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Dancing With Hands Tied
Requiem of the Moth #8
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Yun barely looks at him. Yes, Usira understands the need for secrecy, the compulsion to hide every little weakness but still… with Vy so close, he can't help but worry.
When the Oat Sallows are gone, he excuses himself to his father and searches the labyrinthine mansion for the exit. Taking a well-deserved break, he tells himself.
All excuses flee his mind when he steps outside and sees a familiar white shape crumpled on the ground. "Yun?" he cries out, forgetting who might hear him call the Vessi by his first name.
Red stains Yun's white robes, he notices as he approaches, blood. Zhiven kneels by his side, supporting him, but retreats when Usira flings himself down by his other side. "What happened?"
Yun's breathing is shallow, his face ashen but the glow in his eyes not yet diminished. "Assassin," he sighs. "Not far."
Usira grits his teeth. Now he sees Zhiven has already bound him with a grey strip from his own tunic, stopping the bleeding. Most likely Yun isn't in mortal danger. There is an edge in his voice, between his brows.
"How do you feel? Can you stand? I'll help you off the street, back to your quarters." Somewhere beyond the roaring in his head, Usira applauds himself. Help. Yes. He wants to help.
As he reaches for Yun, however, he is pushed away and almost topples over—not from force but from shock.
Again, he tries dragging Yun off the ground, and again, he is pushed. "No," Yun says, evidently getting his strength back. "Don't you dare."
Usira just stands there, confused.
"I'm fine. Go."
"I said go!" There is more than enough bite in that single word. Usira staggers back. If this is what Yun wants, he has no choice. He ignores the red stains, ignores Yun's weakened state, ignores his own confusion, and walks away.
Not far. Usira scours the entire clan quarter for the assassin. All he knows is that they are likely dressed in black, a clansperson or hired by a clansperson. Ordinary commoners don't moonlight as assassins. When he finds nothing, he circles back to the Noe mansion but is informed that the honorable Vessi has not returned yet.
Of course, he chides himself, Yun mistrusts his own family. He wouldn't run to them when injured.
He descends the cliff. The door to the Vessi's office is shut and his knock goes unanswered. Still, he senses Yun and his puppet inside. "I don't know what you're playing at but I won't give up, honorable Vessi." The title sears his tongue. "I need to know you're alright."
Still nothing. He waits as long as he can without worrying his family. Then, with one last "I'll be back", he leaves.
He returns to the driphouse. He endures his father's tirade about his disappearance from the Trade Fair, his mother's silent reproach, everyone's poorly concealed glee that the Isvalri genius isn't infallible after all.
Days pass by. Every morning, he goes from the Shrine of the Moth straight to the Vessi's office, only to be turned away. He keeps his eyes and ears open but Yun is neither spotted nor mentioned in public. He goes out to monitor the moths, to observe more and more spring hatchings, to hunt and provide for lesser celebrations, temple rituals.
More days pass by. He wonders how much time a stab wound to the gut needs to heal but refrains from seeking the advice of a physician. He debates if Yun is hiding in his office at all drips but refrains from unhinging the steel door.
He stews until even Selin and Velin stop talking to him, fed up after having their heads bitten off more than once.
Eight days after he left Yun lying in a pool of his own blood, Zhiven arrives at his doorstep. By then, the fear of the Vessi bleeding out on his desk has given way to anger. Usira ignores the order to come as quickly as possible, instead mending nets and planning shifts with his mother before he makes his way over to the office three drips later.
Any last worry he might've felt for Yun evaporates when he finds the Vessi lounging on soft cushions in front of the crackling fire, tea and a plate of candied fruit on the low side table at his elbow.
Usira marches up, snatches the cup and drains it. The liquid is scalding. "Care for some tea? Why, thank you. Appreciate the hospitality. Now, forgive me for skipping the chit-chat but you owe me an explanation."
Yun blinks up at him as if he's inhaled too much of the fumes that waft up from certain cracks in the rock. "Don't make me laugh. I owe you nothing."
Usira balls his fists. He has dealt with the clans before but Yun is the only one who frustrates him to the point of seeing white. "I get it, commoners are beneath you. But you and I? After everything we went through, I thought we were closer than that."
Yun narrows his eyes. "I don't have to answer to anyone, commoner or not." He scoffs, picking up a candied apple slice and turning it between his fingers. "Yes, you've been useful and broadened my horizons, giving me an edge over the competition. You still don't have the right to know everything about me."
By now, Usira is pressing his lips together for fear of blurting something he'll regret. Yun is still sitting and speaking as if to a servant. I won't accept this, Usira thinks. Yun can't have forgotten the bond they forged hunting for moths together. He can't have forgotten their agreement. That only leaves...
He opens his fists and lowers himself on a cushion next to Yun. The warmth of the fire seeps through his lavender robes and melts the last of his resistance. "Are you fully recovered?"
Yun plops the apple slice into his mouth, chews, and swallows. "I'm fine," he say softly. Then he gestures at his puppets to leave the room.
When he turns back, he flinches. "You're still in pain," Usira observes. Lightning-quick, he stands and pours more tea into the cup he drained. It must be laced with some pain reliever.
Yun takes it and sips. Unbidden, a memory comes to mind: Yun offering Usira a steaming cup, asking for his trust. He does trust Yun, just not with this—whatever this is.
"I said I'm fine." Having drained the cup, Yun gets up but Usira, who is watching more closely now, catches his grimace and the hand that flies to his side. He debates ripping that robe open and exposing the bandages just to make a point.
Instead he follows Yun to his cluttered desk. The Vessi tugs a parchments covered in dense scribbles out from under some letters and thrusts it at Usira. "Read. Tell me what you think."
"What is this?"
The corner of Yun's mouth quirks into a humorless smile. "You'll know when you read it."
He knows Yun is distracting him—and to his shame, it's working. At first, the cramped handwriting is hard to decipher but with every line, it gets a little easier. He scans the parchment twice. "Is this the document you swiped from Vylira's office?"
"Yes. She used a code based on a game that was popular in our childhood. I never played but Vy was obsessed with it. Took me a while to remember."
"So she's forging the books, abusing her access as clan treasurer."
"She's been taking money and jewels for herself but the amounts... that much shouldn't have gone unnoticed. What is she doing with it?"
An grin flickers across Yun's features and the way he leans into the cold light distorts his scar. "Hiring assassins, perhaps." He reaches into his sleeve and tosses something on the desk. A candied hibiscus flower, scattering crumbs. "I found this in my inner pocket after the attack."
The flower is completely shriveled. Usira swallows. "Why not stick with poison, as she originally planned?"
Yun shrugs. "Lack of patience? What do I care? The only thing that's interesting to me," he bares his teeth, "is getting my hands around her throat. I've underestimated how much she wants to get rid of me but the next strike will be mine."
"What will you do?" Usira asks, dreading the answer.
When Yun stands, he presses one hand flat to his side again. In a flash, Usira is by his side but Yun flinches out of his grasp once again. "How many times must I say it?"
And Usira snaps. He grips Yun's arm and yanks him back so hard that Yun growls. "You're obviously not fine and I'm not stopping until you tell me what's changed. I thought we... we were helping each other. You promised." He almost whispers the last few words, choking on them.
Yun's gaze, however, is murderous. "Last warning."
Usira sighs and slumps again, barely noticing how Yun slips from his grasp. "I don't understand."
"I can't. I've always worked alone." He goes to sit on front of the fire again. The flames are reflected in his face, his eyes, lighting them up.
"You can change," Usira whispers. He, too, is drawn back to the cushions like a moth, his flame as captivating, as hot to the touch as the real thing. "You can choose."
Yun shakes his head. "I can't," he repeats.
Usira is surprised to not find the shrine empty when he enters. True to his word, he has paid his respects to the Moth every morning since returning from Yun's poisoning and has come to appreciate the quiet at the foot of Her shrouded idol. He hasn't expected anyone to still be up this late, much less praying, yet there's a silhouette slouched on the cushions to the left that shoots up when he enters.
When he recognizes Usira, Velin sags with relief, pressing the slim book in his hands to his chest. "Thank the Moth."
"Good to see you too. What were you expecting to get caught at?" He tries to peek at the book but Velin slips it into his robes. "Your beloved Ryliss again?"
Velin rolls his eyes. "I'm starting to get a feel for him. I will uncover his identity, you'll see."
Ever since he found My Verdant Mistress at the bath house, his love for poetry has been whittled to the enigmatic genius. Everyone else is ignoring this latest obsession, even his brother Selin, but Usira smiles as he plops down next to his cousin. "Let me know when you do."
"What's keeping you from your beauty sleep?" Velin asks, shifting to contemplate Usira.
He sighs. Where to start? "Trouble up the cliff."
"Someone's gotten under your skin."
He blinks. "How can you tell?"
Velin rolls his eyes. "You honestly expect us not to notice you moping around the house for days on end? I know, we're not rubbing wings with the fancy people but you can still give us some credit."
"Right. Sorry." Usira falters, grasping for words. "It's just... he refuses to acknowledge that there's something between us. He knows but he keeps pushing me away."
"Does he lash out a lot? He's probably just trying to protect himself. Yvara was right: Clanspeople are brought up differently. They expect their own family to backstab them to get ahead so of course they would hesitate before opening up to someone. Doesn't matter who."
Usira knows all this but maybe he needs to hear it again. "I was so sure he could be different. He keeps himself apart, has no close allies. We've been supporting each other… or so I thought. I wish he would confide in me."
Velin pats the pocket with the book. "If there's one thing that poetry taught me, it is to trust in our feelings. They have their own wisdom." He grins. "Shake some sense into him if you must."
"He's the Vessi!" Usira hisses, then looks around frantically even though he knows the shrine is still empty.
Velin is still grinning. And Usira, however much he tries not to think about Yun, can't forget the fear he thought he glimpsed under all that rage.
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Yes, the title is entirely owed to a recent Taylor Swift binge. No, I'm not sorry.
Anyway. I might have switched my A and B plot. Do I care? Not particularly. If the romance is demanding more screen time, who am I to refuse? I like working like this, sketching out some plot points and adjusting when the characters decide they want to go off the rails. Their coming to life will always be the most fun, after all!
We're at 13k words and the end is starting to take shape in my mind, at least for this instalment. As a novelist, I have to actively hold myself back from tying all the loose ends into a neat bow—need to keep some questions open for the next instalment, after all! It's been fun discovering the differences between traditional (novel, short story) and serial fiction. I'm always up for a challenge and looking forward to learning more about serial writing in the future. I hope you'll join me too!
For now, though, Yun and Usira still have one murderous enemy to catch.
blood, mentions of moths