Seeing that his beloved wasn’t talking, Qiu Ling reached over and took his hand, playing with his fingers absentmindedly. “Don’t you worry. Since I told him that I had brought you here and that this was the first time for you to take part, I really doubt he’d connect this with you. He likely thinks that you are a person of the dragon realm. And anyway, I don’t think he would make a big deal about this.”
Jing He looked up at him, still not sure what to say about this. He was pretty sure as well that the owner wouldn’t breathe a single word about this. After all, he had looked pretty scared. “It’s alright. I trust that Longjun will make the right call in this regard.”
Qiu Ling beamed when his beloved admitted that he trusted him on this matter. This seemed like a pretty big thing to him. If his beloved was not willing to trust him, then he would really need to reconsider his strategy. But like this, it definitely was a step in the right direction. “I’m happy that you feel that way.”
Jing He slightly inclined his head but didn’t say anything else. Instead, he turned to look at the window that was still covered by a curtain. Later on, the servants would likely open it for them so they could watch the play. He wondered just what would be shown today.
Seeing his gaze, Qiu Ling also looked over. “Judging from what we saw when we walked up here, I guess that this place will show different plays on the different floors.”
Jing He nodded. “I also thought so. The first and second floor seem to show the same while the other three seem to have their own plays. I do wonder what it will be here though.”
Qiu Ling smiled lightly. He really seldom had the chance to make Jing He talk about something freely. He definitely wouldn’t let go of it now that the opportunity had presented itself. “Do you have a preference for that kind of play you’d like to see? Or maybe you even have a specific one in mind?”
Jing He wasn’t quite sure how to say this. “Well … Since it is the Jiyi Festival, they will only show plays that showcase actual historical events. I think that regardless of what it is, it is worth watching.”
Qiu Ling tilted his head and gave him a deep look. “What a safe answer.”
Jing He requited his look, not quite sure what to say to that. Was it a safe answer? The dragon king was probably right about that. But he had a history of giving that kind of answer, didn’t he?
He lowered his gaze and held back a sigh. “Well, it is nonetheless true. I think it has a certain hopefulness to it, doesn’t it? They aren’t just stories that somebody thought up, stories that will inevitably end happily because the person writing it imagined it and wished for it to happen. Instead, they are stories that real people experienced. They are the truth. If they end well, then isn’t that a better thing?”
Qiu Ling looked at him, wondering if there was some deeper meaning to this. After spending several years together, he did know Jing He well enough to judge that he was not somebody who spoke his true thoughts easily. But he also wasn’t somebody who would necessarily lie. He’d much rather keep quiet or say things could mean all or nothing. He had perfected that kind of empty talk.
“I can see what you mean. But what if the ending isn’t happy?”
Jing He looked down at the strong hand that was still holding his and a faint smile lifted the corners of his mouth. Yes, what if the ending wasn’t a good one? “I guess there is no happiness to be had without suffering. Not everybody can have a happy ending.”
Qiu Ling continued to look at him, pondering. “Is that … a fear of yours?”
Jing He looked up at him, somewhat astounded. Had he said too much just now? He didn’t know what to say for a moment and could finally only pose a question. “Why would Longjun think so?”
Qiu Ling also pondered for a moment. “Well, you told me the other day that I’m supposed to figure out what your deepest wish is, didn’t you? I am taking this seriously.
“I don’t know if you realize this but from the moment we first met, I have been very serious about this. If there’s something that you want, then I will naturally try to make it come true. And for figuring this out, I think it is inevitable to pay some more attention and take what you say as some deep truth from you.
“I couldn’t help but feel that you sounded a little sad when you said that just now. And maybe thinking about it like this, you also feel that this suffering could never happen to you.”
Jing He lowered his gaze, continuing to smile but there was no happiness behind it. “Is that really the impression I leave Longjun with?”
Qiu Ling once again kept quiet for a while. “The impression you give me …” He looked at Jing He, took in the way he was unable to look him in the eye but how he still held his hand, and couldn’t help but feel that the impression he had of Jing He was actually a little paradox. “I can’t help but admit that with time, it changed a little. Originally, I might have had some expectations that turned out not to be true.”
Jing He’s gaze flickered to his face before he looked down again. “Is that a good thing or a bad thing?”
“To be honest, it is very good. It makes me feel … much closer to you. I guess I shouldn’t have been too surprised. It makes sense.” He raised Jing He’s hand, grabbing it with both of his, his touch incredibly gentle. “To be honest, the difference between us isn’t that big, is it? I am the dragon king and you … You’re bound to become the Heavenly Emperor one day.
“At first glance, it probably seems like a dream to people. Being able to reign, having so many look up to you, being able to rely on them, and their loyalty toward you … Who wouldn’t want that?”
Jing He’s brows slightly furrowed but he didn’t say anything.
Qiu Ling followed the traces on his hand with his fingertips, seemingly lost in thought. “It is hard to understand for them that it is not always that happy. There are things about this that … are hard to explain if one has never experienced it. Being at the top comes with a certain kind of loneliness, doesn’t it?”
Jing He raised his gaze to Qiu Ling’s face, a hint of surprise hidden deep in his eyes. “Longjun’s meaning is …”
“Can you ever be yourself? When I asked you out the other day and we had that picnic, you said it yourself: We are in a position where every word is to be considered. Anything too personal can be harmful. It is not just the demons and the war that make it that way. Even in our own races, there could be trouble, there could be strive. It is hard to trust others, isn’t it?”
Jing He didn’t answer but the way he looked made obvious that he thought the same.
Qiu Ling nodded. “That’s what I thought. In the beginning, when I saw you, what struck me was the way you presented yourself. It might not be easy to spot after I’ve reigned for so long but I sometimes can’t help but feel that maybe I am not enough for the dragon race. Maybe there are things about me that … that are insufficient.
“But unfortunately, these doubts can never be shown. And I guess I long for having somebody at my side that could help whatever insecurities it was. Somebody who was able to soothe people’s minds if they took just one look at him.” He reached out and very gently took off Jing He’s mask, putting it down on the table next to them.
Seeing his beloved in that robe he had made for him, with his face finally laying bare thanks to the hairstyle his mother-in-law had created, his breath hitched for a moment. He looked at him and then his lips curved up in a smile.
“Even now, looking at you, what I see is an image of perfection. You’re beautiful. Beautiful to a degree where I feel like it might make my heart stop. I’m sure that there’s nothing anybody could critique about you. And also, at that moment, I could also see that your bearing and the way you carried yourself were precisely as it is expected. Never too much, never too little. You do know your place and you do know how to act as what is expected of you. Isn’t that so?”
Jing He’s gaze flickered. He could not remember if anybody had ever seen through him like this. If it had happened, at the very least, nobody had ever told him like this. It made him feel … exposed. He wanted to shift in his seat and put that mask back on. If he couldn’t have the one that he normally wore, then even the one the dragon king had given him would work. He just wanted to hide.
Qiu Ling lowered his gaze as if he could sense how Jing He was feeling. He just looked at their hands, his expression still thoughtful. “I’m sure that when the people of the dragon race look at me, this is also what a few of them will think. But inside, things might look differently. It is just that we’re not at liberty to expose it.
“Anyway, the longer I spent time with you, the more I noticed that you were likely the same. By now, I guess I can’t say that I am looking for that perfection. I don’t mind if it is shown to anybody else. But right now, I just feel … close to you.”
Jing He looked up, not quite sure what to make of that last sentence. “Longjun …”
Qiu Ling leaned closer, grabbing Jing He’s other hand as well. “You show them one face but you wear a different one inside. For all its worth, I’m pretty much the same. You might not understand right now and I might not be able to explain it right now but believe me when I say that the two of us … we have much more in common than you think.” He reached up and took off the black mask, putting it down next to Jing He’s. “I’m sure that you have no trouble seeing through some things. Being carefree and without worry, it is certainly not what you expect the dragon king to be.”
Jing He nodded. This was something that had puzzled him. “Is Longjun saying that this is what people expect of you?” He could hardly imagine it. The way he was right now … It was much more befitting of a king.
“As I said, there are things I am unable to explain at the moment and things you won’t understand. This is likely one of them. Just bear in mind that I know how you feel. Wearing the mask … It can get tiresome. So I want you to know that whether it is now or in the future, you won’t have to pretend with me. With me at your side, you could be yourself. That’s something I can promise you.”
Jing He gave him a faint smile. “Is it that Longjun thinks that this would be my deepest wish?”
Qiu Ling looked at him but finally shook his head. “I feel that if I’m right and you are indeed anything like me, then it will be one wish. But it likely won’t be your deepest one. As for that … I will need some more time to figure it out. I hope you won’t mind.”
Jing He shook his head. “Longjun may take all the time in the world. I’m not in a rush. Anyway, we are immortal. What should we be in haste for?”
Qiu Ling smiled and then motioned over to the curtain. “You’re right. I guess we should just focus on the here and now. Should I go and see what this play will be about?”
Jing He shook his head and then reached out, once again picking up the white mask, and putting it on his face. “No, Longjun doesn’t need to. I think finding out together is quite nice as well. Who wouldn’t like to get a nice surprise every now and then?”
Qiu Ling smiled and also picked up his mask, putting it on his face. “You’re certainly right. I guess that is what we should do then.”
With that, the two of them turned to the curtain, waiting for it to be drawn aside by one of the servants for the play to begin.