She realized, suddenly, that she was awake. A moment later she realized she must have been asleep, and that was just as disorienting. For a moment, she thought she was on guard duty, tucked in her usual niche behind the stone dragon that snarled protectively from under the eaves of her young master's roof. She jerked convulsively in an attempt to sit up, terrified that someone had crept in while she slept, already feeling the knife sinking into his flesh as if it was hersóhow could she have been so lazy, so careless, Grandfather would skin her alive, if he was still alive to do it—
The phantom knife twisted, and her shoulder blossomed with pain as she fought with her own unresponsive body. With the pain came clarity of thought. She finally recognized the feeling of cotton sheets, knotted around her legs and body, drenched with sweat. Not bound with ropes, then. It was a thick, soft mattress under her, the sort they used in the West, not the carved wooden frame of Ling Yao's roof.
And her shoulder...
Lan Fan's mouth went cold and dry. It was becoming a familiar sensation: her mind's futile stretching for confirmation of a branch of nerves that no longer existed. Like reaching out blindly to knock on a door, only to find that someone had opened it first. The loss of balance, the shock of your fist falling through empty air.
Never mind her shoulder.
She turned her mind to other things, sinking back slowly onto her pillow. Years of meditation with Grandfather had given her some small control over her thoughts. There was now, at least, no threat of the split-ended stick descending on her head with a resounding crack if she showed signs of lost concentration. It was important to be smooth and calculating and cold as a stone, in the situations when you might otherwise lose your head.
Grandfather always said her temper was too strong. Too much yang, he said, shaking his head. Abnormal in a girl. Inconvenient, in someone training to be still and calm, eternally observant and unobserved. Lan Fan wondered sometimes if that was why he painted yin on her mask, when he gave it to her at the age of twelve. To balance her elements. If so, the deep ache that throbbed all down her left side from jaw to hip was testament to the failure of that intent.
Impetuous. Impatient. Too easily riled, too likely to resort to mad efforts to win. She remembered all the warnings, the instructions, her grandfather's misgivings from the moment she began her training.
Well. Too late was as good a time as any to start over.
She kept her eyes closed, slowing her breathing to something like the deep slowness of sleep, and taking silent stock of her surroundings.
The sheets were rumpled and damp, tangled around her and growing rapidly chill. Her hair was plastered to her forehead, her skin beaded with sweat. The pain in her shoulder had subsided when she lay down, and was now only the usual steady ache, bone-deep and pulsating in time with her heart.
Not far away, she could hear the slight rasp of Knox's breathing, rattling softly in the foreign doctor's broad chest. So, it was his turn to stand watch, not hers. Her mouth curled slightly at one corner, an almost smile for the almost funny irony.
"Fresh sheets," Knox said suddenly, and she heard the thump and rustle as he stood. "Now that you're awake. Oughta have fresh bandages, too. You up for it?"
He was right, she realized; the dampness around her shoulder was more than sweat. "Yes," she said, keeping her eyes shut. It was all she felt like managing at the moment. Why did the language of Amestris have to be so mouth-mangling? Consonants were never meant to be strung together in long necklaces of threes and fours. She doubted she would ever be able to call Edward by his proper name, not when she had yet to whittle the nickname Ed down to less than two syllables. Let alone his brother. It was a comfort, at least, that no one here seemed to be able to hit the right pitch on their names, so that her young lord was permanently rechristened after a kind of root vegetable, and her grandfather...
Mind wandering again, she reminded herself, imagining the descending stick.
The closet door creaked. "Right," Knox said, muttering to himself, and she heard the soft snap of folded fabric being shaken out. The sweaty sheets pulled away from her legs, and there were a few nasty moments as the doctor carefully worked the drenched sheet out from under her, and replaced it with a new one. She tightened her jaw, and made no sound.
Clean cotton settled softly over her, smelling of sunlight and autumn leaves. He dried his laundry outside, she supposed, on a line or over a balcony. It reminded her of being a child, running barefoot through a shady courtyard with bright fabric fluttering around her from the heavy twine that crisscrossed overhead. Footsteps behind her, as a little prince blundered along, stoutly ordering her to wait.
And she always stopped, and sat down in the sand, and waited...
The first stripping away of sodden bandages tore the memory asunder like a curtain, and she remembered where she was. Off in the past again, she thought grimly. It was never sensible to dwell on things that were gone.
The doctor's broad, stubby fingertips brushed the edges of her wound, lifting away the strips of linen. They crackled slightly, congealed blood breaking and tugging at her torn flesh, and she hissed between her teeth as the last ones peeled free.
"You're close to that boy of yours." The gravelly voice again, breaking her concentration, a quiet distraction from the first touch of the warm, wet rag against her skin. She knew what he was trying to do. Grandfather would not have approvedóbetter to bear your pain in silence, aloneóbut she was grateful.
"I'm his bodyguard," she said, simply, through gritted teeth.
Knox clicked his tongue, as the rag ran lightly over ravaged flesh, sponging away the clotted mess with a gentle delicacy that always surprised her, every time he did this. Great stubbly mountain of a Westerner that he was, he didn't look or, usually, act capable of gentleness—nor did he claim to be.
"More to it than that," he mused, as if to himself. The rag dipped into a basin with a little splash, then returned.
A shady courtyard, and a woman in silk the color of new shoots in spring, calling to them to come in and eat. Cool gray buckwheat noodles, dipped in chilled sauce. A laughing prince, sitting opposite her at the little carved table, stealing the ice from her bowl when his melted from too much stirring.
"He is my milk brother," Lan Fan said, memories playing against her closed eyelids.
Knox made a sound of vague confusion, the rag pausing against the raw stubs of her bones. She held her breath until it moved away again.
"Don't know what that is," the doctor admitted grudgingly.
Another reminder of how far from home she was. She rolled the term around in her mind, concentrating on how to explain it, her thoughts drawn away from the warm bloody cloth in her shoulder socket.
"Wives of the emperor do not nurse their children," she said, after a moment. "Their duty is to bear more children, if they can. I was just weaned when my lord was born, and so my mother had her milk still, and had the honor of being my lord's wet nurse."
"So, you were raised together," Knox said. Lan Fan swallowed. It was such an alien way to sum it up, as if they had played as equals, like the Elric boys and their tomboy friend.
She had always called him master. She had always known where she stood, and that was behind him, below him, to help him rise. At his feet. At his beck and call. At his back, to protect him from those who wanted better odds at a contested throne.
Did they understand such things, here? Utter service, wholehearted, without resentment. A missing arm was only the smallest part of it.
"Yes," she said, instead, simplifying for his sake. The alien word hissed in her mouth. The rag withdrew at last, and she felt his hands again, helping her sit up just slightly against her pillows.
He worked in silence for a while, carefully setting the end of a fresh roll of linen in place against her skin. The bandages settled in snug loops around the ruined stump that had once flexed with strong, toned muscles. Would she ever do a handspring again? she wondered. She had done them one-handed, once. It was all so easy...
Knox's hands had paused, his fingers resting against her shoulder, near the collarbone where their presence caused the least pain. She opened her eyes at last, puzzled, and found him watching her with steely-gray eyes, narrowed in a measuring look.
"If you like him so much," he asked, gruffly, "why don't you tell him? Never took you for a coward, girl."
Her throat closed. She felt her eyes widen, but couldn't stop them from going soft with distress and dismay. His meaning was clearóhe bought no part of her excuses. How did he...
"You talk," Knox said, scowling down at her as if to banish any attempt at a paternal gaze. "When you...dream."
He meant her nightmares, the things that plagued her every time she drifted into sleep. Lan Fan felt her face go hot. What had she been crying out, helpless among her own demons? What had she dreamed this time? She remembered her first disorientation on awakening, her feeling of dread...
Her young lord, sprawled across a tasseled satin bed, his blood spreading in dark stains over the embroidered pavilions and flowers on which he lay. Pinned to a wall with the long iron shaft of a spear, choking up bits of his insides, his fingers scrabbling in a vain attempt to pull himself free. Ambushed while he ate, slumping silently forward among a shattering of porcelain dishes, the feathered end of an assassin's dart in the nape of his neck. Bleeding out his last from a slit throat, his eyes as dark as the space between the stars with the knowledge of his own death, her hands clasped in both of his as his fingers went cold.
Hands. She still had both, in her dreams. They never saved him.
It wasn't real; she clung to the fact that none of it was real. A million images of Ling dying or dead, all of them imaginary and utterly possible. Ling's last breath rattling in her ears. Ling with his shrewd eyes gone dull, his smiling mouth slack and unbreathing. Ling, lifeless in the cold bed or the churned mud or the marble floor, or the lake-bottom with his loose dark hair floating softly around his purpled face. And all of it her fault, if she'd only fulfilled her duty, if only...
With an effort, she wrenched herself back out of the icy cesspit of her sleeping psyche, and found Knox still watching her, unperturbed by the emotions playing out on her sweaty face.
"I did not mean to," she managed, after a long moment spent mostly forcing her breath to come slow and steady. In and out, under control, measured against the thud of her heart as it grew calm once more.
Knox shrugged, and began bandaging again. "Why don't you tell him?"
She almost laughed at that. He understood nothing.
"He knows," she whispered.
The doctor paused again, raising shaggy eyebrows at her. "And...? Don't tell me the stupid bastard doesn't give a damn."
In another time, she would have wanted to kill him, but she owed him too much by now, and knew him and everything he didn't know too well. His unforgivable slurs were meant to comfort her, not to slander her prince, and so they became forgivable. Another thing Grandfather would have frowned at.
"It is different, for you," she said softly, gazing at the ceiling.
He tied off the last bandage, sitting back with a satisfied nod. "Different, eh?"
A bitter little smile tugged at her lips.
"The Emperor of Xing has fifty wives," she told him, simply.
Knox gave her a startled look, then whistled, long and low. "You're shitting me."
She gave him a bewildered, faintly insulted look, and he laughed.
"Figure of speech. You, uh...you must be joking," he corrected himself, but Lan Fan shook her head.
"It is tradition. If my lord becomes emperor, he will be bound to it as well. One wife from each of our fifty tribes, to ensure loyalty and to further the imperial line."
Knox's eyebrows lifted another iota. "That's a helluva lot of furthering."
She saw where his train of thought was going now, and put a stop to it quickly.
"No one shuns their duty in Xing," she said, firmly and leaving no room to brook argument, the way her elders had always passed the maxim to her. "Not even the emperor. Not if he wants to remain the emperor. And jealousy only makes trouble in the emperor's court, Doctor Knox. I would cut off my other arm before I caused my lord trouble."
He was silent for a moment, thinking this over.
"Hmph," he grunted, after a moment. "I guess. Sounds damn dodgy to me. But, what, there's no room for a nice girl like you in all those courts of his? No...empress, or chief wife, or something?"
Lan Fan let her eyes drift shut again. It was tiring to explain all this, worse because it was all so fundamental to her way of thinking. It was like teaching a blind man to dye silk...more than that, it was translating her own most basic truths into alien understanding, like teaching a fish about breathing.
The throbbing in her shoulder flared, and she let out a slow sigh. Facts were the easiest way, and the least likely to betray her inner selfishness more than she already had, in front of this well-meaning man who would take that selfishness to be a virtue.
"Let me explain," she said, slowly, choosing her words carefully and ignoring the ache from her disturbed wound as it bled sluggishly into the new linen. "To become empress, you must bear a healthy male child. To bear children, you must enter the court, and live isolated among the other wives of the emperor. You must wear silk, and sit quietly, and eat well and sleep long hours. You do nothing dangerous, because your body is the hope of the nation.
"If you bear a son, and he is claimed by the emperor as legitimate, and he is not sickly, and does not die an infant, then you may be chosen as empress. The emperor appoints you before the court, and you are given a guard of two hundred to keep you safe. If you have no strong backing in the palace, or you are of low birthóas I am," she added, in case this was something else they did not notice in this strangely equalized land, "then you become an easy target for the jealousy of your fellow wives."
"I thought you said there was no jealousy," Knox murmured, frowning deeply by now.
Lan Fan laughed openly at that, a barking mirthless sound. "I only said that jealousy causes trouble...and pain. It has driven more than one empress to madness and death."
He stared at her, aghast, his pale eyes startled into moon-roundness under their bushy overhanging brows. It occurred to her suddenly that the doctor reminded her of the stone dragon under Ling's eaves, with its gruff whiskered scowl and deep-set milky eyes, and its reluctantly protective air.
"You see, now?" she asked, gently. "I cannot be my lord's wife. Even if I had any way to convince my clan to offer me...I would not try. I am no use to my lord in silk robes and pearls, behind a gilded screen."
Knox was silent for a long time, mulling this over, trying to comprehend it.
Lan Fan watched him, just as quiet. She had seen love in Amestris, the married couples in the street, the young people courting shyly or brashly under the sun. She had seen possessiveness indulged, watched Edward seething while her prince teasingly praised the beauty of his golden-haired mechanic and coaxed blushes out of her. She saw restraint as well, and attention to duty, even here. She suspected, for example, that Lieutenant Hawkeye would understand her inner conflict far better than some.
They were weapons and tools for their kings-to-be. They belonged at their lords' backs, not in their beds. The distinction was precious, and ironclad, at least for her. As weak as Lan Fan felt for allowing herself to feel jealousy, she envied Hawkeye, for she at least had a foreseeable future when she and her colonel might achieve something like victory, and after it, peace.
Perhaps even love.
There were so many, many ways to love.
"Well," Knox said, finally. "I don't pretend to see it. But I assume you know what you're doing. You're not a fool, girl." He stood and stretched, wincing as his spine cracked, and went to the door. "I'll bring you some dinner later, if you want it."
He hesitated in the hall, hand on the doorknob.
It was a brusque, but sincere mutter. The latch clicked behind him.
Lan Fan closed her fingers tightly in the soft cotton sheets, and kept her eyes on the ceiling, watching the white paint blur. He meant well. Perhaps he did understand, a little, in the end.
"A fool," she echoed, her voice less than a breath. "I am...a fool."
She blinked, and a single tear dripped from her chin, spotting the white bandages that swathed her chest. Ridiculous. Selfish. Unforgivable. She closed her eyes tightly, and no more tears escaped.
No more wandering thoughts. No more foolishness. She breathed in measured counts, the old meditation habits to clear the mind and empty it of thought, to invite inner tranquility. Five in, five held, five out. Her shoulder throbbed steadily in time. Her fingers loosened among the folds of cotton. Five in...five held...five...
The world faded slowly, and with it the pain, and the emptiness...
The sandy earth was warm under her small feet as she ran, laughing as the end of her braid came loose from its pins and slapped rhythmically against her back. The laundry flapped in the breeze, soft rustles like bird wings against the sky.
There would be crying in the courtyards of the younger princesses tonight, while the servants tightened the wrapping around their feet, guiding the young bones to grow inward and become lovely and fragile and useless.
But her feet struck the ground confidently, flat and broad and ugly and strong. There was no careful cultivation of beauty in the women of her father's line. Grandfather was going to train her, and she was going to be brave like him, and wear a wooden mask like him, and keep her prince safe. Mother had explained it all to her. She was his to keep and to command. They would be together for always and always.
Silk and brocade rippled colorful around her, and somewhere a young boy's voice was calling her name, giggling and pleading with her to slow down. Lan Fan stopped immediately, running her fingers along the soft fabric while she waited. The slice of blue sky above them burned brightly in the summer sun, but here among the laundry lines it was shaded and cool.
She could wait as long as her young lord needed. Grandfather approved of that. He said it was her duty.
But he didn't understand.
It had nothing to do with duty at all.