Eldest Sister is actually Eldest Brother's wife. Eldest Brother's widow. That Eldest Brother died is unsurprising; to serve as a guard to a noble clan is to take a blow meant for another without flinching.
That his widow chose to stay instead of returning to her family is surprising. She stays to watch her sons—their sons follow in their father's footsteps on the same path, maybe to the same death. Lan Fan knows Eldest Sister continues to grieve for her husband's past and her sons' future. Still, she also knows that on her rare visits home, even this one last night before she must leave with Young Master, she can expect,
"So has he asked you to marry him yet?"
"No, Eldest Sister," Lan Fan says for the thousandth time as she sits with her sister-in-law at the window. "And he won't."
"Ahh, so it's still a secret love affair," she teases as Lan Fan grimaces for the thousandth time. "Don't worry, I won't tell anyone. I'll even lend you the clothes I wore when I was carrying the boys when he finally gets you pregnant."
She laughs delightedly, fondly as Lan Fan blushes furiously. It's always like this. Their family has always adhered tightly to their formal role as protectors of the Yao clan. They have always valued quiet discipline, self-restraint and modest discretion. Eldest Brother, therefore,horrified everyone when he married a bright-eyed girl with wicked dimples and a noisy laugh.
"Since you're running off with him—" she says.
"I'm not running off with him!" Lan Fan interrupts.
Eldest Sister has always been a little too loud, a little too forward for their strict, somber family. But still, her smile shone brightest for Eldest Brother, even as his duties took him away from her. And the family slowly grew accustomed to the rarely heard sound of laughter.
"Would you like some advice about those long nights alone with him in that big, empty desert?"
"I won't be alone with him," she says. "Grandfather will be there too."
"Even grandfather sleeps, or are you two that noisy?"
And as exasperating as her teasing is, her words are so outrageous that Lan Fan cannot take it too seriously, and at least she doesn't do it in front of grandfather. Tonight it is a comforting chatter, in a strange way, that takes Lan Fan's mind away from Young Master's perhaps impossible goal.
"It's not like that at all."
"You're a pretty, young woman," she says. "Your Young Master is blind if he can't see that."
"You mustn't speak of him like that," Lan Fan begs. "And I wear a mask."
"Not all the time," eldest sister says. Shesuddenly laughs. "Grandfather wears a mask too. I wonder if he's trying to hide his girlish beauty."
Lan Fan laughs softly, a little guiltily.
"And if you were so concerned with hiding all your assets, why do you still keep your hair long?"
An innocent question. Lan Fan smiles because they both know the answer. It was not so many years ago that Eldest Sister had helped a highly embarrassed young guard wrap her chest for the first time. Lan Fan had complained about how uncomfortable and inconvenient it was and how she wished she could have been born a boy.
And Eldest Sister, in a rare moment of seriousness had told her,
"You have a woman's body, Lan Fan. Even if your duty to a young master makes you conceal it. Even if your training makes you bind it. Even if you never take a man, never bear children. You have chosen to be a warrior, and you will always be a woman. This is your body for the rest of your life. Learn to be proud of it."
And so, even though she has learned to wrap her chest by herself, Lan Fan leaves her hair long as a token to remind herself of Eldest Sister's words.
Although, it is hard to remember that Eldest Sister was ever serious. Especially with that naughty smile on her lips, dimples dancing.
"Since you insist you are not in love with the young man you're running off with," she says now with exaggerated seriousness,her eyes bright, "I will give you this advice: if you can avoid it, Lan Fan, do not fall in love,"
"And if you fall in love," she says even more seriously, "do not speak of it. And if you speak of it, do not act on it."
Lan Fan makes a face.
"And if you act on it," eldest sister whispers with utmost seriousness, "don't let grandfather find out!"
"Grandfather and I have a duty to perform," Lan Fan says with more than a little exasperation. "I have to be prepared to fight. I can't be distracted."
She expects another round of impish innuendo, raised eyebrows and knowing smiles. But the rhythm of teasing has been broken by a sudden quiet, and Lan Fan feels a small pang of guilt. The proof that the family has accepted this girl with her noisy laugh and teasing tongue is the secret they keep from her.
"Every battle ends, Lan Fan," Eldest Sister says. "There is always stillness when the fighting is over." She looks out the window at her sons practicing new techniques by lamplight. Lan Fan remembers practicing with Eldest Brother in the same little yard while his new wife watched. She remembers how she would get angry when he showed off for the laughing young woman at the window instead of helping her train.
It is a simple secret, neither deep nor dark. Eldest Brother did indeed die in defense of one of the Yao elders. He also died on his young wife's birthday, distracted, perhaps, by a small package wrapped in pretty paper deep in his pocket.
That his widow grieves cannot be helped. That she, an outsider without the generations of tradition, discipline, and hardness of a trained fighter, should feel guilt at his death, is unacceptable. So they tell her a different date, and never mention it again. It is the last thing Eldest Brother's family can do for him.
Lan Fan looks at Eldest Sister now. If she knows of their deception, she makes no sign. Her voice is quiet. "Even great warriors fall in love," she says.
For a moment, the brightness dims, the dimples disappear. The young woman at the window no longer looks young. Her laughter is stilled,and her voice is now cold. "Don't fall in love, Lan Fan," she says. "Even if you want to. Even just for a moment."
Lan Fan looks away.
"Go and fight for him," Eldest Sister says. "Give up your body in battle or even in bed. But keep your heart. They take it with them when they die."
Lan Fan is quiet.
"If you lose that fight, it's over," says the sad-eyed woman at the window. "So don't lose that fight." Eldest Sister turns to her. "Promise?"
Lan Fan cannot meet her gaze, does not want to see the sad eyes of her brother's widow who does not know the day he died.
She nods anyway.