With nothing to do before the certificate awarding ceremony in the afternoon, Laurel returns to his apartment. Wang Yuzhu asks if he’s certain he does not want to return with her to Hui Chun, Li Qiuyue’s primary residence in the city, but Laurel declines.
“I have things I ought to attend to at home.”
“Then let me take you there. Madam left the carriage at your disposal.”
Laurel considers, then shakes his head again, declining further. “The walk will be good to clear my head.”
“Do not overwork yourself,” Wang Yuzhu warns.
“How could I overwork myself when shifu and yourself have spent so much time and energy nursing me back to health?”
There is something that strikes a warning chord in Wang Yuzhu about Laurel’s breezy, glib tone as he says these words, but there’s nothing in them that she can directly draw out and take exception to. She can only be a little frustrated at the feeling of something tantalizing dancing right outside her reach, and she purses her lips.
They have spent long years studying under the same teacher, but in the end, she is just a servant while Laurel has been chosen for a higher role.
“See that it’s true,” Wang Yuzhu sniffs before she leaves first, with Laurel’s little white token of a flower in her beautiful black hair.
Laurel makes his promises, as he ought.
In truth, finding his way back through the city to his own apartment is more difficult than Laurel had perhaps expected when he had brushed Wang Yuzhu off so easily. Fu Xiaolan’s treatment had restored him somewhat, and his period of enforced rest as well, but Laurel is still woozy, and he doesn’t make it past the gates of the Palace City before he’s winded and weak and having to lean against the side of a building to catch his breath.
“Hey, hey! You can’t lean here. What are you doing?”
A merchant comes to chase him away, and Laurel shoots him a withering look, which is undercut by the spots that start dancing in front of his eyes. It means the effect is somewhat diminished, and he isn’t even fully sure that he’s sending it in the right direction.
The man takes in the expression on Laurel’s face as well as the crystal-clear beauty of it. He has the appearance and bearing of a scholar, and the merchant takes in the new, crisp blue of his robes.
It’s never a good idea to offend one of the officials, so the man recants.
“…it’s my fault,” he says. “My eyes weren’t good. Sorry. Please, carry on.”
He leaves Laurel alone, but he doesn’t try to help. The man hustles away, back inside his shop, careful not to look at Laurel any further. Laurel blinks his eyes rapidly, trying to regain his bearings. The sun suddenly seems too bright and hot.
He staggers away from the wall, taking a few more steps. He pitches to the side ungainily, probably looking like a drunk in his cups, he thinks bitterly. There comes a moment where he knows he won’t be able to save himself. He loses his footing and knows he’s overbalanced too far. He’s going to hit the ground, and he resigns himself to the feeling of impact.
It’s been several years, but something in Laurel still knows how to take a hit, and he tries to let his body go as loose and limber as possible.
Instead, he falls against a warm, living side, a broad chest that makes a rough grunt as it catches Laurel.
“Whoa, there. Watch where you’re going.” Laurel feels something pat his face a few times. “Are you okay? Are you drunk?”
He’s too weak to do anything but make a small, pitiful sound and turn his face weakly away from the source of his torment. His mouth is dry, and his skin feels too hot.
The man who had caught him is momentarily a little speechless. He’s tall and slim, with a warrior’s well-built muscles and a shock of tawny red hair the color of fox fur. He blinks down at the young man in his arms who he’d at first mistaken for a maiden with his fair and delicate build who’s acting just like a spoiled little miss.
Shigeru looks around but doesn’t see anyone who could be this man’s companion.
He pats Laurel’s face a few more times, trying to rouse him. The sensation is annoying enough that it almost works.
“Stop that,” Laurel gets out, the words muddy and thick in his mouth as he weakly tries to push Shigeru’s hand away with a smooth, white hand as weak as a day-old kitten.
His eyes still won’t fully open. The sun feels far too bright for that. When Laurel tries forcing them open anyway, his eyes only water terribly, the pain in his head bad enough that he whimpers embarrassingly.
“Where do you live?” the man holding him asks.
Pressed against his chest like this, Laurel can feel the words rumble. They scratch at his disordered brain like a low growl.
“Hey. Stay awake.” Shigeru tries again, impatiently shaking Laurel a little. “Where do you stay? I’ll take you there.”
It’s unwise to tell other people anything about himself. The lesson has seeped very far into Laurel’s bones, a teaching administered so patiently and steadily as to be a part of him even when he’s unconscious. Laurel’s skin is very hot. He’s gotten feverish without realizing it, and past and present blur together in a kind of dazzling shimmer that hurts. This far gone into his own illness, Laurel’s become a little childish.
He says some words so softly that even Shigeru, with his very good ears, must bend his head near to hear them.
“Not telling,” Laurel mutters unhappily.
Shigeru is stunned.
Many people would just leave Laurel in the street if he fell, and even those who were feeling kind might only pull him into the shade where he could rest and recover or at most find him a nearby room and pay for it with Laurel’s own coin.
Shigeru can smell the sickness on him, and sickness wants a den. He would not feel safe anywhere but his own home when he was this ill, and he wouldn’t subject this pretty stranger to anything he himself would not abide.
“Tell me quickly,” Shigeru says, pressing the corners of Laurel’s pale, well-shaped mouth with his fingers.
Everything that happens after that comes only in strange, delusional glimpses.
Li Qiuyue would never abide this much childishness from Laurel. She probably really would leave him in the street, but Shigeru, this stranger with heavily accented Han, is somehow both more and less patient than Li Qiuyue.
His companions have left him for the day, and he has nothing to do. Shigeru can wait and do this for a very long time.
He sweeps the thumb and little finger of his hand across Laurel’s straight, black brows, rubbing down the side of his temple and into the hollows of his cheeks, stroking the feeling of sickness out of him. Laurel mumbles in his sleep and sighs softly in relief, burrowing closer to Shigeru’s thickly masculine-scented body like an animal that wants milk.
Shigeru gets him out of the central strip and into the shade of an apricot tree whose willowy branches provide dappled shade. He arranges Laurel so he’s sitting on his lap, resting his own back against the trunk of the tree and then shifting the man he’d found in the street so he’s resting against Shigeru’s chest with his hot, feverish forehead tucked into the crook of Shigeru’s neck.
“Everyone’s looking at you because you’re so pretty,” Shigeru murmurs to him, close enough to his ear to make Laurel shiver. “They think I’ve caught myself a beauty. You’d better hurry up and tell me where you live before I decide to keep you after all.”
Eventually, at some point, under the shade of the fruit trees with the scent of the nearby canal drifting on the air both hot and brackish, with the tender coaxing of a stranger, Laurel’s pale and fever-burned lips finally breathe a secret.
* * *
While Laurel’s feverish brain burns, the muddled thoughts inside his head resolve into vivid memories of his past.
The early part of Laurel’s life was dirty and cold. His parents died when he was too young to remember more about them than a general impression of the shape they left in his heart. Even their looks, he’s not sure if he constructed from the shape of his own face seen in the mirror. He remembers, dimly, a very long journey mostly spent on horseback, something he might have imagined. He remembers begging and digging in pig pens for scraps before he was chased off by farmers with their hoes and women with their sticks, and the rest of his small life, he spent among the members of the military.
He hated his time in the military, but they needed bodies to protect the northern border against the invasion of the Jin. They put a sword in his hand and taught him how to use it, and they fed him more than he was used to eating.
Laurel’s life continued in that fashion. He was not a good soldier. He was born small and narrow, and his body did not like to put on muscle. Still, he was bitterly vicious from a young age and hacked his way out of at least one failed ambush with nothing but tenacity and a refusal to die.
He’d assumed that death would come for him sooner or later on the godforsaken patch of land north of every Southern city. He had no hopes outside of dying in the mud there, but he was grimly determined to stave off that death for as long as possible.
It wasn’t hope. Laurel could no more conceive of having a better life than he could conceive of having a full belly or bedclothes that weren’t damp and didn’t make him itch. He simply looked at the men around him and didn’t think much of them. Estimating their worth, he thought that he was better than them, small and reedy and uneducated as he was. Since he was better, he refused to die before them. That was all.
In his military uniform, beneath his helmet that was too large for his head and blocked his view if he turned his head too quickly, Laurel looked like a particularly dirty little girl. People made comments about his pretty face, and he wasn’t spared any knowledge of what the older men did with the women they brought with them or the women they visited in town. Probably it was the fact that he was too young that kept any of them from trying to do those things with him, though they would make comments, and they would look.
The tedium of his days was finally broken when a visitor arrived at the military encampment in Jiangnan in Laurel’s twelfth year of life.
Li Qiuyue, in those days, was even more unrestrained than the woman Laurel would later come to know. In her later years, even Li Qiuyue would be a little contemptuous of how she’d acted then.
It was in those days, where the shackles of her station in life wrought by her sex and clan and position could barely contain her, when Li Qiuyue fled her overbearing mother’s reach and traveled to the treacherous Jiangnan military encampment along the northernmost border.
No one present had been alerted of her arrival, and there was much scrambling when a member of the royal family suddenly turned up in their midst.
Laurel, who was on latrine digging duty in addition to being whipped as punishment for not giving proper face to a senior officer, was on the far reaches of the camp and was the last to hear the news.
His shovel dug into the earth with a hollow clang. He’d hit another rock, the sensation from the impact traveling jarringly all the way up his skinny arms. He bared his teeth and dug again, cursing whoever had decided to build a latrine pit on this rocky soil.
It was the rainy season, and the rain had been coming down intermittently all through the day. It might actually be worse than being cleanly soaked because just as Laurel’s clothes had begun to dry, another flash downpour would arrive to drench him anew. His army uniform was heavy, and it made him itch where it trapped the moisture near his skin. His hands were blistered from digging, and when the rain came again, he could barely grip the shovel.
The earth itself was muddy and wet, heavy and prone to sliding, and the smell of human excrement wafted from the pit and stuck to his boots, making him gag as it turned his stomach. He likely wouldn’t be able to eat today, even if he was given food.
Just then, there was a commotion on the far end of the camp, voices rising in a kind of frenzied furor. Laurel took it as none of his business and scowled, pitching his shovel at the earth with renewed venom. The sudden, spiteful action burst another blister on his hand. It was a small pain, utterly forgettable in the grand scheme of things. Laurel had suffered much worse, and at tenderer ages. Still, on this day, it was the last straw. He let out a vicious cry, tossing his shovel down with a brutal clang.
If anyone saw his outburst, he would likely be whipped again, but Laurel was in a dark and terrible mood, fueled by rage, and for now at least, he reaped the benefits of its protective cowling. There was no room for fear in his great, black mood.
Huang Bo, a soldier he knew in passing who was not much worse to Laurel than any of the others and at least did not go out of his way to make Laurel’s life difficult, watched this outburst with an unimpressed expression on his face. Huang Bo was a full-grown adult, like most of the army. He was probably in his 30s, although Laurel at that age had no way of differentiating one adult from any other. They were all much older than him to his small mind.
Perhaps he took pity on Laurel that day, seeing him struggling when Laurel must have been the age of his own sons, if he had any.
“Aren’t you going to go and see?” Huang Bo asked him in a languid tone.
“Go see what?”
Laurel had terrible manners, having never learned them. He was a feral child running on the outskirts of his home village, and army life had only succeeded in partially domesticating him. He had only what manners he’d had to learn to keep from being beaten to death, and even those were rough and shoddy.
His voice and bearing were sullen, but Huang Bo simply ignored it.
“A lady from the palace in Lin’an has come to visit the camp. They say it’s the emperor’s granddaughter.”
“So,” Huang Bo said. “When else are you going to get the chance to see royalty? The emperor’s granddaughter is very beautiful, you know. A rose of the nation.”
Huang Bo shrugged, leaving Laurel to his tantrum. He was kinder to Laurel than most, but this boy wasn’t his son. There was a quarter shichen left before he had to drill with the other archers, and he planned to use the time to nap in his tent out of the rain.
Laurel looked at his shovel on the ground, muttering to himself. He didn’t see the purpose of going to look. Like the soldiers said when none of their superior officers were around, the emperor himself ate, shit, and bled, just like the rest of them. There was nothing special about royalty, and so there was nothing to see.
But even as Laurel thought those words, an indescribable feeling of longing arose in his heart. It was painful, and if he wasn’t afraid that someone would see, Laurel would have clutched at his own chest through the scaled armor plate. It was like a worm was trying to eat its way inside, exposing all the things that Laurel wanted but didn’t yet have a name for—an inchoate, juvenile longing for a better life than this. He couldn’t have it, but maybe if he could see the emperor’s granddaughter just once…
She was beautiful, huh. Laurel liked beautiful things, things that were pretty. He looked at them sometimes in secret when no one else was around, hoarding the experiences jealously the way a dragon guards its pearl.
All of these metaphors and ways of describing were too far beyond him then. He didn’t have the words for it. All he had was that burning pain inside his chest. He looked at the dirty shovel on the ground, and he let that pain make up his mind for him. He tossed the shovel behind a nearby tree and headed for the direction Huang Bo had pointed at.
People ignored him as he headed through the camp. It was only when he got to the center of the camp that the groups of soldiers milling about got thick enough that he was unable to pass. Laurel had just gotten there and had barely had time to try to press his way through the thinly gathered throng before one of the lieutenants came out from the screened commanders’ area with his hand on his sword.
In a big voice, he bellowed, “What are you lazy loafers doing standing around here? Don’t you have better things to do? If you don’t have anything to do, I’ll find extra patrols for all of you!”
The crowd then began to move, slowly, like a ponderous beast turning over in slumber. The more prudent and duty-bound of the soldiers started to disperse, but there were still those in the back that hadn’t yet heard the lieutenant’s call or decided to chance their luck, assuming that their commanding officers couldn’t catch all of them at once. They were bold in their desire to catch a glimpse of the princess.
Well, and Laurel was, too. He was wet and muddy, but he was also very small and lithe. If the soldiers didn’t want to let him through, he had plenty of ways of slipping around them, even darting beneath their legs if he had to. He pushed and jostled his way to the front of the slowly dispersing crowd, nearer to the danger of the lieutenant with his whip who was starting to make good on his threats, although he hadn’t seen Laurel yet.
But it was no good. There was a barrier of dyed hemp cloth erected as a fence. It kept both the dust borne on the wind and prying eyes from being able to see inside. Laurel could feel his frustration mounting again, thick enough to choke him and burn him clean through from the inside out. He clenched his raw and bleeding hands, filthy with unspeakable things, hard enough to make them crack and weep anew. He did not come this far just to be denied the sight of the princess from the capital.
Laurel looked to his left. There was a rocky outcropping above the place where the central command tent and the general’s tent was pitched, a bare jut of rock on the desolate and flat landscape. It was slick with rain and mud. It also overlooked the place where the commanders gathered.
Quickly, before the cloud of soldiers could fully dissipate, taking his scant cover away from him, Laurel darted toward it with a sudden burst of speed and began to climb. The stones were even more slippery than they appeared. Moss covered their sun-facing surfaces, making a slimy mess that was disgusting to touch.
Not only were the rocks slippery, they were also rough and sharp enough to cut Laurel’s already blistered hands. His muscles, already weak from several days of digging, quivered with exhaustion, but he would not quit. He climbed doggedly onward toward the top, sliding backward every few feet or so and gritting his teeth. The rain started to pour as he climbed, turning the entire sky a misty grey.
A murmur went through the crowd below him, followed by the sound of two officers shouting for him to get down.
Somehow, amid all the slipping and sliding, Laurel finally made it to the top. From here, he could see the inside of the commander’s tent warmly lit by a lamp. He only caught a glimpse for a second before the flap was unceremoniously clothed.
He saw something, but he’s not even sure if the glimpse he got was that of the princess. Laurel digs his fingertips into the rock, frustrated at being thwarted.
Below him, there’s a louder commotion as the lieutenant starts ascending the outcrop after him. The soldiers that hadn’t dispersed give a ragged cheer as they watch, standing in the blighted rain and looking on with ravenous hearts as they wait to see the annoying little soldier who’s always mouthing off get punished for entertainment.
“Get down from there! You’ll be lucky if you’re only whipped this time.”
“No!” Laurel calls.
To his chagrin, the lieutenant scaling the outcrop after him is much better at it. He’s a grown man, after all. He has height and reach that Laurel doesn’t have, and his muscles are well-developed. He nearly snags Laurel’s ankle before Laurel pulls it away, shrinking back and trying to shimmy further up the rock to the amusement and jeering of the men down below.
“Son,” the lieutenant says, sounding exasperated instead of just stern. “Come down from there. Really, what’s worth all this fuss? I’ll take you to the kitchen tent and get you a bowl of soup before your punishment.”
Laurel shakes his head. He doesn’t say no again, only climbs doggedly onward. He’s now at the uppermost peak of the rocky outcrop, on the spindly ledge. He can’t see anything from up here but the smoke that wafts through the hole cut into the largest tent’s canopy as a kind of chimney, only to be battered in the rain.
Laurel, too, is getting battered. His light infantryman armor is heavy under the soaking power of the rain, all of it dragging his skinny limbs downward. The lieutenant swipes at him again, this time actually managing to grab the heel of Laurel’s boot. He yanks at Laurel unceremoniously, and the strength in his arms coupled with the slickness of the surface Laurel is grabbing onto conspire to drag Laurel backward. He very nearly falls into the lieutenant’s waiting arms as the heckling from down below grows louder.
Laurel doesn’t know what possesses him, why on this day after bearing so many indignities, he suddenly can’t bear it.
“NO!” he calls again, yelling loud.
His voice hasn’t changed yet, still high and shrill with youth. He reacts on instinct, the same vicious instinct that’s kept him alive through skirmishes with enemy raiders. He yanks his leg hard with zero fear or regard for his own safety, then brings it down hard on whatever part of the lieutenant he can reach. He kicks the lieutenant in the head, hard enough to bloody his mouth. The momentary shock is enough for the lieutenant to let go as he reaches for his mouth, swearing viciously at Laurel.
“You little bastard! I’m going to skin you alive!”
The men down below are getting quite a show as Laurel uses a last burst of strength to heave himself the rest of the way up the outcropping. He stands up in the rain, giving the trained soldier behind him less of a target to grab onto.
“Get down!” the man yells.
There are no proper cliffs in this area, no mountains to speak of, but the place Laurel had picked to climb is taller than many trees. If he falls, it’s unlikely that even his helmet will save him from scrambling his brains, never mind what such a fall would do to the rest of his body—he would break a leg at best, paralyze himself at worst.
Yet Laurel is miserable and fearless and in this moment, he’d just wanted one thing. It seems so desperately unfair that he isn’t allowed to have it—by fate, by the gods, by whoever made him born into such a pitiful existence.
“What are you trying to do? There’s nowhere to go.”
There isn’t. Even the murmurs at the base of the rocks have taken on a hushed, measured tone. No one in this garrison likes Laurel, but it’s equally true that none of them want to watch one of their own die.
But what can Laurel do? He’d assaulted his commanding officer after disobeying several direct orders. It’s true—whipping would be the most lenient in this case. The more likely outcome is flat-out death. How can he knowingly let himself be caught and pulled into the jaws of death?
He stands up, feeling the cutting, clear rain lashing his face like an icy wind. He’s perfectly balanced, and in that instant, he feels weightless and free.
But of course, such a moment could last only for a fleeting second. Laurel’s worn boots slip on the rock, and then he’s falling down, down, squeezing his eyes shut tight and waiting to hit the hard-packed, muddy earth below.
Li Qiuyue and the general Cao Fei had heard the commotion from inside, the sound of shouting finding its way into the tent. As the noise only rose without ceasing, sounding like a military parade, Cao Fei excused himself to see what was the matter, and Li Qiuyue followed after him, heedless of the rain. She saw everything from the ground below. A wild little boy with a face like ice. He didn’t look scared at all as he balanced on that precarious precipice or even when he fell.
The general beside her seemed more unsettled than she did, dismayed that the emperor’s granddaughter was about to witness something so grizzly. Of course, there were rumors about her, about the kind of lady she was, but no woman should have to see such a sight.
He was about to step in front of her to shield her.
But Li Qiuyue had found this sight interesting, and even if she hadn’t, it was never her way to allow loss of life unnecessarily. It took barely more than a thought and twist of will to create a wind large enough to catch his quickly falling body sinking like a stone and break its fall, ferrying him gently to the ground.
The men who watched were speechless but only because they were the most battle-hardened among the troops at the border did they not behave in undignified ways. The area was screened off, so no one but the commanders saw it. Those who did drew back, even if they kept their heads. Some said prayers to their ancestors and clasped their fists together, thinking that the sudden strange wind was the sign of a spirit. A few others looked at Li Qiuyue warily.
It was rumored that some of the emperor’s family was descended from yao. But Li Qiuyue looked unruffled and placid, like she had nothing to do with whatever had happened, with an impassive face that did not tell secrets one way or the other.
Laurel’s heart was pounding hard in his chest. He had prepared himself for pain and death, only to feel like he was—flying.
He laid flat on his back for a while, like he couldn’t comprehend the reality, his skinny chest heaving. Maybe it was for the best. If he stayed down, stayed in this strange dream, maybe his punishment wouldn’t come to him yet. Laurel laid in the mud to the disgust and horror of the senior soldiers around him, horrified at this insubordination and disruption in the midst of the imperial princess. But Laurel only laid on his back looking up at the overcast grey sky, watching white raindrops like beams of light cut through his vision as they landed on his already numb, windburned cheeks.
In the sudden disruption of that fated wind that brought the scent of warm trees from far away, no one thought to disturb them.
There was the light sound of footsteps on the ground, different from the heavy moments of soldiers, but Laurel paid it no mind. It was then, while he was lying there like a dead dog, that the most beautiful face Laurel had ever seen crashed through his countenance like lightning.
Li Qiuyue leaned over, and the rain above Laurel stopped as the umbrella that she held momentarily shielded his face as well. She stood high above him, peering at his face and looking down.
“That was quite an entrance you made.”
Laurel’s throat felt parched, and his heart still pounded hard, so hard he could feel it in his neck. He closed his mouth where he was panting lightly, and he nodded, at least trying to be polite.
“Do you know who I am?” Li Qiuyue asked.
Laurel nodded again.
Li Qiuyue looked down at the small soldier, still holding her paper umbrella, as Laurel’s eyes slid shut. She correctly assumed he was succumbing to shock and to the cold, even if Laurel himself couldn’t realize it.
One of the lesser lieutenants from outside the hemp screen was by her side in an instant, bowing to her and immediately tendering his apologies for having allowed this lowly one to have disturbed her meeting with the general.
“It’s no bother,” Li Qiuyue said. “But I’m interested in such a young child in a military encampment. Clean him up and bring him to me, please.”
The lieutenant hesitated, clearly not wanting to contradict the princess, but also wary of actually carrying out her command.
He hedged, “He’s unlearned and wild. Surely he’ll displease your highness.”
Her eyes, beautifully long and elegant, dark like flat chips of obsidian with a deep luster, shot through him with cold when she looked at him. “I’ll take my chances.”
Li Qiuyue’s voice was light but no less chilly than her gaze. When she moved on, back toward where General Cao was waiting, the lieutenant found himself letting out an enormous breath that he hadn’t realized he was holding. A shiver ran all through him like he had just stepped on his own grave. He looked toward the general. General Cao’s eyes met his briefly with a nod, and the lieutenant scrambled to do as he was asked.