This was written for the 2009-2010 FMA Big Bang Challenge. This was the first story of this size I have ever attempted, and while it was definitely a challenge, I really enjoyed stretching my wings. I hope you enjoy it!


No Sound of Water

chapter 1.
You should not see the desert simply as some faraway place of little rain. There are many forms of thirst.—William Langewiesche

His hair was on fire. It had to be. In fact, he was quite sure that he could hear the faint hiss of smoke as his hair slowly sizzled, not to mention the acrid stench that threatened to burn his nostrils. It wouldn't be long before he was completely bald on top of his head, like the head servant of the Yao palace, He Ping. It would be a terrible loss, for there had yet to be an emperor with such stunning hair as his own. Counter measures needed to be taken immediately. He released the reins of his mount, tucking them into the front of the saddle, then reached behind his head to the empty hood that hung over his shoulders. His hair was almost scorching, and nearly burned his fingers as he pulled the hood over. The weight of the fabric on his scalp was a little painful, as if the sun had already burned away the top layers of his skin. Perhaps it had, though he would keep that thought to himself.

He had originally waved off the old man's suggestion of covering up once they had crossed the borders of Xing, but now he had changed his mind. In fact, he was now very grateful for the hooded, white overcoat that Fuu had provided him. He already felt somewhat cooler beneath the light fabric. It was probably just as the old man had said, that keeping out of the sun's direct light would be best. His bare ankle brushed over his mount's side as he adjusted himself in the saddle. The horse was slick with sweat—and now so was his ankle. The still air did nothing to help it, and so the horse's sweat rolled down his foot and dripped away, a perfect waste of liquid. At least if there had been a small breeze they could have savored its cooling effects, but alas, the air was utterly still.

He patted the horse's neck and discovered that its mane was as scorchingly hot as his own dark hair. He imagined how uncomfortable the poor creature must be, and wished they had thought to bring light colored horses instead. They hadn't had much time for thinking, though. The sun beat down on them all from above, and then reflected its heat back up at them from below. At first the dry heat had been a welcome change from the heavy air that he was used to dealing with, but as the morning grew long, he had to admit it was a bit unbearable, perhaps even a bit hellish. The sun had scarcely begun its ascent that morning and Ling already knew that the heat would be entirely different than that with which he had grown up. Xing was a tropical land whose humidity was often more oppressive than its temperature, but the desert was different. While the moisture of Xing could choke you on its heaviest days, its effect was still less biting, far less brutal than this dry land.

Ling wondered idly where all the water had gone. Did it merely drain down through the cracked surface to some dark space underground, or maybe some god had taken offense to this place and simply denied it life's most basic needs? Or perhaps it was something darker still. Was the land condemned to suck itself dry, each drop trickling through so quickly that the trees and the very soil itself could not grab hold?

It had taken a few nights of hard travel to reach the edge of Xing. Their country was vast, and they were never so glad that their province was located in the western half, else their journey would have taken considerably longer. As it was, his seat was rather sore from being on horseback for so long, and his back was killing him. He had tried dismounting and walking a few times already, and while it felt good to stretch his legs and work out the kinks, it was very tiring, and they had a very long way to go still. He would have to endure the pain of the saddle for many days to come. How unfortunate.

But not everything was a loss. He had never seen anything like the desert; despite its brutality, he saw a great deal of beauty in it. The sloping dunes stretched out for miles, kissing the horizon. Cragged rocks and twisted cliff sides dotted the landscape, shaped by the very land itself and standing strong and proud. Each barbed plant that took root in the shallow soil blossomed and embraced the sun, waiting for the rain to come. He had never had such an appreciation for flowers before. He was so used to the opulent landscape of Xing, where beauty was found in lush detail, that he hardly took notice of it, really. Somehow, these tiny blossoms that dotted the starkness spoke to him in ways nature hadn't before. They were beautiful in their quiet strength.

"I'm actually quite glad that the old train line isn't running. It wouldn't be the same experience riding in a cabin-car, now would it?"

"I suppose not, young master, though it would undoubtedly be less strenuous."

The old man did have a point there; but still, there was something to be said for this adventure. He had never met anyone who had crossed the Great Desert, and he was rather proud to know that he would soon hold that title himself.

"Fuu, tell me, what do you know of the old railway line?"

"Well, master, it stopped running many years ago, long before either of you were born."

"And why is that?"

"They say the rails had become buried over by the desert sands."

"You say that as though you don't believe it."

"You don't get to be my age without learning to recognize an omen when you see one."

"And yet you agreed to accompany me here," Ling chuckled darkly. "What does that say about the state of affairs back home?"

"Nothing good, young master."

Indeed it didn't. There was a lot riding on this mission, and he certainly had his reservations about it, though he desperately hoped they were unfounded. The more recent attempts on his life had held an air of traitorousness, and he was sure it would only have been a matter of time before his entire court could not be trusted. He needed to find the answer to immortal life. His very life depended on it—but enough depressing thoughts for one day. The only thing he could do at present was worry about actually surviving the desert, and maybe finding some water. Some shade would be nice, too. "I wonder if we'll come across an oasis. I've heard stories of travelers who found paradise here."

"They are only stories, young master, a trick of the mind. The desert can bring a man to madness if he isn't careful."

Perhaps that was true. An idle mind left to itself would wander, and there was not much to think about in this empty land. It was best not to dwell on dark things.

For the longest time, when he had been but a small boy, Ling had truly believed that he would never stop being entertained by talks of the eunuchs. Perhaps with age he had grown to appreciate his impending manhood, and what it would mean to lose it, or perhaps he had merely tired of the same jokes. Whatever the case, he found this meeting to be extremely dull, and had been wishing for a swift end to it almost as soon as it had begun.

He was all of twelve years old now—old enough to be considered a man—but he certainly didn't feel like a grownup. To say that he was bored would be a gross understatement. He could hardly focus on the information being presented to him and the elder clan members. As he fiddled with the sleeves of his tunic, he vaguely recalled discussions of a new shrine—and eunuchs, they had definitely talked about eunuchs—and the preparations that they would need to make for the emperor's upcoming visit.

He supposed that had been when his mind had started wandering. At first, he had been excited by the idea of his father coming to this province. In all his years, Ling had never yet met the man. Of course his tutors had taught him all about his father's rise to power and all of the supposedly glorious things he had accomplished from the throne, but the knowledge was no replacement for all he had missed not having a real father around. It had been He Ping who'd comforted him after an attempted poisoning. It had been Fuu that delivered him to the harem for the first time. Even his grandfather, his own mother's father, was inaccessible and distant, and he lived on the same grounds. It wasn't fair. He hadn't asked to be born a prince, destined to fight for power against the other clans of Xing. He hadn't asked for any of this, though his father had asked it of him, and from an unreachable distance, no less. So why should he jump through hoops preparing the palace for the guy, especially when the visit wasn't even about him, his own son? It wasn't fair.

"Prince Ling..."

How anyone could expect him to make decisions about these types of things was beyond him. Maybe one day he would need to, but for now, why didn't they ask his grandfather? He knew a lot more about this. He drifted in and out of the conversation, nodding and agreeing when he felt he should.

In this way, the morning dragged on until finally something exciting happened. There was a commotion in the hall, an exchange of terse words, and then one of the head guards burst into the room unannounced. That definitely got Ling's attention.

"Headman Gen, a messenger from the Qiu clan has arrived. Shall I show him in?" The messenger addressed Ling's grandfather, elder head of the Yao clan. He bowed low and held his position, waiting for a response.

"The Qiu clan? What could they be after?" The headman questioned the council at large.

The adults were soon lost in themselves, trying to divine the messenger's purpose. Instead, why not just have him in? That would be the simplest way to find out what he had to say, wouldn't it? They were so engrossed in the conversation that no one seemed to notice the servants arriving with an early lunch. Ling smiled. It was the perfect opportunity to make his escape.

Lineart by Bob Fish/Color by Enemytosleep

Silently, he slid from his seat cushion and fell into step behind a woman carrying a tray of soups. She glanced at him questioningly, and he gestured for her to remain quiet. Seeming to take the hint, she turned forward and began serving the bowls onto the low table. Meanwhile, Ling slipped between a pair of servant girls with empty trays on their way out of the room. He matched their stride and attempted to appear nonchalant as they made their exit. They were quite the sight if he did say so, and if anyone had bothered to look he would have been caught in an instant. The bright emerald of his tunic was embroidered with shimmering gold threads in an intricate design of fierce dragons, which couldn't have been more drastically different than the plain gray of the servants' robes. There was also the fact that he was already a head taller than the young women, even more so if you included the round tassel of his cap. It was a good thing the old men weren't paying any attention.

Once into the hallway, he ducked out from between them and took off on padded feet. He wasn't entirely sure where he wanted to go, only that it should be far, far away from the conference, as the conference was boring, and boring was simply no fun. He made it to the next hallway unnoticed, but soon was diving headlong behind a large, painted statue of a lion. There were guards at the entryway, numerous and with impressive armor, and Ling wasn't sure if they would let him leave or not. He was supposed to be in the meeting, after all.

"Young master, this way."

He was saved. Dressed from head to toe in the darkest of blacks—save for the hand painted mask that covered her face—Ran Fan perched on the balls of her feet on the delicate edge of the frame of one of the paper-covered panels that lined the halls. They were meant to let sunlight in rather than to be opened like windows; Ran Fan had apparently pried it open with her dagger, leaving shallow grooves in the frame.

Risking one last glance around the statue, Ling then moved back toward the newly made exit and squeezed his way out. The panels stretched from just above the floor toward the ceiling, so it was only a small step down to the ground. Once outside, he crouched low, trying to remain hidden. Ran Fan stepped out the window next, carefully lowering the panel back into place. Once it looked as it had before, she turned to him, her dark eyes seeking instruction.

"This way," he mouthed, pointing toward the north side of the building.

They crept through the palace grounds like shadows, ducking behind trees and pillars and crawling along the sides of buildings. They were headed for the Upper Garden, which would be empty at this time of day and was far away from the meeting. It was a perfect plot.

They arrived in the garden not long after they had started. In reality, it had only been a few short minutes since his initial escape, but the threat of being caught had made it feel much, much longer. It was like one of the stories his nursemaids had told him as a young boy: the young hero (Ling of course) would make a dangerous journey to escape the clutches of an evil overlord (he supposed that was his grandfather and the elder council) aided by a fierce warrior companion (this was clearly Ran Fan) in order for good to prevail. The good in this, obviously, was not having to sit through the rest of a tedious and boring discussion of which plants to place where and what color tapestries to hang in honor of the emperor.

Ling stretched his arms his over his head, feeling the weight of his troubles lift from him as he loosened up.

"Master, what do we do now?"

"We have fun!" he replied gleefully, somersaulting over a small azalea and losing his mandarin cap, but not caring. As soon as he landed, he immediately catapulted himself forward into a handspring, landing in a fighting stance and ready to spar. He loved being able to move around like this, open and free, and so unlike the way this tutors wanted him to be.

He waited for Ran Fan's attack. However, it didn't appear to be forthcoming. He was a little confused as to why she didn't respond to him now; they always sparred like this in the courtyard of her family's quarters.

Art by darkryan75. See full comic at his deviantART

Flicking his eyes over the expanse of the garden, he spotted her perched within a plum tree not far from him. He approached her slowly, keeping his eyes trained on the holes of her mask. She wouldn't make eye contact—she never did, really—and she fidgeted slightly as he drew closer. He didn't break his gaze as he sat at the base of the tree, folding his long legs beneath him. For a few moments they simply sat there in silence, Ran Fan refusing to look at him and he refusing to look away. Finally, he spoke.

"Ran Fan, why are you hiding in that tree? Don't you want to spar with me?"

"I am to protect young master from all threats. I am his deadly shadow. It is better to watch from on high."

"But wouldn't it be safer if you were right next to me?"

"I- I must maintain a position of stealth. This tree offers a perfect vantage point."

He grinned slyly. "So the tree has you held captive then? I see." He stood up and took a few casual steps away from the fragrant foliage, suddenly whirling around and facing the flower-laden branches with a mighty scowl. He addressed the flowers directly, "Which one of you is in charge?" When none of the white blossoms responded, he simply eyed the biggest and most forefront.

"You refuse to release my guard, do you?" Again, the flower said nothing, merely staring him in the face with its fat, yellow pistils. He withdrew his blade and decapitated the unfortunate blossom in a single, graceful swoop. Before it could reach the ground, he brought his sword back down in a low diagonal slice, cleanly cutting through the blossom head in mid-air. "Then negotiations are over."

Okay, so perhaps he was a bit old for these types of games, but the way they made her shift uncomfortably and flush was worth the embarrassment, he thought. Even with the mask there was no way for her to hide the heated blush that crept over her face when he pretended to defend her like this. The little glimpses of pale skin that peeked out from the bottom of her jaw were bright red. She refused to meet his gaze and tugged at the edges of her hood, as if she could disappear into its shadowy depths and escape the situation. It did wonders for his burgeoning male pride.

"And now you are free, Ran Fan. Come down from there and keep me company. I don't want to be bored."

She wouldn't be able to refuse a direct request like that, he mused, and indeed, she immediately began sliding her way down the branches. He knew from experience that she was more than capable of jumping from a perch like that, but he wouldn't torture her any more over it...not right now anyway.

"Ran Fan, watch this!"

Art by Yoporock. See full size at her deviantART

He raced toward the large fountain at the garden's center. Sword still drawn, he leapt onto the edge, landing deftly. The low walls surrounding it were just wide enough to balance on, and were the perfect place to demonstrate just how agile he was. He began to slice through the air in liquid motions, which were the hard-won product of countless hours of practice. He lunged forward, balancing on one foot. His enemy would evade the open thrust and try to counter with one of his own, and so he drew back and sliced upward, taking advantage of the opening created by his invisible foe's move. Really, he was such a talented swordsman.

The edge of the fountain was slippery and narrow. As he battled on, he began to find himself feeling rather unusually unsteady. His feet felt disconnected from the rest of him. In fact, his whole body felt disconnected, as if he was simply floating in some air stream, passively moving along. When he felt himself sinking in that current, he finally realized what was happening. He remembered just how long it had been since his last meal. Of course that only served to make the feeling intensify; it was a vicious cycle.

He could hear Ran Fan calling to him, but the air stream was drowning out her words like a raging river. He saw her rushing over toward him from the corner of his eye briefly, then darkness started creeping into the edges of his vision, slowly blacking out everything in sight. The fountain water was cooler than he had thought it would be. He hoped he hadn't landed on his sword...

...and then he was sputtering, gasping for breath, coughing water out of his airway. Someone was leaning over him, crouching right in his lap and holding him up out of the water. Their small arms looped under his and around the backs of his shoulders, cradling his head in their hands. He was probably coughing in their face. He should probably stop doing that.

Slowly, he opened his eyes. He immediately regretted it; the glaring sunlight burned them, so he shut them once again. For some reason the sensation made him cough more, though he was at least aware enough of himself now to try and cover his mouth with his hands. He wasn't sure of his success, fumbling as his tingling limbs were, but at least he was trying now, right?

He tried to open his eyes again, and this time he was ready for the bright light that greeted him. Soon enough the expanse of white was blurred by a dark figure above him, unrecognizable and distorted. Then the dark mass solidified and became none other than his trusted guard, Ran Fan. He could see the worry in her eyes through the holes cut in her mask. Water dripped steadily from the edges of the painted lacquer onto his face.

"Master, are you all right?" She stifled a small cough, sucking air in through her nose, and he watched as the water droplets that clung to the edges of her mask holes were sucked in as well. She coughed slightly again as she tried to say more. It was then that he noticed that she, too, was soaked from head to foot. She really had dove in after him, hadn't she?

"Ran Fan, take off your mask."

"But why? Is Young Master hurt?" He could tell she was having a hard time breathing with all of the water that was dripping down and out of her mask. He also was aware of her unnatural attachment to the damned thing. He would have to do something about it.

"Ran Fan," he said sternly, reaching up and loosening the ties to her mask himself. She made to stop him, but stopped immediately when without her support, he started to fall back into the pool, not yet able to hold up his own weight. She was almost glaring at him as he finished untying the cords, letting the painted face slid off and tossing it into the water next to them. "Is it easier to breathe now?"

"Can Young Master sit up yet?"

Oh, she was so cold. He laughed as he began sitting up. He propped himself up slowly with his elbows, and then turned slightly to his side and used his arms to push the center of his weight over his hips. He was always a bit unsteady after collapsing; he would need to eat soon else he faint again. He wiped his forehead with his hand, pushing his wet hair back out of his face.

Ran Fan watched him closely for a moment before springing up and snatching her mask out of the water, apparently having deemed him fit. She shook it vigorously in an attempt to get all of the water out. She was absolutely glaring, her ferocity almost terrifying. He had nearly forgotten how expressive she was beneath that thing. She gave him once last gut-freezing, intense look before tying it back into place. He remembered now why it was a good thing she hid behind it. She was really scary sometimes.

She came back over to him and stooped low, offering her shoulder to him. He wrapped an arm over her shoulder, leaning heavily on her as they both stood up again. He was still quite dizzy, he discovered. He began wondering how exactly they would get back into the palace like this unnoticed. Collapsing was one thing, but returning soaking wet was another. It would be difficult to explain away. Princes and their guards didn't suddenly become drenched while sitting in a conference room, now did they?

He didn't have to worry about this for long, though. The garden was soon filled with shouts and a rush of bodies. He supposed his presence had been missed much sooner than he had anticipated.

He was greeted with a chorus of "Prince Ling, are you all right?" and "My Lord, what happened?" Servants buzzed around him, lifting him off Ran Fan and placing him onto the dreaded palanquin (why wouldn't they let him walk anywhere outside, anyway?). Immediately they were fussing over him, covering him with sheets and worrying aloud that he would catch a cold. He tried to wave them off, but they were persistent, insisting that he be brought back inside and dressed in dry clothes. There were palace guardsmen present, too. None of them seemed particularly happy to be there.

One of the guards approached Ling. He was marked with the royal blue crest of a captain. This could prove interesting; he hadn't done anything to merit the attention of a palace captain in quite a while.

The man bowed low, and then spoke, "Prince Ling, it is unwise to run around the grounds unattended. You really shouldn't go anywhere without proper protection. An attempt could have been made on your life, and we would have been none the wiser."

Was that a threat? It was a very interesting choice of words, wasn't it? He would have to remember this. "I am fine, really. It's only a little water. If I recall my history lessons correctly, there has yet to be an assassination involving the royal fountains. If my life were to be ended that way, I should be so lucky as to be the first."

"But Prince Ling, should something have happened—"

"Then it was fortunate that my guard had escorted me, was it not? Now, it is past time for luncheon, and I am famished. I shall be needing to change from these dripping clothes, else my mother might forbid me entrance to the dining hall. Excuse me." He waved to the litter bearers, who immediately began moving forward.

The rest of the day proved to be as uneventful as any other day. After his meal he had gone to the old scholars for a lesson in Xing's noble history, and after that he was brought to his grandfather in order for him to observe the everyday workings of the palace headman. It was boring, and like most of his duties, it seemed to drag on forever. He looked forward to his lessons in the courtyard the next day. Swordplay was always exciting, and he was getting rather good at it if he did say so. Then there were the dreaded language lessons in which he was forced to perfect far too many types of speech, some more awkward and uncomfortable than others (Drachman came to mind whenever he thought this). Soon enough it was dinner time, and then afterwards he had to practice calligraphy. More dull work, although the orange duck had been particularly delicious tonight.

After the servants had bathed and dressed him for bed, he simply retired to his chamber and laid down. Finally, the day was over. There was nothing remotely fun left for him to do, and the earlier he woke up, the earlier he could meet Fuu and Ran Fan in the courtyard.

Falling asleep proved to be difficult, however. He found himself lying awake for long stretches of time. It was during one of these quiet moments of reluctant wakefulness that Ling suddenly overheard his personal guardsmen having a whispered conversation from the doorway. This was interesting.

"Kun, try to conserve your energy tonight. I expect we will be picking up extra shifts over the next few days."

"Yes, father."

Ling had always been told to never to expect ivory in a dog's mouth, and Sheng was no exception to the saying. Sheng and Kun were part of another branch of his personal guard. They, Ran Fan, and Old Man Fuu were all members of the family that had served the royal members of the Yao clan for generations and generations. It was his experience with the man that Sheng hardly ever said anything good, and so it was quite obvious to Ling that there was another intended meaning lurking beneath his words. The fact that he was addressing his fellow guard about something seemingly trivial at such an inappropriate time led Ling to believe that the deeper meaning was, in fact, aimed at himself.

"You are disturbing my rest. If you have something to say, then say it."

"I am sorry, Young Master."

"Well? What is it?" He hated playing Sheng's games, but he had a bad feeling and wanted answers right now. He didn't want to take the chance that Sheng would say nothing, or tease him with the answer all night long. "Why will you be picking up extra shifts?"

"Well, I suspect poor Ran Fan will need a few days to, ah, let her punishment sink in."

"What punishment?" Ran Fan had been punished? For what? His heart ached at the thought of it; he had snuck into the eunuchs' medical building often enough to know what kinds of punishments were given on these grounds. Men and eunuchs alike would spend days in the infirmary recovering from the lashes they had received. Those bamboo rods were unforgiving.

"Well, for failing to protect you, of course. She allowed you to get into a dangerous situation without proper guard."

"She did nothing but uphold her duty. Either you are lying to me, or you are withholding something. Which is it? For what offense shall I have you punished?"

"Please, Master, forgive me. It is difficult for me to say this in your presence. Surely you will understand once I've told you." The room was darkened, but the prince could practically hear the way the man smirked; he wasn't sorry at all. Obviously sensing that he was reaching the end of Ling's patience, the sly man continued. "Well, there have been rumors, Young Master, that she was partaking in inappropriate behavior, demeaning to her station."

His chest tightened at the statement. He tried his best to keep his breathing even, lest he betray his shock. Someone had seen them in the fountain, then?

"Lies. She did nothing of the sort, and I will see to it that she is not punished further for this. If there is any fault to be found here, it should be with me, not with her."

"I may be speaking out of line here, but I think it is important to remember that as prince, and one day emperor, your actions have consequences for others than yourself. Your decisions affect all of those around you."

"You are speaking out of turn, and I will see to it that she receives no further punishments for my misdeeds."

"You could do that..."

"But what? Speak, Sheng, before I have you whipped as well."

"Forgive me, Master. It's only that I fear your intervening would only further damage her dignity. If she is a true warrior and guard to the royal heir, she will accept her judgement in stride. Would you rather save her the lashes, or save her remaining honor? I will leave you to decide, Young Lord."

Art by Yoporock. See full size at her deviantART

And that was it then, wasn't it? A question of honor and intent. Was his guilt worth her honor? Would she forgive him if he intervened? He knew how stubborn she could be. She might never forgive him for interfering with her situation. But could he forgive himself for putting her there? He didn't know. He would be sure to never put her in that kind of situation again, at least not until his honor was enough for them both.

"You can keep watch from outside, can you not?"

"Yes, Master."

The pair climbed out of his window, most likely to perch on the roof, and left Ling to his thoughts. It wasn't fair. He had slipped his guards to avoid dull work, and yet it was Ran Fan who had been landed on the receiving end of the whip. This bed, these pillows, they were so soft. Ran Fan certainly wouldn't be enjoying any comforts for a while. It wasn't fair—yet he knew that she wouldn't see it that way. She probably felt that she deserved it. Damn it. She probably wouldn't cry either, no matter how much pain she must undoubtedly be in and how humiliating it must be. He could only imagine the things Sheng must have said to her, judging from the bold words he had used with himself. It just wasn't fair!

Ling Yao, twelfth son of the emperor, royal heir to the throne, buried his face into the soft silk of his pillows and wept in silence for the girl he knew would not weep for herself.

Night had fallen, and with it the temperature. It was amazing how quickly and how drastically it had changed. They had decided to stop for the night: the horses were exhausted, and had been difficult to keep moving after they had found the small creek. They had put a great deal of distance between them and any assassins who had tried following after them. In fact, since they had been traveling with little rest for days, it was increasingly unlikely that any had come this far. Right now, it seemed Ling's fiercest opponent was the desert itself.

The sand was far too cold and solid for sleeping upon, Ling decided, as he lay huddled on the desert floor. They hadn't made a fire because they didn't want to draw attention to themselves. They had definitely been trailed for the first few days of their journey, and while they hadn't spotted or sensed anyone since entering into the desert, it was entirely possible that someone was still following after them using the cover of the dunes. However, as the last of his body heat seeped away into the greedy sand, he started to care less and less about being spotted. At least if they were found, they would have a fight and a fire to keep them warm.

He turned over once again, drawing the loose fabric of his overcoat tighter around him, trying to keep whatever modicum of warmth he could from escaping him. The desert night was much like the desert day: it took everything anyone had to give and sucked it down, looking for more. Earlier it had been the sun's mighty heat, and now it was the moon's silver chill. It was amazing what one land was capable of.

The horses had been tethered to a small outcropping of scraggly trees that grew out from the desert rocks. Fuu slept not far from them, wrapped in his own tunic, his gentle snores a soothing sound in the emptiness of the night. Ran Fan sat awake and on guard, her legs tucked beneath her in the polite way. She still wore her mask, even in the dark of the night. He kind of wished she would take it off. There was no way she could be comfortable like that for so long.

The sash at her waist hung over her folded thighs, spilling onto the ground. The white silk lay in a delicate swirl on the sand beside her, just a few feet away from him. Impulsively, he reached out for it. His fingers swept over the fabric, picking it up and letting it slip between them. The silk was smooth and flowed like water, and was as cool as the dirt it lay on. The way the moonlight created shadows in its folds was quite stunning. Ran Fan looked at him without turning her head, watching him carefully.

He continued absently playing with the sash. Neither of them broke the silence between them. It was almost comforting, this non-conversation. Ran Fan was never one for talking anyway, and he was too tired to say anything of value. Besides, he didn't want to ruin the moment by saying the wrong thing. It wasn't often they could be like this. There were always servants or messengers or palace guards interfering. Even the old man could suck the fun out of things. So he wanted to enjoy this for a little while longer.

"Do you think we'll find it, Master?"

"I hope so."

He closed his fist around her sash and curled into himself, trying to keep his thoughts away from dark things. He didn't want to spend the night thinking about what could go wrong.

"I really hope so, Ran Fan."

She shifted slightly, clenching her fingers against the tops of her thighs. "I hope so, too."