His shoulder exploded. A lance of white-hot ice cored through his body. The muscles in his chest screamed and clenched and flew apart, and he must have screamed, too, but his throat had locked. Jiu Meng clutched with red, slipping fingers at the arrow buried in his shoulder as the world spun around him.
Then the arrow was in his hand, feathered shaft bloodied by his hand—no, that was wrong, he thought, but thoughts were slipping, too. The battle roared around him, but at a distance. His men had closed ranks around him.
White fists grabbed his horse's reins and Zan's face was moving, but Jiu Meng couldn't hear anything. "No," he said, quite distinctly, and Zan's eyes had just enough time to widen before Jiu Meng kicked his horse back into the fray, lashing out with hooves and head and heavy flanks.
Then a vast flatness of green spread above him, and he breathed—labored, slow, shallow gulps—seven times before he recognized the ceiling of his tent. Soft cushions held him up half-sitting. His shoulder continued to scream, though he could feel clean bandages around it. Someone had loosed his hair and it clung damply to his face, and he turned an inch—all he could manage—to his right.
"Zan," he said.
Zan was there.
"You won it," Zan affirmed. Something was different. Zan's clothes were different. He wore simple white, not even the minimal armor he'd had to wear in the battle. Jiu Meng did not know how much time had passed. "You scattered them like water. Your horse is unhurt and has been tended to."
Jiu Meng closed his eyes. His shoulder throbbed—pounded—with every heartbeat. Every heartbeat flooded his body with shivering weakness. And hurt.
"It is past nightfall," he heard Zan say, answering the question he hadn't asked. The whisper of silk robes announced his departure. "I'll tell the physicians you woke."
Jiu Meng's silence was his assent, but as Zan's footsteps moved away, he said, "Send for Gou Zi."
Zan didn't say anything, but Jiu Meng could feel the man's eyebrows rise at him. He would have blushed had he enough blood left in his veins.
Another rustle of clothing marked Zan's bow, and Jiu Meng added, "Send her through the back."
He wasn't so weak he could forget his station.
No time seemed to pass between Zan's exit and the girl's clumsy, unpleasing entrance. She was too loud, this angry peasant cook, too graceless and gauche and honest. He heard her swallow from across the tent as she took in his condition, and it annoyed him.
It was enough for him to raise his head from the pillows to look at her.
She remembered to bow. Late—she should have pressed forehead to ground as soon as she entered—but no one had seen, and no one was there to see as she lifted her plain, sun-darkened face to meet his gaze. No one heard her say, "You sent for me?" all unaware of her outrageous impropriety.
He didn't answer her, though, and she grew visibly uncomfortable under his regard. "Did you want something to eat?" she asked when the silence was too much for her, and then she gathered her feet under her, saying, "I'll go—"
He pushed himself up almost as quickly as she rose. Much too quickly. The arrow wound shrieked, and even if he had stayed silent before, this time he heard himself make a noise, a grunt cut off mid-way that sounded even more pained than a full one.
And then she was at his side, so close he could smell her, and she didn't smell like perfume or silk or even dirt. She smelled like rain.
"What do you think you're doing? You can't sit up like that, you'll hurt yourself!" Jiu Meng couldn't focus on her eyes, but all her dark brown worry was caught in her voice. Dark brown and red. She was always so angry. "Stop this right now—"
She touched the loose sleeve of his robe and she realized her mistake, but he caught her before she could draw back. His hand clamped on her wrist and she jumped, but when he reached for her with his other arm—no matter that his shoulder screamed, no matter that his body jerked with the agony—she rushed forward again to keep him from falling. She caught him and he held to her, and her breathing was fast and loud in his ear.
He thought to take her, strip the clothes he'd given her from the body that panted against him. But he just pressed his fevered face against her neck and filled himself with her clean rain smell. Eventually, wordlessly, she lowered them both to the bare tent floor, and Jiu Meng fell asleep as the most trembling brush of a finger moved his hair from his cheek.