Laurel can make the flowers bloom—what a useless talent. It’s never helped him while he was an orphan confined to toil in the muck and murk of the imperial army, until the emperor’s peerless granddaughter snatches him up as a chess piece of her own.
A tool. A scholar. The youngest court official. Under Li Qiuyue’s tutelage, Laurel blooms into the coldest flower of His Majesty’s court.
There’s a way to use his useless talent after all. It’s just thoroughly horrible.
Author’s Note: Hello! I’ve decided to take a crack at serializing fiction. This is the book I’ve been working on lately (to the tune of getting about 50k deep into this world), and I’ve been loving it very much, even as the research has been inspiring, challenging, and maddening at times.
You could call this book my love letter to research. To be honest, you could call it my love letter to a lot of things. Laurel, the star of this book, appeared for the first time in Winter Sun, the third book of the Fragile Tender series set in modern times. As a fey, that makes him very long-lived indeed!
As I wrote Laurel’s story and the way it intersected with Nice’s, I found that I wanted to know more about him. I knew that he wasn’t Chinese, and I knew that he grew up in imperial China. With his age being what it was, he would have grown up in the Song dynasty. Thanks to the (still unpublished) last book in the Fragile Tender series, I also had a name: Li Qiuyue. I wanted to know who Li Qiuyue was to him. I wanted to know a lot of things, and so this book was born.
It takes place in the same world as The Witchblood Heir, set some time after the black and white fey courts have been established in the West, and the phoenix court, the Great Song’s answer to those fey courts, has been established in the East. I’ve had great fun twining history with fantasy. Chinese history is my history, too, and I’ve tried to respect it, and I’ve learned about it with love.
If my research is clumsy sometimes, I hope you’ll forgive it. I’ve tried to do my best, and I’m always still learning.
I think how this is going to work is that I’ll serialize this novel on Wattpad and ScribbleHub (For now. I will likely drop one or the other, depending on how they both do). Patrons will get new chapters a week early.
The Petals Stain the Sheets Like Blood
The Imperial Court of His Majesty Li Tian is a strange administration, at once lax and cutthroat. It’s no stranger for anyone but a young man who goes by Li Yuegui in public and Laurel in private.
The youngest literati adjusts himself in the bronze mirror, fussily checking once again that his robe is fastened correctly. His face looks clean and elegant. From the outside, he doesn’t look nervous at all, but someone who looked closely would notice his lips tightly pursed together. It makes their thin, pale appearance go even more bloodless, bleaching him like a piece of polished jade.
His brows are straight but gentle, the same dark, rich black as freshly ground ink, and his hair hangs in a shining black river down his back where it isn’t bound in a crown on top of his head. His looks are similar enough to the Han people, though his own bloodline is a murkier affair. He remembers his parents dimly, though he thinks his mother had darker olive skin to go with the quick smile on her face.
Laurel inherited none of that, and his ability to blend in with those around him has been nothing but a blessing.
As he stands before the mirror, the rich, gentle blue of his outer silk robe gives him a tranquil feel. He squirms a little and then keeps himself from fidgeting. Still, he isn’t quite used to wearing these clothes, and internally he chides himself for that. He should be by now.
Other people have fathers, brothers, and sisters to congratulate them on this day. Laurel does not. It’s a fact and not an impediment.
With one last look, Laurel takes a deep breath and steps out of his small rented room. The journey to the palace takes him past night merchants hawking their wares on the streets of the capital. He passes a food cart selling youtiao and grilled meat that make his stomach lurch with hunger, their sweet and savory, sumptuous scents following him down the cobblestone streets.
It is still full dark as he makes his way toward the palace for the morning assembly.
The ceremony to confer their new certificates won’t be held until the early afternoon but because of his unique position, Laurel has been summoned to attend the morning gathering. If he had left earlier, there would have been time to fill his stomach, but he chooses to spend his time otherwise instead.
En route to the morning assembly, Laurel stops at a small house on Guai Street. Yellow banners wave just below the eaves of the roof, turned a liquid purple color under the black early morning sky, like the robes of foreign emperors.
A lone servant in a soft-colored beizi answers the door, bowing before showing Laurel inside. The servant’s name is Wang Hua, and they are long familiar with each other.
Wang Hua is a young woman with thick, healthy black hair bound in two pragmatic buns. Like her younger sister, Wang Yuzhu, who is also in Li Qiuyue’s service, she is healthy and handsome. And like her younger sister, she is quiet and discreet and knows the value of that discretion. Wang Hua doesn’t ask Laurel why he’s come, only lets him into the house instead of leaving him standing out in the street.
The house itself is strange—not in its design or existence but in what it houses inside. As an unmarried gongzhu of the emperor’s family, Li Qiuyue is entitled to live in the palace and in fact does have a courtyard of her own in the dwelling she shares with her venerated family. This dwelling, while hardly poor, is well beneath Li Qiuyue’s station, and in fact her residing here is something of a secret.
It’s an ordinary merchant’s house tucked away above a teaware shop in the haunted business district. Li Qiuyue comes here when she wants to conduct her business privately. This is not where Laurel had spent most of his growing years, but there had been nights where he’d stayed here under this merchant house’s auspices, and so it is not unfamiliar to him.
He ducks through the doorway, parting the curtain of beads with his hand to ensure it does not muss his newly done hair. Despite the early hour, the inside of the shop is warm. Charcoal burning in the tea stove wards off the chill that persists through late spring, and a lamp makes the interior glow with a fatty warmth.
“If Li-gongzhu isn’t awake yet, please don’t bother her,” Laurel says as he steps inside out of the chill. “I’m not here about a matter of any import.”
“I will go see,” Wang Hua says in a sedate, measured voice.
Wang Hua hasn’t yet had the opportunity to leave the room before a woman who looks to be in her early thirties, very beautiful but with the bearing of experience and wisdom, makes her way into the room through the door to the upper chamber. She doesn’t look like she’s been sleeping at all. She’s still wearing her day clothes, a fact that makes a very small crease take up residence between Laurel’s brows. She comes down the wooden stairs, trailing her neat white fingers along the banister.
“Laurel. To what do I owe the surprise? You could have waited until later to come see me. You needn’t have come so soon.”
“Shifu.” When Laurel sees her, he bows deeply and respectfully with utmost propriety, not an elbow or knee out of place. “How could I have waited? My glory this day belongs to you.”
Despite chiding him that he ought to have prioritized his rest over coming to see her, his shifu, Li Qiuyue, has a soft and gentle smile on her face.
“Let me look at you, child.”
Li Qiuyue comes near and, contrary to all propriety, takes Laurel’s face between her two slim, cool hands. If it were anyone else, due to his nature, Laurel would not allow it, but it’s his shifu, and so he stands still, only fidgeting a little as he lets her look.
“My jewel from far away,” Li Qiuyue says, clucking her tongue a little wistfully. “You’ve grown so quickly, and you’ve grown up well.”
Laurel feels a little dazed beneath the praise. He swallows heavily, blinking his eyes. When he speaks, his voice is a little rougher than he’d like as he says, “Many thanks, shifu.”
In truth, Laurel has not been in his teacher’s grasp for very long. She had plucked him out of the imperial army when he was twelve, only five short years ago. But her training is hard and rigorous, and she has shaped him into what he ought to be with only five years’ time. That he has grown so much yet aged so little is only a credit to her teachings and methods.
“Shall I pour tea for you before I go?”
Li Qiuyue doesn’t demur, accepting Laurel’s gesture.
Wang Hua boils the water to prepare the tea while Li Qiuyue leads Laurel to be seated at a table.
“Have you given any thought to the matter we discussed?”
The matter they’ve discussed, whether or not Laurel will join the phoenix court. He had been tendered an invitation on shining black vellum paper, the words limned in ink that shone beneath the moon.
“I have,” Laurel says at length. “Of course I will join.”
Li Qiuyue hums, quietly pleased. “It will be good for your growth. The members of the court can teach you things that even I cannot.”
Laurel inclines his head and doesn’t reply.
When the tea is ready, he shakes his wrist once to let the long, voluminous sleeves of his new court robes fall back. With one slim white hand, he reaches out, grasping the teapot by its slender, ornate handle and pouring first for Li Qiuyue and then for himself. Looking at him, it’s hard to tell that he is not the elegant young master of the Li family, that line’s pride and joy, shining like a polished jewel.
“Shifu, you must sleep. Have you been up all night again?”
She waves him off. “Don’t be a mother hen.”
Li Qiuyue looks straight ahead, placidly unbothered like she hadn’t heard. They sip their tea. The morning is bitterly cold with the kind of humid mist that wants to settle into one’s bones and make them cold, too. Even in the warmth of his master’s home, the chill still hasn’t dissipated from Laurel’s narrow frame. The stiff bite of the teacup against his fingers forces some life into them, staining his fingertips red from the heat, and so they remain when Li Qiuyue reaches out her hand to pick up Laurel’s.
Casual touch between men and women is impolite, and Laurel does not like to be touched. But Li Qiuyue is not just any women to him. She is his teacher, and so he doesn’t startle or feel any kind of distaste at the touch. He waits patiently as he allows Li Qiuyue to turn his hand over.
First, she checks his pulse, pressing two fingers to the guan point on his wrist, feeling for the flow of qi through his heart channel. She doesn’t share her findings with him, instead folding them up and keeping them to herself. She has told him to be cautious, this rigid and brittle disciple of hers. His heart is so inflexible, and perhaps that’s her doing.
Li Qiuyue has often been accused of being heartless herself. It isn’t true, but how is she to teach a disciple how to have a heart tenderer than she herself has?
It might have been different had Laurel been born softhearted in the first place, but he was not, and perhaps it was for the better. Iron may sharpen iron, but perhaps she would have punctured a tender young boy to death.
Looking at him now in the warm glow of the lamps before morning, his strong, clear gaze and lucid countenance, it’s hard to feel that she’s done badly. She feels warmth for Laurel, her student. Truly, she is proud of him.
“Would you like me to read your fortune?” Li Qiuyue asks him casually. It is the first time she has ever offered.
Li Qiuyue is very famous for her fortunetelling skills, although she offers them seldom and selectively. When Laurel had asked after it in his thirteenth year, curious as all young boys are curious about their futures, Li Qiuyue had rebuffed him, telling him that it wasn’t good for children to be overly curious about what their futures hold. He doesn’t know, still, if Li Qiuyue had taken him under her wing because of portent she had read in his fate.
Having been rebuffed once, he did not ask again, and now it’s being offered to him like a sweet on a tray.
“Most exam hopefuls have their fortunes read before the examination begins, not after the results have been announced.”
“Are you most?” Li Qiuyue drawls.
Laurel nods to Li Qiuyue, who still holds his upturned palm the way that some people hold precious things, a signal to let her do as she will. She tilts his palm toward her in the light, casting an impassive eye over the grooves in his palm.
The signs of Laurel’s early life as a military conscript have long since melted away, leaving his hands neat and unblemished, without the harshness of calluses. The lines on his palms can tell her the things they could tell any half-baked fortuneteller. The line of his intellect is long and rigid, and there is love in the child’s future, starting late and flowing tumultuously. Li Qiuyue notes all these signs and then discards them, instead drawing on a thin tendril of her qi and feeding it into Laurel’s palm in a width as thin as a thread. It sparks like bright gold lightning in the brief instant where it passes through the air, white limned with the gold of fireworks in the sky.
Laurel starts slightly, but it doesn’t hurt, and he quickly settles, holding still to allow Li Qiuyue to do her reading.
She doesn’t let her eyes fall closed but instead keeps them open, sifting through impressions that must themselves be interpreted. As she does, Laurel lets his gaze rest lightly on her face. Though some years have passed, Li Qiuyue looks no different than she had on that day that she fetched him from the Jin border. She is just as beautiful and lively, and despite her poor sleep schedule, it seems like even exhaustion cannot touch her.
Laurel notices, then calms his mind, forcing his gaze down to rest on the table, on his palm where it’s covered in the warm lamplight.
When she’s finished, she releases Laurel’s hand, and he takes it back, rubbing his palm slightly with the fingers of his other hand. He speaks before Li Qiuyue has a chance to.
“To have had my fate read by you is one of the great fortunes of my life.” Then he firmly says, “But to reveal it to me is unnecessary.”
“You truly don’t want to know?” Li Qiuyue asks. “Knowing that I’ve offered it to you. This isn’t a test, child. It is an opportunity and one you knowingly pass up?”
Laurel shakes his head and smiles. The smile is wider than usual, and it makes his already beautiful face look very lovely. When he makes that expression, he looks more his age. “I don’t need to know. It’s enough that you do.”
“Ha. Brat,” she says affectionately. Li Qiuyue smiles, too.
She inclines her head, acquiescing to his request without further ado. They drink their tea, and Li Qiuyue metes out bits of advice. Much of it Laurel has heard before, but some of it bears reminding. Some of it is new. She gives him what helpful knowledge she can of her grandfather’s court, and then the topic of conversation turns.
“Don’t be too much of a loner. It’s alright in the imperial court to keep to yourself, but in Her Majesty’s phoenix court, you have to make more of an effort.”
“Yes, shifu,” Laurel says with a bowed head.
She sighs inwardly. This one is stubborn and unyielding, no matter what a slick tongue he has.
Laurel doesn’t stay for much longer after that. It wouldn’t do to be late, as both of them well know, and Li Qiuyue doesn’t try to hinder him. His early morning visit was unsurprising yet not required of him. He can take his leave as he will.
Laurel pauses at the door after politely excusing himself. He debates it in his mind before speaking his question aloud.
“Shifu, did you take me on as your disciple because of something you read in my fate?”
Li Qiuyue studies her student’s face by the door. Before the beaded curtain, his face is shaded interestingly, cutting a dramatic picture—dark and light. The deep blue of his new official’s robes suits him strangely. He looks more severe and grown up, even with a baby face. He’d be young for his position even if he was the 20-year-old that they claim. At the age of 17, it’s outrageous.
Li Qiuyue replies, “Of course not. I don’t need to read your fortune to see your talent. Simple things are self-evident.”
Laurel nods with his serious eyes and takes his leave.
After he goes, Li Qiuyue lingers downstairs, sitting by the window. She pours herself another cup of tea. The downstairs windows are all shaded to prevent people from looking into her dwelling, but the tops are open to the air, and through them, Li Qiuyue can see the dark night sky and a sliver of moon. Wang Hua attends her silently, keeping unobtrusively off to the side as she begins her preparations for the morning meal.
Li Qiuyue doesn’t pity Laurel, not his youth nor his inexperience nor the difficulties that are sure to come of both. Secretly, she is pleased with his decision, and her shapely lips curl into the smile of the cat who got the cream. Wang Hua, who knows her master well, observes her from across the room while she goes about her work, chopping spring onions and simmering the pot of jook on the stove.
Life should belong to the living. What’s buried in fate—in the stars, in the heavens—what concern is it of any of them down below?
She takes a slim strip of paper from her robe and holds it in two fingers over the candle, watching its paper body turn to ash, into thick, wisping smoke that carries the scent of oil, twining like a snake before finally blowing away and dissolving on the air.
She only lets go when the paper is almost all spent, drawing her fingers back in the instant before the burn.