Prefect Situ’s obsequious flattery of Lord Shangguan had grated on Hu Wen’s nerves. The prefect was a fool, and had been since he took office a decade and a half ago. As for Lord Shangguan, there was an aura about the man that sent prickles of apprehension over Hu Wen’s skin. It had taken all his control not to let his qi flare in challenge while the two officials were present.
He knew his brother well enough to see that Lord Shangguan set off his internal warnings too. Hu Wen’s activities skirted close enough to the law that having Lord Shangguan in the estate was worrisome enough; the man’s faux sympathy was insulting, at the least.
At least Hu Yuan’s little devotee had already gone by then. Hu Wen was glad the chief constable was not loitering about casting moon-eyes at his older brother. It was ridiculous how Hu Yuan was blind to Wan Zongran’s feelings. On more than one occasion, Hu Wen had entertained the thought of outing Wan Zongran, just to see the fallout, but the chief constable’s dogged pursuit of justice and inherent sense of fairness earned him Hu Wen’s grudging respect. It would have been easy for Wan Zongran to ask Hu Yuan to buy him a better title or even make him a manager of one of the Hu’s salt distribution centers. His older brother had a soft spot for his so-called friends and was indiscriminate in bestowing favors, and Hu Wen usually had to remind these ‘friends’ not to push their luck. However, Wan Zongran was a decent enough man, and every accomplishment he attained was due to his own abilities.
His entire body still ached. Yesterday’s confrontation with his wife’s belligerent junior and being knocked unconscious by his wife’s qi had only exacerbated the stress. Leng Xiang, though at only a quarter of her full strength, could have easily killed the baby and severely injured the mother if that blow had landed. He could not find in himself to be angry at his wife, to be honest. The pregnancy was unexpected, and Zhao Xinglan had adamantly refused to abort when it was safe to do so. Short of drugging her himself, there was nothing he could have done.
The baby was an accident, and the affair unintentional. His other women were prostitutes or, in the case of Lady Fu and Lady Qiu, already married. Once he had had enough of the prostitutes, he gave them enough money to redeem their freedoms from their madams and set them up with enough to start small businesses so they would never have to sell their bodies again, unless they wished to.
Zhao Xinglan, on the other hand, was the one who came looking for him. Expelled by her teacher, Zhao Xinglan claimed that she was looking for solace. The young woman was pretty and willing and he went along with it, figuring that she would not dare to antagonize her senior outright. It was only after Xinglan had become more demanding of his time and attention that he regretted getting involved with her in the first place. He had hoped the pregnancy would have kept her away for a while, but he had miscalculated there. Leng Xiang wanted him to marry the wench was another surprise, but he could see why she would say so. She was always a good wife who wanted the best for the family, no matter what the old man used to say.
The worrisome thing was that Leng Xiang was gone.
He had no doubt she was out for revenge. However, the seal was still in place, and until it was removed completely, she was not at full strength. It had been placed on her before they were married; Hu Tianyi hadn’t liked the idea of his son marrying someone with wings and faceted eyes. To appease the old man, Leng Xiang herself had volunteered the idea of a seal to lock down her wings and thus restrict her qi. Hu Wen found out only on their wedding night that she had gone ahead with her plan.
And that was Leng Xiang all along: she kept to her own counsel and hardly ever displayed her real emotions, and then she would go ahead and do whatever she felt was the necessary thing. She would stop at nothing to see the killers pay for their heinous crime, even at the expense of her life.
But was vengeance worth it? The fact that Wan Zongran had been pulled off the case by someone so much further up the food chain suggested that it wasn't a mere murder. Someone exceedingly important was concerned about this boy who was murdered and whose wings were hacked off. Hu Wen did not know who his father had pissed off at court, but it had to be his father’s fault. For all of Hu Yuan’s inadequacies and indecisiveness, he did not try to inject himself into court politics where the winds of fortune changed at a moment’s notice.
Someone knocked on the door. It was a servant, who bowed respectfully and said, “First Master asks if he can join you for dinner.”
Hu Wen thought about rejecting the request, but it was late, and he recognized the humility it took for Hu Yuan to even ask; it would not hurt to entertain his older brother for a meal.
“Yes, sure. Bring whatever meal the cooks have prepared. And tell them to roast a goose for tomorrow. I’m fucking wasting away from nothing but vegetables and tofu.”
The servant looked shocked. “But, Second Master, the wake isn’t over yet.”
“Do I look like I give a fuck?” Glaring at the servant, he snarled, “If I don’t get goose tomorrow, I’ll have you roasted. Now go get my brother.”
The more he thought about the wake, the more he wanted to leave. This family, this house, this entire estate – was as welcoming as a grave. He once believed that, when his father died, he would enjoy residing in it, the way he loved the place when he was a child, but the fact of the matter was that the estate had been poisoned for him ever since his mother died.
He had not been here then, either. Every time a member of his family passed away, he had not been here for them. Not for his mother, not for his son, not for his father.
The first time, he had been sent away to the Gate of the Black Sun, where the Mountain Sage Yang Wufan was the head of the school. His father had believed that the Gate would train Hu Wen to be more compliant. What followed were two years of daily beatings and constant criticism from the senior disciples. There was no one to stop their bullying ways, either, since the two masters in charge, both juniors to Yang Wufan, were small-minded men who abused their positions of authority while the head was deep in meditation. Hu Wen hated being there, and wrote to his mother asking to leave every week. He had not understood why she hardly ever replied, not until much later.
The day he received news of his mother’s death, Hu Wen had snapped and attacked the most senior disciple in a training session. That same day, the Mountain Sage came out of meditation after five long years of seclusion. Hu Wen had been dragged to him, along with the senior disciple. Yang Wufan saw Hu Wen’s rage and grief, as well as the scars all over his limbs, and exploded with righteous fury. It had been a victorious moment for Hu Wen and his fellow victims to see the Mountain Sage personally beat down and permanently disable his juniors who had allowed such abuse under their watch. The senior disciples had then been disciplined and Yang Wufan restructured the Gate.
That he had been pivotal in the change of the Gate of the Black Sun brought little comfort to Hu Wen, however, since it had come at the cost of losing his mother. Once he was assessed to have received all the teachings his master could impart, Yang Wufan cut him free from the Gate.
“What you do in the future,” the Mountain Sage said, “has nothing to do with me or the Gate of the Black Sun. Your name will be struck from the records.”
“I came out of meditation the very day I needed to, not knowing why,” Yang Wufan replied, stroking his long white beard. “And this I do because I need to, not knowing why. But go with what blessings you wish to accept from an old fool, and see with eyes clearer than mine what path you are meant to walk.”
Hu Wen sighed and shook his head. “I must be getting old. Thinking of the good old days like some old grandfather.”
“You don’t even have white hair like I do,” Hu Yuan remarked as he entered the room, followed by two servants carrying laden trays. Steamed tofu, watercress soup, eggplants stuffed with chopped mushrooms and spinach, and a colorful dish that looked like it was full of jewels. On closer inspection, Hu Wen identified corn kernels and peas, as well as beets and pumpkin carved into marble-sized balls.
Hu Wen waited until the servants left before he asked, “What do you think about Lord Shangguan?”
“I don’t like him,” Hu Yuan replied, though his lips curled in a small smile. “I don’t doubt his capability, however.”
“But to find the culprit in a day when your dear sworn brother slaved for two weeks without rest?” Hu Wen snorted and served himself some soup. “No one is that capable.”
Hu Yuan set down his chopsticks. “I don’t want to worry, but I am concerned. Is there anything he can implicate you in?”
“I’ve been a good boy,” Hu Wen replied lazily. “Whoo, that is a lot of pepper.”
Hu Yuan raised a skeptical eyebrow, but, to his credit, did not call his brother out on the blatant lie. After another few minutes, he asked, “Do you know where she’s gone?”
“Actual location? No.” There was no need to ask who Hu Yuan was asking about. Hu Wen shoveled a mouthful of rice into his mouth. “But if she has any sense, she’d stay far away from her teacher.”
The mention of Master Bai gave both brothers pause. Hu Wen chewed slowly as Hu Yuan drummed his fingers on the table. They were probably contemplating the same thing.
Finally, Hu Wen swallowed his mouthful. “You write her. She probably wants to gut me.”
“I wonder why,” said Hu Yuan dryly. “Could it be the many years cheating on your wife who happens to be her favorite disciple has something to do with it?”
Hu Wen glared at his older brother, but there was hardly any rancor behind the look. He had not felt this much at ease with Hu Yuan in years; in fact, not since he was aware that Hu Yuan was in love with Leng Xiang. Tension crept over his shoulders and neck again and he forced himself to relax. Then he smiled. “Or maybe that I impregnated the one disciple she expelled?”
In the end, they wrote the message to Master Bai together in Hu Wen’s study after dinner, telling her that Leng Xiang had gone, and that she might return to the valley. A terse response shot back almost immediately.
“She knows,” Hu Yuan said. He signed and slumped in his seat. “Wen, do you ever feel like our family is cursed?”
“Hardly. We’re both vital, good-looking men, with wealth accumulated over five generations. That’s hardly cursed.” He scanned through the message and shut down the datapad. Propping his feet up on the desk, he added, “Bad luck, that’s what it is. Everything is a cycle, as the sages say.”
“Everything is a cycle?” Hu Yuan repeated dully. Then he tilted his head and stared his younger brother.
Hu Wen shifted and narrowed his eyes. “What?”
“I didn’t know there was this side of you.”
“The philosophical side.”
Hu Wen snorted and cleaned under his fingernail with his thumbnail. “You’ve barely spoken to me since you came back with Soaring Frost.” He chewed on the inside of his cheek and shook his head. “No, before that. Since Mother died.”
Silence expanded around them. The room was warm, and they had nothing that required their attention. Outside, the chill of autumn was growing heavier. Soon, the frost would deepen into the bite of winter.
“I remember,” Hu Wen began, hesitant as he spoke, “when you used to take care of me, no matter how much of a brat I was.”
“You’re my younger brother. Of course I took care of you.” Hu Yuan’s gaze was on his slack hands. He chuckled. “Father always scolded me when you misbehaved.” Then, in a softer tone, he said, “I missed those days. When you liked my company and wanted to be with me wherever I went.”
“If you could, would you want those days back?”
“You’re very introspective tonight.”
“There’s just the two of us in this huge estate now,” said Hu Wen. He stretched and put his hands behind his head, the chair creaking back on its hind legs.
Hu Yuan snorted. “And seventy servants, give or take.”
“Servants don’t count.”
“Don’t let them hear you.”
Hu Wen stared at the handcrafted silver lamp on his desk. It was one from the southern reaches of the Empire, with icons of different legendary animals carved into the base. The one facing him was a dragon, its fangs bared.
“Fuck the wake,” he said suddenly. “The business can run itself by now. You have people for all that shit. We bury Father tomorrow and let’s go look for my wife.”
“What do you mean- No. No! We can’t!” Hu Yuan sputtered. “That’s improper. We can’t just dig a hole and put Father in it. There are, are rituals and protocol to follow.”
Hu Wen rolled his eyes and swung his feet off the table. “For fuck’s sake. You are literally the head of the household now. You can do whatever you want.” He got to his feet and headed to the door of the study, intending to go to bed, when he paused and turned around. “And here I thought you loved her more than I do.”
It was not the first time they travelled together, so Leng Xiang knew to order vegetarian fare for Du Kuang. There were a few odd glances for a woman travelling with a monk, but on realizing Du Kuang was blind and did not bear the tonsure, they left the two newcomers to themselves. The first thing Leng Xiang did was to buy herself some smoked glasses, and then she traded the black carthorse for two sturdy mules. They would serve better since Leng Xiang did not know how much they would need to travel, and it would be difficult to drive outside in the wild.
“What are your plans?” Du Kuang asked over a bowl of rice porridge.
“I have some names. One of them lived in this town. I’m going to ask the local governor to give me an address.”
She could sense Du Kuang practically rolling his blind eyes at her. “Do you have a plan other than that?”
Leng Xiang forced herself not to react to the patronizing question. “I’m sure you’ll give me advice, whether I want it or not.”
“It’s not a big town,” he pointed out, “so the local official records may not be well-maintained, but chances are family records will be. Don’t ask for the specific person but for the family, lest you raise suspicion.” He reached out and unerringly rapped the top of her head in the same way he used to when she was a teenager. “You act on impulse every time. Use that pretty head of yours now and again, or you’ll be just another brainless beauty.”
She huffed, but did not rise to the bait. He might be eleven years her senior, but she had seen him at his lowest. “Finish your meal or I’ll go by myself.”
“You know you could leave me here,” he said, smiling broadly. “Not like I can see where you go.”
As if I would. Leng Xiang slid the braised tofu and peanuts closer to him and tapped on the edge of the dish. “Finish your meal.”
“Mrs Hu?” someone whispered.
Leng Xiang froze. How did anyone recognize her? Her hair was already cut to chin-length, her eyes were obscured by the smoked glasses, and her wings covered by her jacket.
Chief Constable Wan Zongran walked over quickly and asked, “May I sit?”
“Who is this?” Du Kuang asked. The chopsticks in his right hand angled slightly towards the constable, who was unaware of the danger he was in.
“Chief Constable Wan, what a surprise it is to see you here,” said Leng Xiang. She slid her foot to touch Du Kuang’s ankle, and the older man relaxed his guard. “I was not aware that you were no longer in Ping An.”
“I could say the same, except…” Wan Zongran lowered his voice and cast a sidelong glance at the stall owner, who was stirring a pot of cabbage soup. “Mrs Hu, we have to go somewhere safe. You’re now a wanted criminal.”
Leng Xiang stared at him in confusion. “Why?”
“This is nonsense.” Hu Yuan slammed a hand on the table. “This is an outrage! How could anyone come to this conclusion?”
Lord Shangguan sat calmly on the other side of the table and topped up his cup of tea. “Mrs Hu was the one who reported the abduction, and she insisted on being there when the body was being identified, when she was not summoned. It is unusual for a woman to want to view a dead body, even accounting for the fact that it was her son.” He sipped his tea and exhaled with appreciation. “Once it was made known that a special investigator had arrived in Ping An, she fled the city, before I could ask her any questions.”
“That is no proof! She loves her son more than life itself,” Hu Yuan replied.
“Sometimes people act irrationally in the face of love,” Lord Shangguan said. “I also understand that Mrs Hu is the last of her clan.”
The hairs on the back of Hu Yuan’s neck rose. “Oh?”
“You don’t have to be alarmed, Master Hu. I spoke with your family doctors to see if there were underlying health issues, and I learned that she had a difficult pregnancy.” He leaned forward with his forearms on the table. “As well as the fact that she is a remnant of the Yi clan, not like you and me.”
“I think my brother should be here for this,” Hu Yuan said coldly as he stood up.
“Sit down, Master Hu.” Lord Shangguan’s skin was suddenly infused with a soft golden light, but there was nothing gentle about the pressure of his qi.
Though he remained on his feet, Hu Yuan found it increasingly hard to breathe. His own qi flared in response, and his brow beaded with sweat as he fought against Lord Shangguan’s killing aura. Just as he collapsed back into his chair, the pressure disappeared.
Lord Shangguan’s lips curved wryly. “Master Hu Wen is not whom I need to speak to right now.”
“You are accusing his wife of murdering their son. I think you ought to speak with him.”
“He is not the man in charge of the export of salt to the Imperial City.”
Hu Yuan’s ire grew exponentially, but that earlier display of power made him keep his composure. “This is extortion.”
“These are your choices,” said Lord Shangguan, not denying the charge. “You will surrender your sister-in-law to the Hall of Justice in ten days, or all of the Hu estate and businesses will be forfeit to the Emperor. If someone other than you or your brother captures her, they keep everything you own.”
"This is a travesty of justice." Hu Yuan rushed to his feet again. “We don’t know where she’s gone. How are we to find her? And even if we do, I’m not handing her over without a trial and neither will my brother. She is innocent. She grieves Hu Yao more than any soul can bear. She did not kill her son!”
Lord Shangguan finished his cup of tea and stood up smoothly. “Do you know what lies in the heart of monsters, Master Hu? I do." His grizzled face grew solemn and his eyes darkened dangerously. "I met them, when I was much younger than you are now, and let me assure you, the woman you think a dutiful and loving mother belongs to a clan of the worst monsters that ever plagued the empire. I have seen what they are capable of. If not for a separate duty given to me especially by the Emperor, I would hunt her down myself.”
Hu Yuan did not speak, but the stony set of his jaw revealed enough of what he felt. A fire burned low and intense in his belly, and he wished he had Soaring Frost with him, to defend Leng Xiang's honor, but it was his father's wake and he could not be armed.
“I shall sweeten the deal, then,” said Lord Shangguan. “Surrender her in ten days, and she gets a fair trial with the three highest judges.” He set a token of gold and jade on the table. “I give my word.”
Ignoring the token, Hu Yuan called out, “Hu Dan, send the car round to the front door. Escort Lord Shangguan to his next destination. We have taken too much of his time.”
The Lieh warrior smiled and cupped his hands. “I look forward to news, Master Hu. I take my leave.”
Seething, Hu Yuan sent a servant to fetch his brother, and gave terse instructions to another. When Hu Wen sauntered into Hu Yuan’s study, he was surprised to see the anger in Hu Yuan’s face.
“Shangguan Yixiao claims it’s Xiang who killed Yao.” Hu Yuan held up a hand to forestall Hu Wen’s outrage. “It’s a pretext to seize our fortunes. He has given us ten days to surrender Xiang to the Hall of Justice. If someone else catches her, they get everything we own.”
“If Xiang doesn’t want us to find her, we won’t be able to locate her in ten years! And she didn’t kill our son!”
“Were she in this very room, I would not give her up to Shangguan Yixiao!” Hu Yuan exploded. “The very audacity! You were right, Wen. You were very right.”
“Of course I am,” said Hu Wen, before tilting his head. “About what?”
“Fuck the wake. We’re done here.”
An incredulous smile grew on Hu Wen’s face. “Never thought you’d say that.”
“I’m the head of the family and of the business.” Hu Yuan picked up one of the open books on his desk. “I’m giving away everything to the servants and the staff of the business in equal proportions, to take effect in nine days. All our properties will be sold too. You should send a message to your Miss Zhao, let her know that she has nothing to gain from marrying you. We can give her some money now, let her start a life elsewhere.”
“That’s quite extreme of you.”
“Better than having it all forfeit to the empire.” Hu Yuan drew down Soaring Frost from its stand, pulling it a foot out from its sheath. A chilling aura emanated from the exposed blade and Hu Yuan’s own qi stirred in response. “You and I are still going to look for Xiang, though. He knows we are not going to let him hunt her down like a dog.”
Hu Wen grinned. “That’s the older brother I admired.” After a pause, he added, “Doesn’t mean I’m going to give her up to you.”
Hu Yuan glared. “Go and pack up.” Then he blinked, and said, “Wait. Is Miss Jiang still around?”
“Don’t know. Don’t care.” Hu Wen strode off, pulling off the linen mourning shirt and throwing it into the bushes lining the corridor outside the study.
With a small, exasperated sigh, Hu Yuan sent for Jiang Hong. She should know what he was planning to do as well, and she was certain to want to follow them as they sought Leng Xiang.