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come to me in dreams (that i may live)

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“You lied to me.”

Hac Thien spits the words out like venom. It’s part question, part statement--a knife-sharpened request for confirmation. In his fury, he takes quick strides towards Vu Linh, reaching out to grab. Just as quickly as his fingers find their place around the lapels of the white silk robe, the one he’d previously placed with gentle hands upon Vu Linh’s shoulders, needles dart out from the emperor’s sleeve, wrapping Hac Thien’s wrist in red thread that slowly begins to tighten in warning.

“And if I had? To whom will you testify against me?” The corners of Vu Linh’s mouth tug upwards into an arrogant smile as he assesses the shifts in Hac Thien’s expression. 

In that moment, he cannot see love in Hac Thien’s narrowed eyes. Or perhaps he had made the mistake of believing it was there in the first place. There had been desire, most definitely. A desire for ownership, for possession, perhaps, that he’d mistaken for affection. And now in those eyes there is only a heated resentment, the kind he has seen Hac Thien reserve only for those who had been in the way of his goals. The kind Vu Linh was previously willing to turn a blind eye to, at least until this moment, when he can feel that resentment scald his very own flesh.

What does betrayal taste like, charred over an open fire?

“I could have you executed,” Vu Linh says, too stubborn to let his mask falter. “For indirectly causing the slaughter of a hundred of my concubines. Or did you think I would be so careless as to overlook such a thing?”

He can see Hac Thien’s teeth visibly clench behind his close lips, the muscles in his jaw contracting. Body tense, tightening, tightening, as though struggling to be contained in a space too small for himself, while Vu Linh is a tangle of strings pulled taut, wound up to the point of breaking.

“The same way you had Lam Ngoc ‘executed’? Or would I not be so lucky?” Hac Thien finally grits out.

Vu Linh doesn’t verbalize his answer, but he doesn’t have to. Hac Thien lets the fabric of his robe slip from resigned fingers, and similarly the red thread loosens and falls limp from his wrist. Hac Thien takes a few steps back, then swiftly turns and leaves.

Vu Linh lets the robe, already loose on his shoulders, fall to the ground, and suddenly finds the room to be unbearably cold.


It had already been dusk by the time Vu Linh and Hac Thien had returned from the burial grounds, and as expected, soon after Hac Thien’s departure, Vu Linh is dismissing a pair of maids who came to fetch him for supper. He wraps himself in a hefty cloak, one more suitable against the evening chill, and opts instead to wander the palace grounds. 

The flower gardens become eerily still in their nighttime attire, draped in silence and sleep. Gone were the palace gardeners, already excused from their duties earlier in the day. Vu Linh remembers when he would catch the concubines, sometimes alone, sometimes in groups of two or three, in the gardens, chattering quietly amongst themselves. A giggle or a whisper hushed behind silk sleeves as they gathered around the chrysanthemum bushes, wondering which of them, if any, would be next to receive one of these blooms. Vu Linh peruses the gardens alone now, each flower, so easily snapped at the stems and plucked from their beds, a sullen reminder of every life he was forced to take.

Or so he thinks.

Vu Linh surveys his surroundings and takes languid strides towards the sound of footsteps until he can faintly make out the outline of a dark figure. Someone familiar. For a moment he thinks it is Hac Thien, but just as quickly, he knows better, and briskly makes his way closer to the figure. The other man, cloaked in black, is equally keen on his senses, instinctively reaching for his weapon the moment he notices a presence approaching.

“General.” Vu Linh greets with a slight nod to make himself known.

Immediately, General Vuong Ma drops his hand from the hilt of his sword and turns to face him. He removes his hood and bows deeply. “Your Majesty. My apologies, I did not realize--It is… it is supper time.”

“I didn’t have much of an appetite, so I came out here for some fresh air.” Vu Linh says to answer the implied question caught in Vuong Ma’s slightly flustered words. He nonchalantly brushes past the general, walking to a span of large flat rocks by the pond and takes a seat on one. He places his hand on the space next to him.  “Come. Sit by me.”

“Your Majesty, if would allow me to be so brazen as to--”

“Sit,” Vu Linh repeats.

It’s quiet for a moment. Vu Linh sits still as the pond, acutely aware of the chirping of nearby cicadas and the whistle of the air through the foliage, until finally, the shuffle behind him grows faintly louder as Vuong Ma takes tentative steps towards him. Vuong Ma removes the sword from his back, gently laying it on the grass, and takes a seat by the edge of the water as he was instructed.

“The moon is very bright this evening, don’t you think?” Vu Linh asks. In the corner of his vision he can see Vuong Ma briefly tilt his head upwards, mirroring the direction of Vu Linh’s gaze, and humming lowly in agreement. The moon is bright. Bright and full as it was on the night of the massacre, however lacking the blood-red sheen it had then, when it was gleaming with hostility. Instead it hung low and quiet and unassuming.

After another short moment of silence, seemingly uncomfortable without knowing why he is there or what he should say, Vuong Ma finally speaks up, “May I ask if there is something on your mind, Your Majesty?”

Vu Linh holds his cheek in his hand, elbow propped on his knee, and turns to face Vuong Ma. If he had to guess, Vu Linh wouldn’t assume Vuong Ma to be much older than Hac Thien, or even himself. He is young, with smooth and refined features where Hac Thien’s are sharp and angular, and even in the grey of the night, his eyes trap the light in molten amber. Deceptively unobtrusive. Vu Linh knows better than anyone that behind such a modest face is a skilled swordsman whose palms have acquired a taste for blood, both before and after their first encounter.

Vuong Ma was a killer for hire then, known for his swiftness in his profession, as well as his hefty price. The first time Vu Linh sees him, Vuong Ma is cleaning the blood off his sword while sitting on the rooftop of a house containing four dead men. Although the rest of his face was hidden under his hood, Vu Linh can see that Vuong Ma’s thin lips are pulled into a wicked smile, surely amused at being caught in the act by no one other than the emperor himself.

“That was very impressive,” Vu Linh says. He taps his folded fan against his open palm in a pseudo-applause. Knowing he has stumbled upon an opportunity too tempting to pass, he prompts, “Pledge your allegiance to me. Kill for one from now on, and I will reward you a hundred times your current salary.”

Watching Vuong Ma’s grin grow wider was enough to satisfy him. They have come to an agreement.

To Vuong Ma’s credit, he has remained loyal, appearing when summoned and performing tasks with due diligence while also maintaining a distance, preferring to remove himself from the internal politics of the palace.

“I wanted to thank you. For your assistance that night.” Vu Linh finally says and watches as a slight surprise washes over the general’s face that he slowly blinks away. “I hope you understand that your skill is considered invaluable in this kingdom.”

“You flatter, Your Majesty,” Vuong Ma replies with a dismissive chuckle. He absently begins to fuss with the straps on his wrist guards. “I did wonder what became of that incident. If a… culprit was ever found.”

Vu Linh knew the question was coming. There have been rumours, of course. Although the definitive reason for Lam Ngoc’s execution was her attempt to murder Hac Thien, a valued court official, there was little that could quell the speculations. If she was capable, who she was targeting. Some have claimed the source of the outbreak was within Nhat Ha’s quarters. All of which is hearsay that Vu Linh has refused to entertain for three long months. He thought he had something to protect then. He isn’t so sure now.

“No. Not yet.” He says. And Vuong Ma does not push.


Inexplicably, Vu Linh finds himself wandering the flower gardens for the second night in succession. If he were to be asked, he wouldn’t admit to looking for anything in particular. However, he finds it difficult not to quell the swell of relief--of gratification--he feels when he sees Vuong Ma already there, where he saw him last, seated cross-legged by the edge of the pond and polishing his sword. From his distance away he could just make out the sound of Vuong Ma’s voice, half singing, half humming to fill in the spaces he doesn’t remember. His voice is surprisingly warm and smooth, with a pleasant timbre, and he sings each note with a delicate precision that Vu Linh doesn’t expect.

“You’re here again.” Vu Linh says, slowly approaching with the caution one reserves for an animal in the wild. Not because he is afraid, just because he doesn’t wish to intrude.

Vuong Ma pauses his movements for a brief moment, looking up to acknowledge the new presence by his side with a small but welcoming smile. “You are also here again.” He says, then turns back to his task. He holds the hilt of the sword with one hand, balancing it and the midpoint of the blade across his folded knees, as his other hand gently glides across the surface of the blade with a cloth lightly dampened with fragrant oil.

Vu Linh watches Vuong Ma work, now in a comfortable silence, with mild fascination. He has never been quite a purveyor of swords, preferring much more discreet methods: weightless threads, near invisible needles, quiet and unassuming to devastating effect. Some may call it underhanded. But his swords are little more than set pieces, often displayed but seldom used. He doesn’t have fond memories of the last time he’s held one.

“You take good care of it.” Vu Linh says. He sits facing Vuong Ma and bends forward slightly to examine the impressive shine the blade has taken on.

Vuong Ma hums low in his throat. “I have to. It’s livelihood.”

“To you, perhaps. Quite the contrary for anyone looking down the end of that sword.”

“Ah, see, now you’re catching onto the irony of it, Your Majesty. A double-edged sword.”

A small laugh escapes Vu Linh’s throat despite himself, and suddenly he is aware of a strange familiarity he doesn’t quite understand. He stills, carefully examining Vuong Ma’s face, which still held remnants of a lopsided grin, as though to ask, you’ve always been here, so why didn’t I know you? Then slowly, Vuong Ma reaches over and brushes back a few strands of Vu Linh’s hair that have been shaken loose, cool fingers grazing the shell of his ear like the lingering whispers of a ghost scented with moringa and clove.

“Sorry,” Vuong Ma quickly whispers, intending to pull back.

“Don’t apologize,” Vu Linh says, and gently holds Vuong Ma’s hand in place for a brief moment before letting him retract his arm. He meets Vuong Ma’s silent apprehensive gaze, resolved in understanding that an invisible line was crossed, and that he is allowing it.

“Will you sing for me what you were singing before?”


And when, upon returning to his quarters, Vu Linh is met with Hac Thien’s steely eyes, brimmed with questions, he doesn’t give him the opportunity to ask where he’s been.


“What on earth are you doing out here?” Vu Linh asks, breaking into a shuffling jog towards Vuong Ma, who stood pelted by rain and looking out of place by the chrysanthemum bushes. Although wearing the cloak he is usually seen with, Vu Linh can see the fabric of Vuong Ma’s hood is thoroughly soaked through. Just how long had he been standing there? When Vuong Ma only turns to look at him, slow blinking and with a slight surprise, perhaps surprise at seeing him again, in the same place, Vu Linh shifts his hold on his umbrella so that it covers both their heads and gently pulls on his arm, leading them away from the bushes. “Come with me. Hurry.”

“You weren’t honestly waiting for me, were you?” Vu Linh asks as they take shelter behind the weeping curtains of a large willow tree. He shakes the water from the umbrella and sits next to Vuong Ma, who is already seated by the base of the trunk where the ground managed to stay mostly dry. “Surely you know to find me elsewhere should you get lonely.”

Only after he says it does Vu Linh realize the implications in his words, and the offering they almost are. But somehow he doesn’t find it in himself to correct what was said, to deny and retract and adjust to some other meaning, perhaps because there truly is none.

“And what about you?” Vuong Ma asks.

“What about me?”

“What about Hac--" The words die in his throat. Half a name buried and another hung out to dry.

“It doesn’t matter now.” Vu Linh says, voice soft and unoffended, though it was difficult to keep the bitterness out, like droplets of oil emulsified in words wet with saliva. 

He glances across the garden to the chrysanthemums, watered by rain. For years the gardeners have cultivated these flowers and still, with time, they withered. And yet, he has seen now, as he rides to and from the burial grounds, that wild flowers will bloom on wild soil, against all odds. Tucked behind foliage, between trees, hidden from human intervention. “I never should have let him go as far as he did.”

They sit, shoulder against shoulder, moisture from Vuong Ma’s cloak seeping into his sleeve, in a silence not unlike the one that mingled between them the first time.

“I didn’t look for you.” Vuong Ma finally says. “I wanted to be where you could find me. And you did.”

“I did,” Vu Linh repeats, an affirmation, an admission.

Vuong Ma leans forward, grasping Vu Linh’s chin and presses his own rain-slick mouth against his. Vu Linh loses track of where the heat is coming from, stamped against his skin or pulled to the surface by the body against his own. A gentle heat and pressure that leisurely coasts the border of his jaw, then down his throat, cauterizing an invisible wound.

Overwhelmed, Vu Linh pulls away momentarily, not because the touch burned, but because it didn’t. He lets his head fall against Vuong Ma’s shoulder, hiding his face behind a collar bone, and Vuong Ma holds him there, palm soft against the nape of his neck and fingers carding through his hair.

“I knew,” Vu Linh whispers. To Vuong Ma, to himself, to no one. “I knew and I let it happen.”

He’s unsure who the confession is meant for, but for a moment, Vuong Ma’s voice, humming a tune he doesn’t recognize to drown out the rain, sounds like forgiveness. And for a moment, he knew it was enough.