Epilogues: The Fenghuang

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The girl who took charge of them looked like one of the wooden dolls Xi's milk-sister loved so much. She had a round face, shiny hair pulled into tight pigtails and a beatific smile. However, she spoke like someone much older and eerily familiar. "Lady, Master Rustam could be a while. Will you take tea?"

"Yes, please," Tien Lyn told her, watching Xi. Her son settled on a thick carpet with his box of sticks. They were all of equal length and colour, carefully carved for him by Ho's youngest brother. If he does not manifest, the Chongs will take care of him if anything should happen to me, Tien Lyn thought and squeezed the fan. She could not remember the last time she had carried a fan or worn the latest fashions.

Five or six years ago, she would have been beside herself with joy if she had been invited to the Imperial Court for the regnal year festivities. Now it filled her with dread, and her shoes pinched her toes.

Mother has not forgotten me.

She did not want to believe that the absurd accusations levelled against Yu were her mother's doing. Her vengeance was complete, and her ambitions should have been satisfied by the singular position she held at Zha Yao's court. Never before had a woman been appointed as the Chancellor. It must be Weynala again, it must be!

"Mother, observe!" Xi called from his corner. Tien Lyn glanced at the strange structure Xi had constructed from the sticks held together with soft balls of wax. He'd also measured out each pinch of wax to be exactly the same size as his little finger's nail.

"This is very pretty, Xi. What is it?"

Xi looked up at her, his brows furrowed, and his small mouth moving silently. Tien Lyn's heart lurched in her chest. Since Xi started talking, she'd tried to convince herself that he reminded her of Chong Ho with his moody spells and his love of numbers, but since the winter she could not deny that her son's behaviour was more like Rustam's. And she had seen candles light up and go out in Xi's presence too many times to blame it on drafts. And Yu was wrong to fear. Apart from never falling ill, Xi had nothing of him.

Rustam must have heard her question as he marched in with his Senior Apprentice on his heels. Without a word to her, he crouched by Xi's structure.

"It is a symmetry, Tien Lyn. Look."

Rustam pointed out a few sticks and rotated Xi's structure. Tien Lyn did not follow him at all, but the boy beamed up at the Mage.

"Like this!" he corrected Rustam boldly.

"Right you are. My bad!" The mage smiled wider than Tien Lyn had ever seen him smile.

He examined every stick with the boy, then embraced Tien Lyn. "I am happy to see you in good health, Daughter. I will do the scrying."

The senior apprentice who stood politely in the corner with her head bowed, perked up. "May we observe, Master Rustam?"

"Of course, Kestrel. Summon Canary and Blackbird from the Chamber of the Productive Contemplation."

Some things never change.

"May I come as well?" she asked. I want to be present when his fate is decided.

Rustam gave her a strange look, but invited her to follow. His study was a small room that looked even smaller because its walls were hung with carpets, to either make it very quiet or for warmth. Or perhaps it was a barbaric fashion that appealed to some hidden facet of his complex soul.

Save for the carpets, the room contained the familiar map-table, so the free space was barely enough for them all to sit cross-legged around a brazier. The room quickly grew stuffy from the small fire and their breath.

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