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Lessons in Lunar Etiquette

by TK Hoshikuzu (TK 星屑)

(mirrors http://s2b2.livejournal.com/348630.html)

“Your highness has powerful lungs,” Dragon Huo remarked, laughing boisterously. His lengthy body twirled in spirals, away from the Earth and toward the Moon. All throughout, Princess Shaoyao had not stopped screaming and crying in terror, even as the air thinned. The dragon’s clutches were too tight around her, and her head hung helplessly to the side. When her wailing had diminished out of exhaustion, Dragon Huo juggled her between his talons – her precious jewelry tinkling against each other – and threatened to drop her. To his tireless delight, this elicited fresh shrieks and he laughed some more.

The pale face of the Moon came into sight, and the beast glided toward stairs that were hewn downwards into the surface. At the bottom of the steps stood a mighty stone door, engraved with intricate sigils. He pushed his way into a vast indoor garden with a floor of tiny pebbles, from which jutted massive boulders and black, spiny weeds. There was a paved, winding walkway for guests to admire the scenery, but Huo crawled straight through, his tail throwing debris this way and that. Pale columns with streaks of gray lined the garden boundaries and led to an arch, as big and grand as the main entrance.

Through the arch was a cavernous hallway. It would have been a splendid view, with its high ceiling mimicking the night sky and lanterns of soft, warm light, had it not also been spattered with old blood stains. The smell of rotting iron invaded Princess Shaoyao’s nose as Dragon Huo slithered through the corridor and into another hall. He squeezed through and the rasp of scales against the entrance echoed.

“Prince Yueye,” the beast called out. “Look at what I’ve brought today.” He lifted a claw to show the terrorized princess and shook her a little to see if he could goad another scream, but she was utterly spent. Dragon Huo brought the Princess Shaoyao to his scrutiny, his flame-orange eyes peering straight at her. She made a feeble attempt at modesty by covering a part of her teary face with the long sleeve of her pale pink robe. Grimacing, the dragon dropped her unceremoniously to the ground.

In disgust he said, “Though her highness is entertaining, her beauty is sorely lacking. Not fit to be my wife, but lucky day, Prince Yueye. The renowned Princess Shaoyao is your new companion,” Dragon Huo paused, with a toothy smirk, “until my siblings get to her.”

Sprawling in shock, Princess Shaoyao scrambled to sit upright. A pale hand was offered to her, and she looked up at Prince Yueye. At that moment, confusion and surprise flickered across the Prince’s eyes. Princess Shaoyao shot a frigid, frightening glare at him, silently warning him not to give away that “she” was a man in disguise. Without another hesitation, the false princess took the Prince’s hand and allowed himself to be led to a seat. While gathering his senses, the imposter spent a moment surveying his surroundings.

There were six place settings on the huge round table, which was covered with a pearlescent white cloth. Blue-lined china plates cradled dishes that he had never seen before. They surrounded a large container of a translucent, stone-grey liquid. At the head of the table was a lone figure, Prince Yueye. He was pale like moonlight, and his long, dark hair was braided loosely behind him – an old-fashioned style. His eyes were narrow and heavy, which added to his expressionless, but well-shaped face. The imposter also noticed that besides the three of them, the banquet hall was empty.

Dragon Huo slumped down to their eye level, curled himself around the table, and propped his head up with a claw. “You may proceed, Prince,” he said drolly. As prompted, Yueye spooned small servings of each dish onto three plates. The false princess watched the dragon’s eyes widen in condescending delight. Granted, he also didn’t understand the point of giving person-size portions to such a huge beast. Nevertheless, watching the Prince go through the motions was an unexpected treat. His movements were graceful and confident. Without hesitation he cut a tart-like dish in equal portions and ladled the clear soup cleanly. He concluded by replacing the serving utensils and laid his hands in his lap.

“Princess,” he spoke in a satin tone, “I recommend that you start at the top and move sunwise. Please help yourself to whatever you wish.” He then picked up a small, slightly concave, and spade-like utensil. Not knowing which way “sunwise” was, the imposter princess watched Yueye eat from the corner of his eye as he himself dug into the creamy substance at the top. It was warm, earthy, and thick – strange, but not unpleasant.

Meanwhile, the dragon suddenly laughed, rolling onto his back and spurts of fire blowing from his breath. It was a rude, ridiculing laughter that made his whiskers twitch, and the imposter looked at the Prince for his reaction. He ignored the beast and dined stoically, as if he weren’t there. Dragon Huo brushed aside his plate to reach for the large pitcher in the center.

“I hope you at least had the sense to bring out enough liquor, Prince?” He asked and eyes flashed, as if a very short fuse had been lit. He downed the drink in two gulps and threw it aside, the metal clanging and sliding on the floor. Yueye rose from his seat, and shortly returned with another container of liquor, placing it in the center of the table.

“You are a gracious host to your guests,” Huo mocked, and downed it like the first. The prince stood up again with practiced patience, but the beast interrupted him. “You have a female to do that now,” he said, staring at the imposter, who demurred by staring into his plate.

“Dear Princess,” the Prince said, in a low, smooth voice, “you may leave the entrance behind me, and go to the cellar downstairs in the chamber across.”

The false princess rose and exited the room, shoulders hunched and his nose turned up on a pretense of pride. He noticed that the hallways were also quiet, betraying no sign of another living being. Upon entering the cellar, which was unoccupied, he fished for a glass bottle from the folds of his robes. Fingers trembling at the stroke of good luck, he dumped its contents into an empty pitcher. He managed to find the alcohol, stored in stacks of large, metal barrels, and filled the container to the brim.

As he waddled in with the unwieldy container, Huo said, “You are as graceless as you are ugly, Princess. I suppose your beauty does leave others speechless, as rumored. You could learn a lesson from our lunar lord, as long as you are here.” Nevertheless, he reached for the liquor. Getting more comfortable, Dragon Huo watched with intermittent chuckles and mouthfuls of alcohol as Yueye and disheveled imposter continued to dine in silence. His eyelids drooped, and eventually, he fell asleep. The false princess dared not to peep until he saw the cues from the beast: his limbs slackening, his head lolling a little too far back, his mouth open.

“Help me,” he finally said, directing an order rather than beseeching the prince. “If you’re a victim of theirs, help me.”

“WIth what do you require assistance, Princess?” he replied.

“I need to kill them.” Neither of them looked at each other, as if carrying a conversation with another guest across the table.

“I highly discourage this endeavor,” Prince Yueye said flatly.

“I must,” the imposter said. “This dragon and his kin have threatened my bride-to-be – Light of the Rosy Dawn, Pure Daughter of Heaven, Pious Maiden of the Blessed Kingdom – Princess Shaoyao, whose appearance I have assumed today. I must slay them all.”

Yueye considered his words for a moment, and put down his utensil. “For your noble quest to save your beloved, I will help you. I humbly request that you wait here. I assure you that I will return momentarily.” He rose from the table and strode out of the hall. The imposter had no choice but to trust the prince. His plan hinged on improvisation, which was foolhardy, but his best chance to secure the real princess’ safety. Anyway, no one on Earth had formed a better plan.

In the meantime, he kept an eye on the dragon and his mind on contingencies. The tinkling in his robes were from bottles of potent potions. Maybe he could eliminate Dragon Huo with another draught of liquor, but the Inky Demoness swore that they were immune to all poisons, nor would extra portions of the sleeping drug kill them. Extend his slumber if needed, the princess’ hero decided to gamble. He could certainly poison Prince Yueye. His face was impossible to read, and the imposter princess had to prepare to betray or be betrayed.

In what seemed like hours, Yueye returned with a gray sword in his arms. It was long and unwieldy, though he still carried it with princely grace. “Dragon steel, made from the metal of meteorite,” he said, offering the weapon to the imposter. “The only material capable of piercing their hides.”

Every second counted. The princess’ hero hurried over, and drew the weapon straight from its hilt. After positioning himself, with a running start he plunged the sword straight into the back of sleeping Dragon Huo’s skull. A horrible mix between a shriek and roar immediately echoed throughout and the beast’s snake-like body writhed in panic. Anticipating this, the imposter had wrapped his thick legs around his neck and kept stabbing through the scales. Yueye had ducked behind a column to avoid the angry bursts of flame and closed his eyes. Finally, the false princess managed to make a deep gash in his throat, and Dragon Huo wrung himself dry with each great thrash. Spurts of greasy blood were thrown everywhere. When silence took over the commotion, Yueye looked around and found Dragon Huo dead at the feet of the wounded man, though otherwise fine. .

“It would have been easier with two,” he said bitterly, glaring at Yueye. He leaned more of his weight on one leg, and there were scrapes all over his chest, which had been laid bare in the struggle.

“My apologies,” Yueye said, “you had not relayed your plan to me.” He stepped around the pool of blood to survey the still-warm carcass. Meanwhile, the imposter took a dagger that was strapped to his leg, and bent down to pry out the orange-red pearl that was embedded in the forehead of the former Dragon Huo. Throwing off the bloodied rags that remained of the robe, he ripped off a piece to wrap around the pearl, which barely fit into the palm of his hand.

“Where are the other dragons?” he asked. “We must prepare to fight them as well.”

Yueye regarded him steadily. “I will explain the circumstances to you. In the meantime, unless your wounds are serious, I humbly request that you rest as I quickly tidy the aftermath of your heroic battle. Second, I would like for us to take a bath and tend to your wounds.” Hands together, pointing downward with index fingers and thumbs forming a triangle, he finished, “Third, as on the Moon, I believe it is Earth custom to introduce yourself to strangers. As you know, I am Prince Yueye.” He gestured to his guest. “However, since you are not Princess Shaoyao, you…?”

The imposter made a face at the pretty prince’s propriety, especially in the essence of time. “I am the second son of King Chongzu, fourteenth grandson of King Weng, descendent of the Sun-like Emperor – Prince Jun.”

“I am honored to host a member of Earth royalty as my guest,” Prince Yueye bowed lowly. “Until your quest is fulfilled, I am at your service.”

(O)O(O)O(O)O(O)O(O)
Jun sat back against the rim of the tub, hot towel draped over his eyes. He could hear Yueye putter around the sauna, but he ignored him, instead making plans in his head. While he had watched Yueye drag the carcass to a different room, mop up Huo’s greasy blood, put away the leftovers and wash the dishes – to Jun’s great irritation – Yueye had spoken of his predicament.

Five dragon siblings had invaded and conquered Yueye’s home, a cavernous kingdom beneath the surface of the Moon. The only casualty was his elderly Queen mother. The cruel group left him alive to serve and amuse them. To the serious and earnest prince, they were unwelcome, but treated as guests nevertheless. As for the sword, the dragons thought it useful to stow away such powerful weapons in their stronghold. It was clear to Prince Jun that the dragons viewed Yueye as no threat (though to be fair, he wouldn’t have either).

Yueye told Jun that the siblings could not stand each other’s presence for long – which explained the old blood spatters throughout the hallways – so only one dragon stayed in the castle at a time. They typically stayed for a fourth of a Moon day – roughly a week in Earth time. Jun had no expectations on the duration of his mission, but he was disappointed that it could be as long as five weeks.

He heard Yueye slip into the water, and he lifted the towel from his face to show that he was open to company. He was mildly surprised to find Yueye to be a strapping, lean young man. He cut a strikingly royal figure. Jun assumed that Yueye’s conciliatory attitude was because he was weak, but the Moon Prince could easily have slain Dragon Huo himself.

Their gazes met for a moment and another moment. Jun could tell that Yueye kept glancing up to see if Jun was still staring. He understood in small part Dragon Huo’s pleasure in bullying Yueye. He was too princely, too proper, too composed. “Is there something you’d like to say?” Yueye asked, interrupting his thoughts.

“Not at all,” Jun replied. “Well, actually, yes. If we’re going to become acquainted for a while, I’d like to know more about you.”

“Please, you are my guest,” Yueye acquiesced, taking a seat across Jun.

“Why don’t you kill the beasts yourself? They murdered your mother, didn’t they? That’s an unspeakable crime in my kingdom.” A tinge of disgust colored his words, but Yueye was unfazed.

“While it might be true on Earth, we do not punish murder with more killing. Life is precious here, and my mother thankfully lived a full one. In an ideal situation, the criminal enters servitude. Of course, I cannot enslave a dragon, much less expect it to do what I wish.” He continued tensely, “Also, if I risked my life and failed, our ways would be gone forever. It’s what my beloved parents would want. Fortunately, the dragons find me useful.”

“For now,” Jun bit back. “More fortunately, I’m here now.” He added, “I suppose it’s fine if a foreigner kills rather than you, isn’t it?” Jun held his gaze on Yueye, who gave away the slightest look of embarrassment. The prince was exceptionally polite, and Jun guessed he was the type of person who didn’t bother others with his innermost feelings. But what did it matter? He was the only one who lived here. “You said, ‘our ways,’ but you’re the only one here. What happened to the others? You only mentioned your mother,” he said.

His smooth voice hitched as he replied, “Life is extremely precious here for a reason.”

Even he recognized when not to toe a line, so Jun changed the subject. “I’m in your debt, so don’t hesitate to use me as you will. In the meantime, I will prepare for the next encounter.”

“I am indeed fortunate to have such a generous guest,” Yueye said. His expression remained peaceful, and Jun wondered what the dispassionate prince really thought of him.

They soaked for a few more minutes before Jun grew impatient. He stepped out of the bath and grabbed a towel, as did Yueye. He let Yueye dress his wounds, who did so with great and skilled care. Jun averted his eyes as the other man knelt before him and ran a hand over his abdomen to smoothen the bandages. In spite of the awkwardness, he commended his stoicism and deft hands.

They dressed together, or rather, Yueye corrected Jun when he wrapped his borrowed shirt the wrong way. Yueye obliged Jun’s request for a tour of the major entrances into the palace. Jun took note of the advantageous positions of attack, while Yueye gave a brief introduction of the grounds. They ate a simpler meal together, Jun asking about meal preparation and Yueye explaining.

A funny feeling grew in the back of his mind when Jun asked about restrooms. Yueye led him accordingly, while using it himself. Later, when Jun loudly yawned for the fifth time, Yueye offered to show him to a bed chamber. The room was as pale and beautiful as the rest of the palace. Yueye excused himself, and Jun exhaled a long breath that he didn’t realize he’d been holding. Yueye had not been out of his sight for more than a few moments. Jun sucked his breath all back in when Yueye returned, having changed into draping robes and carrying a set for Jun.

“For you,” he said. The incongruity of the situation – an emotionless, yet clingy prince – made Jun snap.

“Are you going to sleep next to me too?” he blurted in a way that would infuriate his old nurse.

After a pause, in which Jun exchanged an angry look with Yueye’s blank stare, Yueye replied, “It is customary here.”

Though he should have suspected as such, Jun flustered. “I don’t believe you. You made that up just now.” Jun threw his hands up in the air. “In what kind of backwards culture is that normal?” He leaned forward accusingly. “What is your intention?”

“It is cold on the Moon.” Yueye did not back down. “I slept next to my mother for warmth every night.”

“It’s a bit much to expect me to share a bed with you,” Jun said. “I hope you’ll forgive me when I say that I don’t completely trust you yet.”

Yueye paused again in thought, then said, “You will get cold.”

“I’ll take my chances,” he said, glancing at the bed behind him. The bedding looked thick enough, especially with the extra layers of blankets over it. Hearing nothing else from him, Jun considered the matter settled. He took the nightwear from Yueye’s arms, and undid the pouch that he had brought from Earth. Jun noticed that Yueye had not moved from his spot, and he stopped to look at him, hands on his hips. A little dent in Yueye’s eyebrow was the sole indication that he was disappointed.

“Well? What is it?” Jun demanded. “You’re not going to insist that it’s your culture, are you?”

“Most customs arise out of necessity,” Yueye replied defensively, but struggled to voice his thoughts. “I humbly beseech that you respect my request.”

“Well, all right then, you stubborn ass,” Jun said with exasperation. “I was hoping for peaceful night’s sleep.” As he spoke, Yueye settled in under the covers, as if business as usual.

“I appreciate your accommodating the ways of my people, whose land you now take shelter in,” Yueye jabbed passive-aggressively. “I assure you that we will both be much better for it.”

Jun rolled his eyes as he opened his pouch to organize the assorted bottles in them. “Your customs may kill me before those dragons do.”

“Then at least you will not die like a barbarian,” Yueye said. Jun shot a scowl at him, but he had already closed his eyes. Out of precaution, Jun took his dagger with him to bed. With his arms crossed, he held it against his chest and lay stiffly on the bed next to Yueye. But he was more exhausted by earlier events than he had realized, since there was no sunset to trigger his internal clock, and he passed out.

(O)O(O)O(O)O(O)O(O)
Jun had seen what he supposed were timepieces throughout the castle, but he had no clue how to decipher them. Looking at one of them in the room, he wondered how long he had been sleeping. He must have rested well, since his dagger had fallen to the floor without waking him. He could feel Yueye pressed into his side, and Jun stirred to signal that he was awake. Yueye shifted immediately in response.

“Were you awake?” Jun asked, eyebrows furrowed.

“Yes,” Yueye confessed, but offered no explanation.

Jun shrugged it off, already expecting Yueye’s strange ways. “What time is it? Is the next dragon coming soon?”

“We have two hours.”

“What? Two hours?” Jun jumped out of bed. “Why didn’t you wake me?”

“Two Moon hours,” Yueye reminded. Jun cursed internally, forgetting to convert, but relieved that he had about two days. “However, I do need to begin preparing for Dragon Shui’s arrival.”

“What does that require?”

“He is incredibly fond of our dumpling soup, which means dragon-sized portions.”

“What a fortunate coincidence for us,” Jun said with a sly smile, “that I also have dragon-sized portions.” He picked up a glass bottle full of a dark orange liquid.

Yueye stretched and shrugged out of his robes. “That is the least of your worries. The dragons detest each other’s presence, but even they will notice an absence. We must be careful throughout.”

“You can be careful for the both of us,” Jun retorted, brushing him off. “You look like you’re good at that.”

“I appreciate the compliment. I will try my best for the sake of your princess.” He slipped into what looked like daywear for laborers, loose pants and a shirt. There was a set for Jun as well. “Shall we visit the greenhouse?”

It was the brightest room in the palace, even with the heavily clouded panes of the glass ceiling, since the greenhouse was one of the few which opened to the surface. Rows and rows of troughs spanned the entire room, with a network of narrow pipes hanging above for irrigation. Only half were being used at all. White pods hung from thin, pale green vines. Yueye picked up a large, shallow basket from a stack near the entrance.

“Do you mind if I take a walk around the palace?” Jun asked, despite knowing Yueye’s reaction.

On cue, Yueye paused, and put down the basket. “What would you like to see?”

“I would like to see it for myself, alone.”

“My esteemed guest, have I offended you such that you protest my presence?” Yueye asked sincerely, and Jun scoffed at his obliviousness.

“On Earth, we are assured at least some time alone. I would understand more if you told me you didn’t trust me, but you insist that it’s your people’s custom. Isn’t it the host’s job to make guests comfortable?”

Without skipping a beat, Yueye replied, “I would hope that my guest has better manners than a dragon, who violently asserts his ways.”

Jun scowled, but admitted to himself that since Yueye was risking his life to help him, the least he could do was accomodate his host. He picked up a basket and stood next to Yueye. “At least I can help you pick these faster.”

Jun watched Yueye pinch the stem with his index and thumb, and twisted the bean pod off. When Jun attempted the same, Yueye quickly intervened.

“Plucking them that way will damage the plant and inhibit growth,” he said. “Please use two fingers only, and make sure only your nails are touching.”

“Like this?” Jun asked, curling his fingers in an exaggerated claw. He reached over to pinch the stem, but had a hard time collecting the crop, so he crushed the stem.

Before Jun could wrench it further, Yueye stopped him. “No, you have to twist as you pinch.“

Jun huffed and protested, “Don’t you have scissors anywhere?” Yueye’s chiding was too close to what he received at home, and it was making him touchy.

“I am afraid I am unfamiliar with that tool.” Yueye shook the basket to re-distribute the beans, and Jun realized he had been picking while guiding him.

“It’s a kind of cutting tool. What do you all use to cut?” Jun asked incredulously.

“We have knives, just not ‘sizzos.'” At this point, Yueye traded his full basket with Jun’s sparse one and continued on another row of troughs, leaving Jun behind.

Feeling petty, Jun laughed at Yueye’s pronunciation. “It’s ‘scissors.’ I suppose we’ll have to make you a pair.”

“I would like that very much.” Yueye stopped to give the first smile Jun had seen since arriving. It was a curated smile, not a full-faced one that pushed cheeks up, but still kind. A pleasant, warm feeling blossomed in Jun’s chest, and surprised him too much to throw the rarity back in Yueye’s face.

“We’ll have plenty of time, so I can do at least that much,” he mustered instead, even knowing that as a prince, he’d have no idea how to start. Yueye tipped his basket to let half of his load fall into Jun’s. In their exchange, Yueye had finished the task alone, and Jun’s mood soured. “This is the first time I’ve done this,” he mumbled.

“Of course,” Yueye replied lightly, ignoring Jun’s defensive reaction.

Yueye led them to the kitchen, which looked as if it were built for an army of chefs. The more Jun saw the palace, the more he felt as though he were seeing ruins, the vestiges of a dead civilization. As Yueye dragged stools for the both of them, the scraping echoed throughout the high ceilings. He bade Jun to take a seat before he set down two empty baskets.

“Now what?” Jun asked immediately, who received a dry look in response. “What? Do you have something to say?”

Shelling a bean, Yueye said, “I meant no offense. Despite your many objections, you seem to have become more comfortable here.”

“Well, we seem to spend every waking moment together, so it’s only natural.” Jun picked up a bean, and tried to mimic the other. They seemed easy enough to shell, and Yueye didn’t correct him. He still couldn’t compare to Yueye’s speed.

The same small indent from earlier formed in the middle of his forehead, and Yueye changed the subject. “I have spoken much about myself. I humbly request to hear more about your Princess Shaoyao, Prince Jun. In truth, I had heard Dragon Huo speak a little about her.”

“So even you have heard of her legendary beauty,” Jun replied, nodding. “It is said that no one can resist her charms, so it’s not surprising that Huo wanted her. Even so, the kingdom was horrified when Dragon Huo expressed his unexpected intent to marry her. Fortunately, her father, Emperor Yangzong is a powerful soothsayer as well. He has been able to foretell every disaster, including the Dragon’s kidnapping, which is why I‘m here. He has pledged her hand to anyone who can eliminate the threat.” Jun smirked as he crowed, “I’m the only one who realized you need to kill all of the dragons to really be safe.”

With an approving nod, Yueye praised Jun. “It is very courageous and noble of you to accept such a dangerous quest for your intended.

Jun froze and cursed his loose tongue. Yueye was right; he had grown comfortable in his presence. He was embarrassed to have revealed that Princess Shaoyao wasn’t exactly his bride-to-be. It didn’t matter though, Jun thought to himself, steeling his resolve. The princess was as good as his. In response to Yueye, however, he pretended not to hear the emphasis. “Such high esteem for a reckless prince,” he demurred, shelling the last of the beans.

“Not at all,” Yueye said. “As far as I can know, you are the only one who has braved the journey here. Your feelings are passionate and true.”

He rose to fetch a large pot from a shelf and filled it with water in the long, stone sink. He tipped the basket to pour the beans in and rinsed them with his hands. To Jun, it was a pitiful sight to see a prince reduced to doing his own chores and other menial tasks. He couldn’t blame Yueye for his situation, but still found it unacceptable. At least he was adept and exuded an comely grace that nor Jun or Dragon Huo could have denied. If Yueye insisted that they stay together, at least he was good company.

(O)O(O)O(O)O(O)O(O)
Dragon Shui was incredibly fat. His belly wobbled side to side when he slithered into the banquet hall. “Prinsssss Yueye,” he hissed as he stuffed himself inside. Yueye was sitting again at the head of the large, round table with the silk tablecloth. Instead of three place settings, the dumpling soup sat in the middle, served in the largest serving bowl. Jun hid underneath the table and peeked from a tiny opening in the cloth. The sword was gripped tightly in his hand, and his breathing was shallow and quiet.

“Good evening, Master Shui,” Yueye greeted politely, but the beast ignored him, circling the banquet hall instead.

“My brother didn’t mention me when he was here? Nor my other siblings?” he asked.

“They did not,” he replied. They seldom spoke of one another, and were more interested in talking about themselves, but Yueye had stopped trying to convince Shui otherwise.

Shui twisted himself to lie a wet, cloudy eye on the Moon Prince. “You are lying. You are collaborating with them.”

“I assure you that I am not.”

“You all want to kill me for being the most cunning. You all envy my prowess, but because you all think I am the weakest, you want to kill me.”

He shoved him out of his chair and pressed a claw into his chest, and his hefty weight pinned him on his back. Jun was taken aback, though Yueye had warned him that Dragon Shui was the most violent sibling. “Do I feel weak?” Shui spat. He scanned Yueye’s stony face for a hint of betrayal. “You look different. What has changed?”

“Forgive me for my impudence, Master Shui, but nothing has changed.” His voice remained emotionless. “Though I must remind you of Mistress Mu’s warning.”

Shui shrank back, remembering the vicious beating received from his sister, Dragoness Mu, for leaving visible wounds on her beloved Moon Prince. “You are fortunate, Prince Yueye, to have friends you can rely on.” He leaned forward to bear down on Yueye. “But remember that I am far cleverer than you and my siblings.”

His eye caught the bowl of soup on the table, and he grinned. “I can make you spill your secrets. In any case, I should punish you for lying.” He set the bowl next to Yueye, who tried to remain calm, but a nervous look betrayed him. “You look guilty,” Shui accused, yanking Yueye by his hair. “If you were innocent, you’d have nothing to be afraid of. Speak the truth, and maybe I’ll only do it half as long.”

Yueye didn’t resist and remained silent. Enraged, the dragon plunged his head into the hot soup and held it there, while Yueye’s hands scratched frantically at the stone floor. At the last second, he pulled him back up, gasping and gagging. Without warning he forced his head in again.

Jun watched Yueye’s hands scramble at the fringes of the tablecloth. It took every fiber of his being not to run out and slit the beast’s throat right there, but Yueye made him promise to wait for the right moment, whatever may happen to him. He could hear ugly sounds from outside: Shui laughing in a high-pitched, agitated voice and Yueye being dunked over and over. When it seemed like he would never stop, a muffled swallow interrupted his cackling.

“You’ve outdone yourself with these dumplings,” he mocked, like his brother before him. “I don’t think I can have them any other way now.” He gobbled up the rest of the dumplings and Yueye laid on the floor, coughing raggedly. Dragon Shui chuckled at his own stupid joke, and satisfied with his meal, let Yueye go. “Panic is a better look for you, Prince of the Moon, than your proud composure.”

Shui settled back on his haunches and closed his eyes. Jun let out a breath of relief, which was punctured by a sharp, “Who’s there?”

He heard the dragon’s body flop to the ground, and the subsequent bellow. “YOU LIAR!” Shui roared, then began to slur. “TREACH’RSSRAT!” His scales clattered against the floor as he began to slump. “Whadyou do t’m,” he trailed off drowsily.

Jun stepped out from under the table, sword in hand. Dragon Shui stared back in terror. His eyes darted from Yueye to Jun and he whimpered, fear deep in the back of his throat. His tail curled against him, trying to look pitiful, but in a running start, Jun thrust the sword up his maw, into his skull. Hot, salty water spurted out from his wound, and Jun swung the sword at his throat, slicing it open. In his strike, he understood the water dragon’s fear: his body crumpled like wet paper against his blade. Jun maintained eye contact with the cowardly dragon, contempt and fury all throughout.

When Dragon Shui was dead, Jun rushed to Yueye’s side. “Are you hurt?” he asked, kneeling next to him, but Yueye waved him off.

“I am fine,” he replied with great effort. “Though, I must say – even though I am against murder – it was nice to know that it would soon be over.” The relief in Yueye’s second smile eased an unfamiliar tension in Jun’s heart, and he decided he did not want to see his companion abused like this again.

They sat together, watching the steam emanate from the watery blood that poured from the Dragon Shui’s body. “Can we take a minute before we clean up?” Jun asked, cringing at the mess.

(O)O(O)O(O)O(O)O(O)
Their second success bought them another week’s worth of rest. By then, Jun had come to expect the unending chores, though not all mundane. Yueye was still a stickler for custom, but Jun found that Yueye was quite patient with him. Out of his own pride, Jun had mistaken Yueye’s devotion for condescension.

They had a fascinating time figuring out how best to use Dragon Huo’s and Shui’s parts. The flame dragon’s carefully removed gland was full of an excellent, long-lasting fuel, and they harvested the salt from water dragon’s blood. Their bones, claws, and teeth were removed for tools – and Jun’s promised scissors, though it took a few tries. He had relished Yueye’s delight when he snipped them a few times in childlike wonder.

They scraped the fat for soap and candles, and set the hides aside for tanning. They saved the scales for last, not sure what to do with them. They burned the meat, since Yueye refused to eat it, and Jun wasn’t so keen either. Finally, Jun pried the pale blue pearl from Dragon Shui’s forehead, and tucked it away like the red-orange one from Dragon Huo.

When they weren’t working, Yueye guided Jun through the palace. He expanded on his people’s history, refugees from small kingdom on Earth, fleeing a war they were caught between. Relative to other civilizations, the Lunar Kingdom was short-lived, but happy. Once, they stopped at a massive monochrome mosaic, an intricate pattern of geometry in gradients so subtle that Jun almost forgot it was colorless. Yueye stopped his narrative to admire the wall art. Jun was impressed by the size, but it reminded him that Yueye was alone in this enormous place.

“What happened to them?” he asked again, but his tone was softer this time.

Yueye exhaled a long, slow breath. “The war left many of us victims of biological warfare. It affected future generations. We always needed to take care of each other. Now there is no one left,” he spoke as a matter of fact.

“I’m sure you can return to Earth and…” Jun trailed off, imagining Yueye in his stiff manners and strange attire recruiting strangers to live on the Moon. “Well, at least you can bring back a wife. Anyone would be foolish not to take you as a husband.”

Yueye’s slight smile was kind and bittersweet. He led them down a long hallway where Jun had not yet been. At the end was a curtained doorway, through which Yueye pushed forward. They faced a glass wall, not clouded like the greenhouse, but clear and sharp.

During his time on the Moon, he had never thought to look back at the world he was leaving, so to find his home staring back at him was a pleasant surprise. He traced the brilliant blue oceans with his eyes, and found the one closest to his kingdom, which he spotted next. Jun could make out the tiny outlines of his father’s palace, a noteworthy discovery to bring back home. He imagined his elder brother planning his next successful military campaign, and his younger brother running laps around his mathematics tutor. Just specks, all of them…

He stumbled backward, experiencing sudden vertigo, and felt a hand pull him down. He landed in a plush pile of pillows next to Yueye.

“This is my favorite room in the palace. When we were tired, my mother and I would rest here and watch the Earth turn. My father promised to take me there one day, for the same reason you mentioned, but he passed away before he could.” As he stared at the Earth, he said, “In any case, I should not leave.”

“Of course you should leave. You need to continue the legacy, don’t you?”

“I do not know how to do so, nor do I know how to return.”

They then sat on a very pregnant pause. Jun expected Yueye to ask him how he planned on getting back, and Yueye waited for Jun to volunteer that information, blurting like he often did. Jun realized too late that he was supposed to say something, but managed to reply, “That’s too bad.”

“Is it not?” Yueye followed up quickly, trying to hide the disappointment coloring his tone. He pushed himself from the heap of cushions. “We should begin preparations for Dragoness Mu.”

Jun trailed after him, just as guilt trailed him. Would it be so bad to take Yueye with him? He was so bent on his ways that it didn’t seem like he would come. Impulsiveness took over and Jun called out Yueye’s name. He turned to him with a vacant expression. It was as if Jun had imagined the frustration in Yueye’s voice – as a prince should conduct himself. Again, he mustered a question that was far from his feelings. “What are we making?”

“Lately, she has become fond of jellied taro, but her tastes are fickle. We have to be somewhat creative and anticipate what she might want, so that she will eat.”

Yueye spoke again, unprompted. “Again, please do not strike until she has consumed your sedative, regardless of what happens to me.” It sounded as though it strained him to say the final part of his reminder. Expecting Jun’s question, he said, “I will be fine.”

What surprised Jun was that Yueye seemed more nervous about Dragoness Mu than the late Dragon Shui, who was as cruel as he was cowardly. His blood already began to boil in his veins.

(O)O(O)O(O)O(O)O(O)
“What a pretty picture set just for me,” Dragoness Mu praised. Yueye knelt in front of five dishes: her favored jellied taro, rolled-up bean crepes, candied taro blossoms, preserved yam shoots, and a creamy white tart. Yueye himself was wearing a magnificent ivory-white robe with intricate geometric patterns embroidered into it, secured tightly with a cloth belt dyed black and grey.

She slid closer to Yueye, whose gaze was dropped to the ground. She cupped his chin and lifted his gaze up to hers. “You look different, though as handsome as ever,” she said, echoing her dead brother’s sentiment. She meant to sound amused, but annoyance inflected her words. After a moment of contemplation, she proclaimed, “You’re in love.” She squeezed his face in her claw and asked, “Who is it? Not my sister Jin?”

“Who else could it be but you, my mistress?” Yueye replied dully. She stared into his deep, dark eyes with her own emerald ones, accustomed to Yueye’s aloofness. Jun listened from another entrance into the banquet hall, crouching behind a column and his knuckles white on his sword. Shui had been right about Yueye lying, but Yueye in love? Was it one of the other dragons, as Mu accused? He listened more closely, and could hear the grin in her voice.

“Of course,” she acknowledged, “it was inevitable.” She easily fell for the words she wanted to hear the most. The tip of her tail stroked his thigh. “Out of my siblings, I understand you the most. Out of them, you are dearest to me. I adore you more than anyone else.”

All that Yueye had told Jun was that Mu was the least dangerous, and that she respected her role as a guest, but discomfort still prickled Jun’s skin. He heard her body shuffle, and she continued in a half-moan that made Jun’s hair stand on end, “Now then, prove your love for me, Prince Yueye.”

Jun couldn’t help but peek around the entrance, morbid curiosity getting the better of him. She was the smallest dragon yet, just under three times the length of Yueye’s height. She was on her back and she pulled his hand toward her to stroke her chest. At the same time, her tail was looking for a way under Yueye’s robes.

“I have prepared several dishes for you to enjoy, Dragoness Mu,” Yueye said, who looked as though he didn’t expect this turn of events.

“Why should I take pleasure in your efforts alone? No need for formalities now. Let us dine as equals,” she cooed, though her grip was firm around his wrist.

“As you wish,” he said before picking up a jellied taro and placing it to her beak. She accepted it by curling her tongue around his hand and pulling the treat to her mouth. At the same time, Yueye ate a piece as well. Jun was furious at Yueye’s nonchalance toward eating what he knew was poisoned. He tried to catch Yueye’s eyes with his livid gaze, but either Yueye didn’t notice or he was ignoring Jun’s silent warning. Jun watched Yueye drop a handful of the candied flowers into Dragoness Mu’s maw, while he nibbled on a petal.

With all of his being, Jun hated the wood dragon more than Huo or Shui. He hated that she was forcing Yueye to touch her and was repulsed to see a kind of sticky substance ooze from her chest after every stroke. He hated seeing the discomfort in the way Yueye clenched his jaw. She didn’t actually care whether Yueye was willing, only that he played along. Her unconsciousness could not come sooner. Yueye’s warning be damned, if they went any further, Jun was ready to rush out screaming.

Yueye drooped forward, leaning his forehead against the side of Mu’s snout. Jun could tell he was fighting to stay awake, while the dragoness thought he was trying to get closer to her. “Prince Yueye!” she squealed, and Yueye was startled enough to sit upright.

“You have not tried the preserved shoots yet, mistress,” he managed to mumble. Delighted by his ‘reciprocation,’ she obediently opened her mouth for him and he grabbed a handful of the yam shoots, letting them slip from his fingers. His body slouched, and Mu nuzzled his cheek. She didn’t notice that Yueye was asleep because she began to feel drowsy as well.

Jun stared, unblinking, for the telltale signs, and when her jaw fell to the floor, tongue lolling out, he struck like a bolt of lightning. He swung the sword over his head and tried to cut her head clean off. When one blow was not enough – though powerful enough to kill her – he lost his temper and started hacking viciously at her throat. He wasn’t satisfied until he could kick her head away from her body. Dropping the sword, he hefted Yueye’s sleeping form into his arms. He wanted to shake him awake, but he knew it would be futile. His head on his chest, he listened for a heartbeat. Fortunately, he was still breathing. Jun set him down gently on the floor and got to work. He had no choice but to wait.

(O)O(O)O(O)O(O)O(O)
Jun tried to clean off the sap that clung to Yueye’s hand with a wet towel, but it was a stubborn substance. He grew worried that Yueye wouldn’t wake up, so occasionally he’d kneel next to the bed and call out his name. Yueye’s eyes would move under his lids whenever he did, as if he were about to wake up, but he didn’t stir. Jun finally got his solitude, but the quiet that followed him disturbed him. He alone stripped materials from Mu, whose body was made of sap and hard wood. The oils from her gland was sweet and flowery, but he burned it with the rest of her remains. Neither of them needed a reminder of her.

On the second day, when Jun walked in through the door, he suddenly found Yueye sitting up and waiting for him. Jun paused in shock and rushed to his side. “Do you feel sick?” Jun asked, examining his eyes and pressing fingers to his neck to check his pulse. After Yueye shook his head, Jun pinched his cheek hard and scolded him harshly. “You idiot, why did you do such a stupid thing? You’re like the fat pigs at home, eating whatever they see. I hate those dumb animals so much. Are you a pig? I was worried to death! How could you do that?”

During his rant, Yueye winced at the pinch, but seemed content. Annoyed by his composure, Jun spat out, “Well? Don’t you have anything to say about what you’ve done to me?”

“I would like a bath,” Yueye croaked. Jun wrinkled his nose, but nodded. He had to hold him up, arm draped over his shoulders, as he guided him to the changing room. He then left him to prepare the hot water in the furnace room. When Jun returned, he discovered Yueye in the adjoining sauna, already releasing water from the large tank into the communal bath.

“The water isn’t hot yet,” Jun said.

“I am foul. I am ashamed that you had to attend to me.” He slipped into the tub and immediately began scrubbing his arm of Mu’s sticky sap.

Noticing Yueye’s action, Jun said, “I tried to wash it off, but I think it needs to be soaked in water for a while.”

Yueye wasn’t listening and grabbed soap. “Jun,” he said quietly, “would you be so kind as to make the water hotter?”

The gravity in his voice made Jun obey without question. He ducked into the furnace room to throw a copious amount of logs into the belly of the stone stove. Yueye was upset – no doubt because of the lecherous dragoness – and Jun was happy to comply with whatever he asked.

When he returned, Yueye was sitting with his back against the tub, eyes closed. He had stopped washing his arm, but it was now a scarlet red. Seeing that on his ghostly skin nipped at Jun’s heart, so softened it. He knelt at the rim of the bath, shedding his shirt. His hand moved underneath Yueye’s long, black hair. Yueye sat up to let Jun take it all in his hands, understanding that he was trying to wash his hair.

Jun chuckled softly to himself. “When my younger brother had barely learned to walk, he would demand that I take baths with him and wash his hair.” He poured shampoo onto Yueye’s scalp and massaged it into a lather.

“Do you miss them? Your family?” Yueye asked, eyes still shut.

It was a few seconds before Jun responded. In fact, he had not once thought of returning to them since he had been here. “I don’t. I’m sure they don’t miss me,” Jun replied.

“That is a pity,” Yueye remarked, in a voice that said otherwise. Jun dipped his hand into the water to wipe the stray shampoo from Yueye’s face.

“It is what it is,” Jun said, shrugging. With a small bucketful of water in one hand, Jun tilted his Yueye’s head up with the other. He then covered his eyes with his palm and poured the water down his head. He rinsed out the soap by running his fingers through the strands and squeezing gently. He repeated this several more times, and was satisfied by the way the water smoothed his hair. “There,” he sighed with a note of finality.

Then Yueye tilted his head to look up at Jun, who looked down at him. Yueye was as handsome as ever, but it was his eyes that drew him in. His pupils were dark, like his, but slightly larger, but they had stars! As Yueye gazed at him dreamily, Jun could see tiny specks twinkle, like a wordless poem, like whispers from a tender secret.

What was more remarkable than their kiss, which was warm and gentle, was the instant longing when their lips parted. So, why not? Why not? Jun kept asking himself, when he climbed out of his clothes and into the bath, when Yueye dragged him into his lap and they stole the breaths from each other’s lips.

(O)O(O)O(O)O(O)O(O)
The young prince Jun had been thrashed within an inch of his life when his nurse had reported his possession of contraband. King Chongzu had asked his troublemaker of a son where he had acquired such filth. Jun responded that he had been to the fortune teller, who squatted at the entrance to the market place. His father had respected his honesty, but had beaten him while his mother turned an eye and played with her songbirds. Jun knew not to wander to such areas, much less consort with disgusting commoners. The king mourned aloud his disappointing second son, and the queen comforted him by mentioning his two brothers – the pride and glory of their kingdom, she called them.

The book, Methods of Male Pleasure, had been burned immediately, but Prince Jun had memorized it in defiance. Little comfort at the time, Jun now appreciated putting that knowledge to use, to make Yueye’s thighs tremble.

“Do you hate me, Jun?” Yueye whispered, a hand running through his hair.

Jun just scowled at the question and resumed his cock-sucking on a Yueye spread out on the bed. One hand was around Yueye’s shaft and fingers of the other were buried knuckle-deep inside him, searching, massaging. Periodically Yueye’s back would arch off of their bed and he would cry out softly. WIthout warning his seed shot out when Jun had pressed against his sweet spot the right amount of times. Jun had been suckling up and down length of his cock, relishing the rhythm of Yueye’s orgasm pulsing in his hand.

When Jun sat up, Yueye gasped and tried to scramble for a cloth. He sputtered apologies while Jun wiped the cum from the side of his face and licked it off. “If you’re really sorry, make it up to me,” Jun said, pressing his lips below Yueye’s jaw, and pushing his erection against his entrance.

Yueye’s cock twitched in interest. “What do you want me to do?” he asked, his voice sultry and low.

“Spread yourself to me,” Jun ordered. “Pull your thighs back with your hands, and show me how flexible you can be.”

Biting his lips in mix of embarrassment and arousal, Yueye obeyed and spread his legs for Jun to see. Jun shivered at the vulgarity of his position: Yueye’s normally dignified face and shoulders were flushed with a dark pink, just like his cock and hole. Jun dribbled the oil that Yueye had found mysteriously in the drawers on his fingers, and slid three in. Making sure that he was pliant – he was very pliant – he then sank his cock inside and exhaled, breath quivering like Yueye’s thighs from the strain. Jun bottomed out and his hips tested out a few shallow thrusts. Yueye whimpered and his entrance twitched around his cock as Jun slid in and out. The intensity was too much for Jun, who couldn’t stop his instincts from wildly bucking into Yueye, fucking him with abandon.

Yueye released his hold and yanked Jun’s face forward, inhaling kiss after kiss. Locked in a tight embrace, Jun grunted into Yueye’s mouth, coming thickly into him. Yueye shivered between haggard pants when Jun pulled out his half-hard erection. When Jun settled next to him, Yueye reached for his hand and entwined their fingers. Jun stared into the Yueye’s glittering eyes and confirmed that they were real. Pressing a slow, full kiss on Yueye’s lips and caressing his cheek, he felt the rush of intoxication.

(O)O(O)O(O)O(O)O(O)
Their conversations had decreased. Between palace chores or planning the last two dragons’ demise, they spent their time in the other’s embrace and learned more about each other, things only lovers know. How many times had Jun kissed Yueye’s nape and taken in his clean, warm scent? Traced his taut back with his fingers, and nosed the dip his hips made?

They fell asleep and woke up snugly against together, sometimes spooning, sometimes nestled into each other’s sides, a face buried in the neck of the other. The peace that settled in Jun’s chest was heavy, and the shape of his happiness was blurred, large, and intimidating. Yet his heart felt feather-light when he traced with his eyes Yueye’s thick lashes while he slept. It was easy to succumb to the soporific flow of time. Dragon Tu’s arrival was almost an afterthought, but Jun wasn’t that reckless.

As Jun waited again at a separate entrance, he was nurturing a bloodlust that was almost joyous. He would save Yueye again from another one of his tormentors, and they’d harvest his body for themselves. He watched a dusty-brown beast shuffle into the banquet hall, and spotted a limp animal in its clutches. Yueye was waiting for Dragon Tu, kneeling next to a large, shallow bowl of water.

“Yueyeee,” Tu whined, setting down the unfortunate creature next to him. “Tend to my new pet. She’s hurt.” When Yueye dutifully rose to attend to the injured animal – her leg broken and twisted backward – she nickered in panic. Tu shoved him backwards and hissed, “Don’t you dare hurt her, you selfish brute.”

“I cannot examine her if I am unable to approach, Master Tu,” Yueye said evenly, though he knew it was useless. More often than not, Tu himself had wounded the animals he brought back, whether by accident or by his natural draconian temper. Yueye had to put down the animals himself while the Earth dragon hurled all manner of insults at him – for being a coward, useless, a fraud prince, a murderer.

Tu gave him a sharp look, and craned his neck forward to sniff him. “You smell repulsive. Your mother is an embarrassment to have taught you nothing. No manners, and no sense of decorum, you impetuous little thing.” The animal continued to cry out of pain. “You’ve upset my pet now,” he complained, stroking her mane. “There now, let’s give you some water and–” Tu paused, and slammed his fist on the stone floor. “Why haven’t you prepared nourishment for my pet? Are you stupid or has your mother also neglected to teach you basic decency? Heavens, she certainly was barbaric. Her death was no loss, indeed.”

To Jun’s astonishment, Yueye merely bowed his head in apology and left to fetch the bean husks they had been drying in the kitchen. Jun watched Dragon Tu offer the water to the frightened animal, and when she wouldn’t touch it, he drank to show her it was fine.

When Yueye laid a small bundle next to the striped animal, Tu sighed loudly. “I can barely sleep, eat, or drink – there is simply too much suffering in the world. Of course, you wouldn’t know anything about it. You’ve never left this cushy rock, just sitting pretty in ignorance. I would take you, but what good would that do?” Tu chuckled, and yawned. “You don’t even know what to do this animal. Do you know what this is? It’s a zebra. What continent is that from? Do you even know what a continent is?”

Tu watched as Yueye tried to coax the zebra to drink water from his cupped hands. He was irritated to find that the beast was willing to accept Yueye’s offering, and shoved him backwards again. “You’re not doing it right,” he snapped, and dipped a claw into the water. He soon found that his digits didn’t obey him, and in a daze, saw the water slip between them. Dragon Tu felt a sharp blow to his neck, and understanding shot through his foggy brain.

Still kneeling next to Tu and the zebra, Yueye looked into his goldenrod eyes and silently watched him die. Tu did not resist, using the last of his life to hiss at him, “You’re not as good and pure as you think, wretch.”

Jun finished him off with a stab through his skull. “Four down, one to go,” he sighed with satisfaction. Even the zebra had stopped to watch the scene, but soon resumed her painful panting. As she whinnied, Yueye stroked her neck lovingly and shushed into her ear. She lapped up more of the water offered to her. Jun drew his sword again when the zebra had rolled to her side drowsily, and released her from her anguish. Yueye stayed by her side until all signs of life faded.

Not caring that he knelt in a pool of Tu’s muddy blood, he spoke, “I always dreaded tending to his ‘pets,’ and he knew that.” For the first time in Jun’s presence, Yueye wiped tears with a bloodied hand. “He would watch them suffer, until I could no longer bear it and killed them myself.”

Jun sat down next to him, and let him bury his wet face into his neck. “It’s over now,” he murmured. Yueye rubbed his eyes on Jun’s shoulder and spotted in his hand a champagne-colored pearl, freshly pried from Tu. He clung to Jun tightly.

(O)O(O)O(O)O(O)O(O)

 

They were nearing the end of their third day of rest, before they prepared for the final dragon, and so were curled up together in the mountainous pile of cushions in Yueye’s favorite room. They were watching the Earth turn, and Yueye was draped over Jun’s chest, listening to his heart beat.

“Tell me about Jin,” Jun requested. “What shall we prepare for her?”

Yueye’s chest rose a little higher and expelled a deep sigh. “Nothing.”

Startled by his answer, Jun propped himself up on his elbows. “What do you mean, ‘nothing’?”

Yueye didn’t budge from his spot. “She will bring her own sustenance.”

“And you didn’t think to bring this up until now? What are we going to do?” Jun moved his gaze to the ceiling, his eyebrows furrowed. “Can we trick her into eating something?”

He shook his head. “You will have no choice but to face her.”

“What about you? Are you going to help me?”

“I will assist you as much as I can.”

Jun slumped backwards in shock, faced with the reality that he had to battle with a dragon. True, it was what he expected to do originally, but the first four had been so easy that he became complacent. “What if I fail?” he asked aloud.

Yueye repeated, now turning to look at him with his bewitching eyes, “I will do as much as I can.”

“You and your rules,” Jun groaned, stretching the tension in his body away. Half-teasingly, he asked, “Don’t you care about me enough to break them?”

“I have broken enough,” Yueye replied, turning to gaze at the Earth again. Jun shot a wry look at the back of his head, wondering which and how many he violated.

“Tell me more about her, then. Is she as awful as the lot of them?”

Jun saw his head shake, and he wished Yueye would face him. “No,” he finally answered, “she is different.” Jun was surprised by the tender inflection in Yueye’s voice, but he was unconvinced. She was no doubt as terrible as the rest. Yueye continued, “She has maintained her pride as a dragon, unlike her disgraceful siblings, so you must be alert.”

“How rare of you to toss an insult. Perhaps we can loosen your cultural sensibilities yet,” Jun teased. “Perhaps we can teach you to defend yourself.”

Turning to eye Jun, he said, “I am afraid our guest has assumed a few thoughts too many.”

Incensed by what he took to be a condescending look, Jun bristled. “Am I wrong?”

A thoroughly amused expression settled on Yueye’s face, and Jun’s temper began to rise. “Come at me then. Show me how Earth princes fight,” Yueye said.

Jun had never been challenged so leisurely in his life, and he could see that Yueye took pleasure in goading him. He should have known better at his age, but he wouldn’t let the man he penetrated regularly mock him, so he pounced. He tussled with Yueye to pin him on his back, but Yueye broke no sweat, made no noise. Spotting an opening, Jun summoned all of his strength to toss Yueye – grabbing both of Yueye’s arms and bracing his legs – but instead found himself on his back. Yueye, laying on top of and nose to nose with his victim, gave him a broad, smug smile. Jun scowled.

“Get off,” he spat.

“Is there a threat behind my dear guest’s demand?” Yueye asked, as calmly as if he were asking about the weather.

“I’ll actually hurt you,” Jun growled and squirmed, but Yueye had him securely pinned under him. He was satisfied to see Yueye’s biceps bulge from the strain, and wondered if he could tire him out. Busy planning his next attack, he twitched when he felt soft lips brushing the shell of his ear, his earlobe, and the corner of his jawline. He gasped when Yueye sucked wet kisses on his neck, and could feel a hand slip under his shirt to run over his sides.

“If this is what you wanted, you could have just said so,” Jun said, grinning at the erection against his thigh. He lifted a hand, but was interrupted when Yueye’s hand clasped it and pinned it down. With the other, Yueye took out the bottle of oil that was usually in Jun’s pocket. When Jun made a questioning noise, Yueye answered with a crushing kiss. Dazed, Jun noticed at last that Yueye had slipped his trousers off, and that his hand had been released. He did notice Yueye’s oil-slicked hand around his cock in a tight grip, and that Yueye had latched onto his neck, sucking forcefully. Grunting and moaning, he gripped a cushion and thrust up, rocking his body against him.

“Y-Yueye,” he stammered, “I’m close, shouldn’t you – what about?” He looked pointedly at the clothes that Yueye was still wearing, and the tenting in his pants. Yueye released his grip on Jun’s cock, weeping and throbbing at being denied.

“Jun,” he said at last.

“Yes?” Jun breathed, but received no verbal answer. Rather, Yueye used all of his strength to flip him quickly and Jun found himself on his knees, face down and ass in the air. He yelped a little when he felt pressure at his entrance and a digit slide in. “Yueye,” he fretted, “you’ve never done this before.”

Between a shower of biting kisses on Jun’s thighs, Yueye assured, “I am a quick study. Please tell me if it hurts.” At that moment, he nudged the sweet spot, and Jun arched his back, cursing Yueye’s confidence and talent for learning. Biting his bottom lip, he cursed again at Yueye’s sharp senses; Yueye discerned exactly where to put pressure, and he gently, persistently milked Jun’s spot. Jun screamed through his teeth and convulsions ran through his body as he came. Face down in the cushions, he heaved and was shaken by the most intense orgasm of his life.

In his haze, he heard his name being called repeatedly and another insistent pressure at his entrance. “Jun,” Yueye murmured into the skin of his sweaty back. Jun could feel his ass obediently swallowing up Yueye’s thick cock. He lay limp in Yueye’s arms, which were coiled tightly around his waist.

“Jun,” he called out again, this time in his ear. Yueye was hugging him close, chest to back, and hips rocking with slow thrusts. They both shuddered when Yueye shortly came, but Yueye still clung to him for a few more moments. “Jun,” he whispered against his neck as he slid out.

Jun hugged a pillow, bathing in the afterglow. He had been fucked so thoroughly that he wasn’t cross anymore.

“Jun,” Yueye called out again, clinging to his elbow.

“What?” Jun asked breathlessly, turning to face Yueye.

He ran a hand over Jun’s back, suddenly shy. “I humbly request that – would you be so kind as to – will you say my name too?”

“Yueye,” Jun said, a heaviness settling in his chest again.

Yueye sighed, eyes closed. He wiggled closer to touch the tips of their noses together.

(O)O(O)O(O)O(O)O(O)

They spoke even less than before. Their mouths were used more for kissing, tongues more for tasting, than talking. This was also when Jun learned that Yueye had been holding back, and they often wrestled for control. Jun could feel the frustration laced in with all of Yueye’s actions, though he would never express it verbally. Regardless of who mounted whom, Jun found fresh marks littered around his body every time. Jun never told Yueye to stop, and he felt he deserved it anyway, but he hated to admit that they aroused him. Jun discovered that surrendering had its own pleasure. The hickeys, bruises, and bite marks were visceral reminders that Yueye had claimed him, which made guilt weigh heavily in his stomach. He channeled the blame to Dragoness Jin, and he vowed to kill her as surely as the others.

This time, they visited the dragons’ armory, and Jun was dressed in full impenetrable armor. His own shoulder-length, raven hair was pinned up into a tight bun. At the first sign of the final dragon, Jun would position himself at the top of the great archway that led into the banquet hall. Yueye agreed to stall the dragoness enough for him to do a leaping strike at her neck.

When they heard rumbling at the main entrance, they took their positions. Jun climbed a rope to the top of the doorway and crouched, ready to spring. His heart was pounding in his ears. He looked down at the top of Yueye’s head, which was staring straight through the entrance. Yueye’s hands were neatly in his kneeling lap. A massive snout, then neck, then the rest of her body emerged from the entrance. Jun could tell that she was looking down at Yueye, who did not return her gaze. Her scale gleamed a brilliant silver, even against the soft lighting of the hall.

“I knew it was a matter of time, dear friend,” she spoke in a contralto range. “I cannot beg for enough forgiveness for your mother’s death, nor can I blame you for your actions. Nonetheless, understand that you cannot blame me for mine. For murdering the last of my kin, the dragon clan, I must exact revenge.” She brandished her talons, and asked, “Any last words?”

“I hold dear my time with you, Jin,” Yueye said without malice, holding her gaze.

Meanwhile, Jun raged, jaw clenched and grip tightly on his sword. At first, their flowery exchange seemed tragic and honorable, but Jun had seen with his own eyes Yueye’s torment. She knew what her siblings were doing, but did nothing for her “friend.” In a fit of blind fury, he jumped from the archway and stabbed where her neck met the shoulder – a deep blow, but not fatal. She shrieked and roared, rattling the palace itself. Jun leapt off, pulling out the sword, before she could crush him with her tail, and stumbled backwards to the floor.

“Who are you?” she boomed, slamming her tail again, seconds after Jun had rolled away.

“It was me!” he shouted. “I killed your despicable brethren, and now I’ve come for you!”

He tumbled to dodge her slash and managed to strike her tail with a measly cut. He cursed at his uselessness. He had to summon every single lesson his military instructor beat into him just to stay a step ahead. She pounced and hit an ornate lamp stand as Jun rolled away. It shattered, but Jun noticed that Jin did not immediately recover from the impact, though she struck as speedily as a snake.

“When they died, I stripped their flesh and bones,” he taunted. “They will never have a proper burial.” Despite his anger, he was struck to see great tears streaming down her cheeks. In her anguish, she missed and slammed into the wall, rattling the room and tearing chunks from the wall. Jun took the opportunity to slash at her body with as much force as he could muster, and dodged her tail that whipped after him. Silvery blood gushed from her wound as she hoisted herself up and turned toward her attacker.

“You are the worst of them,” he continued, circling her. “They tortured him, and you let it happen. You did nothing for Yueye.”

She screeched and snapped at him, but blood loss was slowing her down. He sidestepped her and stabbed her side, prompted more blood to spurt out. Dragoness Jin panted, tears still pouring from her metallic eyes, and Jun kept his distance, waiting for her to bleed out.

Then he coughed, his eyes burned, and he couldn’t breathe. An abrupt headache stayed his sword, and he stumbled, falling onto his back. Jin took her time to slither to him and pushed a claw into his chest.

“I can’t penetrate this armor, but I can crush you in it,” she hissed. In a panic, Jun tried to find the source of his disorientation, but realized too late that her blood was hot metal, emitting poisonous fumes. “Then Yueye will be next. No doubt he’s helped you.”

“He’s innocent,” Jun gasped, wincing and baring his teeth. He could feel his bones start to give away from the force. “I used him.”

“He did ‘nothing’ for my kin,” she said spitefully, great silvery eyes staring into Jun’s.

Then a shout rang out, then another gush of blood spattered Jun’s face. A long spear jutted from her throat and poked out from the other side. Then she was thrown backwards when another spear struck her heart. Dragoness Jin, now bleeding profusely on the ground, stared at the Moon Prince, his eyes wild with fear and love. She turned her gaze to Jun, and looked back at Yueye. The last of her energy was used to breathe a bittersweet laugh, and she closed her eyes.

“Jun!” Yueye cried out, covering his face with a sleeve. He bolted to his side and dragged him from the banquet hall. When Jun inhaled fresh air, he turned his head and vomited on the floor. He lost consciousness, remembering only Yueye calling his name.

(O)O(O)O(O)O(O)O(O)

“Are you sure you are well?” Yueye asked, gaze wandering over the bandages that bound his burns and his chest, not to mention the bruises all over his body. In response, Jun kissed him and pushed his hips forward into him. He took advantage of Yueye’s resulting gasp and licked his tongue, slipping in and out of his mouth, trying to burn the taste in his mind. Yueye pulled away to catch his breath and reached upwards, grabbing whatever sheets or pillows he could. They rocked and grunted together, wrapped around each other, Yueye’s leg over his back and Jun’s arms hugging him close.

“You should not be exerting yourself,” Yueye gently scolded, but made no effort to push him off.

“Does it feel good to be free?” Jun asked, breathing into the skin of his neck. Yueye pulled up his face to kiss him again, Jun pausing his thrusts for a moment to pay attention to the softness of his lips, the feel of his teeth on his tongue.

“It feels good,” Yueye agreed, stroking the side of Jun’s face, “but–” He moaned when Jun resumed his movement. It took some time to pick up his train of thought, but, as if it would kill him if he didn’t speak, he blurted, “I don’t want it.”

They came one after another, and Yueye traced Jun’s lips with his thumb. “I don’t want it,” he repeated, unable to bring himself to say what he desired the most. He was terrified to hear the answer. Jun kissed his fingers, but offered no response, not now, nor for a long time.

Afterward, Yueye was huddled against Jun’s body, face buried into him as he slept. Jun only closed his eyes, feeling hot tears dry on his arm. When he saw the tell-tale signs of heavy sleep, he slipped from Yueye’s arms. He dressed quickly and quietly, not daring to look behind him as he walked out of the door. He collected the bag of five plucked pearls, and for the first time in five weeks, stepped outside.

There was no sound, but the silence was deafening, and the air was thin. He looked up into space and at the bright, blue Earth. The Inky Demoness had told him that there was a certain period where the Earth and the Moon were closest, and that if he were strong enough and timed it well enough, at the highest point of his highest leap, he could fall back to Earth. Bag slung over his back, he hoped that their weight wouldn’t hinder him, and that his calculations were accurate. After a few test squats, he crouched and sprang upwards.

(O)O(O)O(O)O(O)O(O)

Jun gasped and coughed, but gripped his bag tightly, refusing to let go, even at the sailors’ prompting, even as the salt water burned his wounds. This made rescue efforts difficult, and they cursed at his foolishness, but managed to pull him into their boat. Shivering and sopping wet, he took a moment to get his bearings.

“You’re lucky we were out here at all, boy,” the captain scolded. “Whatever’s in that bag of yours better be worth it.” The sailors eyed it, each internally debating whether they could steal it from him.

“Don’t you dare touch this bag,” Jun spat. He managed to stand up, and tried to look regal. “I am Prince Jun, the second son of King Chongzu, fourteenth grandson of King Weng, descendent of the Sun-like Emperor.”

If they were deeper at sea, they would have laughed at him for claiming to be the missing prince and then would have snatched his belongings, but they were close to harbor. No one wanted to run the risk of their stowaway being right. The first mate smiled greasily and prostrated himself, but a hint of ridicule laced his words, “What an opportune time, Prince Jun! They have been waiting for you.” He gestured to the shoreline, which was covered with a dizzying array of colorful kites, petals flung forward from handmaidens’ baskets, trumpets blaring, and even an elephant. Jun knitted his brows in confusion. How had they known he had returned?

Though his eyes burned at the sudden onslaught of vivid colors, as soon as the dock touched the boat, Jun scrambled out to investigate. He wobbled forward, and hands and knees in the dirt, he stared at the gay procession. They were filing towards the Heavenly Palace of the Blessed Kingdom, the home of Emperor Yang and Princess Shaoyao. He stood up and fell into step with the crowd, who only acknowledged him with curious looks but welcoming smiles. No one seemed to recognize him, so Jun knew the sailor was lying, but he had to know the occasion.

He and the people poured into the large square in front of the palace, and louder cheers behind him prompted him to turn around. A gorgeous, intricately carved palanquin, carried by eight men, swam through the crowds, and Jun recognized his family crest on the front. He rushed to it, pushing onlookers aside until he was next to it. He could see his parents through the curtains.

“Mother! Father!” he cried out, grabbing on the side. “I’ve come back! It’s me, Jun!”

The queen looked down in disbelief and annoyance, but was surprised to find that the stranger was right: it was her second son, missing for weeks.

“Where have you been?” she demanded, tears welling in her eyes. “My King, our second son has returned to us,” she alerted her husband.

Relief washed over him, and Jun began to speak at his astonished parents, “I’ve been to the Moon! I’ve slayed all of the dragons that have threatened Princess Shaoyao.” He grabbed his bag and opened it for her to see, walking quickly alongside them. “See? I have their pearls as proof. And now, now -”

“Jun, your mother and I are elated to see you return safely from your quest,” the King Chongzu interrupted. “But you are too late.” In the back, his mother quietly complained that Jun could have timed his return better.

“Too late for what?” Jun asked, but pushed aside the odd comment. “I have to see the Emperor! I have to tell him that I’ve accomplished what no one else has done!” He kept shoving the pearls toward them.

“Enough,” the King snapped, pushing the bag back to Jun. “We will hear of your exploits in due time, but the day is for your brother.”

“Honestly, Jun,” his mother sighed, “Taizu was a better match anyway.”

It was after the second time that his brother was mentioned that it began to sink in. The procession, his parents, the festivities were for Taizu, not for him. He stopped talking, and pushed ahead to the edge of the courtyard. They heard cheers from behind the great doors of the entrance, and servants opened them, revealing another palanquin making its way to the courtyard. Peonies, pinned and stuffed into every crevice, fluttered in the wind, and an entire procession of handmaidens carried it and set it gently at the top of the stairs that led down to the square.

His parents’ palanquin had been also set down. They peeked out, waiting. The Emperor Yang sat at his throne behind the palace entrance, which was perched high above the crowds. He was observing and waiting for the ceremony to move inside. The crowd soon moved to make way for his eldest brother, riding his finest horse – a dappled brown, barrel-chested Ferghana – and wearing the deep blue, gold-embroidered robes of a groom.

Jun’s skin began to crawl and prickle. He couldn’t tear his eyes away from the scene: his brother dismounted and gallantly strode up the stairs, opening the doors of the palanquin. His brother crouched inside and withdrew with a happy Princess Shaoyao, carried in his arms. She was flushed pink, which only enhanced her heartbreaking beauty. She was wearing the long red dress of a blushing bride, and a tiny tiara that sparkled like a star on her dainty head. Eyes closed, they touched foreheads, and his brother murmured something in her ear. Whatever it was delighted her, and her pretty mouth blossomed into a smile and tinkling laugh.

Then the Emperor proclaimed something loudly, but Jun couldn’t hear him over the buzzing in his ears. Until that moment, he was ready to demand his right to the Princess, and more importantly, demand recognition for his deeds, but that died on his lips.

Just as he was beginning to understand the Emperor’s betrayal, he was immediately crushed by depth of his own, by what he lost – the quiet nights gazing at the Earth, the body warmth of someone who always woke up at his side, teasing whispers in each other’s ears. His legs gave away and he fell to his knees. He watched his brother carry his bride-to-be into the palace, followed by his parents and the rest of the procession. The Moon faintly peeked from the clouds in the sky.

(O)O(O)O(O)O(O)O(O)

At the bottom of a valley, in the deepest part of a cavern, black smoke billowed out. Against the darkness of the cavern, it was impossible to see, but a visitor’s torch had lit the way into the den of the Inky Demoness. Inside, the hefty creature lounged on a stone recliner covered in a variety of pelts. Her hair was tangled and thick, and her skin a cool, dark gray. Her bare breasts sprawled across her chest. All she wore was a long loincloth and necklaces of rough, uncut gems.

She removed the lengthy pipe from her mouth and said, “You’re alive,” by way of greeting. She turned her head away and continue to enjoy her smoke, exhaling through her nostrils, but Jun was familiar with her protocol. She wouldn’t acknowledge him further until she received her proper respects.

He knelt on the ground and bowed lowly, pressing his forehead to the ground. He then took out a decanter from his knapsack. It had a wide opening and was used for banquets, holding enough wine to satisfy five guests. A dagger in one hand, and the other offering his wrist, he cut across and spilt his blood into it. When it was half full, the Inky Demoness turned to hear his request. When he made no motion to stop the bleeding, she began to smile, which grew broader and broader the more Jun drained himself. One half for knowledge, one half for power.

When the decanter was full, he quickly bandaged himself, wrapping around his wrist multiple times. Chin propped in her hand, she leaned forward to look closely at Jun, who had turned as pale as a bone and was sweating profusely. “What is your request, my lovestruck prince?”

Licking his dry lips, he weakly muttered, “I need a way to return to the Moon.”

As she considered his request, four little imps, no higher than Jun’s knee, scurried from the darkness and collected his blood. She drew a deep breath and blew smoke in his face.

“Listen well, young prince,” she said, and Jun drew closer, when a burning sensation poured down his throat, his eyes, and his nostrils. He coughed instinctively to expel the smoke, but he could feel its tendrils dig deeper into his veins.He couldn’t stop gagging.

Over the sound of his choking, she continued, “Construct a sturdy sail that is as tall as your height, and as wide as twice that. Climb the highest peak of the tallest mountain, and repeat the request that you spoke to me. The flight will be long and slow, but you must never release your grip, or you will fall back to Earth. Do you understand?”

Amidst his writhing, he managed to nod. She cackled as he suffered, and declared, “Do come back if you have any more business on Earth. I would surely like to taste the blood from your beloved as well.”

(O)O(O)O(O)O(O)O(O)

The journey was long and painful. By sheer force of will he clawed up the tallest mountain, in a land far away from his kingdom. The folded sail was tied to the bundle on his back, and he had taken great care to make sure it was intact. Against the biting wind of the snowy mountain, he clung to the side of the peak. With one hand, he opened up the sail. He whispered his wish, and black smoke trickled from his throat. It pushed the sail up and against the wind. Jun was miserable and freezing, but felt more lighthearted than he had in the months he had left Yueye. He hoisted himself onto the railing he had fashioned, and tied his limbs tightly to the sail. Ensuring that he was attached to every part, he passed out.

He knew that the Inky Demoness did not lie, but he couldn’t help but be disappointed when he was still between worlds after he woke up. She didn’t say exactly how long his travel would take, but he continued to sleep and wake up to a Moon that seemed nowhere closer. It gave him a frustrating amount of time to think as he floated among the stars.

The more Jun pondered, the more fearful he became. Scenarios played out through his mind, ranging from sad to terrible. He couldn’t dare hope for happiness; he didn’t think he could handle the disappointment. He couldn’t imagine that Yueye would be happy knowing that he was the second choice. Jun wouldn’t blame him if he hated him, but this time he wouldn’t leave, at least not without Yueye. He imagined squatting in a corner of the palace like a hermit. Just like the dragons, he’d be unwelcome and a freeloader. Then again, maybe Jun would leave. He was determined see Yueye’s face one more time – a selfish whim, after which Yueye could decide his fate.

When even thinking became an effort, his vessel crashed landed into the Moon. Jun was exhausted beyond words, but he undid himself from the sail and silently thanked his cruel benefactor. He dragged himself to the entrance hewn into the surface, and forced the heavy doors to open. The pebble garden that greeted him was perfectly manicured, not a rock out of place, but he wasn’t looking at that. He made his way through the arch to the inner palace. Even if he had the energy, he was too frightened to call for Yueye. In the quiet he listened for signs of him. He trudged past the banquet hall, where the chipped walls and columns were reinforced with the molten metal blood of Dragoness Jin.

All of his plans and wits flew out of his mind. He was afraid even to accidentally come across Yueye, so he snuck around, hugging the walls and corners. His ears perked when he heard sounds, quiet but unmistakably there. Frozen to his spot, he listened and realized it was music. It was his voice drifting through the halls, a soft, melancholy tune. Drawn to his singing – he had never heard Yueye sing before – his feet followed it to its source, to an open doorway in a large room, the library.

Jun peeked in, and saw Yueye’s profile as he sat on cushion at a desk. His body trembled all over, but raptly listened to the lyrics. Yueye was writing in a large, bound book and singing to himself. It was about a noble prince who rescued his princess from villainous monsters, of his courage and gallantry, of his kindness and warmth, of his cleverness and skill. He sang of how the great prince returned to his bride and lived a long, prosperous life with her, their days filled with love, children, and peace. Yueye then drifted into a hum, hand propping his chin.

Jun fell in love with him all over again and his eyes watered.

“The ending is wrong,” he said.

Yueye stopped writing and looked up to see a battered Jun at the door. He put down his charcoal pencil, but just stared and stared. Jun immediately threw himself on the ground, kowtowing. Forehead on the floor, he sputtered, “The former Prince Jun humbly requests shelter in the great Moon Kingdom.” Hearing no response made him anxious, so he grabbed his bundle. “Your worthless servant has brought many valuable items from the Earth.” One by one he named them: seeds, tools, nails, yeast, spices, fermented pastes, books, trinkets, baubles, everything he thought Yueye might like. Finally, he pulled out the five pearls, pried from each dragon. He set them all in a row in front of him and did not dare to raise his eyes.

Yueye knelt in front Jun, and picked up a pearl. “What purpose do these serve?”

“If it pleases your lordship, they are – I brought them because – I meant them to be,” he stammered, but finally said, “a dowry.”

When Yueye had yet to speak, Jun rambled more. “I mean, you don’t have to accept. It was just a proposal. It’s really – I mean, I aim to stay. I won’t leave, unless you want me to.”

Jun felt a hand on the top of his head, and felt ashamed and embarrassed. He was a far cry from what Yueye had last seen: a meek, pathetic, and filthy shadow of the prince that had so imperiously demanded Yueye’s help.

“What will you have me do?” Jun asked quietly. Yueye prompted him to sit up and face him.

“Your lordship wishes to know why you returned,” he requested expectantly. His wet eyes were more brilliant than Jun remembered.

“Because I owe you my life,” Jun said, but Yueye kept staring at him, waiting. “Because I have nowhere else to go.” His hands were clenched into fists. “Because I wanted to see you for one last time. Because I want nothing more than to be with you–“ There were a million reasons, but as Jun listed them off, there was only one that was important to him. “I’ve traveled deep canyons, high mountains, a vast sea of stars so I can tell you how much I love you.”

“You owe me that much,” Yueye said, his smile made crooked by his teary face. To this day, neither can agree who pulled the other in his arms, but with their foreheads pressed together, they laughed and cried and had much to tell each other of what had passed and what would come to be.

Thus, the humbled prince returned to his groom and lived a long, prosperous life with him, their days filled with love, children, and peace.

See this piece’s entry on the Shousetsu Bang*Bang wiki.

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