The morning they were supposed to leave, Situ Mengjian refused to put on shoes. The envoy, dismayed and increasingly frantic, begged Prefect Wu and Lord Shangguan to talk some sense into the new Dreamseer, but Situ Mengjian was adamant that he would not put on shoes, unless the option was between footwear or amputation.
“What is so difficult about putting on a pair of silk shoes?” the envoy wailed, his thin hands wagging in the air. “Lord Situ, please, we are going to miss the tide.”
“The tide will come back tomorrow,” said Situ Mengjian. He folded his arms over his chest. “No shoes.”
Lord Shangguan cleared his throat, but Situ Mengjian could see the smile the older man was failing to hide. “I suppose Lord Situ doesn’t like shoes because you don’t wear them?”
“Not that I recall, no. They feel horribly restrictive around my feet.” Situ Mengjian grimaced and wiggled his toes. “I go barefoot, or I go not at all. Also, stop with the title. I hate it.”
“Lord Situ, surely…”
“Then we shall all walk barefoot to the carriage, and then do the same at the docks when we board the ship,” said Lord Shangguan. His mirth danced around his eyes. “We can all be strange together.”
The envoy gasped with outrage. He almost snapped at Lord Shangguan, but he glanced at Situ Mengjian and then subsided.
“Oh, there’s no need for that. Just let me walk about without shoes.” Smiling beatifically at the envoy’s sour expression, Situ Mengjian traipsed down the stairs of his tower, almost giddy with excitement, and practically skipped to the heavy door. Just before he was going to step outside for the first time since he arrived, he paused.
He really was leaving his tower. His tower, because he had lived there alone ever since he was a child, and he knew every inch of it. Memories lurked in every shadowy corner. He remembered being terrified his very first few nights sleeping all alone in the room upstairs and screaming for his parents. He remembered how no one came to him and he had cried himself into hysterics. He remembered how the windows used to be barred, until he was old enough not to try to climb through them. He remembered the books that were given as rewards for good behavior, and the gifts that meant little to him. He remembered memorizing the pattern of the stone tiles on the ground floor, and the nicks and bumps on the wooden doorframes and window frames, and being bored out of his mind until Jiang Hong turned up one night, with an endless trove of tales of adventure and derring-do.
“What’s wrong?” his uncle asked behind him.
Situ Mengjian held up a hand. Then he carefully, gingerly set his right foot across the threshold. A shudder rocked up his chest and into his throat. Biting his lip, the young man followed with his left foot.
He was outside of his tower. He was outside of his tower.
Tears sprang to his eyes. He had to sit down and steady his shaking breath. This tower was all he knew and he was about to leave it behind, but there was not a single soul who would understand how it felt to leave his home and his prison.
He tried to look on the brighter side of his situation, yet now that he was about to leave it behind forever, he finally had to acknowledge how lonely he had been. It was not as if he had no human contact – he saw his uncle, his tutor, the servants, the guards, and sometimes Jiang Hong – but he had no one who understood the extent of his solitude. He ate his meals alone, woke up alone, went to bed alone. He had no one to say “good morning” or “goodnight” to.
He had been so alone for so long that it hurt to think about it.
With a deep breath, he stood up and made himself smile. Freedom, even for a while. A few steps under the open sky.
The smooth, flat stones that marked the path to the main estate were cool, almost slippery. He walked on the grass, and had to clap a hand to his mouth to smother his gasp when the blades tickled his soles.
“Why would anyone wear shoes?” he exclaimed, dancing a few steps around on the grass. Soft, and damp, and alive – he could walk on grass forever.
Lord Shangguan chuckled and remarked, “Sometimes there are pebbles in the grass, young master, and in the markets, there are filthy or sharp bits that are not as pleasant as grass to step on. And occasionally, there are things that sting or bite if you step on them.”
“I would rather risk the pain than to not feel the soft grass or cool stone with my feet,” Situ Mengjian declared. The sky overhead was a strong, clear blue, with wisps of clouds. Nothing kept the sun’s heat from the top of his head. He brushed his fingers over a petal of a flower in the grass and marveled at its velvety softness and fragility; he let the bark of the fir tree scratch bluntly over his exploring palms; he dipped a hand into the pond and giggled when the goldfish crowded up to nibble on his fingers.
A gentle touch on his shoulder alerted him to the others waiting on him. Lord Shangguan smiled paternally down at Situ Mengjian and motioned to the corridor.
“We must away, young master. Come, there will be more interesting sights on our way to the capital.” Lord Shangguan helped the Dreamseer up and raised his eyebrows when he saw that Situ Mengjian was wearing a silver bangle. “I have not seen you with accessories before, young master. Is this a gift?”
“Yes!” squeaked Prefect Wu, his narrow face wreathed in smiles. “I gave it to him, on his fifteenth birthday.”
Lord Shangguan eyed the bangle for another moment and then let go of Situ Mengjian’s arm. The envoy hastened forward to lead the way to the entrance. Situ Mengjian peered around him but did not linger; he wanted to be outside, with the blue sky and bright sun over his head. He had had enough of roofs.
The car provided was a long white vehicle with gold trim and cloud patterns. The windows were tinted so dark they appeared black. The automaton waiting by the doors was a faceless thing, painted in white and gold, with a number written on its left breast. The interior was plush, the seats of creamy white leather, and the carpets of thick wool that felt warm and cozy as Situ Mengjian climbed into the car. His feet left dirt stains and he felt a little apologetic, but the sensation of the soft wool was worth the dirt.
He was seated in the back by himself, while the envoy and Lord Shangguan took the seats facing him. Even with the envoy’s disapproval radiating off the man, Situ Mengjian did not bother hiding his curiosity and delight at the sights whizzing past the car.
“Look, that must be a candy-seller!” he said excitedly, jabbing his finger into the glass. “And who’s that? What’s he doing?”
Lord Shangguan peered out. “A juggler, young master. He’s juggling knives.”
“So that’s what juggling is! I’ve only ever read about it. And do you think we can stop and watch for a while?”
“We are already late, Lord Situ,” said the envoy in a thin, proper tone. “Since we have to make up for lost time, I suggest that, perhaps, you can have jugglers come in for entertainment after you meet the Emperor and settle into your palace.”
Chastened, Situ Mengjian crossed his legs on his seat and hugged himself, tugging the outer layer of his official robes closed. It would be a while before they reached the Imperial City, so he had time to savor his limited freedom. That would suffice, he told himself firmly. Just a taste of liberty to sustain him for a lifetime of service to the Emperor.
“I’m not staying until you settle your family matters, Brother Yuan.” Jiang Hong grabbed her bag. “The gods know where she is by now, and what she would do if anyone is fool enough to try and capture her.”
“At least give me a way to contact you,” Hu Yuan insisted. “If you find her, you have to let us know.”
Jiang Hong scribbled a name and number down. “I don’t use datapads, but I’ll send a message through that.” She lowered her voice. “Burn that slip of paper after you memorize it. That alias was hard to come by.”
Hu Wen was leaning against a door jamb. “And how are you planning to find her?”
“By looking and listening,” she retorted with a roll of her eyes. Pushing past him, she added in a murmur, “Good luck with Xinglan. You’re going to need it.”
Her vehicle was already refueled, and a quick check of her engine ensured that she could cover the miles easily. But she did not start it.
Where would she go? There was that list of names she could hunt down, but Leng Xiang could be far ahead of her in that line of investigation. What she needed was to find a different route to get to the source of the trouble. The source. Hu Yao’s wings were taken. That can’t be a coincidence. So, I should look for people who knew about the Yi clan massacre; Teacher can’t have been the only one who heard about it.
The Yi clan used to live in a forest not too far from Ping An, if she recalled what her teacher shared accurately. Now she knew what to do: she would begin at the start.
“It smells dusty in here,” the monk remarked quietly, a hand on Wan Zongran’s shoulder as the latter wove through the narrow aisles between shelves stacked with ancestral records, following an elderly caretaker’s lead.
Wan Zongran smiled, though he knew the other man could not see it. “The dust on most of these volumes have turned the covers gray.”
“Housekeeping has been lax.”
Wan Zongran almost laughed, but the caretaker shot them a quelling glare. He showed them to a square wooden table and turned on two lamps – one overhead, the other on a pillar. Both lamps glowed dull orange at first and then warmed up to a cozy yellow. Wan Zongran directed the monk to a seat first.
“Here,” rasped the elderly caretaker. “You two will sit here. I will bring you what you need. Don’t shift the lantern, don’t leave this table, and wear the gloves. The books are fragile.”
“I promise not to look at the words too hard,” said the blind monk with the ghost of a smile on his thin, handsome face. His red blindfold was the color of blood. “We’d like the records for the past sixty years, please. Thank you.”
The caretaker sniffed in disapproval and hobbled off.
Clearing his throat hastily, Wan Zongran murmured, “You needn’t have come along, tashi. You could have kept Mrs Hu company.”
“Not yet a tashi,” said the monk. His fingers brushed over the surface of the table, leaving streaks in the thin layer of dust on the surface. “I’ve not taken the tonsure. But soon, I hope.”
Wan Zongran could not help the momentary flutter of his heart or the heat in his face, and was glad that the other man was blind. “I would like your name, then, if only not to keep referring to you as tashi in my head.”
Was he imagining it? The other man seemed to hesitate. “My surname is Du. You may address me as Sixue.”
“As in… to contemplate blood?” Wan Zongran then blanched in mortification. No sane parent would have used that as a name for their children. He had no idea why that thought crossed his mind at all. “I’m sorry, that was rude.”
“No, it’s quite alright. My name means ‘to think of snow’.” His expression turned wistful. “I grew up in the mountains. There was always snow, except for spring, when the plum trees blossom and the hills were covered with white petals.”
“That sounds like a beautiful place to grow up in.”
“It had its moments.”
The caretaker returned and carefully set down ten books, each numbered with the years. He handed a pair of gloves to Wan Zongran. “You have two hours.”
“I might need more time.”
“Then come back tomorrow. Your breath has moisture. We cannot have too much moisture in here,” said the caretaker, and hobbled away, presumably out of the archives so his moist breath would not affect a single page.
Du Sixue sat silently as Wan Zongran perused the records. Every now and again, the constable would glance at Du Sixue. The latter’s stillness seemed almost supernatural. Occasionally, white or red qi would flicker over his face. That was fascinating to Wan Zongran, since he had never seen anyone with different types of qi. He knew too little about qi manifestation and cultivation, though; he himself was no qi master. While he was competent enough to break up street fights with ease, he would be easily overpowered in a fight with skilled pugilists.
He was not unaware that Du Sixue was here to monitor him. Mrs Hu was now a fugitive, with a price on her head. If Wan Zongran went to the authorities, Du Sixue and Mrs Hu would both be in trouble. The older man was here to ensure that Wan Zongran did what he said he was doing – investigating leads.
“What have you found?” Du Sixue asked after they left the family archives.
“The name I got, Qian Lun, was killed when he was ten years old,” said Wan Zongran. “His birth chart is here, and little else. I traced his ancestry but there isn’t any overlap with the Hu family, as far as I can tell. I copied the birth chart and family tree going back five generations, just in case.”
Tapping his bamboo stick on the ground in front of him as he moved, Du Sixue hummed in thought. “I suppose there is no record on how he died.”
“For that I will need to speak with the medical examiner who worked the case, but that was many years ago.” Wan Zongran closed the book and coughed when he inhaled dust. “I don’t know if I can get the records from the local magistrate.”
“You are Chief Constable of the city of Ping An,” said Du Sixue.
“I’m here on forced vacation, too. If I make a request using my post, it’ll get back to my superior officer.” Wan Zongran sighed and kicked a pebble out of his way.
The town was mostly empty. A few people loitering around a dry goods store stared at the two men. Wan Zongran was not in uniform, though he still had his token of office tucked in his belt, so he supposed the townsfolk’s curiosity was focused on Du Sixue. He did make a striking figure in his pale robes and scarlet blindfold. Despite his disability, it was clear that he was a good-looking man, with chiseled features and a proud bearing.
Suddenly, the older man stopped, his head cocked to the right. A smile of delight grew on his face. “I think a solution has presented itself.”
Wan Zongran had halted too, but he did not know what Du Sixue was talking about. A motorcycle sped past, and then braked hard enough to kick up a cloud of dust. As the cloud cleared, Wan Zongran squinted at the figure dismounting the motorcycle.
“Brother Kuang?” a young woman called out.
“You!” Wan Zongran exclaimed. It was that thief, Jiang Hong.
Ignoring the constable entirely, Jiang Hong strode up to Du Sixue and poked him in the sternum. “What the hell are you doing with this dog?”
Wan Zongran inhaled sharply. “Watch your tongue, you lawless little thief. I could still have you arrested-”
“On what grounds?” She smirked at him, and returned her attention to the blind man again. “Are you alright? Did this idiot arrest you? You can stab him if he did. I won’t tell.”
Du Sixue chuckled and shook his head. “He’s helping us.” Then his expression grew serious and he lowered his voice. “I was with your senior. Chief Constable Wan tells us that she’s wanted for the murder of her son.”
Jiang Hong narrowed her eyes at Wan Zongran, as if the constable was the one who put Leng Xiang’s name on the wanted list in the first place. “It was Shangguan Yixiao who made that claim. He’s using the case to blackmail the Hu family.”
“Come, we should get to her before she does something reckless. Again.” Du Sixue took Jiang Hong by the hand and started walking, his bamboo stick in his other hand sweeping the path ahead of him. “Then there is something we need you to retrieve for us.”
“Is that so?” Jiang Hong looked over her shoulder. Wan Zongran glared at her. She stuck her tongue out at him – the absolute child – and said aloud, “I suppose I could lend a hand, if Chief Constable Wan requires it.”
Wan Zongran rolled his eyes. He was about to say something when he noticed a column of black smoke in the distance. “Fire!”
In a rundown little hut on the outskirts of the town, Leng Xiang was going over the names again, trying to discern a link among them. Only one lived in this town; another two lived in villages not far from here. Once the men returned, they would head to the villages to see what they could find out.
She had vague memories of this town as well. Impressions of a cold meal, of being cleaned up by her teacher, of terror. Her clan had lived in the forests to the east of this town, in a little settlement full of flowers; she had never returned to that location.
I might have taken Yao-er there when he was older, she thought. Tears welled up and she blinked them away. All the things she might have done with her son were no longer choices she had to make. With a deep breath, she folded up the list and tucked it into a pocket.
Something shot through the window with a sharp zing. The projectile was smoking. Leng Xiang did not wait to check what it was and dashed out the back door, swatting aside two arrows as she went through the door.
A dozen masked men and women clad in nondescript gray were lying in wait. Half of them had arrows aimed right at her, and the other half had swords with wicked-looking hooks at the tip.
Leng Xiang shifted her feet and gathered qi in her palms.
“Mrs Hu,” said one of the men with swords, “we will need you to come with us.”
“We don’t want to hurt you unless we have to,” another added.
She stared at them. Then she attacked.