A/N: You guys have a lot of people to thank for this chapter, but mostly you have to thank Takeuchi Naoko, for creating Codename: Sailor V and Bishoujo Senshi Sailor Moon, because without the opening to Sailor MOon Crystal, I would never have managed to finish this chapter.
So. Thank Momoiro Clover Z along with Takeuchi-sensei. Oh, and Miyano Mamoru, especially in Uta no Prince-sama. And as Ling, of course.
Trigger warning for: drowning, references to depression.
Lan Fan Huo, who is in a lot of trouble right now. Alias Feiyan Ma.
Ling Yao, who is contemplating matricide. (I'M NOT BEING SERIOUS JEEZ. ...or am I?)
Mei Chang, a gifted alkahestrist. Not so gifted at romance.
Huian Yao, who everyone hates right now oh my god you guys.
Gen Chang, Lan Fan's bodyguard, and not the best horse rider.
Peng, AKA The Doppelganger Shadow. He was a soldier in the Xingese army chosen to impersonate Lan Fan.
Suyin, Lan Fan's "cousin" and a nomad woman.
Niu Lu, a half-Drachman noblewoman, alkahestrist, torturer, and fashion consultant.
Lien Hua Feng, one of the triplets, who kind of steps up. Her brothers are Xinzhe and Dong Mao.
Mingli Chen, Lan Fan's court tutor and friend. Xinzhe's lover.
Shubiao, a Firebrand and Nohin with serious grudge issues.
And introducing some new minor characters:
Setsu, one of the Nohin.
Ning-Ning, a Nohin/Thamasqeen alkahestrist.
For a second or two, just as he woke, Shubiao thought he was back in the imperial cell. His room was dark, his ribs hurt, and he'd been having a nightmare about a red-haired demon again, her claws digging into his eyes as she peeled his skin away. When he blinked, though, everything came back into focus. It wasn't that the room was lightless; it was that the blinds were shut. His ribs hurt, but they weren't broken any longer. He could tell that just by breathing. And the woman, the red-haired witch, she would never find him again. Not if he could help it.
He was in the safehouse in Douqu, one that only the Nohin knew, and Setsu was watching him.
He scowled at her, and narrowed his eyes. Setsu was nineteen, a pert little thing with a pretty nose and full lips. She would have been highly sought after if it weren't for the deep scar through her cheek. She'd been stabbed in the face with a spear, and the wound stitched together badly; scar tissue dominated the left side of her face. She was convinced they were both Sakari, that she'd known him before the Tea Leaf Emperor and his Setting Sun pets had ridden in with their spears and their dogs and their damned Drachman guns.
Shubiao couldn't remember if Setsu had been his clan-sister or not; he'd been eleven during the massacres, but a lot of memories from before that day were fragmentary and foggy, with one profound exception, and he'd never tried digging around in them. It hurt too much. Setsu's mother, Shion, had grabbed Setsu and fled on horseback. Shubiao had always liked Shion, but Shion had never wanted to talk about the massacres, and she'd never mentioned which clan she and Setsu hailed from. She'd been dead for two years now, from dysentery. If she'd ever told Setsu their clan name, Setsu hadn't mentioned it.
"What," he snapped, and then turned his back on her. "I'm sleeping."
"No, you weren't," she said in Nohinra. Setsu loathed Xingese. "You were having a nightmare."
That much had been obvious. Shubiao curled his hand protectively over his still-sore ribs. The safehouse always had an alkahestrist on staff, though the alkahestrist themselves rotated. This week it was Ning-Ning. She healed well, but she had a tendency to knock the patient out before doing it. It explained why his head ached, at least.
Setsu cocked her head to the side. "You were calling that woman's name again. Natsuko, or whatever it was."
Shubiao went very still. Setsu leaned forward. "Who is she? You've never said." Her voice tightened a little. "Girlfriend?"
"She's no one," said Shubiao, his tongue fuzzy in his mouth. The Nohinra felt like hard liquor on his tongue, burning and loose. "She's dead."
Setsu made a face that might have been pity, or commiseration, or both. "You're sure?"
"The Kusagawa were the first to be hit," said Shubiao. "They didn't have any survivors." He swung his legs over the edge of the bed and sat up slowly, ignoring the twinge to his chest, the ache in his hands. There were many things alkahestry could do, but growing nails back was often too complicated for the average healer. Ning-Ning had left his wrecked fingers as they were, and the skin where his nails ought to have been was puckered and angry-red still. He wished for bandages. "How long have I been asleep?"
"Not too long. Only a day or so." Setsu reached out with one hand to touch his forehead, but Shubiao leaned out of reach. He had never been entirely sure what Setsu's game was, and he didn't need her making a fuss over him for no damn reason. She made another face, but she put her hand back in her lap. "You're not going to tell me what happened, are you?"
Shubiao tested his feet (his knees felt solid, for once) and stood. "Nope."
"Was it because of the Nohin?"
He whistled through the empty space where his front teeth ought to have been. That was an old injury. He could remember the Drachman rifle, the Setting Sun soldier, the terrible crack of the rifle butt against his lips. "Nope."
Setsu leaned back in her chair. "Kazu—"
Shubiao glared at her. She glared right back. "Kazu," she repeated, and he blew his bangs out of his face. Setsu was the only one to call him Kazu anymore. "You can't just—you can't just leave and then come back looking like you've been tortured and not explain it."
"That's exactly what I'm going to do," said Shubiao, and rolled his shoulder. The new twist of scar tissue tugged awkwardly at the flesh of his neck, but he could punch, and that was what mattered. "Because it's none of your damn business, Setsu."
For an instant, hurt flared across her face. Then her mouth tightened. "This is about that man, isn't it," she said, swiping imaginary dust and wrinkles off the back of her skirt. "This is about that white man. Traynor."
"Trener," said Shubiao, because he couldn't help it. "And don't talk about him like that, Setsu."
"Why shouldn't I?" She had her mule face on, lower lip pushed out, eyebrows together, forehead furrowed as a field. "It's not as if he's actually really done anything. It's all been a lot of talk and no game, so far as I can tell."
"Well, clearly you can't see what's right in front of your face," flared Shubiao. "Half our people would be starving if it weren't for the Firebrands. You know that the Xingese hate us. If it weren't for the Letoists, our people would have died out years ago."
"You don't know that." Setsu worried her lip. "It's only the stupid ones who stay in Xing after what happened. Most of us have gone abroad. I heard from my aunt in Thamasq, she's remarried, all her daughters have babies. They're wealthy."
"For herders," said Shubiao. Setsu clenched her hands in her lap.
"It's what we were born to be, Kazu. Has that damn white man and his Amestrian madmen been telling you that's not worth anything anymore?"
"Xing is corrupt, Setsu, can't you see it? The whole world is corrupt. You heard what happened in Amestris. The government collapsed in on itself, the whole nation was built on the foundation of murder. Xing is no different. The Empire's been building itself on the bodies of the innocent for millennia. Father Trener wants to change that. He gave me a new name—"
"And he did such a good job with that!" She stood, hands squeezed into fists by her sides. "He couldn't even get the Xingese right, he just made something up, it doesn't even mean rat—"
Shubiao ignored this. "—and a new life, away from the nonentity of what I would have been, away from the death that would have been waiting for me—I owe him everything, Setsu, and he has a plan for Xing, and for this world, to make it better, why can't you realize that? Father Trener and his Firebrands are going to change everything—"
"If the Firebrands were actually going to do anything about the Empire, it'd be done by now, don't you think?"
Shubiao pressed his lips together and said nothing for a long moment. His guts felt as if they were filled with coals. "He has a plan. He has goals, ones passed down by heaven, and he'll make it. He's God's son, Setsu—"
"He's a madman, is what he is—"
Shubiao seized her by the upper arm and wrenched her around. Setsu hit the wall hard, and let out a pained sound, a mix between a gasp and a whimper. Tears filled her eyes. Shubiao stared at her for a long moment, and then let her go.
"Don't," he said, "ever say anything like that about him again."
Setsu looked at him and said nothing. She wrenched her arm out of his grip, and darted out of the room, slamming the door behind her. It rebounded. Across the hall, Ning-Ning, the alkahestrist, arched a pierced eyebrow. (Ning-Ning was a miracle child, daughter of a Thamasqeen soldier and a Nohin runaway, and had grown up in the eastern deserts; she wore her clan bracelets just as proudly as she wore the Thamasqeen eyebrow, nose, and earhoops, and looked more Nohin than he did.)
"You know," she drawled, "if you want people to like you, you need to stop hitting them." Her mouth was tighter than he could ever remember seeing it, the usual indolent smile gone. "Or, you know, being such a goddamn ungrateful selfish prick."
"I don't take advice from foreign bitches like you," said Shubiao through his teeth, and then he slammed the door in her face. The door was too thin to shut her voice out.
"You ever touch her like that again, and I'll kill you, Sakari. You understand? The next time you come to us, crying and begging and bleeding out like you were last night, I'm going to shut the door and leave you to die."
She shut up after that. Shubiao heard her clatter down the stairs, shouting for Setsu. He wasn't sure when he'd figured out that the pair of them were lovers; maybe he'd always known it. They knew he knew, but they never mentioned it, and neither did he. He'd wondered once if he should have told them to keep it quieter, but then again, they were already half-dead thanks to their blood; what did it matter who they loved?
Shubiao kicked the wall (the skin where his toenails had been erupted in fiery pain) and went to the window, throwing open the shutters. Outside it was quiet, for Douqu. He heard a bottle shatter, and a pair of men shouting, but that was in the distance—a tavern fight, maybe. A chicken screamed, and then went silent. He thought about hoisting himself out the window, heading for the roof, but then a pair of imperial guards turned at the top of the street, and it was all he could do to keep from puking. The uniform he'd stolen from the heretic had vanished. Setsu must have changed his clothes while he was unconscious.
He shut the window, crawled back into bed, and squeezed his eyes closed. Sleep was a long time in coming.
It took Lan Fan a long time to remember to breathe.
The Emperor had gone white as a sheet. The Dowager Empress, smug and smooth as cream, kept her head lowered, but at this angle, Lan Fan could see the curve to her lips, the smile on her mouth. Why? she thought. Why do you hate me so much? Could the Empress know? But no, if she knew, then she would be targeting Lan Fan still, not the doppelganger. Wouldn't she? Her guts churned. She was going to puke. She was going to faint. She was going to scream. She couldn't move. Behind the throne, the doppelganger Shadow had been seized by two guards, both wearing Qiao colors—the Empress' men—and dragged him forward to rest on his knees in front of the imperial dais. It was her mask, she realized. He was wearing her mask. Her mind couldn't process it. For a second, she thought she'd left her body, that she was hanging, transparent, in midair, and she was about to watch herself die.
"Mother," said the Emperor. His qi pulse strangely, and when she looked at the dais, his fingernails were digging deep into the arms of the throne, but his voice was steady. Lan Fan wondered if she was the only one who could see the way his fingers were trembling. Her vision went blurry around the edges. "Why would you ask this of me?"
"Why would I not?" said the Dowager Empress. "The Shadow is sworn to defend you, majesty, to their final breath, and if they fail, they are to die by their own hand. This excuse for a Shadow—" Lan Fan flinched, violently, and next to her Suyin tightened an arm around her shoulders, her nails digging in to Lan Fan's clothes "—hasn't had the honor or the dignity to take her own life, and so I must demand it myself."
"The Huo family has offered nothing but faithful, lifelong service since they first contracted with the Yao, and Lan Fan is no different. She would never—"
"But majesty," said Huian Yao. The smile was gone; tears were welling in her eyes. "My son. You nearly died, and it was because of her—her failure to observe her duty, to track down and eliminate those who attempted to kill not only you, but your companion." Her voice cracked. "No one is more proud of you than I, my son, for being so loyal to a bodyguard who has defended you without hesitation for over a decade, but she knew the Shadow's Creed when she agreed to the position. She has failed. The consequences are hers, and hers alone."
It was like being punched in the face. She couldn't remember ever being in this much pain—not in that alley in Amestris, when she'd severed her own arm; not when Dr. Knox had been treating her; not when she'd fought a homunculus; not even when the Young Lord had been taken away from her, and turned into a monster. None of it compared to this. Her knees were going to give out. Suyin was hissing in her ear—"get a hold of yourself, before someone sees—" but she couldn't, she couldn't, an innocent was going to die, her name was going to die, and it was going to be because of her—
The Empress turned, just slightly, and took in Lan Fan and Suyin with a wave of her hand. "You see? The poison still affects Lady Ma, even now—poison that you yourself had to suck from the wound, majesty, poison that should never have reached her in the first place. If you need lasting proof of Lan Fan Huo's failure, look at Feiyan Ma, and the wounds that still afflict her, even now."
I'm dreaming, Lan Fan told herself stupidly. She knew it wasn't a dream. She had to try to pretend, though. I'm dreaming, and any minute now I'm going to wake up and this will have never happened, I'll still be in my bed in my own room, and I'll be me, and the Feng will have never have plotted, and the Empress will never have hated me, and I'll still be the Shadow and no one will have to die but the guilty.
"Feiyan," Suyin whispered, and shook Lan Fan. When Lan Fan didn't react, she shook her again. "Enkhtuyaa."
Lan Fan flinched, and shut her eyes. There was a long moment of silence. The Dowager Empress had outmaneuvered the Emperor. There was no way he could deny her request, not without offering a weapon to the opposition, not without making himself out to be a child, not a man, not an Emperor like Xing needed. For Ling Yao to rise, Lan Fan Huo had to die.
"Minister Zhang," said Master Ling. His voice was low and flat. "What is the punishment for a Shadow guard that has failed in their duty?"
Bao Zhang folded his hands neatly in his lap. "Traditionally, if they have not taken their own lives, as tradition requires, the former Shadow is put to death by wire. The body is then burned, and the ashes mixed with manure, to be put to use as a fertilizer for the imperial gardens."
She pressed a hand tight to the still-healing scar on her belly. No. They were going to kill her. No. They would kill her name, they would prevent any chance she had of ever returning to her position as Shadow. No. Her family would be dishonored, her grandmother ashamed. Her grandfather would have been destroyed. No.
The doppelganger Shadow was still kneeling, stiff and quiet, between the two imperial guards. She couldn't make out his eyes through his mask—her mask—his mask, but she could feel the boiling terror in his qi. I'm sorry, she thought, looking at him, this man she'd never spoken to, whose face only seen once, this doppelganger who she had resented so badly for so long. Spirits, I'm so very sorry.
"What better punishment is there, for a bodyguard that has failed in her duties?" Huian Yao's voice echoed in her ears, as if from very far away. "Let her remains serve the palace kitchens. Surely Your Majesty has no further use for her."
But I'm here, she wanted to scream. I'm working. I'm of use. I haven't failed you, any of you, I haven't, I swear it—
"In that case," said the Empress, turning, and Lan Fan snapped. She tore herself away from Suyin, away from Mingli—and when had he shown up, when had he taken her metal hand?—and flung herself to the floor beside the Shadow, beside the man she'd hated, and she pressed her forehead to the floor and made herself as small as possible.
"No," she said. "Please, majesty. Please don't let—don't let this woman die. She—she has done nothing more than been in the wrong place at the wrong time. No one deserves death for that."
The Empress let out a hissing breath. "Move aside, Lady Ma. I wouldn't expect you to understand the ways of this court, but this is the just course."
"Since when is the murder of an innocent just?" Lan Fan snapped, and her voice cracked in the suddenly silent room. She bit her tongue, and pressed herself closer to the floor. "Please, majesty. Please don't kill her. Exile her, banish her, whatever you like. Just please don't kill her. Please."
Master Ling said nothing for a long time. Her heart was pounding in her ears. Lan Fan held very still, barely able to breathe, waiting, hoping. She thought she felt a spike of emotion from Peng, but it was smothered so quickly she might have imagined it. Then, she heard the rustle of silk. "Mother," said Master Ling, and even if his voice was soft, it rang through the whole room. "Lan Fan Huo has served me faithfully for many years. I cannot in good conscience execute her for one failure, regardless of what has occurred. After all, I'm unharmed."
"And yet an innocent was injured because of her failures." Lan Fan looked up in time to see Huian Yao sweep a hand towards her, and the whole of her insides turned over in one hideous movement. "If a noblewoman of the court, whatever her heritage might be, is a better bodyguard than one who has been trained from birth to fulfill that role, then what has the world come to? I demand restitution, majesty."
Master Ling said nothing.
"Majesty," said Lan Fan. Her voice broke. "Majesty, you promised me one boon, any boon, for saving your life. Please don't kill this girl. Banish her, forbid her from ever returning, but don't kill her. I beg of you. Please."
There was a moment of terrible silence. Then Master Ling turned to the Empress Dowager. "Well, mother," he said. "Is that agreeable to you?"
Huian Yao considered. Then the corners of her mouth twisted. "This is my request, majesty. If the girl must be banished, then she will be banished to Amestris. Let her live among the people you love so much. In return, she will never return to Xing, or any of its holdings, as long as she breathes. If she does, she will be executed by wire, as tradition requires. With this, I will be appeased."
She was hollow. Someone had carved her open, taken her organs out. She couldn't feel. Lan Fan shuddered through a breath. Vaguely, she heard Master Ling say, "It is done, then," and then someone had their hands on her shoulders. She smelled perfume. "Come on," said Lien Hua Feng, hissing in her ear. "Come on, get up, swallow-girl. On your feet." Niu Lu was there too, holding tight to her metal wrist. Lan Fan stood, and shook the pair of them off. She couldn't cry. There was nothing left of her to cry about.
"Majesty," she said, and bowed, a nomad bow, her arm flat across her chest. Her voice echoed from very far away. "My thanks. I will escort the girl to the borders of Xinjing, and see her on her way. It is my right as the injured party."
"Granted," said Master Ling, before the Dowager Empress could interrupt. "Guards, release the prisoner into Lady Ma's care."
"Chang, with me," said Lan Fan. Gen Chang snapped a salute and took the arm of the doppelganger in one hand, holding tightly. Peng wasn't about to try and escape. Through the slits in the mask, she could see his eyes flickering between her and Master Ling. She felt ready to puke.
Lien Hua reached out, and caught her wrist. "Swallow-girl," she said, and then hesitated. "Feiyan."
Lan Fan brushed her off and stalked out of the Gathering Hall, Gen Chang and Peng hot on her heels.
It had been an hour since he'd left court, and he still hadn't stopped shaking.
Ling drew a breath through his nose, and clenched his hand tight around the heavy glass tumbler of Amestrian whiskey. He'd been meaning to go straight for the rice wine—which, despite his stomach, had never agreed with him—but Mei, blessed, resourceful, cunning Mei Chang, had caught him at the door. "Al smuggled this in," she'd told him in Amestrian, and pressed the heavy bottle into his hand. The only guard still on duty, a Yao boy, gave them a curious look, and then averted his eyes. "You just have to pour some for me, too."
"Why?" snapped Ling. Something in him felt like it had been ripped in pieces, and he wanted her in pain, wanted Mei to feel it, this stinking sense of betrayal and agony at her own ineptitude, her own helplessness, in full sight of the one person who had always mattered most—"You never liked her all that much."
Mei's lips went tight, and she dug her nails into his hand. It was a breach of protocol, but he didn't give a damn about protocol. Not tonight. "No," she said. "We were on different sides for so long, it might have looked like it, but she—" Her voice broke a little. "I owe her my family's freedom. All of us in the Fifty Families do, and none of them know that. And she—" Mei drew a breath. "Lan Fan never deserved this."
Ling had studied her for a moment or two, and then nodded, and let her into the office. Now they were halfway through the bottle, and even he was starting to feel it. The room was spinning in a way that didn't seem natural in the slightest. Mei had her head propped up in one hand, her feet swinging over the carpet. Outside, he heard a temple bell ringing, and it echoed oddly in his ears.
"Y'know," said Mei, still in Amestrian—her vowels went all funny and slurred when she was drunk, he realized, and took another sip of the whiskey. "I kind of really hate your mother."
Ling snorted, and leaned back in his chair. The ceiling warped unpleasantly. His glass was empty. This seemed somewhat problematic. Pouring himself a few more fingers, he said, "Get in line, little Chang sister."
"Mmph," said Mei, and rested her cheek on his desk. Then she lifted her head, and blinked at him. "Why do you hate your mother?"
She didn't slur when she was sloshed, he realized. She just spoke loudly. Ling twisted the cap back onto the bottle, and made a mental note to open trade routes to Amestris. If all the whiskey there was this good, he'd turn his empire into a nation of alcoholics in no time. His hand quivered a little as he put the bottle down. "Lots of reasons."
Mei blew a raspberry at him. "Boring. That's not an answer at all. You're just like Al. Neither of you explain anything." She huffed, and then hiccupped. "'cause of Lan Fan?"
"No," said Ling. Then: "Yes. Well, partially. We're on opposing sides, you could say."
Mei nodded, sagely. "'cause she's a bitch."
It was more than that, Ling thought, watching Mei take another sip of whiskey and sway on her chair. It was that sometimes he looked at Huian, and saw what he could have been, if not for Fuu, and Lan Fan, and Amestris. He looked at his mother, whose ambition had curdled her like milk, and wondered if he might still turn into her, someday, desperate more for the throne and the power that came with it than the duties that it bore in its wake. He closed his fingers tight around the neck of the bottle, and held on.
"She outmaneuvered me," said Ling in a low voice, and Mei lifted her head from the desk to peer at him, as if from a great distance. She really couldn't hold her liquor at all.
"Yeah," she said, and then jabbed a finger at him. "You're not as good at this as you said you were."
Suddenly, Ling was overwhelmed with the urge to visit Fuu. Even if it was only an empty headstone, maybe Fuu would have the answers. It was a stupid impulse, though, born of alcohol and misery, and he shook it out of his head. "It's not that," he said. "She's just had more time to perfect it."
He swirled the whiskey in the glass. On the back of his eyelids, he saw Lan Fan's face again, her expression in the mob as his mother had demanded death—like she'd been sliced into pieces, like someone had reached into her chest and torn her heart out. It was his fault, that look. He had been the one to push her into this, to insist that she would be all right. She had trusted him, the way she always did, and he'd failed her when her name, her job, her reputation, her whole identity was at stake. Greed's prediction, all those years ago, had finally come true. He had chosen the life of Lan Fan the girl over the life of Lan Fan the bodyguard, he hadn't even hesitated about it, and she would never, ever forgive him for it. That, he was absolutely certain of.
"Why?" said Mei after a moment, and Ling looked up from his glass. "She's—your mother's a bitch, Yao, but she—what does killing—exiling—Lan Fan get her? What does tossing your Shadow out do for her at all?" She took another large gulp of whiskey, and shuddered as it went down. "Doesn't make sense."
"No," he said. It didn't. Huian Yao had nothing to gain from ousting the Imperial Shadow, save, perhaps, improving her own reputation as a loving mother. He knew his mother better than that. There had to be something else.
Could she know who Feiyan Ma actually was? No. He discounted that immediately. If she did, she would have confronted him about it personally; to stumble into the middle of it like that would have been very non-Huian, too…sloppy. No, the Dowager Empress didn't know about the plot to draw out the Fengs, because if she had, she would have supported him. It was no secret that his mother hated the Fengs. At the very least, she had always loathed the Tea Leaf Emperor's Feng wife the most, out of all of the Lotus Hall. She would have left Lan Fan and Feiyan alone, in that case.
He remembered the jagged scratches along Lan Fan's cheek, and dug his nails into the palm of his hand. Huian had her own game here, and whatever it was had her wanting Lan Fan Huo out of the way and Feiyan Ma out of the imperial sightline. The Feiyan Ma puzzle was easy to solve—if the Emperor courted and wed a woman of proper birth, which, by the skin of her teeth, Feiyan Ma was—then Huian Yao would lose the rights that came with being Empress Dowager, and be merely reduced to Queen Mother. She would lose influence, position, power. She would be lesser. Huian Yao was not in the business of being lesser. The fact that she had thought Feiyan Ma worthy enough to intimidate meant that she didn't know Feiyan Ma and Lan Fan Huo were one and the same person. If she'd realized Feiyan's true identity, she would have known that Lan Fan was as far out of reach for Ling Yao as the stars.
"Ling," said Mei, and he jumped to attention again. She was glaring at him. For the first time, he realized Xiao Mei wasn't with her. It was like he'd suddenly noticed she was missing a limb in its weirdness. "You're not listening."
"Sorry," said Ling, and fitted a smile on his face. "What were you saying?"
Mei gave him a look, and muttered something under her breath that sounded distinctly like "Men are stupid" before repeating, in a slow, measured voice, "You have to send a letter to Ed, to let him know Lan Fan's coming."
His first instinct was to deny it. After all, Lan Fan wasn't leaving Xing. Peng was. Then his brain caught up with his mouth. Ling nodded, and drained his glass, setting it on his desk with exaggerated care. "And Mustang," he said. "A letter to Mustang, too. Since she's officially an exile, she'll have to become a naturalized Amestrian citizen. He can…grease the wheels, for that. Considering." Considering Lan Fan Huo was a damn hero in Amestris, considering she'd helped save their country, it was the least Amestris could do for her. In the purely figurative sense, since she wasn't actually leaving. His head was starting to hurt. He pushed his whiskey away, and after a moment, Mei stole his glass and drained it. She wobbled back and forth for a moment, eyes closed, face tilted towards the window. Then she let out a breath.
"You know," she said, "I know what Al said to you. About her. I mean. The…" she glanced over her shoulder at the guard, and said in a whisper. "The whole thing about the matter of rules."
Ling looked at her through his bangs, wondering where she was going with this. If she would even remember it in the morning. Mei paused dramatically, and then her eyes welled up with tears, and she said, "He gives you that advice but he doesn't take it."
Oh. For some reason, it was a relief that Mei was going to talk about her own less-than-stellar love life, rather than interrogate him about his. He hid the bottle of whiskey under his desk, and then stood, holding himself upright until the room stopped spinning. "I'm sorry, Mei."
"I'm not a little kid anymore," she said, and to his horror she began to cry. "I'm not—I don't just have a stupid crush on him, Ling. I'm—he makes me happy and he's kind and gentle and he's so smart but he's so stupid because he'll give that advice to you but he won't—he won't take it himself and even try. I know he loves me," she added, before he could say a word. "I know. And he won't—he won't do anything."
Ling came around the desk (leaning against it the whole time—his mind might be mostly clear, but his body was most certainly not moving right) and he patted her head. Mei sniffled, seized his sleeve, and blew her nose into the silk. He would have winced, if he cared.
"Love is stupid," she said into the cloth. "We shouldn't be in love. Or we should be in love with different people. It's just painful, because you're stuck and I'm stuck." She paused. "Maybe we're cursed or something."
"I'll have astrologers look into it." He patted her head. Mei made a noise like her bearcat, and hugged him hard around the waist. It nearly knocked him off his feet. Ling steadied himself against the desk, and then gingerly patted her back. What was one supposed to do when a crying sister flung herself at you? He hadn't ever really considered it before.
"I don't want to not love him," she said into his robes.
"Chin up, little Chang sister," he said, and she lifted her head to look at him. "Things'll look better." Especially after he had a long talk with one Alphonse Elric. While sober. Or possibly drunk, because it wasn't something he was particularly looking forward to doing sober. "Don't cry, eh?"
Mei threw up all over the carpet.
Technically, she wasn't. Technically, Lan Fan Huo was alive, and well, and sore, and sitting on the back of a dun mare, watching as the man that had been called Lan Fan Huo changed clothes and folded her old uniform carefully over the branch of a tree. Her mask was hanging off a knob in the trunk, and she ached to reach out for it. She'd only ever felt truly safe when she was wearing her mask. Chang was standing guard at the edge of the clearing, making sure that no one had followed them, as unlikely as it was.
She wasn't just sore. She hurt, somewhere deep inside, someplace she hadn't even known could hurt. Lan Fan Huo wasn't dead, but to Xing she might as well be. Banishment was irreversible. She would never be able to return to who she was, not with Lan Fan Huo banished to Amestris. She was stuck as Feiyan Ma, stuck in a position she didn't want, with a background that wasn't hers, and a name that didn't belong. As soon as Peng crossed the border, Lan Fan Huo could never come back.
"You don't have to actually leave, you know," she said dully, watching him as he pulled a tangzhuang over his shoulders. "You're not Lan Fan Huo. You can return to the army, be whatever you want."
"That was my plan," he said, and buttoned the tangzhuang up to the throat. "My family's in Guo country. I'll go back to them. There's a farm I left fifteen years ago I ought to repair."
Silence fell. Lan Fan scraped dirt out from under her thumbnail, watching Altan's ears flick back and forth at the sounds of the forest. Gen Chang shifted a little, his armor clanking, and then went back to his quiet watch. She cleared her throat. "I never said thank you," she said, and Peng blinked at her slowly. "For being willing to do…what you did."
Peng snorted. "Milady, I'm no noble. I wasn't about to disobey an imperial order."
"But you could have blown the whole thing, and you didn't. You…you did a very good job. Protecting him. Keeping my identity safe." She lowered her eyes. "Thank you."
He coughed. "No trouble," he said after a moment. "It's the closest I'll get to being more than I am, I suppose."
Lan Fan slid off of Altan's back, and tossed the reins over the branch of a nearby tree before untying the rucksack from the saddle. "Here," she said, and offered it to him. "It wasn't much, but it was all I could do. Food, a spare shirt, some money. There's a knife in there as well. You'll need it, if you're traveling to Guo-guo."
Peng's eyes flickered to hers and away. "Milady, I can't take this."
"I'm not a damn lady," she snarled, and then closed her eyes and made herself breathe. "Please take it. If you don't then I'll just have to give it to somebody else, and I'd rather give it to you."
He searched her face. Then, slowly, Peng reached out, and closed his hand around the neck of the rucksack. Lan Fan let go, and stuck her fists into her pockets. It felt like her mask was watching her.
"They were going to kill me," said Peng. "And you stopped them. I'll owe you for that, Huo. All my days."
Huo. She savored the sound. It was probably the last time she'd ever hear it. "It's my fault you were there in the first place," she said. "You owe me nothing."
"Still." Peng swung the rucksack over his back, and then mounted the chestnut horse that they'd brought for him, a gelding with a white splotch over one ear. "I plan to go back home and get married, and when I have a daughter, she'll have your name. It's about all I can do for you, up in Guo country, but there will be at least one Lan Fan in Xing, lady, if I have anything to say about it."
Her lips parted. Lan Fan couldn't find the words. Peng gave her a little salute, and then chirped to the horse, taking off at a trot. She watched him until the forest swallowed him up, and then she closed her eyes. She ought to be crying, she thought. Tears ought to be pouring down her face, but there was nothing in her. Not right now. She couldn't cry.
Lan Fan Huo was dead, and there was no getting her back again.
"My lady," said Chang, and she blinked. He had her old mask in his hands. It looked odd against the regulation gloves of a guardsman. "Shall we keep this?"
Lan Fan stared at it. Then she pressed her lips tight together, mounted her horse, and yanked Altan's head around. "No," she said, and she dug her heels in. The mare sprang away at a gallop. She felt Chang's qi signature surge behind her, but she didn't care. If she had to look at the mask again, she would shatter into shards, like porcelain, and there would be no putting her back together afterwards.
Lien Hua was waiting for her outside of the kitchen gardens, her arms crossed tight over her chest and her hair dangling in front of her face. She looked up when Lan Fan came around the corner, and flew at her. Before Lan Fan could make out more than big eyes and green silk, she had her arms full of Feng. Lien Hua squeezed her hard, and then pulled back. "You're all right?" she asked. She was actually concerned, Lan Fan realized, and guilt stabbed her in the gut. It looked like Lien Hua Feng, Queen of the World, had been crying. "You looked awful."
"I'm fine," Lan Fan lied. Lien Hua gave her a long look that said I don't believe you, and then pulled back a little, fixing Lan Fan's hair absently. The Fengs were so touchy. Lan Fan couldn't remember the last time someone had tried to fix her hair for her. Maybe her grandfather, when she'd let a few strands of hair fall out from behind her mask. Her throat closed up. Oh, spirits, what would Grandfather think of me now? "Why would you think I wasn't?"
Her voice broke a little at the words. Lien Hua graciously did not mention it.
"You didn't see your face when that witch mentioned you," she said, and hooked her arm firmly through Lan Fan's. "I thought you were going to faint. Or attack her. Or something." She paused. "You're sure you're all right, Feiyan?"
Lan Fan lifted one shoulder in a shrug. Lien Hua's hip kept bumping hers as they walked. Why lie? she reasoned. There's no reason. Not right now. "I…don't know."
Lien Hua squeezed her arm a little. "It's hard, the first execution." She licked her lips. "I—when my brothers and I were seven, an assassin from the Qiao came for us. He was caught. Uncle Mengyao had us watch as he was killed."
Lan Fan's guts churned. "How did he—"
"Each of the Fifty Families has a different method of executing traitors and assassins." Lien Hua shook her hair back out of her face. "In Feng-guo, we drown them. But slowly. The executioner takes the criminal to the ocean's edge, and he holds them face down in the waves. Then he brings them back up again. Then down. Then up. A good executioner can keep a death going for hours. Days, if they're practiced enough. The man who tried to kill Dong Mao, Xinzhe and me—he lived for six hours. And we stood there, and we watched. All of it."
Lan Fan swallowed hard, and said nothing.
"She was using your name to kill a woman who didn't deserve to die," said Lien Hua, and her voice was low and furious. Her acid smile was back. "I would have torn her face off."
They paused in front of Lan Fan's door. Chang still hadn't caught up with them; she could sense his qi signature, maybe half a mile away now, but it would take a while before he could track her down now that her own signature was stifled again. Lien Hua glanced at her, as if waiting for Lan Fan to open the door. Lan Fan, instead, cleared her throat.
"Lien Hua," she said, and Lien Hua tilted her head in a question. "Why were you waiting for me? Why are you—" Helping me. Not suspecting me. Acting like you care. "You know who I am, and who my family is, and—and you know that I'm not…well. I'm not really supposed to even be here. I'm not—worth anything. Why are you here?"
Lien Hua looked at her for a long moment. Then she sighed, drew her arm out of Lan Fan's, and looked at her.
"Because," she said. "You saved my life, and my brothers' lives. You…" Lien Hua tugged her earlobe. "You trusted me. Not many people do that. And I don't forget that kind of debt."
Lan Fan didn't know what to say. Lien Hua gave her a smile, not an acid court smile, but an actual smile, and hugged her again. This time, Lan Fan hugged her back. She smelled of lily-of-the-valley.
"Come on," said Lien Hua, and pulled back. "Your cousin's waiting for you inside. It's a miracle Xinzhe hasn't started a fistfight yet."
"Chen's in there too. Dong Mao…" She made a face. "He had something to do, anyway. But your cousins are there, the guardsman and the nomad woman, and your maid, and me and Xinzhe and Mingli Chen. We were waiting for you to come back." Lien Hua tipped her a little wink. "And tomorrow, just to get your mind off of this, I'm taking you to a party. No objections.
Her eyes burned. Lan Fan blinked, and let Lien Hua draw her inside.
She woke up at dawn out of habit, and rolled out of bed, because otherwise, she knew she wouldn't do it. It had been the same after her grandfather had died. It had been a battle to get up every morning; a war to make it through the day. Her whole life was gone. Mourning it was pointless, and wouldn't bring it back. She would make her way through the day, and if she fell apart, then she would fall apart while doing something worthwhile, because otherwise she wasn't ever going to get out of bed again.
She wasn't empty anymore. No; as she peeled herself out from in between Suyin and Lien Hua (who had both insisted on staying with her, and had, in fact, managed to get along spectacularly), all she could feel was fire. Every part of her burned. She wanted to stab something. She wanted to kill. She wanted to find the Empress Dowager, peel all the hair out of her head, ruin her. She hated. She slammed the door behind her, not caring if it woke everyone up, and stalked off to the stables. The only other creature in the whole palace she knew that was hating as much as she was right now was Changchang, and maybe, in a contest of fury, Changchang would win.
Jian Zhang was nowhere to be seen. Nor was anyone else. Lan Fan, who had brought the horse training book just to talk about it with Jian Zhang, set it aside and went to collect the grooming kits. She worked over Altan first—the mare had carried her yesterday until her flanks had lathered, and it had been a long time since Lan Fan had lavished so much attention on the horse that had, supposedly, carried her to the capitol from Ma territory—and then turned to Changchang, who gave her an evil look and promptly stepped on her foot so hard that she nearly sobbed. Lan Fan shoved her off balance, and fought with her for twenty minutes about the halter before finally tying a soldier's knot in a lead rope and dragging her out of the stall. She wanted to try and work with Changchang in a larger area, now that she'd calmed down enough not to rear and strike every time Lan Fan came into her stall. (Not every time. Often enough to keep her on her toes.) It was only once she'd tied Changchang to a post (and to a tree, and a second post, just to make sure she didn't wrench free) that she realized she was being watched.
"You're here," said Master Ling stupidly, and Lan Fan couldn't meet his eyes. She hadn't been expecting him to show up, either, let alone show up with a stifled qi signature. He barely ever did that. Not unless he was trying to sneak up on her, or trying not to be seen. She thought, judging by the look on his face, that this time was probably the latter. He cleared his throat. "Good morning."
"I apologize," said Lan Fan quietly. "I didn't—I don't mean to disturb you. I'll go."
"No," he said, before she could do more than pick up her curry comb. "No, wait. I'm the one bothering you. I can go."
No, her body screamed. Yes, her mind—her stupid, traitorous mind—hissed. She didn't want to see anyone, but she didn't want him to go, either. Not really. She licked her lips, and said, "Majesty, these are your stables. This is your stableyard. This whole place, in fact, belongs to you. You may remain here as long as you wish."
This was, clearly, not the answer he'd been expecting. He gave her a long look, and then rubbed the back of his neck, and crept nearer. His hair was back in a ponytail, and he moved like his joints hurt. The guilt was radiating off of him like sickness. Lan Fan refused to look at him, and went back to brushing Changchang. The mare put her ears back and went to strike, and Lan Fan tugged hard on her halter. Changchang squealed and tried to spin out, but she was tied with three ropes, and couldn't quite manage it. "Stop it, you wretched thing."
To her surprise, Changchang rolled one liquid eye towards her, snorted, and stopped moving. Master Ling—the Emperor, she reminded herself—slunk closer, and cleared his throat.
"Did—did Lan Fan Huo leave all right?"
Lan Fan went stiff. She closed her eyes for a moment. She wasn't angry at the Emperor, not truly. He'd been caught in between the Empress and the court. It wasn't his fault that her life was gone. But the emptiness that had been in her yesterday was now a swelling, towering rage, and it had to be aimed at someone, otherwise it would burn her to ash.
"Yes," she said. "I watched her leave. She's gone."
The Emperor said nothing for a long moment. Lan Fan went back to currying Changchang. Changchang, for her part, tried twice to nip at Lan Fan's fingers. It seemed more affectionate than anything else, and it made Lan Fan even angrier, because Changchang was not supposed to be affectionate. She was supposed to be kicking and screaming and throwing a temper tantrum, because that would be the only thing other than blood and death that could give Lan Fan a way to vent. And Changchang was. Not. Cooperating.
"It's recently come to my attention that the Empress Dowager attended to you yesterday." Master Ling rubbed his thumb over Changchang's cheek. When she tried to bite, he rapped her nose, hard. "That's rude," he said, and then turned to Lan Fan again. "Do you mind if I ask what she said to you? She was particularly unforthcoming with me."
Lan Fan paused. Temper pulsed, and flared. Huian Yao. Then she seized a comb, and started working on Changchang's mane, focusing on the mud caked into the coarse, oily hairs. "Majesty, the Empress Dowager honored me greatly in her visit, but it was…" she searched for the phrase. "She said nothing to me that I have not heard before." Memory sparked. "Though…the news of my upcoming banishment was new."
The Emperor let out a short, hissing breath. "You spoke the truth, in what you said about the Nohin, and the other nomads. I have a policy that prevents truth-speakers from being cast out. You can check in the imperial files. It's a very strict rule. Almost no loopholes. Even my mother would be tearing out her hair trying to find a way to wiggle past it."
Lan Fan couldn't help herself. She smiled a little, and when she was sure he wasn't looking, she peeked through her bangs at him. There were rings under his eyes that she didn't like, but other than that he seemed healthy. If she closed her eyes, his qi pulsed vivid-bright in her worldsense. She stuck the comb between her teeth and set to work with her fingers, trying to pull the least amount of hair out of Changchang's mane as possible. The knot was about the size of a cockroach, and if she didn't get it out, it would soon turn into a mat.
"Lady Ma," he said, and she glanced at him before going back to work on the knot. "Was that truly all she wanted to talk about? What you said about the Nohin?"
Lan Fan spit the comb back out into her metal hand, and closed her fingers around it hard enough to hurt. She had to fight the impulse to touch her scratched cheek. "What is it you wish me to say, Imperial Majesty? That she did something to me? Or threatened me?" She paused. "What good would that do? It's not as if I'll be staying here once Suyin's baby is born. I'll be going back to Ma-guo, after."
As soon as she said it, though, a dull ache spread through her to her fingertips. She didn't have anywhere to go. The Huo wouldn't hide her, not after Lan Fan Huo's banishment. Feiyan Ma would have to vanish. Where she went would be anyone's guess, including Lan Fan's herself. Next to her, the Emperor went still.
"You're welcome in court as long as you wish to be there, Lady Ma," he said. "I swear it."
She lowered her gaze to Changchang's hooves. "I know," she said. That was the wretched thing. She did know. She knew that if he could have, he would have stopped what had happened to her, and to Peng. He would have stopped it, if Huian Yao hadn't cornered him so damn neatly, like a fox in a trap. She tossed the brush back into the tack bucket, and ducked around Changchang's backside (twisting her tail to distract her from kicking out) to check her fur for ticks. Master Ling followed her, almost casually, if not for the fact that he was picking at the bracelet around his wrist, counting out the beads. Lan Fan bit back what she wanted to say, which was something to effect of I don't want to leave; I don't know how to live any other way, and said, "All the same, I think my family would like me home again. Besides, I don't…" she gestured at the stables, and the palace. "I'm not worthy of a place like this."
"Worthy?" he said, and for some reason, his voice was tight. Lan Fan blinked. "What makes you unworthy of it, Lady Ma? You've just as much right to be here as anyone else does."
"It's nice of Your Majesty to say such things, but I don't." Not now. Please don't let him try to talk to her about this now. She would scream at him, and then he'd hate her, and that was one thing she couldn't handle, not today. Not ever. She combed through Changchang's forelock with her fingers. "There are other people much better than me. They should have my place, I think."
"Really?" His qi prickled at her. "Because I don't. What makes that woman out there—" he gestured out of the stables, at a noble walking by, a Qiao with elegant hair and glossy riding silks—"one molecule better than you, Feiyan Ma? What makes someone worthy of attention?"
"Manners," she said. "Breeding. Worth. Tradition."
"Intelligence," he snapped back. "Courage. Honor. Morals."
She couldn't help it. She scoffed. "Those go sour and die in this place."
"Which is precisely why you're worthy, and the others are not."
"You are," he repeated, and she wondered what he saw that she couldn't, that he was so convinced of that. "The court needs people like you, Lady Ma. Someone who—" he paused. "Someone who sacrifices everything in order to try to do something right."
Lan Fan flinched. Her hand went tight in Changchang's forelock. Master Ling exhaled.
"Sorry," he said. "That was—that was too far. I'm sorry. I'll—I should go."
He had turned on his heel and made to leave when Lan Fan reached out, and dropped her hand again. He noticed it—of course he noticed it—and he looked over his shoulder at her. Lan Fan licked her lips.
"It's gone," she said.
The Emperor blinked at her, but she could tell by the edge in his eyes that he knew precisely what she was talking about. "I know."
"No, you don't." Her eyes, to her horror, had gone blurry. She was not going to cry in front of the Emperor. She wasn't. She blinked furiously, and said it again. "No, you don't know. It's gone." My old life. My job, my family, my name. "It's all gone, and I can't get it back."
"I know," he said again, in a softer voice. Try as she might, she couldn't get the blur to go away. Lan Fan swallowed, and then swallowed again, and looked away from him, out into the pasture. Fog was growing in the near distance, and through it she could see little flickers of movement, from horses that had been turned out. It made it easier to pretend that her eyes weren't filled with tears.
"If I had been able to stop it," the Emperor said, "I would have."
"That's not why I—" She bit her lip. Her guts twisted. She'd been doing so well since her grandfather had died, had done such a good job holding her tongue and not speaking out of turn, transformed herself into the sort of guard she was supposed to be, but now all of that work had been for nothing. Lan Fan Huo didn't exist anymore. Lan Fan studied the ground, the fog, the sky, looking anywhere but at the Emperor. "I know," she told him, and closed her eyes for a moment. "I know. That's not—I know that. I just…I thought I would be able to go back."
The Emperor said nothing.
"It's all I am," said Lan Fan, and the tears overflowed. She wiped her cheeks, but they kept on coming, and she couldn't work out how to make them stop. "It's all I am. And now it's—it's all gone, and everything that's happened is—it doesn't matter anymore. It's gone," she repeated, and hid her face in her hands. She couldn't bear to look at him anymore, if only because she couldn't bear seeing that expression on his face. She'd never seen him look so lost before. Not when the Tea Leaf Emperor had fallen ill, not when they'd been lost in the desert, not even when she'd done what was necessary, and lost her arm in the process.
No, she realized. She had seen this before. Once before. When her grandfather had been cut down. She'd seen it then, but not before, and not since. It made her guts twist.
"Feiyan," he said, and then in a lower voice, "Lan Fan." There was no one around to hear, but it still made her jump. Lan Fan took a shuddering breath and began crying in earnest, in the shaky, silent way she'd learned in the first few weeks of being a Huo. There was a rustle of cloth, and then hands on her shoulders, an arm around her. The Emperor pressed his cheek against her hair. She tried to wrench back—she wasn't supposed to be touching him, he wasn't supposed to do that—but he didn't let go. If anything, he just held on tighter. "It's all right," he said, and she went stiff in the circle of his arms. Her shoulders began to shake. "It's all right. I'm sorry. I should have stopped it. I'm sorry."
He smelled of smoke and incense and silk from the Gathering, but underneath it was his skin, the sandalwood soap he used for his hair, the smell she remembered for years and years. Underneath that was his qi, warm and pulsing and real. If she kept her eyes closed she could see it, a knot of energy tied to the Pulse, and herself, encircled by it, protected by it, and that was so strange, because she had always been the one who was supposed to protect him. Their roles had been flipped, and it frightened her. She took a deep shuddering breath and stared at the sky, staying absolutely still, but he didn't let go. In all the years she'd known him, even when they'd been children, she'd never once been able to touch him like this. She would never have dared.
He shifted, just slightly, and she felt his breath against the curve of her ear. "Lan Fan, I'm sorry," he said, and that was what broke her. She choked, squeezed her eyes shut, and leaned into him, because she couldn't do anything else. "I'm so sorry," he said again, and Lan Fan wrapped her fingers around the seam of his outer robes and squeezed hard.
"It's not your fault," she said, but her voice was so low and cracking she didn't recognize herself. The Emperor drew a breath—she could feel his lungs expand from this close—and he ran a hand through her hair, once, again. She hadn't had anyone do that since she was little, and it made her throat close up tighter.
Lan Fan hid her face in his shoulder, and she cried. The Emperor held her until she stopped.