Tuan Teng was having a bad month.
It was the middle of winter, for one thing. The snow was piling up, and he was constantly slipping on ice whenever he stepped foot outside. Not to mention it was cold, and while it was easy enough to wear a few extra layers under the Dai Li uniform, rock gloves and boots were hard to insulate. Wearing woolen gloves and socks as lining helped, sure, but it didn't change the fact that your hands and feet were still encased in solid, freezing stone. And he couldn't even complain about it - every time Tuan opened his mouth to curse out the incompetent moron who had designed Dai Li uniforms, he remembered that said incompetent moron was Avatar Kyoshi, and he would be bludgeoned to death by every single agent in the Preservation Branch if he ever blasphemed her most beloved memory.
Then there were the spider-squirrels that had taken up refuge in his attic, whose sole purpose in life seemed to be keeping him awake all night with their scampering and chittering and the knowledge that they were probably chewing up everything in sight up there. He blamed them for the head cold he was currently nursing. Maybe if he wasn't so sleep-deprived, he wouldn't have gotten sick.
And then there was Yong, who'd been eyeing up a few of Tuan's subordinates lately. He probably wanted to offer them a transfer to Investigations. He probably would offer them a transfer to Investigations. They'd probably take the offer immediately. Which meant Tuan either had to tell Yong to piss off - which, frankly, never worked - or resign himself to the inevitable and figure out how to rearrange his agents so as to get all the districts covered.
And speaking of agents, Wu Sheng Shi and Huang Xu - the most annoying of Tuan’s subordinates - had spent the past few weeks cavorting through the halls of Lake Laogai, singing Dongzhi carols at the top of their lungs. Tuan didn't mind Dongzhi carols - during Dongzhi. And if he had to listen to Huang and Wu Sheng sing an incident report to the tune of "Good King Wen Si La" one more time, he was going to cut a hole in Lake Laogai's ice and throw them in.
Oh, and to top it all off, the Fire Nation had been encamped outside Ba Sing Se's walls for a good five hundred and twenty-three days, and they didn't show any signs of leaving. You'd think that would put a damper on the Dongzhi spirit, but no. If anything, it only made those city officials who were in-the-know even more determined to pretend there was no war in Ba Sing Se and absolutely nothing was wrong.
Which was why Long Feng had practically required all the Dai Li directors to attend the Earth King's Winter Solstice party. Tuan hadn’t bothered trying to get out of it, because he knew he wouldn't win. Shirong hadn't even been able to get out of it, and Shirong usually managed to avoid anything that involved nobles. The three other directors were perfectly fine with being forced into attendance - Yong never minded rubbing shoulders with the upper class, Delun loved anyone cultured enough to engage in a good poetry discussion, and Quy was from an old Dai Li family and thus had been attending these sorts of things since he’d been deemed old enough to engage in polite conversation.
And thus it was with a heavy heart and a sleep-deprived mind that Tuan resigned himself to the fact that his night was going to be spent with the posh, stuffy, self-important members of Ba Sing Se’s elite. He wasn’t sure if he should hope it might be better than dealing with the stacks of paperwork and caroling subordinates waiting for him back at the lake. It wasn’t that Tuan had anything against the upper class, they were just...different. And he had approximately thirteen ways to better spend his time than socializing at a high class dinner party while pretending that everything was perfectly okay.
Tuan did not make a habit of hanging out with nobles. He interacted with them, certainly - it was part of his job - and there were a few he was more familiar with, but Tuan’s work was focused on the streets and people of Ba Sing Se, and Long Feng usually handled the political aspects of the Dai Li. Tuan was more than happy with the arrangement. As complicated and dangerous as his job could be, politics were even more so. Strategically placing agents around the city and bringing in criminals, that was pretty straightforward. Dealing with stuffy nobles, not so much.
Unless, of course, it was the right stuffy nobles.
Tuan hadn’t ever meant to become more than a passing acquaintance to the House of Tantai. All he’d ever done was gone to see a play based on a book he liked and spent the entire performance wincing at how badly the story was handled. Lady Xiuying Tantai had been doing the exact same one box over. They’d wound up watching it together and commentating on the utter bastardization of their favorite novel. In the year since, they’d kept in touch and continued running into each other. As a Director of the Dai Li and a member of a noble house, their social paths crossed semi-regularly, and with every meeting Tuan found himself more and more pleased that they did. Lady Xiuying was as well, he thought. He couldn’t help but like her - she was pleasant company and fun to talk to, sweet and kind and very energetic where her interests were concerned. He enjoyed her company whenever he was graced with it, and given that she hadn’t politely told him to scram so far, he thought it was safe to say that she enjoyed his, too.
Really, the only reason Tuan thought this evening might be bearable was because Lady Xiuying would be there.
So even though he desperately didn’t want to be here, even though he’d rather be sleeping, or working, or screaming his stress over the Outer Wall at the Fire Nation troops camped outside, he held steady and told himself not to despair. If there was anything that was going to make this party worth it, it would be a nice conversation with Lady Xiuying Tantai.
Which was why he started looking for her the moment he entered the ballroom.
Fifteen minutes later, Tuan felt as though he’d found everyone in Ba Sing Se’s upper class except Lady Xiuying. He’d exchanged a brief greeting with Long Feng, who was busily flitting from noble to official to scholar to noble, and an even briefer one with Shirong, who was steadfastly avoiding and sidestepping every last person who attempted to approach him. Delun and Quy were already up to their eyeballs in scholars discussing historical whatnot. Yong had yet to make an appearance, but Tuan knew he’d be here sooner rather than later.
After another minute with no results, he took a moment to center himself, eyes flickering around as he carefully mapped out everyone around him. He was very near the edge of the ballroom now, having traversed all the way from one side to another. Immediately to his left, a scholar was trying to impress a young noblelady Tuan thought might be from the House of Zaifu. Beyond them were more nobles - Zaifus and Simas and Dous and Bans, holding tittering conversations in knots of threes and fours. He spotted Lady Diwu and her Linghu brothers quietly conversing over hors d’oeuvres by the banquet table, and not far from them King Kuei was chatting with Long Feng and assorted nobles. To Tuan’s right, a military officer and some scholars were engaging in small talk, and then there were more scholars gathered around Zan Dai and nodding along at whatever historical ramble she was giving. At the edge of the room, in the shadow of a column, a Taishu boy and a Sima girl were making eyes at each other.
And behind him… Wait, someone was coming up behind him.
“Ah, Director Tuan, so good to see you,” someone said, and Tuan turned to find Lord Zhi Vinh Diwu coming towards him, two cups of wine in hand.
"Lord Diwu,” Tuan said politely.
“I’m surprised to even see you here,” Lord Diwu said. “Normally you don’t bother with these things.”
“The Grand Secretariat made it a mandatory event,” Tuan said dryly.
Lord Diwu laughed. “What, really? Well, I’m sorry to hear that; I know the feeling. Have a drink?” he held out the extra cup.
“I’ll pass,” Tuan said, glancing around again. “Actually, would you happen to know where Lady Xiuying might be? I was hoping to speak with her.”
“Haven’t seen her yet,” Lord Diwu said. “Hopefully she shows soon; she's one of the few people I actually like talking to at these things, even if she does enjoy it too much. You sure you don’t want some wine? You look like you could use it. Trust me; it helps you get through these banquets."
“I’m fine, thank you," Tuan said. “Maybe later.”
Lord Diwu shrugged. "Suit yourself." He sipped his own drink. "You know what else makes these things more fun, though?"
"What?" Tuan asked warily.
"When you've got Huang and Wu Sheng doing security. That always helps the time go by."
Tuan made a noncommittal grunt. Huang and Wu Sheng didn't do security detail often, but when they did, Lord Diwu tended to spend more time talking to the walls than actually socializing. Which was, of course, the reason why Huang and Wu Sheng didn't do security detail that often.
"How are they, anyway?" Lord Diwu asked. "I haven't been able to talk to them for a while."
"They're splendid," Tuan grumbled, thinking of the carols. "Absolutely splendid and full of Dongzhi cheer."
Lord Diwu smiled. "That sounds like them. Are they working tonight?"
"No," said Tuan. "I gave them some time off."
"Ha!" laughed Lord Diwu. "They're probably off spreading holiday shenanigans, then."
"Wu Sheng went to visit his parents, I think."
Lord Diwu frowned. "Oh. Right. It's their first Dongzhi since Changpu..." He trailed off awkwardly.
There was a moment of silence. Tuan wondered if he could use it to get away. Just when he was about to excuse himself, though, Lord Diwu groaned. "What?" Tuan asked warily.
"Director Delun's chatting up my wife," Lord Diwu said. Tuan followed his gaze to find Delun and Lady Diwu engrossed in conversation about a hundred feet off. "They're probably dissecting the historical context of some poem or other."
Tuan sighed. “Yes, well, that’s Delun for you.”
“Uh-huh,” Lord Diwu said, shoving one of the wine cups at Tuan. “I’m gonna go remind her that if I have to participate in this party and can’t talk to one person at the exclusion of everyone else, neither can she.” He headed towards his wife and Delun.
“Good...good luck with that,” Tuan sighed.
Lord Diwu turned around and walked backwards for a few steps so he could point back at Tuan. “Drink that! It helps!” Then he whirled around again, off to drag his wife from the depths of poetry analysis and historical significance.
Tuan looked at the drink in his hand. Then he glanced around at all the nobles milling about, laughing and chatting gaily. The long hours left in the party stretched bleakly before him, and he groaned, closed his eyes, and sipped the wine. It was good - not rice wine, he realized immediately, something else. Fruity. Apricot, he thought. Nothing he would’ve picked out on his own - he wasn’t very adventurous with his alcohol, and he definitely wasn’t a connoisseur - but he liked it. It was nice. He had another sip while his eyes slowly swept around the room.
Still no sign of Lady Xiuying. Looked like he’d have to redouble his efforts.
He milled around the ballroom in a very casual spiral search pattern, starting at the edge of the space and making his way towards the middle. After about ten seconds at the edge of the room, he decided to make his way towards the middle a little quicker. The fringe of the party was where the young, rambunctious attendees tended to hang out. The Taishu boy and Sima girl he’d noticed earlier had made their way behind the column now, and Tuan steadily ignored them and their giggling as he walked by. Next he passed some Zaifus chatting with some Jins about a play, and then a Ban and a Linghu discussing their plans for the new year, and then a Taishu and a Dou complimenting each other on their prized koi fish. He passed by King Kuei and his flock of admirers, to whom he was enthusiastically showing off Bosco. The bear was sitting on the floor, looking around the ballroom and being generally uninteresting, but the assembled nobles cooed and gasped delightedly every time the animal so much as turned his head.
The nobles, at the very least, seemed to be enjoying themselves.
Less enthused were the military officials - the few of them who were actually present, that was. The army needed its leaders on the Outer Wall. General How was the only member of the Council of Five in attendance - they could barely spare him, Tuan knew, but they needed one of them here so the nobles wouldn’t wonder. It was obvious that General How didn’t want to be here at all - even from across the hall Tuan could tell how strained the man was as he spoke with some oblivious noble about some probably-inane subject. Tuan could sympathize. He’d rather be at work, too.
And then there were the government officials and the scholars and the new money families who’d pulled themselves into the upper class through sheer hard work, and Tuan ignored every last one of them because none of those people was who he was looking for.
Right when he was considering climbing the nearest wall to get a better vantage point so he could do a proper sweep of the room and see if he could find Lady Xiuying that way, he heard a familiar laugh. Not Lady Xiuying, but her sister, though Tuan was still relieved. It seemed he wouldn’t need to crawl the walls after all. Dai Li spy tactics, effective as they were, would be completely inappropriate at a party where he was a guest instead of security.
Lady Mingzhu Tantai was standing with a small knot of nobles, her attention completely taken up by some bureaucrat, her head nodding along with his words. Tuan edged toward the group, coming to stand just a few feet from Lady Mingzhu. She saw him from the corner of her eye and turned a polite smile towards him, shifting just enough to make space for him. Taking the invitation, Tuan stepped up beside her. “Good evening, Lady Mingzhu.”
“Director Tuan,” she smiled, “so good to see you.”
He smiled and inclined his head. Then he took a moment to glance around the knot of nobles and officials, and he recognized some of them - Lord Xianfeng Linghu and his wife Lady Li Na were there, and Lady Lanfan Jin, and Lord Zongying Dou. There were others he only recognized vaguely, and some he didn’t know at all - including a young, tired-eyed woman who stood just beside the droning bureaucrat, her green robes embroidered with an intricate square featuring a platypus-bear.
Tuan wondered why a mere fifth-ranked military official was at the Earth King’s Dongzhi party.
“...refugees overpopulating the Lower Ring,” the bureaucrat was saying, and then he paused to look at Tuan. “Ah! Good evening, Director.”
“Good evening,” Tuan said, recognizing him as Jing Guo Yan, one of the Census Bureau’s assistant directors. Tuan had only ever had a few interactions with him before, but in the last few seconds he’d quietly pinned him as one of the stuffy sorts who liked to hear themselves talk. His long dark beard was well-groomed, and the large square decorating the front of his robe, embroidered with a goose-lizard, marked him as a fourth-ranked official in the Ministry of Revenue.
“Perhaps you can weigh in on this conversation,” Lady Mingzhu said. “Assistant Director Yan was just explaining the population status in the Lower Ring.”
“Ah,” said Tuan, giving Assistant Director Yan a considering look. “That’s quite a complicated conversation topic.” His tone held a mild warning.
“Specifically I was talking about how the overpopulation issue is contributing to the crime rate,” Yan said, the explanation quick and smooth. Tuan nodded to himself - that was an acceptable subject. “With all the rabble down there, it’s no wonder crime runs rampant. In my opinion, we really ought to tighten the restrictions on medicinal opium again.”
“Would that lessen the criminal activity?” Lady Mingzhu asked, and Tuan had to blink at her tone of voice. As the Dai Li’s Director of Surveillance, he had conversations about the Lower Ring’s crime rate on a near-daily basis - conversations that were grumbled, strained, exhausted, exasperated, and any number of other emotions in between. Lady Mingzhu merely sounded politely interested but entirely uninvested.
“Oh, certainly!” Assistant Director Yan said. “If we make it harder for the criminals to get ahold of the stuff, it’ll cut back on their activity for sure.”
Well, didn’t that make it sound simple? Tuan was tempted to sarcastically ask why on earth the Dai Li hadn’t done that - and then sarcastically answer that oh, right, it was because it didn’t work.
He was saved from temptation by Lord Linghu, who said, “You do realize that the Lower Ring is allowed barely any opium as it is? I’m certain that the stuff the criminals distribute doesn’t come from the medics.”
Assistant Director Yan looked like he wanted to scoff and wasn’t sure how to do so towards a noble. “Well, surely the stuff in the medical centers doesn’t help.”
Lord Linghu frowned, and Tuan remembered that the Linghus had always been charitable towards the Lower Ring. “It’s barely a dent,” he said. “Anyone who actually steals opium from healers is likely working on a small scale.” He glanced at Tuan. “It’s the larger, organized crime syndicates we need to worry about - and they have their own ways of getting opium.”
“Director Tuan,” Lady Mingzhu said, “what do you think? I’m certain you can weigh in on this conversation.”
Tuan chuckled. “I can agree that I’d have much less work to do if there wasn’t any opium in the city.”
Assistant Director Yan nodded.
“However,” Tuan added, “Lord Linghu is correct. Most of the opium found in the black market comes from outside Ba Sing Se. I’m not sure restricting its medicinal usage would have much effect, despite how easy it would be. Controlling things that come from outside the city is much harder to do.”
Assistant Director Yan laughed. “Oh, don’t I know it!” he said. “My line of work deals with refugees!”
The assembled nobles tittered, but one or two of them glanced to Tuan to see his reaction, the fifth-ranked military woman among them. Tuan allowed himself to smile. Yan was cutting it a little close, but everyone knew that refugees existed, and strictly speaking he hadn’t said what they were refugees of. He could let it slide.
“Fortunately, the black market has been rather quiet as of late,” Tuan added. “The rate of imported opium my agents have been finding has dropped considerably.”
“A testament to your hard work, I’m sure,” Lady Mingzhu said, smiling at him.
“Yes, we’re all very grateful for your dedication to keeping the city safe, Director,” Lord Linghu said, giving Tuan a pleased look.
“...Indeed,” Tuan said, repressing a wince. “Thank you.” They wouldn’t be so pleased if they knew why the black market hadn’t been shipping much opium into the city recently. He thought of the rows and rows of red tents just beyond the Outer Wall.
He wasn’t the only one thinking of them, apparently. The military official was giving him a look.
“Immigration to the city has been down recently as well,” Assistant Director Yan mused. “Has been for a some time now, actually.”
“Is that so?” Lady Mingzhu asked.
“Oh, yes. The number of arrivals in the last year has been negligible. It’s quite a relief.”
“Fewer refugees?” Lord Linghu asked, glancing at Tuan for - spirits, did he want confirmation? Well, Lord Linghu was Lord Diwu’s brother-in-law; Tuan supposed he could count the Linghus amongst his noble acquaintances. It wasn’t bad company to keep - the Linghus were upstanding citizens, even for nobles, very charitable and concerned with the suffering of the lower class, very involved with programs to rehabilitate the Lower Ring. And, most importantly, they were all that without being rabble-rousers - they were loyal to the Earth King and Long Feng, and Tuan had never had any cause for concern from them. This conversation was the first time Tuan had ever heard of a Linghu even obliquely mentioning the war.
So he looked back at Lord Linghu and allowed him a small smile and a slight nod.
Lord Linghu brightened. “Less opium, fewer refugees,” he said. “What good news.”
“Indeed,” Lady Mingzhu said, smiling. “That is good news.”
The other nobles all cheerily agreed - a lessened black market economy was certainly a good thing, and fewer incoming refugees could only mean a good thing, though none of them went so far as to mention why. No one dared to ask But is the war over? Are we winning? Tuan heard it, though, in between the murmurs of a lower crime rate and overcrowding and one hummed suggestion of “Well then, if there are no refugees coming in, perhaps we should have the city’s newer arrivals return home - surely that would solve the population issue.”
For one awkward moment that went completely unnoticed by the nobles, Tuan locked eyes with the military woman. Her gaze was haggard and dangerously near to glaring, and her thin lips had the slightest twist to them. He stared back at her, impassive, and after a moment she dropped her gaze and looked away.
As the conversation moved on in other directions, Lady Mingzhu turned back to Tuan. “So good to see you here, Director,” she said.
“It’s good to see you as well, Lady Mingzhu.”
She smiled. “And yet I’m not the person you want to see, am I?”
Tuan chuckled. “You know me too well.”
“I know my sister too well,” Lady Mingzhu said.
“Ah, yes, where is Lady Xiuying?” Tuan asked. “I haven’t seen her yet.”
Lady Mingzhu looked apologetic. “Xiuying isn’t feeling well this evening,” she said. “She’s at home, resting.”
And just like that, all Tuan's hopes of the evening not being a total waste were dashed. "Oh," he said. "I'm sorry to hear that.”
“I’m sure you are,” Lady Mingzhu smiled. “She sends her regards. She wanted me to let you know that she’s sorry to have missed you, and that perhaps once she’s feeling better you could join her for tea.”
Tuan blinked, pleasantly surprised at the message. It was much more than the usual mere apology warranted by the situation. “Thank you,” he said. Smiling a little, he asked, “Do you always play messenger, Lady Mingzhu?”
“Hardly,” she said. “But I make an exception where my sister is concerned.”
Tuan nodded. “Then would you kindly tell her I say hello, that I await her invitation, and that I hope she feels better soon?"
"Of course," Lady Mingzhu nodded. “She’ll be happy to hear from you.”
Tuan felt something inside him glow a little. “Thank you,” he said. “Well then. The night is long, and I have many more people to see.” He waved a hand at the ballroom in general. Truthfully he didn’t mean to meet with half the people here; he’d just had his fill of chatting with nobles. Yong had yet to show up; maybe he could find him.
"Don’t let me keep you, then. Have a good evening, Director Tuan." With that, Lady Mingzhu turned back to her fellow nobles, seamlessly inserting herself into Lady Jin’s boasts about her prize ostrich-horse.
Tuan headed off into the crowd, sipping at the wine Lord Diwu had left him with. Well, this evening was going to be a total waste, as far as he was concerned. He thought of all the work waiting for him back at the lake and wondered if maybe Long Feng would just let him leave early if he begged hard enough. Probably not. If Tuan got to leave, then Shirong would also demand to be allowed to go, and Long Feng seemed very determined for them all to present a unified front at this party.
He glanced down at the nearly-finished cup of wine he still held and swirled the liquid around a few times before draining it. A servant walked by with a tray of drinks, and Tuan dropped his cup on the lacquered wood as she walked by.
“Did you want another, sir?” the girl asked, immediately stopping and turning without spilling a single drop.
Tuan looked at the exquisitely-carved cups, considered the long evening ahead, and nodded. “Thank you,” he said, swiping another drink. The girl gave a quick bow and continued on her way.
The second drink was definitely rice wine. Very good rice wine, but also very bracing, especially after the light, fruity sweetness of whatever it was Lord Diwu had given him. Tuan wondered if he could find more of that stuff anywhere. He should’ve asked the servant girl.
He sipped slowly and glanced around, alone in a sea of nobles. Nearby he saw Quy, and briefly considered approaching. But Quy and his family were already engrossed in conversation with a knot of scholars, and while Tuan didn’t mind discussions on history, he wasn’t in the mood for it right now. Neither was Quy’s cousin, apparently - Tien Trung stood off to the side of her relatives, speaking with her daughter. Was it just him, or did she look more somber than usual? Granted, Tien Trung was known for being a downer at these parties, but… Tuan eyed her over the rim of his cup, considered her refugee past, her relationship with Quy, her relationship with various army officials, the fact that General Iroh was camped outside the Great Wall, and the dark circles he could just barely make out under her eyes, well-hidden by makeup, and he concluded that yes, she definitely looked more somber than usual. He also concluded that he hadn’t noticed that at all. He’d just steer clear of Quy’s extended family for now, he decided.
Unfortunately, Quy’s extended family couldn’t be bothered to steer clear of him.
“And how’ve you been doing, Director Tuan?”
Tuan very stoically did not flinch at that gruff voice that had put the fear of rock gloves into the hearts of generations of young Dai Li agents and turned to face the speaker. “Agent Mu!” he said, plastering on a smile. “Nice to see you!”
Mu Li gave him an unimpressed look. “I’m retired.”
“I know,” Tuan said, as he could very vividly remember the day Mu had declared himself so. The old man hadn’t even bothered turning in his two-weeks’ notice. He’d just stomped into Tuan’s office during a meeting, shouted his decision in front of no less than all five Dai Li Directors, Long Feng, two Joo Dees, and three government officials, helped himself to a cup of wine that’d been meant for Tuan’s guests, and jumped out the window.
“So don’t go calling me Agent,” Mu huffed.
“I’m working against a lifetime of habit, here,” said Tuan, who, even when he had technically outranked Mu, had still been respectfully terrified of the man. Most Dai Li were, really. Mu had been a primary instructor for years, and you never really forgot the first time you got buried in a rockalanche, or beaten up with flying stone fists, or sucked underground without warning as a pop quiz.
Mu rolled his eyes. “So how have you been holding up since I left? Organization fallen apart yet? Find anyone who can scare the rookies as good as me? What about that Enlai kid you had me paired up with, has he managed to get that stick out of his - ”
“Language!” Tuan sputtered before he could stop himself, glancing worriedly at the surrounding nobles, and thus didn’t see Mu take a swing at him. He certainly felt it when something hard smacked his legs, though. “Ow! What the - when did you get a cane?”
“What, this?” Mu asked, looking at the stick he was holding. “Woke up a week into retirement and found walking exhausting. Apparently after years of running my age finally caught up to me. Peizhi was all I told you so and I was like shut up sis and then it turns out she’d had this in a closet for years ready for when I finally needed it because she is a massive brat who waits very, very patiently for the day when she will inevitably be proven right.”
Mu’s sister, Tuan thought, might actually be even scarier than Mu himself. “Right,” he said. “Okay.”
“So,” said Mu, “status report?”
“Everything is classified and you’re retired and not allowed to know anything,” Tuan said, because even though he technically could discuss quite a bit with retired agents he really just wanted this conversation to end.
Mu whacked him with the cane again. “That was a terrible lie, kid.”
“There really isn’t much going on,” Tuan said, “aside from the usual.”
“True,” Mu shrugged. He probably already knew everything that was going on in the Dai Li, honestly. Retired or no, the man still had his sources. “Now then,” Mu said, “enlightening as this conversation has been, I do have other people I’d like to talk to. I heard Scholar Wu Ling is here this evening, and I intend to tell him that his interpretation of events surrounding the collapse of the Kambuja Empire is complete bullshit.” He snatched a cup of alcohol from a passing server and downed the whole thing in one go. “Nice talking to you,” he said, wandering off and leaving Tuan alone in horrified silence.
Well, he was alone for two seconds, until someone grabbed him and pulled him behind a column. Tuan yelped, dropped his drink, and went to punch his assailant.
Shirong blocked him easily.
“Oh my spirits,” Tuan hissed. “You are so lucky I wasn’t wearing my gloves!”
“I need your help,” Shirong said without preamble.
“I need another drink,” Tuan groaned, shooting a sad look at his fallen cup, its contents spattered over the floor.
“You didn’t see me,” Shirong said brusquely, ignoring him. “Understood?”
“Uh,” said Tuan.
“Or, rather, you did see me. Heading over there.” He pointed off towards the banquet table, and immediately turned and went in the opposite direction.
Tuan stared after him, wondering what horror was bound to befall him next. Not five seconds after Shirong disappeared into the crowd, someone behind him cleared their throat. “Ah, Director Tuan,” a prim voice said, and Tuan slowly turned to find Lady Jiaying and Lord Zongying Dou. “Have you seen our cousin?” Lady Dou asked.
“Oh,” said Tuan. “Yes, he went over there.” He dutifully pointed towards the banquet table.
“Thank you,” Lord Dou said, and then they were gone.
Tuan stared after them and wondered in what kind of stupidly tangled web he’d just been an unwilling string. He looked down at the cup he’d dropped and had a brief moment of grief for the spilled liquor. He’d barely had any of the rice wine.
Like magic, another cup materialized before him. Tuan blinked at it before looking up at Shirong.
“Thanks,” he said, taking the drink.
“Thank you,” Shirong said, sipping at his own. “That ought to throw them off my trail for at least a few minutes.”
“Sounds like you’re having a fun night,” Tuan said.
Shirong snorted. “Oh, of course. And as soon as I see Long Feng I’m going to let him know just how great of a time I’m having.”
Tuan wondered if he should pity the Grand Secretariat. Then he decided he really didn’t. “Give him a few extra grumbles for me, would you?”
“Certainly.” Shirong looked around at the assembled nobles. “Are you quite certain you want to marry into this?”
Tuan about choked on his drink. “I’m not even courting Xiuying yet!”
“But you’re obviously going to. The two of you have been cultivating a relationship for nearly a year now, and while I’m aware that close friendship does not necessarily precede romantic feelings, from my observations it’s becoming quite clear that both you and Lady Xiuying are indeed moving down that path. Marriage is the foregone conclusion, though I do suggest you exercise caution before committing yourself to all... this.” He waved a hand at noble society in general.
Tuan silently cursed out the Reeducation Branch and their abilities to get inside your head even when they weren’t using a lantern.
“Of course,” Shirong continued, “you could always - ”
Tuan let his gaze slide over Shirong’s shoulder. “I think your cousins are coming back this way,” he said, and Shirong’s face paled.
“I wasn’t here,” he said, and he disappeared into the crowd.
Tuan smirked and glanced across the hall, where the Dous had been safely waylaid by the Simas. Reeducation agents might be able to get inside your mind, but Shirong had never been involved in the Dai Li’s more rigorous activities, and he’d certainly never been on an op. He was nowhere near as good at scoping an area and maintaining situational awareness as Tuan was. He was willing to trust Tuan to do that for him, and Tuan was willing to abuse that trust if it meant he could escape a psychoanalysis session.
Still, Shirong wasn’t stupid, and Tuan decided to change his position in case the man realized he’d been had and came back to scold him. He meandered to the edge of the ballroom, keeping to the columns. Were he trying to avoid anyone else, this might be a bad strategy - shadows tended to shelter those who wanted to be unnoticed, and Shirong definitely didn’t want to be noticed. But Shirong, Tuan knew, tended to hide in plain sight - he’d get lost in the crowd and blend in with the other nobles, as hard to find as a needle in a haystack. Not a conventional hiding strategy, Tuan thought, but apparently a noble one - with their status and social expectations, the upper class couldn’t be seen skulking in the shadows like common thieves. Shirong had been raised to foster appearances.
So Tuan maneuvered around the columns without fear, confident that he wouldn’t see Shirong for quite some time. He sipped the drink Shirong had given him - it was different from what Lord Diwu had offered him. Still good, though.
Of course, just because Shirong wasn’t hiding here in the shadows didn’t mean other people weren’t.
“...talk like this is some sort of reward, but you and I both know this is a punishment.”
The low murmur came from the other side of the column he was standing by, and Tuan froze for a moment before quietly edging around the stone. Whoever had said that was seethingly angry, and at a party like this that wasn’t a good thing. Tuan casually stepped around the column, feigning the need for some privacy ( was he feigning? He might not actually be feigning), and saw a pair of women standing there, both clothed in traditional Nanyuese ao dais.
Tuan froze for a second time, and seriously reconsidered backtracking again when Tien Trung and General Bian Nanyue turned to look at him.
“Ah,” he said. “Good evening.”
The women didn’t look like they were having a very good evening at all. General Bian’s eyes were fierce and bright, and beside her Tien Trung looked tired and pale. Whatever he was interrupting, Tuan was certain it hadn’t been a friendly chat.
“Director Tuan,” Ms. Trung said, inclining her head. “How are you on this fine evening?” The twist to her mouth made it plain she considered the evening anything but fine.
“Oh, just wonderful,” Tuan said. “How are you ladies?”
Ms. Trung’s smile was thin. “We’re doing well.”
“We were just discussing the Council of Five,” General Bian said dryly, “and their odd sense of rewards.”
“Honestly, Director,” General Bian said. “Don’t you think there’s somewhere else I’d much rather be right now?”
Tuan thought of the Outer Wall and the soldiers guarding it. “How’s the army doing?”
General Bian smiled bitterly. “Oh,” she said, “ my troops have been doing just fine on their own.”
Tuan refused to wince at the implications, instead adopting an impassive expression and taking a long sip of his drink - outwardly appearing unaffected, inwardly scrambling for something to say in response. The troops in the Earth Kingdom Army that had been recruited from refugee populations had a habit of not always getting along with the troops from Ba Sing Se. The soldiers who’d been recruited from the survivors of Nanyue were worse than most.
Frankly, most people who’d managed to survive Nanyue were hard to get along with in general.
“Well then,” Tuan said at last, “I’m sure your troops do us proud.” He nodded, mostly to himself - it was a decent, neutral statement that would serve him as a nice exit from this conversation - and then he froze as General Bian and Ms. Trung’s eyes narrowed.
General Bian’s voice came out in a low hiss. “We don’t fight for you.”
She was a war veteran and a general who’d grown up in combat, but Tuan was a Director of the Dai Li. She was scary, but he was scarier. He looked her straight in the eye. “You don’t fight at all,” he said. “There is no war in Ba Sing Se, General Bian.” And then, because he was still riding the wave of being a stern and grim Dai Li Director, and maybe because the wine was getting to him, he added, rather bravely, “And if there was, I’m certain the troops of Nanyue are a credit to the entire Earth Kingdom, of which they are a part, and which they are sworn to protect.”
It was a testament to General Bian’s strength of will that she didn’t answer - merely stood rigid, glaring at him, a slight tremor going through her jaw. Beside her, Tien Trung forced her hands out of fists and gave Tuan a tight smile that was barely more than an upward twitch of her mouth. “Of course, Director Tuan,” she bit out. “Our people have never been anything but loyal.”
Tuan gave her a short nod. “Of course,” he said, and then he let his gaze wander away, back out towards the rest of the party. After a moment, he allowed his eyes to widen slightly - oh, wow, would you look at that, there certainly was something interesting going on out there, surely. “If you’ll excuse me,” he said, stepping back towards the crowd. He had another sip of his drink as he left that awkward situation behind.
Tuan decided it was high time he got away from the columns and back into the middle of the room, where he’d be safe from Dai Li directors who were trying to avoid their family and grumpy Nanyuese women and whatever other characters he might find hiding in the shadows. Shadows were bad. If he didn’t want this evening to end poorly, he had to keep away from the shadows.
Of course, the people who were standing in the light weren’t much better.
“Let me guess: Your brother’s on your back again?”
“Ugh, yes, I swear he forgets I’m the thirdborn. He’s always like, Ooooh, Xianshang, you must uphold the family name. Do something with your life! Be responsible like me! ”
“Sounds like my aunt.”
“So, do any of you feel like marrying me? It would get him off my back at least.”
Tuan whirled around to find a young man he recognized as Lord Xianshang Leixin Linghu and a knot of other young nobles. Spare siblings - the youngest children of noble houses, who lived under considerably less pressure than the elder heirs to their name.
Xiuying, he recalled, was a spare sibling herself. With four older sisters and brothers, she was very far down the line of inheritance and social responsibility. But unlike young Lord Linghu - who seemed bound and determined to remain a carefree spendthrift bachelor - Xiuying had found good and noble things to do with herself. She was a highly educated, well-read individual with a penchant for ancient literature, and her Rare and Exotic Plants Society kept her busy.
Honestly, Tuan still couldn’t quite believe his luck that for all of Xiuying’s interests and her busy schedule, she still took the time to be interested in him.
Well, he certainly wasn’t going to spend much time near these lazy, self-centered youngsters - not even the pleasant buzz that was creeping over him would be enough to get him through their inanity. Tuan glanced around again, and spied a familiar trio just entering the ballroom. He considered his options, decided that yes, he really was desperate enough to approach Yong for a conversation, drained the last of his drink, dropped the empty cup on a passing servant’s tray, and headed towards the Diao family.
“Evening, Yong,” he said when he reached them.
"Tuan," Yong greeted him.
"How are you doing, Tuan?" Thao asked. "Thi and I haven't seen you in weeks."
Tuan looked at Thi, his eleven-year-old goddaughter, who stood between her parents looking very prim and proper. She smiled at him, and he smiled back. "Yes, well, I've been very...busy," he said, thinking of the siege and the snow and the spider-squirrels. "There's been a lot going on lately."
"Well, that's too bad," Thao said merrily. "What a pity the criminals don't take off for the holiday."
"Crime doesn't go on vacation," Tuan sighed.
“Not that it stops us from getting into the holiday spirit, my dear,” Yong said to his wife. “You should see how some of Tuan’s subordinates carry on.”
“Oh?” Thao asked, looking from Yong to Tuan.
Tuan sighed again, already regretting his decision to talk to them. “They’re quite insufferable.”
"Any interesting carols lately?" Yong asked. His smirk was downright evil.
"Ugh," said Tuan. " Please don't remind me about the stupid carols."
“Carols?” Thao repeated, looking from her husband to Tuan with dewy-eyed curiosity.
"They’ve been singing their reports.”
“Please stop talking about the carols,” Tuan said.
“How did that one report go?" Yong asked, completely ignoring Tuan. "Ru Di the wannabe burglar saw a very shiny ring..."
" Stop," Tuan ordered. "Seriously, don't remind me. They completely butchered Ru Dong the Red-Nosed Reinyak."
Thao laughed. “Oh, how delightful! Have they parodied many others?”
“Yes,” said Yong. “Unfortunately the lyrics are classified.”
“Not to mention terrible,” Tuan snorted, thinking that it wasn’t very unfortunate at all.
Thao smiled. “Duly noted. Now then, I have friends to see. You two have fun; I’ll see you around. Come along, Thi.”
“Goodbye, Uncle,” Thi said.
“Later, kiddo,” he answered. Mother and daughter headed off into the crowd, leaving Tuan and Yong alone.
Yong looked at Tuan. "So," he said. "Have you seen the others?"
"Delun’s over there," said Tuan, pointing to where Delun and Lady Diwu were still engrossed in conversation. Quy’s son and daughter-in-law had joined in, and whatever historically significant thing they were discussing had Lady Diwu highly intrigued. Beside his wife, Lord Diwu looked like he wanted to slam his head into the nearest column. “Quy’s over there.” He nodded toward a spot not far from Delun and the Diwus, where Quy and his mother were quietly talking. “Long Feng’s around here somewhere greeting everybody...ah, yes, over there with Lady Sima.”
Yong nodded, surveying the room. “And Shirong?”
Tuan looked around again. Then, for good measure, he looked up - but no, Shirong wasn’t on the ceiling. It wasn’t his style, anyway. “Hiding, apparently. We’ll find him eventually, I’m sure.”
“Certainly,” Yong said. “Long Feng won’t let him hide the entire night.” A servant boy walked by, laden with drinks, and Yong plucked two cups from the tray as he passed. “I’m surprised to see you so soon here, Tuan. I thought you'd be off with Lady Xiuying by now." He held one of the cups out to Tuan.
"She's not feeling well," Tuan said, cautiously taking the drink. "She stayed home." This would be, what, his third? No, fourth, technically. Though he’d barely managed to drink any of the rice wine before Shirong had spilled it, so...third. He made a note to drink it slowly. He could hold his alcohol, but he knew he’d need to get some food soon to stabilize his stomach. When was dinner?
"Pity," said Yong, not looking at all sympathetic as he sipped his drink.
Tuan felt the corners of his lips twitch into the slightest of frowns. “But,” he added, “she sent me her regards, and hopes to invite me to tea once she’s feeling better.”
Yong looked up from his wine to give Tuan an appraising look. “Is that so?”
“Yes,” Tuan said stiffly, and he sipped his own drink. Oh, it was the apricot stuff again. Lovely.
Yong considered him for a moment. Then he smirked. “So when will you officially begin courting her, then?”
Tuan really should’ve known Yong would go there. “Not yet,” he said. “Not...for a while yet, I think.”
“You’ve been seeing her for nearly a year now.”
“I have,” Tuan agreed, “and I’m going to wait a little longer before I begin courtship.”
Yong snorted. “What, are you frightened?”
“No,” Tuan said firmly. “It just...hasn’t been long enough, that’s all.” He wasn’t sure he really wanted to have this conversation with Yong, but, well...he was feeling pretty amenable right now. Also he couldn’t come up with a decent way to change the subject. It was getting annoying to think.
Yong scoffed. “It’s plenty long enough. Thao and I married within a year of meeting each other.”
“Thao isn’t a noble,” Tuan bit out, and immediately realized from the way Yong’s face darkened that those words could be taken as an insult.
Well, fine. Let them be. Nothing against Thao, but Tuan hated Yong’s posturing. If he was upset because he’d just married a new money upper class merchant’s daughter and Tuan had caught the eye of a noblewoman, well, let him be.
Yong’s expression smoothed over almost immediately, though. “You have a point,” he said amicably. “Lady Xiuying’s background will, I suppose, cause there to be some class differences. In the meantime” - Yong’s smirk was mocking - “at least you have Huang and Wu Sheng and their carols.”
Tuan groaned. “Please, stop talking about the spirits-damned carols. You know I hate the carols. It got so bad I actually gave them off for Dongzhi.”
"I thought you did that because it's the Shi family's first Dongzhi since Changpu died and you thought Wu Sheng might want to be home with his parents," Yong said, idly swirling his glass.
Tuan frowned at him. "Well...that was a contributing factor, but mainly it was because they're just annoying..." Yong gave him a skeptical look, and Tuan mentally kicked himself. Great. Now Yong thought he was either soft or easy to annoy. Probably both.
...Argh, who was he kidding? Yong had had Tuan pegged as an easily-annoyed softie since their days as Dai Li partners. Tuan huffed to himself and had another sip of wine.
“So,” Yong said, looking around as they ambled through the ballroom. “Aside from the Lady Xiuying’s absence, how’s the party?”
“Well, the nobles are enjoying themselves,” said Tuan. “And so are the bureaucrats.”
“And the military?”
Tuan snorted. “What military? They’re all stuck on the Outer Wall. Only a select few came.” He glanced around. “There’s General How,” he said, nodding towards where the general in question was speaking with some nobles with a strained smile. “Only one of the Council of Five to come.”
Yong frowned towards General How. “Who’s that woman?” he asked. Tuan looked again, and saw that the fifth-ranked military woman from earlier was now standing at General How’s side. “How on earth did she get invited?”
“I think she’s a lieutenant or something,” Tuan shrugged. “And I suppose she’s here because no one higher than her could be spared. Except for How, of course.”
Yong snorted. “I’m shocked How’s even here.”
“Yes, well,” Tuan said. “Appearances.”
“How are we explaining the lack of the other generals’ appearances, then?” Yong asked.
Tuan shrugged. “They’re very busy, I suppose.” He paused, then added, “Also, I think people are getting the idea that the war’s almost over.”
Yong raised an eyebrow. “How so?”
“Well,” said Tuan, “since there aren’t as many refugees coming into the city, and the black market hasn’t been terribly active…”
“Ah,” said Yong.
“What if the war really is almost over, though?” Tuan asked quietly.
Yong gave him an arch look. “What’s got you talking like that? No one’s ever gotten through the Great Wall. Delun would be aghast if he knew you were even entertaining the notion.”
Tuan shrugged and looked across the room. “General How looks ill at ease.” He didn’t mention how General Bian had been.
Yong frowned and followed his gaze. “Well, just because they won’t get through doesn’t mean we can afford to let our guard down,” he said. “It’s no surprise he’s still stressed.”
Tuan opened his mouth to say something and instead, after a second’s hesitation, brought his cup to his lips for another sip. Yong, still looking out across the room, didn’t notice, and Tuan was glad. He glanced toward General How again, noting how the man held himself, stiff but tired. Tuan wondered how the siege was going, exactly. Oh, all the reports indicated that everything was fine - stressful, but fine - and the Fire Nation was still easily being held at bay, but Tuan wondered. It wasn’t so much that he thought the Fire Nation would breach the Outer Wall as...well, he wasn’t sure what he was worried about, really. There was no conceivable way they would get through - history had proven that much. And yet at the back of his mind, Tuan felt the niggling of some undefined, baseless fear - that life as they knew it was perched precariously at the rim of the abyss, and that something would happen that would send them all teetering over the edge.
He didn’t give voice to those thoughts, though. The wall would hold as it always had, the Fire Nation would need to eventually admit defeat, and history would smile upon Ba Sing Se as another failed attempt to take the city was added to the records.
They just had to survive the stress until that happened.
Yong, of course, didn’t look stressed at all as he surveyed the room. His eyes were fixed on a pair of nobles on the periphery of the circle surrounding the king and his bear. “I think I’ll go congratulate the Taishus on the birth of their daughter,” he said.
“Hm,” said Tuan. “I’ll see you around, then.”
Yong looked at him. “Don’t want to come along?”
It was an invitation - or the closest thing to one Yong would ever extend to him - and Tuan stared at him, mildly surprised. Once, Yong had often invited Tuan to join him in wining and dining with nobles - well, bragged about the nobles he was going to go see and then asked if Tuan wanted to come along, probably so he could gape in awe at Yong’s networking skills. But those invitations had tapered off as Tuan had made it clear that he didn’t care for wining and dining with the upper class, and he hadn’t received one in years.
Well, looks like it was time to make Yong scoff at him again.
“I’ll pass,” he said.
Yong snorted. “Very well.”
“I barely know them,” Tuan said, defensively.
“So do I,” Yong said.
Tuan sighed. He really couldn’t wrap his head around politics. “Thanks, but I’ll pass,” he said again.
Yong shrugged. “Suit yourself,” he said, and he headed towards the Taishus, leaving Tuan alone.
“Tuan,” someone said, and he turned to find Long Feng miraculously free of hangers-on.
“Oh,” Tuan said, “hello, sir.” He had another sip of his drink.
Long Feng gave a vaguely pleasant smile. “Having a pleasant evening?”
Before Tuan could answer, Shirong did, practically materializing out of nowhere to hiss, “Oh my spirits you utter asshole.”
Long Feng heaved a sigh. “And a merry winter solstice to you too, Shirong.”
“Do you have any idea what my night has been like?”
“I can presume, from the way you’ve been skulking about like a kicked rat-dog.”
“My cousins are as annoyingly determined as ever, and it won’t be long before my aunt goes on the warpath. I hope you’re happy.”
“Exuberant,” Long Feng deadpanned.
For a long moment the two men held each other’s gaze, Long Feng looking bored and Shirong on the verge of impolitely glaring. Tuan glanced back and forth between the two of them and had a fortifying sip of wine.
“My time would be much better spent working,” Shirong finally said, stiffly. “There’s so much to be done, you know. Tuan agrees with me.”
Tuan choked on his drink. “Um - ”
Long Feng gave Tuan a look. “Yes, but unlike you, Tuan has acquiesced to the need for a social presence and hasn’t spent the entire evening avoiding all of society.”
“I cannot believe you’re doing this to me!” Shirong hissed.
Tuan couldn’t believe either of them were doing this to him, pulling them into the middle of their awkward friendship spat. He gulped down another mouthful of wine. A glance at his cup showed it was almost empty. Shame. It was really good.
Somewhere across the banquet hall, the dinner gong rang, and someone gave the call for the meal to begin.
“Well then,” Long Feng said, “shall we?”
“Oh no you don’t,” Shirong snapped. “I’m not sitting down until I’m certain my aunt and her insufferable offspring are settled in and won’t come bothering me once I’ve attached myself to a chair.”
Long Feng looked over at the banquet table. “Oh, look, the Dous are all seated. Go. Sit. Down.”
Shirong snarled and stalked towards the table.
Long Feng gave Tuan a smile. “I’d best go check on His Majesty. Enjoy dinner, Tuan.”
Tuan did not exactly enjoy dinner. Oh, the food was superb, of course, but the actual event was a deeply awkward affair. This was mostly because he had the great misfortune to sit beside General Bian, who herself was sitting across from General How. Tuan attempted once or twice to make smalltalk, which General Bian mostly ignored in favor of staring stonily at General How. General How, for his part, steadily ignored her.
Tuan would’ve attempted to speak with his other neighbor, but unfortunately Delun was happily debating with a snide ex-Agent Mu Li and an increasingly-flustered Scholar Wu Ling about what exactly led to the collapse of the Kambuja Empire, and thus was completely oblivious to Tuan’s existence.
“So,” Tuan commented to yet another cup of the apricot stuff. It was all he had for company, and he was forcing himself to drink it slowly because even though he was getting food into his stomach now, his head was still buzzing. He knew he was tipsy. He also knew he should probably stop soon, but this night was just terrible and awkward and he needed something to take the edge off. More than the edge, really. “Nice weather we’re having, huh?” he asked his wine.
“It’s cold and snowy and miserable.”
Tuan blinked twice at his drink and looked around briefly before realizing it was General Bian who’d actually spoken. She wasn’t looking at General How anymore, her eyes fixed on her own drink.
“I hate the snow,” she added.
“It’s a valuable tactical advantage,” General How said mildly, not looking up from his dessert. General Bian didn’t acknowledge him beyond a slight eye twitch.
Tuan pursed his lips for a moment before deciding to speak. “Hypothetically, of course,” he said. “It’s not like we need a tactical advantage.” General How did look up at that, and he blinked at Tuan warily. Tuan allowed himself a smile - the subtle Dai Li one that was politely threatening, a reminder to the recipient that there was no war in Ba Sing Se. He was pretty sure it still had the desired effect, even if he probably was a little glassy-eyed right now. “Isn’t that right, General How?”
“...Of course,” General How said, giving Tuan a grudging nod. Tuan went back to his wine, allowing General How to return to his food.
“So,” Tuan said after a moment, glancing at General Bian. “That weather.”
She was silent for a few seconds, and then she muttered, “I miss the warm.”
Nanyue, Tuan remembered from half-forgotten geography studies, was a warm region, even in winter. Something about the winds coming from the south, circulating enough warm air to keep the place pleasantly temperate.
“It’ll be spring before we know it, I’m sure,” Tuan said. General Bian snorted. Tuan had another sip of wine. This was glass number...five? Technically five. Actually four. He was pretty sure. He felt fine, though - having a full stomach was definitely helping. He was still lucid and in control of himself. He thought.
Which was why he made the stellar decision to mutter to General Bian, “If it makes you feel any better, I don’t want to be here either.”
She looked over at him, then at his cup, and then back at his face. “Oh?”
Tuan waved his hand. “I’d rather be working,” he said. Lower, he added, “And Lady Xiuying isn’t here, so...yeah.”
General Bian blinked. “Lady Xiuying?”
“Tantai,” Tuan clarified.
“Ah,” said General Bian. “I take it you two are close?”
“I like to think so,” Tuan said. “I also like to think we’ll get even closer, in the future.”
“Courtship first,” Tuan said into his cup. “It has to happen in due time, all in due time…”
General Bian was silent for a moment, and then, very quietly, she said, “Don’t wait too long.”
“What?” he asked, blinking befuddledly.
“Do it while you can,” General Bian said. “Enjoy it while it lasts.”
“What makes you say that?”
She faltered for the briefest moment. “Ah, well...speaking as...someone who’s lost everything …” She hesitated, glanced at the drink he still held, and barreled on, “I just think it’s important that you live every day to the fullest and enjoy the good things while they last.”
He words pierced through his brain’s pleasant buzz and dropped into his gut like a ball of ice, and he stared at her. She didn’t bother holding his gaze; her eyes went right back to her own drink, and, after a moment of consideration, she downed the whole thing in one go. Across the table, General How was frowning sternly at his plate, but didn’t bother looking up or saying anything.
“...Alright then,” Tuan managed, surreptitiously watching the generals. Yes, the siege was hard, but surely General Bian wasn’t implying… No, no, it would’ve been reported to Long Feng already if the Council of Five thought they were going to lose the city. And Long Feng would’ve told Tuan and the other directors. The Council of Five wouldn’t keep them in the dark about that.
Tuan resolutely did not think about all the things the Dai Li kept the Council of Five in the dark about.
Well, dinner was technically over, there was more socializing to do, and Tuan felt no desire to continue this conversation. “Pleasure talking with you,” he said, politely excusing himself. The room spun the moment he stood from his seat, and he leaned on the table and waited a few seconds for the world to right itself.
“Feeling alright, Director?” General Bian asked mildly.
“Fantastic,” he told her stiffly, hoping the word wasn’t slurred. He gratefully got himself away from her and General How, his fifth drink still in hand.
The socializing took place at a more sedate pace now; everyone was full of good food and good drink, pleasantly sated. Tuan passed by a knot of scholars discussing what, exactly, led to the fall of the Kambuja Empire, a disgruntled Scholar Wu Ling and a smug Mu Li at their core, and then a group of women discussing the latest play, Thao among them. Across the hall, he noted a gaggle of girls giggling their way toward the gardens, Thi right in the thick of them.
His head started to spin, and he paused by a column to get his bearings. He considered the drink in his hand. On the one hand, the food really was helping to take the edge off. A bit. He thought. On the other hand...he had had a lot.
“Ah, so I see you took my advice,” an amused Lord Diwu said, sidling over to Tuan.
“It wasn’t bad advice,” Tuan said, swirling his drink. “Also this apricot stuff is good.”
Lord Diwu brightened. “You like it?”
Tuan peered at him. “I’m gonna get a whole basket of it for the new year now, aren’t I?” he asked.
Lord Diwu snorted. “You sound so disappointed to be getting free stuff.”
Tuan grimaced. He understood where Lord Diwu was coming from, he really did, but... “You don’t need to get me stuff,” he said. “It’s not necessary, and…” And he didn’t deserve it, not really, no matter what Lord Diwu insisted. All he’d ever done was his duty. He didn’t need to be rewarded for that.
Lord Diwu gave a small smile. “I want to get you stuff,” he said. “We’ve been over this.”
Tuan sighed and resigned himself to the inevitable gift basket. At least it would just be alcohol. A few years ago, Lord Diwu had surprised him with a beautifully-embroidered robe woven of the finest silk, and cut to Tuan’s exact measurements. It’d been both touching and a little creepy. Tuan had no idea how Huang and Wu Sheng had managed to figure out what his size was and he didn’t think he wanted to.
“Didja manage to pry your wife away from Delun?” he asked.
Lord Diwu’s face fell a bit. “No, I got swept up in the grand discourse of historical significance.”
“Happens to the best of us,” Tuan said sagely.
“Now they’re talking about Ancient Kambujan poetry, I think,” Lord Diwu said. “Why is everyone talking about Ancient Kambuja all of a sudden?”
“That’d be Agent Mu’s fault,” Tuan sighed.
“Why - oh my spirits,” Lord Diwu said, breaking off in response to a commotion that suddenly started up halfway across the hall. It appeared the young Lord Xianshang Leixin Linghu had gone too deep in his cups, and was making attempts at some drunken revelry.
“Isn’t that your brother-in-law?” Tuan asked, glancing at Lord Diwu’s frozen face.
“Oh my goddess, Leixin,” Lord Diwu managed, watching the young man spin around with an equally exuberant young lady. Several older nobles gaped, aghast, and Lord Diwu stifled a giggle. “I dunno if I should go make him stop or if I should go thank him for making this evening more interesting… Okay, no, going to make him stop,” he said, upon witnessing a truly spectacular crash into the elderly Lady Taishu. Lord Xianfeng Dianshi Linghu was already beelining for the disruption that was his younger brother. “Yeah, I’m gonna go help Dianshi with that,” Lord Diwu decided. “Should be entertaining if nothing else.”
Tuan watched him go and turned back to his drink. Well. At least he wasn’t that far gone. Figuring it was safe, he finished off the cup and traded it off to a servant for another.
A few minutes later, he noted that the room was louder, brighter, and definitely spinning. He should probably stop drinking. He was a Head of the Dai Li, he had a reputation to uphold - both his own and the organization’s. But drunkenness wasn’t exactly uncommon at these parties, as the young Lord Linghu had demonstrated, and...well, he felt relaxed. For the first time in months.
“There you are,” Yong said, and Tuan stifled a groan. “I was wondering where you’d gone. How was dinner?”
“Generals How’n Bian were grim as ever,” Tuan grumbled, the words slightly slurred, “and Delun’n Agent Mu incited an academic squabble.”
“Mu’s retired,” Yong reminded him, eyeing Tuan critically.
“He could still kick both our asses without breakin’ a sweat,” Tuan reminded him.
Yong blinked at the vulgarity. “How many of those have you had?” he asked, looking at Tuan’s drink.
“This’s number six,” Tuan said, deciding that this conversation already warranted a drink and taking a sip. “But technically it’s five because I barely got to drink any of number two. It’s good.”
“Huh,” Yong said, looking him up and down. “Are you feeling alright?”
“I feel fine,” Tuan said, and he thought it over. “Better than fine, actually. I feel better than I’ve felt all month!” He gave Yong a reassuring smile.
Yong didn’t look reassured. After a moment, he also looked like he didn’t care. “Alright then,” he said. “Glad to see you’re finally enjoying yourself.”
“I am capable of it,” Tuan said.
“Hm,” said Yong. He wasn’t looking at Tuan. He was looking around the hall.
"Your wife's over there with Lady Meixiu," Tuan hiccuped, gesturing toward the far side of the room. "And Thi walked out t'the gardens with'er girlfriends five minutes ago."
Yong cast an appraising look at his friend. "You noticed all that despite being sloshed?"
"S'why I'm Head'f Sureivlance," Tuan answered, having another sip.
“Right,” Yong said, in a tone of voice that suggested he only thought Tuan was Head of Surveillance because Yong himself had gotten made Head of Investigations. It was, Tuan thought annoyedly, partly true. “How drunk are you right now?”
Tuan considered it. “I can still remember why I’m so stressed,” he said, “so...probably not enough? ‘Cept the room’s spinning a bit, so also probably too much.”
Yong sighed and reached for the glass Tuan held. “Give me that.”
“No,” Tuan said, jerking his hand away. A bit of liquor spilled over the rim of the cup. “I’m fine.” He wasn’t going to let Yong take it away - Yong always took his stuff.
“You’re an embarrassment,” Yong grumbled.
Tuan pretended he hadn’t heard that and gulped down more of his drink. “M’ stressed,” he said.
“As though that’s any excuse,” Yong huffed. “We’re all stressed.”
Tuan wondered if there was some way to tell Yong that he was the cause of much of his stress without sounding like a jerk. He suspected there wasn’t. “ You’re stress,” he muttered eloquently.
“Well of course I’m stressed,” Yong said, glancing around. Lowering his voice, he said, “It’s not as though this winter has been easy on any of us. Pull yourself together, for spirits’ sake.”
“Feh,” said Tuan. “You don’t have spider-squirrels in your attic.”
“Spider-squirrels?” someone asked, and they turned to find Delun coming towards them, Quy close behind. Long Feng and Shirong were following after, but they were speaking to each other in low, hissed voices and didn’t seem to notice any of the other directors.
“I thought you two would still be discussing an ancient empire’s collapse,” Yong said.
Quy chuckled. “We were, but it’s getting to the point where Uncle Mu will drag me into it, so I thought it best to get away.”
“And as familiar as I am with Ancient Kambuja, it’s not my area of expertise,” Delun said, “so I’m afraid I can’t be of much use to Agent Mu in dissecting the intricacies of its end… Though Lady Diwu and I had a splendid discussion on the poetry of the era. She had some clever insights, I must say. That was all I could contribute to the conversation, I’m afraid… However, I’m sure we’ll have some rather scathing articles coming out soon. I’m looking forward to it.”
“Fascinating,” Yong said, in a tone of voice that implied he didn’t care. “Meanwhile Tuan here is telling me he’s more stressed than any of us because he can’t handle a simple bit of pest control.”
“It’s not jus’ that,” Tuan said, flushing when Delun and Quy looked at him curiously. “You don’t have…” He trailed off, because drunk as he was, he knew Yong wouldn’t respond well to You don’t have an asshole former partner constantly eyeing up and stealing your subordinates and causing your duty rosters to run short and making your worklife a casual hell.
“I don’t have what?” asked Yong, who had everything.
Tuan’s brain decided to ditch the Yong approach and latched onto yet another stressor in his life. “Huang and Wu Sheng!” he exclaimed.
Yong blinked. “ What?”
Tuan tossed back the rest of his drink. “Huang and Wu Sheng,” he repeated. “You don’t have them.”
Delun smirked, and Quy politely hid a snicker in his hand. Yong shot them an annoyed look before huffing. “I would very much like to have them.”
Tuan blinked a few times and eyed Yong. “They know. They also think you’re...that you’re creepy, and...I don’t think they’re ever gonna agree t’work with you.”
Yong rolled his eyes. “Foolish little - ”
“But you’re lucky you don’t have t’deal with’em,” Tuan said. “Their...their stupid jokes, and their pranks, and their, their... ugh.” He went to sip his drink again, only to frown at the empty cup.
“That sounds terrible,” Yong deadpanned.
“This is terrible,” Tuan muttered, and he managed to snatch up a seventh drink before Yong could stop him. He gulped it down defensively.
“Is...is he drunk?” Quy asked.
“Yes,” said Yong.
“Tipsy,” Tuan insisted.
“I don’t think I’ve ever seen Tuan drunk,” Delun mused.
“How much has he had?” Quy asked.
“Technically six,” said Tuan.
“Seven,” said Yong.
Quy stared at Tuan. “Right,” he said, and he turned toward a servant who was carrying around a pitcher of water. “Excuse me, I’ll be taking that. Yes, the whole thing, thank you.”
“I’m fine,” Tuan insisted. “I’m jus’ tired’n stressed and...and… Y’know what’s the worst? The blasted Dongzhi carols. They just come stridin' into my office screaming Dongzhi carols at the top of their lungs, and it - it drives me crazy!"
"It’s a short trip," Yong sighed, as Quy took Tuan's glass and refilled it with water.
"I wish there was a way to make them stop being... them!" Tuan said, accepting the glass and tossing it back. Yong grimaced. "I'm going to go insane because...because of them!"
"You don't say," Delun said, with a smirk that quickly twisted into annoyance when Tuan invaded his personal space.
"You know what I wish?" Tuan asked, tapping Delun on the chest. "Delun, you know what I wish?"
Delun heaved a sigh. "What do you - "
"I wish we could give 'em to Shirong and let him take care of it!"
Shirong turned from where he'd been engaged in conversation with Long Feng not five feet away. "I beg your pardon?"
"Y'know," Tuan said, waving his free hand and his not-so-free hand around, splashing water on Yong's robes. "That thing you do. With the light. And the words."
Shirong raised an eyebrow. "Reconditioning?"
"Yeah," Tuan hiccupped. "That. Jus', y'know, put 'em through a coupla rounds w'the happy lantern, y'know?"
"I'm not so sure that would work," Shirong said indulgently. "Huang and Wu Sheng are plenty happy."
"Then use a sad lantern on 'em or something!"
Shirong sighed and sipped his own wine, and then flinched as Tuan suddenly stumbled forward and slung an arm around his shoulder. Long Feng looked on, amused.
"Could you change their general emotions, if you wanted to?" Yong asked, at the same time Tuan slurred, "How d'you do it, anyway?"
"We've been over this," Shirong said to Tuan.
"Yeah, but mostly I jus' stop list’ning."
Shirong looked irritated. He turned to Yong. "I could change their general emotions, easily. I do it everyday with civilians, after all. It's just a very simple suggestion planted into the subconscious."
Yong looked intrigued. "So could you plant a suggestion that, say, they'd like to transfer to the Investigations Branch?"
Tuan promptly detached himself from Shirong and nearly collided with Yong, spilling the last of his water in the process. Half-leaning on the other director, he poked the man in what was probably meant to be a threatening manner. "Ohhhhhhh, no," he said. "No, no, no you don't! They may make my life a living hell, but they're still my subordinates and you can't have them 'cause they're mine and you need to stop stealing my subordinates! Got it?"
"This is a hypothetical situation," Yong growled, looking over his soaked robes.
"I don't care!" Tuan snapped. "Shirong, I changed my mind. Don't come anywhere near my subordinates! I don't want you messin' with their heads!"
"My pleasure," Shirong said dryly.
“Do I want to know why our esteemed colleague is drunk?” Long Feng asked. He still looked amused, not upset, so Tuan figured it wasn’t as bad as it could be.
“I’m going to assume it’s because he drank alcohol,” Yong huffed.
“M’stressed,” Tuan reiterated.
Long Feng sighed. “Let’s just try to keep this quiet, please.”
“It’s not like the rest of us are entirely sober,” Quy said, pointedly looking at the cup in Long Feng’s own hands.
“Which is why I’m not having him escorted out.”
Quy snorted and reached out to steady the cup in Tuan’s hand. “Have some more water,” he said, pouring more from the pitcher he still held.
“Thanks,” Tuan said, gulping down another mouthful. Looking back to Shirong, he asked, “But how do you do it?”
“Yes,” Tuan said, because he’d thought it’d be obvious by now. “That. How?”
Shirong opened his mouth to respond, and Delun said, “Could you explain in such a way that we don’t all zone out?”
Tuan started laughing hysterically, because wow, wasn’t that ironic? How many times had he zoned out during Delun’s lectures on historical significance? Apparently he was the only one in on the joke, because everyone else was ignoring him.
Shirong considered it for a moment before answering. “No.”
“Don’t explain it, then,” Yong ordered, glancing over at Tuan’s hunched, giggling form. “It’s not like any of us will ever understand, anyway.”
“Indeed,” Shirong said, “you do lack the...necessary insight for understanding the human mind.” He sipped his own drink.
Yong frowned at him. “I have enough insight,” he said. “I know what makes people tic.”
“You know how t’torture the schist out of them,” Tuan translated through his snickers.
Yong didn’t even blink. “Yes, that too.”
“How hard is it, though?” Delun asked. “To recondition someone,” he clarified when Shirong looked at him. “I know the initial reconditioning takes a few days, but aside from that and the lantern and the hypnosis I don’t know anything about it. How hard is it?”
“Truthfully?” Shirong hummed, smile smug. “It’s very easy once you know what you’re doing.”
“It just takes a few years and a lot of mush-brained criminals before you know what you’re doing?” Quy asked, smirking a little.
“Yes, precisely,” Shirong said. “But once I figured out the proper technique...it really isn’t hard.” He shrugged. “Some subjects are tougher than others, of course, it depends on the individual. People’s personalities and backgrounds definitely play a major role in how easily it takes.”
“Is there really much difference?” Yong asked.
“Oh, yes, certainly. Refugees are...hard, I’ll admit. The vast differences in their cultural backgrounds makes for some interesting challenges. Native Ba Sing Seans are much easier by far, and...well. In recent years, I’ve noticed that the easiest of all to deal with are those who’ve grown up under King Kuei’s reign.” Those who’ve grown up under Long Feng’s regime, he meant.
“Huh,” said Tuan. “So you’ve reconditioned people from...from every...from every demo...democra...demography...right?”
“Most backgrounds, yes,” Shirong agreed.
“Could you recondition me?” Tuan wondered.
“Could you recondition him?” Yong muttered.
Shirong gave them a chilling smile. “I could recondition both of you,” he said. “Easily. As I’m sure you know.” He pointedly held Yong’s gaze.
Yong grimaced and his face went one shade paler, and he had another sip of his drink. It was funny, but Tuan managed to not laugh. He knew Yong wouldn’t appreciate it.
“So,” Delun said, “who are the hardest kind of people to recondition?”
“Farmers,” Shirong said, suppressing a small shudder. “Stubborn, independent-minded cassowary-mules, the lot of them. Fortunately the need to recondition them is few and far between.”
“What, really?” Quy asked. “No one’s harder?”
“Not in my experience.”
“But you said refugees…”
“Difficult, but still manageable. Farmers are even more difficult, but not impossible. It’s never impossible. It just takes quite a bit of dedication and hard work.”
“What about...what about someone from...from...uh…” Tuan wracked his brains for a suitably difficult place. “Kambuja?”
“If Kambuja still existed and they were able to understand what I was saying, given linguistic drift, then yes, I could theoretically recondition someone from Kambuja. Reconditioning works on everyone.”
“Everyone?” Long Feng repeated, amused.
“Everyone,” Shirong nodded.
“Even foreigners?” Tuan blurted.
“I just told you,” Shirong said, annoyed, “refugees - ”
“Noooo not them,” Tuan said. “Like a...a...Air Nomad or...something.”
Shirong blinked a few times before shrugging. “Well of course I could,” he said, his tone bordering on boastful. “I can recondition anyone. And I could make them believe anything. It doesn’t matter who your are - your background, your personality, your personal level of stubbornness. There’s no such thing as immunity to reeducation. I’ve reconditioned people from all over the Earth Kingdom, I could recondition anyone from the Water Tribe, or even the Fire Nation.”
The other directors took the declaration with raised eyebrows and considering looks. Tuan merely gaped at Shirong. “ Really? ”
“Really,” Shirong nodded, and he had another sip of wine.
Long Feng chuckled. “You really think so?”
“I just said it, didn’t I?” Shirong huffed. “I’m certain that, given time and a test subject, I could make a foreigner believe they were from a completely different nation.” He thought it over. “Probably from the Earth Kingdom, since that’s the one I’m most familiar with.”
“Really?” Delun asked dubiously. “You could make someone just believe they’re from the Earth Kingdom?”
“I’ve made people just believe that the war doesn’t exist. Or that they’re law-abiding citizens. Or that they’re a pigchicken.”
Yong had another drink. Shirong didn’t even look at him.
“So I don’t see how it’d be much different, convincing them they’re from another country. It could be an interesting experiment.”
“You really think you could do it?”
Shirong gave Delun an arch look. “Give me the most devoted and patriotic Fire Nation soldier you can find,” he said, “and I'll have him loyal to the Earth King within a month.”
Quy frowned at that, and Delun looked unconvinced.
Yong snorted. “I’m willing to bet that you wouldn’t.”
“How convenient that there’s no opportunity for you to put your money where your mouth is, then,” Shirong said.
“I’d bet for you, Shirong,” Tuan proclaimed. “You’re smart. I’d bet a thouuuuuuusand jin.” He leaned into Shirong’s side with a conspiratorial grin.
“Thank you for the vote of confidence,” Shirong sighed.
“It’s good for him that there’s no opportunity to put his money where his mouth is,” Yong muttered.
“I don’t know,” Quy said, a little quiet. He gave Shirong a considering look. “I think he could do it.”
“It would be interesting to see,” Long Feng mused.
Shirong’s smile was smug. “It would be,” he agreed. “Of course, the initial reconditioning would only be the beginning. There’s also the inevitability of the subject having a rebound that needs to be taken into account…”
“So when will you manage to improve your technique to the point that you prevent rebounds from ever happening?” Quy asked.
“There’s no way to prevent a rebound from happening,” Shirong insisted. “All that can be done is stave it off with proper maintenance, but even so, it’s inevitable. With proper check ups a subject may go as many as five years without a rebound, but usually it hits around the three-year mark. It happens to everyone, even Joo Dees. Of course, it’s liable to happen even earlier when mixed with certain stimuli that may stir up old memories - people, or smells, or words… Or a rebound could be triggered by…” He glanced at Yong. “...a traumatic experience.”
Yong’s lips thinned.
“And that’s when we’re all in trouble,” Long Feng sighed.
“I’ve told you, most rebounds are quiet, undramatic things,” Shirong said.
“The Butcher Knife Incident, Shirong.”
“That was one time.”
Tuan giggled and dove into his cup, allowing the rest of the conversation to flow around him. His colleagues’ conversation moved on, and eventually they split up and moved on as well, and the rest of the evening passed in a loud, bright, colorful blur while Tuan leaned against a very reliable, supportive column that Yong had told him to stay at. It was weirdly nice. He was, at the very least, relaxed.
“Maybe this wasn’t the worst party ever,” he said, very philosophically, he thought. Delun and Agent Mu and Scholar Whatshisface ought to have a field day with that brilliant bit of insight. “This was nice.”
And then he was falling over.
“Oh my goodness,” someone said, catching him around the shoulders. “Director Tuan, I know I said drinking would help, but I hope you know I didn’t mean like this.”
“M’very drunk,” Tuan muttered, squinting at Lord Diwu. “Aren’t I?”
Lord Diwu gave a little chuckle. “Yes,” he said, hoisting Tuan up, “you are.”
“Mmph,” Tuan said.
“Goodness, Director Tuan,” Lord Diwu said, grinning as he helped Tuan stagger forward. “I never would have thought you’d have it in you! Not that I don’t understand the merits and joys of getting utterly shitfaced,” he added, “but generally I try to not do so during important banquets swarming with nobles.”
“Nngh,” Tuan grumbled.
“C’mon,” Lord Diwu said, tugging Tuan along, “let’s get you out of here.”
“Okay,” Tuan said amicably, helpfully stumbling over his own two feet.
Lord Diwu caught him before he fell over completely. “Careful,” he warned.
Tuan regained a semblance of balance and stared into Lord Diwu’s eyes. There was something he had to tell the younger man, something important he had to say, and he grasped at the words before they slid out of his mind. “Don’t,” he said, “tell Huang and Wu Sheng about...about this.”
Lord Diwu stared back at him for a moment before sighing. “Okay, okay, I promise.”
“I mean it!” Tuan insisted. It was important. It was very important.
“So do I. Not a word, don’t you worry.”
Mollified, Tuan relaxed in Lord Diwu’s grip. “Thanks. You’re...you’re a...a good kid.”
Lord Diwu snorted. “Wow, you must be really out of it if you’re calling me kid.”
“You are a kid,” Tuan muttered.
“Uh-huh,” Lord Diwu said, helping him along. “Come on, let’s get you to Director Yong’s carriage.”
When Tuan woke up in Yong’s guest room the next morning, he didn’t remember a thing from the directors’ conversation the night before. Frankly he didn’t remember much about the party at all. But given the spectacular hangover, he supposed he was glad he didn’t. Breakfast - well, lunch, rather - wasn’t as awkward as it could’ve been. Yong wasn’t even there. Thao informed him, with much snickering, that her husband was also rather hungover at the moment. Not as much as Tuan was, but enough that he was refusing to leave his bed. It made Tuan feel a little better. He enjoyed a meal with Thao and Thi, chattered quietly with his goddaughter, who was beyond considerate of his headache, and eventually made his way home early in the afternoon.
One of his servants had a letter for him the moment he walked through the door.
“Can it wait?” he begged, brushing past her and making for his bedroom. “I really want to just go to sleep and never wake up.” A thought occurred to him. “Is it the exterminator? Did they get rid of the spider-squirrels?”
“Uh, no, sir,” she said, hurrying after him. “But I really think you’ll want to read it! It’s from Lady Tantai!”
Tuan stopped in his tracks, turned around, and snatched up the letter. He opened it in a flash, and found that it wasn’t a letter at all - it was an invitation.
Lady Xiuying Tantai invites Dai Li Director Tuan Teng to the Rising Moon Tea House for lunch next week, on Yin-Waterday.
(When I should be feeling better.)
(Terribly sorry I missed you last night.)
Tuan smiled. Sure, Lady Mingzhu had already extended the invitation on her sister’s behalf - but now it was official. “Send a reply, tell her I accept,” he said.
“Yes sir,” she said with a smirk, already scurrying away.
Tuan continued his beeline for his room, changed into the comfiest sleepwear he had, and face-planted on his bed, intent on sleeping off the rest of his hangover. Briefly, he wondered if he’d done anything particularly stupid the night before, before dismissing the thought. Yong would’ve been up to rub his nose in it if he had. And whatever foolishness he might’ve gotten up to while drunk, he doubted any of it was too terrible.
Lady Xiuying, after all, was still writing to him.