In his defense, he'd planned everything expertly.

They were in the Throne Room (they only place they could be alone these days, it seemed) on a leisurely afternoon. She was at his side, as always, with her mask shielding her beautiful face (he'd told her on several occasions it was okay to remove it, and at each request she'd denied). He knew she wouldn't appreciate a big commotion, so he knew now was an acceptable moment. She also wasn't one to favor jewelry, and as the result, a small gold band rested in his palm, fingers closed tightly around it. She, of course, was not a woman to beat around the bush, so he straightened in his throne, turned to her, and said, almost casually, "Lan Fan? Will you marry me?"

He grinned a grin only Ling was capable of and showed her the ring in his hand. It was going wonderfully, just as planned, and, so, came her steady reply-


He blinked, clearly (and understandably) taken aback. Withdrawing his hand, he looked down at the tiny band, a band that could fit only her finger.

"What do you mean, 'no?'"

Through the slits in her mask, her eyes glinted. "Usually, when someone says no, they mean it as a form of refusal."

"So ... you're refusing my proposal?" he asked dumbly.

"Yes," was her even reply. She half expected him to say "What do you mean, 'yes?'" But for a moment he was silent.

"Okay," he said in a small voice. She glanced over, their air thick as he played the band between his finger tips, back slouched into his throne.

The Emperor of Xing let the matter go for a while. They carried on as usual, as always, because what else was there to do? But he soon became restless, and the ring that was ever in the pocket of his robes made a few more appearances.

In the garden.

At dinner.

Outside her room.

Even in the hallway, if they had a free moment. Always the same question, always the same answer.


Finally, Ling had had enough.

"Why?" he cried, rather loudly, into the corridor.

"Because I decline, Your Highness."

"I'll have you or I'll have no one." Lan Fan was shocked to see he was close to tears.

"Then have no one, Emperor."

"Would you stop calling me that? I'm asking for you to marry me, I think for a moment you can drop the formalities."

"I'm afraid not, Your Excellency." Her eyes flickered.

"Lan Fan, just be honest with me. Why won't you marry me?"

They were now standing in the doorway of Ling's bedroom past nightfall, hardly the time or place for the Emperor of Xing to be throwing a fit.

She would not remove her mask, but she smiled slightly through the mouth's opening.

"My duty is to protect you. Being your wife, swathed in silks and careful hair arrangements and only seeing you at nights while you spend your days with another subordinate is not a lifestyle that suits me."

"I can change the rules. I'm the Emperor, I can do that," he said quickly, as if she didn't already know.

"I cannot allow anyone to do my job while I am so willingly in this position. I have no intention of modifying my way of life. The delicate lifestyle of an empress is not something I seek. I don't want a ring, I don't need a title. And now that you're secured in your quarters for the night, I'm going to retire to mine. Good night, My Lord."

As Ling lay in his lonely bed that night, he thought how impossible the entire situation was. Surely she knew he could bend as many rules as needed to give her any lifestyle she dreamed. Of course she knew that, so why was he rejecting him?

She said she didn't need a title. Maybe, after all, being the faceless guardian of the emperor was what suited her. Maybe she was right. Maybe, he thought, in the midst of his heartbreak and confusion, she was promising him a bond stronger than could be bound by the little golden band.