Lian felt the silence of the two children on her flanks as a chill, like some sort of illness that had crept into her bones and set them aching.
Quan's silence she'd expected – she knew him well enough to understand when he needed time to think – but the quiet still stung because of its origin. At sixteen he was carrying the weight of philosophical arguments that had been debated for thousands of years. Except they were not just arguments, they were real consequences to his very real actions. She'd attempted to prepare him for the realities of his powers for years now, and the Keepers had done even more, but she knew from experience there was no preparation for taking his first life. That was why his silence gnawed within her: its familiarity. She'd longed for the same silence when the voice and face of the first man she'd murdered had echoed in her head.
Fen's silence was surprising. The night before they'd spoken for hours. Very little of the conversation was about the battle, or her father, or any of the other topics Lian had assumed the young woman would want to discuss. Instead she asked about Zhosian, about the beliefs of the Tiendu Shu, and about life as a Shuli Go. Fen's voice had been neutral, inquisitive. When they did touch on the events of the past few days, she was quiet and thoughtful. It was only at the end, as Fen fought against a series of yawns, that she finally came around to the topic at hand.
"I owe you an apology," she said.
"No you don't," Lian replied. "You had every right to be angry at me. You still do."
"Not for that," Fen yawned again. "For the way I treated Quan."
"Oh," Lian was confused. "Well, perhaps you should apologize to him."
"I will. But I can see the way you care for him. You must have been angry at me on his behalf. You're a good mother to him, even if he is adopted."
Lian's voice caught in her throat. She forced herself to swallow and reply. "Well, I do love him. Even if he is adopted."
Fen smiled, her entire face tired. But she had more to say. "I can't remember my mother. And my father refused to remarry. He always said he only had room for one girl in his home. Right before he was… hurt, I remember thinking that he should move on. That I was going to be a woman soon and there'd be room for another girl in his life then. I never got the chance to tell him that."
Lian finally felt a desire to console the young woman. She didn't dare, but still the desire was there, surprising but warm. "You still can."
"He'll move on soon, I'm sure," Fen admitted, then yawned again, the loudest of the night. "And I should too. Good night, Madam Zhao."
"Goodnight, Madam Xue."
Their conversation vibrated inside Lian's chilled body on the silent march to Brilliant River Valley. And just like the spell she had used against Kalsang, the conversation's vibration amplified into a deafening roar when they reached the village.
Tan, Fen's brother, was standing at the entrance to the village, his face distorted under the weight of long carried tears. At first Lian thought they were tears of joy for Fen's safe return. But as Fen disembarked off her horse and limped towards her brother, her face distorted as well, and instantly the size and shape of the weight that had crushed Tan to tears was made clear.
"Father," they took turns saying, over and over, as if the word could bring him back.
The magistrate explained it to Lian as Quan helped the peasants with the supplies and remaining prisoners. Fen's father had developed a fever the night they'd left, and it quickly worsened. By the next night the fever had run away from all their attempts to calm it, and he began to struggle to breathe. His stools turned to liquid, then blood, and the night before, just as Fen and Lian were talking by firelight, he'd passed away.
Fen and Tan knelt in each other's arms where they'd met, both of them wailing. Lian ordered Quan to retrieve the goods they were to sell in Daming, then left a few coins with the magistrate. "We should go," she told the magistrate.
"These are what's left. When Li Jie arrives, he can tell you more. But they won't bother you anymore."
"Thank you, madam Shuli Go."
Lian smiled, then helped Quan pack their goods. The magistrate collected the children, leading them into the village and their father's body.
"We can't stay and help?" Quan asked.
"What kind of help did you have in mind?"
Of course there was none, and Quan saw that quickly enough.
"They need some space, and time to mourn," Lian added. "We'd only get in the way."
Lian finished packing the third horse and mounted her own animal. They were half a week behind schedule and many of the goods the Zhosians had sent for sale would either start to spoil or go down in price if they delayed any further. Plus she wanted to be on her way. She'd had enough of small villages and their problems, both big and small. She wheeled her horse around and caught Quan still staring at the village, at Fen, she realized. Whatever she'd done to the young man, she hadn't done enough to get herself entirely off of Quan's mind. Lian smiled.
"Come on. Let's go."
Quan nodded, climbed onto his horse, and they set off, the day nearly over. They would camp under the stars, and in a few days their worries about daughters, fathers, and bandits would be pushed out by fears of the big city, and its half a million inhabitants all teeming with their own worries, two of which would be a Shuli Go and her son.