Already running late for his shift, Wan Zongran had a headache and a sore neck from falling asleep at his desk at home, so he was not in the mood for idle chatter when Kun De grabbed him by his elbow and steered him out the back door of the constabulary.
“What do you want?” he grumbled.
“My wife is making pickled cabbages for winter,” Kun De said aloud, while stuffing a folded slip of paper into Wan Zongran’s hand and closed the latter’s fingers over it. “I’ll send the boys over with your share when she’s done.”
Wan Zongran did not earn his post of Chief Constable by being dim. He yawned and kneaded the back of his neck. “Sounds good. I need to freshen up, tell one of the rookies to make me a pot of ginger tea.”
He headed to the lavatory, hands in his pockets, nodding to Dr Fang as he passed the old man. The narrow lavatory stunk of soap, so the custodian had come by to clean it up. When he had locked himself in a stall, he took out the slip of paper and read it.
‘Crow called for someone from Hall of Justice to take over Hu case. Handwritten copies in pickle jars.’
Tearing up the note and flushing it down the toilet, Wan Zongran wondered whom Prefect Wu called in to take over the case. An official from the Halls of Justice outranked the prefect, because they were imperial officials; they were notoriously ruthless when it came to tracking down every lead. It would have been good to have sent for them when the boy was first abducted. The Hu family was prominent enough that involving them was warranted, but Prefect Wu was worried about drawing the attention of the court this close to his fifth-year review.
Now, Wan Zongran was feeling proprietary over the investigation. Turning over the case documents would rankle, but he would not be able to refuse the order. Not for the first time, he berated himself for not being academically inclined; he would have wanted to serve in the Halls of Justice. He could not clear the regional examinations, unfortunately. Of his numerous talents, mastery of the written word was not one of them.
As he washed his hands, he considered his options. It would be another day before the officer arrived, so he had one day and night to copy all the information he needed and stash them someplace safe. Kun De was hiding them in the large pickle jars used by his wife for their cabbage harvest, which would put both their careers at risk, but Kun De would not have offered if he had not thought it through.
The prefect would likely order Wan Zongran off the case if the official decided that Wan Zongran was too close to the Hu family. In that case, Wan Zongran would ask to go on leave. There were no other pressing cases, merely the usual petty theft and occasional minor altercations, and his deputy was more than capable of handling those. Five years’ worth of accrued leave should get him nearly six weeks’ free time.
Thus decided, he quickly made a mental list of what he needed. He was not going to put anything else on his datapad, nor would he use the printing machines. When he got into the main office, he went over to Kun De’s desk, which was cluttered with folders and had two pictures of his family under the glass of the desk. The deputy was in the middle of looking over the previous night’s reports when Wan Zongran interrupted him.
“I just want the stalks this time, not the leaves,” Wan Zongran said with a smile. “I like the crunch.”
“I’ll tell the missus,” Kun De replied, his lips twitching minutely. “Your ginger tea is on your desk.”
“Thanks, Kun. I appreciate it.” Clapping his deputy on the back, Wan Zongran then made a show of circulating around the office to check on what each constable was working on and selecting which lead they were to follow.
He was about to grab a senior constable to go with him to the city’s archives when two junior constables ran in from their patrol.
“Chief Wan!” said the gangly young man called Cai. “We just heard. Old man Hu is dead.”
“What? When? How?”
“Word on the street is that he died of anger when Hu Wen came back.” Cai’s partner, Lan, swiped across the constabulary-issued datapad. “Here. The public announcement just popped up two minutes ago.”
Wan Zongran read the simple notice, along with dates and times when the wake would be open to the public to pay their respects if they so wished. He was reeling inside with both shock and indignation; his sworn brother Hu Yuan did not notify him of something of this magnitude. Then his more rational side realized that Hu Yuan was possibly too shaken and emotional from two successive losses, and he was never at his best when his younger brother returned home.
He stuffed the datapad back into Lan’s hand. “Kun, I’m heading out. Wang Pei, go to the city’s archives. You know what information I want. I’ll join you later.”
Of all people he could have encountered, Wan Zongran bumped into Hu Wen right outside the mansion’s front gate. Hu Wen was wearing mourning linen, but he had his riding leathers on over it.
“Where do you think you’re going?” Wan Zongran asked, irate.
Hu Wen rolled his eyes. “I had enough of that tone from my old man when he was alive. I’m not taking it from you.”
“Your brother is busy with funeral arrangements. Shouldn’t you be helping him?”
“My dead son is still in the fucking morgue.” Hu Wen’s gaze hardened. “Shouldn’t you be investigating why?”
Stung by the rebuke, Wan Zongran froze in the middle of the path. As Hu Wen passed him, he murmured derisively, “Give it up. Obstinacy and blind devotion are not virtues.”
Wan Zongran wanted to retort, but he bit his tongue. What good would it do? Soon, he heard the roar of a motorcycle, a lot more powerful than his own, and listened as it tore into the distance.
He hated Hu Wen. He hated him. Ever since they were children, Hu Wen had been the thorn in his side. Hu Wen used to tag along after him and Hu Yuan in their games, always demanding his older brother’s attention. After their mother’s death, the brothers had been sent away to learn from different masters, and Wan Zongran had been left behind in Ping An to pursue an ordinary career in law enforcement.
It would have been fine, except Hu Yuan had then returned a hero, handsome and confident and admired by all, and Wan Zongran had discovered to his dismay that he had a jealous streak as wide as the River Ping.
He had suppressed his jealousy, of course. He was better than that. Hu Yuan deserved better than that. Having Hu Yuan as a sworn brother was more than anything Wan Zongran had dared to hope for when he was a boy. Wan Zongran told himself that he did not want to distress Hu Yuan unnecessarily, or lose the friendship they had nurtured through the years.
Then, on Hu Yuan’s wedding night, Hu Wen had found Wan Zongran dead drunk in a corner of the Hu estate. Instead of tattling to Hu Yuan, Hu Wen had only dragged Wan Zongran into a guest room and locked him inside until he sobered up in the morning. It was the most humiliating experience in Wan Zongran’s life, and the idea of Hu Wen holding back the story for the moment he could thoroughly embarrass Wan Zongran was galling.
A junior steward led him to the central courtyard, where Hu Yuan in his mourning clothes was watching the servants arrange furniture for the visitors coming for the wake. A huge white tent was being put up over the space, and numerous maids were carrying armfuls of white chrysanthemums into the main hall. However, Wan Zongran only paid attention to the bags under Hu Yuan’s eyes and the stoop of his shoulders.
“Yuan,” said Wan Zongran as he approached his sworn brother and hugged him briefly. “I’m so sorry.”
“Zongran.” The corners of Hu Yuan’s lips twitched, as if he was attempting a smile, but it only highlighted the man’s exhaustion. “Thank you. How does the saying go? Good things come in pairs, while misfortune does not travel alone.”
Wan Zongran put his hand on the other man’s shoulder and squeezed. The mourning linen is rough-woven, but still of good quality. “You ought to rest. Hu Dan can take care of these matters.”
“There is too much to be done.” Hu Yuan’s jaw tensed and he shut his eyes briefly. Then he did manage to smile at the constable. “I’ve told my sister-in-law. With Wen home now, she will be quite safe.”
“Hu Wen isn’t around,” Wan Zongran said, not hiding the spite in his voice. “I bumped into him at the entrance.”
Hu Yuan glanced at him, before he said, “He’s seeing to Yao’s funeral arrangements.”
Chastened by the subtle criticism, Wan Zongran tucked his hands into his pockets. “Prefect Wu has sent for assistance from the Halls of Justice.”
“I suppose that was inevitable,” Hu Yuan murmured, mostly to himself. His father-in-law was still a high-ranking official, after all, though they were no longer on speaking terms when Hu Yuan’s wife passed away. No fault of either side: Wan Zongran knew that Hu Yuan suffered a deep, profound grief, and it was reasonable to assume that the other family felt the loss even more severely. “Do you know who it is?”
“Not yet. But you and your sister-in-law must not reveal that you have received any information from me.” The chief constable looked around at the lengths of white cloth covering the different door plaques. “I have to go to the archives. Send for Kun De if your brother has any information pertaining to the case.”
“Wen does not trust law enforcement.”
“That’s because he lives on the wrong side of it.” Wan Zongran regretted the flippant retort as soon as he said it, but there was no taking it back.
Hu Yuan’s expression darkened. “He’s not a criminal, Zongran, even if the law he follows is that of the river and the lake.”
Hu Yuan patted his sworn brother’s shoulder, before striding to the main hall. Watching the other man disappear into the shadows of the hall, Wan Zongran left, feeling as though he was about to lose something precious.
There was a special tower in the prefect’s estate. It had five levels, and its tiles sparkled like emeralds in sunlight. It was situated in the middle of the compound, with tall trees all around it, so that only the top two floors were visible from the city walls. The tower did not belong to the prefect; it was imperial property, and the prefect of Ping An was responsible for it. Rumors spread throughout the city of the riches to be found within the tower, but it was one of the most secure places in Ping An. There were guards on patrol at all hours.
Not that the guards could deter the best thief in the business.
Jiang Hong was already perched in one of the tallest trees in the estate, having sneaked in via the kitchen gardens. She was dressed in dull, mottled green, her hands gloved except for her fingers. Even her face was veiled with a similar piece of cloth so that her qi lines would not show.
She had chanced upon this place years ago when she was casing the prefect’s compound and plucked an onyx horse statuette out of the prefect’s study. It was sheer luck that she had discovered the tower’s real secret. Over the past few years, if she happened to be within a day’s journey to Ping An, she would try to pay a visit to the tower.
Wu Liuqi’s intel was accurate, except for a small detail; a long string of multicolored paper birds, not butterflies, dangled from the window right at the top. He had never once asked her what it meant or what was in the tower. She sometimes wondered if he already knew, or perhaps he was allowing her to keep that as a secret for herself. However, she was not sure if she would tell him if he ever asked.
Below, the four guards on night shift sauntered up to the door, chatting idly among themselves.
“How’s the meal today?” one of the afternoon guards asked, handing a large key ring with four keys over to his colleague.
“Same old crap. Cook gave him extra sweet potatoes.”
“Shut it. You know she’s trying to get me to set her up with my neighbor, Butcher Pang.”
“Alright, enough gossip. Look sharp. Inspection coming up soon, I heard, final one before delivery. Heads will roll if anything should happen between now and then.” The one who handed over the key saluted his colleagues. “Come on, guys. Time for our dinner.”
“Look sharp, he says,” snorted one of the night guards. “Nothing ever happens here. Not even that time when that thief got away with some of that weasel’s treasures.”
The night shift gossiped a little longer before they got into position on four sides of the tower. They were fairly skilled pugilists, from the steadiness of their stance and their calm, even breathing. An average trespasser would not be able to fight them.
Jiang Hong had no intention of fighting them. Navigating her way to the tree closest to the tower, she jumped to the jutting ledge of the third floor, landing without a sound. The tiles were as slick as ice, but the walls provided enough friction for her to cling on. It was a matter of seconds to slip inside and she ascended the stairs two at a time, already familiar with the locks on each level that she barely had to pay attention in order to pick them and lock them behind her.
When she got to the top, the smile on her face widened. She knocked lightly on the final door and then pushed it open.
“Hey,” she said. “Missed me?”
“Hong!” The resident of the tower brightened. He dropped his book and hurried over to hug her. “Of course I've missed you! How are you? How long are you going to be in Ping An?”
Jiang Hong grinned, glad that her friend was so pleased to see her. “It's so good to see you, Mengjian. I'm in town for a few days this time. Not for a pleasant reason, but… well. It’s something personal.”
“I’m so sorry. Are you sure I can’t help?” Situ Mengjian was genuinely concerned. “I could ask uncle.”
You’re a prisoner in a tower watched day and night by imperial guards, and you don’t even have a pair of shoes. She shook her head and smiled. “It’s alright, it’s just a matter I have to handle myself. Anyway, I brought you some new books.”
She gave him the three cheap paperbacks and he squealed excitedly, looking much younger than his seventeen years. He paged through one of the books, eyes wide.
“Oh, I remember this hero! He was in another story, where he killed the Thunder Dragon, and the writer just left him hanging on the edge of the cliff. I was so worried.” He rushed to the wide bed and started rummaging through the books piled on it. “This one! Maybe it’s the same writer?”
As she watched the youth compare the two books, Jiang Hong wished – not for the first time – that she could steal him from the tower. She would, in a heartbeat, if he asked. If he ever indicated that he wanted to leave, to escape the imprisonment, she would move mountains to help him be free.
“I'm sorry I haven't come by for over a year.” He was taller than she remembered, and wider in the shoulders than he had been last year. The first time she met Situ Mengjian, he had been a thin, pale boy, startled by her presence but unafraid, and he had hidden her from the guards.
“That's alright, you have to go on adventures so you can tell me all about them,” said Situ Mengjian. Shyly, he brushed his silky long hair behind his ears that stuck out like vase handles. “I've something to give you too.”
“Really? You don’t have to, you know.”
“Yes, I know. But I want to.” Situ Mengjian skipped over to one of the shelves, also overflowing with books and knickknacks, to fish out a lacquer box. “Uncle gave it to me last week. I thought you'd like it.”
In the box lay a conch shell carved out of fine white jade with delicate pink veining. Jiang Hong was almost convinced that it was an actual conch shell, but its weight and texture told her otherwise. It was definitely the work of a master craftsman. If she sold it, the amount of gold she would receive could probably feed two villages for a year. It was an extravagant present for someone who never stepped out of the tower and knew nothing of its value, outside of its aesthetic appeal.
Other gifts from Prefect Wu were scattered all around the room, most of them still in their boxes. An agate ruyi carving was used to hold the window open, while a landscape painted by a master was draped carelessly over the dressing screen. Jiang Hong used to wince inwardly at the treasures being treated this nonchalantly, but after getting to know Situ Mengjian, realized that the young man truly did not see why the treasures should be treated differently than his furnishings. He thought they were lovely to look at, but not as interesting as stories to dive into.
To Situ Mengjian, the jade conch shell was probably less precious than the books she brought him; those, he kept close by his bed, sometimes stuffing them under his mattress so that the servants would not find them.
Once again, she wondered who Situ Mengjian actually was, and why he was kept up here, isolated from the world.
Situ Mengjian himself did not know either. All he knew was that he would, someday, be summoned into the imperial court. According to him, he had been here since he was a toddler. He did not even remember his parents. The few people he interacted with were his ‘uncle’ Prefect Wu and the two masked servants who cleaned up the room every other day and never spoke to him. His meals were delivered to him at regular hours by a masked guard, and never made eye contact with Situ Mengjian. With some discreet surveillance, Jiang Hong had soon discovered that the young man had no other visitors. As for the nursemaid who cared for him when he was still a toddler, she might as well be a ghost; Jiang Hong could find no records of her existence. The tutor who taught him how to read and write was the prefect's advisor and no longer visited the tower.
A child brought up in such a strange, isolated setting could have turned out to be an antisocial, eccentric, spoiled brat, but Situ Mengjian was one of the sweetest persons Jiang Hong had ever met. He saved bits of his meals to feed the few birds that came to his window, he folded paper birds and butterflies and flowers to hang from his window, he cried over characters he loved in the flimsy paperbacks if they died.
Never in Jiang Hong's presence did he complain about being confined to this one room of this one tower. But it was clear that he was lonely. Jiang Hong was determined to be his friend, even if she might be the only friend he would ever have.
Initially she had thought him a concubine. It was not unusual, if disgusting, for wealthy men to keep boys and girls around to warm their beds, and Situ Mengjian was certainly beautiful enough, even with his sticking-out ears: large almond-shaped eyes with long dark lashes, an oval face, skin pale from not being in the sun, soft lips that always seemed far too pink for a boy. However, he possessed an air of genuine innocence that was impossible to feign. Once she learned that he was waiting to be summoned to the imperial court, she was certain that it was far beyond Prefect Wu’s pay grade to even dare to think about touching Situ Mengjian.
She smiled at the young man who was observing her expectantly. “It's exquisite. Truly. But I'd much rather have the box alone. It's lighter and easier for me to bring around on my travels.”
“Alright then.” He plucked the jade conch out of the box and set it atop his colorful papers as a paperweight, giving the box to her. Pushing her to sit on a chair nearby while he made himself comfortable on the bed, he crossed his legs and wiggled his bare toes. “So. What have you been up to lately? Robbed the rich? Gave to the poor?” He clapped his hands over his heart. “Helped the helpless?”
From anyone else, it would have been sarcasm, but he was eager and sincere. She had to smile at his keen enthusiasm. Since he would not ask to leave and see the world for himself, she would bring the world to him as best as she could. She leaned forward. “Well, I was down south in this village…”