Jiang Hong listened to Wan Zongran’s recount of the two hidden would-be assailants without much expression, save for the end when the constable described how they had started foaming at the mouth.
“What color was the foam?” she asked.
“Pale green,” he replied. “An arsenic compound, probably.”
Du Kuang, who had been silent while the younger man talked, finally spoke. “I didn’t sense their qi.”
Wan Zongran turned to face him. “Then how did you know they were there?”
“I heard the branches moving when there was no wind,” the blind man explained, touching his left ear. “It could have been just birds, but when we got closer, I heard their breathing.”
Outside there was a small commotion at the end of the street, where the two dead men had been discovered and were now placed in front of the physician’s medicine hall. Several somber-looking men and women were examining the corpses for evidence of foul play, but since Du Kuang had not laid a hand on them, there was nothing tying him or Wan Zongran to their deaths.
Someone knocked on the door and Jiang Hong called out for them to come in. A waitress came in, bearing a tray with three plates of food and three bowls of rice.
“Here’s the lunch you ordered, miss,” she said cheerfully. Then she saw what they were observing and made a tutting sound. “Shame about that. Sorry you had to see all that going on, but no one knows who they are and why they’re dead, and the mayor is wary of having corpses she doesn’t recognize. Not that we get a lot of corpses here, to be honest. It’s a very small town. We don’t even have six hundred people, all told, and half of those are over fifty years old.”
Jiang Hong tipped her generously and locked the door after she was gone. “Who are they anyway? Why are they chasing us?”
“I thought that was your plan,” Wan Zongran remarked after he placed a bowl of rice and chopsticks in front of Du Kuang. When she stared at him blankly, he said, “Like a decoy? Distracting them from your senior?”
“I’m not that smart to think of that, but perhaps things worked out then,” she said as she sat down and tapped the side of each dish with her chopsticks absently. “Braised tofu, some kind of pickled vegetable, chicken boiled in wine. I hope we drew enough of them away from her and she’s safe.”
“We didn’t,” said Du Kuang, picking up his chopsticks. “There’s only two of them here. The rest must have followed her trail instead.” He shrugged. “Nothing we can do about that. She can take care of herself, though I hope she doesn’t kill anyone.”
Jiang Hong opened her mouth to protest, but shut it immediately. Indeed, what could she or anyone do? Leng Xiang might appear cold and aloof, almost inhuman sometimes, but she was still a mother, and she had loved her son. Jiang Hong herself had never taken a human life, even when she was in danger, trusting in her speed and agility to get her out of her predicaments. It was a tenet of the teachings from their teacher: Do not kill another person, unless at extreme need.
It would take a lot to push Leng Xiang to extreme need.
Du Kuang took a piece of chicken and placed it in Jiang Hong’s bowl.
“Eat,” he said quietly. “Whatever she does is her choice. And the consequences are hers to bear.”
Wan Zongran chewed slowly on the pickled vegetable, as if deep in thought. Jiang Hong studied him as she ate and wondered why the constable was willingly being dragged all over the empire. If he had insisted on leaving, neither Jiang Hong nor Du Kuang would keep him against his will.
Or perhaps he was running away from something.
The chief constable was young to be a chief constable, considering. Most of the chief constables she encountered in the other cities were usually around fifty to sixty years old, old dogs of the law, well trained to come to heel and to bite. Wan Zongran was not one of those, though he was still a dog in her opinion. Except his leash was not held by the prefect or the law, but by Hu Yuan. She wondered if Wan Zongran knew how obvious to everyone around them that he loved Hu Yuan, and supposed that most people thought it was some brotherly affection. Hu Yuan certainly did not seem to notice.
Du Kuang made an approving sound on trying the pickled vegetable. “Have you sent messages to the people you wanted to contact, Hong-meimei?”
“Yeah, I have. Sent word to Old Wu.”
Wan Zongran raised an eyebrow. “Who is Old Wu and why did we have to come here to send the message?”
Jiang Hong wanted to make a pert comment on how it was none of his business, but Du Kuang nudged her ankle in warning. With a long-suffering sigh, she said, “You know how Brother Yuan is from a school of the Six Paths?”
“Yeah, he mentioned. It’s one of the six righteous sects in the world of the river and the lake.”
“There’s a… sacred place or something around this region that only leaders of the Six Paths know the exact location of. The Heart of the Six Paths. Old Wu is one of those leaders.”
Wan Zongran frowned. “And why are we going there?”
In lieu of a reply, Jiang Hong scooped a morsel of rice into her mouth and chewed noisily.
Even with the blindfold, it was clear that Du Kuang gave her a dirty look for her terrible manners. He angled his body to face the younger man and said, “You’ve met Leng Xiang, so you know she isn’t like most of us. Physically, I mean.”
“It’s hard to hide those eyes.”
“It is,” agreed Du Kuang. “We believe there are records of her people stored in the archives of the Heart of the Six Paths. The archives have been around for almost five hundred years, when the Six Paths first splintered from their source; we just have not had a reason to ask for permission to go in and search. Xiang knows almost nothing about her people outside of what her teacher could tell her. But if she’s being targeted, then it must be something about her and not what she had done, for after she was married, she stayed well out of the river and the lake.”
Wan Zongran nodded slowly. “So you want to go in to find what might be targeting her… whatever she is.”
The blind man smiled. “It is also a good base of operations. It is well-hidden and well-defended, and I speak from experience. I spent much of my younger days looking for it. All I could discover was that this hill town was the closest point of civilization to it.”
“It’s only about nine days’ drive to the capital though,” said Jiang Hong with her mouth full. “So I don’t know if Old Wu would let you anywhere near it. Even telling you this much is risking the safety of pugilists around the empire.”
“I’m not a snitch,” Wan Zongran snarled. “And I would never reveal a secret if it would hurt Yuan by doing so.”
“Never is a strong word,” said Du Kuang. He put a piece of chicken in the younger man’s bowl. “And there are ways of getting you to talk.”
“I’m not frightened of torture.” Wan Zongran knew many ways pain could be inflicted on a person, and he had put some people through them, as part of the interrogation process. He was not proud of his part in those, even if he had done it so most of the other men in his charge would not have to endure the stain on their consciences.
“It’s not torture that I’m talking about.” The blind swordsman picked up his bowl and resumed eating.
It took a bit of time and a lot of effort to haul the vehicle out of the undergrowth, but they managed, and drove it to a small hillock, away from the village. Hu Wen found the location tracker and ripped it out from under the chassis of the vehicle. Zhao Xinglan was entirely unrepentant at all the trouble she caused. She sat in the shade of a fig tree nearby, fanning herself with one hand, while Hu Yuan kept an eye on the surroundings and Leng Xiang stood a little way off, her wings attempting to flutter despite the restraints.
“Let’s get out of here,” said Hu Wen, tossing a palm-sized brown box that had a blinking yellow light to the ground. He wiped his grimy hands on his pants and left two damp smears on his thighs. Leng Xiang walked over and stepped on the box. It cracked and then gave way when she stomped again. Sparks flew out and sputtered uselessly on the dirt path.
“That’s not a good idea,” Hu Wen remarked, though he had not attempted to stop her.
“They already know we’re here,” said Leng Xiang. Then she opened the door to the driver’s seat. “Let’s go.”
“Where are we going?” Zhao Xinglan called out as she got to her feet, only slightly clumsily.
Leng Xiang slammed the door shut before her junior could get to the vehicle. Before she could start the engine, however, Hu Wen opened her door again and grabbed the wheel.
She glared at him. “I remember when I used to like you.”
“You love me,” Hu Wen said shamelessly. He risked a small smile. “I’ll drive. You’ve not driven in a decade.”
“I got myself here just fine.”
Hu Wen was about to reply when he heard his older brother’s discreet clearing of his throat. With more than a tinge of irritation, Hu Wen turned around. “What?”
“We have company,” Hu Yuan said. His right hand was already on the hilt of his sword, ready to draw his blade, even though he was still pallid from the wound earlier. He motioned briefly with his left hand. “East and southeast.”
Great. Hu Wen reached for his steel claws and stepped away from the door. “Xinglan, get in the car.”
Zhao Xinglan stopped in her tracks. “What’s wrong?”
“Get in the fucking car,” Hu Wen snarled, allowing his qi to color his skin. Out of the four of them, only he and Leng Xiang were able to fight. He opened the door to the back seat. “You too, brother.”
“I don’t need protection,” Hu Yuan said. A muscle twitched in his cheek.
Hu Wen rolled his eyes. He tugged on his wife’s arm and she came out of the vehicle, her purple qi already drawing sleek, glowing lines along her arms and over her face – not the jagged, angry slashes of the past few occasions, but the controlled elegance typical of students from the Valley of Butterflies.
Zhao Xinglan’s own qi flashed as well, but Hu Wen glared at her.
“You are not fighting,” he told her firmly, and pushed her into the back seat. “Yuan, get in there.”
“I can fight.”
“You’re the color of dead grass, and we do not have time–”
“Brother, please,” Leng Xiang interjected. “Protect Wen’s child.”
Hu Yuan opened his mouth, and then his shoulders sagged. Without another word, he took the driver’s seat and started the engine. “We’ll wait for you.”
Hu Wen and Leng Xiang strode together towards the path, where five motorcycles each with two people appeared to be converging on the hillock. All of them were dressed in gray, and even had gray hoods and half-masks.
“Their qi doesn’t show,” Leng Xiang told her husband in a low monotone. “They’re fast.”
“Fast as you?”
“Close to.” A ghost of a smile crossed her beautiful face and her iridescent eyes glittered, facets of amethyst under sunlight. “Faster than you.”
Hu Wen had to hide his amusement. It was not a sore spot for him to admit that, at least when it came to speed, he was nowhere near his wife’s abilities. Channeling his qi into the claws, he braced his feet against the ground. When the motorcycles were about ten paces away, he chose the one in the middle and leaped for the driver. The steel claws tore into the man’s torso, raking deep, bloody gouges out of him. The person behind the rider struck Hu Wen with a baton and he staggered backwards, his ears ringing.
As the rider tried to take control of the motorcycle, he was thrown off by Leng Xiang landing a palm strike to his chest. The vehicle tipped over and skidded to a stop, but Leng Xiang leaped off and rushed to her husband’s side before she crashed. Two of the other four circled round, their engines kicking up thick clods of earth and clouds of dust.
Faint violet light pulsed around Leng Xiang and her wings strained to break free of the restraints placed on them. Hu Wen shook off the disorientation, wincing at the piercing hum in his ears. He took his wife’s hand and got to his feet, just in time to be dragged to the side as another motorcycle roared right past them.
Leng Xiang took one of Hu Wen’s steel claws and, after testing its weight, imbued it with her own qi. Hu Wen shifted his feet and pounced on the nearer pair of assailants, using his momentum to crash them to the ground. The heavy vehicle crushed their legs but Hu Wen’s left shin was also scraped raw by a wheel, the rough cotton of his cotton pants insufficient armor against the treads. Ignoring his own wound, he punched the two injured riders in their chests and pulsed qi into his fists to stop their hearts.
Risking a glance over his shoulder, he saw that Leng Xiang was able to fend off an attack by forcing them to dismount. The motorcycle was a little distance away, its wheels spinning uselessly. One of the assailants had long, bloody gashes down her arm, while the other was holding the right of his stomach where blood was seeping into his gray tunic.
Hu Wen was about to assist her when he heard something slam into the car behind them. Leng Xiang’s attention was diverted momentarily, but it was enough time for the woman to fling something at her.
“Look out!” Hu Wen shouted. It was too late – the projectile struck the side of Leng Xiang’s neck. It glinted as she toppled over slowly.
Before he could get to her side, an entire motorcycle was sent flying crashing into the two assailants. Stunned, Hu Wen turned his head and saw his older brother glowing in dazzling sky-blue. Next to him was the wreck of the last motorcycle, its front wheel torn off. Fury was practically pouring off Hu Yuan, and the band of qi across his eyes was almost blinding in its intensity.
The riders that had been on the two motorcycles were already incapacitated. One looked to be dead, while another was curled on his side, gasping weakly. Two were bound in silver strings, with bells jingling as they struggled. The ends of the silver strings were held by Zhao Xinglan, who seemed almost bored.
“Yuan, easy,” Hu Wen called out, though he was not so stupid as to approach his brother right then; he had never seen him in such a state, though he had heard of qi masters unleashing their full power given sufficient provocation.
Guess my wife being hurt was more than enough provocation, he thought sourly. When the light of Hu Yuan’s qi had ebbed slightly, Hu Wen ran to Leng Xiang and checked her pulse. A silver dart was buried in the muscle between neck and shoulder, but when Hu Wen pulled it out, the blood that beaded up was a rich, healthy red, and Leng Xiang’s breathing was steady.
“I don’t think this was poisoned,” said Hu Wen aloud, though he pocketed the projectile, then carried his wife to the car and placed her in the backseat gently. “Are both of you alright?”
Hu Yuan nodded tersely. With another exhale, he brought the intensity of his qi back down under control. The man who had been gasping for breath was barely breathing now; Hu Wen nudged him with a foot and saw the reddened marks on the man’s throat. His trachea had been crushed, probably by Hu Yuan.
Zhao Xinglan tightened the strings. The cheerful jingling of her bells belied the furious expressions on the faces of the captured men. “What about them?”
“We’ll never talk,” the one with a pockmarked face snarled.
Hu Wen stared at him. “Alright then.” He slashed the man’s throat with a tine of his steel claw and stepped to the side to avoid the arterial spray.
“Damn you,” Zhao Xinglan complained, looking mildly sickened. “The smell is turning my stomach.”
Hu Yuan used the sheath of his sword to block his brother from killing the other bound man. “We question him first.”
“His friend said they’ll never talk,” Hu Wen said. “Why bother trying?”
“I’ll talk,” the bound man said in a hurry. His eyes were wide and terrified. “I’ll talk. We’re just bounty hunters, and we were given this, uh, pill? The man said it would hide our qi so we would be harder to detect.”
“That’s true, at least,” said Hu Wen. “What man?”
“He was about your height, maybe a hand taller, and slimmer. Feminine features, and he had a birthmark under his left eye. Like a little brown tadpole.” The captured man gulped. He was sweating profusely. “I promise, that’s all I know. That’s all I can tell you.”
Hu Wen smiled. “I believe you.” Then he slammed the heel of his palm into the man’s forehead and pulsed a burst of qi into his head. The man passed out, white as a sheet.
Zhao Xinglan shifted her grip and the strings came loose. The man flopped onto his side like a boned fish. “Are you sure we shouldn’t kill him? He might get on our trail again, and this time with this mysterious tadpole-birthmark-man.”
“That pill, if it exists, isn’t available legally or illegally,” Hu Wen said. “Because I know some people who would have expended all their resources to have it. Which means the mystery man, if he exists, isn’t from our world of the river and the lake. And I guess that the pill would also allow the mystery man to track his unwitting lackeys. Either way, we should leave. These won’t be the last of the bounty hunters.”
Hu Yuan drove further down the road before he asked, “How is she?”
“Her pulse is normal and she is breathing normally. There’s no discoloration either. I think they hit her with a sedative, not poison.” Hu Wen knew he sounded rather casual, but he was not willing to admit – even to himself – the terror that had gripped him when he saw her drop. For a fleeting eternity, he had thought she was dead.
It had been snowing for the entire week and the trees and grounds were covered in a deep, white blanket. At least it was warm enough to sit on the porch with Jiang Hong for their writing lessons, instead of being cooped up in a small, stuffy room with the windows shut tightly against a howling wind. The two girls had their fur-lined coats on, gifts from Du Kuang the year before, and they had to use pencils instead of brushes because the ink was still frozen.
At seventeen years old, Leng Xiang knew her idyllic time in the valley was about to draw to a close. She was going to be married to Hu Wen the following year, despite the objections Hu Wen’s father raised. Part of Leng Xiang did not want to go through with the wedding; the arrangement was made when she was but a toddling child and Hu Wen still a brat clinging to his mother for comfort, but part of her liked the bond she had with the Hu brothers, and Mrs Hu was a wonderful, motherly woman that made Leng Xiang feel loved.
“No, the stroke goes to the right,” she reminded her junior disciple. Jiang Hong wrinkled her button nose, but bent to the page again to rewrite the character. Gifted as Jiang Hong was in qing gong, she was hopeless when it came to cultivating her literary side. It took months to teach the younger girl how to write her own name. A scholar Jiang Hong was definitely not. Yet, her bubbly nature and streak of rebellious mischief added much cheer to the simple life in the valley. Leng Xiang would miss her junior very much.
The passage they were copying came from a well-worn book. Leng Xiang was reading it aloud to Jiang Hong when they were interrupted by a small blue car trundling down the path leading to the front door.
“No one comes here in winter,” Jiang Hong said, her curiosity piqued. She set down her brush, heedless of the ink splotch that was rapidly spreading across the rough paper they were using, and grabbed Leng Xiang’s hand. “Let’s go see who it is.”
They were able to sneak into the corridor to peek into the living room, where their teacher was greeting the visitors. A woman and a girl, both clad in creamy-white furs and woolen clothes, took the seats offered. The girl appeared to be a little younger than Jiang Hong, but she had impeccable manners. Her long hair was braided into two pigtails and there were little bells on the ends.
“She’s very pretty,” Jiang Hong whispered to Leng Xiang.
The older girl nodded and put a finger to her lips. There was something fractured about the aura around the woman.
“Master Bai, thank you for seeing us,” said the woman. “This is my girl, Xinglan.”
Xinglan stood up and bowed politely, her bells jingling.
Their teacher shifted, angling her head slightly towards the corridor where her disciples were lurking; it was obvious that Bai Yunxian knew that they were eavesdropping. “Xiang-er, Hong, come. This is Lady Zhao, Lieutenant General Zhao’s widow. And this is Xinglan, their child.”
Leng Xiang led Jiang Hong out to greet Lady Zhao, whose smile of acknowledgment was brittle around the edges.
“If it is possible for your disciples to take my daughter elsewhere while we catch up?” Lady Zhao asked.
With an understanding smile, Bai Yunxian replied, “Hong, take Miss Zhao out to the back, won’t you? Build some snowmen or have a snowball fight.”
“Should I…?” Leng Xiang made to leave, but her teacher touched her wrist to stop her.
“Serve Lady Zhao some ginger tea,” Bai Yunxian said.
Lady Zhao seemed ill at ease, but she accepted the beverage, holding the cup in both hands. Her skin was very fair, almost as fair as Leng Xiang’s, and a red agate bangle gleamed on her right wrist. It looked like a band of blood on snow. Presently, they could hear the two young girls shrieking and running about outside.
After a moment, Lady Zhao said, “Please take good care of Xinglan, Master Bai.”
“I have not yet agreed to take her in as a disciple,” said Bai Yunxian. “Not until I know why a government official’s wife is entrusting her only child to me.”
Lady Zhao sighed and put her hands in her lap, left over right. “Because it is not safe for her to stay with me.”
“Why not? You are the late Lieutenant General’s wife. Surely he had trusted advisors that would protect you and her.”
“Because they think I killed my husband.” Lady Zhao’s gaze met Bai Yunxian’s. “They would kill me and marry her off to some minor noble, where she would not be cared for; her value is in the pension that is due our family.”
“And did you?”
Lady Zhao tilted her head. “Did I kill my husband? No. His death was ruled a suicide.”
Bai Yunxian waited silently. Leng Xiang watched the two women, trying to understand what was going on.
“Let me share a little about my late husband,” said Lady Zhao. “He was a man beloved by his soldiers. They followed him to hell and back, and by hell, I meant the border wars. Seven times he was sent, and seven times he returned victorious. But all men have a vice – some drink, some fight, some gamble, and some visit the houses of ill repute.” She cast a glance at Leng Xiang, who kept still. “I apologize if that is too vulgar for young ladies.”
“She’ll be married soon, and should learn some things about the world.” Bai Yunxian leaned forward. “Were you upset that he visited courtesans?”
Lady Zhao smiled thinly. “I accepted it as part and parcel of being his wife. It was better than what might have been, for there are stories of wives being beaten by drunk husbands, or of officials gambling away their wealth, or of duels that ended in unwarranted deaths or injury. At least, that was what I thought.”
“I overheard a conversation he had with a fellow soldier. A good friend of his, and they accompanied each other to the red lantern district often. That was when I learned that my husband did not hire the services of courtesans.” Her smile became fixed, as if she were wearing a mask. “He was visiting the children there. They are around Xinglan’s age.”
“I see.” Bai Yunxian sat back in her chair. The soft light that constantly emanated from her became more muted. She motioned for Leng Xiang to pour more tea for Lady Zhao.
“The night my husband died, I was sleeping in Xinglan’s room. I had been telling her bedtime stories and she wanted me to stay. At around midnight I heard the door open, and it was my husband. He wanted to find out where I’d gone. In the morning, when Xinglan and I woke up, I was told that they had found him hanging from the rafters of the ancestral hall.” Lady Zhao clasped her fingers together tightly. “We had officials from the Hall of Justice to examine the scene for foul play, but there wasn’t. He died by his own hand. Unfortunately, no one knew why he took his life, and thus the men who worshiped him blame me. They believe I did it, and have gotten away with it.”
Leng Xiang knew that the story Lady Zhao was telling was just that – a story. There were parts omitted, or perhaps alluded to in a way that Leng Xiang did not understand, yet, but her teacher certainly understood enough.
“While I cannot guarantee Xinglan would be happy here, I promise to keep her safe,” said Bai Yunxian. “I can offer you sanctuary too, if you so wish.”
Lady Zhao shook her head. “I intend to seek an audience with the general, or even the vanguard general. Such slander and threat cannot go unchallenged. I just do not wish Xinglan to be caught up while I seek a way to clear my name.”
“And how is she responding to all of it?” Bai Yunxian’s tone was very gentle.
Lady Zhao’s aura wavered, but the calm expression on her face remained unchanged.
“She’s unhurt,” she said, which struck Leng Xiang as an odd reply to her teacher’s question. Bai Yunxian made no further comment, however, so Leng Xiang held her tongue.
The older woman called Leng Xiang to her and told her to get the two young girls romping around outside to come in.
As Leng Xiang left the room, she noticed her teacher rise to her feet and say, “Stay the night, at least, and tell Xinglan of your plans. It’s only fair that she understands why you are doing this.”
Leng Xiang blinked and winced at the cold compress on her forehead. “What happened?”
“There was a powerful sedative on the needle that hit you,” said Hu Wen. “How are you feeling?”
“Nauseous.” Leng Xiang frowned and gathered qi in her diaphragm. “But I’m alright.”
Her husband took away the compress and kissed her brow. “Good. Rest. In the morning, we have a mystery man to track down.”