After tossing and turning for what felt like several hours, Hu Yuan gave up on sleep and made his way to the shared dining space of their suite. He lit one of the lamps and settled into the armchair, closing his eyes as he tried to put away the memory of the encounter with the bounty hunters in the day.
How easily he had been provoked into showing the depth of his feelings for Leng Xiang! He had not hesitated once he saw that she was in danger, and almost lost his senses. Even hours later, he still could not fathom how he had ripped apart the motorcycle. All he had felt was a blinding rage and a surge of qi. The next thing he knew, he had hurled a ton of steel into two men.
With a sigh, he took his datapad from his luggage and turned it on, careful to use an anonymized account to connect to his mailbox. A few hundred messages awaited his attention, most of which were demanding to know if the Hu brothers had really put their entire estate up for sale. He scanned a few and, in a fit of pique, erased all of them. It was darkly satisfying to see absolutely nothing in his mailbox. Just as he was about to turn off his datapad, a message came in.
It was a photo of a field with and a short text of eight lines below the image. The sender was from someone named Shuang Ren Pin. Hu Yuan frowned. He didn’t know anyone by that name, either personally or professionally. The photo was a generic picture taken from a child’s textbook, so it was not a location. He studied the text. It was not a poem, so he discarded all consideration of meter and rhythm.
“Throwing his head back with a laugh, the man opened the gates. The hunting dog bursts forth. It scents its prey on the north wind. The three foxes have left a visible trail. The man watches the silver stars overhead. He counts thirty thousand. Far in the northwest a bell tolls seven times. The foxes must not be found.”
Hu Yuan frowned at the cryptic message for a moment before he realized that the sender had to be Kun De, the Deputy Chief Constable back home in Ping An. Since Wan Zongran had been forced to go on leave, Kun De was the man in charge. The field referred to his surname, Kun, as in the trigram for ‘earth’ in the bagua. ‘Shuang Ren’, a reference to the radical for the deputy’s name, and ‘Pin’ as the most common collocation with ‘De’ to talk about virtues.
The short story was clumsily phrased, but it was not hard to discern once he guessed the sender. The first phrase had to be a reference to Lord Shangguan, since his name was Yixiao, ‘One Laugh’. The three foxes would thus be himself, Hu Wen, and Leng Xiang; Kun De probably did not know that Zhao Xinglan had joined up with them. Thirty thousand silver stars – that was the new bounty, Hu Yuan supposed. Northwest… The capital lay in the northwest of Ping An, which suggested that the Imperial Court must have set a deadline for Lord Shangguan to capture them. Seven days, weeks, or months? And what did the hunting dog refer to?
Hu Yuan needed more information. Composing a coded message and coming up with a nickname was not as simple as he had assumed, though. He was peering so closely at the datapad as he tried to formulate a reply that he nearly jumped out of his skin when someone cleared their throat.
It was Zhao Xinglan standing in the doorway of her own room, a slender hand on her swollen belly. Her braids were coiled on top of her head and made her look a lot taller.
“I didn’t think anyone would still be up,” she said quietly as she crossed the room to get to the small kitchenette to pour herself a cup of water.
“My wound was bothering me,” Hu Yuan lied.
“Or perhaps you’re reading messages,” said the young woman, an eyebrow arched. Even with the puffiness of travel fatigue and pregnancy, Zhao Xinglan was still striking.
Hu Yuan had to admit that he could see why his brother would sleep with her. There was a gamine charm to her eyes, and a sharpness in the way she interacted with them; she did not bother to hide her passion or annoyance. Leng Xiang, in contrast, hardly ever revealed her feelings. Her beauty was high and cold, distant as the full moon over a snowy landscape.
But his heart longed for the chilly moon in the heavens, and nothing could draw his eye back to earth.
He smiled politely at Zhao Xinglan. “Both, really. The messages came after I settled in here.”
She took his answer as an invitation and settled into a chair near him. “I don’t think you like me much.”
“Miss Zhao, I do not know enough of you to like or dislike you.” He turned off the screen. The single lamp cast deep shadows over her face.
“First impressions then.” She smiled at him, almost in challenge.
He inhaled deeply. It was not proper for him to be talking to his brother’s mistress in the middle of the night, but how proper was it to abandon his father’s wake before its completion or to give up control of the family business just to chase after his sister-in-law to protect her from the persecution of the Halls of Justice?
Finally, he said, “Miss Zhao, the first time I met you was when you tried to barge into my father’s wake while being visibly pregnant. Then you declared before half of Ping An city that the unborn child is my brother’s. Not only that, you callously remarked on the murder of my nephew to my sister-in-law, and provoked her into almost killing both you and the baby in your womb. A baby who, may I remind you, comes from an extramarital affair, and whom you’re using to blackmail my younger brother into making you his legal wife.” He paused and weighed his words. “I think you may find that I am rather restrained in saying that I don’t find a lot about you to like.”
She pursed her lips and tilted her head, the mass of braids shifting slightly. “That does sound terribly rude of me.” Then, with a soft chuckle, she added, “I should have tried to make a better first impression, but maybe over time I could grow on you. After all, I’m bearing your niece or your nephew.”
The third door opened and Hu Wen ambled out with a huge yawn. “Keep it down. We’re all qi masters here, and Xiang needs the rest.”
“Please. She was knocked out by a sedative. I’m the one growing a whole other person,” Zhao Xinglan said, rolling her eyes before she stood up with a grunt. “And I don’t get a man meeting my every need.”
“The only reason you’re still here with us is that baby,” Hu Wen pointed out. “Don’t push me to change my mind.”
“If I disappear with our child, your family loses an heir and you lose your child.” Zhao Xinglan strolled towards her room. “Don’t push me.”
When Zhao Xinglan woke up and peered out the window, dawn was just breaking over the tops of the dark blue roofs of the town. Thin, wispy clouds streaked the skies in golds and oranges, a good portent of the day ahead. The weather was colder now; a quick check of the dates indicated that they were but six to ten days from the first frost.
The clothes she had brought on her hasty escape from the city would not suffice if she was still on the road in deep winter. It was not her intention to be on the run with Hu Wen and his brother and as for Leng Xiang, the less she came into contact with her senior the better.
A small part of Zhao Xinglan was guilty over what she had done. Her hands slid over her belly, feeling the tremors of her baby shifting and moving inside her. It had been mostly a sense of spite that got her into bed with Hu Wen in the first place (as well as the second and the third and the many times after that), not that it had not been fun as well – Hu Wen was as feral in bed as his namesake. She pulled a red scarf from her luggage and wrapped it about her neck. It would not do for her to catch a cold now.
Breakfast was laid out on the table. The sight of food made her stomach grumble, but the only other person seated there was not a person Zhao Xinglan wanted to eat with.
Leng Xiang did not even glance at the younger woman. She was browsing the news on a datapad, one that looked suspiciously like the one Hu Yuan was holding the night before. The table was set for four, however, so Zhao Xinglan took the place opposite her senior.
“Where are the brothers?” Zhao Xinglan asked.
“Emergency supply run,” said Leng Xiang. She turned the page and kept reading. “They’ll be back soon.”
Zhao Xinglan wondered why the men had left her and Leng Xiang alone in the suite. Still, she was not about to show that she was nervous. Picking up her chopsticks, she took a piece of preserved tofu, but before she could put the morsel on her plate, Leng Xiang had struck her utensils lightly with her own. The preserved tofu dropped back into the dish.
“We’re waiting for them,” said Leng Xiang, turning the page on the datapad.
“The food will be cold.”
“Cold food is still food.”
Zhao Xinglan narrowed her eyes. Her chopsticks darted forwards but Leng Xiang’s chopsticks intercepted her again.
“I said, we’re waiting for them.” Leng Xiang finally looked up at her junior disciple, her iridescent violet eyes glittering.
Slamming her other hand on the table, Zhao Xinglan snarled, “I’m hungry, and I’m pregnant. My baby needs to eat.”
“You and your baby can wait for a while longer.” The older woman turned her attention back to the datapad, presumably to catch up on news.
Her nostrils flaring, Zhao Xinglan picked up her chopsticks again, subtly imbuing them with qi. She reached out for that same piece of fermented tofu.
As expected, Leng Xiang’s chopsticks made contact with hers. Instead of the utensils breaking into pieces as Zhao Xinglan thought, the two pairs of chopsticks stuck together. Zhao Xinglan pushed more qi into her utensils to force a break, but her qi seemed to pour into a bottomless pool.
“I taught you the basics of cycling qi through your body,” said Leng Xiang placidly. “Did you really think I wouldn’t sense you trying an old trick?”
Zhao Xinglan tugged on her chopsticks. She could not move them an inch. The emptiness on the other end suddenly changed into an attracting force; Zhao Xinglan tried to let go, but her hand seemed to be glued to the two sticks. She could feel herself growing hot and, under the anger, a tendril of fear. She pulled her elbow back as hard as she could and Leng Xiang’s arm straightened, their chopsticks still attached.
“Very good, you’ve improved,” said Leng Xiang, before she drew her hand to the other side, dragging Zhao Xinglan off balance. “Hold your qi flow steady and firm. I’m about to push.”
For a heartbeat Zhao Xinglan was eleven years old again, left at Butterfly Valley by her own mother to learn martial arts. As senior disciple, Leng Xiang had taken on teaching duties and imparted the fundamentals to Zhao Xinglan, and she seldom gave praise.
The early spring and summer morning practices, the air wet with mist and their feet damp with dew; the fireflies blinking green and yellow at night; the kites she and Jiang Hong flew on windy autumn days while Leng Xiang soared overhead; the warmth of Brother Kuang’s smiles juxtaposed against his terrifying killing aura that he sometimes failed to dampen.
A jolt of qi knocked the chopsticks from her grip and sent them flying. Leng Xiang’s expression was inscrutable, her faceted eyes giving nothing away of her thoughts. “I told you to keep your qi flow steady and firm.”
“Pardon me, senior, for not being able to practice my qi control while starving to death,” Zhao Xinglan snapped.
Leng Xiang exhaled heavily and returned to her reading. “Still as needlessly rebellious as ever.”
The way the older woman spoke ticked Zhao Xinglan off. “You’re not my teacher, Leng Xiang, and you certainly are not my mother, so there’s no need to be that condescending.”
“If I were Teacher, I would never have allowed you to leave the valley,” Leng Xing replied. Her eyes flicked up, and lines of violet light streaked over her face. A warning, perhaps, that Zhao Xinglan should hold her tongue. “I would’ve maimed you for what you did to the innocent man. And if I were your mother, I’d be ashamed of my daughter for sleeping with a man married to her senior, though I suspect the fault lay mostly with him.”
The cold disapproval stung. Zhao Xinglan’s fists shook as she clutched her skirts. Even now. Even now, when Leng Xiang had lost her son, her fortune, and her marriage, she still thought she was the superior.
“He’s going to divorce you and marry me,” Zhao Xinglan stated baldly.
“I know. I told him to.” Leng Xiang sighed again and gazed at the pregnant young woman. “You would be more suited to the role than I ever was. Though I hope you won’t spare the rod when it comes to your child; the last thing the Hu family needs is a spoiled brat.”
“Was your son a spoiled brat?” It was a low blow, yet Zhao Xinglan did not feel sorry for saying it.
Leng Xiang blinked, and then smiled softly. “He was spoiled, yes, by his grandfather, but I made sure he was not a brat. But I never had to spank him when a scolding would do.”
It was infuriating how Zhao Xinglan could not hurt Leng Xiang. She wished she could have seen the other woman mad with grief when she found out that her precious only son had been murdered. For once, just once, she wanted to witness her senior lose her composure utterly, to stop being so perfect and beautiful all the time. To be more human, somehow.
The door opened to admit the brothers, both laden with several bags.
Hu Yuan blew out a breath. “Shopping is more exhausting than I thought it’d be.”
“When was the last time you shopped?” Hu Wen asked snidely, dropping his bags by the door and strolling over to the table. “I thought we had servants to do it for us.”
“Our servants had servants to do the shopping for them,” Leng Xiang remarked, her tone so neutral that it took a moment for Zhao Xinglan to realize that she had been joking.
Zhao Xinglan did a mental double take. Leng Xiang joked. She never joked about anything.
Hu Wen sat on Leng Xiang’s right and served himself a bowl of rice gruel before filling Leng Xiang’s bowl. To Zhao Xinglan’s surprise, the older woman passed the filled bowl to her.
“They’re back now,” Leng Xiang said simply. “Eat.”
Hu Yuan took the empty seat facing his brother. “The prefect stopped the sale of the estate and froze our accounts about half an hour ago. As far as I can tell, the bounty on our heads has gone up to thirty thousand.”
“Dead or alive?” Leng Xiang asked.
“I suspect both, though alive would be preferred.” Hu Yuan thanked his brother absently as Hu Wen set down a bowl of gruel in front of him. “As far as finances go, we’re broke. It’s going to be some time before we can stay in a nice inn like this.”
“All of those bags contain food, thicker clothes and winter boots. We've also got three separate tents in the car. It's a used car, but one that shouldn’t attract much attention from anyone.”
Zhao Xinglan frowned as she chewed on a preserved lettuce stalk. “Only the accounts linked to the Hu family have been frozen, right?”
“Then we can use my money and my summer home,” she remarked. When the two men stared at her, Zhao Xinglan glared back. “I have no intention of sleeping in the wilderness. Mother’s in Nanping City, and she doesn’t know about this—” she pointed at her belly “—and I would like to stay out of her way until the baby is born. She’ll be so ecstatic over having a grandchild that she won’t nag me about sleeping with you.”
Hu Wen batted down Zhao Xinglan’s accusatory chopsticks and rolled his eyes. “You were the one who seduced me, you little harlot. Where is your summer home anyway?”
"In the capital," replied Zhao Xinglan.
Leng Xiang exchanged a meaningful look with her husband, but what they were thinking about, neither shared with the other two at the table.
Situ Mengjian was initially uncomfortable with the two automaton guards trailing after him as he explored the palace grounds, but after a while he grew used to their presence. The grounds were huge. For the first time in his life, he wished he wore shoes; his soles were hurting from the clean white stone tiles. He had to retreat under elegant willow trees to rest more often than he wanted but sitting down on the ground offered him the chance to wiggle his bare feet in soft grass and marvel at tiny creatures crawling about, busy with the business of being alive.
Eventually he made his way to one of the gardens. A massive stone at the gate declared it to be the Garden of Fragrant Dusk, and once Situ Mengjian pushed apart the doors, he saw the reason why. Every hard surface was artfully decorated with sweet-smelling flowers, while wisteria hung from the boughs of tall, gnarled trees. His automatons’ mechanical march fell silent; underfoot was springy moss. The air was humid with a pleasant, dreamy scent. Though it was nearing winter, everything was still green and growing. He could hear birds singing somewhere deeper into the garden.
He was absorbed in the quiet calm when he suddenly heard a frantic chirping. Alarmed, he jogged towards the source of the sound. There, on the ground, was a little bird, not yet fully fledged, its little wings beating frantically. Its speckled feathers hid it quite well against the earth, but it would not survive if it were left there alone. Situ Mengjian quickly picked it up and cradled it in his hands. Peering up into the tree, he could vaguely make out a shadowy mass. Then a mature bird hopped down, its plumage a beautiful gold all over, save for a bar of black over its eyes. The grown bird sang loudly and urgently, as if it was petrified that its chick was about to be eaten.
“Is that your nest?” he asked the little chick, and then shushed the panicking parent bird fluttering around his head. “Calm down, I’ll put your baby back in his nest soon.”
It can’t be that difficult to climb a tree, he reasoned. The characters in his books always leaped up into trees with a single jump. He walked around and found a fairly low branch that looked quite thick and strong.
“Here we go,” he said. “But where can I put you while I climb? I’m going to need both hands.”
The baby bird chirped and flapped, entirely unhelpful but devastatingly adorable. Situ Mengjian grinned and nestled the bird at his throat, carefully secured by his collar. Then, stepping on the low branch, he grabbed the tree trunk and reached for the next branch. The rough bark provided sufficient grip for his bare feet, but it was a lot harder than he thought it would be to clamber from bough to bough. Somehow he managed to find a route to the nest about two-thirds of the way up the tree.
Returning the bird to the nest carefully to its other four siblings and a nervous parent, Situ Mengjian smiled and said, “Now stay put until you can fly, alright?”
The baby birds all chirped at him, their mouths opened wide as if waiting for him to feed them.
With a laugh at their hungry cries, Situ Mengjian reached down with his left foot to grope for the branch below. Just as his toes touched the branch, his hands lost their grip and he hurtled to the ground with a scream. His right foot landed awkwardly and a sharp pain shot up his leg.
He had never been injured in his life. Gasping, Situ Mengjian wondered if he would pass out. After a long while, he pushed himself to a sitting position, but when he shifted his right leg, he almost threw up with pain. Beads of perspiration broke out over his forehead as he felt along his right leg for where he was injured. When his hand touched the middle of his shin, his mind whited out with a shrill hum of agony.
“How am I going to get back?” he wondered when he could think clearly again. His eyes were wet with tears and sweat. His hands and forearms were badly scraped by the rough bark too, blood welling up along thin welts. The automatons stood idly next to the tree, their featureless faces providing no hint of assistance.
Only then he remembered the white and gold bangle around his wrist. Perhaps there was some way of summoning help on it. Swallowing back the pain, he rotated it in an attempt to figure out how to use it. Unfortunately for him, the bangle was a smooth circle, the white jade and gold crafted so masterfully that there was not even a seam for him to pry at with a fingernail.
He dared not move at all, and he did not know how to command the automatons to find someone to help. Sprawled on the grass, he looked up into the tree he had fallen from, only to see two birds hopping along the branch where the nest was, busily feeding their hungry chicks.
“At least you’re safe,” he muttered to himself, torn between wanting to cry at the pain and laughing at the ridiculousness of his predicament.
Perhaps his extended absence would draw attention, or maybe a resident of one of the other halls in the palace would wander past and discover him. It was unlikely, however. He had not seen a single other human being since he left his own residence that morning. It had been such a novelty to be allowed to walk around freely, not constrained to a single location, and to touch surfaces that were not carved stone or polished wood or printed papers or woven fabrics.
He was about to try shuffling along the ground on his bottom to get to the garden gate when he heard someone call out, “Lord Situ?”
“Brother Junyu, is that you?” Situ Mengjian replied aloud, almost crying with relief.
It was, indeed, Huang Junyu. The archivist hurried over to Situ Mengjian and hissed in sharply when he saw the bleeding scrapes all over his arms. When Huang Junyu reached out to touch Situ Mengjian’s leg, the latter involuntarily twitched, gasping in pain at the motion.
“Let’s hope the imperial physicians will get here fast,” Huang Junyu said, and tapped a message into a datapad at his wrist.
“It doesn't matter if they're slow, I'm already hurt,” Situ Mengjian pointed out. He was surprised by how shaky his voice was.
Huang Junyu smiled and brushed his knuckles over Situ Mengjian’s damp cheeks. “Don’t feel like you have to be silent if you’re in pain, alright? And yes, it does matter. The longer it takes to treat you, the longer it'll be to recover.”
“I don't mean to interrupt, but please don’t use that term of address when the physicians are here, please. The court is very prickly about protocol,” said Huang Junyu . He ripped off two long strips from his hem and wrapped them around each of Situ Mengjian’s bloodied forearms. “To keep out infection. We don’t want you to be scarred. What happened?”
Briefly, Situ Mengjian described saving the little chick and putting it back in its nest. “It was very cute, too,” he said. “I just wish I wasn’t so clumsy.”
Huang Junyu squinted up the tree, as if to find the baby bird that had caused the trouble. “Those birds are noisy.”
“It’s not noise,” Situ Mengjian protested. “Birdsong is pretty.”
“That is decidedly not singing.”
“They’ll grow up into songbirds, then you’ll see.” Situ Mengjian hissed when he shifted his right leg. “When I’m better, you and I will come here and listen to them.”
Huang Junyu sighed and murmured, “Of course.” The datapad on his wrist made a soft dinging sound. He stood up and brushed away specks of dirt and dust. “The physicians are here.”
Indeed, a team of four men and women in pale green robes and black hats with green stones hastened in, stepping roughly on the moss.
“Don’t stamp so hard!” Situ Mengjian called out in dismay.
The physicians froze mid-step. One of them frowned. “Lord Situ, what do you mean?”
“He wants you to walk gently over the moss,” said Huang Junyu . “Pardon me for speaking out of turn. I am Master Huang, the archivist assigned to Lord Situ.”
The physicians seemed to notice him for the first time and, funnily enough, their faces blanched and they dropped their gazes. “Yes, of course, Master Huang, Lord Situ.”
By the time they were done seeing to Situ Mengjian’s broken leg, it was already well past noon. Situ Mengjian was exhausted and hungry. They had realigned the broken bone and bound his leg there on the spot, and he had passed out from the pain; when he came to, he was already on a stretcher which was carried by the automatons all the way back to his hall. Even the cuts on his arms had been cleaned and dressed.
“Since there is no way you can get to your sleeping quarters,” said Huang Junyu, “please have my room for now.”
“But what about you?” Situ Mengjian said.
Huang Junyu smiled and bowed. “I can make do with sharing with the kitchen staff. They’re only across the hall.”
“No, no, that’s not... You helped me. You can take my bed until I recover.”
His eyes wide, Huang Junyu shook his head. “No, I couldn’t possibly. That is a bed chosen specifically for you by the Emperor. It will not be proper.”
“The Emperor isn’t here, and I am. I insist,” said Situ Mengjian. He was hot and uncomfortable with his right leg encased in a cast, and he was not about to let the archivist go without accepting thanks.
Huang Junyu opened his mouth, apparently to protest further, but then subsided when Situ Mengjian folded his bandaged arms and glared. Eventually, the older man smiled and bowed. “Thank you for the generosity, Lord Situ.”
“You’re to call me Mengjian when no one else is around,” Situ Mengjian reminded him.
“Yes, of course. Thank you, Mengjian.” There was an impish glint to Huang Junyu’s eyes. “Unfortunately, I was informed by the imperial physicians that I have to assist you fully until you are mobile again, so I cannot sleep in the Dreamseer’s bed as it is too far from here.”
“Well, you can sleep in this room then.” Situ Mengjian smiled back, triumphant when Huang Junyu seemed to be at a loss for words. “Go on, tell whomever you need to tell to get a second bed in here, and have lunch brought in too. I’m starving.”