Sky woke up with his mouth pressed against a mattress so thick he felt like he was drowning in feathers. He flailed, suddenly unsure of where he was and why the sunlight coming in through the large window was so yellow. As soon as his feet hit the floor he remembered, and bent to press his elbows against his knees and assert the reality of himself, here, in the Imperial Palace.
The ghosts. Jen Zi. Sun Lian.
The Imperial Palace.
And then he smiled, and stretched in the yellow light filtering through the silk hangings. He'd only spent a few nights here so far, but it was a mix of luxury and baffling hierarchy. Servants had servants. The only place with more social structure was Heaven.
A knock sounded on the door and Sky just had time to look around for his vest before Lian walked in. She was wearing yellow robes embroidered with fish and dragons, and carrying a bowl of something steaming.
"Good morning," she said, eyes shining, and he forgot about going for the vest.
"I brought you breakfast."
"I see that." He leaned over to look at what was floating in the bowl, which appeared to be some sort of dumplings, and she kissed him on the cheek.
Well look at that, he thought. Food I don't have to steal, kill, or wonder what Mad Kang put into it.
He turned to put an arm around Lian's waist, feeling that maybe he could finally settle into this calm version of the relationship that had started desperately in a tent outside the Temple of Dirge. But a moment later, two girls wearing pink robes tied with wide white belts dashed inside and started addressing Lian in loud voices.
"Empress, let us take that!" The bowl was whisked away into tiny hands. "Empress, your robe is wrinkled! Empress, let us help you!" Voices like echoes.
"I told the cook I would bring breakfast myself," Lian said, holding one arm up as if the servants were pets scurrying around on the floor. "The large man in the kitchen, he let me - "
"Of course Round Zhijang will do as you wish," said one of the servants, glancing nervously at Sky from under a carefully curved fringe of black hair. "But to carry the bowl yourself-"
"Can I get you anything?" a girl asked Sky.
"My...vest?" he said, then chuckled at Lian's increasingly confused expression as she watched the servants - four of them -bustle around the room, setting plates out on a small wooden table and putting the bowl, which now looked very small, right in the middle of the table.
(Any one of them could be concealing a knife, Sky thought. Any one of them could have a sister or a cousin or a father who was a discontent out in the country, hating the new empress.
Sky did not want to lose his second family.)
"Can we get them out of here?" Sky whispered to Lian, and she immediately swept into action. Somehow, she knew the exact movements to physically push the girls out without looking impolite. With a sweep of yellow silk, they were gone.
Sky sat heavily at the table, hearing the cane chair creak. Those girls - they'd be about the same age Pinmei would be. He was breathing heavily, and hadn't even known it. He peered over the rim of the bowl and confirmed that it was dumplings.
Lian did not sit but stood behind him and looked over his shoulder. "Glad that's done. Are you all right?"
"More than fine."
"I just wanted to come see you myself."
"There were certainly...a lot of them."
"That's how things are around here." She sat down too, hooking the chair with her slippered foot but then sitting daintily. "They're eager to please, though."
He blinked sandy eyes, realizing that he wasn't entirely awake. This was certainly not how he'd expected to wake up. Considering the company, it wasn't too bad now, though, but he found himself almost wanting a cold, dewy morning outside a camp and a cup of hot tea. He could probably get tea. Some chicken on a spike would be...comforting.
She slid a pair of chopsticks over to him, and he dipped them into the bowl and snagged a dumpling. He was expecting something oily and meaty, so when the food nearly dissolved in his mouth in stringy flavors of greens and water chestnuts it was disorienting.
"This is...not what I'm used to," he laughed, and she pulled a silk handkerchief from somewhere inside her robe to dab at his mouth. The gesture felt invasively motherly instead of sensual and he narrowed his eyes for a moment, then wondered what was wrong with him. This was perfect. He was royalty. Why did he feel so...confused? There was a lot to learn, but...
There were a lot of rules, and a lot of people were watching if someone broke them.
"It's not the best," Lian said, and Sky appreciated her jaded attitude toward her own royalty.
"No, no it is."
"But if you want to escape some time, I'll understand."
He thought about the feeling of having a family. "No, I...should be here. For you."
"I can take care of myself, Sky," Lian said, rose from her seat, and smiled as she patted him on the shoulder. "Usually, anyway. Enjoy your dumplings."
He tried to ask where she would be later around a mouthful of dumpling, but she had already left, leaving the room smelling of jasmine.
There weren't as many demons fighting in the Imperial Arena any more. He knew that Jen Zi sat among the flowers in the cemetery sometimes too, but that place was spooky even without proof that there were ghosts in it. The Imperial Arena was the crowded, half-legal kind of place Sky was used to. Sun Lian had her finery, Jen Zi had her ghosts, and Sky had his criminals.
Had, anyway. He was trying to clean up. Actually being a thief was beginning to feel like playing a part, and the theater was right there if he needed reminding.
Sun Lian was there if he needed reminding.
He wasn't sure he could survive living in a palace, though, and he planned to seek out Jen Zi because she didn't remind him of anything.
She had bigger problems than he did, what with having died recently and then come back to everyone in the Jade Empire knowing her name. He wasn't sure what kind of mentorship or love there had been between Jen Zi and Sagacious Zu but her coming back and him staying dead hadn't helped her either. Sky knew all of that. His problems felt nicely small in her shadow.
The savior of the realms wasn't consumed by sadness, though. In fact Sky didn't find her in any of the places he expected: nowhere broody like the upper balconies. He searched high and low in the arena until his boots were grayed with dust, and then someone slammed open a door from the lowest floor and Jen Zi came out in the middle of a group of people.
She was talking to a girl beside her, a long-haired skinny teen with a yellow ribbon in her hair. They traded tips on how to punch people, and Sky stayed off to the side and made sure not to do anything interesting enough that someone would look at him. He was good at that. He wasn't sure who he could pass that skill on to.
When the crowd of fighters dispersed Jen Zi saw the girl out the door and looked at Sky. Of course she had noticed him. He wasn't even dressed right - Lian had given him a half-cape to cover his shoulders, to make him look high-class instead of like he couldn't afford sleeves.
Those may not have been her exact words.
Sky pressed his hands together in a greeting to Jen Zi and then stopped, unsure what to say that wouldn't just drown his intended message in wonderfully distracting small talk. That would be nice but it wouldn't be...appropriate, here. He needed to keep feeling like he was on his toes so that he could solve his problem.
Complacency was the really frightening option.
He steeled himself and got the words out before she even asked him how he was. "Lian is killing me."
"What?" Jen Zi tipped her head.
He gestured for her to follow him and she did, saving one glance for the yellow-ribbon girl just now walking out the door into the city.
Sky sighed. "Not killing me. Just...I live in the palace."
"And that's...bothering you?"
He lead her toward the door. "Yeah. I...don't know. I feel like I haven't automatically become royal, that's for sure."
Jen Zi laughed. "You know, you could become the emperor if she dies."
"I don't even want to talk about that."
The sun warmed them up as they headed toward the street.
"Maybe she feels like she ascended you," Jen Zi said. "Brought you out of the squalor of peasanthood."
Sky laughed. "She did." Outside, he could hear people talking and cart wheels on cobblestones. The theater was right over there.
Jen Zi said, "Is she making you uncomfortable?"
"I'm not uncomfortable, I'm just...getting used to it, that's all. To not having to scrounge for things. You should try it. It's nice."
"I'm not exactly scrounging these days either."
Oddly, knowing that helped. He wasn't sure why. Maybe it just helped to know that he was helping someone else instead of being waited on - although he didn't want to admit that. He would continue to crow about being waited on if need be. Just in case it went away again.
He wanted to ask her 'what if it didn't last', but she had things that hadn't lasted too. Not like Pinmei - she wouldn't understand that. But Sky kept Pinmei in a corner of his mind all the time, a beautiful locked place that nevertheless held no real solid hidden things, like a decorative box.
Instead, he said, "I'm all right."
"I didn't expect to see you at the arena."
They paused by a courtyard hung with lanterns. "I had the time. How are things going?"
"I'm not used to a city this big. Or so many people recognizing me...in a good way. I've been asked to kiss babies. I wonder if they'd recognize me in Tien's Landing."
"Only one way to find out."
"Not now. Maybe one day I'll go back. For now...I've got to make sure you don't die of pampering."
"I can always go back to the other way if I want too. Plenty of pockets."
"Make sure you tell me if you're leaving town."
He looked at her. "I will."
Leaving town. He thought about it - and because it was important he asked Lian about it, that evening, when they were sitting on a balcony together with her in a dark blue dress and him in light, cloying robes. The city glowed and smelled beneath them.
"I think about it all the time," she said. "What do you think the Silk Fox was? I wanted to get out."
"How do you deal with so many people watching everything you do?"
"You don't listen to them. Or do. I got used to it."
He didn't like her haughty tone, but he could understand it. He knew what it was like to be proud of his station. And he didn't really think about the masses that much.
(Although if he really hadn't cared about the people in the fields, he never would have helped Jen Zi at the end.)
He said, "I'm not leaving town. But you've gotta not...pamper me so much."
"I thought that's what you wanted." She paused. "But maybe I shouldn't have. I don't want it, most of the time."
"It makes me feel like I'm acting."
"We could go to the theater," she said.
"In the middle of the night."
"They'd put on a show for the empress."
He looked at her, not sure whether she was being serious, and she winked.
"Or we could walk around the back of the theatre and see if anybody's guarding it. Just to see," he said.
She slid her legs off of the balcony, her dress shushing, and he turned and hopped to the floor.
The streets outside were quiet and cold, bricks carpeted in yellow blossoms.