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Unagreeable Marriages

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„And, hereby, I am proud to announce the official beginning of the engagement selection of my only son and heir to the throne, Jin Yu Zhen!“ The king's booming voice rang through the great halls of the banquet, reaching every corner with his message.

The loud and magnificent applause that followed, nearly deafened Shi Lei. He grimaced as the high collar of his fancy clothing rubbed against the delicate skin of his throat, irritating it further than it already was. His mother had forced him into the finely embroidered robes, the best they could find on the market, specifically for this event.

A candidate for the position of royal consort should look as luxurious as possible, after all, as his mother had reminded him for three entire weeks prior to the actual affair.

Shi Lei rolled his eyes at the overly excessive decorations that basically littered the palace from top to bottom. No matter where he looked he was assaulted with expensive finery and golden details, showing off the wealth the king and his family possessed. Spoiled nobles were stuffing their faces with imported delicacies, annoying the servants with their extravagant wishes that nobody could possibly follow.
Meanwhile out on the streets the poor were suffering from a drought, not certain whether they'd be able to find their next meal.

Shi Lei hated every second he had to spend in this hell hole.

And he hated it even more that he may have to endure more of this in the future as one of the selected eligible bachelors and bachelorettes that had been chosen to compete for the title as royal consort.

The prince had come of age and would soon be coronated as the crown prince. His father, however had become increasingly anxious over the possibility that he might die before his son had married an approved spouse with whom he would lead this country to success.
Or ruin.

Depending on what the prince's morals were.

Shi Lei didn't know anything about this supposed prudish prince, but from what he'd heard in passing rumors was that he was closed off, almost to the point of being unapproachable. He was apparently also quite strict with the people around him and his only friend seemed to be the personal guard he always kept by his side. The feared but respected General Yan Zhao Gang.

So a downright mystery of a person.

And the man Shi Lei might have to marry.
If he was chosen out of all of the ten nobles he would compete with to win over the court's and the people's hearts.
Which he honestly doubted.
There were several candidates, who would be a better fit. They appeared to be more sophisticated than him, prettier and with a lot more political ties than Shi Lei had.

There was no way that either the prince himself, nor the royal council or the king would specifically select him over someone like that.

Meaning Shi Lei only had to go through the next few weeks without causing any major trouble and he could escape this golden nightmare of a palace and return back to the safety of his mother's arms.

But first he had to survive these grueling few weeks in a place filled with people who were technically his rivals and out to get rid of him any chance they could get.
Not that that would bother Shi Lei all too much.
If it meant getting out of there as quickly as possible, he would actually prefer to make as many enemies as he needed.
But it wasn't just his potential marriage on the line.

There was not only his reputation that would definitely take a blow should he be a nuisance, but also that of his mother and their entire clan. It would also mean that Shi Lei would never be able to marry anyone else.

The rules went that, should you be taken in as a candidate for the position of royal consort, and fail at becoming said spouse to the prince, then nobody was ever allowed to court you ever again and you would be condemned to a lonely life of solitude as a spinster until the day you died.

This rule had been tradition since many generations ago and was strictly to be followed lest you wanted to lose your head.

Shi Lei had never understood why such a custom was ever established. It wasn't like they were claiming that the prince was beneath somebody else, it was just that not a lot of people were comfortable with the idea of growing old alone, without anyone by their sides. Some just wanted to fall in love.
It wasn't any disrespect to the crown at all.

Though what Shi Lei thought mattered little to the ones that still upheld these traditions.

The idea of not being able to fall in love ever again after he would be rejected, still sent shivers down his spine.

What would he do after his mother was gone?

Could he truly live in absolute solitude his entire life? Or would he end up going mad from the loneliness?

If Shi Lei was honest with himself, he had always imagined himself marrying the person he loved above all others. He had pictured them growing old together and spoiling their children and children's children rotten.
Now that that wasn't a possibility anymore, his heart broke with every passing minute he stood in front of the one, who was responsible for his misfortune.

Even if he was the chosen one among the ten nobles, he was not sure whether he could find it in himself to love someone like this standoffish man.

Alone the way he stood in front of everyone, elevated by his status, as though he was better than everyone else, made him seem arrogant and foolish. The way his sour expression was obvious for all to see and how he made a point of avoiding any conversation or any pair of eyes that came his way, didn't help either.

The food offered to the prince by his suitors was rejected by his guard, he didn't even deem it necessary to do it himself. And he hadn't uttered a single word this entire night.

The drunkards at the back of the hall had already begun gossiping on his bad manners and Shi Lei was sure that by tomorrow morning the entire city would know of the prince's unfriendliness.

To say that it gave Shi Lei a sort of sick satisfaction, was an understatement.

Grinning to himself, he hadn't noticed the approaching nobleman with his daughter in tow, until his mother nudged his side hard.

He winced slightly, but did his best to put up the best fake smile he could muster.

They bowed to each other deeply to show their respect.

“Madam Lan Juan, what a pleasure to meet you again!” The nobleman said, his face practically beaming with happiness.

Shi Lei was almost blended by his smile, which reached from one ear to the other. Were he to guess he would assume the man had not a single bad bone inside his body.

His mother smiled back, although she seemed far more reserved and polite, rather than pure and unadulterated sunshine.

“My dear Bai Meng, it indeed has been quite a while since we last spoke. How have you been?” She addressed the man.

He waved her question away.

“Let's stop with those awful pleasantries, you must know how much I despise them!” Bai Meng said with a boisterous laugh, reaching behind his back to pull the young woman, who had thus far been standing behind him with a bored gaze sweeping the room, in front of him.
“May I introduce to you my lovely daughter, Bai Xiao Qian. She is here as one of the chosen candidates for the selection!”

He proudly beamed another one of his brilliant smiles at his daughter. She, however, just rolled her eyes. Clearly she had been introduced to about half the room already and was not pleased with it at all.

Shi Lei couldn't fault her, though.
Had he been paraded around like a pretty ornament or an exotic animal by his mother, he would have probably ran as far as his legs would have carried him.

Thankfully, she was a bit more lowkey in her pride compared to other parents.

“And I'm to assume that this must be your own child, Shi Lei? I have to say his beauty is just as magnificent as rumored and I'm sure he'll do well in the selection process! Though I'm afraid my daughter is second to none! Who knows, maybe if you two become good friends she can secure you a spot at court and convinced the prince to make you a concubine or something like that!” Bai Meng spoke once more, his words flowing like a waterfall out of his mouth, a never-ending stream of nightmarish bragging.

He seemed to be the type to continue talking until someone stopped him in his tracks.
Sadly for Shi Lei and Xiao Qian, Lan Juan was in no hurry to interrupt the man's monologue. Shi Lei wasn't even completely certain whether his mother heard a single word the man spewed out. In her eyes was a far away look, which indicated her mind was a million Cun away.

Good for her, Shi Lei thought, half impressed she could manage to mentally drown out the man's obnoxious voice, and half annoyed he wasn't able to do the same.

“Bai Meng!” An unknown person called the nobleman over, finally releasing them from his constant conversation. Bai Meng gave a short apologetic bow before he hurried to a group of people, who appeared to be just as reprehensible, leaving his daughter behind.

She sighed, the prospect of facing even more strangers most likely an unpleasant reality to her.

“You have to excuse my father,” She said, bowing as well. “Sometimes his mouth runs faster than his brain can keep up. I'm truly sorry for what he said, he didn't mean any offense to you.”

“Don't you worry, Childe. You don't have to apologize in his stead,” Lan Juan took both of the young woman's hands into her own and gently patted them to reassure her. “I've been acquainted with Bai Meng for quite some time, I am well aware of how he can get sometimes. Neither me nor my son are angered.”

Bai Xiao Qian nodded in relief, giving both of them a tight-lipped smile, before she drudged after her father.

“What a poor girl,” Shi Lei remarked, as soon as she was out of sight.

“Why do you say so?” Asked his mother, curiously.

“Well, if I had a father, who paraded me around like an expensive object and ensured that I had a lot of enemies even before the actual competition started, I would be feeling sorry for myself as well.”

“Now, now,” Scolded Lan Juan. “You shouldn't talk this way. Bai Meng wants what's best for his daughter, his methods may not be as refined as they ought to be, but he never intends for it to come across as anything but the love of a devoted parent.”

“That might be. Does she know it, though?”

Both of them stare contemplatively after Bai Xiao Qian, witnessing her painfully awkward encounters with various men and women, who apparently didn't know what personal space meant. Pinching and patting at her, fondling her long black hair and putting their arms around the girl as though they had known her for ages.

Shi Lei was about to abandon his mother in favor of going over to the group and saving the girl from these rude strangers and their curiously wandering hands, but his plans were interrupted by a loud clap, which silenced the music and cut of the chattering abruptly.

The sudden quiet built a stark contrast to the enthusiastic festivities that had been ringing through the air, and consequently giving Shi Lei a penetrating headache.

All eyes in the room turned toward the person, who had stopped them in their tracks.

The king had already taken a seat on his impressive throne, towering above the masses, with the prince standing stiffly by his side. A servant holding a scroll was placed on the steps in front of them, looking small and unassuming next to all of the glitz and glamour. The marble steps and the glittering gold and expensive silk of the royalty's robes made him stand out like an outlier, as though he was entirely inconsequential.

He cleared his throat nervously before he lifted the scroll up to his face.

“We are honored to host tonight's important festivities, which will not only influence the future of our beloved prince, Jin Yu Zhen, the heir to the throne, but also determine the destiny of our entire nation and the people fortunate enough to live in it. To inherit the crown the prince was tasked to tie the bond of marriage with an eligible young noble. This union shall benefit both parties and is the most honorable accomplishment a consort can gift their respective families.”

Shi Lei scoffed in irritation. A repressed huff reached his ears and he turned his gaze toward Bai Xiao Qian, who held a hand in front of her mouth to disguise the laughter into a cough. Amusement shone in her eyes as she had witnessed his disapproval. Shi Lei grinned. At least he could make someone's evening a little better with his sour mood.

“We've sent out ten letters, inviting the most distinguished and sought after bachelors and bachelorettes this country has to offer as the selected few contenders, from which the prince will chose one as his bride or husband to be,” The servant droned on.

Invitation? More like a thinly-veiled threat, so we'd comply with whatever they demanded from us, Shi Lei crossed his arms on top of his chest, his eyebrows drawing together in a frown.

“Today for the first time ever they shall be revealed during this banquet!” With a grand gesture the servant threw out both his arms and the hall exploded with applause, most prominently from the more pompous families of said candidates.

“And now I ask of the heads of each clan to step forward with their chosen child, so we can introduce them to the world!”

Lan Juan's hand closed around Shi Lei's arm, a warning for him to behave written clearly in her facial features, and then she lead him to the stairs alongside the other parents. As they assembled in one straight row facing the big crowd of guests, Shi Lei's heart began beating faster and faster. The pounding in his ears rose until he couldn't even hear them anymore. He could barely understand the servant announcing each party and their respective familial ties and it wasn't too long until his own name was called upon.

“Hereby I shall introduce to you the next contender. Shi Lei, son of Madam Lan Juan and Fang Wei Cheng, who is here to represent the Lan Clan!”

 

Shi Lei's mother must have noticed his sudden panic, because she gently pushed him forward to step out of line when he was being announced. Almost as if on autopilot he bowed deeply to the crowd, hoping nobody would notice anything. But even though he was with his back to the throne, he felt a heavy gaze settle on him and burn into his skin.

He could barely suppress a shudder running down his back.

The roll call went by without a hitch and the festivities continued after they were finally released.

He descended the stairs as everyone's attention finally turned back to their own conversations, hurrying to the giant doors leading outside. Only when his feet met soft grass and the crisp air filled his lungs did he stop to catch his breath. As Shi Lei turned around, he noticed his mother was nowhere to be found. Oh well, he must have lost her somewhere in the bustling crowd. It didn't matter, he was sure he'd find her eventually. As soon as he had calmed down and his face stopped burning with unnecessary embarrassment.

“I'm fine, this is perfectly fine,” Shi Lei muttered to himself, before realizing how he must look to an outsider's perspective. With a face as red as the skin of a tomato and heaving as though he had just escaped a pack of wild dogs. Brushing his rumbled clothes back into place as best as he was able to, he tried pulling himself together.

He shook his head, managing to clear his mind a little.

Looking around he made an effort to gauge where exactly his legs had involuntarily led him.

It was a big beautifully grown garden with giant hedges and the most colorful flowers. Plants he had never seen, nor could he have imagined them in his own head before coming here, sprouted out of every surface around him. Off in the near distance he could make out the partying nobles, their noise slightly muffled, and suddenly he asked himself how he even made it this far without being stopped by at least one of the many guards protecting the premises.

How come none of them had asked him where he was going?
Was it alright for the guest to be here or should he better go back to where he had escaped from?

Eventually he came to the decision that if nobody had said anything so far that it was probably fine and he could continue exploring the lovely garden, which was so meticulously grown and neatly trimmed. Letting his fingers ghost over the bushes, Shi Lei could feel the silky smoothness of each plant, marveling at their gorgeous colors reflecting the light of the moon.

The star-filled evening sky lit up the entire area.

Every once in a while Shi Lei bent down to sniff at the most beautiful flowers, their aroma was subtle and sweet, unlike the penetrating perfumes the people inside had worn. Alone the thought of them had his headache returning with a renewed viciousness.

“Can I help you with something?” A voice asked him suddenly from behind, startling him so badly that he lost his footing on the slippery grass and fell hard onto the ground. The impact rattled through Shi Lei's entire body.

Rubbing his back gingerly, he glared at the rude stranger, who had nearly scared him into having a heart attack. With the moon now partially hidden by the trees overhead, it was far too dark to make out the man's features. Only the expensively decorated fabrics of his clothing shining in the poor light of the torches, gave Shi Lei an idea on who this person may be.

Stumbling over himself in his hurry to stand back up and bow profusely, his foot caught on the hem of his own robes, sending him back onto the ground.

Instead of helping Shi Lei in an sort of way, however, the prince just stood there motionlessly, watching him make of fool of himself. And if Shi Lei squinted, he thought he could make out a smug grin on his face.

Barely suppressing a sharp retort, which would not put him in the man's favor, he dug his nails into the palms of his hands and sucked in a few calming breaths, before climbing to his feet.
This time with a little more dignity and grace.

Dirt and gravel covered the fine clothing Shi Lei's mother had so painstakingly prepared for him and he had half a mind to wince in guilt at the disappointed expression she would surely
have when he showed up.
Not to mentioned that he had humiliated himself and their entire clan in front of the man he was supposed to impress the most.

Why was he so cursed?

With another glance at the heavens, begging his ancestors for forgiveness, Shi Lei steeled himself for an uncomfortable conversation he would surely have with the prince, while he brushed off the grassy stains to the best of his abilities.

Putting on the biggest fake smile he could muster, he addressed the man, waiting for anything Jin Yu Zhen would throw at him.
Instead the man turned on his heel and started casually walking through the garden as if they belonged to him alone.

Well, technically they do belong to him, his brain helpfully supplied.

Shi Lei slowly followed him, taking Jin Yu Zhen's languid gate as an invitation to accompany him.

That's how he found himself walking alongside the prince for a good twenty minutes in complete and utter silence. Only the faint sounds of the party and the shrill chirping of the thousand cicadas surrounding them broke the quiet. Every passing second felt like an eternity.

Shi Lei's eyes kept jumping back and forth from the gorgeous scenery to the prince again. His mind came up blank even though he desperately tried thinking of any topic to talk about.

How was he supposed to engage with someone so clearly above his own standing?

An unreachable person didn't need a commoner like Shi Lei to entertain him. The only thing Jin Yu Zhen had to do was wave his hand and every citizen of this country would lie at his feet and grant him anything he could ever wish for. Hundreds of concubines would be brought in from all over the world if he desired them.

So, why did Shi Lei have to cower for him too?

Still, this was a competition after all. And he had to think about his own image during this important time as well.

Not many could accurately say they had been selected for one of the most prestigious positions this country has to offer. It was an honor to just be considered for it.

Being rejected would be no shame as long as Shi Lei didn't step out of line.
Just a few weeks.
Nothing more.

And until he was allowed to leave he could at least try and be amicable.

Opening his mouth, he prepared to say anything, just to fill the silence.

“What brought you out here?” The prince suddenly asked, before Shi Lei could utter a single word.
“Huh?” Left his mouth eloquently as he exhaled.

Great, that was certainly not what he was attempting to say. It was also probably not the best way to address royalty.
Thankfully Jin Yu Zhen didn't seem to mind and overlooked it for once. Or he hadn't heard him properly.

Either way, the odds lay in Shi Lei's favor.

“I was wondering what you were doing wandering the gardens all alone like this?” Jin Yu Zhen clarified, looking him up and down as though Shi Lei had something to hide.

“I could ask you the same thing!” Shi Lei answered indignantly, almost defensively, his chest puffing out in defiance. And almost instantly he regretted having opened his mouth in the first place.

Stupid! How was one single human this stupid?!

The prince's incredulous face screamed in agreement, before he was able to catch himself and schooled his expression back into one of passiveness, bordering on blatant boredom. Though in Jin Yu Zhen's eyes stayed this strange gleam behind. One that Shi Lei could not decipher for the life of him.

“I'm not sure whether you are aware of the fact that all of this,” The prince gestured around, pointing at various objects here and there. “does in fact belong to the royal family. So consequently, to me also.”

Shi Lei bowed deeply. Partially to apologize for his own frankness, and partially to hide his burning face from the watchful gaze of this infuriating man.

Was this all one big joke to Jin Yu Zhen?

Shi Lei grit his teeth, feeling them grind against each other painfully, willing his ears to stop lighting up with shame.

“Forgive this one for speaking so boldly,” He asked, still not rising from the bow. “I was just...”

A warm hand wrapped around his upper arm, pulling Shi Lei out of the awkward position. The heat spread through his entire body, making his fingers tingle, and the point of contact became almost unbearably hot. As if he had touched a burning iron, Shi Lei ripped his arm out of the hold.

Both of them freeze, staring at one another in shock.

“I'm... I'm so sorry!” He bursts out.

How many more times could he offend the prince and embarrass himself to no end?!
Was he really this incompetent?
Freaking out over a simple touch had never been an issue for Shi Lei, so why did it have to happen now of all times?

“No, it's my fault,” Jin Yu Zhen says, folding his hands behind his back. Most likely to avoid touching the other any further. “It was improper of me to just take a hold of you without your permission. And for that I am terribly sorry.”

Shi Lei couldn't believe his ears.

The prince was apologizing. To him.
The unshakable, stoic future ruler of this country was seriously apologizing to some insignificant nobody like Shi Lei.

He didn't know if this was the best day ever, or the worst.

Possibly a bit of both.

Either way, it would not do for Jin Yu Zhen to beg for forgiveness from a lowly commoner.

Which is exactly the issue Shi Lei voices, watching the prince's face darken in an instant.

“Your Majesty, this humble subject would never dare deny you anything, if you so much as asked for it. Whatever your heart desires I shall be willing to provide,” Shi Lei hurried to reassure the man, noticing the innuendo in his implication too late to take it back. So, he glossed over it quickly in the hopes the prince would not realize what he had just said. “I am unworthy of such attentive words from you for something as trivial as a slight grazing of the hand.”

“Don't say things like that, please,” The prince pleaded while his brows furrowed into a deeper frown, appearing as though it pained him to say anything.

Great, now Shi Lei'd done it. He'd finally managed to piss off the one person he was supposed to avoid pissing off.
Not sure what he had said that upset Jin Yu Zhen so much, he decided it was best to just keep his mouth shut and try and appease the other with his actions rather than his words.

But before he could put his plan into action, his mother's voice rang throughout the night, frightening them both.

“There you are! I have been looking for you for half an hour!” She scolded Shi Lei, clearly not recognizing the prince in the dim light.

“I-” Shi Lei stammered, lost for words. “Sorry.”

He winced, guilt filling him at having abandoned his own mother to the greedy hands of the stuffy nobles stalking the halls. Bai Meng especially must have been more than a bit overbearing and obnoxious. Shi Lei couldn't imagine what horrible conversation she'd probably had to endure while being in that guy's presence.

Not that Shi Lei's own evening had been spent any better than hers.

His gaze wandered to Jin Yu Zhen, who was now standing frozen to the spot, his face closed off once more with no emotion from a few seconds ago visible, observing the man from the corner of his eye. As if guided by his glance, Lan Juan also directed her attention to the prince.

“Your Highness!” She exclaimed, bowing hastily. “Forgive me for not recognizing you!”

Jin Yu Zhen halted her with a wave of his hand, tired lines forming around his mouth.
“No worries whatsoever. It was a mere mistake.”

Lan Juan nodded unconvinced, but unwilling to argue a royal's leniency lest they actually found matter to be angered by.

“I see my son has already found a way to acquaint himself with you personally!” She rushed to grasp at the opportunity to change the course of the conversation, clinging to Shi Lei's arm like a lifeline.

“Yes,” The prince answered, addressing neither of them, really. Opting to instead examine the space around them and look anywhere else. “We've become more ... familiarized with one another.”

His awkwardness did not go unnoticed by Lan Juan, who immediately gripped Shi Lei's arm harder, fearing her son had done offense to the prince.

“What did you do?” She scolded him. He cringed sheepishly, ready to defend himself vehemently. But Jin Yu Zhen jumped in without a prompt and cleared the misunderstanding graciously.

“Your son has been more than accommodating on his part, and I enjoyed his company greatly. There's really no need to berate him.”

A moment of silence passed between the three of them.
No one sure of how to proceed.
The prince cleared his throat, sounding loudly in the otherwise quiet night. Even the noise of the partying guests had died down to almost a whisper, most currently being carried to their carriages that would drive the drunkards home. And those that were still able to walk were likely searching for the nearest tavern or courtesan house to continue the festivities somewhere else, where they needn't worry about impropriety or public image.

“I believe I've held up your time for long enough,” Jin Yu Zhen said to Shi Lei. “It's time I retire to my chambers for tonight. You should do so as well, it's become quite late. Tomorrow awaits you a long day, where you and the other candidates will be shown around the palace and be introduced to the teachers and staff, who will accompany you along your training.”
The prince's words left his mouth in such a rush that Shi Lei could barely follow the information provided to him.

“Well then … I bid you a goodnight.” And without waiting another second for a response from either of them Jin Yu Zhen whirls around and practically flees. His golden robes billowing behind him in the wind and the sound of his footsteps crunching on the gravel growing fainter and fainter.

Shi Lei and his mother looked at each other incredulously.

What was all that about?

Chapter Text

“That was … a very enlightening experience,” Shi Lei chuckled, unsure on how to react. You don't see royalty making a hasty escape every day. But here they were, watching Prince Jin Yu Zhen basically running away from them.

 

“What ever did you do to this poor man?” Asked Lan Juan, her voice pitching to a crescendo. The accusation did not sit well with Shi Lei. He may be a bit tactless when it came to social interactions and public propriety, but he would not be held accountable for an offense he had not committed. A pout formed on his lips.

 

“Will you believe me when I tell you that I have no idea what his problem is?”

 

“Will you despise me for saying that you most likely unconsciously bothered him?” His mother teased him. He sneered playfully at her, making her laugh ring through the crisp air.

A chill had settled down, sending small shivers down his body.

 

“It's not my fault when others willfully misunderstand my very noble intentions!” Shi Lei clutches his chest dramatically. “Besides, should his generosity befall upon me, above all others, he will be forced to get accustomed to my every whim and habit. After all, a healthy marriage is based in trust and communication. And judging by our very first interaction together, I doubt anything more will come off it. The union would be damned before it even started.”

 

Shi Lei shook his head, deeply in thought, trying to paint a picture of what being the spouse to a king would mean to him.

What could a life with him possibly look like?

Would it be a glamorous and fulfilling experience, with a big family and a loving husband? Or would it be lonely? Was he condemned to a life in a golden cage, forbidden from seeing his mother, and surrounded by thousands of enemies trying to take the throne by using him like a pawn in their game of power?

 

Shi Lei was unable to dive too deeply into the fantasies sprouting inside his mind, however, as a voice echoed from the walls of the palace.

 

“Young Master!” A servant ran out of the palace, his arm waving back and forth. Heads swiveled around, searching for the source of disturbance. Many tutted at his antics, annoyed they had been interrupted in their drunken shenanigans. A particularly self-important bastard went so far as to throw one of his leather boots after the boy, though his (drunken) attempt ended with the shoe landing inside one of the tall bushes, and the man stumbling over his own two feet, while his personal manservant retrieved the soiled boot. To his chagrin, however, the boy hadn't even noticed that he was almost assaulted with an object and just kept on running.

 

Like a windmill he sprinted across the lawn, toward Shi Lei and Lan Juan.

 

“Young Master, there you are!” Huffing in deep breaths, the servant came to a stop in front of them. He bent over, resting his hands on top of his knees, trying to draw in more air. Expectantly son and mother waited for him to get his bearings back.

 

“I think you may have gotten the wrong person,” Shi Lei said.

 

“Oh,” The servants eyes grew twice their original size. Fumbling with the opening of his plain clothing, he produced a small scroll out of seemingly nowhere. With knitted eyebrows he squinted at it, then he scrutinized Shi Lei from top to bottom. Uncomfortably Shi Lei shifted, incapable of avoiding the gaze.

Suddenly the frown lightened up and the overjoyed expression from before spread back onto his face, and it was as though a weight he wasn't even aware of, lifted off of Shi Lei's shoulders. “So, you're not Shi Lei, son of Lan Juan, and heir to the Lan clan, then? Because in the Great Hall they did introduce someone who looked just like the Young Master. Do you perchance have a secret twin nobody is informed of?”

 

Shi Lei blinked perplex.

 

„I- well yes. That's me. Do I know you?”

 

“No,” The servant shook his head, hiding a grin behind his sleeve, poorly. “Well, not yet, that is. May I be allowed to introduce myself to you? My name is Wu Si Qi, and I am your specifically assigned manservant from this day on to the day you are either welcomed into the royal family, or consequently let go of. My job is to tend to your every need, and I am to satisfy any whim you come up with. Please put me to good use.”

At that the boy dropped to his knees, bowing so low his forehead touched the muddy ground, staining his skin with its dirt. And he stayed this way until Shi Lei and his mother both grabbed onto his narrow shoulders, pulling him into a standing position. Deft fingers brushed off his robes. Luckily they appeared to be quite inexpensive, their brown color hiding any bigger stains smudged on the fabric.

 

“Anything? Really?” Shi Lei asked inquisitively. Having someone with knowledge about the palace and its inhabitants, who was willing to let information slide, near him, could become helpful. It might also make the every day life less mundane than it might have been otherwise. Perhaps Shi Lei could persuade the servant into sneaking him outside the all-encompassing walls every once in awhile, so he could explore the town on his own without a horde of guards, attendants, and chaperones shadowing his very move, therefore alerting any towns person of his identity.

This might prove a lot more fun than he had initially thought.

 

Apparently some of Shi Lei's deliberation must have shown and been misinterpreted, because Si Qi's eyes widened comically and he frantically began waving his arms around, barely missing Shi Lei.

“Not like that! Obviously!” Si Qi squeaked, his voice breaking dangerously. “I mean, the Young Master is a beautiful man and there are many envious a person wishing to be in the prince's stead, courting you the way you certainly deserve. And if you were to wish for a close friend and confident, I will gladly reside by your side for however long you plan to keep me there. But … my heart already belongs to another, so I beg of you ...”

 

The boy trailed off, biting his tongue at the truth, which had unwillingly spilled from his lips in a moment of desperation.

Shi Lei graciously took pity on him, clapping him on the shoulder in reassurance, while he laughed at his antics. He was quite the character indeed.

 

“Don't you worry about such inclinations of mine. I don't have a desire to force myself onto resistant participants, nor would I ever follow through such notions. A friend in the palace I could use, though.” A mischievous spark glittered in his eyes, notifying the other that it was all in good fun and he held no ill will toward him for implying any sort of indecent behavior on Shi Lei's side.

Embarrassed at his overreaction Si Qi cleared his throat, before he continued.

“Being a consort to the crown prince requires a lot of effort and takes a lot of strength, therefore I shall do my best to keep your spirits up and ensure the Young Master's happiness is met.”

 

Si Qi rubbed the skin on his neck absentmindedly.

“Not to mention they'd have my head should I dare to touch a single hair on your head.” He mumbled more to himself, low enough that it almost flew over

 

Shi Lei stared at Wu Si Qi in awe, his mouth gaping open.

 

What was he supposed to say to that?

 

“Actually,” His mother quickly jumped in when she realized they would be standing there the whole night if one didn't stop the boy. And the gardens may be a beautiful wonderland, like a dream come true, that was worth venturing and exploring for hours, but today was not that day. Bone-deep exhaustion had settled itself inside Shi Lei's body, his limbs had grown heavy and his headache had returned once again. At any moment he was sure to fall over on the spot and sleep for a hundred years. Which would definitely ruin his chances of becoming the possible spouse to a man he wasn't very fond of to begin with. “The evening has turned out to be quite eventful, my son must certainly be feeling the consequences of the long journey here and the tumultuous festivities. Perhaps it would be for the best if you were so kind as to show us to his living quarters.”

 

The servant-boy nodded enthusiastically, his messy hair bouncing along with his movements.

 

“Of course, of course! Right this way!” Flinging his arm out in order to gesture to a pathway, which probably lead to the quarters of the to-be-trained consorts, though he greatly miscalculated and wasn't prepared for someone to be walking past them and therefore hit them square in the face. The guy reeled back in shock, clutching at his nose. Should glares have the ability to turn humans into stone, then Wu Si Qi would have instantly frozen in his tracks and become the perfect garden statue, carved by Michelangelo from the finest marble there was.

 

The guy seized him by the collar, the fabric of Si Qi's cheap robe bunching up easily under the relentless grip. Standing on his tiptoes, Si Qi clawed at the fingers to pry them from his lapels. To no avail.

 

“I'm truly sorry for my actions! It wasn't on purpose, I swear!” He wheezed out, barely audible through the tightening grip squeezing his throat close. His feet shuffled helplessly in the dirt, searching for any sort of support. “Honest mistake, please be merciful to this lowly servant!”

 

Like moths to a flame the party guests, who until that point had bellowed and sung in their drunken stupor, came to a standstill.

It didn't take long for the bustling noise to come to an abrupt end. Curious bystanders had stopped to stare at the commotion, entertained by the argument that would surely escalate further. Apparently none of them had ever seen a spectacle of a servant about to be beaten black and blue.

That is, if Shi Lei didn't have a say in the matter. Which he definitely had.

 

After all, he couldn't just idly stand by and watch as his newly-appointed attendant was physically assaulted for a blunder that was of no impact to the guy whatsoever. Not like it had left any visible mark or a hideous scar behind, which would disfigure him. Just a small hit from a boy with virtually no muscle mass did not deserve a substantial punishment in any way, shape or form.

 

So, Shi Lei did, what he had to do.

What his consciousness told him would be the morally correct thing to do.

 

Which is why, with the speed of a snake, his fingers bend around the man's wrist, crushing it. The bones ground against each other, creaking loud enough so it was audible for even Lan Juan to hear. The man cringed, glaring at the offender.

 

“That's enough,” Shi Lei said calm but unwavering, leaving no room for argument. Still, the guy seemed to be in a particularly bad mood and made no moves to back off from an altercation. Quite the opposite, actually. Squaring his shoulders and puffing out his chest like a peacock, he attempted to appear taller and more threatening. To his chagrin it was met with little success on his part, both Shi Lei and the clumsy servant towered over him. So instead of coming across as intimidating like he wanted to, he was rather pathetic if Shi Lei was being honest. A pitiful excuse of a human being.

 

“The boy already said he was sorry for hitting you in the face,” Shi Lei's fingers tightened even more around the other's wrist, forcing him to let go of Si Qi and bending his arm in a grotesque manner. The guy grimaced, a painful groan escaped his throat as he was manhandled.

For good measures Shi Lei kicked him in the back of the knee so he had no other choice than to drop to the ground and kneel in front of the servant. An impressive string of insults was thrown at Shi Lei, who wasn't thinking of letting go any time soon. “It wasn't on purpose, right?”

 

Wu Si Qi nodded, staring at Shi Lei in awe.

 

“Close your mouth, you'll catch flies if you're not careful,” Laughed Lan Juan, clapping the servant on the back to jolt him out of his thoughts. Despite his mother's small size and the minimal strength she had used, Si Qi jerked forward, barely able to catch himself again by flapping his arms like a bird. Amused, Shi Lei shook his head and then focused back on the problem at hand. The guy was squirming like a worm on the ground. A pathetic excuse of a low-life.

 

„I'd seriously adviced you to seize your hostility toward me and my servant, should you value your life at all.”

 

Another violent tug was attempted in order to escape his hold, serving only to hurt the guy himself. Was he an idiot?

Angrily he heaved, his chest rising and falling rapidly against where it was resting on his thighs, almost bending him in half.

 

“Why is that?!” He bit through gritted teeth, as he finally realized that fighting would only disadvantage himself. The sand he must have swallowed on his way down, created a crunching noise.

“The king and his son will most likely not be pleased when they hear a mere peasant attacked a chosen contender for the royal consort's position and the attendee, who was exclusively picked to keep said noble safe and sound. I can assure you, the punishment for such drastic measures shall be obscene.”

 

As though someone had quenched his fighting spirit, like water to a flame, the man instantly stopped struggling against his restraint. In the fading light of the moon, Shi Lei could see the color draining from his skin.

 

Finally Shi Lei let go of the guy's arm and he fell forward like a sac filled with sand. There was no time for him to rip his arms up in order to protect his face, so he tasted a mouthful of gravel. Wheezing, he spit it out as best as he could and stumbled disoriented to his feet. A half hearted attempt was made to pay his respect to the three of them, a poor excuse of a bow, before he fled with his tail between his legs.

In the background Shi Lei heard the onlookers snicker contemptuously, shaking their heads at the man's bad manners. Although no one had come to help them out, they still felt the need to judge, as if they had the right to do so.

 

„That was amazing!” Wu Si Qi exclaimed, vibrating with excitement.

 

“Oh, it's not that big of a deal,” Shi Lei replied, suddenly all the more aware of the attention still trained on the three of them. Like insects their stares were crawling across his skin, sending shudders down his spine. He pointedly ignored them, not indulging their gossip-loving nosiness. “I just can't stand it when people of a higher standing think they can order others around, just because they were lucky enough to be born into wealth. Abusing ones power should not be considered acceptable and has to be penalized according to appropriate measures lest it festers inside the hearts of men, corrupting them beyond repair.”

 

Pride shone in Lan Juan's eyes.

 

Even though she continuously was told about how unruly and distracting Shi Lei was during his lessons, and how he never paid attention to what was being taught by his elders, he still understood the practices of their Clan very well. She truly couldn't wish for a more dutiful son.

 

“I will take my time and educate as many nobles as I have to, if that's what it takes for them to really learn that they're not above anyone. That all humans have the right to live a carefree and comfortable life. And that the power they wield should be used to help the helpless, not disadvantage them further. My hope is that, should I be chosen as spouse to the next king, I will finally be able to make my vision of a brighter future for all come true,” Shi Lei nodded thoughtfully, lost inside a dream of equality and prosperity. Where every single human being had a place they could call home.

A place where they belonged.

 

He ripped himself out of his reveries, observing Si Qi, who looked at him like he personally had hung the stars in the sky one by one. He chuckled cheerfully.

 

“Though I think it really has grown far too late,” Shi Lei admitted, the resent events of the night weighing down his eyelids like cinder blocks. His brain could not take another remarkable calamity without completely shutting down on him, he was sure of it. “I'd really appreciate it, if you could simply show us to my room, so I can retire for now.”

 

“Right, sorry about that,” Wu Si Qi laughed sheepishly, scratching the back of his head. “I didn't mean to drag you into this mess.”

 

Shi Lei waved his worries away. He sort of felt pity for the boy. He seemed far too young and inexperienced to be tasked with a duty as heavy as taking care and entertaining the future king's consort to their hearts desire. Too young to be in service to the crown.

How anyone could put such an unimaginable burden on this naive child was a mystery to Shi Lei.

The boy posed such a stark contrast in front of the cold palace walls, it was truly a wonder that he hadn't been apprehended and questioned by the watchful guards wandering the grounds, whether he was supposed to be there in the first place.

 

No matter how you looked at it, Si Qi just didn't fit in. And neither did Shi Lei.

 

Maybe staying there for a while wouldn't be entirely awful and a waste of time. As long as he had a loyal, dutiful friend by his side it could end up being kind of fun, too.

 

Slowly the three began their journey across the giant court yard, past the dissipating crowds, and deeper into the castle's maze. Passing the impressive towers of the dozens of differing areas the palace had to offer, blew Shi Lei's mind. At home he had always pictured what it would look like, but not even his wildest imagination could have prepared him for all of its glory. The red and lavish golden colors lining every surface shimmered brightly in the night, building a beacon of hope in the dreary darkness. Fine details were etched into the wood and Shi Lei found himself entranced by the stories they told of victorious battles and the undying love between star-crossed lovers, of immortals walking the earth for thousands of years and previous kings and queens, who ruled the kingdom before Jin Dynasty. Carefully he stroked the delicately carved face of one such figure, afraid he might break of a piece if he put too much pressure on it.

 

He followed the curve of its nose, then continued on to the chin and down to the chest, where he lingered for a moment. Even the decoration on the robes had been immortalized into the wood.

 

As Shi Lei took a closer look, he was able to make out the tiniest beauty marks marring the likeness' skin. Beauty marks that resembled a certain someone very much. Too much.

He pulled back slowly, not sure when he had gotten this close that his nose almost touched the nose of the figurine. As he turned around he saw Si Qi and his mother waiting patiently for him. Awkwardly he swallowed and motioned for them to keep on going. Neither of them mentioned anything. Instead Si Qi droned on about the history of each artifact they passed, while Lan Juan and Shi Lei just silently followed his lead, basking in the freshness of the air, and only half listening to his recountings.

 

Si Qi's face glowed, showing no signs of weariness whatsoever. The way the warm light bounced off of his youthful skin, meeting no blemish or wrinkle, reminded Shi Lei once more how young this boy in front of him actually was.

 

“May I ask, how old you are?” He couldn't help but ask, curiosity eating away at his insides like a starving stray dog.

“Oh, this year I celebrated my twenty-third birthday! It was also the first birthday since I've been employed by the royal family, which meant I was payed enough that I could not only afford to take my family out for dinner, but I could also buy myself a treat,” He prattled on, stumbling on his own feet, then righting himself and kept on walking as though nothing had happened. “Man, that was honestly the best day ever. You should have been there, my sisters would have loved you! Too bad we didn't know each other back then.”

 

Si Qi mulled over his one-sided conversation, not realizing he was basically carrying it on all alone. Not that either Shi Lei nor Lan Juan minded. Unlike Bai Meng, Si Qi was more endearing, rather than just simply annoying and monotonous. The boy carried a certain air around him that drew others in and refused to let them go again. He was pure sunshine personified, a lovely little puppy in human form that you couldn't help but fall in love with.

As Shi Lei linked arms with his mother they shared a knowing look, telling Shi Lei that they were thinking the exact same thing.

 

What Shi Lei had not been prepared for, however, was the fact that the boy was barely a year younger than he himself was. So close in age, and yet so far disconnected from each other. Not just in rank, but in experiences and struggles.

 

Never did Shi Lei have to wonder whether the money he'd earned that month would be able to sustain his family or whether he might lose his entire livelihood in one fell swoop and be left homeless and prospectless.

He shuddered at the thought of someone so brilliant being forced into such a situation, only because they hadn't had the fortune of being born to a rich household.

 

It wasn't too long after that the servant's steps gradually eased in their pace and eventually they came to a standstill. Before them stretched a bridge across the river flowing through entire palace, filled with hundreds of carps,water lilies, and lotus plants.

 

“I'm sorry to have to tell you this,” Wu Si Qi turned away from them, a guilty expression crossing his face. “But according to my orders it is forbidden for me to take any outsiders that are not one of the selected suitors further than this point. Including the families of said suitors.”

 

Lan Juan's grip tightened minutely around Shi Lei, before she could catch herself.

 

“I will leave you for a few minutes, so you can properly bid each other goodbye.”

And then, without another word from Si Qi, he hasted away, disappearing behind the giant hedges lining the pathway they had been walking down.

 

Full of dread Shi Lei spun toward his mother as she grasped his hands, lightly caressing him with her thumb.

 

“You have become an adult so quickly,” She whispered, despite the fact they were completely alone and their surroundings stayed as quiet as the graves of the dead. And yet her voice filled the silence, bouncing around inside his mind, echoing off of the stars whose light had seemingly died out. “It feels as though it was only yesterday when you barely reached my knees … now look at yourself. About to enter a new and exciting chapter in your life, and you don't even need me there to watch over you anymore.”

 

Shi Lei's breath hitched painfully, getting stuck in his chest, filling it out until there was no room left for it to go anywhere.

“I'll always need you,” His voice broke, deterring him from speaking.

 

The knot in Shi Lei's throat painfully tightened, hot tears shooting into his eyes and threatening to overflow. He had thought he was prepared to say his farewells. To let his mother, whom had stayed by his side since his birth and never left him for a single moment in his entire life, go. This wasn't a goodbye forever. After this was all over he could go back to her embrace and never part from her for a single second ever again.

 

The tears were sliding down his cheeks before he could help it, staining his face in their burning saltiness, and dripped to the ground where they soaked into the dirt. If only they would build a puddle. If only Shi Lei possessed enough tears for them to flood the garden, drowning every flower in sight. He would create rivers and entire seas with his sorrow. There would be no mercy to the waters flowing out of his body, the destruction would be just and indiscriminate. No matter the status of the people, no matter what they had to their name, they would be swept away by the current. There was no stopping the waves of grief. And yet, Shi Lei felt childish for clinging to his mother. In all his twenty-four years of life there had not been a single day where he was gone from his home. Whenever his friends had explored the world and went on adventures lasting sometimes whole months, Shi Lei had always had an excuse to not follow their lead. Whether he had to help out Lan Juan with the political affairs of their clan, a task he had never been asked to do, or he had to look after a sick relative.

 

Whenever Shi Lei'd lied to them, his guilt had reared its ugly head. Eating him up from the inside, until he'd isolated himself to the point where they started pulling away from him.

It wasn't like he didn't desire to travel the world. Quite the opposite, actually. It was an unreachable dream of his to explore the world to his heart's content. Unreachable because he couldn't defeat his reluctance to leave the comfort and safety of the life he had grown up in, behind. He was too settled into the convenient routine, too used to the peacefulness his home provided, to unprepared for a life surrounded by potential enemies left and right with no one to talk to.

 

“Everything will be just fine, my dear,” Lan Juan's hand wandered to his face, absentmindedly stroking a few escaped strands of hair behind his ear. “You are not alone here, do you understand.”

 

She waited patiently for him to catch himself a bit, continuing only when he finally managed a small nod of the head.

 

“There will be many opportunities for you to built your own family, many new people to meet and grow close to. Just take your servant-boy for an example. A bright young man whom I'm sure will become one of the bestest of friends in your life. And there will be others who will accompany you along your way, who will help you find yourself, and maybe even those you will come to fall in love with. And I will also stay by your side through it all. Whether it's in person or just inside your heart, nothing can stop me from encouraging my son to my fullest extent.”

 

He choked up once more.

 

The soft touch of his mother caressed his cheek, brushing some of the tears gently away. He nuzzled his face further into her hand, seeking the reassurance desperately. The cool air traveled down into his lungs like fire, igniting his skin wherever it could reach. To the deepest depths of his soul it went, burning him in a blaze of regret and leaving nothing behind but the smoldering ashes of his very being.

 

 

“You're going to be just fine,” Lan Juan pulled him toward her, embracing him like she had done when he was a child. Now, however, as he was quite a bit larger than her, his towering figure had to bent down in order for him to lay his head onto her shoulder. Her familiar scent enveloped them. The tension he didn't even know he was carrying, vanished in a rush, leaving him hollowed out, draining him of the little energy he still possessed. Shi Lei took a shuddering breath, willing himself to keep calm.

 

He had to pull himself together.

At least for the sake of his mother.

 

Reluctantly he pushed Lan Juan at arms length, studying her features one last time to imprint them into his memory for when he's feeling especially homesick.

 

Ever since Shi Lei had found out he had been selected, he had pictured this moment thousands of times. Imagining what he'd tell his mother, what he would say during their last few seconds and how he had promised it to himself that there was no way he would let anything stop him from saying what he wanted to say. Now the time came, and he found it impossible to get a single sound to escape his mouth. None of the words he so preciously had picked out made it past his lips, none of the goodbyes and none of the gratitude he felt towards his mother for raising him so diligently, for making him into the man he now was. There was so much left unsaid, yet Lan Juan understood immediately. As though she truly could crack open his head to peer inside, reading his thoughts like the stories she had read to him in childhood.

 

It astounded Shi Lei how she never seemed to have trouble comprehending what he could not communicate.

 

She really was an impressive woman to behold. And she never ceased to amaze her son.

When he was ready to start his own family, he hoped he could at least become half the incredible parent that his mother was, raising his children in a just and honoring way.

 

And so they stood there. Basking in each others presence for as long as was possible in such a short amount of time. It felt as though minutes stretched into eternities, while in the same breath it was just a small margin of what could have been.

 

The chirping cicadas almost manage to drown out the approaching sounds of footfalls meeting the luscious grass lining the road.

 

As the footsteps came closer Shi Lei hurried to wipe the evidence of his sorrow off his face, scrubbing at his cheeks to rid them of the tear tracks until they were beat red. There was nothing he could do about the swollen flesh around his eyes, or the puffy nose shining like a beacon from his face, informing everyone who came across him that he had indeed wept in his mother's arms like a newborn babe. Of course, there was no shame to giving your feelings a way to escape. In Shi Lei's opinion it was actually necessary to not keep your emotions hidden behind a wall of indifference, if you wanted to lead a happy and healthy life. But he could also recognize that there was a time and place for such things, and being a candidate to the position of crown consort was anything but a reason to cry one's heart out. Not to mention that it was a private moment between two separating family members, to which not a lot of people were privy to. And Shi Lei certainly minded sharing such an intimate part of his person with just any random passerby.

 

Spinning around on his heel, Shi Lei turned into the direction the steps were coming from, glaring at whomever dared to cut an (intimate interaction) short.

 

Only to be met with the one man who had not too long ago run off, as far from Shi Lei as humanly possible.

 

Like a deer in headlights the prince stood in the middle of the open pathway. Jin Yu Zhen didn't move a single muscles, staring at Shi Lei's tear-stained face, taking in the testimony of his breakdown. Like a fish Jin Yu Zhen's mouth opened and closed, but nothing came out. An unidentifiable expression crossed his features for just a split second. Shi Lei's brow furrowed.

 

Could he not see that this was not an ideal time?

Or did the prince just not care enough that he had interrupted them?

 

Either way, annoyance at his antics rose within Shi Lei.

 

Taking a step forward he prepared himself to tell the prince off. Right then Shi Lei cared very little what rank the man held. He wanted him gone. And if that meant directly insulting the heir to the crown and ruining his chances of marriage irrevocably, then so be it. Shi Lei was prepared to take that risk.

But Jin Yu Zhen beat him to it. Without another glance back, the prince scurried into one of the surrounding buildings, the heavy doors falling shut with a loud bang behind him. He threw the door so hard, in fact, that its entire frame started shaking with the force of the impact, alarming the guests and guards standing close by.

 

“What the ...” Shi Lei said, thoroughly confused. The only indicator the prince had been there in the first place, was the cloud of dust left in his wake as he stormed away. He hadn't thought the man could get more confounding than he already was, but apparently he had many surprises up his golden sleeves.

 

Moodily Shi Lei addressed Lan Juan, “I really can't stand him.”

 

She chuckled, hitting his back.

“Come on, don't be so hasty to judge him!” She scolded joyfully, as he rubbed his back in mock hurtfulness, pouting slightly. “He seems to be a genuine young man. Just a little misguided, that is. Though I can guarantee you, if you were to get to know him a bit better, then you might see things differently. Who knows, you may even grow to love Jin Yu Zhen.”

 

Shi Lei smiled sarcastically, sneering at the idea of ever caring so deeply for such an unagreeable man. Of having to spend his whole life at the side of a person he wanted nothing to do with, at all.

 

“I sincerely doubt it,” He said honestly. Lan Juan sighed, before cupping Shi Lei's face in both of her hands, stroking his cheeks tenderly.

 

“Promise me you'll at least give it a shot. Love can be found even in the strangest of places, should you search for it hard enough.”

 

Pulling him down to her level, she softly kissed his forehead. He closed his eyes, reveling in the familiar sensation one last time. Hesitantly they pulled apart.

 

“I have to go now,” She whispered, her eyes shining brightly in the light of the torches.

 

Shi Lei's lip trembled as he willed himself to not weep again. To not reach out for his mother and stay in her warm embrace for the rest of his life. His trembling fists clutch desperately at the edges of his sleeves. Shi Lei nodded, the vice grip on his throat returning once more, hindering him from saying any more. His chest filled with ice. No longer was he scorched from the inside. The fire had long since left him cold and weary, the ashes of his former life spread before him like a blanket covering the earth, swept away by the unrelenting breeze of his new reality.

 

“Never forget I love you, from the bottom of my heart,” Her voice tremored slightly. “This is not a goodbye for forever.”

 

And with these words Lan Juan turned her back on her son, walking steadily back to the great halls where the three of them had come from.

As though something inside of his body had waited for it, the dam broke and there was nothing he could do to stop it. Shi Lei's legs lost all strength, the world around him growing dim. The firm arm snaking under his armpits was the only thing keeping him standing, grounding him.

 

Si Qi had arrived just in time to catch him before he plummeted to the ground.

 

Shi Lei had no mind to be thankful for his quick reflexes. The walk – which felt more like his last stroll to the executioners podium – over the bridge and to a small building not far from where they had stood, didn't reach his head. All of his surroundings were blurring together, the ground underneath him became a tiny boat lost in the vastness of the ocean as the waves towered high above it.

 

After an eternity they eventually made it to Shi Lei's new quarters, all thanks to the support that the servant provided. Never letting go for even a single second, he was ready to catch him should the need arise.

Though judging by his built, Shi Lei was certain they would both just end up hitting the floor instead. Which is why he attempted his best to not cause any more unnecessary grief by focusing on taking strong, steady steps.

 

The room he found himself in, while Si Qi started undressing him and getting him ready for the fitful sleep he was sure to have, appeared just as lavish and extravagant as the rest of the palace was.

 

Far too big. And far too empty. Although there were hundreds of little trinkets, bedazzled with huge jewels, and ornaments wherever his gaze fell, silk and velvet lined the giant bed centered in the middle and detailed artwork littered the walls. But still, the impersonal coldness of it all left a bitter taste in his mouth.

 

And after Si Qi bid him goodnight, scurrying away into the night, it grew even colder.

 

Exhaustion marred his bones as he fell back onto the unfamiliar bed, between the abundance of blankets strewn across it, burying himself in them despite the sterile scent wafting off of them.

 

Tomorrow will be a new day, Shi Lei reminded himself. New challenges to be met and new adventures to be had.

 

As long as he could pull himself together during the day, the nights might not be as difficult. When he was surrounded by laughter, maybe the silence wouldn't be so deafening. And if he could please Jin Yu Zhen as a loyal companion, then maybe he might be able to return safe and sound to what he once knew.

 

Determinded he decided he would do his mother proud. He would do everything in his power to serve his Clan the honor it deserved and he would come back to them with his head held high and the prince's approval as a recognized part of the court. Although he held no hope of ever becoming the king's consort, he could still try his best to be a useful subject and change the world into a better, more hopeful, place.

 

It would be over and done with in the blink of an eye, Shi Lei kept telling himself.

 

It will be over before I know it.