The ship was making good time upriver, and the forecast for the next few days were for clear skies. With the window in his spacious cabin wide open in spite of the autumnal chill, Situ Mengjian watched the scenery floating by. Small riverside villages with fisherfolk on narrow boats and long steering poles cut sleek lines across the water. He propped his chin in one hand, fascinated by the thatched huts and the villagers busy with their chores. Many white birds with sharp beaks dotted the banks; Lord Shangguan said that the larger ones were storks and the smaller ones were egrets. If he peered out the window and looked to the back of the ship, he would see long lines trailing off into the water – nets to fish for the crew and passengers of the ship.
He rubbed the silver bangle on his forearm, wishing Jiang Hong was here with him. She would have so many stories to share about such places, he was certain. He hoped she was enjoying herself doing whatever she was doing.
Someone knocked on the door.
“Come in,” Situ Mengjian said, looking away from the riverbank.
“Good afternoon.” Lord Shangguan came in, bearing a large box in one hand. “How are you feeling today, Lord Situ?”
Blushing, Situ Mengjian rose to his feet and bowed clumsily before motioning to a seat. “Lord Shangguan, please, I really don’t like… ‘Lord Situ’ sounds so formal and cold.”
“Ah, but I can’t change how I address you unless the Emperor grants me permission to do so.” The older man set the large box on the table before he made himself comfortable. On board the ship, Lord Shangguan was dressed in a lighter and finer fabric of pale blue with a bronze-colored brocade belt. His thick hair was released from the braids, the top half now secured in a neat knot at the back of his head and the rest allowed to flow freely down past his shoulders. “Believe me when I say I am treating you with as little formality as I can get away with. Here, a gift.”
“Thank you, Lord Shangguan. What is it?”
It was a pair of socks and a pair of shoes. Situ Mengjian tried very hard to hide his distaste, but he was evidently bad at it, for Lord Shangguan threw his head back and laughed.
“You will need them when you get to the Imperial City,” said Lord Shangguan. “I ordered the servants to make the socks out of the softest fabric on board, and the shoes are actually modified from ladies’ slippers. Very light and thin. Try them on.”
Holding back a sigh, Situ Mengjian lifted the footwear out of the box and pulled on the socks, which did indeed feel incredibly gentle, and then slipped the jade-green shoes on. They were not as restrictive as the boots he had had to wear with his official robes. He wiggled his toes and a small smile crept over his face.
Lord Shangguan dipped his head and beamed when he saw the relief on Situ Mengjian’s face. “There. It would have been immeasurably rude if you meet the Emperor with bare feet. I will send word to the chief attendant to prepare more of such slippers for you. The floors can get cold in the palaces.”
“Thank you,” said Situ Mengjian. He shifted his feet, trying to get used to the sensation of his feet wrapped in silk.
“The Emperor is eager to meet you, Lord Situ. You will be going straight to the Hall of Heavenly Beneficence when you arrive in the Imperial City.”
“I… I won’t get to look around the capital?”
“Of course not,” said Lord Shangguan, surprised by the question. “Your duty is to His Majesty. You cannot keep the Emperor waiting on your whims and fancies.”
Abashed, Situ Mengjian tried to conceal his disappointment. However, he was as successful as he had been with the boots.
The older man chuckled. “I suppose I could allow for half a day’s delay at the gorge. At this speed, we will reach them in the late afternoon, and I don’t wish to navigate this stretch of the river at night, so we can stay overnight in the nearby town.”
Situ Mengjian brightened and clasped Lord Shangguan’s hands in his own. “Thank you! Oh, I can’t wait. What’s the name of the town? Have you been? Are there lots of people in the town?”
“The town is Sanwanshui, because the river makes three sharp turns in the gorge, I’ve been there a handful of times, and the number of people depends on how many are traveling in the season,” Lord Shangguan answered patiently. “I’ll have to insist on your wearing shoes, Lord Situ. We bear the burden of the Emperor’s reputation.”
Situ Mengjian would have agreed to wearing metal boots if it meant he could explore an actual town freely. Barely able to contain his excitement, he agreed to the stipulation, and followed Lord Shangguan to the bridge to chat with the captain.
They docked at the town shortly after. Situ Mengjian practically ran down the steps and was restrained only by the muttered reminder to behave as a member of the Imperial Court. Lord Shangguan cut a handsome figure in a vermillion outer robe with silver embroidery along the left sleeve and hem, with a brilliant fire opal the size of an eye set in gold was fixed on his chest.
“Is there anything in particular you want to see, Lord Situ?” Lord Shangguan asked.
Situ Mengjian bounced on his heels. The shoes really were very soft. He could feel the paved road under his soles. “I like to read. Maybe there's someplace I can find new books?”
“To the bookseller then.” Lord Shangguan held his arm out in a courtly gesture. Situ Mengjian took the older man’s elbow and walked beside him. It was not very crowded, but there were plenty of people coming and going; several appeared to be quite important, judging by their retinue, but everyone who saw Lord Shangguan stood aside for him to pass. Situ Mengjian was impressed, though his eyes kept drifting from one thing to another. Kites painted to look like butterflies and birds at a stand caught his eye, while another selling boiled peanuts and roasted sweet potatoes called out to customers to buy the snacks before they were gone. Hair accessories for ladies outside the goldsmith’s, demonstrations of martial feats in the square, smelly tofu and fried fish battled for dominance.
The bookseller was a serene old man whose place was just outside the town square. Situ Mengjian was sorely tempted to ask for all of the books, but he was certain it would be a hassle for Lord Shangguan to carry all of them back onto the ship.
“Have you any books on swordsmen or heroes?” he asked the genial bookseller. “The ones where they go on adventures in faraway lands.”
The old man hummed and toddled to one end of the shelves and pulled out four books, then dug around in a different shelf for another five. “Would these do?”
“Yes, please,” said Situ Mengjian. He was about to take the books when the bookseller put them in a bag. “That would be a tael of silver, young master.”
“One tael of silver?”
“Yes,” said the old man. “I can’t lower the price any more. I have to pay the rent and the authors too.”
Situ Mengjian was confused. He reached for the bag, but the bookseller’s gnarled fingers closed around the precious bundle. “I don’t have any money.”
“In that case, I can’t sell them to you.”
Panicking, Situ Mengjian gazed imploringly at Lord Shangguan to help. The older man reached into his pocket and took out an ingot of gold.
The bookseller’s eyes grew as round as teacups. “My lord, I cannot accept this. I don’t have enough in change! This gold alone is enough for half the shop!”
Lord Shangguan raised his bushy eyebrows. “Is that so? Well, in that case…” He set another ingot on the counter. “Have all your books sent to our ship, the Jade Carp. Ask for Captain Huo and say that Lord Situ made the purchase.”
Then, ignoring the profuse thanks from the bookseller, Lord Shangguan led Situ Mengjian out of the shop. “What next?”
“Um. I… I saw some kites. I’ve only ever seen them flown in the distance,” said the younger man, feeling rather flustered. In case Lord Shangguan repeated the stunt with the books, Situ Mengjian hastily added, “I just want one! That’s all.”
Grinning broadly, Lord Shangguan accompanied Situ Mengjian to the stand selling kites and waited as the young man chose a kite for himself. Eventually, Situ Mengjian picked a colorful butterfly with wings that looked like stained glass panels and long trailing tails on the bottom set of wings.
Lord Shangguan paid for it with twenty copper coins, which was enough for four kites. “Give the next three children who come to you one kite each,” he told the kite seller. She was charmed and smiled prettily at Lord Shangguan, before she winked at Situ Mengjian. He flushed and almost crushed his new kite, but Lord Shangguan rescued it from him and had a boy take it back to the ship, with the promise of five coins for his trouble.
Most of the street foods turned out to be too greasy for Situ Mengjian, and the aroma of the smelly tofu turned his stomach. He did enjoy the steamed buns with sweet bean filling and roasted sweet potatoes.
“The ship’s cooks have made dinner, so you can’t have too much, or they’d feel quite rejected,” said Lord Shangguan. He motioned for a young man to clear the table of the plates of mostly uneaten servings of fried pastries, fried fish, as well as meat and pepper skewers.
“I wish we have sweet potatoes on board, they're so tasty,” said Situ Mengjian, and burped discreetly. “Whoops.”
“You’ll be burping or, if you pardon my directness, passing gas a lot after eating them.”
Lord Shangguan sighed and smiled indulgently. “I’ll have the kitchen buy some for the rest of our voyage. Come, let’s go back.”
Hu Yuan was feeling uncomfortable. His hair felt greasy and his skin tacky. It was not as if he had never gone days without bathing, but such experiences had been over a decade ago, and he was a little ashamed to admit that he was used to everyday luxuries.
His datapad remained blank of new notifications. It was a novel experience to not receive any messages. Now and again, he caught himself checking to see if his sworn brother or Jiang Hong had sent a note, or if there was any news on Leng Xiang, but thus far all he had were weather forecasts.
The choice of transportation Hu Wen got for them had surprised Hu Yuan at first, and then he understood the rationale. The two mules were hardy, biddable creatures that kept a good pace. They browsed the browning vegetation around them whenever the brothers stopped, and their footing was steady. Already Hu Yuan was getting attached to his mule, the one with a white-tipped right ear, and named it Beansprout.
“We may have to get rid of them at some point,” Hu Wen pointed out when he heard his older brother speak soothingly to Beansprout as they made their way down a dusty, little-used path through tall yellow grass, with stands of trees interspersed about like islands in a golden sea. It was almost idyllic – what foliage that remained on the trees were red and bronze, and there was a sweet haze on the chilly air that refreshed rather than bit.
Hu Yuan pursed his lips. Then he patted the side of his mount’s neck and said, “If we have to, I’ll make sure it goes to a good family.”
“It’s a good thing you didn’t get a pet. You’d have wanted to take it along with us.”
“You say that like it’s a bad thing to feel affection for an animal.”
Hu Wen snorted. “Why would I care for a mere animal? They’re born to be used or eaten or ignored.”
Tightening his grip on the reins, Hu Yuan kept quiet. He did not want to challenge this tentative truce between them. Instead, he said, “How far have you traveled around the empire?”
“I thought you tracked my movements.”
Hu Wen fell silent. They went on for half an hour before he said, “I went north until I got to the Shenximo grasslands, south until the Gaoyun mountain range, east until the ocean, and west until the Binghuo desert. I’ve seen so much, and there’s still so much more to see.” He started chanting melodiously in a language Hu Yuan was unfamiliar with, the cadence and pitch like a lazy stream winding across an immense open grassland.
Hu Yuan listened to his brother, his mind drifting slightly, lulled by the steady gait of his mule, when a strange sensation crept up the back of his neck. Subtly urging Beansprout to move faster, he caught up to Hu Wen.
“I know,” Hu Wen murmured before his older brother could speak, and continued his melodious chant. His left hand was holding the reins and his right hand slid to rest on his hip, close to where his steel claws were strapped to his belt.
Behind, to the left, Hu Yuan noted. Pretending to adjust his posture in the saddle, he grasped the handle of his sword, Soaring Frost. The tingle on the back of his neck sharpened abruptly and he drew his blade to sweep it behind him, not even turning around. He felt Soaring Frost deflect several small metal objects that clinked and fell into the drying grass on either side of the road.
Leaping out of the saddle, Hu Yuan slapped the hindquarters of Beansprout which then cantered on into a grove of trees, their branches not yet bare. Hu Wen had done the same and joined Hu Yuan quickly, his steel tiger claws poised to fight; the two brothers stood back-to-back, scanning the surroundings.
“Did you see what they fired at us?” Hu Yuan asked.
“No, but there’s more than one of them,” Hu Wen said. Then, he called out, “This is no way to greet two travelers. If you are of the river and the lake, please introduce yourselves!”
Four people in dull grey clothes rose from the tall grass silently. Each of them held a spike of about six inches, the tips of which glinted with a dull blueish tint.
“Your friends?” Hu Yuan asked, feeling his qi running through his body and into Soaring Frost, its fuller beginning to glow in the same sky blue as his qi.
“You have a much higher estimate of my social circle than I do,” Hu Wen retorted. The fiery orange of his qi slashed along his bared arms and up his neck and face, matching the tiger-stripe tattoos on his cheek. “Could be yours for all I know.”
“Rest assured, masters Hu, we are not friends.” The one who spoke appeared oldest, with a wispy gray beard on his pointed chin. He raised his spike and the other three mimicked him. “We merely want you dead.”
Hu Yuan shifted his back foot. “There has been far too much death in my family, so pardon us if my brother and I have no intention of dying.”
“I didn’t know you had a sense of humor,” Hu Wen remarked in a low voice. He sounded very amused. His fingers tightened around the grip of his weapons. “Notice something odd about them?”
“No visible qi,” Hu Wen whispered. “On my signal.”
With a wild yell, Hu Wen charged at the bearded man who spoke and slashed left to right, narrowly missing his target’s abdomen by inches. The broad-shouldered woman beside him joined in the fray, her spike dancing like an embroidery needle in a skilled artisan’s hand. Hu Wen roared as he elbowed her out of his way and kicked the old man’s wrist just as his spike stabbed down towards his waist.
The remaining two – a tall man with a birthmark and a short one – took on Hu Yuan. He raised Soaring Frost in time to deflect the taller man’s spike, and twisted out of the way of the second assailant’s jab just in time to avoid it penetrating his ribs. His blade sang as he swung it upwards, drawing blood from Birthmark’s upper arm, but could not press his advantage because Shorty intervened. Hu Yuan was impressed by the speed of the short man even as he was forced to back away rapidly until there was some space between them. The two checked in on each other with a brief nod.
With his qi imbued in his weapon, Hu Yuan could feel Soaring Frost as an extension of himself, but the assailants’ lack of visible qi unnerved him. Focusing on Birthmark, he darted forward, the tip of his sword dancing towards the man’s eyes, throat, and heart. Birthmark ducked under the blade, his spike arcing up to strike Hu Yuan’s elbow. With a swift flick of his wrist, Hu Yuan changed his grip of Soaring Frost and stabbed downwards, the blade sinking through Birthmark’s shoulder. Birthmark shouted in pain, his eyes widening, before he flashed a vicious grin at Hu Yuan and grabbed the section of Soaring Frost sticking out from the front of his torso.
Before Hu Yuan could pull his sword free, Shorty rushed him and jabbed the spike into his midsection. Hu Yuan managed to twist his torso just enough to avoid a mortal wound and ripped Soaring Frost free of Birthmark’s grip. Stumbling back, he fended off Shorty’s second jab clumsily and crashed on his side. Just as he raised his blade to block another blow from Shorty, he felt a searing blast of qi sweep past him. Shorty stopped in his tracks, choked out a gasp, and collapsed face down in front of Hu Yuan’s feet. Sticking out of his back was one of Hu Wen’s steel claws.
Hu Wen strode towards Hu Yuan, casually swinging the claw across Birthmark’s neck and tearing it open. Leaving the man to splutter to his death as blood sprayed out of the artery, Hu Wen ripped the embedded claw out of Shorty’s back. He knelt down next to his brother and tutted in exasperation as he examined the injury. “How the hell did you become the leader of the pugilists around the region?”
“I slew the Green Serpent – unngh.” Hu Yuan sucked in a sharp breath when Hu wen yanked the robe apart to press his hand against the wound and directed qi into it. “Warn me before you do that.”
Hu Wen continued with his ruthless administration of the injury. “And you were nearly killed by a nameless goon. You’ve become a merchant, Yuan. Soft as cotton. Alright, bite your sleeve if you’re going to act like a baby. The medicine will sting.”
The medicine did sting, but once his injury was bandaged, Hu Yuan felt better. He gazed at the dead bodies and chewed on the side of his tongue. “I wonder who they were working for.”
“If we’re lucky, whoever it is will send more people after us,” said Hu Wen. He helped his older brother to his feet and then picked up Soaring Frost. His brow creased slightly.
“No, wait–” Hu Yuan realized what his brother was going to do a heartbeat before Hu Wen did it. Hu Wen’s qi shimmered orange in the blade’s fuller for a count of four, and then a shrill ringing pierced the quiet air. Hu Wen released the sword and shook his head violently.
“What the fuck was that?” he snarled.
“Soaring Frost was made for those trained in the Six Paths.” Hu Yuan hobbled over and picked up his weapon, wiping blood off the steel with the inside of his sleeve. All the clothes he was wearing would probably be discarded, given the amount of blood soaked into the fabric.
Hu Wen snorted. “The Six Paths. What, the path of sanctimonious whiners, the path of spineless hypocrites…”
“Why are you like this?” Hu Yuan interrupted.
“Like what?” His younger brother stared at him.
“Why do you have to belittle practically everything I do?” Hu Yuan sheathed Soaring Frost with some difficulty. “You mock me endlessly when all I have ever done was my duty.” He licked his upper lip, wishing he could make Hu Wen understand.
“Duty. That’s all you know.” Hu Wen folded his muscular arms. “We have enough servants and staff to do all that needed doing.”
“Do you think they’d do the work without oversight? Someone had to manage the business. Someone had to take care of Father. Someone had to be home for Yao and Xiang. You left, Wen. You left, so I had no choice! You traipsed all over the empire. You’ve seen the ocean and the desert. You know so much about the world. And I’ve not left the city in the past eight years! Eight years, Wen. Every day the same routine, the same people, the same empty rooms. My only comfort was the companionship from my nephew and my sister-in-law. Eight years.”
The younger man was silent. For the first time in a long time, he looked slightly ashamed of himself; his gaze skated away from Hu Yuan’s face.
Hu Yuan paused for breath. His side hurt, and his legs were wobbly. He cleared his throat. “Let’s get the mules. I hope Beansprout hasn't gone too far.”
“Well, let’s hope there isn’t another ambush.” Hu Wen walked over to his brother and steadied him with an arm across his back. “Your wound needs proper medical attention too.” After a few steps, the younger man said, “I didn’t mean to saddle you with all of the family’s burdens. I just didn’t want to deal with it.”
Hu Yuan stiffened, and then relaxed fractionally. It was the only apology he was ever going to have.