The streets of the Palace City are awake and thrumming at this hour. The Imperial Way is thick with congestion, and the sun is bright and already hot in the sky by the time Li Qiuyue steps out of her grandfather’s receiving hall. The soles of her soft shoes click against the stone stairs, and she moves quickly through the red-painted city.
Li Qiuyue did not expect her disciple to borrow trouble so early in his career. Now there is this matter to take care of, as well as the issue she was meant to work on today. She finds herself feeling nettled at the experience of having her plans knocked askew. All it needs, she knows from the patience forged and tempered unwillingly through long experience, is for her to take a deep breath and to right the weiqi board once more. She gets on her horse once she reaches the limits of the Palace City and spurs it into action.
“Li-gongzhu, please! Wait a moment!”
There is a voice in the distance like a young woman calling out to her. Not a woman at all, in fact, but a palace eunuch who’s breathing heavily as he runs to catch up to her horse. Li Qiuyue weighs the relative merits of simply pretending that she does not hear him.
The eunuch himself is feeling sorely aggrieved. The First Commandery Princess had left too hurriedly. He has chased her for a great distance, and there’s now a pain in his chest. He dare not return without her, and so he hurries with a body that is wholly unused to physical exertion.
Li Qiuyue glances out of the corner of her eye to catch sight of him, gathering more information before she can make her decision. In truth, she is very inclined to simply kick her heels and leave him in the dust.
But what she sees puts an end to that thought at once. The eunuch who’s chasing after her, red in the face and shiny with exertion beneath his pointed hat, is wearing the colors reserved for the innermost of His Majesty’s personal attendants. She clicks her tongue and pulls on the harness to make her horse heel at the gate.
“Yes?” she asks, wheeling her horse around to face him.
The Imperial Way, the venous artery that runs through the heart of Lin’an, is not empty at this time of day. Some people are turning to look at the commotion. Li Qiuyue is beautiful and well-known, and even without that, her golden tian ma horse is very handsome. She may live outside the borders of the Palace City, but the goods she has access to are no less than what is fitting for any other member of the imperial family. She looks down at him imperiously from atop her tall silver mount.
The palace eunuch himself has to trot a few steps more in order to draw even with Li Qiuyue’s horse. He’s too well-mannered to shout his message across the distance now that he’s not desperately trying to get her attention.
Li Qiuyue feels a slight pang for behaving badly and dismounts her horse in the time it takes him to reach her.
The eunuch clasps his hands together and bows. “My lady Li-gongzhu, forgive this humble one for imposing. His Majesty heard that you were in the palace and has requested an audience with you.”
Li Qiuyue chews this over, feeling troubled. Pulled in too many directions only to be hooked by the golden chain around her neck at the very last.
“Did my royal grandfather say what it was about?”
“No, gongzhu,” the eunuch says respectfully.
Li Qiuyue’s heart itches to continue the chase. Someone poisoned her protege, and the longer she tarries, the more likely it will be that any lingering clues are swept away on the tides. But Li Qiuyue can only be what she is.
Under Heaven’s auspices, they all have their roles to play. She, too, is a member of the imperial court.
She inclines her head graciously. “Of course. It is a privilege all the same. Please show the way.”
* * *
Li Qiuyue does love her grandfather. It’s just that today, there is very little time for love or pleasantries.
A delicate-faced palace maid shows Li Qiuyue out to the Ziguang Pavilion in one of the imperial gardens. The beginning of summer is hot, and the summer sun warms Li Qiuyue’s skin as she walks down the garden paths. She is underdressed to meet with his majesty. Even the maid beside her is more lovingly decorated than she is, and the young girl casts her nervous glances when she thinks that Li Qiuyue isn’t looking.
Still, Li Qiuyue’s beauty shines like the sun, putting the looks of all those around her to shame, even wearing plain robes and a dearth of cosmetics and ornaments. The maid shows her to the entrance of the pavilion and bows to excuse herself, the ornament in her black hair twisted into a knot on her head tinkling and swaying slightly with the movement.
Li Qiuyue swishes her sleeves out behind her and then enters.
“Your Majesty,” Li Qiuyue says, kowtowing before her grandfather when she enters the room. “Your servant is here to see you. I hope I have not kept you waiting long.”
Her grandfather with his great, snowy beard and his yellow robes flaps his hands impatiently. “Get up, get up. There’s no need to get on the floor on my account. Granddaughter, it’s been some time. Are you well? Have a seat and tell me how you’ve been faring these days.”
“I’m very well,” Li Qiuyue replies.
Her grandfather is sitting at the place of honor at a long table that’s been brought out to the pavilion for this purpose. Li Qiuyue takes the little seat beside him. Although the day is hot, a warm breeze blows through the pavilion, bringing the sweet smell of fruit trees and flowers as dripping-sweet and thick as honey.
As soon as Li Qiuyue arrives, Li Tian signals to a eunuch to begin bringing in trays of food.
“I hope you’ll dine with me. It’s lunchtime, and I’m tired of eating alone.”
Li Qiuyue inclines her head graciously, her tilted eyes and high cheekbones catching the eye with a cold, austere beauty, and says, “Of course.”
Her stomach grumbles as soon as the sumptuous scents of fried vegetables and roast meats reach her nose, and her grandfather gives her a knowing look.
“If you run around all the time too preoccupied with everyone else, who will take care of you? You’re unmarried, Qiuyue. That means you must take care of yourself.”
The table is soon filled with plates of duck roasted until its skin crisps and bubbles with dripping pockets of fat, cool pickles in lacquered dishes, fragrant pots of fish soup, crisp piles of wild herbs, and stuffed bao whose soft white flesh steams in the warm air.
Li Qiuyue has, in truth, not eaten this well for a long time. She serves her grandfather before taking portions for herself, leaving the choicest bits for him. After the eunuch who brings their food has finished tasting Li Tian’s dishes, he bows and excuses himself, leaving the two of them to talk alone.
Li Tian’s granddaughter is more tight-lipped than even the great spies within his employ. It isn’t his way to be so untrusting with his handpicked staff, but there isn’t a way he’d get anything out of her if people she doesn’t trust are present.
She picks lightly at her food before saying, as though it’s of no importance, “I’ve encountered a problem with the grain trade out of Suzhou.”
Li Tian sips his wine and waits to see what else Qiuyue will divulge, lightly prompting, “Oh? I haven’t heard of any problems in the region.”
Li Qiuyue shakes her head. “I misspoke. It’s not a problem as such, but it will be. The accounts from the region are very slightly off, the margin of error growing wider with the passage of time. The sorghum and wheat crops diminish year after year, but the climate has not changed. Rainfall is good, and there have been no droughts. Three accountants they’ve gone through, but the problem persists. Within five years, the taxes they send back to Lin’an will be inadequate.”
“The production of crops is not consistent. Could it not be the natural fluctuation of things that grow in the earth?”
“No,” Li Qiuyue says decisively. “I don’t think so.”
Li Qiuyue tries not to dwell, but her head remains lost in thought. She has a meeting with an envoy from Suzhou today. If she cannot make it, Wang Hua will convey her apologies and try to reschedule, but time is of the essence, and secrecy as well. It is no one’s fault but hers that she has taken on the responsibility of ironing out potential problems in the realm before they ever make it to her grandfather’s desk.
As they eat, Qiuyue tells Li Tian of her business in a slow trickle, like a light downpour of rain. As always, Li Tian is impressed by her quick mind. These women of his family are brighter than any of his sons. Qiuyue in particular has had a head for politics since she was small.
Li Tian listens to her indulgently, with all the doting of any grandfather listening to a beloved little granddaughter.
As they speak, Li Tian puts a little more food in Qiuyue’s bowl, picking out the crispiest bits of duck skin and the neck of the animal for her to nibble on.
“Do you think the Fong family is going to pose a problem?”
Li Qiuyue stops to consider, pressing the tips of her chopsticks against her lower lip and tapping it in thought.
“Not soon. You might pass 50 years without trouble from them, but eventually, yes. All it will take is one ill-timed famine. Fong Weiguo is fine, but his sons are greedy.”
“His sons are still running around in their youthful clothes with their hair untied,” Li Tian says wryly.
“It doesn’t matter. One’s character is apparent from an early age. A tree that isn’t properly trained will grow unruly. Also,” She takes the time to wet her throat with a sip of wine from her wine bowl. “Their tutor is Xiao Dongyang, who is corrupt down to his bones. He perverts the classics.”
Li Qiuyue catches the sparkle in her grandfather’s eye only after responding. He is pleased with her answer and her cleverness. Unlike her mother, Li Tian has never been bothered by Li Qiuyue’s natural ruthlessness.
“How is that boy you’re raising?”
“Xiao Yuegui?” Li Qiuyue’s pretty eyes slant sideways. Actually, she doesn’t like speaking of Laurel much. He’s the well-honed blade she’s kept hidden, and his usefulness to her is in direct conjunction to how much that is true. Out of sight, out of mind for the literati of the court. “He’s a credit to the Li family. He passed the palace examination at only twenty.”
“He ranked second,” Li Tian points out.
“Grandfather is too kind.”
To earn the rank of jinshi and place second in the palace exams is no small feat, something managed by vanishingly few in their lifetimes. Li Qiuyue is pleased with Laurel’s progress but does not respond as any proud, doting mother would. It’s as though she takes his excellence as a matter of course.
She hums thoughtfully and bows her head. “I apologize for the commotion he caused this morning.”
Li Tian clears her apology away with a wave of his hand. “Don’t speak nonsense.”
He pauses thoughtfully. Though they enjoy talking together, appreciating the silence side by side is something they’re both apt at, as well. The sweet melody of bird song drifts through the pavilion, and Li Qiuyue can hear the burbling of a fountain not so far away.
Li Tian speaks next without looking at her, his gaze fixed on a magnolia tree heavy with blossoms outside the screened window of the pavilion. One bloom in particular sits heavy on the bough, finally bowing to its own weight with a steady unfurling, its blush-red petals giving way and falling to the ground in a shuddering, delicate story of fleeting beauty and loss.
“You will let me know, won’t you, if there’s anything you need? Medicines, doctors, finances. You don’t have to do without.”
Li Qiuyue’s face does something complicated. Afforded the mercy of her grandfather’s averted gaze, she has the luxury and space to do so. It isn’t quite a smile and isn’t quite a grimace. Her heart, too, can’t tell what it’s feeling. It’s a sour feeling like bitterest gall threaded with the sweetest sugar, and she wrestles with it.
“Your Majesty takes care of me very well,” Li Qiuyue says in a low, sincere tone. Her words are crisp and precise, and the sincerity of them turns Li Tian’s head back to her. “My salary is generous. I want for nothing. Grandpa,” she adds, her voice taking on a pleading note as rare as a phoenix’s tail feather. “Don’t worry about me.”
“You’re my blood. How can I not worry?” He reaches out and touches her chin gently, and it’s like looking at his little Qiuqiu again.
Ah, nostalgia. The disease of the old.
He shakes off the somber mood and poses a question to her, and they’re both glad of the distraction. Expressed affection can be, for the both of them, a little too much at times.
“The nobles are petitioning me to curtail military spending. What do you think I should do?”
Directly asked for her opinion, Li Qiuyue does not demur and does not protest that it is not her place. She considers the problem carefully, setting her mind to work upon it as she would for any problem of her own.
“A standing army seems like a waste in times of peace,” Li Qiuyue murmurs. “But are these times of peace? We are heckled at our borders, and the northern capital has already fallen. Will they think it’s a waste when there are mongols at their door?”
She has seen the military encampments in the far north, those places of mud and stick-slinging spats of attrition. She does not think that’s all the war will ever be.
“But if I do not take their troubles and desires into consideration, will they not eventually grow resentful and rebellious?”
“Then cut off their heads,” Li Qiuyue says coolly. She looks away. “Or make good use of one or two officials from Li Jiayi-gongzhu’s court.”
This suggestion of hers is not a small thing. It is a weighty one, one that makes even the skin of Li Tian’s wizened brow furrow deeply.
He has his own thoughts on the matter and will do as he sees fit. He had posed the question to Qiuyue as a puzzle to see what she would say. Still, this heavy suggestion is one that he has considered and will consider—to use the otherworldly might of the yao to defend their empire.
When they are nearly through eating, a eunuch comes in to bring Li Tian a tray of name plates from the officials. These are the people who want seeing today. With the introduction of someone new into the space, Li Qiuyue falls silent once again, sipping her tea as a digestive, once more a pretty ornament and not a scheming political mastermind.
The bowl of tea warms her fingertips, and her sleeves hide her mouth as she drinks, as is proper. She looks like a snowdrop in the middle of summer, and she does not disturb Li Tian as he glances at the names on the green plates, biting back a sigh.
Sensing their visit is almost at an end, Li Qiuyue gathers herself and readies herself to go.
His daughter, Jiayi, has been on Li Tian’s mind since Qiuyue brought her up. As an emperor, he is shrewd enough to know when to employ tact, yet as an old man he has lived long enough to know that sometimes you must throw tact and shrewdness out the window to instead satisfy your own curiosity, lest you regret it. He does so now.
“Will you visit your mother?” Li Tian asks his most unusual granddaughter.
Li Jiayi resides in the Imperial Palace, where Li Qiuyue herself would live had she not received special dispensation to live in a courtyard in Lin’an proper. Now, for the first time, a hint of real hesitation on Li Qiuyue’s face.
“Not today,” she says. “But soon.”
“Ah.” Li Tian’s eyes are no less sharp than his granddaughter’s. His intellect is no less keen. While he may not know the particulars of the business of the yaojing, the business his beloved daughter has made her own, he has had his eyes wide open in the stream of politics since he was born. “Still the rift between you two.”
Li Qiuyue’s back stiffens. She will not lie before her venerated grandfather, and nor will she speak ill of Li Jiayi.
“My mother is wise and pure.”
Li Tian sighs, stroking his beard as if deep in thought. “Jiayi is rigid and unyielding. She’s been that way since she was a child.”
There is nothing realistically that Li Qiuyue can say, and so she listens and stays quiet, saying nothing.
At last, Li Tian sighs again, waving his hand. “You may go. Go back to your schemes and games. I didn’t bring you here to torture you by regaling you with tales of the past.”
Li Qiuyue almost says something and then bites her tongue at the last moment. She inclines her head and bows, taking the dismissal gracefully.
After his granddaughter leaves through the side door, Li Tian looks after her, troubled. He is not ignorant of the fact that his daughter, the child of his heart, is difficult to get along with. Two tigresses on the same mountain are destined to fight. Li Tian had hoped that giving Qiuyue more freedom would allow her to grow up happy and unburdened.
It seems like this is so, and it isn’t. His Royal Majesty doesn’t delude himself. He knows he is a wax politician with his eyes and his ears stuffed with cotton in many ways. Ways that frustrated him and drove him to anger in his youth, when he was a young man and full of a young man’s vigor. Heads had rolled at the very implication that any one of his courtiers was keeping things from him.
Maybe he is a doting fool—maybe he has been one since Jiayi was born and his beloved Zhi-niangzi died.
But he loves his granddaughter as he loves her mother. For the sake of that love, for his yaojing family members, he can turn a blind eye. He can pretend to be blind, deaf, and dumb for a while longer.
Li Tian rubs the golden bauble he’s holding between his hands. Its surface has grown oily and soft over the years, muddled from touch and the constant passing of time. He sets it down at his side, calling for one of the servants to clear away the remnants of their meal and bring him tea to ease his spirit.