To Rival the Son of Heavens

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For many months Zha Yao slept in tents when he was lucky, and on the ground when he was not. He felt ungrateful for staying outside so much instead of enjoying the palace the governor vacated for his sake. But Kefei's countless gardens promised to clean out the fumes that had been plugging his chest for the past ten years. Mindful of his company, he did not try to hack it out, just breathed deeper than he'd ever had.

Lady Chen Guang gave the lotus pond they stopped by an indifferent look, and he got a critical one. It did not come as a surprise. The governor had told him that the pond was known around the whole province of Shantong as 'The Refuge of the Skydiving Dragonflies'. Zha Yao was known around the whole of the Evershining Empire as the uncouth lout.

Lady Chen Guang wanted this to change tomorrow when every dignitary in Shantong was expected to swear an oath under his black banners. He needed their hearts, not just their allegiance, she said and he agreed.

"My Lord, you must appear animated at all times. A gentler smile, if you please," she instructed, and he tried to fake it.

She was dismayed by the result, and ancestors only knew how he'd read that. He would hurt his face before he could reproduce the blessed animated benevolence radiating from her. Zha Yao breathed in another lungful of the fragrant mid-summer air, "I am Zha Yao, not Han Zheng."

"And I thank the Heavens daily for that, my Lord. Of course, Han's relation to the junior Imperial line could have been beneficial to your claim..." The calculating expression came and went. She knew it would not work. "Let us not digress. Walk with me some more."

She inspected his posture then asked after Ma the Smiley's involvement in repelling the surprise attack by the Silverclaw demon nation in Quantong. Zha Yao duly praised the man's wise strategy.

Lady Chen Guang beamed. "Tonight's might seem a small affair compared to the morrow's, but it is crucial that your sworn knights love you as brothers would."

"You haven't met my brothers," Zha Yao chortled.

"You are fortunate they live yet, My Lord. Wo Jia executed all of mine because I made a mistake," she said with a pleasant smile.

She wanted perfection. He was a far cry from it, but he was Zha Yao. "The five knights will be bound to me by love and respect by the morrow. I'll embrace them under a peach tree if I have to."

Lady Chen Guang nodded: "A good notion, My Lord. I will arrange that. And for the passersby to witness and comment on the symbolism of it."

He almost bit his lip but restrained himself at the last possible moment. Emperors do not chew their lips. Still, him likened to the most beloved Prince Yan Tong of the Dynasty of Purifying Glory and his sworn companions?! Well, let them, if they are fools enough. "Please, do not arrange for a brace of dragons for my new brothers to fight."

"Are you sure, My Lord? That would cement your reputation as a warrior among the warriors." For a moment he thought she was serious, but she let him off the hook with an unexpectedly warm smile. A sincere smile. Ancestors only knew how he'd read that too.

"And speaking of the real dragons, My Lord. I implore you to convince Deserving Du to stop ruffling old Zhenshi's feathers."

Demons take the decorum! He grinned like a storyteller's lecher mask. "As soon as my sworn sister returns, I will do all the convincing you left me time for."

Lady Chen Guang's impeccable breeding had held out against cruder barrages than that. "Do find time to recuperate, My Lord. You must not appear weary or troubled. With your permission, I shall now leave your presence to seek out a suitable peach tree."

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