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Luck, for once, was with Zhou Zishu and the pair of them made good time in getting from Qishan to the nearest city large enough to have a real marketplace. Hedian was only just large enough to justify the name of city over town, but it was big enough to have a market where they would be able to purchase horses and the supplies to keep them cared for until they reached Nan He.

They arrived in time to find a horse master with a pair of mares that would do the job of seeing them out of Kun and into the Five Lakes district, but by the time they were done haggling with the man as well as arranging for feed and saddles, the sun was low on the horizon and Wen Kexing was making complaining noises about having to leave a town with plenty of inns in favor of sleeping on the dirt again.

Rather than getting into another argument with the man, and not at all because the idea of a bed and a bath sounded excellent for all that they had only been sleeping on the road for two days now, Zhou Zishu simply agreed.

The inn they found was in a quieter part of the city, off the beaten path of most travelers, and as such, came with the added benefit of a staff that was simply happy to have two more rooms booked for the evening. Zishu had considered keeping the both of them in a single room, well aware that as soon as he took his eyes off his wayward companion, Kexing was going to take the opportunity to make a run for it. But, the idea of sharing a room and possibly a bed with the chatterbox was enough for him to decide hunting him down the next day would be worth the effort.

At least he would have good night’s sleep to do it on.

 

--

 

                As expected, when Zhou Zishu rose from bed and meandered into the inn’s public space, he was informed the Wen Kexing had gotten up with the sun and left. The innkeeper had the same haggard look in her eyes that Zishu had seen many of his disciples exhibit after being forced to deal with the tidal force that was Kexing on a mission, so he could only assume that the man had been his usual self.

                It was a little funny, the assassin thought, as he saddled up his horse and estimated the path his prey would take to put as much distance between them as quickly as possible, that a man who seemed to do nothing but flirt and pout and cajole Zhou Zishu could be so incredibly off-putting to just about everyone else he encountered. If Kexing used half his charm to interact with everyone else, he would be an unstoppable force. Instead, he seemed to have made it his mission to make sure everyone he dealt with was simultaneously afraid and irritated by him.

                Except with Zhou Zishu himself. Was that only because the Valley Master wanted something from him? In the months he had stayed at Four Seasons Manor, the exuberant idiot had never done much more than some basic snooping around. Zishu would have noticed if he had snuck into either his rooms or the study, and the disciples would have informed him if Kexing was asking impertinent questions. Four Seasons Pavilion was largely removed from the rest of Jianghu, especially after their extended absence while in the capital, so there was no reason why they would be included in Ghost Valley’s plans for the rest of the Martial Sects.

                Well, this road trip would be a perfect opportunity to finally fish out some information from the recalcitrant escapee.

                After Zishu was done chasing him down.

                Of course, of the two of them, Zhou Zishu had grown up in Kun and knew the lay of the roads and how they bent and twisted as they meandered from town to town on their way to the Five Lakes. Kexing would have chosen the closest road out of town rather than waste time trying to find more circumspect modes of leaving, and that road curved sharply only a few miles away from Hedian. It was one of a dozen switchback turns on that road and the perfect place for an interception.

                The face Wen Kexing made as he came around the bend only to encounter the man he thought over an hour behind him was, he had to admit, extremely gratifying. Wide shocked eyes that immediately narrowed in confusion and frustration, a gaping mouth that moved a few times as though forming words that never attained sound, long fingers going white knuckled on the reins clutched in them.

                Yes, that more than made up for having to cut through over a mile of undergrowth to the stretch of road Zishu had estimated his quarry would be passing by next.

                “Lao Wen, you should have woken me!” He greeted cheerfully as the other man slowly urged his horse up to where the sect leader was waiting. “I would so hate to be the cause of delays in your return to your calling after all.”

                “Ha, I could hardly wake this beauty from his rest.” The flirtation that normally slipped so seamlessly from the pretty mouth was stilted now. Zishu could see Kexing’s eyes darting up the road and then trailing over the expanse of wooded wilderness on either side. It was easy to read the calculation there, trying to find a way to rid himself of Zishu’s presence once again. “A-Xu-“

                Zishu didn’t let him finish. It was only going to be more nonsense excuses to try to send the assassin back to his sect. “This is a dangerous road for a lone healer, I would feel responsible if something were to happen to you.” They were both well-aware that Kexing could more than defend himself but claiming so would only weaken his already paper-thin reasoning for even being at Four Seasons Manor in the first place.

                “How generous, Lord Zhou. How will this one ever repay your kindness?” Kexing all but gritted out. The tension in his tall frame finally seemed to snap and he slumped slightly. “I suppose it does not harm to have a companion at least as far as Nan He.”

                “How magnanimous.” It was possibly the coldest Kexing had sounded in their entire acquaintance.

 

--

 

                Zhou Zishu is not sure whether to be annoyed or amused by the following three days of escape attempts. They are nothing if not creative, but he’s not very fond of tasting a mild sedative in his wine while he’s trying to eat dinner. After that one, Zishu had to sit Wen Kexing down and clarify what he meant by ‘accompany’.

                “I’m not going to be much of a travel companion if I’m unconscious, Lao Wen.” The man did not look remorseful except in the way that he regretted not getting away with it.

                “I maintain, I have no idea how that could have slipped into your drink, A-Xu.” Wen Kexing was a liar, and a bad one at that. How did he survive this long as the leader of a valley of ghosts?

                “If I pretend to believe you, will you stop trying to drug me?” Zhou Zishu had brought his usual apothecary of antidotes and poisons on this trip, but he had not made plans for travelling with someone intent on poisoning him every time he sat down to eat. He was vigilant about his food and drink, but even an assassin had to sleep.

                Kexing looked petulant. “I still say the server looked very shifty; he was probably the one who did it.” But the man sighed with a deeply aggrieved air before agreeing.

 

--

 

                “I still say that if the technique can be adapted for use with knives, it should be able to be adapted for use with a fan.” Kexing argued, waving his chopsticks at Zhou Zishu as though that would prove his point and not just prove that no one had ever taught him proper table manners. Zishu himself put his eating utensils down before demonstrating the grip with his now empty hand.

                “There’s no way to make the backwards grip work with a fan. A knife still has a hilt like a sword, but an edged fan would get caught, it doesn’t have a large enough handle to grip onto.” They had been having this argument for the last few minutes, a natural progression from their starting discussion of the pretty, but not altogether practical sword techniques of the Mirror Lake Sect.

They were approaching Nan He much more quickly now that Kexing was not constantly trying to escape, and Zhou Zishu was not having to avoid his increasingly insane plots. As such, they had decided to break for lunch at an actual travel stop rather than eat a fast meal of travel rations on the road. Zishu could not say he was regretting the decision either, much as he wished he could.

“I’ve made less suitable techniques work well for a fan, I don’t see why this one can’t be configured for it as well.” Kexing finally put down his chopsticks in favor of pulling out his favored weapon and flipping it open with an elegant flick of his wrist. Some part of Zishu was aware that a crowded roadside restaurant was not the ideal place for someone to be practicing his martial arts, but a larger part was genuinely interested to see if Kexing could make the Mirror Lake sect’s sword style work for him.

“I had noticed your martial style is all over the place. What sect did you study under?” Zishu doubted there was a single sect that could claim Kexing as their disciple, but he was curious if there was a sect that Wen Kexing would claim as his.

                The full mouth that had previously been tense in concentration twisted in disgust, as though the very thought of calling himself the disciple of a righteous sect had left a bad taste in his mouth. “I’ve learned a few techniques here and there as well as some pieces of what my father could teach. If it seems exceptional, it’s only because it owes allegiance to no one school.”

                Zhou Zishu had no reason to doubt that Wen Kexing’s martial arts were the product of collecting bits and pieces of techniques from various sources, but to suggest that that was not exceptional was bold lie. Few could make even a single style so seamless and clean, but to blend many divergent styles and create a technique so profoundly powerful it often put even Zishu on the defensive when they sparred, that took a kind of skill that many Martial Sects would kill to have at their disposal.

                “Lao Wen, I think you may downplay your abilities. What audience do you hope to convince?” A layman might take him at his word. A prideful disciple of a well known Jianghu sect might look down on him for not being from some well-established clan. But Zishu had sparred with Kexing quite a few times in the last couple months, he had seen firsthand how elegant and overwhelming his martial arts could be when he had a mind to put forth the effort.

                Wen Kexing’s reply was cut off by a sudden burst of conversation from the table directly behind them. As usual, rather than sit across from him like any normal person, Kexing had chosen to perch on the bench beside Zishu, leaving their backs to the majority of the pavilion, but with an easy view of the road from both directions.

                “How dare you! You know nothing of what we have gone through since the attacks began!” The speaker all but screamed at his companions. Zishu stilled himself, not turning completely, but tilting his head to the side to try and catch a glimpse of who was causing the disturbance.

                “What you’ve gone through? The Five Lakes Alliance is the cause behind these attacks! You think no one has heard what set the Valley off in the first place?” Apparently, the companions were no longer interested in this being a private conversation either, the next easily raising his voice to match the first shouter. It was easy enough to guess the probable identity of the first man. Although greatly diminished in numbers, there were still a few members of the Danyang sect floating around, intent on avenging themselves on the Ghost Valley.

                “What excuse does a valley of murderers need to incite violence? They’re all devils anyway! They should have never been allowed to continue to exist!” The first man screamed back, failing to acknowledge the point his cohort was making. Zishu was less interested in the continued anger at Ghost Valley, everyone was aware that the Five Lakes Alliance was currently in talks to determine whether calling a Hero’s Conference would be worth the possible escalation in tensions with the Valley.

                “So you’re just going to ignore me? Ignore the fact that the Alliance is the one that stole from the Valley Master in the first place?” Now that was new information. Zishu glanced back at Kexing, noting the tight grip his friend had on his fan. His knuckles were almost white from the hard grip. Odd. It couldn’t be new information for him. If someone in the Five Lakes Alliance had stolen something from Ghost Valley, the Valley Master would hardly be unaware of it.

                Was the rumor false? Or was there something else about this conversation that was setting Kexing on edge.

                “What could anyone possibly want from that place? What is there to steal?” A third voice that had previously stayed out of the escalating argument broke in. Convenient, it was one of the questions Zishu wanted answered. What could the richest martial alliance in Jianghu want from the destitute Ghost Valley?

                “I’m not sure what exactly it was. I only heard…” And here Zishu had to strain his ears slightly, the shouting match finally falling back to a conversational level. “That it was a key of some sort. A key that could open the door to some great power.”

                Zhou Zishu slumped in his seat. Great. A false lead. He hoped this wasn’t the rumor Helian Yi was chasing. A fairytale of power without cost was always tempting to men who felt like they deserved more than they already had, but they were always just tales. What a waste of time.

                “A key to power, A-Xu. How interesting!” Kexing was smiling with too many teeth, his eyes still as hard and flat as they had been when he was still half snarling at the overheard conversation.

                “If you’re interested in such things, don’t bother including me. I have no desire for hoards of wealth or power.” Zhou Zishu had only one thing he wanted anymore and no key to a magic door was going to be able to give it to him. If Helian Yi ordered him to find it, he would look, but that was as far as he was willing to go.

                Kexing looked surprised at the unimpressed response. Zishu couldn’t fathom why. In the time they had known each other, he had never presented himself as the sort of person who was interested in anything so material as fairytale honey traps.

                “All the power in the world could be at your fingertips and you’re not interested?” The infuriating man pushed.

                “What use would I have for all the power in the world? Three meals a day, sunshine, and good wine. That’s enough.” Even that much sometimes seemed like more than he could hope for, but if he could live to a point where he could enjoy a couple years quietly enjoying those simple things, that would be enough.

                Something of his sincerity must have shown on his face or in his eyes because Kexing backed down, nodding with an understanding that was a little too real.

                “Well, we have food, sunshine and wine here, A-Xu!” The dark mood seemed to be gone as suddenly as it had fallen. A storm cloud passing over Kexing’s normal sunshine expression. “Let’s drink!”