1. Heart & Mind - Olivia Lorenz
Street entertainer Yan Yue is out of his depth in his new life as the pampered guest of imperial minister Shuo Han, but he's certain of one thing: he can make Shuo Han fall in love with him. Ghostly poems, an old painting, and erotic compromise bring together two very different men, aligning hearts and minds.
2. Zinged! - Mae Powers
Can two Sky-Guards of different ranks push the boundaries of protocol in order to find love and passion, while on an alien planet?
3. Don't Ask - J.J. Massa
Falk Thayer and Captain Zack Smith have a policy. Don't ask, don't tell. It's not working.
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That night, Yan Yue forced himself to go to bed alone. He lingered over the wine after dinner, and when Shuo Han announced that he was retiring to his room, Yan Yue tried not to feel rejected.
Wei, the insufferably superior chief manservant who’d taken an instant dislike to him, gave him a smug look. It suggested that, now Lord Chen had resumed his properly appointed place at home, Yan Yue had ceased to be the favourite and that order was restored.
He took up a candleholder and, shielding the flame with one hand, ventured out into the warren of courtyards. As he approached the women’s quarters, he was relieved to see the warm glow of lamps through the carved screens.
Inside, he climbed the stairs noisily, yawning and talking aloud to himself. As he reached the top, the flame flickered then guttered so low it almost went out. Yan Yue yelped and cupped a hand around it. He sighed when it sprang back to life, and continued down the corridor to his bedroom.
He slid open the door and went inside. Even though the room was lit with lamps, he still held the candle out in front of him. Yan Yue was not sure what he was looking for, but after he had walked around the room a few times, he knew he was alone.
Yan Yue put the candleholder on the small table beside the bed, and began to undress. He was as careful as any valet with the green silk, hanging it on the rack and folding the waist-sash neatly before placing it in the linen chest. Leaving on the silk under-robes, he climbed into bed and blew out the candle.
The quilt was not the one he had sat on earlier in the day, but one that had been washed and dried in the courtyard. Yan Yue imagined he could smell the perfume of plum blossoms and sunshine on it, and the coolness of spring air. He did not associate these scents with night—these past few months had made him crave Shuo Han’s scent: sandalwood, cinnamon and the bitter-sharp note of sex—but they comforted him nonetheless.
He had grown used to sleeping beside Shuo Han, and now, lying awake in the wide bed, he missed his lord’s warmth. He pulled the quilt up to his chin and snuggled beneath it, waiting for sleep.
Around him, the hall breathed as the night breeze swept over Chang’an. Yan Yue half-closed his eyes so the flames from the lamps blurred his vision. He yawned, genuinely tired this time, and shifted restlessly. Whenever he felt the tug of sleep draw him in, he would hear something—a whisper of the wind through the branches of the plum tree, or the slide of a night bird’s feet over the tiles on the roof, and it would wake him again.
Staring around the unfamiliar room, Yan Yue did not want to consider the possibility of ghosts. Such a thing seemed foolish. He closed his eyes and told himself that his disquiet resulted from sleeping far away from Shuo Han in an old, silent part of the mansion.
Yan Yue opened his eyes suddenly. His body had gone cold with shock as he realised that, the whole time he walked around the room with the candle, the floorboards had not creaked once.
He lay still, listening to the sound of his pulse thumping nervously. Then he muttered and sighed, turning over beneath the quilt and making as much noise as possible. He faced the wall and drew the quilt over his head.
By the middle of the third watch, Yan Yue was asleep.
He didn’t know what woke him, but it felt like a sudden jolt into awareness rather than a slow, languid drift. Yan Yue clasped the quilt in one hand and mumbled into the pillow-roll. He’d been sleeping half on his front and half on his side, so without thinking he turned over onto his back.
The room was dark. The lamps had gone out. He could smell the perfumed oil still lingering in the air.
He blinked at the pale blue-grey light that filtered through the window screens. Somewhere distant, he could hear the steady pounding of drumbeats marking the end of the watch. Yan Yue covered his face with his hands and yawned. When he dropped his hands back onto the quilt and looked towards the light again, his heart momentarily stopped beating.
A figure stood in front of the windows.
Yan Yue was so terrified he couldn’t make a sound. His hands clutched desperately at the quilt until they spasmed with tension. It was only this brief spurt of pain that made him take note of the figure before him.
She—Yan Yue assumed it was a woman—wore dark, shapeless clothes. On her head was a wide-brimmed straw hat, and from it hung a long, gauzy veil of white silk that covered her from top to toe. Because of this veil, he could not determine her gender properly, but the way she stood, her head bowed and her shoulders rounded, seemed to suggest that his nocturnal visitor was indeed female.
Yan Yue cowered beneath the quilt, curling up into a ball. After a moment of panic, he began to wonder if perhaps it wasn’t one of the servants, perhaps Rong Mei or even Tuo, playing a trick on him. After all, the figure seemed solid enough; too solid, surely, to be a ghost!
He convinced himself of this idea and, gathering his courage, he sat up in bed and threw off the quilt. He laughed merrily, as if at a great joke, and then he stopped.
The figure had disappeared.
Too startled to be afraid, Yan Yue shuffled across the mattress to peer into the darkness. Nothing could be seen: no cheeky servants giggling as they tried to conceal themselves, and certainly no silent ghost.
With a sigh half relieved and half exasperated, Yan Yue rolled onto his side and leaned over the edge of the bed to grab the quilt. It had slid from the mattress when he’d jerked up so violently, and now he felt cold and more than a little ridiculous. He took hold of one corner and pulled, sitting up to drag the remainder of the quilt over his body. As he straightened up, he saw a flicker of white.
Yan Yue let go of the quilt. He felt it slither over his legs, heard it land on the floor with a soft thump, but he didn’t care. Taking a panicked breath, he looked towards the drape of the white veil.
She stood much closer this time, almost beside the bed. Now he could see through the gauze, could see the curves of a woman. Instinctively he knew it was not Rong Mei, nor any of the other maidservants. This creature was not human.
His breath sharp and terrified, Yan Yue lifted his gaze to her face. Her expression was shadowed, hidden by the brim of her hat and the bunching of the veil. Then, slowly, she raised her head.
Yan Yue stopped breathing. He could see her eyes. She looked at him through the veil, and then, to his horror, she reached out a hand.
He forced himself to take a breath. His head spun with fear. He could hear the tiny sobbing sounds he made as he tried to move away, but the woman held him fast with her gaze, coming closer and closer…
And then she touched him.
This time, Yan Yue screamed.