Author's Note: Happy Valentine's Day! The following is actually a Christmas present I wrote for a friend, who agreed I could share it with all of you.
Ling Yao, Emperor of Xing, wondered if it was possible to fall asleep on the dias and, if so, if anyone in the room would even notice. Not that he disliked being Emperor, but there were days when his hard fought and newly won position was less enjoyable than others. Being all powerful is sort of like being forced to be everyone's babysitter.
Today his advisors and those petitioners from various Provinces had come with a variety of the most menial complaints and issues he could imagine needing an Emperor's time. Flooding in the Southernmost Province was certainly a serious matter, but did he really have to approve the exact shade of burgundy for the draperies being used to decorate the largest hall in the Imperial Palace for tomorrow night's festival? Was it absolutely necessary for him to sit and listen to the recitation of the several hundred person list of those who had accepted the invitations? It consisted of pretty much everyone on the list who had been invited anyway.
Now, sampling several dozen different recipes had been a rather enjoyable task! But that had been the only one today. Ling was beginning to feel that he was in grave danger of actually passing out right there.
"That's enough for today, councilor," he waved his hand, abruptly cutting off the rather extensive list of Nang family members who had agreed to come. "I have other business to attend." With that he stood, and strode out the side door of his audience chamber without another word. He was Emperor, no matter his age, and they would treat him as such if they wished to keep their jobs.
His slippers padding on the hall and the swish of his robes were not the only sound that followed him. No matter how silent they moved, he could always tell the presence of his guards. Ling even knew who it was without having to look. Masks meant nothing when he had handpicked his Imperial personal guard. In this case, the person behind him practically reeked of disapproval.
Ling's lips quirked into a smile. "You disapprove, Lan Fan?"
A hesitation, but he knew she would speak. He expected it and she would not stay silent knowing he expected it. If she had an opinion, she would have to share. He had ordered it of her. "You push them too hard too soon. They are not yet won to you. Their loyalty is only to the Imperial throne."
"I have to push them," Ling disagreed. "They have to know that I am Emperor, and I will act as I please. Their job is not to like me, Lan Fan. Their job is to respect me and give me the information I need to run my Empire."
"It took two years to quell the war, Master," she replied firmly. "Now you have invited all the Clans together for the first time in a long time. None of them know what to expect from you, and all of them bring what they think you want most."
"Their daughters?" Ling's smile widened. "That is what they ought to expect, isn't it?" The last Emperor's wives were not Ling's. He had settled them all handsomely and returned them to their families if they wished to go. Others remained in the Palace, but it was understood that they were widows; he wanted none of the women his father had touched. So every Clan was sending their most eligible young woman – several in most cases – in the hopes of placating Ling, or winning the 'young upstart Emperor' over to show more favor to them over others.
"It is tradition," Lan Fan agreed.
"So are many things," Ling replied, not bothering to elaborate.
They walked down the hall for several seconds in silence. "What business are we attending to, Master?"
"I'm hungry," Ling shrugged. "I wanted a snack."
Beneath the mask, he sensed she was smiling.
Lan Fan did not linger in her bath, no matter how pleasant the steaming water or the light scent of wild irises and cherry blossom rising from it. She did not have security detail over Ling again until tomorrow evening's festival, but that did not mean she did not have plenty to do with what little personal time she was given.
She stepped out of the bath, long hair dripping on the smooth floors as she wrapped herself in a robe and moved into her little personal chamber. The Emperor's personal guards were treated very well. But then, Lan Fan knew all of them were picked from Ling's most loyal guards and soldiers during the fight to end the civil war and put Ling on the throne. She had helped pick them personally.
Lan Fan stopped abruptly when she saw a female servant standing by her bed. A box had been set down on it. "What's this?" she asked.
The servant girl bowed deeply. "I am told the Emperor said only that it was your new uniform for tomorrow evening."
Uniform? "Thank you. You may go." Lan Fan removed the top of the box carefully, and peered inside, reaching down with one hand.
Fine silk met her fingers, in gold and burgundy, the brocaded burgundy in gold thread picking out branches of cherry blossom trees in flower. With both her hands, Lan Fan picked it up, revealing it to be the outer robe of a complete outfit including a soft golden belt and gold and white under robes, and burgundy embroidered slippers for her feet. The sleeves were horribly impractical, at least in her opinion. She supposed they would do, though they flowed more than she liked.
It was beautiful, but it was not a uniform. What could he be thinking? She wouldn't look official at all in this! It was simply unthinkable to wear it on duty and he clearly expected her to. Face flushing, Lan Fan stuck it all back in the box and quickly got dressed in the most basic and austere of her personal outfits. It was practically her uniform. Black and gray were all she needed; though off-duty she had no need of her mask. Loose pants and black brocade – she did not like the brocade, but Ling insisted his body guards dress 'better than peasants' as he put it – and it would have to do.
Quietly, Lan Fan slipped out of her quarters with the box and made her way through the private passageways of the Palace that allowed her movement with minimal chance of being seen.
She scowled at the look of surprise on Shang Lu's face when she appeared in front of the new guard at Ling's door. "Is he in?"
"Yes, Guard Captain," Lu's face flushed.
"I need to speak with him."
Too curt, apparently. Lu looked concerned. "Yes, Captain." He stepped out of the way, letting her in.
"Be more alert," she cautioned him as she entered Ling's personal apartment. Ostentatious enough for an Emperor, but not nearly as bad as what they had cleared out that had belonged to his father. The bed was still hugely luxurious to her mind.
But Ling was not on his bed. Nor was he lounging on any of the over-plush furniture in the apartment. Instead, he sat on the floor in front of a long, low table covered in papers, pouring over them with a serious intensity he rarely showed even in public. He wore a pair of soft cream pants not unlike those he had always preferred, if of better material, and was clearly not far off from sleep. His damp hair bespoke his own recent bath, though he remained shirtless. From where he sat, aside from the bit of his profile, most of what Lan Fan could see was his back.
The past couple of years had changed Ling. It was hard for such things not to; a war, the Emperor's death, the necessary deaths of several of Ling's own half-brothers and sisters – many not of his own doing – in order to secure power and end the internal open conflicts that had threatened to tear the Empire apart.
The long, thin scar line running across Ling's side reminded Lan Fan painfully of the battle of Mar-shan Province. Even blocking with her auto-mail arm, she had failed to keep Ling from that injury. He was often more serious, occasionally brooding, though only when he thought no one who mattered would notice. But there were physical changes too. He was yet again taller than he had been, his shoulders had broadened and his musculature developed. Her Master was a man now, and not a boy. He was no longer the 'young prince.' It did not matter that he was still only eighteen; his soul was older than that now.
Ling did not turn around. "Did you need something, Lan Fan?"
Of course he knew who it was. He always did, infuriating man. Lan Fan held up the box. "Is this a joke… Master?"
"It is not."
Confusion filled her. "You can't honestly expect me to wear this."
"What's wrong? Is it not pretty enough?"
Pretty? "I… well it is pretty."
"Is the fabric bad?"
"No, it's very well made."
"Is it the wrong size?"
How… had he really just asked… "I haven't tried it on."
"Then I don't see the problem." Ling stood in one fluid motion and turned around. He looked surprisingly serious despite the levity she had sensed in his tone. "You will wear it, Lan Fan. If you refuse, I will find someone else to protect me tomorrow."
Lan Fan had to fight to snap her mouth shut. An order… he had made wearing this… an order. "Yes, Your Imperial Majesty." She bowed stiffly, tweaking him. He hated it when she called him by a proper formal title. Confused, and feeling strangely betrayed, Lan Fan turned to go.
When she left, Yu jumped nearly a foot in the air. He definitely needed some more training. Perhaps with the sword, tomorrow morning, at dawn.
It was a glittering sight that would have made anyone with even a slight inkling to want power insanely jealous. The palace's grand assembly room swarmed with the heads of all the families of Xing, from every Province and every Clan of even middling importance, and every one of them had brought not one – but two or three daughters, nieces, or even relatively young sisters or aunts they thought might be appealing to the young Emperor.
What Ling found amusing, was the fact that they assumed he was as lecherous as the man who had sired him. Not that they weren't beautiful women! Almost to a fault they were beautiful; slender waists, nicely built women with lovely faces and well-kept appearances. Some were clearly beauties, and even the homeliest was passing pretty. Ling would have preferred to move among them – and he had done so briefly earlier – but he was sitting in state at the head of the room, and they were all obliged to introduce the ladies themselves as they greeting him with all proper deference.
The one female face in the crowd he was surprisingly pleased to see, was that of little miss Mei Chan, now beginning to flower into her own womanhood, though still too young for his tastes. Her family was quite happy to make that reintroduction – Ling could tell they hoped that their previous meeting across the desert would smooth the way for more. He had been kind and sparing of her Clan, as promised, in the war of reunification. The Chan and Yao had put aside their differences in an uneasy peace that was solidifying by the day.
"It's a pleasure to see you again," Ling smiled as Mei inclined her head in a bow of full respect. He hoped her family wasn't serious. Mei was his half-sister.
Mei smiled. "I am glad to see you looking well, Imperial Majesty."
"Come, talk with me," Ling smiled and gestured for her to sit beside him, one step below.
Mei sat gracefully, and her family moved away, clearly to give them time to speak privately. "What would you like to speak of, Imperial Majesty?"
"First, in private, I'm still Ling," he chuckled softly, below the music. "Really, I'm just glad to see you. I also heard a rumor… that Alphonse Elric has been visiting the Chan family?"
Mei's cheeks flushed, and Ling had more than enough answer! "He has been learning alkahestry from me, yes," she replied calmly.
"Is he still here?" Ling asked curiously. "You should have brought him."
"My family did not think it… pertinent," Mei sighed. "I told them you would like it, but they didn't believe me, and Alphonse was too polite to argue."
"Of course he was." Ling nodded understandingly. "Well I will make sure to issue an official invitation then. I can't have him in my Empire without coming by to say hello."
Had he insisted she wear this foolish outfit only so she could feel uncomfortable while she watched him flirt with hundreds of women? Not that Lan Fan had any reason to be particularly jealous of a little girl like Mei, especially not after all they had been through. Why would she be jealous of any of them, really? Jealousy was beneath her.
But Ling seemed to be having too good a time in her opinion. As the evening wore on, with the feasting and music – and sake – he did move down into the crowd, speaking with several of the women on a more individual and personal basis. Lan Fan followed, hating every moment of it as they kept glancing at her. Darn him! She would have been more invisible in her uniform. The only sign that she was there as a guard was the fact that she insisted on wearing her mask. They didn't know what woman was in that dress, only that she was a guard. Ling had given her a look of disapproval, but had not told her to remove it. She did not care if it looked slightly absurd. At least no one recognized her. Except the other guards, who she was sure were laughing at their Captain behind their own masks.
It was almost a relief when Ling tore himself away from a long-haired beauty whose robe neckline stopped just barely short of acceptable, and returned to the dias. He excused himself briefly, and stepped behind the curtain. "Come with me," he told Lan Fan curtly.
He probably needs to relieve himself, she thought as she followed him into the small passageway behind the wall that the curtain covered. As much sake as he's had this evening.
But Ling wasn't walking towards the nearest bathroom. He had stopped, and now he turned around, his face stern. "Take off that mask, Lan Fan."
Trying not to blush furiously, she complied. "My anonymity is part of my job, Master."
There was a pained look behind his eyes, gone in an instant. "I don't want you to wear it anymore."
"This evening?" She asked, confused again. Lately many things he had done left her bewildered, hurt, or confused. She didn't think she liked who he was becoming. She used to be able to read him easily.
"Ever." Ling reached out and took the mask away. Then it was if he had lifted a mask from himself, and he smiled nearly as boyishly as he had at fifteen. It had a very different effect now. "You're much prettier without it."
Compliments… this outfit… Lan Fan glowered at him. "I am your guard Captain, not a flower to be admired."
Ling's smile broadened. "I'm far too aware of that, Lan Fan. Don't act like I don't know you."
Infuriating. Absolutely infuriating. And yet she could hardly scold the Emperor of Xing… could she? "Then if I am to go unmasked, what do you want of me?"
"Isn't that obvious?" he asked duplicitously. "I want you to marry me."
This… this had to be a joke. "Don't be foolish."
"Well it may be foolish," Ling chuckled, apparently not insulted. "But I've also made up my mind."
But how was that even possible? "You… wish my family to be included in your selection?"
He reached out and took both her hands – real and auto-mail – in his. He looked evenly into her eyes. "I would elevate them, yes, but not the way you mean."
"I do not understand."
Had his eyes always been so open, so deep? His clasped hands tightened on hers. "I do not want you to be one of my wives, Lan Fan. I want you to be my only wife, my Empress."
"Is this because you do not trust the other Clans? You would pick a wife who is not among them?" It would be a daring political move.
"That would be a very logical reason for this," Ling agreed. "But no, that's not my reason. I want you by my side, always, Lan Fan, and not just standing behind me with a sword. You are a better person than I am, and I love you."
There was no argument to that. There was no objection to be made. He meant it, and she knew. Her heart betrayed her, pounding hard in her chest. Always loyal, always there to defend, to protect… the Master she loved above anyone else. "What do you want me to say?" she finally asked in little more than a whisper.
Ling stepped in closer. "Whatever you really feel. I know I'm asking you to give up a lot."
For something any woman on the other side of the wall would likely tear apart most of the others to get; the love and hand of the Emperor of Xing; to be his not only as one of many wives, but his only woman. It was such a radical idea… Lan Fan looked back into those eyes. "I… am honored, and I think you know my feelings, or you would not have asked me." She swallowed and nodded down at her garments. "But is this what you would prefer of your Empress?" She had never felt less like herself; not in years.
Ling smiled softly. "It is what Xing needs and expects. I find you lovely in whatever you're wearing." One of his hands left hers, and dared to reach up and touch her cheek. Lan Fan resisted the urge to swat it away. She didn't really want to. "It's never mattered to me, Lan Fan, what you wear. You've given far more for me than I've ever meant to ask of you. It's more than loyalty, and I can't imagine having made it this far without you. I'd have been dead a dozen times over. You're stronger than any woman I've ever known, not just as a fighter, but as a person. You never flinch from duty. You sacrifice for others. When I insist, you even tell me when you don't agree with what I've done," he added with a chuckle. "Who else could I have with me? How could I have another woman beside me, and leave you standing behind? You are my Empress, and I will have no other. So please, I ask again, will you marry me?"
Everyone outside that hallway would explode if it happened. The Clans would be furious, the women insulted. A woman of soldier breeding, from a family who had spent centuries serving the Yao; elevated to an Empress? The idea was absolutely absurd.
And it was so very Ling.
Lan Fan smiled, though she refused to shed tears, even in joy and disbelief. "If that is your desire, it is also mine. I will marry you… Ling."
"Fantastic!" His eyes lit up as he pulled her close in a very passionate – and utterly inappropriate! – kiss.
Lan Fan resisted only the moment it took her to tell her instincts she was not being attacked. She warmed to his embrace, and the kiss parted too soon. An odd, fluttering feeling came over her; a sort of daring she had never allowed herself to feel. Startled, she stepped back, even though she smiled. "Careful, you'll wrinkle my uniform."
"An Empress' uniform," Ling let her go, though he kept a hold of her flesh hand. "I'm glad you're brave, because it's time to introduce you to the rest of the Empire."
Lan Fan squeezed his hand before they let go together. Formalities must be maintained, even if it was not to display too much affection in public. They would face the coming tempest together.
Ling paused momentarily as he went to step back out, and winked.
Affection… she was going to enjoy getting used to it.