Realising his king had been aware of Hac Thien's machinations shouldn't really have changed anything. In the end, did it really matter that he hadn't actually killed Lam Ngoc? He'd still chosen Hac Thien after all, had accepted him into his bed knowing that he'd been the one who gave his once-favoured concubine the zombie powder. So really, nothing had changed.
Yet it had, although Hac Thien couldn't quite put his finger on how. He was still by Lu Vinh's side, his faithful shadow during the day, his fervent lover at night. Just as he'd always dreamed of, ever since he'd decided to dedicate his life to his lord and master, to make him his and his alone by any and all means necessary.
Maybe that was it. He'd thought it had been his ruthless decisions, his clever intrigues, that had earned him the place he'd coveted for so long. While in truth Lu Vinh had allowed it to happen and had stepped in when Lam Ngoc's life had been at stake, going so far as to deceive Hac Thien and give the concubine a new life. It caused the bodyguard to watch his step more carefully when before he'd been completely secure in his place, his power. He certainly didn't dare to avenge himself on Lam Ngoc, whose carefree innocence when they met her on the road grated on him. He'd worked hard to spoil that innocence, after all, knowing it was what had attracted the king in the first place, even more than her beauty. Strange, then, that Vu Linh had chosen him, in every respect her polar opposite.
Even more unsettling was the reappearance of the black-cloaked stranger, the mysterious warrior who'd been the first to fight the zombie plague Lam Ngoc had unleashed with Hac Thien's powder. He turned up just as suddenly now, and Hac Thien tasted the bitter bile of jealousy to see him greeted as a honoured guest by the king.
There was no mistaking the flash of interest in Vu Linh's eyes when the stranger declined to give up either his name or any information about his background. For the first time Hac Thien resented his station, which forced him to remain always behind his master, never truly by his side. Even in bed the bodyguard always made sure to worship Vu Linh's body, needing to make sure his lover would never be tempted to make use of the many concubines waiting fervently for the king's favour. This need had only become more urgent after his realisation that both of them had built their relationship on deception and lies.
Now, from his customary place by the wall, he watched his lover converse with the stranger at dinner, and wondered if this was how Lam Ngoc had felt the day he sucked the poison from the king's wound.
The two men seemed comfortable together, talking in quiet tones and smiling often. Vu Linh didn't appear put off by his companion's refusal to divulge details about himself, by the way he behaved almost as if they were on equal footing. Anger burned hot in Hac Thien's stomach, made him clench his fists and grind his teeth. Then the stranger glanced his way, and the bodyguard steeled himself for a battle of wills, only for black eyes to glide over him, registering his presence but then dispassionately discounting him as part of the scenery, like the many servants hovering in the wings.
It proved too much, and he abruptly stepped forward, knowing he was violating at least a dozen points of protocol. For the first time during this meal Vu Linh looked over, and Hac Thien bit out in a tone he knew was bordering on insolent, "By your leave, Your Majesty, may I step out?"
He didn't know what he'd hoped for, but it wasn't for the king to dismiss him with a casual wave. "Certainly, you may go. I will see you tomorrow."
Hac Thien's eyes widened in shock, but there was nothing he could do except nod tightly and leave the room. Before he'd even reached the door he could hear the two men at the table resume their conversation, Vu Linh inquiring about the warrior's recent adventures. He sounded relaxed, almost teasing, nothing like the way he treated Hac Thien. Right from the start it had been about attraction between them, about desire, even when the king had been reluctant to give in, still loyal to Lam Ngoc. If he felt in any way conflicted about indulging in his curiosity about the mysterious stranger, he certainly he didn't show it.
In the days that followed Hac Thien felt as if they'd gone back in time, to when he'd been nothing but a bodyguard with hunger in his heart. The visitor seemed to be everywhere he went. Even when he wasn't with the king, Hac Thien had to hear the palace servants whisper about the man they'd dubbed the Black Warrior, his deeds during the zombie outbreak growing with each retelling, everyone agreeing no mere human could combine such skill with such beauty.
Because he was beautiful, even Hac Thien had to admit this. They might both favour black, yet the stranger's clothes were cut from much finer cloth right down to his ever-present forehead ribbon, somehow making him glow like a precious jewel instead of giving him the air of quiet menace Hac Thien himself had cultivated. Despite this he was just as dangerous, like the most costly blade forged from Damascus steel, of this Hac Thien had no doubt.
He would have to step carefully if he wanted to get rid of the interloper and regain his rightful place. Somehow he didn't think he'd be allowed to get away with his scheming this time, so the king couldn't, mustn't, know. Therefore he did what he did best, keeping to the shadows and watching, watching and planning. In a way it suited him that Vu Linh was distracted, caught up in his fascination with the Black Warrior, even if it pierced Hac Thien's heart to know that he'd been displaced, at least temporarily. He hadn't been allowed to follow his king into the royal bedchambers since the stranger's arrival. Instead his lover elected to sleep alone, which was somehow worse than if he'd indulged in hopefully fleeting pleasure with his new companion.
Every day, under Hac Thien's jealous eyes, the two men grew closer, conversation flowing, laughter coming easily, the king continuing to treat the Black Warrior like a trusted friend and equal. In turn he was met with a sincere respect that lacked any sign of subservience or calculation, causing Vu Linh to flourish and Hac Thien to glower even more.
Although he'd steeled himself against such slights, anger and hatred washed over him when the king invited the Black Warrior into his private gardens, telling his bodyguard to remain outside. It was customary, yet always before Hac Thien had been allowed to follow Vu Linh everywhere, even into this sanctuary, which in many ways was more private than the bedchamber with its stream of attendant servants. Naturally he followed, using the rooftops that had served him so well in the past and allowed him a clear view of the two men while they wandered among the lavish landscape.
After a while they reached a clearing among an orchard of cherry trees that were just beginning to shed their blossoms, creating a white carpet on the ground and exquisite scent in the air. Not that Hac Thien was in any mood to appreciate the carefully maintained beauty, not when the wind was carrying Vu Linh's voice to his hiding spot.
"So, I've brought you here, where no one can see. Now will you indulge me?" The king's voice was warm, melodious, laughter bubbling just under the surface, as if he was sharing a private joke. For a moment Hac Thien feared he'd be forced to witness Vu Linh taking another as his lover then and there. Instead, with a toss of white hair and a playful grin, he slid his blade from its sheath with a sharp hiss and twirled it smoothly in his hand. Of course Hac Thien had noticed that the king was armed, but he'd assumed he'd done it in order to make it permissible for his guest to do the same, just another way in which he indulged his new friend.
Now he took in the challenging glint in his lover's eyes as well as the answering smirk playing in corners of the stranger's sensual mouth and realised with a sinking feeling in his stomach that this might actually be worse than seeing them kiss. Not once in the course of their relationship had Vu Linh ignored protocol to the extent of asking his bodyguard to spar with him, something customarily only allowed the honoured weapons and martial arts masters employed to keep the king's fighting skills sharp.
However, the Black Warrior didn't hesitate to follow Vu Linh's example, now smiling openly as he teased, "Of course. I am but a humble servant and wouldn't dare say no to a king."
"Then you better give this king a good fight," Vu Linh challenged him with a laugh. "I've seen you in action, remember; I'll know if you hold back."
Instead of answering, the visitor raised his sword in greeting, black eyes meeting brown in perfect understanding. Without further hesitation the two men began circling each other before their blades met with a ring of expensive, finely honed steel. At first glance the king should have easily dominated the bout, taller and broader than his opponent, but as he'd proven during the zombie outbreak, the Black Warrior was a fierce fighter, moving with an almost supernatural grace and strength. It made him the perfect match for Vu Linh, whose prowess was peerless in the kingdom.
Despite himself, Hac Thien watched them with bated breath, unable to deny the violent beauty of their clash as they whirled around the clearing, stirring up a flurry of cherry blossom petals like snow flakes in a painting. Finally they came to a standstill separated only by inches, blades and eyes locked, chests heaving from the exertion. Vu Linh's usually pale cheeks were flushed, and he was smiling widely, as if he couldn't help himself, an expression matched by his opponent.
Hac Thien's heart sank. He'd told himself to expect it, yet nothing could have prepared him for this, for the sight of his lover carelessly dropping his priceless sword and then shrugging out of his ornate ao dai, leaving him shirtless. There were no words exchanged, but there was no mistaking the desire flashing in the Black Warrior's eyes as they travelled over the well-muscled chest and stomach Hac Thien knew so well. It was a frank appraisal Vu Linh returned when the shorter man followed suite, revealing smooth, tan skin and a lithe warrior's physique, marred only by some scars that told of battles fought and won. They only served to underline his beauty, however, so different from the king's ethereal looks but somehow a perfect contrast.
"Do you ever take it off?" Vu Linh asked curiously, indicating the black ribbon still encircling the other's head.
The Black Warrior's smile was all teeth. "Only if you beat me. Your Majesty."
That was the only warning before he charged. The king had been anticipating the attack, though, and soon they were grappling with each other for all their worth, neither one giving the other any quarter. For Hac Thien this was even more painful to watch than the sword fight had been, the sheer exhilaration with which they rolled and kicked, never out of touching distance, turning this from a simple round of hand-to-hand into undeniable foreplay. Finally, with a grunt that was loud enough to reach Hac Thien's pricked ears, the Black Warrior flipped Vu Linh one last time, trapping him with the weight of his body and two firm hands around his wrists.
Panting hard, the Black Warrior leaned down, and long black tresses fell down like a waterfall, obscuring both men's faces from view. However, there was no mistaking the arch of Vu Linh's back as he pushed upwards; not to free himself but to get closer. Hac Thien couldn't possibly hear anything from the distance of his perch, yet his imagination agonisingly filled in the details when hungry lips finally met behind the black curtain. After all, he knew only too well how the king sounded in the throes of passion; and there was no denying the passion with which he clung to the Black Warrior's shoulders once his wrists were free.
His heels were digging into the back of his new lover's thighs, and Hac Thien didn't have to imagine the twin groans that escaped both men when Vu Linh suddenly twisted his body, ending up in the Black Warrior's lap. It should have looked slightly ridiculous given their different body sizes, yet as before they fit perfectly, the smaller man stretching up effortlessly to catch the king's mouth in another searing kiss, one hand fisting in silky white strands. It was not the sort of kiss, possessive and insistent, Hac Thien would ever have dared to claim. Nonetheless, Vu Linh reacted eagerly, opening up to the demanding lips and responding in kind.
Was this what the king had been missing all along? Something he hadn't found with either Lam Ngoc or Hac Thien, a meeting of equals? Well, now Hac Thien knew, now he could adapt and make sure he was everything his beloved wanted and needed. Just as soon as he'd gotten rid of the interloper. Glaring at the two men now rocking with unmistakable intent against each other, Hac Thien began to formulate a plan. A knife in the dark, revenge from someone in the Black Warrior's mysterious past, would soon get rid of the intruder, leaving the trusted bodyguard to comfort the king, as he'd done during Vu Linh's supposed grief for his concubine. Except now he'd be better, he'd be perfect. He'd be the one to unleash the passion he saw unfolding in the garden below, light and dark perfectly balanced.
"You'll be mine again, my king," he hissed under his breath, his confidence renewed along with his purpose. It barely even phased him when right then his soon-to-be victim broke the kiss that had appeared to be unending and rested his forehead against Vu Linh's.
"My headband." The low, breathless voice was clear enough to carry to the roof. "Please, take it off for me."
"But I didn't beat you," the king responded almost wonderingly, nevertheless reaching up to trace the black ribbon with two elegant fingers.
The Black Warrior simply smiled, warm and intimate, covering Vu Linh's hesitating hand firmly with his own. "Yes, you have. I'm yours."
His back heaving, the king drew a sharp breath, but not as loud as the shocked gasp escaping the still-oberving Hac Thien when the man he'd vowed to kill slid his gaze over Vu Linh's shoulder and unerringly found him. The Black Warrior's expression didn't change, and neither did his tender hold on the man in his arms, but for a second his eyes flashed fathomless black, inky darkness covering their whites completely.
Then he looked back at his lover, obviously dismissing Hac Thien as no longer important, and gently helped Vu Linh undo his headband before pulling him into another kiss, deep and sure. Hac Thien sat frozen, cold to his very core. He didn't know what exactly had happened, but he knew with utmost certainty it had been a warning, and not one he could ignore.
Unable to move from the place he'd chosen for himself, watching from the shadows, the bodyguard was forced to see his king caress another man's face and heard him say words he'd only ever dreamed of hearing: "My love."
It seemed Vu Linh had made his choice, after all, and it hadn't been Hac Thien.