There came a cheerful, light knock to Feng Xin’s door. Before he could even arise to answer it, the knocks became like a furious hailstorm battering upon the carved wood.
Gritting his teeth, he marched over to fling open the door.
He saw the Windmaster standing at his threshold. The Windmaster was smiling wide at him.
“Hiiiii,” Shi Qing Xuan said sweetly, twirling a piece of hair around his – rather her, currently – finger.
Feng Xin had precious little time to formulate a plan of escape. He slammed the door in Shi Qing Xuan’s face, and bolted it securely in place. Heavy, blessed wood; weighed down with metal, and capable of withstanding the assault of a thousand soldiers. It would buy him no more than a few seconds. He took off running towards his armory. But – when it comes to pass that one must face a peril of this magnitude, a few seconds would make the difference between—
The heavy wooden door blew off its hinges with terrible force, and sailed toward Feng Xin; propelled by hurricane winds. Feng Xin whirled about to crack it in half with a blow of his fist. As the door split, he saw the Windmaster’s face emerge from behind it. Feng Xin’s eyes grew wide with terror.
No official strolling the heavenly avenues dared to answer Feng Xin’s cries. They watched as Shi Qing Xuan dragged him off by the ankles, and prayed that they would not be next.
“Honestly, you’re just being obstinate. And childish. And so uncouth – stop fiddling with your makeup!”
“You smeared it into my eyes!”
“Learn to sit still next time, then.”
Shi Qing Xuan smacked Mu Qing’s hand away as it drifted up again to rub at his eye makeup. She frowned at Feng Xin, who was lying prone and motionless on the floor; his expression that of a man imprisoned in the depths of hell. He was at least quiet, now; he’d stopped screaming about an hour ago. Shi Qing Xuan rolled her eyes and sighed.
“Aren’t the two of you the least bit concerned about our sweet crown prince’s outings to the Ghost City?” Shi Qing Xuan asked. “It simply tears me up at night to imagine the creatures that would like nothing more than to eat him up in a single bite.”
“Of course we’re concerned,” Mu Qing snapped back irritably. “But how is this the solution?”
Shi Qing Xuan blinked. She thought her plan was self-evident. “…I don’t get your meaning.”
“You dragged us from our homes, dressed us handmaidens, marched us into the depths of the Ghost City – dressed as handmaidens – and now we’re in—” Mu Qing tried to suppress the shudder of fear that came with the thought. “—we’re in his manor. Dressed as handmaidens.”
At the word “handmaidens”, Feng Xin convulsed, and began to emit a weak, croaking noise. It was very unpleasant to the ears. Shi Qing Xuan was about to walk over and smack him on his newly-grown titties to get him to knock it off, when the door to the room slid open.
It wasn’t Shi Qing Xuan’s intent to immediately get captured by his staff the moment they infiltrated the manor, but, well, that happened. Shi Qing Xuan found this rather unfair, as they had been very stealthy in their entrance, and she had been looking forward to sneaking around. Still, there was a certain thrill in having to engage in a battle of wits for one’s life.
Five handmaidens shuffled into the room where they were being detained, and regarded their captives with silent disdain. Another handmaiden strode in; the set of her shoulders and her confident stride clearly showed her as the chief of staff. She rose an eyebrow at the three of them, and the other handmaidens giggled behind their sleeves.
Mu Qing’s eyes darted around the room, clearly trying to plot an escape. Feng Xin had sensed that more women had surrounded him, and he seemed to have fully mentally checked out of the situation. Honestly, why did she even bother allowing others with her on these outings? She already knew the answer: to make herself look even more beautiful by comparison. But it was so utterly frustrating to have to deal with this level of incompetence. At least having Ming-Xiong along made for some quality entertainment. And an occasional interlude of scissoring.
It was up to Shi Qing Xuan to plead their case.
“Ladies,” she said, bowing her head. “Elegant women like us understand the important things in life, no?”
“They trod upon the master’s flower garden,” one of the handmaidens stage-whispered to another.
“Master’s precious flower garden. Cultivated over so many years.”
“Where will he take tea now? Where will he take tea with his very special guest?”
“His very special guest. The most rare and radiant flower in all the realms.”
“Master will be upset. Very upset.”
“What will he do to these wretched interlopers?”
“What will he do?”
“What won’t he do?”
The handmaidens’ giggles grew in noise and pitch, and they showed their sharp teeth in cruel, ghoulish smiles. But this response – this response was all Shi Qing Xuan needed to know.
“It seems we are all sisters-in-arms,” she replied. “We come here to provide assistance.”
“We do?” Mu Qing hissed.
“Assistance?” the lead handmaiden asked coolly. “Assistance with what, may I ask? Are you volunteering to re-seed the garden you destroyed, and nourish it with your blood? I imagine Heaven’s officials make splendid fertilizer.”
Shi Qing Xuan smiled knowingly.
“Do you know that I’m often considered a goddess of matchmaking?”
She produced her fan from her sleeve, and flicked it open with practiced grace.
“The butterfly pines for the flower’s sweet nectar. The flower yearns for the brush of wings on its petals. It is my intent in coming here to provide divine intervention.”
The handmaidens gasped, and began to murmur amongst themselves behind their sleeves. Even the lead staffwoman had to school her expression – an expression of shock, and perhaps…perhaps a bit of hope.
“EXCUSE me!?” Mu Qing interrupted, furious. “What do you mean by that!? The very idea – the idea that the prince would be a suitable match for a demon! Preposterous! Where on earth did you get that thought into your fevered skull?”
All eyes in the room regarded Mu Qing with incredulous disbelief. An awkward silence stretched out for what seemed like a century or more. Feng Xin croaked out a death rattle, and Shi Qing Xuan smacked his left boob with her fan to silence him.
“…anyway,” Shi Qing Xuan said, ignoring Mu Qing’s foolishness, and Feng Xin’s dramatics. “Ladies. Huddle up. I have already hatched a plan of attack.”
The handmaidens all hustled in around Shi Qing Xuan, watching as she produced a scroll from her sleeves. She rolled it out over the floor, and produced a long, elegant wooden pointer from…probably also her sleeve. She gestured to the scroll with her pointer; a general briefing her troops.
“First. There comes the matter of the household laundry…”
Xie Lian picked up his sleeve, and saw Hua Cheng curled beneath it. He was much furrier than usual, and had more legs. And boasted a charmingly swishy tail. Hua Cheng purred louder at being discovered, and reached out one midnight-black paw to knead at the air. Xie Lian tried very poorly to hide his smile at the sight.
“I seem to remember that I assigned you lines to copy out,” Xie Lian said. “Should I assume that you’ve finished?”
“Gege is a strict teacher. I needed to rest my paws for a moment.” Hua Cheng stretched out long and lean in his feline form before tucking his paws up and under his chin. “I found a wonderfully comfortable spot here, but if it is inconvenient to have me sitting on your sleeves while you write, I could find another place to nap…”
Hua Cheng eyed Xie Lian’s lap. Xie Lian, alas, did not notice. He rose to his feet and walked across the room to review the results of the calligraphy lesson strewn across Hua Cheng’s desk. The lines marching across the paper went from shaky but passable, to shaky and blotchy, to illegible, to a bunch of cat paw prints. Hua Cheng hopped up onto the desk, and rubbed his head against Xie Lian’s hand insistently.
“I hope you enjoyed your nap on my clothes,” Xie Lian said. He couldn’t help but give Hua Cheng’s ear a scratch, despite his firm tone. “You’ll be redoing all of these.”
Hua Cheng purred even louder, somehow, and flopped over on the desk to show his furry belly.
“Gege is so strict. So strict. Merciless. I’m just a helpless little creature, and he heaps heaven’s wrath upon me.”
Xie Lian laughed aloud. He just couldn’t keep up the strict tutor act, not with Hua Cheng rolling around like an upended turtle. What could be done? There was only one logical thing. He scooped him up in his arms, and held him close to his chest; as he would any small animal that happened to cross his path. The action seemed to startle Hua Cheng, however – he tensed and fluffed up his coat in surprise, but still allowed Xie Lian to bundle him in. The purring returned with redoubled force. Xie Lian felt his paws kneading subtly against his clothes and chest.
“You’ll get the hang of it eventually,” Xie Lian assured him. “With practice. San Lang is so good at everything, so I’m sure it won’t be too much longer until I’m surpassed as your teacher.”
Hua Cheng’s voice was muffled in his robes as he spoke. “And if I do get the hang of it, will you stop coming by to tutor me?”
Xie Lian blinked. “Well, I don’t want to bother you for no reason. I already impose on you enough; sleeping in your guest room, eating your food…”
He saw Hua Cheng’s furry face peek up from his chest. His single eye glittered like a jewel against his silky black fur, and regarded Xie Lian with such intelligence, such gentleness. No matter what form Hua Cheng decided to take on, Xie Lian was certain he could recognize him by that eye of his.
“You’re not imposing,” Hua Cheng told him. “Gege could come by every day, if he likes. I would wait for you at the gates, to watch for you as you came down the street.”
Xie Lian felt his chest go tight at the thought – the thought of walking down the city’s streets, the lurid and colorful spirit lanterns lighting the way, with Hua Cheng standing watch as a lighthouse in the distance, waiting to welcome him into his home. It swirled in his head, making him dizzy.
“That seems…unseemly behavior, for a cat,” Xie Lian finally managed.
In a flash, Xie Lian felt Hua Cheng slip from his arms. Before he could properly mourn the loss, the man himself – as a man, and as himself – stood in front of him, smiling down at him with that unknowable, mischievous quirk of his lips.
“I’m a thoroughly unseemly man,” Hua Cheng said.
Hua Cheng’s gaze drifted down, and his expression faltered. Xie Lian looked down at himself, confused, and saw that the front of his robes – where he had been cuddling Hua Cheng to his chest – was smeared with inky pawprints.
“I’m sorry,” Hua Cheng mumbled. He couldn’t quite look Xie Lian in the eyes. He really was considerate, Xie Lian thought, being so abashed; even though it wasn’t his fault.
“No, it’s fine,” Xie Lian assured him. “I was the one who picked you up without asking. Besides, I’ve gotten far worse stains out of this old thing. I’ll just leave it to soak in the basin overnight, and take it to scrub in the river in the morning –”
“I’ll have it laundered for you here,” Hua Cheng said firmly. “My staff will fetch you some clothes to wear while they work.”
Instantly, a pair of handmaidens slid open the door to the room. Xie Lian didn’t even hear Hua Cheng ring or call out for them. They bowed low, waiting for Xie Lian to approach so they could escort him to get Chenged. Xie Lian hemmed and hawed for a moment before Hua Cheng’s big hand settled on the small of his back, gently urging him to go with his staff.
“I promise they’ll find you something to wear,” Hua Cheng said. “Something proper, and comfortable. I won’t force you to walk around in an old rice sack.”
Xie Lian’s lips quirked up. “There, you see? You’re not as unseemly as you say. I expect you to have those lines rewritten before I get back, though.”
“Of course,” Hua Cheng said. His tone was so sincere that it caught Xie Lian off-guard. “Don’t be gone too long.”
Shi Qing Xuan was paralyzed by indecision, and time was running out.
“This is the collection of robes that the Master had specially tailored for our esteemed guest,” the lead handmaiden explained. “He has been waiting for the perfect opportunity to present them. Truth be told, many such opportunities have presented themselves, but the Master has, ah…not been bold enough to follow through.”
The robes were all absolutely gorgeous, and Shi Qing Xuan badly wanted to claim a few of them for her own closet; even though her big bodacious bazongas would never fit in anything tailored to Xie Lian’s measurements. Maybe having clothes like this would encourage her to be a man more often…the very thought made her laugh aloud.
“May I ask what our honored guest finds so humorous all of a sudden?” asked the lead staffwoman. She watched in confusion as Shi Qing Xuan nearly collapsed to the floor in breathless hysterics.
“It’s best to leave some things a mystery,” grumbled Mu Qing.
But here was the problem. They could either dress up Xie Lian in these fancy duds, as they were expected to, or…or they could go with the original plan of attack.
Her plans had already almost gone off the rails once – she was originally going to shove Mu Qing into the room where Xie Lian and his suitor were romancing each other with a jug of plum wine, with instructions to dump it all over Xie Lian’s head and then run away. While Mu Qing was arguing with her about the plan being “idiotic” and “suicidal”, they got word that Xie Lian had managed to mess up his robes all on his own. Shi Qing Xuan always knew that she could count on him. The mission – entitled “Project Get Xie Lian Into Something Nice and Slutty” – was back on the rails.
But then the handmaidens had to show her this closet, and the plan was going awry again. Shi Qing Xuan centered herself, and connected with the spiritual energy that flowed through her. She was a goddess. A matchmaker goddess (along with her various other duties). It was her duty to guide her assistants, and in her wisdom, she came upon the correct decision.
She stroked a longing hand along the beautiful embroidered silks of the “I Want to Give These to Xie Lian But Am Too Chickenshit” collection, and closed the closet doors slowly. Her resolve was absolute. They would go with the original plan.
“Bring your master’s sleeping robes, as we discussed.”
It was times such as these that Xie Lian was reminded of how tall he wasn’t, in comparison to Hua Cheng.
He frowned at himself in the mirror, trying to wrap and tie the sash of the borrowed robe in a way that would make him more…decent. No matter how he fiddled with it, the robe seemed determined to be loose about his shoulders and chest; drooping low enough to slip off and down his arm, and gaping open almost down to his navel. If he bent over, he’d be sure to give anyone an unwanted eyeful.
A glint caught Xie Lian’s eye. The ring Hua Cheng gave him, dangling from the chain around his neck. It was usually hidden under his robes – he couldn’t remember the last time he’d taken it off. It had become as ever-present as Ruoye, or his hat. It was always just there, tucked away, warm against his skin. But…sometimes, the light hit it just right, and Xie Lian was left dumb and dazzled by its beauty. Wearing these robes, it was exposed for all to see; swaying from its chain, sparkling against his skin.
He reached up and pinched his own cheeks to re-orient his focus. He was being so rude to Hua Cheng – eating his food, forcing him to do his laundry, stealing his clothes…and now he was getting distracted by sparkly things in a mirror while keeping him waiting all alone. He’d have to make due like this until his own clothes were finished being laundered, and hopefully Hua Cheng wouldn’t laugh at him too much in the meantime.
“—um, thank you,” Xie Lian said, emerging from the closet, and bowing to the handmaidens that had escorted him. “Sorry for the trouble. I’m ready to go back.”
The handmaidens bowed, and demurely averted their eyes from Xie Lian’s exposed skin. Briefly, it looked like they were trying to suppress smiles. He supposed he didn’t mind. He did look very silly, swimming in these oversized robes. He just…hoped Hua Cheng didn’t laugh at him. Anyone else was fine.
…Hua Cheng’s robe smelled so nice, though. Xie Lian lifted the collar to his cheek as they walked, and took a deep breath. He wondered if it was the scent of the laundry soap, or Hua Cheng himself. …wait, did that mean that he’d inadvertently picked out the robe Hua Cheng had been sleeping in the night before? Xie Lian let the collar drop from his fingers, then hastily tried to fix it as it fell down his shoulder once again. He didn’t know why the idea flustered him so much.
They reached the salon once more, and Xie Lian thanked the staffwomen again as they took their leave. He took a deep breath to steady himself, and slid the door open just enough to peek his head through.
“Don’t laugh,” Xie Lian said sternly. “Okay?”
Hua Cheng was seated at his desk, waiting patiently for his teacher’s return like a model student. He leaned his head against his hand and smiled at Xie Lian with a fondness that muddled Xie Lian’s emotions.
“Why would I laugh?” he asked. “I’m sure you cut an elegant figure.”
“Don’t laugh. Promise.”
“Promise made. Now, please let me see how you look in—”
Xie Lian slid open the door. The collar slid down his shoulder and arm again. He fixed it, and tried unsuccessfully not to huff and pout as he did so.
To his credit, Hua Cheng did not laugh. In fact, his face was devoid of any expression other than shock. His eye was wide as a striken deer’s.
“…my clothes…” Hua Cheng finished, almost too quietly to hear.
“I’m sorry,” Xie Lian said. “They said they wouldn’t be long with the wash. You should have these back before you turn in for bed.”
Hua Cheng’s attention was focused squarely on the strip of skin exposed at Xie Lian’s chest; on the glint of the ring dangling there. His gaze snapped back up to Xie Lian’s face, then down to the ring, then at his collarbone, across to his right shoulder, then his face again, then his bare calves and ankles, then his face once more. Slowly, as if he was waging a great internal struggle, he closed his eye, and breathed deeply.
“It’s fine,” Hua Cheng said, his voice cracking on the second syllable.
The sound was so unexpected that it made the both of them jump. However, it broke the tension in the room, and Xie Lian let out a small laugh. San Lang was so unpredictable. And so unexpectedly cute in the process.
“Now,” Xie Lian said. “I hope you’ve made progress with your lines while I was out?”
“Yes,” Hua Cheng said.
Xie Lian waited for a long moment, then prodded. “…may I see them?”
Hua Cheng remained seated at his desk, his posture rigid. Slowly, Xie Lian walked over on his own. One hand kept the front of his robes from gaping open as he bent over the desk to inspect.
“Hm. Not bad. I’m seeing some improvement,” Xie Lian said. Forgetting himself, he used both hands to sort through Hua Cheng’s work. He leaned over the table a little bit more to see better. His necklace knocked lightly against the polished wood with the movement; his hair tumbled over his bared shoulder and whispered against the paper strewn across the desk. “Your strokes are steadier, more controlled. Have you been practicing on your own with my lessons in mind?”
“Gege’s voice is always in my mind,” Hua Cheng said faintly. He was staring at the ceiling; perhaps made shy with Xie Lian’s praise.
“Well, I’m glad that I’ve drilled you enough to make my lessons stick.”
Xie Lian smiled and reached out to pat Hua Cheng’s shoulder. It was like patting a stone wall. Xie Lian was filled with concern – sitting for too long while writing could be very tough on one’s back.
“You seem very stiff.”
“Yes,” Hua Cheng choked out.
Well, he supposed there was something to be said for brevity. Xie Lian straightened up and walked around the desk to stand behind Hua Cheng, and settled his hands on his shoulders. Hua Cheng jumped so violently at his touch that his knees banged against the underside of his desk, making his paintbrushes and ink rattle.
“Here. I’ll help you loosen up, and then I think you’ve earned a real break. To rest your paws,” Xie Lian echoed his words from earlier, with a note of laughter.
Before he could set to work, Hua Cheng’s hands settled firmly on his own, preventing him from moving them. Xie Lian blinked, confused. Hua Cheng always whined and wheedled for a shoulder rub after lessons. Was he so stiff that he needed something more? If he laid down on his front, Xie Lian could straddle him and work his lower back—
“I need a drink,” Hua Cheng said. “Before. Anything else.”
Xie Lian certainly wouldn’t say no to some refreshments. “Tea and sweets sound wonderful, if you don’t mind. It sounded like you banged your knees pretty badly, by the way. Do you want me to take a look—”
Hua Cheng managed to force a smile that wasn’t half as suave as he probably intended. “I am made whole again by Gege’s concern and kind thoughts alone. My kitchen is open to your every whim.”
“Okay,” Xie Lian said slowly. “I’ll take buns and fresh fruit.”
The silence that followed was deafening.
“Are you going to stay sitting at your desk?” asked Xie Lian.
“For a few minutes,” Hua Cheng said.
“…I’ll just go over there and write more phrases for you to copy out, then.”
“That would probably be best.”
“…with full medical, dental, and pension benefits,” continued the lead staffwoman. “And Casual Fridays. Our Lord Master runs his household and businesses very wisely. I labor the point, but you must understand, honored matchmaker, that his finances are more than sufficient to provide for a spouse.”
“I understand,” Shi Qing Xuan said warmly. “You mentioned a betting pool. How long has this been running?”
The lead staffwoman sighed wearily. “Ages. Truly, I fear that I’ll never see its conclusion in my lifetime.”
“Afterlifetime,” Shi Qing Xuan cheekily corrected.
She chuckled, then shook her head. They were reclining in the staff lounge, waiting for their nail polish to dry while the other handmaidens tended to the matter of Mu Qing and Feng Xin’s makeovers. It was wonderful entertainment.
Mu Qing shrieked as he was tackled to the ground and held in place by a dozen pairs of ghostly arms that sprang from the floor mats. The handmaidens cackled in delight, clearly relishing his terror, just as they relished making him beautiful. They descended upon him like a pack of ravenous wolves, wielding gleaming metal instruments of fiendish dermatological intent. Feng Xin hung upside-down from the ceiling; bound in place by ropes woven from purest darkness, lost to this world, and wearing a fragrant clay mask to clear out his pores.
“What are some of the items one may wager on?”
The lead staffwoman hummed thoughtfully.
“Any number of things, truly. There will surely be someone willing to take you up on the bet – it’s now the largest purse the Ghost City has ever seen. Who will confess to whom; how long it will take…the matter of will or will not,” she added, with a note of despair.
“The most popular item right now is the matter of children!” one of the handmaidens chirped. She was holding Mu Qing down by the neck while another girl waxed his legs, and her clawed hands bit into his skin as he struggled. “I placed a wager on four.”
Another handmaiden scoffed. “Four!? Do you not trust in the Master’s virility? Surely eight, at least!”
“It’s not a matter of the Master’s virility; it’s a matter of whether the Lord Prince can withstand his virility! Surely even a god could not manage more than four.”
“The Lord Prince is very slender,” another handmaiden said doubtfully. “Are you certain he could manage even one?”
Some of the handmaidens sighed sadly, and some pouted, but there were none who could confidently rebut the woman’s point.
Now that was a voice Shi Qing Xuan hadn’t heard in a while. Feng Xin had finally returned to himself, and was glaring at the handmaidens, his gaze blazing hot and full of righteous fury.
“…you dare imply…that the prince could fail at any task…?”
His whole body seemed to glow with heavenly light. The bindings suspending him in the air disintegrated, and he floated down to the floor; upright. The clay facial mask crumbled from his face, revealing his dazzling glowing skin and radiant pores. Shi Qing Xuan simply had to get a jar of that formula to take home with her.
“Twelve,” Feng Xin hissed. “I will wager on twelve.”
The handmaidens tittered. One of them flicked her wrist; summoning a golden box and writing supplies.
“You can write your bet and submit it here,” she said. “Prick your finger and sign in blood at the bottom when you’re done. There’s also bonus subcategories; double or nothing on your wager. How many boys and girls, for example—”
“Six strong and fearless sons, and six beautiful and wise daughters,” Feng Xin hissed, snatching up pen and paper to scribble it down. He bit his finger to draw blood, and wrote each stroke of the characters in his name with deliberate intent. “The prince’s noble lineage would produce no lesser results.”
“What’s wrong with being beautiful and dumb as shit?” Shi Qing Xuan blew on her nails, annoyed. “How narrow-minded.”
The lead staffwoman straightened up, and tilted her head, as if listening for something. She then clapped her hands. Two handmaidens separated from the pack that was still mauling Mu Qing, and kneeled obediently in front of their leader.
“Fetch refreshments from the kitchen,” she instructed. “Assorted stuffed buns and fresh fruit. Tea for our honored guest, and a fortification blend for the Master.”
She listened again, then winced. “…an extra strong fortification blend.”
The handmaidens made noises of concern, and murmured words of sympathy.
“Extra strong. Our Lord Master must be suffering.”
“Suffering so terribly.”
“Our poor Master. Would but the Lord Prince ease him with a touch of his sweet hand.”
“You sure that would ease him?”
“Not in the least.”
Shi Qing Xuan absolutely hated being out of the loop on gossip. She scooted in close, determined to know the details.
“Hey. Hey. What’s this special blend? What’s this about suffering?”
“Tea blended with dragon blood wine. Master takes it when he requires courage in the face of great adversity.” The lead staffwoman shivered in fear. “To think that Master requires a double dosage…the Lord Prince must truly be a terrifying force.”
Shi Qing Xuan was overjoyed to hear that her hard work was paying off, but the description of that beverage caused her to make a face. “Wine in tea? Even I think that sounds kinda nasty. Medicine is medicine, I suppose…”
“Dragon blood wine possesses no taste on its own, and is light as air – it will mix with anything seamlessly, and amplifies the taste of the vessel tenfold. And,” the lead staffwoman continued. “It is not for the faint of composure. It took Master many centuries to build enough tolerance to partake in even one cup.”
“Now, sister, that sounds like you’re challenging me.” Shi Qing Xuan grinned. “Why doncha get the lovebirds their snacks and then bring a bottle of that dragon stuff back here for us to have a little tasting session?”
“Drinking in a demon’s stronghold—you—poor excuse for—” Mu Qing choked out around his captor’s hold on his neck.
Shi Qing Xuan waved him off dismissively. “You’re not participating anyway, Mu Qing. You’re the designated driver. Someone’s gotta be sober to work the array to get us back home when we’re done. Ladies, let me tell you the story of the time when I got totally wasteyface and wound up array-ing myself right into the bedroom of a notorious pirate captain…”
It had only been a few minutes since Hua Cheng had called for the kitchen, but it seemed like it had been hours. The air in the room seemed so heavy, so…expectant.
Xie Lian had set about writing out more passages for Hua Cheng to practice with, and he – he could barely focus on the paper. Hua Cheng was looking at him. Whenever Xie Lian looked up from his work, Hua Cheng pretended as if he wasn’t, but Xie Lian could feel his gaze on him like a palpable weight. A palpable warmth, growing hotter by the second, prickling and burning on the nape of his neck. Hua Cheng was always looking at him, it seemed, and Xie Lian thought he was used to his eccentricities, but – dressed like this, Xie Lian felt more self-conscious than normal. Xie Lian adjusted the collar of his borrowed robe nervously. The scent on the robe calmed him just as much as it made the burning more keen. He was trapped between two endpoints.
The arrival of the snacks was a welcome tension-breaker. The moment the door slid open, Xie Lian sprang to his feet and collected the tray from the surprised handmaiden.
“Thank you,” he said. “I’ll carry this over; please don’t trouble yourself.”
The handmaiden paused, nodded, and then bowed and took her leave.
The tray had an assortment of delicious treats – Hua Cheng always seemed to have Xie Lian’s favorite things in his pantries; even fresh fruit that was out of season. He was eager to have a bun or three, but first, he was parched. And the tea smelled wonderful. Especially the tea in Hua Cheng’s mug – so fragrant and rich. His own tea was waiting, but surely Hua Cheng wouldn’t mind if he took a quick taste.
He set the tray down on Hua Cheng’s desk, and settled down across from him; Hua Cheng’s cup in hand. Hua Cheng surveyed the tray, looking confused, then looked back up at Xie Lian just in time to see him take a drink from his cup.
“Delicious,” Xie Lian proclaimed the blend. “Though maybe steeped a bit too strong for my taste.”
Suddenly, Xie Lian found the cup snatched from his hands; faster than he could blink. Hua Cheng clutched the cup in his grip, and was staring at him with something that was almost like…panic? It was such a strange emotion to see on Hua Cheng’s face. Unthinking in his curiosity, he reached out his hand to trace Hua Cheng’s jaw…
…seriously…such a nice jaw…
“I’m sorryyyy,” Xie Lian said, patting and stroking Hua Cheng’s face as he spoke. Patting and stroking that seriously nice jaw. “San Lang. San Lang. I’m sorry I sipped your tea. I have my own tea but I sipped yours instead. San Lang. I’ll rub your shoulders to make up for sipping your tea.”
Determined to make good on his shoulder-rubbing promise, Xie Lian climbed on top of Hua Cheng’s desk and, before he could react, plopped himself into Hua Cheng’s lap. Mission phase one complete. He was now in the proximity of Hua Cheng’s shoulders. It was time for mission phase two to begin: rub Hua Cheng’s shoulders. Xie Lian wrapped his arms around Hua Cheng’s neck to drag himself into a better position, but in the process, found that it was just as nice to rest his head against Hua Cheng’s chest instead. So firm. So firm and yet squishy at the same time. Xie Lian unwound one arm from Hua Cheng’s neck and squeezed at Hua Cheng’s chest in appreciation. He bet that if he bit him here it’d be like biting a nice juicy peach.
“Please,” Hua Cheng said in a strained voice. His hands came up to keep Xie Lian still; keep him from squirming around. “You’re…not in your right mind. That tea wasn’t intended for you.”
“I liked it,” Xie Lian replied. “A lot. Strong and smells nice. Like you. San Lang is strong and smells so nice.”
His borrowed robe had slipped down his right shoulder and arm again. So annoying. It could just stay there if it was going to keep being difficult, and Xie Lian and Hua Cheng would have fun without it. They would go on a walk in the gardens and they wouldn’t even invite it with them. But they didn’t need to go to the gardens to have fun, though. Everything in the room was all glowy and hazy, except for Hua Cheng, who was glowy and hazy and also handsome and nice-smelling, with a squishy chest. Xie Lian squinted at Hua Cheng’s braid, and moved his wandering hand from Hua Cheng’s chest to twirl the braid around his finger.
“So thick.” Xie Lian was, of course, referring to Hua Cheng’s hair. “I bet I could use it as a brush to write with. What happens if I play with it? Will San Lang be mad at me?”
Hua Cheng’s hands grew heavier on his hips. Xie Lian discovered that he really, really liked the feeling of that squeeze. He wrapped Hua Cheng’s braid around his finger, then gave it a little tug. The noise that Hua Cheng made sent a shiver shooting up Xie Lian’s spine; made his back arch.
The world spun around him, and suddenly, he was on his back on the floor. Hua Cheng hovered above him, crouched on elbow and forearm like a prowling tiger about to pounce. He was – he was looking at him again. The fire was blazing in Xie Lian’s brain, and spread through his body like flames in an overgrown wood. Xie Lian shivered again. He reached out blindly, and found what he was looking for. Hua Cheng’s hand settled atop Xie Lian’s, where it rested on his cheek.
“I’m going to take you to bed,” Hua Cheng murmured, his voice so deep and low that it sent Xie Lian’s head spinning. “I am going to carry you to my room, I am going to tuck you into my bed, and then I am going to stand guard outside the door all night to protect your virtue against roaming scoundrels.”
Xie Lian made a feeble noise of protest. The sound died in his throat when Hua Cheng turned his face to nuzzle into Xie Lian’s palm and press a kiss there. His eye slipped shut, and for a moment, he let his lips linger on Xie Lian’s skin. Perhaps he’d cast a spell – Xie Lian felt heavy and pliant, and quite content to let Hua Cheng pick him up. An arm under his legs, an arm supporting his back, carrying him as carefully and protectively as he did in the Sinner’s Pit. He let his cheek rest against Hua Cheng’s chest, and let the cadence of Hua Cheng’s stride lull him into a dreamy half-slumber.
He was still awake enough to hear the rattle of dice as they passed through doors, still awake enough to hear the jingling of Hua Cheng’s jewelry as they walked. Still awake enough to feel the soft pillows meeting his head as he was lowered into a comfortable nest of blankets and cushions. Still awake enough to murmur Hua Cheng’s name as he felt his presence retreat, and still awake enough to feel the brush of fingers on his cheek.
But, alas, sleep overtook him before he could register the touch of lips on his forehead.
“I hope you’ve learned some kind of lesson from this,” Mu Qing said flatly.
“I never learn anything, ever,” Shi Qing Xuan mumbled. “It’s bad for the skin.”
They had bid their farewells to their new friends at Paradise Manor in the early morning, before the master of the house and his special guest awoke. And now, here they were back in heaven, with Shi Qing Xuan was nursing the worst hangover she’d had in the past three centuries. Mu Qing and Feng Xin were still intruding in her home, pestering her every few minutes to undo the charm she’d cast to turn them into women. Honestly, they were so rude. It was like they didn’t appreciate all the hard work that she and the other girls had put in to make them look lovely. Rude and unappreciative and loud. Shi Qing Xuan’s head was pounding.
“And you!” Mu Qing continued, addressing Feng Xin, who had been looking at himself in the mirror for the past few hours. “That’s what you get for playing games with the likes of them! What did you bet on that nonsense wager, hm? Your armory? Your palace? Half your temples?”
Feng Xin touched up a smudge of his lipstick with his finger, and raised an eyebrow at Mu Qing. “We’ll see about nonsense, Mu Qing. The dice have not yet finished their roll.”
Shi Qing Xuan squinted at the sky to judge the time. Late afternoon. Surely, she could check in on Xie Lian now, to see how things had gone. One of the handmaidens had reported seeing their Master carrying a swooning Xie Lian into his bedchambers, so Shi Qing Xuan had high hopes for the success of her plans. She straightened herself up, and tapped her fingers to her temple to reach out to Xie Lian via the heavenly array.
It took several attempts before she got a response.
“…windmaster?” came Xie Lian’s groggy-sounding voice.
“The one and only!” It was difficult to sound peppy, but she pressed on. “Sooo, how’s it going?”
“…I’m sorry, I’m not really in a state to chat right now.”
He sounded so depressed that Shi Qing Xuan was immediately concerned.
“What’s wrong? You usually come back from your little visits to Sweetheart City with a pep in your step.”
Xie Lian made an irritated sound. “Windmaster, please. I…I got sick and embarrassed myself.”
Shi Qing Xuan wheedled an explanation out of him. Spilling ink on himself and having to borrow clothes, getting sick off “tea” (geez, she could at least empathize with the headache he probably had) and climbing all over Crimson Rain Seeks Flower like a monkey on a tree, then having to be bodily carried off to bed before he fell asleep on the floor. Shi Qing Xuan’s heart sank. It sounded like no canoodling had occurred, none at all. She had failed in her mission, and let down the hopes of every resident in the Ghost City who had money riding on that pot.
But, she would not let this failure set her back. No – she would allow it to steer her to greater heights. It sounded like Crimson Rain Seeks Flower was a consummate gentleman through the ordeal, and it would now be her mission to deliver him salvation, just as it was her mission to find Xie Lian a big strong man. It was really convenient that both missions dovetailed so nicely.
“Xie Lian, come up to my palace and you can tell me all about it. I wanna do your nails again; Mu Qing and Feng Xin are here, too. We can get takeout and listen to the literature gods have their stupid nerd fights in their array channel.”
“No we’re not!” Mu Qing shouted. “We’re not! Damn it, at least make us men again before he gets here!”
“I can manage a little bit longer,” Feng Xin commented.
“…that sounds nice,” Xie Lian finally said. “I just left San Lang’s manor, I won’t be too long.”
“Don’t drag your feet, darling,” Shi Qing Xuan said cheerfully. “You know how much fun it is to hear Ling Wen snap and start going for the throat.”
Shi Qing Xuan was master of the winds, a master of matchmaking, and a master of not knowing when to quit. And she had all the time in eternity to keep trying.
There was always another day.