He wanted to be a dancer. It was a girl from a travelling troupe, barely older than him, who’d given him his first fan. Xichen remembers sitting under the shade of a camphor tree, the beat of drums like thunder on a clear summer’s day. The ground shook beneath his cushion. Tea on the table, Huaisang at his elbow, trying not to fidget as he sat back on his heels. But once the dancers started twirling, he had grown still, so still and sweetly silent. Xichen remembers even things he wishes he could forget, like the way Huaisang’s hands trembled when he held a saber for the first time, and how differently he had held that fan.
I’m not sorry. That’s what he would have said, if he were the sort to say things out loud. But Huaisang was always the kind of boy to babble only about things that didn’t matter, in the end, and he has grown now into the kind of man whose songbirds do more talking than he does, who speaks only as much and as softly as he needs to, and whose murmur sometimes has the tang of candied orange peels from a shallow dish. I’m not sorry. Huaisang doesn’t say that. Instead, when Xichen tells Sizhui that yes, he will see Sect Leader Nie, and Huaisang takes that first quiet step across the threshold into the Hanshi, it is Xichen who speaks first.
Once, they had grieved together, side by side, but also separately, for grief is not the sort of thing to be be spread across the altar like a scorched tapestry. Grief is the cave that holds the altar. The smoke from burnt offerings and joss sticks fills every crevice all around them, a thick, choking cloud that escapes from between their palms when they bring hands together in prayer. Huaisang’s knuckles, pale and sweaty. His shoulders hunched but back straight, unnaturally straight, like he fears his older brother might rise from the grave to rap his head with the flat edge of a saber and bark at him to stand like a proper man. Xichen, his eyes open, watching Huaisang’s mouth set in a stubborn line. Later, in his solitude, he will draw his grief in gentle strokes of deep black ink, roll up the scroll, and feed it to the candles at night.
Hello, Huaisang, he says, and looks up from the ashes at his feet.
That is enough.
There is a gravity to this boy’s face when he thinks no one is watching. This is not a song Xichen can play on his xiao. Liebing might have split in two, a crack so fine it could trap a strand of fallen hair. This is a song for Shuoyue. It is the elegiac tenor of a sword drawing sorrow from the air, a blade that passes soundlessly through clouds. That there is no blood doesn’t mean either the blade or the clouds emerge unscathed.
And Huaisang does not smile, does not say he doesn’t know. He draws a fan from his robe, snow-white, his sleeve sweeping gracefully, as if he might dance for Xichen.