They had a quick breakfast and then the bird had flown out of the house. After Azazel and Bjorn assured Nikola, they won’t let Chen Zhaohui near the forge, Nikola and Wei Caihong were off after the bird. Predictably it took them to the beach. On the shores was a gray figure, a spirit. The mermaid Queen waved them over. Her hand was missing it’s ring finger. Nikola stopped to stare at the sight.
“Emerald Emperor, approach. There is something I need to ask of you.” The waves retracted and Nikola saw that the tail of the Queen was missing it’s scales. And there was a gaping hole where her heart should be. He felt sick. Just what had happened to the kind mermaid before she died? He sat on the sand in front of her and looked her broken form over once more.
“Your highness, just what…?” He didn’t know how to finish. The unspoken question hung in the air between them.
“Human hunters captured me when the word spread that mermaid tears could turn into pearls. My scales were yellow so they mistook them for gold. They were not. They did take my wedding ring, though. And my finger with it. As for my heart that wasn’t a crime they committed. I prayed and your Penemue answered my prayers. I was in so much pain back then, constantly beaten so I can produce more pearls. He said he will smite the hunters and bring me peace. And all he asked for was my heart after I died.”
The queen had a gentle smile on her face but Nikola was shaking his head. All these years ago it was his friend’s heart that he had eaten. Not some mad man-eating beast’s.
“The heart was for you, wasn’t it?” Asked the Queen and Nikola nodded. He opened his mouth to apologize but he felt that anything he said would be hallow. “I’m glad.” Said the Queen and Nikola looked shocked at her words. “No one deserves to be under a love spell, least of all you. Who is this man beside you?”
“I’m Wei Caihong, your highness.” Said Wei Caihong, bowing and receiving a bow in return. “Nikola’s husband and apprentice.” The Queen looked surprised at that.
“You have left your Penemue?” She sounded as if she couldn’t believe it. Nikola wondered what her opinion of him will be once he gave her his answer.
“No.” Wei Caihong sucked in a breath but didn’t argue. Nikola was grateful for that. “It’s complicated. Wei Caihong is my soulmate, Queen Lydia. But Penemue is…he is…”
“Your heart?” Supplied the Queen helpfully. Nikola nodded and Wei Caihong looked down at his feet. Some things never change.
“It’s cruel, what you are doing to them both.” Scolded the Queen and Wei Caihong agreed with her in his mind. “But I haven’t called you here to speak sense into you. Is it true that you made my Ariel a human?”
“Not quite.” Said Nikola as he saw the thunderous expression on the Queen’s face. “I just turned her tail into a pair of legs. She owes me no dept and we made no deal, if that is what you are worried about.”
“That crossed my mind, I will not lie.” Said Queen Lydia. “But I am relieved you haven’t bounded my little girl into servitude. For what I will ask of you I will repay you. You need to collect my scales and give me a proper burial. I am tired of being between worlds.”
Nikola sighed. Some of the scales could have rotted away by now. He could do a summoning spell and get as many as he could to himself but not all. It would be a miracle if he gets even a single one.
“I am not a priest, kind Queen. And centuries passed since your death. Your scales were no different than those of a fish. Unless some of them were preserved somehow I don’t see how I can help you.”
“So, you won’t even try?” She asked sorrowfully and Nikola was quick to correct her.
“I will. But I will have a much bigger chance giving you back your ring than your scales. A treasure such as this would surely be in some noble’s display case right now. Can’t we bury it instead?”
The Queen thought it through and then she nodded.
“Somewhere safe and hidden. I refuse to return to this world once I know peace.”
Nikola figured he could throw the ring in the ocean. Or drop it in a cave. But no, it will end up being found again. The Abyss? It was so vast that the ring could float for millennia without it being found. Yes, the Abyss was the perfect place for it.
“Queen Lydia, I will find your ring and send it to the Abyss. Would that satisfy you?”
“I believe it will, yes.” She then reached out a hand and Nikola pretended to shake it. His fingers passed through it but it made the mermaid happy. “Now, what is it that you will ask of me in return?”
“Your highness, I would be very grateful if you reinstall Ursula into the line of succession. As your husband is dead and had passed over to the other side, you are the only one with the authority to do so.”
Queen Lydia splashed water with her tail everywhere.
“Ursula? That demon? And put my children in harm’s way?” Nikola sucked in a breath. Didn’t the Queen know?
“Ariel is your only surviving child, I’m sorry.” The Queen wailed as if someone was torturing her.
“My girls! My beautiful girls!” The skies became cloudy and rain began to fall down. Nikola placed a hand over the Queen’s shoulder and it passed through her. That made her cry harder. Not knowing what else he could do he looked up and the sky and spoke.
“Your daughters led armies against the Nephilim. They died summoning a Leviathan. Atlantis was nearly destroyed that day.” The Queen looked at him and there was hatred in her gaze.
“And my husband? How did he die?” Her voice had a demonic feel to it now and Nikola knew she might lash out against him. He was responsible for that death too.
“I used a mind control spell on the Leviathan. He died defeating it.”
“You wretch!” The winds picked up and Nikola waited for them to shred him. He sighed. The Queen would be at peace if he found her ring. He focused on the feel of her aura and went inside the water. He could see sharks coming closer. He heated the water and they stayed just out of reach.
“Water, pure and live giving, return me a ring of gold with a pearl for a heart. A soft tear cried with joy. Return it to me so I may return it to another.”
Foam begun to appear in the water but the ring didn’t appear. Nikola repeated it again and when his only result was more foam, he lowered his head. The ring must be lost. He looked at the Queen who was a black shadow now, in the process of becoming a demon.
“Lydia, you don’t want this. Think of Ariel.” He was very tired in this moment. He had seen the process happen once before. But the ghost hadn’t survived it back then.
“Why? Are you going to kill her too? This is all you are good for, isn’t it? Your blood-soaked empire brought death to the world. And you laughed at the suffering of those you stepped on!”
“I was fighting for my survival, Lydia.” And it was true. Many had wanted the secrets of the angels for themselves and the fighting strength of the Nephilim. Kings and Queens greeted him with gifts upon first meeting him and then months later he’ll get a declaration of war and his explorers would all be killed. That had all happened when the Aztek had set the precedent. Sacrificing a grandson of his, Radko, to their savage gods. He had sent them famine in response and they had showed him they could live off human meat. He had sent them drought and they had nearly all died out. Then he had sent them his army and had given them chains. But they, just like the Japanese, never fully bowed their heads.
“I will have to exorcise you.” He spoke. This was a painful process for both parties involved. Queen Lydia tried to swim away but Nikola summoned chains made of light which bind her. The sharks braved the warm water and one tried to take a bite out of him only for ice to close it’s maul shut. Nikola looked back at Wei Caihong who was muttering an incantation and smiled at him. At least he wouldn’t have to worry about becoming food. He approached the Queen who looked at him with fear.
“Any last words? I will do my best to grand your last wish.”
“Tell my Ariel I love her. And that I wish her an eternity of happiness.” The Queen looked resigned. Her aura had returned to gray and she nodded. Nikola hovered a hand over her head and did his best to spare her of the pain of having her soul torn to shreds. But soon he was screaming in the water with her as their souls battled for dominance. Her damaged one was cracking but he couldn’t see it as he was trying to keep his face above the water. The Queen’s screaming stopped abruptly and the pain in Nikola’s stomach stopped too. He looked around him. There was no trace of her or the sharks.
Wei Caihong was by his side and picking him up. He was saying something but the only thing Nikola could hear was the ringing of the Queen’s screams in his head. Nikola could register that he was laid at the base of a tree but he couldn’t see anything. There was always the chance your own soul could be destroyed during an exorcism. Nikola blinked and willed magic into his eyes, doing his best to fix his blindness. He could suddenly hear someone begging. He registered hands embracing him and that he was being rocked back and forth.
It would be so easy to let go and stop fighting in this moment. He’ll die for sure if he does. Maybe go to the Abyss even. To Penemue. The hands tightened around him as if their owner had sensed his thoughts.
“…leave me…Emerald.” Nikola’s hearing was slowly returning.
“Don’t leave me, my Emerald!” He heard it clearly this time. What was he thinking? To leave his family behind. His soulmate and husband. And all because of a small chance he would get to be with his lover? It must have been a moment of madness on his part. He felt cold lips on his brow and he inhaled deeply. His hand reached out to grip Wei Caihong’s robes and he chuckled.
“Never, my Ebony. I promised to make you happy, didn’t I?” Wei Caihong was peppering his face with kisses as if he had nearly lost him. Pain shot through Nikola’s body with each movement but he touched his chest and forced his soul to mend. That was just as painful as when it had cracked and he slumped forward in Wei Caihong’s arms, falling unconscious.
Wei Caihong looked at Nikola and he checked his pulse. Still alive. Scooping him in his arms he begun the long trip back home. As he reentered the village people begun to stop him and ask about Nikola. He told them all that today had been too hot for his husband, which was a lie as Queen Lydia’s spell had cooled the weather, and that Nikola had fainted on the beach.
Word had spread and reached granny Nuo Nuying who came with her cart and demanded he get in and rest a little. He did just that and instead of them going to their house they stopped in front of the granny’s.
“You want your son to see him like this?” Asked the grandmother as she led the oxen from the cart. Wei Caihong didn’t want to imagine Chen Zhaohui ever seeing his mama like that. Blood had begun to drip from Nikola’s mouth during the cart ride and as soon as they were inside the house Wei Caihong leaned down to lick it clean. “Let him rest, will you?” Snapped the granny and she then hit him over the head with a ladle. Did she always go around with this thing?
Wei Caihong was led into a small room and he placed Nikola on some blankets that were on the floor. Then he kneeled next to him and took his arm, staring at his face.
“What did he do?” Asked the grandmother who had come back with a basin of cold water and a cloth. She wetted it and placed it on Nikola’s forehead who stirred at the touch but didn’t wake.
“He…I’m not sure. He said he will exorcise a ghost but I think he erased it out of existence.” The granny tutted and moved to Nikola’s other side so she could grab his other hand.
“He knows no limits, does he? And you wish to be the same.” Wei Caihong tore his eyes off his husband’s face to see a disapproving look on the granny’s.
“Great power comes with his knowledge. I don’t expect you to understand.” The granny hit him with the ladle again and then pointed it at Nikola.
“You see this? This is how people look before they die! That is the price of his magic. The great power you speak of! He won’t hold it against you if you stop at the level you are at now. He would even be happier that you won’t be risking yourself!”
Wei Caihong gripped Nikola’s hand tighter. It was all true. But he had gotten into the mess with the angels because he had wanted power. And he still did.
“He’ll be even happier if he can call his husband his equal. Then maybe he won’t think the world of Penemue anymore.” He didn’t mean to raise his voice but it just happened. Penemue was a sore subject for him. He hated the angel for being his superior in everything. And yet he admired him too, for he had set the ball rolling on Nikola’s raise to power. Wait! Penemue could tell him how to make Nikola get better. Surely this isn’t the first time this has happened? He closed his eyes and heard the mutterings and cries of the angels and he searched for the only one who was always silent. For Penemue was too proud to beg and Wei Caihong thought that the angel expected to serve his sentence in full.
What do you want? Came a voice from the direction of the silence finally. It oozed coldness and Wei Caihong smiled. It was good to know that his feelings were returned.
Nikola is unconscious. Is that normal for after an exorcism? Penemue cursed and Wei Caihong raised an eyebrow. And here he had thought that the angel wanted to present a saintly image.
He could actually be in a comma. Wei Caihong stared at Nikola worriedly. What was he going to do if that was the case? Touch his chest, right over his heart, and start pouring magic in. The more violent the better.
What if I hurt him? Wei Caihong didn’t want to be the one who hurt his beloved. Then he heard a snort.
And you think I wish to hurt him? Even indirectly? Your opinion of me is very low. Perhaps lower even than my opinion of you.
Wei Caihong thought back on all that he knew about the relationship between Nikola and Penemue and gave out a snort of his own. His opinion was justified. Still, he placed his hand over Nikola’s heart and took comfort in the strong heartbeat. Then he begun to pour black energy into Nikola. He wasn’t thinking of anything negative and yet his magic was black. Which said a lot about his true nature. Nikola begun coughing violently and Wei Caihong nearly removed his hand but then Penemue hissed at him to continue. Blood begun to drip from Nikola’s mouth again and granny Nuo Nuying screamed at him to stop but he didn’t listen. Nikola’s eyes fluttered open and he stood up abruptly.
“Your magic hits like a raging bison.” Said Nikola as Wei Caihong hugged him. Granny Nuo Nuying soon joined the embrace, although she was hitting Wei Caihong with the ladle all the while.
“You two will make me worry to my grave!” Said the old woman after a particularly strong hit on Wei Caihong’s head who removed his arm from around Nikola to snatch the ladle away. “And from now on I have a rule! No magic in my house!” Nikola chuckled at that. He had gotten that rule many times before.
“On my honor I swear that no magic will be done in your house, granny.”
“Only if it’s an emergency.” Added Wei Caihong and then he moved the ladle out of reach just in case the granny got any ideas to continue to beat him. Granny Nuo Nuying extracted herself from the embrace and looked at them both with an approving look. They looked good together.
“Now, seeing as you two are here and you are not expected back in quite some time, we will be making steamed buns! I sold all of mine today and hadn’t had the time to start on a fresh batch. You won’t leave me to fend for myself, will you?”
“Of course not, granny.” They said at the same time and granny Nuo Nuying could already see the mountains of steamed buns the three of them would make together. They spend the whole day making buns and when Nikola and Wei Caihong were allowed to leave it was with some steamed buns for home. Granny Nuo Nuying extracted from them the promise that they will bring Chen Zhaohui to meet her tomorrow and that they will both dance together for the crowds. It was dark outside and still cloudy so the two had only the light of the street lanterns to guide them. When they made it home there was already food on the table and Bjorn, Azazel and Chen Zhaohui were waiting for them.
“I helped make the food!” Said the boy as soon as he saw his parents. They grinned and placed the steamed buns down.
“Son, we are going to be meeting granny Nuo Nuying tomorrow. Would you like that?”
“I have a grandmother?” Asked the boy in a confused tone. He knew that his mama was not from here and that his papa’s parents were long gone. When his mama nodded, he smiled brightly. His family was growing with each passing day.
“She all but adopted me.” His mama said. “And she’ll love you, I’m sure.”
“Tomorrow you will come with us and afterwards the three of us will help her sell her steamed buns.”
“Which are actually already sold.” Said his mama and then he embraced his papa and pecked him on the cheek. “Your father feeds the poor with them.” There was pride and love in his mother’s voice as he said it. Chen Zhaohui ran to them and jumped into their arms. It was so good that they were getting along again. He had been so worried that they might split up.
“Ok, lovebirds. It’s dinner time.” Called his uncle Basil from the table. Then he leaned in and whispered something into uncle Bjorn’s ear. From the corner of his eye Chen Zhaohui could see that uncle Bjorn was blushing. Chen Zhaohui smiled brighter. He knew that his uncles had had trouble in their relationship too and it was good to know that no one was leaving anyone in this house. His mama scooped him up and carried him to the table, setting him on his papa’s left side.
After they ate, he was told to study his calligraphy while his mama gave his papa dance lessons. Which wasn’t fair as he wanted to watch. His uncles had gone to the other room too and soon Chen Zhaohui could hear his mama singing a fast tune. He smiled as he brought the brush to the paper before him. Even if he wasn’t there, he would at least be able to hear his mother’s singing.
Meanwhile Wei Caihong had a foot raised in the air and he was trying his hardest not to let Nikola fall on the ground. His nose was itching and he had the feeling he would sneeze soon.
“Can I pull you up yet?” He said. He wished to be on two legs again. Nikola was light but he was barely keeping the balance.
“Sure, swing us both around. Or you could forget your pride and let me lead?” Nikola was smirking up at him. He had proposed in the beginning that he led the dance but Wei Caihong had said that as the one who wore the pants in their relationship this was not happening. Next to them Bjorn was twirling Azazel around like it costed him nothing to keep his balance. When the Atlantean jumped on one leg, swing his husband and then lowered him Wei Caihong pulled a face. Nikola tugged at his sleeve.
“I expect you to do something similar. It will stun the crowds.” Bjorn danced closer to them and he let go of one of Azazel’s arms and twirled him on the spot. Azazel did a trust fall just as he stopped spinning and Bjorn caught him with one arm and kissed him, then he raised him back and they were now both dancing something that had a lot to do with stomping their feet and circling each other.
“Oh, step dancing!” Exclaimed Nikola as he moved so that he could see the dancing pair better. Which made Wei Caihong shift too and he nearly fell. He ended up catching his balance and kneeling on the ground, with Nikola’s hair brushing it. “Just let me lead, you stubborn mule!” Wei Caihong slowly rose, both of his feet firmly planted on the ground, and then he righted Nikola so that he was standing opposite him.
“Why can’t we dance a Chinese dance instead? One with veils and swords?” He was very good at those. Give him a veil and men would forget that he was like them. Give him a sword and women would swoon.
“Would you have given me the time of day if I showed you the same old dances as everyone else?” Asked Nikola as he righted Wei Caihong’s arms around his waist.
“What did you dance before?” Asked Wei Caihong as he begun to take two steps back and then two steps forward and then proceeded to hook his leg over Nikola’s and used the momentum to turn them both around. He got this part of the dance just fine. It was the jumping and the one leg balancing while he was also holding his husband that he couldn’t get the hand of.
“Ballet.” Said Nikola. “It is good for building leg muscles and for practicing balancing. Now pick me up and hold me over your head and don’t forget to…”
“Raise my leg up, I know.” Wei Caihong picked Nikola up, holding him high above his head. And then he raised his leg up to placed it next to his other one and then he raised on his toes. Nikola lowered his head to watch him and giggled.
“You can’t show this face to the public! You have to smile!”
Wei Caihong smiled, that is if the smile of a constipated witch that is eyeing your children hungrily could be called a smile. Nikola sighed and with a deft movement he jumped from Wei Caihong’s arms and landed on the ground.
“Ok, this is enough. I’m leading!”
“But, my Emerald!” Wei Caihong was pressed flush to Nikola in one deft movement and then they were both moving, him barely keeping up and not stepping on his husband’s toes. Then he was up in the air, supported by a single arm and staring into the ceiling. Then he was falling and he had enough time to yelp before he was coughed again inches from the floor. He received a nose nuzzle from a very amused Nikola and then he was raised again only for them to start moving around the room again. By the time Nikola finally deemed his dancing good enough Wei Caihong was panting.
“You can’t show the crowd you are tired tomorrow.” Said Nikola. Then he looked at Bjorn and Azazel who were locked in a slow waltz. Wei Caihong pointed at them.
“This looks easier, without any of the acrobatics you seem to cherish so much. And more intimate too. Why can’t we do this instead?”
Nikola placed Wei Caihong’s hands around his waist and placed his own over his shoulders.
“One, two, three and then spin.” He said simply and Wei Caihong was happy that he got to lead. This new dance allowed for Wei Caihong to steal longer, more passionate, kisses from his husband. Bjorn begun to hum a slow tune then and the two dancing pairs got into the same tempo. They finished the dance with an embrace and a kiss and went to sit on cushions near the fireplace.
“We should dance more often. Hey, Niki, mind dancing with a torch next time?” Said Azazel and Wei Caihong’s good mood turned sour. Dancing with a torch was what Nikola did with Penemue.
“No, it looks silly when I do it alone. And Wei Caihong can’t stand to be near a fire.”
“I think you look lovely even when you dance alone.” He said despite himself and watched in satisfaction as Nikola leaned into him. Azazel whistled and wrapped an arm around Bjorn. He was forced to lean in because of the high difference between him and his husband.
“Dear heart, do you have a compliment for me too?” He asked shamelessly.
“You are as elegant as ever, lemon cake.” Said Bjorn and turned to place a kiss over Azazel’s eyes. “But then again you are a swordsman, so that is to be expected.”
“Gee, you make me feel special, soulmate.” Complained Azazel but he was smiling as Bjorn begun to kiss lower. “Let’s go to our room. It’s bed time.”
“I don’t have sleeping in mind for tonight.” Said Bjorn as he stood up and offered Azazel his hand.
“Neither do I.” Assured him his husband and they were out of the room, hand in hand, speaking quietly with one another.
“But I have sleeping planned for tonight.” Announced Nikola standing up and stretching his limbs. Wei Caihong groaned and gave his husband his best puppy look.
“Just for an hour?” He asked hopefully as he was being raised to his feet.
“We need our strength for tomorrow. You already look ready to kneel over and tomorrow we will be dancing the day away.”
Wei Caihong dragged his feet all the way to the bedroom. At least he got to cuddle with Nikola for tonight. The morning after the two found out they had forgotten something. Or rather, someone. Chen Zhaohui was still doing his calligraphy and he looked ready to pass out. Since there were no windows in the house the boy hadn’t noted the passage of time. Nikola had laughed all the while Wei Caihong had murmured an apology after the other and when they tucked their son in, they promised him that they won’t be making him work on his calligraphy today as he had done more than enough practice the previous night.
The bathroom was taken by Bjorn and Azazel who had woken up earlier than Nikola and Wei Caihong. So, the two husbands simply washed their hands and went to get the breakfast ready. The four of them had a separate breakfast as they took turns to use the bathroom. And then they went their separate ways. Azazel and Bjorn towards the forge where they had gotten workers to wait for them so that they could start on the construction of the brewery and Nikola and Wei Caihong to the shop so that they could meet with granny Nuo Nuying. There was a line already forming up near her stall and Wei Caihong saw grandpa Cao in there together with his granddaughter and his grandchildren. He waved at them and they waved back.
“Gather all! Today we will get a performance!” Yelled granny Nuo Nuying over the heads of the gathered crowd.
“But granny, we can’t pay you for it!” Yelled a young woman who was clutching a copper in her hand.
“And what? Should those who are well off be the only ones who get to see a show? I spit on that!” Said the granny and she indeed spat on the ground. “You all gather and eat your buns! I have made triple the usual among! There will be enough to go around. And what are you two staring at? Dance already!”
Nikola chuckled and Wei Caihong allowed for his husband to lead the dance again. He was spun, thrown up and then caught and twisted this way and that the whole day. When he was lowered for the last time, he thought he would collapse on the ground. But Nikola kissed his nose and raised him up and then he allowed for him to lean on for support.
Loud applause sounded. The people had long since eaten their steamed buns but they had still remained behind to watch. Then the magistrate of all people walked forward with his wife, his son and Ariel in tow.
“Wonderful, simply wonderful! I expect there are lessons for those who want them in the school. Dancing is such an honorable occupation!” Wei Caihong groaned. The only thing of these dances he understood was that he should do his utmost not to fall down.
“Of course, I’ll be happy to squeeze in another hour each day for that purpose.” Said Nikola and the magistrate’s wife pointed her fan at him.
“Were those Trojan dances? What are the people of Troy like then? Are you all acrobats?” Nikola was just happy that ballet was not an Atlantean dance and so he wouldn’t get exposed.
“No, Madam Wu. I learned this dance during my weapon’s training.” Madam Wu hid her face behind her fan and muttered something about secretive traders. Master Wang, the weapon’s trainer of this village, stepped forward and bowed his head.
“I will be the first to your new classes. I can already imagine the damage a high kick like the one you performed could cause. And this seems like a good strength building exercise too.” He then left. Nikola saw that he was carrying around his saber, the one he had bought from Nikola’s shop. Now why would he need to do that so openly in a small village like this?