Excerpt: The Luxury of Vengeance

Once upon a time, he had dreamed of succeeding his father to the Throne of a Thousand Swords. It was his destiny, his mother had explained. Those dreams had been filled with the idyllic peace that only children could conceive. And then she had died, and Chien had been left only with his dream of the day he would finally take his aunt’s head and return honor to the Throne of a Thousand Swords. Thirteen long years of planning, of arranging it so that each death would not raise suspicion. Now that the end was so close, he could scarcely believe it.

And with its being so close, he would have to be more careful than ever. There would be no worse fate than to have spent all those years in vain simply because he had grown too impatient at the end. Coming here to eavesdrop on the Empress was a stupid risk, especially since things were already falling into place, but sometimes the best way to gather information was to listen in himself.

If they found him in the tiny servant’s hallway, there would be no good excuse for his presence. But he doubted she would even think to check the hallway. Few knew about it. It had been built before Chien’s time as a way for servants to enter quietly and clear food from the Emperor’s room. Considering the small size of the hallway, Chien didn’t have to wonder too hard why that tradition had not lasted long.

The general might have found him there. He seemed to have a sense for appearing wherever Chien least wanted him. Thankfully, he had left two weeks ago, though he was due back that night. General Bao had quickly risen in Empress Mai’s ranks. Chien had heard the stories of the man before he’d had the chance to meet him, a soldier who had distinguished himself on the battlefield at a young age. His superiors had taken great offence when he had been promoted so quickly.

And then he had shown quite a bit of interest in Chien. Intense stares though he seemed reluctant to actually speak to him. Chien had believed that Bao was keeping a watch on him for his aunt until one night when he had found himself cornered in his private garden while he trained. Then the general had made it clear that his interest was purely personal and Chien had seen the value in such a liaison.

Except of late he had to wonder who had control of that situation. He thought with twin feelings of annoyance and fondness of the general’s goodbye a fortnight ago. The press of bodies had been nice, the pleasure almost overwhelming, but it was the aftermath that refused to leave Chien’s mind. He had thrown a careless arm over Chien as if it were the most natural thing in the world and held him. After that, Chien had been hard pressed to convince himself that he still held control of this relationship, that he was only using the general and had not grown attached.

Bao had leaned over until his lips brushed Chien’s ears and whispered, “Perhaps if you behave yourself, I’ll bring you a present home.”

Chien had been too exhausted to give much more than a huff of laughter, “Something shiny and colorful I hope.” He’d nearly asked for something more. It was difficult to remember that he was supposed to play the role of the dolt prince, especially around a man who refused to treat him as such. Not for the first time he had found himself wondering what it might have been like to have a true relationship with Bao. But there was no point in wondering of things that would never be. Bao was not loyal to him. He had to keep reminding himself of that.

Rather than answer him, Bao’s hand caressed a finger up his spine which made Chien squirm and pull away. His body tried valiantly to react as it always did when Bao touched him, “Please Chien, stay out of trouble.”

“When am I ever in trouble?” He couldn’t even get his damned body under control. He squirmed away when Bao began tracing his spine once more and rolled over to glare at him.

Bao did not seem affected by his annoyance however. His expression remained serious as he stared Chien directly in the eyes. “This is a dangerous game you’re playing. Politics are not for the weak.” Bao knew nothing, just enough to make a few small assumptions, but it still made him pull back further and wrap the blanket around himself as a shield.

“No, it is not.” Chien agreed. Politics were not for the weak, which was why he was the only person who could wade through this and put a stop to his aunt.

Bao stared at him for a long moment, and Chien sensed that it was a test of some sort. He put the most innocent of expressions onto his face. Bao must have sensed he would not get anything further and sighed in annoyance as he pulled himself to his feet and began to dress. Chien allowed himself to enjoy the sight, the roll of tanned skin over tight muscles. It was not until Bao looked back at him that Chien realized that he had a goofy smile on his face.

While Bao secured his weapon, Chien asked lazily, “So where are you headed at any rate?”

Bao frowned at him but answered, “The Xing province.”

The Xing province was in the eastern part of the kingdom and had long been a part of the empire. There was no risk of rebellion there. To his knowledge the governor of that province was focused on keeping his people as peaceful as possible in hopes that the Empress’s gaze would not turn upon them. His mother had come from the Xing province. She’d once told Chien that moving to the palace had been a different experience entirely.

“Why the Xing province?”

“The Empress is searching for—Why do you want to know?” Bao stopped himself.

“Merely curious. You’ll be gone for so long.” Bao did not look fooled. Chien couldn’t help but wonder why the Empress would send Bao to Xing? To search for something? Her favorite general? Then it occurred to him: Mai was searching for the sword of heaven.

It was written in their history that long ago, when Gods walked the earth, so too had the Dragon. His name had been lost to time, but he had grown fond of humans and their ingenuity. Before he ascended to heaven, he granted one man the insight that would allow him to bring humanity into greatness. That man had become the first Emperor and his throne the Throne of a Thousand Swords so that he might serve as the Dragon’s avatar upon earth.

Since then, only the strongest were permitted to sit upon the throne, their worthiness proven by the blessing of the Dragon in the form of the Sword of Heaven. The last Chien had seen of it, his mother had taken it to the temple following his father’s death. Obviously his aunt believed that his mother had hidden it near her home.

Bao leaned down and caught Chien’s lips in a hard kiss. “I shall see you upon my return.”

Chien knew he ought to have said no then, but he’d kept silent as always. The politics he could handle, but this swirl of feelings for Bao, the way his heart seemed to beat faster every time he saw Bao, the disappointment he felt knowing he would not see Bao for the next couple of weeks, that was something beyond him.

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