Now that Wen Kexing had opened up this little bit about one of his secrets, it was as though he became even more incorrigible. He had never shown the least amount of interest in maintaining an appropriate distance or in behaving like a respectable person, but it had started with the obvious intent to push boundaries and test how Zhou Zishu would react.
His new determination to press into Zishu’s personal space at every given opportunity and sing his praises like the most costly of courtesans now had the ring of truth. He was uncertain he preferred this new turn. He could not deny that he preferred Kexing’s honesty and enjoyed his presence more than he was comfortable with, but it was alarming, being so seen and so constantly wanted.
When was the last time someone wanted his presence for more than what he could do for them? Kexing just genuinely enjoyed having him around, even as they had to edge around towns and keep a constant watch out for people hunting them down for the child they had rescued. He complained about it, to be sure, but with the cheerful edge of amusement that belied his annoyance.
The danger was that Zishu could not help thinking that it was nice. That it would be nice to keep doing this after they had saved A-Xiang. They could travel the world, drinking where they wanted, doing what they wanted. He could train Chengling and Kexing could raise his little sister. It sounded like a dream.
Of course, that was because it was a dream. Zhou Zishu had made his bed years before he had even met Wen Kexing. Nothing in the world could change the fact that Zishu was beholden to Helian Yi and owed Four Seasons Pavilion a blood debt he could never repay. Any chance of his future involving the lackadaisical travelling of a wanderer had been killed the day he had sworn his sword and life over in exchange for imperial protection for his sect. It had been killed with his first brother and every single one that had fallen after that.
Dreaming of a future that held anything other than blood, murder, and eventually a lonely death was only him fooling himself.
“A-Xu, you’re getting that look on your face again.” Kexing murmured in his ear. The fact that he was saying this quietly and not singing it out for the world to hear suggested that he was actually concerned. “Why are you thinking morbid thoughts? Is the day not beautiful enough for you?”
The day was lovely, balmy and clear with the sun shining brightly through the glade of trees they were traversing. Chengling was practicing the Swift Moving Steps in front of them, Zishu’s allowance towards being constantly called shifu. It was also because the child never seemed to run out of energy, and this was the only way he had managed to keep him quiet for longer than five minutes at a time.
“The day is fine. I was simply thinking about what we should expect once we reach Qingya.” He lied smoothly. Knowing Wen Kexing’s temperament, the man would object to the idea of Zishu returning to the capital to fight and die over the palace politics. “We will be in White Deer before sunset, we should start planning the extraction.”
It was easy to fall into the role of the leader of Tian Chuang, to distract himself with planning and plotting. It helped that entering Ghost Valley to retrieve one small girl would be a significant task even with how martially impressive the two of them were. Chengling would, of course, need to stay in White Deer while they did this, so that also meant that they had to work quickly. Leaving the child alone for more than a day was bound to lead to disaster.
Chengling was the sort of child that attracted trouble like a magnet.
Wen Kexing was suspiciously quiet as Zishu tried to probe for information about where the best entry point would be and where his sister was located. He brushed off all attempts to put together a suitable plan for how they were to handle extracting someone from Ghost Valley with just the two of them and under a tight time constraint.
“If I didn’t know better, I would think you are going to just wing it and dash into the Ghost Valley without any semblance of a plan.” Zishu said acidly after the third time Kexing mumbled something about Yama and accessibility. The information might have been useful if half the words hadn’t been lost to Kexing’s muttering and evasion.
“A-Xu! I would never!” The liar replied with admirably feigned offense. He even fluttered his fan in front of his chest as though wounded by the insinuation. “I have a plan, of course. I was simply admiring the way your mind works. Beautiful and smart, such a lucky catch I have for a zhiji.”
Zishu chose to ignore the blatant flattery. It didn’t affect him at all.
The slight heat rising to his cheeks was because it was rather warm today, and they had been walking for quite a while.
Kexing did not agree with that assessment. “You’re blushing!” He practically crowed, edging closer to peer into Zishu’s face even as he attempted to turn away. “Does this wife compliment you so infrequently that you blush at just being called beautiful?”
“Enough distractions. Just tell me your plan.” He snapped as he finally caved to Kexing’s determination to get a good look at his flaming cheeks. Looking straight into his eyes might have been a miscalculation.
“I’ll tell you when the time is right. Your part is easy to play.” Kexing said. His eyes never left Zishu’s, the emotion there was something he could not quite parse. The amusement and giddy joy were still dancing in the corners of his eyes, but there was something darker lurking at the edge. His smile was stretched just the smallest bit too far, a tense edge that spoke of some secret being kept behind clenched teeth. “There is only one way into Ghost Valley. Entering any way but from the front is as good as suicide.”
“Why will you not just tell me? What are you hiding?” Zishu queried. He wasn’t willing to get angry over this. In the end, he did trust Kexing’s judgement, and the Ghost Valley Master would know the best ways in and out of the valley. It was just that something about his evasive non-answers made Zishu’s skin crawl.
They sounded too much like subtle lies Zhou Zishu would tell his sect when he was making decisions that he knew they would disapprove of.
It felt like Kexing was backing away and removing himself the way Zishu had with the Four Seasons Pavilion.
“You’ll find everything out in less than a day, A-Xu. Can I not keep my secrets for that long?” The air between them had turned thick with tension, a sickening dread was already building in Zishu’s gut as Kexing softly asked for his trust once again while looking as though he expected nothing but a seething torrent of arguments.
Zishu refused to live up to those expectations. He did trust Kexing. Even when he was certain the man was making a choice he would not agree with.
“Alright, Lao Wen.” He took a deep breath and forced himself to relax from the tension that had been steadily building across his shoulders. “Alright. We’ll talk about it when the time comes.”
Kexing’s expression slid into surprise and subtle relief. Zishu was not the type of man to make concessions or take excuses at face value in general, but the instinct to dig into every opening and pry a person’s secrets out with a knife was absent when it came to Kexing. It had been from the moment they had met really.
How many times had Zishu decided to leave a question unasked? How many vulnerabilities had Kexing shown that Zishu had chosen not to pursue?
It had always felt wrong, slightly off, to press into Kexing’s wounds.
“Shifu! I’ve done the move you showed me five hundred times now. Can I take a break?” Chengling chose the moment of stillness between the two men to pipe up. Zishu hid his smirk of amusement behind a derisive roll of the eyes.
“Little idiot, how many times do you think you’ll need to practice before you can follow the movements without thought? A million times won’t be enough.” He stated sharply. Chengling very nearly slumped over where he was standing. Zishu took the moment to scan the child for signs of true exhaustion. He had never taken a disciple, but he had been the head disciple of Four Seasons Pavilion what felt like a lifetime ago. He had once been used to ascertaining if the others were only complaining or if they were truly at their limit.
How much stamina would an eight-year-old have? He tried to remember some of the younger disciples, picturing how he and his shifu had coordinated the training of the children so that they could build a foundation without breaking. Was six years really such a long time? It felt like someone else had lived that life.
“But A-Xu, look at the poor child. He’s on the verge of collapse.” Kexing wheedled. His voice was what snapped Zishu back into the present and away from the bittersweet memories that threatened to overwhelm him. “A rest could hardly hurt. He’ll do better at practicing if he’s not falling over himself in exhaustion.”
“Please shifu, I can still walk. But can I just walk for a little?” Chengling pleaded. Zhou Zishu huffed in annoyance. Attacked from both sides by vicious beseeching expressions, he was shamed to admit he that he caved. Kexing alone he could have ignored. The man turned that hang-dog pouting mien towards him so often he was starting to become immune. Or at least resistant. He could probably say no to it so long as he didn’t look directly at it at least.
The combination of both of his travelling companions pouting at him at the same time, though? He was on the losing side in this one.
Before he had even opened his mouth, Kexing’s face had already started to fall into that warm expression of amused pride. As though every allowance Zishu gave him was a fight won. “Fine. An hour, no more. Then you will practice those steps until we reach town.”
“So benevolent, my husband.” Kexing crowed, already hauling Chengling up against him to walk at his side. The child went willingly, a happy smile lighting up his innocent face. Chengling gave the impression that he was never touched, though he had stated that he received all manner of head pats and hugs and love at home. Zishu suspected the silly child just liked the physical reassurance of having someone close.
“When did we get married? I remember no ceremony.” Zishu snarked without heat.
“Do two souls made of the same material need a ceremony?” Was the only reply he got. Usually, Kexing would degrade into whining and sulking at such statements, but today he was in a strange mood.
Rather than press, Zishu simply nodded quietly in agreement. What was there to say to that? He needed no ritual to know that he would fight for the rest of his life to keep Kexing safe. He wished there was a way to keep him at his side as well, but there were few places more dangerous than beside an assassin.
They were headed to the gates of one of those places now.
White Deer town was more bustling than Zhou Zishu had expected. The small village was teeming with activity, filled with strangers who barely glanced at the new arrivals as they went about their daily business.
According to Wen Kexing, the town contained a single inn, a single wine stall and only a handful of merchant shops. Everything else was a hectic trade market of people coming and going. Selling what they had before leaving the town to more prosperous areas to collect more. Some people came once and never returned while others came back as regularly as the seasons.
It made a sort of sense, Zishu supposed. Mount Qingya was too isolated for most merchants to be able to hold down a constant enough supply train to the area, but Ghost Valley was not a monolith. It required external goods in order to survive. He wondered how many of the people hustling by them were ghosts themselves.
It was almost amusing to imagine the fearsome Wen Kexing, Master of the Ghost Valley, floating amid the chaos of the market stalls to buy vegetables or rice.
They booked a room at the only inn, both the adults firmly ignoring the bemused stare the innkeeper gave them as he took their money. Chengling was less adept at appearing unconcerned with attention and had his brows furrowed and lips pursed in confusion.
They had told the boy that they were going to Wen Kexing’s sect and while it was true in a sense, the orthodox upbringing the child had had meant that he would likely be less than willing to buy that. The Ghost Valley counted as a sect only so far as it was beneficial to the rest of Jianghu. As a sect, the valley was required to bow to the decisions of the rest of the martial arts world, it was what had kept the ghosts there contained for the past two decades.
However, no member of an orthodox sect like the Mirror Lake Sword Sect would honestly consider Ghost Valley to be a sect.
White Deer town was clearly not the home of even an impoverished and miniscule sect, there were no disciples patrolling the market, no talismans at the market stalls, no posted announcements regarding the current events of the local sect. Chengling was bound to have noticed all of that and alongside the confused side-eye they were getting from the innkeeper was telling a story Zishu was not looking forward to explaining.
He glanced at Kexing to see if he had noticed as well and received a subtle nod of acknowledgement. Before the two of them discussed any plans regarding the valley, they were going to have to sit Chengling down and explain exactly who he had been travelling with and for what purpose.
Hopefully he didn’t run screaming from the room.
“A-Xu, why don’t you take the silly child up to the rooms while I figure out our dinner.” Kexing said. He was putting up a good face, his expression smooth and calm, but Zishu had grown used to reading the tells of self-contained men over the course of his career as a spy and he was even more familiar with the subtle signs Kexing tried to hide.
Right now his fingers were clenching and unclenching around the coin purse he still held and he refused to fully meet Zhou Zishu’s eyes. His gaze landed squarely on his nose and when Zishu tilted his head to try and catch his eye Kexing glanced away.
How could a man who could be so smart, be so dumb?
“Very well, Lao Wen. We’ll await our meal upstairs then.” He took ahold of Chengling’s shoulder and began leading him away, only pausing to glance back at his zhiji once. The look he caught then was not encouraging. Kexing had let the mask of placid neutrality fall away once Zishu’s back was turned and in its place was a devastating look of regret and pain.
Zishu suddenly felt as though Kexing was mourning him, as though he had lost him somehow. His gut churned nervously at the thought. He was already resigned to losing his sect and his brothers with it. It was something that he had been forced to face and accept over the course of years. The thought that Kexing was cutting ties and disappearing from his life as well was a fresh wound laid over an old, painful scar.
If that fool made a run for it now, Zishu would hunt him down and break his legs. See if he could flee after that.
“Shifu…there’s no sect here.” Chengling finally managed to get out through his painfully obvious anxiety. Zhou Zishu wondered how much of that anxiety was do to a sudden fear that the men he was travelling with might have less than honorable intentions.
He supposed he could lie some more and say that this was not their final destination. Chengling was naïve enough to believe him. But it solved nothing, and the truth was bound to come out within the next few days. He may as well come clean. At least about his part in all of this. Kexing should have the choice about how much he wanted to reveal of himself to the child.
Chengling already called him shifu. He should at least know who he was so set on taking on as a martial master.
“I will explain what I can once we’re situated.” He said shortly, urging the boy into the rooms they had paid for. The décor was plain, but serviceable and everything looked clean. It was far from the worst place Zishu had slept.
The inn was busy, even the upstairs was noisy with guests going to and fro, leaving and entering rooms, and stopping to chat with acquaintances they knew from past trips into White Deer.
The ambient noise would work in their favor. It would be difficult for a casual eavesdropped to hear a hushed conversation in a closed room over the general din of life in this place. Zishu was prepared to admit to some of his past to Zhang Chengling and Wen Kexing. Not the entire world at large.
“First, I want to make it clear that Lao Wen and I only sought to keep you out of the hands of more dangerous men.” Zishu began. He was trying to work out how exactly to start, where the beginning of this all began. It couldn’t possibly be the day that Wen Kexing showed up at his doorstep and demanded all of his attention and energy, but, in some ways, it seemed that way. As though the Valley Master had brought some spark of life with him and every day before that was blurred, dull and unimportant. “However, we do have some idea as to why they wanted you. The person who coordinated the kidnapping had to be relatively close to your family. He knew exactly when and where to strike.”
Before Zishu could devolve too much into explaining the exact details of how a good spy or assassin coordinated and abduction, Wen Kexing burst into the room in a flurry of bright robes and more waiters than seemed reasonable.
“I trust you’re not boring the child to death.” He sang out as he swanned over to the table and gestured for the waiters to set down their loads. It was more food than three people could eat. It was a ridiculous spread in every way. Marinated pork belly glistened beside a whole steamed fish speckled with bright chilis and swimming in a light sauce. There was a clay pot from whence emanated a mouth-watering aroma of ginger and chicken.
Plate after plate was set down until finally it was only the three of them in the room and Zishu was still not done staring in open-mouthed befuddlement at the feast before him.
“Lao Wen. How are we ever supposed to eat this all?” He tried to sound annoyed, but he really only sounded dumbfounded. He felt dumbfounded. Why had Kexing ordered so much food?
“What’s not eaten can be wrapped up and set aside for later.” The man said as he seated himself at the table and began heaping rice and meat and vegetables into a bowl. He passed the first one to Zhou Zishu, as had become his habit pretty much since they had first met. Zishu took it on instinct. “Besides, it’s good to indulge once in a while.”
“This seems excessive even for an indulgence. It’s only the three of us.” Zishu pointed out even as he began eating. The food was good. Not spectacular, but warm and well-seasoned and filling. If this was to be the last meal he had before entering Ghost Valley, he would not complain.
Chengling finally found his voice as he was handed his own bowl. “I know that you were trying to protect me. You saved me from the man who tried to take me. Just…why did you lie about where we’re going?”
“The simplest answer is because knowing would do you know favors. Our destination is one that few would consider safe or sane, but we wanted to protect you and needed you to come with us in order to do so.” Zishu tried to explain. Chengling did not look enlightened.
“A-Xu, the boy is so young. He has not worked you where we’re going yet.” Kexing put in gently. Zishu had not even considered that. Mount Qingya loomed on the horizon, there was nothing but forest and dirt past White Deer. Anyone who knew of the Ghost Valley would know their destination at this point. How sheltered was Zhang Yusen keeping his youngest son that he did not even know this? “We are going into Ghost Valley. Well, I am. It’s where I’m from and my sister is still inside. I need to get her out.”
The blunt words falling from Kexing’s usually so poetic mouth made Zishu’s earlier unease rear its head again, but it was the inference that he would be going alone that made the blood in his veins run cold. So that was it. He hadn’t discussed his plan with Zishu because Zishu had no part in it. The fool honestly expected Zhou Zishu to wait around and twiddle his thumbs while he entered the most dangerous place in Jianghu alone.
“Not yet, A-Xu.” Kexing interrupted before Zishu could launch into his planned tirade. “I will explain, I promise. Just not yet.”
Chengling looked back and forth between the two of them, but kept his mouth shut. Something about the cheerful smile Kexing was forcing onto his face balanced against the darkening heat on Zishu’s must have warned him against trying to intervene.
The air felt thick with tension, and no one spoke to break it for a long moment.
“Fine. I’ve trusted you this far, do as you please.” Zishu finally relented.
Rather than acknowledge the allowance, Kexing turned back to Chengling. “We will take you back to your home. Hopefully we’ll have a better idea of who is trying to get to you by then.” He tried to reassure the child, but his expression remained confused and worried.
“Will shifu still take me with him to Four Seasons Manor?” Zishu snorted, unable to stop the sudden bubble of laughter at the surprising question. All of this, the reveal that one of the men he was travelling with was from the bane of Jianghu’s existence and that they had been lying to him the entire time and his biggest concern was whether he would still be able to be a disciple of the Four Seasons Pavilion.
Ridiculous. His naivete was hopelessly endearing.
“Yes. If your father allows it, I will take you to the manor.” Zishu finally replied once he had gotten himself back under control. He supposed he could always deliver Chengling to Bi-shu and ask him to take the boy on as a sixth-generation disciple. Bi Changfeng had already raised a trained a whole generation’s worth of children, he would know what to do with him. “But you should know one other thing first. About me. My sect is badly diminished due to my actions. I chose to lead them to the Imperial City and play a part in the palace games. For the last six years, death has been the only thing I’ve dealt in. There is no glory to be found at Four Seasons Manor, and I do not want to mislead you into thinking that it is more than what it is.”
“That’s okay. Father says it’s the quality of the people you surround yourself with that matters, not the quantity.” Chengling stated with his usual steadfast belief. He was making full eye contact with Zishu, he jaw set and posture firm. Zishu could only smile and shake his head. How ridiculous that it was only at this point in his life that he had found people who were so determined to be by his side.
The other steadfast burr chose that moment to pipe up. “If you’re done eating, silly child, I think it’s time for you to head to bed. The sun has long set and you’ve worked hard today.” Kexing was already going through the motions of putting lids and covers onto the dishes that were left. It was less than Zishu had expected, but still more than enough to feed them again in the morning.
“Yes, Wen-shu!” Obedient to the last, Chengling darted up and made his way to the door inside the room that lead to what was likely supposed to be a servant’s quarter. The privacy it gave to Kexing and Zishu was minimal, but the assassin expected sleep would take the boy quickly. He had practiced the first set of Swift Moving Steps almost the whole day long.
“Now. You will explain.” Zishu demanded. It felt as though he had been holding his breath all day, the tension in his chest gradually building the longer he went without answers. The guilty glances Kexing kept sending him were only making it worse.
To his credit, Kexing did not try to wriggle his way out of answering now. “It’s simple strategies, A-Xu. A ghost might enter the valley relatively unnoticed. The others know me there, they might comment on my absence, but not on my presence.” Because who would be brave enough to censure the Valley Master, Zishu thought to himself. “A new person though, and one as gifted as you are. They would be on you immediately. We would have twice the fight I will alone simply because you are there.”
Zishu did not like the logic in this straightforward statement. Years of tactics and planning operations would not allow him to discredit the fact that a new face in a place where there are few newcomers would cause a huge stir.
He scowled fiercely and bared his teeth as he snarled at Kexing anyway. “So what? I am supposed to simply wait here? Babysit the child and hope you don’t get yourself killed in there?”
“Yes.” Kexing looked remorseful but determined. There was a glimmer of moisture along the edge of his eyes that he kept blinking away and his mouth trembled as though there were words he desperately wanted to say but could not. “Yes, I would like it if you waited here for me. But I know…I’m asking you to trust that I can get myself and A-Xiang out of the valley. You said you trust me. Will you trust me now?”
“Of course, you fool.” The words leapt from Zishu mouth before he even took a second to think. It didn’t matter. Of course he would wait for Wen Kexing. He would stay in this small town and train Chengling and worry constantly at the trouble his zhiji must be getting into. But there was never another option. If Kexing asked for him to wait for him, Zhou Zishu would wait for forever. “You don’t have to ask. If you promise to return, I promise that I will be here.”
“I promise, A-Xu.” The words were barely a whisper, a thoughtless response. Zishu watched Kexing’s mouth tremble again and frowned.
“What else? You have something you want to say, out with it, Lao Wen. You’ve already said the thing I most wanted you not to say, how much worse could this be?”
“I…It’s not…” Kexing looked lost, the furrow of his brow and huge, wet eyes made him appear more child-like than usual and Zishu could not resist reaching out to smooth his thumb along the crease on his forehead. The movement startled Kexing into shocked stillness before he abruptly burst to life.
Suddenly, there were large hands cupping his face and Kexing was so close that Zishu could make out the faint trace of eyeliner still clinging to his lashes, the closeness was overwhelming. The two of them had shared near constant casual contact for months now, Kexing having never been the type to respect personal space. But this was different.
Kexing was staring into Zishu’s eyes, his hopeful and terrified expression asking a question Zishu was unsure he knew the answer to. His heart fluttered at the gentle hold Kexing had on his face, but every rational thought in his head was screaming that he was doomed to return to Helian Yi’s side. There was nothing Zhou Zishu could offer Wen Kexing that was worth taking.
But there was no resisting the draw. He had not thought of this before. Of kissing Kexing, of trying to love him in this way. He had spent a lifetime considering such things to be means to an end and nothing more. Now that the option to taste the mouth that he had been thinking about for months had been presented to him.
Well. Zhou Zishu had never claimed to be a good person.
Kexing seemed to read the acceptance in Zishu’s eyes because his expression turned bright and beaming. He registered a flash of teeth behind the grin in front of him before they were crashing together.
The first contact of Zishu’s lips on Kexing’s was hard, a sharp tooth nicked his lip, and the taste of blood filled his mouth for a split second before a soft tongue had slipped out and brushed away the bead of blood. They separated for a heartbeat, both panting despite the lack of excursion. Nothing had happened but an awkward and slightly painful kiss, but Zishu felt like crying from the sheer relief of having this.
Their second attempt went more smoothly. Kexing’s soft lips pressing gently to the corner of Zishu’s mouth before pushing more firmly against him. Zishu would have expected Kexing to kiss like he fought, wild and unrestrained, with the clear intent of reaching the end goal over all else. Instead, he simply continued softly kissing Zishu’s mouth, occasionally trailing away to kiss at the corners of his eyes, the tip of his nose, the edge of his jaw.
It was overwhelming. It was exhilarating.
It felt like a farewell.
Whenever Kexing’s lips were on his, Zishu pushed back into the kiss with a fervor, nipping at that full bottom lip and flicking his tongue against the seam of his mouth, but Kexing made no move to deepen the kiss.
Eventually, they both drew back, mouths red and wet and chests still heaving from the release of emotions that had been building for months.
“Enough. Enough or I won’t want to go.” Kexing panted, brushing a frustrated hand across his eyes. The glimmer of tears threatened to escape down his cheeks.
“I will be here when you come back.” Zishu replied to the uncertainty he could see in his zhiji’s eyes rather than the words falling from his bitten red mouth.
“I know. And I will come back.”