A Hairbreadth

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Jiang watched Finch perform his breathing and focusing routines for so long that he started breathing in time with him. He counted yawning as a masterful improvisation on the mage's rhythm. Finally, Finch's palms did the last powerful push from the core of his being to the universe or whatnot, and he seized his moment.

"Have you read the letters, Mage?"

"I am the Senior Mage-Apprentice, and yes, I did," Finch replied. "They are as valuable to our cause as you've said."

"Wonderful!" Jiang exclaimed. Zha Yao could be the most decent fellow wanting to sit in the Empire's biggest chair, but he did not stick his neck out because he cared for him. "Are the letters worth Aynu's price to you?"

Finch stroked his drooping mustache. "Shan Jiang, I have told you before that Apprentice Darting Swallow is not bound to us with silver. And she won't be bound by it to you either."

He'd put these words to music and sing it to the mages once he was through with them.

"Everything has a price, and everyone."

"You will be paid, and Darting Swallow is free to speak to whomever she wishes," Finch shrugged off his objections, "But prepare to be disappointed, Jiang."

Jiang grinned. "That's all I ask for, Senior Mage Apprentice."

The mages needed to learn how to deal with disappointment themselves, and stop using silly bird names.

Finch ignored him and unfolded his map-and-wax kit, this time for the mainland, not the Islands. Jiang stayed to watch the wax figurines take their places on the enchanted map, and did not regret it. "Ancestors! Zha Yao is on the move!"

"Tell everyone to get some sleep. There won't be much rest for any of us until we catch up to the army."

He did not mind obeying sensible commands, and slept like the righteous man he wasn't, until Yu shook him awake. "We'll be docking soon."

"Why, you look like you did not catch a wink." Who could blame the boy? Demons and women would rob anyone of sleep. Ancestors, women alone were enough. "Will you be able to keep up, friend?"

Yu uncurled his fingers and stared at the hollowed-out tooth in his palm. Then he squeezed the accursed thing again so tightly that his knuckles turned white. Jiang expected it to snap, but by some miracle, it did not.

"I am not going with you. Captain Zyed is taking me back out to sea," Yu said at last.

Behind them, Tien Lyn exhaled, "No."

The young man dipped his head guiltily, and Jiang caught a panicked blink just before the bangs fell down to hid his eyes. From behind the safety of his hair, Yu argued weakly, "On land Zha Yao is a force to be reckoned with. But what does he have to oppose Wo Jia's fleets? There is but one way to destroy the Emperor at sea."

"It's Finch talking, not you!" Tien Lyn insisted.

He did not think she was wrong.

Yu shook his head miserably. "It's the only way to destroy Jung Hwa and Gao."

"That's me talking, not you. Do not listen to me either, please, never again!" Tien Lyn exclaimed. "I am still sick of forcing you to... to do whatever you had to do to save Xi."

Were Jiang anything but a singer, he'd had made his excuses by now. But the lovers' quarrels were full of drama, and this particular one was even more fascinating than most given its subject.

"What do you think I did?!" Yu looked ready to cry. "Oh, go on. Tell it in front of the singer. Maybe he'll write a song so potent that it will get me a high-born bride."

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