When Zhou Fei was seven, she ate something that swam sticky and black in her belly for a whole evening before it came back up. She learned: don’t eat food that’s been left out since morning.
It took until the moon was high overhead, hanging like a broken fingernail above the mountains, for her body to push it up and out of her mouth. She had already been in bed, and when Li Jinrong caught her scurrying back and forth between the lake and her room to scrub down her stained pajamas, she’d been lectured for carelessness and sent back to sleep in wet clothes. She learned: should you fall ill, you confront it alone.
Then she grew up. She has scars on her wrists from the poisoned water jets in Huarong. A funny shoulder that will slip out of place easier than the other, from Hengshan. One of her little toes still doesn’t have all the feeling it should after she’d fallen asleep in the snowy mountains retrieving the Huo Lian.
By now, she’s learned: everyone confronts pain alone.
So it made total sense to her that, after she threw up behind a bush right after lunch, no one should know about it, least of all Xie Yun.
“A-Fei jiejie, are you okay?” Li Yan asks, getting up so close to Zhou Fei’s face that she has to force herself to hold her breath. “You look bad. Was it something you ate?”
“We ate all the same stuff,” says Yang Jin. “If we don’t get sick, then it wasn’t something she ate.”
“You could eat a raw horse heart and not feel it, Yang Heitan. That doesn’t prove anything.”
Zhou Fei reaches for tea instead of wine, pouring herself a steaming cup. It warms her gums and the bottom of her tongue, tingling behind her ears until her nose smells like white peony tea instead of bile. She thanks Wu Chuchu’s refined palate in silence. If it had been her, or Li Yan, rough-hewn in the ruggedness of the Strongholds, they would’ve ordered black tea that was brewed dark enough to look like wine.
Her belly gurgles, guts like netted eels.
“A-Fei, if you’re not feeling well, we should go back,” says Wu Chuchu. “Yang Jin and A-Yan can stay with me for afternoon sword practice. I’m interested in learning the Qingyungou fighting style, after all.”
“Our Qingyungou fighting style is nothing like A-Fei’s Poxue Dao.” Yang Jin puffs his chest up so much that he might simply float up and away, looking like an overbraided owl. “It’s much harder on the arms, Chuchu guniang. Are you sure you’re ready for something so rigorous?”
“It’s fine. I’m fine. Just tired,” says Zhou Fei. Immeasurably tired. “I can’t go home yet, my mother tasked me to send out correspondence from two more Stronghold outposts.”
“Ai, I can do that!” says Li Yan.
“Last time I asked you to send a message, you—” Were chased out at your heels by Disha forces and we lost location on you for days. Last time I asked you to send a message, you almost died, and what then would I say to my family? “I don’t trust you. You can watch me, in the future you can make yourself useful.”
“Am I not useful now?”
“A-Yan is plenty useful, she eats all my leftovers—”
If she can lie to Li Yan and Yang Jin, and maybe with some maneuvering, Wu Chuchu, if she can lie to Li Sheng, and her mother without flinching, Zhou Fei has never learned how to lie to Xie Yun. Even when all he had for her were lies and half-truths, he’d look at her and just know.
In the beginning, it was uncomfortable to know there was someone in the world that could see through her like her skin was all stones and still water. Then it was strange, like being touched on the back of her neck. Just touched, nothing more, flat palm to spine cobble.
Now, and everyday, it just feels impossible, that someone could see this soul and still love it, and yet.
“What did you do all day?” Zhou Fei asks. “Did you finish the song that Yuyiban commissioned from you? Nichang Furen doesn’t like to be kept waiting.”
“Would I do that to you?” Xie Yun has gotten to his feet to take Xiwei from her and hang it upon its hook. “I know if I don’t finish before her deadline—and healthily so—the first thing she’ll say to you next time you visit is that you married down. I can’t have her thinking that.”
“That you’re a delinqu—? Put me down!” Zhou Fei sways, then nearly unbalances when Xie Yun sweeps her up and into his arms so that she towers high over him. The world swims. She makes a grab for his shoulders.
“Hm, no,” he says. “I can’t have her thinking you married down.”
“Stupid. That’s impossible.”
Zhou Fei runs her fingers through his bangs. “You’re a member of the royal family. It doesn’t get higher than that.”
Xie Yun makes a face.
“You’re a crown prince,” Zhou Fei says, this time just to prod him, because he always makes that face when she calls him that, and no one can know how much she loves it. Duanwang. If he calls her Duanwang-fei, then she’s allowed to call him Duanwang. She tightens the weave of her fingers in his bangs, then tugs on his hair. “But I suppose Nichang Furen of all people couldn't care less.”
“Good for her,” Xie Yun says. “She shouldn’t. Now, did you want to eat dinner, or did you—”
Zhou Fei doesn’t catch the rest of what he says. A wave of nausea so strong and sour rises in the back of her throat and she fears she’ll be sick right in her husband’s face. Some part of her manages to wriggle out of his grasp—it’s an artless thing, because she kicks until he lets go, face morphing from cheekiness to surprise to concern. He sets her down far too gently. Zhou Fei kind of wishes he’d dropped her, like the impact might knock the sick out of her blood. She scrambles for the doorway and makes it as far as the dirt outside.
“A-Fei, what’s wrong?”
She shakes her head and shoves weakly, blindly, in the direction from which Xie Yun’s voice comes, trying to force him away. It works for a moment, but then his touch reappears at her ears, her neck, pulling her hair back and out of the way. He’s saying something she can’t hear over the roaring surge of blood in her ears, and then all at once, it stops. The nausea is still there, but her body heaves around nothing. Zhou Fei coughs. Only spit left.
Xie Yun reaches into the collar of his robe and produces a silken handkerchief, presses it to her lips before she can remember how to protest. No, it’s gross, you don’t need to get it dirty, what’s a little sick, she wants to say, until his hand cradles her cheek and turns her face towards him. Afternoon light urns one side of his face into burnished amber.
“I’ll go get something to settle your stomach,” he says, folding the stained side of his handkerchief in and dabbing at the corners of her mouth again. “You go wait inside. Was it something you ate?”
Xie Yun gives her this look, this long look that she’s seen before. It reminds her of deer, or owls—the look of something that can hear her pulse. He says nothing, but helps her to her feet with an easy smile when she rises. A whole day of teaching means he smells of the everburning frankincense and agarwood of the lessons hall, and it’s a welcome smell to have in her nose.
“Maybe you’re coming down with something,” Xie Yun suggests, when he directs her into bed. She sits, but she doesn’t think she can lie down without her stomach roiling again, even though she’s so tired that she thinks she could close her eyes and fall asleep sitting up. He sweeps over to the kiln where her teapot stays warm and pours her a cup. The shadows of their room clutch at him as he busies himself. One of them hangs like a swan’s neck over his head.
“Maybe.” She takes the tea, and he stays to watch her drink it, or else she won’t.
“You should dress warmer,” he says. “It’s nearly winter.”
“I don’t get cold.”
“Yes, we know. Even snow quivers in the presence of Zhou Daxia and her Poxue method,” he says, taking her cup when she finished. “But if you get sick, then you won’t be able to teach your students, and we can’t share a bed. We can’t even hold hands.”
“That’s your concern?”
“If I don’t hold my wife’s hand,” Xie Yun declares, standing up, “I’ll die.”
When Zhou Fei only rolls her eyes, Xie Yun’s smile fades, and he undoes the fur-lined cloak that he’s been wearing in the chilly afternoons to drape around her shoulders. She doesn’t fight him off. It makes his frown deepen.
“I’ll be back soon, don’t go anywhere,” he says, giving her hand a squeeze, and then he’s gone, the evening swallowing him whole.
A cold sweat beads at the back of Zhou Fei’s neck. The tea gurgles unpleasantly in her stomach, like that, too, wants to come back up. If she doesn’t move a single limb, doesn’t even blink, then the sticky sensation of nausea might leave. Her mind wanders back to lunch—had she eaten something? Then even further back, to breakfast, before they descended from the mountains. She and Wu Chuchu had shared the same red bean buns. Li Yan had shoved a dried jujube towards her. They were all fine.
She and Xie Yun had eaten with her parents and Li Sheng. Chrysanthemum greens in broth, rabbit stewed in peppercorn and black beans, fire roasted fish from the lake fed by part of the Ximo River, bellies fat and bursting with roe. Xie Yun had sneakily picked all of the roe out of his own bowl and deposited it in Zhou Fei’s, and she’d frowned and given them back to him. It was the best part of a fish. Even after years in the Forty-Eight Strongholds, he still ran cold, and she could feel all the bones in his wrists whenever she clutched them too hard.
And no one at that dinner had gotten sick, either.
Zhou Fei sits in place for so long that the shadows turn from ghosts into monsters. She should get up and light the lanterns and braziers outside, put flames on the candles, but the nausea is gone if she stays where she is. Xie Yun could come back any moment, and she’s loath to be throwing up again when he does.
Like he’s heard her—“Oh, you didn’t move,” he says, the doors sliding open. “I didn’t mean it like that, A-Fei, you could have gotten up to light the fires. Since when did you ever listen to me?”
“Didn’t want to get sick again.”
“That bad, huh?” The fire casts a warm glow through their quarters when he brings torchwood inside and holds it to each candle, some of them melted down so low that they’re globules. “You must be feeling really sick. Lucky we’re in the Forty-Eight Strongholds and your family physicians have everything under the sun.”
“What’d they give you?”
“A few things.” Xie Yun spreads an array of parcels across their table. “If you think you ate something bad, they gave me something for that. They also gave me something for internal energy imbalance. And one if you’re bleeding.” He looks up. “Do you usually get this sick before bleeds? I don’t think it’s ever been this bad.”
Zhou Fei stares at him. The cold sweat returns, this time without nausea.
“When was—” She blinks, brain churning unintelligently. “Wait. Wait, Xie Yun.”
“What is it?”
“It’s been too long.”
“It’s been two months,” she says. She doesn’t even have the presence of mind for nausea when she stands and comes towards the table, as if the proof will be in the medicines that Xie Yun brought back, and he rises to steady her at the arms. Even through his own cloak and her clothes, she can feel the chill of his hands. “I haven’t bled since two full moons ago.”
It’s his turn to stare at her, first in confusion, and then his lips part with a dawning understanding.
“Are you sure?”
“No,” she says wildly. “I don’t know.”
“We should ask—we should ask your Stronghold physicians.”
“You’re Dadangjia’s daughter. They’re here to look after you and your family. Can you walk? I’ll carry you.”
“I can walk.”
In the past six weeks, Zhou Fei has:
1. Repaired the Qianji Array in the Ximo River after an earthquake in the mountains tore one of the towers apart.
2. Oversaw her first all-clan conference beside her mother, with all forty-eight families present.
3. Kissed her husband a lot!
4. Spent extra time training three struggling students so they would pass their form exams.
5. Evidently, been pregnant.
“Are you sure?” she says. “Are you very sure? How can you be sure?”
The physician looks at her severely over his cloudy spectacles, hawk-nosed and unpleasant in a sort of charming way, a rickety old man who only knows how to give gifts by throwing them at his recipients. “I was here to tell your mother when she was pregnant with you. I’ve been doing this for more than thirty years, girl.”
“But we—” She almost says, Didn’t even sleep together that many weeks ago, we were at a conference with the Huo Family on their rebuilding initiative. She also almost follows that up with, This would make more sense if it happened in the next six weeks. Wisely, she says neither, because Xie Yun folds her free hand into both of his, and she’s struck with the vivid sense memory of them on her thighs, on the crests of her hips, the soft backs of her knees—some of the only places on her body that don’t bear scars or calluses. She’d braced herself with one hand right over his heart, her palm listening to the pound of it, and then laughed when she’d shifted and he’d cut off a moan into the sleepy-cricket silence of the night. That had done it for both of them. And then—
Was that six weeks ago?
She had fallen asleep right after, to the gentle, damp drag of his towel between her legs, his warm chuckle, and “See you in your dreams, A-Fei.”
The physician peers at her, wearily, as her face rearranges itself around her mental timeline.
Xie Yun clears imaginary phlegm from his throat.
“That might have…” Zhou Fei’s cheeks are coals and candles. Every blink is a burn mark. Her scalp prickles. “We might have.”
“Yeah,” says Xie Yun. “That’s.”
For the first time since they’d met, possibly, Xie Yun is at a loss for words. Zhou Fei stares at him.
“You’ll have to take things easy now, Zhou-yatou.” The doctor stands up, shuffling around to his wall of medicine cabinets and drawers. “A baby is not something to be careless about. You will be able to move around as you have for the next month or so, but the second trimester and the third especially will slow you down.”
“Slow me down?” Zhou Fei asks, voice pitching an octave too high. “How much slower? What will happen?”
“I’m sure you’ve started showing the early signs. Fatigue and exhaustion, irritability, nausea? Missed bleeds? You’re so small that you’ll start showing early, Zhou Fei,” he says, “and I will give you something to brew as teas so you can pass the days without feeling so sick. You must keep your inner energy flow clear and robust, starting now.”
“But that means I have to practice forms—”
“I will tell Yan-daifu about this, as she is the one who specializes in pregnancy and childbirth,” he continues, serenely ladling more phoenix jelly and bird’s nest into a spread of parchment paper. “She’ll come to see you as soon as she can, by the end of the week.”
“I have all my students—I have to help my mother oversee the Forty-Eight Strongholds, I can’t just—”
“I did not say you are on bedrest, starting tomorrow.”
“But in a few months?”
“A-Fei.” Xie Yun’s hand appears at the small of her back, a sweet chill. “It’s okay. We have more than enough time to figure it out, okay?”
And he sounds so sure of it, like the sky could fracture and its big ugly pieces could pierce open the earth and he’d still be standing at the end of the world, smiling. She says the tiniest, most pathetic, “Okay,” in a tiny, pathetic voice that doesn’t belong to her.
The doctor returns to the desk between them, wrapping the parcel neatly and tying it off with twine. “But I am merely warning you, as I know that you are the Descendent of the Southern Blade Zhou Daxia, and that you feel you have a responsibility to this world. You do. But you have one also to yourself, and now that child in your belly. If you miscarry, there isn’t a soup in this world that could save you, Zhou Fei. You will bleed out where you lie.”
Xie Yun lets her breathe.
She didn’t realize that was what he gave her until she had to confront the idea that she’d have to face a world without him in it. Her whole life, she’d been drowning, with a Qianji Array stretched overhead whenever she wanted to surface—drowning in want to please her mother, drowning under the need to uphold her grandfather’s name, drowning under the weight of her own inadequacy.
And then, Xie Yun. It was so hard to know that she’d been holding her breath all her life until the gulps of oxygen hit her lungs.
He doesn’t ask her what she’s thinking until after dinner, which she barely touches, and he doesn’t ask her why she won’t eat. Just reminds her that she should. “At least your rice and egg,” he coaxes, then pushes the fluffiest bits with extra green onion towards her. “Yeah?”
She’s on the floor, cross-legged in her pajamas and skin still tingling from the warmth of her bath, when he finally asks. His hands are in her hair, undoing the braided twist at the top of her head with gentle fingers, like he’s playing the guzheng over her scalp.
“Are you very worried?”
“About…” A meandering pause. “Having a baby.”
“Oh.” She shrugs, clears her throat. A curtain of her hair loosens and spills in thick waves around her shoulders, and she can feel Xie Yun shifting to reach for her comb. “I’ve. I’ve defeated the seven heads of Disha, I’ve ventured alone across the country, I’ve faced martial masters that I had no business provoking. How scary can a baby be?”
“Stupid of me,” Xie Yun says, kissing the top of her head when he begins to brush out the braided crimps, “to doubt the vast abilities of my Duanwang-fei.”
The teeth of her comb catch on snarls in her hair. Zhou Fei’s hair is never as easy to brush as Xie Yun’s—what with training every day in the mountains alongside the wind and dirt, sometimes they can be here for a half a shichen, Xie Yun patiently detangling every lock of hair until Zhou Fei is foggy with sleep. She’s uncomfortably awake tonight, though, every gentle tug to her scalp red and itchy. Without thinking, her hand settles on her belly. Flat, slightly ungiving where muscle stands out in gentle curves under her skin. She tries to picture herself round and distended.
“Stupid of you,” she agrees weakly.
She’s worried. She’s scared, she’s terrified. Zhou Fei has only been this scared in her life once, when she thought she was watching Xie Yun slip away and being powerless to stop it. A baby—her baby, her responsibility, someone whose life will be tied to hers in a way she can’t fathom. What if she brings a child into a world that will treat them horribly? What if she brings a child into this world, and they hate her for it? What if she brings that child into this world and dies, what then? Leave Xie Yun to raise them alone? What if he dies, too?
What if she brings a child into this world and they, too, feel like they will drown their whole life under the weight of Zhou Fei’s name? Li Jinrong’s name? Southern Blade Li Zheng’s name?
What child deserves that?
“A-Fei,” Xie Yun says, “you don’t have to pretend everything is okay.”
“A baby is something to be happy about,” she insists.
“It is,” he agrees. “But what’s important is that you’re happy.” He eases himself off the bed until he’s sitting beside her on the bamboo spread of the floor, and takes her hand in his. “Frankly, I’m impressed this didn’t happen earlier.”
“How can you joke right now!”
“I’m not! It’s just true,” Xie Yun says. “It’s been two years since we’ve been married.”
She stares helplessly at him. He’s always had something smart to say, some escape route to take whenever she felt like a mouse trapped in jaws. Whenever her head started going under. “What do we do?” she asks. That tiny, pathetic voice returns. “What do I do?”
“Well, first of all, you need to stop skipping meals. I know you’re busy. But I also know how many meals you skip, thank you, Chuchu,” he says, when she raises her eyebrows. “Even if it’s a pork floss bun or a red bean pancake, you need to stop descending the mountains without breakfast.”
“Breakfast makes me feel sluggish.” She shakes her head. “I mean. I just mean that. I’m worried! I am worried—so what? What good has worrying ever done me?” There’s a frayed thread in the hem of Xie Yun’s sleep shirt, and she focuses all her attention on it.
“You’re worried that you have so much left to do, and that a baby means you won’t be able to,” says Xie Yun. “Worried that your responsibility to your family and the children who come after you means you will be pulled in too many directions to raise your own child. Worried that you aren’t made for this. Yeah?”
The candles melt him warm and giving in the night. Zhou Fei searches his face, tries to draw some of that serenity into her own body. Nothing ruffles him. He’s smiling, just enough that she can see it in his eyes more than his mouth. “Yeah.”
“The world is vast,” he says. “And its needs are plenty. There will never be a surplus of heroes so long as the common people live and thrive. But so vast, also, is your family, A-Fei. You won’t have to do this alone. This baby will have your cousins. They will have Chuchu, and so many elders. They will,” he lowers his eyes to their tangled hands, “they will have me.”
Zhou Fei’s throat tightens. “You—”
“So if the world needs you, know that you can go to it still. No matter hero or villager, whoever this baby will become, they’ll have a family that loves them.”
“How does that sound, A-Fei?”
He smiles in earnest now, squeezing her hands. A sour burn of tears rises in the back of her nose.
“I don’t want to be my mother.”
There: she’s said it. Her mother—her taloned, biting, dauntless, anchoring mother, a person whom she admires and fears and loves. She’s spent all her life trying to be her Li Jinrong, and all at once she staggers with the realization that she doesn’t want to be her mother as a mother. She just wants—for this child to be loved.
“You are hardly your mother.” Xie Yun fits his hand to her cheek, smelling of soapberry. “For starters, she’s far scarier.”
She curls her fingers around his wrist. “You said I was scary, once.”
“Fate, chance, kings, death,” Xie Yun says. “Who do I fear, among those? None of them. But my wife? I quiver before her.”
She pinches the skin between his thumb and forefinger until he yelps. “Unbearable.”
Zhou Fei breathes in. Lets it out, slow. “Okay.” She doesn’t feel steady yet, but at least no longer in free-fall. “Okay.”
“Can I…” Xie Yun hesitates, an occurrence so rare that yes is coming to Zhou Fei’s lips before he’s even finished asking. “Can I touch?”
His hand hovers over her belly, with the uncertainty of someone peering down a long, dark well.
“Of course,” she says, taking him by the wrist and pulling him with so much force that he sways forward. “There’s nothing yet.”
His hand is nearly big enough to span the width of her lower abdomen, rising and falling with the rhythm of her breaths. Xie Yun just stares at where it rests. His expression is equal parts soft wonder terror disbelief.
“I never thought I would be married,” Xie Yun says quietly, “never mind live long enough to have a child.”
“Oh,” Zhou Fei chokes, and dissolves into tears.
Naturally, Li Jinrong and Zhou Yitang are first to know.
If Li Yan were the first to know, every shrimp and crab of every tidal pool pockmarking the coastline would know by sundown: Descendant of the Southern Blade Zhou Daxia is with child, the great-grandchild of the hero Li Zheng. If they want to be technical, this child is also the only legitimate heir to the throne of the Southern Dynasty.
“What have you done now,” Li Jinrong says by way of greeting when Zhou Yitang opens the doors to let them in.
“Die, Niang. I, uhm.”
Xie Yun’s hand finds her waist. She fidgets. She didn’t bring her sword—who needs to, going to their parents to tell them of a coming baby? But she’s naked without it, like she’d left her room without her head.
“A-Fei, come sit,” Zhou Yitang says, sinking back into his seat beside Li Jinrong, and gestures to the empty cushions. “You too, Yun-zi.”
“Ah, thank you, Yuefu.”
“I received word from the Huo Family that the conference went well. They even spoke with high gratitude for your presence and direction when you attended. Surely, nothing has come up now? You know better than to provoke them now, A-Fei.”
“No! No, nothing of that sort.”
“Hm. You’re nervous,” Li Jinrong observes over her teacup once they’re seated. “What is it that you want to tell me?”
Xie Yun takes her hand under the table. You don’t have to drown as long as I’m here. “I…”
“A-Fei, what’s wrong?”
“I’m going to—I’m going to have a baby.”
Li Jinrong blinks at her mid-sip. Zhou Yitang, who’d been laying a coaxing hand on his wife’s wrist, looks back at Zhou Fei, eyes widening. For a moment, his gaze flits to Xie Yun, which doesn’t make her want to die at all. Sure, they’re married, sure, everyone watched them do three bows for the world to see, sure, everyone wished them health and a prosperous family. It didn’t mean Zhou Fei wanted her parents to know she and her husband actually like, kissed and stuff. As far as they’re concerned, she hasn’t actually even met a man.
“A baby,” says Li Jinrong. Her expression softens. It’s the most foreign thing Zhou Fei has ever seen on her mother’s face. “Are you sure?”
“We visited Cai-daifu yesterday,” Xie Yun says. “He’s sure. We’re supposed to visit Yan-daifu later for a full check.”
Li Jinrong breathes out. A smile begins in the corners of her mouth, and she reaches across the table. Zhou Fei meets her in the middle, hands catching. Her mother’s calloused palms are smaller than hers, but her grip even now is strong and unforgiving. The mountain that stays upright in the storm.
“A-Fei,” she says. “You are no longer a child. Congratulations to you and your husband. This baby will be lucky to call someone like you their mother.”
“How far along are you?”
“Six weeks, Cai-daifu estimates.”
“Hm,” says Zhou Yitang.
“You and I just drank my homemade mulberry wine last weekend,” says Zhou Yitang. “That could not have been good.”
“Well, it’s not like I knew! I’m sure it’s fine, it’s probably only the size of a pea right now—”
“No more wine,” says Li Jinrong.
“What? No!” Zhou Fei says, looking to Xie Yun for the first time since they’d walked in. He gives her an apologetic smile. “Are you serious? None at all? What if I just drank a lighter brew.”
“No wine at all, only teas,” Li Jinrong says, waspishly. “Yan-daifu will tell you the same thing.”
“A-Fei,” Xie Yun says.
That’s all it takes. Her mother seems borderline offended by it, that all Xie Yun needs to say is her name and she’ll agree, but Zhou Yitang seems to find it highly amusing and smothers a smile into his teacup.
“No wine,” Zhou Fei mutters when they leave her parent’s quarters. “No wine at all. This is terrible. This is worse than whatever Cai-daifu said the third trimester will bring.” She’s sure that this isn’t true, but it’s bleak.
“I’m sorry,” says Xie Yun, without a slice of repentance.
“You did this to me! You ought to beg my forgiveness,” she says, pinching his side where her arm is looped around his waist. He only laughs, the lyrical tune of his laughter echoing in the copse of reddening trees, Zhou Fei’s favorite—haha-ha! where his third chuckle always lilts higher than the first two. He tightens his hold around her shoulders, pretends to think.
“What does my wife demand of her humble househusband, then?” he says.
“I’m hungry. You have to cook me the things I want to eat.”
“With utmost pleasure,” agrees Xie Yun. “That is my second favorite thing to do for my wife.”
“Second? Then what’s the first?”
Xie Yun pauses on their walk across the mountain towards the apothecary lodges, screwing his mouth up in thought. Without letting her go, he tucks one of his knuckles of his free hand under her chin until her face tips up to the sun, to him, and he smiles.
“This,” he says, and leans in.
(“That girl, our daughter. A mother. Did you ever imagine the day?”
“She will be a better one than I was. I thought I could teach my daughter the cruelty of the world that awaited her, but she will raise a child that will love the world it’s born into, enough to want to change it.”)
Between being thrown down a snowy mountain, fording the shallows of the Penglai sea when the waves smashed her dingy, and getting stabbed, Zhou Fei thinks she might take all three of those things at once over morning sickness.
They haven’t told anyone else, so everyone in the Strongholds simply thinks that Zhou Fei has come down with some kind of stomach bug, but Zhou Fei wakes up every day before sunrise following her visit with Yan-daifu barely choking down her sick. By the end of the week, all she needs to do is jerk awake beside Xie Yun in bed, sit up in a whirl of tangled hair and sweaty linen, and he’s already arced out of bed to catch it in a basin.
“That’s it, you’re okay,” Xie Yun says, running a hand down her back when all that’s left is spit. He hands her a clean handkerchief. A neat pile of them sits by the foot of their bed now. “Better?”
She nods, taking great, heaving breaths of morning air. This kind of autumn always brings snow—you can always smell it long before the snowflakes fall, the pear-crisp chill of the air in the mornings before winter ever noses its way into the mountains. The slats of their bed creak as Xie Yun takes the basin away—he always deposits sand over it, then scrubs it out in the brook before his morning classes—and pours her tea.
“Yan-daifu said that I could have up to two months of this,” Zhou Fei says. Xie Yun supports the bottom of her teacup and holds it away from her when she tries to take it.
“Hot, it’s really hot.”
He releases it gently into her fingers, then sits back down beside her. It’s far too early for either of them to be up—the sky is the inky blue of pre-dawn, the backs of her eyelids after a fire is blown out, the underside of their blankets when she Xie Yun pulls them up over their heads and buries his face in her neck.
The tea chases the taste of acid back into her stomach. She crosses her legs at the edge of their bed, cradling the cup in her palms so the hot clay won’t burn.
“Do you want to change?” Xie Yun’s hand is blissfully cool through the fabric. Zhou Fei has always run warm. Her husband would press his icy feet against her shins in the winter, laugh when she hissed, and lament how frigid his bones were until she climbed on top of him, my own personal sun-warmed blanket, he’d say with glee, but she’s never sweat like this at night.
“Yeah,” she says. In the veiling darkness, Zhou Fei lets her face be pitiful and childish, her voice small. “Yeah, this is miserable.”
“Okay.” A kiss at her temple. “I’ll get you clothes. Drink your tea.”
Zhou Fei rubs absently at her abdomen. There’s nothing there, still, and Yan-daifu said she probably wouldn’t show for at least another month. It’s annoying: all the sick and exhaustion with nothing to show for it.
“Mm,” she says, handing the teacup to Xie Yun.
“We should probably visit Cai-daifu again to see if he has anything to relieve your nausea.” In the short while they’ve been awake, the sky has started to lighten into a threadbare grey, and the pale lines of his hands stand out like moths in the dim morning. He reaches around her for the ties on her pajamas, and Zhou Fei sits motionlessly and lets him. “Li Sheng told me what happened yesterday.”
Zhou Fei flutters her eyes shut and groans. She’d had to cut her class short, find her cousin, and ask him to finish the form drills for her because she had to go throw up in the stream. All the way home she’d heard the echoes of What happened to Zhou laoshi? Is she okay? in her ears. “I’ll kill him.”
“And deprive our baby of an uncle?”
“Yeah, they’ll have enough uncles.”
“Fair enough. I heard nothing,” Xie Yun chuckles.
He peels her shirt from her back and folds it into a neat square, wiping her bare skin down where the sweat has cooled tacky, then gathers her hair in a thick skein. He tosses it over her shoulder so it curtains down her front, getting all the cold sweat at the nape of her neck. Then her shoulders. Then down her front, between her breasts, where the wooden sword pendant bumps against her sternum.
“Ah, I should’ve gotten a warm towel,” Xie Yun says. “Not enough hot water.”
“There’s no need.”
Nakedness around him has become easy—she’d been nervous on their wedding night, but in the end, even that had seemed silly. Xie Yun had looked at her and Zhou Fei’s skin and soul had unraveled. He saw her naked, and she was still a person. Her body, he said, was just one very long, very haunting song. That’s every body, he said, when she was lying on top of him, and he put his finger in the rivered scar at her ribcage, tracing it down to her navel, then to the swell of where her thigh and hip began, stretch marks silvery against her skin. Every single one tells the story of one big, glittering life. It’s an honor to read yours.
What story does mine tell?
That you were once a stupid girl, he’d said, massaging the pinprick scars in her fingers where she’d been frostbitten in the snowy mountains. Who would throw your life away for a doomed man.
She shivers when he leans in, breath always a shade cooler than hers, and brushes a kiss over her skin.
“Stop, it’s gross.”
“It’s not gross.”
“I smell like death.”
“You smell like my wife.”
She turns and finds Xie Yun’s face in the dark. He’s focused on draping her fresh shirt over her shoulders, easy, omnipresent smile on his mouth as he does. “Arms up,” he says. She obeys wordlessly, and he slides her hands through the sleeves. The last time anyone dressed her—before Xie Yun, like this—had to have been over twenty-five years ago.
Finally he glances at her, eyes twin flashes. “What are you looking at? I know I’m a vision in the morning, too, but if you’re going to be sick again, tell me now.”
“I’m not going to be sick. Right now.”
“My poor A-Fei.” Xie Yun loops his arms around her again to tie the fastenings closed at her waist, and her head is so heavy that she lets herself lean it against his shoulder. “I’m sorry I did this to you. It’s all my fault! You can hit me when the sun rises.”
He makes a questioning noise when he pulls back to her still watching him.
“What is it?”
“If it was going to be anyone,” she says, “I’m glad it’s you.”
Zhou Fei anticipates some sort of cheeky reply—You’re having the heir of the Southern Dynasty after all, of course you’re glad! or Someone must think she’s still dreaming, hm?—but he watches her back with his quiet deer-owl-knowing look and says nothing. Then, gathering her face to him, he kisses her between her eyebrows.
“Thank you,” he says. “Go back to sleep. I’ll wake you when it’s time.”
Li Sheng and Wu Chuchu find out by accident, because Zhou Fei has never learned how to keep a secret in her life. It’s a good balance between herself and her husband who, according to her family, is “mysterious” at best and “mistrustful” on average. She has not asked what he is at worst.
They’re planning to tell everyone, they are, considering that Zhou Fei is approaching her fourteenth week, and an earnest swell has started in her lower belly. She can still pass it off as eating too hearty a dinner, but—from here, it’s only a matter of time.
So they are. The plan just didn’t account for—
“Hey, did you forget?” she says, when Xie Yun begins pouring her wine at the dinner table. “I can’t have any of that.”
Xie Yun’s wrist loosens for a fraction of a moment when he glances at Zhou Fei in surprise, then with shifty alarm at Li Sheng and Wu Chuchu. Wine dribbles onto the surface of the table. Li Sheng frowns, and Wu Chuchu raises her eyebrows. In between, Xie Yun catches himself, and says, “Of course,” so smoothly that anyone less familiar wouldn’t notice. No such luck tonight.
“Why not?” Wu Chuchu asks. “A-Fei, this is your favorite wine, you brought it back specially for us to have just last month.”
“Is it because you’re still sick? It’s not like you to be sick for so long,” says Li Sheng.
“Uh,” Zhou Fei responds, with the eloquence of a squeezed chicken.
“Is it your stomach bug?”
“Why do you sound so unsure?”
“A-Fei has been advised to take extra caution with the foods she’s eating, per direction of the physician,” Xie Yun says, interrupting before Zhou Fei can lie any worse. “She’s not particularly happy about it, but she’ll be fine! Stomach bug or not, no wine for now.”
“You don’t know if it’s a stomach bug or not?”
“A-Fei, are you sure you’re okay? What kind of illness—” Wu Chuchu blinks. “Wait.”
Zhou Fei stares at her.
“What, Chuchu?” asks Li Sheng.
Xie Yun clears his throat, which is his universal sign that he’s run out of anything smart to say and is panicking equally. He’s been doing that now more than ever.
Zhou Fei glances from Li Sheng, to Wu Chuchu, to her husband, who’s studying the pattern of his bowl with his mouth pressed into his fist.
“I’m pregnant,” she says weakly.
Everything: happens at once.
“What?” Li Sheng shouts, with all the betrayal of someone who’s just learned holding hands doesn’t result in a baby.
“Oh! A-Fei, are you really?” Wu Chuchu grabs Zhou Fei’s hand in both of hers. “That’s lovely! I’m so happy for you—Xie dage, how could you hold that information out on us? So unlike you.”
“Ha,” is all Xie Yun manages.
And then, “Jie! You’re pregnant? How could you not tell me? Am I not a worthy meimei to know, in your eyes? You’re so mean to me! After everything we’ve been through.”
Li Yan marches into the pavilion with Yang Jin in tow. In her arms is a bundle of Nanjiang food wrapped in brown parchment and twine, the oil spots staining the paper to look like false eyes. Her mouth is set in a livid line.
“Oh boy,” Xie Yun says under his breath.
“A-Yan, didn’t you say you were traveling towards Nanjiang with Yang-xiong again? What are you doing back already?”
“Jie Fu, I thought we had something!” Li Yan says, ignoring her brother to shove Xie Yun by the shoulder with the butt of her sword, and he grunts with the force—with all the time she spends with Yang Jin now, she’s no longer a helpless swordswoman. “You and I! Conspirators! To make Jie’s life better! How could you not tell me?”
“I didn’t tell anyone?” he tries, rubbing at his shoulder. “Good heavens, you’re almost as bad as your jie. Where did that force come from?”
“Ge, we’re going to have a niece! Or a nephew, or—aren’t you excited? We’re going to be an aunt and uncle! You too, Chuchu jie. A-Fei jie, when’s the baby coming?”
“Summer,” Zhou Fei says, laughing in spite of herself. “You little brat. Now everyone under the sun is going to know.”
“Everyone under the sun should know that Southern Blade Zhou Daxia is having a baby. Xie dage, you should write a song about it.”
“Absolutely not,” says Xie Yun. “A-Fei would kill me in my sleep.”
“I would,” says Zhou Fei.
“What if I wrote it just for you?” he says.
Li Sheng sighs as one truly martyred.
“A-Yan, Yang Jin, you both are back so early,” says Wu Chuchu. “Weren’t you both planning to spend the winter in Nanjiang where the Little Medicine Valley is? It’s warmer down there, why rush back to the Forty-Eight Strongholds?”
“It’s an ordeal that none of you guys will have heard.” Yang Jin seats himself heavily at the base of a pavilion tree, where two of its roots meet like cupped palms. His sword rasps across the bark when he leans against its trunk. “I heard it first from the Itinerant Society. I didn’t believe it, so naturally we snuck around to go look.”
“Look for what?” says Zhou Fei.
“Nichang Furen has been having trouble with petty bandits. Not ones like Disha!” Yang Jin says, when Zhou Fei shoots to her feet. “Nothing like them. Like I said, petty.”
“Why are they bothering her?”
“She trades with the Little Medicine Valley now, where Ying-xiong works,” Li Yan says. She scuffs at a pebble and watches it skitter across the dirt. “Recently she takes stronger medicines to maintain the harmony of her internal energy, and only the Little Medicine Valley can offer it. I don’t know how people heard about it, but now civilians think it’s some sort of—mystical panacea that can cure all, and they’ve been demanding to know why it’s not more commonly sold.”
Li Sheng frowns. “Nichang Furen was well last time we saw her. She’s one of Jianghu’s martial masters, surely she could hold back a few petty bandits. If not her, the rest of Yuyiban.”
“They’re just one martial sect,” Li Yan says. “How can you hold off so many angry people night after night?”
“Their head disciple Ling Yu told me that Nichang Furen hasn’t been at full strength for many years now. Not since Disha returned, searching for Haitianyise,” says Yang Jin.
The unease turns Zhou Fei’s throat into a thick, corded streak of adrenaline. When she looks to Xie Yun, he glances down at her, just as troubled as she feels.
Zhou Fei opens her mouth.
“No,” says Xie Yun, before she can even inhale to speak.
“It’s because of me!” she says. “It must be, when she depleted herself to regulate the Kurong energy against my own. The medicine I won in my duel against Yang Jin must’ve not been enough. How long has this been going on?”
“Few months, Ling Yu said.”
“Hengyang isn’t too far. I have to do something. You can try to stop me or not, it won’t change anything.”
Xie Yun’s expression steels, his mouth a wound.
“A-Fei,” says Wu Chuchu. “If you’re pregnant, you’re the last person who should go.”
“Yeah, Zhou Daxia,” calls Yang Jin. “You and I still have a duel to hold, but even I would back off dueling a pregnant woman. That’s just cruel.”
“What else did she say? Anything about the bandits that might identify them as a cohort? That they’re planning something?”
Yang Jin shrugs. “It sounds like it really just is petty bandits, A-Fei. It’s not something a few other disciples can’t handle. In fact, I intend to send a letter to the Itinerant Society tomorrow and tell them to go take a look at what’s wrong. You needn’t lift a finger.”
“Jie, we’ll just go talk to Gugu, send some of the other disciples,” Li Yan says.
“If it’s to do with me, and the Little Medicine Valley, what kind of hero would I be if I let others do my work?” Zhou Fei says. “Is that the kind of hero my grandfather would have been? Or my mother?”
This is the kind of hero I want to be. Someone who saves people who have saved me.
Is this the hero my child will have to be?
Silence like an execution falls over the pavilion.
“Right, well, we brought back some snacks,” Yang Jin announces. “Can we join dinner?”
They do. Zhou Fei hardly chokes down another bite.
Xie Yun always comes and goes on quiet cat feet. Every creaking board, every stone, and every leaf-littered forest floor is always muted beneath him. When his robes are long enough, he almost looks like he could be floating, like a ghost.
So quiet is he that Zhou Fei doesn’t hear him return from his meeting with her father, and by the time she notices him inside, she barely has the time to ball up her map of Jianghu and yank a book of Mengzi teachings toward herself. The noises of the outside fall away when he slides the doors shut.
“A-Fei, you’re still up.”
“I was reading.”
“Studying so hard at this hour?” he says, peering over the candlelight and tilting his head to read along the page with her. “You’ve read this one.”
“I like rereading stuff to remember it.”
“Mm,” Xie Yun hums. “You were reading upside-down, by the way.”
“Huh? No, it’s—this is right side up.”
“Not the book,” he says, coming around the table to sink onto the floor beside her. “The map.”
Deer-owl-knowing. The candle flames cut through his eyes to turn them gold, and even still, Zhou Fei is the one who is see-through. He knows—he always knows.
“I can’t let people do work for trouble I caused,” she says, softly this time. Like evening rain on a cheek.
“You said no at dinner.”
“I said no not because I’m trying to stand in your way,” Xie Yun says. “I have long since learned not to. Just that I don’t want you to, because I’m scared for you. Not because I think I can actually stop you.”
His hand has found the bend of her waist. The hard line of it has softened, filled out, the valley-bowl of her hip curving outwards. Xie Yun strokes his thumb over the seam of her belt, one that he’d tied for her this morning after she could barely drag herself out of it to go teach class.
“You could stop me.”
“Not without losing a limb.”
“A strand of hair, maybe,” she says, tugging on his bangs, and he gives her the fading echo of a laugh—the smoke and form of it, not the full thing.
“You’re going, aren’t you?”
Xie Yun’s hand curls around hers when she takes it, studying his nails. He never has broken nails, or blisters, at most a bandage where he pricked himself darning the holes in Zhou Fei’s clothes with a needle. “Someone once told me,” says Zhou Fei, “that some things must be handled personally.”
He sighs and shakes his head. “Of all the things I say to you, why must you remember that? You can never remember any of the poems I write for you.”
“I do too!”
“Okay, recite one.” He pauses, and Zhou Fei opens her mouth, closes it, and then swats at his shoulder. “See!”
“Nichang Furen sacrificed her health for mine. It is a responsibility I owe to her to see that she can at least recover in peace, without being bothered by petty bandits. I’m sure whatever it is isn’t even useful to civilians who aren’t suffering her specific energy issue! Someone must’ve spread a rumor.”
“Even if you go and deal with those petty bandits, who’s to say that the rumors will go away? Who’s to say it will help at all?”
“If Hengyang is really so desperate for rare medicines, then there must be a demand for it,” Zhou Fei says. “Why now, right? If their apothecaries are lacking and flawed in addressing something, shouldn’t someone do something about it?”
“You mean like, the city magistrate?”
Zhou Fei rolls her eyes and does not even deign to entertain that with an answer. Xie Yun snorts, like he’s just heard himself, too.
“It doesn’t have to be me,” she says, leaning into him. She’s made her case. “But it should be.”
“I know, Zhou Daxia. There was never a timeline where you wouldn’t go. Just one where you would feel more or less guilty about going.”
“You won’t stop me?”
“Hardly,” says Xie Yun. And then, “I’ll go with you.”
Zhou Fei sits up in surprise. Her weight feels like it’s redistributed to lower in her body, recently, and she tips before she can look into Xie Yun’s face. “You? But—your work, your students—”
“My wife,” he says simply.
“But your health—”
She takes him by the arm and shakes him, gently, as if it’ll straighten his sense when she does. “You’re more important here than you know,” she says. “My father depends on your political advice. My mother, your military strategy. My ge would never admit it, but you know Jianghu better than any of us. All those students—the Stronghold children hate sitting and studying! It’s amazing that you can get them to do it at all. The Forty-Eight Strongholds needs you here, Xie Yun. it’s your home now.”
“I once told someone,” says Xie Yun, “home is wherever they are.”
Zhou Fei slides her hand down his arm until she can fold both over one of his. “You’re incorrigible.”
“You married this incorrigible man, Zhou guniang.”
“If you come with me—”
“—it will be like the early days of travelling the country with the girl of my dreams,” says Xie Yun. “Except this time, I can hold her hand wherever I want. I can say, one table for me and this pretty girl, who is my wife, by the way. One wine, one tea, she’s having our baby. What more could I ask for?”
“If you say the last part, I’ll kill you.”
“Oh, to die by your side,” Xie Yun says, as she holds him by both cheeks and shakes him again, just so he’ll stop talking, “is the only place on earth I should hope to die.”
This time when he laughs, it’s all body and sun.
The horse is named Dian Mu.
“Because when she runs, she could outrun the very lightning,” says the disciple assigned to the stables the morning they set out. “But she’s gentle as a wildflower, Zhou shijie. You’ll be nothing but safe riding her.”
“Thank you,” Zhou Fei says, taking the reins.
“Xie dage, I have just the horse for you. Lei Gong—”
“I won’t be needing one, but thank you.”
“He has his qinggong,” says Zhou Fei. “And we can switch when we need to.”
Li Yan had made one last-ditch attempt to stop them at the gates, and even though she doesn’t cry anymore as a tantrum tactic, she still knows how to whine so high that only dogs can hear her.
“Jie, are you sure about this?” she said, tugging on Zhou Fei’s wrist. “You shouldn’t go. Not if you’re pregnant. What if something happens to you?”
“I have him,” she said, patting Xie Yun’s elbow.
“I’ve gotten you out of the pain of certain death, A-Yan. Are you going to doubt me now?” said Xie Yun.
“Jie Fu, you better protect her, or I’ll throw you into the ocean to feed to the sharks.”
She sniffed and flounced away.
“Wonder where she learned that from,” Xie Yun said.
“Wouldn’t be me,” Zhou Fei said, mildly. “I would only feed you to turtles.”
The route out of the Forty-Eight Strongholds is too steep to ride, and Zhou Fei had actually gotten decent sleep last night, so they walk. The sky offers a watery disc of sun, turning the clouds around it soft as rabbit ears, and Xie Yun hands her a bun stuffed with Shepherd’s Purse and bits of minced pork as they get to the foot of the mountains.
“Did you make this?” she asks, biting into it. The insides are still hot, steam rising when she bites into it.
“Mhm,” he says, glancing at their map. “When your sleepyhead was still in bed.”
“You get up too early.”
“Someone just gets up long after sunrise,” Xie Yun says. He stows the map back in his collars and tightens their traveling bag more tightly over his chest. “How much walking should we do in a day? Sixty li? It might be too much.”
“I’ve traveled twice that in a day before.”
“We are not here to test the limits of human function, A-Fei. Sixty li. Less if it tires you out.”
“That would take us two weeks to get to Hengyang!”
“Just enough time for me to finish a bonus composition for Nichang Furen by the time we arrive,” says Xie Yun. “You know, just in case.”
“In case of what?”
“I don’t know, in case she wants to lecture me again.”
Zhou Fei raises her eyebrows. “Again? When did she lecture you before?”
The stillness of mountains gives way to the churning bustle of a city by water, and Zhou Fei mounts Dian Mu at Xie Yun’s urging so that people will stop jostling her in the crowd. He takes the halter and the lead, and the milling throng of morning activity parts around them.
“Plenty of times,” he says.
“Finish your bun.”
Zhou Fei frowns at her cooling veggie bun, as if to rebuke it for interrupting her conversation. She shoves the rest of it into her cheek, and then, around a full mouth, says, “What did she lecture you about?”
“Honoring the integrity of the heart.”
“...I don’t get it,” says Zhou Fei.
“You don’t read enough poetry,” Xie Yun says, woeful. “Nothing. It was nothing, but in case she does.”
She’s about to protest again when Dian Mu walks her through a cloud of frying fish smell, so thick and sweet that she can taste the crackle of oil-crisped skin beneath her tongue. “Wait,” she says. “Wait, where is that coming from?”
“Where is what coming from?” Xie Yun asks. “A-Fei?”
“Guniang, you’re going to have to be much more specific than that. The shao bing, the pork floss pastries, the winery down the road? The morning air?”
“The fish,” Zhou Fei says. “It smells so good. Where is it coming from?”
“Do you want some?” Xie Yun asks, then laughs when Zhou Fei nods frantically before he’s even done with his question. “You could have said that to lead with! Here—vendor, can we get one of your fish skewers, please?”
“Of course, let me get one for you.”
“Uhm,” Zhou Fei leans down until she can duck her head under the awning of the vendor’s stand, peeking into the window. Her head is close enough to Xie Yun that her hair tickles his cheek. “Can we get two?”
“I’m not hungry, A-Fei,” Xie Yun says.
“Yes, but I am,” says Zhou Fei, and just because she can and the vendor has turned away, kisses him on the cheekbone before sitting upright in her saddle again.
“Is it good?” Xie Yun asks once they get back on the road. “You really are sneaky, Zhou guniang, bribing me with kisses—”
“It’s good,” Zhou Fei says. The meat burns her tongue and the bones claw the roof of her mouth and the back of her throat when she swallows without chewing enough, but it’s so good she could cry, she doesn’t even care. Zhou Fei offers the untouched skewer to Xie Yun. “Here, try.”
“I thought you said you were going to finish both of them.”
“Just try,” she says. “You could probably make them better, though.”
And so they go.
They find an inn for the first night. Xie Yun tells her to take a bath before dinner, and she—falls asleep in the tub.
“Are you really trying to become seaweed?” he says, rolling his sleeves up to lift her out of the water. “We can find you a proper river, or an ocean if you are. Not a bathtub in an anonymous inn, somewhere we don’t know.”
“Portable seaweed,” she mumbles sleepily, wrapping her arms around his neck so she doesn’t slip out of his grip. Her wet skin presses against the embroidery of his robes and she shivers. Every touch and breath is magnified. “I can dress myself. Are we eating now?”
Xie Yun sets her down on a dry, warm sheet, and towels her off until her skin feels tender and new. “Do you even have energy to eat?”
“Yeah.” Zhou Fei rests her eyelids. When Xie Yun lets her go, she tips towards the bed, and he catches her before her head hits the pillow.
“I didn’t think so,” he says. “Sleep. You don’t have to eat now if you’re too tired.”
She yawns hugely. “What if the baby is hungry?”
Xie Yun pauses as he shakes out her sleep shirt. “Hmm.”
“I’ll wake you in the middle of the night.”
“What? No. You need to sleep.”
“I always wake up in the middle of the night.”
“You do? How do I not know?”
“I just lie where I am, staring at you, until I fall back asleep.”
She opens her eyes to watch Xie Yun loop the ties of her shirt with a bunny-ear knot. “Why?”
“I am not a deep sleeper. Stop asking so many questions,” he says, kissing her exposed collarbone when he finishes. “Then it’s settled. Sleep, Niangzi. I’ll wake you when the moon peeks in through the window.”
The fifth—or the sixth night, Zhou Fei has lost track—they don’t make it to the next city, so it’s sleeping under the stars and the fiery spray of a golden larch. It’s just as well, because tonight Zhou Fei gets one whiff of an egg tart that they’d gotten in the last village and has to run halfway down the mountain and throw up in a creek.
“This is cruel,” Xie Yun says cheerfully as he hands her a waterskin to rinse. “You love these egg tarts. Good thing we also got sesame da bing—can you eat that?”
The prospect of eating anything right now makes her heave again. Xie Yun nods sagely. “Not right now.”
He leaves to forage for fruits as Zhou Fei undoes the saddle on Dianmu, draping a blanket over her for the evening. Every night grows colder in the mountains, and Xie Yun’s hands are always icy no matter how thick his cloak is, but he’s insisted that Zhou Fei wear it during the windy afternoons when the breeze is biting.
“Perhaps you are not cold,” he reasoned, “but Xiao Maotou might not agree.”
Xiao Maotou. Little Kitten Head, he calls their unnamed child. Even if Xie Yun were good for nothing, he’d be good for names. Neither of them have brought up naming.
If I had a daughter, her nickname would be A-Yun. Zhou Fei remembers the sensation of him saying it, her ear to his shoulder, the swish of his ponytail upon her cheek on their way to Hengyang, just like they are now. He never wears his hair up anymore. He says it’s because he got married. She thinks it’s because it keeps him warmer if it’s down.
Did he know, back then, that he would die? Was it the inevitable end of all things, for him—a fleeting life and a sudden stop? Did he know, even then, and still think of names for children he’d never have? He couldn’t have known, because if he’d never met Zhou Fei, then maybe he’d still be running footloose and fancy-free through Jianghu. Just a blip in the universe, another blade of grass warmed by the sun.
The breeze carries his voice through the foliage. “Diandian, here, try this.”
He’s out of the woods now, but the shadow of death has never really left him. Zhou Fei imagines, briefly, a world where she’d have to bring up a child without him in it, and almost has to run back to the creek.
“A-Fei, try,” he says, shaking a cluster of huangpi fruits. “They’re a little sour, but that might help.”
“Where did you find these?” Zhou Fei asks, picking her way over a brambled network of browning vines.
“Up a tree. What were you thinking so hard about? Staring into the distance. I thought you’d seen something.” He chews. “You didn’t, did you?” She shakes her head. “How is Xiao Maotou? Are they okay with letting you eat now?”
Zhou Fei makes a face. “Maybe we can do what we did last night?” she suggests.
“Fine by me.”
A fallen log bisects part of the forest. Beside it is an ashen pit where Xie Yun makes a new fire, where other travelers must have found cover for the night. Enough lichen and moss have grown over the spots where someone would sit and lie and burn their kindling, and there are no footprints in the dirt. Xie Yun pats down the mulch of gravel and larch needles, then beckons for Zhou Fei to join him.
“What about you?”
“You lean on me, I lean on the log. Come on.”
“You have to sleep too!”
“I’ll keep watch for a while. You can watch when I wake you up to eat, then I’ll catch some shuteye.”
“Niangzi, do you think your husband survived all these years out on the road by spending every night getting perfect sleep in a warm bed? I’ve slept in caves and burrowing holes and hid in peat bogs from search parties.” Xie Yun holds his hand out for her. “Come on.”
The arrangement is familiar and easy—Xie Yun settles into the nook of the fallen log and the trunk of the golden larch, robes spread around him, and then Zhou Fei removes his cloak to sink into the space between his spread thighs. Even through the thickness of his robes, his heartbeat lurches against her spine, always slightly uneven, like the gasp of a child crying.
“Warm enough?” he says, drawing the cloak up to her ears. The mink lining tickles her nose.
“Yeah.” It is, in fact, a little chilly where his arm is wrapped around her middle, but the fire dances at their feet and warms the bottoms of her aching soles. “What are you going to do? Finish your play?”
“Most likely,” Xie Yun says.
“What’s it about so far?”
“‘To put someone in field of death is to force them to live.’”
“You recognize it! Yes, Sunzi Bingfa.”
“I didn’t think you would write a military play for Nichang Furen. Will she even like it?”
“She doesn’t have to buy it if she doesn’t want it, it’s not what she commissioned, anyway. Besides, it’s not a military play,” he says. “It’s a romantic tragedy.”
Xie Yun leans back, considers. The moon is lambent across his face. Without thinking, Zhou Fei snuggles herself deeper into him, the needles of golden larch shifting under her. It surrounds them like an exploded handful of down.
“A tree,” he says, “that was born into the body of a human boy.”
“...more cerebral than your usual work.”
“He didn’t know he was supposed to be a tree, or that he wanted to be one, until he got hurt,” Xie Yun continues, tucking the cloak around them more securely. “And when he did, leaves would sprout from his wounds, and the blood would stop, but the wounds wouldn’t close. So for a long time, he lived in perfect care, and snipped off all the bits of tree and leaf and flower that would grow out of his flesh every time he got hurt. His family hid him away, ashamed to have a cursed son.”
“What was his name?”
“Haven’t thought of one yet. If you can think of a nice name, I’ll use your suggestion!”
“Hmm.” Zhou Fei tucks her head back into the curve of his neck. “I’ll think.”
“When the Tree Boy was a child, he met a warrior, who was training under her father to become the next leader of their nomadic plains clan. She was always injured, and though he had seen other people injured in his life, the Tree Boy couldn’t imagine how she could keep going with all that pain. But when he asked her, ‘Do you not hurt?’ she always said, ‘Not if it means something.’ And so he decided that he wanted every leaf and every blade of grass that grew out of him to mean something.”
“Was it always growing out of him?”
“He could lie down,” says Xie Yun, “and turn into his own burial plot within the week.”
“Yes, well,” Xie Yun says, reasonably, “it’s a good thing he was stubborn. And when he met his friend, this warrior, he learned to fight with her. Learned how to fall without hurt, learned how to hurt without bleeding, and learned how to bleed without dying. But then they both grew up, and he learned what it meant to be a warrior of a nomadic clan. The neighboring kingdoms surrounding them descended upon their plains to stake their claim. She vanished into the wars that ravaged their homes. He could only assume that she perished. War found his own kingdom and his family was called into battles, and many of them never returned.
“He almost died, too. He lay there, bleeding, and waited to turn into his own grave, where he would grow his own flowers, and where someday a stranger might pass by and wonder why this burial plot was remembered before any other. He waited and waited, until a bloody figure appeared over him and pulled him onto their back, walking him out of that battlefield of silent bodies.” Xie Yun tips his face down, cheek pressing into Zhou Fei’s baby hairs. “A-Fei, are you asleep?”
“Mm.” Sleep cradles her head in the crook of its elbow. “Then what?”
“And the Tree Boy was so tired, but his savior said, in a voice ruined by smoke, ‘If there comes a day that I die…’”
Her dreams bloom dark and slimy.
First she’s at a table, eating, every bite of food like chewing sand. The floor is warm beneath her. She could be floating.
Then a server comes by with their food and screams, “Where did all this blood come from?”
You will bleed out where you lie.
Then it’s—someone faceless, someone in purple, her hands crusted with glittering poison. The air smells of smoke and blood and young trees split open, sap turning the air yellow.
You will bleed out where you lie.
Then, the Forty-Eight Strongholds, a child whose hair is done in looped buns. They stand out like two eyes in the back of her mourning hood. In the stillness of the morning, every sob she chokes back is a hiccup. A sword at her hip. A necklace at her throat. It’s carved from wood.
“Child,” says Zhou Fei, “who are you mourn—”
A casket wheels by them, open and pulled by horses, with Xie Yun’s face haloed in chrysanthemums.
Zhou Fei’s stomach bleeds blue.
The child breaks free from her place to run after it. “Diedie,” she sobs. “Die!”
A child, her child, their child.
“Guniang!” Zhou Fei runs after her. “Guniang, don’t, he’s—”
“I don’t want you!” she shouts, turning, and Zhou Fei stumbles back at the force of her voice. It strips the mountains of every other noise. “I want my father! Why did it have to be him? Why not you?”
If there comes a day that I die—
Zhou Fei wakes to a prickling sweat and her heart behind her eyes, head throbbing like a war drum. Without thinking, she says, “Xie Yun,” unsure of what she really wants from saying it. Just the sound of it feels safe.
“Hey, shh.” His hand at her back. “You’re okay.”
“You sure were dreaming, A-Fei,” he says, taking her hand. “Your hands are so clammy, and you kept talking.”
“How long was I asleep?” she asks, disoriented. The fire has melted to warm embers.
“A while. I didn’t want to wake you.” He presses his lips to the damp of her temple when she collapses back into him.
“What was I talking about?”
Xie Yun hesitates long enough for Zhou Fei to squint at him. “Don’t lie. I know that face.”
“Caught out, as always,” he laughs. “Just ‘gone,’ a few times. I couldn’t understand most of it, you were mumbling, but you hardly ever sleeptalk like that. I counted ‘gone,’ three times. Tell me about your dream.”
The sky is ashen and moonburned. When Zhou Fei leans her head back, she can see the pinking bruise of dawn starting in the east. Half wet. All fire.
“What if they hate me?”
A blinking pause. “When did you start caring about what people think of you?”
“What if our child hates me?”
“A-Fei, where is this—” Xie Yun frowns. “Was that what you dreamed about?”
“Answer the question!”
Xie Yun takes her hand in both of his, the way he always does when her head starts to go under. Deer-owl-reaching. “Xiao Maotou will not hate you,” he says. “Listen to yourself, really listen. That you are so worried to give them a life they are happy to live already means that you will be a better mother than you know. You sit here and you worry, you walk and you worry, and you worry on horseback. I notice, A-Fei. You worry that this child will grow up in two great shadows and think that, like you, they will have to spend their life trying to be their own light.”
“No child asks to be born.”
“No. But when they are, it’s all we can do to love them enough that they believe being born is so much brighter than never having been at all. Hm?” He reaches up and lifts a sweaty strand of hair off of her face. “How does that sound?”
“If you say so.”
“Oh, I know so, Zhou Daxia. And listen, Xiao Maotou,” Xie Yun says, patting her rounded belly, “if you keep scaring your Niang like this, we’re going to have words. Okay? I might not be as fierce as her, but don’t think Diedie won’t lecture you.”
Zhou Fei wants to cry. She wants to kiss him, too, kind of. Instead she says, “I’m hungry,” and he laughs and kisses her anyway, and she tears up around her huangpi. When he calls her a crybaby, she says that they’re just too sour.
Sometime between the ninth and tenth day, Zhou Fei is wracked with a craving for water chestnuts and sour grapefruit so intense that she’s winded by it.
“How far are we from the next town?” she asks. The dirt path through these hills is well-trodden, but deserted. It must be some kind of trade route that only sees traffic in summer. All around them are the tracks of cart wheels that had rolled through clay and mud in rain, then fossilized in the sun until only the spinal grooves remained. Everywhere are the tiny craters of horse hooves.
“A little over one shichen, if we keep going at the pace we are now,” Xie Yun says without looking at their map. “Why, do you feel sick?”
“No.” Zhou Fei loosens her grip on Dian Mu’s reins. “But I would do anything for some water chestnuts right now.”
“Oh, we don’t need to get to the next town for that, any village along the way should have some. Chestnuts, you said?” Xie Yun turns to glance at her. His face has deepened in color in the past few days under the sun, weak as the light has been. Zhou Fei likes it on him.
“And sour grapefruit.”
“Grapefruit might be harder. But chestnuts shouldn’t be a problem at all. You make this too easy, A-Fei.”
“What, should I have more difficult cravings?”
“Certainly all of yours have been tame so far,” he says. “Babies don’t know what they want. Pickled fish? Garlic crabs? Watermelons when they’re not in season? There’s nothing more painful than craving a fruit out of season when you’re pregnant. Worth shedding tears over, in fact.”
“How would you know?”
Xie Yun shrugs, the cobalt drape of his cloak dancing with the movement. “I met many pregnant girls when I was a wandering vagrant.”
“Really? What about their families?”
“Not everyone is so lucky.”
Zhou Fei swallows. “Yeah. That’s true.” She chews on a dry patch of lip. “Did you help them?”
“Here and there. Had to, didn’t I? I’ve never learned how to mind my own business. Some of them were grateful for it. Most of them were suspicious.”
“You inspire suspicion,” Zhou Fei mutters.
“What’s that? Didn’t hear. A-Fei, why don’t we stop for a watering break? There’s an outpost up ahead, I want to go ask the people there for some advice.”
“You need advice? You.”
“A fool pretends he knows all,” says Xie Yun. “A wise man pretends he knows nothing. Yes, advice. Why don’t you refill the canteens—the stream is loud down by the gully, the water will be clear.”
He helps her dismount, catching her elbow with his hand, and Zhou Fei watches as he takes the incline of the hill towards a dilapidated shed.
“Okay, Dian Mu,” she says, looping her fingers into Dian Mu’s halter. “Watering time.”
The water is nearly too shallow to bottle, but Zhou Fei walks along the banks until an outcropping of earth juts into the stream and she can lean over with the mouth of their canteen aimed downwards. Crouching like this is odder than ever—a lump grinds into her ribcage if she tries to curl in too tight against herself, like she’s trying to hold a pomelo in the curve of her torso.
It’s not going to be a fun third stage, as far as Yan-daifu had said. Downstream, Dian Mu sips from the banks, and then raises her head to look at her.
“Imagine being an animal,” she says, taking Dian Mu by the halter. “You don’t have to care about who your baby is going to be. Just that they come out alive. If they’ll be sad, or angry all the time, or if they wanted to be here at all. Must be pretty good, huh?”
Dian Mu regards her with unflappable calm.
“I agree,” says Zhou Fei. “Okay, let’s get back before Xie Yun finds some other way to anger an entire city we’ve never heard of.” Though, historically, she’s the one who’s best at doing that.
She hears his laughter before she sees him, darting amongst trees, a quick green thing. He blends into the shadows, unlike his company—two young maidens around Zhou Fei’s age, perhaps younger, and they cover their answering laughter behind the billowing floral sleeves of their robes. Then they nod, and point into the near distance.
“Then, thank you, both of you,” Xie Yun says, holding his folded fists to them, and they giggle again before they part.
Zhou Fei stares at them as they go, embroidered pouches swinging from their wrists. They’re noble women, perhaps, to be dressed in such fine clothes, and ones that never have to fight.
“You should have said something!” the taller one says, nudging her friend. Her sister, perhaps. “When do you ever see a young man like that out in these parts?”
“He must be from the Jiankang region. His accent, didn’t you hear it? They’re all sweet-talking rich men there, who knows what kind of family he has.”
“For a face like that? I wouldn’t care!” Their voices begin to flatten into the hills. “Though with the way he’s dressed, he must be married…”
Xie Yun jogs back to her, eyes glittering. “A-Fei! Guess what, I—”
He grunts, then stumbles back slightly, when Zhou Fei drops Dian Mu’s reins and, without thinking, throws her arms around his neck and pulls him downwards into a hug. Xie Yun is tall enough that she has to be on tiptoe to reach over his shoulders, but half a week of traveling and a weighted belly means she’s yanking him down to her height.
What’s she to say? She refuses to entertain the stupidest thing that has ever crossed her mind—Don’t smile at other people like you smile at me, because when has she ever cared that her husband is a flirtatious busybody? A total of never. She’s escaped death because Xie Yun could flirt his way out of hell. She’s gotten so much free food out of Xie Yun knowing how to sweet-talk his way into a deal. She’s not going to start being silly now.
“I…” She curls her fingers into his fur hood. “I’m...you can’t get rid of me. I’m going to follow you everywhere. I don’t care what you have to say about that.”
Xie Yun says nothing for a long, pulsing moment. “Of course,” he says. “Who am I without A-Fei? Just a candle without its flame.”
“I mean it!”
“I know. I do too.” He reaches back and undoes her grip from his cloak, taking her hands in his. “Come on. I saw those traveling women with chestnuts and asked where they got them. There’s a village half a shichen from here! You wanted to eat some, right?”
“Then let’s go.”
“Hold on, close your eyes.”
Xie Yun stares. “Why, what are you up to? No.”
“Just do it.”
He raises his eyebrow at her, then obeys. Dian Mu, bored, has bent down to graze, and just like the way they’d come, the path is deserted to everything that breathes.
Zhou Fei leans in.
On their last night out of Hengyang, they meet bandits.
Hengyang is nestled in the heart of a swooping valley, the city a handful of fractured seashell and pearl at the bottom of the green bowl of the hills. Now that they’re coming from the East, Zhou Fei doesn’t recognize any of these open lands, and the last trek is through cliff and grotto.
“I remember this place,” Xie Yun says. “It was dark the last time I was passing through, new moon, no fire.”
“You were running, I assume.”
“As one does,” Xie Yun says, and even on horseback Zhou Fei can see the apple of his cheek rounding out with his smile. He holds a quietly crackling torch overhead, fire lighting their way, and the light makes every stone dance. “I thought I was passing through a Guanyin grotto, but I couldn’t be sure.”
“Up ahead. We can pass through the grotto to get to the other side of the mountain.”
Zhou Fei dismounts to lead Dian Mu by hand, and Xie Yun waits for her to draw up next to him to keep walking. One side, her horse, and the other, her husband. When she takes his hand, it tingles with cold.
“Well, what?” asks Xie Yun.
“Aren’t you going to tell me the story of how this place came to be? Or why you were running? You always have a story to go with places like this.”
“Oh. I was running because I picked a fight.”
She frowns. “That’s it?”
“I did that a lot.”
“I don’t doubt it. Over what?”
“I don’t remember. Probably another man bullying a pretty girl. Ow!”
“Fine! Fine.” Xie Yun squares his shoulders. “Some of Cao Ning’s men had seen me with Wang Lin jiangjun. I didn’t think they’d recognize me, but they must have seen my likeness somewhere. First they followed me here to Hengyang, where I’d come to sell Nichang Furen a play so I’d have enough money to travel to the Forty-Eight Strongholds. Then they chased me until I fled into the mountains. They were too intimidated to scale them, especially since it was your territory.”
Right before he’d gotten to Forty-Eight Strongholds. That had to have been—over ten years ago, now.
“Did they know what you were going to do?”
“They might have suspected. But I don’t think they expected it to work. They didn’t even really believe that Zhou Yitang was still alive, no one had seen him in so long.”
“So it was like that.”
“So it was,” Xie Yun hummed.
“Were you really always on the run like that, before?”
“Day and night, all four corners of the world and every sea under the sky were my home.”
“Not if I didn’t stop to think about it. So I didn’t. It doesn’t matter now, who would have imagined I’d be back here one day with my wife? Here, wait, let’s see if there’s any leftover incense. People will leave ones they didn’t use for passersby sometimes.” Xie Yun parts from her, leaning his torch on the damp wall of the grotto. Zhou Fei slows with Dian Mu and tilts her head back.
The statues of Guanyin and two other deities, Simianshen and Dishitian, loom high overhead, with Guanyin’s crown nearly brushing the ceiling of the grotto. The stone is worn from centuries of elements, her face stained, long dark streaks trailing over her shoulders like hair. Xie Yun returns with two incense sticks, and one that’s broken in half.
“Found some,” he says, and holds the tips to the torch fire. “Here. Careful not to let the ash burn you.”
Zhou Fei raises the incense—Xie Yun gave her two whole ones, with the broken one for himself—and shuts her eyes.
Guanshiyin Pusa, please watch over my family. Please watch over this baby. Please watch over my husband, their father. I don’t really care what happens to me. If I live, I live. If I die, I die. After all is said and done, I have made too many enemies and killed too many men for you to treat me with as much mercy. But please don’t let anything happen to them.
They bow three times, and add their sticks to the unkempt bronze incense pot. Xie Yun plants his between Zhou Fei’s, two long sandwiching one short.
“What did you ask for?” says Zhou Fei.
Xie Yun tilts his chin.
“You want me to guess, of course.”
“Hmm, no. I’ll tell you. I asked Guanyin to let our child be born healthy, or at least happy, because you can’t always have both. That you get through it well. That, no matter where either of our days end, they’ll have a family waiting for them to go home, where they won’t be struck or punished. And that they grow up to be whatever and whoever they want to be.”
The walls of the grotto roughen where the carving work had been treated with less care, and then the evidence of human tools and hands fade completely as they take the narrowing path towards the other side of the mountain. Darkened tributaries of tunnels lead into unlit black, as if they’re just two crows revisiting the carcass of long-bleached bones.
“Yeah?” Xie Yun swings Zhou Fei’s hand. “I have a question for you tonight, Niangzi.”
“Is it stupid?”
“Yes,” says Xie Yun.
“Fine, so what is it?”
“If I had died as planned, and you got married to a short-lived husband like I asked, would you have had a child?” Xie Yun’s mouth screws up in its thinking line, a swoop and a corner smile. “In twenty years, would I come back and meet Zhou Daxia’s daughter, and have to tell her the story of the man her mother ran to the edge of time to save?”
“I don’t know. I don’t think I could have loved anyone else in the twenty years it’d take you to come back to me.”
Xie Yun is silent for so long that Zhou Fei turns to him, and his expression is—deer-owl-shuttered, the quiet of something that’s steeling itself not to run. He catches her gaze and laughs, but it’s flat, the backs of his eyes swallowing the sparks.
“Couldn’t have loved anyone else.”
“The word love does not make its home in your mouth,” Xie Yun says. “Forgive this weak man for folding like a paper lantern at the sound of it.”
“What? I love you.”
It is the immutable truth of things, such as saying I speak, I live, I walk, I fight, something that is so much a part of her that it seems unfathomable to doubt. I love you. Of all things that Xie Yun can look at her and simply know, this shocks him every time.
“If I could go back in time and tell myself that one day Zhou Guniang would say such words to me,” Xie Yun slaps his hand over his heart without letting Zhou Fei’s go, so the backs of her knuckles are trapped between his palm and his chest, “my past self would laugh in my face.”
“I’m having your baby, Xie Daxia,” Zhou Fei says drily. “We’re married.”
“We are! And I am the luckiest person in this world for it. But can’t you have said it with, perhaps, more feeling?”
“What, you want me to sing it for the hills to hear, like Mu Xiaoqiao?”
“Ah, no, no, no thank you,” Xie Yun says, as Zhou Fei takes a great, sucking inhale, as though to belt it right then and there. “Your cut-and-dry style is quite to my liking. But, really, how did you marry a playwright, yet still have no appreciation for the ar—”
Xie Yun shuts up, smile sliding from his face, when Zhou Fei balks.
“What did you hear?”
Xie Yun casts a sweeping glance over their surroundings, then tugs on Zhou Fei to follow. Dian Mu comes quietly and without protest, hooves treading over dead grass and leaves, and they duck into one of the darkened tunnels of the grotto. Xie Yun dunks his torch into a standing puddle of water that has been wet for so long that algae has begun to bloom in the center.
“...better luck for the next cohort, that damn woman and her damn needles. We could have gotten in today if A-Feng hadn’t slipped and fallen and woken up the entire pavilion. Don’t bring him next time, he doesn’t do anything.”
“A-Feng is the only person who’s ever seen Southern Blade Daxia. If she shows up, he’s the only one who could tell us that our time was up and we would have to scram. Sure, he’s useless otherwise, but could any of you pick her out in a crowd?”
Zhou Fei scowls, exchanging looks with Xie Yun, whose eyebrows have come together in their strain to hear the conversation over grotto winds.
“Do you know an A-Feng?”
“Like hell I do.”
“Me neither. An anonymous bandit you let off unharmed, once upon a time? Who else did you upset in Hengyang? Hm. They probably aren’t all from Hengyang though, come to think of it.”
Heavy footfalls pass through, drawing closer to them. Judging by the sound, there has to be at least a dozen of them, feet dragging through the grotto. A chorus of crunching leaves runs into one long, dry note, leaving red dust in their wake.
“I don’t know if A-Feng ever actually saw Southern Blade Daxia. Who knows if he’s making that up, too.”
“He told me once that she’s a little girl.”
“See? That’s how you know it’s all horse shit.”
“Well, she wouldn’t be a little girl now, would she? It’s been years. We better get that shipment of Zhuming herbs by the end of this week. Gossip travels so fast in Jianghu, if the stories about Southern Blade Daxia are true, who knows—she might already be on her way.”
Xie Yun tugs her by the belt deeper into the tunnel when the group of bandits pass by with their own torches, a rumble of concern rippling through them. Some of them carry their injured brethren on their backs; some of the injured seem to be unconscious. Minimal blood. Yuyiban must still be fighting with needles.
“I heard that the Southern Blade was married into the royal family,” one of them says. “So the stories say.”
“Oh, very good,” Xie Yun whispers, right at Zhou Fei’s ear. “Other way around, though.”
“Don’t tell me you were the one who—”
“Didn’t the Southern Crown Prince die moments after he was crowned?”
“It doesn’t matter. All that matters is that the next cohort gets the Zhuming herbs, and we can finally bring them back to the ailing villages. Sure, Disha is gone, but what’s the difference? What use are martial heroes if they don’t care to save us? In the end, it’s always the civilians who suffer.”
Then they’re gone, the last of their backs turning the bend in the grotto towards the side of the mountain from which the two of them had come. Zhou Fei straightens, nudging Dian Mu’s head with her shoulder, and exhales.
“They’re after Zhuming herbs? Interesting.”
“What does Nichang Furen need Zhuming herbs for, anyway,” Zhou Fei says. Xie Yun only quirks his mouth, unknowing, when she looks to him. “All it was good for was your Three Flavor Soup. Otherwise…”
Xie Yun crosses his arms. “It’s certainly not useless, and if Ying-xiong is out there, developing new medicines, then who’s to say he hasn’t figured out a new way to cultivate it, a new way to use it? He’s the great poisons master. If I’ve heard correctly, he’s made quite the name for himself across Jianghu.”
“And what do they mean, ailing villages,” Zhou Fei says. “Which ones? More than one. There’s something wrong, we need to figure it out.”
“Yeah. Let’s go.”
Qiaoyun House is as it always has been, a sprawling pavilion within the heart of Hengyang, and haloed with the warmth of orchid incense and peony tea. If she closes her eyes, she can still remember this street, the noise along it, and Xie Yun’s floating gait when he carried her up the steps.
Zhou Fei refuses to admit that she’s tired, but when Dian Mu comes to a stop, she doesn’t rush to dismount. The streets are quiet now that evening has deepened from the light-speckled flurry of dinner to deep-ocean calm. Xie Yun leads Dian Mu to one of the trading posts nearby, where horses are reined, and reaches up to help her down.
“Think they’ll kick us out for not having an invite again?” Xie Yun asks, straightening the ties of Zhou Fei’s cloak.
“Again, as if you gave them a choice last time.”
He laughs. “How is Xiao Maotou?”
“Craving stir-fried niangao. And more grapefruit.”
Xie Yun waits for her to ascend stairs with him, just a hair slower than her usual ponytail swinging hop-skip. Sixteen weeks in, her belly protrudes from her robes in earnest now, and while it hasn’t gotten unwieldy yet, she has to lean a little now to see the underside of it
“As soon as we tell Nichang Furen of our presence, I’ll go find something for you. Still no guarantee on those grapefruits.”
His knock echoes sharply down the street. When the wind picks up, Zhou Fei leans closer into his side, hiding behind the breadth of his body from the gusts. Behind the doors comes a furious tangle of whispers. Then, the door cracks open to show a single eye, a strip of face, pearl-inlaid hairstick catching the torchlight outside.
“Who is it?”
Xie Yun raises his folded fists in greeting and inclines his head. “Guniang, I am a familiar acquaintance of your martial master, Nichang Furen. This is—”
“I’m sorry, we’re not seeing any guests at this time.”
“Wait!” Xie Yun jams his fingers in the door as she begins to shut it, and Zhou Fei winces at the dull crush of wood against his fingertips. “Please, Guniang, don’t misunderstand. We’re here to offer help, not request help.”
She pauses, suspicion sour through the door. “Offer help? For what? We do not need your help.”
“Ling Xue, who is it?”
“I—” The girl turns. “I don’t know, qianbei, they say they’re familiar with Shifu.”
“Familiar?” Zhou Fei recognizes that voice. The door opens wider, and Ling Yu appears at the girl’s side, taller, wearing a thick silk cloak. “Who—oh! Qiansui You, Zhou Daxia, what brings you all the way to Qiaoyun House?”
Zhou Fei salutes, this time, as well. “Apologies for appearing without notice,” she says. “It is not our intention to bring trouble or attention to Nichang Furen or the rest of Yuyiban. As we were telling your wanbei here, this time we’re here to offer help.”
“Oh?” She slides her gaze to Xie Yun. “Even as a scholar of the mountains, not a single thread of information escapes your very keen ears, does it, Qiansui You?”
“It appears not.”
Ling Yu nods, once, and then opens the doors all the way. “Come inside.” She slips her hands out of her cloak to take the lantern from Ling Xue, and both of them are bandaged, delicately, from her wrists to her fingertips. “Ling Xue, go see that there’s enough tea for our guests.”
“It’s not a short way to travel from the Forty-Eight Strongholds,” Ling Yu says as she leads them through the pavilion courtyards. “Did you specially come all this way?”
“We did. It is not so long, either.”
Ling Yu rounds a corner into one of the corridors. “So you have heard about the bandits plaguing Hengyang.”
“Petty ones, we’ve been told.”
“I assume you heard from that sister of yours.”
“Yes—please excuse her, if she gave Yuyiban any trouble. She’s still young.”
“She is not wrong,” Ling Yu says. “They are petty, as in, they are not an organized threat as Disha once was, but they are angry, and for good reason. Their anger has surpassed reasoning that our simple performance troupe can provide.”
“Wouldn’t it be safer for you all to travel—disappear overnight, as you always do?” asks Xie Yun.
“Not when Shifu’s health falters. It is all we have been able to do, protect Qiaoyun House and our master as we wait for her to come back to full health.”
“But what is it that plagues Hengyang? And the cities around you?” asks Zhou Fei. “And, Nichang Furen’s health...does it falter because of what she once did for me?”
Ling Yu pauses, finally, and turns. The rich light of the lantern turns her clouded blue and grey, the underside of frozen lake in winter.
“We do not know,” she says. “Several cities have called it River Fever. Those who sail upon the merchant routes fell ill first, and when they came ashore to recuperate, the fever spread. It does not kill, but it fatigues. It leaves cities sluggish and defenseless as people struggle.”
“That’s why they want Zhuming herbs,” Zhou Fei murmurs.
Xie Yun narrows his eyes, thinking. “Alone, Zhuming herbs don’t do much to help fever and fatigue. It ensures flow of internal energy through your meridians, but if there’s an imbalance caused by illness, then it would have to be paired with something else and brewed to have any effect.”
“Such as?” asks Ling Yu.
“I don’t know.”
“I could write to Ying-xiong, ask him?”
Ling Yu beckons for them to follow again, and then knocks on the doors of Nichang Furen’s quarters. “Enter,” comes the reply.
“Shifu, Qiansui You and Southern Blade Zhou Daxia have come to pay you a visit and offer their assistance,” Ling Yu says, stepping inside. “Shall I bring them in?”
“Zhou Fei?” Nichang Furen’s honeyed voice floats through the entryway. “And Qiansui You? I—well, yes, bring them in immediately.”
“Nichang Furen, it’s been a while.”
“You two!” She stands in a cascade of pigeon-grey silk, hairsticks catching the candlelight when she crosses the room towards them. The sway of her walk has always been regal, like every step is a dance, and a surge of affection that surprises even Zhou Fei rises in her chest. She’s missed Nichang Furen and her quick tongue. “Did you come all the way from Forty-Eight Strongholds?”
“Yes, we did. Small matter.”
“It doesn’t matter how old you get, does it? The world itself couldn’t pin you down.” Nichang Furen settles herself back onto her cushion. “But tell me, what brings you here this time? What is this offer of assistance?”
“Your disciple told us of River Fever,” Xie Yun says. “And we’ve heard that petty bandits have been attacking your estate in an attempt to intercept deliveries of Zhuming herbs. Although, from the sound of it, they’re not bandits. Just people who need help.”
Nichang Furen takes a cup of tea that Ling Yu pours for her, and regards them in thoughtful silence. “And?”
“If your health requires Zhuming herbs, then I believe it’s my responsibility to address the trouble that it’s brought you.” Zhou Fei shifts. “And I have—I know a little bit about Zhuming herbs. So does Xie Yun. If it hasn’t worked for you already, he and I might be able to help find other methods for you.”
She lets more silence fall over them as she takes a long, pensive sip. Nichang Furen’s lip rouge never comes away whenever she eats and drinks, as if the ruby brilliance glows through her skin rather than sitting atop it. “Do you really think the damage of repairing a single girl’s internal energy harmony could haunt me for so long?” she says, not unkindly. Her eyes are twinkling. “You really have a savior complex, Zhou Feifei. Not one that will kill you, but a heart too big. Just like your grandfather.”
Zhou Fei ducks her smile towards the floor, but the tip of her head unbalances her, and the floor fuzzes in her field of vision.
Nichang Furen, still studying her teacup, sighs. “There’s not much you can do tonight. They’ve come and gone. If you insist on staying, then you and Qiansui You are always welcome at Qiaoyun House, so—Zhou Fei? Zhou Fei!”
The ground meets her like thundercloud meets lightning: a flicker of light and the bone-rattling crash.
Cool hands on her face.
“I’m fine, Xie Meimei,” she says, and then her head goes under.
If there comes a day that I die, what will you do?
Before me? If you died before me?
Then I’d eat well, drink well, and travel well. I’d do enough for the both of us, and make sure to live a long life. Or else it’d be such a waste!
You want the real answer?
Was that not the real one?
If you died before me—I would find where your body lies, and I would break my feet and break my legs, stand in the earth, and put down my heart where I have roots. I’d grow deep into the ground so that no one could tell me to leave, and all I could do would be to stay, guarding your bones until they turn to ash. Let the seasons pass over us, until you come back as a flower, then a bird that makes its life in my branches, then as a human again, leaning against this tree who you will never know. That’s what I would do.
Waking is a whipcrack, the whistle and the landing, with none of the blood. Zhou Fei jolts, the phantom sting of it in her back, and wakes to a bed.
A shadowed silhouette quivers over her, and they lean in close when she blinks and tries to sit up. All her breaths are foggy and panicked, like she’s trying to expel the dream from her body in gasps. “Xie Yun,” she says, without knowing if it’s him.
“He’s in the apothecary, getting you some medicine,” says Ling Yu. She offers her bandaged hand when Zhou Fei grasps at empty air. Her hands are smaller and warmer than his. “He’ll be back soon. You fainted, Zhou Guniang, you’re exhausted, but you’ll be fine. You shouldn’t have traveled such a long way when you’re pregnant.”
Pregnant—Zhou Fei’s hand drops to her belly, her hand pressing into the bump like she’ll be able to feel Xiao Maotou through her skin.
“The baby is fine, too,” Ling Yu says. “Cranky, but fine. Shifu checked. Its vital energy is flowing well.”
Relief makes her slump. Zhou Fei props her weight on the heel of her other hand, with her palm still resting over her lower abdomen. Ling Yu studies her bump for a moment, then smiles. “How far along are you?”
“Uhm—four months, about.”
“You convinced Qiansui You to let you come here, didn’t you?”
Zhou Fei opens her mouth to protest, then shuts it, and Ling Yu laughs, a tinkling noise.
“I figured you must have. We are not friends, but we know of his movements through Jianghu by way of the plays he sends us, by the stretches of time he takes and the kinds of paper and fabric he writes on. For years after he vanished from all known places, we thought he’d died.” She smiles. “But then work arrived from him again two years ago, finding us on the road, a play about a wandering ghost in wedding robes. Nichang Furen just knew. It must have been you.”
“Ah…” Zhou Fei nods. “Yes, it was.”
Ling Yu tucks a thread of filmy gauze bandage back in place where one free end has begun to escape from its wrappings. The valleys between her fingers have started bleeding through. “When I opened the door to you two, I felt like I’d stepped into the past. Only this time, I wasn’t trying to chase you both out. Qiansui You’s panic for your well-being, however—a familiar thing.”
“He’s always like that.”
“Worse now,” Ling Yu says. “He’s like a hissing tiger around you.”
“Here he comes now,” Ling Yu says, standing without elaborating, and on cue Xie Yun pushes the quarter doors open with a wrapped bundle of apothecary medicines.
“A-Fei, you’re awake,” he says, dropping the package on the table and striding across the room to the bed. One of his hands goes to the wrist at her belly, and the other to her cheek. His fingertips are ice cold, but his palm is warm, the way his hands always get when he’s shot with adrenaline. “How are you feeling? Sick, still?”
“I will be in the disciple quarters,” Ling Yu says, rising from her stool by Zhou Fei’s pillow. “May the both of you rest well.”
Zhou Fei finds and holds Xie Yun’s wrist, stroking his muffled-crying pulse with her thumb. “I’m fine. Just overexerted myself.”
“I shouldn’t have—”
“I wanted this,” Zhou Fei says, before he can finish. “I insisted. I’m sorry I scared you.”
Xie Yun leans in until his forehead presses to hers.
“Someone told me that they were going to follow me everywhere, no matter what I had to say about it,” he murmurs. “Don’t let go of my hand.”
By morning, Xie Yun has already drafted a letter to Ying Hecong. There’s a note left on a scrap of parchment beside the letter which says, Duangwang-fei, take a look at this letter to Ying-xiong. If it suits you, then send it out as soon as you can.
She unrolls the scroll beside it, and drapes her cloak around her shoulders against the chill to read.
Hoping you are well, wherever this letter may find you. There have been disturbances in Hengyang and neighboring cities due to the imports of Zhuming herbs from the Little Medicine Valley, and bands of armed civilians have taken matters into their own hands. Some have descended upon Qiaoyun House.
Please come by Qiaoyun House of Hengyang within three weeks’ time. Bring with you the appropriate ingredients that would help civilians with what they are calling River Fever—a malady that causes incapacitating fatigue and sluggishness. Bring, also, whatever can help regulate internal energy imbalances, for the master of Qiaoyun House.
P.S. You still owe me for letting you draw a full vial of my blood to study.
Zhou Fei almost laughs through a mouthful of tea at the last bit, and then rolls the letter back up to send for later. Xie Yun’s handwriting is far better than hers—she’d wondered vaguely if any of the letters she left him in Penglai were ever legible, but he always read and replied to every single one.
“You’re awake!” Ling Xue says. Zhou Fei shivers in the sleeting cold of Hengyang. Even fully dressed, the wind finds the hems of her cloak and forces its nails into her skin. “Qiansui You said that you wake up around this time. Are you hungry?”
“Where is he?”
“He said that he was going to go get some things for you. He’ll be back before evening.”
Zhou Fei blinks, then peeks her head into the courtyard. An unforgiving freezing rain comes down in sheets in the courtyard of Qiaoyun House.
“Did you want to eat anything? He asked us to keep some of our soup and congee warm for you. We also have some leftover roasted goose from a banquet several nights ago.”
“Anything is fine, Ling Xue guniang.”
Xie Yun doesn’t return as she eats her lunch in silence. She keeps the doors open to watch for him, even if the icy breezes make the panes rattle. Nichang Furen appears in the entryway just as she’s finishing, and knocks against one of them to announce herself.
“Furen.” Zhou Fei stands. “Thank you Furen for your hospitality. I came here to offer help, and yet—”
Nichang Furen waves an airy, manicured hand. “Sit down, good heavens. We’re each other’s people, are we not? Rid yourself of that fluff, and close these doors. It’s frigid outside, and you are, as I have learned, with child.”
“Y-yes, I. I am.” Zhou Fei sits, intelligently.
“Just yesterday it seemed like I was still chastising that rascal for trying to be smart with me.” She sinks into the cushion across from Zhou Fei and sets a ribboned bundle of fabric upon the table. “That boy really thought he could lie to my face about matters of the heart. I let him off easy because something seemed gravely wrong at the time, and there was, with him being so sick. But now here he is, biting every hand that comes near his pregnant wife.” She sighs. What on earth had Xie Yun done when she fainted? “Men. But anyway, how are you, Xiao Feifei? Is it at least progressing well?”
“It is, Furen.”
“Have you thought of a name?” She unties the scroll and begins unrolling it across the lacquered surface of the table, and Zhou Fei shifts her tray to make room. “Knowing Qiansui You, he probably has a dozen ideas already.”
“We—don’t know yet. A Yun character, Yun as in cloud, at the end, but that’s all we know.”
“Which last name do you plan on using?”
“Huh?” Zhou Fei blinks. “His, who else?”
“Yes. But Xie or Zhao?”
“Oh.” Right. She never calls him by his other name. Zhao Mingyun. It sounds like one that belongs to a stranger. “I think...that should be his choice.”
“Mmm. So it should be. As it were, if you’ll be here to help us hold off bandits, then you should best know the layout of Qiaoyun House and the entire pavilion so that you know where all their attack points are, and where our weak points are. Can you read maps?”
“Yes,” Zhou Fei lies.
“Good. There are three different leaders that we can recognize, they rotate their groups throughout the week. They don’t come every night, which they do on purpose. Often enough that we have to keep watch every night, and when our energy is depleted, they strike. They’ve never succeeded, as Yuyiban is still a martial sect, but it’s only a matter of time…”
The storm lightens as afternoon yawns into dusk, the clouds pulling away from each other like stretched fish skin. Nichang Furen had left half a shichen before with an invitation to dinner, taking the letter with her so one of the Yuyiban disciples could send it out by pigeon, but Zhou Fei begged off to wait for Xie Yun.
Finally—finally, the sound of tap-tap-tapping footsteps dashes overhead on the roof outside. Zhou Fei throws open her doors to Xie Yun alighting with a hushed crunch of sleet underfoot and a bulging sack strung over his chest.
“Where did you go?”
“Hunting!” he says. “Did they treat you well? I left very specific instructions.”
“They did, but hunting for what?”
Xie Yun laughs triumphantly as he sweeps his hair over his shoulder to wring out, and—when he slides into the warm light of the fire, he’s soaked through, hair plastered to his cheeks and neck in inky lines, rainwater dripping off his hems to puddle in a dark ring around him. “What you wanted to eat, of course!”
“Gods, come inside—it’s too cold. Why didn’t you bring an umbrella?”
“Umbrellas interfere with qinggong. Too much wind drag.” Xie Yun unties the rucksack from his shoulders. In the warm light of the quarters, he looks colder than ever, the candlelight throwing him into sharp relief. “They might be a little frozen, but I got them fresh.”
Zhou Fei peels open the fabric, folded up like a soggy dumpling, until half a dozen grapefruits tumble out. One of them makes a mad dash to the edge of the table, where Xie Yun catches it just in time.
“Where on earth did you go for this?”
“Couple towns over. It doesn’t matter, you wanted to eat them, right? Grapefruits and chestnuts. Or, maybe it’s not those things today. But I can get whatever you want tomorrow, too.”
Zhou Fei holds one in both hands, rind stiff with cold. “It does matter.”
“It does matter,” she repeats. “I don’t want you to get hurt and go so far just because I frivolously wanted something.”
“It’s not frivolous if it’s you,” says Xie Yun. “You’ve traveled to places where the sky touches the sea, where time ends, just for the faint hope of keeping me alive. If you want to eat something because Xiao Maotou is cranky, I can skip a few towns over.”
Zhou Fei searches his face. Rivulets of rainwater escape from his hairline and run in jagged lines down his face. One trail cuts down the center, where shadow ends and light begins, and he gives her a prompting smile again.
“You’re too cold,” she says, holding his cheeks in both hands. “We need to get you warm.”
“How, pray tell, does Zhou Daxia plan to help?”
A teasing, performative silence, and then Zhou Fei gets up on tiptoe to kiss a raindrop race where it ends in the corner of his mouth. “Take off your clothes.”
The bandits don’t return that night, or the night after next. By the afternoon of the third day, just as Zhou Fei’s skin begins crawling with the anxiety of what twilight will bring, a postal pigeon comes soaring through the corridors of Qiaoyun House.
You really know how to order a man around, you gave me such a damn scare. I’m coming, don’t go anywhere, and I’m bringing what I need with me. I’ll be there so fast that you’ll wonder if I’d just been hiding in a corner all along. If I get ambushed, it’s your fault. My snakes will find you.
Hope Zhou Daxia is well!
P.S. Can I test your spit next?
“If there was any trace poison in your spit,” Zhou Fei says, reading it over his arm, “I would know by now.”
“You would indeed,” says Xie Yun, solemnly.
Dinner comes and goes. They’ve taken to eating with the rest of Yuyiban, though they keep mostly to themselves—it had been Xie Yun’s suggestion. It’s not as good as a public restaurant, but a troupe as well-traveled as they are, they’ll talk about movements worth eavesdropping on.
“...I didn’t like that play very much, the one written by Bentu Sheng. Too meandering, and the ending was too complete. Everyone had a happy ending.”
“You like sad endings?”
“Endings that make sense, at least! Everyone came back to life in that one. It was just silly.”
“We had to make do,” says Ling Bo. Her chopsticks clink as she scrapes down the sides of her bowl. “For years, we thought Qiansui You had died, so we had to find other playwrights to commission.”
Xie Yun chokes on his wine.
“Shh,” Ling Yu hisses.
“It’s fine.” Xie Yun coughs and waves. “It’s true. For a few years, that’s what I was. Not quite either. Suspended in a state of living death.”
Ling Xue, the head disciple of the junior class, leans forward. “How did you come back?” she says, eyes widening.
“No, really, it’s fine. Well, I almost didn’t. I died twice, but Zhou Daxia here wasn’t so ready to let me go, so here I am.”
“When we were your age, Ling Xue,” Ling Bo chimes in, “Qiansui You came to Yuyiban to beg our Shifu for help. Caused such a ruckus that Disha came knocking on our doors. I remember,” she says, turning her gaze on him, “you trying to sneak your way in with that horrible disguise of yours.”
“Right, well, I couldn’t just walk in and claim—I mean, you’d never seen my—”
“He and Zhou Daxia were attached at the hip, but all they did was dance around each other. It was insufferable to watch.”
“I remember, I remember! Because he didn’t want her to get hurt again.”
Zhou Fei glares at him across their dinner table and mouths, I’m gonna kill you so dead, but his cheeks are so pink that she almost feels for him. Almost.
“Once he ran us down first thing in the morning,” Ling Bo goes on, “and said that he needed help discouraging Zhou Daxia from dueling Yang-gongzi. And I told him to try talking to her, to which he said, ‘I mean, have you met her?’”
“What happened, Qiansui You? How did you return?”
It took me twenty years and three reincarnations to return! she expects him to say. But a resurrected man never gives away his secrets, or else what difference stands between him and a ghost?
Xie Yun only smiles when she squints at him. The fire outside the pavilion makes him glow around the edges.
“I couldn’t die. Not then, when there was still someone waiting for me,” he says, not looking away from Zhou Fei. “I would have done anything just to hear A-Fei speak to me one more time.”
Zhou Fei’s eyes do something itchy and traitorous, and she scoops her bowl of rice into her palm and begins shoveling food into her mouth.
“As expected of Qiansui You.”
“See, this is how he writes the best plays!”
“I hate you,” she says around a mouthful of rice and wood ear stir-fry. “I hate you.”
He laughs. “I know, Niangzi.”
The first time Zhou Fei feels her baby move, it’s a spasm, a hiccup. A warning.
She sits with Ling Sui in the heart of the courtyard, keeping guard as part of the evening watch, and Ling Sui has finally fallen silent after chattering about her day’s training with her sect seniors. Zhou Fei is fairly certain none of the material she speaks of is supposed to be information she should be sharing outside Yuyiban, but “a keen hero never turns down information fed to them for free,” Xie Yun would chime.
“Is Qiansui You going to be part of the dawn watch?” asks Ling Sui, finally looking up from her book.
“He’s answering correspondence for the Forty-Eight Strongholds.” Across the courtyard, the glow of a candle through the window highlights the line of his head bent over a scroll of paper. Nichang Furen lets him sit in her receiving room so long as he shares the information he knows about movements across the country. “He’s been putting it off for a week now, my parents rely on him as a political strategist.”
“Is Qiansui You never going to return to the throne?”
A question that she’s asked him before—do you ever want to return to the Southern Palace? He’d made a face like she’d just smeared fish innards under his nose, so the answer had since then been clear.
“If he ever chooses to,” she says, “then I would go with him.”
“And be the part of an imperial consort?”
“If that’s what it takes.”
“I want to care about someone that much.”
Zhou Fei stares at her. “You do?”
“Doesn’t everyone?” Ling Sui shrugs. “Want to have someone or something they would die for—which is easy—but someone they’d live for?”
She feels it deep in her belly: a sudden, three-beat flutter, like the wingbeat of an injured bird behind her navel. Zhou Fei hiccups around a gasp at the sensation. Her hand leaps to her bump, and then she looks up wildly, as if Xie Yun would have seen—
—but the candle glow has vanished from the windows, the pavilion cold and marrowless. For a moment, she gapes without comprehending, and then a ragged band of shadows flits across the stretched silk windows. Zhou Fei springs so suddenly to her feet she sways.
“What—are they?” Ling Sui’s call carries over all of Qiaoyun House, “Yuyiban, qianbei, shijie, shimei!”
Zhou Fei draws her blade as she runs up the steps to the pavilion, ankles hot and swollen with pain. Stings of it shoot up through her legs to stab through her thighs, but if she’s good at nothing, she’s good at ignoring pain. The doors shout and bang when she pulls them open, wood ricocheting off its frame, and storms inside.
A motley crew of promised bandits forms a circle around Nichang Furen, who is so at ease that she’s still drinking from her glazed teacup, earrings catching the light like vulture eyes in the dark. Xie Yun whirls at the noise of her and Ling Sui’s arrival.
“That’s Zhou Daxia!” shouts a round-faced boy who can’t be much older than fifteen at best, a constellation of freckles dotting the bridge of his nose. “That’s her!”
The inside of the pavilion erupts into a flurry of noise and movement, like Zhou Fei had stuck her fox snout into a coop full of chickens—some of the bandits start shouting orders, all of which go unheard, some of them trip over each other backing away from her and the troupe that she’s brought inside, and three of them descend upon Xie Yun, wrenching his arms behind his back with enough force that she can hear his shoulder pop from where she stands.
The tallest, most heavyset man of the cohort crosses the room to face Zhou Fei, and she aims the tip of her blade at him as he walks. He has the brawn and muscle of someone who hauls heavy things from sunrise to sunset, and patchy clothing, hair tucked underneath a cap. Even if he’s scared, the fear vanishes under his browbone. An unwilling leader.
Xie Yun meets her eyes across the room. Deer-owl-stricken. Don’t do anything stupid.
“We’d been trying to go up and over, through doors and over roofs, but we’d never tried windows. How was it that we were so lucky tonight?”
“Da-ge, be careful,” says the round boy—A-Feng, Zhou Fei remembers, from the grotto. “She’s the Southern Blade, don’t cross her.”
He gives Zhou Fei a scrutinizing leer, pacing back and forth with his cleaver held loosely in the hands crossed behind his back. Risky position to take for someone who knows better, a stupid one for someone who knows nothing. The cleaver he wields is a flat, squat blade, dark with years of work cutting food stall meat.
“Just a young woman,” he scoffs. “We expected you, Southern Blade Zhou Daxia,” says the bandit leader. “But who is this?”
He jerks his head at Xie Yun, who tips his head back when one of the men at his throat presses their blade against his throat. It’s rusted, dull at best, and looks like it’s used to carve cattle and poultry.
Zhou Fei’s eyes flit to Xie Yun’s face and she squares her shoulders. “Don’t know him. He has nothing to do with me.”
“Oh? So, it won’t matter if we—”
The leader makes a sudden swing of his cleaver at Xie Yun, and a high, torn noise rips out of Zhou Fei’s mouth as she jerks towards him. Behind her, all of Yuyiban follow, in a sick, taut dance, and the leader faces her again with a knowing triumph.
“Ah,” he says, smug.
Then Zhou Fei slices the air with her movement.
Xiwei burns in the night. When Zhou Fei swings it in great arcs, she takes care not to make them killing blows, but it’s a near thing; some of her strikes land, and some of them draw blood. Against civilians, she uses her lightest hand.
Some of them dodge her. Some of them yelp and run. Zhou Fei dodges the threads that Yuyiban uses to restrain their targets, her sword glancing off of them.
A heavy beat of something moving behind her vibrates at the small of her back, and Zhou Fei means to twist and sidestep it—something that she hardly puts thought to any other time, but she’s a moment too slow, and a callused hand strikes her in the lower bend of her spine. Without looking, she rotates her grip on Xiwei and stabs backwards until she hears blade on bone. Her mouth runs red with the taste of blood, all wild animal, just-dead, still struggling.
There shouldn’t be any blood, not from such a simple blow from a civilian, but—
—it’s not her blood, Zhou Fei realizes with a hot spike of fear.
Her ankle sizzles with pain when she pivots on it, blocks a clumsy swing from the leader with her wrist, and twists his arm until he goes down with a bleat of pain. It brings her, finally, face-to-blade with the bandit leader, whose eyes cross with the effort of keeping her blade in his line of sight.
“Touch him again,” she says. “Do it again and find out what happens.”
“A-Fei,” Xie Yun says, ignoring the thin trickle of blood that worms its way down his neck. “A-Fei, are you okay?”
“We know what you want. Zhuming herbs, is that it? I know what they do, and we know that your villages need it for River Fever. Dried Zhuming herbs alone won’t help you. I have used them, I know what they can do. And they won’t help you.”
“Why would we listen to you?”
“Yeah, you could just be lying!”
“You don’t have to listen to me. You can die, if that’s what you want.”
A petulant silence falls over them. Nichang Furen sighs, then stands up. The bandits surrounding her fall back slightly when she casts her cutting glare upon them, and then allow her to walk around her sitting table.
“Esteemed visitors,” she says, and, for her sake, Zhou Fei backs down. Aches spread in big bruising patches all over her body, and Zhou Fei crosses her arms to lean back against the wood paneling for support without seeming weak or tired. Only Xie Yun squirms. “If you would let me speak.”
“Zhou Daxia has already arranged the delivery of Zhuming herbs from Little Medicine Valley for your city cohorts,” Nichang Furen says, dabbing the tea moisture from her lips without so much as acknowledging the half-dozen knives pointed at her. “As she’s said, the Zhuming herbs that I import alone will not save you. You can kill any one of us now, and you will never receive the shipments, or you can wait until the Poisons Master Ying-daifu arrives with the help you seek.”
“The true Poisons Master?”
“We heard he’d passed by the year before as a visiting medic. We never made it to see him, he was gone the next day.”
“That Ying Hecong,” Zhou Fei interjects. “He and I owe each other a lifetime of favors. I’ve called in help from him and he’s on his way, he’ll be here within two weeks. I know that your cities are struggling, and we want to help. Come back here in two weeks’ time, and if I’ve lied, then let’s solve this with our blades. But when you return and you see that I haven’t lied, then take what he offers and never come back to bother Qiaoyun House again.”
“Please let me go,” the bandit leader says raggedly from the floor.
“I want to hear an accord!” Zhou Fei bends his wrist back farther, lowering her blade closer to his face.
“We won’t return!” he says, voice cracking. “Never—so long as Zhou Daxia speaks the truth about Poisons Master Ying Hecong!”
“Good,” says Zhou Fei. She releases him with more force necessary, sending him sprawling across the floor. He scrambles to feet, staggering like a hollow building knocked by wind.
“Clear out!” he barks.
The floor drums beneath their feet as the bandits trickle out back the way they came, and the yawning emptiness of the pavilion is so sudden it aches, the walls sagging around them. Zhou Fei stumbles her way to Xie Yun, hands going to his throat. His hands are on her arms, her shoulders, his thumb to her bloodied mouth, he’s saying something, but Zhou Fei’s vision swims at the sight of the wound at his neck, so close to his jugular that nausea turns the backs of her ears hot.
Xie Yun’s hands are holding her jaw still. His face is bloodless with worry. “Are you okay?”
“I’m fine,” says Zhou Fei, and then coughs up another mouthful of blood.
“Baby is fine. Zhou Fei is strong enough to be okay, with any regular person this would have put them both in danger.”
“A-Fei is a martial master. How did such a simple blow do this?”
“She may be a martial master, but the fetus is not. Call it luck or misfortune, that strike landed just so. You’re right. Without child, she wouldn’t have felt it.” Nichang Furen sighs. “You keep an eye on her, hear me?”
“Of course, Furen.”
“It’s not your fault. We both know how Feifei is.”
Freezing rain turns every noise into slush and sand. When the quarter doors open, even the usual creak of hinges is one lonely songbird note, and they shut mutedly when Xie Yun closes them.
Zhou Fei sits up where she’d been relegated into a bed. Her joints and muscles are still twitching, nerves full of insects. She’s been stripped down to her innermost robe, so transparent that her underclothes are visible through the fabric, and Xie Yun sits down by her legs. Yuyiban had taken his outer robe away for the handmaids to scrub the fresh blood out. A thin strip of gauze covers the gash at his throat.
He just looks at her, cheeks ashen, unsmiling.
“You don’t need to lecture me,” she says, pinching a callous in the crease of her palm. “I knew the risks of coming here. You warned me. I know.”
Still, he says nothing.
“But I had to do this. Some things must be handled personally. I owe Nichang Furen a life debt the same way Ying-xiong owed us, I couldn’t just sit and let this happen if I knew it was happening. You know that. My mother would agree. My grandfather—he would have done the same thing. That’s what—a hero isn’t someone who lives in a way that’s easy for them. It doesn’t make a hero to want to do things, it—”
Xie Yun’s hand trembles with cold when he takes hers, resting on the covers, and her thoughts tumble to a stop. “Are you cold? Get your cloak. Your clothes, I’m sorry I spat blood all over them, it’s—”
“It’s not anything,” he says, finally. He leans in and tucks Zhou Fei’s hair behind her ear. “Your blood has been in my mouth.” Then, “Are you okay?”
“I’m okay. I’m always okay.”
His eyes drown in his doubt.
“Xiao Maotou warned me, actually. That you were in danger.” Zhou Fei smiles when he cocks his eyebrow. “I felt them. It wasn’t a kick, not this early, but they moved, and I wanted to look for you to tell you, and that’s when I saw what was happening. Like they were saying, ‘Niang, pay attention!’” She plants the spread of his fingers on her belly, rounder than it’s ever been. “Well. They’re not moving anymore, but Xiao Maotou knew.”
A dusting of a smile begins in the corner of Xie Yun’s mouth. “What a filial child already,” he says. “Xiao Maotou, scared that if Dieidie isn’t here, your Niang will be too sad to go on?”
She swats him on the shoulder.
“Who will they look like?”
“Daughters look like fathers. Sons look like mothers.”
“Maybe she’ll have my disposition.”
“What do you want to name them?”
His eyes flit to her face. “Have you thought about it?”
“If it’s a daughter,” says Zhou Fei, “you said you wanted her nickname to be A-Yun. Xiaoyun—the clouds at dawn.” She swallows, throat still raw and stinging. “Xie Xiaoyun.”
“And what about a son?”
“I don’t know,” she says. “You wanted a daughter, I thought of a daughter’s name first.”
“Xie,” he murmurs. “It’ll be a new beginning.”
“Would you want them to be Zhao?” Zhou Fei asks.
“I want,” he says, “this bloodline to end with me.”
“The first Xie daughter. Or son.”
“When the time comes, you could give me a god or a demon, and I would love them all the same.”
Zhou Fei could be a well pump recently, so easy to cry that it irritates her. “You pick a son’s name, I know whatever I think of you’ll say sounds like something you’d name a horse,” she says, swallowing the knot in her chest.
“I would never say that!”
“You would. And you did, that one time—”
“That’s because you wanted to name the main character after your favorite childhood chicken that got stewed for dinner. And your chicken was named Jiji.”
“It was named Xiaoji!”
“That’s worse. That’s really worse, A-Fei.”
“I hate you. You’re not supposed to be mean to me, I’m pregnant, it’ll make the baby come out in breech position or something.”
“I should read them poetry. Do you think Xiao Maotou can hear, in there? Yes, probably, right? Maybe they’ll come out worldly and learned from the very beginning. Goodness knows how many sword drills and forms it’s already had to listen to.”
“I recite a poem for it every day,” Zhou Fei says. “My favorite one.”
“You can’t even remember any poems to have a favorite, Niangzi. Prove it.”
Zhou Fei tips her chin up defiantly. “I had a long dream,” she says, “In that dream, the mountains and rivers were covered in flowers. I met an old friend, and I was joyful beyond words.”
“Oh,” says Xie Yun. Then he chuckles in spite of himself. “Who was the author of such a poem, Niangzi?”
“In my heart, the only person under this sky.”
True to their word, the bandits do not return. Untrue to his word, Ying Hecong takes forever.
“It hasn’t been three weeks yet. We have at least one more to go,” says Xie Yun, when Zhou Fei opens her eyes and, without fail, flies out of bed with only a cloak on to check the front doors for any sign of Ying Hecong’s arrival.
“You can never be sure with him,” Zhou Fei insists, looking up and down the street. “He has his ways, but he’s bringing Zhuming herbs and gods know what else with him, he really could’ve been ambushed.”
Vendors and village goers cast her sidelong glances, and Zhou Fei only registers days in that she’s standing at the top of the stairs of Qiaoyun House—a pavilion in which no lady and no handmaiden ever has a hair or brow out of place—with her half-bun, barefoot, still in her nightclothes with only a fur-lined cloak to hide her belly from the world.
“Let’s give him this last week,” Xie Yun says. “And we can worry when the bandits return.”
In the past, it was easy to lose track of time. Time and place, Zhou Fei says, will never be able to find her, and she’ll never be able to track them, and the three of them live in blissful ignorance of each other. The three years that Xie Yun had been comatose in Penglai sometimes felt like a single fevered summer. Sometimes it felt like a decade. Zhou Fei did not concern herself with the brightenings and darkenings of the sky, just a rogue lash in the great big blinking eye of the sun.
But time is impossible to ignore when every week—every day—she wakes up, and has to relearn the topography of her own body again.
“This is just a suggestion,” says Xie Yun.
“You don’t even know what I was going to say.”
“You were going to suggest that I wear Yuyiban’s robes instead. To which I say, no.”
“Why not? You looked so pretty in them the last time you wore them!”
She glares at him in the brassy reflection of their mirror. Her hairstick is caught in his teeth as he sweeps the top half of her hair into her usual bun, his own still loose around his shoulders. He’s too focused on her hair to see the darts in her eyes.
“I don’t like them. I hate those sleeves. And I like pants.”
“Hmm.” Xie Yun holds the braided twist against her head and slips her hairstick into place, then pats down bits that are trying to escape. “It’s not that I don’t have a solution, it’s just that you’re not allowed to hit me for suggesting it.”
So her every greeting that morning is, “Zhou Daxia, good to see—what are you wearing? Are those your husband’s clothes?”
They’re comfortable and loose on her, so, yeah, they are.
“Bit long,” Xie Yun says that evening after Zhou Fei steps on the hem for the tenth time in the day and stumbles. “Stand still, I’m going to hem it.”
“But then it’ll be too short for you? It’s your only change of clothes.”
“I can get another robe, I don’t need custom measurements.”
Zhou Fei holds still as Xie Yun works at her ankles, pinning up the lower hems. His inner robes all have cowl necks to keep the wind off his skin, ones that she has to peek around when she looks down, and now she has the added obstacle of her growing belly. On their guest desk is a stack of letters.
“How much have you gotten through?”
“Hm? Oh, that’s mail I’m sending out. No news from home, which is good news.”
“Mail you’re sending out? To who?”
“A couple friends.”
“Friends?” Zhou Fei asks, alarmed.
“Oh.” She relaxes. “Like who?”
“The Itinerant Society. Little Medicine Valley. Qimen Valley. A couple of other rogue martial heroes that I met in my time wandering Jianghu.” He leans back, still squatting so he can be eye-level with her knees. “Is that still too long? I don’t want to pin it up too high.”
“What do you want with all of them?”
“Good enough. Off,” commands Xie Yun, and Zhou Fei slips reluctantly out of the layers of his clothes until she’s down to her undershirt and pants—his pants, also too long, but she can stuff the legs into her boots. The waistband is much more forgiving on his. All the fabric had smelled nice on her all day, one long agarwood hug. “Just for backup if we need it.”
“You called in the Itinerant Society just to deal with some petty bandits? I can take them on myself! They’re mere civilians—you saw their weapons. They stormed this place with their kitchen utensils.”
Xie Yun crosses the room and lifts the sewing kit from its shelf—all the needles and thread are stowed in a lacquered box perfumed with cloves and cedar to keep the moths out. “Any other time, I would say nothing, because you’d be right. You could take them on asleep. Any other time, I wouldn’t be here, because I wouldn’t be the least bit worried that you would be fine. But you’ve seen yourself what a single well-aimed blow can do. I don’t think I need to elaborate, do I?”
Zhou Fei deflates, hand curved over the crest of her belly. She looks down at it. “You better come out soon,” she says. “And get strong, because I can’t do anything with you in there.”
“Cloak on,” Xie Yun says, bringing it to her, and takes care to tuck her necklace back under her collars. “Hey. I promise after Xiao Maotou gets here, you can do whatever you want.”
Zhou Fei looks into his face, then tips forward until he hugs her, leaning into this rare pocket of silly vulnerability that she allows herself every now and then. She’s allowed herself more than she would like in the past five months.
“Anything?” she mumbles into his shoulder.
“I’m going to regret this,” he says.
“I’ll make sure of it.”
So the days pass as sharks beneath the surface of the water do—quietly, waiting.
“Zhou Daxia, would you like some water chestnut cake? It’s fresh.”
On the eve of the third week’s deadline, Ling Yu appears with a lantern and a tray of cakes in the evening. Only her fingertips are still bandaged now, and she holds the lantern handle without wincing like she had when they first arrived nearly a month ago.
“Come sit.” Zhou Fei pats the icy bench beside her, and shifts to make room. She had made the guard alone since the bandits had gone, with Xie Yun beside her to keep her company, so that Yuyiban could get their rest.
“Don’t trouble yourself, Zhou Daxia. Here, have some.”
“Did you guys just make these?”
“Us? Please, no. Your husband is quite the talent in the kitchen. He said we were letting our water chestnuts go to waste and said he was going to show us what to do with them.” She holds out a wrapped piece, still warm. “Does he do this back in the Forty-Eight Strongholds?”
Zhou Fei takes it, balancing it in her palm. Steam rises in soft, damp clouds from the wrappings. “Ugh. What doesn’t he do.”
Ling Yu laughs, and pours herself a cup of tea. Then, “Ying gongzi will make it back by tomorrow, won’t he?”
Zhou Fei stares at the damp, motionless doors of Qiaoyun House, trench-dark and uncharted where the fires had been extinguished. “He has to.”
“Yes, he has to.”
“Even if he isn’t a martial hero, he could lift his own soul out of death so long as you gave him a single flower, a mortar, and a pestle,” Zhou Fei says. “He’s stupid and stubborn like that. He can find life in anything. He can look death in the face and say, ‘I don’t think so,’ and not flinch when he says it.”
“Like putting someone in a field of death, and forcing them to live.” Ling Yu glances at Zhou Fei when she turns to cut herself her own portion of chestnut cake. “I read the play that Qiansui You pitched us. Not the one that Shifu commissioned, but the one that he said he’d written to sell, take it or leave it.”
Zhou Fei swallows, mouth dry. “He told me about that one.”
“Did you read it?”
“No, he just told me about it—just part of it.” She reaches for her own tea. “Did you...did you like it?”
“I liked it. Shifu said it was too sad, but that she’d consider it, because Qiansui You wrote it, and his plays always do the best.”
“What happens at the end? I fell asleep when he told it to me.”
“The warrior girl dies in battle,” Ling Yu says, arranging the contents of their tray so that the cakes are warmed by the teapot. “And the tree boy finds her body and plants himself into the earth so that he grows and grows and grows, until she comes back as a human years later and doesn’t know who that tree once had been. In the warrior girl’s last reincarnation, a storm tears the land apart, and the tree that has stood for so many years is uprooted. When the storm passes, he’s hauled away and turned into wood—for houses, for fires, to rebuild the villages that had been destroyed. And when the warrior girl’s incarnation dies in this life, that tree gives its wood to make the coffin she’s burned and buried in.”
Zhou Fei blinks. “And then?”
“That was it.”
“That’s a horrible ending.”
“Is it? I don’t hate it.”
“It’s too sad.”
“It’s sad,” Ling Yu agrees. “But I liked it, the idea that no matter the storm, your touch stays upon this world for so many years after you’re gone. Qiansui You doesn’t usually say what he means on the surface in any of his work, but I think this one is about—hey, Zhou Daxia, are you crying? Wait, I’m sorry, don’t cry, I don’t—Shifu has the final say, I didn’t realize—”
“What? Is my wife crying?”
Ling Yu stands, worrying her hands outside of her cloak. “We were talking about the play you gave us, Qiansui You.”
“You weren’t bullying her, were you, Ling Yu guniang?” Xie Yun says, the solidness of him appearing, and he draws Zhou Fei’s crumpling face into his abdomen where she muffles her heaving sobs. “So cruel to do to an expecting mother.”
“I wasn’t! I really wasn’t!”
“Aiya, I’m kidding. A-Fei cries at anything these days.” Xie Yun hugs her harder to him, running his fingers through her hair, and his laughter shakes both of them like two leaves caught in wind. “Hey, A-Fei, Xiao Maotou can hear you in there. Don’t let them think their Niang is a sad person, yeah?”
The first time Zhou Fei had met Ying Hecong, he’d been carrying a crate full of snakes and the singular desire to know what had happened to Xie Yun. Give him something sick or dying, no matter how small, and no matter how fragile, he’ll want to know more about it, even if he can’t save it.
These days, he does a lot of saving.
“He’ll come,” Xie Yun says, as Zhou Fei paces the courtyard for the better part of the morning. “You aren’t making him arrive faster by exhausting yourself.”
“I’m thinking about all the ways I’m going to throttle him. He’s taking too long. What if something happened to him? What if the bandits got him on the road?”
Xie Yun catches her hand when she paces past him this time, anchoring her in place. “You and I have both seen what he can do if he’s ever cornered.”
“Come sit down and help me think of what we should send the Itinerant Society as thanks.”
Zhou Fei allows herself to be tugged until she’s sitting down, the sun-warmed seat of the bench seeping through the heavy fabric of borrowed robes. “What? What are you sending them?”
“When you call in favors, you have to pay off said favors.”
“I don’t ask for favors.”
“I know, Xiao Furen,” he says.
“This is politics.”
“You know it. Do you remember what kind of leg protectors they wore?”
“I—no. You should ask Yang Jin.”
“Pity, I don’t either. I’ll just send out the forward for traveling cloaks instead.”
Time is a whitewater rush whenever you want it to pass slower, the sun racing across the sky on its thundering chariot without a care for its tiny audience below. Zhou Fei is too antsy to remain in the courtyard with Xie Yun, and lets herself out to the Qiaoyun House fields where a modest shed serves as sect stables. Dian Mu raises her head when Zhou Fei appears in the doorway, greeting the two Yuyiban juniors who are hauling bales of grain inside, their robes knotted at their waists to keep them out of the way.
“Zhou Daxia, are you looking to ride today? We have saddles if you need.”
“No, I’m not. No need for trouble.”
The afternoon tiptoes by.
The next time Zhou Fei looks out the stables, it’s because she hears a noise of footsteps, and almost lunges for her sword until she recognizes Xie Yun’s alley cat gait. The door swings open, and he fills the entryway with a tray of covered bowls.
“I thought I’d find you here,” he says, smile brilliant in the slanted fireglow of the evening lanterns. “How do you feel?”
“Would Duanwang-fei be too irritated for dinner?”
They eat outside the pavilion tonight, with the sound of Hengyang burbling over the walls and the rattle of naked trees. Xie Yun pours her tea whenever her cup is so much as halfway empty, and Zhou Fei ignores his protests when she pushes the red leg meat of the chicken towards him and eats the white bits. “Gives me heartburn lately,” she lies, until Xie Yun caves.
“Nichang Furen bought my second play today.” Xie Yun ladles her another serving of broth, mixing it into her rice. “She decided that she was a fan.”
Zhou Fei pauses, lowering her spoon back into her bowl. Xie Yun catches her watching. “What?”
“Why did you write that play?”
“To make money,” he says solemnly.
“No. Why did you write that play, in particular?”
Xie Yun smiles without looking at her, resting his chopsticks against the inside of his bowl. “I know you think it’s too sad. I know you want to ask why something so sad would be on my mind. Right?” He lifts more chicken into his bowl, the sauce running over the rice. “I have no memory of my parents. At least I have stories about my father and what he did, but my mother died two months after she gave birth to me. She never got better.”
“Yes,” Zhou Fei says. He’s told her this before, how the only proof that he has his parents were ever alive at all is the face he wears.
“And when I was on Penglai, as children do, I would ask Tongming Dashi where I came from. The ocean, or the sky, or the stones. And he would tell me that I came from the earth—that they planted a seed hoping for a tree, and I grew out of the ground. That my mother was the orchid tree that grew along the cliffs and refused to die. I would climb that tree every day, hide in it until it was time for lessons.” He shrugs. “Maybe it’s sad. But I felt safe knowing that that tree would never move, would never die. The immovable spirit of things that you believe in when you’re a child, at least.”
“Is it still there?”
“You’ve been to Penglai.”
“Yes, but there are so many trees! It’s a forested island.”
Xie Yun laughs, “Yes, it’s still there.”
Quiet. Then, “I didn’t know.”
“I didn’t tell you.” Xie Yun sets his bowl down. “Don’t be sad, A-Fei. I promise it’s nothing you have to worry about, not anymore. It’s just—what makes a home. What makes a legacy.”
Zhou Fei searches his twilit smile—indigo and velvet, no sun, just the hint of something once painful. His cheek is warm with dinner where she reaches out to cradle her palm against it. They’ve wondered who Xiao Maotou will look like: her, or Xie Yun? But—who does he look like? Is there anyone alive under this sky now that could look at him and say, Rascal. You have your father’s wit. You have your mother’s smile?
They jump when a crash-bang of fists upon wood carries across the pavilion grounds. Zhou Fei shoots to her feet, hand going for her sword.
“Three weeks are up—we held up our end of the deal, you better have held up yours!”
“You better not all have escaped, or there will be hell to pay.”
“It’s them.” Xie Yun rises with her, then steadies Zhou Fei when she rests her hand on her belly and heaves. “What’s wrong? Take it slow.”
“Fine, I’m fine,” she says, fighting down the nausea. She ate too fast, maybe. “Let’s go.”
By the time they get to the entrance to Qiaoyun House, they are late. More bandits fill the steps up to the pavilion than there had been on the first night, than there had been in the grotto. This has to be all the bandits that have ever come by, demanding answers. As she always is, Nichang Furen is unruffled, center stage, flanked by rows of her own disciples.
“That’s her!” shouts one of them when Zhou Fei finally appears. A-Feng again. She withholds a massive eyeroll with difficulty. “Southern Blade Zhou Daxia, who promised us enough Zhuming herbs and whatever else we needed to go around for River Fever!”
“Please stop spitting on my wife, she can hear you just fine,” Xie Yun says, crossing his arms where he leans against the doorframe. “Nichang Furen, good evening.”
“Hmm,” is all she says to him. “As you all can see, none of us ran. We held up our end of the deal. The individual who would be able to supply your request is almost here. The night is young.”
Nichang Furen’s expression betrays nothing. Ying Hecong is still nowhere to be seen, but she speaks with the confidence of someone who has long since seen his shadow upon the line of the horizon.
“I think,” says the leader that had gone hand to hand with Zhou Fei the last time, “you’re lying. They’re not almost here. In fact, I don’t think there was anyone at all to begin with! You’ve let us suffer for three weeks in vain!”
“Do you think that’s true?”
“If it’s true, what will happen to us?”
“Let’s fight her for it!”
Then, in the snowcrusted distance:
“What do you all want with Zhou Daxia? Back off!”
“Ah. Took them long enough,” Xie Yun says.
“What?” Zhou Fei squints into the abandoned-building darkness of the evening. “Wait, that’s—”
Chief Xu carries a single torch, the fire casting a wintry glow over his face. The rest of the Itinerant Society that he commands marches behind him, bundled in dark, patch-sewn cloaks, weapons dripping with snow. The heat of their breaths and bodies whitens the air with steam.
“Who are you?”
“Nobody that you have to worry about,” says Chief Xu, “so long as you leave Zhou Daxia alone.”
“This is what you call backup?” Zhou Fei hisses.
“Relax. They’re the people with the most information on every person’s movement in Jianghu. If you want eyes and ears, you make friends with the Itinerant Society.”
“You’re just intimidating them at this point!”
Xie Yun arches one eyebrow. “The other option is battling and wounding them, potentially severely.”
“So you thought psychological warfare was the way to go.”
“You asked why I was so confident Ying-xiong would make it here on time, didn’t you?” Xie Yun says, leaning in. “Watch. Hey, Chief Xu!”
“Xie Daxia, it’s good, as always, to see you.”
“Always a breath of fresh air seeing you alive and kicking as well, Chief Xu. What is the latest on that individual I asked you to keep track of? Ying Hecong, the Poisons Master and one of Jianghu’s most sought-after physicians?”
“Almost here, almost here, Xie Daxia. You mustn’t rush these things. He’s carrying precious cargo.”
“You see,” he says, mostly to the bandits, but the side of his mouth closest to Zhou Fei quirks up in cheeky triumph. “I might lie to you, but I wouldn’t be able to make this many people lie convincingly alongside me. We’d never pull it off.”
“I’m tired of you talking,” one of the other bandits, clearly also a cohort leader, says. “Can’t we fight him, at least? He doesn’t even carry a sword.”
“Fight him and you’ll answer to me!” Zhou Fei unsheathes her blade, swinging it in an arc to point it into his face. They’re spooked, just long enough for Zhou Fei to think it’s enough to scare him, and then he sneers past her shoulder at Xie Yun.
“You would have your pregnant wife do your fighting for you, is that it?” He laughs. “What kind of man are you?”
“A smart one for not provoking her. I’ve dueled my wife before, I don’t recommend it.”
“Enough!” they shout. “We aren’t leaving this place without the promised end of our deal, and if that means fighting, then we’ll do it!”
Zhou Fei swings Xiwei in an arc over her head, and—getting an idea—summons forth the Kurong internal energy that has lain dormant inside her meridians. A few strikes with the Kurong Palm technique won’t be so quick to kill as a blade across the throat. The bandits hesitate in their huddle, weapons raised, eyeing the heated shimmer of energy blur the lines of her hand.
“Come on,” she says, palm flat, unforgiving as a salted cliff face. “Didn’t you want to fight? Come on, then!”
“What is that?”
“It—it doesn’t matter. It’s just a trick!”
“Wait! Good heavens—wait!”
Ying Hecong’s voice goes high and reedy, a bird’s warning call, whenever he’s panicked. Zhou Fei recognizes it in the distance, a needle sting in the cold winter evening. The noise of his bell is unmistakable, brassy and cheerful as a skipped stone, punctuating all of his panting words.
“I’m here! I’m coming. Can you give a guy a moment, my good people—Jianghu is no easy place to cross in the winter!”
He appears first as a drop of fire in the distance, lantern swaying from his carrying canteen. It throws the spectral light over him back and forth in so many directions that his face seems to change expressions with his every jogging step—angry, smiling, angry, smiling, scared, cold, tired. Zhou Fei steps further out onto the staircase of Qiaoyun House and squints until she can see him. He isn’t alone.
“Li Yan? What are you—Yang-xiong!”
“Yang-gongzi!” Chief Xu worms his way through the muddled bodies of the Itinerant Gang. “Why are you here? All this way—weren’t you in Nanjiang?”
“Last I heard, he was in Little Medicine Valley.”
“Long, long story, Chief Xu.” Two parcels sprout off Yang Jin’s back like a pair of massive mushrooms, and he swings them over his shoulder into his arms. “Ying-xiong here found us in the central plains making a mad dash to Little Medicine Valley, said that he had commands from Xie Daxia to bring as many Zhuming herbs, astragalus root, and ginseng that we could carry. It’s not been easy to keep it all dry, but here’s all we have.”
Ying Hecong is pink in the face, cheeks bitten by snow by the time he makes it to the foot of Qiaoyun House, and bends over to pant at the ground. “Only for you, Zhou Daxia, would I have done this,” he says raggedly. “Here! The Zhuming herbs you ordered, and the rest of the ingredients that could help. All of you, what is this River Fever you speak of? Merchant illness? My name is Ying Hecong, I’m a physician. Stop bothering Nichang Furen now that I’m here, I can help you solve your village ailments. Are any of you ill?”
“Ying-daifu, we’re the only ones that haven’t fallen sick,” says the leader who wields the cleaver. “The only ones who have the stamina to travel this way to search for solutions. We no longer live with our families so that we don’t get sick, and we haven’t seen some of them in weeks. Nothing has worked. Neighboring cities have ransacked and pillaged our homes in our weakened states.”
Li Yan hugs her parcel of ingredients to her chest and bounces on the balls of her feet. “Not to worry! My friend here is the number one physician in all of Jianghu! Well—Sun Simiao is his shifu, but he’s as good as!”
“Is River Fever really something you can cure, daifu?” asks A-Feng.
“River Fever? I once cured someone of Touguqing, and they were already sitting on Yan Luo’s doorstep! Of course I can.”
“But what will we owe you?”
“Don’t you demand payment?”
“Payment? No. I’m here on Southern Blade Zhou Daxia’s behalf. Martial heroes do not accept payment for the work they do. They do it because they want to. Even if you threaten to attack them, clearly.”
“Why don’t you use the courtyard to divide your supplies, Ying gongzi,” Nichang Furen says. “It will be easier for you to work if everyone isn’t packed into a huddle in this entrance.”
Ying Hecong salutes with his fists, bowing deep to Nichang Furen. “Thank you, Furen, for your generosity. Ying-mou is indebted, and I have medicine for you, too.”
“Friends of Zhou Fei are friends of mine.” She opens the both doors of the entrance wide with a golden flourish of her sleeve. “Come in.”
“Please form a line!” Ying Hecong calls as the bandits scurry in a damp, ragtag group after him. “There’s just enough to go around, and we need to measure out each ingredient for you to take away. Otherwise it will be useless! A-Yan, do you have the wrapping paper?”
“Ah, yes I do!”
“Ling Xue, come with me, let’s get enough tea to serve Ying gongzi. It looks like he’ll be out here for a while.”
The tip of Xie Wei scrapes across the ground, a sickly snow sound, and Zhou Fei looks down at the silvered moonlight upon it before sliding it back into its scabbard. Xie Yun’s arm finds her shoulders, and Zhou Fei allows herself to be held. His body is there when she slumps her weight into his side, ungiving and sure. She tips her head against his shoulder. Every thought, suddenly, is too heavy for her head to hold.
“And Zhou Daxia saves the day.”
“Yes, well, Ying-xiong is doing the heavy lifting,” Xie Yun says. “But it’s too risky for a pregnant woman to lift heavy things, anyway.”
“I thought I was going to have to fight—for real.”
Xie Yun turns his face until he can press his lips to the crown of Zhou Fei’s head, kissing his words into the top of her head. “You thought, or you hoped?”
“It’s been a while since you knifed someone.”
“Keep talking and that someone is gonna be you,” she says without bite, and rests her eyelids. Exhaustion rises in her in one great, sticky sweep.
“Always you two.” Warm tea and peony. Nichang Furen’s hand appears on Zhou Fei’s arm, lifting her wrist to listen for her pulse and energy. She releases it gently. “Blood and war, skirmish or siege, it’s always you two. When will there be a day that I don’t have to worry about you anymore, huh?”
“With any luck, never,” Xie Yun says, and she laughs.
The three of them stand together at the front of the courtyard. Ying Hecong, Li Yan, and Yang Jin have set up a miniature service line, starting with Ying Hecong measuring out the dosages, handing them off to Yang Jin to wrap, and then Li Yan to tie and hand to the villagers. Every several parcels, he pauses to take the pulse of a villager and listen to their encounter with River Fever. The Itinerant Society sits behind them, hacking up rolls and rolls of parcel paper into squares with their knives, until one of them gets creative and starts cutting them in the shape of flowers.
A steady trickle of departing bandits has begun to bleed through the way they came. Some of them bow their faces and scurry past without looking Zhou Fei in the face. Some of them, Xie Yun makes some sharp, snappy joke at, and they mumble some sort of apology before being swallowed by the night.
Just a few stop and bring their fists together before Zhou Fei, bowing, and say, “Thank you to Zhou Daxia, who deserves the title of Southern Blade. May you travel safely. May your baby be well.”
“It’s a long road home,” Nichang Furen murmurs. “Will you be okay, making such a treacherous journey back? You could stay, if you like.”
Zhou Fei straightens out of Xie Yun’s embrace, but his hands stay resting upon her waist and elbow. “Furen, you are too generous. But I do have to go home, before it really is too hard to travel. I still have a little over four months to go.”
“Do send word when they’re born.”
“Of course, Furen.”
She shakes her head, Under the lantern light, her eyes are lacquer-glossy. “Li Zheng’s great grandchild,” she says, as if to no one in particular. She shakes her head, earrings swinging like two windchimes. “Imagine living long enough to meet them.”
Ying Hecong insists on accompanying them.
“We yanked you out of whatever other work you were doing before you came here, I can’t ask you to come back with us. It’s another two weeks of travel—and that’s going fast. What about Li Yan and Yang Jin?”
“What do you mean, what about us?” asks Li Yan. “A-Fei jie, you know I’m not a child anymore, right? Like, you are aware? Yang Heitan and I will travel South where there’s no snow and come back in spring. Gugu isn’t expecting us back for months.”
“Yes, but.” Sometimes I feel like between the three of you, Ying Hecong is the only one with a brain, and that’s on good days.
Li Yan jabs the butt of her sword into Zhou Fei’s shoulder. A tap, really—no one uses real force with her, these days. “You have a baby on the way, Jie. Doesn’t it make a lot more sense for a physician to travel with you?”
It does, unfortunately. Zhou Fei chews on her lip, and in her silence Li Yan tilts her chin, knowing she’s won. Then she reaches out, fur-lined leather vambraces tickling Zhou Fei’s cheeks when she adjusts the collar of her hooded cloak. “I’m fine without,” she says. “I have Xie Yun.”
“Is he a doctor? No. Sorry, Jie Fu, but you’re just not.”
“No apologies needed.”
“We got here without any issues.”
Li Yan rolls her eyes. “Jie, you don’t have to do this all alone. You know that, right? None of us are strong alone.”
Zhou Fei glances from her, to Yang Jin, to Ying Hecong, whose bell tinkles when he nods profusely in agreement. She draws her hand from the warmth of her cloak, winter chomping its teeth over her knuckles as soon as she touches the air, and flicks Li Yan’s forehead between her eyebrows.
“Ow! A-Fei jie—”
“Stupid girl,” she says. “You think you’re all grown up now, huh? Trying to lecture me. I liked you better when all you did was cry.”
Li Yan laughs, like wind in window. That’s how she leaves, with Yang Jin, the both of them almost skipping: Li Yan skipping, and Yang Jin stomping, as he never seemed to have learned how else to walk, their ribboned braids catching the sun like birds. Li Yan had only just been a little girl, following Zhou Fei around like a bothersome tail, and one day she’d turned around to see that Li Yan had grown into someone she wasn’t sure she knew anymore.
Time plays its tricks.
“Zhou Fei, let’s go.”
Xie Yun helps her onto Dian Mu, whose breaths are frosted billows of sugar in the morning, and Nichang Furen waves her handkerchief as they give her three sets of fisted salutes.
“Go safe,” she says, “Southern Blade, Zhou Daxia.”
By the time the snowcapped peaks of the Forty-Eight Strongholds split the great skull of the horizon, the ice has begun to melt. As if knowing how close home is, Xiao Maotou kicks her in earnest for the first time, so hard that she swears her kidney is knocked askew.
“Just in time,” says Zhou Fei, watching the icicles drip from the outpost overhang, a row of uneven fangs. A steady afternoon rain has started. “If we didn’t make it back in time for the new year, my mother would strangle me in my sleep. Or she’d wait till Xiao Maotou was born, then she’d strangle me.”
“They’re always softer on the grandkids,” Xie Yun says, joining Zhou Fei in the doorway to dump out a basin of laundry water. It rushes into the snow to cut a jagged line of melt away from the outpost. He wipes down his hands and joins her in the open doorway. “Maybe if we’re lucky, Maotou will come right around the summer equinox. Imagine—being born on the longest day of the year. The sun has waited to shine upon your face.”
Zhou Fei laces her fingers together over her bump. “We have to stop calling them Maotou one day.”
“A-Yun. Xiao A-Yun. We’re set! Though, did you ever think of a boy’s name? I promise I won’t laugh.”
A distant roll of thunder, like the clouds are tossing in sleep.
“Bing,” Zhou Fei says. “Xie Bingyun.”
“For a son born in summer?” Xie Yun says, raising his eyebrows.
“Not exactly,” Zhou Fei looks up at him where she’s seated on one of the lacquered inn stools. “For his father. A reminder that no matter how inescapable the winter, the ice will always melt, one day.”
Xie Yun stares, wordless. Then he straightens from where he leans against the doorway, arms crossed, to sink to his knees in front of her. His hands are still warm from scrubbing the spring mud from the hems of their robes.
“A-Fei,” he says, without anything to follow.
And then—without warning—a sharp, swift kick right to her kidney, and she chokes on a gasp. Zhou Fei tries to pass it off as a cough, but Xie Yun catches it immediately, grabbing her hands.
“What? What’s wrong?”
“Nothing, oh. Phew. Just kicking. They’re doing flips in there.” She twists her hands in his grip and brings his palms to her belly. “Feel.”
They sit in rainy, drumming silence, but Xiao Maotou is still again.
“Hm,” Xie Yun says.
“Maybe you should say something to them. Don’t say nonsense,” she adds.
“When have I ever spoken nonsense in my life, Niangzi? You wound me,” Xie Yun says. He spreads his palms out across her belly, concentrating so hard that she wants to laugh. “Xiao Maotou. When you’re born, I’ll plant a tree for you. It’ll be yours and it will grow up next to you. Just see it as a gift that Diedie gives you that can stay with you long after we’re gone. How does that sound?”
Zhou Fei’s vision swims.
Then, against the wall of her abdomen: two kicks, as if in agreement, right against Xie Yun’s palms.
“Not a persimmon tree,” Zhou Fei says, even as she blinks tears down her cheeks. “They rot everywhere in the autumn.”
“Well, we’ll just have to eat them fast, then, won’t we?” Xie Yun says, and kisses her laughing.
Spring crusts the mountains thick with pollen, then turns them copper-rose with summer.
Zhou Fei wakes up the morning of with a strange, disconnected sensation from her own body, like her head is only hovering over the frame of her shoulders. Xie Yun helps tie her belt around her robes, as he has every morning, and sits her down at the mirror brandishing her comb like a weapon.
“I’m going to check on Li Sheng’s class today.”
Xie Yun hums. “I hear from the little ones that your ge is a far more lenient teacher than you are. You ought to go and make sure that he’s not letting your students get soft, or else they won’t be ready for your return, Zhou Laoshi.”
“Not lenient,” Xie Yun warbles around her haistick in her lips. “That is, they are unafraid to play pranks on him. They’d never dare with you.”
“He’s all prick and no poison.” Zhou Fei sighs, then draws two more heaving exhales into her lungs; Xiao Maotou has grown so large that every part of her is cramped around the swell of her belly.
Xie Yun pins a braided bun high on her head so all her hair stays off her neck in the balmy summer. “I’ll come with you up the mountain. He teaches in shade so the kids don’t get heat exhaustion. Do you think you can make the climb?”
“Of course I can,” Zhou Fei says, standing up with his support. Every step feels like a waddle and she is excited for this to be over. “It’s not like my leg is injured—come on, let’s go.”
They almost don’t recognize her. One of them in the front row, mid-form drill, does a comical double take when Zhou Fei appears on the mountain path that leads to their shaded clearing, and drops their arm loosely to their side in surprise.
“Zhou Laoshi is back?”
“Zhou Laoshi, are you back to teach us again?”
“A-Fei, what are you doing here?” Li Sheng asks, caving when he realizes he’s lost the attention of some thirty children all at once. “You shouldn’t be trekking around the mountain in the heat of summer, it’s not good for you. Hey, Xie Yun—”
“I wasn’t going to tell her no,” Xie Yun says.
“Well,” is all Li Sheng can say to that.
“I’m fine,” says Zhou Fei. “I need to walk around. I’m miserable if I’m sitting all day.”
“Zhou Laoshi, why are you dressed like that?”
“Xie Xiansheng’s clothes are more comfortable. Everything else is too tight or hot.”
“Zhou Laoshi, is the baby going to come out soon?”
“Yes, probably. I hope so.”
“Where’s it going to come out from?”
“I don’t know, where do you think they come out?”
“Through your bellybutton,” suggests one of the shorter children, nearly obscured by the curve of her bump.
“No, stupid, it comes out from her butt.”
“Hey!” Li Sheng barks. “Keep talking and I’ll wring you. Is that how you talk to Zhou Laoshi?”
“Ah, it’s okay. Where’d you learn that, huh? Is bullying something I tolerate with any of you?”
The children shake their heads in silence.
“I am going to go teach my class now,” says Xie Yun, stroking one hand down the back of her waist. “Are you going to be okay out here?”
“Yeah. I’ve got Li Sheng here with me. If anything happens, I’ll come down the mountain.”
“Are you sure you’re okay?” Li Sheng asks, as Xie Yun crosses the mountain alone. Dusty summer wind makes the ribbons of his belt flutter behind him. “We can be out here for hours.”
“Keep asking me if I’m okay and see what happens.”
“I’m trying to be a good cousin!”
Zhou Fei snorts. “Show me what they’ve been learning. I want to see.”
It’s only when the afternoon slips by, light slanting the shadows of the mountain so that the clearing begins to warm in its slow descent towards the west, that anything seems amiss. A yellowed splash of sun inches its way into her lap as Li Sheng closes his archery drills for the day. Some of the children are in charge of pulling their practice arrows out of the straw targets, and others gather the quivers to load them back up.
Zhou Fei reaches for Xiwei, arranges Xie Yun’s robes so she won’t step on the hems when she stands, and feels a sticky gush of fluid run down the inside of her thigh. Without thinking, she cradles the underside of her belly, as if afraid Xiao Maotou will fall right out if she moves.
“Everyone, say thank you Zhou Laoshi for teaching today,” Li Sheng says. “She’s—A-Fei? Hey, A-Fei, is everything okay?”
“I think—” Zhou Fei sits back down on her sunbathed stone. “It’s now, baby is coming.”
Li Sheng curses aloud, which is followed by a tiny orchestra of hushed gasps, and Zhou Fei finds herself laughing wildly, in a panic, at that sound alone. Like the idea of Li Sheng cursing is the worst thing that could happen right now.
“Okay, okay, okay. Come on, let’s go!”
She’s never been so relieved to run back home.
In the end, Xie Xiaoyun is born the dawn before the summer equinox, with hair as dark as rural sky and a wail that could wake every mountain bluebird. A rebel already, with no interest in following the wishes of anyone around her.
Zhou Fei is standing for the last shichen before she comes, in so much spinebreaking pain that she swears up and down that this is the last and only child she’s going to entertain, bloodline be damned, infant mortality be damned, lineage be damned—whatever pain that had been when Duan Jiuniang had first transferred her Kurong internal energy had been a gentle kiss to the inside of her wrist in comparison. Why any mother chooses, actively, to go through this again, voluntarily, is beyond her.
“A girl,” says the midwife, as Zhou Fei collapses backwards against her mother. She heaves for breath and Li Jinrong sets her daughter down gently on the bench so she won’t fall. “Congratulations, Zhou Daxia.”
“Is she okay? Is she breathing? Does she have all her arms? And her legs?”
“She has every limb she should,” Yan-daifu says, beaming, as the midwife’s handmaid brushes past with a steaming pail of water to wipe down the baby. “What will you name her?”
“Xiaoyun,” Zhou Fei says, leaning her full weight against her mother. Li Jinrong smooths the sweaty strands of her hair off her forehead and cheeks with the gentlest touch she’s ever felt from Li Jinrong’s hands, and the overwhelming urge to cry unfurls in her chest. “Xie Xiaoyun.”
They clean her, clothe her, and wrap her; Zhou Fei’s entire body feels rearranged, and her mother folds her into a fresh set of robes before helping her into bed. By the time they hand her baby back to her, Xiaoyun is asleep again, careless to the movement of the world around her, so tiny that it should be impossible. Her nose is only as big as Zhou Fei’s fingernail.
“I’ll tell Xie Yun that he can come in now,” Li Jinrong says. “He’s been distraught.”
“I’m fine,” Zhou Fei insists, throat gravelly from screaming. That last shichen had been torture.
Xie Yun comes in as quietly as he always does, face so ashen that his lips are pale. It’s barely dawn, the sky blushing as the sun turns the naked night warm again, and he must’ve been awake all through the evening and the night, listening. His robes are creased around the lap where he’d been sitting outside for too long.
“Come here,” Zhou Fei says, supporting her bundle of A-Yun with one arm and reaching out. “Come on, don’t look so scared.”
“Are you okay?” Xie Yun says, wrapping her hand in his, easing himself onto the bed beside her. His fingers are trembling. “You’re not—?”
“I’m fine, I’m really fine. No heavy bleeding. Look.”
Xie Yun leans in to tuck a flap of blanket away from A-Yun’s miniature face, so small that even the blankets swallow her whole. The rosebud of her mouth is tinier even than his thumbnail, and Xie Yun releases a hushed breath of laughter. “A-Yun,” he says, disbelieving. “Xiao A-Yun. You really gave Niang a hard time just coming into this world, what will we do with you?”
“Here, hold her.” She lifts the bundle towards him, and Xie Yun holds out his arms in a much more proper way than she had when the midwife handed the bundle to her earlier, and Zhou Fei settles A-Yun into the crook of his elbow. “You’re far better at this than I am.”
Xie Yun looks down upon their daughter for so long that the peppery smell of tears starts in Zhou Fei’s nose, and she sniffles them back—but teardrops streak their way down Xie Yun’s face even as he laughs, and she thumbs them off his cheeks.
“Don’t cry. That can’t be the first thing A-Yun sees you do,” she says.
“You’re crying,” he says, but he laughs again.
Zhou Fei leans against him, tucking her chin over his shoulder, smelling the outside on him—his ever-present agarwood, the damp of summer dawn, iron-wrought and sharp. “Who do you think she’ll look like?”
“She’s got your mouth.”
“Babies are wrinkled little sacks of flesh for the first six months at best,” Zhou Fei counters. “You can’t know that.”
“What if she grows up to be taller than you? She could have my height.”
“I will be extremely proud. And insulted.”
“You have to grow up to be taller than your Niang, hear that?” Xie Yun says to the bundle in his arms.
Zhou Fei tucks her face into the curve of his neck and lets herself be exhausted, now that Xie Yun is here. “I don’t care who she grows up to be,” she mumbles. “As long as she can be happy with who she is.”
“She will be,” says Xie Yun. “I mean, look at what you made.”
“Look at what we made.”
The first gift arrives from Nichang Furen—a set of silk and satin robes so fine that Zhou Fei doesn’t think she could handle them without tearing the fabric. She’s never seen a set of such nice robes in a size so small. They look like doll’s clothes.
“How does she know?”
“Ying-xiong must’ve told her. He’s in contact with her so often now that he imports medicine out of Qiaoyun House in Hengyang,” Xie Yun says. “We can use these for A-Yun’s manyue banquet, what do you think? It’s certainly nicer than what we have right now.”
“You make her so many clothes that she won’t have to repeat an outfit for the entire first year that she’s alive,” Zhou Fei says dryly. “You speak too humbly, Xie Daxia.”
“She grows so much in every direction with each passing day!”
“Ugh. She does. She’ll be taller than me by the time she’s ten.”
Xie Yun sets down her breakfast for the morning. “Can you imagine that? Ten years from now. What path do you think she’ll take—serious question. If not the path of the sword, or the scholar? What kind of person will she be?”
“Maybe…” Zhou Fei sips on her tea, arranging herself on her cushion. “Someone worldly. Someone with more patience than me for the arts. Someone with fewer burdens than you. Someone with more friends than I had, now that we accept Jianghu disciples in the Forty-Eight Strongholds, so maybe a politician. I hope she’s not a politician.”
“What’s wrong with a politician?”
“Sneaky,” Zhou Fei says, glaring over her teacup at him, and Xie Yun chuckles.
In a year, they will set A-Yun down in a ring of trinkets so that she can choose her path. She will be encircled by an abacus, a ball held together with hemp, a calligraphy brush and paper, a jade stamp, a spool of thread, Xie Yun’s flute, a ladle, and Xiwei. She will sit and survey all the things around her, smile toothily at her parents, and choose nothing. Then she’ll crawl on her pudgy hands and knees towards them where they sit and watch until she can climb into Zhou Fei’s lap, grab Xie Yun’s hair and tug, gurgling as if to say: here is what I choose. Everything under the sun, but in the end, it’s both of you.
Zhou Fei won’t cry. She won’t. Neither will Xie Yun. For a girl who would die to save her home and the boy who almost died because of his, what’s a little family to them?
And so their tree grows.
“Diedie! Diedie, teach me how to do Cloud-Pushing Palm.”
“Oh? A-Yun, who told you about Die’s Cloud-Pushing Palm?”
“You mean you bullied her until she caved, don’t you? You shouldn’t learn from your Die like this.”
“Niang said that you saved her life with it. Twice!”
“Ai, A-Yun.” The crunch of gravel. Flute on a table. The waxen morning sun. “Without your Niang, Die would never have lived long enough to meet you.”