There was still frost on the grass outside and Sūn Shàngxiāng bitterly regretted having let the charcoal burner go out. She hadn't noticed while she was practicing, but as her heartbeat slowed the chill was obvious. Sliding her blade back into the scabbard and putting it away, she debated trying to light it again herself. As she considered the smouldering remains, Xiǎo Qiáo pushed the door open and came inside.
"You would forget everything in the moment," she said, standing aside to let a maid come in with fresh charcoal, another with a covered tray.
"Is this the stinkpot chastising the flamethrower for causing a fire?" Sūn Shàngxiāng retorted.
"It's you who is the stinkpot," Xiǎo Qiáo retorted. "Change your clothes and drink tea with me and forget war for a space."
"I would rather eat." She stepped behind the screen by her bed to take off her clothes.
"I know; Sūn Quán has bidden us to eat with him shortly. We have time for tea first."
"Very well," said Sūn Shàngxiāng, starting to unwind her shirt and already wondering if she had a clean qūjū, or whether she would be able to appear at the table in less formal trousers. Sūn Quán would want to show Zhūgě Liàng every honour at his table; her brother was particular about these courtesies, even if he wasn't happy with his appeal for help in battle. As if she read her thoughts, Xiǎo Qiáo looked up from unpacking the tray onto the small table by the brazier.
"My husband says Sūn Quán will announce his decision after the meal," she said. "Dress formally."
"One last opportunity to look like a lady before war?" Sūn Shàngxiāng asked. She was eager to leave. She knew that Zhōu Yú, as Sūn Quán's viceroy, would give her a part to play, whether her brother liked it or not. Zhōu Yú was tactful, but he was also not one to waste any weapon he had at hand. It remained to be seen whether Zhūgě Liàng, strategist and diplomat, was similarly efficient.
"I hope not the last," said Xiǎo Qiáo, recalling to the moment.
"You would be happier," agreed Sūn Shàngxiāng, unearthing a robe and shrugging it over her shoulders.
Xiǎo Qiáo smiled and Sūn Shàngxiāng finished dressing in silence. She came and sat across from Xiǎo Qiáo. The table housed a shallow tray that contained the teapot and two small cups. Watching Xiǎo Qiáo heat the water slowly, Sūn Shàngxiāng appreciated the care she took. She knew Xiǎo Qiáo lived in this moment, waiting for the water to be perfect. She was unhurried, knowing that the water would come to her if she was patient.
The leaves were packed into the pot carefully, the water poured over so there were no gaps as the overflow formed puddles in the tray. Timing was everything, when making tea. If the water was too cold, it would be tasteless, too hot and it would scorch and be flat. One must be patient, but swift when the water reached its peak. Sūn Shàngxiāng had learned to appreciate the artistry. Xiǎo Qiáo poured the brew into two cups; it was light green and fragrant. She passed one carefully to Sūn Shàngxiāng. In each movement was carefulness and delicacy. Sūn Shàngxiāng had seen this restraint before; at first she had thought it weakness.
"A light blend," Xiǎo Qiáo said. "I thought you would need refreshing."
Sūn Shàngxiāng inclined her head and inhaled the aroma. It was crisp and light, with the first, faintest hint of bitterness. Sūn Shàngxiāng had come to love tea brewed as it was at the end of a long day of riding and training; made in great pots, it was ladled into the cup as dark and bitter as the last watch of a long night. She knew that Xiǎo Qiáo would be appalled by it, by its roughness, but Sūn Shàngxiāng had come to value it as a break in labour.
When Xiǎo Qiáo had first come to her brother's household, as Zhōu Yú's wife, Sūn Shàngxiāng had disdained her dainty hands and feet and her quiet nature. Now she recognised that Xiǎo Qiáo was a follower of a different kind of discipline, one that was found in the mind and the small things that surrounded one. Sūn Shàngxiāng was lucky; she had found that discipline in the way of war.
"Is my tea amusing you?" asked Xiǎo Qiáo.
"A little," said Sūn Shàngxiāng. "I was just thinking of how much I disliked you when you first arrived." Xiǎo Qiáo had been the very picture of a meek wife; it had taken Sūn Shàngxiāng a long time to realise that she was strong in herself.
"I was properly in awe of you," said Xiǎo Qiáo. "Any woman can learn how to brew tea, but to learn to wield a sword? That is beyond me."
"You didn't do too badly last time I tried to teach you to use a dagger."
"You needed stitches," replied Xiǎo Qiáo.
"That's good," said Sūn Shàngxiāng. She smiled. "Only three. You will have to do better next time."
"I do not intend to put myself in harm's way, so I should not have to use your lessons," Xiǎo Qiáo said. "I will leave that to warriors such as yourself."
"You must think of others, it is true. I have only myself." Xiǎo Qiáo looked up sharply and Sūn Shàngxiāng smiled. "Did you think I wouldn't guess? You switched to a lighter tea in the mornings when you are sick, and you are sleeping all the time."
"You are observant."
"You haven't told Zhōu Yú." She saw the frown on Xiǎo Qiáo's face and hastened to reassure her. "I haven't told him either, and I am sure the other women have not. It's something for you to tell him."
"War is coming. I would not have him distracted from his duties, especially not as viceroy. It is not just myself and the baby I must think for, but for the whole of our people."
Sūn Shàngxiāng wanted to say something to reassure her, but she knew that war was coming too, even if her brother was reluctant to declare it. They had both known since Zhūgě Liàng had come to Sūn Quán's court and made his request for their aid.
Letting herself out of her room and onto the balcony, Sūn Shàngxiāng stood still in the shadows and listened to the sounds of the night. She could hear the slap of water against the riverbanks and the hulls of the ships, the fainter noise of the sentries calling back and forth. As she walked forward to the railing, Zhūgě Liàng came up the stairs not far away. He paused when he saw her, but his face broke into a smile and he came forward to where she stood.
"Lady Sūn," he said. "Enjoying the night air?"
"Yes," she replied. She didn't say anything else, uncaring if she seemed rude. Zhūgě Liàng had not sought her out before, not exchanged any more than the barest of civilities with her, and had looked at her mockingly, as if he judged her for her eccentricities. She was uncertain of him.
"You are an unusual woman," he said. "It is rare to find a warrior such as you, with such a joyous heart."
She looked at him doubtfully, and did not reply. She was unsure if this was supposed to be polite conversation or not. It would not be the first time someone had cloaked their criticism of her choices in a graceful compliment first. Zhūgě Liàng sighed and looked away, out over the camp, and then back at her with a rueful smile.
"You are wondering if I am about to start lecturing you about your unseemly martial skills," he said. "Forgive me, that is far from my intention. Rather, you are an asset, one that I would know more of in order to use correctly."
"That is indeed flattering," Sūn Shàngxiāng said. "Naturally, I am delighted to be thought of as a tool in your war."
Zhūgě Liàng laughed and she looked at him challengingly. His laugh and smile were not mocking, or contemptuous, but she would do well to remain wary.
"Your tongue is as sharp as your sword, and mine is as clumsy as a new-born foal tonight," he said. "I am not seeking to insult you. Perhaps we can try again to speak?"
She inclined her head in agreement, curious now about what he was trying to say.
"Good evening, Lady Sūn," he said, bowing slightly. "Have you come out to enjoy the air?"
"It is most pleasant, after a day of riding in the dust," she replied.
"I saw you with your troop, training on the far field. It must have been dry work."
"It was," replied Sūn Shàngxiāng. "But we shook the fidgets from our horses, and I can always do with some archery practice from horseback."
"You are a keen shot," he said. "Better than me, I am sure."
"You shoot?" she asked.
"A little. I am not very good, not even with the crossbow."
"You are very good at being modest," she said. He laughed softly and she smiled. Zhūgě Liàng was unexpectedly charming, when he was not strategising or mocking.
"You are very good at many sharp things," he said. "You are deceptive."
"Yes, but only as a tactic. I am sure a humble amateur in the art of strategy can appreciate that."
Zhūgě Liàng laughed again, and she joined him this time.
"How did you come to be a warrior?" he asked. He must have seen her withdrawal, for he added quickly, "I have always had a love for doing many things and trying to make one life from them, and I am curious about those who make their life full from one passion."
"When you grow up in a state of turmoil, you learn to look after yourself," she said. "I am fortunate; my father did not have the resources to turn me into a lady, so he allowed me to turn myself into a boy."
"You are more than a warrior by necessity," he said. "You have a love for it; I have seen it."
"Perhaps," she said.
"Your brother wishes to turn you into a lady," he said.
"This goes beyond polite conversation." Sūn Shàngxiāng kept hold of her temper; relations between her and Sūn Quán were not Zhūgě Liàng's affair. She did not wish to discuss his increasing efforts to make her into a suitable bride to bestow on some ally or another.
"My apologies, I merely seek to understand you better. I have never met a woman quite like you."
"Next you will tell me that you merely dabble in the ways of women," said Sūn Shàngxiāng.
"I would not do anything so improper," he said. "Yet I see that you are not a mere player at dissimulation; you avoid my questions."
"I think perhaps interrogation is the only art you will allow yourself to be a master in." She knew her voice was sharp, but Zhūgě Liàng deserved it; he was shameless.
"Perhaps I have become uncouth from so much time spent with soldiers," he said. "I merely seek to understand you."
"Perhaps you should tell me why you are so reluctant to commit yourself," she said. "I have seen you, personifying modesty, but the truth appears to be that you don't want to stick to one thing." Sūn Shàngxiāng took a deep breath and controlled her anger. There was a long pause, but Sūn Shàngxiāng did nothing to fill it. If she was patient, he would say something to fill the gap she had left.
Finally, Zhūgě Liàng spoke. "You see much more than others give you credit for."
Sūn Shàngxiāng nodded, but did not speak.
"It seems this is a night where I must beg your pardon." She met his eyes. For the first time she was convinced of his sincerity. "I do; it has become such a habit to treat people like tools that I forget that they are people. You are right to remind me."
"No doubt," said Sūn Shàngxiāng, letting her voice soften, "you are not very good at making apologies."
"Yet another art with which I trifle, but do not commit to," he agreed.
Sūn Shàngxiāng threw the dove up in the air, taking a moment to watch it stretch its wings and start making its steady way back across the river. It looked peaceful against the blue, not at all like it was carrying the fate of thousands under its wings. She stepped back from the open window and picked up her papers again. She'd discovered that no one paid her much heed so long as she looked busy. It was as if she was invisible. She hoped she remained so; she had no illusions about what would happen to her if she was discovered, or her chances of survival. Spies were not tolerated, and she couldn't think that discovering she was a woman would help.
Even as she catalogued the contents of the small armoury near the back gate, she thought of the camp across the river and the news she had just sent, and the messages before it. Typhoid. When the illness had broken out in this camp, she'd felt sick at the thought of it crossing the river to her own people. She hoped that her news had arrived before the sickness did, that they would be able to stop it ripping through the camp. She hoped that Xiǎo Qiáo would have the sense to stay clear from any who got it.
She put her hopes aside. She could not afford optimism, but only wariness and observation. She must think only of the task, blending the moment and the goal into each movement. She counted the crossbows, counted the arrows, counted the stinkpots, carefully recording each total on her parchment. This information would be vital when the time came for war.
The shadows lengthened in the sky and the temporary city around her shifted into evening. There was a general air of relaxation as the cookfires were kindled and men sat down to eat and drink. Sūn Shàngxiāng retreated to her own makeshift home. This was the time she feared the most. When everyone was busy, one small soldier was easy to overlook. It was in the evening, when people had time to take a breath and look around, that she was most likely to be noticed.
She was sure she'd be called back soon; things could not continue in this stalemate much longer. Cáo Cāo, great leader that he was, was seen down by the ships only occasionally, but his two generals were down there often and she knew that they would be striking soon. She had faith in her brother, in Zhōu Yú and Zhūgě Liàng, even in Liú Bèi, but it was hard to remember that when she spent her days and night surrounded by thousands of the enemy.
Carefully kindling her small fire in a brass bowl, Sūn Shàngxiāng set a kettle on to boil and wondered what the evening was like on the other side of the water. She wondered if Xiǎo Qiáo was also making tea. She would be more comfortable than Sūn Shàngxiāng; her pavilion was spacious, not the top level of a tiny storeroom with no windows. She would have people to talk with and not have to guard all her words least her southern accent slip out too obviously. Sūn Shàngxiāng smiled as she filled a bowl with tea and water. One thing was for certain; Xiǎo Qiáo would have better tea than her.
Sūn Shàngxiāng heard the camp around her slowly relax into drunkenness and sleep as she sat in her bolthole and drank her tea, bitter and dark but delightful to her nonetheless. She made millet porridge and ate it slowly, thinking about what she would do tomorrow.
Extinguishing her little fire, Sūn Shàngxiāng made herself as comfortable as possible on the folded horse blankets the room housed. She knew that in one way, at least, she was more fortunate than Xiǎo Qiáo. She had work to do, and a way to contribute to victory. Her day was made of a string of moments, each one fraught with danger. Her life, the lives of her people, depended on the choices she made in each one. Sūn Shàngxiāng knew that, for her, this was better than waiting.
Sūn Shàngxiāng had expected everyone to be pleased to see her, but only Xiǎo Qiáo had made her pleasure plain at the pavilion. Sūn Shàngxiāng retreated back to Xiǎo Qiáo's rooms with her rather than stay and see her brother after the meeting. His reception of her still smarted; did he think Zhūgě Liàng's information was being whispered to him on the breeze?
Xiǎo Qiáo set the maids to pouring water for a bath and another to fetch clean clothes as she settled Sūn Shàngxiāng in the place of honour at her low table.
"I am pleased to have you back," said Xiǎo Qiáo. She pressed her hand over her belly for a moment. "We both are."
"I am pleased to be back," said Sūn Shàngxiāng. "I am pleased to see you again, both of you, and I am especially delighted to take off these dirty clothes."
"You already took them off, in the meeting room," said Xiǎo Qiáo. Her voice was light, but when Sūn Shàngxiāng looked up she was frowning.
"I did not want to wait," said Sūn Shàngxiāng. She had seen the way they had all averted their eyes, but her news was more important than modesty or delicate feelings.
"I know," said Xiǎo Qiáo. She smiled then. "I have never seen a council of war filled with men looking so uncomfortable." She crossed over to the table. "We will drink tea while your bath is filled. You can wait a little longer to be Lady Sūn again; it will be interesting to entertain a nameless enemy soldier."
Sūn Shàngxiāng watched as Xiǎo Qiáo slowly heated the water, enjoying the quiet and sense of peace that Xiǎo Qiáo wove around herself. She looked up only at the knock on the door. The maid opened it to reveal Zhōu Yú and Zhūgě Liàng. Xiǎo Qiáo looked up and smiled.
"You may come in, if you intend to drink tea," she said.
"My lady, what else could we come for?" asked Zhōu Yú. He crossed to the small table and smiled down at them, Zhūgě Liàng by his side.
"It occurs to me that you might wish to complain about a certain lack of modesty," Xiǎo Qiáo replied. Sūn Shàngxiāng opened her mouth and closed it again. She would let Xiǎo Qiáo deal with this for her; there was not much she could say.
"We all know that Zhūgě Liàng alone is modest during war," Zhōu Yú said. "The rest of us are rude and unsubtle. May we join you?"
She gestured at the table invitingly and the men sat down.
"There is a difference between rude and unsubtle and merely expedient," said Zhūgě Liàng. "No doubt the cotton was beginning to itch on Sūn Shàngxiāng."
"No doubt," said Sūn Shàngxiāng, "and no doubt you are being vulgar."
"It would never do for Zhōu Yú to believe that I am always modest." Zhūgě Liàng smiled at Sūn Shàngxiāng, inviting her to share the joke. "Also, I am grateful to Sūn Shàngxiāng. She did what no one else could have done."
"I am sure there were others who could have gone," said Sūn Shàngxiāng. She was beginning to feel tired, and the dusty black of her uniform was heavier now. Still, the table was filled with friends and the water in the kettle was beginning to stir. Tea would be welcome; a place with friendly faces and a moment of respite was welcome too.
"None who were both young enough to not attract attention and well enough informed about what we needed," said Zhōu Yú. "Your brother will forget his anger."
"He had better," said Sūn Shàngxiāng. "I have an idea about the assault."
"We will drink tea," said Xiǎo Qiáo. She lifted the kettle from the fire and began to pour. "You may discuss your tactics again afterwards, but you must concentrate to find the subtleties of tea."
"My lady is right," said Zhōu Yú. "Let's drink and speak of poetry. Zhūgě Liàng, I am sure you can share some poetry with us."
"I dabble only," he replied.
"Like you dabble in warfare," Zhōu Yú retorted.
"You are clear about your task?" Zhōu Yú asked, detaining Sūn Shàngxiāng from leaving the meeting room with a hand on her arm.
"Yes," she said. "You made it clear."
"Tonight," he said, "you are not merely my friend, nor yet the sister of my Emperor, but also a young captain under my command."
"I know," she said. She understood. They each had a part to play, and Zhōu Yú needed to be certain that each would be executed perfectly. He had so much to think of tonight; she could only imagine the state of his heart. She'd seen his face when the news came that Xiǎo Qiáo was missing, seen it again when he'd returned from their rooms with a paper crushed in his fist.
"You must not try to find Xiǎo Qiáo," he said. He said it like it was a reminder for himself also.
"I will not," she said. "I have faith in her, and in you."
His mouth twisted for a moment. "I need that faith, and all my own, and still I want to go straight to her."
"She will look after herself also," said Sūn Shàngxiāng. She looked into his face for a moment and tried to lighten the mood. "Last time we practiced with the dagger, I needed stitches. She will find her own danger."
"You only needed three stitches," protested Zhōu Yú, smiling in spite of himself.
"The wound was deep; the number of stitches does not tell of the blood."
"We will get her back," he said. "Both of them."
"We will," she confirmed. She realised that Xiǎo Qiáo must have told Zhōu Yú about the child in her letter, and her heart sank for a moment before she found something reassuring to say. "She and the baby will both be well and strong. And I will follow my orders exactly."
"Good. This army relies on you to help them win tonight." Zhōu Yú smiled. "You are a very good young captain."
"Thank you," said Sūn Shàngxiāng. She meant it; she had worked hard to get here, to the point where she could stand in front of Zhōu Yú and take her commission from him. Zhōu Yú shifted his hand to grip her wrist.
"Be brave, and strong, and cautious. Live each moment expecting nothing from it." She looked up into his face and nodded, meeting his gaze with her own. She would be everything she could tonight.
The fires were fiercest at the front gate, but smaller ones were spreading across the walls of the encampment. Sūn Shàngxiāng had only a small group of soldiers with her as they broke from the main body of Zhōu Yú's forces and ran sidelong to the main thrust of battle. They needed to open the defences more, in more places, so that Liú Bèi and his forces could cross wherever they needed to. Hopefully, they would be able to breach the walls of Cáo Cāo's main citadel. Behind her, she heard a crash and a roar of flames; she ran on, not looking back. There was only this moment in which to live.
She located the weapons store, tucked up against the wall behind a plain door, and quickly found the stack of měng huǒ yóu and some stinkpots. Her lips tightened. They were lucky this part of the wall wasn't being actively defended. She broke the wrapping on one and trickled the oil out the door. The explosion would be immense. She took the oil further. There was no point in dying tonight; at least, not from carelessness.
The lookout hissed a warning; she gestured him back as she heard the clatter of feet coming towards them. This fire would do for two purposes, then. Taking a small torch from the nearest soldier, she gestured her men around the next corner to wait for her. There were other stockpiles they had to get to. As her forces dropped back and as the first of the enemy rounded the other corner, she dropped the torch in the oil and ran.
The night was black and orange already, savage with the scent of gunpowder. She could hear shouting behind her and the dim sizzle of flame. She ran as she never had before, careering round the corner and catching up to her men. The massive boom of the storehouse sent her sprawling in the dust and she could feel the wall of heat even from here. Someone helped her up and they ran on, weapons drawn. The explosion would have attracted people, or at least given warning that perhaps there were other enemies inside the gate.
Sūn Shàngxiāng stopped in a small alcove by a row of tents. The wall towered directly above them. Behind, they could hear the fire and the shouts of the enemy, in the distance in front they could hear fighting; it seemed the rear gate had already been breached. Relieved, she gestured her men in closer. If Liú Bèi's forces were already in, their task became somewhat easier: guerrilla warfare, seeking out and destroying armouries and command posts.
"We are few," she said. "We must stick together, watch each other's backs. If I am lost, make your way to Cáo Cāo's command centre. My brother will find his way there with Zhōu Yú." She looked around the faces of the soldiers with her. She had picked them herself, with Zhōu Yú's careful approval. They were young, but had the sort of stillness and patience she was looking for. They all looked back at her, waiting for her command. She did not need to tell them that they must find Xiǎo Qiáo if they got the chance. Duty alone held her to her own task, and the fierce belief that Xiǎo Qiáo would have the strength and patience to survive.
Sūn Shàngxiāng led further on, to the small tower set just back from the walls. It commanded a distant view of the rear gate and was used to pass messages along from Cáo Cāo's command centre. Peeking around the corner, she counted six guards on the stairs, another two rushing away from the tower to the rear gate. She slid her sword back into her scabbard and unslung her bow from her back, hearing the rustle of her men doing likewise. They would only get one chance to secure this, each arrow would have to count before they rushed upon those who were left.
The next few minutes were a blur of blood and shouting. The guards on the stairs dropped, but not quietly enough to avoid the attention of the soldiers in the top of the tower. Sūn Shàngxiāng leaped for the stairs, sending a soldier crashing down them to die at the bottom. She sliced through the throat of the young soldier standing at the drum; she jumped back to avoid his weight as he fell. They left the tower dark, a quick booby-trap set up on the stairs. She was breathing hard, her sword still unsheathed in her right hand and her bow back across her shoulder.
Time stopped having much meaning. Sūn Shàngxiāng's small group worked their way closer to the gates through the towers and armouries. As they got closer, the soldiers got thicker, closer together. So far, she had not lost anyone; she knew they couldn't be so lucky for much longer. Regret was already waiting for her, but she didn't have time for that now. She gestured her forward scout ahead to look around the last corner and took a few deep breaths and a mouthful of water as she waited. Dawn streaked the sky with red through tired grey; fires still burned around the encampment. He slipped back to her.
"We're behind their lines, Mistress," he said. "Liú Bèi's forces are ahead of us. There are many of the enemy fleeing through the gates. They are desperate and heedless."
"We will cross behind them," decided Sūn Shàngxiāng. They set off, most with their bows out, a few with their swords drawn. The fighting was still fierce directly in front of the gate to the main encampment, where Cáo Cāo's forces still stood strong. From here, Sūn Shàngxiāng could see how Liú Bèi's forces were being held back by fighting close around a tower and a small arms store. She gestured her men back.
"That arms' store, and that tower," she said. "We will go back, there is a small gate that may not be heavily defended, we will ease their passage."
Her men nodded and followed the new course she set. She was tired, grimy, and her sword was black with blood. She had killed, she had wanted to kill, desperate and terrified that she would, herself, die. She could taste that victory was close to their grasp, but she did not reach out to touch it. That way led failure; better to be patient and wait for victory to alight on one's hand, even if it was bitter and stung your skin.
Sūn Shàngxiāng pushed aside Sūn Quán's hand and climbed wearily to her feet without his assistance. Lifting her tray of bandages and ointments, she prepared to move on to the next soldier who waited for her.
"I had a wash and some sleep, as you can see," she said. "Now allow me to do my duty with the wounded."
"You are also wounded," he protested. He stepped into her path and she stopped and looked up at him.
"A scratch and a few minor burns," she said. "I am nearly recovered already." She'd come with her own soldiers to the medical tent, but none of the staff had had time for minor wounds. She didn't tell Sūn Quán that she'd cleaned and dressed her own wounds, and those of her men.
Sūn Quán scowled. "Xiǎo Qiáo asks for you," he said. Sūn Shàngxiāng bit her lip.
"Very well," she said. "Let me finish these last few soldiers." She gestured to the three men waiting in a row outside the main surgery tent. The medical team were busy with those who were seriously wounded, but Sūn Shàngxiāng was good enough to clean and bandage minor wounds. Sūn Quán scowled at her again. "Then I will go to Xiǎo Qiáo, and then I will sleep again, I promise."
Sūn Quán sighed and moved out of her way. One of his advisors hailed him and he stalked off into the distance. She moved on to the next soldier and knelt by his side.
"Apologies for the delay," she said. "How are you injured?"
Like so many of the men she had tended this day, this soldier had burns on his arms and face.. Fortunately, were clean and had not broken. There was no dirt rubbed into the inflamed flesh. She sighed in relief and reached for the water. She cleaned and applied ointment before deciding to leave these burns unbound to heal.
"There," she said. "Go and get a drink and a meal, and then try to get some sleep. Light duty only when you wake, and come back if you break the skin on any of these burns."
The man nodded and she moved on to the next. She hated doing this, though she recognised it as part of her duty. She was not naturally gentle; Xiǎo Qiáo was always better at these things. She pushed aside that thought; she would go to see Xiǎo Qiáo soon. As she finished the last soldier and came to her feet, she heard footsteps behind her. She sighed. She had thought she was rid of her brother for the moment.
"See, I am done, and now I am leaving," she said, turning.
"That's good, for I am leaving also," said Zhūgě Liàng. She started with surprise. He looked exhausted, dark circles under his eyes and the apron he was wearing stained with blood.
"Sorry, I thought you were my brother again," she said.
"Ah, I wondered what I had done to offend you," he said.
"Nothing at all," she said. "I am going to Xiǎo Qiáo now. Will you come?"
"Indeed," he said. "And then I must sleep. I begin to endanger my patients more than their wounds do."
"That would be because you only dabble in medicine," she said, taking her tray to the front of the main tent and leaving it in the care of the orderly there. Zhūgě Liàng took off his bloodstained apron and handed it over too.
"You must think me a dilettante," he said. "But there are some things about which I am serious."
"Serious, yes," she said, as they walked back towards the main pavilion, "but you will not own to expertise."
"It is said that with time and patience, a mulberry leaf will become a silk gown. I am still a worm, eating as much as I can get."
"It seems you trifle also with philosophy," Sūn Shàngxiāng said. Zhūgě Liàng laughed and opened the door for her, letting her lead the way down the corridor to Xiǎo Qiáo's room. She knocked on the door, opening it when bidden.
Xiǎo Qiáo sat at her low table. She looked tired, pale and drawn, her eyes still faintly red from crying. Sūn Shàngxiāng came forward and dropped to her knees by her side, leaning foward to cradle Xiǎo Qiáo gently in her arms. She could still remember the slow walk back to the riverside, Xiǎo Qiáo leaning on Zhōu Yú's arm, the slow tears streaming down her face. Sūn Shàngxiāng had stumbled with tiredness behind them, walking through her own nightmare. They were on a hastily comandeered boat, making their way back across the river, before she realised her sword was still in her hand. It seemed a long time ago, but the fear that she might lose Xiǎo Qiáo still tasted sharp in her mouth.
"I am glad to see you awake now," Sūn Shàngxiāng said, "and hear that you are well. That you are both well."
"I would not say well yet," Xiǎo Qiáo replied, "but seeing you helps me believe that I will be."
Sūn Shàngxiāng pressed a kiss to her cheek and let go, finally moving back to take a seat at the table. Xiǎo Qiáo beckoned Zhūgě Liàng forward.
"Come," she said, "my husband will be here shortly, and we will drink tea before we continue counting costs."
"Perhaps Zhūgě Liàng plays at accountancy also," said Sūn Shàngxiāng, forcing herself to speak lightly and perhaps distract Xiǎo Qiáo from her melancholy. She surprised herself when she laughed with genuine amusement at the look of comical indignation on his face. Xiǎo Qiáo smiled also and Sūn Shàngxiāng felt a flicker of momentary triumph. Zhōu Yú pushed open the door and came in.
"What do the philosophers say? Laughter warms the heart like tea warms the stomach, is it?" he asked.
"Look, another who dabbles in philosophy," said Zhūgě Liàng. "Will you mock him also, my lady?"
"No, for Zhōu Yú is not so frippery as you," Sūn Shàngxiāng replied. The smell of tea was already in the air and she felt free for the first time in two long days. Zhūgě Liàng laughed; it lightened the lines of tiredness on his face. Xiǎo Qiáo laughed too; the first time Sūn Shàngxiāng had heard the sound for a long time. She wanted to hear that again, wanted to forget the past few days for just a moment, here with tea and friends and laughter.
"That is not hard," said Zhūgě Liàng. "To listen to you, one would think I knew one fact about everything."
"My own meagre learning in philosophy tells me that if you wish to know the mind of a man, listen to his words," said Sūn Shàngxiāng. "You protest your lack of knowledge so that I suspect you of swimming only in the shallow end of the stream."
"Into what have I walked?" asked Zhōu Yú. He crossed to the table and sat next to Xiǎo Qiáo.
"Do not heed them," she replied. "Even I can recognise that their mouths are as sharp as daggers, but their hearts as soft as tofu." They all looked at her and she laughed. "What, must you all be warrior poets and philosophers but me? Here, drink the tea and we will see what we can make after that."
Being deeply loved by someone gives you strength, while loving someone deeply gives you courage - Lǎo Zǐ