Part II

Extra Story #1: Lantern Festival

There was an air of disgusting happiness so thick that Lingyun could feel it sticking to his skin like oozing honey. He pursed his lips, staring at the white, sphere dumplings floating in the steaming soup in front of him.

It was noisy, irritatingly so. Why had his master, Zhou Yanhao, insisted on bringing the whole Sect’s fifth generation down to the nearest large city? Lingyun didn’t even want to celebrate the Lantern Festival, but since it was the master’s orders, he couldn’t disobey.

Shixiong, if you keep glaring at your yuanxiao, they’re only going to get cold,” an annoying voice piped up behind him.

Then, the moron Lingyun had saved almost two years ago took it upon himself to sit beside Lingyun without permission. Everyone knew to leave the seats around Lingyun empty. Everyone except that moron. However, Lingyun had learned long before that moving away or ignoring the moron did not work.

“I don’t need you to tell me the obvious, Xuan Fengbo,” Lingyun growled, not even bothering to shift his line of sight. “I’m just not hungry.”

“Not hungry? Why?” As usual, that moron asked too many questions.

Because,” Lingyun began, trying to maintain his increasingly thin patience, “I don’t want to leave this meager restaurant. Getting inside this place was already like trying to squish through hell.”

“But tonight’s sky is so clear!” Fengbo exclaimed, holding his spoon in midair. The round rice dumpling on his spoon dropped back into the soup with a loud splash, making a mess.

Lingyun couldn’t help but laugh at the moronic scene. Fengbo was such a moron, grinning like the idiot he was. Unfortunately, since no one else was paying attention, no one would discover how stupid Fengbo really was. Not as though Lingyun really cared.

Shixiong, don’t tell me you’ve never celebrated the Lantern Festival,” Fengbo continued as he wiped the soup off his face.

“I only eat yuanxiao with my family. Sometimes I participate in the lantern riddle guessing games, but they aren’t really riddles because I never needed to think about the answers.” Lingyun stirred his soup with the white, porcelain spoon. “Anyhow, I’m not interested in how boring people celebrate the festival.”

For a rustic moron, Fengbo actually had some table manners, so he swallowed half of his yuanxiao before he managed to ask, “Boring?” He sounded like Lingyun had just said something bizarre. “Shixiong, you obviously haven’t experienced life yet!” He popped the other half of his yuanxiao into his mouth and chewed.

Seeing Fengbo eat made Lingyun hungry, so he decided to eat one rice dumpling. He bit down, breaking the gummy surface of the yuanxiao and tasting the sweet sesame filling. For a commoner’s restaurant, it was actually passable. At least Master Zhou knew where to eat.

Fengbo, on the other hand, was already sipping a spoonful of soup. “Anyway, Shixiong,” he began after he lowered the porcelain tableware, “how about I show you around? I’ve been here before, after all. It’s a waste to spend the entire night in this place—Master Zhou said to meet up at the Time of Chou, and right now it’s only the beginning of Xu!”

Lingyun growled, “I already said I have no desire to torture myself.” For some reason, he was already on his second yuanxiao. “Did you see the crowd out there? It’s only going to get bigger.”

“But Lingyun, that’s the beauty of the Lantern Festival! All the people, the lanterns, the general merriness…I’ve decided, Shixiong. After we finish eating, let’s go see what this city has to offer.” With that said, Fengbo proceeded to finish the last three rice dumplings in his bowl.

“Don’t go deciding things by yourself!” Lingyun protested.

However, in the end, the moron still managed to drag him out of the restaurant. Because it was so crowded, they ended up holding hands. Lingyun felt stupid doing so, but for some bizarre reason, he didn’t let go of the moron either.

During the whole time, Fengbo showed Lingyun some very rustic but somewhat amusing story-singing and dancing performances. The sound of gong, drums, bamboo flutes, singing, laughing—they were all so loud that Lingyun thought he was going deaf. He decided that this must be the reason the moron was deaf—Fengbo had spent too much time in these boisterous environments. Afterwards, they bought some food along the way and examined the lanterns that were competing for the best—though, in Lingyun’s opinion, the lanterns were not very impressive.

Finally, after pushing and shoving through a horde of annoying commoners, they reached the river, which was lined with lanterns. It was as though the dark river was alive—the reflections of countless lanterns were dancing with the obnoxiously loud music, almost as though the lights were also celebrating the end of Chinese New Year.

“Wait here,” Fengbo said; he disappeared before Lingyun could reply.

Speechless, Lingyun chose to sit on a rock and stare at the round, silver moon. It was starting to get cold when the moron finally came back with a stick of candied hawthorns in each hand. He smiled and gave Lingyun one. “I didn’t think they’d sell this here, but I saw it on my way back,” the moron said as he squeezed beside Lingyun. “Thought it would be nice to finish the night eating tanghulu.”

“So where were you off to?” Lingyun demanded before licking the sugary surface of the snack. For some reason, Fengbo just stared. “What?” Lingyun was getting annoyed now.

Coughing, Fengbo turned away and looked up at the moon instead. “I tried looking for the poem Wang Haoran himself wrote, since I heard he visited this city not long ago. However, it was sold to some noble yesterday.”

Wang Haoran? Lingyun had never known. He really liked the poet’s works and calligraphy, too. “What does an uncultured moron like you want with Wang Haoran’s work? It’s not like you could afford it anyway.”

“Well, I thought I’d give it to you as a thank-you gift, Shixiong. After all, you’ve always been taking care of me since I was taken in.” Fengbo turned around and smiled goofily. “Not to mention, this is the best Lantern Festival I ever had, thanks to you.”

Lingyun almost choked on the piece of fruit in his mouth. There was something he found incredibly wrong with the latter half of what Fengbo had just said, but he couldn’t put his finger on it. All he knew was that he felt so awkward that he wanted to jump into the freezing river to escape the situation.

But at the same time, he felt somewhat…flattered. “Hmph. What are you up to, Fengbo?” he asked instead.

Reaching a hand into his robes, Fengbo pulled out a box wrapped in rather expensive paper and held it out to Lingyun. “Well, instead of getting you Wang Haoran’s calligraphy, I got you a calligraphy set. You’re always writing during the night so I thought you’d probably need another set, just in case.”

Lingyun just stared; he was so flabbergasted that his mind went blank. Fengbo chuckled and stuffed the box onto Lingyun’s lap. “Um….” He took the candied stick out of his mouth. “You better learn well in the future, I guess. You’re just so stupid.”

Fengbo smiled. “Of course. Shixiong is the best teacher in the world.”

Even after they had returned to Mount Snow Prison, Lingyun never brought himself to use the calligraphy set.

The set was too good to use, after all. The brushes’ stalks were made of jade and crafted to the last detail, and the bristles were from Siberian weasel fur. The inkstick was made from the best quality ink, but it hadn’t stopped the designer from decorating the outer layer with intricate gold and silver tigers. The inkstone, which was tinged with gold, had been carved so well that Lingyun could stare at it for the entire night and still not get tired of it. Even if Lingyun were in the Palace, he wouldn’t have been able to get his hands on this easily. Just how the hell had Fengbo afforded this? But the moron couldn’t have stolen it—he was too morally righteous to do that sort of thing.

Lingyun decided to ignore his questions.

Afterwards, whenever Lingyun was bored and sick of writing essays, he’d bring out the set and fiddle with it.

Somehow, he always got into a better mood when looking at the calligraphy set.

End of Extra Story #1

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~Part II~

恩斷義

~Broken Relations and Severed Ties~

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Chapter 23

Initially, fighting two forces had proven to be far too great a task, even for Fengbo. After all, Zhitian had only helped him obtain the position because the corrupted serpent had hoped he would die in action. Even if Fengbo were to survive, it would have still made Zhitian look good, since he had been the one to recommend Fengbo.

At one point, Fengbo had come close to despairing, even with the help of Han-wang, Bai Dingsheng. He had been up against the man who had killed his father, a man far more experienced than he was in terms of war.

In the end, it had been Lingyun’s words that, despite all their poison and hatred, saved him from despair.

You better survive.”

That was what had ultimately become his motivation when all seemed lost.

And survive Fengbo had.

He made his way down the streets as glory and respect showered his every step. He had defeated both Jin and Xia by making them doubt their alliance, creating a hole in their tactics. He had utilized that weakness perfectly and had ultimately forced the two empires to retreat—they probably would not be attacking for at least three years. Especially since Xia was now suffering a major internal unrest and Jin was at war with Ning.

Of course, many soldiers had been lost on Yue’s side as well—after all, fighting three empires at the same time had induced unaccountable losses. They would be too weak to defend themselves against Ning if the empire ever decided to invade. For now, Ning claimed to be Yue’s ally when they had invaded Jin, but they were just taking advantage of Jin’s situation and pressuring Yue with a debt.

It was autumn again and the Capital looked like it had been lit with golden flames. Fengbo smiled and took his time admiring the city he loved.

After taking the long way back home and admiring the beauty of the capital city, Fengbo entered through the doors of the Xuan Manor, where there was no threat of eavesdropping. A maid poured him a cup of wine and he drank it. His close friend and trusted subordinate, Sima Lü, arrived shortly after. Fengbo dismissed the servants and poured some wine for his friend. “So,” he said, replacing the wine vessel on the table, “I read your monthly reports, but I suspect you didn’t include everything to keep me from being distracted.”

Lü nodded; lips drawn into a thin line, almost colorless. “Where do you want me to start?”

Fengbo chuckled, finishing his wine cup and refilling it. “I think you already know.”

Lü didn’t talk for a long time, which made Fengbo’s gut sink. “No big change, power-wise, on the emperor’s side.” His voice was stiff. “He attends conferences, but he never speaks unless necessary. He still has few supporters, save for those who were loyal to the previous emperor and those who work with the grand empress dowager. I don’t know what he has been doing…he just doesn’t seem to be interested at all. He mostly spends his time at his own quarters, at the ministry of works, the nine courts, or in the library—he has an unhealthy obsession with science. Sometimes I can’t even find him for days, even though I’m supposed to be his bodyguard.”

Fengbo refilled Lü’s cup. “Go on.” This time, his smile was gone.

“He spends a lot of time with your brother, Ruixiang. Rumors are he takes out his anger on your brother by sparring with him,” he continued.

Hearing that made Fengbo chuckle, but the mirth did not reach his heart. It sounded a lot like what Lingyun would do, though. “Does my brother let him win?”

“He’s stronger than your brother, Fengbo.” Lü was not praising Lingyun but addressing a serious problem. Fengbo knew what it implied: Lingyun had been forsaking his duties as the emperor.

His lips curved a little, though it was just a superficial reaction. “Lingyun is talented. He has quite a lot of Xuan blood in him—the Xuan and Bai family have shared a long history together, after all.”

“I just wish he had the patriotism of the Xuan,” Lü said tonelessly, his grip on his wine cup tightening. “The Bai have reigned for so long because of the Xuan, yet lately they’ve been acting very arrogant, forgetting their place.”

“You mean Zhitian, Qingyan, and their supporters,” Fengbo couldn’t help but correct.

“Especially Qingyan. I can’t believe him! He gives that bitter commoner Zhu Zi’an way too much support,” Lü growled. “Lately the Imperial Government is clearly split into two main factions: Zhitian, who has the support of most nobles, and Zi’an, who has the support of the nouveau riche.” He finished his wine and poured himself another cup. “However, you have arguably as much influence as Zhitian by now, especially since most of the military is under your command. I think you should expand your power by obtaining support from the independent officials who helped the emperor ascend the throne. They already like you anyway. Her Grand Majesty will help you as well—she has some influence over those officials.”

Fengbo shook his head. “They lost influence with the younger gentry and they regret it. Now most of them have retired and the ones that haven’t yet don’t have that much influence. They should have at least given the emperor more support if they wanted to stay, but their arrogance made them think they could gain power themselves—at least that’s what I got from reading your reports.” Fengbo couldn’t get his mind off Lingyun. Two years had been far too long. Well, at least he’d get to see Lingyun this night, as they were going to celebrate his victory.

“With His Imperial Majesty like that, of course they wouldn’t give him any support!” Lü’s voice rose and he slammed the table, causing porcelain tableware to rattle like little bells.

Fengbo didn’t reply. He simply drank more wine—he couldn’t stop thinking about Lingyun, after all. Anything bad Lü said about his Lingyun was irrelevant. As long as Lingyun was here, alive and well—that was all he needed to know right now.

All he wanted was to see his prize, to see the reason he had made it back.

“If the emperor doesn’t want to rule, it’s all right. He can just be a puppet and obsess over his science. It’s not going to hamper my plans.”

Lü pursed his lips. “You seriously don’t mean that, do you?”

Fengbo laughed softly, replacing his cup onto the table and getting up. “For now, I do. I’m in a good mood.”

Lü examined Fengbo for a while. “If you like him so much, you shouldn’t have brought him back,” he stated at last, almost a sigh. “I grew up with him, and I know what kind of person he is. If you liked His Imperial Majesty back then, you shouldn’t have brought him back. He changed, Fengbo. And not necessarily in a good way—I don’t know him anymore.”

Those words struck Fengbo hard in the core—but he didn’t show it. Change was a must. He should be happy. “But don’t you see? Things are easier because Lingyun—I mean, His Imperial Majesty—is the one who rightfully wields the supreme power. No matter how much power the other two hold, they don’t have the true right so they can’t be too audacious. They know he has the ability to veto whatever plans they propose if he feels up to it—they know how smart he is. During these two years, nothing too out of hand has happened because Zhitian and Zi’an are both wary of His Imperial Majesty,” Fengbo theorized. “When the right time comes, the right time comes and I can switch my loyalty to him without any debate.”

“He hates you, Fengbo. Do you think he’ll accept your help? He’ll hate you even more if you switch loyalties, because that’s going to make him your puppet. He’d rather die than have that happen.” Lü got up as well, looking straight into Fengbo’s eyes. “And I mean it. He might really commit suicide or run away if you do that.”

Fengbo continued to wear his signature smile. “Don’t talk about that for now. I’m tired—I don’t want to think about complicated things.” All he wanted was to see Lingyun.

“Fengbo,” Lü called before Fengbo left to take a bath.

“What is it?” Fengbo hid his slight irritation well. Sometimes Lü worried too much.

“There is still no heir to the throne,” the bodyguard reminded. “I’m serious—don’t do anything yet.”

“I won’t. I still have a lot of things to take care of. It’s still too early anyway.”

Lü’s words didn’t weigh in until Fengbo had finished preparing himself and was about to head for the Palace. He found his sister, Chunmei, waiting for him in the living room.

“Chunmei.” He was genuinely surprised, though his voice remained calm and composed. Seeing her had woken the sleeping poison inside him, and it immediately began to do its work, suffocating him. However, he was able hide his discomfort skillfully as well. “What are you doing here? You’re not supposed to be here anymore.”

Chunmei ran towards him and threw her arms around him. “Fengbo…what should I do?” she almost cried. “Do you think His Imperial Majesty hates me? Do you think he’s angry with me for birthing a female? He has only slept with me once during our marriage—as though he calculated when I’d get pregnant!”

Don’t talk about this. I don’t want to know. I don’t want to think about this.

“I wouldn’t worry too much, Chunmei.” His throat was closed but he forced himself to continue to sound normal. Being reminded that Lingyun had even slept with Chunmei, being reminded that they had a child, was painful enough. The news that should have been joyful was agonizing instead, and Fengbo couldn’t even describe how he had first felt when he had read the letter Chunmei had sent him when he had still been in the south.

Truthfully, he wished Lingyun would never sleep with anyone else. He wished Lingyun could be his, and his alone. But of course, all that was impossible. He had made it impossible himself.

“He’s not sleeping with anyone else either, right? If he wants a boy that badly and is angry at you for birthing a girl, he would have slept with another woman from the harem.” According to the regulations, Lingyun should have anyway. Lingyun was just escaping his sexual responsibilities—and truthfully, Fengbo didn’t know how he should feel about Lingyun’s behavior.

“But Fengbo…,” Chunmei sobbed, taking a step back as she wiped the tears from her eyes. Of course, Fengbo could understand why his sister was frustrated. She was arguably one of the best looking females in the empire, and yet Lingyun showed absolutely no interest in her. “He doesn’t talk to me more often than necessary. He only visits me once a week, and when he visits, all he does is teach me things—be it finance, weiqi, or something else! He’s always busy, but I don’t know what he’s so busy with…He’s so cold, Fengbo. He’s so cold and distant—he never lets me near his heart and he never tells me what he’s thinking. Is he really the person you described to me?”

Fengbo’s jaws tightened. Sorry, Chunmei. It’s because of me. He won’t let you near him because of me. If you want to blame anyone, I am to blame.

“Be strong, Chunmei,” he said instead, his voice full of authority and rebuke. “You are now the empress. Does the empress cry like you do? Does the empress ever run home in tears? You shouldn’t be here, Chunmei. Go back before anyone realizes you are here.”

Hiccupping, Chunmei nodded. “I’m sorry. I just missed you so much, Fengbo. I came here to welcome you, but somehow our reunion ended up like this, all about me—I am ashamed of myself,” she said, wiping her tears away and gathering her composure. “Congratulations on winning the war! You cannot begin to describe how overjoyed I am that you are well!” She hugged him again, grinning this time.

When she left, Fengbo stood for a while, staring into blank space. “General Xuan, your horse is prepared,” reminded a servant outside.

Fengbo sighed, shaking his head as he headed out the building.

In the end…he didn’t want to think about his duties. Not now, not today. Maybe he would feel better after seeing Lingyun.

He hoped emptily that Lingyun’s anger had receded after two years. Just like the past.

Lingyun…he thought on his way. Just how are you doing? I want to talk to you. I want to be near you again. I want to see you smile again.

What a joke. Fengbo knew he was the one who had brought this pain, this excruciating longing upon himself. He had betrayed Lingyun for his father, for his nation. What right did he have to be close to Lingyun again?

Not to mention, the only way for Zhitian to lower his guard was for him to believe that Fengbo had no intention of helping Lingyun. Otherwise, Fengbo would have no chance at manipulating Zhitian and Lingyun would have probably already lost his position during Fengbo’s leave. Since Zhitian thought that Fengbo wanted to usurp the throne, he had waited for the war to end before deciding his next action. Now that Fengbo had survived, Zhitian was doubtlessly going to wait for Fengbo to try usurping the throne. He would wait for Fengbo to soil his hands before finding a way to execute Fengbo for treason.

Of course, little did Zhitian know that Fengbo would never do that.

Thus, it was better if Lingyun hated him right now.

But at the same time, it was excruciating.

The instance when Lingyun had gotten angry at him back in Mount Snow Prison was nothing in comparison. Even though Fengbo had been prepared for his retribution, it had hurt. It had hurt whenever Lingyun had given him those seething glares. It had hurt every time Lingyun had ignored his existence.

It had hurt the most when Lingyun had cried that day, when Fengbo couldn’t help but pay him a farewell visit.

If only Lingyun knew how much torture Fengbo’d had to go through to provide that aphrodisiac, hoping that Lingyun would be provoked into having sex with his sister. If only Lingyun knew how much pain Fengbo’d had to suffer to say cruel words that he never meant.

Yet, right now, apology was impossible. Apology that Fengbo knew Lingyun would never accept anyway.

When he entered the dining hall and saw Lingyun, he held his breath. Lingyun hadn’t changed a bit, at least, not physically. The same regal air, the same exquisite beauty. He was as pale as his time back in Mount Snow Prison though, and it only enhanced his breathtaking appearance. Their eyes met for a fleeting second, instantly making blood rush to Fengbo’s lower half. It had been too long, after all. He smiled, but Lingyun looked away, expressionless.

Lingyun didn’t pay him any attention until it was time for him, as the emperor, to congratulate Fengbo’s achievements. “Despite being severely outnumbered, you and your men have persevered. Our southern borders have been secured thanks to you, Supreme general.” His voice was cold and clear; his smile was a thin layer of ice. He raised his jade wine vessel and continued in a colorless tone, “After a conference yesterday, I have agreed that you deserve the position of Imperial Attendant of the Chancellery—you will be replacing a recently demoted official. Cheers to General Xuan.” Their eyes met again, and this time it sent a chill down Fengbo’s spine. It was unbearable, that tightness in his chest. Yet what could he do, but smile triumphantly?

The hall roared with cheers and everyone raised their wine cups, staring expectantly at Fengbo.

Fengbo continued to hide his sadness with a great smile. “Thank you for your praise, Your Majesty. I am honored to have served the empire and Your Majesty. Long live the emperor!” He finished the wine in one gulp and the people in the room followed suit.

The corners of Lingyun’s lips twitched. He never looked back in Fengbo’s direction afterwards.

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Chapter 24

There were many reports waiting for Fengbo to finish reading, but he decided, as the Xuan Family’s leader, to hold a family conference after he had read the most important issues. It was important to have the others’ input on the current problems, after all.

However, he had never expected the start of the conference would be about something he himself found relatively unimportant in comparison to the other problems. But maybe that was because he was biased about this issue.

“What is His Imperial Majesty thinking?” Xuan Wenchong, Fengbo’s uncle, slammed his fist on the floor. “No heir! No children after Fuxue! He is embarrassing the Xuan!”

“Not to mention, he keeps using Ruixiang as a punching bag,” added Wenchong’s son, Qiyuan.

Everyone looked at Fengbo’s half-brother. During the past two years, his half-brother had stayed to protect the Palace and thus Lingyun could call on him whenever he wanted to. Ruixiang shrugged. “He’s tough to fight. But he doesn’t really treat me that badly.”

For some reason, Fengbo felt annoyed. Strange—he had never paid any attention to his half-brother before. “Do you talk to him when you spar?” he asked.

“Yes. We talk,” Ruixiang replied, taking a sip of his tea. Fengbo waited for his half-brother to continue, but to his irritation, Ruixiang didn’t elaborate.

“You could at least try to persuade him to take the issue of his heir more seriously.” Fengbo’s voice came off a little sterner than he had intended it to be.

“Yes,” his cousin, Qiaoyin, chimed in. She was Sima Lü’s wife and had borne him two children. “I mean…poor Chunmei! I heard His Imperial Majesty hasn’t touched her since she was confirmed to be pregnant!”

Fengbo’s mother, Princess Bai Xunhui, remained silent, though her clear eyes showed approval of Qiaoyin’s words. She bit her lips, leaning forward.

Ruixiang shrugged again. “I did try to persuade him, five or six times. He doesn’t listen.”

This was torture. Torture, because Fengbo knew what this whole conversation would lead to.

“His Imperial Majesty needs an heir. He is almost twenty-one, and he still has no son! Unheard of,” his uncle complained.

They all looked at Fengbo now. He sighed, unable to smile like he normally would have done. “I get it. I’ll do something about it.” But what did they expect him to do? Lingyun hated him. The only thing Fengbo could do was to make Lingyun hate him even more—and he didn’t really want to have Lingyun hate him any more than he already did.

“I don’t think he’ll listen to you,” Ruixiang piped up unexpectedly, his voice subdued but clear. He replaced his teacup and didn’t even bother to look at Fengbo.

Fengbo gave his half-brother a pointed look. “And he listens to you?” He knew he was being cruel and immature, but he couldn’t help it. His brother was provoking him on purpose, and Fengbo did not want to know the reason.

Ruixiang didn’t reply. He still didn’t look at Fengbo, either.

Despite his irritation, Fengbo wasn’t going to let it cloud his judgment. Besides, he really didn’t want to do anything about the issue himself. “But, you do have a point. I think he might listen to you if you try, Ruixiang.” The thorns in his words made Ruixiang’s hands ball into fists. Fengbo smiled now. “I hope we’ll hear good news in two months.”

“If he still doesn’t listen,” Qiyaun continued, staring straight into Fengbo’s eyes, “do something.” Ruixiang shot his half-cousin a sharp glance.

Fengbo merely smiled and nodded, though inside, his contradictory desires were torturing his very soul. He didn’t want to deal with the ‘problem’ himself. Yet, at the same time, he didn’t want Lingyun to listen to his half-brother so easily.

What a pathetic man he was.

Sima Lü observed Fengbo, his lips pursed. “Moving on, I think we should have a better relationship with the Duan family,” he offered, and Fengbo gave him a thankful glance. “Especially Duan Mingwu. His achievements in the North have made him extremely influential—we need him on our side if we want to control the entire military.”

No one made a comment. Even though the Duan were technically their family as well, since Fengbo’s aunt, Bai Fangrou, was the mother of Duan Mingwu, they all knew the Duan were not very fond of the Xuan. Especially after Mingwu had lost to Fengbo during a friendly duel roughly six years ago—it would be nigh impossible to get Mingwu to cooperate. “As long as he doesn’t fall into Zhitian’s faction, it will be fine,” Fengbo mused, pouring another cup of tea for himself.

His cousin nodded. “As most of us Xuan seem to support Zhitian, I don’t think he’ll join.”

At this, Fengbo shook his head. “Zhitian is wary of us. He will try to gain the Duan’s support in order defend himself. We still have to create a gap between the two so the Duan will never consider cooperating with Zhitian.”

Lü’s uncle, Sima Chao, finally came in. “Sorry I’m late,” he said as he knelt down at his spot. “I had to take care of some business at the Chancellery.”

Fengbo smiled. “You came in just in time.” Qiyuan briefly explained what they had discussed. “As it is, the person I can count on to deal with worsening the relationship between the Duan and Zhitian is you,” Fengbo continued.

Sima Chao grinned. “That you can. Xuan-gongzi, you’re becoming more and more like your father.” He looked over at Fengbo’s uncle. “Don’t you agree, Wenchong?”

His uncle nodded gruffly.

“I still have much to learn.” Fengbo felt a bit uneasy with the flattery he didn’t deserve, since his father would never have been as pathetic as he was.

After they discussed some plans on how to ruin Zhitian’s chance to gain the Duan’s support, Fengbo turned to Qiyuan and asked what the next subject they had to discuss was. “The issue with Ning,” his cousin reported. “What do they want? Or rather, what will they want?”

Qiaoyin rose her voice, “It’s pretty obvious: Money and luxury. After all, Yue’s ceramics, jewelry, and silks are highly demanded in the world and worth fortunes.”

Lü disagreed with his wife. “They want us to trust them so they can invade.”

“Or both,” Qiaoyin retorted, narrowing her eyes.

“Either way, we don’t have enough power to fight them,” Fengbo interjected. “The citizens are tired of war. They need respite. We need to rest as well—we have enough internal woes as it is.”

Everyone agreed. “Lately our treasury is low on funds because of the war. Zhitian and Zi’an’s factions both want to raise the tax but they keep bickering over the details,” mentioned Lü’s uncle.

Fengbo frowned. “That won’t sit well with the civilians. After all, they’re all tired.”

Qiyuan disagreed, “We can’t help them if we don’t have the funds.”

“You have a point. But still…I need to know the actual details of what the two factions propose to decide.”

“We can only support Zhitian, you know,” his uncle reminded. “If we want His Imperial Majesty to remain on the throne, that is.”

“Even though he does nothing…,” a small voice sounded.

“Insolence!” Fengbo immediately scolded, even though he didn’t know who had made that comment. The entire room became dead silent and everyone stared at Fengbo, most of them unable to hide the confusion on their faces. Only Lü and Qiyuan frowned. Coughing awkwardly, Fengbo continued, “Anyhow, I need some opinions about the tax proposals….”

And so, the conference lasted for more than a shichen. Fengbo was drained by the time he returned to his quarters and plopped down onto his mattress, his mind wandering back to Lingyun and what everyone had said about the seemingly irresponsible emperor.

He didn’t want to regret. It was too late to regret anyway.

…Yet….

What was Lingyun doing? Was he really not planning to do anything and was he really going to let Zhitian and Zi’an ruin Yue from the inside? If Fengbo hadn’t brought back Lingyun, the Imperial Government wouldn’t have been so torn—as one faction would have wiped the other out depending on the successor. However, such was not the case when the supreme ruler was of neither faction.

It was as though a war were going on inside the palace, according to his cousin. The two factions were opposing one another for the sake of opposing; they were not thinking for the empire at all. Furthermore, Lingyun, who had the potential to do something, had done nothing. No wonder everyone was so angry and frustrated.

Fengbo vaguely remembered the hateful words that Lingyun had hissed that night:

“I swear I will make you regret the day you forced yourself into my life….”

Was this the regret Lingyun had spoken of? Was he sacrificing an entire country for his revenge?

No, not possible. Fengbo didn’t want to believe it was possible. He rolled over and closed his eyes. However, he couldn’t stop thinking about Lingyun. He finally had the time to, after all. He mouthed Lingyun’s name and it tasted bitter; it was hard to breathe. He chuckled without mirth and stared into the ceiling.

He would have jerked off with Lingyun on his mind, but he couldn’t bring himself to.

This was the appropriate punishment. He who had betrayed his most important person…did not deserve to be with that person.

But even so—letting go was, in Fengbo’s opinion, even more unforgivable.

cline3

Chapter 25

Neither of the two proposals from the two factions was, in Fengbo’s opinion, satisfactory. Fengbo couldn’t believe that Lingyun had signed his approval onto both papers just like that—clearly, Lingyun hadn’t even bothered to read the contents and planned to throw the responsibility of inspection straight to the Chancellery.

Although, since Lingyun had no supporters and no actual power, his say in the issues was arguably irrelevant.

Sighing, Fengbo tried not to wonder how Lingyun had felt during these two years.

“His Imperial Majesty has arrived!” reported the servant outside.

Fengbo almost ruined the paper he had been writing. Lingyun?

It couldn’t possibly be anything good, though. With haste, Fengbo rested his brush on the brush holder and fixed his attire. When Lingyun walked in, Fengbo bowed and greeted his emperor.

“You may rise.” The words felt like ice against Fengbo’s neck.

Fengbo straightened his posture. “What a surprise, Your Majesty,” he began, his light tone carrying mockery and disrespect on purpose.

Lingyun narrowed his lightless eyes—they were blacker than the abyss.

“What brings you here to visit this lowly official?”

Wordless, Lingyun stepped aside and a beautiful lady walked in.

Fengbo froze upon realization of what this had meant. But of course. What else would require Lingyun’s personal presence?

“This is my half-sister, the Princess of Qinghe, Bai Qinxin.” Upon the introduction, the pale, somewhat plump girl bowed a little, a small, polite smile on her red lips. “She has long been a fan of yours.” Lingyun’s words were like icy snowflakes. “My father wanted to recommend her to be your wife, but unfortunately, he passed away before he could.” He then looked straight into Fengbo’s eyes, his gaze chilling and stern.

With that authoritative gaze, he would have easily gained respect—yet why was he using it on Fengbo alone?

“You have achieved great feats in the war in the south and served this Empire well. I myself think you are worthy of my sister—I hope you won’t mind.” Lingyun’s tempting lips curved into a thin smile that was deadlier than a poisonous blade.

It wasn’t like Fengbo had any choice in the matter. He suspected that Yulan or his uncle was the one behind this arrangement, since it was impossible for Lingyun to bother with this sort of business. “Of course I won’t. I’m flattered that you hold me in such high regard, Your Majesty.” He gave Qinxin a warm smile and she glowed with a healthy shade of pink, revealing pearly white teeth as she returned the smile.

Lingyun remained expressionless.

Fengbo swallowed a sigh. No matter how painful it was to have Lingyun treat him this way, Fengbo had to maintain his smile, had to keep up his act.

Their conversation was strictly confined to business and Lingyun left as soon as they had agreed on the date of the marriage, which was in twenty days.

Fengbo could only watch Lingyun leave, feeling like a thousand knives were cutting into his heart.

Lingyun…he thought, you’ve really changed, haven’t you?

Sighing, Fengbo returned to his business. He decided to call Xie Liang and Dong Sheng into his office, as they were the officials responsible for inspecting the papers and sending them back for revision if needed. They both worked for Zhitian, which meant they also worked for Fengbo, at least for now. To receive a better answer and a better idea of what sort of people they were, he met them separately.

“The proposal from Zi’an’s faction is too naïve. They think this will work, but in fact it won’t—they don’t have the experience of understanding how ineffective idealistic policies are. It might have the opposite effect,” Xie Liang answered after a long pause. “As for the other proposal, as it is right now, it might cause a rebellion. Considering the patterns in history, I think Sun Haoping’s proposal needs some slight revision.”

Honestly, Fengbo was surprised that someone from Zhitian’s faction would have that sort of opinion, and what was more, be in such a relatively important position. He later found out, from his uncle, that Xie Liang was extremely competent and smart—his reputation made Zhitian’s faction look good, which in turn helped Zhitian gain more supporters.

On the other hand, Dong Sheng’s input on the issue was what Fengbo had expected. “Those stuck up scholars think they can fix everything, but they don’t understand how the reality works. Their proposal is too complicated and won’t be effective.” When Fengbo asked Sheng what he thought of the proposal from Zhitian’s faction, Sheng just stared at him.

Fengbo decided to watch out for Xie Liang in case something bad happened. Of course, he had to suspect Liang’s motivations for pointing out the faults of the proposal supported by nobles, but at least it didn’t seem like all officials were that bad.

Three days after both tax plans got rejected once again and sent back to the Secretariat for revision, Fengbo ran into Zi’an. Considering his current position, it was actually surprising that he hadn’t run into the official for so long.

“Why, Zhu-daren, are you feeling all right? I have not seen you in three days,” Fengbo greeted, flashing his signature smile.

Zhu Zi’an was unable to hide the blades in his glare. “Oh? I was just sick. A nasty, viral pest has invaded this building, after all. But, as I’ve been sick so many times, I have finally developed immunity and learned how to deal with these pests.” Zi’an smirked. “Soon, they will be gone.”

So direct. “Good for you. Though, I think you should check your house or your office. Maybe you’ve been sick so long and so many times because the pests made a hive out of your quarters,” Fengbo replied without skipping a beat. His lips were still curved in a perfect, fake smile and he patted Zi’an’s shoulder. “Anyhow, I’m glad that you won’t be sick again. After all, from now on you and I are both responsible for the Chancellery. I look forward to our cooperation.” His smile widened when the amused expression before him twisted.

Zi’an’s neck was bright red by the time Fengbo walked away.

However, Zi’an proved to be a difficult opponent. After all, it had been a while since Fengbo had participated in politics, and Zi’an had a follower who was extremely talented and eloquent—a young official by the name of Xu Guangdao, one of the two highest ranked Advisors in the Chancellery. His influence was so great that he was even able to affect some officials from Zhitian’s faction.

This became more apparent during the first Imperial Conference Fengbo had attended in two years.

As usual, Lingyun didn’t participate or show interest. He merely stared at his wine cup or into space.

“The drought ended two years ago, and the crops are doing well,” Fang Xian, the Vice Minister of Revenue was arguing. “Your Majesty,” he continued—Fengbo almost drew his blade when he heard how disrespectful Xian’s tone was, “it is clear that the civilians are ready for the system Sun Haoping has presented!”

Lingyun merely drank his wine; he didn’t even bother to hide his boredom.

Immediately. “What are you talking about? The war has drafted over a third of the farmers, and a lot of men have died in the war during these two years,” Ke Xianyao of the Secretariat interjected. He, like Xie Liang and Xu Guangdao, was a new face to Fengbo. “The production is not as ideal as you think it is, especially since we’ve already raised the tax three years ago. We can’t raise it again by this amount—look at Yan. They’re in a civil war right now because their government has been doing nothing but wage war and raise taxes. We have been at war with three countries for over two years—you should listen to the songs the peasants are singing.”

“Are you equating our civilized empire with that barbaric community in front of His Imperial Majesty?” the Minister of Revenue roared. “Such insolence!”

You’re the insolent one, Fengbo thought, trying to suppress his anger. He couldn’t believe that Xian had just compared Lingyun to a barbarian in broad daylight—the nerve.

Lingyun propped his head up with one arm and narrowed his eyes. He looked like he wanted to yawn.

“We’re getting off-topic,” Xu Guangdao interrupted—his voice was clear, strong. Calming, almost. There was something extremely mature and stable about his presence despite his age—he looked like he was only in his mid-thirties. “The Imperial Government needs more income, we all agree on that. But obviously, the civilians can’t shoulder the burden of a fifteen percent raise in coin tax. As I have proposed, we should raise the tax according to the wealth of the population instead of making the poor shoulder the same burden as the rich.”

Sun Haoping snorted. Two years had passed, and he was still Zhitian’s mouthpiece. “You must be joking. What do you think the wealthy landlords will do? They’d just direct the burden back to the tenants.”

“If we follow the system we have proposed, it is possible. To ensure this doesn’t happen, we will periodically send people from the Censorate to inspect regions. If there is a fifteen percent tax raise, that’s almost half of what civilians have. They won’t have enough to sustain themselves, as we already tax their harvests and require textile or other materialistic tax from them—many will leave Yue’s borders or escape tax; we will only end up losing more than we gain anyway.”

Fengbo tried not to nod at the sound opinion, as he was supposedly on Zhitian’s side. He liked this Xu Guangdao, even though the official was from Zi’an’s faction. With this man, Zi’an had doubtlessly gained many supporters.

However, Fengbo knew what Zi’an really wanted to do if he succeeded in gaining the most power. The man’s ambition was a threat to the Xuan family and other established nobility like the Duan.

“Our proposal is not going to make them suffer as much as you think it will,” Xian retorted with narrowed eyes. “In fact, I personally think we should raise their grain tax as well, we’ve spent too much of our national granary during the war. Yue’s lands are the most fertile of all, the production is plentiful. The war ended and the farmers are all back doing their jobs.” The man was seriously getting on Fengbo’s nerves now. Fengbo knew that the Fang family had a grudge against Lingyun, but he didn’t think they’d be bitter enough to not even care about what civilians would think of the emperor. Did the man even know what he was talking about?

“As Ke Xianyao pointed out earlier, we lost too many people in the war as well,” Guangdao replied, his voice growing louder. “Civilians are sad enough as it is, they have lost many during our wars. We should not punish them for their contribution!”

“However, your proposal still has too many holes in it and is still too idealistic. How can you ensure that the rich won’t bribe the inspectors? How can you stop the rich from finding legal ways to avoid the tax? How can you make sure the landlords won’t rebel?” Fengbo finally interjected—he didn’t feel like letting anyone from Zhitian’s section talk anymore. “Moreover, we never know what Ning will demand from us after they finish taking whatever lands they can take from Jin. Your proposal is too complex and slow to execute—we won’t make it in time to meet their needs. Also, we need to fix some bridges, dams and other hydraulic architectures that have been left to rot for a while now, and that will take time and money as well; we need to start as soon as possible. If there is a flood, we’ll have an even more serious income problem.”

“Then we should cut our own expenses,” Zi’an shot back. “Some nobles here seem to be reluctant to do so.”

Immediately, the arguments escalated in both volume and intensity, and some not-so-subtle insults were thrown across the Imperial Court. Truthfully, Fengbo felt like joining Zi’an’s side on this matter. Since he couldn’t, he kept quiet.

As time passed, threats emerged along with attempts to demote one another—it was chaotic. Some officials were sentenced, some officials were demoted, and the whole meeting was derailed.

“If you want to cut expenses…,” Lingyun suddenly said during the height of the argument, almost like an afterthought. Since it was such a rare occasion for Lingyun to speak, the entire Court silenced. “You can start with the harem. I don’t need a-hundred-and-twenty-one concubines, they all bore me. Send two thousand harem maids home and trim the number of my concubines down to twenty or less. That should free enough funds to fix the hydraulic architectures and respond to whatever Ning would want.”

“Speaking of which,” Yuan Mengxiu of the Ministry of Rites piped up, “you are in desperate need of an heir, Your Majesty.” In the past, the Minister of Rites had opposed Lingyun’s succession, but now he was one of Lingyun’s few supporters. Not like he had an actual power and influence though.

“Off topic.” Lingyun’s words were so icy that Mengxiu visibly shivered.

“His Imperial Majesty’s suggestion is ingenious,” Guangdao immediately continued. “Since His Imperial Majesty himself has these intentions, I see no harm in such a plan.”

Zhitian was the first one to object, “Nonsense! The size of the emperor’s harem symbolizes the strength and prosperity of an Empire—do you know how this move will seem to other Empires, not to mention the regional nobles?”

“Better than wasting money,” Zi’an growled. “What will it look like to the civilians when we are wasting their tax on women who make zero contribution to society?”

“How dare you refer to his Majesty’s concubines as useless? It is his Majesty who refuses to use them!”

Once again, Fengbo felt like drawing his weapon. He couldn’t believe such an insult towards Lingyun could actually be spoken this loudly and clearly, not to mention during an Imperial Conference.

Lingyun merely sipped his wine, completely unaffected. Upon seeing this, Fengbo could only feel pain and guilt. For two years already, someone as full of pride as Lingyun had suffered public humiliation like this. Fengbo himself had subtly insulted Lingyun quite a few times as well, just to mislead Zhitian.

So many times, he wanted to say he was sorry, wanted to apologize and tell Lingyun he had never meant what he said.

However, instead of cutting Xian for his audacity, Fengbo smirked. “Perhaps His Imperial Majesty has some issues.” What was he saying? He was supposed to let his half-brother handle this problem! “Although I don’t think His Imperial Majesty’s idea is bad, I do wonder at the reason behind it.” A few chuckles sounded in the Court and Fengbo felt like hunting down every last one of the disrespectful officials. Nevertheless, Fengbo managed to keep his mocking smirk. “Forgive me for my impudence, but I have been absent for two years and I come back finding that there is still no heir and only one offspring. May I ask why? This is a very…interesting—I mean, perplexing—matter.”

Lingyun’s glare was like the tip of a blade—it was so searing that it felt like ice. Without a word, he stood up and left, his golden robes fluttering with his every stride.

Whispers ensued, along with some laughter. Fengbo felt like killing himself, but since Zhitian was looking at him, he had to pull on an expression that was the opposite of what he truly felt and met the serpent’s eyes. Smiling with approval, Zhitian nodded.

In the end, Zi’an’s faction won and the harem was cut back. The tax proposals were thus sent back for revision for the fifth time.

cline3

Chapter 26

The thick smoke from the incense was nauseating. Fengbo almost choked on it when he entered Zhitian’s quarters. As usual, everything in Zhitian’s Manor was ridiculously lavish—the decorations were all perfect to the last detail and they had all been made from expensive materials. He greeted the snake and took a seat.

“You know, you really know how to push my brother’s buttons, Xuan-gongzi,” Zhitian purred, his sugary voice sending a nasty shiver down Fengbo’s spine—though, as usual, Fengbo didn’t show his discomfort. Giggling to himself, Zhitian picked up a grape and popped the dark purple orb into his mouth. His painted, long nails were disgusting. “This is the second time you’ve made him leave during the middle of a conference. I haven’t seen him so angry in two years!”

Little did Zhitian know how his words had struck Fengbo.

“You flatter me, Your Highness,” Fengbo lied with a smirk, leaning back; he wanted to stay as far away from the golden incense burner as possible. “I was merely voicing what was on everyone’s mind at that point.”

Zhitian threw his head back and laughed, the ornaments on his golden hairpins dangling as he shook. “Oh, you do know you’re the only one who can say that, right?” A dark gleam reflected off his eyes and he held out the extravagant plate, offering Fengbo some grapes.

Truthfully, Fengbo didn’t want to eat what the vile man had touched, but he forced himself to. “Thanks.” It was so hard to sound normal when his throat was closed.

Like a hungry reptile, Zhitian watched Fengbo eat. “Say…what is your relationship with my brother anyway?” His voice was so soft and stomach-turning that Fengbo had to force himself to swallow without gagging. “He seems to be a bit…emotional with you, even after two years. I know my brother—he never lets his guard down, and he never gets angry for real; he only gets annoyed. But with you—his anger seems real; which I find so cute. Just how did you trick him?”

Fengbo was sick of lying. He had just spouted unbelievable poison all morning and he didn’t want to say anything negative about his Lingyun anymore, especially not behind his back. With all his heart, he wished he could get rid of Zhitian right now—but he knew he had to wait a bit longer, not just because of Lü’s warning. He had to determine which of Zhitian’s men he could use, and how to get rid of Zhitian in a reasonable manner. Not to mention, after getting rid of the biggest threat, Zhitian, Fengbo’s next opponent would be Zi’an. All the good officials in both factions would leave if Fengbo used pointless violence to solve everything, and Fengbo didn’t want that to happen. And those were just a few reasons why he had to be patient.

With all his concerns in mind, Fengbo managed to smile. “His Imperial Majesty is actually quite lonely, even though he seems content to be alone. Once you realize his secret and convince him that you really want to be his friend out of good will, he’ll hold onto you like his life depends on it—even though he won’t admit it.” The worst, vilest lie that had ever left Fengbo’s mouth.

Zhitian’s eyes practically sparkled along with his earrings. “Ah, I thought so.” He turned around to face the door behind him, his hair pins jingling like little bells. “Did you hear that, dearest brother?”

Fengbo felt like his heart was going to jump out of his ribcage. He forced himself to remain calm and composed, since this could be a trap to lure out his real feelings. Instead of panicking, he chuckled, “You are one cruel man—I thought you two were brothers?” He felt like chopping his own tongue off when he heard how disgusting he sounded.

“Oh, but I forgot that I asked him to come over before I invited you to talk with me. Silly me,” Zhitian giggled, putting the plate down now; the remaining grapes on the three-colored porcelain rolled around. “But since I’m his older brother, I have the obligation to teach him a thing or two—this is my way of showing my love for him, you see? Now he knows the truth. Isn’t it nice?”

Bastard. That fucking bastard! Fengbo considered killing Zhitian right on the spot and his nails dug mercilessly into the flesh of his palms. His smirk was almost impossible to maintain; he bit the inner walls of his mouth so hard that he tasted blood.

“I wanted to talk to him about the issue of his heir, and I thought you should be here too, since this also concerns your sister,” Zhitian continued with a repulsive purr.

A servant came in instead. “Your Highness, His Imperial Majesty isn’t in the room.”

Don’t chase. Don’t chase after him, Fengbo chanted to himself. He had to remain levelheaded, since this could still be a trap. “Are you playing tricks on me, Your Highness? Or was His Imperial Majesty really here?” This time, his smile was shadowed with a threat. He couldn’t control his anger anymore, and he didn’t give a shit whether or not Zhitian could determine the real reason behind his irritation.

Zhitian’s brows twitched and he paled a little. “Haha, you’ve got me, Xuan-gongzi.” His voice quivered slightly. “I thought it would be funny,” he continued, getting a hold of himself now, “you know, if you were saying all that and Lingyun heard it all.” He laughed, though it was clearly forced.

That bastard. He knew that Fengbo was too influential now so he was trying to get Fengbo killed through Lingyun—it explained why he seemed so nervous. Which meant that Lingyun had been here. Fengbo’s eyes grew darker; he found it difficult to suppress his murderous desires—it was like ink spreading through his veins, coloring his blood black along with his despair and self-hatred. “You’re right. It is a rather amusing joke. I admit: You did get me there. I was actually quite at a loss, despite what it seems.” His smile widened and Zhitian cringed involuntarily. “I suggest you not play this sort of prank anymore—I might misunderstand your intentions, Your Highness.”

“I-I’m terribly sorry,” Zhitian apologized, his trembling fingers inching toward the security bell to his side. “I’ll keep that in mind.”

It was time to leave, before Fengbo killed Zhitian. His hand was itching for the hilt of his weapon, and his blade was thirsting for Zhitian’s blood. “Well, now that the reason you’ve called me over is not here anymore, I have some business to take care of. I just came back, after all—and there are a lot of things I have to handle, especially since I just got assigned the title of a Chancellor,” he said as he got up, but paused midway. “On one last note: Your tax proposal can use some revision.”

“Y-yes, I’ll talk to Haoping about it,” Zhitian almost squeaked, his fingers now clutching the bell tightly.

Fengbo chuckled at the sight. As though Zhitian’s guards could stop Fengbo from killing him if Fengbo really wanted to. “Excellent.”

And so, he left. When he returned to the Xuan Manor, he found Sima Lü waiting for him in the darkness. His expression was grave. “Personally, I don’t think that His Imperial Majesty is stronger than you are. However, I still think you should at least have an idea of how strong he is, just in case.” He pushed himself away from the balding tree. “Come. Ruixiang just got called over to the emperor’s quarters. He also asked me to go with him, which means His Imperial Majesty is really angry.”

When he heard those words, Fengbo felt nothing but self-disgust. Silently, he followed Lü.

cline3

Chapter 27

Dry leaves scraped the white pavement as a chilly wind passed by. The moon was a thin crescent, barely visible in the cloudy night. Fengbo realized that it had been around this time two years ago, when he had betrayed Lingyun—and the realization was like choking acid, making it hard for him to breathe.

“You should hide in the shadows,” Lü was saying, “since I don’t think His Imperial Majesty will want to see you after what you said in the Conference this morning.”

He already saw me again, Fengbo thought bitterly. And he hates me even more. “All right. I’ll see you later.”

To Fengbo’s horror, the Qiuyue Palace was not guarded well. Slipping past the guards had been far too easy. Even though Lingyun could probably defeat most of the Imperial Guards, to find how badly protected the emperor’s quarters were….

Fengbo gritted his teeth. What had his brother been thinking?

Within the outer walls, it was empty and quiet. According to Lü, Lingyun refused to have any bodyguard, eunuch, or maid near his presence. Thus, the bodyguards could only stand outside the walls while the eunuchs and maids could only enter when Lingyun was off elsewhere. Since no one truly cared for the emperor’s life, no one had objected to Lingyun’s demand. Only Yulan had objected, but due to the lack of support and Lingyun’s own stubbornness, she had no choice but to give up as well.

The stone lanterns lining the pavement shimmered softly as shadows danced on the white pavement. Fengbo hid behind a wall, blending into the shadows. He saw Lingyun walk out of the building. Lingyn was wearing casual silks, the loose sleeves fluttering in the wind. Seeing Lingyun again—alone—made Fengbo hold his breath. He was tempted to sneak up behind his emperor and wrap his arms around Lingyun’s waist, to taste the sensitive skin behind that pale neck. The desire made him harden and he swallowed a sigh.

Following Lingyun was his half-brother. As usual, Ruixiang wore a blank expression.

The two stood in silence for a while. Then, Lingyun drew his jian, cold, silver light reflecting off the expensive blade. “Where is Sima Lü?” It was as though his face was shadowed with a thin layer of frost. “I thought I strongly suggested you bring him with you—because right now, without anyone to stop me, I think I might kill you by accident.”

The words were sharp knives that grazed Fengbo’s heart.

Ruixiang lowered his eyes, but didn’t draw his weapon. “Lü’s coming soon.” Silence again. Then: “I’m sorry for what my—”

“Don’t even mention that bastard.” It was an icy flame that made Fengbo wince. His heart pounded loudly, condemning him for his cruel words. He deserved this pain. Rather, he deserved more than this pain for what he had said.

“I don’t feel like talking today,” Lingyun continued. “The moment Sima Lü shows up is the moment we start.” He waved his jian a couple of times, whipping the sharp blade through the chilly air. Fengbo could tell just by looking that Lingyun had improved. But to determine how much Lingyun had improved, he would have to watch the fight.

The bell chimed and the heavy doors outside the palace opened with a groan. “Draw your sword,” Lingyun ordered.

Sighing, Ruixiang did as he had been ordered to and saluted before he got into position, both hands gripping his dao.

Immediately, Lingyun dashed forward with lightning-speed, unleashing a deadly array of stabbings; his every step and every twirl was fine-tuned and the sleeves of his robes danced with him. His blade screamed with anger, ringing with metallic hatred. Ruixiang did his best to keep up, though he was already having trouble defending himself, let alone finding any chance to attack.

As Fengbo watched the fight, he focused on Lingyun first. Lingyun had improved at a frightening pace, but as Lü had thought, Fengbo could still beat Lingyun if he tried. Even though he might have some difficulty, it wasn’t going to be dangerous. Well, at least not when Lingyun’s judgment was clearly clouded by rage that should have been directed at him, not Ruixiang. If the emperor were composed, maybe Fengbo would have to recalculate his chances of winning. Nevertheless, he was actually a bit surprised that Lingyun’s performance wasn’t as good as he had expected it to be—especially considering how talented Lingyun was. He decided that Lingyun had probably gotten too distracted by science, as Lü had pointed out.

Then, feeling it was his duty as an older brother, Fengbo observed Ruixiang.

Fengbo suppressed his urge to shake his head every time his half-brother countered with the wrong move. Ruixiang was strong, but too unstable—especially against fast opponents like Lingyun. Not to mention, there were still some problems with Ruixiang’s form. He could tell that Ruixiang was trying to make the match last as long as it could, but Fengbo knew it wouldn’t take long before the match would end.

And, as he expected, Ruixiang’s dao broke; Lü didn’t even need to interfere. However, the fact that the match had ended this way surprised Fengbo a little. Ruixiang’s dao had been made from the same iron and method as Fengbo’s weapon—and Lingyun was now strong enough to break it. His neili had seriously improved.

Ruixiang looked at his broken weapon, breathing heavily as sweat trailed down his temples. His cheeks were flushed and his clothes had a few cuts.

Running a hand over his silky black locks, Lingyun’s stone-cold eyes were focused on the blade lying on the pavement. “I’ll see to it that you get a new weapon.” He sheathed his jian, not even bothering to hide his dissatisfaction. Doubtless a short match like that didn’t quell his anger at all, but he couldn’t fight someone with a broken weapon. He was probably also angry that Ruixiang had lost this early, which was why he didn’t ask for Lü to lend Ruixiang his weapon. The emperor whirled around and took the stairs back to the building.

Not long after Lingyun had disappeared into the building, Ruixiang slammed his fist on the ground. And again. And again. It was the first time Fengbo had seen his half-brother so frustrated. “I hate it,” Ruixiang muttered. “I hate it when he’s like this. I hate fighting him when he’s like this. I hate it when the reason’s always the same. I hate it.” His fist slammed down again; it sounded like it would hurt. “I hate him.”

Wordless, Lü merely watched as he stood beside the frustrated figure.

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Fengbo was still reading paper reports when Ruixiang entered his room. He looked up, meeting his half-brother’s eyes. “Ruixiang. It’s actually quite rare for you to visit me. Can I help you?”

Ruixiang reached for the weapon tied to his sash and threw it; Fengbo caught the weapon with one hand, frowning with confusion. “Yes. You can help me. I want you to compensate me for my dao,” Ruixiang replied, doing a poor job at hiding his irritation. “It’s your fault it broke.”

Chuckling out of sheer habit, Fengbo unsheathed the dao and examined the damaged blade. Lingyun had really broken it with a clean, perfect slash. The broken edge was enough for Fengbo to determine the level of Lingyun’s neili. “All right,” he said after observing the blade from different angles. “Do you want me to pick out a new weapon for you or do you want to buy it yourself?” He slipped the dao back into its sheath and placed it on the floor beside him.

“I’ll buy it myself,” Ruixiang answered. He then held out his hand. “And give me back my dao; it’s still mine, you know.”

A little irritated, Fengbo tossed the weapon back. He wanted to keep it, but since Ruixiang had asked he had no choice. He then got up and walked to an intricate wooden chest, opened the lock and took out a thick roll of blue silk. He then relocked the chest and sat back on the cushion by his desk, handing the silk to his brother. “I think this should be enough.”

Ruixiang received the silk, but didn’t leave.

“Anything else you need?” Fengbo cocked his head, appraising his younger brother.

“I thought you told me to handle the problem.”

Fengbo blinked. Then, he smiled wryly. “I did, didn’t I?” He turned back to face his desk and sighed inwardly. “But, since Zhitian kept glancing in my direction, I knew I had to say something to lower his suspicions. It was a mistake, in some ways.”

“In a lot of ways,” Ruixiang replied flatly.

Annoyed now, Fengbo turned his head. “What is wrong with you, Ruixiang? Let’s just ignore how you should treat your older brother and focus on your recent attitude instead—if you have something to say, just say it. You know I don’t care for analogies and euphemisms.”

Ruixiang pursed his lips, staring straight into Fengbo’s eyes for a while. Finally, he responded, “I don’t get why everyone likes you so much when you’re clearly a heartless bastard.” He didn’t even wait for Fengbo to react and left.

cline3

Chapter 28

When Lingyun appeared the next morning to attend the Daily Morning Conference, Fengbo had to commend the emperor for his determination. He had not expected Lingyun to attend the conference after what Fengbo had said the previous morning. When Lingyun completely ignored his existence, he could only smile wryly. Yulan also attended the conference this time; she sat directly behind Lingyun, a veil of beads hiding her figure.

Since the tax proposals were still in revision, the debate was focused on what his cousin called ‘the usual’—attempts to demote officials from rival factions. Specifically, the entire conference was not purely about the wrongdoings and faults of rival officials, but rather, accusations kept sprouting up in the midst of reports.

The warring factions were both trying to persuade Lingyun to give the orders to demote whatever officials they were verbally attacking. Often, the person who made the initial decisions was Yulan. If Lingyun agreed with his mother, he would wave a hand to give the order. More than often, however, he remained silent, staring into blank space, supporting his head with a hand, his eyes half-lidded.

“Enough!” Fengbo finally growled when things had gotten too out of hand and when even the current Head of the Censorate was joining in the pointless mess. “We don’t have all morning to bicker about these insignificant details—we are here to discuss the budget and resources we have to use for repairing the hydraulic architectures in the south and east!”

He was taking a risk by subtly opposing both Zhitian and Zi’an out in the open and alarming both leaders, which would make it harder for him to get rid of both men in the future. Even though Fengbo was arguably more powerful than both men due to having direct command of the majority of the empire’s military, the actual portion of soldiers he had under his influence was only around a third of the total military. Zhitian had the support of powerful and equally corrupted regional nobles, and those supporters all held their own military that were only loyal to the emperor in name. Consequently, Zi’an had the support of Qingyan and most members of the Bai Family, all of whom disliked being restricted by powerful nobility such as the Xuan.

Not to mention, there was still the Duan family.

Nevertheless, Zhitian was already planning to get rid of him so he knew he had to make his move. “Will the Minister of Works please give his report on the new invention?” Fengbo continued, ignoring Zhitian’s curious gaze and Zi’an’s irritated glare.

“Y-yes, immediately.”

“According to the law: Any official who speaks without permission again will be dragged out of this Court and forbidden from participation for a week,” added the Head of the Censorate’s assistant, Zhang Suqiong. Fengbo glanced at the official. Suqiong was from Zhitian’s faction, even though he was the nephew of the previous Head of the Censorate. However, when Zhang Boshan had been demoted to the outer regions during the two years Fengbo had been fighting in the south, Suqiong had not supported his own uncle. Apparently, he had been more intent on securing his own position despite having a reputation of being extremely fair. Since he was from an established family, he had chosen to stand by Zhitian’s side. Now he was changing his loyalty again. Suqiong caught Fengbo’s eyes and smiled. Some officials in the Court room exchanged looks, casting glances at the three most influential Chancellors.

This was troublesome, Fengbo realized. He had been too aggressive and now officials were changing loyalties too quickly, some of which only because they thought that Fengbo had a greater chance of winning this power-struggle and not because they agreed with his ideals. It would be difficult to filter exactly which officials were faking goodwill and which were truly sincere—or worse, which were actually treacherous spies.

Lingyun remained as expressionless as ever, even though he should have been happy that insults directed at him would significantly decrease. He yawned and flicked his wrist, giving his permission.

No officials were to talk without permission now, as it should have been before Lingyun had taken the throne—that was the only solace Fengbo had when he thought of the consequences of his impatience.

That night, his cousin greeted him with a great smile. “Today’s conference is perhaps the most productive daily conference in two years,” Qiyuan said. “Despite what you may be thinking, I think the time is right. My father and I will start moving. We will be slowly separating from Zhitian’s faction.”

However, Lü thought otherwise. A week later, he finally confronted Fengbo, “You’re moving too fast. Did you forget what I said the day you came back?”

“I remember,” Fengbo sighed, feeling his chest tighten when Lingyun was mentioned. “But as I told you, that serpent wants to get rid of me. I need to make His Imperial Majesty know what my true stand is. Even if he hates me, he probably won’t get rid of me if Zhitian pushes him to—how else will you explain why good officials like Xu Guangdao or Xie Liang from both factions have survived so long? I’ve been observing His Imperial Majesty very closely for more than a week now; I noticed that he still has a say in demoting officials because he doesn’t favor either faction. In the end, they still need him to give his permission, as that is the law. It’s subtle, but he still has some control over these officials. For instance, think about the tax proposals—personally, I think that both tax proposals are improving through the debates.”

Lü crossed his arms, the frown from his face softening and his shoulders relaxing slightly.

“Aside from the arguments from stupid officials like Fang Xian from Zhitian’s faction and Lai Xiong from Zi’an’s faction,” Fengbo continued, “don’t you think the other points of debate from both sides of the argument are rather valid problems? I won’t be surprised if the tax proposals will somehow reach a compromise by the time Lingyun—I mean, His Imperial Majesty—gives that ‘apathetic wave’. Lastly, I’m not necessarily opposing Zhitian. I’m still arguing mostly in favor of his preferences.”

“Are you sure your observations aren’t colored by your bias?” inquired Lü, his voice a little harsh.

Fengbo opened his mouth and closed it when he found that he was unable to come up with a decent reply.

“Even if you think you aren’t, you are definitely causing a shift in the powers. His Imperial Majesty is too unstable to handle pressure from three factions—he is barely doing a good job at balancing two, no matter what you think,” Lü continued, uncrossing his arms and standing straight now. “There is a possible reason why there is some order in recent conferences: The grand empress dowager’s presence.” Lü’s frown was back. “However, Her Grand Majesty’s health is not the same anymore. She can’t keep doing the emperor’s job for him—you know why she started to attend the conferences again. I have to go now; I can’t stay here for too long.” And with that said, the emperor’s bodyguard left.

Of course Fengbo knew why his aunt had started to attend the conferences again. She was angry. She was probably going to find a chance to talk to Fengbo soon, too.

However, the one who summoned him two days later was instead his sister. Unlike the day she had returned to the Xuan Manor, she was an empress in every way this time. Regal and collected, Chunmei sat on a platform with a straight back. Her clothes were made from fine silk; the phoenixes woven onto her sleeves were intricate but not tastelessly so and her accessories were lavish without losing sophistication. The harem maids had done a good job at enhancing her beauty.

Fengbo noticed that the woman to Chunmei’s side was from the Sima family and was therefore trustworthy. However, he had to keep in mind that the loyalties of women were outside of his comprehension. After Lingyun had announced that he wanted to cut back the harem, some women were doubtlessly going to do anything to stay.

Well, not like they could hide without Fengbo noticing. He already knew there were around four maids hiding in the chamber. He pointed them out for Chunmei’s maid and bodyguard and the lady nodded, instantly proceeding to disable the spies. He then greeted his sister and took the seat before her.

“I know why you said what you did around a week ago,” Chunmei began after her maid had taken care of the spies. “But even so,” she sighed, “I can’t forgive you for insulting my husband, even if you are my most revered brother. I request that you refrain from doing so again. I don’t want that to be the reason he sleeps with me.”

Fengbo was so proud of Chunmei that he momentarily forgot the conflicting pain associated with her marriage to Lingyun and his duty to support their relationship; his sister was definitely becoming a respectable empress. “I understand. It won’t happen again. As long as he fulfills his duties, that is.” The realization dawned on him that Lingyun had most likely been affected and had slept with his sister. Mixed feelings of joy and sadness started to invade Fengbo’s system.

Chunmei didn’t reply; she picked up the porcelain teapot on the platform table and poured Fengbo a cup of tea; the aroma was pleasant.

“I just don’t understand His Imperial Majesty,” he continued at length, finding himself relaxing. It was easier to do so because she was a female and could accept his weaknesses. Even though Lü and his cousin were his closest friends, he could not bring himself to discuss his real worries with them—especially not with Lü. All they knew was that he really liked Lingyun.

“He still attends the conferences, even though he does not really partake in the decision making process—but if he really didn’t care, why would he bother? Yet, if he really did care, the tides of the court would have turned by now and I wouldn’t even have the opportunity to insult him so boldly. I know he is smarter than me, so it doesn’t make sense. Chunmei, even though you also said you don’t understand him either, what do you think about his behavior?”

Chunmei examined Fengbo for a while, biting her lips. “Fengbo…It’s not just His Imperial Majesty I don’t understand. Why are you so cruel to His Imperial Majesty when you care about his success so much? There are different ways you could have supported him, different ways that wouldn’t be so hurtful. The grand empress dowager has lost faith in you, Fengbo. She often sighs and tells me that it was a mistake to let you be the one to bring His Imperial Majesty back.”

Yulan was sharp. Fengbo himself had wondered if it had been a mistake as well; he had never imagined Lingyun would react this way. It had been a bittersweet discovery to find out how significant he had been to Lingyun and to realize what he had done by betraying his most important person.

“You told me to keep even Her Grand Majesty in the dark about the Xuan’s support in case she couldn’t resist the urge to tell His Imperial Majesty—but who am I supposed to be loyal to now? The Xuan? My husband?” Chunmei’s expression was stiff and her large eyes were watering. Seeing her pain only doubled Fengbo’s own agony.

He sighed. “You don’t understand, Chunmei. I serve the Empire and the emperor, not my friend. I choose whatever method is the most effective. I can’t openly support His Imperial Majesty yet, not when I don’t have a strong enough base of support that will help me legally dispose of Zhitian and Zi’an.”

“You could get rid of them with the emperor’s orders!” Chunmei couldn’t help but say. “It would have been so much easier that way!”

“Violence is only for war, Chunmei,” Fengbo replied, rebuking his sister now. “I have seen enough bloodshed. I have lost enough men and I know the pain of losing others. I don’t want the smell of blood to follow me all the way back to this Palace. Ruling with fear is never going to create prosperity; it will only create grudges and discourage officials from speaking the truth. If I simply use His Imperial Majesty for my own benefit, what will these officials think about me? What will they think of His Imperial Majesty?

“I have to make him change, but I can’t help him. He won’t get any real support if I ‘help’ him—the ultimate power will rest in my hands, and although that is not necessarily bad for the Xuan, it will damage the Bai Family and they will rebel in fear that I’ll usurp the throne. Zi’an is already playing with that fear, which is why Zhitian is hesitant to dispose of Zi’an himself.” He picked up the warm porcelain teacup and took a sip.

“Besides,” he continued, almost bitterly, “you know His Imperial Majesty well enough by now. He won’t agree to help me, not after I….” He sighed. It was too painful to continue that train of thought.

Chunmei gazed at the wooden platform-table for a long while. “Fengbo…why do you think His Imperial Majesty doesn’t like sleeping with women? Don’t you find that odd? I know he isn’t impotent—I swear by my life that Fuxue is his.”

Don’t talk about this, Fengbo wanted to say. “I don’t know,” he lied. “Maybe he really is too preoccupied with other interests to care.”

Lingyun…does not like women….

The possibility had haunted Fengbo for a long time now. His suspicion was only becoming firmer and firmer after recent events. If his suspicion were true, it would torture both him and his sister for different reasons. Of course he couldn’t tell his sister what he really thought.

“Speaking of which, would you like to see her? You haven’t had the chance to see your niece.” Chunmei smiled, finally escaping her worries and sadness.

“I’d love to,” Fengbo lied again.

There were no words to describe how he felt when he saw Lingyun’s daughter.

A week later, Fengbo wedded Lingyun’s half-sister. He felt nothing during the wedding—it was strictly business. Even the sex felt like business, mostly because of the reason they were having sex in the first place. Though, since it felt good, Fengbo still found himself enjoying the sex.

Not to mention, as the leader of the Xuan family, he needed an heir. It sort of helped that Qinxin looked a little like Lingyun. A little. After all, Fengbo doubted anyone would argue with him if he said Lingyun was far more attractive than his half-sister. He had to be careful not to accidentally call out Lingyun’s name, however. If word got out that he wanted to fuck the emperor, he wouldn’t be losing just his head.

Speaking of which. Almost a month had gone by already. If Lingyun had been provoked into having sex with Chunmei, the answer should be soon.

Unfortunately, more than a month later, there was still no news of Chunmei missing her menstrual cycle. Her maids would have said something and the news would have traveled all over the Palace. The horrific finding had made Fengbo realize that his efforts had all been in vain.

Therefore, for the next family conference, Fengbo had to practically drag himself to the meeting room, his heart weighing like a heavy brick. As expected, the first thing his cousin said when he saw Fengbo was: “Fengbo, do something. This is ridiculous. Even your wife is pregnant.”

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Chapter 29 Part One

It was around the Time of Chou when Lingyun finally returned to the Qiuyue Palace. He paused, staring at the person who was leaning against the wall. He almost looked like a deer in the face of danger before his eyes narrowed with venomous hatred. He drew his jian. “What are you doing here?” he demanded, his voice colder than his blade.

Being alone with Lingyun again was enough to make impure desires contaminate Fengbo’s original purpose. He observed his emperor, tracing the figure as though his eyes could feel Lingyun’s skin.

Actually, he had spent more than a shichen waiting for Lingyun, which had given him more than enough time to have gone through countless simulations in his mind. In the end, he still chose to be a bastard and smirked. “Why do you think I’m here, Lingyun?”

Lingyun’s glare was sharper than daggers. “You bastard…how dare you utter my name?” His murderous intent was so thick that Fengbo thought he could feel the icy tip of Lingyun’s anger.

Fengbo chuckled. “Do you really think you have the authority to order me around right now?”

Lingyun stiffened. His glare, on the other hand, was as seething as ever.

“Contrary to what you may think,” Fengbo continued as he pushed himself away from the wall, “I’m here because I want to personally ask you why you’re not fucking my sister. I’m sure you know that even my wife’s pregnant.” The words were acid burning his tongue and throat, reaching his heart and branding it with self-disgust. Sometimes he had to wonder how he was able to keep this up.

The temperature dropped drastically despite the heating incense burners that lined the entrance hall. “How many times do you have to mock me before you’re satisfied?” Lingyun’s grip on his blade was so tight that his arm trembled.

Fengbo sighed. “You know, Lingyun…I’m not mocking you. She’s my sister. You do know that by refusing to touch her you are insulting her and the Xuan, don’t you?” He turned to face Lingyun, trying to control his burning desire to pull the figure into his arms.

Lingyun bit his lips. “I don’t need a perverted bastard like you, of all people, to lecture me,” he hissed; the implication from his words brought back bittersweet memories.

“And at least this perverted bastard here can get it up,” Fengbo retorted smoothly, walking towards Lingyun now. “Unless you have some explanation?”

Growling, Lingyun raised the point of his jian so Fengbo wouldn’t approach too close. “Why do I have to explain myself to a treacherous bastard like you?”

Fengbo took a risk and grabbed Lingyun’s wrist with a lightning-fast move, his fingers pressing into the acupressure points that would make it difficult for the emperor to struggle free. “Well, for starters,” he breathed, pressing Lingyun’s captured wrist against a pillar, “I’m her brother and the Xuan’s leader. I have the right to know what is wrong.” He made sure to end the sentence mockingly. Their faces were so close that he only had to move a little to capture those tempting lips…

“Let go,” Lingyun growled, narrowing his eyes.

Fengbo only tightened his grip, making sure Lingyun would feel sharp pain. “Not until you give me a satisfying explanation, Your Majesty.” Fengbo was amazed by how disgustingly cruel and mocking he could sound—he was really hitting an all time low.

Lingyun struggled to no avail. He looked away, refusing to meet Fengbo’s eyes. “Fine,” he clearly forced himself to say. “I have other interests. Your sister doesn’t attract me. The concubines in my harem are all treacherous bitches because that’s what the harem does to women. Does this answer satisfy you?” he asked, glaring at Fengbo now.

Fengbo chuckled. “I’m surprised you have the guts to tell me to my face that my sister doesn’t attract you, considering our relative authorities.”

“Our relative authorities?” Lingyun laughed without mirth. “Who’s the emperor here? Let go of me, you insolent official,” he ordered coldly.

“My, my, Lingyun…who has control of the military here?” Fengbo inquired with mock-confusion. Being so close to Lingyun was extremely distracting. He really wanted to fuck Lingyun against the column, to memorize the taste of Lingyun’s skin and to do many other things to his emperor—and he was fucking hard from just wanting alone—but he had to keep his animalistic desires in check.

“At any rate,” he forced himself to continue with a smooth, taunting voice, “The grand empress dowager herself picked my sister out to be your wife. Surely you don’t mean to insult your own mother’s choice, do you?” He felt movement and immediately stepped aside to avoid a lethal kick, letting go of Lingyun’s wrist as a result.

“For my mother and Chunmei’s sake and not for yours, I will clarify how I feel about Chunmei,” Lingyun hissed, his blade gleaming thirstily with silver light. “I like her, but to me she is like a sister. Would you fuck your sister?”

Speechless, Fengbo had to force himself to answer nevertheless, “She is my sister. I don’t think this sort of question is appropriate, Lingyun.”

“My point is that I feel the same way you feel, when I see Chunmei,” Lingyun replied through his teeth. “I see her as my sister. I’m also not particularly interested in making her go through another nine months or so of torture—she just had Fuxue a year ago.”

“Come on, Lingyun. Stop avoiding the truth,” Fengbo chuckled, cocking his head and meeting Lingyun’s eyes. “Why don’t you just say it? You can’t get it up.”

Lingyun glare was so searing that Fengbo could practically feel it burn into his flesh. Pursing his lips, Lingyun sheathed his jian and didn’t look at Fengbo again. With a straight back, he stalked forward, intending to brush by Fengbo without acknowledging his existence.

“Since I’m feeling benevolent today…How about this?” Fengbo piped up just as Lingyun walked past him, “Let’s have a match. If I win, you will do whatever I want you to do, and vice versa.” He turned around slowly as the words left his mouth.

It took longer than Fengbo had expected for Lingyun to respond, “Draw your weapon.” He proceeded to face Fengbo, pulling out his jian.

Fengbo smiled. As he had thought, Lingyun was unable to resist the challenge. “How about we fight hand-to-hand? I don’t want to accidently scar anything.” Truthfully, Fengbo didn’t have the confidence to restrain himself from taking advantage of Lingyun, but he didn’t want to accidentally wound his emperor.

Growling, Lingyun paused before he completely unsheathed his blade. “Fine. Don’t take back your words when you lose though,” he said with a cold smirk.

The moment Lingyun’s blade clicked into its scabbard, he dashed forward, aiming straight for Fengbo’s chest, neck, and shoulder blade; Fengbo brushed them all away and stepped aside to avoid Lingyun’s kick. He noticed the style was a bit different—probably from the Dragon God Manual—but no matter how intelligent Lingyun was, it was impossible to fully understand complicated techniques without a master’s help.

When Lingyun whirled around and delivered three attacks aiming for Fengbo’s vital acupressure points, Fengbo saw his chance and grabbed Lingyun’s wrist, pulling his emperor over. “Lingyun, Lingyun…,” he breathed, his lips touching Lingyun’s ears. Lingyun smelled good. “Even after two years, you still haven’t improved at all….” He couldn’t hold back his desires anymore and nibbled the flesh so close to his lips, savoring the taste of his emperor.

Cold light flashed and Fengbo avoided it with ease. He had expected this reaction, after all. “You bastard…You bastard!” For the first time since Fengbo had returned to the Palace, Lingyun showed emotion. “How dare you…how dare you…!” His cheeks were slightly flushed. “Don’t ever do that again!” he hissed, pointing the tip of his blade at Fengbo’s throat.

Fengbo chuckled. “No weapons, Lingyun,” he reminded in a taunting manner. “I never knew you were one to break the rules of a duel.”

Throwing him a sharp glare, Lingyun clearly forced himself to sheath his jian.

Even though the situation was no longer the same, even though Lingyun would not forgive him anymore, Fengbo couldn’t help but revert back to the old habit of teasing his emperor in this manner. He didn’t counter Lingyun’s subsequent attacks; he wanted Lingyun to relieve some hatred so he even willingly received some relatively harmless attacks.

However, when Lingyun’s fists grew deadlier and deadlier, Fengbo knew it was time to end the match. After all, he was now having some trouble defending himself; the emperor was obviously getting annoyed at Fengbo for not taking him seriously.

Lingyun aimed for Fengbo’s lower left abdomen and hip, which Fengbo was barely able to block. Then, Lingyun aimed for Fengbo’s chin but Fengbo brushed it away; at the same time, he jabbed Lingyun’s upper left chest, avoided Lingyun’s kick and jabbed Lingyun’s hip acupressure point. He then stepped aside and blocked two out of Lingyun’s four punches and—ignoring the pain of the two hits that had connected—grabbed Lingyun’s arm, his thumb pressing hard into the acupressure point that would numb the entire limb. Finally, during that split second, he stepped one leg forward between Lingyun’s legs and wrestled the struggling figure to the floor, barely managing to strike the remaining acupressure points that would significantly decrease Lingyun’s strength for the night.

He was hard from all the wrestling, and Lingyun noticed as well.

With all his might, the emperor struggled—which only added friction to Fengbo’s erection. “Get off me, you…you disgusting pervert…! I hate you! I hate you!” It seemed like the only thing that Lingyun was able to say to Fengbo now.

Swallowing his sigh, Fengbo smirked instead. “Don’t forget that you agreed to do whatever I want you to do if you lost—right now, what does it seem like?”

Still struggling but failing miserably, Lingyun growled, “Fine. I’ll have sex with Chunmei in ten days—she should get pregnant easier around that time.”

So he really did calculate when Chunmei would get pregnant.

“Well, that’s good news…,” Fengbo chuckled, pressing harder against Lingyun. His spare hand slithered around Lingyun’s hips to the area between the emperor’s legs and his lips brushed the back of Lingyun’s ear as he murmured, “But how can I be sure you can get it up?”

In the end, he couldn’t resist this delicious opportunity.

cline3

Chapter 29 Part 2

“Don’t touch me! Don’t—” Lingyun was cut off with a whimper; it didn’t take long for him to completely harden from Fengbo’s caresses. His struggles slowly stopped when they became too weak; instead, he trembled.

At that point, Fengbo was already regretting having started this. But, he couldn’t stop out of kindness.

It didn’t help that he was enjoying this, every second of this.

Maybe he was broken somewhere.

He loved this control, this power. He loved having Lingyun at his mercy. He loved teasing the arrogant emperor.

Especially when Lingyun was already hard before Fengbo had touched him. What did it mean? Fengbo liked to theorize.

He kissed the back of Lingyun’s neck before biting and sucking the smooth flesh while he stroked Lingyun’s erection. “I never knew you’d get so hard, so easily, Lingyun…,” he taunted, a murmur that made the figure under him writhe. “Do you like this sort of thing? Being under someone else’s control….”

Lingyun gasped when Fengbo rubbed the tip of his cock with his thumb. “I hate you…I hate you…!”

“I know.” The words came out somewhat bitter, almost betraying Fengbo’s real emotions. He sighed inwardly, dispelling the conflicting tightness from his chest.

With his spare hand, he pulled loose Lingyun’s sash and undid the silken clothes, exposing skin that had obviously not been under the sun for a long time. He wasn’t thinking anymore, he was just following his damnable instincts, his desires—his hunger.

He was pretty sure that his erection was disturbing Lingyun, but he found Lingyun’s fear amusing so he pressed more firmly against the body under him, making sure Lingyun could feel the hardness against his ass. Not like Fengbo would actually fuck his emperor, though. He had his limits.

As usual, he didn’t give Lingyun enough stimulation for the emperor to come. He wanted to see if Lingyun would beg for it. The prospect of someone as full of pride as Lingyun begging to be touched made him harder, and he couldn’t stop himself from grinding into the tense body underneath him; he wanted some friction against his throbbing cock.

Involuntarily, Lingyun thrust into Fengbo’s hand, the movement spiking inexplicable pleasure in Fengbo’s erection. “Lingyun…,” he couldn’t help but murmur, though he forcibly stopped himself from finishing the sentence.

“Don’t call my name! I hate it when you say my name! I hate it when you—I hate you…!” Lingyun’s voice quivered, slightly raw. Fengbo’s fingers wrapped around the base of the emperor’s cock and pumped hard, forcing a moan out of Lingyun’s throat.

For a long time, Fengbo tormented Lingyun, listening to the helpless panting of his emperor, tasting the delicious skin of his Lingyun. If only this person could belong to him, and him only…

“Why…?” He heard Lingyun ask, a whisper between his gasps. “Why do you have to do this? Why does it have to be you? I….”

Fengbo paused now, leaning closer so he could hear what Lingyun was muttering.

“I wish you never existed….”

Sighing, Fengbo wanted to say, “I wish it weren’t you either. I don’t even want you to sleep with my sister, but I have to make you sleep with her anyway. Why did you have to be the emperor? My emperor?” But unlike Lingyun, he could not voice his thoughts so easily, so freely. This restless, torturous agony…he wondered if it would drive him crazy one day.

“If you didn’t exist, maybe I wouldn’t feel like this…,” continued Lingyun, his voice so tiny that it was almost impossible for Fengbo to make out. “I hate you. I hate you I hate you I hate you….”

Hate me, then. You have every right to hate me.

Even though I don’t want you to hate me, I don’t want you to forgive me, either.

After all, we can never be together.

“If you hate me so much, then become strong enough to kill me,” Fengbo said, unable to force himself to smirk any more. “If you want me to disappear, then fulfill your duties as the emperor. Right now, Lingyun…you are powerless.” He started moving his hand again, no longer gentle with his strokes. Violent, almost. Lingyun was unable to control his voice, whimpering loudly from Fengbo’s touches, gasping and cursing Fengbo, uttering countless wishes for Fengbo to die.

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Unless you want me to do this to you so you can be hard enough to fuck my sister, I expect to hear good news within a month.

Fengbo was amazed by how cold and heartless he could sound when his own words could carve scars into his own heart.

He sighed, observing the sleeping figure before him. He had made Lingyun come three times, which was more than enough to make Lingyun drift off into a slumber. He picked the limp figure up and brought Lingyun to one of the emperor’s rooms, tucking Lingyun into silken bed sheets and lighting up the incense burner beside the platform bed.

He returned to kneel beside Lingyun, noticing the glistening tears that were moistening Lingyun’s lashes. He bent over and kissed them away, his hand resting on Lingyun’s shoulder. It seemed so weak, so frail. Lingyun had gotten thinner, even though he should have been eating better. The discovery brought nothing but pain into Fengbo’s chest. “I’m sorry, Lingyun,” he said in a subdued voice, “I’m so sorry.” He stroked Lingyun’s hair, feeling the silky locks slide through his calloused fingers. “I hope you can kill me one day, too.”

Before this feeling makes me do something that will destroy this empire.

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Chapter 30

In the subsequent days, things became hectic in the palace. The Winter Solstice and emperor’s birthday were in a month, which meant there had to be preparations for the Festival, the emperor’s birthday, and the Big Conference. Frankly, the preparations had already begun a month ago, but as the deadline approached, work pressure increased.

Fengbo was too busy to spare any thought for Lingyun now. After that night, he had stopped paying attention to Lingyun in the Conferences. Whether or not the emperor decided to do his job was no longer in Fengbo’s control—he had already tried the most extreme method and there was nothing else he could do. He already hated himself enough and didn’t want to hurt Lingyun any further.

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As usual, Qingyan’s Manor was filled with the sickly sounds of coughing, which interrupted the beautiful sound of music. The emperor’s third brother picked up the small teacup to his side and moistened his throat with warm liquid before giving it to his wife and continuing to play the guqin.

“Imperial Servant Zhu Zi’an has arrived!”

Ignoring the announcement, Qingyan continued to finish playing the piece. Zi’an strolled in, his trusted right-hand man Jia Fushun, the Vice Head of the Secretariat, following closely behind. They both bowed, greeting Qingyan.

Using the tone of his music, Qingyan indicated for the two officials to rise and take a seat.

After a while, Qingyan finally finished the song and looked up. “Is there something you need to report?” he asked Zi’an, coughing a little.

“I would like your opinion about who you think is a greater threat—Supreme General Xuan or Zhitian,” Zi’an reported. “I need your approval, after all. Lately General Xuan seems to be in a conflict with Zhitian—they are fighting over officials. General Xuan is gaining the upper hand lately, and it helps him that he has the control of the military.”

“The Xuan,” Qingyan immediately answered through gritted teeth. “They obviously want to usurp the throne! And—” The sickly man was cut off by a fit of coughs. His wife patted his back out of reflex and not concern.

Zi’an swallowed a smirk. The dumb noble was too easy to manipulate. “Well then, I think this is the perfect chance to get rid of the Xuan, once and for all,” he continued with his most persuasive tone. “His Imperial Majesty’s birthday is within a month,” he started, pausing a little on purpose so that the fact would sink in. “Which means that Winter Solstice is in a month, which means the Big Conference is almost coming up, which means many of your kin—all whom share your worries—are going to return to the Palace….” He paused again, this time he ended the sentence on a higher tone. “What do you think about cooperating with Zhitian for this event?”

“That treacherous brother of mine?” Qingyan hummed in a low voice, stroking his goatee. He then proceeded to play his guqin again, the music reflecting his train of thoughts. Plucking the final string to the small tune, Qingyan spoke again, “What do you propose is better? Did my brother approach you?”

“No, not yet,” Zi’an replied. “But I suspect he is thinking about this as well. For this past month and a half he has been quite lax in attacking my men’s ideas and work. I surmise that something has happened. He seems to be uncharacteristically supportive of the emperor too, though I doubt His Imperial Majesty would be affected. At any rate, this is a great opportunity,” he concluded.

“What do you suggest we do?” Qingyan asked, leaning forward, pressing his hand on the strings of his guqin.

We? thought Zi’an, almost laughing at the assumption. “Well, firstly, you can start contacting your Bai relatives and complain to them about how Xuan Fengbo is antagonizing the Court, Your Highness. You can also imply that the emperor seems to have the intention of giving Fengbo the throne by doing nothing,” Zi’an began. “Fushun here will help you write the letters.”

Jia Fushun bowed. “Your Highness.”

Qingyan gave a curt nod as his acknowledgement.

“Although I have confidence in Your Highness’s writing abilities, I will have our best essayist, Ke Xianyao, assist you with the political content.”

“As for that serpent,” Zi’an continued, “he will be useful if a civil war breaks out. It’s a good thing that none of your relatives like him either, so we don’t have to worry about Zhitian stealing the support of the Bai.”

“Go on,” Qingyan urged.

“Better yet, General Xuan has significantly weakened Zhitian’s position—he has already stolen over a half of Zhitian’s original faction. Even that accursed official Xie Liang is working for General Xuan now, which means a lot of able officials that used to be with Zhitian are now in support of the General. Therefore, if we succeed, the throne will be all yours—we can get rid of all the annoying rivals, the emperor, and the Xuan. Better yet, after losing a large chunk of the able officials, Zhitian won’t have enough supporters to get him the spot he wants right now.”

The sound from Qingyan’s guqin was very rich and pleasant after Zi’an’s visit.

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As expected, Xuan Fengbo was dangerous. Almost half of Zhitian’s men had changed sides—even some of Zi’an’s men had changed sides as well. Haoping leaned against the wall as he observed his superior, feeling surprisingly passive. He had to admit, he admired Fengbo’s ideals and abilities. Fengbo’s sheer force of charisma had completely turned the tide—and this was exceptionally damaging for Zhitian, as some acclaimed nobles had changed their support from Zhitian to Fengbo. This had probably been planned all along—Zhitian’s overconfidence had now cost him dearly.

“That bastard, Xuan Fengbo,” Zhitian screamed at the top of his lungs, kicking over a teapot. “I can’t believe he just insulted me in front of the entire Court—me! The Head of the Secretariat! The emperor’s brother!” He sat down and bit his nails. “Haoping, we have to get rid of him now, in some way. No matter how many times I try persuading that bratty brother of mine to give the orders to execute Fengbo for his impending treachery, he just doesn’t listen—for gods know what reason. I also don’t trust Zi’an—he’s up to something.”

It’s already too late, Haoping thought. “There is a way you can get rid of Xuan Fengbo and the emperor now,” he said. “But the risk is great.”

“I’m listening.” Zhitian looked up, no longer biting his nails.

“Remember Blood Flames Sect? They owe us a contract.”

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Xuan Fengbo was a man who had it all: Power, looks, position, intelligence, talent… There was nothing that the man could not do. His brilliance was so blinding that it completely wiped out the accomplishments of his other siblings.

As a result, Ruixiang’s eldest brother, Xuan Zhankun, had died trying to outperform Fengbo. Seven years ago, Zhankun had died in a war against invading savages from Liao.

Even Zhankun, who was the son of the official wife, could not defeat Fengbo—what chances did Ruixiang have? He was but a concubine’s son, disliked by most of the main family members and looked down upon by the allies of the Xuan. He was nothing; he hated the Xuan and hated the arrogant, self-important nobles.

There was only one person he was loyal to, and today, that person had called him over with a secret letter. He burned it immediately after reading it through and got up.

When he arrived at the secret meeting place, he noticed that Xiao Wuying was already present and became annoyed—he was not the first to arrive, yet again. Even though the letters always reached everyone at the same time.

Casting his irritation aside, he immediately greeted his lord, who was as distant as ever. Lately even more so.

A few moments passed and everyone had gathered: Zhang Suqiong, Xie Liang, Xu Guangdao, and Ke Xianyao. Xie Liang was the first to speak, “As we all know, Ning’s Taizi ascended the throne seven months ago,” he explained. “And roughly a month ago, they won the war against Jin and took a third of their land. Ye Qiuyang has pretty much stabilized Ning’s Imperial Court as a result. They will be sending an ambassador to talk as soon as we give them the signal. We can move any time we want to.”

Indeed, they all knew this—but what was the point of mentioning this again? Unable to restrain his curiosity, Ruixiang glanced at his lord.

Xu Guangdo was doing the same thing. “Are you sure you want to do this? Forgive me for my insolence, but I thought you were content with your freedom…There are other ways to deal with what Zi’an is planning.” Despite his words, he could not hide the excitement in his voice.

“I already made my decision. Call Duan Mingwu back,” the emperor said coldly.

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Part II

~Interlude~

狡兔三窟

~A Cunning Hare has Three Hideouts~

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Dear Qiuyang,

Thank you for your visit; I have enjoyed your company very much. Unfortunately, like clouds that have clustered together, we will eventually separate. It is impossible to control the wind, after all.

Since you are a very formidable opponent, in both weiqi and politics, I did not answer your questions about how you can further secure power—Alas, I am not so unpatriotic that I would risk my own country’s safety. However, if in the unfortunate event that I am forced to return to Yue’s Palace, I do hope we can cooperate in the future.

May success be with you,

Your Apologetic Friend

P.S. By the time you find this letter, I’ll be long gone from your country. Also, if possible, please burn this letter upon reading it, for both of our sakes.

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It had only been a week since that bastard had gone off to war. Lingyun was still reading a book on engineering when his mother summoned him to her quarters, in private. He sneaked past that failure of a bodyguard, Sima Lü, and used his qingggong to reach the harem.

Immediately, he noticed that his mother was formally dressed; her hair had been styled intricately and adorned with glittering jewels and her make-up had been carefully applied to her entire face. He thought of the possible reasons why she would do so, and decided that it had to do with his father’s network.

“Lingyun,” she said after he had sat beside her, “I’m sure you have been wondering about your father’s powerful network.”

As he had thought. However, he hadn’t really wondered. Not since that bastard had decided to…Lingyun gritted his teeth, determined not to finish his train of thought.

“They work only for Yue’s emperor, no one else—your father trusted me enough to teach me of their existence. They are shadows, they are air—they are everywhere but nowhere. Today, I am going to introduce you to the leader of your intelligence squad—I’m sure you have already met him before.”

Lingyun widened his eyes when he saw the man who walked through the doors—it was none other than the leader of Sky Shadows, Xiao Wuying!

No wonder the man had repeatedly let Lingyun off when he had infiltrated Sky Shadows. Even if the man were a saint, it had made no sense for him to keep allowing Lingyun to infiltrate without increasing the security. Lingyun had thought it was odd, though it hadn’t stopped him from getting what he had wanted.

Xiao Wuying kneeled down. “Pleased to meet you once again, Your Majesty. Let me introduce myself again; I am Xiao Wuying, the Leader of your intelligence squad, the Night Shadows—a branch from Sky Shadows Sect.”

Lingyun considered asking for a match right away, but then he remembered that he was now the emperor and no one would fight him seriously anymore. Annoyed, he simply answered, “You may rise.”

As usual, Wuying was so expressionless that it was like he wore a skillfully carved wooden mask. “Your father’s last request to me was that I watch over you and provide you assistance. Our men have infiltrated every governmental system of rival empires, and they are all under your command.”

For a price, of course, Lingyun finished for the Leader of Sky Shadows. But this was a given; he’d had to prepare for the arrangements. Better use that merchant he had spared in the Eastern Port, since he couldn’t openly use the Imperial treasury. “Give me an example of the extent to which they will go,” he demanded.

“Aside from assassination, almost anything if it is for the cause of good.” A horribly vague answer.

“Define good, then.” Lingyun was surprisingly calm, even though he would normally have been annoyed by now.

Daring to lock eyes with Lingyun, Wuying answered, “Anything that is for the greater benefit of Yue’s citizens that would not harm innocents: From espionage to meddling with politics, from recruiting new followers to manipulating others to get rid of corrupted officials. We also help deliver top secret documents Your Majesty wishes to send.” He paused to make sure that he had made his point. “However,” he added, “we do not meddle with Yue’s internal politics and we do not prioritize Your Majesty’s life. That is the Xuan’s job.”

But the Xuan….

…But that bastard.…

Lingyun bit his lips and forced himself to stop thinking. “I see. Care to give me an example of what you have heard recently?” He knew he was being mean by testing Wuying’s ability to guess what he wanted to know, but he was genuinely interested in how good Sky Shadows Sect was.

A small smile ghosted across Wuying’s otherwise stoic features. “Duan Mingwu in the north has been searching for his ‘teacher’ for a while now,” he answered.

“Perfect.” Lingyun was impressed, but he didn’t show it on his face or in his voice. “Well then, I’d like to know the situation in Ning, Jin, and Xia—make sure the documents are ready in a week. Lastly, I want to contact Ye Qiuyang, Duan Mingwu, and Huang Licai. Will your men be able to do this?”

Wuying bowed. “But of course. Anything else Your Majesty needs?”

A match, Lingyun almost said. He caught himself just in time, however. “Not for now,” he said instead. “I will give you the letters tomorrow. You are dismissed.”

After Wuying left, Yulan turned around and picked up Lingyun’s hands. “I’m so proud of you,” she said as tears fell down her eyes. Lingyun wiped them away for her. “I must say, you really worried me—you seemed so aloof and…you fooled even your mother for two months!” She sniffed, though her smile only became wider.

“I didn’t see a chance until now,” Lingyun replied. He had made the preparations partially because he had wanted insurance, after all. He just hadn’t thought he would actually need to use them.

“Why do you want to contact Ning’s Taizi and Duan Mingwu?” Yulan inquired, her tears finally drying.

“I met them before. We need a good political relationship with Ning, and Ye Qiuyang seems like a fairly honorable man, although a bit too ambitious. Duan Mingwu owes me a debt, and his support will prove useful in the future,” Lingyun answered. He sounded as though everything was going smoothly, but he knew what would be required of him.

He really hated politics. Manipulating others was a boring and tedious job, after all. Yet, now he was stuck with the job, he had to do it to survive.

“By the way, Mother, I think you can handle what I call the ‘Old Faction’. If I need help, I’ll come to you and ask for it. Don’t tell anyone what I’m doing.”

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Today, the emperor seemed as irritated as ever.

“What were you and your stupid men doing? This isn’t supposed to work this way,” the emperor growled. “I told you before, the calculations are off! The device won’t work! This is utter trash! I don’t even want you morons to waste time and resources building it!”

Wiping sweat off with his sleeves, Juang Renqing, the Minister of Works, picked up the blueprint that the emperor had thrown back at him and examined it. What had been wrong?

“Do you really want me to invent a machine to produce silk cloths quicker myself?” the emperor inquired through his teeth. “While those morons are wasting the treasury with that dumb war and their own corruption, you idiots have to think of a way to increase the treasury without putting too much burden on the peasants. Is this too much to ask? Is it?”

Renqing cringed, not even daring to meet the emperor’s eyes. Why did the emperor have to choose him, out of all people, to bully? He was but an old man, not even from a particularly prestigious family! And he was too scared of the emperor to tell others why the emperor seemed particularly interested in science. Everyone thought it was because the emperor liked bullying the weakest of all high-ranked officials…

“And the hydraulic architecture you showed me three days ago won’t work either,” the emperor rebuked icily. “Neither will that ship. Do you people even bother studying past materials? Testing with smaller models? Calculating the proportions?” He advanced closer, cornering Renqing. “Why must I do everything for you morons?”

If only that gorgeous face had gentler expressions…Then maybe Renqing wouldn’t be so scared.

“Are you even listening to me, you dimwit?” the emperor demanded, poking Renqing’s chest. He must’ve poked an acupressure point on purpose, since Renqing felt a flash of pain rush through his body. “I want your men to work harder. If they need more money or funds, give me the budget—I’ll take care of it. But if you give me an ill-contrived budget and still fail, I’ll make your life hell!” With that said, the imposing emperor headed out the office. However, he paused at the door. “Oh yes, I told you guys to come up with a new farming technology. I expect to see some progress the next time I come back.” And then he left.

Falling to the floor, Renqing scrambled to make the preparations. He knew the emperor had been threatening him out of good-will, but he didn’t have to be so condescending and hostile!

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Ever since he had been a child, Xie Liang had followed in his father’s footsteps. Unlike the nouveau riche scholars, Liang had experience and knowledge. He was not naïve, but he knew how to navigate the labyrinth called the Imperial Government.

Liang had an ambition. Probably an impossible ambition, as politics was more dangerous than a chaotic whirlpool. However, he couldn’t forgive that man, Zhu Zi’an, for demoting his father and his uncle to the outer regions. At the same time, he did not like Zhitian, who was too corrupted and greedy. Liang wanted to bring the two aforementioned men down, and he would die trying.

It was good that Zhitian had approached him with promises to make him an official ranked in the upper positive fifth level, seeing as Liang was the top of his class in the Taixue School.

He had been gathering liked-minded people for a while. However, due to the strange actions of the new Supreme Commander, Xuan Fengbo, Liang had been hesitant to approach anyone who had a possibility of being associated with the Xuan. Even though people had been whispering about how hopeless the new emperor had been, Liang was glad that Bai Lingyun had taken the throne. It made getting rid of Zhitian and Zi’an much more possible.

Not to mention, as an educated person as well, Liang had read the new emperor’s past works. He admired Lingyun’s strong voice in writing, superb calligraphy, and precise logic. It simply was not possible for the author of such excellent essays to do nothing! Liang knew he had to find a way to get close to the emperor, to assist the man and serve his country.

One day, he saw someone very eye-catching in the restaurant he frequented. Well, actually, eye-catching would be an understatement, but there were no words to describe the man without insulting him. No one sat near that man, as though sitting in his proximity would give them a dangerous disease, probably one that would result in skin as gruesome as the man’s face.

Liang caught the man’s eyes. Rather, the man was observing him with his ice-cold, blackest of black eyes. Liang found himself absorbed by the man’s eyes—he had never seen irises so black before.

He couldn’t tell if the man was smirking, since the man seemed immune to expressions, but he had a feeling the man was smiling. He gulped, but his curiosity urged him to take a seat near the man. He ordered a bowl of rice, soup, and three side dishes before turning around. The man was still observing him, and it was sending chills down his back.

“Excuse me for asking,” Liang started very politely, “but is it possible that you have business with me?”

A soft snort. The man picked up his teacup with a gloved hand, but didn’t drink. “Do you want me to have business with you?” the man asked instead, his voice surprisingly clear and pleasant. Liang had expected an old man’s raspy voice, or at least a coarse and cruel voice.

But the rudeness was what had thrown Liang off. The man was the one who had been blatantly staring at Liang, not the other way around! However, as a civilized person, Liang knew better than to get angry. Even though good clothes and money could be stolen, that accent was authentic, high-noble accent of Yue. There had to be something more to this strange man. “Who knows?” he mused as the waitress set his food down. “But if I said I wished that you had business with me, what sort of business do you think I’d want you to have with me?”

The man didn’t answer. He stood up and patted Lian’s shoulder. “Nice try, but I really do hate how roundabout that question was.” Then he left, just like that.

Subsequently, cold sweat poured down Liang’s back for no reason; he finally realized how tense he had been. It wasn’t because of the man’s grisly appearance. It was that man’s force of existence, the air about that man. Strange things happened, and this was one of those strange events, Liang told himself. Maybe he had really met a ghost, or demon—even though the tea set was real.

That night, when he was changing his clothes and about to join his wife in bed, something dropped out. A piece of small paper—he hadn’t any memory of it. Frowning, he walked to the platform table in the adjacent room and lit a candle.

Meet me tomorrow at the underground level of the Qilin Pagoda at the Time of Xu.

Before Liang could curse out loud, he examined the calligraphy of the letter instead. The exquisite semi-cursive looked somewhat familiar, but not familiar enough for him to determine it to be the handwriting of someone he knew. For an arrogant, rude man, Liang had to admit: His calligraphy was too good to burn. However, he knew that it had to be burned. Sighing, he dipped the corner of the letter into the tip of his candle flame and watched the calligraphy turn into crisp. After sitting in silence for a while, he returned to his chambers.

The next day, around the time of Xu, he decided to damn himself with his cursed curiosity.

And he hadn’t expected to meet face to face with a man that was eye-catching in the totally opposite sense. However, those bottomless black eyes—they were the same, they had to be. A mask? That explained why the man had seemed so inhuman.

“Done staring?” the man drawled; indeed, his accent and voice were the same.

Realizing that he had been staring rudely, Liang quickly averted his eyes. “My apologies,” he said quickly. “I didn’t expect the real you to be so—”

“Save the flattery,” the man interrupted. “I didn’t call you over to listen to mundane praises, I’m sick of those.”

But it wasn’t a praise, thought Liang.

“At any rate, take a seat,” the man said lazily. The candles flickered in the darkness, the soft glow only enhancing his appeal. Yet, at the same time, that authoritative pressure was still there, making Liang’s hair stand on end. Hastily, he sat on the cushion in front of the man. “There are no eavesdroppers here, I made sure of that before you came,” the man began again. “So, I’m going to cut to the chase. I’m interested in you, Xie Liang.”

Fear, and then confusion. “Should I be happy?” asked Liang, slowly. He wasn’t sure if the man’s interest was good or bad, after all.

“What do you think?” Reflecting the question again. The man seemed to love testing others.

Very well, thought Liang. He had spent the entire night considering the man’s motivations, but after seeing the face behind that corpse-like mask, he had a few new hypotheses. If the rumors about Bai Lingyun’s arrogance and ethereal good-looks were true, than this man had to be the emperor. Especially since the handwriting had looked familiar—Liang had gotten the chance to read the essays handwritten by Lingyun himself before.

Immediately, Liang kowtowed. “Your Majesty, I didn’t expect you’d visit this lowly official personally. I am flattered.”

“Didn’t I say save the stupid customs?” Lingyun growled, though there was no rebuke in his voice. “And don’t waste time apologizing,” he added before Liang could apologize. “I think you know why I called you over. As it is, Yue needs good officials. I’ve heard of your honorable personality and I’ve read some of your essays—the calligraphy and the voice of your works do not lie. We seem to have some views in common,” he said. “Since I don’t know what that….” His expression changed slightly, shadowed with darkness that frightened Liang. “Yes. I need a voice in the Court, but unfortunately, I have no power and no supporters.”

Liang decided that Lingyun had to be referring to the Xuan. Indeed, their leader, Xuan Fengbo’s, actions were perplexing, but he suspected there was an ulterior motive. Liang had heard much of Xuan Fengbo, as the man was one of his role models, and Fengbo was someone who would despise corruption. Had his blatant insults been to protect the emperor? Yet, this was only Liang’s speculation, so he remained silent.

“You can’t survive that corrupted, disgusting brother of mine for very long without my invisible help, and I can’t control the Imperial Court without support from officials like you. So in a sense, we need each other,” Lingyun continued monotonously. “I don’t really care about power. Once we rid the Court of that disgusting brother of mine and that narrow-minded Zi’an, I’ll make you one of the Heads of the Secretariat.”

Tempting. Very tempting indeed. Even if Lingyun were lying about making Liang a Chancellor, he would be satisfied with the accomplishment of ridding his country of parasites such as Zhitian and Zi’an. He kowtowed again. “I swear eternal loyalty to you, Your Majesty. If I diverge from my path, please punish me in any way you see fit.”

And so, from that day on, Liang worked for the emperor. Truthfully, after discussing many matters with Lingyun, he wished the emperor would be active in the future—after all, Lingyun might be the best emperor Yue had ever had. However, to Liang’s disappointment, Lingyun seemed content with working in the shadows. The man treasured freedom far too much, and he had found that giving the impression of irresponsibility was the best way to retain what little freedom he had left. After all, Lingyun had been able to come and go as he pleased because no one paid excessive attention to him.

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Truth be told, Lingyun didn’t really know how he had been able to have sex with Chunmei. He had been very drunk, so drunk that he couldn’t remember how it had happened. He was just glad that he had gotten the business over with. Two months after the night he had sex with her, it was confirmed that she was pregnant. All he had to do now was to wait.

Yet, there was something unsettling, something he could not understand. What was this restless feeling? He had been feeling this way for some time now. Fighting with Ruixiang hadn’t really helped, either.

After changing into plainer attire, he proceeded to sneak out of the Palace again. Slipping past his guards and Sima Lü took some time, but he succeeded and headed for the city area. He had forgotten to bring his mask, but he decided not to go back for it, since it was too risky. That failure of a bodyguard was very persistent, after all.

It was still bright when Lingyun reached the middle part of the city where fewer nobles would be there to recognize his face. He entered a random teahouse, ordered the best tea in the house, and took a seat at the corner. The music playing at the other end was passable, but not particularly pleasing. The high-pitched singing, however, made him even more irritated. He called a waiter over and shoved some money into the gaping boy’s hands. “Tell that oaf who’s singing to shut up. My ears are going to bleed.”

Worse, the tea tasted horrible—even though he had ordered the best tea in the house. However, he was too annoyed to scold the owner by now so he merely sipped the tea in silence. He noticed a pair of eyes had been staring at him intensely for a while now, and it was getting on his nerves—it was making his tea taste even worse. Sighing, he got up and left his pay on the table. He caught the eyes of the man staring at him, a bit surprised to find the irises green. A foreigner? Well, there were some foreign merchants in the city, but Lingyun had never met one. He gave a small nod to the door and walked out. He could tell that the man followed after. Very well. He was feeling very restless—he might as well lead the moron to some deserted alley and beat the man up.

When they reached a dark alley, Lingyun stopped and turned around. “What do you want?” he drawled, observing the man before him. The foreigner had sharp features, tan skin, stubs of brown beard and curly hair. He wore Yue attire, however, and he looked awkward in it.

The foreigner looked somewhat confused. Did he not speak Chinese? “I uh…,” the man started, his accent very thick. “I thought you would know? Going into a place like that….”

“A place like what?” Lingyun had to applaud his own patience.

“That teahouse,” the man stuttered. “It’s where comrades who don’t like…those womanly boys go,” he said.

“What?” Why was Lingyun wasting his time?

The man’s yellowish green eyes darted, checking to see if there were anyone. Moron. Lingyun had already done that—he was more than ready to punch the merchant and walk away now. “Can I suck your dick?” the man blurted out; Lingyun froze, wordless and stunned.

“Excuse me?” Maybe Lingyun was going deaf. Or maybe the foreigner’s accent was too thick. Yes. The foreigner probably had no idea what the hell he was talking about.

“I’ll pay well. You’re so beautiful, after all,” the man said hastily, digging into his robes and pulling out some gold ornaments.

Something was really, really askew. “What the hell are you blabbering about?”

“Please, I’ve never met an Eastern man as gorgeous as you are,” begged the man, now on his knees.

“Why would you want to….” Lingyun was feeling his cheeks burn a little as he remembered some very humiliating times—and then he turned cold when he remembered a certain bastard. “What the hell is wrong with you? Who do you think I am, a whore?”

But for some reason, he didn’t just kick the man’s face, even though he had seriously considered doing so. He had a vague feeling that he could get rid of his restlessness through this. He hadn’t… Hadn’t really had the time to touch himself for a while now. It made him somewhat uneasy, having his most intimate body part touched by others—but he was too interested to stop.

“Fine,” he said at length, watching the increasingly pathetic man’s face brighten. “Whatever. Just don’t try anything stupid, or I’ll kill you.” He drew his jian and leaned against the wall.

Afterwards, whenever Lingyun felt restless in such a way that sparring only fueled his irritation, he’d visit that third-rate teahouse with third-rate music and third-rate tealeaves, catch some idiot’s eye, and let the moron suck him off, though he didn’t allow them to touch him or undress him. Some even begged him to hit them and he did so very happily. Some wanted him to fuck them, but he wasn’t interested—it was too personal to his liking. He had no idea why they would want the things they asked of him, but he didn’t care.

Yet, something was missing, something like a hollow hole that he could never fill. Something he had lost, or had never had. What was it?

He eventually stopped frequenting the teahouse. He was drawing too much attention, and his dissatisfaction was now outweighing his restlessness.

In the end, he stopped caring.

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Like Xie Liang, Zhang Suqiong and Xu Guangdao, Ke Xianyao had been personally recruited by the emperor himself. He had to admit: Lingyun had a good eye for men he could trust and use. For example, although Xianyao was a nouveau riche scholar, Liang recognized his abilities. On the other hand, Xianyao acknowledged Liang as well—he knew the man could be trusted.

Not to say they had never gotten into arguments, however. Liang always thought that practical experiences would make him automatically correct; as a result, he was too conservative. Xianyao thought otherwise, and he believed that he could make his ideals work after some adjustments over time. The emperor was always the one who had found a compromise between their ideas, or at least provided his views and suggestions. His say was always the final say, and the emperor was very persuasive. Then they’d play out the same argument in the actual Conference and end with Lingyun’s will. Zhitian and Zi’an were clueless—their looks of relative triumph and defeat were hilarious in the eyes of Xianyao and Liang. They had no idea they were playing into Lingyun’s hands.

Moreover, since Xianyao had first met the emperor, he had noticed a change in the man’s behavior. A year had now passed, and Lingyun was growing more silent and more distant. Well, he had always been cold and almost impossible to approach if not for his own initiative to approach others, but lately there was a general feeling of restlessness during the secret meetings. The war in the south had been distracting the emperor.

Although Lingyun had mentioned it once or twice, he had never really discussed it with his men—he only gave orders to his secret intelligence force and told the officials to focus on the internal affairs of Yue instead.

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Your family or your emperor: Choose One.

The words rang loudly and repeatedly in Ruixiang’s head. It had been half a year when Lingyun had called him over to spar—mostly because the emperor wanted to be acquainted with the Xuan Family’s martial arts—but Ruixiang had never expected the silent emperor would say this one day.

Had he realized Ruixiang’s dislike of Fengbo? They shared something in common, after all. Sima Lü had told him that Lingyun hated his half-brother, though he had never elaborated why. Ruixiang had overheard Qiyuan and Lü’s discussion about their relationship, however. Again, everyone’s eyes were always on Fengbo—even Lingyun’s eyes were fixed on Ruixiang’s perfect, powerful brother. Even in hatred, Fengbo had more attention than anyone else in the world. The emperor never gave anyone so much attention, not even when he had been a child. It wasn’t fair. Nothing was fair.

To hell with the Xuan—if the emperor wished for them to go down, they could go down. Therefore, Ruixiang had never told Lingyun that the Xuan were still on his side, he had never told Lingyun why his brother had chosen to side with Zhitian.

He wanted Lingyun to hate his brother. He knew Lingyun’s hatred made his brother suffer, and he enjoyed seeing his perfect brother suffer.

Yet, at the same time, he wanted Lingyun to move on from his brother. He didn’t want Lingyun to look at his brother all the time. He didn’t want Lingyun to be tormented over that man—most of all, he wanted Lingyun to pay more attention to him.

But Lingyun had never opened his heart. Even though the emperor had trusted Ruixiang enough to make him a part of the emperor’s secret faction, he had never treated Ruixiang as more than a subordinate. He had even forced Ruixiang to lower the guards around his quarters so they’d only stand outside the walls.

As the emperor, of course it made sense for Lingyun to treat Ruixiang in a professional manner. However, Ruixiang wanted more. He wanted more, but he could never have that.

Lingyun only saw his brother.

Every time bad news from the war in the south came back, Lingyun would become as unapproachable as a demon. Ruixiang hated fighting Lingyun whenever the emperor was angry. He hated it. The reason was always the same: Fengbo. Always Fengbo. Lingyun hated Fengbo, so why was he angry whenever bad news about the war came back? He should want Fengbo to die in action, not get frustrated!

No matter how many times Ruixiang had convinced himself that Lingyun was just worried about the Empire’s safety, he couldn’t believe it. Lingyun was too calm and confident to be irritated over bad news. He had already been giving orders to Xiao Wuying, telling him to contact Ning and mess up Xia’s internal affairs.

Not to mention, Ruixiang could tell through their sparring that the origin of Lingyun’s irritation was Fengbo.

“Ruixiang,” Sima Lü said one day after Lingyun had returned back into his buildings. Ruixiang didn’t really need his brother’s loyal follower to keep lecturing him about the issue of the guards. However, to his surprise and further annoyance, Lü said instead, “Chunmei wants to see you.”

Chunmei. Just hearing his half-sister’s name made Ruixiang narrow his eyes. Like everyone else, she only cared for Fengbo. She was a member of the main line as well, just like Fengbo. She had everything and she had never needed to work for it. She even had Lingyun’s affections.

Not to mention, her self-righteous personality was just as annoying as Fengbo’s.

Expressionlessly, Ruixiang nodded. He picked up his dao, which had been parried out of his hand just moments ago, and sheathed it. After he exited the Qiuyue Palace, he got on his horse and headed towards the Empress’s quarters.

When Ruixiang entered the building, Chunmei was still trying to figure out how to solve the weiqi problem Lingyun had left her a day ago. She was alone, determined not to hide behind her bodyguard. How cute. He cleared his throat and Chunmei froze, looking up. Her large eyes widened. “Ruixiang!” she exclaimed, though her voice held no excitement or warmth. “Why didn’t you announce your arrival?”

“No particular reason.” Ruixiang walked over to observe the checkered board. It was filled with black and white stones laid into a convoluted formation that was dizzying to look at. Ruixiang had never been very good at weiqi—after all, Fengbo liked playing it. Whatever Fengbo liked to do, Ruixiang didn’t do. Except for practicing martial arts—even though Fengbo was leagues ahead, as usual. “I just wanted to see what you would be doing before I arrived,” he continued tonelessly.

Chunmei straightened her posture before she bowed down, her forehead almost touching the floor. “I apologize for my husband for always taking out his anger on you,” she said formally. “I hope you will not take it personally. After all—”

“Did His Imperial Majesty tell you to apologize for him?” Ruixiang interrupted, which made Chunmei’s shoulders jump. She didn’t answer. “If he didn’t, why do you presume you can speak for him? Everyone knows that he doesn’t like you.” Chumei’s head remained lowered, but her shoulders were trembling. Ruixiang continued mercilessly, “Rumors are that, after Fuxue, he hasn’t touched you once, has he?”

“That’s none of your business, is it?” Chunmei retorted in a shaky voice. She looked up and locked eyes with Ruixiang. “I am his wife. Of course I can speak for him.”

“What? Are you going to cry to Fengbo again about how I’m being cruel to you?” Ruixiang sneered, bending over a bit; his armor clanked with his movement. “Oops. Too bad. He’s at war—probably losing. I’d love to see his face right now; what kind of despair will he sport on his handsome face?”

“Why are you always so mean to me, Ruixiang?” Chunmei asked, trying to look strong but failing pathetically. “I never told father what kind of person you really are—he’d have killed you. I will never tell Fengbo either. This is a problem between you and me; don’t bring Fengbo into this. He’s fighting with all he has, protecting this Empire!”

“He betrayed His Imperial Majesty to fulfill his own ambitions,” Ruixiang replied. “Fengbo, Fengbo, Fengbo—why are you always so protective of him anyway? He’s the reason His Imperial Majesty hates you.”

Chunmei tightened her lips, though her hands were shaking. “Fengbo did what he had to do. Would you rather serve under Zhitian? Or worse, have Zi’an find a way to force the Xuan away from this Empire we have protected for over two hundred years? His Imperial Majesty is the only one who can save this Empire.”

“Go on, continue defending Fengbo as you see fit. If you were the one he betrayed, let’s see if you could spout the same pretty lines today,” Ruixiang sneered, holding Chunmei’s quivering gaze. “You’re not the one taking the brunt of His Imperial Majesty’s anger. You don’t know anything. You’re just a flower in the pot—useless. I can’t believe you called me over for something as meaningless as your self-righteous assumptions.” He turned around and left, his every step a metallic clatter.

Of course he knew what Fengbo had done was for the best. He, of all people, had personally known what Lingyun was capable of. In the first place, he would have never been able to know Lingyun if Fengbo hadn’t betrayed him.

Yet, it was annoying. Everything was annoying.

In the end, Fengbo was always right.

And Ruixiang hated it.

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Almost two years had passed now. Lingyun gazed out the window. Everything so far had been successful. Lingyun had manipulated Qiuyang, who was wary of him, into thinking that invading Jin had been his own idea. He had devised a plan to disrupt Xia’s internal politics with the help of Night Shadows and it had worked brilliantly. Duan Mingwu had sworn eternal loyalty to him, which meant he always had a backup support. He had established a strong trading relationship with Huang Licai, who had been generating external income for him. The technological inventions of both the Ministry of Works and the Ministry of War were going along smoothly, and the Conferences were more or less going the way he had wanted them to go. All was well.

The only thing left was that bastard. It made Lingyun sick to his stomach to remind himself that he would eventually need that bastard on his side. The Xuan were too valuable to be left behind, and that bastard was too valuable to get rid of. Duan Mingwu was, in the end, not as good a commander as that bastard, after all.

But what was this feeling?

He didn’t want that bastard to marry his half-sister, even though they had started to make arrangements. He didn’t want that bastard to marry anyone. That bastard wasn’t allowed to marry anyone.

This restlessness.

This emptiness.

…This pain.

Even though Lingyun was almost numb to everything by now, any moron who was stupid enough to mention that bastard’s name would stir such irritating feelings in him. And it didn’t help that he had to choose that bastard’s wife himself, since his mother didn’t know his half-sisters either. In the end he had decided to go with his father’s choice because he didn’t want to go through any more torture.

Yes. It had to be that bastard’s fault. Lingyun would never forgive that bastard.

If he hadn’t existed, Lingyun would probably never have felt this way.

Interlude: End

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Chapter 31

“Your Highness, Duan Mingwu and his men are heading back to the Capital for the Big Conference,” reported Ren Fangting before they entered the Hall where the Daily Conference was held. “Should I send him a message for you?” He trailed after Zhitian as he talked; the lantern in his hand dangled with every step.

“Thanks to that bastard, Fengbo, I haven’t been able to establish a good relationship with the Duan,” Zhitian mumbled as he walked. “But…at least the Duan still don’t like the Xuan very much. I guess they’re also afraid that Fengbo will try to usurp the throne…the rumors are running amok, thanks to Zi’an’s doings. But the Duan don’t want to let Zi’an’s faction win…this can only be good for us.” He stopped abruptly, forcing Fangting to halt his footsteps before he bumped into the Zhitian’s horse. “All right, send them my regards. Should they need my help, I will provide it.”

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Only half a month was left until the first Big Conference in two years. Xie Liang was so busy reading over the reports and checking to see if there were any errors or lies that he hardly had the time to eat. Fengbo was always the one who bought food for everyone, even for the officials from Zi’an’s faction.

Unlike Zi’an, who was busy preparing his scheme to secure the throne for Qingyan, Fengbo had offered to share the burden of inspecting the reports. It perplexed Liang, actually. How was the man able to do that? He had been training the Imperial Guards not long after he had returned, dealing with external politics and winning over neutral nobility, but somehow he still had the time to help out the Chancellery. Did the man sleep at all?

In the end, Fengbo’s militaristic training in mental stamina must have helped him pull through. He had fought an almost impossible war and had survived long enough for Lingyun’s actions to take effect; surely he was going to be able to pull through the war of politics as well.

Moreover, by now, it was clear to Liang that the Supreme general’s every action had taken the emperor into consideration and had almost all been in the emperor’s best interest. However, Lingyun was blind to this. The emperor had also ignored the fact that Fengbo was unknowingly making their plans run a lot more smoothly—especially Liang’s plans, since he no longer had to take unnecessarily complicated routes to reach his goals and Fengbo was often supportive. Better yet, Fengbo had even indirectly supported Ke Xianyao and Xu Guangdao’s proposals by asking the right questions.

Therefore, during the last ten out of thirty secret meetings since Fengbo’s return, Liang had been tempted to quote the old proverb, ‘the deeper your love, the harsher your rebuke’, in order ease Lingyun’s anger, but he dared not to mention Fengbo’s name in front of Lingyun. A year ago, he had been ignored by the emperor for a month precisely because he had mentioned Fengbo’s name in a slightly positive tone. Nothing was more frightening than Lingyun’s burning, cold anger.

In fact, Liang thought that Fengbo was behind the miracle that had happened fifteen days ago, or else the emperor would have never decided to seize power, nor would he have decided to finally frequent the harem. As much as Liang respected—even feared—Lingyun, the thought of Lingyun never taking open control of the court disturbed him. It was too risky, after all. Despite having the feeling that Fengbo would never usurp the throne after having worked with the man for a while now, Liang knew that the emperor’s clandestine methods simply were not enough.

The emperor was the symbol of the empire. He could not act this way forever, for this would tempt others to rebel or invade. With the first Big Conference in two years—Lingyun’s first Big Conference, in fact—they could not risk anything. Even though the citizens had been leading a fairly easy life thanks to recent technological advancements, they did not know the hand behind this. Bad rumors of the emperor had been spread too far, creating discontent and doubt, damaging Lingyun’s reputation almost beyond repair—especially the rumors of his impotency.

Still consumed in his musings, Liang was brought back to the Conference at hand when he heard the clear crash of porcelain. He took a peek ahead, realizing that Lingyun had just dropped his wine cup. There was a slight flush of pink on his pale, smooth cheeks, and his dark eyes burned coldly.

There was no doubt that the cause of his anger had to be Fengbo. Liang sighed inwardly.

“I agree with Fengbo,” the grand empress dowager quickly added before someone from Zhitian and Zi’an’s faction objected. Lately she had been rather supportive of Fengbo despite her initial anger over his blatant insult of Lingyun’s masculinity. “Since this is the time when we can let our allies and trading partners cross the borders and in the Palace, there is no doubt that enemies bearing the emperor malice will use this opportunity to find ways to disrupt the Empire—especially after the war. The emperor is the symbol of the Empire—we cannot leave our symbol unprotected. What does it say to the regional lords? To the other countries?”

“I have taken care of five assassins by myself,” Lingyun said, his voice still very rare within the walls of the Meeting Hall. “There is nothing to worry about. To me, they’re just practice targets.”

“No matter what, it is still risky,” Fengbo insisted, earning himself a searing glare from Lingyun for some reason, “I suggest you to let me handpick the best men to stand guard. They will stand watch within the walls of the Qiuyue Palace, as well.”

It was no secret that Fengbo had the supreme authority over the Imperial Guards—they listened to Ruixiang only because Ruixiang was Fengbo’s brother. Fengbo’s return probably would not sit well with Ruixiang, even though Liang had no idea what was behind that man’s stolid, blank expressions. Liang didn’t think that Ruixiang would betray the emperor, but he didn’t trust Ruixiang either. There had to be a reason why most of Ruixiang’s own men listened to Fengbo—a more innate, invisible reason.

On the other hand, to Zi’an and Zhitian, Lingyun probably appeared to be afraid of what Fengbo was planning, so instead of normally objecting to Fengbo like usual, they actually agreed.

Thus, despite Lingyun’s protests, the decision to increase the security of Qiuyue Palace went through. Of course, Lingyun was going to think that Liang and the others forgot about the secret meetings, but Liang thought it was time for the emperor to include the Xuan in his plans.

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He’ll hold onto you like his life depends on it—even though he won’t admit it.

Those words just wouldn’t stop reverberating in Lingyun’s ears whenever he was alone. He never…never held onto that bastard!

Yet, why did it hurt so much whenever the words haunted him?

Lingyun bit his lips as he sat in silence. The only way to get rid of this feeling was, in the end, to kill himself and seize power. It disgusted him to think that he had actually caved into that bastard’s taunts, but he didn’t want to feel this way anymore. He hated that bastard. Hated him, hated him, and wanted to forget him.

Lingyun already barely knew who he was anymore. He had lost his love of martial arts. He had lost his dream to travel the world. He didn’t enjoy weiqi as much anymore. He was content to have some limited freedom, and he was going to enjoy the last of it while he could—but now that bastard was going to literally cage him inside his own Palace!

Lingyun had never expected that bastard to blatantly play this card, even after he had the nerve to…to…

Lingyun felt his cheeks burn from the memory alone—he didn’t even want to continue that thought. He tried to read the papers on his desk instead, but he couldn’t focus.

Xie Liang, Ke Xianyao, Xu Guangdao, and even his mother—they were all forgetting something rather important: the secret meetings. How was Lingyun going to commence those meetings if that bastard had caged him inside his quarters? Especially during this crucial moment? Lingyun didn’t want to use his Palace’s secret passage too frequently—it was risky to do so.

Then, after considering the solutions and ignoring the papers in front of his desk, he got up and headed out the door to summon Ruixiang. Even though that bastard had control over most of the Imperial Guards, Ruixiang still had some trusted, loyal men who insisted on rules and never questioned odd commands.

Lingyun would make Ruixiang get those men mixed inside that bastard’s ‘handpicked’ guards. Then he’d make them stand guard and leave a spot open. He already had a plan for how to make it happen.

However, before he descended the stairs, a bell chimed and the doors creaked open. A eunuch scurried in, hugging thick stacks of papers and reports. He looked up and then quickly sprawled onto the ground. “Your Majesty! This lowly servant should die!” he gasped shrilly. Eunuchs. “I-I forgot to deliver this stack of paper from the Secretariat!” He then held out the papers with both hands, his forehead still stuck to the snow. He was shivering.

“You may rise,” Lingyun almost sighed, and instead of heading out, he returned inside the building. This was the first time, but he knew the eunuch was one of the few who were not under Zhitian’s thumb. This was one of the last-resort ways for Lingyun’s men to contact him, so he knew there would be a letter stuck between the papers.

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“There has been a change of plans,” Zhitian said to the assassin sent by Blood Flames. The tall figure was draped in black, and his face was masked by a cloth that left only his eyes clear. The guest’s eyes thirsted for blood. “But if you’re as skilled as they claim you are,” Zhitian continued, observing the assassin, “then this will only work to my benefit.”

The man’s eyes laughed. “You need not worry then. I am one of the four best assassins in Blood Flames Sect right now—I’m as good as a Master. Some measly Imperial Guards won’t stop me.” A cruel, smooth voice. “I even killed the emperor of Yan—I’m sure you’ve heard of how much of a coward that man was. He had a legion of Imperial Guards outside his sleeping quarters. I slaughtered forty in dead silence. The other guards never realized my presence.”

“Good, good, but don’t kill any men if you can avoid it,” Zhitian purred, fixing his hairpin. “After all, if you succeed, then I can say this is all the Supreme general’s plan to assassinate the emperor.” He chuckled and caught Haoping’s eyes. “Two birds with one stone indeed. We don’t even need to trick Fengbo into visiting Lingyun at a convenient time now.”

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Chapter 32

Greetings to Your Most Esteemed Imperial Majesty:

We sincerely apologize for disobeying your will this morning. However, we all wish for your safety above everything else—all of our work will crumble without your presence, Your Majesty. We have come so far because we all admire you.

Thus, it is imperative for the emperor to be guarded at least decently, for Ruixiang admits that he worries for your safety as well. We hope you will not test his loyalty by asking him to expose your life to risk again. If there is anything we need to ask you of or report, we will relay through Ruixiang or the grand empress dowager.

Also, Liang and Suqiong both think that you can use this opportunity to secure the last key to your success; and I, Guangdao, agree with them. Although risky, due to Zi’an’s plans, this is the perfect chance to have true privacy. If all succeeds, then secret meetings no longer have to be secret.

Eager for the Dragon to come out of hiding,

Signed:

Xu Guangdao, Xie Liang, Ke Xianyao, and Zhang Suqiong.

Lingyun burned the letter without blinking an eye. They knew nothing. They didn’t know the reason why that bastard wanted to cage him in. If that bastard hand-picked the guards, he’d be able to come and go as he pleased—just like that night—and…

He gritted his teeth and watched the paper combust into ashes.

Anyhow, none of the guards could hold a candle to him, even if they were supposedly ‘the elites’. Truthfully, Lingyun didn’t need any guard—he could fend for himself and they would just slow him down. However, with all his supporters fussing unnecessarily over his life, Lingyun had no choice but to sit and wait like a caged pet.

Just as Lingyun was mentally reciting the letter he had just burned, the bell chimed again. A eunuch soon scurried in, covered in snow. “S-Supreme general Xuan asks for audience, Your Majesty,” squeaked the servant. The snow that had fallen from the eunuchs clothes were melting into puddles of water. “He has brought with him four-hundred unarmed soldiers; says he wants you to take a look at them. What are your orders?”

As though Lingyun had a say in this.

He snorted coldly and the eunuch trembled, doubtlessly fearing for his own life. After all, Lingyun could still order the death of anyone insignificant to Zhitian and Zi’an if he wished to, so no one liked to deliver bad messages precisely because of that. Not like Lingyun had ever done something as idiotic as blaming a ball-less, witless imbecile for bad news he had nothing to do with.

“Tell them to stand outside. I’ll go out shortly.” Lingyun proceeded to scan over some papers on his desk. Even though he signed ‘Approved’ on every paper, he actually rejected them all with the way he wrote the word. He completely rejected five reports and demanded revision on ten. He’d have his men ponder about what needed revision themselves.

Then, getting up and not even bothering to throw on his jacket, he walked out. It was snowing lightly, but he didn’t feel particularly cold. This was nothing compared to Snow Prison, after all. He didn’t even bother to descend the stairs; he jumped down and landed lightly while he took a brief assessment of the morons that bastard had brought.

“Shouldn’t you be wearing a jacket?” that bastard asked in a toneless voice, his expression as enigmatic as the intention of his question.

Lingyun chewed the inner walls of his mouth, tempted to ignore the foolish question. However, he wasn’t stupid enough to actually do so in front of that bastard’s trusted men. In a tone that was colder than the snow under his feet, he said, “I appreciate your concern, but it is not needed.” He held the bastard’s gaze without flinching. He then swept a glance through the soldiers standing in formation before locking eyes with that bastard again. “What is it that you want again, Supreme general?”

That bastard remained expressionless. “Well, I thought you’d want to pick out the guards yourself. I gathered the best men of the Imperial Guards and they are all well-trained in martial arts. Some are even from Snow Prison Sect, if you want me to point them out. You can talk and spar with them—they are yours to command. I will return within two shichen, hopefully that is enough time for you to pick out a hundred men.”

What was this? Pretending to be friendly and all—it was disgusting.

“What’s the point? They’re all your dogs anyway,” Lingyun almost said. However, he pursed his lips and swallowed the words, feeling them burn darkly, coldly in his throat. He ignored that bastard afterward and examined the men.

He spotted a few familiar faces—senior pugilists who had left the Mountain not long before Lingyun had left; some had still been on the Mountain. They all had had a friendly relationship with that bastard—they were the ones Lingyun trusted the least.

Even if he fought them, he wouldn’t get a real fight. However, he couldn’t deny his interest in their abilities had been piqued. Thus, he ordered them to group into four teams consisting of a hundred men, and ordered them to fight, team against team. Anyone who was hit three times or fell to the snow would lose, and the team with the last soldier standing would win. However, he didn’t specify whether he would choose the losing team or the winning team. Since ego was at stake, Lingyun doubted the soldiers would lose on purpose even if they didn’t want to protect him. He decided he’d choose the losing team. Better for him and better for everyone.

To Lingyun’s surprise, the Imperial Guards were all rather competent. Most of the soldiers’ martial arts bases had been passed down from family tradition, though none were as powerful as the Xuan Family or Duan Family arts. There were thirty extremely competent men that could probably last more than fifty exchanges with Lingyun. Some would even give Lingyun a difficult time, but mostly because they were more experienced. If Lingyun had truly practiced everyday during the past two years, they probably would not have been a match for him. However, Lingyun hadn’t had the time to focus on his training, and neither did he care anymore.

Needless to say, these men shouldn’t be guarding him—they should be posted somewhere more important. What was that bastard thinking?

“I decided,” he announced, “to choose team two.” The losing team, naturally. Gasps, disbelief, and general unease.

As expected, Sima Lü was the first to object. He had been standing by the wall, a few paces from Lingyun, for the entirety of the matches. “Your Majesty,” he protested, “what made you choose team two?”

Easy answer. “I felt like it. I recall the Supreme general said I can choose whatever men I want.”

No sound. It was almost dead silent, and the snow was growing heavier. Lingyun whirled around and headed for the stairs, leaving little or no footprints on the soft snow. “Everyone besides team two can leave now. Lü, take the names of those from team two down and tell them they can—”

“The supreme general has arrived!”

Lingyun continued to walk despite the fact that one of his feet sank into the snow. “leave afterward,” he finished, his voice a bit flatter.

“Your Majesty,” breathed a very annoying voice behind him. He could almost feel that bastard’s warm breath against the back of his neck and it made him shiver involuntarily, his hair standing on end. Then, something warm covered his shoulders, arms, and back. “No matter what you think, please remember to wear a coat the next time you are outside.”

Gritting his teeth, Lingyun simply ignored that bastard and returned inside the building. At least the bastard didn’t follow him.

He closed the doors and threw the jacket to the side, almost screaming with frustration. That bastard was mocking him! Mocking his abilities, treating him like a fragile toy—Lingyun didn’t need any jacket!

And worst of all, acting like nothing had ever happened, pretending to suddenly be his friend again…

His hands balled into fists.

…Unforgivable.

Lingyun sat back down at his desk, attempting to continue his work. However, he was unable to. He growled, picked up a candle and walked over to the black silk jacket, which had been made in his size and not that bastard’s. It smelled new. He wanted to burn the beautiful robe, to watch it turn into ash.

But he didn’t.

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“You shouldn’t have let him pick the guards,” Lü scolded immediately after Lingyun had returned to the building. “Do you know what he did?”

Fengbo chuckled, patting Lü’s shoulder. “Judging by your expression, yes, I have an idea. But you know, I expected this—I know him too well. So don’t worry too much.”

“You mean…?”

“Yes. I told my best men not to perform too well, since His Imperial Majesty is suspicious of me. However, I think he should still be guarded by at least twenty-five of my best men. They’re as strong as you.” This caught Lü’s attention. Of all the original Imperial Guards, he had been the only one that Lingyun or assassins had needed to avoid, which had still been easy because Lü was one man and the palace was too large for him to handle alone. However, with twenty-five men, things would be different. “By the way, sorry for asking you to pretend to be weak all the time, but now you can see why I told you not to be too open about your abilities. He would find a way to replace you, and believe me: He has the ability to do that if he puts his mind to it, even with his lack of power.” With that said, Fengbo turned to his men, who were already in a neat formation and standing like statues. “Good job, men. Although an eccentric man, His Imperial Majesty is really reasonable. Ignore the rumors about His Imperial Majesty, for they are all false. We need him, and you all know that. I hope you will do your best to protect His Imperial Majesty from assassins—especially those from a certain Volcano.”

“Yes sir!” they all shouted, their chests puffed and their backs straight.

“Well, it’s cold today. Since it’s already noon, how about we go hit that restaurant on Yongxing Street and warm up with some wine? I already have the entire building booked.”

Cheers erupted, though somewhat restrained since this was still the emperor’s quarters.

The footprints were already being covered by a new layer of snow.

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Flowery aroma filled the grand empress dowager’s warm chambers. Chunmei entered and greeted Yulan before taking a seat. She had a vague idea of the reason Yulan had called her over for tea. Even though Chunmei had no significant influence in the court yet, she still had some people working for her.

“Chunmei,” said her mother-in-law as she waited for the maid to finish preparing the table, “I want to ask you a question.”

“Anything, Your Grand Majesty,” answered Chunmei. She had already made up her mind to answer Yulan’s questions before coming over.

“I want to know what Fengbo is planning, and what his intentions are.”

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Chapter 33

There was a long, silent pause. Chunmei had thought she would be able to reply, but her throat was closed. However, she had to—she had made up her mind.

“What does Fengbo want from the emperor?” Yulan mused as Chunmei struggled to speak. “Placing him under heavy guard of his men, caging him inside his own quarters—is this how one should treat the emperor?” She set the transparent, yellow square cake back on her three-colored plate. “I could have Fengbo killed for that,” she said calmly, watching Chunmei with her sharp, clear eyes. “Even if he’s family, even if he means to do right by this Empire. If anything happens to my son….” She let her voice hang, locking eyes with Chunmei.

Even though Chunmei was confident of her tea-brewing abilities, her hands shook as they moved from tool to tool. She added a pinch of salt at the first sign of boiling water and waited for the bubbles to grow larger, from which she removed a ladle of water. After the water was boiling and foaming violently, she added that ladle of water back to soothe the boiling water. As she waited for the water to boil again, she removed the black tea dust floating on the surface. Soon, the room was filled with the fresh aroma of tea.

“Fengbo,” Chunmei forced herself to begin, “Fengbo won’t let anything happen to Lingyun.” She picked up the intricately designed clay teapot and filled Yulan’s cup. “The Xuan won’t let anything happen to him. We’ve…they’ve always been on Lingyun’s side!” Finally, the stone that had been weighing her down for two years became lighter. “Fengbo just wants Lingyun to become a good emperor,” she continued. “His methods might be questionable, but to fool one’s enemies one has to fool one’s own friend.”

“Hm, I thought so.” Yulan smiled and urged Chunmei to take a bite from the Osmanthus sweet cake on her porcelain plate. “You know, you could have told me earlier and saved me from constant worry and anger,” she added, this time her tone less amiable.

Chunmei shivered. She wondered if she could ever become as competent as her mother-in-law. She lowered her head, unable to meet Yulan’s eyes. “My deepest apologies. I…I have no excuses.”

“Nevertheless, I think you made the right choice,” Yulan continued, almost in a sigh. She took a sip from her teacup. “I imagine it was hard to choose this Empire over Lingyun.” She looked up. “By the way…did Fengbo ever tell you how he felt about my son?”

Upon hearing the question, Chunmei burnt her tongue with the hot, aromatic tea. It couldn’t be…Had the grand empress dowager noticed as well?

Chunmei had always assumed that it had just been her, that she had simply been too paranoid…

Yet, the way Fengbo looked whenever her husband was involved…

No, Chunmei was just thinking too hard about this. Her brother supported Lingyun, admired his brilliance, and wished for his success—that was all. No one in the court said anything, there weren’t even strange rumors—not to mention, Zhitian, who would have reacted, hadn’t.

Friendship, perhaps. It had to be just friendship. Fengbo was extremely good at making friends, and perhaps he had managed to become Lingyun’s friend—nothing more. To him, Lingyun probably had been like a younger brother—they were, after all, cousins. Maybe Chunmei was reading too much into Yulan’s question.

“My brother still deeply values the emperor as his friend, despite his harsh criticism,” Chunmei replied. “That is why I have confidence that he won’t ever let anything happen to the emperor.”

“How deep does he value Lingyun?” Yulan inquired, picking up the teapot. There was no tea left. Immediately, Chunmei offered to prepare a new pot of tea. “Deep enough for him to resist the temptation of power? To resist….” Her voice faded, but the question was clear to both women.

No, not possible. Fengbo wouldn’t do that. Lingyun wouldn’t….

They weren’t….

It was unthinkable. Blasphemous. Not to mention, painful to even consider. Chunmei bit her lips and held onto her dignity as the Empress. “Fengbo has sworn to serve the emperor,” she chose to say as she refilled Yulan’s clay teacup. “He will not, as the rumors indicate, usurp the throne.” How could Yulan even think of asking such a question? It was unheard of. Lingyun was not interested in Luan Tong, he was not like Zhitian at all. And neither was her brother.

Chunmei proceeded to tell Yulan of what she knew, though Fengbo must have kept the most important details secret. She spent around a shichen telling Yulan what they had been doing for the past two months.

“I see,” Yulan remarked when Chunmei finished explaining. There were still traces of concern in her voice, though Chunmei did not know the reason. “That is all I need to know to decide my next action.” She took a bite from the amber square cake. “So, what are you going to do?”

Chunmei blinked, suddenly unable to comprehend as her mind was occupied with something else, something she did not want to think of.

Chuckling a little, Yulan elaborated, “You told me the secret you have kept for two years. You know by telling me you should eventually tell my son, if you love your brother and don’t want him to be demoted once Zhitian and Zi’an are gone.”

“Yes, of course,” Chunmei replied. However, the stone in her heart started to become heavier again. The thought of facing Lingyun still frightened her, from time to time. Lingyun was gentle, but cold. Patient, but distant. Her desire for his love was more often than often not shadowed by her fear of him, her guilt. She didn’t want Lingyun to hate her, but she knew she had to be the one to tell him. She was the Empress, Lingyun’s wife. She was also a Xuan, and it was her responsibility.

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It was freezing, especially after the sun had disappeared behind the horizons, but thanks to the surrounding servants who held incense burners, Zi’an barely felt the weather. He stroked his goatee as he walked, his boots sinking into the snow. Finally, he reached Xu Guangdao’s quarters. It was a typical mid-sized mansion built in a square around an open central courtyard. He was greeted and guided by Guangdao himself, and they proceeded to the living room. The interior was decorated with calligraphy, classy flowerpots and simple but elegant folding screens. The flooring had been made from quality wood, its scent faint but pleasing. Zi’an knelt down on a cushion, and Guangdao did the same.

They had some insignificant but essential polite conversations as the maid served them wine and snacks. After the maid left the spacious room, Zi’an began his business. “What do you make of Fengbo’s sudden move?”

His cousin’s cousin did not reply for a while. “The Supreme general is probably trying to appear to be on His Imperial Majesty’s side, but this sudden and drastic measure is more suspicious than well-intentioned. In other words, he has control over His Imperial Majesty’s life now, which will make it difficult for us to make bigger moves, as we will be endangering His Imperial Majesty’s life by opposing Fengbo.” As usual, Guangdao’s rich, calming voice made sense. In terms of public persuasion, he was Zi’an’s best man and the only official aside from Sun Haoping who could compete with Fengbo.

“My thoughts exactly,” Zi’an agreed, though unlike Guangdao, he couldn’t care less for the emperor’s life. However, the sincerity of Guangdao’s concern for the emperor could only work in Zi’an’s favor, since all their efforts still had to be in the name of the emperor’s glory to sound legitimate. One day he’d have to introduce Guangdao to Qingyan, however. “This is troublesome indeed. The grand empress dowager is, in the end, still from the Xuan family—of course she’d support her nephew. This is why I dislike strong nobility, especially nobility like the Xuan, who always ensure that they will remain in power by forcing the emperor to marry someone from their House and controlling the military.”

“They haven’t been very politically active until Fengbo came back,” observed Guangdao. “Thanks to them, Zhitian is at disadvantage. However, I am still wary of Zhitian. It might be a little optimistic to think the nobles won’t turn to support him should something happen to Fengbo. After all, they will most likely turn back and support Zhitian to retain their privileges. The Duan are especially dangerous—not to mention, they are returning, since the northern borders are relatively safe now.”

Seven months before Fengbo had returned, Yan’s emperor had been assassinated by the descendants of the Ruling House of Liao, the empire they had conquered seven years ago.

The death of Yan’s emperor had been expected, since Yan’s defeat had turned many against their emperor. Though, Yan’s emperor had known this as well and had posted many Imperial Guards at his Palace. Despite his efforts, Yan’s emperor could not escape death. It didn’t take an educated person to figure out that a Blood Flames assassin had been hired for the job.

After the death of Yan’s relatively new emperor, the Liao Empire had revived, though they had been too busy exacting revenge on Yan to be a threat. As a result, the Duan had moved to guard the northwestern borders, but since Ning had suddenly announced they would be sending an important ambassador, the Duan probably decided it was safe enough to pay the Capital City a visit.

Zi’an gathered that the Duan were worried about the Xuan and his own political influence. He knew he had to be cautious as well. However, power was within his reach, so close that he could almost taste it. He wasn’t going to let this chance slide by. The longer they waited, the more threatening Fengbo would become. Threats had to be weeded out before they became troublesome parasites, after all.

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Chunmei gathered her courage. As the Empress, she could not rely on others when her husband was involved. This was her burden; it had always been her burden. She had chosen to remain silent for more than two years, to remain loyal to her family instead of to her husband, so she had to be the one to tell Lingyun and suffer the consequences. Tonight was the scheduled night for Lingyun’s visit. She took a few deep breaths as her maid styled her hair and decorated it with colorful hairpins in the shape of flowers. She was sweating already. However, her silks had been smoked in incense so she could only smell the fragrance of her clothes.

She glanced at the metallic mirror, checking her make-up. Dressing up so formally would naturally alarm Lingyun, but this was business. There was nothing romantic about this.

Her other maid was preparing the room. However, Chunmei doubted Lingyun would touch her tonight. Although, for some strange reason, he had slept with her again, five times, and it had been beyond awkward for Chunmei. She was happy, but at the same time, she was disappointed by the lack of emotion involved. It had felt like strict business instead of the loving, tender night she had often heard her sisters, cousins, and friends talk of. Some of them had been quite jealous of her, since Lingyun was the emperor and the most attractive man besides Fengbo, but they also ridiculed her behind her back. It wasn’t like Chunmei did not know they talked behind her back.

Even when Chunmei and Lingyun had had sex, there had been no words, no kisses and no caressing. Chunmei knew she should consider herself lucky, since she was the only woman Lingyun had bothered to touch. Yet, she felt often sad and sometimes cried when she thought of their distant relationship. She frequently comforted herself that it was the punishment she deserved for keeping her loyalty to the Xuan, but such thoughts could only sustain her for so long.

Was she not trying hard enough? In the past, she had used to try every method to seduce Lingyun, but it had only given her the opposite effect and he would distance himself further. Maybe Ruixiang was right, maybe Lingyun really hated her. Yet, despite his hatred, she had to tell him the truth. She had to help Lingyun understand that he was not alone, that there was still a chance despite what Fengbo seemed to be doing. If Lingyun would not forgive her after knowing the truth, she would accept the outcome.

“His Imperial Majesty has arrived!” announced the eunuch outside. The maids all scurried back out the chamber. Chunmei turned around, her back straight.

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Chapter 34

When Lingyun walked through the doors, Chunmei felt her heart stop. As usual, her husband wore his hair casually, half tied and half undone. Lingyun stood motionless as the doors behind him closed, his impassive, cold eyes appraising Chunmei’s formal getup.

Her cheeks burning, Chunmei greeted her husband properly, her forehead almost touching the cold wooden floor. She was just about to apologize on behalf of her brother when Lingyun interrupted, “I see.” His colorless tone made Chunmei shiver. The room was warm thanks to the incense burners, but she felt as though the temperature was dropping. Her voice was stuck in her closed throat, and she dared not to meet her husband’s eyes for fear of seeing his expression.

Chunmei was not aware of Lingyun reaching the platform table; his footsteps never made any sound or tremor. She only saw, from the corners of her watering eyes, the golden robes that Lingyun wore. He knelt down wordlessly and poured himself a cup of yellow wine. “You can raise your head, Chunmei. You are guiltless.” Yet, the spoken words sounded flat and detached.

Slowly, Chunmei raised her head, trying not to tremble as she finally straightened her back. She still couldn’t bring herself to look at her husband in the eye. She only watched his snowy wrist and pale fingers move as he poured another cup of warm wine and finished it.

“You picked a good time to admit the truth,” Lingyun continued mildly. The cup was back on the table and stayed. “Look at me.” This time his voice was firm and commanding.

Chunmei forced herself to meet Lingyun’s eyes. They held nothing she could read.

“I already said that I don’t blame you, so I’d prefer if you stopped acting like this.”

It was hard to determine the sincerity of his request. Was he testing her? Despite knowing Lingyun’s general personality, Chunmei did not know Lingyun. If she obeyed, would he dislike her even further? If she didn’t obey, would he become even more irritated? Constantly guessing what her husband really wanted was often so emotionally taxing that it brought tears to Chunmei’s eyes. Her heart was thundering so loud that she thought Lingyun could hear it. In the end, her fear prevented her from doing anything.

When Lingyun broke the eye contact, panic flooded Chunmei’s tight chest. It was impossible to breathe. “W-would you like me to explain—”

“No,” Lingyun interrupted. It was not a harsh rejection at all, but it still struck Chunmei like a sharp knife through her chest. She bit her lips, doing her best not to lose her dignity as the Empress. She could feel Lingyun’s eyes on her again. “I can surmise myself. This is hardly the place to talk about it, especially not now.” He then poured himself another cup of wine and offered Chunmei some. She shook her head quickly. Her heart almost jumped out of her throat when Lingyun narrowed his eyes; she wanted to escape, to hide somewhere where Lingyun could not see her.

“Anyhow,” Lingyun continued calmly, “have you finished reading the book I suggested you read last time?”

“Yes.” Chunmei quickly gathered herself. Lingyun spent some time asking her about what she had learned as well as her opinions on some events. When he thought that there was a problem or hole in Chunmei’s opinions, he asked further, each question guiding her to realize the flaw in her thought. He did so not to disagree, but to make her aware of other possibilities.

You can’t predict every problem, but it is best to find at least three, he had told her once. Almost a shichen had passed by the time Lingyun finished discussing the historic event with Chunmei. He then moved on to a subject that startled her: “So, tell me what you think of the new policy proposals regarding regional control.”

Lingyun had never asked her about her opinions on current events. What did this mean? Chunmei dared not interpret the intent of the question too optimistically, yet everything told her that this could mean nothing but good. She decided to state the obvious first in order to organize her actual thought. “Well…Zhitian and Zi’an both plan to decentralize the power so they can get the support of the regional nobles. However, this is only going to bring more disaster, since from a historic point of view, a decentralized government will ultimately cause an Empire’s downfall.”

She wanted to add that the Xuan and the officials under Yulan’s influence were going to counter both Zhitian and Zi’an’s plan, but she decided against it. She didn’t know how Lingyun would react, since he had practically told her that the subject of the Xuan—no, the subject of her brother—had been concluded. “We don’t even know what Ning wants,” she continued, watching Lingyun’s face carefully even though she knew she would never be able to read his expressions. “They obviously don’t care. What also worries me is if your grand-uncle, Bai Junjie, plans to help your eldest brother reclaim the throne.”

“That you don’t have to worry about,” Lingyun replied. As usual, he sounded indifferent and almost bored. “Zhitian had already done me the favor of ruining Yiming’s chances while I was still roaming the lands. Junjie won’t dare do anything; he’s located right next to Ning—if something happens, he’d be the first to meet it head on.”

“What if he has planned to surrender to Ning?” Chunmei inquired, now free of fears. An unspeakable joy was bubbling in her heart—Fengbo had been right, there was more to her husband than met the eye. And now, Lingyun was finally trusting her, even just a little. “Yiming might want revenge on you and Zhitian. Word is that he has changed completely after staying under your grand-uncle. Not to mention, your grand-uncle seems to like Yiming an awful lot; he listens to practically everything your eldest brother says.” She was now using the Xuan’s network of information.

Lingyun sipped his wine, but he didn’t look worried. “I suspected Yiming would try to do that. My grand-uncle is old, after all. However, don’t forget my grand-uncle’s son, Shaoqiang. He will be trying his best to get rid of Yiming, and all he needs is me. Though, considering my lack of influence, he would try to get want he wants through Zhitian—my second brother is eager to help him.”

So he knew. He had always been aware. Chunmei was trying to control her smile so it wouldn’t seem too inelegant.

“I already beat Zhitian to offering Shaoqiang my support a long time ago; Yiming has no chance,” Lingyun continued as though it was nothing. “Anyhow, regarding my other uncles and the regional nobles…they only care about themselves, naturally. However, they are also practical, realistic people. Give them a fright and they will listen. After all, they will not want to be of lower status when conquered, they’d like to maintain their prestige as is in Yue. Unlike Yiming, they don’t have any desire for revenge.”

What did Lingyun mean by that? Before Chunmei could figure it out, her husband continued, “As for the Xuan, I think they’re in for a pleasant surprise.” For the first time during Chunmei’s marriage, she saw a smile curve Lingyun’s lips—it was chilling. “Don’t you?” He then got up, about to leave.

“Please,” Chunmei begged desperately—Lingyun couldn’t do this. He knew that he needed her brother. He knew her brother had supported him all along. But why, why was he not listening? Why was he deliberately ignoring her? “This is the only request I’ve made of you in the two years of our marriage, I beg of you—”

“Why is everyone—I am not blind,” Lingyun snapped for the first time; Chunmei jumped from the harshness in his voice. “But do not expect me to forgive that….” His voice cut off forcibly, too raw with emotions. For a fleeting moment, he looked torn and in agony, his watering eyes gleaming with frantic desperation. But it was quick, too shocking, and too sudden for Chunmei to believe that her indifferent, stoic husband capable of such emotions.

“An emperor trusts no one.” This time he was back to his old self—no, he was even more imposing and colder than before. “That is why an emperor should never get carried away by empty praises or favoritism, nor should he be blinded by anger and paranoia. I am not blind, despite what it may seem.” Every word was pronounced clearly, slowly, as though beating down every emotion that had threatened to surface.

Then, before Chunmei could apologize for her insolence, he continued, “I am just tired of him.” Almost a whisper. “Tired of the way he looks at me, tired of the way he treats me, tired of the way he affects me….” That painful expression was back again and his voice was choked, too vulnerable to be real. “All I want is to sever this tie, to forget him, to forget everything that has occurred between us, to….” He bit his lip. “I want…I just want….”

It was excruciating to watch. “Lingyun….”

As though he had been burnt by scathing fire, Lingyun’s shoulders jumped; there was fear and something else in his widened eyes. Immediately afterward, his expression turned cold, normal. “I think I’ve said enough. I don’t want to talk anymore. Go to bed. Today I am weary; I am going to return to my quarters. Good night.”

For the entire night, Chunmei was haunted by Lingyun’s unexpected anguish.

At the same time, she was also haunted by his unfinished sentence.

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Chapter 35

Something felt wrong.

Winter in the Palace was simply not the same as winter on Mount Snow Prison. There was nothing he could hear, and he felt as though he had gone deaf. He set his sandalwood ink brush aside and stood up. If it was that bastard, he’d show no mercy this time. He reached for his jian and waited, trying to discern the source of his discomfort.

Lingyun didn’t know what was wrong, but the hair on the back of his neck was standing on end. It wasn’t the cold that gave him goosebumps; it was something more malicious, dangerous.

Yet, nothing.

If it were that bastard, he wouldn’t surprise Lingyun. He’d walk in through the front doors and mock Lingyun by doing so. He’d humiliate Lingyun with provocative insults, wear that infuriating smirk, fight him and pin him down again and…

No, what the hell was he thinking about? Hadn’t he already decided to let it go? Nothing had happened between him and that bastard. Everything had been a fake, stupid dream; an act, a sick play. In reality, there was nothing, and that was the end of the story.

Distance. That was all he needed. Distance from above.

His grip on his weapon tightened, and he regulated his qi to calm down and analyze his situation logically.

Altogether, whoever was disturbing Lingyun right now was not that bastard; most likely an assassin. Probably from Zhitian this time. The last five assassins had been hired by rival countries who thought they could win the war if he died.

Moreover, Lingyun just knew that increased guards would do nothing. In the end, he could only trust himself. He was the only person who could save his own ass.

He saw a gleam and drew his jian, spinning it to protect himself. Judging from the tinkering sounds, he had deflected four needles. Poison needles. Blood Flames.

Stillness. He could taste the danger, feel the adrenaline rush course through his veins—the thrill of his life on edge, something he had not tasted for a long time. He never knew he would miss this nerve racking anxiety one day.

Slight movement, and he quickly whirled around to block the attack. A masked man, clad in black. The assassin was armed with two crooked daggers, no doubt poisoned. Stronger build, slightly taller than him. Eyes that gleamed with bloodlust.

It had to be a Blood Flames assassin. Those crazed eyes almost reminded Lingyun of someone.

He quickly stepped aside to avoid a slash to his shoulder and blocked the other dagger. A kick aimed for his thigh; he quickly leapt back to put some distance between himself and the intruder, but the man reacted just as fast and was already before him. He couldn’t predict the intruder’s next move at all, and he could barely protect himself from getting wounded. No doubt, a single cut to his flesh would be fatal.

In the end, he was still no match for a Blood Flames expert. However, he refused to call the guards, his pride wouldn’t let him. His voice was stuck in his dry throat and he was too busy to care.

Within the feints were real attacks, and within the real attacks were feints. Deflecting the blades while staggering back was all Lingyun could seem to do; he stepped aside and slashed, unleashing ‘Xuxin Lenqi’, responding to fancy feints with fancy feints—what he really aimed for was the masked man’s left shoulder. The assassin was frighteningly lithe and managed to avoid every attack; his body bent backward so much that all Lingyun had to do was to knock the man off balance with a swipe of his feet; yet Lingyun was in no position to do that.

He could hear his breathing and feel his sweat tickle his skin. He was almost cornered now, his back nearly touching the wall as he ran out of space to react properly. Desperate now, he ducked down and slashed upward, whirling around and elbowing the man’s stomach; which was a feint of course; he kicked the wall and leapt over the assassin, attacking the man from the air. It was one of the techniques from the Dragon God Manual that he had never fully understood, yet the danger of death had enabled him to execute that move fluidly out of pure instinct.

He heard the assassin whistle as though amused. He saw the gleam of projectile weapons and he rolled in mid-air to dodge them. Immediately after he landed, the assassin was already before him; the tip of his dagger scraped Lingyun’s arm. It burned like nothing Lingyun had ever felt before, and he could feel it spread quickly throughout his body thanks to his quickened blood circulation from all the fighting. So this was it, eh? Pride would ruin a man—Lingyun knew that, and yet he had never understood the regret that came with it.

Ignoring his regret, he continued fending off the assassin, blocking the blade and being pushed back again. His footwork was not as fast and his movement was slowing as the searing pain reached his heart. His knees were becoming weak and his consciousness was hazing. Before he knew what was going on, a dagger dug into his shoulder, pinning him to the wall. He gritted his teeth, refusing to make a sound despite wanting to scream from the sheer fact that it had severed some of his nerves. His head lowered as a drop of sweat fell from his nose. The only sound in this dead silence was his ragged breaths and his pounding heart. His regret was wailing, so loudly that he thought his head was going to explode from the splitting headache.

“I’m surprised, actually,” the assassin drawled, his voice deep and smooth. Callused fingers caressed Lingyun’s cheeks, trailing down and tracing the lines of his neck, which sent a nasty chill down his spine. “You didn’t even call for help and you didn’t even make a sound. I never imagined you’d be this arrogant, Master.”

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As usual, Lü was on patrol. He noticed that one of the posts were empty. Not just one. Several men were missing. It was hard to see in all this darkness, but he felt as though some men were missing. However, the snow was too thick, covering any traces of footprints. A highly skilled martial artist was able to tread through the snow without leaving any footprints anyway. He approached a guard and asked him where the other men where.

“I don’t know, sir,” was the reply. This was one of the less able men within the guard. At least ten men were missing—all of whom were Fengbo’s best men.

It couldn’t be. Lü immediately drew his weapon. “Get everyone together. His Imperial Majesty’s life is in danger!” And with that said, he turned and ran towards the building.

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Chapter 36

Shock—no, dread—flooded Lingyun’s already poisoned veins. Then, a bitter sense of irony. He wanted to laugh, but somehow he couldn’t smile.

What a joke he was.

“Juntao…no, Guijue, correct?” he managed to say, though he didn’t plan to beg for his life. He had lost, and now he was going to pay for his stupidity. Only a week was left until the Winter Solstice, and this had to happen. Yet, this was the perfect time for his enemies to get rid of him. Tomorrow some of his relatives were going to arrive, and if he was dead, that bastard probably would be in deep trouble, and the Empire would probably collapse within three decades; Ye Qiuyang would eventually try to invade and the ambitious emperor of Ning would most likely succeed. Lovely.

So, in the end, Lingyun had to do whatever he could to prevent himself from dying. He was already getting worn out by trying to suppress the poison with his neili. His hazing mind was not helping, either. It was difficult to remain standing without having the dagger tear through his shoulder.

“Actually, I’m Juntao.” An amused tone.

Ignoring his disbelief and confusion, Lingyun attempted to assess the situation. Without a doubt, Juntao, or Guijue, wanted to talk—they were both talkative brats. Lingyun would proceed to probe Juntao’s intentions. “I see….” Speaking was excruciating, but he didn’t let it show in his voice. “I suppose this is where I’m to ask why you volunteered to assassinate me, much less why you are still in Blood Flames Sect.”

“How are you and that guy, Fengbo?” Juntao asked instead. “Has he fucked you yet?”

This was not going the way Lingyun had expected it to go. Not to mention, the question was so outrageous that Lingyun hardly had the strength to consider why Juntao would ask it. In the end, he didn’t answer and focused his energy on suppressing—or, if possible, removing—the poison in his body. Even if he didn’t answer, Juntao—or Guijue—would ramble on. Lingyun was rather sure of it.

As expected, Juntao continued, “You know, during these two years I have been wondering…why the hell did I like someone as selfish and uncaring as you? Were my feelings for you worth all the shit I had to go through? You only used me as a substitute for that man, after all.”

What the hell was Juntao talking about? “I have no idea what you are talking about,” replied Lingyun, sounding pathetically weak. His mind was shutting down.

Juntao laughter was suffused with cruel delight. Even though his face was masked, Lingyun could easily imagine the sneer behind the black cloth. “Of course you don’t,” Juntao said. “Someone as heartlessly indifferent as you wouldn’t notice.”

“Should I be flattered?” Lingyun inquired, though the poison was causing him too much agony to sound sarcastic. “You’re an assassin now, after all. Having an assassin call me heartless is, quite frankly, something new to me.”

Juntao’s hands were sliding around Lingyun’s hip, which was alarming; this was definitely Guijue, not Juntao. “These two years, the only thing that has kept me going was my crazy, obsessive desire to fuck you,” his voice buzzed beside Lingyun’s ear. “In fact, before I saw you today, I actually thought of killing you and fucking your corpse instead, but it just doesn’t seem very satisfying. Blasphemy or not—I want you, Master,” he whispered, pulling closer and supporting Lingyun’s body with an arm. His erection was pressing against Lingyun’s thigh. “Two years ago, I was too much of a coward to tell you that I wanted you, but now I suppose I’ve grown some balls.”

“You’re going to kill me anyway, aren’t you?” Lingyun asked coldly, focusing on his current situation and not on Juntao’s inconceivable words. “After all, I’ve been on the hit list of Blood Flames Sect for quite a while—my mere existence makes Blood Flames look bad.” He had to focus on the pain screaming in his shoulder to stay alert. “Not to mention, I suspect Zhitian has already paid Blood Flames a hefty sum beforehand, and he’s going to pay you the other half of the deal once I’m dead.”

Juntao examined Lingyun for a while, and Lingyun felt as though Juntao’s eyes were touching him. “As expected from Master—you are never humble,” Juntao chuckled, leaning closer. “But you know, I might be able to spare your life—you’re my Master, after all. Zhitian hired me specifically without knowing that.” He squeezed Lingyun’s buttocks to make his point on the requirements. Lingyun refused to be affected. “Not to mention, I’ll be the Leader of Blood Flames Sect soon.”

Before Lingyun could answer, the doors slammed open and icy air instantly rushed in. Juntao took that split second to remove the dagger he had pierced through Lingyun’s shoulder, which made Lingyun gasp sharply and slide down, leaving a smudged trail of blood on the wall. He could barely keep himself conscious now, but since he knew this was his chance to get rid of Zhitian, he forced himself to remain awake.

“Your Majesty!” Sima Lü exclaimed, though his attention was elsewhere, wary of his surroundings. Some other snow-covered men entered the building, equally alert and on guard. Lü was now beside Lingyun, jabbing the acupressure points that would stop the bleeding and slow the poison.

“This is nothing,” Lingyun said—though, he was unsure. “The assassin…got away….” Not good, he was losing consciousness already. “Tell Ruixiang what happened and tell him that it’s time,” he ordered weakly. “Don’t alert anyone outside yet—that’s an order—and if you disobey me, your hands will be soiled with the blood of your loved ones.” Of course, Lingyun wouldn’t actually order the deaths of Lü’s family and friends, but this was the most effective threat that only he, the emperor, could use.

It took Lü three blinks to react. “What about the assassin?” he all but roared, unable to hide the disbelief and rage in his voice—his tone was beyond disrespectful, not that Lingyun cared. “You can’t possibly mean to let the culprit go?”

“I don’t want to cause a ruckus,” Lingyun snapped back, his stern voice and cold glare silencing Lü. “Just send some men to look for the assassin. Besides,” he drawled, watching Lü’s jaws tighten, “I doubt anyone can find the intruder, since he obviously found a way in this building.” He knew he was being unfair and cruel, since he had been the one to pick the weakest men to guard him, but he didn’t care. This was the only way to argue without talking excessively.

He had predicted Zhitian would try to have him assassinated, though he had never thought that his disgusting luck would work this way—and it would be insane to let this chance slide. Lü would learn to thank his cruelty soon, since Lingyun was saving that man’s beloved superior’s ass as well. If this business was not resolved by the end of the night, only further chaos would ensue.

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In the dimly lit chamber that was thick with smoke, Zhitian paced in circles. Over and over again. It was far too silent. Far too peaceful. Would he have to wait until the morning for them to discover Lingyun’s dead body? The anticipation was killing him. He couldn’t even play with his toy. What if his plans failed? After all, Yue’s Imperial Guards were famous. This was different from Yan’s situation, since Yan had already been on the verge of falling apart when their previous emperor had been assassinated.

However, if the assassin failed, it wouldn’t be this silent.

Biting his long, manicured nails, Zhitian sat on his bed. He had been too hasty, he had to admit. However, if this plan succeeded, he’d be able to get rid of both Lingyun and Fengbo. If Lingyun did not die but suffered wounds, it would still be fine—Zhitian could still frame Fengbo, as he would have sufficient backup from the visiting relatives and regional nobles—not to mention, the Duan had offered to help. Yet, what if Fengbo proved to be too difficult to handle? What if Fengbo decided to rebel and killed Zhitian? That man had been speculated to be among the Jianghu’s top fifteen martial artists despite his young age of twenty-three. Most martial artists that strong didn’t care about politics or power; they cared about their ranking in the Jianghu instead.

Getting up again, Zhitian resumed his pacing. The thick haze of incense was not helping him calm down; in fact, it was making him even more restless. Even though the room was warm, the hair on the back of his neck prickled and the tips of his fingers felt like ice.

He thought he heard something and froze. He furrowed his brows and tried to listen harder. Nothing. Damn the snow and winter—he hated this time of the year when the nights were so silent that it made him paranoid. He was about to turn around and attempt to sleep when the doors to his room slammed open—almost making his heart jump out of his throat—and soldiers poured in. Zhitian could not believe his own eyes; Duan Mingwu was the leader, and the man did not look very happy.

“What are you men doing here without permission or notice?” Zhitian forced himself to demand with a false smile; he couldn’t smooth his voice out enough to hide his fear. “I haven’t invited you yet, General Duan.”

“By the orders of His Imperial Majesty, you are guilty of treason for attempted murder of the emperor’s life; therefore, you and your household’s lives are now forfeit,” Mingwu announced, un-scrolling the Imperial Orders and holding it out to Zhitian. There was no mistake in the hand-writing; it was that of Xu Guangdao, and other seals had been printed on it, enough to make the order valid. Not to mention, the emperor’s jade seal was on the order, making it absolute. Therefore, the orders had been pre-written—which meant that Lingyun had expected the assassination attempt.

“Have you proof?” Zhitian defended weakly; no matter what, Lingyun’s orders had come down, and there was no say against the emperor’s will if Duan Mingwu was willing to follow it and powerful officials approved it. How the fuck had this happened? Why the fuck was Duan Mingwu helping Lingyun—they hadn’t even met officially before! And when the hell had Lingyun obtained the support of those officials that had approved of this order?

“Proof? Oh, we have that, aside from the letters you have sent me,” Mingwu growled. “His Imperial Majesty was attacked tonight by an assassin and is perilously wounded, though he will survive; Xuan Fengbo is already saving His Imperial Majesty’s life. The mere fact that you are awake in this suspicious time of the night is evidence enough!”

“Wait, I can explain,” Zhitian urged, wondering where all his guards were. He saw the blood on the intruding soldiers’ armors and he realized it was too late for him. Anger, hatred, and fear flooded him all at the same time. His family was dead, that much he could surmise. His sons, his daughters, his wife, his concubines, toys, servants, guards, and maids—everyone in his mansion had most likely all been executed, killed in dead silence before the orders actually reached Zhitian’s ears.

That sneaky brat! Zhitian just knew, he just knew that deceiving fox of a brother could not be trusted! How stupid Zhitian had been, to actually believe that Lingyun didn’t care, that Lingyun had no interest in power! It had been all an act—an act to fool Zhitian!

Mingwu laughed coldly. “Yes, at least you know that there is no hope for you.” He then proceeded to continue reading the Imperial Orders, “Along with your attempted disposal of the emperor, you are convicted of the crimes of murdering countless innocent officials, corruption, and treason against the Empire.” He handed the orders to the men to his right and reached for the hilt of his dao. “All the property you own now belong to the National Treasury. You are stripped of your title and rank, and by the orders of His Imperial Majesty, I am now going to remove the commoner named Bai Zhitian.”

Zhitian didn’t even have time to scream.

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Chapter 37

Honestly, Fengbo thought he might die from heart failure. When his men had reported Lingyun’s situation to him, it was like a hammer from the skies, almost like a sick punishment. He fled to Lingyun’s place as fast as he could, and it took him less than a meal’s worth of time for him to arrive at the Qiuyue Palace. He would have been faster, but he had been delayed twice from waiting for the heavy doors to the Outer and Inner Palaces to open.

The first thing he did when he reached Lingyun was to take over the job of curing his emperor from the less competent Imperial Doctor. Lingyun’s face was deathly pale, and the blood from his wounds was black. Seeing his emperor like this made Fengbo want to rebuke his men, but he knew there was no point in directing his anger at them, since they were all busy turning the building inside out as they looked for the bastard who had done this to Lingyun.

“His condition is surprisingly good,” the Imperial Doctor, Xie Hengsheng, analyzed as Fengbo popped his family’s secret antidote into Lingyun’s mouth. Lü handed him a bowl of warm water and he carefully poured some between Lingyun’s colorless lips. “He suppressed most of the poison to his wounded shoulder, even though it spread throughout his body at one point. Not to mention, for some odd reason, the poison isn’t as quick as most poison typical assassins use. However—”

“Enough, I’m not in the mood to listen to this.” The coldness in Fengbo’s voice made the Imperial Doctor take a step back. Fengbo proceeded to help Lingyun get rid of the poison in his body with his neili, but to his horror, Lingyun’s defensive reaction was rejection—and the sudden distraction in Lingyun’s subconscious focus on repelling the poison made the emperor gag and throw up. The gold, silk blanket was immediately stained with oozing black liquid.

“He’s been doing that whenever someone tries to help him,” Hengsheng squeaked, wiping the sweat from his forehead. Fengbo was too preoccupied with worry to reprimand the doctor for failing to tell him beforehand. Lingyun’s body was hot, too hot for a Snow Prison pugilist.

“But,” the man continued, “His Imperial Majesty will die if he doesn’t receive proper help—the qi in his body is slowly being poisoned as he suppresses the venom on his own. This isn’t an ordinary poison; I’ve never seen anything like this before. It’s almost as though it were chosen precisely because the culprit knew His Imperial Majesty would be able to suppress the poison on his own and refuse help from others.” He paused and sighed, turning his attention to briefly examine Lingyun. “It’s a cruel, painful poison; I’ve tested the diluted version—sampled from His Imperial Majesty’s blood—on a small animal and it screamed until it died, even when I tried to apply some anesthesia to it; it seems that the poison reacts negatively to anesthesia. I don’t know how His Imperial Majesty is able to handle all that pain silently. He didn’t even make a sound or struggle when I was disinfecting his shoulder.”

Just watching Lingyun vomit black blood was excruciating. Fengbo found it hard to breathe; his chest was too tight for air to pass through. He wrapped an arm around Lingyun’s waist and helped his emperor sit up a bit. “Lingyun…,” he murmured, ignoring the Imperial Doctor’s gasp at his blasphemy of addressing the emperor’s name, “Even when unconscious, you want to reject me, don’t you?” He sighed. What a pathetic man Fengbo was. “I know it’s my fault you ended up like this. I know everything is my fault. Hate me all you want, but please…please just let me help you…this empire needs you….”

I need you.

I can’t live without you.

He hugged Lingyun closer and tried to inject some of his neili again, this time slower and gentler. He undid the bandages securing Lingyun’s wounded shoulder and lowered his head, sucking out the poison.

“General Xuan!” gasped the inept Imperial Doctor.

“Don’t worry, I’ve trained against poison,” Fengbo growled after he spat out black blood.

Lingyun’s brows twitched a little, but he didn’t reject Fengbo’s inner energy. Relieved, Fengbo told the doctor to take out the ointment in his robes and apply some to completely stop Lingyun’s shoulder from bleeding after his emperor’s blood turned red.

It didn’t take more than a teacup’s worth of time for the swelling to turn better. “The Xuan’s secret medical formula…,” the doctor mused as he examined the ointment. Fengbo held out his spare hand to take the circular container back. Hengsheng returned the ointment shakily, and paused before the container reached Fengbo’s hand. Lü was the one who snatched it from the doctor and handed it back to Fengbo, flashing a glare at the doctor, who cringed as a result.

“Fengbo,” Lü started gruffly, “I suppose I should tell you about the…questionable…orders His Imperial Majesty gave me.”

“What were they?” Fengbo was still trying to stop himself from hugging Lingyun too closely and too tightly. Gods, to have Lingyun this close to him again…It was driving him crazy. He didn’t know how long he could last before he did something inappropriately intimate.

Nevertheless, Lü seemed to notice Fengbo’s burning desire anyway and cleared his throat to remind Fengbo of the situation. “He ordered me not to openly search for the assassin and not to alert anyone,” Lü said through his teeth. Fengbo hadn’t noticed—he should have, but his mind had been too preoccupied with thoughts of Lingyun. Now he understood why the men guarding the gates had taken so long to open the doors for him. “What do you think?” Lü continued, unable to hide the disapproval in his voice.

Fengbo thought for a while. Judging from the anger in Lü’s voice, Lingyun must’ve threatened him with something even Lü could not disobey easily. Lingyun had never done so. “I trust His Imperial Majesty’s judgment,” he said at length. “He must have had a reason to give this order.”

“Are you sure?” Lü pressed on. “For all I know, the culprit could have escaped the Palace by now!” The message in his voice, however, was: “You, of all people, should want the assassin’s head the most! You, of all people, should be the angriest!”

Of course Fengbo was angry. He was furious at himself, at his men’s incompetence, at Zhitian—who he suspected was the one behind this—and at those treacherous Blood Flames assassins. He had just known they wouldn’t keep their promise. Of course he wanted to find the bastard who had done this to his emperor and personally execute the assassin. However, curing Lingyun was the only thing on his mind, and he wanted to focus on that. Not to mention, he didn’t believe that Lingyun would give that order just to spite him. “I’m sure,” he replied. “His Imperial Majesty rarely gives orders, so there has to be some logic behind his threat to you.”

As Fengbo had thought, Lingyun had threatened Lü, since he stiffened at Fengbo’s words and didn’t talk afterward.

More than half a shichen passed, and Fengbo’s forehead was moist with perspiration. Color was returning to Lingyun’s face, and his irregular breathing was returning to normal. Seeing this, Fengbo determined that he could jab the acupressure points that would help Lingyun’s qi circulation, since he had removed most of the poison; Lingyun stirred and moaned softly. Unable to stop himself, Fengbo held Lingyun closer.

When Lingyun’s condition was completely stabilized, Fengbo ordered his men to bring in new clothes and a new blanket. He let the eunuchs help Lingyun change, however. Just seeing Lingyun’s bared skin was enough to make him want to do inappropriate things to his emperor’s body. After they finished helping Lingyun change, he returned beside the platform bed and proceeded to continue regulating Lingyun’s qi, making sure that Lingyun’s condition was still stable. Then, one of his men ran into the room. “Zhitian’s Mansion has been attacked!” the gasping soldier, Pei, managed to report.

The news almost ruined Fengbo’s qi regulation.

Lü, on the other hand, dropped his weapon. He picked it up quickly and asked in Fengbo’s place, “What do you mean?”

Pei swallowed, still catching his breath. “Duan Mingwu and his men somehow obtained permission to enter the city without notice, and they executed Zhitian and his household in the name of His Imperial Majesty. They are headed this way. Xie Liang, Zhang Suqiong, and some other officials are already outside the Inner Palace, waiting for permission to enter.”

Lingyun had ordered the death of his own brother—to Fengbo, that was more shocking than the idea that Lingyun had influence over the Duan. Granted, he knew that Zhitian was the one who had hired the assassin and that killing Zhitian was the only way to completely get rid of the man, but still. He had not imagined Lingyun would kill his own blood like this. “Household…you say?” he asked quietly. “Are they all dead?”

“Not all,” answered Pei. “Zhitian’s guards and servants are mostly dead, while his maids, concubines, wife and descendants are all detained for questioning. They will be tried in Court tomorrow, but there is little hope for their survival.”

Fengbo let out a sigh of relief. At least Lingyun wasn’t cruel enough to order the deaths of children who were only around ten years old. However, would Lingyun let them survive? Either way, Fengbo had no right to judge Lingyun’s decisions as the emperor, at least not on this. “Lü, go outside and take care of the situation. I think it is fine to look for the assassin now. Also, tell my men outside to let in the officials outside after they frisk them.”

“Yes, sir.” Lü gave the Imperial Doctor a pointed look and Hengsheng understood what he meant. The doctor left first.

After Lü left along with Pei and all the guards in the room, Fengbo started to analyze the situation. Lingyun had influence over Xie Liang, Zhang Suqiong, his brother, and Duan Mingwu. Since when? How had this happened without the Xuan noticing anything?

Yet, the predominate emotion that Fengbo felt was self-hatred. He, of all people, should have believed in Lingyun—and he hadn’t.

He combed Lingyun’s hair with his fingers. “I’m sorry, Lingyun,” he whispered. “You have every right to hate me. If you want to demote me, execute me, or put me into exile after this, I will respect your wishes.”

“He should,” said a voice.

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Chapter 38

Fengbo immediately drew his dao. However, he could sense no motion. Had the culprit been in the room all along, or had he entered afterward? Either way, Fengbo hadn’t noticed. His grip on the hilt of his weapon tightened. He had no doubt the speaker had moved, so checking the origin of the intruder’s voice was pointless.

“I should kill you for him,” continued the voice in a drawl. “I knew this would happen. You’re a pathetic man, Xuan Fengbo. You ruined him. I’ve watched him for a day. He changed; he’s not the person I knew, not the person I admired. You knew that this would happen.”

This had be Lingyun’s apprentice, Chi Juntao, talking. Which meant that Juntao almost killed his master. Even for a Blood Flames pugilist, killing one’s own master was blasphemous. Rage boiled in Fengbo’s coiled muscles. “I don’t need you, of all people, to lecture me, Chi Juntao,” he growled. “You tried to kill your own master. What sort of disciple would use such a cruel poison on the person he loves?”

“I regretted it, really,” Juntao replied, though his voice did not hold an ounce of remorse. “I was planning to come back and give him the antidote, but you and your stupid men were still here so I couldn’t do a thing. Though, I have to say—you’re the only man to date who has actually managed to cure this poison. Quite impressive, those Xuan Family secret recipes.” Fengbo could hear the sneer in Juntao’s voice. “Quite impressive how you still manage to take advantage of Master whenever you have the chance to, too,” he added, his tone slightly higher this time. “Xuan Fengbo, aren’t you just as guilty as I am in terms of blasphemy? You look upon your emperor with perverted eyes, and to top it all off, he’s also your sister’s husband.”

Fengbo felt his jaws tighten. Of course he knew, but he didn’t want to hear this from Juntao. “If you’re trying to make me feel guilty to lower my guard, it’s not going to work.” He already knew where Juntao was by now, but he didn’t want to leave Lingyun unguarded. “This time, I’m not going to let you live. Nothing will change the fact that you have tried to kill the emperor.”

Laughter. “The question is: Can you kill me? I’m not the brat you fought two years ago. While you were fighting that little war, I was training day in, day out. I went through torture on so many different levels, you’d never be able to imagine what kind. I killed a lot of people, most innocent, some not-so-innocent. I’m a Master myself now, and my Grandfather is planning to pass on the title of Leader to me early, since some jealous people don’t want me to succeed.”

This time, it was Fengbo’s turn to smirk. “Although I have no doubt that you have improved greatly…Humility is the way to success, Chi Juntao. Apparently, you have some way to go.”

“Oh, insulting the emperor subtly now, are you?” Juntao countered. “You know he ended up like this because of his arrogance.”

“Lingyun…always needed to work on his overconfidence,” Fengbo replied calmly. “By the way, are you going to keep hiding, or do you need me to come get you?”

For a while, Juntao didn’t reply. “I’m not stupid; I’m an assassin,” he finally said. “I’m not going to take on an opponent like you. That’s suicide. Actually, infiltrating this palace and trying to kill the emperor of Yue was pretty suicidal. I should have killed the guards who noticed me; but, that stupid Zhitian—glad that disgusting man is dead, by the way—told me not to. Oh well,” he said. “Also, I didn’t expect Master to want such formidable guards. But I guess he changed, not that I blame him, you know. I blame you.”

“I’m sure he was thrilled to find out that his apprentice threw away everything he painstakingly taught him and ran back to Blood Flames to be a heartless killer, too,” Fengbo remarked.

Again, Juntao took a while before he answered, “Well, I suppose this is where I shall repeat what you told me: I don’t need you, of all people, to lecture me, Xuan Fengbo. After all, I ran away because you made me run away. And fuck, I really regret letting you betray Master. Should have told him who you were—but he wouldn’t have believed me anyway, that was how much he wanted to believe in you. And you…You betrayed him.”

“I did what I had to do,” Fengbo said monotonously, though he said this more to convince himself than to convince Juntao. “This Empire needs him, and I don’t regret selling out my friend for my country.” Even though he sounded calm and firm, he wasn’t so sure; did he really not regret betraying Lingyun?

“Bastard, like always. But I didn’t expect any more from you,” Juntao drawled. “Well, I think Duan Mingwu is coming, so I’m leaving. I hope Master will ignore you forever.”

“Not so fast.” Fengbo was already before Juntao.

Ching!

Their blades clashed; Juntao managed to block Fengbo’s dao with both his daggers. He was clad in black, and his face was masked. However, compared to the brat two years ago, he was taller and had a better build. Fengbo twisted his blade; Juntao quickly uncrossed his daggers and leapt back to avoid having his weapons broken. Following Juntao’s movement easily, Fengbo was upon him again, aiming to slice through his chest. Juntao deflected Fengbo’s dao with one dagger and attacked with the other; Fengbo knew it was a feint so he ignored it, changing his own attack instead and stepping up the pace of his footwork.

Their blades clashed ten times; every ringing parry forcing Juntao back. However, his movements were so quick and flexible that Fengbo was unable to harm him either.

“Alas, I really don’t want to fight you now,” Juntao huffed, still backing away. “Not because I’m afraid of you, but because I am rather afraid of the horde of allies that are going to help you later. I look forward to killing you in the future, however.” With a wave of his arm, six needles flew out of his sleeve—all aiming for Fengbo’s vital acupressure points—and he used that split second of distraction to escape through the doors. Fengbo was about to chase after Juntao when Lingyun stirred.

And that was all it took to erase all Fengbo’s intentions of chasing after Juntao.

He sighed, sheathed his weapon, and returned to his emperor’s side. He was prepared to receive whatever punishment Lingyun saw fit for him. If Lingyun wanted to humiliate him in front of Duan Mingwu, he would accept it.

Whatever Lingyun wanted, he would give.

That was the least he could do as the failure of a subordinate he had been.

Finally awake, Lingyun blinked. He tried to sit up but he winced and froze when he moved his wounded shoulder. He turned his head and Fengbo quickly lowered his head with respect.

Silence. Dead, stifling quietness.

Fengbo decided to break the ice. “How are you feeling, Majesty?”

He could feel Lingyun examine him, but he didn’t raise his head, as he had not been commanded to do so. However, Lingyun still did not speak.

“Duan Mingwu has succeeded in carrying out your orders and is on his way here to give you his report,” Fengbo continued, keen on keeping his tone entirely professional despite the tightness in his chest. From the corners of his eyes, he could see Lingyun’s hands ball up.

“I see.” The emperor’s voice sent a cold shiver down Fengbo’s spine.

During the ensuing silence, Fengbo tried desperately to think of what to say. “I am glad you have finally decided to show your true self, Majesty,” he pronounced. When Lingyun didn’t reply, he continued, “This lowly official has no excuses for not believing in you. Please punish his insolence as you see fit.”

Fengbo heard Lingyun take a sharp breath, but his emperor still remained wordless. He heard loud footsteps down the hallway, and soon one of Fengbo’s men was outside the room. “General Xuan!” the man shouted, breathless. Lingyun gave him permission to enter, and the snow-covered soldier stumbled in. His nose was red from the cold and his cheeks were red from running. “There are some men lying poisoned in the hallways—we tried to chase after the assassin but he escaped!”

“Strengthen the security. I doubt he is going to escape,” Fengbo replied without a fret. After all, knowing that brat—he would most likely attempt to revisit Lingyun again.

Like Fengbo would let him.

“General Ruixiang is waiting outside, along with Xie Liang and Zhang Suqiong,” the soldier continued. “What are your orders, Majesty?”

“Tell them to wait,” Lingyun ordered flatly. “I will send the Supreme general to receive them when I am ready.”

“Yes, Majesty.” And the soldier left.

After a long pause, Lingyun finally began, “Xuan Fengbo. You have humiliated your emperor and challenged his authority. What is more, you have….” He stopped shortly, his voice trembling. Fengbo wanted to apologize, but he gritted his teeth and waited for his emperor to continue; he had no right to interrupt. “Yet, I understand that what you have done, you have done for this Empire.” From just listening alone, Fengbo could easily imagine the expression Lingyun must’ve worn.

Fengbo almost asked for Lingyun to kill him—he hated himself for causing his emperor such pain.

He noticed that Lingyun’s fists tightened; the knuckles were turning white. “You have chosen to serve this country, chosen to destroy whatever laughable relationship we shared,” Lingyun continued through his teeth.

Laughable? The word was like a sharp blade cutting into his heart. Fengbo kept his head lowered, glad that his pathetic expression was not in Lingyun’s sight. Perhaps it was really laughable; he had no right to think otherwise. After all, Lingyun most likely believed that everything had been a lie, an act—including Fengbo’s feelings. Indeed, Fengbo had no excuse for what he had done. His blasphemous feelings for his emperor had to be kept secret forever.

“Do not expect me to personally forgive you.” This time, Lingyun’s voice was back to normal, cold enough to freeze the blood in Fengbo’s veins. “However, as the emperor, I will forgive you. Raise your head, Xuan Fengbo. From now on, our previous ties are severed and our relationship broken. You are now my vassal, and I your ruler—nothing more, nothing less.”

Instead of feeling overjoyed that Lingyun was finally becoming the emperor he had hoped him to be, Fengbo felt nothing but pain and regret. He forced himself to remain professionally expressionless and did as his emperor had ordered him to. Without wavering, he met Lingyun’s eyes.

“Your wish is my command, Majesty.”

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Part II
~恩斷義絕~
Broken Relations and Severed Ties
End

Next Part, 改弦易轍 (Replacing Strings and Changing Courses)

(Less literally, it means changing the orders of things/making a fresh start/changing ways/switching over to a new attitude etc. The String is referring to the strings of an instrument.)

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