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The Favourite

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They were on the fringes of the Demon Realm proper. Not the border with the human territories, but rather the shuddering decline of the Western mountains, where black volcanic rock began to bleed into sand as white as bone. Some said that was precisely what it was: powdered bone, the remnant of a catastrophe that must have taken place near the beginning of things. It sounded far-fetched, but then again, could anyone authoritatively deny it? No stranger had ever walked out of that desert begging for water, with goods to trade, or telling wild stories in an unknown tongue. Previous demonic emperors had sent out sortie-parties to map the vastness. Those that had returned more-or-less intact claimed to have walked for months and months and found nothing: not even an end to the wastes.

There are things Luo Binghe has never told Shen Qingqiu, though no one is or could be deeper in his confidence—closer to the Emperor than his own shadow. Among these is a soft and shapeless plan involving this waste, which Luo Binghe entertained while Shen Qignqiu lay dead (and thus uncharacteristically uninterested in knowing Luo Binghe’s mind). If Luo Binghe had received some absolute confirmation that his shizun’s soul had been irrevocably shattered, then Luo Binghe would have set out to map the limits of this desert and his body alike. Would have brought himself to the edge, and just started walking. He wouldn’t have stopped until he fell, and lent the sands another inch of bone; would have given himself over to the silence of the place. Even in his wildest, darkest hour, Luo Binghe had understood that this would be poor repayment for the gift of his life, which had been bought impossibly dearly: at the price of Shen Qingqiu’s own. But to Luo Binghe any recompense would have been too slight to justify such a cost, and so this had seemed as good an end as any other.

On an autumn day seven and a half years after Shen Qingqiu and Luo Binghe’s marriage, the desert wind whipped Shen Qingqiu’s ink-black hair into Luo Binghe’s eyes. With a frustrated gesture, Shen Qingqiu gathered the strands up with a ribbon. The silk tie rippled out like a banner, snapping in the stiff breeze. Shen Qingqiu bit the end, holding the thing between his neat white teeth as he tied it off.

I love you, Luo Binghe thought, as he did a thousand times a day.

Shen Qingqiu was doing nothing particularly seductive. He was simply himself: comely, and annoyed. Brusquely pragmatic. So readily concerned for Binghe that he moved unthinkingly to protect his disciple from the world, in small things as in great ones. He wouldn’t permit so much as a stray lock of his own hair to strike his precious disciple’s face.

When Luo Binghe died, he hoped to do it in Shen Qingqiu’s arms. It would hurt his husband to know that Binghe had once planned to give the desert they presently surveyed something that was Shen Qingqiu’s by right—to know that Binghe had contemplated such an act of rank ingratitude in the face of his shizun’s sacrifice. So rather than allude to the intimate, adulterous commingling with this place he’d once considered, Luo Binghe caught and kissed the end of a now-bound tress of Shen Qingqiu’s hair with particular intent.

“Thank you for being here,” Binghe said, which might have meant less than it did.

They’d now spent more happy years together than painful years sundered by distance or death. In another, they would have been married for longer than than that combined term of suffering had lasted. Luo Binghe had cause to consider the incredible grace of time, which had sometimes seemed to him so cruel. Time, he now saw, was like Shen Qingqiu: powerful, and full of deep, slumbering motives that Luo Binghe had never understood in season. Ultimately, the two forces had proven the kindest things he knew.

Shen Qingqiu smoothed Luo Binghe’s own crown of braids with his fingertips.

“I’m your husband,” Shen Qingqiu said, the edge of either a scold or a pout kissing his cool, considered tone like white sand licked at black rock. “Naturally my place is at your side.”

To that end, Shen Qingqiu drew back, primly unfurled his fan and asked Luo Binghe to remind him of some particulars of their business with the Lord of the Western Mountain. He narrowed his sharp, dark eyes as he heard the terms of the suzerainty with which these lords governed their underpopulated territory—a place so out of the way that Shen Qingqiu hadn’t already had cause to learn of such matters.

“I myself," Luo Binghe admitted, holding out his arm for his husband’s support as they strolled towards the dark, cavernous entrance of the low king’s halls, “have only ever communicated with these lords via a chain of intermediaries.”

“You’re probably overdue a Royal Progress,” Shen Qingqiu said. “But even with Xin Mo it’s such a deal of work, especially if you want to arrive with an entourage.” He flicked his fan towards the small band that had trailed out of the portal after them before it shut itself up seamlessly: a tight-knit, dozen-strong, elite group of demonic guards that had been forced to fight their Junshang’s way out of previous diplomatic visits gone awry.

This minimal display was suitable for a frontier warlord who had little time for pageantry and few troops at his command, but it was hardly sufficient pomp and circumstance to duly impress the court of a rich tribute-state. You couldn’t throw your populace a memorable Joyous Entry for fifteen people, on foot. The trouble was that even bringing a dozen guards through Xin Mo’s portal strained the sword, which objected strongly to conveying anyone but Luo Binghe himself (and his blood-bound, qi-linked husband) anywhere. And straining Xin Mo strained Luo Binghe, even with all the work he and Shen Qingqiu had done to moderate the sword’s worst influences.

“And it’s not as though we’ve had leisure to arrange one,” Luo Binghe added wryly, earning a huff of laughter from his husband in grim recognition of how thoroughly caught up they’d been. It seemed that every week an administrative issue for Qing Jing, a logistical problem with Sha Hualing’s sprawling midlands territories, or a nomadic demonic raiding party claimed their attention, singularly or (more often) jointly. Shen Qingqiu now knew why Hualing had proved such a devoted follower of her Junshang: the realm she’d inherited from her father was in shambles, and she needed Luo Binghe’s connections, strength and access to external resources to stabilise it. Half of Hualing’s urgent supply requisitions during the recent grain blight had been authorised ‘by Order of the Empress’. Meanwhile, many of Qing Jing’s newer disciples had swallowed hard at spotting the Demon Emperor’s initials at the end of their essay feedback. Critiquing their progress was well within Luo Binghe’s rights as the Peak Lord’s personal disciple, but Shixiong (Shimu? Shizhang? No one actually knew.) really did grade so much more harshly than Shizun. Luo Binghe blithely expected everyone to do roughly as well as he had at their age. And he'd been such a teacher's pet that he was now, probably, their Shimu! It hardly seemed fair!

The Emperor absolutely insisted on reparative weeks alone with his husband, despite the weight of their responsibilities. He took them throughout the year, however loudly the court complained: Luo Binghe knew he would be far less capable when he was present for the lack of them. By now, he understood that he required periods of time sequestered with Shen Qingqiu to thrive. If he didn’t get his fix, Luo Binghe started to itch in his robes and to snap where he needed to charm. Daily privacy in his own citadel or at Qing Jing, frequent small excursions and adventures and the regular release of escape from all their titles and obligations smoothed and steadied Luo Binghe. What was the point of having built up an infrastructure if you couldn’t rely on it to sometimes carry the weight of your absence? What was the point of Luo Binghe’s life if he couldn’t sometimes steal Shizun away, to do absolutely nothing with him but fuck and eat and read, play music and talk idly, and tell anyone who dared ask questions that they’d ‘retired for a period of secluded cultivation’?

Shen Qingqiu (who, for his own part, drooped when denied responsibility without seeming to realise it) was practical about this, too. (And why not, given that Luo Binghe was his favourite responsibility?) He’d teased his disciple a little, but then shrugged.

“If you need it, you need it. And it’s not as though I would complain.”

No, he wouldn’t. Shen Qingqiu would tsk under his breath if served poor tea at a restaurant, but never where the waitress might hear. He’d grouse at Shang Qingqiu about his shidi’s writing, his expressions and his life-choices, but Shen Qingqiu would draw up short like a startled horse if he ever seemed to actually strike a nerve. If Shen Qingqiu made anyone cry, it was a crisis. He’d tut at Luo Binghe’s neediness, but then give and give, until Luo Binghe had more than even his greedy heart had ever dreamed of. So about a thing like this, Shen Qingqiu never would complain.

He said such things about himself to imply that, indolent and exacting as he was, he was liable to cause a scene if he was the slightest bit dissatisfied. And whinge Shen Qingqiu might, but make a spectacle of his dissatisfaction? Hardly. Ever fail to rush headlong into the middle of any crisis going? Not in all the years Luo Binghe had been his personal disciple. Luo Binghe understood the layers of the lie, and got at the truth tucked underneath: Shen Qingqiu was happy to give Luo Binghe this, even to the point of desiring it himself.

They came to the mouth of the low-king’s cave. Luo Binghe greeted the guards there, who bowed low before he and his Empress. A smart-looking young warrior with well-groomed, gleaming tusks stepped forward, introducing himself as the low-king’s first son and offering to convey the Emperor’s entourage into his father King Xuanyan’s hall.

Once there, Luo Binghe gave his bowing vassal king a polite nod of recognition. (Shen Qingqiu always found the Emperor’s unyielding, formal acceptance of such greetings a little odd to watch, given the grace and ease with which Binghe executed bows for him at the slightest provocation.)

“And this,” Xuanyan said, turning to pay his respects to Shen Qingqiu (who fought his ‘dealing with humans’ instincts and only inclined his head in return, so as not to embarrass Binghe), “must be your famously graceful first wife, the head of your harem, Shen Qingqiu.”

Beside Shen Qingqiu, Luo Binghe stiffened. He opened his mouth to strongly correct Xuanyan’s misapprehension and to inform him that Shen Qingqiu was the head, trunk, waist, legs and entire body of his ‘harem’, thank you very much. He only shut it again at the light, insistent tap of his shizun’s fingers along his inner arm. Shen Qingqiu was still smiling placidly at their host.

“Indeed, your Empress must commend the hospitality of your hall,” Shen Qingqiu remarked. “Even far-off places seem pleasantly familiar, when one’s host is considerate.”

Xuanyan hadn’t sounded as though he’d intended to insult them; there had been no sneer in his voice. From what Shen Qingqiu remembered of Luo Bingge’s adventures in the Bone Sea, Xuanyan had in fact been in awe of what a sizable harem his high king had been able to claim, provide for and keep hold of.

“Father,” muttered a girl who, once upon a time, ought to have married Luo Binghe. (Who Luo Binghe, still annoyed, now did not so much as glance towards when she spoke.) “Our guest’s rooms—”

“Yes, yes, that’s right. My Lord Emperor, if you and your retinue would care to refresh yourselves after your journey—”

Ten minutes of pleasantries later, Shen Qingqiu watched Luo Binghe throw his still-slender, youthful body down on the bed beside him. Shen Qingqiu was idly checking the water left on the bedside table for poison. This had become a habit of his in potentially hostile territory. Shen Qingqiu didn’t remember any such thing happening here, and their cultivation rendered he and Binghe immune to the worst effects of most such tricks as it was. Still, ‘safe from death’ was not safe from discomfort, and Shen Qingqiu liked few things less than he did spending a night unprettily expelling poison from both ends and insisting that a worried, himself-unaffected Luo Binghe really should leave him the fuck alone while he did so.

“A Yuan,” Luo Binghe said. Seeking an explanation, for all he’d known from his shizun’s barest signs that Shen Qingqiu had a plan, and that he ought to facilitate it.

Some years ago, Luo Binghe’s husband had told him that he’d not been born Shen ‘Jiu’ at all. While no one else in the world knew the name his family had called him long ago, before he’d met even Yue Qingyan, Shizun had mentioned that he might sometimes like to hear his husband address him by it. Luo Binghe had seldom acceded to any request with greater alacrity.

“I know it bothers you, dearest,” Shen Qingqiu said, eyeballing the bottom of the cups themselves for contamination (because he’d not gone through a golden age mystery phase at uni and subsequently landed himself with a cultivator’s superior senses for nothing). Satisfied at last, Shen Qingqiu poured them water.

“But you know many rulers consider a harem an important mark of prestige and political connection.”

Shen Qingqi handed adorable, sullen Luo Binghe his cup, raising his own to make a little clacking toast against it, and his disciple smile. It did, yet Binghe wasn’t wholly set at ease.

“I don’t want to ‘look powerful’ by denying my beloved,” Luo Binghe scoffed, sitting up and setting the bed’s formal ceramic pillows under the raised frame. From his qiankun bag, Luo Binghe drew buckwheat-husk replacements. They were far more rustic, but the couple much preferred them to the refined accoutrements hosts inevitably provided them with. Shizun had confessed that not having grown up with ceramic pillows, he never had become accustomed to them. Luo Binghe, who’d have swallowed a vast quantity of bullshit to play at being a proper demon lord, had heaved a sigh of relief at the permission the pretext of indulging his husband afforded him not to. If Shen Qingqiu, elegance personified, who could face out any questioning, didn’t insist on doing this ‘properly’, then it must not truly matter.  

“And in such a minor affair as this!” Binghe continued as he beat the pillows into shape (transit having squashed them slightly). “Am I to claim you’re only a wife any time doing so might make me look ‘impressive’?” The tone on that one was outright venomous. “Before people too foolish to know that having a strong Empress is a surer sign of a ruler’s competence than the possession of a thousand nameless concubines?”

Shen Qingqiu sighed fondly. Trust Luo ‘stubborn loyalty’ Binghe to plant his flag on this hill. Binghe’s petulant, mouthy indignation on his own behalf was just so—Shen Qingqiu curled his hand in his robes so as not to pinch his disciple’s cheek.

Shen Qingqiu cleared his throat. “If this Xuanyan later puts two and two together and realises he was mistaken about my status, he’ll probably feel too foolish to respect you any less for not having a hundred more spouses where I came from. It’ll be his own misunderstanding; our polite largess will have prevented us from calling attention to it, if he even believes we deigned to notice the slight. But for a flying visit, why make yourself look weaker in these people’s eyes? Why risk stirring up trouble while traveling with a lean entourage?”

Luo Binghe scoffed. “Strong as we are, we can afford to look weak. My shizun needn’t fear this man, or anyone. You and I alone could take this citadel.”

Shen Qingqiu thought that was a sweet thing to say, given that Luo Binghe could have managed it without any help from him.

“We could,” he agreed. “But sweetheart, why waste time and energy on such a battle, far from home, when we could simply firm up this alliance and get out? Who is this man, that Luo Binghe should care what he thinks?”

Shen Qingqiu set down his empty cup, leaning over his husband coquettishly. He tapped Xin Mo’s pommel. “Aren’t there more entertaining things you’d prefer to spend your apparently abundant energy doing?” 

Xin Mo did, after all, demand a certain payment: its pound of flesh, as it were. By now, they were experts in remittance. And they’d traveled very far, today.

“Not before dinner,” Luo Binghe said with extreme regret. What he wanted to do to Shen Qingqiu would take far too long, and would leave his husband far too messy for company. ‘After, though’ went without saying.

Shen Qingqiu shook his head, emitting a sigh. “Goodness, when did my little disciple grow so pragmatic?” he wondered.

“Shizun, I’ve always been practical!” Luo Binghe protested. “A person can be pragmatic and romantic.”

“Only you, Binghe,” Shen Qingqiu countered smoothly.

Luo Binghe smothered the impulse to point out that they might as well have been composing his shizun's slogan: the only time Shizun liked to see himself was when he put up his hair and adjusted his robes before going out. (Even then, he’d rather rely on Binghe to do it for him.)

The presentation of tribute went smoothly: quantities of fine quarried obsidian, to be conveyed in a caravan to the Emperor’s citadel by the low king’s men, and a crate of exotic metalwork. At first Luo Binghe had found the vassal's return-gift Shen Qingqiu had proposed bringing with them rather strange. He’d tried to delicately suggest that not everyone shared Shizun’s refined tastes, and that thus King Xuanyan might not know how to value a large crate of tea. Shizun had only waved a dismissive hand at his disciple.

“Binghe,” Shizun had tsked. “What are the medicinal benefits of tea?”

His cheeks pinking at the suggestion he’d disappointed his master, Luo Binghe had rattled them off, and in so doing had begun to see what his shizun was getting at.

“They eat mostly meat out there, don’t they? The land suffices for grazing, but not much more than grass grows where the mountains and the desert meet. So, their diet lacks vegetables, and with them a great many essential components. Almost all of which are to be found in this.” Shen Qingqiu had rapped his knuckles against the crate. “Hard-travelling cakes of the stuff. No use to epicureans, but to Xuanyan’s people...”  

And indeed Xuanyan’s daughter asked her Empress many questions about the tea’s properties, looking suitably intrigued by its potential.

“Where do you come up with these things?” an impressed Luo Binghe asked at the dinner that followed, murmuring the question into his husband’s ear.

Shen Qingqiu waved the praise away. “I truly can’t claim any credit for this one. It’s just something I read somewhere. Indulge me by having a look at their horses before we leave, though. I’ve a suspicion you might find them even more useful than the—oh my god, is that really biryani? Binghe, Binghe, here, try this—”

And it was very interesting, given that they normally ate rice as the plain base of a meal rather than as a meal unto itself, unless you counted clay-pot rice, or congee. This, though, was something quite distinct. Shizun was so excited to see the dish that he ladled it high on his husband’s plate. There was rice, of course, but it was long-grained, and had been cooked in something creamy… perhaps that was yoghurt? Unusual, if so. Slow-cooked onions, in quantity. Cumin, garlic. Mutton, nuts, and some dried fruit Luo Binghe couldn’t quite identify—well, that seemed to be only a garnish, so he could just use goji berries there. (He’d try to recreate anything that made Shen Qingqiu so happy.) Luo Binghe would find a moment to chat up the cook. What were they doing to keep it so moist? Maybe a salt-dough seal on the pot?

Luo Binghe’s quite pleasant dining experience was then interrupted by King Xuanyan asking Shizun about “some of the wives under him”. For a fleeting instant, Binghe contemplated ‘I am a wife, literally under Shizun’ roleplay. That had potential—he’d come back to it. He then shook off his distraction and worked his way around to being properly annoyed by what had actually been suggested.

“Is Liu Mingyan truly so beautiful that she has to wear a mask to keep from blinding people?” Xuanyan’s son, the one who’d met them at the cave-mouth, asked with a red face.

“She’s certainly a lovely girl,” Shen Qingqiu said graciously, neglecting to clarify that she was not, however, any kind of ‘harem employee’ in his charge. “I’ve never ventured to ask why she veils herself. I’m still her shibo, after all, and really, is there anything more tiresome than uncles and aunties pestering you about your outfit?”

Xuanyan’s daughter snorted into her hand, trying to cover up her amusement. Her father gave her a sour glance, as though they’d had a spat about showing meddling relatives due respect on more than one occasion.

Luo Binghe smiled. It seemed his husband was in good humour: outright enjoying offering up pert deflections, as though acting a part came very easily to Shen Qingqiu. (Which was all the more remarkable considering what an endearingly awful disguise ‘Peerless Cucumber, rogue cultivator’ had been: A Yuan could play at being some other version of himself, except when some portion of his conflicted heart wanted Luo Binghe to catch him out in it.) Still, how had people in the provinces come to think Luo Binghe was married to his shijie? What sort of talk were traders circulating? Luo Binghe wished they’d stopped at spreading the good word of Chunshan. Or had just written several sequels to Chunshan. That would also have sufficed.

“What about that Sha Hualing?” Xuanyan himself asked. “The Sha have always been a clan to be reckoned with. They say Hualing even overthrew her father, despite not yet being a hundred!”

“Oh, Hualing is certainly a firecracker,” Shen Qingqiu replied in a fixed, polite tone (which spoke to Luo Binghe and Luo Binghe alone of his husband’s continued annoyance with their underling over her handling of the grain crisis). “But,” Shen Qingqiu snapped his fan open, “I am the Lord of the inner palace. She’s duly sensible of the fact.”

Luo Binghe changed the subject to the coming day’s itinerary, not wanting to discover which of his other vassals and acquaintances these people believed him to be intimately involved with. Hualing. Really? Luo Binghe internally scoffed. She was nothing like his very-much-in-evidence type: about as nurturing as a mouthful of the sand outside the door.

To Luo Binghe’s surprise, however, the source and sole instantiation of what he considered to be ‘his type’ traced fingertips up Luo Binghe’s robe-covered thighs as Luo Binghe and their host continued their conversation. The tips of Shen Qingqiu’s fingers and the ridges of his nails mapped delicate, swirling trails. Luo Binghe rather wished those fingers were dipped in ink, so that he could read, so that everyone could see, the shapeless characters Shizun deigned to draw on his pet: the wordless marks of his ownership.

Still, all this seemed fairly innocent. Shizun was politely listening to something the young lady of the house was saying to him with his free hand perched demurely on the table, propping up his chin. Luo Binghe swallowed when Shizun’s less-free (or maybe freer) fingers then ‘slipped’ to caress Luo Binghe's inner thigh. Nothing lewd—just, suggestive. Sufficiently so that Luo Binghe, who was above all things his master’s obedient disciple, complied with this fresh aspect of Shizun’s unspoken plans and announced his intention to retire from the banquet early.

It wasn’t so unusual for Shen Qingqiu to suggest an addition to their varied and regular marital relations. This was the happy outcome of training. Shen Qingqiu had taught Luo Binghe the better part of all Luo Binghe knew, and so it seemed only fair that in turn, Luo Binghe had been the one to teach his husband, through repeated practice, that what they did was all right to desire, to enjoy, and even to ask for. If every tentative wish was met with grateful enthusiasm, how could a man fail to warm and soften in this respect? Luo Binghe had spent almost eight years now melting Shen Qingqiu like butter in the sun, turning his cold-pressed firmness into something soft, golden and decadent.

On the eve of Luo Binghe’s birthday (his first, after their marriage), Shen Qingqiu had quietly suggested that perhaps Binghe might take him as he slept, and rouse his husband thus with his attentions. The careful way he’d said it had showed Luo Binghe, quite clearly, what his husband was offering. After all, Luo Binghe had spent five years cradling his dead master’s body, passing the corpse his very lifeforce and begging, madly half-expecting, Shen Qingqiu to simply awaken. In all that time, Shen Qingqiu never had. Not once had he stirred, turned in the devout circle of his disciple’s arms, blinked open his eyes, looked up into Luo Binghe’s and said his disciple’s name. He’d never thanked Binghe for his constancy and devotion: there had been no fit hour. But now they had the time, and now Shen Qingqiu was taking it—was offering it to Binghe.

While such an encounter couldn’t unmake Binghe’s term of suffering, the very offer of it had been such a thoughtful kindness. The encounter had promised to be such a lovely gift. Binghe had cried his desperate thanks. Later, when the tears but not the gratitude had abated, he’d tenderly done what he’d never dared to, without his shizun’s permission. And at last Luo Binghe had managed what fate had never allowed him to accomplish: he’d brought his beloved back to life with just the reverence of his touch and the strength of his desire. Shizun’s "Binghe, Binghe, thank you Binghe, you’re doing so well, your master’s so proud" had cracked the great muscle of Luo Binghe’s heart as only Shen Qingqiu could.

A couple of years after that, Luo Binghe had sliced his ankle open on a rock: a deep gash, almost to the bone. He’d been evading a fierce Abyssal Drake, which had escaped from its native habitat and come to prey on the demonic plains. Survivors of the Abyss were few and far between, even in the demonic realms. Only Luo Binghe was familiar with the creatures, and so only he could resolve the matter. His last strike had gone wild, and accomplished exactly what he was trying not to do: slice the creature’s gut open. Such a move was effective (it’d certainly be the end of the Drake), but it ran the risk of taking you with it. The noxious gasses that enabled the Drake to breath fire collected in the pit of one of its auxiliary stomachs. Hitting that vulnerable point was like puncturing a balloon filled with poison. To escape with his lungs intact, Luo Binghe had used Xin Mo to send himself careening into the garden of the Bamboo Cottage, thinking home home home home home and then snapping the portal shut just as soon as he was through it. This had cut off the vapours, which would linger around the corpse until they dissipated in a day or so.

Wincing, Luo Binghe had limped through the door of the Bamboo Cottage only to find Shen Qingqiu standing up in response to the familiar vacuum-pop of Xin Mo’s portal snapping shut. Shizun had taken a good look at him and, over his husband’s protests, had promptly swept forward to catch Luo Binghe in his arms. Shizun had then picked him up, settling an arm comfortably under his disciple’s knees.

“It’ll heal soon, Shizun!” Luo Binghe had insisted, as red-faced as if he were still a boy concealing wildly embarrassing erections from his innocent, clueless master.

“‘It’ll heal soon’,” Shen Qingqiu repeated back in a mocking voice. “If you didn’t want me to touch you, you shouldn’t have let the Abyssal Drake do it first. We are married—you and Master Drake can’t even be considered close.”

He carried Luo Binghe—not, as Binghe might have expected, to their bed, but rather to Luo Binghe’s own former room. Luo Binghe had once suggested turning it back into an erfang, only to have his husband glare at him and tell him to keep his suggestions to himself, it this was evidence of the quality of advice Binghe had to offer. Shen Qingqiu was only ever so snippy when he was embarrassed. Luo Binghe had thus been able to work out that Shen Qingqiu’s own sentimentality was the source of his discomfort (and that Shen Qingqiu did not wish to discuss it further).

Shen Qingqiu wanted to keep the room Luo Binghe had grown up in just as it was: as it had been even during Binghe’s absence in the Abyss. The thought of erasing what had once been about the only proof that Binghe had lived, and had lived with him, distressed Shizun immensely. It didn’t bear thinking about.

“As Shizun says,” Binghe had murmured, smitten with the evasive, cagey look on his husband’s face.

So the room had remained as it had been. Luo Binghe had thus found himself sitting in his own, old bed, rendered unfamiliar by years of absence. His Shizun, kneeling on the floor—his husband, these days—had tsked over Binghe’s wound, and wasted good healing salve on what a heavenly demon’s physiology would clear up within an hour on its own. Binghe had tried to point this out—

“I’ll decide what’s a waste, thank you,” Shen Qingqiu had said, his hand flexing on Luo Binghe’s calf. Then, much to Luo Binghe’s surprise, Shen Qingqiu had slid his hand further up Luo Binghe's leg, under the fall of his robes.

“How much does it hurt?” Shen Qingqiu had asked. “Terribly? Or just badly enough that you’d like your mind taken off it?”

Luo Binghe had swallowed hard. “The latter.”

“Ah.” Shen Qingqiu, his expression milk-mild, had flicked his eyes up to meet Luo Binghe’s. “Should your Shizun kiss it better?”

Oh fuck, in his old room. Shizun, in an elegant pool of robes at the foot of his disciple’s old bed. Luo Binghe’s mind had then supplied him with an image of Shizun’s pretty little mouth, pressed against the thick head of Luo Binghe’s cock in that delicate greeting-kiss Shen Qingqiu always started with while he considered where to begin with the task before him (as though anything he chose to do wouldn’t delight Luo Binghe). Luo Binghe’s interest had bloomed like a hot-house flower, spring-forced to it. He’d bit his lip against a groan and nodded, his cock plumping in response to the picture before him: green silk and loose black hair. Shen Qingqiu’s patient, tender, slyly-amused expression. His glittering, interested eyes.

Shen Qingqiu had smiled indulgently at the wordless answer. “There’s my brave boy,” he’d said, stroking Luo Binghe’s erection under the tent of his robes. “I’ve such a reckless disciple.” He’d shaken his head. “Poor thing. Let Shizun help.”

The first time Luo Binghe had killed an Abyssal Drake, he would have killed a thousand such just to be able to return home to this safe little bed, to his shizun. Just to hear, from Shen Qingqiu’s own lips, that his master had worried for him, and that Shen Qingqiu pitied his trials and his injuries. Luo Binghe’s shizun had always taught him very carefully, and so even that first time, Luo Binghe had known to avoid slicing open the beast’s stomach if he could help it. The advice had possibly saved his life—at the very least, it had spared Luo Binghe the sheer agony of having to wait, weak and vulnerable, while lungs that had been well-nigh melted from the inside out slowly recovered from inhaling the vapours.

But despite the care Shen Qingqiu had taken in training him, that first time, Luo Binghe had nevertheless been injured while trying to escape the Drake’s lair (which he’d only stumbled into to take refuge from other pursuers). He’d slain the animal only after the thing’s teeth had nearly ripped his arm off. When he’d finally triumphed over it, Luo Binghe had collapsed to his knees. Not for the first time, nigh-crazed with pain and exhaustion and sad beyond shame, Luo Binghe had outright wept for home. He’d begged a master who couldn’t hear him to forgive his betrayals and deceptions, and to take his wayward child back into his arms again.

At eighteen, Luo Binghe hadn’t yet dared dream of making Shizun admire and reward him. Like his skill, such audacious confidence had only come with time. But nevertheless, even in Luo Binghe’s weakness—even without his resorting to force, or invoking awe: here was the longed-for embrace. Shen Qingqiu holding Luo Binghe, loving him, in all the shameful ways Luo Binghe had wanted since he’d been fourteen, trying to mastrubate in this very bed so quietly that Shen Qingqiu wouldn’t hear so much as a whisper of his own title. Shen Qingqiu dandling the tip of Binghe’s cock on his tongue, indulgent as ever. Shen Qingqiu, letting Luo Binghe shove greedy hands in his pretty hair, letting him making such a mess of it, as Luo Binghe had breathed, “Shizun, fuck, please, master—”

He’d come down Shen Qingqiu’s throat, his back a stiff arch and the pain in his ankle feeling a thousand li away. Luo Binghe had then flopped down on the bed, only to startle when Shen Qingqiu had stood and begun applying the slick healing salve to his disciple in quite a different capacity.

“You shouldn’t use your legs just now,” Shen Qingqiu had observed. “Fortunately you’ll hardly need to, for what I have in mind. That is, if my precious disciple is willing to serve me thus?”

“Oh,” Luo Binghe had said, lighting up internally and beginning to harden again, straight away, at the prospect before him, “oh gods, yes.”

A truly significant portion of Luo Binghe’s teenage fantasies had involved Shen Qingqiu striding into his bedroom and simply using his disciple for his own pleasure—Binghe’s mouth, his ass, anything. Shen Qingqiu could have ridden him like a cheap rented sword, and teenaged Luo Binghe would have thanked him for it even as he was being fucked absolutely stupid. (An adult Luo Binghe would of course still have thanked his shizun, but with somewhat fewer delirious tears of grateful wonder.)  

Instead, Shen Qingqiu had opted to ride his grown husband like a very good sword: the sort you trusted could reliably handle hard wear. The kind you knew wouldn’t shatter: not even if you hit it very hard indeed. Apparently only rash, wicked disciples let themselves be injured and made their masters worry like this. In the first year of their marriage Shen Qinqqiu hadn’t been willing to so much as spank Luo Binghe without painstaking negotiation, but Luo Binghe felt that such results as this had since paid out his own patient determination a thousandfold.

Luo Binghe had gagged on his own gulps—had let his pliant body be driven right up the bed by the force of Shen Qingqiu’s thrusts. After a few minutes Luo Binghe had found that he could now reach the low headboard-lattice of his simple box bed, and so had curled desperate fingers around the carving, just to hold himself in place and to claim some leverage for his arching body. It had proved absolutely impossible to think of injured ankles at all, in circumstances such as these.

Inside the last year, Shen Qingqiu had taken to emphatically murmuring scandalous things in his husband’s ear while Luo Binghe was taking him—things that made Luo Binghe gasp and keen and fuck desperately into his shizun. Under such intoxicating conditions, Luo Binghe had heard all about the properties and exact location of a rare herb which, if taken, could render anyone desperately aroused and highly fertile. Anyone at all.

“All my husband would have to do was fuck me until it took. I think he could manage that. Couldn’t you, Binghe?”

“Uh huh,” Luo Binghe had gasped. Fuck, of course he could. He was already thinking of Shen Qingqiu’s hips, propped up on pillows so that Luo Binghe’s seed curled deep into him and took root. Of Shen Qingqiu, vast and heavy, for him—the elegant span of his shizun’s narrow back only imperfectly concealing the way his trim waist now gave way to lush largess. All the elegance of Shen Qingqiu transformed into a sprawling, earthy display of sensuality, that anyone could see and that no one but Luo Binghe himself could touch. It would be manifest proof of Shizun’s having chosen him, of his having accepted Luo Binghe’s mixed blood without shame: of Shen Qingqiu’s having elected even to be Luo Binghe’s family, to the fullest extent possible.

And when the time came, little drops of milk would shine like pearls at the very tips of his husband’s nipples. That was how the herb worked; Shizun wouldn’t have told Luo Binghe that if he hadn’t wanted him to consider the implications. So consider them Luo Binge had: nourishing liquor running through his mind, and in it, down Shin Qingqiu’s pale, muscular chest. The drowsy way he’d chastise Luo Binghe for chasing each trailing rivulet with his tongue. Shen Qingqiu whimpering at the sting of teeth, and, with the same kiss-bruised mouth, mewling for the tongue that soothed it.

They said that the Yellow Emperor had been a farmer, and had given the world its chiefest grains. Shennong had been a sovereign, and had gifted mankind the plough. Was Luo Binghe not a son of heaven in his own right? The world would behold this proof of his own husbandry: of the vigour and fruitfulness of his ploughing. He’d have his shizun pregnant with the regularity of the harvest itself.

“Yes, my husband can do anything he sets his mind to,” Shizun had said with confident satisfaction. “Luo Binghe could certainly knock me up. I would never dream of permitting anyone else such a liberty, but if my Binghe wanted to breed me—”

Fuck,” Luo Binghe had panted, grinding desperately into his husband, “fuck, fuck, Shizun, let me do it. Let me give it to you. It’s yours, I’m yours—”

Afterwards, Shizun had avoided discussion, reminding Luo Binghe (before Luo Binghe could breathe so much as a word about it) that people said all kinds of things in the heat of the moment!

Binghe had hardly had time to be hurt or disappointed: later that same week, Shizun (his back to Luo Binghe, his body bent over his own low desk and his ass crammed full of his husband’s cock) had explained that he need only wear the Amulet of Ko while they made love under a full moon in a glade for Luo Binghe to “put a baby in me, just as gorgeous as you are. Show everyone what a good husband my Binghe is, show them all what a good little wife you’ve made of your shizun.” A few days after that, it was some “perfectly—yes, Binghe—simple, god it’d be so easy, you make me so easy—” ritual.

Bedroom talk was one thing: Luo Binghe didn’t really want to eat Shen Qingqiu up, because then there would be no Shizun. (Or if he did, he understood object permanence and so restrained himself, which amounted to the same thing.) He didn’t literally think of Shizun as any kind of mother to him, for all Shizun let him get away with saying filth to that effect in bed on occasion, and even played along. (Luo Binghe’s singular, treasured person, who the world had sometimes threatened to rip away from him—who’d raised him up and selflessly protected him from that same world, time and again. Luo Binghe had never claimed to be subtle in his desires. He knew the shape of his own wounds and the taste of the medicine he used to treat them well enough.)

This, though—this, from highly-controlled Shen Qingqiu, amounted to a series of instructions.

Shen Qingqiu had emphatically declined to discuss his wishes in the cold light of day. Luo Binghe’s initial, circuitous attempts had met with cool silence: Shen Qingqiu’s usual cue that Luo Binghe should change the subject, if he knew what was good for him. But Luo Binghe could take a hint, and so he had obediently gathered up the treasures in question. He’d likewise considered whether he himself felt ready for such a challenge, and had made a mental list of his concerns in that regard to discuss with his shizun (chiefly: Luo Binghe thought he’d like for their family to consist of them and them alone for another few years—he wanted this so deeply, but not tomorrow). He’d started perusing parenting books, and considering their long term plans in this new light. It was only a matter of time until Shizun gathered the courage to discuss the matter while not out of his mind with lust (or, more probably, for Shizun to give Luo Binghe the opportunity to gently, respectfully suggest this himself, as though it had been his own idea, which Shen Qingqiu would agree to ‘on sufferance’).

Luo Binghe hardly minded the dance. Shen Qingqiu could take time to reconcile himself to his own desires. He often needed to think through the possible consequences of various courses, and to convince himself that he could really have the things he wanted. Luo Binghe suspected that this analytic distance was how Shen Qingqiu, a good man, had reconciled himself to being quite devoted to his disciple, and acting it, without ever doing or even thinking anything untoward in Luo Binghe's youth.

For his part, Luo Binghe was puffed up with pride that Shen Qingqiu would offer him something so intimate, vast and wondrous. Something Luo Binghe hadn’t even dared conceptualise as an erotic possibility, let alone as a potential reality. How could Luo Binghe not feel overwhelmed by that? Shen Qingqiu wanted to give Luo Binghe a child, who they would raise up together: an heir, but something far more precious than that.

Considered all together, Shizun had an excellent track record of offering Luo Binghe hitherto undreamt-of, novel gifts in the bedroom. Luo Binghe, devout in any context, would gladly follow his master wherever he was leading them now.

Inside their borrowed room, Luo Binghe caught Shen Qingqiu’s wrists in his hand and used them to back his lover up against the door that had only just shut behind them. 

“Did you want something, Shizun?” Luo Binghe asked, pushing his thigh between his husband’s.

Shen Qingqiu actually pouted up at him, and Luo Binghe’s eyes flared wide.

“Only to ensure my Lord husband was suitably entertained.”

Were those chenqie pronouns? Shen Qingqiu never used them, not even in court settings. He’d offered, once, looking so uncomfortable that Luo Binghe had scrambled to suggest the terms for an imperial tutor, a cultivator sage or a prime minister instead. Any of these seemed appropriate: Binghe knew that everyone said he’d been very clever indeed, to prevent infighting in his court by essentially combining the two most powerful imperial offices (his ablest minister and his Empress) in a single individual. Alone, they referred to themselves as they had for seventeen years: over half of Luo Binghe’s life.

Shen Qingqiu didn’t seem uncomfortable referring to himself as ‘your royal concubine’ now, though—not in the slightest. His gaze was heavy-lidded, which only drew attention to the kohl he’d used to outline his warm brown eyes before they’d gone in to dinner. He moved his wrists in the circle of Luo Binghe’s large hands—just slightly, so that the heavy jade bracelets he’d worn (“in order,” in Shen Qingqiu’s own words, “to look less like a school teacher, and more like your Empress”) clinked, drawing attention to their luxuriance. As if Shen Qingqiu were reminding Luo Binghe of how much he liked it when Shen Qingqiu pointedly displayed his status as Luo Binghe’s husband.

Lazy in Luo Binghe’s grip, Shen Qingqiu dropped a shoulder. His outermost robe slid down with the motion. Through the thinner, more tightly-fitted and yet maddeningly chaste second layer of silk, Luo Binghe's eyes could now trace the fine line of Shen Qingiu’s collarbone.

“Isn’t it a first wife’s office to keep your majesty happy?” Shen Qingqiu blinked up at Luo Binghe, all coy display. “Your favourite’s responsibility? I am your favourite, aren’t I Junshang?”

A part of Luo Binghe chafed at even the implication of competitors for the position. Another, though, could see the dark appeal of being Shizun’s protector and provider: depended on, needed. Of keeping a court full of flowers, plucked for their political import, just so Shen Qingqiu could effortlessly outshine them in every way (while struggling to keep the resultant hint of bitchy, self-satisfied condescension off his peerless features). Of watching Shizun apply his cunning to get what already had and could never lose: Luo Binghe’s undivided attention.

In daily life, Luo Binghe cherished Shen Qingqiu’s relaxed freedom to be himself, in every particular—even those particulars Shen Qingqiu seemed to believe Luo Binghe would find unappealing. Perhaps, if he had to choose, Luo Binghe liked these private, imperfect parts of Shen Qingqiu best of all: the husband unfit for any company but Luo Binghe’s. Shen Qingqiu’s comfort ever revealing such aspects of himself spoke of love and trust. But there was also love and trust in playing a game such as this, for all the form of it might hint at a lack of them. The very contrast offered strange pleasures, and lent a still greater measure of satiety to present satisfactions.

That cheap version of himself who Luo Binghe had once exchanged places with had possessed a sprawling harem. The thing had been a joke without a punch line, like sex where you could never actually come. This present game’s frisson came from the conceit of a harem’s being a display case or a stage for the Emperor’s real lover; that other Luo Binghe hadn’t had a single ‘lover’ to speak of. Innumerable women, and not one acknowledged as beloved, who that other Emperor had prized higher than his own life and rushed back to protect.

Luo Binghe had seen how his other, lesser self had looked at Shen Qingqiu. He’d recognised the hurt, bewildered anger of a jester who’d only just realised that all along, the world had been laughing at him rather than with him. If that other him had enjoyed a moment’s peace with all his admirers since he’d at last realised what it might be to have an Empress like his, Luo Binghe would be greatly surprised.

“Of course you’re Junshang’s favourite,” Luo Binghe assured Shen Qingqiu, dropping a hand to cup Shen Qingqiu’s face and rubbing a thumb along his lower lip. “My peerless prize. How can my best-beloved doubt it?”

“Then would it please my Lord to retire with his chosen wife?” Shen Qingqiu asked with a flutter of lashes, the moue of his mouth pressing delicately against Luo Binghe’s thumb as he spoke. The ostentatious ploy made Luo Binghe want to laugh with delight at the shared joke of it all, even as it made his skin buzz with genuine want. (Imagine Shizun, fluttering his lashes just so Binghe would remember what lovely eyes he had!)

Luo Binghe took his time with his nightly ablutions, lingering in the suite’s guifang as he made himself ready for his husband in order to let Shen Qingqiu accomplish anything he might have in mind. When he returned, he found Shen Qingqiu wearing one of his red silk inner robes: open, so that the whole long, pale line of his body was visible. Only a thick, prettily-tied silk belt drew the robe together above, and obscured, Shen Qingqiu’s cock.

In that brief interval, Shen Qingqiu had also managed to toss his hair loose and dab rouge on his mouth—the same kind he used to paint Binghe’s demonic mark on his own forehead for state occasions such as this dinner. He’d also donned what looked to be every bit of the low king’s tribute-chest. Some lords kept their wealth in gold jewellery, only to break off pieces as needed: Shen Qingqiu’s thin wrists were absolutely swallowed in bangles, which stretched up to his forearms like bracers. He looked as though he were wearing Luo Binghe’s treasury, and was himself its crowning jewel. A necklace of foreign gold coins dripped down over Shen Qingqiu's chest, and drew attention to how long and slender the neck it encircled was.

Luo Binghe only just caught Shen Qingqiu throwing himself on the bed in all his finery, trying to look as though he’d been idly lounging here for hours in case his Emperor happened to want him. A beat of amusement gave way to a sensual appreciation of the picture, and a low, coursing thrill of pleasure at the idea: reserved, responsible, resplendant Shen Qingqiu, doing nothing with all his cleverness and skill but lounging around, hoping for his lord and master to fuck him.

“My wife is always stunning, but he is exceptionally so this evening,” Luo Binghe managed after a moment.

“Oh, in this old thing?” Shen Qingqiu rolled his shoulders dismissively, tossing his long, jet hair back in an elegant swing. “I only wear it when I don't care how I look.” He patted the bed beside him. “Won’t Junshang sit with me?” He glanced up at Luo Binghe, his teeth catching his lip, and Luo Binghe felt his stomach clench with want.

Luo Binghe obeyed, closing his eyes when Shen Qingqiu sat up and slipped his hands around Luo Binghe from the back, untying his robes and beginning to slide them off his shoulders. Shen Qingqiu’s hands splayed across Luo Binghe’s chest, stroking his nipples ever-so-lightly and drawing down his torso before sweeping back and travelling up his spine. Those long, lovely fingers found the tense muscles of Luo Binghe's shoulder-blades and dug in, making Luo Binghe hiss with pleasure.

“My Emperor is so tense,” Shen Qingqiu chastised. “He works too hard! Aren’t all those other girls helping my Lord relax?” Shen Qingqiu clucked his tongue. “Obviously they don’t care about Junshang like I do. None of them are good enough for my Binghe.”

Sugar-sweet ‘chenqie’, wrapping around jealous little barbs. Luo Binghe was hardly surprised at the ease with which his guarded husband said such things; playing a role often seemed to embolden Shen Qingqiu.

Luo Binghe sighed, just as though this were an old argument. “Darling, you know I have to keep up a harem for the sake of the empire. Is it those silly girls’ fault that none of them can live up to your standard?”

“Some of them don’t see it that way,” Shen Qingqiu sulked, grinding his knuckles nicely into the meat of Luo Binghe’s posterior deltoid. “Perhaps if my husband would show some small, outward sign of his favour to his Empress, it might help the others remember their place.”

Unseen, Luo Binghe smirked. “Did my precious first wife have any trinket in mind? I’ve long lamented that he has barely any jewellery to speak of—”

Shen Qingqiu, so loaded down with the stuff that every movement came with an attendant jingle, didn’t miss a beat.

“Hmm. A new phoenix crown, perhaps? Nothing gaudy, mind you. Blood pearls from the oysters in the forgotten seas would be ornament enough. None of your other wives has anything like that. And the pearls would match my robe so well—don’t you think?”

Shen Qingqiu pressed up against Luo Binghe so that both his cool, gold necklace and his warm, pale chest lay flush against his husband’s back. This manoeuvre showed off the blood red sleeve of Shen Qingqiu’s robe at his extended wrist, and at the same time delicately drew attention to the hardening of his cock.

Tease, Luo Binghe thought.

Almost in vengeance, Luo Binghe drew the proffered wrist to his mouth. He let the bangles slide down and sucked hard at the pulse point, earning a punched-out, indignant “my Lord!

Luo Binghe only let him pull away when he’d left a mark, and when he'd felt Shen Qingqiu's cock twitch and throb against his spine. Shen Qingqiu's wrists were so sensitive; he tried to protect them with vambraces on account of it. Since adolescence, watching Shen Qingqiu draw the laces tight around his thin wrists had always made Luo Binghe feral with want.

“My Empress does recall that only I know the location of the forgotten sea, and that it’s positively teeming with winged eagle sharks?” Every pearl formed around a drop of real blood, after all.

Shen Qingqiu shifted. Luo Binghe felt the cool, metallic slide of Shen Qingqiu's bangles over his nipples and shivered. Undaunted, Shen Qingqiu's hand continued down the toned planes of Luo Binghe’s stomach, until slender, pale fingers framed in red and gold (as though it were their public wedding, all over again) wrapped around Luo Binghe’s cock.

“Doesn’t my husband love me best?” Shen Qingqiu’s hand withdrew after a single, taunting touch. “If he doesn’t want to show those others that they mean nothing to him, then he’d do better to forget all about it.”

Luo Binghe’s own hand snapped, arresting Shen Qingqiu’s and guiding it back where it belonged.

“It was only a casual reminder, of course. My treasure has only to voice a wish for it to be granted.”

Shen Qingqiu sighed, wrapping his fingers around Luo Binghe’s cock properly. He gave it a sweeping caress, and then a firm stroke.

“I’ve such a good husband. What a powerful, generous man. He never complains about how silly and spoilt I am!”

Each word of praise accompanied a wringing twist of Luo Binghe’s cock, Shen Qingqiu's pulls just as hard as Luo Binghe liked them.

Unable to take it anymore, Luo Binghe (whose strength was never quite that of a human, even if said human was a cultivator) twisted ‘round, seized Shen Qingqiu and popped his teasing husband prettily on his lap.

“Can my sweet little wife be called spoilt, when it’s only what he deserves?”

Luo Binghe pushed his hips up, indicating that Shen Qingqiu should resume his work, and rested a peremptory hand on Shen Qingqiu’s waist.

“‘My precious, my treasure, my sweet’,” Shen Qingqiu huffed, taking Luo Binghe’s cock in hand once more but sighing and looking away for dramatic effect. “His majesty certainly likes owning me. You’d think the novelty would have worn off, given that he possesses so many brides—”

Luo Binghe’s own wandering hand discovered a trace of oil at Shen Qingqiu’s entrance. His heart gave an unsteady, thick thump. While Luo Binghe had been out of the room, or perhaps even before dinner, Shen Qingqiu had readied himself for Luo Binghe’s use. Had fucked two or three fingers into himself and then cleaned them off, businesslike as anything, so that his Emperor could just take him: as though he were a purpose-built plaything who lived just to satisfy Luo Binghe. Maybe he'd suggested sex earlier, opened himself up and teased Luo Binghe through dinner because he'd been just that impatient for his husband to enjoy him. The thought of it made Luo Binghe shove three fingers hard into his husband, which in turn made Shen Qingqiu shudder and emit a stagey, sluttish gasp.

“If there were three thousand beauties in the inner palace, I would give the love due all three thousand to you alone, my heart,” Luo Binghe promised. He used his free, clean hand to cup his husband’s chin, forcing Shen Qingqiu to face him again. Shen Qingqiu’s eyes were wide and dark with interest, as though every word Binghe said answered some potent longing in him.

“And if anyone said to me, ‘choose between this lover of yours and your kingdom’,” Luo Binghe continued, even as he pulled the tied bow of Shen Qingqiu's borrowed robe loose, opening up his present, “I would cut out the tongue that dared threaten you. I’d surrender my kingdom lightly, before I let another touch you. I’d die before I let anyone take you from me. Only speak their name, and anyone who doubts my word is banished. Only deign to bounce on your poor, suffering husband’s cock, and offer him a little relief from the madness you cause in him—only grant your poor Lord an ease only you can, and I’ll give you anything in this world or the next.”

Wholly unexpectedly, Luo Binghe found that Shen Qingqiu was trembling slightly in his arms. Luo Binghe flashed a glance at Shen Qingqiu—all right? Shen Qingqiu nodded seriously in response, then offered Binghe a shaky smile that, after a moment, firmed into an established consort’s sensuous smirk.  

Shen Qingqiu rose up on his knees, let Luo Binghe’s finders side out of him, and guided Luo Binghe’s cock inside him in their stead. Even practiced as he was, he never took Luo Binghe without wounded, hungry gasp.

Luo Binghe groaned, clenching a hand at the small of Shen Qingqiu’s back.

“So I’m special, then?” Shen Qingqiu murmured, a certain winsome weight deepening his voice.

Feeling something potent and true in the play, Luo Binghe, regarding his husband tenderly, gave a very deliberate nod.

Shen Qingqiu smiled at him, wistful and achingly sweet, and Luo Binghe’s breath caught.

“I’m the one to make you happy, at last?” Shen Qingqiu pressed. He rolled his hips, seeming almost to punish Binghe by not properly fucking him. When he felt so inclined, Shen Qingqiu treated Binghe’s cock like his personal lingam; these shallow thrusts were thus a quite deliberate torment. “The wife who can make Luo Binghe see that he doesn’t need a thousand cut flowers, when one humble scholar-tree will shelter him and bloom for him, year in and year out?”

In response, Luo Binghe flipped Shen Qingqiu down. His back hit the mattress with a bounce, and Luo Binghe twisted with his husband so that they never slipped apart. It was the sort of manoeuvre only people who’d known one another for years and fought as a unit for the better part of them could have smoothly executed. Luo Binghe surged into his husband, grasping Shen Qingqiu’s palms in his own and interlacing their fingers. They both moaned as Binghe’s hips helplessly juddered forward.

“You,” Luo Binghe agreed in a tight gasp, “are extraordinary. Everything I need. I delight in you, dote on you, adore you, and you’re a brat who knows what he does to me and takes so much advantage—”

“Binghe!” Shen Qingqiu gasped, tightening viciously even as he slapped his husband across the face with his fingers—so lightly that they might have been the paper of his flimsiest fan. It was an outright parody of maidenly indignation.

Luo Binghe grinned, wholly unsorry, and took his husband all the harder for the rebuke. Shen Qingqiu, seeming not to entirely object, rolled with his smacking thrusts with accustomed ease.

“What a shameless, perfect little temptress. Can this be what my elegant Shizun was like as a young man?” Luo Binghe shook his head, still fucking his eager spouse. “However did the world avoid falling into devastation?”

Shen Qingqiu snorted, his real laugh piercing though the play. He took off the heavy necklace, draping it over the water pitcher. It must have started to chafe as he endured Luo Binghe’s vigorous attentions.

Absolutely not. If you want me at twenty, I can give you Shen Yuan at twenty.”

“I,” Luo Binghe said, intrigued, “want Shizun every way I can get him, as he well knows.”

In an instant, game, adaptable Shen Qingqiu swept off his bangles and let his body drop limp in a way that made Luo Binghe appreciate anew all that Shen Qingqiu did to facilitate Luo Binghe’s conquest of his body, even while seemingly passive: an attentive, welcoming host.

“It’s too big,” Shen Yuan now protested, looking absolutely outraged about this.

Playing at being either a selfish lover or a clueless ingenue, Shen Yuan squirmed on Luo Binghe’s cock like a fish on a hook, put out as anything. He smacked weakly at Luo Binghe’s shoulders with open palms, just as though he’d never hit anyone in his life.

“You’re ridiculous,” Shen Yuan insisted, his cheeks flushing. “No one real has a cock this size. It was never messy like this in any of the spring books I read. For a start, there were girls in those! Get it out of me, this instant!”

Luo Binghe felt his heart clench and his cock throb.

“A Yuan,” he coaxed, holding his lover gently by his shoulders but driving his cock relentlessly into him, “you don’t mean that. You can take it.”

“No I can’t!” Shen Yuan insisted, every inch the spoilt rich boy. “I definitely can’t!”

This was clearly only ‘young Shen Yuan’ after a fashion: the affectionate parody of a man who’d grown out of the part, but still knew it well enough to act as an understudy. Luo Binghe couldn’t see Shen Qingqiu’s native bravery, resilience and thoughtfulness in this picture of an idle, inexperienced young master. But it was such an honour and delight that Shen Qingqiu had chosen to give Binghe another piece of himself, to see and to keep safe: a truth of his husband, if not the absolute truth, which after all could only ever be grasped in fragments.

“I’ll make it good for you,” Luo Binghe promised, taking special care to smack against Shen Yaun’s prostate with his next several thrusts, so that his partner’s mouth dropped open in pretended-shock and real pleasure.

“See, A Yuan?” Luo Binghe crooned, smug in victory. “You’ll like my thick cock better than anything, soon enough. You'll like it so much that you won’t want anything else, because no other lover can please you half so well.”

A Yuan huffed, looking away petulantly. “I don’t even know if I like boys,” he said mutinously, in the tone of one making a great effort to be hurtful. Luo Binghe could hear in it a trace of Shen Qingqiu, overwhelmed by his feelings, insisting to a heartbroken Luo Binghe that it’d be best if the two of them lived entirely unconnected lives in the same palace. Sometimes you fought with people you loved because you loved them, and you wanted to test and prove that bond: to luxuriate in the very strain of it.

You loved me, Luo Binghe thought with old, vicious certainty. You loved me even then.

A Yuan was baiting him: Luo Binghe knew that look, and he remembered what it had taken to crack it open and leave his master affected, trembling and hard above him. Luo Binghe couldn’t see even the ghost of that expression without itching to fuck him sweet again. To make A Yuan say sorry, and to admit he needed Binghe badly.

Shen Yuan’s mulish expression shook into a startled, open-mouthed, gasping thing as Luo Binghe used his blood parasites to play with the hollow core of A Yuan’s cock. Luo Binghe usually employed this trick when pleasing himself in his husband’s absence. Shen Qingqiu would never ask for it, but it always made him come very hard indeed.

“Who needs you to like boys?” Luo Binghe asked, bullying the lip of Shen Yuan’s entrance with the broad head of his cock—popping lewdly in and out of the tight-stretched seal of him before driving in to slam into Shen Yuan’s prostate, over and again. “A Yuan only needs to love me.”

“Ah, ah! Shouldn’t you get a girl?” Shen Yuan demanded around panting breaths. His face flushed, and his tone slipped: sotto voce, even a touch jealous. “With your looks, you definitely could!”

“A Yuan,” Luo Binghe tsked. “Don’t you know I don’t want anyone but you? No one else will do.”

Recalling a thread of their earlier play, Luo Binghe grinned, slowing the pulse of his hips to something languid, indulgent.

“Poor A Yuan is so unaccustomed to having a man, and he’s being terribly good for me. Isn’t there anything he might like, in exchange for his generosity with his favours?”

“Mama and papa get me everything I need as it is, thank you very much,” Shen Yuan sniffed, coming off very hard done by.

“Isn’t there anything the Emperor of the Demonic Realms and the Lord of Huan Hua could do for his dearest pet?” Luo Binghe asked, keeping his tone innocent as he wrapped a hand around the hard cock between them (an erection Shen Yuan was valiantly pretending not to notice).

Stubborn Shen Yuan bit his lip, so that he didn’t cry out when Binghe stroked his cock, inside and out, in tandem.

“A Yuan,” Luo Binghe coaxed.

“There might,” A Yuan admitted, “be a few yellow books I want to read, for the plot. There’ll be absolutely no pictures, though! I’m very clever and critical about these things. I’m definitely not reading that awful Chunshan thing for the protagonist. I only own all the editions because I hate it so much. Anyone who says otherwise is a liar!”

“No pictures, hm?” Luo Binghe laughed, smoothing Shen Yuan’s hair out of his face. “If you don’t like seeing such things, perhaps you should close your eyes and imagine it’s a maiden fucking you.”

“I don’t appreciate—oh! Oh fuck, oh Binghe, fuck—

Luo Binghe had sat back up, withdrawn his cock, flipped Shen Yuan over and dragged him up onto his hands and knees. He'd then started to seriously ream his husband, in Shen Qingqiu’s all-time favourite position (unstated) (but obvious).

“A Yuan likes taking me deep,” Luo Binghe commented in what was almost a sing-song, earning him an over-the-shoulder glare that melted into a dazed, lost expression. A Yuan seemed to be biting off moans, swallowing them down while Binghe, his own breath growing shorter, luxuriated in plunging into his husband. “As deep as he can get me. He’s greedy like that. And A Yuan likes it best,” Luo Binghe observed, “when his husband fucks him so hard, and so slow, that he falls to pieces. Isn’t that right?”

Shen Yuan tried to shake his head, no. Luo Binghe grabbed the scruff of his neck with a firm hand, shoved A Yuan’s head down and spent a solid ten minutes making those shaky moans loud—fucking his husband honest, until he couldn’t even lie to himself.

“Isn’t that right, A Yuan?” Luo Binghe asked again, when he'd made his point to his own satisfaction. His voice was thready. Satiety was curling its slow way into his own muscles, coming on heavy and deep. “Don’t you like that, baby? Don’t I fuck you well, now?”

“Gege’s so good to me,” Shen Yuan whispered, dazed—half still playing a role, and half telling the truth of his heart. Like pragmatism and romanticism, neither quality made the other inadmissible.

Luo Binghe felt a chasm of feral want open in his stomach at the affirmation, at the endearment. He licked dry lips.


“You make me love it,” Shen Yuan confessed, the words breaking from him in gasps as Luo Binghe continued to use him with a besotted brutality. “Even when I didn’t think I could, when didn’t want to like it, you made me—Binggege, I like you so much. Gege, please? Please?

Luo Binghe felt himself rendered mindless by the pleading, by the tone. All technique gone, he fisted Shen Qingqiu’s cock and slammed into his ass, rhythmless. He could hardly have spoken his own name if asked; he needed Shen Qingqiu to do it for him. Sloppy with overwhelming want, Luo Binghe bit at his husband’s neck with just the sort of demonic claiming instinct he’d gotten good about buying off in recent years. Normally, Binghe relied on visible markers of mutual belonging to stave off his deep-rooted, biological conviction that his beloved should bear the impressions of Binghe's teeth on his fine, bone-white neck; should smell of Binghe always; should be unmistakably physically Binghe’s. Shen Qingqiu fussed about the pain, the crude obviousness of it. This gone, though, worked up to fever-pitch, A Yuan didn’t object at all. He only gasped the most maddeningly incendiary things: all breathy "do it, yeah, make me, make me yours, my Binghe, my favourite, Binggege—"

A Yuan came with a shrill scream, with Luo Binghe’s swollen canines in his neck, Luo Binghe’s heaving chest at his back and Luo Binghe’s engorged cock buried in him to the hilt. Luo Binghe’s stomach lurched like he’d been punched with the force of his own climax. He came and came in Shen Qingqiu, until the stuff leaked out in ludicrous rivulets when Luo Binghe so much as twitched.

A Yuan recovered slowly. Luo Binghe withdrew, turned his husband onto his back with clumsy, pleasure-drugged hands and hovered over him with helpless devotion. He watched A Yuan become Shen Qingqiu, and Shizun, again. It was like watching his husband grow up and come into himself, but quicker and softer than the first time Binghe had seen it happen, when he hadn't even realised what he was bearing witness to. Luo Binghe hadn't understood, then, that both of them were becoming themselves for one another. Shen Qingqiu lifted his hand to his disciple’s cheek, and Luo Binghe let every layer of his own affectation melt away. Shizun always could recollect Binghe to himself.

Perched on his elbows above Shen Qingqiu, Luo Binghe rested comfortably. Their breathing slowed and harmonised, and their locked gazes made the whole world seem still and private. But then a twitch of discomfort stirred across Shen Qingqiu’s lovely face, disturbing his calm.

“What is it?” Luo Binghe asked.

“You know I don’t actually want the blood pearls, right?” Shen Qingqiu demanded, a touch flustered. He seemed quite concerned. “It was just something I said. Those sharks are terribly dangerous! And if that only makes you want to prove you can do it, you needn’t. The pearls wouldn’t even look good with my complexion, so don’t you dare go off and—Binghe? Binghe!”

Luo Binghe was wheezing with laugher. He collapsed on top of his indignant husband, who reached out, grabbed a buckwheat pillow and smacked him with it. Shen Qingqiu looked like he very much wanted to try using one of the ceramic ones next. Luo Binghe had, however, caught his hands after his first attack. Shen Qingqiu thought it’d be quite rude to shake his husband off, just to brain him with ugly cizhouware.

Lord Xuanyan found the Empress easy to talk to: a very pleasant man! The Emperor was everything a young lord ought to be, of course, and had most gentlemanlike manners, but he did seem somewhat mercurial. They were all inspecting Xuanyan’s fine, sturdy mountain horses, and Xuanyan’s son was catching the pride of the herd, bringing her forward to show her off. Junshang was asking intelligent questions about the animals’ qualities and temperament, and what Xuanyan might take for them in trade. Intrigued by the prospect, Lord Xuanyan began to espouse the gentle nature of some of the mares. Handsome creatures, weren’t they? Steady enough, Xuanyan assured his Emperor, for even the most delicate ladies of his own rear palace, if he was looking with an eye to that. Proud of his herd, Xuanyan bragged that he’d enough to top-class cold-bloods here to outfit even the Junshang’s harem.

Xuanyan then coughed when his prize stud, roaming cheerfully among his mares, suddenly mounted one of them. Animals evidently didn’t respect even the Empress’s delicacy. Still, Xuanyan laughed, what was it the Empress had said? ‘Even far-off places seem pleasantly familiar?’ This must remind them a bit of home.

The Emperor’s expression went rigid as a corpse's. A cold light crept into his eyes. “Lord Xuanyan,” he began.

Something about the sweetness of the Junshang's voice made said Lord rather uncomfortable.

“My husband,” Shen Qingqiu cut in, “is, I think, more interested in what you have by way of draughts and hunters. But I,” he curled his fingers around Luo Binghe’s stiff arm, “certainly wouldn’t say no to a pony.”

Luo Binghe looked torn between responding to his Empress and to whatever had caused his ire a moment ago.  

“Shizun, surely this I can't let pass—” he hissed, flexing his hand into a fist.  

“Doesn’t Junshang believe chenqie deserves a pony?” the Empress pouted, sa jiaoing with a ruthlessness that impressed the low king. “My parents never would buy me one. I suppose if Bingege thinks we can’t afford it either, then—” the Empress sighed, dramatically.

“Taking advantage of my weaknesses like this is so cruel,” the Emperor said, even as his mouth twitched.

“Mm,” the Empress agreed. “That’s the privilege of the terribly spoilt favourite wife, I’m afraid.”

Xuanyan noticed that at some point in the conversation, his own son had come up behind the imperial couple. Reins in hand and mare at his side, he was staring at his father with huge, frantic eyes, using his free hand to make some kind of slicing gesture across his own throat.

Xuanyan frowned. “Are you ill, my son?” Some kind of—respiratory issue? Had he been at the cold water again? They’d had words about that!

Unbeknownst to Lord Xuanyan, after the Emperor and Empress’s early retirement from the banquet his son had spent the evening drinking with the Emperor’s guards and chatting about life in the palace. He’d tried to weasel out a bit more information about the famous, deadly Liu Mingyan, only to meet with confusion: a confusion that only grew when Xuanyan the Younger asked how the Emperor's own guards could have never met such an important member of the harem.

“The harem?” the demon in charge had asked, before she and her martial sister had started snorting. “You mean Lord Luo’s harem?”

“Oh my stars,” her shimei had laughed, “can you imagine the Empress allowing anything of the kind? For—for even a ke?”

“Allowing even one other consort? They’d be dead inside a shi,” her shijie had cackled.

“Lord Luo would never, but like, where would they even put another wife? Would she cling to the Emperor’s other arm all the time? Would it be just threesomes? Those two hardly separate to piss!”

“I have no proof that they do!” The guard captain had turned to Xuanyan the Younger. “Where are you guys getting this, did you somehow miss Chunshan?”

“Shut up, shut up, he’ll hear you,” her shimei had hissed. “You know the Emperor has a fucking sixth sense for this shit. Remember the time he caught Hopper with the Wine Extra?”

The commander had shaken her head. “She never did get that back after he confiscated it. Or regrow that sixth finger.”

“Oh, but she does look better without it—”

Xuanyan the Younger had wanted to clue his father in, so as to could avoid giving offence to the most powerful people in the demonic realms any cause for offence. However contrary to expectation, Luo Binghe apparently rose very early. He and Xuanyan the Elder had been discussing the harsh winds that came up out of the Bone Sea when Xuanyan the Younger came into breakfast, and there’d been no opportunity to get a private word in since.

Now, holding the reigns of a horse and looking like a plum, Xuanyan the Younger gave a big, awkward 'ho ho ho!' of a laugh.

“Father is joking, of course!” he said in a strangled tone. “We know there’s no harem, don’t we father? It’s famously the case that the Emperor has no harem! None whatever! We would never insult our gentle Empress’s charm and our magnanimous Junshang’s legendary, passionate fidelity by suggesting otherwise! Please forgive our strange provincial jests! Ha! Ha!

Xuanyan the Elder—tried to laugh. It was a bit of a sad wheeze, like the sound a canary might make when being very slowly stepped on. Luo Binghe looked distinctly unimpressed.

“Say,” Xuanyan the Elder squeaked, “perhaps the Empress? Would like to choose? A free horse?”

“Oh no,” Luo Binghe said with a glittering, dangerous smile. “I can pay for Shizun.”

“But we appreciate your kind offer,” Shen Qingqiu said with a polite cough and the snap of an unfurling fan: all dignity once more.

After the Imperial couple had departed—after having escaped with his life—Xuanyan the Elder sat at dinner with his children, frowning over the leftover biryani and contemplating the nature of things. His son smacked his lips as he drank the 'tea'.

“It needs something,” he muttered to his sister.

“Something dairy?” she asked, nursing her own. “Maybe some yak butter?”

“Yeah. And maybe like, an onion?” Xuanyan the Younger mused.

“You know, children,” Xuanyan the Elder said, having reached a stopping-point in his slow-boiling existential crisis, “actually, it’s impressive that our Junshang has but one wife. The Empress is such a powerful wife! Restraint shows our young lord’s modesty. His commitment. A real steadiness of purpose!” Xuanyan the Elder thumped the table with his fist. “Yes, it’s just what a modern gentleman ought to do. Take note, young Xuanyan!”

“Oh my gods, dad,” Xuanyan the Younger groaned.

“Wait,” his sister said, “I thought dad was just nervous in front of the Junshang yesterday and tripping on his words. Have you two seriously not heard Chunshan?