If they hadn’t known it was there, they would have taken it to be another overgrown grove.
But now both the Hu brothers were in the middle of what used to be Leng Xiang’s village. What remained of the dwellings were the skeletal remains of bamboo frames and burnt tiles.
It was eerily silent. The few birds that were in the trees only stared at the two men before flying away. Hu Yuan poked around a deciduous shrub tangled by a vine dotted with deep red berries with a length of charred wood he picked up from the ground. “I wonder if the bodies were buried.”
“Even if they were, out here in the elements they’re mostly nothing but compost by now,” replied his younger brother, who was peering through the door of a collapsed structure. “Did they build everything out of wood and bamboo? Surely they used stone or brick walls.”
At the sound of the familiar voice, Hu Yuan swiveled on his heel. Relief crashed into him and robbed him of breath. “Sister.”
“Brother.” Leng Xiang smiled briefly at him, and then turned at Hu Wen who was walking to her. “Teacher told me that my people spent most of their time outside; our houses were mainly for sleeping and shelter from the rain.”
“Xiang, thank the heavens you’re safe,” said Hu Wen, embracing his wife briefly. “Have you been here all along? There’s a price on your head. That bastard Lord Shangguan has framed you for murder.”
She did not look fazed by the news; instead, she took Hu Wen’s hand and pointed to another part of the settlement. “That area feels strange.”
Hu Yuan trailed after his brother and his sister-in-law. Leng Xiang was lighter on her feet, no doubt due to the shorter hair she now sported, and her wings, emerging from bare shoulders, shimmered against her back, the seal binding her wings gleaming like green silk threads. He made himself keep at least ten paces behind them, afraid that his feelings of envy and relief would broadcast themselves.
“Brother, are you alright?” Leng Xiang asked, stopping in her tracks. “Have you been hurt?”
Hu Wen paused beside her and snorted. “He’s fine. we were ambushed earlier. We got him bandaged up and the physician gave us a whole bag of medicines. For free, even.” He smirked at Hu Yuan, adding, “Turns out being a well-known philanthropist who helped fund the repair of the levees was a good for his public image.”
Leng Xiang turned to regard her husband with a faint frown of disapproval. “Brother has always been generous and kind. You are not good to him.”
“Yes, Wen, you are not good to me,” Hu Yuan put in, a warmth seeping through him at his sister-in-law’s remark. His side still stung but the injury had been sewn up, and the painkillers helped. “Listen to her.”
“Watch it, brother.” Hu Wen rolled his eyes again and tugged on his wife’s hand. “Go on, show us.”
Perhaps it was their long separation or their recent grief that encouraged a renewed intimacy between them, but Hu Yuan found it sweet that the couple held hands on the little walk towards a gentle slope leading down into a dense, fern-covered patch encircled by conifers.
Hu Yuan scanned the area but could not identify anything odd, until a sparkle caught his eye. “What’s that?”
Hu Wen joined him. “What’s what?”
“That glint…” Hu Yuan carefully navigated down the slope to get to the sparkling object, but the moment he stepped down among the ferns and heard something break under his boot, he realized his mistake and scrambled up the slope as fast as he could manage.
“Yuan, what’s wrong?” Hu Wen helped him up.
“A skull. I stepped on…” Hu Yuan swallowed and exhaled slowly. “It was blackened.”
Leng Xiang said evenly, “The murderers burned down everything. I suppose it was too much to expect them to treat the bodies decently.”
“This is a mass grave,” Hu Yuan replied, his heart hammering. He was not unused to seeing corpses, but it was one thing to kill an assailant and quite another to step and break a child’s skull. “Someone – some people – dragged everyone they killed and tossed them in here.”
Leng Xiang was very solemn. “I thought so. It was calling out to me.”
Both brothers turned to look at her.
She met their stares with her usual composure. “Not literally.” Her face softened with melancholy. “A hollowness. An abyss, the wind howling in its depths.”
Hu Yuan recalled their first meeting, when Master Bai had brought young Leng Xiang to them and talked about channeling what remained of the Yi clan’s qi through the three children. He had not really understood then. But his own qi had grown in leaps and bounds to contain the massive river that coursed through all three of them.
The bond had been severed for years. Leng Xiang herself contained all that was left of her kin – their qi, pooled in her, instead of flowing freely throughout an interconnected web.
“I wish I had come before. I should have brought offerings.” Gracefully she knelt, her hands in front of her knees, and touched her brow to her hands nine times. “Forgive this unfilial and useless daughter, for while you have saved me from joining you in death that night, the Yi clan will still die with me; I cannot bear another child. Please help me to avenge you and to avenge my son.”
Hu Yuan got to his knees as well, and glared at his younger brother until he too knelt. Together they touched their brows to the ground three times, but neither spoke.
I promise to help Xiang avenge your deaths, and the death of my nephew, no matter the cost to me, Hu Yuan thought, and then stood up.
Hu Wen was already on his feet, helping Leng Xiang to hers, and there was a dark gleam in his eyes as he stared at the dappled grove and the blanket of ferns covering the horrors beneath them.
Perhaps they were each too preoccupied with their thoughts as they walked back to the ruined settlement, but they were caught off-guard when a vehicle with tinted windows barreled down the road towards them. They leaped out of its way. The car, kicking up clouds of dirt and dust, swerved into a bamboo thicket. The tall bamboo broke under its onslaught but stopped the car entirely.
On instinct, Hu Yuan stepped in front of both his brother and sister-in-law. Hu Wen growled impatiently and pulled Hu Yuan behind him.
“You’re fucking injured,” he snapped. The bright orange streaks of his qi pulsed on his face and down his arms as they waited for the driver to emerge.
The driver’s door was kicked open. Zhao Xinglan groaned as she got out clumsily, a hand on her swollen belly. “A little help?”
It took some time, but the brothers managed to persuade Leng Xiang to hear Zhao Xinglan out.
“That moron of a prefect accused me of instigating your escapade,” Zhao Xinglan said to Hu Wen, irritation in every syllable. “Claimed that you gave me the estate so you could avoid being audited or some shit.”
“We’re audited every year. We’ve already been audited for this year,” Hu Yuan protested.
The pregnant young woman glared at him. “Sure, and this really is about your taxes. No, they want you, both. Your steward didn’t sell your property as you said he was supposed to, but invited me to live there and manage the business in the family name because I have your child. That sounded good, so I did. But you haven’t married me, you bastard, so I have no legal claim, and that idiotic prefect used that pretext to say that I was a scammer and tried to arrest me! I had to flee the city in that stupid car.”
“And you knew we were here?” Hu Wen asked incredulously.
“I went to a couple of villages and asked around. None of you are inconspicuous. Which means the authorities are probably on your tail, too.”
Hu Yuan and Hu Wen glanced at each other. Leng Xiang was sitting on a tree stump, her expression dark as a storm cloud. Zhao Xinglan folded her arms over her chest. From behind, she still appeared quite slender, but there was no hiding her pregnancy.
“We have to go into a town or city to register your divorce and remarriage if that baby is to inherit anything of the family’s,” Hu Yuan said.
“If we do that, we’ll get caught.”
“We can’t take your unborn child along with us, it’s dangerous!”
Tossing her long braids over her shoulder, Zhao Xinglan scoffed loudly. “I can hold my own.”
Leng Xiang’s lips curled in a sneer. “You’re as huge as a river-horse. You wouldn’t last a single round.”
“Don’t think I’m afraid to fight you, Senior. You caught me by surprise the last time, is all.”
“Ladies, please, not now,” Hu Yuan interjected. With a sigh of exasperation, he pointed to the vehicle. “Where did you get that from, Miss Zhao? Is it from the city?”
“Then we have not much time.” He headed to the car, limping slightly. Hopefully he had not torn his stitches in his leap. “Wen, do you know how to disable its tracking? If Prefect Wu has any level of competence, he’d have turned it on remotely. We cannot remain here much longer.”
Hu Wen was offended. “Why do you assume I know something like that?”
“Well, do you?”
“…Yes.” Hu Wen stalked over, still grumbling. “But the assumption is rude.”
Hu Yuan saw Leng Xiang's cold glance at Zhao Xinglan, who was perspiring freely despite the cool weather. The sight of the younger woman irked Hu Yuan, not merely because she was carrying Hu Wen’s illegitimate child, but also because of her callousness towards his nephew’s untimely death. But the expression on Leng Xiang's face worried him.
“Lord Situ, Lord Shangguan, I am pleased to inform you that we will arrive at Jin Ling city, the sun of the empire, in half an hour,” announced the envoy. He bowed so deeply that only the top of his head and hat could be seen. “Please ready yourselves, your excellencies. His Majesty has sent carriages to convey your excellencies to the Imperial City.”
“Thank you, Envoy Bu, you may see to other matters now,” said Lord Shangguan. He put away the book he was reading and closed the book in Situ Mengjian’s hands. “Come. You will have time to read that. You have your shoes on?”
“Yes, Lord Shangguan,” replied Situ Mengjian. His toes itched but he knew better than to insist on going barefoot, the way he had back home. At least the silk socks and shoes were thin enough that he would be able to feel the ground beneath his soles. Not that he would have a chance to before seeing the Emperor, it seemed.
The capital city of Jin Ling shimmered and glittered like the golden scales its name suggested. The wealth of the empire was evident, even from without: its tall city walls were topped with glazed yellow tiles, and the banners that flew from the watchtowers were gold and black. Soldiers at one of the docks were clad in black armor with gold trim, and their helmets topped with a yellow plume. Their spears were bright steel that glittered like ice.
“That’s the imperial dock,” Lord Shangguan told the Dreamseer. “Only the Emperor’s vessels can stop there. Now, shall we? Envoy Bu must be eager to return to the comfort of the Imperial City.”
Indeed, the envoy was already waiting on the top deck, a smile creasing his usually sour face. Once the two lords were present, the envoy nodded sharply at the captain, who let down the gangway to the dock.
“Thank you for the trip, captain,” Situ Mengjian said as he passed. “It was a very smooth and pleasant journey.”
The captain turned scarlet and quickly fell on one knee. “This humble one thanks you, Lord Situ. May this humble one have the honor of serving you again.”
The formal courtesy startled Situ Mengjian, but Lord Shangguan gently urged the young man on with a hand on his back to keep walking.
The envoy was far ahead of them, nose in the air as two horse carriages awaited, their automaton drivers gleaming in the morning light. The first was slightly smaller, with silver embellishments of lilies, fish and dragonflies on the doors, and the second was much grander, with gold embellishments of clouds and soaring cranes. The horses appeared to have hair and hide of pale golden silk, and their lean and elegant forms entranced Situ Mengjian.
“Which is the one we take?”
“Yours is the golden carriage,” Lord Shangguan murmured as they walked down the gangway. “That is an honor granted by His Majesty. Be sure to thank him for it when you’re granted an audience.”
“Will you be riding with me?” the young man asked. He was suddenly seized with nervous anticipation. All his life, he was told that he was born for a greater purpose, and now he was here at the capital city of Jin Ling, about to meet the Emperor.
Lord Shangguan seemed amused. “Yes, of course. I am your personal escort until you are in your palace.”
The roads of the capital were wide, clean and smooth, paved with pale stone. The shops were two to three stories tall, and with dark glazed tiles. Music and laughter drifted from open windows. Situ Mengjian did not see a single beggar anywhere. Even the youngest child playing by the side of the road was dressed in fine brocade. Men and women walked about, their fingers and arms bedecked with jewelry that made all the gifts Situ Mengjian received from his uncle appear modest.
Situ Mengjian’s jaw dropped when the external walls of Imperial City came into view. They were much grander than what Jiang Hong had managed to convey on the few occasions she shared about her visits to the capital city. The walls, which were taller than the city walls, were painted a rich rust-red, and topped with yellow tiles; the massive gates were painted black, with gleaming golden knobs. They swung inward without a sound to admit the carriages.
Inside was an entirely different world. Trees with silvery gray bark and pale dusty leaves lined a broad avenue of white stone. Beyond the line of trees, Situ Mengjian saw tall statues of colored glass, which must have required huge furnaces and master glassmakers, while fountains provided quiet music to break up the immensity of the court. Around the fountains were dense clusters of golden flowers. On either side were four double-eaved buildings of about equal size, each gleaming with golden roofs and dark walls, and smaller buildings flanked them. At the end of the avenue loomed the largest and grandest palace, the Hall of Heavenly Beneficence, with its triple eaves with magical beasts that stood on the corners of the roofs. Its stately majesty sat atop three long flights of steps and dominated the Imperial City.
“Behind that is the inner court,” Lord Shangguan said. “Those palaces you see out here are the various halls of government.”
“How many halls are there in the inner court?”
“At the moment, thirty-three. Eleven of them are for the Emperor’s personal use, eleven for the empress and concubines, and eleven for the Emperor’s chosen, like you and me. You will be given the use of one of the palaces, and it's likely that you may rename it.”
There were no people that Situ Mengjian could see walking around. Guards in golden armor stood at attention outside the palaces and along the steps to the Hall of Heavenly Beneficence. When the carriages drew to a stop at the foot of the stairs, Situ Mengjian realized that the guards were not human.
“Are all the guards automatons?” Situ Mengjian asked with a wheeze as they ascended. He was panting slightly by the middle of the second flight of steps. Lord Shangguan stopped to wait for him and called out for the envoy to halt as well. The envoy’s impatient sigh was swiftly cut off by Lord Shangguan’s glare.
“Most of them, yes. For safety and privacy reasons, the Emperor prefers automatons.” The older man offered his arm to Situ Mengjian and the younger man took it for support. They continued at a more relaxed pace, the envoy always three steps ahead of them, until they came to the elegant doors leading into the hall. Golden dragons with eyes of pearls the size of chicken eggs twined up thick pillars of black stone.
Before the doors opened, the envoy looked over Situ Mengjian’s attire, using a little whisk to dust off invisible specks of dirt.
“Do stop being tiresome, Envoy Bu, and announce us. Go on,” said Lord Shangguan.
Situ Mengjian did not hear the envoy announce their names; he was too focused on his shaking hands and dry mouth. He was scared. What if the Emperor found him lacking? What if he was not really the Emperor’s Dreamseer? Would he be sent back to the tower?
The Hall of Heavenly Beneficence had a mirror-smooth black floor that reflected the tall ceiling, which had three golden dragons entwined at the top: one at the front, one in the middle, and one at the end. Their jaws held octagonal golden lanterns with yellow glass and clear gems that sparkled riotously, sending shards of light all around the hall. The pillars were black as well, though their base were gold. At the other end of the hall was a raised dais, on which an enormous golden throne shaped like a coiled dragon was partially obscured by a curtain made of strings of small pearls. The windows were shut; their screens which had patterns of golden flowers reflected the light warmly.
The Emperor was seated on the throne, dressed in yellow. Outside the curtain stood another, dressed in blue brocade, who raised his right hand. “His Majesty bids Lord Shangguan and Lord Situ to come forward.”
The envoy remained at the doors. Situ Mengjian walked nervously beside Lord Shangguan, his hand still tucked in the other man’s elbow. He was suddenly very glad to be wearing shoes. If not, he would be leaving dirty footprints on the spotless floor and marring its perfection. The utter silence of the hall scared him even more than the grandeur; he fancied he could hear his heartbeats echoing.
About ten paces from the base of the dais, Lord Shangguan stopped and gently dislodged Situ Mengjian’s hand from his elbow. Then he knelt with both knees, put his hands in front of them, and touched his brow to the floor. Situ Mengjian remembered his manners and hastily followed the older man’s example, though he was a little too forceful and hit his forehead against the hard stone.
“Ow,” he muttered under his breath, but it was so silent that his utterance was audible. He heard a quiet chuckle and swallowed his anxiety. Perhaps the Emperor found him funny instead of insulting.
“Long live Your Majesty,” Lord Shangguan said loudly. “I present Lord Situ Mengjian, Imperial Dreamseer.”
“Yixiao, it pleases me that you have brought me my Dreamseer safe and sound. You may stand.”
“Thank you, Your Majesty.”
The Emperor’s voice was soothing and melodic, with undertones of something that Situ Mengjian could not quite decipher. Confidence, perhaps, or authority. He heard the rustling of thick fabric next to him, and then the comforting presence of Lord Shangguan moved away.
“So, you are my new Dreamseer.” The Emperor sighed languorously. “Raise your head and let me look at you.”
The young man obeyed, tucking his long hair behind his ears nervously. He could not see the Emperor’s features clearly, with the curtain of pearls in the way, though he could feel the Emperor’s scrutiny.
“Young, so young,” the Emperor mused aloud. “Have you been given a courtesy name?”
“Yes, Your Majesty, by my parents.”
“Good. You are to live in the Palace of Auspicious Harmony, but you may rename it to suit yourself. Servants have been assigned. You may ask for more, or less, as you prefer. Outside of yourself, my trusted dream archivist, Master Huang, will reside there as well; you will meet him on the morrow, after the morning court session. Lord Shangguan is the only one permitted to visit you as he pleases, for I am sure he wishes to check on you while you settle in. Are you satisfied?”
“Y-yes, Your Majesty. Thank you for, for the ship, and the carriage ride, and the palace, and… everything else.” Situ Mengjian wrung his hands in his lap and quickly averted his gaze from the Emperor, lest he broke some protocol. “I hope I will be of help to you.”
The Emperor chuckled again, as if amused by the young man. “Very well. Yixiao, I will see you in my study at sunset. You will join me for dinner.” He rose from the throne.
“This lowly one is grateful for the honor.” Lord Shangguan nudged the back of Situ Mengjian’s head and his gaze darted to the floor, before the older man bowed deeply. When the Dreamseer did not move, Lord Shangguan hissed, “Face to the floor.”
Hastily obeying, Situ Mengjian pressed the tip of his nose to the cold stone floor. He heard the rustle of pearls and silk, and then two people walking down the dais. Then he felt someone pause next to him, and the weight of a warm, soft hand on the nape of his neck. He dared not shift; he hardly dared to breathe. Then the sensation disappeared and the Emperor left.
Only after a quiet gong was struck did Lord Shangguan come over to help the younger man to his feet, taking him by the hand to exit the hall. When they were in the open again, with sunlight falling on their faces, Lord Shangguan exhaled and laughed, shaking his head. “Ah, that was a close call.”
“What? Was there something I… Did I do something wrong?” Situ Mengjian’s eyes grew wide.
“You dared to refer to yourself as ‘I’ instead of ‘this lowly one’ or ‘this humble one’. And you did not use the honorific for His Majesty. Anyone else and their heads would have rolled.” Lord Shangguan patted the young man’s shoulder reassuringly. “His Majesty likes you. Let’s take a look at your new home.”