Laurel can wish, while standing in the cold palace hall, that he had had the foresight to wake up early enough to eat breakfast.
Li Qiuyue would have ordered Wang Hua to cook him something if he had asked, but it would have seemed as though he were not a man capable of taking care of himself, still running to hide behind his mother’s skirts and asking her to prepare his meals. His stomach growls soundly beneath his new court robes, and the smell of incense is thick in the Palace of Heavenly Purity, making him feel lightheaded.
When his majesty enters the room and ascends the dais, Laurel bows to the floor along with the other officials, pressing his forehead to the wood before the gilded throne.
They all rise, and so begins the stream of officials presenting their memorials to the emperor. New proposals are contested and crimes are brought before the emperor for his esteemed judgment. Laurel keeps his eyes fixed forward, listening to the tedious orders of business. He absorbs what is useful like a sponge, but there is little he does not already know from his time in Li Qiuyue’s house. She keeps her fingers on the pulse of the Song empire, and so, inevitably, Laurel’s mind starts to wander. Perhaps it’s the oppressive warmth in the room filled with numerous bodies making Laurel’s own body long for sleep.
As his mind wanders, he takes the opportunity to peer up at the emperor through his lashes.
The front of the hall is lit with red candles that give the emperor a flame-touched air. He looks magnificent and monstrous, like the true son of the dragon. Despite a head full of snowy hair and a long, neatly kept beard, the emperor is a large and imposing man. Laurel had seen his majesty when the emperor had administered the palace exams, but he had not looked like this then.
Maybe the hunger is making him go a bit daft because he finds himself looking at the emperor’s, Li Tian’s, face, trying to see if he can find any echo of his shifu’s features with their elegant strength in dignity. He concludes he cannot. Although… maybe there’s something about the eyes, their appearance both long and slender with a brittle hardness in their depths, like flint.
It happens like the twist of an hourglass, a subtle shaping of the world that has gone off its axis. Laurel looks, and he feels like he’s falling into those eyes, the walls and incense-stuffed air of the Palace hall nearly melting around them. He feels a sudden sense of terror and vertigo.
Suddenly, Li Tian looks his way, those dagger-sharp eyes undimmed by age cutting unerringly in his direction. Laurel knows that the emperor is not a yaojing, but in that moment, his heart quivers and he might swear that the gift that had bloomed in the Daughter of Heaven’s venerated blood did not spring fully formed from the mouth of the earth.
It is a crime, after all, to be so presumptuous as to look the Son of Heaven directly in his eyes. Laurel’s rank has been promoted handsomely, but he is still only a young man, and the post-examination appointments haven’t even been completed yet. He is here by special dispensation.
Maybe it’s his hunger or his lack of sleep, or maybe it’s the way the candles flicker against the red-painted pillars, the shadows seemingly growing strange and more monstrous by the second. Is that why fear climbs hungry and cold up the back of Laurel’s neck? He doesn’t manage to see the moment through. Doesn’t see if he gets censured. Try though he might to grip tight to reality, a rushing, overwhelming blackness rises up to greet him, turning off every last light in his conscious mind. Consciousness is slipping through his fingers as sure as running sand.
The officials nearest him cry out as he crumples, stepping to the side in shock to avoid being hit by his falling body.
And Laurel is unconscious before his body hits the ground.
* * *
In Laurel’s dreams, everything is black.
He feels like he’s swimming. Everything is in a muddle. Voices rise to the surface, swirling up to the top of his consciousness. Muffled sounds make words that he can almost understand. It’s maddening. The harder he tries, the more they sink back to the bottom, taunting him. He turns in his confusion but to no avail.
Still everything is black.
For a time, Laurel sleeps some more.
The next voice he hears is that of his shifu.
“He fell in the middle of my grandfather’s hall and no one, no one thought to catch him?” Li Qiuyue’s voice comes to him blurred from far away. Her voice is hot as she speaks in a low voice, the words coming rapidly.
He thinks that he must be dreaming. It feels like the voice the usually cold and sometimes tender Li Qiuyue uses to speak of him could not possibly come from her. He hears Wang Yuzhu respond, but the voice only gets more muffled. He cannot make out the words.
He opens his eyes, and a pair of eyes as dizzying as a forest green look into his before a cool hand is pressed to his forehead and he sleeps some more.
In the side room of the hall, the wakeful people flutter at the unconscious youth’s side. Laurel is laid out on a daybed, his skin pallid and clammy. Its usual luster has taken on a sickly, almost waxy sheen.
Li Qiuyue paces the room like a confined tiger in a cage. This side room is small, meant for resting and not for convalescing, never mind that they’ve turned it into a sickroom for the time being. She can only pace for a few strides before coming face to face with the wall and one of the elegant and graceful painted wall hangings. She turns around, striding back in the direction of the bed and her unconscious disciple.
Wang Yuzhu is a steadily immovable presence in the room. She kneels beside the bedside, dipping a cloth in a small bowl of water before wringing it out with strong hands that are shapely and attractive with the spring of youth but still well used to work. She mops the sweat from Laurel’s clammy skin with cool water, rinsing the cloth when she’s done.
She stays out of the doctor’s way and serves as a bulwark against her lady’s raging temper.
The physician they have summoned is a woman of the Fu clan, a doctor in her 30s named Fu Xiaolan. She checks Laurel’s pulse and skin, quickly and decisively writing up a prescription.
“It’s not poison, that much I can tell you. His qi is disturbed. He is yaojing?”
Li Qiuyue nods curtly in the affirmative, holding no secrets here.
Fu Xiaolan takes it in stride, steady as before. She shows no reaction to being told that the patient she treats is something other than human.
“His qi has grown chaotic. It flows backwards, and as a protective measure, his body has shut down.”
“It’s not serious?” Li Qiuyue asks.
Fu Xiaolan tilts her head, her hawklike gaze keen and sharp. She isn’t daunted in the least by speaking in front of Li-gongzhu. She is a woman of her craft and secure in it.
“That depends on your definition of serious. Untreated, it could eventually affect his cultivation for the worse. His magic would be inverted.” She puts the prescription into Li Qiuyue’s hands, who looks it over before passing it to Wang Yuzhu, who takes it with a bow and leaves to begin preparing the medicine. “Give him that prescription three times a day until he’s recovered, and see to it that he avoids stress.”
“And after that he’ll be fine?”
Fu Xiaolan inclines her head. “After that, he’ll be fine.”
The Fu family is an anomaly. They are a family of doctors and acupuncturists, yes. Working specialists who treat the common people. Among their ranks, there are none who serve the imperial family and none who work in the Palace City.
Rumors hold that there was a huli jing in their family, one who held the secret to immortality. Though he could not pass it on to his children, the Fu clan are cultivators. They are without the ability to fully manipulate qi, but there is a thread of something other in them, burning red and strong.
Li Qiuyue does not know if the rumors about the fox spirit are true, but there is a reason she called Fu Xiaolan and not a different physician, one with more renown and higher standing.
Fu Xiaolan places a few needles to correct the flow of qi. Her hands are swift and sure, and Laurel barely stirs in his sleep as the needles slip into his forehead and palms. Within a few minutes, his breathing is already better, and a little color is starting to return to his blanched face.
“Thank you,” Li Qiuyue says when Fu Xiaolan is done.
Li Qiuyue’s anger is a sight to behold, present and vivid, though Fu Xiaolan is unmoved by it. To hear that her sole disciple will be alright after all, much of the wrathful ire is bled off all at once, leaving her tired and deflated. The wind outside her window had seemed strange to her and would not let her sleep, even coming up on morning in the hour of yin when she usually takes her rest.
When Li Qiuyue had heard what had happened to Laurel, she had flown to the palace at once in a flurry of skirts atop a sputtering horse. Even her bearing and attire are less than immaculate. Her hair is starting to pull out of its knots, and she looks rarely harried.
She isn’t ashamed of her conduct, but courtesy must be done, and Fu Xiaolan nor the Fu family have done her any wrong.
What Fu Xiaolan thinks of seeing the First Commendary princess this way, she doesn’t divulge. She is tight-lipped and tactful.
Fu Xiaolan accepts her thanks and her payment. Before Wang Yuzhu returns, the room is quiet with just the two of them and Laurel’s sleeping form.
Fu Xiaolan speaks when Li Qiuyue thought she would not:
“Medicine is my business, not criminal inquiry, but…” She stops to think for a moment, choosing her next words with precision and care. “If he was the only one who fainted, and he was the only yaojing in the room…” She shakes her head. “I do not venture to make suppositions, you understand, but if it were me in such a position, that is something I would check on.”
“Yes,” Li Qiuyue says, comprehending her meaning perfectly. “I will take that under advisement.”
Fu Xiaolan nods in a way that suggests that she is not particularly affected by whether Li Qiuyue does or she doesn’t. She removes her needles from Laurel’s skin, placing them back inside her case. She bows respectfully and then takes her leave without waiting for further pleasantries and without sentiment.
For a brief time, Li Qiuyue is left alone with her thoughts and with Laurel’s prone body. She sits beside him, the perfumed cushion of the daybed compressing as she takes a seat by his side.
She sighs as she looks at his face.
He may think he’s grown up, but to her, he still looks so young. Sleeping, there’s none of the innate sharp intellect and the guile she had worked so hard to teach present on his face. He looks like the youth he is, still closer to being a child than a man.
She feels a twinge of desire to reach up and stroke the fall of long black hair away from his face. His hair had been taken down, the better to lay him out on the sickbed, and it falls around his pale, keenly carved features like a gentle snow.
In the end, she refrains. It wouldn’t do good for either of them, she thinks, to grow too sentimental.
A short while later, he stirs while Li Qiuyue is still sitting at his bedside, still lost in thought. His benefactor’s clear, genteel features swim into view. Laurel’s throat feels so parched that it takes him some time to muster a sound, and when he does, it comes out as a croak.
“Xuetu,” she answers him. “How are you feeling?”
He tries to rise and is stopped by the feeling of cool qi binding him, wrapping around him and pushing him back down to the daybed, as gentle as a touch.
“Don’t get up.”
“Shifu, the assembly—”
“Do not argue with me.”
Under her cool strictness, Laurel remembers his place. He stops struggling and subsides. Only then does Li Qiuyue’s magic withdraw. Laurel does know his place and will not stubbornly insist on getting up from the bed if his teacher doesn’t will it.
“The morning assembly is long over,” Li Qiuyue says, softening a little and meting out information once she sees that her pupil has submitted. She eyes him, watching to see what he will do with that information.
Cold sweat prickles at the back of Laurel’s neck, making him aware of how damp and uncomfortable he feels inside his robes. Panic grips him, but he fights it, taking deep breaths and staying flat on his back. He masters his emotions, and his voice is steady when he asks, “The conferment ceremony?”
“Has not happened yet, so you may rest. I would not let you miss it.”
Laurel nods, sinking back onto his pillows and only now finally relaxing.
He should not have doubted. Of course shifu has it under control. Knowing that it’s in her hands that are capable of weaving webs and schemes, each more intricate and invisible than the last, all while never dropping a thread, Laurel can finally feel at ease.
“Wang Yuzhu will return shortly with a porridge for you. You should eat.”
“Yes, shifu. And yourself?”
“I have things to take care of. Fu Xiaolan has left a prescription for you. I’ll have it prepared and sent to your door before tomorrow. You’ve been excused from tomorrow’s morning assembly.”
A crease forms between Laurel’s forehead, marring the cool, translucent skin that’s as light and smooth as porcelain only momentarily. He’ll make a bad impression on the emperor at this rate.
Despite telling him that she has other things to do today, Li Qiuyue waits to see if Laurel has anything else to say to her, any more questions to ask her. She has always been this way. Laurel chides himself not to be jealous with her time and not to keep her overlong.
“The other gathering—the assembly of the phoenix court—”
That gathering, the one to be held tonight.
“You will of course attend. No matter how ill you might be, there is no other option.”
A suppressed shudder tries to start up at the base of Laurel’s spine. Occasionally his benefactor takes on a fierce, sharp chill, and he has cause to remember whose famed daughter she is.
“Rest now until Wang Yuzhu returns.”
Li Qiuyue gathers herself and rises from Laurel’s bedside with the gracefulness of a young, sprightly bamboo. She leaves the side room without fuss or ado, sliding the door shut behind her and taking with her the strange, lightly twisting scent of her distinctive perfume.
Alone, Laurel is left with his thoughts. The room is very quiet, subject to the superior architecture of the Palace City. If he strains his ears, he can perhaps hear the muffled voices from other parts of the Palace of Heavenly Purity, but they sound very far away.
Now that Li Qiuyue has removed her presence from his side, now that he isn’t fighting to live up to his duty and station, Laurel feels all of his fatigue. His body feels unwell. Despite his discomfort, he realizes his body’s exterior doesn’t feel as bad as it perhaps should. He feels relatively clean, and he’s sure it was Wang Yuzhu’s doing and feels grateful.
By the time Wang Yuzhu returns a short while later, Laurel has managed to ease himself into a seated position with a minimum of grimacing. He’s somewhat underdressed, his outer robe left to air out by the window to remove some of the heavy weight from his thin body.
It doesn’t matter. As improper as it is for him to allow an unmarried young woman to see him in a state of undress, Laurel has known Wang Yuzhu and her sister Wang Hua since he was twelve years old. She doesn’t bat an eye at his underrobes as she walks through the door carrying a tray of thin millet porridge cooked with sesame and hard red dates until they softened. She sets the tray down on the low table and closes the door behind her.
Although Laurel is feeling well enough, at least, to eat at the table, Wang Yuzhu passes him the bowl while he sits in bed, telling him to be careful not to burn himself. He sits for a time with the bowl of porridge cradled on his lap, waiting for individual spoonfuls to cool, their hard steam wafting and dissipating into the air, before bringing it to his mouth. His appetite, which had fled because of his sickness, perks up a little at the first mouthful of food, and it isn’t much of a trial to finish the bowl.
Wang Yuzhu watches him, her sleek, pretty face still carrying the traces of youth. She has a finger poised beside her cheek, her dark almond eyes giving nothing away. Laurel doesn’t pry. Like the rest of Li Qiuyue’s household, Wang Yuzhu will speak if she wills it.
“I worried about you,” she says at last, just as she takes the empty bowl away. She’s cunning too, to wait until his belly is filled and he’s distracted. “Your first day in the palace, and already something so terrible happens.”
“I’ll be fine,” Laurel says, turning a small, reassuring smile toward her.
Wang Yuzhu is not very tall, and even when sitting, Laurel only needs to look up a short distance to meet her eyes. There’s a spring blush dusted below her eyes with cosmetics. Her whole countenance is bright and fresh.
Laurel’s smile is false, but it’s meant with good intentions. Wang Yuzhu makes a face and pinches his cheek—not too hard. Just enough to bring a little color into his wan complexion and to chase his alluring smile off his face and into a grimace instead.
“Don’t use my lady’s tricks on me,” Wang Yuzhu grumbles.
She would not take such liberties in front of Li Qiuyue or even her older sister, but when it’s only the two of them together, Wang Yuzhu can be quite childish.
“You’re the closest thing I have to a little brother. You’re not allowed to put on a mask in front of me.”
“Yes, shijie,” Laurel complains, rubbing at the place on his cheek where it stings. One half of his brain is already working out what mischief he can concoct to get back at her.
“Be safe. Truly.”
Wang Yuzhu grows serious, and it sobers Laurel once again.
“Always,” Laurel promises solemnly.
And because it seems like he’d ruined his senior sister’s mood and because she looks troubled, Laurel makes a small white flower with a buttercup center blossom in his hand, and he holds it out for Wang Yuzhu to put in her hair.