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Against All Odds

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Once upon a time, there was a kingdom by the name of Xian Le. This country was renowned for its four treasures – delicate beauties swathed in sheer fabrics, thriving literary arts and captivating music, gleaming gold and shining jewels, and of course…

His Royal Highness the Crown Prince.

His Royal Highness was an enigma. Sequestered away in the deepest corners of Xian Le Palace, only the elite upper echelons of society could hope to catch a glimpse of this elusive prince in his early years. Shrouded in mystery, he was the talk of the Royal Capital across all four seasons, the rumour mill turning with each exultant praise.

—an unmatched beauty! Skin as smooth as jade, an endearing smile that arrests your heart—”

“—I saw him practicing in the training grounds. That swordsmanship and footwork… you’d have to see it to believe it—”

“—his Royal Highness? Oh dear, he’s the sweetest. One time, he even braided flowers into the Queen’s hair—”

But alas, rumours were just rumours. No matter how gossip spread, everyone was waiting for the fated day all would be revealed—

The Crown Prince’s 16th birthday.

Xian Le was an ancient kingdom. Lavish tales of bravery and growth were stitched in the rich tapestries covering centuries-old stone. Amidst it all, one tradition stood out well above the rest – the quest to wed the Crown Prince! Prospective suitors were invited to ring a bell, and would undergo three trials chosen by the man himself. Three tasks, and the crown is in your hands. Simple, right?

Many suitors thought so. Following the Crown Prince’s 16th birthday, the bell rung ceaselessly for three days and three nights! Nobles, aristocrats, foreign princes from all four continents – they all flocked to the Royal Capital to try their hand at marriage.

Initially, the entire city was abuzz with speculation. Betting pools flooded with names, rosy-cheeked drunkards cheering as money flowed freer than wine. Would it be the Earl from two estates over? Or the rich merchant conglomerate’s son? Maybe the baker’s apprentice could stand a chance to impress the crown prince, with his innovative, sugar-crusted creations.

Yet as the days, weeks, months dragged on, every suitor was turned away in various states of dejection.

Gossip was like a steamed bun. Over time, it turns lukewarm as heat is sapped away, til eventually – it turns stone cold. Stale, dry, tossed aside to be picked at by street urchins. In other words, completely unpalatable.

As the 451st suitor trudged away from the palace gates, the rumour mill took a different turn. Maybe… there’s something wrong with the Crown Prince? Is he ugly? Disfigured? Unlovable? Or maybe, the challenges were truly too harsh.

Speculations began to fly, matching the spittle sprayed from doubtful conspirators. “There’s a beast guarding the entrance,” they’d whisper into their half-empty wine glasses, “razor-sharp claws that could shred you to ribbons with a single swipe, dripping fangs the size of a full-sized human, a bloodthirsty gaze that could freeze your heart into stone…” they’d mutter to themselves, heads in their hands.

“—and you must defeat it to wed the prince!”

Xie Lian doesn’t care about the rumours. It rolls off his back like droplets of water, as he spends his days in the Royal Pavilion with Master, his two aides, and his sword as company. The prospect of marriage never interested him, anyway. “You’d sooner marry your sword,” Master would often say half-jokingly, shaking his head as he ushered the trio indoors to recite more lines. And honestly? He’s not wrong.

It’s been almost a decade since his last challenge. Most “potential suitors” don’t even make it to the first step – too frightened by tales so ghastly even the allure of the throne can’t draw them in. Xie Lian’s content to live the rest of his days, studying and sparring with his two best friends.

 

Gong.

Gong.

Gong.

Xian Le Palace echoes with the unfamiliar sound.

The servants start at the noise. “Who is it? Who’s finally stepping forward to court our beloved prince once more?” Whispers start up as everyone rushes over to catch a glimpse of the mysterious suitor. “…huh? Who’s that?” “I’ve never seen him before.” “Me neither…”

Royal Scholar Mei Nian Qing descends the steps to greet the challenger. “Welcome to the Crown Prince’s Trials. How may we address you?”

The masked man turns, wooden mallet in hand. “I am Crimson Rain Sought Flower,” he announces with a bow, “and I’m here to contest for the Crown Prince’s hand in marriage.”

 


 

The palace is submerged in pandemonium.

It’s buzzing with activity, as servants scramble to prepare for the Trials tomorrow. Forgotten artworks are dusted off and dragged into the sunlight, as mountains of ingredients are carted around in preparation for the final feast.

Xie Lian finds himself lost. It’s been a long time since he’d last been propositioned to, and work never seems to end. Yet whenever he offers to help, he’s met with a ‘go rest your body and your mind’, ‘Yer Highness, we’ve got our tasks, ye’ve got yers’, or a ‘have you chosen what to wear?’

“—Your Highness!” A light blur barrels into his side. “Goodness, isn’t this exciting?”

“…Qing Xuan.” Xie Lian smiles at the younger man. “What are you doing here?”

“I came to visit you, of course!” Shi Qing Xuan chirps, eyes bright. “I heard the news about the mysterious challenger – Crimson Rain Sought Flower? The masked man that rang the bell!”

Xie Lian bears the brunt of Qing Xuan’s flailing sleeves. “What about him?”

“What about him? What about him? Your Highness, someone’s finally challenging you after all these years, aren’t you even the tiniest bit curious? Just ask me, and I’ll see what I can find about the guy.”

Xie Lian holds his hands up, “I really shouldn’t…”

“Shouldn’t what?” Qing Xuan tilts his head to one side. “Your Highness, come on. Just tell me how you’re feeling, pleaaaase—"

Xie Lian ponders for a bit. How does he feel? To be honest, he’s not sure. “I won’t say anything just yet.” He smiles through Qing Xuan’s needling. “Let’s wait and see what happens tomorrow.”

 

Mu Qing is meticulous as always. He’d laid out the costume hours beforehand, painstakingly matching articles of clothing as he cross-references the current fashion trends of Xian Le. Right now, it’s airy summer silks, ghostly sleeves billowing with every measured step. There’s minimal jewellery, and Xie Lian smiles at the familiar pair of coral red earrings passed down from his mother.

Smoothing down invisible wrinkles, Mu Qing steps back to admire his work. “Your Highness, it’s done.”

Feng Xin’s leaning against the wall, expression uncharacteristically sour. “I don’t trust him.” He suddenly states. “Who knows who his real identity is? Skulking around and acting so suspicious!”

Xie Lian thinks the other man’s words are a bit too harsh. “Maybe he has his reasons…?”

“Your Highness,” Mu Qing interrupts, “I agree. It’s best to not get too close.” What a rare occurrence – both Feng Xin and Mu Qing agreeing on something? Xie Lian glances up, as if waiting for flakes of snow to drift from the ceiling. Unfortunately, it’s just another normal cloudless sunny day.

 Xie Lian sighs. “Don’t be so judgmental. Didn’t Master teach us to be open-minded? The tasks won’t endanger me. Besides,” Xie Lian places a hand on the hilt of his blade, “when am I not careful?”

 


 

Xian Le Pavilion has undergone a transformation overnight. Like a blooming camellia, the once-bare walls are now covered in rich red silks as they shimmer and shine under the sun’s golden rays. Xie Lian stands next to Master, glancing around at the décor. ‘The palace servants must’ve worked tirelessly through the night,’ he thinks, and makes a note to thank them properly later.

Everyone makes such a huge fuss about the three trials. ‘To be honest, aren’t they pretty straightforward?’ Xie Lian wonders to himself. He’s sat through countless lectures on ‘honour’ and ‘power’ and ‘wealth’, as Master drilled into him the importance of integrity in the eyes of the people. With Master’s teachings in mind, he’d ultimately followed his mother’s advice about finding a suitable partner for himself.

Up ahead, Master is speaking. He’s droning through the formalities of the event, listing rules as he pins down the masked man with a stern stare. He doesn’t seem too happy, watching the other man’s unmoving figure. Xie Lian wonders if there’s something Master knows.

“—the Crown Prince will read out the first challenge.” Mei Nian Qing steps back, gesturing for Xie Lian to take the stage.

…ah. It really has been a while. Xie Lian peers down at the red-robed man, but he doesn’t look suspicious, not really. ‘The silver masquerade mask is a bit cumbersome,’ he thinks to himself, ‘but it matches the blade at his waist.’

Anyway. He can feel waves of restless energy rippling through the entire Pavilion.

Opening the slip of paper, he reads out, loud and clear:

 

“Perform a martial arts routine that will impress me.”

 

The other man doesn’t seem surprised at the request. With a quick bow, he assumes a stance, the familiar shing of a drawn blade ringing through the stagnant air. Tilting his mask up towards the balcony, the masked man meets Xie Lian’s gaze. His eyes seem to call out to the Crown Prince, as if saying, ‘don’t take your eyes off me.’ Like a still lake surface reflecting the full moon, there isn’t a ripple of unease in sight.

Breathtakingly beautiful. Xie Lian’s drawn to that piercing gaze, the satisfying curve of its figure as it catches in the light.

“That scimitar,” he murmurs to himself, marvelling at the fine blade, “I really want to look at it closely…”

Below him, Crimson Rain smiles in response.

Then, he moves.

Xie Lian has been taught how to read body language from a very young age. ‘Only one tenth of all communication is verbal,’ his master’s voice rings in his mind, ‘the other nine tenths come from the subtlest of cues.’

Crimson Rain Sought Flower – the way he wields his blade is absolutely stunning. His movements ebb and flow like the tide, switching tempos as he flips from one fighting style to another. His swordsmanship is impeccably precise, as the mysterious man dances a fast-paced tango, scimitar catching shards of light with every stab, feint, and parry. Xie Lian can feel the raw power and intent behind each thrust, acknowledges the other man’s commitment to martial arts, and he can’t help but…

…want to jump down and ask for a spar.

Mei Nian Qing glances at his charge. He’s already shaking his head, anticipating Xie Lian’s unasked question. The hand that itches for the hilt of his sword closes in on itself instead, nails digging into the flesh of his palm; Xie Lian resigns himself to spectating once more.

Crimson Rain’s style is unpredictable. It’s clear he’s well-learned in sword styles –Yunmeng Jiang’s steady footwork, Gusu Lan’s straightforward swordsmanship, Qinghe Nie’s double-handed hilt strikes… The way he flips mid-air, scimitar parallel to the ground, makes Xie Lian’s heartbeat flutter harder than a kaleidoscope of butterflies.

Like a compass needle, Crimson Rain’s choreographed movements reset to point at the Crown Prince. Holding the pose, Xie Lian feels like the other man’s calling him down, with the subtle shift of his head. ‘Crown Prince, let’s go a round?’ he can hear the chuckling tenor in his ear.

Crimson Rain reaches out for a moment longer, then sheathes his scimitar with a bow.

“Ahem,” Mei Nian Qing clears his throat. “With this, the first trial has been completed.”

Xie Lian steps up. “Crimson Rain, your swordsmanship is impeccable! With your amazing display of techniques, I’m very impressed.” The other man’s shoulders loosen at his words. Xie Lian stifles a giggle. ‘Too cute!’

Crimson Rain bows again, “Thank you for Your Highness’ kind words.”

Mei Nian Qing, “Please return tomorrow to undertake the second task.”

Nodding, the other man starts to leave.

“Wait!”

A pause.

Xie Lian continues, “Who taught you how to wield a blade? The scimitar, it really suits you.”

Crimson Rain thumbs the hilt of his weapon. “Someone I deeply respect and admire.”

“That person must be very talented.”

A small smile blooms at the other man’s lips. “They are.”

Xie Lian watches in silence as the other man departs. ‘So elusive,’ he chuckles to himself, ‘is this a ploy to keep me interested?’ To capture his attention as he analyses and deconstructs the other man’s performance. ‘If it is, it’s definitely working!’

A swords master with over a dozen martial art styles under their belt… who could it be?

 


 

Xie Lian is lost in thought someone tumbles into him.

“Your Highness!” Shi Qing Xuan’s flushed face fills his vision. “I heard he passed!!! How was it? What was he like? Did you feel your heart skip a beat when he walked into the hall? My dearest friend, tell me, just what kind of person is this Crimson Rain??”

He thinks about the other man’s clean swordsmanship and gleaming blade. “They were breathtakingly beautiful,” Xie Lian recalls as Qing Xuan swoons, “I can’t wait to see him again.” Maybe next time, he’ll be able to ask for a spar.

Qing Xuan squeals in delight, bundling the other man into a giant hug. “I’m so excited for you!!” Qing Xuan babbles. He never thought he’d see the day – the Crown Prince finally being interested in something other than martial arts? It’s almost too good to be true! “I can’t wait to see what happens next,” Qing Xuan runs a finger along the familiar lacquered wood of his fan.

A pause.

“Your Highness?” Qing Xuan’s tone turns inquisitive, “Aren’t you curious what’s under the mask? Why is he wearing it? Did he tell you about himself?” Qing Xuan taps the fan against his chin. “If you’d like, I could ask Ling Wen to see if she can dig up some information.”

Xie Lian shakes his head. “No need.”

Qing Xuan reaches out to tug Xie Lian’s sleeve. “Can I come watch the trial tomorrow?”

A soft laugh. “Qing Xuan, we both know only the challenger and the assessors are allowed to watch these top secret tasks. Even if it’s you, I can’t bend the rules! Sorry.”

Qing Xuan pouts, “Fine. Next time, I’ll apply to be an assessor! That way, I can make sure that the person courting you is worthy.” He huffs, crossing his arms.

“Yes, yes,” Xie Lian placates, “next time, let Master know beforehand, okay?”

 


 

The second trial occurs in the Imperial Palace gardens.

Sitting beside his master, he takes in the tranquil scenery. It’s much cosier – subtle traces of jasmine waltz through the furniture to settle on Xie Lian’s robes. Behind them, a bubbling brook gurgles in delight as crystal-clear water laps over smooth pebbles.

Through the veil, Xie Lian watches as Crimson Rain settles down on the other side of the belvedere. Upon closer inspection, the mask is a true marker of stellar craftsmanship – there’s scattered maple leaves and fluttering butterfly wings interweaved with an assortment of blossoming flowers. The other man seems content to have Xie Lian inspect him, posture relaxed as Xie Lian takes in the delicate embroidery lining the other man’s crimson robes.

“Your Highness?” The other man breaks the silence. “If it’s not too much to ask, I have something small I’d like to share.”

“Oh?” Xie Lian tilts his head to one side. No one’s asked him this before. Is it allowed? He doesn’t recall any rules forbidding gifts. If anything were amiss, Master would definitely step in. Xie Lian smiles. “Please.”

Crimson Rain’s voice is soft. “Pray Your Highness enjoys the show.”

Xie Lian glances over, gaze curious. A show? If it were some lavish jewellery or famous literary scrolls, he would have turned it all away.

But a performance? Xie Lian doesn’t see any harm in it. Settling down, he gestures for the other man to continue.

Crimson Rain lifts a hand to his lips. He whistles three sharp, shrill notes, glancing to one side as if anticipating something.

‘Is he calling for someone?’ Xie Lian wonders.

Another few heartbeats pass.

Then, a single butterfly flits through the trees. It’s a delicate thing, wings translucent as it shimmers shyly, sunlight setting it aglow with a silver-golden hue. It settles on Crimson Rain’s finger, antennae twitching in question.

“What are you waiting for?” He hears the other man murmur, before he lifts his hand in Xie Lian’s direction. “He’s over there, go say hi.”

The butterfly flits over to Xie Lian’s hand, settling on the base of his left fourth finger. “Hello there,” Xie Lian whispers, as the silver creature flaps its wings in response. “Nice to meet you.”

Crimson Rain whistles again.

‘Could it be…?’

Another butterfly floats over, silver wings shimmering. And another. And another. Before he knows it, there’s dozens of butterflies flitting around, wings silent as they drift around to nuzzle at the two occupants in the centre of the belvedere. They nuzzle at Xie Lian’s robes, wings brushing against his veil as they settle in his hair, scatter across his shoulders and sleeves, and laze around on his lap. He must look ridiculous, he knows. He’s covered in these delicate critters as they nuzzle his cheeks and pepper butterfly kisses on his face.

“Th-this is,” Xie Lian giggles as a particularly adventurous butterfly tugs at his veil, “Crimson Rain, are these yours?”

The other man smiles in response. “Do you like them?”

“They’re wonderful,” Xie Lian praises, laughing as more butterflies flock over to play with his hair. “They’re so friendly! I’d love to adopt them all, if I could.”

“I could teach you to call them, if you’d like?”

“No, no, I couldn’t possibly!” Xie Lian shakes his head, apologising internally as some butterflies start at the sudden movement. “I’m content to play with them.”

Crimson Rain hums.

Mei Nian Qing clears his throat, “Xian Le, it’s time to announce the second trial.”

Xie Lian grins under the veil, “Don’t worry about it, he’s passed.”

Crimson Rain frowns, “What do you mean, I’ve passed? Your Highness, I haven’t done anything yet.”

Xie Lian shakes his head. “You’ve done plenty.”

Mei Nian Qing cuts in, “As a reward for passing the second trial, you have the chance to plan an outing for the Crown Prince, which will take place in two days’ time.”

“That’s right!” Xie Lian nods. “Please send me a letter detailing what time we should meet, and any instructions you think I should know beforehand!”

Crimson Rain ponders. “I will.”

“Very well,” Xie Lian grins. “I’ll be troubling you ‘til the clock strikes midnight, so please be prepared!”

The other man bows. “It will be my honour.” A pause. The other man glances at the table, hesitant.

Reaching out, Xie Lian folds up the piece of paper. Offering it up to the silvery critters decorating his robes, “Here you go. Take this to your master!”

These butterflies are surprisingly intelligent. Xie Lian’s eyes crinkle from underneath his veil as he watches them transport the slip of parchment to the other man.

“We will take our leave.” Mei Nian Qing stands up, gesturing for Xie Lian to follow. Whispering to the more stubborn butterflies, he laughs. “Go on, now! Go back to your master.”

Turning around to wave goodbye, Xie Lian calls out, “I’m looking forward to the next time we meet!”

“Your Highness, you can’t just—” Mei Nian Qing sighs, shaking his head.

Xie Lian is forcefully ushered out of the gardens, but the gentle smile on his face never disappears.

 


 

What was on that slip of paper, you ask?

 

When Xie Lian returns to his room, he discovers an extra guest has hidden in his sleeves. A stowaway clinging stubbornly to his robes, left behind as all their siblings flit away.

“Hello, little one,” he watches as the antennae twitch at the sound. “Did you get lost?”

The butterfly flaps its wings in response, settling onto Xie Lian’s finger once more.

“You’re a cheeky one, aren’t you?” Shaking his head, he settles onto his bed. “Your master must be worried, not knowing where you are. I’ll return you to him when I see him next, okay?”

When Xie Lian falls asleep, he dreams of butterfly kisses and the ringing laughter of children playing in shimmering silver sand.

 

‘My dear child,’ the late Queen’s soft-spoken voice ripples through the dreamscape. ‘When you’re looking for someone to spend your life with, find someone who fills you with happiness and contentment. Someone who makes you laugh. Someone who brings you joy.’

 


 

When Xie Lian shows Shi Qing Xuan the stowaway butterfly, Qing Xuan positively swoons.

“It’s so cute!” Qing Xuan giggles as the butterfly flits over to perch on his nose. “Let’s adopt it! Does it have a name? You can’t just keep calling the delicate thing ‘it’ – that’s not proper! We’ve got to give it a name, in case it doesn’t have one…”

Xie Lian shakes his head. “I’ll be returning it to his owner tomorrow. This little guy won’t be with us for much longer.” He ignores the way his heart sinks slightly at the prospect.

Qing Xuan settles back with a loud sigh, “So what happens next?”

“We’ll go on a date,” Xie Lian admits with a smile. “Just to test the waters.”

His best friend sits up as if electrocuted. “By the heavens, are you serious?! We’ve got to prepare— what are you wearing? I’ll make sure you’re ready for the best date of your life!” Qing Xuan rambles, even as Xie Lian’s smile turns slightly strained.

“Qing Xuan ah, it’s alright.” Xie Lian placates. “He’s sent me a letter with instructions on how to prepare. And—” he blushes bright red. “Um, anyway…”

Shi Qing Xuan mercifully ignores Xie Lian’s reaction, focussing on his words. “So, what did he tell you? Do you know what’s happening tomorrow?” Qing Xuan bounces on his heels. “I’m so excited!!”

Xie Lian laughs it off. “He didn’t really say much. He just told me to ‘dress comfortably’, and ‘not to bother with all those extra layers’.”

Shi Qing Xuan’s eyebrows shoot to the ceiling. “Not to bother with all those extra layers?!” Fanning himself, he remarks, “My, my, how bold of him.”

Xie Lian’s face turns three different shades of red. “I-It’s not like that!!” he stutters out, “He also told me to bring water and a hat— he’s most likely going to take me horse-riding or something.”

“Mmhm, uh huh, totally, I believe you.” Xie Lian flushes darker at Qing Xuan’s teasing tone. “Horse-riding, that’s all he’ll have in store.”

Xie Lian clears his throat. “Anyway, I’ll be wearing my training gear. Something light and easy to move in, just in case we’re doing something energy-intensive—”

“Ah yes,” Shi Qing Xuan waggles his eyebrows, “energy-intensive, of course…”

Xie Lian ignores him. “—and that’s all that’s happening!”

Qing Xuan squints at his best friend, “You know, even though Crimson Rain said not to go overboard, you could still add something small to spruce yourself up.”

A blank stare.

“Oh right, it’s always Mu Qing that chooses your formal attire. Hmm… Give me a sec!” Shi Qing Xuan rifles through the crown prince’s dressing table, opening and closing jewellery boxes, before shutting the drawers with a decisive nod. A pair of coral red earrings glimmer in his grasp. “Why don’t you try something like this?”

Xie Lian eyes the twin pearls. “They’re pretty unassuming,” he acquiesces, as Qing Xuan claps in delight.

Clipping them on, he wonders, ‘A small piece of jewellery like this should be fine.’

 


 

Master is waiting for him at the gates. “Your Highness,” he starts, launching into another pep talk on what he can and cannot do. “—return before curfew, and don’t lose your money pouch. And,” he pins his charge with a stern glance. “No matter what, there will be no kissing or anything untoward, understand?” His flinty gaze lightens up at Xie Lian’s firm nod. Tucking a stray strand of hair behind Xie Lian’s ear, he looks closer to a proud father than the late King had ever been. “Take care of yourself, and have fun.”

Feng Xin and Mu Qing are waiting at the entrance.

“We’ll make sure you’re safe, Your Highness,” Feng Xin promises.

“Don’t do anything stupid,” Mu Qing grumbles.

“Yes, yes, I know the rules, thanks guys.” Xie Lian’s eyes crinkle at his friends’ concern. Descending the steps, he calls out with a wave, “I’ll be leaving first~”

His two aides hurry after him. “Wait—”

“Feng Xin. Mu Qing.” Mei Nian Qing calls out. “Make sure to watch them closely. Don’t lose sight of the two of them!”

“Yes, Master!” The two attendants salute, before descending the steps.

Mei Nian Qing resists the urge to bury his face in his hands. “It’ll be fine,” he murmurs to himself even as his foot taps against the stone floor. “So long as His Highness sticks to the rules…”

Meanwhile, Xie Lian meets Crimson Rain at the golden carriage. He’s foregone the fancy embroidered robes for a simple red tunic, but the mask stays a permanent fixture on the other man’s face.

“Your Highness,” Xie Lian shivers at the smooth baritone, “you look stunning as always.”

“It’s nice seeing you again.” Glancing back, he murmurs, “Crimson Rain Sought Flower, shall we head off first?”

Crimson Rain glances at the fast-approaching aides. “Sure. Let’s go!”

 

The golden carriage is a rare luxury. With its silk cushions and golden frame, Xie Lian shields his eyes from the opulent décor. ‘It’s a bit much,’ he thinks to himself, as the carriage speeds along. ‘The ride is smooth though.’

Crimson Rain reclines on the spacious seating, and it’s like he’s moulting, shedding the stiff shell of a rich young lord. In this space for two, he seems more natural and relaxed, like he’s de-aged half a decade.

“Your Highness,” he calls out, smile on his lips. “Sorry about the earlier formalities. ‘Crimson Rain Sought Flower’ is merely a moniker – it’s quite a mouthful, I know. You can call me ‘San Lang’ instead.”

Third son…? Xie Lian’s unexpectedly been fed a new piece of information from the mysterious man himself. “Okay sure, San Lang.”

The other man seems content.

Xie Lian watches the scenery flash by. The brick-coloured hustle and bustle of the city’s winding roads morph into softer tones of blue and green, of chirping cicadas and rustling branches as they travel deep into the countryside.

It’s a rare sight – Xie Lian spends most of his time within the Palace walls, occasionally sneaking out to explore the Royal Capital in different disguises. Feng Xin and Mu Qing would often come along, bickering with each other as they change into plain tunics, weapons strapped to their thighs. His impromptu expeditions would never leave the capital’s streets, as Xie Lian tried to learn about his people’s needs and desires.

“Oh…!” Xie Lian feels something flutter in his chest. Turning around, he catches the other man staring, and scratches his neck with a chuckle. “San Lang, ah,” he whistles for the little one to crawl out of his sleeves, “I’m so sorry I accidentally kept one of your butterflies.”

San Lang hums, watching the slow flap of silvery wings. “I think it wants to stay with you.”

“But won’t you be lonely?” Xie Lian’s lips curve downwards. “You’ll be far from home, away from your family!”

“This little one is stubborn, isn’t he?” San Lang laughs. “Come back, you can play with Gege later.” He stiffens, “—ah, sorry Your Highness, I won’t call you that again—”

Xie Lian grins, “So San Lang is younger? It’s okay, I don’t mind.”

The two of them settle into a comfortable silence once more.

 

It’s half an incense time later, when the carriage starts to slow.

“Your Highness,” San Lang glances at the other man, “we’re here.”

Xie Lian looks up from his shimmering friend. Glancing outside, he remarks, “San Lang, this is… our first stop?”

“En.” The other man nods as he steps out of the carriage, offering his hand for Xie Lian to grasp. “I figured you spend a lot of time in the palace. Given that this is a rare opportunity to explore the world beyond the palace walls, I thought you’d appreciate this change in scenery.” Away from nobility, from jewel-encrusted aristocrats and the empty platitudes of the Upper Court.

Xie Lian takes in the endless stretch of sunflowers, golden haloes turned towards their namesake, framed by the backdrop of a cloudless cerulean sky. There’s hundreds, no, thousands of blooming flowers, filling the air with its summery perfume. They sway in tandem to the gentle sea-salt breeze, leaves rustling as their stems stretch up towards the heavens. “It’s beautiful.”

“I’m glad,” San Lang’s mouth quirks up at the admission. “Come, I want to show you something.”

The other man leads them through the maze of sunflowers, petal-paved path winding as they walk through, hand in hand. They continue on, until the path begins to widen, spreading out to form…

“…a dirt arena?” Xie Lian glances over, gaze questioning.

San Lang steps away, and pulls out two training swords from behind his back. He tosses it into Xie Lian’s waiting hands, smiling as he catches it reflexively. “It seemed like Your Highness wanted to spar with me a few days ago. Would you like to trade pointers with me today, instead?”

A spar. He’s never been asked to spar on a date before. Most suitors were content to treat him as some stand-in for a fair maiden, a soft steamed bun with filled with egg custard. They took it upon themselves to ‘protect’, unaware of the dirt under his nails, knuckles scrubbed raw as sword calluses harden on his palm. Xie Lian never understood why so many suitors considered themselves superior to women— he’s sparred with female martial artists before. Like him, they’ve got guts of steel and a body to show for it.

Xie Lian’s fingers curl around the hilt. He swings the wooden training sword to test its weight. ‘It’s not bad,’ he thinks to himself, before assuming a guard stance.

San Lang grins at the other man’s eagerness. It’s obvious Xie Lian hasn’t had much time to train as of late, considering the ongoing extensive preparations for the trial. “Please take care of me. I will be under your guidance.” San Lang greets his sparring partner.

Xie Lian nods. “May the best man win.”

 

He steps forward first.

Testing the waters, he pulls his blade up to swing at the other man’s face. ‘Will he dodge?’ Xie Lian wonders, ‘or will he parry?’

San Lang meets him head on, with the grit of a soldier on the battlefield. There’s a heavy thwack of wood against wood, as the other man chooses to press forward relentlessly, like he has nothing to lose.

‘…a soldier?’ Xie Lian starts at the thought. But before he can process it, there’s another blow coming his way, and it takes considerable effort to deflect the heavy strike.

San Lang truly is talented.

He switches between sword styles, mixing and matching as the situation calls for it. Xie Lian finds himself pushed to the limits, even as he blocks and parries and dodges the endless onslaught of attacks from the other man.

‘It’s a pity I can’t use the terrain,’ Xie Lian glances around at the level ground. He’s working up a sweat, and it’s quite a thrill— having a skilled sparring partner who isn’t afraid to strike out, who doesn’t hold back.

The longer they spar together, the more Xie Lian feels there’s something intimately familiar about the other man’s movements. It takes a few more traded blows for the suspicion to fully manifest—

The base foundation of the other man’s footwork is similar to Xian Le’s military training regimen.

‘Huh… interesting.’ The other man doesn’t seem forthcoming about his origins, and Xie Lian has never been one to pry. He remembers overseeing training sessions in disguise, correcting young soldiers’ stances as they ran through routines day after day.

Sparring with San Lang is a welcome change. He sees wisps of Ban Yue’s charging overhead blows, Yong An’s double-stabs as the other man’s weight shifts in anticipation for yet another double-handed slice. Xie Lian tries to switch up sword styles and match San Lang’s tempo. It’s a workout for both his body and mind, and he loves it – there aren’t many people that can compete against him, toe-to-toe.

He hasn’t had fun like this in years.

Throughout their fast-paced scuffle, Xie Lian feels his hair tie unravel, the whisper of his veil slipping as he pushes forward, strike by strike. Pinpricks of sweat bead at the nape of his neck, and he lets out a short laugh, bright and loud, as the wind snatches the scrap of fabric away.

San Lang falters, as if struck by an invisible blow. It’s only for a split second, but Xie Lian takes advantage of the gap in the other man’s defences, worming his fingers in to pick open the wound, wooden sword clacking loudly with each stumbled parry.

Something clatters to the ground.

“Looks like it’s my win,” Xie Lian grins, pulling the sword away from the other man’s neck.

“Yes, it is,” San Lang sounds breathy, like the air’s been stolen from his lungs. Xie Lian understands – the workout was quite intense, after all. “Congratulations, Your Highness. You’ve always been a brilliant swordsman.”

Xie Lian flushes at the praise. He’s ready to commend the other man’s efforts, but he’s interrupted by an unexpected question.

“Does Your Highness have any pointers for me?”

Xie Lian has sparred many people over his two decades of life. Through hard work and perseverance, he’s won more than lost – the pinched faces and fake smiles of sore losers crop up like weeds. This question, though seemingly innocent, holds great worth. It demonstrates humility, communication, and a genuine desire to learn— that in itself is a hidden gem.

Great characteristics for a loving husband, a soft voice that sounds suspiciously like Shi Qing Xuan chirps in his mind.

Shaking his head (at the question, or the stray thought? Who knows), Xie Lian wipes away beads of sweat. “San Lang fought very well— I’d love to spar again when you’re free. I’ll also— ah.” The veil! No wonder why the other man seemed distracted mid-battle.

Picking up the scrap of fabric, Xie Lian brings it up to his face. “To be honest, I never really liked this thing. It’s so stuffy under there, I’d rather leave it off. Besides,” he glances at the still-silent San Lang, “there’s not much point wearing this anymore. You’ve already discovered what I look like, haha.” Xie Lian tucks the sheer veil away. “San Lang, are you alright?”

The other man lets Xie Lian pull him up. “I’m good.”

“If you say so,” Xie Lian doesn’t let go of the other man’s hand. “In other news—” A loud gurgle interrupts them both.

“Hungry?” San Lang teases as Xie Lian’s cheeks flush a pretty pink. “Well, it’s nearly time for lunch anyway, I’ll take you somewhere close.”

Xie Lian nods. “Okay!”

 


 

When Xie Lian steps off the golden carriage, he finds himself in the middle of a dirt-paved street. Peddlers with their wide-brimmed hats holler their wares at passer-by’s, an assortment of fresh produce and sparkling jewellery displayed on rickety push bikes. Up ahead, dust-smeared children giggle as they dig into chunks of steaming sweet potato.

“Your Highness?” San Lang calls out behind him.

“Ah, I’m here!” Xie Lian hurries over. “San Lang, ah, we’re so far from the city already. Earlier, when you called me “Gege”, I really didn’t mind.”

The red-clad man softens at the admission. “Alright. Gege, the restaurant is just up ahead.”

Lacing their fingers together, Xie Lian lets San Lang take the lead. “Let’s go!”

 

The restaurant is far cry from the dining halls in Xian Le palace. To be frank, calling it a ‘restaurant’ was a bit of a stretch…

Squatting down on a wooden stool, Xie Lian takes it all in. Eating in a cosy hole-in-the-wall diner, with its mismatched cutlery and wobbly furniture, was something he’d never tried before. The hand-painted store banner flaps gently in the wind, wooden walls creaking in the mid-afternoon sun.

“Chengzhu, you’re here!” A boisterous voice booms from the back. There’s a metallic gleam of a cleaver poking through the curtains, before a hulking boar of a man lumbers over.

“Boss,” San Lang raises a hand in greeting.

Pointed ears flapping with each plodded step, the man in question readjusts his apron. He grins, wide and toothy. “And yer brought a guest too!”

“We were just passing by, hoping to grab some lunch.” San Lang says, unperturbed. “I recommended we the specialty dishes here, if they’re still around?”

Slapping his thigh, the man beams happily. “Our barbeque pork ‘n rice? I’ll go chop some up for yer right now!” He glances at Xie Lian with a conspiratory wink, “our barbeque pork is sumthin’ special, alright! Yer gotta try it, jus’ wait here—"

“—specialty?!” A second voice crows from the kitchen. Moments later, another figure exits the kitchen. “Barbeque pork ain’t our specialty here, Ol’ Siu! Customers love me chicken soup the most!” The straggly-bearded chef puffs out his chest.

“Ol’ Ji, everyone here loves me pork,” the boar-like chef, Old Siu, crosses his arms.

“Not as much as my chicken soup!” Old Ji bristles, feathers ruffled at the insinuation.

Xie Lian glances over at San Lang, who seems to be enjoying the show. The other man doesn’t make any move to diffuse the scene. Clearing his throat, he pipes up, “Haha, why don’t we order two of each? Barbeque pork and rice goes well with chicken soup.”

San Lang nods. “That’s a good idea.”

Old Ji finally notices their guests. “Oh, Chengzhu, you’re here! And yer brought a friend, too.”

“Hello,” Xie Lian greets with a smile.

“Oh? Ye’ve got a polite one ‘ere,” Old Ji chuckles. “This is…?”

Mei Nian Qing’s stern face floats up in Xie Lian’s mind. It really would be no good if word spread about the Crown Prince’s unveiled appearance.

“…Hua Xie.”

Both chefs glance at each other, then at the red-clad man, unspoken question on their lips.

San Lang prompts, “Didn’t we order our dishes already? Two barbeque pork with rice, and two chicken soups?”

“—oh yes!”

“Heard yer loud ‘n clear, Chengzhu!”

“We’ll get to it now!”                       

“Food’ll be ready soon.”

The two chefs stand salute, dutifully returning behind the counter.

Xie Lian giggles after they’ve left, “Are they always like this?” It’s clear this debate’s been going on for a long time, considering how everything unfolded like a well-rehearsed play.

San Lang huffs good-naturedly. “Unfortunately, yes.” Cleaning the cutlery with hot tea, he continues, “But if it’s barbeque pork and rice, or chicken soup, they serve some of the best in the province.” San Lang doesn’t strike Xie Lian as someone who is frivolous with praises. If what he says is true…

“I’m very excited to try it!” Xie Lian’s stomach rumbles in agreement.

 

The food arrives, as promised. Two giant plates of barbequed pork and rice, with two matching bowls of steaming chicken soup.

“This is…” Xie Lian stares at the glistening roasted meat, mouth watering at the delectable aroma.

San Lang smiles at Xie Lian’s eager expression. “Try some, it’s really good.”

It does look really good. And smells delicious. Picking up his chopsticks, Xie Lian replies, “Then I won’t be polite.”

When the first piece of barbeque pork touches his tastebuds, Xie Lian bites down with a muffled moan. It’s juicy and flavourful – the sweet tang of soy sauce coating the pork’s crispy exterior. Chewing slowly, his eyelashes flutter as he groans softly at the taste.  

San Lang freezes.

‘Ah,’ Xie Lian feels his cheeks heat up. ‘That was so undignified, oh no…’

Swallowing a mouthful, he hurries to right himself. “It’s delicious!” With deft motions, he picks up a piece of pork and presses it against the other man’s slightly parted lips. “San Lang, you try some too.”

The other man opens his mouth without complaint.

Xie Lian feels his heart calm down with each measured chew. Leaning forward, he prompts, “is it as good as you remember?”

San Lang nods. “Tastes even better than last time.”

‘Even better…?’ Xie Lian grins inside. ‘I guess both chefs are continually refining their recipes!

San Lang pushes one of the chicken soups closer towards Xie Lian’s side, before picking up his chopsticks. As if acknowledging an unspoken pact, they both dig into their dishes.

 

Afterwards, Xie Lian is pleasantly buzzed from the juicy barbequed pork and fragrant chicken soup. Stretching his arms, he glances over at his companion.

San Lang steals the words from his lips. “That was delicious. Did you enjoy it?”

A contented smile meanders across his mien. “Mm, I did.”

Standing up, Xie Lian hooks an arm around San Lang’s elbow, before waving in the direction of the kitchen. “Chef Ji, Chef Siu, thank you for the meal!”

“Come back again!”

“Try our other dishes next time!”

Xie Lian laughs, “I definitely will!”

Pressing closer to the red-clad man, he hums to himself. Even though lunch was a bustling affair, they’ve still got over half a day left in each other’s company. Would it be enough?

“San Lang?” He calls out.

“Mm?”

Illuminated by the golden glow of the late afternoon sun, Xie Lian beams. “Where are we headed to next?”

 


 

Xie Lian’s been on dozens of dates before. There’s a chronological order of events most suitors follow – wine and dine in high-end restaurants, flaunt one’s status, make unreasonable purchases in a bid to impress the Crown Prince, then take him home to tour their anything-but-humble abode. Normally, he’d bear the experience with a diplomatic smile permanently plastered on his face, before returning any and all opulent gifts the moment the clock strikes midnight.

As the Crown Prince of Xian Le, he wasn’t lacking in jewels or riches. These things held little-to-no interest to him, especially when matters of the heart were involved — but he was acutely aware material wealth was a desirable trait many prospective suitors saw in him.

Earls, barons, dukes, viscounts… the lengthy list of names and superfluous titles seemed to stretch across the horizon til the ink bleeds to a dull grey. Trapped in an endless loop of rules, regulations, and insincere platitudes. On these shared outings, no one has ever addressed him as anything other than “Your Highness” or “Crown Prince”.

…at least, until now.

San Lang is different to all the other suitors, Xie Lian can tell. He’s looking beyond the flashy jewellery and gold-lined pockets Xie Lian has access to, and is unafraid of speaking his mind. He brings Xie Lian out with the goal of enjoying themselves, without an inkling of needless politically driven pandering. It really is like a breath of fresh air. Travelling away from the city was a good idea.

“—Gege?” A voice calls out. “We’re here.”

Paradise Manor.

For the residence of a lord, it’s rather sparsely furnished. There’s a smattering of paintings hanging upon the walls, porcelain pottery and clay sculptures placed on display. He doesn’t recognise the stamp signatures on the artworks, which is unusual. Master had spent years grilling Xie Lian on various painting styles of famous artists through the ages, until Xie Lian could recite them backwards in his sleep.

“Chengzhu, yer back!” The doorman salutes, grinning ear to ear. “I take it yer day’s goin’ well?”

San Lang smiles. “Yes, it is.”

There’s a pitter-patter of light footsteps on wood.

“Gege!” a voice cries out, before San Lang is crouching down to receive an armful of little child. “Gege, look what I made today!”

Through the lopsided bangs peeks a cheeky grin, before a crumpled piece of parchment is shoved towards both their faces. There’s three figures, hand in hand. The tallest one is drawn in bright red, “Look, it’s you!”

San Lang’s eye crinkles at the drawing. “It’s lovely.”

“Yay!” The little kid squirms, before glancing over at the Xie Lian. “Gege, who’s that Gege with you?”

“I’m San Lang’s friend,” Xie Lian crouches down with a smile. “What’s your name?”

“’m Gu Zi,” the boy replies, “Gege, put me down now!”

Xie Lian feels something bump into his back. Turning around, he notices a second child clutching at his sleeves.

“Are you a Gege too?” A shy voice pipes up.

“He’s a Gege! He’s Gege’s Gege!” Gu Zi announces from San Lang’s arms.

“Gege,” The timid child tugs at his sleeves. “Look?” He points towards a side door.

Xie Lian smiles helplessly at San Lang as he’s dragged into the next room.

 

Somehow, the two of them end up playing house. Gu Zi is brash as always, ordering everyone around to “clean the floors, wipe the tables!” whilst the shyer one, Lang Ying, toddles around pouring invisible tea for their guests.

Xie Lian finds himself sipping from empty cups as he greets his hosts with a clink.

“More tea?” Lang Ying asks, as Gu Zi continues to point around the room.

“I think Gege’s had enough,” San Lang pats Lang Ying’s head.

Xie Lian sips one last time. “Thank you, A-Ying. It was delicious.”

Lang Ying beams at the praise.

“Gege!” Gu Zi worms between Xie Lian and Lang Ying. “Are you our Gege forever now?”

“That’s…” Xie Lian looks at San Lang for help.

“No, you can’t have him,” the red-clad man positively pouts, “After all, he’s my Gege, and I don’t share.”

 “S-San Lang!”

Xie Lian flushes at the other man’s soft chuckles.

 

Finally escaping from the two children, San Lang continues to lead them through the hallways as a casual tour.

Paradise Manor is a maze. Walking along all these twists and turns, Xie Lian finds himself losing count of how many corridors they’ve walked down. “San Lang, where are we going?”

The other man is secretive as ever. “It’s a surprise.”

What seems like half an incense time later, San Lang finally stops in front of an unmarked door, ivory handle catching firelight from the hallway torches. It’s practically identical to the last ten doors they’ve passed by.

“This is…?”

San Lang gestures for Xie Lian to go ahead. “After you.”

Xie Lian pauses.

Very well. He turns the knob, and pushes it open.

The familiar scent of oiled leather and polished steel tickles his nostrils, as footsteps fall on cobblestone. There’s a high-pitched tinkle of rattling chains, as dusty light filters in from above. The walls are lined with countless swords, sabres, spears, num-chuks, axes, crossbows…

It’s an armoury.

Xie Lian’s well-versed in his studies—from politics and strategic war tactics, to traditional music compositions and classical literature, but there’s only one topic he’d ever claim to be an expert in.

San Lang watches Xie Lian from the doorway, “Gege, do you like it?”

He marvels at the vast collection of top-tier weaponry, an armoury rivalling the collection he has at home.

“It’s amazing! Are these all yours?” Xie Lian’s only ever seen San Lang wield a scimitar and a training sword.

“En.” The other man nods. “If you’d like, I can give it all to you.”

“It must’ve taken decades to collect this much! I couldn’t possibly…” Xie Lian trails off, unsure.

San Lang stubbornly replies. “I insist.”

Xie Lian shakes his head, equally as stubborn. “I can’t accept something like this.”

Before the other man can reply, Xie Lian holds up a hand.

“San Lang, ah,” Xie Lian gestures towards the doorway, “did you want to keep showing me around?”

 

After another incense time, the casual tour winds to an end. Pushing open the door to the study, San Lang offers Xie Lian a seat. “Gege, how are you faring?”

“I’m good.”

A pause.

“I have a question, though.” Xie Lian tilts his head. “We passed by quite a few artworks earlier, but I didn’t recognise the artist’s signature. I especially loved the camellias – the floriography was exquisite! Do you know who painted them?”

“The ones in the corridor?” San Lang replies.

“Yes, those!”

San Lang smiles, “I did.”

“Really??”

“En.”

Xie Lian clasps his hands together. “San Lang truly is talented.”

The red-clad man picks up a brush, “Did Gege like them that much? I can paint something for you, if you’d like?”

“Eh?” Hiding his face behind his sleeve, Xie Lian waves the offer away. “No, no, it’s alright! Why don’t we do something else instead?”

“Oh?” There’s a clack, and a calligraphy brush rolls between them. “Is there something Gege would like to do?”

Picking the brush up, Xie Lian smiles. “Why don’t I try drawing something for you, instead? It won’t be nearly as good as your paintings, though…”

San Lang’s back straightens at the suggestion. “I’m sure anything Gege paints will be beautiful.” He smiles, already rifling through the drawers to pull out an assortment of art supplies.

Xie Lian huffs, “I’m just warning you, in case you don’t like it…”

“I’ll like it, no matter what,” San Lang announces.

A light laugh. “Okay then. This might get a bit messy…”

San Lang flicks a line of ink in Xie Lian’s direction, narrowly missing the crown prince’s snow-white robes. “Oops, too late.”

“San Lang…” Xie Lian dips his brush in ink, before holding it up like a sword. “Are you challenging me again? Come!”

The rest of the afternoon is filled with overzealous brushstrokes and soft, tinkling laughter as Xie Lian rediscovers what it’s like, to let loose and just have fun.

 


 

“Gege?” San Lang peers over the ink-splattered table, wary of any stray ink-covered projectiles. “It’s getting late.”

Xie Lian glances outside at the burnished evening skies. “Oh, it is! I must’ve lost track of time, haha…”

Pulling to stand, San Lang tugs at an ink-splattered sleeve. “Are you hungry? I was planning on cooking for the both of us, if you don’t mind?”

“Eh? San Lang can cook too?” Xie Lian claps his hands together, eyes bright.

“I’ve been practicing,” San Lang grins. “I can’t guarantee it’ll be as tasty as lunch, but I’ll try.”

Xie Lian crowds over. “That’s amazing! I’ve been shooed out of the kitchen since my twelfth birthday, when I tried to make some soup for Mother.” When Feng Xin and Mu Qing had found him crouched over his bubbling concoction, spoon to mouth, they’d dragged him away and forced him to see a doctor. Needless to say, Xie Lian was never permitted in the kitchen again.

When San Lang heads off to change his attire and get ready to cook in the kitchen, Xie Lian finally finds himself alone. Glancing at the darkening sky, he laughs at himself. He’s surprised, he really is. Who would’ve thought time would pass so quickly, messing around and playing with the other man?

San Lang is truly different from all the suitors he’s met so far. Mysterious as he was with his evasive answers and silver mask, Xie Lian finds himself implicitly trusting the other man. Today has definitely been better than some of his less savoury dates, where he’d bailed out early with the help of his two best friends. Speaking of…

“Feng Xin? Mu Qing?” Xie Lian calls out. He knows they’re always tailing him, forever faithful in their duty of protecting the Crown Prince, even with Mu Qing’s sarcastic remarks and well-timed eye rolls. “I know you’re out there, come out!”

There’s a muffled curse, before Feng Xin and Mu Qing barrel out of a nearby closet.

“Y-Your Highness,” Feng Xin salutes, as Mu Qing smooths down his robes. “Is everything alright?”

“Everything is fine,” Xie Lian placates, “I’m really enjoying myself.”

“What about Crimson Rain?” Mu Qing catches Xie Lian’s gaze. “Have you learnt anything about him? Where’s he from? What’s his background?”

“Have you sniffed out any ulterior motives?” Feng Xin continues. “He’s hiding so much about himself, it’s very suspicious. Your Highness, please be careful!”

“I think he’s nice,” Xie Lian hums. “I don’t think he’s got any political motives.”

“You never know,” Feng Xin warns. “We’ll interfere if things go south.”

“Haha, I’m sure I’ll be fine.”

“Don’t do anything dumb,” Mu Qing crosses his arms.

Feng Xin elbows the silver-haired man. “Why are you so rude?”

An exaggerated sigh, “Why are you so lame?”

“Why, you—”

“Guys!” Xie Lian slides between them. “Behave, or I’ll make you string proverbs again.”

The other two men fall silent.

“I’ll be having dinner soon, so there’s no need to follow me too closely, alright? I’ll let you know if anything’s amiss,” Xie Lian holds up a hand. “Trust me, I’ll be okay.”

“But Your Highness—” Feng Xin moves to protest.

Mu Qing grabs the other man’s arm. “Alright. Feng Xin, let’s go.”

Xie Lian waves as his two closest friends hide themselves away once more.

 

Dinner is an uneventful affair. Xie Lian heaps praises onto San Lang’s cooking, as San Lang heaps more food onto Xie Lian’s plate. There’s a wide assortment of dishes — from steamed fish and stir-fried lotus roots, to mince-stuffed eggplant and hand-shredded chicken — there’s more than enough food to feed a family of five. Under the fast-fading embers of the setting sun, the flickering candles create a soft, nurturing ambience which curls around the two of them as they chat over their shared meal.

“Gege,” San Lang calls out, as Xie Lian places down his chopsticks. “I have one last surprise for you, after this.”

“Really?” Xie Lian’s lips curve up into a smile. “So mysterious. San Lang’s been surprising me all day. I wonder what he has prepared?”

San Lang smiles softly, “It’s a secret.”

“Of course it is.” Laughing, Xie Lian beckons the other man closer. “Say, San Lang? Would you like to run away together?” he whispers in the other man’s ear, “I’m sure you know about my two ambassadors watching over us, but…” I want this to be between the two of us.

San Lang snickers. “Were they the two bickering guards you waved at this morning?”

Were they bickering? Probably. “En.” A pause. “Running away might be a bit difficult, though.”

At that, San Lang chuckles. Bringing a finger to his lips, he whispers back, “Gege, don’t worry. I’ve got the perfect plan.”

 


 

“San Lang!” A familiar voice calls out from outside. “Let’s hurry to the golden carriage, quick!”

Feng Xin and Mu Qing start at the sound. Glancing at each other, they nod once, before rushing to see what the commotion is about.

There’s two figures, blurs of red and white, streaking across the courtyard, hoisting themselves into the golden carriage in a tumble of fabric. There’s a sharp crack of leather reins, before Xie Lian’s two attendants are left in a fast-fading cloud of dust.

Mu Qing pinches the bridge of his nose. “Did he just…?”

Feng Xin’s already whistling to call their steads over. “We have to chase after them!”

Squinting in the direction where the carriage has barrelled away, Mu Qing frowns. “Something seems off about this.”

Feng Xin clicks his tongue, “Worry about that later! Here,” he hands a set of reins over, “hurry up, or we’ll lose them!”

Mu Qing swings himself up, careful not to kick the other man. “Let’s go.” Then, without waiting for the other man to mount, he digs his heels in and bolts ahead.

“You fucker—” Feng Xin curses as he watches Mu Qing leave him behind. “Wait for me!”

The other man doesn’t even bother glancing back.

And so, the two jilted aides gallop after the runaway carriage, speeding past an ox-driven cart transporting hay without a second glance.

 


 

“Did we lose them?” Xie Lian peeks out from beneath the haystack.

San Lang looks over, looking roguishly handsome dressed in farming attire which accentuates his built frame. Chewing on a piece of straw, he remarks, “I think so.”

Worming out from his hiding spot, Xie Lian brushes off stray pieces of hay. “That was easier than expected.” He glances down at himself, draped in matching shades of red. “We didn’t even need to employ our contingency plan,” he laments, pulling at the robes. “I can’t help but feel a bit disappointed.”

At that, San Lang chuckles. “If nothing else, I think Gege’s plan worked perfectly.” Snickering, he corrects himself, “Or should I say, Jiejie?”

Xie Lian pouts. “It seemed like a good idea at the time!” After all, he highly doubts Feng Xin or Mu Qing would have recognised him in female attire. San Lang had even helped him with the make-up! He hadn’t had much time to appreciate the get-up before they’d tumbled into the carriage in a jumble of limbs.

As if reading his thoughts, San Lang grins. “I think Gege looks breathtakingly beautiful. Absolutely stunning. The crimson red brings out your complexion,” he compliments.

Xie Lian’s face flushes at the sudden onslaught of praise. “S-San Lang!”

“I’m just telling the truth.” The other man seems sincere.

Clearing his throat, Xie Lian schools his expression. “So, where is San Lang taking us next?”

“So impatient,” San Lang teases, as Xie Lian climbs over to sit beside him. “We’ll be there soon, so hang on tight.”

Under the silvery wash of the full moon, San Lang’s mask glows, accentuating the delicate embroidery of butterflies and maple leaves. It’s a masterpiece, truly a marvel. But what Xie Lian is drawn to is the soft smile that never leaves the other man’s lips.

‘Beautiful,’ he thinks to himself, and this time, it’s not about the other man’s swordsmanship.

Toying with the embroidered sleeves of his borrowed robes, Xie Lian nods in affirmation.

“En!”

 

Watching the scenery flash by, it all seems quite familiar. Xie Lian might not have the sturdiest memory, but he’s almost certain they’ve passed through these regions before. Peering at the lantern-lit streets, he catches a glimpse of a cleaver strapped to someone’s waist as they thread through rickety tables, arms filled with steaming dishes.

Glancing at the cart driver, Xie Lian asks, “Is that Chef Siu?”

San Lang hums noncommittally in response.

 

When the ox cart passes by the dirt arena, he’s almost certain what the destination is.

 

“We’re here.”

San Lang steps off the ox cart first, offering a hand for Xie Lian to take.

“This is…” Wide-eyed, Xie Lian takes in the scenery. It’s completely transformed from earlier that day, the pale wash of the moon battling with freshly strung lanterns in a fight to flood the field with light. It’s ephemeral, how the flowers glow with a satisfying blend of silver and gold, infused with the subtle scent of sky-facing sunflowers as they sway gently in the breeze. Countless fireflies flit between the lanterns to settle on the unfurled buds, dotting the field in a glowing reflection of the sky.

“Do you like it?” San Lang asks. He seems nervous, lacking the charisma Xie Lian has grown attached to over the course of their time together.

“En, I do! It’s gorgeous,” Xie Lian steps forward and turns around, content to breathe in the otherworldly sight.

“It is gorgeous,” San Lang agrees, “but not as gorgeous as you.”

“Ah? San Lang, you,” Xie Lian shakes his head. “When did you set this all up?”

San Lang grins, “That’s a secret~”

Xie Lian sighs, “I had a feeling you would say that…”

Walking through the field, Xie Lian grins at the sight of sparks of adventurous fireflies settling on the other man’s hair. “San Lang?”

“Mm?”

“Thank you for bringing me here.”

“No problem,” San Lang smiles. “Did Gege enjoy today?”

Xie Lian nods. “En, I did! I had a lot of fun.” Dressing up in training attire this morning, he never would have predicted the course of events today. Sunflower fields? Sparring? Eating barbequed pork and drinking chicken soup at a hole-in-the-wall side stall? Playing house? None of these activities seemed fit for a date with the Crown Prince, yet—

‘If only we could spend more time together,’ Xie Lian muses.

“Your Highness?” San Lang calls out, and before Xie Lian can correct him and say, ‘call me Gege instead’, the other man is kneeling before him. The cool metal of the mask presses into the back of his hand. “Thank you for spending time with someone as ugly and worthless as I.”

Xie Lian hurries to pull the other man up. “What nonsense are you saying?!” he scolds, “You’re a wonderful person. Belittling yourself like this, I won’t allow it!”

San Lang shakes his head, “You don’t know what’s underneath this mask.”

Xie Lian crosses his arms, “And so what? I’ve seen how you interact with others— trading banter with restaurant owners, playing house with little ones, chatting with the cooks, and spending time with me. Everyone can see that you’re a beautiful person, both inside and out. Besides,” Xie Lian takes San Lang’s hands in his, “spending time with you is something I want to do. If I like someone, I’ll like them whether they’re a prince, a merchant or a beggar. If I dislike someone, I don’t care what their status is!”

He squeezes the other man’s hands.

“So, San Lang,” Xie Lian softens his tone, “What you look like underneath that mask doesn’t matter to me. Because, to me, you’re already amazing, truly one of a kind! I’d be honoured to spend more time with you.”

Ah… Cooling down from his outburst, Xie Lian feels the first tendrils of embarrassment tickling his cheeks. He might’ve been a bit harsh. “San Lang, sorry—”

“Your Highness,” the other man’s reply is barely above a whisper, “you’re even kinder than I remember.”

“Mm,” Xie Lian lets go of the other man’s hands to trace the silver mask. “Keep the mask on if it makes you comfortable, San Lang. I really don’t mind it.” And he doesn’t. He understands what it’s like to have some parts of yourself you’d rather remained hidden. There’s no point forcing the other person’s hand.

 “Your Highness…” San Lang mumbles, lost.

“Call me Gege.”

Xie Lian’s already leaning in. He can feel it— the ghost of the other man’s lips against his. They’re millimetres apart, breaths intermingling as his eyes slide closed—

There’s a foreign pressure on his chest, before San Lang’s leaning away.

No matter what, there will be no kissing or anything untoward, understand?

“Ah,” Xie Lian kind of misses the veil, for moments like this. “Sorry, San Lang, I—”

“Gege, it’s alright,” the other man smiles, soft and wistful. “There’s no need to rush.”

Xie Lian nods, “En.” Glancing up at the rising moon, he starts at the sight. Is it already this late? He’d left a note for Feng Xin and Mu Qing back at Paradise Manor, promising he’d be back soon. “Maybe we should head back now.”

“Sure,” San Lang replies, as they both make their way back to the ox cart.

 

His two aides crowd the ox cart.

“—Your Highness, how could you trick us like that?” Feng Xin complains. “And— wait, what are you wearing?! Don’t tell me he put you up to this, how dare he—”

“It was all my idea,” Xie Lian confesses. “Don’t blame him, he’s done nothing wrong.”

“Nothing wrong?” Mu Qing grunts. “Let’s see how it stands. Master will be unhappy once he hears about this—”

“—we’re your bodyguards! How are we meant to protect you if you’re running away from us?!” Feng Xin bites back a litany of curses. “Do you know how worried we were?! Don’t you dare do this again, you hear me?!”

“—we’re returning to the palace, after you change out of that ridiculous get-up.” Mu Qing crosses his arms, as Feng Xin pins Crimson Rain with a glare.

Withstanding the relentless barrage of veiled concern from his two best friends, he’s ushered into a palace-issued carriage. Ah, they must’ve requested it whilst he was busy out on the fields.

Changing back into his training attire, Xie Lian spends the rest of the ride home replaying San Lang’s last words—

 

“Gege, I have one last surprise for you. I’ll show you next time, I promise.”

 


 

Xian Le Palace.

 

Knock knock.

“Come in.”

The door swings open, and a well-dressed woman walks in, stride purposeful as she systematically offloads the stack of scrolls onto the mahogany desk. The documents are in various states of wear and tear, from pristine pressed papers to curling parchment held together by age-bitten bamboo.

“I’ve looked into him, as you’ve requested.” In the flickering firelight, the greying strands of her hair turn into streaks of amber. “As mentioned previously, Crimson Rain Sought Flower was just a moniker. I’ve found some documents, but most of the information I’ve gathered is merely hearsay on the streets.” She gestures at the freshly-bound scrolls. “I’ve summarised what I’ve found for you, my lord.”

There’s a clack of a calligraphy brush being placed down. “Well done,” the mysterious man praises. “You may leave first, Ling Wen. I’ll handle it from here.”

“Understood.” And with another graceful bow, the scholar takes her leave.

Flipping through the documents, Jun Wu frowns at the scattered pieces of information, sown together into a patchy quilt of rumours and transactions.

“Crimson Rain Sought Flower,” Jun Wu drums his fingers on the table. This man was interesting indeed. In any other situation, he’d be surprised someone so influential had escaped his radar for such a long time. With skills and assets like that, Jun Wu would have even offered him a position in Upper Court. But now that the other man is contesting in the Crown Prince’s Trials…

It’s a shame, really. Crimson Rain will become another name on the list of failed suitors. After all, he’s spent decades nurturing and raising the Crown Prince to become the perfect puppet. A mere commoner, an orphan no less? He’ll crush him underfoot, ‘til not even a shadow of this supposed “Crimson Rain Sought Flower” is left. Asking for the Crown Prince’s hand in marriage? Impossible.

“I’ll make sure you never become King.”

 

“Shi Wu Du?” Jun Wu calls for the austere man.

“My lord,” a deep bow, “how may I be of service?”

“Send a messenger to Paradise Manor,” he orders. “Tell Crimson Rain Sought Flower that the Imperial Chancellor would like to see him.”

“Understood.”

 

Knock knock.

“My lord,” someone calls out, before there’s a soft click. “He’s here.”

Jun Wu’s rehearsed this routine dozens of times already. Bribery, threats, blackmail— he’s been doing this for decades, with over two thirds of the upper court coerced to his side. What’s one more measly peasant, in the grand scheme of things?

Very well. “Send him in.”

The masked youth before him is unafraid, alone in foreign quarters with no one by his side. He wears a smirk as smug arrogance rolls off his lax posturing. “My lord,” he echoes the attendant before him, “it’s my pleasure to finally meet you.”

Jun Wu schools his expression, “And I, you, Crimson Rain Sought Flower. Please take a seat, for we have much to discuss.”

As imperial chancellor, Jun Wu has met his fair share of infuriatingly smug, self-satisfied nobodies. He goes through his typical spiel— the importance of upholding tradition, the influence of the royal court, the current status of Xian Le as a prosperous nation— he lays it bare before the red-clad man across him. At the end of it all, he concludes, “Xian Le has boundless potential as a nation. Beautiful women. Countless treasures. Flourishing agricultural land. So, tell me, Crimson Rain Sought Flower, what do you desire?”

He offers a calligraphy brush to the silent man.

Jun Wu sighs. “Everyone in this world has something they desire. Take it— this piece of paper. Tell me your desires. Land, treasures, women, prestige… What are you after? Name it. I’ll give it to you, for a small fee.”

Crimson Rain finally responds, “Of what?”

“Why, Crimson Rain,” the other man’s face morphs into a disfigured grin, “you can have it all for the small price of the Crown Prince’s happiness.”

 


 

“Your Highness!” It feels like déjà vu, the way the smaller man barrels into him in a flurry of silken robes. “How was it? Where did you go? Was it horse-riding, after all? Judging by your face, I doubt it!” Shi Qing Xuan bombards his friend with questions, “Did you have fun?”

Xie Lian flushes. “It was fun,” he admits, “I’d like to see him again.”

Shi Qing Xuan positively squeals, dragging them both towards Xie Lian’s quarters. “Now you’ve gotta tell me what went down!”

Xie Lian recounts what happened to the best of his ability. He’s not a natural storyteller like Qing Xuan, able to hype up the audience with rapid hand gestures and matching sound effects. But as he retells their date, from the home-cooked dinner and sword-sparring, (‘Not gonna lie,’ Shi Qing Xuan quirks an eyebrow, ‘this guy sure knows how to please!’) to the sprawling sunflower fields (‘Wow,’ Shi Qing Xuan swoons at the vivid imagery of flickering fireflies dancing in the moonlight, ‘that sounds so romantic!’), Xie Lian feels his chest warming at the thought of seeing San Lang again.

“Your Highness,” Shi Qing Xuan pokes Xie Lian’s arm with a cheeky grin, “what kind of person do you think your ‘San Lang’ is?”

“M-my San Lang?!” Xie Lian burns three different shades of red as the other man snickers, “Qing Xuan ah, don’t tease me like this…”

“Sorry, sorry,” Qing Xuan beams, unrepentant. “I’ll wait until after the wedding.” He dodges a half-hearted swipe at his head, “In all honesty, what do you like about this man?”

“Too much,” Xie Lian admits. “He’s kind, he’s humble, he excels in martial arts. But most importantly, he’s a man with strong morals, who is unafraid to stand up for what’s right.”

“Oh, really?” Qing Xuan seems surprised at the answer. “How do you know that’s true? From what you’ve told me, he hasn’t demonstrated his strong moral compass during your time together.”

Xie Lian hums, “Just a feeling.”

 


 

“I refuse.”

Jun Wu frowns. “What? You could have anything— women, riches, fame and prestige. Don’t be afraid to tell me your desires, I can attain them for you.”

“I don’t want any of it. What you find attractive is worthless to me.” San Lang stands up. “If that’s all you’ve called me here for, Chancellor, I will take my leave.”

“Crimson Rain!” A chair screeches in protest as Jun Wu rises to meet him. “Don’t turn down my offer, or you’ll regret it.”

“Regret what?” Crimson Rain’s smile is sharper than knifepoint. “My lord, between the two of us, who is truly regretful for what they’ve done?”

“Don’t think I don’t know,” Jun Wu threatens, “I’ve looked into you. I know what happened in the past, when you were on the streets, picking fights and mixing with the wrong crowd, or your time serving in the army, the reason behind your dishonourable discharge. Do you think you’re good enough for Xian Le? No one is.”

Crimson Rain laughs at the other man’s words. “Trust me, I know. No one is worthy of His Highness. But if he wants me by his side,” his hand settles on the door handle, “I’ll give him my everything.”

 


 

“—so, what are you going to do now?” Shi Qing Xuan looks up from his impromptu hair-braiding session with a fidgety Crown Prince.

Xie Lian hums, “Wait for the final trial?” In all honesty, there isn’t much for him to do in the week-long interim between the second and third trial. Speaking of, “I don’t understand why Jun Wu planned for this break.”

Qing Xuan continues to play with the other man’s hair, “Maybe it’s to give you some time to think? That way, you can enter the final trial with a clear mi— ah, Your Highness, stop moving! You’ll ruin your hair,” Qing Xuan scolds. “I understand you’re excited for the third trial. But you need to calm down!”

“Mm, I understand,” Xie Lian settles down to let Qing Xuan fix his braids. He’s touched, he really is. His friends all have his best interests at heart. “Thank you, Qing Xuan.”

“No problem,” Qing Xuan chirps, fixing the last of the braids in place. “All done, Your Highness!”

Xie Lian peers at his own reflection, lightly touching the tightly-pinned hairdo. Maybe he’ll visit the training grounds sometime this week! Not today though, lest Qing Xuan give him an earful for ruining his hard work.

Glancing outside at the cloudless afternoon sky, Xie Lian reaches out to catch the sun’s rays. The final trial couldn’t come soon enough!

 


 

The third trial is held in the Royal Pavilion. The décor seems more opulent than ever, with jewel-studded gold-embroidered tapestries draped across the polished banisters. There’s even accompanying music this time, soft strains of the guzheng reverberating through the charged atmosphere, as Xie Lian stands tall, draped in the finest of silks. Glancing at the entrance, he fights the desire to hold his breath. ‘When will he appear?’ hopefully soon. In an effort to calm down, he regulates his breathing. Master gives him a reassuring smile.

When San Lang walks in, he feels his heartbeat quicken. It’s practically a conditioned response at this point. ‘San Lang—’ he stops himself from calling out, instead focussing on the piece of paper before him.

“The Crown Prince’s Third Trial begins now.” Mei Nian Qing steps back, gesturing for Xie Lian to come forth.

Clearing his throat (why does it feel like there’s butterflies in his stomach?), he reads out the final question:

 

“What is the most important thing in the world?”

 

San Lang falls silent. It’s a loaded question, Xie Lian knows. And it’s important for the other man to slowly formulate his response.

It’s a few minutes before the other man answers. “Over the past few days, I’ve had the honour of accompanying His Highness. I’ve always known about your noble nature, but now I’ve seen firsthand the kindness you extend to others.” The beggar children on the streets. The scorned servants, abused and battered by their masters. “For you, Your Highness, the most important thing is protecting the common people.”

A soft laugh. “But for me? My dream is only you.”

Ah.

Xie Lian feels the ball of warmth in his chest expand outwards. ‘This is it.’ The culmination of all his years overseeing the Crown Prince’s Trials, searching for someone who lives and breathes on the same wavelength as him. Like rays of sunlight breaking through the grey monotony of palace life, he feels his chest lighten. Is this what it’s like, to find the one you’re destined to marry?

Only…

Sparing a glance at his master, Xie Lian calls out once more.

“San Lang!” His voice echoes through the silent establishment. “I have one more question for you.”

The red-clad man looks up.

Ignoring the disgruntled judicators, Xie Lian continues. “Why did you decide to participate in the Crown Prince’s Trials?” During their entire time together, Xie Lian hadn’t caught a shadow of desire for the throne.

“Why?” San Lang echoes. “To contest for the Crown Prince’s hand in marriage, of course.”

Xie Lian shakes his head. “That’s not what I mean. What’s your motive? I’ve been trying to figure it out – it doesn’t look like you want to be king. You don’t value riches. You’re uninterested in upper court politics. So why marry me?”

San Lang smiles, “Because I want to stay by your side.”

Oh. Oh.

Is it really that simple?

(It is.)

It almost seems silly, how much he’d mulled over this. On some plane of consciousness, he had always known— beneath the crimson-clad exterior, the teasing bravado, was something precious and delicate. Just waiting to be loved. A heart of molten gold, shielded from the harsh realities of the world by a silver mask and a soft smile. And now…

Ripping the veil away, Xie Lian bundles up his ceremonial robes, “San Lang, catch!”

 

He jumps, vaulting over the banister to descend in a flutter of fast-falling fabric. He’s plummeting, free-falling off the ledge, heart stuck in his throat as shouts of alarm follow his descent.

“—Your Highness—”

“—what are you doing—”

“—stop!”

Mu Qing and Feng Xin rush over to swipe at the Crown Prince. Mei Nian Qing looks paler than usual.

 

Mother told him a story once, many moons ago. About a fallen prince and a ghost king, separated by an ocean of adversary. “Not everyone has the strength to stand for what they love,” she’d whispered into his hair, “they fear the price is too high for them to bear.”

“My beloved son,” the late queen cradles the Crown Prince in her arms. “When you find that person, grab on—”

                — take a leap of faith —

                                                                    — and don’t ever let go.

 

“San Lang,” the Crown Prince grins at the masked man. “You’ve caught me.”

“Don’t scare me like that,” the other man chokes out, hands shaking as they pull Xie Lian close. “What would you have done, if I hadn’t reacted in time?”

“That’s silly,” Xie Lian bites his lip. “I knew you’d be watching me.” And you’ll catch me if I fall.

San Lang is shocked speechless.

“Crown Prince Xian Le, what are you thinking?” Jun Wu’s voice rings out from above. “Come up here, this instant!”

Xie Lian gestures for San Lang to put him down. “No thank you. I’ll be back later, so don’t look for me!” Grabbing the other man’s hand, he pulls a still-silent San Lang out to board the golden carriage outside.

Outside, he pokes at the other man.

“Are you alright?” Xie Lian peers over at the unresponsive man. “San Lang ah, why are you so shocked? After all, aren’t you the one who promised me one last surprise? I’m still waiting for it, you know.”

San Lang seems shaken out of his reverie. “Gege,” he breathes out the word like a confession, “you’re right.” He grabs the reins, “There’s one last thing.”

 

When the golden carriage rolls to a stop, Xie Lian smiles when he catches sight of what’s outside. “Here again?” He laughs, as San Lang helps him down.

“Come on,” the red-clad man beckons, walking towards the dirt arena. Settling down, he picks up a stray sunflower, twirling it between his fingers.

“The truth is, I’ve known Gege for a long time.” The red-clad man admits. “You saved me, many years ago. I was just another beggar on the streets. I’d gotten involved in a scuffle— people had accused me of breaking some official’s ornamental seal, and were intent on beating me to death with their bats and clubs. Everyone turned away, going about their day as if nothing was amiss. As if a small child wasn’t being killed before them.”

Xie Lian squeezes the other man’s hand.

“But not you. You fended off their blows, and offered to pay for the damages with silver pieces.” San Lang falters, “You saved me, took me in, fed me, clothed me… and asked for nothing in return. When I asked you, ‘What should I live for?’, you told me—”

“—if you don’t know what to live for, then live for me.”

“Your Highness,” San Lang smiles, “do you know what sunflowers mean in the language of flowers?”

“En.” Xie Lian nods. Master had taught him a wide array of topics, including symbolism in the context of floriography. “Sunflowers symbolise happiness, adoration, and loyalty.”

San Lang adds, “—and longevity.”

Xie Lian laughs, “That’s right. San Lang’s so smart.”

The man in question shakes his head, before they lapse into a comfortable silence once more.

“Gege?” San Lang gazes at the other man.

“Mm?”

“I promised you one last surprise,” San Lang reaches behind him to unveil a canvas scroll. “It’s not my finest work, but I mentioned I would paint you something small. I hope you like it.”

Taking the scroll from the other man’s hands, Xie Lian unfurls the drawing. It’s…

“…me?” There he is, in the middle of a field of sunflowers. He traces the delicate brushwork, scattered golden petals haloing his unveiled face. He takes in the soft smile, eyes filled with childish wonder as it captures fiery specks of sunlight. Laughing softly, he comments, “San Lang ah, your craftsmanship is impeccable! You’ve made me look too attractive, though.”

“Nothing can capture the extent of your beauty,” the other man disagrees wholeheartedly.

“San Lang!”

A soft laugh. “It’s true.”

Xie Lian watches as the other man scoots closer.

“Your Highness,” San Lang murmurs, toying with the ribbon securing his mask, “the last time we met, you mentioned that I can keep my mask on if I feel uncomfortable.”

“Mm?” Xie Lian glances up from the painting. “You can keep it on, I don’t mind.”

San Lang beckons for Xie Lian to come closer. “But with you, I don’t feel uncomfortable at all.”

Ah. Xie Lian’s fingers curl around the silk ribbon. “Are you sure?”

The other man nods.

“Okay,” Xie Lian breathes. There’s a sharp tug, the other man’s shoulders tensing with the whisper of unravelling fabric. The silver mask clatters beside them, cast aside.

San Lang’s eyes are screwed shut. It’s kind of cute, how nervous he is, but Xie Lian can understand how the other man might be feeling scared. He’d be scared too, sharing the hidden parts of yourself to another person, having your unspoken fears and insecurities being brought out into the light.

‘It’s alright,’ Xie Lian reaches out for the other man. ‘You’re alright.’

“Your Highn—mmph!”

He kisses him.

It’s a simple kiss— nothing more than a short press of their lips. Yet it sparks something inside him, ignites a trailing fire as it siphons off warmth from the glowing ball inside his chest. It diffuses outwards as he presses closer in, reaching forward to cradle the unmasked man’s face.

Bring him closer, something inside him growls, show him how stunning he is.

So he does.

Several heart-stopping moments later, Xie Lian finally leans back. “San Lang,” he whispers, as the other man’s eyes blink open. “I’m here.” I see you.

He takes in the other man’s asymmetrical eyes. Blood red, demon spawn—!

‘No,’ Xie Lian thumbs the other man’s cheek. Pressing their lips together once more, he mouths a single word—

 

Beautiful.

 


 

Once upon a time, there was a kingdom by the name of Xian Le. This country was renowned for its four treasures – delicate beauties swathed in sheer fabrics, thriving literary arts and captivating music, gleaming gold and shining jewels, and of course…

The infamous Crown Prince.

When the announcement was made, the entire country was in uproar. “Who did it?” village women gossiped amongst themselves, as bartenders dusted off decade-old betting boards. “Who won him over? Who defeated the Crown Prince’s Trials?”

No one knew who this mysterious suitor was, or where he came from. Yet people heard about the ringing of the bell, about the masked man announcing his intentions for all to hear. Whispered musings fuelled an uncontrollable flame, as gossip spread like wildfire through the masses.

“—I heard it’s a soldier from the Imperial Army, unmatched in martial prowess—”

“—no, it’s a famous artist, who shocked the Crown Prince speechless with his talent—”

“—a measly beggar? Who would believe that? There’s no way His Highness would—”

 Everyone had their own thoughts on who this mysterious “Crimson Rain Sought Flower” was. Who was the man behind the silver mask?

 

(Someone who will treat His Highness right.)

 

They say the best romances end in marriage. In trailing crimson silks, smoke-screened by flying confetti and the bright blooming hiss of fireworks. In sloshing wine cups, and matching jade bracelets glimmering in the lantern light. Of butterflies and fireflies nuzzling against gold-ringed sunflowers.

But this love story? It’s only just begun.