The Price of Reason (1 of 2)

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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—-"

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