“—seventeen jin of rice, four of wheat, twenty four of pears, sixteen of radish. Thank you.” Ling Wen nodded to Yushi Huang, who inclined her head in reply. As she did so, her braid slid over her shoulder, and… something slithered up over her shoulder and picked it up, tucking it back behind her shoulder.
Ling Wen frowned. It looked like some kind of—monkey, but far too long, and more eyes than standard (even updating standard to include the six-eyed monkeys native to Yong’an). Yushi Huang had a number of animal companions who assisted her in her work, but this one was new to Ling Wen, and—she ran her eyes over what she could see of its skin—perhaps new generally. No ID tattoo. “What’s that?”
Yushi Huang chucked the thing under the chitinous curve that passed for its chin, and it closed three of its eyes in what was probably affection. “I found it sleeping in the wheat bales.”
Ling Wen hummed, half of her mind still tabulating boxes and parcels as they slid by her on hover-wagons into the cargo hold. "You should probably get that checked—Yizhen, hang on, your tribute manifest lists five jin of silver and two of gold, where are they?"
Quan Yizhen froze with one foot on the gangplank and gave her a sullen look, like he hadn’t expected to be called out. “I gave them back.”
Ling Wen frowned. “You gave them back? ”
Quan Yizhen crossed his arms.
Ling Wen pinched the bridge of her nose, sighing. “Why did you give them back?”
“We didn’t need them,” said Quan Yizhen, and at her look continued, grudgingly, “and they told me they could help me find shixiong.”
Ling Wen narrowed her eyes. Interesting twist, but not one she’d follow up here. “You didn’t think they might be lying? Nevermind—stupid question. Let’s talk about your first statement. We do need that money, Yizhen.”
Quan Yizhen snorted. “No we don’t. We’re funded by the Emperor—”
“We need it, because we need to be seen taking it,” Ling Wen says calmly. "Nothing in life is free. This is the price they pay for our miracles.” She held up a hand at Quan Yizhen’s frown. “Not direct cost; of course we don’t actually rely on these funds. Nor, as you know, do we set standardized prices. The tribute they pay us is tangible evidence of their belief in our power. Depending on how much they give, well, that tells us the physical weight of their love for the Emperor; and by extension for us, his hands.”
"But we don't need it," Quan Yizhen said stubbornly. "And my shixiong—"
"—clearly does not wish to be found," said Ling Wen, crossly. She didn't want to be drawn into this conversation again. “Let it go, Yizhen.”
Quan Yizhen’s jaw shifted, his lower lip jutting from his face. Ling Wen was pretty sure if she looked close enough, she would see it trembling. “Go get the gold back,” she said, instead. “You may leave the silver, as a gesture of our Emperor’s generosity, and thanks for their assistance in an Imperial investigation.” She flipped to a different section of her clipboard.
Quan Yizhen blinked at her. “You’re investigating?”
Ling Wen hummed noncommittally and waved him off, and he went, a new spring in his step. Ling Wen made a note to have someone local watch the family in question—smiths, specializing in custom swords and combat armor. Yin Yu was almost certainly somewhere deep in Ghost territory. If the family hadn’t been lying, they might have connections to the Calamities—maybe even to Crimson Rain Sought Flower himself, though that was a long shot.
Who knows—perhaps they really would find Yin Yu, disgraced former Martial God of the Heavenly Empire, humbling himself in service to a gambler and a pirate. She snorted.
By the time she looked up from her pad, Yushi Huang and her new pet were long gone.
She sighed and went back to her office.
The Water Tyrant pulled away from Yong’an, and Ling Wen felt the cares of planetside slip away from her shoulders. She much preferred the depth of space to the dusty towns and endless fields of these provincial worlds. Out here, she knew where she was; could calculate within six decimal places her relationship to every star, every ship in the Imperial Fleet, could even guess through triangulating various pieces of intelligence the movements of pirates and unincorporated merchant vessels. There was very little that was unexpected. Likely this was why she couldn’t get her mind off the thing curled at Yushi Huang’s shoulder, the nonchalance with which Yushi Huang simply accepted and moved beyond its mystery.
The Water Tyrant was not, technically, her ship. Ultimately it belonged to the Emperor, and practically it was Shi Wudu at the helm. But she knew it, and through knowing it she owned it, and any piece she did not know was a small theft, right under her nose.
She chose a bottle of plum wine—they hadn’t gotten the soil right yet for plums in the conservatory, especially in comparison to rice; it would be insulting to bring Yushi Huang a cheap imitation of something she could far more competently make herself. Ling Wen didn't know much about wine, but this had been given to her as a gift (is it a bribe, technically, if the one being bribed accepts but doesn't follow through?) and those tended to be of high quality. Besides, this is one visit she didn't want to seek Pei Ming's counsel about. Not that she ever sought it, really. Perhaps it would be better to say this was one visit she would rather choke to death than allow Pei Ming to find out she was making.
Ling Wen’s office, by necessity, was just off the central hub of the ship; the only thing more central was the bridge itself, with Shi Wudu at the helm. Her unidirectional transparisteel windows gave her a view of the long stairway leading down to her office; it was impossible to approach unannounced. By contrast, Yushi Huang’s conservatory was situated far out above the left-hand nacelles, opposite the cargo hold, about as far from the rest of the ship as one could get without launching an escape pod. The elevator that led to it made no sound. And yet before Ling Wen could press her fingertips to its identity pad, the door slid open.
“Ling Wen,” said Yushi Huang, dark eyes amused. There was a smudge of dark soil on the curve of one cheek, and her hands were hidden by gardening gloves that protected her fingers and tightened at her wrists, leaving her knuckles bare. She was still wearing the thing like a scarf, one of its strange little hands in her hair, and it looked at Ling Wen curiously. Nine eyes, she thought; intellectually this was far too many for comfort, but there was something guileless, almost charming, about its expression. “Something told me I hadn’t seen the last of you.”
Ling Wen sketched a bow. “If I am interrupting—”
“Of course not,” said Yushi Huang. “The Imperial Accountant is always welcome.” She stepped aside, gesturing for Ling Wen to enter. The creature swung itself down her arm and loped into the conservatory before her, as if leading the way.
The majority of the conservatory was taken up with rows upon rows of raised and recessed plant beds; Yushi Huang and the creature led Ling Wen between two rows of dappled green. There were plants here from every known planet in this sector, with uses ranging from medicinal, culinary, recreational, and deadly to material for paper, ink, clothing. Birds flitted from branch to branch, piping bits of song to one another; occasionally one would drop a piece of root or a twig or an unlucky insect into the nest of another, or directly into the petaled maw of a flower, which might catch it like a hand, or make a sound like a bell, or swallow it down.
The birds, Ling Wen knew, were just as much Yushi Huang’s assistants as the small hovering robots buzzing around the flowers like insects, as much as the worms making unseen pathways in the soil beneath. Not because she’d trained them in any way, but because she was uninterested in recreating plants outside of their natural habitats. She wasn’t building greenhouse conditions, she was building entire ecosystems.
As Ling Wen watched, she leaned over and touched an array set into a shelf above a long plant bed with two gloved fingertips. Silver light filled its characters, and then water gathered on the underside of the shelf and began to rain onto the plants below. “The rainy season is beginning in the south of Banyue,” Yushi Huang explained. “Tomorrow, a storm will hit Banyue City.”
Banyue was six hundred lightyears from their current position. Under the gentle shower of Yushi Huang’s touch, a cactus bud began to unfurl.
At the end of the row was another door, which slid open at their approach. Ling Wen had been in the conservatory before, to tally Yushi Huang’s inventory and requisition some of her more strategically useful flora, but she’d never been in this room. It was a dome-shaped solarium, the walls and floor fitted with lenses that caught light from a thousand distant suns and magnified it until the whole room glowed a warm honey-gold against the black of the void. This light was then directed by a series of mirrors through tunnels to provide sun to the appropriate sections of the conservatory at the appropriate moments to simulate their growing seasons.
This breathtaking display of engineering—Yushi Huang’s own design—contained an incongruous set of humble wooden furniture. In the center of the room was a round table carved amateurishly with cranes in flight. Three stools stood around it.
Ling Wen shook herself and produced the bottle of wine. "A gift," she said.
Yushi Huang smiled at her and crossed to the table, touching one of the cranes. A drawer slid out from under it, and Yushi Huang removed two glasses. Ling Wen took a stool when she gestured, and watched her as Yushi Huang inspected the bottle, her small smile never fading.
The creature swung itself down off her shoulder and twined itself around a leg of the table. Yushi Huang stripped off her gloves and handed them to it like they were a toy. It took them, carefully, head cocked.
“To what do I owe the pleasure?” Yushi Huang asked, pouring wine. It refracted the light from the walls, casting new shapes against the wood, against the skin of her hands. “Is this an official visit?” Her smile shifted, a dimple appearing in her right cheek. “Am I being audited?”
Ling Wen shook her head. “I’m here as myself,” she said, and then, an admission that that wasn’t such a simple separation, “and a concerned officer of this crew.” She nodded at the creature, which now had one glove in its strange mandibles, turning it over and over, like an ant assessing the weight of a crumb. “I want to know about that.”
“I told you,” said Yushi Huang, “I found it sleeping among the wheat bales. It took a liking to me.”
Ling Wen sighed. “You’re not stupid,” she said, accepting the wine. “Nor do you make a habit of ignoring regulation without reason. You know it needs to be categorized and tagged, and, if it’s a new species, turned in upon our arrival to the Capital.”
Where, they both knew, it would be immediately dissected— its anatomy studied and filed away, any useful fluids or bones or fibers that make up its coat, its long arms, its many dark, jellied eyeballs requisitioned in service to the empire. Its DNA would be extracted, replicated, to make others, to ensure the biodiversity of the Emperor’s realm; but this creature—this living individual, slowly turning Yushi Huang’s garden glove inside out—would be gone.
Yushi Huang leaned back in her chair, her head cocked. The light from the table between them crept up under her jaw and eddied against her scar like river water around a fallen branch. Ling Wen swallowed. She knew the story of that scar; how Yushi Huang’s home planet had been conquered, and the conquerors demanded royal sacrifice; how Yushi Huang, eighth in line for the throne, had been the only one willing to make it. How Pei Ming, the demand still on his lips, had caught her, and barely gotten her back to his ship before she died, his intent to depose an inconvenient ruler transformed by the alchemy of Yushi Huang's courage into petty, useless cruelty.
He was reformed, now, his past listed on his resume as military victories. Strategic, tallied in land and resources rather than lives. The same could be said for Ling Wen, of course. Money killed as ruthlessly as swords and blasters, and often more efficiently.
Pei Ming still often went silent in Yushi Huang's presence. It was one of the reasons Ling Wen liked her so much.
“Tell you what,” said Yushi Huang. “I’ll make you a deal, Ling Wen Zhen Jun.”
Almost no one used her title at all, even fewer with respect. She couldn’t quite read Yushi Huang’s tone.
"If you can tell me exactly what this is,” she nodded to the creature curled in the corner, "and what it does, I will turn it in the moment we get back for tagging and proper categorization."
Ling Wen raised an eyebrow. So the enigmatic Rain Master already knew the creature's properties. "And if I don't?"
Yushi Huang smiled, infuriatingly gentle. "Admitting defeat so soon? How unlike you."
Ling Wen drew herself up and inclined her head, knowing herself to be rising to bait but seeing no real reason to resist. "I accept your terms."
Yushi Huang poured her more of the plum wine. Under the table, the creature hummed.
She started with anything in the realm of earth monkeys. The physical form was there—a central trunk, head, two arms, two legs, one head. Humanoid, or primatoid, depending on your philosophical bent. The head was more triangular, and the mandibles and eyes distinctly non-mammalian, but she knew it wasn’t, after all, an earth monkey. She reminded herself her goal here was just to attempt to trace the same path as previous classifiers, not to become one herself. If Yushi Huang knew what it was, so did someone else, out there—she just had to find out who.
It was strangely fun, to do this without real stakes. Usually she was hunting down dissidents, or attempting to resolve clerical errors that could, potentially, hide conspiracy or sedition. Covering up for the… indiscretions of her fellow officials. Usually, she was motivated by frustration, spite, or the grim mantle of duty. This—a friendly competition, a purely scientific curiosity—felt like a game.
She poured herself a cup of tea and sank into the endless networks of citations, encyclopedias, and archives.
That night she dreamed: she walked through a strange jungle, half natural, half built, Yushi Huang’s silver-glow arrays creating miniature storms and blizzards in a thousand small environments around her. The creature swung itself down from a tree and took her hand, leading her through hot, buzzing green glades and cool autumn orchards until they reached the edge of a vast desert, the wind shifting silver sand across an endless plain of standing stones, each carved with scientific data—kingdom, phylum, class, order, family, genus, species for a thousand types of creature.
The clouds shifted above them and the silver sand rippled gold. Ling Wen looked up, and Yushi Huang was sitting in the bowl of the sun, radiating warmth and light.
The parties were Shi Qingxuan's idea–a solution to a problem that plagued basically no one but her. She’d complained endlessly that the trips between the Capital and the outer worlds were so boring, that there was nothing to do but file reports and calculate astronavigational distances. (Ling Wen had pointed out that filing reports and calculating astronavigational distances was her job, but this had predictably fallen on deaf ears). There had to be something they could do to break up the monotony besides gossip and drink.
The answer, of course, was to gossip and drink more, in fancier clothes.
The “ballroom” for said parties was a spare cargo hold, decorated by some of the more aesthetic-minded of the lower officials, mostly from Shi Qingxuan’s own department. This time it was decked out in blues and greens, lit with bioluminescent fungi presumably sourced from the conservatory, the metal floor covered with something slightly springier, easier on the feet should one wear heels or spend a long time dancing. Some of the lower officials had a gift for music, and interspersed the recorded playlist with live performances, generally classical versions of some Outer World pop music with which Ling Wen had only the most basic familiarity.
Usually she put in a brief appearance, posted up in a corner with Shi Wudu, and kept up a scathing commentary on Pei Ming and whatever poor official he’d set his sights on. This time, however, Shi Wudu was boring her to tears—all of her arch conversational volleys thudded to the ground as he continued to scowl into his wine and stare across the room at where his sibling was looking scintillatingly happy on the arm of an impassive Ming Yi.
Shi Qingxuan was wearing a suit he must have commissioned from someone in the capitol and waited to debut until the return journey, because there was certainly no one on Yong’an who could fashion cloth as light and iridescent as the wings of a dragonfly, the individual panels curling around Shi Qingxuan’s waist and up his chest in a way that barely adhered to workplace modesty. Ming Yi’s was more severe and structural in cut, though his pale chest was nearly as visible, and the fabric was the dark green-copper-purple of a metallic longhorn beetle.
They looked incredible together, and despite Ming Yi’s frown he did sweep Shi Qingxuan onto the dance floor. Ling Wen had no interest in watching Shi Wudu silently work himself into a towering rage about it, so she stood, flicking nonexistent dust off the cuffs of her sleeves.
She circled the dance floor and, without entirely meaning to, ended up standing with Yushi Huang, who was refilling her wineglass from a jar on one of the low refreshment tables. She was in simple but striking hanfu, layers of green silk ornamented with golden embroidery. At her throat, she’d traced her scar in gold, leaves curling from it like it’s growing. The painted vine extended beyond the end of the scar itself to curl over the shell of one ear. Her hair was braided, but it seemed tighter, more complex than usual, leaving her face more open.
She hadn’t brought the creature with her. Ling Wen shouldn’t be surprised. Why would she? It was clearly no place for an animal. But if her suspicions were correct…
"Ling Wen," Yushi Huang greeted her. "What a handsome face you've chosen for the occasion."
Ling Wen inclined her head. The light from the slightly ridiculous bioluminescent candelabras would emphasize the new line of her jaw, she knew, and reveal the thickness of her brows. Not that she was intending to show off—there were practical reasons to practice wearing this face, shifting her stance, embodying a masculinized version of herself. It was a foolish intelligence officer who did not cultivate multiple appearances.
“Not so different from your natural one,” Yushi Huang continued, and Ling Wen blinked. There was a compliment in that, perhaps, if one was looking.
“It is rare to see you out of your practical coveralls,” she countered. “The color suits you.” Understatement, but she was not attempting flattery, just stepping up to the line Yushi Huang had drawn. Carefully matching, never exceeding. Like—
Yushi Huang set down her wine glass on the table and held out a hand.
—dancing. Ling Wen blinked at it. “I didn’t think you were one for the dancefloor.”
Yushi Huang raised her eyebrows. “You’ve been making note of my dancing habits?”
Ling Wen permitted herself a small smile. “It is hard to miss Pei Ming failing to lure you out there every time we put ourselves through this charade.”
Yushi Huang mirrored her smile, her lips barely curving but her dark brown eyes crinkling wickedly at the corners. “Perhaps I simply don’t enjoy dancing with Pei Ming.”
Ling Wen snorted, her smile cracking wider, and Yushi Huang reiterated her hand gesture, more pointed. She had more golden vines curling at her wrist. Ling Wen wanted to run her thumb over them, see if they were makeup or illusion or temporary tattoo, designed to lift away with application of the proper frequency of light.
She shook herself, the shreds of last night’s dreams clinging to her like spider web, and took Yushi Huang’s hand.
Yushi Huang drew her close immediately. The song had shifted slow while Ling Wen wasn’t paying attention, and she settled her hands on Yushi Huang’s shoulders, the silk soft against her palms. Out of the corner of her eye she saw Shi Wudu was no longer staring at his sibling, but at her, and she fought the urge to roll her eyes at him. Was it so unheard of that she might have a little fun?
And she was having fun, she realized. Yushi Huang was a capable if not overly graceful dancer, leading Ling Wen easily around the floor. Her hands were warm through Ling Wen’s suit, and every time their eyes met she would smile her little mysterious smile, like she had a secret she was waiting for Ling Wen to share.
The gold on her scar and at her wrists was the only makeup she was wearing—if it was makeup at all—nor was she using wearable tech at her hairline or jaw to cast illusion across her face like Ling Wen. The curve of her mouth was just—her mouth, opening to speak—
Someone cleared their throat next to them. “I know it’s gauche to ask, but could I cut in?”
Ling Wen cut a glare at Pei Ming. He grinned back, undaunted.
Yushi Huang laughed. “Sure,” she said, and when Ling Wen stared at her she winked—and dropped her arms, stepping back and gesturing for Pei Ming to take her place.
Pei Ming’s grin faded. “Ah,” he said. “I meant—”
“She knows what you meant, idiot,” Ling Wen snapped. She felt—off-balance, and angry, out of proportion angry for just her normal annoyance at Pei Ming. He raised his hands as if to take her waist, his motions somehow conveying his “might-as-well” shrug, and she wanted to stomp on his foot, chew him out for interrupting—what? Coworkers passing the time together?
She settled for none-too-gently shoving him away, ignoring his wounded look—she would apologize later, probably; he was nominally her best friend—and casting around for Yushi Huang.
She was gone. Ling Wen stalked over to the refreshments table, grabbing her abandoned wineglass and refilling it before taking it back to her office. Just a few more details to check. She was right—she could feel it. It was the only thing that made sense.
“It’s a fascinator sloth,” she said, triumphant.
She’d walked here too quickly and it showed—her breath was still coming fast. But she’d wanted—she’d wanted to be right , to have an explanation for the last few days, to slot the final piece into the puzzle. To share the secret caught in the corner of Yushi Huang’s mouth.
Yushi Huang leaned against the side of her open door. She’d been in bed, or in the process of getting there—the outer layer of her hanfu was gone, the inner layer loosened at her waist. In the shadowed lower corner of the doorway, Ling Wen swore she saw a small, dark hand, fingers curled against the metal of the wall.
“Close,” Yushi Huang said, “but wrong.”
Ling Wen frowned at her. “I’m not,” she said, knowing she sounded petulant, like a child. “The length and thickness of the fur—there’s a species from Hubei with seven eyes, this must be a new variant. And fascinator sloths choose an object or a person and imbue it with psychic resonance, make everyone find it endlessly interesting and alluring, and ever since it came aboard I’ve been unable to stop thinking about—”
Yushi Huang tugged the tie out of the end of her braid and let it unravel across the canted line of her shoulders.. “About…?”
Ling Wen closed her mouth, too hard, her teeth making an audible snap.
“It is a relative of the fascinator sloth,” Yushi Huang allowed. “Native to Yushi—and, apparently, Yong’an. The physiognomy is nearly identical, but it has no such powers.” Her eyes were dark and knowing. “Any fascination you have experienced has been your own, Ling Wen Zhen Jun.”
Ling Wen burned with humiliation. She clenched her jaw and sketched a bow. “Well played,” she said. “I apologize for disturbing you so late. I’ll take my—”
“Or,” Yushi Huang interrupted her, low and gentle, “you could come in.”
Ling Wen raised her eyes. Yushi Huang stepped aside, opening the doorway to her. There was no sign of the sloth; perhaps it had never been there at all, but was curled somewhere in the depths of Yushi Huang’s beautiful, strange home, this living, breathing nest she’d created out of and in some ways despite the cold order Ling Wen insisted upon on her ship. ( Her ship, in every way that mattered.) Just a small creature, curled up warm, safe and known.
Ling Wen took a breath, and stepped forward into sunlight.