by Sekiga Hara (関河羽羅)
1. Month of Small Rains
The Emperor, Lord of the Nine Lands, the Dragon’s Son, hated being indoors all day. When he was, for the weather or for work, he took it out on the chamberlains and us, his long-suffering Friends. He would pester us incessantly: “Feide, have you seen that incredibly rare lacquer box they just sent from the Eastern Islands? The one I specifically told you not to lose?” “Taibai, what did you wash these painting brushes with? They’re stiffer than rocks!” “Huwen, did you make this reeking filth you called tea or did a mountain goat?”
At such times we would merely shake our heads as we ran past one another, in search of some new distraction for His Majesty. When we’d first been ordered to move into the Palace–it seemed centuries ago, but it was actually only four years–we had all turned pale at the slightest hint of Imperial displeasure, but being now well-assured of the continued adherence of our heads to the rest of our bodies, we treated Senming like a colicky infant whenever he got in a mood. Lately he seemed particularly irritable, though as the spring rains were many times heavier than usual, this was to be expected.
That particular afternoon he forgot to nag me, and I was writing a letter to Mother. Father had passed, peacefully enough after a long decline, when I was twelve and just called to join the other Friends at the Emperor’s side; Mother, a sociable woman, seemed content enough to remain a widow–though I knew she had at least two or three gentleman friends always at her parties. My letters were of course a filial chore, and this particular specimen no different: I made some literary references about the continued downpour, and told her to mind her health. Then I filled most of the page with the sketchiest of details about the latest happenings at Court (Lord Protector An still issuing most of the Imperial Edicts and sitting in for His Majesty at the yearly Assizes, His Majesty’s baby half-sister Princess Senling as adorable as ever); I neither had the desire nor the authority to gossip too much.
And there were things a man capable of growing a beard (even if he were still a few years from his majority) couldn’t write about to his mother. Lately, Senming had taken to acting strangely–not, of course, that this was so unusual, but the things he was doing–my face warmed though I was perfectly alone. Abandoning all pretense of attending Court in favor of hunting and parties was bad enough, but in the last few months he was ever wilder, as if trying to show the world how mad with youth one man could be.
The worst so far was an afternoon last week, when, deep in his cups, he’d decided we would all play hide-and-go-seek in the Peony Garden. Taibai had pointed out that the Garden was under three inches of muddy water, and that the rains showed no sign of pausing for our game, to which Senming had responded by tripping over to my seat and sprawling into my lap, mumbling, “Feide’s a good boy, he never talks back. I’ll just play with him then.”
I thought my face was actually on fire, I blushed so hard; my instinct was to jump up and maybe run off, but though slender, Senming was heavy enough that I merely toppled backward when I tried. He took that as a cue to drape his arms around my neck, smiling like a whore. “Won’t you, Feide? Won’t you go hide for me?”
And so, a quarter-hour later, I was crouched under a table like a dog that’d been rained on, viciously imagining how I’d crack the others’ skulls if I discovered any of them laughing about how Senming loved to tease me. Passionately, I prayed that the needlelike rain would bore some sense into Senming, then with an equally intense jolt of guilt hoped that he had at least gotten an umbrella. He was notoriously susceptible to taking chills, and he’d been so sloshed–I crept from under the table, narrowing my eyes against the miserable rain. This was utterly ridiculous. I would find him, and have his chamberlain put him straight to bed. As I walked past a stand of young trees, something coming fast from behind knocked the breath from me. It wrapped arms around my middle. “Senming!”
He chortled. “Got you!”
“Are you four?” I pried at his fingers, but everything was slippery with wet. “You’ll be sick tomorrow for sure!”
“Are you my mother?” He stuck his head under my right arm and waggled his tongue at me. “I’m older than you, remember. And I’m the Emperor or something.” Finally I loosened one of his hands and tugged him to face me, whereupon I started to undo the buttons of my coat. He snickered. “Oh, warm enough, aren’t we? What about catching a cold?”
I did not deign to reply. The coat finally free, I peeled it from my shoulders and lifted my arms, so it became a rather unsatisfactory shelter. Rain still filtered through, but at least the sodden wool slowed it a little. “Come on, let’s go.” Senming, who’d turned away, didn’t move. “Come along, unless you want me to stand here ’till I die of cold too.”
He slowly twisted to present me with an unreadable look. Under its intensity I fidgeted, pretending that I was merely working a knot in my shoulder. So we stood there, me chewing the inside of my lip, a sudden burst of sweat greasing my palms and back, him staring like I was a rock that had just begun to deliver a speech. His eyes were enormous in the dripping shade under my coat, and I could see his teeth and the tip of his bright-pink tongue just inside his slightly parted lips. Presently a quiet impulse to see what that tongue might taste like surfaced, and try as I might not to think on it, it grew louder and deeper until my arms, sagging from keeping the coat above us, were ready to crash down onto Senming’s shoulders and lock him in place while I satisfied my curiosity. Then he tapped my chest lightly, which made me jump. “Well, let’s go then,” he said, as if he had just happened to find me standing like an idiot in the rain. “It’s damned awful out here.”
But none of that was getting written down. Nor the time I caught him rubbing his mouth and staring at me, completely ignoring the others, while he thought I was concentrating on my soup. Nor the time he threw a whole stand of brushes at me when I suggested that he have Taibai, who actually knew something about draughtsmanship, help him with a painting instead. I drew a long breath and stared at the birthday-poem he’d traded me for my gift to him last winter, which was mounted on an extravagantly fine scroll over the desk. Looking at it made me unable to concentrate again, so I put down the letter and paced for a while before taking up my brush once more, sitting on the chaise lounge so I couldn’t see the poem.
As I began the usual “with loving thoughts, your humble son,” Huwen, a fourth cousin or something of Lord Protector An’s, whom we all called “Tiger” for his size, came bounding in and nearly bowled me over. I dropped my inky brush in my lap, and was opening my mouth to curse when Tiger gripped my forearm. “You’re supposed to come quick.”
“What? What for? Damn it, man, this was a new robe–”
“Now is not the time to fuss about clothes!” Huwen always enjoyed teasing me about my excellent hygiene, no doubt finding it profoundly hilarious that I, about as tall (if not nearly as wide) as he, was utterly useless without my daily bath and toilette. But he seemed not exactly in the joking mood.. “Senming wants you right now.” Tiger dragged me down the corridor, in suites along which we Friends lived, and which led directly to Senming’s favorite study.
“Wait, wait,” I sprinted at Tiger’s heels, trying to free my sleeve from his fist before he ruined it, too. “Why are we running? And what exactly does he want?”
“I don’t know, but it’s serious,” Tiger huffed. “Look.” He palmed something from his sleeve into the hand not pulling me along, and flashed it at me. I gaped. It was the Imperial Seal of Command, as big across as an orange, resplendent in red and black lacquer, edged with gold. Whoever bore it carried the Imperial will, and could not be questioned or detained in anything until his mission was completed. I had read and heard of it, but like elephants or dragons, the thing seemed mostly mythical–terribly impractical, too. The sight of the Seal stunned me enough that we were bursting through the secret door into the study before I could utter another word.
Senming was waiting behind his large desk, which was much tidier than usual; it being a chilly day, he had draped a white foxfur mantle over his shoulders, making him look as uncanny as if he were a fox-spirit himself. He stood as we knelt; I saw with another shock that he had on full Court regalia under the fur, down to the coral and ebony beads hung in a dozen strands about his neck. His surcoat, tunic and robe were a great swathe of yellow silk embroidered with miniscule blue dragons, glistening as if wet. Tiger, bending his head, raised the Seal with both hands, and the Emperor took it and tossed it on the desk like it was a toy instead of the most dangerous and powerful thing in the whole Palace–no, in the whole Empire. “Go and wait outside, Huwen.”
Tiger shot me a look of puzzlement, but bowed and made a speedy retreat. As soon as the door had shut, again looking for all the world like a panel in the wall, Senming said, in a peculiar voice, “How long has it been since you began serving me?” His color was very high, feverishly so.
I said, uncertainly, “Are you feeling all right?”
“Answer me. How long?”
“Four years and forty days–are you certain you’re not ill?”
He lunged from the dais on which the desk was built and came close beside me in a flurry of color and delicate rustling. Slight when a boy, the Emperor remained a small man, and though I was kneeling, I felt the heat of his breath against my face. For whatever reason, the heat lingered and grew, until I felt my ears and neck also flushed. I glanced as long as I dared at his face, which was firmly set. At brow and chin were martial traces of his grandfather, the founder of the Empire. “You have gotten impertinent, haven’t you? You especially of the lot.”
“Senming?” My voice cracked, and something behind my breastbone ached. I suppose I had always imagined that, for all his strange charm and smiles, one day the Emperor would remember that I was only the youngest and most presumptuous son of a rather insignificant nobleman, and everything would be over.
“Feide?” He mimicked, unsmiling. I must have looked even more utterly distraught than I felt, because I saw that he, too, was flushed as he forcefully turned and strode back to his desk. “Do you want to know why I had Ti–Huwen call you here?”
“Yes, sir.” I bent my head mechanically. Nothing was what I had expected. My brains seemed to be swirling like water in my head.
“I have called you because you among my Friends are the oldest, and the one who has been with me longest.” Senming’s discomfiture seemed over; he seated himself cross-legged as if at Court, and this line was delivered with rehearsed smoothness. “And yet, you are the worst of them. Of late you have grown entirely wild. Do not pretend ignorance; the others have told me all about your affairs with the maids, your theft of the paintings and calligraphy from my apartments for selling to the pawnshops.”
“I understand you have a widowed mother,” Senming continued, again getting to his feet and stepping toward me, “but I would have thought poor Lord Yun, such a good man, had taught you better than this.” Now he came close; I had dropped my face, and saw the tips of his boots, where small silver bells had been sewn. They were tinkling slightly. “I can keep you in the Palace no longer.” I continued to scrutinize the little bells, which had begun chiming more loudly. “Feide. Look at me.”
Slowly I obeyed, my head so heavy that I hoped it would snap my neck and end this nightmare with the effort. Then I gasped, but no sound came out, because the Emperor was kissing me on the mouth—no halfhearted kiss, either, but with all his weight pressed against me, his tongue doing something wicked with mine, and his hands, covered in rings, twisted in my hair. I felt him whisper, his whole body trembling, “Trust me.” Then we were apart again, and him with his back to me. The loss of him, wiry, warm and bright as the sun, made me shiver and drop the hands I had just started to raise to touch him. Something tickled my neck, and I really did gasp aloud when I reached my hand to the crown of my head. Where the plait of hair that each of us Friends wore as a badge had been, I found nothing but a little rough spot, cut to within an inch of the scalp. With a slow flourish, Senming sheathed a dirk so thin it was more like a needle in a pearl-crusted scabbard at his belt and dropped the coil of loose hair at his feet, where it lay like a dead animal. “Take it and go. You are no Friend of mine.”
I closed my fist on the braid. Senming did not turn as I bowed and walked backwards to the hidden door, but as I put out a hand to touch the secret lock, he said, “Not that way. I will have one of the others take your things to you. There is a mule saddled outside the Lesser South Gate; hire or send someone reliable to return it to the Palace Stables after you are home.”
“You’ve–” I opened and shut my mouth for some time before words came. “You’ve arranged—you’ve settled it all already.”
“Yes, Master Feide, I have.” He made a sudden motion, as though he were about to run at me, but restrained it. The bells on his boots jingled dimly. “Hurry. Your place is not here, now.”
The mule was a docile enough creature, but old and outfitted with a dirty felt saddle and reins floppily useless with wear. By the time I arrived at the servants’ gate to my parents’ house, it was past dusk and I was sodden despite the oilcloth raincoat some kindly groom had left with my mount. When I knocked, some foolish gardening maids, giggling, said they’d already told me twice that they had no need of the powders and rouge I was peddling. So I was obliged to raise my voice, at which point what seemed the entire household rushed at the door and bore me, amidst a torch-lit mass of bowing and asking after my health, to my mother’s reading room. She looked surprised, but I told her nothing and she didn’t inquire, beyond whether I wanted to sleep in one of the guest rooms or my old suite, and if I would like some supper or a bath first.
I chose the latter. As I shucked my clothes off and into a soggy pile, the leaden feeling in my belly grew heavier and heavier, until with a cry I tore my under-robe away and something flat that had been stuck close against my breast by the damp and the weight of my clothes fell with a crack onto my foot. Through the tears of pain that had risen involuntarily to my eyes glimmered the Imperial Seal of Command.
2. Month of Great Heat
At home, no one troubled me about much of anything. One midmorning, as I absently ate a delayed breakfast next to the little fishpond in the cherry gardens, my mother appeared. She came without a single maid in attendance, so I did not notice her until she was calling me. “I’m sorry, Mother,” I said, getting to my feet and bowing.
“Oh child,” she said as she sat, “do finish your food. You look to have lost your soul, at least keep your flesh held together.”
I dutifully attacked the delicacies heaped on my tray. Father hadn’t been one to allow many indulgences, which included dainty food, but judging from her rosy plumpness and the richness of the swallow’s nest and mushroom porridge, Mother ran the household quite differently. She watched me eat, then said as I put down my spoon, “I know you didn’t do anything wrong, Fei-fei.”
Involuntarily I winced at the diminutive. Senming had discovered that I answered to that name once when (again) he had been half-addled with a potent combination of tribute liquor and sweets. The results–which included Senming scaling a tree while screaming with laughter and yelling “Fei-fei” loudly enough for passerby outside the Palace walls to hear–had been completely mortifying. Even as I recalled that episode, Mother had gone, leaving in her place a small box of something she must have been carrying without my notice. They were rock candy in our clan colors. I took one up and bit it in two. She had remembered my favorite sweet from when I was small; I’d never really liked soft melting things like marzipan and always refused to touch them, except for once.
A bit of embroidery on my collar was itching awfully, and moreover we had had to walk almost a mile under the unforgiving summer sun after dismounting at the Celestial Harmony Gate, as everyone not of the Imperial family must do. My court robes, in brilliant blue silk and black velvet cut exactly to my measurements, had been amazing when Mother had brought them to show me at dawn, but now it was an hour after noon and their narrow fit made me feel like I was being cooked like a bun in a steamer.
Aside from the annoying collar, the peacock feather on my hat kept sticking to my nape, and whenever Father wasn’t looking I tried to twist the feather so it wouldn’t hang behind my head, but never succeeded.
“Now,” said my father, bending to look me very seriously in the eye, “you know you have to be on your very best behavior.”
“Yes, Papa,” I said, fidgeting;
When Father told me that we were scheduled for an audience, going into the Palace to see the Emperor had been a cause for jumping up and down on my bed until Nanny Jin had to give me a spanking. Now I wished I were at home swimming in the garden pond with Nanny’s sons and my cousins. To make matters worse, we’d taken the Household Way, which meant I got to see exactly none of the grand yellow-roofed official buildings along the Courtiers’ Way, which Father took to attend Court thrice a week. Instead we passed yard after boring yard where people worked at baking and watering hedges and putting cut flowers in vases and completely ignored us. Finally we had arrived at a low and not very large building, mostly hidden by clumps of messily tended bamboo, and it was at the beginning of a little pebbled path that led between the plants that my father had paused to talk to me.
Having gotten my assent, he nodded encouragingly. Automatically I reached out my hand to put in his again, the way I always walked with grown people, but he shook his head. “You have to walk alone, my son.” Before I could protest, he had strode away and disappeared behind the greenery. I dashed after him, the decorative spurs on my boots clicking, and almost tripped over the high threshold. As I regained my balance, half-falling and half-leaping inside the door, I heard someone chuckle, and, at the same time, an inauspicious krrrsszzzht from the hem of my surcoat. After the brightness of the day, the room was cavernously dark, and I squinted, searching for the source of the laughter, until Father boomed from somewhere ahead, “Little cur! It is no time to gape! Where are your manners?”
“Oh, Lord Yun, it’s nothing,” said the voice that had chuckled. “I am sure he has had a hard day already.” My eyes, adjusting at last, fell on a boy maybe three or four years older than me, dressed in a long white summer gown much like the one I wore on the hottest days. A rush of envy made my feet unsteady, but Father had, in one furious step, come behind me and now was pressing me to kneel on the flagstones beside him. “I do apologize most sincerely, Your Majesty. The child looks much bigger than his age–he is only eight, and I am afraid my wife and I have quite spoilt him.” He glared at me; I stared down at my knee, where the bright threads of my coat split in an ugly tear, and felt a sob rising.
“Lord Yun, please, it’s really all right. Do rise, sir.” The boy had gotten off his bamboo chaise and was standing directly before us. I looked up, and even as Father rumbled in displeasure, the young Emperor offered his hand. He was beaming, and slowly, I did the same in return and took his hand, which was slim but surprisingly strong; with another laugh he helped me to my feet. I glanced at Father, who, purple-faced, seemed in a paroxysm of outrage, but the Emperor only said, “Lord Yun, I’d like to speak alone with Master–”
“Feide,” I supplied, noticing that the Emperor was only a hand’s breadth taller than me. He had very fine teeth and dark eyes, and as was customary for the Imperial clan, a plain white-gold ring in his right ear.
“Master Feide and I will go take a little walk, I think. Your trek from the Gates in this weather must’ve been awful, Lord Yun. I told them to bring a bit of refreshment, so please make yourself at home.” Father bowed deeply; when he straightened, I saw that his expression had gone from rage to bemusement, but I didn’t have much time to wonder as the Emperor, taking up my hand again, pulled me down a corridor and out a smaller door. We emerged into a dizzying world of green; it was a sea of old-growth bamboo, every stalk as thick as my arm and rustling like the ocean itself with the faintest of breezes. In the center of this grove was a delicate stone pavilion. I was led to one of the stone stools that were of one piece with the floor, and the Emperor sat next to me on another. “Are you thirsty? Hungry?”
I shook my head mutely. My collar chafed, but it was a distant sensation, camouflaged by a new, absolute terror.
“All right.” The Emperor regarded me thoughtfully. “So, you’re eight?”
“I–” I swallowed. “I turn nine in the winter.”
“I see. Which month?”
“Really?” The Emperor seemed to enjoy smiling. “Me too. I’ll be thirteen.”
“Oh.” I knew I was being horribly rude, but Father and Mother had never drilled me to talk with the Dragon’s Son, only making me memorize the usual ritual of self-introduction. And I’d already told him my name. Idly I wondered if I was going to be beheaded or exiled or something, like Father sometimes talked about or like I’d learned in the Five Histories. So I added, “Your Majesty.”
He laughed until he was face down and trembling on the stone table between us. “You–you’re too rare, ” he panted, “too rare a treasure, Feide.” He wiped at his eyes with a sleeve. “Sorry for not introducing myself properly. I’m Senming.” Seeing my face, he continued, “Don’t worry, we’re going to be friends, right? Doesn’t seem fair to have to call me ‘Majesty’ or whatever when I get to call you by your name, does it?”
“Um–I guess not?”
“Well? Try it then.” There was a dark streak of red in the black at both of his temples; the sun, dribbling over us in blots and smudges, caught them as he leaned back against the balustrade of the pavilion.
“Isn’t that a lot better?” He extracted something from his sleeve: two marzipan pieces, shaped like chrysanthemums and slightly melted. One he passed to me, and the other he popped into his mouth and sucked with relish. “I mean, ‘Master Feide’ is too much of a mouthful. This is a better trade for me, too.” Slowly the sweetness of the candy trickled down my tongue and spread like light in my mouth.
I nodded, involuntarily smiling from the delight of the marzipan. “It is better.”
“Here, give me that coat.” He tugged at a sleeve. “I can have the tear sewn up again before you have to go home. Or, if you want, they can add some nice trim or something and I’ll just give it to you next time you come to visit.”
“Next time?” I mumbled around the candy.
He only smiled.
3. Month of Many Harvests
I had never cultivated a palate for tea, but as Lord An’s new protégé I drank the stuff by what seemed like the barrelful. The man’s appetite for lecturing at length was equally insatiable, and thus, one morning exactly two months before I turned sixteen, I found myself sitting cross-legged across a low table, sipping at a new variety of fermented tea mixed with goat’s milk and nodding gravely at intervals to accompany another feat of oratory. “And so,” An concluded, rubbing the end of his carefully kempt mustache between two fingers, “I think that most of the Court will agree that His Majesty has far from proven himself capable of managing such a grand Empire as ours.” He drank at length, smacked his lips, and regarded me expectantly.
“I think that very sound, sir.”
“And you will of course attest to the misdeeds you saw committed while in the Palace? And to the injustice of your treatment, too, of course.” I was offered and accepted a hard biscuit; these, too, were ubiquitous at our breakfasts, and if washed down with a gulp of tea they could almost take on a semblance of taste. “Again, Master Feide, I feel deeply that you should have had to suffer such an indignity. Clearly His Majesty is lacking in judgment, to dismiss such a worthy young man as you. Stout in the martial arts, and brilliant in the literary ones.”
“You flatter me, sir.”
“Not at all, not at all.” An bared his teeth. “Your accomplishments and talents will most certainly bear fruit with the proper, ah, nurturance and guidance. Ask anyone–old An doesn’t forget who his friends are!”
I smiled, hoping that it looked more dignified than abysmally bored. It had been hardly a week after I was evicted from the Palace before An sent his secretary, dressed like a groom, to me with an invitation to meet over supper at his master’s home in the Ministers’ Quarter of the capital. Since then I had practically moved into Lord An’s enormous mansion; we met daily, usually more than once, occasionally with other members of his coterie in attendance, to discuss “business,” by which was meant high treason. Some of the group distrusted me (not unreasonable, considering where I’d spent the last few years) and wore masks during our conferences; their voices, however, were familiar enough. Most of them were middle-aged, middle-ranked men, who were neither too frightened by their precarious positions like the young and lowly, nor content with their lot like the aged and powerful.
One of these–Piben, since Senming had once mentioned a “donkeyfaced idiot” of that name who both lisped and stuttered–thought that the Emperor’s death was crucial. He displayed not inconsiderable creative spirit in his proposals: any weapon of war was too unsubtle, but there were thousands of untraceable poisons, fire, water, plague-infected bedclothes, needles in strategic orifices. The three other courtiers were less murderously minded, but at the least Senming would have to be “exiled,” locked away in one of the Summer Estates to the north or an obscure apartment in the Palace itself. Thus for nearly half a year I had been subjected to endless litanies of the ways in which His Majesty had to be handled.
After the turn of the seasons to autumn, however, An had raised a new possibility: confronting the Emperor with me directly, at Court. For weeks, he and the others had held discreet dinners and tea-tastings to gauge the waters; they were, concluded An, delightfully warm. One night, I was milked for all the sordid details of His Majesty’s ways as An’s secretary took everything that came out of my mouth, no matter how ridiculous, down in code. “Excellent,” An pronounced whenever he looked these papers over (which was often). “Gross overspending for adornments and entertainments, including for the ‘Friends.’ Suspect relations with maidservants and over-intimacy with his stepmother the Empress Dowager. Bouts of irrationality and childish fits. Negligence of Court duties in favor of hunting, wrestling, and dissolute literature. A proclivity for disgusting foreign music.” I knew that he watched me especially carefully when he read these aloud, and I made certain to never look anything less than properly indignant.
Finally the five conspirators decided that the great confrontation would be staged at the customary day-long Court session immediately preceding the Autumn Assizes, during which Lord An had, for the last ten years, made the final judgment in cases of capital crime in his capacity as Lord Protector. “Everyone is obliged to attend,” explained An, “and even His Majesty, who is tardily present for perhaps one session of Court for every half-dozen, will be there.”
“But what if the others don’t stand with y–with us?” I impassively met An’s sharp look. “The risk is a big one, sir.” Piben and the other Courtiers nodded; as the date of the Assizes approached, they had become increasingly high-strung. Some of my own maids and footmen had been gossiping about how several of the Lords had sent away their children to relatives in the countryside, Piben among them.
“They will. They realize that giving full rule over to His Majesty would be terribly foolish.” An smiled in what he probably imagined was a soothing, generous manner but instead looked like he was suffering from indigestion. “Especially if you, Master Feide, do your uttermost, as I am sure you will.”
We sat in silence after this. I took up my teacup for a genteel sip, but my hands were trembling and the contents were scalding, so with a tinkling crack I dropped all of it onto the table, from whence it flowed into Piben’s lap. He shot to his feet, screeching and cursing. An had sent his servants outside with instructions to return only when called for, as was his usual practice when we had our meetings; unsurprisingly, they’d all wandered off to their own business. It was a long five minutes before a young page finally appeared, panting, and was slapped for his trouble. Piben had collapsed against the back of his seat; when I bowed in apology, he could muster only a weak snarl. “I’m going home.”
After he had gone, the rest soon also departed, each silent as a mourner behind his mask. Lord An smiled at me over a fresh pot of tea. “I’ve known Piben since we were children–he’s one of my many cousins, you know. He’s always been a bit hot-headed. Don’t worry, I’m sure he will be perfectly all right.” He said this pointedly, though I was of course not supposed to know who any of the men in masks were.
When I reached the guest-rooms An kept for me in a far courtyard, I pressed my hand against my side, where I had sewn (not very well) a secret pocket for the Seal. Being in disgrace, I had not seen Senming for almost a quarter-year. Probably he would be wearing those glittering Court robes when the conspirators brought me forth to denounce him. I remembered his mouth, its savage tenderness. I’d done a certain degree of exploring in the nicer dancers’ and musicians’ houses, of course, but never had a girl or boy’s tongue and lips felt so welcome as his. Would he laugh at what I was doing? Had I misunderstood him entirely? Was the Seal I hoarded in my shirt a fake, designed to reveal my total lack of compunction in joining with traitors?
My mind spun elsewhere. When he’d kissed me, Senming’s tongue had tasted of something sweet, but under it had run a note of bitterness. I wondered if it always tasted like that.
Thinking on all this made me warm and ashamed, but I threw myself on the bed without bothering to take off my shoes, resolving to plan my great speech. Instead I fell asleep and dreamt of Senming, breaking all the rules of propriety, pouring out tea for me and somehow burning himself with it. Then I took one of his fingers, pink-tipped and curled in pain, and put it in my mouth, where it melted sweetly.
I woke in a mess of sweat, daubed in my own semen.
Another fortnight, and it was time for attending Court. I was disguised with a ridiculous mustache and some dusty too-small robes from who knows where, the former of which I was to tear off before I began to speak. An was a neat-minded sort, as a man would have to be to command the Empire for a decade. He choreographed the performance down to how many numbers I had to count before stepping from the ranks of councilors and exposing myself.
Much of the caution, though, seemed redundant: not one of the at least two dozen Palace guards we passed on the Courtiers’ Way so much as looked me in the face. This was peculiar, especially since I had once drunk and made merry with the better half of them, and that pathetic mustache hardly hid my upper lip. I pretended to scratch and made sure, yet again, that the Seal had not slipped or fallen out, as I followed An and a mass of others in mounting the last long flight of steps to the Hall of Divine Prosperity. Each of us bowed in the direction of the throne as we crossed the high threshold.
My palms, which had started to perspire, promptly became what felt like small lakes when I caught sight of Senming: resplendent, slightly flushed, and calm as though newly emerged from a long bath, draped again in blinding gold. I must have looked too long, for the man behind me cleared his throat. Sweating all the harder, I scuttled into the dense row of bodies in the left ranks, where those of lesser rank stood.
At last the final stragglers entered and took their places, but the Emperor said nothing – it had been the rule since he turned fifteen, An had told me, for His Majesty to make the customary opening pronouncements at every Court he attended. Shuffling and coughing from the floor; still His Majesty frowned at something on his desk. When this had gone on for nearly half an hour, Lord An strode into the center of the Hall without bowing and said, in a rumble that carried, “Will Your Majesty condescend to begin?” In the silence that followed, I distinctly heard someone swallow.
Senming lifted his face, smiling, but even at such a distance I knew that his eyes were hard. “We would, good Lord Protector, were it not for the absence of a worthy advisor.”
“Your Majesty?” An turned and also smiled at the rest of the gathered Court, but paired with an indulgently disapproving shake of his head, as if the Emperor had said he wanted some candy before he could begin. “I see none missing.”
“I do not.”
“We invited a dear friend today, but We see him not. Do look you again, Lord Protector. We believed him a friend to you, too, so We trust you to discover him should he be here.” This made me hold my breath, but Senming did not seem to have discovered me.
An no longer smiled; I saw that the truncheon of office held in his right hand was quivering. “Yes, Your Majesty, I think I see what you meant. I do not see Lord Piben here among us, but he is ill and recuperating at home–” With as much subtlety as I could muster, I also peered at the higher ministers crowded on the opposite side of the room; Piben was indeed missing. I’d no news of him since the tea spill; that stuff was hot, but a man twenty years older than he would have recovered by now. Maybe his pride had suffered a deep enough wound that he had given up his gory designs to stew at home.
“Oh, he is? How terrible!” Senming turned a ring on his forefinger. “Pray tell, what is his sickness? We would send him some good medicine for a speedy recovery.”
“It is–I am not certain, but he no doubt has hired an excellent physician–”
“As good as Our Imperial physicians? We are not so sure of that.”
“Sire,” An ground out, “it is almost midday. Court must really begin. My colleagues have been preparing since before dawn for their reports, and these frivolities–”
“Frivolities?” Senming had half-risen from the throne; while he continued to twirl his ring, his smirk hardened. “We were not aware that concern for Our subjects, sir, was a ‘frivolity.’ We had believed this to be the way of a just ruler.”
The truncheon fell and bounced with a resonant thwack; rather, An had thrown it down. He had gone an unflattering scarlet. “Do you hear this young madman? I have tolerated these excesses for ten years, brothers, while I held Court alone and left my wife and children to spend yet another night without my company. And now he agitates for my retirement so he can ruin this poor land even quicker! I say enough. Enough!” The last bit was salvaged from the speech he’d planned, and along with it An recovered some of his bearing. But his face remained bright red as his eyes raked my side of the Hall; I studied the boots of the man in front of me and bent my knees a little to avoid being seen. Though I knew that I had to come forth, I was suddenly terrified of walking away from the cozy camouflage of courtiers and facing Senming.
Meanwhile, he was frowning but saying nothing as An continued. “All of us have seen his dereliction of his duties, brothers, and his lavish spending on pleasures. And here,” he gestured at me, as I cursed my height, not for the first time, “I have brought one who has seen every evil habit, who has also been poisoned by leisure and luxury.”
I trudged to stand beside An, wanting desperately to drop to both knees and prostrate myself for even appearing alongside the man, though of course Senming had known all along that An would take me in after my exile and intended all this to happen–but had he? Was I an enormous dupe? Why hadn’t I run like a real friend right back to Senming’s study when An had taken me in, and told him of the terrible danger? I wanted to cry. As I drew a deep breath to keep the hysteria away, the Seal pressed into my side like a brand. It brought the memory of kissing Senming, which I felt as immediately as if it were happening again. This time I remembered what he had said, feverishly, in a whisper low enough for lovers; it made me feel invincibly strong.
“Who is this?” It was Senming. I realized that no one had made a sound for some time. “And what is this that you so wished to show Us, Lord An?”
“This,” I answered, tearing the borrowed robe open at the seams and tossing the Seal, half-shrouded by its pouch, to the stone-paved floor. It landed beside An’s fallen truncheon, far more heavily. The noise was disguised, however, as I also dropped to the floor. Kneeling, I braved a look at Senming at last. He wore a peculiar expression, as if torn between deadly gravity and bursting into giggles.
Then he said,” We recognize you not, interloper. It seems time to call the guards–” he gave a sharp cry, and these materialized; I noted dully as a horrible nausea danced in my belly that there were quite a few, most of a damn platoon. Did he really think he needed so many to subdue me? I was unarmed and anyhow in no condition for sparring with soldiers. Wearily, I got to my feet, scratching at something terrifically itchy just under my nose–no need for manners now that I was about to be dragged to the prisons.
Then several things happened at once.
Later I would hear enough about the precise events and the order in which they occurred, but then, all I knew was this: something darted in from the high doorway and made for the throne. An screamed incoherently. I lunged with energy I did not think I had up the steps of the Imperial dais, then flung my arms wide, watching Senming’s slack-jawed face as something stinging and hot dug into my left side where the secret pocket had been. It felt like a very thick splinter.
My eyes started closing of their own volition. I heard Senming shouting, An shouting, the whole Hall exploding in shouting. It made me very dizzy, and I sank to the carpeted top step of the dais to rest a little, and everything became quiet and soothingly dark.
4. Month of Deep Frost
“You madman!” Senming pushed me deeper into the cushions piled against the headboard and thrust a hand-brazier at me. “Do I have to order you to get under the covers, too, or can you do that yourself?” I shook my head and obeyed. It had been only a few days since the Imperial physicians said I could begin walking a little around the room, and that afternoon I’d snuck outside shrouded in two cloaks to pick some winter plum-flowers and get some air, which had properly wearied me.
I had not seen Senming in the flesh at all since the incident in the Hall of Divine Prosperity, which was nearly eight weeks ago. He did, however, often send a maid or pageboy to bring me presents: sweets the doctors had forbidden me, a very fine bed-gown, a stack of poetry books. Each had come with a note or two in which he made fun of Minister So-and-so’s hairline or Lord This-and-that’s gas, but I had been starved of both human interaction and news of the world, so when Senming appeared in my door of course I leapt from bed and ran at him.
We didn’t talk for a long time after I had settled myself under the many layers of bedclothes. He sat casually enough at the lip of the bed, but one foot swung nervously and he didn’t look at me. Finally, as if it came painfully, “I am glad you are feeling better.” From the sound of it, he had almost said “We” at first.
“Thank you,” I replied. He had on only a brocaded robe and a lambs’-wool vest, which meant that he must have crept from his rooms without even a servant to carry a lantern for him in the dark. For an instant I had the crazy urge to offer him the warmth under the covers, and even began to say so, but he interrupted. “I am also very sorry that you have had to suffer like this.”
I realized how ridiculous my proposition sounded, after that, and let him continue. “I–I should have come earlier to ask after you, but there has been too much to arrange at Court, and you were still–still unwell, so–” Suddenly he turned to me. The meager light of the oil-lamp cast deep circles under his eyes and hollows under his cheekbones. “Feide—”
It came to me that the Lord Protector might have been right, because had Senming been a sane, reasonable Emperor he would have had my head (and my entrails, and my severed limbs) for doing him all these disrespects. But I didn’t care what he would do, because I had dragged us together roughly enough to bruise, and was doing my best to shut him up by ravishing his mouth. Indiscreetly flinging the covers in all directions, I brought him to recline beside me on the pillows, our lips still clamped together.
Eventually, though, we both became lightheaded for want of breath, and Senming leaned forward, panting, the red streaks at his temples bright against the dark rumple of what had been pulled into a most dignified braid. After a while, he grinned at me over his shoulder. “Happy birthday.”
My voice didn’t sound like my own. “You think a kiss is all you owe me for a present?”
“I–” The glimmer of involuntary fear behind his eyes as I rose on my knees to tower over him was very exciting.
“And you’re deadly cold.” I tugged a heavy woolen thing more like a rug than a blanket over us and seized his wrists under it, pulled him to me. “I think a head cold would probably be a worse birthday present than a cockteasing kiss, don’t you?” He gaped for the barest of moments–whether at my boldness or the sudden warmth of being mashed against me, I don’t know–and then began laughing. I stopped that soon enough, pressing him into the yielding mattress, my fingers clamped around his forearms, one knee between his thighs, and my tongue dueling his. When I pushed a hand under the vest and began unclasping the robe, he squirmed. “Let me, it’s quicker.”
“No no, you just lie quietly.” I nipped at the corner of his jaw. “Enough hard work for you. Let Feide help you now. He may be slow to catch on to all your clever schemes,” I extracted a delicious groan by sucking on a bit of soft skin at the base of his neck. “But he’s reliable enough, isn’t he.” I said it without intending any bitterness, but Senming’s face fell.
“God,” he whispered, his breath catching. “I wasn’t hardworking enough. If–” he lifted his hips as I shucked off his trousers–“if I had been this wouldn’t have happened at all.” He laid his palm against the bandages swathing my middle. “I was too scared that An would find me out, too convinced he had spies everywhere around me. Huwen was his kinsman–I had to use that to my advantage that afternoon when you left–and then I was too incautious with the guards stationed outside the Hall of Divine Prosperity. The whole thing was moronic. Of course he’d have bought the lot of them out. If I had just told you everything, then Piben wouldn’t have nearly–”
I licked the bridge of his nose, staunched a tear before it rolled down his cheek. The sight of Senming weeping made me twitch in my trousers, but he looked too pathetic, chewing his lips and with his hands helplessly over his eyes. “No, it was my own fault. My timing was all wrong. If I’d taken that balding broom masquerading as a false mustache off before getting all heroic, for one.” We chuckled, remembering. “Or if I’d held onto the Seal for another moment, I’d probably have a scar half this thing’s size.” I crawled under the blanket and laid his robe open; he took out his arms so that the bright fabric lay under him and I could have sworn that his body, one pale finely-muscled curve from shoulders to toes, was glowing with its own light. I lowered my face and kissed the salty, tender tip of his erection, and heard a muffled moan; with a long wet lick, I brought his fingers against my scalp. “You seem pretty new to this?”
“I mean, isn’t your harem the size of a small city?” He was bucking now, trying to get more of my tongue and lips on him, but I only flicked at the moisture gathering at his slit lightly and made as if I were drawing away.
“Come back,” he growled, and pushed feebly on the back of my neck. With a beginner’s wrestling lock I pinned his arms above his head. The undersides of his forearms were as delicate as the best silk; I dragged my lips over them, exulting in victory.
“This is what you get for pretending not to know me when I brought out the Seal.”
“That’s not fair,” he gasped. “I was playacting. Feide! When do you think I find any time at all to be with those women? All of them desperate to be made Empress. And there’s Lady Ruhua, who’s Piben’s niece, I’ve had to have her arrested, too. She’s got a lot of friends in the Palace.” He kicked the blanket away and gazed imploringly at me. “Feide.”
“You can’t be asking me to be your Empress?” His nipples were too charming, dark pink and firm as pebbles; I laved them with my tongue. “I don’t think that would suit your new image of authority and propriety so well.”
“No, they still all think I’m insane, they’re just afraid to say so now.” Senming’s fingers scrabbled down my back. “Oh–please, please, Feide!”
“Please? Please what?”
“I command you,” said my Emperor, flushed and bright-eyed, “to suck my cock.” And, as I promptly complied, he added, “Cockteaser,” and almost made me hurt him for laughing.
Senming hadn’t been lying about not visiting the women; I had taken him into my mouth for hardly three minutes before he slapped my shoulder blade, trembling. “Stop!” I paid him no attention. “Stop it, Feide!” I swirled my tongue one more time on the powder-soft underside, the spot that made his thighs squeeze around my shoulders, before pulling free and inclining my head at him.
“Can’t you decide which it is, stopping or not stopping?”
“You–” he pulled me toward him with his legs, then set them, knees bent, to either side of mine. “I want you to–I want you.” He made a most vulgar motion with his hand. I must have looked astounded, because he continued, “Will you? I mean, this isn’t to break your family line or–I can give you fifteen wives if you wanted–” I snorted. He looked as though he really doubted; in another mood I might have been insulted; “You know what you are to me, Feide, don’t you? So will you? Please?”
I replied by lifting my bed-gown over my head and lying down on him. He felt as slender as a sapling under me, his hair, which had long since come entirely loose from its cord, softly and fragrantly sticking everywhere. When he seemed content to rub himself against me, the saliva I’d left on him tempering the friction just so, I lowered my head until my mouth was crushed against his ear. “We need something, oil or grease is best.”
He pulled away slightly to look at me. “You’ve had men before?”
“Of course,” I said without thinking. Then, “Oh.” For all the talk of decadence and his little displays before my temporary exile, I had never seen Senming actually sneak out to the city after dark as the rest of us had. “But I thought–”
“You thought wrong, you wooden-headed ass. I should have your tongue cut out for lèse majesté .” Red to the earlobes, Senming propped himself on an elbow and rummaged through a trunk on the low table where the oil-lamp stood. “And anyone can learn to talk dirty from books.” Presently his hand emerged with a half-full glass jar. “How’s this?” He handed it to me with his face turned toward the light.
“Fine.” I made quick work of spreading the heavy stuff on us. “Might need to have someone wash the sheets later, though.” Now I, too, was feeling anxious; after all, I was about to fuck the Emperor, not one of the city’s thousands of actors or dancers one could buy for a piece or two of silver. And he was Senming, cocky smiling Senming who could make my heart jump or go still with his eyes. His pale body was fragile and cool as an idol of glass under my hands. And I was going to hurt him. To help him relax, I said, “Would you really cut out my tongue? After that just now?” and ran my palms down his flanks.
He huffed in mock indignation. “Pretty uppity for a man I exiled not too long ago.” His voice was ironic, but he was quivering.
“Senming,” I said as tenderly as I could in his ear while the desire to fuck him until he begged for more tried to usurp my reason. I pushed gingerly; miraculously, I slipped in with only a slight catch. Imperial lamp oil was probably hundreds of times more refined than anything that I’d used before. My wound protested at the strange demands being put on it, but I ignored it, concentrating instead on easing all the way inside the unimaginably close warmth that was Senming. His mouth hung half-open, and only heavy panting came out of it. His eyes were open but unseeing. I leaned forward to tell him that it was all right, but there was a sudden twinge under my bandages and I let out a sharp breath. Instantly he returned from wherever he had gone. “You should lie down.”
“But it’s harder on you if–”
“Lie down.” Without separating us, he clambered to straddle my hips, and cried out when the movement sank my cock deeply enough inside him that our heated flesh crashed together.
“I told you,” I began, but he effectively interrupted that and all other recognizable thought by lifting himself up to his knees and bearing down again, clumsily but hard, so that I could feel his balls slap my stomach just below the navel. I hoped, fervently and brokenly, that the servants were all napping or playing cards, for no one but for me should ever hear the dry-throated cries punctuating Senming’s impaling himself on me.
Soon he grew tired but increasingly frenzied as he neared the end; I preempted a hand he began to raise, wrapped my fist firmly around him, and pumped his spit-slick cock for dear life. In a few heartbeats he was hoarsely calling my name as he emptied himself stickily and profusely over my belly, and I let myself follow quickly, so that he wouldn’t have to wait. We tumbled together like a single falling tree into a tangle of blankets and limbs. I felt more than heard my Emperor murmur against my shoulder, “Isn’t this better?”
“Yes,” And with my lips pressed against his, I fell asleep.