When he returned to the wing he shared with his wife, Hu Wen saw that Leng Xiang was not alone. Other than two maids, her junior, the thief Jiang Hong, was there, having breakfast with his wife. Leng Xiang put down her bowl and chopsticks when she saw him; he noticed that her bowl was still mostly full.
“Brother Wen,” said Jiang Hong curtly.
He did not bother with courtesies. “I want to speak with my wife in private. You two, take the dishes to Miss Jiang’s room.”
Leng Xiang nodded. “Leave us, please.”
Hu Wen waited until he was alone with his wife and the dishes cleared before he set down the set of mourning linen meant for her on a chair.
She looked at the clothes but did not reach for them. Then she turned her iridescent gaze to meet his eyes. “I thought we were not permitted to mourn our son?”
Sighing, Hu Wen sat down in the chair Jiang Hong vacated. Part of him wanted to hold Leng Xiang against his chest and offer comfort; another part of him wanted to shake her for the question. “Father is dead.”
She did not seem surprised. “When?”
"About an hour ago," said Hu Wen. He grabbed her hand and squeezed gently. "You don't have to wear it or attend the wake if you don't want to."
Leng Xiang turned her palm so her fingers interlaced with her husband's. "Brother would say it is improper."
“Ignore him,” Hu Wen hissed. “Father never liked you in the first place, not even when… Not even when our son was born. He wanted to give Yao an alulaectomy, remember?”
“I remember.” Her expression darkened momentarily. “My son’s wings were not an aberration to be removed.”
“Exactly. And if he'd had eyes like yours, Father would have…” Hu Wen did not finish his statement, but Hu Tianyi’s antipathy towards Leng Xiang was no secret. With another sigh, he got to his feet to pace around the room. He felt like he could not breathe, as if an invisible hand was tightening around his throat. Eventually, he stopped and stared at his feet. “I asked everyone I could get hold of, but no one knew anything. Dead end after dead end.”
Leng Xiang came up to him and rested a cool hand on his elbow. “It’s not your fault.”
“My son was kidnapped and murdered, yet I couldn't save him.”
“You were looking.”
“Big fat load of help I was.”
“You tried. All of us did.” Cupping his cheek, she tilted his face down so she could touch her forehead to his. “It is not your fault.”
This close, he could see flickers of light deep in her faceted eyes, like miniature constellations. Wrapping his arms about her, he realized how much thinner she had become since the last time he was home. When was the last time he embraced his wife?
The same thought appeared to have been percolating in Leng Xiang’s mind. “It’s been some time.”
She exhaled and relaxed in his arms, burying her face into his neck. He soothed down her back, over her wings. They shivered, violet qi lines dancing lightning-quick through the veins.
“It’s been hard on you,” he told her quietly, feeling her thin body tremble before a soft, warm dampness seeped into his collar.
She said nothing. He didn’t ask her for a response. Perhaps it was shame that stayed his tongue. Her scent was calming and familiar, even after so long. With a pang, he realized that he could not recall how his son smelled.
He wished he could take it all back – the neglect, the selfishness, the determination with which he threw himself into building a reputation separate from his family name. His father’s expectations and presence had been so repugnant that he had only returned once a year, to place flowers at his mother’s tomb and to make sure Leng Xiang and his son were still alive. Now only his wife was left. He was no better than his father, who neglected his two boys and marinated himself in work and grief.
When had he changed? Why did he change? He had been so happy to marry her, and even more excited to have his very own child to love and care for.
He had no excuses, not really. The past decade was a story of his thoughtlessness. Him leaving home after Leng Xiang's illness because he did not want to accept its devastating consequences; the ludicrous fight with his older brother over taking over the business; the affairs. Years of affairs, with dozens of women all vying to supplant Leng Xiang. The pointless, brutal battles he got into with pugilists of all stripes, just so he could unleash all his nebulous rage on someone and become the Mountain King.
Then he was told of the abduction.
And then, the murder.
And now he would never have the chance to be a better father to his son than his own father had been to him.
Her wings quivered again. Sometimes, it was as if their qi was still connected and that she could read his moods as easily as if she had felt them herself. He glanced at the fragile wings and noticed that, other than her own violet qi darting along the veins, there was another, a faint green web, fine as spider silk, binding the wings together. If he was not literally embracing her, he would not have seen it. He turned her around to better examine her wings.
“Who did this?” Incensed, he ran his palms over the wings, his own red qi sparking against the unfamiliar green qi. “Why did you let them do this?”
Leng Xiang shuddered. “It doesn’t matter.”
“Of course it does. Whoever did this must undo it.” He tried again, a stronger burst of qi, but the energy was repelled with a sizzle. “Xiang, tell me.”
“He’s dead.” She moved away from her husband and sat down again. Her eyes were red-rimmed. “I can live like this. It isn't as if I fly anymore.”
That was a lie. He knew how much she loved flying, even if she had to go into the deep forests in order to do so, or hover close to the ground. Standing in front of her, he resisted the urge to shake her by the shoulders and settled for a clenched fist on the sturdy rosewood table. “How long have you lived like this? Why?”
She averted his searching gaze. Her lips thinned. “It was for Yao. He wasn’t to learn how to fly.”
He understood in a flash. His father had imposed this on Leng Xiang, because Yao had wings, and his damned father had been afraid that Yao would be different. Fury raced through his body. How dare the old man make such an unreasonable demand, to limit not just his wife but his son?
The table suddenly exploded, large chunks and splinters flying in all directions, knocking over a couple of the chairs. Hu Wen’s fist was still in the same position, unscathed, while red qi crackled up and down Hu Wen’s arm.
Leng Xiang was similarly unhurt. A faint purple glow surrounded her. She looked at the shards of wood around the room. “I never did like that table.”
Hu Wen snorted and shook out his arm, a little embarrassed by his lack of control. “I’ll tell the servants to clean up. Then I’m going to the morgue. My son should be laid to rest as soon as humanly possible.”
“What about Father’s wake?”
“They’ll take the rest of the day to set up.” Hu Wen caught sight of a small bronze tiger figurine on a side table and smiled to himself, touched. That had been a gift from Leng Xiang when she came back from the valley; he had not known she had put it on display. “You don’t have to be there all the time. People will understand.”
“It wouldn’t be proper, though.” She took the mourning clothes from the floor and dusted debris off the rough fabric. "Brother will need us both there. He's borne the burdens of this family alone for too long."
Hu Wen gritted his teeth but said nothing. She was right.
Summarily dismissed from Leng Xiang’s room, Jiang Hong wondered where she could go. There was someplace in Ping An city that she would like to visit, but not until the sun had set.
Slipping out of the estate, she went on foot to the central market, which was still busy with vendors and shoppers. As she wove through the crowd, her nimble fingers plucked purses and coins from distracted stall owners and haggling buyers. It was not as if she needed the money, really, but it was good to keep in practice. She also purchased three cheap paperbacks – two romances and one a biography of an adventurer – for her nighttime visit.
At the edge of the market, she spotted a beggar on a bit of grass, a broken earthen bowl in his left hand and a long, sturdy stick in his right. That he was alone was a promising sign. She ambled over and dropped five copper coins in the bowl.
“Bless you, miss.” The coins vanished in a blink.
Jiang Hong noted the tattoo on the back of his hand, and grinned. A sleight-of-hand artist. “You’re welcome. I have a question to ask and I wonder if you have the answer.”
The beggar glanced up and scratched his matted hair. “Depends on the question.”
“How many beggars are there in Ping An?”
He hawked up a gob of spit and expectorated forcefully. “About four hundred and fifty-six, or maybe five hundred and sixty-seven.”
Jiang Hong gave him another five coins. All the coins disappeared with a quick tilt of the bowl. “Where would they be gathering?”
“Past the temple on the north side, house behind the cattle pens.”
She dropped ten more coins into the bowl, which disappeared after the clinking. “Thank you. I wasn’t here, if anyone should ask.” It was not as if she was worried about being tagged by the constabulary, but it was a habit to be wary.
“Bye, woman who was never here.”
Humming to herself, Jiang Hong bought some hand lotion and took the fastest route to the temple and found the cattle pens empty and dry; it had not been in use for some time. There was a rundown house to the back, its walls cracked on one side. Outside the door were three beggars, with flies buzzing about them, and one of them even had a rat in his hand. They glared at her as she approached, and then the rat-holding beggar stood up in a threatening manner.
“What are you doing here, miss?” he asked. He had warts on his arms and face, the skin scabbed over on some of them. “This is no place for a lady.”
“Cut the act, Laipi. Your rat looks fatter than before too,” Jiang Hong said. “Is he in there?”
That was a yes. Jiang Hong tossed a silver coin at each of them and went inside. Indeed, her oldest friend, Wu Liuqi, was there, talking with an elder of the Sect. Wu Liuqi held up a finger before she could speak, so she made herself comfortable on a worn-down stool. It was a pretty sheltered place to rest for a night or two, as long as the temperature did not drop too much, and there was a makeshift firepit in the center of the main room. Two side rooms led off on the other end, presumably bedrooms.
“I see your lady friend is here, so I guess this old man has to leave,” said the elder. Jiang Hong stood to bow to him. “Ah, you don’t need to show this old man any courtesy, Miss Jiang, not after you saved me from that rich man’s dogs.”
Grinning, Jiang Hong said, “Master Si, you threw that smelly old fish at me and told me to run. I didn't save you; you saved yourself using me as a distraction.”
Master Si Wuliu laughed and patted Wu Liuqi on the back. “This girl. You don’t deserve her, Wu.”
“Who says? A beggar and a thief are very compatible,” said Wu Liuqi. He strolled over to Jiang Hong and threw his right arm over her shoulders, pressing a kiss to her cheek. “Plus, she pays well for good service.”
“Ew, don’t kiss me in front of your teacher,” said Jiang Hong, though she did not try to get out from under his arm at all.
He leered at her. “So, I can kiss you behind his back?”
Master Si Wuliu rolled his eyes and headed for the door. “Disgusting. Scandalous. Absolutely atrocious behavior. What have I ever done to deserve such a brat for a disciple?”
They could hear him muttering even after he had shut the door behind him, and then the elder instructed the three at the door to accompany him “while those two brats get frisky”.
“We don’t always ‘get frisky’ when we meet up,” Jiang Hong complained in exasperation as Wu Liuqi pulled her into one of the rooms and shucked off his threadbare vest and pants. “Oh, you’re moving fast today.”
“I have to go across the water later,” he said, pulling Jiang Hong close and getting rid of her clothes in short order. “Can’t miss the tide. Ooh, lotion.” He opened the tin of hand lotion and sniffed. “Apricot flowers. Very nice.”
It’s old habit now, for Jiang Hong to seek him out for a quick roll in the hay if they were in the same city or town. There was no one else Jiang Hong trusted more than Wu Liuqi, and after she was given permission to travel, he was the first person she sought out; after a year of infrequent meetups, they decided to try sleeping together, and it had been fun and satisfying enough for them both to continue with the arrangement. Wu Liuqi liked his freedom too much to ask her to stay by his side. Jiang Hong was very similar in that regard, and would much rather roam forever untethered.
After a sweaty and energetic half an hour, she rested her head on his bare chest and drew lines along his breastbone with her fingertip. “What do you have on the Hu case?”
“Knew you liked me only for my intel.” He kissed the top of her head and brushed some dust out of her curls. “Old Crow’s called in someone from the capital. Rumor has it that it’s someone pretty high ranking.”
“Not yet.” He snorted. “We only caught a whiff this morning, after the announcement about Hu Tianyi’s death.”
“What?” Jiang Hong levered herself up. “The old man is dead?”
Wu Liuqi was amused. “You’re the one staying in the Hu estate and you didn’t know?”
“All I know is, Hu Wen came back, so I popped out.” She lay down again, twining her legs with his strong ones. Even though he was a beggar, Wu Liuqi still took showers regularly; Jiang Hong had made it clear that he would not be allowed to touch her otherwise. It did hurt his reputation a little, but the members of the Beggar Sect liked them both and so only teased him lightly for the unbeggarly attention to hygiene. “It’s as somber as a cemetery in there.”
“I can’t imagine,” he said, combing his fingers through her hair. “Alright, get dressed. I have to catch the next ship.” He pinched her slim waist. “Spare me some coins for the fare?”
“You’re incorrigible.” Jiang Hong smiled and plucked a heavy purse from those she had picked earlier, emptying its contents into his hand. “I’d like a few eyes on the Hu estate though. With all these deaths, no one is at their best, and I have a feeling whatever bad luck they have hasn't blown over.”
“Your wish is my command.” Wu Liuqi kissed her on her cheek and then swung his bare legs off the rickety bed. “Now get on with your day. The butterflies are flying, my boys tell me.”