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The Pheasant Calling

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Wang Zhi knew the letter was a mistake. He knew that as soon as he sent it off with the courier. He’d watched the saddle bags jostle as the horse kicked up dust, and he’d known. Whenever Wang Zhi made a mistake, he could usually tell well before the consequences landed, and it was no different this time. He’d paused after handing over the letter to the courier and suddenly felt a weight settling over his body like a winter fur cloak, a palpable physical pressure that pushed him towards the earth. He watched the horse go, riding east on the first leg of the long journey from the most southwest reach of the Ming, out of the mountains, down the Yangtze, and finally back up to the capital and his letter’s recipient. Instead of losing his composure entirely and chasing after it to demand his property back, he felt the imprint of his heels pressing into the dirt of Chiang Hung and did nothing but watch.

Oh well. It was done.

He turned and stepped back into the inn. He settled himself into a slightly secluded corner table and ordered a pot of tea. He hadn’t become accustomed yet to the tea they served here. Everything about it was different. The leaves themselves were larger and darker and looked like nothing so much as small worms drowning in his cup. That darkness extended to the flavour which was much more similar to the flavour of rancid dirt. It felt somewhat ironic to him, that he disliked the tea grown in the largest tea-producing region there was, but his tea habits were about sentimentalism and routine and the tea here was strange. At least they didn’t force guests to drink the tea they sold to those over the mountains. He understood it had to be packed into thick cakes for transport, and that some liked the fermented flavour, but pu’er was, to Wang Zhi, not tea at all. Tea should be delicate. It should taste like spring, the lightest bite, the floral smell. He had to admit, though, that the tea here matched his surroundings: humid, even though it was the dry season, and heavy, thick, like the leaning stands of bamboo that encroached on the dark wood of the inn, as if the forest was waiting to reclaim the ground.

Perhaps if he sat there long enough he could watch it happen. Another reason not to sit around feeling sorry for himself. Yes, there would be consequences, but he couldn’t sit still and wait for them.

Instead, he attempted to do his job.

Wang Zhi had to admit that it was only an attempt, and not an actuality. Between his limited knowledge of the Tai Lue language, and the generally unfriendly surroundings, any investigation was hampered. When he’d arrived he’d thought about trying to pass himself off as a local, even silently, but he looked too different. At least this way he got to keep wearing robes, even if they were plain traveller’s robes, free of any insignia that might mark him as belonging to the Emperor.

While everything and everyone in the Ming fell naturally and completely under the remit of the Emperor, ordained by heaven to rule them, not every region as governed in the same way as the capital was. Chiang Hung, which had only begun to pay tribute to the Ming two generations back, was ruled by a local chieftain. There were hundreds of Tusi chieftains in the world, but the one for Chiang Hung was one of the most powerful and independent. In deference to that, the Emperor had decided it was best not to send in an army to punish anyone who dared to interrupt the horse trade. It would be a loss of face for the Emperor and the Tusi if it came to that, both of them would have to admit they did not have control over the area. In a rare moment of naivete Wang Zhi had thought that while Chiang Hung was perhaps a little rough, surely would be able to rely on assistance from the local government, such as it was. Instead, no one had acknowledged him, let alone welcomed him, and he was left sitting here, choking down fresh pu’er.

He had made little, verging on no, progress when Tang Fan and Sui Zhou bounced into town, weeks later. Wang Zhi was spicing up his day by taking his midday meal out at a covered stall in the middle of town, right on the major street. They rode in like they always did, with barely any change in their clothing in deference to the warmer climate here. For the letter to have gotten to the capital and for these two to already be here… it spoke to a certain amount of haste. Unseemly.

Wang Zhi saw Tang Fan looking around wildly, loud even without opening his mouth. Wang Zhi’s lips twitched. He had to assume it was a frown, because he couldn’t possibly be happy that Tang Fan was here, making a spectable of himself, demanding everyone’s attention. Even the dull colours of his clothes marked him as an outsider. Everyone here was wearing some flash of colour, as much as they could afford, except for these interlopers. New to the area and not even trying to hide it. Sui Zhou stood out, too, but with his stillness.Tang Fan supposed the three of them were a matched set, birds of the wrong plumage.Things moved around him, not the other way. Wang Zhi sighed and half rose, waving them over to join him under the sharply angled awning.

Tang Fan immediately perked up and descended on the table with a gleam in his eye. Wang Zhi didn’t even have time to offer a greeting before Tang Fan was gesturing to Wang Zhi’s food.

“What is that?”

Wang Zhi looked down at his bowl. “Noodles. A local delicacy.” They were just as brown as they had been a moment before, just a shade lighter than the bowl they were sitting in.

“Ooh!” Tang Fan sounded as fresh as if he’d just woken up, not travelled for weeks, sailing up against the flow of the Yangtze and then riding at a breakneck pace to cross the world to get to Chiang Hung. “The local thing! I must try the local thing.” He said that last part to Sui Zhou, who caught Wang Zhi’s eye for a small wordless exchange. You know what he’s like, Sui Zhou’s glance said. Yes, Wang Zhi agreed with a twitch of his chin. Sui Zhou sighed, We will talk soon. Wang Zhi blinked: Do what you must, we will be here.

Sui Zhou marched off. Tang Fan was still staring at the noodles, now frowning slightly. “They do look very dry, though. Does the proprietor have a grudge with you?”

Wang Zhi marvelled at Tang Fan’s ability to slide into a situation like he’d never been anywhere else. Wang Zhi felt himself falling back into their familiar, playful rhythms.

“Not that I know of,” Wang Zhi said mildly, to the back of Tang Fan’s head. Tang Fan was looking around, twisting in his seat to examine the other tables.

“T--” Tang Fan, he tried to say, What do you think you’re doing here? I didn’t ask you to come. But he’d barely started before Tang Fan buzzed at him like an angry bee.

“You should refer to me by my proper name,” Tang Fan said, and Wang Zhi felt his eyebrows escape into the warmth and safety of his hairline. “Huang Zhifeng.” Wang Zhi resisted the urge to drop his face into his hands; Huang Zhifeng was Tang Fan’s pseudonym for his specialist literature. Here was Tang Fan, sitting, calm as he pleased, at a restaurant on the far southwest edge of the kingdom, going by the name of a smut peddler. A pornographic novelist was sitting at Wang Zhi’s table, about to eat some noodles.

Technically that had already been true, but it had been unsaid. Now the smut was all out in the open. Well, he had known it was a mistake to send that letter. He simply...could not have foreseen the shape the consequences would take.

Sui Zhou could not back fast enough. Wang Zhi needed something to soften the ridiculousness of the situation. He was tempted to look around to see where Sui Zhou was, but he had manners, unlike Tang Fan.

Sui Zhou came back with noodles and tea and the table was soon awash in Tang Fan’s delighted noises and commentary. The noodles were fine, he said, interestingly spiced but not aggressively. Wang Zhi thought that was due to some sort of local mustard green. Tang Fan’s presence in his life had demanded that a certain amount of attention be paid to food. Now, Wang Zhi noticed things, like ingredients, and flavour profile for pleasure reasons, not for what would be best to maintain the health of the Emperor.

Tang Fan continued his narration. Wang Zhi usually enjoyed knocking Tang Fan off of his rhythm with a question or demand, but there was something to be said for this, the companionable silence, the lack of ownership he had over the situation. There were no expectations for Wang Zhi in this moment. He felt something unlock between his shoulder blades with an almost audible twang. Perhaps a bath tonight, he thought. He’d been wary of the additional cost in case the flow of his funds was disrupted, but it seemed less imperative to be cautious now.

The question of Tang Fan’s name choice could wait til they were in a less public place.

After the meal was done, Wang Zhi chivvied them up to his room. It was a plain thing, but he had spent the extra coin for a private space, and for one that didn’t overlook the alley and its attendant smells. Which, truthfully, made it as good as anyone could ask for in this glorified excuse for a city. Up here, away from the muck of the street, the air smelled less like musky animal and leaf rot.

Sui Zhou ignored him, brushing past Wang Zhi to lift the blind on the window to take a look from side to side, before quickly pacing the edges of the room. Tang Fan seemed happy enough to wait for Sui Zhou to finish, standing in the entranceway, only half lit.

When Sui Zhou seemed satisfied, settling onto the mat in the sitting area, Tang Fan smiled and stepped into the afternoon brightness that filled the room, joining him. One moment Tang Fan was outside, and the next he was inside and it was like he’d always been there. Wang Zhi watched it happen, like a magic trick.

Sui Zhou gestured for Wang Zhi to join them. When he did, Sui Zhou said, “You should explain the situation here.”

“The situation?” Wang Zhi asked mildly.

Tang Fan pursed his lips. “Obviously. I got your letter.”

“Yes,” said, very dry. He was acutely aware of what might must have driven Tang Fan to come to the edge of the world. But there was nothing for it now. They were here already. He laid it out: “Recently, the number of lost or raided caravans along the northern Chamadao has greatly increased.”

“Bandits,” Sui Zhou said. Wang Zhi tilted his head in acknowledgement. The tea horse road wasn’t, technically, a road, but rather a series of winding paths through the Himalayas to facilitate trade between the peoples on either side. Tea went up one way, horses came down the other. But if tea didn’t make it up, then nothing else could come from it. Wang Zhi might not like pu-er, and he couldn’t imagine he’d like it more if it was turned into cakes and fermented, but the people in Tibet loved it. And were willing to trade 35kg for a good war horse. “With war in the north inevitable, we need those horses.”

Tang Fan’s hands clenched in his lap. He understood the situation more than most. The Emperor’s rule was absolute, but it was always being nipped at on the edges. Tang Fan had gotten entangled in that at the north, and now Wang Zhi was pulling him into it in the West. Wang Zhi assumed that bandits were destroying caravans for the money, but it didn’t matter because the impact was the same: without successful trade on the Chamadao the Ming was weakened.

Wang Zhi let his posture relax slightly. “Precisely. I’ve been investigating, but ...” and here he struggled to encompass the entire futility of the exercise. Without the forces of the Western Depot, without Ding Rong, without even the most basic command of the language -- everything he had was a ‘without.’

“Well, we’re here now,” Tang Fan said.

It was surprising, Wang Zhi thought, with all of Tang Fan’s food-based monomania and focus on his own desires, that he so often managed to find words that fit a moment exactly. Wang Zhi smirked. “Are you here, or is,” Wang Zhi made a show of thinking about it, “Huang Zhifeng?”

Tang Fan blushed a little, a small band of colour high on his cheeks. “Well, I thought if you were alone, without...anyone,” Sui Zhou’s face stilled, also clearly hearing the space where Ding Rong should be, “then it had to be for a reason. So we weren’t going to ruin that for you by barging in wearing full Ming official regalia.”

“Yes, you are quite incognito,” Wang Zhi remarked drily.

Tang Fan puffed up. “Well we tried! I bought these robes specially.” Wang Zhi looked at him with a critical eye. He could almost see it. Tang Fan had made an effort to dress like he was a simple traveler. At home he exclusively wore his robes of office, a representative of the Ming at all times, except on special occasions. His special occasion robes would have stood out even more. These robes were slightly too long in the wrist, like they hadn’t been made for him. They were well-made though, strong in the seams, even if they were darker than Tang Fan would usually wear. Almost a rust brown colour, and no embroidery except at the belt, a wave pattern in a true red.

“So who’s he, then,” Wang Zhi said, indicating Sui Zhou.

“Shi Jun,” Sui Zhou said, drier than the noodles had been, and Wang Zhi knew exactly who had come up with that name. Only Tang Fan would grab the excuse to call Sui Zhou handsome to his face.

Wang Zhi let himself laugh. Long, and loud, and when he finally wiped his eyes, he saw a cup on the table in front of him. Sui Zhou nudged it forward.

“So what do you think?” Tang Fan asked, looking at Sui Zhou.

Sui Zhou ran his thumb over his chin. “We won’t find anything here,” he said. Wang Zhi sipped his drink. “We leave tonight, head towards the next town, try to retrace the steps the caravans have taken.” Wang Zhi had considered this, but he was no tracker, and couldn’t trust anyone he might hire as a guide. But Sui Zhou had survived worse than a night out in the jungle. At least it would be warm, even if it would probably rain. If this was the dry season, Wang Zhi had sincere questions about what the wet season looked like. Perhaps the exceptionally steep roofs made sense.

Wang Zhi nodded.

With the topic closed, he then lay down on the floor, apparently ready to go to sleep.

Wang Zhi stared. Sui Zhou cracked an eye. “It was a long trip. And we’ll need to be rested.”

Wang Zhi looked at Tang Fan.

Tang Fan shrugged. “I’m wide awake. Show me around?”

Which is how Wang Zhi found himself giving “Huang Zhifeng” an ill-informed tour of the town.

He wished he had been slightly better-informed when they turned down a narrow street -- one that had been encroached on by shop stalls over time till he and Tang Fan could barely pass through while standing side by side -- and there were men at the end of it, blocking the light. Wang Zhi paused and Tang Fan took a step ahead before he realized Wang Zhi wasn’t with him.

Wang Zhi looked back -- more men. It was blocked. He lectured himself. He truly did deserve death for his carelessness. He’d gotten used to the careful way everyone ignored him here that he’d begun to ignore everyone right back and now it had come this. He didn’t know what had changed, why now was the moment to surround them, but he didn’t think he’d get the chance to ask.

Incognito, Wang Zhi had said. Clearly not enough if they were being targeted like this. The men at the ends of the alley advanced in. In all of the times Wang Zhi had thought he might die, he’d never panicked. This was no different. He had one bullet in his gun. One bullet wouldn’t be enough to save them.

“Alright, Huang Zhifeng,” Wang Zhi said, “how are you going to write your way out of this one?”

The men were still little more than silhouettes, but one of them waved at the others and they paused. “Huang Zhifeng?” he said.

“Yes?” Tang Fan said, squinting.

The Huang Zhifeng? The writer?”

Tang Fan looked at Wang Zhi, who had no answers for him.

“Well...yes,” Tang Fan said.

The man turned and said something rapidly to the others, who shifted and muttered amongst themselves.

Then the first silhouette rushed forward towards Tang Fan. As he got closer, Wang Zhi could see that the man appeared to be a local, dressed in simple brown clothes with geometric patterns at the hems of his shirt and wrap skirt. His robe was his colour accent, all of it a vibrant blue. His size and bearing marked him as someone who knew how to handle themselves in a fight. The sword at his hip said the same. Well, at least Wang Zhi wouldn’t have to explain to Sui Zhou -- again -- that he’d led Tang Fan into harm. He wouldn’t get the chance.

Right before he ran into Tang Fan, the man stopped and bowed deeply.

“I am such a fan,” the man said. Wang Zhi blinked. Tang Fan seemed to take it remarkably well, bowing back. Wang Zhi, by contrast, felt like his heart was dancing around in his body.

“Oh? Really?” Tang Fan said in a high voice.

“Yes. Very much. I read your stories to the others! We just finished reading In Her Boudoir, it was amazing.”

Tang Fan preened. “You liked that one? You don’t think the scene where she pretends to drink the poison that her lover’s patron put in her drink was too confusing?”

He was already shaking his head. “Never. Her devotion was an inspiration. Phraya cried.”

“You really are a fan,” Tang Fan said, forgetting himself entirely and beaming at the man, stepping even closer. “What did you think of Red Blossom?”

The man’s manic grin faded. He shook his head. “It takes so long for news to reach us out here, and literature even longer. I did not even know you had a new book.”

Tang Fan reached out a hand, almost as if he was going to comfort the man.

Wang Zhi stepped forward, close enough to Tang Fan to make his meaning clear. “Well, it’s always nice to meet a fan, but we were walking that way.”

The man frowned. “I can’t let you go--” Wang Zhi tensed, “-- without giving you a tour.”

Tang Fan looked conflicted.

Then the stranger said, “At least let me buy you a meal.” Wang Zhi knew the man had won, but he didn’t let his smile falter.

***

They strolled along, the man pointing out various architectural features: the sharply-sloped roofs, the ditches for water flow, the temple with its golden accents and reaching spires. “As you can see, everything here is very good, very stable. In some areas they build the houses on sticks to keep them dry! But we don’t do that here.”

Tang Fan seemed to be listening with all his attention. Wang Zhi, surrounded by the leader’s burly henchmen -- he supposed they thought they were subtle -- felt no need to do anything but glower silently. Looking at it positively, it was freeing to not have to pretend to be pleased with the situation.

“But I am talking too much,” the man said, and Wang Zhi was instantly alert. “What brings you to my home?”

Oh no. Tang Fan, for his many skills, was one of the worst liars Wang Zhi had ever met. He had apparently once executed an extended subterfuge where Sui Zhou had pretended to be his servant, but Wang Zhi struggled to imagine it. Fortunately, Wang Zhi had foreseen this question and had an answer ready.

“He’s researching his next book,” Wang Zhi said.

The man paused mid-stride, then carefully put his foot down. “You are setting a book here?” Were those tears in the man’s voice?

“Yes! Well. No,” Tang Fan said, and that was the lying quality Wang Zhi had come to expect of him. “It’s, er, on the trading route, actually.”

“Ahh,” the man said, so satisfied. “A plucky daughter of a trader must take over her father’s caravan to save the family from ruin?”

“And then she’s beset by bandits,” Wang Zhi provided helpfully.

The silence from Tang Fan was poignant. Heavy.

“I suppose you have read my work,” he said, finally, and Wang Zhi could hear the pout in his voice.

***

Finally, they reached the noodle stall that was, according to the man leading them, the best in the area. The man gestured for Tang Fan to sit down.

Tang Fan put his hand to his head, dramatically. “But I can’t accept a meal from someone whose name I don’t know.”

The other man’s grin didn’t falter, and Wang Zhi did have to admit that he seemed genuinely thrilled to have met Tang Fan. “Hm,” he said. “You couldn’t pronounce it. But I am a trader along the Chamadao, so why don’t you call me Trader Ma.”

Wang Zhi bit his tongue to stop himself from asking, “oh, and could I buy you for 35kg of tea, just like you were a fine horse yourself?” What sort of man didn’t give his real name? But if what he said was true…

“You’re a trader?” Tang Fan asked, hair quivering in excitement. He should never gamble, Wang Zhi thought. His tells were many and varied.

“Yes, even though no one cares about us anymore, now that there is all of this exciting sea trade,” he said. “We are still proud to trade overland.” He thumped his fist against his chest, bright blue sleeve landing in the middle of the red centre of his vest. A pause. “We all have our pride here. I would be very shamed if my daughter had to take over my caravan.” He leaned into Tang Fan’s space when he said it.

“Then you would have the information that we -- I -- am looking for.”

“And what is that?” Trader Ma asked.

Tang Fan mirrored his posture, leaning in. “Information about the route, about ambush points where my heroine could be attacked, and so on.”

“I could tell you that, yes.” Trader Ma sat back, folding his hands in his lap. Ah. This was the hesitance that Wang Zhi was looking for, the ‘what is your angle.’

“Or,” Tang Fan said, voice light like a bird, “you could show me.”

Wang Zhi felt himself go very still.

“Take you with me, on my route?” Trader Ma had a curious note in his voice. Wang Zhi didn’t like it.

Tang Fan scoffed. “Not just me, obviously.”

“Your eunuch?” He tilted his chin at Wang Zhi. It wasn’t like Wang Zhi could hide his status even if he wanted to; his pale skin and soft cheeks would forever mark him.

“And my cook,” Tang Fan said, readily agreeing.

This response provoked a chuckle from Trader Ma and, perversely, an “Alright, I accept.” Wang Zhi, familiar with the way Tang Fan could brazen his way into situations, shouldn’t have found it surprising. Of course he would get them into trouble in this way. It would be up to Wang Zhi to get them out of it. It truly was too easy to kidnap Tang Fan -- why, in this case, he’d asked for it specifically. Trader Ma was still speaking, “To be able to help Huang Zhifeng would be my life’s honour.”

Tang Fan accepted that with a magnanimous nod and a blinding smile. His eyes sparkled, as if he thought there was no better outcome than this one.

***

They made plans to reconvene the next morning, then took their leave of Trader Ma and his men.

As they walked back to their inn, Wang Zhi found himself lost in thought. Leave it to Tang Fan to immediately instigate a weather change. Show him a still lake, and Tang Fan would find a way to turn it into churning water.

Wang Zhi wasn’t sure if the shifting winds of the afternoon were bad, or good. Having a local guide was an improvement, but this ‘Trader Ma’ was not a friend, and was keeping his identity secret. There were too many unknowns, and where there were unknowns there were cracks where complications could be inserted. And, invariably, would be.

Travelling with this mysterious man was, on the one hand, a chance to do the reconnaissance that Wang Zhi couldn’t do on his own. On the other, if this was a plot of Trader Ma’s to gather himself a brace of hostages, then they were gifting themselves to him with very little trouble on his part.

There was a lot to consider, but not a lot he could do about it.

Tang Fan saw the clouds in Wang Zhi’s face and clucked his tongue. “You worry too much, lao-Wang.”

Wang Zhi could barely even spare him an eye roll.

When he pushed open the door to their room, he immediately had other concerns.

Sui Zhou stood up so fast his knees cracked, and Wang Zhi felt his own knees ache in sympathetic pain.

“Where were you?” Sui Zhou asked, voice flat. His hands were all over Tang Fan as he physically checked him for injuries. Tang Fan raised his arms to make it easier, but otherwise acted like nothing special was going on. Sui Zhou’s hand on Tang Fan’s waist was so large it almost spanned the whole width of it. It emphasised how breakable Tang Fan was, reminded Wang Zhi how many times he’d seen Tang Fan bleeding, unconscious, hurt. Tang Fan would always wander off and make others worry, but Sui Zhou could have legitimately assumed that Wang Zhi would look after Tang Fan, bring him back to Sui Zhou in one piece. And instead Wang Zhi had wandered off with Tang Fan and acquiesced as Tang Fan made a date for them all to be put under the power of a mysterious local. He’d let Tang Fan walk into a dangerous situation that had almost ended in tragedy. That should have, honestly.

Sui Zhou seemed satisfied with his inspection of Tang Fan and turned his critical eye to Wang Zhi next. Wang Zhi put up his hands pre-emptively and Sui Zhou settled, still standing close to Tang Fan, close enough that he could brush his fingers against the edge of Tang Fan’s robes.

There was something familiar and correct about them standing like that.

“Guangchuan,” Tang Fan said, excited and familiar. No different than earlier: I must try the local thing! “I met someone today! He’s a fan of my writing!”

Wang Zhi cleared his throat. “Is that really the most relevant information?”

Tang Fan put a hand on his hip. “I thought he would want to know.”

“I’m sure that was gratifying for you,” Sui Zhou said, but his voice was normal now, no longer stripped of warmth and emotion.

“But yes, in addition to being my fan, he’s a caravan leader and he’s agreed to let us accompany him on his route. You wanted to go along and see if we could figure out where the bandits were attacking.” Tang Fan paused to let the words sink in. The situation did not sound any less ridiculous than it had when Wang Zhi first heard it. “This is the best possible thing that could have happened!”

Wang Zhi and Sui Zhou locked eyes. Wang Zhi felt like his worries were vindicated when Sui Zhou merely cocked his head and let his eyes unfocus.

Tang Fan seemed patient enough to let him think it over, which surprised Wang Zhi. Before, Tang Fan had been in the habit of belabouring his point until one or both of them agreed. Now, though, Tang Fan let Sui Zhou sit with it and turned to Wang Zhi. “Well, I think some washing up is in order. Can you call me a bath?” Wang Zhi wasn’t exactly sure what his face did at that, but Tang Fan waved his hand. “Yes, yes, I’m sure you’ve only ever called for a bath for the Emperor, but since this is technically your room, I thought it would make more sense coming from you.”

Wang Zhi couldn’t really argue with that.

When he came back, bath ordered, instinct caused him to tip-toe up to the door on palace-trained feet.

“--know I worry,” Sui Zhou said, quietly.

“Yes, but I have to, and you know I have to.”

A pause. “To help Wang Zhi.”

“Exactly.”

“Even if...”

Wang Zhi strained, listening, but Sui Zhou said nothing more. Wang Zhi entered the room. He wasn’t sure what he expected to see; Tang Fan and Sui Zhou curled up together on the bed, maybe, wrapped around each other like a secret. But of course they wouldn’t do that, not when Wang Zhi could come in. He didn’t even know why he’d thought it.

He figured it out later, lying in bed.

First, though, there were the baths, conducted behind a translucent screen. He couldn’t avoid being aware that so close by, within touching distance, Tang Fan was naked, and wet. It would the easiest thing in the world to go back there -- it was his room, after all. He couldn’t ignore that Tang Fan was there because he kept chattering the whole time.

Sui Zhou and he avoided eye contact.

They had each taken their turns, then Tang Fan had wanted to sleep and had successfully argued that he deserved the bed -- travelling had been hard and they would be travelling again, after all. But then he had argued that there was no reason that Wang Zhi should sleep on the floor: there was bed enough for two, and this was Wang Zhi’s room, after all.

Wang Zhi had let it happen. He’d been waiting for Sui Zhou to object, to reason Tang Fan down, and when he didn’t, Wang Zhi was left with no argument. It was as if a pillar he’d expected to bear his weight had slipped away from him.

So now he was lying in bed with Tang Fan. Wang Zhi was a very still sleeper -- he’d learned to be non-disruptive as a basic survival skill -- but he was learning that Tang Fan slept actively. He shifted, smacked his lips, pulled and twisted at the blanket covering them.

Wang Zhi didn’t know what to do with these habits of Tang Fan’s except for endure them, even as they disturbed his sleep. Wang Zhi could never be less than aware of Tang Fan’s presence next to him in bed. When Tang Fan left his arms above his head, Wang Zhi wondered if he should do something about it. It couldn’t be good to sleep like that. But Wang Zhi was uncertain -- a state he hated to be in. He could not reach out and arrange Tang Fan into a better position. He didn’t know how. Well. He knew the steps. He would reach out an arm, snag Tang Fan’s hand and place that hand...somewhere. Somewhere secure where he couldn’t hurt himself or wake Wang Zhi. But there was a gulf between the mundane mechanics and the world where that was a possibility. Wang Zhi had been raised in an environment where touching anyone without explicit permission would have been a serious faux pas at best, and a crime deserving death, at worst. He could not break the sense that to touch Tang Fan, unknowing and unconscious, even to help him, would be an unbearable transgression.

If someone was going to touch Tang Fan in this state, it shouldn’t be Wang Zhi.

When Wang Zhi had met Tang Fan, he’d known very little of him, but he had known about his literary career, as it were. His novels were very popular in the harem. Every one of them was about a determined heroine who was pushed by circumstances to endure horrible trials for the sake of her family, until she was rescued and swept off her feet -- usually slightly scandalously, not to mention literally -- by the forthright hero. It left one feeling like they had uncomfortable insight into the preferences of the author.

Then Wang Zhi had seen Tang Fan and Sui Zhou together -- ah. It fit. There was a man who could do everything a classic Huang Zhifeng hero could. Wang Zhi had been amused, watching them dance around each other. They made sense together. Wang Zhi and Tang Fan lying in the same bed didn’t. He didn’t understand why Sui Zhou had let it happen. If Wang Zhi had Tang Fan’s affection, he wouldn’t relax his grip so easily.

Luckily, Tang Fan twitched in his sleep, presumably because his arms had started to go numb, and he flailed them downwards, managing to smack Wang Zhi in the face.

***

Breakfast, consisting of only rice and tea, was eaten in great haste because Trader Ma and his entourage had come with gleaming, toothy smiles to pick them up.

“If we leave now we can reach the next town by dinner,” Trader Ma said, and then did an excessive double take at Sui Zhou. The two men eyed each other up in some sort of display of martial masculinity that, frankly, Wang Zhi had gotten enough of on his brief stint on the frontier.

Tang Fan, predictably, cut them off after their third shoulder squaring by saying, “Dinner in town does sound preferable, let’s go,” and picking up his small pack before heading out of the inn, like he had any ability to leave without the rest of them, or any knowledge of where to go.

Yet, it worked. Everyone filed out after Tang Fan. Trader Ma threw Wang Zhi a look first and Wang Zhi had a moment of commiseration with him. There was a specific look someone got when Tang Fan managed to out-maneuver them, a mixture of wondering and amused. Wang Zhi wore it often.

Then he made Tang Fan do what he wanted anyway. Wang Zhi would watch to see if Trader Ma could be that successful.

They loaded up their mules and horses, and left properly. They wouldn’t be able to travel via river for long stretches on this journey. At this point, things would need to be carried.

Wang Zhi had to admit that if this was a ruse to take them captive, the traders had gone to a lot of work to create verisimilitude. The party seemed well-equipped, and Trader Ma assured them they would pick up a better selection of tea on the way, that his farm was a stop on their journey. Their group had expanded from the core group of men that had menaced them yesterday to include porters, identified by their wiry frames and sturdy walking sticks. Wang Zhi would not have been able to put a display like this together on such limited notice.

They rode out of town. Nature quickly overtook them. There were long stands of bamboo on either side of the road, gently swaying in the breeze. Wang Zhi had expected that, but he hadn’t expected the number of flowers growing on trees. Between and behind the bamboo were trees that Wang Zhi didn’t recognise, dark green, and bursting like fireworks in the branches were red blooms with pointed petals. It was loud, too; not too loud on the road, not louder than the sound of horses’ hooves, but the trees were alive with birds and monkeys.

Because Sui Zhou was here now, it wasn’t possible for the entourage to surround Wang Zhi. Sui Zhou’s iron-eyed stare and set jaw created a bubble he and Wang Zhi could ride in. The rest of Trader Ma’s men formed a loose circle around the group, with Tang Fan and Trader Ma at the front. Wang Zhi assumed one of them was the infamous crier, Phraya, but none of the men seemed interested in even any basic pointing and nodding communication. This suited Wang Zhi fine.

Instead, Wang Zhi and Sui Zhou were treated to some forced eavesdropping on the chatter up front.

“Why aren’t we using any wagons?” Tang Fan asked, clear voice cutting through the heavy morning air.

“The paths become narrow, treacherous. It is hard enough to lead the horses through. If the animals did not have the instinct to stay together and stick with their stallion, it would be impossible. Sometimes they have to walk one by one through the mountains, cliffs on either side.”

Wang Zhi hoped it wouldn’t come to that.

“Oh,” Tang Fan said.

“Don’t worry,” Trader Ma said, “I’ll protect you.”

Wang Zhi tried to catch Sui Zhou’s eye when he said that, but Sui Zhou’s eyes were focused on the space between his horse’s ears. Wang Zhi supposed it was true that the horses mostly drove themselves, because Sui Zhou didn't appear to be taking a very active role.

Tang Fan laughed. “You’re making fun of me again! Talking like a character in one of my books.”

Trader Ma shrugged. “I’m trying to convince you to create a character based on me. Is it working?”

“Hm. Maybe,” Tang Fan said with a smirk in his voice, and they were back to making casual conversation.

Wang Zhi was thoroughly worn out by the time they reached their next stop: not a major town by any means, but clearly a well-established resting place on the route. Places like this must dot the region, Wang Zhi thought, places that swelled with travelers and then were left empty, the wind blowing through.

They tied the horses up and Sui Zhou took the time to brush the nose of his horse, to check its hooves. Wang Zhi supposed that was some discipline speaking rather than a fondness for the horse. Wang Zhi wondered what it would take to break Sui Zhou from his routine, if there was anything that could shake him from doing what he had always done.

Wang Zhi wanted to herd Tang Fan up and away, but Trader Ma had promised them dinner.

It was the same noodles as before.

“Ah!” Tang Fan said when they were put in front of him. “I had wondered.”

“Wondered what?” Trader Ma said. Wang Zhi toyed with his chopsticks. He’d been eating these noodles for three out of his last four meals and was not that enthused to eat them again. Sui Zhou seemed to have no such problem, steadily pushing them into his mouth.

Tang Fan cut his eyes to one side. “When I first saw them, I thought perhaps we had offended someone and that’s why they had no sauce or soup. But no one would dare do that to you.”

Trader Ma pressed his lips together. “You don’t like them.” Wang Zhi wondered what Trader Ma would do if Tang Fan said he didn’t like the noodles, if he would be insulted or -- and this was starting to feel more likely -- go hunt down something Tang Fan would like better.

“I do like it, actually. I simply haven’t been exposed to such dry noodles before.”

“But if they were wet, you couldn’t do this,” Trader Ma said and reached out with his chopsticks -- Wang Zhi felt his throat constrict at the vulgarity -- and picked up one of Tang Fan’s noodles and brought it over to a candle on the table. The candle was clearly the latest in a long line, shoved into the leftover wax layers from others that had burned out and scraped before it. Wang Zhi watched the noodle dip into the flame and then...catch fire like it was a very long wick.

“That’s why we call them Burning Noodles,” Trader Ma said, once he was sure he had everyone’s attention.

“That’s going in the book,” Tang Fan said.

***

That night, Tang Fan was pleased to see they’d been put in an appropriate room -- which meant, according to him, that the bed would be big enough for the three of them.

“That is a relief,” Sui Zhou said, drier than a Burning Noodle and Wang Zhi squinted at him.

Sui Zhou continued to be distressingly sanguine about, well, all of their circumstances.

“I’ll take the door side,” Sui Zhou said, which meant Wang Zhi was on the window side. They didn’t need to discuss to know that Tang Fan would be in the middle.

Like the night before, Tang Fan dropped off into sleep immediately, and like the night before, the stillness did not last long. Soon he was rolling like a pearl on a sanded floor.

Wang Zhi would rather also like to sleep. Travelling up the Yangtze had been exhausting enough, and treacherous, but this overland travel promised a different type of trial.

With a rustle of covers Wang Zhi heard, then saw, in the light grey of the full moon coming through the window, Sui Zhou gathering Tang Fan up into a hold with one arm around Tang Fan’s shoulders, Tang Fan’s head pressed into Sui Zhou’s shoulder. Sui Zhou used his arm to weigh both of Tang Fan’s hands down against Sui Zhou’s chest.

“It’ll be easier like this,” Sui Zhou whispered.

Wang Zhi whispered back, “Has he always been like this?”

“How would I--” Sui Zhou said back, cutting himself off when Tang Fan made a small noise of complaint.

They spent the rest of the night in silence.

***

The next day Wang Zhi learned about: the number of children Trader Ma had (3, all boys), the name of the mustard green that made the noodles taste good (yacai), and about the glory of the mountain regions heading into Tibet -- full of stone forests and salt plains and glacier lakes of such remarkable beauty that it caused grown men to weep. Uncharitably, Wang Zhi wondered if potentially the men of this area were more tear prone than the average -- this was twice now that Trader Ma had brought it up.

“He speaks very favourably of this countryside,” Wang Zhi remarked blandly. He found the countryside to be a little oppressive. The mountains closed in on the sky like dragon’s teeth, and the jungle was heavy. Only the road was clear, the rest of the area was like a wall of trees.

The corner of Sui Zhou’s lips twitched. It appeared that some of the novelty had worn off of them, since their entourage wasn’t so close today. “Yes,” Sui Zhou said back, equally bland. “He does have a rare facility with words.”

Wang Zhi’s eyes cut over to Sui Zhou’s sharply. So he wasn’t oblivious to the charm onslaught that Trader Ma was subjecting Tang Fan to. But he didn’t do anything. It was a mystery.

***

They settled into a routine, if it could be called that. They rode, they listened to Tang Fan and Trader Ma talk about nothing in particular, and certainly nothing that would help them find the source of the bandit problem. Wang Zhi was used to long days of travel, but he was more used to traveling in a carriage. Riding in the open on a horse was proving to be an interesting challenge. He expected his thighs to hurt but his stomach did as well. It kept him focused on his body and less on his mission. Unfortunately, focusing on his body and its discomfort reminded him how comfortable he’d been sleeping with Tang Fan, once the strangeness of the situation had faded, which it had by the second day.

He kept waiting for Tang Fan to tell him that it had been some sort of a practical joke and that he and Sui Zhou would be sleeping alone from now on, but it never did.

Every night they got ready for bed, and every night the three of them crawled in together.

***

They sat at the inn, several jars of alcohol already set down on the table.

“If you’ll allow me to choose your dish,” Trader Ma said.

“Please, do,” Tang Fan said.

“You said you wanted sauce. This is a dish of my people.” Trader Ma gave the order and the group rustled in their seats, like long grass disturbed by sudden wind. “I have to tell you a secret,” Trader Ma said, and Wang Zhi couldn’t help the way his ears perked up. He knew Trader Ma was too good to be true. Now the deception would be unveiled and Wang Zhi would deal with whatever terrible situation they had actually found themselves in. “The noodles we fed you -- they aren’t local. They’re from Yibin.”

Tang Fan gasped in betrayal. Trader Ma put a hand on his heart and nodded solemnly. “You see, no one believes that one of you could appreciate the food here. But you are different,” he said and Tang Fan smiled. Sui Zhou rolled his eyes slightly. It was nice to have an ally sometimes, Wang Zhi thought. “So I am ordering you one of our favourites.”

The food arrived and Wang Zhi couldn’t understand the group’s earlier reaction to the order. It appeared to be a plate of rice noodles, some meat, and a bowl of dipping sauce.

Tang Fan dipped his noodles and then his whole face seized up, like his face was attempting to collapse into a singular point centred on his lips. He shook his head briefly, and then dipped his noodles and took another bite.

“Oh, he likes it!” Trader Ma looked around at his compatriots, some of whom were literally whooping with joy.

“It’s so bitter.” Tang Fan sounded delighted.

Wang Zhi took a portion for himself into his bowl. Tasting it, he felt all the moisture be stripped out of his body, while at the same time a bead of sweat pricked up on his brow. It wasn’t a taste so much as a sensory experience on par with standing next to a large gong as it was struck.

“What is this?” Wang Zhi asked at the same time that Tang Fan asked, “What’s the name?”

“Kusa,” said Trader Ma.

“Ah,” Tang Fan said, nodding like that meant something.

Wang Zhi asked his question again. “What is it made of?”

Trader Ma said something. Wang Zhi stared at him. Trader Ma stared back.

Then he shrugged. “I don’t know the word in your language.” And then he raised an eyebrow. Wang Zhi had nothing to say to that, as someone who knew none of his. Of course, eventually everyone here would one day be able to understand Wang Zhi; he merely had to wait, and do his job.

Sui Zhou, for his part, had managed to flag down someone else and quickly ordered two plain dishes of rice and cooked vegetables for himself and Wang Zhi.

“Nothing for,” Wang Zhi caught himself in time, “Huang Zhifeng?”

“If he likes the Kusa so much, he can have it.”

Tang Fan was alternating bites of Kusa with large gulps of tea.

Wang Zhi tucked his smile into his rice. But then he worried. For Sui Zhou not to take care of Tang Fan... Tang Fan and Sui Zhou had had no time to talk or be alone on this journey. In fact, Wang Zhi had spent more time with Sui Zhou than Tang Fan had. Was this a small joke or the beginning of a larger crack between them? If so, should he be doing something about that? Thinking of something separating Tang Fan and Sui Zhou gave him a cramp in his stomach. But perhaps that would explain the strange sleeping arrangements. They could be hiding a rift in their relationship.

That night, though, Sui Zhou gathered Tang Fan into his arms, infinitely gentle and careful, and Wang Zhi quieted his worries. No man could touch another like that and have it mean anything less than utter devotion.

***

“That was our last inn for the next stretch,” Trader Ma announced the next morning.

Wang Zhi had been braced for this. There would be more staging inns, but fewer and further until the mountain passes. Wang Zhi planned to have them turn back long before that. He could gather evidence about bandit attacks without having to summit a mountain, surely. It was already going to be uncomfortable sleeping rough.

The scenery hadn’t shifted at all in three days and that was fine by Wang Zhi, it was all trees all of the time. He didn’t need to see stunning glaciers, not if it meant walking for months to get to them.

Today Tang Fan at least had some more relevant questions. “Have you always travelled this way?”

Trader Ma made a considering noise. “My family? Yes. You call it the Chamadao but it’s not a road, it’s a destination. Everyone takes their own path. Every caravan leader carefully guards their route as a special secret. Of course, mine is the fastest.”

Tang Fan gave Trader Ma the smile he was asking for. It was impressed and charmed. Wang Zhi wished Tang Fan was better at faking than he actually was, because this was sickening.

“Everyone goes a different way?”

“Well, there are a few points that everyone tends to use.” That caught Wang Zhi’s attention. It was suspicious, how many caravans had been attacked. But if there were choke points, then potentially bandits could simply sit and wait. “But departure times are kept secret as well.”

“Sounds lonely.”

“That’s why we have your books, my esteemed writer friend. To listen, and think of love.”

“Oh.”

***

They sat around the fire and Wang Zhi got to enjoy the sensation of his front roasting while his back grew colder and stiffer. It was interesting how the body didn’t equilibrate. An excess in one place did not make up for absence in another.

One of the men began to sing. His voice was pleasing, even if the music was alien. It lifted and descended in patterns that Wang Zhi couldn’t anticipate, but Wang Zhi was left aching anyway. At the end, it was him who raised his voice to ask, “What is it about?”

“Can’t you guess?” Trader Ma asked.

Wang Zhi despised guessing games. He regretted asking the question.

It was Tang Fan who answered. “The one he loves does not love him back.”

Trader Ma laughed, one bark. “A reasonable guess, but no. His lover loves someone else.”

Tang Fan stilled. Almost as if he was speaking to himself, he muttered, “Is that such a tragedy?”

Wang Zhi wanted to go over there and twist his ear. To say such a thing in front of Sui Zhou. Sui Zhou who had wrapped a cloak over Tang Fan’s shoulders when he’d started to shiver, who was currently sitting with his shoulder pressed into Tang Fan’s, because even that wasn’t enough to keep Tang Fan warm. Not all over.

“It is when they don’t love you back,” Sui Zhou said and Tang Fan had the decency to blush, at least. But perhaps that was just the fire cooking his cheeks. Wang Zhi’s fingers would be warm if he pressed them against Tang Fan’s face.

They put out their bedrolls and Wang Zhi was unsurprised to see that Trader Ma kept Tang Fan close. Wang Zhi set himself up next to Sui Zhou. The camp was still alive with noise and the susurrus of movement gave Wang Zhi cover enough to ask Sui Zhou a question that had been bothering him.

“If you doubt him, why do you let him act like this?” Wang Zhi struggled to encompass the scope of all of ‘this.’ From Tang Fan’s lack of attention to Sui Zhou during the day, to his insistence on sleeping with Wang Zhi in the room at night.

There was silence for a moment. “I think you’re operating under a misapprehension.” If Sui Zhou was going to lie to him -- “Tang Fan isn’t mine to monitor.”

“You’re telling me that you don’t--” Wang Zhi bit back his words, aware that his voice was rising in volume.

Sui Zhou’s lips formed a grim line. “I do. But he…” Sui Zhou sighed. “I’ve...hinted. And every time, Tang Fan says something about you.” He gave Wang Zhi a meaningful look and Wang Zhi could do nothing but stare back.

“What?” Wang Zhi knew he sounded stupid. He hated that. “No. He’s keen on you. He is. He’s -- devoted.” Tang Fan would risk his life if he thought it would save a stranger mild inconvenience, but it was only when Sui Zhou was in danger that Tang Fan became frantic. Driven. When Sui Zhou was imprisoned in Ji’an Tang Fan had become bullish, almost frightening in his need to get Sui Zhou out. Wang Zhi had felt power pool into his hands; he could have asked Tang Fan for anything and Tang Fan would have given it to him if it meant securing Wang Zhi’s help.

Sui Zhou climbed into his bedroll. “He got your letter and he started packing. He didn’t finish his soup first. I might not be able to make all of the connections that Tang Fan can, but I can put together simple clues.”

Wang Zhi didn’t know what to say, so he said nothing, and stared at the stars until they blurred and his eyes grew heavy and dragged him under.

***

He had to talk to Tang Fan. Tang Fan was checking his horse, a habit he’d picked up in mimicry of all of the traders. Wang Zhi wasn’t even sure Tang Fan knew what he was looking for, but he did it gamely, patting at the horse’s withers.

Wang Zhi was tired and confused and so very far from home and he planned to use all of those things as an excuse for why he opened the conversation with, “Why are you torturing Sui Zhou?”

Tang Fan looked around showily, indicating the complete lack of a Sui Zhou in his presence.

“He cares about you,” Wang Zhi said.

“Yes?” Tang Fan said, nonplussed.

“No. Like--” Wang Zhi’s frustration came out as an inarticulate noise. “He bought tea before we left -- real tea, not the horrible cakes we peddle to foreigners -- for you to have on the journey.”

“How do you know?” Tang Fan asked, with seemingly real curiosity.

“It’s not important,” Wang Zhi said. The answer was, because I did the same thing and realised it was redundant when I saw Sui Zhou brewing it. He felt like that weakened his point. “He brings you food. He gave you his cloak to wear.”

“Yes,” Tang Fan said, more certain. He paused and looked at Wang Zhi seriously. “He does the same for you.” Wang Zhi rolled his eyes. A small movement, almost deniable, but Tang Fan saw it. “Or did you not wake up with an extra blanket on top of your bedroll this morning?”

Tang Fan was hopeless. Wang Zhi turned his back on him.

“Maybe you should read one of my books,” Tang Fan called out to him as Wang Zhi walked away.

Wang Zhi continued to stomp, ending up at the fire next to Sui Zhou, who immediately passed him a bowl of rice. “There’s tea in the flask,” Sui Zhou said.

“Thank you,” Wang Zhi nodded and paused. Tea for him. Not for Tang Fan. No. Wang Zhi shook his head, casting out ridiculous notions. Tang Fan was confusing him, making him think things.

***

“We will have to cross the river,” Trader Ma said as his men bustled about, shifting packs and redistributing goods. “This is the ... the shallow part of the river? So it is a good place.”

“A ford,” Tang Fan supplied.

Trader Ma smiled gratefully. “Yes. This is the ford for the river.”

Wang Zhi nodded.

Tang Fan grinned at Wang Zhi. “Are you nervous? I’ll cross with you.”

Wang Zhi glared at him. Tang Fan was unphased. He said:

“The boatman keeps beckoning;

And others cross with him, but I do not.

Others cross with him, but I do not; -

I am waiting for my friend.”

Wang Zhi glared even harder, but he felt a blush rise on his face. He could only hope that Trader Ma couldn’t understand the elevated poetic language. It was utterly inappropriate for Tang Fan to cite this poem now, to him, when it was about someone waiting for marriage. It was unseemly, and preposterous, and generally wrong.

“Shi Jun!” Tang Fan called out and Sui Zhou picked up his head. “You’ll cross with me too, right?”

Wang Zhi made eye contact with Sui Zhou and was relieved to see that he was similarly startled. This had not occurred to Wang Zhi, that Tang Fan could be so greedy, even in this. He never would have...he could not have foreseen.

Sui Zhou’s face was a question. Will you cross with Tang Fan? Wang Zhi didn’t know how to answer it. He knew if he asked the same thing of Sui Zhou, Sui Zhou would not hesitate. He was already looking bigger, expanding into the possibility of Tang Fan wanting him.

Tang Fan watched their wordless exchange. If he was disappointed with the outcome, he didn’t show it. Instead he put his hands on his hips. “I told you already -- I will wait at the river’s edge until my friend is ready.”

Then he clapped his hand on Wang Zhi’s shoulder -- a horrible habit he’d picked up from Trader Ma, and one Wang Zhi looked forward to training out of him -- and walked up to Sui Zhou and practically demanded to be carried across the water.

Sui Zhou, for his part, looked like the sun had risen behind his eyes. There was a grin there that slowly started to hook up the corner of his mouth. Sui Zhou hooked an arm around Tang Fan’s waist and lifted him straightaway, heedless of Tang Fan’s shriek and the laughter of the men. If they were alone Wang Zhi had no doubt that they would be kissing. It was a fitting end to a story.

***

They were all slightly soggy when they made it to the other side of the river, so it was natural for them to stop for the day and dry themselves out like lizards on rocks.

Tang Fan, despite having been carried, was about as wet as the rest of them, and he landed on the ground next to Wang Zhi with a wet slap before he started stripping himself out of his layers.

Wang Zhi fought the urge to look away. “I thought you were going to wait for me,” Wang Zhi said.

Tang Fan looked up at him, glaring slightly through his eyelashes. His hair was coming loose from its knot and wisps were sticking to his neck. “That was a metaphor.”

Sui Zhou approached with fresh robes for Tang Fan and a soft goatskin cloth for Tang Fan to dry himself off with. He had a slightly dumbfounded look on his face, one that Wang Zhi often associated with newly married men. Overcome by their good fortune and revelling in it.

“Was it?” Wang Zhi asked, softly.

Tang Fan took everything from Sui Zhou and threw a harried look at Wang Zhi. “What?”

It was easy for Wang Zhi to slip away, given how Sui Zhou was taking Tang Fan’s attention.

***

Wang Zhi had never sought romance, never needed it. There was no space for it in his life.

Wang Zhi had been a present, from certain angles. First he was gifted to the Emperor as a disgraced child, and then twice over when the Noble Consort deemed him worthy of direct service for the Emperor. He had no greater ambition than to serve his mistress. And she spent her life ensuring that no one would supplant her in the life of the man who mattered most to her. Leaving her service had been hard, but he could not begrudge it even for a moment. For who could understand her better?

He understood better than anyone the fight to matter to someone who they could never come first for.

***

When they were getting ready for sleep, the soft grasses of the riverbank providing a suitable mattress, Tang Fan bounded over with his pack.

“What are you doing?” Wang Zhi asked.

“Setting up my bedroll,” Tang Fan said, and crouched down to push it out.

“Why are you doing it here?”

“Can’t I sleep next to you? I was doing it before.”

Yes, and you hit me, Wang Zhi wanted to say, make a joke out of it. And: that was before you had offered yourself to Sui Zhou and he accepted. “You’re so greedy,” he said instead, with too many hisses in his voice to be anything other than vicious. He closed his mouth so fast his teeth clacked together.

Tang Fan reared back, leaning so far he fell, tailbone landing on the ground with an audible thump.

Sui Zhou came over, crossing the distance in three long strides that ate ground like a monster devouring souls. Sui Zhou caught Tang Fan’s wide eyes, red cheeks, red tongue in a mouth dropped open in horror.

“Wang Zhi,” he said, so quietly Wang Zhi could barely hear it over the sound of the water’s roar, “are you alright?”

“Am I?” Wang Zhi was mishearing him. Wang Zhi stared. Tang Fan had reached out one hand to grip Sui Zhou’s ankle. It was a subtle gesture, hidden by angles and clothing, and Wang Zhi could only see it because he was so close to them. Physically. But he felt like he was an arrow’s shot distance away from their casual intimacy. That type of touch wasn’t new between them. They were like that with each other. Wang Zhi wasn’t like that with anyone. Wang Zhi’s mouth was open again and that was the mistake. There was nothing inside of him but poison, and there was only one way to keep it in. “Are you? You’re the one who is only being offered a piece of this one’s heart.” Wang Zhi tasted fire, looking at the gentle confusion on Sui Zhou’s face, the way Tang Fan’s expression continued to stretch into grotesquerie. “And you’re grateful for it, aren’t you, you’d take scraps, like a dog.” His voice was quiet, even, and absolutely edged to wound.

Sui Zhou looked at Tang Fan, seeking answers. “What happened?”

How dare Sui Zhou talk about Wang Zhi like he wasn’t there, like he -- Wang Zhi breathed in sharply through his nose, held it, and let it go silently. He couldn’t get angry, he could never get angry, it wasn’t effective.

“I hurt him,” Tang Fan said miserably, still looking at Wang Zhi. “Oh, oh no, I’m sorry.” Tang Fan wrung his hands. He looked up at Sui Zhou. “I don’t know what to do. I can’t not love both of you, and I can’t, I can’t not show it.”

The light was starting to go, and it cast shadows on Sui Zhou’s face, deep crags that belied the careful way he pressed his thigh against Tang Fan’s shoulder.

“Is anyone going to tell me what’s going on?” Sui Zhou asked.

Wang Zhi ignored him. “Why isn’t he enough for you?” he asked Tang Fan.

Tang Fan blinked at him, as uncomprehending as if Wang Zhi was the one speaking a different language.

“Is the bird upset that fox shelters under the branches of the tree?” Sui Zhou answered. Wang Zhi felt like his mind had just tripped. Sui Zhou pressed his advantage. “You have protected me and you have protected him, was one of those false? It’s enough for me that Tang Fan has chosen me, if he chooses you too, I haven’t lost anything. That’s his business. It’s your business whether or not you want to accept it. Don’t drag me into your dilemma.”

Before Wang Zhi could untangle his thoughts, Sui Zhou pulled Tang Fan up by the shoulder and took him over to the fire, one arm wrapped around him the whole time.

***

Everything felt like it was happening with a bit of distance on it. Wang Zhi hadn’t experienced this since he’d been slightly blown up by the exploding flying machine. He’d lain there on the field, ears ringing, slowly sinking into the mud. He’d felt like the last person left alive in the world, and when he’d struggled up and seen that Tang Fan had been taken away, had felt like it too.

The fire crackled. Poorly built, he thought; in the palace they used coal braziers, but if Wang Zhi had ever had to build a wood fire, he would not have tolerated this spitting and sparking.

He wouldn’t tolerate...if he could do it, he would do it better.

Tang Fan also looked pale, uneven light from the flames doing little to warm his features. He sat there bundled in Sui Zhou’s cloak, but Sui Zhou himself was nowhere to be seen.

Then Wang Zhi felt a change in the wind next to him and with that palpable delay, recognised that Sui Zhou was sitting next to him.

Sui Zhou passed him a bowl. Wang Zhi ate it mechanically; he wasn’t even sure what it was. Presumably rice, probably dried and fermented radish. Some people here ate tea, but so far no one had asked Wang Zhi to do it.

Sui Zhou passed Wang Zhi a waterskin. Wang Zhi drank, wiped his mouth, resealed it. “Are you in the wrong spot?” Wang Zhi asked.

“No,” Sui Zhou said. Wang Zhi was speechless. “Tang Fan is worried about you.” Sui Zhou opened his mouth to keep talking, but Trader Ma beat him to it.

“We have been talking,” Trader Ma started and Wang Zhi tried and failed to tense appropriately, he could barely spare focus for his real mission, caught as he was in his personal crisis. “And we want to hear you tell a story.” His eyes were fixed on Tang Fan’s face. Tang Fan, for his part, looked like a rabbit caught out on the flat.

Tang Fan tried to wave them off but everyone was keen, there was no way to put them off. So Tang Fan gave in. “Well,” he began, “this story is very new, so I’m not sure how it’ll turn out yet.”

Trader Ma translated this and a ripple of excitement went through the group.

“Our hero is a very clever man, able to solve any problem. But the one problem he can’t solve is --” and Wang Zhi let his mind focus on other things.

He’d let himself get distracted. Ever since Tang Fan had shown up, he’d let himself become diverted from the task his Emperor had set him. This trip was interesting, and Wang Zhi vowed to spend more time considering overland trade now that the silver situation was reasonably stable, but he was no closer today than he had been when he’d started to solving the bandit problem. As soon as Tang Fan had pulled him into this scheme, Wang Zhi had been more concerned about the possibility of exposure, if this was a trap to pull Tang Fan away.

He’d put Tang Fan first. That was unacceptable. He’d taken too many cues from Sui Zhou, who he should have expected would have warped priorities -- an unfair thought, considering the man’s demonstrable loyalty to the Ming. They’d both drawn him in, but it had to stop. Wang Zhi had to regain control. No more Tang Fan.

Tomorrow he’d demand they go back, and he’d put Tang Fan and Sui Zhou back on a boat and tell them to ride the Yangtze until they were well out of Wang Zhi’s sphere.

***

When they went down for sleep, Trader Ma had, as usual, finagled it so that Tang Fan was tucked in close to him, which liberated Wang Zhi from having to send Tang Fan away again.

***

The smoke was what woke Wang Zhi. They’d been keeping the fire lit, and tended, and watched, every night since they’d left the populous road. But the amount of smoke that tickled Wang Zhi’s nose spoke of a fire hastily doused.

When he opened his eyes, jerking to full alertness, it was to a blur of clanking shadows.

And then a sharp cry that cut above, human among the metal. Tang Fan.

A moment later and a warm lump hit Wang Zhi, before he could pull up his gun. “Stay down,” Tang Fan said, breath shifting the small hairs behind Wang Zhi’s ears.

Wang Zhi’s arms came up, pulling Tang Fan in closer, making them a smaller target. He looked around, head craning as much as it could, pinned as he was.

“Why did you come over here,” he scolded Tang Fan. “You were safer over by the fire.” How had Wang Zhi not realised. The position that Trader Ma had put Tang Fan in wasn’t just close to him, it was ringed by his men -- isolated from Sui Zhou and Wang Zhi, but the same action from another angle meant protected.

Tang Fan lifted his head, eyes glinting in the moonlight and swirling with the smoke. “And where would you be?”

Tang Fan was always acting this way, heedless. He’d come here, after all, hadn’t he? And what had been in that letter? Nothing. An everyday description of the inn, the Yangtze travel, the humidity. No word of request, no hint of the mission. Just a letter a friend might write to one another when they...missed them...and wanted to keep in touch. And yet. When Wang Zhi had sent that letter, he knew this would be the result. Oh, perhaps not this exactly, but this: Tang Fan here, instead of safely in the capital. He bit his cheek, forced into the realisation. In the back of his mind he knew he could rely on Tang Fan to come aid him, had wanted it even when he knew it was inadvisable. He wanted Tang Fan.

All in all the chaos only lasted a joss stick, maybe less. Real fights, the kind that weren’t for show, never took very long. Battles took a long time, but each fight? Mere moments. And at the end, someone was dead.

“Are you ready to get up?” Sui Zhou asked, announcing himself before he got too close. Wang Zhi could see a smudge of something on his cheek -- and was that a cleaver in his hand? Wang Zhi supposed that a sword would rather have undermined his ruse, but a cleaver seemed somehow wrong. Sui Zhou with a cleaver was a Sui Zhou at home. It made Wang Zhi want to laugh.

“We’re unharmed, thanks for asking,” Wang Zhi said, unable to keep the amusement out of his voice, despite its impropriety. Normally Tang Fan was the only one who could override Wang Zhi’s attempts to be serious, but apparently it was catching.

Sui Zhou said, “Yes, I assumed he got to you in time.”

Wang Zhi pushed a little and with Sui Zhou reaching over to help, they managed to get Tang Fan upright.

Tang Fan, for his part, seemed remarkably calm. He looked past Wang Zhi and Sui Zhou, to Trader Ma, who was cleaning up the area of engagement.

When Trader Ma caught him looking, he raised his chin and walked over. He bowed to Wang Zhi. After days of being entirely ignored by the man, it was a jarring shift. It felt a bit like being back in the city, getting cornered by Trader Ma and his men. All of whom were suspiciously good in combat for tea traders, even on a route with bandits.

“I have solved the bandit problem,” he said, with no preamble. Wang Zhi hid his surprise from long practice, and Tang Fan merely pressed his lips together. Trader Ma crossed his arms over his chest, sword held securely and pointing down, heedless of any blood it might leave on his clothes. If he was as much of a fighter as he had revealed himself to be, he wouldn’t sheathe it until he could clean it properly, or else the blood would sink into where the hilt met the blade and create hidden rust. Similarly, Wang Zhi needed more information before he could let this conversation end. “Come now,” Trader Ma said, “You think that anyone with any investment in staying on the good side of the Emperor would not recognise Wang Zhi?”

Wang Zhi’s blood ran cold. If that was the case, that meant, the whole time…

Tang Fan bowed. “You have the better of us, sir. We still don’t know your name.”

He chucked and bowed back. “Forgive my deception, it seemed...easier. I am Oalnawudh.”

Wang Zhi’s eyebrows raised. The Tusi, far from ignoring him, had been monitoring him the whole time.

Wang Zhi bowed deeper and Sui Zhou and Tang Fan jerked themselves into salutes to follow him, clearly uncomprehending.

“So you can tell your emperor,” Tusi Oalnawudh said, “that the situation is controlled. That I have controlled it, without intervention.” His expression was stern, lacking the gentle grin he usually pointed at Tang Fan. “And in future, he can send his concerns directly to me.”

Sui Zhou shifted next to Wang Zhi and Wang Zhi had the sudden sense that if he even twitched his lips downwards, Sui Zhou would act on the implicit threat in Tusi Oalnawudh’s voice, and use his cleaver to spark off what would certainly be a major diplomatic incident. Foolish man. His life would be easier if he let Wang Zhi fall out of the picture. Of course, Wang Zhi did not want to get struck down by Tusi Oalnawudh. It would be a shame, because it would definitely escalate the situation and the Tusi had clearly worked hard to avoid it. Which it would have, if he had failed to quell the bandit threat and the Ming had to step in. Visions of rebellion danced in his mind. A loss of autonomy would have followed, presumably hard fought and hotly contested. In any event, the Tusi would not have maintained power, and potentially the entire region might have needed to be re-subjugated. There were some still alive who remembered a time before the Ming. It would be easy for them to get notions of breaking away. But his work had ensured none of that would happen. Creating a tempting caravan target, complete with inexperienced foreigners was a particularly inspired touch.

Wang Zhi cast about to find a way to acknowledge that the gambit had been well-played and that Wang Zhi would return to the Emperor with a report that the situation was stable and did not require further intervention, while at the same time not admitting that he had been out-maneuvered.

“So you aren’t actually a fan?” Tang Fan said. The worst part was that he sounded genuinely crestfallen.

“I assure you I certainly am.”

“Oh,” Tang Fan said, mollified. “Well, that’s good then,” he said, waving his hand vaguely at the carnage around them.

Tusi Oalnawudh let out a bark of laughter, almost deafening in the lingering dark, starting to lighten into dawn. Wang Zhi also let himself smile.

Just like that, it was resolved. There was one thing.

“Permit me to ask a question,” Wang Zhi said.

Tusi Oalnawudh waved his hand, still chuckling slightly to himself. “That day, back in town, why did you choose to approach us then? I had been in the area for months.” He couldn’t help the small note of reproach that entered his voice.

Tusi Oalnawudh shrugged. “Everyone knows Wang Zhi travels with a famous assassin. When we saw you had companions in town, naturally we worried. Imagine our delight when it turned out to be my favourite writer --” Tang Fan still pinked, the man was a glutton for praise, “--and his “cook.”

Sui Zhou wiped his cleaver off on a rag.

“Does that answer your question?”

It did indeed.

***

Tusi Oalnawudh insisted on accompanying them all the way back to Yibin, a very civilised way of evicting them from his territory. Wang Zhi was tempted to demand the right to linger, an assertion of the dominance of the Ming, but he was feeling well-pleased with the world and charitable and so decided to let it go this once.

Tang Fan had been throwing Wang Zhi increasingly overwrought glances the last few days, a sign his mood was improving, so Wang Zhi continued to avoid them, occasionally seeking out Sui Zhou’s eyes. Then they’d have to look away before they both started to laugh.

When they got onto a boat, a sturdy river-going vessel that would take them down the Yangtze, Wang Zhi carefully let himself into Tang Fan’s berth, where Tang Fan had already poured himself onto his bed in a puddle of wrinkling fabric.

Tang Fan didn’t even look over when the door closed. When Wang Zhi cleared his throat, Tang Fan did an elaborate double take. “Oh!” he said. Then he bit his lip. “Are you talking to me again?” Tang Fan sounded so eager for the answer. It was impossible to hate him for it.

Wang Zhi felt his lips lift. Then he inclined his head.

The words rushed out of Tang Fan, held back for so long. “I was beginning to think you hadn’t understood the subtext of the story I told. You see, the clever man, our romantic hero is based on y--”

Wang Zhi cut him off. “I wasn’t listening.”

Sui Zhou appeared from behind a screen. “Oh hello, Wang Zhi, did you want tea?”

Tang Fan pouted at both of them. “Guangchuan! He wasn’t even listening!”

“Tea would be appreciated, thank you,” Wang Zhi said, and Sui Zhou went over to the covered brazier in the corner. Ingenious, it heated the room and the tea, and was at low risk for causing fire.

Tang Fan threw himself back on the bed.

Wang Zhi made a show of sipping his tea, thoughtfully provided to him by Sui Zhou. Wang Zhi let his fingers linger, briefly, against Sui Zhou’s. Sui Zhou quirked a smile at him -- all of Sui Zhou’s smiles were uneven, but just as genuine for their lack of symmetry. “Allow me a guess,” he said. He hummed for a moment as he assembled the narrative. “Your male love interest leaves the protagonist because he thinks she’ll be better off with the dashing wanderer who saved her from the bandits, but eventually he realises that she needs the support of the bandit killer as well as the,” he thought for a moment, “childhood sweetheart who understands the caravan route?” Sui Zhou gave a small nod. “Yes. Both are required for her to redeem her father’s name, and one cannot be substituted for the other.”

A deafening silence from the bed. Wang Zhi sipped his tea. Sui Zhou joined him. Perhaps Sui Zhou would demonstrate his cleaver skills later. Wang Zhi had been curious about how such a close quarters implement would hold up against men armed with swords.

Then there was a rustling. Sui Zhou stood, went over to the tea pot, presumably over-brewed by now. When Tang Fan sat down it was with a prim uprightness.

“I suppose you did read my books.”

“Yes.” Wang Zhi said, and meant yes, and yes, and yes to it all.