Situ Mengjian had no recollection of life outside, even though he was not born in the tower. He had been brought here by his parents when he was around two years old, his uncle told him once, when he finally asked.
He did not remember much about his parents. Two blurry faces. Pink and dark green. She had also left behind a pink ribbon, which he kept in his ebony chest. His father had left him a courtesy name for when he reached twenty.
Zhihuan: To know illusions. To understand dreams.
Sometimes he wondered what life as experienced by the rest of the world was like. He had so many questions. Did people really go where they wanted whenever they wanted? Ate food they prepared themselves? Was it hard to cook? What did a fish look like swimming in the water? How tall were mountains? What did grass feel like under bare feet?
When Jiang Hong had barged into his room that first time, he had been shocked. While the entire estate below the tower had been in an uproar, she had chatted with him like they had known each other for their entire lives.
She was different from all the others who were allowed to visit him. For one, she had spoken to him like an equal. His uncle and his tutor treated him with a distant formality. The masked maids never uttered a word to him, and the guards only talked with one another. He had tried talking to them from his window, but they never responded, and he had given them up as a lost cause.
Even till this day, he found it rather amusing that he had so readily befriended Jiang Hong. She was the prettiest girl he had ever seen, although he had to admit his bias, since he had only ever seen one woman’s face and that was his old nursemaid. Two of the paintings his uncle gave him had elegant court ladies dressed in elaborate outfits; Jiang Hong was always dressed in a form-fitting shirt and pants. She was petite, too, but much stronger than Situ Mengjian, and – like the heroes and heroines in the books he devoured – was a skilled user of qing gong, leaping from the tops of trees to his tower without making any noise. Her qi was a vibrant, happy pink, like the glow of a summer sky in the evening.
She also admitted readily that she was a thief. Situ Mengjian had disapproved at first, until she told him that she never kept anything she stole; she sold the items and distributed the money to those who needed it. Of course, she could be lying to her, but why would she need to return time and again? Furthermore, whenever he offered her something valuable, she would either decline his gift or pick something less expensive, like a box over a conch shell carved from white jade.
He had not been completely honest with her, however, when she asked why he was stuck in the tower. It was not his secret to divulge.
“You are,” his uncle had told him very solemnly once, “the moon to the Emperor’s sun. The Emperor has many enemies, and if they know who you are and where you are, they will kidnap you and torture you. That will break the Emperor’s heart. And we don’t want to make the Emperor sad, do we?”
“Then why can’t I be in the palace with the Emperor?”
“Because you are still very young, nephew. Too young. The Emperor still has a moon, right now. When you are older, the Emperor will send for you, and the old moon can rest.”
Soon, he would be on his way to the imperial palace. Though he had known of this meeting for well over a year, Situ Mengjian was nervous. While his tutor had tried to teach him proper court etiquette and his uncle had asked him to memorize the names of all the important officials, Situ Mengjian did not take to formality at all. They made shoes for him, thrice, and he had thrown them out the window every single time. He liked having his hair down, and he liked to read while sprawled across the bed or on the floor. The Emperor might not like any of that.
One thing was for certain, however: whether the Emperor liked him or not, they were bound for the rest of Situ Mengjian’s life. Situ Mengjian was the Dreamseer, or at least this generation’s incarnation. He would be dreaming and interpreting prophetic visions for the Emperor for the rest of his life. What he saw in his sleep would guide the Emperor, to ensure peace and prosperity for the people.
Already he was beginning to take over the receipt of such visions from the current Dreamseer, who was weakening. More and more often, the young man would doze off in the middle of reading or folding paper, to catch tantalizing glimpses of the future: large pleasure-boats bedecked with golden lanterns; a garden bursting with flowers he had never seen; the sensation of rain on his skin.
Breathtaking fireworks in colors that defied description in enormous caverns. The steady beating of distant drums. Huge golden eyes veiled behind silvery-blue smoke.
He wanted to share his dreams with her. She always shared her experiences with him: about being saved when she was a child, about the dangers of the wild, about fighting ferocious beasts and cruel bandits, about the wealthy who hoarded gold and grain instead of giving to the poor. She described her marvelous teacher who lived in a valley filled with butterflies; of her amazing senior, who lived in Ping An; of the intriguing swordsman who was trying to find redemption; of her best friend who was a beggar and a leader. Her world was full of excitement around every corner, and full of heroes who helped those in need.
Each time after her departure, he would write down everything she had told him in a book he kept in the ebony chest. These tales were his treasures. He would be taking them into the palace with him. It was highly doubtful that she could visit him the way she did now, and he did not want to forget anything about his only friend.
“You mean, only I call you Mengjian?” Jiang Hong had asked on one of her visits.
“Yes. It’s always young master Situ this, young master Situ that. Uncle calls me ‘nephew’.” His dexterous fingers had by then folded a piece of purple paper into an iris, and he had presented it to her with a flourish.
She had tucked it into her hair behind her left ear. “I don’t know much about wealthy families other than to steal from them,” she had admitted. “Maybe that’s to be expected.”
Jiang Hong had squeezed his slender hand gently. She had been warm and friendly. “You’ll always be Mengjian to me.”
Privately, he wished that Jiang Hong would whisk him away from the tower and take him on an adventure, but he knew that if he disappeared, the Emperor would be upset and his uncle would get in trouble.
He wanted to give something special to his friend, something that was not just another expensive present from his uncle. Sifting through the little knickknacks accumulated over the years, he wondered if Jiang Hong would miss him once he was summoned. She had a full and busy life outside, in the world of the river and the lake; he might be nothing more than an acquaintance, or a part of yet another story.
Nonetheless, she was dear to him.
Then he found a pair of silver bangles, like vines twined together, with small amethyst and ruby flowers. It reminded him of a long poem his tutor shared with him about six months ago: Chance Meeting by the River Kuan, when an exiled poet befriended a fisherman, and they shared an evening on the latter’s boat drinking and talking. Since he was penniless, the poet cut off a length of his hair and braided it as a gift for the fisherman, and the fisherman did the same, both of them pledging loyalty and lifelong friendship by wearing the braided hair around their wrists.
The ending made him sad, though. The poet was maligned by his enemies in court and was subsequently executed; the fisherman, on hearing of his friend's passing, gave away the poems the poet had sent him before, and then drowned himself in the river Kuan where they had met.
At least it was only a story. He would not want Jiang Hong to hurt herself in any way.
Smiling, Situ Mengjian took one of the bangles and wrapped it up with a silk handkerchief. He would have to find a way to ask her to visit, but if he was summoned before she could visit, he would leave clues for her on where to look for this. The other matching bangle he slipped onto his wrist, and it gleamed against his skin.
Just then, he heard two people coming up the stairs: one was his uncle and the other was a stranger whose footsteps sounded sturdy yet light at the same time. That was odd. It was quite late, and he had already had his dinner. The tray was still on his table, to be cleared away in the morning.
“Nephew, are you awake?” his uncle asked timorously outside the door.
Glancing at the darkness outside his window, Situ Mengjian contemplated saying no, just to see what his uncle would do, but dutifully replied, “Yes, uncle, I'm reading.”
“May I come in?”
“Of course.” Situ Mengjian stood, wondering if the stranger was going to be a new servant or a new guard.
The bearded man who entered in front of his uncle was not what Situ Mengjian expected. He was tall and broad, with sun-darkened skin like the guards downstairs and thick braids of graying hair. His clothes were very plain and he had a weapon strapped to his belt. When he saw Situ Mengjian, he went down on his left knee and pressed his left fist to the ground. Situ Mengjian stared at him, and then at his uncle, whose eyes were wide as rice bowls, and then his uncle fell to his knees as well.
“Lord Situ,” the bearded man said, his gaze cast on the floor. “This lowly one is Shangguan Yixiao of the Ministry of Justice and Law. I am here to escort you into the palace, as the Emperor wishes.”
“Already?” Situ Mengjian sat down heavily. “But…” He gulped, his right hand reaching to cover the silver bangle on his left wrist. “I’m not ready.”
Shangguan Yixiao remained kneeling. “Not immediately, Lord Situ. But you should be ready to leave in three days. The imperial edict will arrive by then with the envoy.”
Situ Mengjian said nothing.
Shangguan Yixiao cleared his throat.
Situ Mengjian’s brow creased. “Do you need some water?”
“No, but…” Shangguan Yixiao chuckled. “May I stand, please?”
“Oh! Of course, please stand, I didn’t mean to be rude.” Situ Mengjian stood up hurriedly to help the bearded man to his feet. “You… work for the Emperor?”
Behind him, his uncle was still kneeling on the floor and making frantic gestures, and his face was contorting like he was suffering from spasms. Situ Mengjian frowned at his uncle, trying to figure out what was wrong, when Shangguan Yixiao laughed.
“I answer to the Emperor directly, yes, and soon you will too. You may address me as Lord Shangguan, or Uncle Shangguan if you prefer.” The big man shook his head and exhaled. “You are a lot younger than I’d expected, Lord Situ.”
“Please, just Mengjian will do,” Situ Mengjian said. “I don’t know about being lord of anything, really.”
“Calling you by your name is too great an honor. May I address you as young master Situ instead? Once you receive your title officially, everyone except the Emperor will have to address you as Lord Situ or Lord Dreamseer.”
“Even my uncle?”
“Everyone, except the Emperor,” repeated Master Shangguan. He smiled kindly at the young man. “Take the rest of today and tomorrow to pack what you wish to bring to the imperial palace. The Emperor is eager to meet you. I hope you feel the same.”
It was nearly midnight when Hu Yuan managed to cordially see his father’s many political and business associates off. The citizens of Ping An had left once they had offered incense and had dinner. The kitchen was finally quiet after having served up hundreds of plates of vegetarian fare. The next day – and for the rest of the week – they would be just as busy. Hu Yuan made a mental note to give them a bonus at the end of the month.
In the morning, pugilists around the region would come, and perhaps some of the more notable ones who was of his father’s generation might arrive as well; they had sent their condolences over private messages, but they never revealed their whereabouts or their plans, for fear that their enemies would find out.
Hu Yuan was tempted to cut short the wake, but that would be improper. His father might not have died surrounded by filial sons and fat grandchildren – Hu Yuan swallowed a lump of grief about his own child and his nephew – but he had lived a long life and accrued much influence. At the very least, the wake had to last seven days. He only prayed that there wouldn’t be any more incidents like Zhao Xinglan’s unwelcome visit. He considered speaking to Leng Xiang, but decided against it. His younger brother should lie in the bed he made, after all.
What could he say anyway?
“You look ten times as tired as I feel,” said Wan Zongran, sitting down beside Yuan with a tray laden with small dishes of food and a jar of wine. The stir-fried cabbage, braised mushrooms, and fried spring rolls seemed very delectable right now, even though the food had probably gone cold. “Have you eaten at all today?”
Hu Yuan had to rack his brain, but he could not remember. He had drunk a lot of tea, that much he recalled.
“Well, get some food in you, and we can drink a little.” Wan Zongran poured a bowl of wine for his sworn brother.
“I can’t drink, Zongran, I need to stay up,” said Hu Yuan. He blinked a few times and hid a yawn behind his hand.
“You need to sleep,” Wan Zongran said. “You’ve had a rough few days. If you collapse from exhaustion, who’s going to take over?” Then, in a gentler tone, the chief constable added, “I’ll keep vigil for you.”
“You don’t have to,” said Hu Yuan, though it was clear from his second yawn that his resolve was wavering. His joints were aching in a way that only strenuous exercise could bring, and his head was heavy.
“I am your brother too, remember?” Wan Zongran pushed the plate of spring rolls in front of Hu Yuan. “Eat, then drink, then go to bed. I promise to wake you before daybreak, if that makes you feel better about being human and getting some rest.”
Hu Yuan smiled, faint lines crinkling around his eyes. He ate and drank, though he did not finish the bowl of wine. When he was done, he leaned back in his chair and sighed. The lines around his mouth pulled the corners down.
“I feel like I could sleep a year,” he confessed, eyes already fluttering close. “Hope Xiang ate something today... She has had a difficult day, with Wen’s woman making a scene like that...”
“It was unseemly,” said Wan Zongran.
“It’s not really surprising though, is it? Wen has so many women out there,” said Hu Yuan. An ironic smile flashed across his face. “I’m amazed it took so long for one of them to have the gumption to show up here.”
“Nevertheless, it was inappropriate.” Wan Zongran paused, and added, “You’ve not sought another woman, even though Sister-in-law has passed for so long.”
“I will never marry again,” Hu Yuan murmured. “Hu Wen doesn’t know how lucky he is that his wife loves him enough to stay.”
“She is one in ten thousand,” Wan Zongran agreed, bitterness on the back of his throat.
Hu Yuan either did not notice or chose to ignore the other man’s tone. “When I was grieving Shufen, Xiang was the only one who understood. One day, she saw me standing where Shufen and I used to feed the fish. I was just standing there, not doing anything, and she stood with me, while Yao flew a kite nearby. We didn’t make conversation, but she remained until I decided to leave. Never said a word throughout.” Hu Yuan drained the remainder of his wine. “Can I tell you a secret?”
Wan Zongran knew he did not want to hear this, but there was very little in the world he would deny Hu Yuan. “Of course.”
Hu Yuan lowered his voice to a whisper. “I’m a heartless scoundrel and a cad. I was grieving my wife and yet, that afternoon... it is one of my best memories.”
The wine tasted like acid in Wan Zongran’s mouth. When he was sure no one was listening to them, he asked, “Do you truly care so much for her?”
“She deserves better than my brother,” Hu Yuan replied, his words slurring. His head slumped to the table on his arm, narrowly missing an empty plate. “Better’n... than being a widow in all but name. He never comes home to her. I see her, and I can’t do anything about it. Can’t tell her how I feel. Not fair to her. Not honorable of me.”
It wasn’t as though Wan Zongran had not known of Hu Yuan’s feelings for his sister-in-law. He studied the dozing man, taking in the curve of his stern mouth and the sweep of dark lashes, the white strands of hair mingled among the black. He looked tired even in his sleep.
With a sigh, the chief constable threw one of Hu Yuan’s arms over his shoulders to help him up.
“Uncle Dan, help me get Brother Yuan to his room,” he called out. “Poor man’s worn out.”
The steward hurried over, calling for a burly manservant to assist. They brought Hu Yuan to his bedroom. Wan Zongran stayed only long enough to make sure the man was covered with a light blanket, before he returned to the wake. Hu Wen was there too, with six monks, watching the servants as they moved the coffin into the ancestral hall; Wan Zongran decided to go to a side court and wait.
It had been where Hu Wen had found him, dead drunk after Hu Yuan’s wedding ceremony. He felt like getting dead drunk again, if not for his promise to keep vigil.
When Hu Yuan got married, Wan Zongran had been there beside him, helping him to drink the many cups of congratulatory wine thrust in the groom’s direction. When his wife died in childbirth, Wan Zongran had stayed by Hu Yuan’s side through the wake, through months of grieving, through years of healing.
Yet the older man only remembered that one afternoon, when Leng Xiang had stood with him by the pond.
He looked up at the stars. The Sickle hung overhead, and the gibbous moon sat fat in its quadrant of the sky. The low sounds of monks chanting a sutra flowed out from behind him.
I’ll never be more than a brother.
It was hopeless, more hopeless than Hu Yuan’s love for Leng Xiang. It was an empty longing. It was a lonely, yawning chasm that he could only acknowledge in solitude.
He could only lie to himself. He had to lie to himself, that being a sworn brother was enough, that what they had was enough. A brotherly bond.
With a long, slow exhalation, he headed to the ancestral hall.
Incense curled slowly into the age-darkened ceiling. Wooden ancestral tablets stretched across the width of the room, and up the back, a veritable mountain of ghostly ancestors of the Hu clan. The six monks were keeping their chanting low, and Hu Wen was nowhere to be seen. Wan Zongran bowed to the coffin and then found himself a seat in the corner, away from the monks. Other people might have found it difficult to sit up with a corpse not five feet from him – the guards on night duty kept well outside the door – but Wan Zongran was used to the dead.
To keep his mind off Hu Yuan, he started to think about Hu Yao’s case again. Lord Shangguan taking the case from him still rankled. The names he had given to Hu Wen were etched in his mind, but he had not shared all that he knew. He was too much of a constable to do that.
The removal of the wings – what had Doctor Fang called it? Allulaectomy – bothered him. Too many people knew that Hu Yao and, by extension, Leng Xiang had wings. Wan Zongran had done some digging, but had not found out why they had wings, nor did he discover why Leng Xiang had such strangely insectile eyes. The oddest part was how little the existence of such eyes bothered people. He himself did not feel discomfited by them, when logically, he should feel wary, if not scared. That was a mystery he could solve another time.
Since he was on administrative leave, he could – in theory – travel up the river to get to the capital and try researching in the Royal Library, but he was not that good a scholar. Perhaps he could visit the neighboring cities instead and chat with the other chief constables. It would be good to catch up with them; a few had been his mentors when he was still in training.
Wan Zongran could not guarantee that the Hu brothers, with their connections both legal and not-quite-legal, would stay away from the case. The names he supplied should give him a head start on tracking down the scant leads, before the Hu brothers or Leng Xiang acted.
The first tenet of the river and the lake was simple: an eye for an eye, a kill for a kill. But the law demanded that all accused had to stand before a judge. He empathized with the desire for the former, but he worked for the latter by choice, so his personal feelings had to be set aside.
It was only two hours into his vigil when Hu Wen returned to the ancestral hall, bleary-eyed and oddly reticent. By then the monks had retired to bed, leaving the chief constable alone.
“You shouldn’t be here,” he said gruffly when he saw Wan Zongran. “You don’t owe the old man shit.”
“Yuan needed rest,” said Wan Zongran. “He is exhausted from everything that’s happened.”He raised a pointed eyebrow at the other man. "Particularly what happened with that young lady."
“Even so, that’s none of your business. Or is it so hard to leave him be?” Hu Wen tilted his head in the direction of his brother's rooms.
“Some things need doing by whoever is available.” Wan Zongran averted his eyes. The coffin weighed down the room with its bulk, and the scent of chrysanthemums was becoming slightly sickening. “Not everyone can do what they want whenever they want.” Not everyone is like you.
Judging by the slight curl of Hu Wen’s lips, the unsaid was loud and clear. He sat down in the chair on the other side of the ancestral hall, his gaze on Wan Zongran.
Eventually, Hu Wen said, “Thank you for trying to find my son. It’s more than anything I’ve ever done for him.” The regret and sincerity in his voice was at odds with his usual brash and loud persona.
“I...” Wan Zongran wet his lips, thrown by the unexpected thanks. “I wish I could have found him before – before anything happened.”
Hu Wen snorted, a sardonic smile curling the corner of his mouth. “Wishes are useless, chief constable. Go and rest. I asked Dan to set up your usual room in Yuan’s wing. My older brother would shout at me if I let you stay up all night.”
“I’m supposed to wake Yuan before daybreak,” Wan Zongran blurted before he could stop himself.
“I’ll do that. Get out of here.” Hu Wen pulled out a short pipe from his pocket and a flat, palm-sized box from his vest. “No need to let the dead steal your sleep.”
Wan Zongran mumbled a thanks and hurried out of the ancestral hall, his ears and the back of his neck burning with embarrassed ire.
He knew the way to the usual guest room Hu Yuan insisted on keeping for him. It was just two rooms away from Hu Yuan’s own.
When they were still schooling, Hu Yuan often had his friend stay overnight after revising and playing. They shared baths and the same bed, just to talk about silly, childish things. As a child, Wan Zongran had been awed by the fact that each brother had a whole section of the estate to himself that was larger than Wan Zongran’s entire house. Over the years, he had grown accustomed to their immense wealth, but he had sometimes wondered why Hu Tianyi had not made a fuss over his eldest son’s friendship with a common constable’s boy.
After Hu Yuan got married, Wan Zongran had tried to distance himself, but Hu Yuan refused to let him, insisting on having meals together after Wan Zongran's shifts. They would talk late into the night over good wine. Sometimes, Hu Yuan would teach his sworn brother a few moves to better protect himself against armed criminals.
Wan Zongran was not a saint. He had been tempted, often, ever since he acknowledged to himself what he felt. But he dared not step beyond the boundaries of brotherhood, fearing the rejection of a man he loved and admired beyond anyone else in his life.
Tonight, however, he ventured into Hu Yuan’s room. The older man was still sleeping. Fatigue and sorrow had etched a few more lines into that handsome face. Wan Zongran ached to touch his brow and soothe the tension and worry he carried. Instead, he just pulled the blanket up to Hu Yuan’s chin.
Hu Yuan shifted and sighed, his lips parting.
As if by magic, Wan Zongran drew closer. His fingers reached towards and hovered over the other man’s mouth. He could feel the moist heat of the latter’s breath on his fingertips, and brought his fingers to his own lips.
Then he jerked his hand away, ashamed and sickened.
“I am your friend,” he whispered soundlessly. His words sounded false to his ears, but he willed himself to believe it. “I am your brother.”
It was unwise to stay, knowing how vulnerable Hu Yuan would be for the near future. It would be so easy to offer comfort, and then to offer more. So easy.
He made his decision. Once dawn broke, he would leave Ping An. He would ask for a month-long break from the city, and he was sure the prefect would grant him the holiday. Kun De could then work for Lord Shangguan without worrying about Wan Zongran trying to finagle case details from him. He would do more good that way.