It was pouring, the heavy raindrops battering the dirt path into a river of mud. Chief Constable Wan Zongran was soaked to his knees from the splatter, though his head and torso were protected from the worst with his umbrella. The wet had even got into his boots and his feet were cold and soggy, further compounding his discomfort. The washerwomen for the constabulary would definitely complain about the mud, but that was the least of his worries.
His subordinates were still inside the dilapidated temple bagging up evidence as quickly as they could in case the roof caved in from the rain. Wan Zongran, on the other hand, had the honor of waiting on the stoop to the temple, with a second umbrella tucked under his arm. If he had his way, he'd be in there with his subordinates, but he was the senior officer on the scene and had to follow protocol.
A black shadow floated into view, first as a blurry silhouette in the silvery sheets of rain, and then taking shape as an imposing form of a vehicle. His deputy, Kun De came out, and stood next to his superior officer in the downpour. Wan Zongran was thankful for the unspoken support.
“The prefect won’t be happy to hear about what we found,” Kun De said, just loud enough to be heard over the roar of the thunderstorm. His dour face seemed even more severe and unhappy as lightning slashed across the iron-gray clouds.
“If he had wanted us to solve the case earlier, he should have given us the manpower,” Wan Zongran snapped. “That old fool just wants to-”
Whatever else he planned to say about the prefect was interrupted by the midnight blue car driving up to the temple. Kun De pulled Wan Zongran back into the temple proper before the vehicle could spray muddy water over them as it braked and skidded to a stop. Instead, most of the spray landed on the yellowed and cracked walls.
“I swear I’ve had the automaton updated,” Hu Yuan called out apologetically as he exited the car, his own black umbrella unfurled quickly over his head. “Are both of you alright?”
“We’re fine,” said Wan Zongran. He jogged out, ignoring the squelching discomfort in his boots, and ducked under Hu Yuan’s umbrella to hug him, releasing him quickly before the embrace could be construed as being unprofessional. In a low voice, he asked, “Are you sure you want to do this in person? We could do this with a photograph.”
Hu Yuan’s jaw clenched, a momentary betrayal of emotion. Wan Zongran wished he and his sworn brother were alone, just so the older man had more time and space to unburden himself. If only they could do this at the city morgue, but there was a perpetual throng of nosy gossips ready to pounce on even the tiniest bit of morbid excitement in exchange for a free meal and a drink down at the inns and restaurants. Anyone who saw Hu Yuan losing his composure while at the morgue would be able to feast like a king for a week.
“A photograph would not convince her,” he replied, “and I love Yao too much to… to not see him in person.”
Though Hu Yuan was but thirty-two years of age, much of his hair was already gray, particularly at the temples; the lines that used to appear only when he frowned seemed to be etched permanently into his skin now. Wan Zongran knew that the bulk of his worries came from the Hu patriarch’s rapid decline in recent years, and this latest blow only exacerbated the stress on Hu Yuan.
Since he was not free to remark on any of his real concerns while he was at work, Wan Zongran contented himself with a firm grasp of Hu Yuan’s forearm. A slight relaxation of Hu Yuan’s mouth indicated that he felt Wan Zongran’s concern and empathy.
“I would have come earlier,” said Hu Yuan, “but I was across the river. The levees will need reinforcing again, after this rainy season.”
The chatter was a mask, Wan Zongran knew, so he did not respond to the comments as they folded their umbrellas; Kun De peeled off to check on the progress of the constables collecting and logging evidence.
Just as Wan Zongran was about to lead Hu Yuan inside, they both sensed another approaching the temple. A hooded and cloaked rider on a black horse stopped next to the car, the beast tossing its big head agitatedly, obviously unhappy about being out in the downpour. The rider was slender, evident even in the thick hooded cloak, and female.
Wary of the horse, Wan Zongran jogged over through the mud with his umbrella. The rider dismounted, and stepped right into the mud. The hems of her skirt were already spotted with dirt, and now mud soaked into the fine fabric. It seemed silly to shelter her now, given that she was thoroughly drenched, but the chief constable did so anyway. Though the hood was pulled low over her face, there was no mistaking who she was.
“Mrs Hu,” Wan Zongran said, escorting her to the temple stoop where the other man was waiting. “I wasn’t expecting to see you.”
Hu Yuan’s stern features seemed to soften on seeing her, but his lips pressed together tightly instead of greeting his sister-in-law. She tugged the hood down and gazed at him, as if daring him to challenge her presence; on the side, Wan Zongran tried to ignore the unease that always stirred in his gut whenever he saw her eyes.
“Let’s go inside,” said Wan Zongran, feeling oddly intrusive as he spoke. “Thank you both for coming. Protocol dictates that identification has to be done by a family member when possible.”
Her alabaster face was pale, and her iridescent violet eyes were shadowed with sleepless nights and red-rimmed with anxiety. Her answering nod was brief. She left a trail of rainwater as she walked through the temple, adding to the puddles that were already present due to the leaking roof. Worry had softened her edges and made her seem nearly human. Part of Wan Zongran wished that she were stone, if only to spare her from what was to come, and wondered what Hu Yuan was thinking.
A foul stench permeated the inside of that once-hallowed place. Mud, rotting leaves, dust, mold… Wan Zongran hoped the building would bear up against the storm at least until they were done. Then he would ask the prefect to send a task force to tear it down, before it crushed some poor traveler who sought shelter in it. Bent to their tasks, Wan Zongran’s subordinates ignored the three of them walking into the recesses of the temple where the abbot's room used to be. The large stone statue of the bodhisattva stared down with heavy-lidded and sightless eyes from his lotus seat, while lesser deities flanked him, all armed with various magical weapons. The roof over the statues were intact, and there were cobwebs veiling the bodhisattva’s face.
Wan Zongran’s eyes scanned the scene and his men at work out of habit, and saw that the customary alcove behind the bodhisattva that sat the Holy Benevolent Destroyer was empty. That was odd, but not surprising. The icons might be sacred, but gold was gold. That was assuming the culprits did not suffer a debilitating death first – the Holy Benevolent Destroyer was said to strike desecrators swiftly with His wrath. Those who damaged the icons for quick gain supposedly suffered anything from mundane ailments like nausea, rapid weight loss, hair loss, blisters, all the way to a fatigue that could not be eased and eventually a painful death caused by internal bleeding. He would make a note, regardless, and send someone to check if there were any clues left in the alcove.
Like most constables, Wan Zongran scorned religion as a matter of principle. Deities were of no help against the basest of humans. What lay in the abbot's room was proof enough that these gods were nothing more than painted stone and rotting wood, Holy Benevolent Destroyer notwithstanding.
Kun De was waiting at the doorway, flicking through his datapad to scan the notes the other constables made. When he saw Wan Zongran, he snapped off a smart salute. “Chief Wan. Master Hu. Mrs Hu.”
“Mostly done, chief. We will seal the building once identification has been made.”
“Good.” Wan Zongran nodded. “We will need to pack up in another thirty minutes. The rain has washed away everything useful outside but we should have enough evidence from in here to process, and I can feel the beams beginning to creak from the wet. I want you to look over the Holy Benevolent Destroyer’s altar personally. Where is Doctor Fang?”
“I’ll send him over. He was testing the blo- doing something,” Kun De replied, and, with a mournful glance at the covered form on the narrow cot, left with his trademark efficiency.
Even though Wan Zongran knew this was the likeliest outcome when the case had come to him fourteen days ago, he still wished he had been wrong. It would have been kinder for them to do this at the morgue, but there was a contingent of reporters waiting outside for a morbid exclusive, and he wanted to spare the Hu family the ordeal. To distract himself, he asked the two family members for their identification, and logged the seals into his notes to be added to the case files.
Doctor Fang walked in, his metal leg clicking on the tiled floor. “Mrs Hu?” he said, blinking in surprise.
She inclined her head at him.
Blinking again, Doctor Fang collected himself and bowed to them both. He glared sidelong at Wan Zongran, as if the chief constable was the one who invited her to view the body, when the original message had been sent to Hu Yuan alone.
“Are you certain you wish to proceed, madam?” Doctor Fang asked. “Master Hu alone would-”
“I am here.” It was the first time she had spoken since her arrival. Mrs Hu’s voice held no inflection, and her face was still and unmoving.
Carefully, respectfully, Doctor Fang folded the sheet down until the face was revealed. He did not show them more of the body. Wan Zongran was relieved. Earlier, when he first arrived on the scene, he had broken down in tears; he hoped he could maintain his composure now. Even looking at just the boy’s face had his throat closing up in grief and fury. He clicked on the recording function on his datapad.
“Lead investigator, Chief Constable Wan Jizu. Attending pathologist, Doctor Fang Xin. Master Hu Chongsheng, and Madam Hu-Leng Ziyun, age twenty-eight, here to identify the body.”
The courtesy names felt prickly and weird on his tongue; Wan Zongran never did like using courtesy names. But these were going to be legal records, so he had no choice. He nodded at Doctor Fang, who slid the sheet down.
“Master Hu, Mrs Hu,” said Wan Zongran, hating how professional he sounded in the moment, “is this Hu Yao?”
Hu Yuan took one look and turned away, his face twisted in a grimace, his jaw clenched, his eyes squeezed shut, as if his entire body was trying to reject what was before them. Once again, Wan Zongran had to remind himself not to reach out to comfort his sworn brother.
“Mrs Hu, is this your son, Hu Yao?” Wan Zongran asked the young woman, though he already knew the answer from Hu Yuan’s response.
He tried not to be affected by the numb bleakness in her expression. For a second he felt like there were two dead bodies in the room, except one's heart had been stolen and the other broken. His gaze fell on the child’s face and his heart broke all over again.
Hu Yao had been a shy yet endlessly curious boy. He would tug on Wan Zongran's sleeve before asking a question, and he had many, many questions about everything, from the way Wan Zongran tied his boots to why osmanthus blossoms smelled so sweet to how much could a fish eat before it exploded. Perhaps Wan Zongran should have answered more of them, or helped to find answers. He needed answers right now to the dozens of questions swirling in his head.
He cleared his throat and repeated, “Master Hu, Mrs Hu, I need one of you to confirm the identity of this child. A yes or a no would suffice, please.”
She took a shuddering breath and exhaled softly. “That’s not my son.”
Wan Zongran frowned. “Mrs Hu, look closely, please. Is this your son?” He gripped the recording device tightly, reminding himself not to turn it off. The Justices could be finicky about these matters.
“No,” she said. “That is not my son. That is a dead husk that used to be him. There is nothing of my son left in that now.”
“Yes.” Hu Yuan’s voice cracked as he straightened and appeared to compose himself. “Yes. That is… that is Hu Yao. My nephew.” He inhaled sharply and the façade broke. Tears eked their way down his face, and he bowed his head, a hand over his mouth, the other hanging limply.
Hearing the pain in his sworn brother’s voice shattered what control Wan Zongran had. The fingers of his free hand dug into the meat of his palm, and he had to take slow, deep breaths, inhaling the scent of old blood and fresh decay, exhaling with regret and renewed resolve. He could not speak.
“Thank you for identifying the body,” Doctor Fang said, seeing that Wan Zongran would need some time. “Are there any prior injuries or scars that Hu Yao had? For instance, a broken leg, or maybe scars left behind from a bad fall.”
“Uh, he’s… Yao broke his arm three years ago, in winter. Slipped on a bad patch of ice. He’s had chickenpox too, earlier in-in Spring, so I think there may be scars where he used to scratch himself.” Forcing himself to look up again, Hu Yuan swiped away the tears on his cheeks with the back of his hand. “I… I don’t know if there are more.”
Mrs Hu stepped closer to the corpse. “Turn him over.”
“That’s not how-”
“Doctor.” Finally, some emotion seeped into Mrs Hu’s voice. “Please.”
Doctor Fang glanced at Wan Zongran, who nodded, and then carefully turned the body over. There were two long ragged vertical wounds on the shoulder blades, like cuts made by a blunted cleaver.
Mrs Hu’s right hand hovered over the injuries, as if she intended to close them with her fingers, before she snatched her hand away. Without a word, she swept out of the room, leaving the three men staring after her in varying degrees of perplexity.
Coughing and breaking the awkward silence, Doctor Fang bowed stiffly to Hu Yuan. “Thank you for the identification. We’re all very sorry for your family’s loss.”
Hu Yuan’s throat convulsed, as if he was fighting down bile, but he only motioned for them to lay the boy face up. “When can we have him? It would be good to…” He visibly trembled. “I want Yao to come home, as soon as possible. Before-before we lay him to rest.”
“We will keep you informed,” said Doctor Fang, “but it will not be more than five days.”
“Thank you, doctor.” Hu Yuan gazed down at his nephew. “Yao, you don’t have to worry about anything, alright? Uncle will take care of Grandfather and your mother. Uncle will…” His voice shook, and broke. Weeping openly, Hu Yuan whispered harshly, “Uncle will make sure everyone is safe. I promise. I promise.”
Belatedly, Wan Zongran ended the recording, sticking the datapad into his pocket, and pulled his sworn brother into an embrace, letting the older man cry into his shoulder, professionalism be damned. Hu Yuan’s hands clutched the back of Wan Zongran’s damp uniform like that was all that was keeping him upright.
The chief constable was about the same height as Hu Yuan, so he could hear the wet gasps of his breath and feel him trembling; Wan Zongran pressed his left ear and cheek to the side of the grieving man’s face, trying to convey without words that he was there, and he would be there for as long as necessary.
Doctor Fang covered the child’s face again and exited the room, his metal leg tapping a steady beat.
It was some time before Hu Yuan could compose himself sufficiently to pull away. Wan Zongran noticed Kun De back outside the door, standing watch to make sure no one bothered them. The rain had not abated, the heavy drumming on the roof enough to mask their conversation from prying ears. Wan Zongran took out a clean handkerchief and dabbed at Hu Yuan’s tear-stained face.
“I got your shirt wet,” said Hu Yuan. His smile was very shaky.
“Wetter, you mean.” Reluctantly, Wan Zongran stuffed his handkerchief into his pocket and nodded at the door. “You should go home, and keep an eye on her. I’ll drop by later with the horse.”
“You don’t have to.”
“You’re my sworn brother and best friend. There are times I should leave you alone, but not today.” Pausing, Wan Zongran checked the time on his datapad. It was almost time for the shift change, and he would have to cobble together a report for the prefect the next day. However, looking at Hu Yuan’s pale and tense features, Wan Zongran knew that he would have to rely on Kun De to do most of it.
When they got to the entrance, expecting to see Mrs Hu, they were surprised to be told by a junior constable that she had already left the way she came. Hu Yuan exhaled heavily and his mouth twisted in a wry expression. “As always, she does what she wants.”
“You would need to keep an eye on her in case she does something foolish.” Wan Zongran clenched his fists. “And I suppose you will need to inform your brother, too.”
Hu Yuan tensed. “I told him the day Yao was taken. He’ll show up when he wants to.”
The fact that it had been nearly half a month and Hu Wen was still not in the city spoke volumes. Wan Zongran suppressed his usual snarl of disapproval; this was neither the time nor the place.
Wan Zongran had known Hu Yuan since they were both students at school, half a year apart in age, and thought how unfair it was for Hu Yuan to be stuck with all the responsibility while Hu Wen gallivanted around the empire. In his opinion, Wan Zongran would have been a far better younger sibling.
At nine years old, Wan Zongran had been scrawny and short, and a target of his classmates’ bullying. Hu Yuan had always defended him. One day, three older boys decided to pick on them both, so all of them had got into a fist fight, and there had been quite a bit of biting as well. The entire group had been punished by the teachers for fighting. That same evening, as they were walking home from school, Wan Zongran had asked if Hu Yuan could be his older brother, and they become sworn brothers.
Of all the people Wan Zongran had ever met, he admired Hu Yuan the most. Kind, brave, filial and responsible, Hu Yuan had once seemed to be on top of the world. After passing the Gate of Jade Dust, he had married a pleasant young lady of high birth, thus securing his family’s continued fortune as a supplier of salt to the imperial court. He had then slain a notorious villain, the Green Serpent of Lake Jiao, thereby cementing himself as a pillar of the pugilistic community.
Then misfortune struck, one after another, and what had Hu Wen done to support his older brother?
Even his own wife and child did not have his presence in their lives, let alone his support. If Wan Zongran respected and admired Hu Yuan above everyone else, then he felt nothing but utter loathing for Hu Wen.
Wan Zongran was the one who stayed by Hu Yuan’s side when the old Mrs Hu passed away from pneumonia. Wan Zongran was the one who watched over Hu Yuan when he was drinking his weight in wine to mourn his sweet Lady Shun, who had died in childbirth, and the baby that had not survived. Add to it the rapid decline of the Hu patriarch in recent years, and now the murder of the only heir to the Hu family…
It was cruel of Hu Wen to leave everything to his older brother to bear.
“What do you want?” Wan Zongran knew that he should not have said that, because he knew his duty: investigate the case, chase down leads, arrest the murderers, bring them before the Justices. Whatever Hu Yuan wanted was not Wan Zongran’s job.
“I want my family to feel safe again,” Hu Yuan said to Wan Zongran, unfurling his umbrella. His free hand fell to the sword secured at his waist. “That is the one and only thing I want.”
Even though he understood what Hu Yuan was really saying, Wan Zongran merely nodded. If that was what Hu Yuan needed from him, then he would deliver.