Leng Xiang trailed after the men as they headed to the main doors, where a small crowd had gathered. Most of them were the citizens who were done with their workday and had come to pay their respects, but were now engrossed with the drama they sensed was about to unfold.
Outside the main doors stood a heavily pregnant young woman whose hair was tied into three long braids, so long that the tips nearly touched the wide granite flagstones. Clad in a white dress, she seemed almost to glow in the late afternoon sun. Her heart-shaped face was alight with yellow qi, and her hands were before her chest: one palm up, and one palm down. Her right foot was planted firmly, and the heel of the left foot lifted barely an inch from the ground. Before her stood Jiang Hong, her skin streaked with brilliant pink qi, much of it focused in her palms, in an identical stance.
It was the opening stance of the Dance of the White Clouds, the very first set of moves taught to them in the Valley of Butterflies.
“-no place for you,” Jiang Hong was saying. Without shifting her gaze, she angled her head to acknowledge Leng Xiang’s presence. “Senior. You should go back inside. I’ll make sure trash doesn’t darken your doorway.”
“Big words coming from a common little thief,” sneered the pregnant woman. She turned to Leng Xiang and curtseyed mockingly. “Third Junior Zhao Xinglan here to offer condolences, Senior. And to share a blessing.” She petted her round belly, a smug expression painted on her pretty face.
Leng Xiang had not seen Zhao Xinglan for a few years. When their teacher first accepted Zhao Xinglan as a student, Leng Xiang had been the one braiding the younger girl's long hair for her. The last she had heard was that her junior had been expelled by their teacher from the Valley of Butterflies three years ago for beating up a civilian for whistling in her direction.
Hu Wen’s fists were clenched. Leng Xiang glanced at him for a heartbeat, before her gaze slid back to Zhao Xinglan.
“Your doing?” she asked her husband in an undertone.
He sounded embarrassed. “It was an accident.”
“What, you fell on her while naked?” murmured Chief Constable Wan, on the other side of Hu Wen.
It was so crudely funny that Leng Xiang had to bite the inside of her cheek to keep from smiling. Her husband only huffed indignantly.
Zhao Xinglan tried to get around Jiang Hong again, but was repelled by two palm strikes, one fended off, the other landing on the former’s elbow. No shock waves from the impact, even with the qi gathered in Jiang Hong’s palm. It was clear to Leng Xiang that her second junior had restrained herself, probably out of concern for the baby.
“I didn’t expect you to play guard dog, Senior Jiang,” sneered Zhao Xinglan. “What, no rich people’s homes to burgle?”
“I’m here for Senior Leng,” said Jiang Hong calmly. “I didn’t expect a bitch to come yapping for attention at the worst possible time.”
“Watch your tongue,” Zhao Xinglan snarled. She flipped her braids over her shoulder. Qi lines traced around her eyes and down her neck. “Or I’ll tear it from your mouth.”
Hu Wen crossed the threshold before more insults or blows could be exchanged. Zhao Xinglan brightened when she saw him, but protested he grabbed her by her elbow and started steering her away.
“What are you doing?” she demanded, snatching her arm from Hu Wen. “I’ve been looking for you for six months, and this is how you treat me?”
“First of all, this is my father’s wake,” Hu Wen said. “You know it’s taboo for you to be here. Second, you’re making a scene and embarrassing yourself. Third, I said I’ll come to you when the baby is born, not before.”
Everyone was listening intently, as if they were watching a play performed in the market square. Leng Xiang squared her shoulders and stared at the onlookers. Those who met her eyes quickly averted their faces, or shuffled aside.
Zhao Xinglan crossed her arms over her chest. “I don’t want to wait in some small town while you gallivant all over as you wish. You can’t expect me to raise our child alone like her.” She jerked her chin at Leng Xiang. “Not that she did a good job of it, considering.”
Leng Xiang did not even know when she moved, but she was right in front of her junior, barely two paces away. Her qi was burning as it raced through her body. “I wouldn’t make remarks like that lightly, Junior Zhao.”
Zhao Xinglan’s cheeks darkened and her qi faltered, but she raised her chin defiantly. “What, I should be discreet about how you let your son be murdered?”
Someone in the crowd gasped. Another cheered, but was soon hushed.
It was only after Leng Xiang felt the stinging numbness of her right palm that she realized she had slapped the younger woman. Her heart was pounding in her ears and her qi tore along her limbs, like knives made of ice.
Hu Wen came over and put a hand low on Leng Xiang’s belly, pushing her back firmly. His qi was hot as well, as if it was a flame hovering an inch from bare skin. She sensed the warning. With a slow, deep breath, she controlled herself and folded her hands into her long sleeves.
“A funeral is no place for a pregnant woman. All the negative energy may have affected your child,” Leng Xiang said evenly. Then she signaled two maids to come forward. “Hui, Lan, have the guest wing readied for Miss Zhao. Draw a flower bath for her, and then have an altar set up properly to balance the energies. Bring her whatever she requires.”
“Yes madam.” The two maids curtsied and hurried away.
Zhao Xinglan cradled her left cheek. “What are you doing?”
“Since you are here to share a blessing, you should stay until the blessing has been shared.” Leng Xiang pressed her lips together, biting down her fury. “However, since we are in full mourning, it’ll be improper to visit you until a hundred days after burial. Don’t worry, you may ask for whatever you wish. The Hu family can afford to feed one more, even if the one is eating for two.”
Zhao Xinglan’s face darkened. “You may be his rightful wife, but you can’t treat me like this. I’m carrying his only child-”
Hu Wen stepped between the two women just in time; Leng Xiang’s open palm struck him squarely on his diaphragm. The flagstones under his feet cracked, its fissures radiating outward in a crazed spider web. His face contorted briefly and he channeled the force of her blow to either side, expelling it in a rush of pressure. The crowd exclaimed in shock as the impact pushed them back several paces. A few datapads clattered to the ground. Some of the frailer ones fought to breathe until the pressure wave passed them by. The white lanterns on top of the signal posts were torn from their hooks.
Leng Xiang was suddenly dragged back a few paces by Jiang Hong, whose qi was pulsing. From the tense set of her junior’s jaw, she had clearly been startled by the speed and ferocity of Leng Xiang’s assault on Zhao Xinglan.
“You can’t kill her,” Jiang Hong hissed. “We don’t kill people.”
Leng Xiang said nothing. Her eyes never left Zhao Xinglan’s face.
Hu Yuan did not have time to react when Leng Xiang almost murdered someone in front of dozens of witnesses. The first thing he could think of was shielding his brother and the pregnant woman in case Leng Xiang tried a second attack.
Lines of intense purple qi were sketched all over her face, framing her eyes and mouth with jagged streaks of violet light, intensifying her beauty with an otherworldly focus. Her iridescent gaze was fixed on the pregnant woman, who had gone silent with shock, while just beside him, Hu Wen was drenched in sweat, a hand on his diaphragm, his breathing labored.
If she does attack… Hu Yuan gathered his own qi. While he would hesitate to use his full strength against Leng Xiang, he was certainly capable of fending her off until she calmed down.
“Get out of my way,” Leng Xiang said. Her tone was mild, as if she was commenting on a pebble by the side of a road.
“Xiang, stop this,” Hu Yuan commanded. “Have some respect for the dead.”
Jiang Hong’s gaze cut to him in surprise, her eyebrows raised.
Hu Yuan suddenly realized what had slipped out of his mouth, but soldiered on regardless. If he acted like nothing was out of the ordinary, perhaps no one else would notice how he had addressed his sister-in-law.
His own qi was on display, he knew: a vivid sky-blue band from temple to temple over his eyes, with a six-petaled flower of the same hue in the center of his brow: a practitioner of the Six Paths. One of the servants stood by the main door with Hu Yuan’s sword, Soaring Frost. Hu Yuan wondered if he could get to his weapon before Leng Xiang landed a killing blow on her junior; with Jiang Hong’s aid, perhaps.
As if reading his mind, Leng Xiang forced herself to relax. The violent purple light of her qi lines also subsided. Only then did the tension ease slightly.
“Miss Jiang, if you could accompany my sister-in-law to her quarters?” Hu Yuan asked.
“Of course,” said Jiang Hong, though she threw a venomous glare at Zhao Xinglan before she left. Zhao Xinglan was crouched tearfully next to Hu Wen, her left arm draped over his shoulders, the very description of a worried spouse.
Hoping no one took photographs, Hu Yuan turned to the assembled onlookers and bowed. “I apologize for the scene. It has been a very difficult time for the family. Please, do enter if you are paying your respects to my father; our staff will provide incense and red thread. Do something to eat and drink before you leave. We will be along shortly too.”
The crowd, sensing that the excitement was over, began to file into the Hu estate. Some of them recognized Wan Zongran and he chatted with them, ushering them into the estate.
Once the onlookers and gawkers were gone, Hu Wen shook off Zhao Xinglan’s fussing.
“You shouldn’t have come,” he snapped.
Zhao Xinglan paused. Resentment flared briefly over her face but she schooled her features quickly to present nothing but sweet concern. “I missed you.”
“How bad is it?” Hu Yuan asked his brother, ignoring the young woman.
“She pulled back at the very last second. I probably won’t die,” said Hu Wen. He gritted his teeth and coughed, spitting out a small gob of blood. “Lan, stay in an inn tonight. I can’t guarantee she won’t try to kill you in your sleep.”
“I came all the way here-”
“-and mocked my son’s murder in front of all of us.” Hu Wen’s glare conveyed his fury far better than his tone. “If you weren’t pregnant with my kid, I’d have ended you myself. You’ve embarrassed us both enough today.”
Jiang Hong was seething. How dare Zhao Xinglan show up so brazenly?
“Calm down,” said Leng Xiang, as if she had not just attempted murder in front of witnesses and the chief constable, and waved a maid over. “Xiaocui, bring us a pot of tea. Set it down in the study.”
“Calm down? That bitch showed up pregnant. It’s obvious she wants what you have. Again.” Jiang Hong stormed to the other side of the room and sprawled into an armchair. There was no table in the room, when Jiang Hong remembered there being one not two days ago. That’s odd. What have they done with it?
Leng Xiang shrugged off the cape that hid her wings and arms. “Teacher taught each of us what she believed we could learn.”
“Xinglan never believed that.”
“That’s not my problem.”
“It is your problem that she’s trying to steal your husband, Senior!” Jiang Hong exploded, before she threw her hands up in resignation. “You could have killed her just now. If Brother Wen hadn’t intercepted the blow, you would’ve.”
Leng Xiang’s eyes darkened momentarily. “Yes, I would have.” She breathed out slowly; purple light glimmered under her skin. “I might have regretted it too. More for the unborn child’s sake than for hers.”
You must not kill another human being, not unless your own life or the life of an innocent is at risk. That was the first rule when they started learning from Bai Yunxian, their teacher. Even in extreme danger, they were to aim to incapacitate.
“Senior, perhaps we should go back to the valley after your father-in-law’s wake,” Jiang Hong said timidly. “Teacher would like to see you, I’m sure. And Brother Kuang too.”
Leng Xiang did not look at her. “Perhaps.” Then she rose and said, “Tea should be ready.”
There was a minute flutter of foreboding in Jiang Hong’s belly, but she was not sure what it portended. It would help to see the future, she thought as she followed the older woman into the study. Then I could at least try to stop whatever Senior has planned.
“I'm not going away just because you said so, like a dog to be summoned and kicked aside on a whim,” Zhao Xinglan declared as she marched into the Hu estate. “If you don't want me to offer incense to your father, fine. But I'm not leaving your family home until my child is born and you marry me. Not as a concubine, but as a wife.”
“I already have a wife,” Hu Wen said, snarling. “You know who she is and what she's capable of.”
“I don't care. You got me pregnant, you're taking responsibility.” Zhao Xinglan folded her arms and glared at Hu Wen.
Amused, Wan Zongran watched the pregnant young woman sit down on a bench by the small pond in the front yard. The breeze was cold and dry, and it would be even colder once the sun set. It was good to see Hu Wen finally facing some consequences for his philandering ways, and having this unfold at a funeral wake was morbidly entertaining, except for the distress she caused the other family members.
Hu Wen caught Wan Zongran stifling a grin. “You're going to stay here in the estate tonight.”
The chief constable's smile vanished. “What? Why?”
“So that you can manage my brother and keep him from making a fuss about this woman here.” Hu Wen exhaled deeply, before leveling a quelling stare at Zhao Xinglan. “And in the names of the deities above and demons below, you stay out of your senior's way and don't try to provoke her. If she ends up killing you, I'll just help her to bury the body.”
Often, Hu Yuan himself would wander the curving paths after a long day’s work. Flowers bloomed in every season, while strangely-shaped rocks had been installed in various yards and side gardens around the estate, so there was always something to admire. Shapely trees took center stage in some of the smaller yards, all appearing as though they had grown naturally into evocative forms, but Hu Yuan knew the head gardener had taken great pains to achieve the effect.
He and his late wife used to spend happy hours walking around the garden, and then having tea at one of the pavilions by the pond. She had sung sweet songs from her hometown while he fed the fish. On one memorable occasion, she had tipped him over into the water as a joke, laughing when he tugged her in as well. After her passing, if he felt particularly pensive, he would have the servants give him vegetable scraps for him to toss to the koi. Watching the colorful fish jostling one another always made him smile.
For the past few months, however, he barely had time to even look at the fish, let alone feed them himself.
This morning, he wished he could be feeding koi instead of attending to his father. The physician and attendants were already at work; several machines beeped their dull monotone, with the occasional high-pitched hiccup. Hu Tianyi’s physical and mental state had been deteriorating rapidly over the past year; the physicians had privately told Hu Yuan that it was unlikely for the old man would ever improve.
Sick with dread, Hu Yuan waited for the physician to step aside before he made his way to Hu Tianyi’s bedside. The old man was so thin that Hu Yuan dared not touch him, for fear of breaking his father’s brittle bones. The incense used to perfume the air could barely mask the cloying stench of his father’s ailment. They would have to open the windows after the old man was asleep; he would not have them open it while he was awake, for fear of catching his death of cold. Yet, although Hu Yuan was loath to admit it, death would be a release not only for his father, but also for everyone else in the household.
“Yuan. Is that you?”
“Yes, Father.” As if I haven’t been here every day at this hour ever since you fell sick. Hu Yuan tamped down his inner frustration. It was unbecoming and unfilial to even harbor such thoughts.
“Come here, my son,” Hu Dingtian wheezed, every breath a battle within those ailing ribs. He grasped his son’s hand with fingers cold as bone. He was nearly blind with cataracts and the wrinkles on his face seemed to be carved deep, right into bone. “Where is Yao? Where is my grandson?”
“Yao is not at home, Father,” said Hu Yuan, having had this very conversation twice daily for the past two weeks. He made himself smile. His father must not know about the child’s death – that would be too cruel. “I told you. He was chosen by the teacher to go on a special school trip to the capital.”
“He is home. I know he is! Bring him here,” said the old man, gasping between every word, his thin chest rattling with every exhalation. His eyelids fluttered close but he blinked them open again. His mouth worked, opening and closing. There was a desperation in the way his gaze fell on his eldest son. “I want... I want Yao. Where is he?”
That demand alone took all his energy. Hu Yuan waited until the rattling breaths eased a little. “Father, I can’t do that. Hu Yao isn’t... He’s not able to come. He’s in the capital with his teacher and classmates, to visit the imperial library.”
He is never coming back, Hu Yuan's mind corrected, though he would never be able to utter the words. He repeated his answer, trying to keep his tone calm and stable.
“Nonsense!” yelled the old man abruptly. His right fist pounded the eiderdown quilt with surprising force. “My grandson is here! I want to see him! It must be that evil creature, that witch, that insect girl, she must have hidden her son from me-”
A coughing fit came over him and the physician hurried over again, while two sturdy attendants hovered by the door. Hu Yuan stood by helplessly as the physician tried to calm the old man down.
The sight of his father in such a state suddenly angered Yuan. How dare his father become so weak? How could he lose his acumen, his determination, how could be turn into this raving and confused old man? Hu Yuan could not reconcile the ambitious, vital man of his childhood with the frail patient he saw before him.
Suddenly Hu Tianyi pushed the physician aside. “There he is,” the old man laughed, sitting up in his nest of pillows and blankets. “My dear boy, come, come to Grandfather...”
Just as Hu Yuan took a step forward to tell his father to lie down, Hu Tianyi slowly fell back onto his pillows. A smile hovered on his wrinkled lips and his eyes were closed. His chest went still.
“Attend him!” Hu Yuan all but shoved the hapless physician at his father.
It was no use.
The physician tried to resuscitate the old man, but he was gone. Defeated, Hu Yuan sank into the nearest chair and covered his eyes. His nephew was in the morgue not yet laid to rest; his father finally succumbed to his illness.
The steward, Hu Dan, hurried in after the most perfunctory of knocks. “Young master Yuan,” said the rotund man, “Young master Wen has come home.”
No one dared to disturb Hu Yuan as he waited in his father's antechamber for his younger brother. In the bedchamber, the physician and attending servants aired out the room and dismantled the array of medical equipment. It didn't take long before sturdy bootheels could be heard in the corridor outside and the door slammed open.
“I heard. Selfish old loon. He could've at least held on until after my son is buried.” Hu Wen did not mince words as he strode into the room. “Was he in a lot of pain when he passed?”
“What answer would please you more, Wen?” Hu Yuan said. There was no heat to his tone. He could barely feel his limbs as it were; all he could sense was an overwhelming fatigue in both body and spirit. “He died calling out for Yao, if you must know.”
“If you're trying to make me feel bad for him, it's not working. He had over thirty years as our father, and spent none of those on showing us affection.” Hu Wen folded his arms and scoffed as he studied his father's slack face. “This is the first time since I got married that he's not scowling at me.”
Though he was the younger by three years, he was taller and bulkier than Hu Yuan. Like his older brother, Hu Wen also had a square-jawed face, though his was slightly narrower. His hair was messily bound in a ponytail. As if to distance himself from the respectability of his clan, he tattooed two tiger stripes that slashed from his right cheek down and across to his shoulder, to mirror his qi lines on the left of his face and over his arms. His attire of a hide vest over a short-sleeved navy shirt and rough linen trousers made him look like a common laborer, though his gait and weapons exposed him as a pugilist.
Hu Yuan was already tired, even though it was early in the day. “Whatever you think of him, keep it to yourself.”
“So. What do we do now?” Hu Wen asked. He dropped his weapons on the table. The two three-prong forks, the tines curled cruelly like claws, scratched the varnished surface, narrowly missing the mother-of-pearl inlay. While Hu Yuan inherited his sword from his teacher, Hu Wen had designed his own, adapting his Tiger Palm Technique for armed combat. He yawned and stretched. “I took an overnight coach and I really want some sleep. Fucking automaton hit every fucking pothole in the road.”
After signaling the steward to set his younger brother’s weapons in a more suitable place, Hu Yuan stood up, feeling twice the weight of his years. “We do what we're supposed to.”
What they were supposed to do first was to ritually cleanse their father’s body. With the physician's help, the brothers stripped their father's clothes and changed him into his funeral best, the clothes having been chosen when Hu Tianyi turned sixty, while the servants cleared away the soiled bedding to be burned later.
As they went through the customs, Hu Yuan realized that this was probably the first time since they were teenagers that he and his brother were working together. He combed his father's thin gray hair into a bun, while Hu Wen slipped soft onto his father's bony feet. They did not converse, but they did not get in each other's way, which made for a moment of calm that Hu Yuan had not expected.
By the time they had laid their father's corpse in the coffin atop plain indigo cotton and a carved ebony pillow, it was well past lunch. Servants carried the covered coffin out to the ancestral hall while the physician went to take a bath. The steward then brought the brothers two large pails of herb-infused water with sweet flowers floating in them for immediate cleansing, along with towels and three sets of mourning clothes, all in pale, undyed linen.
“Remember to give everyone who attended to Father a red packet, and thank Doctor Luo for his care. Have the clerks settle up the bill and see to it that he gets twice as much as he asks.” Hu Yuan mentally went over the list of notables that he would have to inform, first with a datapad message so that they could be ready to travel, and follow up with a formal letter sent by priority mail. “Tell Jiao Chan to be here in an hour with the address books of all our major clients.”
“Yes, master.” Hu Dan’s immediate change in the address took Hu Yuan by surprise, but then he realized that the steward had probably been preparing for the change. Hu Dan added, “Flowers and herbs have been prepared for your personal baths as well, Master Yuan, Second Master Wen.”
Hu Wen stripped in the corridor and poured one bucket over himself, unconcerned with his nudity. Hu Yuan only washed his face, neck and arms.
“I bet the whole city is going to want to come and see Father in his box,” Hu Wen drawled as he dried himself and pulled on the mourning clothes. “As if he's some sort of sideshow. We could charge admittance. We'd earn a pretty penny.”
“We won't turn away anyone wishing to pay their respects,” Hu Yuan said, ignoring the flippancy. He signaled to the steward to get started on the different tasks.
As he tied the rough rope belt about his waist, Hu Wen asked, “Are you sad about Father's passing?”
For a heartbeat, Hu Yuan thought his brother was mocking him, but then he saw that the younger man was truly curious. He exhaled deeply and shook his head. “He was very ill and not getting any better. Death is a release from pain and indignity.”
“Know what I think? I think he should have died instead of Mother way back when,” said Hu Wen. His jaw was clenched. “Life would have been better.” With an ironic smirk, he added, “At least Mother loved all of us.”
“Wen, you know Father had to work, he didn’t have time to take care of us-”
“And you know he didn’t need to work that hard, we’re fucking rich.” Hu Wen wrung out his long hair and left it loose over his shoulders, moisture seeping into his pale linen shirt. “Besides, I was talking about Xiang. Father hated her from the start.”
Hu Yuan bit his tongue. It was the truth, but the criticism of a late parent was inappropriate, particularly where a servant could overhear. “Father’s already dead and you still can’t bring yourself to think generously of him?”
Hu Wen snorted. “He doesn’t deserve it. If it weren’t for... If I hadn’t intended to come back home in the first place, I wouldn’t have returned for his funeral. You can keep playing the filial son for the world to admire.”
“I don’t want to argue with you, not today. Not after everything that’s happened.” Hu Yuan took a deep breath. “You will have to tell your wife. She'd want to... She'd want to be at Yao's funeral instead of the wake. She must be present when Father’s friends and associates pay their respects, and they could be arriving as soon as tomorrow.”
“They and their mothers can fuck themselves,” scoffed the younger man. “If you really cared for her, you'd leave her be.”
“She has been traumatized by Yao’s abduction. She’s barely eaten or slept. You think she should be further devastated by her son's burial?”
“Don't act like it's all about her welfare,” Hu Wen sneered. “Be honest, older brother. Does it sting that I'm home? Because now, you can’t seek comfort from her nor offer consolation.”
Incensed by the insinuation, Hu Yuan gripped his younger brother's left wrist and dug his fingers into the tendons. In a stern whisper, he hissed, “Watch your tongue. There is nothing improper between me and your wife.”
“Watch your prick,” Hu Wen retorted. He yanked his wrist free from his brother's hold. Hu Yuan was so taken aback by the vulgar and disrespectful reply that he was speechless. Hu Wen glared, his nostrils flaring. “You've never forgiven the fact that I married the woman you’ve always wanted.”
Taking a deep breath to center himself, Hu Yuan said, “She is my sister-in-law. I have only ever treated her with propriety and friendly concern. What I’ve not forgiven you for is neglecting your family and breaking her heart with your affairs.”
“What I have not forgiven you for,” said Hu Wen, “is thinking I don’t deserve her.” He then turned on his heel and stalked away, the third set of mourning clothes tucked under his arm.
Hu Yuan watched his brother leave, and murmured, “Do you?”