Part III

Extra Story 2: Poisonous Childhood

Death had breathed on him that day.

Lingyun didn’t know what else he had left to throw up; he felt as though all his energy had been sucked from his body. It was like anyone could break his bones easily with slight pressure—he was sure that he had thrown up so much that he had lost ten pounds. As he lay on the bed, breathing like a pathetic, fragile thing, he listened to his uncle and his mother’s conversation.

“I’ve stabilized his condition. He’ll be regaining vitality within three days—just be careful about what goes into his food.”

“I can’t believe He Jisheng did this—he was Lingyun’s tutor! Why would he poison his student? He was so proud of Lingyun!”

“Lingyun is too smart—he’s only seven, but he already talks like an educated adult, he can memorize essays with just one glance and write better than most officials in the Court. Your older sons are beginning to realize that he is a threat to them, so He Jisheng was either bribed or blackmailed. We need to find out who orchestrated this.”

A chime sounded and someone else went into the room his mother and his uncle occupied. “He Jisheng has committed suicide.” Shrill voice; a eunuch.

Lingyun took a sharp breath, but his muscles were too weak to even so much as tense. He felt like jelly and he couldn’t even move his fingers. He drifted off, unconscious, for a while before he opened his eyes again, staring at the intricate beams.

“He needs a bodyguard,” his mother was saying.

“Right now, there isn’t anyone I can trust who’s available for such a task.”

“My other sons will never stop trying to kill him! His Imperial Majesty cannot show too much favoritism to a single son—are you saying he should just accept his fate of being murdered?”

“How about this,” suggested his uncle, “I’ll have my second-son’s best friend and training buddy, Sima Lü, accompany Lingyun; he’s rather alert for an eleven-year-old. He shows great potential for martial arts, and he’s able to defeat children who are three years older than him.”

“I suppose there is no way for you to spare any men. Very well, please introduce him to Lingyun as soon as you can.”

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In his bed, again.

It had only been five months, too.

This was pathetic. His heart had been so close to exploding while he had desperately needed air but could not breathe. Lingyun never wanted to feel like that again. Stupid bodyguard. Sima Lü couldn’t understand half of what Lingyun talked about—he was a complete oaf. Lingyun had considered pretending to have damaged his head just to avoid all the trouble, but his pride wouldn’t allow it.

Why should he bow down to his inferior brothers?

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Life was too short to be stuck in a stupid cage and to be playing a stupid game called politics.

At least, that was what Lingyun thought as he lay in his bed, once again. At least seven months had passed since the previous ‘incident’, though it still hadn’t been very long. This time, it had been his nanny who poisoned him. Though, Lingyun suspected that she had been set up by a concubine who hated him and hated his mother, as his nanny was too simple-minded to understand the workings of bureaucracy and power.

He sighed, staring at the ceiling.

He didn’t want to spend his entire life trying to seize power or to avoid being killed by his brothers. The more he studied history, the more he realized how pointless politics was.

History kept repeating itself.

What was the point? It wasn’t like Lingyun could ever stop history from repeating itself even if he were to somehow defeat all his brothers and become the emperor. He wasn’t some god; he wouldn’t be able to control people. The problem, he had realized after having finished reading the official historical records up to his own dynasty, was always humans. Human problems were always the same. He had no way of controlling them, much less what would happen after he died; he was quite sure that shit would still happen after he died, no matter how good an emperor he strived to be. It was only the matter of sooner or later. Greedy morons would always be greedy morons—there was no way to make them semi-intelligent.

Thus, life was too short to spend it fixated on something as meaningless as power.

Lingyun wanted to see the world. He wanted to experience the world, to touch something that was more eternal than stupid power—but he hadn’t left these wretched walls even once. Maybe he could try pestering his mother about getting permission to at least have a tour around the Inner Palace.

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Finally. He had convinced his mother to bring him out of the Palace to personally thank his uncle at the Xuan Manor. Over nine years of his life, cooped up in the same suffocating area—Lingyun was finally stepping out the Palace walls.

Well, not actually stepping out, per se. For the entire way, he sat in a jiao* and could only peek out of the curtains to observe the world outside. The buildings were small, but lined neatly like they were on a checkered board. There was a vibrancy that the Palace seriously lacked; there were so many people and so many voices, so many different things happening at the same time. He felt delightfully overwhelmed, though he could use less noise.

“Lingyun, I’m going to talk to my good sisters; when the Supreme general returns, I’ll have someone find you and we’ll thank him for saving your life four times. In the meanwhile, you are free to explore—the Xuan Manor is very safe,” his mother told him after her sisters and cousins had finished gushing over his introduction. She then excused herself to talk to his grandmother in private.

“Why, he can go visit the Wuguan*,” suggested his aunt, her pearl-white wrists flicking as she fanned herself with a scented folding fan. “My son should be sparring with xiao*-Lü right now.”

Lingyun perked up at the proposition. He had never seen anyone fight before—well, actually, he had, but it had only been a stupid scuffle between his inferior half-brothers. Thus, the infamous wuguan of the Xuan Manor was the real purpose he had made his mother bring him over to visit. After all, the Xuan Manor wasn’t much different than the building he lived in, even though the layout and decorations were not the same.

“But would xiao-Yun like watching fights?” inquired his mother’s cousin, smiling as she met Lingyun’s eyes with a glance. It was a disgusting, fake smile. “After all, he’s more of a scholar, isn’t he? I don’t think he’d be fascinated by violence. I know, he can come visit my son one day, and they can study together!”

“Xiao-Yun’s a boy, he’ll like it,” insisted his aunt, her red lips curved slightly as she held onto the equally mirthless gaze of his mother’s cousin.

Mothers. They just loved comparing their children, didn’t they? Of course, no one would dare compare their children to Lingyun, partially because they knew their less-intelligent children were no match for him and partially because he was off-limits to comparison as the emperor’s son.

“Hopefully he won’t like it too much,” his other aunt chimed in. “We wouldn’t want his head to be filled with violence, right? We have enough wars as it is.” To Lingyun, the flattery was an insult at the same time.

He decided to let the women quarrel. Honestly, he wanted to leave for the wuguan already, but he couldn’t disrespect his elders. Thus, he would have to wait for his mother to return to make the decision. Sighing softly, he stared out the doors into the central garden. Suddenly, there was a flash of pain in both his cheeks and a sweet scent.

“Aren’t you a cute little boy?” It had to be his half-cousin, since she had no son yet and therefore would have no interest in the bristly mother-conversation.

Annoyed, Lingyun rubbed his burning cheeks. “Huici-jiejie*.” He tried his best not to let that come out as a bitter growl.

“Right!” giggled his cousin as she sat beside him. “Xiao-Yunyun, you’re so cute!” she exclaimed as she pinched his cheeks again—he wished she would stop treating him like he was a half-witted child, but he couldn’t lecture her. Stupid social customs. “Such white, delicate skin you have—I wish my skin were as good as yours,” his cousin continued with a dramatic sigh.

“Your skin is perfectly beautiful,” Lingyun forced himself to say.

“Oh! A sweet-talker, at such a young age, too!” His half-cousin grinned, revealing white teeth. She leaned back, her eyes following Lingyun’s sight to stare at a pond. “But, I’ve been around someone who knows how to sweet-talk more than you do. Keep up the good work, though, and you’ll have all the little hearts of girls fluttering whenever they see you!”

No thanks, Lingyun thought; he had enough trouble dealing with his bratty half-sisters as it was. “Is the person you talk of your husband?” he inquired, even though he didn’t want to continue conversing with the airhead.

“No.” A soft sigh. “I wish it were, though. Anyhow, the person I mentioned is only two-years older than you are—quite the sweet-talker, he is. Not to mention, he’s also very cute; I bet he’ll have a legion of women swooning when he grows up.”

What a boring subject. Lingyun decided to respond with a mere snort.

“By the way, I think you’ll like him. He’s also quite intelligent; I’m sure you two will get along very well,” Huici continued blabbering on as she started to play with one of her dangly jade earrings.

“Hn.” Lingyun no longer cared if his nonchalant response was within acceptable limits of meaningless social rules.

Finally, his mother returned. She knew him well enough to know that he was suffering from extreme irritation and boredom so she said, “Lingyun, you must be bored. Well, don’t stay here listening to us adults talk—go on, didn’t you say you wanted to see the world outside?”

And with that simple question, she freed him of his troubles.

Plodding down the spacious hallways, Lingyun looked at the signs before each door until he arrived at the Wuguan. He heard two people talking, shuffles of clothes and some crisp footsteps inside the doors. Carefully, he slid the door open a little so he could see; he didn’t want to interrupt what he assumed to be a practice fight inside.

He recognized Lü immediately, so the other boy had to be his cousin. The boy was blindfolded, however, and still winning.

Lingyun just knew Lü sucked.

A blur of hand movements, and Lingyun had no idea what was going on but he leaned closer, squinting as though that would help him better discern the moves. Of course, it didn’t help much. The more he watched, the stranger he felt. He had never felt his heart quicken yet still be highly amused before—usually, the first sign of an increased heartbeat alarmed him, after all. However, he was so engrossed and he felt so…what was this feeling? Excitement?

So this was martial arts.

He licked his lips and watched the fight closely. The boys were just around his age, and yet they could do such amazing things—just what had Lingyun himself been doing the past nine years of his life? How could he have missed this?

The sparring ended with the blindfolded boy’s fist stopped at the center of Lü’s chest. The failure of a bodyguard raised his hands in a sign of defeat. Then, Lingyun’s cousin turned to face the door and called, “Who is it?”

Now Lingyun’s heart was beating faster and he didn’t like how it felt. Panic—that was one emotion he was rather familiar with. However, his pride refused to let him run away. He was the emperor’s son—he hid from no one. Sliding the doors open completely (or as open as his arms allowed), he announced, “I’m Bai Lingyun.”

“Oh, I’ve heard a lot about you from Lü,” chuckled the blindfolded boy, not even bothering to introduce himself.

Lü knelt down to greet Lingyun. “Your Highness.”

“Aren’t you going to take off that blindfold?” Lingyun tried not to let his irritation show; it wasn’t like he wanted to know the boy’s name or anything!

“This?” His cousin pointed at the black piece of cloth over his eyes. “I’m training to be able to move around without vision,” he explained. “It will help me fight if someone uses blinding sand on my eyes or if an assassin attacks during a lightless night. To demonstrate.…” The boy darted forward and was immediately in front of Lingyun.

Lingyun forced himself not to take a step back. “You—”

A hand rested on his shoulder. When had it moved? “Hm. I’m really getting the hang of this after five months.” The blindfolded boy patted Lingyun’s shoulder twice.

“Insolent—”

“Your Highness, do not worry. He’s not going to hurt you,” Lü interrupted.

“That’s not the point!” Lingyun’s fists tightened; to be unable to glare into the boy’s eyes was rather troublesome. And why was that boy’s hand still resting on his shoulder? “How dare you touch me without warning!” He slapped away his cousin’s hand. “I’m not someone you can touch without permission!”

“My apologies, Your Highness.” Clearly, the boy was not feeling remorse at all—he was still grinning idiotically. It seemed that this boy was all muscle and no brain.

“Urgh. What a moron,” Lingyun groaned out loud.

“I trust you liked our performance, though?”

“What do you mean?” Lingyun growled.

“Truthfully, the match should have ended before you started to peek, but we thought we’d continue a bit to amuse you.”

Upon hearing this, Lingyun felt his cheeks heat up, and it wasn’t because of poison or some stupid pinching, either. He glared at Lü so the failure of a bodyguard would know not to look. “I wasn’t amused at all,” he insisted, turning back to face his cousin. “I’ve seen guards fight and they were much more entertaining than this…child’s play.” What a stupid lie. Lingyun had never told a lie as stupid and immature as this one before, but it just flew out of his mouth before he could stop it.

The blindfolded boy lowered his head and rubbed his chin. He supported his bent elbow with his other hand. “Hm. I see.”

Immediately, Lingyun shot back, “No, you don’t.” Referring to the blindfold, of course.

“Well, I can, actually. Somewhat. From patting your shoulder, I can see the outline of your body in my mind.”

What a weak, corny-ass bluff. Lingyun rolled his eyes, hoping the imbecile could see that. “Sure you can.” He made sure the sarcasm in his voice was obvious enough for even half-wits.

“Want to give it a try?” the boy asked, smiling again; the grin was that of an overconfident dimwit, and it was getting on Lingyun’s nerves.

“Try me.” Lingyun crossed his arms.

“All right then, just don’t complain afterward….”

Lü piped up, “Wait, I don’t think this is a—”

Something jabbed Lingyun at the center of his stomach, and Lingyun began to laugh.

…Laugh.

What the hell?

Worse, he couldn’t stop laughing; it was just so ticklish at the point where he had been jabbed that he dropped to the floor, hugging his stomach and laughing so hard that he couldn’t breathe. Tears were forming in his eyes, and it took everything not to roll around on the wooden floor like some pitiful moron. “Fix this!” he managed to squeeze in between his giggles, sure that his cheeks were so red that he looked pathetic.

Then, a few jabs on his body and he could finally breathe.

“I like the sound of your laughter,” the blindfolded bastard said, still grinning. “I think it’s beautiful. Lü says you never laugh, but I think you should laugh a bit more.”

Despite knowing that the bastard couldn’t see it, Lingyun glared daggers anyway. He couldn’t believe he had been humiliated! And what a disgusting insult, to make things worse!

“By the way, what I did was attack your laughing point; if you want, I can teach you how to—wait, are you leaving already?”

Ignoring the bastard, Lingyun stomped out of the practice room.

However, days later, he still couldn’t get what he had seen out of his mind; he wanted to learn more about Martial Arts, though he refused to ask that failure of a bodyguard about the details. Instead, he casually investigated by asking the Imperial Guards and wheedling information out of the eunuchs. Eventually, he learned about the Jianghu and the Three Strongest Sects.

With time, his obsession towards Martial Arts only increased exponentially as he dreamed of exploring the Jianghu. Exploration plus Martial Arts—two birds with one stone. What more could he ask?

It was his eleventh spring when he was finally ready to leave. Not only was he growing sick of his brothers, he was getting annoyed at how he was beginning to see subtle hints that were encouraging him to have sexual experiences with boring females. Did they think he’d miss the connotation of all those mating domestic cats?

He also pretended that he didn’t see the erotic drawing books that the eunuchs had purposely left lying around his quarters. He didn’t even pick them up.

Instead of doing what was expected of him and experimenting on the women in the building, Lingyun poisoned himself.

He almost regretted it as he struggled to cling onto life—the gamble was to poison himself while his uncle was out of City; if he lost, it would be his life he’d be losing. Sima Lü managed to slow the process down, though he had been unable to stop Lingyun’s suffering.

All this was for the sake of freedom—that was what he chanted to himself to stop himself from panicking and from worsening his own condition.

When he woke, inexplicable satisfaction and excitement flooded his weary, ill-stricken body. He trembled, not out of anger and frustration, but out of joy. Despite still feeling slightly nauseated, his mind was clear as ever.

As he lay in his bed—for the last time, hopefully—he mentally went over the pre-written speeches to convince his parents to let him leave the city. He had already figured out which school of Martial Arts he wanted to study under—Snow Prison Sect. He had talked to a few Imperial Guards who had learned the Arts of Snow Prison, and he found the philosophy of Snow Prison very agreeable with his own.

The first thing he did when he was able to move was to arrange a meeting with his mother. It had taken him almost half a shichen to convince her to let him leave the palace; he effectively used the timing of his poison to justify his reasons—after all, who knew if the Imperial Doctor could cure him the next time he was poisoned during his uncle’s absence?

With his mother’s help, he managed to persuade his father to let him leave as well, though it had taken almost a shichen.

And so, on Lingyun’s eleventh summer, he left for Snow Prison Sect.

Life was too short to spend it fixated on something as meaningless as politics, after all.

Yet, who would have known that his dream was, in the end, just an empty joke.

Extra Story 2~End

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~Part III~

改弦易轍

~Replacing Strings and Changing Courses~

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Chapter 39

There were things that were better left unsaid.

Sima Lü did not particularly like keeping secrets from his friends, especially not from those whom he respected. However, there was one secret he had to keep from Fengbo no matter what.

Roughly two years ago, he had followed the capricious emperor out of the Palace, thinking he’d just shadow the emperor to protect him instead of restricting his movement. Yet, to his horror and disappointment, he had found the emperor escaping the Palace to copulate with strangers—with commoners. With men who had treated him like a prostitute, although they had not asked of him services they would ask of a Luan Tong. Worse, this had not been just a single occasion—Lü had shadowed Lingyun whenever the irresponsible emperor had decided to slip out of the Palace. The emperor had let others touch him without regard to their status, looks, or rank. He was the emperor, and yet he had allowed such despicable transgressions!

Such an outrageous act had to be kept secret. Even though Lingyun thought Lü was too weak to notice he had slipped out of the Palace, he had still been wary and often chose to escape when Lü had not been on duty. With that in mind, just how many times had Lingyun escaped to engage to those degrading activities when Lü had not been on duty?

Nonetheless, Lü knew he could not ever bring himself to tell his one and only superior, Fengbo, of the emperor’s despicable acts. He had vaguely respected Lingyun before, since he had approved of the emperor’s essays and intelligence, but after finding out what Lingyun had been doing—what his superior’s most loved person had been doing—he felt nothing but disgust.

In Lü’s opinion, Lingyun did not deserve Fengbo’s love. The emperor had no patriotism and was clearly an immature, selfish individual too arrogant for his own good. Thankfully, Lü had been proven wrong, and Fengbo’s hopes and suffering had not been in vain. Zhitian was dead, and Duan Mingwu was somehow on Lingyun’s side, along with some influential officials—and most shockingly, Ruixiang. Lü decided not to hold grudges against Ruixiang for choosing the emperor over the Xuan; after all, Lü himself had failed Fengbo’s expectations countless times and had underestimated Lingyun.

“If you find the assassin, bring him to me. He is, in the end, my disciple. As his Master, I will decide how I will punish him,” the emperor ordered monotonously. The scent of wood from the incense burners was escaping through the opened doors.

“Understood, Majesty.” Personally, Lü was surprised at how expressionless Fengbo was, since he knew Fengbo would prefer to kill the assassin on sight. From the corner of his eye, he noticed that the emperor was examining Fengbo as well. “Lü, Ruixiang,” Fengbo continued with an entirely professional tone, unaffected by Lingyun’s unreadable gaze, “I will be directing the search. You and your best men will stay with His Imperial Majesty and be alert; the culprit might still be hiding in this building.”

Only Lü answered, “Yes, sir.” Slightly irritated, he glanced at Ruixiang, who blatantly ignored the order.

“Don’t worry, Your Majesty,” Ruixiang assured, not even bothering to acknowledge Fengbo’s presence, “I’ll protect you with my life.”

You, who can’t even defeat His Imperial Majesty? Lü was bewildered by Ruixiang’s arrogance.

Fengbo did not even flinch; instead, he smiled. “I’m glad that His Imperial Majesty has someone as loyal as you by his side, Ruixiang.”

Ruixiang’s jaws ticked. The emperor remained wordless.

“Duan Mingwu and his men are outside the gates,” reported a soldier outside.

“Let him in.” As usual, the emperor sounded bored.

“Come to think of it, this is probably the only day when Qiuyue Palace would be this crowded,” remarked Xie Liang with a chuckle, though his real intention was to ease the suffocating tension between Ruixiang and Fengbo.

“Indeed,” Ke Xianyao mused. “We’re relieved to find out that you are all right, Majesty.”

“I have the Supreme general to thank,” Lingyun replied colorlessly. Again, Fengbo remained as impassive as a statue. “Speaking of which, you are dismissed to conduct the search for my disciple, Xuan Fengbo. I expect him to be found before Winter Solstice.”

“As you command.”

Lü noticed a flicker of emotion pass through Lingyun’s coal-black eyes when Fengbo uttered those words; however, it was too quick so he decided he must’ve been imagining things. Fengbo bowed before he left, and he signaled for his subordinate to follow.

Ruixiang was also observing the emperor intensely, a frown tugging his thin lips.

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Things had not proceeded the way Juntao had planned them to proceed.

He had not planned to actually hurt Lingyun.

Not planned to poison his Master with one of the cruelest poisons he had processed.

He had only planned to test his abilities against his Master, to impress Lingyun.

Yet, the insanity inside him—Guijue—was now a part of him. He had enjoyed hurting his Master, enjoyed watching Lingyun suffer. He had been rock hard from thinking of the pain he had inflicted, of watching Lingyun’s suffering expression.

Two years of torture, mockery, hatred, lust, and regret. Two years of ruthless training. It had been harder than he had imagined to peel off the mask he had been wearing during those two years.

After all, he could no longer easily allow himself to act like the despicably weak brat he had been two years ago. He was now one of the most feared assassins in Blood Flames Sect, having killed all those who had mocked him and bullied him for having saved Lingyun’s life and betrayed the Sect. He had heavy expectations to live up to and a pride he could no longer put down. He had adopted the codename of his other personality, thrown away his real name and his old personality.

Although he still secretly referred to himself as ‘Juntao’, there was one person he wanted to continue calling him by his actual name, one person he needed to remind who he was. One person he knew would accept him as the weak person who didn’t want to kill innocents anymore. He had grown tired of killing incessantly, of being a cruel and impeccable sadist who took pleasure from drawing blood. He wanted it to end, wanted to stop killing for no reason other than an empty contract.

For this, he had gathered like-minded assassins and proposed to them the idea of working under the emperor of Yue, sure that his Master would accept him for who he was. A surprisingly large number of pugilists had agreed, and they would commence the internal revolution once Juntao obtained his Master’s approval. Since Lingyun had no support, he had hoped to help Lingyun out.

Yet, he had let his arrogance and resentment dictate their reunion, let his jealousy and lust distort his original intentions. He had molested, poisoned, and almost killed the reason he had survived his training.

He had been blinded by the ugly, suffocating emotion that had manifested itself within him ever since he had heard Lingyun whisper Fengbo’s name during a nap.

Frankly, Juntao had planned to attack Lingyun when he had heard that man’s name leave his Master’s lips, but he had stopped himself and forced himself to leave the building and return half a shichen later, when he had been less emotional. Thanks to that, he had to take out five more guards and hide their poisoned bodies inside the building.

Unfortunately, his jealousy had not receded at all when he had confronted Lingyun. If anything, it had only become more violent, cruel. Would Lingyun finally pay attention to him if he hurt him? Would Lingyun care? Had he even thought of Juntao once during the past two years, or had his mind been occupied with Fengbo only?

If hatred was the only way to make his existence significant to Lingyun, Juntao would make Lingyun hate him; he would be the last person on Lingyun’s mind in death—at least, that was what he had thought during the height of his frustration. He had wanted to seriously kill his feelings for Lingyun, had surrendered to his fate of being a heartless murderer and intended to drown in despair.

After a joss stick’s worth of time in silence and meditation, however, he had regretted his impulsive decision and had wanted to return, to apologize, to save Lingyun and to offer to help expose Zhitian’s plans. But that disgusting man, Fengbo, had already been there, and irrational anger had prevented Juntao from interfering, even if it meant risking Lingyun’s life.

In the end, his Master had fooled everyone. Lingyun didn’t even need Juntao’s help to get rid of Zhitian.

His Master didn’t need him.

What use was Juntao now, aside from constantly disappointing Lingyun?

Yet, he could not let down those who were also suffering like him, who didn’t want to kill anymore, who wanted to leave Blood Flames but could not for fear of being hunted down by fellow pugilists.

He had to return and talk to Lingyun, even if it meant death.

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Tears stained Yulan’s beige silk duvet. She couldn’t stop crying, even though she had thought herself prepared for this. Indeed, Zhitian had crossed the line, and this was the appropriate punishment for his misdeeds. Yet, the thought still pained her, making it hard for her to breathe.

Zhitian had been executed by the orders of his own brother.

After Lingyun had ascended the throne, she had barely talked to Zhitian, but he was still her son. No matter what atrocities he had committed, he was still her son. And he was dead now—she hadn’t even had the chance to have one last glimpse of him alive.

Furthermore, Lingyun would doubtlessly order the deaths of her grandchildren as well—and the realization was so painful that she was now feeling lightheaded. Her baby Lingyun was gone forever. Nothing would bring him back ever again.

How long had it been since she had last seen her son smile?

How long had it been since she had last heard him laugh?

The memory was so distant, so unreal. She had destroyed her favorite son with her own hands, for the sake of her Empire. What sort of monstrous mother was she?

Maybe as the grand empress dowager, she was decent; yet, as a mother, she was an utter failure. She had been powerless to stop her sons from fighting one another ever since they had been children. Worse, she had thought that mild competition would make them more competent, and as a result she had lost control of them all.

“I’m sorry, Zhitian, Lingyun…,” she whispered, tasting salty shame. “I’m sorry….”

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Since no one was allowed to enter or leave the Inner Palace, the Court Judgment of Zhitian’s family and supporters had been delayed. However, since Lingyun had insisted on cleaning up the aftermath before the visitors for the Winter Conference were let into the Palace, the judgment had only been delayed one day. It had taken surprisingly little persuasion for Ruixiang’s half-brother to obey the emperor’s orders.

“Someone is here,” Sima Lü said under his breath. He was standing next to Ruixiang, guarding the doors to the emperor’s bedroom. The air was chilly; it was completely dark save for the flickering torch lights illuminating the spacious halls.

To be honest, Ruixiang hadn’t noticed. However, now that Lü had mentioned it, he did feel a vague presence. He slowly reached for the hilt of his dao. So the assassin hadn’t given up, even though Zhitian was dead. If Ruixiang could, he would be more than happy to execute the vile felon who had dared wound his lord. However, Lingyun’s orders were the law.

“I’m going to check,” Ruixiang offered, since he knew that Lü was much stronger than he was and would be better left to guard Lingyun.

“Be careful—the assassin was able to defeat His Imperial Majesty.”

Gritting his teeth, Ruixiang ignored the blatant implication of his own incompetence and held onto his blank expression as he drew his dao and headed out to inspect the surroundings. All he could hear was the crackle of fire. However, he thought he saw a shadow at the end of the vacant hallway and proceeded to investigate.

Nothing. Then, the metallic reverberations of blades clashing back in the direction of the emperor’s room. Immediately, Ruixiang ran back; Lü had already restrained the intruder. “Who sent you?” Lü demanded, tightening his grasp on the man’s muscular arms.

“I want to see Master,” growled the masked man. Lü tore off the cloth over the intruder’s face, revealing a handsome face with features of a northerner.

Before Lü could reply, the door opened. From the way the emperor stood, it was hard to believe that he had a wounded shoulder. In fact, a jian was in his hand, reflecting the golden light from torch flames. “Juntao, what are you doing here?”

Juntao? The grandson of Blood Flame Sect’s Leader?

“Master, I….” A pause. Ruixiang noticed that Juntao was avoiding Lingyun’s eyes. “I know that sorry isn’t enough, but….”

Lingyun sheathed his sword and turned back to his room. “Tie him up and then bring him over.”

Ruixiang reached for the thick rope they had prepared and handed it to Lü. As Lü secured the intruder’s hands behind his back, Ruixiang heightens his senses, ready to strike the moment Juntao tried anything. To his surprise, the intruder didn’t even struggle, though his lips were strained thin.

When they brought Juntao before the emperor, only silence met them. Lingyun had tied some of his straight hair back up, and a black, silk jacket covered his shoulders and back. Sima Lü seemed surprised, though Ruixiang had no idea why. “Juntao,” Lingyun finally began when Juntao seemed unable to open his mouth, “I think it is time that I disown you.”

“No!” Juntao immediately exclaimed, horror painting his face white. “Please, Master, I’ll do anything…just please let me continue being your disciple.”

“I have no reason to trust you.”

Juntao’s head lowered. “It’s true that I…that I attacked you.” His tone was unfit for his voice. “It wasn’t Guijue—he no longer exists. He’s a part of me now.”

Lingyun stiffened, but his expression remained unchanged and cold.

“I just…I didn’t originally intend to hurt you, Master. I….”

Annoyed now, Ruixiang kicked Juntao, though the assassin didn’t budge the slightest bit. “Nonsense!” he snarled, drawing his dao. “If what you say is true, why did you use such a despicable poison?” He turned his face and met Lingyun’s eyes. “Your Majesty, don’t believe this treacherous assassin’s words; I strongly suggest you execute him.”

“Ruixiang, what gives you the right to order your emperor around?” Though there was no anger or emotion in Lingyun’s voice, the question still chilled Ruixiang’s spine.

Ruixiang kneeled quickly to apologize; his metallic armor plates clattered.

“At any rate,” Lingyun continued in a colorless tone, “Get to the point, Juntao. I don’t believe that apologizing is the only reason you came back.”

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Chapter 40

After he took a gulp to moisten his dry throat, Juntao hastily described the situation to his Master: He and many accomplices wanted to overthrow Blood Flames Sect’s control and work under Lingyun.

That annoying person called Ruixiang had interrupted him three times with threats, though his Master had silenced the idiot. The other man called Sima Lü was quiet, but Juntao knew the man was much more dangerous. At Juntao’s current level, it would take dishonorable methods to defeat Sima Lü; the man was probably the second-most dangerous person in the Palace, just after that disgusting bastard, Fengbo.

Lingyun didn’t talk for a while. “Chi Juntao, I have no reason to believe your claims. Even assuming that there are no traitors among you and your accomplices, you know very well why I cannot trust you.”

A voice that lacked emotion, a voice that was nothing but authority—it was painful to listen to. Juntao gritted his teeth, cursing Fengbo with all his might. “Indeed, you have no reason to believe in me, Master. But—”

“Furthermore, I cannot allow you and your men to serve me,” Lingyun interrupted smoothly; cold, golden light reflected off his eyes. No pain showed on his face, even though his shoulder should be causing discomfort. “Blood Flames Sect has many enemies, and the only reason it survives is that it is useful to those who need its services. Once that neutrality is changed, there will be outrage, and other countries or victims can easily use revenge as an excuse to attack this Empire; they will accuse this Empire of being insensitive to the crimes of Blood Flames Sect.”

“But with an internal revolution, we will change the nature of the Sect altogether,” Juntao pleaded. “We don’t even need to exist—we don’t even need to have a name to our organization. We just need a shelter, a place to belong, a means to survive; we will be willing to give you our loyalty and lives for it.”

“Keeping a den of assassins?” Ruixiang interrupted again with a sneer. “How dare you insult His Imperial Majesty’s intelligence? Who would keep around him the entire group of people who have been after his life for more than six years?” He poked Juntao’s back with his scabbard, pressing hard. However, Juntao was immune to mild pain such as that. “More importantly, why would he keep around a traitor who has tried to take his life?”

“Ruixiang is right,” the man called Sima Lü finally said, tightening the grip on the hilt of his dao. “This assassin deserves death.”

“What services do you and your accomplices offer, then?” Lingyun sounded bored, but his question was anything but boring.

Perking up happily, Juntao found a glimmer of hope. Dying was not the problem—if Lingyun hated him that much, he would rather die—but, his Master was on his side. Or at least, willing to give him another chance.

Just like the old Lingyun.

Maybe, just maybe—the old Lingyun wasn’t entirely gone.

But of course, that was probably just Juntao’s wishful thinking. Lingyun, as the emperor, would be interested in the prospects of a powerful shadow force, not a disciple who had betrayed him.

“Information gathering, and, if necessary, getting rid of unwanted men as long as it is for the greater good, Master.”

“Wait,” Ruixiang growled. “I’m sorry, but I cannot accept this, Your Majesty. He almost killed you. Blood Flames Sect has tried to kill you countless times. I cannot perform well as long as I know that this man, who deserves death, is alive and worse, working close by, with assassins all over this Palace. This is a trap, if anything.”

Although Juntao was in no position to argue, he felt like killing Ruixiang. Nice and slowly so he could hear the screams of agony reverberate endlessly down the empty halls—no, what was he thinking? He bit his lips so hard that he tasted blood. The smell of it calmed him down, even if he would have preferred to taste someone else’s blood—his Master’s blood—no! He had to stop thinking.

He tightened his fists and strained them against the knots that tied them, making sure he could feel the pain that burned through his skin, bones, and muscles.

“Again, I am with Ruixiang. This man is dangerous,” Sima Lü observed. Juntao could feel the man scrutinize him with penetrating eyes.

“Master, please believe me. Every life I take is pushing me further towards the edge of insanity.” Juntao knew he was a danger to Lingyun—probably more dangerous than Fengbo—but he couldn’t help it. Aside from wanting to stop killing decent people, he wanted to be around his Master even more. He couldn’t stand the thought of being away from Lingyun for the rest of his life. He wanted to be beside Lingyun, just like the old times.

If he stayed long enough, maybe things would return to the way they had been. Maybe he could bring the old Master back. Maybe he could return to being his old self, maybe he would stop having bloodthirsty impulses to torture and kill people.

Maybe he would stop wanting to rape and hurt his Master.

“Two years,” Lingyun drawled, his expression unchanging. “I will give you two years for you and your men to prove yourselves useful. However, only you can enter the Palace. Furthermore, you will have Sima Lü accompany you before you actually pass through the gates.” He glanced at Lü, who clearly forced himself to consent to the order.

“What of his crime?” Ruixiang inquired immediately as he took a step forward. “Surely we cannot allow the assassin who almost killed you to escape.” It was almost said in a growl, but at least the impatient man was able to keep his temper in check this time.

“Investigate the Imperial Guards, then,” Lingyun replied without hesitation. “I suspect you Xuan know there are those who are amongst you whom you cannot trust. Zhitian must’ve had some insiders within the Imperial Guards.”

“You mustn’t mean—you are going to make someone this criminal’s scapegoat?” Ruixiang’s voice was now hoarse with poorly contained rage. “Forgive my insolence, Majesty, but if you need information gatherers, don’t you already have an intelligence network?”

Lingyun narrowed his eyes. “Ruixiang, I appreciate your concern for my safety but I am offended by your constant doubting of my judgments. Information is as lethal as a strong army—there is no such thing as too much information, especially when politics is involved.” He then looked at Juntao. “However, do not expect me to trust you, Juntao. You are only alive because you are my disciple. If you exploit this relationship again, I will have you disowned and executed.”

The threat was far from empty, unlike the old rebukes. “Yes, Master.”

“That is all for today, then. Lü, Ruixiang, take him out.”

“Understood, Majesty,” both men replied at the same time. With a rough pull on Juntao’s should, Ruixiang tugged Juntao up to a standing position and pushed him toward the door.

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“I see.” Fengbo was surprisingly calm, but Lü knew his friend well enough to know that Fengbo was probably anything but. “If a need for more information is your reason, I see no fault in it. I will make sure those men will not be able to hurt you, Majesty.”

The corners of Lingyun’s lips tightened. “…I expect results in two days.”

“One day is enough.” Fengbo’s expression was unreadable; his eyes held no pride or mirth. “After all, I already have an idea about which men to investigate.”

“Very well,” the emperor said. His knuckles were a bit whiter than usual. “You are dismissed.”

“Yes, Majesty.” With a deep bow, Fengbo turned around stiffly and left.

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Chapter 41

The skies were turning brighter, but Qingyan had long been awake.

He had been woken by his nightmare, covered in cold sweat.

What if he was next?

What if Lingyun hadn’t forgotten past grudges?

Just moments later, Zhitian’s family and allies would be judged; there was no guarantee that Qingyan could avoid being dragged into the mess, given that it was Lingyun he was up against. His younger brother was dangerous—impossible to slander or set up—the only possible way anyone would have been able to get rid of Lingyun had always been to take his life. Now, he was the emperor and he had power that no one would have imagined he would have. Even Zi’an’s best men were under his control—including Ke Xianyao, who had been the official responsible for supervising Qingyan’s letters.

Which meant that they knew of his plans.

Worse, it was not the Xuan, but the Duan who had removed Zhitian. How could Qingyan explain this to his uncles and the regional nobles when he had implied that Lingyun intended to pass the throne to Xuan Fengbo? Even though the Xuan had changed loyalties and claimed to have always been serving the emperor, their voice in the court was now significantly weakened by their relative lack of involvement in Lingyun’s seizure of power. Qingyan would now be seen as a laughing stock and lose his credibility.

Zi’an had insisted there was still a chance even if Lingyun knew of their plans; he had pointed out that Qingyan’s brother would be intending to centralize power which would make the regional lords unhappy, and thus Qingyan could still use their support.

However, Zi’an did not know his brother, and apparently Qingyan had not, either.

Two years, and they had not even realized any change despite the fact that they thought they had skilled informers.

All he knew was that he needed to escape before wrathful retribution destroyed him and his family.

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Amidst the celebration, little real mirth was to be found. Lingyun was as impassively cold as ever, Fengbo was practically a military statue; the nobles who had supported Zhitian looked pale, and those who worked with Zi’an wore thin smiles.

Only Duan Mingwu and Lingyun’s actual supporters seemed to revel in the rich food, cheerful music and beautiful dancing.

Chunmei herself found it hard to enjoy the extravagant birthday celebration when her husband clearly was not. She knew that the emperor was not the slightest bit pleased or smug with his sudden increase in authority, although he was not saddened at all either. Zhitian’s entire family had been scheduled to be executed after this celebrated day; Sun Haoping was demoted to the outer regions and would be monitored heavily. Less lucky officials such as Fang Xian and other corrupt men were either scheduled to be executed or exiled, stripped of status and fortune. Strangely, however, Lingyun had not taken action against Qingyan or Zi’an yet, but they were nervous nevertheless.

They knew they could not escape the reform that was to come.

How much did Lingyun know? How far would he go to punish their misdeeds? Their fearful questions were practically pinned in front of their chests like glittery badges. Although everyone was talking amongst themselves, they seemed more intent on finding ways to exploit each other, ways to place the blame of their crimes on someone else.

Lingyun had just finished toasting with another regional noble, marking his forty-fifth toast. Chunmei tightened her fist; her stiff smile was making her cheek muscles sore. Lingyun didn’t have good alcohol tolerance—she knew this better than anyone else. He had been constantly training himself ever since he had ascended the throne, but his tolerance was nothing compared to older men who had been drinking since they were fourteen.

Yet, as the emperor, he could not get too drunk in front of all the nobles and officials in the chamber. Would he be able to persevere? His usually pale cheeks were already turning pink.

As Chunmei picked up her teacup, she noticed that Lingyun had glanced in Fengbo’s direction; it was quick and sudden, but she had noticed while no one else had. Uneasy fear climbed her throat. No, she had to be overanalyzing—maybe she was hallucinating. She quickly took a sip of her tea and focused on the pleasant music. Yet, a dark, horrible poison made even the most delicious cuisine taste bad.

No, what was she doing? What sort of sister would be jealous of the brother who had always treated her well?

Self-disgust began to well in the pit of her stomach, which made her completely lose her appetite. Ashamed, she placed aside her gold chopsticks and stared ahead at the dancing women.

Unfortunately, it didn’t take long until she succumbed to her burning need to take a peek in her brother’s direction. Fengbo seemed different now; distant, almost. Although this was not the first time she had seen her brother pull on that professional mask of impassivity, she felt that there was something wrong with the way Fengbo held himself. She was sure it was not shock, as Fengbo had always wanted to believe that Lingyun was a good emperor—he should have been overjoyed by recent developments.

When Lingyun finished his fiftieth cup of wine, Chunmei saw her brother observing Lingyun and she held her breath.

Again, what was she doing? What sort of sister would suspect her own brother with such offensive thoughts? These suspicions could get Fengbo killed, for crying out loud!

Desperately, Chunmei decided that Fengbo was most likely just concerned about Lingyun’s alcohol tolerance as well, nothing more. There was no other emotion in Fengbo’s eyes.

Lingyun grew quieter with every toast, but all in all, the celebration went relatively smoothly until the tardy Ambassador from Ning came in, bearing gifts so opulent that it was alarming in every way. Two hundred horses, along with a chest of exotic animal parts for medicine or decoration, gold accessories, precious stones, and other items that were obtained easily at Ning’s trade location.

The music was all the sound that was left in the chamber. In fact, the music became more jovial and loud, though the gift indicated anything but good. Chunmei felt her heart quicken and her hands were clammy with cold sweat. Silence descended upon all the other people in the room.

Kneeling down and kowtowing a little but not completely, the Ambassador introduced himself, “Forgive my tardiness, but I am Ye Muren, the younger brother of Ning’s emperor.”

Nonsense. The man had been late on purpose; he had chosen a time where he knew the emperor should be getting a little drunk and therefore would be less able to handle politics as efficiently. Chunmei bit her lip and tried to maintain her smile.

“The emperor of my country wishes you a happy birthday.” Ye Muren looked up and grinned; there was a dark sparkle in his eyes. Chunmei did not like the way that man looked at her husband—she knew that sort of look, having been at the receiving end of that sort of look many times. It was clear that the Ambassador had cast that offensive, degrading gaze on purpose, as he was challenging Lingyun—no, challenging the Empire of Yue.

A small smile formed on Lingyun’s lips. “Be sure to give him my greatest thanks, Ambassador Ye.”

It was only then that Chunmei began to understand what her husband had meant that night.

Give them a fright and they will listen.

Her husband was playing a dangerous gamble.

Yet, unfortunately, Chunmei didn’t think that getting drunk was within Lingyun’s plans.

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All had been going well for Zi’an, until the Ning’s Ambassador arrived, late.

Afterwards, the notion that he would be demoted soon crawled up his stomach. At least, that much was clear to Zi’an as he watched the great celebration unravel in a way he had never imagined it would. There was no way the regional nobles would rebel anymore, not when a greater external threat was now so apparent. How could Zi’an be so stupid, to put his own country at risk with a hasty, desperate ploy to get the emperor so drunk he’d humiliate himself?

They shouldn’t have forced the emperor to toast every regional lord. They shouldn’t have ensured that the emperor would be consuming the best, but strongest Shaoxing wine.

Now they were going to pay for their folly when the emperor disgraced himself in front of an important diplomat.

“As the last and greatest gift…The emperor of Ning proposes an Alliance of Brotherhood with the Empire of Yue,” the Ambassador from Ning continued smugly. The dining hall was now silent, tension at its height. “He promises to aid his friend, Yue’s current emperor, if trouble ever arises….”

Cold sweat instantly broke down the official’s back. It was a threat. Currently, Ning was far too strong for Yue to handle, especially after the war. Thus, the terms of their alliance were no doubt going to be outrageous; Yue was at disadvantage in every way, after all. Worse, the arrogant Ambassador was blatantly disparaging and undermining their emperor with the way he regarded Lingyun, as though he were a….

Even Zi’an dared not to finish that blasphemous thought.

For the first time, he hoped that the emperor would be able to handle this situation, but one look at Lingyun was enough for him to tell that the young emperor was quite drunk, as they had originally planned for him to get. Flushed and heavy-lidded, Lingyun was glowing in an alarmingly…sexual…way. Zi’an had never seen the emperor smile like that, and frankly, it wasn’t a smile that an emperor should have. It was as though the emperor wanted to seduce the Ambassador; a strange light glittered behind his dark eyes.

“Hn…A heavy gift indeed,” purred the emperor in a voice that sent a hot, tingling sensation down Zi’an’s spine.

Despite the fact that Zi’an did not admire the emperor at all, he knew he had to tear his eyes away from Lingyun before improper thoughts invaded his mind. He could not believe what he was seeing; Lingyun’s inherent good looks weren’t helping.

“The way you are looking at me is rather interesting too,” Lingyun continued amidst the dead silence.

A mixture of regret and fear was now raising hell inside Zi’an’s ribcage. His hands were numb and sweating; he felt nauseous. His ambitions had brought this utter disaster. If the emperor were sober, he wouldn’t have disgraced himself this way.

“My apologies, emperor,” the Ambassador dared reply, still not removing his eyes from the emperor. “I’ve heard of your good looks, but I never expected you to be this stunning.” He paused, and the perverted smirk on his face widened. “In fact, I personally think you are better looking than the most attractive men and women in the Palace.”

A vulgar insult, straight to Lingyun’s face, in front of all the important officials and nobles of Yue.

Ye Muren had just compared the emperor to a Luan Tong, or worse, a Harem Woman.

Horrified, Zi’an found himself seeking the one man he despised more than ever. He couldn’t believe himself for being such a coward—but he was petrified, unable to move even a finger.

He found himself sneaking a glance at the only man who could stop this madness: Xuan Fengbo.

“Hn….” Lingyun merely smiled, the intention behind it unknown. “You’d like a closer look?”

Immediately after Fengbo came into his focus, the clammy, jittery feeling Zi’an had been experiencing was immediately frozen over into a terrifying, cold dread. He didn’t know why, but there was something seriously wrong with Xuan Fengbo, even though his expression had not changed from that perfect military poker face.

It made Zi’an realize why Zhitian had feared Fengbo so much that he had risked and consequently lost his life over getting rid of the man. Xuan Fengbo was not lauded as one of the top fifteen martial artists in the Jianghu for no reason; he was not the Head of the Xuan for no reason.

Xuan Fengbo was a deadly, dangerous man; a man who had fought wars and come out of them victorious almost every time.

Unlike Zhitian, however, Zi’an now knew that it was a bad idea to mess with that man—in comparison with that man’s capabilities, Lingyun’s punishment had probably been merciful. He did not know what that man was thinking, and he would most likely never know what Fengbo was thinking.

All he knew, right now, was that Fengbo would not let this event slide. If glaring could kill, Zi’an was sure that the Ambassador would be shredded into pieces by now.

Zi’an blinked; Fengbo was already behind the Ambassador, one hand placed upon the rude guest’s shoulder and stopping him from moving. “I would think you’d know that was a joke,” the Supreme general said coldly.

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Chapter 42

Horror wasn’t enough to begin describing how Sima Lü had felt the moment he had realized how drunk the emperor was.

It was hard to believe that the man sitting at the emperor’s spot was Bai Lingyun. Yet, since Lü knew what Lingyun had been doing when sneaking out of the Palace, he wasn’t as shocked as the present guests either. He could surmise what Lingyun wanted from the Ambassador—it was clear to Lü, at least, that the emperor was sexually aroused by the leering way Ye Muren had looked at him.

The wine had made the emperor show his true self—Lingyun wanted to be touched by that rude, vulgar Ambassador.

And now, Lü feared Fengbo would not be able to logically handle the situation due to the nature of this disastrous event. After all, Lü sat beside Fengbo and he had noticed his friend’s deepening rage as the arrogant Ambassador disrespected their emperor. Before Lü could remind Fengbo to keep his cool, the man was already behind Ye Muren.

“I would think that you’d know that was a joke.”

Consequently, the Ambassador’s smirk had been erased from his face; even an amateur could feel Fengbo’s murderous intent.

“What are you doing, Fengbo?” the emperor demanded.

Before Fengbo could explain himself, Lingyun continued, “Do you think I can’t handle this man myself? I can handle him; I don’t need your help.”

“But Majesty,” Fengbo ventured to say, doing an impressive job at keeping his expression blank and his professional voice flat, “it is my duty to help you, to simplify things for you. It is not that I—”

“I don’t need your help,” snapped the emperor; for some reason, he seemed more irritated than he had previously been. He then paused, giggling for no apparent reason. “You don’t care about me anyway, Supreme general.” A sinister, yet sultry voice. “You never did.”

“I—” Fengbo stopped shortly; his voice held too much emotion. He then stiffened, his posture as perfect as a statue. “Of course I care about you, Majesty,” he started again, this time back to his normal, calm tone. “You’re my emperor and the symbol of this Empire, the father of all Yue’s citizens.” It was as though he wore a mask made of stone. “I love you, as any loyal vassal loves his lord.”

Immediately, Lingyun threw his cup, though it missed Fengbo by a little and shattered on the floor; Fengbo didn’t even flinch. “Liar!” hissed the emperor, trembling. He tried to stand but he was too drunk and unstable. “You fucking liar—how dare you claim that you…that you…after you….”

This was bad. Lü had to stop this from hurting the reputations of the Supreme general, the emperor, and most importantly, the Empire.

But how?

Just as Lü was running through many solutions in his mind, the Empress reached over to touch Lingyun’s shoulder—no, under the guise of caring for the emperor, she had seized her chance and pressed the acupressure point that would temporarily send the emperor into a daze. Sima Lü tried not to smile; Chunmei was, as he expected, quick as ever.

“Your Majesty?” she asked, pretending to be confused by his sudden quietness. She shook him a little, her thumb pressed firmly on the acupressure point now. She leaned closer and called for the emperor again.

Lü tried not to feel jealous, but in the end, he still did.

He had thought that he had accepted the fact that Chunmei was never going to be his. He had tried to feel happy for Fengbo’s sister for the great honor of being married to the emperor, and he had tried to love his wife and children instead.

Why was it so hard to let go? He deserved death for wanting the Empress. Lü sighed inwardly and focused his attention on the temporarily dazed emperor instead.

“His Imperial Majesty is not feeling well,” Chunmei explained gently, but her voice was heard by all the guests. “As you all know, he was wounded and poisoned a few days ago, and earlier today he told me he was still feeling unwell.” She then turned and faced the guests, her back straight and her hands placed on the floor before her. “On behalf of His Imperial Majesty, I apologize for his eccentricity tonight.” She then bowed low; the jewel decorations hanging from her golden hairpins and earrings dangled, glittering like little stars. Her pale, long neck was beautiful.

After sitting straight again, Chunmei locked eyes with Ning’s Ambassador. “Ambassador Ye, His Imperial Majesty has not accepted your last gift as of yet, though I am sure he was beyond flattered. The matter of Ning and Yue’s Alliance will need to be discussed during the Winter Conference; I hope you won’t mind.”

Thanks to Fengbo, Ye Muren’s face was devoid of color. “No, not at all,” he replied hastily. Sweat ran down the side of his face.

And so, the celebration ended prematurely, plagued by confusion and anxiety.

The damage has been done, Lü thought solemnly as he followed Duan Mingwu and Ruixiang when they carried the emperor to a separate room in the Banquet Building.

The Xuan’s already battered status, the emperor’s rebounded dignity, and the Empire’s struggling reputation—all damaged.

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Fengbo was the only man left in the dining hall, aside from the maids and the servants who were cleaning up. His cousin, Qiyuan, offered to stay with him and discuss what their next step should be, but Fengbo declined. He was in no condition to think about politics.

Chaos—that was the only word to describe the whirlpool of violent emotions that was raging within him. Every breath he took was painful, even though the pain was not supposed to be real.

“Fengbo,” called a soft voice behind him. He turned to find the grand empress dowager. As usual, she was stunningly beautiful, and Fengbo often found it hard to believe that she was already in her mid-forties.

Formally, he greeted his aunt; he was in no mood to pretend everything was all right, though he managed to mask his feelings as well.

“You and I need to talk,” Yulan continued gravely, motioning for Fengbo to follow her.

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After Lingyun had come out of his daze, no one dared make a move toward the drunk, misbehaving emperor for fear of being accused of disrespecting the emperor. All they could do was leave him alone with Chunmei.

“I haven’t finished talking to that bastard!” Lingyun kept saying. “Get that bastard over here. This is all his fault—all his fault! He has to take responsibility!”

“Please calm down, Your Majesty,” Chunmei implored, too shaken to attempt to understand her husband’s gibberish. This time, it was impossible to hit the acupressure points that would send him into sleep. She wanted to hug him and comfort him, but she knew he wouldn’t appreciate it; at least, she didn’t dare to, since he had never hugged her. “It is best for you to rest right now,” she urged while she attempted to dispel the queasiness that had been nagging at her since the celebration. “You’re tired—the wound on your shoulder will not heal if you don’t rest.”

“Wound? I don’t care about any wound—this is nothing compared to what that bastard has done to me!” Then, after a while, he laughed and hummed, “By the way, did you see the way that stupid Ambassador looked at me? He reminds me of those morons at the teahouse, but he’s different—more annoying and invasive.” He writhed a little. “What do you think would happen if I let that moron touch me? Just thinking about it makes me hard. I always wondered why so many morons asked me to fuck them—does it feel good?”

Flabbergasted and horrified, Chunmei didn’t know what to do anymore. She couldn’t even comprehend what he was talking about.

What teahouse? What men?

“It’s been a while since I went to that teahouse,” Lingyun continued—it was clear that he was talking to himself now. “For some reason, it doesn’t feel as good…It just doesn’t feel as good. Why?”

“Lingyun, I really think you should rest,” Chunmei repeated helplessly as she dabbed the perspiration from his forehead.

“I can’t,” Lingyun mumbled. “I’m still hard.” Before Chunmei could react, Lingyun flailed. “Tell that bastard to do something about it! Tell that bastard to do something! It’s his fault that I can’t even masturbate without him invading my mind!”

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Chapter 43

Cold sweat broke down Chunmei’s back, the icy prickle spreading down her spine. Unable to stop herself, she got up and left the room, almost bumping into Sima Lü. “Sorry,” she squeaked, shaking free of his hold. “I…I think I’m going to…I’m going to get some water for His Imperial Majesty,” she lied.

She didn’t want to go back.

She didn’t want to think about what she had heard.

She had been planning to tell Lingyun that she was pregnant tonight, her own little birthday surprise for him.

Yet, now, she was too afraid to face her husband, knowing that he had never loved her, no matter how much she loved him. Even though she knew that she was a political tool and was lucky to have been married to the emperor, even though she knew that she never had to suffer much uneasiness and jealousy—it still hurt.

Knowing that the person whom she loved didn’t touch other women not because he cared for her, but because he liked men hurt. Knowing that the person whom she loved would never love her back hurt.

Not to mention, of all people, it had to be her favorite brother, whom she now realized had a side to him that she didn’t know, and didn’t want to know.

In fact, she wanted to get angry at Fengbo for deceiving her about his relationship with Lingyun, wanted to yell at him for not telling her the truth and letting her suffer self-doubt for years—but she knew she shouldn’t blame her brother, she knew that he must’ve had his reasons, and she knew that it must’ve been hard on him as well. He was merely fulfilling his duty, and she had to fulfill hers.

Still, she couldn’t help but feel betrayed.

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Watch the dinner party and tell me what you learned, Lingyun had told Juntao.

And, while hiding in the shadows, Juntao had almost killed that perverted Ambassador. He knew that anyone related to that lecherous bastard, Ye Qiuyang, was bad news. It had taken a lot of self-restraint not to follow the Ambassador back to the guest room and exact the torture Juntao had in mind; he had to remind himself that he would be causing disastrous trouble for his Master if he had done so.

Speaking of which, what Juntao found the most shocking was his Master’s behavior. The way his Master had practically begged to be touched…Juntao had never imagined that his Master would act that way, and it was disturbing and arousing at the same time.

More importantly, what the hell had his Master been thinking?

When the birthday celebration had ended, it had seemed that everyone who knew about Juntao had forgotten all about him amidst the barely contained chaos.

Thus, Juntao had decided to visit his master in secret. First, he figured out where they were bringing him, and reached the room in advance, hiding on the beams. As he observed his Master, the beastly instinct inside him grew more and more violent.

No, he had to contain his impulses. He had to stop wanting to immobilize the Empress and have his Master all to himself…but he had never seen his master so flushed and…and seductive…

However, as he listened to the conversation below, unpleasant suspicion and confusion eventually spread through his veins. What teahouse? What men? What the hell had his Master been implying?

Worse, his Master…his Master had called for that two-faced bastard, Fengbo, to…to…

Juntao almost jumped down to demand clarification—he was no longer thinking straight again, just like the night he had almost killed his Master. Gritting his teeth, Juntao forced himself to detach from the reality and regulate his qi. An assassin had to remain calm and patient at all times—that was the only practice that he had approved of, and yet the one he had always failed to follow whenever his Master was involved.

Just as Juntao was attempting to calm down, he heard clothes shuffling, abrupt footsteps and the door sliding open and closed. He opened his eyes to find the Empress gone. Juntao waited for a teacup’s worth of time—no one seemed to be entering any time soon.

Unable to stop himself, Juntao dropped from the beams and approached Lingyun. “Master,” he called softly, kneeling down beside the bed. There was no response, even though Lingyun’s eyes were open. Juntao called for his Master again, and after the second time, Lingyun finally seemed to notice.

“Hm?” Lingyun didn’t even bother to seek out the speaker. He merely stared at space.

“Master, what did you mean when you mentioned the teahouse?” Juntao had never leaned so close to his Master’s face without getting glared at before.

“Oh. That?” Lingyun’s chuckle was languid. “Just some strange place I’ve discovered by accident. Apparently the men there like to be ordered around and fucked…by other men. A strange lot, those morons were.” A pause. “Well, at least they were pretty good at sucking dick…though, no matter what, I still couldn’t get the same sensation I got in those two…nights….”

A sickening feeling was beginning to weigh down Juntao’s heart. “What nights?”

“You know, I always had a feeling it was that bastard the first time—I just didn’t understand why, so I didn’t think much about who the hell did it. When things don’t make sense, it’s always best to ignore them, after all.” Lingyun’s eyes were getting a little watery. “I…I always wanted to believe that the bastard wasn’t lying to me all along…but what an idiot I was.” His voice quivered. “What a fucking idiot I was. I’m pathetic, pathetic.”

Juntao decided not to digest whatever his Master had just said. “I hate that man too, I knew he was untrustworthy to begin with—he didn’t deserve your trust.”

“You can’t hate him. Only I can hate him!” Lingyun’s response was sharply articulate. After a while, he continued, his speech a little slurred again, “I just want things to go back to the way they were. Even if it was a lie, a stupid dream. I just—” He bit his lips. “I just want the old Fengbo back! It’s only been around five days, but I feel like I’m running out of air—this wasn’t what I wanted at all! This wasn’t—”

“Master, please stop talking about Xuan Fengbo,” Juntao interrupted with a growl. His fists were so tight that his knuckles were hurting. “I never lied to you, I never placed anything before you—so why am I not good for you? Am I not good enough? I swear I love you more than that Xuan guy will ever love you—he clearly doesn’t even care about you at all!”

“Brat, you’re my disciple,” Lingyun drawled, listless. “What the hell are you talking about?”

“But Xuan Fengbo is your brother-in-law!” Juntao almost roared; he couldn’t, so he settled for a hiss instead. “And he happily became your brother-in-law, remember?”

Lingyun didn’t respond. He shifted to his side with his back turned to Juntao.

“Master, I thought you never cared for conventions and such. Why can’t I want you to be my Master and my lover at the same time?”

“I never said I wanted that bastard to be my…!” Lingyun bit his lips. It was hard to tell if he was blushing or not, since he was already flushed from all the alcohol.

“Then forget about Xuan Fengbo,” Juntao implored, crawling onto Lingyun’s bed and hovering above Lingyun’s body.

“What are you doing, Juntao?” Lingyun attempted to push Juntao off, but his intoxication made him slower than usual; Juntao caught Lingyun’s wrist easily. Though, even when drunk, his Master still had a lot of strength.

Leaning close to Lingyun’s ears, Juntao murmured, “Just give me a chance, Master. I don’t believe that I cannot pleasure you as well as Xuan Fengbo has.”

cline3

Chapter 44

Yulan had always ignored what she suspected between her son and Fengbo, but Lingyun’s lingering attachment to Fengbo was far stronger than what she had expected. She had to know the truth. As Lingyun’s mother and the Empress Dowager, she was conflicted over what she wanted. As Lingyun’s mother, she wanted her son to have a happy love life, no matter with whom. Yet, as the Empress Dowager, she would do anything to prevent their broken relationship from mending in a way that was not allowed.

And worse, Fengbo seemed to never have cared for her son—Yulan was beginning to suspect the man was merely manipulating Lingyun’s feelings for him, and manipulating everyone to think that he had feelings for her son. After all, Fengbo had fooled her once when he had faked support for Zhitian; he could very well fool her again.

“Fengbo, just what was your relationship with my son?” Yulan began after she had finished preparing the tea.

Wearing an irritatingly professional smile, Fengbo thanked her as she filled his teacup. “Nothing,” he replied calmly. “We had no prior relationship.”

“You know the punishment of lying to me, don’t you?” Yulan threatened, her voice trembling. Anger. She should be relieved instead, but she could not stop the rage that was starting to boil inside.

Unfazed, Fengbo took a sip of tea. “I would not dare lie to you, Grand Majesty.” He was still smiling, but there was a shadow in his eyes. “Perhaps, if you worded the question in a different manner, you would have gotten a different answer.”

The harsh candidness of his reply made Yulan’s shoulders jump—she had not expected such an impatient response. However, at the same time, her original assumption that Fengbo never cared for her son was dispelled.

“Explain your answer, then,” she demanded. “Why did you say there was no relationship?”

Fengbo tightened his grip on the clay teacup. “I am His Imperial Majesty’s mere subject, and I will fulfill that role the best I can. I will do whatever I can to make his wishes come true, or at least as close to coming true as possible.” His smile was as mirthless as ever. “Consequently, His Imperial Majesty wishes that we had no relationship, and so we had no relationship.”

Now Yulan was getting annoyed again, even though she knew Fengbo had done the correct thing. “Can’t you tell that he’s not happy with this arrangement?” she growled. “He can’t admit it himself—he’s the emperor.”

Fengbo lost his smile now. He gazed into his teacup. “He will never be happy, of course.” His voice was distant. “I…took happiness from him when I betrayed him, when I decided to choose this Empire over him. Nothing I do will restore what I have destroyed—I can only try to atone by giving him my unwavering loyalty.”

“Atone, huh?” Yulan murmured. She still wasn’t sure if Fengbo was acting or not. Her nephew had always had a knack for telling people what they wanted to hear, ever since he was a child. “I was the one who persuaded your father to support Lingyun, and your father ordered you to betray your friend despite your protests. I’m just as guilty.” As she spoke, she felt hot tears well up in her eyes, but she controlled them, as the grand empress dowager did not cry in front of anyone. Yet, it felt somewhat relieving, to finally voice her guilt, to share it with someone who most likely understood. “But Fengbo, did you love him?”

“Yes.” Fengbo replaced the cup to the table, a bit too stiffly. “Rest assured, however. My feelings are completely one-sided and I do not intend to change the situation.”

“Are you sure it’s one sided?” Yulan almost asked, but she stopped herself just in time. Instead, she asked, “What do you intend to do now? Everyone now doubts how much support they should give to the Xuan—they think you’re out of favor with the emperor.”

“I am out of favor,” Fengbo replied calmly. “I will always be out of favor. However, I will not drag the Xuan down with me—I also have Ruixiang to thank for that.” He refilled Yulan’s teacup and then his own. “The Xuan, especially the leader, never openly participated in politics, so I plan to resign from politics and focus on the military when the time comes. If I perceive too much disadvantage for the Xuan because of my presence, or if I am no longer able to carry out my duties well, I will take trips to leave the capital and manage the borders instead.”

“Leave, eh?” Yulan sipped her tea. She didn’t know if that would be good for her son or not—after almost two years without Fengbo, he had never seemed to have gotten any better. Maybe it had been different, because he had thought that Fengbo did not support him…but after his outburst this night, she was sure that it wasn’t all.

Her son couldn’t let go, because he didn’t want to let go.

He probably just wanted…

“Well now.” Fengbo returned the teacup to the table and started to stand up. “I have to check on my men and discuss this event with some trusted friends.”

“Fengbo,” Yulan called before the man left, surprising herself.

Fengbo paused.

To hell with this dilemma—she had already failed so many times as a mother, and she wouldn’t forgive herself if she failed again. Even if she knew her nephew would not give Lingyun what he wanted. “Before you do that, can you visit His Imperial Majesty? At least…talk to him; it seemed like he wanted to talk.”

It took Fengbo longer than normal to respond, “I don’t think he wants to see me. Please excuse me.”

“See him,” Yulan ordered when Fengbo’s fingers touched the door.

Fengbo left without a reply.

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Chunmei was still thinking about what she had heard when she bumped into someone again. And of all people, she had to bump into the one person she did not want to see.

“Evening, Chunmei,” Fengbo said. Strange, though, that he would not see her coming. “I have to say I’m proud of what you did earlier. So, how’s His Imperial Majesty doing?”

This was a normal question, yet somehow the reason it had been asked seemed not normal at all. “He’s….” Chunmei bit her lip and lowered her gaze. “He’s sleeping,” she lied.

“I see. He did have a very long day, so I hope he will have a good sleep.” Fengbo chuckled and patted her shoulder. “Don’t worry, Chunmei, I think the Ning’s proposal was in His Imperial Majesty’s plans, since he’s friends with Ning’s emperor…for now,” he mouthed quietly.

Chunmei blinked. So her brother knew? Yet, she was rather sure Lingyun had not told him.

“It was a risk he took to prevent the regional nobles from rebelling, and an unfair alliance was something we couldn’t have avoided either,” Fengbo continued, his voice low enough for just the two of them. “We’ll just fool them for a while until we’ve regained strength, and if they get too greedy and aggressive, we’ll strike back.”

“I’m not…worried about that,” Chunmei muttered. “I’m confident in His Imperial Majesty’s ability to bring prosperity back to the empire. I just….” She searched desperately for an excuse. “I was thinking about how to solve a recent conflict in the Harem.”

“Oh.” Fengbo smiled. “Well, you can talk to me about it if you want to.”

Quickly, Chunmei shook her head. “No, it’s all right. I can handle it.”

Grinning, Fengbo said, “You’re a very good Empress, Chunmei. I’m proud of you.”

Chunmei opened her mouth, but closed it again. She had thought that her brother would stay a while longer and wait for her to gather her thoughts, but instead, he bid her good night and left.

All she could do was watch her brother leave. She wanted to ask him questions, wanted to demand that he tell her what he had done, but in the end, she wasn’t sure if she wanted to know. She wanted to forget everything she had heard this night, but she knew she couldn’t.

Before Lingyun could say anything, Juntao turned Lingyun’s chin and kissed him; he took advantage of his Master’s confusion and slid his tongue in while he reached down to caress the area between his Master’s legs. As his tongue brushed Lingyun’s, he felt himself get hard. It was unbelievable—he was kissing his Master, kissing the man who had always been so distant, so protected.

“Lingyun,” he murmured as he panted for air. He liked the way his Master’s name rolled off his tongue. He pressed close to kiss Lingyun again, but instead, he was pushed away.

“Stop it,” Lingyun protested. “I—”

“Why?” Juntao demanded. “You let any stranger touch you—fuck, you even wanted to let that perverted ambassador to touch you—so why won’t you let me? Why won’t you even give me a chance?”

“It’s exactly because I know you,” Lingyun snapped, a little too loudly. Juntao leapt back up the beams in case someone came in to check on the emperor, and as he had expected, the door slid open. In came a man whom Juntao wanted to kill. The man’s fingers were firmly wrapped around the grip of his dao as he glanced swiftly at the surroundings. Juntao moved quietly to avoid being seen, and as he did so, a sense of icy calmness eased over, putting out the hot flame that had just flared lively in his body not long ago.

This cold, inhuman feeling was very familiar. The only person who made Juntao feel alive was his Master, and yet…

He sighed inwardly. Why did he have to be in love with someone who would probably never return his feelings? Why did he have to be in love with someone who was out of his reach? He threw away those unpleasant thoughts and concentrated on the matters below.

The jackass was merely staring at Lingyun’s back, and as he stared, Lingyun’s shoulders stiffened. “Is there anything wrong, Your Majesty?” Fengbo finally asked; Lingyun’s shoulders became even stiffer. “I thought I heard you talking when I was walking past this room.”

Must be a lie. That bastard had some fucked up excuse—he just wanted to torment Lingyun! Juntao gritted his teeth and tried to control the suicidal urge to jump down and punch Fengbo straight in the face.

“Yes, everything is wrong!” Lingyun yelled back. “Everything went wrong the moment you betrayed me, you bastard!” Though Fengbo could not see Lingyun’s expression, Juntao could—and he slowly reached for his poisonous needles. He was in a perfect position and could kill Fengbo any time. It was always Fengbo. Why wouldn’t his Master look at him? If he killed Fengbo, would his Master finally look at him?

If that asshole intended to do anything to Juntao’s Master, he would strike at the first sign.

Instead, Fengbo stood stiffly at his original point, his stolid expression unchanged. “I am deeply sorry. It seems that I have intruded when I am not welcome.”

Damn right he wasn’t welcomed.

A deep bow. “Please excuse my insolence. I will now get rid of myself.” He let out a small sigh as he turned around. Before he left, he gazed at Lingyun’s back again. Then, he closed the door.

When Juntao glanced at his Master again, he felt like chasing Fengbo down and killing him.

He had never seen his Master cry, until this night.

“Fengbo…,” Lingyun whispered amidst the silence. “You fucking moron. Who said you could leave?”

cline3

Chapter 45

Not long after Xuan Fengbo left, Juntao’s Master fell asleep. With no other choice, Juntao spent some time admiring Lingyun’s sleeping face, and closed his eyes to rest as well.

Around the Time of Mao, the sound of the door sliding open woke Juntao. It should have woken Lingyun as well, but for some reason, Lingyun remained asleep. Two eunuchs lifting a long platform table came in, leaving wordlessly after they set it down. Then, a line of eunuchs came in, some carrying serving trays, some carrying cylinder baskets that contained three boxes. Even though Juntao was an amateur, he could tell that the wooden baskets had been carved by the best artisan in Yue.

One of the eunuchs quietly walked to the incense burner, which was jade and made up of detailed dragons, to change the incense, while the eunuchs holding the baskets took out the boxes inside and busied themselves with removing the lids, instantly filling the room with the aroma of delicious food. In an orderly fashion, they placed the plates of food on the table. One eunuch took out a pair of silver chopsticks and tasted every dish for poison.

Master couldn’t possibly eat that much food, Juntao thought to himself. And strangely, his Master remained sound asleep. Juntao caught some eunuchs staring at Lingyun’s sleeping face, and he felt like telling them to go away—he didn’t like the fact that people were seeing something so rare.

“Your Majesty,” the best dressed eunuch called at last when the preparations were complete. His high-pitched voice was soft, and to Juntao, disgusting. “It’s the Time of Mao already.”

Lingyun didn’t respond. The eunuch repeated what he said three times. Then, he gulped and reached out, his trembling hand pausing mid-air. Finally, he placed it on Lingyun’s shoulder and gently shook the emperor. “Your Majesty,” he called again.

Moaning a little, Lingyun finally woke. Lingyun looked at the eunuch and he quickly removed his hand as he lowered his head. Lingyun ignored the eunuch, though his peaceful sleeping face was already replaced by an icy frown. He massaged his temples while a eunuch with a tray holding a teacup, a wooden stick with some paste on one end, and a golden bowl knelt down beside him. Over the golden bowl, Lingyun cleaned his teeth with the wood and rinsed his mouth with the tea. The eunuch hurried away after he finished and the one behind stepped forward, holding a tray with another golden bowl that had been molded with nature’s scenery. Lingyun washed his face and dried it with the cloth that was placed beside the container. Quickly, another eunuch helped Lingyun shave. Then, some eunuchs were going to help him off the bed, but a cold stare made them stand still. Lingyun got up himself while two eunuchs helped him undress.

What the hell? Angry, Juntao could do nothing but fume in the darkness as he watched.

How could these freaks touch his Master?

After Lingyun finished changing, he sat down again so the best dressed eunuch could brush his hair and secure it into a bun. Again, irritation instantly filled Juntao. He seldom had the chance to touch his Master’s hair, and this eunuch was able to do so every day.

The eunuch then picked up a golden hair crest that had two symmetrical dragons and placed it over Lingyun’s hair bun, securing it in place with a golden stick. While he worked on Lingyun’s hair, two eunuchs carefully lifted the table and set it down in front of Lingyun. The large room was now almost empty again.

“I want to read the records from last night,” Lingyun finally said as he picked up his jade-and-gold chopsticks.

“Understood, Majesty,” said the best dressed eunuch, who happened to be the only one left now. “I will get the records from the scribes immediately.” He then bowed with his hands in his sleeves and excused himself.

Juntao considered jumping down and greeting his Master, but Lingyun’s coldness all morning had frozen him in place.

Why did Lingyun want to read the records from the scribes? Did he not remember what occurred the night before, or was he merely pretending to not know in order to emphasize that it had all been a mistake from drunkenness?

As Juntao considered, however, his stomach betrayed him and growled on its own accord.

Immediately, Lingyun threw his jade chopsticks at Juntao’s direction.

Out of instinct, Juntao caught the chopsticks. He then landed on the ground without making a sound. “Master, it’s me.”

Lingyun narrowed his eyes. “I thought I told you to stick with Sima Lü whenever you’re in the Palace.”

So his Master didn’t remember last night at all, didn’t remember Juntao’s confession. Or was he pretending not to remember? Juntao would never know, but he did know that, no matter what the truth was, he had to go along with his Master. “I…I was worried about you yesterday, Master. You didn’t seem right,” he confessed after he got on all fours.

“That is no excuse,” Lingyun replied icily. “Do not forget that I am also the emperor, and you are the one who almost killed me. People will not forget that, and I have already shown you enough mercy by allowing you to live. Do not test my patience, Juntao.”

“Yes, Master. I will not make this mistake again.” Juntao gritted his teeth and lowered his head. Back to the cold, unapproachable man that he didn’t want to admit was his Master, eh?

Lingyun massaged his temples with one hand and held out his other to take back his chopsticks. When Juntao returned them, he couldn’t resist brushing his fingers over Lingyun’s. His Master’s brows twitched, but he didn’t say anything and ate in silence.

As Lingyun placed his chopsticks down on their matching chopstick holder, he said, “Since you’re here already, you might as well tell me what you learned from last night.”

Quickly, Juntao recalled what he had observed: the apparent trustworthiness of officials, their plans, their relationships and such.

“Anything else?” Lingyun asked, picking up his teacup.

Actually, ever since that Ambassador had entered to ruin the party, Juntao had not paid much attention to his job and he was rather sure that nothing could be observed from the equally shocked officials either. “No, Master. That is all. You became…err….a bit drunk, so the celebration ended early.”

Lingyun sipped his tea quietly. He set the teacup down and continued to eat for a while before he said, “You have proved yourself worthy. I will let you return to Mount Blood Flames and I’ll give you half a year to execute your plans to change your Sect. I will send for you when my men give me news.” He finally met Juntao’s eyes. “You are now excused. Leave this room when no one will notice.”

And so, Juntao was forced to return to the shadows, to pretend like he wasn’t there. He couldn’t find a chance to bring up the subject of last night, even though he was dying to do so. Not long after, a eunuch came in with the records Lingyun had ordered. When the eunuch left, Lingyun left the table and sat on the bed. There was still plenty of food left on the plates on his table.

Like an afterthought, Lingyun piped up, “By the way, Juntao, you’re hungry, aren’t you? I give you permission to eat the food on the table if you feel like eating.” Then, he started to read, his lips drawing thinner after each page.

Of course, with the thought of using his Master’s chopsticks, Juntao jumped down, thanked his Master with a kowtow, and ate. The food was unbelievable—Juntao had never tasted anything so delicious before. No wonder his Master had never seemed satisfied with the food in the past, if this was the stuff he had grown up on—the rice alone could be consumed without any side dishes. If Juntao had wanted to, he could have cleared almost all the plates on the table—but of course, he knew that doing so was rude, not to mention it would cause questions. After all, Lingyun obviously never finished his food.

In the meantime, it didn’t take long for Juntao’s Master to finish reading. He closed the book, got up, walked to the door and slid it open. Juntao quickly replaced Lingyun’s chopsticks and returned to hide on the beams.

“Get the Supreme general,” Lingyun ordered. Somehow, his voice became flatter when he uttered the words ‘supreme general’. He closed the door behind him. Through it, Juntao heard his Master continue, “I also want to see Duan Mingwu, Xie Liang, Ke Xianyao, Zhang Suqiong and Xu Guangdao. Tell them all to gather at my place. We have matters to discuss.”

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To be personally called to meet the emperor in his palace was the dream of every official—and Ke Xianyao would have been lying if he’d said it wasn’t his dream, too. Even though this day was supposed to be a day off in celebration of both the emperor’s birthday and Winter Solstice, Xianyao was honored to be summoned. Moreover, everyone would now know that he had helped the emperor seize power, and things would be a lot easier for him.

As he let his servant lead his horse, Xianyao went over in his mind the things he had to say, but soon, his thoughts wandered back to the previous night. Indeed, the emperor’s erratic behavior was a cause for concern. Xianyao had always assumed the emperor’s hatred for Xuan Fengbo stemmed from the man’s outright disrespect and lack of support as the Xuan’s leader, but the more Xianyao thought about the emperor’s anger, the more he did not understand. Before the supreme general’s return, Xianyao had never seen the emperor show rage—what exactly made the supreme general such a special case?

Not to mention, the incident last night made Xianyao unsure of the Xuan’s stance—especially Xuan Fengbo’s. After all, the man had been rebuked in front of all the officials in court, and it was already clear that the emperor did not like him.

Would the Xuan fall? Xianyao did not particularly care for nobility, but if the Xuan fell, who would replace them? The Duan? Yet, Ruixiang was also one of the emperor’s loyal, though less known, supporters, and Xianyao was rather sure the emperor would not disgrace Ruixiang’s family.

It was a very complicated matter, and Xianyao kept thinking about what to say to the emperor in regards to the supreme general. History indicated that normally, such powerful families would not go down quietly. Yet, the incident last night also reminded Xianyao that Xie Liang had been ignored by the emperor for a month just for mentioning Xuan Fengbo in a slightly positive tone—would it be a wise idea to speak for the supreme general?

After all, unlike Liang, Xianyao was neutral about the supreme general. Indeed, the supreme general had proved himself a man worthy of respect, but in Xianyao’s opinion, Fengbo had too much power. Power that could undermine the emperor’s prestige. The most cunning man could easily fool others into trusting him—and Fengbo could very well be one of them. Thus, Xianyao did not trust the supreme general. Had he really been tricking Zhitian, or had he simply foreseen that no good would come out of cooperating with that snake and turned to the emperor for support instead?

Thus, it would be better to provide the emperor advice on how to take power away from Fengbo than to speak for stability. However, Xianyao had to be careful—the Xuan had ears everywhere, and if he didn’t handle the matter well, he would probably lose his life over it.

As he thought to himself, he arrived at Qiuyue Palace’s gates. He got off the horse, let the guards frisk him, and stepped through the gates.

When he entered the building, he was utterly surprised and confounded by who he saw.

What was Xuan Fengbo doing here? Xianyao wished his servant was here so he could glare at the idiot for failing to tell him who else the emperor had summoned. The meaning behind Fengbo’s presence—was the emperor telling them that he trusted Xuan Fengbo? Or was he trying to appease the man by inviting him?

Strange. Very strange. Another cause for concern. As he took the breath refreshing candy a eunuch offered him and popped it in his mouth, Xianyao decided he had to find time to tell the emperor what he thought of the Xuan’s power.

Other than Fengbo, Duan Mingwu, Xie Liang, and Xu Guangdao were already present. Shortly after, Zhang Suqiong arrived, and the emperor walked in and sat atop the stairs. Xianyao and the rest of the officials quickly kowtowed to greet the emperor.

“I understand that something…unexpected…occurred last night,” the emperor admitted.

“It wasn’t your fault, Majesty,” Mingwu said quickly. “The Ambassador shouldn’t have been tardy.”

The emperor gave Mingwu a cold glance. “Don’t interrupt me.”

Mingwu lowered his head. “My deepest apologies.”

“While Ning bears good will right now, I know Ye Qiuyang wants more than just an alliance. It is clear to me that Ye Qiuyang’s ambition is to rule all lands, especially this one. My intelligence force report to me of his plans to take over Jin for good, and he’d likely aim for Xia as well, in the name for avenging Ning’s ‘brother country’. His ambition won’t stop there, however. Right now he refrains from taking over Yue merely because he remembers our friendship.” The emperor paused, narrowing his eyes. “No doubt, his advisors will eventually convince him to take over this empire, in a way that won’t make him feel guilty about betraying this friendship.”

Again, Xianyao had a feeling that the emperor was particularly unhappy, but he didn’t understand why a man like Bai Lingyun would care. The emperor had always been detached—Xianyao could not imagine how important the friendship between him and Ning’s ruler was.

As subtly as he could, Xianyao glanced at the faces of the other officials to see if they were as confused as he was. Mingwu looked worried, Guangdao seemed deep in his own thoughts, and Liang exchanged quick, inquisitive glances with Suqiong. Only Fengbo maintained a perfectly blank expression.

Unsurprised by Fengbo’s usual lack of expression, Xianyao returned his gaze to the emperor’s feet.

“After last night, Ye Muren will likely report back to Ning with news that I do not trust General Xuan and the Ning will feel less threatened by our military—after all, General Duan’s men aren’t enough to go against them if they conquered Jin and Liao.” Even when mentioned, Fengbo didn’t seem to feel any pressure. “General Xuan, what do you think of this?”

There it was. Xianyao had been waiting for the emperor to test Xuan Fengbo. Finally, he understood the purpose behind inviting Fengbo—the emperor intended to force Fengbo to swear loyalty to him in front of everyone present. In particular, General Duan. Yet, it also meant that the emperor wanted to trust Xuan Fengbo.

This did not make sense at all. Xianyao was rather sure that the emperor disliked Fengbo—what was the point of keeping someone he disliked around? Now Xianyao was forced to reconsider Fengbo’s relationship with the emperor. However, no matter how much he pondered, he still could not understand.

“No matter what you wish for, Majesty, I will comply,” Fengbo replied. “If I had ten thousand lives, they would all be yours to command. If you distrust me and want me to resign, I will gladly do so right now.”

A little too generous—did Xuan Fengbo mean that? Not to mention, it had been worded somewhat strangely. Nevertheless, Xianyao now saw Fengbo in a different light. It would be a shame to demote an able General as loyal as he was.

However, Xianyao had not forgotten how much the emperor hated Fengbo.

He half-expected the emperor to instantly demote Fengbo as he waited for the emperor to respond. “I have not forgotten your efforts in the South, General Xuan,” the emperor said finally. His posture was unnaturally stiff. “Anyhow, as much as I would like to avoid war, I doubt it can be avoided. I have called you all over to discuss how to capitalize on Ning’s eventual assumption that the Xuan is out of favor.”

Had the emperor pretended to hate Xuan Fengbo all along, or was he simply able to completely detach emotions from his profession? Either way, Xianyao could feel nothing but respect, and also, fear.

cline3

Chapter 46

Unbelievable! Yiming could not believe his grand uncle’s behavior—it was nothing he had expected. Yiming thought it was better to threaten Lingyun to give the northwestern army a larger budget, not ask for it.

It had to be the Ning’s Alliance proposal—sure, the terms were threatening and unfair, as Ning was audacious enough to want to interfere with Yue’s politics, claiming to provide the Imperial Court ‘help’ if they needed to settle any unrest. With two of the most acclaimed generals supporting Lingyun and therefore half the military under his control, the regional lords were cowering.

Worse, Lingyun had an air of authority that Yiming had never seen before. He had acted so outrageously unprofessional on his birthday, and yet, now he was impeccable. His attitude and his quick, solid decisions had somehow made it impossible to speak out against him. Of course, Yiming knew better—this was all an act to garner support and instill fear. Doubtless Lingyun was laughing behind that icy mask; Yiming could easily imagine the sneer on his brother’s face.

Yiming knew his conceited brother had been planning to steal the throne from him! Zhitian had not believed that Lingyun was ambitious, and he had died for being so stupid. Qingyan lost the respect of the regional lords, since he had blatantly lied in his letters about Lingyun’s plan to give the throne to Xuan Fengbo. Not to mention, Zhu Zi’an had just been demoted to the outer regions and replaced by Xu Guangdao, who was one of Lingyun’s many conspirators. On the other hand, Xie Liang filled Zhitian’s position, and Zhang Suqiong was promoted to become the Head of the Censorate. Xie Liang’s uncle and father, as well as Suqiong’s, were relocated back to the Palace. All were the men who had assisted Lingyun in passing the order to execute Zhitian. No doubt this conspiracy had been set into motion long before Yiming had lost his position!

Gritting his teeth, Yiming forced himself not to glare at the cheat who occupied the seat that belonged to him. He had spent two years pretending to have learned from his ‘lesson’, pretending to be upright and frugal—yet, his hard work was likely to amount to nothing. Lingyun would never let his grand uncle, Bai Junjie, pass any power to Yiming.

After Lingyun heard their grand uncle’s report, he said, “I understand your concerns, but what does fortifying the borders with Ning’s lands say to them? Distrust. Currently, we cannot afford to have a bad relationship with Ning. Instead, I will send General Duan to oversee the training of the men stationed near you.”

Great. Now Duan Mingwu would be there to hamper Yiming’s plans.

Xiang Fan, the Minister of War, raised his ivory tablet for permission to speak. “Speaking of the military, the position of Defending General of the Southwest is empty. It once belonged to General Li, who lost his life during the war with Jin and Xia. Finding a replacement to fill that position cannot be delayed any longer, Majesty. Please make a decision.”

Hearing this, Bai Dingsheng, Yiming’s uncle, straightened his back.

“Who was his substitute during that time?” Lingyun inquired.

Xiang Fan bowed a little. “Reporting to Majesty: It was Bai Cheng’en, the third son of HanWang.”

“Then he can have the position.”

“Understood, Majesty.” Xiang Fan returned back in line.

Dingsheng could not hide the smile on his face, and neither could Yiming’s grand uncle. No doubt that having someone from the Imperial Family in a high military rank placated their worries regarding the Xuan. Yiming had heard his relatives speculate about the Xuan’s threat—even though Lingyun obviously did not intend to pass up the throne, who knew what Xuan Fengbo was thinking? The man had too much military power and influence in the Court. Even if Lingyun wanted to demote Fengbo, he couldn’t.

As subtly as he could, Yiming glanced at Fengbo to see if the man would object—he had the power to, after all. However, Fengbo remained expressionless. Then, Yiming remembered hearing that Fengbo had a good relationship with Bai Dingsheng; it was quite apparent since Dingsheng was the only relative who ignored Qingyan. Fengbo had been the one to make Cheng’en substitute general; of course he had no objections.

Maybe Yiming could use Fengbo to take back what was rightfully his.

Hiding his grin, Yiming started devising a plan to contact Fengbo. His plan ran so wild that he hardly paid attention to the Conference. It was mostly regional officials reporting about the condition of their governed regions and making various requests. Lingyun gave permissions to some and delayed others. Yiming had no idea how Lingyun made the decisions; he could only surmise that his brother was pretending to know what he was doing.

Then, when Lingyun started to state his goal for reforms, Yiming’s attention was caught.

“If I hear of and confirm any actions of bribery, the punishment is the loss of status and confiscation of the dirty money involved,” Lingyun was saying. “Of course, if the accusations of corruption are false, the slanderer will face demotion. Which brings to my next point—I want the ability to appeal cases to become easier. A new judge from the Central will be sent to judge the case in response to requests. Try to hide the requests, face demotion.”

Dead silence. Some wizened officials nodded their heads, smiling. Many officials’ faces were paling. The lips of some regional lords twitched.

“Also, I want officials to find the flaws in our laws and rewrite them. I understand there is no perfect law, but I dislike big, glaring loopholes that can be exploited easily.” Lingyun paused. “Naturally, my orders are going to increase the need for more officials. I expect every minister and department heads to find out what positions are needed, and what current positions are useless. I expect the completion of the list to be in time for the Next Imperial Examination.”

Like hell these reforms would go well. Yiming wanted to rip off Lingyun’s fake mask—that phony egoist only wanted to appear morally upright so no one could object to the centralization of power.

rai-l32

A month ago, Cheng’en’s father, the lord governing the southwestern city, had decided to bring him along to visit the capital city. Cheng’en had heard his two elder brothers talk of their experiences and had already expected something spectacular, but he still couldn’t believe how huge and organized the capital was—it was probably three times the size of the city he lived in, with seven times more citizens. Cheng’en’s home was supposedly the third-largest in Yue!

Right down the middle of the city was a straight, unbelievably wide road, lined with trees, leading to the Palace gates. Every building bordering the main street was tall and large, with courtyards of considerable size. Though the buildings were probably only a quarter the size of Cheng’en’s mansion, seeing so many sizable buildings lined down the long street was still overwhelming.

However, the real mansions were located near the two markets, especially the houses in the northeast. The most grandiose of all was, with little doubt, larger than Cheng’en’s mansion back in his own city. Unsurprisingly, the mansion belonged to the Xuan family, the most powerful nobility in Yue, second only to the imperial family. In response to their location near the Eastern Market, most nobility chose to reside in the East; the buildings near the Western Market were mostly inhabited by lesser nobility, merchants, or foreign diplomats.

Cheng’en already thought the markets in his city were extremely lively and crowded, but behind the walls surrounding the Eastern Market was a world so vivacious that his city’s market paled in comparison. All the best blacksmiths, artisans, and chefs gathered at the capital; any product from the entire country could be bought in the city, saving the need to run all over the empire for a specific type of product. With Cheng’en, twenty servants and maids each accompanied them to purchase goods they could bring back. Since Cheng’en was unfamiliar with directing purchasing decisions, he let his brother-in-law do the job and wandered off to explore the city with his servant. He mostly spent time in the weaponry shops, astounded by how almost every shop had a wide and fine array of merchandise that could not be purchased elsewhere.

On Winter Solstice, all citizens celebrated the emperor’s birthday, and the capital was so filled with life that even Cheng’en, who was no stranger to watching peasants celebrating, felt baffled. Music, firecrackers, clamoring gongs and booming drums filled the city all day and all night. The smell of joss sticks and firecrackers filled the air, and the streets were swarming with people. Aside from paying his ancestors’ graves a visit, Cheng’en gathered with his relatives ate tangyuan with them.

However, it wasn’t until the Winter Conference was concluded that Cheng’en had time to visit his local relatives. His father was one of the few regional officials that left satisfied, and a large reason for that happiness was Cheng’en’s promotion to fill the position of the Defending General of the Southwest. While his father spent time with other relatives and regional lords, Cheng’en’s cousins and friends finally had the time to show him around the capital. The first place they chose to acquaint him with was, unsurprisingly, the most infamous Green Building in Yue.

“You’re already twenty, and you haven’t touched a woman yet?” Wide-eyed, his cousin, Bai Shiwei, stared at him.

Cheng’en felt his cheeks burn. “It’s not exactly my fault, all right? I was fighting that war and didn’t have the chance.” He chuckled and punched his cousin’s shoulder. “Unlike you, who had all the time in the world to enjoy life.”

“Sure….” Xuan Zhe smirked and elbowed Cheng’en. “Don’t forget I was also fighting along with you, Cheng’en-di. Shiwei, don’t listen to Cheng’en-di’s lies—they hired ladies to meet our needs. Though they certainly were not the best-looking women, they had decent bodies and skills. The only problem for the normal soldiers was the wait—but luckily, we have the first shot.” He slapped Cheng’en’s back. “Thus, you have no excuses, Cheng’en.”

“I heard they even hired luan tong,” Yang Antai added with a snort. “Now those boys know how to pleasure with their mouths, even when they’re getting fucked from behind.”

The thought of being subjected to another’s control and treated like a toy made blood rush down Cheng’en’s lower half. What would it be like, to be fucked from behind and forced to suck dick at the same time? As he thought, he felt his ears warm.

Shiwei laughed heartily, patting his round stomach. “If it were me, any village woman could do—I can’t stand a day without fucking. Drives my wife crazy, but screw that jealous, controlling bitch. I can fuck whoever I want to fuck.” He then threw his thick arm around Cheng’en and headed toward the Green Building’s front doors. “Come on, brother, tonight’s on me!”

The interior of the Green Building was lit with many red lanterns, and the smell from hypnotizing incense made the place almost like another world. The shelves were decorated with tasteful porcelain, and the folding screens were painted by a skilled artisan.

“Bai-shaoye—it’s Bai-shaoye, isn’t it? We haven’t seen you for a while! Where were you?” a voice to the side sounded. Cheng’en turned to look.

Many ladies stood on display, all showcasing their pale chests, some more endowed than others. Their hair was adorned with gems, and dangling jewelry hung off their ears; their faces were painted with heavy make-up. Red, small lips were curved with mysterious smiles, and Cheng’en could hear the ladies whisper and giggle amongst themselves.

Shiwei snickered and wrapped his spare hand around the most beautiful lady in the group. “I was caught up with work, Yaoyao. You know, catching up on the reports in preparation for the Winter Conference.”

The lady giggled and slapped Shiwei’s hand. “Pervert! Where are you touching?”

Laughing, Shiwei threw his arm around Cheng’en again and dragged Cheng’en toward the counter. He nodded to the middle-aged lady who stood behind the pedestal. “Pick out the most beautiful and skilled girl you’ve got for this virgin!”

“Hey!” Cheng’en shoved Shiwei aside.

“No need to be shy about your virginity,” Shiwei said loudly. The ladies on display giggled, and Cheng’en felt the back of his neck heat up. Shiwei turned back to the woman at the counter. “Anyway, get the best ladies, including Yaoyao, and the best wine in the building. This is my cousin’s first time visiting this city; he just got a promotion, and tonight’s also going to be the night he loses his virginity!” Shiwei threw his head back and roared with laughter along with Antai and Zhe, while Cheng’en wished he could find a hole to crawl into.

They drank wine and ate food as they watched the courtesans dance and play music; Shiwei began to talk about something more serious. “These days have been like hell—I didn’t even have the time to relax! Every day I worked my ass off, which was torturous enough, and eight days ago the emperor nearly got assassinated, which made things even worse.”

Indeed, Cheng’en had heard the messenger report to his father about the assassination.

“Never thought that Zhitian would lose his touch and get found out so easily, but considering who the emperor is…well, not too surprising. Met the His Imperial Majesty once when I was still hairless down there, and His Imperial Majesty was…well, intimidating. I remember not really understanding what he talked about—he already finished studying Six Classics out of the Nine—hell, I think he understood it better than I do right now. Think he was still around eight years old that time. Called me, who was five years older than him, a moron—I remember being so furious!” With that said, Shiwei roared with laughter and emptied his cup. The courtesan to his side refilled the porcelain with warm wine.

“You are a moron,” Xuan Zhe snorted. “His Imperial Majesty has an excellent perception, as expected from the Son of the Heavens*.”

“Xuan Zhe, you poison-tongued bastard!” Shiwei punched Zhe and forced him to drink a round of wine. “Anyhow, I always thought it strange, that His Imperial Majesty was powerless even after two years, and lo! I never knew that Ruixiang and Mingwu were under his thumb, along with Xu Guangdao, Xie Liang, Zhang Suqiong, and Ke Xianyao—all big shots above fifth rank!”

Cheng’en pretended like he knew who all those men were and nodded in agreement. Like hell he knew a thing about politics, however—he was a soldier, a general; politics was something his two elder brothers handled.

“Zhu Zi’an, as expected, got demoted, and Xu Guangdao replaced him—you can imagine the expression on Zi’an’s face!” Shiwei continued in a slur. “Man, I was some paces behind the line, but I almost laughed when I imagined it. Xie Liang is now a Chancellor, too. And speaking of demotions….” He eyed Xuan Zhe. “No offense, but I did expect someone in particular to be demoted too.”

Now this caught Cheng’en’s attention. He found himself straightening his back and leaning closer, hoping to hear more about the person in question.

How was he doing?

“Well, I guess His Imperial Majesty knew we were always on his side…Ruixiang was with him, after all,” Zhe said after he finished swallowing his food.

“You could have told Antai and me that the Xuan were on His Imperial Majesty’s side! We thought you were really on Zhitian’s side before the supreme general went against him. Then there were those nasty rumors.”

Rumors, yes. Although Cheng’en and his father had never believed the rumors, other relatives were quick to believe that Fengbo had his eye on the throne.

Again, Shiwei forced Zhe to another round of wine, and Zhe laughed and complied. While Zhe drank, Shiwei and Antai exchanged suspicious glances, though Cheng’en did not understand the motivation behind it. “So, General Xuan is still the supreme general,” he mused, smiling to himself. “Good for him. He’s a good General.”

“I heard he saved your life once during the war?” Antai inquired.

Cheng’en nodded. “He saved a lot of lives with his tactics. Without his direction, I think a lot of us wouldn’t have survived. I almost made a mistake in judgment when I was leading my men, and when he heard of my decision, he stopped me just in time.”

They talked for a while about his and Zhe’s experiences during the war, but in the end it was too painful for both men to continue so they returned to the subject of the Winter Conference instead.

Shiwei was happy to continue describing the happenings, “Anyhow, the emperor agreed to the Alliance with Ning and sent Ning’s ruler two of his concubines. I can’t believe it! How could he give up such beautiful women so easily? First, he cuts back his harem and lets out countless beauties; next, he sends Ning two of the best-looking concubines in his harem.” He motioned for the others to gather closer and whispered, “He never touched the women from his harem, I heard! He only touched the Empress—which is understandable, because she is very fine-looking indeed—but really, I don’t hear him giving her much love and attention in bed, either.”

“Well, the good news is that she’s pregnant now, remember?” Xuan Zhe asked.

Shaking his head, Shiwei sighed, “Not enough, I say, not enough. Why won’t he give his ladies a little more love? It’s so heartrending, whenever I think of those beautiful, young women crying alone at night!”

“Shiwei, you pervert, it’s none of your business, is it?” giggled Yaoyao.

“Don’t tell me you won’t feel lonely when I stop visiting, Yaoyao!” Shiwei wrapped an arm around Yaoyao’s waist and kissed her neck. The two fooled around a bit before Shiwei returned to the subject.

“What I’m worried about lately is this big test and big inspection that will occur in half a year,” he said. “His Imperial Majesty has ordered all officials in the Court to have their abilities tested, and even more terrifyingly, he ordered for the reform of the Censorate and intends to commence a thorough inspection for corruption….” He chuckled, though it was clearly forced. “I just hope he’s…more lenient on relatives…I mean, a lot of people were making some extra money just to make sure people knew what they were doing…he can’t possibly remove everyone from their positions, can he?” He finished his cup of wine in one gulp.

For a while, no one said a thing. After all, the emperor had executed Zhitian’s entire family—there was no telling how far he would go. “Look on the bright side,” Antai said at last. “His Imperial Majesty spared Sun Haoping and Zhu Zi’an. He also didn’t do anything to the ShuWang, who supported Zi’an, so I imagine this is just a warning for us officials to get our acts together and start working for real.”

Afterward, they talked of less significant happenings and experiences to lighten up the mood, and soon Shiwei got so drunk that he started to blabber about incredibly inappropriate thoughts. “So, I was sitting somewhat at a distance from His Imperial Majesty during his birthday celebration, but man, I never imagined he could be that seductive! I thought I was hallucinating and drunk at first, but when the supreme general took action, I knew it was all real. Shame that such a gorgeous face is born on someone no one can—”

“Shiwei!” Antai interrupted, slamming his cup on his table; the mostly empty plates on his table clattered loudly, and the room became instantly silent. The courtesans in the room quickly began performing again.

“What? I bet half the men who were close enough were thinking the same thing!” Shiwei protested with a slur. “Hell, who knows, maybe even the supreme general thought of it—he sure was jealous, I never seen him so angry before. Like he was going to kill the Ambassador.”

Xuan Zhe glared at Shiwei. “What the hell are you talking about? His anger stemmed from the Ambassador’s insolence—I don’t see how this has to do with your bizarre idea.”

Cheng’en nodded furiously in agreement with Zhe. Where the hell did Shiwei get the outrageous idea that the supreme general would harbor such blasphemous thoughts? There wasn’t even a shred of evidence of the described anger and jealousy.

“But what is the supreme general’s relationship with His Imperial Majesty, anyway? His Imperial Majesty is always unusually emotional whenever the supreme general is involved, for what reason? Don’t you think it’s strange? Especially the moment His Imperial Majesty mentioned whether or not Xuan Fengbo cared about him. Why did it matter so much? He even threw his cup! Makes me think of the years the supreme general went missing…didn’t it overlap with the time His Imperial Majesty was out of palace? Maybe they met during that time, and—”

“Shiwei, you’ve had too much wine. You’re beginning to talk gibberish and you’re getting insane ideas,” implored Yang Antai. He gave Yaoyao a quick glance and she nodded.

“Bai-shaoye,” she murmured beside Shiwei’s ear, “it’s late, don’t you want to….” She smiled meaningfully and let her slender, pale fingers intertwine with his.

“Yes, yes!” Shiwei said, gripping her hand and attempting to get up. Yaoyao helped him gain balance, and the two left the room.

Cheng’en and his other two relatives exchanged glances, wordlessly agreeing to never speak of what they had heard this night. Without Shiwei, the large room became much quieter; only the music from the courtesans’ instruments could be heard. Cheng’en pretended to go to the restroom to pay the bills in secret, only to realize Shiwei had already paid. When Cheng’en returned to the room, he found both his relatives flirting with some courtesans. Cheng’en found his conversations with the highly educated courtesans very awkward and strange, and eventually he couldn’t stand it anymore; he wasn’t particularly interested in them. He was, however, rather interested in fucking, just not with courtesans. However, for the sake of his reputation, he chose a random girl and they left for another room.

cline3

Chapter 47

“General Xuan, I can’t possibly accept this gift!” Bai Cheng’en protested as he handed back the box of top-quality fragrant wood. It had been almost a year since he had been promoted to Defending General of the Southwest, and since then, he had made trips to the capital city every three months to report the situation. Ning had conquered Jin, and there were suspicious movements in the southwest—probably, they were aiming for Xia next.

Chuckling, Fengbo pushed the box back toward Cheng’en. “It’s nothing, really. The foreign merchant who sells this only comes every two years, and a month ago I bought some incense from him. Thought you mentioned liking the incense sold at the capital, so I got you a rare one. I heard this wood is only found in the far west. When you return and go hunting with your friends, you can smoke your clothes with this wood—I’m sure they’d be amused.”

“But…this is too valuable.” Cheng’en could feel his cheeks burn and stared at the box instead. It was packaged carefully with quality paper, and labeled with artistic calligraphy that indicated the type of fragrance it was. “Compared to the wine set I gave you….”

Fengbo smiled. “Speaking of that, I was just in need of a new wine set. A few days ago, one of our maids accidentally dropped the set we normally used.”

A cool breeze blew through the windows and it felt good against Cheng’en’s sweaty neck. The food Fengbo had ordered came. “How’s your son?” Cheng’en asked as the waiter placed the dishes on the table.

“Yongguang? He’s healthy. A little loud, but the nanny takes care of him well. I told her not to spoil him, though. Ignore him for a while and he’d know that he won’t get what he wants just by screaming. Drives my wife crazy, though. Whenever she’s taking care of him, she spoils him…I just hope she doesn’t do that when he gets older. How about you? Getting married yet?”

Cheng’en laughed nervously as he poured wine for his superior. “No, not yet. You ask me every time I visit, General Xuan.”

Again, Fengbo smiled, and Cheng’en felt his stomach tighten. Damn, why was his smile so charming? “Just between you and me, Fengbo is fine.” Fengbo picked up a piece of duck meat and placed it on Cheng’en’s plate.

“But general, regulations are regulations…I’m your subordinate, I….”

Before Fengbo could say anything, an imperial eunuch came in. He had a strange stride; his hips moved like a female’s would. And he was headed their way. “Supreme general, the emperor wants to see you right now.”

What? Cheng’en dropped the food between his chopsticks. Why now? Wasn’t today Fengbo’s resting day?

Cheng’en had heard the rumors that the emperor did not like Xuan Fengbo, but did he have to do this to make his dislike clear?

And Cheng’en had looked forward to this day…

“Understood.” Fengbo’s smile was gone as he set his chopsticks down on a plate and stood up. He caught Cheng’en’s eyes apologetically and was about to pay for the bill when Cheng’en leapt up and ran in front of his superior.

“Wait! I’ll pay the bill, so don’t worry about wasting your time here. His Imperial Majesty called for you, right?”

“I’m leaving early,” Fengbo argued. “Even if it’s His Imperial Majesty’s will, I still feel guilty about leaving you here alone when I was the one who invited you. Besides, I already told you this meal’s on me, didn’t I?”

“Sorry to interrupt you both, but His Imperial Majesty has offered to pay for this meal,” said the eunuch as he paid. Before Fengbo could say anything, the eunuch turned to face Cheng’en. “Also, are you, by chance, the Defending General of the Southwest?”

Cheng’en blinked. “Yes, I am.”

“His Imperial Majesty has ordered that, should I run into General Bai, I am to tell you that he wants to see you, too.”

What? Cheng’en thought he had heard wrong until the eunuch continued, “Please, come this way. We’ll bring your belongings with you, so don’t worry about getting them.”

This was too sudden. Cheng’en had never met the emperor in private—he wasn’t mentally prepared for this. “But…I’m not dressed properly!” Too worried to think about how stupid his concern was.

“I’ll send men to get your clothes for you,” replied the eunuch. “A meal will be prepared for you both; I suggest you not to make His Imperial Majesty wait.”

Fengbo was already nowhere to be found. Cheng’en heard the neigh of a horse and looked out the veranda, only to find his superior already heading for the Palace. “Thank you for your patronage,” said the waiter when Cheng’en and the eunuch left.

Even though the eunuch had said to hurry, getting through the gates of the Inner Palace took a lot of time. Considering the fact that an assassin had actually infiltrated and almost killed the emperor before, such vigorous checking was understandable. Everyone in the Imperial Guard was at least above average in terms of looks, not to mention, well built and exuding manliness—it was difficult to not get a hard-on as they frisked him.

He knew the procedures of getting a job in the palace, knew it included passing the physical looks examination, but holy hell—the official responsible for inspecting the Imperial Guards was definitely strict.

After the Imperial Guards at the gate confirmed that there was no anqi* he could use to throw at the emperor, they let him back on his horse. When he arrived before the gates to the emperor’s Palace, he was frisked again, even more thoroughly. While the guards frisked him, a eunuch, in a high-pitched voice, reported his arrival. Not long after, he was given permission to enter.

Even though it was summer, the entrance room was cool and windy; the feng shui had been chosen well. Fengbo was already present—there was definitely an air of uneasiness. The emperor dabbed the tip of his brush in the ink stone and wrote something on the paper before him. He then placed the paper atop the pile to his left. The two had probably just finished discussing matters, since it was clear that Fengbo had been present for a while.

Realizing that he had been staring at the two men for far too long, Cheng’en hurried to the empty table and knelt down behind it. He kowtowed. “May Your Majesty live ten thousand years.” His voice was pathetically small—not exactly the impression he wanted to leave.

“You may rise,” said the emperor. His voice was icy and detached, but with a hint of listless boredom. When Cheng’en sat straight, he noticed the emperor examining him; a cold shiver ran down his spine. Was that disdain in the emperor’s dark eyes? Did the emperor dislike Cheng’en because he was close to Fengbo, whom the emperor loathed?

The emperor looked away, back to his papers. “How is the training of your men going, General Xuan?”

“Very well, Majesty,” Fengbo reported; Cheng’en had never heard his superior sound so…detached and impassive before. Even during the war, when Fengbo was giving orders to his men, he had never sounded like this. Something was off, but Cheng’en didn’t know what. “The new weapons are lighter and easier to use while they don’t lose their strength. The new artillery weapons, in particular, aim better and are able to carry more weight.” Unnatural. That was the word for it. Unnaturally professional, and unnaturally stiff. As though he were suppressing something, suppressing a violent, strong emotion.

Hatred, perhaps? His Imperial Majesty was clearly bullying Fengbo by choosing to meet him on his day off; someone as powerful as Fengbo surely would not appreciate being subjected to such treatment.

The wind blew through the open doors, and the emperor’s silk sleeves fluttered. He placed his brush aside and focused on the paper in front of him. “When can they be sent back to the west?” He was clearly insulting Fengbo by only giving the man half his attention. Cheng’en’s hands balled into fists. No matter how intelligent and able an emperor Bai Lingyun was, there was no reason for him to disrespect one of his most hard-working subordinates!

“In three months time, they’ll be ready.” Fengbo was clearly used to this treatment.

“I see. I will write an order for the LiangWang to send back the soldiers from the Central.” Was the emperor so eager to take Fengbo’s men away from him? “You are now dismissed, General Xuan.”

When Fengbo left, Cheng’en thought he heard the emperor sigh, but then it could have been the wind. He noticed that Fengbo’s food was untouched. Probably because he suspected that the emperor would feed him poison.

What should Cheng’en do? He didn’t have enough authority like Fengbo to blatantly leave his food untouched. To eat would mean disrespect; but not to eat would be insulting the emperor’s good will. As Cheng’en stared at the delicious food, he wondered if it was just there to torment him and make him hungry.

“Why aren’t you eating?” the emperor inquired coldly as he picked up his brush and wrote something. “I interrupted your lunch, so this is the compensation.”

“Understood. Thank you for your great benevolence,” Cheng’en said quickly. He picked up the ivory chopsticks on their rest and tasted the closest dish. He didn’t know if it was because he was hungry or not, but imperial food was better than it had been rumored to be.

“I hear you and General Xuan are quite close,” the emperor said as he proceeded to read another paper.

Cheng’en almost choked on his rice; the emperor couldn’t have summoned him just to interrogate him about his relationship with Fengbo, could he? Hastily, Cheng’en forced himself to swallow and answered, “General Xuan has taken good care of me during the war with Jin and Xia. He’s a man who likes to bond with his subordinates, so whenever I’m visiting the capital, we talk business over meals.”

The emperor looked up from his papers and caught Cheng’en’s eyes. For a person as attractive as the emperor, he sure was intimidating. “Good care,” he mused icily.

Well, there was no point hiding their good relationship if the emperor knew already. After all, Cheng’en wasn’t skilled at being subtle and indirect; he knew no other way to respect the emperor than honesty. Since Cheng’en was the emperor’s cousin of the same surname, he decided to push his luck and speak for his superior. “Yes. Even now, General Xuan still looks out for me and provides me direction on how to lead and train my men when I’m having trouble.”

Wordless, the emperor merely examined Cheng’en for an excruciatingly long time. The breeze that brushed Cheng’en’s sweaty back and neck gave him goosebumps. What the hell was he doing? This was the first time he had met the emperor privately, and he was butchering the emperor’s impressions of him.

Finally, the emperor broke his stare and picked up his teacup. “I see. And that ‘care’ includes intimacy.”

“Intima—we aren’t like that, Majesty.” Cheng’en was now sweating furiously, his tongue was dry and his ears were burning hotly. Intimacy? He wished. Maybe they were a little too intimate for two men…oh fuck, what the hell was he thinking in the presence of the emperor?

“What calls for the lavish gift exchanges, then? The frequent visits?” The emperor paused. “Not to mention, bathing together?” His voice was strained, like a thin sheet of ice. He replaced his cup. “I dislike gossip, but unfortunately, this much has reached my ears.”

Holy fuck. Was the emperor trying to use this to defame Fengbo? The man was married, after all. “I swear on my honor, Majesty! I dare not lie to you!” Cheng’en pleaded with a hoarse voice as he kowtowed. “There is nothing of that sort between us.”

“You can say anything you want, but you can’t stop the gossip,” the emperor said in a toneless, slow manner. His nails were digging into his pale arm. “Take care of your reputation, General Bai. If you care about your superior so much, you should think about his reputation as well. He is married to my half-sister, who is also an imperial princess.”

Cheng’en had completely forgotten it was the emperor’s sister whom Fengbo was married to. “Yes, Majesty. Thank you for understanding.”

“Anyhow,” said the emperor, “how is the condition in the Southwest?”

As firmly and confidently as he could, Cheng’en described the recent conditions to the emperor, hoping that he could repair his damaged image. Whether it worked or not, he didn’t know.

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Playing weiqi with his cousin was something Qiyuan did rather often, but he had never won by this much before. The game was not over, but the outcome was quite clear. He was somewhat bored as a result, and noticed that the porcelain wine cup he had been using was different than the usual set Fengbo used. It wasn’t too extravagant, yet there were small details that had definitely been made with skill. He then remembered that the emperor had given Fengbo a new set of wine cups after he heard the house maid broke the original set.

“I think I am going crazy,” Fengbo said.

A crisp clatter; Qiyuan dropped the white stone he held between his index and middle fingers. He hadn’t expected this from his cousin, but he now understood why Fengbo was in such bad condition this night.

“Crazy?” he inquired, though he had a vague idea what Fengbo had meant.

Fengbo didn’t elaborate.

“I can’t believe you’re still….” Qiyuan sighed. “Fengbo, why are you doing this to yourself? Of course you’d go crazy if you don’t let go of your feelings for him.” He picked up his stone again and placed it on the checkered board. He then reached out to grab the small wine cup and took a sip from it.

“I’m planning to check up on the borders.” Fengbo was still staring at the board. “Maybe for a year or two.”

Knowing that Fengbo didn’t want to continue the subject about letting go, Qiyuan said, “Don’t leave for too long. Some rivals will try to gain His Imperial Majesty’s favor in your absence. They’re spreading some absurd gossip already—who knows what His Imperial Majesty would think. You’re married to his sister, after all.” He replaced his teacup. “While His Imperial Majesty still trusts you right now, it’ll be hard to trust someone you don’t see often.”

“I’ll return every few months. I just can’t stay in the Palace anymore—seeing him every day is killing me.” He picked up a stone and placed it on the board. Obviously, he had not seen the trap Qiyuan had set. They played in silence for another while, but Fengbo’s mind was clearly somewhere else.

It was hard for Qiyuan to see his cousin like this. “I was serious when I told you to let go, Fengbo,” he blurted out. “To be honest, I thought you let go of your feelings a long time ago, when you decided to bring him back. I thought you moved on. I can’t believe you’re still harboring feelings for him—it’s not healthy.”

At this, Fengbo chuckled bitterly. “My feelings for him were never healthy.”

Qiyuan shook his head. “Fengbo, you just want to restore a ruined friendship that you can’t restore. Nothing’s unhealthy about wanting to have a dear friend back.”

Fengbo never responded. He just sighed, and excused himself.

Two months later, after the men Fengbo had been training were sent to the northwest, he requested to leave, with the excuse of wanting to check up on the borders. If Qiyuan hadn’t talked with his cousin about the reason he was leaving, he would have really believed that Fengbo was merely making the request out of professional reasons. Rivals amused by gossip would think that he wanted to leave his wife, or at least to escape the rumors.

The emperor stared at Fengbo for a long time. As a result, no one dared to move or even make a sound. “I expect the men at the borders to be trained as well as the Imperial Guards,” he said after a teacup’s worth of time.

Fengbo bowed. “I will do my best, Majesty.”

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Since Fengbo had requested to leave the Palace, Lingyun had not once summoned him. Instead, he had ordered Ke Xianyao write a list of things he wanted to be done and had made a eunuch deliver the letter. There was nothing wrong with this treatment, since Lingyun had only summoned Fengbo out of necessity. Sending a letter was more appropriate, as it served as a reminder. It wasn’t like Lingyun could call on Fengbo to give a report any time he wanted now, after all.

It had taken just a month for Fengbo to wrap up his unfinished duties and make sure his men knew what to do in his absence. He trusted them, and he knew they wouldn’t disappoint him.

On the morning he was to leave, he couldn’t resist riding to the Qiuyue Palace, thinking of seeing Lingyun before he left. However, he stopped before the open gates. His men saluted him. “Supreme General Xuan, is there business you need with His Imperial Majesty?”

Fengbo didn’t answer. He merely steadied his horse as he gazed at the building, feeling his chest tighten. Millions of words were trapped inside him, but none of them ever left his tongue. The more he stayed, the more torturous desires piled up, squeezing into his already burdened heart.

The desire to touch Lingyun again, to tease him again, to pamper him, to pull him into an embrace, to kiss him, to have him—too many desires that Fengbo knew were never going to be fulfilled—they were driving him insane.

He would kill to have Lingyun call him a moron again, just once more.

He would do anything to see Lingyun’s arrogant smirk, to see his exasperated irritation.

“Sir?” asked Song Pei.

Fengbo sighed. “I forgot what I came here for,” he lied. “Don’t bother notifying His Imperial Majesty, I’m sure he’s busy right now.” He directed his horse around and headed back out.

What was lost was lost, what point was there to want something he himself had destroyed so completely? He knew he had to let go—not for himself, but for his family, his subordinates, his country, and ultimately, for his emperor.

There was no telling what Fengbo would do in the future; he didn’t know how long he could last pretending like he felt nothing. If he didn’t find a distraction, he would eventually hurt Lingyun again.

And should he get to that point, hell knew what atrocities he would commit on Lingyun.

With the decision solidifying in his mind, Fengbo never turned to look back again.

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Chapter 48

Xinnan was sure that everyone in the Court and every eunuch wanted to make the emperor happy, but nothing they had done had seemed to make him smile or laugh.

In fact, Bai Lingyun was probably the most inhuman, workaholic emperor in history—in the four years of his reign, he seldom held lavish celebrations, rarely entertained himself, and never fooled around with the beautiful women in his harem. Since Zhitian’s death, all the emperor did every day was on a strict routine—Morning Conference, lunch, taking care of over a hundred papers, supper, practicing martial arts, reading, and sleeping. On several afternoons, the emperor would call in some of his most trusted officials to discuss matters or be visited by some officials with urgent business, but still…

Everything he did was related to work—he had yet to take an actual break. It made Xinnan’s job as the emperor’s personal eunuch stiff and full of pressure.

Still thinking of how to cheer the emperor up, Xinnan reached the emperor’s place. He almost dropped the basket in his hands.

The seat behind the emperor’s golden desk was empty.

Normally, the emperor would be working. There was still a pile of unread papers on the right side of the desk.

Maybe he was taking a nap? Xinnan set the basket down on the table and hurried to the emperor’s rooms—he checked every one of them, but all were empty. No one had informed him the emperor was out. Xinnan called for the emperor as he searched all the rooms, but there was no response. The emperor was obviously not the type to play pranks, so where was he?

Where was the emperor?

Worry plagued Xinnan as he returned to the emperor’s dragon desk. Then, he noticed a piece of paper with large words:

Out for a walk. Tell others that I’m sleeping and don’t want to be disturbed.

Not again…just like three years ago.

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As Lingyun had ordered, Juntao and his friends had overthrown Blood Flames Sect and now resided in a small town outside the city walls. Since then, almost two years had passed, and Juntao no longer needed to check with Sima Lü whenever he was in the Palace; Lingyun had given him a pass and a fake identity that would make entering and exiting the Palace much easier.

Having finished his first job since then, Juntao returned to the palace as quickly as he could. Finally, he could have some privacy with his Master—he could finally try to bring back the old Lingyun. He hated the Lingyun of right now. He wasn’t the Master Juntao knew, wasn’t the Master he loved. He was just a lifeless workaholic who stuck to customs and rules that the real Lingyun would have defied with a triumphant laugh.

If Juntao could, he would kidnap his Master and run far, far away. Somewhere that irritating Xuan Fengbo could not reach. Screw the empires, screw politics. If Lingyun wasn’t happy, what was the point of it all?

However, with friends and accomplices who depended on him now, even Juntao was tied down. He couldn’t act for himself anymore—he was the mastermind behind overthrowing Blood Flames Sect and betraying his grandfather, so he had to take on the responsibility of directing their new lives. Some still had nightmares over killing perfectly innocent and good people. Some were as mentally fucked up as he was. They needed to stop killing, but they didn’t know how to survive any other way.

Juntao knew that he would not have been able to escape his life as an assassin if Lingyun hadn’t been the emperor. Anyone else would have abused their command over the former Blood Flames Sect, but Lingyun seemed content to use them as mere information gatherers. He told them if they wanted to kill the targets they investigated, they could; but he didn’t encourage it. Lingyun wanted the targets exposed and punished, not killed. It helped a lot. Though Juntao had killed his first few targets, it was good to know that he had a choice not to kill.

Eventually, he stopped killing, and he felt a lot better. Younger pugilists still killed out of their righteous anger, but most who were also sick of killing had followed Juntao’s example.

Juntao finally arrived near the Qiuyue Palace. Since his existence was still a secret to most, he had to sneak in. It was a lot easier for him to do so now, not because the guards were less competent than before, but because he had gained more experience and become more adept at getting around without anyone noticing.

Strangely, Lingyun wasn’t behind his desk. Juntao searched the entire building, but his Master was nowhere to be found. The second time he searched the building, he saw Lingyun’s personal eunuch, Gao Xinnan.

“Have you seen my Master?”

The eunuch’s shoulder’s jumped; he made a loud squeak before he turned to see Juntao. “Oh, it’s just Chi-daxia…please don’t scare me like that!” Xinnan protested.

“Where’s Master?” Juntao repeated. He noticed that Xinnan was wearing silver jewelry unfit for a male—probably given to him by one of the concubines who had pleaded with him to let her meet Lingyun. Even now, they were still trying to get Lingyun’s attention, because they had nothing better to do. Lingyun already had a son—they had no chance.

“H-His Imperial Majesty?” Unlike Juntao’s low, coarse voice, Xinnan’s voice was softer and of a higher pitch. “His Imperial Majesty is taking a nap—and by his orders, no one is to disturb him.”

“Bullshit.”

Xinnan’s entire body shook, and he tried his best to inch away without Juntao noticing.

Like hell Juntao wouldn’t notice Xinnan move. Just for fun, he stepped closer, trapping the mid-aged eunuch’s back against the door to the side. “I searched this building twice, and I haven’t seen my Master anywhere. Where is he sleeping? The Harem? Don’t fuck with me, Gao Xinnan—you and I both know he doesn’t visit that building unless he wants to talk with the Empress.”

Beads of sweat were forming on Xinnan’s tan forehead. “His Imperial Majesty has gone out for a walk,” he whispered, trembling all over, including his voice. “Most likely, he has sneaked out of the Palace again to see the city’s condition for himself. Please don’t tell His Imperial Majesty that I told you this—I’ll lose my job.”

Smirking, Juntao pulled away. “I won’t. Why would I tell him anyway? If I find him, I’ll just pretend that I ran into him by accident.” How could Juntao not be happy? This was, if anything, good news. Was the old Master finally resurfacing again? The thought alone made Juntao hurry out the Palace and search the city.

Unfortunately, the city was too big and crowded—what chance did Juntao have in finding one person by himself?

After searching half the city to no avail, Juntao finally gave up. He was now at the mid-lower city, and he doubted his Master would visit the lower city, since there was practically nothing but small houses there. As he walked down a fairly empty and small street, a sweaty, disheveled man rushed out of a narrow, dark ally and almost bumped into him. The man smelled like sex, and something else. Something familiar, something that didn’t belong to a man who wore plain clothes made out of coarse fiber.

Curious, Juntao watched the plain man scurry away before he turned his attention to the ally.

What he didn’t expect was to see his Master.

Lingyun was panting, his head lowered and his eyes lightless. Disheveled, Lingyun’s collar was loose, and Juntao could see his Master’s collar bones. Pale, toned legs were exposed, standing out against his dark red clothes.

All Juntao could do was gape, a mixture of emotions raging inside him. His mouth was dry and his dick was hard. At the same time, inexplicable anger that he hadn’t felt for two years now started to wreak havoc inside him. He couldn’t move.

After a while, Lingyun composed himself and ran a hand through his hair. He started to fix his attire. Then, as though sensing something, he looked up, and their eyes met.

Lingyun remained expressionless, though his hands stopped. They stared at each other, wordless, without moving. Finally, Lingyun broke the silence: “Juntao.” Softly, but still lacking in emotion.

“Master, what were you doing?” Juntao’s voice came out much harsher, much hoarser than he had imagined it would. He was shaking; his nails were so fucking deep in the flesh of his palms and his knuckles hurt.

Even though he knew what his Master had been doing, he still asked. He still wanted to hear it, from a sober, clearheaded Lingyun. He didn’t want to believe it. He wanted to be lied to. Wanted his Master to come up with some sort of bogus explanation, even though he knew he wouldn’t accept it.

Lingyun began to fix his attire again. “What does it look like to you?” Toneless, cold. “Do I have to spell it out for you?”

When Juntao’s senses came back to him, he had already pinned Lingyun to the white wall. “Why, Master? Why?” he was yelling. Could feel his cheeks damp. “If you want a good fuck, I’ll happily help you out! You have a harem of women who are willing to serve you if you don’t want me! Hell, you even have eunuchs who’d service you—why are you sneaking out and letting those…those worthless scum touch you?”

Lingyun’s expression was still blank and without warmth. “You wouldn’t understand, Juntao.” Again, his voice was soft, in a way Juntao had never heard his Master talk, but at the same time, icier than ever.

“Fuck, of course I don’t understand!” Juntao roared. “That’s why I’m asking you!”

“I felt like it. That is all,” Lingyun replied without breaking eye-contact. “Do I need to explain myself? Who do you think you are, Juntao?”

“You know that I love you!” Juntao croaked. “Of course I don’t want to see you like this, of course I want you to explain yourself! Can’t I even care about you, Master?” Fuck, he never felt so tormented before. It was painful. Fucking, splitting pain—tearing him apart.

Before Lingyun could reply, Juntao kissed him. Kissed him hard; bit, sucked, whatever. He just wanted to claim Lingyun’s lips as his own, wanted to get his point across.

Wanted the old Lingyun back.

Yet, Lingyun didn’t struggle, didn’t push him away. Juntao ran his fingers down Lingyun’s back and squeezed the ass he had wanted to touch for years; he pressed closer, his erection rubbing against Lingyun’s thigh. His tongue brushed Lingyun’s and he felt more blood rush to his cock, hardening it. He could come just by humping Lingyun’s thigh.

Touching his Master, loosening the thin clothes, feeling that smooth skin under his fingertips—it was like a dream, a fantasy. Eventually, his fingers started to tease Lingyun’s hole, sliding in, relaxing the surrounding muscles. It was tight—and obviously hadn’t been played with before. Lingyun’s brows twitched; he broke away from the kiss, but didn’t say anything.

“I’ll be gentle, Master,” Juntao murmured, reaching in his robes to get out the lubricant he used to maintain his blades and poured some into his hands. He loosened his own sash and slicked up his throbbing erection as he kissed and nipped at Lingyun’s pale neck. Then, he started to work on Lingyun’s ass again, mostly coating the area surrounding the tight hole with oil. Lingyun’s breathing quickened, though he still said nothing and did nothing.

“Lingyun,” Juntao called softly as he kissed his Master again; he rubbed Lingyun’s hips before he touched his Master’s firm stomach, reaching down so he could massage Lingyun’s cock. It was half-erect already; Juntao pumped the length, focusing on making his Master hard again. He was about to fondle Lingyun’s balls, but a violent shudder made him think twice.

His own erection was killing him, and soon, he couldn’t wait anymore. He started to tease Lingyun’s hole again as they kissed. Breathing hotly, Juntao turned his Master, his hands spreading the smooth ass cheeks as he rubbed his cock against the hole. He felt Lingyun’s body stiffen and kissed Lingyun’s shoulder. “Don’t worry—I know what I’m doing. I have some experience.”

With that said, he pushed the tip of his cock into Lingyun. He saw Lingyun’s fingers press harder into the wall, so he pulled out again. The only sound in the ally was their breathing.

Patience, Juntao told himself. Patience. It wasn’t like he hadn’t been fucked before—he knew rushing things for someone like his Master would be more traumatizing than pleasurable. Gently, he penetrated Lingyun again, a little deeper this time. Lingyun held his breath.

It took a while for Juntao to bury his entire cock into Lingyun, but fuck, it felt so good that he had to restrain himself not to pound furiously into his Master right away. It would only take seconds for him to come, but he didn’t want this to end that quickly. He wanted this to last as long as it could—he couldn’t believe this was happening, after all. Not to mention, in public, where anyone could walk into them any time. The thought alone made him even harder, so he forced himself to pull out slowly. He had started this; he didn’t want to embarrass himself by coming before he even let Lingyun know how good anal sex could be.

Just their breathing, sweat, and the occasional breeze. Juntao ran his hands up and down Lingyun’s smooth thighs, wanting to memorize how they felt under his fingers. After a while, he pressed all the way into Lingyun again; Lingyun didn’t make a sound.

Slowly, Juntao fucked his Master, watching Lingyun’s reactions carefully so he wouldn’t make a mistake.

Yet, something was wrong. Something was terribly, terribly wrong.

When the realization hit Juntao, he almost lost his erection; his chest was in too much pain. Sighing, he pulled out and didn’t continue. He jerked himself off as he stared at his Master’s ass instead.

Lingyun, noticing that Juntao wasn’t going to fuck him, straightened his posture and started to fix his wrinkled attire again. “Why did you stop?” There was no other word to describe his voice except ‘indifference’. “I thought you wanted this.”

It only made Juntao feel worse. “You aren’t the Master I know,” he replied, his voice raw. It was like something was stuck in his throat. “The Master I knew wouldn’t have let me do this so easily.”

Lingyun paused halfway through tying his sash. Then, after an excruciatingly long moment of dead silence, he turned to face Juntao and said, “You’re right. The Bai Lingyun you knew is dead. The Master you loved so much no longer exists—what is left of him is an empty shell, a mere servant. The only reason I live is to ensure the safety and prosperity of my Empire.”

No. No, Juntao was not hearing what he thought was hearing. Lingyun was not saying what he thought he was saying. This simply wasn’t true. Wasn’t true! “What about me, Master? What do you think of me?”

Lingyun finished tidying his clothes. “You are my disciple and a valuable subordinate,” he replied calmly.

Juntao’s hands balled into fists. “What about him?”

Lingyun stiffened. He broke eye-contact with Juntao and started to fix his hair. “He is my vassal, nothing more.”

“You’re still hung up over him,” Juntao said shakily; he felt as though his anger could burst out of his chest right now. “You’re still hung up over the bastard who made you into this.” His eyes were welling up with hot tears. “You still love him,” he hissed.

Again, Lingyun froze a little before he continued to rearrange his hair. “Watch your mouth, Juntao. I don’t appreciate unfounded claims.”

Juntao couldn’t believe it. He couldn’t believe it, and he couldn’t accept it. Why? Why wasn’t he good enough? Why couldn’t he replace that treacherous, heartless son of a bitch? Just what made Xuan Fengbo better than him?

“He betrayed you.”

“He did what he had to do,” Lingyun replied, toneless. “As the emperor, I commend his decision.”

Juntao gritted his teeth and planted his feet firmly to the ground. “What if I were to kill him?” he asked darkly. “Would that make you feel better? Would you finally return to the way you were?”

Lingyun stuck the wooden stick through his bun to secure his hair crest. “Then I would naturally make you suffer for killing my most important subordinate,” he answered casually. “I would make you regret your choice and pay for it a thousand times over.” He tied his jian back to his sash.

“Also,” he added, like an afterthought, “it is impossible to reverse what has been done. Things will never be the same anymore, no matter how much you wish for them to return to the way they were. Things just can’t be the same.” The last words were spoken slowly, like they were forced. Juntao knew why.

He knew, but he couldn’t do anything. He didn’t know what to do, didn’t know what to say. His Master was gone, but he didn’t want to accept it.

Before Lingyun exited the ally, he stopped. “Juntao, I appreciate your feelings for me, but I suggest you let them go,” he said, his back turned to Juntao. “I can’t return your feelings. You’ll only hurt yourself. We can pretend that what happened today never happened—you are still welcome in my Palace.” Then, he left.

For a long time, Juntao stood motionless, feeling as though the world was collapsing around him. This pain was too much to bear. It was a lot worse than all the physical torture Juntao had to go through when training. It was just too much.

“Listen to yourself talk, Lingyun,” he whispered. “Why can’t you take your own advice?”

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Chapter 49

“General Xuan!” There were no words to describe how happy Cheng’en was to see his superior again. Since they had last met, it had been half a year. Whenever Cheng’en was in the capital, Fengbo was not, and Fengbo rarely visited Cheng’en’s post.

“It’s been a while, Cheng’en,” replied Fengbo with a grin, getting off his horse and handing the lead to a servant.

As usual, Cheng’en invited Fengbo to his building and for a meal. “I hear Ning has demanded more ‘help’ again?” he asked after the maids left.

Fengbo sighed and picked up his wine cup. “Yes, they have.”

It had only been two years since their alliance, but the Ning had already asked Yue four times to ‘help’ finance their wars with other countries. More alarmingly, the Ning had already conquered over half of Liao and broken Xia into three smaller countries: Gui, Lin, and Shang.

“His Imperial Majesty was able to cut back the requirements again, however,” Fengbo continued. “Took some negotiating, but in the end His Imperial Majesty was able to convince Ye Muren that we simply don’t have enough resources to spare.”

Of course they didn’t—they were busy training secret new troops. Not many knew of the emperor’s agenda, but as a Defending General and as Fengbo’s trusted subordinate, Cheng’en had the honor of knowing the secret. However, he was sure that he only knew half the emperor’s plans—Fengbo, on the other hand, knew everything the emperor had in mind, which at first surprised Cheng’en. It soon became clear to him that the emperor trusted Fengbo more than he trusted anyone, but this was undisclosed to all except the men Bai Lingyun trusted as well as Fengbo’s men.

Truth be told, Cheng’en felt a little depressed that Fengbo had no intention of sharing the emperor’s plan with him, but at the same time, he admired Fengbo’s professionalism. “Yue is lucky to have you and His Imperial Majesty,” Cheng’en said with a smile, toasting Fengbo.

“Lucky to have His Imperial Majesty, but I don’t know about myself,” Fengbo chuckled before raising his cup as well. “Without His Imperial Majesty’s lead, Yue would not have recovered so quickly. It’s only been a little over two years, and Yue is already regaining its past glory.”

“No need to be humble, Fengbo. Having a man as powerful as you are so loyal to him, His Imperial Majesty is lucky himself.”

Fengbo only smiled and emptied his cup. They commented about wine, food, and business. However, Cheng’en knew Fengbo was eventually going to ask the dreaded question. “So, found any suitable wives yet?”

As he thought. Cheng’en had made up his mind, however. He just hoped that this wouldn’t affect their friendship—he was only saying this because he trusted Fengbo, because he knew Fengbo was open-minded. “No,” he began, though his voice cracked and he had to clear his throat. He set his wine cup down and sat straighter; Fengbo set his cup down as well. “I-I hope you won’t laugh at me, but…can I ask you a question?”

“Go ahead. I swear I won’t laugh.”

“Actually, I’m…attracted to men.” When Fengbo didn’t reply, Cheng’en continued quickly, “Women don’t interest me. I have a hard time getting it up for women. Do you think I should still marry?”

Fengbo leaned back, staring silently at the food before him. “It’s not the question of should or should not,” he answered at last. “You’re a noble from the Imperial Family. We have to marry and reproduce, even if there is no love. For us nobles, there is no luxury of marrying the person we want to marry, though we can still have concubines. If you like men, you can have luan tong. Though, some wives are less tolerant than others in the matter of concubines and luan tong, and frankly, we can’t blame them.”

“But….” Cheng’en could feel his ears warm. “That’s the problem. I’m not exactly…interested in luan tong. I’m more interested in…stronger men.” The last words were whispered, and by the time he finished his sentence, his face was burning bright red.

Fengbo seemed to know where this was going. “Stronger men,” he repeated softly. His gaze was unbearable and making Cheng’en’s body heat up.

He could feel himself getting a little hard. He hoped to the Heavens that Fengbo wouldn’t be disgusted by his feelings and that Fengbo wouldn’t try to distance himself. His feelings were, after all, quite obvious.

“This is indeed a difficult question,” Fengbo said after he swallowed some food. “However, I would still say that you have to marry, for the sake of duty and reputation.”

Cheng’en nodded slowly, even though the answer depressed him.

“If you can’t get hard for women, I have some aphrodisiac that might be of help. Don’t worry—I’m not doubting your masculinity,” he reminded.

“I didn’t think you were, Fengbo,” Cheng’en said, finding Fengbo’s concern rather odd. “I don’t think you’re that type of person.”

Fengbo froze. A strange expression flickered past his face before he coughed and said, “I’m flattered that you have so much confidence in me, Cheng’en. But this is quite the sensitive topic, so I thought it appropriate to reassure you of my views.”

“Thanks for telling me, then.” Cheng’en shifted, trying not to meet Fengbo’s eyes. “I have another question, would you mind me asking?” His fingers curled into a fist.

“No, not at all. Ask away.” Fengbo rested his chopsticks.

“If…If a masculine man told you he was in love with you, what would you do?” Cheng’en tried to sound as curiously and smoothly as he could and forced himself to wear a mask of indifference. His heart was hammering against his chest and sweat was rolling down his spine.

Fengbo’s smile was half-gone, which only made Cheng’en’s heart thunder even more loudly. With a sigh, Fengbo said, “I would tell him to think twice about whether he really wants a relationship with me.”

Cheng’en felt his heart sink. “May I inquire why?” He was surprised he still had the energy to ask. “Is it because you’re married to an Imperial Princess?”

“That’s one reason,” Fengbo said after he finished his cup of wine and poured himself and Cheng’en some more.

Cheng’en accepted the offer and took a large gulp, feeling the alcohol warm his throat. He felt a little better, but still pathetically miserable. “You don’t like masculine men,” he concluded. “It’s all right. I’m sorry I asked—I hope it didn’t make you uncomfortable.”

“The main reason is that there is someone special in my heart,” Fengbo continued after he downed two more cups of wine. “Someone so significant no one can replace that person. Someone I won’t allow anyone to replace.” He paused to pour himself another cup of wine. “I did some horrible things to that person; this is the only way I can repent, and I don’t intend to move on.”

“Your wife?” Cheng’en ventured to ask in a small voice.

Fengbo took another gulp of wine. “If the masculine admirer can accept the fact that he will always be second to that person I spoke of, then I would think about it.” He set his cup down and sighed. “Although, I would suggest the admirer give up. I’m not worth getting hurt over.”

“I wouldn’t mind!” Cheng’en blurted out. There was always hope that Fengbo would change his mind and move on, and Cheng’en wanted to be the one to help Fengbo get over his guilt, whatever it might be. After all, nothing Fengbo did could be that bad. “I wouldn’t mind at all,” he repeated, feeling his blush spreading across his chest. “I really like you, Fengbo…I’m happy just to be with you.”

Fengbo remained silent for a good while. “Cheng’en, please think this over carefully. I’m serious when I say you’ll get hurt—I care about you and I think you deserve better.”

“And I’m serious when I said I want to be with you,” Cheng’en argued, standing up abruptly.

“It’s because you’re serious that I can’t accept your feelings,” Fengbo replied. “I know, I’m irresponsible and selfish, but this is the truth.”

“You’re right, you’re so selfish!” Cheng’en’s fists were trembling, the strain so great that they hurt. “How could you tell me all that, and expect me not to say I don’t mind? You knew I had feelings for you by that time, you selfish moron!”

Fengbo had a strange look. Although his eyes were glued to Cheng’en, but Cheng’en didn’t feel like Fengbo was looking at him. He felt like Fengbo was looking at someone else through him. Fengbo got up and closed distance with Cheng’en. He stroked Cheng’en’s cheek, which made Cheng’en’s heart flutter wildly, however strange the situation was.

“Yes, I’m a selfish moron.” He kissed Cheng’en.

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Chapter 50

Fengbo’s kiss was soft at first, but when Cheng’en pulled him closer and sucked his lower lip hard, he became more aggressive and bold. It didn’t take long for their clothes to end up on the lacquered wood floor; they tasted one another’s muscled bodies, equally ravenous, equally hard. They kissed again, their tongues brushing and their hands wandering.

After they broke off their kiss, Fengbo continued to rub Cheng’en’s back. “Are you sure about this?”

“What the hell are you talking about? We’ve come this far already, I’m not backing out!”

For some odd reason, Fengbo seemed happy whenever Cheng’en was annoyed. He nipped Cheng’en’s neck. “Don’t complain later, then.”

Why would Cheng’en complain? Fengbo knew how much he wanted this, how much his body ached for this. He wanted to be fucked, and he wanted to be fucked hard. Wanted to be Fengbo’s whore, wanted to be Fengbo’s slave. He wanted to be dominated completely and utterly.

His eyes darted to Fengbo’s growing erection. “Can I suck your dick?” he asked hotly, reaching to touch Fengbo’s cock and relishing the feel of it.

Fengbo squeezed his ass and chuckled, “Do you have to ask?”

Hungrily, Cheng’en went down and started to worship Fengbo’s cock. He wasn’t sure if he was doing it right; he just did what he thought he’d like. While he eagerly licked and sucked Fengbo’s cock, Fengbo stroked the back of his head—which only encouraged Cheng’en to work more diligently. Fuck, this was a dream come true, to be finally able to suck cock, and of all people, Fengbo’s cock. And what was more, to have his head stroked—it was making him harder.

The room was filled with the sounds of heavy breathing and Cheng’en’s sucking noises. He pumped Fengbo’s length with his fingers as he sucked the head of Fengbo’s cock, occasionally massaging Fengbo’s balls.

Fengbo took a sharp breath, stiffening a little. He then squeezed Cheng’en’s shoulder, guiding him up for another kiss. He stepped closer and grabbed both their erections with one hand and stroked them.

Just feeling Fengbo’s cock with his own was enough to make Cheng’en come—it was incredible. He moaned softly and wrapped his arms around Fengbo as he worked on their cocks. “Wait a moment,” Fengbo murmured, breaking away from their embrace and picking up his clothes. He rummaged around before finding a small bottle of liquid and poured some into his hand. “Come over here.”

Cheng’en’s cock throbbed from the order and he obeyed. Fengbo placed one hand behind Cheng’en’s ass and took both their erections into his hand again, stroking faster this time; inexplicable pleasure overtook Cheng’en, building up so much that he thought he could explode. “Please fuck me,” he whimpered against Fengbo’s shoulder. “I want your cock in my ass, right now.”

Fengbo smirked. “Turn around and get on your knees.”

“Yes, sir.” Cheng’en did as he had been told quickly.

“Spread your ass.” An amused voice.

Cheng’en reached back and pulled his ass cheeks apart; he became even harder when Fengbo did nothing but stare. Then, he felt fingers on both sides of his hips and something warm pressed against his ass. He groaned at the sensation of being filled slowly, unable believe that this wasn’t one of his fantasies, wasn’t one of his dreams.

This fucking pain and pleasure was real, fucking real.

“You’re so greedy,” Fengbo whispered in his ear, causing more blood to rush down Cheng’en’s body. He didn’t even think it was possible to get any harder, but just hearing Fengbo’s taunt was almost enough to make him come.

“Fengbo…,” he moaned, reaching to squeeze the base of his own cock as Fengbo fucked him. Heavens, he never imagined getting fucked would be this pleasurable. He moved his hips in rhythm, urging Fengbo to fuck him faster, harder, to pound into him without mercy. It was getting harder to think—all he focused on was the wonderful pleasure that kept flaring through his nerves whenever their bodies connected. He tried to keep his voice down, but it just felt too good for him to stifle his moans.

It only took him a few jerks to go over the edge and he groaned loudly, coming all over his fingers and the floor, shaking from the intensity of his orgasm—he had never came so hard before. Fengbo’s grip on his hips tightened and pounded into him, the quickened pace making Cheng’en moan and whimper louder, “Fuck…fuck!”

Fengbo gasped a little, his body stiffening as he thrust in long, hard strokes. He bit Cheng’en’s shoulder before he whispered something that was too soft for Cheng’en’s ears.

After they caught their breaths, Fengbo pulled slowly out of Cheng’en. They remained silent for a long while. Cheng’en was just about to suggest another round, but he noticed Fengbo dressing already and forced himself not to say anything and do the same.

Fengbo’s attention seemed to be elsewhere. When he finally came back to it, he opened his mouth, but then closed it again. Cheng’en wanted to ask Fengbo to just say what was on his mind, but lips remained shut tightly together.

In the end, he didn’t want to hear what Fengbo wanted to say. “Thanks,” he offered quietly as he pulled on his outer clothes. “I enjoyed that. I hope we can do it again, some other time.”

Cheng’en pretended that he didn’t see Fengbo trying to hide his frown. At first, that was. Then, finally unable to suppress the growing uneasiness in him, he said, “I know what you’re thinking. You don’t think this will end well, but it’s all right. We can just…get together for a good fuck—if that’s what you prefer.” It hurt to say it, but he knew no other way to keep Fengbo’s interest. “I’m completely fine with just sharing a physical relationship with you.”

Fengbo gave Cheng’en a long, penetrating stare. “Let me think about it,” he said at last. He then chuckled, though it was unnatural. “This isn’t as simple as you think it is, you know.” He paused a little. “I can’t believe I just fucked my subordinate.”

They shared the chuckle as they cleaned up the mess they had made.

In the end, they had sex almost every three days, though Cheng’en was always the one to initiate. He found out that expressing impatience with some insults was particularly useful in getting Fengbo to fuck him, though he didn’t know why, considering Fengbo’s dominating behavior during the actual activity.

Two months later, Fengbo received a letter, most likely from the Palace, and immediately prepared to leave for the northwest again. Cheng’en almost followed him, but Fengbo chastised him coldly, “You’re the Defending General of this area—I can’t believe you actually had this thought.” He then sighed. “I think—”

“I’m sorry,” Cheng’en said quickly, his heart thumping in a bad way. “I won’t have these thoughts again.” He felt ashamed of himself for letting emotions control him. In the end, Fengbo’s departure inevitably pulled him back to reality. There was a distance between them, a distance that he had little idea how to shorten.

However, no matter how much it hurt, he still wanted to continue having this relationship with Fengbo.

Even if he could never surpass, or come even close to, the person who Fengbo cherished the most. As long as Fengbo cared for him, it was fine. As long as Fengbo held him, it was fine.

At least, that was what Cheng’en thought at the moment.

One day in mid-summer, his cousin, Xuan Zhe, visited him. “There’s a new assignment,” he said as he handed Cheng’en a highly confidential Imperial Letter. “We move in three months.”

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Chapter 51

Since their alliance with Yue, three years had passed. While Ning had finally conquered Shang, Yue regained vitality, having a strong economy and efficient government. Yue’s culture flourished; poets, artisans, and musicians were constantly creating new and beautiful works that Ning lacked. In the end, the most significant difference between Ning and Yue was disadvantageous. Unlike the nobles and ruling family of Yue, the Imperial Family and most nobles of Ning had once been nomads, only having absorbed the central land’s culture thirty years ago.

They were conquerors, they were minority. Many citizens favored Yue and the former lands of Xia instead. And that mere disadvantage was alarming enough.

Ye Zongqing, one of Ye Qiuyang’s trusted advisors, decided that they could not sit back idly any longer. Bai Lingyun was too dangerous to be left alone, and the more they waited, the greater the threat Yue would impose on Ning.

However, due to Qiuyang’s friendship with Yue’s ruler, he had refrained from taking hostile action, though Zongqing knew that Qiuyang wanted to. This day, Zongqing finally had the information that would push his lord to make the decision.

“Your Majesty, it is imperative not to let Yue get too strong. Yue is stealing our citizens. Many are escaping to Yue, paying Yue taxes and boosting their tax revenue while we incur losses.”

As Zongqing had expected, Qiuyang slammed his fist on the table and the stationery clattered. “Pass down the order to capture and punish any more citizens who try to cross the borders!” he roared, face red and neck burning hot. “Also, Yue should give us much more financial support for having stolen so many of our citizens—get me a letter, I’m writing Bai Lingyun about this!”

“Understood, Majesty.” Zongqing bowed. However, he did not straighten his posture and his head remained lowered. “One other thing of note: Liao, Gui, and Lin are all moving suspiciously.”

Gui and Lin were the remnants from the fallen Xia Empire, one headed by a former regional lord, the other headed by the former Empress of Xia’s family.

Qiuyang sat down. “What of those cowards?”

“They are seeking to ally themselves with Yue,” answered Zongqing.

“And the Yue?” Qiuyang was clearly trying to sound indifferent, but his voice still trembled with anger.

“According to Bai Yiming in his most recent letter, the Yue have accepted the military alliance behind our backs.”

Qiuyang’s slammed his fist on the table and stood up. “Bai Lingyun…that deceiving traitor! Pretending to be my friend, and then plotting to backstab me…! I’ve had enough of him!” His voice reverberated in the large chamber. “It is time that we show them that we aren’t blind and stupid, and that treachery comes with a price!”

“Your Majesty, please rethink your decision!” pleaded Geng Keping, the Conquering General of the East. “For these past three years, there has been nothing but war—the civilians are tired; to start a war with Yue will only induce civil unrest!”

Qiuyang glared at Keping. “Are you saying that I should sit idly while Yue plans to attack us?”

“There is no solid evidence as of yet—at least wait till next year, when the civilians will have had a bit of respite…the heavy tax imposed on them is the reason so many are fleeing to Yue.”

“Are you implying that it is my fault?” Qiuyang demanded with a growl. “I’ve already tried to lower the tax by cutting the pay of officials by a third and by limiting the imperial family’s allowance.”

“I would not dare to imply such insolence, Majesty,” Keping replied quickly. “Your other projects to construct new irrigation canals and to fix the walls bordering the north are for the welfare of the civilians. It’s just that, these years we have been conquering land rather aggressively, and that is draining the national treasury and forcing more tax on the civilians. At least wait another year.”

“And as we wait, Yue grows stronger,” Zongqing said in the emperor’s place. “Anyhow, it is said that Bai Lingyun does not get along with Xuan Fengbo, the Supreme General of Yue. This strife got to the point where Xuan Fengbo even left the Palace two years ago to avoid persecution. We can use this to our advantage.”

“May I ask how?” Keping inquired. “If the plan is to get Xuan Fengbo on our side, I doubt that would work well. The man is known to be treacherous—he only supports the people who are of use to him and won’t hesitate to switch loyalties. However, he is fiercely loyal to the Yue as a whole—he won’t ally himself with Ning.”

Zongqing nodded. “Indeed. And this time his loyalty is to Bai Yiming, who has offered us help should we need it in exchange for the governing rights to Yue’s capital city. All Yiming wants is revenge against his brother, and Xuan Fengbo dislikes Lingyun just as much as Lingyun dislikes him. They have already established a pretty solid relationship over these past three years.”

“Go on,” Qiuyang urged.

“Bai Junjie has finally passed away from illness, though before he died, he heard that Shaoqiang was celebrating and was so angry that he passed on his governing rights to Yiming. Now that Yiming has control of the region, he proposed to evacuate the fortress he’s responsible for, which is a valuable strategic point,” Zongqing explained. “He also has Xuan Fengbo’s word that he won’t hamper our plans. Once we take that fortress, we can declare war, and since Bai Lingyun does not trust Fengbo, he will not use Fengbo, which is another advantage. Many soldiers in the military are Fengbo’s subordinates, and this decision will confuse and divide their feelings, lowering their morale and therefore their ability to fight.”

There was light in Qiuyang’s eyes. He dismissed the conference and thought about it for a while. Then, he called Zongqing to his Palace to discuss the idea in detail.

Three months later, Qiuyang decided to go with the plan and contacted Yiming. It took another two months of negotiating before Qiuyang sent Ye Henggao, the Conquering General of the South, to lead the quest.

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Before Henggao actually led his men into the destination, he sent six scouts to search the region. They were skilled men who had received training from Sky Shadows Sect, and Henggao was confident they could determine whether or not Bai Yiming kept his promise.

“The fortress is empty, General Ye,” they all reported. “And there are spare weapons and food, as promised.”

“That Bai Yiming is one nasty, vengeful man,” Henggao chuckled after he directed his men forward. Once they occupied that fortress, conquering Yue would be much easier. He couldn’t believe it was this easy, getting the fortress, just like that.

Outside the fortress gates and waiting to welcome them inside was none other than Bai Yiming himself, with a great smile. The moon was hanging halfway up the night sky by the time Henggao and his men settled and prepared to eat dinner. Yiming only had twenty elite guards; the rest of the military had indeed evacuated.

“Our emperor has granted you the title of JingWang, and you will be rewarded ten thousand bolts of silk as well as half the taxing rights to this region. Also—”

Slam!

The doors to the room burst open and a bloody soldier ran in. “G-General Ye! We’re under attack!”

Henggao dropped the wine cup. “What?” Immediately, he glared at Yiming, whose face was pale.

“W-what?” Yiming shook his head. “I-I have no idea this would happen—me and my men have checked the place! I have nothing to do with this, please spare me….”

Ignoring Yiming, Henggao drew his dao and flipped the table over. “You filthy liar!” He slashed down, but his dao was blocked by one of Yiming’s guards. They exchanged five blows before Henggao cut the man down. However, the noise outside was even more concerning. “I don’t have time to deal with you,” he spat before he hurried out.

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What the hell was going on?

This wasn’t what Yiming had planned! This wasn’t what Yiming had expected!

It couldn’t be—but how? The fortress was empty!

No matter. What he had to do was escape—the room was already chaotic enough. He could sneak out while his guards fought the—

Loud screams, one by one. Blood everywhere, some splattered on his face. The Ning’s men and his guards were all dead, arrows through their necks and foreheads. Judging from the direction of the arrowheads, they came from outside, through the open doors.

Yiming felt as though he had been glued to his spot, even though he hadn’t.

He was doomed—that much was clear to him.

Something moved behind him and he jumped, only to see the wall pull open and a sickeningly familiar face.

“Four years,” said Bai Shaoqiang. Behind Shaoqiang were men Yiming thought his subordinates had killed. “I’ve waited for four years for this moment,” Shaoqiang continued. “I wasn’t supposed to wait that long, but His Imperial Majesty suddenly told me that there was a change of plans two years ago.”

Yiming’s mind was blank; the only thought in his head was that he had been tricked and used like a fool. Xuan Fengbo had never intended to rebel. He had betrayed Yiming instead to gain Lingyun’s trust, or worse, they had planned this all along, according to Shaoqiang.

Zhitian must have experienced the same gut-sinking feeling three years ago.

Shaoqiang took out a golden scroll; Imperial Orders from the emperor. “Bai Yiming, you are guilty of treason and trying to sell your country to the enemy. For this, you are stripped of your rank and your life is forfeit. His Imperial Majesty has ordered me, Bai Shaoqiang, to deliver Heavenly Justice.” By the time Shaoqiang had finished reading, Yiming was already halfway down the halls. Sharp pain tore through his legs and he tripped over, screaming with agony.

Not long after, Shaoqiang was standing above him, smirking. “By acting like this, you only make killing you even more fun.”

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Fire burned the buildings and trees. Weapons clashed violently, angrily. Men fought without any form of plan or strategy, their goal was merely to survive. However, the enemy soldiers were all frighteningly strong and well-trained, each able to take down at least five soldiers from Ning.

This wasn’t war—this was just utter chaos. They were getting butchered.

“Fall back! Fall back!” screamed generals of all ranks, but it wasn’t that easy.

On the other hand, Henggao yelled instructions to the drummer, hoping he could bring back some order and come out of this alive. Some soldiers were already fleeing, many of whom were from conquered lands.

A flash of cold blade and the drummer was dead. How the fuck—

He quickly brought up his dao to block the next attack, and his hands burned from the impact. It was too dark to have a clear look of the face of the assailant, but from the looks of the armor, it was a general of Yue.

There wasn’t much space to think; the next three attacks were so fast that Henggao hadn’t been able to block them all quickly enough and he received a deep gash in his armor—if he hadn’t worn the armor, he’d probably be dead.

Henggao was confident of his own abilities, and yet…

“Who are you?” he demanded. “How dare you bastards trick us? Have you no honor?”

“All’s fair in war,” replied the man, though he didn’t stop attacking. He was extremely skilled with qingggong and his footwork was too quick for Henggao. Another searing pain burned through Henggao’s thigh. “You were the ones who allied yourselves with scum like Yiming, did you really think that Yue’s emperor didn’t notice?”

Henggao was barely able to parry the next blow, stumbling back as he avoided another slash that ripped the clothes around his arm. The man’s leg flew out and aimed for his thigh; Henggao stepped aside and tried to defend by attacking with ‘Feisha Zoushi’, a flurry of quick attacks that aimed to demobilize the opponent; their blades clashed ten times—the man blocked everything with ease. Turning defense to offence with a mere flip of the wrist, the man’s dao almost chopped off Henggao’s arm but was parried just in time. However, Henggao knew he could not parry the next blow—the other’s neili was simply out of his league.

Only one man came into mind could possibly overpower him by so much. “You’re Xuan Fengbo.”

A strong breeze removed the cloud blocking the moon, and Henggao could finally see the man’s face. He wore a thin smile. “Indeed I am.”

The next attack was too overwhelming for Henggao to defend against. He was captured, and soon, when he witnessed how hopeless the situation was, he surrendered.

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Qiuyang could not believe what he had just read. The cup in his hand cracked from too much pressure and he threw it on the floor. “I want Zongqing in the dungeons, now,” he snarled through his teeth. “I want him punished for suggesting the idea.”

“Right away, Majesty,” squeaked the eunuch.

Qiuyang burned Lingyun’s letter that had broken their countries’ alliance. “I want an emergency conference—tell all the officials and generals to gather in this room as soon as possible!”

The trembling eunuch acknowledged the order before he scurried out of the room.

Qiuyang flipped his desk over; the papers on it scattered all over the carpet. “Bai Lingyun…now you’ve done it,” he hissed, angry at himself for being deceived by the traitor’s phony personality and attractive looks.

Once he destroyed Yue, he’d make Lingyun his personal slave and fuck him until he begged for mercy.

As if Qiuyang would give him any.

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Chapter 52

In the end, war was inevitable.

Yet, since he had expected this to happen eventually, he had made it happen. Though a bit too early to his liking, the timing was acceptable, since the Ning had been spending too many resources conquering other lands. He didn’t want Ning to rest, to get too formidable, just as they didn’t want Yue to get too strong. And he was tired of trying to compromise with the Ning about how much financial support the Yue should give. For now, he was able to disguise Yue’s actual wealth, but he knew he could not hide everything.

Lingyun waited for Duan Mingwu and his men to finish reading the plans he had started to write ever since Xiao Wuying began to work for him. He had used the former Blood Flames Sect to thoroughly investigate the generals of Ning: their habits, their preferences, their personalities, and their training methods were all taken into account. When the Xuan had finally come under his command, he had used them to scout the lands of Ning, eventually including the lands the Ning had conquered. Finally, he had used Night Shadows Sect to keep a close eye on Ning’s politics and military technology to make sure there would be no surprises. Later on, he also used them to contact other countries who were concerned about the Ning’s aggression and to take note of which nobles from Ning could be persuaded to his side. Mostly former nobles of the conquered countries. However, he merely planted men from Night Shadows near the nobles and did not contact them directly.

He was prepared. War was something that required too many resources, too many men, and too much loyalty. If he was to fight, he would fight to win.

“This plan can be exploited, if the men involved aren’t careful,” said Xu Guangdao after he finished reading. He then proceeded to explain why, and Lingyun nodded; he hadn’t thought of that. Xie Liang also provided his thoughts on some other parts and suggested sound alternatives. When Duan Mingwu expressed concerns, Lingyun explained his reasons and took note Mingwu’s perception.

It took a shichen and a half until the meeting was adjourned. Before the men left, they all tried to stop him from going to war himself, but his mind had been set. Lingyun dismissed his men and wrote some notes before he headed to meet Chunmei.

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“I’m going to the northwest,” Lingyun said calmly after he swallowed his food.

Chunmei almost dropped her chopsticks. “You can’t mean—”

“Yes, I’m going to see the war through with my own eyes,” replied her husband.

Curling her fingers, Chunmei met his eyes. “Please reconsider, Majesty. We can’t lose you, not now.”

“Chunmei, I’ve been constantly training your political competency for this day, so I can leave knowing that there is someone I can trust handling the situation while I’m gone.” Lingyun picked up some food with his chopsticks. “You will have my mother and my subordinates’ support during my leave—I’m sure you can handle this.”

Lingyun…trusted her that much? He could have simply left the decision-making responsibility to the Chancellors or his mother—Chunmei had always thought Lingyun only saw her as an obligation, that he disliked her.

Ever since she had learned of Lingyun’s relationship with her brother, she had distanced herself from Lingyun. It helped that Lingyun became too busy to visit her as regularly as he had before. Chunmei had never spoke of his relationship with her brother and never confronted him over it, knowing that such matters were too grave to be voiced out. Her only solace was her children, though she had rarely had the time to see them, much less take care of them. Lingyun, on the other hand, had only seen their daughter twice and their son three times, not counting their birthdays.

In fact, he only saw them when Chunmei asked him to.

“Understood, Majesty. I will do my best,” Chunmei replied. She had already participated in some political decisions and had attended many conferences during these past three years; she was rather sure she had the ability to substitute for her husband, if only for a short while.

They continued eating dinner while discussing what was to be done, and before Lingyun left, he gave her a soft kiss. As usual, it held no warmth, but Chunmei no longer felt sad over it. She still loved Lingyun, but no longer in the way she had once loved him.

The next day, there was an emergency large conference. Like the previous night, Lingyun told the Court of his decision. Naturally, there were objections, even pleadings. Chunmei felt somewhat offended when some male officials still protested despite Lingyun’s explanation of why he thought Chunmei could do well. She was flattered and somewhat embarrassed, however, when she listened to her husband’s confidence in her.

“If I go, Ye Qiuyang would surely do the same, since he’s that kind of man. This would make things easier if we win.”

“Forgive my insolence, Majesty, but the opposite could be true as well!” argued He Shaojing.

“Yes, but the risk is worth it. No one knows my plan better than I do,” Lingyun answered without skipping a beat. “Right now, General Xuan is already invading Ning as I commanded him to. I have Xuan Zhe substituting Bai Cheng’en as Defending General of the Southwest and sent Bai Cheng’en, who I temporarily made Conquering General of the West, en route to take down some key fortresses and eventually support the supreme general. All that is left is for the Central to send backup, and I am going with Duan Mingwu.”

Many nobles and officials tried but failed to hide their shock. They had not known how much the emperor had trusted the Xuan—and, in particular, Fengbo.

Lingyun waited for more objections, but there were no more. “We’re taking down the Ning. It’s either conquer or be conquered. I knew this would happen when I met Ye Qiuyang. He is not a bad person, but he is a threat that I unfortunately don’t want to leave unhandled.”

And so, the Conference was finally concluded.

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Five months. It had taken Juntao five months to finally accept the fact that his Master was never coming back, and another five to move on. He still loved and respected Lingyun, but the nature of his love and respect were different. Lingyun would always occupy a special place in Juntao’s heart, but he no longer desired his Master.

Juntao was merely Lingyun’s subordinate now, and he was happy with being just that. He realized that, after he had given up, he felt far better—like he was freed. The taste of freedom was so great that he never wanted to be so worked up over anyone ever again.

However, despite all that, he would never forgive Xuan Fengbo. Nothing would change his disgust of that man; nothing would change the fact that he had hurt Lingyun.

As Juntao sipped wine and enjoyed the breeze from late-summer, Lingyun finally came back to Qiuyue Palace. “Come, Juntao. Get your best subordinates—we’re leaving.”

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Chapter 53

When Lai Guoching had heard that the emperor was going to lead them, he wasn’t particularly excited. In fact, he groaned inwardly. Although he respected the young emperor, since life for his family back on the farm was much better and easier, the emperor had zero experience in war, never mind leading an army. Doubtless the emperor’s presence would raise the morale of most soldiers, but surely the pressure of protecting His Imperial Majesty’s life would make them nervous. The emperor only had one heir, and that heir was a mere two years old. No one could live with the guilt if an accident were to happen, even if it was something no one could prevent.

At least, Guoching had first thought the negative effect of the emperor’s presence would outweigh its positive effect.

During their journey, Guoching had been close enough to hear an odd argument.

“I’m eating the same thing that the soldiers are eating,” the emperor repeated coldly.

“But Majesty, you have to take care of your dragon’s body—”

“I’m not here for a field trip, Xinnan.” A smooth, yet not at all fake, tone. “Do I look weak to you?”

“Majesty….” The eunuch sounded like he was about to cry out of worry. “There’s nothing wrong with a little caution.”

“What? The food these soldiers eat isn’t healthy enough?”

The emperor knew how to capture the soldiers’ undying loyalty. In Guoching’s thirty-seven years of life, he had never heard of an emperor eating the same, nasty food that was served for foot soldiers during a mission. The only general he knew who would do that was Xuan Fengbo during the war with Jin and Xia, though his subordinates had convinced him to eat better food after one year.

As Guoching marched in silence, he wondered if the emperor could keep up with his little show. After all, the emperor had spent his entire life living in luxury, eating the best food.

Two weeks later, Guoching decided that the emperor was serious about his resolve, since he had refused to eat the food made by an Imperial Chef and threatened to demote his eunuch and the chef if they kept wasting food. Guoching felt nothing but pride and a desperate wish to protect his lord and to impress him. He was sure that the rest of the troops felt the same way. One day, a foot soldier who Guoching did not know rushed out and pleaded for the emperor to eat some better food, and one voice instantly multiplied into thousands. The emperor told them that he appreciated their feelings, but he wanted to keep his word. General Duan Mingwu was the one who finally convinced the emperor to eat something more suitable for an emperor, though apparently it was actually the supreme general’s message that did the job.

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The emperor’s instructions were frighteningly effective; Cheng’en was only responsible for thinking about lesser details and leading his men. It had only taken five weeks for Cheng’en to take down the fortresses he had thought should be taken down, and the third one surrendered to Yue without a fight. Apparently, Fengbo’s quest in the north was going very successfully. Cheng’en was so close to seeing Fengbo again, and, with that thought in mind, he hurried and led his men to their rendezvous. In three days, their troops met up. The emperor and Duan Mingwu had already caught up for the final, decisive battle against the Ning.

Just seeing Fengbo again made blood rush to Cheng’en’s lower half. He needed sex, and badly. The prostitutes and luan tong that were hired just did not interest him, after all. He first paid the emperor his respects before greeting Fengbo. “Feng-General Xuan.”

“General Bai.” Fengbo’s smile was half-gone and he gave Cheng’en a pointed look. Cheng’en suddenly remembered that he was married to the emperor’s half-sister—something that Cheng’en tried to forget most of the time—and that the emperor himself was present. He snuck a glance at the emperor and was relieved to find indifference.

Cheng’en then greeted Duan Mingwu before they headed to the tactical tent. A desk with a detailed map was in the middle of the large tent, and they surrounded the table. The emperor spent half a shichen explaining what he thought they should do—and hearing the emperor explain the plan overwhelmed Cheng’en. He had already been impressed by the instructions that had been given to him in a letter, but he had seen traces of Fengbo’s hand in some tactics. Hearing the emperor’s firm, assertive explanations in person was a whole different story—he finally understood why it was said that Bai Lingyun was a genius. He wasn’t good at weiqi for nothing.

After the meeting adjourned, the emperor left for his own tent to eat dinner. Cheng’en ate with Fengbo and Mingwu, and they talked about light, insignificant happenings to get some pressure off. Mingwu left early to have fun with a prostitute, finally leaving some privacy for Cheng’en and Fengbo.

“Fengbo,” Cheng’en said as soon as he confirmed that Mingwu had left. “I have something to discuss with you.”

Fengbo had just finished eating and was drinking tea. He set his teacup down. “Go ahead.”

“Erm…can we meet in the bamboo forest for this? Somewhere more private…where the soldiers can’t hear us.” Cheng’en tried to sound calm, but he knew his slight blush was giving himself away.

As Cheng’en had expected, Fengbo frowned. “Cheng’en, we’re supposed to fight a decisive battle in a week. I don’t think this is appropriate, especially not when His Imperial Majesty is around us.”

“I know…but I want to relieve some stress. Don’t you?” In the past, Cheng’en would have never dared to shamelessly suggest and persist in such a matter. He guessed that his lust was changing him, and now he was ruled by his cock. He scooted closer to Fengbo and placed his hand on Fengbo’s thigh. “Come on, His Imperial Majesty won’t notice. I’m dying here—haven’t seen you for so long.”

Fengbo chuckled. “You’re not going to die, Cheng’en. You can always masturbate, you know?” Then, in a lower voice. “Someone’s coming.” Cheng’en immediately returned to his original spot. A soldier came in and greeted them before taking away their chopsticks and empty plates.

“It’s not the same, and you know why,” Cheng’en insisted immediately after the soldier left.

“Cheng’en—”

Cheng’en kissed Fengbo to shut him up. “Just a quickie. Please.”

Fengbo gazed at Cheng’en for a while before he sighed. “Fine. I’ll meet you later, go take a bath and then find a spot.”

Satisfied, Cheng’en grinned and kissed Fengbo again. “Thanks. You’re the best.” He then got up and left with a semi-erection. He took a cold bath in the river—thankfully, it was still fairly warm during mid-Autumn—made sure the vital parts were clean, and then dressed.

The weather was clear, which made navigating the bamboo forest quite easy. He just walked and walked until he saw a rock, and decided the place could do. This was far enough from the camp—no one would walk into them, much less hear or see them.

Moments later, Fengbo showed up, though he wasn’t smiling. “I also have something to talk to you about, Cheng’en,” he said.

Cheng’en ignored the way his heart sank and wrapped his arms around Fengbo. “Let’s talk about that later.” And he kissed Fengbo, biting and sucking that delicious lower lip as he undid Fengbo’s armor just enough so that Cheng’en could grab his cock. It wasn’t hard, but Cheng’en didn’t mind. He pumped Fengbo’s length, already familiar with how to make Fengbo hard, and sank to his knees when Fengbo was half-erect. Eagerly, he placed Fengbo’s cock into his mouth and enjoyed the salty taste. Soon, Fengbo was fully erect.

He bit the tip of Cheng’en’s ear, and pleasure raked Cheng’en’s body. “That’s enough. Pull down your pants and turn around,” breathed Fengbo, squeezing Cheng’en’s shoulder a little.

With pleasure, Cheng’en did just that and stroked himself while he watched Fengbo coat his own cock with some lubricant. He moaned from just admiring Fengbo’s cock. “Can we fuck face-to-face this time?” he found himself ask. He had wanted to see Fengbo’s face when they fucked for the longest time, and he had a feeling that Fengbo would finally agree to it, even though he didn’t want to think about why.

Fengbo met his eyes, his expression unreadable. Then, he smiled, even though his eyes didn’t. “All right. Get on your back and spread your legs.”

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After Lingyun finished eating, he got out from the back of his tent and, as usual, reminded the men who guarded the back of his tent that he did not appreciate being followed before he headed to meet Juntao. It had been two weeks since he had last sent Juntao to spy on the enemy troops, and his disciple should be back and waiting for him in the forest by now.

He counted his steps as he navigated the bamboo forest, keeping a close eye on the moon’s location to determine when he should turn. Then, he heard soft, but to him, audible noise and immediately drew his jian. The sounds—breathing and movements—originated from the meeting place. Quietly, he regulated his qi as he approached the location, taking the long way around so he wouldn’t be noticed under the moonlight.

He stopped dead when he finally saw what was before him.

A gasp, panic shining through those eyes. “Lingyun?”

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Chapter 54

Something violent and dark threatened to surface inside him, but Lingyun killed it before it could take form.

“Lingyun?”

His name, but at the same time, not his name. Just those two simple articulations, and yet it almost made something crack inside him. However, he destroyed that feeling before it could reach him as well, without changing his expression. “I don’t have time for this.” He sheathed his jian. “Just make sure this doesn’t affect your performance when we meet the Ning’s troops.” He turned around and walked away, knowing that Juntao should be close and would follow him.

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Cheng’en gasped when Fengbo froze and looked up. Immediately, Fengbo became flaccid. “Lingyun?”

Cheng’en felt like his heart just about jumped out of his throat. Wasn’t that the emperor’s name? Never mind why the hell Fengbo had blurted out something taboo—the emperor was here. The emperor saw them. Saw Cheng’en in this position, with his half-sister’s husband, of all people.

They were so dead. At least, Cheng’en was dead.

“I don’t have time for this.” That cold, detached smoothness—it was unmistakably the emperor’s voice. “Just make sure this doesn’t affect your performance when we meet the Ning’s troops.”

Fuck. Holy fuck.

Then, Cheng’en looked at Fengbo and couldn’t believe what he saw. He had never seen Fengbo look like this before, wide-eyed, with fear and panic so clear it was painful to observe.

Not that Cheng’en blamed Fengbo—he was the emperor’s closest confident and most trusted subordinate. This disastrous encounter would surely negate everything, even if Fengbo was to somehow avoid demotion.

Fengbo pulled out of Cheng’en and fumbled to fix his attire. They both dressed in silence, both too shocked to say a word.

“Cheng’en,” Fengbo finally said when Cheng’en finished rearranging his hair. “I don’t think this can work between us…I just can’t do this anymore. It’s not going to work out.”

“Why?” Cheng’en demanded, even though he had expected this. “Is it because His Imperial Majesty just saw us?” He wanted a reason. He wanted this to be the reason.

“No, that’s not it. Cheng’en, I—”

“Xuan Fengbo, you have some balls,” an unfamiliar voice sounded behind them. How the hell had that person come in without Fengbo noticing?

Fengbo paused and looked at the owner of that voice, his expression turning cold. His lips were drawn thin and were firmly shut. His fingers curled into tight fists.

“All this time, Master was suffering alone, and what were you doing? Fucking. You really have some balls to be able to enjoy life while Master is suffering because of you. Because you destroyed him; you took away his freedom, his dreams…his life.”

Cheng’en finished dressing and turned around, only to find an attractive and muscular man standing in the shadows. He was dressed lightly, and didn’t look like he was a soldier, eunuch, doctor, chef, or serving boy. He just didn’t belong, but apparently he and Fengbo knew one another. If Fengbo didn’t attack, the stranger must not be an enemy.

“What? Can’t talk because your victim is here?” the young man sneered. “He doesn’t know what you have done, does he? But of course you wouldn’t tell him. You don’t want him to know what sort of heartless jerk you are. You took away the person I loved—you don’t deserve to move on, you fucking two-face.”

Fengbo remained like a statue.

What the hell was this stranger talking about? Cheng’en’s shoulders jumped a little when the stranger’s piercing eyes met his. “Bai Cheng’en, correct?”

So this crazy man knew who he was. Great.

“Did you know that this treacherous bastard doesn’t give a shit about anyone’s feelings? That’s why he doesn’t want to be with you. He can pretend to, and I have to hand it to him—he’s a fucking good actor—but in the end, you are nothing to him in comparison to his ambition, his need for power.”

“I’m not going to believe your lies,” Cheng’en replied, annoyed at the rude, presumptuous man. Clearly, the stranger had no idea how much Fengbo tortured himself over what he had done.

“Suit yourself, then,” the stranger scoffed. “You’ll just end up like my Master.” He then glared at Fengbo. “And you. You actually had the balls to repeat the same shit you did to Master, Xuan Fengbo. Just how much do you like hurting others?”

Wait. Was this man’s master Fengbo’s most important person? Cheng’en glanced at Fengbo, but Fengbo merely retained his stone-cold expression.

“You know, I should have let him die before you got to him. I should have let him get killed by assassins—can you believe what I’m saying?” the stranger hissed through gritted teeth. “At least…at least he would have died being himself. He would have avoided all the suffering you forced upon him.”

The person Fengbo cherished the most was a male?

“I’m not in the mood to argue with you, Chi Juntao,” Fengbo finally said, his voice stiff. He let go of his grip on his dao. “Let’s just leave it as whatever you say is right, except for how I feel about Cheng’en.” He caught Cheng’en’s eyes. “I do care about you, Cheng’en. That’s why I don’t think I deserve you. Things between us can’t continue; the longer we drag this out, the more you’ll get hurt. I’m sorry for everything, and you don’t have to forgive me.” He then turned in the direction of the camp and started to walk.

“You’re just escaping,” the man called Chi Juntao snarled. “Don’t you fucking escape!” However, Fengbo ignored him and walked away, leaving only Cheng’en and Juntao standing in the bamboo thicket.

“Can I ask you what kind of person your Master is?” Cheng’en inquired with a small voice.

Juntao shot him a sharp look and Cheng’en took a step back. “Was,” Juntao corrected with a growl. “What kind of person my Master was.”

“What kind of person was your Master?” Cheng’en asked again, careful with his tone.

Juntao sighed. “He was alive, for one.” He paused, smiling a little now. “He was selfish, arrogant, and loved freedom more than anything. He didn’t give a shit about rules and regulations. He made his own rules—he didn’t just blindly accept whatever the hell society and those boring books say as right and wrong.” He chuckled to himself. “He was really impatient and would always insult others because to him, they were stupid.”

Cheng’en felt like he had been impaled in the chest. So that was why. That…was why. The realization almost tore him apart, and he wished he hadn’t learned of it.

“And, and he pretends to not care about you,” Juntao snorted, “but he does care, when you really think about it. He always helped other people out, even when it wasn’t asked of him. A lot of people didn’t even know he was helping them, especially since he always insulted others and always made excuses for his actions…it was so…cute.” He smiled gently and stared at the clouds for a while. Then, he sighed. “I can’t believe I told you all that. I guess I really miss him…,” he said. “I just…miss him so much. He was the first person to accept me for who I was, even though he always called me a brat….” His eyes darkened. “But that bastard…that bastard, Xuan Fengbo, destroyed him.”

Cheng’en could only listen quietly. This man really loved his master. Without a doubt, Fengbo really loved that person as well, and yet, why had he killed the person he loved? Cheng’en wanted to ask, but his voice was stuck in his throat. He just stood there, feeling the wind against his skin and listening to the rustling leaves.

Juntao’s face became blank and he straightened his posture. “The only thing that’s the same about my master is his intelligence.”

Cheng’en frowned. “I thought you said—”

“Well, that wasn’t what I said,” snapped Juntao. “Anyhow, I’m leaving. Good luck on not getting destroyed by Xuan Fengbo.” With a blink of the eye, he was gone.

Alone, Cheng’en stood motionless and tried to sort out his thoughts. Despair slowly crept over his mind, like a dark, dreadful shadow.

In the end, he wasn’t able to help Fengbo. He knew, that Fengbo had tried countless times to stop him from investing too much into their relationship, he knew that Fengbo had suffered when Cheng’en refused to give up. Yet, despite knowing, Cheng’en had foolishly thought he could somehow fix Fengbo, could help Fengbo get over his guilt.

He couldn’t. All Cheng’en had done was satisfy his own lust, his selfishness. All he had done was hurt himself and burden Fengbo with more guilt.

His sight became blurry and watery, and he realized he was crying. He had never cried before in his life, not even when he felt physical pain. Silently, he let tears roll down his cheeks until they dried. He had to get himself together. Even if he were to face death after they returned from the war, he still wanted to protect the emperor, protect his country, and protect Fengbo.

The following night, he was summoned to the emperor’s tent. With a heavy heart, Cheng’en dragged himself to meet the emperor—he had been warned before, after all, and he had ignored the warning. He had told the emperor that there had been nothing between him and Fengbo, and while that had been true at that time, he still had no excuse.

“I called you over to review our plans,” said the emperor. “If you have any concerns about certain decisions, feel free to give those thoughts a voice.”

Unable to determine the emperor’s intentions, Cheng’en found himself at a loss for words.

“If you are worrying about last night, I saw nothing,” the emperor said impassively. “Whether or not you perform well during the battle will not suddenly make me ‘remember’ I saw something, because I did not.”

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Since Lingyun had walked in on Fengbo having sex with Cheng’en, four days had passed already. It was as though nothing had happened, which was for the best. Right now, no one had the luxury of being distracted. Fengbo focused on their mission, drowning out everything irrelevant. But the instant he had some spare time, regret always clawed its way into his mind, clinging onto him, reminding him of its existence.

He couldn’t believe he had actually blurted out Lingyun’s name, when he had sworn to himself to never let that name roll off his tongue again, especially when Lingyun was like this. He didn’t have the right to say that name.

Worse, Fengbo couldn’t believe he had broken off his relationship with Cheng’en prematurely. He had thought to delay that, at least until the war was over. What the hell had he been thinking?

Sighing, Fengbo was about to go to bed when Gao Xinnan hurried into his tent. “General Xuan!” gasped the eunuch, his face shadowed by fear and worry.

“What is it?” asked Fengbo, hoping to hell that this had nothing to do with Lingyun.

“His Imperial Majesty…His Imperial Majesty has thrown up blood!”

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Chapter 55

There was a growing discomfort that stuck to Lingyun’s chest. He tried regulating his qi to improve his situation, but it did not work very well. For some reason, he couldn’t concentrate. No matter how much he practiced his swordplays, no matter how much he regulated his qi, the feeling never went away.

As they traveled, the discomfort only grew. There were only around two days left before they were to launch their final attack against Ning’s army—he didn’t have time for this.

Didn’t have time…he had said this just recently. When Lingyun remembered what had made him say those same words, the discomfort plaguing him increased so much that he doubled over and threw up blood.

“Majesty?” Xinnan dropped the serving plate in his hands, and Lingyun quickly rushed over to prevent it from crashing.

“This is nothing,” he said, taking the silk cloth Xinnan offered and wiping the blood off his lips. He had thrown up blood before, six months prior to their invasion of Ning. Apparently, it was from too much stress; nothing Lingyun couldn’t handle. He had forbidden Xinnan and the Imperial Doctor from uttering a word, threatening their deaths if anything slipped their mouths. “Just get Xie Hengsheng to give me some medicine.”

Xinnan bit his lip. “Forgive my insolence, but isn’t it better to get the General Xuan?”

“The man’s busy enough, I don’t want this to affect his performance,” Lingyun replied as he returned to lie down on his bed.

The imperial doctor occupied the tent next to his own, so he came in shortly and took Lingyun’s pulse. He let go of Lingyun and straightened his posture. “How long have you been angry, Majesty? Three days? Four?”

“Angry?” Lingyun repeated, letting the word sink and tasting it slowly. “I’m not angry.” All he felt was dull numbness—it was the only feeling he needed to feel.

“Majesty, this is unmistakably the result of continuous anger,” insisted Hengsheng. “It is not good for your liver; please, find some distraction.” As he spoke, he heated a pot of water and took out materials from his box. As he waited for the water to boil, he mixed the medicine together.

Lingyun watched, focusing on observing movements to clear his mind. The strong aroma of herbs filled the tent, and he closed his eyes. However, he felt that someone was approaching, so he opened them again.

“Your Majesty!”

Xuan Fengbo.

Lingyun looked past the supreme general, narrowing his eyes when they met Xinnan’s.

“Please don’t punish Gao-gonggong*,” Xuan Fengbo said quickly as he neared Lingyun. “No matter what you think, it is crucial for me to know Majesty’s condition in order to adjust my decisions.” He then sniffed and glanced at the leftover herbs, his brows creasing. “What materials did you use, Doctor Xie?”

“It’s just medicine to relieve stress,” Lingyun said coldly before Hengsheng could answer. “Go back to your post, general. I will manage—and I expect you to stay sharp until the end of this war.”

Hengsheng demonstrated that the medicine had no poison by pouring it into a porcelain bowl and tasting the contents with a silver spoon. Bowing, he raised the warm bowl above his head, and Lingyun took it with one hand. “Xuan Fengbo, do not make me repeat myself,” he said absently.

Expressionless, General Xuan replied, “Majesty, it is my duty to protect you.”

Lingyun paused at the word. Duty. He chose not to ponder why he would have been concerned in the past, and raised the bowl to his lips.

“Wait,” interrupted the general. “If it is stress that made you throw up blood, you’re drinking the wrong medicine, Majesty.”

“I know what I’m drinking, Xuan Fengbo,” Lingyun answered.

Both Hengsheng and Xinnan excused themselves, misinterpreting the general’s obstinacy as a desire to discuss highly confidential strategies.

Very well. Lingyun had just remembered the possible reason for General Xuan’s persistence. “If you are really concerned about a certain issue,” he said, referring to what he had accidentally witnessed four days ago, “I have seen nothing—you have my word.”

The general’s hands were drawn into fists. “Majesty, no matter what your decision, you know that I will comply.”

“If you want me to be direct, I have already promised not to punish Bai Cheng’en—as I said, I saw nothing.”

General Xuan paused, looking like he wanted to say something.

“My medicine is getting cold,” hinted Lingyun. “If you suddenly have information or advice to share, please do so without interrupting me from taking my medicine.” He then took a sip of herbal soup, and its strong taste temporarily blocked every other scent out. He focused on the herbal smell instead of the growing discomfort in his chest.

Xuan Fengbo merely stared at Lingyun for a while. His shoulders dropped a little before he kowtowed. “Then, please excuse my insolence.” He proceeded to take out herbs from Hengsheng’s kit and started to mix them together.

Lingyun decided not to stop his subordinate. There was no point—if doing this made Xuan Fengbo feel better, Lingyun would let him do it. He needed the supreme general to be in prime condition, at least until the war was won.

With great care, Xuan Fengbo finished brewing the herbal soup and offered it to Lingyun. “This is the correct cure for stress relief, Majesty.”

Not bothering to ask his subordinate to test for poison because he knew there was none, Lingyun received the warm porcelain. “You have my gratitude for your care, Xuan Fengbo. You may be excused.”

“Yes, Majesty.” Xuan Fengbo bowed again before he got up stiffly and left.

Since Lingyun thought he had thrown up due to stress anyway, he finished drinking the medicine and then went to sleep.

There was something else disturbing his peace. Something long forgotten, something that he had chosen to forget. Yet, for some reason, that feeling was trying to re-emerge, desperately reaching out to touch him. Turning to his side, Lingyun fixed his attention on the sounds of his surroundings.

Early the next morning, he felt slightly better, though that discomfort and that other feeling from the previous night were still plaguing him. Ignoring those feelings, Lingyun sent Duan Mingwu and Bai Cheng’en to split up and head to their destined positions.

Ye Qiuyang wanted nothing more than capturing Lingyun and torturing him until he died. But Qiuyang wouldn’t let that traitor die—he would make sure Lingyun knew what it meant to challenge him.

Ning was in a mess, and the only hope they had of preventing themselves from falling apart was defeating the Yue’s army, or preferably, capturing Lingyun. When Qiuyang decided to lead Ning’s last resort to meet Lingyun head on, his advisors protested, fearing for his life and the stability of the Court while he was gone.

“What will my people think of me, if I’m just cowering in the Palace while Bai Lingyun is leading his men himself, and worse, forcing all our vital fortresses and cities to surrender?” he argued, slamming his hand on the table and silencing the court. “The Ye are descendants of warriors, not wimps. Most of you nobles were our allies, warriors from the northwest. Have all these years of peace and studying softened your bones?”

Whispers, silence.

“We’ve lost enough citizens—they dislike us because we are conquerors, and don’t think hiding the fact that they wish for the victory of their kin, the Yue, from me will change anything,” Qiuyang continued with a loud, authoritative voice. “If we don’t remind them why we’re worthy of ruling over them, they’ll eventually rebel against us.”

With that said, Qiuyang led the Imperial Army and the troops from the north, west, and southern regions of Ning to meet the Yue’s troops. Seven days later, their forces clashed. Since Qiuyang and his men knew the land better, they had a great advantage. Not to mention, they had been studying Xuan Fengbo and Duan Mingwu’s habits long before this war had started.

And, as he had expected, they won the first two battles, though with some difficulty, and the Yue were forced to retreat. While Qiuyang and his men pursued the Yue, their victory made him think. The tactics were, to him, obviously Lingyun’s. He still vaguely remembered what Lingyun liked to do when playing weiqi, remembered how Lingyun played. This sort of tactic was definitely one of Lingyun’s, and, if Qiuyang was correct, there was another army heading their way. He discussed this with his best generals and sent the Conquering General of the South to lead ten thousand men away to search for the enemy backup.

Two days later, he received report that Lingyun had indeed sent men to attack from the side. They were engaged in a battle—this had definitely foiled Lingyun’s original plan. With a high morale, they pushed the Yue back again, more aggressively.

It was at the height of their success that Ning’s army collapsed. Yue suddenly retaliated with overwhelming strength; they had been setting up this situation, they had tricked Ning into an unstable formation and struck true to the core of the thin thread of balance by killing and wounding the core commanding officers with projectile weapons. Immediately, the enemy soldiers swarmed forth with immense vigor and obliterated all in their path.

Chaos, confusion, and utter disbelief. How had this happened? What the fuck had gone wrong?

“Your Majesty, please escape!” implored General Murong Quan; his shoulder had been impaled by an arrow. “We can’t hold on much longer!”

Unable to believe what he saw with his eyes, Qiuyang gaped at the scene before him, watching his soldiers fall, listening to the screams and roars of men. Quan told a soldier to guide Qiuyang’s horse away, but Qiuyang refused to leave. This was his fault.

This was entirely his fault—he had made this mistake. He had underestimated Bai Lingyun. All this time, he had thought he had the advantage, had believed that his men, who were skilled warriors, would easily defeat the soldiers of Yue.

By the time they had retreated so far that they were only a day away from the capital of Ning, Qiuyang was left with only eight thousand men out of the original sixty thousand.

It had all been a trap. All a trap, a trap he had fallen into, and it was too late. It was simply too late—nothing could be done anymore. More than two thirds of his army was gone, and he had just received notice that the army he sent to defend against Duan Mingwu was also forced to surrender.

“This isn’t going to work. I don’t want to see any more of our men die,” Qiuyang said, turning his horse back. “Raise the white flag.”

“But Majesty—” protested General Murong. “We can still fight. We just have to wait for the men from the northeast to back us up.”

“Fight? What can we fight with?” Qiuyang scoffed. “Murong Quan, I appreciate your loyalty and your desire to win this war, but we aren’t savage, insensitive barbarians anymore. Fighting to the death is not an honorable choice for leaders, it dooms our men, dooms their families. They are loyal, good men—I don’t want them to fight a war we aren’t going to win. The Yue prepared for this, longer than we ever prepared to defeat them.”

“Majesty,” cried Quan.

“Raise the white flag. I am going to negotiate with Bai Lingyun. Ning won’t survive this, even if we were to somehow win—this loss is going to destabilize our empire. Our dynasty has ended. Send messages to the Palace for them to prepare official documents.”

When Qiuyang was led to meet Lingyun, he was shocked. Although he had heard the reports, he still couldn’t believe that the emotionless, impassive man before him was the same man he had met almost six years ago. It was as though Lingyun’s attractive face had been covered by a thin sheet of ice. “As I told you in my last letter, I regret ever having to take up arms against you, my friend,” Lingyun said, his cold voice unlike anything Qiuyang could ever imagine.

This man—this man was not the person he had met, not the person who he had once admired.

“No matter what you might think, the fact that I dislike war has not changed,” continued the man.

“How long?” Qiuyang couldn’t help but ask. “How long have you been planning this? Defeating us so completely within three months when we far outnumber you…I don’t believe this was all planned in just a year.”

“If you must know, the instant you told me that I was a possible successor, I started to closely observe the way you play weiqi.”

Qiuyang felt anger and fear at the same time. That meant Lingyun had been plotting against him since six years ago, when they had still been friends. Lingyun had never intended to be his friend. “You never played against me seriously?”

“At first, I did—you were formidable. But we played weiqi together every day, for more than a month. It took me around fifteen days to get a grasp on how you played, but by that time I knew you were too much of a threat to Yue and I didn’t feel like helping you improve in weiqi—I merely played to manipulate the game so you’d feel challenged but not threatened. When you told me that Bai Lingyun’s chance of succeeding the throne was the highest, I decided to get further insurance in case that really became true, so I lost twice to see how you moved when you were winning, to see if you would notice the trap I set in the three games that day.” He locked eyes with Qiuyang. “You never noticed.”

Cold sweat broke down Qiuyang’s back, and a creeping shiver slithered up his spine. He should have never met Bai Lingyun. He should have ignored his curiosity—what monster had Qiuyang created by just merely playing weiqi with him?

“I liked and respected you as a person that time, Ye Qiuyang. It is unfortunate that we had to fight.”

What a strange way to word that. As a person.

“If you had not threatened us with constant requests for financial support or succumbed to the lure of collaborating with my eldest brother, Yiming, I would have never needed to use this plan. However, I am the emperor of Yue now, and it is my duty to protect the interests of my country just as you were merely moving in the interest of yours.”

They discussed the terms of Ning’s surrender at the Ning’s Palace; the gates were open to welcome Lingyun and his men for a grand feast. Ning was no more; the Imperial Family members were made vassals and most nobles were dispersed, some even sent back to their homeland. Officials were given new occupations and now worked for Yue. They lost most of their military and were only permitted the few men needed to defend themselves.

Thus, Yue became the empire with the most territory and the empire with the most authority and prestige.

Bai Lingyun was now the most powerful man in the lands—he had wealth, loyalty, respect and power; he had everything a man could ever hope for.

Everything but freedom.

cline3

Part III
~改弦易轍~
Replacing Strings and Changing Courses
End

Next Part: 波涌雲亂 (Surging Waves, Chaotic Clouds)

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