Liên’s first duel at the Phụng Academy was bewildering, and almost unfair in its simplicity.
She let Mei—the fey, mercurial schoolmate half the academy seemed to avoid—take her to the arena. They paused at iron-wrought gates with a huge lock and a clear sight of what lay beyond: a crumbling platform by the river, overgrown by banyan roots. On the lock were characters that slowly morphed into letters. Liên bent, and her seal—Mother’s seal, the one she’d carried on a chain around her neck for more than nine years—touched the lock, and the letters shivered and rearranged themselves to match Mother’s style name on the seal.
The Hermit of the Bamboo Grove.
The doors creaked open. Leaves rustled, the ceaseless sound of a monsoon wind whipping tree branches in the forest.
“I must ask,” Mei said. “Are you sure?” She was so oddly formal. Her tone and the pronouns she used for herself and for Liên sounded like something from a scholar’s chronicle.
“Why?” Liên asked. She readjusted the hairpins in her topknot: they’d slipped sideways while she was walking to the arena. She hadn’t been told much, merely rumors: that the arena was where the best scholar students went to prove themselves; that Mei was the key; that Mei’s revered teacher, the chair of the Academy, held power beyond Liên’s wildest dreams, and it all flowed through Mei.
Liên didn’t much care about dreams, or power, but she wanted to excel. She needed to excel, because she was the scholarship kid, the one on sufferance from the poorest family, the orphan everyone looked at with naked pity in their eyes.
Liên wanted to be seen for who she truly was.
Mei’s face was utterly still. Her skin shone with the translucence of the finest jade, as if she were nothing more than a mask over light incarnate. “Why? Because it’s dangerous.”
Liên frowned. “You mean, it might get me expelled?”
Mei laughed. As she did so, Liên finally realized the sound that had been bothering her since the gates opened wasn’t the background noises of the forest, but a slow and plaintive noise, the first bars of a poem set to music. “No. It might get you killed.”
Inside, on the platform, someone was waiting for Liên. They were nothing but a dark silhouette at first—and then, as light slowly flooded the arena, seeping from Mei’s body into the stone, and from the stone into the banyan roots and the neighboring river, Liên saw who they were. Dinh, another of her classmates, an arrogant and borderline abusive woman who thought the world belonged to her.
She was holding a flute. It wasn’t yet to her mouth, but her fingers were on the holes already, and everything in her suggested impatience to play. “Younger aunt,” she said, to Liên. “What a pleasure. Let’s get on with it.”
It might get you killed. “Wait. This is a music competition?” Liên said. “I don’t understand.”
But Mei’s hands were already on her chest—an odd flutter as they connected, then they did something that Liên didn’t fully see or understand, and a sharp, stabbing pain ran through her, as something that seemed to have become stuck between her ribs came out one small, excruciating bit at a time—and it hurt as it came out, and Liên couldn’t breathe anymore, and it felt like the time she’d knelt by her parents’ coffins, hoping against all hope they’d come back. “Mei,” she tried to say, but it tasted like fire and blood in her mouth.
“It’s all right,” Mei said. “Take it.”
“Take what?” But Liên’s hand closed on the thing protruding from her chest, and she drew it out with the same ease as she’d draw a brush from its holder.
It was a flute. A plain bamboo one, unlike the bone-white one Dinh was holding, with three simple holes and a shadowy, ghostly fourth one. It was so achingly familiar, so achingly comforting, and Liên let out a breath she hadn’t even been aware of holding. Her fingers fit easily onto the first three holes, and the flute was at her mouth, the smooth and warm touch of bamboo on her lips.
“Elder aunt,” she said to Mei. “What’s—”
Mei’s face was grave. “Your instrument.”
Liên lowered the flute away from her mouth. It cost her. “People just don’t grow flutes!” Not even the famed scholars, whose ranks Liên so desperately ached to join.
Mei’s hand swept the arena. It was awash with light, the banyan’s roots receding into shadow, and in the luminous mass of the river Liên saw a flash of large and iridescent scales. Dragons? No one had seen dragons in the world for centuries. Surely…“Many things are possible, here,” Mei said.
“The power—” Liên started, and then stopped, because she didn’t know what to say. She didn’t know what was being offered here beyond myths and legends. “You said it could change the world.”
Mei’s smile was dazzling. “It can do everything you could ever need or want, elder aunt. If you follow the rules. If you reach the end of the duels.”
“What are the rules?”
Another smile. “Play. Be ranked. Advance.”
Liên’s hands tightened on the flute. A chance to be the brightest scholar in the world, to advise emperors and sages. To leave her mark at the heart of things. “Power,” she whispered. And, to her dead, revered parents, “Watch over me, Father and Mother.”
“Begin,” Mei said. She was standing in the middle of the platform, on one of the banyan roots.
She didn’t know how! But then Dinh started playing, and Liên’s words of protest froze on her lips. It was haunting and beautiful: a slow-rising melody about solitude and the need for strength, and the beauty of geese flying in the sky, and the banyan’s roots seen from the moon. As she played, the light flickered in the banyan roots and in the river, and Liên could see how the flute in Dinh’s hands beat the same rhythm as the heart in her chest.
And then it was over, and Mei turned to Liên. “You,” she said.
“I can’t—” Liên began, but her hands were already moving.
When she breathed into the flute, she felt, not music, but words come out—all the poems she’d written in her room at the Academy, trying to capture the beauty of rivers as dark as smoke, of willow leaves scattered in empty rooms—all the essays and the memorials and the pleas she’d trained herself to write for the good of the empire—and the other things, too, the courtship songs she’d burnt before they ever reached the courtesan she had a crush on, the ones about lips like moths’ wings and skin the color of jade. Her fingers moved on the holes of the flute, towards that shadowy fourth hole at the end—finally touching it with a stretch that felt as natural as breathing. When her last finger slid over it she remembered Mother’s poems and songs, the ones about dragons in the river and cockerels whose song could destroy citadels, and pearls of blood at the bottom of wells—she was playing and speaking and it all felt like one long breath that burnt in her lungs forever and ever, and then…
Then it stopped.
Shivering, shaking, Liên lowered the instrument from her mouth. The banyan’s roots were alight. Overhead in the canopy, pinpoints of light shone like wayward stars—no, not stars, but a flock of luminous birds—and in the river something large and sinuous shimmered in and out of existence. She felt light-headed and empty, as if she’d just run from one end of the Academy to another. And Mei’s face…Mei looked not distant or fey, but like someone whose hunger had finally been sated.
Dinh was pale, but it wasn’t the pallor of light, just exhaustion and fear. She looked from Mei to Liên, and then back again. Mei said, simply, “Liên wins.”
“She—” Dinh opened her mouth as though she was going to argue, but Mei was by her side, gently closing her hand around the flute, which was slowly vanishing. Back to her own body? What were the flutes, exactly? Where were they coming from?
“Go home,” Mei said, and her voice wasn’t unkind. “There are other arenas to prove yourself in.” Mei watched, thoughtfully, as Dinh staggered through the door.
The light in the banyan tree was fading. So was the creature in the river, and Liên’s own flute. It did nothing to diminish the terrible emptiness inside.
“You’ll feel better after you eat,” Mei said, turning to Liên. Her gaze was dazzling and luminous. “Come on.”
“I—” Liên’s voice felt all used up. “Where?” She walked behind Mei because she didn’t have any willpower of her own left, and she might as well. They went through the gates and the deserted gardens of the Academy—how was it already night, where had the time gone?
A single path with a few lanterns led to a building a little apart from the other buildings. The path wove through a garden that had once been rich, but was now in a state of disrepair: the ponds had become masses of churned mud choked by lotus flowers, and the pavilions were dilapidated ruins with missing roofs, the rain dripping on chipped stone. As they walked up to the lone building that reminded Liên vaguely of a pagoda or a watchtower, the rain became a slow, warm drizzle that plastered Liên’s topknot to her skull.
The tower’s gates were closed. Mei threw them open, spattering water on the slats of the rich parquet. Inside, someone sat at a low table, sipping from a cup of tea: a man of indeterminate age, wearing the clothes of a scholar-official, his topknot impeccable.
“Child,” he said, rising with a smile towards Mei. When he moved, the same light as the one Liên had seen in the arena limned him for the briefest of moments. “Younger aunt.” His smile was dizzying and magnetic. Liên felt at the center of the world, held in the web of his attention, and sagged when his gaze moved from her to Mei. She hadn’t eaten anything, and it was only sheer stubbornness that had kept her moving.
“This is Liên,” Mei said. “She just won her first duel. Elder aunt, this is Hiểu Sinh, my Revered Teacher.”
“Liên.” Sinh turned back to her and smiled, and again that flash of warmth swept through Liên, making her feel larger and worthier. “Welcome home, Liên.”
There were rules, ones Mei hadn’t mentioned. Odd ones like not eating garlic or onions, which made this seem like an offshoot of a monastery. And odder ones still, un-monastery-like: that the winner of the duel would move into the house and share a room with Mei. Sinh said it with a meaningful glance at Liên, which Liên chose to ignore. It wasn’t that Mei was unattractive, but being set up together like that was just too weird, and at no point had Sinh asked for Mei’s opinion or permission. Besides, Liên wanted to climb through merit, not marriage.
The duels she’d expected. They were irregular, huge occasions that required intense and feverish preparations. Sinh hinted there would not be many to fight, but would never share more details. “You will know when you’re ready for the power,” he said, and never would budge from that frustrating statement.
There were classes, too. In between Liên’s usual regimen of Statehood and Classics and Poetry at the Academy, Sinh would invite Liên to his study and pour tea for both of them, and talk about…Liên was never too sure what they talked about, only of Sinh’s eyes shining like jet, and of Mei, sitting behind Sinh the entire time, occasionally moving to replenish tea or dumplings or dipping sauces.
“I don’t understand why the flutes,” Liên said.
Sinh had spread a chess board between them, though he made no move to play. “The flute is the scholar.”
Liên opened her mouth to protest it was not, that the Four Arts of the gentleman scholar included music but on the zither, and then Sinh flipped the board, and all words fled.
It was an old, old board, so old it was engraved with the characters of the Chinese colonizers rather than the letters of the Việt alphabet. Pasted on it, carefully held behind a pane of what looked like glass—but no glass was so fine, or shone with such pulsing, warm light—was a painting.
Whoever had drawn it had skills worthy of the old masters. The brushstrokes were flowing and sure, and they suggested details with economy. The painting depicted a single scholar, standing before a rocky spur, fingers on a flute of deep green jade with complex carvings. And in front of him…in front of him rose a great dragon, antlers gleaming, pearls scattered in her mane, and maw at the level of his flute.
“Scholar Vương,” Sinh said. Behind him, Mei had risen. She laid a hand on the painting for a brief moment, closing her eyes as if some memory were painful. “His music was so powerful it could change the world.” His hand nudged Mei’s aside, touched on the details of the scholar’s clothes. “Summon dragons from the river and speak to the Dragon Princess herself.”
“Power,” Liên said. Her breath caught in her throat. She’d seen the banyan tree, but she hadn’t realized…
Sinh laughed. “You want to be adviser to emperors, child. Don’t give me that shocked look, your dreams are written large on your face.” He laid his tea cup on the floor, stared Liên in the eye until she had to lower her gaze or be openly disrespectful. “You dream too small.”
“I don’t!” Liên said. She—she wanted to make her parents proud of her, whatever heavens they were watching her from.
“Mei told you this power could remake the world.” A gentle snort. “Adviser. You will never summon dragons if you keep yourself so contained.”
How could he dismiss her so easily? Liên opened her mouth to protest, and found a touch on her arm: Mei, gently holding her and shaking her head. Apologize, Mei mouthed.
She had done nothing wrong, but Sinh was her teacher now. “I’m sorry,” she said. The words tasted like ash on her tongue.
“Good,” Sinh said, nodding briskly, as if the whole matter weren’t even worthy of mention. As if he hadn’t called all her dreams small and worthless. “You have another duel in a week’s time, child.”
After the lesson was over, Liên exhaled. The breath hurt.
Mei walked with her as she steered away from the corridors, and towards the door of the house—and the waiting gardens. They were unlike the ones in the Academy, where everything was staid and named: here trees grew wild, and lotus flowers choked the ponds.
“He means well,” Mei said. “He’s seen a lot of students.”
“And how many have gotten as good as Scholar Vương?” Liên couldn’t help the sharpness in her voice.
Mei smiled. “A few. Younger aunt…” She smoothed out the folds of her tunic, and Liên realized Mei was nervous and scared. And no wonder, with Sinh being so overbearing.
“I’m sorry. You shouldn’t have to run peacemaker between the two of us.”
“It’s what I do.”
What did she do? “You don’t duel,” Liên said, before she could stop herself.
Another smile, but this time it was more relaxed. “No. I don’t have that talent. I’m not a scholar.” It was said easily and matter-of-factly. She didn’t care.
“You make the flutes.”
A laugh, crystalline and careless, and Liên heard the hurt beneath.
She laid a hand on Mei’s arm, felt the warm tautness of her—felt something shift within her, her heart becoming too large. “Big’sis.” The intimate pronoun—the one reserved for an older, close friend of one’s generation—rose to her lips as easily as breathing.
“I don’t make the flutes,” Mei said. “I just…” She spread her hands. “I just make it easier for you to manifest them. They’re yours.”
“You don’t approve.”
Mei jumped. “What makes you think that?”
“The way you speak.” They’d reached a dilapidated pavilion on a spur that looked like someone had tried, badly, to evoke Scholar Vương summoning the Dragon Princess.
“I think he shouldn’t push you so hard,” Mei said. “You’re sixteen? You remind me of a child I once knew.”
“Seventeen,” Liên said, stung. “I’m an adult.”
Mei’s face was unreadable. She leant on the chipped railing of the pavilion, looking at the river. “So you are. And an…” She stopped, then, looked at Liên. “A driven person.”
“You were going to say orphan,” Liên said, bristling. But Mei didn’t sound like the other students, the ones who had mocked her for having no family or connections.
“Yes,” Mei said. “Having no parents can be hard.”
Liên shrugged, though she missed them. “I lost them when I was young. I don’t remember much about them.” It wasn’t quite true. She had dreams with Father’s perfume and Mother’s voice singing her to sleep. But what was true was that she remembered the coffins and the vigil in the temple more than she remembered them living—the way the air had been heavy and breathless, as if before a monsoon that would never come, the smell of incense curdling in the air, the rough feel of the mourning band on her forehead, the way it kept falling down into her eyes—her eldest aunt’s hand, bringing it back time and time again, her grim frustration that she was a child and everyone expected her to keep silent and out of the way.
“Sinh would say you could bring them back to life with the power,” Mei said.
“And is that true?” She’d said Sinh, not herself.
Again, that unreadable look. Mei’s hand rested by Liên’s on the railing. Liên’s fingers ached to draw her close. “I don’t know,” Mei said, finally, and there was clearly something that she wasn’t saying.
“I don’t want to bring my parents back because there’s an order to things,” Liên said. “Rules in heaven and on earth. Why should I be breaking them?”
She was—and it wasn’t just about being like Scholar Vương—but also the way that the music of her flute flowed through her—the way that it seemed one long, slow breath, finally released—the way that her anger and her grief and her ambition finally merged together and became something beautiful and pleasurable. The way it made her feel alive. “Is that breaking the world? Mei, what is this power? Why is Sinh so evasive?”
“Do you trust me?”
And wasn’t that a barbed question? “I don’t know,” Liên said.
“Fair.” Mei sighed. “I can tell you this: the power breaks no rules. It’s merely an ascension, like the sages of old.” But again there was something she wasn’t saying.
“You asked if I trust you. Should I be trusting Sinh?”
“He’s my Revered Teacher and I love him,” Mei said. “Come on, let’s go back to the house.”
They walked back a hand’s width from each other, Liên acutely aware of the way Mei moved—of the sway of her hips, how her lips opened slightly when she walked too fast, barely revealing the nacre of her teeth—what would it feel like, her lips on Mei’s lips? But she was acutely aware of another thing, too.
Mei hadn’t answered her question about Sinh.
Liên’s opponent for this duel—her seventh at the Academy—was a much older girl, Thụ Kiếng. Everyone in the Academy had heard of Thụ Kiếng. She routinely organized poetry contests and won all of them, and her calligraphy was so good it was exhibited in the Academy’s classrooms and corridors.
Liên didn’t want to fight Thụ Kiếng, because she was going to lose.
“You won’t lose,” Mei said. They stood on the arena platform, between the banyan roots. Liên held her flute to her mouth: plain, unadorned bamboo with that fourth hole—four for death and all that had brought her so far. It felt so flimsy and inadequate.
It wouldn’t be enough.
“She’s a scholar. A proper one. The bright one. I don’t even know why I’m here, big’sis!” Liên’s hands clenched on her flute. She was an orphan from a poor family, a girl from the country playing at being a scholar. Who was she, to think she could attain the power of legends?
Mei wrapped one hand around Liên’s—gently reached with her other, to touch the flute—and Liên shivered, as if it were her lips Mei was touching. “You’re here because you’re worthy.” Her gaze, wide and luminous, held Liên’s—Liên’s throat was suddenly dry. “Because you are seen.”
Liên drew in a deep, shaking breath. “Big’sis.”
Mei’s hand moved from the flute, rested on Liên’s lips for a bare moment, and warmth spread from Liên’s face down her spine. She ached to reach out—dared not reach out. “I see you, lil’sis. Vương’s heir. I see you. You will do this, because you can no more fail this than stop breathing.”
Mei withdrew her hands, leaving Liên shaking. “Big’sis.”
“Ssh,” Mei said, but her gaze lingered on Liên’s face a little too long, and her eyes were half-lidded with hunger and desire. “I have Thụ Kiếng to fetch.”
Liên waited. She lowered her flute, and laid a hand on the banyan tree. It was cold and dark now, only brought to life by flute music. The river was lifeless, too. No, that wasn’t true. It teemed with those silver flashes she’d already seen. She knelt and trailed her hand in the water, heedless of the cold. The flashes came closer, nipping at her fingers. Fish. Small silvery carps, weaving in and out of her hand, gently tickling her—and for a moment she wasn’t Liên or the current champion of the duel, but simply the girl she’d been in a faraway past, the one who’d played in the river while her parents were in their study.
“It’s been a while, hasn’t it?”
Liên scrambled to her feet. Thụ Kiếng was standing next to her, holding a flute of glass. Mei leaned against the banyan tree, waiting for them to start. “What do you mean?”
Thụ Kiếng was tall, her hair brought back in an impeccable topknot, her face classically beautiful: smart and chiseled, her hands long and elegant. She made Liên feel like a country bumpkin. “The river.” She smiled. It was bitter and fragile. “We all splash into it as children, coming home muddy-handed with only a memory of fishes to show for ourselves. Until our parents remind us that it’s time to put aside childhood and study hard.”
Liên flushed. “I didn’t have that.” She wasn’t sure what to say.
“I know,” Thụ Kiếng said, and it wasn’t unkind. “You want to summon the Dragon Princess?”
Liên said nothing, but she thought of the painting she’d seen in Sinh’s study—of the dragon rearing up. What would that kind of power feel like? “Maybe.”
“Mmm.” Thụ Kiếng sighed. “The Dragon Princess vanished from the world at the same time as Scholar Vương.”
“No one knows what happened.” Thụ Kiếng’s voice was wistful. “I think they just reached a point where they couldn’t outrun the laws of nature anymore. Heaven doesn’t bestow blessings without some kind of expected behavior.” A sigh. “I don’t know what’s in the river, but I don’t think it’s the princess anymore. I don’t think anyone can reach her.”
Liên said, finally, “Does it matter?”
A long, measuring look from Thụ Kiếng. “To you? No, I think not. Come on. I think she’s waiting for us.”
“I don’t—” Liên stopped. She wasn’t about to tell Thụ Kiếng she was afraid, but Thụ Kiếng saw it anyway.
“You can concede,” she said. “But you won’t, will you?”
Liên clutched the flute. “I’d be shaming my parents if I lost.”
Thụ Kiếng cocked her head. “Would you?”
“What do you mean?” But Thụ Kiếng had already turned away from her, towards Mei.
It was Liên’s turn first, because she held the title. She raised the flute to her hands, still feeling the fish dart between her fingers—and when she played, the river came out. It was the fish and the mud and the sound of the water, and their barely remembered house—and Mother’s measured voice, composing poetry; and Father’s, laughing and answering her, his own voice weaving between verses. And as she remembered her parents her finger stretched, found the fourth hole of the flute, and the music poured out of her in a rush that lifted her and drained her at the same time.
She came out of the song with her heart hammering in her chest. The platform was awash with light. In the canopy of the banyan, the flock of luminous birds was larger, and the branches supported the looming moon. Something was climbing from the depths of the river, a dark shadow about to break the surface of the water, and Mei wasn’t leaning against the tree anymore, but looking at the river with tears in her eyes.
“My love…” she whispered, softly, slowly.
Thụ Kiếng was staring at her, and at Mei. “That’s hard to follow.” She lifted her own flute, slowly and ironically, and brought it to her lips. The music that came out of it was small and slow: a dirge for a girl who had refused Thụ Kiếng, and a boy she’d loved, but who fell ill and had left the Academy, never to come back. It all sounded…tinny, as if from a great distance, and when Thụ Kiếng lowered her flute, the tree had barely lit up. In the river, there was hardly anything, a shadow of a shadow, diving almost immediately out of sight again.
“I concede,” Thụ Kiếng said, bowing to Mei. And, to Liên, “Think of what I’ve said.”
And she left.
Liên wrapped both hands around her fading flute, trying to stem the shivering of her whole body.
What she’d said.
Would you? Would you be shaming your parents?
And she knew what she’d already known before playing: that she wasn’t scared of shaming her parents. She was scared of losing. Of losing her place in the house and Sinh’s cryptic lessons.
Scared of losing Mei.
Mei was leaning against the banyan tree, her eyes on the river. “Let’s go home,” Liên said, slowly, tentatively. “Big’sis?”
“It’s your second to last duel,” Mei said, and her voice was tight. “Did you see the river?”
The dragon rising from the heart of it, close enough that she could see their head about to break through the water. Close enough that she could touch them. The Dragon Princess, Sinh had said, but Thụ Kiếng thought that the princess was long dead. What was below the surface of the water?
Her second to last duel. That felt unreal. Unearned. “Surely—”
“Sinh will tell you. It’s almost over, lil’sis.” Mei turned towards her—and in that one moment as she started moving, in that one unguarded moment, Liên saw her face, and her bearing. It wasn’t tears of joy or nostalgia in her eyes, but rather of her entire being wracked by a pain so great it made her cry.
“Lil’sis?” Mei’s voice was puzzled.
“You’re in pain.”
“I’m not,” Mei said, but it was as if the song had granted Liên double vision, overlaying Mei’s graceful demeanor with a deeper truth.
“You’re lying. What’s wrong, Mei?”
“There’s nothing wrong.” A grimace, utterly inadequate against the way her entire body was braced against the pain. “Nothing’s changed, lil’sis. Come on, let’s go home.”
That last rang with a sincerity like nothing else, but the implications were horrific. Nothing had changed? Liên followed Mei back to their quarters, watching her, watching the way she held herself: that small pouting with her lips she always did when she walked, that quiver. But it wasn’t pouting, was it? Merely a scream, held back, and the way she moved was elegant and graceful, a mask that slipped here and there—hips jutting out a bit too far when a thigh spasmed; lips closing a fraction, thinning; fingers clenching for a mere breath, pupils dilated just a bit too much.
Had she…had she always been like this, since the start? Had Liên been blind, the entire time? What did it mean?
What was wrong?
In their room, Mei busied herself, brightly—a little too much, a little too brashly—making dumplings and noodle soup. “You need food, lil’sis.”
Liên waited until Mei was done. “It’s Sinh, isn’t it?”
“I don’t understand what you mean.”
“He wants something from you, and you’re in pain because of that.”
“I already told you I’m not in pain.”
Liên drew in a deep, shaking breath. “Big’sis.” She put into her voice all the things that usually went into the flute song. “I can see it. I can see you. Ever since the duel. The last one.”
“You can’t possibly—”
Liên said nothing. She didn’t touch her chopsticks, either. She just stared until Mei gave up busying herself and sat cross-legged on the floor with her head cocked—and every so often she’d flicker, and Liên would see her bent backwards, her chest pierced with shadowy swords. Not just a few, either. There were so many impaling her, hilts and blades and crosspieces all jumbled together. How could she—how could she even breathe or talk or move?
“That’s not possible,” Mei said. Her voice was filled with dawning, fragile wonder.
“No one has ever—”
“No one. How many times have you done this, Mei?”
A weary sigh. “Too many.” Mei flickered again—arched backwards, face tense and slick with sweat, the swords’ blades glinting in the lantern light—they flexed as she moved, with the clear sound of metal on metal.
“You said it was the last duel. You said it was almost over. What’s happening, Mei?”
Mei said, finally, “I don’t want to see you hurt.”
“You held me. You touched my lips. Was that part of the plan, too?”
“No!” Mei’s voice was full of panic. “I would never. Lil’sis. Please. I would never—”
“Sleep with me? Sinh hinted, didn’t he? Putting us in the same room is kind of unsubtle.”
Mei’s face was drawn with pain, haggard. The blades in her chest glinted with blood and sweat. Liên fought the urge to hug her. “I would never lie to you by faking feelings. And you didn’t.”
“Sleep with me. That…that mattered.” She made it sound like an extraordinary feat.
“That’s basic human decency,” Liên said. “Wait.” Her voice was flat. “You said this had happened too many times. There were others.”
Mei didn’t deny this, which was as good as an admission.
“They slept with you.”
“It’s…it’s nothing more than I deserved, for what I’ve done.”
“No one deserves—” Liên stopped, because she didn’t know how to say it. What kind of twisted universe did Mei live in? And—more pressingly and importantly—how long had it all been going on? “He’s thrown you at duelists, and they’ve taken advantage.”
“Often enough.” Liên’s fists clenched. “Big’sis—” She did reach out then, not to kiss Mei like she desperately wanted, but simply to squeeze Mei’s shoulder, gently and slowly and watching warily for any signs Mei didn’t want it. But all she could see was the pain: the swords impaling Mei, their weight bending her backward. “I can see swords, Mei. They’re going through your chest. What are they?”
Again, no answer. “You can’t tell me. It’s Sinh, isn’t it? What hold does he have over you? Is it the swords?”
A silence. Then, “The swords are my fault. My pain to bear. Because I was the one who suggested it all, you see. The arena. The duels.”
Liên stared at Mei, suddenly chilled. “You—what does he want, Mei?”
“The music.” Mei’s voice was flat. She ran a hand through her own topknot, catching on the golden hairpins. “He lost it, and he was so desperately unhappy. He—” She breathed out, her face filling with that same wonder she’d shown, back at the river. “He was so young, once. So full of light and striding across the land as if he understood all of it, from the carps to the stars in the sky. He held my hand and saw me. Truly saw me, just the way I was.”
Somehow Liên didn’t think Sinh’s desperate hunger was going to be filled by simply listening to Liên play. “My flute. He wants my flute.”
“The flute of the player strong enough to summon the dragons in the river. Perhaps even calling the Dragon Princess Scholar Vương summoned. He won’t be able to play it for long. Playing a flute not your own burns it.” Mei’s voice was mirthless. “But he’ll have it. Sinh always gets what he wants.”
Including Mei. “Because you give it to him, don’t you?” Liên didn’t have words for how much it hurt her. Sinh’s betrayal was nothing unexpected, but to know that Mei would stand by him no matter what. “Always and always.”
A shadow of that same wonder in Mei’s eyes, brittle and dark. “He smiles, and I see it again. The heart he had when he was younger…”
And was that enough reason for what she was doing? “And what happens afterwards? When he’s walked away with the thing inside my chest? He just steals people’s lives and you let him?”
Bitter laughter from Mei. “It won’t kill you. Just—” She spread her hands. “It will hurt. Every day, it will hurt.”
“Like swords in your chest?”
“It’s not the same thing!”
“Is it not? Because it sounds like he’s just leaving a trail of broken people behind him. Including you.”
“You don’t understand.” Mei pulled away, stood up. The swords flexed as she did, driving deeper into her flesh—a clink of metal against metal, and Mei stopping, gasping, her eyes closing for a brief moment, sweat running down her forehead. “There’s nothing you can do, lil’sis. Nothing you can change. Just—just go. Find Sinh. He’ll know you’re ready.”
As if she wanted to find Sinh and offer herself for the slaughter. “You don’t trust me.” That hurt, a lot.
“You’re a child.” Mei’s voice was cold. “Playing with flutes and with songs and not understanding what’s happening.”
“You’re not helping me understand, are you?”
“Because you can’t!”
“That’s pointless!” Liên rose, too, scattering chopsticks and bits of herbs. “Help me, Mei.”
But Mei had turned away from her, and wouldn’t speak anymore.
Liên ran. She didn’t know where she was going and didn’t care—her feet pounded the shriveled grass of Sinh’s gardens, and the hills, and the road leading to the arena, and back to the buildings of the Academy—the classrooms where teachers waited to impart wisdom from the sages, where her classmates would be waiting for her to take her place—until she finally reached a knoll of grass. She sat, sheltered by the branches of a willow tree whose dense jade foliage cut off her view of the world.
You’re a child.
If she closed her eyes she would see, again and again, Mei’s drawn face, the careful way in which she moved.
Every day, it will hurt.
Sinh would take everything from her, just as he had taken everything from Mei, and she didn’t know enough to stop him. And Mei…Mei would stand by him, and that was the worst.
How many times have you done this, Mei?
And yet…Liên remembered the hand in hers, Mei’s fingers on her lips for an all too brief moment. You are seen. That conversation in the gardens, Mei telling Liên that Sinh shouldn’t push her so hard. Mei cared, didn’t she?
And did Liên care?
“You look like a whole turmoil of thoughts,” an amused voice said.
Mei’s gaze jerked up. It was Thụ Kiếng.
The former duelist wore scholar’s robes and an impeccable topknot. Her seal—a match to the one that had allowed her access to the dueling arena—swung on her chest as she sat down next to Liên. It was a smaller and newer thing. Her personal one?
“Steamed bun?” Thụ Kiếng asked.
Liên took it, because she didn’t quite know what to do. They nibbled together in almost companionable silence. It was pork and cat’s ear mushroom, and a small but perfect quail’s egg in the center, the yolk dissolving into sharp, salty powder in Liên’s mouth.
“Feeling better now?”
Liên couldn’t see the point of diplomacy. “I don’t know what you’re trying to achieve.”
Thụ Kiếng laughed. “Not everyone has hidden agendas within hidden agendas. I’m out of the dueling game. I lost. But for someone who won everything, you look decidedly unenthused.” Her expression was distant, almost serene.
Liên stared at the swaying willow branches. She thought of Sinh and flutes and music and stealing the work of his students. Of Mei and swords and kindness. “It’s the last duel,” she said. And it would be against Sinh. “Why?” she asked, finally.
“Why do I duel? Because in spite of myself, I believe in miracles. There was a girl, you see.” Thụ Kiếng’s voice was wistful.
“You want someone to love you?”
“No,” Thụ Kiếng said. “You know that can’t be forced. But I wanted to show her that…stories could be real. That there could be happiness ever after.”
Liên remembered the song in the arena, the one Thụ Kiếng had played. “The boy. The one who loved you back.”
“He’s dead. Or out there in the world, which is perhaps the same thing. This is his seal,” Thụ Kiếng said, lifting the seal around her neck. “The last thing he gave me before he left. Why do you duel, younger aunt? And don’t tell me your parents. That’s what granted you access to the arena in the first place—your mother’s seal and all it symbolized—but that’s no longer true.”
Liên said nothing, for a while. “She’s in pain.”
“Mei? Nothing that she didn’t bring on herself.” Thụ Kiếng’s voice was almost gentle.
The swords are my fault. “How long has it been going on?”
A shrug, from Thụ Kiếng. “Who knows? They’ve always been there, insofar as I know. You hear about the chairmen of the school, but I think there’s only ever been one, wearing different faces and different names.”
“Always.” It was vertiginous and unwelcome. “All that time.” All that time in pain and denying it. “It shouldn’t be that way.” And she had something Sinh wanted. Her flute. Her music. All that had shaped her as a scholar. She could bargain, if she wanted it badly enough.
What kind of person would it make her, if she walked away from Mei?
“You want to help Mei?” Thụ Kiếng stared at her for a while. “Oh, I see. That’s the way it is.”
“No,” Liên said, before she could think. “I don’t—”
“Care for her? Of course you do.” Thụ Kiếng laughed. “This doesn’t have to be a love that echoes down lifetimes, lil’sis. It just has to be enough. But you know that she’ll stand by Sinh. They’ve stood by each other all that time. Asking her to step away, no matter how well-intentioned…”
“She loves him.” It shouldn’t have hurt so much, when Liên said it. Because how could Mei possibly love Sinh?
“Sinh? Yes.” Thụ Kiếng played with the jade seal at her neck—the dead boy’s. “She will not thank you, you know.”
“For rescuing her.”
“You’re assuming she will view it as a rescue.” Thụ Kiếng sighed. “You’re a real scholar. Never standing for injustice or unfairness.” She used an uncommon word for “real,” one that meant “bright” and “real” all at once, like a miniature jewel. “Because I wouldn’t walk into that arena, myself.”
Liên sighed. She thought of Mei and of—not love, but a connection, and care for each other. “I guess it’s all up to me, then.”
Mei was waiting for Liên at the arena’s entrance. She was wearing the long, flowing, five-panel robes of the imperial court, red silk with golden embroidery of flowers and mythical animals. She’d unbound her hair, and it hung loose on her shoulders, with the golden hairpins scattered in their strands like stars.
She looked like someone out of myths, out of fairy tales—someone Liên would watch dance and later share celestial peaches with—someone breathtakingly, fragilely beautiful, like cracked celadon.
Liên just stood and gaped. “Big’sis.”
Mei walked to her. Linh breathed in a smell that was cut grass and the sharpness of a storm. And then Mei bent forward, and kissed her, and she tasted like steel and salt.
“Big’sis,” she said, gasping, when Mei stopped, and still stood close, close enough to touch.
For a moment, there was the same slow wonder in Mei’s eyes there had been in their room, when she’d understood Liên could see her pain. “I wanted…” Mei said.
“It’s all right,” Liên said. And slowly, gently, kissed her back until her mouth was full of Mei’s sharpness. “It’s all right to want.” She was everything to Liên, and they both knew it would not last.
“Not here, not now.” Mei’s voice was bitter. She pulled away. “But thank you. For the kindness.” She flickered again, and Liên saw the swords, sprouting from her chest as if she’d grown a tree of thorns from within, a tangled mass of gleaming sharpness and bloodied blades.
Liên said, finally—because Thụ Kiếng was right, because she couldn’t rescue Mei against her will—“You said I was a child. You said you didn’t trust me. I need you to—” She stopped, then, because she didn’t know what she said that wouldn’t be platitudes, or a rerun of an argument they had already had. Instead, she reached out, and wrapped her finger around the hilt of a sword in Mei’s chest. She hadn’t expected to make contact—she’d thought they’d be as ghostly visions without power to wound—but what she grabbed was cold and slick and hungry.
Old sins and blood and punishment and the will of heaven and the order of things and love cannot should not triumph because nothing is eternally unchanging…
She let go, gasping. “This has to end. It’s not fair. It’s not equitable.”
Mei’s face hadn’t changed. “I told you—”
“I know what you said,” Liên said. She raised her hand—slowly laid two fingers on Mei’s mouth, in the curve of those lips drawn back in a pain Liên couldn’t alleviate. “That it’s your fault. That it’s all for him. That it’s worth it. That I’m a child.”
“Do you think I kiss children?” Mei’s voice was stiff, barely audible. Liên didn’t move her fingers. She pressed, gently, against Mei’s lips.
“No. But still…things end,” Liên said, gently, and with more confidence than she felt. “And you matter. I’m not asking you to trust me, but will you stand by me?”
“I don’t know,” Mei said, and Liên knew then that she wouldn’t. That she couldn’t, because Sinh was her whole world and her whole being.
A chance. That was all she wanted. A chance for Mei to change. To cut the cord that bound her to Sinh, the chain of complicities and bargains Liên wasn’t privy to. A chance. Give me this, please, Mother and Father. Let me matter. This is how I want to leave my mark on the world. Please.
“Watch me,” she said, instead, and withdrew her fingers from Mei’s mouth, reluctantly. She wanted to kiss Mei again, but it was no longer time.
“Always,” Mei said, and her voice was sad.
The doors were closed, but this time they opened at Liên’s touch. The characters on the lock contracting to display, not the name on the seal around Liên’s neck, but a single archaic word in Việt.
Humaneness. Altruism. A fundamental virtue of the scholar. Liên would have laughed, if she felt in the mood to laugh.
As they walked, Mei laid a hand on Liên’s chest, and this time there was no splitting of the world, no difficulty to breathe—and Liên was still walking but she was also holding her own flute. “Why is it so easy?”
Mei smiled, and it was a shadow of the expression that had endeared Liên to her. “You’re so close to ascension. Didn’t you realize? You barely need me anymore. You could manifest this with just a thought.”
Liên didn’t feel close. She felt small and scared and powerless. How old was the thing she’d stepped into, and how presumptuous was she for thinking she could change even a fraction of it?
The arena was dark, but someone was sitting at the center. “Child,” Sinh said, and as he rose, the banyan lit up, and she saw that he’d brought the chessboard, the one with the painting of Scholar Vương summoning the dragon—except that he’d laid the pieces on the painting’s side as though for the beginning of a game.
Sinh had changed his clothes, too. He wore long, loose azure robes and a large sash adorned with peach-tree branches; his hair was tied in an elaborate topknot, held in place by silver pins. In fact—
Liên looked to the board for confirmation. He was dressed exactly as Scholar Vương in the painting. “Modeling what you’re trying to steal?” She hadn’t meant to be wounding, but she was acutely aware of Mei at her side.
Sinh raised an eyebrow. “I see you are not ignorant. You are wrong, however.”
Liên raised her flute, an inadequate shield. By her side, Mei had fallen to her knees, and this time the swords going through her weren’t ghostly. They were real, and Mei was bleeding on the floor, curled and gasping and struggling to breathe.
Mei. No no no no.
“Wrong?” Liên knelt by Mei’s side, trying to grab a sword, any sword—to pull it out of the mass of sharpness and blood, but Mei kept writhing, and the swords moved with her, dragging across the floor, their hilts and blades clinking against the stones, the entire mass opening up with Mei’s ragged breathing and convulsions, like an obscene flower. Mei. No. No no no. “You’ve used her. You’ve used all of us to steal power. How wrong am I?”
An amused laugh. Sinh knelt on the other side of Mei, making no move to help her. “Almost. I’m not stealing. I made this power: I’m only taking back what is owed to me.”
Owed to him? “I don’t understand—” Liên said, and then she looked at him—really looked. Mei’s swords were now real, but so was another thing: the hole in Sinh’s chest, through which jutted a tip of a broken flute of deep, gleaming jade.
I made this power.
Sinh laughed. “Yes. I’m not a thief, child.”
“You’re Vương. Scholar Vương. You—”
“What became of him. What’s left of him.”
And Mei—Mei who was contorting and bleeding on the floor of the arena—Mei, who wore the dress of a princess of the imperial court….
“The Dragon Princess,” Liên said. The words didn’t feel real. They couldn’t be. “You. You cannot be alive.”
“Hunger will do odd things to time,” Sinh said. “Stretch and thin it, so that nothing is quite right—tea with dregs of ashes, a lover’s touch dragging bone fingers across my skin, the river shimmering with corpses. She was right: I only feel alive when I play.”
Her flute. Liên’s hands tightened on it. “And you broke your flute.”
A shrug. “Power can be used for many things, but I used mine wrongly. Too many worldly things: a palace and serving girls, and jade and silver, and the kingdoms of the world at my feet. I won’t make that mistake again.”
No, now he just enjoyed having one person utterly devoted to him. Liên had to stop herself looking at Mei. “So just the music, then.”
“You’ve felt it,” Sinh said. “You know.”
A heady rush of pleasure unlike anything she’d ever felt, the sensation that she could be anything and do anything, the wonders of the birds and the dragon in the river…“Yes,” Liên said, because she wasn’t him and didn’t lie.
“This is why I need your flute.”
“Are you asking?”
Sinh shrugged. “Usually, I’m the Revered Teacher, and the students will do what I ask because they trust me. But you—” He frowned, staring at her as if he didn’t quite know what to make of her.
Liên said, “Free her. And I’ll give you the flute.” She kept her voice low and emotionless, but it was hard, because Mei was screaming.
“Her?” He looked at her, and at Mei. He laughed, softly. “I’m not holding her prisoner.”
But some cages didn’t have overt jailers. Liên’s mouth clamped on pointless words. “Walk away.”
Again, laughter. “Give me the flute, and I won’t interfere.”
Of course, because he didn’t need her. His face said it all. He thought Liên was throwing herself headlong at useless hopes. Liên…didn’t know if she disagreed, but she had to do something. “Deal,” she said. “Now go.”
When she passed the flute to Sinh, she felt as if she was handing him the heart in her chest.
“Finally.” He laughed softly, gently, and seemed to grow taller—and as his hair came loose and fluttered in the rising wind, and as his skin glowed alabaster, she finally saw what Mei had: the young scholar flush with dreams and glory, the man whose music transcended this world, strong enough to summon from the heavens and the river’s depths.
“Mei. Mei.” Liên tried to grab the swords, but she couldn’t. They kept flickering out of reach, and the hilt was oddly shaped and always shifting out of her reach. “Mei, please.”
Sinh walked to the river, stood in the banyan’s shadow. When his fingers slid into the hollows she felt them, one by one, as if they were resting on her skin, above the collarbone—and a sibilant whisper rose from the tree.
Trespasser thief taker of songs.
A note like a plucked string, and there was a sword, hanging in the air—the same swords sticking from Mei’s chest, the ones Liên was desperately trying to pull out. Its voice echoed like thunder across the arena.
The will of heaven cannot be flouted punishment must be meted out the order of things cannot be violated.
Sinh barely glanced at the sword. He gestured, fluidly and carelessly, towards Mei. “Take her.”
The sword shifted towards Mei, the strength of its presence—sharp and slick and hating—sending Liên to her knees.
Do you consent?
Mei’s gaze rested, for a brief moment, on Liên. She smiled, with tears in her eyes. “You’re so young,” she whispered. “Playing with objects of power as if they were toys. There is no respite.”
But Mei’s lips had already parted again. “I consent.”
The sword dove for her, just as Sinh started playing. “No!!!”
Each note felt drawn from the veins in her chest, and it was discordant and tentative—and Liên was on her knees, struggling to breathe, struggling to see anything through the tears in her eyes—her hands bloodied and cramped from trying to hold swords. The new sword joined the others, one more addition to a tangled mass—one sword for each stolen flute, one more nail in a coffin of everlasting pain. The banyan’s lights were flickering, and she couldn’t think anymore, she couldn’t—
Mei’s voice, a memory of that time they’d fought over the dumpling soup.
He held my hand and saw me. Truly saw me, just the way I was.
He’d seen her. What had he seen?
Sinh was still playing, and the lights were slowly filling the tree and the river. The huge and dark being in the river finally broke free—and it was the wizened and algae-encrusted shadow of a dragon, emaciated and infested with crawling, dark shapes like insect parasites, antlers broken and oozing dark liquid.
How dare he? A wave of nausea and anger wracked Liên.
“Princess,” Liên whispered. She pulled herself up, crawled to Mei, each gesture sending a fresh wave of pain down her chest. “Dragon Princess.” Her voice stumbled—she couldn’t remember the archaic words anymore. “Dragon.” She lifted a hand—drew, slowly and haltingly, the old characters. “I see you.”
The characters hung in the air for a brief moment, shifting to seal script, the same cursive shape on the seal around Liên’s neck. Mei’s face, drawn in pain, turned towards her, and Liên saw scales scattered across her cheek, iridescent patches that shone with a breathtaking light. “Mei,” Liên whispered, and Mei’s lips thinned on her name, and in her eyes shone the same slow wonder she’d shown before, and a shadow of her desire as she’d kissed Liên.
And abruptly Liên could breathe again—could, for a moment only, see Mei, curled around the shape of the swords transfixing her. One of them was less fuzzy and less shadowy than the rest. The last one, the one that had come from Liên’s flute: its hilt was the same color and opacity as the fourth hole in the flute had been.
Liên closed her eyes, and tried to remember what it had been like to play. All her poems and all her songs, and all of Mother’s old stories, and dragons in the river, and citadels brought down by theft, and people turning to stone by the seashore—and swords with jewel-encrusted hilts—and her finger, reaching out, slid and connected with hard metal and old, everlasting hunger.
The will of heaven is punishments there should not be mercy she consented…
“I do not,” Liên whispered, and felt the sword pause in its ceaseless litany. “It was my flute, and I do not consent!”
The blade came free. The weight of it sent Liên to the floor, before she pulled herself up, gasping. She held nothing but smoke and shadows, the vague shape of a sword. She—she could kill Sinh while he was still engrossed in the music. An eye for an eye, blood for blood. She could feel the sword’s quiescent hunger, its anger, its rage at the way student after student had lost their hearts to Sinh. It was not right. It had to be made right. She wanted—
She wanted to help Mei, not a bloodbath.
Help me. Father, Mother, help me do the right thing. The needful thing.
She drove the sword in the earth, feeling the shock of it in her bones; the shape of the hilt in her hand, what it had felt like when she’d connected, when she’d taken the weight of the blade in her hand.
Then, slowly and grimly, she went for the rest of them.
As when she’d played the flute, it was a matter of putting her fingers in the proper space—of reaching out across the length of metal or bamboo and finding a hole that shouldn’t have been there. She didn’t feel flush with words or poems, simply struggling to keep the emptiness in her chest from consuming her whole.
The flute in Sinh’s hand was burning now—slowly starting to fade, a dull, distant pain compared with the effort of grabbing one sword after another—to hold hilt after hilt, planting blade after blade in the floor of the arena. Her hands were slick with blood and sweat, and her legs shook and locked into painful spasms.
Sword after sword after sword, and there was no end to them, the countless students whose flutes Sinh had used up. It’s my fault, Mei had said, and yes, she had not stopped him, but an eternity of pain while he walked free…how was that fair punishment?
Liên reached out, again and again, and finally her hand closed on empty air. Surely she’d missed one…But when she looked, she stood in a field of swords, and Mei lay beneath her, gasping.
Traitor coward thief. The swords’ combined voices made the earth shake. Heedless, Liên knelt by Mei’s side. “Big’sis. Come on come on. It’s over.”
Mei’s lips were blue. “Lil’sis.” Her smile was weak. “It’s…never…over.”
A noise, behind her. It was Sinh. He held burnt bamboo fragments in his hands: the remnants of Liên’s flute. He looked, curiously, at the swords scattered around them. “A fine effort,” he said. “But in the end, it will avail you nothing.”
“Shut up,” Liên said. And, to Mei, “Look. Look.” And, gently cradling Mei’s head, turned her towards the river, towards the skeletal and almost unrecognizable dragon, slowly sinking back beneath the waves. “That’s what he sees, big’sis. Do you truly think that’s who you are?”
Mei’s face was drawn in pain. The swords were quivering, thirsting for blood. She’d earned nothing but a reprieve. “Lil’sis.”
“Look,” Liên said, and then everything she’d done—the swords, the burning of her flute—hit her like a hammer, and she flopped downwards, as the swords rumbled and started tearing themselves away from the ground. “Look!”
Mei was crying. It was slow and noisy and heart-wrenching.
“Come, child,” Sinh said to Mei. He was halfway to the gates of the arena, one hand on the wrought iron. He tossed, carelessly, the fragments of Liên’s flute on the floor, and Liên felt as if she’d been stabbed as each one hit the stones. “Nothing ever changes. Come home.”
“Big’sis. Walk away from him, please.”
Mei didn’t say anything. Sinh waited, arrogant and sure of himself: for everything to start again, for the old games to resume. For other duels and other thefts.
“Please…” Liên’s words tasted like blood. “There’s no time left. Please.”
A final rumble, and the swords tore themselves free, and dove, again, towards Mei.
Liên screamed before she could think. “Take me, not her. I consent!”
In the frozen instant before the swords dove for her, she saw Mei’s shocked face—the same shock on Sinh’s face—rising, shaking and heavily breathing, stretching and changing, and saying a single word ringing like a peal of thunder.
“You can’t—” Sinh said.
Mei’s voice was cold. “I do not consent.” The swarm of swords shivered and shook, turning from Liên to Mei and from Mei to Sinh. “She will not take my pain, and I will not take his anymore.”
“Child, please,” Sinh said. And another, older word. “Beloved…”
“No,” Mei said. She was long and halfway to serpentine, with the shadow of antlers around her snouted face, her hand gripping Liên’s shoulder like iron—and she was so beautiful, so heartbreakingly beautiful, brittle mane streaming in the wind, antlers shining with weak and flickering iridescence. “Find someone else to bear your guilt.”
The swords shivered from Mei to Sinh to Liên—the weight of their presence oscillating as they shook and shook and shook—and then they finally dived for Sinh.
His mouth moved. He tried to say something: words that were drowned by the rush of air, by the angry whispers of the swords as they came for him. They faded to a faint shadow, a shard of darkness lodging itself into his chest. He fell, gasping, to his knees, breathing hard—and finally got up, shaking. His face was slick with sweat, but his voice was assured and smooth.
“Nothing has changed,” he said. “I’m still the chairman of the Academy.”
He’d find someone else, wouldn’t he? He no longer had Mei, but it would just start all over again—the duels and the flutes and the abuse, sheltered by the Academy the way it had always been sheltered.
Nothing had changed.
“Come on,” Mei said. She pulled Liên up, slowly.
“Big’sis.” Liên was a mass of sore and unhealed wounds and fatigue. She’d freed Mei. That mattered. It had to. One person at a time, and yet how much it had all cost…“Big’sis…”
“Ssh.” Mei laid a shaking hand on Liên’s lips—two fingers, pressing against her flesh, and then the rest of her face, bending towards Liên: a brief, exhausted kiss that resonated in Liên’s chest, setting her entire being alight. “Let’s go, my love.”
A short, exhausted laugh. “Out there. The world isn’t the Academy, and it holds more than his games. Let’s go. Anywhere. Come.”
They walked supporting each other. They didn’t spare a glance for Sinh, who still stood over the shards of Liên’s flute, whispering “nothing has changed” over and over.
Slowly and carefully, they picked their way out of the arena, holding each other’s hands—walking measure by agonizing measure towards the iron-wrought gates—out of the arena, out of the Academy, and out into the world that awaited them both.
With thanks to @mainvocaljiu for help with naming Sinh.