Disappointingly, you wake up. It stopped being a surprise, a long time ago, once Luo Binghe made it clear that he wanted to… keep you. But you still aren’t happy with the situation.
When you open your eye, you see an unfamiliar ceiling above you. Another game, then. You don’t move or react in any way. You learned very early on that it only made things worse.
“Peak Lord Shen?”
You don’t recognize the voice. That means nothing. You try to probe with your senses and detect any hint that this is a dream realm, but you can’t sense anything amiss. That doesn’t necessarily mean anything, Luo Binghe may simply be growing more skilled at dreaming with time, or simply more skilled in deceiving you.
A face appears above you. A young man. Not one you recognize, you think, but you remain perfectly blank, perfectly empty, and refuse to even let your eye focus on him. You look at the ceiling and breathe as evenly as you are able.
Your lack of response doesn’t seem to put the man off. He pulls down a blanket—you hadn’t even realized it was there—and diffidently says, “If Peak Lord Shen would oblige this servant and sit up, Junshang will be here momentarily.”
Against your will, your heartbeat accelerates. He isn’t being patient today. That doesn’t bode well.
When the man helps you half-upright and props you against the wall, you realize you have… arms. If you’re right and this isn’t a dream, then that’s a new twist to Luo Binghe’s games, and one you don’t like. You don’t use them at all. Either they’re a trap, or they’re only there to give him the pleasure of taking them again, so you’ll ignore them until he satisfies himself.
The young man murmurs something that you don’t listen to, then straightens and walks to the door. You don’t watch the door, but it’s impossible to take your attention from it completely. Your heartbeat speeds further when at the edge of your vision, you see a man step into the room. But that man— Isn’t Luo Binghe.
Tianlang-jun doesn’t care for his son.
That still makes you smile, even days after the fact. He doesn’t say so outright, and you’re not such a fool that you would ask him directly, but it’s more than clear. He says it in the slight downward twitch of his mouth every time Luo Binghe is mentioned, the restrained, refined distaste in his voice when he has to discuss Luo Binghe himself, a thousand small ways. He’s not particularly special in that way, you assume. Even from the little you were allowed to hear and see as Luo Binghe’s favorite toy, you’re sure that any number of people hold grudges against him.
But it… pleases you, to think that this man, this particular man, feels this way. Tianlang-jun is, possibly, the only other man in the world whose approval Luo Binghe would hunger for, the way he hungered for yours. He may not detest Luo Binghe in the same way you do, but… you aren’t certain, and that in itself says rather interesting things. Even if he won’t tell you why he feels that way— Qi-ge, Qi-ge, Qi-ge, some stupid part of you still screams—he makes no effort to hide the way he dislikes his own son. At this point, that is enough to persuade you to cooperate with him.
Your new limbs are functional enough. They seem clumsy compared to your memories of your body, but those are distant memories by now. Perhaps you are simply out of practice. Mobility is a luxury you haven’t indulged in for many years.
You may have been graced with such a gift because Tianlang-jun himself recently took up residence in a new body of his own. Perhaps, in the end, it was little trouble for him to order the manufacture of an additional set of arms and legs. Nothing has been asked of you in repayment—yet—though you’re certain that day will eventually come. You’re already almost certain that you’ll be content to pay whatever price they ask.
Every so often, Tianlang-jun’s nephew visits you, to check on the status of your new body. The seams between your new limbs and your old torso remain obvious, though the limbs themselves function well enough. Zhuzhi-lang manages to establish that the new additions to your body hurt, though it is a little strange to think of it yourself. Compared to the throb of infected, half-healed injuries or the odd pain of a healed but missing limb, the quiet background ache of your new arms and legs is difficult to recognize on your own.
Your rooms initially included a large brass mirror. You used it, once, and spent a long while staring at your own reflection. Your cultivation kept most scars from your body, and even your missing eye isn’t as hideous an injury as you would have expected, but you feel… betrayed, you think. You can see old, faded scars left from your childhood, but almost nothing of the last several years shows on your body. You overturn the mirror and throw it to the floor, and the next day, it is removed from your quarters.
When your servant girl dresses you and pulls back your hair each morning, she asks your approval for each robe and ornament. You gesture approval or disapproval as the mood takes you, but you feel no urge to examine your own appearance before leaving your rooms to begin your day.
“Luo Binghe,” Tianlang-jun says, quietly musing. He’s staring out the window.
Your heart begins to pound, despite yourself. Even now. You suppress your irritation, and wait for him to go on.
He says, “I think I would like to… kill him.”
Ah. You smile. It’s a foolish indulgence, but you simply can’t help yourself.
Tianlang-jun turns to look at you. You’re certain that he can see the approval on your face, but he’s still looking for something more. You don’t know what else he wants, so you lazily make some gesture of vague inquiry.
He smiles back at you, very faintly. “Why, Peak Lord Shen, this lord’s reasons are private. But… Luo Binghe is a waste of a legacy.”
You gesture agreement.
He laughs out loud, just once. “Peak Lord Shen’s feelings seem rather conflicted. Wouldn’t he like a brush and parchment, so he can make his opinions more plain?”
You’re certain he isn’t serious, but upon further consideration, you don’t want to risk any hint of any ambiguity remaining in this situation. So you stand and walk up to Tianlang-jun, moving as gracefully as you can manage, slowly, but with purpose. He only watches, smiling in that same distant, detached way as before.
When you come within reach, you lift your arms and twine them around his neck, pressing your body close to his, as alluring as you’re able to be. He doesn’t show any distaste or disgust, only that same odd, faint amusement, and you stretch up and press your lips to his. Nothing more than that, right now. Your body is fine enough, underneath the concealment of your robes. And there’s nothing repellent about your mouth as long as you remember to keep your lips shut.
Tianlang-jun’s reaction is as distant as his expressions. You feel his fingers ghost along your side and tense, but he makes no move to pull you closer or shove you away, and when you finally step back yourself, he’s still wearing the exact same smile as before the kiss.
He simply inclines his head to you, and still smiling, says, “Peak Lord Shen has made his thoughts perfectly clear.”
Tianlang-jun’s body is rotting. It’s an open secret in the palace by now, though it is of rather particular interest to you, since you were both the recipients of either complete or partial new bodies. Your arms and legs ought to be fine, when you bother to write out a full question for Zhuzhi-lang. Your bodies were constructed using a fruit that relies on spiritual energy, and in the face of a demonic inhabitant like Tianlang-jun, his new body is decaying. Your body, however, should be perfectly fine.
Zhuzhi-lang seems much more concerned than Tianlang-jun is. Tianlang-jun hardly seems to care, even when his arm parts ways from his shoulder right in front of you. He slots the limb back into place, and goes on talking as though nothing had ever happened. You idly wonder how bad things are when he’s in private, away from his prisoners.
Once his arm is reattached, he shakes out his sleeves and looks at you with a smile. “Apologies to Peak Lord Shen for the inconvenience. What was this lord talking about again?”
You don’t react. You don’t have anything to write with, and he can’t expect you to answer any other way.
“Of course,” he sighs. “Many thanks to Peak Lord Shen. This lord wanted to discuss… timing, let us say.”
You don’t respond.
“There isn’t much urgency,” he says, with a wry twist to his mouth, as he glances down at his own arm, “but it seems to this lord that it would be better to deal with matters sooner rather than later.”
You gesture with as much irony as you can manage. ‘Sooner’ and ‘later’ lost relevance to you a long time ago.
With a conciliating tone, he says, “Just as Peak Lord Shen says, of course. But what if he was dead… before the next winter.”
Well. You take a step closer and lay one hand delicately on his forearm.
He looks down at your hand and his mouth twitches into a smile. “Before the next fall?”
If this is the game he wants to play, you’re not unwilling. It’s a cheap enough price for what he’s offering. You step closer again, molding your body to his.
He watches you with half-lidded eyes. “Peak Lord Shen is communicative today. What about before—”
You abruptly lose patience and reach up to cover his mouth with your hand. He doesn’t seem displeased, only distantly amused, but after half a moment of consideration, you make the movement more… seductive, letting your hand slide from his mouth, over his jaw, and around the back of his neck. You apply gentle pressure, guiding him down towards you, towards your mouth, where you can both make your feelings perfectly clear and stop him from saying foolish things.
Tianlang-jun summons you one morning, while your servant is still finishing your hair. He doesn’t tell you anything useful, only asks you to come speak to him at your earliest convenience. You don’t particularly feel like entertaining him today, but you still don’t know him as well as— as well as other leaders you’ve worked with. You still don’t know how far you can push him before he gets truly offended or angry, and it would be a waste to throw away everything he can potentially offer you just for the sake of your own bad mood.
You find him sitting at his desk, idly toying with a brush, his nephew standing attention at his shoulder.
“Peak Lord Shen,” he calls out. “Quite a remarkable thing has happened.”
He gestures at Zhuzhi-lang, who steps forward, inclines his head, and says, “Peak Lord Shen, this subordinate was searching for a remedy for Junshang’s body.” Tianlang-jun interrupts him here with a pointed sigh. Zhuzhi-lang continues. “The unblossomed bud of the star-blossom flower is supposed to have remarkable regenerative properties, but…”
“But it is incompatible with a demonic constitution,” Tianlang-jun continues. He makes an ironic gesture towards his own body. “As many things are, apparently.”
You wait for them to get to the point. The star-blossom flower is rumored to grow in the mountain ranges far south of any land you ever visited, and according to the little you’ve read about them, each plant flowers perhaps once in a century, if that. If they want to hunt it down, even knowing that it won’t do more than prolong Tianlang-jun’s decaying existence, you can’t tell them anything useful.
Tianlang-jun is watching you, with an odd smile on his face. He hands you the brush, then lays an unremarkable little— an unremarkable little flower bud on the desk, and says, “This lord is afraid it won’t replace all of Peak Lord Shen’s body at once, but with one bud to work with— What would Peak Lord Shen like to have returned to him first?”
At first, all you can do is stare, even as Zhuzhi-lang quietly places an inkstone and parchment in front of you. For all you know, this has been one long, cruel trick by Luo Binghe. Any moment, he’ll let it all fall apart around you, as soon as you let yourself feel anything like hope. Tianlang-jun’s smile doesn’t waver at all, no matter how long you wait for the moment to shatter.
Finally, you force yourself to look down at the parchment before you. Slowly, tentatively, waiting for it all to be snatched away from you, you write:
You wait and wait for Luo Binghe to take everything from you, but Tianlang-jun continues smiling and easily says, “Just as Peak Lord Shen wishes.”