Du Kuang took the pillion seat behind Jiang Hong, who raced towards the source of the fire. He could feel her weaving down the sandy street and hear townspeople shouting in alarm. He wasn’t worried that Leng Xiang would be caught in the fire, however. She was more than capable of handling herself, even with her wings bound. His main concern was for the people who chose to attack her.
“Do you know if there’s a bounty?” he shouted into Jiang Hong’s ear.
“No, but I bet there’s one!” Jiang Hong’s words were ripped away by the wind rushing past them.
He knew they were approaching the site when the acrid smell of smoke intensified. The heat was palpable. She screeched to a stop, waiting only long enough for Du Kuang to hop off her motorcycle, before she parked it and raced somewhere around to his left. Wary of the fire he could hear and feel, he followed directly behind her and kept away from the heat.
Jiang Hong stopped in her tracks suddenly. She flung out a hand to keep Du Kuang from rushing forward, not that her consideration was needed. Du Kuang walked around Jiang Hong and took two more steps forward to be sure.
The space in front of him was utterly devoid of qi, except for one person’s. Leng Xiang’s qi signature was a bright, jagged hum of energy, standing out in stark contrast to the featureless blank landscape of his mind’s eye. He could hear the slow breaths of unconscious people if he strained his hearing; the sound of the burning hut was a little too loud.
“Did you kill anyone?” he asked.
Leng Xiang snorted and walked towards him, then passed them both silently.
Jiang Hong murmured, “They’re unconscious. I don’t see anyone dead.”
“You get out of here before the crowd arrives. I’ll stay with her.” Du Kuang hesitated, then added, “Take your motorcycle and pick up that young man, and find someplace to hide until tonight. I suspect your senior and I will have to spend the night under watch while they figure out who these attackers are.”
“I can break you both out.”
“There is no cell constructed in the empire that can hold either of us,” Du Kuang reminded her gently. “Get out of here. I can hear the townsfolk already.”
Wan Zongran was jogging towards the conflagration when Jiang Hong roared up on her motorcycle.
She patted the seat behind her expectantly. “Hop on.”
As he swung his leg over the seat, he asked, “What happened? Is everyone alright?”
“An ambush, probably. Senior knocked all of them out, but it’s too big a fuss. She and Brother Kuang would be in holding cells, most likely, until the local magistrate figures out what is happening.” She started the engine and tore down the road out of the town into a nearby forest, much to Wan Zongran’s surprise.
He smacked her lightly on the shoulder, the only place he dared to put his hands. “Where are you taking us? We should be going back!”
“Not until we’ve stolen what we needed,” said Jiang Hong. She slowed to a stop in a shaded grove and shoved him off the seat, before she dragged out a net from the compartment under it, as well as a small black canvas pouch. Draping the net over her vehicle, she then piled heaps of twigs and dried leaves over it, until it resembles a little slope covered in dead vegetation. “And there is no cell in the empire that can hold either of them, if they choose to leave.”
“But the magistrate could alert Ping An City that he has Mrs Hu!”
“Your prefect is not the hardworking sort. You were the one driving the constabulary to do their jobs. Unless the one left in charge is a ladder climber?”
Wan Zongran narrowed his eyes. “Kun De would never.”
Jiang Hong flashed him a smile. “Thought so. Otherwise, you’d have been ousted years ago, when you couldn’t retrieve an onyx horse statuette.”
You little shit. Wan Zongran bit the side of his tongue and suppressed the urge to throttle the young woman. For one thing, he would lose in an actual fight and he knew it. “How are you going to smuggle me in?”
“You’re not going in.” She pulled out a palm-sized device from her pouch and detached what looked like a seashell from its side, with a metal hook emerging from it. “Put that on.”
She rolled her eyes and grabbed his collar, tugging his head down a few inches to hook it over his ear, the seashell tucked right at the entrance of his ear canal. Then, she flicked on the device and murmured into it. “You’ll hear me loud and clear through this thing. Walk me through the steps.”
Her voice sounded as if she was right next to him. He touched the seashell and marveled at the tiny contraption. “How does it work?”
“Magic,” she replied shortly, and flicked the handset off. “Now, tell me where to start and what I’m looking for. This is not my usual area of expertise.”
Leng Xiang contemplated her choices.
The lock on the cell door was laughably flimsy, and while the walls were made of brick, the roof was merely tiled. The window was barred with finger-thick wooden bars. She was not formally charged with any crime, though she supposed the local magistrate was aware of the price on her head by now.
Du Kuang had been given a room upstairs, next to the administrative halls; he had played the role of the helpless blind monk to ridiculous perfection. At least his act had got her a relatively clean holding cell, with a rough-woven but warm blanket for the night, as well as two vegetable buns and a bamboo canister of water.
Her fingers closed about a bronze tiger figurine in her pocket. Its weight and shape reassured her. She had come to this town based the list from Wan Zongran, and partly because she remembered being here when she was a child, but for people to try to capture her here meant that they had been tracking her. Her assailants were unconscious for now, but they would be up in another four to five hours, if she gauged their prowess accurately.
The constable in charge of the holding cells knocked lightly on the door of Leng Xiang’s cell. “Madam, you need anything else? I’m turning down the lights in here. If you need a pillow, a warm drink, just holler. Magistrate Gao will see you in the morning.”
Leng Xiang shook her head. “Thank you. I have everything I need.”
The constable sniffed and rolled her right shoulder before she ambled off. Her uniform was tight about her middle, and she walked with a slightly lopsided gait. A misalignment of her pelvis due to poor posture, not an injury; the constable was not of the same caliber as those in Ping An.
Leng Xiang turned her eyes to the window and then to the slightly frayed hems of the blanket.
Many years ago, when he was newly appointed as as a constable and worked in a smaller town, Wan Zongran had staked out a house with a newly-widowed man mad with grief, wielding a hatchet holding his infant girl and a physician hostage. It had been one of the worst days of the job. Wan Zongran had been assigned to guard the front door, all the while hoping he would not have to arrest a murderer. Thankfully, everyone had lived, though the widow was sentenced to five years' imprisonment, and the physician had to care for the girl and bring her to visit her father every five days. Wan Zongran missed that magistrate; he was wise and humorous. Unfortunately, he was also a little too fond of drinking, and passed away from liver trouble.
For some reason, Wan Zongran recalled that early experience as a constable. He had been in a similar situation, crouched in a dense bush a few yards from the front door of the local archival hall. It was a small town, so there was only one night watchman on patrol, but all government buildings had a security system linked to the regional network. If someone flagged that there was an anomaly, it would only be a matter of time before he lost his job, if the investigators did their job as well as touted.
However, he was not about to make it too easy for them.
“I’m in the room with the access console,” Jiang Hong said over the earpiece. “What do I do?”
“Make sure you have your gloves on, for a start.”
He could almost hear her rolling her eyes. “Yes, I am an amateur at crime. Come on, what do I do?”
With a crooked grin, he said, “Key in the following code.” He muttered a string of numbers, and then waited as he heard the soft clacks of keys being depressed. Then he held his breath.
“Blue screen’s up.”
“That’s good.” He exhaled and relaxed fractionally. He knew Prefect Wu was unlikely to be working this late at night, but the risk was still there. Hopefully, their location was close enough to the city that it would not seem too odd to trigger an investigation. “You should now be able to access all the case files logged into the Ping An system. Look for file 04581, or if not, 04582.” He paused when he noticed the watchman looking in his direction, holding his breath until the man looked away with a yawn.
Over the earpiece, Jiang Hong said, “This is my senior’s case. There is a bounty of…” She hissed out an expletive. “Ten thousand silvers.”
That was more than a lifetime's fortune, for some people. “Someone had to approve the bounty. Is there a tag?”
“It’s that Shangguan bastard's name on the announcement, if that's what you're asking.” A flurry of key taps, before she said, “What other information do we need?”
“What do they have on the Hu brothers?”
“I don’t know how to search on your stupid government system.”
Suppressing a sigh of frustration, he kneaded the bridge of his nose and said, “Just… There is a box on the upper right. You can put in their names.” Before she could utter another word, he added, “With the stylus.”
“Stupid… government… records… system.”
He forced himself not to speak; the retrieval and copying of information would take some time. He would need an isolated console or the one at his desk too, because reading the files on a console connected to the common system would alert the authorities.
Finally, after the seventh time the night watchman circled past the door, Jiang Hong muttered into his ear, “Go back to the clearing. I’ve got it.”
Du Kuang was seated on the edge of his bed, his walking stick across his knees, when he felt the air shift. He turned to the door and smiled. “I kept a few yam pastries from dinner, if you want them. They’re on the table.”
“I’m not hungry,” said Leng Xiang.
"Have some. They're dusted with sugar and coconut flakes."
She entered the room and stood before him. He could sense the faint, erratic pulse of her qi, though she was still as a rock. “What would you have chosen?”
I would have chosen death. “My choices then were made in madness, grief and betrayal,” said Du Kuang evenly. He reached his left hand out and she put her hand in his. “You are not mad. You have not been betrayed.”
“You don’t know that.”
“No. But I feel that.” He sighed and squeezed her fingers gently before letting go. She was adamant on finding the perpetrators, which he could understand; his presence would only slow her down and antagonize her further. Perhaps it would be better if he stepped back for a bit. “I only ask that you refrain from killing, for as long as you can, as hard as it may be. That may be the only way you won’t fall, the way I fell.”
She said nothing. After a moment, Du Kuang knew he was alone. He sighed and got up.
Wan Zongran was warming his hands over a small fire in the clearing while Jiang Hong was sharpening her blades when they heard an alarm bell in the southwest ringing.
“Ah. They’ve escaped.” Jiang Hong stood up and kicked loose earth over the small fire. “We should leave, too.”
“Do you know where to meet them?” Wan Zongran stuck his warm hands in his pockets. He much preferred summer. The longer he was away from his job, the more he missed it. At least there always was a large pot of ginger tea ready on cold days in the office.
“No, but I know that everyone in this town will be on high alert for strangers in the next few days,” said Jiang Hong. “Come on, constable. We have to go.”
A tall, pale figure emerged from the shadows of the trees, white and red qi glimmering all over his face. “We do.”
“Brother Kuang!” Jiang Hong brightened, and then frowned. “I can’t take all four of us on my vehicle.”
“Leng Xiang rented a car. It’s in the public lots.” The bald man paused, then added, “Just three of us, now.”
“Senior didn’t come with you?”
“She has her own path. Ours go north.”
“How do you know that?” Wan Zongran asked, while Jiang Hong grabbed her pack and set her motorcycle upright. It was becoming frustrating that he had nothing to work with, and Jiang Hong refused to share what she had read until her senior and her 'Brother Kuang' arrived.
“Why should I? You didn’t even give me your real name. Maybe I should look up who you are.”
Du Kuang tilted his head, as if he was studying Wan Zongran, and the next thing the younger man knew, the tip of the blind man’s bamboo stick was pointed right between his eyes. The stick was glowing faintly moon-white. Wan Zongran found himself rigid with fear, as if a sharp blade was ready to pierce through his skull. His fingertips felt numb and his tongue thick in his throat, almost closing off his airway.
“I neither require nor desire your trust, Chief Constable Wan. Just know that I have no current desire to kill you,” said Du Kuang. He sounded almost amused, though there was no hint of humor in his face.
The tip of the walking stick pressed against Wan Zongran’s skin. He felt an involuntary chill creep down the length of his spine.
“Don’t scare the constable,” said Jiang Hong, pushing down the walking stick with two fingers, her other hand steadying her vehicle. She winked at Wan Zongran. “Don’t threaten us with the law. You are in the world of the river and the lake now. We have different rules.”
“The Emperor’s law rules all.” Wan Zongran knew the old aphorism from school sounded stupid the second he uttered it, but that was what he was taught and what he had to uphold.
“The Emperor’s law rules those who follow it,” replied Jiang Hong. She started walking away. “And the earlier you recognize that, the easier it will be for you out here.”
Hu Wen stood in the temple where his son died, looking at everything around him in the light of a torch. His elder brother stood a few yards away, peering out a window to keep watch.
“Did anyone investigate that?” Hu Wen asked, pointing to the empty alcove behind the bodhisattva.
“I wouldn’t know,” said Hu Yuan. “Zongran left so abruptly, but I’m sure they have. Zongran is very thorough.”
Hu Wen went up to the alcove. The icon that it used to house had only been recently taken, judging by the thinner layer of dust left behind where the statue would have been placed. Its stand was left leaning against the back. Peering around the alcove, Hu Wen saw a few prints, evidence of the constables doing their job, though they did a mediocre on. The stand should hardly be where it was if they had processed it for evidence. Then he noticed that there was a small hole in the back of the alcove, about the size of a thumbnail, nearly obscured by the stand. He picked the stand up and a small box fell off the bottom to the floor.
Hu Wen scooped it up before it could break on the floor. The box was about the size of his fist. He took the small box and fitted it to the base of the stand. It was an almost perfect fit. In the middle of the false bottom there was a dark, circular stain that appeared almost ominous.
“I wonder if every altar to the Holy Benevolent Destroyer is the same in all the temples.”
“Why does it matter?” Hu Yuan asked. “Yao was not killed here in the main hall.”
“No, but I feel like this is something odd.” Hu Wen pursed his lips. “Every temple and school has one altar to the Holy Benevolent Destroyer. Every government office has one. Every marketplace. Why?”
“People are superstitious.”
Hu Wen stuck the stand with its false bottom into his pouch. “Show me the room where you identified the body.”
In the yellow light of the torch, the few bloodstains looked black. Hu Wen swallowed his sorrow and crouched down to study what few splotches of blood was left on the floor. Not a lot to decipher from those; too much time had passed, and hu Wen was usually more concerned with inflicting the wounds than reading the aftermath.
With a sharp inhalation, he straightened and shook his head. “Let’s go.”
“Are you certain you don’t want to talk to Miss Zhao before we leave?”
Trust his older brother to be this sentimental. It was not even his own mistress who was pregnant and he was fretting about her. Hu Wen snorted. “Nah. She’s set up with enough for the rest of her life. Hu Dan will ensure the old man is properly buried, though I would think putting an anvil on his tomb is still a grand idea.”
“Wen, don’t say things like that.” There was no heat in Hu Yuan’s voice, however. He glanced out the small window, a slight frown creasing his brow. “I’d like to be in a different city by daybreak.”
“We’re not going into the cities,” said Hu Wen. He led the way out of the temple and scuffed the dirt around the front stoop. “Xiang would avoid them.”
Hu Yuan did not dispute his younger brother's understanding of his wife. “Where would she go, then?”
Hu Wen hesitated, and tried to reach out with his senses. It was a vain hope that the connection they had as children was still present. Nonetheless, he felt like he was speaking the truth when he said, “Home.”