Chapter 1: The Court
The preparations for the Hunt are in full swing when Shen Qingqiu finally pulls Luo Binghe aside.
“Binghe,” he says to his student, watching the way it makes him halt in his rush across Shen Qingqiu’s personal courtyard. Shen Qingqiu has quickly learned to perfect this tone, one that lets him be clearly heard without shouting. He caught onto that fact very early on— a fae lord is always heard, but never shouts, particularly when one is a Lord of the Seasons. A Lord of the Seasons is at all times elegant and ethereal, always fey and never human. Even when he is unquestionably human.
Still appearances must be kept, so Shen Qingqiu makes sure his posture is precise and his expression aloof when Luo Binghe runs over, coming to a halt at the foot of Shen Qingqiu’s current resting spot, a seat in the midst of a bamboo-shaded pavilion.
He gestures the child to a halt with his fan, and watches in approval as the boy dips into a bow. “Shizun. What can this student do for you?”
Luo Binghe is one of those who hasn’t yet discovered the call for sublime ease that is required of the powerful among the strong of the Seelie court. Shen Qingqiu has his suspicions about why that is.
Now is not the time to voice those suspicions, however. Shen Qingqiu remains silent and still, watching Binghe. It doesn’t take long before his prize pupil begins to fidget nervously, though he maintains his respectful bow.
“Luo Binghe,” he says, and swallows the smile as Luo Binghe’s eyes twitch up toward him, then back down again. There was a time when having his Shizun even glance in his direction might have had Luo Binghe tensing, but no more. “How long have you been in this teacher’s court?”
“Four seasons, Shizun.”
Shen Qingqiu nods. “And in that time, you have shown tremendous growth.”
It’s not quite true, and they both know it. It is only in the past three seasons that Luo Binghe has managed to gain any recognition among the spring court, and therefore make progress among the ranks. It is not a coincidence that Shen Yuan has been in the role of Lord of Spring for only four seasons. Of course, Luo Binghe doesn’t know this, but Shen Qingqiu does.
Luo Binghe ducks his head, but it isn’t enough to hide the pleased flush spreading across his cheeks. “If I have, it’s only due to Shizun’s patient tutelage,” he says. It’s a proper, demure answer, and Shen Qingqiu nods thoughtfully, as though the answer has brought him to a conclusion. Really, he’s already made his decision, but it’s best not to give his prize pupil the impression that there isn’t still room for improvement.
“Then it is only appropriate that you represent this court in the upcoming Wild Hunt.”
This time Luo Binghe’s shocked twitch and jerky raise of his head are visible to anyone, though it’s only Shen Qingqiu here with him. “Shizun…” he gapes.
“Is this student doubting his master’s choices?” Shen Qingqiu asks, raising one eyebrow.
Luo Binghe flushes. “Not at all, Shizun!”
Shen Qingqiu hides another smile. Ah, his little white sheep student! Amongst the reserve and machinations of the Seelie Court, Luo Binghe’s open book of a face is truly refreshing. “Your improvement has impressed this teacher, Luo Binghe. Representing our Spring Court in the hunt will be a formidable task, but I believe you are up to it, if you remember to carry yourself with the strength and grace of a true fae. Do you accept?”
From the look on Luo Binghe’s face, he’s never even considered that he might say no to an offer like this, if only because he’s never expected to be gifted this consideration in the first place. “I accept, Shizun,” he says immediately.
Any other student of the spring court would try wildly to uncover the downsides of Shen Qingqiu’s offer, to consider his angle even as they accept it. Luo Binghe is naive for not doing so. He is also unquestionably familiar to Shen Qingqiu. He will have to remind Luo Binghe to do better if he is to win recognition for Shen Qingqiu and for their court, of course. This kind of naivete is precisely what other courts dream of in their opponents. But it’s useful in a student. Shen Qingqiu doesn’t need to suspect treachery on Luo Binghe’s part, not ever. And, to be honest (if only to himself), he misses the simplicity of a lifetime before he was the Lord of Spring.
Shen Qingqiu gives Luo Binghe a nod and finally allows a hint of his pleased smile to show through. “Very good,” he murmurs, and gestures with his fan for Luo Binghe to rise again. “Now, prepare yourself for the hunt. We depart shortly, as I’m sure you know. Tell no one of what we have agreed.”
“Of course, Shizun,” Luo Binghe breathes. With shining eyes, he bows, then turns to run off again. It’s only a quiet clearing of Shen Qingqiu’s throat that makes him catch himself, and depart at a more dignified pace.
Shen Qingqiu watches him leave, and waits until his student has disappeared from view to consult the winds. His plan has been set in motion, but the next part will not be as easy as summoning a disciple to his side. He will have to search quite a bit, to find the next fae on his list.
The Lord of Winter is not easily found, even in his own season. In the height of summer, such a feat is near impossible. But there are tricks that one can learn, if one has made the decision to seek him out on a regular basis.
In the seasons since he became the Lord of Spring, Shen Qingqiu has found himself in the position of both seeker and sought more often than he ever might have expected.
Now, with the solstice’s Wild Hunt rapidly approaching, Shen Qingqiu believes he knows what sorts of things Liu Qingge must be doing. It’s simply a matter of narrowing down the options. The first, of course, is honing his skills, so Shen Qingqiu makes his way off to the battlegrounds that make up the fae domain of the Lord of Winter.
Sure enough, Liu Qingge is there, training. Shen Qingqiu draws to a halt on the edge of the field, tucking his arms into his sleeve as he watches.
Fae fighting looks more like dancing than it does any sort of battle. There is no unflattering grunting or swearing, no sweat or dirt, no staggering or straining muscles. Even Liu Qingge, an undeniably physical fighter, maneuvers his sword as though it were as light as a feather, and switches between total stillness and bursts of impossible speed. Even in training, where he is surely holding back, he could easily defeat Shen Qingqiu before he could even pull out his fan to retaliate with magic.
There is no shame in it—Liu Qingge is after all the Master of the Hunt, and the strongest fighter among the Seelie Court. Shen Qingqiu may be human, but he is by no means the weakest among the Seelie, thanks largely to his collection of magical artifacts. Still, he has spent every moment of his time in court working himself into a situation where he does not need to fear being called into battle.
It is the fruits of that labor that, when Liu Qingge finishes his practice and turns to see Shen Qingqiu waiting there for him, he does not scowl and stalk over with blade drawn, but sheathes the weapon and nods politely.
“The Lord of Winter is admirably prepared for the upcoming hunt,” Shen Qingqiu says, as Liu Qingge closes the distance between them.
Shen Qingqiu hides a smile behind his fan. Liu Qingge is the kind of person who, upon first meeting, seems completely unsuited for a life at court. Brusque to a fault and completely devoted to his swordsmanship with hardly any regard for anything else, it’s clear that the only reason he’s made it anywhere in the court is his preference for remaining taciturn.
“How go the other preparations?” Shen Qingqiu asks, only to receive a shrug.
“Well, I presume.”
“You presume?” he echoes, head tilted in curiosity.
“I left those to Shang Qinghua.”
“Ah, I see.” Oh, the beleaguered minor lord Shang Qinghua. With just enough clout to be considered a lord, and just enough cowardice to be afraid of every other fae lord and lady in court, he’s managed to maneuver himself into the unenviable position of “everyone’s lackey.” It’s not a bad position to be in, simply in terms of stability. As long as Shang Qinghua plays neutral in the more petty power squabbles, he’ll be able to maintain this low-level position for some time to come. On the other hand, he’ll also have to do things like arrange the Wild Hunt when the Lord of the Hunt doesn’t care to bother with it.
Shen Qingqiu toys with the idea of offering some assistance to the surely-overwhelmed Shang Qinghua in exchange for a favor or two, but casts the idea aside for now. It has merit, certainly, but that particular tidbit isn’t why he came here.
“Lord of Winter,” Shen Qingqiu says, nodding politely. “I hoped I might take some of your time to offer a proposal.”
Liu Qingge doesn’t respond, only nods at Shen Qingqiu to continue explaining. “As you surely know, the best hunters are intended to represent the Seelie court in this hunt,” he says. “And you are by far the best representation of our physical might.”
Liu Qingge is watching him with narrowed eyes now— good. He knows that Shen Qingqiu is surely going somewhere with this, but he’s also just as susceptible to flattery as any fae. Shen Qingqiu lays it on even thicker, using his fan to hide his smile. “This Lord would be pleased to send his student to Liu Qingge for brief training before the Hunt,” he says. “To the benefit of the entire court, of course.”
There’s an advantage to all this, should Liu Qingge care for an angle. If he really wanted to, he could use the opportunity to maneuver the Winter Court into a favorable position. But there’s many reasons that Shen Qingqiu approached Liu Qingge with this proposition, and one of the primary reasons is the growing alliance not only between their courts, but between them personally. While he’s not offering a favor outright, his personal gratitude is worth no small thing, and Liu Qingge knows that, even if he likes to stay out of the game.
Sure enough, he doesn’t think about it long. “Send this student to me,” he orders, and Shen Qingqiu nods. He even dares to reach out and pat Liu Qingge on the arm, although this makes the fae lord stiffen slightly under his touch. Truly, Liu Qingge is a standoffish character! But a good sort, because he doesn’t step away from Shen Qingqiu’s hand. “I… I will see what can be done.”
“I believe you will find him promising,” Shen Qingqiu says, withdrawing his hand back into his sleeve, “but I will let you continue with your training. Good day, Lord of Winter. I look forward to seeing what it is you have found for us to hunt.”
With his first task done, Shen Qingqiu takes to wandering the court. Truly, he would like nothing better than to retreat to his rooms and relax for a while, maybe take off these ridiculously formal robes. But in the court of the fae, being seen and not being seen, are both political statements. No matter how much he’d like to simply spend time by himself, being unnoticed would mean attracting attention of the kind he doesn’t want now. So instead, Shen Qingqiu turns toward the gardens.
It’s not his season, as it’s approaching the height of summer, so the courtyard gardens surrounding the fae king’s home are full of summer plants, largely crops and broad-leaved trees. Shen Qingqiu much prefers the fall and winter to his own season, though he would never say that. Having to disguise seasonal pollen allergies from fae is a nightmare he does not wish on anyone. Luckily, healer Mu Qingfang is another one who prefers to stay neutral in court politics, though one must be a bit more circumspect about bribing him than with Liu Qingge.
But admiring the greenery is the least of the reasons to wander the garden, though Shen Qingqiu makes an effort towards it. The real wealth of the gardens is not the scenery, but who you can find there.
So Shen Qingqiu makes the rounds, nodding occasionally to a fae underling from one of the other seasonal courts, whether allied to him or not. He aims to be condescending but not too smug, simply assured of his place in the world. From the quickness of their bows, he’s succeeded.
It’s useful, but after fifteen minutes of wandering the gardens and Being Seen, he comes across the real reason he’s here.
Yue Qingyuan is surrounded by sycophants and couriers even where he sits on a simple stone bench. Perhaps it’s true, Shen Qingqiu muses, that wherever a king sits is properly called a throne. He can certainly believe that of the King of the Seelie. Yue Qingyuan emits eerie elegance with every blink, and every minute gesture. Even In the height of summer he is resplendent in deep grays and a crown of ash wood and leaves. His elaborate facial markings highlight his beautiful features. He looks like the rendering of an artist’s ink brush come to life, more than any creature of the world.
Shen Qingqiu approaches the makeshift dais, and waits for the king to acknowledge him.
It does not take long. Yue Qingyuan must have noticed his approach, because he nods and gestures Shen Qingqiu after only a moment. Shen Qingqiu recognizes Mu Qingfang and Qi Qingqi watching him with disguised curiosity.
He does not bow, but he does lower his head and wait for Yue Qingyuan to gesture him forward. This too does not take long, as Yue Qingyuan barely makes him hold the deferential pose before crooking a finger in his direction.
“Lord of Spring,” he says, with a smile.
“Lord of the fae,” Shen Qingqiu responds, with another deferential nod.
He is very aware that some in the crowd must resent the easy rapport that he manages to possess with the King of the Seelie, but they would not dare show their anger in this setting. It will come in the form of attempted backstabbing, later on, but Shen Qingqiu does not intend for this particular exchange to set fire to the kindling of their resentment. They have had to live with this delicate balance for many seasons, after all. A few more mean little to the fae.
And it is not as though Shen Qingqiu has completely cultivated the strange dance of his relationship with Yue Qingyuan. It is in the nature of the fae, to be stuck forever in a dance of love and hatred with one’s opposite. The Seelie and the Unseelie courts, and the lords of the seasons, forever separated by their own duality. The dance between Qi Qingqi’s summer and Liu Qingge’s winter, their yin and yang, should be enough a sign of that, with their utter disdain for each other, and Shen Qingqiu’s own carefully crafted peace with Mu Qingfang. Before, they were called the “earth and the heavens,” but who was the earth and who was the heavens, well— Mu Qingfang’s focus on the body, and Shen Qingqiu’s careful cultivation of the mind. Or, before Shen Yuan’s appearance, Mu Qingfang’s monklike poise and calm, and Shen Qingqiu’s petty anger and vicious maneuvering.
No one quite seems to understand what change has come over Shen Qingqiu, as Shen Yuan has attempted to steer the role of the lord of spring, but Yue Qingyuan knows.
They all must think it strange, that Shen Qingqiu’s “demotion” to this role has only seemed to make Yue Qingyuan more fond of him, but Shen Qingqiu is grateful for the ally. He had few enough to start with, and for all the hatred this brings, few fae would have the power to directly attack one in Yue Qingyuan’s favor, and those who would, Shen Qingqiu has worked very hard to temper.
He’s not dead, so it’s worked.
“What brings you to our gardens today?” Yue Qingyuan asks.
“What brings anyone to the gardens?” Shen Qingqiu responds, blandly. The answer, of course, is blatant politicking, but the ostensible answer is and has always been the beauty present there, both of the landscaping and the fae variety. Shen Qingqiu knows better than to trust either. “It is only the benefit of chance that has brought us together.”
Yue Qingyuan inclines his head in acknowledgement. “It is to our benefit that you have joined us,” he says, still smiling gracefully. Shen Qingqiu thinks he is quite aware of the members of his entourage that disagree with that sentiment, and is having quite some fun with that fact. “Have you then escaped your preparations for the Hunt?”
Shen Qingqiu waves his hand dismissively. “Ah, that is all but finished,” he says casually, aware of the eyes focused on him. This is a stage, and Shen Qingqiu has his role to play.
“Oh?” Yue Qingyuan sounds mildly interested. He may well be more interested than that, but he’s doing a good job of not showing it, particularly when the others in the court surely are. The question of who Shen Qingqiu will put forth as his champion during the hunt has surely been a matter of gossip and contention— Shen Qingqiu knows this, because Luo Binghe has been getting himself into fights on Shen Qingqiu’s behalf.
Shen Qingqiu has a reputation. He will not lift a finger himself when he can find some other way to get his goals accomplished. This is the cause of Liu Qingge’s disdain for him— or some of it, anyway. Liu Qingge only holds mild contempt for any who cannot lift a sword to defend themselves. So that has always been the question— will Shen Qingqiu take up a bow and blade himself during the hunt, or will he send someone on his behalf? Shen Yuan has been rehabilitating this reputation bit by bit, stepping in to use his fans occasionally and appearing himself when conflict arises, but he is still only human. The evidence of any mystery is more than enough reason to preserve it. There is nothing the fae court likes more than a chance to speculate on a mystery.
“Indeed,” he says, and nothing more. “Now, it is only a matter of the finishing touches, and those are in capable hands.”
Yue Qingyuan greets that pronouncement with a smile and a nod, and directs the conversation onwards, much to the disappointment of the gossips. Shen Qingqiu favors the Lord with a smile, and gracefully moves with the change of subject.
Preparations continue in a wild rush, and so too do the gossip and social maneuvering that come with it. Shen Qingqiu throws himself into the work, sending his underlings to all corners of the court for supplies and training, and maintains a bland expression and a suitable amount of social lazing to cover up for the late nights he’s putting in to make sure his own preparations are in place.
The thing about the Wild Hunt is that it’s… well, wild. Any sort of event placed in the hands of Liu Qingge is bound to be a little reckless, a little dangerous, particularly for a human like Shen Yuan. Shen Qingqiu is a Lord of Spring. He cannot afford to be caught out in this lie, to be discovered as an imposter rather than the fae man currently lying in enchanted sleep in the heart of Yue Qingyuan’s chambers.
Yue Qingyuan is not unsympathetic, as much as any fae can be. Shen Qingqiu knows their bargain is fair, is maybe even favorable to him, as long as he can keep the act up properly. Magic from the fae, a prevention against the madness and wasting away that usually overcomes a human stuck in this realm, all this is more than he could ever have hoped to achieve with only human connections at his disposal. And all he needs is to live in Shen Qingqiu’s luxurious home and not die.
The thing is, Shen Qingqiu did not seem to be fond of the practice, before this strange poison took him into his unending slumber. He has made plenty of enemies who are more than eager to take advantage of his apparent “demotion” to a Lord of the Spring from his position of ruler and companion to Yue Qingyuan. If he is, as rumor seems to suggest, out of favor with the Lord of the Seelie, then is it not in their best interests to enact their revenge against him now, when he is most vulnerable?
It’s a sound strategy on their part, and Shen Qingqiu has suffered many attempts against him in the short time he has acted as ruler.
He’s lucky enough to have had a new staff assigned to him as Lord of Spring. Ning Yingying, Ming Fan, and the hidden jewel among the rough, Luo Binghe—without them, he might have been killed by his own staff. Instead, with their help, he has been able to weather every attempt against him.
He wonders, occasionally, if they suspect him. Yingying surely does not— although as bubbly and effervescent as one could hope of a lovely fae maiden of spring, she is content to do her work and accept the praise of her lord as it comes. Ming Fan, too, while he might bluster, is content to do as he is asked and share in the recognition of his lord.
Luo Binghe, though. It isn’t that he isn’t hunting for praise— Shen Qingqiu has never met a fae more eager to hunt for approval, as even the simplest gestures from Shen Qingqiu can get the boy to light up. But Luo Binghe, he thinks, suspects something is different. This disciple is the only one who has begun to observe him closely, after all. Luo Binghe is also the only one who knew of Shen Qingqiu as the fae, before the replacement happened. Knew, and was terrified of, according to Luo Binghe’s first reactions to him when assigned to his staff.
Shen Qingqiu has worked hard to overcome that initial wariness, but as he’s done so, he’s discovered more reasons for it, beyond Luo Binghe’s apparent unsuitability for the magic of spring. There is some secret to him, Shen Qingqiu knows.
He suspects human heritage, and wonders what it is that Luo Binghe suspects about him. He is far from the usual sort of changeling for a fae, as brought into the inner circle as he is, but there is plenty of suspicion to be had around his circumstances.
Maybe Luo Binghe is hoping to hold it in reserve, as some sort of blackmail. Maybe he’s hoping for some sort of kindred spirit, and simply hasn’t found the courage yet to be outright with his suspicions. It’s a wise move, especially for someone like Luo Binghe who has thus far proved rather inept at the sort of maneuvering life in the Court requires.
If Luo Binghe is the part-human that Shen Qingqiu suspects… well, he has reasons for keeping the boy close, and they’re not even mostly to do with having mutually assured blackmail. If the boy is possessed of strange ancestry, he will need to prove himself.
Hence Shen Qingqiu’s plans for this wild hunt. If Luo Binghe can prove himself, all the better. And if Shen Qingqiu doesn’t have to—well. Plans don’t have to be for only one purpose, do they?
And that is part of his purpose, as well, the preparations he can’t let anyone know about. The Wild Hunt will bring in fae who are not a part of Yue Qingyuan’s court, which inevitably means more scrutiny, and more attacks, some more subtle than others. He will not stand up in battle, which means he has to be prepared, with magic and with tact, to dodge them, all while looking like he’s won.
What that means is preparing plenty of things— antidotes, magical protections, the occasional iron implement—to deal with any… confrontation. It means bribing Mu Qingfang with promises of copies of particularly rare texts that he has hoarded until now specifically for this purpose. It means tea with Qi Qingqi trading delicate barbs to collect gossip on the other Seelie Courts.
It also means bringing Luo Binghe along.
This is no true difficulty. Luo Binghe has made himself indispensable, as an understudy. If he isn’t fae, he has truly mastered the art of cooking, because nowhere in all of the Court, (even all of the fae realms!) has Shen Qingqiu found such delicious meals, prepared every day! Even the fae around him seem to understand what a rare treat it is to be presented with Luo Binghe’s cooking, though he often whines and pouts about having to serve his Shizun’s rivals.
Before he knows it, it’s time for the Wild Hunt.
The spring palace is a flurry of activity, minor fae darting here and there all about the place. Shen Qingqiu stands in the midst of it all, serene as a buddha statue.
Well, on the outside, anyway. On the inside, his brain is doing just as much running as Ning Yingying and Ming Fan. Has he remembered to stow all of his fans strategically within his robes? Has he kept proper track of all the fae who will be in attendance? Has Luo Binghe been properly prepared? It doesn’t help that it’s so early. Why should the Solstice have a Hunt like this! It’s so much effort to get up before the sun!
Ah, but there’s nothing to do but move forward, now. Ming Fan is running up to him, holding the bridle of a beautiful horse. “Shizun,” he says, bowing. “Your steed.”
“Thank you, Ming Fan,” Shen Qingqiu says serenely, and allows the servant to help him mount. Well, allows— Really, Shen Yuan had never ridden a horse in his life! But at least he manages to seem graceful while doing it, and doesn’t set the bells on the horse’s tack to ringing in an unbeautiful fashion. Next to him, Luo Binghe is mounting his own horse with much more energy. He takes the pennant that Ming Fan hoists up to him, and then looks to Shen Qingqiu.
“Shall we go, Shizun?” he says.
He is holding his head high, despite the nerves clear in his eyes. Shen Qingqiu smiles, and reaches out to pat the disciple gently on the forehead. “We depart,” he agrees.
In truth, they aren’t going too far, only to the gate before the compound of the Spring Court, where they will wait for Yue Qingyuan. He has started from the Summer palace, where Qi Qingqi will set off the ceremonies for the Solstice, before progressing to the Autumn Court, then Winter. Spring will be last. It is a bit nerve-wracking, for it means everyone in the Cang Qiong Court will be there to see the unveiling of Luo Binghe as his champion, but it is also a very Shen Qingqiu move, so Shen Yuan has learned to live with it. He keeps himself still, only adjusting to the occasional shift of the horse under him, and gently reprimands Luo Binghe whenever he begins to fidget.
It isn’t long at all before the procession is riding up towards them. Sure enough, all eyes are trained on them. Shen Qingqiu can see the way heads crowd together and whispering starts as they see him and Luo Binghe there on their horses. Shen Qingqiu swallows back his smile. Sure enough, his plan to embody Shen Qingqiu’s vanity and fae sense of superiority has worked out perfectly. Yue Qingyuan, at the head of the procession, even looks a little bit surprised, but he gives Shen Qingqiu a subtle nod. Approval of his choice, perhaps? Or simple acknowledgement? Admittedly, Shen Qingqiu finds him rather difficult to read, what with the need for such playacting between them.
Luo Binghe shifts, his nerves clearly building with the attention of the entire court on him, but he glances toward Shen Qingqiu, and raises his head. For a moment, he even manages to look regal.
Later, Shen Qingqiu will wonder if this thought is some sort of fae premonition.
Chapter 2: The Hunt
Now that the Hunt has started, Shen Qingqiu has some challenges of his own to face.
The Wild Hunt looks like this:
A procession of horses travels the road. It is impossible to see all of it through the mist and clouds that have taken over the pre-dawn hours. In the mountains of the region, sounds carry strangely, sometimes hushed and still, sometimes echoing for miles. The ring of the bells on the harnesses is clear as crystal, and the horses hooves are just as clear. Occasionally a flute will raise its voice somewhere in the procession, echoing around them in a haunting wail. Pennants flutter in a faint breeze, or hang eerily still.
As they travel, more parties wind their way into the procession, stretching it out into a long, winding chain of horses. Shen Qingqiu recognizes the faces from his preparations, and the banners and pennants that represent them. Riding past now is the ancient master of Huan Hua palace, and following him there is Gongyi Xiao. Three horses behind Shen Qingqiu, Zhao Hua’s fae have arrayed themselves in neat, severe formation, their horsetail whisks draped neatly across their arms.
Luo Binghe is looking at it with barely-concealed awe. It must be his first time at an event like this, so Shen Qingqiu does not reprimand him for it—a little awe will not hurt his chances, especially as he is the underdog candidate in this hunt. No one but Liu Qingge and Shen Qingqiu know the true extent of Shen Qingqiu’s disciple’s training, and while the other Court Lords of Cang Qiong must suspect that something is afoot, their own disciples will surely underestimate a fae who they see as a fetch-and-carry lackey, and nothing else. As for the other courts, a no-name fae who they have never seen before? One that acts a little like a country bumpkin? They will probably put him out of their minds in favor of Liu Qingge’s own hand-picked disciple.
Still, he cannot be remiss in his disciple’s education. Speaking is anathema in this procession, but Shen Qingqiu catches Luo Binghe’s eye when he can, to nod to the opponents that Luo Binghe must be most careful of. Each time, Luo Binghe breaks into such a grateful smile that Shen Qingqiu must turn away, lest he be blinded by the sheer innocent joy of that expression. Save at least a little face, Luo Binghe!
The procession circles up around a cairn of a mountain, one that juts up out of the landscape like a knife. It is clearly an ancient site, carved with symbols too old to be read and decorated with the talismans and banners of Hunts past.
Light is slowly creeping into the sky as dawn approaches. All around them, the mist begins to glow, surrounding them in a gentle field of white. Shen Qingqiu longs for his bed, but instead turns his attention to the foot of the mountain, where Liu Qingge stands, his hand braced on the hilt of his sword. His voice rings out in the quiet of the early morning.
“The one who fells the strongest beast on this mountain and brings it back will be the victor. You will not be able to leave until the last light of day has set. The victor will be crowned ruler of the hunt.”
Ah, Liu Qingge! Always so succinct. There’s no space for wiggling out of the rules of the hunt when they are stated so plainly! Shen Qingqiu brings a sleeve up to hide his mouth, and watches out of the corner of his eye as Qi Qingqi and Mu Qingfang do much the same. The fae of the other courts seem surprised, though it is visible mostly in the subtle shifting of their postures, the way they catch eyes with their fellows, rather than their expressions. Shouldn’t they know by now of Liu Qingge’s particular reputation?
“The moment the sun comes over the horizon, you will begin,” Liu Qingge says. “Are you ready?”
The hunters bow their heads. Shen Qingqiu watches as Luo Binghe’s curly hair bobs in between Yang Yixuan and Liu Mingyan. How tense his shoulders are! Ah, he wishes he could step close enough to give his disciple one last encouraging pat on the head. Do your best, Luo Binghe!
Instead, he fingers a string of beads in his sleeve, rolling one between his thumb and his forefinger. It is not his season, so the effect will not be particularly powerful, but—ah! Yes, it is just enough to ruffle the strands of his disciple’s hair.
Luo Binghe does not startle. He must surely be used to the familiar feeling of his Lord’s magic by now. But he glances over his shoulder, just enough to give Shen Qingqiu a smile.
Then the first sliver of the sun rises over the trees. The mountain itself seems to reverberate with the clear ringing tone of a bell. And the hunters are off.
As the disciples begin their hunt with the sun, so too dawns Shen Qingqiu’s own battle for the day. Ostensibly, the rest of the fae court gathers at the base of the mountain to guard the wards and monitor the progress of their prodigies. In truth, it is an excuse for a Midsummer feast.
The tents that are set up are clearly the work of Qi Qingqi and Shang Qinghua, for all that they bear the ostensible marks of the Court Lord of Winter. Light and diaphanous, they give the feeling of being isolated in a cloud. The food, too, is clearly Shang Qinghua’s work, in the many tiny delicacies that are prepared. Were it up to Liu Qingge, it might be just plain rice and unseasoned meat! Shen Qingqiu’s mouth waters. Food among the fae is a weapon more than any other, but today it will be a risk well taken.
Only Liu Qingge is so brash as to leave the festivities to actually commit the duty of patrolling. The rest of them prepare, instead, to do battles with words. Shen Qingqiu steadies his smile, readies the antidotes he keeps in the pockets of his sleeves, and prepares to mingle.
First, he makes his way to Qi Qingqi. She has settled herself with Mu Qingfang, it seems, and the two of them are conversing in low murmurs. When Shen Qingqiu approaches and bows, she makes no effort to hide that she was just talking, only smiles and bows back.
“Lady of Summer,” he says, cordially. “Lord of Autumn.”
“Lord of Spring,” they both murmur back, politely.
He knows what they wish to ask, of course, but there is no need to make asking the question easy on them. He knows it, and they know it. They will eventually find a way to steer the conversation around, but Shen Qingqiu has a reputation to maintain, even if it is only as the former ruler of the court. He will not make it easy on them.
“Qi Qingqi,” he says, “Is it your hand I see on the preparations?”
“Ah, Shen Qingqiu,” she returns, a smile curling at the corners of her mouth. “Do you not know? It is, of course, the Lord of the Hunt who is responsible for all of this.”
“Of course,” Shen Qingqiu agrees smoothly. “The furs draped over each seat are truly a testament to his strengths.”
Qi Qingqi laughs. She has always, Shen Qingqiu thinks, delighted in the sharp wit of his predecessor, though perhaps loathed the rest of him enough to celebrate his downfall to the ranks of her peer. The opportunity to test the mettle of her own temperament against his seems to bring her enjoyment, in any case. Shen Qingqiu cannot say he finds the same pleasure in it, but it is due to her sharp tongue that he considers himself as prepared to act out this role as he is.
Mu Qingfang hums, a gentle sound of agreement. “This event,” he says in his gentle voice, “has done a wonderful job of representing the interests of Cang Qiong.”
Qi Qingqi preens subtly. Shen Qingqiu inclines his head. “Just so,” he murmurs agreement.
“I only hope our own disciples will represent us in such a fashion,” Mu Qingfang continues.
Shen Qingqiu sharpens his smile. “Ah, hopeful words from a Fae Lord who has not sent his own prodigy into battle. And Qi Qingqi, if I am not mistaken, your own choice is no other than the Lord of Winter’s sister? You are daring to consider her the representative of your season alone.”
This is what it means to take on the role of Shen Qingqiu. He has known it from the start. Gaining superiority by casting aspersions on one’s rivals is the way of all fae, and furthermore is Shen Qingqiu’s unrivalled skill. It cannot do to be too complimentary, lest he find himself eaten by wolves. Yet, there is more to it than simply casting insults if he wishes to keep from being torn apart by the rivals he and the true Shen Qingqiu have left in their wake.
So he waves his sleeve-covered hand, as though to dismiss the words, and glances around, to where Mu Qingfang’s chosen disciple seems to be discussing something with the Zhao Hua fae. “Though, perhaps in restoring the disciples of Zhao Hua and Huan Hua to health in the aftermath of their failure, the court of autumn will comport itself with skill. And then, with the lady Liu’s veil, she might be anyone, might she not? Certainly not the younger sister of our own Lord of Winter.”
It is acceding ground, and Qi Qingqi does not go gentle on him for it. “In the pursuit of glory for Cang Qiong, the Lord of Spring has made an unusual choice himself,” she observes.
“Oh, is that so?” Shen Qingqiu asks, keeping his expression neutral.
“Just so,” Qi Qingqi says. “Has Ming Fan not showed promise?”
So then Luo Binghe’s lessons with Liu Qingge have not become known at all, if the best source of information and gossip in Cang Qiong has not discovered them. Not for the first time, Shen Qingqiu finds himself grateful for Liu Qingge’s constantly closed mouth. It may make conversation difficult to the point of being painful, but certainly no secret escapes Liu Qingge’s mouth!
“Ming Fan has shown plenty of promise,” Shen Qingqiu says. “But he was not the best choice to represent the Spring Court.” And with that, he smiles at the both of them, and excuses himself.
The day continues on in much the same vein as that first interaction. Shen Qingqiu faces lots of probing questions, particularly about his choice in representative for the hunt. It is to be expected. Luo Binghe is not a name that is well-known among the fae courts, though this Hunt is doing much of what Shen Qingqiu expected to change that. Furthermore, Shen Qingqiu is a rare sight outside of the Cang Qiong fae court, and the story of his ‘demotion’ is still a matter of mystery, a rather unusual occurrence in a fae court.
There is the truth, of course, but only Yue Qingyuan knows the truth in its entirety. Even Shen Qingqiu, though he is more complicit in the story than anyone, knows only the shape of what happened to his predecessor, and has only guesses to fill in the gaps. For the rest, they can only guess at what even the cover story is that brings them to this point.
In this gathering it leads to a great many probing questions about Shen Qingqiu’s standing, and his relationship with Yue Qingyuan, all ones that he dodges with graceful redirections or sharp and witty barbs. He may not have the pride of the original Shen Qingqiu, but he knows very well that his life is on the line! If he fails to protect this secret, he is going to be immediately and painfully dead. It is easy enough to brush aside his reasons for not joining the competition himself, at least. All he must do is insinuate that without Liu Qingge participating as an opponent, he would have little competition. It’s a bald-faced lie, but even Liu Qingge would not dare call him out in the middle of a soirée to challenge him on it!
And so it goes, until Shen Qingqiu finds himself standing in front of the old Huan Hua Master.
“Old Master,” Shen Qingqiu says, gently inclining his head. To do so is required, even of a Lord of the Seasons, though Shen Qingqiu would surely resent the gesture, and therefore Shen Yuan only bows the minimum required for respect.
It must be that the feeling is mutual, because the old man hardly twitches his own head in response. “Lord of the Spring, now, is it?” he says in a low, gravelly voice.
Shen Qingqiu allows his smile to thin. This! Surely it is intended at disrespect! What else could it be, when he is drawing attention to Shen Qingqiu’s fall in rank from his position as Yue Qingyuan’s spouse and co-ruler? Never mind that Shen Yuan himself has never been the one in that rank.
“I am pleased that the Lord of Huan Hua’s memory has not failed him,” he responds coolly.
Truly, the Master of Huan Hua is an anomaly among the fae, for his appearance if nothing else! A wizened old man, rather than the elegant and eternal beauty of the other Lords? It seems that the man is relying on his appearance to carry the weight of his wisdom. Or perhaps it is that fae truly can age? Shen Qingqiu does not know which thought might bother him more, but he keeps all of his reactions from his expression.
The Palace Master nods, and even strokes at his beard. “If this master’s memory is correct, there is a new servant taking your place among the Wild Hunt,” he observes.
Truly, the nerve of this man! “Ah, this one’s protege?” Shen Qingqiu smiles again, “He has progressed quite well. It would be a shame not to show off his growth. I see you yourself are of the same mind, to gracefully accede your place in the contest.”
Of course, Shen Qingqiu knows from his research, the Huan Hua Palace Master has not participated in any show of skill for tens of seasons. But the Master has a thick face, or at least the appearance of one, because he hardly even blinks at the insinuation, only inclines his head.
“And that student of yours, what was he named again?”
Shen Qingqiu arches an eyebrow. “He is called Luo Binghe,” he answers.
“Luo Binghe,” the palace master repeats. “Is that so. Ah, but he does remind me greatly of one of the old members of my Court.”
“Ah, is that so?” Shen Qingqiu says, cultivating a careful air of disinterest.
“Quite so,” the palace master says. “Only she was disgraced, and cast out many seasons ago.”
Ah, so this is his angle, then. “It is quite fortunate, then, that his skill outshines any unfortunate resemblance,” Shen Qingqiu says. “For Luo Binghe is one of many taken in by Cang Qiong for their talent alone.”
The Palace Master does not look well pleased by that, but he is sure enough of a fae negotiator to know when he has been maneuvered away from a subject, and lets it drop in favor of other, more immediate barbs.
“Of course, of course,” he says, with all the lofty superiority a fae possesses inherently. “Now, I cannot seem to find the Lord Yue Qingyuan. If you might escort me to him?”
It’s a low and easy blow, but Shen Qingqiu smiles back. “Of course,” he says. “If the Palace Master requires it, this servant will of course provide him the proper accommodations for one of his venerable age.”
And as things dip back into the world of politicking, Shen Qingqiu tucks aside the thought, for the moment, of Luo Binghe’s parentage. There will be time later to investigate this scandal and what it might mean for his student. For now, there is only the matter of preserving his reputation.
Which means preserving appearances with Yue Qingyuan.
“My Lord,” Shen Qingqiu says, as he escorts the Huan Hua Palace Master closer.
Yue Qingyuan looks as resplendent as always, a somber slice of grey and white amongst the delicate colors all around him. The gems in his jewelry all glimmer as they clink gently together in hypnotic rhythm, gilded and embroidered at the edges with Qi Qingqi’s colors, in a nod to the summer.
Shen Qingqiu wonders what he once wore to signify his partnership, for if there is anything of Shen Qingqiu in that outfit he cannot discern it now. Even the fan Yue Qingyuan carries at his side is decorated in subtle greys and whites, rather than the spring green of the ones Shen Qingqiu carries. He does not even dress in mourning, though perhaps that too would be inappropriate, when in reality and in appearances Shen Qingqiu is not dead.
But he has little time to ponder these thoughts. Instead, he adopts the most disdainful expression he can. Haughty and offended is an expression that fits well on the face of Shen Qingqiu, though Shen Yuan much prefers to adopt pleasant neutrality.
For his part, Yue Qingyuan manages to look quite aloof and distant. “Lord of Spring,” he says, perfectly pleasant. There is no hint of affection, no ache of loss. Shen Qingqiu wonders if it is easier or more difficult for Yue Qingyuan, to keep this charade with someone who is only wearing his lover’s face.
To preserve the illusion of damaged pride, Shen Qingqiu turns on his heel and leaves them to it.
Something is wrong.
That is to say, nothing is wrong , exactly. The sun is only just beginning to set. There is no sound from the mountain, which is as it should be. Everything is peaceful, and the fierce maneuvering of earlier in the day has settled down into simple betting on the outcome of their disciples. This in itself is its own kind of politics, but it is simple enough to accomplish.
No one else seems to notice it, or if they are, they are acting remarkably nonchalant about it. Yet Shen Qingqiu cannot shake the feeling that there is something in the air. He feels it in the prickling at the back of his neck, at the taste of the air. Something strange is going to happen, he is sure of it.
Still, he has a part to play. He refrains from so much as glancing toward the mountain and the perimeter at the base of it, simply drinks his wine and casts his bets with a veneer of overconfidence that he is sure will be well-deserved, when Luo Binghe returns. It is only when they begin to arrange themselves once again at the foot of the mountain, to receive their victor, that Shen Qingqiu allows his eyes to return to it.
In truth, he cannot be sure of Luo Binghe’s victory here, though he is confident in his ability to rank well. The disciple from Huan Hua palace has been a name on everyone’s lips during this, not to mention Liu Qingge’s own hand-picked prodigy, a rarity at the best of times. Still, Shen Qingqiu has confidence that his student at least has a chance.
But there is something… concerning. Truly, what it is, he thinks, is that there are no disciples waiting on the edges of the field. Of the dozens of hunters selected to take part in this competition, surely there must be a few who were too confident in their abilities and were forced to give up the competition! But where are they? Surely Liu Qingge has not selected creatures to hunt that would destroy every last one of them?
Ah, but it is Liu Qingge. Of course he would!
Yet even that should not cause the eerie premonition that works its way down Shen Qingqiu’s spine. There is something in the quality of the shadows and the chill of the breeze that brings him pause. As he stands there, waiting for the talismans marking the barrier to fall, he reaches into his sleeve for one of his many artifacts, a piece of paper that he holds tightly within his hands.
The sun begins to sink. Liu Qingge draws his blade, a gleaming ice-cold edge that he holds in front of him. There are no words, no ritual motions that he takes as the last molten glow of the sun sinks below the horizon. He simply lifts the blade and cuts the talisman, and therefore the barrier, in two.
In that instant, premonition becomes certainty. Shen Qingqiu tastes it in the air like the aftermath of a lightning strike, like salt, like rot. In this instant, as the last light of day leaves them, something—someone— Unseelie has arrived.
A cry goes up from the surrounding Seelie fae, as some step back in horror, and others begin to dart away for cover. Liu Qingge and Yue Qingyuan do not even stop to exchange glances, but begin to charge their way up the mountain.
Shen Qingqiu turns on the spot, tears the paper between his hands, and disappears into the air.
When he completes his turn, he’s at the top of the mountain. His feet touch gently down onto ground torn by battle. The sensation of power is enough to make the hairs on the back of his neck rise.
Shen Qingqiu pulls another artifact out of his sleeve, one of his many fans, and turns.
Sure enough, there are signs of a battle everywhere, in the splintered trees and gouged earth. There are even splashes of blood, here and there. Shen Qingqiu thinks he sees the collapsed forms of several disciples around, including Gongyi Xiao, who has fallen still in the midst of the open space of the peak.
The source of this destruction is also equally clear, and Shen Qingqiu gasps to see it. A Black Moon Rhinoceros Python—whether Seelie or Unseelie, the beasts are legendarily difficult to bring down. And yet here this one lies, dead.
And over it—
Shen Qingqiu has never met this fae before, but it is impossible not to recognize him. The sharp horns, the furred cloak, the gleaming eyes and the bright seal on his forehead—not to mention the frost spreading through the shadows at his feet…
The Unseelie Lord of Winter, Mobei-Jun, is impossible not to recognize on sight.
And he has his hand around Luo Binghe’s throat.
The spring winds may not answer his summons as strongly in the summer, and a Seelie fae’s power may be weaker at night, but the leaf-knives Shen Qingqiu sends shooting forth are more than enough to open long, bleeding cuts everywhere they strike the Unseelie Lord. Mobei-Jun turns narrowed, glowing eyes on Shen Qingqiu.
“You shall release this disciple,” Shen Qingqiu says, in the calmest voice he can muster. “Or you will face the wrath of breaking the treaty.”
“The treaty,” Mobei-Jun rumbles, “is the work of your kind, not of the Unseelie.”
“Nevertheless,” Shen Qingqiu says. “Unhand him.”
Yet Mobei-Jun only looks between Shen Qingqiu and the still-struggling Luo Binghe. “What the treaty covers is not relevant here,” he says.
“Not relevant?” Shen Qingqiu readies the fan once again. “You have attacked a Seelie—”
Luo Binghe’s struggles are slowing, but his eyes meet Shen Qingqiu’s with nothing but alarm. He gasps a breath, but any words he might say are cut off by the tightening of Mobei-Jun’s hand. There is something wrong with his eyes, Shen Qingqiu realizes with a panicked sort of dread. There is an eerie shape to them, something that, while it surely is not human, is not Seelie, either. No, it is… they are glowing.
“I think you have no claim to him, Seelie,” Mobei-Jun says, and drives his claws into Luo Binghe’s chest.
The sound that emerges from Luo Binghe is what Shen Qingqiu can only describe as a snarl. As blood begins staining his clothing, however, something more happens. His eyes light up with that hint of a glow. His skin begins to darken, and his head, when he turns it back toward Shen Qingqiu, looks strange, oddly shaped. It is as though there is something beginning to grow from his skull, odd lumps of shape that weren’t there before. Most of all, though, Shen Qingqiu notices the marking that is now present in the middle of Luo Binghe’s forehead.
It is the unmistakable mark of the Unseelie.
Mobei-Jun drops him, abruptly, and Luo Binghe collapses into the dirt, one hand to his throat as he coughs, the other pressed to the wound on his chest.
Shen Qingqiu takes another step back, looking between Mobei-Jun and Luo Binghe. This is… without question, this is bad! The worst! This is unquestionably a breach of the treaty. More than that, this is an immediate danger to Shen Qingqiu and to Luo Binghe! That Shen Qingqiu is the Lord of the Seasons who Luo Binghe serves cannot be in doubt, even to an Unseelie. If he does not maneuver carefully, he will die, or the two courts will descend once more into war.
“Shizun—” Luo Binghe gasps. There is blood at the corner of his mouth. Shen Qingqiu can see now, that those odd lumps on his head were, in fact, the beginnings of horns.
Shen Qingqiu ignores him. “Ah, is that so?” he says, in the mildest tone he can. “Then of course we must remedy this error. You may take him.”
The sound Luo Binghe makes is breathless and wounded. “But, Shizun!”
Only now does Shen Qingqiu allow his attention to turn to his student— no, Luo Binghe must be his former student. “Look at yourself, Luo Binghe. It is clear that you do not belong among the Seelie court.” He lifts his eyes to Mobei-Jun. “To restore balance to the treaty, I return him to his rightful court.”
Mobei-jun nods. He reaches down, grabs Luo Binghe by the scruff of the neck, and then, with a bone-achingly dark twist of magic, they are both gone.
Shen Qingqiu stands there, his fan slipping from his hand, until a shout of his name has him turning. There, from the woodlands, charge Yue Qingyuan and Liu Qingge, arriving just too late.
Chapter 3: The Bargain
After losing his student in the midst of the Wild Hunt, what else can Shen Qingqiu do but move on?
Sorry for the wait! The holidays are a time. Everything else is ready to post, so expect the final chapter before the year is out, and thank you for your patience.
(See the end of the chapter for more notes.)
The world carries on.
More specifically, Shen Qingqiu carries on. What else is there for him to do? It is a catastrophe, to be certain, but everyone has suffered it. Shen Qingqiu is hardly the only one who lost students to the Dark Moon Rhinoceros Python, or to lesser monsters on the Hunt (or the greatest opponent— Mobei-Jun surely did not go entirely uncontested until Shen Qingqiu arrived). All that’s left is to figure out the how, and the why, and to keep on living.
If anything else had happened, Shen Qingqiu might have forgotten it without a moment of hesitation. In honesty, his priorities have remained much the same— to survive the Seelie court and gain as much power as he can, just as he was brought here to do. To simply exist as Shen Qingqiu, a placeholder, until Yue Qingyuan decides… something.
What that ultimately will be, Shen Qingqiu does not know. Yue Qingyuan has started to send him and others out into the world more often, on quests and errands to retrieve this flower or that drop of dew from some place of moonlit power. All are impressive artifacts in their own right. Shen Qingqiu collects quite a few artifacts of his own on journeys like these. They will surely come in useful, but no matter what they find and return, Yue Qingyuan sends them out again.
It must surely be related to the real Shen Qingqiu, but Shen Yuan cannot determine what these items thy rerieve are intended to do. From the research he manages into them, each seems to be a powerful antidote. Yet, they are sent out again and again, as though the cures they find are having no effect.
This is the sort of thing that anyone would find infuriating— and indeed, some do find it so. Shang Qinghua, in particular, seems to be frustrated by the demands on his time, though he is one of the few who goes out as often as Shen Qingqiu. He has not forgotten that he was the one in charge of the arrangements for the Wild Hunt, and the way those arrangements failed. Shen Qingqiu is sure he is not the only one keeping a close watch on Shang Qinghua, after that.
More to the point, the demands on his time and energy called on by Yue Qingyuan should bother Shen Qingqiu. He accepted this position for its luxuries, after all!! What is the point of taking the role of a target and a distraction if he doesn’t get to do it in comfort?
But the comforts of being the Lord of Spring are not what he once thought them, either. His staff is useful enough, at delivering his meals on time and preparing tea, or cleaning out his home, but there is always something missing. He is all too aware that it went missing at the same time as Luo Binghe. And yet, there’s nothing he can do about that situation! Luo Binghe has been restored to his rightful court! It would be the height of arrogance for Shen Qingqiu to wish his return simply because his food is of a lesser quality, or his clothes are not laundered to his satisfaction, but he finds himself missing the apprentice trailing behind him anyway. He even catches himself reaching out to pat some of the disciples on their foreheads a few times! How embarrassing for him. Ning Yingying will accept it well enough, but to do something like this to Ming Fan… his reputation surely won’t stand it.
So he spends his time away from the Court. It isn’t particularly difficult, the travelling, though he still is cautious when dealing with horses. Occasionally he is accompanied by others, but other times he travels on his own. The seasons pass, and pass again. Shen Qingqiu is required to remain among the Seelie during the Spring, to see to the celebrations of his Season. He arranges whatever parties he cannot pass on to Shang Qinghua, avoids the Lord of the Seelie’s gardens whenever he can, retreats more and more often to the comforts of his garden, away from the eyes of even Ning Yingying and Ming Fan. And each year, when Summer comes around again, he leaves the Court.
This particular trip, he is accompanied by both Liu Qingge and Mu Qingfang. Qi Qingqi is required to remain at court, seeing to the duties of the season, but the rest of them are free to travel as needed. Liu Qingge and Shen Qingqiu are the two who do so most often, though not always together. Rarely together, in fact. But this time, Mu Qingfang has been sent out. Technically he did not request their company, but they were setting out themselves, so why not tag along to travel with company? It makes the journey better.
Or it ought, if only Shen Qingqiu could muster much attention for the conversation that Mu Qingfang is currently attempting to carry. He is speculating in some form on the nature of this particular artifact, Shen Qingqiu is reasonably certain. It is something he would nominally be quite interested in.
But it is difficult to find the energy for it. The sun is high overhead, and all of them are wilting, markings dim and energy low. Even Liu Qingge—or perhaps especially Liu Qingge, Lord of Winter as he is— is listless so far from his own season. For Shen Qingqiu, it is the simpler and more human reality of the heat. He’s supposed to have something of a disdain for Mu Qingfang, considering the opposing aspect of their seasons, but what he wouldn’t give for the respite of a cool breeze in this moment!
In truth, Shen Qingqiu finds Mu Qingfang perhaps one of the most agreeable of the Lords of the Seasons— he is certainly the best at being polite without seeming to have an ulterior motive. But he is also the one who might most easily see through Shen Qingqiu’s secret, which makes him a danger. So Shen Qingqiu keeps his own polite distance, and nods along to his conversation without taking much of it in, and tries not to be relieved when Liu Qingge brings them to an abrupt halt with a raised hand.
“We have arrived,” he announces.
Shen Qingqiu reins in his horse and looks. Sure enough, while the path before them seems overgrown and abandoned, there is the hint of magic in the air, enough to raise the hair on Shen Qingqiu’s arms and put the taste of iron in his mouth. It is uncertainly yet undeniably ancient, and dangerous— it is just the kind of place one would expect to find some ancient magic.
“Show caution, and respect,” Mu Qingfang says, as the three of them dismount.
Shen Qingqiu holds in his scoff, but Liu Qingge is not so good at disguising his contempt.
“This is not the first site any of us has visited, Lord of Autumn,” he says curtly.
Mu Qingfang does not seem to be offended by this. “Of course not,” he says. “But it is a place of unusual power, and it is quickly moving towards dusk. It would become us all to act with care.” He pats his horse on its nose, and leans in towards its ear. No doubt he’s bidding it to remain until they might return.
“Certainly it is advice to be taken into consideration,” Shen Qingqiu says. “However, if we are to complete the task before dark comes on, we should show as much haste as caution.”
Mu Qingfang nods and does not argue, but it is of course Liu Qingge who leads them onward. He steps onto the path with a brief and perfunctory bow. Then, taking care not to trample the greenery half-swallowing the path, he steps forward. Mu Qingfang does not immediately follow, but clasps his hands together and murmurs what sounds like a gentle request to the lands to forgive them their trespasses.
Shen Qingqiu tucks his hands into his sleeves and bows his head, taking on the mien of one who is doing the same, but focuses his attention instead on double-checking that his artifacts are all safely stored in his sleeves. It would not do to be caught off-guard here, in the view of his supposed peers.
So he pulls a few items to hold at the ready, then steps forward.
There is only one path, but it is twisting and forbidding. The cobbles of it are nearly buried under heavy greenery that they all do their best not to disturb, and every now and then an ancient statue looms out of the surrounding trees, ancient and grimacing guardians that almost seem to take the form of stone lines and qilin—almost, but not quite. Something is settled into the stones of them, a power older and just barely Seelie.
They find a place where the path widens into a clearing, maintained by a roofed pavilion. In the center of the pavilion is a small writing desk, and on the desk, a single strip of paper, with brush and ink set beside it. They all step forward cautiously, but nothing more appears, even when Shen Qingqiu reaches out to touch the implements.
“When leaving tomorrow, what is left behind?” Shen Qingqiu reads aloud, smoothing his fingers along the paper, and very carefully avoiding the brushes.
Liu Qingge snorts. “An opportunity,” he suggests.
Mu Qingfang hums, and puts a hand to his chin. “If one takes the question literally, perhaps,” he says. “But there is a brush provided. If the answer need only be spoken aloud, the question could simply be carved into the stone, without the need for ink and paper, could it not?”
“Carved into stone, and answered with a careless thought spoken aloud,” Shen Qingqiu says, glancing pointedly at Liu Qingge.
Liu Qingge, of course, looks unrepentant. He only crosses his arms and snorts.
“Then the key to the answer must lie in the writing of it,” Mu Qingfang continues. He joins Shen Qingqiu in leaning over the desk, looking down at the slip of paper. They all lapse into contemplative silence for a while, as they examine the characters of the riddle.
“The moon,” Shen Qingqiu says, tapping at the curve of the moon in the midst of the word tomorrow. “The moon is left behind.”
“Ah,” Mu Qingfang says. “Of course. Well spotted, Lord of Spring.”
Shen Qingqiu inclines his head, then takes up the brush. The ink is already prepared, and thus all Shen Qingqiu must do is write the answer, holding his sleeves delicately out of the way. Once the character is written, the paper erupts into a little burst of flame, and the gate beyond the pavilion unlocks, letting them pass.
“Let us hope,” Shen Qingqiu teases, “That the other protections are different, lest Liu Qingge be left with nothing to do.”
“Hold your tongue,” Liu Qingge grumbles. “Or it will be your skill that is called on.”
“Was it not already?” Shen Qingqiu says. “The Lord of Autumn and I have done our parts.”
“We will all have done our parts when the artifact is safely in our hands,” Mu Qingfang interjects. “Do not presume our victory before that time.”
Thus chastened, all three of them remain silent until they reach the next point along the path. There is no pavilion here, just an open space, tiled with stone.
Before Shen Qingqiu can make out anything more than that, there is a blur of motion at his side. Shen Qingqiu nearly startles as Liu Qingge seems to materialize in the center of the courtyard. His sword, bright and gleaming, is stabbed through the chest of a suit of armor, one that Shen Qingqiu had not had a chance to notice before.
Liu Qingge pulls the sword back, and the armor falls, the empty helmet rolling off to rattle on the cobbles.
“Be careful,” Liu Qingge says. “Its sword is iron.”
Mu Qingfang immediately steps forward. “Are you hurt?” he asks, already reaching into one of his sleeves.
“No,” Liu Qingge says, but when he turns, there is a blistering cut on his cheek, straight through the faint lines of his magical markings.
Mu Qingfang makes a scolding sound. “Hold still,” he orders, pulling out a jar. There is the strong smell of herbs from it when he uncaps it, and the paste he smears across Liu Qingge’s injury is green. Liu Qingge makes a sound of annoyance, but he cannot draw away from it in time to avoid the salve. “There. Don’t you think of removing it. If it really were nothing, you wouldn’t be injured.”
Liu Qingge ignores this. “We ought to keep moving,” he says, nudging the dented armor with the toe of one boot. “The light is failing.”
Sure enough, as they continue to climb, the sky dims, and dusk fades slowly into twilight. By the time they are closing in on the top of the mountain, the stars have begun to glimmer overhead. Shen Qingqiu is doing his best to hide it, but he is relieved when the first signs of another clearing appear. He is in good enough shape for a human, but this much climbing is tiresome, especially when keeping up with never-tiring fae! He would like nothing more than to retire from this errand and rest a while.
Yet, before he can pick up his pace, Shen Qingqiu is stopped with a hand barring his path. “There is someone up ahead,” Liu Qingge says, his voice low and tense with warning.
“How can that be?” Mu Qingfang begins to say, but Shen Qingqiu quiets him with a hissed breath. Now that the question has been asked, he finds, he can see the answers to it everywhere. The ink, already prepared, the battered armor of the guardian…
He sees the red glow before anything else. The red glow of eyes, emerging from the dim gloom of the day’s end.
“Ah,” the figure says. “So I was correct. You are here.” The voice is deep, but more than that, it is familiar. Shen Qingqiu sucks in an unsteady breath. No, surely it could not be… This figure is an Unseelie, that much is certain, but...
Liu Qingge puts his hand to the hilt of his blade. “Unseelie,” he says. “Why are you here?”
“This one… has a debt to repay,” The fae—
No, it’s… Shen Qingqiu’s throat closes. He can feel his face going pale, even as he endeavors to keep calm. With those eyes, and those horns, it is undeniably an Unseelie Lord of some rank, and yet... It is only now, with that face in front of him, that he can bring himself to admit what he has dreaded all along.
His former pupil, and how strange, t o think it while looking at this man, this strange mirror image of the bright young fae he once so coddled. The time away has sharpened those features into those of a true beauty, a man handsome even without compare among the fae realms. Shen Qingqiu did not at the time ever look at Luo Binghe and think that something about him was missing, but to look at him now is to see all the things he was not yet grown into as a teenager. The long limbs, the broad chest, the sharp cheekbones…
And too, there are the things that are different. The curling horns are the most obvious feature, jutting as they do like a ram’s horns and sweeping back over his skull to curl next to his ears. He has the same pointed ears as all the fae, but his facial marking is an insignia, rather than the delicate decorations of the Seelie Court, including the ones that line Shen Qingqiu’s features. The tail, too, is new, and it lashes dangerously at his heels.
It is the eyes, however, that strike at Shen Qingqiu the most. The eyes with their brilliant crimson irises and slitted pupils, that stare unwaveringly into his face, never mind that Shen Qingqiu is standing behind a warrior far more dangerous than he— and that Luo Binghe must surely know that fact.
Shen Qingqiu can hear the hissed intake of breath from Liu Qingge, the muffled gasp of Mu Qingfang, at that revelation. But surely they must have seen it?
“Lord of the Spring.” Luo Binghe’s voice, too, has deepened. “Greetings, from my court to yours. I do not mean to disturb you in your retrieval of this item.” He holds up a box, elaborately gilded.
“And from mine to yours,” Shen Qingqiu echoes weakly. He quails inwardly. Where is the bright and eager young student who was once so easy to read! This man gives off nothing, even with a gaze intent enough to see through to Shen Qingqiu’s core! “You… have grown up well.”
The Unseelie’s eyes gleam a brilliant red. He steps forward, the hint of a smirk playing at his mouth. At Shen Qingqiu’s side, Liu Qingge jerks. Possibly he would have gone for his sword, but Shen Qingqiu shakes his head in the negative, or perhaps Mu Qingfang dares to grab his sword arm, from the sudden halt of the gesture. Shen Qingqiu does not dare to look away from those eyes that seem to be staring through him, down to the heart and the bone.
“What debt is it, that brings you to this place?” Shen Qingqiu asks.
To his surprise, Luo Binghe smiles. It is not the kind of smile that Shen Qingqiu is familiar with from his former pupil. His sweet, innocent white sheep fae who could not lie to save his life! How has he grown up to look so… predatory?
“Who else could it be but you, Shizun?”
Shen Qingqiu blinks. Him? In fact, that is the last answer he expected!
“You will have to explain yourself further, Lord,” he says. He notices, vaguely, that Mu Qingfang has kept hold of Liu Qingge’s arm, preventing him from drawing his sword in haste. “If your debt is to me, is it not to the entirety of the Seelie Court?”
Luo Binghe’s expression twists. “Certainly not,” he says. He paces closer. Shen Qingqiu steels his spine, and does not step back, no matter how close Luo Binghe comes. “Tell me, Shizun, how long it was that I was in your court.”
“It was a year and a day, to my recollection.”
Luo Binghe nods, that smile still playing across his face. “Just so,” he says. “And in that time among your court, how would you say I was treated?”
Shen Qingqiu’s throat closes. What is this? What is this?! Is Luo Binghe seeking revenge? Is this some sort of trick question? Surely there cannot be any safe answer to a question put so bluntly!
Mu Qingfang makes a disbelieving sound. “What could you mean?” he says. “Surely it is common knowledge that Shen Qingqiu treated his disciple Luo Binghe most partially out of all his proteges?”
“Just so,” Luo Binghe says. “Shen Qingqiu hosted an Unseelie in his Court, as a student, with grace and proper welcome. Thus, I am in his debt. In order to repay this gesture, shouldn’t I return the favor?”
It takes them only a moment to catch on, and Liu Qingge makes a sound of disgust.
“As your student?”
Luo Binghe looks askance at Liu Qingge. “To take on the Lord of Spring as a disciple? No. Doing so would be an insult, do you not think?”
Liu Qingge’s face is looking more and more mulish by the second. Shen Qingqiu wonders that he cannot hear his teeth grinding.
“No,” Luo Binghe continues, his eyes glittering. “For the sake of propriety, I must insist that he come as my betrothed.”
Shen Qingqiu barely keeps his jaw from dropping. This brazen man! And yet…
The artifact sits in Luo Binghe’s hand, plain and unassuming, and yet they have been tasked with retrieving it. A year and a day… is it any such hardship?
Shen Qingqiu steps forward, ignoring the protests of his companions. “I will agree to your conditions,” he says, “if you give the artifact to these two.”
Luo Binghe’s smile grows. “This thing?” he says, casually hefting the box. “Done. It is of no great value to me.”
Ah, but if that is true, then what brings him here? Could it really be just this bargain he has proposed?
“Lord of Spring,” Mu Qingfang protests. “We should really bring this matter up before the Lord Yue Qingyuan…”
“No.” Luo Binghe’s voice rings across the mountain peak, strong enough that Mu Qingfang takes a step back. “It is not his decision to be made.”
“Do I have your word,” Shen Qingqiu says, “That I will be treated fairly?”
This is the time where he would expect any fae to negotiate, to mince words. But Luo Binghe only meets his eyes, and smiles. It’s not the sharp, dangerous smile he’s smiled before. This seems like a smile meant only for him.
“I will treat Shizun with all the respect my betrothed deserves.”
Shen Qingqiu swallows. He is surely making a mistake, and yet, he knows his own resolve. This is the course of action he is resigned to. He steps forward, extending his hand. “Then I agree to this bargain, on these terms.”
It happens so fast that Shen Qingqiu can barely process it. Luo Binghe hurls the box containing the artifact away. He hears Mu Qingfang cry out, and Liu Qingge curse— in moments, there will surely be a battle—
But Luo Binghe takes Shen Qingqiu’s hand in his, and within an instant, they are gone.
Shen Qingqiu staggers, nearly falls, only to find himself caught in strong arms.
“Shizun? Are you well?”
Luo Binghe— for of course that is who it must be— continues to steady him, until Shen Qingqiu regains his footing and steps quickly away. Shen Qingqiu tucks his hands into his sleeves, grasping for his own artifacts, and composing himself. “I am fine,” he says quickly.
Luo Binghe’s expression is a mask of perfect concern. Such a dramatic exit! He will surely have to be cautious of this one, no matter how much fondness Luo Binghe seems to still hold for him. “I apologize,” Luo Binghe says, bowing his head. “I did not mean to startle you, Shizun.”
“It is nothing,” Shen Qingqiu says stiffly. He only draws one step further back and his foot hits stone tile, rather than dirt or grass. He looks around them. “Where are we?”
This place is very different from the mountaintop they were just on. It is dark here, just as it was there, but this is where the similarities stop. In the dim light, they are not standing on the peak of a mountain, but in what Shen Qingqiu thinks is a garden, surrounded by bushes and the sweet scent of flowers. Shen Qingqiu can see walls through the branches, and the high peaks of terraced roofs beyond those. If it weren’t for the gloom of the place, Shen Qingqiu might mistake it for his own Spring Court.
“This is Shizun’s,” Luo Binghe says. “If you are to stay here for a year, you should do so in comfort, don’t you think?”
“...Right,” Shen Qingqiu says, slowly. He continues to examine the place, awed. Surely, he knows, there must be some difference, but in the nighttime, there is little way to tell. It seems to him like an exact replica of the little garden surrounding his home.
The cost of this alone must have been impressive, and Luo Binghe had it here, just waiting. Had he been so confident that Shen Qingqiu would accept his offered bargain? And… why his betrothed? Simply to nettle Yue Qingyuan? Or is there something else to it entirely?
“You are dismissed,” he hears Luo Binghe say to someone. When he turns, it is to see a familiar shape bowing, then disappearing off down the path.
“That was Mobei-Jun?” he asks.
Luo Binghe nods. “It is he who transported us here,” he says, gesturing at the garden. “He is repaying his own debt.”
It sounds ominous, when said like that, but Shen Qingqiu has heard rumors of the harsh ways of the Unseelie court. That Luo Binghe chooses to settle his debts in this fashion is surely a good sign for Shen Qingqiu’s own circumstances.
And yet the thought occupies him, as Luo Binghe escorts him to a humble building in the midst of a garden, leaving him quiet and distant. Luo Binghe clearly senses this, as he leaves Shen Qingqiu to the place without much more fussing.
“Shizun must be tired,” he says, bowing his way out. “You will find everything to your liking, I hope. I will return in the morning to begin introducing Shen Qingqiu to his temporary home.”
Shen Qingqiu nods, but remains silent, even after Luo Binghe leaves. He does not have it in him to be surprised that this building is a near-perfect replica of his own quarters in the Seelie Court. Surely this means something, but he struggles to pick apart the implications, as he goes through the motions of preparing himself for bed. Is being considered Luo Binghe’s betrothed safer or more dangerous for his own circumstances? His obligations to Yue Qingyuan are not being broken, so long as he keeps up the formality of playing Shen Qingqiu, but will Luo Binghe leave him to his own devices, or not? He can disguise himself as a fae well enough, but being in a strange court may well expose him despite his best intentions.
But he is the one who has accepted a fae bargain, and he is the one who must live with the consequences. As true as the thought is, it does not help him sleep.
The riddle that Mu Qingfang and Shen Qingqiu solve is one based on a written Chinese pun: The phrase "leave tomorrow," 明日走, when read according to the component radicals, can mean "The sun (日) is removed from the character for tomorrow (明)." And what's left behind is the character for moon (月)!
Chapter 4: The Promise
A year and a day in the Unseelie Court is a very short and a very long time.
We've made it! Thanks to everyone for reading. I had an amazing time with the MXTX Reverse Bang, the mods did a fantastic job putting it together. Thanks to Jay for helping me with beta work, and once again to Cieldelarose for the amazing prompt and artwork. Check the links at the end of the fic to see all the amazing stuff she did on her twitter.
Shen Qingqiu’s first morning in the Unseelie Court dawns drab, gray, and yet unspeakably overheated.
He lies in his bed for a time before groaning and mustering the energy to pull himself upright. There is so much to do to make himself presentable before any of the Unseelie can see him.
The first thing he does is check over his markings. The elaborate patterns decorating his face are part paint part magic, bestowed by Yue Qingyuan as a part of his disguise. For most fae, the markings are a natural extension of their magic, a representation of their season, their court, their ranking, and most of all their power. Right now, in the height of Summer, he knows that Qi Qingqi will be decorated with intricate white lines extending from her face down nearly to the tips of her fingers.
For a human like Shen Qingqiu, living with a borrowed power, the network of lines take a little more upkeep. Still, in a season like summer, when his power is waning, they’re easier to maintain. There’s nothing for him to touch up, not at this moment, so instead he focuses his attention on dressing himself and putting up his hair, and on ensuring that his collection of artifacts remains secure and hidden.
He’s just finished this when there comes a gentle knock. Shen Qingqiu settles in his seat. “Come in.”
“Good morning, Shizun,” Luo Binghe says. He’s balancing a tray with ease, despite the bowls covering it. Shen Qingqiu tries not to perk up, but the smells wafting towards him are both delicious and familiar.
“Binghe,” he says, as the tray is set down in front of him, “did you make this?”
Luo Binghe looks scandalized. “Of course I did,” he says.
Shen Qingqiu hesitates. It’s difficult to do, as his mouth is watering just looking at the food before him. Even plain congee looks delicious, the way Binghe makes it. “Surely you have more important things to attend to,” he says cautiously, “as Lord of the Unseelie.”
Luo Binghe waves a dismissive hand. “As the Lord of the Unseelie Court, you are my guest, and therefore my responsibility.”
It’s solid reasoning, and moreover reasoning that Shen Qingqiu doesn’t want to argue with, if the result is him getting food like this. He nods, bows his head, and begins to eat.
And so it goes. Every day, Shen Qingqiu wakes to Luo Binghe bringing in a delicious meal. They eat it together, talking occasionally, and then Luo Binghe disappears to take care of his own Court, leaving Shen Qingqiu largely to his own devices.
It is… strange. Shen Qingqiu thought, somehow, that being brought to the Unseelie Court as a not-quite-prisoner would be more dangerous than this, but it is just as pleasant as his time in the Seelie Court, perhaps even more so. After all, he is under Luo Binghe’s protection. He hardly needs to worry about his own political maneuvering, though he does have to be wary of Luo Binghe’s own Lords and Ladies of the seasons.
There is of course Mobei-Jun, but fortunately for Shen Qingqiu, that Unseelie Lord seems to care little about him and his position in Court. They come across each other occasionally, but Mobei-Jun seems content to steer clear of Shen Qingqiu’s quarters, and to ignore him where possible.
Others are not so circumspect. Sha Hualing, in particular, seems to delight in picking at him, challenging him and taunting as she can. It’s never quite enough for Shen Qingqiu to have to call upon Luo Binghe, so he guards against the Unseelie Lady of Autumn as best he can, and strikes back where pride warrants it. Eventually, she loses enough times that her interest begins failing, or perhaps it is the onset of her own season that distracts her, for a time. In any case, Shen Qingqiu is grateful to reach a day where he doesn’t have to worry about potential poisoning.
He expects that Luo Binghe might begin to lose interest in him over time just as Sha Hualing does, but contrary to those expectations, Luo Binghe seeks him out more and more. Even more surprising, Shen Qingqiu finds himself welcoming the company. They spend time together in the evenings, now, drinking tea and watching the leaves fall, or the snow settle, or the moon rise.
It is one day in the depths of winter when Luo Binghe says, “I wish for you to participate in the Winter Solstice festival.”
Shen Qingqiu pauses in the midst of lifting his teacup. “Ah, but I am not a part of your Court,” he says.
Luo Binghe scoffs. “You are my guest in the Court, and furthermore, this is a duty you would be performing if you were in the Seelie Court, is it not?”
Shen Qingqiu gestures an affirmative. “Though it would be Liu Qingge’s task, primarily. It is, after all, not my season.”
Luo Binghe looks up at him, his expression surprisingly candid. “But, Shizun, what about the time when you were… I mean…”
He looks nervous, bringing up Yue Qingyuan, and Shen Qingqiu feels an odd writhing of guilt in his stomach. He looks back down at his tea. “This one will never perform those duties,” he says, which is as much of an admission as he can allow himself to make.
They fall silent for a while. Finally, Luo Binghe calls Shen Qingqiu’s attention back up to himself with a hand placed over his own. Binghe’s hands are warm, Shen Qingqiu thinks. Or maybe it’s just that he’s cold.
“Then you must come to this one,” Luo Binghe says again. This time, Shen Qingqiu nods.
And he does attend the Solstice. Not only that, he begins to attend other, more minor events among the Unseelie Court. There is some grumbling, of course, and some attempts to kill him, which are surprisingly familiar. Shen Qingqiu has enemies everywhere, he finds himself reminded. But they’re desultory attempts, stopped by his own precautions as well as Luo Binghe’s. They rarely do more than bring him a moment of surprise. It feels something like a vacation.
Furthermore, he hardly has to put on the mask of being a Fae Lord. After all, who knows anything of Shen Qingqiu, aside from stories of his intelligence? Well, stories of his ruthlessness seem to abound, but they are blown out of proportion by their time in the rumor mill, and furthermore Luo Binghe has told his own stories of the Seelie Lord of Spring. By the time the end of winter comes about, Shen Qingqiu is nearly as integrated into the Unseelie Court as he was into the Seelie.
Spring gives him and Luo Binghe another time of the day to spend together, in fact. With the gardens of his quarters now flourishing, despite the dim light of the Unseelie Court, they have taken to wandering the garden paths during the day.
It is no secret now, that Luo Binghe has made these gardens in the image of Shen Qingqiu’s Spring Court. Wandering the gardens, it becomes immediately obvious. The paths, the buildings, everything is laid out in a perfect imitation. There are a few places where Luo Binghe’s memory failed him, but every time Shen Qingqiu has remarked on them, they are immediately corrected. The resemblance becomes most obvious in the spring, when even the green, verdant foliage imitates the gentle flowers Shen Qingqiu preferred to represent his own season as Lord of the Seelie Court.
Somehow, Luo Binghe has taken the inhospitable atmosphere of the Unseelie Court and transformed it into something gentle and familiar. Shen Qingqiu wonders at this, but he also appreciates it.
He must also wonder what the Unseelie Lord or Lady of Spring thinks of this, but he has yet to meet them, or even hear whispers of their existence. This, too, makes him suspicious, but he is not yet ready to confront Luo Binghe on that fact.
Instead, he pauses by a bench that has become his favorite. The little glen is shaded, and offers a view of the beautiful fields of flowers. Shen Qingqiu sits, arranging his robes on the bench, and Luo Binghe steps obligingly to the side, to keep from blocking his view. “Binghe,” he murmurs. “What is it that you intend to do with this place, once I am gone?”
Even in profile, Shen Qingqiu can see the scowl spread across Luo Binghe’s face.
“It will be kept,” he says, eventually. “If Shizun should ever desire to return to the Unseelie Court… that is, should you ever visit…”
“I think Yue Qingyuan would have something to say about it.”
Shen Qingqiu means for it to be a reprimand, but the words come out wistful. He lifts his sleeve to his mouth, and holds it there until he is sure he can master his expression, and his voice. It is difficult. Perhaps it is the simplicity of being alone in the Unseelie Court that is the source of it, but Shen Qingqiu is lonely, though he has only just realized it. He has been lonely ever since he first accepted a fae bargain, and came to use another’s title and name. In the Seelie Court, he has made allies, but he has done so from behind a mask the entire time. Shen Qingqiu, Qi Qingqi, Shang Qinghua, even Mu Qingfang, what would they think about him if he were to face them as Shen Yuan?
It is an impossible question. He cannot be Shen Yuan anywhere in the fae realms. There are uncountable reasons why, of course, but there is also the simple truth: telling them his true name would give them all power over him.
He shakes his head, discarding the thought. Here is Luo Binghe, who may be the only fae he knows, who knows him for who he is, in personality if not in name, and does not intend to take advantage of that. He musters a smile. “If Luo Binghe intends to bring about peace between the two courts, this Lord will gladly offer support, and visit. I believe I will miss you.”
“Shizun…” Luo Binghe murmurs. Then, to his surprise, he kneels at Shen Qingqiu’s feet. His eyes are suspiciously shiny. “I must ask. As a child, in the Seelie court… when Shizun took this one to be his student and retainer…Did you know?”
Shen Qingqiu reaches out in reflex, patting the top of Luo Binghe’s head. His hair, sure enough, is just as fluffy as it had once been. Luo Binghe’s eyes slide slowly closed, and Shen Qingqiu has to take a moment to be sure that he can speak without his voice wavering.
“When I took you in, after becoming the Lord of Spring… I did have my suspicions,” he admits. He cards his fingers gently through Luo Binghe’s hair, and rubs his thumb along the ridge of one horn, marveling in the keratin texture of them.
“If Shizun suspected this one’s nature… why did you let me stay?”
Shen Qingqiu lifts Luo Binghe’s face by a finger to his chin. Binghe follows the motion, and their eyes meet. Binghe’s eyes are so strange now, the gentle red glow, the slit pupils, and yet Shen Qingqiu cannot help but find them familiar. These are the same eyes that looked at him with such adoration before, and do so again, in this garden that looks so much like his own Spring Court. It is impossible to keep his manner cold and aloof, when faced with those eyes.
“How could I cast you out when I saw a kindred spirit in you?”
Luo Binghe’s jaw drops. Shen Qingqiu cannot help but smile at the utterly shocked expression on such an intimidating Unseelie Lord’s face. “Some decorum, Binghe,” he teases gently. “Though I admit, at the time I thought you human, not Unseelie.”
Luo Binghe’s jaw works. How, Shen Qingqiu wonders, could he ever have missed that this man is just as open of a book as he ever was when in the Seelie Court? Or perhaps, he thinks with a small spark of pleasure, it is only that Luo Binghe shows this vulnerability to him.
“No,” Binghe manages eventually. “This one knew something was strange, but never suspected… that.”
Then he blinks, and his pupils narrow, as he seems to catch himself. “Then… the Lord Yue Qingyuan… is married to a human?”
Shen Qingqiu’s face flushes. “The Lord Yue Qingyuan is married to his husband,” he says. He takes a breath, and considers his next words carefully. Will he trust Luo Binghe with everything?
Finding the answer is surprisingly easy. “This one is not… the lord Shen Qingqiu.”
Binghe’s eyes go wide again. This time, he jumps to his feet, and begins to pace, his hands clasped tightly behind his back. “Not— this all makes sense!” He mutters. “I had wondered— what is it that brought the Lord who so despised me to treat me so kindly in his exile—” He whirls on Shen Qingqiu. “What happened?”
Shen Qingqiu folds his hands in his lap, wary. “It is a long story,” he demurs.
“But this changes everything!” Luo Binghe shouts. He looks a bit wild, with the gleam growing in his eyes. “Shizun, the courts… humans are not bound to one or the other!”
“No,” Shen Qingqiu agrees, “but I am bound by obligation to the Lord Yue Qingyuan, and I value his good will too much to try and weasel my way out of the bargain. So too are you— and I would not have you try to escape a bargain that you began for my sake,” he says sternly, nipping the growing speculation he can see in Luo Binghe at the bud. “You made a promise to Yue Qingyuan in the faith that you would return his husband to him at the end of this time.”
Luo Binghe smiles. “Yes,” he crows, “but you are not his husband. Tell me, Shizun.” Then, when Shen Qingqiu hesitates again, his expression goes uncertain. “Unless… unless it is that Shizun does not like the Unseelie Court?”
“You have created a marvelous court,” Shen Qingqiu reassures him. “But it is more complicated than that.”
“It hardly is,” Luo Binghe says, his eyes growing dark and stormy. Shen Qingqiu can taste the growing power like the tang of iron on the back of his tongue. “Yue Qingyuan’s bargain was for me to return Shen Qingqiu to him by the time allotted. If you are not Shen Qingqiu, then I have no intention of handing you back over!”
“Binghe!” Shen Qingqiu snaps. “You will start a war!”
“Then so be it!” Luo Binghe growls.
“No!” Shen Qingqiu says, standing. He can feel his own markings beginning to glow, as he pulls out his fan and snaps it open, prepared to defend himself, or— if it comes to that— to attack. He has no illusions about his ability to defeat the Lord of the Unseelie, which is nonexistent, but if it takes the surprise of it to convince Luo Binghe of his sincerity, he will do it.
But to his surprise, Luo Binghe immediately stops, and bows his head when Shen Qingqiu lifts the fan.
“Shizun,” he says, sounding wretched. “I know you do not like it, but if that is the only way to get you away from there…”
“No,” Shen Qingqiu says, stiffly. He steps back, still holding the fan in his hand. “I will not have you causing war on my behalf, Binghe. Unless you can come up with another solution, do not come to me again.”
Shen Qingqiu turns and walks away down the path, Luo Binghe’s crumpling expression replaying over and over in his mind.
It is dark out, now. Shen Qingqiu has spent the day in his chambers, sitting disconsolately and trying and failing to distract himself.
The problem, he realizes, is that he does not want to leave, not if he has the option Luo Binghe has become the most important person in his life, somewhere along the line. He is Shen Qingqiu’s confidant, his constant companion, the only person he can trust. Who would want to give that up? Certainly not him!
And yet, he may have to. He is still bound in a promise to Yue Qingyuan, and if all the combined efforts of the Seelie Court have not yet found a solution to the true Shen Qingqiu’s problem, who might?
Shen Qingqiu is just about ready to give up and dress for bed—he does not expect to sleep— when he hears the quietest knock on his doorway. The servants are all dismissed, so he rises to answer it himself. He has an idea of who it might be.
And he is correct. In the dark, Shen Qingqiu can only just see the glow of Luo Binghe’s eyes and his facial marking.
“Come in,” he says, quietly. Luo Binghe bows his head, and enters. They both sit, remaining silent for some time.
“You know that Shen Qingqiu has many enemies,” he says quietly. Luo Binghe hums an agreement. “Of course. You helped defend me against many of them.”
“How was it that Shizun was able to fight them?”
Shen Qingqiu smiles into the darkness. “What tool does any mortal carry against a fae?”
“Iron,” Luo Binghe says promptly, sounding deeply offended by the thought.
Shen Qingqiu breathes out a laugh. “Ah, but if Shen Qingqiu is a fae, then he cannot be known to keep cold iron, can he?”
Luo Binghe frowns. “But, then…”
“It is true that I was given some gift of magic by Yue Qingyuan,” Shen Qingqiu answers, finally. “But on the whole, I was simply very, very careful.”
Luo Binghe scoffs. “That is the same as me saying that I have a little bit of influence, Shizun.”
Shen Qingqiu hums. “Nevertheless, it is the truth. I could not afford to have Shen Qingqiu’s enemies, and so I found ways around them.”
“Liu Qingge,” Luo Binghe says, in a tone of revelation. “When he taught me. I had always wondered.”
They lapse into silence again for a while.
“But then, Shizun, what happened to him?To the Lord Yue Qingyuan’s husband.”
“It is not my story to tell, truly,” Shen Qingqiu says, but the expectant silence from Binghe has him sighing. “He is not dead, that much is all I can say for certain.”
“It must be told,” Luo Binghe says. “If he had been killed, Yue Qingyuan would merely have had to mourn him and seek vengeance on the one who did it. He would not have needed to drag you into all this.”
Binghe is beginning to sound petulant and resentful, so Shen Qingqiu clicks his tongue at him. “It is only because of all this that we met, Binghe.”
Luo Binghe mutters a contrite “of course, Shizun,” and leans forward. “What do you know?”
“All I know is that it must be some kind of poison,” Shen Qingqiu says. “Yue Qingyuan may be the only one who knows the specifics. Shall I ask him?”
“No,” Binghe says sullenly. “...No. Shizun need not worry about it.”
“On the contrary, I must indeed worry about it,” Shen Qingqiu says, “because it will directly affect me, come the summer. Does Binghe have some suspicion?”
Slowly, Luo Binghe nods. “If it is not solved by Seelie means… the poison and its cure may be Unseelie in nature,” he says.
Shen Qingqiu frowns. “It may not be,” he points out. “Surely if the attackers were Unseelie, there would have been some retaliation from the Seelie Court?”
“Perhaps,” Luo Binghe acknowledges. “But… Shizun, when I came to be Lord of the Unseelie, I stopped many plots for war against the Seelie Court.”
Shen Qingqiu goes still.
Luo Binghe nods. “So Shizun sees the implications,” he says. “It must be that Yue Qingyuan does not know who to suspect, or perhaps he believes those of the Seelie Court may have worked against his husband alongside the Unseelie. Whatever the case… he has not started a war himself. If I can find a cure, among the Unseelie realms…”
“Then the terms of our bargain would release me,” Shen Qingqiu breathes. He can feel the smile, but he does not hide it. To what end? Instead, he can see the faint outline of Luo Binghe’s own answering smile, hesitant but pure.
“If he must root out dissidents, he may do it on his own. But you would be safe,” Luo Binghe says. He rises, and strides forward. Leaning down, he kisses Shen Qingqiu on the brow, over the mark painted on his brow.
“Shizun, I must leave now, if I’m to find the appropriate cure. There is not much time. But I promise you, I will return in time for the exchange.”
“Stay safe,” Shen Qingqiu says, reaching up. His hand, fumbling in the dark, finds the curl of Luo Binghe’s horn, and he follows it to bury, briefly, in the springy curls of his hair. “Come back.”
With a nod, Luo Binghe disentangles himself. And then he is gone.
The exchange back to the fae lands is to happen at dawn, where before it happened at dusk— night giving way to the day, Unseelie giving back to Seelie, or so the magic and tradition seem to hold. Shen Qingqiu has dressed himself in his finest robes, the sets that Luo Binghe has had made for him, rather than those that he still has from the Seelie Court. This too, is symbolism, though a more personal sort.
Less personal is the contents of the pouch he holds in his hands, hidden beneath the drape of his sleeves. There is no way of telling until they have made the offer what Yue Qingyuan might do.
He keeps his head high and his expression even, as he waits at Luo Binghe’s side. The truth, of course, is that he could vibrate out of his skin with nerves, and that he cannot stop thinking of all the things that might go wrong. He does not doubt that Luo Binghe will get his—their—way, in one form or another, but the thought of bringing about a war between the two Courts, to the benefit of none, is not one that Shen Qingqiu particularly favors. But it would not do to look nervous in front of either court. He has a reputation to uphold, and it’s not only Shen Qingqiu’s. He also has his pride. He won’t let himself be reduced to simply hiding in Luo Binghe’s shadow! He has some face of his own to save, even if it’s only in the eyes of his betrothed!
At his side, Luo Binghe is standing tall and still, except for the fists at his side, clenching and unclenching. Shen Qingqiu hopes that it is not a sign of violence to come, but he holds his tongue. They have discussed this, and now is not the time to call Luo Binghe out on it, not when they have so much to hold together here. He will step in when violence threatens, but he will not undermine Luo Binghe in front of others, not with their entourage looking to their Unseelie leader for a show of strength, and Yue Qingyuan due to appear to them at any moment.
And sure enough, as the first sliver of sunlight comes over the horizon, the Lord of the Seelie and his entourage appear across the field, in a waver like a mirage.
Yue Qingyuan is not frowning, for such a gesture would surely be unbecoming of any fae, let alone one as high ranked as him, but Yue Qingyuan’s gaze does sweep across the party of the Unseelie court. When he catches sight of Shen Qingqiu, Yue Qingyuan lingers for a moment, just long enough to give a miniscule incline of his head.
It is exactly the sort of thing that makes Luo Binghe bristle— Shen Qingqiu does not need to glance in his direction to know that he has surely seen, and that he is offended by the glance.
Secretly, he is rather pleased by it! Propriety might hold Yue Qingyuan to try and get Shen Qingqiu back— demoted or not, he still holds the appearance of being his partner, and while circumstances may have forced Shen Qingqiu’s apparent demotion, he should still care for his partner. And yet, Shen Qingqiu is not that partner, only a changeling replacement. The same loophole used by Luo Binghe in this circumstance to deny Shen Qingqiu’s return to the Seelie court could also be used by Yue Qingyuan to accuse Luo Binghe of not holding up their bargain.
He could use it to begin a war, if he were so inclined. The realization that this fae feels at least some responsibility toward his well-being in one way or another is a welcome one, though he much prefers the attentions of the fae at his side.
Luo Binghe steps forward, and Shen Qingqiu takes a steady pace to stay at his side, as he moves to the center of the clearing.
Yue Qingyuan steps forward as well. “Lord of the Unseelie Court,” he says, with another subtle incline of his head.
Luo Binghe’s first reaction is simply to grunt, but he must sense the disapproving look that Shen Qingqiu shoots him out of the corner of his eye, because he coughs and bows his own head slightly. “Lord of the Seelie,” he says, hiding something of a growl. “I have come to see our agreement fulfilled.”
Yue Qingyuan bows his head. “I will be pleased to see the peaceful resolution of it,” he says. “Lord of Spring, are you ready to return?”
Well! Here goes nothing.
“I am not,” Shen Qingqiu says. He keeps his face, his shoulders, his eyes, all calm and untensed.
He can see the way the realization strikes Yue Qingyuan, can hear the shocked gasps and murmurs it sparks from the Seelie entourage.
“It was the agreement of these lords that you would be hosted among the Unseelie court as the Lord Luo Binghe’s guest for a year and a day, before returning to the Seelie Court.”
“No,” Shen Qingqiu says, keeping his voice gentle and his posture firm. “It was agreed that the Lord Luo Binghe would return your husband to you. This one made his own promise to Luo Binghe, in that bargain.”
There is the slightest of creases in Yue Qingyuan’s brow, as he looks between Luo Binghe and Shen Qingqiu. “And what promise would that be?”
“This one agreed to become Lord Luo Binghe’s betrothed for a year and a day. To become betrothed is to make the promise of marriage. As such, this one will follow through with that promise, after I have completed this final part of the agreement between myself, Lord Luo Binghe, and the Lord Yue Qingyuan.”
He can see the moment that Yue Qingyuan realizes precisely what their intentions are. His eyes twitch, and his lips press together thinly. To the entourage around him, it surely looks like displeasure. Sure enough, there is a susurration of muttering rising up from the ranks of the Seelie court, glances being cast between Yue Qingyuan, Shen Qingqiu, and Luo Binghe. Liu Qingge steps forward from the crowd, looking enraged. It is only the quick hands of Mu Qingfang and Qi Qingqi that keep their fellow Lord from drawing his blade. Shen Qingqiu glances in his direction, and shakes his head, the slightest amount. He sees confusion dawning on their faces, but he cannot spare any more attention to them. Instead, he looks back to Yue Qingyuan.
Shen Qingqiu cannot say that he has ever been particularly close to this fae. Certainly, he has been no kind of husband to him, no true partner, for all their play-acting. At best, they have been casual co-conspirators, nearly incidental allies. Shen Qingqiu is not a master of reading Yue Qingyuan. But in this moment, he feels no hesitation at calling the emotion in the fae’s eyes hope.
Still, Yue Qingyuan is a Lord of the fae, so he masters himself near-instantly. “Nevertheless,” he says coolly, a pleasant smile on his face that is all diplomacy. “I must insist that you accompany me to the palace, as doing so will be the only way to complete our bargain.”
“Certainly,” Shen Qingqiu agrees easily. The capitulation, far too easy, makes another round of whispers break out among the Seelie entourage. “Would you prefer that Lord Luo Binghe remain here?”
Yue Qingyuan’s eyes narrow. “Yes,” he says. “The balance is returned to our Courts— to invite him would undo the point of this entire agreement, would it not?”
“So it would,” Shen Qingqiu says. “Then he will stay here.”
Luo Binghe looks at Shen Qingqiu, clearly about to protest. Shen Qingqiu forestalls this with a hand on his arm.
“You need not worry,” he says, as quietly as he can. “I will return.”
“If you do not,” Luo Binghe says, his eyes narrowing, “I will raze the entire Court myself.”
Shen Qingqiu merely nods. He can hardly protest this— if he does not return, then it will mean that something has, in fact, gone wrong. It is only this promise that will convince Luo Binghe to let him walk to the other side of this field. So instead, he smiles, says “I will see you,” and steps away. He keeps his hands tucked into his sleeves, guarding his precious cargo.
Yue Qingyuan gives him a gentle smile as he approaches, and offers him an arm. “Shall we?” he says.
“Yes,” Shen Qingqiu agrees, laying his hand on Yue Qingyuan’s arm.
As the final sliver of the sun breaks the horizon and magic gathers around them, Shen Qingqiu turns one last time and looks behind him, to see Luo Binghe, standing there and waiting as he disappears.
The magic pulls them away, to what Shen Qingqiu recognizes as the forecourt of Yue Qingyuan’s personal wing. “Leave us,” he says, in a voice that is unusually stern. “Shen Qingqiu and I have things to discuss.”
Even Liu Qingge does not dare to resist such a direct order, though he hesitates a surprising amount. It is only when Shen Qingqiu meets his gaze and offers him a reassuring smile that he turns away and strides out of the courtyard, following in the wake of his fellow Lord and Lady of the Seasons. Within moments, the courtyard is empty, without even a fluttering sash to show where a dozen fae once were standing.
Shen Qingqiu draws himself up tall. It is still not quite enough to make him taller than Yue Qingyuan, beautiful willowy fae lord that he is, but it is enough to steady his nerves.
“You make bold claims, Lord of Spring,” Yue Qingyuan says, eyes narrowed. “That you and the Lord of the Unseelie will return my husband to me.”
“It is the bargain we made,” Shen Qingqiu agrees. “Furthermore, the eventual return of your husband will release me from the role we have agreed, leaving me to fulfill the bargains I have made. I have no reason to trick you here, do I?”
“That remains to be seen,” Yue Qingyuan says. “What do you bring here, with the claim that it will accomplish this?”
“Your husband lies in a slumber caused by poison,” Shen Qingqiu says. “None but you know of his condition, not even the servants. He is not dead, or you would have no reason for this charade. But neither does he require constant care, to keep him from death, or you would not be able to leave his chamber, lest he slip away in your absence. There is only one such poison known in this world that could cause such a reaction in a Seelie.”
Yue Qingyuan’s eyes narrow. “So it is,” he agrees. “But knowing the poison is not a cure.”
“No, it is not,” Shen Qingqiu says. His pulse is thrumming in his throat, a rabbit-fast beat that he hopes Yue Qingyuan cannot read. “But knowing the poison is the first step in the path to finding a cure. A cure that, incidentally, exists only in the lands of the Unseelie.”
Yue Qingyuan’s breath catches. He stares at Shen Qingqiu. “Then you have…”
Shen Qingqiu withdraws the box from his sleeve, just long enough for Yue Qingyuan to see it, then tucks it away again. Yue Qingyuan continues to stare toward his hands.
“I am prepared to administer the cure,” Shen Qingqiu says, “under the agreement that, once I have done so, I will be released from my obligations to the Seelie Court to act in Shen Qingqiu’s place, without the loss of the magical abilities and artifacts I have gained.”
“If the cure is successful,” Yue Qingyuan says, “I will release you from your obligations under those terms.”
It is the repartee that Shen Qingqiu had expected, and the fact that Yue Qingyuan takes it means that his bargaining has been… successful. Shen Qingqiu takes a breath. There’s nothing left for it. “Then take me to him,” he says.
Yue Qingyuan nods, and gestures for him to follow along. They walk together in silence through the opulent rooms claimed by Yue Qingyuan. Some of these Shen Qingqiu has been in before, during his time in the Court. One of the inner chambers is familiar as the first place Yue Qingyuan ever took him— the place where he tested Shen Qingqiu’s wiles by offering him food and trying to trick him with questions, before they came to the true reason for his summoning to the Fae Court and arranged their bargain. It is in this room that Yue Qingyuan pauses. He raises one hand and performs some sort of arcane gesture. Suddenly, there is a door on the wall of the room, where none was before.
“Follow me,” he says, and Shen Qingqiu does.
The interior of this room is far more opulent than any other in the already sumptuous apartments. Shen Qingqiu might even call it ostentatious, though he would never dare to do so to Yue Qingyuan’s face. For all the decoration, the room itself is rather small, and rather sparsely furnished. There is only a small table, and a large bed at the center.
Yue Qingyuan walks up to it, and Shen Qingqiu takes this as permission to follow. As he steps close enough to see past the gauzy curtains, he sees the figure lying pale and still on the bed. It’s him. Which is to say, it’s Shen Qingqiu, the true Shen Qingqiu, whose face he’s wearing.
He looks like a pale jade statue, his hair dark like ink and his facial markings green as new leaves. These are the features Shen Qingqiu has had to adjust to seeing on himself, but this sleeping fae wears them more assuredly than he ever has, even ill.
“What must be done?” Yue Qingyuan asks.
“I must give him this,” Shen Qingqiu says, pulling out the box and opening it to reveal the single waxy berry placed inside. “And, once that is done, you must whisper his true name into his ear. Once you have done that, he will awaken.”
Yue Qingyuan’s mouth presses together in a tight line, and for a moment, Shen Qingqiu is left to wonder if he has miscalculated— if Yue Qingyuan does not know the true name of his beloved husband. But, in the end, he only nods. “Then do it,” he says. He steps forward, sitting on the edge of the bed, one hand laid over the sleeping fae’s.
Shen Qingqiu is careful to move slowly and gently, as he approaches the bed. He cradles the berry gently in his hand, before pressing it between the sleeping fae’s lips. It should feel a little more monumental to do this, he thinks. Instead it only feels… well. A little awkward.
Yue Qingyuan barely waits before ducking his head. Shen Qingqiu sits back— he does not hear what it is that Yue Qingyuan whispers, nor does he want to.
For a moment, it seems that nothing will happen. Shen Qingqiu’s breath catches in his throat. Yue Qingyuan does not seem capable of moving.
Then the still fae twitches, just a bit, and the world breathes again.
“He is waking,” Yue Qingyuan says, and his voice trembles. “I… thank you. Is there anything...”
Shen Qingqiu shakes his head. “Only the conclusion of our bargain,” he says, then pauses. “And… that you return me to Luo Binghe’s side.”
“It is done,” Yue Qingyuan says, and raises a hand.
As the magic pulls Shen Yuan away, he sees Shen Qingqiu, in his husband’s arms, begin to open his eyes.
Then, abruptly, he is in the clearing. Shen Yuan staggers, caught off-guard by the sudden change in location. His hands go to his robes, and sure enough his artifacts rest in their rightful places. He snaps his fingers, and a breeze springs to life around him.
The sound of a voice has him looking up. Luo Binghe is there, charging across the field. He draws to a halt in front of Shen Yuan, looking him over with wide eyes.
“This…” he says, quietly. “Is this how you really look?”
Shen Yuan looks down at himself. Oh, of course. He hadn’t thought— with the glamor of Shen Qingqiu removed, he must look like a mere human now, mustn’t he? Self-consciously, he raises his hand to his face, to his rounded ears and the skin where the markings once were, that must now lie bare. “Ah… Yes,” he stammers. “Does this— I mean, I hope it would not change…”
“Shizun is still Shizun, no matter what shape he takes,” Luo Binghe says. His eyes are wide. “But Shizun is most beautiful as himself.”
Shen Yuan lets out a shaky laugh. “In that case,” he says, “then you should take care to address him properly.”
“Of course,” Shen Yuan says, smiling, and reaching for Luo Binghe’s face, where he can already see tears forming behind the bewildered smile. “As his husband.”
And the kiss they share then is the sweetest promise Shen Qingqiu has ever made.