Characters: Ling, Ran Fan
Rating: PG for a whiff of skullduggery
Word count: 1021
Summary: Ling schemes his way to the top. Ran Fan keeps an eye on him.
Notes: Written for fmagiftexchange's Yule 2011 round. Set shortly after 108. Possibly the result of watching too many wuxia films.
The teahouse looked out onto the park's ornamental lake, and the day was so stifling hot that Ling could have swan-dived right into it. Instead, he sipped tea, and smiled politely at the Chancellor opposite him, and thought vaguely about the theory that hot drinks were supposed to cool you down. Good science and all, but right now what he could really murder was an iced yoghurt from the hutongs. He smoothed down his annoying, semi-formal jacket (chosen to say "here in an unofficial capacity, but still technically outranking you, thanks"). He smiled again. This meeting had been ridiculously difficult to set up. And here he was, practically in private with the most senior court official in Xing: a man with the ear of the Emperor himself. Time to concentrate.
"So," said the Chancellor, refilling Ling's cup and then his own, "I've witnessed the efficacy of the … preparation." He meant the tincture, of course. He, too, was wearing none of the symbols of his office. He lowered his voice. "But his Celestial Majesty, to be very frank, is not at the very peak of health." (Ling, of course, knew that the Emperor had not risen from his bed for a month.) "How long will it take to discover the application?"
Ling sighed. "The Seventeenth Princess is of course working day and night upon this. Such a shame she's the only person in this country who knows anything much about Amestrian alchemy. We were hoping to kidnap an alchemist or two and bring them home, but it didn't quite work out." Ling took a sip of tea and furrowed his brow. "I have no doubt that she can do it, of course," he said.
"Mm," said the Chancellor.
"But It's going to take a while," Ling continued. "Obviously, my first concern is the health of his Celestial Majesty. But after that - well, surely it's only sensible that I'm rather worried about my own health?"
The Chancellor nodded but said nothing.
Ling continued, "If we succeed, my father will of course set me at his right hand. Which would be nice. If, however, the unimaginable should occur and he should pass on before we succeed, though … Well, I imagine I won't be very popular with my brothers and sisters."
The Chancellor still said nothing.
"In fact, remembering the lessons of history, I may as well paint myself red and go and stand in the archery butts. Leaving aside my motives, which of course are selfless: sometimes I wonder, is it so wise of me to risk my head for this?"
"I see," said the Chancellor. He was quiet for a moment, and then he smiled. "You're a cautious man, highness."
"Sometimes," said Ling. "I took great risks, to myself and my clan, to secure this tincture. There's a right time for both risk and caution, don't you think?"
The Chancellor nodded. He ran a finger around the edge of his teacup. "Of course," he said, "at times like this, a public servant, too, thinks of these things. When an emperor has proved to be mortal in the past, then his servants have tended to prove their own mortality afterwards."
"You're a man in the prime of life," said Ling casually. "You shouldn't have to worry."
"A cautious man looks to the future. My wife sometimes tells me that she finds the capital a little noisy. My sons, on the other hand, are young and energetic. One hopes that after they take their civil service exams, they will find good positions and settle down …"
"Domestic happiness and a future for one's children," said Ling. "Sound priorities in life, to be sure."
The Chancellor inclined his head. "This tea is excellent," he said. "But I'm told that the teahouse will soon be taking delivery of some very fine silver needle tea. Picked in Qiongya this spring. Fresh, but surprisingly complex. I believe I'll try some of that next time."
Ling rose from his seat, so that the Chancellor could do so too without rudeness.
The Chancellor bowed deeply. "Your good health, highness."
"And yours." Ling nodded.
After the Chancellor had swept himself away, Ling walked to the teahouse's balcony, overlooking the lake. When he was satisfied that he was alone, he vaulted lightly from balcony rail to roof, to join Ran Fan.
"That seemed to go well, my Lord," she said. She must be unbearably hot in that mask today, but she always got very grumpy if he suggested she remove it.
"Well?" Ling grinned. "He's going to make it happen." He still couldn't quite believe it.
"Really? It was difficult to tell through all the double meanings." She was getting blunter with him. He liked it.
"I have to buy him a nice house in the country and find his sons jobs," Ling said. "I do hope they're not too dim. Also, the tea thing was a metaphor."
"Yes, highness," Ran Fan said, with the barest hint of sourness, "I picked that up. I still don't understand why you couldn't have gone somewhere even more private and both just said what you meant."
Ling shrugged. "He does have his own interests to protect. Besides, I'm sure the conversation would be exactly the same on a mountaintop. Politicians get like that after a while. I bet by now he can't even ask his wife to buy a cabbage without three layers of symbolism."
"How tedious for her," Ran Fan said. But she was smiling now.
"How's your shoulder today?"
She huffed out a little breath. "Bearable."
"What if I ordered you to get Chang to look at it?"
Ran Fan glared down at her own knees.
Ling grinned at her irritatingly. "Sorry. You're going to have to suck it up."
Ran Fan glared at her knees some more. He knew it drove her nuts when he threw around Amestrian slang.
A droplet of sweat hung momentarily from the chin of her mask, then splashed upon the roof.
"One step closer," he said.
She met his eyes for a moment, then nodded.
"Ran Fan," he said, "this occasion should be marked. Will you allow me to take you out for an iced yogurt?"