The palace was much too spacious. Having lived his whole life in the tower, Situ Mengjian was feeling ill at ease. Even getting to his new residence took nearly half an hour, passing multiple gates and doors, and he saw no other living being except for Lord Shangguan.
The doors of the hall were painted black, like the main gates of the palace complex, but these did not have the golden studs. The pillars were black stone, with white and gold veining, the external walls pure white as were the other complexes near it, and the entire structure stood on a raised platform of white stone. The roofs were covered with tiles of a blue-purple hue, and gleamed like beetle’s wings. The four guards at the door were also automatons, dressed in the gold and black uniform of the imperial court. Situ Mengjian found himself missing the guards back home, who chatted freely about their lives away from their duties. Above the black doors was a plaque of black with words in gold.
“The Hall of Clear Melodies,” Situ Mengjian read. Then, frowning, he asked, “I thought I’m to live in the Palace of Auspicious Harmony?”
“This entire complex is the Palace of Auspicious Harmony. You are free to go where you wish with the guards. They will keep you from leaving the palace by yourself, of course. This is the front hall to your personal residence.”
Situ Mengjian’s jaw dropped. The entire complex? “How… How big is the complex?”
“Not that big, really. We have the Hall of Clear Melodies, the Hall of the Resting Cloud, the Hall of Heavenly Dancing, the Terrace of Peonies, the Tower of Roses, and the two gardens: Garden of Fragrant Dusk and Garden of Gleaming Dawn. I’m sure I missed a few pavilions and terraces.”
That was a lot to take in. He must have looked quite stunned, for Lord Shangguan laughed kindly and patted him on the back. “You don’t have to go anywhere if you would rather stay here. And the Hall of Clear Melodies can be renamed, if you so prefer.”
Situ Mengjian breathed out slowly. It was alright to stay in his little corner of the palace. It was not expected for him to wander everywhere.
Inside, the walls were white and the floors were dark wood polished to a shine. The furniture provided were made from a honey-brown wood, without excessive ornamentation but each one pleasing to the eye, even the simple footstool. There were elegant landscape paintings on the walls – nothing that Situ Mengjian himself would have picked, but the artistry was undeniable.
“Your books have already been sent to your library,” said Lord Shangguan. “If you desire anything else, you have to put in a request to the dream archivist, Master Huang. He will handle the matters relating to your welfare as well. Now, do remember that he is not your subordinate, even if he is your assistant and not ranked, so be courteous.”
Lord Shangguan led the way through the first hall, which Situ Mengjian had assumed incorrectly to be the entirety of his residence, but then they stepped out into an exquisitely manicured garden, complete with a tinkling fountain in the center and several tall trees on the periphery. The sound of the fountain was bright and soothing, so Situ Mengjian assumed that was the reason for the name of the hall. On either side were buildings of the same size as the front hall, while the building that they faced was two stories tall with deep eaves.
“That on the left is Master Huang’s quarters and his office,” said Lord Shangguan, referring to his datapad. “The building on the right is the kitchen and laundry; you have no need to go there. You can send your orders directly to them. Staff quarters are in there as well.”
“I thought all the staff are automatons.”
“Not for cooking or gardening. And the automatons require maintenance.” The older man placed a hand on Situ Mengjian’s shoulder and guided him towards the tallest building. It was twice as wide as his tower had been, and instead of guards, there were six servants inside the door, all automatons dressed in blue and purple robes.
Lord Shangguan let him walk around the first floor. There were five rooms in all, including the main room, and all the walls were bare. here and there were some potted plants. Situ Mengjian found the space to be very cold, despite (or perhaps because of) the servants. At least the furniture was in a simple design that was similar to the pieces he had back in Ping An.
“Why are the walls bare?” he asked.
Lord Shangguan shrugged. “I assumed it would be decorated by now. Perhaps you can ask Master Huang.” Then, he added, “Your books have been sent ahead. They should be upstairs in your library, next to your bedroom.”
Situ Mengjian brightened. “My books are here?”
“Yes, and I shall leave you to them. Here’s a datapad for you – wait, have you used one before? No? You can tap on this circle and instructions will come up on the screen – and here is your pass.” He put a bracelet of white jade and gold on the younger man’s left wrist. It glowed briefly and beeped. “Don’t take this off. It activates when you leave the hall, and the guards will follow you. The automatons at the other halls will recognize you as a resident of the palace and announce your presence when you visit the other halls.”
“Are there other people in this palace?” Situ Mengjian was not sure if he wanted to meet them, but since it would be quite ludicrous if he was the only resident of the entire complex, he ought to get to know them.
“Yes, of course.” Lord Shangguan did not elaborate.
“Thank you, Lord Shangguan, for accompanying me all the way from Ping An. I’ve taken up too much of your time.” Situ Mengjian bowed deeply.
The older man laid a gentle hand on Situ Mengjian’s shoulder. “I enjoyed our time together, Dreamseer. I shall take my leave. I hope you like your new home, and I promise that I will visit when my duties permit me.”
Wan Zongran blinked awake in the back seat of the car and groaned when his shoulders complained with a series of cracking and crunching sounds. Rubbing the sand out of his eyes, he squinted out the window and realized he recognized nothing around him.
“Where are we?” he asked. They were on a wide dirt road heading up a slope to what appeared to be a town with buildings of faded yellow and dark roofs, with just one narrow window in each wall.
Jiang Hong replied, “About forty kilometers north since you nodded off after breakfast. We’re about to teach Lin Yang Hill Town.”
Next to her, Du Kuang had his window rolled down and his face turned to enjoy the sun streaming in from the east. The air was very fresh and crisp, unlike the heavy salt smell of Ping An. For a second, he missed his colleagues and the doctor. He fished in his pockets for his datapad, intending to check his messages from work, but he could not find it. He patted his pockets, and then looked around the floor of the car to see if it had fallen out.
“I took your datapad,” said Jiang Hong, grinning unrepentantly in the mirror when she saw his frantic searching. “Had to be sure you were not transmitting information to your fellow dogs.”
“You- You’re an actual asshole, you know that?” Wan Zongran shifted forwards in his seat. “Give it back.”
“Good luck taking it from him,” she said with a smirk, pointing to Du Kuang with her thumb.
The bald man chuckled and exhaled extravagantly, stretching his long fingers. Wan Zongran rolled his eyes and slumped against the seat.
“What are we going to do there?”
“You’ll know when we get there.”
“I don’t want to be a petulant child, but this feels like a kidnapping.”
Jiang Hong snorted inelegantly and accelerated. “If we were to kidnap anyone, it certainly wouldn’t be a constable on a pathetic government salary and who won’t take bribes.”
Wan Zongran chose to take it as a compliment. As they approached the town with thick dirt walls, he wondered what they would find in there.
The guard at the gate barely even glanced at them before waving them through. Jiang Hong found a place to park outside the inn right next to the gate and got them rooms on the ground floor for the ease of “my blind brother and his companion”.
“I don’t think you two trust me,” said Wan Zongran. He was looking forward to a much-needed shower, and rummaged in his bag for clothes. Thank the deities they stopped by the inn he was staying at before they went on the run. His savings did not suffice a full wardrobe replacement for however long he was stuck with the two pugilists.
Du Kuang tilted his head. “Are we supposed to? You work for the law.”
“You could have left me there.”
“We could have.” The older man smiled. It was irritating that, even though Du Kuang was literally bald, Wan Zongran still found him extremely attractive. “Be thankful that you met me now and not when I was younger.”
Curious, the constable asked, “Why not?”
“Because I would have just killed you,” said Du Kuang simply, before standing up. “Show me around the bathroom, please. I’d like to use it before you do, if you don’t mind. Wet floors are not my friend.”
While the two men took a break in the inn, Jiang Hong went out to explore the streets. She had not been to Lin Yang Hill Town before. It was not on a major route, so very few wealthy people lived here. From observation, its main export was apparently some kind of dye derived from the plants growing abundantly on the hillside as well as woven goods from its fibers. Not exactly high-profit products.
The governor of the town had been running the place for thirty-eight years. They did their job decently, well enough not to be demoted, not good enough to be promoted. Jiang Hong liked this sort of government officials – they preferred to keep things the same than to raise a ruckus. She and the men could lay low for now.
As with every town and city, there were beggars. Not many in this little hillside town, but the one she saw loitering outside what made up the market had patches on his vests that identified him as a mid-tier member of the Beggar Sect. She signaled to him using the sect’s own code and followed him to his hideout.
“I need to talk to someone,” she told them, giving him a silver tael. “Urgently.”
“This amount o’ coin? I be happy t’ send word to whoever you wanna talk to, miss.” He sniffed and hawked up a gob of spit. “How urgent we talkin’ now?”
“Five, six, seven times as fast as you can walk. Thank you, uh...”
The beggar nodded. “Name’s Zhong, miss.”
“Like the bell?”
“Like loyalty,” Zhong replied, his lined face with its warts creasing with a lopsided smile. “But if you could tell your someone somethin’ for me, I’d give you back this silver.”
Jiang Hong tensed slightly. “What do you want me to tell them?”
Zhong worked his mouth, as if rolling a particularly large prune around his cheek. “I been here ten years. Winters here are getting’ hard on my old bones. Wet and cold ain’t no way of livin’ for an old beggar in a skint little town. Loyalty’s good an’ all, but I’d appreciate going somewhere south, soonish.”
“I’ll let them know. Send the message. Code: Butterfly.”
Situ Mengjian finally figured out the datapad and used it to give instructions to the automaton servants, ask for an early lunch, and study the layout of the palace. Then he went to his library, took off all his footwear, and sat down on the floor in the middle of the expansive and luxurious room.
He did not know what to do with himself.
In the past, even though he was confined to a small room, he always had something to do. He would read, or write, or draw, or fold papers to string up into decorations or to drop for the guards below or leave for the maids that cleaned his room. He would think of questions to ask Jiang Hong the next time she dropped by. His uncle would visit with something interesting and expensive. His tutor would share a fascinating story about certain phrases or idioms.
He had all his books, even the new ones purchased from the town by the river. He could organize them. He had the trinkets gifted by his uncle. He could put them on display. He could take a bath in the bathroom which was as large as his entire room in the tower. He could lie down in his bed and wait for nightfall.
Suddenly the enormity of his situation crashed down on him.
For the first time in his life, he was truly and completely alone. No guards to eavesdrop on, even.
Lord Shangguan was a busy man, occupied with matters that took him all over the kingdom. There was the mysterious Master Huang that would live in the hall as an assistant of some sort, but Situ Mengjian had no idea if he would even get along with him.
What was he supposed to do?
What did the Emperor want from him?
He was startled when a servant entered the library and a voice emerged from its faceless head. “Lord Situ, royal archivist Master Huang Junyu seeks an audience.”
Situ Mengjian stood up and brushed down his robes hastily. “Yes, please, show him in. Here.”
The automaton left, and soon it led a man of around twenty-five into the library. The man was tall and lean, and he bowed so deeply that Situ Mengjian could see the bun at the top of his head.
“Lord Situ, thank you for seeing me,” he said. His voice was a warm tenor, every consonant and vowel clean and smooth.
“Please don’t stand on ceremony with me,” Situ Mengjian said, his tongue tripping over the words. “Just… Call me Mengjian. Please. I-I can’t keep on doing all this… I can’t keep up with all the rules and courtesies.”
He was half-expecting a lecture on propriety and etiquette, but Master Huang straightened and smiled. He was very good-looking. “As you wish, Mengjian. And you may call me Junyu.”
“Oh, but you’re older. I couldn’t possibly-”
“Brother Junyu, then. Fair’s fair.” Master Huang held out a hand and raised his eyebrows, as if in challenge, so Situ Mengjian grasped it and shook firmly.
“Fair’s fair.” With a bashful grin, Situ Mengjian added, “Brother Junyu.”
Having put himself more at ease, the Dreamseer took a closer look at his new friend. Huang Junyu looked like a man from a painting. He had eyes reminiscent of willow leaves, with long, dark lashes, and his thin lips were tinted pink, like his cheeks. His fine complexion was the color of goat’s milk. If not for his thick, dark brows, he could have passed for a peerless beauty. His hair he kept secured in a bun at the top of his head with a simple yellow band, with a single white gem on it. His white robes were neat and spotless, which made Situ Mengjian realize the creases in his own. Blushing, he invited Huang Junyu to sit on a chair.
“I wasn’t expecting to see you until tomorrow,” he said. “The Emperor said that you were to speak to him first.”
“His Majesty indeed will see me in the morning. But I have to move my humble possessions into my quarters first if I am supposed to begin my work tomorrow.” Huang Junyu laughed quietly, then whispered, “Don’t tell anyone I said so, but His Majesty can be rather obtuse about the common folk. Not everyone is as cared for as the Emperor.”
Situ Mengjian stifled a laugh. “I shall have to remember that.” He sighed and looked around at his empty shelves. “I’d offer to help you, but I suppose I have to put my books away first.”
“You have quite the collection.”
“I like reading,” said Situ Mengjian, feeling a little defensive.
“Let me help you,” said Huang Junyu, rolling up his sleeves. He was more muscular than he seemed on first glance, or perhaps the loose white robes hid his frame too well. “I do not have much to unpack, and I would like to learn a little about the Dreamseer whom I am going to be working with for the rest of my career.”
Wan Zongran ambled down the street, his pace slow and easy. It was the walk of a constable on patrol: unhurried and unassuming. He could walk this way across an entire city and still have enough stamina to go on a chase at the end of his route.
He was also an experienced constable, so while his feet took him down the road as he strolled next to Du Kuang, he let his eyes take in the sights. The buildings were made out of packed earth and wood, for the most part, and climbed up the hill. There were many flights of steps, but they were not steep, and the grasses here had not turned completely brown and dry. The townsfolk were simple folk, for the most part friendly; a grandmother sold them some rice cakes that were stuffed with chopped radish, and another offered them a cup of tea.
“I like this place,” Du Kuang said. “The atmosphere is good.”
Wan Zongran might not be able to sense qi or do some of the things qi masters could do, but he could read a place. And he had to agree that Lin Yang Hill Town felt pleasantly peaceful.
Everyone seemed to be making a decent living; there was no excessively extravagant house; the supposedly richest man in town was the butcher, because he was the only one who had enough to raise pigs.
The few constables he had seen were idling around the town, too, not in the way where they were taking a break despite the work they were supposed to do, but in the way where they had nothing to do. One was helping a carpenter measure boards. Another was sitting at the tea stall, chatting to the old man who brewed the tea.
They finally stopped at the end of the town, where the rice and dried goods store was, and found a place to sit down. It was warm enough that Wan Zongran could loosen his collar a little. While he was still worried that someone would notice that he accessed government files in a place where he wasn’t supposed to be, he was more concerned about the case.
Shangguan Yixiao putting a bounty on Leng Xiang’s head was unexpected. What was the purpose? He had not heard of Lord Shangguan being the sort to wrap a case hastily; everything he had ever learned about the man was consistent in that he was a dogged hunter who brought criminals before the law. It was also ridiculous to accuse Leng Xiang of murder. Not that mothers did not kill their children, but Wan Zongran had seen enough of the interactions between her and Hu Yao to know that it was a near-impossibility.
He should have insisted that they went after her, though. It would have been better to keep her in his sights, not that he could stop her from doing whatever she wanted without serious bodily harm.
Du Kuang sighed. “We should leave soon. Our presence is a blight on this place.”
“What do you mean? I doubt anyone would hassle us here,” said the younger man.
Du Kuang’s long red blindfold fluttered in the breeze. “Not anyone from this town, no. But I fear the assailants who attacked Leng Xiang might track us here.”
“Do you know who they were?” asked Wan Zongran. He wished he had his datapad, just so he could research. They were not dead, which meant they were probably still hunting Leng Xiang. Heading north while the woman went on her own way suggested that Jiang Hong and Du Kuang were trying to divert their trackers.
Du Kuang was silent for a long while. Then he said, “All I know is they are not trained in the use of qi.”
Wan Zongran pursed his lips. The assailants were almost able to hold their own against Leng Xiang, who, by all accounts, was a qi master in her own right. Surely that meant they were also skilled users of qi to enhance their skills. Instead of debating, Wan Zongran decided to change the subject. “Who are you, really?”
“You already know. I am Du Kuang, courtesy name Sixue. I’m a blind swordsman.” Du Kuang cocked his head, as if to listen for a whisper. “Why are you asking?”
“I work as a constable. Chief Constable, in fact. I like to dig.”
“A tunneling dog of the law.”
Biting the inside of his cheek, Wan Zongran returned to his question. “So how did you become friends with Mrs Hu and Jiang Hong?”
“Her teacher, Master Bai, took me in. Leng Xiang was already her student. Then I met Jiang Hong. Bright young kid, right from the start.” The older man took Wan Zongran’s elbow suddenly. His grip was deceptively light, but when Wan Zongran tried to move his arm away, he was immobile. “Now, is there a tree near us?”
The constable peered around and noticed a gnarled tree with long hanging air roots behind the main street. Its crown was dense and full. A ring of stone circled its base, but its roots had crept over the blocks. “Yes. What of it?”
“Let’s go there.”
Bemused, Wan Zongran did as he was told, the blind man following him. “What’s so special about the tree?” Maybe there was a message in it, or perhaps Du Kuang was going to leave a coded message for someone.
Du Kuang exhaled with a huff but said nothing, not until they were right under the tree’s canopy. Its foliage was so thick that they obscured the weak sun. The blind man held Wan Zongran’s hand and a steady heat flooded the constable’s body.
“Just keep breathing regularly,” said Du Kuang in a low voice. Then jagged red qi lines erupted over his face and scalp, as if he contained an inferno and was about to shatter like an overheated jar.
An abrupt chill swept over Wan Zongran. His heartbeat leaped into a wild hammering and he started to sweat. His knees wobbled and his throat went dry. But the heat that flowed into him kept him from collapsing and he could still breathe. Birds and insects erupted out of the tree and fled in a flurry of shrill screams and wild calls.
Beside him, Du Kuang was glowing blood red all over his skin. The aura of his qi emanated in strong pulses, like waves of a storm crashing outwards. Just when Wan Zongran was about to throw up from the dissonant sensations within and without, two men in gray fell down from the tree clutching their hearts, their faces pale and sweaty.
They were from the group that attacked Leng Xiang the other day.
“What in the heavens?” Wan Zongran almost jumped out of his skin, but Du Kuang was still holding his hand tightly. “What’s going on?”
“Are they dead?” Du Kuang asked in a hushed voice.
Wan Zongran shook his head, and then remembered to speak up. “No.”
“Good.” Du Kuang tensed. The feeling of being drowned by a storm abated and Wan Zongran could feel his heartbeat slowing. However, it seemed as though Du Kuang was now focused entirely on the two men on the ground. One of them convulsed violently before he started foaming green at the mouth. The other gasped helplessly, as if he was a fish out of water.
“Poison,” Wan Zongran gritted out.
Releasing the constable, Du Kuang walked up to the remaining man to prod him with his foot. “Who hired you?”
The last man was trembling so hard, his teeth were chattering. Wan Zongran took a step closer and crashed to his knees, feeling fully the pressure of the qi exerted by Du Kuang. It was as if a mountain sat on his chest and knives were carving their way towards his heart. Killing aura.
Du Kuang pulsed in a faint red light. The last man choked and finally eked out a word: “H-how.”
Even through the haze of terror and pain, Wan Zongran wanted to crawl closer to ask the man to be specific, but the next thing he saw was that the man was also foaming at the mouth. Then the pressure lifted and Wan Zongran could breathe.
“What just happened?” he gasped out. Every inhalation was a relief.
Du Kuang shook his head. “A waste of time and qi. Come, we should return to the inn. Jiang Hong should have news for us.”
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.”