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Tough as Old Shoe Leather

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Shěn Wēi sighs to himself as he walks up to the Flower Yashou camp. It has been a long couple of years–long century if he’s honest with himself–and making the circuit to check on all of the integrated and unintegrated Dìxīngrén and Yashou only adds to his exhaustion. To be polite, he portals himself outside of the camp so that he can introduce himself to the sentries and be announced. Safer for everyone if there are no surprises.

Even as weary as he is, Shěn Wēi promised. He has to believe or else these decades, centuries would be too painful to bear.

The sentries, young flower Yashou that Shěn Wēi vaguely recognizes from previous visits, take him to their chieftain.

Liǔ Qín is even more radiant than Shěn Wēi remembers, her calm presence suffused with effervescent happiness. The reason for it peeks out from behind her mother’s robes, a young girl only a couple years old. She blinks up at him, then hides her face against her mother’s leg.

“Hēipáoshǐ dàrén, this is my daughter, Yíng Chūn,” Liǔ Qín makes the introduction, her willowy fingers petting over the small girl’s hair. “You honor us with your visit, please take some rest and we can meet in the morning.”

Shěn Wēi knows what she isn’t saying, what everyone around him for the last decade has been too afraid to say. The shadows under his eyes and responsibilities on his shoulders, the remoteness of his demeanor are all pushing people away. Even around people he genuinely likes, his need to be impartial has to come first.

The sentries show him to a small structure, grown up among the trees and integrated into the landscape in a way only the Flower Yashou have ever accomplished. The use of living and deceased plants is harmonious, and Shěn Wēi can feel some of the tension leave his spine as quiet descends around him.

There’s a soft rustle behind him.

Shěn Wēi summons his guandao and spins to face the noise.

Whoever was there, squeaks in response and ducks back into the vines that make up the wall.

It was a child’s voice. Shěn Wēi lets the blade vanish and sits down to wait, sure that the curious explorer hasn’t gone far.

He’s right. Bright hazel eyes with flecks of gold and green glint out at him from the shadows of the vines. When he doesn’t move, just blinks at her, Liǔ Qín’s daughter comes into the room. She hesitates for a moment, then darts forward. Shěn Wēi holds still, suppressing the need to flinch at the sudden movement.

Tiny fingers slip a flower stem behind his ear without disturbing his mask before the girl backs up. She smiles, nods, and then disappears through the wall.

Shěn Wēi lifts a tentative hand to feel the flowers of the petal. He places it in a glass of water when he goes to bed, the face of the violet cress watching him in silent support.

He slips the flower back behind his ear the next morning before going to meet Liǔ Qín. She smiles when she sees it.

***

Yíng Chūn is sitting outside her mother’s home when the sentries show Shěn Wēi into the camp. She’s grown—probably seven or eight years old now—sitting and kicking her heels against the bench she’s perched on.

The girl ignores the guards and stands up to come over to him. She’s almost as high as his waist and puts her fists on her hips as she glares up at him. “Why do you wear a mask?”

Shěn Wēi blinks. Children are straight forward, it is one of the reasons he values them, but this question echoes with Kunlun’s voice and the answer chokes in his throat.

“Yíng Chūn,” her mother scolds, coming out. “Welcome, Dàrén, it is good to see you.”

“You as well. And you have grown so much, Yíng Chūn.”

“You are missing flowers again,” she observes, confused.

“You can bring him some later. Go play with Yā Qīng for now and leave us to talk,” Liǔ Qín orders. “The Crow are here as well.”

Shěn Wēi takes a steadying breath and follows her into the meeting hall.

Yíng Chūn is waiting in his room when he’s shown there after the meeting. She’s sitting on the edge of the bed next to a slightly older girl—taller, thinner, dressed entirely in black with crow feathers in her hair and a flower wreath perched crookedly on her head.

“This is Yā Qīng. She didn’t have flowers either,” Yíng Chūn announces, with no explanation about why they are in his room.

“We’re not all Flower Yashou,” Yā Qīng says, as if it is a common refrain she repeats to the younger girl. “You don’t have feathers.”

“Feathers don’t smell as nice.”

Yā Qīng shrugs.

Shěn Wēi sits down on a stool and waits.

Yíng Chūn starts plucking at the skirts of her dress and pulling off the flowers, braiding the stems.

“I like your dress,” Shěn Wēi says suddenly, not really the words to come out. Then he blinks. It is true. He remembers the feeling of layers and layers of fine fabrics, the brush of something more elegant than the robes of his office.

“Why don’t you have one?” She asks, looking up with wide eyes.

Yā Qīng snorts. “He wouldn’t wear a dress.”

“I don’t have one anymore,” Shěn Wēi answers at the same time.

Yíng Chūn glances back and forth between them. “Why wouldn’t he wear a dress if he likes them?”

“Men don’t,” Yā Qīng explains.

“It isn’t as accepted anymore,” Shěn Wēi corrects.

The crow girl cocks her head as she studies him. “I was told you are old. Nainai tells stories.”

Shěn Wēi nods.

“Why don’t you have a dress anymore?” Yíng Chūn demands, clearly not interested in Shěn Wēi’s relative age.

“I don’t usually have the opportunity to wear one; I wear these,” Shěn Wēi explains, gesturing to his robes.

The flower child makes a face at him. “They’re black,” she observes with obvious disgust.

“There’s nothing wrong with wearing black!” Yā Qīng protests. “And he is Hēipáoshǐ.”

“You should wear a dress next time,” Yíng Chūn decides. “But for now, you can wear these.” She stands and offers Shěn Wēi the flowers that she has braided.

“Thank you,” Shěn Wēi says as he accepts them.

***

Yíng Chūn is twelve the next time Shěn Wēi makes it to their settlement. She’s waiting for him with the sentries this time.

She rushes over and grabs hold of his hand, fearless even as the guards freeze in anticipation of something going wrong and their chieftain's daughter being injured.

Shěn Wēi accepts the hand clasp, returning it after a moment’s hesitation. He isn’t touched often, and the feeling is both alien and comforting in a way that he’d somehow forgotten.

“Did you bring your dress?” She demands as she leads him up into the village.

“Mn,” Shěn Wēi agrees.

“It had better not be black,” Yíng Chūn tells him. “Wear it to dinner tonight.”

She’s as much a force of nature as her mother, unrelentingly cheerful and positive, which are things the Yashou need as the Hǎixīngrén continue to expand their cities out into the wilder areas of the world.

Shěn Wēi wears the dress. It is an old one that he’d forgotten he had, layers of silk that drape in falls from waist to toes, cinched with a decorative sash. It is in layers of dark blue with subtle gold embroidery around the hem. The neckline is lower than his robes, so the amber pendant shows, glinting as it catches the light.

He hesitates, then removes the mask. Most of people know the shape of his face, and he no longer has to hide it. No one alive now remembers his twin, trapped in a pillar since the end of the war, visage long forgotten.

Yíng Chūn’s smile is brilliant when she sees him.

“Come, sit with us.”

She pulls on his hand to draw him over toward the collection of children and young adults. Shěn Wēi glances at Liǔ Qín to check if she is alright with this. He is supposed to be here in his official capacity. She just tilts her head, indicating he should follow her daughter.

Shěn Wēi allows himself to be seated amongst the youngsters and is treated to a demand for stories about the war, about Alliance leaders—Ma Gui and Fu You, about the rumors that there is still a Cat Yashou still alive somewhere in the world.

The food placed in front of him goes untouched as Shěn Wēi talks until Yíng Chūn pulls rank on the other children and tells them to tell stories of their own.

Shěn Wēi eats and listens as the young adults tell him what they’re learning, about how some are making plans on integrating into Hǎixīng society.

There’s a tug on his hair, and Shěn Wēi pauses. There are gentle fingers collecting the hair that hangs loose from below the braids woven around the crown of his head and tied at the back. He senses Yíng Chūn and decides that this is so different from Kunlun’s touch that it is permissible, even though this will be the first time since the General disappeared that Shěn Wēi has allowed anyone to do this for him.

Yíng Chūn hums under her breath as she plaits Shěn Wēi’s hair loosely, then ties it off. She pushes it to drape down over Shěn Wēi’s shoulder and he blinks down at the lopsided braid, laced with small white star flowers and violet cress.

One of the small girls gapes up at him. “You’re pretty.”

Shěn Wēi feels his ears flush, but thanks the child politely.

***

Liǔ Qín shoos Yíng Chūn away, telling the teenaged girl to go attend to her duties and leave her and Hēipáoshǐ to talk.

“She’s growing,” Liǔ Qín tells him. “She’ll be a good leader, but probably too young when she takes control. Watch out for her?”

Shěn Wēi frowns. Liǔ Qín is still young, not even two hundred. Yíng Chūn is also very much a child; she won’t be considered an adult until she’s reached her fiftieth year.

“We need the flexibility of someone young. The Hǎixīngrén continue to expand, our young are going into the cities and making lives for themselves. We need someone leading that can relate. I’ll wait as long as I can, but it is likely that I will have to step down and care for the oldest to us while Yíng Chūn leads the young.”

It makes a certain amount of sense. Shěn Wēi has felt the odd disconnect between the racing development of the Hǎixīngrén with his own unaging existence.

“She trusts you,” Liǔ Qín presses.

Shěn Wēi nods his agreement, even though he would prefer to argue. He knows what duty looks like, especially when it hurts.

And the pain is echoed in Yíng Chūn’s face when she sneaks into his room before the banquet that night. She’s frowning, which is such an unusual expression for her.

“She told you she’s going to abdicate, didn’t she?” Yíng Chūn kicks at the legs of her stool as if she were still seven instead of seventeen. “Why didn’t you tell her not to?”

“Your mother has been leading with wisdom for a century, and she will continue to do so until it is your turn,” Shěn Wēi replies.

“But she’s not old!”

“No. She’s not. But the world is changing faster and what skills are needed shift with it.”

“You’d never step down.”

Shěn Wēi sighs, wondering about whether he should be honest. He couldn’t resign even if he wanted to—the balance of power between the tribes and the species still requires an impartial, trusted arbiter.

“See!” Yíng Chūn wrinkles her nose. “Besides, no one would listen to me.”

“You willl have to earn their respect, but you are already well on you way to doing so. The young particularly respect you, and the older in Flower Yashou have known you since you were born, and know what skills you have.”

She heaves out a gusty breath and smiles wryly at him. “This is why Mama trusts you. You always give good advice.”

As if she’d blown out all her anger, Yíng Chūn smiles. “Did you bring a dress?”

Shěn Wēi nods. He’d known Yíng Chūn would ask, so he’d asked an elder of the Snake tribe who was a seamstress the last time he visited her village. She’d made him a dress that was narrower than any he’d ever worn before. It was sleeveless because of the breadth of his shoulders, but it nipped in at his waist and skimmed his hips, making him look taller.

“Well, put it on, and I’ll braid your hair.”

“What flowers do you have this time?”

“You’ll just have to wait and see,” Yíng Chūn sniffs as she sweeps out of the tent.

Her youthful impetuosity is charming. Shěn Wēi wonders when she’ll be old enough to be scared of him as so many others are.

***

Yíng Chūn is almost thirty when she thinks to ask, “Why do you like dresses?”

Her fingers are creating an elaborate braid, weaving multiple small locks together with flowers wrapping around and through it. The tugging is gentle, but firm and even, more sure of what she is creating.

“I like the way they feel. The way I feel in them.”

“Men don’t wear dresses in the cities.”

Shěn Wēi almost shakes his head, but Yíng Chūn tugs on his hair to still him. “No. Hǎixīngrén in particular separate into genders now.”

“Genders. Men and women.”

“Binary, even though we aren’t,” Shěn Wēi explains. He’s been fascinated by the reason why Dìxīngrén, Yashou, and Hǎixīngrén are and how they’ve developed as species and cultures. “We used to just be whoever we wanted to be. Life was too short, too dangerous, too fluid not to.”

Yíng Chūn hums. “I wonder what changed.”

Shěn Wēi has asked that any number of times. “Power, control.” The need to put everyone into boxes in order to understand and classify them, the loss of nuance.

“Well, I think you look stunning in dresses. Or robes. You can wear either here; I don’t care what they do in the cities.” She ties off the end of the braid and lets it fall in a heavy rope down Shěn Wēi’s spine. “I’m glad you don’t wear the mask as much anymore.”

He doesn’t tell her that he’s always wearing a mask, with or without leather covering his face.

***

“What did you do?!” Yíng Chūn exclaims as she comes up to Shěn Wēi after the ceremony handing her control of the Flower Yashou. She reaches up and feathers her fingers along Shěn Wēi’s temple, dragging through the short strands.

“Short hair is less conspicuous in the cities, and I need to be there more as Dìxīngrén continue to come to the surface.”

“The glasses are a nice touch,” Yā Qīng tells him as she comes up beside Yíng Chūn.

The new chieftain of the Flower Yashou just makes a face. “There’s nothing left to braid.”

“You won’t have time for things like that now. You’ll have to listen to everyone who wants something from you and actually do something about it,” Yā Qīng assures her wryly. “Trust me. It doesn’t stop.”

Shěn Wēi was sure that it didn’t. Yā Qīng had taken over for her grandmother just a couple years before, and was doing a fine job balancing the long memories and contrary demands of her people.

Yíng Chūn ignores her friend and waves over a child. She crouches down to whisper something in the boy’s ear and sends him off at a run.

“You’ll also get to attend the Yashou council now,” Yā Qīng threatens.

“There should still be times for celebration,” Yíng Chūn decides. “Everyone needs to remember and mark the good, no matter how small.”

The leader of the Crows shakes her head in amusement at her friend’s opimism.

The boy returns, a flower crown in his hands.

“Thank you,” Yíng Chūn says. “Now, if you’d like to do the honors.” She lifts the boy up by his waist, as high as she can, and then the boy stretches his arms out to place the flowers on Shěn Wēi’s head.

He can feel a flower dangling and tickling his ear, but he very solemnly thanks the small child, who grins at him and then flees as soon as his feet touch the ground.

“You may not be wearing a dress, and have short hair, but you will have flowers.”

“Yes, Chieftain.”

Yíng Chūn wrinkles her nose at him.