Ren Xiang stands in her red dress and her red veil, her hair done up with a jade lotus, next to the man in black. The incense on the altar wafts through the air, sharp and pungent. From the back, a zither wails above the sound of the drums. The crowd shifts uneasily on its feet.
“First bow: Heaven and Earth.” The crier calls.
They kneel down and bow. Ren Xiang presses her forehead to the floor. This is the first tie between us, she thinks. After the ceremony, I cannot go back. I can never go back. They rise.
“Second bow: Ancestral Altar.”
They kneel and bow to the empty chairs where his parents would have been. Yelu Hun is the head of his household, of his clan. And with the last bow, she would also be his property.
“Third bow: The Happy Couple.”
This time they do not kneel; instead, they bow from the waist to each other. She bows ninety degrees, he sixty. Then they straighten, and he takes her hand.
His touch is cold, like clay.
The gathered crowd behind them bursts into cheers.
“Long live the happy couple!” Her sister’s husband, Qian Zhu, comes crashing through. “A toast!” He slings an arm over Yelu Hun’s shoulder. “A toast to my brother-at-arms, and my lovely new sister twice over.”
Yelu Hun shrugs him off with a growl. “I do not drink.”
“Oh, come now.” Qian Zhu says with a pleasant smile. He leans in close to her. “Little Sister, surely you can persuade your husband to drink at his own wedding.”
Ren Xiang looks up at him through her red veil. “I will not intrude upon General Yelu’s hospitality.” He is General Yelu now, this frozen man beside her.
Yelu Hun steps past Qian Zhu and pulls Ren Xiang with him. She stumbles, her floor-length dress makes it hard to move, and through the haze of red, she thinks he grimaces. It inspires no confidence within her.
“You take that back!” A young man that she dimly recognizes as her new brother-in-law rolls past, wrestling with another man. “How dare you!”
“Get off me, you bastard.” The other man throws Yelu Yue off just long enough that she glimpses his face: Qian Men.
“Little Brother!” Qian Zhu surges forward, diving toward the fray.
“How dare you say something so disgusting, you son of a—” Yelu Yue’s statement dissolves into a string of curses, his hands wrapped around Qian Men’s throat.
There’s a glittering flash of metal, and Yelu Yue draws back, his hand over a bleeding wound on his arm. Qian Zhu and Sister Mei drag Qian Men away, bruises fanning over his neck in the shape of Yelu Yue’s hands.
From beside her, Yelu Hun radiates an icy fury.
“Are you sure you’ll be alright?” She’s bandaged the gash on his arm with her bridal veil. It helps to hide the blood. The guests have dispersed and the red celebratory words seem to be mocking them. What fortune? What prosperity? What joy? There is none in this house. A wedding feast lasts for three days. Hers barely made it past three minutes without bloodshed.
“I’ll be fine, Big Sister.” He flashes her a brilliant smile, and Ren Xiang feels smaller than she is. I am five years your junior, Brother-in-Law. But she has married his elder brother, and so now she must be his elder sister.
Then the door opens, and Yelu Hun steps in. “Yue.” His voice is like a winter chill despite the balmy midsummer air.
“Big Brother?” The young man rises, something of hesitation in the way he moves.
Yelu Hun’s eyes narrow to bitter slits, his mouth twisted as though he’d bitten into an unripe persimmon. “You disappoint me. Get out.”
Yelu Yue freezes, a hand still raised towards his elder brother. The moment hangs in the air and then shatters. He goes.
Yelu Hun sits at the polished lacquer table, and pours himself a cup of wine. He downs it, and stares at the cup. He raises the jug, and drinks it straight.
“I thought you don’t drink, General Yelu.” She doesn’t know what prompts her to say this, but it slips past her lips.
He slams the jug back down on the table. “You can go as well.”
“Have I displeased you?”
He looks at her and notes the absence of her veil. “No, Ren Xiang.” His gaze turns to the window, to the lotus blossoms on the water. “We must learn to rise above.”
And that is how she knows that Yelu Hun has no love for her. He sees their marriage as just another situation to rise above. “Yes.” She agrees. “We must strive to rise above the mire.”
Above them, the moon is full and bright.
Her marriage to this man has bought the lives of a county of children. It matters not if he does not love her.
But it does beg the question, if she is not the one in his heart, who is?
“How are you?” Sister Mei asks, when she comes over to visit at the start of winter. Ren Xiang shows her to the gardens, and they sit about on the stone benches while the wind rustles through the claw-like black branches above them. “General Yelu isn’t a popular man.”
“I should be asking you that, Older Sister.” She smooths her sewing over her lap. “Brother Qian is the one they think has betrayed our country.” Qian Zhu’s friendship with her Mongolian husband is infamous. They’d met as children, on opposite banks of a river, but people are hardly forgiving.
Sister Mei sighs. “Don’t you worry about us.”
“I am thankful.” Ren Xiang says. “Father has married us to good friends.” Other sisters are hardly afforded the same luxury of being able to meet every three months or so.
“Yes.” Sister Mei’s needle flashes. “But our happiness was hardly his design.” Ren Jin had sold his daughters to a Mongol and a traitor in return for gold.
“You love Brother Qian well enough.” Unlike me, she thinks. Nothing I do can make Yelu Hun anything but distant.
Sister Mei smiles, a smaller, fonder one than what she reserves for the public. “Yes.” She rises. “Forgive me, it’s cold here, Little Sister.”
Ren Xiang laughs and waves her in. “Do not catch a chill, Older Sister. Brother Qian will not forgive me.”
She stays outside in the garden alone, but not for long.
Her eyes are suddenly covered from behind by two hands. “Guess who?”
“Brother Yue!” She pries his hands away. “You are going to make my stitches crooked.”
“Big Sister!” He grins at her, impishly, and drops into the seat that Sister Mei has vacated. “You couldn’t stitch a pattern crooked if you tried.”
The sound of voices disturbs them both. On the other side of the garden, Qian Zhu and Yelu Hun are holding a heated discussion about something, but it is indistinct.
“I don’t know why Big Brother gives him the time of day.” Brother Yue grouses as he sinks deeper into his chair, closing his eyes against the draft of bitter wind that wraps its arms around them, and rattles through the dried out lotus pods.
But her attention is caught—by the way they seem to stand too close, the way a fire sparks in her husband’s eyes that she so rarely sees. Qian Zhu catches her husband’s wrist when he attempts to leave, and he does not rip his hand away.
Oh, she thinks, so that is what it is.
“You shouldn’t say that, Brother Yue.” She comments absently, the roar in her ears drowning out his reply. “It is uncharitable.” Her thoughts are equally uncharitable. This is a secret that would destroy two families, she thinks, and her mouth will remain shut.
That night she brings Yelu Hun’s dinner to his study in a basket, crossing the garden as she does so. The wind is still fierce, and a procession of lotus seeds drop onto the ice, clinking as she makes her way across.
“General Yelu?” She asks as she crosses the doorway.
He is asleep on his papers, a familiar robe—not his own—about his shoulders, but rouses himself as she draws closer, the smallest of smiles on his lips. “You did not need to make the trip, Ren Xiang. I would have walked over.”
“It is what I can do for you.” She responds and sets out the three dishes. He clears away his things.
“Have you eaten?” He asks.
She considers lying to him, and saying that she has. He lies to her often enough, but—“I have not.”
He gestures for her to sit, to join him.
For a long moment, nothing is heard except the clink of china and bamboo.
And then the silence forces her to speak. “You are very fond of Brother Qian.”
He chokes on his tea, coughing. “Fond.” There’s an edge of fear in his eyes.
She smiles at him, and she hopes it’s comforting. “I won’t tell.” To tell would destroy the peace of mind of six. To not tell would be to confine it only to them.
He sets the cup back on the table. “You are an admirable woman.”
The statement weighs heavy. “You don’t like women.”
His smile is wry. “No, but you are admirable nonetheless.” There is a clatter outside the door, but neither of them rise. “It must be the wind.” He says, and she bows her head in assent.
“Big Sister.” Brother Yue sits beside her on the porch steps. In the house behind them, Yelu Hun and Qian Zhu are holding a meeting regarding grain shipments.
She turns to him. The sun makes the highlights of his hair look blue. “Yes?”
He’s humming under his breath. “I heard it’s your birthday soon.”
She was born in the high heat of summer. “Yes.” She smooths her dress over her knees, still unused to the quality of the silk. It’s been two years, but she’s not sure she ever will be.
“We should do something to celebrate.” He muses, leaning back, with his hands laced together behind his head. The mood is peaceful, but then a group clatters into the yard: Qian Men on a horse with four of his retainers.
“Yelu, you bastard.” He calls from the door. “Tell your dog brother to get out here.”
Brother Yue rises, his hand over the hilt of his sword. “What did you just say?”
Qian Men swings off of his horse, and draws his sword, pointing their general direction. “Tell Yelu Hun to get out here. He defaced my sister-in-law’s honor.” His face twists into a sneer when he turns to Ren Xiang. “Couldn’t keep your husband in line, could you, you—”
Brother Yue lunges in his direction, and the retainers make a moving ring with their horses. They cross swords. It’s clear that Brother Yue is the better swordsman. It’s even more clear that Qian Men is drunk.
Brother Yue has the tip of his sword pressed against his throat in under two minutes. “Yield.” He says, eyes cold. “Yield and there won’t be any blood.”
But there’s the cold sound of metal, the drawing of another sword.
“Brother Yue--” She is too late. Too late.
He screams, one knee going down, a slash across the tendons by a laughing retainer. He falls forward, and the scene before her in the summer dust is unimaginable.
“You bastard.” Brother Yue whispers. “I gave you the chance to yield.” Only that breaks the spell. Qian Men scrambles back, his sword still impaled through Brother Yue’s stomach.
She doesn’t know how she got here, here shoving Qian Men aside, here with her hands dyed red, here with her mind gone. “Big Sister?” He asks, eyes unfocused. “Tell Big Brother that I’m sorry. I-” He gasps, blood pooling around her hands. “No vengeance. Please, no vengeance.”
“YUE!” The door slams open, and Yelu Hun and Qian Zhu appear. “Yue!” And it’s her husband, her cold unflappable husband kneeling in the growing stain in the dust, choking on air.
“Brother Hun?” It’s Qian Zhu.
Yelu Hun turns to him, madness in his eyes, his brother in his arms. “Get out.” The other man draws back as though he’s been struck. “I told you to get out.” His voice cracks and breaks.
Qian Zhu gathers his younger brother, and with a gesture to the retainers, leaves. Ren Xiang looks at her bloody hands, looks at his shaking shoulders, and wonders if he might cry.
He raises his head, and she can only see madness in his eyes. There are no tears. They make the long walk to the house together.
They kneel before the altar that night, dressed in white. He is dry-eyed. “I’ll kill them.” He says, so frozen she doesn’t even think that the last two years were real. “Every one of them.”
“Even--” She doesn’t finish her sentence. Of course, it would be every one of them, especially Qian Zhu.
“I’ll spare your sister.” He rises from his knees, and strokes Brother Yue’s cheek fondly.
“That wasn’t what I meant.” She looks up at him, and wonders what he and Qian Zhu had been doing in the house, if she should tell him that Brother Yue had said no vengeance, but she cannot speak of it.
He lays a hand on her shoulder as he passes. His touch is cold, as cold as the day they met. The incense weighs on her shoulders, a thick and suffocating cloud.
Outside, the lotus sinks into the pond.