Oi, Greed, said Ling. Don't you think you've wasted enough time? We're supposed to meet with the ministers of finance—
"Shut up, wouldja," said Greed. He leaned forward against the railing, the shadows thick around him. "I'm trying to watch."
Down in the practice yard Lanfan braced herself, her arms stretched out in a single smooth line congruous with the slope of her shoulders, her back, the length of her leg behind her. She caught, then pitched a man thrice her size over her shoulder; she held steady beneath his weight. The sunlight shone off her arm, bright as off the edge of a knife. She turned, rounding on his practice partner. Her bare feet flashed through the dirt.
Greed rested his chin in his hand. "Tell me something, Ling," he said. "Your girl here, she as much fun to fight with as she looks?"
Lanfan drove her elbow up into the second man's ribcage; he collapsed, limp at her toes. Greed grinned against his fingers. Within him, Ling was still.
I wouldn't know, said Ling at last, as they watched her down there in the yard. I haven't sparred with Lanfan. He hesitated. Not since we were children.
Rare, that Ling would be so open with Greed of Lanfan, of the history they shared without him. Rare and precious. When they were children. Greed turned this over, then hid it, something sweet he would return to, something tricky he would worry when he was alone with Ling.
Lanfan was trained well by her grandfather, said Ling. Greed knew that. He knew, too, that the flatness in Ling's voice did not mean the ache for that old man's death had faded. She would never raise arms against her lord, even in play.
"And you'd never tell her to," Greed said into his hand. "The last thing noble guys like you'd ever wanna do is abuse your power."
Perhaps this will surprise you, said Ling, lots of polite sarcasm now, but I don't wish for Lanfan to fight me.
"Sure, you do," said Greed. He smiled down at Lanfan, and he smiled at Ling, who wore his own thin smile as Lanfan wore her masks. "You're just not honest with yourself."
But he wouldn't press that now; this, he'd save. Not since we were children, Ling had said. Wouldn't that be fun to pick apart.
"Me, though," he continued, "I make a point of always being honest with myself."
Ling said, That line won't work on me. I was there, Greed, when you lied. Don't you remember?
Late afternoon in the emperor's city, the shadows thick and the promise of rain heavy in the air, and Greed remembered Bido, his blood on Greed's hand, and the stink of his own vomit. He remembered Father, flesh drawn thin over his captured god, and Ling inside Greed, saying, "That was never what you wanted."
Greed tightened his fingers over his mouth.
"I haven't forgotten," he said.
Ling said, Good. And should you forget—
"You'll talk my ear off," said Greed. He stared down at Lanfan, her shoulders gleaming, one steel, the other sweat-slick. He said, "I don't want to hear this crap from you. You don't even have the guts to face up to what you really want."
Not all of us are so greedy as you, said Ling.
Lanfan threw her arm, the flesh arm, up before her face to block the blow. She pivoted on her heel, swung low, and brought her knee up into the man's gut.
"She is," said Greed, "but she calls it duty. You're greedy, too, but you hide it behind that self-sacrificing honor of yours."
Down in the dirt and the darkening shadows, Lanfan fought on. Exhaustion slowed her; purpose, the desire to protect, drove her.
He wanted to see her clean and stripped bare, all the toned muscle and thick sinew and wiry strength of her brought to bear on him; on them. The bones in her feet were very long, the tendons graceful lines. She held her weight on the balls of her feet, her toes spread wide beneath her. Greed thought of her foot, the sole rough in his hand, the calluses thick, and of running his thumb hard up that bold arch and following that with his tongue. He thought of her other foot on his shoulder, pushing him down into the dirt as he kissed her toes.
That's what you want? said Ling. What you want from Lanfan? What a pervert you are, Greed.
Greed laughed into his hand. "It's not that strange," he said, grinning. "You've never wanted a woman to bring you to heel? Powerful woman like her, I want—"
I know enough about what you want, I think, said Ling. He grimaced. Maybe too much. He was restless now, his stillness shattered.
"Relax, O, lord of Xing," said Greed. He stepped back from the railing, passing deeper into the shadows. "I'm not gonna take advantage of her. That's not my style."
Of course, said Ling. Sarcasm again. It's the last thing anyone would suspect of a noble guy such as yourself.
"I'm not interested in nobility," said Greed. He turned his back on the practice yard. His heels sounded sharp on the floor, slippers softening the cracks. "I just want the same thing you want. I want her to come to me."
There is nothing more I want of Lanfan, said Ling. Perhaps if he said it often enough, he might convince himself. He sure as shit wasn't fooling Greed. Only what allegiance her family has sworn to mine.
Greed set this aside. Later.
"Save your energy," Greed told him. "You have to talk the ministers of finance down from whatever high horse they've jumped on, 'cause I ain't dealing with those blowhards again."
Together, they walked on.