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intrigues of ch'ang-an: bloodied secrets hide under his lips

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Spring in Chang’an was the most beautiful sight in the world, and yet Nanjun was unable to fully enjoy it, as he swiftly rode through the gate, nodding towards the guards who were on duty. The smell of cherry blossoms and pleasant foods drifted through the air and the life of the city was like a soothing balm to his bones, something he should have stopped to linger and enjoy, but couldn’t do.

Not when he was already delayed.

Nanjun almost wished he wasn’t on horseback, because then, he would be able to duck through some of the side-streets, the smaller alleyways, instead of having to traverse the crowded pathways, filled with the townspeople going about their daily lives, and the crowds of people from the country, flooding in for the next three days. Still, Nanjun knew either way would be slow: he was terrible at running when laden with presents, and riding by horseback ensured that he would be trapped by the crowds of the main streets.

So, he just waited, clicked his tongue and tugged his fingers agitatedly through his mare’s mane, trying to calm himself. The sun was already climbing high in the sky, a burning blaze into his back through the throngs of people, and reminded Nanjun he had been working his mare too hard on the road to Chang’an, and this rest was probably good for her.

“Sorry.” he murmured to her, rubbing her neck reassuringly, “We’ll go home soon.”

They trotted forward a little with the flow of the crowd, and Nanjun glanced down at the market spilling from the storefronts into the street. It was a nice day for trade, with what looked like entire sacks of new spices, fruits and rice displayed to purchase, and many of the commoners all out for a good bargain. The East Market was as crowded as ever, and Nanjun made a small note to himself to remind someone in the Ministry of Housing and Defence to see if they could not widen the streets and districts somehow. The markets grew larger by the day, but Chang’an remained the same size and ever more congested.

It was a beauty of sorts, Nanjun mused, as he nodded down to a fishwife trying to gain his attention. It was a bustle and throng that most people hated, but Nanjun sort of adored. He sometimes hated the part of him that preferred this, the crush of people around his horse, loud and busy and eclectic, all on their way to fulfill their own deeds, a story and a hardship in every curved back or straining knapsack, but it was undeniable. He loved Chang’an.

Most nobles didn’t, Nanjun knew. Most poets sought to leave as quickly as they could, back to the countryside, back towards the simplicities of life. He knew the other poets, the elder poets looked at him and saw a youth, saw someone who had yet to learn about the joys of the nature and the simplicity: and Nanjun understood them and their misgivings about his position and strength. He just thought they were wrong.

There was a slight strength to be found in the courts, where courtiers, scholar-officials and quietly watching eunuchs bickered over policy and favours and economics, balancing a million invisibly-fine threads in a balancing act that even a spider would be hard-pressed to replicate. There was a beautifully crafted vigour to watching the fights between merchants in the loud bustling streets, as they yelled and screamed for attention, rudely pushing forward their wares finely, and smiling genuinely at the end of the day, pleased with their sales. There was something particularly tender about watching a young courtesan in the pleasure grounds learn how to blow a bangdi with the right amount of pressure, and the joy that lit up every eye when her first, tremulous note filled the hall with its mournful sound[1]. This was where Nanjun lived to be, this was where he would always return to, no matter how difficult a journey.

No matter how long it took to battle through the streets.

He saw an opening clear in front of him, as he reached the ends of the East Market’s expanses, and urged his mare forward and started to gallop now, able to clear a way through.

Right, left, right, right, through the hanging lanterns and large teahouses and trees curling over the walls of the noble houses, Nanjun finally arrived at the university gardens, the sprawling expanse of lawns which was the only part of the university accessible to those who were not students or teachers. The gardens were as crowded as expected, filled with well-wishers, family members, and enterprising merchants with food, drinks and last-minute cheating tricks to offer.

It was a mess, but Nanjun carefully pushed his mare through the crowd, looking out for a telltale magenta robe, a spot of bright colour in the seas of blues, blacks and red. It seemed nearly impossible as the sun climbed higher and higher in the sky, but through the crowd was a loud scream.

“Nanjun-teacher!” called Zhina, her banbi streaming out behind her, hair somehow already messy [2]. The little girl ran straight into the side of his mare, eyes wide and eager, pudgy hands coming out to hit against the side of Nanjun’s boots. “You’re here!”

“Yes, I am.” He said, with a warm grin, looking down at the young girl and her fat, slightly stained cheeks. “Did Jiuguo already go inside?”

“Not yet.” she said, eyes wide. “He’s gonna soon though.”

“Is he now? Take me to him, won’t you?” asked Nanjun reaching a hand down to ruffle her hair. “I have something for you, if you do.”

“Presents?” Her eyes lit up and she immediately started to squirm back through the crowd. A little startled, Nanjun nudged his mare after her, pushing through some of the other contestants and wellwishers, the swell and crush of people just a little overwhelming. How exactly had Zhina managed to escape her maid and her parents to find Nanjun, he wondered? Still, it was a blessing for him, because she led him behind an outcrop of rock, somewhere he wouldn’t have thought to look behind.

And sure enough, the crowd thinned a little here, and his friends and family were gathered around Jiuguo, quietly conversing with him. The world somehow felt quiet now, and he smiled, to himself, quietly.

“Jiuguo.” he called, as he drew closer, and Jiuguo looked up, and instantly lit up.

“Nanjun-gege!” he said, and his face split open into a wide earnest smile, his two prominent front teeth making him look even younger than he was [3]. “I didn’t think you were going to be able to come."

Nanjun slid off his mare, and threw his arms around Jiuguo, in a tight embrace. “I promised that I would come, didn’t I?” Jiuguo nodded against his shoulder, and Nanjun relished in his warmth a little more, before pulling back. He was glad he’d made it. The national civil-service examinations were one of the most important moments in an educated young man’s life, and having been called home right before Jiuguo’s had been a stressful venture. “I’m sorry for my delay. The mountain pass was snowed-in and took time to clear.”

“It’s fine. You’re here now.” Jiuguo said, determinedly, and his smile faltered a little. “I’m so nervous, gege. What if I don’t do well on the exam?”

“Have I not taught you well?” asked Nanjun, patting Jiuguo’s back, gently. “You impress me every day with your strengths, complexities and myriads of intelligence. I have no doubt the Emperor and his court will also be as impressed with you as I am.”

Jiuguo, who looked a little like he was about to cry, just nodded, very firmly. Nanjun leaned back, not loosening his grip on Jiuguo’s back, to pivot and reach for his saddlebag. He fished around carefully pushing aside his other various emptied food packages, and pulled out a silken bag, with loose weaving and an intoxicating scent. “As promised.” Nanjun said, looping the scent bag around Jiuguo’s belt, deliberately, “The scent of camphor and jasmine, from my grandfather’s gardens. May the smell help you do better today.”

Jiuguo looked down, at his belt and tugged at it, carefully, almost in awe. “I really missed you, Nanjun-gege.”

“Good luck, Jiuguo.” Nanjun said, quietly, smoothing down Jiuguo’s flyway hairs, before stepping back, letting him return back to his parents. Now, finally, Zhina came up to him, demanding. “You brought me a present, teacher?”

Children were all very predictable, and so, Nanjun had been prepared for this outcome. Nanjun reached into the back of his mare’s satchel, and grabbed two large, bright peaches, and a couple of candied nuts. Her eyes got almost impossibly large with awe, and her chubby fingers made hands for them, almost involuntarily, before she remembered her manners, bowed very quickly and snatched them from Nanjun’s hands.

“Thank you, teacher.” She managed to etch out, before stuffing one peach into her mouth, juice trickling down her cheeks. It was remarkably cute, and Nanjun cooed a little, ruffling her hair gently. She scrunched up her nose a bit, but didn’t object, as she continued to stuff her face with the fruit.

He lifted her up, carefully into his arms and turned to face Jiuguo’s parents. “Lord Tian.”

“Zheng Nanjun.” The patriarch of the Tian family replied, courteously, a smile touching his lips as Zhina dribbled a little bit of juice over Nanjun’s robes. “It is a momentous day.”

“That it is.” Nanjun responded, ducking his head. “Jiuguo-di has admirably risen up to every challenge I’ve put in front of him. I have no doubt he’ll join the bureaucracy of the Palace, and become the sort of scholar that every man envies.”

Lord Tian nodded, his wife smiling gently at his side. “I do believe so. My only son has been admirably raised by you. It was a risky choice, hiring someone as young as you to replace Jiuguo’s regular tutor for the national exams, but it was a risk well-taken. You have done an exceptional job, Zheng Nanjun.”

Nanjun only inclined his head, quietly to the side and wondered. Perhaps he had taught Jiuguo how to react and live in a world of change and tumultuousness and encouraged the skills within him. Perhaps he’d only benefited off the natural ambition and drive that Jiuguo had for everything, but patting his head occasionally and just letting Jiuguo have free reign over the library. Either way, the outcome was the same—a success—so Nanjun shut up and said nothing, even if his conscience twinged at him a little.

He knew how to play politics.

“Well then.” said Lady Tian, turning her gaze towards the boisterous crowd with a disapproving look. “We shall depart. Jiuguo should leave soon as well.” She raised her voice, quite deliberately, and Jiuguo, whose head had been closely leaned towards Nanjun’s brother in deep conversation, startled and turned around.

“Yes mother.” He said, guiltily, before bowing to everybody, deep at the waist and jogging over through the crowd, towards the main gate. Lord Tian laughed, fondly.

“That boy.” He shook his head, and turned around, to help his wife get back inside her palanquin. Nanjun lifted Zhina into the palanquin, patting her hair and promising quietly to bring her more sweets later. “Zheng Nanjun. Jin Shuozhen. I’ll see you both again at the Scholars Announcement Feast.” With that, they turned and departed from the university grounds, leaving only Nanjun, and Shuozhen, his elder brother, at his side.

Shuozhen quirked one of his eyebrows, his features so beautifully chiseled as to make his beauty cold, and unapproachable. Just the way his brother liked it best. “So,” he sneered, quite haughtily. “You’ll greet your disciple and the Tian family before you’ll greet your own brother? What filial piety you do display!”

Nanjun looked around them, a little sarcastically. “Do you want me to kowtow right now to appease for my severe sin?” he asked, dryly.

Shuozhen rolled his eyes. “No, but some remorse for your actions would be appreciated.” He sniffed, a little overdramatically. “After everything I’ve ever done for you…”

“Took me to a brothel too early and traumatized me, stuffed my doll with jam so I thought he was dying because I hugged him too hard, abandoned me with mother and father alone this winter at the estate…” Nanjun said, ticking off each incident on his fingers, with mock thoughtfulness.

Shuozhen’s face split into a grin, that bright exhilarated grin that could charm a thousand women, holding his arms out for Nanjun. That was Shuozhen for you, exuberant, bold and lavish in public, uncaring of boundaries or social etiquette, if he could get his way. They embraced, and Shuozhen’s grasp on his shoulders was warm and firm, without being overbearing. “You never change, Jun-er.” But his tone was fond and gentle. “You look well, did you gain weight?”

Nanjun exhaled, in amusement. “Yes gege. Mother was rather insistent that the cooks cooked well, and my wife was not going to overturn her.”

Shuozhen laughed, nasal and bright. “It’s what you needed. Was the travel back here difficult, for you to be a week late? You made Jiuguo worry, you know.”

“Got trapped in a mountain pass snow-in.” Nanjun explained, with a sigh. “It can’t be helped. Travelling all the way to Sichuan always requires some commitment.” But his gaze sharpened and he grinned at Shuozhen. “You’ve grown rather close with Jiuguo-di, haven’t you?”

Shuozhen’s smile instantly shuttered and his ears turned a little red around the edges. A miniscule detail, but he and Shuozhen knew each other best, remarkably close for brothers separated by seven years.

“He’s grown a lot in these past few years, I am not surprised. You trained him well.” Shuozhen murmured, hands folding in front of his chest, and his voice was softer now, lilting, and Nanjun didn’t think he could be more obvious about his affection for Nanjun’s apprentice. Still. It was not the right place to point it out, even if Shuozhen and Jiuguo hadn’t exactly been discreet themselves.

“One of these days, he will grow to become a better man than even I can train him. I suspect, gege, that it will be your influence.” Nanjun teased anyway, rubbing the mane of his mare, who looked rather exhausted. “In any case, I must head back home. My horse looks exhausted, and I’d rather keep this one for a little longer. Sorghagta says this breed of horse is very obedient and adapts easily to an owner, so I don’t want to lose her to heat exhaustion.”

“My page can take her back.” Shuozhen said, inclining his head back towards his palanquin. “I have not seen you in so long, Jun-er, you must tell me about home and your travels.”

Nanjun nodded, acquiescing easily, and letting Shuozhen’s staff take care of his things. “I shall come by tomorrow, when I look less ruffled and give your household some gifts.” He said, with a tired smile.

“No, come by on Thursday, instead. I’m hosting a party at my place. Of course, you’ll be the honoured guest, but I also have other news I wish to celebrate.”

Other news? It could be anything with Shuozhen, who dabbled in all sorts of worldly affairs: from his own trading affairs, to his position in the court’s salt monopoly, and had plenty of cause to celebrate anything.

“I will be there, gege, I wouldn’t miss it for the world.” Nanjun said, bowing his head.

“Good.” Shuozhen said, with a smile, that carefully faded away into something more serious. To business then, back to politics. “No doubt, the Emperor will want to see you tomorrow, despite his condition, so you should be busy tomorrow at the Palace seeing everybody. Make sure to not anger the Empress when you go? I’m trying to make her a little less likely to explode when she sees the Jin family. Then go see Crown Prince Ju, he needs more than just your company, I suspect he needs your insight.” Nanjun’s eyes flickered over to Shuozhen, whose lips had narrowed to a narrow line. “Jun-er doubts me?”

“Never.” Nanjun said, inclining his head, “I just. Haoxi has never required my counsel so urgently that you would suggest it.”

Shuozhen exhaled, and folded his hands inside his sleeves, quite clearly annoyed. “Just go see him. Even if you agree with him, I want you to hear the issue from him.”

Nanjun just dipped his head again, in acknowledgement and wondered. Shuozhen loved him thoroughly and in every way (despite the circumstances that should have otherwise pitted them against each other), spoiled Nanjun where possible, and strived to be as open with him as he could. However, despite recognizing Nanjun’s dislike for politics and powerplays, he saw Nanjun’s intelligence as a weapon to use in his own palace plans. He loved Shuozhen and trusted his judgment, but oh. He wished that Shuozhen had given him one day of rest.

Especially after the visit home he’d just had.

“Are you tired, brother? You are strangely tight-lipped today. Should I let you retire, or put some rice-wine into you until you are more relaxed?” asked Shuozhen, voice lower, as he came closer, and placed a reassuring hand on Nanjun’s shoulder.

Nanjun smiled, faintly, and looked away from his too-perceptive gaze. “It has been a strange visit home, gege, I’m sorry for worrying you. Although I am not tired, I suspect my company will not be very entertaining or relaxing. Perhaps I should take my leave.”

Shuozhen shook his head, rather firmly. His wide eyes, the eyes that they shared bored into Nanjun, as if demanding an answer. “I doubt it is something that cannot be cured by a walk through the Piao family gardens. Zhimin has an open invitation for me, and it is second in size and variety, next to only the imperial gardens themselves.”

“Does he now?” asked Nanjun, arching one eyebrow in curiosity, but letting himself be steered by Shuozhen away from the university, towards the residential wards. Perhaps they should have taken the palanquin, but Shuozhen didn’t look like he wanted to ride, striding confidently through the crowd of slowly dispersing individuals. “Last I heard, the Piao family were not in your high regards.”

“That was before Piao Zhimin reached majority.” Shuozhen retorted, a pleased look in his eyes, as they wandered slowly through the residential wards, Shuozhen’s bodyguards following at pace behind them, “He’s one of the most intelligent Piaos that must have ever existed, didi. Eager to learn, cautious about his words and willing to swallow his pride. Nothing like the members of his extended family. It is a good thing indeed that he is the Piao patriarch’s choice as the next master of the family.”

“Will he be your apprentice?” asked Nanjun, curiously. His brother had never sought to mentor anybody who came near him, but it was the first time Shuozhen had had such high praise for anybody so young.

“No.” Shuozhen dismissed, as expected. “He wouldn’t accept in any case, even if I did wish to offer. No, I’m tempting him to my side, and hopefully with him, his family. His sword skills are said to be exemplar. He trained under General Zhu Di.”

Nanjun blinked and folded his sleeves together. More serious than he’d thought, if Shuozhen was willing to deal with the whole Piao Family. “There has been a disturbance in the power balance of the court?” he asked, quietly.

Shuozhen looked unconcerned, wandering over to inspect some tea being sold on the side, before shaking his head and moving away. “No, not really. But Crown Prince Ju and I at least agreed that getting ahead in the race is the best thing we can try to do. It is never wise to be reactionary in anything, especially as the other princes strive more and more fervently to try and take Crown Prince Ju’s position from him, especially with the emperor’s condition.”

“The emperor’s condition…” Nanjun parroted, eyes narrowed.

Shuozhen brushed back a few stray strands of hair from his eyes. “Crown Prince Ju might inherit soon, if the Emperor does not improve. He wants to be sure that he will inherit a court that is mostly in favour of him. That will not rebel and fight.”

“And so, an alliance with the Piaos, no matter how infavourably you look upon them.” Nanjun said, understanding, all of a sudden. “He is really worried, isn’t he, gege?”

“You can see for yourself tomorrow.” Shuozhen said, with an exhale, but the look in his eyes was more gentle now, that Nanjun believed him. “Lord knows I can’t talk sense into him. I think the newest group of people the Emperor has brought in has made him a little…paranoid.”

Nanjun lifted an eyebrow. “Should I be worried?”

Shuozhen laughed, his eyes crinkling upwards in genuine amusement. “Perhaps. I think you should pay attention tomorrow, in any case.”

He looked down for a moment, feeling the burn of having walked so much, like a commoner in the soles of his feet. He was unsettled now. The Emperor had been feeling unwell even before Nanjun had taken the winter holiday, but hearing that it had gotten bad enough to make Haoxi fear inheriting…A truly worrying state of affairs. A kingdom on the verge of collapse.

“Enough depressing topics.” Shuozhen said, sliding his hand into the crook of Nanjun’s elbow, with an amused smile. “Tell me about Sorghagta-mei. Has she relented enough to come down to the Capital?”

Nanjun laughed. “You only love me for my wife.” He teased, cheerfully, “What will Xuanmei-jie think?”

There was an abject look of amusement on his brother’s youthful face. “Xuanmei loves her more.” And there was a slight quirk to his eyebrows that said everything it needed to about their wives and their own relationship to their wives. “Besides, she’s far more interesting than you, you agoraphobe. Well?”

Nanjun didn’t point out that their current location was enough to prove he wasn’t an agoraphobe, just let his eyes flicker upwards towards the roofs of the more crowded estates. “Doing well. She’s mastered the art of sewing now, although she hates it. Every time mother says her stitching isn’t elegant enough, she goes out and rides a horse bareback into the forest, and scares the servants.” He laughed. “She wrote a lot more poems and they’re beautiful.”

Shuozhen laughed even more. “Mother must be frustrated. I wish I too could flee into the woods and ride whenever she made me sit through manners lessons.”

“You hate riding.” Nanjun pointed out, and Shuozhen waved it away, good humour through his face.

“It’s the thought that counts. But she will not come back with you?”

“No.” Nanjun said, shutting his eyes and letting the ambient sunlight filter across his face for a moment. “She will, one day. But not right now.”

“And so, you’ll be alone again.” Shuozhen murmured, gently and mournfully.

“I have Jiuguo-di.” Nanjun said, but even as he said it, he knew the truth. In a few days, Jiuguo would become a real bureaucrat, and leave Nanjun’s house to buy his own. And although he would visit frequently, it would not be the same.

Shuozhen said nothing, just looked at Nanjun, as the breeze flittered past them. Around them, the sound of cooking, washing and housework filtered through the houses, and Nanjun turned away from his piercing gaze, to walk forward again. “Piao gardens?” he asked, gently, and Shuozhen followed him. Still. There was a weird melancholy that Nanjun didn’t much like.

-

Nanjun had never liked politics. As a child, he’d been against the sorts of petty infighting that occurred between the children of the Royal Family, and had often retreated far away, to play in the gardens, sit in the library and read, or go out to wander the city. He’d been the archetypical poet in that aspect, more fascinated with stories and beautiful artwork, than any of the goings-on of the households and the gossip between the harem.

Sometimes people asked him, usually after a couple of drinks had melted away their propriety, whether he’d been sad that he’d never had the chance to inherit. That Haoxi had grown up to the Emperor’s son, instead of himself, after the terrible confusion of their birth.

But Nanjun had never been sad, for the benefits of growing up as part of the Emperor’s family was not something he’d lost. His name was still Zheng Nanjun, instead of Jin Nanjun, which gave him the power of the royal name[4]. He was still one of the Emperor’s most treasured children, even more so than some of the Emperor’s actual sons. He was still guaranteed a place at court because of his connections, and he never had to want for money.

No. Political power had never been Nanjun’s ambition, not in the way it had been Haoxi’s, so he’d always been more relieved that his more vivacious and calculating brother’s lanky limbs, knobbly knees and dimples had grown to become sharp and cutting, in the same way the Emperor was. Haoxi had wanted power, and Nanjun had been happy to support him, silently.

So how had he been dragged back into politics, so quickly after Haoxi had become a prince, and then just two years later, become crown prince?

He wasn’t sure when Haoxi had stopped merely asking him for advice, and started asking for policy. He wasn’t sure when Haoxi had stopped asking for small favours, and started asking him to oversee entire projects. He wasn’t sure when Shuozhen had stopped ruffling his hair and mostly ignoring him, and started looking at him with a steely eye when it came to politics.

It was nice. At times. To be considered an equal to the two brothers he held to be the dearest in his heart. But when he and Haoxi had still been alike as peas in a pod, all dimpled grins and scabbed knees and lanky legs, they had listened to the stories of great warriors and great romances that spanned over cruel separation and endless struggles—not for the politics and the powerplay, but for the love and adventure and deep emotion.

In the end, Nanjun wasn’t cut out for politics, even if he thought it was beautiful from a distance. Nevertheless. It was his duty, and he was nothing if not a dutiful son, brother and subject to the throne. Nanjun had always done his duty. Had that not been why, upon the northern barbarians coming to the Emperor, demanding for a tangible symbol of their cooperation, Nanjun had stepped forward to be married away to the barbarian’s daughter, instead of letting Haoxi abandon his pursuit of the pretty southern lady, and the handsome eunuch boy? Had that not been why, when the aloof Lord Tian had deigned to propose an alliance with the Jin family and asked for Shuozhen to tutor Jiuguo, Nanjun had stepped forward instead, knowing his brother’s dislike for apprentices? Had that not been why, upon disaster coming to their hometown, instead of the many other bureaucrats who could have reported back on Sichuan, Nanjun had gone back to his homeland, neglecting on the final moments of Jiuguo’s education?

His duty had always turned out well. Sorghagta was one of his closest friends, even if they would never be in love. Jiuguo was an admirable student and interesting acquaintance, though he took time away from Nanjun’s pursuit of poetry. Returning to Sichaun had been enlightening. It had been fine.

He would continue his duty.

-

The palace walls echoed a little, as Nanjun clambered up the steps towards the main hall. The main eunuch bowed low, upon seeing him and walked into the main chamber without a word. Nanjun tugged at a stray string at the end of his sleeves and waited, nervously. Back when he’d first started visiting the Emperor as a poet and not a son, he’d been so nervous while waiting, that he’d recite his flowery words under his breath, over and over, looking a little like a madman.

Now, he was older. He didn’t chant like a madman. Age still hadn’t managed to stop the light bubbles rising up underneath his skin.

The guards opened the door, letting Nanjun in, and he walked in carefully, to the warm floating clouds of perfume, heat and sickness. Pulling a quiet face, as he knelt, Nanjun pressed his face to the floor. “My Lord Father Emperor, I greet you respectfully, may you live long.”

He bowed for a couple of moments, before rising up to his feet, to look upon the face of the Emperor.

The last time he’d seen his Father-Emperor, he’d been seated in his grand throne, straight-backed and clear-eyed, and he’d remained clothed in his splendor. Admittedly, his skin had been blotchy-red and voice torn with the ravages of age, but upright, and still recognizably the father of his youth.

Now, his Father-Emperor laid in his bed, skin sallow and yellow, sweat trickling down his forehead and neck, and clothed only in a white underclothes and thick blankets piled up around him. He looked weak and unraveled and Nanjun couldn’t help the stab of pity that went through his body at this sight.

“Nanjun.” He said, voice rasping and trembling. His hand pulled up from the bed and beckoned him closer, and Nanjun approached, carefully, kneeling down at his father’s bedside, careful to not touch him, even as he came close.

“My Father Emperor, what has happened to your youthful countenance? Hath, in the two months without my presence, you declined so?” Nanjun asked, almost playfully. He knew, that even as his heart twisted in that grievous pity, his emperor would not appreciate it and would instead appreciate levity instead.

The Emperor wheezed out a laugh. “Help me up.” He said, wearily. “I cannot stand to be like this all day.”

Nanjun hastened to his side, and pulled him up, carefully, sitting him against the plush cushions and endless layers of blankets. The yellow sallowness to his skin could not be escaped, however. The Emperor nodded, approvingly as he looked over Nanjun. “You’ve gained weight.”

“Yes, My Father Emperor.” said Nanjun, with a low laugh. “My mother was not eager to let me go and wanted to be able to roll me to Chang’an.”

The emperor laughed, again, a wheezing but heartier laugh than before. “Child, you have not seen such lavish indulgence in your life.”

“No, your love has always been a stricter sort of love.” Nanjun said, seriously, “The sort of discipline always sorely needed.”

The Emperor exhaled, but with a smile on his face. “You’ve grown up well, Nanjun. I had not realized yet, how old you have grown.” He gripped at his blankets. “Your travel went well?”

“Yes. I went back to Sichuan to do a report for Haoxi on the region, but I also went home to see my wife and father. The region is doing well, the crops are growing well and the people are—”

“I don’t want to hear it.” groused the Emperor, shaking off his report. “Give your written report to Crown Prince, I am too old, too tired. Tell me about yourself, your own trip.”

Nanjun frowned. He supposed he could see now, what his brothers had been worrying over, that the stern unyielding Father-Emperor of his youth who cared mostly only for kingdom, now wanted only stories of kindness. He had few to offer from his home. Nevertheless, he continued, being a poet meant being good at inventing things. “Nothing happened, beyond my mother’s preoccupation with the ducks we have managed to attract to our gardens this year. She believes they exist nowhere else, for she has never seen them before.”

The Emperor just grunted, a small smile on his face, and Nanjun continued. “Sorghagta learns better how to read and speak and sew every day, though she despises most of it. She would dress as a man and study literature as a monk forever, if she were allowed.” He laughed, lowly, and the Emperor joined him.

“Willful. I have scorned you with a willful bride—you must pick another.” He coughed out.

Nanjun shook his head, quite deliberately. “No. She’s my willful wife.” He said, quite calmly. “I would not have another.”

“Not even a concubine?” asked the Emperor, before shaking his head. “You are too noble.”

Nanjun said nothing, tugged only on the end of his sleeve, and thought about the Emperor’s thirty consorts, and the battles and anger and ferociousness within the halls of the palace, on the topic of succession. No. This choice was wiseness, he believed.

“She wrote a new poem you may enjoy, my Father Lord.” He evaded, quietly.

The Emperor waved his hand for him to commence, and Nanjun didn’t fail to notice the trembling of his fingers as he lifted upwards. He didn’t comment on it, just shut his eyes and thought of the poem he’d memorized, while overlooking his family’s old estate.

“Red sun rises gently in the east
Empty cups, from the night before, gleam
Chairs fall; the wind whirls mournfully, like a gibbon’s cry
Crow caws from above; the iced-over river cracks minutely
Faded puddles from last night’s wind and rain evaporate
Time marches unrelentlessly in the milky way
I see the ornate clepsydra on the table
And weep for my husband’s departure once more.”

Nanjun let her words ring in the air, for a moment longer, before lowering his head[5]. The Emperor clapped, looking quite delighted, as he always did, when Nanjun recited poetry. He was glad, that his Emperor was such an eager patron of he and Sorghagta’s artwork.

“Brilliant. And I doubt you have escaped the creative airs, either, Nanjun?” he asked, eyes almost alight.”

Nanjun had always felt more inspired here, among the bustle of the city, something nobody had ever understood. But he’d written something anyway, inside the quiet expanses of home, like his Father had said. He cleared his throat, and started to recite, again.

“Plum blossoms unfurl over the trees, their empty centres gaping
Two storks intertwine their necks, lotuses and reeds hug their feet
Will today bring good news to my weary, aching heart?
In the distance, the empty mountains loom and silence surrounds the bamboo grove.”

When Nanjun opened his eyes again, after reciting, there were two more people in the room, hovering at the door, next to the eunuch. He looked over at them, only just registering the emperor’s soft sigh of satisfaction at hearing the poem.

The first thing Nanjun noted was their strange attire. The older man, with a long, drooping mustache had pale, white feathers pinned to his robes, but the younger man, with bright eyes and a perfectly proportioned face wore a huge, entirely feathered cape, bursting with colours, that Nanjun couldn’t take his eyes away from.

Carefully chosen plumage blossoms more brightly than azaleas,
But cannot smell as sweet.

The Emperor exhaled, heavily, noticing Nanjun’s gaze diverting away from him, and only barely acknowledged the two men. “I don’t want the poppy solution this time. I’m busy. Come back later.” He turned to Nanjun, immediately, and smiled. “As always, child, you outdo yourself.”

Nanjun ducked his head, in acknowledgement, but couldn’t help his gaze sliding over to the presumed-physicians who had not actually left at his father emperor’s order. So forward! “I have always been the best at these delicate matters. My brothers are pre-occupied with the important issues of the mortal plane, but the celestial consumes me.” He said, instead, with a light grin. “I suppose that is why I will not have a concubine either, only a person from the stars would be enough for me.”

The emperor laughed, a dry wheezing laugh that ended with him coughing, deeply, the sort of hacking that made him cough up what looked like blood into a bundle of cloth on his bedside table.

“Your greatness has over-exerted himself in loving pursuits.” said the older physician. His eyes were lined with wrinkles and his hair white as snow, and somehow, still looked healthier than his Father-Emperor, as he kowtowed. “This one beseeches that his magnificence lies back and allows me to treat him.” The feathered young man immediately produced a large tray of vials and spices from his cape, handing it to his mentor, not looking up from the floor.

The Emperor exhaled, coughing out more blood and grumbled. “How long will it take you to rebalance my qi? I have taken your concoctions for three weeks, Master Li.”

The Master looked up from the ground and blinked, slowly. “You have been imbalanced for quite some time. It will take time and dedicated effort to improve your qi, and once more improve your conduit to the heavens. But you are the strength of our country, you will persevere, as you always have.”

The Emperor groused. “Taoist cryptics.” But nevertheless, he made a hand gesture, dismissive and shaky, bringing them up from the lower steps, up towards his bed. Nanjun watched, with interest, as the young man, topknot coming slightly loose, quickly and efficiently ground up the spices, while Master Li reached forward and slowly pressed his fingers to the Emperor’s chest and started to knead away, old fingers defter than his age should have allowed.

Nanjun waited, quietly to the side, knowing that he hadn’t been dismissed. The smell of illness and stagnancy hadn’t left the room, and his stomach churned, uneasy in the worst of ways, as the Emperor’s face turned more red and blotchy under Master Li’s touch. The strange concoction the young man was making, finally finished, and they exchanged glances, as the Emperor grudgingly drank it, sounding a little like he was choking.

The young man’s face was impassive, clearly practiced at being expressionless, but some sort of understanding passed between them anyway, before he clambered down from the steps, back down to where lowest ministers would stand.

“Nanjun.” The Emperor called. “Come back here and recite me more poems soon.”

“Always, my father-emperor.” Nanjun said, softly, recognizing the dismissal for what it was. “I will take your leave now, and pay my respects to Haoxi.”

The Emperor said nothing, just coughed, and Nanjun quietly departed from his personal quarters, his stomach roiling. As soon as he was out in the fresh air of the outside, only the light fragrance of orange blossoms drifting through the air, Nanjun placed one hand against the palace wall and bent over, clutching his heart and tried to not throw up, shaking off the concerned glances from the palace guards and lower eunuchs.

Dying. The Emperor was dying. And the court was not yet in Haoxi’s favour. It was too early: he, Shuozhen and Haoxi hadn’t been moving fast enough, and everything was happening too fast. He had been gone too long. He could feel the goosebumps rise over his skin, as the breeze curled up under his sleeves and he couldn’t help but worry for the future, for all of their futures.

But just as quickly as the nausea had risen, it faded, as Nanjun remembered that Haoxi had been dealing with this news for longer than he had. And was somehow still standing, despite his often-delicate disposition towards stress.

He couldn’t do this. He had to go and see Haoxi, present his report about Sichuan, and see the court. He straightened his robes, made sure his hat was balanced properly over his topknot, before sweeping down to the steps, towards the main throne room, trying to school his expression, to be as emotionless and unfazed as the young, beautiful, Taoist physician he’d seen today.

-

Nanjun had just managed to sneak into the ending of the first session, and although he wasn’t in his usual position, and had missed his chance to report, Nanjun was secretly relieved. He didn’t not feel fit to stand in front of the court today. Haoxi had noticed him anyway, even if most of the ministers had been oblivious to his return and they’d exchanged looks, before Haoxi had been called back to pay attention to the petitioning. It hadn’t said much, and Nanjun had been able to see no signs of anything except a bored coiled vigour in Haoxi—but his brother had always been good at concealing his emotions when necessary.

He would not know if his brother was stressed until after the session was over.

Haoxi stretched languidly upwards, as the session ended and the bells rung, and stood up from his chair slowly, as the ministers and noblemen swept away, chattering endlessly about Haoxi’s decisions to keep labour tax to only a month[6]. The only ones who remained, in the empty chamber, were the vying brother-princes, eyes narrowed and furious in the centre plateau.

“Crown Prince Ju, with all due respect, we have great need of labour to repair the Grand Canal. It has started to break down near Canton. Please reconsider.” called Prince Bai, his large eyebrows furrowed. “You will not get the repairs done in time without extra labour tax.”

“Hire men to do the job, and cut down on the money you skim off the top of the construction fund. Surely, the spices you get from Java are more important than stuffing more gold coins inside your bursting coffers?” challenged Haoxi, standing up tall, chin tilting down towards him. “I will not court revolution because of your greed.”

“You believe your control is so weak over them that there will be a revolution? Isn’t that your weakness, instead of ours?” asked Prince Fu, sneering.

Haoxi looked around the room, once twice, and coolly regarded them. “My weakness? I’m glad you think of me as a Crown Prince after all, I was starting to wonder, brother dearest. But I do not see it as my weakness. After all, is it not I who stands in this seat, while you stand below me? I have gained power through caution, and it is caution I apply again. Mark my words, brother, and pay your workers. It is always money that motivates peasants to grow angry, and I will not be brought down over something so small.”

The princes looked ready to argue, but the eldest of the group, Prince Feng shook his head. “I would think it will be you that regrets, Crown Prince Ju.” He inclined his head, in a shallow bow, before sweeping out of the hall. The other princes followed, all ignoring Nanjun as they left, except for Prince Fu, who sneered and attempted to bump into him, childishly. Nanjun moved away and pulled a face of annoyance.

The hall was finally mostly empty, and Haoxi’s haughty expression dropped, as he met Nanjun’s gaze. The brother who had hugged Nanjun and got into trouble with him throughout their childhood had returned, and he looked exceptionally exhausted now, in the bright sunlight of the afternoon.

From behind the curtain, Yunqi drew out, holding a cup of something steaming and hot. Tea? Or medicine? Nanjun didn’t dare ask, as he came up close to the main dais. Haoxi drained the cup in one gulp, and returned the cup to Yunqi, their fingers lingering on the edges of the cup, barely brushing, before Yunqi nodded towards Nanjun, in acknowledgement, and pulled back into the background.

The eunuch rarely spoke outside of Haoxi’s private quarters, and although Nanjun disliked that tendency (for Yunqi’s sharp tongue was always quite amusing and enlightening), he understood why.

“I have returned, Haoxi.” Nanjun said, softly.

Haoxi’s smile touched the corners of his mouth, bright-eyed and warm. “Welcome home, Nanjun. Visited Father first, I presume?"

“Yes.” Nanjun murmured. “He's a little cranky, isn't he?” Perhaps not the whole truth, but when his brother looked like the weight of the world was on his shoulders, Nanjun felt the need to wait.

Haoxi nodded, brushing back a few stray strands of hair escaping from underneath his headdress. “That's his perpetual mood, these days. I'm surprised he was like that for you though, he's always liked you better.”

Nanjun made to protest, but Haoxi shook his head, quietly, smiling ruefully, “It has been a long day.” And that ended all thoughts at refuting him. Nanjun met his look and they silently left the main room. “But a pleasant one, yes?” asked Haoxi, looking up towards the sun, the furrows in his eyebrows relaxing a little, in the pleasant warmth. He was someone who took his strength from the sun. A dragon-king, if there had ever been one. [7]

“Yes. Spring at Chang’an is truly the most beautiful.” Nanjun answered, feeling a small touch of happiness. His royal brother’s happiness was his own, in a way that Shuozhen’s never would be. “Have the maple trees blossomed yet in Mother-Consort’s gardens?”

“Not yet.” Haoxi said, with a shrug, “But I suspect that now you’re back, they will flourish upon your return and your visiting her.”

Bringing a sleeve up to his mouth, Nanjun laughed. “Have you been speaking with Shuozhen-gege too much? You have started to sound like him.”

“It is rather the other way around.” Haoxi murmured, amused. “Shuozhen-gege has entirely too many things to say and it is my fate to have to listen to it all. How then, tell me, do I escape the peculiarities of his speech?”

“By not listening to him, of course.” Nanjun responded promptly, startling a wide, bright laugh from Haoxi, his lips spreading into a heart-shaped grin. It wasn’t quite true, of course, he listened well to Shuozhen always, but the multifaceted, scheming ways of Shuozhen had never been so attractive to Nanjun as they were to Haoxi, so he’d never been tempted to replicate his speech.

“Your filial piety is truly astounding.” Haoxi teased, but his tone was anything but chiding, as his steps took a different bounce to them, as they walked through the city, servants and courtiers alike bowing as they passed. Haoxi waved to all of them, or nodded, and stopped to engage a few in polite conversations, about their families, about what they were carrying, what they planned to do when work was over. Nanjun stood at the side for all of this. Let his brother do his work, the work of the sunshine prince. He enjoyed his brother at work, enjoyed how his brother blossomed when talking to people one-on-one. How he looked at them like they mattered. That was important.

It was as they rounded on the palace-complexes, behind the main governmental structures of the Palace, that Haoxi finally stopped working, turning back to Nanjun, a light apologetic look in his eyes. “How are my distant mother and father?” he asked, gently, nodding to the guards, as they walked over the threshold.

“Doing well, there are few problems on our estate, at least.” Nanjun murmured and tugged at a loose thread on the inside of his sleeve, at the small white lie he was telling. “They asked after you, and I said you were stressed, but not altogether unwell. Mother sent tea and sweets and a very long letter that I suggest you read instantly.”

He pulled the parchment from the clip attached to his jinro and carefully handed it to Haoxi, who picked it up gingerly, looking rather displeased by the prospect of reading it[8]. “Yes, yes.” Haoxi muttered, “As if my mother here doesn’t already try to make me relax. How do I have time to relax, Nanjun? There is a kingdom to rule, and I do not have the authority to rule it, so long as my brothers still see me as replaceable.”

“I do not see you as replaceable.” Nanjun said, dryly, stopping to smell one of the orange blossoms leaning out of one of the Imperial consort’s houses.

“Yes, well you are my other self, not my brother.” Haoxi said, and his grin was equally amused, before it crumpled a little. He came closer to Nanjun, and his voice lowered, hushed and barely audible, as the breeze swept past them. “Brother, I am scared. Just one topple, one crack in my power and everything comes collapsing. Everything I have worked so hard for will vanish because of our Father's ill health.”

Those words chilled his heart, and it took a moment for him to summon up the words to comfort his brother. “Vanish?” asked Nanjun, quietly. “I think not. You and Shuozhen have been laying the foundations for a long and prosperous Empire. All we need to do now is speed up the laying of the bricks—or hire more bricklayers.”

Haoxi looked to Nanjun and his eyes narrowed. “You think I should sway more people to my side.” The unspoken thing was ‘like Shuozhen’ and Nanjun realized perhaps, Shuozhen had underplayed the nature of their conflict.

“Not with money or other such things.” Nanjun said, with a shrug. “But it is a thought. Shuozhen has even been making nice with the Piaos, isn’t that a surprise?”

Haoxi looked grumpy. “Let Shuozhen-ge do what he wishes, I could not stop him if I tried. But my main concern always has, and always will be my treacherous brothers and their schemes to undermine me. It takes all of my effort. I have no time for anything else. Do you know what Prince Feng had challenged me with in the time you have not been here?”

"What has he done, brother dear?" asked Nanjun, a little wearily. It wasn't that he didn't sympathize with Haoxi's hatred of their bothers: truly, Prince Feng, the previous Crown-Prince, and Prince Fu, his younger brother, were some of the most stuck-up and egoistic people in the whole palace, with a particular hatred of Haoxi and Nanjun for taking their places as the favoured children. But Nanjun was more inclined to spite them by ignoring them, that fight them, like Haoxi had done all their childhood, and continued to pursue as an adult.

Haoxi turned almost red in anger, as they passed by their mother's palace, waving hi to the maids, briefly. "He accused me of plotting to destroy our country and letting foreigners invade, because I wanted to reconsider having standing armies! Can you believe his nerve? He tried to bring you and Sorghagta into it too, said that you were conspiring with the Xueyantuo tribe to bring us all down and that was what you were doing in Sichuan! Luckily, the censorate told him to stop making baffling claims with no evidence, with threat of expulsion from the court for a year, but people were believing him for a few days!"

Nanjun shook his head. "Bored people with no time will talk and talk, but you mustn't listen. He's bitter and desperately wants to seem relevant. It is because you attack to viciously back, that he continues to pull stunts like these. He knows he can affect you in this way."

Frowning, Haoxi walked down the path towards his palace, feet resounding heavily against the walkway. "You sound like Shuozhen-ge, utterly dismissive. He is a genuine threat to my character, Nanjun. He has influence still from when he was Crown Prince, and many wish he would return to that position. The more he destroys my character, the more he has to gain. I must tackle him."

Nanjun frowned as they entered Haoxi’s palace, finally, and a few of his personal eunuchs rushed to greet them and take their overcoats. He didn’t quite know how to phrase this, so he let the eunuchs and Haoxi quickly converse about tea, refreshments and the state of his garden, as he ruminated.

“Let’s sit outside.” Nanjun interjected, before Haoxi asked for his sitting room to be cleared. Haoxi gave him a look, but acquiesced, as the eunuchs led them out to his garden pavilion.

Haoxi waited for Nanjun to gather his thoughts, something Nanjun was grateful for.

“I think.” Nanjun said, finally, “That in this tunnel vision where only your brothers stand, you have tied yourself to the falling tree, because you can only see the growling tigers at night.” Haoxi frowned, his mouth curling into the triangle of displeasure that meant somebody else would suffer, but let Nanjun continue. “Your brothers are the closest to you. I understand that they seem most urgent, but if they are tigers that prowl in the night, they will become harmless if you remove their teeth. The aristocrats are their teeth, their army and their coffers. If you take away the support of the aristocrats, what can your brothers do to you except growl? Their words mean so much in court, because there are people who they have paid to listen, and who spread rumours further.”

Haoxi’s expression now looked more guarded and more contemplative at once, but the pout had not left his lips. “You want to tackle aristocrats first.”

Nanjun felt something cold seize his heart and he couldn’t help but look down to the scroll still hidden within his sleeves. Before he was immediately forced to answer, Yunqi came out again, eyebrows arched. “You have a guest.”

Haoxi’s face lit up. “Who is it?”

“You requested Taiheng to come by once more, did you not?” Yunqi asked, voice pointedly high-pitched. “Did you forget such desires already?”

“Who knows what or what not I’ve forgotten? You’re my mind for a reason, dear Yunqi.” Haoxi murmured, with a wide grin that showed how amused he was. “Send him in.”

Nanjun blinked, curious for whom Haoxi was willing to interrupt their serious conversation. It wasn’t much like Haoxi, who valued his privacy with Nanjun and understood the value of small conversations. But as the boy with the beautifully proportioned face turned the corner, to bow deeply at Haoxi’s feet, Nanjun felt his toes curl a little in surprise.

Haoxi was so familiar with the unknown, beautiful boy. How had that occurred?

“Taiheng, this is Zheng Nanjun, my illustrious brother. Nanjun, this is Taiheng, one of Father’s newest Taoists. Master Li’s apprentice.” Haoxi introduced, waving a hand upwards, so Taiheng would arise.

“We’ve met.” Nanjun said, nodding his head, but jerking in surprise when Taiheng looked up and boldly met his gaze, without any fear of norms. His eyes were a bright warm brown, and Nanjun couldn’t help but smile upon catching another glimpse of that perfect face.

“Taiheng, you still haven’t bought a pipa yet, have you?” asked Haoxi, grandly, leaning forward to pour him tea, a surprisingly informal movement.[9]

“No, Prince Ju,” he said, and Nanjun was surprised that such a beautiful young man had such a deep, melodious voice, “I have yet to find one in the market to my satisfaction.”

“A picky man.” Haoxi said, amused. “Yunqi, get me the pipa we gave to Taiheng last time. I want to hear more music.”

A musician, as well as a Taoist’s apprentice? Nanjun gave Taiheng a sidelong look, trying to not stare and be impolite. He looked the part of a musician certainly, with the kohl around his eyes and his beautiful hair. Nanjun could even see him as a courtesan-musician with his slightly peaceful smile and colourful drapery. Were it not for the cape of feathers draped over his shoulders, Nanjun would never have seen this man as a serious scholar of the Dao.

“Nanjun.” Haoxi’s gaze turned back to Nanjun, the sleeves of his robes brushing to rosewood chair. “You want to tackle aristocrats first, then?” He sounded much more open to this idea now, for some reason. Nanjun didn’t question it, Haoxi’s moods were famously temperamental, and he didn’t wish to change this one.

“I do. I think if we are in a hurry, breaking your brothers’ powerbase is crucial. Target the military generals first. Anybody who isn’t on your side, understand them better and make sure they can be swayed to you. Not by money, but by intellect.” Nanjun said, taking a slow sip from his tea. “Anybody less moraled than you can fill their coffers and pay a man. If a man’s loyalty is decided by money, then he is worthless.”

“You seem to be under the impression I would bribe somebody at all.” Haoxi countered.

“You’ve considered it before.” Nanjun said, looking pointedly away, an action that made Haoxi scoff, lowly under his breath, and make a noise that clearly expressed his reluctant agreement. Nanjun turned back and looked at him. “Haoxi…you’re sure there’s no way for our Father-Emperor to recover?”

Haoxi looked to Taiheng, who had been playing with some of the daisies growing in the grass, seemingly unconcerned with their conversation. “Taiheng. My father. Tell Nanjun what you told me.”

Taiheng looked momentarily confused, before his eyes cleared, and something about his demeanour seemed to change. The softness around his shoulders seemed to melt away, and his gentle smile turned into a smirk. “Three physicians before Master Li examined the Emperor before this, and none of them saw it, right?” he asked, quietly, turning to look both of them in the eye, brazenly for someone who did not seem to have any aristocratic background. “Even my Master was close to not seeing it. But anybody in the brothel quarter, or the ports could have told you. Yellow skin, nausea, swollen limbs, redness, fatigue…” Taiheng shrugged and finished his tea, quietly. “Acute liver imbalance. To be blunt, he’s a drunkard, and had somebody recognized this before, he might have gotten better. As it is…my master and I can only try to reduce his pain before he dies. No way to balance his qi anymore.”

Nanjun stared in abject horror at how matter-of-fact Taiheng was about this. This was their godly-mandated leader, on the deathbed, and. He had called him a drunkard. Even if it was the truth (and it was the truth, Nanjun knew his father’s love for wine), it was said without emotion. Without feeling.

The perfect disassociation from the world
A white plumage drifts across the veil.

“And so.” Haoxi said, quietly, draining his own tea-cup, with a mournful look in his eyes. “He passes away quietly, and the Jade Emperor gains another courtier for his glorious court.”

“And so we move.” Nanjun murmured. If Haoxi so firmly believed it, and Shuozhen so firmly believed it, what choice did he have but to believe? “How much time do we have, then, Taiheng? Before he passes?”

Taiheng shrugged, lightly, smiling at Yunqi, as Yunqi came back with the beautiful carved lute. “As long as we can manage. My Master doesn’t often prolong such a painful existence, but we will do our best. I think I can get you three months.”

It wasn’t enough time, Nanjun knew, exchanging stricken gazes with Haoxi. But it was better than nothing, better than the Emperor dying.

“Who else knows?” Nanjun asked, carefully.

“That he’s only got three months left because of Master Li and I? Everybody in this room. Lord Jin, perhaps..?” asked Taiheng, carefully, and Haoxi nodded in confirmation. “But the fact that he’s close to dying is evident to anybody who visits him. That’s you, Crown Prince, First Prince, Fifth Prince, Twelfth Prince, Noble Consort, Humble Consort, Faithful Consort--not the Empress, notably.” Taiheng said, counting off his fingers, carelessly.

Nanjun nodded, slowly. Not too many people knew what Taiheng was doing. For the best, people had to think there was no telling exactly how long the Emperor would pull through.

And then a voice, surprisingly similar to Shuozhen’s, whispered in the back of his head, uncomfortably loud; why does the Taoist defy his established norm for Haoxi? Nanjun hated that his brother’s thinking had affected him so much, but he couldn’t help but ask. “What then do you desire, for such a favour?”

Taiheng’s eyes widened in surprise, as if he hadn’t expected to be asked that, and Haoxi shot him a look, equal parts amused and confused. Nanjun wondered. With such a reaction, had he not been expecting a reward? Despite his commoner status, he hadn’t been attempting to claw his way up the ladder by demanding favours? Strange indeed.

“Yes, Taiheng, Nanjun’s right, this is a favour you are doing for me. Tell me what you wish in return. I reward those who serve me well.” Haoxi said, seriously.

Taiheng hummed, and strummed his pipa, lightly, the sound echoing through the bright air, melodious and resounding. Nanjun couldn’t look away from the way his long, slender fingers settled on the thin strings. “I don’t know, really, th-that’s a lot. An interesting story I guess? About you.” His eyes twinkled, in amusement, and he made Haoxi laugh, bright and clear at the simplicity of the request.

Nanjun’s eyes narrowed. That really was a remarkable fast way to get to Haoxi’s heart. Haoxi treasured those who didn’t solely value monetary gifts. Huh. And he was a commoner?

“An interesting story?” asked Haoxi, tilting his head to the side. “But there are so many.”

“Taiheng-er, have you heard the story of how Crown Prince Ju and Lord Zheng came to be related?” asked Yunqi, quietly, from where he stood behind Haoxi, adjusting his long dark sleeves. It was always comical to Nanjun that Yunqi’s clothes were intended as a way to help him blend into darkness and seek out secrets, but that he was eternally foiled by his pale white skin, that gleamed, even in low light.

“No, Yunqi-ge.” said Taiheng, leaning forward. “Is it fun?”

“Why don’t you judge?” asked Yunqi, quietly, and at Haoxi’s nod, he took a seat next to Nanjun, curling his heels under his knees. Taiheng looked uncertain about whether to play or not, but Yunqi nodded, humming a starting chord, bright and calm. “It starts before they were both born. I was but a babe myself, but everyone in the Palace knows the story of the two sun-blessed children.”

Taking a sip from his tea, Nanjun settled back, and let Yunqi’s low, gruff tones, and the gentle, serene strumming of Taiheng’s pipa wash over him, and lull him into the rhythm of a story he knew all too well.

“In the most beautiful blossom of spring that had been seen in the land for forty years, the Noble Consort Ju and the Lady Jin became with child, a glorious time for both families. It was the Emperor’s fifth son, and the Jin family’s second son, and there was nothing but joy through the Capital, passing through the wind as swiftly as a God. As the time came near for them both to deliver, they both went vacationing at Mount Jianling. It was here the two women became the best of friends, as only pregnant women can, discussing everything under the son, and their own hopes for their families. It was a pure friendship, which they determined to not break, once their children were born. The gods must have been listening to their deepest hearts.”

“The day came when they were to give birth, a rich dusky autumn night, with curling red leaves whipping away in cold winds, and a thin overcast of rain. But suddenly, as the women felt the pull of childbirth, the sky fell, and the sound of thunder and lightning ran clear. A storm engulfed them, blinding friend and foe alike, until the mountain was filled only with confusion and worry.”

“As the dawn rose, and the rain stilled, two children had been born, two beautiful baby boys at the same time. But amidst the darkness and the panic, neither women knew which child was their own. Distressed, they rushed back to the Capital together, and presented their children before their husbands. The Emperor, a wise and just man, looked down upon the children, but in their red faces, and chubby cheeks, saw no hints as to which child was his, and which child was Lord Jin’s.”

“It was too early yet, to determine whether the choosing ceremony would differentiate their children, and the Emperor was tempted to disregard both children, until they gurgled happily at the sight of him, almost singing at his presence. Heart swayed by their recognition of his godliness, the Emperor decided he could not make a decision immediately. Instead, he called that these children be raised both as his, and as Lord Jin’s, to be shared between them equally, until the children were old enough to distinguish between them.”

“The boys grew up happily, despite being split between two childhoods, and the family of the Emperor and the Jin family grew closer together, in their mutual confusion and love for their children. They hoped perhaps, to differentiate between their children at the zhuazhou. Surely, the future Prince would choose glory and temperance, and the future Jin would find a life of prosperity. But both children slowly, haltingly reached for the thread of long life, and green onions of intelligence [10]. The children made no differentiation, and they were not yet old enough to look different, and so, they were raised harmoniously together, for some time more.”

“Despite jealousy from others, the children grew together, even if they were as opposite in personality as they were similar in looks. Haoxi as bright and commanding as the sun, and Nanjun as glimmering and collected as the moon. Where Haoxi played warrior outside with the other princes, Nanjun retreated to read all day and follow the courtiers around where he could. And yet, despite their differences, they loved each other dearly and never let each other go, all knobbly knees and solidly carved dimples. They wormed their way into the hearts of the entire kingdom.”

“By the time they were thirteen years old, their looks were undeniable. Haoxi had grown into his sharp nose and wide ears, where Nanjun had grown into broad shoulders and square jaws. The King should have relieved Nanjun of his princehood and declared Haoxi as his favoured son. But he loved Nanjun’s tenderness and intelligence dearly, and found himself unable to do so. Nanjun was no longer a Prince, yes, but he remained an esteemed member of the Royal Family, welcome to the Palace whenever he pleased. And together, he and Haoxi grew to become the wisest and most suitable princes of all.”

Yunqi’s voice thrummed in the air, low and solemn, as his eyes opened once more. Nanjun clapped politely, as did Haoxi, even as they exchanged slightly embarrassed looks. The story of their birth and their circumstances were popular gossip, so they had endured this story’s retelling often. Still, it didn’t make it any less embarrassing to hear again, in any case.

Taiheng’s eyes glimmered and he smiled at them both. It was a strange sort of acknowledgment, and Nanjun smiled back, a little nervously, as Haoxi bought the subject matter towards Yunqi’s own embarrassing stories among the other eunuchs, of his stutters and the time he’d first tripped over his own robes, trying to deliver something to the Empress.

Taiheng’s eyes revealed nothing. Who was this man to so entrance his brother?

-

At home, Nanjun relaxed into his bath feeling the stresses of the days wear away inside the carved wooden tub. The orange and jasmine scented water helped loosen the tautness of his muscles, and eased his mind, allowing him to float away into a sort of incense-hazed reminiscing.

His childhood had been peaceful, all things considering. Perhaps his parents had worried more, about the fickleness of the Emperor, and the inevitable revoking of their status, but Nanjun had never really worried much about it. He'd never worried about money or status or accumulation of power like they must have inevitably done. He’d split his time between Sichuan and Chang’an, but he’d very clearly preferred running around within the confines of the Palace, reading whichever books and poetry he could get his hands on, and impressing scholars enough to give him money. Sichuan, even as a child, had never been enough to satisfy him.

The wonders of the Palace and Chang’an had been far more interesting than the quiet serenity of his parent’s estate, and the mountainous terrain bordered by the fertile rolling fields of rice.

He’d always been interested by the outer world, the dusty roads of the steppe, out into the foreign countries of dusky spices and whatever exotic foods and stories rolled up to their shores, in the large boats. Nanjun’s favourite place to sneak out to had always been the ports, and because Shuozhen was old enough to go out there alone, he’d always tried to piggy-back onto those visits outwards.

The murmur of foreign languages intertwining together underneath the ever-churning canal water had become something of a lullaby knell to a young Nanjun. He’d bought books he couldn’t understand, just to stare at the golden illustrated pictures, and had demanded that various travelers who came to the palace would draw him a personal map that Nanjun could pore over in bed, late at night, when the servants didn’t know he was awake. He’d listened hungrily at the doors of servants and lords and ministers, to hear stories about other countries, of their strange religions, and funny politics and simple differences in custom.

But most of all, he’d loved the smell of foreign food and spices, permeating throughout the house. Mother-Consort and Father-Emperor believed that too much indulgence in food outside of festival feasts was excessive indulgence and didn’t allow it very often, but one time, an extraordinary ceremony had been held, with one of the tribute kings of the south coming up in a huge ensemble, ready to bow at the Emperor’s feet.

Nanjun had been sent to oversee the unloading of some of the foreign food, seen as the most responsible of the Emperor’s children, despite being one of the youngest (he’d been proud at the time, not really realizing just how much of a snub to his older siblings it had been) and of course, he and Haoxi had gone together, because an honour conferred upon one of them was an honour conferred upon both of them.

Among the fish he didn’t recognize, and the strange millet noodles, and the smell of sweet fruits that didn’t grow so easily away from the strange humid weather of the south, Nanjun and Haoxi had stood amazed.

He and Haoxi had both been unable to resist stealing a peach from the shipment when the huge box of them had been unloaded. They’d bit into them immediately, sweet juice trickling down their cheeks, and staining their robes and hands with creamy juice. It had been the sort of simultaneous action done by instinct, so quickly and spontaneously, when they’d both turned to look each other and seen their symmetry, they could do nothing but laugh. The servants had stared at them while unloading, these two teenagers bent-over laughing in the middle of the corridor, half-eaten peaches in their hands, and juice staining their face.

It was one of Nanjun’s most precious memories.

With his love for the foreign, he supposed, it had made sense to go up to the North to win Sorghagta’s hand and court peace for the kingdom. But still. Nanjun wondered, sometimes, how different his life would be without her influence hampering him.

But it had never been Sorghagta’s problem that he was lonely sometimes.

The water had gone cold, somewhere amongst his reminiscences, and the scented steam had drained from the air. Shivering a little, in sudden realization of how long he’d been in the water, Nanjun arose and strived to forget the wave of exhaustion that came upon him.

-

Underneath the light of the moon, Nanjun made his way through the streets of Chang’an. His household had offered him a palanquin, still worried about his overexertion since his return to the Palace, but the night air had been pleasant, and Nanjun had waved them off.

He’d often gone walking with Jiuguo in the evenings, in the past, spent leisurely hours wandering and discussing the books that Jiuguo had been reading. Although Nanjun had always attempted to keep it an even discussion, it always inevitably devolved into Nanjun giving a long lecture about the subject matter, and Jiuguo nodding with interest, attempting to take notes along the inside of his forearms.

He would miss that, now that Jiuguo was on his way towards becoming a real man. There was nothing so special as the relationship between a teacher and an apprentice, not in the whole world. Even a man and wife could rarely reach that level of devotion and love.

Nanjun would always be sad that he’d never had a single teacher to dedicate himself to, only court tutors, whose attentions were divided among many. But it was something of the past, and his relationship with Jiuguo was enough to make him feel warm inside, anyway.

A small servant teen ran past Nanjun, chasing after a dog, and Nanjun laughed gently as they went by, breaking his reverie a little.

He liked the way the city looked at night, especially in these safer rich areas, filled with small teahouses and the lights of the servant houses, within the larger complexes. Away from the larger bustle of the music houses and the red-light district, where most young men his age liked to tarry, the city’s softer side unfolded like the night-blossoms. The lanterns swung in the light spring breeze, and the laughter of people resounded from within complexes. The stars twinkled above them, a constant reminder of the blessings of the gods, and the smell of delicious food dominated the air.

It was easily Nanjun’s favourite time of day, and he reveled in it, on his way to Shuozhen’s house. After a nice warm bath, the night felt milder, and being able to actually use his feet was nice.

After a long day of trying to sort out disputes about how the Ministry of Rites were to mark all of the papers created by the nationwide exams in such a short period of time with the Secretariat, and deal with all of the people trying to badger him about any hints for who would be awarded with promotions at the upcoming Feast, as if he was part of the Ministry of Personnel....

Nanjun was rather happy to just walk, instead of kneel and attempt to keep his face blank and calm.

He hated kneeling in court, he truly believed it was nothing more than a distasteful waste of time. Under his father-Emperor, he’d only ever been called when the Ministry of Rites wanted a representative who understood the ways of most of the religions in the empire, and how to appease all of them, while also promoting Buddhism in the official ways. He’d otherwise spent most of his time writing poetry, or exchanging correspondence with interesting Masters of religion, from within the safe confines of the Bureau of Rites. But now, Haoxi called him as if he was the head of the Ministry of Rites, and it was increasingly frustrating.

He wanted to talk with the Master Li, who was treating his father-Emperor, and speak with him about the Way. He wanted to continue his letter correspondence with the Hindu scholar who lived now in Samarkhand. He wanted to hear more about the strange sect of religion called Jainism that was coming from the Turcs. He wanted to read more about the mysterious cities of Baghdad and write something beautiful in response.

Instead….

Nanjun exhaled, and rubbed his fingers together. He couldn’t do this. Haoxi needed him to keep calm in the bureaus already loyal to them, and constantly keep searching for more relevant alliances, even if Nanjun hated this work. He had to do this, and complaining about it would only make it more difficult to withstand. No. He had to stop this.

The wise one remains silent even in thought and finds happiness within even the smallest alcove,
Like a clam taking shelter from relentless waves

Nanjun smiled, gently to himself, before sniffing the air, curiously. The strong scent of heavy spices filled the air, and Nanjun knew that it could only be Shuozhen’s party. It smelled like the richest of fishes, cooked in the foreign ways, and now Nanjun was terribly excited, and picked up his pace, smile spreading across his face.

The guards nodded to him, as he stepped through the gates, and Nanjun paused momentarily to admire the golden folded cranes that hung from the door. Beautiful work, he wondered if the beautiful Lady Xuanmei had folded them, or if another servant had been in charge of them?

The sound of erhu drifted through the beautifully aromatic flowers, and Nanjun wondered whether he would find Jiuguo intertwined with the thickest bush of flowers, later tonight? His apprentice’s obsession with the perfect scent would never fail to amuse him, maybe he would point him in the direction of Shuozhen’s orchids, if Jiuguo hadn’t found them already?

Ducking under the heavy bows of cherry blossoms, Nanjun stepped up into the main pavilion, crowded with servants running around with large wicker baskets of food, and guests mingling. Some he recognized, the ministers and bureaucrats under Shuozhen in the Ministry of Finance and other high-ranked bureaucrats who were simultaneously aristocrats. Others were mysteries to Nanjun, but with darker skin and different cuts of robes, Nanjun surmised they were likely Shuozhen’s foreign business partners. He nodded lightly to them, gently, until he spotted a familiar face.

Piao Zhimin and Jiuguo speaking was a little strange, but Nanjun had heard of stranger friendships. He headed towards them and came up on them, just in time to hear them laugh about the faux-pas Shen Jui had taken during the boat-racing events earlier than year.

Gege, Zhimin-ge says that the boat races are entirely uncouth! Tell him he’s wrong!” said Jiuguo, voice loud, but smile wide, clearly not meaning much of what he was saying.

“Perhaps uncouth, with quite how many noble children tumble into the water because they haven’t practiced enough, but. Rather entertaining nonetheless, don’t you think?” asked Nanjun, lightly, turning his best smile on Piao Zhimin.

Dressed in a beautiful green that only made his returning smile pop, Zhimin nodded, slyly. “Well, there are moments I find to enjoy…” he nodded, gently, and turned to Jiuguo expectantly.

Jiuguo’s mouth dropped open a moment, in realization, before he quickly continued forward, to try and cover up his slight forgetfulness. “Zhimin-ge, I’d like to officially introduce you to my mentor and good elder brother, Zheng Nanjun. Nanjun-ge, this is Piao Zhimin, one of the youngest military personnel to make such a name for himself!”

“I have heard many good things, from the most unlikely places. Surely, you must be formidable. It is my pleasure, Piao Zhimin.” said Nanjun, gently.

“No, the pleasure is mine. I’ve read some of your poems and it is truly an honour to meet someone who is such a wordsmith. My favourite is the Crow’s Rise?” Zhimin’s eyes practically sparkled, and he smiled, genuinely intense, and yet, somehow entirely artificial at once. Nanjun marveled at it, and conceded to recite it, as Zhimin clearly was expecting. No wonder Shuozhen liked him.

“In the dawn, a crow shakes off dew,
Preening beak glints off fading lanterns.
Exhausted from the revelries of the night past,
He does not notice the pike creep upwards.”

Jiuguo clapped, lightly, though with little enthusiasm, having heard it several thousands of time, as Nanjun had attempted to create the most appealing rhythm. Zhimin’s clap was more enthusiastic, however, his entire body language reading nothing but intense interest and amazement.

“Wow, much better when you say it.” Zhimin said, with a slightly wistful smile. “I’ve always wished that the gods blessed me with the art of words, but I know only how to make a sword move.”

“A beautiful artistry in itself.” Nanjun said, shaking his head lightly. “When applied during peacetime, especially.”

Zhimin’s eyes crinkled, and it was truly beautiful, and had Nanjun not seem Shuozhen and Jiuguo speaking so intimately earlier that week, he would have surmised that Shuozhen had taken him for a lover instead. “Your words bolster me and flatter me. With such a mentor, no wonder Jiuguo is such a cutie?” he asked, and his tone rather mischievous, as he pinched Jiuguo’s cheek.

Jiuguo squawked, quite indignant, but Nanjun could only laugh at his surprised apprentice. Oh, but he had missed this.

“Jiuguo has always been remarkable, even without my help.” Nanjun said instead, snaking an arm over Jiuguo’s shoulder, gently squeezing him. Jiuguo leant into him, in the easy way he always did, but with a large pout on his face. For all that his apprentice liked to complain about how Nanjun spoiled his little sister, Jiuguo was not exactly the most independent either.

Gege.” He protested, “I’m an adult now.”

“I refuse to relinquish my grasp on you until your official posting is released.” Nanjun said, stubbornly, soliciting a laugh from Zhimin, loud and delighted.

“A good teacher. Mine forgot me almost instantly, thrust me out to the wolves.” Zhimin said, flashing his perfect teeth.

“Did you not get educated by the great general Zhu Di? Surely his graciousness would not do such a callous thing?” asked Nanjun, surprised.

Zhimin tilted his head and shrugged. “Perhaps. But I think greatness in career is rarely truly a sign of good teaching. Zhu Di-teacher always believed in trial by fire creating a man out of a boy. Throw him straight into conflict, tell him to lead for fear of destroying the world, and he will, indeed, lead.”

“You have seen war, already?” asked Jiuguo, voice hushed.

“War.” scoffed Zhimin, looking a little further away. “Minor scuffles among the poor peoples. Thugs, trying to take advantage during a crisis. These sorts of things. But there is a kind of leadership in that. The most important thing that a man learns in the Army is when to show mercy.”

Nanjun winced a little, to himself, although Jiuguo looked fascinated and entwined by Zhimin’s words.

Maybe they were words of wisdom, maybe they weren’t. But Nanjun didn’t think he could stay around to listen to it. His hands twitched, and he looked around, desperately searching for a place to look, anywhere except Piao Zhimin and his understanding of the lowlands and the country away from the beautiful, precarious capital.

No wonder Shuozhen liked him,

His salvation came in the form of the beautiful Jin Xuanmei, just finishing her conversation with one of the business around the salt mines. Nanjun graciously excused himself from the conversation of law enforcement and moved over towards his sister-in-law, before she was snatched up by another.

“Xuanmei-mei.” Nanjun said, bowing his head, shallowly, “How are you?”

“Busy indeed. Shuozhen has vanished somewhere, no doubt to make some kind of dramatic entrance. Nonetheless, that means I must direct the servants…have you seen the head of the house?” Xuanmei looked slightly distracted and stressed, now that she no longer had to smile for some stranger, and it was an honesty that Nanjun cherished.

“No, but I think I saw him near the entrance. Shall I accompany you?” asked Nanjun, gently, and smiled as Xuanmei finally met his eyes, pleased and quelled.

“I would welcome it.” Xuanmei said, and Nanjun entwined his arm with hers, gently, and walked out towards her garden, away from the main clump of people.

“How have you been, brother? Your travels have left you well.” Xuanmei asked, raking her eyes over his figure.

Nanjun shrugged, carefully. “It was a fine trip. A nice one. My parents are well, and ask about you. I worry, myself.” He eyed her stature, in return. She was a slender woman, but she looked almost scarily thin, her wrists strangely bony.

“I wrote to them, I suspect it hasn’t reached them yet. But Shuozhen said the mountain pathway was blocked—they will probably have received it now. I suspect I should send them another letter after today, however.” Her cheeks pinked, brightly, and Nanjun couldn’t help but wonder…

“Perhaps you should.” Nanjun said, swallowing a little heavily and looking away, to glance out at the gardens. “Did you replant the Eastern side?”

Xuanmei looked out at the garden, momentarily, clearly glazing over them, before turning back to Nanjun, as if remembering. “Yes! Just after you left, actually. There was a shipment from out of Java—and you know Shuozhen gets when those traders bring in something new.”

There was clearly more she wanted from his response, in the way she eyed him, and Nanjun almost made her ask and break her serene front of denial. Almost. As they passed by a thick foliage, Nanjun murmured, “Sorghagta asked me to deliver a letter to you. I didn’t bring it tonight, but if you visit my house soon, I’ll pass it along.”

Xuanmei smiled, triumphantly. “Grand.” Spotting the head-of-house, she drifted away from Nanjun and as he watched her laugh at something the head-of-house gestured about something, he bit down on his lip. How many letters and things from Sichuan did he carry upon him that were secrets? How many were his?

Nanjun scoffed, quietly to himself, before turning back to the party. Sometimes, he sunk too deeply into his own self-pity.

Xuanmei returned with the head-of-house in tow, and Nanjun walked them both back to the house, hanging back as they frantically discussed the food-course arrangements, and the servants they were posting at the doors of their private chambers, so nobody would ‘accidentally’ enter them. Good tips, really.

And as they returned back to the main party, a new swell of people had joined them, a younger and more diverse crowd of people, with different features and styles of dress than the typical Chang’an way. Just as Nanjun braced himself to mingle with them, and try to see if any of them would be interesting enough to extend a correspondence with, one of the panels in the walls drew away, a billow of smoke emerging from within.

...okay, Nanjun would give Shuozhen this much. That was an intimidating entrance. And when Shuozhen came out of the smoking door, nose slightly wrinkled, but clothed in his most ornate blue robes, and extending out a golden outer-robe towards the audience, there was something rather majestic about it all. He made a beeline for Xuanmei, who looked surprised and a little abashed, as he drew up to her, and covered her shoulders with the golden robe.

“My wife and I would like to welcome all of our esteemed guests into the main room! Let us wine and dine tonight, it is a beautiful moon and you are all wonderful company. There is nothing to do but celebrate!” Shuozhen called, loudly, and there was a low chorus of excited sounds from the younger crowd.

Nanjun followed them in, unable to stop himself from noticing that most of the young people were from the noble families that were neither virulently against Haoxi but were neither on his side. A party to sway their favours then?

No. Shuozhen and Xuanmei had both acted like there was something genuinely to celebrate, beyond just potential new alliances. Nanjun didn’t need to doubt his brother: he was capable of making one thing mean several things all at once.

Nanjun took his seat right by the main head table, where Xuanmei and Shuozhen were seated. Across from him, sat an empty seat, clearly saved for Haoxi, even if he wasn’t coming. Taking a sip of rice wine, Nanjun scanned the room. Jiuguo had managed to snag a seat next to Zhimin, which seemed to suit them just fine. Across the room, a few other big names. The Feng siblings, the eldest and youngest Yuan, the prettiest Lin, scattered around and making conversation with Shuozhen’s closest friends and allies. His trading partners and friends sat lower and further away, which should have been an insult, but in the presence of this much noble blood, it made sense. Still, he hoped that Shuozhen had warned them in advance that they would not be so close to the main table, and that they were likely just attending for the food.

And it was indeed beautiful food, Nanjun mused, as the first course of a delicately decorated crab was presented to all of them. Shuozhen had really spent quite a bit of money on this, hadn’t he?

But for what? He scanned her brother’s face, from where he was enthusiastically trying to get Xuanmei to drink a little more, and she was rebuffing him, but apart from his sheer exuberant happiness, Nanjun couldn’t get a read on him.

Luckily, he didn’t need to. Giving up on coaxing his wife into drinking with him, he stood up, and cleared his throat, in that quiet but carrying way, that made the entire hall slowly quiet down.

“Friends, family, esteemed guests, Zhimin, thank you for coming.” He pulled a face at Zhimin, which only made the light-hearted Piao laugh, easily. “Tonight is a special night for me. My wonderful younger brother returns back to Chang’an, after a long travel back to do his duties! A toast, to my wiser half, Zheng Nanjun.” He held out one arm towards Nanjun, and Nanjun met the gazes of the room, nodding easily, before tossing back the contents of his glass, behind his sleeve, and showing the empty glass to the room. Everybody else followed suite, displaying their politeness back to him.

It was good rice wine, even if Nanjun wasn’t as much of a drinker as Shuozhen.

“But as much as I love my brother, he is not the only reason I am standing here tonight.” Shuozhen said, shrugging at Nanjun, a barely apologetic smile on his face.

Nanjun just returned a wry smile and paid attention. Dramatics was Shuozhen’s best currency, but double-meanings were as much so.

“No, my precious guests. Today I come to announce to you that my wife Xuanmei will soon be giving birth to a baby boy who will carry on the Jin line very soon!” he said, spreading his hands wide, clearing expecting the applause and gasped shock from the people around them all. “He is healthy, the midwife says, and will be a strong recipient of all of my wisdom! I am joyous! Joyous beyond content!”

Xuanmei smiled, widely, her eyes meeting Shuozhen in look of pure contentment. As much as she and Shuozhen were unfaithful to each other and not truly in love with each other, a child was different. A child was the fulfillment of the promise they had made to the world and to their parents. It was a truly beautiful moment.

But the wonderfully seasoned crab tasted like ashes in Nanjun’s mouth. Mechanically, he shoved a few mouthfuls into him, sure that he would have been able to appreciate it, at any other time and that his body would need it.

“How do you know it is a son?” called out one of the bolder young traders, “Your beautiful wife is not so far along, surely?”

“A mother knows!” Xuanmei said archly, across the room, and there was a smattering of laughter, especially from Shuozhen.

The second course came, steamed pork dumplings, with an aroma that should have made Nanjun water at the mouth. It was one of his favourite foods, along with crab, which meant the feast was clearly an homage to him, and not the child. But it took real effort for Nanjun to smile gently at Xuanmei’s lady friends next to him, and keep up the polite conversation about the prettiest flower gardens this year, and rumours about who was going to compete in the poetry contests, and which handsome young man would inevitably plunge into the Canal during the boat races. He didn’t have the energy to eat as well, even as the noodles, soups and laden plates of meat cascaded down the tables, along with the free-flowing stream of alcohol.

He would ask Shuozhen’s forgiveness if his brother noticed that Nanjun’s appetite was lacking—but that looked increasingly unlikely. He was occupied with teasing Xuanmei and chatting with other recent parents or parents-to-be among his crowd. Nanjun knew his brother’s capability to notice even the most minor things, but he also knew that his brother got flustered when too many things happened at once, and he wouldn’t notice this much.

So, the moment the servants cleared away the dessert plates, and Shuozhen got distracted by some of the ministers, lecherously teasing him about taking so long to conceive, Nanjun ducked outside, out into Shuozhen’s beautiful garden.

Under the pale wash of the moonlight across the garden, bleaching every flower of its natural colour and coating it in glimmering silver instead, Nanjun felt his mood only turn sourer as he wandered down, towards the small lake he knew Shuozhen had around the back of his house.

Perhaps he shouldn’t have come out, tonight.

…he couldn’t have avoided it, though. It was quite a thing to avoid a party half dedicated towards you. But his stomach churned, and the letter hidden away inside his robes seemed to burn a hole through his chest. He had really, really been planning on showing it to Haoxi eventually. Eventually.

But now?

He didn’t know.

Out by the lake, however, where Nanjun had hoped to be alone and undisturbed until the party drew to a finish, he found another person. This person had a broad back, and relatively simple robes...but abandoned on the ground was a long cape of feathers, upon which the stranger was sitting, and that was an instant identifier.

“Taiheng.” Nanjun said, quietly announcing his presence, intending only to greet him and walk away.

But the Taoist disciple’s eyes widened in surprise, as he noted Nanjun’s presence. “Ah!” he said, brightly, pointing upwards at Nanjun’s chest quickly, before realizing his error quickly, and sitting on top of his hand, abashed. “I keep forgetting you’re actually related to the Jins, not the royal family.”

“I am related to both.” Nanjun said, amused, “As Yunqi told you. But yes, my blood is Jin, even if my kin are also the royal family.”

Taiheng smiled, back at him, an absently pretty sort of smile that was more politeness than anything else. “You’re not at the main party.” He commented.

“Neither are you,” Nanjun pointed out, looking out the rippled reflection of the moon on the water, disturbed by the dragonflies zipping around.

“I’m an entertainer, not an attendee. I’ll be summoned soon to play.” Taiheng explained, tilting his head back, catching the full gleam of moonlight across his long, smooth neck. “So, I can’t eat with the guests.”

“For someone so low-class, you sure rub elbows with people in high places.” Nanjun pointed out, unable to look away from the beautiful man. He was interestingly confusing.

Taiheng shrugged, but a lazy smile spread across his face. “It’s a talent.” He said, vaguely, “Hopefully not undeserved.”

Nanjun nodded, crossing his arms. “Any scholar of the Way is worthy of conversation, regardless of their birth. That’s the point of the civil service state exam. You deserve it. It’s just surprising. My brothers have tight circles of friends, and yet you have managed to penetrate within, and gain Haoxi’s trust immediately? It’s just interesting, that’s all.”

Taiheng looked up at Nanjun for a long time, in silence, and their gazes met, finally. Taiheng’s were cool and appraising and Nanjun couldn’t help but feel entranced by the depth of his brown eyes. Taiheng’s shiny pink tongue came out to wet his lips, clearly cautious, before something seemed to shore within him. Wordlessly, Taiheng patted down on his spread-out feather cape, in a clear invitation. On any other day, perhaps Nanjun would have refused. Been cautious about this.

But his need to avoid the party was so great, and his curiosity so piqued, he couldn’t help but take the seat, carefully smoothing down his robes. “The Crown Prince needs friends in all places right now. I can be a very loyal friend if he needs me to be.” Taiheng said, with a small smile. “Command of servants is all very well, but servants are restrained to the Palace.”

“And you aren’t.” Nanjun said, realization dawning upon him. “You’re a scholar, so it’s not entirely implausible for you to be inside the Palace, especially since Master Li is treating the Emperor. And you’re low-class enough that you can stroll through almost anywhere. And you have an excuse because—”

“—I’m looking for the perfect pipa.” Taiheng said, lightly. “Or the perfect wooden dresser, or the perfect sago cake…” A smile lit up his face. “It’s quite entertaining, really.”

Nanjun laughed, lowly. “Whose idea was it? Yours?”

“No. Yunqi-ge.” Taiheng admitted, brushing back a couple of stray strands of hair from his face. “He and I are from the same hometown. My family was one of the peasant families under his estate. I knew him quite well, until. Well.”

Until Yunqi had had sex with the wrong person and been sentenced to one of the Five Punishments. Yes. There was no need to repeat other’s misfortunes when you liked them. “No wonder, then.” Nanjun said, leaning back against the feathered cape. “Yunqi always has the craftiest schemes hidden up his sleeves.”[11]

Taiheng grinned, brightly. “He’s the smartest person I know.” There was a sort of hushed awe to his voice.

“Not even compared to Master Li?” Nanjun questioned, fascinated. Sure, Yunqi had known enough to pass the civil-service exam, but Master Li had made a living out of dedicating himself to the Way.

“Master Li is wise.” Taiheng refuted, “Yunqi is smart. There’s a difference. My Master is wise, but he couldn’t survive a single day on the streets without being taken advantage of. But Yunqi could live on the streets for only a month and own them.” Clearly seeing Nanjun’s expression as one of shock, Taiheng laughed. “You’re a philosopher and a poet, so I understand it’s hard to grasp. But, like…Taoism preaches this, right? Meaning, reality, exists beyond words. Words aren’t enough, or they intentionally….untangle meaning.”

Taiheng seemed to stumble over his words sometimes, Nanjun noted. He hadn’t when talking about the Emperor’s condition, but that slow horrifying tirade had sounded like something he’d memorized. When prompted in conversation, however, language failed him. Perhaps that was why the Tao seemed so attractive to Taiheng.

You ask me the path to the Way, fisherman’s song deep within the cove.” Nanjun quoted, lightly. [12] At Taiheng’s slightly blank look. “Wang Wei. We Buddhist poets have a little understanding of how no words can ever express the way to live life. But I think we differ in the application. Just because it is impossible, doesn’t mean you should not try.”

Taiheng laughed, surprised. “It is too beautiful a night to debate philosophy, Nanjun.” He teased, gently, “Perhaps you have ingested some alcohol,” Here, he sniffed exaggeratedly to make his point, coming up close into Nanjun’s personal space without a thought, “But I’m not drunk enough for this!”

Some part of Nanjun had been wondering if Taiheng was some nobleman’s bastard son, or something, even after his explanation of knowing Yunqi. But the way Taiheng just didn’t seem remember social customs destroyed that theory. No. Taiheng truly was just a lower-class man who’d made it up here through connections and intelligence.

If that wasn’t a hope for the system already working just a little, Nanjun didn’t know what was.

Runt Bird spreads its wings to fly,
The confidence of a seasoned expert in his poise,
Cautioned experts hold their breath
Soaring swallows on the wind screech out.

“What are you smiling about?” demanded Taiheng, curiously, prodding at his hair to try and keep it within its bun, and failing to adequately tuck his hair in.

“Nothing. It’s a nice night, with unexpected company, that’s all.” Nanjun said, tilting his head. “Should I not be happy?”

Taiheng shrugged, but there was something pleased on his face anyway, as they both turned out towards the lake, hands still fussing at his hair. The dragonflies had been joined now by a large grey bullfrog, intent on grabbing every last one, and any cicadas it also heard. Nanjun loved dragonflies, but he was rather rooting for the frog to win.

Taiheng dropped his hands from his hair, giving up, and making him look more disheveled than he’d been when he’d started. He blew out a breath in annoyance, and his hair floated up and away from his rosy cheeks for a moment. It was somewhat petulant, and made Nanjun laugh, lowly.

Taiheng smiled, wryly at his own expense, before tilting his head to the side, clearly curious. “You aren’t at the party. That Lord Jin said was in your honour. Instead, you’re sitting with an off-duty musician, watching a frog eat dragonflies. Not that there isn’t beauty in this, but—why are you here?”

It was a question Nanjun wished that Taiheng wouldn’t have asked. But it was also one he should have expected, really. The Milky Way doesn’t change its colour, the mountain pass is cold, void, solitary. There is white dew in front of the courtyard, dabbling the chrysanthemums in the dark.” He murmured, gently, and this time, Taiheng seemed to realize it was a quote because he just frowned. “He’s a liar, my brother. The party is only partly for me.” He answered, instead. “And I am tired from my travels.”[13]

“Forgive my impertinence.” Taiheng said, but before Nanjun could interrupt, he continued, “That’s a lie too, though. You weren’t tired yesterday. So why today?”

Nanjun blinked. Observant. Well, he had to be, if he was a Taoist assistant, why was Nanjun surprised? “It’s complicated.” He murmured.

Taiheng looked down, and tangled his fingers within the feathers, absently, as if troubled. “You’re worried that I’ll talk, aren’t you?”

“It’s just a private thought. I don’t doubt your discretion.” Nanjun said, quickly reassuring. There was something extraordinarily melancholy about his face when downturned, instead of placidly calm.

Taiheng hummed. “It’s understandable.” He hummed, gently, before shrugging. “But I want to know anyway. Something is hurting you, and you’re the one my patrons love a lot. So. If I can help.” It was a hesitant stop-start, but there was something like hope glimmering in Taiheng’s eyes, as he placed his hand over Nanjun’s, tenderly, gently.

Nanjun’s breath caught a little in his throat, at the feeling of Taiheng’s long slender fingers over his own, so similar to his own. Callused too, though in different areas. Where Nanjun’s hands were mostly soft except for riding and writing calluses, Taiheng’s fingers were callused, but his palm remained entirely smooth. Taiheng’s fingers lightly drifted over the back of Nanjun’s hand, running over the veins there, and Nanjun could only just suppress the shudders.

“Just your patrons?” asked Nanjun, a little low, voice suddenly husky.

Taiheng just smiled, saying nothing. His fingers laced over Nanjun’s wrist, however, in a loose grasp, and that was enough for Nanjun to perfectly understand his intentions.

Nanjun had never dallied with anybody other than Sorghagta. He’d always been confused and mildly disgusted by those who took several lovers as a status symbol. But yet, as much as he loved Sorghagta, for her bright wit and her hungry love of words, so similar to his own, he’d never felt like this around her. Around any other woman or man. Nobody had managed to make him physically react as much as this one low-born Taoist scholar, who was wise and beautiful and childishly petulant.

Was he going to pursue this? He wasn’t sure. He didn’t know if it would be prudent to do anything, when the pleasant buzz of alcohol thrummed through his veins, when he was running away from his sorrows, when the moonlight was clouding his judgment and his sight. No, he would wait, to see if he still believed that this was an alluring idea in the morning, when he was less troubled.

But he did give in to the urge that had been nagging him, and reached forward to fix Taiheng’s hair, gently. At first, Taiheng looked eager, as Nanjun loosened his hair letting the black-brown strands tumble down his straight back, unruly and sleek under the silver wash of the moon. But then his face turned confused as Nanjun simply started to gather it back up, into a tighter topknot, that pulled a little tighter, and in a circular manner, instead of the bent bun Taiheng had been trying.

“This style of hair only works when your hair is short, you know.” Nanjun commented, lightly, as he wound Taiheng’s hair around the initial twist, until it was all coiled. Carefully, he stuck the bands and pins back inside, into a tight topknot that pulled away all of the hair from his face. He looked more masculine now, a stronger front, with his eyebrows on prominent display. “There. More professional, instantly.”

Taiheng’s face was placidly calm again, all emotions that Nanjun could read completely wiped away, and Nanjun’s heart twinged, in his chest.

He didn’t—he didn’t want to give this up entirely.

“My wife and I.” Nanjun started, hesitantly, turning away from Taiheng. “Having been trying for some time to have children. Her father is one of the barbarian chiefs of the North, you see, and a child would shore our country’s relationship with him fully. Reassurance that we will not betray them, because the child would carry my blood too. We’ve been married longer than Shuozhen-ge and been trying longer than Shuozhen--” He cut himself off, because his voice had gotten too loud and too fast. He tugged at the ends of his sleeves, helplessly and ducked his head. The cicadas sounded so loud, in the point-blank silence. “It should have been me. Up there. Before him. And now I can’t help but wonder, if they succeeded so quickly…why are we not?”

It was not the only problem that this announcement brought. There were other things that clouded Nanjun’s heart, about the introduction of a new, fragile Jin into the world, but. Having said this one aloud at least, had raised Nanjun’s spirits a little. Even uttering it to the world, the watching moon, and the silent Taiheng…it had been said. His jealousy was vented, and hopefully, would not grow within him.

Finally, Taiheng moved to place his hand on Nanjun’s shoulder. He said nothing, just squeezed tightly, reassuringly. Nanjun exhaled. The warm weight of that hand, the accepting, waiting hand was enough.

“Taiheng?” asked a small voice. Taiheng and Nanjun both turned rapidly away from the Lake and sprung away from each other, as if burned. A small servant boy stood before them, unfazed by their proximity. “It’s time to go in and prepare.”

They both rose, so Taiheng could dust off his beautifully feathered cape, swing them over his shoulders and disappear back towards the party.

Nanjun knew he would eventually have to go and rejoin the crowds of slightly drunken lords and ladies, if only to hear Taiheng playing, but he waited a few more solitary moments, at the edge of the small Lake, and wondered, quietly, about what he might be taking onto himself.

-

When they had been children, Shuozhen had never much liked babies. They regularly got invited to the baby parties that other lords and ladies hosted, covering their entire house in origami fish to celebrate their baby choosing their fortune, but he’d always be the worst-tempered one there.

Nanjun had always quite enjoyed them, enjoyed the environment of happiness, the general relaxation in the eyes of everybody involved, and of course, the abundant access to lavish sweets and luxury foods that the Emperor often shunned as excess within the Palace, and which his parents disliked. But Shuozhen had always been chafing at the bit; every time their whole family went to visit another, dragging his heels the whole time, and once they arrived, disappearing somewhere, until one of the household servants ousted him from the servant’s quarters for being disruptive.

Finally, after the Yuan party ended, for their very pretty baby girl, Nanjun and Haoxi had confronted Shuozhen about his tempered attitude.

(This was, before they had decided which gangly, dimpled boy belonged to the Emperor, so Haoxi, although less concerned with Shuozhen’s moods, even then, had tagged along anyway.)

“Why do you hate the babies so much?” Nanjun asked, as Shuozhen moodily played with his knives, confined within his room for his surly behavior, after getting a few raps from the bamboo rod across his back from their father.

“They’re boring and ugly and do nothing but cry and poop, what other reason do I need?” asked Shuozhen, voice a little high-strung.

“I dunno…an actual reason?” asked Nanjun, pulling a face, standing back against Shuozhen’s favourite painted screen, which only made him scowl more. Haoxi, as a good child and a great brother appeaser-clambered into Shuozhen’s lap and demanded a cuddle. “I mean.” Nanjun modified, carefully, “It’s just a big party. We go and have fun, everybody’s happy, we eat some great food and come back. Why does it annoy you so much?”

After a few moments of just quietly stroking Haoxi’s hair, instead of the knives he’d abandoned, Shuozhen shrugged. “Don’t you think it’s real weird how they display their weakness so clearly out in the open?” asked Shuozhen, quietly. “Like. The whole world can know how open and sappy and weird they get about their children? If you wanted to ruin the Yuan family, all you’d have to do is kidnap that baby. You know they’d pay the ransom for it, if they can’t catch you. They’d pay whatever amount to get that crying blob back. And they don’t even bother to hide how much it means to them.”

“Not everybody is thinking about politics all the time, like a dumb-dumb.” Haoxi intervened, with the confidence of an eight-year-old who knew everything. Nanjun had laughed in agreement at the time, but these days, Nanjun chuckled at how smug and assured his tone had been.

“Yeah, some people just like things because they like them. Not because they’re calculating how much it’ll cost them.” Nanjun had accused.

“They play the politics game too!” Shuozhen defended, hotly, “They’re just stupid. It’s not like you can’t make another baby. But they treat each baby like it’s molten gold, and then throw a party so everybody can see them do nothing but stare lovingly into its eyes. What a stupid practice, for something so dull. Why does it matter? Wow, you continued your bloodline. You did what any idiot who isn’t a eunuch can do.”

“Were you like this when we were born?” asked Haoxi, amused at how red Shuozhen’s face had been turning, but also just a little worried.

“Ehh.” Shuozhen said, squeezing Haoxi around the middle, “You two were actually interesting and all. The intrigue of who was who’s son was pretty funny. And then your naming ceremony confused all of the adults and that was funnier. It wasn’t nearly so sappy, either, everybody was mostly just confused, so. You’re my favourite children.” Then he grinned, like only a fourteen-year old could. “You still looked really, really ugly though. Good to know nothing’s changed.”

Of course, it turned into a minor scuffle between the two, in which Shuozhen only just managed to make it out victorious, as Nanjun watched, egging on Haoxi. In return, Haoxi demanded that Shuozhen make a promise that he and Nanjun were his favourite babies, in return for the most expensive fruit.

(this was a promise that paid off four years later, when after Shuozhen shed a tear at the birth of maybe the prettiest baby girl to the Lins, Haoxi received three ridiculously sized boxes overflowing with pomegranates in recompense. Haoxi had always been good at getting his way.)

But it had stuck with Nanjun anyway, pride over the birth of a child being the biggest weakness in a lord’s repertoire. It had made him question a lot of things too, about what was prideful about carrying on a line. It had made him quiet, when the Emperor properly claimed Haoxi as a son, but continued to keep Nanjun as a member of his family, despite being blood. Made him wonder about what defined family, and whether blood was the end-all, be-all, and if the creation of progeny was truly what the world needed more of.

One day, he and Haoxi had been sparring, and after Haoxi won as usual, the two were bleeding, from slight nicks to their skin. As they’d bandaged themselves up and cleaned off their weapons, Nanjun had pulled their bleeding hands together and looked at their blood.

Haoxi looked at him, silently, and unquestioning, waiting for Nanjun to spit out what he wanted to.

“It’s weird right, that blood matters so much?” Nanjun asked, finally, “When it’s basically this red stuff that pumps around our body. And yet we say it’s so important.”

“Is it not?” asked Haoxi quietly. Nanjun let their hands drop.

“Well, not really, right? You and me are not ‘of blood’ but you are my closest brother. Why does blood matter?”

Haoxi shrugged, as he tightly drew the bandage over his hands and across his arms. “I think it just means that family counts and is important. Which it is, right?”

“Is it?” Nanjun has asked, arching an eyebrow. Even as children, they had fought with their royal siblings, over the pettiest of things, really, but they fought nonetheless. “Would you call yourself close to Prince Feng?”

“No.” Haoxi admitted, “But I’m close to you, and Shuozhen-ge and mother and auntie…” He trailed off and tilted his head to the side. He was getting a little more into debate, so Nanjun knew he wasn’t done. “Blood’s important because it’s our connection to our parents. Our qi, our strength runs through our blood. But it is the strength of our parents and our ancestors before. Our blood is how we mark which ancestors to worship, and how to please them.”

“But that doesn’t work either.” Nanjun said, running his finger over the edge of the sluggishly bleeding cut, ignoring the sharp stings of pain. “Family lines die out, sometimes, and that means that the ancestors go worshipped. Lines with all daughters, their line is wiped out. But it’s not a blasphemy, life goes on. It can’t be ancestor worship.”

Haoxi frowned, starting to clean the slight tinge of reddishness away from the edge of his blade. “Where are you going with this, Nanjun?” It was slightly bordering on some strange philosophy, unpalatable philosophy, but Nanjun couldn’t stop talking, not now he’d started.

“Why does our blood mark what we become, Haoxi?” he asked, finally. “Why is it you that has the next Royal Mandate, just because our father’s blood runs in your veins? They were thinking about the next one being me, weren’t they? But what if my mother hadn’t been from the Great Jin line? What if she’d been some commoner woman. Would our families be as close-knit as blood? If they’d got us wrong, would a commoner sit on the throne? Why does it all matter?”

Haoxi turned fully to face Nanjun, putting away his leather armour and weapons aside, with a firm thud. He clasped Nanjun’s hands within his own palms and whispered, hushedly. “Perhaps blood doesn’t matter. But the spilling of blood does. Blood is health, blood is life. Blood is still Qi. And to question the veracity of the Emperor—I would not wish to lose your qi.”

It had been a plain enough warning, and Nanjun locked it away. But it was hard, to not question the ties of blood, these days.

-

It was later in the night, when the party slowly drew to a close, because the too-drunk guests had already passed out, or been coerced by servants to sleep here, instead of cause trouble in the streets, and the other drunk-but-energized guests had left to go to the brothels and music-houses, where their libido would be fulfilled.

The traders and the lords and ladies left, leaving only close family and friends in the main pavilion, saying their goodbyes to the last of the guests. Jiuguo looked a little tipsy, but had managed to find a good crutch, by leaning on top of Piao Zhimin’s head. Zhimin was displeased, but mellow enough to not counter it aggressively.

And Shuozhen was now quietly exchanging words with Xuanmei, as the servants cleaned up around them. Nanjun turned to give Taiheng a look, where he was packing up the various instruments that had been carted out for him to play. Taiheng gave him a wide, tired smile in return. He’d played well, for the last half of the night, and it had truly been an exciting moment to watch him switch between instruments as if he was a whirlwind, as the drunken guests egged him on.

The sort of fun that Nanjun hadn’t indulged in, not in a long time, and the pleasant feeling of the fun and the alcohol had sunk into his bones, making him a little more pliant, and made it a little easier to smile, when a messenger arrived, sheepishly in front of them.

“Crown Prince Ju has arrived.” he said, looking worried, especially as Shuozhen started backwards, with a horrified look.

“What? Wha--” Shuozhen cuts off, as Haoxi walks up to them, dressed nicely in a thick burgundy robe, and a white scarf tossed over his shoulder. Yunqi follows swiftly and quietly behind him, an ever-present shadow. “I thought you said, you said--”

Haoxi shrugged, and there was a playful smile on his face as he came forward to embrace Shuozhen. “How could I miss out on a party run by my favourite older brother?” Shuozhen huffed and crossed his arms in front of his chest, but Haoxi hugged him tightly anyway, and nuzzled inwards. Shuozhen melted a little. Haoxi was rather cute when he wanted to be.

“If you were going to come anyway, you should have come earlier! There were so many people you should have met and talked to--and it would have been the talk of the town if you came to a casual party like this one, I always need a reputation boost like that!” But Shuozhen’s eyebrows weren’t knitted together in worry or anger, just a sense of petulance.

Haoxi looked a little repentant, but shrugged, gently. “I’m here now.” There was something deeper in there, about his understanding of why Shuozhen wanted to have this party at all, and the significance of Haoxi coming, even if it was late.

Shuozhen’s eyes softened. “That you are.”

“To get it over with,” Xuanmei said, speaking up, as she tightened the golden robe over her shoulders, “Nanjun-ge’s home, which is great. And I’m pregnant, with the first Jin baby. Then we all got drunk and pretended we don’t have work tomorrow morning.”

Nanjun couldn’t help but snort at that, which drew Haoxi and Yunqi’s attention over to him, and by extension, Jiuguo and Zhimin, who were watching in quiet fascination.

“Shell we go and get drunk some more, then? To make up for my absence?” asked Haoxi, softly. “Nanjun, Jiuguo? Zhimin? Are you up for it?”

“Not me,” said Xuanmei, before anybody else could say anything. She smiled, a little sleepily. "I already drank too much for a pregnant woman. My child’s first drunken escapade shouldn’t be because of his mother. I’m turning in.”

Shuozhen looked disappointed, but he said nothing, patting her arm, and bidding her a quiet goodnight. “I’m happy to host you, brother. I don’t know if I can take more alcohol, myself, but I’ll sit with you.” he answered, with a light yawn. “It’s a beautiful night.”

Haoxi looked up at the silvery moon, and smiled. “That it is. The rest of you?”

“Why not?” asked Zhimin, with a brighter look to his eyes, as he bowed, shaking Jiuguo off him. “It isn’t often you share a moonlight drink with the Crown Prince. I have some questions to ask, anyway. I’ll just ask a servant to send a message home, and stay here for the night...?”

“Not a problem.” Shuozhen answered the unasked question, turning to Nanjun and Jiuguo. “The same offer’s open for both of you too. Obviously.”

Jiuguo shook his head, hissing slowly under his breath. “It’s a bad idea.” he said, words a little slower, “But I’ll accept, gege.”

“Water for you.” Shuozhen said, amused, sidling up to him, to sling an arm across his shoulder. “And some juice too. No more alcohol, shaky boy.”

Nanjun just nodded, and let his eyes flicker back towards where the servants were still moving and clearing everything away, Taiheng was almost finished packing up, and Nanjun almost offered to go help him, before shaking his head. He was going to have fun with his brothers, and he would come back to Taiheng when he wasn’t so loosely coordinated, and only when he was sure that the overwhelming urge to take Taiheng into his lap wasn’t the alcohol talking.

“What delayed you so much?” asked Nanjun, to Haoxi, with a small laugh, as he took a seat down in the middle of the pavilion, near the small table. There was no alcohol yet, as the servants still tried to clean up the rest of the mess, but that was for the best. “Cold feet?”

“Something like that.” Haoxi said, with a small smile. “Father wanted to talk, and eventually just got frustrated with me, and that took some time. Then Chengxiao wanted help with some of her decisions for what to do with our clothes for the Scholar Appointments Feast, and then that took far longer than expected, and we had to deal with the Royal Guard fussing about my leaving the Palace so late. I didn’t know that the Captain could be so protective!” He looked bright, under the moonlight, as if he glowed with a light stronger than the pale moon.

“Arranging clothes for the feast already? It’s not that close by, surely?” asked Zhimin, curiously.

“No, it’s in like three weeks.” Jiuguo said, looking a little green, as he leant into Shuozhen’s grasp, almost reluctantly. “Pretty closeby.”

“Yeah, no, and there’s no other real conversation in Court right now. All I get are stupid reasons to summon the Ministry of Rites and the Ministry of Personnel into court, so when court sessions end, the others can ask them about promotions.” Haoxi said, pulling an exaggeratedly bored face. “I’m sure there are real issues being buried because of this, and I’ll never know because of all of these politics.”

“Vultures.” Yunqi said, quietly, from where he knelt behind Haoxi, but his face was twisted into anger. “Nothing but a pack of vultures.”

“That’s why I hate it, really, Shuozhen-ge. Your idea.” Haoxi murmured, “They don’t deserve it. I don’t wish to sway to them to my side with my ideas. They don’t understand what I want to do for this country.”

“And what do you wish, Crown Prince Ju?” asked Zhimin, smartly. Nanjun’s eyes flickered to him, quietly, and noted that despite having likely drunk as much as Jiuguo, he was standing perfectly tall, and perfectly still now, despite previous drunken movements. That was what a few years under a military man did for you, he supposed.

“Peace and Prosperity.” Haoxi said, honestly, leaning forward and tapping the air with the fan in his sleeves. “There’s got to be a better way to have peace and prosperity for all, instead of this plotting that everybody engages in. Imagine what our country could accomplish if instead of making us look foolish in court, my brothers put all their efforts to actually bettering the world! That’s what I want to see. A way for all of my citizens to be productive, peaceful and prosperous. Without the bullshit.”

This startled a laugh out of Zhimin, and he leant back. “A noble goal. And how are you going to accomplish it?”

“Find competent men, and hire them.” Shuozhen spoke up now, instead, picking up the slack of their recruitment pitch. “There are still enough people in this hellhole who want to do a good job, above everything else. Promote them, let them implement simple but stern rules on enforcing anti-corruption laws. That’s the start. Empower the people more often. Pump money from our trading abroad into enriching local infrastructure. Travel is still fucking difficult around this country and it limits the access of our countrymen to prosperity. Once travel is made easier, this is when education too will be made much easier.”

“Educated men directly feed back into our government. More men, from different backgrounds coming into the government gives us new minds, new ideas, better ways to try and solve problems like droughts, disaster aid, and foreign relations.” Haoxi said, firmly. “More than that, educated hired men cause less trouble. There have been a lot of skirmishes in the aftermaths of natural disasters lately, and that’s a problem.”

Nanjun had to swallow heavily at that point, which drew attention to him. He quickly continued on from where Haoxi has left off. “But more than that, it will allow us to re-examine the old. We follow tradition to a tee, which has been useful to a point. But tradition that applied for our ancestors may not necessarily apply for us. Our ancestors were less populous, dealt with harsher things. Their punishments are too harsh for our society, and yet we use them anyway. Other small things, that root us down in blindly following things, instead of questioning whether they are truly serving the country or not.”

“Obedience is important. Our elders are usually wiser than us for a reason, and listening to them without question is a tenet of society.” Haoxi said, firmly, “But there is wisdom too in the new. I want there to be room for newness in my kingdom.”

Zhimin had been stunned into silence. “Huh.” he said, quietly, clearly still processing all of that, head bowed. It was perhaps too much, for a casual evening, for somebody who was still considering the perks of their side, and Nanjun winced in apology.

“If you like, you can get that in manifesto form. It’s signed in our own blood and tears.” Nanjun joked, which broke the heavy atmosphere a little. Zhimin cracked a smile, and looked back up to meet Haoxi’s eyes.

But before he could say anything, three things happened in rapid succession. Firstly, a servant girl arrived with more rice wine, carefully balancing them on a tray too big for her. Secondly, Taiheng, making his move to leave with all of his instruments bumped into her, unable to see her, spilling the alcohol everywhere, and dropped the cased instruments to the floor with a loud smash. Thirdly, as everybody turned to look at the servants, they also caught sight of the assassin on the roof, at the same time he saw them.

Nanjun was too drunk to do anything more than blink as the man immediately leapt towards them at breakneck speed, making his way directly for Haoxi, but both Zhimin and Yunqi sprung upwards, using the table as a springboard to launch towards the assassin. From out of nowhere, Zhimin had managed to pull out an entire sword, and Yunqi’s ever present knives had leapt from his sleeves, to his hands.

Taiheng and the servant girl, who’d just collapsed to the floor, watched on in horror as well.

But the assassin was also prepared, with tiny throwing knives. Yunqi and Zhimin both dodged their flightpath--but they’d not exactly been aimed towards them. Nanjun and Haoxi only narrowly missed being hit by the blades. Shuozhen pulling them down to the ground was the only reason they were not instantly dead.

Nanjun hit the ground hard, his elbow bending awkward under him, with a loud and painful thud, but the fight in front of him was a little more absorbing than his elbow slowly going numb from pain.

Yunqi and Zhimin, despite having never worked together, seemed to very easily engage the attacker as a team. Zhimin lunged easily in close quarters, ducking into the assassin’s personal space, attempting to trip him and force him backwards, in rapid three-strokes. Yunqi thrust at him from behind, just enough to make the assassin unable to properly counter Zhimin’s rapid movements.

Slash. Trip. Parry. Lunge. Swoop. Dodge. Parry. Thrust.

It was over, very quickly, when Zhimin’s sword pierced the assassin’s ribcage, and Yunqi’s knife punctured his right arm.

The assassin coughed up some blood and rattled, as he fell to the ground, unable to stay upright under their combined attack. Just as Zhimin pressed a foot down on his chest, he wheezed loudly, and fell entirely limp and still. Dead.

“What.” Jiuguo said, blankly, as the blood started to spill over the edge of the pavilion, into Shuozhen’s garden. He was backed straight against one of the pavilion pillars, clearly only just upright. His face was drawn, and Nanjun had entirely forgotten he was there, with how still he’d frozen.

“What the hell just happened?” demanded Shuozhen standing up, quickly from where he’d thrown himself down against Nanjun and Haoxi. His robes and hair were a little more ruffled now, as he strode over to the attacker.

Behind him, Taiheng and the servant girl untangled from each other and watched, in horror.

Zhimin reached down, to cautiously pull the assassin’s mask off, and shook his head. “Nobody I recognize. Anybody else?”

Yunqi’s mouth was pursed. “He should not have died so fast from those wounds.” Yunqi ducked down to the ground, and pried open the dead man’s mouth with his fingers, and Nanjun shakily got to his feet as well, to better see. Yunqi peered into his mouth for a moment, before grimacing and quickly pulling away. “Poison tooth. He killed himself. His mouth is coated in some sort of black substance.”

“Shit, who is he then?” asked Shuozhen, looking furious.

“I’m uncertain.” Zhimin said, but leant down, to take the assassin’s sword into hand. “But he’s a follower of the QianTian pugilist sect.” He showed Shuozhen and Nanjun the unmistakable crest on the sword’s handle. “He tried to use a couple of the finishing moves on me, but I’ve fought that style before.”[14]

“QianTian’s leader is a man called Lord Mu.” Haoxi said, from behind them, and he looked quite grim. “Lord Mu is one of Prince Fu and Prince Feng’s favourite military supporters. It’s clear that the attack was meant for me. I wonder then, who benefits from my death?”

Shuozhen swore, loudly, and angrily, and it made the servant girl flinch, mildly. “Don’t we have them, then? We can confront them in front of your father-Emperor.”

“Not enough evidence.” Nanjun said, immediately, shaking his head. “The connection is obvious, but they’ll set it up to make it not obvious. This man will not be anybody actually associated with the QianTian sect. He’ll be somebody who just bought a sword. And even if he is associated with QianTian, he’ll be a separate entity, with a personal grudge, entirely devoid of Prince Feng’s manipulation. There’s not enough evidence to actually link him to it.”

Shuozhen whirled on Nanjun, eyes narrowed. “That’s all very well.” he said, acidly, “But there was almost a murder of my dear royal brother on these premises. There has been a death tonight. There is blood currently staining my woodwork. And I will have to file a report to the Patrol Troops and others in the morning and have government investigators flock around this space tomorrow, asking stupid questions for far too long. I want something to be done that isn’t us just lying down and accepting this occurrence.”

"You were wrong, Jun-er." Haoxi murmured, "There is a point still in targeting my brothers whole-handedly."

"You think Prince Feng could have done this if he didn't have QianTian sect on his side? If we distanced them from him, you wouldn't have nearly been killed--should we target the QianTian sect? Show them what happens to people who try to kill us?" Shuozhen looked pensive. "Or do we target Feng directly through playing politics?"

"How do you plan to take revenge on the QianTian sect? Do you have that much intelligence in the south? The true south, near Canton? We don't know enough." Haoxi said, shaking his head, "No, we should work through the imperial court, where we knows how to do things."

“Do you hold influence in the Ministry of Personnel?” asked Zhimin, quietly, interrupting them.

It was an entire non-sequitur, and were it not for the serious look on Zhimin’s face, Nanjun was sure that Shuozhen would have snapped. “No.” Yunqi answered, the most composed of them all. “No, we do not.”

“Why not target both ends, at once? My brother and my cousin hold sway in the Ministry of Personnel. I can speak with them. Demote his followers. Find some sort of infraction to make sure they can’t make it. They’ve been bribed by Prince Feng to continue to promote people loyal to Prince Feng, of course, but family has always meant more to Piaos.” Zhimin said, firmly. “I’ll make them see sense.”

Shuozhen’s face slackened, suddenly, and Haoxi’s face lit with a wild joy. “You’re giving allegiance?”

Zhimin shrugged. “I’m not the patriarch.” he said, quietly. “But I understand your sentiments entirely, Crown Prince. And I am not someone who wishes to live under a man who will rather murder his political opponents, than deal with them. I will do my very best to support you. I don't have much sway in the South either, but--”

"But I do." Yunqi said, face clearing a little. "On the pugilist front, at least, I can find a few rats."

“Thank you.” Haoxi said, bowing his head to Zhimin, in a clear sign of his happiness. "Tonight, you have saved my life, and are making steps to defend it further. I owe you a great debt, Piao Zhimin.”

Zhimin smiled, a little savagely. “I do so like having favours of powerful people in hand.” Then he smiled a little more genuinely. “If you need somebody to replace your wooden floors, I know a really good worker as well, Shuozhen. Will you pledge me a favour too?”

“Not on your life, you brat.” Shuozhen chided, but there was a look of abject relief, as he came forward to ruffle Zhimin’s hair. Nanjun’s heart had not quite stopped beating all too fast, however.

That, had been, altogether too close. “Go home, Haoxi.” Nanjun said, clearly. “He’ll send another, if he knows you’re vulnerable right now. Go back to the Palace and stay there. Don’t leave. The rest of us should try and stay somewhere safe and populated with many people.”

Haoxi bit down on his lip, and he looked that shade of pale and drawn he had looked for most of Nanjun's return, once again. He hated this assassination attempt, not just for the feeling of fear that coagulated in his bones now, but more so for removing the ease and sunshine from his bright brother's face. "Good 'morrow, friends." he said, and left the mansion. Everybody else slowly picked themselves up and moved away.

An inauspicious ending, to a very mixed night.

-

When he'd been young, Prince Feng had been something of a perpetual antagonist, in the way that you knew your older sibling hated you and probably wished you dead. But Nanjun had always spent more time within Palace walls, instead of wandering the usual haunts of the other Princes, so he'd always ended up spending more time in the presence of the Empress.

One of his earlier memories was the Empress forcing Nanjun to eat seafood to supposedly satisfy the Empress Dowager and look healthier, even though she knew that most types of seafood made him severely ill. He'd spent days in the Physician's Quarters, pampered to a T by everybody else in the Palace, and his Consort-Mother had fought for quite some time on his behalf in Court, Nanjun had been vaguely aware. In the end, the Empress got away with it, and had only sent a single fruit basket for Nanjun, to apologize for her unexpected slight. It had contained every single fruit that Nanjun hated, and it had been the biggest evidence for discrimination that Nanjun had ever experienced in his short lifetime.

If he thought about it, that was the first murder attempt he'd ever faced, at the ripe age of nine years old. Still, he supposed in her eyes, it had been justified. That had been the start of the terrible downfall of Prince Feng as a favoured child, and it had been at a time when he and Haoxi were becoming more well-regarded in his Father-Emperor's eyes.

Threats were to be eliminated.

Still, even after he'd been identified as a threat by them, most attacks that came afterwards were minor discomforts. Being forbidden to read some scrolls because of concerns about his innocence and worries about the dangerous information coming from abroad. Some temporary bans from scholarly places, until Nanjun managed to argue his way back into those spaces. Some small punishments for tiny rule infractions. As an adult, Nanjun knew this was because the majority of malicious action had been directed towards his Consort-Mother, who'd braved through the abuse with surprising grace, and a good memory.

Still, it didn't change the fact that Nanjun had never directly dealt with Prince Feng until he was fourteen. The children of the Royal Palace been sparring real adults at the time, all of the younger Princes, and Crown Prince Feng at the time, had been touring the Palace Guard grounds, just to see they were adequately being overseen. Of course, faced with the opportunity to show off against his younger cousins, Prince Feng had been unable to resist replacing the instructor, and fighting them himself.

Nanjun had been first, and Nanjun, although a decent hand with a sword, had never appreciated the Art of War so much, as to actually practise outside of lessons. So faced against an opponent twice his size, and with so many more years of skills, Nanjun had been easily disarmed, within just fifteen moves.

Most people would have stopped there, but Prince Feng had advanced further, and further, until his sword was barely a chi away from slicing Nanjun's throat. It had only been the startled cry of the instructor, that had pulled Prince Feng out of whatever trance he'd been in, and made him sheathe his sword, and lecture Nanjun about putting more effort into training. What Nanjun remembered vividly from that memory, and what had continued to haunt his nightmares for the next couple of months, had been the look of sheer hatred and determination to murder him that Nanjun had seen within Prince Feng's shadowed eyes, as he'd glared down at Nanjun. His weight, the threat of the sword, and how Nanjun had genuinely believed that he wouldn't pull away without the presence of outsiders, had made Nanjun feel unsafe for weeks.

Haoxi had faced him immediately afterwards, and had proceeded to win a hard-fought battle against Prince Feng, praised by the instructor for applying his lessons of using his speed and weight to his advantage, instead of being intimidated. Prince Feng had fumed in fury at the humiliating defeat, and had quickly moved on in his tour of the training grounds.

In hindsight, it had probably been a symbol of how the times would change in favour of Haoxi, but at the time, they'd just taken it as a small retaliation against a formidable opponent.

Nanjun had forgotten that, in the years that had passed since his youth, because of how frightening the memory had been, but he supposed that Haoxi had never forgotten how much damage his brothers could do. Nanjun had forgotten. He'd forgotten the fear that had weighted down his limbs, and the slow creeping certainty of not having done enough with his life. He'd forgotten the feeling of a sword pointed in his face and the intense awareness of his mortality that followed. He'd forgotten how unsafe and paranoid such an attack had made him feel, at such a young age.

Had forgotten what his brothers could do.

He would not forget again.

-

For the first time since returning, Nanjun had managed to make it inside the court library. With the stacks and rows of scrolls, printed books and tablets of old court readings it was easily one of Nanjun’s favourite places. The air was dampened down, a sort of unnatural quiet that unnerved some, but pleased Nanjun.

He’d always seen it as a sort of hushed reverence for the power of the knowledge within the walls.

Taking his favourite seat by the purple lantern in the corner of the room, Nanjun spread out the reports he needed to summarize, address and refute with all of the comments coming in about the Scholars Announcement Feast to the Ministry of Rites. But before he got to that work…he got up, hesitantly, and headed towards the previous economic reports for Sichuan.

It wasn’t like any of this was what he wanted to do. He wanted to write poetry about silvery-washed necks, and the heavy disappointment of holding too many secrets like an old fountain, and the fear of a blade coming down to shake their foundations fundamentally. But…well, he had a duty to his kingdom. And to his family. And he had to be sure.

He pulled down the past twenty years of records, a substantial stack that made the eunuch sitting in the vicinity eye him in surprise. Nanjun pulled a face and returned to his desk, to pore through the most boring of the government reports.

Still. Despite the jargon, the incredible amount of numbers, and tables and charts, if you knew what you were looking for, it was rather easy to find. And what he was finding was…a troubling phenomenon and was making Nanjun feel even more uneasy.

Nanjun ran his tongue over his front teeth, rubbed his sleeve nervously, and shut the financial report, with a distracted sigh, as he mused about what his next steps were. He didn’t see very many, really. Neither option looked good, but something had to be done soon. He couldn’t keep sitting on his hands like this. He needed outside advice, another’s opinion. It was as he was about to reach forward for the Ministry of Rites reports, that Nanjun noticed the brown eyes directly opposite his. He nearly jumped as Jiuguo grinned at him, far too close to Nanjun’s proximity.

“Oh fuck, Jiuguo, don’t do that!” Nanjun berated, voiced a little strangled and high-pitched, for trying to keep quiet.

“Sorry.” Jiuguo said, not sounding all too repentant. “What are you doing? You didn’t notice me at all when I was trying to wave to you.”

“Work. Like you’ll have to soon.” Nanjun said, just a little spitefully, picking up the Ministry of Rites paperwork. “The problem with being intelligent, Jiuguo, is that everybody wants your opinion on things. And you aren’t intelligent until you know everything. And to know everything—”

“--You have to read everything.” finished Jiuguo, a little less enthusiastically. “Yeah. Am I bothering you, then?”

“Not if you stay relatively quiet.” Nanjun said, a little more kindly, at the dejected slump of Jiuguo’s shoulders. “Grab a book. Your studies never end.”

Jiuguo nodded and pulled out a book from his satchel. It was a book about military tactics, and Nanjun eyed it, in surprise. “Military tactics? You aren’t thinking about going into the military, are you?”

Jiuguo shrugged, sinking his chin into his palm. “Maybe.” He said, a little sullenly, “But you know Father doesn’t want that. He apprenticed me to you so I could be a bureaucrat.”

Nanjun nodded, that was indeed why Lord Tian had sought out the Jins. He’d specifically wanted Jiuguo to go into the business aspect of the government, to line his own coffers, but being a scholar had been a safe enough alternative, even if without the benefit of corruption. But joining the army was exactly what Lord Tian had not wanted for his only legitimate son.

“Thursday’s events. Piao Zhimin.” Nanjun said, decisively, as he started to read some complaints people had about the regulations for the Lunar feast coming up, and about how the illness of the Emperor would change the alignments of the rituals too much. Some wanted the Emperor to attend, no matter how ill he was. Others wanted Crown Prince Ju to fully take his place instead, and for the Emperor to just step down, since Crown Prince was running everything in proxy, anyway. But the vast majority of comments wanted the Empress to take the position instead. That was going to be trouble.

Frowning, Nanjun reached for the next tablet, and looked up, in time to catch Jiuguo’s surprised, frozen look. “What?” asked Nanjun, a little irritably.

“How did you know?” he asked, hushedly.

“Anybody with eyes could tell you liked him.” Nanjun said, with a low laugh, reaching out to ruffle Jiuguo’s hair, gently. “You talked together all before Shuozhen’s feast and all throughout it too. I’m glad to see you’re making friends, but I wouldn’t be so quick to believe everything he says. Combat is dangerous and you’re not in a position to do so, as the eldest and only son. His skills and opinions valuable, sure--” The image of Zhimin quickly and efficiently slicing the assassin was assurance of that much, “But he’s in a different position to you.”

Jiuguo made a small noise in the back of his throat. “I know that.” He said, quietly, “But you never needed to teach me the sword arts or the bow arts. I knew all of those already. I’m kind of a prodigy in those, you know. But on Thursday...I couldn’t move. I didn’t move. And he did.”

Fear. That was a reasonable reason to want to fight. To not feel helpless. Still....

“You can’t live in the dreams of your youth anymore.” Nanjun rebuked, gently, “To become a pugilistic wandering man, who slays the evil and saves the day naively simplistic, and beyond your incredible talent for analysis of the Way, and your applications of your studies to real life. Leave it behind, Jiuguo. There are better ways to react.”

“I get that!” Jiuguo whispered a little harshly and tersely, “I appreciate the Way and the philosophies behind government a lot better now. It all makes sense, and I think I want to be part of it. But I think that being a military general is a good combination of both the philosophical way of leading and the way using a lot of strength! It’s perfect for me!” At Nanjun’s skeptical look, Jiuguo sat back in is chair angrily. “I can’t just sit here and do nothing!”

“Do you think, Jiuguo, that I am sitting here, and doing nothing?” snapped Nanjun, acidly, and Jiuguo fell silent. Nanjun instantly regretted snapping at him, especially when his eyes widened like that, but it was too late to take back. He calmed himself, and forced himself to put his pen down, and tug at his sleeves, to stay even. “I am sitting here, reading every report and every word of attack they have against us, and I am turning the tide against them. I am finding my way to destroy their ability to touch me again. Because Jiuguo? Turning around and using violence at the first inklings of fear are what make us as base and abhorrent as our enemies.”

Jiuguo’s eyes widened, and Nanjun held out his hands to him. Jiuguo hesitantly took them, and Nanjun squeezed tightly, and went into lecture mode, because he was sure that Jiuguo needed that. “The thing about violence and strength is that it is just one aspect of your diplomatic and political toolkit. Of course, there is no tiger without his claws and teeth, but a tiger is more than that. He is his intelligence, his money, his influence, his sexual appeal, his friends. Violence should not be the first answer to the question of conflict.” Nanjun said, gently, smoothing his fingers over Jiuguo’s knuckles, gently. “There are better ways to make a man regret his actions. Use your fear not to lash out, but to calculatedly plan a way to minimize your fear in the future.”

Jiuguo nodded, carefully, and untangled his hands from Nanjun’s, only to sit on them and stare at the table. Nanjun watched him for a moment, but went back to his reports, unable to leave them for too long, even for his student. It was too important a time.

Jiuguo was quiet for a long time, allowing Nanjun to read through some more reports about one of the ministers suspected to be allowing any old Buddhist priest to open temples, as long as the bureaucrat got paid enough. It was a corruption that Nanjun knew he could deal with quietly through a small demotion, and maybe gain a loyal man to their side, as a result of not making such a huge deal out of it.

It wasn’t the most moral thing, but having more men aligned with Haoxi was important now. Especially if the Empress was making a move within the Ministry of Rites. That was worrying. She was the mother of Prince Feng and Prince Fu and hated both he and Haoxi’s guts for pushing her sons out of the Crown Prince position. Had she been behind the attack, or had it been Feng? He was uncertain.

“Nanjun-ge.” asked Jiuguo, finally, “Did Shuozhen-ge say anything about Thursday to you beforehand? The...non-murder part.”

Pulling a face, Nanjun shook his head, making a small note about something in his small notebook, clearly seeing that the stack of reports was going to be impossible to remember without writing down something short and easy to remember for court debates. “No. But he’s a king of drama. He lives to see how people react to surprises, so he can laugh at them.”

Jiuguo laughed, gently, with the eyes of a boy in love. “That’s endearing, though.”

“Trying living with him since he was a child, and that opinion rapidly changes.” Nanjun said, grimly, but smiled at Jiuguo, to show he was in fact joking.

“He’s kind of forgetful and distant in conversation since he announced the baby. But he was even before that, I think.” Jiuguo said, tracing a few circles on the table, voice carefully light. “It’s weird how people have these dimensions we don’t even notice until afterwards, right?”

It was a perfect way to put into words something Nanjun had been thinking for a while, and he felt a sudden burst of fierce affection for his student and friend.

“It is strange. But it’s that fundamental otherness of another person that reassures me that this is not the dream that Zhuang-Zhou thinks our existence is. So, I learn to accept it, and work past it. People are a singular alterity that we must encounter on our terms.” Nanjun reached forward and prodded Jiuguo’s forehead. “Are you not a multitude within yourself? Then you must be able to reasonably believe that of everybody.”[15]

“And always worry they’re perpetually hiding something from you that you’ll never be able to see?” asked Jiuguo, eyes wide and worried, and Nanjun knew this was the real reason he’d come seeking Nanjun’s presence.

“Yes. But that’s what trust means.” Nanjun said, gently. “I trust that although Shuozhen is hiding a multitude of things, that Haoxi has secrets from me these days, even though nothing used to be taboo between us, that none of these secrets pertain to me, or are important to me currently. And if they are important to me, I then trust they will tell me eventually, because I love them, and will give them time to work out how to tell me their secrets. I trust that Sorghagta will tell me what worries her. I trust that all of my dear friends and I will be able to communicate what it important, and leave the unsaid, unsaid.”

Jiuguo frowned, but seemed to accept that, quietly. “And if they don’t?”

“Then it’ll hurt, I suspect.” Nanjun murmured, and the twist of guilt within his stomach tightened. “And you may have put your trust in the wrong person, and you mustn’t trust them or believe them as much in the future. But that’s part of living life among other humans, Jiuguo. You cannot live while being too scared to trust.”

“Take a leap of faith?” asked Jiuguo, but there was something rather more content to his voice. “That makes sense, gege.”

“You’ve moved on from teacher to gege quite easily, haven’t you?” asked Nanjun, dryly.

“You’re too young to be my teacher.” Jiuguo said, airily, getting up from the desk, and tucking the chair in, carefully. It was an extraordinarily familiar gesture, one that Jiuguo had done many times while eating together or studying together, in the past four years of scholarship, and it made Nanjun’s heart pang a little. “Thanks, gege. I’ll see you around.”

“I missed you.” Nanjun blurted out, instead of saying bye like a normal person.

Jiuguo stilled, in the act of turning to leave, and his bottom lip trembled. “Me too, gege.” He said, a little quieter.

“Don’t be a stranger, huh? Gege’s busy at work, but my house is always open for you. Remember that?” asked Nanjun, gently.

“Yeah.” Jiuguo’s smile was a little shaky, as he turned to walk away, slower. Nanjun smiled to himself, softly, before returning to his boring work.

But not before he made a small mental note to extend the same invitation to Taiheng.

-

When Nanjun returned home from governmental work, Taiheng was there.

He’d spent most of the day meeting with three different lords, to subtly talk up Haoxi’s strengths, and how Nanjun truly believed in his ability to create a prosperous and honest country where people wouldn’t have to cheat to live well, and he was exhausted and wanted nothing more than to sink into his chair and do nothing for some time. But nevertheless, he entered his study to find Taiheng perched on his desk, happily gossiping with Nanjun’s servants, as he sliced open a few apples, instead of letting them do it for him.

Nanjun raised an eyebrow, and held still, trying to observe them in their natural environment, but years of servant’s reflexes made them turn to look at him when the door slid open, and immediately fell silent, looking quite guilty.

“Sorry, Master Nanjun--”

“It won’t happen again, Master Nanjun—"

“It’s all my fault, Master Nanjun—”

“It’s alright, you can sta—” By the time Nanjun had even opened his mouth, they had already bowed low, fled from the room, and shut the door behind him. With a low sigh of annoyance, Nanjun crossed over to behind his desk and unloaded all of the tablets and scrolls from his bag, onto the parts of the rosewood desk not covered by Taiheng’s immense feathered cape.

“They’re pretty loyal servants.” Taiheng murmured, gently, “You should be proud.” He threw a slice of apple into his mouth, pensively. “I prodded them all kinds of ways for your secrets, and they side-stepped every question. Loyal. Not many servants keep their master’s secrets under pressure.”

Nanjun couldn’t help the smile that touched the side of his face, as he pulled out his chair. “They’re all good men and women. Discreet and caring.”

Taiheng hummed, gently, offering Nanjun an apple slice, one leg folded under his robes, other swinging carefree, shoes just barely brushing the ground. There was something extraordinarily tender about the curve of Taiheng’s wrist, extended towards Nanjun, and the quiet darkness of the room, lit only by the three lanterns by the door. Nanjun accepted, their fingers brushing, and they sat for a moment, together, in quietness.

“So many books.” Taiheng said, gently, eyes scanning over the gold-rimmed books on the shelves. “Philosophy? Poetry? Both?”

“Both. Some travelogues about the southern parts of China. Some of the lands west. Samarkhand, Beirut, Baghdad, India, Ceylon. Some stories from the southern lands, Java, Viet. A few novels too, from the main towns.” Nanjun murmured, gently, scanning over his small collection of books. “It’s not so many compared to other private libraries, but I am not so rich as others. At least I can say that I have, in fact, read all of these.”

At that, Taiheng’s eyes widened. “Wow.” He said, a little impressed, and Nanjun couldn’t help but think about Sorghagta’s initial reaction to Nanjun speaking about the imperial library and how every single book or record in the world could be found within those hallowed walls. Her face had lit up with a greedy hunger, something that could never be sated.

Taiheng was not that fire and burning desire, but there was a wistful sort of envy to it, anyway. Almost absently, Taiheng raised a finger to trace over the raised ridges of the edges of the silken sheets. “I can’t read.”

It was so matter-of-fact, but Nanjun blinked, in surprise. “Really?” he asked, a little dumbfounded. A scholar of Taoism, unable to read?

Taiheng looked blank, before shaking his head, fervently at Nanjun’s widened, horrified eyes, and swung his legs over, to face Nanjun fully. “No, no.” he clarified, “I can’t read these books.” He smiled a little sadly and said a few words in a language Nanjun didn’t quite understand. “I speak and write in dialect the most. I’m getting better at reading standard, but I only know important things…”

And suddenly, so much made sense about Taiheng.

Underneath the moon, a dog whines at its reflection,
Tentative paw reaches out to challenge truth,
All the world's secrets hangs in the balance
Nearby, a crow caws, and the moment is lost.

“Language lies to you.” Nanjun murmured, voice hushed.

“Language lies to everybody.” Taiheng said, shaking his head. “Not only me.”

“But to you most of all.” Nanjun countered, leaning forward. “It conceals meanings in structures that make no sense.”

Taiheng put the finished apple core, and the small knife down on the ceramic plate. “But all language does!” he insisted, stubbornly. “You may think you have mastered language, but really, it has mastered you. Language is the vagueness and openness and uncertainty in the world. The Way is truth, and no number of words can tell you truth.”

“But then how would you know truth at all?” asked Nanjun, curiously, “If language cannot define it, how do you learn the Way?”

Taiheng tilted his head to the side, the bright array of feathers shifting over his shoulder. “Master Li would say that you learn from example. Watch someone else who has found the way and learn from what he does, not what he says.” It was clear that Taiheng didn’t agree, by the slight twist to his lips, a helpless sort of smile. “But that’s not true. See, animals, birds, creatures of the world. They understand the Way, they understand their place in the world, how to maintain balance. But who can they watch? There are no immortals or gods for a dog.”

“So…” Nanjun murmured, leaning forward, fascinated by his words.

“Everybody knows the Way. Everybody knows their truth. You are born knowing your truth, just as a caterpillar knows he will eventually become a butterfly.” Taiheng said, surely, “Truth is difficult to accept, not to understand.”

“I’m not sure I agree.” Nanjun said, carefully, not wanting to sound argumentative, just that he was presenting something different. This was clearly something that Taiheng truly believed. “I spent too many years of my adolescence questioning the world, questioning my place, trying to find out who I was, and what I needed to. I don’t think I’ve figured that out to this day.”

Taiheng looked at Nanjun, long and hard, his eyes wide and surprisingly innocent, leaning in closely, to an intimate sort of distance. “No.” Taiheng said, quietly, as he came close enough for Nanjun to count the little golden flecks of brightness inside his iris. “You know your truth. You knew that you were not the Emperor’s son long before the world did.”

“That’s not my truth.” Nanjun said, softly.

“No.” Taiheng agreed, leaning back. “But it’s part of it. And you always knew. And so, you will always know the rest of your truths, when it stops being emotionally difficult to deal with.”

Nanjun was sure there was some of his skepticism still on his face, so Taiheng changed tacks, tangling his fingers in the edges of his feathered cape, twisting the grey-white speckled feathers between his pale fingers. “I always knew I was going to be something more than a farmer. I always knew that I would follow the Way in a weird way, more than other ones I knew, really. It just took my village being destroyed by famine to be able to leave all of my siblings behind. That was because it was a difficult truth, one I didn’t want to accept.”

“Free from attachment.” Nanjun murmured, softly, in understanding.

“Free to fly above the world, to pursue anything and everything about cosmic existence.” Taiheng agreed, sadly. “A bird always knows how to fly. But it doesn’t try until its parents push it out of the nest.” He tugged at the edges of his painstakingly beautifully sewn cloak. A bird-man, the essential symbol of freedom for every Taoist aspiring to be immortal. Not attachment to any one thing, just benevolent love for all. And yet...here Taiheng was. None of those things.

“Taiheng…” Nanjun murmured, softly, and reached out a hand of his own, in comfort.

Without much hesitation, Taiheng laced his fingers between Nanjun’s, and squeezed, tightly. There was a long moment of silence between them, where Nanjun just relished in the soft feeling of Taiheng’s hand against his, the subtle movements of his fingers, and the thud of his heartbeat through his thumb.

“I don’t know all of my truths.” Nanjun said, quietly. “But I do know this one.”

Taiheng’s face spread into a wide, rectangular grin. “And what is it?” he teased, lightly, his calves brushing against Nanjun’s knees in a sort of knowing excitement.

Nanjun’s response was simply to bring their clasped hands towards him and press a kiss to the top of Taiheng’s hand. “That I was going to ask you to let me court you. And that you would say yes.”

Taiheng’s face managed to brighten, somehow, if that was possible. In this dark room, he was the brightest thing, and easiest thing to focus on. “Good.” Taiheng said, approvingly, before swiftly sliding off the desk and straight into Nanjun’s lap.

Nanjun’s breath hitched, as Taiheng leant into his side, shifting slowly to adjust himself within Nanjun’s lap. Taiheng was about the same height as him, which made his legs extend over the edge of the chair’s arms, in a slightly awkward bent, but he was lankier than Nanjun, a sort of slenderness that arose from a childhood of not quite enough to eat, and therefore fit rather easily within Nanjun’s grasp. He wound his arms across Nanjun’s neck, and the loose interlock of Taiheng’s fingers on the back of Nanjun’s neck was something that made Nanjun’s breath uneven and hurried.

“When I first saw you in my Father-Emperor’s room, I didn’t think somebody so beautiful could even be real.” Nanjun murmured, cupping Taiheng’s cheek gently. His eyes closed, and his bright pink lips parted.

“Crown Prince had described you, said you were upright and well-proportioned, but I hadn’t thought about how beautiful and noble you’d look.” Taiheng murmured, his voice dropping even lower. “Oh, how I wanted to kiss you, in Lord Jin’s garden. I wanted to kiss you even more, when that assassin came for you. I was so scared.”

“I didn’t know my answer then.” Nanjun murmured, in quiet apology, for worrying him and for being uncertain. “I know now.”

Taiheng smiled, in gleeful relief. He leant forward to kiss Nanjun, and it was like coming home. His lips were gentle against Nanjun’s, the slight scratch of his stubble against Nanjun’s face was reassuring, and his fingers firmly pressed into Nanjun’s neck, tugging him closer, until their chests were pressed up against each other. Taiheng was exceptionally, warm, and Nanjun twined his arms around his waist.

As one kiss melted into another, an easy dance, simple and heartfelt, Nanjun felt a slight twinge of guilt. The only thing he remembered from his first kiss with Sorghagta, back in the North, had been how wet it had been, and slightly stiff. They had been young, perhaps, but even so, it was nothing like how natural and easy this felt, how euphoric it felt when Taiheng made a soft noise against his skin and licked into his mouth.

It felt natural when Taiheng tilted his head to the side and pressed a wet kiss to the sensitive skin of Nanjun’s neck, raking his teeth teasingly across the rougher skin, and it felt natural when his arms slid down from Taiheng’s waist to caress his legs, through the thin layers of fabric. Taiheng’s calves tensed a little under his touch, and Taiheng moaned into his neck, and something hot and fiery burned inside his stomach.

He pulled Taiheng back up to kiss him and lost himself in the sensation.

“Is this alright?” asked Taiheng, gently, pulling aside, as it became difficult to breathe between them, tongues gently probing, hands only pulling each other closer and closer into each other’s space. “For me and you…?”

Nanjun had to take a moment to breathe and think. Was it alright for them to continue? He didn’t think he would ever be able to regret taking Taiheng to bed, not when he was so eager for it, not when the imagination of how Taiheng could warm his blankets set him alight. But…if he wanted to properly court Taiheng, perhaps it would be wiser to stop.

“Perhaps…we should wait.” Nanjun murmured, his breath a little ragged. “Tonight, I am tired from my work, and you may have other work to return to. I want to bed you when it will be the best possible experience for us both.”

Taiheng clicked his tongue a little, but nodded, not entirely disappointed. “Next time, perhaps.” His voice was like velvet fabric, cascading over silk, and Nanjun could drown himself within that sound forever.

“Next time.” Nanjun promised, brushing the hair away from Taiheng’s face, running a finger across Taiheng’s strong eyebrows to smoothe them out. Taiheng leant into his touch, and he couldn’t resist the urge to kiss Taiheng, just a little longer.

-

Of course, because Nanjun’s luck was terrible, one of the first things he was accosted with, entering the Ministry of Rites was a panicked bureaucrat, instantly making a beeline for him. “Oh, Master Zheng, it is so good to see you. The Empress has been here for the past half-hour, demanding that we make her the representative for the Emperor at the Scholars Appointment Feast next fortnight.” he said, all in a hurry. “Please deal with her.”

“But we haven’t decided what we’re going to do about the Scholars Appointment Feast yet?” asked Nanjun, feeling a tinge of panic come upon himself. “There are still too many petitions to sort through?”

“We said that too, but she wouldn’t take it as an answer from us.” complained the harried bureaucrat. “Please Master Zheng, you’re almost royalty. She’ll at least listen to you...”

Nanjun pulled a face, mostly of dislike. He doubted that the Empress would ever listen to him, except to mock him. But he supposed she couldn’t quash him, like she could quash most of the other poor bureaucrats and scholars in this department.

He disliked the fact that most of their best diplomats were travelling abroad to visit the tribute nations. He really could have used that sort of careful flattery and easy conversation as a buffer between himself and the Empress right now.

He took a moment to breathe carefully through his nose and quell the rising bubbles underneath his skin. He was no longer a child, who could get easily scared by anybody. He was an adult in his own right, and dearly beloved by the current Emperor and the future Emperor. His future was quite firmly settled.

With that, he strode towards the door and let the minor scholars introduce his arrival, as he walked in. Somehow, the Empress had brought in her huge palanquin throne into the meeting room, an abomination of gold and jewels, so gaudily richesse compared to the dampened minimalism of the wooden meeting room, it was clearly meant to intimidate the poor hapless fool who attempted to oppose her.

Nanjun wasn’t cowed. “Your Royal Highness.” he bowed lowly to her, but did not drop his head. He knew how to play politics, after all this time. “Your presence here this morning is a surprise, but as always, a pleasure.”

The Empress just inclined her head and scrunched up her nose, voice nasal and displeased. “Nanjun. To see you well after your travel is heartening. You should have visited my palace when you returned.” There was a slight rebuke there, especially since everybody knew that Nanjun had made time for the Emperor, his brother and his mother. Still, Nanjun strove to meet the Empress as little as he could.

“I apologize for my transgression, worldly mother, it is my mistake.” Nanjun bowed again and gritted his teeth lightly. “But as you can see, the Ministry has been swept into disarray and chaos in the absence of most of the important Ministers, and I have been busy with paperwork. I am sorry to have left you in the hands of incompetents for so long, but...times are tough.”

“What burden the Ministry always faces in the spring!” The Empress exclaimed, her laughter just a little too fakely bright. “It is a shame indeed. I have come to relieve some of that burden off of your hands.”

It was kind of amazing, Nanjun had to admit, how easily the Empress made her imposition seem like a favour, with just a few words.

She continued, before Nanjun could seize control of the conversation. “Of course, your largest burden in the upcoming Scholars Announcement Feast. Such bad timing, but well, with my dear Emperor’s health declining so much these days, it would have eventually become a problem. Of course, the Emperor’s condition must not be aggravated by being outdoors, and being upright for so long, he cannot resume his role. But then, who must take over instead?”

Nanjun couldn’t quite keep the look of irritation off his face. “Of course, it is between you and the Crown Prince, as the two closest to the Emperor’s heart. But we have had a shortage of researchers at the Ministry of Rites lately, since they are busy with tribute gathering and grading papers for the civil service exam. We have no idea what sorts of precedents have been set in the past, and it is, with precedent, that we step forward into a new world.” Nanjun said, passionately stepping forward.

It wasn’t what he wanted for the future--but it was convention, and a convenient belief to hold when the Empress was trying to force a powerplay in record speed. There was nothing quite like tradition and sentiment to slow things down.

“Of course, we must not disrespect the wise decisions of our elders and our ways in making this decision, but who will scour the archives to look for precedents? And will the answer truly be determined within a fortnight? Many preparations must be made in the meantime, and perhaps the uncertainty of who will ultimately perform the rites will slow those preparations down as well. It makes me wonder, when the Ministry of Rites and Culture is so overworked and understaffed, perhaps this important feast might fall to the wayside?” The Empress’s voice was smooth, like butter, and her head-movements, making her ornate headpiece jangle in discontent, were sharp and refined. It was a perfect display of polite intimidation--for a peacock.

Nanjun had already figured out her plan however. Try to transfer the work of deciding the Rites to another bureau, one controlled by her and her lackeys, to effectively make the Ministry of Rites and Culture seem weak, while getting her way on a decision. All while looking like she as being extremely helpful and kind.

Nanjun was no fool.

“In just two days, the new scholars will be unofficially selected, ready and willing to take on the task of the Archives. Although your royal Majesty’s concern for this bureau is very touching, and sincerely welcome, we are all very much capable of making a ceremonial decision more than a week before the feast commences. This too, should be enough time for all of the rest of our government to supply materials--if not, indeed, we will have failed as an efficient system.” Nanjun laughed, as if it was a careless comment, instead of a jibe. He wasn’t as good at this sort of posturing as Shuozhen was, but something about the way the Empress looked down at him, from the seat she had imported, and the trouble she had always walked in with her, made him incredibly passive-aggressive.

“Indeed, I do not mean to doubt your competence.” The Empress said, with her high-pitched fake laugh. “But, as the Ministry of Revenue has noted, you have failed to turn your travel report from Sichuan in since your return? Of course, you have been swamped in work, such a diligent young man.” The Empress smiled, sharply, “But if you can’t even turn in such a small piece of paperwork, how do you expect to manage this Scholars Announcement Feast? These events are truly important for the status of the Royal Family’s mercy and acceptance of all peoples.”

Nanjun’s blood ran cold, for a moment, at the mention of the word ‘Sichuan’ from the Empress’s mouth. Did she know? Was that what she was blackmailing?

....no. She couldn’t know. If she knew, her tone would have been much different, and she wouldn’t have been using it as leverage against him, but against Shuozhen or Haoxi. No. She couldn’t know anything, except what she had said: that he hadn’t yet turned in his travel report. That wasn’t such a bad thing, many ministers and officials even took a whole month after coming back from travel to submit a report. It was only unusual for Nanjun’s usual work pattern. The Empress wanted to use that against the Court, to argue that Nanjun was over-working, and that he had to be liberated of some of his duties, lest his health be overtaxed as well.

It was a good ploy. A smart ploy. Nanjun respected the Empress for this much; if little else, she was very good at playing the game.

But Nanjun had grown adept at playing politics. “I understand your need for haste, but I wish to not hurry these things, as the Emperor does not wish me to bring him any decisions without all of the appropriate information to look over.” Nanjun said, mildly. At her slightly surprised look, Nanjun smiled, and continued. “Of course, my Father-Emperor is not well enough to attend the feast himself, he is wise enough to understand his health is more important, even when serving his duty to the ancestor-gods. But he is not so unwell that he does not read work from his bedside. His power is not yet gone, as you must well know, having visited his bedside often.”

Even through the thick layer of makeup over her face, Nanjun could see the barely suppressed crimson of embarrassed rage. He’d got her. She, in fact, according to Taiheng’s observations, had never actually visited the Emperor during his confinement. She, therefore, could not challenge Nanjun’s lie on waiting for the Emperor’s decision.

His Father-Emperor wanted nothing to do with politics on his deathbed. This, both he and Haoxi knew. But she didn’t--and never would. Some people could not look their own impending mortality in the eyes with courage.

Taiheng’s words: The truth is too difficult to accept, not to understand, rung in his mind, for a moment, and Nanjun wondered.

“Of course, we must not challenge my dear’s health and strength. His decision will forever be the correct one. Nevertheless, I am assured that you understand the urgency of this action?” asked the Empress, hotly. “Finish your scouring instantly, so he may channel the god’s will for us all.”

Of course she got the last word in. But Nanjun had won, so he suppressed the annoyed shiver, and bowed instead. “Your Royal Highness’s wishes are understood, and will be met to our fullest capabilities. Your graciousness and luminescence on this issue have been duly noted. We are your humble servants.” Nanjun bowed, again, and watched, as she haughtily got her eunuchs to hoist her up, and take her away.

The meeting hall was again silent, and Nanjun slowly sunk to a seated position on the floor, an abject feeling of relief washing over him. That had been too close. “Someone,” he said hoarsely, to the eunuchs and minor bureaucrats who had to be hiding in the walls, “Someone send a message to Crown Prince Ju. He needs to know what just happened.”

-

“So I finished by dismissing her concerns, although she still managed to get away looking like she was a concerned bystander, instead of a vicious vulture.” Nanjun finished, from where he was now seated in front of Haoxi, in his private quarters. The room was dimmed, the elaborate curtains made of a thick, light-obscuring material, instead of the loose gauzy material Nanjun was used to. It made the meeting more claustrophobic and somewhat stuffy.

Haoxi nodded, his usually relaxed face tensed and pinched, in the expression it sort of permanently been in since the murder attempt. “You did well, Nanjun, her interference is, unfortunately, something we cannot afford to tolerate. We do have a minor problem, however.”

Nanjun blinked. Problem? Haoxi continued, looking downwards. “If you can somehow, gather together your men in the department tonight. Take them off any other assignment, and have them look through the all of the archive precedents for any reason why I should take the ceremonial place. If we can finish that before tomorrow’s dawn, we may have a chance, yet.”

“Why?” asked Nanjun, quietly, “I was lying to her about having sufficient manpower in the Ministry of Rites right now, I really don’t have men to spare.”

“You must.” Haoxi said, firmly, looking firmly at Nanjun’s eyes, firm and forceful. “If not, take Yunqi and some of the eunuchs who can read with you.” Looking frustrated at Nanjun’s continued confused look, he shook his head, fondly. “Dolt. Even if the Empress hasn’t been to see Father, Prince Feng and Prince Fu have. They’ll instantly tell her what we know about him: he doesn’t want to deal with business at all.”

Nanjun felt his heart sink. “Oh.” He felt remarkably stupid for not remembering this properly.

“Right.” Haoxi said, gently. “Don’t worry, don’t worry. You lied well, you bought us the rest of the day, at least. We should have been faster about this before now, but well...other concerns have taken priority.”

“But we can’t take the precedents to court, so...?”

“No.” Haoxi said, shaking his head. “You’re right. I might have enough positions for that after the Scholar Announcement Feast, and the planned reshuffle of promotions that Zhimin’s planning. But before? Feng’s still got the most supporters. No, we have to do exactly what you said before. Go to Father and beg him to decide.”

Nanjun gave Haoxi a look of concern. “Well, that won’t work. He doesn’t want to hear about the business of ruling.”

“No. Not from me, at least. But from you?” asked Haoxi, blinking. At Nanjun’s startled look, Haoxi laughed. “Come on, Nanjun, don’t act stupid, I know you aren’t. He likes you far more than he likes me. He’s constantly asking after when you’ll come and see him next. Recite him some poetry or something, get him pliant and then make a fuss about how you haven’t been able to write because of the Scholar’s Announcement Feast taking all of your time. Then he’ll be bound to make a decision.” Haoxi shrugged, “Underneath all of the illness, our straight-backed father is there. Somewhere. With you asking, he’ll definitely at least consider it.”

It wasn't strictly false. Nanjun hadn’t had any time to write poetry since his return to the capital, because of his numerous duties: mostly to do with gaining favour on Haoxi’s behalf, and his attempts to appease everybody about the marking of the civil service exams. Still, there was something uncomfortable about the weaponizing of this knowledge to beg favours from his father.

“I don’t know, Haoxi.” he said, quietly, “Didn’t you and I hate that the most about the other princes? They would just cry and grovel to appeal to his loving side, and their crocodile tears would let them squeeze away from anything, and gain anything? Didn’t we say that was the problem with the Kingdom? I don’t know if I can employ those same tactics.”

At this, Haoxi paused, and nodded, considering. “Yes.” he agreed, reluctantly. “But Nanjun, regardless of how you do it, we need Father to sign off and make a decision on his own. And he’s an unreadable entity. You and Mother are the only ones who could move him, and it makes even less sense coming from Mother.”

Nanjun paused. He’d almost said to Haoxi what she’d said about Sichuan. He should mention that she’d been trying to blackmail him with that. So, it wouldn’t become a problem. But he hadn’t made his decision yet. He didn’t know what he could do with the knowledge he had, didn’t know how he could handle everything.

Still. He should say something.

“Nanjun?” asked Haoxi, carefully, reaching out to touch Nanjun’s arm, worry etched over his face, but just at the moment, Yunqi entered, looking blank.

“Lord and Lady Chen are here for you.” he said.

Nanjun stood up, quickly, moving away from Haoxi’s concern. “I’ll go and see him. But I could use those eunuchs, then. To search the archives.”

“Yunqi, find some trustworthy eunuchs that read? Assign them to the Ministry of the Rites for the day. We need to scour the archives.” Haoxi said, waving his hand in dismissal. There was a sharp look in his eyes, as he watched Nanjun leave though, that Nanjun didn’t want centred on him.

As he and Yunqi left together, passing by the Lord and Lady Chen of the western provinces, Nanjun felt a little twitchy, nervous. He couldn’t help but, shamefully wish, that he was spending time with Taiheng instead, wrapped up in that tight, warm embrace for the night, instead of the long night spent within the confines of the library he was sure to have instead. But duty called, and Nanjun always placed duty first.

He felt tired and stupid though, not ready for a day of politics and angles and thinking about how to debate.

It was also, as he suppressed a yawn behind his sleeve, that Nanjun noticed that they weren’t making their way to the eunuch’s quarters, but instead, towards the physician quarters. “Yunqi?” he asked, mystified.

“Tea.” Yunqi said, shortly, “You look like the elephants of India have all taken turns in trampling you to shreds. And if we’re working overtime tonight, I want some tea being regularly delivered to us.”

"Are you joining me? Are you not busy with duties also?” Nanjun said, surprised.

“During court sessions, yes. But at night, I will come and join you. Every eye helps you write that report, does it not?” Yunqi demanded, opening a couple of almost-hidden doors with his keys. “I can afford to lose a night of sleep to fuel a victory.”

Nanjun felt a small burst of warmth in his chest. “Thank you.” he said, quietly.

“Drink some goddamn water.” Yunqi said, gruffly, pointedly not looking at Nanjun as they entered the kitchen next to the physicians. It was endearing, and Nanjun couldn’t help but smile to himself, softly.

-

After an allnighter of poring over books, Nanjun’s eyes and fingers felt gummed together. His mouth was dry, he’d almost fallen asleep on his ink-stone five times, and his clothes felt stiff, as if they had absorbed the quality of the books by spending so much time in the dry, cold library. Hot tea being regularly delivered had been helpful, but ultimately, Nanjun was sure he was walking away from this night a little sicker than before, and definitely out of commission for the rest of the day.

Still, clutched within his hands was a report, filled with precedents of crown princes traditionally being the ones to replace the Emperor, in events of emergencies or other regential duties. Empresses only ever took over when the Emperor was not yet of majority, and that very much was not the case with his Father-Emperor.

If only he could argue this in court where it deserved to be fought out. How he hated that politics blinded people to the obvious choices. Hated how bribery and corruption and blatant pursuits of people’s own self-interests, above the country as a whole, was something encouraged and allowed, instead of discouraged. Any attempts to curb corruption were always too small, and therefore just seen as a way to weed out those who weren’t determined enough. A stepping-stone to playing the game better, instead of a deterrent.

Nanjun hated the game, and but he had to play. There was no other way, if he wanted another world, a better world.

Shuozhen’s party had shown that in stark clarity. To stand still and wring your hands was a violence in itself.

He also had the makings of a poem in his head, ready for his father. It was rough, and coarse, and nothing like the poems he would have had, should he have had the time to sit and bounce ideas off his friends and family, but he hoped there was something of his emotion within it. Something that would make his Father-Emperor willing to listen to him.

As he approached his father’s main quarters, the main eunuch there bowed to Nanjun and disappeared within the chambers. He tugged at the edges of his sleeves, the robes his Father-Emperor had gifted him when he’d become married. It was a slightly manipulative way of dressing, but it felt less manipulative than crying crocodile tears about his duty being too heavy a burden.

The eunuch returned, the guards opened the door, and Nanjun entered, footsteps echoing as he was once more overwhelmed with the scent of sickness and death, poorly masked by the thick stench of flowers and fruits. He walked up slowly, to his father, stopping at the foot of the dais, to bow lowly. “My Lord Father-Emperor, I pay you my respects on this beautiful day. May you live long.”

“Get up.” his almost-father demanded, voice scratchier than it had been before, his withered, paper-thin hand shaking, dismissively. “The sun has only just risen, and yet my son is already here? This is unusual news indeed, I have never known for you to rise before the sun is already halfway through its passage.”

“I have been struck with the throes of inspiration, tormented by the muses until the dayrise, until I am able to pen this poem into the world. And yet, I am uncertain about it, and without a soul to listen to me. My wife is miles away, my royal brothers are swallowed by their tasks, and my apprentice has grown past me. Who then could I turn to, except my illustrious father?” Nanjun's tone was carefully light and flippant, in the tone his father-emperor appreciated the most.

His almost-father cracked a small smile, a weak smile that seemed to take far too much effort. “Very well, Nanjun, child, you understand my love for your poetry. What has kept you awake for so long?”

Nanjun cleared his throat and shut his eyes, thinking of the burning oil in the middle of the night, and the smooth slide of brush against parchment, and the low intonation he’d been practising.

“In the depths of the walled city,
Behind bustling marketplaces and serene gardens,
Around laughing children and weeping mothers,
A spider spins its web, diligently,
What does he catch, limbs extending askew?
In the spaces between material worlds,
Lacking insects, he deals in a different currency,
Producing more silk, he spins, ceaselessly.”

Nanjun held for a moment, after he’d recited, before opening his eyes. The Emperor looked thoughtful as he mulled over the poem, some hints of suspicion in his face as he looked at Nanjun. “Different, from your usual poems.” he said, finally.

Nanjun didn’t know how to respond, and shrugged. Yes. It was less witty, less involved with questions of the universe, of perception and of human pain. It was rawer. “A first draft rarely is. But the poem wouldn’t leave me alone.”

“Who is the spider?” asked his Father-Emperor, and Nanjun mused that he couldn’t have been the undisputed Emperor so long without implicitly understanding what Nanjun was talking about.

“No one person in particular. Anybody in our government, I suppose.” Nanjun murmured, tugging on the end of his sleeve, again, and feeling the tablet shift, and weighting down the sleeves, a little unnaturally.

The Emperor exhaled and pressed back into his pillows, eyes narrowed, pensively. For a moment, a spark lit his eyes, the brooding spark of the Emperor-Father who had so assertively ruled over their nation for so long, returned. “That is cynical, my son.”

“Is it? Or am I speaking the truth nobody wishes to talk about?” he asked, sharply, before bowing his head again, a little more contritely, at his almost-father’s look of warning. “Politics has grown sourer to me.”

“Why?” asked his father, looking quietly concerned. "Surely you, my son, do not engage with it.”

“It is true, I prefer the celestial world.” Nanjun murmured, gently, tugging at his sleeve. “And the world outside of the palace politics has always been more appealing to me. But I have seen these days, that every part of our lives is affected by politics. It is impossible to be apolitical, and to do so, is to ignore the influence that powerful hands have upon the world, and stay willfully blind.”

His Father-Emperor coughed, loud and long, and Nanjun rushed up to his side, to hold up the silk to his face. A great hock of yellow mucus came from the Emperor’s lungs, and Nanjun had to suppress the shudder of disgust, as he stepped away. The scent of death had intensified, just a little. “H-how so?” asked his Emperor, weakly.

“My brothers recently were fighting over the expansion of the Canal, to change the labour tax amount to two months, to the Canal would be dredged in time for the arrival of tribute goods. But in doing this, the farmers will be pulled from their fields earlier and for less time. The crops would be in danger, and the landscape similarly in danger. Famine would have been a serious threat, should it have gone ahead, and the landscape of the rivers would have changed too, because of the proposed widening. Nature would be entirely changed by the whims of the Court. My Haoxi stayed strong. Crown Prince didn’t wish to dredge the canal and hurt the crops, even if it would mean more money for the imperial family. But perhaps another would not have stayed strong, and the world would suffer. Politics matters.”

Nanjun’s fingers curled into blankets at the edge of the Emperor’s bed and stared at his slightly taken-aback expression.

“...you have changed.” The Emperor said, finally, looking weary. “I am not sure it is for the best.”

“Neither am I.” Nanjun said, quietly. “But you see, there is a need for it.” From within his sleeve, he produced a tablet. “The Scholar's Appointment Feast draws ever closer, and debate rages in the courts over who will do the appointment. There’s power in it, for the entire country is watching and waiting with bated breath on the results. Whoever who does the ceremonial duties holds the lives of hundreds in their hands, and are seen as the will of the Gods. Of course, it is usually the Emperor, but my glorious father is bedridden, and should not try himself in this troubling time. So then, who must take your place?”

“Enough.” said the Emperor, looking irritated. “Take that away. And leave if you are just--” He coughed, briefly, “--going to talk about the nation. Leave those matters to your brother.”

“My Father-Emperor, please--” Nanjun murmured, carefully, bowing his head, "This country has need of your illustrious counsel once mo--”

“No!” The Emperor shouted firmly, taking the tablet from Nanjun’s outstretched hands and throwing it. It was so weak that it barely cleared the edge of his bed, but the message was quite clear. “All these trivial matters, all of these misdeeds--I don’t care anymore! Leave them to others, I am dying. I will spend my time as I wish!”

Nanjun was quiet for a moment, and moved away from his father-emperor's bed. He briefly thought about giving up, as he bent down to pick up the book he’d spent the past ten hours trying to craft. But, if he was to give up so quickly, what service could he serve to Haoxi and Shuozhen?

“I will not.” Nanjun snapped, firmly, hitting the blankets with the cover of the tablet with a loud smack, that startled his Father-Emperor into flattening back against his pillows. “It is the most minor of issues, I agree! An optics issue, of who does what, so trivial it should not take up all the discussion in court like it does. And yet the state of politics in our country means that myself and my brother were almost murdered over this. I will not stop, to spare you!”

His Father-Emperor’s mouth opened in surprise. “Murdered?” he demanded, surprised.

“While you have shut yourself in your room, filled with self-pity, neglecting your duties, in favour of creature comforts, the country crumbles, and my brother only just keeps it together. Yes, murder. I wonder which one of your sons felt humiliated and desperate enough to resort to murder over a trivial issue?” Nanjun demanded, tilting his head to the side, in mock anger.

There needed be no words exchanged among them. They both knew there was only one prince who would stoop that low.

“It is a low time, indeed.” The Emperor agreed, a weariness coming over his features, “My eldest son driven to murder--how can this be?"

"When our family members do wrong, perhaps it is time to disavow them, instead of mourning them!" Nanjun snapped, before the hypocrisy tinged at his soul a little. He could deal with that, later.

"And you!? Politics? Factions? My youngest son, untouched by earthly desire--I cannot recognize you!" The Emperor's voice rose until it was near deafening from this close, but Nanjun knew that it was the sort of lashing-out that scared animals too weak to truly fight back, engaged in.

Nanjun shook his head. “Father-Emperor. You are the light of my eyes, and the one I respect as equally as my other father. But that is where you have been wrong in viewing these disputes. Although many succession struggles are over personal power, I would not support Haoxi, no matter how close to my heart he is. Haoxi believes in change for the better. A more efficient system, with corruption truly discouraged, and where true merit can rise, instead of simply family connections. A place where citizens can feel safe under ruling lords. That’s a future I want to live in. There’s a reason to follow power, when power is noble and righteous and cares truly about the world.”

It didn’t feel like his father-emperor was in the right state just yet, but he was becoming more and more convinced. “This feast. In your absence, somebody must represent you. The Empress or Haoxi, as the Crown Prince. Whoever you chose is a sign to the rest of the court. Haoxi doesn’t need to sway people, so much as he needs them to listen to him. I feel that there are enough good men in the ministries who would support his methods, if given a reason to notice him, other than his position.” Nanjun murmured, softly, and wondered what he was doing.

He wasn’t sure that he was doing anything that Haoxi or Shuozhen couldn’t have done.

The Emperor was on the verge of saying something, but right at that moment, Taiheng walked in, feathered cape sweeping behind him, as he came forward to kneel at the Emperor’s dais. “Your glorious majesty, I bring your daily medicine, in lieu of my Master, who had a small affair of business to attend to this morning.” It was a strangely tense moment for Taiheng to walk in, and Nanjun couldn't help but wonder if he had been listening in, and picked a moment of quiet to enter.

The Emperor frowned. “Rise.” But he didn’t say anything about his medicine, and Taiheng was not so bold as his Master, to just walk up to him with them. “Boy, what do you think of the Crown Prince? What is his character?”

Nanjun’s eyes widened. Oh. His Father-Emperor was unaware of the connection between Taiheng and Haoxi. This was...innumerable luck. He looked at Taiheng, who was taking a surprisingly long time to answer, and wondered. Surely...

“I think, that he would be a bad Taoist.” Taiheng said, finally, and Nanjun felt something in his heart crash. No! What was he saying? But Taiheng continued, anyway.

“Taoists are meant to fly free above the earth. Relinquish material possession and obsessions. Care about nothing too intensely. Crown Prince could never do that. But that is because he truly cares about every single person, and takes notice of every small detail in the Palace.” He paused again, to hum softly, to come up with words, and Nanjun’s heart eased a little, feeling touched. “When I was first passing by the main halls with my medicine for my Master, he not only noticed me and halted his small party from walking straight into me, he offered me help carrying them, and invited me into conversation. He was clearly going somewhere. He clearly had a purpose, but he stopped for me anyway. He notices and he cares, and that is for me, the mark of a bad Taoist, and a wonderful Emperor.”

Nanjun exhaled, a soft sigh of content. Oh. Right. That was his brother. Somebody who inspired loyalty. The person he believed in, more than anything.

“So it is.” The Emperor exhaled, and fell silent for a while. Nanjun and Taiheng were frozen into silence from their places next to the bed. Nanjun didn’t know anything more to say, really. And Taiheng had not been bid to speak again, but the Emperor had been entirely too silent for too long...

“How long, boy, until I die?” asked the Emperor, wearily.

Nanjun started. “My Lord Father-Emperor, what things do you say?” he demanded, plaintively.

“Be quiet, child. You and everybody who walks into here knows the truth. I am not so blind. How long, boy?”

Taiheng blinked, long and slow, his long lashes brushing over his cheeks. “Two months.” he said, quietly. “With rest.”

“Aahh.” The Emperor shifted carefully in his blankets and struggled to sit upright. At Nanjun’s motions to try and support him, he snarled and Nanjun backed away, letting him slowly, excruciatingly, painfully, push himself up to his elbows. With shaking arms, he pushed himself straighter, edging upwards, beads of sweat springing up across his forehead.

When he was finally sitting upright, he let out a few ragged breaths before speaking. “You have a devilish concoction in your hands. Go away, and make me something else, that will restore my strength, not my qi.”

“Your gracious majesty, I don’t think--”

“No!” snapped the Emperor, gripping the edges of his bed. “If I am dying, then I will no longer ‘sit here and pity myself.’” Nanjun felt a start of guilt at his harsh wording. “I am going to attend that Feast. Tell the Palace that they will make arrangements for me. I want several subtly placed chairs, so I may sit. There, is your problem not solved?”

Nanjun felt his heart beat, cautiously. It wasn’t really solved, but. It was better than the Empress rising. “It is a great kindness you have done upon me.” he murmured, softly.

“Get me that concoction my first physician made, boy. The one that gave me temporary strength, I have need of it. And send for Crown Prince, Nanjun, I want to see him.” The Emperor looked cranky and weak and sallowly ill, but there was the backbone of his Father-Emperor that Nanjun had remembered. Nanjun bowed, lowly.

“To hear is to obey, my gracious father-emperor.” Nanjun kowtowed lowly, and quickly left the room, wondering what manner of events he had sent into motion with his honesty.

-

Once when Nanjun was young, he'd climbed into a tree to act as a lookout for Haoxi, who'd been attempting something trivial, something Nanjun no longer remembered. What he did remember, however, was tumbling out of the tree, and falling to the ground, and breaking his arm. He didn't remember crying, but Shuozhen had assured him later that he'd fainted too fast to cry. He'd been treated well by the imperial physicians, quite positive about his recovery, under their care. A broken arm for a young boy was practically nothing, after all.

Haoxi had hung around his bed a lot, and read Nanjun a lot of stories, when Nanjun didn't have the strength to hold up the scrolls. It had been quiet, and hadn't been much of an issue, but he did remember his parents from Sichuan hurriedly travelling to the Capital.

Their eyes had been bright and concerned, relief dripping from their body language, as Nanjun had plaintively told them he was fine and didn't need any extra sympathy because he was a 'a young man'. They'd dropped all of their duties for him, and stayed with him until the cast was removed, until he was able to go back to work, even with severe restrictions on what he could do.

Nanjun didn't have many memories of his parents, not really, not when he'd spent all of his time at the Palace, but he did remember their protectiveness for their own, and their extreme pride in their love for both Haoxi and Nanjun equally. Nanjun wondered, sometimes, whether that should have been a warning sign. That for both the Emperor, and his other parents, loyalty had always been the ultimate quality.

There were some people not worth being loyal to. Nanjun had known that, even as a child.

Prince Feng had had a group of tight-knit friends--but calling most of these children 'friends' was a folly, for they were more like sycophants than anything else. They'd said yes a lot, and followed his suggestions and taken pride in being connected to the then-Crown Prince. They'd never seemed like people that Prince Feng had genuinely liked, but they'd stuck together as if they'd been glued together at the hips, so Nanjun had assumed that there was something more to their relationship in private.

(Haoxi had been much less generous in his assumptions, but he'd always been inclined to think badly about his brothers.)

And then, one day, one of the noble children, a person so forgettable Nanjun truly didn't know his name anymore, had messed up. He'd let one of Prince Feng's big corruption schemes become uncovered, because of his own carelessness and inability to detect the Imperial Investigative Bureau on his tail. The case had exploded, and according to the main eunuchs at the time, Prince Feng had had to sacrifice his lackey's name, making the promise that even if the lackey's reputation would be forever smeared, he'd be provided with enough money to live comfortably.

Instead, the sycophant ended up taking full blame for everything and was killed by the Imperial Investigative Bureau, who were frustrated to not have caught Prince Feng red-handed.

There was no point in being loyal to people who held no regard for you. But there was also no use being loyal to those who were cruel and evil. Loyalty had to always have a limit, and the limit should have been criminal activity.

Nanjun had read once, in a copy of a religious text of the Hindus of India, that there had been a great civil war between the princes of a dynasty, fighting over their birthright and the virtuousness needed to rule their country. It had been a fascinating story, but what had struck with him was what the god-avatar had said to the righteous brother, uncomfortable and unhappy with fighting and killing his cousins and kin.

"How could we dare spill the blood that unites us? Where is the joy in the killing of kinsmen?" The prince had asked, despondent and angry.

The god-avatar had spoken about the evil of letting evil lie. As family, they had been given chances, time and time again to follow the path of righteousness. The god-avatar had begged for the evil king to change his mind and do the right thing, but each time, the evil king had responded with deception, trickery and attempts to humiliating or murdering the good princes. And ultimately, doing good in the world, being able to consider yourself a good person, was when you decided that even your family could be sinners, and that you must take a sword in hand and slay them.

Nanjun supposed the metaphor didn't translate so well here. The sins of the father became the sins of the great-grandchildren, and the third-cousins under the laws of the Shang dynasty. Family relations always led to culpability inside their great Empire. And it was true: loyalty and aid between family members was considered one of the most important values, and many family members were indeed involved with, or cognizant of evil done by the father.

But what then, of the innocent? What then indeed?

-

When Nanjun woke from his light nap at his house, after dealing with a million requests at the Ministry of Rites, to accommodate the changes happening the Ministry of Personnel, Taiheng had sent him a message.

It was in Yunqi’s handwriting, but it was signed by Taiheng, so Nanjun knew who to blame.

Nanjun, down for a night of fun?

Meet me at the Night Mart, in West Dancer’s District. The Heavenly Music House.

Taiheng.

It seemed, somehow, strangely light-hearted, for the tone of their courtship so far, but Nanjun decided that he deserved this. A night of fun with Taiheng sounded quite attractive after the toils and worries of before, and so, he quickly sprung upwards, and dressed himself in some nice robes, in a black, blue and silver. The robes were not the finest, so as to not get robbed by some person looking to try their luck on a rich person, but he had been told by Jiuguo that it made him looked refined, which was really, what he wanted Taiheng to think of him. Adjusting his hair with a blue ribbon, instead of the usual scholar’s hat, Nanjun left his house, and took a palanquin down to the Dancer’s District.

There was a small part of him worried about this. Being in public was always something to be wary of, especially when it was truly public, and not just inside another’s house. Still, he suspected he would easily keep his hands to himself until they were in private, and there was nothing wrong with two friends going to a music-house together.

As they got into the thick of the dancing district, with the music getting loud enough to feel in his heart, Nanjun stopped his palanquin, and got down to walk. He liked the convenience of the palanquin, but there was something a little more real about walking in the midst of everything. He didn’t much like spending time in the music and dancing house districts, but there was something slightly charming about the beautiful men and women who stood outside the establishments, trying to out-compete the others, both in ridiculously elaborate costumes, that showed off as much as possible, and in their speed of playing.

The practised and easy taunts between the different establishments, thrown across the street by the dancers and the patrons, who bought into these superficial divides. The smell of perfume clinging to every corner, and the sensuous hint of food within the gauzed, silked buildings. The low-pink tinge of the lanterns that lined the streets, and the dappled light that fell across everybody’s face made everybody, even the ugliest man, seem younger and brighter.

And then a pair of pretty hands covered Nanjun’s eyes, very lightly resting against his face, as if nervous to hurt him. “Surprise?” asked the low, velvety voice, and Nanjun laughed, gently.

“Taiheng, you realize you have an extremely distinctive voice?” he teased, lightly, not quite wanting to say that he could tell it was Taiheng even from the shape of his fingers against his face. Not quite wanting to admit he remembered every detail of Taiheng’s skin against his in crystal clarity.

“Aah. It’s fun anyway.” Taiheng, not sounded altogether disappointed, as he pulled his hands away, and smiled at Nanjun directly instead. He looked vastly different than he did in court. He’d ditched the distinctive feathered cape behind, leaving him in a plain, peach-coloured hanfu, that lit him up from inside. There was kohl smudged around the inside of his eyes, and only half of his hair was tied back. He looked like a dancer, and Nanjun couldn’t quite stop his eyes raking over him, taking in the way the colour brought out the golden-undertones of his skin, and how soft he looked without the intimidating feather cape.

“You’re beautiful.” Nanjun said, with a sort of hushed silence, meeting Taiheng’s gaze. “But alas, you look so similar to everybody here, how will I be able to find you in the crowd? I’ll lose you so quickly, and then where will we be?” he teased, gently, leaning forward to smooth down some of his hair.

“I suppose I’ll just have to keep a tight hold on you, won’t I?” asked Taiheng, archly, stepping forward teasingly, and looping his arms around Nanjun’s waist.

Nanjun gasped a little, at how firmly Taiheng’s fingers squeezed around him, and the smug, contented look on Taiheng’s face, as he let go, and slung his arm over Nanjun’s shoulder in a safer grasp, was something he wouldn’t forget for a while. “Come on, we’re a little far from the Heavenly Music House, let’s go.”

“Does it matter where we go?” Nanjun asked, leaning surreptitiously into Taiheng’s side.

Taiheng hummed, and there was something a little apologetic in his glance, as he turned back to Nanjun, his eyes shuttering a little. “Yes. Yes, there is. Sorry.” He lowered his voice, so that Nanjun could only just hear him, even with Taiheng’s arm over his shoulder. “So Yunqi-ge said he has contacts in the South. In the pugilist way. But he kind of routes through me. And they came back to me about somebody who might talk to us.”

“And they work in the Heavenly Music House.” Nanjun murmured, putting the pieces together. “So this is work?”

Taiheng turned to face him directly, their noses almost brushing. “No reason it can’t be a bit of both, right?” he murmured, and his brown eyes glinted gold again, and Nanjun felt his heart skip a beat or three.

“Mmm.” Nanjun replied, unable to manage anything else, as they got swept up in a small crush of people leaving the Bamboo Shoots House, and got jostled right into Taiheng’s arms. It took a moment to centre himself, by which point, Taiheng had already re-calibrated, and pulled them both completely upright, and was tugging Nanjun through the crowd, a firm grasp on Nanjun’s wrist.

“Clumsy.” Taiheng teased, over his shoulder, quite firmly steering them towards a place covered in white gauze cloth, and small delicate murals in mother-of-pearl across the doorway. An expensive sort of place, then?

They quickly delved inside, and were overwhelmed with the thick scent of jasmine, and the sound of a cheerful guzheng from within, plucking away a light and familiar tune. Harmless and welcoming. “Gentlemen.” said a pretty lady, with soft pink blush on her cheeks, and lilac robes. “May I help you in some way or another?” Her bosom was covered in the turkish style fabrics, in that style that was popular these days, but the noblewomen hadn’t quite caught onto yet.

Taiheng smiled, both sincerely, and a little coyly. “Not yourself, but I hear that FeiWen is popular these days?”

She sighed, gently, and tilted her head to the side again, a little more flirtily. “You’re sure I can’t satisfy?”

Taiheng pulled a small, pouty face of sadness. “I’m afraid so. I need her more for...business rather than pleasure. Tell her a friend of Zhenping has come by and needs urgent attention.” Then, he winked and placed a single coin on top of her cleavage, with a wink.

She smiled, quite pleased, gave Nanjun a slightly lecherous look, before disappearing. “You look experienced.” Nanjun said, mildly, leaning in close, over Taiheng’s shoulder.

“Pleasure men and pleasure women hear lots of things.” Taiheng mumbled, his hands sneakily reaching behind to pat at Nanjun’s waist. “Men are really bad at...umm..not sleeping with people for a long time. They never seem to fight it in big cities like Chang’an.”

“People ruled by their libido do not good spies make.” Nanjun murmured back, amused, as the woman in lilac reappeared and made a gesture for them to join her on the employees only staircase. They quickly climbed up the tiny space, ducking their heads to avoid getting knocked, as they crept upwards, behind the silken private rooms, that seemed much less private, when you could see the fragile boards, barely a few limi thick.

“She’s in there.” said the woman in lilac, nodding to them, before disappearing down the stairs, to try and gain more money for the night. Inside the small private room, a woman with the most piercing blue eyes Nanjun had ever seen, sat in perfectly polite form. She was very modestly dressed, no cleavage in sight, and no gauze to show off her wrists. Her makeup was thick, and her face was pretty emotionless, but Taiheng beamed at the sight of her.

“FeiWen, it is nice to finally meet you!” He then spoke in that other dialect he knew, and this made her face light up slowly. Nanjun only caught Taiheng’s name and Yunqi’s name in the mix, before they reverted back to standard, for Nanjun’s sake. “I have need of information on the man from QianTian who was supposed to kill the Crown Prince.”

“Huo? He’s just an idiot with a sword.” said FeiWen, shaking her head. “He’s not the mastermind at all. He was told to point and kill.”

“Did he say by who?” Nanjun asked, gently.

“No. He never mentioned, and if he’s dead now, he never will. But. He doesn’t have to. His presumed employer comes by every now and then, and rants about his political rivals to anybody who’ll listen, after he’s drunk enough.” said FeiWen, dryly, and Nanjun felt his breath catch in his throat. That was...more than they could have hoped for.

“Is he here tonight?’ asked Taiheng, eyes glinting, catching on something that Nanjun hadn’t.

“Yes, he will be soon.” she said, and it was clear she was testing for something.

Taiheng leant back and nodded. “Okay. Entertain him tonight, get him drunk. Then ask him about politics and the murder, subtly. We’ll wait behind the wall. And in return, I’ll pay you now, and make sure more money goes to Zhenping for your family. It would of course be nice if this means we can do more together in the future...”

FeiWen looked momentarily blank, before nodding and rising to her feet. “Good doing business with you, Taiheng. Now and in upcoming days.” Beaming happily, Taiheng pulled out a large amount of gold coins, which disappeared into her sleeves. She smiled briefly, again, and left the room.

“Different.” Nanjun murmured, watching her go.

“Some like the vision of people wrapped up tightly, instead of on display. They feel like it’s more of a challenge that way, I think.”

“They’re still in a music house.” Nanjun pointed out, and Taiheng shrugged, lightly.

“Don’t tell me. This has never been a place I want to spend free time. Spent too much time learning a instrument in these places....” He leant into Nanjun’s arm, as they went to go and sit outside the private room, and wait, quietly. Inside the tightly cramped space, behind the fragile board, knees tucked under their chins and their sides smooshed up close to each other, Nanjun couldn’t help but turn and kiss Taiheng, carefully, trying to not move any other part of himself, no matter how uncomfortable that was.

“You look so beautiful tonight.” Nanjun murmured. “This is important work, but--”

“--you want more?” finished Taiheng, and he nodded, a little eagerly, and breathlessly. “Your robes are less plain. It’s really...nice.”

“Just nice?” asked Nanjun, teasingly.

“Would be better if you weren’t wearing them.” Taiheng said, a little boldly, and Nanjun felt his ears heat up a little in response, and his cock stir, just a little.

But before they could say anything else to each other, the slightly tipsy Prince Fu was ushered into the room, with three other women, two other aristocrat boys that Nanjun vaguely recognized and FeiWen. Fu? Well, that made sense. Nanjun had never seen Prince Feng as lecherous and loose-lipped when drunk. He was an arrogant, egoistic bastard, but he’d always held a noble poise to him.

Not like Prince Fu, who was a disaster of a Prince, with an explosive temper, and a stupid brain. Nanjun waited and listened as they sat and clumsily flirted and drank some more. FeiWen rose to play the guzhang, her face entirely blank, but her body perfectly tilted and curling as she fell into the trap of the music. Nanjun shut his eyes in pain, halfway through, as Fu interrupted her masterful piece and pulled her into his lap.

And as he started to get handsy, she started to ask the questions they needed.

“My Lord Fuzhao, tell me more about your exploits in court. Who have you vanquished, who has been destroyed?” she asked, and her voice was a higher-pitched falsetto.

He laughed, loud and raucous, hiccuping halfway through. “Cherry blossom, you ask the sweetest questions. I am always winning! There is nothing but success in my path. Anybody who challenges me will fear for their existence!” His face turned redder with every movement, and truly, he was the image of every drunk lecher that their government desperately needed to get rid of.

“How so? Do you fight them with your sword?” She touched his thigh here, but clearly meant something else. Taiheng mimed throwing up and Nanjun had to suppress the burst of laughter that threatened to appear.

“Of course not!” he said, squeezing her tightly. “I fight people only in the training courts, as a gentlemen. But of course. They don’t need it to personally come from me to know. I can destroy anybody. But I can help them too, if they let me fill their coffers.” He swayed lecherously, and made the money sign.

“Too right!” exclaimed one of the other drunk boys, “How else would we all be here for you, huh?’ he asked the lithe musician in his lap. “A couple little favours, and then-hic-coffers filled!”

There was a low roll of laughter through the room mostly fake, and some exchanges of rice wine, everybody taking a shot behind their sleeves.

FeiWen moaned, softly, in a tone that seemed almost fake, as she put the cup down. “Oh Lord Fuzhao, how grand.” she whispered, and her face came a little more alive. “Who is the one person you want to destroy the most? Who is it who stands in your way?”

Fu looked left and right, and stage-whispered down to her: “Promise your lips are sealed?” He pinched something, and she yelped, in surprise, that turned into laughter, and nodded. It was Nanjun’s turn to mime throwing up, which made Taiheng’s eyes scrunch up in amusement. “Crown Prince. My brother and I will take the throne again, should he go. We tried once already, and this idiot we hired couldn’t even fulfill a single task of severely harming Crown Prince? Who can’t even get one stab in, before dying?”

His voice had come back around to loud now, and every other person in the room had suddenly become a witness as well.

“Huh!” FeiWen said, brightly, "How exciting! Are you going to try again?”

“Of course!’ Fu scoffed, darkly, “Gege says it should happen later though. To not draw suspicion. He’s always got a stick up his arse about these things, but I can’t challenge him yet. I still need he and Mother. But once we’re in power...they’d better watch their backs!”

The men and the other women started laughing, loudly, to support him, and things turned a little more lecherous, but Nanjun and Taiheng had heard what they needed to, and quickly backed away, so they wouldn't have to see the sickening things. Nanjun rather wished they'd paid FeiWen more for the unappealing task of satisfying Prince Fu, and vowed to remind Yunqi or Taiheng about that another time.

“What an idiot.” Nanjun whispered, as they crept down the stairs, with an amused look on his face. “He doesn’t seriously think he could last a moment without Empress and Prince Feng leading his nose everywhere?”

Taiheng shook his head, but his eyes were bright with suppressed mirth and excitement, as they slipped out of the dance house and into the street again. “That’s it!” Taiheng whooped into Nanjun’s ear, joyously, “All of those women will testify in court, if we can pay them enough to disappear somewhere, and have a comfortable life. Zhenping guaranteed it, and you are all rich enough to make that happen.”

“We succeeded.” Nanjun murmured, with a grin. “We have proof now, to get them severely punished.” It wouldn’t be one of the Five Punishments, since the Princes had not actually succeeded in killing Haoxi, but plotting to do it twice would be more than enough.

Taiheng beamed back at Nanjun, that rectangular grin that made him look exceptionally attractive, and he let go of Nanjun to jump around, in a vague impression of a dancer, before grinding slowly in the air, a look of abject victory on his face and smugness. It was supposed to be mildly funny, Nanjun could tell, from the people laughing on the sidelines, assuming Taiheng was a little too drunk.

And maybe Nanjun should have been laughing as well, but Taiheng’s hips moving in the air, his hips swaying side to side, and the glimpses of his thick calves through the fabric only made his mouth go dry, and his own robes tighten a little. All he could think was about how much he wanted to kiss Taiheng, undress him and perhaps press him against a wall and worship his smooth golden skin.

They had spent too much time pressed close together, in a tight space, and his beautifully painted eyes, and slightly disheveled hair were extremely tempting.

“You drunkard.” he teased, forcing a smile onto his face, coming forward to put an arm over Taiheng’s shoulders this time, and steer them up, onwards where they’d left his palanquin. He couldn’t quite help his footsteps increasing, as he dragged Taiheng with him. To his credit, Taiheng seemed to have figured out why Nanjun was in a hurry quite quickly, and was placidly being dragged along.

The moment, he noticed his palanquin-bearers, stopped by the streetside tea-merchant, and drinking, Nanjun ignored them, and walked straight up into the palanquin, pausing only to help Taiheng get on.

As soon as the curtain swung shut on them, Nanjun pressed forward, to kiss Taiheng, pressing him back against the light-weight palanquin wall, with a light thud. Taiheng made a muffled sound of surprise, before he melted into Nanjun’s kiss, and pulled Nanjun closer, to straddle his lap.

His touch was electric, his hands tightly squeezed around Nanjun’s waist, and splayed a little over his ass, and it was everything Nanjun needed right now, to be close up with Taiheng. It had been stupid to think he could have kept his hands off Taiheng for a whole night, not when he was so determined to have Taiheng’s warm shoulders enclosing him, and the headying feeling of Taiheng’s lips slick against his.

He couldn’t quite help but grind down into Taiheng's lap, as he noticed vaguely, that the palanquin was being carried now, his servants presumably having finished their tea. The slow sway of the palanquin made it all the easier for Nanjun to lift his hips and bring them down against Taiheng’s, desperately searching for that fluid friction of warm heat.

“So impatient.” gasped Taiheng, pulling away from the kiss breathlessly, lips a little redder and wetter, his tongue darting out to wet them further. “Can’t even wait the fifteen minutes it takes to get to your house?”

“No.” Nanjun murmured, pressing back in for a haphazard kiss, hitting the corner of his crooked mouth. “But you’re not complaining.”

Taiheng shook his head, with a slow smile. “No, not really.” he said, and they pressed back into each other. Nanjun’s hands went up to tangle through Taiheng’s hair, with great delight, tugging through the knots in his hair, and Taiheng’s grasp on his ass and hips only tightened, every time the sway of the palanquin threatening to send them both hurtling out the sides.

He’d really never felt like this before. Flushed in both an intellectual victory, and in the feeling of being so inherently attracted to somebody, that he couldn’t stay away. It was breath-taking and exhilarating and just a little frightening, if he lingered too much on it, so Nanjun just kissed down Taiheng’s neck instead, nipping lightly underneath the loose hem of his hanfu.

Thankfully, the journey home, really was quite short, and allowed he and Taiheng to tumble out quickly, looking flushed and red, but all clothed, and quite presentable for the servants. His head-of-house still gave him an unimpressed look, as Nanjun moved away quickly towards his private quarters, only just courteously dismissing them until the next morning.

Somehow, as they made their way through the garden, it had turned into a chase, as if they were children. Nanjun fleeing from Taiheng’s hands, which were determined to tickle him into laughter, and Taiheng determined to grasp Nanjun between his arms and kiss him into pliancy. They ran through the gardens, and Nanjun briefly spared a thought for his poor gardeners, but he was so flushed with exhilaration, he couldn't care less.

They almost crashed into the bedroom, Nanjun only just yanking the screen door open in time, and Taiheng catching up to Nanjun just in time to pounce and for them both to heavily land on top of Nanjun’s bed, covered in thick blankets and pillows. Nanjun felt the breath leave him in one fell swoop, as he finally got to take a good look at Taiheng in the same silver-light they’d first seen each other through.

“Heavens, you’re gorgeous.” Nanjun said, voice tremulous and hoarse.

Yours.” Taiheng emphasized, before rolling over and pressing Nanjun into his sheets, for a thorough kissing. He loosened Nanjun’s hair easily, pulling the blue ribbon out, and ruffling out the straightened hair.

From there, they ferociously tried to tug each other’s clothes off, trying their best to not elbow each other, and only just succeeding (Nanjun still managed to stab a knee accidentally into Taiheng’s gut, which slowed them down for a couple of moments, as Taiheng wheezed in pain). But soon enough, their clothes were draped over the floor, and Taiheng’s entirely naked body was sprawled under Nanjun, as Nanjun slid his hands up and down his soft skin.

It was difficult to stop touching him, especially when Taiheng made soft noises under his breath, and never looked away from Nanjun, a desperately earnest gaze. Taiheng’s own legs came up to pull around the back of Nanjun’s thighs, and press them together, skin slicker now, with a slight sheen of sweat.

“Is this alright?” asked Nanjun, as he pressed down against him, to grind against him with a different type of friction, that sent a shudder down his back, at how intense it felt. Taiheng hissed a little, and looked around Nanjun’s room, quickly.

“Oil.” he said, insistently, and Nanjun didn’t protest, instantly pulling upwards, to find something, somewhere. Sure enough, in the back, there was a relatively new bottle of scented massage oil, and he pulled that out, quickly pouring it over his fingers, and slicking up his cock.

He paused, as he turned around, to look at Taiheng sprawled back against his dark sheets, moon glinting off his soft stomach, and pale, thin arms. There was a light cord of muscle around his legs, though, shapely calves from walking and hiking. With his dark hair splayed out behind him, and his eyes hungrily taking in Nanjun’s body, he was a vision.

The heat within Nanjun only got stronger, as he looked at Taiheng and collapsed back on top of him, fingers hesitantly tangling in the hairs around the base of Taiheng’s cock. Taiheng tilted his head back, hair tumbling over just one shoulder, and his mouth fell open in silent pleasure. Taking this as affirmation, Nanjun slowly slid up and down, slicking Taiheng thoroughly, and teasing a little at his tip. He sped up, a little, as Taiheng’s soft high-pitched noises became a little louder, and a little more breathless.

The tight molten pleasure in his stomach only grew more intense, and Nanjun had to stop and straddle Taiheng's thighs, the urge to frot down against Taiheng too strong. “Is this alright?” he asked, again, desperately, and when Taiheng nodded, quite insistently this time, Nanjun ground down, pressing down against Taiheng’s shoulders, and letting their stomachs and cocks slide against each other.

Like this, the soft, wet heat between them and the simple curl of friction overwhelming his senses, Nanjun couldn’t stop the moans escaping him. “Taiheng, ahh, Taiheng, more!” he gasped, pressing his entire body against Taiheng’s chest, rocking more frantically against him, his thighs bracketing around Taiheng’s strong thighs.

“Nanjun.” Taiheng murmured, lower and velvety, straight into his ear, as he gripped tightly at Nanjun’s shoulder, and pulled Nanjun against him, faster and sharper, “Just keep at it, right there.”

“Like this?” Nanjun asked, snapping his hips slowly up against Taiheng’s and the answering groan was more than enough.

It was over far too quickly, Nanjun spilling first, as the tight heat, and the insistent hard feeling of Taiheng’s cock against his stomach, hard and wet because of him, was too much of a stimuli to hold on any longer. But despite the slack sensation of exhaustion that suddenly spread over him, as the waves of pleasure running through him, Nanjun quickly slipped his hands between them, and pumped Taiheng hard and fast, leaning into the crook of Taiheng’s neck to press wet, open kisses where his skin was textured.

Soon enough, Taiheng came all over his hands, with a low, contented moan into Nanjun’s ear, fingers tightening into Nanjun’s shoulder-blades, likely leaving nail-marks. They fell into each other, easily lying together, and breathing, attempting to catch back some semblance of being able to move.

Even though they were sweaty and slick, and just a little too uncomfortably warm for it to be entirely comfortable, Nanjun didn’t want to move one inch from where he and Taiheng were tangled together. Just leaning into him, and smelling the faded perfume of oranges, and the natural scent of his sweat, and knowing that this was Taiheng’s scent was a new wave of dizzy pleasure.

Taiheng’s embrace loosened easily, and he slid them both onto their sides, so they could hug a little easier, while still allowing Taiheng to breathe. Nanjun felt a strong wave of affection for him, as Taiheng smiled at Nanjun like this, disheveled and with a little bit of breathless excitement. They kissed, softly, gently, legs tangling together, in a more contented, more sated way, and Nanjun felt the sway of sleep call him again, even with the tickle of Taiheng’s hair against his cheek.

But Taiheng was a little more awake. “God, what fools.” Taiheng murmured, with a laugh.”‘I’m glad I’m not a dancer or a musician at one of the houses. Fill my coffers, Nanjun-ge, fill me right up!” he mimicked, in a breathy falsetto, before collapsing into tiny giggles. “It’s so stupid.”

Nanjun couldn’t help the snicker at his royal brother’s expense. That had truly been some of the worst sex innuendo he’d heard, and he’d read some truly terrible erotic poetry to try and inspire some of his. Still, the corruption charges took more and more significance these days. He wondered what it would be like, in a world where ‘filling coffers’ wouldn’t be anything except a lewd joke, instead of the tragic reality of their existence.

He hummed, a little discontentedly, and buried his face back into Taiheng’s chest, before frowning, at the light covering of chest-hair.

“You’re tickling me.” he complained, mildly.

“Tough luck.” Taiheng said, cheerily, but adjusted a little, so Nanjun could easier tuck his head in the crook of Taiheng’s neck, where there was neither chest hair, nor actual hair to deal with. “You’re quiet all of a sudden.”

“Yeah, no, it’s nothing, sorry. Corruption just makes me sad, I suppose, even if it’s part of the world.” Nanjun murmured. “I mean, we just technically bribed the people at the dance-house. But it means so much more on a national level...”

“Sure. But it’s not as bad as trying to murder someone.” Taiheng said, a little sleepily.

“No. It’s worse. It’s the inadvertent death of hundreds, maybe even thousands. The gold you embezzle from that relief fund could save so many lives. This bit of money you skive off the money paid to contract labourers could be a difference between a man getting enough to eat or not. This bit of salt you don’t hand into the government, and sell on your own to Turkish traders could mean the difference between a public school for common betterment or just another tavern.” Nanjun murmured, gently. “Perhaps you don’t have a malicious intent to one person: but you benignly destroy the lives of so many more.”

Taiheng blinked, and blinked a little more before humming. “I’d never really thought of it like that.”

“I don’t think the world wants you to think of it that way.” Nanjun said, miserably, “Because you don’t know until you see firsthand the effects of that.” He shut his eyes, and saw the streets of Sichuan. The poor, tired dirty people, and the curled up anger, and the closed shops and splintered farms.

“N-Nanjun...” Taiheng muttered, eyes wider and more awake now, a hand coming out to Nanjun’s shoulder, gently, comfortingly. Nanjun realized, with a start, that he was shaking a little.

“Sorry. Sorry.” he murmured, feeling a deep tinge of embarrassment. “Sorry. I just--” He cut off, because what could he say except the depressing, painful and unavoidable truth?

“What?” asked Taiheng, curiously, and those eyes boring into him, a soft curiosity without judgment made Nanjun let it all loose.

“My parents...are the stewards of Sichuan. There’s a famine there, and Crown Prince sent them disaster funds. I was supposed to go and see over how it had been distributed after they’d done so. And...they hadn’t. They’d taken half of it, and only given half to the people, and the people starved. They wanted money, food, jobs, something and they knew our family was still rich. They tried to demand something, but tensions were heated and my...my father set his guards on them. ‘Violent thugs,’ he called them, in his report, but--you couldn’t say that if you saw them.” Nanjun shuddered, and curled in on himself, pulling away from Taiheng.

“I should have turned in my report earlier. I did wrong. My parents should face the punishment for this severe act of wrongdoing. But you see--” He cut off, and closed his eyes, “Shuozhen and I would be affected. Maybe not me, I’d be the one reporting, after all. But Shuozhen would be. And he can’t--he can’t face any punishment for it! He has...he has a baby boy. I can’t stay silent though. And I can’t lie. And I must face it. I told the Emperor--”

“To disavow family when they have done wrong, not mourn them.” Taiheng said, blankly. So he had been listening in.

“But Shuozhen never did anything wrong. He’s one of the richest men in our government because he understands how to do business, and doesn’t feel fear of the Turcs and their cultural influence...not because he’s someone who engages in corruption. And never from a disaster fund.” Nanjun pleaded. “I don’t know. I don’t know.”

Taiheng’s face, when Nanjun looked up, was distraught, but there were no answers forthcoming in his face. “You should tell Crown Prince. Or Lord Jin.” he said, voice concerned, and soft and wounded.

The patrons I love, love you, thought Nanjun to himself, and swallowed heavily. "Soon.” he murmured. “Soon.”

Taiheng nodded, and then slowly extended his arms out, as if coaxing a wounded animal closer to him. And Nanjun, even though he was scared, pressed closer to him, and curled into his arms, to sleep, disturbed, cold dreams.

-

Soon did not arrive within that next week, in a whirlwind of placement confirmations, integration of the shining new recruits (Nanjun noticed that Jiuguo was not among the people assigned to the Ministry of Rites, which made sense, but also made him wonder about which part of the government Jiuguo had been assigned to). Amidst questions, and queries, and drinking sessions he was reluctantly dragged to in the name of ‘bonding’, Nanjun’s time flew by, until he was attempting to adjust his golden headpiece, surreptitiously, as the Scholar’s Announcement Feast high table.

Haoxi was running a little late, but most of the other royal members had filtered in, to sit at the high table, where they were owed placement. Next down were the consorts of various statuses, dressed in elaborate robes, and towering headdresses, that wobbled with every movement they made. Lower down, were the key ministers all seated together like a cluster of purple-pink peacocks. Shuozhen headed a group of serene-looking finance ministers, who were all arguing profusely, while Shuozhen clearly egged them on. Nanjun was glad this wasn't a battle happening in Court, where he would be forced to endure this fiasco in person. Below them, were the bureaucrats of all smaller levels within their government, and whatever key members of local government had decided to make the journey to Chang'an, despite the distance. Beneath even them sat the new scholars, all wearing their blue-black robes, without the telltale ribbon to indicate which Ministry they were assigned to. Among them was Jiuguo, nervously fidgeting near the back.

And the feast area, the open-air gardens, had been opened to the general public, and the tables lower down were laden with heaving trays of stacked-high meats and sweets and fruits, and with loud conversation, an entire city celebrating and speculating about how the government would look this year.

It was beautiful and bright, and Nanjun’s heart was beating slowly in his chest, at the thought of all of their plans coming to fruition here, where the whole world could see.

And out of the Palace gates, came Haoxi and Consort-Mother together, supporting his Father-Emperor, dressed in his most lavish golden-red robes, the dragon-king come to life. He was still yellow-skinned and sallow, but he was upright, and there was a sort of triumphant energy under his skin, as Haoxi and Consort-Mother helped him to be seated in his gigantic throne, stuffed with surreptitious pillows. They had clearly been talking together, about small things, and watching his Consort-Mother exchange soft smiles with Haoxi in joyous excitement, before floating to her place in the dais was heartwarming.

Haoxi quickly came down to take his seat next to Nanjun, an unstoppable grin over his face. Dressed in yellow robes, he practically glowed, and it was one of the happiest Nanjun had seen his brother all spring.

“What has incited your heart?” asked Nanjun, amused, as he took a sip of juice

“The look on Empress’s face when she saw Mother supporting the Emperor instead of her.” Haoxi said, with a small, delighted laugh, and a clap of joy. It was incredibly petty, and yet the radiant smile never left his face. The contradictions of Zheng Haoxi. “Are they serving food to us yet? I’m starved, I was too nervous to eat this morning.”

“Not yet, I think we have to wait for all of the nominations to happen first.” Nanjun said, but he was wrong, because it seemed they had only been waiting on his father. The servants immediately swarmed out of the sidelines, having waiting on the silent signals. Towering plates of meat stacked up, and the glistening mounds of rice, and quivering bowls of thick curries made Nanjun’s mouth water a little, and Haoxi practically groaned.

“Never have I been so happy that you’re wrong.” Haoxi whispered, as he took a serving of everything, and started to demolish his food in the most polite way he could. Nanjun suppressed a small grin, and started to eat as well, unable to quite stop his gaze searching around the hall for how his other compatriots were doing. Taiheng and Master Li were among the minor bureaucrats, as visiting scholars, Piao Zhimin was there as well, with a large cluster of Piaos, all laughing and eating together. Shuozhen, was of course, entertaining everybody in his segment, and cracking open lobsters, cheerily, in a strange sort of dissonance.

It was nice. Somehow peaceful, despite all of the tension in the air, the anticipation of the upcoming promotions, stretched thin in the air. But somehow, most people at the event were oblivious to it. It was nice. A sign that maybe Nanjun and Haoxi were shouldering burdens that the common people didn’t have to worry so much about.

Which was always the ultimate goal.

As Nanjun started to finish up his plate, his Father-Emperor shakily stood up, and the eunuchs behind them instantly stood to attention and started ringing the bells by the dais. All the way down, bells started to ring, loud and clear and joyous, until the entire venue had fallen silent, save for the low rumble of food still being consumed.

“My people!” called his Father-Emperor, having subtly sat back down, in the time it had taken for the sound to travel. “Today is a joyous occasion, one the Gods shine favourably down upon. The Jade Emperor's Court shines merrily upon us; with every passing day, we take a step towards becoming a heavenly bureaucracy. Your friends, family, brothers and cousins have taken this civil service exam, and receive my honour and my gratitude, and the extended privilege to support our nation: a privilege I enjoy every day. The scholars in front of us all now, are the pride of our country, the most intelligent and virtuous, and it is my honour to welcome every single one of them to our bureaus!”

At his side, eunuchs stood with long scrolls, that extended to the floor, and started calling out the names of the scholars, as well as the ministry or local province they had been assigned to govern. Each time, the newly ordained bureaucrat stood up, kowtowed in the direction of the Emperor, then the crowd, and sat back down again, with a coloured ribbon that a minor eunuch would run over to them.

Despite that, it moved fast. The eunuch’s voices were loud and piercing, unfailingly travelling down across the huge palace garden.

Nanjun knew, in previous years, it had been the Emperor who would read every single name. But this year, it was not. A small accommodation to his weakness, but one the government officials were sure to pick up on. And sure enough, as the list of names continued to be read out loud, the slow buzz of gossip from the more experienced bureaucrats prominently featured the question ‘why are the eunuchs reading for him?’.

Still, there was no resentment about it, which Nanjun had feared, and that was more than enough to keep Nanjun quiet, as he picked a little at the rice and curry still on his plate. This set of nominations were not really surprises to Nanjun: the new recruits had been underfoot for the past couple of days, after all, but it was nice to hear which sons had gotten into which departments.

It was also useful to hear that the Yuan boy had gone to the Ministry of Labour, and that the Chou twins had both gone to the Ministry of Personnel. Allies in difficult bureaus. But still, Nanjun was waiting for just one particular name.

“Tian Jiuguo, Ministry of Defence!” called the eunuch from behind them, and Nanjun pulled a face, into his plate, briefly, before looking up to meet Jiuguo’s eyes as he bowed towards the dais, and the audience. He looked delighted, still, and Nanjun wondered if that lesson he’d tried to teach him a few days ago, had really stuck. It was also a problem because the Ministry of Defence was quite firmly not a fan of Haoxi, especially with his problem with standing armies existing.

“Unfortunate placing for Jiuguo.” Nanjun murmured to Haoxi, lips not moving very much.

“Maybe he’ll be our gateway in, who knows?” asked Haoxi back, looking like he was studiously applauding the next bureaucrat.

“He’s not good at bureaucracy, you know that.” Nanjun chided, softly.

“Not yet.” Haoxi said, and this time, turned to look at Nanjun, “You weren’t either. Now look where you are.”

“I wasn’t bad at bureaucracy.” Nanjun complained. “I just didn’t want to take part.” It was a little too loud, because the eunuch behind them cleared his throat, and they fell quiet, instantly.

“Same difference.” mumbled Haoxi, as the eunuch called out another name. It was a shame it wasn’t Yunqi overseeing them, he was always soft about rules for them.

“Shut up.” Nanjun muttered, and Haoxi’s smile seemed to only get brighter. Sometimes his brother created his brightness from his proximity to the outside world, and other times, he took his own sunshine from spite. It was incessantly confusing.

After some time, the names finally finished, and the entire venue exploded in applause, that continued for a long five minutes. He noticed, that Jiuguo was beaming quietly, as he was applauded and applauded the friends around him, and this melted Nanjun’s heart just a little. When Nanjun’s palms were red and sore, he finally stopped clapping.

Another course of food came out, this time a little lighter, more heavily focusing on vegetarian dishes, and food that looked beautifully constructed. Nanjun didn’t select very much food, his stomach was starting to churn, as they got closer to the tense moment: the exact opposite problem to what Haoxi had felt, as he placidly stuffed his plate full of food again.

And then, their father rose again, and the bells started again. The palace fell silent, and his father coughed a few times, before he spoke again, strong and firm.

“My citizens, our newest scholars are bright and passionate, their youth will fuel us in the times to come. But now, I must celebrate those who have passionately and tirelessly spent their youth working for us. Those who by merit of intense skill and passion, have risen up to become the most skilled in their field. My old returning friends, those who I know well, and those whom I would come to know well! Your talents have seen you rise, may you serve us more, and rise higher in these upcoming years!”

This list was shorter, but the main eunuch behind the Emperor still read them out loud.

And, with a slow dawning shock, as the eunuchs droned on and on, Nanjun realized that every name read aloud was one that Nanjun recognized to be one of their own men, or a man of intense virtue and innocence. In the Ministry of Personnel, in the Ministry of Rites and Culture, in the Ministry of Finance, and the Ministry of Labour. And although the promotions within the Ministry of Defense and the Ministry of Justice were less heavy on names Nanjun recognized, it was still a substantial amount. There were names he knew promoted to heads of important district offices in other parts of the country, and names he recognized being elected as various city officials, and names he knew being elected to represent their interests abroad.

What was going on?

This scale of change, this scale of upheaval in the power-structure felt unprecedented and entirely unexpected. From what Zhimin had promised, he had only expected a few small shifts in appointments to help them out a little. Maybe some key bureaucrats in the Ministries would actually be talented and intelligent men.

This, however? This was madness. The majority of men promoted were there because of their support of Haoxi's ideals, or because of their removal from court factions. Only very few men had been elected on merit of their wealth or their status.

Nanjun turned to look at Haoxi, unable to help the expression of triumphant shock spreading over his face. Haoxi was equally slack-jawed, but there was far more radiant joy over his features, as he leant forward and beamed at every bureaucrat and minister called up. As they kowtowed to the Emperor, their promotion gifts and their extra prestiges were read aloud to the whole crowd, a reminder of just how much of a reward this promotion would be.

And when Nanjun edged over a little, to glimpse upon the faces of the Empress and Prince Feng, he saw nothing but pure, deadened fury. The Empress was deathly still, a stone-like state, that seemed to get more and more stiff, with every name called aloud. Prince Feng’s face was a stony look of cold anger, that only seemed to deepen, as more time passed. And Prince Fu was actively shredding napkins into pieces underneath the table, unable to contain his rage like his family members.

It was...truly visionary, and entirely confusing. What was this? How had these names been decided? How had the Piaos done all of this? Surely, this was not something the Piaos alone could have orchestrated...

“A toast.” Haoxi murmured, softly, not looking at Nanjun directly, as the list of names seemed to be drying up, a little. “To the screaming fits of anger that Prince Feng will have later tonight.”

“I’ll drink to that.” Nanjun murmured, amused, and they both took a simultaneous sip. Nanjun didn’t comment on how shaky Haoxi’s hand was, as he put his cup down. So he was just as confused and lost as Nanjun was, about this sudden upheaval of their fortunes. Who had this sort of power, except...perhaps...the Emperor? But hadn't he and Haoxi been in discussion about the details of the Feast for the entirety of this week?

The last bureaucrat was called and promoted, and finally, all attention turned to the Emperor, who had once again stood up. A wrapping up speech, perhaps, so people could turn to their desserts, and mingle some more?

For the third time that day, Nanjun was wrong.

“And finally, I stand before you, my people, a weak, tired old man.” Nanjun’s brain shuddered to a halt. What.

“These past few months, I have been bed-ridden, and I have been visited by nearly every doctor in the world. Everybody knows, but nobody knows the certain truth. So I stand before you now, and declare it. I am dying. I have been dying for some time. And today, I stand before you with the last of my strength.”

Nanjun surreptitiously pinched himself. Surely, he was not dreaming? What was going on? Why was his Emperor-Father speaking like this to the world? It was one thing to rant about it to his favourite child in privacy. But to the whole world?

“It has been a good reign for you all, has it not?” yelled the Emperor. He was silent, and some of the bureaucrats and common people yelled a resounding yes, but the nobility were silent, eyes still widened in shock and confusion. A low murmur of whispers had started up under everything, but Nanjun was struck too dumb to even open his mouth right now.

“I have achieved many things! I have made peace with the barbarians of the North, I have solidified our trading connections with the South, Buddhism flourished under my reign with discovery of newer sutras, and the populace are prosperous! See what we have accomplished!” He spread his arms dramatically, and Nanjun detachedly wondered, not for the first time, if it was not more likely that Shuozhen and the Emperor were related.

“But I can accomplish that no longer. I have not been accomplishing that for the past year. All of the accomplishments and stability of this year have been the work of only one person. My beloved, trusted son, Crown Prince Ju.”

Nanjun understood, in a lightning-bolt dumbfounded moment exactly what was going to happen, and his throat immediately choked up, with joy, happiness, concern, confusion. But he turned to Haoxi nonetheless, as the entire nation now was, and inclined his head, honouring his time and his work.

“My son had done the impossible, with very little support from all around. My son, who believes in a just and right future, has spent the past year doing what I was not strong enough to, with no advice from his illustrious father. My son, whose heart is pure enough that the gods have shined upon him early. My son, who will be my successor, come here!” The Emperor’s voice was loud and boisterous, and Nanjun blinked, in surprise at the request. Haoxi, was frozen stiff however, looking up at his father with tears in his eyes, and an almost childish expression of shock.

“Go.” Nanjun managed to choke out, shoving at Haoxi’s shoulders a little. Haoxi dazedly stood up, and trip-skipped his way over to the Emperor’s throne, and sunk to his knees in front of him.

“Father--” he muttered, so soft that Nanjun could barely hear him.

“My son!” he boomed, but there was a kind look in his eyes, as he placed his hands on Haoxi’s shoulders. “The Divine Mandate to Rule has been with you since the day you fully took upon my mantle. What I give to you now, is a belated truth. You, were a foregone conclusion. My best decision, my moral dreams put into one person.” And from within his father’s robes, came out the biggest piece of clear white Jade in the entire kingdom of China.

The seal of the Emperor. The Mandate of Heaven. “Come, my son, it is yours now.” said the Emperor, extending it to Haoxi, imperiously.

Haoxi, who was now earnestly sobbing, his lithe frame shaking from the force of his tears, shakily straightened upwards, and bowed low, carefully accepting the treasure with both hands. His Father-Emperor turned to whisper something into Haoxi’s ears, for a few long moments, of tense, quiet silence.

Then, Haoxi turned around, and his arms were stronger, and he was still crying. But he held up the Mandate of Heaven and yelled, firmly, and clearly, “I am the inheritor of the Dragon Throne! To the Jade Emperor up high, I pay my mightiest respects, and to the people whom I serve, await me truly!”

It was not a real coronation. That would be done later. But it was a symbol, it was unheard of. It was the former Emperor giving up the Dragon Throne to a son, because of his perceived morality. It had never been done before. You lived and died on the Dragon Throne, and that was that.

This was...this was his father’s final gift to them all.

Nanjun turned towards the dais, and bowed, low at the waist, and the others around made to follow him. A low roar of cheers came from the common crowd, that steadily got louder as Haoxi extended his arms upwards towards the sky. It was a common euphoria, a sensation of utter glee that bubbled up within Nanjun as he yelled and cried for his brother, and his final success.

However, as he turned towards his Father-Emperor, he caught the dark and dangerous expression on Prince Feng’s face. More than anger, there was nothing less than pure hatred and determination, brimming up under his skin. There would be retribution, there would be secrets uncovered, there would destruction ahead--his eyes promised.

And Nanjun knew, that there was trouble yet, within the Kingdom.

~END: Spring~

FOOTNOTES

1 A bangdi is a long bamboo flute, often used in Chinese classical music. [ return to text ]

2 Banbi are the long streams of shawl-like fabric that often accompanied feminine hanfu, like so. [ return to text ]

3A note on Chinese honorifics! Ge means older brother. Di means younger brother. Jie means older sister, and Mei means younger sister. A single usage is often placed after a name (eg. Nanjun-ge) but a double usage is more like an endearing term (eg. Meimei, how cute!). Er is also another honorific for a younger brother, but this is almost exclusively someone you are close to. [ return to text ]

4A note on royal names! Although the Tang Dynasty Royal Surname in real life was 'Li', since Hoseok's surname translates to Zheng when read in Chinese characters, That is the Royal Surname in this universe. Also, another name convention of Princes is that their official name is different from their private name. So although Zheng Haoxi is his private name, his official name is Crown Prince Ju. [ return to text ]

5 Traditional Tang poetry is split into four line or eight line poems. the first two (or four) lines are dedicated to setting up the physical elements of the scene. The third (fifth and sixth) lines are dedicated towards transcending the mortal world, and talking about emotions and cosmological things. And the final section is returning back to the present. Most poems were also made of only five characters. I kept to this in the Chinese, but the English translation makes no sense in only five words, so that isn't reflected in English [ return to text ]

6Am I going to explain Tang taxes to you? Yes. Yes, I am. Tang taxes are split into three components: a grain tax, a fine trades tax and labour tax. The labour tax is the most controversial, because it requires a month's worth of labour from each able man every year. They would be used to fix public infrastructure like canals, dikes and roads. However, if you lived far away from the capital, labour tax could take up to THREE months, because of travel time to Chang'an. This was bad for peasants, and lead to a lot of social decentralization that eventually toppled the Tang dynasty. [ return to text ]

7The Chinese Monarchy is otherwise known as the Dragon Throne, and often associated with the sun. [ return to text ]

8A jinro is a small box/clip that you attach to your belt, that can carry alcohol or paper or anything small/light. It is usually really decorative, and competitively so. I can't actually find the chinese word for it, jinro is the japanese word for it. If somebody knows, please let me know! [return to text]

9A pipa is a wooden lute-like stringed instrument, with a very distinctive sound, used often in Chinese Classical Music.[return to text]

10The zhuazhou is the ceremony for children on their 2nd birthday in China, where they are offered a variety of objects. Whatever object they choose from a determined collection of objects is supposed to determine what kind of future they will have.[return to text]

11Yoongi is a eunuch, a punishment typically doled out for adultery. Many rich men could successfully get out of this charge, but because of homosexual implications, Yoongi was unable to escape so easily. Still, eunuchs in the Chinese court held immense levels of powers and secrets, by virtue of their position. Since they were no longer threats to women, and could not start families to whom they would owe allegiance, eunuchs were able to amass incredible amounts of power in court, by protecting the Emperor's Harem, and managing the Palace servants. Scholar-officials typically despised eunuchs for attaining power, without undertaking the years of scholarship that Confucius deemed necessary for rule. Namjoon is not a typical scholar-official.[return to text]

12Wang Wei is one of China's most famous Tang poets, known for his buddhist, nature poetry. This particular poem is a famous one called 'Answer to Vice-Prefect Chang'.[return to text]

13Tu Fu is another renowned Tang poet, known for his melancholic poems on the nature of duty. This is an extract from 'New Moon'.[return to text]

14Pugilist is a word for all martial arts artists! Many sects were based not just on what weapon you fought with, but particular moves that were trademarked to a school of fighting! Many schools of fighting were either producers of weapons, or patroned by wealthy aristocrats to fund themselves (or both).[return to text]

15Zhuang-Zhou is the philosopher of the Han dynasty, who coined the famous butterfly quote, where after dreaming of being a butterfly, Zhuang-Zhou questions if he is the man dreaming of being a butterfly, or the butterfly dreaming of being a man. This was a demonstration of the differences between individuals in the world.[return to text]