Chapter 15

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After all the possessions in his room had been packed up to be sent off to the palace, Situ Mengjian sat alone on his bed with just the ebony box in his lap. The tower, which had felt cozily cluttered just that morning, now echoed with every exhalation. It was just past noon and his lunch was on the table, but he had no appetite at all.

 

Receiving the edict that morning had been a flurry of confusion. He had been shaken awake and then dressed in his finest clothes, his face washed and shaved, his hair combed and oiled, and he was forced to wear socks and shoes. All for an announcement.

 

The imperial edict was left on the low altar by the door. It was a vibrant yellow scroll of fabric, with embroidery in gold and silver thread. His uncle and Situ Mengjian had received it together, kneeling in front of the altar that had held red candles and sweet incense, while the envoy read the edict aloud from behind it. The envoy had a resonant voice, but Situ Mengjian had not liked him at all and did not bother to ask his name. He seemed to look down his high, thin nose when looking at Situ Mengjian, even when he smiled widely enough to crease his eyes into little slits.

 

Lord Situ Mengjian, Imperial Dreamseer. That was his title now. A whole palace had been prepared for him and he would be allowed to put in the final touches, to make it his own. The weight of the duty and the honor had yet to truly sink in.

 

His uncle was probably still vibrating with excitement over his impending promotion. Situ Mengjian was glad the efforts his uncle had taken all these years to care for him would be rewarded. He hoped that his parents would be proud of him, even if he would not be able to tell them in person.

 

Lord Shangguan had been there in the morning too, kneeling on the side as he was not a recipient of the edict. After Situ Mengjian had been given the scroll, Lord Shangguan had said, “The heavens chose you, Lord Situ, to serve the Emperor. It is life’s greatest honor.”

 

“When do I have to go?”

 

The envoy had raised a painted eyebrow. “By tomorrow evening, Lord Situ. Lord Shangguan will personally escort you to the capital on the fastest boat available.”

 

“I’m going by boat?”

 

“The roads will be difficult in this season,” Lord Shangguan had explained. “And with winter coming, wild beasts are bolder. It would be much safer to travel up the river.”

 

Perhaps it is safer, thought Situ Mengjian glumly as he stared at his lunch that had gone cold, but it isn’t more fun.

 

He understood the reason for haste, of course. The old Dreamseer was very weak now. Situ Mengjian kept finding his vision and hearing blurred with different images and sounds overlapping, as if he was in two places at once. When he closed his eyes, he was back in the endless hallways, haunted by the sound of water dropping into water in the distance and the sensation of someone watching him from everywhere. The power of Dreamseeing was passing to him.

 

The second silver bangle that matched the one he gave Jiang Hong rested inside his ebony box. He put it on, sliding it up his thin arm until it was snug around his bicep. It was comforting to have something he picked out for himself.

 

The official robes hung on a stand by the corner. Deep gray robes with moon-white details, white pearl buttons, and a subtle pattern of clouds woven into the fabric, the entire outfit looked cumbersome and heavy. Situ Mengjian could not picture himself dressed in it. And the shoes – the shoes made the corner of his right eye twitch with displeasure. Socks he could abide, for the weather was growing cold, but shoes: thick-soled boots that looked as uncomfortable as they felt encasing his feet. He resolved to throw them into the river as soon as possible.

 

The river. He was going to go on a boat. Would he suffer motion-sickness? Would it be one long journey upriver, or would they stop at different cities and towns? He hoped it would be the latter, if Lord Shangguan was amenable to showing him around. Or perhaps Lord Shangguan could share some stories with him. He seemed approachable enough, even if he looked fearsomely tall between his uncle and the envoy.

 

A sudden grumble of thunder distracted him. The sky had darkened alarmingly while he was deep in thought. Hastening to the window, he stretched out a hand to feel the cold, heavy raindrops hitting his open palm.

 

Soon, he would be able to feel them falling on his head. Smiling, he drew back his hand, and settled by the window to listen to the sound of the rain.

 

*

 

Leng Xiang was riding through the forests southeast of the city when it started to rain. Her horse made an unhappy sound, but trudged on regardless in the inclement weather; it was a strong cart-horse that was used up in the hill to haul salt down to the transport vehicles, which was why she chose it in the first place. At least the tall trees helped to ease the deluge, but it would be safer under a proper roof. Patting the black horse on its neck, she urged it on towards a traveler’s pavilion that she could spy in the distance.

 

It was strange with her head feeling so light. She had only cut her to her shoulders, because any shorter would have attracted more attention than she wanted. Long hair was a luxury she could not afford if she were on the road. In a town or city, she would need to put on a pair of smoked glasses to hide her very distinctive eyes. The jacket she wore was thick enough to keep out the chill, so once she could procure a vehicle, she could turn the horse loose or have it sent back home.

 

She shut away the guilt at having knocked her husband out with qi, but she could not risk him waking up while she prepared to leave. Getting out of the estate with the scant supplies she had gathered had been a surprisingly challenging task, since the servants were already hard at work around the estate. At least she managed to get out of Ping An before any fuss was raised.

 

Out here she felt alive. Every sensation was sharper and cleaner, as if the fog that had settled upon her since she was married had finally dissipated. The earth smelled rich with sweet decay, and the trees were aglow in fiery reds and burnt oranges as the year got ready to fall asleep once more. She had a purpose now, a purpose that outweighed every other matter in her life.

 

As she got to the pavilion and secured the horse to a pillar, she suddenly felt a presence impinging on her senses. It was a cold, deadly pressure that made the hairs on the back of her arms rise in alarm. The horse neighed and stamped its front hooves, shaking its head and pulling back its lips.

 

“If my horse runs away because of you, I shall be quite annoyed,” Leng Xiang said, tugging on the reins to soothe the creature. She retrieved a towel from a saddlebag to wipe her face and scrub her damp hair. “How long have you been following me?”

 

A tall man dressed in faded white robes walked out of the trees and into the pavilion. His head was shaved down to the scalp, and his eyes were covered with a long, thin strip of blood-red fabric. Despite the rain, he appeared quite dry.

 

Leng Xiang sighed. “Brother Kuang. It’s been years.”

 

“Not since you were married,” Du Kuang agreed, smiling gently.

 

“You look very different from when I last saw you,” she said. “Have you become a monk?”

 

“I saw a white hair and shaved my head,” he replied, deadpan. When he heard her huff of exasperation, he grinned. “I’m on a pilgrimage of atonement before I enter the Empty Gate, if Buddha will have me.” The smile faded from his face and he walked up to Leng Xiang to clasp her shoulder. “This may sound hollow from me, but you should turn back. Vengeance will not bring you peace.”

 

Leng Xiang covered his hand with her own, resting her cheek against their overlapping fingers for a heartbeat, before she stepped away. “It is not peace that I seek.”

 

“You have never taken a human life, Xiang. Do not cross that line.”

 

He was never one for small talk. Du Kuang had always been her confidant, ever since she and her teacher had saved him, but his bluntness was not always welcome.

 

“They crossed it for me when they murdered my son.” She clenched her jaw and added, her words bitter and sharp, “Or are you the only one allowed to bloody your hands?”

 

A pained expression passed over Du Kuang’s features. His right hand dropped to his waist, where a length of green bamboo was stuck through his belt in place of his old sword.

 

Leng Xiang knew it had been a low blow, but she did not need him to support her choice. Not when he had done the same, so many years ago.

 

“I have never forgotten what I did in the Hall of White Jade,” he said, “nor will I excuse the consequences of my actions.” The bleakness in his voice made her ashamed. He added, “I don’t want you to follow in my footsteps. You cannot fathom the pain I bear daily.”

 

“Is your guilt as heavy as your grief?”

 

“Which is closer, the edges of the sky or the ends of the horizon?”

 

She squeezed her eyes shut, breathed out and turned around to glare at him. “I have no time for koans. If you are here to stop me, then we’ll fight it out right now. If not, I’ll thank you to leave me alone.”

 

Du Kuang sighed and drew out the bamboo stick. His qi drew intricate swirls over his body in deep crimson, as if he was painted in blood, but then the qi pulsed in a brilliant white.

 

The pressure that alerted Leng Xiang to his presence washed over her in a more intense wave, and her own qi paths lit up in response. Her right hand twitched towards her belt, towards the steel spike that was her weapon.

 

“You are not a match for me, Xiang,” Du Kuang said kindly, at odds with the killing aura emanating from him.

 

“No, I’m not,” Leng Xiang replied. “But I will not turn back. Kill me, or leave me be.”

 

Whinnying in fear, the horse tried to back away, frantically tossing its head and threatening to kick. Both Leng Xiang and Du Kuang calmed down instantly.

 

"You know I can do neither." The blind man’s lips thinned for a moment, before he said, “I will go with you. Madam Bai asked that I watch over you, and I shall do what I can.”

 

Soothing her horse, Leng Xiang wondered what Du Kuang meant. It did not matter in the least, anyway. She had sworn at her son’s grave that she would go to any lengths to punish those who took him from her. Whatever Du Kuang intended to do, he would do well to stay out of her way.

 

*

 

After her little escapade at the prefect’s compound, Jiang Hong knew she had to leave as soon as she could. She decided to stock up on a few supplies before she returned to the Hu estate, but found herself loitering around the marketplace, listening to the vendors and customers exchange a continuous flow of information under colorful awnings as the rain petered off to a light drizzle. The talk of the city of Ping An still revolved around the deaths of the Hu patriarch and the child, as expected, though now gossip about the prefect being promoted was in the lead. Most agreed that the times were declining, now that avaricious and incompetent men were pushed up the career ladder.

 

She decided to have a late lunch once the rain stopped. The wooden box was quite light, but it was still cumbersome to haul it around. A couple of bone-thin boys with tattered shirt and vests were loitering outside a noodle house, looking longingly at the steaming bowls of noodles inside, so she gave the little box to them. The box would fetch a pretty penny, and it was not so valuable that it would rouse suspicion of theft. They looked at her with deep suspicion when she held the box out to them.

 

“What’s this for?” the shorter boy demanded.

 

“It’s a bit of help,” Jiang Hong replied. “Sell that for at least ten silvers and use the money to get something filling to eat and something warm to wear.”

 

When the shorter boy was about to walk away, the taller one snatched the box and tucked it under his arm.

 

“We’re not beggars!” the shorter boy spat out.

 

Jiang Hong grinned. “There’s nothing wrong with being a beggar. But if you want to pay me back for that box, do me a favor.”

 

They listened closely, then nodded in unison before racing off to the pawn shop. Jiang Hong straightened and smiled to herself. Street urchins were very good at keeping an eye on people, and there was one young woman who needed looking after.

 

The noodle house was not overly crowded. Jiang Hong placed an order and found herself a table in the back, glad to have the privacy to think about Situ Mengjian going into the service of the Emperor. Not once in their acquaintance had she guessed that he was someone that important. Would she have continued to visit him if she had known?

 

I would’ve stolen him from the tower. The thought popped into her mind and she snorted to herself. She would definitely have smuggled him out of it, away from a lifetime of servitude and duty to the Emperor. Whatever he meant by being the moon to the Emperor’s sun sounded too esoteric for her. Then again, the workings of the imperial court were a mystery to the world.

 

Her meal had just arrived when a young man in a gaudy orange tunic took the empty seat at her table. “Hello. I’ve not met you before, have I?”

 

“Not interested,” she said.

 

“Come on, just give me a name,” he said with a crooked smile that was probably supposed to be appealing.

 

It was not the first time she encountered this sort: used to getting whatever he wanted whenever he wanted, and charming to young women until they refused him.

She returned her attention to the last two pork dumplings. “Go away.”

 

His smile crumpled into a scowl. “Little bitch,” he sneered, slapping a hand on the table and making Jiang Hong’s bowl jump. “who do you think you are? I’m young master Jiao Dafan of the Jiao Yan Trading Company! You’re lucky I’m talking to you!”

 

Quick as a snake, Jiang Hong slammed the points of her chopsticks into the table, between two of his fingers. With a small, hard smile, she said, “I think you are lucky that I have better things to do today than making you bleed.”

 

When she let go of the utensils, they remained upright. The young man’s face paled when he realized the bamboo chopsticks had been speared right through the wooden table.

Hurriedly, he scrambled away from the table, mumbling about being late for an appointment. Jiang Hong ignored him and paid her bill, adding a little extra for the damage to the furniture.

 

The proprietor waved aside her apology and the extra. “It’ll be the most popular table for a week at least,” she said jovially. “Everyone likes a bit of gossip, especially if it means embarrassing that creep.”

 

Now that’s a bit of truth. Jiang Hong smiled demurely. “I’m glad to have brought some future business.” Lowering her voice, she asked, “Is there a reliable and discreet physician around here? I have an… emergency.” She slid her right hand to her abdomen.

 

The proprietor’s eyes widened, and then she winked in gentle understanding. “You want Doctor Fang. Very discreet. He’s usually in Osmanthus Street, just a few doors down from the brothel. Unless there’s another body, then he’ll be at the city morgue.”

 

Jiang Hong thanked the proprietor again and made her way to Osmanthus Street, but as she turned the corner, she saw the same tall man with the envoy back in the prefect’s estate. He was talking to an older man dressed in physician’s robes outside a medical hall. With a sinking feeling in the pit of her belly, she ducked into an alley before either man saw her.

 

That tall man had not piqued her interest earlier, since her focus had been on getting to her friend. She scrunched up her face, trying to recall as much detail about the man as she could to see what had tweaked her alarm bells, and abruptly remembered the braids.

 

Not many Lieh warriors come to this part of the empire, she thought. That had to be Shangguan Yixiao. Jiang Hong wondered if the man was really as impressive as the stories. She was an excellent thief, and he was rumored to be the best tracker of criminals in the empire. A small, stupid part of her wanted to test herself against him, but she shut that voice down quickly.

 

Regardless, she needed to speak to the physician. Her supply of mare’s essence was running low. When she heard a vehicle driving off, she poked her head out from the mouth of the alley. Both men were no longer there.

 

Taking a deep breath, she strolled into the hall with deliberate nonchalance and heaved an internal sigh of relief when she saw that the physician was alone. The medical hall was dark with age, and quite cramped. Jars and boxes lined the shelves behind the counter, and a set of brass scales rested on its waxed surface.

 

“Hello, miss. How may I help you?” the physician asked. His gray hair was coming out of its bun, as if he had just woken up from a nap.

 

“Doctor Fang? You were recommended,” said Jiang Hong. She approached the counter and lowered her voice. “I need twenty doses of mare’s essence, please.”

 

He squinted at her, his gaze pausing at her throat, and then he beamed broadly. “Of course. Tablets or vials?”

 

“They make tablets now?”

 

“Oh, no, I made them myself. There are several ladies in the Court of Fragrant Lilies who require them,” Doctor Fang replied. “It’s equally efficacious as its liquid form, though you will have to abstain from tea and wine for at least two hours after you take it, which I assume you know.”

 

Jiang Hong smiled. “Yes, but a reminder is always welcome.”

 

“I’ll throw in two more doses in case you can’t get more in time.” He counted out the tablets, each a light brown ball about the size of the fingernail on Jiang Hong’s little finger. “It has beeswax in them, so do keep them cool.”

 

She paid for the medicine. As she stepped away from the counter, she asked off-handedly, “Doctor Fang, were you the one who examined Hu Yao’s corpse?”

 

The doctor’s warm expression suddenly disappeared. His mouth was a stern, thin line. “Who are you that you want to know?”

 

She had been too direct. Wagging a hand, Jiang Hong pretended to be contrite and apologized. “I was just curious, that’s all. Thank you, I’ll take my leave now.”

 

Feeling Doctor Fang’s suspicious gaze on her as she quickly made her way to the Hu estate, Jiang Hong berated herself for her clumsiness. She was always better at stealing treasures than ferreting out secrets; she had relied on Wu Liuqi for that. He would be very unhappy with her for dallying so long.

 

As she approached the Hu estate, she saw a sleek black car with ostentatious gold detailing outside of the main gate, and two constables were on guard. Prefect Wu was here, then. She ducked to the left to get in by one of the side entrances and crept round to the wake.

Hu Yuan and Hu Wen were talking to Prefect Situ. The man reminded Jiang Hong of a rodent, especially his shifty eyes and weak chin. Even though he was at a wake, he was grinning so broadly he might split his face.

 

Then another person walked over to the three. Shangguan Yixiao looked even more imposing next to the skinny prefect. The latter excused himself to chat with some wealthy-looking people on the other side of the room.

 

An old woman seated by herself not too far from the trio was struggling to pour herself some tea, so Jiang Hong hastened over to assist.

 

“You’re a lovely child,” the old woman said tremulously. “My useless son has disappeared, damn him. I taught him to be respectful of elders, I did, and he brought me here to pay our respects to Old Master Hu – he once wanted to make me a concubine, did you know? I was a great beauty once, but foolish as a spring foal, I should have married Old Master Hu - and then my son, drat him, has gone to talk with his reprobate friends...” Letting her drone on, Jiang Hong nodded at appropriate moments, humming in agreement, while keeping her back to the three men as she strained to overhear their conversation.

 

“Lord Shangguan, my wife left without informing anyone,” Hu Wen was saying. “Given the circumstances, I would assume she returned to her teacher for some time away from this place of sorrow so that she could grieve in peace.”

 

“She had to knock you out to do so?” Shangguan Yixao asked. His voice had a rough burr, reminding Jiang Hong of gravel, but his accent was as crisp as anyone she had ever met from the capital.

 

Hu Wen snorted. “I wouldn’t have let her go.”

 

“I see.” Shangguan Yixiao nodded thoughtfully, and then said, “Mrs Hu is not the same as the rest of us, I understand? The citizens I’ve interviewed have mentioned something odd about her eyes.”

 

Hu Wen folded his arms. “Why are you asking people about my wife, Lord Shangguan?”

 

Interjecting hurriedly, Hu Yuan said, “My sister-in-law is an orphan of the Yi clan. I hope that detail is pertinent to the case. Excuse us, Lord Shangguan. The monks expect us to join in the next round of sutra recitations.”

 

Shangguan Yixiao inclined his body, his right hand over his heart. “My condolences, once again. Thank you for entertaining my questions. I have a rough gauge of the events now. By morning tomorrow, I will know who killed the boy.” He beckoned to the prefect, who scurried back like a nervous dog. “Prefect Wu, we must leave.”

 

“We must? But why?” the prefect squeaked, but corrected himself quickly. “Of course, of course. Come, the car will take us back to the compound. Goodbye, Masters Hu.”

 

By morning tomorrow? Jiang Hong’s breath caught in her throat. She poured another cup of tea for the old woman, who was now talking about the tender sweet potatoes in the porridge her daughter-in-law made, and left her to fend for herself.

 

“One more night,” she murmured as she returned to the guest room. “I can stay out of sight till then.” With a vague sense of guilt for not heeding Wu Liuqi’s warning, she packed up most of her belongings. Once she knew what Shangguan Yixiao’s conclusion was, she would track her senior down. Hopefully, she could get to Leng Xiang before the older woman did something she would regret.