Lian sat in her quarters at her desk, reviewing requests and signing edicts. Her desk faced the open window, so she could see the flyers and the surrounding countryside, if she chose to do so.
Yet she was not interested in the view. She moved swiftly through each document, putting each in its proper place. When she had no more room on her desk, she rang a bell and a man or woman would race into her quarters, hunched over in subservience, take the papers and race back out backwards. Everything worked smoothly.
She paid them little mind. Each scroll and book scratched at her, demanding her full attention. She gave as much as she dared.
Air stirred the edge of feather quill. She snatched her dagger from its place at the top of her desk. With her left hand she brought it above her head, blocking the sword blade that was descending. The blades quivered against each other and she heard a soft lament as the metals strained.
Lian pushed the sword away and pushed her chair back at the same time, striking the assailant in the chest. She whirled around to face her attacker, her yellow sleeves billowing around her like a fox spirit's tail.
Guards rushed in behind her, all ready to attack - Radiant Jen Zi, hero of the Empire.
"Good reflexes, birthday girl!" Jen stood in front of her, the Dragon Sword held casually over her shoulder. She laughed. "Are you going to fend me off with the legendary and most ancient...quill?"
Lian's fingers curled around the quill she still held in her right hand. She turned her anger on her guards instead of Jen. "Get out, you fools. Much good you did. I'd have been dead before any of you had reached me!"
While they rushed out, servants swarmed to upright the chair and put it back in front of her desk. Lian waited for them to leave, then she pushed her sleeves out of the way, arranged her silks, and then sat down to work again.
"Birthday girl, what are you so glum about?" Jen laughed and threw herself into the closest chair, not caring for the furniture. The tooth of a dragon could not be dulled, but the sword gouged marks into the elderly wood floor.
"I have much to do today before the celebration tonight." She returned to her work, then stood up, displaying the tear she had discovered in her sleeve. "And look what your little prank did to my dress!"
"I think you have an army of seamstresses that can fix that. Or you can burn that one and put on a new one." Jen smiled mischievously. "I prefer the second option but only if I get to stick around for the costume change."
Lian had learned much when traveling with Jen. Restraining herself from fighting with the woman was difficult, but her dismissiveness irritated Jen much more than any stinging words she might fling at her. "I do not have time for you right now. Some of us have duties."
"Oh, then I'll just hang around the palace, shall I? At your whim, Empress." Jen pulled herself off the chair and began walking away.
"So you can scandalize the courtiers?" Lian jabbed her quill into the inkpot with restrained ferocity. "I think not. They haven't gotten over your last stunt."
"I remember a time when you liked scandalizing the courtiers," Jen retorted. "And I didn't know that Black Whirlwind would wander off, find the Palace's wine cellar and then reenact the time he stormed the Seven Gates during the Exchequer Court meeting."
Lian remembered that she had complained about the meeting to Jen quite a bit before going to it; it had been no coincidence that the meeting had been interrupted so spectacularly. She doubted that the Black Whirlwind had found the wine without any help.
They had laughed about it in private for days afterwards. But that had been ages ago, before she had fully understood what it meant to be Empress Sun Lian, the Heavenly Lily.
"Then since I don't have your permission to walk, I'm going to clean up," Jen said. When Lian didn't respond, she walked away and began stripping off her garments and strewing them over the floor for the servant-women to pick up. The last was her hair ribbon which fluttered to the ground while her hair tumbled around her shoulders. Then she disappeared into the bathing room.
Lian was so angry at herself for being drawn to that ...that display... that she marred her signature on the next document. She gave up on working.
She paced in front of the window, gazing at the Empire. There were provinces to guide and people that needed to be heard. Those duties did not stop, not when she ate or slept and certainly not when she and Jen were acting like children, playing 'Empire.'
Jen did not seem to understand though. She persisted in her free-wheeling ways. When Lian had refused to leave the palace for Jen's whimsical desires, Jen had begun to leave, sometimes for hours and sometimes for days. She would return invigorated and they would be happy for awhile, until Jen became angry at her for not just picking up and leaving whenever the mood struck her.
Lian rubbed her temples with her fingers. She was the Empress, but she could not be a good Empress if her mind was not at rest. This situation with Jen could not go on any longer and she went to the bathing quarters to find her.
The other woman was in the bath, the water up to her chin, her eyes closed. There were very few times that Lian found her so peaceful, or so off-guard. Lian motioned for the servants to leave the room.
"I'm taking a bath," Jen said, her eyes still closed.
"I can see that. We need to discuss - "
"All we ever do is 'discuss' now." Jen opened her eyes. "I am tired of talking - and arguing."
There was no mischievous glint in her eyes or wheedling tone to her voice. Her heroine seemed so weary. A part of Lian didn't want to broach the subject that had brought her in here. She wanted to leave Jen be and go back to her work and then they would be happy tonight.
But that happiness would end up in an argument eventually and then she would be alone while Jen was out in the Empire somewhere. They couldn't go on like this forever.
Lian sat on the edge of the marble, careful to avoid the splashes of water, careful of her every word. "Jen, you must understand. I can't be as impulsive as I was anymore. Even today, on my own birthday, there are some things I must do."
"You take so much upon yourself." Jen brought her hand out of the water and laid it on Lian's; water dripped down between Lian's fingers and her signet ring. "Share your duties with others, Lian. That's what we're here for."
"They are my duties," Lian said gently.
"Silk Fox didn't mind giving out a few orders. She had me running up and down the Empire for her." Jen sat up and the water surged around her. "Don't you think I'd do the same for the Empress?"
"Yes, but this isn't Tien's Landing and - "
Jen closed her eyes and let her hand drop back into the water. "And I don't fit, do I? I fit when we were saving the Empire, but now I don't fit."
Lian wanted to laugh, if only it weren't so horribly true. Of course, Jen didn't fit. She broke things, she refused to dress suitably for the palace, she wore her sword everywhere, she told the most risque jokes and offended courtiers at a drop of the hat. And Lian loved her for it.
"Peace really doesn't suit you, does it?" Lian said wistfully.
"It has. It did in Two Rivers," Jen said. "But I had something to do."
"You'd rather work, then while away your days in luxurious idleness. You really are a peasant, aren't you?"
Jen looked up, hurt and angry, until she saw the smile on her lover's face.
"General Zao was pestering me about what to do now that the Lotus Assassins were disbanded. I'm sure he would appreciate your help in rebuilding the Imperial Army into something that isn't a decadent relic of my father's rule."
Jen's face lit up with delight. "And I could help him?"
Lian rolled her eyes; the woman was so simple. "You are such a child."
The next thing she knew, she, the Heavenly Lily and ruler of the Jade Empire, was being half-drowned in her own tub.
"Thank you so much!" As Lian sputtered and fumed, Jen wrapped her arms around her lover, pushing her wet hair out of her face. She kissed her with more tenderness than Lian had felt in a long time. Then she laughed and said, "Thank you so much, my Drowned Fox."
Empress Sun Lian and Radiant Jen Zi ruled in concert, remaining close
companions and sharing the burden of leadership as they guided the
Jade Empire through a new golden age.
Author's Notes: This is my first Jade Empire fic. C&C is very much appreciated, as is online perpetual adoration. I hope to write more Jade Empire in the future.