Leng Xiang was sitting at the dressing table, dressed in deep blue, when Hu Wen returned to the bedroom an hour before daybreak.
“I was not expecting you to be awake,” he said as he sat down on the bed and kicked off his straw sandals. Wiggling his bare toes, he added, “Did you get any sleep?”
“Not much. I was thinking.” Leng Xiang pulled out the small pearwood combs that had held her hair together all night. Her wings fluttered weakly. Violet light darted over her skin like little tadpoles in a clear pond, but there was a serenity about her that had not been there the day before.
“What about?” Hu Wen asked warily.
“Xinglan.” Leng Xiang took out the last comb, letting her hair tumble in a waterfall of black silk to the floor, and walked over to the bed to sit next to her husband. “I think you should marry her. After the mourning period, you should marry her.”
Hu Wen stared, his eyebrows raised in surprise. “What are you talking about? You nearly killed her yesterday. You don’t want her in this family.”
Leng Xiang exhaled heavily. “I lost control because she spoke callously of Yao-er. But she has your child, and she should be recognized as your spouse. The child would be the family’s next heir.”
“You’re mad. If she comes into this family, she’ll never give you a moment’s peace.”
“She traveled from wherever you left her to come here, all while heavily pregnant, her hair still in braids. She took it upon herself to bear the judgment of everyone she encountered. All of Ping An know that you are her child’s father, and that she is unmarried. Imagine the inner strength she has had to draw upon to do all that and still challenge me, here, in this time.” Leng Xiang took her husband’s hand and clasped it between her own. “Promise me that you will marry her and make her child an heir. She will be an asset to the Hu family, and the line will not have died out from Yao’s passing.”
Hu Wen snorted, but did not take his hand from her. “An asset. She would make more trouble for us. And there is no guarantee that her child will be a son.”
“Even if it is a girl, you can have a man marry into the family later.” Leng Xiang tightened her grip. “You and I know that I cannot bear you another child, and your brother has no intention of remarrying. Xinglan is your only hope, unless you have fathered other children out there in the world.”
“It was an accident that this one even exists,” Hu Wen said. He sounded embarrassed. “I’ve always been careful.” With a short pause, he covered her left hand with his own. “For your sake, I’ve always been careful.”
She smiled softly. “I know.” Withdrawing her hands, she brushed the edge of her palm over his cheek. His stubble scratched her skin lightly. “Marry Xinglan, for my sake. Promise me you will.”
“Fine.” His jaw twitched with tension, but eventually he nodded curtly. “You know I don’t feel anything for any of them.”
“I know.” Leng Xiang smiled. “I never doubted you.”
Then she leaned forward and kissed him tenderly, cradling the back of his head.
“Goodnight,” she murmured.
Then she knocked him out with a burst of qi.
Hu Yuan felt guilty for having had that much to drink the night before, but he was feeling less strained and tense. His sworn brother had left before he had woken up, saying that he would be in touch, and there was a lot to do that day. Hu Wen had kept vigil practically all night long, so he said he would take a nap before returning to his duty.
The monks had completed the second round of prayers when Hu Wen returned to the wake, a scowl on his face, and he came right up to his older brother.
“Xiang’s gone,” he snarled under his breath.
“Fuck if I know.” Hu Wen’s scowl deepened. “She knocked me out. I woke up and saw she’d cut her hair, and she left behind this.” He shoved half a jade pendant into Hu Yuan’s chest.
It was one of the pieces from the jade pendant Master Bai Yunxian had broken into two and given to the brothers when they had volunteered to help bear Leng Xiang’s burden. This was Hu Yuan’s half, which he had presented to Leng Xiang on her wedding day; he had thought it was no longer appropriate for him to hold onto something that connected him to her that intimately.
As he took it from Hu Wen, a sharp thrill ran up his arm, and he felt a familiar sensation settle against the base of his spine, like a cat curled against him for warmth. It was that old connection to Leng Xiang, when she had relied on the brothers to stay alive, burdened with all the qi of her massacred clan.
“She cut her hair? Why?” Hu Yuan tucked the pendant away. “Anyone who sees her eyes would know who she is.”
“Weight.” Hu Wen practically spat out the word. “Her wings are bound, so she needs to reduce weight to maximize the effect of her qinggong.”
Hu Yuan hissed in a sharp inhale. Turning his head to look at his father’s coffin and the visitors who were waiting for them in order to pay their respects, he wondered how he should deal with this matter. To his credit, Hu Wen did not push him to decide.
With a deep sigh, Hu Yuan clapped his younger brother on the back. “Let’s just get through the rest of the wake. And if anyone asks…”
“We lie,” Hu Wen murmured in response. His fists clenched and then relaxed. “I just wish I knew what she’s up to.”
Having no desire to sit another day at the wake watching her senior go through the motions of a daughter-in-law in mourning, Jiang Hong left for Blue Skies Inn at dawn when she saw Wu Liuqi lurking in an alley. He motioned to her and she hastened over, checking that she was not being followed. Few people outside of the top-ranking beggars knew of her personal connection to the Beggar Sect and she was keen to keep it that way.
“Hong-meimei, you have to get out of the city,” Wu Liuqi said after a perfunctory scan of the street. “Right now, if possible.”
“Why? What happened?”
“Shangguan Yixiao is here.” Wu Liuqi tugged her into a deeper patch of the shadows. At the other end of the alley, two beggars lounged on the ground, looking for all the world like two drunk, homeless men, but the way they angled their begging sticks made it clear that they were on guard. “He’s investigating the Hu child case.”
Jiang Hong felt a chill of foreboding crawl down her spine. She had heard of Shangguan Yixiao’s ruthless dedication to the law, of course, and she was not so naïve to think that she was not on any Wanted lists for the high-profile thefts she had committed. “When did you hear this?”
“Got the confirmation yesterday evening.” He lowered his voice. “He went to the prefect’s compound. One of the guards was talking about him visiting that tower you go to, the one with the paper butterflies at the window.”
“Paper birds,” she corrected absently. Her heart raced. Was Situ Mengjian under interrogation because of her? Why would a favorite of the Emperor be visiting that young man in the tower? “Do you know where he is now?”
“He’s staying in the prefect’s official residence, but he will be going around town today. Several notables have already been told that he’ll pay them a visit today, and I’m sure he’ll go to the Hu residence.” The beggar gripped Jiang Hong’s left arm. “I don’t want you encountering him at all. If he finds out who you are, he’ll capture you or worse.”
“I can’t just leave,” she hissed, pulling his hand away. “My senior is still in mourning for her son and her father-in-law. I have to be here for her.”
Wu Liuqi frowned in puzzlement. “Do you not know?”
She glared at him. “What don’t I know?”
“Mrs Hu left town early this morning, just before sunrise. Three elders saw her riding out the south gate on a black horse.”
Her blood ran cold. “Are they sure it was her?”
“She didn’t veil her face.” Wu Liuqi’s lips pressed together into a thin line. “She cut her hair as well, they say, but there's no mistaking those eyes.”
“By the gods,” Jiang Hong cursed under breath. Then her eyes widened. “Oh no, that bitch!”
He was shocked at the vulgarity. “She's your senior!”
She rolled her eyes at him. “I was referring to someone else.” Tiptoeing to kiss him lightly on his lips, she added, “I just need to do two things and I’ll be out of the city. If you need me, I’ll be east of Mount Guan, in one of the smaller towns outside Dong Wen city.”
“Hong-meimei, you shouldn’t tarry.”
“I know. But it’s important.” She smiled brightly at him. “Go, I need your eyes and ears out and about Ping An. I’ll be twice as careful.”
Though he did not seem assured, Wu Liuqi left, and the two beggars at the other end of the alley followed him. Jiang Hong waited until they were out of sight before she entered the inn.
It was tastefully decorated, though not luxurious. The surfaces were clean and polished, while the few staff already at work wore neat uniforms of pale blue.
“Hi! I’m looking for Miss Zhao,” she said brightly to the plump matron at the registration counter, who appeared to be checking something on her datapad. Her nails were painted a bright scarlet. “A young woman, pregnant, with really long braids?” Sliding a silver coin across the counter, she added, “Could you tell me which room she’s in? I’m here on behalf of Master Hu.”
The middle-aged woman on duty blinked at Jiang Hong, as if she had only just noticed the visitor, but the silver coin vanished quite rapidly. “Room? She has the entire Peach Blossom suite. Master Hu Wen insisted.” She sniffed censoriously. “Boss was saying that she was making a scene an’ all at the wake. Of course, me being stuck here means I had to miss the fun stuff and the gossip…”
Leaving her to ramble, Jiang Hong quickly headed down the corridor leading to the suite, dread filling her with every step. Surely Leng Xiang had not crossed the line…? She saw the door was ajar and her fear doubled.
“Junior Xinglan?” she whispered.
“If you’re here to tell me off, save your breath. I knew what – and who – I was doing when I chose to sleep with him.” Zhao Xinglan pushed the door open further and waved Jiang Hong in with an ironic arch of her brow. “If you’re here to kill me…” She paused, then smirked. “Well, we both know you’re not going to kill me. So, do me a favor, and get out of my sight.”
Relief spread through Jiang Hong on seeing her former friend perfectly alright. Then she schooled her face into a sterner expression. “You shouldn’t have come in the first place.”
“Where else was I supposed to go? Home?” Zhao Xinglan walked heavily across the suite to the small kitchenette to pour herself some water. “Anyway, I’ve done what I came here to do. Everyone now knows that Hu Wen is the father. If anything happens to me, it’ll be on his hands. Or his wife’s.”
“His wife is our senior.”
“Yours, not mine,” Zhao Xinglan retorted.
From behind, she still looked much like the young woman who had grown up with and studied alongside Jiang Hong in the Valley of Butterflies. They had sparred frequently in the past, being closer in age and skill, and Jiang Hong had argued against Zhao Xinglan’s expulsion. Jiang Hong chewed on the inside of her cheek, trying to articulate her sorrow and anger at what Zhao Xinglan had become.
She was staring at her former junior for so long that Zhao Xinglan swiveled around and glared, hands on her hips. “What are you looking at?”
“You,” Jiang Hong said bluntly. “You’re such a waste.”
“How dare you?” the younger woman snarled. “You’re a thief. You sleep with a beggar. You’re the waste.”
She had heard worse from people. Jiang Hong merely shrugged. “I’m not a sage, Xinglan, and I never will be. But you? You had so much potential. Your family is connected. You’re clever and beautiful. You’re a better fighter than I am. Now, you’re just a homewrecker who got pregnant out of wedlock. Whatever you get out of Hu Wen isn’t worth all this.”
For an instant, Zhao Xinglan looked hurt. Then her expression hardened and she turned away. “Why are you here?”
“To make sure that Senior didn’t kill you.” Jiang Hong stuck her hands in her pockets. It had been a possibility at the wake, but now that Leng Xiang had left the city, the likelihood was much lower. Or she could double back to deal with a loose end.
“Well, as you see, I’m not dead,” said Zhao Xinglan. She motioned to the door and cocked her head expectantly.
Jiang Hong worked her jaw, then said, “Be careful, Xinglan.”
Leaving the inn, Jiang Hong thought about returning to the wake to ask if Leng Xiang had indeed left, then decided against it. Once she got back to the Hu estate, she would not stay any longer than it would take to grab her few possessions and leave. She might even have to abandon her mode of transport for the moment and travel on foot.
Instead, she headed to the tower. It was risky, sneaking inside the compound in broad daylight, but she could not bear to leave without bidding farewell to Situ Mengjian. For all she knew, she was his only friend.
The deity of thieves must have been watching over her, for she managed to slip into the prefect’s compound through the back door, and then stole a maid’s outfit from the servants’ quarters. Keeping her head down and a duster in hand, she slowly made her way to her destination. Along the way she passed a side hall, where the weaselly prefect was bowing and scraping to a skinny, pale man with a thin white beard. The latter was dressed in purple brocade and had a yellow jade button on his hat – an imperial envoy, it seemed – and the table was laden with delicacies. He also had a guard sitting next to him, tall and broad-shouldered, wearing a dark dusty green tunic. His thick hair was braided on either side.
Wielding her duster strategically, Jiang Hong sneaked into the room next to the hall and started cleaning the tall vases, her ears pricked for information.
“…such an honor, Lord Quan,” said Prefect Wu. Jiang Hong could hear the metaphorical tail-wagging in his voice. “My nephew will be ready to leave in two days, I assure you.”
Leaving? Jiang Hong paused in her motions. Where is he going to? Is he leaving with the envoy?
“Surely he has no need of any of the possessions he insists on taking along,” someone said. Jiang Hong assumed that was the envoy speaking. “The Emperor has surely thought of everything he might ever desire. I have yet to be granted the honor of visiting the redesigned Palace of Eternal Beneficence, but I have heard that the Emperor spared no expense in its renovation.”
“The Emperor will spoil my nephew,” Prefect Wu almost squeaked. “I wonder, perhaps, if Mengjian, I mean, the future Lord Situ, could possibly invite his family to stay a night, no, not even a night, to have a meal with him in his new palace?”
The envoy drawled, “I cannot say one way or another, Prefect Wu. It depends on the Emperor. But I can, of course, gently remind the future Lord Situ of his debt to you for having taken such good care of him for sixteen years, if I have reason to do so.”
There was a peal of nervous laughter from the prefect.
Jiang Hong heard enough. The envoy was asking for a bribe, and the prefect was practically slobbering over the chance to get inside the imperial palace. She tucked the duster under her arm and raced towards the tower, trusting that anyone seeing a maid run around would not notice her. To her surprise, a handful of servants were already there, carrying boxes into and out of the structure. It would be impossible to speak to him alone.
Deciding to take the risk, she quickly approached the line and picked up an empty box from where they were stacked.
“Hey, you there!” One of the guards pointed to her. “Who are you?”
“I’m Xiaoyu, from the kitchens,” she lied. “I was told to come and help. The imperial envoy wants everything packed up as quickly as possible.”
“Yeah, they forgot to tell you?” the guard asked, frowning.
Only then did Jiang Hong notice that the women had their faces veiled. She cleared her throat and whispered, “Sorry, I must have dropped the face covering when I was running over here.”
“So eager to get inside, huh.”
“Well, it’s not like we have never been allowed to see the mysterious person we’ve been cooking for and all…” Jiang Hong winked at the guard, who only rolled his eyes and handed her his scarf. “Thank you, sir.”
Veiling her face, she resumed her task and followed the others up the stairs, keeping to the left, while on the other side of her boxes that were full were hauled downstairs. When she got into the room, she saw three women packing things into boxes, and the shelves and cabinets were already almost empty.
“You, stop gawking and bring that box here,” ordered one of the women. She was packing up the many books on the shelves and scattered on the floor. Situ Mengjian was hovering nearby, wringing his slender hands, as if concerned that the books would be damaged. Behind him on the table was a good-sized ebony box, with a smaller box with mother-of-pearl inlay on top of it.
Jiang Hong sidled as close to Situ Mengjian as she dared, and when he glanced up, she winked at him and flashed her qi lines, hoping he recognized her. He gasped before she could tell him not to react.
“What is it?” the woman packing the books asked, startled.
Jiang Hong gave a minute shake of her head.
“Uh,” Situ Mengjian stammered, “I just saw that… you found a book I thought I’d misplaced. Carry on.”
Since there was no way for her to speak to him, Jiang Hong could only try to convey her questions through her eyes. Unfortunately, all that resulted was Situ Mengjian looking increasingly baffled at her squinting and facial contortions. However, before she could give up and rip off the scarf to ask him outright, he took the smaller box behind him and handed it to Jiang Hong.
“Take this,” he said, “to… my uncle. It’s a gift.” He smiled at her, almost apologetically. “He’ll know what it’s for when he opens it.”
Understanding that the box was meant for her, Jiang Hong nodded, and on impulse, reached out to squeeze her friend’s fingertips briefly, before she left the tower.
When she got back to the servants’ quarters and changed out of the uniform, she opened the box. Inside was a silver bangle wrapped in a blue handkerchief, along with a letter addressed to her. Putting the bangle on and tucking the letter into her pocket, she found her way out the same way she got in, and then found a quiet little corner to read the letter.
Thank you for being my friend. You once asked why I am in the tower, and now I can tell you. I am the moon to the Emperor’s sun; I am here in the tower so that the Emperor’s enemies cannot find me or make use of me. By the time you read the letter, I would have been summoned to the palace. While I hope I can see you again, I am not so naïve to think that I can do as I please in the imperial court. Perhaps we shall meet in our dreams, and you can share your adventures with me as you always do.
Gratefully, your friend,