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“What is that?” Yuán Fāng asks the first time that a small, unfamiliar form creeps behind Professor Water Mirror when he enters the room, half clutching at half hiding behind the old man’s robes. He spits the that in a way that could very well be used for a stray animal that had managed to sneak in. Great bright eyes stare at him, too bright, too wise for the child’s soft little face.

Water Mirror is unmoved. “That is your new classmate,” he says.

“What do I need a classmate for?” Yuán Fāng demands, although he knows the answer already. He would not be much of a genius if he did not. He wishes that Water Mirror had eyes that he could look into.

“No student is so wise that he can learn nothing from others,” the old man answers him smoothly. He nudges the small boy forward with a coarse old hand on his back. “Introduce yourself.”

The boy looks up at Yuán Fāng with a depth of earnestness that only small boys and old ministers can show. He puts his hands together in front of his chest, and bows deeply, while Yuán Fāng realizes that there is a difference of no more than three years between them, probably less. “Surname Xún, given name Yù, from Yǐngchuān,” he says perfectly, without a hint of stutter. “It’s an honor to have the talent of the Yuán clan as my shīxiōng.”

Yuán Fāng is a genius, but he is also young; it’s a few years yet before he learns not to hate children for the decisions of old men, or to hear words like lovely flowers and search for the thorns underneath. But Xún Yù teaches him much of this lesson, and he never really forgets. He remembers that little boy even years later, when they’re both men on horseback, going for each other’s throats.

~*~

The second time, it really may well be a stray animal that Professor Water Mirror brings into the house: a lean little creature from Liángzhōu, his speech thick with a Western accent and the smell of horses lingering in his long hair long after it’s been washed and bound up. He doesn’t need the nudging; he steps forward all on his own and meets his new classmates’ eyes level as he introduces himself as Jiǎ Xǔ. He is eleven years old, and there’s something sharp about him, something cruel.

Yuán Fāng, resigned, thinks he’ll like this one better; better than the soft-eyed, soft-spoken, peaceful Xún Yù, who recites the Analects to himself when unsure or nervous. He thinks the same when he sees the child’s hawkish eyes boring into his teacher at every lesson, so hard that even blind Water Mirror must feel them. But time passes and nothing happens: the hawk never dives from his circling.

Jiǎ Xǔ learns quickly: learns to bow low, to speak neatly, to support his every argument with the words of the appropriate sage. He never contradicts his teacher to his face, never questions a word that he’s taught. He only tells Xún Yù, in secret – never Yuán Fāng, but Yuán Fāng has ears to hear – I believe in Tengri, in the Blue Heaven. In the heavens, it’s always darkest before dawn.

Xún Yù – soft, peaceful Xún Yù – argues, but neither of them ever speaks of it to Yuán Fāng. Classmate or not, he will always be First to them, always be nearer to Water Mirror than to his fellow students. Even they, who should be as wise as he is, make assumptions.

He learns that lesson too. He learns it well.

~*~

It’s another year before the third time, and none of them meets Water Mirror’s fourth student on his arrival. He comes borne in a litter and spends the first week shut in his own room, weak from the journey and very ill. “Guō Jiā will come when he is able,” Professor Water Mirror says, and hears nothing more of the subject. “He will catch up, and you are not to bother him.”

But they are boys, and very bright boys who are insatiably curious. The next day they already discover what wing the new student lives in, and that very night, Jiǎ Xǔ goads Xún Yù into sneaking in, and Yuán Fāng follows, he hardly knows why. Guō Jiā is already waiting for them, grinning on his bed. He is not, it turns out, half as ill as any man within the school supposes; he has a cough, and has decided to use it to study his new home before any of the other bright boys within could study him.

Jiǎ Xǔ, innately built for such conniving, is immediately impressed by this strategy and the two strike up a fast friendship that very night. It leaves Yuán Fāng faintly grateful and Xún Yù forlorn, although the two younger boys have nothing but sincere respect for him. For all of his third classmate’s Liángzhōu rebelliousness, it’s Guō Jiā who really brings noise and play and boyhood into the school. He and Jiǎ Xǔ are a team of fair hellions, and Xún Yù grows cunning and frighteningly bold in resisting them. Yuán Fāng scoffs at all this. Sitting at his study and reading, he glances out the window to see Guō Jiā in frantic flight from the kitchens, laughing with his armful of treats; and Xún Yù in hot pursuit, picking his route to cut the younger boy off; and Jiǎ Xǔ already in waiting a floor above with a smirk and a bucket of water; and thinks, are these the ones that Master thinks will stop me?

In the end, Guō Jiā breaks free, of course, while Xún Yù and Jiǎ Xǔ clash, and stumbles into Yuán Fāng’s study weak in the knees and coughing up a storm. When Yuán Fāng rushes to attend him, the boy offers him a sweet bun.

“I took an extra one – “ he wheezes, “for your trouble.”

“You’ll kill yourself with one of those tricks,” Yuán Fāng tells him bluntly, and Guō Jiā grins at him.

“You won’t care,” he says.

He’ll be first, Yuán Fāng decides then, and the decision stays with him as the boy grows, as all three boys grow. He will have to be the first, or else... and he never completes that thought.

~*~

The fifth student comes to them already almost grown. He introduces himself not just as Zhōu Yú, but also as Gōngjǐn, and as the sworn brother of Sūn Cè, son of Hàn’s loyalist Sūn Jiān. Whether those words fool anyone, Yuán Fāng doesn’t know. He wonders for a while why Water Mirror would take in a student with his loyalty already given, fully forged, but then remembers that it isn’t so much a question of who for as it is who against.

Zhōu Yú can play the flute and qín and likes to compose music. He is a poet, a hunter, a warrior and a master of formations and quick savage warfare. His mind is like wildfire in battle, like hearth fire at rest. For a long time he holds himself apart from the other boys, but he is the closest that Yuán Fāng comes to a friend in Water Mirror’s house. The purposes are opposite but the passion is the same. It is good to have one who is the same as him.

Yuán Fāng looks at a map of the Eastern region, and begins to worry.

But with time, as they grow closer, Zhōu Yú starts to speak of Sūn Cè. His eyes brighten when he does, even brighter than the spark of intelligence always in them. His smile becomes open with pride, with expectation. He speaks of the things they will do, not might do. “He waits for me,” Zhōu Yú says. “He only waits for me to come back from here.”

Guō Jiā tangles flowers in Zhōu Yú’s hair the next day when the other youth lies dozing in the sun; it can’t be on any purpose, Yuán Fāng knows. But when he sees it the golden oriole leaps on him from behind, who for and not who against, and when next he looks at the map of the Eastern region, he is as coldly confident as he has ever been.

~*~

Water Mirror’s sixth student arrives at the school one day in the deep of winter, when the world is snow-silent and as peaceful as it might ever be. Within two days of his arrival, Zhōu Yú’s flute is somehow modified to only make squeaky wails that call every dog in the school; the bounty of Guō Jiā’s latest kitchen raid almost kills him for spiciness; Jiǎ Xǔ wakes with his long hair done up like a lady of the court’s; none of Xún Yù’s books will open; and Yuán Fāng catches the boy halfway through loosening the stitches on his best trousers.

“You thought we wouldn’t know it was you?” he asks, incredulous. “We are Water Mirror’s five geniuses.”

Páng Tǒng shrugs. “I like a challenge.”

Yuán Fāng once thought that he will never know a worse child than Guō Jiā; but Páng Tǒng makes the King of Decisions look as tame as his second upperclassman. He is the first, the only one among them who likes chaos for its own sake. He comes in like a winter storm and upends everything in his path.

“Then what are you going to do?” he asks one day in the summer, when all of them sit in the shade and for the moment study nothing but the clouds. “We’ll all have to choose our lords someday, and we sure won’t all choose the same man.”

“Shut up, Sixth,” Jiǎ Xǔ says pleasantly, and Zhōu Yú throws his hat at Páng Tǒng with uncanny aim despite the breeze. They lie back, and Xún Yù reads, half distracted, from his book:

“Strategy, as they say, amounts to only one type…”

“You think we wouldn’t know it’s you?” he tells Yuán Fāng the day after he has gotten his tattoo, and his black eye shimmers and swallows the light. “A diminution tactic? We’re your classmates.”

“I like a challenge,” Yuán Fāng answers him, distractedly, and forgets.

~*~

“Another one?” Jiǎ Xǔ wonders aloud when Professor Water Mirror comes into the room with a small, unfamiliar form half a step behind him. Zhōu Yú looks on with critical eyes, and Páng Tǒng leans forward to peer at the child. Xún Yù offers a sweetly polite smile, while Guō Jiā laughs.

“Hoo! Being a student of Water Mirror’s doesn’t feel special anymore.”

Yuán Fāng looks on from behind them, over their shoulders; though they have all grown since each of them first arrived, he is still the eldest and tallest among them. He has no need to step forward or push for his place. He can look past it all.

The new boy is small for his age, a slip of a thing, and Yuán Fāng cannot get a good look of his face, only his sharp eyes. But all their eyes are sharp. He is silent as he steps forward, perhaps shy, perhaps polite. There’s brittleness about him, Yuán Fāng thinks, a child’s frailty. He is not very earnest, not very wild, not playful, nothing near grown, and quiet.

He puts his hands together and bows to them. “Zhūgě Liàng, of Yángdū,” he says, and that is all he says.

The others crowd about and look on, they ask questions and speak together, and do all the things that are expected of them to do and that they do every day. But the child looks past them all, and his eyes meet Yuán Fāng’s across the room. A child’s eyes, bright and clear with open, ferocious purpose.

And Yuán Fāng reels, almost as if struck. He almost stumbles back and his hand falls to the wall for support. He struggles to breathe as something presses down on his chest, his ribs, his heart, and pushes, and pushes, a weight that blazes into being as though it had not actually been there for years, as though it had not been there from the beginning.

He whirls around and flees from the room full of people who live only to destroy him.

~*~

“They speak of Professor Water Mirror’s Eight Geniuses,” the new boy says haltingly. “But I see only six except me. Elder brothers, where is the eighth – no – the First?”

Silence reigns for a moment. The elder students exchange glances, as if unsure, although they know all the affairs of the world without leaving the house. At last one of them speaks, and the new boy can’t tell who – with robes, hats and masks in place, it could be any one of the six.

“Forget about it, shīdì,” the student says. “The truth is, we are seven. We really only ever were seven.”