Me: *says she'll update on Christmas Eve*
Also me: *does not update until following October*
Thank you all for your patience, and your stalwart devotion. (Can I say that, or does that sound smug?) SotB is not and will never been dropped; I may vanish for long periods of time (see: this past year) but I have no intention of abandoning Lan Fan to the wilds of the unknown.
Lan Fan Huo: Also known as Feiyan Ma, a spy who still doesn't quite know where she stands but is trying her damnedest anyway.
His Imperial Majesty, Ling Yao, the Dawn Emperor: He pines a lot.
Her Highness Princess Mei Chang: She also pines a lot, but is grumpier about it.
Suyin Yao: Also known by her steppes name of Sarangerel, she is the wife of the Commander of the Imperial Guard, and, in Lan Fan's cover story, her cousin. Fuu once told her Lan Fan's steppes name, and she seems to know more than she lets on about Lan Fan's past.
The Feng Triplets, Dong Mao, Xinzhe, and Lien Hua: They are currently plotting to take the life of the Dowager Empress, although Lien Hua is Lan Fan's particular friend.
Her Imperial Highness, The Empress Dowager, Huian Yao: Nobody likes her very much.
Commander Shan Yao: Suyin's husband, Lan Fan's supervisor, and long-suffering guardsman.
Gen Chang: Speaking of long-suffering guardsmen, Chang was assigned to keep an eye on Lan Fan after a failed assassination attempt.
Caterina della Babarigo: The fiancee of one Dong Mao Feng. Not particularly culturally sensitive.
Bao Zhang, Minister of the Right: A member of the Imperial Cabinet, and a member of the Resolationary Committee alongside...
Xiao Niao Song, First Governor of Song-guo: Head of the matriarchal Song family, and member of the Resolutionary Committee.
Jian Zhang, Master of the Horse: Exactly what he sounds like.
Xiaoqing: A half-Qarashi, half-Xingese girl who used to be a Firebrand.
Peizhi: A guttersnipe who has almost miraculous powers with the angry warhorse Changchang.
Caught your last letter by the skin of our respective teeth and have altered course for Thamasq as requested. Guess we should've figured something was happening—pretty sure you Elrics are like one of those magnets that you drag through sand; you get a bunch of pointy things sticking to you just by moving around, except with you it's trouble and not needles.
To be honest it's kind of a relief to hear that all that stuff has been going down while we were off checking Mt. Buwei. Much as it would have been helpful to have your damn brain here to explain some of this crap to us (if I hear one more thing about the Dragon's Pulse I am going to scratch my eyes out with my own quills) I don't think I could stomach any political nonsense, and I know Gerso couldn't. Us staying away from the capitol for the moment seems to be the best bet. Soldiers don't have a place in fights like this. We'd only make things more difficult.
Gerso here. Zampano had to go off and buy more of those meat bun things, he gets peckish when he's scribbling. Though to be honest that's typical piglet behavior: think too hard and you need to start munching. (He hit me. He's abusive.)
Sad to say he's right, though. Neither of us would be good at dealing with the crap that's going down in the capitol. Not to mention: kind of scant information to go off of with this, boyo. Fires of God, Letoists, and guns. That's it? No shipping company, no label, no names, nothing else? It'll be a miracle if we find more than a whisper.
Still, we'll look into it. Faster this gets done, faster we can go back to looking into getting back to normal. Cheers for the new address; Zampano's better at shaping these damn pictograms than I am, but the ones you included for Pubuchuan (sp.?) are big enough that even I can work it out eventually. You made a move on that damn princess yet?
If we find anything of interest between Tang-guo and this Thamasq then we'll drop you a line. Otherwise, next you'll hear from us will be from Arraqash!
-Kristo Zampano (and Malloch Gerso!)
8 November 1918
3rd Year of the Dawn Emperor
It almost seemed like there was an audible sigh of relief from the staff of the Imperial City as soon as the Gathering ended. The Closing Ceremony meant a good half of the court would be preparing to return home—or, at the very least, take a good deal of the weight off of the capitol, and leave only half their numbers behind. First Governors who had fulfilled their yearly quota for the time clause (or had been granted dispensation to neglect that obligation this year, like the Gao and the Jiang) took their leave to get back to business; families without eligible daughters for the Lotus Hall dashed off to find messenger hawks and eligible cousins to put forward, instead. Or so Lan Fan imagined, anyway.
"It's like watching ants scurry about," said Suyin one morning, as Lan Fan struggled to not get kicked in the ribs. She was trying to put a saddle on Changchang today, which was always an exercise in futility. And the definition of madness, she thought, whacking Changchang in the ribs with her flesh hand when she tried to break Lan Fan's foot for the fourth time, is trying the same thing over and over and expecting a different result. Still, it kept her mind busy, at least. "All this fuss over an empty hall."
"Over the seat of the Ascending Empress," Lan Fan said, and bit her tongue. Changchang had caught the toe of her boot with one enormous hoof. "I will bite you if you keep doing that, and cut you up and feed you to the Empress's hunting bitches, and thenwe'll see how heartless you actually are!"
Changchang blew air out her nose.
"Yank her ear," Suyin said. "She doesn't like it when you do that, and it's better than smacking her nose."
"Someone's already clipped one of them. I don't want her to be frightened of me doing the same to the other." Lan Fan shoved hard at Changchang's hip until the mare finally sighed, and shifted off. Her toes were throbbing. Trying not to limp, she heaved the saddle back over her automail, and started calculating the possible trajectories for how Changchang could leap away from her. "She's fighting just to fight, today."
Suyin rolled her eyes, and folded her arms over her chest. She had the pinched, unhappy look of a woman who was spending a great deal of time trying not to vomit, and wasn't succeeding very well. Her qi, which usually echoed like wind under the wings of a hawk, was barely a flutter beyond Lan Fan's shields. "Zhang is right, you know. If you don't ensure that she knows you're lead mare, she'll fight just to fight every day for the rest of her life. I know you know that, and even if you hadn't, Zhang's treatise talks about it a lot."
Lan Fan blinked, slowly. "You've read it?"
"I've been in the flatlands far longer than you, cousin," said Suyin. "I read that in the first week I was at the palace. Master Zhang and I are old friends."
A few stalls down, Jian Zhang grunted.
"You know it's true, horsemaster." Suyin leaned back against the nearest stall door. "Let her bully you and she'll always bully you."
"It's not as if I'm letting her do it on purpose," said Lan Fan, sourly. "Thank you very much for the concern."
"You're welcome," said Suyin. On the other side of the stable, Chang snorted, and resettled his face to a mask when Lan Fan turned around to scowl at him. "Have you finished packing?"
Lan Fan couldn't answer right away. She'd finally managed to dump the saddle on Changchang's back, and now she had to keep it from sliding right back off again. It was only once the girth was cinched down that she brushed her hair back up out of her eyes, and cleared her throat. "Mostly. There are a few things left, and I think Niu Lu is taking care of those today." Though she didn't see why she now had so many pairs of shoes, or why they were necessary. The notion that clothes were armor worked well enough until she'd seen how much space the fleet of shoes had taken up in her "old" trunk, and Niu Lu had purchased a second just for clothes. "It shouldn't take more than an hour or two."
I used to be able to pack everything I needed in a knapsack, Lan Fan thought, mournfully. I used to be able to carry it all on my own. When did that stop?
"Good," said Suyin. "We can't leave late, not if we're traveling with the Emperor."
"We won't, cousin."
Silence fell. Lan Fan hadn't been surprised, exactly, when Suyin had expressed an interest in coming out to see how Changchang was doing. Suyin had been more aggressive about spending time with her cousin Feiyan than she had before the Closing Ceremony, mostly, Lan Fan theorized, because of everything that had happened with the Empress Dowager. She at least had stopped asking if Lan Fan was all right, which was an enormous relief; there were only so many times Lan Fan could say I'm well, thank you before people stopped believing her, before the pinch in her guts turned into something impossible to hide. It was never not going to hurt, she was fairly sure, but the more people asked, the harder it was to disguise.
Suyin settled her palm to her belly. At four months pregnant, or thereabouts, there was the slightest curve to her stomach that couldn't be explained away as too large a dinner. It was only visible at certain angles, though, and never in her court silks. It was only after Lan Fan had yanked Changchang back under control for the third time in five minutes that Suyin said, "I hope you won't be uncomfortable rooming with us."
Lan Fan blinked again. They'd made the decision that Lan Fan would officially be moving into the Commander and Suyin's Pubuchuan rooms as soon as Feiyan Ma had been extended an invitation to the waterfalls; the Pubuchuan winter court was typically only about half the size of the Imperial City, with half the staff and half the room, and that meant a selective guest list and, occasionally, cramped living quarters. Cramped by courtly standards, anyway. "Why would it make me uncomfortable? You're family. We've shared tents. Besides, the rooms I've had here are—they're very big."
"I know." Suyin still had an odd look on her face, though. "I just wanted to make certain."
"Who else am I going to share with?" Lan Fan yanked Changchang's head down, and tried very hard not to roll her eyes when the mare tried to sink her teeth into Lan Fan's automail hand, again. "You know that doesn't do anything," she said, to the horse, not to Suyin. Then she continued. "Lien Hua asked, but Mingli says it wouldn't be proper for me to share rooms with the Fengs, considering Xinzhe and Dong Mao both have fiancées and I'm unattached. Not to mention it wouldn't make sense, considering I'm here to be with you, not with them." Lan Fan considered. "I don't think Lien Hua would have asked, only now that the engagement's official between the Feng and the Cao she wants to keep her friends closer than she did before."
Suyin watched Lan Fan through her lashes. "Is that what you are?"
"What?" said Lan Fan, and yanked her automail fingers out of Changchang's range. "Calm, Changchang."
"Friends," said Suyin. "With the Feng. Is that what you are?"
Lan Fan bit her tongue. Yes, she thought. But also no. Yes, because she didn't want to kill the Fengs, didn't want to have to put herself between them and the Emperor—though she would, without question, if it became necessary—but no, because every word they said was noted down in her mind to be picked apart later, because the only reason she knew them in the first place was to uncover whether or not they were a threat. It was all a knot of heavy rope in her ribs, squeezing tight.
"You know what I am," she said, and pulled Changchang's head down to adjust her bridle. She shifted to northwestern, and ignored Chang's questioning look over the pages of his novel. "Has there been any confirmation of her story?"
"It's difficult to confirm when it's purely hearsay," said Suyin. "Which isn't to say it doesn't fit the facts."
"She wasn't lying." Lan Fan would have sensed if Lien Hua had been lying. "She told me the truth."
"Just because she wasn't lying doesn't mean she wasn't telling the truth."
Her guts curdled a little, but Lan Fan couldn't argue. If you believed something was the truth, spoke it like it was, it sounded and felt like truth, even if it was a lie. "I believe her."
"I know you do."
"Is the Commander still angry with me?"
Suyin sucked her teeth. "He was never angry with you."
Considering the look on his face when Lan Fan had told him she'd joined the Resolutionary Committee, she rather doubted that, but still. "If you say so."
"He doesn't want you to be distracted, is all. You have a great deal to manage, at the moment."
"I'm handling it." Somehow. "I—I know it's reckless. But I want—"
She trailed off. I want to be a part of the committee. I want to work towards improving something. I want to help the Emperor make Xing a better place, and I can't be his Shadow anymore, but I can help right wrongs left long undone. And I want to do it. I want to. For me. The words tangled up on her tongue. Still, Suyin smiled a little, and said, "I know."
Lan Fan flushed to the tips of her ears, and shoved Changchang off her foot again.
"Shan is fine. He's cooled off, and he'll stop being a toad soon enough." Suyin tipped her head, considering. "What are you going to do with her?"
As if she knew she was the topic of discussion, Changchang snorted. Lan Fan pulled on her bridle. "I already told you. I'm bringing her."
"Master Zhang is coming along with us to Pubuchuan. And I'm going to keep working with her." She groped for words. "I told Peizhi I would take care of her. I'm not going to make that a lie."
She'd also told Peizhi that he could come and see Changchang whenever he wanted, which would be difficult if Changchang were in a different country altogether. For the first time in a week, though, she'd been able to make time to go down to Xuanwu. Technically, it was time stolen from her training and linguistic sessions with Mingli and Caterina della Babarigo, but she could miss one in the rush for Pubuchuan, she was sure. Suyin watched as Lan Fan bounced once, twice, and heaved herself up onto Changchang's back. For once, Changchang didn't bolt like a rabid elephant. "You think you can manage her outside of a paddock?"
"We're traveling with courtiers, not on the steppes. You said it would take at least a week. I'll be able to ride her out if she gets antsy, and with luck she'll tire. We won't get there until the full moon." Which was also when all the ladies up for the Lotus Hall would be arriving at the winter palace, but that was a completely different matter. Lan Fan put it out of her mind. "She's better than she was."
"That's not saying much."
"I'm not leaving her behind," said Lan Fan, feeling strangely whittled. Suyin blew air out of her nose. Still, her eyes gleamed a little.
"She's your mare."
She's not, Lan Fan almost said, but she bit her tongue. The idea still tugged at her heels all the way out the door of the stables, trailing like viscous shadow.
The situation with Changchang was the least of her problems. Setting aside the Feng and their plot against the Empress—which she had no more details of, despite the fast approaching deadline of Pubuchuan—there was the Emperor to think of, and the committee, and, if she were frank, the Empress herself. The Imperial City was all in uproar, and the only time she could get to herself to think these days was when she clambered onto Changchang and rode the mare practically into the ground. Not even her rooftop runs with Chang through Xuanwu searching for the Firestarters could give her peace anymore, though they kept her in shape better than playfighting with a warhorse ever could.
Lan Fan jammed her knee into Changchang's side, turned her in a tight circle. A perfunctory look into the palace records had revealed no information about anyone named Lotus affiliated with the Feng household, but then again, all their spies before her had been dispatched before they could uncover anything of note. Aside from Xinzhe's jokes, both Xinzhe and Lien Hua were reticent to talk about her as anything outside of her role as Caterina's translator and bodyguard. Lotus was a knife wrapped in an enigma wrapped in a mystery, and she worried Lan Fan more than Lan Fan wanted to admit.
The more cities that fall to the Firebrands, the more desperate the Feng will become, and the more desperate they become, the more dangerous they are. The Feng were desperate to kill the Empress, and that would mean the triplets and all that allied with them would turn more and more deadly as the days went by. Especially with the Cao behind them, now that the engagement had been scheduled. February twentieth, 1919. His Eminence's fourth year on the throne. If the Fires of God didn't succeed in their own plots and march against Xing, anyway. If the Emperor and his people succeeded, and the rebels failed.
There is no other option.
Her problems settled in two overlapping circles in her mind. On the left was the Feng, the plot against the Empress, the weapons shipped from Thamasq, the firebrands and the cities razed in Feng-guo. On the right was the court, ministers and committees and governors and wives. (Potential wives, a voice muttered in her head. Not actual wives. Potential wives. Most of them weren't even at court yet. Not that they were any of her business at all.) In the overlap, the Empress, villain and victim, hunter and hunted. Murderer. Child killer. She killed my sister in the womb, Lien Hua had said. I hate her. And Xinzhe, who'd held her so tightly at the Opening Ceremony, who'd been half-falling apart with it: I hate her more than anything.
A hate like that could eat a person up until there was nothing left inside but ash. A hate like that was almost impossible to dissuade. A hate like that: it was permanent.
Lan Fan shook it off, and urged Changchang up into a canter.
The Garden of Endless Streams was filled with maids when she made her way back to the kitchen garden rooms. The place looked very bare, now. Aside from her borrowed books and one or two sets of clothes—including a new gown that Niu Lu had had commissioned for her, in spite of Lan Fan's protests—all of Feiyan Ma's things had been packed away in preparation for Pubuchuan. Lan Fan toed off her boots, and washed her face in the basin before settling on the end of the bed. She only had an hour before she had to head down to Xuanwu—not that anyone in Xuanwu kept strict appointments, but she was punctual, and would remain that way—which wasn't long enough for a full bath. She would have to make do with a damp cloth and a change of clothes, which she would have had to do anyway, considering she couldn't exactly wander down to Xuanwu in expensive silks or in her deel.
Something, some twist, unwound in the back of her throat as she dragged her tangzhuang free of the chair. No meeting with Mingli and Lien Hua and Caterina, she thought, and pulled her sweaty riding clothes up over her head. No listening to whispers around palace corners. No meetings with Lady Song that made her head hurt, no fretting about the committee, and absolutely no chance of turning a corner to see the Empress at the other end of it. The slums were concrete and comprehensible, and she wasn't going to get the chance to visit again for four full months. November to March in Pubuchuan, to wait out the winter with hot springs and waterfalls. The snows would make hearing complaints in the committee complicated, though. And if it did storm, they might be trapped in the Pubuchuan palace for a week or more, and everyone would go stir-crazy, hang the political consequences. There were ghost stories about men and women who'd killed each other in the Pubuchuan palace, driven mad by the loneliness of blizzards and the isolation of the valley at midwinter. The most notable incident had occurred during the reign of the Scorpion Emperor, where fifty of the palace eunuchs had enacted a rebellion, and slaughtered nearly a score of imperial cousins, and their households, before finally being put down by a team of alkahestrists. For their crimes, they'd been tied with wire, and flesh peeled off their bodies from where it bulged between the metal. Considering the filthy looks she was getting in the hallway from Minister Liu and his brethren, someone was campaigning for an encore.
Since the Emperor had approved the committee—officially, the Committee for the Investigation and Resolution of Human Rights Abuses, Conflicts, and Injustices, which Minister Zhang had just taken to calling the Resolutionary Committee—there had been no chance to meet. "Politics," Bao Zhang had said, "is a wheel that grinds slowly, except when it doesn't," and in this case it was grinding slowly indeed. Shen Liu had nearly had an apoplectic fit in the middle of the Gathering Hall when Xiao Niao Song had proposed the committee; every day since, the Ministers of the Right and Left, not to mention the Emperor himself, had been closeted together arguing over who could be on the committee, and who couldn't.
"They've narrowed it down to five positions," Xiao Niao Song had told her over a game of xiangqi one morning. (Lady Song had taken it upon herself to teach Lan Fan not only xiangqi, but go and even dominoes. Why, Lan Fan had no idea, but it made Mingli laugh when he heard about it.) "Myself, since they can't get rid of me. You, because that's inarguable, as I have made clear to the Minister of the Left. Bao will be supervising, and vote only in the event of a tie; he will have no voice in the proceedings and will serve only to keep the peace. The other two positions are unoccupied, though I expect they'll be filled soon enough."
"It doesn't seem like enough people to investigate war crimes," said Lan Fan. "If there are only four of us."
"That's because the Empress Dowager and Minister Liu want this committee strangled to death as soon as possible," said Xiao Niao Song. "Preferably in a back alley where the body can be disposed of without comment. If they can drown us in busy work before the investigations even begin, then they can argue for the dissolution of the committee on the grounds of nothing being done."
It seemed to be a very underhanded way to get things done. Then again, that was how the court worked. Or some parts of it, at least. "That's backwards. If they don't want the committee, why can't they just say so instead of burying it?"
Lady Song had cut her a look through her eyelashes, and promptly thieved one of Lan Fan's soldiers. Xiao Xie turned her page of Tomiko's Letters, and took notes, humming Song of a Northern Beauty under her breath. "Protesting a committee formed for the investigation of crimes against the people of Xing leaves a bad taste in everyone's mouth. Both the Empress Dowager and Shen Liu are far more subtle than that."
"Minister Liu tried to shout me down in front of half the court when I talked about what happened to the Nohin," said Lan Fan. "So did the Empress."
"But if you'll recall neither of them claimed you were lying," said Lady Song. "At least not to your face, and especially not in public. Though there have been rumors circulating since then that smell of one or the other of them in that regard."
"There have always been rumors circulating about me," said Lan Fan, and stared at the board. It wasn't as though she'd never played xiangqi before Feiyan Ma had arrived at court—she'd learned it with Master Ling, long before she'd been made his personal guard—but even back then she'd never caught the trick to the game. She'd stopped playing Master Ling before she'd turned nine, and within a year he'd blazed past her grandfather and all other comers. She couldn't remember the last time she'd seen him be relaxed enough to play chess. "I've put them out of my mind."
"You shouldn't." When Lan Fan moved another soldier, Lady Song cut off its retreat with a horse. "Rumor is a double-edged blade, Lady Ma. If you're going to be in politics, you need to be aware of how it can cut."
"I thought you and Minister Zhang wanted me on the committee because I'm not political."
"That doesn't mean you shouldn't know the weapons your enemy's using," said Lady Song. "I'm going to take your general in the next four moves, you know."
"I don't see how."
"Rumor," said Lady Song. Which made no sense at all, but she had still taken Lan Fan's general in the next four moves. It was still irksome, even days later. She drew her hair out from beneath her collar, and pinned it up with an emeici before going to free her blue dragon mask from its hiding place. Once Peizhi and Changchang were dealt with, her library books returned, and the last of her weapons strapped down, she would have nothing at all to do before joining the imperial retinue, and escaping the capitol before the snows came.
There was a little, sputtering flare of qi at the door. Niu Lu. Just beyond it there was another signature, cinnamon and something like sun-warmed cloth. Caterina. Without Lotus, Lan Fan realized, and blinked. How in all the hells had Caterina been able to evade Lotus? Or Lien Hua, for that matter, considering how Lien Hua had decided to foster her. "My lady," said Niu Lu, and dipped her head, curls spilling forward over her shoulder. "My apologies for interrupting your contemplation."
"You aren't interrupting anything." Lan Fan undid the bun again. Caterina probably would be intimidated by an emeici used as a hair ornament. Better to braid it, at the moment. "I wasn't contemplating. What is it?"
"Contessa della Babarigo is here."
"I know," said Lan Fan. She curled her toes against the floor, wishing she'd kept her shoes on. "Were there any messages about her coming?"
"No, my lady." Niu Lu's eyes creased. "Shall I send her away?"
"No, don't." Caterina had never left the Eastern Ward of the Imperial City without an escort before, so far as Lan Fan knew. It was a miracle she'd managed to find her way all the way to the Garden of Endless Streams. "Let her in."
It was much easier to see Niu Lu's Xingese mother in her face when she stood side by side with Caterina. They both had red, curling hair, and hazel eyes, but Niu Lu's was darker; her face was more angled, her eyes more Xingese, her nose not quite as pointed. Caterina was much paler, and next to Niu Lu's tall, willowy frame, she was round and soft as a moon cake. "Buongiorno," she said, and peeped at Niu Lu out of the corner of her eye. Then she remembered herself, and fumbled into Xingese. "Your servant. Aerugo?"
"Xingese," said Lan Fan, as Niu Lu bowed and vanished out the door again. Chang murmured something out in the hall, and Niu Lu laughed. "Mostly."
"Oh," said Caterina, and began to fidget with her skirt. If all Aerugan noblewomen dressed like Caterina, they must be very uncomfortable. The waistline looked like it pinched. "I see."
She fell quiet again, and peeked at the walls. Lan Fan stacked the books on the desk again. "Where is Lotus?"
Abruptly, Caterina's face turned to storm clouds. She pursed her lips. "Dong Mao," said Caterina, and that was enough of an explanation. Dong Mao and Lotus hadn't been overtly obvious about talking in front of Lan Fan since the night of the Cao party, but judging from how Xinzhe talked about the pair of them, there could arguably be something there. "She say, stay. But I go."
She looked quite pleased with herself for it, too. More than her getting away from Lotus: Lan Fan was surprised that the palace guards hadn't stopped to ask Caterina where she was going. Although it's difficult to ask someone who doesn't understand enough of the language to answer. "Why?"
Caterina made a face. "I was bored," she said in Amestrian. "And I know I'm supposed to say that in Xingese, but I don't know bored. There's nothing for me to do here when I'm not practicing. I wanted to see if I could find you. Or Mr. Elric, but when I asked people about him they just said no."
"Alphonse lives in Zhuque," said Lan Fan in Amestrian. "Not the palace."
"That explains that." Caterina pinched her lower lip. "I'm probably being very rude, I know how formal everything is here, and how structured it all is, but I didn't want to sit alone in the rooms they gave me, and I don't know anyone here outside of you, and Lord Chen, and the triplets, and Mr. Elric, and Mr. Elric said that I could trust you, and—I don't know. Do you understand?"
"Some," said Lan Fan. She curled her hands in her lap. "You were lonely?"
"A little, but that's not all of it." Caterina wavered. "Your Amestrian's much better than you let on, I'm almost certain. And I think you speak Old Ishvalan, too, but I'm not as sure of that." She rubbed her hand a little, and Lan Fan remembered: she'd squeezed Caterina's fingers hard enough to pinch, back when Dong Mao and Xinzhe had used Old Ishvalan at the Cao party. Sloppy, sloppy, sloppy. "Please don't say you don't understand me, Lady Ma. Please."
The Commander was going to be grumpy with her. "I—" She let her tongue trip a little. It wasn't hard. The Amestrian was coming much easier, now that she'd been practicing with Caterina for a while, but it still stuck sometimes. "I understand more than I speak."
"I knew it!" Caterina lunged forward, caught up Lan Fan's automail hand in both her own. She squeezed. "Mr. Elric said that if I needed anything I could talk to you, and I hoped—I want to know if I can trust you, Lady Ma. I don't know many people here, and I hope—I hope I can. You were kind to me and you didn't have to be and I want to be able to believe Mr. Elric and trust you, because I need a friend in this place, and I know Lien Hua is going to be my sister-in-law but she never tells me anything, and Lotus—she's very polite, but she won't talk to me like I'm a person at all, and you do, you and Mr. Elric, you're the only ones who have, and I've heard little things about you and how you're new to the palace and how people don't like you much but you've been so kind and I thought that maybe—I don't know. That it would be all right."
She said all of this in one breath, and took a great gulp of air when she was finished. Like a lost puppy, Xinzhe had said. It wasn't wholly inaccurate.
"You want to be friends," said Lan Fan, slowly. Caterina leapt on it like a wildcat, squeezing Lan Fan's automail fingers hard enough to creak.
"Yes. I knew it would be hard coming here but I didn't know that—" Caterina blinked down at Lan Fan's metal fingers, and let go of them very quickly, knotting her hands up in the brocade of her skirt. "Some parts of it have been more difficult than I expected. Nothing has really turned out the way I thought it would."
Lan Fan turned that over in her head for a time. It stung at her, pricked. She knew what it was like to have nothing turn out as expected. "Your fiancé doesn't like me much," she said. "I'm probably not the best choice for a friend."
"I don't think he likes me very much either," said Caterina. Her eyes glittered. "He never says a word to me if he can help it, and he's always so angry, and his brother teases all the time. Lien Hua says he'll warm up eventually, but I don't think he will. Not to me, anyway." She fretted with her sleeve. "I know I'm probably not what anyone expected, and that I'm silly, and I don't speak any Xingese and that's unfair when the triplets have learned Aerugan just to speak to me, but I was—I prayed that this marriage would work out. Arranged marriages aren't—uncommon in Aerugo, but they're not common, either, and, I mean, my parents were an arranged marriage and they're the best couple I know, so I was hoping it would—be like that, for me, but it isn't, and I just—the thought just made me terribly lonely."
The urge to punch Dong Mao Feng in the gut was getting stronger every day, and it could become problematic if she didn't manage the temptation as soon as possible. Lan Fan wrestled her face back under control. "I don't know why Alphonse said you could trust me. I don't know him very well."
"He's an alchemist," said Caterina, like this made a smidgeon of sense. "Alchemists are very good judges of character."
That stupid little voice in the back of Lan Fan's head piped up with what does that say about Amestris, then, and she squashed it under her boot.
"If you don't want to be seen with me," said Caterina, "I would understand."
"No, I'm not—" She nipped at her tongue. Think, Lan Fan. "We are both strangers in a strange land."
Caterina sat quietly for a second or two. "I don't understand."
"I would be honored," said Lan Fan, "to be your friend, Caterina."
"Oh," said Caterina, and beamed at her. She caught at Lan Fan's hand again, and Lan Fan jumped. If all Aerugans were as touchy as Caterina della Babarigo, the Xingese ambassador there must be very confused. "I mean, it's not very honorable, but—good."
A puppy, indeed. Lan Fan let Caterina squeeze her automail fingers one more time, and then drew her hand away again. "I need to change," she said. "I have a meeting down in the city."
"Oh," said Caterina. Her ears flushed pink. "I mean—do you think it would be all right if I came?"
"No." Caterina was far too memorable, and clearly much too high-born to ever be seen in Xuanwu. Not that the Fengs and the Lus and the Caos hadn't wandered down to the Sevens Race the same way, but the Fengs, Lus, and Caos were Xingese. Caterina most decidedly was not. When Caterina's face fell, though—and she was so very expressive, Caterina della Babarigo, everything playing across her nose and mouth like an actor on the stage—Lan Fan said, "It's just an errand before we leave the capitol. It won't take long."
"Are you sure I can't come?"
Something flickered in the back of her head. Why do you want to come? The notion that Caterina could be spying for the Fengs was like ivy, creeping over stone. Possible, Lan Fan, decided, but unlikely. Especially considering Dong Mao's reticence to speak to her at all. And unless Lien Hua had been lying, and Lan Fan didn't think she was, Lien Hua and Xinzhe both trusted her. No, not a spy, just…awkward. And terribly, terribly lonely.
"Very sure." Lan Fan watched the sadness flicker over Caterina's face. No matter who her parents were, she was by no means built for politics. Or for guarding, or for anything that would need her to keep a straight face. She didn't seem capable of it. "You shouldn't have left your rooms without Lotus."
"I don't see why."
"It can be dangerous here." She bit her tongue. "I'm not a native of the court, Caterina, but—but there are reasons for the rules. There are places you shouldn't go alone, with no Xingese. And the Feng will worry if they can't find you where you're supposed to be."
"I know that, but—" She tugged on her sleeve. "It's lonely. Even if other people are there."
There weren't many people in the palace who could speak enough Amestrian or Aerugan to have a conversation with Caterina, but maybe…Lan Fan twisted her fingers into the chain of the firebrand medallion. "I don't know how long I'll be in the city. If we send a dove to Lien Hua, she'll come to talk to you." Probably. Hopefully. She would make her, if she didn't. "You won't be alone."
Caterina sighed, and stood. "I suppose. She's so acerbic."
"Lien Hua is—" Lan Fan shrugged. "Lien Hua is Lien Hua."
"That doesn't help very much, Lady Ma."
"I'm not very good at words." She made herself smile. "Especially in Amestrian."
"How did you get them to like you?" She smoothed wrinkles out of her high-waisted skirt. "I think—Lien Hua and Xinzhe. How did you get them to be your friends?"
Helplessly, Lan Fan shrugged again. If only the Feng weren't so absolutely, blastedly two-faced about everything. No one in their right mind should be asking Feiyan Ma or Lan Fan Huo about making friends. "I was honest."
Caterina's eyebrows went up. "That's it?"
"It's not as though I have much else to offer."
"The Emperor likes you, though," said Caterina, and there was a flicker of something wry and thoughtful around her mouth. "That's something that's valuable."
"May he live ten thousand years," said Lan Fan automatically in Xingese, and refused to blush. "The Fengs have never asked me for help with the Emperor. If I'm friends with them, it's because I'm honest. That's all."
There was a tap on the small, circular window out into the garden. A crow—Bao's crow, Lan Fan thought, though she wasn't completely sure—was perched on the sill. Caterina's eyes grew large as wheels as Lan Fan went to the sliding door, opened it, and looked at the beast for a second. When she clicked her tongue, the bird said, "Percentages," and bobbed its head once or twice. "Percentages."
Yes. Definitely Bao Zhang's crow.
"Hello," said Lan Fan, and crouched down beside it. When she offered her fingers, the crow nudged at them, and gave her an unmistakably filthy look. "You're far from home. How did you find your way here?"
"Is that thing yours?"
"It's Minister Zhang's." Still, the crow perched on her elbow when Lan Fan offered it. It was heavier than a hawk, weighted differently. The talons weren't nearly so dangerous. There was a little strip of paper tied to its scaly leg, and when Lan Fan peeled it away, the crow croaked deep in its throat. "I don't know if it has a name."
"Oh," said Caterina. "In Aerugo people use pigeons, not—not doves and hawks and crows."
"People don't use crows very often," said Lan Fan, fading back into Xingese. There was only a single line on the strip of paper, in the tiniest script Lan Fan had ever seen. Lunch at Pubuchuan, waterfall observation balcony, the day after the full moon. "I've never seen anyone use a crow before Minister Zhang."
"I don't understand," said Caterina in a plaintive sort of voice, but she ambled along anyway to watch Lan Fan write out a response.
"This," said Mei, "is ridiculous. In the middle of what's shaping up to be a war, you're heading to the waterfalls to pick a wife?"
"It seemed an expedient way to get Liu off my back at the time, and to be fair I wasn't aware of everything that was happening when I made the announcement," said Ling, and waved off one of the servants who'd come to fuss with his trunks. He barely remembered to switch back to Amestrian in time to say, "No, leave it. I can manage."
"This one does not—"
"Out," Mei snapped, and the servant—a Jiang, Ling thought, though he wasn't sure; much of the reserves had been called up from the servant's hall to be able to cover the hubbub of half the court packing up and shifting palaces—bolted. At least one of us knows what's good for him. Mei was in a mood, snarling and sparking, her braids threaded through with jade for once. They clicked around her waist, butterflies of every sort. A few of them were even carved through with alkahestrical circles. She snapped back into Amestrian. "It's stupid, is what it is."
"Thank you for that assessment," said Ling, in a voice which meant, if anyone else said that to me I could have them beheaded. Mei, being Mei, did not take the hint.
"Seventy thousand weapons ferried through to Feng-guo, and we still don't know how they're getting into the country, or who's letting them in. News from the west says that the Fires of God are making their way to Zhangcai, and if it falls, we have much more on our hands than the meagre rebellion of a few cultists." She fumed. "How on earth did these people get past your birds?"
"Little Chang sister, I don't know if you remember your geography lessons, but the empire is enormous. And Feng-guo is particularly difficult to get any information out of. Rather like pulling teeth from the mouth of a phoenix."
Mei wrinkled her nose. "Phoenixes are myths. And they don't have teeth."
"Exactly," said Ling, and opened a trunk. The servants had packed away his dao already, and he felt naked without them. He could make do with the kunai, but he wasn't Lan Fan, and it had never felt as natural in his hand as the swords did. "The Fengs are notoriously reclusive, and just as notoriously secretive. Which explains why so many of the things that have gone lately have gone so disastrously pear-shaped."
"Pear-shaped?" Mei tipped her head. "I don't understand."
Come on, brat, don't you know what that means? He shook the memory off. "It's an Amestrian military term for something going not according to plan at all."
"What an odd expression." She considered for a moment. "Pear-shaped. Pears have lovely shapes."
"Don't ask me to explain the idioms of another language. We both speak enough of them to know they make little sense." No dao in this trunk, either. He slammed it shut. "Have you made anything of the alkahestrical circle our little hawk found in the rooms of the pheasants, yet?"
"As I've told you every day since she submitted her reports, I've no idea what that circle is meant for. It's a mix of alkahestry and Amestrian alchemy, not to mention something that I could swear is Qarashi energy-eating; I've been able to puzzle out maybe a third of the symbols, but not much else. It's devilish." Mei chewed at her lip, and smoothed wrinkles out of her skirt. She was in Amestrian clothes again, today, a long flowing skirt and a buttoned shirt that were dangerously modern, regardless of the flow and sweep to them. Considering she'd been wearing skin-tight silks for every Gathering event and every party since he'd ascended, this was practically throwing herself into a nunnery, but it was still getting her odd looks from every servant and guard who came through his quarters. "She could deal with the numerical cypher, and me and Alphonse were meant to look into the alkahestrical circle, I get it, but it's layered. I have no idea what it means, and without the other circles she mentioned, I doubt I'll be able to uncover any context."
"Does our friend know anything about Qarashi energy-eating?"
"He'd been planning on visiting Qarash on his way back to Amestris, not on his way out. It's a difficult country to navigate without knowing the language, and there are very few in Amestris who speak it." Mei rubbed at an embroidered butterfly on her skirt. "I've been trying to make sense of this for weeks now, and I can't, and it's infuriating."
"Considering what it may be used for—"
Mei muttered something under her breath that sounded extraordinarily similar to that old bitch.
"Considering what it may be used for," Ling said again, in a louder voice, "it would be advisable to find someone who can understand it."
"Why do you think I'm putting off traveling to Pubuchuan? Not that I'm deliriously excited to watch the whole of the court dancing on their toes trying to attract your attention, but I wanted to be able to look into this circle without the Feng catching wind of it." She scrubbed at the edge of her lip with her thumb. "You're certain that their spies are going with them?"
"So far as I can tell, the gardener is tagging along as a footman, and no one else affiliated with their household is remaining." Ling gave her a wry look. "Not that you should have any trouble disguising yourself when you want to."
"It's the principle of the thing." Mei blew air out her nose, and plopped into the nearest chair. She really was getting to be completely blasé about the whole imperial throne thing, he thought. It was faintly charming, in a frustrating sort of way. I suppose this is how Ed thinks of Al. "Al will be staying with me to help with the Amestrian aspects, but we should be at the palace before you get yourself engaged. Who are you tapping for that, by the way? I feel like as your favorite sibling—"
"Who says you're my favorite sibling?"
"You mean I'm not?" She wrinkled her nose at him. "I should get the first choice in regards to who my sister-in-law—"
"Psh," said Mei. "I should get first choice as to who my sister-in-law and my Ascending Empress will be. If we don't get along, it could be problematic."
"Of course," said Ling. "Because that's my primary concern in the whole affair."
"You're the one who told the whole of Xing to bring their eligible daughters to the winter court by the full moon. You have no ground to stand on here, brother mine."
"You," he said, "are strikingly irreverent, and ought to be whipped."
"Mm," said Mei, and sprawled in the chair. "Most likely. Who's on your short list?"
"Don't be coy and pretend you don't know what that means, I've heard you use it before." Mei threaded braids through her fingers. "Your short list of candidates. I'm assuming you have one. The Empress certainly does."
"And who do you think would be on hers?" Ling settled at the end of a trunk, propping his chin in one hand. "Your own personal opinion."
"None of the Song," said Mei, promptly. "They're making her angry by throwing in their weight behind the Resolutionary Committee, they won't be an option for her unless they change their policies on nomads. A few of the highborn Lu, but that's a guess. Possibly one or two of the Liu. Obviously the Zhao, she still has links to that family even though she's been a part of the Yao practically since infancy." Mei tapped at her lip. "Possibly the Xie."
"I don't know, but it would be a good match. Descendants of the God-Emperor marrying into the Lotus Hall of the Dawn Emperor." She shrugged. "Of course there are no Changs on the table, as I would be putting them forward and I see no point. No Yao, for obvious reasons. Her best weapon would be one of the Zhao, or one of the Liu."
"Do you think Lady Song will put her daughters forward?"
"She'd be a fool not to. Barring the youngest, they're all of marriageable age, and First Governor Song isn't stupid." Mei gave him a thoughtful look. "And you would be stupid if you didn't at least consider the Songs."
"They're on the list," said Ling. "They're a good family with a strong background and a history of producing heirs, of course they're on the list."
"Good," said Mei, and continued. "The Feng don't have anyone to present that I know of, so there's a viper's nest we can avoid, but outside of that…" She ticked it off on her fingers. "Lus, Caos, Ciaos, Qiaos, Xies, Zhangs, Zhaos, probably the Hu, Tians, Chengs, Xiongs, and Yuans. Those are the families I can think of off the top of my head that have people they could logically present, and that should most likely be gifted with a lotus upon their arrival at the winter palace."
"So a thin herd, then," said Ling.
"Don't be bitter, you brought this on yourself."
Ling sighed tight through his nose. "You really ought to be whipped."
"Like you'd dare," said Mei, her lips twitching. "I'm your favorite sister."
"Like I have so many good ones to choose from."
She hopped off her chair, and smoothed her skirt again. "Were you planning on offering Lady Ma a lotus?"
Ling didn't still. He was far too practiced to freeze at a question so clearly meant to shock. Still, he didn't particularly like hearing it, either. "I don't know."
"People will be expecting it."
"Considering how clearly you've made your preferences known at this point, people will be more shocked if you don't."
"Believe me," said Ling through his teeth, "I'm aware."
"Though there could be certain advantages to giving her a lotus," Mei said, musingly. "It would be a kick in the teeth for My Lady Bitch, and it would keep the pheasants on their line, but other than that…" She sucked her teeth. "Problematic."
Ling said nothing. He went back to sorting through his trunks.
"Usually you've snapped at me by now," said Mei.
"Have I not been snapping at you?"
"Usually it's worse," she said, and spirits, she actually sounded concerned. "Are you planning on offering her one?"
"I don't know," he said again. "I haven't decided."
"You're running out of time, you know."
"I'm aware of that, Mei."
"Clearly," said Mei. She watched him fuss through the trunk for a moment. "What's the harm in offering a lotus? It's not as though it's unexpected. Besides, she's not about to try hard enough to actually present a problem for anyone, and you aren't going to choose her. There's no issue with it."
I don't want to make it worse. He bit the inside of his cheek. He'd already ruined her life enough, this year. This month. He didn't want to make it any more difficult than it already was. I don't want her to think she's obligated to do something more than what she is when she's already done so much for all of us. "It's complicated."
"I'm an alkahestrist," said Mei. Still, she didn't push further than that. Her eyes had gone all shadowed and unhappy, and he had a feeling he knew precisely who had popped into her head. "It's up to you."
"It's up to her," said Ling, and she didn't correct him. "Where's Al?"
"Out in the city. I think he's teaching that Firestarter girl the basics of alkahestry." She wrinkled her nose. "Which is rich, considering he's nowhere near close to mastering anything I've taught him, but it gives us an excuse to be down there."
There was an odd kind of shudder with her words, rippling from top to toe. Ling watched her, carefully. "Are you all right?"
"I don't like the slums," said Mei shortly. "If you'll excuse me, eminence, this one must attend to duties in other parts of the palace."
"Don't kill anyone," said Ling.
"Depends on if anyone tries to kill me," she said, and vanished down a side corridor. It took him another ten minutes to find his dao, wrapped and strapped to the back of one of the last trunks, and it was only once he'd settled in a chair with the swords in his lap that he actually let it process. The image. The notion. The idea of Feiyan Ma as a contestant for the Lotus Hall.
Mei was right; it would be expected, after everything that had happened during the Gathering. He'd made his preference known in the library, at the Gathering, on the morning rides. Time and again. It would be strange, suspicious even, for him to not leave a lotus on her pillow, for her to not be pulled into the running. She would probably even be expecting it. She wasn't stupid; she would have put it together, the Lotus Hall, the expectations. Even if she didn't, the whole court was whispering about his preference for the Lady Ma; he was certain there would be hisses in corners about whether or not she would be requested in the Lotus Hall.
I missed you.
But she'd already had enough go wrong. Exposing her to the Lotus Hall, to the twist and turn of it—that he hadn't been prepared for. Even in his deepest, darkest moments, in the most secret of his dreams, this—this had always been impossible. She is out of reach, far out of reach, impossible. He didn't want to make it harder for her, no matter what he longed for, in the middle of the night where no one else could see the look on his face.
Feiyan Ma, he thought, just for a moment. Just for a heartbeat. Ascending Empress.
Impossible. And—his mouth twisted up—far too greedy.
He would leave it to her to decide, he thought, and unsheathed his dao. She would choose. And even if she chose to enter into the fray, he could not push her into a role she would not want. He never would.
"Imperial Majesty." It was the Jiang, back and quivering in the door frame. The shaking didn't stop when he realized Mei was no longer in attendance, but it didn't get worse, either; Ling counted it as a win. "The Minister of the Right begs permission to attend."
"Granted." Ling sheathed the dao again. He couldn't remember scheduling a meeting with Bao Zhang, today, but there was no harm. He wasn't so heartily sick of the man's face as he was of Shen Liu. "Let him in."
The Jiang fled again, muttering. It's not as though I'm venomous, Ling thought, and looked down at the swords in his lap. Usually it was amusing, to have footmen so frightened of him, but today it scraped. Who knew why.
Come on, brat. You know exactly why.
"Imperial Majesty." Bao Zhang was in flourishing bronze, today, all earrings and glittering robes. He swept a bow as deep as a lake, and waited. "Life, health, and strength to you. This one is honored to be admitted with no appointment."
"Like you haven't seen more than enough of me in meetings about your damn committee," said Ling, but it was fond. "You can stand."
Bao straightened, and tucked his hands into his sleeves. "This one begs forgiveness for the animosity presented at those meetings, eminence. It was not this one's intention to bring your eminence into such a scalding fracas."
"It seems a bit more acidic than simply scalding, Minister, but we accept your apology." Ling unsheathed a dao again, and tested the edge on his thumb. Not hard enough to split skin, but enough to sting, just a little. "You could have offered a little warning that this was coming, you know. Considering how much time it's sucking up."
"This one did not anticipate it would become such a debacle," said Bao Zhang, but there was a glimmer to his mouth that gave away the fib. "Or—well. This one expected resistance, but not quite so much."
"Considering you've proposed that a nomad and the governor of a border family lead a committee primarily directed towards uncovering crimes against individuals and groups across the entirety of the empire, you really ought to have expected this much of a snarling competition." Ling sketched his fingers along the flat of the blade. With another emperor, he thought, it could be taken as a threat. There was a small point of pride that his minister didn't look even the slightest bit fluttered that he was playing with an unsheathed blade during a reprimanding. Without his people, a king is no king at all. "We're fairly certain that Minister Liu will propose the most inland-bound family he can think of for the third member of the committee, just to make things difficult."
"This one believes he was going to suggest one of the Cao boys," said Bao Zhang. "Not that they're nearly practiced enough for a position of this magnitude, but unfortunately due to Lady Ma's own relative inexperience, the gates have been opened to novices and incompetents."
"Why the Cao?"
"The Cao have always been close with the Liu, and the elder Cao boy in particular has a grudge against Lady Ma for reasons this one has not yet been able to determine." Bao Zhang mused for a moment. "She is not intimidated by his wealth or his social standing, and this one believes it bothers him. Not to mention her friendship with his fiancée. The Caos have never been particularly good at sharing."
Ling had to bite the inside of his cheek so as not to laugh. "No, that they haven't, really."
"It's nice to see such honest irreverence in court again," said Bao Zhang. "The Lady Ma brings a breath of fresh air to the palace."
"Indeed," said Ling, slowly. "The Lady Ma has made things—far more interesting as of late."
"As you say, your eminence." Zhang fiddled with one of his earrings. "Forgive the impertinence, eminence, but this one has not heard of your imperial highness taking the morning air with the Lady Ma, lately; may this one inquire as to whether or not the practice will resume at the winter palace?"
Ling stopped, and looked at him for a long time. "That," he said, in his best don't you dare continue voice, "is an impertinent question indeed, Minister. We seem to recall reminding you to not be a matchmaker."
"This one's deepest, most humble apologies, Majesty," said Zhang, and bowed. "This one spoke out of turn. This one begs for your forgiveness, your eminence, this one did not—"
"Oh, be quiet." He was getting a headache, all of a sudden. "Don't push where you shouldn't, Minister. Say what you came here to say."
Zhang bobbed his head back and forth like his blasted crow. "This one had a suggestion in regards for the final member of the committee—forgive this one, your eminence, for not speaking sooner, but would your eminence consider proposing Biyi Chang as a candidate?"
"Biyi Chang?" He had a vague, flickering memory of Biyi Chang, one of Mei's distant cousins, round and fluttering and bookish. Ling turned his dao in his lap. "What would she bring to the Resolutionary Committee?"
"Perspective," said Bao Zhang. "Much of the Chang family was destitute for generations until Her Highness Princess Chang returned from Amestris. This one believes Princess Chang herself would not accede to being a part of the committee—Her Highness is quite busy, this one is sure—but a member of the court who has greater knowledge and understanding of what the common folk go through would be an asset for a committee devoted to righting wrongs perpetuated against the lower classes."
It was a good thing Minister Liu hadn't been around to hear that choice of phrasing. "Possibly," said Ling. "Why not propose her yourself?"
"This one has already proposed Lady Ma, your eminence, and this one is afraid that Minister Liu, stalwart as he is, may not be…amenable to another suggestion from the Minister of the Right."
"You're probably right, there." Ling pushed his thumb into the center of his palm, hidden behind his sleeve. "We will consider it."
"A thousand thanks, your eminence," said Bao Zhang, and bowed. "This one is forever—"
"Don't be flowery, Zhang, we both know you can't stand it."
His lips twitched. "As your eminence proclaims."
"You are dismissed," said Ling, and Zhang backed out, still bowing at the waist. The door clicked shut. He was alone.
"Damn," Ling said, and rubbed at his eyes. "Damn."
"Certain," said Lan Fan, and mounted Changchang. On the ground at Changchang's shoulder, Peizhi made a face.
"You're really sure, mistress."
"Absolutely sure," said Lan Fan. "You are not riding Changchang alongside the imperial revenue."
"It'd keep her quiet."
"It's not happening."
Peizhi scowled at her. The cast on his wrist was fresh as paint, replaced by a fussy Gao Bai when she'd wandered into the healer's hall the day before leaving the capitol with a dirty, mule-headed Peizhi trailing at her heels. "She'd be quiet."
"And yet it's not happening," said Lan Fan. If this is what motherhood was like, she truly wanted no part of it. "I've told you this every day since you signed on. I'm not letting you on this horse alongside imperials."
The scowl grew deeper. "Mistress—"
"Master Zhang is probably looking for you. He'll need your help with the horses for when we get moving."
"But—" Lan Fan fixed her eyes on him, and Peizhi wilted. His mouth was still curled in a stubborn knot, but he wilted, and dipped his head. "Yes, Mistress Ma."
"Shoo," said Lan Fan, and Peizhi shooed. Changchang shifted her head to watch him go, turned just enough to lock one liquid, hateful eye on Lan Fan on her back before blowing a long stream of air out her nose. "You hush," said Lan Fan, and nudged the mare in the ribs. "He'll be back."
Changchang sighed again, and tried to kick a footman in the ribs as he passed.
She hadn't intended to bring Peizhi back to the palace with her, but she hadn't been able to avoid it, either. "I told you I'd pay you back," said Peizhi, when Lan Fan had opened her mouth to argue. "Told you I would and I will. Xiaoqing's talkin' to the firebrands, but I'm no firestarter, and they won't believe I wanna convert. I can help with Changchang."
"Xiaoqing shouldn't be looking into the firestarters alone," said Lan Fan, but Xiaoqing shook her head. The veil pinned over her face was dark green, and fluttered when she sighed. Upstairs, behind the trapdoor, there was a baby crying.
"I won't be alone," she said. There was a little quiver to her voice that vanished as soon as Lan Fan looked hard enough. "Master Elric is remaining in the capitol for another two weeks; he'll help, I think. Besides, if they're after the Feng, then they may follow you sooner rather than later."
For a moment, the only thing that had been in Lan Fan's mind had been the letter Al had delivered, on behalf of Xiaoqing. I'll help you, gods forgive me for what may occur. There had been a flicker of something on Xiaoqing's face that looked too much like murder. Slowly, Lan Fan said, "If you're sure."
"I'm certain." Xiaoqing blinked once. "These people killed my mother. I can handle them until you return." She hesitated, looked to her father behind the bar. The baby was wailing fit to burst, upstairs. "And if they follow you, then I will follow them."
"There you go, fusspots," said Peizhi, and been cuffed around the ear for speaking out of turn.
That had been that. Lan Fan had spoken to Suyin, who had spoken to Jian Zhang, and Peizhi had been hired as a lesser groom by the Master of the Horse in the Imperial City. He'd also been forced into a delousing by Gao Bai (which had made him shriek) and into another healing (which had made him shriek again) and had been assigned specifically to keep an eye on Changchang, as none of the other grooms would go near her for fear of losing their fingers. She had the feeling even Jian Zhang had been shocked when Peizhi had ducked into Changchang's stall without hesitating, and gone right to her head to pat her down. Lan Fan still wasn't exactly sure what Peizhi had been doing with his qi, in that moment—it had…the only word for it was rippled, the way stones made water ripple when they skipped over the surface of a lake—but it had clearly worked. Changchang had neither bitten nor kicked, and had in fact lowered her massive, deadly, viper head to push into Peizhi's chest like a new foal. She was enough of a horsewoman to know that Peizhi's presence was the only reason Changchang hadn't tried to take a chunk out of another horse a good three days ago.
As for Xiaoqing, there was nothing for any of them to do but wait. The day before they'd departed for Pubuchuan, Lan Fan had liberated a messenger hawk from the palace rookery and left it at the Autumn Moon Inn, alkahestrically mated with the hawk currently riding along in the Commander's luggage and thus drawn together across any distance across the empire. A guaranteed way of getting a message between them, certainly, but time-consuming. She had Al at her back for now, and the Princess Chang—for Mei Chang was staying behind for another fortnight, as well—but once they left, Xiaoqing would be on her own.
The idea that she was leaving someone else in the same position she had been left in haunted her.
Alone, or possibly with her master and her grandfather, Lan Fan could have made the trip between the capitol city and the Pubuchuan Manor in Sheng-guo in a little over three days. With the imperial retinue, complete with any number of carts, the trip would take double that, depending on inclement weather and conditions at the base of the Shengyan Mountains. It was early enough in the season that it probably wouldn't be snowing too heavily, but there were always freak storms, and it was critical that the Emperor not be caught in a blizzard on the way to the winter court. Shen Liu in particular seemed to be anxious about it, judging from how the Commander came back from nightly meetings in the Emperor's tent grumbling about ministerial interference. "You'd think that he was the one being presented with a fleet of women at the full moon," the commander had said. "Not the brat."
Choosing a bride.
"My lady Ma."
It was Chang. Lan Fan dragged her head back down from the clouds, and cut him a look out of the corner of her eye. "Is something wrong?"
"Not in particular." He hesitated. "Only you seem…disturbed."
"I'm not." Changchang's ears went flat against her head, and Lan Fan pulled her out of range of Chang's leggy gelding. "Shouldn't you be with the commander getting your orders for the day?"
"I have a set of standing orders," said Chang, placid as an ox. "As you well know, my lady."
"Pox on your house," said Lan Fan, who was suddenly in a very bad mood. Chang snorted.
"Of course, my lady."
I will choose my bride.
"I'm going to run her for a bit," said Lan Fan, and kicked Changchang into a canter before he could reply. There was a surge of qi, and within a minute, Chang had caught up to follow her in silence.
There was no particular reason for her to be disturbed about the deadline for the Lotus Hall. After all, she knew—she knew in her bones, in her guts, in her heart—that the Emperor would keep his promise. The fighting between the Fifty Families would not continue. The sniping of wife against wife, family against family, the kind of infighting and cruelty that had led to Lien Hua's mother being poisoned, her baby sister dying in the womb—it would end with the Dawn Emperor. That, Lan Fan knew to be true. It was simply frustrating that the machinations of the Empress and Minister Liu had pushed her master into making the decision so much earlier than he'd wanted to. What was the point of picking a bride when things were as dangerous, and as convoluted, and as complicated as they were?
Allies, her common sense told her. Back-up, a better strategy. But there wasn't much a bride in the Lotus Hall could do against the Fires of God unless she brought several countries' worth of soldiers with her. Or the ability to inspire the poor to change religions to something less apocalyptic and havoc-inducing, which was unlikely. Devoting time and energy to the weighing and consideration of a fleet of noblewomen was not only foolhardy, but reckless, and she hated the taste it left in her mouth, like mud and oil. She wasn't angry at the Emperor; she simply wished that this had come about at a different time.
If she made herself think about it, methodically, then she knew that Feiyan Ma was already a part of the competition. The Emperor had been courting her pseudonym, and inviting more women to the court to ply their suit meant that those same women would probably view her as a threat. She would be drawn into the game whether she liked it or not, and it would keep eyes on her, give the Feng a vested interest in continuing to interact with her even if Lien Hua hadn't pulled her into their secrets, into Lang and Huian Yao and firebrands and assassination in the dead of night. It would be a waste of time, and energy, but she was a part of it whether she liked it or not, and as sick as it made her—quivery, unsettled, guilty to the tips of her toes—she had to follow it through. Whatever I am after all this is over, whatever I become, I will not have shamed my training. She was the Emperor's tool, to be used as necessary, and if that meant accepting a lotus at Pubuchuan, then she would. No matter how it made her feel.
For a moment, when she knotted her flesh hand around the reins, she could feel silk and warmth against her palm.
Considering nobles were trained to go hunting in all sorts of terrain, sustained travel took them much longer than necessary. The Emperor set a good pace, but that was undercut by how frequently the other nobles wanted to stop and rest, and it was making her tongue itch. Today was no different. The cavalcade stopped at noon so everyone could eat, and Lan Fan urged Changchang beyond the head of the line, up to the top of the hill where she could look back at the capitol. It was far in the distance, now, a blur of smoke on the horizon, barely a smudge. The imperial caravan was half a mile long, seven families plus the Emperor, the Empress Dowager, their respective retainers, and the staff necessary to move such a large group of people across a full country to Sheng-guo. Any time the Emperor moved out of the capitol city was a risk, and she'd loosened her grip on her qi just enough to feel the ripples of the caravan all the way to the back end of it, all the people, all the animals, every part of it. So far no one had noticed her presence, and it eased her worry about cloaked bandits. Not by an enormous amount—that wouldn't happen until they were locked safe in Pubuchuan—but enough.
Lan Fan locked her qi back down, and kicked Changchang into a loping canter, back to Suyin's palanquin and the Commander's massive bay mare, staked to earth and lipping at grass without a care in the world. "Take a leaf from her book," Lan Fan said to Changchang as she dismounted. "Stop biting, for spirits' sake."
Changchang sank her teeth into the sleeve of Lan Fan's deel. It was gentle, by her standards. Barely left a dent in the fabric. Lan Fan bared her teeth right back at her, and tugged on Changchang's forelock until she let go.
"I see her manners haven't improved at all," said a voice, and Lan Fan cursed herself, cursed her bared teeth and her bad temper and the horse trying to snap at her, because on the other side of Suyin's palanquin was the Emperor, flanked by the Commander on one side, and Bao Zhang on the other. He was out of expensive robes, for once, dressed very un-imperially in a black magua and trousers, and memory lurched sick into her mouth. He'd been wearing something similar, the day she'd been shot. When she'd woken and thought him injured, blood streaked all down his front. Take a breath, Lan Fan. "Is it safe to approach?"
"I do not believe so, eminence." Lan Fan pulled her sleeve out of Changchang's reach, and tapped her nose when she went to bite again. "She's not in the best mood. Traveling alongside the retinue is making her—difficult."
"I see." The Emperor cut a look to Bao Zhang. "Minister, I believe you said you have a headache; you ought to be resting."
"This one does, indeed, eminence," said Bao Zhang lightly. "This one will take his leave, if it please you."
"Feel better, Minister," said the Emperor, and Bao Zhang bowed deep at the waist before traipsing away. When he whistled, a dark speck arced out of the clouds to settle on his shoulder, man and raven vanishing down the line towards the ministerial palanquins. The Commander looked like he was biting his tongue. "Not that I blame him for having a headache, after the past few days."
"No, eminence," said Lan Fan. "I wish him a speedy recovery."
"As do I, though maybe not as speedy as it could be. I'm sick of hearing cyclical arguments within my cabinet." He folded his hands together, and began to tap with his index finger. What on earth he was nervous about, she couldn't imagine. Lan Fan stole a look at his face—court smooth, as always—and went back to fussing with Changchang. "I thought I had assigned you a guard, Lady Ma."
"I'm afraid I outran him," said Lan Fan, and the Emperor threw his head back and laughed.
"Pay up, Shan, I told you it wouldn't take more than a few days on the road."
"This one has no money on him at present, majesty," said Shan. His eyes twinkled. "If your eminence would accept an IOU—"
"You're a filthy liar. I should have you executed." The Emperor caught her eye, and winked, and Lan Fan faced Changchang's shoulder rather than let herself blush. "There you are, Guardsman, I was wondering where she'd lost you."
"This one apologizes," said Chang, out of breath. His gelding was gusting, highly displeased. "This one underestimated how fast a Xuanwu racehorse could go when properly motivated, eminence."
"Or how fast a Ma lady could vanish from beneath your nose if you aren't careful, especially on open ground." The Emperor lifted a brow. "Which is not to say that you require supervision, Lady Ma, only that if you decide to escape someone on horseback most people would have a difficult time catching up."
Her throat locked up. Lan Fan shrugged.
"Give your gelding a rest, guardsman," said the Emperor. "If the lady would deign to walk with me for a moment, I had reason to speak with her. The Commander will accompany us, won't you, Shan?"
"If your eminence wishes," said Shan, ignoring Lan Fan's wild eyes. The Emperor pasted on a court smile.
"His Eminence wishes."
"Well, then," said Shan. "Cousin?"
"My horse," said Lan Fan, but the Emperor waved that off.
"We'll wait for you to get her settled."
Her tongue went tacky in her mouth, though there was no good reason for her to be nervous. Just because the whole caravan would notice her walking with the Emperor, even if it were only for a minute or two, that was no reason to be nervous. It wasn't as though people weren't already whispering about why she had been invited to Pubuchuan. "Of course, eminence. I won't be long."
"Take your time, Lady Ma" he said, and crinkled his eyes at her. "She seems like a handful."
If she hunted for it, there would be a metaphor in that. The Emperor was fond of metaphors. They had always given her headaches. Lan Fan collected Changchang's reins, and went to find a safe place to tie her up.
The Emperor was still waiting when she came back. Patiently, though she of all people knew how patient he could be when he wished. A few palanquins down, she could see Mingli Chen peeping out from beyond the curtains, and vanishing just as quickly. "Shall we?" said the Emperor, and offered his arm. Lan Fan had to bite down hard on the tip of her tongue to force herself to take it. The fabric of his magua was much finer and thinner than his court silks, and she could feel the shift of his arm as he bent his elbow, the play of muscle beneath the skin. Deeply improper. Her ears felt hot. Deeply improper, and perhaps not as public as walking into a Gathering meeting with her on his elbow, but still public nonetheless.
"Mm," said Lan Fan, because she had no other words left in her. The Emperor squeezed her fingers with his free hand, and dropped it away again.
"This way to avoid prying ears."
The caravan had stopped for lunch in the hollow of a hill. It wasn't a particularly steep hill, but the rains in and around the capitol had changed the dirt to slick, slippery mud, and that meant focus and quiet as they forged their way up to the top, stopping by an oak tree. The leaves were a cacophony of yellows and reds, oranges and golds, and when the Emperor let her slide out of his arm, Lan Fan reached up to pull a leaf from a branch, spinning it between her metal fingers. It was easier to focus on the leaf, rather than the Emperor. Shan had subsided into careful silence, just out of earshot, sunlight glinting off the helmet tucked under his arm.
The Emperor peeked at her out of the corner of his eye, still smiling. "You've been busy."
"Apologies, your eminence." She peeled a strip off the leaf. "My schedule keeps getting worse and worse the longer I'm here. For reasons I'm not particularly sure of."
"Minister Zhang tells me it's because you're reactionary."
"I'm not certain if that's the right word." Something was off about her temper, her stance. She felt like a duck, waddling and uncertain on land. When did horseback become the only place I feel stable anymore? "I'm not meant for politics, your eminence. I only want to help."
"You've chosen the right committee for that, I think." He pinched his lower lip. "I have to admit, I didn't think introducing you into the meeting with First Governor Song would result in this, but I'm…pleased to see it. Your honesty has always been of value to me, it's time other people learn to see it for what it is."
There was a surge of something up her throat that could have been joy, or panic, or agony. She wanted to be on the committee, she'd wanted to try and make something of herself, just like Suyin had suggested, but faced with the Emperor's approval, it all seemed fragile. Like blown sunlight. "I'm—" she began, and then she stopped. "I am glad to hear you approve, eminence."
The Emperor didn't look at her, not immediately. It was only after she'd shredded her first leaf, and plucked another, that she felt his eyes settle on the back of her neck. "My lady Ma, are you well?"
"Fine," she said. It was eggshell brittle on her tongue. I need people to stop asking me that. "I am quite well, eminence, simply tired."
"Of waiting," she said. "I've never been very good at waiting."
"I can believe that," said the Emperor, and a smile bubbled in her throat. Lan Fan ducked her head to hide it. "I wanted to speak to you about why I invited you to Pubuchuan, Lady Ma."
"For the committee, I assumed," she said. "And for my—connections."
"Well, yes." He'd gone back to tapping his forefinger against his opposite hand. Nervous, and it was rare that the Emperor was nervous anymore, not this way, not ducking his head like a schoolboy and refusing to look at her when he was always trying to get her to look at him, to flout tradition, to spit in its eye. Lan Fan stopped tearing up leaves. Whatever was coming, she wanted to meet it head on. "I'm certain that my mother has made clear to you the—issues presented by any attention I pay to you."
You get your hooks out of my son, the Empress had said, blood on her nails from the gouges on Lan Fan's cheek, her fangs bared. You get your hooks out of my son, or I will rip you apart.
"In a way," said Lan Fan.
The Emperor muttered something under his breath. He was fidgeting; she hadn't seen him fidget since Amestris, not like this. "It is expected that I will request you to make a bid for the Lotus Hall," he said, not fast, not slow, but measured. As if he'd practiced it. "I wished to tell you that—that if you did not wish to make such a bid, there would be no harm done. To anyone. Or anything."
Anything being their plans, more than likely. There was a curious rushing in her ears. Lan Fan plucked another leaf, and stripped it methodically, until only a skeleton remained. She had to hold it with her metal fingers; they were dexterous enough to do the work, certainly, but she preferred the feel of the leaf caving under her fingernails, the smear of it on her skin. It showed too much of her thoughts, too much of her turmoil, but she couldn't stop without screaming. She did not look at the Emperor again. "Oh."
"It is a risk, to bring it up to you like this, but I decided the risk was necessary." He'd set his jaw, now, settled his face. Determined and waiting. "If you wish, I will not request it. We can continue as we have done until now, and no harm will be done. Though there may be—questions in regards to your reputation."
"There have always been questions in regards to my reputation," said Lan Fan. Her teeth felt hollow "I doubt it would change particularly much."
"As you say."
Silence fell. Not the trembling, blazing silence of the hallway in front of Bao Zhang's rooms, not the silent scuff of his fingers down her automail, over her cheek, but—stilted. Awkward. Lan Fan stripped a fourth leaf, and a fifth, before deciding it made her look weak, and forcing her hands into a knot behind her back. She realized too late that it was the position adopted by Shadows at their charge's shoulder, because Master Ling's—the Emperor's face went all pinched and unhappy, flickering and raw for an unguarded moment. Then it was gone.
I missed you because I trust you, Lady Ma, he'd said. And she'd replied: I missed you, too. She still missed him. She missed this. Lan Fan bit down on the inside of her cheek.
"I am not worthy of such an honor," she said, and looked at the ground. "I—I would not want to malign the reputation of your eminence in any way."
"You wouldn't," said the Emperor. "I have faith that you would not."
She opened her mouth, and stopped herself. You are still his servant, she thought. She was discovering who she could become, who she could be outside of what she had been made to be, but that had never changed. You will protect him however you can. It is your purpose. It is your duty. Her oath of loyalty had never been in question, not through any of her identities."If you would prefer that I make the attempt, I will do so, though I truly am not…worthy of that." It was a natural step, for Feiyan Ma, but it sat heavy and oily in her belly. "It is not as though I will win the bid. And if it would make certain things…easier, then so be it."
Something flickered at the corners of his eyes. An emotion she couldn't catch, fleeting and frightening. The Emperor crossed his arms, and hid his hands. "As you say," he said, and it sounded remarkably like resignation. "I will make the formal request for a lotus to be placed in your rooms at Pubuchuan, Lady Ma."
Her heart was beating curiously slow, and distant, as if through a canyon. "Yes, your eminence."
She turned, and he was there. Much closer than he had been, and he'd muffled his qi again, she realized very suddenly, he shouldn't have been able to do that without her noticing, but with her shields up it was very difficult to tell things like that, especially when she was distracted. The Emperor looked at her for a long time, then, like he was searching for something. Then he set his thumb to his lips, and dabbed it over her cheek. It left a burning smear on her skin, like acid, or fire. The touch of a blade. "Dirt," he said, very low. "Probably from your problem child."
Lan Fan blinked. Her lips parted without her permission. "Problem child?" she said, and her voice was husky, and when had that happened? Disrespectful, discourteous, deeply, deeply improper, get a hold of yourself, Lan Fan, but she couldn't quite manage it. "Peizhi?"
"No," said the Emperor, and his mouth curved. "Your horse."
"Oh," said Lan Fan again.
"Who is Peizhi?" said the Emperor, lightly. There was a coiling in the back of his eyes, though, that she didn't recognize. When did I stop recognizing things about him? "Someone I ought to be jealous of?"
Lan Fan turned beet red. Her cheeks stung. "Peizhi is—is the boy from the Sevens Race, majesty."
"Ah. You never named him before."
She couldn't remember if that were true or not. She couldn't remember a great many things, at the moment. Lan Fan swallowed, and wiped the juice of the oak leaf off on the leg of her trousers. "He is—good. Irascible, and untrusting, much like the mare. But he's good."
"That sounds like a story," said the Emperor, and they were on steady ground again. Lan Fan still hesitated when he offered his arm, still tried hard not to touch him otherwise, tried not to be hyperaware of the warmth of him and how the bone of his hip knocked into hers as they made their way back down the hill, but she took it, and the wavering notion of the world shaking under her feet had abated. For now, anyway.
I miss you, she thought, and listened to his voice, not the words. I miss you.