come home.” He said, stung by the injustice of it all.
Chang Geng’s struggles subsided, little by little, until he went utterly still. “Zi Xi?” He whispered.
“Now you recognise me. Brat.”
He carefully let go, unprepared for the way Chang Geng followed the retreat of his hand, latching on to it with his teeth.
The consideration to not hurt Chang Geng was utterly lost in the pain, and Gu Yun gave him a sharp slap. Fifteen years of fighting, but somehow this was Marshal Gu’s first time receiving this type of injury.
The teeth slackened and Chang Geng stumbled backwards, hitting the wall with what appeared to be the same spot that had just been smacked. Even then, Gu Yun had to wince in sympathy.
“To be skinned and eaten alive…” he said quietly, “I did not realise you still hated me this much.”
Chang Geng’s eyes widened, the red within them slowly fading away. And then, they slowly filled with tears. He blinked them away helplessly, pressing his fingers against his mouth. And then he recoiled, no doubt tasking the blood from the arm he had gnawed like a dog, Gu Yun thought unhappily.
He walked over to the pitcher of water and poured out a cup for Chang Geng to rinse his mouth with, and then watched speechless as the little wolf cub drank that water instead.
The coughing should only have been expected, small plum blossoms spilling from him, a final crowning moment to what already had to be a terrible night.
Certain that no one could chew on a person while spitting out flower after flower, Gu Yun reached forward to brace him and slowly lead him back to the bed.
“You’re not having a very good night, your Highness.” He said carefully.
The flowers had slowed to a stop, but Chang Geng did not seem in any shape to respond.
Instead, he asked, voice small and hesitant, “May I keep holding on to you?”
If that helps?
“You may.” Gu Yun told him, and felt Chang Geng’s arms gently encircling his waist. A moment later, Chang Geng leaned forward, until his head was pressed against Gu Yun’s waist. Gu Yun carefully guided it into his lap instead, trying not to jar his injured arm.
They remained like that for some time, until slowly Chang Geng’s breathing eased, and his shoulders no longer seemed to shake with something that might have been sobs.
“Better?” Gu Yun asked gently, rubbing small circles into Chang Geng’s shoulder.
He received a hesitant nod, and couldn’t help reaching out to wipe away the hint of tears on Chang Geng’s cheek. “Don’t do that, it wasn’t your fault, you know?”
It had always been unlikely that the statement would be believed by the person it was addressed to. Chang Geng did not even seem to hear it.
“Allow me to bandage the… wound for you.” He said hoarsely, still not meeting Gu Yun’s eyes.
Gu Yun watched without enthusiasm as he stumbled out of the room and after some time, brought back hot water, something sharp and herbal smelling, and a cloth to clean the wound.
He asked, “Is all of that really necessary, your Highness?”
“It is.” Chang Geng said firmly, “It does not take much for any deep wounds to become infected.”
“It is a deep wound.” Gu Yun agreed, and then felt bad when he saw Chang Geng pale even further in the dim light. He sighed and reached out to pat his arm, “It’s alright. I’ve had worse.”
There was a strange rending sound, and the fabric in Chang Geng’s hand tore a little. Almost eager for the distraction, they both stared at it in surprise.
“How clumsy, I apologise.” Chang Geng said mechanically.
With a yawn, Gu Yun shook his head, “Nothing to apologise for, your Highness. I’m sure the evil rag deserved it.”
Unsurprisingly, that did not win the smile that he had hoped it might, and Chang Geng did not look up until the entire arm was wrapped to his satisfaction. Even then his gaze refused to rise above Gu Yun’s chin. “You must be tired, I will not bother you anymore. Rest, and if you need anything…”
Gu Yun stretched out a hand to him, “I need company. You can come back to the bed, it’s been months of a small lonely cot for me, I am sick of it.”
The last time he had shared a bed had been with Chang Geng too, on that same small cot, but that night had felt less cramped and honestly a little cozy.
Chang Geng stood still, watching a point on his neck until Gu Yun felt compelled to say, “Unless you don’t want to. Forget I said anything.”
“No!” The exclamation seemed to have surprised Chang Geng even more than it surprised Gu Yun.
“No, I, uh… if you want me to.”
“I would like to spend time with you, and I would prefer not to be alone.” Gu Yun shot him an encouraging smile, “The solution seems so natural to me.”
Helpfully, he shuffled to one side of the bed, leaving the other free, and Chang Geng sat down, only his stiff back faced Gu Yun. “You are not afraid I might hurt you again.”
Chang Geng turned, watching him in silence.
“Why not?” He asked in a small voice.
Gu Yun patted the space beside him, waiting until Chang Geng lay down before addressing something that had been pricking at the back of his mind.
“Why your behaviour like a dove occupying a magpie's nest?” He asked, and at Chang Geng’s slow, confused blink, he clarified, “You were in my bed, while I was not.”
It still took a moment before Chang Geng gave a tired nod, “My own is covered in documents, and I could not find any tranquilliser left. I was hoping I could find some I left here, and then…”
He trailed off helplessly. “I hope you don’t mind.”
Far from it, Gu Yun realised he was actually a little happy to Chang Geng, even in his bed— bites on his arm notwithstanding. Chang Geng was warm and familiar and safe, and with his quiet breathing beside him, the sounds of battle seemed further away than ever.
“Who let that court get so inconveniently efficient?” Gu Yun wondered aloud, and was swatted by his own pillow in response.
He raised his arm sadly, “Aren’t I already injured your Highness? This overbearing behaviour of yours is too excessive.”
Chang Geng gently touched his bandaged arm, “I’ll make it up to you in the morning, I promise.”
Gu Yun’s sentiments on hearing that promise were very different from how he felt later that morning when Cheng Geng’s particular brand of compensation became clear. For then, all he could think was how sleeping with Chang Geng’s warm presence beside him, and the scent of plum blossoms and tranquilliser filling his breath felt really comfortable.
The trouble began with the ticklish sensation at his abdomen that woke him up sometime near dawn. His medicine had long since ceased to function, and he could only imagine Chang Geng was carefully palpating his body either to find the softest part to nibble on, or searching for signs of damage. There was no doubt he would find many such signs, and Gu Yun did not have the energy to try and hide them right then.
Still, taking full advantage of his deafness, he rolled over onto his front and tuned out whatever angry rant the internal injuries had provoked. It did not take him long to fall asleep again, vaguely aware of Chang Geng determinedly trying to knead his back into submission.
But then Chang Geng’s attempt to “make up” for biting a chunk out of his arm got a little more provoking. The food his highness had cooked was naturally not at all bad, but when he insisted on helping Gu Yun wash and dress, that was taking things too far. Despite being denied that dubious privilege, he returned to help Gu Yun with his shoes and to comb his hair like any of the manor servants might have done, had the Marquis employed enough.
Such behaviour might have been appropriately filial, had they still been father and son. But that was only a memory from the past. There could be no reason, not even an excessive sense of guilt, to inspire such service from the emperor’s own little brother.
And that was when his first twinge of unease began to prickle at Gu Yun, a vague awareness that would soon take clear shape.
His birthday that year might not have been much of a celebration, if not for one simple fact. Shen Yi was in the city at the same time and seemed determined to escape his own house for the Marquis Manor. Shen Yi had also never left his juvenile adoration for mechanics behind him, so when he came to the Marquis Manor, he brought with him Ge Chen, who in turn never seemed to travel without the lovely Cao Chun Hua if he could help it.
The invasion might have grated on him more if Shen Yi had not also brought with him wine brewed by Old Master Shen. In a year that had offered precious little reasons to celebrate, even that small gathering seemed festive.
And then Yan Wang had arrived, coming in through the front gate for a change, though apparently, Shen Yi had found him pacing in front of the Marquis Manor for nearly half an hour before he made the attempt. It was Shen Yi’s inquiry about the contents of the food box he was holding that finally made the decision for him. It seemed he did not want the contents to go fully cold.
The contents in question proved to be a bowl of noodles, as though his Highness was worried no one would cook for Gu Yun in his own home. That reminded Gu Yun of the last birthday he had spent with his little prince, and the noodles he had eaten then.
“No eggshells at all.” Gu Yun murmured in awe, “You have redeemed yourself, your Highness.”
It was a rather ungrateful sentiment from a man who had been eating meals cooked by Yan Wang every chance he could for months by then, but Chang Geng beamed with pride at the compliment.
“I wore a cloth around my face!” He said in an undertone, “I would not have allowed any flowers or… anything to contaminate this.”
Anything else, such a delicate way to avoid saying blood.
But the next time he had to turn away to cough, Gu Yun could not help but notice that the handkerchief seemed to come away stained faintly red.
And after that, it seemed as though the air of festivity had turned to ashes. There no longer seemed to be anything to celebrate. Instead, he found himself breaking a pledge he had made to himself in Yan Wang Manor and dedicating himself solely to old Master Shen’s wine. Even if it failed to drive the thought of Chang Geng’s suffering from his mind, the drink succeeded in robbing away his consciousness.
When that consciousness crept back to him, it was already morning. Gu Yun slowly came awake to the scent of plum blossoms in his bed. The tree in the Marquis Manor was laden with flowers, and yet… it was not that familiar fixture of nearly thirty years that he thought of, but Chang Geng.
Parts of the previous night were hazy in his memory, but he thought he could remember staggering to his room on someone’s arm, almost falling against them. He did not think he had imagined the weight of another person’s body above his, holding him down as that person kissed him.
It had been months, possibly over a year since the last time he had so much as thought of anyone but Chang Geng and his flowers and all the secrets he seemed to be clutching close to his chest.
The Marquis Manor also did not have any young maids who might have taken their chance. Truly, there was no one whom he could picture kissing like that the previous night. But then who could the person have been?
He hoped it was not Shen Ji Ping again.
As he sat up, he noticed the sheets that had been tucked carefully around him and that the table beside the bed contained medicine for headaches and water. He found himself smiling as he thought of Chang Geng with his diligence and that sweet devotion to neatness.
And then something in his stomach seemed to drop, taking the smile with it.
The sheets had been dislodged as he moved, and it was impossible to miss the slight smudges of red or the scattered petals that had been trapped underneath him.
He couldn’t have.
Not Chang Geng.
That was even worse than kissing Shen Yi. Of all the people he might have mauled in his drunken state, why did it have to be Chang Geng? The small child he had rescued and almost watched grow up, a friend he was trying to help, an honourable young prince who would be unable to laugh such an insult off… a man who was so in love with someone else, he was letting it kill him by degrees.
Gu Yun fell back onto the bed, determined to smother himself with the pillow.
It was two days later that he traced Chang Geng to Hu Guo Monastery. The fact that it had taken Gu Yun two days to find the Prince had to be attributed more to his own reluctance to confront Yan Wang than a failure to reason out his location
Every time it happens, my big brother locks himself up in the monastery to go and pray. Cao Chun Hua had said.
Perhaps, it was the fact that Chang Geng had retreated to this very monastery when he was a child, at a time when Gu Yun had failed to give him a safe home in which to stay.
Anyone other child might have resented him for that, but Chang Geng did not. Instead, he had spent years trying to find ways to help Gu Yun, treasuring the gifts that he had unthinkingly given to him once. All those years, without a single word of complaint or…
Gu Yun was almost at the entrance when his steps came to a stop. There was an idea that had been slowly taking shape in the back of his mind, and it had chosen that moment to achieve perfect clarity.
He had always considered Chang Geng an affectionate person, but when had his mind associated Chang Geng so deeply with the idea of love?
He’s hardly in love with me. he told himself, a little amused at the strange trend of his thoughts. It was hardly like him to lose his head over a single kiss, not even a very uncommon gesture between those who served in the military.
And surely, Chang Geng would not have lied to him for nearly a year, especially not when they had been working to rebuild the trust that should have existed between them. But had they been rebuilding that trust? It had not even taken a week for Chang Geng to admit to trusting him.
And when it came to trust, there was Cao Chun Hua, loyal to the end, who thought Gu Yun might have killed Chang Geng either way and still wanted to talk to him about his big brother’s secrets.
It was not only xiao Cao. If there was one thing the Chen family was famed for aside from medicine, it was discretion. Yet, she had seemed almost eager to tell him a little too much about Chang Geng. Did she also assume she wasn’t telling him of the cure, but priming him to be a cure?
He shook his head, it was still all too ridiculous to be believed.
Chang Geng had been in love with someone for so long, he seemed to have fallen in love even when he and Gu Yun were apart, and where would Chang Geng have found any sign of him then?
The answer to that came a little too easily, in the form of General Zhong who had once known him better than anyone. He had even admitted to having stacks of their old lessons and notes on battle tucked away somewhere. “People grow strangely sentimental at my age, little Marquis.” he had said in explanation.
And who else could it have been, he wondered, trying to remember if he had ever seen Chang Geng favour anyone with a longer look, greater care, his protectiveness or his attention or his fussiness, or showed anyone else that spoilt side to him that he sometimes let Gu Yun see. Those little things had all felt like friendship, and if not for the evidence of the flowers, he would have said Chang Geng spared no thought for romance at all.
He was pulled out of his thoughts as someone called out his name, and Gu Yun looked up to see Cheng Geng standing at the entrance to the monastery. Another moment, and he was rushing down the steps, a small paper umbrella in his hand.
“Slow down!” Gu Yun called out, “Can’t you see how slippery it is?”
Chang Geng utterly disregarded him, not slowing at all until he reached Gu Yun and raised the umbrella over their heads, cutting off the fall of the snow.
“A novice saw you outside,” he said in explanation, “but didn’t think you were coming in.”
He looked up towards the sky, as though wondering whether Gu Yun might have missed the snow that was falling ever heavier upon them. “Would you like to come in now?”
Gu Yun shook his head, trying to look for the signs that he might have missed for almost a year. Chang Geng even sounded breathless, as though he might have run out of whichever little room he had been holed away in.
“I will escort you to your carriage.” He said, almost managing a smile, “Marshal Gu is too important to all our safety to allow him to wander in the snow like this.”
“I didn’t wander,” Gu Yun said, with great dignity, “I rode here.”
Chang Geng seemed taken aback for a moment, and then nodded, “Then we must take my carriage, Master Liao Ran is not in the monastery, so there is nothing to keep me here.”
There had been a time when Gu Yun had wondered whether Chang Geng might be in love with the beautiful monk he so often rushed to see. But while his conviction that his feelings might not be returned was explained, nothing in his descriptions of Master Liao Ran were a little too careless.
There was a certain way Chang Geng spoke of that mystery person that made him look softer, as though he cherished even the idea of them so much he couldn’t help but be gentle. From the wistful little smile to the obvious fondness in his voice, and the way his voice seemed even sweeter…
… there were other times when Gu Yun could remember such softness from him, ones when he was performing acupuncture, grumbling about the perils that armour posed to a person's back, speaking to Gu Yun about the future.
He suddenly remembered Chang Geng saying to him, “Zi Xi, without you in the capital… there was nothing to keep me there. I would have left either way.”
The words in context of Master Liao Ran had momentarily awakened that old suspicion that Chang Geng could be in love with him. But what about when those words were used for him?
“Have you been standing out in the snow for very long?” Chang Geng asked, frowning at the dusting of white on his head and shoulders. He reached out and tried to dusty some away with the edge of his sleeve.
“Not long.” Gu Yun answered.
Chang Geng shook his head, still frowning, “You shouldn’t have waited like that. Was there something you needed me for?”
“You left a little suddenly, I wondered if something might have offended your Highness.”
“Offended?” Chang Geng repeated, voice pitched high, “N-not at all. Why would I be offended?”
His ears had turned pink again, and he couldn’t meet Gu Yun’s eyes. Instead, he stared towards the path that led towards the monastery gates.
“Why indeed.” Gu Yun wondered, “I wouldn’t remember. Old Master Shen’s wine was excellent.”
Almost immediately, Chang Geng seemed to relax, nodding in agreement. “So I have heard. We should get to the carriages, it is too cold here. Are your hands warm enough?”
His own hands went to his own thin robes for a moment before lowering again, as though he had only then realised he was not dressed much better. In any case, there were no layers to shed without offending decency, and even then, he almost seemed tempted.
“Let’s go to the carriages, your Highness.” Gu Yun agreed, “You’re not dressed for this weather either.”
Chang Geng kept the umbrella over their heads as they walked back to the carriage, refusing to surrender custody of it to Gu Yun. He was taller between the two of them, and if he did not want to assert rank, there was no reason for anyone else to.
“I heard they planned to impeach you again.” Gu Yun told him.
Chang Geng let out a little laugh, “I was hoping they would.”
Gu Yun shot him an amused look, “You’re a strange man, your Highness.”
“It keeps me memorable, wouldn’t you say?” Chang Geng teased.
In spite of his direction of his thoughts, Gu Yun found himself smiling at him, “If strangeness is what you want to be remembered for.”
Chang Geng gave a dismissive wave, fortunately with the hand not holding the umbrella, and gesture seemed to scatter more of the snow than it could have displaced from the wind.
“I prefer to think of it as uniqueness.” He said, “Much more admirable.”
“I can see the historical accounts now, his Highness Yan Wang, famed for a unique desire to be impeached.”
“And to sprout flowers.” Chang Geng muttered.
He added, almost too quiet to be heard, “What would you remember me for?”
Words like home and beauty and safety jostled in his mind, the picture of a herb patch or a bird with a splintered wing somehow coexisting with that of a person asleep at his desk, a memorial from court stuck to his cheek.
They reached the carriage before Gu Yun could find any answer to the question, even for himself.
Chang Geng waited for him to enter first, holding the umbrella over the open door— a gesture more suited to an attendant than a prince. It was only then that Gu Yun caught sight of his other shoulder and the layer of snow that had collected on it.
The suspicion chose that moment to rear its head back up again.
Over the course of the past year, Gu Yun had discovered that Chang Geng held an absolute terror of being abandoned. With the life that he had lived, it was hardly an unnatural fear for him to have. What was unfortunate was the self-destructive habits it had pushed him into.
It made him take protégés and dependants under his wing and turn them into potential hostages against the people loyal to him, always carefully under the guise of kindness. Someone’s parent might be in his power, someone else’s sister, perhaps he might employ another’s son in his service. He always seemed to trust people more if their fear of him could begin just before their loyalty would end.
If he could not find a hostage, he would inspire enough of their trust to learn them and all their secrets, and then allow them to be bound by those.
Sometimes he would do a person a great favour, usually by means if his own carefully planned circumstances, and let their gratitude turn into loyalty.
A part of that was himself, a part of it was Wu Er Gu.
Perhaps, without the poison he might have been someone who could be kind for kindness’s own sake, be someone so open and accepting that others rushed to confide in him. There had been no expectation when he rescued or raised Cao Chun Hua or Ge Chen after all, even if they were destined to be used as the template for his future.
But even if others saw him as all those things— kind, reliable, selfless or brave, it was clear he could not.
Unfortunately, Gu Yun was his weakness, since he as someone Yan Wang clearly did not want to blackmail or bind to him. It was a weakness that made Chang Geng push the bond between them to its limits, pushing helplessly as though he needed to see at what point it would break.
Gu Yun had never enjoyed being doubted or tested, but he would still endure, offering whatever reassurance seemed necessary. He hoped some day Chang Geng might realise there did not have to be a final breaking point between them.
That evening in Jiangbei felt like yet another test, but it came at a moment when bone deep exhaustion and worry had frayed what remained of Gu Yun’s patience. Ever since that walk through Hu Guo monastery, he had tried to talk to Chang Geng, but something else always came up, demanding all of Yan Wang’s time. A more suspicious man might have wondered if those emergencies were conjured up by Yan Wang himself.
“It would be good if the Li family all died.” Chang Geng said, in the same dull voice in which he had delivered all his other confessions of his sins, leaving a long enough pause after each as though he waited to be scolded.
And what the fuck is your surname? Gu Yun wanted to ask, but swallowed back the anger.
“You’re a Li too.” He pointed out gently.
Even then he had hoped the words would not goad that little brat into worse behaviour.
Chang Geng nodded. He looked too calm for all the nonsense he had been giving vent to, “I’m glad I could have one last year with you, to die now… really, it would not be so bad if I died. But I must take the Li family with me.”
There was a strange feeling in Gu Yun's chest, burning through him until he could feel the blood thrumming through his body, each individual pulse of it. Worry for Chang Geng had become a constant companion to him over the past few months, and with nowhere else to go, it was turning to anger.
“You’re not going to die, and neither is anyone else. Come n—”
“We both know I am.” Chang Geng interrupted calmly.
Gu Yun sat up a little too fast, and his skull throbbed with the remnants of the medicine’s headache. But there was no time to spare for that. He turned so he could look at Chang Geng and finally asked the question he had avoided for almost a year..
“Who is it for?” He asked, keeping his voice even, “Tell me.”
“Who else would it be?” Chang Geng asked, not bothering to pretend he did not understand, “You have to know it’s always been you.”
And there it was, a confirmation. And with it the knowledge that he could have helped Chang Geng more but did not, and that he might even have made things worse. Gu Yun’s hands were curled into fists, and he had to slowly loosen each finger before speaking.
“Then why not tell me? I was trying to help you all year, you could have just told me.”
“So you could blame yourself for my death?” Chang Geng suggested wearily, “Or was the confession supposed to force you to love me? You’ve always enjoyed self-sacrifice so much, I might have been another great achievement for you.”
“Or,” Gu Yun grit out, “I might have had a better chance to help you end this.”
“I never wanted to end it.” Chang Geng pointed out.
Gu Yun shook his head, “No one is worth dying for.”
I’m not worth your life.
“Don’t you spend every single day trying to die for my brother who would gladly kill you himself?” Chang Geng demanded.
He had risen to his feet too, and the way they stood reminded Gu Yun of how they argued in the court. But this was too honest to belong there, and too personal.
It seemed as though the usually calm Chang Geng was giving voice to several years worth of anger in a moment, “I’ve spent years trying to keep you alive, I worked myself down to the bone so often until I didn’t eat, I didn't sleep, I only worried about you. And it was worth it. But tell me, when was the last time you cared what happened to you?”
When I met you again. Gu Yun thought.When he carefully brought that flute out of its box and held it. Whenever he thought of Chang Geng, alone and without anyone else to protect him.
“Keeping me alive isn’t enough.” He said, finally. “You have not made a single attempt to keep yourself alive. You might be the great Yan Wang who can lift a finger and save or condemn a person, but you’ve been letting flowers choke you to death because you can not accept anyone could ever love you.”
The look on Chang Geng’s face told him he should let it go, at least for that moment. They could talk about it again once their tempers had cooled, or once rage that had been simmering for days wasn’t what made him drive his words home like needles through flesh.
But Chang Geng was already shaking his head. “Those flowers are a reminder that I have to earn the right to love you, they’re how I know I can not set a foot wrong. Without it, tell me, am I still human?”
The words were out of Gu Yun’s mouth before he could stop them. “If you can not live for yourself because you are too busy living for someone else, then can you even call yourself human? Is that the existence you want?”
“I’ll tell you the existence I want.” Chang Geng snapped, “Do you remember Hu Ge Er?”
“Your aunt?” Gu Yun echoed, momentarily confused at the sudden change of subject.
Chang Geng gave a single sharp nod.
“Before she died, she told me I would bring death and destruction wherever I go, that I would bring all those around me to a bloody end, I’m supposed to be a curse, that's why she named me. The existence I want is to never be that, at any cost.”
The words were like a splash of frozen cold water, horror dousing even anger for a moment. “Chang Geng…” he said gently, “None of that is you.”
“And why do you think that is?” Chang Geng asked.
“Because you’re better than that.” Gu Yun said, “You’ve always been better than that.”
Chang Geng shot him an utterly unimpressed look, “I force myself to be, Zi Xi. I know I will prove her wrong because I can not imagine hurting you, it doesn’t matter what I have to do, I can learn to be the opposite of how I’m meant to be for you. If I didn’t care anymore, who would I be?”
“But I’m not the only person you’ve helped.” Gu Yun protested, “If you’d had your way, I would never even have known you ever helped me.”
Chang Geng nodded, and the fight seemed to have left him too. He just looked resigned.
“I told myself I should be someone like you, don’t you remember? I used to try to be like you before I even met you, and now it’s too late.” He shrugged helplessly, “Would it be worth it to live even another twenty years without the ability to do the right thing?”
Gu Yun watched him, realising he no longer felt any anger, only pity. “What about you then?”
“What about me?” Chang Geng asked blankly.
Gu Yun shook his head, “You spent five years not even meeting me, where was I to make you ‘Good’ your highness? Did I write a book of moral ethics for you to follow as you earn your score for goodness? You think you have fooled everyone, never letting anyone else know you completely, what’s sad is that even you don’t know yourself at all.”
“All these years, you made your admirers at court follow someone you can’t even like. Here I used to think they were the fools, but then what does that make you?”
Chang Geng didn’t reply, he finally seemed unable to, and Gu Yun felt he had been too harsh already. He shook his head.
“You wanted a fight, and it seems you got it. Are you happy now?”
“Obviously not.” Chang Geng muttered.
Gu Yun walked over to pour himself some water, and then poured out another cup for Chang Geng. “Me neither.”
With a rueful look at the maps and letters on the table, he added, “And neither is anyone in this damned place.”
Chang Geng approached the table too, subdued but determined. “Someone should probably do something about that.”
“So, what do you intend to do, your Highness?” Gu Yun asked.
Chang Geng did not quite smile, but he seemed to have regained some of his footing, and by the time he finished detailing just what his plans were, he seemed utterly drained.
It made Gu Yun feel a unhappy to see him like that, and he said quietly, “I shouldn’t have taken my temper out on you, I just find it hard to accept that I wasted an entire year without helping you.”
It had been intended as a peace offering, but Chang Geng flinched as though he had been slapped.
“Wasted an entire year.” he repeated, “The entire year that we worked and… that we spent together. Does the Marquis consider it all a waste too?”
He laughed without humour, but the arms he had folded across his chest looked more as though he was hugging himself. It was some time before he spoke again.
“I might have deserved to be scolded tonight,” he said shakily, “But I know I don’t deserve to always be treated like there’s something wrong with me just because I’m in love with you.”
And then he rose and walked out of the tent without once looking back.
The strain between them lasted until Chang Geng’s departure, and Gu Yun did not make any second attempts at peace. Even as he inspected the soldiers assigned to Chang Geng for a final time, neither of them seemed able to meet the other’s eyes for too long.
“Take care of yourself,” Gu Yun said quietly, making himself look at Chang Geng’s face instead of a now familiar point beside it. It was a wasted effort since his Highness Yan Wang was determined to pretend he was not there at all.
If he had thought Chang Geng could not bear to see him when he returned to the capital, then the present avoidance might be categorised as “hating to see him.” It was as though all the small chinks that had once been present in his armour had evened out, and there was no way to reach the person underneath.
Gu Yun could only watch the party depart in silence and try to quell the worry in his heart.
Chang Geng had not stayed at the Jiangbei camp for very long, a circumstance that only made it much more upsetting when everything about it seemed to remind Gu Yun of him.
The maps made him wish Chang Geng was there with his insights and his devious little mind, the military doctors that came and went from the infirmary made Gu Yun remember Chang Geng who healed people in spite of his curse, and even the food they were given made him miss the taste of Chang Geng’s cooking. It seemed he was everywhere, and the rare places where Gu Yun couldn’t find him quickly lost their shine, as though some essential part of them was missing.
It had taken him nearly a full year to recognise that Chang Geng was in love with him, and he managed to a week longer than even that to realise he was in love with Chang Geng.
He had probably been falling in love ever since he returned to the capital and found it to be held in the palm of a very familiar stranger. The Chang Geng he had met again was as brilliant as he was beautiful and Gu Yun knew he had lost no opportunity in being charmed by either attribute.
And then I accused him of not knowing himself. he thought bitterly.
He wondered how long it would take to mend things this time… and how long Chang Geng had to mend them with him.
And then General Zhong, someone who really should have known his student better, chose to warn Gu Yun against Yan Wang. Listening to him was like listening to the lies and misconceptions he had nursed when he first returned to the capital.
If their teacher had made such a request a year ago, Gu Yun might still have agreed, as much as he hoped he would not. But a lot had changed over the course of that year, and it had changed him too.
He found himself saying “I will watch over him.”
It was not quite the promise their teacher had wanted, but it was the only promise Gu Yun would make on the matter. To him, Chang Geng should always have been someone to be protected, not an outsider to guard against. But though the past could not be changed, the future still could.
Barely two days later, Gu Yun was, once again, jumping in through Yan Wang’s window, something that had almost turned into a tradition for the two of them.
But it was not Chang Geng whom he found in Yang Rong Gui’s manor. Instead, Cao Chun Hua stood in the room, staring up at him in shock. Perhaps it was his guilty conscience that saw something like blame appear in their eyes.
The look felt like too much, coming from a face so like Chang Geng’s when Chang Geng himself was still nowhere to be found.
Take care of yourself. he thought again, remembering their last meeting. Locked up in his heart were another set of words he wished he had already said to Chang Geng.
The days that followed seemed to simultaneously have the shortest and the slowest that had ever passed for him. For everyone else, it seemed the search for a potentially traitorous, possibly captive Yan Wang was simply a matter of security, only as urgent as his actions would cause it to be.
For Gu Yun, every moment without finding Chang Geng seemed to pass by too slowly, stretching endlessly before him with no sign where the end was. At the same time, the days seemed to hold too few hours to find his whereabouts, and every night brought a reminder that time was something Chang Geng might not have enough of.
It still seemed unbelievable that any curse could require only love to heal it, love from another person. Gu Yun was not a believer in mooning around waiting for rescue to come, and he couldn’t bring himself to believe anyone’s health could be restored like that.
But to keep Chang Geng safe, nothing could be too ridiculous for him to try. He could profess his love a dozen times a day, or go offer prayers with the bald donkeys if that was what it took.
But for any of that, he would have to find Chang Geng first.
And then came the messenger, carrying with him a letter stained with blood, and suddenly the realisation of how little it would take for him to lose Chang Geng slammed into him with all the force of a battering ram.
Li Feng for once in his life seemed to think as Chang Geng’s brother, and not his emperor. He looked a little dubious when Gu Yun requested permission to escort Yan Wang back to the capital.
“Ah Min might not be very well, Imperial Uncle, perhaps he might not be up for very vigorous company.”
Very vigorous arguments, no doubt he meant. It was all he had ever known the two of them to engage in.
Gu Yun bowed lower, “This subject will protect his Highness, as is his duty, and will not make things difficult for him.”
He tried to look as though the concession cost him something to make, not difficult when his burning lungs barely seemed able to draw air enough to speak the words.
And finally, he was permitted to leave.
Surprisingly, finding Chang Geng had been the easier part. It was finding time alone with him that was impossible.
From the first moment that Chang Geng had fallen against him, looking up at him through those lovely brown eyes of his, whispering “Zi Xi, it hurts.” in that soft voice… he seemed to have bound Gu Yun by his side as surely as though he had locked a pair of shackles around their wrists.
Carefully, Gu Yun leaned down to pick him up, holding him close as he took him back to the carriage, only then realising the problem. He didn’t want to let Chang Geng go again.
Unfortunately, it seemed no one else wanted to let Chang Geng go either. Yan Wang’s irresistible charm had already drawn Xu Ling into his orbit, and the monk insisted on staying in the room chanting his miserable sutras. At least the couldn’t speak, though even his holy drivel seemed better than the nonsense that Xu Ling could spout.
Gu Yun rather suspected that if Xu Ling had only known of Yanhui town’s old custom, he might have fallen to his knees to acknowledge Chang Geng as his father, with no regard for propriety or age. The man insisted on brewing the medicine, insisted on fetching food so bland it could barely be fit for the sick, and insisted on bringing in piles of blankets he seemed to have acquired from who knew where.
Even Gu Yun, who had initially been amused at Chang Geng being given a dose of his own medicine, began to find the fussing an irritant. Finally, he packed Officer Xu off with repeated requests to find a doctor by morning who was less likely to bungle even the simple task of wrapping bandage around a patient.
Master Liao Ran bowed and signed some farewell that Gu Yun studiously ignored, followed that prince amongst ticks, Officer Xu out.
“I didn’t think you would come.” Chang Geng said, once they were alone.
There had seemed no strength left in him when he fell against Gu Yun, leaning on him when he had been at his most vulnerable. Even now, his strength did not seem to have returned, and he lay amidst the nest of pillows Xu Ling had tried to construct for him. When he looked like that, it was impossible to believe anyone could be angry with him, unthinkable that he could be treated with anything but gentleness.
“How could I not?” Gu Yun asked, trying not to look away in pure self defence. “The person I love was missing, where would I be if not trying to reach him.”
Chang Geng patted his knee weakly, “You don’t have to say that.” He mumbled, “Don’t say that just for the curse.”
Even as he spoke, his voice was already growing fainter, and he seemed to lose consciousness before Gu Yun could even reply. Gu Yun looked down at him in silence, those last words of his playing in his mind.
“Of course it’s not just for the curse.” He said quietly, just in case Chang Geng could hear.
He was grateful at least that both the flowers and the nightmares seemed to spare him for the time being. The scent of blood and medicine in the room was too strong, leaving nothing of Chang Geng to be found, and it felt as though something was missing.
Carefully, he rose and walked over to the censer beside which someone, the malodorous monk perhaps, had left Chang Geng’s pouch. Gu Yun lit some of that incense, surprised at just how potent the mixture seemed to be. He had never been particularly susceptible to most drugs, but just a single breath of the tranquilliser made him want to curl up beside the Prince on the bed and fall asleep.
As he quietly made his way back to the bed, steps laden with an exhaustion he had only then begun to notice, he saw Chang Geng’s robe had fallen open again. Scars that he had spent so much effort trying to hide could be seen between the parted folds of fabric. With a frown, Gu Yun slowly pulled the two lapels closed again, trying not to look.
The new wounds on his chest had been terrifying, but they weren’t the only signs of injury. Chang Geng’s reluctance to allow him to see his bare arms or chest suddenly made sense. There were scars scattered all over his body, each mark inflicted differently from the other. It seemed as though someone had not been particularly partial to how they inflicted injuries so long as they did.
Who could have done that?
No one could have hurt him once Li Feng took him under his protection, and those did not look like the wounds one might earn in a battle. They looked like they had been done at leisure on someone defenceless, over a period of time. And that only left Hu Ge Er.
He remembered her dying words to Chang Geng, and the poison she had fed him while he was barely an infant.
The other kind of scars were those neat lines across his arms, well out of sight of anyone even if he pulled his sleeves up to work in his herb garden or apothecary. There was a sickening sort of clarity in just who could have inflicted those. But why would Chang Geng have done that? It was not what someone might do if they aimed to die, so far away from anything vital.
He had not just missed five years, but what seemed to be a lifetime.
He stifled a yawn as he sat back on the edge of the bed, unsurprised when an arm snakes around him to tug him back.
“Sleep well, your highness.” He whispered and got no response.
He felt Chang Geng draw closer, press what felt like his face into the space between Gu Yun’s shoulder blades, and continue sleeping.
Xu Ling seemed to have acquired a large contingent of doctors overnight, and Gu Yun was woken by what felt like their entire strength pacing outside their tent. Chang Geng, was still asleep, and Gu Yun couldn’t help but steal a moment to look at him again, determined to imprint as many moment of him into memory as he could.
It was only a short moment he could steal, the Prince woke not long after he did. The first sign of wakefulness was the frown that etched its way between his eyebrows, the creases of his eyelids as he tried to shut them tighter. And then, he blinked slowly, opening his eyes a little wider each time.
Chang Geng did not look surprised to see him, nor did he seem upset. Even his arm remained around Gu Yun’s waist, a it was a welcome weight that held him in place.
“Does it still hurt?” He asked.
Chang Geng barely seemed to give it a thought, instantly answering, “No.”
“Liar.” Gu Yun said fondly.
Chang Geng sighed, “It doesn’t hurt very much right now.” He said softly.
And then his arm slipped off Gu Yun’s waist, and he shifted slightly, bracing himself on one arm like he meant to sit up. Gu Yun himself jerked upright, so fast he thought he might have heard something crack in his spine.
“And so you want it to hurt worse?.” He scolded, bracing an arm around Chang Geng’s shoulders to help, “Do do you have to sit up right now?”
“For the conversation I’m expecting, yes.” Chang Geng replied.
He already sounded out of breath with the effort he had expended, and the sheets were bunched under the pressure of his hands. Gu Yun carefully extracted his arm from behind his back to replace it with a pillow, frowning as he leaned back against them with obvious relief.
Chang Geng turned his head to look at Gu Yun again. “It’s not so bad.” He said, unconvincingly. “Please, put that frown away, you’re making me worry.”
There had not yet been any coughing, but he was still wary of the flowers’ re-emergence. Gu Yun had been ill and injured like that too, and he could say from experience that any attempt to cough in such a state would make a person regret even possessing a physical body.
Gu Yun flicked the rise of his cheekbone gently with a finger, “Any other commands, your Highness?” He asked.
“None.” Chang Geng said, “But I thought you should know, the flowers are gone. I haven’t been spitting them out for nearly a week now.”
“You haven’t.” Gu Yun repeated.
”No.” Chang Geng did not look upset about whatever process had caused that, though if he had been forced to heal the curse, perhaps he did not care as much as he used to. Except… he even looked proud, and that suggested a different solution.
“All it took was nearly dying.”
Suddenly, the air in the room seemed to have grown thinner, making each breath harder to draw.
“Don’t joke about that.” Gu Yun said hoarsely.
He raised a hand to touch Chang Geng, but it hovered hesitantly over the Prince’s chest, as though something terrible might be confirmed through that contact alone.
And then, Chang Geng caught hold of his hand, his fingers curling around Gu Yun’s and bringing it to his chest. Gu Yun could faintly feel Chang Geng’s heartbeat faintly, it was reassuringly steady.
“I didn’t get them removed,” Chang Geng told him, more serious now. “And you did not cure it either. As it turns out, that was always meant to be my job.”
And of course, that made sense. More than that, it felt right somehow, for Chang Geng who tried to save everyone to be able to save himself.
He smiled teasingly at Gu Yun as he said, “As a wise man once told me it was impossible to accept love from anyone else if you can't love themselves.”
“That is a very wise man.” Gu Yun agreed, “I’m sure he is very beautiful too. You should listen to him more often.”
Despite the teasing tone of his words, Chang Geng only nodded and said, “Very beautiful.”
Was that really the time or the place? But Yan Wang seemed to be above such petty concerns such as the right moment and the appropriate location.
“Only you would infiltrate a bandit’s den for spiritual growth.” Gu Yun muttered, “All my belts were falling off my waist because I was so worried, and you-”
The rest of his words were cut off as Chang Geng’s hand wrapped around the waist in question, an almost comical look of concern crossing his face. “Not the waist.” He mourned, “I must measure it too.”
“You're ridiculous,” Gu Yun said. And because at that moment he couldn’t not say it, he added “And I am in love with you.”
Chang Geng stopped frowning to smile at him, even as his hands circled Gu Yun’s waist. The sensation was almost growing to be ticklish.
“I didn’t think I’d be glad you waited until now to tell me, but I am.” He admitted, “There were some things I had to understand on my own.”
To Gu Yun, he almost seemed to glow in that moment, even with his pale chapped lips, shadowed eyes and hair greasy with sweat and who knew what else, he managed to look utterly radiant with happiness. And Gu Yun had to kiss him.
He leaned in, and kissed the corner of that smile gently, hoping to catch the edge of that endearing little fang against his lips. After a moment, he pulled back, just enough to give Chang Geng a chance to refuse, and asked, “May I?”
With an impatient huff, or perhaps it was a laugh, Chang Geng pulled him the rest of the way in.
And that was when Gu Yun discovered that Yan Wang’s skin was soft like the flower petals and that he tasted just like plum blossoms. It seemed that just like a wolf, he also had a tendency to bite.
“Zi Xi,” Chang Geng said once they finally parted.
At first, Gu Yun assumed Chang Geng just liked the sound of his name on his tongue. Perhaps it was because Gu Yun liked hearing him say it in that slightly breathless, slightly wondering voice, and that took up all his focus.
But Chang Geng was already moving away, “Before she died, my aunt told me one other thing.”
Gu Yun was growing heartily sick of Hu Ge Er who seemed to have been a little too chatty in her final breaths. She also happened to be the very last person whose memory needed to be invoked at a time like this, only Yan Wang would have committed such a transgression.
”If you must ruin the moment, why don’t you just recite sutras.” Gu Yun groaned, “I already know she said something completely asinine.”
Chang Geng laughed, “Well, she told me no one would ever love me, no one would treat me with sincerity. I would know only hatred and resentment all my life.”
To Gu Yun, that, in particular, sounded like the ravings of someone utterly deranged.
“I have known she was wrong ever since the second time you climbed in through my window.” Chang Geng said quickly, “It was just impossible to believe you could care so much.”
“When you aimed a crossbow at me?” Gu Yun checked, “Threatened to vomit into my armour? Kicked me out?”
Chang Geng hummed in agreement, “When even after a month you did not forget about me, and you refused to give up on me.”
“I will never give up on you.” Gu Yun told him sincerely.
With a little smile, Chang Geng said “And I am trying to be unforgettable too.”
You already are.
Helplessly, Gu Yun leaned in for another kiss, before Chang Geng could find other dead and mercifully departed relatives to quote. By the time he pulled away, ancestors seemed the farthest thing from Chang Geng’s mind.
“Is it still hard to believe?” Gu Yun asked.
Chang Geng drew in a slow breath, and then smiled hopefully, “I think you should try to convince me harder.”
But that smile was replaced by something more serious, and when he spoke it was with reluctance. “But I did come to terms with a lot of things these past weeks, and that helped. Somehow, it seems almost dying shifts a person’s perspective in life, I can see why you indulge in it so often.”
Gu Yun's face must have shown the horror he felt because Chang Geng patted him gently on the arm, “Oh, don’t worry, I won’t make a habit of this. One person between us is enough, don’t you think?”
“I would prefer if neither of us made this a habit.” Gu Yun informed him wryly, “I was hoping to rely on your little herb garden, when all the ways I’m currently ruining my health catch up with me in my old age.”
Even though Chang Geng tried to act hurt, his eyes were curved with a slight smile. “Do you only want me for my medicines then?”
With a shake of his head, Gu Yun added, “And your cooking, of course.”
“Of course.” Chang Geng nodded, “Anything else?”
For a moment, Gu Yun was tempted to tease him, but he found he could not. Instead, he said, “For your company. So I can spend a lifetime beside you.”
“As my neighbour?”
“If that’s what it takes.”
Chang Geng leaned in closer, “It’ll take you more than that.” He said, “You can’t climb in through windows when you’re old.”
Gu Yun arched an eyebrow, “Who says I can’t, brat?”
“Would you prefer to be my neighbour instead of just sharing a home with me?” Chang Geng inquired, “In your nineth decade and trying to climb a tree to see your lover?”
Refusing to concede defeat, Gu Yun did not answer that question.
“Why don’t you tell me something else,” he suggested, “When you decided to enter into the bandit's den, knowing what could happen… it was not to spare me the guilt, was it?”
He hoped Chang Geng had never seen his choices as a quick death by someone else’s hand or a slow protracted one by Gu Yun’s. And despite all that Chang Geng had admitted to, he needed to be sure of this.
With a sigh, Chang Geng let his head fall back, looking towards the ceiling. “You know, I want to say yes, just to seem better in your eyes. But no. I did not do that just to spare you the guilt.”
He turned back towards Gu Yun with a little shake of his head, “There is so much work yet to be done, I would never have left that unfinished, and I don’t think I could leave you even if I was hacking out entire branches.”
Gu Yun opened his mouth to protest about the branches but then shut it again, waiting.
“But I had to do this,” Chang Geng said. “And at the time, it felt as though I could only do it the way I did.”
It was rare for Chang Geng’s hands to be colder than his, and Gu Yun frowned down before taking one hand in his. He tried to follow the same motions Chang Geng usually did as he rubbed the warmth back into his hands.
Even if he hadn't felt the warmth slowly seeping back into both their hands, the smile he got from Chang Geng made it feel like a success.
“You told me to take care, remember?” Chang Geng asked, “Who am I to disobey a direct command from Marshal Gu?”
Gu Yun squinted at him, “Since when did you turn obedient, brat?”
One hand had already broken free and was slowly sliding back to his waist, but Chang Geng looked at him with a wide, innocent eyes. “I could follow an order if you made it worth my while.”
“You love me.”
Gu Yun’s mouth parted, and Chang Geng grinned at him, “You do, don’t you.” He said in triumph, “Why bother denying it?”
“You're about to turn insufferable.” Gu Yun muttered. “I’m getting the doctors.”
If only they could cure smugness, though perhaps he and not Yan Wang would have been the first patient if they could.
Chang Geng seemed unfazed, “And you’ll still love me if I do.”
The worst thing about this was that Gu Yun knew he would. He had managed to lose sleep worrying about Chang Geng even when they’d been at odds, he would only grow worse from then on.
He shook his head, “I’m getting the doctors.” He repeated but made no move to stand, or to disengage from either of Chang Geng’s paws.
After a moment, he said, “As it happens, your highness, I don’t have any orders, but I would ask for one promise.”
“I promise.” Chang Geng said.
Gu Yun rolled his eyes, “I could have asked you for anything, do you realise?”
“Yes.” Chang Geng retorted, and then he asked, “So anyway, what is it that I have promised?”
Torn between the need to scold and the need to extract a promise that had strangely become even more pressing within the past few minutes, Gu Yun chose the latter.
“You don’t ever put yourself at risk like that again.” He said quietly, “If something happened to you… what am I supposed to do?”
He looked down at their entwined fingers and then back up towards Chang Geng, “If I lose you… I wouldn't have the strength left to place anyone else in my heart the way I keep you. I don’t even want to try.”
Chang Geng turned his palm so he was the one holding Gu Yun’s hand and squeezed gently. “You won’t lose me.” He promised.
Gu Yun tried to glare at him and failed, “I was thinking more along the lines of ‘No Zi Xi, I will not rush into danger, I will be careful and cautious and remain safe.’”
“Do we need to talk about who runs into danger all the time?” Chang Geng wondered aloud.
“You won’t lose me either.” Gu Yun said. He paused and then made himself continue, “And I hope you know that I never thought anything was wrong with you, or that you were a waste of time.”
“I didn’t think you did.” Chang Geng said quietly, “It’s actually sweet how much Marshal Gu can fuss.”
Gu Yun did get up then, determined to go get all the doctors back before he was lumped into the same category as the old maid and the tigress.
The next day Gu Yun brought him an Osmanthus branch, just to taste those flowers on Chang Geng instead. In his head, he was already compiling a list of floral desserts Chang Geng might enjoy. The process promised to make even Gu Yun begin to enjoy sweetness.
It was only as he helped Chang Geng wash away the blood and dirt from the last week that a different memory rose up in his mind. Had he not been injured when Yan Wang shamelessly visited a wide variety of indignities upon him?
“What are you thinking about?” Chang Geng asked.
“Revenge.” Gu Yun said absently. “Darling, are you sure you are not tired?”
Chang Geng shook his head eagerly, and once dressed, found himself carefully bundled into a blanket. Gu Yun then carried him out beneath the shade of the osmanthus tree, placing him gently on the bench underneath.
Xu Ling, who had been running to pay his respects to his saviour, narrowly avoided bumping into a pillar and wearing the soup he had so carefully been carrying.
Ultimately, for all the assassinations Li Feng’s guards and Gu Yun had tried to foil, they were no match for another man’s fate. This was proven once again when Li Feng decided to go and fall and break his neck on his way to court.
The fatal accident would not have made any great change to the quality of his leadership, but it was reluctantly concluded that the absence of an intact spine was too great a hindrance for a man attempting to be emperor.
Gu Yun allowed himself a single moment of traitorous anger.
Li Feng would make sure to die at the most inconvenient moment possible, why shouldn’t he? Everything else he had done had been equally mistimed, in this at least he could be relied upon.
And then, he wondered just how the young crown prince could ever be the person they needed in such troubled times, he had only recently been elevated even to the rank of the heir. The court could be called to heel by his uncle, but what of the decisions that fell upon an Emperor? Little Li Zheng was a timid child of ten and his mother was nearly an invalid.
Of all the Li family, it seemed only Chang Geng remained unmoved, leading the court in his role as the head of the six ministries with ease. He seemed a perfect picture of dignity and grief, deferring nobly to the still empty throne.
And then, Zhu little feet made a discovery that changed it all.
“The Hu Guo temple had a copy of a decree from the first battle, it named your Highness as the heir in case of his untimely death. His Majesty asked me to find it before he…” Zhu little feet paused for a moment, and then added, “The words are quite appropriate, even now.”
An image of the most likely monk flashed in Gu Yun’s mind. Master Liao Ran had always taken great interest in Chang Geng, ensuring he had all the education, knowledge and connections required for a ruler. He wondered what miracle of foresight had also made this monk so carefully preserve the decree.
But even if his role could be guessed at, it left the question of who had made sure to word the text so conveniently. The Lin Yuan Pavilion was truly very impressive.
But perhaps, the greatest factor in the acceptance of such an unusual arrangement was the relief that all ministers seemed to feel. Even Fan Qin, who most often attempted to sabotage the Fourth Prince, seemed to sag in his seat before turning as stiff and pale as a corpse himself.
Only Chang Geng was quiet and remained quiet the rest of that week. It seemed clear that his work was beginning to wear him out, and Gu Yun could sympathise.
One night, as they stole a brief moment together in the Marquis Manor, he touched Chang Geng’s cheekbone gently, just underneath the ever-darkening shadows. Chang Geng instantly leaned into the touch, eyes seemingly falling shut on his own accord.
“If you don’t want the throne, I can still steal you away. We could go to a small village somewhere.” Gu Yun found himself saying, “It would need a garden, of course, where you can grow your medicinal herbs, I could open a makeup shop…”
“You—” Chang Geng shook his head, “But Great Liang… as long as you…”
Exhaustion had tied even his usually glib tongue into knots.
Gu Yun spared him the effort of trying to find the right words. “I want to keep you safe too, there is no choice in the matter.”
“No intact eggs when a nest overturns, remember.” Chang Geng said, he leaned forward and rested his head against Gu Yun’s shoulder, hands tracing a familiar path along Gu Yun’s back, “There won’t be any village that we could live in if the Westerners invade.”
Gu Yun had secretly been hoping he would say that. Chang Geng would not be the man he loved if he did not.
“Yet, I still want to steal you away,” Chang Geng admitted to his shoulder. “How am I supposed to order you out to battle, the entire reason we used to fight was how often I tried to stop it.”
“Someday, I won’t.” Gu Yun told him, “I never got anything for giving silver to your Feng Huo tickets, your Majesty. I want to exchange them for a Manor, and a small village, somewhere with beautiful scenery.”
He knew those small pieces of silver wouldn’t even buy him a woodshed, but Chang Geng chose not to see things that way.
“It has to have a hot spring,” he said instead, “and space enough for an orchard, peach blossoms I think. Space to raise hens and ducks, and a stream where you can catch fish for dinner.”
He looked up at Gu Yun, offering him a small smile. “Consider it a weddi—”
Gu Yun tapped a finger against his mouth, “Ask me when I come back.” He said sternly.
Chang Geng’s smile dimmed a little, the worry returning to his eyes. Gu Yun caught a curl that had escaped his ponytail and tucked it behind his ear, letting fingers stroke the soft skin of the shell of his ear.
“Darling, did I ever tell you about the moment I first saw you?”
Chang Geng shook his head.
“Well, it was in the snow, you were covered in blood, surrounded by wolves… you know, I hadn’t even wanted to see you until then…Ah, alright, don’t pout, darling. That was twelve years ago.”
He brushed the underside of Chang Geng’s lip with his thumb, as though he was trying to wipe away the pout. It was a move that always worked on him, whenever he laid his head in Chang Geng’s lap and allowed his fingers to carefully smooth away a frown.
“What happened then?” Chang Geng asked. He looked as fascinated by the story as a little child.
Gu Yun laughed, “Well, I think Ji Ping almost cried. Except, as it turned out, none of the blood was yours. So small, and you could already fight wolves with nothing but a piece of a blade.”
He leaned down until his forehead rested against Chang Geng’s, “I’ve never seen someone so young with such a strong will to live.”
And it was in spite of everything Chang Geng had already been through at the hands of his apparent mother.
“It felt familiar.” Gu Yun said.
Chang Geng’s head jerked backwards in surprise, eyes wide.
“I’m not like you!” He looked offended, and Gu Yun rather suspected he was offended not on his own but on Gu Yun’s behalf.
“How aren’t you?” He countered, “Tell me, if you were riding out to battle, and I waited for you, would you let anything stop you from returning.”
Chang Geng’s arms tightened around him, even if he could be reasoned with, it seemed his body was determined to do the opposite of allowing Gu Yun to leave.
“Alright. You may go my General.” He said finally, “I will wait for you to return victorious.”
Gu Yun fished out the flute he still held in his sleeve, using it to tap against Chang Geng’s temple. He did not have a windslasher with his name engraved on it, but he still had that flute.
“I have to bring this back to you, Your Majesty.” He said.
He was determined to bring back a victory to begin Chang Geng’s reigning era, something generations to come would consider as his blessing.
“Play Us a tune when you return.” Chang Geng said, finally managing another hopeful smile. And that even more than the flowers could have told Gu Yun that Chang Geng really loved him.
“Zi Xi… could Li Feng have done us a favour? If you had still been my Yifu, do you think you would have ever looked at me?”
Gu Yun turned, letting himself look at Chang Geng then. Despite the cure they found tucked away with Chang Geng’s, his eyes still found it difficult to adjust to the dark. But he did not need to see Chang Geng to know how he would look, soft strands of hair that escaped his braid brushing against his face, eyes soft and a little hazy with the remnants of sleep, but a frown between his eyebrows, and his soft lower lip caught up between his teeth.
Gu Yun had not just memorised how he looked, he had mapped every last inch and every last scar with his hands and his mouth, until he knew Chang Geng by the senses he more relied on, taste, touch and scent.
But if it was just for his physical form, Gu Yun might have crushed the attraction, forcing himself to treat Chang Geng only as the son it was his duty to see well settled and surrounded by a family.
If he would have found it difficult to get Chang Geng’s rare smile, or his expressive brown eyes, or the curve of his shoulder, or the scent of him out of his mind, Gu Yun thought that the knowledge might still have been buried with his bones in the frontier.
Unless he knew of the curse. The Chang Geng who could resist such a poison from infancy until adulthood without ever showing a single sign should at least be trusted to know his own mind. He did not need to be coddled or sheltered as much as Gu Yun might want to look after him, he was easily an equal match.
But then the man beside him wasn’t just his Chang Geng, endearing and brave and determined, he was Yan Wang, a man who had sketched and designed the nation and shaped its fate with his hands, whose schemes had cleared away the rot of the court and breathed a new life into it. It was impossible for his heart not to be moved.
“Do you know something, darling?” He said finally, shifting so he could lean over Chang Geng, “I think I would still have had trouble looking away.”
Chang Geng smiled up at him, a bright little star who had somehow broken away from heaven to land in his arms.
Some twenty years later, Gu Yun found himself strolling along the paths that ran across Gu Yuan’s extensive gardens, searching for a person who had been missing since morning. He found him close to the peach trees, kneeling on a patch of recently cleared grounds, hard at work on a row of flowerpots. He seemed to be talking quietly to the plans around him, utterly convinced it helped them grow.
Chang Geng looked up as Gu Yun grew closer, and then as though including Gu Yun in the conversation he already was having, he called out “Did you hear, General He grew a melon the size of a pumpkin?”
Anyone who had known the former Black Iron Camp general for longer than a single incense period was informed of it. How could his own former Commander be left unaware? He and Chang Geng had been amongst the recipients of General He’s increasingly massive melons for years.
Gu Yun eyed the dainty little pots dubiously, “Are you intending to grow large melons the size of pumpkins there too?”
”Trees.” Chang Geng said absent-mindedly, “Well, only seeds for now. I’m supposed to transplant them after some time.”
Gu Yun waited for him to finish with his pot before saying, “Take something to drink first, you’ve been working in the sun too long.”
And who would have expected his Majesty Tai Shi, a beloved and powerful figure, to abdicate within just two decades? Further, for him to relocate to Jiangnan with someone people had once considered his greatest antagonist, happily spending his days pottering about tending to plants and experimenting with watering systems.
Obediently, Chang Geng stood and trotted back towards him.
As he came closer, Gu Yun saw that there was a streak of mud still on his cheek, as though he had absentmindedly brushed his hair back with a muddy hand, too busy with his task to bother. He had once handled the affairs of the nation in the same way, leaving it to Gu Yun to remind him of essentials such as his own nourishment.
It was only in matters relating to him that Chang Geng remained ever mindful, able to scold him to wear more layers or not leave his armour on even in sleep- something he had done in his sleep nearly every morning when Gu Yun tried to leave for the training grounds without waking him.
Hopelessly endeared, Gu Yun wiped away the smudge with the hem of his sleeve and then tried to place a kiss on that spot. Instead, he found his mouth pressed against Chang Geng’s forearm, Chang Geng’s pretty eyes glaring disapprovingly at him over the rim of his cup.
Gu Yun grimaced at the feel of fabric in his mouth and pulled back, “What was that for?” He demanded.
“Mud is not clean.” Said the former emperor, stating an extremely obvious fact with a grandeur that deserved a better cause.
“You’re not supposed to kiss me like that.” He added, at Gu Yun’s uncomprehending look.
Gu Yun rolled his eyes and then pointedly kissed Chang Geng on the forehead, one spot that seemed unmarked by mud or sap. “Is this acceptable or do I go and rinse my mouth now?”
Chang Geng appeared to give the matter great thought before saying, “This should be acceptable.”
Gu Yun kissed him on the nose, and when that did not draw protest, kissed his chin. He felt Chang Geng’s throat bob as he swallowed, and kissed the bump at the centre of it too. This close, Chang Geng smelled like the tranquillising incense, with a hint of something earthier underneath, and Gu Yun could taste the salt of sweat on his skin.
He rather thought he could also taste the plum blossoms, sweet and resilient, and a part of the man he adored so much.
“Someone might see.” Chang Geng told him, sounding a little breathless.
Despite the objection, he tilted his head back to allow him more space to work with.
Gu Yun’s hands travelled down his back, following the gentle dip at his waist before the rise of his hips. He had long since decided Chang Geng had to have the nicest back in the world, an opinion that might have been biased by just how long he had spent sticking needles into it as he fell in love with Chang Geng.
“I don’t think you’d mind that very much.” He said.
“I wouldn’t,” Chang Geng agreed. He then leaned down, and dropped a soft kiss on Gu Yun’s mouth, then said “But I think the seeds might. Let me finish here first.”
Did trees matter at a time like this? Reluctantly, Gu Yun drew his hands back to himself and allowed Chang Geng enough space to move away.
“It is plums, by the way.” Chang Geng said as he knelt again, “I never thought I’d miss them so much, but I do.”
In his mind, Gu Yun could see small white flowers once more, splattered with blood. He drew closer, unable to resist the force that tugged him towards Chang Geng. Simply seeing Chang Geng did not seem enough, he had to be close enough to touch him, and remind himself that he was still there.
He crouched next to the patch of soil, watching Chang Geng carefully place his herbal “encouragements” around the seed, mixtures of his other medicinal herbs that he was convinced helped the plants grow. They seemed to work, since the gardens in Gu Yuan seemed to be the very picture of health and vitality, much like the man who tended to them.
“They almost killed you.” He said, thinking of the blood-soaked petals from twenty years ago.
Chang Geng looked up, “Yes, but they didn’t.” He smiled, “Instead, they brought you back to me.”
That was a point they would never agree on, and the merits or demerits of plum blossoms might easily become the topic of a hotly contested debate. Chang Geng was not entirely wrong, though Gu Yun found it difficult to see things the way he did. For him, the comfort of the flowers that he associated with Chang Geng came with the fear of losing him.
“At least they taste like you.” He muttered, “Though I would say I prefer you.”
The sharp intake of breath next to him told him the plants would soon be forgotten, regardless of how much they might mind it. His darling could be ridiculously easy like that, needing just a little bit of flirting. And sure enough, with quick, almost cursory movements, the rest of the seeds and herbs were dropped into their pots, Chang Geng’s work no longer as painstaking as it had been.
He cleaned his hands on a rag that seemed rather muddier than the hands had been, and then stood, a hand outstretched towards Gu Yun.
“Let me help you up,” he said.
Gu Yun shook his head, amused, “I’m not that old, or that infirm, Darling. You and your quackery have made sure of that.”
But he still placed his hand on Chang Geng’s warmer palm, allowing himself to be pulled up by him. Chang Geng opened his mouth as though to retort, possibly to defend all the poking, prodding and potions he had inflicted on Gu Yun over the years. But something else seemed to have caught his attention.
Gu Yun noticed Chang Geng was staring at his sleeve. Initially, it had been a pale shade of blue that had turned nearly as colourful as Chang Geng, whose face made a rather pretty picture in green, brown and shades of pink.
“There was a time when I was scared to let you come near me,” Chang Geng said softly, “You seemed so perfect, I was scared I would stain you.”
“And now?” Gu Yun asked, words denying that idea knocking at the back of his teeth. But he had already said them often enough, and he had not needed to say them for some time.
Chang Geng raised a brow, “What do you think?”
Gu Yun smiled down at their joint hands. He tugged Chang Geng closer, “I think if I’m not permitted to kiss you yet, then you should come back and join me in a bath.”