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When Lan Fan’s mother began to bind her younger half-sisters’ feet, the girl would hide in the shadows afforded by the garden plants and listen to the soft cries disturbing the night crickets. By the time she knew enough characters to pretend to dip into her father’s minute collection of books, she could ask her mother why her own feet pounded the ground broad as a horse’s.

Her adopted mother threw her a dagger-sharp glance. “Men need strong feet.” Without pausing in her embroidery, little scarlet figures crossing a saffron expanse in the colours of the Yao Clan, she stared at Lan Fan coldly enough that the girl bowed her head, cheeks burning in shame. “You begin training with your father’s father come the New Year.”

The click of the needles dismissed her. Gooseflesh rose in her arms and rippled across her stomach. She followed the chi lines of the crickets and sleeping nightbirds. Over the tops of the bushes she watched a hunting party clad in brilliant teal Xu livery leaving the imperial stables. In the dim light the edge between man and horse blurred. For the purpose of the party took priority over the individual huntsmen, even if this party seemed far too exuberantly dressed to hit much more than the docile deer than grazed in the imperial forests. The huntsmen of the southern mountains had glided over the ground as silent, invisible phantoms but for the occasional horn of sighting; their homecomings flourished with blood, meat, and the rare glint of ivory.

A peacock against a bird of prey, she supposed, writing the characters into the dirt to practise.

Her father warned her that to accustom to life in near proximity to the Palace would require such a transformation. Her mother had spoken five tongues and could gut a felled antelope in a single serpentine strike of the arm. The new wife, pale as porcelain but for the delicate red in her cheeks and night sky above her eyes, had nursed a prince and swayed her hips from side to side to balance when she walked.

The New Year came and went. The Emperor spoke words Lan Fan didn’t entirely understand and the people bowed to him. Her father hit the backs of her knees with his staff until she dropped.

“He is your god,” her father told her, “and also your enemy.” For they served the Yao now, which meant that no matter how much they depended upon His divinity, they also waited in the shadow of His death.

A man swathed in midnight blue awoke her the following morning with a knife to her throat. “Yéye.” she whispered: Although she had not seen him for several years, his chi vibrated at the base of her heart. He instructed her to jam her elbow into his underarms just so. When she replicated his movements he grunted and pressed the knife against her skin. A droplet of sticky warmth. She followed his orders with a desperate accuracy and studied the way his flesh pinched around her elbow. He released her. Two fingers to her throat came away mostly dry.

“You can read chi then. And you know some Xingese. But you sleep too deeply, and my son has not lifted a finger to train you.” Lan Fan remembered the arguments between the men in the months prior to moving to the capital. “No matter. Years of city cannot soften the hardness of the southern mountains. Though my son stole you from the southern mountains, I will temper them back into you.”

She blinked from the outer corners of her eyes to the inners.

“No more yéye. From this moment, you will refer to me as shifu.”

The word rattled in her mind. “Teacher?”

Shifu. You can say Xing, can you not?”

Fuu.” she responded. “Xing-fuu. Shifu.”

He did not smile. “And slow as well. Come. We will take a walk.”

Her grandfather—no, her shifu—tied a firm branch to his belt, and she learned to dread the sudden silence when the branch no longer slapped against his thigh. He took her to the forests and bid her run up and down a length, spring-muddy path barefoot. When she was slow the branch bit into her flesh. She slipped and fell and could barely sleep at night for her bruises, but as the mud dried with summer, she began to return with breath still in her lungs. Then he blindfolded her. “Feel with your toes.” Lan Fan found her toes had grown surprisingly sensitive. In the heat of summer he forced her run in heavy black; in the cold she streaked shirtless and sometimes nude. Once she startled a hunting party, and her father beat strips of red and white into the backs of her thighs.

“At least they didn’t recognise him,” her mother said.

“Only because he wore nothing of the Yao,” her shifu answered, but that night he showed her which herbs to crush and mix into a salve to spread over her wounds.

She read that female warriors bound their breasts and started to do the same with the bandages in which she wrapped her arms and abdomen. Her shifu said nothing of this addition to her morning routine. Prior to each dawn he surprised her from her sleep, and her slumber lightened and lightened until her half-siblings’ nighttime wanderings wakened her and she could catch his knives before they could leave another line in the hollow of her throat. Gradually the scars on her neck healed. Every morning and night her shifu led her through push-ups and crunches. He sent for a limber tutor to improve her flexibility. When she introduced herself, he broke her skin for her disrespect. Thereafter she called herself “this one” and realised that she could not recall her original name, only the Xingese one her father had given her during the move. They had asked for her name. She had been holding a comforting bowl of cold rice at the time.

When her body trembled from exhaustion, her shifu ground Xingese into her head and hired impassive tutors to drill her on the Fifty Clans and history of Xing. When her mind threatened to vomit up the knowledge, he pressed staffs and swords and throwing knives and bows and smoke bombs into her palms and left her to concoct her own salves after their sparring sessions. From then on he varied their morning routine. Her bruises returned for a time. By the time she adapted to catching him most mornings, he still did not smile, but she heard the faint shift in his tone.

She ran the path screaming in joy.

He instructed her collect four hundred smooth stones and pile them in the garden. She did not sleep for three nights. Her shifu tied a sack to her shoulders. “These rocks are your responsibility. Add another stone every day. If I catch you—” The term he used marked her less than human. “—without it, you will stay up for a week sparring.”

The sack never left her shoulders. Burdened by her responsibility, she taught herself to ignore the glances and chin-waggings of those around her, from her half-siblings to her tutors. Her mother often gave her small satchels of a foul-tasting white powder to take to a certain merchant in the marketplace in the outer capital, outside of the Palace and its surrounding imperial quarters. The girl avoided those in the marketplace that goggled and jeered at her as she passed by. Once a handsome boy stopped her in an alleyway to ask curiously about her sack.

“Training,” she snapped curtly.

His face brightened. “Could you train me, too?”

Lan Fan left him bloody and crying on the road, barely conscious. Although she took care not to injure him permanently, she broke one of his fingers to set a standard to anyone else who might try to provoke her. Grabbing his wrist, she hauled him up. Abruptly she noticed his hands and nails were far too clean to be from the capital, his fingers too soft to belong to anyone but a nobleman.

“This wretched one apologises,” she offered half-heartedly, disgusted at his bedraggled appearance, and bowed profusely.

Despite his injuries, he paled and fled.

When she told her shifu he paled as well and argued with her father till the dawn. She awoke tied and blindfolded and struggled from her bindings for an hour, after which her shifu beat her for her inadequate speed.

Against her shifu’s warning, her father accepted an invitation for a hunt from the Yao. “At last,” he announced, his voice rumbling like the thunder before the storm, “the Yao, blessed be their name, appreciate what I gave up for them.”

Her mother pursed her painted lips and rested a hand over her bulging belly.

Her half-siblings scheduled the funeral shortly after the hunting accident. Lan Fan carried the white invitations and stammered out the order for a white funeral garb. Her shifu added five stones to her sack; she wore black to the funeral and carried her responsibility on her back.

“Are you all right?” her shifu asked afterwards while she sharpened her knives.

Now she did not smile. “He was my father. I must respect him.”

“But you realise that he was a fool.”

She said nothing. The knifetip gleamed.

“Once you enter the vipers’ den, you cannot forget your hosts’ venom, no matter how surreptitiously they conceal their fangs.” Silence. “Your true training now starts twofold.”

Her house mourned, except for her. The frail respect for her father that had prevented her half-siblings from taunting her had lifted. She could not walk through the house for being called a savage, a barbarian, a horse-beast from the southern mountains. Nor could she hit them as she had the boys in the marketplace, where she now strode untouched. That Lan Fan could not defend herself against even these younglings of a slightly higher rank cleched her stomach. Her adopted mother ignored her for the most part. Hunting, fishing, and gathering her meals, the girl suspected this an aspect of her training. She could not admit her house hated her southern accent, hated her southern mannerisms, hated her.

Riding horses came easily. Blindfolded, wild, enraged, she calmed them in a few words of her mother tongue, stroking them in the agitated eddies of their chi Archery and fighting on horseback proved less so, but she mastered them in time. In-between her shifu fed her languages from the nations surrounding Xing and stressed Amestrisian even though it lay across the desert. Quietly, politely, she indicated her thoughts on the possibility of traversing such a distance and on the waste of time that learning their tongue symbolised. He whipped her for her insolence. “If you tell a soul of the Amestrisian,” her shifu snarled, “I will execute you. Is that clear?”

“This one understands,” she mumbled.

He did not smile.

Despite the vices surrounding remarrying, her mother set about finding another man. Her shifu pushed her increasingly during what she felt were the final few months, and she slept in the trees and on the grass. The day after she carried four hundred stones in the sack she had replaced twice, her shifu took her to the Palace. Lan Fan wrinkled her nose at the choking wash of incense and wished she could wrinkle her ears at the simpering nobles complimenting one another at every turn whilst their listless eyes hid daggers laced with cyanide. She and her shifu bowed for a stately man of perhaps eighty, swaddled in a yellow robe hemmed with scarlet and adorned with a silver feng. A servant clasped her arms and thighs, ran his fingers over her abdomen, and pushed two fingers into her chest. Her cheeks burned, but she stood erect. “The boy is strong,” the servant concluded at length, “and flexible. This unworthy one would test him, my lord.”

The nobleman made a motion that fluttered the heavy sleeves of his robe, and a row of men wielding various weapons entered. His expression had not changed. “Attack me. The worm defends.” Lan Fan dispatched the men with a knife between two of her left ribs. The nobleman regarded her, his dull irises presently bright with interest. “He will do. You have done well.” Abruptly the man continued in Amestrisian. “Sprechen Sie Amestrisch?

She found her tongue. “Dieser Wurm hat es gut gelernt.

The nobleman dismissed them. They bowed to the ground. On the long walk back her shifu listed what she would require for the journey. No more training. One week to prepare, and they would leave. For three days they carved and painted a pair of masks, and he taught her the swoop of the yin for her forehead. Though the mask hid his face, she could sense his smile in his chi. “Lan Fan.” Her shifu’s timbre trembled. She stared at the mask held between calloused, scarred hands. “I know you are the greatest granddaughter I could have asked for, but you must pretend to be a boy, or all is lost.”

She bowed her head. “This one has pretended in the marketplace for years, shifu. This one will not fail.”

He prayed over her. That night she slipped from her treetop sanctuary and stole into her adopted mother’s room. While the woman slumbered like an ox, Lan Fan selected a cheap dress from those needing washing and creeped out. Stripping in front of a placid pond in the forest, she scanned the surrounding chi and sensed merely the smooth waves of plants, resting animals, and the occasional night-beast. She stripped neatly. Watching her reflection in the lake, she frowned at her small breasts and narrow hips. The dress pinched at her arms and waist and ballooned at the chest. The make-up she clumsily donned reminded her of the painted faces of the acrobats and jesters laughed at during festivals.

Lan Fan carefully replaced her clothing and returned the dress and make-up. Then she vomited in the garden bushes.

The mask concealed her and her pale lips and her short eyelashes and her thick chin.

Her shifu introduced her to their ward. A pretty boy clad in the gold of the Yao with a wrapped sword at his belt and black shoes barely fit for travelling on his feet. His chi felt familiar; she bristled behind the mask. Still, she prostrated herself before him and swore her fealty to him. “This is Prince Yao,” said the nobleman accompanying him. “As the next Emperor, he represents the future of the Yao Clan, and he has requested to travel incognito, west, to seek the secret to immortality. Our best sources indicate that only the Chang plan to do the same, and the day a Chang becomes the Emperor is the day the heavens fall upon the land and the sea swallows the moon.”

Prince Yao waved, grinning stupidly. She resisted the urge to break his nose. At least she could see that he had abdominal muscles. His stance suggested a quick and striking fighting style, although he didn’t have the brains to conceal his skill. “Let’s go!” He rolled on the balls of his feet. “I’m sure we’ll find something, right!” The prince cocked his head to one side like an inquisitive lark gawking at a wildcat. “Er, what’re your names?”

“My lord.” The nobleman bowed at the waist. “These are Fuu and Lan Fan, but you need not learn their names.”

He snickered. “Well, rice is a necessity! I suppose I certainly won’t survive without my Lan Fan then.” When he tipped his head back to laugh and his throat bobbed from the noise, she felt the blood drain from her face. The prince wasn’t pretty: He was beautiful, and beside him she thanked the heavens for the mask. “Right, then. Let’s get a move on. I’m ready for anything.”

By the third hour of travel on horseback, she had tied his fainted body to her stallion while her shifu explained the situation, the key to immortality, the quest to become Emperor. She half-listened, focusing on not focusing on the prince. Reviving him apparently required food. Lan Fan upturned a bowl of cold rice on his face. He licked his lips and demanded more, arching an eyebrow in her direction. “Next time you could just put yourself on my face, Lan Fan.”

She ate in silence. Her cheeks burned red as her mask.

They sparred to learn one another’s fighting styles and to strengthen his abilities. One afternoon about a day’s ride from the nearest village Prince Yao dropped to his knees, panting, and lifted his head to bore into her soul. “You’re that boy,” he gasped, “who socked me in the marketplace.” Lan Fan started to shake her head, but his fingers closed around her wrist. “You’re the reason I wanted to learn how to fight. I kept trying to find you again. To prove that I’m not completely worthless.” She gazed intensely at a very interesting blade of grass at her right foot. “I’m so glad I could meet you again! Please. Call me Ling.”

“My lord,” she said.

He frowned. Her heart beat in her ears. Then he released her. Stretching and yawning, he curled up on his sleeping mat. “See, that’s exactly why I went out not lookin’ like a noble. People think you’re some kind of god when you’re really just as full of shit as the rest of ‘em.”

“This one disagrees.” Prince Yao glanced up at her. Lan Fan clapped her hands her mouth and twisted her head violently from side to side. “This insolent one apologises, my lord, but this worthless one deserves no mercy.”

He giggled. That such a noise could originate from the future Emperor disturbed her, and oddly enough warmed her. The prince reached up to brush the back of his hand on her sleeve; she recoiled. “Nah. You should talk more. You’ve got a voice, y’know?” He winked. Lightning crashed between her thighs. “And a lovely one at that. F-for a boy,” the prince added hastily. “Won’t you show me your face, at least? I can smell the blush on ya, Lan Fan.” At the same sparring session she apologised for the violent-violet bruise blooming around his solar plexus. Her shifu returned with dinner. He dug into it with his usual gusto, but Lan Fan forced herself to eat. At length she slid her half-finished bowl to him.

That night the girl could hardly sleep for wondering if the prince preferred boys. Some men did: Such relationships were respected for those men who sired heirs yet did not allow themselves to be sullied much by an excess of yin, as they called it. Perhaps the prince also regarded women as trash, as fit for nothing but bearing heirs.

She could not have children.

She wished she were a boy.

The following morning she found a half-eaten peach by her mat. She ignored the prince the remainder of the week and beat him bloody during their sparring sessions until her shifu drew her aside. In harsh tones he reminded her that her position reduced her to nothing but the prince’s vassal. “If he wants your body,” he growled into her ear, “then you will say nothing. If he wants you to fight, then you will fight, but you will let him take you, do you understand?”

Lan Fan inclined her head. “This one will do as the prince wishes.”

He quit the mask and kissed her softly on the forehead of hers. “I’m so sorry.”

She did not smile. “This one understands.”

With an alarming frequency Prince Yao hinted at his presumably lustful feelings. She convinced herself he merely lowered himself to her level for want of women on the road. Although he never strayed to the brothels and whorehouses, she told herself that that was because she and her shifu followed him everywhere. Whenever she approached him, his chi thrummed with energy; whenever she spoke to him, he grinned at her. He would touch her gently. Top of the head. Inset of her wrist. Pad of her foot. During their sparring sessions he swept her feet out from under her, sliding forward so that she landed on top of him.

Lan Fan observed him. He carried on like a commoner, filched entire ducks from wealthy patrons—he had a liking for roast bird but somehow learned of her preference for smoked fish, thereafter insisting on fishier meals—only to hand entire drumsticks to street beggars, debated would-be philosophers in bars and ranted around the stupidity of the current system. He tricked street gamblers and spent the money on sweets from child vendors. He tried liquor, once, and spent the night vomiting. Dark hair plastered to his face, tears sparkling in his eyes, tendons raising ridges in the backs of his hands, heaving muscles glistening with sweat, shoulder blades like mountains upon his back. She had never seen him so beautiful.

She washed her smallclothes discreetly.

As they crossed into the desert, bandits attacked: Three travellers on horseback, and well-bred horses at that, made for attractive targets. Her shifu cursed his own foolishness. Prince Yao had fallen into one of his fainting spells, but the two vassals tore through the bandits, losing a horse in process. Evidently waking up at some point from the noise and smell of blood, he watched her gut a man in single serpentine strike of the arm.

“Lan Fan.” She calmed the blindfolded horses by yelling at them in a language he wouldn’t understand and pushing their muzzles down. Their chi settled. “Lan Fan, do you like me?”

“This one is my lord’s vassal. This one respects my lord as a vassal should. Does my lord wish this one to list his admirable qualities?”

The prince stroked the horses’ noses. “You know what I mean, Lan Fan. In that way.” His bangs covered his left eye. She curled her fingers into a fist to keep from brushing the hair from his face.

“If my lord wishes this one to like him in that way, then this one will.”

He sighed and drummed his fingers on the inside of his arm. She cleaned her weapons of blood and wiped off the mask as well. Her clothing could wait. “I’m never going to do anything you don’t want to.”

Lan Fan squeezed her eyes tightly shut. “This one cannot want anything.”

“That’s stupid. What if I want you to want?”

She had no answer. Her shifu finished disposing of the bodies and declared that they could continue on two horses. The prince rode behind her. With his arms snug around her waist, he rested his chin on her left shoulder and murmured into her ear. His breath stirred her hair as even the hot desert wind could not. “I’ve never met a boy like you.”

“If my lord is frustrated, this one recommends the male brothels. This one has heard they are common enough in Amestris.”

He laughed. Her spine tingled. “See what I mean? You manage to snap back even though you’re trying to be all respectful. You’re not from the capital, are you?”

Ah. Her exotic accent had piqued his curiosity. “This one is from the southern mountains. This one means no disrespect, but if my lord likes foreign boys, then my lord will find a plethora in Amestris, even those with golden hair like the mythical Sage.”

Prince Yao squished her against him. Strangely she felt nothing on her bottom. Her cheeks flushed from the desert sun—certainly not from the dirty thoughts that had crossed her mind. “That’s not that I meant. Just that I like your voice. And the way you move. I wish I could see your face.”

“This one is not worthy of my lord’s gaze.”

He sighed into the shell of her ear. She clutched at the reins, and the horse whined. “You’re cute when you’re flustered.” She rode on in silence. “Lan Fan, that was a compliment, I swear.”

“My lord is kind.” She bit her lower lip and steadied herself, counting from one to ten and back down repeatedly. Her fingers stilled. Her shifu would slaughter her, but at least the prince would not dirty himself with her. “My lord would not like this one if my lord knew something.”

Prince Yao shifted behind her. “Oho, you’ve been keeping a secret, eh Lan Fan? You don’t have an arranged marriage or something, do you?” He paused, tapping his fingers on her stomach. “Or do you not like boys, is that it? Because I wouldn’t mind wearing a dress.”

Despite the heat her skin was icy-cold. She wanted to strangle him, to punch him, to see him bleed for the implication that something as simple as throwing on a dress could make him a girl. For all of his education and his supposed wisdom and his ability to quote famous works of literature at drunk men in bars he knew absolutely nothing.

“This one,” she said as evenly as she could, “is a girl.”

His jaws snapped shut with an audible click. For a handful of minutes blessed quiet pooled around them. Then he inhaled, and she resisted the urge to throw herself from the horse. “Is that it? No wonder your voice is so lovely. Actually, that makes everything easier, and explains quite a bit. You had a feminine chi and everything.” He rubbed the back of his neck. “Besides, it means less to explain in the Palace.”

“You don’t prefer men?” she blurted out, startled. “Ah, this one means my lord.”

He shrugged. “I don’t really care. Woman, man, both, neither—I admire you, Lan Fan.”

“Oh.”

Silence again. She listened to the difference between hard sand and softer vegetarian as the horses flew over the land. The sky looked bluer, the clouds fluffier, the flowers more vibrant, now that she anticipated his blade to her neck for her deception. Women could not be warriors. Women bound their feet and inflated with children and painted themselves white and red.

“Do you still not like me? Do you have an arranged married?”

Perhaps he would kill her if she refused. Perhaps she could act selfishly for once and sully him. Perhaps. “My lord, this one has no arranged marriage, but this one could never dirty my lord. This one is unworthy, inferior—”

“This one is going to have to stop that,” he teased, mimicking her tone, though not unkindly. “And this one is going to have to call me Ling.”

“My lord,” Lan Fan repeated stubbornly.

She could sense the curve of his lips in his chi and berated herself for tracking it. “Do you see what I mean? Insolence in respect, respect in insolence. I like you a lot, Lan Fan, but I guess I’ve got to prove myself to you yet.”

“If my lord wishes this one’s body, my lord is welcome to it.”

Prince Yao clicked his tongue and ordered her never utter words like those again.

The grass gave way to the inner heart of the arid desert, the horses gave way to camels, and her black garb gave way to reflective white. Bandits attacked twice more; she watched a camel tear a grown man’s arm from its socket. They passed caravans brimming with silk, spices, rare animals, gold, jade. Oases washed their weary bodies and filled the camels’ humps. At last they found an Amestris of small farms, scantily clad women, smoking guns, sloshing beer on every corner, alchemists on every other. She suspected the plethora of explosive alchemy also explained the plethora of shiny automail. In the back of her mind she considered an automail limb impervious to injury and stocked with weapons that could not be knocked away with an assassin. Lan Fan flexed her left arm, curling her fingers, and could not imagine warm flesh replaced with cold metal.

Or could she. For that was what life as a vassal to the prince and future Emperor entailed.

They learned of and discarded human transmutation as a viable option: Even if one could perform it successfully, the current Emperor would implicate himself a fool to depend upon lecherous advisers to revive Him after His death. A newspaper clipping hinted at a possibility in the crime-laden Datton City. Their investigations revealed a gang leader claiming immortality, but Lan Fan killed her with a throwing knife between the eyes when her gang made the mistake of insulting her prince. Then her shifu discovered a rumour about  a truly immortal man who had once run a gang called the Black Diamonds but who had left for Dublith. The arrogantly named Devil’s Nest stank of blood and faeces. Famished, Prince Yao directed his crew to a butcher shop. The Ronshitese owner described the creature’s death. “Shame. He was one of my best customers, him and his chimaeras.” Her quick chop sprayed them with chicken blood. “That’ll be four hundred-seventy cenz, plus tax.” The woman gave them the use of a spare bedroom and a shower for another hundred cenz a piece. “If you steal anything, I’ll slit your little Xingese throats.”

She bathed in secret and solely while her shifu could watch the prince. Presently she indulged in a cold shower. The cake of soap smelled of lavender and animal fat. For the first time in months she felt clean, truly clean, and she allowed herself several more minutes than usual. Prince Yao’s chi swirled from the other side of the water closet door. Locked. “A moment, my lord,” she called out nonetheless, switching off the water.

A metallic noise. She grabbed the mask and strapped it around her face. Rapidly she selected a towel to wrap around herself.

Cold air on her back. Pupils dilating, Lan Fan whirled around: Prince Yao stood in the open doorway with his brow furrowed and his mouth quirked in a manner that poured magma over her face and shoulders. “My lord!” The towel flew over her chest, and she pulled it taut over her crotch as well. “Please, my lord, forgive this one—this one meant nothing—this one did not expect—”

“Ah.” The prince stared at her incredulously, his usual grin replaced with a numbing frown. “You said you were a girl.” He turned to close the door, his fingers white on the doorknob.

She fought the tears welling up in the corners of her eyes. The pain stung somehow worse than any of her shifu’s beatings. Her hands shook on the towel, “This one is unworthy.” Her voice splintered into a moan. “This one is worthy. This wretched worm is unworthy of my lord’s presence; this wretched worm is unworthy, unworthy, unworthy.” Fear replaced her limbs with gelatin while shame pumped searing bile into her throat. The cold tile chilled her aching knees and forehead. “This one is sorry.”

From her current position she noticed the manner in which he rolled on his heels. She could see the blue veins on his ankles. His feet looked smaller and narrower than hers. “For me sneaking in on you in the shower? C’mon. Take my hand, Lan Fan. I promise you you won’t dirty me or anything of that shit, okay?” Hesitantly she raised her head. He beamed at her with that crescent-moon grin that crinkled the edges of his eyes and dimpled the corners of his mouth. “After all, how could I be upset at a girl as beautiful as you are?”

One arm wrapped tightly around her breasts, she slipped the fingers of her left hand into his palm. He pulled her up. Slight pressure at the back of her head, her straps digging in. She lowered her eyelids and mumbled for him to stop, quietly enough that he wouldn’t hear her. “May I take off your mask, Lan Fan?”

“My lord has no need to ask this undeserving one.”

He tapped the surface of the mask on the yin. “Don’t make me strip, too, just to put us on equal ground.”

A small part of her begged her to ask him to do just that. “My lord may remove this one’s mask.”

His chi shone like gold in moonlight. The heated air around her fire-flushed face dissipated. Light crept over her lowered eyelids. His hand rested, heavy and warm, on her shoulder.

Softly, so softly she almost missed the sensation, he touched his mouth to hers. His lips felt cool and wet. They conformed to hers, pliable, parting around her, adapting to her. When he moved away she pressed her lips together as if daring to capture the kiss within. “If anyone ever calls you a boy,” he whispered, “I’ll rip them limb from limb for you.”

“This one would rather do that—” She swallowed hard and opened her eyes to meet his gaze. Lan Fan found herself smiling, found that she remembered how to. “—herself.”

He burst out laughing then. Throwing his head back, he quaked with mirth, shoulders shaking, hand clutching at his belly. For the longest time she watched his beautiful laughing before the river broke the levees and she joined in. Some impenetrable barrier had shattered. Ling faced the door politely while she dressed. In the meantime her shifu had brought back a roast chicken and a parcel of smoked salmon. During dinner he elaborated on what he had uncovered from the Ronshitese woman’s husband: Rush Valley, a man in armour, a boy with golden eyes. An alchemist who could potentially aid them. Lan Fan produced the train times she recalled from the station and advised the prince make himself appear harmless.

Nodding, Ling thanked her shifu for the information. And then for training the best bodyguard he had ever met. She wrestled with her blush and won. The boy gulped down a bite of chicken. “She’s a marvel, you know?”

In an instant her grandfather’s gaze snapped onto her; he arched an eyebrow, his chi pulsing with worry and anger. Ling grinned and nudged her with his elbow. His chi could bring Xing to its knees, and would.

She chewed, swallowed, listened to her heart fluttering behind her bound breasts. “This one is a warrior—” Lan Fan smiled. “—but this one is a girl, too.”