Shen Jiu had always thought he would hate Shen Yuan. The boy, taken from that ditch to live drunk off happiness while Shen Jiu had suffered under the merciless hands of slavers and the Qiu family, cherished while he had been left to rot.
Looking at the child in front of him – yes, a child, not even reached double digits – he found he could not summon any of that hate, any of that anger.
He was a pitiful thing, dressed gaudily, surrounded by pixies and brownies, pushing and pulling him, endlessly dancing, endlessly laughing, eyes blank and unseeing. Just a doll, really, not alive in any sense of the word.
He turned to Yue Qingyuan.
“I want him,” he snarls, his words not matching with his new elegant clothing, the wings that had unfurled from his back overnight, shimmering softly. “Bring him to my chambers. He will be my thrall, and none of those … things … will touch him.”
Yue Qingyuan, his saviour, the one who had abandoned him in that ditch all those years ago, inclined his head slowly. “Your will be done, brother,” he murmured, and Shen Jiu snarled at the address, turning on his heel and storming away to his own tree hollow, far from the masses below.
Free of the other fae, Shen Yuan is still a sweet thing, rather stupid, yes, and without a single coherent thought in his empty little head, but a sweet, obedient thing.
At first, Shen Jiu treated him as a servant. It was easy, really. As a thrall, the boy had few thoughts of his own, but there was enough intelligence, enough spark in him that he learned quickly nonetheless. He taught the boy how to read and write, was harsh when the boy was slow, and gave rewards when he felt they were deserved. Rather surprisingly, the boy flourished under his care, slowly developing his own personality, his own desires. The poetry he composed developed, from mechanical descriptions of his surroundings to descriptions of his dreams, and eventually, the child even began to ask questions.
They were not, unfortunately, the kind of questions Shen Jiu was inclined to answer, but he didn’t blame the boy for them. The boy completed his tasks quickly and efficiently, was polite to him and his guests, played the guqin and flute well enough to let Shen Jiu sleep peacefully – what more could he ask for in a servant?
But, like all humans, the boy grew, and once the compulsions were lifted, he grew quickly, from a young boy to a young man, and eventually even to match Shen Jiu’s physical age. And while there were obviously differences between the two, eventually the two looked similar enough to pass for brothers, even more than Shen Jiu and Yue Qingyuan. And if there was one thing Shen Jiu couldn’t accept, it was watching someone so similar to himself be treated as a servant by everyone around him.
He gave Shen Yuan a property at the edges of the Seelie court, and found himself another servant. Again, he picked himself a thrall, but this one he fetched himself, from the depths of the human world. A boy ignored by society, his last protector dead, all alone in a world that despised him.
“Child,” he asked, “What is your name?” Dressed as he was in the clothing of an immortal, glittering wings spanned out behind him, he overwhelmed the child, wide eyed and unknowing, not understanding a thing.
“Luo Binghe,” the boy whispered, and Shen Jiu, Shen Qingqiu, smiled a wide smile full of teeth.
If anything, Luo Binghe was an even better servant than Shen Yuan. He learned faster and better than Shen Yuan, was more meticulous in his cleaning, made exquisite food that had him firing all the chefs in his estate. He was a diligent student in all areas of study, though his skill with musical instruments were lacking, to say the least. In all other areas, however, he easily outperformed Shen Yuan.
That wasn’t to say any of those traits endeared the boy to Shen Qingqiu. He appreciated the food, yes, and sure, the boy was passable company, but frankly, it was utterly unacceptable that anyone would outshine Shen Yuan, the boy who should have been his replacement.
He was not shy in making his displeasure known. Every small mistake the thrall made, he punished severely, until it wasn’t an unusual sight to see bruises littering the boy’s pale, smooth skin. But still, the boy did not complain, or curse, or speak a single word against his master. It was as if he continued to hope for the same kindness and warmth his mother had shown him, when he had been a child.
Shen Qingqiu was not his mother. Shen Qingqiu did not care for those worthless dreams.
Luo Binghe grew, and grew, and his admiration soured in his chest, turned from something pure to something smothering, something obsessive. And still, Shen Qingqiu did not realize, did not understand, that the boy who ought to have been a thrall, was quite simply … not.
Then the boy turned seventeen.
At first it was a red mark, bleeding from his forehead overnight. Then it was wide, black wings, bursting from his back in a rain of blood, a blast of energy radiating from him, healing him and destroying everything around him.
Shen Qingqiu saw, and laughed, and snarled. He took the boy, still weak from awakening, still ignorant of how to use his powers, and threw him back into the human world, full of filth and iron.
The boy raged, and cowered, and cried, but Shen Qingqiu did not hear him, refused to acknowledge him. “Those of the Unseelie court should never set foot in the Seelie court,” he snarled at the child, as he closed the doors of the portal.
The boy did not understand, then.
That would change.
It took the boy five years.
Five years to learn to use his powers. Five years to kill the incompetent fool who ruled the Unseelie court. Five years to conquer the lands that had once been his father’s, that had broken away under the rule of one unworthy of the throne.
He returned to Shen Qingqiu, clothed in silver and black, his own wings dwarfing Shen Qingqiu’s, covering the night sky. “The Unseelie court is mine,” he intoned, high above even Yue Qingyuan. “And if we do not come to an accord, the Seelie court will be mine too.”
Shen Qingqiu hated many things, but he loved only one. To one who had grown up under his strict tutelage, it was obvious who that one person was.
“What are your demands?” Yue Qingyuan asked, calm even before the behemoth. Shen Qingqiu did not think it was a question worth asking. What else would the beast want, but the only one who knew his true name?
The beast did not disappoint.
Of course, Yue Qingyuan refused.
Of course, Shen Qingqiu did not let him.
The true name of a changeling, for Yue Qingyuan’s kingdom? Don’t make him laugh. He held no fear towards the beast. After all, he, too, knew its true name.
Deep in the Unseelie court’s palace, Shen Qingqiu is given his own room, a lavish guest suite usually reserved only for the highest tier of diplomats. The boy, now a king, comes to him late in the night, grasping claws searching for something in the tatters he calls a body, amid the scars of his past.
“Shen Jiu,” the beast binds him, sharp teeth pressed to his nape. “Shen Jiu,” he breathes, and Shen Qingqiu feels his mind fracture, finds coherency out of his reach.
With a great effort, he breathes, “Luo Binghe,” and attempts to do the same to the beast. He’s met with a wild, maddened laugh.
“Shizun … Shen Jiu. Let me tell you a secret.
“Luo Binghe is not my true name. Nobody knows my true name.”
Something in Shen Jiu breaks. Something frighteningly like hope.
His final thoughts scatter as a vice-like grip presses him to the bed, gentle hands ripping an arm from his shoulder, the blood seeping into the blankets even as his King burns close the wound.
Shen Jiu’s eyes are blank. He smiles.