Zhou Zishu was quick to determine that Zhang Chengling had a minor concussion. It was the only explanation for the lack of fear and worry the child had at being stolen from his home in the dead of night. In fact, Chengling seemed unworried about every aspect of his rather traumatic evening.
He was content to allow Wen Kexing to look him over and examine his meridians. He was happy to answer questions regarding how he was abducted and by whom. He was not even a little worried about the two strange men who claimed to have rescued him. He took their word at face value and thanked them. He even generously suggested that they should return to his home so his father could thank them personally.
One look at the disdain on Wen Kexing’s face was enough to tell Zishu that they would not be accepting the hospitality of Zhang Yusen in the future.
“I don’t know who the man was. He seemed familiar though. Like I’d seen him before somewhere.” Chengling was explaining to Zishu as Kexing bustled around by the fire. The fish they had intended for dinner were ruined, but they had enough travel bread and dried meat to put together a small meal. “But why would he take me? Wouldn’t my older brothers be better to take?”
Spoken like a true child, Zhou Zishu thought wearily. A youngest son who was likely the apple of his father’s eye and the sweet little pet of his mother was the best sort of target for what he suspected the child kidnapper had in mind. Zhang Chengfeng, the oldest son and teenager that Wen Kexing had tried to fight just today, would be too much of a challenge to easily sneak away. Zhang Chengluan, the second son, might have been an equally good target, but Chengling had admitted that the boy was already making great strides in his martial arts. At eight years old and small for his age, Chengling had not even begun studying his sect’s sword style. Combined with the favor he would have as a youngest child, there was no more ideal target.
“Silly child, why would the fox go after the quick, smart hare when the silly little bunny wanders right into its den?” Wen Kexing said. He had apparently finished his small meal preparations enough to take interest in the conversation once again, handing a portion to Zishu and offering Chengling some as well, though the offer was turned down.
Truthfully, there was little enough information to be gleaned from Chengling’s barebones retelling of his hectic night. He had been in his room, taking a small nap before the evening meal. The kidnapper must have whisked him away while he was asleep as he only realized what was happening after they were already on the other side of the lake and headed quickly away from town.
He had tried to fight, arguing with the child snatcher and calling out for help, but had been knocked back out just as quickly once he started screaming. From there, it was simply the progression of events Zishu and Kexing had been there for.
Zishu had hoped that Chengling would recognize his kidnapper, but whoever had hired or coerced the teenager into stealing away the youngest son of a famous martial sect had been smart enough to send a stranger. It didn’t rule out the likelihood of the true mastermind behind the plot being someone related to the Zhangs unfortunately. In fact, that still seemed the most likely scenario. Someone who would know who to target, where they were likely to be, and how to strike with enough familiarity to almost get away with it.
In fact, except for the happenstance of Zishu and Kexing being the proximity, Chengling would currently be in the clutches of whoever wanted him in the first place. It put them in an awkward spot.
The best thing to do would be to take the kid back to his family and leave it at that. Every part of Zhou Zishu wanted to do that. He had enough trouble on his hands dealing with Wen Kexing and trying to wheedle enough information from the man to keep Helian Yi happy. Dragging a child people would be looking for around with them would be too much.
But Wen Kexing had gotten into an altercation with Zhang Yusen’s oldest son just hours ago. He would be the first suspect for the kidnapping, a suspicion that would also implicate Zhou Zishu by sheer proximity. If they trotted up the front gates of the Mirror Lake Sect with the missing young master, at best they would be detained for interrogation.
Zishu glanced at Kexing, reading the same hesitation and frustration he was currently feeling in those expressive eyes. The Mirror Lake Sect was true to its name and situated in the middle of a large lake. There was little chance the two of them would be able to enter, drop the kid off, and exit without being noticed or stopped, particularly with likely the whole sect on high alert after Chengling’s kidnapping. They could drop the child off in town and hope he made it to his home safely, but Zishu expected the kidnappers would be only too happy to pluck their prize back up if it was meandering alone again.
Which left, what? Take him with them? And then what? Zhou Zishu was following the Ghost Valley Master to what was in all likelihood Mount Qingya on a fool’s errand of picking out his secrets. He had every expectation that it was only a matter of time before Helian Yi sent him a missive demanding his return to the capital with concrete information on Ghost Valley, the artifact he had started searching for, or the ghost master’s head. Possibly all three of those things.
They couldn’t take the child with them.
He could hardly leave him behind, either.
He waited until Zhang Chengling had fallen asleep by the fire before turning to Wen Kexing with the question of what to do with the boy.
“I know you’ve already thought of the options.” Zishu stated wearily. He disliked the look of consideration Kexing had been giving to their young rescue. Not because it seemed laced with greed or violence, but because he had seen the same expression on his face when he was about to make mischief. “Just tell me what you’re thinking and be done with it.”
The silence was absolutely more troubling than the usual chatter. If Kexing was being quiet, recently it meant he was about to put a sedative in Zhou Zishu’s wine. That seemed unlikely at the moment, but it was still a face that foretold trouble.
“We can’t take him back. He won’t last an hour in town on his own.” Kexing hummed thoughtfully, repeating the same conclusion Zhou Zishu had already drawn. “Really, the only option is to bring him along. Or, I suppose we could just leave it to fate and drop him off in town anyway. What’s the worst that could happen?”
Zishu rolled his eyes at the obvious jibe. He had killed children younger than Chengling, what did he care that boy might wind up the playing piece of some Jianghu political game?
Except that all the previous times he had set aside his conscience he had been under orders. It didn’t make him less guilty of the crimes, but there was something different about following through on his vow of loyalty and willfully choosing to abandon a child without any real cause.
“This decision would be made easier if we had a clue as to why someone wanted the boy in the first place. It seems a bit of a dangerous way to try to make money.” Kidnapping the beloved youngest son of a martial sect actually seemed like an incredibly dangerous way to make money. Even supposing you got away with it, you would now be one of the most wanted men in the country. There was no way you would be able to keep your loot.
Zishu was staring at Kexing. It had become something of a habit in the last few weeks, but currently it was the only reason he noticed the flash of guilt and resignation that passed over his features before disappearing again. In an instant, the other man had affixed a look of careful curiosity, but it was too late.
“You know. Or you expect.” Zishu whispered. He tried to parse how he felt about that before giving up such introspection as a bad job. It wasn’t as interesting or informative as the grimace that slashed Kexing’s mask of neutrality in half. “Why didn’t you say so? What do you know?”
He didn’t think Kexing could be behind the kidnapping. All the previous Ghost Valley attacks followed a predictable pattern of total or almost total annihilation. Whatever he wanted, Wen Kexing was content to obliterate the barriers between himself and his goal. Kidnapping a child didn’t follow with the rest of what Zhou Zishu had learned of the man anyway.
Kexing seemed to hesitate before admitting, “I…it’s not that simple. I don’t know for sure.” He fidgeted with his sleeves for a moment, an oddly insecure gesture from someone who always seemed entirely confidant in everything he did. “It could be something else. There’s plenty of reasons someone might steal a rich brat.”
“But there’s only one reason you think it happened here and like this.” Zishu stated with confidence. “Just tell me. I can’t decide what to do with the kid if I’m ignorant of why he needed to be saved in the first place.”
Which was true, but this was also the first time Kexing had revealed that he might have more information and involvement with Jianghu and the Five Lakes Alliance. It was an unignorably perfect opportunity to get more information from the recalcitrant man.
“This…” Kexing took a deep breath, clearly gearing himself up to admitting something he did not want to. He had stilled his hands, but was now staring blankly into the fire rather than at Zishu as was his usual custom. “This requires you to take some of what I say on faith. I can’t tell you everything going on, I don’t know everything going on. But…you remember the armor Zhang Chengfeng mentioned earlier today?”
Zishu nodded. It hadn’t been his focus during the altercation, too busy trying to make sure Wen Kexing didn’t get them both wanted for assault or murder, but his interest had been piqued by the comment.
“There is a rumor that started going around recently. That the armor is actually a key in five pieces. Five pieces held by the five brothers of the Five Lakes Alliance.” That had the sound of a half-truth. Zishu couldn’t say for sure why, but he could almost see the shape of the information Kexing was leaving out.
“A key to what? Why is this so important that you think someone would risk kidnapping this kid to ransom for just a piece of it?”
“Ha. According to the rumors, the key opens an armory that holds the secret to every martial art ever created.” The key to a myth then. Unfortunately, it was a myth that had reached the avaricious ears of the Crown Prince. It was too convenient, but when had that ever stopped Helian Yi from charging into things and damning the consequences? After all, he was never the one who had to pay the price. That duty most often fell to Zhou Zishu instead.
“Ridiculous. You think someone bought such a fairytale enough to risk this scheme?”
“I think this is the least someone might try with the prize they could win.” Kexing sighed. His face darkened with some memory or thought, the light from the fire seeming to vanish into the abyss in his eyes. “After all, if they succeed in opening the armory, no one would be able to hold them accountable anyway.”
That much was true. It also meant the chances of someone trying to grab Chengling again increased significantly. Even if it was just a fairytale with no basis of truth, it was clear from the rumors they’d heard and their fight with the Zhang heir that enough people knew the story to cause trouble.
“So we’re taking him with us.” A child had no business becoming the pawn in a grown-up game of power anyway.
“He’s such an innocent little thing. A-Xu, he won’t last a minute all alone.” Kexing had reverted back to his teasing lilt without so much as a flicker, but Zishu could see the tension still straining at his shoulders. The way the skin around his eyes was tight and the eyes themselves were blank and empty still, as well. Something about this whole situation was striking him deeply. He couldn’t decide if it was the innocent that had gotten caught up in this hunt for power or the hunt itself, but it was obviously deeply affecting him either way.
“You don’t need to convince me. We’ll just bring him along until we can find someone else to return him to his family. Maybe we could just drop him off with one of the other members of the alliance.” Zishu waved off the wheedling, not in the mood for that game. He was more interested in how Kexing knew enough about the current rumors in Jianghu and what his stake in the affair was. “More to the point, how have you gotten caught up in some internal power struggle with the Five Lakes Alliance. How would you have even heard these rumors at the Four Seasons Manor?”
“I said you would need to just trust me.” The aggravation in his tone was not feigned, but it also did not seem directed at Zishu. And, Zishu thought to himself, it would be easier to simply make up a convenient lie.
“I believe you. I just want to know how you’re involved in all of this, Lao Wen. How can I ask you to let a kid follow behind us when I don’t know your stake in this thing?”
Wen Kexing’s blank face contorted violently for a second before smoothing back out. “I don’t have a stake in anything. The dogs of Jianghu can keep the Glazed Armor and whatever treasure horde they think it unlocks. I don’t care.” He snarled, keeping his voice low enough to not disturb the child sleeping across from them. “All I care about is seeing them suffer.”
Vengeance had been one of the reasons Zishu had considered for why Ghost Valley had begun causing problems. It was a common enough story, but it had seemed too simple a reason. Besides that, it was not something a band of disparate evil doers were likely to coordinate to accomplish. He had discarded that idea early on, assuming something more in line with a treasure hunt or power play.
If it really was a story of revenge though, how had Kexing gotten the rest of the valley to play their part?
Ignorant of where Zishu’s thoughts were, Kexing continued, his tone softening until it almost sounded like pleading. “I really don’t know who set this ploy up. I don’t even know if I’m right. This could be unrelated. A-Xu-“
“Lao Wen.” Zishu interrupted him before he could devolve into whatever spiral he was falling into. “Enough, I believe you.”
It was foolish. It was ridiculous. It served no goal or plan. But it was true, at some point in the past couple months, Zhou Zishu had begun to trust Wen Kexing.
What absolute madness. Maybe Kexing’s brand of crazy was contagious.