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Zhou Zishu subtly stretched his neck under the heavy collar of his formal robes. This meeting with the Crown Prince had been going on for two hours already and looked as though it could very well run for another two. He would not do his Prince the disrespect of interrupting him or trying to cut him short, but the fact of the matter was there was simply precious little information available to them at this point.

The Ghost Valley was a largely unknown entity, said to be a nest of the worst humankind had to offer. Rapists and murderers and thieves. The sort of people who did evil for the sake of it rather than out of a higher calling or pure necessity. Zishu knew this couldn’t be the whole truth, there were likely people who had wound up in Ghost Valley because they had reached a point where they had no other options as well as people who were simply dragged there by the evil that went willingly. After all, if you fill a place with grasping monsters, it makes sense that they will occasionally reach out and grab.

This was never a problem before. In the five years Zhou Zishu had been steadily building a network of spies, informants and assassins throughout the world, Ghost Valley had rarely breached even Jianghu. There had seemed little point in spending resources attempting to gather information on an entity that seemed so content to remain removed from politics and schemes. Zishu would be the first to admit that this was his mistake. Now the Valley was waging war with Jianghu and Zishu couldn’t even tell the Prince who the Valley Master was much less what their plans and motivations might be.

“Two Martial Sects wiped out in as many months and not a single survivor between them to so much as question!” Helian Yi had been ranting about this as well as the increased sightings of ghosts for so long Zishu had started to tune him out, only stopping by reminding himself that this was the Crown Prince, not Qin Jiuxiao going on about a girl again. “Who do these people think they are? Even the Dragons don’t make trouble in Jianghu without cause and now some petty criminals think they can just parade around killing whomever they like?”

“Your Highness, I will send a group of men as soon as possible to begin making inquiries. Until then, there is little we can do but make conjecture.” Zhou Zishu had five years of practice making himself appear calm and placid on the outside no matter what thoughts were racing through his mind. That, in addition to the last year of keeping his face blank and words sympathetic whenever anyone lamented the kidnapping of the Prince Nan’ning, meant that he only blinked slowly when Helian Yi suddenly threw his wine cup against the far wall. The porcelain shattered with a sharp noise that would have drawn the servants if the guest had been anyone but Zhou Zishu.

“I don’t want your inquiries or conjecture, cousin! I want to know how we can use this and how others are going to try to use it.” Zishu had guessed as much, but the truth was that he was unsure how the unrest in Jianghu could be used to smooth the way to the throne. Jianghu was so far removed from court politics and even the massacres had barely caused a ripple of interest amid the other nobility. Only those with martial or military interest had even discussed the matter beyond a casual comment here or there.

“At this time, I am uncertain. Without knowing the motivations or plans behind Ghost Valley, it is hard to say what the long-term outcomes of the current events will be.” Helian Yi would hear the non-answer for what it was, but it was also the truth. Zhou Zishu was a spy and an assassin, not a political maneuverer. If he was, perhaps he would have thought twice before bringing his brothers to this forsaken snake’s nest. “For now, please consider my recommendations for the assignment to Jianghu.”

Zishu pressed the sheet of paper forward on the desk. He had made the list earlier that day knowing that the Prince would want answers he could not give and so it would be best to enter this meeting with at least a plan on how to acquire them. Helian Yi waved the paper away impatiently, barely sparing it a glance.

“I trust your expertise on this matter. You know the men under your command better than I do at any rate.” He said with an air of someone who knew an answer to a question that had not yet been asked. It was not a tone of voice Zishu heard often and he found he did not like it or its implications. However, before he could try to question the other there was a quiet knock at the study door.

The door slid open a bare inch and one of Helian Yi’s younger pages peaked fearfully into the room. None of the palace servants liked to interrupt the meetings that occurred between the cousins. On the surface, they should have been nothing more than friendly conferences between the Crown Prince and one of his loyal court officials, but Zhou Zishu had the sort of face and bearing that put most people ill at ease.

“This servant begs forgiveness; the First Prince has arrived begging an audience with the Crown Prince.” The page managed to keep his voice steady, but it was easy for both of the men to tell that he was terrified to have been forced into this job. Luckily for him, the suddenness and unexpectedness of the First Prince’s arrival at Helian Yi’s estate kept them from dolling out any punishment. In general, a meek servant was one who was easily bullied into treason. A prince had no need for such a weakness in his estate.

“Escort him to the East Courtyard and have the servants prepare tea.” Helian Yi waved the page away without a glance, already turning a wary eye to his head assassin. There were few reasons why his brother would come to greet him at his estate personally and even fewer that could spell anything other than trouble. Zhou Zishu shook his head subtly, wary of the page still being within earshot. His spies in the First Prince’s estate had heard nothing that would tell him why the man had suddenly decided to come to visit Helian Yi. Another oversight somewhere, Zishu could taste bitterness on his tongue from all these mistakes. There was nothing to be done about it at this moment, but it was clear that the gaps in his network would need to be sealed sooner rather than later. Getting men into position in the princes’ estates was already a dangerous and difficult task, but he was going to have to make it a priority.

Zishu made plans for who could be placed where as he shadowed his prince to the courtyard, but he returned his focus to the present as soon as they passed through the archway and entered the yard. It was immediately evident that his first guess that this could only be bad news was correct as soon as he laid eyes on Helian Zhao. The oldest prince was reclined at leisure on a settee beneath the largest tree in the courtyard, clearly confident that the information he came bearing was both real enough and powerful enough to grant him a certain level of respect and power that his political position would not actually gain him. He did not stand and offer the appropriate salute and Zhou Zishu watched as Helian Yi’s shoulders tensed beneath his buttery yellow robes. With this level of disrespect, it was clear that Helian Zhao came with either blackmail or ultimatum. Not good.

“Your Highness, forgive me for not standing, I just returned from war council and assembly, I trust you understand.” The First Prince did at least salute and bow at this point, Helian Yi nodding graciously back with a hard look in his eyes. This was a risky move for a military leader, Zishu thought, if the information Helian Zhao brought was worth less than he thought all these insults would be more than enough for Helian Yi to demand at least some small form of repayment in front of the Emperor. It would diminish the oldest prince’s standing in the eyes of court and could damage his reputation within the military as well. The assassin did not like this one bit.

“To rush to my estate on such a long day, what troubles you, Lord Zhao?” The Crown Prince asked with effortless politesse as he flicked the long sleeves of his robes and set himself down on the chair opposite his brother. Zishu remained standing a respectable distance away from the princes. His standing was high enough that he could remain in the courtyard unless actively dismissed, but it would be presumptuous to take a seat without being invited. Besides, the last thing he wanted to do was to draw attention to himself.

“Troubling rumors. Very troubling.” Small, sharp eyes glanced towards Zishu and then back to the Crown Prince. “Rumors regarding cousins and plots. If you can believe it, my ears have caught wind of knives in dark corners, your highness.”

“Army rumors are such fanciful things. Knives in dark corners, like myths from storybooks.” Helian Yi had not missed the sharp glance his brother had sent Zhou Zishu, but it was better to play dumb and make Helian Zhao say outright whatever accusation he was levelling at them. “Are there people slandering my cousin in your ranks, my Lord?”

“Slander? Nothing so crass, I assure you. Only, there have been many coincidences since your cousin returned from Jianghu to assume a court position.”

“A coincidence is a coincidence. Are you suggesting a single man can turn a river from its banks?”

“I am saying a man with no previous interest in court politics has taken a court position and done nothing with it in the last five years and yet the tides of court have changed rapidly in those five years.”

“I tire of your poetry, Lord Zhao, say outright why you have come or else entertain me at least with poetry pleasing to the ear.”

“Very well. Sect Leader Zishu has been implicated in the assassination of the first and only son of a merchant lord as well as framing the second son of the emperor for this death. This is not the first such instance that has come to my attention, but it is the first that directly effects the royal family. I am saying, Your Highness, that you are housing a traitor in your midst.”

Zhou Zishu almost wished he could say that there was total silence in the courtyard after that. That the wind stopped rustling the leaves of the tree and the birds stopped singing, but the reality was the world turned around them after that. The servants of the estate bustled about; loud in the quiet way people trying to pretend not to exist were, the water feature in the corner of the courtyard sang a pretty babbling song as it always did, and their combined breathing whistled softly as two men tried to find a way to preserve a crumbling situation and another celebrated his victory.

“This is a bold claim to lay before the cousin of the Crown Prince.” Helian Yi annunciated slowly. He had poured himself a cup of tea when he first sat down and now took a long sip from his cup as he considered his brother. For his part, the older man looked unconcerned with the gravity of the charge laid out. “I trust you have ample proof to back up your words.”

“I think we both know I would not have brought this matter to you if I did not have enough evidence to vindicate my words.” Zishu, for his part, was considering the pros and cons to simply assassinating the First Prince right then and there. Unfortunately, there was really no way to get away with it without implicating Helian Yi. “I was simply worried; I wouldn’t want my dear little brother being taken advantage of by strangers from the Jianghu.”

The saccharine tone set Zishu’s teeth on edge immediately, but he understood precisely what was not being said. Helian Zhao had not yet decided what he wanted as the price for his silence. For now, it was a holding game. Neither party would make a move while the player in charge of the board considered what to do with his pieces. It was an unenviable position for Helian Yi to be in and one his spymaster had put him in. Three mistakes uncovered in one day. Zhou Zishu wouldn’t be able to look his sect brothers in the eyes let alone visit the tribute for the dead. He idly wondered what he had done wrong to reveal his role in Merchant Leader He’s son’s death. Not that it mattered, what was done, was done. The mistake had been made.

From there the conversation turned to pleasantries and idle chatter until Helian Zhao rose and saw himself out, not even waiting for an appropriate dismissal. Zhou Zishu was still reeling too much to even feel appropriately offended at the blatant disregard for formalities. It was a lot to process, but Zishu was good at compartmentalizing. He had been forced to get good at prioritizing the mission at hand over emotions a long time ago as his brothers were picked off one by one and his morals degraded over time. Now it was looking like all of that would be for nothing.

“I believe this has made our decision for us.” The Crown Prince stated, staring pensively after the retreating shadow of his older brother. For all the damaging information the man had revealed he knew, he had also let slip what he did not know. “It will be best for you to disappear from court for a time. Allow your men to do some damage control and ferret out who let slip this information.”

“Your Highness.” Zishu could see the logic in his absence from the spotlight, particularly as they needed eyes in Jianghu anyway. That being as it was, there was no way he could leave behind the few remaining members of Four Seasons Pavilion in the viper’s nest that was the capital. He had brought his sect here to try to protect them and abandoning them to the shadow game at this point was beyond what he was capable of. “I do have one request. I would take my disciples with me to return to Four Seasons Manor.”

In any other circumstance, Zishu would never have thought to make such a request, but his mind had been filled with dreams of escape, with images of Prince Jing Beiyuan’s pleading eyes, for months now, and the words fell from his lips before he could think of a more diplomatic way to put it. Unsurprisingly, the careless words lit a spark of fury in his cousin.

“Absolutely not. Does my cousin think to abandon me now? How dare you!” Zhou Zishu dropped to his knees and saluted Helian Yi, barely feeling the hard stones under him as he knelt.

“Begging my Prince’s forgiveness. I do not mean offense. I am not abandoning you.” Zishu made and discarded a hundred excuses for why he should take his sect with him back to Jianghu before landing on one Helian Yi would be hard pressed to deny. “Only, with the current instability in the Martial Sects, it would make the most sense for a sect leader to be returning to try to reestablish his own sect. I would need my disciples with me in order to do so.”

It was clear to anyone at a glance that the prince did not appreciate the logic in this argument. He stood slowly and approached the kneeling assassin, staring down at him with sparks dancing in his dark eyes. Zhou Zishu was well-aware of his cousin’s temper, a quickfire anger that had only worsened after Jing Beiyuan’s disappearance with the Shamanet. He was also aware that if he caved to that temper now and left his sect behind, there would be nobody left when he came back. Helian Yi had become viciously jealous of the attention of those few close to him in recent months and the disciples of Four Seasons Pavilion had become the first targets for any displeasure often. Twice now Zishu had had to intercept punishment intended for Qin Jiuxiao and take it himself. It had gotten to the point where Zishu had commanded that no disciple be alone if they could at all afford it.

“What insurance do I have of your return if you leave with those people?” Helian Yi snarled down at Zishu, still not allowing him to rise from his posture. “You think I don’t know about their whispers of returning to Jianghu? Of leaving this all behind? Do you think me a fool?”

Truthfully, Zishu had heard no such whispers. His disciples would never dare question his decision to remain in the capital as head of Tian Chuang. They might murmur to each other longingly of bygone days, but those words would be kept carefully away from their stoic leader. For all the jealousy the Crown Prince might feel towards the members of Four Seasons Pavilion, the reality was much more bittersweet. The disciples respected Zhou Zishu, they would follow his commands, but there was no love between them. Not anymore. Zishu was aware of this. He could hardly blame them.

“My loyalty is to you, my Prince. I will return once my men have deemed the situation under control.” He said nothing of his disciples. Ideally, if he could establish them well enough, he could leave the Manor under the command of Uncle Bi and allow them to rinse their hands of him entirely. Helian Yi might suspect that, but Zhou Zishu was willing to bet that the sect no longer residing in the capital would be seen as a bonus to the prince.

“Why should I believe that? You’re a liar and a murderer by profession.” Zishu kept his face carefully blank, the words were nothing but the truth though they felt as though they had pierced his skin like needles. That hadn’t always been the case. Or maybe it had been. Maybe he had always been a wolf hiding under the skin of a sheep and Helian Yi had simply made him take the sheepskin off. “I want insurance. A way to prove you will return to me or the sect stays here. This is my final word on the matter.”

“You are aware of the location of Four Seasons Manor. Thirty-two disciples and myself would hardly be enough to defend a small estate from the Crown Prince and his forces. There is nowhere in Jianghu I could hide from you.” This was not technically true, but there was nowhere he could hide his sect from the prince’s reach and that was what really mattered. Zhou Zishu had kept his eyes respectfully lowered throughout this exchange, refusing to meet the eyes of the prince towering above him, but now he coolly did so. His stare was bitterly frigid and full of the kind of icy rage that perfectly complimented his cousin’s hellfire temper. “Surely this is enough insurance for you, your highness.”

“If I have to seek you out, Zhou Zishu, death will be a mercy your disciples will beg for.” Helian Yi stated, his rage finally cooling slightly at the sight of Zishu’s own anger. “And you will bear witness to all of it.”

“It will not be necessary. I will acquire what information there is on the actions of Ghost Valley and return once Tian Chuang has ascertained the weakness in our information networks.” Zishu replied calmly. This had been a battle that he had won, but he knew the war was only just beginning. Earning his sect the right to leave the capital city only gave them the smallest chance at successfully escaping. They had failed at maintaining their position in Jianghu before, it could very well happen again. Zishu had failed his sect before. He refused to do so again.