Jiang Hong lingered in the shadows outside the entrance to the ancient Hu estate. She had not seen her senior in five years, and neither of them had much to say even when they did meet up in the past. What was she going to say to her now?
The tall lanterns that illuminated the wide doorway had been swapped to large white ones, but black cloth was not draped over the plaque above the door. Hu Yao was just a child, after all, so there would be minimal fuss over his burial. Jiang thought it was unfair that children did not get a proper send-off, but it was also unfair for children to be killed.
The world was not a fair and just place.
The Hu clan was powerful and wealthy enough to have friends and enemies on both the right and wrong side of the law. As a thief (a thief with honor, but a thief regardless), Jiang Hong was in prime position to gather information from those less inclined to speak to the constabulary. No one had concrete clues, but plenty had suspects to name. For the past week and a half, she had been investigating the shadier side of the pugilistic community. Those who owed her favors swore up and down that they had nothing to tell her. Even the Beggar Sect had nothing for her, which was a first.
There had been vague rumors initially that the Dancing Moon Gate was involved, avenging the death of the leader’s sister, but their leader, Xue Wuniang, publicly disavowed such nefarious doings, pledging her head should her word be proven false. While members of the Dancing Moon sect were not role models for the young, they were, for the most part, honorable people. Jiang Hong had paid them a visit regardless, just to make sure.
She had been on her way here to find out what the official channels knew when she heard the news of Hu Yao's untimely death from a couple of gossiping merchants at a roadside tea stand. She hadn't even finished her own tea before she was riding into the city, just under the speed limits.
Pushing her short curls from her brow, she tried to think of a greeting that would not be too trite. She was here partly out of obligation. Their teacher was no longer able to travel for long distances, not after what had transpired six years ago, and Du Kuang had retired into his annual meditative retreat; someone who understood Leng Xiang and her loss had to be here for her. Nevertheless, Jiang Hong did not intend to stay long.
The main door opened and two men stepped out, chatting to each other. Jiang Hong ducked behind the nearest wall out of habit. One of them was in the dark blue uniform of the constabulary, except this one had a lighter trim around the cuffs and collars. The chief constable then, whatever his name was.
The last time she was in Ping An, she had liberated a rare jade horse statuette and a banknote of a thousand taels of silver from the prefect’s private safe, and then led the constables on a merry chase. She smiled smugly. The horse was gifted to a good friend, and the silver used to pay for repairs for a bridge in a poor village up in the mountains.
“I have to get back home to type up the consolidated report,” said the chief constable. “I'll let you know more when I can.”
“You have had a difficult duty, Zongran,” Hu Yuan said. “Will you not stay for a meal before you go home?”
“I would if I could, but I must return and rest. Tomorrow is a very long day.” The man Zongran sighed and added, “Do warn your sister-in-law, but tell her nothing else. I fear she may act recklessly and jeopardize the case.”
“You can trust me,” Hu Yuan said. “Rest early, Zongran.”
Careful to stay out of sight, Jiang Hong puzzled over the chief constable’s presence here. Was he sharing information on the case? That would be against protocol. And what warning did he want to pass on to her senior? She heard the rustle of fabric and solid thumps of palms on shoulders. They should be parting soon. She stayed still in the shadows and held her breath.
The constable had taken just a few steps when he paused and added, “While we are focusing on this case, we are setting aside cold cases. But do not test my patience with any shenanigans, Miss Jiang; I have precious little of it these days.”
Hu Yuan laughed quietly as the constable strode down the road, towards the Hu estate’s parking lot, away from where Jiang Hong had hidden herself. “Miss Jiang, please, come out.”
“Your friend is a rude man,” Jiang Hong said, slipping out from the shelter of the wall. She bowed in the pugilist's style, hand over fist. “I wish I could have come at a happier time.”
“As do I. Forgive my sworn brother. He has a lot on his plate right now.” Hu Yuan gestured for her to precede him into the house. “Of course, you probably know him as Chief Constable Wan.”
Ah yes. Chief Constable Wan. He nearly caught me that night. She glanced at the black marble screen wall at the entrance as they passed it on the way to the reception room. That black marble was a perpetual temptation; every time she saw it, she had the urge to steal it, just to say she could. Needle-fine gold and silver veins threaded through the stone, but what made the screen wall a masterpiece were the hundred sages carved into it, each palm-sized figure meticulously depicted with their own outfits and expressions.
Other than that screen, Jiang Hong never had the urge to steal any of the other antiques and treasures on display. It was not as if Hu Yuan would begrudge her the thefts, and Hu Wen was not around to be bothered either. That ruined her fun; Hu Yuan gave freely when it came to public works and donated to the city’s charities regularly. What was the fun in robbing a virtuous merchant?
Shadows clung to the open corridor, though the lamps were already gleaming softly. Jiang Hong followed Hu Yuan into the reception hall where a pot of tea and a small tray of delicacies were already laid out on a side table. Some servants were on ladders, taking down brightly-colored paintings, and others were clearing away vases full of lovely blossoms.
“There won't be a wake since Yao is just a child, but it feels wrong to leave the house as it was,” said Hu Yuan softly as he monitored the family servants. “I’ve sent the coffin-maker to the morgue. Once Doctor Fang releases him, Yao would-” His voice cracked, but he rallied quickly. “The coffin will go to the family crypt.”
His brisk manner would have been off-putting in any other person, but Jiang Hong could see how the man was using these necessary tasks to hold himself together. There was no one else to make the hard decisions, to keep the family business going in such trying times. The patriarch was gravely ill, or so the grapevine claimed, and the Hu family tree did not spread many branches. Hu Yao had been the only heir.
Jiang Hong sat down and thanked Hu Yuan when he poured her some tea. “How is she?”
“She hasn't been eating since Yao was taken. After she came back from... from identifying the body, she locked herself in her room. One of the servants can see her sitting at the garden window, so we know she hasn't done anything rash, yet I can't help but think...” From the ashen pallor of his complexion, Jiang Hong thought that Hu Yuan probably had not even taken time to deal with his own trauma. He asked, “Would you like to rest from your journeys first, or would you rather-”
“I'd like to see my senior, if that is alright.”
Hu Yuan smiled wanly. “Anything you wish. Xiaocui, Xiaoxiu, prepare the guest room for Miss Jiang, and have the cooks prepare a good meal. I apologize in advance for not dining with you, Miss Jiang, but there are far too many matters to see to.”
Jiang Hong managed a small smile of her own. “Don't be concerned about me, Brother Hu. But you should eat, and get some sleep as soon as you can.”
Though sorrow sat heavy on his brow from the ordeal, Hu Yuan still looked every inch a distinguished swordsman. The gray hairs at his temples added gravitas to his chiseled, square-jawed face, even though he was still too young to be graying that much. “I’ll eat when she has.”
“Then you’ll both collapse.”
“If I asked for a volunteer to drink gallons of wine laced with arsenic, I'd get a dozen men fighting for the jars. But I cannot persuade a grieving mother to eat a single grain of rice.” He shook his head, aware of how helpless he sounded. “At least she is drinking some of the herbal broths I sent to her, but she cannot continue this way indefinitely. If I can get hold of my younger brother, perhaps he can persuade his wife to stop starving herself.”
Jiang Hong tugged at the end of one curl. She had her doubts. As far as she knew, Leng Xiang had not been thrilled about her marriage to Hu Wen, but she had obeyed their teacher’s wishes. Given that Hu Wen traveled the empire as he wished, leaving his wife alone at home to raise their son, their marriage was hardly the stuff of dreams. It was unlikely that he could sway her one way or the other. Then again, what did Jiang Hong know of love or marriage? She was not sure if she had ever experienced the former, and certainly had no intention of experiencing the latter.
They meandered through long corridors and came to the rooms set in the west yard. In the day it would be elegant and dignified; at night, it was dreary and cold. The shadows of the ancient house were made even gloomier by the old-fashioned lattices of the windows and doors. Not a single lamp had been lit within.
Jiang Hong shuddered inwardly at the thought of living within this place, though it was rich with history and luxury. The apertures were plain glass and woodwork, yet they seemed like prison bars. In front of the door on a low table was a tray, like an offering for an unresponsive deity: a covered bowl of broth, a covered bowl of rice, and three ripe persimmons.
Visibly bracing himself, Hu Yuan rapped on the door. The knocks echoed dully. He called out, “Miss Jiang is here. I’m opening the door for her.” There was no answer. To Jiang Hong, he murmured, “Whatever you can do to get her to eat, I will be grateful. And pass her this note, please.”
“I’ll do my best. No promises.” She waited until the man had gone before she entered with the tray of food.
She could not see nor hear Leng Xiang at first. Leaving the tray on the table in the main room and the note next to the tray, she ventured into the room in the back, which had been Hu Yao's bedroom. Only then did she see the silhouette of her senior sitting at the window, staring out at the garden. The veins of her wings glittered, little sparks of qi racing along intricate tracks.
“Senior, I’ve come to offer my condolences,” Jiang Hong said. Feeling that it was rather silly to talk in the dark, she found a lamp and lit it.
Leng Xiang did not seem to notice the change in lighting. Her long hair flowed unbound down her back, between her bare shoulder blades and wings, like a waterfall of ink. Her silk dress was badly wrinkled and stained with mud from the knees down, and her feet were bare. The only movement came from her wings, opening and closing slowly.
“I heard that you would not eat,” said Jiang Hong. She wrung her hands in her lap. “You should eat something. I’ve left a tray on the table outside.”
“Why?” asked Leng Xiang, her tone dispassionate. Her skin flashed with jagged streaks of violet light for an instant, violent and uncontrolled, and her qi lashed out when Jiang Hong approached.
Jiang Hong nearly jumped out of her skin at the unexpected assault. As students of the same teacher, their qi was similar enough that it didn't hurt the younger woman, but anyone else would have got more than a rude shock. The discord and chaos that she detected, however, alarmed her more than the qi attack.
Their qi was supposed to flow smoothly in their bodies, like a stream meandering through the plains. What Leng Xiang attacked with was a turbulent and sudden surge. Such intense energy was difficult to contain; Jiang Hong couldn’t imagine how much harm it was doing to her senior’s internal channels.
“If you starve to death,” Jiang Hong began, frantically searching for something to say, and landed on what she might have done in Leng Xiang's position. “If you die, you can’t avenge him.”
“Revenge will not bring my son back.”
“But it will mean they cannot hurt another child.”
“I care not,” said Leng Xiang. Her eyelashes fluttered and Jiang Hong saw a tear roll down her cheek, hollowed and pale with grief. Wishing their teacher was here in her stead, Jiang Hong got out of her chair and grasped Leng Xiang’s hand. Her skin was cold as stone.
“Please, Teacher has but a few more years left. Do not let her grieve you,” Jiang Hong murmured. “And you can always come home, if you want. Back to the valley.”
Leng Xiang took a slow, shuddering breath, before her shoulders shook and her composure broke. She wept freely, clinging to her junior, violet streaks of qi slicing under her skin. Moved by Leng Xiang's sorrow, Jiang Hong carefully joined their qi flows, her bright pink qi lines intertwining with her senior’s jagged slashes of purple. Slowly, Leng Xiang calmed down, and the jagged violet lines smoothened out. Jiang Hong felt drained, like she had swum the length of the Great Canal.
“Let’s eat.” Jiang Hong hugged her senior, careful to avoid the wings. “There are persimmons. And Brother Hu has a note for you.”