If someone were to ask Zhao Xinci later, he wouldn’t have been able to say when it was that things changed between him and his wife. He had met Shen Xi while they were at university; he was preparing to apply for the Haixing police academy and she was studying to be a primary school teacher. She was smart, pretty, kind, and his parents loved her. She was always supportive of his career aspirations and she was a bright spot in his life when everything else was stressful. She was a good wife.
They were married for a couple of years when she became pregnant and bore him a son. It was the happiest day of his life. Shen Xi continued working as a teacher but she managed to also take care of the household and raise Yunlan, and Zhao Xinci was always in awe of her ability to juggle so many demanding tasks. He helped when he could but more and more, his job was taking up his time and attention.
Then he and his partner caught their first Dixingren criminal and an entire underground world was revealed to them. It terrified him and angered him that such a world could have existed right under their noses all this time, and the more he learned about Dixingren, the more he feared them and the harm they could potentially cause to humans—to his people.
Dixingren weren’t human but they looked it. They were aliens who had landed on their planet thousands of years ago and took up residence in the dark core of their planet. They had abilities that no humans possessed, and had longer natural lifespans.
There was a related species—the Yashou—who had also descended from an alien race. But they kept to themselves in their forests and they seemed weaker in comparison; all they were able to do was turn themselves into animals. Or perhaps it was that they were always animals but could take on a human form. He wasn’t quite sure but he ranked them as lower on the list of priority and dismissed them from the forefront of his mind.
Everything he learned from the files the Chief of Police gave to him drove him to be more diligent in tracking down Dixingren who were hiding amongst them, causing trouble or waiting to cause trouble. The general public had no idea of their existence, but it was just as well because there would have been mass panic. He vowed to himself that he would protect them.
When he found himself possessed by one of the very monsters he hunted, it only reinforced how much they needed to rid their world of them. Zhang Shi swore that he wasn’t a Dixingren who caused trouble but Zhao Xinci didn’t believe him, and he knew that Zhang Shi knew that he didn’t believe him. He only let Zhang Shi stay because he thought it might be useful to have access to a Dixingren for questions.
He realized, though, that anyone could secretly be Dixingren. It made him look at people more carefully, even those he was closest to.
No matter how busy he was with work, he tried to be home for dinner with his wife and son. Shen Xi had always expressed interest in his day and his work, asking questions to try to understand what it was that he did. That didn’t change when his cases started focusing on Dixingren.
“Are all Dixingren so terrible?” she asked one night, with a worried look at Yunlan, who looked to be absorbed in pushing his vegetables around on his plate.
“Of course—” he started, and then Zhang Shi overpowered him and stole his voice to say, “—not. There are some who cause trouble and try to hurt others but there are plenty of Dixingren who are good people and only want to live peacefully. Just as there are some humans who commit crimes and others who don’t.”
He managed to wrestle control back in time to have Shen Xi’s relieved smile directed at him and not at the Dixingren. He smiled back but he couldn’t help wondering why she looked so relieved, and why she had asked such a question in the first place.
There were other nights, when he would describe the cases he worked and the criminals he captured, and Shen Xi stopped him with a meaningful look at Yunlan. He ceded to her wishes sometimes, out of respect. When he was trying to impart an important lesson, though, he would tailor his story but still tell it; Yunlan was young but there was no such thing as being too young to learn about right and wrong.
Then there were times when Zhang Shi took over and kept him from saying what he wanted to say. Zhang Shi seemed to like spending time with his wife and son. He never did anything untoward with them; he would just make casual conversation with Shen Xi and throw a ball around with Yunlan.
Zhao Xinci was sure that he only took over to make sure that Zhao Xinci knew that he could do so at any time. He seethed at the display of power but he was helpless to stop it. They had come to an agreement about sharing his body and he would abide by that until Zhang Shi did something to break it.
Then, one day, he was summoned to the Minister’s office. The Chief of the Police Department was there, as well as a man with long curly hair who was dressed in dark blue robes. He looked like someone who had just stepped out of a history book. Zhao Xinci dismissed him for the moment and focused his attention on the Minister.
“Detective Zhao,” the Minister said gravely. “We’ve asked for your presence here today because we, in collaboration with the Dixing government, are establishing a new branch of the police force. It will be called the Special Investigations Department, and it will specialize in cases involving non-human perpetrators. Given your record, we felt that you would be best suited to lead this department.”
He was struck speechless, first in shock and then in pride and gratitude. To be recognized for his efforts in this way by the Minister and the Chief of Police was no small matter. He bowed his head at them both. “I thank you both and humbly accept my new assignment.”
“Excellent,” the Chief of Police said, and then he gestured at the man dressed in ancient fashion. “This is the Regent of Dixing. Regent, this is Detective Zhao Xinci, who will now be the Chief of the Special Investigations Department. I can assure you that he will find all of your escaped Dixingren who are hiding up here on the surface.”
The Regent gave Zhao Xinci a look that he couldn’t interpret, before breaking out into a smile. “So good to meet you at last, Chief Zhao,” he said. “I have heard many things about you.” Then he held out a lacquered box. “The reason for my presence here today is to present you with this gift, as a gesture of our collaboration and goodwill.”
Zhao Xinci accepted the box with a blank look, careful not to let his distaste show. A gesture of goodwill? Not likely. Doubtless it was a trick of some sort. But when he opened the box, it was just a gun inside. It was a nice gun, made of some kind of gold and decorated with elaborate engravings on the handle.
“Impressive craftsmanship, Regent. But I’m afraid I already have a gun,” he said, preparing to return the gift.
“Not like this one, you don’t,” the Regent countered with a sly look in his eyes.
Zhao Xinci narrowed his eyes. “What do you mean?”
“This is a very special gun. Its bullets will only inflict injury on those with dark energy. To those with just light energy, the bullets will—” the Regent wiggled his fingers in the air.
Zhao Xinci frowned. “The bullets will what? Dissipate in the air? How is such a thing possible?”
The Regent just smiled at him and shook his head. “I am very sorry, but I cannot divulge that secret. But I hope that this gun will prove to be useful to you in your new position.”
Zhao Xinci snapped the box closed again. He was very tempted to test out the gun then and there, and on the Dixingren standing right in front of him, but killing someone in the Minister’s office was frowned upon unless the Minister was being directly threatened. “Thank you, Regent,” he said instead, through gritted teeth. “I am sure that this gun will come in handy.”
Shen Xi was effusive in her congratulations on his promotion that night and plied him with questions for details about the new department: what kinds of cases they would be taking on, what kind of team he would have, how the criminals who were arrested were to be handled, how the collaboration with Dixing would play out. He answered what he could, because she had always been curious about his work. But part of him wondered if maybe she was being too curious about this, and whether there may have been another reason for her to want to know this information.
He was eager to get started on his work so he assembled a team and moved them into the building that the Chief of Police had secured for their use. The Regent appeared once more, to introduce him to the Black Cloaked Envoy. He was dressed even more like he had stepped out of a historical play, with a hooded black robe and a black and gold mask covering half of his face. He was to be the new Dixing liaison for the Special Investigations Department, the one who would bring their prisoners back to Dixing for sentencing. A wave of anger washed through Zhao Xinci whenever he thought about the Dixingren getting off lightly because they weren’t being tried on the surface, but that was the agreement between the two groups and it had been that way for thousands of years.
The only positive aspect of the situation was that whenever the Black Cloaked Envoy was present, Zhang Shi would make himself as small as possible and hide away. He found this out one day when they were battling for dominance over whether or not to shoot a Dixingren suspect they had just cornered. Zhang Shi had immobilized his hand until a portal opened and then he suddenly released it and fled and Zhao Xinci was able to shoot the Dixingren.
He turned and fired at the Black Cloaked Envoy too, because, well, the only good Dixingren was a dead Dixingren and he could always claim that he had been startled by the Envoy’s appearance right in the middle of a shootout. But the Envoy simply held up his hand and the bullet froze in front of him. It was then that Zhao Xinci realized that the Envoy wasn’t in his customary robes; he was wearing glasses, a dress shirt with the sleeves rolled up, and slacks. He had a backpack slung over one shoulder.
“Did you think,” the Envoy said mildly, eyes hard, “that I would have let you keep a weapon that I couldn’t defend against?”
“How did you do that?”
“I saw someone do it once, a very long time ago. It’s a simple enough trick.”
Zhao Xinci hated him.
The Envoy glanced over at the body of the Dixingren with an unreadable expression.
“And what are you doing? Trying to masquerade as an upstanding Haixing citizen?” Zhao Xinci couldn’t help asking with a slight sneer.
The Envoy gave him a small smile. “Why not? Even a monster like me deserves higher education, wouldn’t you say?”
Zhao Xinci wouldn’t. They stared at each other for a tense moment.
Then the Envoy pursed his lips and said, “I’ll take him back to Dixing now.” He made no move towards the Dixingren on the ground but a portal opened up behind him and both him and the body disappeared.
The Envoy’s human name was Shen Wei and he was a graduate student at the university, Zhao Xinci learned later. When he brought the matter up to the Minister, he was met with an implacable stare.
“He’s here on official business, sanctioned by both our government and his. He needed a cover,” the Minister said.
Zhao Xinci didn’t know how to calmly say that the Envoy’s cover didn’t have to include him spending time around impressionable young human adults, so he just excused himself and left the office. It gnawed at him.
He poked and prodded at him whenever he encountered the Envoy, trying vainly to see if maybe the Envoy was only posing as a student but wasn’t actually spending time on campus. The Envoy seemed to know what he was doing, though, and took pleasure in dropping little hints here and there about things he was involved in. He never outright said anything, but he left enough of a trail for Zhao Xinci to connect him with Professor Zhou at the university.
Professor Zhou was involved in genetics research. On discreet probes, he had no shortage of praises for PhD candidate Shen Wei, who was incredibly intelligent, incredibly diligent, and incredibly intuitive. He was wiser beyond his years, Professor Zhou said. In addition to working in the lab, he was also Professor Zhou’s teaching assistant and the undergrads all loved him.
Zhao Xinci gritted his teeth and clenched his hands into fists and left.
“What is his ability?” he demanded of Zhang Shi one day.
“The Black Cloaked Envoy?” Zhang Shi looked thoughtful in the mirror and then shrugged nonchalantly. “I don’t know. He seems to have a lot of different ones.”
That was not helpful in the slightest. “Why do you hide when he’s around?” he asked, more out of curiosity than concern.
Zhang Shi gave him a pointed look. “If I’m in control around him, he might be able to sense my dark energy. If he finds out about me, he’ll probably make me return to Dixing and would you want to be stuck in that underground cave for the rest of your life?”
“Of course not,” Zhao Xinci snapped. “Don’t be ridiculous.”
“Well, neither do most Dixingren,” Zhang Shi said.
“Whether they want to or not, that’s where they belong,” Zhao Xinci said firmly.
Zhang Shi gave him an unhappy look and faded until only Zhao Xinci’s own reflection looked back at him. He grimaced at the mirror and wondered again if it was really worth all this trouble to be able to use Zhang Shi's knowledge.
One day, they were in the middle of interrogating a Dixingren criminal about his associates when Shen Xi showed up at the SID. The suspect was being stubbornly secretive so it wasn’t going as well as Zhao Xinci had hoped. Then one of the members of his team came and told him that his wife and son were there to see him.
“What?” he hissed furiously. What were they doing there? He stormed out of the interrogation room before his subordinate could respond. Shen Xi and Yunlan were waiting in one of the empty rooms they had yet to designate for use, looking curiously around. Yunlan’s face lit up at his approach but Shen Xi’s eyes kept darting to the door of the interrogation room he had just left. “What are you doing here?” he asked, and grabbed her arm to pull her further into the room and out of sight of that door.
“Is this a bad time?” she asked, eyes wide.
He stared at her for a moment and wondered if she was really asking that naively or if she suspected what was actually happening behind those doors. “Of course it’s a bad time. I’m at work,” he finally said.
This made her eyes narrow in anger. “You’re always at work these days. You’re never home. Yunlan misses you. He needs his father around.”
“He needs—” he bit off his reply to turn to Yunlan, who was staring at them both. “Yunlan, go to the kitchen and get some water. Your mother and I need to talk.”
Yunlan nodded and hurried off. Zhao Xinci waited until the boy had rounded the corner and then turned back to Shen Xi. “I’m working as hard as I am for you. Both of you. You think I don’t want to spend time with my son? It’s the Dixingren you should be angry about. They’re escaping into our world and it needs to be stopped.”
“They’re not all causing problems, though,” Shen Xi countered. “Can’t you just cut back a little and spend more time with your family? The Dixingren who are just trying to live their own lives up here can be left alone, surely?”
“Absolutely not,” he said. “There’s no such thing as Dixingren just ‘trying to live their own lives’. Where did you get such an idea? Take Yunlan and go home. It’s too dangerous here for both of you.”
“And you?” she asked and he got the sense that she wouldn’t budge until she heard some kind of answer she was happy with.
He glanced at the clock, impatient to send her and their son away. He had a limited time with the Dixingren prisoner and he was wasting it on this conversation. “Fine. I’ll be home tonight in time for dinner. Unless the interrogation goes on late.”
She bit her lip but finally nodded. “Come on, Yunlan,” she called out and he startled when he realized that Yunlan was just around the corner. Did he even go the kitchen like he had asked? It was probably just as well that he agreed to go home early, if Yunlan was starting to develop disobedient tendencies and his wife wasn’t doing enough to curb them.
Just as he closed the doors behind them, a portal opened up in the main room and the Black Cloaked Envoy stepped out in all his glory: black robes, mask, and his podao.
Zhao Xinci bit back the urge to curse. His time with the prisoner was up. He wasn’t going to be able to find out who his associates were. He looked at the Envoy and at the door to the interrogation room and to the main doors and wondered if Shen Xi might have known more than she let on and was delaying him until the Envoy arrived. It was a ridiculous notion but one that wouldn’t leave his head.
It kept him up that night and for several nights after, the question of whether his own wife was Dixingren or a Dixingren sympathizer or if it was all just a series of coincidences. There were too many coincidences, he thought, for it to be believable. And things did have a tendency to fall into place for Shen Xi. She had always said that she was just a lucky person, and that she must have done a lot of good deeds in a previous life, but he wondered now if underneath all that might be some kind of Dixingren ability.
“The ability to be lucky?” Zhang Shi scoffed. “How would that work? No. Dixingren's abilities tend to be ones that can affect the elements of the environment around them or something about themselves. There is no ability to affect one’s fortune.”
Zhao Xinci didn’t believe him. It was possible that he didn’t know, or that Shen Xi could have some other ability that she had learned to use to her advantage. But whatever the case, if Shen Xi was Dixingren, then of course Zhang Shi would try to protect her.
He couldn’t ask Shen Xi directly if she was Dixingren. She’d tell him 'no' regardless. But there was no way to verify it one way or the other unless he could catch her using her power, and that would only work if her power was one that was easily visible. He’d seen plenty of examples of Dixingren who were able to successfully blend into human society until they made a mistake and revealed themselves; the Envoy, for example. And even he himself was hosting a Dixingren. So there was nothing to do but watch and wait. She would mess up one day and he would have his answer. Or she would never mess up and he would have to assume that she was human after all.
In the end, though, he never got his answer. She had (conveniently, part of him thought) gotten herself taken hostage by a Dixingren who was trying to escape justice. She pleaded for help and if it was genuine or faked, he couldn’t tell.
He aimed his gun at them, and took a moment to say a mental farewell to her. He had loved her once, unconditionally.
He fired his gun, and she died.
He hated Dixingren, for taking his wife from him.
He looked at Yunlan later, and couldn’t help wondering if one day he was going to make a mistake and reveal a Dixingren ability.