Several times a month, they would meet like this. His friend would find time out of his busy schedule, and he himself would travel the brief journey from the Raoul camp to the gardens of Xianyang Palace. There, he and his friend would sit underneath an old magnolia tree on the outskirts of the garden, shoulder-to-shoulder, admiring the blossoming flowers and breathing in the sweet air.
To anybody else, it may have looked like a romantic date. But those words – 'romance,' and 'date,' weren't in his vocabulary. To Shenriku, his occasional meetings with the emperor were merely rare moments of peace that he could enjoy in the otherwise grim times of late.
Here, in the garden, under the flowering magnolia tree, there were no worries. Only the sound of the river flowing quietly pass, the faint chatter of the palace gardeners working nearby, and Ying Ji's sudden hoarse laughter.
"… What?" He had learned over the years that his friend tended to think about things in silence before bursting into apparent spontaneous laughter. Used to it by now, Shen only cast the emperor a mildly curious glance.
"Ah, something good," Ying Ji said with a breathless chuckle, leaning back and tilting his head up. The flowers and branches cast shadows that danced wildly across his face in the wind, and Shen couldn't help but notice how much older the man had become since they'd met thirty years ago. Humans really aged fast…
"… So are you going to tell me?" Shen sighed, pretending that he wasn't utterly curious about what bizarre idea the emperor had come up with this time as he dragged his gaze away and pretended to read the old book lying open in his lap.
"I was thinking about when we first met," Ying Ji admitted with another faint laugh. He lifted his hand up to a low-hanging branch and cupped his fingers gently around a large pink-tipped white flower, gaze softening in amusement as he stroked the petals. "It was quite the sight."
"If you mean the ten-year-old emperor sprinting through the garden in tears, then yes, it was quite the sight," Shen agreed, breath shallowing as he watched the man handle the flower with utter grace. He wouldn't dare attempt such a feat – it was almost certain that he would simply end up ripping the flower off its branch. His father and twin brother had always berated him for his lack of delicacy.
"I was talking about the boy with golden ears and a long fluffy tail, strung up on this very tree in thick rope," Ying Ji laughed, releasing the flower and turning to face Shen with a twinkle in his dark eyes. Although the man's features had become worn over the years, he still managed to retain that bright, childish look of his.
"Hey, that wasn't funny," Shen growled with a shiver of discomfort as he glanced up at the branches and remembered what it had felt like to be jolted off the ground and then dangled by his wrists and ankles for over an hour.
"No, it was funny," Ying Ji insisted, reaching an arm over the lycan's shoulder and leaning closer with yet another short laugh. "A lycan caught in a human trap – one that was meant for me."
"I saved your life," Shen reminded him in an irked tone, but he didn't pull away.
"Technically I saved yours, too," Ying Ji reminded him with a crooked smile. "Someone was chasing me down trying to kill me, but I took the time to cut the ropes and free you."
"Yeah, then I turned around and killed that assassin for you. So you're welcome," Shen said dryly, giving the man a friendly shove and forcing them apart.
"Ah, fine," Ying Ji admitted with a bright chuckle. "I guess we were even from the beginning," he sighed, sitting properly and gazing out at the garden again with a wistful look in his eyes. "It feels like such a long time ago for me, who's become an old man. You, who still looks barely more than a boy still, must not think so."
"No," Shen murmured in quiet agreement. "It felt like yesterday."
"… You never did tell me how you ended up there," Ying Ji continued, turning and casting him a curious look now. Shen, not wanting to talk about it, felt his lips curl in the beginnings of a grumpy growl – but as always, for some reason, under the man's stare he would find himself complying. Maybe it was a talent of emperors – convincing people to obey them somehow.
"It's not a pleasant memory," Shen admitted instead with a heavy sigh, averting his gaze slightly. "I was play-fighting with my brother. I got too excited and bit too hard into his stomach – it became a bad wound. He wouldn't stop bleeding even after I dragged him back to camp, and I thought he was going to die. I was scared, so I ran away, and in my distress I ended up stepping into that stupid human trap."
"Ahh," Ying Ji made a sound of understanding, but then laughed at that, too. "Sounds like something you would do," he mused, slapping Shen briefly on the back. "Shenriku Kanare, the delinquent lycan."
Irked by the emperor's constant teasing, Shen bared his teeth in the beginnings of a snarl, only to cut himself off when an unfamiliar voice called out to them.
"Your Majesty." It was a tentative-sounding call, and when Shen turned his head to gaze warily at the young woman facing them from a slight distance, she seemed to shrink a little from his gaze. Humans had never approached them while they were together, before – Ying Ji had said that Shen's presence as a lycan was simply too oppressive for any of the workers to come say hello. But this woman, although clearly nervous, managed to give him a smile before turning her gaze back to the emperor. "Your Majesty," she repeated, taking a small step forward. In both arms, she was carefully carrying a tray with two small ceramic containers – one with powder, and the other with a pale yellow liquid. There was also a spoon and an ornate stir-stick lying upon a neatly folded handkerchief. "Your medicine."
"Ah, my beautiful Naiyu," Ying Ji brightened several shades and stretched out his arm in an enthusiastic gesture for her to come closer. "I've been wanting to introduce you," he said, making eye contact with the woman and conveying something to her as she hesitated. "Don't worry, he's not as scary as he looks."
Shen wanted to say that he didn't look scary, but he couldn't find the courage to speak up and protest. Instead, he sat and continued eyeing her with a wary frown.
After finally managing to bring them within an arm's reach of each other, Ying Ji took the tray from the woman and placed it on his lap, then shifted over and gestured for her to take the edge of the bench. She wound her fingers together and shook her head, still smiling nervously as she glanced at Shen.
Giving up with a rather exasperated scoff in his throat, Ying Ji waved his hand dismissively and laughed. "Alright, fine. Shen, you should do something about your facial expressions, my friend. You don't always need to look so murderous."
"I'm not aware that I look murderous," Shen replied stiffly, feeling uneasy in the presence of an unfamiliar human. The woman's eyes lit up in brief understanding and she lifted a hand to her lips to muffle a tentative chuckle, but she didn't come any closer.
"Anyway, this is Fan Naiyu, my advisor's first and only daughter. She's… ah, how do I say this," Ying Ji trailed off suddenly and scratched the side of his face with a sheepish grin. "She's carrying my first child, I guess?"
"Oh," Shen uttered in surprise, raising an eyebrow as he glanced at the woman again in re-evaluation. Zhen had always picked on him for having strange taste in the things he liked, but if he put enough effort into it, he could see why Ying Ji chose to lay with her. She was fair, had a small face, long black hair that was very straight, and a timid sort of femininity about her. Struggling to look a little less threatening, Shen gave her a curt nod and managed to growl, "Congratulations."
"… Thank you." The woman smiled shyly and lifted a hand to her barely noticeable stomach.
"And this is Shenriku Kanare, the best friend that I've been talking to you about," Ying Ji added brightly, pouring the powder into the liquid and then stirring it with one hand while lifting his other hand to pat Shen's shoulder. "Don't worry love, he's actually a real gentle soul. He's just a little awkward."
"I'm not –" Shen turned his head to snap instinctively at the emperor, but when he saw the woman flinch ever so slightly, he stopped and forced himself to relax instead with a grudging sigh. "… Say whatever you want, Your Majesty," he grumbled, averting his gaze.
"Haha!" Ying Ji tossed his head back with a bright laugh, unperturbed, and gave Shen's shoulder a firm squeeze before lowering his hand and reaching for his newly mixed medicine – now a murky green colour – with a brief sigh. "Ah, it must be nice to stay young for so long," he murmured, before tilting his cup back and drinking in a single gulp. Setting the ceramic back down on the tray with a firm clatter and a deep grimace, Ying Ji dabbed his mouth dry with the napkin. "If there was anything about our friendship that I regret, Shen, it would be watching myself grow old next to your ever-youthful handsome face," he mused, handing the tray back to Naiyu's already outstretched arms and giving the woman a grateful nod. "Thank you, Naiyu. Let me spend a last few minutes with my friend before I have to be tied down to that throne again," Ying Ji said, smiling but carrying a hint of scorn in his tone.
"Yes, Your Majesty." Naiyu returned the smile with a brief one of her own, gave Shen a brief dip of the head, and then bowed at Ying Ji before turning her back and walking away. The emperor gazed at her with a softness in his eyes, and Shen watched the man's expression in silence.
"… You really fancy her?" Shen asked finally, when Ying Ji turned to meet his gaze.
"Why do you sound doubtful?" Ying Ji laughed, nudging his shoulder against the lycan's.
"She's too submissive," Shen tried to explain in a gruff voice. "She seems more like a servant than a wife."
"Oh, she's just shy," Ying Ji swatted a hand dismissively in the air and shot him a clumsy but roguish grin. "You would be surprised by how she is in bed though –"
"Ahhh –" Shen opened his mouth and interrupted the man with a blaring noise, closing his eyes and looking away with a grimace as Ying Ji erupted into laughter beside him.
"What? There's no need for you to be shy, too! Aren't you also at that age where they start pressuring you to have children?" The emperor cast him a curious look. "You're an Alpha. Do you have a mate yet?"
At that, Shen crossed his arms and lowered his head with a scoff. "No way. I'm not good at liking things," he said in a scathing growl, glaring at the damp grass underfoot. "Zhen says I treat everything I like too roughly. I always end up breaking them. If for some reason I ever fall in love with a woman, she'll be the unluckiest woman ever."
"Hey…" Ying Ji's reply was mild but rather pitying as he thumped the lycan briefly on the back. "That's not true. You're strong, manly, and handsome. Naiyu is loyal, but if I introduced you to the concubines you would become their favourite in an instant – no doubt!"
"I don't know if that's supposed to be a compliment," Shen said warily, throwing the man a dry look. "Anyway, finding a mate is the least of our worries right now," he continued with a glum scowl. "The illness that I described last time has only gotten worse. It's killed an entire litter of pups and most of our elders. Even Father was not spared." Shen uttered a heavy sigh and closed his eyes in a brief, dismal grimace. "He's already putting all of his effort into making sure Zhen is ready to be Leader… but I don't want to see him die so soon."
"Oh… I'm sorry," Ying Ji said in a solemn voice, sitting up properly and placing a hand comfortingly on the lycan's thigh. "We have some experienced doctors at the palace, and our Fangshi who may be able to help –"
"No!" Shen snapped, forgetting himself in a sudden flash of indignance. Meeting the man's slightly surprised stare, he then flinched and turned away with a regretful sigh. "I'm sorry – it's nothing personal. But we don't need help from the humans. Besides…" he continued dodgedly, desperately attempting to salvage the mood as he glanced furtively back at the emperor. "You are preparing for war. You have enough to worry about."
"Ah… that's true," Ying Ji said, deciding to take the lycan's change of topic in stride. He wrapped his arms within his sleeves and gazed up again at the flowering tree branches with a rather sad smile on his face. "The palace has been divided lately. My advisor Fan Sui, while a great advisor, has started doing things his own way – without my explicit agreement. He says it's to secure victory for Qin, which I understand, but… executing every prisoner is not my style." The man's light smile was tinged with distaste as he continued. "I want everybody to work together. Someday, I want to be one country. Everybody shares their resources and everybody considers themselves fellow citizens of the same great nation. I want to make friends with all the people – not murder them," Ying Ji explained with a sad sigh.
"… Then why don't you just talk? Talk to the leaders of the other states. Tell them to merge," Shen pointed out dryly. "Or at least, that's what my brother would say."
"I've tried, but it's not that simple. Right now the most plausible way is for me, the Emperor of the strongest state, to take over everybody else. Of course, I want to minimize casualties and get quick surrenders rather than long, bloody battles," Ying Ji added hastily, turning now to give Shen a rather imploring look. "That's why, I think having a stupidly oppressive strength on my army will help reduce the amount of bloodshed, because the enemy will think twice about picking a fight instead of surrendering."
"… You mean…?" Shen said in a low voice, struggling to read the man's suggestive gaze.
Ying Ji chuckled musingly and admitted with a rather guilty smile, "Ah, I wasn't going to tell you so soon. But I'm thinking of asking you to join my war effort – of course, only when everything going on with your clan is settled."
"Oh," Shen nodded in realization, straightening and pausing to give it some thought. What an intriguing idea… fighting in a war. He had never fought anything but prey before – the lycan clans, although there was tension because of the illness, had always been at peace, and no external force dared to interfere. His clumsy strength felt rather useless – it wasn't like he could fight illness with it, after all. It would be nice to put his only asset towards helping somebody, for once. "Sure, why not," he heard himself say airily, aware of his friend's eyes widening in prompt surprise. "Everybody says fighting is the only thing I'm good at. I'm sure my clan would be glad that I'm gone for a while."
"Shenriku my friend, always so hard on yourself," Ying Ji spoke up in an exasperated huff. He wrapped an arm around the lycan's shoulders and pulled them close again, then lifted his other hand up to point at the flowers. "I wish I could tell you that's not true, but I too know how hostile it can feel even within your own home. The best place is under the blue sky, listening to the song of the Yellow River and sharing an honest conversation with one good friend," the man said in a deep, poetic voice.
Shen felt himself smile in amusement, but he allowed the emperor a moment of dramatic enlightenment. Even when the moment passed, they continued to sit there, leaning together in silence, watching the wind rustle past the flowering branches. Shen found himself relaxing again, lulled by the peaceful sense of detachment that he felt from his responsibilities. But eventually, as always, Ying Ji broke the silence with an apologetic sigh.
"Well… I must go, before someone thinks I've been assassinated," the man said dryly, rising to his feet and fixing his gold-threaded robes. He gave Shen a warm smile first. "Thank you for coming to see me, Shen. I will pray for your clan and for your father's full recovery."
"Sure," Shen agreed with an awkward half-wave of his hand. Ying Ji chuckled, mimicked his wave, then turned his back and walked briskly away, leaving him to sit alone under the falling petals of the flowering Mongolian tree.
Every time he went to visit his friend, Shen would find himself in a strange mood for several hours after. It was closest to a sense of detachment from reality, but at the same time not quite. Perhaps it was really just his own jumbled confusion and disbelief – that he, a lycan who hadn't been able hide his ears and tail until he turned sixteen, a lone wolf who didn't know how to interact even with his own clanmates, had befriended a human. The Emperor of the humans. Every time as Shen padded through the forest, his golden eyes would gaze unseeingly into the dense foliage as he remembered the dream-like bench under the Mongolian tree and the luxurious palace walls shimmering faintly in the distance. Detachment, or confusion, or disbelief… whatever it was, the sensation grew thick and heavy in his chest. But even through his distraction, as Shen brushed past large ferns guarding their entrance and stepped into the clearing where Raoul's camp lay, he noticed the scent right away.
… Smells nice – that was the first, and unconscious, thought that ran through his head as Shen morphed and stepped onto the soft, flattened dirt path with his bare feet.
The Raoul camp followed a natural clearing in the woods, with only one road that twisted in a boomerang shape. A mixture of humble wooden buildings and fortified earth dens lined either side of the road. The Alpha residence was next to their ceremonial altar at the very end of the camp, and as Shen headed there to look for his brother, he became aware of his clanmates acting strangely.
He didn't say hello to anybody – if anybody caught his eye, they would dip their heads in respect but continue their way, and he had never been able to unstick his tongue fast enough to give passing greetings. But today, everybody seemed to pause in their daily work to gaze at him and whisper to their companions. Shen didn't react to it at first, but as he turned the corner and caught a second whiff of the scent, he felt himself bristle in sudden realization.
A human! Putting two and two together, Shen parted his lips in an agitated growl and ran forward, towards his home. Bursting through the open doorway, he ran inside with loud creaking footsteps and skidded to a halt in the doorway of his father's room.
"Oh, he's back." Zhen, who had been standing close to the door, chimed brightly and went over to Shen. Wrapping an arm firmly around his brother's shoulders, he dragged Shen inside the room, teeth flashing in a sharp grin. "You should see the look on your face, brother."
My face? What's wrong with it? Shen, who had frozen in abrupt shock upon seeing their unexpected guest, blinked and quickly tried to shove his brother away with a snarl. But Zhen clung onto him stubbornly, jaw clenching a bit as he resisted Shen's strength. Not wanting to start a full-blown tussle in front of their bedridden father, Shen scowled and turned instead to glare at the human. But as he met her wide blue eyes, he felt his throat clench up in sudden resistance.
"… Shenriku…" In that time, his father spoke up in a hoarse voice and lifted a hand from his bed, waving at them to come closer. Zhen obeyed, forcing his brother to shuffle forward as well.
"Father," Shen greeted the old lycan grudgingly, averting his gaze. If he looked at his father, he would see the human in his peripheral vision, and for some reason it felt as though she were blinding him somehow with her pale skin and wide blue eyes. "Who is this?" he growled, struggling to keep his gaze from wandering back towards the human.
"This is Janna von Tethys, a human," their father explained, a musing tone in his rasp already as he observed his son's grimace. "She comes from the…" as he broke off in a sudden bought of coughing, Shen looked over in worry and saw the human also step forward and touch his father's arm.
A loud snarling instantly erupted from his chest, and Shen stomped forward, only to be held back by Zhen's ready grasp. "Who said you could touch him –"
"Father said it's fine," Zhen sighed, sounding completely unsurprised as he struggled to hold the growling lycan back with a grimace.
But Shen couldn't control himself. It felt like the more he continued to gaze into the human's startled blue eyes, the greater the aggravation in his chest grew. "Don't touch him with your filthy hands –" he continued snarling instead.
"Hey! Shen, c'mon," Zhen protested indignantly, gritting his teeth and reeling his brother in properly. Wrapping both arms firmly around Shen's chest, he gave his brother a firm squeeze, but it wasn't enough to stop his murderous snarling.
"Shenriku," his father spoke up dismally between coughs, but the human silenced him with a meaningful look and a pat on the arm, then straightened and turned to face Shen.
"Shenriku Kanare, is it?" The human gave him a smile, and he was forced to flinch away from the invisible but blinding light emanating from her. Despite his obvious hostility, she for some reason continued to approach, and as Shen dragged his wincing gaze back towards her, he saw her stretch a hand out towards him.
"Janna, I don't know if that's a good idea…" Even Zhen sounded a little dubious as his embrace tightening painfully around Shen. "He's a little… er, overprotective."
The human paused and gazed up at Zhen with a questioning look, but then smiled and finished the gesture. Shen flinched as the human's hand touched his arm – her fingers were ice cold to the touch, yet somehow the tingles that ran up his arm and into his chest felt warm. Unnerved, he let out an instinctive growl and narrowed his eyes at her in a glare.
"Wow," the human interrupted him, removing her hand and smiling up at him with wide, intrigued eyes. "There is so much power running through your body. I didn't expect Zhen's twin brother to be so different in so many ways," she added with a more meaningful smile thrown at Zhen, who grinned sheepishly back.
"Don't address my brother so casually, he is an Alpha and the Raoul's next Leader –" Shen snarled, only to break off suddenly himself when she turned and beamed at him.
Ugh, so bright… Promptly blinded by the look, he winced and lowered his gaze.
"I know. And I'm Janna. I'm from the west, but I've lived on the outskirts of the Middle Country studying their medicine for some time. I'm a doctor," she spoke in that bright, soft voice of hers as she gave him a nod but walked backwards to return to the Leader's side. Turning to the old lycan, she lifted her arm to his quilt-clad chest and smiled gently. "I've come to help."
"We don't need your help," Shen snarled, struggling free of Zhen's grip finally and keeping his brother away with a lifted arm to indicate that he wasn't planning on doing anything stupid. Narrowing his eyes, he glared at the human's ears, wrapped neatly in dark red curls, and struggled to piece his thoughts together. "We don't need a human's help. We're not beasts, we have our own doctors."
"Shenriku, enough." His father spoke up firmly this time. Shen hesitated, but fell silent and lowered his bristling shoulders slightly, turning his gaze resentfully to the side. The old lycan coughed once, but then continued in an airy, relaxed voice. "Our methods have failed to tame this illness. Janna wandered in, explained herself very respectfully to us, and within the hours that you were gone, have made me feel much better with only a massage. She says she is fascinated by the lycan, and she wants to live with us and learn about us. In exchange she will help us cure the illness."
"I don't believe it," Shen growled, crossing his arms and throwing her a glare, only to avert his gaze again when she turned to meet his eye with a faint, crooked smile. Shit. Why can't I look at her? Even more aggravated now, he huffed angrily and blurted whatever came to mind. "The illness came from a human. How could a human possibly help us? She might as well come and make us more sick!"
"Shen…" Zhen said in a low, warning tone, at the same time their father interrupted the dark atmosphere with a raspy chuckle.
"Oh, my son, I don't expect you to accept a stranger so soon. But the illness has caused tension with the Sreki now, and it would be good to resolve this matter soon. I am willing to take whatever hope she offers.
"Haven't you forgotten our vow? We promised to the Sreki that we wouldn't get too close with the humans! This won't ease the tension, it'll start a war!" Shen snarled, swinging a fist angrily through the air. "I'll never accept her into our clan!" he declared, turning his back and stomping out of the room with a swish of his robes.
"Sometimes, I wonder if that boy was supposed to be a Sreki…" his father's weary sigh escorted him out, followed by Zhen's fading apologetic laugh.
"Sorry Janna, my brother isn't usually that thorny, I swear, he must be having a bad day…"
The last few words exchanged between his family lingered with the painful confusion poisoning his conscience and Shen gritted his teeth, snarling to himself as he morphed and leapt for the comforting shade of the foliage.
I'm not being thorny! he yelped indignantly inside his head, bowling past a row of brambles and pausing to shake out the spiky twigs from his coat. But he could only dislodge the physical things – the human's eyes, blue and wide and innocent, remained stuck to his inflamed conscience like a poisonous flower. Hurting him, but drawing him in at the same time.
Something about her isn't right…!