Work Header


Work Text:

Qinxian cannot ascend to the throne.

This is what all the ministers say, bowing to the painted screen her mother sits behind. It is true that she is the only living child of 大行皇帝, the Son of Heaven so recently departed on the Great Journey; it is true that the star of the family of Zheng rises with threatening brightness; it is true that the glorious dynasty of Xuan must not be allowed to falter. But Qinxian cannot take the throne.

They say none of it to Qinxian, but she hears anyway. She is a heinously unlucky child, born the day of her father's death; this, no doubt, is why she is so weak, so ill. She breathes with slow heaves of her thin chest, propped up against silk cushions because she can barely breathe at all if she lies flat. This is how it has always been, Qinxian knows no other way, and yet she sees it, when the doctors come: she sees how easily they walk and talk, how little they think of steps and stairs. She stands upright without dizziness, and it is a good day—this is how ill she is. It is by the grace of heaven that she even lived out her first year.

The Holy Mother Dowager Empress has fended off the assaults of lesser princes, nephews and cousins, upon the imperial house, and yet for what? Fifteen years, and Qinxian is no stronger than she was at a day old, so silent that they had thought her dead at first because she could not afford to waste a single breath on crying.

Qinxian has heard, too, what her mother has said in reply. The ministers seem so afraid, when they say these things! They press their faces to the floor and tremble! Why? The Holy Mother Dowager Empress was generous with their predecessors, in the days that followed the death of the beloved Son of Heaven; were not only eight of them killed for their plotting against the emperor? Had she not been lenient indeed, to allow six the dignity of suicide? Had she not been gracious and moral beyond all expectation, to exile the remainder to the snows of the north? She is grateful for the ministers' service; she will be sure to remember that gratitude if they, too, prove unfaithful to the throne of Xuan. They need feel no fear—she will be generous again.

This is how Qinxian knows her mother loves her. But the ministers, Qinxian thinks, are right. Order, stability, security: these are precious above all things, and a childless empress who might breathe one day and stop the next provides none of them to her realm. And Qinxian's mother must know it, too, for despite her great power, her great authority, Qinxian remains uncrowned.

The doctors do what they can: it is 喘, they say, deficiencies in the lung and kidney; they give her 冬虫夏草 and 人蔘, and 活絡效靈丹 for the pain in her joints from lying still for so long. Every ornament Qinxian chooses for her hair and earlobes and hands is 玉石, hard and lasting, in the hope that she will learn these qualities by example.

But Qinxian fears it will not be enough; and yet the dynasty of Xuan must not falter. Her mother is just and virtuous. The mandate of heaven is still with them, no matter the poisonous whispers that the Zheng have spread among the nobles. She must be crowned her mother's successor, no matter the cost.

That is why she orders them to bring her the steamworks woman.

The steamworks woman cannot come to Qinxian's private rooms. No one is allowed there but Qinxian, her ladies, the doctors, and the Holy Mother Dowager Empress herself. The steamworks woman is brought to the south palace and made to wait, until at last there comes a good day: the sun is warm, the breeze is light, and the doctors do not object when Qinxian insists on a visit to the gardens.

She must strike the right tone: it will be a hard thing that she asks of the steamworks woman, and it is not right to do it in a dark and formal hall from behind a screen. The gardens are a masterpiece. In the south palace, they were built on the order of 大行皇帝 himself, and they are majestic, grand, beautiful in their adherence to the principles of harmony and excellence. The 瑿山亭 is admired by all who see it; Hou Xiawen stepped into the south palace garden and composed a 詩 on the spot comparing the pavilion to one of the pillars of heaven. It is not an unsuitable place to speak of essential things, and yet it will be private—particularly if Qinxian orders that it be circled with screens, so that she may forgo her own.

The pavilion is set high in the gardens, upon a rocky rise. Qinxian climbs the stairs herself, one at a time, for they are too steep for a 轎. Everything has already been prepared, adjusted, so that she will not have to sit unsupported, and she is settled against the cushions, covered with silks against the breeze, when a servant slides the screen aside to let the steamworks woman in.

Steamworks were a boon indeed to the empire of Qinxian's father—so many applications, so much potential, and yet there was a certain beauty to be found in their function. Wood and earth, in the coal; fire, for the heat; water, for the steam; metal, for the frame and workings. Balance.

The steamworks woman is Tong Zhuangjing: not so very much older than Qinxian, brilliant and unmarried, a lady of great skill and fine manner, and a devoted servant of the imperial house; Qinxian knew all this before she ever asked for her. It should be scandalous, that she has gone so long without a husband; but when asked, it is said, her only answer is that she serves the imperial house of Xuan—how could she be loyal to any other household, even her own? She is one of the best of the dozens who tend to the steamworks installed in the palaces and upon the grounds, and she has more than once been chosen to oversee the mechanics when the Holy Mother Dowager Empress chooses to venture aloft in the imperial airship—a daunting responsibility.

Qinxian will ask more even than that.

Tong Zhuangjing is already bowing, even as the servant backs humbly away, and the moment she is within the pavilion she lowers herself to her knees and touches her head to the floor. Once, twice, thrice, and then she rises, bows, and does it twice more, remaining on her knees when the third 叩頭 is finished. Very respectful; this is not a formal occasion, after all, and Qinxian, uncrowned, exists in an ill-defined space between empress and heir presumptive. Tong Zhuangjing could have performed only two and still fallen within the bounds of propriety.

"I am the humble servant of the Eldest Princess," Tong Zhuangjing says, face turned to the floor.

Qinxian spares a moment to wish the woman were rude, arrogant, unpleasant. It would make some things a great deal simpler. "Such is well known," she says instead, "and so you have been called upon."

"Whatever the Eldest Princess would have of me," Tong Zhuangjing says, "I will do, with gratitude that she has chosen me to perform her will."

Qinxian looks at Tong Zhuangjing's bent head, and explains.

It must be Tong Zhuangjing; Tong Zhuangjing is the deftest there is, the cleverest, the most skilled. Qinxian asks so much—for Tong Zhuangjing to do this thing will take unspeakable daring—and by the slow breath Tong Zhuangjing draws as Qinxian speaks, the way she swallows, Qinxian knows Tong Zhuangjing is aware of it.

It is not forbidden, precisely, to touch the child of heaven, though the wise know to take care. It is true that Qinxian is not yet the empress—that if she does not take the throne, her mother is regent for no one, and that her position is therefore unclear. But who would err except on the side of caution? To act wrongly toward the empress risks dishonor, immorality; ill luck; the loss of harmony. To act wrongly toward Qinxian, then, carries these risks, this weight. Even the doctors make their diagnoses for Qinxian from a respectful distance, and measure her heart's pulse with a silken cord loosely tied about her wrist.

But with the departure of 大行皇帝 on the heavenly path, all things mean more than they might otherwise. What Qinxian asks must be secret, and responsibility for it lies solely with Tong Zhuangjing; if this fails, if something goes wrong, Tong Zhuangjing will not be allowed the mercy of exile or the dignity of suicide. Qinxian's mother loves her. If the worst the Holy Mother Dowager Empress orders is 殺千刀, Tong Zhuangjing will be lucky beyond calculating.

"Is it possible?" Qinxian asks, when she has described to Tong Zhuangjing what she must do.

"The Eldest Princess has requested it," Tong Zhuangjing says. "In my heart the work has already begun."

If it is not currently possible, Qinxian interprets, Tong Zhuangjing will make it so. "You will have whatever you need," Qinxian says. Even now, her breath falters; the explanation alone was too much for her body. There is sweat upon her brow. "Anything you require to do your work will be yours; you have only to ask."

Qinxian expects—she does not know what she expects. It is a cruelty in so many ways, what she does to Tong Zhuangjing; and Tong Zhuangjing must know it. But she only touches her head to the floor of the pavilion once again, reverent, as though Qinxian is already the Daughter of Heaven.

Tong Zhuangjing cannot work alone—she is skilled in the ways of metal and fire, of steel and gears and steam, but not the workings of the human body. Qinxian sends her the two most experienced doctors from the gaggle that so often surround Qinxian, and together they decide how it must be done.

"It will be large—heavy," Tong Zhuangjing confesses from the floor when she comes to report on their progress. "The workings are quite complex, and the metals will introduce impurities of the blood that must be filtered out—"

"Anything you require," Qinxian says, an old refrain by now.

Here is the moment when Tong Zhuangjing would normally rise, bowing, and back away; but today she only hesitates.

"There is something else?" Qinxian says. A more gentle prompt than an empress ought to use, and Qinxian will be empress or die. But there is no one to hear except Tong Zhuangjing, and if Qinxian cannot trust a woman who does for her what Tong Zhuangjing will do, Qinxian cannot trust anyone.

"I have drawn up the plans," Tong Zhuangjing says, still kneeling. "But I—I hope the Eldest Princess will forgive me—I must have measurements before I can begin."

Qinxian has no cause for apprehension, when Tong Zhuangjing's very life depends on the care with which she acts; and yet she swallows. This is how her father died. He trusted the ministers, let them so much closer than he should have, and they smiled and bowed and killed him. But before this is done, she will let Tong Zhuangjing see her cut open. Surely Qinxian can allow the woman to measure her.

Tong Zhuangjing has the line already in her hands, a thin length of silk embroidered at intervals; Qinxian clears her throat, and gives her permission to approach.

She must sit forward, to allow Tong Zhuangjing and her silken measure access to the lines of her back; but even if no fright were to clog her throat, it would be hard, so hard. Her lungs strain with the motion, her breaths fast and harsh. At least Tong Zhuangjing will not know what is 喘 and what is only fear.

She can see Tong Zhuangjing bite her lips in worry, and then—oh, she is brave, braver than Qinxian had dared to hope!—she sits, barely breathing, on the edge of Qinxian's 床, and draws Qinxian's shoulder to her own.

They sit side by side, now, or as good as, with their shoulders touching; one of Tong Zhuangjing's arms curves around Qinxian, gentle as dawn light, and Qinxian leans into her side, all fear gone, and takes the least difficult breath she has ever breathed. She has never been so close to anyone in her life as she is now to Tong Zhuangjing—she has never been able to let someone else take the weight of her bones, the weight her lungs cannot bear. She wonders whether she will ever trust anyone so much again, when this is done—but when this is done, she will never need to. She will only need Tong Zhuangjing.

"I beg a thousand pardons of the Eldest Princess," Tong Zhuangjing murmurs, barely more than a whisper, breath like the 春风 of Hou Xiawen's most revered poem on Qinxian's neck; and then she lays the silk against Qinxian and begins to measure.

Qinxian cannot remember, later, all the lengths Tong Zhuangjing takes—the line of her back, the bow of her shoulders, the space from curve of rib to dip of spine. She remembers only the warmth. The palace is thoroughly heated; but to feel it in the air is not the same thing as to touch a breathing body, a chest that holds a beating heart. Qinxian has touched hands and heads, to show favor or gratitude, but she is unmarried, everyone waiting to see whether she will be an empress or follow her father before her next birthday. She has never been so close to anyone in all her memory.

Tong Zhuangjing smells of iron, of metal and coal; her well-worked hands rasp a little against the fine silks wound around Qinxian, and yet Qinxian can find none of the appropriate disdain within herself. Tong Zhuangjing is so warm. Qinxian leans against her and breathes.

When Tong Zhuangjing is finished, Qinxian braces herself. She has let her head tip against Tong Zhuangjing's shoulder, the beads that hang from her 步搖 clicking gently down Tong Zhuangjing's back; it will feel so heavy, to lift it all again.

But Tong Zhuangjing does not move away as Qinxian expects. She takes a deep breath, fortifying, and curls her hand around the nape of Qinxian's neck.

It is a perilous position, and Qinxian should cry for the guards; Tong Zhuangjing could slit her throat, snap her spine, strangle her, and she would be able to do nothing to stop it. But Qinxian does not make a sound, and Tong Zhuangjing does none of those things. Tong Zhuangjing lowers Qinxian gently back to the cushions that prop her up, and then slides her hand free with a whispering of cloth. "My gratitude is endless," she whispers, coiling the measuring silk around her hand as she backs away, bent low; and then she lowers herself to the floor and touches her head to the stone.

Qinxian loses track of all the measurements Tong Zhuangjing must take over the days that follow: rib to rib, between the shoulderblades, mid-spine to kidney. She grows used to the feeling of Tong Zhuangjing's shoulder against her own, of resting her heavy head in the curve of Tong Zhuangjing's neck, and she imagines the honors she will shower upon Tong Zhuangjing when this thing she has asked is complete. Will Tong Zhuangjing smile? No, she is too contained for that, too respectful, Qinxian thinks; she will take what Qinxian gives her because it would be rude to refuse more than twice, and she will touch her head to the floor in thanks.

"I hope the Eldest Princess will forgive me," Tong Zhuangjing says one day, quiet, "but I must also have the lengths of each arm."

She came to Qinxian a little late, this time, and the sunlight is slanting in; Qinxian watches the slow 舞獅 of dust in the light, and does not think about the pain in her chest as she straightens.

Tong Zhuangjing is quick, careful. She has brought no 毛筆 with her, no 硯, she writes nothing down; perhaps she memorizes it all. But still the tears come to the corners of Qinxian's eyes: she is breathing too fast, too harshly for her delicate lungs and weak chest. The beads of her 步搖 click and clatter as she trembles.

Tong Zhuangjing pauses in the space between wrist and elbow. "Ah!" she says. "The Eldest Princess has such patience with her humble servant—in her wisdom, she perceives that the measuring will go more smoothly if she lays back, and yet she has graciously spared me the shame of correction."

Qinxian perceives no such thing—surely if Tong Zhuangjing must round her arms or curve around the ball of her shoulder, it will be easier if Qinxian remains upright. But Tong Zhuangjing guides her back to her cushions, and Qinxian does not resist.

There is quiet, for a moment, as Tong Zhuangjing works out how to obtain the measurements she requires at this new angle; and then Tong Zhuangjing says, "The pain will be great."

Qinxian looks at her. Tong Zhuangjing's eyes are, of course, respectfully downcast; but her mouth has gone thin, angled unhappily.

"This is only the least—"

"Your concern does you credit," Qinxian says, and because she is lying back again it comes out only a little breathless. "But there is no choice. It must be done. If I do not become what is needed, what will become of the works of my mother? If the mandate of heaven is truly with us, there will be no failure; if not, nothing will be lost in the attempt."

She means it abstractly, philosophically—if the mandate of heaven will lie in the future with another dynasty, failure will come to Xuan one way or another, and nothing is harmed, nothing affected, by their machinations to avoid it.

But Tong Zhuangjing does not hear it that way. Her fingers are very gentle against Qinxian's wrist; there is no silk twined through them, Qinxian realizes belatedly. She is not measuring—only touching. "Something will be lost," Tong Zhuangjing says, her voice rendered nearly a whisper by the risk that accompanies disagreement; and her hand circles Qinxian's wrist, warm and enclosing.

Qinxian touches the back of her hand. "I will make every effort to ensure that you are pardoned," she says, though she knows—as Tong Zhuangjing must—that the odds are not with her. She was not there, the day her mother pronounced the sentences of those traitorous ministers; but she has often imagined what the Holy Mother Dowager Empress's face had looked like in that moment, cool and hard behind the screens. She cannot think her mother will be moved to greater mercy if it is she who lies dead.

Tong Zhuangjing laughs, sharp and startled, and then leans down and touches her head to Qinxian's fingers in silent apology. "If my feeble efforts should bring the Eldest Princess to—to the heavenly path," she says, "I have the use of my father's 劍. I will save the Holy Mother Dowager Empress the burden of having me killed." Of course, it will not save Tong Zhuangjing from having her body cut up afterward, if the Holy Mother Dowager Empress should order that she be made to carry dishonor into the afterlife; but Qinxian dares to suspect that she does not think to save herself. If she does this thing, it will not be at imperial suggestion, nor because Qinxian's mother has with systematic care removed every other option.

Qinxian closes her eyes, and allows her free hand to alight for a moment on Tong Zhuangjing's carefully pinned hair. If Tong Zhuangjing's work is not successful, Qinxian wills herself to live through it. Tong Zhuangjing is right: something will be lost, and it will not only be Qinxian.

It comes both too quickly and too slowly; Qinxian wishes it were long over, and that it would never begin.

They will go through her back, the doctors have decided. It will be somewhat more difficult, but also safer—no one will be able to see the joins, when she is seated at last in her steamwork throne. No one will be able to observe, to work out the precise mechanisms of their function; no one will be able to sabotage what they cannot even reach unless Qinxian sits forward and allows it.

Her ribs are weak, thin: she has never had cause to be glad of this before, but it will make things easier. The pipes may be half a 寸 across and they will still fit.

They can give her nothing that will ease the pain more than a little, not when she is always so close to never drawing another breath. She must be awake when they cut her open, when they carve into her 支氣管 and slide Tong Zhuangjing's pipes inside.

There will be others, of course; but the doctors say they cannot do all of them at once, it will be too much. These will be the first—and the worst, Qinxian thinks. Once she knows what she will have to bear, the bearing of it will not be so difficult.

The doctors sniff and say Tong Zhuangjing is not required, but when Qinxian commands her presence, no one can refuse. Who better to supervise as they place the pipes? This is what Qinxian says, but it is not what she is thinking.

They must be able to reach her back easily, so she kneels on the 床 like a peasant with cushions against her chest, and sacrifices a silken robe that they may tear open to reach her skin. Tong Zhuangjing stands by uncertainly, Qinxian can see her from the corner of her eye; she catches one of Tong Zhuangjing's hands in the nearer of her own, and she keeps her hold upon it even as they begin to cut.

She must not scream. She has been repeating this admonition to herself since the doctors first entered the room. She must not scream. She drives her teeth so harshly into her lip that she is sure she will cut through before they are finished, and her hand is so tight around Tong Zhuangjing's fingers that she must be near to snapping the bones.

The doctors have brought their assistants to mop away the blood; Tong Zhuangjing nudges one of them aside a little so that she may kneel as close to the 床 as possible, and she does not pull her hand away even though Qinxian's grip must cause her pain. "Forgive my impertinence," she says, very low; "but the Eldest Princess must remember to breathe."

She has forgotten to, she realizes, in the rush of pain and the concentration with which she crushes Tong Zhuangjing's hand. She does, shallowly as is her wont, and even that is enough to make the doctors' blade scrape against her bared rib. A sound escapes her.

"Forgive me, forgive me," Tong Zhuangjing says, again and again, desperate, as though she is the one who carves into Qinxian; and when Qinxian at last slides away into dark and relief, it is with the echoes of Tong Zhuangjing's pleading voice in her ears.

The second time, the third time, the fourth—none are so bad as the first. The day Qinxian at last may arrange for a 轎 to carry her to Tong Zhuangjing's workshop on the grounds, she is able to lie back almost without discomfort, and she thinks she already breathes more easily, although perhaps it is only anticipation.

The mechanism hovers over the floor like a work of sorcery—no doubt Tong Zhuangjing has chosen to manipulate the principles of 磁, as is already done whenever heavy loads must be moved about the palace, so that Qinxian may make use of the iron tracks laid beneath the floors the way the 轎 already do. It is not quite finished; it will serve Qinxian as a throne might, and it must be inlaid with gold, decorated, with perhaps a guardian lion to either side. Time enough for that later. They must be sure that it works first.

Qinxian has no doubt that it must be a complicated thing, bellows and ventilators to help her breathe and pumps to filter her blood, a dozen different machines in one to do all that her body can barely do for itself. And perhaps she should be frightened, to have placed her fate so utterly in the hands of Tong Zhuangjing. But she remembers being sliced apart, the grip of Tong Zhuangjing's fingers, and the gentle touch of them across the thin bony plane of her back. Tong Zhuangjing has excellent hands. If Qinxian must put her life in any hands but her own, she will choose Tong Zhuangjing's and she will have made an easy choice.

It waits for her in the main workroom, two of her ladies guiding her 轎 over the iron track in the ground with gentle hands—a formality, but one Qinxian and her pitiable lungs cannot avoid observing. The workroom has been screened off, to provide for modesty Qinxian would be unable to achieve otherwise; and Tong Zhuangjing waits beside it—with her forehead to the floor. Qinxian almost smiles.

"For the consideration of the Eldest Princess," Tong Zhuangjing says, and rises until she is merely kneeling.

Qinxian pushes aside the curtain of the 轎, and lowers her feet to the floor. So long has she rued the strain of walking, the way her lungs labor at even this most basic of tasks; but this time it has a peculiar significance. Everything will change, one way or the other, when she places herself within this thing Tong Zhuangjing has built for her.

Tong Zhuangjing dares unfold a little higher, enough to turn a small wheel in the side; the great steaming machine drops perhaps a 尺 lower in response, until it is only a slightly high step for Qinxian to reach the first stair that leads up to the seat. "It is a simple matter to adjust the force and direction of the 磁," Tong Zhuangjing says, "and the Eldest Princess will have the ability from where she sits."

"A fine work," Qinxian murmurs. Her heart is pounding.

She climbs, turns, and sits. Tong Zhuangjing's measurements were indeed precise; it feels as though it is a 模具 Qinxian's form was once crafted from, as though it is something that has existed longer than she has, something she was meant to one day return to.

She leans back, settles into place, and a soft regular clicking surrounds her: the pipes so painstakingly slid into her back, her veins, her torso, have met the joins they were intended for, and the joins are locking themselves, a hiss of steam powering the clockwork.

"I would not spill the blood of the Eldest Princess unless ordered," says Tong Zhuangjing softly, "but the ventilators are complete," and in the corner of Qinxian's eye she stands and moves to another wheel. A quarter-turn, that is all: the steam-pipes shriek, the mechanism trembles, and Qinxian, at last, breathes deep.