“Jingyan, pour the tea,” ordered Lin Shu, stretched sweating on the scorched grass.
“Pour it yourself,” said Jingyan.
“I can’t, I’m dead. Nihuang has killed me. Murdered by his fiancée when he was still a beautiful young gentleman, that’s what they’ll say. A tragedy! Anyway you should do it, you’re the waterbender.”
“It would be more of a tragedy if you lived to get old and fat,” said Jingyan peaceably, not moving from his good spot by the river. “And a waterbender isn’t a teabender.”
“Lin Shu-gege won’t get fat,” said Nihuang thoughtfully. She looked almost as wiped out as Lin Shu did, but she was still glowing with her triumph. “He’ll be a skinny old uncle. All knees and ribs.”
“Ugh,” said Lin Shu, and struggled melodramatically onto his knees in order to aim himself at the teapot. “She strikes me with lightning and she doesn’t think I’m beautiful and my best friend won’t pour the tea. I am surrounded by treachery.”
“I think you’re beautiful!” protested Nihuang, turning pink, and Jingyan sat up and reached out for the teapot. It took him to the very edge of his range - he was not strong, and next to the fire and lightning of Lin Shu and Mu Nihuang he was barely a bender at all - but he pushed and pulled and tea flowed elegantly out of the spout and settled itself in the teacups the way his mother had taught him.
“You splashed it,” complained Lin Shu. “Auntie Jing never splashes.”
“So pour it yourself next time,” said Jingyan. “It’s cold, anyway.”
“If only there was a firebender here to heat it up,” said Lin Shu, and picked up a teacup. It started to steam.
Later Jingyan remembered that golden afternoon because it was the last. It had not seemed like the last at the time. It had felt like the beginning of something, not the end. Jingyan had sparred against Nihuang when she had her breath back. He’d fared slightly better than Lin Shu because he did not waste time trying to work out how she did the lightning technique and focused instead on getting out of the way when she lifted two fingers to the heavens to summon her lightning. He still lost, of course.
“I saw it that time,” Lin Shu said smugly afterwards. “You do it like water, same as Jingyan. It’s like -“ and he burned himself trying to demonstrate. Immediately he stuck out his hand in Jingyan’s direction without looking at him, all imperious expectation.
Water healing was very difficult and Jingyan was not actually any good at it, but he pulled up some fresh river water to do his untalented best with the burn anyway. He had enough practice. Lin Xie had tried to teach his wayward son to respect the power and danger of fire, but Lin Shu only took warnings as a challenge.
“The lightning rain is a secret technique of the House of Mu,” Nihuang said. “Maybe I’ll tell you when we’re married.”
“I’ll work it out first,” said Lin Shu. He curled his fingers - not burned anymore, but slightly pink - around Jingyan’s and cast a sharp secret look over his shoulder at him before turning back to Nihuang. “Just you wait,” he said.
Nihuang blushed. If Lin Shu had spoken to him in that tone, Jingyan would have been blushing too. Lin Shu looked pleased with himself, the way he did when a plan was coming together. He did not let go of Jingyan’s hand.
The beginning of something: even Jingyan had felt it.
But he’d been wrong. It was the end.
Only weeks later everything had been gone. The impromptu sparring ring by the riverbank had not yet had a chance to recover from Lin Shu’s lashing tongues of fire and sheets of bright flame. It stayed sullenly scorched for months. Jingyan went back in a fit of misery when winter came and saw the layer of black ash under the frost and could not bear it. He gave himself a headache dragging the river over its banks to wash everything clean. His vision blurred with tears and spots of pain together, and the whole world seemed to be tilted sideways, hopelessly misaligned: as if at any moment the river and ground and sky would break apart and collapse past one another and leave Jingyan alone in a shattered void.
And Nihuang went back to Yunnan, and did not marry Lin Shu or anyone else; and there was a new Crown Prince, and Jingyan’s beloved oldest brother was buried in an unmarked traitor’s grave; and even that was just barely better than the thought of what must have become of Lin Shu’s body, left on a battlefield for the dogs and the crows.
Jingyan stopped waterbending. He’d never been capable of more than a handful of silly tricks anyway; they’d had no use except to amuse Lin Shu, and now in this new unbalanced world they had no use at all.
Thirteen years later:
It was only by chance that Jingyan saw it. He had already bowed and risen to take his leave. Mei Changsu was still seated, expression cold and distant. As Jingyan was turning away he reached out and picked up a tablet with a name and dropped it into the brazier. In the corner of his eye Jingyan glimpsed it: a tiny spark glittered at Mei Changsu’s fingertips, and the low-burning flames jumped a little higher.
“You are a firebender, Sir Su?” said Jingyan.
He did not mean his astonishment to be quite so plain, but he had never learned the trick of keeping his thoughts out of his voice. Jingyan had known plenty of firebenders since - since those days. A military commander could hardly avoid them. He had never met one who could plausibly be described as cold.
Mei Changsu looked up sharply. “I am surprised you noticed,” he said after a moment. “My abilities are small, your Highness. And my poor health prevents me from making much use of them.”
Jingyan nodded slowly. “That must be - frustrating,” he offered. He was thinking of Lin Shu, even though after embarrassing himself commenting rudely on Mei Changsu’s fidgeting he had tried to prevent his thoughts from drifting during consultations with the strategist. Lin Shu had thrown fire from hand to hand as thoughtlessly as he breathed. It wants to move, he’d said if anyone complained.
Mei Changsu smiled politely. “If I were a more powerful bender, perhaps it would be,” he said. “As I said, your highness, my abilities are small. An occasional minor usage suits me best.” He paused. “I believe your highness is a waterbender?” he inquired.
That was not commonly known, but of course Mei Changsu had found out. “My abilities are also small,” said Jingyan. “I make no use of them.”
Mei Changsu inclined his head. It was a dismissal, Jingyan saw. The strategist looked tired. And Jingyan had been leaving anyway.
But he remembered from then on the little flare of light from Mei Changsu’s pale hand, and somehow he liked the man more for it. A truly cold-hearted strategist would not have spent a moment of his health for something as small as coaxing the flames to lick more sweetly at a tablet with a name on it. There was fire in Mei Changsu somewhere. Jingyan’s heart had always trusted in fire.
Perhaps it was because of that that when they next met, as Mei Changsu sighed and reached for the teapot, Jingyan for the first time in thirteen years pushed and pulled and lifted his hand so they could both watch the tea pour itself. It splashed only a little. Mei Changsu smiled like a boy at the childish trick, and the smile lit up his whole face. Without his usual seriousness it was abruptly clear how much of his normal manner was exhaustion and pain.
“Does your physician know a water healer in Jinling?” said Jingyan without thinking.
“Ah -” said Mei Changsu.
The smile was gone. Jingyan missed it at once.
He realised after an awkward instant what he had sounded like. “I was not suggesting - that is. Were it within my ability -”
Mei Changsu was smiling again, but it was a peculiar joyless expression now. “Waterbending can do very little for my health,” he said. “What can be done has already been done. Please do not be troubled, your highness.”
“The only thing I was ever any good at was little burns,” said Jingyan, still floundering. “Because of Xiao Shu’s carelessness, I had to be.” But his mother was a master. He wished there was some way he could bring Mei Changsu to see his mother.
As if Jingyan had said it aloud, Mei Changsu said gently, “Consort Jing’s ability is known to be very great; but there are other masters of the art in the pugilist world, some of whom have taken an interest in my condition.”
“Of course,” Jingyan said, embarrassed.
“What can be done has been done,” said Mei Changsu. “Let us return to the matter at hand.”
Before he could say anything else all the doors suddenly slammed open. A gust of wind tugged at Jingyan’s clothes and made the fire in the brazier jump up. An instant later it was gone again, and the wind had dropped, and there was a vase full of beautifully arranged flowers on the low table by the wall.
Mei Changsu’s smile was back, but it was not for Jingyan this time. “Thank you, Fei Liu!” he called. “Don’t interrupt, please!”
Jingyan blinked as something fell suddenly into place. “Fei Liu is an airbender? ” he asked incredulously.
“The last one, as far as I have been able to discover,” said Mei Changsu, as if having a myth for a bodyguard was not remarkable or even very interesting. “The matter at hand , your highness.”
On Jiuan Mountain a battle was won when Nihuang’s lightning fell mercilessly on the rebels. But Jingyan did not forget, afterwards, his father’s expression when he first heard the distant rumbling of the rebel army; nor that among Prince Yu’s followers there had been a half-dozen bitter-eyed women who cracked the earth asunder where they stepped lightfooted, the last earthbending masters of the Hua.
His mother summoned him to her side on the first day back in the Capital. “Jingyan, you have neglected your studies,” she said almost before he finished greeting her. There were bright spots of colour standing in her cheeks. “Come and sit by me. You have work to do.”
Jingyan in his confusion did not object until she poured out her flask into a jade bowl on the table and started drilling him on waterbending techniques: push, pull, twist, pour. “Mother, I will never be a master,” he said, leaving off partway through a tricky exercise he had never got the hang of the first time she taught it to him. “There is no sense to this.”
Consort Jing closed her eyes as if in pain.
It struck Jingyan then for the first time that it must be a source of suffering to his mother, a great master of her art, that confined in Zhiluo Palace she had no student to whom she might pass on her skill. He swallowed. “In the future,” he said - the closest he could bring himself to acknowledging what his future held - “I will see to it that Mother may choose suitable students, who -“
“In the future it will be too late, ” hissed Consort Jing.
Jingyan stared at her. She had never spoken to him in that tone before. “Mother, are you angry with me?” he asked.
“No,” she said, “no, Jingyan, no. But as your mother I beg this of you. You must get better at waterbending. You must practice the things I show you every day. You must listen carefully, and work hard.” She put out her hand towards him. “I know you are my good and filial son,” she said. “Please.”
Jingyan had a great many things to occupy his time. Politics increasingly consumed all his waking hours, and he was miserably conscious of how little he still knew, how much he had to learn to discharge his duty well. To steal an hour of sleep from himself every night for the sake of glumly working through basic waterbending forms felt like madness. But it was not in his nature to refuse his mother anything.
It was exhausting and it made his head ache all the time. But the worst part was that Jingyan’s visits to Zhiluo Palace stopped being something to look forward to. Consort Jing had been an indulgent teacher when he was a boy, laughing at his mistakes and simplifying complex forms for him with gentle amusement. Now some strange urgency had possessed her, and though she seldom raised her voice Jingyan could hear the strain when she corrected his stance, and feel how tense she was when she wrapped her fingers around his to move them to the proper positions.
“It will do,” she said after a month of this. Jingyan was a better waterbender than he had ever been, which was not saying much. It all still seemed pointless - though he was glad, at least, that his water healing had improved. Mei Changsu had given him a startled look when Jingyan had been able to rest his hand over Mei Changsu’s chest and soothe a long coughing fit to quietness. Jingyan had explained that his mother was teaching him again. He had not been able to explain the impulse that made him reach out with healing hands in the first place. It was not at all appropriate for a prince to put his bending at the service of his strategist.
“Sit, Jingyan,” said Consort Jing. A maid brought a covered box to the table. Consort Jing nodded and waved her away. All the servants left the room. “Pay attention.”
She pulled off the silk cover, revealing not a box but a cage. In the cage were three white rats.
“Mother?” said Jingyan.
“What is water?” said Consort Jing.
This was basic waterbending. “That which flows.”
“Where is water?”
Jingyan began to give the answer she’d taught him as a child: “Streams, rivers, wells, oceans, rain from heaven, springs and fountains -“
“No,” said Consort Jing. “Watch.”
She held out her hand over the cage. Her expression was solemn. The three rats were huddled close together. Under Consort Jing’s hand all three of them suddenly went still. “Open it,” said Consort Jing tightly, and Jingyan did. The rats marched out of the cage in a neat single file. Consort Jing flicked her fingers like a puppeteer and the rats moved as one, like dancers. Down to the curls of their tails they were regimented. Another flick from his mother’s hand, and they all collapsed on the table as if their strings had been cut.
Jingyan stared at his mother.
“Water is everywhere,” said Consort Jing. “In everything that lives, there is water. This is bloodbending. It is a forbidden technique. You will not tell anyone that I am teaching it to you - especially not Su Zhe.”
Jingyan stared at the unconscious rats. With the single word bloodbending Consort Jing had conjured a whole host of sickening pictures in his thoughts. Jingyan had been to war, and he had seen the dark side of the court, and he could think of too many terrible ways that this technique could be used for either. “Mother,” he said, “I do not wish to learn this.”
“I never wished to teach it,” said Consort Jing. She sighed. “You will not master it, Jingyan. You are not strong enough. But please trust in me and learn what you can.”
“There is no use for this for me,” said Jingyan. “For any honourable person -“ and he stopped, distressed, because he had just accused his mother of being dishonourable.
Consort Jing gave him a tired smile. “It has some uses in healing,” she said. “I swore an oath never to use it any other way. If I had ever meant to break it, I would have broken it thirteen years ago.”
Thirteen years ago - Jingyan stared at her. Thirteen years ago his mother could have used her bloodbending to make a living puppet of the Emperor. She could have saved Consort Chen and Prince Qi.
“Yueyao forbade it,” said Consort Jing. “She was always - very brave.” She blinked away tears. “Now, Jingyan, watch closely.”
Bloodbending was extremely difficult.
Jingyan killed the first rat when he tried to take hold of it with his bending from the inside out. Blood leaked from its ears and eyes. His mother looked pale. She made him try again, and keep trying, that time and every time he visited her thereafter.
Jingyan hated every moment of it. He hated the sad broken little bodies of the rats and mice he killed. He hated the sick look on Consort Jing’s face when she demonstrated a technique for him again. He hated the very idea of his mother’s beautiful waterbending reduced to this ugly secret. And no matter what he said, she would not tell him why.
Instead she forced him through scrolls of anatomy, and gave him soothing teas when he felt like vomiting, and sent him away with orders to practice his fundamentals. She told him not to attempt bloodbending when she was not there. Jingyan was glad to obey.
He did improve a little. He stopped killing the rats. He could not puppet them the way his mother could, but she did not seem to want him to. Instead she had him focus on the movement of blood along its tiny channels. “And push,” she would murmur. “And pull. Follow the current. Gently, Jingyan.”
Jingyan stifled a sigh and obeyed his mother’s teachings, and wished shamefully that he were a less dutiful son.
And then there was truth: truth that leapt to consume first Jingyan’s heart and then the whole court of Da Liang in a bright conflagration, truth that was born from a purifying spark dropped from Mei Changsu’s hand, which was Lin Shu’s hand.
Lin Shu, who was alive.
The flame of joy was too tall and bright to endure. Even as Jingyan started to believe it, really believe it, it was already dimming and flickering. Lin Shu was alive, but he no longer tossed fire from hand to hand as casually as he breathed. He was alive, but his eyes were shadowed when he looked at Jingyan. He was alive, and Jingyan knew Nihuang had spoken with him; but when he saw her at court again the inner light that she had carried with her for - for months, which Jingyan should have noticed somehow, except that she’d been guarding Grandmother’s tomb, and he half-suspected Lin Shu of somehow arranging that too -
The bright light of Nihuang’s renewed love was already gone. Her eyes were sometimes red from weeping.
“The poison of the bitter flame -” Jingyan said to his mother as soon as he had the chance.
“It would take three masters of bloodbending together to purge it from him,” said Consort Jing quietly. “If I tried it alone I would only kill him faster.”
“There are not three such masters in the world,” she said.
Jingyan did not say: could I help you? He knew he could not. He had never been strong enough.
“He took the stupid pills,” said Lin Chen without preamble when he returned from the war.
“He is dead, then,” said Jingyan. It was not hard to say, because in his heart he had known it already. Lin Shu would not have left the pearl behind if he meant to live. He would not have sent that cruel letter to Nihuang.
Lin Chen made an impatient gesture. “Not yet, no thanks to him. But he is dying, much faster and more painfully than before. And he was already dying very quickly and painfully! Still I could have given him another ten years, if he hadn’t been so determined to be a firebender again, and never mind if it ripped his insides apart. I told him! Fire is breath, and he hadn’t the breath to spare.”
Jingyan looked away. Lin Shu would never have accepted ten years without fire. Jingyan had known this before he permitted him to go into battle. One way or another, he would have found a way to immolate himself before he continued living like that.
“Did you bring him back?” Jingyan said when he thought he could speak without starting to weep. “May I see him?”
“It’s not a pretty sight,” said Lin Chen, and his expression was briefly ugly with unhappiness. “Yes, come on, why do you think I’m here? Of course you’d better see him. The princess is there already. A girl like that running after him and still he’s not happy unless he can be his own walking firework display!”
Jingyan nearly reproved the man, but then he saw that the showy irritation was a shallow surface thing with a deeper current underneath. Instead he said quietly, “I am glad he has had a friend like you.”
“Save it for the funeral,” said Lin Chen. “If I’d been able to find or train another couple of bloodbenders in time, then I’d let you give me compliments. Come. He has hours.”
Jingyan stood still.
“What, are you deaf?” demanded Lin Chen. “Come.”
“You are a bloodbender,” said Jingyan. “A master.”
“Of course I am: how do you think he’s lasted this long?”
“So is my mother,” said Jingyan.
There was a moment when Lin Chen was still too. Funnily enough it was the first time he had really seemed like a waterbender to Jingyan. It was the same stillness Consort Jing sometimes had, the deep-shifting quiet that did not blaze or roar or hold steady but instead sought every little way forward, every crack in the rock that could with time and patience be widened into a mighty channel.
“You deal with the palace security,” Lin Chen said, with the snap in his voice of a doctor’s orders. “I’ll get him here.”
Jingyan recruited Commander Meng and together they bulled through every layer of security and protocol that should have made it impossible to bring complete outsiders, men of the pugilist world, into the heart of the Inner Palace. It would still have been impossible if Jingyan had not been Crown Prince, or if the Emperor had been in good enough health that any of the fuss was permitted to reach him. At another time Jingyan would not have much liked himself for the way he shouted at a number of lowly officials who were just trying to do their jobs. All he cared about now was that it worked.
The earthbenders who guarded the innermost gates were chosen for their steadfastness and not easily cowed. Despite all Jingyan could do, they still refused to let the litter and its Jiangzuo Alliance bearers pass. When it was clear they would not yield Jingyan pressed his lips tight together and reached for his sword. Commander Meng’s hand dropped also towards the hilt of his weapon. But then Mu Nihuang stepped in front of them, turned to Li Gang and Zhen Ping, and said, “Set him down and wait here.”
Both Lin Shu’s men began to speak furiously at once. Nihuang ignored them. Her expression was fierce and there was an ozone crackle starting in the air around her. She pushed the curtains of the litter aside and reached in.
When she stepped away she was holding Lin Shu. His head lolled against her shoulder, and his long legs in their bundle of furs and blankets were hitched across her strong arm. Jingyan’s heart ached at the sight. Nihuang was not a small woman, but a few months ago she would not have been able to pick up even Mei Changsu in such a way, and a lifetime ago Lin Shu would have squawked and kicked her if she tried.
Nihuang turned to the gate guards with her armful of unconscious invalid. In withering tones she said, “I, Mu Nihuang, the Lightning General, will take responsibility for this dangerous individual and see to it that he brings no harm to the ladies of the Inner Palace.” Lin Shu was absolutely still. Jingyan could hear the shallow irregular rasp of his breathing. Nihuang’s arms cradled him protectively, and Jingyan had never felt a deeper gratitude.
“That leaves just General Meng and the Crown Prince to supervise little me,” said Lin Chen, with an approving smirk in Nihuang’s direction. “I think that should be enough.”
“Is this acceptable?” said Jingyan to the guards. His voice came out sounding alien, peculiarly light and very dangerous.
The earthbenders both flinched at the tone, and they exchanged alarmed glances before they fell back murmuring apologies. The wall of solid rock that was the gate sidled after them like an embarrassed cat. “But those people stay here!” said one of the guards in a desperate last-ditch attempt at authority, pointing at the men of Lin Shu’s household.
“Good luck making Fei Liu stay anywhere,” called Lin Chen sweetly over his shoulder as the rock gate slammed back into place behind them. It was only because Jingyan was expecting it that he felt the gust of wind and saw the blur of movement among the palace rooftops a second later.
Jingyan had remembered to send a message ahead. “Master Lin Chen,” said Consort Jing on the steps of Zhiluo Palace, and “Madame,” answered Lin Chen, too urgent even to be rude.
“Commander Meng, will you see to it the healers are not disturbed?” said Jingyan quietly. “I think Fei Liu will help you.”
Meng bowed. “There will be no trouble,” he said, like a promise.
In the inner rooms Nihuang set Lin Shu down on the couch Consort Jing pointed to and withdrew, stiff with tension, to stand in arm’s reach. Lin Chen was already shoving blankets carelessly out of the way, talking through the injuries Da Yu had inflicted as he went. “That’s surface, surface, sprained, hairline fracture, firebending burns here and here, that was a sword but it was clean so he’ll survive if he lives long enough that it matters -“
Jingyan’s mother knelt beside him, listening gravely. Jingyan felt none of her apparent serenity. Lin Shu’s body was so wasted it looked as if he might break apart at any moment. His hands were like bundles of dry twigs, his arms marked with livid spiderweb discolorations along the lines of his veins. The bandages Lin Chen pointed to so dismissively were stained with dark blood. Jingyan lifted his eyes for a moment because he could not bear to look and caught Nihuang’s gaze.
A memory possessed him all at once: a riverbank, a golden afternoon, Nihuang turning pink when Lin Shu flirted with her, and Jingyan hardly knowing where to look when Lin Shu flirted with him. Jingyan’s friendship with her had been one of the things shattered when the Chiyan case broke his world. There was no way to speak of what they had lost, and no way to bear the silence. For more than a decade the emptiness that should have been filled with Lin Shu had stretched between them as an impassable chasm.
She was weeping silently. Jingyan went to her side. Nihuang turned her face against his shoulder to wipe her eyes and nose on the fine fabric of his robe, and Jingyan touched her elbow in understanding.
Then he thought of Xiao Shu - not the Lin Shu who lay before them dying but the boy they had both loved first - and of what he would say: my Nihuang’s crying and that’s all you do, Jingyan? I thought I could count on you! Give her a hug!
Jingyan put his arm around her shoulders, feeling deeply awkward. Nihuang made a little hiccupping noise and did not move away. It was the closest they had been to one another in thirteen years. They both stared down at the still shape of Lin Shu on the couch where Lin Chen and Consort Jing remained crouched beside him, deep in discussion.
“The Bitter Flame,” Lin Chen was saying, pointing to the discolorations like infected wounds where Lin Shu’s veins ran close to the surface. “Fighting back from the outside in. And there -” not pointing to anything Jingyan’s eyes could see this time but making a twisting gesture with faintly glowing water from the flask at his hip, “- the Bixin pill, going from the inside out. A cure worse than what was there before. I could have made something better of it if he’d given me time -”
Consort Jing only nodded. “We must purge both at once,” she said.
“His heart will stop and never start again if we try,” said Lin Chen. “No, you must keep his blood flowing, and I’ll do the purging, one at a time. It might work.”
“It will not.”
“Unless you have a third bloodbending master up your beautiful sleeve, Madame,” said Lin Chen sharply, “I don’t see what choice there is. He’s dying anyway. We try it.”
Consort Jing lifted her head and fixed Jingyan with a calm implacable gaze. “Jingyan, come here,” she said.
And Jingyan saw all at once that she knew, and had known, for months. Since Jiuan Mountain, she’d known about the poison in Lin Shu. She had been preparing for this moment. Every grim hour she’d spent forcing him through waterbending exercises had been for this, and all of it had been for nothing.
“Mother, I am not a master,” he said.
“No,” said Consort Jing. “But you are my stubborn son. Come here.”
She had Jingyan sit on the couch, and with Lin Chen looking on with raised eyebrows she took Jingyan’s hand and gave him Lin Shu’s pulse to feel. “What is water, Jingyan?” she asked him.
“That which flows,” Jingyan answered.
“Where is water?” said Consort Jing.
“Everywhere,” said Jingyan. Under his fingertips on Lin Shu’s wrist he could sense the sluggish flow of blood inside Lin Shu’s body. It was textured to a waterbender’s senses with two different poisons, and it moved in slow irregular spurts according to the uneven beats of his heart.
“While Master Lin Chen and I are at work,” said Consort Jing, “his heart will not have the strength to make the blood flow. You must help. Not from the wrist, that will not serve. Like this.”
She demonstrated what she meant: a tiny, delicate piece of bloodbending, following the natural currents of the body, with her right hand spread over Lin Shu’s heart. Push, pull, push, pull: thud-thud, thud-thud. As Consort Jing worked the pulse under Jingyan’s fingers slowed a little from its frantic rush, and began to beat more evenly.
The waterbending it took was not beyond Jingyan’s capabilites, though it would have been before the months of training his mother had forced him through. Still his hand shook when he reached out. His mother frowned at him. “Calm yourself first,” she ordered. “Does the heart know doubt?”
“No, mother,” said Jingyan.
“Then you must not know doubt either. You will grow tired,” she said. “But you must continue steadily all the same. His heart has spent itself in flame, and is more tired than you.”
Jingyan nodded seriously, and took a moment to breathe and think. He thought of - the river, long ago, flowing steadily in its course, doing only what was most natural for water to do. When his breathing was steady he considered and then picked Lin Shu up, pulling his withered body against Jingyan’s chest. The position made it easier to keep Jingyan’s hand over his heart for the delicate matter at hand. He had to close his eyes when he took hold of Lin Shu’s blood with his waterbending. Gently he settled into the current: and push. And pull. And push.
Lin Shu shifted a little against him. Jingyan felt rather than saw the lax muscles of his fingers twitch erratically. He stubbornly shoved away fear and sorrow and doubt and everything else that might distract him. There was only the task at hand: to do the work of that overtaxed heart for long enough that Lin Shu could survive being healed.
“Well,” said Lin Chen somewhere overhead, “that might work.”
“We must not wait any longer,” said Consort Jing.
As a boy Jingyan had begged his mother to show him her real waterbending power, the power of a master. She had laughed and splashed him with tendrils that snaked out of fishponds, turned quiet springs into roaring fountains, made rainbow-lit curtains out of the spring rain. The child Xiao Shu had regarded her with wary respect after she trapped him in a cage of glimmering droplets that made his firebending useless, a punishment for trying to sneak sweets behind her back. Consort Chen had giggled and giggled at her nephew’s plight, but refused to help: Sister would do just the same to me, I don’t dare. “Hey, Jingyan, why can’t you do that?” Xiao Shu had said afterwards, and then hastily, “I don’t mean I want you to!”
Waterbenders were rare: there were one or two eking out a living as healers in larger towns, a handful in the pugilist world, and rumours of more living in the far north beyond the edges of civilisation. Waterbending masters were rarer. At another time Jingyan might at least have opened his eyes to watch Lin Chen and his mother work side by side, both pushing at the very limits of their art to purge the poison from Lin Shu’s veins. Even with his eyes closed he could feel the immense complexity of what they were doing, in the way a child who had learned its first sword forms could distantly perceive the mastery of its teachers. He did not try to pay attention. He focused on the thin chest under his hand, still moving faintly with rasping breaths, and on the tiny, repetitive, necessary motion of blood through the chambers of the heart.
His head began to ache. The darkness behind his eyelids became spotted with meaningless shapes. Jingyan did not let himself falter. His nose was bleeding; he felt the blood on his lip. Someone wiped it away. He thought it might be Nihuang. He did not stop.
He had found it hard to watch Mei Changsu deteriorate even before he had known the truth: he had reached out for the strategist with healing hands, and Lin Shu had given him an odd look because - because he’d known Jingyan wasn’t that good at waterbending, of course. And then Jingyan had let Lin Shu go to war because it had been something he could give his friend; because there had been nothing else left. Now at last he had been shown something he could actually do. It was more than worth the headache, the exhaustion, and the terrible strain on his whole body.
“Your highness,” someone said an impossible length of time later. Jingyan ignored them. Push, pull. His body wanted to shake. He did not let it. “Jingyan!”
Jingyan shook his head.
Someone took hold of Jingyan’s wrist and dragged it away from Lin Shu’s chest. Jingyan’s eyes flew open as he lost his grip on Lin Shu’s blood. He struggled against Lin Chen’s grip. He was exhausted, and there was no strength in his arm.
“You must stop,” said Lin Chen. He looked more exhausted than Jingyan felt, and his tone was flat and final. There was a flicker of sympathy in his eyes. “If making his heart beat for him would keep him alive, I would do it myself.”
“No,” said Jingyan. Not now, not after this. His mother was slumped over the foot of the couch, taking deep heaving breaths. Lin Shu was motionless in his arms. Jingyan gulped in a breath and tried to reach for his blood again. His waterbending skittered away from his grasp. Just reaching out was enough to know: Lin Shu’s blood was slowing, stilling in his veins: it no longer had the ugly texture of poison in it but that made no difference when his heart had stopped -
Lin Chen caught his wrist again and held it.
Nihuang let out a sound that was not human, an agonised animal cry of grief. She had watched it all. She had watched them fail.
Abruptly she lifted two fingers skywards in a pose that had once made Jingyan immediately fling himself out of the way. Now he only stared at her numbly as with a deafening crash of displaced air lightning coalesced out of nothing under the roof of Zhiluo Palace. It zigzagged across the room in a crackling white flare, touched Nihuang’s raised fingers, blazed through her for an instant, and leapt to Lin Shu’s chest.
Lin Shu’s whole body convulsed. Jingyan was still touching him, and felt something strange: a static shock that suddenly withdrew, as if the lightning had tried to pour itself through him and been pulled back at the last moment.
Nihuang lifted her hand again. There was a kind of still agonised fury in her expression. Jingyan understood it completely. The lightning came down.
Lin Shu caught it.
It was a bare twitch of his fingers, and his eyes were closed, but the lightning turned aside and then flung itself down into the ground. “Stop, stop,” Lin Shu said weakly, without opening his eyes, “stop hitting me, Nihuang.”
“You stop!” retorted Nihuang nonsensically, and burst into tears.
Jingyan wept too, overtaken by grief and relief all at once. He put his face into Lin Shu’s hair and cried. Blood was flowing in Lin Shu’s veins. He could feel it.
And then Fei Liu and Commander Meng were thrown backwards through the doorway by a blast of firebending as the palace guards finally showed up to forcibly remove the interloping pugilists, and both of them got up again clearly prepared to fight an army, so Jingyan had to stand up and be the Crown Prince before everything got out of hand, and at some point in all of that mess Lin Shu passed out.
“You know,” said Lin Chen later, after a great deal of fuss which had culminated in Jingyan simply dumping the whole problem of Inner Palace protocol on Eunuch Gao with a beseeching look, “there’s still some things I don’t understand.”
Lin Shu was awake, swathed in blankets again and glowering at anyone who looked worried about him. Jingyan could not help looking worried and so had received a great many glares. Nihuang had also received a number of glares, but she was holding Lin Shu’s hand and ignoring them. Jingyan envied her serenity. He would have liked to be holding Lin Shu’s other hand, but rather thought he would have to wait his turn.
“What,” said Lin Shu suspiciously.
“The medical applications of lightning are obvious now I’ve thought about them,” said Lin Chen, “but what I thought was odd was how you got rid of it afterwards. Both times, I couldn’t help noticing. Otherwise your handsome Crown Prince would have been lightly toasted at the very least.”
Nihuang caught Jingyan’s eye and made an apologetic face. Jingyan only smiled at her. If he had been burned by her lightning, and Lin Shu’s life still saved, he would have counted it a reasonable exchange.
“I’m a very good firebender,” said Lin Shu.
“Please, Changsu, you’ve been a pathetic firebender for years. You should have been too out of practice to handle it. But lightning’s like water, it wants to flow. It always jumps to earth to die,” said Lin Chen. “It’s just very lucky that there happened to be some good strong earth right there. Right there in the floor of an Imperial Consort’s palace, ruining the decoration.”
Lin Shu said nothing.
“Almost like someone earthbended it there just in time,” said Lin Chen.
Jingyan turned to stare at him.
“Honestly, Changsu,” said Lin Chen, fanning himself casually, “were you ever going to mention you were the Avatar?” He turned to Jingyan and asked, “Did you know? I’m hurt he didn’t tell me.”
“I’m not,” said Lin Shu.
“I didn’t know,” said Jingyan. He remembered the moment of shivery static when the lightning had passed through Lin Shu and not touched him. Nihuang had her free hand, the one not holding onto Lin Shu, clapped over her mouth. Her eyes were crinkled up at the corners.
“I’m not, Nihuang!” said Lin Shu.
“Hey, Fei Liu!” cried Lin Chen. There was a gust of wind and then Fei Liu appeared out of nowhere. Jingyan thought he might have been on the roof. “Are you ready to be your Su-gege’s airbending master?”
Fei Liu gave it some thought. He nodded.
“Don’t lie to Fei Liu,” said Lin Shu. “I can’t airbend!”
“Can,” said Fei Liu firmly. He made a face that said clearer than words, obviously. Nihuang had tears gathering at the corners of her eyes from trying not to laugh. Jingyan folded his arms and leaned against the wall, grinning.
“Well, that’s one master sorted. I’ll have to think about the others. I’m not teaching you waterbending. If I had you for a student I’d kill you, and that would be a waste of everyone’s hard work. But we’ll have lots of time to discuss it on our journey,” said Lin Chen, and he smiled suddenly. “Trust you to do things back to front, Changsu. Don’t you know you’re meant to master the elements first and balance the world afterwards?”
“Our journey,” said Lin Shu, and then, “Lin Chen, I can’t -”
“Oh, your health is fine. You’ll need to take it easy for a while. No fireworks till you build your strength again, and I mean that. Maybe this time you’ll listen to me. Miracles do happen.”
“Lin Chen,” said Lin Shu.
“What, you think you’re going to die? You can’t die now, Changsu.” Lin Chen snapped his fan closed and said, with the air of a man winning a long game of weiqi through a truly infuriating stratagem, “You have spiritual duties.”
With that triumphant declaration he swept out, dragging Fei Liu with him. There was a moment of perfect silence after he was gone. Jingyan was fairly sure they were all three contemplating the vision of Lin Shu with spiritual duties. Lin Shu’s expression was extremely peculiar.
Nihuang cracked first. Her laughter rang through the room.
“Don’t listen to Lin Chen’s nonsense,” said Lin Shu sulkily. “I was unconscious. Anyway I can’t, and I don’t want to.”
“Duties you do not want?” said Jingyan. “How difficult that must be.”
“I can hardly imagine,” agreed Nihuang, lips still twitching.
Lin Shu glanced between them in an irritated way. “You’re not supposed to gang up on me,” he complained. “And I’m not, so stop it.”
Jingyan and Nihuang exchanged smiling looks. Neither of them needed to say it. No matter how much he objected it was plain Lin Shu knew the truth already. Somehow it wasn’t even really surprising. Jingyan still remembered the feeling of the world coming apart around him with Lin Shu gone. Now it was balanced again; so the rest made sense as well.
“Jingyan, pour the tea.”
“Pour it yourself,” said Jingyan without looking up. He was busy. He had brought a pile of documents out to the river with him. He could not afford not to read them, and Lin Shu was lying with his head in Nihuang’s lap and had not offered to help.
There was an annoyed silence from Lin Shu’s direction, and then the water twisted itself out of the teapot’s spout and flung itself into the teacups.
“You splashed it,” said Jingyan mildly.
“The Emperor never splashes,” added Nihuang.
“I’m a much better waterbender than him,” said Lin Shu.
“And yet,” said Jingyan. He put the report he was reading down. “It’s not fire, Xiao Shu. You can’t just throw it about however you like and expect not to look stupid.”
“Who made you a master?” said Lin Shu rudely.
“We can go and ask my mother if you want.”
“You’re so cruel.” Lin Shu sighed deeply. “At least admit you think I’m beautiful,” he said. His tone was light but his eyes were sharp. “Both of you, come on.”
Jingyan’s breath caught. He looked up at the two of them, still not married though there was some understanding between them he hadn’t inquired into. Avatar Mei appeared and disappeared in the pugilist world, and the scholar Su Zhe, his identity paper-thin, appeared and disappeared at court. Jingyan did his duty to the best of his ability as Emperor. Nihuang was the Lightning General, the great defence of Da Liang. The time for other things had passed, and moments like this one were snatched from their duty and few and far between.
But he saw the memory in both their faces, kept safe in their hearts as it had been in his: a golden afternoon, when something new was about to begin.
“Of course I think you’re beautiful,” he said simply.
Lin Shu smiled a sharp satisfied smile.
“I don’t,” said Nihuang, poking his ribs. “You’re a skinny old uncle. You need to eat more.”
“Nihuang,” Lin Shu complained, and such a wave of happiness poured over Jingyan that he had to tip his head back and laugh and laugh and laugh.