Disclaimer: Jade Empire and all its artefacts are the intellectual property of Bioware, used without permission for non-profit purposes.
The Hero of the Empire was irritated. The Hero of the Empire was tired, and stressed. But most of all, the Hero of the Empire was bored. You could only break open so many sprightly rocks before the sensations the gas inside turned your brain to mush, but that had never been a problem before. She's never felt the need to pollute her body with such mind-altering substances before waking up alone this morning and realising that this was going to be the rest of her life unless she did something drastic. Six months ago, she'd been willing to do anything to stay at the palace just a little longer. And Lian had asked her to stay, to be her advisor... To hide what they both had acknowledged in private that day in Dirge. To forget about it, even.
"I haven't seen you looking so stormy since old Jian told you the wind would only respond to the strength of the closed fist. What's eating you?" Dawn Star's voice, from behind her.
"Radiant Jen Zi, I'm wearing my mask. How can you possibly say that I look 'stormy'?" The hero snapped back, then winced.
"You know how. Don't be like that, Ling. Can't we just talk, like we used to? I hardly feel like I know you these days. Can't you just be Blessed Wind again? Just for one conversation?"
Ling sighed, breaking her stride without even bothering to finish the sword set and sheathing her weapon. She turned to face her childhood friend only to see that she was standing there in her old travelling clothes, Lotus mask hanging from its cord around her neck rather than on her face as it should have been. In order to stay at the palace, they'd had to make some sacrifices... to protect Lian, they couldn't openly admit to being the emperor's murderers. So, things went on as they must. Sun Lian inherited from her sickly father when he died of heart failure, completely independent of Blessed Wind's careful application of the final technique of the Paralysing Palm style. The Scourge of the South who destroyed the Lotus Assassins had been driven to death along with her assassin and swordswoman companions by Princess Sun Lian and her advisors, Radiant Jen Zi and Scholar Ling.
"I would love to, Dawn Star..." Ling reached up and took her mask off, the emotionless facade replaced by her own frown as she became Blessed Wind for the first time in five months. "What did you want to talk about?"
"You. The Empress..." Dawn Star paused, blushing. "Me." She still hadn't got used to the idea of what had happened that day at Dirge. "You're killing yourself over her... and I think she's doing the same thing. The bean counters are starting to pressure her to find a husband, you know. You need to have it out with her... tell her you either want her or you don't."
"And what about you, Dawn Star? You're in the same situation. There were three people in the tent that day, not two. She's happy here, we don't have any right to change that." Blessed Wind insisted, knowing that she had to respect Lian's wishes if she wanted the Princess to be happy. She was content to serve without touching.
"She isn't, though! Why can't you see that? She's sick of it! Sick of the ghosts and the paperwork and the lies." Dawn Star finally lost it, six months of frustration bursting forth. "That's it. I've had enough." She stood up, suddenly, lifting her mask back over her face. "Scholar Ling, we are going to talk to the Empress. This second." In a horrendous break of etiquette that would shock anyone who knew the gentle, unfailingly polite spiritualist Jen Zi, she reached down and grabbed Wind's arm, pulling her to her feet. Wind barely had a chance to fumble her mask over her face before they were out of the dojo and focus walking through the halls of the Imperial Palace at breakneck speed. Guards moved aside seeing their haste, and within minutes the two most respected (non ruling) women in the Jade Empire burst, without warning, into Empress Sun Lian's office. The Empress turned to look at them, startled, from where she was poring over a document.
"Lady Jen, Scholar Ling, what's wrong?" She asked, standing up and hurrying over to them. "You came in like Chai Kha had caught you eating his grapes."
"I've had enough, and so have you." Jen Zi declared, pulling her mask off. "You two are the most oblivious pair of stubborn fools I've ever seen, and I've been talking to Grandfather." With that, she reached over and broke the strings on Ling's mask so that it fell to the floor. Glaring at Blessed Wind, Dawn Star almost growled. "You have something you need to say to Silk Fox." Then she turned that gaze on Lian. "And you have got to admit to yourself what you're both too stubborn to realise. You. Need. A. Holiday. You've been locked in this office for almost six months now, and look at yourself! Under all that makeup, I can still see the frown lines forming, the bags under your eyes and the stress in your muscles."
"Dawn Star, you are one of my closest friends, but this is going too far. I have an Empire to run. The damage my father did is still far from repaired. Wind, has some madness descended upon her? Is she no longer in control of her self?"
"Ac... actually... no... I think she's right. I hadn't noticed it before, my Lady, but you do look tired and stressed. We've hardly spoken in a whole month..." As usual in the Princess' presence whenever Lian was wearing her own face, rather than that of Silk Fox, the composed scholar stammered like a shy schoolgirl. "Maybe you do need to rest..."
"You know I want to spend time with you, Wind, Star... but I just have so much work to do. Can't you understand that?" Lian sighed, tiredly, and sat down on one of the more comfortable cushions in front of her desk. "You have your own duties, you know how much there is to be done. If I don't do this, when who can we trust who will?" She waved a hand vaguely at the stacks of paperwork.
"I've made no progress on working out how to best use the stones in the last month, and it doesn't look like there's any epiphany coming, either..." Part of Blessed Wind's frustrations.
"I need to travel, to find those spirits who are still lost. They do exist outside the city, you know. Both of you are coming out into the world for me, if only for a month."
"Then who will..?" Lian nodded at the desk again. "We can't all three just disappear."
"Call Zin Bu, Wind. Oh, and the Forest Shadow, too." A moment later, both celestials stood before them.
"What is it you would like? It has been long since you have called upon me." The fox asked in Tho Fan, tilting her head. It was that self same curiosity that had caused her to answer Blessed Wind's summons.
"For some reason, I don't think any of you are buying what I'm selling." Zin Bu commented, looking around before starting to disappear. "Always wasting me time..."
"Zin Bu the Magic Abacus, stay right there and do not more a single muscle, spiritual or otherwise." Dawn Star snapped at him, eliciting a frightened squeak that made the Forest Shadow chuckle.
"Shadow, how would you like a challenge? I know that the forest is mostly taking care of itself these days." Dawn Star asked, folding her arms. "These two are being stubborn idiots and killing themselves from overwork and denial."
"You intrigue me, Seer. What do you propose?" Forest Shadow asked, still speaking the old tongue.
"You take our roles. Just you, keeping up the seeming that the Empress and her advisors are still in the palace doing their normal thing."
"An interesting thought... but I have no wish to take over as a mortal ruler. I am perfectly content in my Forest."
"I'm not asking you to. Zin Bu, how do you feel about a temporary promotion?"
"What? You can?! How?! What do I need to do?!" The merchant minister blinked like a stunned fish, looking hopeful.
"I don't like where this is going..." Lian muttered, and Wind shared a sympathetic look with her.
"You're going to rule the empire for a while. I know it's in your skill set." Dawn Star's voice brooked no argument, and the Forest Shadow laughed again.
"Of course! I know exactly what needs to be done! Or... what would be done, anyway! I'm certain I can run things here in a manner which the Empress would agree with!" The Magic Abacus nodded, sounding more cheerful than he ever had before.
"Thus I lose my empire..." Lian sighed, shaking her head. "I really don't have much choice in the matter, do I?"
"Bureaucracy, save us from women in love." Blessed Wind agreed as Dawn Star finalised the details with the two celestial worthies. Still, she slipped her hand into Silk Fox's, trusting herself to touch her again for the first time since Dirge, and felt the soon-to-be-disguised princess squeeze back.