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Chapter 8

                Travelling with Wen Kexing after he stopped trying to escape or drug him every time Zhou Zishu relaxed his guard for more than a handful of minutes was both better and worse. Better because at least he no longer had to be concerned he was going to run out of antidotes or clever plans to divert the crazy asshole he had started to think of as a friend, but worse because now there was one less thing preventing Zishu from entertaining the idea of a friendship with Kexing.

                This is a job, Zishu reminded himself for what seemed like the hundredth time as he trailed Kexing through the buzzing market of Nan He. They had arrived in the early afternoon and, rather than spending the day relaxing in a quiet restaurant, Kexing had insisted on perusing the many wares available in the waterfront city. It was endlessly endearing, and it really should not have been. He was following Wen Kexing for a job. One hundred and one.

                It seemed like the sort of notion that should be easier to hold on to. The man was the Master of a hive of literal murderers, rapists, and traitors. He could only be the worst of those to be able to rule them. But then, Zhou Zishu hardly had any ground to stand on there. He was an assassin by profession in the employ of a man only one step short of plotting the downfall of the current emperor. There were few who could count themselves as being literal traitors to that high an order.

                Perhaps that was why it was so hard to keep in mind that nothing Kexing did should be anything other than material to hold over his head. Certainly, the more Zishu knew about the man, the better he would be able to manipulate him and finally get some information out of him. He had even started trying to do just that. Just because he had left Four Seasons Manor did not mean his duty to Helian Yi ended. He still had to send his reports. He was still expected to uncover what Ghost Valley was after.

                And, worse, Helian Yi seemed to have uncovered some sort of information on his own. He had not seen fit to pass it on to his spymaster, but it had been strongly insinuated in his most recent missive that whatever was inciting Ghost Valley could prove useful to the crown prince’s aspirations. And wasn’t that just excellent news? It would fit, for the powerful leader of a group of monsters to be seeking a way to expand his power, but it was not who Zishu had found Kexing to be.

                “A-Xu, quickly, look!” Said Master of monsters and ghosts was holding up two near-identical fan charms, comparing the tassels against the pale wood of his favorite accessory. “Which do you think looks better? I like them both, but I hardly need two.” He hardly needed one. Zhou Zishu had a hard time imagining how a tassel would make using the fan as a weapon any easier.

                “They look the same to me, why are you asking me?” But this was who Kexing had been for as long as they had known each other now. He was a paradox of quick wit and flirtatious charm that barely covered a bizarre amount of needy insecurity. Zishu had never seen him show that insecurity to anyone else, so perhaps it was just a ruse to try to get something out of the Manor Lord, but it was hard to believe that when the man hardly seemed to notice it in himself.

                Even now, as he pouted at Zishu and looked down at the charms before setting them both back down and wandered further down the street, Kexing gained nothing from acting like this. Zishu was not the sort to pity those who acted in a childish manner and Kexing had never struck him as the sort who wanted pity, even in the pursuit of his goals. He was too prideful for such underhanded methods.

                So, if not seeking the same powerful artifact that had attracted Helian Yi’s interest, then what? Why had Wen Kexing broken the laws regarding Ghost Valley to wage war with Jianghu? And why had he seemed to abandon that war to make a nuisance of himself at Four Seasons Manor?

                Zishu was very tired of his thoughts chasing themselves in endless circles. It seemed every day he added a new option for Kexing’s goals and removed none. Perhaps it would be easier to simply ask the man. The worst he could do was play dumb and he already did that all the time anyway.

                Zhou Zishu realized he was losing his wayward travelling companion as he contemplated this, so he hurriedly paid for one of the silly fan charms and tucked the trinket in his sleeve before following after the retreating teal figure. He refused to examine the why of his choice to purchase the item too deeply. Kexing was already going to be insufferable when he was given the ornament without Zishu letting himself place any undue importance on it.

 

--

 

                As expected, Wen Kexing could never let any good act go unpunished.

                “I knew my husband loved me!” He exclaimed. He was already pulling out his fan and attaching the dark red tassel to it. Zishu had to admit the red contrasted very nicely with the teal robes the peacock had chosen for the day, but he was not telling Kexing as much. His ego needed no inflating.

                “What love? What husband?” Zishu muttered, barely bothering to argue. Arguing with the constant fountain of nonsense Kexing was capable of spouting was a fool’s errand. He instead focused on deciding if he wanted to eat more of the pork belly or if he was full and ready to demolish the pot of wine. Kexing had only ordered one for some reason, so his punishment for the husband comment was going to be going without alcohol this meal.

                They had chosen to eat at an inn but were not going to spend the night in Nan He. The Mirror Lake Sect was too close and, with all the recent attacks targeting the Five Lakes Alliance, neither of them wanted to risk getting caught up in the madness. Or, rather, Zhou Zishu didn’t want to risk getting caught up in the madness and Wen Kexing could hardly risk his identity being uncovered by the unfortunate happenstance of some little ghost calling him Guzhu in front of Zishu.

                “Ah, divorce already? Has this wife been so unsatisfactory?” Kexing gave Zishu what he probably thought was a sultry look, but with the joyous grin still stretching his lips it was more like unhinged.

                “Don’t look at me like that, you look like you’re going to eat my soul.” This had the predictable effect of turning the grin into a pout. That only lasted a bare second before Kexing was sliding closer, and they were already too close for propriety. Had the man never heard of personal space?

                “There are other things I’d be willing to eat, if there’s an offer.”

                “There’s not. Get off, you ever-present burr.” As soon as Zishu had relaxed his guard for a second to refill his cup, Kexing had forgone all politesse in favor of clinging directly to his sleeve.

                “A-Xu, how cold!” Never one to be dissuaded, the leach held on and cuddled closer even as Zishu tried to tug his clothes free of Kexing’s grasping fingers.

                “Have you no shame? We’re in public.”

                “Does that mean I can do this in private?” Wen Kexing leered as he deliberately missed the point. In the days since he had stopped trying to run off at any given, or taken, opportunity, he had become almost unbearably sticky. Zishu thought it might be a new tactic to try to run him off, but if it was, it wasn’t going to work. He had too much experience dealing with over-perfumed clinging women in court to be put off by one shameless idiot with no sense of personal space.

                “No. Now get off, your in the way of my food.” Zishu swatted his companion away and made sure to scoot the jar of wine firmly onto his side of the table in the same motion. If Kexing insisted on being a pest, he could go without wine.

                “Don’t lie, A-Xu, I know you’re done eating.” Despite his words, Kexing did sit up more correctly. “And how could one such as I ever be in the way?”

                “That’s easy. By constantly invading my space given half a chance.” Zishu griped back at the smirking monster. Served him right for buying the damn tassel. He should have just ignored the weird melancholy mood, now he was paying the price. At least the wine Kexing had ordered was good.

                “Are you saying a strong martial artist like you couldn’t keep me out of your space if you really wanted?” He had a point, but Zishu was not willing to let him know that. Bad enough he already seemed to be able to guess Zhou Zishu’s moods and actions.

                Before Zishu had to think up a cunning rejoinder to turn the tide of the conversation back to why Kexing thought it was appropriate to try climbing his robes in the first place, the assassin heard a whisper of cloth brush entirely too close to his back.

                The inn they had chosen to eat at was popular and busy, so they had been forced to accept the table that was available rather than one that granted Zishu a more comfortable position with his back to a solid wall or pillar. It hadn’t been a problem till now as the table was far enough from the flow of traffic that few were passing back and forth behind them but having someone come within touching distance of his open back made every hair on his neck stand on end.

                As though sensing the tension suddenly filling his companion, the teasing grin slid off of Kexing’s face, replaced by a cool glare.

                “Apologies, young master. I hardly noticed you there.” The voice was soft and sweet, it would have been completely unremarkable if not for the fact the Kexing was still glaring at the intruder as though he had approached with a drawn sword.

                “Now that you have noticed, young master,” the polite address dripped like venom from Kexing’s tongue and Zishu found himself furrowing his brow in a confused frown at him. Wen Kexing was often standoffish towards strangers, but he maintained a certain level of propriety that allowed him to just pass as polite for the most part. This tone all but screamed that the stranger was one wrong word away from getting into a fight. “I suggest you find somewhere else to eat.”

                “I-, Excuse me, sir, but, might I know what I have done to offend you?” Zhou Zishu was curious as well. He knew Kexing had not sprung fully formed from the firmament in front of Four Seasons Manor, but to have so obvious a grudge with some stranger in Nan He seemed out of character for the man he had come to know.

                “Nothing at all, Zhang-xiong. We’ve never met. How could you have offended me?” Kexing replied with what read like easy candor but sounded like a slight. The name struck Zishu though and he finally turned from trying to read the cool disdain on Kexing’s face to glance at their erstwhile intruder. Zishu knew the names of most of the immediate families of the Five Lakes Alliance brothers, though only Zhang Yusen had any legitimate sons to carry on his lineage. This must be one of the three boys; he was much too young to be Zhang Yusen himself. Strange that Kexing could recognize him by face alone.

                “You have me at a disadvantage, young master. Might I know whom I am addressing?” It was obvious to Zishu that Kexing wanted to tell this man his name about as much as he wanted to take his dagger and stab it into his own leg.

                “Wen. Wen Kexing.” The name seemed positively wrenched through clenched teeth and Zishu momentarily worried that Kexing was going to break his own jaw. “But there’s no need to address me. We were just leaving.” That was news to Zishu, who had planned to enjoy the rest of his wine in the fading afternoon sun. But he could also see that Kexing was desperate to escape the presence of this man. Zishu may like bantering with him, but as the fan token from earlier had proven, seeing him actually upset was not on his list of things he enjoyed.

                “Indeed. We don’t want to lose anymore daylight than we must.” Zishu agreed quietly. He was unsurprised at the small jump his presence garnered from the Zhang child. He was very used to going unnoticed unless he called attention to himself and sitting next to the gaudy peacock that was Wen Kexing only enhanced that phenomenon.

                “Apologies, sir. I-“

                “Hardly noticed him there. Yes. You do seem to like repeating yourself as well.” Kexing half snarled. He was already starting to stand himself up, his imposing height forcing the Zhang child to back up several steps or else be forced to tilt his neck uncomfortably to continue the conversation. Zishu hurried to match Kexing and laid out the money for their meal as he stood as well.

                “Come, Lao Wen. There’s no sense starting a fight in a busy inn.” Zishu murmured under his breath, trusting that Kexing would hear him even in the noisy restaurant space they were standing in. It sometimes seemed as though Kexing would hear him even if he were across town and only mumbled his name.

                “Young masters! Wait!” Kexing was already sweeping out of the building, avoiding people and tables with a grace that belied the heat that was evident on his face. Zishu wouldn’t have struggled to keep up, but he wasn’t given an option either way as the trailing edge of his pale blue outer robe was swept up in a tight fist and dragged along with his furious companion.       

                Unfortunately for everyone involved, the Zhang child did not know how to leave well enough alone. Zhou Zishu wanted to turn and yell at him that Kexing leaving without picking a fight was already showing a great amount of self-restraint.

                “Zhang-gongzi, I think it would be wise for you to return to your original plans for the afternoon.” Zishu stated, half turning towards the trailing young man. He could understand why the young master of a respectable sect would want to know why he was getting berated for walking around in an inn by an apparent stranger, but this was the wrong stranger to demand answers from. Kexing had not turned back or released his hold on Zishu’s sleeve. His fingers were tightening and loosening on the fabric, straining the material to the edge of its endurance before relaxing again and again.

                “Please, I can’t have a grudge of unknown origin staining the honor of my sect. It would be a black mark against my father.” The boy couldn’t be more than sixteen. It was almost painful to look at that face of shining innocence and naivete, demanding to set straight a record he knew nothing about. Did Zishu believe himself that upright and just at that age? Taking on the lineage his shifu had left him in charge of, had he chased down wounded honor to ensure the reputation of a doomed sect?

No, not doomed. Four Seasons Pavilion was reestablished in their ancestral manor and it was only a matter of time before Zishu managed to turn Helian Yi’s interest away from it. He had to believe that.

It was just so easy to see Jiuxiao shining with wounded pride and looking unjustly wronged in this child standing before them now. There seemed to be no way that Zishu had once been like this even in the distant past before Qin Huaizhang died. But. He could remember his childhood. It was like remembering the memories of a different person.

“Your father can stand a black mark on his name.” Kexing fairly snarled. Something about the idea of Zhang Yusen had set him off and Zishu forced himself back to the present moment and present company. He didn’t believe Wen Kexing would want to kill a child, even one who had evoked the amount of killing intent currently radiating off of him, but Zishu knew from experience that what a man would like to do and what a man was willing to do were very different things. “There’s no honor to be found among the dirty murderers calling themselves brothers in the Five Lakes Alliance, and so nothing to be stained by my grudge.”

“My father and uncles are not murderers! How dare you! I should have you taken in for a beating for daring to speak that way.” This was rapidly getting out of hand. Zhou Zishu was not concerned about the two of them escaping an altercation, but he would like to do it without turning the entirety of Jianghu on them.

Besides the dark words and clear violence Wen Kexing was radiating, the man also had his fan clenched in a tight grip, clearly prepared to shed blood if pressed. Killing a son of one of the leaders of the largest martial alliance in Jianghu was a recipe for disaster.

“Lao Wen, leave it. We were already on our way out of town, let’s just go.” Zishu hissed, grabbing onto the arm currently trembling around a grip on that fan. He felt the sudden spike in killing intent as the movement caught Kexing off-guard, but it was quickly suppressed.

“A-Xu…” The call of his name sounded off-beat from the rest of the encounter, uncertain and a little wobbly where before he had been nothing but confidence and rage. “I can’t just…he. They know what they did.”

“If this is about those stupid rumors, you can take back your words and I’ll leave it alone. My father and uncles had no part in stealing anything from Ghost Valley. Besides, the valley doesn’t have a piece of the armor anyway.” The Zhang child spat out.

Zishu was about to bow out gracefully, accepting the easy out that let them leave and made it so Kexing didn’t have to back down from his righteous fury, before the end of the sentence struck him. This was the second time someone had mentioned something like a key or armor in regard to Ghost Valley and this time from someone who was close enough to the direct damage to potentially have some insight into what it was and why it was important.

His curiosity was piqued. He had sent a brief report to Helian Yi that morning about the rumor he had heard about the theft of a key from the Valley Master, not bothering to mention his suspicion that it was all rumor and myth designed to turn the eye from something else. If the Crown Prince wanted to chase a fairytale, then he was free to do so and nothing Zhou Zishu wrote was going to change his actions anyway. But this, someone related to one of the leaders of the Five Lakes Alliance talking about this thing as though it was real as skin and bone.

This rated some deeper investigation.

After he was done preventing Wen Kexing from killing the child and getting them both into a mess they would be hard pressed to get themselves out of.

“Save your talk of-“

“Thank you, young master. We appreciate the leniency and will be on our way.” Zhou Zishu cut Kexing off before he could proceed into another tirade. He ignored the offended glare he received for his troubles as well, instead focusing on grabbing a handful of teal robes and half dragging his sometimes friend away. Bowing would have been more polite, but he could guess that getting Kexing to even nod would be a fool’s errand.

“Zhou Zishu! What are you doing? Let me go!”

“So that you can run back there and get into an even bigger fight with a child?” Zishu retorted. “You think he will give you the answer you’re looking for? Will killing him give you the satisfaction you want?”

Kexing’s mouth flapped silently for a second before a bitter scowl twisted up those pretty features. It was endlessly amazing how expressive the man was, how every emotion wrote itself loud across his face. Right now though, it was just frustrating. Wen Kexing looked stubborn and hateful and aggrieved. It was an expression that did not bode well for Zishu being able to keep him from running back to start another fight.

“If you think killing a teenager over anger you have towards his father will make everything better for you, I will let you go.” It was a guess, though Zhou Zishu felt it was a good one. He really couldn’t see a child as honorable and upright as the one who had confronted them doing something dark enough to fill the well of hate Kexing was carrying with him. The father, though. People in power attained that power, in Zishu’s experience, in only one way. Whether the crime was fraud or espionage or assassination, those in power cared little for the people they stepped on to get to that place.

“It’s not your place.” The words sounded like glass torn from an unwilling throat. As though screaming for a few minutes at the Zhang child had torn Kexing’s vocal cords bloody. “You had no right.”

“If my place is beside you, then I think I had at least some right to decide whether we go to war with all of Jianghu.” The words tore out of Zishu’s mouth before he could think them through. He found himself shocked at the emotionality, but more at how true they were. How many years had it been since he had stood beside someone had felt as though he belonged there? How strange to find that belonging at the side of the master of Ghost Valley.

For a minute they simply stood gaping at each other. Kexing put on the back foot as much as Zishu. How did one respond to such a declaration? Kexing was the type of person who liked to escalate every situation he was in, but where was there to go from such a raw statement?

“A-Xu,” The return to the nickname soothed a burn of emotion Zishu had hardly noticed he was feeling. “You, you can’t just. I have thought of you as my zhiji. But you, you already have a place you belong.”

“You’ve been there. Does it seem like I belong?” For Zhou Zishu, it sometimes felt as though he had stopped having a place in the Four Seasons Manor the day he took up the mantle of sect leader. That day had not been the one when everything changed, but it marked the end of the halcyon days of his youth. Every step he had taken since that moment trying to preserve the legacy entrusted to him and failing at every corner, it would seem. “You call me zhiji, but you don’t know me Lao Wen.”

“How can I not know you? We may have only met recently, but…” Wen Kexing’s pause spoke volumes, an indefinable gulf of secrets neither of them had spoken out loud. Then, suddenly, something resolved behind uncertain eyes. It was as though Kexing had made a decision he had been wavering on for days. “You think just because you’re a killer, that there is innocent blood on your hands, that I can’t know what your soul is made of and say we share the same base material?”

Zishu reeled back as though struck, releasing the grip on Kexing’s sleeve he only just now noticed he had been clutching at this whole time. Kexing only tilted his chin up stubbornly, refusing to back down now that he had taken on this gambit. The ringing in his ears was threatening again, a half-echo of the day so recently where he lost time after losing his sect.

Kexing could not possibly know the gravity of what he had said. There was no way he could know enough about Tian Chuang to put together that Zishu was a part of it, much less its leader. But that still meant the stain that made every person he had called brother stare at him as though he was a stranger was visible even to someone whom he had barely known two months.

Zishu had no words to answer the accusation laid at his feet, all of his focus going into just remaining present as his consciousness sought to drift as it seemed to do more and more frequently lately. Kexing, too, now that the words had been spoken, seemed to have finally run out of things to say. So they stood there, staring at each other, as Zishu struggled not to simply let the ringing carry him away again.