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“A match,” Qin Huaizhang breathed, as the red soulmarks around the infants’ wrists brightened as their tiny fingertips touched. “Everyone—congratulations! Congratulations.”

He began to say more, only to hesitate as none of the parents gathered in the room said a word. Cunningly-hidden braziers warded against the chill of winter in the richly appointed room within the heart of the capital, the furnishings often outlined by the coils of a four-toed dragon. The five-toed version could adorn only the Son of Heaven, but the four-toed chased its cousin’s wake, worn by princes and nobles. Like the solemn, bearded marquis in fine robes standing beside his wife, their son swaddled in brocade and fox furs.

The parents of the other boy exchanged glances, dressed more simply, in travel-worn robes. The mother was an exquisite beauty despite the weariness sunk into her face, the father a tall man with a famous blade that he’d dropped on the floor in shock.

“Wen-ge, Lord Zhou… what’s wrong?” Huaizhang asked.

Wen Ruyu forced a smile, even as his wife Gu Miaomiao tenderly gathered her son against her bosom, cuddling him as he hiccuped in protest, his fat palm waving in the direction of the other infant. “Marquis,” Ruyu began.

“Please, there’s no need to be so formal,” Marquis Zhou said, even as his wife Madame Zhou forced a smile.

“May I speak plainly?” Ruyu asked.

“Always.” Marquis Zhou nodded at Huaizhang. “Leader Qin here can vouch for me if need be. Or, if you’d prefer, you could all rest and speak with us tomorrow. It must have been a long and tiring journey from Shaman Medicine Valley.”

“To tell you the truth,” Ruyu said, with an uneasy glance at his wife, “we would’ve ignored the inquiry had it not come from Qin-ge. We’re happy in Shaman Medicine Valley—we consider our work there our lives’ vocation.”

“Ignored,” Madame Zhou said, surprised.

Gu Miaomiao stared evenly at Marquis Zhou. “Don’t think that Shaman Medicine Valley is isolated because it maintains a position of neutrality. The news about the third Prince and the young Prince of Nan’ning—we’ve heard all about it.”

“Ah.” Marquis Zhou grimaced. He exhaled, looking tired. “Yes. The Emperor was displeased about that. It’s complicated where royalty is concerned, as we all know from history. Let alone where the soulmate is of the same sex.”

Gu Miaomiao hugged her child closer to herself unconsciously. “More than half the time, the soulmate bond isn’t anything more than a deep friendship,” she said.

“Whatever it turns out to be, it’s almost always a complication. Particularly where it’s also effectively a matter of state. Should the Emperor choose Prince Helian Yi to be the Crown Prince in the future, he’d also have to carefully consider the character of the Prince of Nan’ning, who will forever be an influence on his soulmate, for good or ill. Either way, yes, the topic is currently forbidden in the Palace. However, that doesn’t concern us,” Marquis Zhou said.

“Doesn’t it?” Qin Huaizhang looked dismayed. “I didn’t know about this issue. If it’s going to be so much trouble for everyone, why not just forget it, then? We’re the only people who know about this.”

“Going against fate? How unlucky,” Madame Zhou said with a wry smile. She looked down at her son’s face. The quiet child stared up at her, unblinking and curious.

“Well then, perhaps you could retire from your duties here,” Huaizhang told Marquis Zhou.

“Tempting,” Marquis Zhou said, though he looked tired. “Old friend, you know how the Emperor is. Besides, my work here—it’s important to me. The dragon now has three sons, all of them hale: that never bodes well. When the sons of the dragon start to fight for the throne, bloodshed is inevitable, and the eventual victor would decide the fate of the country for decades. Factions are already starting to divide the Imperial Court.”

“Then send me your son when he’s old enough to enter a sect. I’ll take good care of him in Siji Pavilion, and we can introduce the boys to each other far from here.” Huaizhang gestured at both boys. “Wen-ge, you can send your son to me as well if you wish. They can grow up together, and I’ll treat them both as though they were my sons.”

“A capable person who is born into power should not avoid power,” Marquis Zhou said, glancing at his son. “Rather, he should rise toward it. He should learn how to wield it to protect others, become strong for the sake of something bigger than himself. No. Brutal as his life will be, my son Zhou Zishu was born to privilege and must always strive to be worthy of it. However, this isn’t an easy life to choose. Doctor Wen, I suggest that you return to Shaman Medicine Valley with your son. When the boys are older, perhaps we could let them meet, but given what Zishu must do in the future, I think it’d be best to leave it to fate.”

Wen Ruyu smiled, even as Gu Miaomiao sighed and looked at Huaizhang. “All right, all right. We should have trusted you.”

Madame Zhou looked curiously at Huaizhang, who smiled warmly. “I assured my friends on the way here that you were not like the others in the Imperial Court—that you are a man of righteous purpose.”

“Lord Zhou, our sons’ lives are intertwined—why fight against fate? Rather, let us help you with your work. I have some small ability with martial arts—I’ll train our sons as they grow, and my wife and I will teach our son Wen Kexing our craft. May your son grow up to be worthy of his father’s purpose, and may our son prove to be useful to your vision in some way.”

“Doctor Wen,” Madame Zhou said, moved.

“Were I part of the jianghu and not who I am, I’d insist on becoming sworn brothers with you tonight,” Marquis Zhou said, smiling warmly. “Sadly, that’d complicate your lives here far more than you’d find comfortable. Stay with us for now as part of our family. I’ll arrange for an estate next to mine to be purchased for your use. Qin-ge… thank you.”

“When I heard that your sons were both born with soulmarks, I thought they might be fated and hoped that fate would be kind. So far, that hope doesn’t appear unfounded,” Huaizhang said. He reached out, gently lifting Zishu’s palm. The infant stared up at him, unafraid and quiet. “I’ll visit now and then. Oh, Rong-ge and the others would love to come by too.”

“It would be a pleasure to see them again,” Ruyu said.

“Rong da-xia and the others from the Lakes Alliance? They would be welcome here—if Doctor Wen has moved into his own estate at that point, ask them to call on me if they come to the capital,” Marquis Zhou said, having always loved making friends from the jianghu.

“Speaking of which, when is Rong-ge going to propose?” Miaomiao asked, giggling. “A-Feng won’t wait forever.”

“News of your son’s birth must have spread around the jianghu by now—I heard the E-mei sect even sent presents. I’m sure that Rong-ge will show up at your door sooner or later to check out the fuss, and you can advise him as such to his face,” Huaizhang said, even as Ruyu grimaced.

“You think I won’t dare? I will,” Miaomiao said, smirking as the conversation moved to gentler things.

#

Kexing grumbled as Zishu hauled him and the young Prince of Nan’ning away from the inner courtyard. With Kexing’s hand held tightly in Zishu’s fist, the soulmark on his wrist burned bright, occasionally peeking out from under his sleeve. “The two of you… especially you,” Zishu said, glowering at Prince Jing Beiyuan. “Your Highness, you’re older than us. Should you be teaching Kexing your bad habits?”

Beiyuan clutched dramatically at his chest. “Enough. I get the lecture from the Crown Prince all the time. I don’t need to hear it from you. I just wanted to catch a glimpse of this famous guest of yours from the jianghu, that’s all. Kexing told me he would be here.”

Zishu frowned at Kexing, who pulled a face at Beiyuan. “Traitor,” Kexing said.

“Father told us to go and play. You can disturb them when they’re done,” Zishu said, tugging them to the sparring ground attached to the outer gardens. “Kexing, don’t think I don’t know. You called the Prince here just to make use of his status to steal more time with Leader Qin.”

“Well, why not?” Kexing said, unrepentant. “He has all sorts of great stories—he’s been all over the jianghu. A-Shu, we should do that in the future. Wander all over the world, seeing everything, eating everything.”

“Tch.” Zishu rolled his eyes. “Who has the time for that?”

“Sounds like a great idea,” Beiyuan said, even as he settled down on a stone bench, flicking out his sleeves. “Kexing, maybe we should leave our two boring soulmates to their own devices and elope together to wander the jianghu. Maybe Heaven got it wrong, and we’re the ones who’re actually Fated, hm? Here, touch my hand. Maybe our marks will realign with our hearts and light up.”

“You still can laugh,” Zishu growled, glaring at Kexing as he snickered. “The two of you wandering the jianghu? You’d either come to no good end or cause a disaster for the ages. Kexing, if you have so much energy for this kind of nonsense, go a few rounds with me.”

Kexing pouted. “But we’re meant to be playing! Are you going to disobey your father? I’ll tell on you. Your Highness, be my witness: isn’t he bullying me?”

“Bullying, definitely bullying,” Beiyuan said, tutting. “Ah, speaking of which. I have a new neighbour, a boy who’s around your ages. Perhaps I should introduce you. He also knows some martial arts—you could train together.”

“The Shamanet?” Zishu asked, frowning. “Is that wise?”

“Oh! From Nanjiang? How interesting—I heard his estate is full of interesting creatures,” Kexing said, perking up. “Let’s go and see him right now.”

“Quiet. Ready stance,” Zishu said, waving Kexing forward. Kexing made a show of exhaling loudly but obliged, shifting into a guard position.

“Beiyuan, why don’t you give this a try?” Kexing asked, even as he gracefully blocked Zishu’s flurry of blows. “We could teach you some moves.”

“Watch your mouth,” Zishu said, sweeping Kexing off his feet. “How can you be so rude to the Prince? Use his title.”

“Doesn’t matter, it doesn’t matter. We’re alone here and among friends anyway,” Beiyuan said, watching keenly as Kexing rolled gracefully with the fall, coming back up on his feet. “Why should we be so formal?”

Kexing nodded vigorously, even as he bent to dodge a strike. Zishu bit down his retort—that this was for Kexing’s sake. That he might slip up in public, if he got used to being so familiar with the Prince of Nan’ning in private. That Zishu’s father had warned them both not to get too close to Beiyuan, not until they were older—refusing to specify the reason, but sounding grave.

That hearing Kexing laugh and joke with Beiyuan and call on him so intimately made Zishu’s fists itch.

Annoyed, Zishu pierced Kexing’s guard, striking him high on his shoulder. Kexing stumbled back with a gasp of pain. Zishu blinked as though doused with cold water. “Kexing! Sorry, did I hit you too hard? Does it hurt?”

Kexing sniffled, clutching at his shoulder. Horrified, Zishu grasped him by his arms, pulling at his robes to check the damage, only to glare as Kexing began to laugh. “Scared you. Wah!” He ducked Zishu’s attempt at cuffing his ear. “How can you bully me again right after you apologise?”

“Zishu, you’ve improved.”

Kexing straightened up hastily, even as Qin Huaizhang strolled out from beneath the trees, still dressed in his travel-worn robes, smiling. “You’ve both grown so much taller,” Huaizhang said, looking over them both.

“Sect Leader Qin, aren’t you going to say that I’ve improved?” Kexing asked, grinning mischievously.

“Your mischievous tongue has certainly worsened,” Huaizhang said, amused. He glanced curiously at the unassumingly-dressed Jing Beiyuan.

Hastily, Zishu said, “Ah, this is his Highness the Prince of Nan’ning.”

Startled, Huaizhang clasped his hands and bowed deeply, but Beiyuan made a quick, dismissive gesture. “Please, no formalities. Kexing called me over to hear some stories about the jianghu—Leader Qin, if you’re still free, I’d love to hear some.”

“Many apologies, but I have several urgent errands to run,” Huaizhang said, apologetic. “Kexing, I have to talk to your parents—where are they?”

“This time of day… Father would be in the Palace? Mother will be at the clinic, though. I can take you,” Kexing said.

“No need, I know the way—I’ll head there myself. Zishu, Kexing, take care. Your Highness, it was an honour to meet you.”

“The honour is mine,” Beiyuan said, inclining his head as Huaizhang excused himself quickly. Disappointed, Zishu watched him go. He did enjoy Huaizhang’s stories. Almost as much as he liked learning the occasional new technique, whenever Huaizhang had the time.

Kexing grasped Zishu’s palm, something he did unconsciously whenever he was buried in thought. Even though Marquis Zhou had warned Zishu to get them to break the habit, Zishu didn’t quite have the heart to. Not while they were alone with friends. “There’s something wrong,” Kexing murmured.

“Wrong?” Beiyuan asked.

Zishu squeezed Kexing’s fingers. “Ill?”

“Pallor and gait. He walked,” Kexing said.

“The two of you are up to your bad habits again. Are you talking about Leader Qin? What’s wrong with walking?” Beiyuan looked confused.

“Kexing means that Leader Qin would usually use qinggong to cross the rooftops to avoid traffic since he isn’t fond of crowds. Perhaps he suffered an injury or isn’t feeling well. Either way, that’s likely why he went to look for your parents. I’m sure he’ll be fine,” Zishu said, as Kexing frowned.

“I suppose so,” Kexing said, though he still looked thoughtful.

Beiyuan looked at both of them, smiling wistfully. “The two of you are so attuned—I’m envious.”

Zishu stared at him, surprised. “Aren’t you and the Crown Prince?”

“Fate is almost always cruel, isn’t it? Especially where the throne is concerned.” Beiyuan smiled, growing inscrutable as he looked away in the direction of the palace. “To be bound like this to a dragon, isn’t it a strange and terrible thing? Bad enough where I’m concerned, but for anyone else…” He caught himself, exhaling. “Bad enough.”

Kexing’s gaze dropped to the scaled loops decorating Zishu’s sleeve. Though Marquis Zhou didn’t enjoy wearing anything but simple robes when he was outside of Court or not meeting guests, he insisted on his wife and son having the best of everything. “Depends on the dragon,” he said and hugged Zishu around his waist, grinning up at him. “I like this one. Even though he just hit me, and bullies me, and is always chasing me to study and train and read and—”

“Sticky rice cake, stop sticking to this poor dragon. You’re suffocating it,” Zishu said, though he couldn’t help but smile helplessly as he pushed at Kexing’s shoulder. Kexing winced slightly at the touch—the blow must have bruised him. Guiltily, Zishu patted his back. “How about we take the Prince to the nearby market to buy something good to eat?”

“Kexing had better treat me to something interesting,” Beiyuan said, “given the entertainment I was promised here has run off.”

Kexing nodded. “I’ll treat, I’ll treat. A-Shu, do you have money?”

Zishu prodded Kexing in the cheek. “You little…! Who’s treating, hm? You, or me?”

#

Entering the estate allocated for the Shamanet hostage from subjugated Nanjiang, Kexing found Wu Xi and Zishu already in mid-skirmish, exchanging lightning-quick attacks over the courtyard. Shaded under a tree and having tea and snacks, Beiyuan beckoned Kexing over with a smile. “Wah! If I knew that the Zhuangyuan would be visiting us today, I’d have prepared wine and delicacies,” Beiyuan said.

“Don’t make me blush,” Kexing said, though he walked over to have a seat, careful of where he placed his feet. Wu Xi’s estate was full of poisonous creatures.

“When do you start at the Hanlin Academy?” Beiyuan asked as his servant, Ping’an, poured them tea.

“Next week.” Kexing popped one of the longxu treats into his mouth, chewing slowly. He still had mixed feelings about that.

“How are your parents taking it?” Beiyuan asked, lowering his voice.

“They’re proud but also disappointed.” Wen Ruyu and Gu Miaomiao had hoped that their son would follow in their footsteps and become a doctor of some renown. Still, to become a jinshi at his age—to pass the triennial Imperial court exam—was already an achievement, let alone to become the highest-ranked jinshi: the Zhuangyuan. Kexing’s future was considered assured—a political future. One that he had assumed because of the man who wore a matching soulmark on his wrist. “How long has the fight being going on?”

“At least one shichen, I think. Zishu has been in quite a mood today. Did the two of you fight?” Beiyuan asked. Over on the courtyard, Zishu landed a blow on Wu Xi’s chest, one that drove the Shamanet back for a second before he countered with a palm strike.

“You could say that.” At Beiyuan’s querying stare, Kexing smiled and said, “I didn’t tell A-Shu that I was going to sit for the triennial exam.”

“Oh?” Beiyuan said, surprised. “Why not?”

“He’d have done everything he could to prevent me from doing it.” Zishu made no secret of his assumption that Kexing would inherit his parents’ clinic—that he would have no part of the upcoming political struggle between the three princes.

“Strange that he didn’t even notice this much, given the little project he’s been building with the Crown Prince,” Beiyuan said, studying Kexing curiously. “Unless. You and the Crown Prince conspired to hide it from him?”

“We might not like each other all that much, but the Crown Prince agrees that a jinshi would be more useful to him than a physician.” Kexing finished his tea, flicking his fan open and raising his voice as he got to his feet. “Shamanet, rest for a while. Let me have a turn.”

Zishu glowered at Kexing, but Wu Xi glanced at him, then at Beiyuan, and nodded, walking over to sit in the vacated seat. Kexing fanned himself gently as he walked into the courtyard with a smile. “The plum blossom petals drift against ink-washed wings, mourning the red-crowned crane abandoned by fate. A-Shu, if you’re still angry at me, I’ll let you hit me a few times; how about that?”

“Don’t bother. If you haven’t been practising, you’re going to get hit anyway,” Zishu said. He struck, the wind from his scything palm twisting the hair away from Kexing’s cheek as Kexing stepped back.

Divine Steps into the thirteenth pattern of Dazzling Falls, led by the folded spine of his fan. Zishu blocked with the flat of his arm, countering with the White Dragon’s Reprise, a graceful, ruthless move that Rong Xuan had once shown them for fun when they’d been children. Wen Ruyu’s closest friends from the jianghu used to visit the capital regularly when Kexing was young, often staying over at their estate, going sightseeing and drinking with his parents. After that last strange visit from Qin Huaizhang, however, they came no more. Neither of Kexing’s parents ever explained, always changing the subject whenever Rong Xuan and his companions were brought up.

Kexing dodged with one of Wu Xi’s moves, a low-sweeping stance that uncoiled upward like a striking viper, aiming for a vulnerable acupoint. His fingertips found their target, only for Kexing to realise belatedly that it’d been a cunning feint, leaving himself open for Zishu’s next palm strike. Before he could be struck on the chest, Kexing flung himself into Zishu’s arms, making Zishu yelp and stagger back under their combined weight. Glaring, Zishu growled, “What kind of move is that?”

Clinging to Zishu, Kexing said with a playful grin, “It’s called ‘The Red-Crowned Crane Meets Its Match’.”

Zishu rolled his eyes, even as he unblocked his acupoint. “If you’re not going to take this seriously, get lost.”

Kexing pouted. “Once, I used to train hard, thinking that if I were always your match, you’d only have eyes for me—yet you started some secret project with your cousin anyway and kept me out of it. Now I’ve studied hard, thinking that if I could become a jinshi, you’d have more use for me—but you’re telling me to get lost. My heart hurts.”

Zishu gave Kexing a startled look. “I… we’ll talk later.”

“It’s always ‘later’ with you,” Kexing said, refusing to budge. He’d been joking at first when he’d spoken, but the grievance he’d buried within him had welled up anyway, stealing the humour from his words.

Zishu glanced over at the Beiyuan and Wu Xi, who were watching the spectacle with fascination. “Fine. Come with me. Your Highness, your Excellency… another time.”

Beiyuan waved them away, openly amused. Zishu pulled away and leapt for the top of the wall, followed closely behind by Kexing, chasing him across the district with feather-light steps. Below, no one thought to look up; the crowds engaged in frantic, last-minute shopping in preparation for Qixi.

Marquis Zhou was usually away in Court at this time of day, serving as one of the Emperor’s favourite advisers. Zishu’s mother had passed away a few winters ago, having never been particularly hale, despite the efforts of Kexing’s parents. The large estate with its discreet servants had always felt more and more like a mausoleum to Kexing as he’d grown older—nothing like the lively atmosphere in his home. Or the tranquil mood in Beiyuan’s.

Zishu didn’t slow, striding into the inner courtyard and to his chambers. Once within, he closed the door and pulled Kexing into his arms. He had to look up slightly—Kexing had grown taller than him a year ago. “Kexing,” Zishu began, only to tense as Kexing kissed him, stroking his cheeks. “Kexing, didn’t you want to talk?”

“You’re the one who embraced me,” Kexing said, smiling invitingly. He clasped their hands together between them, the soulmarks growing bright between their bodies. “A-Shu, shouldn’t I get a reward for becoming a Zhuangyuan? Could we move to your bed?”

Zishu sniffed, though he bent and brushed their joined knuckles with a kiss. He stepped back, pulling Kexing to a table to sit. He didn’t call for tea, instead staring keenly into Kexing’s eyes. “I didn’t want you to do this. I thought you understood why.”

“Look closely at this,” Kexing said, raising their joined hands, tracing the soulmark on Zishu’s wrist with a finger. “Heaven has decreed that our lives can’t be separated, so why try to keep anything from me? This project of yours with the Crown Prince, one that you’re keeping from your father—”

“My father wouldn’t understand.”

“So you assume that I won’t?”

“You would, but you’d want to be involved.” Zishu smiled, rueful. “I suppose it’s too late, regardless. You’re trying to force my hand.”

“You can try to keep me out of your projects, but you can’t keep me out of your life. I can guess what this project you’re working on is, but it’ll take you years to develop into anything close to what you might want. Since you don’t exactly have a large number of trusted or capable people yet to be the eyes and ears that you need, let alone your knives.”

Zishu looked away with a wry laugh. “No. Not yet.”

“You’re trying to play a long game of weiqi without many seeds in your palm, while I think the game we play is more like a form of xiangqi, played on many fronts. It doesn’t matter how many pieces you have or how much territory you can grab—the right piece advanced at the right time can give you the game.”

“One game of many, played for the rest of your life. Where a single misstep could mean the death of not just yourself but your entire family,” Zishu shot back.

“Shouldn’t it be ‘our’ life by now?” Kexing bent, nuzzling the soulmark on Zishu’s wrist. “I’ll bet mine if you’re betting yours. You can’t stop me—Heaven itself has decreed that our lives are intertwined.”

“The game that the Crown Prince and I must play—it’s a brutal one. There’s no leaving it, not easily. It’ll have to be played to the bitter end, one that might not end in a way we wish. Even if the Crown Prince were to ascend to the throne.”

“You think I don’t know all that? Zishu, Zishu. Do you think someone who’s ignorant could become a jinshi?”

“I’ve met a few jinshi,” Zishu said, though he chuckled. “Not all of them are particularly impressive.”

“So you think I’m not impressive? Again you stab me deeply.”

Zishu sniffed. “At your age, why are you still acting like a spoiled brat? All right, fine. Congratulations. Are you happy now?”

“My A-Shu is so hard to impress,” Kexing said mournfully. “On the day that I finally beat him in a duel, he just nods and tells me that I made a mistake on my footwork during the third variation of the Flight of the Dragonfly. On the day that my parents tell me that they have nothing more to teach me, he tells me that I’d better keep studying hard, or I might forget what I’ve learned. On the day I become a Zhuangyuan, he calls me a spoiled brat. Life is cruel and difficult.”

“Did your parents raise a son or a pot of vinegar?”

Kexing studied Zishu closely, admiring the handsome lines of his face, beautiful even when struggling with his temper. “A-Shu. If you want to play your game of weiqi in the dark, then I’ll play a corresponding game of xiangqi in the light. The territories you carve—trust me to defend them. The knives aimed at my back, I’ll trust you to deflect them. How do we survive what is to come while doing the work your father has tasked you with? By becoming two poisonous little shrimps, impossible for anyone to eat. Besides,” Kexing said gently, “the game doesn’t end when the Crown Prince becomes the Emperor, does it?”

“No,” Zishu said softly. “I suppose not.” He allowed Kexing to tug him over, shifting to climb onto Kexing’s lap as they kissed, sprawling over the cushions. “No more surprises, though,” Zishu said as he bit Kexing’s lips lightly. “I nearly had a heart attack when I saw your name on top of the jinshi list.”

“If you ask me to trust you, then you must trust me in return,” Kexing said, poking Zishu on the nose. “This secret project you have with the Crown Prince, what exactly is it?”

“Zhuangyuan Wen, can’t you guess?” Zishu grinned at Kexing, with the mischief that he increasingly only ever showed to Kexing. Beyond the doors of this room, even before his own father, Zishu was now the living image Marquis Zhou—solemn and self-assured, every step considered in advance. That was fine by Kexing. If he could choose to have one part of Zishu all to himself, it would be this.

“The Crown Prince doesn’t have the support of the military like Prince Helian Zhao, nor does he have a ministerial coterie like Prince Helian Qi. The Emperor has been careful not to show Prince Helian Yi any favour, in case it drew fire from his older, more powerful brothers too early. However, now that Helian Yi is old enough to play the dragons’ game, it’s left him with almost no political or military support, a position founded on sand,” Kexing said. He reached up to playfully pull off Zishu’s hair clasp, loosening thick hair over his shoulders and cheeks. “An untenable start. With the Court balanced as it is at present, the Crown Prince cannot hope to gather more allies to his side when he’s in a position of weakness. Instead, he’d have to find a way to beg, borrow, or steal his way into true power.”

Kexing kissed Zishu’s lips, smiling as they parted immediately at his touch. “And yet, as Crown Prince, he cannot appear to do such a thing,” Kexing murmured, his hands starting to undo Zishu’s belt. “He must use others, pawns he can trust. People whom he can advance through court, to coax others to do things to his benefit. Favours he can trade, to work himself into a better position. Finally, a knife he can keep in the dark,” Kexing said, tilting up Zishu’s chin. “One who no one might suspect. No one would think that it might be the cousin of the Crown Prince—that another dragon would do such a thing.”

Zishu settled against Kexing, closing his eyes. It was an awkward squeeze over the divan, their legs tangled everywhere. “You make it sound more inevitable than it is.”

“Isn’t it?” Kexing smiled up at Zishu. “One lonely knife has little power, however. You need more—you’d need to steal them.”

“From where?”

“You know where.” Kexing prodded Zishu in the chest. “The Scorpions reign in the south, but in the north, there are several mercenary organisations in the same line of business. The Sparrows, Midnight Iron, the Faithful Poison—”

“Faithful Poison already works for Helian Qi—I have plans to get rid of them.”

“Either way, when you decide to bend the rest to your will—you’d better remember to take me along.” As Zishu opened his mouth, Kexing pressed a hard kiss on his lips. “Don’t even think of trying to go without me.”

“I wasn’t just going to ask you,” Zishu said, kissing Kexing’s forehead, “I was going to ask Wu Xi along as well. This thing that I want to do—there can be no mistakes.”

Kexing pinched Zishu. “So asking me along into a fight against assassins is fine, but me deciding to attain an official position is not?”

“The first is just for a moment, the second is the rest of your life—and I’m not sure that you chose it for the right reasons.”

“You are the reason, and that will always be the right reason,” Kexing said. Zishu sniffed but kissed down Kexing’s throat, undoing their robes.

By now, they were no longer the two nervous, clumsy youths who hadn’t know what to do, spilling oil over each other more than what they used, laughing together as they awkwardly explored each other’s bodies. Zishu pinned Kexing down, his kisses angry at first, then gentling as Kexing squirmed enticingly beneath him, stroking his back. Clasping his marked hand, holding it tight as Zishu managed to navigate their clothes open, as he spat in his palm and clasped them both. They moved together, perfectly in sync, their breaths mingling with their groans, their gazes locked tight. Kexing closed his fingers around Zishu’s, squeezing down, his mouth dropping open as he thrust against Zishu, as Zishu buried his mouth against Kexing’s collar, shivering as he whispered Kexing’s name.

As they cleaned up and had the servants serve tea, Kexing said, “Don’t you think there’s something upside down about this?”

“About what?”

“Dark and light—why are the roles we’ve risen to the ones that they are?” Kexing asked, tilting his head.

He thought Zishu would scoff or roll his eyes and tell Kexing not to think so much. Zishu sipped his tea instead, looking away. “We’re very much the same. It isn’t the Fated bond—the Crown Prince and Beiyuan are different people. For us, however, I think we have some capacity to do good, but a talent for everything else. The person who must stand in the dark, who must bend destruction in the name of good—their judgment would be impaired. So buried, they might not be able to see the footing that they should take—or the endgame that they should be working for.”

“So one person must stand in the light to show them the way?” Kexing asked, amused. “Me, instead of you?”

“I wouldn’t have been able to become a jinshi,” Zishu said. He nuzzled Kexing’s cheek. “Let alone the Zhuangyuan. I still can’t believe that you managed it.”

“You’re deflecting.”

Zishu fell silent, breathing slowly, curled against Kexing. “Dragonscale is said to be the hardest material in the world,” he said, tracing the line of Kexing’s lips. “The one who must stand in the dark to deflect attacks—let that be me.”

#

Zishu tensed as he walked into his office and heard a faint sound, only to snort as he recognised the man in official brocade who was blithely going through his correspondence. “Minister Wen, is there something that’s so very interesting over there? Shouldn’t you be preparing for your journey south to Yueyang City tomorrow?”

“Tian Chuang’s Leader Zhou,” Kexing said, mimicking Zishu’s severe tone, “isn’t it still early in the day? Should you even be awake, seeing as you have business in the eastern outskirts of the city once the sun hides its face?”

“Do I want to know how you guessed?” Zishu asked, striding forward to tug the reports out of Kexing’s grip.

Kexing sank into his chair, pouting. “I could provide you with all my conjectures, but to be honest, I’m still annoyed that you’ve chosen to personally go to work on my last night in the capital. To have to spend it alone in my cold bed, accompanied only by the memories of my spouse—what a tragedy.”

Zishu rolled his eyes. “To think that the rising star in the Imperial Court, a man favoured by the Emperor, still likes to act the part of a spoiled little wife.”

“This possible upcoming war in the jianghu between the Ghost Valley and the Five Lakes Alliance might be so dangerous that even an Imperial spectator might be drawn in,” Kexing said, dramatically running a hand over his forehead. “What if this is the last time we meet?”

“Then I’ll hunt you down in the underworld and scold you for making whatever terrible mistake you might have made for you to have died in such an embarrassing fashion,” Zishu said, unrepentant. “Fine, fine. Up.” He pulled Kexing up from his seat, gathering him into his arms and kissing him lazily on the mouth. Kexing flung his arms over Zishu’s shoulders, closing his eyes and kissing him back demandingly, licking against his teeth.

“Somewhat better,” Kexing said, his smile full of his usual mischief. “A-Shu… I confess, I’ve always thought about having you against this big desk.”

Zishu flushed. “No. I have a mission soon.”

“So, not now, but maybe in the future?”

“Didn’t you just declare that you were going to meet some terrible fate in Yueyang City?”

“You can still joke about my impending death? Good—very good,” Kexing said, looking up at Zishu with mock sadness.

Zishu pinched Kexing’s waist. “You already know that I’ll catch up with you after I’ve settled certain matters here to my satisfaction. This isn’t even the first time that you’ve left the capital on official business, after all. Why must you act like this each time, hm?” He nipped Kexing on his lips. “Shameless.”

“Only by being shameless can I get Lord Zhou to spoil me,” Kexing said, unrepentant, though he relaxed. “How long are you going to take here?”

“At most? A week. I’ll see you soon, either way. Has the Crown Prince spoken to you yet?”

“He’s long realised how futile it is to give us different instructions, so, yes. It appears he wants us to help him get his hands on some glass trinkets. Things rumoured to be in the hands of people who used to be friends of my family.”

Zishu tipped up Kexing’s chin. “Did you mention this to your parents?”

“I told them the official story for my absence, but I think my mother might have guessed. Either way, they’ve wished me well.”

“Your father never believed that widespread story about what happened to Senior Rong. Perhaps now we’ll find out.” Not that Zishu particularly cared if they did. Rong Xuan had been kind to them as children, but they didn’t owe him anything. If the Crown Prince wanted the glazed armour and the key, they would get him the armour and the key.

“A long time ago,” Kexing said, kissing Zishu’s cheek, “I once wished we’d wander the jianghu together, so much so that I’d dream about it now and then. That we were wanderers together, going through happiness and hardships, eventually retiring together in a quiet forest in a mountain. A dream within a dream.”

“It’s not a bad one,” Zishu said, though in the course of their lives to date, an impossible one. There was still so much more for them to do. Zishu kissed Kexing once more on his mouth, lingering tenderly, stroking his cheeks with his thumbs. “I’ll see you in Yueyang City.”

“Don’t be late.”