The Emperor’s Last Concubine

by Yamanashi Moe (山梨もえ)

(mirrors http://s2b2.livejournal.com/97774.html)

“What about this?”

Yanzi examines the tunic carefully. It’s deep green, embroidered with tiny, pale blue flowers of indeterminate type. The silk is of good quality. He vaguely remembers receiving it as a birthday present last year from the Minister of Finance, a balding little ass-kisser with horrible taste. He must have sent someone else to pick out the tunic; it’s a little boring, but not too bad. And it’s barely been worn.

“Put it in the charity pile,” he says, gesturing to the quickly growing mound of clothing on the left side of the room. “Someone will be happy with it.”

Yu looks slightly appalled. “You’re not going to keep it? It’s so nice!”

Yanzi rolls his eyes. “I can’t keep *everything.* My closet at home’s not big enough. And let’s be realistic – where would I wear it?”

“You could always pawn it.”

“Very classy, Yu.”

“Alright.” Yu gives a little sigh, but obediently tosses the tunic to the left. “So that’s half down, half to go. Not to mention the night-robes, slippers, hair ornaments… oh boy. This is going to take a *week,* at least.” He rolls his eyes theatrically.

A laugh escapes Yanzi’s mouth; Yu is always entertaining, completely aside from being useful. “That’s why we’re starting early,” he says. “So that things will be easier when I have to pack.” But as soon as it comes out of his mouth, he realizes it’s a little too close to a subject neither of them want to discuss.

Yu opens his mouth, then closes it again. “Yeah.” Finally he laughs too, weakly. “Are you…?”

“I’m fine.”

“Okay, so how about this?” And out comes a shockingly pink dress tunic patterned with purple daffodils. “Obviously you’re keeping it. I mean, come *on.*”

Yanzi nods. “Oh, absolutely, I’ll wear it every day.”

Yu mimes gagging. “You know, I don’t think you could pay someone to take this off your hands. I may take it for my cousin, if you don’t mind, he’ll love it. He’s a page to the Minister of Health.” Yu comes from a long line of Imperial retainers, and they hold jobs almost everywhere in the Palace. “His taste is just appalling.”

“Yes, please be my guest. If he doesn’t want it we can always find it a home in a dress-up chest.”

Yanzi looks at the clock hanging on the wall beside a scroll of a pond full of lotus blossoms. He doesn’t particularly like most of the gifts he’s recieved in the last two years – but this was a gift from Ying, and that makes all the difference. He doesn’t feel too guilty for planning to keep it. After all, any value it has is purely sentimental.

“Yanzi?”

“Oh.” His thoughts return to the clock. “It’s late, don’t you think? We should have lunch.”

Yu nods. “I’ll call the Secondary Kitchen and have them send something up. What would you-”

“You know, I don’t really feel like a big fancy meal today. I just want to eat something quick.” He goes to his dresser, hands Yu a wad of bills. “Can you run over to Smiley Rice and get me something? Noodles with Barbeque Pork? Something for yourself, too.”

Yu smiles and takes the cash. It’s enough for two combos, plus a little extra as thanks for his continued hard work. “Sure thing.”

When he has left the room, Yanzi opens the top drawer of his lacquered dresser. Inside is his personal comm device. The nearest Smiley Rice is outside of the Imperial District, and Yu will be gone for almost an hour even if he takes a cart. It’s time to make a call that he’s been putting off for quite a while now.

It’s Maque who picks up the comm. “Oh,” he says disdainfully when Yanzi greets him. “So the Red Lotus Blossom of the Detached Palace has honoured us with the sound of his voice. How may I help you?”

“Hey, Maque,” says Yanzi quietly. “You sound well, as always.” He’s gotten used to this treatment by now. Maque has always rebuffed his attempts to explain his relationship with Ying. He supposes it’s understandable. Boys are supposed to be able to look up to their older brothers, and he hasn’t proven a very good role model. “Is Mother there? Can you put her on for me, please?”

Another voice enters the conversation. “I’m here,” says his mother. “We’ve got a joint line now. Little Maque, hang up. We’re having a talk later about showing your brother some respect.” There’s a click on the other end. “I’m sorry, Yanzi.”

“No worries.”

“He’s driving me crazy. It’s not just you – he talks back to everyone now.” She sighs. “Teenagers. Anyway, is everything going well? Are you alright?”

Usually she would just ask how he was. “Yes, I’m fine. How is everyone there?”

“Oh, mostly as always,” she replies briskly. “The shop’s doing well. We hired a new kitchen boy – Maque’s so busy with school, and your father, you know, he can’t do the work as quickly as he used to.” This provokes a laugh from both of them. Yanzi’s mother is several years older than his father. “But business is good.”

Up until two years ago, Yanzi would have been the one helping in the shop and they would never have needed a kitchen boy. “Are you really, um, okay?”

“Yes. We’ve been over this.” Money is a point of contention between them. Every month Yanzi sends home a lump sum of money, and every month it is politely returned. He’s not really sure why, exactly, and he’s more sure he never wants to ask. “We can cover it, no problems.”

“I’m sorry I haven’t called more often.”

“That’s alright. Every little bird has to leave the nest. I would be worried if you called too much.” Her voice becomes tender. “And you know that your father and I are proud of you, whatever path you choose in life. Maque just doesn’t understand how brave you are. But someday he’ll learn. In the meantime, don’t feel that you need to apologize to anyone for doing what you believe in.”

Yanzi smiles to himself. “Thank you, Mother.” Then he pauses, unsure of what to say next. “If I… were to need…”

There isn’t even a beat. “You are *always* welcome to live here,” says his mother. “This is still your home. We’ve kept all your books in your room. We even have that anatomical model hidden away somewhere. Just call when you’re coming, so we’ll know to be home to greet you.”

“Thank you,” says Yanzi weakly, and thinks, she must have heard the rumours, she probably knows everything. So they’ve spread that far already. He pictures her now, standing at the comm in her wide-cuffed trousers, worrying for him, and feels homesick in a way he thought he had gotten over long ago.

Mother gives an awkward little sigh. “Of course, we hope everything works out for you over there.”

“…So do I.”

There’s a crashing noise on the other end. “Ack!” shouts his mother. “I’m so sorry, Yanzi, I need to go. The new boy just dropped a soup pot and it’s all over the floor-”

“Oh, no, that’s fine. I’ll talk to you later, okay?”

“Okay. Goodbye for now.” And with that, there is a click as Mother shuts off her comm.

Yanzi puts down his own comm and closes the drawer.

How strange it will be, he thinks, to go back home. To sleep on a narrow bed in a small room. To see his mother and father and Maque every day, to eat meals with them, to do the housework together and work in the tea shop like they used to. And what will the neighbors think? Will they even know what has happened?

Well, soon Yu will be back with lunch, and he will be that much closer.

He never thought he would become Noble Imperial Consort to the Emperor. And he never thought he would be leaving like this, either. But sometimes things just happen this way.

***

People don’t often ask how they met. It would be an impolite question: since Yanzi wasn’t famous or well-connected before he became Red Lotus Blossom, there is no obvious answer. The rumour he hears most often is that he was a highly exclusive callboy. Ying is embarrassed about this on his behalf. Yanzi privately finds it rather funny.

When closer acquaintances ask, he says: “Did you ever see The Bride of Three Light River? That picture with IMP Studio’s Mei Hua, where she falls in love with the River Dragon and he takes her away to his palace? It was something like that.”

Then everyone has a good laugh. But the fact is, the more he thinks about it, the more he realizes it *was* something like that.

The night they met he had finished studying early and come downstairs to help in the tea shop so that his mother could get some rest. It had been a quiet night, as usual, and there were no more customers. There wasn’t much cleanup to do, either. He was just about to put the closed sign up when a customer walked in.

“Pardon me. Are you still open?” The man was handsome; around Yanzi’s age, but taller, with a strong, kind face and clothes a cut above what people usually wore in this district.

Yanzi couldn’t help feeling a little awed in spite of himself. The tea shop clientele were mostly small scale vendors and the neighbourhood’s elderly residents – almost never anyone young or attractive. When he shook his head it was with genuine regret. “Ah, we are, but I’m afraid the kitchen is closed for the night. I’m sorry, sir.”

“I just need a cup of tea, if you can make it.”

“Oh, o-of course!” Yanzi scuttled back behind the counter like a crab to the safety of a rock. He wished his tunic was cleaner – he had spilled broth down the front at dinner and hadn’t bothered to change. And he wished he had switched his eyeglasses for eyelenses. “Yes, that’s fine. I’ll just put the kettle on. We have black, green… there might be some chamomile in the cupboard if you would prefer…”

The man shook his head and came over to take a seat at the counter. He took off his overtunic and handed it to Yanzi, who hung it carefully on a peg next to the door to the kitchen. “Black, if you please.”

“Coming right up.” Yanzi began to boil water, searching the drawers for the strainer and the box of tea. The routine gestures helped to settle his nerves somewhat. “And how are you doing tonight, sir?”

For a moment the man didn’t say anything and Yanzi wondered if he was too tired or bored to make small talk. But then he smiled. “Pretty well, thank you. I just finished some business and felt like I needed to get out of the house for a while. You know. And yourself?”

“Very well. I have a paper due Third Day, so I’ve been-” Yanzi stopped himself. “Well, it’s not very interesting.”

“No, on the contrary.” The man gave him a smile as warm as sunshine. “You’re a student?”

“Yes, at West Wind Medical College. I’m in my third year. I, ah, I want to be a general practitioner.”

The man continued to smile. “That’s amazing. I never got a chance to go to a real school. I was always tutored at home, and then I had to take over my father’s job before I could go to college. Sometimes I feel like I missed out.”

Yanzi was going to ask him about his work, but the kettle began to hiss and he forgot all about it in his rush to find a suitable cup. “Oh, hold on a second!” Carefully he poured the hot water and submerged the strainer, filled with pleasant smelling loose tea leaves. “How strong do you like it?”

“Leave it in for a few minutes. And I’ll pour a cup for you as well, if you’ll come sit down.”

“I couldn’t…”

“I’d appreciate it if you would. I prefer not to drink alone.” Then he laughed. “What a line! I sound like I’m trying to pick you up.”

Yanzi winced. “Y-yeah.”

There was a moment of slightly awkward silence as they waited for the tea to steep.

“Oh, I forgot,” said the man suddenly, and made a shallow bow to Yanzi. “I haven’t even introduced myself to you. It’s my childhood name, but they call me Ying.”

“Yanzi,” he replied, bowing a little deeper, trying to stay calm. “I’m Yanzi.” He raised his head to look at the tea, but it wasn’t quite ready yet. Then he passed two cups across the counter and moved around to settle awkwardly on the seat next to Ying with his hands folded in his lap.

Ying looked rather pleased. “Martlet and Falcon – we’re both birds. That’s interesting.”

“Mm,” said Yanzi, trying somewhat unsuccessfully not to blush. “So, you have your own business? If you don’t mind my asking-”

“No, I don’t mind at all. My father joined his ancestors last year, and left me to take over the family duties. He had been sick for several years. I knew it would happen someday, but,” Ying laughed, a little bit wistfully, “I’m still trying to get used to it.”

“I’m sorry for your loss,” said Yanzi. Unsure of what else to say, he pulled the teapot across the counter and opened the lid. A puff of steam wafted up to fog up his eyeglasses. “The… the tea looks ready.”

Ying reached over and took the teapot by the handle. “Excellent,” he said, and filled Yanzi’s cup in one elegant motion. When Yanzi went to take the pot back, his fingers brushed Ying’s for a moment, and it took all his composture to keep from dropping it.

“Pardon me,” he said quickly, filling Ying’s cup. It took all his self control to keep it from spilling.

“Not at all.”

They sat in silence again for a moment, sipping their tea.

“Baby, I just want to be your girl…” crooned a woman’s voice in a sudden burst of sound throughout the shop, and Yanzi realized he had forgotten to turn off the music he had been listening to before Ying came in. He ran back behind the counter and flicked the switch quickly, but the damage was already done.

“Your music?” asked Ying somewhat incredulously.

Yanzi flushed. “It,” he started, about to deny it, but then stopped. What was the point? “Yes it is. I love this kind of thing. My friends say I have horrible taste in music, and they’re right.”

“Oh, it’s not that bad,” said Ying, in a way that suggested he thought it was exactly that bad. “I just don’t listen to a lot of popular music. My exposure to it has been rather limited.”

“That’s probably a good thing.”

“Well, that’s a matter of opinion. I prefer to experience as many things as possible.” And he smiled again. “Besides, if you like it, how bad can it be?”

This began a philosophical discussion that lasted for some time. Then they moved on to the difficulties of being a student. From there, one conversation topic flowed into another as smoothly as if they had known each other for ages, until the tea was cold and Yanzi had to start another pot. Every time he thought he should really start to close and let Ying leave, the conversation got so funny or interesting it seemed impossible to pull away.

It had been a long time since he’d met someone like this. There was an all too familiar thrill rising in his chest, and although he tried to tell himself it was just his imagination, he was slowly getting the impression that… that Ying might be interested in him.

All in all, they talked for at least two hours.

“Oh, wow,” said Ying eventually, glancing at the clock. “It’s getting late. I’m sorry to keep you up like this.”

Yanzi shook his head. “It’s okay, I don’t have school tomorrow. And in any case, I should be the one apologizing. I’m sure you have more important things to do than – well.”

“None that I can think of,” replied Ying with a smile. He sighed and rose from his seat, taking his overtunic as Yanzi offered it to him from behind the counter. “But it is late, and I’ve kept you open longer than I intended to. I’ve enjoyed the pleasure of your company, Yanzi.”

Yanzi paused for a moment as Ying walked to the door. He had been mistaken many times before; countless rejections over the years had taught him to be cautious about who he chose to come on to. There was every possibility that Ying was just friendly. Maybe hope had caused him to misread the signals.

But even so, he came forward, puting out his arm and letting the tips of his fingers brush Ying’s shoulder, with his voice lowered to a whisper. “There’s a hotel down the street.”

And Ying turned to face him, grinning. “Let’s go.”

In the room he undressed clumsily, Ying’s gaze making him overly self-conscious. He couldn’t seem to untie his sash; Ying had to reach down and finish it for him. “Thank you,” he said, a little bit hoarsely, shaking off his tunic and trousers and pulling the band from his hair. “Do you have…”

“…Beside the bed,” said Ying. He untied his own sash but didn’t undress, only stood still. Yanzi realized he was waiting for a sign. He took a deep breath.

“Would you like to embrace me?”

The words sounded strange and awkward in his ears, but Ying’s eyes grew hot with desire. “Yes,” he replied thickly, as if he, and not Yanzi, was the lucky one. “Please. If you want it.”

“I do,” and he pressed himself to Ying’s chest to hide the flush of his cheeks.

Ying pulled his chin up and they shared a kiss, then another. After that Yanzi lost track. Ying’s hands moved gradually down his body, caressing his shoulders, his nipples, settling on his hips. Somehow they moved to the bed, and then the jar of salve was in his hands and he was spreading himself open with two fingers.

“I can do that,” said Ying quickly.

Yanzi shook his head. “No, it’s… fine.” Truthfully, he was happy to watch as Ying rolled the cover down over his own hardness. Then he hit the right angle, and couldn’t keep himself from moaning. “I… ah… I’m ready now…”

Ying moved forward, positioning himself, and Yanzi pulled his legs up to expose himself. When Ying slid into him he had to grip the sheet to keep from crying out. He had been embraced before, but not for a long time, and somehow it had never felt like this. Maybe that was only sentiment talking. He didn’t care. He could feel Ying’s breath in his ear and Ying’s heart beating rapidly above him. This feeling was all that mattered, for now.

“Is it okay?”

“Yes.”

Ying started to move, pushing into him in long, slow strokes that left him aching, but not in pain. His hold on the sheet relaxed as he adjusted to the sensation. Soon it felt good, and he was canting his hips to meet Ying’s thrusts.

“It’s okay…” he whispered. “You can go faster.”

He was about to reach between them and stroke himself, but before he could, Ying was doing it for him. “Yanzi,” he said, once, and then he kept repeating it, like a chant. It could have been shortly after that, or a long time after, that Yanzi groaned and came, so hard he got it on his eyeglasses. Ying thrust into him several more times, then stilled and pulled out.

“Wow,” he said, with a weak grin.

Yanzi looked up at him and returned the grin tenfold. “Yeah. Wow.”

When he woke up the next morning Ying was gone, but there was a rice paper note at the foot of the bed. ‘I hope we will see each other again soon.’ And below, in smooth, confident brush-strokes, his personal comm number.

Yanzi folded the note into his sash and kept it there all day. His original intent was to call after a week; in the end, he made it little more than two days. Ying sounded pleased to see him, and they made plans to meet again.

He had never been with a man like Ying before – hadn’t really known men like Ying existed. He was unceasingly polite without ever being distant or too formal. In bed he was gentle and fierce by turns. There was something exciting about him, something that turned people’s heads. When he tried to explain to his friends at school the only word he could come up with was ‘noble.’

“Really,” someone had said dismissively.

And Yanzi had grinned. “Yeah. I’m getting the royal treatment, you know.”

Still he had never suspected. Live portraiture of the Emperor was forbidden. Of course there were paintings of him everywhere, but Yanzi wasn’t much interested in politics or gossip, and he never associated the face on the currency with his lover. And travelling through the city without servants or bodyguards provided Ying with a certain anonymity. So maybe he was naive not to have seen it, but at least he wasn’t completely idiotic for not discovering the truth sooner.

Of course Ying was secretive about himself: he seemed hesitant to meet Yanzi’s family, even casually, or go out with him in public too much, and often he would be away for days at a time with little word. But Yanzi assumed this was because he was married. This was depressing, but really, it wasn’t the first time Yanzi had been with a married man. It would have been too good to be true otherwise.

And then one night he was lying in bed with Ying’s arms around him, knowing he should bathe but too contented to leave the bed, and Ying whispered in his ear, “I’d like you to come and live with me.”

“Yes,” he said, already half-asleep.

The first thing he saw the next morning when he woke up was a canopy of red satin. He sat up to find himself in the sort of luxurious room he had only ever seen in pictures. When he got out of bed there was a red silk dressing-robe hanging beside the bed for him, and slippers crusted with pearls. Quite frankly, he thought he was still dreaming.

He was just about to go to the door when there was a knock. “Yes?” he said, and Ying stepped in.

But it was not Ying as he had ever seen him before. He was dressed in a long, formal yellow tunic, his sash not tied but held in place by a black clasp in the shape of the Imperial crest.

“Hello,” said Ying. For the first time he sounded awkward. “Welcome to my home. I, I hope you found everything to your liking…? You can change the decor, if you want-”

The servant standing beside him respectfully cleared his throat. “I wish to remind the Lord of Ten Thousand Years that the current furnishings of the Detatched Palace have been in place for many generations. They were chosen to maintain the harmonious balance of the Imperial Grounds, and-”

“-and if Yanzi doesn’t like them, they will be changed,” finished Ying decisively. Then he turned his attention back to Yanzi. “Would you like some breakfast?”

“…Lord of…” said Yanzi, gradually realizing that this was too weird to be a dream. “Your… Majesty…?”

Ying looked alarmed. “No, please don’t call me that. I don’t want anything to change between us. This,” and he gestured to his clothing, “has nothing to do with who I am to you. Alright?”

And that was when he learned that by accepting Ying’s offer to live with him, he had unintentionally become Red Lotus Blossom, the first concubine of the present Emperor.

All the stories about this moment agreed later that he took it very gracefully. Really it was only because he was to stunned to say anything much, but even in those first moments he understood the importance of presenting a good face to the public.

***

Looking back over the last two years, Yanzi can still remember the time when he was absolutely terrified of Her Majesty. At their first meeting he sunk to his knees so abruptly it was a wonder he didn’t topple over.

Completely aside from being the Empress, it was her sheer physical presence: a tall, slender woman with high cheekbones and the unmistakable air of authority, she was dressed in a rich formal robe patterned with red and gold dragons, and flanked by attendants on either side. Her hair ornaments were simple gold combs, but she carried herself so regally she might as well have been wearing the Imperial Dragon Crown. And in her arms lay sleeping the newly-born Prince.

“So,” she said. “Here is the Noble Imperial Consort. We have heard a great deal about you. It is good to meet you face to face.”

Raising his head a fraction, Yanzi offered her what he hoped was an appropriate smile. “It is a pleasure to meet you as well,” he offered.

“Please rise. All this bowing and scraping makes us uncomfortable.”

“Um, yes, your Majesty.”

And he rose to his feet, facing her.

“Listen,” said the Empress, switching into a slightly less formal mode. “I wish to make my position clear to you. I have as much interest in men as his Imperial Highness does in women. We have never even embraced. This one,” and she gazed down at Xiaofeng, “was not naturally conceived. I have no need to fight for attention. I am not your enemy in this regard.”

Yanzi swallowed. “I see,” he said, rather stunned.

“But I wish to warn you. If your intentions are honourable and if your actions spring from love of Ying, you have nothing to fear. But if you intend to use him – financially or politically – do not think it will go well for you. I am not as kind as his Imperial Majesty.”

It took quite a while for Yanzi to think of an appropriate response to this declaration.

“I can believe it,” he said. Then, horrified, he shook his head. “No! I’m sorry, that came out wrong – not that I’m saying-”

The Empress just gazed at him as he floundered. “You are either naive,” she said eventually, “or a very good liar. But I am inclined to believe the former.” And for the first time in their conversation, she smiled. “Welcome to your new home.”

Yanzi chuckled weakly, relieved beyond words.

“Thank you, your Majesty.”

Even after all that, he found it difficult to speak with her at first. Her given name in childhood was Xue Song – Snow Pine – and indeed, to Yanzi she seemed perfectly suited to it. She was a highly cultured woman and her manner of speech was formal even when addressing Ying. To outsiders she seemed emotionless. Yanzi knew from the first time he met her that wasn’t the case – she cared for Ying, and Xiaofeng, and she had a lover besides – but all the same, he hadn’t been sure that they would ever grow close.

One night she walked with him back to the Detached Palace after he had accompanied Ying at a formal function for the first time. He was wearing a red and gold tunic with elegant long sleeves and his hair was up in an elegant bun. Although he’d protested, the hairdresser had insisted on tucking a fresh lotus blossom in just above his ear. He was even wearing makeup.

“So?” asked Xue Song. “What did you think?”

Yanzi was still a little overwhelmed from the night. “I think it went well,” he said cheerfully. “I didn’t mess anything up, as far as I know. And everyone was very gracious.”

That was an understatement. It had been strange the way everyone fell over themselves to greet him, how the pages had rushed to bring him wine. Yanzi had never experienced that before. Only Ying’s presence at his side kept him grounded in reality.

There had been a time that night when, after fussing with his hair too much, the lotus came loose and fell to the ground. Immediately an older man had reached down and plucked it off the ground for him. When he thanked him, he simply shook his head and bowed deeply, elegantly from the waist.

A little while later he had asked Ying and was told that the man was a Governor, and the head of the Provincial Council.

“But it was weird. Everybody was watching me. I felt… powerful, somehow.”

Xue Song regarded him coldly. “That is the power of being an object,” she said. “They all wanted to possess you.”

Yanzi gave a little start. He hadn’t even thought about that. “Oh,” he said. “Oh.” And automatically, he made a face. “That’s really creepy.”

Immediately he wondered if that was the wrong thing to say, but surprisingly, Xue Song had a little smile on her face. “It is, is it not,” she said lightly.

“Yeah.” Yanzi thought back on the events of the night, how unobtrusive Xue Song had seemed to make herself, although ordinarily her presence was impossible to ignore. How she had stood in Ying’s shadow and not said a word. “Do you ever get used to it?”

Xue Song stopped walking.

“No,” she said, after a moment of thought. “Not really.”

Then they continued on as if nothing had been said, but after that, their relations warmed considerably. Now Yanzi is privileged to consider her a friend.

Today – after his lunch with Yu – they are having afternoon tea together in Xue Song’s private quarters, kneeling across from one another at a gold-enameled table. Nearby, Xue Song’s personal assistant Lan is watching over Xiaofeng as he plays with a toy sheep. There is a stream that runs through the little courtyard, and he can hear it running through the open window. It is a calming sound.

“You seem troubled,” says Xue Song. “I haven’t seen you this unbalanced since the Copper District Incident.”

“Oh, that brings back memories,” says Yanzi lightly. “And all terrible ones.” And they share a brief chuckle.

It’s easy to laugh about now, but at the time it was terrifying. Ying has been a reformer since he took the throne, and he’s made no secret of the fact that his wish is the eventual withdrawal of the Emperor from day-to-day politics. If he achieves his goals, Xiaofeng’s duties will be largely ceremonial, with the vast majority of decisions made according to the Reform Laws and the Provincial Council. He hopes this will prevent a return to the dictatorial politics of the past.

In general, the populace seems to be comfortable with his ideas. But there are some – nationalists, lobbyists, those who would stand to lose their wealth in a more balanced government – who utterly oppose them. And among those there are some who are genuinely dangerous.

The incident happened only two seasons ago. Ying was walking in the city with no guard, as was his custom. No one suspected anything was wrong until he didn’t come home that night, or the next morning. Suddenly he was gone. And no one had any idea where he was.

Xue Song organized the Imperial Guard immediately. They turned the city upside-down in their hunt for Ying. It was the job of the Palace to keep the public from knowing what was really going on in situations like these. Yanzi had to sit by and do nothing as Xue Song made plans, met with Ministers, pretending that they knew where Ying was, that he and Yanzi had left the city.

She had suggested that he actually go – with a body double, of course, to make it look more realistic – but he had refused. There was nothing he could do in the Capital. But it felt wrong to leave. What if Ying returned, and he was gone?

So he stayed hidden in the Detached Palace, with Yu keeping him company. Lan came to visit sometimes too, even bringing Xiaofeng, but she was a quiet guest, and he couldn’t help but resent her a little. Maybe if it had been Xue Song she would have felt the same.

There was no ransom note or list of demands. There was no way to know what had happened, or why. They could only wait for some news.

A day and a half after he vanished, Ying was found in the Copper District by an Imperial Guardsman. He was sitting outside a tea shop, his clothes torn and his hands filthy, looking exhausted but largely unharmed. When he saw the guardsman, he had waved, casually, as thought meeting an old friend. He had just escaped that night.

It turned out that the kidnapping had nothing to do with politics. Ying’s captors were gangsters who had no idea who he was, and had somehow been unable to discover the truth in time to ask for a ransom. With a weapon he would have been a match for all of them at once. Even unarmed they had been unable to hold him for long.

“They kept me in the cellar,” he said. “It was foolish of them, the building was old and the wall was thin. I dug through the stone. It took a while.” And he had grinned. “But I did it. Not bad, don’t you think?”

Yanzi had said nothing to that, afraid of what might happen if he tried to speak. He had only waited until he was alone before he cried.

“Your tea is getting cold,” says Xue Song, snapping Yanzi out of his reverie.

She’s right. Hurriedly he takes a swig, draining the rest of the cup. “Thanks.”

“You’re welcome.”

“I-” starts Yanzi, and then wonders if maybe it would be best not to continue. But he can’t help it. He needs to know. “Have you heard…?”

Gratefully, Xue Song doesn’t ask what he means. “I have.”

“…What do you think?”

Xue Song says nothing. She reaches for a box under the table, pulling out an inkwell, a brush, and a thick sheet of rice paper. Putting her teacup aside, she dashes off a few lines of poetry and slides them across the table to Yanzi.

Little bird
The door of your cage
Has been opened
Why do you stay?

Yanzi reads the poem. He hesitates for a moment, unsure of himself, then takes the brush and writes:

I cannot leave
Now that I know
The warmth of the hand
Which ensnared me.

and turns the paper once more so that it faces Xue Song.

She studies it for a moment, then frowns. “The balance of the calligraphy is off here, and here.”

“I’m sorry.”

“On the other hand, the text is well-expressed.”

For a second it looks as though she might say something more. Then, in the corner of the room, Xiaofeng falls over while toddling towards Lan. He starts to cry. “Oh,” says Xue Song abruptly, and rises from her pillowed seat to cross the room and take him by the hand.

“There now. It’s alright,” says Lan, and she takes his other hand. “Look, your Honoured Mother has come.”

Xiaofeng continues to cry for a few seconds, and then stops as abruptly as he started. But Lan and Xue Song stay kneeling on either side of him, smiling gently over the top of Xiaofeng’s head. Although they say nothing, he can sense that they are speaking to one another. It’s a beautiful sight, but it’s painful, somehow, too, and Yanzi feels a stab of jealousy through the back of his mind.

“I have to go,” he says.

When he says his goodbyes and returns to his quarters Yu is waiting rather anxiously. “Hi,” he says. “I did some tidy-up while you were gone. The unsorted clothes are in your chest and I’ve called someone to pick up the rest. And I organized your dinner with the Primary Kitchen. Is there anything else you need me for?”

“Nothing I can think of.”

“Okay. So then, would it be okay if I take off for today? I have to send in my Math homework before I go to practice tonight.” Yu’s expression grows rather nervous. He plays the electric zither in a band with some friends. Yanzi has never heard them, but Yu’s playing is excellent, and it’s clear that this band is where his hopes for the future really are. “I mean, I can stay if you need me.”

Yanzi shakes his head. “No, I’m good.”

“Great.” Yu gives him a quick little bow. “See you tomorrow.”

“See you tomorrow.”

This is an exchange they have had many times in the past. But now Yanzi has become accutely aware that it is finite, that soon it will end. Of course, so will many other things. He tries not to dwell on this too much. But it’s difficult to avoid.

“Hey, Yanzi,” says Yu very quietly, as he heads out the door. “If, uh, if you leave the Palace… do you want to maybe hang out sometime?”

Yu was designated his page a few weeks after he was brought to the palace. It was his first real appointment, and apparently his family were none too thrilled. Working for the Noble Imperial Consort wasn’t a job with a lot of opportunity for advancement. But Yu always said he didn’t really care, since he wasn’t planning to stay a retainer all his life. “And besides,” he said once, “this is more fun.”

He’s a good kid, and mature for his age. Sometimes Yanzi forgets that he’s only fifteen.

“Of course we can,” he says. “To be honest, I’d much rather be your friend than your boss. And how else am I going to learn what happens to that awful pink robe?”

That makes Yu laugh. “I’m glad,” he says, and then heads out, leaving Yanzi by himself.

***

Of course it hasn’t all been good. Even aside from the Copper District Incident. There were nights when while Ying, having promised to meet him in the Detached Palace, was detained by some meeting or event, leaving him alone. There were formal occasions where he could do nothing but sit meekly at Ying’s left hand like a doll or pet, his seat slightly lower than that of Xue Song on the right. And there were days when he could do nothing but wait in agony after a threatening letter or suspicious happening, saying prayers as if doing so could thwart an attempted assassination.

“I cause you so much grief,” said Ying one night, stroking Yanzi’s hair as they lay in bed together.

He had shook his head. “No. Don’t say that. How could I be sad? I’m with the one I love.”

Ying had smiled, and that was worth all the unspoken words in the world. “That makes two of us,” he said, and then his hand slowed and Yanzi knew that he had fallen asleep, quickly, as usual.

It wasn’t as though he had lied. But living in the Detached Palace as the Noble Imperial Consort has meant giving up many things he once wanted. If he is forced to think about it, it doesn’t seem fair. And if he had known what he was in for, when Ying asked if he wanted to live with him… well, he would have needed some time to think about it.

In the end, though, this was what he had to do to be with Ying. So he would have said yes anyway.

Everyone has an idea of who the next Noble Imperial Consort will be. The primary contender is a popular actor called Xi Chuan. He’s pretty, with light-streaked hair and heavy lidded black eyes, a delicate mouth. He and Ying have been seen together drinking tea at the Lion Room together. That was one of the ways Yanzi first learned about it. Someone left a gossip magazine in the entranceway of the Detached Palace and there was an artist’s rendition on the cover. He doesn’t even know if that person was trying to be kind.

He didn’t believe it at first. But people kept talking, and little things kept connecting in his mind, and eventually the evidence built up to the point where he couldn’t deny it any longer.

It’s been weeks since Ying spent the night in the Detached Palace. When they meet now it’s usually by accident, passing each other in the hall. Ying says nothing to him, gives him no answers, and his mouth won’t move to say the things he needs to say. He’s too scared.

Feeling suddenly heartsick, Yanzi grabs a brush and paper and dashes off a poem.

The thing is, he thinks, Ying is kind. The rumours have been circulating now for nearly three months; if they were untrue, he would have stamped them out no matter what it took. The fact that he has allowed Yanzi’s departure to stay a subject of gossip for so long is evidence that it will happen.

When he first believed the rumours he wanted to run to Ying and say he didn’t care if he wanted to be with Xi Chuan. Ying was the Emperor, he could have as many concubines as he liked, couldn’t he? And Yanzi didn’t care if he was second. As long as he could stay, being second was enough.

He’d like to believe it was his pride that stopped him.

Ying is loyal by nature. Having more than one concubine would be as impossible for him as going to the moon. He would never look for another man out of curiosity or boredom. The only answer is that he doesn’t love Yanzi anymore and he’s ready to break up with him. But he’s so kind, too kind to be direct.

Someday soon, he will ask Yanzi very politely if he would perhaps like to leave the Detached Palace. And Yanzi will very politely accept. He will go home to his family, and perhaps back to the medical school. All of the good and bad things alike will become memories.

Shall the flower
You wore that night
Tucked in your hair
Now be cast aside?

Yanzi examines the piece. It’s a clear expression of his feelings. And it’s true that his compositional skills, if nothing else, have improved greatly since he became a concubine. His poetry teacher would be proud.

But it’s still not very good, and he crumples the sheet of rice paper to be thrown away.

***

“My lady wishes to see you in the vermillion room.”

Startled, Yanzi drops the teacup he was drinking from. It falls to the ground but does not break; the floors of the Detatched Palace are softer than they look. “Pardon?”

“My lady wishes to see you in the vermillion room,” repeats Lan, in a carefully patient tone. “Immediately.” She bows deeply to him.

Yanzi returns the bow: technically he’s of a higher rank than her, but he can’t help thinking that they hold essentially parallel positions. “Of course,” he says, bending down to put on his slippers. “Just a moment.”

They walk together out of the Detached Palace and along the open-air corridor leading to the main building. It’s grown dark, and the wind is blowing through the compound.

“Did she say why?”

“She did not.”

“Oh.”

Yanzi doesn’t know very much about Lan, other than that she is younger than he, and Xue Song’s lover. Rumour has it she used to be a prostitute or pickpocket or something. He can’t really believe that, but it’s true that although she masks herself as nothing but a faithful handmaiden, there are times when he catches a glimpse of some fire burning inside her.

He shivers as a particularly fierce gust of wind hits him. Maybe he should have brought his overjacket.

“May I ask you a personal question?”

“If you wish.”

“…What would you do if Xue Song asked you to leave her?”

Lan stops walking. Her smile stays as placid as ever, her tone even, but cold steel flashes in her eyes.

“I would never go,” she says. “I couldn’t. I would stay with her wherever she was. If she sent guards to beat me, if she scorned me, I would stay by her side. And she would do the same for me. Because we can’t be apart from each other. We *know* each other. My whole self knows that whatever may happen, at the bottom of her heart she will *always* love me.”

For a moment Yanzi can see the truth of Lan hidden behind her polite facade. No wonder, then, that this is the woman Xue Song loves.

“I envy you,” he says quietly.

Lan regards him coolly. “That’s because you are a coward.”

“True enough.” Yanzi laughs, lightly.

“Don’t you treat this as some kind of joke,” she hisses. “Raise your head up and be steadfast, for heaven’s sake! Have confidence in yourself! If you are in love, you should understand these things without being told.”

“I wish I could.”

“Then why don’t you? If something is wrong, fix it! Remember that you are the man he chose from all others.”

And for a moment he can believe it.

The path leads to the west entrance, and one of the many long hallways of the main building. “Here,” says Lan, a little more than halfway down the hall, and they stop.

The vermillion room is soundproof, as are all rooms in the Palace. But someone has left the door open a hairsbreadth, and Yanzi can hear voices from inside, hushed but clear.

“You don’t understand,” says Ying. “And nor did I, until now. Because we’ve been bred into it. It surrounds us like water, but we can’t feel it anymore and so we can move around, imagining ourselves to be free. But it’s different for him. All of this – the politics, the ritual – it hurts him, and you know it.”

“I think it is you who do not understand,” replies the voice of Xue Song. “Will you then turn away from a love given freely?”

“But it wasn’t.” A sigh. “Not really. I didn’t tell him anything. I thought I was being so noble when I asked him, that I was giving him a choice. And yet I gave him no sign of what he was choosing. I was nothing more than a selfish child, wanting to own something without thinking about the consequences.”

“And now you’re so much wiser, of course. Foolish boy.” This is Xue Song’s pet name for Ying. “What makes you think he would not have chosen the same? Have you asked him what *he* wants?”

Ying sighs again, more heavily. “He’d lie, of course. Tell me he was happy here. How can I expect him to say anything else? He’s just too kind. He doesn’t… do you know what he said to me after the Copper District Incident? Nothing. He didn’t even tell me not to go out alone anymore. It was tearing him apart, but somehow he thought… maybe he thought he didn’t have the right, or that it wasn’t his place…” His voice grows strained. “I don’t know.”

He can almost hear Xue Song’s eyebrow arching. “I thought there was nothing you didn’t know.”

“Don’t start. This is hard for me.”

“I imagine it is worse for Yanzi.”

“This is the only way he can live his own life.” The strain in Ying’s voice grows more apparent. “Otherwise he’ll be… I can’t bear the thought of him suffering, trapped here, with no escape. What else can I do? No one can keep the one they love in such a state.”

There is a long hush.

“And what are you saying,” says Xue Song, in a poisonous almost-whisper that Yanzi barely catches, “regarding myself and the one I love?”

“No, that’s different,” and Yanzi can imagine the horrified look on Ying’s face as he tries to back-pedal, “you can’t think that I – oh, of course that’s not what I meant. Xue Song!”

Xue Song snorts. It’s the most undignified sound Yanzi has ever heard her make. “I grow tired of this ridiculous display. Yanzi, please come in. I think you’ve heard enough to understand now.”

Screwing his eyes shut for a moment to keep from tearing up, Yanzi pushes the door all the way open. “I have,” he says, shakily.

Ying is kneeling on the floor. When he sees Yanzi his eyes shoot wide open. There are half-dried tearstains on his cheeks. “Y-Yanzi…?”

“Ying…”

“I have had enough of this foolishness and secrecy,” says Xue Song, rising to her feet as well. “Now that everyone is on even ground, I strongly suggest you two talk this out between yourselves.” She walks elegantly to the door, where Lan is waiting for her. They share an intimate look. “As for myself, I am returning to my quarters, where I will embrace my lover all night. I will speak with you both in the morning.” And with that, the two women leave, and Ying and Yanzi are alone.

Yanzi takes a step forward into the room. Then another. Then all of a sudden he feels as though his legs will no longer support his body, and he kneels clumsily in front of Ying.

“Why?”

Ying looks at him helplessly. “Did you hear everything?”

“Yeah,” says Yanzi. “But I don’t understand. I thought that you-” He flashes back to the first time he heard the gossip, and saw the magazine cover, the one with Xi Chuan. “Someone else…”

“…I thought you might learn about that.”

“But you don’t…”

“No, of course not.” Ying gives him a miserable smile. “I could never love anyone but you. I just thought it would be easier for you to leave if there was a reason. If I had done something wrong.”

Yanzi shakes his head. “You have done something wrong,” he says. “You’ve let me think I was no longer wanted. You have no idea how I felt when I thought you didn’t -” He stops, unable to continue down that road. “We could have talked about this, you know. It would have been hard, but… it’s hard now, too, isn’t it?”

“I’m sorry I betrayed your trust. But you must see that things can’t stay this way. I can’t stand seeing you trapped here, in pain, and there’s nothing I can do to help. Something has to change.”

“Maybe it does,” says Yanzi, slowly. “But-”

All at once it hits him.

The cage door is open, he thinks. And he starts to laugh.

Ying looks at him as if he’s gone crazy. “Yanzi…” he says, and reaches out as if to touch his shoulder. “Are you…”

“I’m fine,” he replies, and with another moment manages to pull himself together. “It just hit me. We’ve been such fools. You’ve been going about this the wrong way, and I’ve just been going along with it unthinkingly. When you asked me to live with you, what if I had said no? Just because of that, we would have had to stop seeing each other?”

“What do you mean?”

“It’s true that I don’t want to be the Imperial Noble Concubine. But why does that mean we can’t be together?” Yanzi feels almost overwhelmed by the suddenness of the idea, but he presses on. “I love you, Ying. I want to spend my life with you. But I can do that on my own terms. There’s no reason I *have* to live in the Detached Palace. I can live somewhere else in the city. I can go back to school. But you can come and see me, and I can come and see you, and we won’t have anything to hide. It will be hard, but it can’t be as hard as this. We can find a way to make it work. I won’t be your concubine anymore. But I will be your lover.”

Ying sits very still. He doesn’t speak for a long time, so long that Yanzi begins to worry.

“You… are a genius,” he says at last, slowly. “And I hope you will forgive me for being a fool.”

Really, he should be angry. It shouldn’t be this easy. Ying has been keeping secrets from him, letting him worry.

But Lan was right. He should have told Ying what was on his mind a long time ago. This was a problem they could have face together. And now they have.

“Of course,” he says, and presses his fingers into Ying’s. “I can forgive you anything.”

Ying pulls him into his arms. Then they seem to collapse into one another, and they embrace, as tenderly as possible, right there on the floor of the Vermillion Room. It is not the last time.

***

Thanks very much to my editor, purplelev, and my illustrator and cultural/naming consultant, semiramis.


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