37 His Majesty

The silence in the banquet hall was suffocating. Yan Zheyun had never felt an immeasurable pressure like this before, with the most powerful individuals in the realm watching him like vultures, waiting for him to make the slightest misstep before going in for the kill.

And despite this, he found that he was struggling to concentrate. He was frightfully lightheaded, the words that had been spoken in that familiar voice echoing in the recesses of his brain like a faulty tape recorder.

How could it be…

"Well? Does this sovereign have to repeat himself?"

Yan Zheyun jolted back to his senses. What was he doing? It didn't matter who the emperor was, even if he was completely bewildered and couldn't understand how things had developed like this. Whether it was a 60-year-old man or the only person he'd ever been intimate with, he could think about that after saving his own ass.

Swallowing past a lump in his throat, he raised his head with excruciating slowness for the emperor to have a better look at his face.

Images of that night in the carriage flashed through his mind but instead of the usual shameful pleasure it gave him, he felt more of a chilling dismay this time.

He'd taken such liberties with the most powerful man in the country. Even though Young Master Huang—

[No, stop. Don't call him that anymore.]

Even though the emperor hadn't punished him for it then, Yan Zheyun wasn't so foolish as to believe it was because the emperor cared for him. He had to be very cautious and not mistake himself to be special.

The emperor didn't speak for a long time, although Yan Zheyun could feel the weight of his intense gaze tracing his face like a physical touch. The platform he'd danced on was made of carved stone, the intricate pattern forming ridges on the floor. These bit into his knee and he had to conceal a grimace of pain while waiting for the emperor's verdict.

He didn't meet the emperor's gaze, his behaviour now as demure and self-deprecating as when they'd first met on the corridor of Meiyue Tower.

[What ill-fate,] he thought with a hint of dismay.

"…Royal Older Brother." The terse atmosphere set the fourth prince at unease. He couldn't understand why Liu Yao would pay such detailed attention to a mere dancer. Liu Yao's expression was impassive and it was impossible at the best of times to guess what he was thinking, let alone when he was purposefully concealing his thoughts, such as now. Could it be that his holier than thou older brother had finally taken an interest in the mortal pursuits of desire? "This brother-subject feels that the dancer must be tired after that outstanding performance. Perhaps we could let him retire and continue with the festivities—"

"Liu Wei."

The fourth prince flinched imperceptibly. "Yes, Royal Older Brother?"

The emperor turned that inexplicable gaze onto him. "Would you blame your royal older brother if he asks you for a favour?"

A stirring of unrest broke out among the guests as they tried to exchange glances subtly. But their behaviour didn't go amiss to the eyes of those seated above them. The emperor paid them no heed as he met his young brother's eyes levelly.

"O-of course not," the fourth prince said with a weak smile. "What would Royal Older Brother ask of me, just say the word and this brother-subject will do his best to meet expectations."

A small, fond smile spread across the emperor's lips but the fourth prince couldn't tell how much of it was an act. The emperor reached out and patted his brother on the shoulder, giving it a squeeze at the end that was just a bit too firm and making the fourth prince's blood run cold. The fourth prince started second-guessing whether this enigmatic brother of his knew more about his dealings with the Wu Household than he'd previously let on.

"In which case, this sovereign will have to ask you to forgive his shamelessness because he has his sights on your new gift. What of it? Can you bear to part with such a new precious treasure?"

This time around, the guests could no longer hide their incredulity, openly exchanging looks of disbelief. Was this really the emperor talking?! Emperor Xuanjun was renowned for his ascetic ways and more than one of the officials with daughters in his harem had received insider news that the Emperor hardly, if ever, visited the inner palace. For him to ask for a lowly dancer—and a man at that!

Although, that latter point wasn't so surprising, was it? The older officials, the ones who had already been in positions of power during the previous emperor's reign, knew more than their younger counterparts. They were aware of the rumours that had surrounded Emperor Xuanjun as crown prince. But that person was already dead and the emperor had never shown signs of interest in another man before…

Behind the screen dividers, the ladies of the court weren't in a better state. But instead of the disapproval of the men, there was a stronger scent of jealousy and envy in the air here. Quite a few of the young mistresses who were in attendance, such as Liang Hui's daughter, Wu Yusi, had come intending to try to catch the emperor's fancy before the next selection of beauties, which the emperor had already agreed to hold at the end of winter. They were dressed to the nines in the hopes of stumbling upon a romantic coincidence and skipping the process. But instead, it was a lowly boy slave that the emperor looked at.

"Well?" the emperor asked when the fourth prince failed to reply. "Or has this sovereign put his royal younger brother on the spot?"

The fourth prince snapped out of it. Still, he couldn't disguise the reluctance in his voice as he said, "No, of course not. If Royal Older Brother has taken an interest in this brother-subject's gift, then it is this brother-subject's honour." He waved a hand at the minister of rites. "Minister of Rites Wu, this gift will shine more brightly in my royal older brother's harem than mine, this prince trusts that you have no issue with that?"

"This subject wouldn't dare take issue! It is also this subject's honour that His Majesty appreciates the gift!"

The Minister of Rites lowered his forehead to the ground. Beads of sweat dripped onto the carpet beneath him, turning its auspicious red into a darker, rusty shade that reminded him of dried blood. What on earth was going on? The events of the day had long since spiralled out of his control and he couldn't help but think back in horror on the terrible way he'd treated Yan Zheyun in the past. As a casual plaything of the fourth prince, Yan Zheyun wouldn't have much leverage against the Wu Household. Wu Shengqi was even confident that the fourth prince would reward the Wu Household handsomely, if not with an allegiance, then at least to assist Wu Bin in court. And call it a gut feeling but Wu Shengqi had seen many people in his long stint in court. He didn't think the fourth prince, despite the generous impression he gave, was the sort to assist a mere pet in addressing his grievances.

But now, the helpless slave had clung onto a higher branch. The unprecedented interest the emperor was showing him set off warning bells in Wu Shengqi's head. If the little wretch used this opportunity to earn the emperor's favour and whisper words of condemnation in his ear in bed at night…

He couldn't help but sneak a peek at the lonely figure kneeling on the platform. Despite how tired the slave must be, despite how numb his legs must feel, his posture remained upright with pride. His small face was pale with exhaustion or maybe fear but his expression remained placid like he wasn't currently in the eye of the storm.

Still waters ran deep. Wu Shengqi was beginning to realise that perhaps he'd been played by his own foolish chess piece.

If Yan Zheyun knew what he was thinking, he'd have laughed aloud with scorn. But this wasn't the moment to gloat. His heart had soared as he'd listened to the conversation between the emperor and the fourth prince. He had achieved his objective. Finally. After a year, he was finally escaping from the clutches of Scumbag 1 and 2, as well as his tenuous position in the Wu Household.

But he wasn't as happy as he thought he'd be. Sure, there was relief but there was also a small pang in his chest that he resolutely refused to consider.

"It's settled then," the emperor decided. He stood up, which was an unspoken signal for the guests to rise from their low seats on the ground, step to the side, and lower their heads in a bow that reflected their rank.

Yan Zheyun alone remained kneeling as he heard the emperor approach but he slid the other leg beneath him, going from one knee on the floor to two, also ensuring that he placed the prop sword a safe distance behind him. He was about to lower his head once more in a show of veneration when a hand reached out to cup his chin, guiding it back up with a gentleness that left a bittersweet tang in Yan Zheyun's mouth.

This time, he had no choice but to meet the emperor's eyes. They were as dark as he remembered, even though it had been dim in the carriage then and brighter now in the glow of candlelight. He felt like he could drown in their unfathomable depths but where he'd once secretly relished in that idea, he now found it intimidating.

"What's your name?" the emperor asked.

Yan Zheyun's eyes widened. Did the emperor not know? He was certain everyone else had already recognised him, Yan Yun's face was a trademark in and of itself—

Before Yan Zheyun could reply, a gravelly solemn voice interjected from the left.

"Your Majesty." The speaker was the grand protector, one of the oldest officials of the court, who had already served two generations of rulers before Emperor Xuanjun. His granddaughter was also one of two noble consorts in the harem and was the current holder of the phoenix seal, which made her the most powerful woman in the inner palace after the empress dowager. She had once been the crown princess and if it hadn't been for an unfortunate incident, she should have become empress a long time ago.

It was common knowledge that because of this slight, the grand protector and the emperor did not get along. Yan Zheyun didn't know about the politics behind it but he could tell just from the way the emperor tensed up slightly at the grand protector's words that he wasn't happy to see him.

"What is it?" the emperor asked.

The grand protector deepened his respectful bow. His manners were faultless and the emperor had to maintain a civil front or risk looking like a child throwing a tantrum.

"Your Majesty, this old subject recognises this slave," the grand protector said. "He is Yan Yun, the son of the felon Yan Guozun, who committed treason against the nation! This old subject begs Your Majesty to please reconsider accepting him into your harem—"

"Grand Protector," the emperor interrupted. "How many palace maids and eunuchs are the children of convicts?"

"This…" The grand protector hesitated. "It's not the same, Your Majesty—"

"Why is it not? Aren't they all persons in this sovereign's immediate vicinity? Or are you that concerned that the Yulin Army would fall short of the task of protecting this sovereign?" There was a sudden, dangerous glint in the emperor's eyes as he looked at the grand protector. Yan Zheyun, who was still looking up at him, noticed it. The emperor was a real dichotomy, he decided, so much younger than Yan Zheyun had expected, and even now, he sounded a bit like an unreasonable tyrant in the way he was insisting on keeping Yan Zheyun despite the concerns for his safety.

But the way he looked at the grand protector was like a hunter stalking its prey. Yan Zheyun couldn't read him, only had bits and bobs of detail from the novel to go on.

The grand protector paled but remained dignified. "This old subject let his concern get the better of him," he said. "This old subject will work to ensure that the Yulin Army would always be adequate to protect Your Majesty."

"Mm. Dismissed."

But the grand protector stubbornly insisted on finishing what he stepped out to do. "This old subject knows that good advice is often hard to swallow," he said stiffly. "But Your Majesty, a word of caution against inviting wolves into the home."

Yan Zheyun lowered his lashes modestly as the emperor looked back down at him with a raised eyebrow.


"If Your Majesty just wants to play, then, of course, that's fine, but a mere slave and dancer does not require too high a rank."

A couple of other officials concurred. "Yes, Your Majesty, the grand protector has a point." Another old official stepped out of the ranks to bow and speak. Yan Zheyun couldn't tell his title just by looking at him but the ornate embroidery on his formal court robes indicate that he was of high status. "According to the rules by the ancestors, male concubines start at a lower rank than females and also, slaves of either gender have to start right at the bottom, as third-class attendants."

Yan Zheyun felt rather than heard the emperor laugh. Despite the upwards curve of the emperor's lips, however, Yan Zheyun had the impression that he was angry.

He realised with a start that he was already subconsciously attempting to predict the imperial mood. This was going to be his life from now on.

"Finished lecturing?" the emperor said. He addressed the hall at large. "Are all of you done?" His last word rang out sharply and everyone dropped to their knees. "A whole roomful of men trying to sort out the rankings in this sovereign's inner palace. Since when did this kingdom have so many dowagers, hm?"

Trembling in tandem, the guests kowtowed. "Your Majesty, please quell your anger!"

Yan Zheyun tried to mimic them but paused when he felt the emperor's resistance. He remained obediently on his knees but gazed up at the emperor with big, trusting eyes.

The emperor's lips tightened.

"Pass on this sovereign's verbal edict," he commanded. "Yan Yun, in his performance at the fourth prince's banquet, has pleased this sovereign greatly with his remarkable talents and stunning visage. Hence, this sovereign confers upon him the title of First-class Attendant…"

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