"Ancestors, Yu, I didn't mean to... " Tien Lyn stuttered, then grew angry again, but not with Yu, naturally. "Forget his stupid songs!"

"Bah! My songs will outlive—" Jiang got cut off by Tien Lyn's ice-cold glare.

Yu looked like he was about to sap his qi, or somebody's qi at any rate.

So much for relieving the tension!

"Yu, I have seen the way the demons looked at you. It was not friendly," she was begging now. "The Blood will tear you apart."

He squared his shoulders and looked at her. "I know."

She gaped for a moment, but before she could answer, Yu's hands flew towards her pleadingly. He pushed the hair out of his face, exposing his eyes to the world. They burned darkly against the pallid skin. "If I bring the demon horde to our aid, it might count for something. If I stay, there is nothing for me here."

Yu sat down where he was standing, still looking up at the girl imploringly.

Jiang winced. He knew the feeling all too well, of not having the price of what you wanted. Should he tell the young fool that if Zha Yao became the Emperor, and wanted Tien Lyn, all the heroics in the world would not be enough? He could quote the relevant examples from history. And, it was one of these rare occasions when his heart kept his mouth shut.

Tien Lyn ended the argument instead, by unpinning her hair. The morning wind picked at a few dark strands, pulled them apart, sent them flying away from her face. She pressed it down with her palms and turned to captain Zyed, "Do you have a moment, Captain?"

"Yes, precious?" The older women leaned in to listen to the younger one. Tien Lyn lowered her voice to a whisper so nobody would hear her request, but along with the rest of the crew and the seagulls, and maybe a few coastal villages, Jiang had no troubles catching captain Zyed's response.

"Of course," she boomed and disappeared down the ladder. She returned almost immediately with a length of gold-and-silk thread. Her calloused hands deftly braided it into Tien Lyn's hair, making a skinny black-and-golden plait, just like the ones the captain and her crew were wearing.

Jiang could have sworn that every woman on board was itching to lend a hand with Tien Lyn's new hairdo. But the girl politely declined the offers of having her entire head braided with the three-and-thirty plaits. Apparently, she only needed one, and even that - just temporary. She grabbed her new plait tightly and then sawed it off with a knife, right at the roots. Even the men gasped, ancestors only know why. It was just hair.

Tien Lyn looked around shyly, her eyes begging for privacy.

Captain Zyed barked out an order, and the crew turned back to their business, though, just like Jiang, they all kept stealing glances at the drama. Well, he was staring actually, because captain Zyed was not his master and commander.

The girl knelt in front of Yu, and took his hand. Wordlessly, she pushed up his sleeve, and started wrapping the plait around the boy's wrist. It took quite a few revolutions to accomplish, his wrists were so slim. The whole time Yu alternated between trying to say something and thinking better of it.

Tien Lyn tied off the ends. "Think of me, Yu. Come back."

Yu fiddled with the new bracelet before promising: "I will."

She turned away hastily, her shoulders giving away a sob and fled down the ladder. Yu crawled into a corner like a guilty puppy.

"A strange story, no?" Captain Zyed slipped from the rigging squarely in front of Jiang. "Even for your people?"

Jiang felt a pang of guilt: "I am the unwitting cause of this heartbreak. It is my song that binds her to Zha Yao in the eyes of the nation."

"My precious, you're in a good company," Zyed's medallions jingled merrily, but her laughter was nowhere near melodious. "I am taking the wretched boy to see the demons on Master Finch's orders."

So Finch did arrange this fool's errand. Well, it is prudent to send the boy away, Jiang thought and muttered, "Ancestors, I hate being old and cynical."

Captain shrugged. "There is no remedy for it, anywhere. I've looked."

He winked at her. "But if Yu succeeds, I'll pay to see the mage's face."

"I'll double it." Captain Zyed rose her eyes to the infinite skies. "May His many breaths help the one who wanders."

How the winds could possibly aid Yu, Jiang did not know, but it was a nice sentiment. The Celestials would take issue with the nature of the boy's mission, so he invoked the ancestors. Of course, some of them were demons in Yu's case, so... he shook his head in resignation. It was better not to overthink this.

***

For the benefit of the small crowd gathered at the docks to meet the 'Waverunner', Jiang wished that the three of them would have vaulted over the ship's side, and thundered their way up the docks, towards the waiting horses. Then they would have galloped away, leaving the spectators in the dust...

It did not work out.

Finch did leap, and thundered, then ended up sitting his mount bravely, watching Tien Lyn's and his slow progress. After these many days at sea, Jiang himself waddled like a dazed goose, and Tien Lyn went at a crawl. Her lack of speed was not all due to readjusting to the dry land under her feet. The girl tried her very best to compensate for the lack of eyes at the back of her head by craning her neck continuously.

"Should I hold your hand so you can walk backward? We'll move faster that way," Jiang whispered. Tien Lyn ignored him, trying to catch yet another glimpse of Yu back on the ship.

At least the road was dry and dusty, and they left a satisfying plume of dust in their wake.

They rode hard and spoke little. The escort hardly had time to procure more cloaks and blankets in the village they passed. They were catching up with the last of the winter as they rode inland. Zha Yao's camp even had a few patches of untrampled snow left, and the troops lit fires for warmth. He was heartened by the number of the fires, despite the winter campaign. The nation did rally under Zha Yao's black banners.

Jiang was ready to find himself a cozy place by the fires, and a bowl of rice wine, but they'd dismounted to the impatient tapping of an adolescent foot. The foot's owner waved the other grooms to take their horses away and cleared his throat: "Lord Zha Yao is requesting your-- Demons farts! Just come along, everyone's been waiting for you."

He inwardly cursed the omniscient mages and their birds, but followed Finch and Tien Lyn to Zha Yao's fire: his nose smelled a story in the making, more delicious than food.

AN: Thank you so much for reading this far! I swear, we are getting near the end, and, well, we are not out of the woods with the romances yet. Shan Jiang continues his story on Wednesday. It will have a love scene, but it is really mild, I swear. 

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