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Drama Behind Gold-Dragon Doors (SteelEagle)


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It had been several months now since Feng Yinhaitao had been transferred out of the Imperial Watch, and yet he still didn’t feel like it.

 

Partly this was due to the fact that he had been an atypical Watcher to begin with.  Rather than being a super-secret shady agent of the Crown, he’d carried himself in public like a hero character from a wuxia novel.  Specifically, the heroic Royal Guard of the Empress, always ready to help out a citizen in need with a charming smile.  The martial arts training he’d received in the Watch had been useful for that, but all things relating to stealth and subterfuge seemed totally beyond him.  

It was no surprise, then, when Empress Yue had formally asked for his transfer from the Imperial Watch to be her own private retainer and bodyguard.  It was already what he had been doing, she just made it official.  Quite unprecedented in the history of that renowned organization to let one of its own go short of death or retirement, but frankly his superiors were glad to see him go.  Feng had showed up once too many times in newspapers, both foreign and domestic, for their tastes.

 

On the other hoof, the fanatical devotion to the Empress that all Watchers were conditioned into had not departed Feng in the slightest.  If anything, it was stronger in him than any other.  She had succeeded to the throne in the middle of his training, and the sudden whiplash of being conditioned to serve an old qilin to a young and beautiful one was the sort of thing that could trigger all sorts of things in a young longma.  Hopeless infatuation was only to be expected under the circumstances. 

A bit awkward, considering that Watchers were meant to forsake all manner of relationships, familial and romantic, for the sake of the Empress.  But, he figured, if your romantic interest *was* the Empress, there was no problem there, right?  Well, aside from the Empress not reciprocating.  That was a problem.  Or if others evinced romantic feelings Feng could not reciprocate in turn.  That was also a problem.

 

A problem that could no longer be ignored, now that he was out of the Imperial Watch, and therefore no longer subject to its demands.  Somehow or other, he was going to have to resolve the cross-purpose pulls on his heart, lest he leave no less than three broken forever!

 

Was that being overdramatic?  It was hard to tell with Feng.  Nonetheless, being stuck in love limbo this long hurt, and the only next step he could see was a private conversation with the Empress, a rare occasion where he could bare his heart to her.  They were close enough to have done so once before, when she had tried and entirely failed to dissuade him of his affections.  Had he, in turn, failed entirely to evoke a hidden reciprocation?  Only one way to find out.  But how to get that opportunity?  He couldn’t ask for the private, privileged audience before the Celestial Empress, only a moment alone with Yu Yue.  And only that selfsame qilin mare could grant him either...

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Empress Yuè could never fully escape the orbit of her responsibilities. During what little time she was given to herself or for her short vacations she was still overwhelmed by the tide of work that called to her. Over time therefore it seemed that she tried to move away from that orbit less and less. Eventually, she would be subsumed entirely in it. As a younger mare this would have horrified the Empress to be, but maturity had given her enough love of lineage and nation to allow herself to be the symbol of the nation it needed. To be lost within work, within duty and responsibility, inside that bubble, was something she had to learn to love. She would have to, because the only other response was pure madness.

 

But as this night drew on and the endless drudgery of court and work came to a close, she had to admit to herself that while she loved doing what she could for her citizenry and nation, and how she hoped to be worthy of the title she was given despite the complications it presented, it did leave her feeling drained and contained within a cage, happy enough to leave it for the night. As she dismissed the last of her court officials and she was given a moment to herself, she sighed heavily to herself, toying with the crown that lay on her head. In time, one by one, all of the throne room emptied out. Even that vexsome chamberlain. When the door closed she was finally, wordlessly happily, alone.
 

She stood up and started walking to her chambers. At this state, only a few guards would be between her and her destination. She opened the door, almost directly into one of the few guards she knew on a deeper, personal level- Feng Yinhaitao, former Imperial Watch and lovestruck stallion alike. "Oh! Feng- Guardsman Yinhaitao. I didn't know you were just...standing there," she said awkwardly. It was awkward for many reasons and she didn't want to press him further down into the pit of his own emotions. She cleared her throat loudly and reclaimed her royal bearing. "Any news for me, Guardsman?"

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The dutiful guard produced by Feng's public training would have simply replied that he had no news, and left the Empress to her well-deserved rest.  The even more dutiful Watcher produced by Feng's secret training would have presented a portfolio of possibly portentious portents amidst the gossip of the palace and scuttlebutt of the streets.  The remainder of the village troublemaker that had first gone to the capital to be so trained had any number of cheeky remarks to bring a blush to a pretty mare's cheeks.  First and foremost out of all of them, however, was the friend the Empress had managed to make out of him, or so at least that part of him thought of himself.  The Friend would be honest, as that was one of the Elements of the Sixfold Way of Friendship his Equestrian pen-pals had taught him about.

 

"There is little of political I can tell you, only the personal."  He reported, his voice soon losing the clipped tones of the trained guard as he dared aim his vermillion eyes into the teal drops of Yue's own.  "Although, so close to the beating heart of Long Guo, they are not so very much separated, are they?"

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It was hard to resist his ever-present charm, especially when he was trying. He could have any mare he wanted, as well as more than his fair share of stallions no doubt. The tragedy of the so-called 'Iron Pony', the Guard and Watcher and Friend alike, was that he had set his sights on the one mare he would not be able to attain. Oh, there was mutual affection between them. She cared deeply for him, but they both knew that their stations acted as impermeable, impersonal, permanent barriers between anything more than that. And even if those barriers were town down, she considered him a friend. Something more than a friend, perhaps? It was hard to say because her youthful emotions had been so scythed by the demands placed upon her that she had never even truly considered the greater demands of the heart. Maybe somewhere there was a romantic possibility between them, buried under the demands and responsibilities placed upon both of them.

 

Having said all that, she still blushed when he said what he said because was as smooth as imperial silk. 
"Haha, I...see," she said as she looked away a second to regain her composure. With a small breath she did so and buried the emotions again, allowing herself only the small, thin smile that dominated imperial historiography. "Would you care to follow me? I plan on taking a wake and could use your company."

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Ah, there was that blush.  Time was, even such a small rose would have been impossible to take root on the meticulously mown lawn of the Empress' visage.  It was hard to blame her, being surrounded by a veritable army of courtiers and courters who would take every glimpse of betrayed emotion as a potential advantage to their ambitions would force a very strict weeding of wildflowers in the garden of her heart.  But now... did she even realize how much even a slight smile meant to him?  Feng could never bring himself to let go of his dreams, not when he remembered the much more secluded and lonely Empress who'd attended his Watcher Academy Graduation.

"I would love nothing more."  He accepted her walk with a solemn smile, before a ripple of muscle shifted him from his 'guard stance' into a more natural pose for the longma, legs already in motion, wings kept slightly flared to catch the breeze and take flight at a second's notice.  His smile, too, shed its formality as he looked between her and the garden, "It is always more of an effort for me to keep still than to keep moving.  I would say I walk the path of Air from being so close to the sky... but my sister was born on the same mountain I was, and that slugabed wouldn't run for the Dragon King!"  His smile was an outright grin now; one nice thing about leaving the Watchers was that he didn't have to pretend his family no longer existed in public.  "Did I ever tell you about her, your majesty?"

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It was nice to be able to trot alongside a friend. So much of what she had to do meant she developed an over-stimulated sense of social paranoia that came naturally to an Empress. So many creatures elongated their passions and strengths before her in an effort to shadow their agendas and hide their weaknesses that she viewed the name Long Huo as ironic; long on lies, short on honesty. She had to assume that nearly every word spoken to her came with the intention of diverting her power into one task or another as part of a ploy by the applicant to increase their own power and influence. It turned even the most basic of conversations into an endurance test of her own mental wit and faculties and proved exhausting emotionally, despite her never showing it. When even the type of tea you drank had to be considered for political nuance, it became an exhausting way to live.

 

Which made the walk with a friend all the greater. She could relax with him in a way she couldn't with others, so readily did she allow herself to forget in that one area that he was still an employee of hers. And she would still maintain a bi of that when she spoke, but her regal body language was far more relaxed to even a casual observer. Less stiff, her chest less puffed out and head straight. "I don't believe you have," she responded as her mind wandered over the possibilities. She was definitely most interested in the happenings of his family. he was interesting and what she knew of his family they weren't slouches in that regard, either. And she did love learning about interesting creatures, such as Feng.

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It was in equal measures gladdening, saddening, and maddening to see that rare poise of relaxation.  As beautiful as that sight was, the fact that one he cared for so deeply was forced to conduct her social life in a stilted and psychologically strained manner tugged on his heartstrings, even if he had to admit the political necessity.  But it was that necessity which was so angering; did none of the ministers surrounding her have any idea what their politicking did to the central hub of the governmental wheel?  Did they expect that Yu Yue could just live like that indefinitely, without cracking, crumbling, or hardening into stone?  Half-formed fantasies of knocking courtier's about like a vengeful, protective lover flitted about his head, but he didn't let them perch.  This problem would not be so easy to solve, and half of the real solution would involve quiet talking and listening, not kicking hooves and slicing wings.

 

Feng hopped in place for a step, seeming to crack his entire musculature like a whip before settling back on the ground again, walking alongside the Empress.  "Ah, there; thought I was getting a little stiff.  All the village families thought my sister Yin and I might not be from the same parents, given our different dispositions.  They were willing to think most anything about our family; an ill-star seemed to hang over most births in it.  Everyone looked at us expecting some kind of spectacular failure.  That... affected my sister a lot.  She figured she'd always fail at everything, so why bother trying anything?  Even after she grew out of that despair when she found her talent, retrieving a pearl from a running brook, she still kept that kind of lazy attitude.  I don't think she would have left home if I hadn't before her.  It seemed to inspire her, that I was willing to get out of the village, and she left as well, ending up down in Long Kong.  Doing pretty well for herself, last I heard."  He smiled, remembering her last letter.  "And I know she was doing well, and not just being polite.  I could always gauge her mood by how often she engaged in wordplay, and that letter was chock full of puns."

 

What Feng delicately refrained from adding was that he was certain that her work in a 'shipping company' was actually a front for the Triad.  It wasn't a good look for a member of Imperial Order Enforcement to have a relative in Organized Crime, but at the same time, it was extremely useful.  If either of them had their careers end in flames, the other could cover for them and make sure they had a new life waiting for them.  The shadow that hung over both their fates had never been completely banished from either of their souls, however far they were from the mountain of their birth....

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She had to suppress a giggle at the thought of that. Having siblings that appeared to be so different from one another in disposition was a uniquely foreign concept to the royalty. The position and expectations meant that while they all had their own individual styles, they were expected to conform to a certain mold over time and function in similar roles. Not for them was the prancing individuality of lesser nobility who could be afforded their eccentricates, nor the relatively distant calm and personal warmth that Twilight Sparkle of Equestria gave off. They were Emperors and Empresses and such would be their form and function. How she had once dreamed of galivanting off into the rough cities and getting involved with ruffians, only to eventually scoff at the idea after a particularly scintillating bubble bath. Her mental dalliances with the excitement outside her role would remain just that, mental dalliances.

 

"Sometimes it can take the bravery of others to reveal within us the pearl of bravery in us. Stronger together are we when we look to each other for strength and wisdom," she started, her mix of formality and royal sayings not making the truth any lesser. She had been raised to believe in the special status and power of certain creatures yet what she said was a commonly accepted pearl of great wisdom. The contradiction was inherent in the culture and it was inherent in her. "Once we have that strength, we can then use it to help others. What does she do now, exactly?" She asked, thinking to herself that it was strange that she did not know of this mare before. She had to do some digging. Had to get to know who it was in his life that helped make him such a fine hu- guard. Such a fine guard. GUARD.

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"That is true."  Feng replied measuredly to Yue's pearl of wisdom, though he couldn't help but give it a cheeky spin.  "Though in some cases we must look harder than for others."  He flashed a grin, but there was a thoughtful look in his eye.  "I have often wondered... as a Watcher, I was part of an elite group of those you assign to search in deep hidden places for the darkness that can lie in the souls of Long Sun.  Perhaps it would be worthwhile for others to be assigned to look for the hidden light that also must exist.  I know it does, I would often find it in the course of my work; though I rarely had any time to dedicate to its cultivation.  It was all I could do sometimes to not snuff it out."  His smile departed briefly, chased away by bad memories.  "I... did not always see similar care paid by my fellow watchers.  They only saw the darkness they were told to look for."  It was pretty rare that such criticism was ever leveled at an organization shrouded by so much fearful mystique, rarer still that it would come from a former member.  Most either retired long after the service had reshaped their souls to fit it, or else found themselves... rendered unable to give such criticism, by whatever means.  Feng's loyalty to the Empress was too undoubted for them to get away with the latter, but his attitude just would not let him glide smoothly to the former.

 

Speaking of darkness... Feng hated not being completely honest with his Empress, but there were some things he should draw a veil of decency over, if for no other reason than the family honor.  Surely Yue would understand that?  "Oh, Yin works in administration, which is to say, she sees that others do their jobs rather than any of the work herself.  Fitting enough, I suppose."  No untruths in there, at least.  Just a few key omissions.  "I was never quite able to tell whether she worked for the port itself, or one of the companies that ship in and out of it.  Almost nothing in Long Kong seems to be run by the government itself; public work rests upon private fortunes."

 

His smile had returned by now.  Delicate as this conversation was, as all conversations with royalty tended to be, Feng still felt at ease in Yu Yue's presence, and delighted in the fact she was so at ease in his.  *Is this not a hint to you, Your Celestial Majesty?  You trust me with so much already, it is almost dangerous for you not to formalize our relationship.*

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It was an idea that she was partial to. The Watchers were in many cases a relic of an era long since past, when the central government alone had the ability to root out the debased and cruel in her borders. Now most cities and regions had their affairs in order and budgets aligned so that law and order was an agenda item of lesser import for the Palace. The overwhelming majority of Watcher reports read like breathless tales of conspiracy nowadays, so far removed from reality that outside of a few specific voices within it most reports were treated very lightly by the Palace. It had tremendous power and little direction, with all the time and inclination in the world to prove itself. The modern world had proven that Harmony was a much surer method of achieving greatness. Maybe this was the way to go?

 

"An organization devoted to the promotion of the qualities of the Long we hold dear, the good in us. Yes, I think that is splendid idea," she responded with no lack of enthusiasm. "For everything we have created here, I think we can both admit that we do not always flaunt that which we claim to cherish in others as well as we should. We have always been a nation that likes to lead by example, so why do we not find those examples from within?" She nodded along to her own words. The more she heard it, the more she liked it. Though she did have to admit some sourness.
"I'll also admit privately some concerns. One reason I support this idea so readily is that I am concerned that the citizens of my nation are starting to look west for moral guidance, to the land of Equestria and her Friendship Princess. We are a proud, noble people with a great many traits we should be happy to promote and share and should not become beholden to the ideals of a foreign land. I value the friendship and good work of Equestria, but we can do better than we have been," she asked before turning to him with an impish smile, "of course, I would expect the Iron Pony to think differently. Sing any friendship songs lately?"

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Feng was pleased to find his off-hoof suggestion taken up so seriously by the Empress, and he found himself nodding along to her reasoning.  It would be well for the common Long Sun to have numerous examples of a virtuous life that were not tales from over a century ago, worn thin by the repeated lectures of the village instructor.  By the Long school had been an excruciatingly boring experience.  And one so rarely got news from elsewhere!  That had been one of the more surprising things he'd noticed during his sojurn to Equestria, just how easily news was able to travel.  Ponies, too, when it came to that; Equestrian rail lines and airships connected proportionally more of the country's settlements than Long Guo's, though to be fair his own country had a later start, and more villages spread deep into a continent.

 

He chuckled good-naturedly at Yue's ribbing.  "No songs, though I have written quite a few Friendship letters.  Not to any Princess- well, with one exception, but it wasn't about friendship, exactly."  And it was only right after his mouth finished letting out the words that he realized he may have made a mistake.  Did any Long Guo papers carry the "Dear Cady" love advice column?  He didn't think so, but the Empress would have access to foreign papers...

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His intriguing words flowed from him as water, down the waterfall into the growing lake of her suspicions. Not suspicious suspicions suspecting him of ill deeds, but suspicions that he was much more than a guard in many ways, suspicion that she knew too much, suspicion that she wanted to know more. The most suspicious thing of all though was that it wasn't too hard for her to ignore those barriers. Except the final one that would keep them forever separated, and she had her suspicions that she was never going to be strong enough to get past that one.  Still, it was nice to have a friend. A very good friend. As they walked they eventually made their way out into her royal gardens, a park-sized enclosure tended to by no less than two dozen gardeners at any given time. It was a beautiful menagerie with flowers from across the empire and beyond, a wonderful synergistic array of colors and fragrancies that could lift the spirits of any creature.

 

She took a deep breath and exhaled, mulling over the possibilities of what it was he wrote about. Of course the more she thought about it the clearer the answer became, and the more likely it was she knew where to look. And when she started to think about it, she started to know, and then she knew too much. She shook her head. "I'm disappointed in you, Feng," she said casually as she took a seat, a few birds trilling a song nearby. "I didn't think you had so little faith that you wouldn't seek the answer closer to home," she sighed as she leaned back, the very ends of her mane dipping into a fountain, eyes closed. "I know you were worried about the increase in night terrors being experienced along the coast but why do you think Luna would know better than our own Dream Catchers?"

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The intimation of disappointment brought Feng up short as the Empress took a seat.  His heart pounded as he thought it was about to be bared in the garden through incautious public correspondence.  It was one thing to talk to royals, but one had to remember that royals talked to each other!

Only... that's not the letter she brought up.  He blinked, having to change gears in his head to even remember if he'd written any letter to Princess Luna.  "Oh, no, I didn't write Luna about that; I did ask my Equestrian correspondents if anything of the kind was happening across the ocean, though.  Given the coastal location, we can't be sure that the cause is based in Long Guo, and if this is an international problem, it demands an international response."  He breathed something he hoped wasn't an obvious sigh of relief, taking a seat at last on the ground by the Empress.

 

And it would be easy to leave it there, not bring up matters that Yue desired buried, at least the last time they were brought up.  But for Feng, his heart was not something he could just bury alive and be done with it.  One way or another, sooner or later, an exhumation would happen, and delaying would not make the process any less painful, only leave him with less for the effort.  "No, the letter I referred to was to Princess Cadence, on a personal matter we have spoken of before."  He let the subject there for now, gauging how much she was willing to bring forth herself, and how much carrying of the conversation he would have to do.

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Ahh, a relief. Well, he still did contact those from across the waters so it wasn't a complete relief but she'd take it. The problem had started relatively recently but it was starting to become a topic of some concern. Whole villages were locked down due to a spreading so-called 'night terror plague'. The screams of the afeared and feared alike drowned some of the coastal cities. It wasn't fatal and it seemed it would come and go in bouts, but it was creating no small deal of panic. Not to mention the drastic cut down in the quality and quantity of sleep her subjects were getting. It had not yet become something that her top advisors were panicking about but it was something that she knew to be scared about. She hated night terrors! She had them when she was younger and she was always angry about it. Another thing to dominate her and it came in the realm of dreams the one place she had real freedom.

 

Still, she didn't want to ask Equestria for aid. She needed to look strong. Her citizens needed to look strong. The nation needed to look strong. Most importantly, she needed to make sure those that knew her respected her as much as they respected some immortal beings from across the sea. She needed Feng to respect her that way. It would drive her up the wall if her best...friend?... decided to seek the help of them instead of his amazingly talented and amazingly powerful Empress. Yes, very talented. Very powerful. Talented? Powerful? Maybe she was. She was very pathetically trying to not think about the matter he was trying to bring up. She didn't want to talk about it. It was very awkward. She didn't like it like that. She didn't know if she didn't like him that way or if she did. And she certainly knew that it wouldn't work.
"Ah. Yes. Y-Yes. That matter," she said as she looked around, everywhere but him. "Did you...appreciate her response?"

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Well, there 'it' was.  The elephant in the room; Feng's impassioned, unrequited love for Yu Yue.  By this point, he was confident in saying that he'd moved beyond naive infatuation, they knew each other as friends, at least, and he loved what he knew.  And the unrequited nature of it had been no discouragement; after all, the Empress had given no better reason than the fact that she was royal and he was not.  If it had been a matter of her affections being elsewhere, that would be one thing, but to have them so artificially suppressed struck him as wrong on the face of it.  To him, the match was not impossible, it merely implied a series of ever-larger problems, but what kind of servant would he be if he couldn't solve problems for his Empress?

 

"At the time?  I did not."  He frankly admitted, his mind casting back to the smuggled newspaper read hastily in his barracks by candlelight.  "She offered no real solutions, only advising patience until the situation or my understanding of it changed.  But, I had no other course to follow, and indeed, both matters and my understanding of them have changed."  He sighed, rustling his feathers.  "But I am no closer to a solution to my new problem."

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Oh, Cadance. How sagely your advice could appear to those without the burning passion of youth firming up their tail bones in such impassioned displays of affection, only to have such desires firmly crushed by the matters of state and station. For those few who found themselves trapped in such a winding path of fire, your words were like ice that would never be felt or seen, but melted and dispensed of as the exercise in futility they were. Still, who was she to say anything? She was as unlucky in love as she was in trying to find some peace and quiet. When she did find it, there were conditions- a pre-made, manufactured royal garden and a wonderfully handsome and attentive guard. One was artificial and the other was passionately authentic, yet the artificial one could be experienced to the fullest extent of her desires.

 

Maybe Cadance was right about the rewards of patience.
"Yes. Well, she is an Alicorn. They have nothing but time so patience must seem the ultimate virtue, even in matters of affection," she said, straining to keep the words love and passion unspoken, lest another wall of hers crumbles towards the agonizing conclusion. She sighed. "Both matters and understanding have changed. In what way? And is this new problem the same as the old, but closer?"

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Immortality would give one a separate sense of time, though how that was affected by living with and loving mortals was... something he should probably put in his next letter.  Or he could just ask Hanabi, but that edged dangerously close to the problem as it now presented itself...  "Well, to begin with, I am no longer Watcher, and therefore no longer bound to its total Oath.  Which means that I am no longer forbidden from pursuing a committed relationship that is not centered around my service to you.  That is what has changed in my situation.  My understanding has changed in learning just how many mares held an unrequited desire for me just as I had for you, and I can no longer give them any excuse based on my status as a Watcher to defer their attentions."

 

Though it was hard, he kept his scarlet eyes on Yu Yue as he spoke.  Was there a hint of jealousy in her expression?  "So, I am bound by nothing more than my own heart's desire.  But that is chain enough, as my love cuts deep, not to be superficially transplanted.  As it stands, were I to pursue another, it would be with but half my heart, which is not fair to either me or them.  Yet without your help, I could not hope to extricate myself from these bonds.  And what it would take... asks much of you."

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It came in small waves, the emotions of the moment. He had bared himself to her in the ways he knew how and while both of them were entirely too well spoken and formal, she felt little better than an actress in a cheesy Equestrian teen romance. Yet she had to speak. She had to be honest.


She turned from him to stare at the pond water for a moment, her eyes welling up. She took a deep breath and closed them. "...It is...unfair of you to ask me to release you from the bonds when you know full well there is only one way I could release you," she opened them and turned. "The demands of my station decree it. Yet you would not find release in full if I did so, and half of your heart would turn bitter and frosted. Then I would be to blame for your mini-death, and your inability to give yourself to another. It is unfair of you to out that on me," she said accusingly, trying her best to get the emotional toll of the moment off of her shoulders.

 

Yet.
"Yet."
Yet.

She approached him with tenderness, and for once she looked unsure.
"It is also unfair of me to be...l-less than honest with you. So, here goes."


She hugged him, and in that hug gave him a kiss.

After a moment, and what was given in return, she pulled back and kept one hoof on his cheek so he may rest on it ever briefly.

"We both share this attraction. You are...the bravest and best I have ever known. You are handsome, funny, bold, loyal, honest. I..." She blushed. "I admit, I have imagined us together. More than once."
She looked down, then away, her hoof trailing behind as small specks of tears rolled down ever briefly into the garden below.
"But you know...I know. We know it cannot be," she sniffled, composed herself and turned around. Her chest was puffed and she assumed as regal a stance as her shaking breath would allow.

"I am Empress Yuè of the Long Guo. I am the Empire, I am her people. I am her glamour and I am her glory. Such is my station and so it is written," she said, choking down a sob effectively.
"When my hoof is taken in marriage, it will need to be taken by someqil of stature and great import to the Empire, to the people. Even if you are that to me, even if I desire it..." she looked down, and whispered the end. "...You are not my destiny. And I am not yours."

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Feng had a plan for how this conversation was going to go.  A practiced speech, in fact, on how his bonds of affection could yet be sated by her finding true happiness in another; he was most proud of the line that went, "I have a dragon's pride in my heart, but not a dragon's greed."  Followed, of course, by promises of matchmaking assistance, like a good friend.  It was good speech.

 

But Yu Yue had to ruin it.

 

Yu Yue had to kiss him.

 

Yu Yue had to leave him stunned in the garden, one hoof over hers upon his cheek, as she poured out a confession of her own affection.  All that he could only dream, or chastise himself for projecting upon her, she confessed to be actuality.  Pyschologically, it was perhaps necessary for her to do so, to be honest with a dear friend.  Tactically, it was an ill-considered move.  To show a starving longma a banquet, only to subsequently forbid it, would not encourage quiescence.

 

Feng felt the dragon's fire within him stoke to a roar as he saw his Empress cry, and were she to look up from the ground, she would see it blazing in his eyes.  His voice, however, maintained a deceptive level of calm, even if his dragon's breath accompanied his words.  "Stature and Import."  The words came out in a cloud of mint-scented smoke.  "When the whole of our history, of Dynasties coming from the lineage of those who till the earth, of a Celestial Bureaucracy whose boast is that of meritocracy, tells us that Long Guo is a land where Status comes from Service, and not the other way around."  He had to pause, rein in his breathing, before continuing, "It is true, you have not seen me in many contexts, just as your faithful guard and Watcher, but as a cultural ambassador to Equestria, I should say I acquitted myself well.  And in the days of my more secretive service, there was a great demand of versatility upon me.  You have hardly begun to exhaust what service I could render, given the opportunity!"

 

"As for my destiny..."  He turned to show Yu a god view of his flank (and quite the well-muscled and toned flank it was), gesturing to the mark upon it, a maple leaf over three upside-down mountains.  "I am he that overturns the mountains, that turns the world upside down.  Because, sometimes, that's the only way to set it right-side up."

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If words could truly move the winds of fate from their injurious nature then by all means he would do so. It was all she could do to continue breathing and not fall into a damsel's swoon over him. He was everything a mare could want from a stallion, was he not? Every word he spoke was true, after all. He was brave, beyond any doubt, his courage undeniable when you looked at the long list of deeds that would scuttle the weakened heart of many others. Yet his courage did not speak of him as some red-lusted barbarian, for his ample charms and good nature in Equestria had won over the most particularly warm creatures in all of existence. Who could deny him his truth, that of a stallion of many seasons and abilities? None. And of his versatility she was well aware, in ways he knew and ways he did not, just as he knew his truth in ways she did not. And if that was all that mattered then she could do what she wanted and fall into his broad legs this very moment.

 

This would not happen now for three reasons.

First was the lie. The lie they had told themselves from their earliest days. The Meritocracy! Oh, how status and service were lovers and produced fine heirs to the nation. It was not a lie because it was always one, but 'twas a lie to teach it as a universal constant when it was, at most, an inconstant. "You know as well as I...that it is not always the case. Yes, every dark moon a noble house falls and another is raised, scandal and merit, the fall and rise. Many of our dynasties have been born of service and merit," she started but tried to add strength to her words, "but ask yourself this: If that is true, then why is our history riven with corruption, scandal, and misfortune as readily as it is burnished by grandeur and the rocky stuff of work and fortune? What do most of our rulers do to deserve this position through service and merit? How many nobles have earned their position? No. Power has lain with unworthy for many passages in our long eons and it will always do so. Many who are worthy are not rewarded and many who are unworthy, unjustly rewarded. Your merits are beyond reproach and mind are lacking. Why do I rule and why do you serve?"

 

Then came the truth.
"Because station, not service, has been what has really mattered. Oh, most nobles at least pay lip service to the ideals of service. Some are firm believers. Yet it has been power and ambition that has moved the throne. These things have often come from those of good hearts and strong patriotism, but the truth...it is a bitter pill," she said with a heavy sigh, looking into the pool. Oh tiger of the pool, what is your wisdom? In her reflection she mulled it over, then her head bopped up and she turned around, scanning him for hope.


Finally, an option she had not yet considered.
"But as we have discussed, this is a nation that believes in those virtues. Believes that they can lead to high station. And sometimes, that can come true. Especially when they come after some great deed. And I may have just what we need," she said excitedly as she started trotting around him. "The Triad in Long Kong. They are a plague upon this nation, and their vines run deep. We have information that leads us to believe the leader is female, but we have never been able to capture her. Doing so would be the single biggest blow against organized crime in my lifetime. And I can think of no one else better to do this than you. Oh!" She said as she hopped up and down.

"It will be a truly legendary deed! Your record will be burnished to such a degree that I can easily raise you to nobility. Then-" she said as she caressed his cheek, "then we can be together. Ooooohhh!" She said as she turned around and spun in place. She had figured it out! They were gonna be alright. Wait, she needed to make- "Oh, yes. Hhmp," she said as she regained her posture. "Do you accept this noble quest?" She asked with sparkling eyes.

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It was true that Long Guo did not always live up to its ideals of meritocracy.  No more than Equestria always lived up to its ideas of Friendship and Harmony; he could testify to that from his correspondence with those across the sea who had seen the rougher side of life.  As for his own country, well!  It had been his job not too long ago to look harder than any other at its more corrupt side.  It had, at first, been an angering experience, but long stays in the infirmary with nothing to occupy one's mind save borrowed scrolls encouraged a philosophic view of the matter.  "Any paddy not actively cultivated will bear no rice.  If we do not live out our ideals, neither will our land reflect them, until the truths we neglect become our downfall."  That was, in fact, going to lead into his next argument, that being publicly elevated to the position of consort on merit would be the first step in a reform campaign, to reshape the ruling class to be more fit to serve.  After all, if Yu Yue's concert was the continuity of the rule and wisdom of the Fang Dynasty, what better policy could she pursue?

The slip of her ever-present self-doubt, however, caused him to change tack.  Closing in beside her, he placed a golden hoof upon her own, not yet daring to drape a wing across her back, though.  "Yu... do not doubt yourself so.  The selection pool of Emperors and Empresses may be limited, but it is usually sizeable, and from all your father's children, he selected you.  Besides Heaven itself, there are few who could better judge worth to rule than one who has for a lifetime borne that burden."  He tried to pour all the sincerity and belief he had in her into his voice, unsure if it would crack upon the strain.  The Empress seemed strained herself, staring into the pond as if it were an oracle.

 

Perhaps it was.  For what next came out of the qilin's mouth was an unexpected revelation, as if the clouded heavens had parted to show a sight of the sun and the King of the Long.  A quest!  Of course, and it was just the level of crazy ambitious that fired his blood.  Feng caught her infectious mood, his wings flaring, and his expression... transmuting.  An old friend like Yanhua would have recognized that look, but he rarely let it show in front of the Empress.  It wasn't the look of a trained guard, excited warrior, or commited courter.  It was the expression of a village troublemaker right before some deeply concerned village elder practically shouted, "Yinhaitao, what are you thinking!?"

"Aha, now you're speaking my language!"  He practically laughed as he stomped the earth, the capital dialect painfully mastered at the academy cracking up to reveal the more rustic dialog of the mountain villager beneath.  "A near-impossible quest, with a nigh-unbelievable reward.  For tasks like these, I'm your stallion!"

 

It would take all of his willpower not to strike some cheezy pose more appropriate to a Neighponese comic book than a serious drama, but life didn't stick to one genre.  And besides, there was still one niggling little thought at the back of his brain.  "Female leader, though?  You must be working off later intel than me; I've been reading over informant reports for years, the Dragon Head is male... unless Da Jian-yá has finally kicked the bucket?  He was sickly, from what we can gather."  Granted, unless his efforts to evade courier inspection failed, only he would have been able to read Yin's letters, which provided more inside information than would be available to the Watch normally.  Oh dear, he hoped his sister was alright; she hadn't written in a while...

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"That's just it: We no longer know!"

That was the start of it. Fact was that they always had a handle on who led the Triad and large parts of the organization. Like many things, you had to deal with some harsh realities and one of them was that organizations like the Triad often kept a lid on more violent crime from down below. So as long as it had kept its crimes quiet and self-contained they had been content to only slowly grind against it, forming cases against its leaders over time while crushing the foot soldiers when their crimes were discovered. That was safe and sustainable for the Kirin of the land.


"We knew for a long time that the old snake himself was the leader of that organization. We just lacked that final piece to really nail him down. At the very least though, we knew him, and we knew what to expect," She started as she cupped some water from the fountain and drank it. It wasn't pure and perfect drinking water- it was imperfect. She loved it for that reason.

"As you can guess, that is no longer the case. The Triad has changed. Da Jian-yá has not been seen, but we have not been able to ascertain if he is dead. We also have reason to suspect Yu Kinokawa is out of the picture as well. We have reason to suspect the hierarchy is in such chaos that not even their Grass Slipper is in action!" She said with increasing exasperation.  Then she turned around, honest worry painted. "That isn't the end of it. In just the past month, every informant that we had in the Triad have gone missing and the Long Kong police are reporting no known Triad activity."

 

She rolled her eyes and turned back around for a moment, before turning back around to him, angry. "I mean, really? Do they take us as fools?" She said as she shook her head and took a deep breath. "Somelin has compromised the Triad and the Long Kong Police. Whoever has control of it wields more power in greater darkness than Da Jian-ya ever did."'

She wanted to unleash dragonfire all over her beautiful garden in frustration. Her self-control won out.


"This...I will not stand for this," she said as she approached him. "I am authorizing you as an agent of the Throne to do whatever is necessary to find and remove this individual. Here," she said as she unleashed her dragonbreath, summoning to her side one of the two golden seals of the Imperial Throne. She placed it in his hooves. "The Dragon Seal. There are only two. I hold the other. No one may deny you. You carry the weight and authority of the Empress of Long Guo," she said, nodding with as much stoic excitement as she could. It was hard to do continue the facade as she reached in to touch his face.
"Find this person and deal with the Triad. Do it, and I may ennoble you. And when that happens, you will have me, and I will have you."

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Now that was sounding like what his formerly-fellow Watchers called a situation.  Sudden information gap, shutting down of conduits, uncooperative law enforcement partners... *Yin.  Were you counted as an informant?  Is that why I haven't heard from you?*  The deep pit of worry that opened up in his stomach dragged the cocky troublemaker look down right off his face, leaving the expression of a serious, determined agent of the crown.

 

He accepted the seal with gravity, knowing that this was the first time Empress Yu Yue had entrusted anyone with it.  "Much is likely to prove necessary, and this is one mission I don't want to go half-cocked out on.  Too much is at stake."  Closing his hoof around the seal, feeling its warmth for a moment, he stowed it away in his pocket.  "Some time to gather the right lins around me, the information we do not have, and then the strike..."  Even without the proferred reward, taking a huge blow to the Triad was exciting enough, but add the possibility of rescuing his sister and marrying the love of his life?  Oh, this was just something he could not refuse!

 

With Yu's touch, a smile returned to Feng's face.  "Consider it done, Your Majesty..."  He leant in closer to whisper.  "...and my love."

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