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The Instructress 女史箴

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“If only she’d been a boy!”

Wang Yuanji had downcast her eyes to wait for her grandfather’s opinion of her poem, and it was easy to keep them downcast now.

“She does everything well—she even fights better than most men. And this poem is exquisite! What a waste!”

She still didn’t look up. She knew very well he was shaking his head.

“In such times as these, father,” said her uncle in a conciliatory tone, “may not a talented daughter be of as much value as a talented son? Too much talent and ambition in a man is dangerous, but a well-married daughter protects her kin.”

Yuanji looked up at that, startled.

Her grandfather noticed and laughed. “Surprised at that? You are fifteen, little miss! Did you think we weren’t looking for a husband for you by now?”

“Who, grandfather?”

Her uncle would have told her that it was not her concern, but despite his frequent lamentations that she was not a boy, her grandfather always treated her as if she had not only the intelligence but the rights of an favoured heir. “We’re thinking of Sima Yi’s son.”

“Sima Shi? But he is married already,” she said, confused.

He laughed, but shook his head too. “I know. It’s too bad. Nothing but daughters from his wife, too. But that means the younger son—or your sons by him—may yet inherit all! His name is Sima Zhao.”

She had not even heard of him. “What is he like?”

He grunted. “I won’t lie to you, girl, he’s not promising in anything but name. But that name means a lot. And his parents are very eager to get a girl like you for his wife. His mother is particularly impressed with you. She even liked the way you fight.”

“She’s seen me?” She felt somehow violated. Her family had initially indulged her interest in fighting. When she had been a young girl and they were still hopeful that a younger brother would come along, it had seemed cute to see her taking kitchen knives and throwing them at handmade targets in her eagerness to learn battle skills. But in the last few years, it was obvious that none of them, even the grandfather whose indulgence permitted it, thought it was cute anymore. She persisted because she enjoyed it so much, but even she felt that she was being shameful somehow in doing it. That a potential mother-in-law was spying on her while she practiced… and if she had seen that, what else had she seen?

“Believe me, I didn’t want her to! I don’t even know how she did it, but she brought it up at our last meeting.” He paused. “We meet again tonight, little miss, and if things go well, I expect you to be betrothed to him.”

———

The day of her betrothal was a day of unremitting bitterness. She saw the contract being signed, but she was not a signatory. She was being sold, no differently than a piece of gold or a horse. More like a horse, she thought, because her purpose would be to be ridden.

She shuddered and pulled her knees up to herself in the carriage. The firecrackers were still barely audible. Her soon-to-be mother-in-law smiled at her. “Cold, my dear?”

“A little, Lady Zhang.” She was afraid of Zhang Chunhua, although she didn’t know why. The woman had done nothing but smile at her, had said everything sweetly, and yet she knew somehow that she was dangerous. And not just in the ordinary way that a mother-in-law can make a daughter-in-law’s life hell. It was something worse than that.

The older woman pulled out a blanket and wrapped it around her shoulders tenderly. “There. Now that we’re alone together, we can speak about the challenges ahead of you.” She sighed. “My idiot son.”

Yuanji was startled. She had heard the woman playing up her son’s amazing qualities during the last negotiation, which her grandfather had permitted her to spy upon behind a screen. If her description of him had been excessive, it had at least seemed sincere. She had seemed like any other proud mother. Now she was shaking her head in sad disappointment and continuing, “I am so glad to have caught you for a daughter-in-law, my dear, but I am afraid he is simply not ready to be a husband yet.”

A horrible thought gripped Yuanji. “He isn’t… really an idiot, is he?”

Lady Zhang laughed. “Ahahaha, I see I’ve frightened you too much. No, there’s nothing at all wrong with his wits, if he would only apply them.” She stared off into the middle distance, and for a moment her face looked openly terrifying. Her mother-in-law then seemed to recall herself and see her, and that little tinkling laugh sounded again. “Oh my. I’m frightening you again so soon! You need not worry. I only punish incompetence and treachery. Neither of which I will ever receive from you, I’m sure.”

She smiled that sweet smile again, but Yuanji now understood exactly what her intuition was telling her about this woman. She really was dangerous, and she would stop at nothing. “No, indeed, Lady Zhang.”

“What a good girl you are,” said Lady Zhang approvingly. “Now. As I was saying. He is not actually aware that we have acquired you for him as a wife, and I somehow feel that if he knows he has a beauty like you in the bag, it will not be helpful for his motivation. My husband suggested that we introduce you to him as his tutor.”

“His tutor! But… he must be older than me?”

“A few years ahead in age, but far behind you in skill,” she said with distaste. “The talent is there, I am sure; it is only getting him to apply himself. He needs education in battle, horsemanship, decorum, strategy… my god, even his handwriting is terrible. You are perfect for this task: you are talented, skilled, educated, wise, and beautiful. He will actually want to please you and win you. And when he has succeeded, who knows? Perhaps we’ll let him think it was a love match.” She grinned wickedly.

Yuanji twisted the blanket in her fingers. Since she had learned of her probable fate, she had been schooling herself to accept submitting to sex and all the other duties of a wife. Farewell not only to her shameful indulgence in knife throwing; all her mannish hobbies would not befit the future mother of little Simas. Now she was being told that she would not be expected to take up any of the duties of a wife, or even the name of one. It was her mannishness that they wanted…

…except that whole “beautiful” thing.

This was a lot to think about…

Her mother-in-law did not attempt to engage her in further conversation during the rest of the short journey into the capital itself.

———

Sima Zhao leaned back, hands crossed behind his head and staring out the window, wishing he actually felt as carefree in his heart as his posture was suggesting. His father and brother were lecturing him together this time; apparently his behaviour was so appalling that they had felt the need to hire outside help. Another tutor, at his age?! He was an adult and yet they still treated him like an incompetent child.

As if he was reading his mind, his father said, “For as long as you insist on behaving like an incompetent child, you will be treated as one!”

“Father, I think they’re here,” said Shi.

His father and brother turned and went out. He sighed, but followed them.

His mother was already being handed down from the carriage, and directing the servants with regards to the baggage. But instead of a man stepping out of the carriage on his own, the servant at the door reached in to assist out another woman. No, not even a woman. A girl.

Then the servant entered the carriage himself to take out any items inside. But then where was the tutor? He looked at the other carriage, but it was clearly just holding baggage. Had he already gotten out?

“Ah, just the person I wanted to see,” said his mother sweetly. He found himself standing up a little straighter, which he hadn’t bothered to do for his father or brother. She smiled, and the girl bowed as she introduced her. “Husband, Shi, Zhao, I present to you Lady Wang Yuanji. Lady Wang, my husband—“ he bowed correctly—“my son Shi—“ he bowed just as correctly— “and your new charge, my son Zhao.”

Zhao didn’t bow at all. He was in shock. His father’s whip struck him hard across the lower back, and he winced and quickly bowed.

———

Wang Yuanji only knew the two older Sima men by reputation for their intellect and skill, so she was surprised to see that all three men were in their own way handsome. The older two both were so in a dangerous, cold way. Fascinating but repellant at the same time, like snakes.

The youngest one was just as handsome, but there was absolutely nothing dangerous about him. He trailed after the others like a dog who didn’t know whether he was about to get a treat or a kick.

She winced a little herself when she saw his father strike him. That wasn’t very fair… for a young man like that to be told his new tutor is a girl younger than himself was shocking. She didn’t blame him for that. And the whole way that the striking occurred and how they both behaved about it—clearly it was a very frequent occurrence. That wasn’t the way to train a dog, or a dog-like man.

So already she was thinking of how to train him…

Her new… father-in-law? Boss? The same thing in the end, anyway, she thought. He began to speak to her now. He skipped completely over all the usual cliches of greeting and welcome; he merely said that even after a short journey, she must need time and space to collect herself and become adjusted to her new surroundings, so she would be shown to her rooms to do so, and they would all be pleased to see her at dinner.

She bowed, and followed the servant. She was not even close to out of earshot when she heard her new charge say, “But she’s a girl!” and then another crack of the whip.

———

Zhao hoped that this was all just some kind of stunt. That his parents had gotten impatient with his lack of response to their normal punishments and were resorting to new and innovative methods of public humiliation.

He was not only hoping this, but dead certain about it when he reported to his first lesson. His mother had swanned into his room when he was barely awake to inform him that she wanted Lady Wang to begin by mentoring him in target practice. There was nothing wrong with his fighting skills. Obviously nothing he did could be good enough for his parents, but fighting was probably his strongest subject, and he had paid more attention to his prior tutors on it than on anything else. The idea that some little snip of a girl would have something to teach him about fighting was so obviously ludicrous that his family could only mean it as an insult. He would have to watch this Lady Wang pretend to observe him and then hear her parrot what his father had told her to say, while the servants stood by snickering. Well, whatever. He was the family fool, after all. Might as well play the part.

Accordingly, he strolled into the practice yard about fifteen minutes late, disheveled, yawning as if he had just come from his bed. The girl was standing there, dressed not in the beautiful hanfu she had worn the day before, but in a military style coat and dress. At first glance it was much less alluring and feminine than her previous attire, but the second glance (and let’s face it, the subsequent stare) put all that aside.

There were her breasts, of course. He had certainly been aware she had them yesterday, but he didn’t think the hanfu had pushed up her breasts the way the frogs that fastened this jacket seemed to. Nor had he seen the tops of them, the way he could in her current outfit.

That wasn’t the glimpse of skin that would drive him the most crazy, however. She was wearing black stockings that went all the way up past her knees, meeting her lacy underskirt. Well, not quite meeting it. Depending on how she moved, usually only a inch or even less of her skin was showing, but the possibility of more kept his eye drifting down there.

“My lord, you are late,” she said, and released a small throwing knife, which whistled past his shoulder. He heard a small thunk and turned to see it embedded in the centre of a target.

He was definitely awake now. “Uh… sorry.”

“Your mother told me you needed target practice,” she said, “but she didn’t tell me what weapon you preferred for that purpose. So I had a few brought here. Short bow? Long bow? Crossbow? The throwing knife is my own preference, but I am passably familiar with bows.”

“Uh… a crossbow, usually.” He said. “It’s the easiest.”

“Hmm.” She narrowed her eyes, but said nothing, turning away to load a crossbow with a quarrel. “Here, my lord.”

He took the crossbow, aimed, and fired. He did it as carelessly as possible, but it was hard to conceal his thrill when the bolt hit almost dead centre.

“Ha!” he said. “How was that?”

Not only did she not look impressed, she didn’t even look pleased. “That was terrible.”

“But I hit the target!”

“That was a fluke,” she said brutally. “You didn’t even look through the sights, let alone consider your shot. A crossbow’s disadvantage is its loading time. You have to make every shot count.” She took the crossbow away from him and demonstrated the proper form. “Let me see you load it.”

As soon as he picked up the bolt, she began counting aloud. It flustered him, so that he took longer than usual.

“Ninety-five,” she said as he finished. “More than a minute and a half. Don’t bother protesting that you usually do it faster, my lord. I’m willing to believe that you do. You can’t possibly do it fast enough to make a careless shot worth it. Let me see you shoot properly.”

Well, what the hell. He actually tried. He did hit the target, although he didn't come anything like as close to the centre. Zhao waited for her to tell him how shit he was.

“Much better,” she said. “Do it again.”

———

At the end of the week, Sima Yi summoned her to his office.

She quickly figured out that while he was willing enough to accept any reports of his son’s failures, he expected her to justify minutely any sign of improvement. He didn’t seem disturbed that Zhao hadn’t improved in much. That he hadn’t been late after the first day seemed to particularly impress the cold strategist.

After she had finished explaining in detail what precisely she thought had improved in his brushwork, there was a pause, then Sima Yi had said, “You may go. Take the day off to enjoy yourself.”

She didn’t move, unsure. Yuanji had thought there would have been an opportunity to bring up…

“You don’t move?”

“My lord… may I observe something?”

His eyes narrowed at her. “Did I forget something?” he said, coldly.

She gripped her hands behind her back to keep from trembling. This had been a bad idea, but she couldn’t unsay it. “No, my lord, but… I feel that the frequency and intensity of your… chastisements… are doing more harm than good.”

“Oh?” he said softly. “And what do you base this on, my dear? Are you tender-hearted, perhaps?”

Despite the softness, she did not miss the contempt. She had to speak quickly. “No, my lord. I base this on the results that I see. Master Zhao fails frequently, but he does not dwell on his failures. I believe this is partly because when you beat him, he feels that this completes the… the transaction, so to speak. He has… served his purpose… and everything is as it should be. He is very strong and I believe has a high pain tolerance. I do not think he fears being beaten by you.”

“Doesn’t he,” said Sima Yi, still very softly. She was worried that instead of sparing her charge, she had signed him up for the thrashing of his life, and she couldn’t hold back a slight tremble. Her boss-in-law noticed it and smiled. “Please don’t let your fear keep you from continuing. You interest me extremely.”

“That’s… that’s pretty much all, my lord,” she managed. “I have noticed that if he can be kept in the state of shame, he actually considers his actions. It is desire to please that causes actual change in him. But… there is the more difficult task of getting him to believe that change, and even more, success, is possible… I haven’t quite figured that one out yet.”

He smiled wider, and this was far more unnerving than the coldness with which he had regarded her as she had begun to speak. “Lady Wang, how is it that you have only been here a week and you are already teaching me something about the son I have known for eighteen years?”

She didn’t know what to say, and she felt her cheeks reddening.

“I see my wife was correct about you, although I don’t think even she knows how correct.” He stood up and actually bowed to her; numbly, she bowed back. “May I suggest that you don’t presume to tell my wife not to beat our son? She may not take it as well as I have.”

“As you say, my lord.”

“Is there anything else? Perhaps something I can do to make your day off more pleasant?”

“No, my lord.”

“Be off then.”

———

Sima Shi let himself into his brother’s room and laughed as the young man pulled his hand away from himself and quickly pulled up the blankets, as if it wasn’t perfectly obvious what he had been doing.

“Haven’t you ever heard of knocking?!” said Zhao. “Are you some kind of pervert?”

“Yes, but not for you,” his brother said. “I came to see if you were in a similar mood to myself, and it seems you are.”

“Don’t you have Lady Xiahou for that?”

“She’s pregnant,” he said, flatly.

“Again, already? Don’t you give the poor woman any time to breathe?”

“Not until she gives me a son. Don’t remind me about that. You know where I want to go, and I don’t want to think about my wife there.”

“Why do you want me to come with you?” his brother said suspiciously. “You’re not thinking of doing that… that both of us with one girl thing again. Not only was it sick, but you slammed into her too hard and she bit me!”

He laughed. “Do you know I had forgotten about that? How old were you, sixteen?”

“You wouldn’t forget about it if it was your dick bleeding all over a brothel floor,” his brother said vehemently. “The worst pain I’ve ever felt in my entire life!”

“I do remember it now,” he said, still laughing. “Did I apologize?”

“Yes, but not until you had finished,” Zhao growled. “It was great to see where I landed in your priorities.”

Sima Shi waved this off. “I didn’t come here to recruit you for any activity of my own. I merely thought you might require an outlet after a hard week.” He walked over to his brother’s side and took his hand, examining it critically. “I can understand why you might want to save your money and just spend your evening here with Lady Wang. I can see how beautiful she’s looking.”

Zhao flushed even darker and yanked his hand away from his brother. “I wasn’t thinking about Lady Wang.”

“Then come with me. I’ll even pay.”

The madam and the unoccupied ladies of the brothel were pleased to see Sima Shi walking in, but he did not miss how much more pleased they were that his brother was with him. This was a puzzlement. He did not have any illusions that prostitutes cared about the love-making skills of their clients, and he knew—though he disliked thinking about it—from the disastrous threesome that his brother’s erection was certainly not small. So what could they have a preference about?

“My lords, how happy we are that you have come to enjoy life with us this evening,” purred Madam Mao. “Master Sima Shi, I have a beautiful new girl just come to us. If you’ll promise to be gentle, I’ll let you be Meimei’s first client.”

“Certainly,” he said, evaluating the girl, “as long as you don’t expect me to pay a premium for something I’m sure I won’t be taking.”

The madam laughed, hiding her irritation almost well enough. “Well, for such a good client as yourself, the normal rate is enough! And as for Master Zhao, it is so nice to see you after such a long time, my lord! Do you have any preference?”

“I’ll take her,” he said gruffly to hide his embarrassment, pointing, to his brother’s surprise, to the oldest of the girls.

“A-Ling, of course! She has pleased you before, hasn’t she? Lucky A-ling. Show them to your rooms, girls.”

———

Sima Shi never took long with prostitutes. He had an itch, she scratched it for him, and he moved on.

As he walked down the hall back towards the front to pay, he couldn’t miss his brother’s voice saying “You’re so beautiful.” Aha. So was that it? His brother was actually romantic with prostitutes? It was difficult not to laugh and give his presence away as he paused outside the door.

“You’re the most beautiful thing I’ve ever seen,” his brother moaned. “You’re too young and innocent to touch me like this…”

“Do you want me to keep going with my hand, my lord, or use my mouth now?” came the hesitant voice of the prostitute.

“I don’t care,” snapped his brother, the lover-like tone in his voice entirely gone. “Just don’t speak anymore.”

Sima Shi slowly walked away. That irritation… so she had broken him out of his fantasy. He wasn’t speaking to the prostitute at all. Shi had meant to tease him when he accused him of mistaking his hand for Lady Wang, but apparently after just one week Zhao was already besotted to the point of pretending that a prostitute was her. He shook his head. The poor fool, completely unaware that by right he could take Lady Wang whenever he wanted. Maybe he shouldn’t have agreed to his parents’ demand to keep Zhao in the dark.

“My lord,” purred Madam Mao again. “How was Meimei?”

“Fine,” he said. “My brother’s not finished yet, but I’ll pay for both of us now. I expect you not to forget that I’ve paid for him whenever he comes out.”

“Certainly not, my lord! A lady like myself has to think of her long-term situation,” she said, with a false little laugh. She accepted the money, and he turned to go. “Ah—my lord! Just a mistake I’m sure, but this is not quite enough for two!”

He turned back. “I told you I would only pay the normal rate.”

“But you haven’t paid the normal rate for your brother, my lord.”

His eyes narrowed. How dare this woman try to cheat him? “She’s only giving him a blowjob. I know what it costs.”

The lady put her hands on her hips, as if she suspected him of trying to cheat. “If you know your brother only ever gets a blowjob, my lord, then you should know that he still always pays the full rate for it! Why do you think the girls are so enthusiastic about him?”

Huh. “I see. I wouldn’t have thought he would care… well. If that’s what he wants.”

———

He waited for his brother outside, and saw him come out looking no happier than when he went in. “Well Zhao?”

His brother was startled, but gave an exaggerated yawn. “You waited for me? I can’t believe it. I always just want to fall asleep afterwards.”

“Falling asleep in a brothel is nature’s way of saying ‘I didn’t really need what’s in my purse,’” said Shi dryly.

“Oh, so you were worried I might not come out? You shouldn’t worry about me so much,” he said. “I didn’t even bring any money, anyway, because you said you’d take care of it. You did pay, right?”

“They wouldn’t have let you leave if I hadn’t paid.”

“Oh, right…”

They walked in silence back towards the palace for a few minutes, before Shi said, “You didn’t enjoy yourself?”

His brother shrugged. “It was fine, I guess.”

“If it was as bad as that, I paid far too much. I paid for you to fuck her and she only sucked you off, now you tell me she wasn’t even any good at that?”

Zhao flushed. “How do you know I didn’t fuck her?”

“You were being a bit loud when I walked by your door. Before you call me a pervert again, I didn’t linger any longer than I needed to determine what was going on. I don’t like to pay more than I owe. Imagine my surprise when the madam said you always paid the full rate yet never got what you paid for.”

“Is that any of your business?”

“No, but it does make me curious. If that’s the only way you can orgasm, I guess that’s fine, but you should learn to do it another way if you ever want children once you marry.”

“It’s not that I wouldn’t like to fuck them,” said Zhao. “I just hate the thought of not knowing if I had kids out there.”

“Prostitutes’ children don’t mean anything,” said Shi, honestly bewildered by his brother’s discomfort. “They have ways to stop them coming and if one slips through they usually just let it die.”

Zhao actually shuddered. What was with him? Was he ill?

“Let’s just talk about something else,” said Zhao. “Or not talk at all. I just want to sleep.”

“Alright.”

———

The next day, Yuanji noticed something was up with her charge when she attempted to instruct him in that day’s assigned topic, calligraphy. She constantly had to touch him to correct his posture, the way he ground the inkstick, the way he held the brush. She had had to touch him just as much the previous time, but he hadn’t been this flustered about it.

She had displayed a variety of brushes and then quizzed him on which one would be best for a bold, dark line, but he didn’t answer. His hand was fidgeting with the chain that hung from his belt buckle.

“My lord, you are not attending again,” she said mildly, and he jumped a little and flushed.

“Sorry,” he muttered. “What was the question?”

“Has one day off really undone your respect for me to this extent, Lord Zhao?” She was testy, but then she felt a little bit of doubt. “Did your father… talk to you, yesterday?”

“My father?” he said, and he sounded confused. “I didn’t even see him.”

She relaxed a little. Her boss-in-law had given her the impression that he meant to heed her advice, but she couldn’t be sure with him. But if not Sima Yi, then… “Your mother, perhaps? Your brother?”

“What are you asking?” He sounded a bit testy himself.

“I am just trying to understand, my lord, what happened to you yesterday that has so changed your attitude.”

Nothing changed for me yesterday,” he said, with vehemence. “I respect you just the same, Yuanji.”

He looked up at her startled face. “What is it now?!”

“You called me Yuanji…”

“Uh… I’m sorry… Lady Wang.”

He looked so downcast. Yuanji felt like she had kicked the puppy herself. “I don’t mind if you do,” she said hastily, “I was just surprised because you’ve never done it before. After all, I’m here to serve you.”

“To serve me?” He laughed. “You mean my parents.”

“I mean you, my lord,” she insisted. “I am training you for your benefit.”

He looked at her with a strange expression. It was confused, but there was something else to it as well. She wanted to just stare back and try to decipher it, but they had a task to complete. “Now, these brushes…”

———

Zhao winced as he landed flat on his ass again.

“You’re not even trying,” he heard his fair tormentor say. It had been over a month of her severe tutelage. Just once he would like to go a day without hearing her scold him.

“You expect me to actually try to hit you?” he groaned.

“It’s a wooden sword, and I’m even wearing armour,” she said. “Your gentlemanly restraint is not doing me any favours, my lord. Do you think our opponents in Mt. Xingshi will be so reticent?”

He sat up quickly at that. “You’re coming with us?”

“So your father commands. Officially as your mother’s companion, but I am aware of where she expects me to accompany her.”

“And you’re going to fight with that?”

She was carrying a wooden sword identical to his own, and she gave him a look of disgust. “You think I’m going to fight with a wooden sword?!”

God, she really does think I’m stupid. “No, I mean a sword. Obviously not a wooden one.”

“No. A real sword would be too heavy for me. I’m going to use my throwing knives. My advantages are speed, accuracy, and presenting a small target; my disadvantages are physical weakness and inexperience. I intend to keep as much distance between my opponents and myself as possible. I have almost no experience in hand-to-hand combat, as you would know if you actually tried even the smallest amount. You can actually be useful to me for once.”

He didn’t miss that for once. He got up. What was his father thinking?

Well… if he did injure her a little bit… then she would have to stay here in Luoyang where she’d be safe…

———

Sima Shi could hear the sounds of a man and a woman engaged in heavy exertion of some kind or another as he walked to the practice rooms, and a smile twitched on his lips. Had some couple picked a place like that to have a secret tryst?

“Zhao, don’t stop,” he heard Wang Yuanji’s voice say, surprising him very much, and then she wiped away the surprise with her next words. “You had me, why didn’t you press the attack?”

Shi walked into the room to see his brother scratching his head with embarrassment again. “I just… I can’t hit you like that. Even for practice.”

“How would he have hit you, my lady?” Shi said softly, startling them both.

His secret sister-in-law bowed. “My lord, it would have been nothing. He had the opportunity to disarm me—at most, a sore wrist.”

“Show me the position you were in.”

He could see her thinking for a moment, and then demonstrated what looked like an ill-advised counterattack. Shi relieved his brother of his sword and took a posture. “And Zhao was like this?”

“Yes.”

Shi laughed. “You are inexperienced in this area, are you not, my lady?” He swiftly brought the blade to her pale throat. She gasped and stepped back. “I took you by surprise, but that is not the only place Zhao could have struck you. Why would you think an opponent would seek to disarm rather than kill?”

Zhao isn’t seeking to do anything,” she said. “I told him I don’t know how to fight hand-to-hand.”

“And after all your tutelage of him, he’s unwilling to return the favour? How ungrateful of you, brother.” He smiled at Zhao. “Shall I school her for you?”

Zhao kicked at a bit of dust. “Yeah, whatever. I’m going to get something to eat.”

“Lord Zhao!” Yuanji said, but her charge was disappearing. She turned back to her brother-in-law. “You’re going to get me into trouble with your father.”

“You should be more concerned about disappointing my mother,” said Shi. “We all are, you know. But don’t misunderstand him. Zhao knows you need to learn this skill, and he knows he’s incapable of teaching it to you. He doesn’t even want to watch me do it.”

“Why not, my lord?” He saw a shadow of nervousness cross over her, but she quickly regained her coolness.

“Because he knows I don’t show anyone mercy by nature,” he said softly. He stepped back and tested the heft and swing of the weapon. It was modelled after Zhao’s barbaric thing. He much would have preferred something more like his own elegant rapier. But perhaps it was better this way. He wouldn’t have to worry about muscle memory causing him to hurt her more than necessary.

———

Zhao had to keep telling his feet to slow down. If he didn’t pay attention to them, they kept trying to speed up. This was ridiculous, because it had only been half an hour.

He nearly dropped the tray of meat buns when he walked back into the practice room and saw Sima Shi slamming the blade of the wooden sword at a spot on the floor where Yuanji’s shoulder had been a moment ago. She had rolled out of the way in time. He then lifted his foot as if he was planning to try to pin her with it.

“Hey!” protested Zhao—what was he thinking, trying to step on her?

Shi looked up, and in that brief moment of inattention, Yuanji suddenly slammed herself into the one leg he was standing on, causing him to fall over himself. She quickly picked herself up and darted over to the wall, where her weapon had apparently been torn from her and tossed. His older brother began to laugh as he picked himself up to a sitting position. “You don’t mean to continue this bout when you’ve bested me, do you Yuanji?”

“That was just luck,” she said.

“Taking advantage of chance weakness in your opponent is not luck,” Shi countered. “Anyway, aren’t you hungry?” He held a hand out to Zhao.

The younger brother hesitantly approached him with the tray. It was his fault that Shi had been knocked over, and while his older brother seemed to bear no grudge against Yuanji, Zhao knew how much he hated to lose. “So, uh, how did it go?”

“Wonderfully,” said Shi, while at the exact same moment Yuanji said “Horribly.”

Shi bowed and selected the largest meat bun. “I’ll let you go first, my lady,” he said, and tore into it.

“He disarmed me within a few minutes,” she said. “Then he just kept attacking, for however long it was. It felt like forever.”

“How many times did he hit you?”

“I’m not sure that he really hit me,” she said, thinking. “I kept having to dive to the ground to get away though. He almost had me dozens of times.”

Half of Shi’s meatbun was gone, which apparently was enough for him to take a break to speak. “So why did you think it went horribly, Yuanji? You just described why I thought it went wonderfully.”

She was looking at him thoughtfully, as she picked up a meat bun. “You’re not saying that it went wonderfully just because you’re glad you were winning,” she said slowly, “but…” She trailed off. “Oh, of course.”

Sima Shi nodded and smiled at her, and took another bite of meat bun.

“Let me in on the secret,” growled Zhao.

“I was thinking it went horribly because I never even came close to hitting my opponent and he dominated me the entire fight, but I see now that I could never have a chance of defeating an opponent except at range. My only hope is to prolong my defence as long as possible until someone comes to rescue me. As you did, Lord Zhao.”

“Inadvertently,” drawled Shi, and finished off the meat bun. “Smart woman. You’re wasted on Zhao.”

To Zhao’s surprise, Yuanji blushed. “Not at all,” she protested feebly, and began eating her meat bun.

“I know she is,” said Zhao, and his brother regarded him with surprise.

“Oh? Do you intend to take more advantage of her then?”

Zhao said defiantly, “Of course. Even a fool would want to learn from a teacher like her.”

Shi laughed again as he pulled another meat bun off the tray.

Chapter Text

On the journey to Mt. Xingshi, Yuanji became acquainted with Jia Chong. Although perhaps that was too weak and too strong a term at the same time. She became deeply aware of him, while he hardly seemed to notice her. She was not sure if she understood him correctly—what was surface, what was under the surface, what was under even that.

On the surface, and even just beneath the surface, the officer seemed to have taken to Sima Zhao to a puzzling extent. Why was he speaking words of ruling and conquest into the unambitious younger brother’s ear, almost under the nose of the power-craving older brother? Was he trying to stir up trouble between them? And for either Sima to openly admit to such ambition was technically treasonous—and the co-regent Cao Shuang was there too, although he was much easier to fool than Sima Shi. Was Jia Chong under the pay of enemies of their clan?

It would be hard to imagine anyone more obviously untrustworthy than Jia Chong. Not only were his actions suspicious, the man even looked like a betrayer out of the opera. And yet she didn’t warn Zhao against him. There was something about him… something in the depths beneath the layer beneath the surface. Her intuition, or whatever it was, had gone down there and decided it liked what it saw, but her intellect remained totally in the dark about it.

She was torn between reassurance and exasperation that regardless of what Jia Chong said, it only seemed to make Zhao determined to act like more of an idiot.

The battle turned out to be a disheartening introduction to war. She had been warned that it was a foolish plan from the beginning, but she did not know if even Sima Yi had foreseen just how foolish. Within a few weeks of their arrival, they were fleeing for their lives, and yet Cao Shuang was arrogant to the very end, even in the face of continual proofs of his incompetence.

Yuanji had known that throwing her knives in battle would be very different than aiming them at a target, but it was even worse than her worst estimate. Her allies, especially Zhao, stuck very close to her, and she was terrified of accidentally hitting one of them. She became obsessed with counting exactly how many knives she had left, remembering how helpless she had been unarmed against Shi. The horror of actually seeing a man die with one of her blades in his eye or his throat was overwhelming at first, but even more terrible was how quickly she seemed to get over it.

When they were finally going back to Luoyang, she asked if she could ride in the baggage carriage.

“You are my daughter,” said Lady Zhang. “I shall make that fool take you in his carriage.”

That fool was of course Cao Shuang. “No, please—I just want to be alone to think for a while. I can’t think with him prattling at me non-stop.”

“That imbecile,” her mother-in-law said, tightening her fists in a way that made Yuanji very glad she was not still wearing her garotting gloves. “Alright, my dear, if that is your wish.”

She drew her knees up to her chest in the carriage, and shook her head remembering making the same posture on her way to her new family. It was a defensive gesture. She knew what she was afraid of back then—being handed to a stranger and fucked into submission. Reality had turned out very differently.

Yuanji sighed. She had power and no power at the same time. Despite his whining, complaining, laziness, stubbornness, that infuriating way of melting her exasperation away with his smile…

In her own brain she trailed off. Where had that come from?

She hugged her knees a little tighter. Despite all of that—she forced her mind back onto the track—she really enjoyed teaching Zhao. Remaining patient while watching for every little particle of improvement in him reminded her of the old story about the farmer who attempted to make his crops grow faster by pulling them up by the roots. It was hard work to keep calm with him, but every little glimpse of his inner talent felt all the more thrilling for that.

But wouldn’t she be a victim of her own success?

Her reward for turning him into a competent man, after all, was destined to be the same thing that had drawn her knees to her chest all those months ago.

But now I know it wouldn’t be so bad, that same part of her that had stunned her by inexplicably bringing up his smile whispered to the rest of her. He would be very gentle…

She released her knees and pressed her palms to her eyes as if to push away the disturbing internal images.

“Are you alright Yuanji?” came Zhao’s worried voice at the window.

She pulled her hands away from her eyes and tried to look dignified. “I just have a headache, my lord. That is all.”

“Are you sure?” he said. “I know this was your first battle, and I was just worried—“

“Did you not hear me say that Lady Wang requested to be left alone?”

”I did, mother, but—“

“Ah, you heard me. So you were deliberately disregarding me?”

“Mother, I—“

Yuanji could see the reins of his horse jerked from his hands and heard the sound of two horses falling back. She clambered with difficulty around the baggage to stick her head out the window just in time to see Lady Zhang, still holding both reins with one hand, smacking her son across the face vigorously with the other, while both horses whinnied and shuffled. She thought of calling out to her to stop, but remembered Sima Yi’s warning in time and drew her head back inside with a sigh.

———

Zhao slung his sword across his shoulder, listening in disbelief to his father announcing that they were going to launch a coup d’etat while Cao Shuang was temporarily gone from Luoyang.

It had been a year since the disaster at Mt. Xingshi, a disaster which should have been ample proof even to an emperor as young as Cao Fang that his kinsman was incapable of serving as regent. However, not only did the teenager not remove Cao Shuang from power, he didn’t punish or even rebuke him. The imbecile had immediately resumed a lifestyle of hunting and carousing.

That his father could do it, sure… but… “Aren’t we getting a little carried away..? I mean, Cao Shuang has to go, sure, but…”

“Zhao, these things have to be thorough in order for these fools to understand their place,” his brother said.

Jia Chong chimed in as well. “Give it up. If you show them mercy, then you’ll really have a mess on your hands.”

Zhao lifted one hand in a gesture of submission. At least his mother and Yuanji hadn’t added to the chorus telling him how weak and stupid he was for having misgivings.

Then it turned out the the coup d’etat was not merely a plan for the future. Spies had been listening. It was going into effect now.

———

As she undressed to go to bed, Yuanji felt more confused than ever.

Intellectually, she agreed with Sima Yi’s assessment of Cao Shuang and the necessity of removing him before he could plunge Wei into further disasters where tens, perhaps hundreds of thousands more would die pointlessly, weakening the land to the point where the chaos might not be ended for decades more.

Emotionally, she felt nothing like regret about watching Cao Shuang be executed.  She didn’t even feel regret about helping to kill some of the same soldiers and officers that she had cordially greeted during her months in Luoyang. Not regret… but it was still strange. At least many of them had defected… but more bloodshed was ahead, she could see that clearly. It would be the Sima clan versus the Cao clan and its cousin clan the Xiahou now.

What would happen to Xiahou Ba, whom she had fought side by side with in Cao Shuang’s disastrous campaign and who had displayed courage, talent, and virtue? The young officer had fled Luoyang in the wake of the coup, and she couldn’t blame him for fearing for his life. Sima Yi had justified the rebellion under the argument that talent was more important than family connections—would it not be baldly hypocritical to throw away Xiahou Ba’s talent just because of his family connections?

And what would this mean for Sima Shi’s wife, Lady Xiahou? In these few years she had been with the Simas, Wang Yuanji had barely interacted with her, but she had observed enough to tell that Sima Shi was entirely fed up with her failure to produce a son.

And the production of sons, she thought bitterly, is considered the only talent of a woman. Without family connections to make up for it, Lady Xiahou is in grave danger. She may count herself lucky if my brother-in-law merely sets her aside. I hope that is what he will do… I cannot let myself believe that he could be so cruel as to deliberately deprive his own daughters of their mother…

Then had come the biggest shock of all… Sima Yi’s… was it right to say abdication? His so-called “withdrawal from public life,” at Lady Zhang’s obvious behest. Sima Shi was now in control of them all.

She slipped under the sheets and replayed the scene in her mind’s eye.

“What are you going to do, Zhao?”

“What do you mean? You know I’ll always be there to support you.”

“Okay.”

Lying in her bed, Yuanji pursed her lips together and frowned, thinking of how the brothers walked off in opposite directions—Zhao to the gardens, Shi to the interior.

I have been blind not to see this until now, she thought. The older brother and the younger brother… it’s one of the oldest stories there is.

So many things were clear to her now, but they cast even more things into confusion and shadow.

She still feared Lady Zhang, though she had grown to love her too, in an odd way that she guessed was a weaker version of what her sons felt towards her. Despite the older woman’s brutality to her “idiot son”, Yuanji knew that his mother truly loved him in her own way and wanted the best for him, and that she trusted Yuanji to help him achieve that. She no longer exactly feared Sima Yi, at least regarding what he would do to her of his own initiative, but she at least respected him and knew that he respected her and her intentions towards Zhao.

Sima Shi… it was fear and love again, like the way she felt for his mother…

…but somehow not at all how she felt for his mother.

Sima Shi definitely loved his brother. She was sure of that.

She just wasn’t sure if he would let it stop him, if he felt that his brother was a threat.

Then there was another complicating factor: because Shi had daughters, but no sons, Zhao was his heir.

And Zhao, of course, had no children at all…

Tomorrow things would change. It was the first day of the week, the day that Sima Yi or Zhang Chunhua would give her the slate of topics they expected her to train Sima Zhao in that week. Would Sima Shi simply continue that pattern?

She sighed and turned over, wishing she knew how to shut her brain off and sleep.

———

Sima Shi did not enjoy how he was feeling. Even internally, it was hard to admit he was flustered. He wanted to do so much more than just take control of the teenage emperor—he wanted to be the emperor, in name as well as in power. And yet having the regency dumped in his lap all at once… why didn’t he feel like he knew what to do?

Maybe his mother had been right to yank his father’s leash and pull him into retirement. At least his father could still be consulted like this. When his father died, then he would really be on his own. All he would have left would be Zhao.

He opened his father’s appointment book. For the most part the notations were now irrelevant. He had to smile at the notation that his father’s first appointment was meant to be with Cao Shuang.

Then he frowned at a notation—9:15 daughter-in-law—simple horsemanship or mounted ranged weapons, ask her thoughts. History. Etiquette. Cartography. Protocol. The Book of Songs.

Clearly this was referring to Yuanji. He couldn’t imagine his father consulting his own wife about any of those subjects. So his father called Yuanji “daughter-in-law” in his mind, did he?

Did Yuanji expect him to take over his father’s role as her supervisor in this charade? She must be feeling even more uncertain about this new regime than he was.

“Summon Lady Wang to me,” he ordered.

———

“My lord,” Yuanji said, bowing.

“Am I correct that this was when my father gave you your orders for Zhao’s education for the week?”

She hesitated. “Yes, my lord.”

“Not fully correct? Enlighten me, Yuanji.”

He was certainly perceptive. “It was… especially in the past year… more of a discussion than orders, when your father was in charge.”

He smiled. “My mother gives orders.”

She couldn’t help but smile. “As you say, my lord.”

“Do you still think you will best serve my brother as his tutor, Yuanji?”

She did not know how to reply. She hadn’t been certain that Shi knew that she was contractually betrothed to Zhao. Even in private, he had never mentioned it. Was he implying it here? Why didn’t he just come out with it?

“I am genuinely curious to hear your thoughts,” he said.

“My thoughts are inchoate,” she said. “I believe Zhao is capable of so much more, but I do not know at what point his progress would be considered sufficient.”

“Sufficient for..?”

She reddened a bit. “Sufficient for my role to change.”

“Do I need to pull it out of you bit by bit? Very well. I can continue prompting you forever. Your role to change to..?”

Why did he want her to admit it like this? “To that of his wife.”

“Was that so difficult, Yuanji?” he said softly. “Are you so resistant to the idea? You could rule him like my mother rules my father. You have that in you.”

“I don’t—” she stopped suddenly. She hadn’t been able to keep the beginning of a denial from coming out, but to supply the details was so intimate. I don’t want to rule him, and I don’t think he wants to be ruled either. Not deep down. Though I can’t be sure.

He apparently interpreted her aborted denial completely the wrong way. “You doubt your capability? I believe if you were to even once strike him, he would eat out of your hand. He would do anything you wanted to keep you satisfied. Why slog on through this slow building up and up of his will when eventually you know you will need to break it?”

There was nothing overtly lascivious about his tone, but something about his smile and the odd, subtle inflections he placed on eat and satisfied sent a creepy feeling up her spine and a cold chill spreading out from her groin, a kind of disgusted, defensive arousal. She forced herself to speak. “Would you want your brother to be in the thrall of a woman?”

“It seems to have turned out pretty well for my father, wouldn’t you say? I admit that it is not what I would want for myself, but then I take after my mother.”

She was silent. What to say? I don’t think Zhao wants that… and I know I don’t want that…?

“However, with such major changes recently,” Shi continued, “perhaps further upheavals are inadvisable for the time being. I will be assigning Zhao a task, and I will want you to assist him. Xiahou Ba fled the capital during the coup before we could speak with him. I want Zhao to find him and convince him that there is still a place for him in our service.”

This was encouraging. Yuanji raised her hands to bow. “Yes, my lord.”

———

“You’re… you’re going… you’re going to kill me…” Xiahou Ba, out of breath and disarmed, staggered into a crouch rather than a kneel. “You want to overthrow our lord, and you’re cutting me down so you can take my troops for yourself!”

Zhao could think of few things he had wanted less than this insurrection in the first place. To be accused of wanting to give himself even more aggravation by increasing his troop count was almost insulting. “Just calm down,” he said, and he saw Xiahou Ba’s eyes widen in surprise. “You and I have always gotten along pretty well, I think. I don’t see why that has to change.”

Xiahou Ba looked even more confused and troubled, multiple emotions flitting across his face, not all of which Zhao even was sure he could identify. “But Lord Cao Shuang…!”

“The fact is, he was an incompetent fool,” Guo Huai said, walking forward to drop to Xiahou Ba’s eye level. “You’re too blinded by fear right now to see that. Lord Cao Shuang was not killed for his name, and neither will you be. Your father was a great man, strong and brave, exactly what a man and officer should be. Your most importance inheritance from him is not house or bloodline—what do you think it is?”

Xiahou Ba breathed for a few moments, then answered, “I see… not his house… but his way of life… He would never have run away in fear like I did… I’ve shamed him.” He stood up. “And all of you… I’ve caused you all this trouble.” He helped Guo Huai stand back up. “I apologize.”

Zhao was deeply relieved that Guo Huai had so quickly handled the diplomatic side of things. “Good! Then let’s go home.”

Yuanji caught up with him as they walked away, and actually put her slender hand on his elbow. He looked down at her.

“My lord,” she said, “why did you let Guo Huai do all the talking?”

He could have groaned. With Yuanji, these questions were never simple. If it had been his mother, father, or brother asking him do you think you did the right thing? he would know that the answer was No, I was a total fuck-up, as usual. But Yuanji never just took I was wrong as an answer.

So Zhao thought about it. “Well… Guo Huai’s known Xiahou Ba since he was a child, I’d guess. And Guo Huai was good friends with his father. I don’t think I ever even met Xiahou Yuan. Plus, y’know, I’m only a year or two older than him, and he’s always interacted with me as a comrade, not a superior.” He paused, and thought some more. Yuanji didn’t say anything. “If I tried to act like I had a right to lecture him, it’d just convince him that the Sima clan thinks it’s better than the Xiahou, come to think of it…”

He glanced at Yuanji to see what she thought. She was smiling.

“I agree with your reasoning, my lord,” she said. “Although I think I am right in saying you would not have bothered to apply your reason if I hadn’t prompted you?”

He grinned back at her. “Well, you’re always right in what you say, Yuanji.”

She even laughed a little at that. He felt a warm glow of happiness in his chest.

———

Zhao had his head in his hands again. Jia Chong, seated next to him, was looking out the window. Zhuge Dan had insisted on riding for the retreat from the Wu border, despite the danger in being sniped. Jia Chong had stopped Zhao from pushing the subject and Yuanji suspected he was hoping that a Wu arrow would succeed in eliminating the unfortunate strategist.

“My lord, since we must ride in a carriage,” Yuanji said, “I think we could pass the time by resuming your study of the Book of Rites.

Zhao didn’t initially look at her, but Jia Chong did, though the latter was expressionless. After a moment, however, Zhao laughed a little and sat back.

“You know how much I would normally hate this,” he said. “but right now I’d much rather be thinking about things from a thousand years ago than about how my brother is going to give me the beating of my life when we get back to Luoyang. So let’s hear it.”

“The only fault in your actions, my lord,” Jia Chong said, “was in not asserting your authority to overturn Zhuge Dan’s foolish strategy.”

Yuanji opened her copy of the book to her bookmark while the two of them talked, Zhao weakly protesting that his brother had put Zhuge Dan in charge. The next section of the Book of Rites was talking about ancient marriage ceremonies… A young man goes in person to welcome his bride, he must take the initiative and not her, because the strong leading the weak is what is called righteousness… women follow men; her father and elder brother in her youth, her husband when she marries, and when her husband dies, she follows her son…

“We’ll skip over this section,” she muttered. 

Jia Chong made a low sound of amusement, and she saw that he had been looking at the book on her lap. Even upside down, surely a man like Jia Chong would recognize the subject. She blushed and flipped the page.

The next section described ancient human sacrifices. Zhao listened with more interest than usual to these gory details.

“‘The hair and the blood announced to the spirits the wholeness of the victim. Announcing to the spirits the wholeness of the victim, was for the dao [the Way] of perfection. A blood sacrifice flourishes with qi [Breath, Spirit]. They offered the lungs, the liver, and the heart, as the noble source of qi.’”

“Gross,” said Zhao, looking delighted. Jia Chong snorted again.

Yuanji continued reading, “‘…the ruler bows twice with his head to the ground; with his own chest bare he himself cuts the victim apart: this is extreme reverence. Such extreme reverence, is a submission. To sacrifice, is submission; to bow one’s head to the ground, is extreme submission; and to bare one’s chest, is the utmost submission.’”

“How is that submissive?” laughed Zhao. “Take your shirt off and cut somebody up? I always thought like that sounded pretty dominant.”

“Such things obviously have a certain barbarity that we are now past,” Yuanji answered, “but do you not see that the ruler does not take up the knife on his own behalf?”

“On whose behalf does he take it up then? ‘The people’?” The latter phrase he did in a passable imitation of Zhuge Dan’s prissy attitude. Then Zhao changed his expression to a smug smirk, and deepened his tone to imitate his brother as he said, “‘Or is it ‘his mandate from the heavens’?”

Yuanji bit her cheek to keep from laughing. “We study these things, my lord, not simply to mindlessly repeat them,” she said when she was confident her voice would come out smoothly. “Just because we understand the choices of the rulers of the past, does not mean that the rulers of today should follow either their intentions or their actions. Wisdom, in one era, may be folly in another, do you not agree?’”

Zhao sighed, and rolled his shoulders in as much of a stretch as the cramped carriage would allow. “Whatever. It’s not like I’m going to be a ruler of any kind.”

Yuanji glanced again at Jia Chong, but the man was looking out the window again, seemingly unconcerned. She looked down at her book. “To continue…”

———

Jia Chong had not thought much of Wang Yuanji before the carriage ride, in either sense. He had categorized her in his mind had as a mere mouthpiece of Sima Yi and Zhang Chunhua.

That had been a mistake, yet the truth was if anything more favourable to his own desires.

Sima Shi had summoned both Zhuge Dan and his younger brother for a meeting first thing in the morning on the day of their arrival in Luoyang. Jia Chong had expected that Zhao would want to work out his frustrations in the practice rooms after his dressing down, and thus gone there to wait for him.

Lady Wang had, apparently, had the same idea, as she had come in not long off after he did. She didn’t initially notice him, leaning against the wall in a shadowed corner, and when he said, “Lady Wang, good morning,” she visibly startled.

“Oh, Master Jia Chong.” She bowed. “I didn’t see you there. Did you want this room for your own use?”

“No, I’m waiting for Zhao. Please, don’t leave on my account.” He stepped into the light. “Are you training him today?”

“I have no instructions,” she replied.

“Ah, of course.” He smiled, raising in hands in resignation. “We all await Lord Sima Shi’s instructions.”

The corners of her mouth twitched. She glanced away for a brief moment, and when she glanced back, she effected a marvellous transformation before his eyes. In an instant, her posture and her placid smile were that of a lady of the court.

“The weather, at least, is seasonable,” she said.

He began to applaud, and her placid smile wavered. Smiling himself, he said, “I just wanted to let you know how I admire the performance. You imitate an ordinary woman very well. But I’d rather we talked of real things.”

The mask slipped off. “What sort of things?”

“Who is fit to conquer the land,” he said, “and who is fit to rule it, once it is conquered.”

“Why do you say such things to me?”

“Because I think we agree on the answer.”

“You put him in danger.”

“There is no getting him out of danger, my lady. That was not my doing. The Sima clan has mounted a dragon; they might ride it to heaven, but there is already no getting off without falling down into hell.”

She repeated, but without anger, “Why do you say such things to me…”

He frowned, because she was turning away, as if she didn’t even care about his answer. “I believe, as I’ve said, that we are of the same mind.”

“I have no mind,” she told the wall perpendicular to him. “I am only a woman.”

He laughed darkly. “I’ve been married too long to pass that off on,” he told her shoulder. “That reminds me, I advise you by all means to avoid my wife.”

That drew her eye. “Why? I would have thought…”

He could easily finish that sentence for her. “…that I would wish to further ingratiate my clan with the Sima by having her befriend you? My wife could not possibly befriend any pretty woman without suspecting her of designs upon me.”

Lady Wang actually laughed in clear disbelief, then abruptly stopped, flushing.

“I take no offence,” Jia Chong said. “Indeed, it is absurd to imagine that you would choose me when you have Zhao.”

“If your wife is as jealous as that,” she said, “then it is most unwise for us to converse secretly.”

He bowed. “I honour your caution.”

As he walked back to his own home, he thought to himself that even without speaking to Zhao directly, he had accomplished a great deal for the day.

———

His brother somehow turned disaster into strength.

The dreaded beating never materialized. Sima Shi had been all self-recrimination, which had thrown Zhuge Dan into an apoplexy of shame.

Shi had met Zhao’s eyes briefly as Zhuge Dan had wept onto his lord’s boots. For just that moment, he smiled, and Zhao realized that he would not, this time, be blamed for anything.

His brother, in fact, blamed no one but himself, loudly and widely.

It caused his popularity and support in the court and among the officers to skyrocket.

“Sima Shi is so humble,” people said. “Sima Shi is willing to admit his mistakes.”

And when subsequent campaigns against Wu and Shu were successful, the initial loss to Wu faded from public memory.

Having gained support dealing with external threats, it was time to prevent internal ones.

The emperor, Cao Fang, had grown up.

“So how did it… go…”

Zhao had entered his brother’s office without announcing himself, assuming from the silence that his brother’s meeting with the emperor’s closest friend, Li Feng, was over.

And it was over, but only because Li Feng was crumpled on the floor, his face a swollen mess. Zhao prodded the body with his toe to confirm it was a corpse.

“He refused to speak,” Shi said. “As if he had to right to refuse to speak. If he won’t support my rule with his words, then he shall support it with his permanent silence.”

“How’d you kill him?”

“With the handle of my sword. He wasn’t good enough for my blade.”

“You are one dramatic fucker.” Zhao shook his head and clucked. “Do you need help getting rid of the body?”

Shi, who had been writing furiously throughout all this, paused at that, looked up, and laughed. He set down his brush. “Zhao, you are always so refreshing. You put my heart at ease. Have you eaten?”

“Not since breakfast.”

His brother stood up. “Let’s eat together then. Afterwards, rather than helping me dispose of this corpse, I’ll need your assistance in creating some more.”

Zhao shrugged. “Whatever. Anyone I know?”

“Zhang Ji and Xiahou Xuan, and their associates. The emperor himself, I think, will then be willing to quietly step down—”

“Xiahou Xuan?” Zhao interrupted, staring, as his brother threw his cloak around his shoulders. “Your wife’s brother Xiahou Xuan?”

“My former wife,” Shi said, as if it were a minor thing. “I was just writing my writ of divorce. I have a place in mind near Hua where she can live quietly with the girls.”

“Is Lady Yang pregnant?”

“No, can you believe I haven’t touched her yet? The Yangs are being coy, but after our display of force today, they will be eager to form a marriage tie with me.” Shi laughed again.

Zhao whistled. You are going to slaughter one set of in-laws and think that will make another set desire you… and the worst thing is, I’m sure you’re right. This world is crazy.

Shi was still laughing, but suddenly he stopped and winced, pressing a hand to one side of his forehead.

“Is your eye bothering you again?” Zhao said. “Maybe you had better rest and just have me do it.”

“It’s nothing. Just a headache from too many fools.” Shi rubbed at the temple on one side. “I want to do this together.”

“Alright, I’m your man.” Zhao readied his sabre.

———

Yuanji watched through a window as the carriage train bearing Lady Xiahou, her young children, a retinue of servants, and their baggage departed the Sima compound.

Only Sima Yi and Lady Zhang had been there to see them off, and Lady Zhang was actually burying her face in her husband’s coat, while he stroked her hair and murmured something to her.

It was a most unexpected aspect of the scene, and not just for the novelty of seeing Lady Zhang, for once, depending upon her husband. Yuanji had long known that her future mother-in-law adored her granddaughters. But she had known even longer that Lady Zhang would never reveal her feelings carelessly. To make a public display of grief like this was tantamount to a declaration that Lady Zhang was unhappy with her son’s decision to send his wife away.

Sima Shi was no longer able to be checked by her, in other words.

But to whom was she declaring this?

As if in answer, Lady Zhang pulled back delicately from her husband, turned, and stared directly at the window.

The two women regarded each other solemnly for a long moment. Yuanji’s heart felt like it was in a vice.

Then Lady Zhang lowered her gaze, took her husband’s arm, and let herself be guided back away.

She is telling me this, because… she wants my help to keep Zhao safe.

Yuanji wished she knew how to tell Lady Zhang that she already thought of nothing else.

Chapter Text

“The illustrious Cai Wenji,” Shi said to Zhao as the two of them played the board game liubo together over tea, “is coming out of retirement for a final performance.”

“Who?” Zhao threw the sticks onto the mat and crowed with delight. “Ha! I’ve killed you, I’ve killed you!”

He moved his piece forward the required number of steps, and tossed his brother’s piece back to the beginning.

“Cai Wenji, the famous poet,” Shi said, as he took his own turn, “and daughter of the great Han poet Cai Yong. And also my wife’s aunt. Yuanji asked me to take her.”

“Good, well, enjoy that.”

“I think you should take her. You would enjoy it even more than me.”

“A poetry performance?” Zhao laughed. “Not likely.”

Shi smiled. “Trust and see.”

“God, Yuanji already makes me read enough poetry,” Zhao groaned, “and you know she would quiz me about the performance afterwards, so I would have to pay attention. Are you mad at me for something? Why are you trying to set me up?”

“I am not trying to set you up. If you take Yuanji to this performance, you will enjoy yourself enormously.”

Zhao kept his eyes narrowed at him for a moment, then they widened. “Hey, you’re not just trying to get yourself out of it, are you? Is your eye bothering you again? What did the doctor say, anyway?”

Shi leaned back in his chair without taking his turn. “Zhao, you wound me. Is it genuinely impossible to believe that I would ever seek to do you a good turn without ulterior motive?”

“No, but… poetry…

His brother picked up the sticks, without saying anything.

Zhao sighed. “Fine, I’ll do it. When is it?”

———

Zhao’s new sister-in-law, Lady Yang, was apparently hosting the event, something that his brother had not mentioned, so when he walked into the venue with Yuanji at his side, the first thing he saw was Sima Shi, smiling at her side. It took considerable effort not to glower at him. Shi hadn’t mentioned that he would be going regardless. Now Zhao was sure he had been set up.

And he had, but not for punishment.

“I will begin with a few compositions of my father’s,” the elderly woman said, and sat at the guqin zither to play.

After listening for a minute, finding the music nice enough, Zhao glanced down at Yuanji to see how she was enjoying it.

She was absolutely riveted. He had never seen her like this before. Her whole face shone with her awe and rapture; her hands were tightly clutching each other in her lap.

He’d never seen her looking so… cute.

Yuanji was always so formal… no, not formal; reserved. But under the influence of the music, it was like her mask or her shield was down. Whatever was the emotion of the music or the poem, that was the emotion in her face. The pieces were works of joy, amusement, reflection, idleness, and paeans to nature and virtue. Seeing that kind of wholehearted, open expression on Yuanji’s face was mesmerizing.

“Now I will play some of my own poor works, the Eighteen Songs of the Nomad Flute.”

The pleasure vanished from Yuanji’s face in an instant, but it was replaced with a look of concentrated anticipation.

When I was born / nothing had happened
After I was born / the Han throne waned
Heaven was cruel, sending down calamities
Earth was cruel, that I encountered such times…

A barbarian captured me / for his home
And made me go / beyond the horizon

The cloudy mountains are countless, the way back is lost
A storm travels a thousand miles, the wind tossing the sand…

I left the land of the Han, I entered the barbarian’s city
Home destroyed, body violated, it is worse than not to have been born…

As Lady Cai sang through the series of songs, tears began to fall silently from Yuanji’s eyes.

Part of him wanted to comfort her, but at the same time he did not dare disturb her.

When Lady Cai sang of her being ransomed by Cao Cao and brought home, yet without her barbarian children, so many years later, Yuanji’s tears flowed even faster.

Joy to return alive, to meet with the emperor
Lamenting to part from my young ones, never to reunite…

My body went home, but my children could not follow
My heart aches and aches / as if I were starving
Dreaming, I hold their hands—it is joyful and sorrowful
Waking, there is pain in my heart, which never ceases…

How bitter are my grievances, as vast as the sky
Though the world is wide, it contains no answer for them!

Lady Cai sang this final verse, and the music died out, Yuanji finally took a handkerchief to her face, while all around people clapped politely.

Afterwards was the usual opportunity for gossip and intrigue under the guise of socializing. Though Lady Cai was nominally the person everyone had gathered to hear, it was obvious to Zhao that the real person most of the people there had come to see was his brother.

Yuanji did not get up, but just sat there, a dreamy look on her face as she sat, slightly hunched forward, with a finger to her lips.

“Do you want to speak to Lady Cai?” Zhao said at last.

Yuanji started. “Oh! I’m sorry, my lord, I was lost in my thoughts… I appreciate the thought, but I couldn’t possibly speak to Lady Cai.”

“Well, I think my brother is sending her over to us.”

Yuanji’s eyes got very wide. He saw her compose herself; then she stood, and he stood with her, as Lady Cai approached.

“Lord Sima Zhao,” Lady Cai said with a nod. Then, turning to Yuanji, she said, “Lord Sima Shi tells me you are Lady Wang Yuanji. Lord Sima Yi showed me some of your poetry a few years ago, so I am pleased to make your acquaintance.”

Yuanji actually gripped onto him for support. “Oh?” she said, faintly. “You… you read my work?”

“Yes, I thought it showed remarkable insight and precision for one so young. I hope you enjoyed my humble performance.”

“It was magnificent!” Yuanji blurted, then reddened. “I’m so sorry, I am being terribly… vulgar and awkward, but your work is so exquisite, so important…”

“Now that is certainly praising me too much,” Lady Cai said kindly.

“But your work is so true,” Yuanji insisted. “Other poets merely put men’s thoughts into women’s mouths—for the real thing, there is only you, my lady.”

“Ah, this is rather a credit to your own keen eye for veracity, not my own poor talent,” Lady Cai said, with good humour. “When there is only one of something, it seems remarkable. When there are many lady poets, in the future, history will not judge me so generously.”

Yuanji shook her head. “No, but only you are speaking for us now, for what we—” she faltered, “I mean, for what you experienced. Future poets will never be able to do it.”

“You must come and drink tea with me, my dear,” Lady Cai said. “I shall tell my niece to arrange it. I would dearly love to read your more recent works. Now, I’m afraid it’s late and I have, alas, too many whom I must speak to before I can collapse into my bed.”

The poet drifted off. Zhao looked down and saw that Yuanji looked flustered, which for her was near to panic.

“I didn’t know you wrote poetry,” he said.

“But that’s just it, I haven’t written any poetry in years.” She looked up beseechingly into his face. “What am I going to do, Zhao?”

He couldn’t help laughing. “If you’re asking me for help, you must really be desperate. Can’t you just… write some?”

“There’s been no time… my duties… even if I could find time to write something, I’m so out of practice… and the pressure…

“It’s just my luck… whenever you need help with something, it’s something I can’t possibly help you with.” Zhao stretched. “Well, let’s duck out of here before my brother ropes me into something diplomatic.”

As they walked back to the Sima family home, Zhao was by no means as carefree as his stroll suggested. Her duties were, of course, him and his continued failure to meet his family’s expectations.

She had looked so beautiful… not that she didn’t always look beautiful, but without the shield of her dignified reserve, the lovely heart within shone so brightly. Even her sorrow was breathtaking.

Music and poetry clearly made her happier than anything else… and because of him, she had given them up entirely. Since she had come to the Simas, she had been entirely unable to play or write. Just like Lady Cai, forced into marriage with a barbarian.

I never defied heaven, so why did it pair me with a mate so different from me?

So sang Lady Cai, and Zhao realized that Yuanji could rightfully have similar feelings. It was no comfort at all to think himself superior to Lady Cai’s kidnapper and rapist. He was only different in degree, not kind; she had been purchased for him, rather than stolen by him. And how much of his restraint was not from any sliver of virtue but rather because he just didn’t have the guts to…

Zhao cut off his own thoughts, disgusted with how low his own mind would go to torment himself. He needed to think of something else, anything else. “Are you hungry?”

———

“How dare you even suggest such a thing?!” Sima Shi had taken off his rapier for the doctor’s examination, but the doctor, backing up in a hurry, did not underestimate the danger he was in.

The door opened and his wife, Lady Yang, appeared. “What’s the matter, my lord? I heard shouting.”

“A tumour,” Sima Shi hissed, “This imbecile has the temerity, the shamelessness, to suggest that I have a tumour! Who is paying you?”

“It-it-it’s not that bad, my lord, truly! It is near the surface and not too large… if we remove it now—”

“I cannot have a tumour!” shouted Sima Shi. “Whoever’s paying you wants you to kill me… if I had my sword—”

“My lord,” interceded Lady Yang, “you cannot terrify every doctor who brings to you an uncomfortable diagnosis. That is not the way to be assured of hearing hard truths.” To the doctor she said, “This is so unlike Lord Sima Shi, as you know, he is so humble and patient ordinarily. I assure you, it is only the shock.”

“Shock, shock, naturally,” said the doctor.

Shi put his hand to his head. His eye… his eye had actually started bulging out… that was what had gotten him to relent to seeing a doctor, as his family had been after him to do for so long.

He couldn’t have a tumour, he couldn’t have something so grossly wrong with his body. Such a disfigured person as that couldn’t be the one favoured to become the Son of Heaven.

“He needs time to process it,” his wife was saying, as she escorted the relieved doctor out.

A few minutes later she came back.

“He will be discreet, of course,” she said. “He has been a doctor to my family for a long time.”

“I’ll see another doctor,” Sima Shi said. “That one is a fool. This time I’ll arrange it myself.”

“Very well, my lord,” Lady Yang said, “but I must insist that you decide in advance what you will do if the other doctor says the same thing.”

He stood up. “You can have no reason to insist anything of me, madam, until you carry my child.”

She stiffened, and her mask of concern slipped off, revealing the frightened anger beneath. Good. He was sick of seeing Lady Yang try to act like his mother. She didn’t have one tenth of his mother’s ability.

———

Sima Zhao looked up and gave a little gasp. He hadn’t heard her approach at all, yet somehow his mother was there, looking down at him with that lovely smile that foretold intense punishment nine times out of ten.

“Mother,” he said, and hurried to stand up and bow. “You’re… what are you doing here?”

“How did I find you, you mean?” She sat down primly under the same tree he had been sitting under, and gestured for him to reseat himself, which he did warily. “I am your mother, of course I know where you will go, in these circumstances. I remember when you were a little boy, how you loved anything natural. Gardens or wilderness… even a little weed growing out of a crack would claim your attention… how cute you were.”

She took his hand, and when he managed a glance at her eyes to see how angry she was with him this time, he was even more frightened to realize that she was not angry with him at all.

“Your father is very ill,” she said, simply.

Zhao swallowed. “I know.”

“And unfortunately, your brother must have this surgery now,” she continued. “This will undoubtedly look like a time of weakness to our enemies. But they will underestimate us at their own cost.”

“Mother…?”

“I have been very hard on you, I know,” she said. “I will tell you a secret. I know you and your brother both think that he’s the one who takes after me, but that’s not true. You are more like me by far.”

He couldn’t help laughing, even though long experience was screaming at him that there could be no stupider idea than to laugh at his mother. “Me, like you?”

“Oh yes,” she said. “You have just not had to face sufficient threats to those whom you love, yet. When you do… you will find that you also know, down to your bones, how to be merciless.”

He didn’t know what to say.

She patted his hand. “Help me up,” she instructed.

He did so in haste.

His mother reached up and caressed his cheek. “My son,” she said, and then kissed the hand that had helped her up.

“Mother,” he breathed. “May I… take you back to Father?”

“That would be very considerate,” she said, and took his arm.

———

Wang Yuanji handed the letter to the messenger, but Sima Zhao, coming in the other way, neatly grabbed it out of his hands. “What’s this?”

“It’s just a note to Lady Cai, that I unfortunately must refuse her invitation under the present circumstances,” Yuanji said, confused at this uncharacteristic behaviour from Zhao. Curiosity? He wouldn’t trouble himself. Suspicion of her? Never.

“No,” he said, and ripped the note in half. “Tell Lady Cai that Lady Wang will be happy to see her at… whatever the time was.”

The messenger bowed and left, paying no attention at all to Yuanji’s protests that he should stop. Well, of course not.

“My lord!” she said reproachfully. “How can you possibly think I could go at a time like this when your father and your brother are both in such critical states? I must be here.”

“The surgery went very well, the doctor says,” Zhao said. “My brother simply needs to rest.”

Yuanji sighed with relief. “Well, that is very good news, but even so…!”

“Yuanji…” He took a step closer to her, then stretched and crossed his arms. “Look, as long as my brother’s out of commission, there’s no ‘orders’ for you, are there? And if you’re thinking you need to be here for them, you don’t. My mother has my father well in hand, and well, my brother picked Lady Yang, so that’s his problem. There’s no reason why you can’t take an afternoon to enjoy yourself.”

“But… she’s going to want to hear my poetry!”

Zhao laughed at her. “Why, Lady Wang,” he put his hands on his hips and leaned forward, “are you being a coward?

She flushed. “No, but… I don’t have anything to show.”

“Then go to your room, right now, and write some,” he said… almost ordered. “You don’t even have to worry that I’m going to be indolent all day. I’m meeting with Jia Chong, then we’re going to spar, then I’m visiting my father, and I’ll even promise to you I’ll read a chapter of something before bed. You pick.”

“The Zuo Commentary on the Spring and Autumn Annals, where we left off,” she said.

“Deal,” he said.

———

Jia Chong refilled his companion’s wine. “You seem to have a sudden influx of confidence, my lord.”

“Eh?” Zhao tapped his fingers on the table to thank him for the pour and took a sip. “I guess. Probably just glad that my brother’s surgery went so well.”

“Oh? That is good news.”

“Still. Gotta head up the clan for the time being. Had to fend off some advice from my uncles.” Zhao rolled his eyes. “If I act confident, maybe less people will bother me.”

“It makes a certain amount of sense,” Jia Chong said, refilling his own wine. “This will be a low-pressure time for you to try out the basics of rule.”

“Don’t start with that again,” Zhao groaned. “Have you been talking to Yuanji?”

“No,” said Jia Chong, guessing that Yuanji would not have revealed their conversation to Zhao. “Why?”

“Oh, she’s always going on about rulers in my lessons. Lately it seems like it’s all she wants to talk about.”

“She is very perceptive.”

“I said don’t start.” Zhao huffed and drained the cup. “If you don’t have anything actually interesting to talk about, why don’t we skip ahead to the spar.”

“I think Guanqiu Jian is going to rebel.”

Zhao put down his empty cup. “Now?”

“No time like the present, for him,” Jia Chong said calmly. “He has some certain amount of respect for his successes against the Koreans. He was connected to Xiahou Xuan and Zhang Ji.”

“Whom we killed,” Zhao muttered.

“Whom we killed,” Jia Chong agreed, and refilled Zhao’s wine. “Unfortunately, the time is not yet such that we can take preemptive action against threats. We must wait for him to actually rebel before we can kill him. On a positive note, he will undoubtedly not show his hand until he has more allies. Then we can take them all down at once.”

Zhao touched his cup, but did not drink from it. “My brother will be well by then.”

“So we all hope.” Jia Chong drained his own wine.

———

“Sima Shi! Usurper! Show yourself!” The voice from outside the fortress was like a howl.

Zhuge Dan had alerted them that Guanqiu Jian and Wen Qin were about to rebel in Shouchun, and though his doctor had advised against it, Sima Shi had led the Wei forces personally to put them down. They had only just arrived that evening and had not fully set up their massive camp outside the small fortress when a cavalry raid had swept in. It was dark and the enemy clearly had fighters of talent, and their leader had begun calling for Sima Shi to come out.

Sima Zhao gripped on his brother’s shoulder and forcibly prevented him from sitting up.

“Sima Shi! Come out and face me, coward! Sima Shi! Sima Shi!”

“Let go of me, Zhao,” his brother said, quiet but in command.

“I’m not going to let you take his bait,” Zhao said, not relinquishing his grip. “I can take care of the situation and I will, but you need to promise me you’re going to remain right here, resting, like the doctor instructed.”

“It’s not a matter of taking the bait,” Sima Shi said. His one visible eye stared up at his younger brother’s intently. “That’s not what this is about. If I don’t show myself, our morale will be shaken and theirs will soar. If I didn’t intend to make a show of my presence, I would have stayed in Luoyang.”

“You should have stayed in Luoyang!”

“I seem to remember that I told you to stay in Luoyang,” his brother countered. “Now let me go!”

Zhao was exasperated but he let go. It was not as if wrestling his brother down onto his bed would be any better for his healing eye than allowing him to get up.

His brother fitted his mask over the side of his face. It blocked the ordinary look of the bandages and gave him a sinister, theatrical profile.

Zhao followed Shi to the ramparts, where they looked down at the Wei camp and saw it in turmoil. The man who was shouting was clearly the leader of the raid. He wore shining armour and rode expertly.

“Sima Shi!” shouted the rider again.

“Why would the leader of a force of a hundred thousand,” Sima Shi shouted down, “trouble himself with a leader of a dozen?”

It was true, Zhao realized. Despite the chaos, now that he was actually seeing what was happening, this raid had almost no manpower at all. A dozen might be a little low, but surely it was no more than a hundred.

The rider pulled back on his horse and was looking up at the Sima brothers, and they could see that his face was young, even younger than theirs. The rider looked over one shoulder, then the other, cursed, and shouted for his comrades to fall back.

Shi turned away from the edge and put a hand to his mask once he was out of sight. “We pursue. You know why.”

Zhao did know why. The enemy leader’s last ditch search of the horizon was a futile look for expected reinforcements that had never come. A pursuit might reveal why. “It could be a trick. I’ll go, but say you will rest while I am hunting them.”

“I have done what I came to do,” Shi said with a sneer. “Stop trying to mother me.”

Zhao had to accept it as all the promise he could get. He called for Jia Chong and the others to ready the pursuit.

———

“I feel so privileged that you were able to keep our engagement, Lady Wang,” Lady Cai said, pouring tea for her guest. “I know that this has been a difficult time for your… hosts.”

The pause before ‘hosts’, and Lady Cai’s expression, said without directly saying it that Lady Cai was very curious about what was the exact relationship between Lady Wang and the Sima clan. Yuanji took advantage of the cup of tea to consider how to answer.

“Lord Sima Yi, as I told you before, asked my opinion on your poetry before he brought you to Luoyang…” The old woman lifted her own tea to her lips, then smiled. “I have known him, at this point, many years. His service for my lord Cao Cao was impeccable. I know what is said of him, of course… but to me, he is always that very young and family-oriented man I first met.”

Lady Cai was clearly not going to let this one go, yet how could Yuanji answer without causing Zhao to lose face? The only thing she could think of was to blame herself. “My future father-in-law has been very patient with me.”

“How unusual!” Lady Cai smiled at her. “Even now? Your future in-laws, clearly, value you already as a daughter.”

“That is so,” Yuanji could answer honestly, but that ‘even now’ was making her stomach churn. Yes, Lord Sima Yi was probably dying… and if he did die, then Zhao would have to mourn him three years and would not be able to marry all that time… yet nobody had said a word to her, not even Lord Sima Shi, whom she knew was impatient of the charade.

“There are very few families who honour talent in a daughter-in-law as they ought to,” Lady Cai said, and sipped tea again. “That the husband should care only about his wife’s beauty and docility is, I suppose, understandable enough… but I have long thought that any forward-thinking parent should want a woman of intelligence and spirit to nurture their grandchildren. Speaking of intelligence, have you brought me anything new you have written?”

“I feel so embarrassed to share my poor efforts with you, even privately like this,” Yuanji confessed, but she took the paper out of her sleeve and handed it over.

Lady Cai unrolled the paper and read through all the works in silence, which seemed to Yuanji to take an inordinate amount of time. Then she began to read aloud.

Going again, and going again,
the gentleman’s life is endless separation.
Ten thousand
li apart,
each on an opposite horizon.
The road is dangerous and long,
when will meeting be possible?
The wild horse longs for the northern wind,
and the bird’s nest is of southern branches.
The day of togetherness is far away.
The belt is looser day by day.
Drifting clouds block the sunlight,
but the traveler does not return.
Thinking of him makes one old.
How late the time has gotten!
Abandoning all thought of saying anymore.
Please take care to eat well.

“This is very fine,” Lady Cai said, and Yuanji blushed.

“I cannot accept such praise.”

Lady Cai ignored this. “The ending, in particular, is subtle. The abrupt shift, from such intimate and individual lament, to such a rote expression of… shall I say submission? The speaker abandons her own voice and takes up the voice she is expected to speak with.”

Yuanji had not realized she was revealing so much of herself in the poem. She had naively thought that the subject of a woman dying with longing for a long absent lover would be unmistakably not her.

“May I keep this?”

“Certainly, but… if you wish to show it to anyone… I am not sure…”

“I won’t reveal your authorship,” Lady Cai said, rolling up the works. “I understand you, my dear. Tell me, when do Lords Sima Shi and Sima Zhao return to Luoyang? I trust the troubles in Shouchun will be quickly sorted, if my lords have gone themselves.”

“I don’t know anything,” Yuanji said.

———

They managed to kill Guanqiu Jian, but Wen Qin and his associates escaped to Wu. The entire thing had taken months longer than Sima Shi had planned, and he was in a foul mood as they arrived in Xuchang for a short night’s rest before going back to Luoyang.

A messenger arrived and was shown in to where Sima Shi and his brother were sharing a room.

“I have a message from the emperor,” the messenger stated as he went to his knee. “He—”

“Do you?” interrupted Sima Shi.

The messenger looked startled. “I… do?”

Sima Shi had been cleaning his sword, and he held it up in the light. “Do you really have a message?”

The messenger swallowed and shrank back. “I…”

“I was asleep. My brother would not let you disturb my rest,” Sima Shi said. “You could not deliver your message tonight. You came back in the morning, around nine, shall we say? And alas, I was already gone.”

“I… I understand…” The messenger kowtowed and quickly left.

Zhao locked the door after him. “What was that about?”

“Cao Mao thinks I’ll just let him order me to stay in Xuchang?” Sima Shi scoffed. “I see that putting a little boy upon the throne means I will have to play games with him.”

“When we’ve just put down a rebellion against his claim to the throne?” Zhao shook his head.

“Oh, I give the boy credit enough to realize that the rebellion was not against him.” Shi undressed. “We had better get to sleep so that we can leave at first light. Our anxiety to see our ill father, naturally, rushes us.”

“Naturally,” said Sima Zhao, undressing as well. “Father would be proud to know that his illness could serve us so well.”

His brother’s wicked laughter rang in his ears as he extinguished the light.

Chapter Text

As Shi had planned, they went directly to their father when they arrived in Luoyang, without even stopping at home to change, although they did conspicuously hail several people along the way, mentioning that they had rushed back and had so-and-so heard anything about Sima Yi? Nobody had, other than that he was not well, of course. Shi would sigh and shake his head, his half-mask glinting in the sunlight; Zhao used his exhaustion from having been roused at dawn to look convincingly depressed and uncharacteristically silent. In truth, despite his mother’s unnerving conversation some months back, Zhao did not really feel like it was possible for his father to die. A world without Sima Yi? It would be just like his father to carry on “dying” for twenty or thirty years.

When they finally arrived at his door and the guard let them in, they found their father reclining in his bed with his eyes closed, while Yuanji sat at his head, reading aloud to him from a collection of the poetry of Sima Xiangru.

Yuanji stopped reading when they entered, and Sima Yi said without opening his eyes, “Finish the poem, my dear.”

“Your sons are here, my lord,” she said.

“I could tell,” he said, and opened his eyes halfway. “Only Shi and Zhao together sound like that entering a room—Shi’s rapier clanging on the door when Zhao realizes at the last moment that he needs to duck through the doorframe and crowds him. Let them hear from a time when the Sima family produced men of true artistry. Anyway, you were almost done.” He reclosed his eyes.

Shi and Zhao exchanged glances, Shi amused, Zhao sheepish.

Yuanji finished the last few lines:

Then the woman loosened her garments, exposing her xieyi,
presenting her luminous body, frail in frame but full in flesh,
and this time approached me, soft and smooth as fat itself.

Then I kept my blood still, my heart upright in my chest.
I had made a solemn vow, I held onto my will and did not turn back from it.
Holding my head up high at once, I rejected her forever.

Despite the risqué lines of the prose-poem, her face did not colour nor did her voice waver.

“This is the stuff you read to my father?” Zhao spoke without consideration.

He heard Shi snort, and Yuanji looked up from the book with that glance that withered him every time. “It’s art, Zhao.”

“You will have to read the rest of them to me another time, my dear. I do so enjoy our visits.” Sima Yi said, and she got up, bowed and kissed his offered hand, and left, with a smile for Shi and a look for Zhao that said we’ll discuss this later.

Sima Yi gestured for his sons to sit. “I’m surprised at your displeasure, Zhao,” his father said as Shi took Yuanji’s empty seat and Zhao pulled over another chair. “You should be glad that I’m reminding her that some Sima men are actually capable of being faithful.”

“That was a long time ago,” said Shi, and their father laughed.

“You come in your traveling clothes,” he said. “Such haste. For what is my poor health to be an excuse?”

“We did not receive a message that we were to stay in Xuchang.”

“Indeed. Help me sit up.” As Shi helped moved the bolsters and cushions to help his father into more of a sitting position, Sima Yi continued speaking. “Do you think the boy came up with that one on his own, or has someone been advising him so stupidly?”

“It doesn’t matter,” Shi said. “If it is an advisor, he is welcome to keep him.”

“And how do you intend to punish him?”

“You have gotten to turn down the Nine Bestowments twice,” Shi said. “I shall decline them nine times in a row.”

That got both of them doing their horrible laugh. Zhao cringed slightly, wishing he could think of some reason to leave. They were insufferable when they were like this.

“Why don’t you go and change, Zhao?” his father said. Zhao unwillingly looked back at his father’s face, saw the familiar combination of contempt and affection, and felt the familiar weight of both on his back. “Ask Lady Wang to explain to you the political meaning of the poem she was reading to me.”

Zhao stood and bowed. “I’m glad you look so well, father.”

———

When the door closed behind his younger brother, Shi said, “You do look well, father. Is this all a ruse? I hear you feign deafness and senility to visitors outside our family. It is difficult for me to believe they buy it; you’re not that old.”

“I amuse myself a little there,” Sima Yi admitted. “Although how old do you think I am?”

“No more than fifty, surely.”

“I am past sixty,” Sima Yi said. “Why so surprised?”

Sima Shi was only twenty-four. “I… suppose I thought you were closer in age to mother.”

“No, it took me a long time to find the right wife,” Sima Yi said. “If I had never come across your mother, perhaps I never would have married. A woman of her calibre is rare. I had many brothers and no desire to move up in the world, of course, so there was little pressure on me to marry.”

“You don’t answer me, father. I do actually want to know if you’re well.” His father was somewhat thinner and paler, but that could also be his lack of activity and light. Shi knew very well that his father had faked illness to avoid going into Cao Cao’s service in the first place.

“I am in agony most of the time,” Sima Yi said matter-of-factly, “which the doctor believes is an infection in my kidneys. It has not, so far, responded in the slightest to any treatment. I could die at any time or I could linger for years and years. I have asked your mother if she will kill me if it goes on too long.” He shrugged.

Shi was taken aback. “What did mother say?”

“She didn’t answer.” Sima Yi looked at the mask on his son’s face. “And your eye? Have you seen a doctor?”

“Yes, before I left Shouchun. I have the situation under control.” In fact, the doctor had told him that if he continued to expose himself to exertion, stress, and violent movement, he would lose the eye at best. But he could not put his ambition on hold; his enemies would not be putting their counter to his plans on hold.

“If you use your brother as a go-between to the boy and the court generally, and only reveal yourself on the ninth refusal,” Sima Yi said, “you will increase their terror of you… their sense of you as the emperor in practice already.”

Shi considered this. Even laying aside the issue of his recuperation, his father’s suggestion to make himself a kind of remote authority who could only be approached through another, even in the face of the emperor’s public pleading for him to take the highest rank in the land, would underscore him as a figure in more demand than the emperor himself. And then when he did reappear in public life for the ninth refusal… oh, he could make a grand show of that. He liked that idea very much indeed.

“Don’t ask mother to kill you anymore,” Shi said. “Selfishly, father, I require your advice.”

Sima Yi laughed again, and made a gesture for his son to leave. “I shall tell my visitors in my deaf and senile way that you are too busy planning your next campaign for the empire to bother with such trifling matters as the emperor himself.”

“And it will even be true,” Shi said, as he bowed.

———

“Sima Shi must accept the Nine Bestowments,” the boy emperor said, his shoulders pulled uncomfortably high in a futile attempt to make himself look more regal.

Sima Zhao, on his knees, with the entire court behind him, pressed his forehead to the ground again. “Your majesty, I cannot convince him to accept this honour. He continues to say, this is not the time. He must concentrate on uniting all under heaven. Day and night he works on this purpose.”

The beads of the emperor’s veil rattled against each other. “He will not accept it? Then…”

Sima Zhao raised himself back up to a kneel and smiled at the emperor.

“Insist again,” the emperor said and abruptly left, without making the proper dismissals. Zhao and the others bowed anyway.

Afterwards, Zhao found a spot he liked in the imperial gardens and sprawled out on his back. He plucked a weed from the grass and idly twirled it around his fingers, closing his eyes.

A small set of hands were shaking him awake.

“Asleep, really?” Yuanji said. “My lord, anyone could come across you here.”

Zhao blinked up at her lovely face, yawned, and pulled himself up, stretching. “What’s wrong with that? I don’t think I’ll be robbed.”

“It’s hardly befitting your station, my lord.”

Zhao chuckled, rubbing his eyes. “My station? A glorified messenger boy?”

“Not even you think of yourself as that,” Yuanji reproved him. “Are you so tired, my lord? I know you have a great deal of work to do running the state, but if you need the rest, I think you will derive more refreshment to your body napping in the proper place.”

“Well, you’re wrong for once, Yuanji.” He crossed his legs, rested his elbow on his knee, and his chin on his hand. “I’d rather be in a garden then just about anywhere. There’s no bed as nice as grass.”

Unexpectedly, she smiled tenderly, then shook her head. “In the family’s private garden, then, my lord.”

He looked up at her. “What’s the matter with it, anyway? Sure, my brother’s got to seem all aloof and untouchable, but I don’t. I’m the one they touch, touch, touch.” He made a gesture of grabby hands and was pleased when she laughed.

“You must also have the deportment of a ruler, my lord,” she said nevertheless. "And there is also your safety."

Zhao sighed and stood up. “Fine, ruin all my pleasures.”

She took his arm as they walked to the Sima compound, however, which was its own pleasure.

———

“Wen Qin is courting Zhuge Dan,” Jia Chong said without preamble as he let himself into Sima Zhao’s office.

Sima Zhao made a blot on the document he was writing. “What?” He put the brush down. “You received a message from… why didn’t he write my brother directly…?”

Jia Chong sat across from him. “He doesn’t trust you to receive his messages. Remember he saw your brother’s poor condition during the recent campaign in Shouchun with his own eyes. He thinks so well of your brother and his imperial loyalty, that he does not believe that your brother would be so rude to the emperor, refusing his honours three times already without even coming in person. He thinks your brother is at death’s door and that you are using his name for your own ambitions.”

My ambitions?” Now that deserved a really good laugh, but Zhao could not. “Where did he get that idea?”

Jia Chong smiled. “I may have had some conversations of my own with Zhuge Dan before we left.”

“Jia Chong!” Zhao crossed his arms. “What kind of conversations?!”

Still smiling, Jia Chong fluttered a hand. “This and that. Asking his opinions on various things. Discussing rumours.”

“Wen Qin may be courting Zhuge Dan,” Zhao said, “but it sounds like it’s what you wanted to happen all along.”

“Zhuge Dan is a fool who only supports an imaginary idol of your brother,” Jia Chong said. “Killing him before he can be disillusioned would be a kindness, as well as the shrewdest choice. But you’re wrong about me wanting him to join up with Wen Qin. That wasn’t what I intended.”

“What did you intend?”

“We will need the emperor to throw his lot in with a fool eventually,” Jia Chong said. “I thought Zhuge Dan would be ideal for this.”

Zhao rubbed his temples.

“I will continue to monitor the situation, now that I am aware of it,” Jia Chong continued. “I do not think Zhuge Dan will rebel without another push. If contact between the emperor and Zhuge Dan occurs, however, we will need to deliver that push immediately.”

Zhao tapped his fingers on the desk. “I could… arrange for him to take a cabinet position. It would be a promotion. If he accepts, he will have to come to Luoyang where we can keep a closer eye on him, and he wouldn’t be able to assist Wen Qin and Wu. Then we wouldn’t have to fight another war for Shouchun. It’s still a mess from the last two.”

“When he rebels as a response to promotion, he will seem ungrateful.” Jia Chong nodded. “That is very shrewd. Do not offer it quite yet, but that is just the kind of push I had in mind. You are developing as a ruler, my lord.”

Sima Zhao ignored the last comment. “He might not rebel.”

“He will. Let’s just make sure he does so at the time of our choosing.”

———

That same afternoon, Yuanji came to his office.

“My lord,” she said, sitting across from him, “Today we begin studying The Book of Lord Shang.

“No,” said Zhao.

This unprecedented blunt refusal made her jaw drop. “No?”

“No. I hate that guy. He’s worse than Han Fei. All their lies about how the ideal ruler gets to sit around doing nothing. If only that were true.”

She had to bite her cheek briefly again. “My lord. As I have told you many times. We do not read the past to repeat the past. A ruler must—”

“Stop telling me what a ruler does, Yuanji!” Zhao exploded. He pushed his chair back from his desk, got up to the door as if to leave, checked himself, and paused with his hand on the door. “I’m sorry, but I can’t take it today. I’m not a ruler. I’m barely the mouthpiece for a ruler, and that only because of blood. You really think anyone would let me rule them, Yuanji?” He paused, but didn’t turn around. “Would you let me rule you?”

“My lord… I believe that… if you would just apply yourself—”

“Just say no,” he said, bitterly, turning around. “Me, rule you? I can’t even touch you, and I’m supposed to become your husband.”

She met his sad eyes. “You know…”

“Of course I know. Even an idiot like me figured it out the very first week. You know at the age that I first met you, my brother was already a father several times over? He’s as talented as I am delayed in women… just like he is in everything…” His hand went up to his hair again, and with a sour laugh, turned back to the door.

“My lord, shall I tell you what I know?”

He stopped, but he didn’t say anything.

“I know you doubt yourself, but I also know that you are playing a role. You’ve been playing this role so long that you think it’s all you are.”

He turned back to her, and he had that I don’t care, don’t bother me smile on his lips. “What role is that?”

“The scapegoat.”

He laughed. “You think this is an act? Is my idiocy actually contagious?”

She pushed on. “For the younger son to be too talented—it’s dangerous.” His eyes were narrowing at her. “At the same time, you need to be useful. You’ve decided that you’re more valuable to your family as an excuse for when things go wrong. So that’s what you do, but you hate it.”

Yuanji took a deep breath, but he didn’t interrupt her. “You hate all of it. It’s not the life you would have chosen. To the extent that you actually make mistakes, instead of finesse yourself into the position of scapegoat for failures already occurring, this is the reason for it. You just want to get away. You don’t even want to persuade others, let alone command them or have responsibility for them. But what life you would actually have chosen…” she faltered. “I admit I haven’t figured that out yet.”

He was still silent, and she took another breath. “Am I wrong?”

“No. And yes.” His eyes no longer looked sad. They were strangely dark, and something about them made her heart start to thump. “You’ve figured out how I feel about the rest of the world, but not how I feel about you.”

“How do you feel about me?” she whispered.

“What I feel… what I want… I want to hear your lips say my lord and actually mean it.”

She was startled, and she saw the mask settling over him again. He laughed. “Silly, right?”

“Is it silly to want your wife to respect you?”

The mask came off again. “That’s not all I want.”

He approached her and placed his hands on her shoulders, and she became aware, in a very disconcerting way, just how much taller than her he really was. Obviously it was something she had known from the day they met, but…

Zhao let go of her shoulders and put his hand up to his hair in his familiar embarrassment gesture. “I’m frightening you again, right?” he said lightly.

“You are, but don’t let it stop you,” she said softly. “I want to see the real you, even if it scares me.”

———

Yeah, but what will you do when I show him to you? You might still be scared, but only because of the obvious physical superiority. I’m your inferior in every other way.

When he didn’t say anything aloud, she spoke again. “Do you remember when we had finally escaped from Mt. Xingshi, the journey home?”

“Uh… not really, actually.”

She sighed in resignation. “I rode with the baggage, and you peeked in at me through the window. Your mother got very upset.”

Oh, right. He had been barely able to see her face in the carriage, what with her shortness and the bags partially blocking the window, but she had looked so overwhelmed, it concerned him. When he had ridden over, she was almost in a fetal position, her hands pressed to her face as if to stop from crying. She’d seemed to deal with the bloodshed so well, but she had been so young after all. “I remember now,” he said.

“I think you thought I was feeling overwhelmed by the battle,” she said, looking down at her hands, “and a little bit was from that. But not most of it. I was thinking about riding in the carriage with your mother to Luoyang the day I met you. I had pulled my knees up to my chest the same way, and she thought—at least she claimed to think—I was cold. I wasn’t cold. I was afraid. Afraid of being handed over to a stranger and turned into a wife. Someone with no thoughts, no dreams, no voice, no will. Afraid of… of the tool that he would use to do that.”

Afraid of being fucked by him, in other words. And here he had the temerity to tell her that he wanted her to actually want to be with him. He really was worse than a fool.

She was speaking on, still to her hands. “That day in Xingshi, as I was remembering that, I realized I no longer feared that fate. But thinking about how I felt instead made me even more afraid.”

What did she mean? That she had realized that he was too much of a chickenshit to ever make a move on her, so she was safe from him? But then she wouldn’t have felt afraid. She couldn’t mean that she was afraid of her own desire for him… she couldn’t desire him.

“I… I always thought that I would be made to submit by force. I never dreamed that I would meet someone to whom… to whom I wanted to give myself. That… at that time, that was very frightening.”

He had to swallow to be able to talk. “You don’t know what you’re saying.”

She looked up from her hands to his eyes. “I would let you rule me… my lord.”

———

His eyes had that strange darkness about them again, they were darker than ever. “Would you?”

Her mouth was dry and her thumping heartbeat was threatening to leap out of her chest, but she said, “I would.”

Zhao took her shoulders again, and then slowly moved one hand along the shoulder, up her neck to where he cradled her face with his large hand. “May I test that?”

Test that? Test what? This was no time for hesitation. “Yes, my lord.”

He tilted her chin up, bent down, and kissed her lips. Softly at first, so softly. The room was quiet. There was no sound in the world but her heartbeat, and that was deafening.

Suddenly his hands slid down her body and he was picking her up, causing her legs to wrap around his waist as he brought her up to his standing height, never stopping kissing her. And now the kisses were becoming more passionate, more forceful. She felt his tongue probing at her lips and when she parted her own, it actually darted inside.

Then he broke off the kisses, turned, and set her down so that she was right up against his desk. She felt a pang of disappointment that he was stopping, but then he spoke, his voice thick and rough: “I want you to be able to speak.”

Then his hands were moving under her skirt.

———

She was letting him do this, Yuanji was actually letting him do this!

He stared intently at her face as his hands worked impatiently at the ties holding up her xieyi. Thank heaven she didn’t go for some kind of complicated knot. The fabric fluttered down between her legs and he glanced at it, fallen. There was a little wet spot on the crotch of the fabric. Oh, Yuanji.

He brought his eyes quickly back up to her face as his hand slid across her thigh and onto her pussy itself. She gasped and jerked a little as his fingers traced her clit, her lips, her slit, mentally mapping the terrain for him.

She was already wet for him, dazed and panting, one hand clutching onto his shirt, the other bracing against his desk. “My lord, that’s… that’s…”

Yuanji, always so brilliant, who always knew and saw and understood everything, had absolutely no idea how to handle what he was doing to her body. He’d never felt more powerful in his entire life. He bit his own lip as he watched her moan, her eyes fluttering closed and then open again. She was writhing against him already, practically riding his hand, and he hadn’t put a single finger inside her yet.

How would she react when that changed?

———

The feelings coming from in between her legs were absolutely incredible. She wanted them to stop and to never end, to slow down and to get faster, to lessen and to intensify; in short, she was all over the place, and yet she was so very much in one place, with this one man.

His thumb was rubbing something that was like a button on her, while the rest of his fingers had been sliding around and teasing at the actual entrance to her vagina. Suddenly he crooked one finger and it sank into her up to the first knuckle only.

“Oh!” she cried, her eyes opening again, and Zhao’s expression made her head swim even more.

“You’re so, so tight,” he said in a tone that was somewhere between a whisper and a growl, and pushed in to the second knuckle. He went no deeper than that; he simply began to rub that finger back and forth, in tandem with his thumb on her clit. “I can’t wait to be inside you for real.”

Inside her for real… oh heaven, yes, all of this was just a build up to that… to really be taken by him…

The pleasure was going out of control…!

———

Yuanji was coming, she was actually coming. Let Yuanji enjoy guqin music or poetry or whatever the hell she wanted; these sounds that were coming from her now, they were the most beautiful noises on earth to him.

He could even feel her walls contracting around his single finger. God, how was he going to be able to stand it when he finally took her?

And she had let him do it all… if he tried to take her right here, would she let him do that too?

She probably would, and damn did he want to… but he had a better idea. Harder, but better. More befitting a proper ruler.

———

He leaned down and whispered into her ear, “I won’t go any further than that until our wedding night. If that’s what you want, tell my father.”

Slowly, Zhao slid his hand away from her, leaving a trail of her slickness on her own inner thigh. She was trembling and still bracing herself against the desk as he bent down, picked up her xieyi from where it had dropped on the floor, put it in his pocket, and left. And left!

The door had closed behind him before she was quite aware of what had just happened.

He had absolutely taken her apart on his fingers and left her shaking in his study with no xieyi!

Her entire world was on its head. She had been sure, for years, that when it came time to… to do that with him, that he would be gentle.

She was no longer sure of that… she didn’t know how to describe what had just happened, but she absolutely could not describe it as gentle.

———

Zhao had played it all masterfully when leaving Yuanji, but by the time he was in his own chambers, with the door locked and bolted, he was the farthest thing from calm and in control.

He pulled Yuanji’s xieyi out of his pocket and freed his aching erection as fast as possible. He flopped onto the bed, already rubbing himself with the hand that was still sticky from her fluids. He could smell her on the xieyi. It was almost like she was there with him in his room. He closed his eyes, picturing her face, her sweet little cries as she came all over his fingers, and in no time at all he came harder than he had ever come before.

Zhao shuddered in the afterglow of it, still clutching her garment with his other hand.

She had said, she had actually said, that she wanted to give herself to him. To him. And she had let him show her what that would be like.

If she didn’t follow through with wanting to marry him now, he was going to die from wanting her. Not just from wanting her, from loving her. God, how he loved her!

———

Yuanji managed to make it back to her own rooms without running into anyone. The drafts of air across her sensitive pussy as she hurried made her long for Zhao to come back and tell her that he changed his mind and had to have her right then and there.

She locked and bolted her own door, pulled open the blanket, and flopped onto her bed face down, burying her face in the mattress for a moment, then wrapping herself up tightly in the blanket.

She loved Zhao, she had long known she loved him; she would die for him, she honoured him, and she liked him…

But this… this was something new.

And yet the more she thought about it, the more she realized that it wasn’t entirely new. It was something she had sensed deep down for a long time, but she had been too innocent… or ignorant… to consciously realize what it was on either Zhao’s side or her own.

She wanted Zhao, she wanted him badly. She had to see her father-in-law as soon as possible! If Sima Yi died now, and Zhao kept his word about not going further until their wedding night, she was going to die herself!

Chapter Text

Yuanji was shown into Sima Yi’s sickroom and was surprised to see that he had a lap table with congee and tea on it.

“I didn’t mean to disturb your breakfast, my lord,” she said after she bowed low. “It was nothing so urgent.”

“No, I have been dawdling over it,” he answered, beckoning for her to sit. “And you intrigued me. I don’t think you have ever requested to see me like this. You always simply ask when would be next convenient. So you have something more on your mind than finishing reading me that volume of my ancestor’s poetry.”

“My lord… I am ready to marry your son.”

Sima Yi paused with his tea cup against his lips, then pulled it away and set it back down on the tray, a wide smile spreading across his face. “You are ready? And Zhao?”

“I think Zhao has been ready for some time,” she said.

He chuckled. “Is that so? Well, I have long had to accept that you know him better than me.” He reached for her hand, and she let him take it. “Heaven truly favoured our clan when it allowed my wife to find you, my dear.”

Yuanji blushed and looked down. “You praise me too much, my lord.”

Sima Yi shook his head at that. “My dear, I have waited too long to wait any longer to hear you call me father. Lady Zhang and I both count you as a daughter, you know.”

“I know, father.”

He released her hand and picked up his tea cup again. “You had better go and tell my wife immediately. You are doing me no end of favours today. She will forget all about managing my health for me with such a pleasant occupation as planning your wedding banquet to deal with instead. When shall we announce it? I know… when Shi reveals himself. Nobody will dare to stay away then.”

Sima Yi laughed his villain’s laugh, and Yuanji smiled indulgently.

———

“This wound symbolizes my weakness. It can’t be undone, nor can it be forgotten. But it is over. This mask is my vow to move on.”

This was not the intended end of Sima Shi’s speech, but he paused as his younger brother burst into laughter. He smiled a little himself, not offended. He could see that it was a laughter of disbelief, and yet there was admiration in it as well. “Is it that funny, Zhao?”

“No, no,” Zhao said. His smile was so wide and warm. “It suits you. My brother really is a strong man.”

“I am glad I decided to run my speech by you in advance,” Shi said. “While here in private, I enjoy your laughter, you would rather spoil my effect if you laughed at me in court.”

Zhao lifted his hands out dramatically to either side of his head and mock-bowed. “That would be a tragedy.”

“To conclude.” Shi resumed his pose. “I consider that nothing I have done up until now is worthy of such an honour. I cannot possibly accept the Nine Bestowments while so many openly rebel. I beg your gracious pardon, my emperor, for not coming to decline in person myself before now, but I have been all consumed with plans for eliminating the pretenders in Chengdu and Jianye. There can be only one Son of Heaven. Wearing this mask, I will make it so.”

Zhao applauded, and Shi rolled his eyes.

“You won’t have any pertinent advice to make, I see. How about you, Yuanji?”

“You might add a poetic allusion,” Yuanji said, putting her hand to her chin. “If you wish to make the emperor angry and foolish, that will take the trick for sure. You’ve read his poem about the dragon trapped in a well.”

That dimmed Sima Shi’s smile. It was a thinly veiled lament about Cao Mao’s desire to rule in his own right. That he had written it showed that he was not yet properly cowed, and that the poem had spread showed that the Sima clan’s control of power was still viewed by too many as reversible. “Yes.”

“You could make a dragon reference as well. Not directly, of course. A reference to one of the Songs of Chu about the Lord of the Clouds, perhaps…” Yuanji mused. “Or from the Classic of Poetry… if you describe yourself as unshaken, unmoved, unimpressed, unafraid…

Sima Shi’s smile returned, brighter than ever before. “Then they will know that I am the one who is like the dragon in his heaven, displaying widely my daring… and the hundred ranks will be united in me.

———

His brother’s speech made all of Luoyang tremble.

His mother sat like a satisfied cat among the avalanche of acceptances to his wedding.

His father had a wheelchair made to take him to the banquet, which he complained about bitterly. “Now that I have this, fools will expect me to do things and go places. A wheelchair is why Zhuge Liang died so young.”

As for Sima Zhao, his brother’s return to public life did not lessen his workload. Without speaking a single word that was openly seditious, his brother had plainly indicated his intention to seize the imperial throne not merely eventually, but soon. Many, therefore, wanted to express their support for his usurpation… wanted or were afraid not to… and especially for those who were afraid not to, Sima Zhao was considered everywhere to be far less frightening than his brother. Moreover, his upcoming wedding allowed the most cautious to use it as a pretext for talking to the Sima clan at all. This resulted in quite a lot of meetings in which everyone involved was artfully dancing around the real issues.

Zhao could do it, but how he hated it, every second of it.

He had told Yuanji that he wouldn’t go further than making her come on his fingers until their wedding night. Sticking to that felt important, as maddening as it was… but he hadn’t, at least, penned himself in against letting her relieve him in other ways.

“Oh…” he moaned, clutching onto the arms of his desk chair to avoid grabbing at the beautiful hair of the head that was pressed against his thigh, as she sucked on the head of his cock. He wanted to force it down her throat, but she was so small, even her mouth was small. He couldn’t do that to her. “Hah… Yuanji… can you… can you use your hand…?”

Her inexpert ministrations to his cock were exquisite torture. He groaned again and put his hand over hers, setting the pace he preferred. Her mouth popped off the tip and she looked up at him, unsure.

“This is how I do it,” he told her, moving their hands together on his cock. “Ungh… I think of you. Since that first week. I always… ahn… always think of you.”

“My lord,” she whispered, her face flushed.

“Ah… I want to be in you so bad…” He couldn’t take it. She was so beautiful… perfect… her hand on his cock, held in his… calling him her lord, like that… “Ah… Yuanji… hah…”

With his last available braincells he grabbed at a handkerchief and pressed it to his cock to catch his cum, before it could spurt all over her. As hot as that would be, they could be interrupted at any time…

There was a throat clearing noise.

He let go of her hand. Yuanji sprang up and away from him, and Zhao, his face burning, hastily dropped the dirty cloth beneath his chair and refastened his pants.

“Sorry to interrupt,” drawled Shi as he opened the door, not sounding sorry at all, “but…”

Then Shi saw Yuanji, and he stopped in his tracks. He was clearly surprised.

“Oh,” he said in quite a different voice. “I… thought you were alone, Zhao.” He bowed to Yuanji, and when he returned to standing, he was actually blushing a little himself. “I apologize. Uh…”

Zhao had the rare privilege of seeing his brother at a loss, but it was a little irritating to his own pride that Shi was this shocked.

“You need to speak to your brother, I understand, my lord,” Yuanji said, her voice sounding almost normal despite the flush in her cheeks, and began to go.

“Yuanji, wait… I really am sorry. I never meant to embarrass you.” He smiled at her, almost sheepish. “You should know, I only ever do that to my brother. We’ll forget it happened?”

Yuanji smiled back at him. “It’s forgotten, my lord.”

With that, she left.

“No apology for me, huh?” Zhao said.

“Believe me, Zhao, with as many times as I have been forced to overhear you masturbating to thoughts of Yuanji, you would owe me dozens of apologies in exchange for this one,” Shi said, sitting in the chair across from him. “As I told her, let’s forget it happened. I have some intelligence I need to discuss with you.”

Zhao pulled out wine and cups. “Go ahead.”

“The first thing to say is that my plans are all finalized for our march upon Shu. The army is practically ready as it is. I will leave Luoyang five days after your wedding.” Shi made the tapping gesture of thank you for his cup of wine as Zhao poured.

“Five days?!” Zhao poured himself a cup of wine, downed it with the other hand without letting go of the bottle, and poured another. “Five fucking days?! That’s all the time you’re giving me with Yuanji?!”

“I could be really cruel here, but from the love I bear you I will cut short your highly amusing suffering,” Shi said, and laughed as Zhao made the exact same pulled face with his fingers pushing on his cheeks that he had done when they were boys. “You are not coming. You are remaining in Luoyang, where you can enjoy your bride as often as you choose.”

“Huh? But shouldn’t it be the other way around? I’m the dumb brute you send to do the hacking; you’re the ruler.”

“I feel this will involve less hacking, as you put it, and more diplomacy and strategy. Also, it will show my regained strength, which will frighten adversaries, yet also my willingness to put myself in danger, which will belie my imperial ambitions. Those ambitions are where you most conveniently come in. Your little dog, Jia Chong, was yapping quite a bit in Shouchun, I have discovered.”

Zhao felt a little twist in his stomach when Shi brought up Jia Chong. Up until now, Shi had never mentioned him at all in any way, nor seemed to pay any attention to Jia Chong’s attachment to him. That had to have been too easy to be true, and now here it was proved false. Your little dog. What an epithet for Jia Chong! He would need time to figure out what his brother meant by that. In the present he said, hoping he hadn’t left the pause too long, “You mean him and Zhuge Dan?”

“Oh?” Shi took a sip of wine and smiled. “You know about it?”

Zhao’s stomach twisted a little further. “Well, when you were removed from the world, he told me that he thought Wen Qin was trying to get Zhuge Dan on his side. I told you that.”

“But you didn’t tell me that he told you he had encouraged Zhuge Dan to think of you as an ambitious scoundrel who was scheming under benefit of my name.” His brother still smiled.

“I…” He couldn’t lie to his brother’s face believably, which meant he was stuck with the unbelievable truth. “I didn’t want to think about it myself. It’s all such a damn mess. Jia Chong has these ideas, and…”

“Not a trained dog, is he,” Shi said mildly, and sipped again. “And that was when Yuanji brought up the idea of marriage, wasn’t it? No wonder it went out of your mind, with such a more pleasant topic.”

Shi put his cup down, and Zhao took a breath in, remembering vividly how it was just about where that cup was that Yuanji braced herself with her hand while he fingered her for the first time. “Yeah, it was, uh… actually that same day.” Yuanji ‘brought up the idea of marriage’? That’s how you think it happened? Oh, if only you knew, brother!

“It doesn’t really matter, I suppose,” said Shi as Zhao picked up the bottle to refill Shi’s nearly empty cup. “The point is that it is, of course, an absurd idea, a trap that only a fool could fall into. Therefore we will catch fools with it. More precisely, you, my scheming, ambitious younger brother, will catch them for me, the noble and selfless devotee of Cao Wei, while I am off adding territory for my empire.”

———

Sima Shi took a drink of wine at his brother’s wedding banquet and rolled the liquid around his tongue, tasting every nuance of it.

What he tasted was not wine, but something sourer than that. Jealousy.

At his side, his wife was loudly enjoying the flirtatious attentions of the man next to her, but that was not the cause of his jealousy. He knew very well that his wife was only attempting to upset him. He had never really loved her in the first place, and nor had she ever loved him.

Not like Zhao loved Yuanji. Not like Yuanji loved Zhao.

He took another drink of wine and nodded at the blathering man whom he was superficially listening to.

He loved Zhao and Yuanji and he was happy for them, truly… but he could not stop being jealous.

If father had not arranged your marriage to tie us to the Xiahou, a dark voice whispered to him, maybe you could have had Yuanji instead… a talented, intelligent, loyal, loving woman…

If you married Yuanji when she was fifteen, you wouldn’t have wasted any time… she would have given you a son by now, surely… she would look at you like she looks at Zhao… she would be a magnificent empress…

He swallowed the wine and pushed the evil thoughts away, feeling sick. Might-have-beens… they were dangerous temptations to live in an imaginary past. He had to focus on the present and the future. Yuanji was his sister. He loved her as a sister. Only a sister.

His wife’s laughter was so irritating in his ears. When he fucked her tonight, he was going to leave her with bruised thighs afterwards.

———

Lady Zhang opened the door and pushed her husband’s wheelchair back into his room. “Shall I assist you in getting ready for bed, my lord?”

“I am not so feeble as that,” Sima Yi muttered, standing up.

Lady Zhang closed the door behind her and leaned against it. “There were days when you longed to have me undress you.”

His irritated expression vanished, and he looked at her wide smile. “So there were,” he said, then winced a little, putting a hand to his lower back.

She walked towards him and he made no comment or movement to stop her from starting to unfasten his banquet clothes. “They were good days,” Lady Zhang said softly, stepping away to hang up the outer gown while Sima Yi continued taking off the inner garments.

“How unusually tender of you, Chunhua,” Sima Yi said, trading his inner gown for the shift she brought him to sleep in. “If I had only known it merely took me being on the brink of death to expose your soft side to me.”

“A man as perceptive as my lord,” she said, putting the inner gown into the laundry basket, “must have long known about it.”

Sima Yi chuckled a bit, pulling back the blanket to get into bed. “When I met you, you were like a puzzle to me that I could only half solve. That was why I had to have you. But once I had you, I realized I understood you even less.”

Lady Zhang pulled the blanket over him and sat on the edge of the bed. “Then when did you understand me?”

“When I had my first leave from Lord Cao Cao. I had done well, and wanted to tell you about it; I wanted to impress you. But when I came home, you didn’t come out to greet me. I came inside, and I found you with Shi sleeping in your arms. You said, ‘Ah, my lord, isn’t he beautiful? You have missed so much for our sake.’ You looked up at me, and you were crying with happiness.” He laughed. “I think that was also the first night you used my own whip on me. It really was a good night.”

Lady Zhang chuckled herself, then turned more serious. “My lord, now that Zhao is married, are you thinking of that request you made of me again?”

“I know very well that Shi still needs me,” Sima Yi said, letting his eyes close. “Odious child. It will serve him right if I do die.”

Lady Zhang leaned over and kissed her husband softly. “Sleep well, my lord.”

———

The days leading up to a wedding are long and full enough to tire anyone, and Zhao had statecraft to deal with besides. During the wedding banquet he had looked so exhausted that Yuanji was afraid he might actually fall asleep at some points. She prepared herself not to be disappointed if the two of them simply undressed and collapsed into the marital bed.

She did not have to worry about that.

“God, Yuanji,” he growled the moment the door was shut, sending a thrill up her spine, “tonight I will finally have you.”

She licked her suddenly dry lips, looking up at him with her hands frozen in the process of untying the first tie; Zhao’s face was more awake and intense than she’d seen him in weeks.

He was already pulling off his own clothes recklessly. He let the ornate and expensive outer robe drop in a heap.

“My lord, the clothes—”

“Fuck them,” he said, working just as fast on his inner robes. “My mother can slap me about it tomorrow all she likes.”

She couldn’t help laughing at that, and began carefully untying her own outer robes.

He was down to his loincloth while she was still working on the inner ties of the outer gown. “Let me help.”

“Please don’t ruin it,” she said, “I know you’ll never willingly wear yours again but I’d like to keep this.”

He groaned, but sighed and was careful in undressing her and even grumpily hung up the outer robe. Zhao turned back to her as she was unpicking the next tie on the inner garment. “What about your underclothes? Any attachment?”

“I suppose not,” she said, not thinking much of the question, until she glanced over and saw that he was literally coming at her with a knife.

“Zhao!” she gasped. “You’re not thinking—”

He was, and he did. With only a few bold yet precise cuts, everything she was wearing fluttered away from her like moth wings, including her xieyi, which he had cut the strings of. While she was still in shock, Zhao chucked the knife to the ground carelessly, scooped her up, and carried her to the bed.

“You don’t understand, Yuanji,” he said as he climbed on top of her and started to pull off his loincloth. “I’d do anything at this point just to have you five seconds sooner.”

Her cheeks were on fire. Even with all they’d been doing the last few months, that had all involved them being almost entirely clothed. This was her first time being naked before him… no, not before him, under him, which made it feel even more vulnerable… and arousing.

“Don’t hide yourself.” He grabbed the arm she’d been unconsciously shielding her breasts from him with and pinned the wrist above her head, then did likewise with the other hand that was down over her pelvis. His breath caught as his gaze raked over her. “Oh, Yuanji… you are the most beautiful thing I’ve ever seen…”

She shuddered a bit at the intensity of his look and his words, but he didn’t relinquish his hold on her wrists until she’d stopped moving, and then only to shift her wrists across each other so he could keep them pinned with one large hand. The free hand quickly went to work between her legs.

———

He wished he had more hands. He liked having Yuanji pinned beneath him, on some very primal level he liked it a lot, and the way she was writhing as his other hand played with her, struggling against him and constrained by him, was so hot that he was absolutely not going to let her wrists go; yet watching those beautiful breasts bouncing and heaving…

Oh, but he did have another option, didn’t he?

“My lord!” he heard her moan as he began kissing and licking her breasts. He swirled his tongue around a nipple and took it into his mouth. “Oh… oh…!”

She was close, but not there yet. He wanted his cock to be what pushed her to the edge and over it this time, and she was wet enough, slick enough, ready to welcome him in.

Zhao popped off the breast and kissed Yuanji as he pulled his hand away from her pussy as well, grabbing his cock and rubbing it with her juices.

“Are…” she panted, “are you going to…?”

“Yeah,” he said, none too steady himself. “Here I go.”

He pushed into her slowly, watching her face intently for signs of pain, praying to whatever god would listen that there wouldn’t be any, so that he could start fucking her the way he’d long been dreaming of. She felt so fucking good. She fit his cock perfectly, like she was made to surround him like this.

She winced a little when he fully sunk himself in, and he felt her reflexively flutter around him, which made him groan with pleasure. “Yuanji… are you alright? Did I hurt you?”

“You’re in me so deep, it… it does hurt a little bit…” she said.

He shifted his hips up slightly. “Is that better?”

“Yes…” she looked so embarrassed. “I’m sorry, my lord…”

“Don’t apologize, God, you feel incredible,” he said, bending to kiss her cheek. Slowly, he began working his hips up and down, careful not to go in too deeply, as tempting as that was. “Is this okay?”

“Better than okay,” she moaned, and with that encouragement he allowed himself to go faster.

———

Zhao was a much taller and broader than average man, and she was a smaller than average woman. She had mentally prepared herself for a certain amount of discomfort or pain, but once he adjusted to not go quite so deep, not only was there no pain, it felt fantastic. It was different than the intense stimulation to her clit when he touched her with his fingers, but that kept her more in the moment, less overwhelmed and therefore more aware of just how intimate they were being. They were one.

When he sped up, the pleasure sped up also. She wanted to caress him, but he had a firm grip on her wrists. Yuanji lifted her legs instead and rubbed her feet along the firm muscles of his lower back, butt, and thighs. “You feel, ah, so good, my lord.”

He leaned down and kissed at her neck, still thrusting. “Do I? Tell me more.”

This man! She turned her head as if to huff, but it became a moan as he sucked at her pulse point. “M-my lord…”

“How am I making you feel, Yuanji?” he whispered, his breath hot on her ear. “Am I filling you? Am I stretching you?”

“Y-you are…”

He kissed her cheek. “I love you so damn much. Let me kiss you.”

She turned her head back so he could kiss her, and as they kissed, the pleasure began to peak. Involuntarily she cried out against his lips.

He broke the kiss. “Are you coming?” he said, shakily.

Yuanji couldn’t answer, she just cried out again.

“God, you are.” He crushed his lips to hers and as she came, he forgot himself and thrust heavily into her. As her orgasm crested, it was mixed with pain from how deeply his cock reached inside her, but the pain almost made it better.

When they had both finished, he collapsed on top of her, breathing hard, and Yuanji could hardly breathe herself from the weight of him.

“My lord,” she gasped, and he laughed sheepishly and rolled off of her, lying on his back next to her.

“I’m sorry,” Zhao said. “Are you okay? That was dumb of me.”

She gave him one of her classic looks, the look that said yeah it was dumb of you alright. “Try not to do that next time.”

He turned onto his side facing her, and despite everything, she found herself blushing again as his gaze crept adoringly over her body. “You’re just… so beautiful… I know, you’re gonna say, ‘you keep saying that,’ but I can’t help it, I keep thinking it.” Then he yawned. “Do you want a nightgown or anything? I bet I could keep you pretty warm.”

She smirked, rolled over to blow out the candles on her side while he did the same on the other side, and then curled up to him as he pulled the blankets over them both. “We can give it a try, if you prefer me naked.”

“I definitely do…” he yawned again. “Wish I didn’t have to sleep…”

“Goodnight, my lord.”

———

When it had been four weeks, she decided it was time to tell him.

“My lord,” she said to him as they got ready for bed, “there is… a possibility I need to discuss.”

“Huh? What is it?” Zhao looked up standing on one leg in the act of trying to take off his pants and nearly lost his balance.

She smiled and shook her head. “Well… you wouldn't know, of course, but I have always been very regular, and… since we married, I have not…”

Zhao stood there, holding his pants, looking confused. “Regular? Haven’t what?”

Yuanji tapped her fingers together. “My aunt hasn’t come.”

“Your aunt? You have an aunt? I thought other than your grandfather you don’t really like your family.”

Well, she supposed he didn’t really have any sisters or female friends, apart from her. Time to be more direct. “I haven’t bled.”

He stared at her, still holding his pants, then said slowly, “Haven’t bled…” His whole face lit up. “Are you saying you’re… you’re having a baby?”

She smiled. “I think I am.”

He dropped the pants and walked towards her, and she held out her hands to let him take them. “You’re pregnant. You’re having a baby. We’re going to have a baby. You’re going to be a mother. I’m going to be a father! We’re going to have a baby!”

Yuanji was laughing and nodding as he was shaking her hands in his excitement. Then he suddenly let them go and swooped her up into his arms to kiss her, but after kissing her, he froze with her in his arms.

“Did I pick you up too fast?! Is this still okay?”

“I’m pretty sure it is, my lord.” She reached out and affectionately swept his bangs from his forehead. “But you can be extra careful putting me down, if you like.”

He very gently set her down on the bed, then sat next to her. “This is so exciting! Who do we tell first? I want to tell father… but… if I tell father before I tell mother, she’ll murder me.”

“We could tell them both together.”

Zhao shook his head. “That wouldn’t be any good. Mother would take over. Father would get in two and a half sentences.”

Yuanji thought a moment. “How about you meet with your father and I meet with your mother at the same time? Then she can’t be mad that you told your father first, and you’ll still get to tell your father privately.”

“Yeah! That could work! Yuanji, I love you. You’re a genius. My baby’s mother is a genius!”

She laughed and they got more properly into the bed. “My lord, I hope you don’t take this the wrong way, but… I did think you’d be pleased, but I also was expecting you to have some apprehension.”

Zhao put his hands behind his head and laughed, not sounding offended. “Yeah, I always try to get out of responsibility, right? I don’t know how to explain it, but it’s different… I don’t know. This was before you came to us, so you wouldn’t know, but when I was a kid, I was mad about dogs and horses. I used to breed them and train them from… I mean, I know a baby isn’t like a puppy or a foal! And obviously, y’know, some things I can’t do, uh, since I don’t have…” He pulled one hand out to gesture vaguely to his chest, and Yuanji chuckled. “But you’ve more than got that part covered.”

He gave her a look, and she rolled her eyes in response.

“But seriously, Yuanji, I don’t feel nervous. Maybe I will sometime, I don’t know. But this isn’t the kind of responsibility that I hate. Ordering people to go somewhere and die… trying to tell if a governor is lying or if the inspector is… reading memorials… deciding who to promote and who to punish…” He groaned. “All of that is awful. I have no idea what appeals to Shi about it. Hey…”

He turned and he actually whispered, even though they were in the privacy of their bed. “Maybe… maybe when Shi is really the emperor in name and there aren’t any threats to his power anymore… we could go away, you know? Just us and our baby. Maybe we’ll have more than one, by then…”

“Go away and do what?” she whispered back.

He shrugged with his top shoulder. “Raise horses, maybe? I bet I could do that.”

“Jia Chong will track you down and kill you,” Yuanji whispered, not sure if she was really joking.

Zhao chuckled as if it were one. “Nah, we’ll just have to make sure it’s someplace really sunny. He won’t be able to visit without bursting into flames.”

———

“Zhao, I told the servant to tell you to go away, and the servant told me you insisted,” Sima Yi said in a foul tone as his younger son entered and knelt at his bedside. “I don’t like this self-confidence that Yuanji has given you when it inconveniences me.”

He let Zhao kiss his hand irritably and then yanked it away. Sima Yi narrowed his eyes as he saw that Zhao wasn’t even having the graciousness to look chastened. “Well? What is it?”

“Yuanji’s given me more than self-confidence,” Zhao began, and as he paused, Sima Yi’s swift mind immediately grasped the point.

He reached his hand back to take Zhao’s. “How sure is she?”

Zhao grinned widely. “Pretty sure, she says.”

“That’s excellent, that is really excellent,” Sima Yi sighed. He closed his eyes for a moment and imagined what they might be like, this child of Zhao and Yuanji. A wonderful child, no doubt, but very likely too good and too kind for this world of fools. He would have to tell Chunhua to be careful to make sure that their grandchild learned the importance of being shrewd. He squeezed Zhao’s hand lightly and said without opening his eyes, “If she’s pretty sure already, then the baby will come… let’s see… late spring. That’s the best time to have a child… you won’t have to worry about the cold…” Sima Yi opened his eyes. “Wait. If your mother hasn’t yet invaded my room to tell me this…”

“Yuanji is telling her right now.”

“Ah, then we have some time. Your mother is certainly imparting to your wife every single thing that she must do and not do and even think for the next seven months. And probably crying.”

“Mother never cries.”

“Not in front of you,” Sima Yi said, and smiled slyly at his son. “So, out with it.”

“Out with…?”

“What do you want to ask me before your mother tells me what to think about this? You can’t fool me.”

“Now father, mother tells you what to do all the time, I admit, but surely never what to think.

“Cheek.” Sima Yi winced and let go of Zhao’s hand to press it to his side. “Help me sit up.”

“Will that help?”

“Never has, but there’s always a first time,” he grunted as his son assisted him into a more vertical posture with some bolsters. “At the very least it keeps me more alert. Now. Enough stalling, boy. I have my whip here, somewhere.”

Zhao laughed and scratched at his head sheepishly. “It’s dumb, but… I know Shi always, y’know, put Lady Xiahou… aside… whenever she was pregnant, and just, uh… consoled himself elsewhere… but… I don’t want to do that, but…”

“But you also don’t think you can last eight months,” Sima Yi chuckled. “Very natural. You’re sure you want to ask me? My reference point is your mother.”

“You’re the only man I know who won’t just say ‘sleep with prostitutes, get a mistress, what’s the problem?’”

“I see. Well, I’ll withhold details as I can, but you did ask for it. Doctors, as you probably suspect, say no, none, never. Your mother…” Sima Yi sighed, remembering those long ago years. “…your mother… was absolutely insatiable when she was pregnant.”

“Father…”

Sima Yi indulged in an abbreviated version of his villain’s laugh at his son’s squirming. “You asked! Not only did we not abstain, she had me more frequently during those months than at any other time. And you both came out fine.” He shrugged, and gave Zhao a sardonic smile. “Or at least, you are not complete imbeciles, as the majority of those in the world are. But then your mother indulged in several activities which the doctors, I feel, would have disdained. She killed her first person during your brother’s gestation, and many more during yours.” He laughed again.

Zhao rubbed at his temple. “I should have known that was the kind of answer I would get.”

“We are a remarkable family, Zhao. It should not surprise you that the strictures of ordinary people do not bind us.”

Zhao let out an amused huff. “You ever tell this to brother?”

“Now you’re not thinking,” he scolded lightly, mockingly. “He would never have asked. Your brother thought he knew everything there was to know about sex and women at the age of fourteen. He figured it all out for himself based on books and, shall we say, independent research.”

“Yeah.” Zhao stretched. “I used to be so jealous of him. You know, I’d never tell him this, but I’m actually sorry for him now.” He stood up and bowed. “That’s really all I wanted to ask, so I’ll let you rest now.”

“Oh? You don’t want my wisdom on fatherhood?”

“Nah,” said Zhao, and then at his father’s look, blanched, raised his hands, and said, “I mean—I’ve already learned so much from your example, and stuff! More than words could express!”

Sima Yi relaxed his expression and threw his head back for a really good laugh. “Thank heaven. I would have been so disappointed if you had really lost all fear of me. Believe me, boy, I have no desire to waste my breath telling you how to be a father. Go on, I know you don’t want to be here when your mother bursts in to tell me the good news.”

Sima Yi chuckled again at his son’s palpable relief as he bowed again and left, then rang the bell to ask a servant for another dose of pain medication.

Chapter Text

When Cao Mao had obediently given his seal to the last piece of business Sima Zhao had set before him, he said, “Sima Zhao, you are very happy today.”

Sima Zhao laughed guiltily. “Ah, is it so obvious, your majesty? Just some good news…” He collected all the documents and put them away, then looked at the emperor expectantly.

When Cao Mao didn’t immediately react, Sima Zhao raised an eyebrow.

Cao Mao flushed. “You’re dismissed.”

Sima Zhao backed away bowing, in the proper manner, but it felt all the more like a mockery to the young emperor. Cao Mao was the one who had been dismissed, not the other way around.

Emperor… only in name was he emperor! And yet how could he change that? Twice his kinsmen had attempted to stand up to the Sima family and twice the Sima family had replaced them, and the Sima clan had less support and power then than now.

He had thought he was making some headway in winning people to his side while the Sima brothers were in Shouchun. When he thought of the bright idea of keeping the brothers, one of them recuperating from surgery, quarantined in Xuchang, he had sought more open support by reading his poem about a dragon in a well. 

But it had backfired badly. They had refused to receive the messenger, and come to Luoyang anyway. Then Sima Shi had gone into his seclusion. Nine times he was forced to publicly beg Sima Shi to accept the highest honour possible, and only on the ninth had Sima Shi even bothered to come in person to decline it.

These wolves… they really were a pack of wolves, these Sima… and they liked playing with their prey before they ripped it to pieces.

“Good news,” was it? Good news for Sima Zhao could not be good news for Cao Mao. This Sima Zhao… he was the worst of any of them, because he had that false appearance of goodness and humility! And what a ravenous heart was behind that warm smile, those laughing eyes!

Zhuge Dan… Zhuge Dan had managed to write to him, warn him… Cao Mao had so few allies left, he could not squander the opportunity. He had to act fast, whatever this “good news” was. While Sima Shi was in the west, he needed to destroy Sima Zhao in the east… and if he destroyed Sima Zhao in the east, he would need to make sure that Sima Shi never made it back from the west.

The young emperor got up, thoroughly checked for spies, and then began to write letters.

———

It was a few days after the meeting with the emperor; days that for Sima Zhao had seemed to pass like warm spring breezes, despite the oppressive late summer heat. Jia Chong had requested to meet with him urgently, yet not even that could wreck his good mood. He cheerfully took a seat across from Jia Chong with a merry greeting while grabbing the cup of wine that had already been poured for him.

“Is Lady Wang with child?” Jia Chong inquired, causing Sima Zhao to spray wine from his mouth.

“Jia Chong!” Sima Zhao said, exasperated. “How did you know that?!”

“At your wedding, I thought I’d never seen you so happy,” Jia Chong said. “Now you look that way all the time. Something’s changed, and I know everything about you outside of your family; therefore…”

Sima Zhao was attempting to clean up the wine spittle he’d blown all over the table. Fortunately they hadn’t had any documents out.

Jia Chong retrieved a cloth to clean what had sprayed onto his clothes without any sign of offence. “So now the question is, will this child undo your progress and make you rest on your laurels? Or will you now have the motivation to become the man you know you could be?”

“Fuck me,” groaned Sima Zhao, “what do you even mean when you say shit like that? You should write opera.”

Jia Chong smiled. “I’m already writing something that will go down the generations.”

“I’m a supporting character in this story, alright? Let’s just keep that perfectly clear. You know my brother is on to you, right?”

Jia Chong’s jaw dropped. Sima Zhao had never seen Jia Chong rattled before, and it was an ominous sight, like seeing a devil flinch. “What do you mean?”

“He knew everything you were doing with Zhuge Dan,” Sima Zhao said. “He called you my little dog and then said you were untrained.”

“When was this?”

“Oh, a while ago. A few weeks before the wedding, I guess.” Sima Zhao sighed. “I didn’t know what the fuck I was supposed to say.”

“You should have told me right away. You told him I told you about Zhuge Dan? You should have pretended you knew nothing about it.”

“Oh no you don’t,” said Sima Zhao savagely. “First you start up some conspiracy I never goddamn asked for, then my brother gets twisty with me about how I never told him what you told me, and now you’re getting bitchy that I didn’t tell you that I told him that you told me after he told me that you told Zhuge Dan—“ He ran his hand through his hair. “Fuck! I never wanted to play any of these games!”

“You’re the key piece, Zhao,” Jia Chong said, low and powerful. “You’re like the general. The general can barely move, but he’s the whole game. All the showy pieces, the powerful pieces—they all move for him.”

“But I don’t want to be that! I only help my brother because he needs me. When the day comes he doesn’t need me anymore—I’m done. I’m gone.”

Jia Chong looked at him for a long moment, and then said, “When do you think that day will be?”

“When my brother gets what he wants.”

“Will he have what he wants if you have a son and he has none?”

Zhao’s nostrils flared, but he said nothing.

“For all your brother talks about heaven’s will,” Jia Chong, even more quietly, “heaven hasn’t favoured him in one key area. You are his heir. And after you… your son, when you have one.”

“This one might be a girl,” said Zhao after a beat. “And Lady Yang might still give him a son.”

Jia Chong shrugged and half-smiled. “We’ll see, won’t we? In the meantime… I need to know what your brother said about Zhuge Dan in full. This might explain some things.”

Sima Zhao rubbed his face, but decided to give in. It would be quicker and easier than trying to resist, anyway.

After he explained everything, Jia Chong got up and began to pace.

“Uh… what’s up?” said Sima Zhao.

“You need to tell me everything from now on, immediately,” said Jia Chong, still pacing. “This could have been the end of it all. You have told me just in time to turn it into a triumph. It’s time to offer Zhuge Dan that promotion.”

“Now?” Sima Zhao stared at him. “But there are no open cabinet positions.”

“I know. Which of them do you dislike most? If you have no preference, I suggest Minister of War, for the irony.” [The term for Minister of War in Chinese is Sima, the same as the Sima clan name.]

“But what’s the hurry? What’s going on?”

“I arranged to see you today because we received a request—by bird—for one hundred thousand additional troops for Zhuge Dan. The stated reason is because he believes Wen Qin intends to invade from Wu.”

“You’re saying he intends to use those troops to cooperate with the invasion,” said Sima Zhao.

“Exactly. Wen Qin is playing the long game. He joined with Wu only because he saw no other way to get the strength needed to ‘rescue’, as he sees it, Wei. God knows how he thinks he’s going to somehow throw aside Wu when that happens.”

“But why would Zhuge Dan join him?”

“Obviously because the emperor ordered him to.”

“The emperor…” Sima Zhao said, rather faintly. “Oh God. They’re going to invade Luoyang while my brother is away?”

“Not when we force them to break the law. You, my lord, will offer him promotion instead of troops; he will panic and begin to try to purge those under his command that he suspects or knows are loyal to the Sima. As soon as he does so, you can bring an army to ‘inspect’ the situation; his rebellion will immediately become one in name. We will eliminate Zhuge Dan, possibly also Wen Qin, and weaken Wu significantly; and it will become obvious that to conspire with the emperor against you is to write one’s own death warrant. If we are very lucky, we may even get evidence of something that could compel the Dowager Empress to force Cao Mao to abdicate.”

“And replace him with who?” Sima Zhao said.

Jia Chong only smiled. “I was getting ahead of myself, my lord. Let’s focus on the immediate steps first.”

———

Sima Shi picked up the meat bun on his plate and savoured its aroma.

After a mere month’s siege of Hanzhong, it was his. Now they were poised to make a run at Chengdu and with it rid his empire of Shu’s foolishness forever. He wanted them to feel their panic and their helplessness before he moved in, and his army needed a break; therefore he had ordered this furlong.

Just when he was about to take a bite, he heard a nervous throat clearing, and turned to see Xiahou Ba, looking, as usual, like a child dressed in his father’s armour, for all that he was a fully-grown man with hundreds of kills to his name.

“Hey, uh, my lord… could I uh… talk to you?”

“You are talking to me,” said Sima Shi, but he smiled as he said it.

Xiahou Ba glanced at the guards, and Sima Shi added, “I see. Guards, leave and be sure no one approaches the door.”

When they had done so, Xiahou Ba said, “You’re sure this is private, my lord? It’s really, really important that this be private.”

Sima Shi got up. He had chosen this room as his make-shift office for a reason; it had excellent views from the windows in all directions, and a long, long hallway which could be guarded at its very end without the guards themselves being able to hear speech. He checked all of these things thoroughly, then returned to Xiahou Ba. “We are private.’’

“I got a letter… uh… maybe you’d better just read it.”

Xiahou Ba handed a sloppily refolded letter to Sima Shi.

The emperor was ordering Xiahou Ba to assassinate Sima Shi; ideally as soon as they finished conquering Shu. The assassination attempt was not to occur within the next month, but if an opportunity presented itself at any time after that, he was to take it, even if the conquest of Chengdu was not finished.

Sima Shi pretended to read it for far longer than it actually took him. If the emperor was moving this decisively, then his family were in mortal danger back in Luoyang. The instruction not to move in the next month meant that the emperor needed at least a little time to prepare to move against Zhao. Should he try to alert Zhao? If he made any kind of attempt to do so, the emperor would probably find out about it. Maybe he should rather just trust that Zhao, or his father, would figure it out and handle it. But maybe he should let the emperor know that Shi was onto him…

“Do you think it might be Shu, impersonating the emperor?” said Xiahou Ba, but he sounded very uncertain.

“Between us two, Xiahou Ba,” Sima Shi said, meeting the younger man’s eyes, “suppose you knew it was the emperor ordering you to kill me?”

Xiahou Ba swallowed. He didn’t look happy, but his voice, though halting as he searched for the right words, was firm in the belief behind it. “I know it’s treasonous to even think it, but… the closer we get to Shu… the more I see exactly what incompetent rule does… and I keep thinking about what Lord Guo Huai said to me when I tried to make a run for it. Back then, I thought for sure you’d kill me based on my name, but you didn’t. So… so why should I kill you for the emperor? Just because we’re distantly related? Am I loyal to the emperor or the empire? Wei has never been closer to unifying the land than under your command, my lord. I want to be a part of that.”

Sima Shi smiled widely. “When I am emperor,” he said, for the first time allowing himself to speak his ambition aloud outside of his immediate family, “I will make you a duke.”

Xiahou Ba laughed and scratched his hair. “Eh, if you think I’ll live that long, my lord.”

“The emperor may have sent this sort of letter to more than just you,” Sima Shi said. “Be alert for anyone acting strangely. I will need you to watch my back, especially after we eliminate Shu.” He folded the letter properly and put it into his pocket. “I’ll keep this. If you are approached by anyone who seems to have knowledge of the letter, deny knowledge of it and then tell me as soon as possible.”

Xiahou Ba raised his hands to bow. “Yes, my lord.”

——— 

Wang Yuanji walked across the practice hall and pulled her throwing knives out of the target rather listlessly.

For five months now, Zhao had been away campaigning in the southeast, dealing with unrest in Shouchun that had turned into an actual invasion from Wu, with Zhuge Dan turned traitor and assisting the Wu forces.

Meanwhile, she was in Luoyang, virtually under house arrest in the Sima compound with her in-laws, with an entire squadron assigned by Zhao to guard it. At first Yuanji had just thought that Zhao was overprotective because of her pregnancy. After all, the imperial capital was at no risk of invasion, and had barely any crime.

Then someone attempted to kidnap her mother-in-law, and it became clear that if anything Zhao had underestimated the danger. The kidnappers, after all, had made it inside Lady Zhang’s room while she was sleeping, but their attempt to gag her failed, and she had already killed an opponent with her bare hands by the time the guards rushed to the aid of her screams. But the fact that they had been sent to kidnap her was very ominous. This could only mean that whoever it was wanted to use their mother to force Shi and Zhao to cooperate with them.

Before that event, she had been permitted to go out more or less normally during the day, albeit with a larger guard than before; now her mother-in-law flatly refused, and Yuanji did not want to test her.

Nor was she even allowed to receive guests. Her social circle was now limited to her parents-in-law, whom she loved but who were both extremely intense people, and her sister-in-law, whom she disliked.

She wrote a great deal of poetry, practiced the guqin, listened to her mother-in-law, read her own and other people’s poetry to her father-in-law, and threw her knives. Day after day after day.

Yuanji was a rather introverted person by nature but this extremely limited range of activities and people was constraining even for her. And her belly was beginning to get too large to sit at the proper distance from the guqin; she had to sit back and lean forward in an awkward way.

The door opened, and Sima Yi was there, leaning upon a cane. After the kidnapping attempt, Sima Yi had revived in a big way, at least externally, within the privacy of the Sima compound. Although he remained officially senile and decrepit, he now regularly walked the grounds with a cane, his whip hanging from his belt. Apparently the Sima patriarch was now determined to get better out of sheer spite.

“Good morning father,” said Yuanji.

“Good morning,” he said. “I’ve had a letter from Shi. It includes a copy of Liu Shan’s surrender letter.”

Yuanji breathed a sigh of relief. “Is he coming home soon?”

“Yuanji,” Sima Yi said with mild rebuke, “Don’t you want to know why my son included a copy, rather than simply telling me that Liu Shan surrendered?”

Yuanji smiled. “If you want to tell me, I am eager to hear you, father.”

“Impertinent,” said Sima Yi, but he was smiling as well. “I shall read you the lines in question. ‘When Cao Pi was emperor, he sent his tiger-fanged general Xianyu Fu to extend to me an imperial edict of such warmth and grace, opening his doors to me. His great righteousness was manifest, yet I was without virtue, lost in weakness, greedily clinging to a lost cause, gazing at a worn-out legacy, and did not accept this great instruction.’ I wrote that edict, that this failure so praises. Do you think my son informs me to flatter me or mock me? I cannot myself decide.”

“Are those the only two options?” said Yuanji.

Sima Yi threw back his head and laughed. “And what do you think of it, my dear? Go on, I know you want to.”

“Great righteousness and great instruction; not well phrased,” she said, frowning. “Also, who is this Xianyu Fu?”

“Absolutely no one of any consequence. Who but someone whose life means nothing gets sent to carry a request to surrender? Tiger-fanged general indeed. Do you know, I cannot even remember whether Shu executed him or not.” Sima Yi laughed again. “Yuanji, if we must be caged in this disgraceful way, I am glad that you are here with us. Alas, this cage will continue for the time being. He will only march back when he is ready to bring a good deal of his army; another three or four months, he guesses.”

———

“The women are being exceptionally uncooperative, my lord. I have been sent because the guards did not wish to lay hands upon them without your express authorization. Lady Zhang Xingcai is demanding you by name.”

Sima Shi looked at the messenger, looked at the meat bun in his hand, and sighed. He placed the meat bun back onto the tray, said, “Have the cook told to prepare a fresh batch for me when I can return to eat them. Anyone may have these,” to a guard, and followed the messenger.

He bowed in a respectful manner that he was a long way from feeling when he entered the room where the female future hostages had been herded in the wake of Liu Shan’s surrender. “Lady Zhang,” he said, addressing the women as a group, as he didn’t know which one was actually Liu Shan’s wife, “I am told you have words for me?”

A beautiful woman, slightly older than him, perhaps, stepped forward. “I do indeed, my lord. Why have the childless women been separated out in this suspicious way? Why are they now trying to break us apart into smaller groups?”

“I hope you can understand, Lady Zhang, that guarding women like you requires the most virtuous guards we have. By placing all of you together, such righteous guards will not be spread too thin. What’s more, you can chaperone each other,” Sima Shi said calmly. “As they should have told you, they are trying to place you into carriages in three groups of three. When you arrive in Luoyang, you will have been continuously together the entire time and able to verify each other’s safety.”

“But why not simply send us with our husbands and fathers, my lord?” she countered.

“Because, Lady Zhang, not all of your husbands and fathers will be coming to Luoyang.”

Sima Shi saw the despair in the room and let it roll off of him like water on an oilcloth.

Lady Zhang kept her chin high. “My husband will be coming to Luoyang, of course, my lord?”

“He will be,” Sima Shi said, “but I cannot yet say whether you will see him there.”

This vaguely menacing statement made her eyes widen, but she still did not waver in her dignity. “I see. Alright. Lady Fan and Lady Zong will be in my carriage.”

The two named ladies were probably the same two very young ladies who stepped forward slightly at this and clung to their erstwhile empress with frightened eyes. Sima Shi bowed. “I will tell the guards to let you arrange the seating, my lady.”

———

“My lord! Wen Qin’s sons have come offering surrender.”

“Surrender?” said Sima Zhao.

Jia Chong snorted. “I’ll handle this, my lord.”

“Oh no you won’t,” said Zhao, getting up. “You nearly put your axe through Jiang Ban when he came to surrender last month.”

“That is an exaggeration,” said Jia Chong, somewhat petulantly. “It’s not as if it would have been a great loss anyway.”

“Wen Yang would be a great loss,” Zhao said as he left.

The two kneeling men waiting for Sima Zhao looked soul-weary. Zhao looked for a moment from one to the other. The older one had the same armour he had seen from that battlement the last time Zhao had come to Shouchun to put down a rebellion… had it really been only a year ago? There was a nasty-looking scar across the left cheek. It looked fresh. The younger one looked perhaps sixteen, more scared and sad than his brother, or at least less able to hide these feelings.

Sima Zhao crossed his arms. “How about you start by telling me who you are and why you’re here.”

Wen Yang met his eyes, clearly startled by this unconventionally casual speech. In return, Sima Zhao smiled.

“I am Wen Yang, son of Wen Qin. This is my younger brother, Wen Hu. Zhuge Dan has executed our father. When we learned of this, we decided that the only possible way forward was to climb the city walls and come here to place our heads at your mercy, my lord.”

“Yeah, it would be impossible to get to Wu, right?” said Zhao, still light and casual. “I mean, we’ve got the city surrounded. Hey, hey, don’t look so stricken. I don’t like killing people if I can avoid it, and I’m definitely not the type who torments them before I do it. How old are you two?”

The two brothers looked at each other, bewilderment warring with hope. Wen Yang said, “I’m nineteen, and my brother is sixteen.”

“Roughly what I’d guessed, then,” said Zhao, oddly pleased with this small success. “Obviously, you know that your father is guilty of treason and that his entire family should be exterminated—under the law. That’s never seemed fair, or even rational, to me. I mean, you’re nineteen, he’s sixteen; what were you supposed to have done, rebel against your father? God knows I’d never be able to go against mine, and I’m twenty-two. As for executing you to punish your father—he’s already dead, so how’s he going to know about it? If I was his ghost I wouldn’t be sticking around here. The law says I should have you both executed. I say that’s stupid and I’m not going to. Stand up.”

The young men stood up.

“You’re both pardoned,” said Sima Zhao. “You’re now my officers. I’m going to give you each a hundred cavalry. Tomorrow, as soon as the light is good, I want you to start circling the city and telling everyone inside that Wen Qin’s sons have been pardoned. Knowing that you two have been pardoned, what ordinary soldier will be afraid to surrender?”

———

Sima Shi entered Luoyang in triumph, the Shu pretender following him as docile as a lamb, his army encamped in the outskirts of the imperial capital, ostensibly awaiting the imperial order to attack Wu and unite China at last.

And it would be reunited, but it would be done under no one’s name but Sima Shi’s.

Sima Shi went directly to see the emperor, with Xiahou Ba at his side. He smiled at Cao Mao and introduced to him Liu Shan. He told the emperor that it was his philosophy to treat those who accepted their own failure and incompetence and surrendered rather than prolonging the inevitable with mercy.

“Of course, if Lord Liu Shan had resisted me, I would have slain him with my own hand,” said Sima Shi with a smile that broadened as he saw the emperor quiver. “But as he handed over the bulk of his kingdom without unseemly death struggles, I suggest most humbly, my emperor, that you enfeoff him as a duke, and allow him to live comfortably. Here is a plan I have drawn up for his integration into the empire. Does it meet with your approval, your imperial majesty?”

With great humility of posture he offered the paper to the emperor, who took and read the document which offered a timeline whereby Liu Shan was at first to live in comfortable but vigilantly guarded and monitored rooms, kept away from all of his former Shu subjects, even his wife, until the newly annexed territory of Shu had spent a sufficient amount of time thoroughly docile. Then, the duke was to gradually receive an enlargement of his freedom of movement and his social circle, with the final stage being a life of indolent luxury split, at the duke’s own choosing, between a city house in the capital and a country villa with ample hunting. Of course, until the end of his days, the duke would be monitored; but he would otherwise live a life of pleasure.

The emperor looked up, and Sima Shi knew that Cao Mao knew that this was also the choice being offered to him: powerless comfort, or death. Would he accept that the only way for him not to be killed was to eventually abdicate?

“Yes,” said the emperor, and then, after a moment, said, “Sima Shi, will you now accept the Nine Bestowments?”

Sima Shi smiled but said neither yes nor no.

“And… and the title of… King of Jin?” Cao Mao’s voice quivered.

Sima Shi bowed. “I am overcome with gratitude that you still feel I am worthy. You have offered this to me too many times for me to insult you by continuing to refuse. I will accept.”

Cao Mao moistened his lips. “What is… your next step?”

“I understand my brother is still subduing Shouchun,” said Sima Shi. “I am glad that my brother was here to so serve you, my emperor, while I was away in the west. Any day now, I am sure, we will hear that the traitor Zhuge Dan has died. And Wu will have expended a great deal of its resources supporting this imbecilic attempt at rebellion. I shall have them dealt with very soon. Heaven favours the emperor.”

After seeing Liu Shan handed off into custody and making sure that the rest of the Shu hostages were where they ought to be, he finally went home. He could hardly wait to see the admiration in everyone’s eyes at his triumph. If only Zhao could have been there too.

They were all there and waiting for him; his wife grabbed onto him in a disgusting false show of intimacy as she wept over her gratitude for his safe return, and he was dimly aware that his mother was speaking, but his eyes could only look at one thing.

Yuanji was so great with child… she had smiled, and then blushed and twisted her body as if she was embarrassed by his shock.

Well, of course… he knew she was pregnant, the time added up, the baby must be due at any moment. What had he expected her to look like?

He tore his eyes away and spoke, he hoped cogently, to his mother.

It wasn’t really about Yuanji at all, he realized as he let his mother rescue him from his wife for an invitation to consume Lady Zhang Chunhua’s legendary meat buns, Sima Shi’s favourite version of his favourite food in the entire world. It was that Yuanji’s body had suddenly reminded him about what another woman had looked and acted like in that condition.

He followed his mother to the dining table. Xiao Hui… Lady Xiahou. She was so short and slight, smaller even than Yuanji; had getting pregnant so young and so often stunted her growth? Sima Shi’s mouth was suddenly dry, even though he was looking down at a platter of meat buns. Six children she had given him… three of them she had suffered to see die in her arms as newborns…

“Aren’t you hungry, my lord?” his current wife was tittering. “Perhaps you just don’t want this. I can try to make you something… or perhaps you just want to rest…? I could rub your back, if you’re tense…”

Unbelievable. Lady Yang thought she could so snidely insult his mother’s cooking—while his mother was standing there!—and then seduce him in the same breath? He had married an imbecile.

This was the woman he had thrown Lady Xiahou away like garbage for?

“I want to rest alone,” he said, pushing the tray away and getting up. But when he got to his rooms, he could not rest.

Instead, he sat down to write a letter.

Chapter Text

It was a bright spring day, one of those with a severe contrast between the warmth in the sun and the cold in the shade. Yuanji was sitting a bench in a garden, reading poetry with her mother-in-law on her left and her father-in-law on her right. The breeze blew flower petals that she had to brush off the pages. Her sister-in-law, Lady Yang, had invited herself to listen, having brought out a stool for herself, but as long as she actually remained silent, Yuanji didn’t mind.

“Does she always read to you from Sima Xiangru, father?” It was Sima Shi, coming into the garden from the western doorway.

“This collection has many poets of that era,” said Sima Yi. “Perhaps you should enlarge your spirit by listening.”

“Perhaps I should,” said Sima Shi. “Is the poetry of Zhuo Wenjun in there, Yuanji?”

“Only her most famous work, I believe, my lord.”

“Please read that one.”

Yuanji read aloud:

White as the snow on the mountain, bright like the clouds by the moon.
They say my lord’s thoughts are double, our parting therefore must be soon.
Today we drink wine together, at dawn at the gully it ends.
Mince your way over the water, as the current beneath you wends.

Misery and more misery!  Must a bride lament when she weds!
May her man be single-hearted,  unparted with white-haired heads.
How graceful is the bamboo pole,  how frantic the fish on its end!
A man should value the spirit.  How dare he use his wealth to rend!”  

“You are so right, as usual, father,” said Shi. “That was precisely what I needed to hear today. By the way, mother, I am nearly done with preparations to go visit your granddaughters. If you would like me to carry gifts to them for you, can you have them ready in two days?”

“My granddaughters?” said Lady Zhang. “Then I want… may I come with you, Shi?”

“You’re not thinking, mother. How can you leave now? Yuanji could give birth any day.” Shi smiled indulgently at her.

“Oh, yes, of course,” said Lady Zhang, looking from Yuanji to Shi and back, clearly torn between hope and fear, which was so unusual that it made Yuanji feel almost ill. “I’ll get them gifts… I wish I knew how much they’ve grown… two days in the morning, Shi?”

“I leave in three days, very early in the morning, so if you have them for me in the evening, that will be fine.”

Yuanji finally dared to steal a glance at her sister-in-law to see how she was taking this announcement that Shi was visiting his daughters—and therefore his ex-wife—just after asking her to read a poem that lambasted a man for being unfaithful. And it was a Sima man that the author was writing about, too; Sima Xiangru’s wife, Zhuo Wenjun, had written that poem to rebuke his neglect of her. And it had worked, the legend stated; she regained his favour.

Lady Yang was staring at her husband’s smiling profile with her lips pressed into the thinnest line, all colour drained from her face, a vein prominent on the back of her clenched hand.

“I know it’s short-notice,” he said, “but I will be visiting my daughters only briefly. I want to tell them in person that they’re to become princesses.”

Shi bowed and left via the eastern door, not having once looked at his wife that Yuanji had noticed. After a few moments, Lady Yang got up and left north.

“I think we would find it difficult to concentrate on poetry from here, Yuanji,” said Sima Yi. “Chunhua, please help me back to my room.”

———

Sima Zhao rode in a carriage the last leg of the journey back to Luoyang, with Jia Chong beside him and Zhuge Dan’s severed head in a box across from him.

He wasn’t happy about this, but his brother had written to tell him to bring it to the emperor, in the same letter in which he had informed his brother that he was accepting the Nine Bestowments and the title of King of Jin; by the way, would Sima Zhao prefer to be a prince or a duke?

Sima Zhao would prefer to remain Sima Zhao, but that wasn’t an option, was it.

Zhong Hui was remaining in Shouchun as the new governor there; the Wen brothers were riding behind the carriage. As much as he hated it, Sima Zhao knew he needed more personally loyal officers of talent to protect him and those he most cared about. Wen Yang was exceptionally talented, despite his youth. In the weeks since his surrender, they had gotten to know each other pretty well. Wen Yang felt a life debt to Zhao for sparing him and his brother, and the young man had both a longing to be a hero and the ability to actually play the role. Zhao actually kind of envied Wen Yang for the simplicity and purity of his desires.

At the feast where they celebrated their success in Shouchun before returning to the capital, Sima Zhao had said with deceptive lightness, “Well, at least I know I won’t have anything to worry about on the journey back. I’ll have my brain in my carriage with me and my right and left hands riding behind me. I can sleep the whole trip!”

Wen Yang had beamed; the corners of Jia Chong’s mouth had gone up a tiny amount. Zhao knew how to handle them, alright.

“Does this really have to ride in the carriage with us?” Jia Chong interrupted his thoughts. “It’s starting to smell.”

“We’ve only got a few hours left.”

Jia Chong gave him a look. “But why did you insist on it being in the carriage at all?”

“Because I am going to treat his remains with as much respect as I can while they’re still under my control,” Zhao grumbled.

“Who’s going to find out about it?” Jia Chong said.

“What does that matter? I know about it.”

“Just when I think you’re finally getting over these childish beliefs…” Jia Chong sighed.

In truth, Zhao actually had to force himself to have the box in the carriage with him. He didn’t like that; he didn’t like that he had nearly told Jia Chong to just handle it all, including disposing of the rest of Zhuge Dan’s body.

He didn’t want to be that person. Zhuge Dan was a fool but he had been a comrade once, and he had been pushed into an ignominious death, in order to make the Sima grip on power more secure. Zhao couldn’t let himself treat that flippantly.

“Yuanji might have already had the baby,” Zhao said, to put the topic onto something much happier.

Jia Chong chuckled. “I hope for your sake she has. Waiting during labour even had me on edge. I already know you’ll be an absolute wreck.”

“Oh yeah, I’d forgotten you had a wife. Why do you never bring her around?”

“She has a bad habit of murdering people she’s jealous of,” Jia Chong said calmly. “I wouldn’t put it past her to even make an attempt on you. She thinks I’m simply your officer; if she knew how close our friendship is…”

“Are you serious?”

“When do I joke?”

Zhao sighed. “How is it that I can’t introduce any topic with you without it somehow immediately swinging around to murder?”

———

“My lady,” said a servant, “Lord Sima Zhao is here.”

“I’ll be right there,” Lady Zhang said, putting aside her embroidery and getting up. “Under no circumstances is anyone to awaken Lady Wang or the baby. Understood?”

“Y-yes, my lady.”

Lady Zhang walked as fast as she could without breaking into an undignified run and was just in time to intercept Zhao, whom, as she had suspected, had taken only the briefest amount of time to realize that his wife hadn’t come to see him and was going to see her.

“They’re asleep,” she called, making him stop. “You just have to wait.”

“They’re… they’re?” Zhao’s face lit up.

She laughed softly, taking his hands as she came up to him. “Yes, you have a son. And they are both doing very well. But he was only born yesterday, and it is extremely tiring, giving birth. You men have no idea what suffering is. And babies are very needy. When the baby sleeps, Yuanji needs to sleep too; otherwise she may never recover, which I’m sure you don’t want?”

“No, of course,” said Zhao, daunted. He frowned, looked down at their joined hands, looked in the direction of his rooms, and said tentatively, “You’re sure I can’t just look in and see them? I wouldn’t wake them up, I swear.”

“Zhao, I know you’re not asking me to put your wife at risk just because you can’t bear to wait a few hours at most,” Chunhua said with her most terrifying smile.

“N-no, you’re right, of course you’re right mother… I don’t know what I was thinking…”

“You’re tired from the journey,” she said, patting his hands and then letting them go. “What you need, my son, is a good, thorough wash and fresh clothes. Then when your wife wakes up, you won’t look as awful as you do right now.”

Zhao put one newly freed hand to his hair. “I look awful?”

“Shameful,” Chunhua assured him.

“Alright, but… I want to know the moment they wake up, alright?”

———

The baby was crying again. Yuanji let herself be sleepily maneuvered into a propped up sitting position and blinked down as the servants got the baby into the right position to nurse.

“I’ll be right back,” said Lady Zhang. “She looks like she can manage like that for a bit; you all come with me.”

Yuanji, eyes still barely open, only managed a nod. Probably getting more food…

“Yuanji…”

That woke her up. “My lord,” she breathed, fully opening her eyes to see him close the door behind him and take two big strides to the bed. His hair looked damp, as if he had just washed, and he was dressed only in lounge clothes.

He knelt by her bedside and looked at the baby. “Wow… wow… he’s so tiny! He’s going to take after you.”

“I’m told he’s actually bigger than average,” said Yuanji.

“Is he really?!” Zhao put a hand out to hesitantly brush the fine, fluffy hair. He touched the back of a little hand, and it opened; he touched the palm, and it closed on his finger. “Yuanji! Yuanji he’s grabbing my finger!”

Even with how tired she was, Yuanji started laughing. “Yes, I can see that, my lord.”

Zhao ran his other hand through his hair. “Wow. This is crazy! This is wild! That’s our baby!” Suddenly he turned his face to hers. “Yuanji, are you really okay? You look exhausted. It was really hard, huh? I’m sorry I wasn’t here… not that I could have done anything… but you know…”

Before she could reply he leaned forward and kissed her, softly but passionately.

“I really missed you,” he groaned, laughing a little as he pulled back. “God. An entire month I’ve gotta wait, huh? After being apart from you seven months. No, you don’t have to say anything, it’s my problem to deal with. I’m gonna get a hand cramp.”

“My lord!” she scolded him, but she was laughing, and her heart was full of joy.

“Where’s my brother, anyway?” said Zhao. “When I came in, I asked, and the servants said he left Luoyang a few days ago.”

“He’s gone to see his daughters. He said it wouldn’t be long.”

“His daughters? Now? Why?” Zhao looked as puzzled as she had felt.

“He said he wanted to tell them in person that they’re going to be princesses.”

“That…” Zhao’s expression changed from puzzlement to something more disturbed. “That doesn’t sound like him. At all.”

“I know,” she said. “And he asked me—I had been reading poetry to your parents—he asked me to read Zhuo Wenjun’s famous poem where she rebukes her husband for being faithless. I mean… it seemed almost like he was telling us he was going to be reinstate Lady Xiahou but… he can’t do that, can he? The Yang clan are critical supporters of his, and he’s already killed almost all of Lady Xiahou’s relatives.”

“Did he actually mention Lady Xiahou?”

“No. From what he said, it was all about his daughters only.”

“His daughters…” Zhao rubbed his thumb on the tiny fingers of his son; the pad of his thumb could cover all four fingers at once. “I mean, I know by the time you got here, Lady Xiahou was already falling out of his favour, but even when they were first married and he was… well, I won’t say in love, but pleased with her, at least… he never interacted with his daughters. He wanted them pushed off onto wet nurses and nannies as much as possible, so that he could have Lady Xiahou to himself when he wanted her, and so she could get pregnant again faster. In fact—this is horrible—but if you had asked me yesterday if my brother knew his daughters’ names, I would have said yes, but I actually wouldn’t have bet a tael of silver on it.”

“I’m not sure that I remember their names… It’s been a while and I almost never saw them even when they lived here.”

“I’ll remind you if you like,” he said. “The oldest is Chenlan - chen as in morning, lan as in mist; then Qingyin - qing as in clear, yin as in sound; then the youngest one is Qiujing - qiu as in autumn, jing as in quiet. My father named them all. I guess he’ll name this one, too, by the way. What did he say about the baby?”

“He said the baby’s face looked like a goji berry and then he laughed. I think he was very happy.”

“A goji berry?!”

Yuanji laughed. “Well, when he was just born, his face was very red and wrinkly.”

“A goji berry…” Zhao shook his head. “That could work as a milk name, though, huh? Goji. Goji Goji Goji.”

Goji ignored his father and continued to concentrate on drinking.

———

Sima Shi stared at Lady Xiahou’s corpse where it had been laid out in her bed.

Somewhere else in the house he could hear children wailing.

The two servants, a husband and wife, were clinging to each other in agitation. The wife had not stopped babbling since he had entered the house. A very common trait among bad liars.

The official story was that Lady Xiahou had poisoned herself out of fear that he was going to take away her daughters. Ridiculous. A rush job by someone who had no talent and no perception.

“Shut up,” said Sima Shi when the noise became too much. “Has the magistrate been informed?”

———

Zhao was woken up by a screaming argument occurring somewhere in the complex.

When he rushed out to investigate, all the screaming was coming from Lady Yang, and the object of her ire was his mother. “You think I want them here?!”

“Stop thinking you can shriek your way out of answering my question,” Lady Zhang said. “I know you know what’s happened.”

“You are just a—” Lady Yang was yelling, but she checked herself when she saw Zhao. She hissed, “I don’t know anything. He’s your son—you ask him! I won’t be treated like this. Leave me alone!”

With that, she stomped off.

“What’s going on?” Zhao asked.

His mother looked murderous. “Your brother sent me a message that he’s going to be a few days later than planned, and asked me to have rooms prepared for his daughters to live with him. And that’s all. That’s all! I thought that little rat looked too pleased these past few days. She’s done something. And she has the nerve to raise her voice to me. I’ll kill her. I’ll kill her myself.”

“Mother, calm—” Zhao stopped himself from completing the fatal phrase calm down as his mother turned those deadly eyes towards him.

“I am perfectly calm,” she said, and her voice was indeed level as ever. “I am only sorry her histrionics disturbed you. She’ll be dealt with. If your brother won’t do it… she’ll be dealt with.” The expression in her eyes did not change, but she smiled. “Since you’re awake, you can help me.”

“Uh… with the girls’ rooms, you mean?”

His mother stalked off with a crook of her finger to beckon him after, without actually answering him.

Zhao had killed at his mother’s direction before and did not doubt that he would do so again, but he really hoped she wasn’t going to ask him to include his sister-in-law in that tally. Shi’s wife was his business.

———

“I have two eyes, I have two ears, but only one mouth, isn’t that a shame! If I had two mouths, I’d use one to eat honey, and the other mouth for kissing you!” Yuanji chanted the nursery rhyme to her son and ended with a kiss on his nose. Goji was awake and alert, staring at her face with his eyes wide while his little mouth moved soundlessly, as if trying to mimic the motions of her lips.

There was quite a lot of commotion going on, so she guessed that her brother-in-law was home at last. But since she was sitting the month, there was nothing she could do but wait. She had once gotten out of bed just to look out the window, and when her mother-in-law came in and found Yuanji standing with the shutter open, exposing her to horrible cold air… well she would not make that mistake again.

“I’m a little hungry,” she said to the servant in the room with her.

“I’lll tell Lady Zhang, my lady,” the servant said.

Hopefully this would at least remind them all that she existed and was dying of curiosity and boredom.

Time passed and passed. Goji spat up a little and Yuanji cleaned it up and took the risk of getting out of bed to drop the dirty cloth in the laundry basket, and then got back into bed. She picked up Goji and offered him her breast. His little eyes fluttered and closed as he nursed, then fell asleep. She carefully freed her nipple from his mouth and readjusted her clothing.

Still no one came.

Finally the door opened. Zhao came in first, with Shi just behind them, then Shi’s three daughters, gently coaxed from behind by Lady Zhang. The girls all had sad and frightened faces, and the youngest was clinging to Lady Zhang’s waist.

“Lady Xiahou has passed away,” Zhao said to Yuanji.

Yuanji swallowed. “Oh. How sudden… please accept my sincere condolences.” She was a little afraid to look at Shi, but when she did, his eyes were all on Goji. He was dressed in the most severe level of mourning clothes, just like the children were. As if Lady Xiahou had died as his wife.

“I will try to restrain my sorrow,” Shi said, “especially in the joy of your good news. And it is good news for me too, isn’t it? Your heir, and mine.”

Zhao came closer, and Yuanji let him take the baby.

“We call him Goji,” Zhao said, bringing him over to Shi. “Would you like to hold him?”

“I would be honoured,” said Shi, taking the sleeping baby carefully. “Hm. Goji, eh? Yuanji, I expected you to be able to stop him.”

“Well, it’s only a milk name, after all, my lord,” Yuanji said, with a hesitant smile.

Shi turned. “Look, girls, but don’t touch. This is your cousin.”

The three girls looked, and the oldest one said, “He’s very cute,” and then reddened and looked at her father anxiously, as if she was not sure if she was allowed to speak.

Her father smiled at her. “Yes, he is.” Shi then walked back over to the bed and gave Goji to Yuanji. “Here. A child belongs with his mother. Zhao, I need to talk with you.”

The men left. Lady Zhang patted her granddaughters and said to Yuanji, “I heard that you are hungry, and I’m already having a meal made up for you. Will you be alright if I take the girls to their rooms now? I can wait here until the servants come back, if you prefer.”

“Oh, not at all, I’m sure it won’t be long,” answered Yuanji.

———

“The subject of Lady Xiahou’s death is not open for discussion,” said Shi the moment they were seated in his study. “While I was away I received news that there are already attempts to organize a resistance within Shu. They need to be dealt with promptly. Unfortunately I can’t do it myself as I will need to stay in Luoyang from now until I am the emperor in name. You are ideal for this, anyway; you are likeable and everyone will know you can’t be tempted astray, and you can bring with you your little dog, who is very unlikeable and whom you will direct to act open to corruption. Between the two of you, you can persuade to join, or instigate into open rebellion, just about anyone.”

“Of course.” Zhao frowned. “But it sounds like a long-term thing?”

“If you mean do I intend to station you down there long-term, I do not. I’m going to want you before too long in the east, anyway. I want you to go there and reassert my authority in a way that Deng Ai simply cannot. The person I need you to focus on is Jiang Wei. I should have killed him, but I wanted to appear exorbitantly merciful at the time. Jia Chong can kill him for you; he will do it nicely. Write to me after you’ve been there a week and let me know how his death has settled or unsettled things; if things go as I hope, you’ll only be gone a month altogether.”

“Only a month? I’m not going all the way to Chengdu then?”

“No. I had at least the foresight to move him, and a few likely troublemakers, up to Chencang. A week’s sail each way. Easy.”

“Hm.” Zhao laughed a little. “Well, ordinarily I’d be whining a lot about how I only just got back, but to be honest maybe it’s a good thing you’ll be getting me away from temptation… you know the doctor told me that because of something or other—I didn’t ask, seemed like the kind of thing I’d be better off not knowing—he’s forbidding sex with Yuanji until six weeks, minimum? I mean, I thought it was going to be hard to hold back just while she was sitting the month, now I gotta keep my hands to myself for another two weeks and maybe even longer… ugh. But obviously her health is more important…” Zhao sighed and scratched his head. “A month, huh? That should bring me back just in time, then.”

Shi stared at him oddly, saying nothing.

“Brother?”

Shi started a moment. “I was just thinking of something… not important. Go get yourself ready; I’ll arrange some things for you to reference to guide your actions there. You can study them on the journey.”

“Study, study, study,” Zhao groaned, getting up. “Nothing I hate more! You’re lucky you’re my brother, you know.”

“Safe journey, Zhao,” Shi said quietly, and his smile was a little strained.

———

“I don’t like this,” said Jia Chong, staring out at the coast of the Yellow River as it drifted by.

When Zhao didn’t make any reply, he looked up at Zhao. “Are you listening, my lord?”

Zhao shook his head. “I don’t want to.”

“You can close your eyes, but not your ears.”

Zhao made a big show of putting his fingers to his ears, and grinned as Jia Chong smirked and rubbed his forehead.

“Even granting that this mission is urgent, it’s not so urgent that waiting a few days for the coronation would have made a difference. That’s the sticking point. My lord, I know you can hear me.”

“I know, I know.” Zhao stopped the futile plugging of his ears and leaned on the ship’s railing. “He’s been just plain odd since we got back from Shouchun. Even before that, from what I hear from Yuanji and my mother.”

“Why does he want you out of Luoyang for his enthronement and acceptance of the Nine Bestowments?”

“The only thing I can think of is that my so-called personal ambitions got hyped up to draw you-know-who out. And now that it’s all sorted, my brother wants to make it clear that I am nobody important and not part of this big next step to power.” Zhao scratched his neck. “It makes sense, but why not just tell me? I hate it, I really hate it. Why does he have to be so damn mysterious? Why can’t he just tell me, for once, what he’s doing and why? Always pushing me here and there and then laughing at me afterwards when I’m confused. Everyone’s always doing that to me.” He shot a glance at Jia Chong with this one.

“Touche, my lord, but I have your best interests at heart.”

“And you think my brother doesn’t?” Suddenly Zhao slapped the railing with an open palm and huffed off without letting Jia Chong answer.

———

Lady Zhang Xingcai was puzzled when Sima Shi came to visit her, wearing mourning dress, no less. “My lord.”

“You may call me that if you wish,” Sima Shi said, “or ‘your majesty’, now. In gratitude for my conquest of your country, the emperor has named me King of Jin, and given me the nine bestowments.”

Xingcai considered this, then stepped forward to drop to her knees and performed a kowtow, pressing her forehead to the floor and then rising into a kneel. “Your majesty, then.”

He looked surprised and pleased when she raised her eyes to his again, and after a moment, took the chair she had been sitting in when he came in, moved it just in front of her, and sat down, so that his knees were only a hands-width from her chest. “I am here to speak with you about matters in Shu.”

“I am not qualified to speak on such matters of state. Humbly, I suggest that your majesty speaks to my husband.”

“Obviously I have,” he said, with some disgruntlement. “I don’t like wasting time. I went there this morning and wasted over an hour. Is he actually stupid, or is it an act to shield him from involvement and consequences?”

“Your majesty cannot expect me to answer that,” Xingcai said coldly.

Sima Shi chuckled. “Are you so offended by truth, Lady Zhang? That must make life very uncomfortable. But now I am the one wasting time. Among all the worthless words he uttered, he did in one case mention your name, in a way that made me think that you had some intelligence.”

“If my lord mentioned my name, it must only be out of missing me.”

“Not at all,” Sima Shi said and smiled. “He made no inquiry into you. But let us not get sidetracked. You have made a mistake, Lady Zhang. You were so eager to let me know that you did not wish to cooperate with me, that you inadvertently revealed to me just how intelligent and perceptive you really are. You will tell me what I want to know eventually. Make it easy on yourself and answer my questions directly. You may trust that I understand and appreciate your resentment.”

Lady Zhang tightened the grip of her hands on her knees and breathed. He was right, damn him. What was the point, anyway? Everything was lost.

When she had finished answering all his questions, told him everything he wanted to know about the various people with Shu, their motivations, their weaknesses, their connections, their potentials, he smiled again. “I am glad to find that you are so rational,” he said. “Is there anything I can do to make your stay here more comfortable, or enjoyable? Your society and your environment must remain limited, but if I can improve them in any way…”

She felt a pang in her heart, thinking how she could not request the thing she most wanted. “Nothing, your majesty.”

“Now I can see that’s not true. You really are a poor liar, aren’t you? What is it? The worst I will say is no.”

“I understand that it is not possible, but what I miss most is exercise… if I could have a training dummy…”

“Only that?” He raised his eyebrows. “What weapon do you use?”

“A sword and buckler.”

“Wooden sword and buckler, easy. And an instructor? Weekly?”

Xingcai hardly dared to believe it. “I would be very grateful, your majesty.”

Sima Shi stood up. “I’ll have it done. You will mention, in your next letters to your loved ones, how benevolent I am, I trust.”

She wanted to slap the mocking smile off his face, despite what generosity he had just shown her. Generosity with a hidden meaning; it couldn’t be otherwise with a man like him. “I certainly will, your majesty. You can let me know if I worded it badly.”

He laughed as he left.

———

On account of her confinement, Yuanji missed Shi’s coronation. Taking a great risk of Lady Zhang’s wrath, her father-in-law, who also missed the coronation on account of his official bad health, smuggled her in a copy of the written music which was the fourth of the nine bestowments. While her brother-in-law was being declared King of Jin, Sima Yi and Yuanji were having a grand time excoriating the triteness of the lyrics and the blandness of the music. It was the most intellectual stimulation she’d been allowed to have since she’d given birth, and it soothed her soul. When her mother-in-law came in afterwards, she remarked on how well Yuanji looked.

When her confinement was finally over, Yuanji washed herself, while Sima Yi and Lady Zhang together washed Goji, as Zhao would have done had he been there. Then her first order was to have all her books, her writing desk, and her guqin moved back into her bedroom. While the move was in progress, she took Goji into her arms and took a leisurely stroll through the garden with him, enjoying the flowers and the birds.

At the Full Month Party that evening, the guests entered through a red door that was the sixth of the nine bestowments. Sima Yi looked gaunt but triumphant as he announced the baby’s name: Sima Yan, yan meaning flame.

Shi was there, of course, but it was the first time she had seen him since Zhao had left. He had never come again to visit her while she was confined. She had wanted to speak with him, to see if she could get the bottom of all these strange recent occurrences, but there was no opportunity in the crowded party. For two more weeks after that, as her life adjusted to motherhood, she kept on watching for him, hoping to catch him. But he was never around, and she was not sure how she could request him, when Zhao wasn’t there.

———

The most dangerous factor here remains the Qiang… we are outsiders here, not even men of Liang, as Jiang Wei was. They will never approach anyone from Wei, they despise us all, and as for the former Shu officers, aside from Jiang Wei, they are also not from Liang. I believe if the governor is moderate and efficient that the Qiang will at least remain quiet.

Sima Shi reread the the letter from his brother. His brother was never subtle, and Zhao’s impatience to be allowed to return home was palpable now. It had been nearly a month, after all; Shi had already written him once to tell him to remain and continue monitoring the situation.

What should he write back now? Have him come back, of course… back to his wife and his son. His son…

Shi packed up all the writing materials and pulled out a bottle of wine and a cup instead. He didn’t want to deal with it. He didn’t want to think. No, that wasn’t it. He didn’t want to feel. Because all he felt was jealousy. Jealousy of Zhao! He was a king, he would soon be emperor; how could he feel jealous of any man.

He drank the cup quickly and refilled it.

It wasn’t fair, it wasn’t fair… it shouldn’t be this way…

He drank and he drank.

Had he given up when he’d gotten the tumour? He hadn’t, he hadn’t! He’d turned the weakness into a strength! Shi put a hand to his mask, the metal warm from being on his skin all day.

There had to be a way… he’d always found a way before, so there had to be one…

———

Six weeks after birth, Goji—she still thought of him that way—had already begun cutting teeth. It was apparently uncomfortable for him, and he unfortunately was taking this out on her breasts.

Yuanji didn’t rewrap her gown as she left Goji sleeping in his bed, under the watchful eye of the night nanny. She was a determined woman; Goji needed her milk, therefore she would give it to him. The painful delivery of it wouldn’t change that. Placing fabric over her aching nipples though… what was the point? She just needed to move to her own room, which was attached by a private hall to his. No one would see her.

In her sleep deprived state, it took her a moment to even comprehend when she opened the door that there was a man in there.

“Don’t scream,” he said. She recognized the voice; it was her brother-in-law, and he was staring at her.

Hastily, burning with embarrassment, she rewrapped herself as fast as she could, ignoring her body’s protests. “My lord, I must apologize—“

“Don’t.”

He was moving towards her, past her. He pulled the door shut, then turned towards her, almost close enough to touch her. She could smell wine on him.

“Is something wrong, my lord? Have you gotten a message… about… about Zhao?” She was trying to understand what could be the meaning of him waiting for her in her room, but her blurry mind could barely focus. “I know you said don’t apologize, but I’m not myself right now…”

“I didn’t mean don’t apologize,” he said, and he was taking her into his arms. “I meant don’t cover yourself. You are beautiful, do you know that?”

One arm remained around her while the other was actually attempting to take off her nightgown. “My lord—brother-in-law—stop! This is wrong!” she gasped, struggling to pull out of his grasp.

He let her go, but he had succeeded in pulling off her nightgown. She was down to just her underwear, and she desperately crossed her arms over herself, backing away into the room.

Sima Shi pulled open a curtain, flooding the room with moonlight, and she blinked in the sudden increase in light. His eyes were raking over her body. He had never looked at her this way before.

“I’ll scream,” she warned him, backing towards her end table, with her throwing knives in its drawers.

He laughed. She had heard his sinister laugh hundreds of times before, but it had never been directed at her. “I’m not going to force myself on you.”

“You think I’ll give myself to you willingly?!”

“You are very reasonable,” he said. “I’m not asking for you permanently. Just while Zhao is away. I can keep him away as long as we want, you know.”

“I don’t want you to keep Zhao away!” She was enraged; how could he have gotten such an idea of her character? “I love him—I will never betray him!”

“You’ve already given him a son,” he said. “How can he ask for more than that? I just want one for myself, and Lady Yang will never give one to me.”

“You couldn’t acknowledge a son by me,” she challenged. “The scandal—“

“Oh, I know. I don’t need the world to know that the nephew I name my heir is really my son. I just want to know that he is.”

She pulled open the drawer and reached in. It was empty.

“Such an obvious hiding place,” he said. “It surprised me, really. Just because I don’t intend to rape you doesn’t mean I want you to cut me to ribbons.”

“Get out!”

He made no movement to leave. “I would be very gentle. I know it’s painful for a woman the first time after she’s had a child… almost like being with a virgin…”

“My body belongs to Zhao,” she said.

“Ah, but Zhao belongs to me,” he countered, and started moving towards her.

It was getting hard not to just lose herself in terror. The only defence she had left was to scream, but to do so would mean being discovered naked with her brother-in-law. “Please—please think of the scandal,” she begged. “I don’t want to scream.”

“Then don’t scream,” he said softly.

Tears filled her eyes. “Don’t do this to me, please, brother-in-law. Please just leave. Think of Zhao and go. He trusts us both… we can’t do this to him!”

“He won’t be hurt by it if he doesn’t know. I need to keep him away so that I know it’s mine, but I’ll bring him back to you as soon as you’re pregnant. He’ll never know it isn’t his.”

“My lord, you are drunk!” she said desperately.

“I can still perform,” he said, and to her horror he began undressing himself. “I’ll show you.”

“No!” she screamed. “No! No! No!

He was startled. There were noises all around; he turned his startled face back to her for only a moment—she was still screaming—and suddenly he was gone, out the door to the main hallway.

Within a minute, the night nanny was knocking at her door. “My lady, are you alright?”

“It was just a nightmare,” she said, her voice almost breathless with real terror. “Please have a maid sent to me—I want company!”

Chapter Text

It was very early in the morning. The rays of the early summer sun were just shining through the open window. Sima Shi didn’t usually awaken this early. He wasn’t quite sure why he had awakened. He blinked and squinted, wondering why it was so bright. Suddenly he became aware that he was not alone in the room. He was reaching for his hidden dagger instinctively when he heard his brother speak.

“Good morning,” said Zhao. He stepped away from the window he had just opened. “Sleep well, brother?”

Shi sat up warily. “I… yes. How… why are you here, Zhao?”

“How did I get in here?” said Zhao, rephrasing the question to the one that Shi had stopped himself from asking. “Oh, I just told the guards I needed to speak with you urgently. They let me in without another question. It’s nice how everyone knows we trust each other, isn’t it?”

Shi did not know what to say. Clearly Yuanji had told him about his appalling behaviour. Had she written to him to get him to come?

“Do you remember when we were kids, brother? From the earliest I can remember, you were always taking my stuff. You always got the first turn with things, the best horse, and the last helping. Mother would always say, ‘Just give it to him.’ I used to think it was because she loved you more than me. But I was still pretty young when I figured out that actually our mother loves me just as much as you. It’s only that the world loves you more than me, and she wanted me to get used to it. Just because you’re older, you will always get everything first, and you get the best, and the most, and the last. You’re the heir; I’m the spare. Not only that but even the heavens favoured you over me—you were smarter, stronger, better at everything!”

Zhao paused and looked at Shi, but the older brother didn’t speak.

“I’m not ambitious by nature, you know? I’d like to think I’d still be pretty much the same, even if our childhood was different. I always gave you what you asked for. If you broke it, I said nothing. We played whatever game you wanted to play; I was just glad you were letting me be with you, even when you told me how stupid and bad I was at everything. When you told me to go away, I went away. I supported you 100%, and admired you. I’m sure we didn’t always get along, but as younger brothers go, I think I was actually pretty good.”

Zhao sat on the edge of Shi’s bed.

“Do you remember Pengpeng?”

Shi shook his head mutely.

Zhao chuckled. “I’m not surprised. If I tell you Pengpeng was a dog, does that jog any memories?”

Shi shook his head again.

“Aw, man… guess I really do have to tell the whole story… what a bother.” It was such a classic, typical thing to hear Zhao say to him, that in these circumstances it made his brother feel sick inside. “Whenever you went hunting, you were never careful about the dogs. If you thought you could hit the deer, you would fire. I don't think you even noticed when you hit the dogs instead. You would even ride over them with your horse. It seemed like we never returned from a trip without at least one dog injured or killed. It didn’t even matter when father scolded you that a good hunting dog was valuable.

“I must have been about ten or eleven… do you remember how much I loved animals then? Horses some, hunting dogs even more. Mother encouraged me because she said it was teaching me responsibility and diligence. I just enjoyed being with them. Pengpeng was my very favourite. I raised it from a puppy. I snuck it into my room to sleep with me, took it out with me everywhere. I spent so many hours training it. Pengpeng did tricks… and it was an amazing tracker. Fast, tough, obedient. It really could do anything, anything you wanted of a dog. But I think I would have loved it even if it were weak and stupid.”

Shi remained silent.

“The day came when Lady Xiahou’s father invited you and father for a hunt. Your were thirteen or so… I remember how excited you were, how eager to be a man with the rest of them. You told me that you needed my best dog. Do you remember that day?”

“What is this?” Shi looked crossly at the ruddy, short haired dog sitting obediently before him.

Zhao looked startled, then defiant. “Xiao Huo is a great hunting dog. It’s very, very tough. It will follow a deer for hundreds of li if you need it to. And it’s very obedient, even in the excitement of the hunt. You can call it away from the kill—”

“I don’t want this one. I want that other one. The one with the brown spot.”

“You can’t have Pengpeng.”

Shi took a few steps towards his brother. Generally this was all that was needed in the rare instances when Zhao protested, but this time, though the younger boy flinched, he didn’t back up.

“Pengpeng is special to me. I won’t let you take it.”

“I want that dog, Zhao.”

“No!”

“I’ll make you give it to me!”

“I’ll fight you!”

And fight they did, perhaps the first true two-sided fight they had had since Zhao was five. The fight began contemptuously on Shi’s side, but as normal blows and holds failed to subdue his rebellious sibling, he began to fight in earnest. Shi was of course superior in age, size, training, and discipline, and dominated the fight from the beginning, yet Zhao never yielded.

Seeing the fight, a maid ran to get her mistress, shrieking, “My lady! My lady!”

Zhang Chunhua turned her cold, imperturbable gaze towards her. “What can possibly be causing all this noise?”

“Oh my lady,” she gasped. “The young masters are fighting, and I’m afraid he will kill him!”

Lady Zhang was not excitable by nature, yet she never dismissed a potential threat to her family. She immediately got up and ran with the maid towards the noise.

She was startled by what she saw. The older boy had the younger pinned against a wall and was attempting to choke him. The younger boy weakly stomped and kicked at the legs and feet of his adversary as his hands attempted to pry the fingers from his neck.“Shi! Zhao! Stop this at once!” she said sharply.

They broke apart instantly. Zhao gasped, rubbing his neck. As Shi turned towards her, she could see that his nose was bloodied.

“What could this possibly be about?” she demanded.

“Mother, I told Zhao I need the best dog in the kennel to go hunting with father, but he won’t give it to me.”

“And this required choking him?!”

Shi faltered, but muttered at the ground, “When he had passed out, I would have let go.”

“Zhao, how could you cause all this fuss over an animal? Give your brother the dog and be done with it!”

Zhao had known she would say that. It was time to be the good second son again and give, give, give. Yet—and surprising himself, because he was more afraid of his mother than anyone else—he could not submit even to her. Not when it would mean Pengpeng hurt or killed.

“Pengpeng is my dog! I raised it from a puppy. It belongs to me, no one else, not even brother! Brother’s never careful when he’s hunting. If I let him use Pengpeng, it’ll be hurt or killed for sure!” His mother was looking at his face with an odd expression on her own.

Shi, his confidence back now that he was sure that his mother was on his side, said with a grin, “Well, if it’s so important to you, I’ll try not to-“

“Shi.” His mother’s voice stopped him. “Did you know your brother loved this dog?”

She had caught his gaze before he could drop his eyes, and now he was stuck. “Well—yes, but it’s stupid to love a dog! It's just an animal!”

“Listen to me well. You do not have to understand why he feels this way. But if your brother—or any opponent—truly loves something with his whole heart, he will never stop fighting for it. Even to the point of fighting his own brother.”

She let her words float in the air for a moment, glancing between the two of them.

“Shi, now that I look at you, I am sure you are going to come out in a black eye. I would be ashamed to put you in front of Lord Xiahou Shang looking like this. What would he think of us? Go to your room and remain there until I tell you otherwise. I will tell your father you are sick; he will make your excuses.”

Shi did remember that day, now.

“You wanted my dog, and for the first time in my life, I told you no, and I stuck to it. You beat me up more than you ever did before—at the time I actually thought I might die.” Zhao laughed again. “Man, I didn’t know what death was really like back then… anyway, instead of taking your side as always, mother actually made you let it go. And I’ve never forgotten what she said about why. That if I loved something with my whole heart, that I could fight for it. That of course I would fight for it and keep fighting for it, even against my own brother.”

Zhao sighed. “But, it’s been a long time now, and there’s never been anything else you’ve wanted of me that I denied you. Right? Of course, you were always pushing me to succeed. You covered for all my stupid mistakes, and gave me countless opportunities to improve. I never doubted that you loved me. So, I guess you’ve been a good big brother too, huh?”

There was another long pause.

“I was thinking maybe you would like to say something at this point,” said Zhao pleasantly, but when Shi looked in his eyes, he saw the steel in them.

“Zhao, please believe me. I have listened to you without interrupting because I deserve the humiliation, but if you are thinking you need to warn me away from your wife, you are mistaken. As soon as I had a moment to reflect, even before I was sober, I regretted my actions. They were deplorable. The very next morning, I sought to see her only to apologize and beg her forgiveness, but I cannot blame her for choosing instead to feign illness and barricade herself against me. I could not send my apologies by message because I did not want to expose her to the slightest hint of scandal. I am sure she has spent these last few weeks terrified, and this only adds to the wrong I have done you both.  My drunkenness does not excuse this. I cannot explain to you what madness came over me.”

“You’re incorrect for once, brother. You can and you will explain it to me. I understand it’ll probably further humiliate you. Frankly, tough shit.”

This crudity almost provoked a smile from Shi, but the very idea of smiling at a time like this only added to his shame. He took a deep breath. “I assume your wife told you everything I said that night?”

“That you knew that I hadn’t been with her yet because of the childbirth. That you could arrange to keep me away as long as necessary. That you wanted her to bear you a son, and then you could adopt your ‘nephew’ as your own heir. That I would never have to know. That you would give me back to her as soon as she was pregnant—very generous of you, I suppose. You didn’t go into what would happen if the child was a girl. I guess you’d arrange to send me away so you could try again?”

As he had kept eye contact with his mother on that long ago day, Shi kept eye contact with his brother now. “You mentioned that day with the hunting dog, and Lord Xiahou Shang… that was only a few months before I married Lady Xiahou.”

“Don’t change the subject or pretend like she has anything to do with this. You put her away a long time ago.”

“I know. When father arranged the marriage, she was considered a step up for me. Not only was her father a Xiahou, her mother was Lord Cao Cao’s daughter, a princess. Our clan was rising. It was meant to be a simple alliance marriage, and they only married us so young because her father was ill. In hindsight, they never expected me to actually consummate the marriage so soon. They gave us separate rooms on the wedding night, but I was already both interested and motivated… She gave birth—“

“I know all this,” Zhao scoffed. “You had your first child when you were both fourteen. And then she got pregnant again and again. All girls. Then you got tired of waiting.”

Shi closed his eyes a moment. “I… actually loved her, but I wanted a son so badly, I always pushed her into getting pregnant again right away. Six pregnancies in seven years. She was not of a strong constitution to begin with, and she… she suffered. The babies were getting weaker as well. The last one was very early and lived only minutes.” He paused. “Even before that, she was becoming afraid of me. She knew my love for her was dying, and not just because of her failure to give me an heir. The climate was completely changed by then. Our father was ascendant; the Cao and the Xiahou must either accept subjugation, or if they dared to challenge us, then death. But the more of them we struck down, the more of them would be inspired to revenge. Could I really drink tea from and sleep in a bed with a woman whose brother and cousins I was killing? I decided to divorce her. Father suggested killing her, and said that mother could raise the girls—”

“What?”

“Are you really shocked? Father didn’t hate her like they hate Lady Yang, but if it were a matter of killing Lady Xiahou to make mother happy, from his perspective it was an easy decision. I couldn’t bring myself to do that… I told myself it wasn’t that I was still attached, it was just that it wasn’t necessary. I could have had our daughters remain here under mother’s care, but I didn’t like that idea either. Children shouldn’t be separated from their mother, it’s wrong. Besides, I just wanted to pretend like that entire episode of my life had never happened. As you knew, I already had my eye on Lady Yang. She was perfect for me, I thought then: strong, ambitious, intelligent. It was politically advantageous as well. So I married her. Then you married Yuan—Lady Wang.”

He had begun to use her name casually, as he had done so many times, but a flash in Zhao’s eyes warned him that those days of liberty were over. He continued. “As you know, Lady Yang has given me no son. No daughter, either. Nothing. And my original attraction to her best qualities almost immediately gave way to repulsion at her worst qualities. It was even worse because they were my own worst qualities. When I came back from Shu and saw Lady Wang carrying your child, I suddenly thought of Lady Xiahou and I was filled with regret. I wondered what my surviving daughters were like now… Lady Yang knew something had changed because I stopped coming to her chambers. Then I made a grave mistake. I taunted Lady Yang by letting her know that I was going to visit Lady Xiahou for the first time since the divorce. I knew I couldn’t undo the divorce, I only wanted to apologize, but I was too proud to do it other than secretly. The letter I wrote to Lady Xiahou was very lofty; it merely said I wished to see the children and perhaps increase her allowance if she had found her expenditures had increased. Her reply I can tell you by heart, it was simply, ‘My lord, you are always master in this house, and may come at any time convenient.’ That was Lady Xiahou to the end. Dignity and elegance. That was why I could not believe it when they told me when I arrived at her home that she had poisoned herself the night before. I believed it even less when I was made to listen to a badly rehearsed maid giving me a hysterical story about how Lady Xiahou was convinced that I was coming there to take her children from her, and that she would rather die than face such a fate. The only question was, had Lady Yang ordered the poisoning herself? Or had her family feared the loss of her influence and done it on their own initiative? In either case, I knew there was absolutely nothing I could do to punish any of them. I still need the Yang clan.

“It took me a little while to make all the arrangements to bring my daughters back to Luoyang. By the time I got back, your son had been born. I already heard he had been born, of course, and I thought I was happy for you. But when I saw the three of you together, I was consumed with jealousy. And when you told me before you left that you were glad that I was sending you away, because otherwise you weren’t sure if you’d be able to resist touching her before her healing was over… in innocence and trust you watered the vile seeds in my mind.

“The day I got your second letter, it was almost exactly six weeks after your son’s birth. I knew I had no reason not to let you come home, and I didn’t want to admit even to myself why I didn’t want to let you come home. I began to drink. I believe I already was planning it on some level, and wanted to shed all inhibition. The more I drank, the more I cursed fate and how it was tormenting me. That all my ambition, my talent, my intelligence, couldn’t gain me a son for my dynasty. I had thrown away a woman who truly loved me, who had given me child after child and never complained, simply because I was impatient; heaven had punished with me with a barren wife with a cruel tongue and a cold touch. You had this beautiful, strong, intelligent woman betrothed to you and yet you took years to actually take her. But then as soon as you do, she gets pregnant and it’s a boy! Why? Why was fate giving you the one thing that I required to make my ambitions matter? And then… I finally let the thought come to the front of my mind. You hadn’t touched her since she’d given birth. If I wanted to, I could keep you away for months…”

He faltered and trailed off. He was used to being looked at in many ways by his younger brother: with admiration, shame, loyalty, respect, concern, fear, love… but never before had he seen loathing from him. “I told you I had no real excuses, Zhao. I must have been mad! I didn’t even consider the impracticalities of it!”

“Oh, certainly,” said Zhao, his voice dripping with sarcasm, and suddenly sounding a lot like their father, “if the impracticalities didn’t occur to you, then never mind. That’s the only reason not to fuck your brother’s wife, because of its impracticalities. Now that they’ve occurred to you, I can relax.”

He got up and began to turn, but his brother grabbed his wrist. “Zhao, please—! I’m sorry!”

Zhao shook his hand loose. “Oh, only now does it occur to you to say ‘sorry’, huh? I'm sure you’re sorry. Sorry my wife didn’t want you. Sorry you got caught.”

“No! I swear to you Zhao, I am truly sorry for how I’ve hurt you. I know I was wrong. My wrong actions brought me Lady Yang and killed Lady Xiahou. I’ve finally realized that as I try to wriggle in fate’s grasp, it is squeezing me tighter and tighter.” Shi dropped down to his knees and pressed his forehead to the floor. “Please forgive me Zhao! Please! I swear I will never even think such an evil thought again. I accept my fate. I will be as loyal to you as you have always been to me. Lady Wang is my sister. Your son will be my heir. Please! Don’t tell me I’ve lost you! You are my only friend… my only real friend… the only man I can trust… my brother!”

His voice cracked. Tears were falling down his face; his post-operation eye was aching and burning.

“I can’t forgive you yet,” said Zhao. “You betrayed me. My whole life I thought that no matter what else you did, you really did care about me. The things you took from me, they were just things. When you would mock me and insult me, you wanted me to be stronger. I knew you didn’t understand my lack of ambition compared to you, but I thought you loved me, as I loved you, and wanted me to be happy. Yuanji is my wife. Even if I hated her as you hate yours, to seduce her would be a betrayal. But you know, you know how I feel about her. She’s…. she’s the moon and the stars and the sun to me!”

Shi kept his forehead on the ground. “I know. You are a lucky—”

“Lucky hell!” exploded Zhao. “Fuck your fate bullshit, brother! ‘Oh, I can’t offend the Yangs by divorcing Lady Yang, that would be politically disadvantageous. Heaven forfend I would do anything to harm my grip on the regency! I know, I’ll just fuck my brother’s wife and name his bastard my heir! That could have no repercussions that could matter—after all, Zhao’s an idiot!’”

Shi chuckled faintly.

“Don’t laugh—don’t you dare laugh at me,” said Zhao, quietly, but more harshly than anything he’d said so far.

Shi raised himself up to a kneel, putting a hand to the side of his injury, knowing that he must look truly pathetic. “I’m not… at least I don’t mean to… it’s just… you do have this way of cutting away all my grandeur. You’ve always done it. I’ve often found it very annoying. When you put it that way, it’s all so… mundane and… uncreative.”

Zhao was unmoved. “Yeah. Probably the worst insult I can give you, mundane. For me, I’d much rather be called mundane than ungrateful or unfilial, but I guess you and I are different.”

“We’re not that different Zhao.” Shi remained kneeling, but looked up at his brother’s murderous face. “Somewhere inside me I have the same morals as you… not that I am sure where we got them… was it from mother, do you think?”

Zhao’s lip twitched, but he fought off the smile.

“Mother would kill anyone who threatens her family. And has. It’s a very strange family, to grow up hearing how your mother strangled a maid, isn’t it? And to have it told as a funny story… although I still suspect that father doesn’t think it’s as funny as he pretends to find it. You remember our childhood as one where I would always take all your things. I guess that’s true. But I remember how mother was always scolding me about you. ‘Your brother is young, you must have patience with him. Your brother is slow, you must wait for him. You must be more gentle, Shi—you don’t want to hurt your brother. When your father and I are gone, he’s the only one you’ll have left.’ I listened, Zhao. I never wanted to hurt you. I know I was selfish, but I swear, even at the depth of my depravity, I didn’t think about it hurting you—I convinced myself that if you didn’t know it didn’t matter. And I know it was wrong! Please believe me that I know now it was wrong.”

“You knew it was wrong. You knew all along.”

“I knew it was wrong.”

There was a long beat.

“We are back to where we started Zhao… I have no excuses for myself. I can only beg for your forgiveness. Do you want to punish me? I’ll accept whatever you want to impose on me if I can win back your trust.”

“Well, right now, a big part of me wants to kill you, but then I’d have to deal with Cao Mao, and I really don’t want to. Ugh, why couldn’t you just man up and deal with the Yangs? You know, I had dreams too, and they don’t involve ruling the land. I just want to go away in the country with Yuanji and… I dunno, retire.”

“With a lot of dogs and horses, no doubt.”

“Yeah. It’s a mundane dream, I’m sure, but it’s mine.”

“It’s a good dream for you, Zhao. You would be very happy in that life. I’m sorry that my failures mean you’ll be forced to remain in the intrigues of the palace.”

Zhao sighed and raked his hand through his hair in his familiar gesture of frustration. “It’s really a lot of bother, you know? But don’t change the subject. We’re supposed to be talking about a punishment for you.”

He thought for a few minutes, Shi’s heart thudding in his chest all the while.

Zhao said, “There’s something else. You don’t just need to apologize to me. You need to apologize to Lady Wang as well—in my presence. You’re never going to be alone with her ever again. If I go somewhere, she goes with me. If she can’t come with me, she needs to go somewhere else, far away from you. Or you need to go far away from her.”

Shi nodded. “Of course.”

“You really scared her, do you realize how badly? She told me how you said you weren’t going to rape her. You bastard, didn’t you know it would never have been anything else? She couldn’t tell me everything in her letter, of course, but when I actually saw her in person, she was hysterical, like I’ve never seen her before. She snuck out of the compound to meet me last night and she was worried the entire time that you would catch her. And the worst part is, when she first spoke to me, she begged me to believe her. She was terrified that I wouldn’t believe that she was telling the truth. Because she knew how much I loved and trusted you!” Zhao was getting angrier and angrier as he spoke.

“I am truly sorry,” Shi said. It was all he could say.

Zhao made an agitated noise and began pacing back and forth across the room. Abruptly, he stopped and stated, “It’s no good. How can I possibly punish you? How can you make this up to me? It’s impossible. The only way to fix it is that you have got to let me in—all the way in—from now on. No more mystery, no more brilliant plans that you whip out in front of me at the last second to dazzle me. And then you’ve gotta give me time. Time to trust you again.” Zhao let out a noisy breath. “I really hate that you’re my brother right now.”

On the surface it was an insult, but it gave Shi hope like nothing else. He knew Zhao, he knew him so well. He knew exactly why Zhao would say something like that. Because Zhao was admitting that he still loved Shi, and that it was aggravating to still love someone who had hurt him so badly. It meant that Shi still had a chance to be worthy of that love and to treat his brother as he really deserved for all the loyalty and support he had given Shi over the years.

“I’ll tell you everything,” said Shi. “Thank you, Zhao.”

“You should put medicine on your eye,” Zhao muttered. “It looks gross.” On this fraternal expression of concern, he abruptly left, leaving the door open and Shi still kneeling on the floor.

Shi got up slowly, put medicine on the eye, and got back into bed. He didn’t know if he could sleep, but he was not ready to do anything else.

———

“Zhao! What are you doing here?”

Zhao turned. His mother was standing in the hallway, his three nieces clustered around her like chicks around a mother hen. “Good morning, mother. I just got in. I had to see brother.”

“But he didn’t mention you were coming. What’s happened in Chencang?”

“It was just something I had to handle in person, mother. I’m going to go see Yuanji now.”

“But Zhao… Zhao!”

Zhao didn’t turn back. He kept walking until he got into his wing of the Sima compound. When he tried the door to her bedroom, it was locked. “It’s just me, Yuanji.”

The door quickly opened, and his heart wrenched again. She had been crying again. “Did he admit it?” she asked quietly when he had shut the door behind him.

He bent down and kissed her first, caressing her tear-stained cheeks, before he answered. “Yes. He says he is sorry and has been sorry since just after it happened. He didn’t really try to offer any excuse, other than that he must have been crazy.”

“He’s not crazy,” she said softly.

“Believe me, I didn’t let him get away with it,” Zhao said. “I told him he’d have to apologize to you in my presence, and that I won’t ever let the two of you be in the same place without me again. I’ll never let him hurt you again, Yuanji. I’m sorry I let it happen in the first place.”

“No, I don’t blame you at all,” she said. “I could hardly believe it was happening when it was happening. I would never have expected it.” She looked up at him. “How did he act?”

“We had a long talk first… a lot of stuff from the past, between us, in our family… we were both acting calm, at least on the outside, for all of that… then when it got to the point of why he did what he did, things got pretty hot. Before he ever said he was sorry, he said that he must have been mad not to think of the impracticalities. That made me furious, it was so like him…” Zhao took a deep breath in and out. “I started to walk out, then he apologized. He got down on his knees and started crying when I didn’t believe his first apology. He begged my forgiveness, said some fate bullshit. That made me even angrier.” Zhao laughed, darkly. “Then… I don’t know… he said he did care about me, that he had fooled himself that it wouldn’t hurt me… said he would do whatever I wanted to prove that he was sorry and that he would never do anything like that again. I think… I think he really is sorry… but still… how could he do that in the first place? Hurt you like that, betray me like that…”

Yuanji remained quiet in his arms.

“There was a moment where I really wanted to kill him. I wanted to kill him like I’ve never wanted to kill anyone in my life. And then… just a few moments later… he somehow almost got me to laugh. I hate him. I really hate him.”

“It’s alright that you still love him, my lord,” Yuanji said, looking up at him.

He should have known Yuanji would see right through him. “I don’t want to,” he said. “He hurt you.”

“He’s still your brother,” she said. “Lord Sima Shi… will have to face the consequences of his actions, in the cooling of our relationships with him for quite some time. I know that, on one level, it isn’t enough for what he did. But… from what he said then, and what it sounds like he said to you… I believe that this was all about him feeling like he deserved what you have with me. Now he will have to face that he can’t possibly get it, and that by trying to steal it, he nearly cut off two of the only people he truly trusted in the world. I think he will suffer, and I think he needs to, especially now, when he is poised to become emperor. He needs a reason to rule other than to prove his own perfection.”

“You’re so… understanding…”

“I don’t forgive yet, either,” she said. “But I do understand. It’s because I understand that he still frightens me.”

He kissed her, and she kissed him back, surprising him with her passion as her hands reached up and hugged him tightly to her.

“Please,” she said when they broke the kiss, “please be with me my lord. Right now.”

“Now?” he said. “Are you sure? I can wait—”

“No,” she interrupted, and she was blushing, that adorable little rosy glow on her cheeks that always so enchanted him. “I… I want it… for myself…” She bit her lip; her cheeks got even redder.

“You do, huh?” he said huskily. “Alright.”

Her simple robe came off in a moment, but he was fully dressed. He thought about simply taking his cock out but rejected that thought immediately. He wanted to be fully naked against her, skin against skin. And the way she was watching him undress…

“You really are eager for me,” he teased.

She looked away and put a hand to her cheek. “My lord is very handsome,” she told a space somewhere to the vague left of where he was standing.

“Then look at your lord,” he said, and watched her breasts heave as she turned her face back to him; drank in the desire in her eyes as he took off his pants and unwound his loincloth.

“I…” she said, backing up on the bed as he approached her, “my body is… somewhat different, still…”

“Huh?” He looked down at her under him. “Oh. You mean here?”

Her stomach was larger, there were what looked like white scars running vertically down it. She said, “Yes… it’s… it’s not very attractive, I know…”

“You grew my child here,” Zhao said incredulously, “of course it attracts me. I did that to you. Those are my marks on you—”

He was exciting himself further as he spoke; he had to have her again, he needed her so badly. He put his hands between her legs to check how wet she was and she gasped. She was wet, but not wet enough. He wanted her dripping.

“You’re so beautiful,” he growled into her ear as he fucked her with his fingers and teased her clit with his thumb. “You’re so fucking sexy, Yuanji. You’re getting so wet for me, you’ve been longing for me. Ask me to fuck you. Beg your lord to put his cock inside you.”

“M-my lord!” she moaned. “I can’t… I can’t say that…”

“You’re already thinking it. You can’t fool me, little Yuanji. Just say it.” He stopped letting his fingers enter her, simply rubbing her entrance very lightly while never letting up on her clit.

“Ah! Please, my lord, please… please fuck me!”

He drew himself up; she’d closed her eyes to manage to get out those naughty words. She was so cute. Zhao grabbed her hand and moved it to his cock, and her eyes opened. “Here,” he said. “Guide me in.”

She positioned his cock at her entrance, their eyes locked with each other. He didn’t lower himself in.

“And?” he coaxed.

“Please put your cock inside me, my lord,” she said, with her eyes open this time.

“Perfect,” he groaned as he thrust inside her, careful not to go in too deep. He wanted this to be amazing for her. “Is this right?”

“F-faster,” she moaned.

“Oh God,” he groaned as he followed her request. “How am I going to keep from exploding inside you, Yuanji? How am I going to stop myself from filling you up? You feel so fucking good around me.”

“I-I won’t take long. You feel so good, my lord, you… your cock is…”

“Yuanji! Yuanji, say it!”

“Your cock is filling me! My lord… my lord’s cock is going to make me… I’m going to…!”

“Yes! Do it! Come around me, Yuanji! I’m making you come! I’m going to come in you!”

She was moaning wordlessly now. She was so beautiful! Her face, her closed eyes, her panting mouth, everything! The way her cunt was squeezing him! He couldn’t take it, it had only been minutes but he just couldn’t take it! He groaned as he began to come. Come inside his wife. His love. His Yuanji.

———

When Sima Shi finally came out for breakfast, he was displeased to see that the dining room of his wing contained his wife, his mother, and his three daughters, all having tea. Outwardly, however, he merely said, “Good morning.”

“Why is Zhao here?” his mother demanded, as he was afraid she might.

“It’s handled, mother,” he said, sitting down. “He woke me up for it and I am not quite myself because of it.”

His mother frowned. “My son needs breakfast,” she said sharply to a servant, then got up. “I’ll see to it myself… nothing is handled as it should be around here…”

There was an awkward pause when she left.

“Well.” Lady Yang broke the silence. “Don’t you young ladies have something to say to your father?”

His daughters looked as puzzled as he felt. Chenlan, his oldest, answered, “What would we say to him?”

“I don’t think you’ve thanked him for bringing you all to Luoyang,” Lady Yang said, “and for hiring you all those tutors and giving you such nice rooms. I’ve been waiting and waiting for you to do it, all these weeks. It really has been too long.”

His daughters looked at him, and he looked at them.

“Thank you, father,” said his second daughter, Qingyin, while almost at the same time, Chenlan banged her cup down on the table.

“Thank him?!” Chenlan shouted. “Thank him for what? For killing our mother?”

“Don’t you dare raise your voice to your father,” Lady Yang shouted back.

“What does it matter whether I raise my voice or not! It’s only a matter of time before I upset him enough to kill me too! Might as well get it over with! I can’t stand this!” Chenlan got up and ran from the room; his youngest daughter burst into tears, and his middle daughter hugged her. His mother rushed back into the room.

“I heard shouting,” his mother said, staring at Lady Yang with death in her eyes. “What’s happened?”

“Why are you looking at me?” Lady Yang hissed. “Shi, tell her how disrespectful your daughter was!”

Sima Shi stood up. “Mother, I need to talk to Chenlan myself. Please take care of Qingyin and Qiujing for me.”

When Sima Shi opened the door to his oldest daughter’s room, he was shocked when she immediately threw herself at his feet.

“I’m sorry, father, I’m sorry, I’m sorry, I’m sorry,” she was sobbing. “Please. Please I don’t want to die. I don’t want to die, please.”

His daughter. His ten-year-old daughter was begging him not to kill her.

Shi dropped down to a crouch. “Chenlan,” he said, as gently as he could, “I won’t hurt you, no matter what you say to me.”

He took her into his arms awkwardly; she was stiff with fear.

“I know I was… cruel to your mother,” he said. “But I didn’t kill her. I never wanted her to die. It is my fault that she’s dead, but I didn’t want her to die, and I’m sorry I didn’t stop it from happening.”

“You… you didn’t?” Chenlan said. “Then… who did?”

How could he answer? Could he really look into this little girl’s face, this little girl who was so afraid of him that she thought that just from standing up to him one time that he would kill her, and tell her, The Yang clan, in some way, but I can’t punish them easily, so I’m going to let them all off; by the way, make sure you’re polite to your stepmother? No. He couldn’t say that.

“I’ll find out,” he promised. “I’ll find out and I’ll make them answer for it.”

Chapter Text

Yuanji took comfort in Zhao’s hands on her shoulders as Shi knelt on her bedroom floor, in roughly the same place where he had pulled off her nightgown. He pressed his forehead to the ground.

“I am truly sorry for my reprehensible conduct,” he said. “My intentions were despicable. I know I do not deserve your forgiveness. Nevertheless, I beg for it.”

“Lord Zhao told me I never have to forgive you if I do not wish to,” Yuanji said, “and I know that he does not forgive you yet, and I imagine it will take a long time for him to forgive you. But I am going to forgive you now.”

Shi looked up, startled, and she heard Zhao say, “But… Yuanji, why?”

“This is no time for family drama to be distracting us,” Yuanji said calmly. “Lord Shi knows now that there is no possible way that he can ever come between my husband and me. He will never attempt it again. As for punishment, his loss of our good opinion will remain for sometime… perhaps a very long time… and I believe that nothing will hurt him as much as that.”

Shi looked down, and Yuanji knew she had indeed hit him with that.

“Lord Shi, you are almost at the pinnacle,” she said, “but it is not impossible for you to falter now, and we will all be ruined if you are ruined. We must be as united as ever publicly. I trust and I expect that you will work very hard to regain our love and our trust, so that our unity will not be false for longer than necessary.”

“Thank you.” Shi pressed his forehead to the ground again. “I will do my utmost.”

“Alright,” said Zhao, a bit roughly, “you can get out now.”

“Wait a moment.” Shi rose into a kneel. “You want to know everything that’s on my mind, don’t you? All my plans.”

Yuanji looked up at Zhao. Zhao looked skeptical. “Okay. Go ahead.”

“There are some that I want to act on today,” he said. “Shall I tell you here or in my office?”

“Tell me here.”

Shi nodded, and briefly went over what had occurred at breakfast, and his promise to his daughter to bring Lady Xiahou’s killer to account.

“I thought you said you needed the Yangs too much.”

“I’ve changed my mind,” said Shi. “That was the same kind of thinking that… that got me into this mess. I can’t be so selfish anymore. My children’s mother was murdered. If I can’t get justice for them, what kind of father am I?”

“You haven’t been any father at all to them,” Zhao said.

Shi nodded. “I know. I took things for granted. How can I rule an empire if I can’t even keep my own family in order?”

“Pretty words,” said Zhao, still dubious.

“You’re right. Watch me act on them.” Shi got up.

Yuanji said, “What are you planning to do? Go back to Hua and interrogate the servants? They’ve probably already taken the bribes and disappeared.”

“The servants are not a problem. I hid some of Lady Xiahou’s jewelry in my sleeve and then had them all arrested for stealing. But their testimony is nearly worthless. I am sure they’ll name whoever I ask them to as the killer. And they’ll only know the person who gave them the money; that might be anyone. I am almost certain that Lady Yang was involved,” he said. “The question is whether the rest of her clan was involved as well. I think I can get the answer very simply. I’m going to ask her if she did it.” He smiled.

“I have to say it’s not up there with your usual schemes,” said Zhao.

“You know how much Lady Yang aspires to be our mother,” said Shi. “She’s heard the story of how mother killed the maid, and many more. She’s seen my mother up close, and I’ve told her directly that she isn’t equal to mother. There’s nothing she craves more than for me to see her as equal to—no, superior to mother. If I ask her in that way… I feel certain I can entrap her.”

“I think he’s right,” said Yuanji. “Are you going to do it alone?”

“Yes.”

“I don’t think you should try it alone,” she said, “but with an accomplice…”

———

“I can’t believe it took me so long to realize it was you,” Shi said, letting Lady Yang straddle his waist in her bed. “You were so jealous, weren’t you? As if I could go back to a simpering little fool like her after I’d had you. But I have to say, you’ve really impressed me.”

“I can feel how much I have,” she said, rubbing against him. “I should have known if I murdered someone I’d gain your love. You really are just like your father.”

“But did you really do it all by yourself?” he said as she kissed his neck. “Or did you get your clan to do your bidding for you?”

“Ha! Of course I can handle something like this by myself,” she said. “The less people that know about something like that the better, anyway. I rode out there myself the very first night, and gave them the bribe and the poison.”

“So you planned it all? Amazing. I would have thought, with your ability to manipulate people…”

She was practically preening. “Oh, if it was necessary, I would have! But you know, my brother is too cautious. I knew I had to act fast.”

“So you consulted nobody,” Shi said, and caught her wrists in each hand. “You really are an imbecile.”

His smile hadn’t changed. She laughed, with a little fear behind it. “You have such a funny way of speaking, my lord.”

Shi didn’t let go as she attempted to pull her hands free. “I am going to give you one chance, and only one chance, to save your life. If you write a full and complete confession, and claim you are sorry, I will divorce you quietly and use your confession to keep your clan under control. You can live out your days peacefully and alone. But if you refuse, I am going to tie you up and slit open your stomach. Poison is an unpleasant way to die, and if you are going to make my life difficult, I want your death to be worse.”

She didn’t give in right away, of course. She begged, she pleaded, she sobbed, but it didn’t take her long to face the facts. She wasn’t actually stupid.

She sat down at her desk and wrote out the confession. Shi let her word most of it herself, but he told her the closing line she was to write: I am overwhelmed by my sorrow and remorse and I cannot bear it.

Then she signed her name.

Sima Shi took the paper, looked it over critically, then walked over to place it carefully on the windowsill to dry. He pulled a scarf from his pocket, walked over to his wife, and swiftly pulled her close with one arm while gagging her with the scarf.

“I’m so glad you chose to bring me into this,” Lady Zhang said as she opened the wardrobe she had been hiding in and stepped out, carrying a rope with a noose on the end of it. “I have been wanting to kill her for months.”

Lady Zhang casually laid the rope down and tied the gag properly while Shi held the struggling woman. Then she looped the noose around the woman’s neck, and stood up on a chair to toss it over a beam in the ceiling.

Shi lifted Lady Yang, still struggling, up in the air while Lady Zhang tied the other end of the rope tightly to a column.

“Does that look about right?” said Lady Zhang when she stepped back.

In her panic, Lady Yang had not yet realized that getting free of Shi’s grip was no longer the path to safety. Therefore, when Sima Shi loosened his grip, she did not attempt to hold onto him.

The drop was only a few inches, nowhere near enough to break her neck. The noose had immediately tightened around her throat, despite her hands clawing at it ineffectually. Her feet struggled, but she was well clear of the ground.

Her husband and mother-in-law watched, the former sober, the latter smiling, as Lady Yang asphyxiated. When she lost consciousness, Shi quickly stepped forward to remove the gag, while Lady Zhang turned the chair on its side as if it had been kicked out of the way, stood back, judged the scene critically, and then slightly adjusted the angle of the fallen chair.

“I think that looks very convincing,” she said. “I suppose you’re going to find her like this in the morning?”

Shi put the confession note back on the writing desk. “Yes. I’ll check if the hall is clear.”

He went to the door to the public hall, opened it, and looked out. With a quick nod to his mother, she went past him and was off and gone.

Shi closed the door, locked it, blew out the candles, and left via the other door to his room. He had not thought this morning that he would sleep so well that night.

———

“I want to assure you,” Sima Shi said to his former brother-in-law, “that I attach no blame whatsoever to you or your clan for this deed. Your poor sister was clearly overwhelmed by jealousy into temporary madness. If only she had told you of her paranoia, so that you could have talked her out of it!”

Yang Hu was clearly reeling from his sister’s suicide, and Shi was positive that he indeed had not been involved in Lady Xiahou’s murder from the guileless way that he nodded and said, “Yes, I can’t believe she didn’t talk to me—she should have known I would have acted for her, if you truly were neglecting her. She never even hinted that she was unhappy…”

“I will miss her dearly. Her final act proves the sincerity of her remorse,” said Shi. “I beg that you continue to consider me your brother-in-law.”

“You are everything that is tolerant and merciful, as usual, your majesty,” said Yang Hu, bowing. “It has been and will continue to be my honour to serve you. Please, tell me how I can continue to do so.”

“I think you know,” he answered.

Yang Hu bowed deeper still. “Is that day near, that I shall call you something other than my lord?”

“It is a day that cannot be stopped from coming,” said Sima Shi, “no matter what grief I have to bear.”

———

Sima Zhao strolled into his brother’s office, Wen Yang following behind him with humble dignity.

“Hello Zhao,” said Shi, glancing between the two of them. “Have a seat.”

“Thanks,” said Zhao, already taking one, while Wen Yang took up the position of a bodyguard. “Couple of things. I’ve decided I want to be a prince.”

“Oh. Of course.”

“Also, I’ve already pardoned Wen Yang here, but I want you to make it a full exoneration before the court, and give him his father’s title and lands.”

“Oh, yes,” said Shi, looking at Wen Yang more properly. “I remember now. You called me a usurper and a coward.”

Wen Yang flushed, and looked at Zhao for help.

“We’re letting bygones be bygones though, right?” said Zhao lightly.

“Right,” said Shi, and smiled.

———

When Sima Shi went into his oldest daughter’s bedroom to say goodnight, he found all three girls in the bed, looking at him with excited faces. “What’s all this?”

“Grandmother told us how you tricked Lady Yang into confessing,” said Chenlan. “And that it’s a secret.”

“We won’t tell!” said Qiujing.

Shi leaned against the door and shook his head. “I see. I wasn’t going to tell you because I didn’t want to disturb you.”

“Oh no, we thought it was great!” said Chenlan, the other two nodding eagerly. “It was even better than how grandmother killed that maid!”

Shi laughed. “I should have known… I suppose I knew that story by your age as well.”

“Do you have any other cool stories like that?” blurted Chenlan, then flushed, and added quickly, “I mean—if you’re not too busy—”

“I have a little time,” he said, sitting on a chair. “Did grandmother tell you about how we overthrew Cao Shuang?”

Three little heads shook no.

“Alright. Well… to begin with, Cao Shuang was an imbecile…”

———

A week later, Lady Zhang came into Yuanji’s room while she was nursing Goji and said abruptly, “Did Shi… make an attempt on your virtue when Zhao was gone?”

It was such a sudden and unexpected attack that Yuanji did not have time to think of how to arrange her face. Her shock, she knew, was alright, but should she deny it? Tell her to ask Shi? Ask her to drop it?

“Oh no,” Lady Zhang breathed, walked over to where she sat, and kissed her forehead. “I am so sorry, my dear.”

“He… he didn’t succeed,” Yuanji managed.

Lady Zhang was surprised. “Oh? Oh… Then it is not as bad as I feared… I am glad.”

When Yuanji considered it, she could understand her surprise. When did Shi ever fail… “Lord Shi… didn’t really want me. What he wanted was a son that he could name his heir.”

“The two of you are more forgiving than I would be, my dear,” said Lady Zhang, sitting next to her with a sigh.

“Lord Zhao… hasn’t forgiven him yet.”

“But he hasn’t killed him,” Lady Zhang said. “Believe me, Shi knows his good fortune. I have never seen him like this. He is a different man. He has finally realized something I have been trying to teach him all these years. Oh, my dear. You have so many years of motherhood ahead of you! I don’t know whether I feel more sorrow for or envy of you.”

———

A few weeks later, Sima Shi visited Lady Zhang Xingcai again.

He was pleased when she immediately kowtowed before him again. Shi had issued an order in his own name that he needed to be kowtowed to only by “his subjects”. On the surface, this meant residents of his vassal state of Jin, meaning that within the imperial capital itself, no one needed to kowtow to him. In practice, those who wished to show their loyalty to his rule were kowtowing anyway. By doing so, they were declaring that they wanted to be “his subjects”.

The time was almost right to tell Cao Mao to abdicate.

With her secluded existence, of course Xingcai was not aware of this double meaning, but that only made it more delightful to him. He had told her she could simply call him “my lord”, and they always met privately, with guards outside at a distance not to eavesdrop; so her kowtow was like a personal submission to him. It was exciting because he knew that her heart had not submitted to the situation at all. This was a woman who knew how to play the game, but had been wasted all her life among fools. What a pity.

He sat just in front of her again, allowing himself to enjoy her proud and elegant beauty. Now that she was removed from the stress of the conquest, she no longer looked older than him. He had learned they were actually the same age, both a year younger than Liu Shan.

“I have been acting on your information,” he said. “Obviously communication with Chengdu is slow. For the sake of peace, I wish to move to secure a more long-term and benevolent tie between certain former Shu officers and the empire than the undignified use of hostages.”

He saw her eyes flash with disdain at his use of the word benevolent. She was so predictable. Now watch. I will smile, and… aha. There, she is thinking how much she wants to hit me.

Aloud she said, “You mean marriage ties, I suppose, your majesty.”

He nodded. “You understand me. Of course it will be a process. I am not sure enough of either the value or the rationality of all of those whose relatives are our guests here. There are two I would like to start with. I understand both Dong Yun and Fei Yi have unmarried daughters here.”

“Your majesty has not received complete information,” Xingcai said evenly. “While they are both unmarried, Lady Fei is betrothed; the marriage would have occurred, were it not for the interruption of the war.”

“I do not think I am mistaken,” said Shi softly. “Think carefully, Lady Zhang. Are you sure that you are not confusing Lady Fei with someone else?”

He saw Xingcai gather her courage. “I am sure. Lady Fei’s partiality for the young man is of long-standing. Your majesty, I am fond of them both and could not possibly be mistaken.”

“What is this young man’s name?”

“Ma Cheng, the son of Ma Chao.”

“I see. The Ma clan has a good reputation in Liang among some, doesn’t it?”

Xingcai tilted her head, considering his words, before answering cautiously, “Among some, it does, your majesty.”

“And this young man also has a partiality for this young lady, doubtless.”

“A strong one, your majesty.”

“He will be very grateful to me if I allow them to marry, then.”

Xingcai regarded him with her clear eyes, then said slowly, “It would be another example of your benevolence.”

Oh, that was a good one. Full points to her. He laughed as loud as it deserved. “I will see about arranging it. This Ma Cheng might be useful to me. Lady Dong has no prior claimants on her hand?”

“None that I know, your majesty.”

“That is excellent. I have seen her and she is very beautiful.”

Xingcai said nothing, but he saw her eyes look at his mourning garb.

He laughed again. “You are too perceptive for your own good! But I am not seeking a wife for myself, though you are right to observe that I have lost mine recently. I will finish the year and then find the right lady for me. No, I want her for a good officer of mine, sadly lacking in family to help him. A relative of yours, in fact, so you should want to do him a good turn.”

“A relative of mine?” Xingcai said, apparently too startled to remember to add your majesty.

“On your mother’s side. Xiahou Ba, son of Xiahou Yuan.”

Complicated emotions dappled her face, too many and too changing for Sima Shi to read them. When she had refocused herself, she said, “From what little I know, I cannot imagine that any maternal relative of mine would be eager to claim the relation, your majesty.”

“What possible blame can you shoulder for your father’s actions? Zhang Fei is dead, and so are most of the Xiahou. I think those that remain will be eager for as many allies as they can get. And he is younger even than you. He has no bad memories of your mother’s kidnapping.” He got up. “Please have a seat, Lady Zhang. I want to introduce him to you now.”

“Now?” said Xingcai as she stood, but then said, “Of course, your majesty,” as she took a seat—one of the more modest chairs, leaving the best one for him.

Shi retrieved Xiahou Ba. He had told him to dress nicely. Outside of armour, Xiahou Ba actually looked more mature. He still had his round face and his big, timid eyes like a deer’s, but his height now was not far off from what his father’s had been, and his body showed its training must better in the simple silk lines of the hanfu.

Xingcai was pretty high in Shi’s favour, and he unconsciously did her the respect of treating her as the higher ranked as he introduced the two of them to each other. He saw surprise flicker across Xingcai’s face, but he thought it was just from how very young Xiahou Ba still looked, and so he decided to reassure her.

“Master Xiahou Ba is in fact twenty-one years old,” he said, “and has done me meritorious service, including saving my life.”

“Oh, no no no no no,” Xiahou Ba protested, “nothing so grand as that.”

“I consider it saving my life,” said Shi with a smile.

“Aiyaya…” Xiahou Ba fretted, and Lady Zhang smiled as well.

“His majesty tells me we are related,” she said. “My mother was your cousin.”

“Yeah, yeah, I know about it,” Xiahou Ba said, shifting his weight from one foot to the other. “My father always… wanted to bring you all home.”

Lady Zhang remained smiling, which impressed Shi. She said, “I never met him, but I understand that he was a man of honour. I can tell you my mother gave him a proper burial.”

Xiahou Ba’s face twisted. “It was a hard way to lose him.”

She nodded, her smile gentle and kind. “I am glad that those days are behind us.”

Xiahou Ba managed to smile back. “Yeah, Lord Sima Shi’s the only one who could have managed it!”

“So it seems,” she said, and turned that smile on him.

When he got undressed for bed that evening, Sima Shi realized with some displeasure that he was still thinking of that smile.

I must really be desperate for a woman, he thought. I’ll get a mistress… no, too risky. Prostitutes are safer.

———

At the end of the summer, the emperor summoned both the Sima brothers to the gardens.

They both kept their weapons on as they walked past the guards down the path to a pavilion by the lake, where they could see the emperor sitting alone with his back to them. No one tried to stop them. The insects were singing loudly; Zhao could feel sweat trickling down his back. It was no time to be awake, much less outside.

When they began to kneel, Cao Mao sighed and held up his hand. “I called you here because I’m tired of waiting.”

They kowtowed anyway. Cao Mao ignored them as they did so, pouring a cup of wine for himself and drinking it.

Only when they stood up did he turn to them again. “I know what you are,” he said. “I’ve always known. That’s why Empress Guo picked me, isn’t it? She thought I was the last chance. But I wasn’t good enough. Or maybe it was already too late, no matter what my talents.”

Zhao glanced at Shi, but his brother kept his face solemn and respectful.

“Maybe it is fate, or even justice,” he said. “My grandfather kept Emperor Xian as a puppet until it became clear to everyone just how impotent he really was, and then my uncle took his throne. Now the same thing is happening to me. I want to make a decision while it is still my decision. I don’t want any more of my kin and friends to throw themselves away on a lost cause. I am going to abdicate now. I will not wait for you to tell me to do so.”

“I understand, your majesty,” said Sima Shi slowly. “By choosing your successor based on ability, you shall be remembered in history as like Emperor Yao or Emperor Shun.”

“I suppose that makes you Yu the Great,” Cao Mao said dryly.

Zhao snickered, glancing back and forth from the face behind the jade beads to the face of his brother that was going to take that hat from him. “You know, you two actually do have a lot in common.”

“I think you’re right Zhao,” said Shi. “It is only the emperor’s bad luck that he did not have a younger brother like mine.”

“Bad luck? I should have thought you would call it the Will of Heaven,” said Cao Mao.

“What is it you want from your retirement, your majesty?” said Shi, sidestepping this.

“By offering you my willing support of your usurpation,” said Cao Mao, “I don’t want to be isolated as Liu Shan is. I need people, I need conversation. I want to write poetry and discuss it. I understand that this is not possible in Luoyang. I want to go to Shenyang.”

Shi laughed. “Will you live with Ruan Ji? I’ve heard the madman of the bamboo grove likes young men like your majesty.”

“Have you heard his music and read his poetry?”

“Oh yes. It is excellent. His lover Ji Kang, too, writes very elegantly. I almost agree with how despicable I am, how vain and disgusting my ambition, when I read their poetry or listen to their music. But all they do is drink wine and put into writing their sedition; they make no attempt to prevent the one they despise from gaining the power to execute them. That is why I call them mad.”

“They are not mad,” said Cao Mao. “They only want to be left alone, without having to live falsely. And that is all I want now, too.”

Shi put his hands together to bow, but only slightly. “I will grant you what you wish. You will not need to refer to yourself as a subject of mine; you can use the imperial ceremonies for your ancestors.”

“I hope I live long enough to see if your dynasty lasts longer than mine,” said Cao Mao. “For the sake of the land, I hope it does.”