The soldiers carried Rustam to the closest lordly tent. Tien Lyn dismissed the lord's guards with impatience matching Wenjing's and set her soldiers to stand guard outside instead. Herself, she sat by sickbed and watched. Rustam recited tirelessly, but as the afternoon wore off, he started shaking. She gathered every blanket over him, then crawled around the tent to find heating stones to warm in the brazier.
"Do you know what my people do with children like me?" he'd asked watching her work.
Tien Lyn shook her head. To be honest, at this very moment she simply did not care.
"As soon as we manifest, they bring us to the wild country on the edge of the steppe. It is covered by a twisted forest. Beasts roam there, spotted lions, hyenas, and poisonous porcupines. There they set us loose to run free and do what we will."
Tien Lyn added more wood to the burner. She was shivering too.
"I am tired, Lady. Set me loose," Rustam followed her movement with his eyes.
"No," she said, ignoring his glance. "You must stay with me."
"Do you know why Wenjing chose you?" he asked.
"I was there," Tien Lyn said stubbornly. She had had enough of the mages' truths.
Rustam did not relent. "Yu did not tell you then?"
"Told me what?" she bit off the less polite retort, picked the hot stones out of the brazier with tongs, and tacked them around him into the blankets.
Rustam laughed, and she really did not like his laughter. It sounded mad. Fear replaced her anger, and she urged him on, "What did not Yu tell me, Rustam? Why did Wenjing pick me to look after you?"
Rustam stopped laughing, thankfully. "Your qi is perfectly balanced. Focusing on you is as easy as finding the sun at noon on a clear day. You are a crutch to a hsin-mage straying off the path of Understanding, or to an elementalist when he is off balance. Or a gift. A loadstar. Call it whatever you like. We have a hard time letting you go."
Yu had said something similar to her, but there was more to it, far more. "Yu loves me."
"Yu is a demon, Tien Lyn. A good-looking demon if you wish, but still a demon," Rustam's breath caught from the exertion of talking and he coughed out blood. "Now leave! Let me loose."
She wiped his lips and shook her head stubbornly. She could not afford to get mad at him, or to let him die. "When I married Chong Ho on your command, my papers said that my father is Rustam Bei, the Bei of Kazagi people."
"That was an exaggeration," Rustam's face was as unreadable as ever. "My father lost his beiship to a stronger warrior."
His palm was clammy. She kissed it and pressed it against her own wet cheek. "You adopted me as your daughter when Wo Jia wiped out my birth-family, and everyone turned away from us."
"I should have written Bei Tam, it would have sounded more Shen that way..." Rustam's eyelids started slipping down, dangerously heavy.
She raised her voice, fighting to keep his with her, "Father, you are Xi's closest male relation now. You wanted me to give birth to him. Now I need you to live so you can protect him."
He rolled his head back, exhausted, but his eyes opened up, "I wanted to, but I cannot, Daughter. I am losing the thread of Understanding. I am forgetting the words."
"Do you know the 'Cautionary Tale of the Three Ancient Empresses?'"
She was rewarded with a mocking tilt of his brow - he understood her unsophisticated plan. To her relief, he did not dismiss it, starting to recite, "Modest yet cruel was Empress Mei—-"
Tien Lyn whispered along, echoing when his voice was strong, and shouting when he weakened to wake him up, to keep him going. Something deep inside her believed that if he lived through the night, he'd be out of danger. He had to live, he owed it to her to live.
They got through cruel Mei's verses, and then through the wanton Du's. She had never recited that far into the saga before, so she had to invent the lines about duplicitous Luchan.
Rustam's voice dropped to almost nothing, so Tien Lyn had no troubles hearing the commotion outside the tent. She recognized Wenjing's voice, and then the flap opened up. It was almost dark outside. Zhu Zhao's apprentices squeezed inside, followed by the mage himself. The youngsters looked dirty, worn, but awfully pleased with themselves. They pushed forward the reason for their grins: an equally battered faery, her hands bound behind her back.
"Welcome, Acolyte Sayewa," Tien Lyn greeted her coldly.
"It is Sister Sayewa now," the faery corrected her. The four eyes surveyed the tent quickly. She turned to Zhu Zhao. "I am prohibited from healing traitors. I am useless to you."
"The man you betrayed healed without prejudice," Tien Lyn scoffed.
The faery afforded her a speculative look, "He does. So, you should not need me. Tell me, Chong's widow, where is Yu?"
She did not even have to pretend to look dejected: "Yu left us after your attack. You will heal Rustam in payment of your debt to him, Sister."
Sayewa pursed her lips. "I told him the truth. It was his choice to accept the punishment rather than flee."
That lying bitch!
She waited for so long to throw the accusation into the faces of the faery priestesses, that she nearly screamed, "You announced that the Temple found the cure for the Inscrutable Contagion while Yu wasted away in jail!"
"A half-truth is still a truth. Tell the people about Yu. They will only hear 'faeries saved us'." Among all the white flowers in the faery's hair, a single red one started opening up, but withered and fell before blooming. "Do what you will with me. You cannot force the healing hymn out."
Tien Lyn glanced at Rustam, then at the mages. The young ones looked alarmed, but they remained silent. Zhu Zhao frowned. Wenjing poked her head into the tent: "Kill her. The next one we catch can view the mutilated corpse while considering her choices."
"Curse you, you wicked thing without conscience, without empathy," Tien Lyn hissed. Killing Sayewa would not have sated her anger. She wanted the faery to bend to her will, to do what she bided.
Tien Lyn straightened herself up in front of the faery to show that she would not be denied. She was almost a head shorter than the bitch, but she did not care. The words came like an avalanche: "Refuse to heal him, and I will chase your foul race out of the Evershining Empire. I am Gracious Lady Tien Lyn, the Bride to Lord Zha Yao. It was foretold that I will bring the rise of the new dynasty! Once our black banners fly all over the Empire, I will be the Empress, and I shall not rest until your every ritual is banned, and your every Temple is under the Imperial Interdict."
Sayewa dipped her head to one shoulder and closed three out of her four eyes. The asymmetry of it looked so odd, it was impossible not to get distracted by it. "Rustam the Unsworn is a mage, but he is only one man. A dead man maybe. You will not be permitted to break a millennia-old covenant for your vengeance."
"Watch me," Tien Lyn growled. She meant it. She stood to lose Yu, Rustam and Xi, and if she did, there would be nothing left for her but vengeance. Let the Emperors care about covenants.
"Hmm, she might not succeed, but she can do a lot of damage," Zhu Zhao commented absentmindedly, "besides, it is as good time as any for the Temple to start seeking friends among Zha Yao's allies. The battle has gone against you today, Serene Sister. On the morrow, we may crush Wo Jia."
Tien Lyn did not like the expression that swiftly passed over the faery's face. But she did not have time to worry about it. Sister Sayewa offered her bound hands to Tien Lyn. "Very well. As a gesture of good will, I shall heal Rustam the Unsworn. In return, you will walk me unharmed to the edge of your camp. There, you will release me."
Tien Lyn took a knife offered to her by Apprentice Sparrowhawk, and cut the faery's bonds. "Heal him, and I will carry you to Xichon on my back if I have to."
"Pfft," The faery dropped the fur-lined cloak she wore to ward off the winter chill and massaged some life back into her wrists. Tien Lyn had never heard a faery sing on her own, let alone in a tent smelling of sickness, in the middle of the night.