To whom it may concern:
You are cordially invited to the royal family’s masquerade ball being held in three days from whence this letter is received.
The letter arrives on a Monday evening, sealed with the royal crest.
Lu Guang sets it down, leaving the cream-colored paper on his desk as he looks out the window. He’s been resting here for nearly one month now; the wound in his side still twinges, and the servants still fuss over him. He still has to take medicine every day, the bitter pills washed down with cups of water, and his movement is limited to this compound, where he’s been recuperating. But he can walk, talk, and work, and that’s really what matters in the end, because he has his duties to fufil as one of the most important advisors in the Emperor’s court.
“Um… sir?” The maid who brought the invitation in to him says timidly, blushing when Lu Guang turns his head to look at her. “T-the invitation came with this…”
Lu Guang’s eyebrows raise at the bloomed rose she hands him, sky blue petals unfurled softly, long stripped of all its thorns.
“R-Rumors say His Majesty ordered a new rose variety be specially created for this ball,” the maid continues, apparently a little emboldened by his waiting silence. “They say that he intends on searching for a potential b-bride at it… All the noblewomen attending are using it as decoration, and incorporating it into their dresses.”
Lu Guang mulls this information over for a bit. He’s been cut off from the royal rumor mill for a while during his recuperation in this separate compound. It’s not like Cheng Xiaoshi to do something this flashy without notifying him - but then again, since when has Cheng Xiaoshi ever listened to him, anyways?
He looks up at the maid, still red in the face - presumably from the stress of talking to him - and asks, “Are you hopeful in being selected?”
The maid starts, before stammering and waving her hands. “N-No! Of course not! A lowly maid like me could never hope to win His Majesty’s affections--! Besides, I h-heard--”
“Heard?” Lu Guang prompts, causing the maid to shrink in even more on herself.
He can’t blame her that much, not really. He knows his own reputation amongst the people and the servants in the palace - the coldly efficient advisor to the king, known for being ruthless in court debates and the right-hand man of the current ruler. It’s served him well in the past, intimidating opponents when necessary and ensuring smooth diplomacy with other countries, even if it interferes a little with his already-miniscule interactions with the populace.
There are rumors that the king would not be where he is today without him. Lu Guang knows they are true.
“Th-there are some whispering that the king has found a secret lover…” the maid stutters.
Lu Guang’s eyes narrow on instinct, and the maid squeaks in terror. “I-I’m sorry!” she yelps, looking more and more terrified by the minute. “I s-shouldn’t be spreading rumors about his Highness! I’ll t-take my l-l-leave now!”
Not this again. Lu Guang wants to massage his temples to assuage the headache he’s sure will be coming. He’s never been good at interacting with people, even in court, and this interaction is already testing the limits of what he can stomach for the day.
He lets out a barely-audible sigh right before the maid bolts for the doors. “No, go on,” he says, motioning for her to calm down and stay. “I want to hear about it.”
The maid freezes on the spot, eyes darting from left to right in disbelief. But seeing Lu Guang’s serious demeanor, she talks a little more, emboldened by the fact he isn’t chasing her away. “I-it’s not much, my lord. The king has been busy preparing for the ball… but these roses were only recently cultivated, after all. Some say that this new breed of rose is a gift to his secret lover.”
Lu Guang looks out the window, watching the sun set in flaming streaks across the horizon. A secret lover? he muses. Well. Perhaps they’re right, after all.
A wave of his hand later, the rest of the servants are gone - including the stuttering maid, who had thanked him excitedly for the opportunity to speak to him - and he has the room to himself again, the silence enveloping him comfortingly.
Lu Guang looks down at the envelope in his hands, the royal seal gleaming against the firm card.
It’s been so long since I’ve seen him, he thinks, tracing the outline of the letters gently.
Suddenly, the silence is deafening, almost suffocating, and Lu Guang can’t stand it. Immediately, he stands up, placing the envelope on his chair as he heads to his closet to rummage through his robes. Eventually, he finds what he’s looking for, and his fingers rest against the fabric of an unworn one he’d commissioned before his attack, gently brushing against the embroidered roses stitched into the sleeves.
He leaves the flower on the desk, azure petals dyed white by the evening rays of the sunset.
The ball is crowded. Too crowded.
That’s Lu Guang’s first thought as he steps into the ballroom, mask firmly on his face as he stares at the nobles and ministers mingling about, chatting idly with flutes of champagne in their hands. In the corner, he spots a particularly large gaggle of middle-aged noblewomen, all tittering, the blue rose that came with the invitation adorning their ornate hairstyles. One woman even does a twirl to show off her dress, covered in sheer fabric that seems to mimic the flower itself, looking like another one.
The blue roses are everywhere, in large vases on each table, adorning the red and gold curtains, petals scattered across the floor.
Not for the first time, Lu Guang wonders with a shudder how much Cheng Xiaoshi spent on producing this many flowers alone, and makes a mental note to have a serious talk with him later.
He absentmindedly takes a flute of champagne off a passing server’s tray, lurking in the corner and taking occasional sips from it as he watches the gatherings of people in the hall grow and swell.
One, maybe two hours pass like that. It’s enough for Lu Guang to feel his face flush a little from the alcohol he’s downed; even though he’s only drunk two, maybe three flutes, it’s enough for him to feel the heat.
Then the lights dim.
Any traces of alcohol-induced haze are gone from Lu Guang’s mind as he stands up a little straighter, eyes - drawn, like everyone else’s - to the spotlight shining on the balcony on the second floor, overlooking the hall.
Nearly all at once, the crowd quiets, faces upturned to the figure that appears on the balcony, illuminated by the light.
Unbidden, Lu Guang feels the corners of his lips curl up into a small smile.
He really is as beautiful as ever, he thinks as he watches the familiar silhouette take his rightful place, enrapturing everyone in an instant with charisma like the sun.
“Welcome, my dear citizens!” Cheng Xiaoshi calls out from the balcony, arms spread wide, and the crowd cheers. He commands their attention as well as ever, raven-black hair a stark contrast to his outfit and cape, gilded gold and white, looking every bit like a royal. The crown sits atop his head proudly as he stares down at the masked crowd, face plain for all of them to see. “How are you enjoying the ball so far?”
The crowd cheers again, various iterations of assent and excitement - he’s always been loved by the people, his boyish charisma winning over half the population and his people-centric reforms persuading the rest.
It’s no surprise that they’d be this enthusiastic about his appearance. Lu Guang thinks to himself as he quietly makes sure he’s in a corner, away from the sparkling golden light illuminating the center of the hall.
“Now I’m sure you’ve all heard of the dastardly attack that took place in the Palace a few months ago,” Cheng Xiaoshi says, a charismatic grin on his face. “The assailant did not succeed. But, the person responsible has been captured - and now awaits their just punishment. So rest assured, we won’t see any such incidents in the near future.”
The crowd roars in approval, and Cheng Xiaoshi waits for them to die down before he continues. “I know that the recent events have stressed all of you out, especially after hearing Chief Advisor Lu was injured in the attack. Rest assured, he is recovering well, and has resumed many of his original duties.”
“Is he at the ball today?” someone from the crowd calls out, and Cheng Xiaoshi flashes a bright grin in their direction.
“Why, he is,” he winks, and Lu Guang suppresses his urge to sigh. “But outing him and his costume immediately during a ball like this would be no fun, wouldn’t it?”
Lu Guang wants to sink into a hole and never come out. He can already see some of the curious nobles and servants turning, watchful eyes sweeping the hall through their masks to catch a glimpse of the elusive Chief Advisor.
Thank god the elaborate costumes and wigs are enough for him not to stand out, even with his white hair.
He’s so engrossed in trying to melt into the walls of the hall that he misses the rest of Cheng Xiaoshi’s pleasantries and general addresses, only looking up in time to catch the fleeting glimpse of the king’s golden cape as he disappears from the overhead balcony.
Just as well, Lu Guang sighs, draining his second flute of champagne and placing it back on a tray a nearby masked waiter is carrying. After checking his dark blue mask is on his face, obscuring his eyes, he makes to take his leave. After all, he’s only here to answer the invitation and make sure the ball is proceeding well, after all. Not because he wants to see Cheng Xiaoshi or anything frivolous like that.
Right before he steps out of the doors of the ballroom, a hand grabs his wrist.
Lu Guang’s head darts up in shock to see a face he’d recognise anywhere, even with the matching golden mask on his face. His crown is gone, golden cape replaced by black fabric - possibly to make him stand out less in the crowd - but he’s as unmistakable as ever.
“Missed me?” Cheng Xiaoshi grins at Lu Guang, before tugging lightly on his wrist. “Let’s go somewhere private, Lu Guang.”
They arrive in the garden after a minute or two, Cheng Xiaoshi’s grip warm around Lu Guang’s wrist all the while.
When he lets go, he turns around to face Lu Guang, giving him a little smile. “I hope you didn’t mind me stealing you away from the banquet for a little bit. Then again, you looked like you were about to run from it, anyways.”
“I wasn’t,” Lu Guang huffs, but he lets the other man examine him all over anyways.
Cheng Xiaoshi’s hands flutter around him almost anxiously, like butterflies; as if he’s afraid to touch Lu Guang for fear he might collapse. Finally, a single hand comes to rest on Lu Guang’s hip, the other reaching out to tilt Lu Guang’s chin slightly.
Lu Guang allows his king to examine him like this thoroughly, letting him take all of this scene in; his royal minister dressed in regal blue robes, silver accents decorating the hems and curling across the fabric in delicate, embroidered designs, a striking figure next to the man wearing gold and black.
“You brought it,” Cheng Xiaoshi says softly, brushing his fingers against the petals of the blue rose pinned in his hair.
“How could I not?” Lu Guang responds, before he looks up at Cheng Xiaoshi. “After the king himself decided to spend some of the royal budget on horticulturalism.”
Even the darkness isn’t enough to stop him from catching sight of Cheng Xiaoshi’s wince. Good. He knows the lecture that’s coming for him.
“You--” Lu Guang begins, but Cheng Xiaoshi cuts him off.
“It was a necessary expense,” he says, before he grins. “I know you like roses. You always look at them when the banquets have them in vases, and once I saw you steal one of them from my roo-”
Lu Guang feels his face burn .
“Shut up, you idiot,” he mutters, and Cheng Xiaoshi laughs.
“What happened to being all prim and proper, minister?” he teases gently, a hand slipping down to grab Lu Guang’s gloved hand. “Maybe since we’re dropping titles now, there’s no need to be so formal at all. Don’t you think, Guang-guang?”
A huff is all Cheng Xiaoshi gets. “Only for a while.”
“Good.” And Cheng Xiaoshi’s eyes suddenly soften. “Because I’ve really missed you, Guang-guang.”
Lu Guang looks away from the other man’s gentle gaze, feeling his cheeks flush again. “...It’s not like I was injured that badly, idiot,” he says as he looks up, meeting Cheng Xiaoshi’s golden eyes, full of relief and worry.
“You took a knife to the stomach. ”
“And Qiao Ling healed me in time,” Lu Guang returns.
“Still.” Cheng Xiaoshi gently traces circles on Lu Guang’s waist, right above his hip, where the knife had embedded itself in his body, nearly taking the life of the wrong target. Lu Guang looks up, watching the worry and distress appear in Cheng Xiaoshi’s eyes again, him inhaling sharply. “I don’t…”
“...Don’t cry, you idiot,” Lu Guang murmurs softly, reaching up to gently swipe his thumb over Cheng Xiaoshi’s cheek and relieved when it comes away dry. “I’m not dead.”
“...You could’ve been,” Cheng Xiaoshi mumbles, softer.
“It’s alright,” Lu Guang repeats. He can see Cheng Xiaoshi starting to become physically distressed again - the little tremors in his hand are an indicator - so he reaches up and gently combs his hand through Cheng Xiaoshi’s hair, feeling the silky smooth strands slip between his fingers. “How is Qiao Ling now? Is the demon still with her?”
It seems to work for a brief moment, Cheng Xiaoshi relaxing slightly. “She’s alright,” he says, smiling. “A little whiny at having her movements restricted even as Court Sorcerer, but she understands why it had to be done. Even if the fault isn’t hers, something needs to be done to assuage the public. As for the demon… Last I visited, they were arguing with each other day and night. It’s still trapped in one of her sanctified glass bottles, but they seem a little bit more like reluctant roommates now.”
“As long as it doesn’t escape and try to go after you again,” Lu Guang says dryly, and Cheng Xiaoshi laughs at that.
“Jealous, Guang-guang?” he teases, prodding Lu Guang’s cheek gently with a finger that Lu Guang slaps away.
“In your dreams, idiot,” Lu Guang says with no actual heat in his voice.
After that, the conversation falls into silence again - a comfortable one, this time, as they stand together in the royal garden. Lu Guang can feel Cheng Xiaoshi’s gaze on him with a piercing intensity of its own, never moving - but even after all this time they’ve spent together, he’s still terrible at meeting his lover’s gaze straight on.
So he looks off to the side, blue eyes flickering as he takes in everything other than the man standing next to him; the shadows on the ground, the flowers in the bushes blooming even at night, the way the moonlight glances off the ivory pillars of the pavilion and scatters across the pool in front of them into a million icy shards. It feels like forever before he hears Cheng Xiaoshi take a deep breath, and then there’s a tug on his wrist, the man spinning Lu Guang around to forcibly face him.
“Won’t you let me take it off?” Cheng Xiaoshi murmurs, one hand on his waist as his fingers gently linger around the mask Lu Guang wears. His golden eyes blaze behind his mask, a mixture of impatience and desire, as bright as the rising sun.
Lu Guang feels his cheeks begin to burn at the intensity of his gaze, silently thanking the gods that this is a masquerade ball.
“We’re in public, your Highness,” he murmurs, which only serves to make Cheng Xiaoshi pout more behind his mask, leaning a little closer.
“We’re not in public now,” Cheng Xiaoshi whines, nodding his head in the direction of the ballroom, with its gilded lights shining out the door. Here, in the solitude of the palace gardens, the light of the chandeliers doesn’t reach them. Instead, they are cloaked in shadow, standing in the middle of the outdoor pavilion with the moonlight illuminating their surroundings.
Even swallowed by darkness, Lu Guang thinks, Cheng Xiaoshi still shines so brightly.
“....Only for a while,” he murmurs softly, reaching up. “Then we go back in. Alright?”
“Only for a while,” Cheng Xiaoshi agrees, and Lu Guang reaches up for his own mask and pulls it off.
He feels bare, almost naked without his mask as he watches Cheng Xiaoshi drink in the sight of his face like a man starved, as he stands in front of his king with his face bare for anyone looking out the window to see.
It feels disrespectful. Even scandalous.
Exactly like what a secret romance between the Emperor and his most trusted advisor would be, if it ever came to light.
In the palace, people like them have to be content with the smallest of gestures, the quickest of glances. The amount of time they can spend together is rare enough as it is, with Cheng Xiaoshi bearing the weight of the crown and Lu Guang behind the scenes, making sure everything is in order. Even with Qiao Ling as Court Sorcerer, the moments they can steal to stay together are never enough, even when she tries her best to cover for them.
But this is enough , Lu Guang thinks, closing his eyes even as Cheng Xiaoshi draws him in, slowly, gently; as the scent of the blue roses they both wear permeate the air. This is enough.
Their lips meet gently in the shadows of the garden, masks dropping to the floor with a soft thud.