Yu Ziyuan does not eat alone.
No matter how fiercely her blood boils, no matter how much her shoulders itch with the desire to lash out, to strike at something, she forces all of that down, swallows it as a bitter pill on the back of her tongue, and she sits at her place every meal. She will not be the one driven from her rightful spot by anything: not the distantly pleasant courtesy of a husband that is only hers in name, not the hopeful, hungry desperation in her son's eyes that neither of his parents can fill, not the tattered little child that her husband brings home and tells her, in the only show of authority he has ever turned to her, he will be staying with us.
The temptation is there, that night, stronger than any other, to simply turn her back and walk away. Perhaps in another life, she could have done it, walked out of Lotus Pier entirely, carried on her own two feet back to Meishan. Perhaps she could have gathered her children and taken them to another part of the estate, to leave her husband with the child who brought more wonder to his eyes than anything else. She could have left him then, she thinks, and her pride sparks in her veins as sharply and hotly as her blood -- hotter, perhaps, because she understands, better than that soft-eyed man, what she stands to lose.
And not just herself: her children, as well. If their father cannot give them what they deserve, then it falls upon Yu Ziyuan's shoulders to do as much as she can.
Dinner that night is a strange one, the familiar and the unfamiliar. The food is the usual fare she'd come to expect, in the years of her marriage -- steamed fish and vegetables and soups -- but there's a telltale orange-red sheen to them, the visible presence of bright red peppers among the vegetables. The smell alone makes her daughter cough, polite and quiet behind her sleeve, though she is well-mannered enough to not say anything.
"My lady," her husband murmurs to her at the look on her face, and even after years of living at this man's side, she does not know what it means.
Halfway through the meal, sweat beads her husband's forehead, and he is very careful with the movement of his chopsticks. Her daughter eats bravely and politely, her face pink. Her son grimaces his way through his meal, though he has the sense to at least try and school his expression when he sees her look his way.
And the other child -- the little ragged creature her husband had brought home, scrubbed clean and dressed in a spare set of robes from her son -- stares and stares at the food before him, like he cannot quite conceive of everything spread out on offer all at once. She watches him more than anyone else and tells herself it is because she is curious what sort of manners he might have learned. Her memory of his parents are bright and unchanging. Wei Changze had at least been polite, but his wife had been careless, sleeves and chopsticks flying everywhere, messier than even her children in their infancy.
In the end, the boy finally takes a pepper and nibbles on it with tentative curiosity.
In the privacy of her heart, where no one else knows and no one else has bothered to try and reach, Yu Ziyuan will admit to experiencing a mean moment of pleasure when his eyes bulge out and his face goes red, when he coughs and sputters and her daughter rushes to his side to soothe him, one hand on his thin back and the other encouraging him to eat a mouthful of rice instead to help calm the burn. Even her son turns to the interloper, his small face twisting in a concern that over the other child.
Yu Ziyuan's heart stutters in her chest. That flash of satisfaction shrivels and crumbles. Whatever sins he had inherited from his parents, he is only a child. She allows him the dignity of not commenting, keeping her attention focused on the meal. The spicing is more robust than typical of Yunmeng, but nothing compared to the foods of her childhood. She thinks: I will need to speak with the cook about broadening their palate. They should be more open-minded than their father.
When she glances up briefly, that little boy stares at her with something akin to awe as she ate, even with tears in his eyes and his face red, like a goddess descended from on high.
In the weeks that follow, a shadow haunts Yu Ziyuan's footsteps.
It isn't a constant thing. Her husband has gotten it into his head that he can train this boy -- to harness whatever potential his mother gave him and turn him into something that the Yunmeng Jiang can be proud of. She curls her lip when he tells her this, but she does not argue. She does not think he would listen if she tried, but she does not particularly wish to try. His surprise at her acquiesence is another bitter straw over her heart. Do you truly think I am heartless? Do you think my pride is so weak that I would turn my back on a child?
Aloud, all she says is, "I will have a tailor come to take his measurements."
Most of the boy's days are spent in training. He is behind the other children of his age group, but not as far behind as one might expect. She overhears him telling her son that his parents had taught him some of the basics that the youngest disciples go through, and he has a familiarity with Yunmeng Jiang's way of doing things that speaks well of his father's guidance. He eats with them at every meal, and again and again, she sees his eyes dart to her. She watches as his manners improve, slow and shaky, how his eyes follow her movements, and those of her daughter, every time he falters. It takes a few days before he and her son warm up to each other, but she can see the slow thawing in their relationship in the way they begin to bicker before, during, and after meals, the way they shove at each other like young boys do. She sees it in the way her husband's smile grows soft and fond, though his eyes never, ever look at her son.
It is good, she thinks, that there is someone who can love her son instead. It does not forgive his father's soft indifference, but she is at least pleased to know her son will have an ally.
So the boy is often occupied. But there are days, in the later half of the afternoon, she sometimes sees a small shape following after her. She does not acknowledge him. To do so would be to send him to practice, and as long as he's close, she can keep an eye on him. A part of her half-expects his mother to appear at the docks of Lotus Pier one day, laughing as she does, her voice ringing out as she cries, Sorry, sorry! I misplaced my own son! You know how it is, you look away for just a moment and they've gone and vanished on you--
She knows that day will never come.
She continues to watch that woman's son to make sure he cannot get into mischief, and ignores him otherwise, until one afternoon after so many days have slipped past since his arrival that she realizes it has been nearly half a year. The boy has blossomed fully. He is making strides beyond all expectations; he has already begun to show signs that he will overtake her son in skill level, and that realization sit bitterly in the pit of her stomach. It has already been impossible for her son's father to see him; this will only blind him further. Attempt the impossible, her husband's sect likes to proclaim, but Yu Ziyuan is still of Meishan Yu, in her heart. She does not have the patience for the frivoltry of chasing after the impossible.
(Perhaps, a voice whispers, it is because you cannot do your proper duty and accept your place in your husband's clan and sect, that he will never look at you. Perhaps this is punishment for your pride.
But she cannot change her heart, and especially not for a man who had been lost to her long before she was draped in wedding red for him.)
On this day, she is not thinking about these things. She is considering a letter from her friend, Jiang Xiaohui, who writes about the progress of her son in his studies, and her troubles with her own husband, when she sees the boy approaching. In the weeks and months of his time in Lotus Pier, he has learned to not creep, but to stride boldly, lightly, a growing confidence in himself and his skin. She thinks that he will be beautiful one day. She wonders if a rogue cultivator might come and sweep him away, too.
"Madame Yu," he says, when he is before her. He puts his hands together and bows to her. It is a clumsy gesture. He is still a child, after all. "A-Xian -- this humble one has a request of you." He's very careful with how he pronounces the words. Somewhere in the past week he has lost one of his milk teeth, and it makes his words click and whistle even when he speaks slowly and deliberately.
She raises an eyebrow. The boy rarely asks for anything, she knows. For all that her husband would empty his purse in a heartbeat for every bright bauble or toy that might catch this child's eye, the boy himself never asks for anything from the markets. She can see there is a hunger in him that echoes the same starvation that is in her son, in spite of her best efforts, and she knows nothing that neither she nor that husband of hers can do will satisfy it. The fact that he is asking for anything at all, and of her, rather than her indulgent husband, is a strange one. "And that is?"
He fidgets under her gaze. Someday, she thinks, he will be brash; she can see the words that are coiling inside of him, fighting against his attempt to be polite. Someday, if he is his mother's son, he will discard that.
"I wanted," he bursts out, then takes a deep breath. "Shijie said -- the tutors said -- for dinner, I thought maybe that -- I wanted to try, so--"
She holds up a hand. He cuts himself off, rocking on his heels.
"Speak clearly, or do not speak at all," she says. "You are a human, not a twittering bird. I don't have the patience for your babbling."
The boy takes a deep breath, enough to rock his entire small body. "I liked what we had for dinner last night," he says, and Yu Ziyuan thinks of the food, bright red with chili oil, scattered with numbing peppercorns. Her husband had eaten sparingly; her children had been polite, but careful in their approach. Things like this have been appearing more on their menu in the months since the boy's arrival. She likes to think that both of her children are building a tolerance to the food, but she does not fool herself to think that they will ever come to prefer it. They are, as much as she regrets it, also their father's children.
But this boy looks at her, wide-eyed, so bright with hope that she's vaguely, distantly surprised he has not simply vibrated out of his skin. He looks at her like she is something untouchable, something awe-inspiring, something that his small hands will never reach.
"What of it?" she asks. "So you liked food. You should be grateful for what you have."
"I am!" he chirps. He is more like her daughter than her son, she thinks, in how he lets her words roll of of his back. His own come easier now, as if her responding to him is enough to unblock his chatter. "I just wanted to say, because I know A-Cheng would bite off his own tongue than complain about it, but I think it's good. Shijie says that's the sort of thing that they eat where Madame Yu is from. So, so, I think it'd be nice if we could have things like that more often. I want to try more things like that." He tries bowing again, like this could maybe help his petition, with a child's understanding of how to appeal to adults. He is so small, so thin even after six months of regular meals. Yu Ziyuan looks at him and thinks about the shadow of his mother, who long since dragged her husband's heart into the grave with her.
She thinks, for the first time in years, of her mother, who would sometimes take active part in the kitchens, and who had taught her herself how to wield a knife in this simple domestic way. Her own daughter has become fond of working in the kitchen along with the staff employed there, servants and a steady rotation of disciples, and while she has a deft hand, she has never once expressed any interest in learning the styles of Meishan. She is a Jiang in more than just name alone.
Yu Ziyuan looks at this child, this stray creature that her husband loves more than anyone else, and she sighs.
"Impertinent," she says. "This is Yunmeng, not Meishan. Be respectful of the place that has taken you in."
His eyes go round. His brow furrows. She can tell he doesn't know whether he is being scolded or not. In all honesty, she cannot say for certain herself, either. She turns away from him, back to the letter from her friend, and she thinks that Lanling Jin's food will surely be more to her daughter's tastes than Meishan Yu. She thinks about how, whatever wife her son brings into the family, that woman will have to learn to adapt and discard everything about her own childhood home, to be swallowed up and transformed by her marriage, to put her husband and his clan and his home above everything else, even the clan and the home of her father and her childhood.
She says to the boy, who is still there, hovering, "If you are so curious, I'll let you learn for yourself. But if you hurt yourself, you'll have no one else to blame."
The boy bobs his head. She can tell he doesn't understand, but he says, "Thank you, Madame Yu," as politely as her daughter has taught him, and then he's scampering off. She watches him go from the corner of her eye, until she can no longer see him. The words on the paper blur together, and she thinks about the sound of her mother singing as she cooked.
At dinner that night, there is a small pot of chili oil for the boy's table. He puts in too much and sets himself off in the most hideous coughing fit again, but even as he wheezes and cries, even as her daughter fusses over him and her son calls him an idiot, Yu Ziyuan sees a lightness in his eyes like laughter.
She watches the children grow up. Lotus Pier never fully adapts to the palate of a woman born in Meishan or a boy that only half-belongs to the sect. Her husband grows softer and more distant with each passing year, his eyes following the boy as he goes from a child to a young man. There is some of his father in him, in the broadness of his shoulders and in his height, but everything else about him is his mother: bright-eyed, irreverent, too busy thinking of everything to focus on anything. Her husband cannot refuse that boy anything, even if he dresses it up, tries to disguise the favoritism as best he can. Every time, it is another stone on her heart.
The bitterness that sits on her tongue and in her chest grows as well. The hunger in her son is a raging famine now, to the point where she thinks that anything given to it would only make him sick. She cannot pity him, because she knows he would hate it in the same way she always has. All she has to give is herself, and her heart is too worn and brittle a thing to be of any good. Perhaps there was a time when she could have given more -- to him, to her daughter, and even to the third child that lives under her roof and defers to her in the same way. Perhaps, she thinks, in a kinder world, she could have thought of that boy as a second son, rather than the rod that broke everything apart.
But those are regrets, and she will not allow herself those. This is the life she has had, and she has lived it with as much pride as possible, scraped from the corners and the dregs: a woman who has never had her husband's heart or his respect, a woman who never once backed down from anything. Maybe she has learned the motto of her adopted sect more closely than she ever expected, even of herself.
Yu Ziyuan walks forward, alone.