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Blessings

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Sūn Shàngxiāng comes to Xiǎo Qiáo's house with the dawn, fresh and finespun, walking bare-footed through the quiet on the dewy gleam of the bamboo floors. She comes alone, leaving her maids at the gates of the residence, slipping just out of Zhōu Yú's sight as he leaves for his morning drills. She dodges behind a post and peeks out to look at him walk past, feeling embarrassed almost that he see her with her loose hair, unarmored, a new, exquisite white jade around her neck. When he is gone, she takes herself and flees breathless into the rear apartments. Xiǎo Qiáo is waiting at the doors, her daughter in her arms.

“I've heard,” she whispers to her. “Come in.”

Inside, all is quiet and full of air. A solitary brazier crackles low against the mild Southland winter. Xiǎo Qiáo’s spinning lies half-done, surrounded by fluttering calligraphy. Shàngxiāng kneels next to it, awkward in a woman’s dress, picks up a pale sheet. She traces out the shuāngxǐ with clumsy, hushed reverence.

Xiǎo Qiáo retreats to hand little Píng'ān to her maid. She shuts the doors, turns back round, and looks at her friend down on the floor.

“It seemed proper to make them,” she says quietly, “but I'm not sure if I should congratulate you.”

Shangxiang glances up. Her smile is crooked, so she tries her best to lay it straight. “I'm not sure myself,” she confesses. “I didn't want this. But… it did turn out that what I wanted wasnt what I thought it was.”

Xiǎo Qiáo nods as she settles down next to her. With Shàngxiāng, unlike most others, they do not need tea between them to smooth along the flow of words. She draws her knees up to her chest and waits, watching the princess trace the character again, a subtle tension in her young body. Shàngxiāng earned no scars in the fighting at Red Cliff, but its marks lie all over her nonetheless, deeper than her skin.

“He wrote to me, you know,” Shàngxiāng adds. “He writes well, assuming it’s not Kǒngmíng who does it for him. I wondered what all those great generals found in him, when he couldn't seem to string three words together. I think now, maybe, I do see a little.” She blushes faintly, a touch of sunrise red up her cheeks. “He writes very well.”

Xiǎo Qiáo hides a small smile behind her sleeve. “Not poetry, I hope.”

Her friend shoots her a look. “He wrote that he didn't think to take a new wife, but that he is always delighted at the company of heroes and talents. I am almost set to ask him what rank he’ll give me.”

“What did the Duke say?”

“He didn't see it. Elder Brother would be appalled, to hear that my husband to be wants me as a general more than as a wife.”

Shàngxiāng,” Xiǎo Qiáo says quietly, “do you want a rank?”

The question slips in too quick, and needles too fine. Shàngxiāng looks away, to the doors and the fine rain that falls in the deserted courtyard past them. She holds her palms flat to the smooth wood of the floor. She is wary, these days, of questions of want.

“I want,” she mutters, the words tingling on her lips like strong, bitter wine. She hears ghostlike, from an adjacent room, the maid singing Píng'ān a Jiāngdōng lullaby. “I want to serve the country. And I never want to go to war again.”

She studies Xiǎo Qiáo from the corner of her eye, feeling strange that she cannot anticipate what her friend would say. Abruptly she feels foolish, kneeling there among all the shuāngxǐ. Marriage had been the easiest thing in the world to Xiǎo Qiáo and her elder sister, she remembers, recalling very clearly their wedding day. She’d scoffed at them then, their flushed excitement and girlish giggles. She’d thought them terribly light, airy things, daughter of a general that she was, that she still is. But since then she has also become the sister of a duke. And she no longer feels light even when she rides.

Xiǎo Qiáo does not speak too quickly. She kneels with her a while, then leans a little closer, her sleeves and her loose hair a fall of white and black in Shàngxiāng’s view. Her silence is companionable, a stillness without emptiness. At length, she says, “it sounds as though General Liú doesn’t like political marriages too much, either.”

Shàngxiāng’s snort of amusement is a sharp note. “I suppose it’s brave of him to try, after what I did to him at the banquet…”

“I am told that he admired you even then.”

“I thought he was an old wretch, leering at me. Now he calls me a hero. Do you know that rumors say that he’s bedded all his generals? No doubt he thinks a lady general would be a novelty.”

“Shàngxiāng,” Xiǎo Qiáo whispers her name again, “if you can love him, then love him. Be happy if you can be happy.” She touches her fingertips to Shàngxiāng’s arm. “You can serve without being a sacrifice.”

Shàngxiāng breathes. Her own melancholy irritates her, spread out as it is among the fluttering blessings. She no longer longs for war, but she hardly knows what to do with this peacetime. In battle or not, all that she has ever done is fight.

“You may have to teach me to brew tea,” she says to Xiǎo Qiáo.

Her friend puts a hand over her quirking lips again. “I fear that you won’t take to the teaching.”

“To play the qín, then. Something at least. Even my spinning is terrible.” She sighs, though Xiǎo Qiáo’s smile is infectious. “This marriage is meant to secure peace. I can’t very well spend all my days strutting about Liú Bèi’s camp with my armed maids, scaring his generals.”

“Perhaps he will teach you how to weave sandals.”

Shàngxiāng groans. “Now you mock me.”

“Not at all,” Xiǎo Qiáo demurs, though there is soft laughter behind the fall of her sleeve. “I think he may be just the match you need.”

It is all that Shàngxiāng can do, not to laugh in the most unladylike of ways at the thought of herself weaving straw, making mats and shoes, sitting barefoot among the refugees in Jīngzhōu and chatting loudly with the peasant women while Liú Bèi’s generals double as schoolteachers and farmers. But before she laughs, she pauses at the unasked warmth in her breast. The thought shimmers through the fog of her future in peacetime with a tantalizing light. She almost, uncharacteristically, fears the thought of grasping for it, fears that she might find it a mirage. “That is certainly not what my brother intended.”

“It is not your brother who is being married,” Xiǎo Qiáo points out.

Shàngxiāng snorts again and nods, feeling that much more like her proper self at that, though perhaps a little guilty to have called for such prompt words out of Xiǎo Qiáo. The look in her friend’s face is knowing. She twines their fingers together. Her hand is delicate and warm, and Shàngxiāng cannot imagine as much distance between them as between Red Cliff and Jīngzhōu.

“Not tea, very well, but you must teach me…” she wets her lips and seeks prompt words of her own, usually so quick to hand. Xiǎo Qiáo waits for her with her fingers still. At last Shàngxiāng can’t bear it. She pulls on her friend’s arm and brings their hands together to her chest, over her wavering heart. “Teach me how to…” she cannot say, teach me how to be at peace, nor teach me happiness. She is not so young anymore that she does not know such things, like the agony of war, as cannot be taught by another. But words elude her, fluttering like loose papers.

“Write to me,” Xiǎo Qiáo says quietly. “When you are in Jīngzhōu, write to me about everything.” Her words are not merely comfort. They twine at Shàngxiāng’s thoughts, sure as their hands hold each other. She leans closer until her forehead brushes Shàngxiāng’s own, until there is only a very small, warm space between them. Shàngxiāng swallows, and nods, and lets the words rest.

“But not poetry,” she manages at last, and manages a laugh, which Xiǎo Qiáo answers in a fainter, clearer ring.

They laugh, high and low, for a moment like young girls with unbound hair. Outside, the wind calls the rain away, and sets the blessings to drift and dance and fly.