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“Absolutely not.” The voice was calm though the words cut brutally into the fragile hope Jing Beiyuan had been building in himself for the last year.

“Lord Zhou, please, I know we don’t know each other well, but you’re my only hope.” The Beiyuan from before might have balked at begging a near stranger for help. The Beiyuan from before had not been skinned alive by his soul mate. It made a difference in what a man was willing to do to get what he wants. “The Shamanet does not understand the politics of the capital. He is a vulnerability to everyone, but most of all himself. Does this attack not prove that?”

Zhou Zishu did not need to know that the ones who had attacked Wu Xi were none other than his own kinsmen. In fact, the less Zhou Zishu knew, the better. They would owe him the favor of a lifetime if they made it out of this nest of vipers alive, that would have to suffice.

Beiyuan could read the agonized indecision in his old friend’s eyes if not his face. He had once been excellent at telling what Zishu was thinking and feeling, and though the skill had dulled somewhat, it was still plain the other man did not truly want to deny him this favor. The Imperial City was a dangerous place for even the most skilled players and Wu Xi was not the most skilled of players by any stretch. The question came down to, where would Zhou Zishu decide his loyalties lay? With a near stranger who was innocent enough to deserve it or the tiger had pledged himself to even despite its stripes?

In the end, the decision had been made as soon as Beiyuan had clutched Wu Xi’s hand to his chest and begged Zhou Zishu for aid without sparing a thought to what it could cost either of them.

The two were gone from the city within the week.

Chapter Text

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. Thirteen 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.

Chapter Text

The soft serenity of Four Seasons Manor was broken by the sharp snap of a wooden door contacting its corresponding frame. Zhou Zishu had not intended to slam the door behind him, not truly, but this argument with Qin Jiuxiao had been going on for longer than his patience could handle and more frequently than respect for his position dictated appropriate. When had the boy he had helped raise become so outspoken and head -strong?

“For the last time, this is a mission. Once the information we have been sent to retrieve has been obtained, the mission will be complete.” He kept his voice even through force of will and five years of experience dealing with people more repellent than his youngest shidi. Still, he could not keep the sharpness from his tone as he reiterated his position for the third time in the same conversation.

“But Zishu,” and really, if Jiuxiao thought it was appropriate to call him so casually even in the privacy of his study, he really had been spoiling him too much, “we’ve left the capital. The Imperial City has no interest in meddling with the affairs of Jianghu. Why return?”

Why indeed. There were any number of answers to the naïve questions Jiuxiao kept spouting. Why return to the capital? Because Zishu had already failed once at protecting the sect from the dogs of Jianghu once before. Because thought the Emperor had no interest in the Martial Sects, the Crown Prince was much more attracted to the power they controlled. Because Helian Yi was obsessed and the objects of his obsessions seldom made it out from his grasp. Because Zishu had made a promise and his honor was all he really had left to his name at this point.

None of those answers mattered though, Jiuxiao would not accept most of them and could not be given the others. Zhou Zishu had protected him from the harshest realities of what Tian Chuang was and did for this long and he had no intention of stopping now.

“I am the leader of Tian Chuang. How does a tiger cut ties with its stripes?” Zishu asked coldly, moving to take a seat behind his desk, but not letting Jiuxiao sit himself down anywhere. Maybe he would take the hint and stop pestering him. He was done with having this conversation every time he ran into the younger boy. At sixteen, Qin Jiuxiao seemed to have far too much free time to bother the sect leader with. Perhaps he should tell Bi Changfeng to add an extra rotation of training to the boy’s schedule, give him something to do with all this energy.

“That’s not fair! Zishu-“ Whatever new whining the kid was about to come up with was mercifully cut off by a knock at the study door followed by it sliding open a few inches to admit Liu Wenhe into the room. Liu Wenhe was from Bi Changfeng’s generation, thus quite a few years older than Zishu himself, and looked as though he had drawn the short straw on duties to have been sent as the messenger in this case.

“Lord Zhou, there is a guest at the gate. As per your order, he has not been admitted and is awaiting your interview.” The first rule Zhou Zishu had set in place two months ago when he had settled the sect back in the manor was this, that no one was to pass through the guarded main gate without first being inspected by Zishu himself. They had already had to rebuff an attack from a group of martial artists feeling threatened by a new sect settling in the previously abandoned estate, but before that the disciples of Four Seasons Pavilion had grumbled about paranoia and too long spent playing shadow games.

Zishu sometimes wished he had someone to grumble with about a lack of wariness and undue trust. Had five years, now nearly six, truly been long enough for these men to forget the way the entirety of Jianghu turned on them like dogs on a corpse nearly as soon as his Shifu was buried? So little time and they had already forgotten the very reason they had fled to Helian Yi’s side in the first place, he would mutter to some other jaded soul over a bottle of wine, in some other fantasy world where his sect had not become a clear division between Zhou Zishu and everyone else.

He shook himself, such idle fantasizing accomplished nothing. He had a job to do and a mission to accomplish and now a stranger at his doorstep. He would put one foot in front of the other until the final step put him in his grave and then he could rest. For now, the first objective would be scaring off his would-be intruder.

“Thank you, Liu Wenhe. I will see to our guest immediately. Dismissed.” The older man saluted before vanishing through the door, likely to return to the training Zishu was quite sure Jiuxiao was shirking. “As for you, Qin Jiuxiao, if you feel the need to be in everyone’s business, I’m sure the kitchens could use an extra hand in the pot. Consider yourself on kitchen duty until New Year’s.”

Not waiting to hear whatever protestation such a long punishment was likely to invite, Zishu stood with a quiet rustle of his pale robes and strode from the room he had only just barely entered. The last six years had felt like he had had no time to stand still and enjoy even a second of sunlight or a cup of wine. Always rushing from one bit of chaos to another. Hardly the life he had pictured when he had been Jiuxiao’s age.

--

The stranger at the door was dressed like a rich young master trying to pretend to be a sect physician, but only if the young master had only been willing to accommodate the barest notion of dressing down. The sleeves he wore were too long, the layers too intricate. Every layering robe he wore was a different color, each brighter than the last and none of them a color that would hide a stain. Add to that, every layer seemed to have at least some hint of embroidery and, Zhou Zishu was not sure why this man didn’t just claim to be young master who happened to be robbed while on the road. It might have been a slightly more believable lie. The only aspect of the ostentatious outfit that seemed to fit with the image of a man who dealt with mess on a regular basis was the fabric itself. Zishu could tell from a glance that every layer was thick and sturdy. The sort of fabric that could hold up to numerous washing and harsh scrubbing in the name of removing stains.

“And then, just when I thought my luck had surely run out, I happened upon the most wonderous site! Your estate is truly a sight to behold, Lord…oh, I don’t believe I caught your name?” It seemed the man was finally wrapping up his drawn-out tale of being chased from his previous home by rogue ghosts only to be beset by ill-fate and bad luck until he wound up at Four Seasons Manor. It was pretty much all lies, though the sect he said had been massacred by ghosts was the most recent one, having just been destroyed a month prior. Of course, the reason he hadn’t gotten a name was because he had been chattering non-stop since the moment Zishu had slipped out the door to ask him what he wanted.

“Zhou Xu. I’m the Sect Leader.” He said blandly, hoping to be off-putting enough to at least keep the peacock from going off on another fifteen-minute-long soliloquy. He had never had much luck.

“Zhou Xu. An elegant name to go with an elegant face. Can I call you A-Xu? I had heard the Sect Leader here was named Zhou Zishu, though. Are you his brother? Did he die?” The man, and for all the rubbish he was spouting he had not yet introduced himself, seemed more than willing to carry on this line of questioning at the entrance gate all afternoon. “Or perhaps a nickname? I have been told I am disarmingly charming, but are we truly so close already that you introduce yourself with a nickname, A-Xu?”

“Enough. Don’t call me that. Are you going to give me your name now or save me the trouble and just leave?” Zishu could feel the headache that had begun threatening while he was arguing with Jiuxiao press dangerously against his temples and restrained the urge to rub his head. What he wouldn’t give for people to simply tell him what they want so he could refuse them and be done with it.

“Wen. Wen Kexing. Begging Leader Zhou’s forgiveness, I’ve been so out of sorts ever since the attack.” The name, unlike the rest of the nonsense story Zhou Zishu had just been forced to sit through, at least seemed to be real, or at least had the ring of familiarity. It was at worst a cover the other man used regularly enough that it could be traced. At best it was his real name and the ruse of stupidity was more than a ruse. It made Zishu finally start considering who exactly had come to his doorstep. “I don’t suppose Zhou-xiong has need of a healer with some small skill in wound treatment? I’d be happy to earn my keep, but I have nowhere to go and I’ve already traveled so far.”

And that was thing, wasn’t it? The most recent sect to be destroyed by Ghost Valley was no small distance away from Four Seasons Manor. Even racing across the country with single-minded purpose, Wen Kexing would have had to have both the martial skills to require little food or rest as well as the knowledge to come directly to the estate. An estate that had only just been reestablished and had made no effort to make a name for itself. How and why would a simple healer do such a thing when there were plenty of small sects between them that would be happy to take him in in exchange for his skills?

Or, more aptly, who would have an interest in a small sect recently returned to Jianghu with strong ties to the Imperial City? Only two people immediately populated the list in Zhou Zishu’s mind. The leader of the Scorpions, an unknown entity that even Tian Chuang had only been able to learn was young and likely deeply involved with the Five Lakes Alliance somehow. Or the Ghost Valley Master, another unknown quantity as he was not supposed to have left the Valley in years. It would be a risk to invite either of those people into his sect, but the alternative was seeking them out and integrating himself around them somehow. If one of them had come and sought him out, it would save him the trouble as well as the risk.

“We’re a small sect and hardly in the position to go around starting fights, we have no need for a physician.” Zishu watch the calculating gleam slice across the other’s dark eyes, confirming for him that this was no mere healer, or even an enterprising thief or bandit. For a moment, the assassin in him wanted to push, wanted to see what would happen if he genuinely tried to turn Wen Kexing away, but sense held him in place. “However, we do often find ourselves short a hand in the kitchen. If Healer Wen does not mind such work, there is certainly space enough to accommodate you.”

For an instant, Zishu is certain Kexing is going to refuse. There is a shocking amount of injured pride hidden behind the still smiling visage in front of him as well as no small amount of anger. While Zishu had chosen this approach to frustrate and unbalance the strange man, he had figured on it affecting him the way it affected all reasonably skilled fighters. A sting to the ego, but nothing one could not shrug off. Such small aggressions were good ways to slowly nettle away the patience of targets and Tian Chuang had used the tactic to good effect often enough. However, to have so small a slight result in so large a reaction, either Wen Kexing was younger than the twenty or so years Zhou Zishu had originally pegged him for, or he had lived a life far too spoiled. Still, it would only make his job easier.

“I appreciate the chance to show my skill in any venue available.” Kexing said, still smiling that ridiculously fake grin as he saluted respectfully. “It has been a long day, though, and already late. Would it be permissible if I began tomorrow morning?”

“Of course. Dinner has likely already been started. It will be served in the large hall.” Zishu turned on his heel, barely holding the gate door open long enough for Kexing to follow through in a swirl of his bright robes before slamming it shut and lower the wooden bar back into place. The defensive array had never been deactivated at all, so once that was accomplished the manor was once more completely secure. “I would normally have one of the disciples show you to your rooms, but at this hour everyone will be busy washing up and finishing chores. You will have to suffer through my company for a few minutes more.”

“How could one count it as suffering to be in the presence of such a beauty?” Kexing replied without missing a beat. His peach blossom eyes swept down Zhou Zishu’s light blue robes in simple cuts and back up to his hair neatly but simply tied back with a ribbon rather than crown or hairpin. He could imagine the man trying desperately to come up with some facet of Zishu’s bland appearance to complement and so was not surprised when the next words out of his mouth were ridiculous. “Your shoulders alone are worth all the trials I have faced travelling here.”

“As long as you can keep your hands to yourself, your free to look at any shoulders you like. This way.” The corridor Zishu had chosen to house their new guest was currently uninhabited. It had once been the dormitory for guest disciples, but was currently just extra space that needed to be regularly swept and dusted. Mostly, Zishu used it as a punishment for anyone caught skipping training or breaking rules. “You can have your pick of any of these rooms. The large hall is straight down this corridor and then to the left. You’ll pass a courtyard with a willow in it and it will be straight ahead.”

“So many unused rooms.” There was something in that tone Zishu decided immediately that he did not like. A certain mournful knowing that struck him as both too familiar and strangely distant. It was like hearing a mirror to his own sorrow in the voice of a stranger. He was grateful Wen Kexing seemed to shake the odd mood off almost immediately, returning to his annoying cheer with alacrity. “So many choices! A man could spend all evening trying to decide which has the best view.”

“This man had best not if he wants to eat. Dinner will be served in an hour and those who are not present can wait until morning for another chance at food.” Kexing’s full lips twitched further, leaning towards a mischievous smirk and Zhou Zishu decided to make his retreat then rather than bear through whatever teasing the other was likely already thinking up. “I will have the head disciple Bi Changfeng inform you of the kitchen schedule after dinner. Until then, try to avoid wandering the grounds. The sect has good reason to be wary of strangers without reason to be here.”

Assuming this to be enough information for a grown man to stay out of trouble for a bare hour with, Zishu returned to his study to try and actually complete some of the paperwork that had been stacking up in the last week. Bi Changfeng had turned in a full report on the progress of the younger disciples as well as an update to the full roster of training schedules, several of his Tian Chuang operatives he had brought into Jianghu had sent in mission reports of varying levels of importance, Helian Yi had even sent a letter worded casually but with the strong inference that three months of absence was already testing his limited patience. That, on top of the normal letters of accounting for an estate’s finances, new and reinstated acquaintances, and internal affairs paperwork, and Zhou Zishu was quickly remembering why his Shifu had often looked so harassed when asked if he had completed his work.

In the hour before dinner, he managed to pen a marginally distant and informative letter to his prince and begin taking notes and making corrections to the disciple report before he was interrupted by Liu Wenhe once more knocking quietly to announce that it was time to eat. He was tempted to simply ask for some dishes be delivered before remembering that he had accepted a highly dangerous guest into his manor and needed to brief his brothers on the matter before any damage could be done.

Always something else. He heaved a put-upon sigh and shoved his messy notes to the side with more force than strictly called for.

“Coming. Have the disciples start without me and make sure Bi Changfeng and An Yan are present, I have some things I need to discuss with them that can’t wait.” He listened for a positive response before standing and tidying his appearance. An hour of sitting and stressing over letters had left his clothes and hair more rumpled than he wanted to present to his diminished sect or dangerous stranger, so he took his time ensuring his robes were laying flat again and that his half ponytail was straight.

By the time Zhou Zishu had made it to the large hall, dinner was well underway, though the stilted silence for once did not seem to occur after his appearance. Instead, the thirty-two disciples of Four Seasons Pavilion were eating with typical decorum and rather atypical gawking, occasionally taking a break from both to eye each other or whisper to their neighbor. Unsurprisingly, the center of attention was the gaudy peacock Wen Kexing, sitting calmly in the midst of the rabble, eating as though nothing odd was happening around him at all.

Kexing had chosen a seat just shy of the head table, removed from both the walls and the doors. It was an easy position to stare at him from, though not an easy one to stare back from. The position was almost certainly on purpose, though the assassin in Zishu could not fathom it. Sitting like that, right in the middle of this circus, asking for everyone to paint a target on your back. What could he hope to achieve? For now, Zhou Zishu chose to ignore it all.

As soon as the other men began to notice their leader’s entrance, the whispering quiet quickly took on the grave hush Zishu was more used to. The tense atmosphere was one of the many reasons the manor lord often chose to eat his meals in his study or in the courtyards. He could hardly blame them for being uncomfortable chatting and socializing around the leader of Tian Chuang, but it did not mean Zishu wanted to be around them while they tried to act politely neutral around him either.

“Lord Zhou! A-Xu!” The happy shout shocked him out of his dour thoughts and the fact that he was surprised to be addressed in his own hall almost shocked him again. There was no need for his eyes to sweep the room to find who was calling, only the strange idiot he had just met would dare, but he still felt the need to glance around just to see the reactions on the faces of the people he had known almost his whole life.

Thirty-two faces and almost all of them were avoiding looking at him. He didn’t bother trying to read the emotions there, or maybe he didn’t dare. Only Qin Jiuxiao and Bi Changfeng were openly looking up at him when he glanced at the head table, the former in exposed surprise and hesitant hope and the latter in clear disapproval.

“A-Xu, don’t ignore me!” Kexing whined from where he was sitting, surrounded by a circle of empty seats and awkward glances. “Come, come! Sit and eat. You’re already so late, and after you told me not to be late or else.” The supposed healer was already pulling an empty bowl towards himself and filling it with rice, shoving bits of chicken and vegetables on top even as Zishu walked towards him as if in a trance.

“I told you not to call me that.” It was the only thing Zishu could think to say even as he lowered himself into place next to Kexing and took the full bowl. When was the last time someone served him food? The act was so deliberately shameless and inappropriate; Zishu knew it was only to try to get him to lower his guard or give something away, but it felt odd to have someone treating him with such casual familiarity that he almost forgot to be annoyed. Particularly as his own family stood so far removed and acted as though he was a stranger to them most days. “And must you be so loud. You act as though all of Jianghu must hear you or you will wilt and die.”

“Not all of Jianghu, just the beauties!” The ridiculous man responded cheekily before returning to his meal. For all his pomp, Wen Kexing ate with the thoroughness of a man who knew that food was a luxury that should not be wasted. He did not scarf it down, but Zishu noted the fastidious way he cleaned his bowl before serving himself a second helping of rice. Eating habits were one of the ways disguises could often be betrayed. It was a difficult behavior to change in oneself as most people did not even know exactly what mannerisms they possessed in the first place. Kexing’s manners suggested someone who had been taught to eat politely, but who had also gone without often. It was an odd tic for a healer and, Zishu thought, odd even for a highly ranked assassin or leader of ghosts.

More mysteries to lay on top of the mystery that had walked to his doorstep. All for another time. For now, he still needed to tell his disciples who Kexing supposedly was, why he was staying here and what his role would be. For now, he needed to ensure the safety of his sect. Well, also, he needed to eat his dinner. Breakfast had truly been too many hours ago.

--

Bi Changfeng attempted to catch Zhou Zishu’s eye a few times throughout the meal, but with Wen Kexing chattering beside him like some sort of brightly colored canary it was easy enough to pretend as though he had not noticed. He knew he was only delaying the inevitable, but it was not as though they could talk in the hall with all the disciples present anyway.

When the room had finally cleared of most of the other men and Zishu had managed to convince Kexing to go to his room and stop talking his ear off, the Manor Lord finally gave in to fate and approached Bi Changfeng and An Yan. The two older men had sat in relative silence for the duration of dinner, clearly saving their words for whatever lecture Zhou Zishu was about to receive for the overly familiar stranger he had invited into their sect.

“Lord Zhou, I trust you called upon us to discuss this Wen Kexing.” An Yan began the conversation as he always did, by cutting right to the point. The man had never been a very good spy for just that reason, he was not the sort of person to dance around a subject that could simply be approached directly.

“An-qianbei, Bi-shu, I apologize for not taking the time before dinner to brief you on our guest.” He was sorely tempted to point out that there had hardly been time and it was the more expedient option to wait until they were all gathered in the same place anyway, but the same traits that made An Yan a poor spy were the ones that made Zishu an excellent one. He was very good at not saying what he was thinking. “Wen Kexing arrived a few hours ago begging accommodation in exchange for his skill as a healer. I have reason to believe there is more to his story than this, particularly as it may pertain to the recent Ghost Valley attacks.”

He did not want to come out and state who he believed the man to be, but the inference that he might have knowledge of Ghost Valley was obviously enough to put the two older men immediately on alert.

“You think it is a good idea to let an individual with such dangerous information into our midst?” Bi Changfeng asked, incredulous. “If there are others who know he is here and might give away secrets, it will be dangerous for the entire sect.”

“I am aware of the risks involved in housing such a dangerous asset.” Zishu replied, maintaining an outward calm. It was always pleasant to have accurately guessed exactly how a conversation would go. “It is the reason I requested to speak with you both. Wen Kexing is to be kept under watch at all times and no disciples are to be left alone with him for any amount of time. If there is an attack on the sect in the name of his retrieval, he is to be surrendered immediately. I am keeping him here to gain insight for Tian Chuang, but no one from Four Seasons Pavilion is to put their life at risk in his name.”

An Yan was already nodding in acceptance of these orders, but it was clear the Bi Changfeng found them less than acceptable. He had always been an intrinsically honorable man and likely found the idea of taking in a guest under false pretenses without any expectations of loyalty to be repulsive. Still, he would accept Zhou Zishu’s orders as Sect Leader as he always did. His own loyalty demanded it.

“Additionally, he will be assigned to the kitchens for the time being. Ensure the other disciples know to keep an eye on him near the food, but as he will be eating with the rest of us, I doubt he will try to poison the meals.” At least for now, if he was the leader of the Scorpions, poison was only a matter of time. “Otherwise, simply ensure he is kept busy and out of trouble.”

“And when he starts making friends with the other disciples and they decide they want to protect him and die for it? What are your orders then?” Bi Changfeng finally spoke. His words were vague, including the entire sect in his hypothetical, but his eyes were more pointed. What about you, Leader Zhou? Are you going to let this shameless stranger climb all over you until he’s stuck to your clothes like a burr in summer?

“I was unaware I had demanded opinions. These are my orders. Carry them out and ensure the rest of the sect is made aware. Dismissed.” Zishu often felt he could hold out against any sort of interrogation until the moment the disciples of his shifu’s generation began to question him and his decisions. It always felt as though Qin Huaizhang was there judging his actions as well. Judging them and finding them lacking, he thought bitterly. Much of the last six years would have been different with his shifu still leading Four Seasons Pavilion.

“Yes, Lord Zhou.” An Yan had already risen and bowed by the time Zhou Zishu had gathered his composure back together. Bi Changfeng remained sitting, his gaze unflinching and undaunted.

“I know Qin Jiuxiao has been talking to you. Zishu,-“ Again with the casual address, “we have left the capital. It is only a step removed from leaving the prince’s service entirely. At least consider it.”

“And if I will not? Will you badger me at every corner as well? Continue to question my orders in front of the rest of the sect?” His voice was cold enough to stop the conversation dead, even as he felt heat rise in his chest. All he wanted was to return to his study, finish his paperwork, and try to sneak a few hours of rest in before he needed to be up with the sun overseeing training. The last three months should have been relaxing, being back in the warmth of the south and away from the trials of court politics. Instead, it had seemed to only add to his stress. “Enough. Go ensure the morning kitchen crew knows about our guest.” He was too tired to deal with another argument with someone he had once viewed as closer than blood.

“Yes, Lord Zhou.” The polite address sounded forced, but at least Bi Changfeng stood and bowed his leave. At least it was one less thing to do this evening.

Chapter Text

                It took barely a week Zhou Zishu to decide that Wen Kexing was the most irritating human to ever be born. He was perpetually underfoot, always finishing his assigned tasks early before seeking the sect leader out to bother, all while never showing even the slightest hint of appropriate decorum. To the other disciples, the supposed healer was politely deferential, managing to toe the line between friendliness and respectability, but the instant he was in contact with Zhou Zishu it was as though all that tact evaporated into thin air.

                “A-Xu, you will never believe what I heard at the market this morning. Did you know the butcher has chased off the third suitor for his daughter in a row!” Zishu made some small noise in response, having long learned that it was better to at least acknowledge whatever inane topic Kexing brought up than to try and ignore him entirely. Ignoring him did not work, it just made him go from talking to touching, something Zishu absolutely could not abide. “Right? His daughter must already be a great beauty to be attracting so much attention being the child of a butcher and he’s going around shooing away her prospects? What sort of father would do such a thing?”

                “Perhaps you should go enquire after her yourself and find out.” The dry response was out before Zishu could think better of it. There had been many instances in the last week where the assassin had thought of something bitingly sarcastic to say in response to one of Kexing’s meandering dialogues, but he had managed to keep it them all to himself to this point. It was just difficult with how relentless the man was. He gave away nothing of who he was or why he had come to Four Seasons Manor, but it had taken no time at all for it to begin to feel as though he had always been there.

                “A-Xu, how could I give a young girl such hopes, you know my heart is only for one.” Kexing barely paused, his surprise at finally garnering a response from his victim not phasing him for more than a breath. Zishu was not surprised. Who knew what would be required to make a man this shameless pause for long enough to get some real peace? “It shall simply have to remain a mystery to the both of us.”

                “Don’t you have mysteries in the kitchen you’re supposed to be uncovering?” Now that he had already caved to giving Kexing the response he wanted, it cost nothing to continue. Plus, it was nice to be able to snap at someone and know they would give as good as they got.

                “Ah, yes. The mysteries of rice and dumplings. Luckily, they are an easier question to find the answer to than what is going through Sect Leader Zhou’s mind.” The incorrigible idiot flicked his sleeves in a move that was likely supposed to be flirtatious, but really just made him look like an irritable young noble, before rising gracefully from where he had been leaning over Zishu’s desk for the last half hour. “But I suppose my A-Xu is right, everyone will be put out if they have to eat cold vegetables and dried meat for dinner.”

                Who’s your anything? Zishu repressed the urge to rub his temple, knowing it would only encourage the nonsense constantly tumbling out of that mouth. Wen Kexing seemed to take an almost unholy level of pleasure out of inciting irritation in Zhou Zishu.

                “Just go do your job. We’re not giving you accommodation in exchange for you distracting me from my paperwork.” Not to mention, it was rather hard to look over spy reports with the possible subject of said reports leaning over his shoulder critiquing the calligraphy.

                For once, Kexing seemed to decide he had satisfied his need to be an absolute pestilence and left with only a polite bow and a little wave.

                Unfortunately, Zishu had only read through half of a brief report from a spy stationed in Yueyang about the general instability of the Five Lakes Alliance before he was interrupted once again. This time his guest at least seemed to have some sect related business to carry out.

                “Bi-shu, did you have another training report for me?” It seemed too soon. Normally the reports were only written every other week, but if enough disciples were showing significant improvement or difficulty, he might have decided a special meeting was necessary. Bi Changfeng had been training disciples since long before Zhou Zishu was even born, and the manor lord was not too proud to bow to that superior experience.

                “No, Lord Zhou.” Bi Changfeng answered slowly, clearly weighing his words as he considered his leader. “I wish to discuss the duration of the sect’s stay in Jianghu.”

                This was not a discussion Zhou Zishu particularly wanted to have, but their stay had already outlasted his original plans. Although he had no intention of bring the Four Seasons Pavilion back to the capital, it had been his original intention to uncover the motivations behind the Ghost Valley attacks quickly and return to the Crown Prince much sooner than reality had dictated. In an ideal world, this would have allowed him to keep his disciples from ever knowing his plans to abandon his position as manor lord, but there was a growing likelihood he would have to admit that fact to at least some of the older members sooner rather than later.

                “I will listen to Bi-shu’s questions.” He answered neutrally. He had already set aside the reports he was sorting through and began the task of cleaning his brushes and inkstone; it seemed unlikely he would have time to pen responses before dinner now.

                “Only one question, my lord.” Changfeng said simply, causing Zishu to pause and glance up in wary confusion. “Will Lord Zhou be remaining as well once the mission is complete?”

                Zhou Zishu’s years of being faced with people knowing more than he would prefer them to was the only thing that prevented him from freezing in the face of that sudden insight. It did not surprise him that Changfeng had guessed that Zishu did not intend the sect to return to the Imperial City; he had been quiet about it, but not subtle. However, he was surprised that he would dare ask about Zishu’s intentions as leader of the sect.

                It was an open secret in Four Season Pavilion that Zhou Zishu was a less than ideal manor lord. He may have mastered the Swift Moving Steps to a degree not seen in generations, but he was also a withdrawn, severe man with few friends and little to recommend him as the leader compared to his shifu. This, coupled with the fact that he had taken no direct disciples himself to ensure the legacy of his sect, had gained him no popularity among his shifu’s generation and only grudging respect from his own generation.

                So why, if he had already figured out that Four Seasons Manor was being truly reestablished, did Bi Changfeng feel the need to interrogate Zishu for his future intentions?

                “I believe Bi-shu would be wise to keep such inquiries to himself.” Zishu answered. What could he say? For now, he needed the cover being Manor Lord provided. If he told Changfeng outright that he intended to vacate his position and leave it to more capable hands, would he demand it immediately? Would he fight Zishu on the decision in the name of loyalty to Qin Huaizhang’s legacy? Would he inform the rest of the sect? There were too many variables to consider. For now, it was best for everyone to assume that this was a temporary arrangement in the name of a mission and leave it at that. “Please, for now, trust that I am doing what I can to ensure the future of Four Seasons Pavilion.”

                The last was added quietly, a plea for faith Zishu did not feel he deserved. Changfeng paused where he was already opening his mouth to ask for more details, eyeing him with a strange light in his eyes. Zishu didn’t know what emotion to attribute it to, there was pride, but it looked bitterly given. He chose to ignore it.

                “Very well. But, Zishu, you know…” Here, Changfeng paused again, fighting with whatever he wanted to say or the way he wanted to say it. “You know that we are here for you. We want to help you.”

                Every part of the sixteen-year-old head disciple Zhou Zishu had been when he became Sect Leader wanted to believe those words and take them at face value, but he knew better. There were caveats to that acceptance and help. Strings that Zishu could not afford even if Changfeng did not know why. The disciples of Four Seasons Pavilion would be happy to help their leader in any way he demanded, so long as he quit being the cousin of the Crown Prince. But that was an obligation he could not back out of even as a passing fancy. The prince’s obsessions were too complete and without Jing Beiyuan around to distract that stare, Zhou Zishu had little chance of sneaking out from under it. Besides, he had made a promise to see Helian Yi on the throne, and he intended to make good on his word.

                Rather than voice any of this, Zishu simply nodded his acceptance, refusing to maintain eye contact with his well-meaning senior. As though sensing a nerve had been exposed, Bi Changfeng politely saw himself out without another word, leaving the Manor Lord to consider his words.

 

-

 

In hindsight, keeping his nosy shidi out of his business was always going to be a loser’s game. As soon as Qin Jiuxiao deduced there was a half a chance the sect may be staying in Jianghu permanently, Zhou Zishu knew no peace. Nevermind spying on Wen Kexing, it was all he could do to avoid Jiuxiao and get any work done at all. The boy would normally leave him alone if he happened to already be in discussions with another sect member or the healer himself, but if Zishu made the mistake of training alone or, heaven’s forbid, trying to read Tian Chuang reports, Jiuxiao would appear as though summoned and refuse to leave until Zishu threatened him or actually threw something.

“Shixiong, please! Just tell me!” Qin Jiuxiao whined from his position reclining across Zhou Zishu’s desk. He was making an absolute mess of the carefully arranged papers Zishu had spent the last hour organizing. “The elders are being really quiet about it, but everyone else is talking about it. Are we staying?”

“If you all have the time to gossip, you’re clearly not spending enough time training.” Zishu snapped, patience already worn thin by the lack of information his recent reports had contained. “Just leave it. When there is information you should know, you will be informed of it.”

“But, we’ve already been here for four months!”

They had already had this conversation. They had had it more than once. Zishu was beginning to believe Changfeng had put Jiuxiao up to it believing that the Sect Leader would be more inclined to listening to his shifu’s son than anyone else, but he was so done with it. He had his plans, and he would put them into action when the time was right, and no one needed to know about them until then. Could no one understand that? Could they not trust him on this even a little?

Determining that Qin Jiuxiao was not going to leave well enough alone, Zishu stood abruptly in a flurry of dark robes. He had chosen an outfit closer to his normal Tian Chuang uniform for the day, intending to go out in the evening and see if the nearby town had any gossip he could glean, but they were slightly uncomfortable in the gradually warming southern weather.

“I’ve said all I intend to say on this matter, shidi. Go back to training.” He swept out of the room after that, disappointed, but not surprised to hear the sixteen-year-old following after him at speed. Had he been this hard-headed at that age? Surely not. His shifu would never have entrusted the future of the sect to such a willful child.

“But, please! I’m not asking that much Zishu!” Again with the whining, petulant tone. Who had spoiled this child? “We’re all so tired of the uncertainty. We like it here, being back. Can’t you just tell us?”

“What uncertainty? We are here on a mission, or have you forgotten?” Zishu asked.

“It’s easy to forget. You never send me out to do anything interesting…”

For an instant, Zishu pictured that, sending Qin Jiuxiao out on those jobs. Giving him a target to extract information from and then slit the throat of. The bile that image drew up was difficult to swallow back down. No. He had spent six years keeping the full extent of what Tian Chuang was and did a secret from Jiuxiao and he intended to continue doing so until he could completely sever the ties between Four Seasons Pavilion and the assassin’s organization.

“I had no idea you were so interested in collecting gossip, shidi.”

“Stop trying to change the subject! Are we staying? Are we staying in Four Seasons Manor for good?”

“Qin Jiuxiao!”

“Zhou Zishu! We deserve to know the future of our sect!”

“If you’re so unhappy with the way I’m running this sect, then leave!” The words had been ripped out of his throat before Zishu could even process them. Months of stress and the knowledge of growing distance finally snapping the fragile thread of his self-control.

“What? Zi-…Shixiong, what? That’s not-“ Words seemed to have abandoned his ever talkative shidi, so Zishu picked up the slack.

“Like it or not, there is no taking back the decisions I have made.” Zhou Zishu was still very aware of how open their location was, out in a public hallway, only a few paces from his study where everyone knew to find him, so he kept his words purposefully oblique. “I don’t regret them either, but no one else is beholden to them. If you are so miserable with me as your leader, consider yourself freed of any obligation. I won’t consider you unfilial or disloyal.”

“That’s not what I meant! Zhou Zishu, you-“ Before Jiuxiao could fumble out whatever half-hearted denial he was working up, Zishu sensed a sudden rush of displaced air around the corner in the direction opposite the way they had just come. There was only one person in the compound who would dare eavesdrop on a conversation with the Sect Leader, so Zhou Zishu felt no guilt in drawing Baiyi and whipping around corner in a blur, allowing the sword’s natural flexibility to predict his movement and precede him.

There was a flash of seafoam green silk before something hard knocked the flat of his blade aside with enough force to reverse its momentum, causing an awkward reverberation all the way up to the hilt. Luckily, Zhou Zishu was well used to the idiosyncrasies of his sword and simply flexed his hand to relax the tingling numbness the vibration caused before dropping low and sweeping his leg out to try and unbalance his opponent.

Wen Kexing, and it was Wen Kexing, did not jump the leg like an amateur might, instead swiftly stepping back in fast swirl of fabric while throwing his bladed fan down in the same motion. Zishu countered the fan with his off-hand, channeling his qi into the side of his palm to strike the weapon away, while tucking his legs in and launching his body forward, sword pointed directly at Kexing’s unguarded belly.

Kexing did not pause, hardly seeming to even notice the strike as he twirled gracefully to the side to retrieve his fan from where it was spinning towards the wall of the hallway. Once the item was back in hand, the flashy idiot had the gal to smirk before opening the weapon and fanning himself gently as though he was taking a stroll in the woods rather than engaged in a heated spar with the leader of a martial sect.

“Ah, Lord Zhou, fancy meeting you here!” He sang out, completing the image of a young master unconcerned with the trivial matter of having a sword baring down on his gut not a second ago. Zishu didn’t bother with a reply, already sweeping his missed jab into a slice towards Kexing’s exposed throat. At this point, he was confident the other man would be able to easily dodge the open move, but it was fun to vent some of his frustrations at both the man himself as well as Jiuxiao in a fight where he didn’t have to worry too much about injuring his opponent.

Despite his expectation of his move not landing, the assassin had still not expected the tip of Baiyi to be caught between two slim fingers as easily as a flower petal plucked from blossoming tree. Kexing’s smirk didn’t budge from his smug face and Zishu had to fight to keep the surprise from showing on his own as the two men paused in a stalemate.

“Shixiong? Healer Wen? What…um…What are you doing?” In the rush of the fight, Zishu had mostly forgotten that Jiuxiao was right behind him, probably just waiting to pick up the lose thread of their previous argument.

“Oh, Qin Jiuxiao-gongzi, you’re here as well! What a pleasant surprise.” Wen Kexing sounded much less pleasantly surprised by Jiuxiao’s being in the hallway with them. “I actually had some private matters to discuss with your shixiong, so I’m just going to borrow him for a little while.”

“Oh, but-“

“Thank you! Until later!” Zishu was so surprised by this sudden turn in the conversation that he did not bother dodging when slim hand reached out and grabbed the dark cotton of his sleeve and yanked him down the hall, leaving a bewildered Jiuxiao to stare after them.

“What exactly did you have to discuss with me that could not wait for lunch and also required lurking around corners like a rat?” Zishu demanded after he successfully retrieved his sleeve from his impromptu kidnapper. They had wound up sitting together for most meals that he attended since Kexing arrived. For the most part, this was down to the fact that Kexing had earned himself no friends with his strangely standoffish behavior with the rest of the sect members, but it was also partially due to the way he always pouted like a child the few times Zishu stood his ground and sat elsewhere. It was simply easier to avoid the whole drama and spend the hour listening to him prattle on about whatever inane topic had caught his interest for the day.

“Nothing actually, it just looked like you needed saving before you took the poor kid’s head right off.” Kexing said, acting as though that was a totally normal thing to say to a man he barely knew. “Besides, it gets sort of boring hearing that same argument every time I turn the corner.”

Zhou Zishu had known that Wen Kexing was listening in on some of his conversations, so it was no big shock to find out that he had caught a few of Jiuxiao’s impassioned ‘let’s stay in Jiangu forever’ pleas, but it was a little weird that the man felt confident enough to reveal his stalking to his prey. Was it just an attempt to put Zishu on the wrong foot? To make Kexing seem like an idiot or insane so he would be more likely to be underestimated?

“If you didn’t listen around corners, you wouldn’t have to hear private arguments at all.” Zishu pointed out.

“But then how would I have gotten to witness the famous Baiyi sword in action? Such an impressive blade, the stories really don’t do it justice!” If Wen Kexing was genuinely trying to keep his cover of a sect healer up, he was doing a terrible job of it. The mixed style of his fighting combined with his strange knowledge of martial rumors did not add up to a healer of little renown who was forced to flee from his massacred employer.

“If he wants to see more of it, Lao Wen needs only to ask.” Zishu replied, more than a little snide. At first, the snarky comments had slipped out almost out of his control, but at this point, it was almost a game between the two of them. Kexing would flirt in the most ridiculous, over the top manner imaginable, and Zishu would reply in the most sarcastic, venomous way he could manage without being outright rude until one succeeded in shocking the other. Privately, Zishu could admit it was fun. The fact that it made the rest of the disciples of Four Seasons Pavilion uncomfortable was only an unfortunate side-effect.

“And if I ask for a different sort of sword demonstration, A-Xu?” A week ago, such a blatant come-on would have had Zishu sputtering in indignation, now he just raised an eyebrow and looked at the faux innocent eyes staring back at him judgmentally. There was no way this man was the leader of the Scorpions. If Kexing could spell the word ‘tact’, Zishu would eat his boots. Besides the fact that his fighting style was too flashy and relied to heavily on out and out brutality, the man was just no good at integrating into a situation and hiding in plain sight.

“I’d say you can’t afford the sort of performance you’re requesting, A-Xing.” He let his voice go syrupy sweet at the end and was gratified when it earned him a dropped jaw and stuttered breath from his victim. Looked like he had won this round, he thought as he smirked at the flabbergasted face Kexing was making at him before turning on his heel and wandering towards the training grounds. There were still a couple hours before dinner and the short mission he needed to do in town, he might as well use the time to practice a few sword forms. And if he could convince Kexing to go a few more rounds with him, then so much the better. The disciples could use a good demonstration of what it looked like to take brutality and make it into an art.

 

Chapter Text

                A week of relative peace passes. Of course, it is relative because Jiuxiao leaves off begging for answers about the future of the sect only to pick up begging for answers about Wen Kexing and Wen Kexing himself is a constant nuisance. Then even that peace is broken by the arrival of two letters in close coordination. The first is a missive from a Tian Chuang operative in Yueyang detailing an attack on the Danyang sect. It is the first major sect to be targeted by Ghost Valley as well as the first to manage to even partially fend off the attack.

                The report lacks details, but it seems that the sect leader alongside a handful of disciples managed to survive. There is no information about what the Valley was after nor what the sect plans to do now, however, Danyang is a member of the Five Lakes Alliance and the other four sects are now very much up in arms, deeply offended by this direct offense towards one of their own.

                The second letter was less informative, but more aggressive. Helian Yi had reached the end of his patience with Zhou Zishu’s empty reports and had demanded a full accounting of what was happening in Jianghu or the return of his loyal spymaster effective immediately. In honesty, Zishu was surprised it had taken the prince this long to demand his return even if he had hoped he would have more time. In that way, at least, the timing of the Ghost Valley attack was fortuitous. It gave him more information to work from.

                Unless he missed his guess, the previous attacks were merely probes. They had all been targeted at sects loyal to the Five Lakes Alliance, but not directly affiliated with them, likely testing what sort of retaliation they would be met with. When they drew only ire, but no retribution, the Ghost Valley Master must have deemed the alliance weakened enough to attempt an attack on one of the actual members. It suggested the alliance itself was the actual target though Zishu could only guess as to why. Powerful sects always had powerful secrets, it would not surprise him to learn that one or all the heads of the Five Lakes sects had secrets they would like to keep buried. Of course, there was also the chance the Valley Master was looking to consolidate his own power by decimating the most powerful alliance in Jianghu. Destroying the Five Lakes Alliance would devastate the Martial Sects and destabilize the south enough for the ghosts to take power.

                It was enough information to satisfy Helian Yi at any rate even if it felt like the whole thing had created more questions than it had answered. Before, the massacres of the small sects had felt like the violent ravages of some out of control ghosts. A tragedy, but something that was bound to happen when thousands of murderers were kept locked up in one place for too long. Now it had taken the shape of something bigger, and he had the director of that mystery scrubbing pots in his kitchen.

                Rather than dwell on that headache, Zhou Zishu reaches for a fresh sheet of paper and his brushes. Writing to the Crown Prince is always a balancing act between saying enough to satisfy the temperamental man and keeping him from reading too deeply into Zishu’s plans. For all his faults, Helian Yi was an intelligent man, sharp and keenly aware of duplicity. It would only take a whisper of a rumor of Four Seasons Pavilion not returning to the Imperial City for him to launch a full-scale attack on the manor. It is for this reason that Zishu has kept the entirety of his sect in the dark about his plans. He trusts them, but he also knows that there are enough Tian Chuang spies coming and going from the grounds and it would only take one poorly worded turn of phrase reaching Helian Yi’s ear to sink every carefully planned step the Manor Lord has taken in the last four months.

--

                After a morning spent hunched over a desk, diplomatically wording letters to various sects, Zhou Zishu would like nothing more than to spend just a single hour sitting in the sun drinking some wine and not thinking at all. Unfortunately for him, he has only just laid down under a freshly bloomed azalea and opened his jug when his sun is blocked by a shadow. For once, it is not one of the first three people he expects it to be, but that only marginally improves the situation.

                “Lord Zhou, if I might have a minute of your time.” Lan Yi; one his shidi, a generally quiet and obedient disciple who was passably talented but had never excelled for all that he was hardworking and determined, politely requested. “An-qianbei gave me your newest assignment regarding Officer Gou, but I’m afraid I must respectfully decline.”

                Zishu, who had only been half-listening till this point, sat up slowly. He turned his full focus to the younger man and narrowed his eyes.

                “Decline? I was unaware that my missions had become optional.” He said with ice in his tone. There had been muttering for the last week or so from some of the younger men in the sect. Missions had been completed as assigned, but there had been a general air of grudging acquiescence as the disciples looked around themselves and thought, ‘why should we continue to do the dirty work of some prince? We are martial artists, not slave dogs to be ordered about’. Apparently, this feeling had crystalized into some sort of spine when they had fended off the attack yesterday.

                The evening before, after dinner had been served, but before the disciples had started getting into sleep robes, a group of men dressed as beggars had banged on their outside gates demanding entry. In accordance with Zhou Zishu’s orders, the gates were not opened, and the sect leader was summoned to the front, but this time their uninvited guests had not waited to be ushered away. Instead, the group of fifteen scruffy men had attempted to jump the walls.

                By the time Zishu had made it to the front, a full-scale battle was underway with a dozen Four Seasons disciples deftly beating fifteen Beggar Gang disciples into the ground. Once the filthy men had seen the Manor Lord arrive, they had run for the hills, but it had given Zishu’s sect a sudden morale boost he was not sure they needed. And here was the result. One of his disciples, blocking his sun, telling him no.

                “I cannot, in good conscious, continue to intervene in secular politics. Not as a member of Jianghu.” The idiot child replied, seeming to believe they were having a discussion.

                “In good conscious, I should remind Yi-shidi that we are part of secular politics and here in Jianghu on a mission, not the other way around.” Zishu responded with feigned gentleness.

                “I…I don’t want to be that anymore. And I don’t think Lord Zhou does either!”

                “Enough. I did not ask for your insights into what I do or do not want. I demanded you go and infiltrate Officer Gou’s private estate and collect information on his dealings with Helian Qi.” Zishu finally snapped. It was one thing to have the disciples of his sect muttering about wanting to stay in a place they had always considered their home even after years of being removed from it and quite another for them to have started making up fairytales about who their leader was. Zhou Zishu would not allow any of them to forget for even one minute who had founded Tian Chuang and lead it for the last six years. That would only lead to heartbreak. Theirs, but also his own, when they were reminded. “Do I need to remind you who is the leader here?”

                “No. Leader Zhou. I will see it done.” The change in address did not escape Zishu’s notice, but he allowed it to go by without comment. If it gave Yi some comfort to pretend Zhou Zishu was only the leader of Tian Chuang and unrelated to Four Seasons Pavilion, then let him have it. At least his departure gave Zishu his sunlight back, even if the wine tasted a little bitter now.

                His hour of sunshine was not further interrupted, but that was all he could say for it. He drank his wine and pretended he was enjoying his time free of the hassle of the endless storm of questions he had been fielding for the last few months, but, the reality was, he might as well have stayed in his study and let the disciples come and bother him for all the peace he managed to achieve. There were still a few loose ends to tie up before Zishu could effectively leave Four Season Pavilion in Jianghu and the most pressing was the matter of leadership.

By tradition, it should be a sixth-generation disciple. Zishu had taken no direct students, a fact he had been grateful for as more and more of his sword brothers had died under his leadership, but now left him in the difficult position of placing someone from either his generation or his shifu’s generation in as his replacement. None of the remaining thirty-two sect members would take that well despite their distaste for his own leadership. Perhaps he could convince An Yan or Bi Changfeng to step in as an ancillary leader until a sixth generation could be trained.

It was that or suggest Qin Juixiao as his father’s successor. He had the most right to reclaiming his father’s crippled sect, but he was so young and naïve. Zhou Zishu shuddered to think what the boy would do, taking over a sect at that age, even younger than Zishu himself had been when he had been forced to take charge. If the sect elders refused to step into the role, it would be one of the only options, but it was very much a last resort.

Zhou Zishu was confident that once he cut ties with the sect, Helian Yi would lose most of his interest in it, but he needed to ensure that they were in a position to throw off any small incursions the Crown Prince might send their way out of petty spite anyway. It meant that the defense arrays had to be fully operational and every disciple well-versed in their use, and it meant that the nearby martial sects had to view the reestablished manor as a significant enough threat to be of too much trouble to be worth attacking.

Of course, he still had his mission to uncover what Wen Kexing was planning and how it involved the Five Lakes Alliance. The increase in attacks had meant an increase in information but having the Valley Master under his nose had not actually been as eye-opening as he had originally hoped. In fact, Kexing was very much just another headache to deal with some days even if other days he was the only one who smiled at him at all, faked as it had to be.

All of this was enough trouble without his own disciples questioning his leadership. Zishu wished he could place the blame on Jiuxiao’s loudmouth tendencies, but this was a rebellion that had been growing since the moment they had resettled in Four Seasons Manor. The return to Jianghu had seemed to brush the dust from old instincts that had long been buried by years of assassination and espionage. Even as they continued to do the work of a member of Tian Chuang, the routine of a sect disciple seemed to unearth more and more of that forgotten longing. To spend the days peacefully chasing perfection in technique and the evenings eating good food and drinking good wine with friends and family. It was something Zhou Zishu realized he should have anticipated, but it was still amazing how quickly it had emerged.

Would he be the same? If he did not have the dire threat of his entire sect being tortured and executed being held over his head, would he be sinking into the dream of returning to a simpler martial life as well?

Did it even matter? The assassin shook off the cobwebs of the melancholy thoughts and finished off his jar of wine. It wasn’t the best vintage by any stretch, but Wen Kexing had begun guarding the wine cellar like he had any right to it, and it wasn’t worth getting into a verbal argument with the man. A spar was fun but fighting with him with words was like fighting with a fishmonger’s wife only twice as loud. Zishu was lucky to get out of those altercations with all the skin on his face attached and no witnesses.

Think of the pest and he will appear. No sooner had Zishu thought of the resident ‘healer’ than the man himself was turning into the grove as though there was some sort of tracking spell on the assassin’s clothes.

“A-Xu! You’ll never believe what I heard!” The loudmouth was shouting as soon as he deemed himself to be within earshot, waving the day’s rainbow of plum sleeves at the man glaring at him and an empty wine jar interchangeably.

“At least act as though you’re surprised to find me here and not actively stalking me.” Zishu groused. He was regretting not bringing a second jar of wine. He had assumed he would only get to spend an hour in the sun, but Kexing had a way of eating up time and his afternoon was now looking like it might involve much less work than previously planned. “And must you be so loud.”

“But if I acted surprised, that would be a lie. I would never lie to my A-Xu.”

“Who’s you’re A-Xu?”

“And it’s not stalking, we both live here. How could it be stalking if we both live here?” Kexing barreled on. At this point, Zishu was uncertain why he bothered questioning the nickname except that it had the familiarity of a routine. All their conversations felt that way, like something you would expect from compatriots who had known one another for decades rather than a pair of near strangers who had met not even a month ago.

“It is stalking if you should be preparing my dinner not hounding my shadow like a ghost.” Zishu pointed for the sake of not conceding his argument.

“Anyway,” it didn’t surprise him that the argument was ignored in its entirety. “The disciples were saying at lunch, which you missed by the way, that one of the sect elders came back from town and is refusing to leave again? It was such an odd thing to hear. I tried asking the children, but they clammed up so hard I was worried they would break their teeth, so I came to ask you!”

Zhou Zishu was going to break the legs of every loose-lipped disciple in his sect and then set himself on fire just to escape the mess he was in the middle of. Was it really too much to ask for one moment of peace in this world? And really? The younger disciples saying they would refuse Tian Chuang missions was once thing, but for an elder to say that? Ridiculous. It had to just be a rumor.

“Probably someone complaining about the heat. You know how gossip is, Lao Wen.” Zishu deflected. It was not a convincing deflection, but most of his mind was busy attempting to work out which of the sect elders would be the most likely to make such a statement. Many of the more recalcitrant members of his Shifu’s generation had not lasted more than a couple years doing the dirty work of political assassination, their souls crushed by it long before their bodies gave out. The few survivors were men like An Yan. Pragmatic to a fault and willing to do what needed to be done in the name of survival.

“Hm, hardly explains why the kid made such a fuss when I asked about it.” Kexing pouted, flopping onto the warm dirt beside his unwilling conversation partner. “Your disciples are so uptight. A-Xu. Can’t you tell them to loosen up a little?”

It didn’t surprise the Manor Lord that Kexing wasn’t buying the thin cover story. The man could be shockingly perceptive when he chose to be. What was surprising was the apparent giving up of the subject. Normally, Wen Kexing was like a dog with a bone when he had found something he thought was interesting and the fact that he had sought Zishu out suggested the evasion made the subject at least somewhat interesting.

“Around the strange man who picks fights like they’re fresh vegetables at market? I think not.” Most days, Zishu would allow Kexing to change the topic, never one to look at the gift of avoiding an awkward conversation with the second loudest man in Four Seasons Manor sideways, but today had been at least slightly pleasant. “But why the change of tone, you never want to leave well-enough alone.”

“Perhaps I am learning to read my A-Xu’s moods?” The insufferable wretch smiled flirtatiously and attempted to look up at Zishu through his eyelashes though the effect was ruined by his being a couple inches taller than the man he was trying to look up at. Noticing this, the smile easily stretched into a smirk before the man barked out a full laugh and looked away to dig in his full sleeves. “No, no. I kid. I’m simply not up for the fight today. The tension in the manor the last day has begun to grate and I just…”

There was a pause in the other man’s speech as he finally retrieved what he was digging in his sleeve for; a gleaming brocade wine flask, as flamboyant as the rest of his belongings, which he hurriedly opened and chugged from. It was odd to see the flash of negative emotion across the lively face. Although it would be a lie to say that Kexing was always smiling and happy, he was generally very animated. Even his anger was a lightning storm of facial expressions, snarls and distortions chasing themselves across lips and brow, so to see that blank stillness even for a moment was new and astonishingly unwelcome.

“I just thought I might come out and enjoy the sun with someone who wouldn’t look at me as though I’m about to set the manor on fire, I suppose.” He finally finished, looking a little put out at the honesty of the statement. Zishu was unsure if he was put out that he had said it at all or that it was true. The disciples of Four Seasons Pavilion had been warned to be wary of the man their leader had determined was the Ghost Valley Master and apparently, they had taken that to mean ‘treat him as a social pariah’. He’d be prouder of them if it was not the thing that was making getting information out of Kexing damn near impossible.

“I hardly think it’s all that bad. They’re just skittish after the attacks we’ve had the last couple months.” Zishu attempted to dismiss, though it was obvious his attempt fell flat when Kexing just slanted his eyes sideways at him and took another generous gulp from his flask. “In truth, I’ve warned everyone here to be wary of strangers. We were previously chased from Jianghu by other sects seeking our secrets. I fear it happening again.”

It cost nothing to give the information up, it was common knowledge that Four Seasons Manor had stood empty for years after it’s previous Lord had died and his heir had been unable to fend off the interest of the neighboring sects. However, Zishu hoped the show of trust would entice Kexing into opening up a little with him. This far he had gotten nowhere with gaining the man’s trust or secrets.

“Ah, so it’s your fault. And how will you take responsibility, Lord Zhou?” Kexing was at least smiling again, though more softly than his normal over-the-top brand of grin.

“Responsibility? Do I not already house and feed you in exchange for a job I could just have my disciples do? I think I’ve been more than generous.” The familiar back and forth was quieter than usual as well, not laced with the normal playful snapping. Zishu was tired of the tension in the manor as well.

They lapsed into silence after that, the birdsong and summer breeze the only sounds disturbing the peace. It could almost be mistaken for a serene afternoon between two friends.

The thought crossed Zishu’s mind without his input and when he chanced a glance towards his companion, he saw a similar realization in those bottomless dark eyes. In another lifetime, where he was not an assassin bound to court politics and Wen Kexing was not a ghost hellbent on whatever wicked scheme he had dreamed up, perhaps they could have been just two martial artists enjoying the summer sun, basking in the camaraderie of shared ideals.

Worthless speculation, but for this afternoon, it hurt no one to pretend.

“Are you going to hog all the wine, Lao Wen?” He asked, reaching out and deliberately invading Kexing’s personal space. He got only a roll of the eyes and grin before a flask was pressed into his hand and the dream was complete.

 

--

 

                As it turned out, it was not ‘a sect elder’ it was ‘a coalition of sect elders’ who were refusing to go on imperial missions. An Yan had the decency to look ashamed as he handed the list of signatures to him over his desk, but he had steel in his eyes. And what could Zhou Zishu do? He could demand they go on the missions or take the nails, but that would defeat the purpose of prying the sect out from under Helian Yi in the first place. He could attempt to force them but that might make them sloppy and wind up with them dead anyway.

                In the end, he did the only thing he really could do. He delegated what missions he could to the few disciples who were still willing to go on them, split the rest between Tian Chuang spies he had scattered nearby and did the ones that needed more skill himself. His only saving grace came in the fact that Helian Yi was too busy dealing with court politics to deal out too many missions in his direction. Duan Pengju had been acting as the commander in the city and not sending many reports to his commanding officer, but that suited Zhou Zishu just fine. He didn’t have the energy to care about what was happening half a continent away anyway.

                He was trying to look on the bright side and remind himself that this would make the transition to being fully removed from imperial politics much easier, but it was difficult to do when all he wanted to do was sleep. Even with the low amount of missions that called for agents in Jianghu, there were still enough to require Zishu to be out in various cities at least one night a week. Between the travel to and from, the actual wet work or espionage, and then managing his belligerent sect on top of that, it had been several weeks since Zhou Zishu had been able to spend time alone with Wen Kexing.

                This meant that he was no closer to discovering what the mysterious Valley Master was aiming for with his wild attacks against the orthodox sects which meant he had no new information to send to Helian Yi when the Danyang survivors were systematically murdered while en route to Tai Hu sect. Zishu’s instincts said that it was out of line with the rest of the attacks Ghost Valley had launched. It was messy and left children still gasping for breath when backup arrived to attempt to rescue them, and besides, this time there was a Ghost Valley calling card in the form of body mutilation on the sect leader.

                None of the previous attacks had any of this, the only reason Ghost Valley had wound up pinned with the blame was because each time villagers in surrounding towns had seen the masked men coming and going from the massacre sites. The sites themselves had been spotless and every victim had been efficiently butchered so that no breath had been left in their bodies for would-be rescuers to hear from.

                Zishu said as much in his report of the Crown Prince, but he doubted he would be listened to. The tone of the previous message the assassin had received from his prince had been bordering on manic. It had no longer shown an interest in Zishu returning to the capital immediately, and instead had seemed driven to unearth information regarding the most recent attack on the Five Lakes sect; namely, if anything had been taken during the attack.

                Zishu had not made it this long in the Imperial City by being naïve or a fool. He knew Helian Yi had somehow acquired information that he was not sharing with the Manor Lord. It left a bitter taste in his mouth to have to acquiesce to the demand anyway. Knowing what he was looking for would make his job simpler, instead he was having to scrabble in the dark hoping he would strike onto whatever had sparked Helian Yi’s interest.

                These intelligence missions he had to handle by himself. If his sect elders had still been willing to take on Tian Chuang missions, he could have delegated some of them to the more discrete among them, but there was no way for him to send the younger disciples on them. If this secret he was seeking out was so closely guarded that Helian Yi refused to even write it down, it was too dangerous to send children out looking for it.

                All of this meant that when Zishu walked into the large hall for breakfast and all talking and movement came to a sudden stop, he was in no mood to entertain the drama. He had gotten a bare two hour of sleep after returning from a mission in a village a few li away and still needed to complete his report to Duan Pengju so his second in command would know that there was no new information to be found there. He just wanted to eat and leave and being stared at by thirty-two of the people he should have been able to relax around was not helping his mood.

                To make matters worse, Wen Kexing was missing for the first time since he had arrived. Other disciples occasionally missed meals if they were busy or out of the manor or decided to eat in their rooms, but Kexing was fanatically invested in ensuring Zishu ate and so was always ready and waiting in his usual place every meal. Today, that spot was mysteriously empty. The loss shouldn’t have bothered him, but it felt like a betrayal of an unspoken routine and Zishu had grown used to using Kexing’s vibrant, eye-catching behavior as a shield from the ever-growing hostility he felt from everyone else. Now there was no such shield.

                Unwilling to show how unnerved he was by the scrutiny, the sect leader marched to his normal place and sat without fanfare, serving himself under the almost tangible weight of his entire sect’s study. He wondered if it was just especially bad today, or if having Kexing to divert some of the interest had really created that much of a difference. He could almost feel the holes being burned into his back as he mechanically ate a bowl of congee with shredded chicken and drank his tea.

                Finally, when he was mostly done with his food, An Yan stood and approached him, standing a respectable distance from his seat to bow before addressing the lord.

                “Lord Zhou, I dislike being the one to once again bring this matter before you.” From the words and tone, Zishu could already guess what was coming and he felt the food he had just eaten settle in his stomach like a lead weight. He wondered why they couldn’t have waited until he was in his study and prepared to deal with this.  “It is with respect that the disciples of Four Seasons Pavilion are withdrawing from Tian Chuang and will no longer being handling any of the missions issued from the Imperial City.”

 

 

 

Chapter Text

                It was not a surprise, Zhou Zishu reminded himself for the third time as he walked back to his rooms in a daze. There had only been a handful of younger disciples who had still been loyally completing Tian Chuang missions anyway. This was not a huge loss; it was just a few extra missions Zishu would need to complete himself. He would delegate some of the less pressing sect matters to Bi Changfeng and everything would be fine.

                If he repeated that to himself it might begin to sound true. Right now, it just felt as though his entire sect had turned their backs on him. But that was good, it meant that they would not protest or cause problems when he returned to the Imperial City and left the sect in Jianghu. So what if it made him nauseous to think of the way Qin Jiuxiao had avoided his eyes as An Yan had informed him of his sect’s decision? So what if his ears were ringing and everything felt distant and removed from his body? This was all part of the plan. It was all going to happen eventually anyway.

What difference did it make that it had been his sect that had made the choice rather than himself?

                Some distant part of Zishu reminded him that it was only morning and he should be headed to the training ground to run through sword forms. It was the same voice that stated that he had a job to do, that he needed to rearrange the schedule he had laid out previously to accommodate this change, that the world did not end just because of minor bumps in the road. Zishu had listened to this voice with exacting care for his entire life, but it seemed unimportant in this moment. Unimportant for possibly the first time in his life.

                So, he ignored any whispered instinct to just get on with his job and instead wandered back to his rooms, keeping himself upright and blank-faced through sheer habit until the doors had slid into place behind his back. Then and only then did he allow himself to relax a fraction of his carefully practiced guard. Except emotions felt as distant as his desire to complete his duties. Feelings an abstract concept in the blank space currently occupying his head.

                He should be breaking down. He should be training. He should be rearranging sect schedules. He should be meditating. He should be mourning. He should be in his study, replying to reports.

                He was standing in the entrance of his rooms, staring blankly at the floor. Some amount of time had passed, he was pretty sure based on the way the sun was slanting through the window, but it felt as though he had just walked in. He could faintly hear disciples moving through the outer courtyards but was unable to make out whether they were practicing or performing the routine maintenance required to keep the manor in habitable condition.

                It was strange; Zhou Zishu had been planning this break between Four Season Pavilion and Tian Chuang for almost six months now, but it had somehow caught him off-guard now that it was happening. Some small animal part of him wanted to fight, was desperately thrashing against the separation that was becoming a looming inevitability, despite this being the end result he had worked hard to achieve. Perhaps it was simply because he had hoped that at least a few of the sect members would show some remorse at his leaving.

                Sentimentality. When had it ever done him any good?

                He barely noticed that at some point in his contemplation he had sunk to the ground, kneeling on the threshold between staying and going. He smirked vaguely at the symbolism. Having Wen Kexing was a bad influence if he was reading literary analogy into his legs giving out on him while he’s not paying attention.

                He supposed that was one thing to be grateful for. At least Wen Kexing had not been present for the awkward spectacle of his sect all but removing him from his position as their leader. He wondered why they hadn’t just come right out and asked him to step down. At least when they did, it would give Zishu a good excuse for Helian Yi why the sect would not be returning to the Imperial City with him. Then it would just be a matter of turning his attention until he lost interest.

                The thoughts were hard to grasp. His plans for what the next step should be seemed slippery as eels in mud as he continued to stare blankly ahead, his knees slowly going numb. At some point someone knocked on the door, but Zishu barely noticed, too lost inside his head to react or process the sound.

                Without him truly being aware of it, the room began to darken until it felt as though he blinked, and the bright morning sun had gone out like a candle and silvery moonlight had replaced it. Zishu’s legs were completely numb, his knees sore from where they had been pressed against the hard floor for hours without movement. It felt distant and removed, but at least he was slowly becoming more aware of them again. He felt drugged.

                Someone was pounding on his door.

                “Zhou Zishu! If you don’t open this door right now, I’ll break it!” Wen Kexing’s voice broke through the dense fog that had filled Zishu’s head since breakfast. He blinked, trying to parse why the other man sounded so stressed. This would hardly be the first time the sect leader had missed a meal or two, so why was he here threatening to break down his door? “Zhou Zishu, now!”

                Not willing to deal with an irate supposed-healer as well as a broken door, Zishu stood on tingling legs and unlatched the door. The lock had barely been removed when Kexing was slamming the doors open and shoving the shocked assassin back with an impatient flick of a hand. The flurry of expensive fabric spun in place to slide the door and latch back in place before pinning the target of his fury with an unimpressed stare.

                “So, care to tell me who died?” Now Zhou Zishu was even more confused. Going from blanking out for several hours to being interrogated about something he didn’t know about was keeping him enough off-kilter that he immediately answered honestly.

                “I wasn’t aware that anyone had died.”

                “Oh, so you’re in here mourning the death of the last of your brain, good to know.” Kexing replied with an acid smile. “That does explain why the rest of the sect seems so relieved. They must have been holding their breath for the death throws of that last bit of intelligence for years.”

                “If you just came in here to insult me, you can leave.” Zishu snarled, he had no patience for Wen Kexing’s particular brand of sarcasm this day. They could go back to playing back and forth insults another time.

                Instead of leaving, Kexing frowned, looking the Manor Lord up and down with a furrowed brow before sighing and crowding even further into Zishu’s personal space. The Valley Master grabbed Zishu’s upper arm and, rather than shrugging him off or starting a fight as he normally would, he allowed the man to guide him into a chair.

                “A-Xu, I know it’s hardly my place…but what happened?” Kexing asked as he settled into a chair beside Zishu. He ignored propriety that might have suggested that the chair across the table would be more appropriate and instead made sure he was within easy touching distance. Zishu had long noticed that, for a man who went out of his way to ensure none of the disciples of Four Season Pavilion came within three feet of him, Kexing was never more than arm’s reach from him when they were in the same place. “I don’t know about breakfast, I had business in town, but you missed both lunch and dinner and the rest of the sect is acting strange.”

                “As you said, it’s not your place.” Zishu replied without really thinking about it. His legs were gradually regaining feeling, but with the loss of the tingling returned his ability to think about the realities of his day and the fact is it would be nice to be able to talk about it. He can’t and he won’t. But it would be nice. “Suffice to say, I received some unexpected news today and handled it poorly.”

                “We all keep our own secrets. I won’t pry.” It was a shockingly mature statement coming from the nosiest man Zishu had had the poor fortune to meet, but he was not going to complain. “You have hardly eaten today. Come to the kitchens, let me make you something.”

                Before Zishu could refuse or point out that skipping two meals was not enough to seriously hinder him, Kexing was already in movement, tugging his victim back up from his resting spot and dragging him out through the recently threatened doors.

 

--

 

                Zhou Zishu had put together that there had been more to Wen Kexing’s evening visit to his rooms than worry over a missed meal or two, but he was in no shape to try to pry the truth out of the other man. It seemed far more likely that Zishu would wind up giving away more than he gained if he tried anyway.

                So instead he watched his companion rattle around the dark kitchen like a nervous chicken, saying nothing to the parade of prattle the healer rambled out as he pulled out early peaches, honey, a small dish of nuts, some leftover soup and a jug of wine. He piled the food up on a tray as though he was serving it to anyone other than the man already sitting before him.

                It was only once they were both seated at what had once been the servant’s table and was now used primarily as an extra work surface that Kexing’s endless speech finally dried up. Zishu hadn’t even made an attempt at maintaining the flow of conversation, content to allow the river of words to flow around him, so he barely noticed the difference once the silence stole over the room.

                What a pair they made. One talking endlessly, the other unable to string two words together and neither with anything to say. Zishu knew that tomorrow he would need to interrogate why Kexing had missed breakfast, what errand had required his presence in town, why he was such a nervous wreck this night. Tomorrow he would have to rise and sort out the leadership of his sect and rearrange the Tian Chuang missions that had previously been assigned to Four Seasons disciples. Tomorrow he would have to stop acting like a child pretending he wasn’t sobbing over his shifu’s monument and act like a sect leader again.

                Tonight there was a jar of wine and plenty to replace it once it ran empty. Maybe Kexing was the sort of drunk who spilled secrets when he drank too much, it was a good enough excuse as any to grab the bottle and serve them both.

                “A-Xu, you haven’t eaten.” Kexing pointed out, though he took the cup without complaint. Zhou Zishu had no intention to, either, but if it would get his mouthy companion to drink than fine. He took a large bite of a peach that was still slightly sour and chased it with his wine. “How indecent, A-Xu, you flirt.”

                “You chose this food, you menace.” Really, laying out a selection of foods and then complaining when someone eats them, how ridiculous could a person be?

                “Naturally, I intended you to use a knife. Has no one ever taught you table manners?” The fact that there was a small knife on the tray beside the spoons and chopsticks had not escaped his notice, it was only that he wanted the eating portion of this endeavor to be over quickly and there was no way he was eating from a plate of nuts when he could clearly see walnuts in the selections. Thus, he had chosen the most expedient route available and bitten directly into the fruit. It had been, in hindsight, poorly calculated considering his current company.

                “Just drink your wine.”

                “Anything for my A-Xu, how could this one deny such a request?” The insufferable man simpered before drinking his cup and refilling both of their glasses and draining that one as well. It was not uncommon to see him drinking from his flask in the evening, so Zishu was not concerned about it, but the pace was still a little alarming particularly when coupled with the nervous energy he had been exuding all night.

                Any other night, Zhou Zishu would rib him and try to pry his secrets out into the open, bloody and writhing, but tonight, with his own demons already half bared to the moonlight, the idea was not so enticing. Instead, he followed suit and threw back his wine and eyed the jug critically. It seemed a waste of time to pour cups if they were just going to drink like a pair of beggars drinking cheap swill with the goal of losing their minds.

                “Grab another couple bottles; Lao Wen, let’s go find better scenery.” So saying, he grabbed the already partially drained jar and stood. Night had truly settled into the corners of the manor by the time they had filled a pair of flasks and absconded out like a pair of thieves. The quiet rustle of even the most industrious disciple long faded into the deadly hush of a place filled only with men lost to the enticing grasp of sleep. Previously, some of those men would be out on missions or returning in these dead hours spattered in blood or gloom, but, for the first time in years, every member of the Four Seasons Pavilion was safely ensconced within the walls of the manor.

                It should have been gratifying, to have his entire sect back where it had always belonged, instead it filled his gut with a sick sense of inevitability that made him want to flee. Running away was an instinct that had been easy to beat out himself in a fight and somehow impossible to sever from nature where his emotions came into play. As always, once he started feeling that nauseating fear of loss rise in him, Zishu turned and headed away from the central halls of the manor and towards the outer orchards. The northern grove was home to the plum trees and a large section of them were completely barren due to some disease that had run rampant while the sect had not been present to cull any diseased trees, but it meant that if someone woke and thought to look for him, they were not likely to look there.

                “I thought we were looking for a better view. Out of season fruit trees don’t strike me as very lovely, A-Xu.” Kexing had been remarkably quiet as they slunk through the silent courtyards, but once he recognized the direction their movement was taking them, his ability to keep his tongue behind his teeth was immediately overcome.

                “The moon will look the same from under a barren tree as under a blooming one.”

                “Hardly, looking at the sky through dead branches. How eerie. Like in a ghost story.” The words themselves were typical, a flurry of playful complaints, but something about the tone caused Zishu to stop in his tracks and turn back towards Kexing. The man wasn’t looking towards him, his face guarded as he eyed the grove of hibernating fruit trees, but his displeasure at the idea of drinking there seemed genuine.

                “Alright Lao Wen, who knew a healer would be afraid of ghosts.” There was a thicket of evergreen magnolia trees a little farther down the mountain, they preferred the warmer weather of the slightly lower altitude, but they would be in full blossom this time of year. “It means more walking, but we can run from the ghosts hidden in the dastardly plum trees, I suppose.”

                “I’m only looking after you, Zhou Zishu!” Wen Kexing exclaimed with a more normal tone, trying to sound righteously offended and landing just this side of affronted. “Or what? Are you a virgin? Are you not afraid of ghosts because of that?”

                “The way you go on, the one between us who’s a virgin is you. There’s no way you could get a girl to stay in a room with you long enough to get her clothes off.” Zishu snapped, feeling strangely offended. He had never much cared about his reputation in that regard on way or the other. It was just one more thing a body did when it was called to, but the way Kexing talked sometimes. Well, Zishu doubted the Ghost Valley Master had had much occasion for using his body for that at any rate.

                “Girls? No. Men? I’ve found men are quite fond of the way I go on, actually.”

                Zishu needed a drink. Thankfully, they were finally approaching the magnolia trees. They were less carefully cultivated than the fruit and flower trees kept around the Four Seasons manor, more of a flowering forest than grove, but the disciples of the manor still took the time to maintain the area. The trees were indeed in full flower and the heady scent of the waxy white flowers filled the night air. It was, he had to admit, a significantly better view than the spindly bare branches of the plum trees.

                Kexing seemed to agree as he nodded approvingly and immediately settled himself on the edge of the grove, pulling his flask out to get back to what they started in the kitchen.

                “Not wasting any time, hm?” Zishu asked as he joined him and pulled out his own wine.

                “What’s there to waste? We don’t know how much time we might have. The flow of fate waits for no one.” Kexing was in a strange mood today. Would that Zishu was in his right mind to probe it. Instead, they got to sit and brood together. All the melodrama felt a little much, they were certainly both too old for such.

                “The flow of fate? What is a healer but a man tasked with turning back fate?” If Kexing was a real healer, that might even have been true. He was a talented enough martial artist that that prowess focused elsewhere would have been the sort of skill that could change death to life, but instead here they were. Two dealers of death drinking themselves silly in the moonlight.

                “Pei, how ridiculous. No one gets to be that impressive. Even the mystic Healer Valley fell to the avarice of men.” Kexing scoffed, vitriol dripping from his voice. It was odd to hear him so earnest. Even at his most honest, in the hazy afternoons when they were doing nothing but whatever passed for flirting or fighting that they did, Kexing kept himself carefully removed. He held himself at a distance that was required by anyone acting as a spy in a hostile environment. But that mask had dropped, just a fraction of an inch.

                It was too much temptation for even Zishu’s terrible mood, and he snatched at it with less care than he normally would.

                “Mm, yes. And what avarice drives this man?” He knew as soon as the words were out that they had been the wrong words, that he should have pointed out that Healer Valley had not been completely blameless in the farce that had played out over a decade ago. He should have played into Kexing’s interest in Zishu’s affections, tried to twist his anger into a weakness that would loosen his tongue. Of all the things he had learned about Kexing, the first he had noted was that greed was the least likely of things driving the Ghost Valley attacks.

                And sure enough. “Why, Lord Zhou, if I didn’t know better, I would think you were looking for a particular answer.” The change in address would have been irritating on any day, but today, after mentally accepting that his thirty-two brothers were all mentally shifting from viewing him as their brother to viewing him as an outsider, it scalded like too-hot tea.

                “That came out wrong. I-“

                “You what? Want to know what I came here to steal? Do you think I was in town today acting out the part of some small-time thief-in-the-night? After the secrets of Four Seasons Pavilion?” Now Kexing was truly ranting, his already tenuous temper set off by whatever accusation he was reading into Zishu’s words. “I hardly think some prince’s cousin who stole an entire Jianghu sect has any right to be pointing fingers.”

                It was like the entire night went silent. At his side, Kexing’s mouth was still moving, still spitting bile at him. He wasn’t sure if the accusations were getting more accurate. Wasn’t sure if Tian Chuang or his position in it was also compromised. All he could process was this. The hollow pressure of this truth.

                That was what had happened, wasn’t it? He had been handed the position of leader of a sect and his cousin had called him to the Imperial City and he had gone. He had taken 81 brothers with him and barely brought 32 out. Wasn’t that as good as him killing them? What if Kexing had waited another year or two before starting these attacks on Jianghu? What if he had never started at all? Would Zishu have languished in Da Qing forever, until there was no one remaining from Four Seasons Pavilion at all?

                The thought terrified him, not because it seemed so impossible, but because it seemed like it was the only other possibility.

                He stood, his head throbbing. He couldn’t bear to look at Kexing, to see if he was still yelling. It felt as though his stomach was going to turn inside out and he couldn’t imagine what his face was doing. He didn’t want Kexing to see whatever it was at any rate, so he did what he always did. He fled.

 

--

 

                Zhou Zishu was not sure how long he would have avoided Wen Kexing for if he had not heard Qin Juixiao muttering to himself about having to go back to being on kitchen duty by himself.

                “What are you talking about? Does Kexing think he will get to stay on for free?” He questioned, already planning how to avoid the man while ensuring he was still doing something to earn his keep.

                “No, shixiong. He informed the elders yesterday that he would be leaving. We all assumed you had been told.” The ‘you’re so close’ went unsaid. Wise choice, if Juixiao had said something so impertinent, Zishu would have broken his legs. As it was, the current focus of his ire was Wen Kexing.

                What followed was the most hectic hour Zishu had had to deal with since returning to Jianghu. Between informing Bi Changfeng of his imminent departure and leaving instruction regarding emergency precautions, having a couple younger disciples pack his bag and prepare his wallets, and actually finding Wen Kexing he could have used a day or two to actually plan this all out.

                Finding the younger man turned out to actually be no problem as he had wasted no time at all and was already at the entrance gates, fully packed and waiting for the bars to be raised so that he could leave.

                “Wen Kexing. Leaving without informing the Sect Leader?” It would have been funny to watch those broad shoulders slump in defeat if Zishu wasn’t already furious at having to improvise an entire exit strategy for himself when Kexing simply telling him the day before that he was leaving would have saved him the trouble. It hadn’t taken much thought to put the pieces together. Between the escalation in attacks over the past month, the strange mood the evening before, and the sudden departure; something must have begun happening in Ghost Valley that required the presence of the leader.

                “Ah, A-Xu. What a surprise. I was under the impression you were busy today!” The glare the man sent towards one of the nearby disciples strongly suggested who his informant was. Too bad for him, the best informant in the world means nothing if your plans are in the know of people with loose lips. “Sorry for the trouble, I received notice just yesterday, my old job is back!”

                “Oh, what wonderful news! You must be very excited to be able to go back to your calling.” Zhou Zishu replied with all the false sincerity such obviously fake information called for. The disciples that had been standing nearby were gradually edging away from what they clearly deemed to be an imminent warzone, but he didn’t let that bother him. Months of getting into verbal and physical altercations with Kexing had ground out what little shame he had very effectively.

                “Yes, so wonderful, so if you’ll excuse me! Thank you for your hospitality, Lord Zhou! I’ll just be on my way!” As if. There was no way he was letting the Ghost Valley Master out of his sight for longer than it took for him to piss.

                “Of course. I’ll accompany you. In these troubled times, how could I allow a lone healer wander by himself?”

 

 

Chapter Text

                “A-Xu, you simply cannot leave the manor for so long unattended, and on such short notice!” They had been having this argument in some form or another since they had left the Four Seasons Manor over an hour ago. Zhou Zishu would have been annoyed if he wasn’t so amused by Wen Kexing’s transparent determination to turn him away.

                “I’m certain my disciples can manage themselves for a couple weeks while I transport a lonely healer to his sect.” Zishu replied. He had been giving some version of the same response to every new argument Kexing came up with. Judging by the tension steadily growing across the other man’s shoulders, it was finally beginning to grate on his patience.

                When Zishu had heard that Kexing was making a hasty escape from the manor, his initial thought had been that he was fleeing the awkwardness of their fight under the moonlight. The timing had aligned, but Kexing had never shown himself to be someone who cared much for difficult social situations, so he had discarded that notion. The only other thing that made sense, because him going back to some make believe job with a sect that supposedly had been attacked was completely implausible, was that there was trouble in Ghost Valley that required the Valley Master to intervene directly.

                It didn’t account for the strange mood Kexing had been in the night they had their fight, but Zishu figured that he would be able to tease that information out of the man on their long trek across Jianghu to the Fengya Mountains. Oh, Kexing had only said that he was headed to a little town south of White Deer Village, but Zishu had not led a group of assassins and spies for over six years for nothing.

                The only thing to do after parsing the why of his sudden retreat was to ensure Four Seasons Pavilion was as well-equipped to handle its lord’s long absence as it could be and get packed. In this, at least, the timing was fortuitous. After all, his sect had only two days ago made a clean break from Tian Chuang and by extension, to some extent, himself. They must believe themselves capable of standing on their own against the other Martial Sects or they would have said something.

                So, Zhou Zishu grabbed the first disciple he ran into and told him to hold Wen Kexing up at the front gate if he got there first and went to brief Bi Changfeng and An Yan on his plan.

                The meeting had not gone as smoothly as he had anticipated. Truthfully, Zhou Zishu had expected barely disguised relief at the news that the sect would be free of not just their resident wild card, but also their only remaining link to court politics. Instead, An Yan had flatly refused his declaration of intent to leave the manor and Bi Changfeng had looked disappointed in the way parents did when their children were acting in a way they expected but had hoped they wouldn’t.

                It had been disconcerting enough to cause Zhou Zishu to lose some of his careful control of his temper, sharply reminding them both that he was still the Manor Lord even if they did not like it. It was still his decision to leave or stay. It had shut them both up long enough for him to leave his instructions. He hoped they wouldn’t be necessary, but the manor still had a couple of the mechanical sparrows designed by the Long Cabinet that were functional. Should something happen, the disciples were to send one to find him while using the secret passages to escape. The manor could be rebuilt should the worst happen, but the lives of the sect members were irreplaceable.

                It was at this point that Changfeng had begun to look as though he wanted to add something to the conversation, but Zishu couldn’t bare to hear what he had to say. Either he was going to try to sound considerate and kind, which would be a falsehood, or he was going to point out that the disciples of Four Seasons Pavilion would soon not be his concern, which was the truth, but somehow still inconceivable.

                Instead of waiting for either blow, Zishu left. He had An Yan order a purse packed for his travels and two disciples set to the task of packing a bag with travel clothes and some camping supplies, and marched himself to his rooms to retrieve the Baiyi sword as well as his travel writing set and a small wooden box that could be easily concealed in a sleeve that contained some small pieces of jewelry. The pieces were mostly just small, high value items that would be easy to pawn or trade in a pinch. He had long learned the value of having liquid assets on his person alongside money.

                Thus prepared; and knowing that it wouldn’t take long to prepare his bags, he had marched out to the outer courtyard to confront his wayward guest.

                 An hour later, they were still arguing about whether this was an acceptable use of a sect leader’s time. Zhou Zishu was unsure who was winning, but he was confident that he was at least not losing.

                “But-“ Kexing was turning his shoulders slightly towards Zishu, clearly gearing up for another long tirade about duty and risks and how he was more than capable of taking care of himself. If they were reaching the point of that level of repetition, the Manor Lord felt not remorse in cutting this conversation off.

                “But nothing. I will be escorting you to your sect and that is final. Either you prove you can care for yourself by getting away from me unscathed somehow, or you simply deal with my company.” As expected, the temptation of a challenge causes a gleam of excitement to light up Kexing’s dark eyes. It also causes his mouth to stop flapping for an admirable fifteen minutes as he contemplates the compromise he has just been faced with.

                “By unscathed, you mean?” Zishu smirks at the hesitant tone. As though Kexing has ever been hesitant about anything in his life.

                “I mean that getting into a fight with me is not going to produce the desired result.” He said. The assassin could almost see the wheel’s turning in Kexing’s head. Trying to knock Zishu out was the most straightforward way to escape his presence, but it would result in injuries on both sides. Plus, as Kexing had likely figured out by now, Zhou Zishu would have very little trouble tracking down someone as eye catching as Wen Kexing. There weren’t very many tall, young masters in flamboyant robes wandering Jianghu on their own these days. He was sure to catch more than a little attention just existing.

                “That seems…like a very one-sided compromise.” Kexing pointed out, his eyebrows lowering in vexation.

                “Better than nothing. I intend to see you safely to your sect, be grateful I’m offering a way to get out of that at all.” Zishu pointed out. He contemplated trying to hide his amusement from his unfortunate victim, but decided that it cost him very little to allow Kexing to know that his frustration was entertaining.

                “I am grateful the great Lord Zhou sees fit to escort this lowly one across the whole of Jianghu. So petty an errand would be better delegated to a hired man, surely.” Kexing was not doing much to keep the petulance from his voice. Zishu glanced at him from where he was walking slightly behind only to find that the taller man was actually pouting. His full lower lip jutting out and sharp brows lowered, he was the very picture of a wronged child. Except he was a grown man.

                Zishu was unable to restrain the slight huff of laughter the sight inspired. It surprised him as much as it seemed to shock Kexing. The pout disappeared in an instant as the man stopped in his tracks and spun to stare in wide-eyed wonder at his forced bodyguard.

                “A-Xu, you…” Words seemed to have finally abandoned the normally erudite fiend as he stared. It was only a small chuckle, but Zishu was unsure if he had really laughed in front of Kexing before this. He supposed seeing a normally taciturn person show any amount of human emotion would be cause for some alarm, but the look on Kexing’s face right now wasn’t alarm in the sense he would expect.

                Instead, it was almost wonder.

                “Yes? What about me?” Zishu wondered.

                “So beautiful when you laugh.” Kexing stated, obviously trying for his normal flirtatious tone and missing the mark. He was still looking a little winded, a soft flush coloring his cheeks and brightening his eyes. No one would argue that Wen Kexing was attractive, but seeing him looking like this, soft and pink in the morning sun, was on a different level. “A-Xu should laugh more.”

                “Maybe Lao Wen should be funnier.” Zishu said, more for the routine of their play than anything else, still allowing the smile from earlier to play in the corners of his mouth. He wasn’t sure if it was Kexing himself or just the relief of being away from the tension inside the manor, but it felt easier to smile out here than it had in years. The sunshine felt different, when he could enjoy it with only one set of eyes to observe his basking.

                “So cruel, A-Xu!” The tone evidenced a return to their normal equilibrium. “How will I ever recover?”

                “I’m certain you’ll find a way. Now, are we walking, or are we setting up camp not even an hour from the manor?” At the current rate of travel, it was going to take them a year to get all the way to Ghost Valley. Zishu didn’t find the idea as repulsive as he would have expected.

                “No, no. We can go on. It is only my heart injured; my legs are capable of slightly more wear.” Kexing refuted. He seemed a little serious for the joke, Zishu felt and he let his confusion flit across his face as they began travelling again. Wen Kexing only waved off his questioning look, refusing to answer the unasked question, but it niggled at Zishu as they made their way down the mountain road towards the town closest to Four Seasons Manor.

                In the event that his guess was correct, and the Ghost Valley attacks had reached a point where the oversight of their manufacturer was required, it should not be a pressing matter. At worst, the next phase of the plan would need to be delayed and Jianghu would breathe a sigh of relief at what would appear as a de-escalation of pressure. That might even help in the destabilization efforts as it would put the sect leaders even more on their back foot when the attacks resumed.

                So why the genuine, emotional response to the idea of any delay to their travels? Was their something more pressing awaiting Kexing at the Valley than some ghosts waiting their next order or a firm hand of reprimand? A lover in danger perhaps? Or some little family waiting their older brother or father? It was an odd image to try to fit the flirtatious and flamboyant man Zhou Zishu had come to know into.

                Wen Kexing had presented himself as, at best, a bit of a playboy with an odd penchant towards uptight sect leaders. To imagine him racing home to a pining wife or wailing daughter was odd. Perhaps it was simply that his plans were more time sensitive than Zishu had guessed. It didn’t seem wise to leave time sensitive plans to rot just to go investigate a small sect half the continent away, but Kexing acted half-mad most of the time anyway.

                “What is that face? Don’t furrow your brow like that. You’ll get wrinkles.” He also could never shut up to let another person have a moment to think. At the rate they were going, his was going to be the voice he heard echoing as he crossed the Yellow River. How unfortunate.

                Concentration broken, Zishu furrowed his brow more, just to be contrary. “Who are you to care if I get wrinkles?”

                “I’m the one who has to look at your face, not you!” Kexing exclaimed, looking entirely too offended for the ridiculous conversation. As if Zhou Zishu was going to live long enough to get wrinkles anyway. Assassins and spies rarely lived long enough to show the mark of age on their faces.

                “So look away? No one is forcing you to stare at me.” Kexing made an even more affronted face at that suggestion.

                “And miss one of your smiles? How dare you even suggest such a thing, A-Xu!”

                “Would it help if I promised not to smile?” That got exactly the response Zishu had expected, the affront bubbling up into a shriek of upset.

                “Zhou Zishu, you monster!” Kexing swatted at the Manor Lord with an elegant hand that hardly betrayed the qi turning the fingertips razor sharp. The Valley Master’s pinpoint precision with his qi was always impressive to witness, even when he was on the receiving end of it.

                He dodged the lethal hand, but didn’t bother returning his own attack, only dancing a few feet ahead with his Swift Moving Steps. As expected, his refusal to engage earned him a huff of irritation and a fan thrown at the back of his head. Kexing did nothing to muffle the sound of the projectile, so it was easy to duck and spin out of the way, his heel kicking up a small flurry of sand and pollen onto his attacker’s pristine pink robes.

                It was Kexing’s own fault for wearing such a light color when he knew they were going to be travelling long distances. Any cloth was bound to become travel-stained, let alone the soft pink cotton he had chosen. He still had the audacity to sputter in outrage at the new yellow tinge the pollen had added to the hem.

                “You threw your fan at me and still have the face to be offended by a little dust?” Zishu wondered as he continued on his way, not even bothering to glance back at Kexing. He could hear Kexing following after him while furiously beating at the hem of his outer robe. He wondered if the other man really cared that much about his clothes or if this too was part of the act he put on to try to hide his true identity. His offense seemed genuine, but it was hard to imagine a savage ghost king caring so much about the state of his pretty robes. Still, Zhou Zishu had met plenty of terrible monsters who cared a great deal about their finery, why not one more.

                “If you’re done throwing a tantrum, the town is not going to move towards us.”

                “I’ll be done when you buy me new robes!”

                “The same day you pay me back for the offense of attacking me unprovoked.”

                He grinned to himself as he listened to another round of insulted anger as they walked down to town.

 

--

 

                The first order of business upon arriving in Qishan, the small town closest to Four Seasons Manor, was collecting travel rations and some simple provisions to hold them over until they could reach the nearest city. Qishan was too small to purchase horses at, much less rent a carriage. The best they could hope for was a donkey to carry their packs, but Kexing turned the idea away and simply packed what could fit into his sleeves and slung the rest over his shoulder.

                “A donkey won’t travel fast enough. We might as well hire an old man to carry our bags in that case.” He muttered when Zishu suggested it as they purchased a bag of dried meat. It was the start of summer, so they didn’t need to buy much in the way of foodstuffs, but with speed as a priority, it would save them time if they didn’t need to hunt and scavenge for meals every night they spent away from towns.

Four Seasons Manor was somewhat removed from the nearest bit of civilization, so they would be spending a few nights on leaves and dirt before they could switch to inns and restaurants. As far as Qingya Mountain was concerned, at top speed and with the addition of horses, it would be about two weeks of hard travel to get there. And that was only assuming they encountered no obstacles. Given Zhou Zishu’s history, that seemed supremely unlikely. Bad luck seemed to follow him around like he had been born under an unlucky star.

“Lao Wen, if you’re going to be so picky about seasoning, why not take up a job as a spice trader rather than a healer?” Zishu asked after they had spent a solid fifteen minutes in front of one very put-upon spice vendor’s stall. Kexing seemed to be finding none of the offered seasonings to be up to his particular standards.

“I would, but it is my calling to help those in need. You know, where I was before they called me a great philanthropist.” Kexing replied with great seriousness. Zishu almost snorted. If there was someone calling Wen Kexing a philanthropist in Ghost Valley they must be deranged. “Besides, the life of a tradesman is so mundane. Spending your days stuck in a market stall, never free to wander or go where you please? I think I shall remain a healer with at least the option of roaming from sect to sect, wherever my talents may be of use.”

It was always surprising when Kexing’s flowery speeches gave way to genuine truths. The man was no healer. In the time he had stayed in the Four Seasons Manor the most he had done was treat a few burns caused in the kitchen. However, his need to be free to roam, that had the ring of real truth to it. For Zhou Zishu, who had been shackled by duty to first his sect and then his prince since before even his crowning ceremony, it was a distant dream beyond the realm of possibility.

“No, a shackle wouldn’t suit you, Lao Wen.” Meeting honestly with honesty always drew out the most enjoyable reactions from Wen Kexing and this time was no exception. The taller man had stopped critiquing the array of spices laid out in front of him and was now openly staring at Zishu, his eyes wide and guileless in surprise. The assassin took the opportunity to turn them away from the stand before they could waste anymore time, gripping an arm garbed in soft pink and guiding his travel companion on their way.

It took several long minutes for Kexing to sort out whatever was buzzing through his head and Zishu just enjoyed the rare silence and took advantage of it to hurry them the rest of the way out of the market square and towards the edge of town. The sun was still high in the sky despite their dawdling, and it would be better to cover more ground and camp than enjoy the luxury of an inn so close to where they started.

“A-Xu, I wasn’t done shopping!” Of course, as soon as he regained control of his pretty mouth, Kexing was right back to being the most irritating person in Kun.

“We are not wasting an entire day shopping, Lao Wen.” Zhou Zishu stated firmly and continued marching down the road leading out of town. “Besides, are you willing to delay your return for shopping and play?”

He honestly expected an equally irreverent answer to his question. Kexing so rarely answered questions with anything other than ridiculous flirting or playful whining, so the raw truth in his answer caused Zishu to pause to reevaluate what exactly they were going to Ghost Valley for exactly.

“No. You’re right. I’m not.” What sort of plan did Kexing have in place that so desperately required his presence? How important to him was this plan that he was willing to abandon what seemed to be a dedicated long-con in favor of racing away without preamble to tend to it? From what Zishu had learned of him in the last two months, Wen Kexing was a paradox of a person. He seldom lied, but he never spoke the whole truth. He wore his heart on his sleeve, but he pretended that every emotion he displayed was fake. He appeared out of nowhere dressed like a young lordling and said he was a homeless healer.

And now, without any prior warning, he was throwing away months of work worming his way into Zhou Zishu’s hard-won good graces to trek back to literal hell on earth.

  What was his plan?

And what was Zhou Zishu going to tell Helian Yi about that plan?

 

Chapter Text

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!”

 

Chapter Text

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.

 

Chapter Text

Chapter 9

                Zhiji. It would figure that the first person to stand before him and claim they were soulmates would be the leader of a valley of murderous ghosts. Who could know the soul of a murderer better than someone tainted by evil himself? Even if Zhou Zishu had a hard time seeing pure darkness when he stared into Wen Kexing’s eyes, there was no denying the man was built for violence the same way Zishu was.

                Was it a good thing that the corruption of his soul was not a burden placed on someone blameless? He tried to imagine sharing the sort of connection he had with Kexing with someone as naïve and innocent as Qin Jiuxiao and recoiled from the image. He loved his shidi, cared about his wellbeing more than his own, but they were not equals. No one who needed the sort of constant protection that Jiuxiao did could ever stand on the same footing as Zishu, even if they were an unparalleled martial artist.

                For all the frustration Zishu felt on a daily basis dealing with Kexing, he never felt as though he needed to protect him from the evil in the world. What small pieces of innocence Kexing occasionally presented were deliberate and careful caricatures of reality. Whether he played the part of childishness for Zhou Zishu’s benefit or his own was irrelevant, it wasn’t something that needed to be protected.

                So why then did having this man admit that he knew even a small part of the sins staining Zishu’s hands feel like losing something innocent and precious? It was not as though Wen Kexing’s identity had ever really been much of a secret to Zishu, though the man had kept up his transparent ruse about returning to a non-existent job as a healer. It should have stood to reason that Kexing would have some knowledge of what he was walking into before approaching Four Seasons Manor.

                The fact that it made sense did not make the feeling of nausea ease or the ephemeral fear that seemed to be clawing at his brain go away.

                Every instinct in him was expecting to turn towards Kexing in time to catch a quickly shuttered expression. He kept pricking his ears for whispers cut off before his approaching steps drew too close. Wen Kexing had nothing in common with the members of Four Seasons Pavilion. He had, in fact, seemed largely dismissive of them for the time he had stayed among them, but Zhou Zishu had spent the approaching dusk haunted by the afterimage of a return to the detached life he had been living for years now.

                Contrary to that expectation, Kexing had actually spent the hours they expended between leaving Nan He and the full cover of darkness trying wriggle into his personal space, catch his eye or attain even a few words of conversation. The normally sticky man refused to put more than a foot of distance between them, constantly clutching at sleeves and robe when Zishu made to lengthen that space and rambled inanely about everything from the wear of the road to the color of the sky.

                “A-Xu, do you hear water? Nan He is a city on a lake, there must be a river that empties into it, right?” Kexing was saying. He had just switched his grip from a trailing sleeve to the back of Zishu’s outer robe after the assassin had shaken him off for the third time in the hour. “If we set up camp near the river, we can have fish for dinner. The sun only just set, if we choose a spot now, we can probably still find fish.”

                The sky was bruise dark, but there was enough light left lingering on the horizon for a pair of skilled martial artists to catch themselves dinner. Zhou Zishu did not find himself particularly hungry. He continued walking without acknowledging Kexing’s suggestion, hardly even registering it as a suggestion.

                “Wait, A-Xu!” Clearly expecting at least a pause, Kexing had stopped to consider the stand of trees slightly removed from the road and had lost hold of Zishu’s robes when he did not wait even a second. “Zhou Zishu! Enough!”

                The frustration in Kexing’s voice wasn’t what caused Zishu to finally stop and turn to face him. He had sounded frustrated for about as long as he had been trying to get a response out of him. But that had been frustration mixed with demanding. A sort of wheedling tone that suggested he already knew he would get his way eventually and just had to act annoying for long enough and Zishu would just give in.

                This time there was fear.

                Wen Kexing was not a man who struck Zishu as the type to easily come to the point of being afraid. He was proud and stubborn and more than capable of destroying whatever threats might come for him. Fear was for those who could do nothing against their enemies.

                What enemy was it now that was causing his voice to go sharp and high? Was Zishu keeping his silence for a few hours really so bad that Kexing was willing to act like this?

                “You know. You know I don’t care that you’ve killed people.” The tremble in his voice seemed too genuine to be a ruse, but Zishu had a hard time imagining Kexing so desperate from simply silence. “I don’t know why you get like this. But it can’t be because of me. I’ve killed people too. I told you, we’re made from the same stuff. But you still went away like before.” He heaved in a rasping breath. It didn’t catch in his throat, but Zishu could almost feel the way it would have. He could see the way that long, pale column would work around the hitch of air and emotion before forcing it down and out.

                It was easy to imagine since it was a motion long made familiar in his own body.

                “I don’t know what happened last time. I just heard that kid Jiuxiao complaining that his shixiong was locked up in his room all day. You were the same that day.” The words were pouring out faster now, as though Kexing was worried that if he didn’t get all the words out fast, Zishu would stop him, and the chance would be lost. “You can yell at me or say we’re not the same. I don’t care. But don’t do this. Don’t just leave and run off with just your body moving around without you.”

                There were words to be said here. Things Zhou Zishu should offer up to explain himself. Make a joke about just wanting a few minutes of quiet, or not having anything to say in the flow of Kexing’s endless river of bullshit. He wanted to say something. The press of gentle reassurance as familiar as the hilt of a sword. Hadn’t he spent the last six years offering such empty platitudes to the disciples of his sect?

                But, as he looked into desperate eyes now, he felt helplessly trapped. As though he was a mere passenger in his body, unable to change the course or even call out.

                Something of this helplessness must have shown in his eyes, on his face, or else Kexing truly did know how to read his soul, because the tirade of pleas stopped as quickly as they began, dried up in the face of whatever Zishu was displaying currently.

                Why was it like this? How was he so out of control of his own body? He believed that, if there was cause to fight, he could pull Baiyi out and do what needed to be done, but, in the face of peace. It was like steering a rudderless boat. The river took him where it willed, and he had no say in it.

                Today, the river was named “Wen Kexing”.

                The stream of conversation kept coming as they wandered off the road and into the trees. It continued while Kexing picked up bits of deadfall wood and piled it in Zishu’s arms. The words did not even dry up as the feared leader of Ghost Valley hiked up his skirts and muddied the hems of his trousers to catch them their dinner. Zishu followed along as though led on a string, contributing nothing to the one-sided flow, but not fleeing into the gathering dark either.

                By the time they had a small fire crackling in front of them and two fish cleaned of guts and scales roasting away, the faint hints of light from the day had long perished. Kexing was still sitting entirely too close, but for once, it didn’t feel like an imposition. It felt like an anchor. A voice calmly repeating ‘I’m here, I’m here’ every time Zishu felt his mind wandering.

               

--

 

Their quiet fireside calm was shattered before Zishu was ever able to find out if the fish were any good or not by a sharp screech of fear followed by the hard crack of skin on skin. Zishu snapped to attention in the same instant as Kexing, both of them on their feet and racing towards the disturbance without any words needed.

Zhou Zishu would never label himself as a hero and he doubted Wen Kexing would either, but trouble this close to a famous sect, with them making more than a bit of spectacle of themselves leaving, would only spell trouble in the long run. It was better to deal with whatever idiot got themselves ambushed on a dark road out of town than to have half of Jianghu out for their blood over a simple mistake.

As soon as they made it to the location where the noise had originated, it became clear that this was more than a simple bandit attack. At first glance, Zishu fully believed they had stumbled onto the scene of an assassination.

Before them, slumped boneless on the dirt, was a small figure, clearly a child and not moving now. They were likely the one who had screamed, a vain hope that someone would arrive in time to stop the inevitable. Crouched over them with one small arm still clenched in a tight hold was who could only be the child’s attacker.

The assassin, if that was what they were, could not have been much more than a child themselves. Made genderless in dark robes and the deepening night, they were slight and too small to be a full adult. Zishu supposed they might be a small woman, but something about the wound-tight way they were holding themselves now that they had been discovered spoke loudly of inexperience and youth.

Zishu remembered holding his own body that way the first time he slid a knife into someone’s back and watched them crumble.

He wondered if this death had been an accident. A kidnapping gone wrong. The child laid out supine on the forest floor was dressed nicely, that much was easy to see even in the dark. Perhaps their child assassin had been hired to steal some rich little master and struck too hard when his biddable prey suddenly raised the alarm.

It was better not to make assumptions, Zishu reminded himself. This could very well be some sort of set up. He did not like the idea of wandering into a trap baited for bigger quarry.

As though reading his mind and making up his own to do the opposite of what wisdom he found there, Wen Kexing was already striding into the open, calling out cheerfully as though greeting a friend and not some would-be killer in the dark.

“Greetings, young master! It looks as though your friend there has hurt himself.” Kexing sang out pleasantly. Zishu only restrained himself from yanking him back through years of experience in working with sudden obstacles and problems. “I happen to be a healer, perhaps I could take a look?”

A healer, my ass. You’re going to be a cadaver when I get my hands on you. Zishu thought viciously, even as he followed a pace behind. The small figure in black had shifted to place himself in between them and the fallen child, either to hide the extent of the damage or to protect his investment from being poached.

“Back off. We don’t need any help.” Blatantly untrue. The kid may not need a couple of helpful heroes trying to whisk away his prize, but he could certainly use backup of some sort.

Wen Kexing seemed to share Zishu’s incredulity. “We’re not going to hurt you, but your friend seems in a bad way.” He was using the sort of cajoling tone someone might use to lure a wary dog closer. It made Zishu shiver. “If you’d just just allow me to look him over-“

“No! Come any closer and you’ll get hurt too.” The vicious child hissed. It was obvious he was trying to appear in control of the situation but had not made plans for what to do when confronted with two people who could potentially overwhelm him. Who had sent someone so green out to kidnap a child of a rich sect? Did they want him to get caught? It was nothing short of a miracle he had even gotten this far.

Still, a threat was a threat. Zhou Zishu moved faster than the eye could follow, flowing through the Swift Moving Steps to come to rest with Baiyi pressed against a narrow, supple throat.

He would give the child this, he did not flinch at the steel against his artery. It spoke of more experience than Zishu expected, and he mentally increased the danger he represented by a few notches. He was still much too young to be any kind of threat to Zishu or Kexing, but it was better to overestimate an opponent than underestimate and be caught off-guard.

Wen Kexing was showing none of that appropriate caution, already kneeling beside the prone figure of the young child and grasping one narrow wrist to investigate the situation. The child kidnapper before them looked livid at the intrusion, but he could do nothing with cold steel pressed to his vitals.

“What reward were you hoping for in kidnapping this one?” Zishu asked. He didn’t expect an honest response, but lies could be as telling as truths. What information was purposefully not included had been enough for Zishu to parse out plots against his prince in the past.

“I didn’t kidnap him! This is my friend, he just fainted suddenly.” The teen spat out. He made a move as though to jerk either away from Zhou Zishu looming over him or towards Wen Kexing who had finished his examination and was carefully drawing the small child away from his kidnapper. “Let him go! He’s coming with me!”

Zishu pressed Baiyi more firmly into his throat, drawing a thin line of blood that caused the child to freeze once more.

“I have little interest in killing children, but I will no hesitate if you move again.” Zishu warned, his tone cold and removed. He had stabbed Baiyi through younger targets with less motive. Killing this one would be unfortunate, but hardly the worst thing he had done. “Why are you so insistent on him going with you? You’re clearly in no condition to care for him if you’ve already been unable to keep him from fainting.”

“Shut up! You know nothing! He has to come with me!” Has to. An interesting choice of words. So there was someone more powerful ordering the little soldier around. That made sense, though it left many more questions behind. Some of them may be answered with the identity of the young child currently being lifted and carried away by Kexing. He had not stirred throughout the entire argument.

 It would worry Zishu more if Kexing had made any move to suggest serious damage. Since the other man seemed calm and unconcerned, Zishu maintained his focus on the more immediate problem.

They were already going to have to deal with one unconscious child, it would not be convenient to carry around another comatose ward, especially one that might wake spitting venom. They also couldn’t just let him go. He would surely carry word of their appearance and location to whoever was controlling him and that would create more problems than Zishu was prepared to deal with.

The decision of whether to carry around an active threat, let the threat go and potentially create more problems, or simply kill it and accept the additional karmic reckoning was taken out of his hands as a sudden movement in the trees to his left drew his attention. A small knife, cruelly curved and expertly thrown, was inches from Kexing’s shoulder as the man twisted to protect his young burden.

Zishu swiftly knocked the knife off course, his Swift Moving Steps carrying him to easily intercept the projectile.

It left the teenaged kidnapper free to make his own escape, fleeing for the dark edge of the tree line as another knife flew towards Kexing, forcing Zishu to remain guarding his back as the child escaped. No more knives came flying after the second, and Zishu expected the assailant had also disappeared.

“I expect that will not be the last we hear from that one.” Kexing said. He looked unconcerned about the potential trouble their escapee represented, more focused on adjusting the small child in his arms to a more comfortable position. “Who do you suppose this young man is to already have such dangerous enemies?”

“They’re more likely his father’s enemies, though what they wanted and how they expected to get it with the child will be easier to gauge once we know who he is.” Zishu pointed out. Kexing shrugged, he more than likely had already guessed that a child this young was not the main target of the attack. “Will he wake soon? It would be better to know this information now, so we can decide how to proceed.”

He was unconvinced returning the child to his original location was the best idea. One teenaged ruffian had already been enough to remove him from his home. With the failure of the first attack, the second would likely be more forceful. Besides, Zishu was not sure keeping the child alive was a priority.

Of course, he also didn’t want to deal with the burden of a child of barely seven or eight as he stalked the Ghost Valley Master to Qingya mountain. Keeping up with Wen Kexing’s childlike exuberance was more than enough already.

“He’s unconscious from a blow to the temple. It wouldn’t be enough to keep an adult under for more than minute or two, so he will likely wake up soon.” Kexing was already carrying the child off, headed back towards the small camp they had set up. It seemed like hours since Zishu had been lost in a daze and Kexing had been worriedly dragging him through the motions of life.

He could still feel that strange removal lingering. It was tempting to fall into that cold removal, to just carry on the motions without engaging with the emotions. Looking back, the last year or two had been spotted with the same mental lethargy. As more and more of his sect was annihilated and he lost more and more faith in Helian Yi’s grand vision, it had often come over him, more frequently as time went on.

Would there be a point in time when he only felt that cold removal. What would he be then? A creature of base instincts following the orders of a man he no longer had faith in? That was the end result of his choices, wasn’t it. To become nothing but a sword in the hands of more powerful men.

He shook the thoughts off. There were more immediate concerns to deal with. If his fate was to become some cold, unfeeling thing, he would first see his sect liberated and finish out the mission with Wen Kexing.

Said man was laying the child they had rescued down beside the small fire they had set up. In the firelight, it became more obvious that this was the child of a wealthy family. His kidnapper had been too determined to keep him, even at the threat of his life, for this abduction to be about money. There must be a larger plot regarding this one.

As though realizing he was under scrutiny, the young man began to stir. He woke like a pampered child, first wrinkling his nose before groaning lowly and turning to curve away from the light of the fire.

“Nnn, just a little longer, close the curtains, please. It’s too early.” The high whine of a child. Kexing was smirking, chuckling quietly at the boy’s antics. Zishu found it in himself to keep his face blank, even as he was tempted to snort in amusement as well. So much for his vague concern about trauma and irrational fear.

“I fear there are no curtains to close here. You may as well get up, young master.” Kexing managed through his giggles. He was crouched a respectful distance from the child, attempting to appear as unthreatening as a strange man in a dark forest could. Zishu had never been good at making himself appear small and harmless, so he maintained his distance on the other side of the fire to allow Kexing to interact with their rescue.

“What? Wait, where am I?” The child finally fully roused, jolting upright with surprising speed. “Where’s that man? Did he knock me out just to dump me here? Who are you? Did you kill him? Are you working with him?”

“We’re not working with anyone, young master. We just happened to be in the area and intercepted your abductor.” Kexing replied soothingly. He didn’t address the majority of the flurry of questions, but the statement of reassurance seemed to be enough for the young child to relax slightly. “Why don’t we have introductions before we get into why you were taken, hm? I’m Wen Kexing and this is my…my friend Zhou Zishu.”

Zishu noticed the pause before the statement of friend. He knew what Kexing would rather call him, but he appreciated the decision to not just announce it to a random child.

“I am Zhang Chengling, of the Mirror Lake Sect.” The boy announced, bowing slightly from his position on the ground. He seemed unaware of the icy stillness that had descended at his announcement.

Great, Zhou Zishu thought, right after we get out of an altercation with one Zhang child, we immediately grab another. There’s no way this could end badly.

 

Chapter Text

                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.

 

Chapter Text

Chapter 11

                Convincing Zhang Chengling to accompany them for a time before returning to his family was distressingly easy. True enough, he was only eight years old, but he had also just been kidnapped. Did martial sects not teach basic self-preservation these days?

                It was obvious from Wen Kexing’s flabbergasted expression that a similar thought was crossing his mind at all. Zhou Zishu had assumed he would have at least a bit of a fight on his hands in suggesting that Chengling come with them for the time being, but instead he had only gotten a trusting acquiescence and query as to where they were headed.

                “Wen-shu, Zhou-shu, are we going somewhere specific?” Zishu could tell that that tone of innocent respect was going to grow tiresome very quickly. “I know you said we’re headed to Wen-shu’s old job. But where is that? Is it far? Do we need to alert my parents? Is it dangerous?”

                “Silly child, you need to let someone reply in order to get answers to questions.” Kexing at least seemed simply amused by the deluge. That made sense though. Chatterbox solidarity at its finest. “As for where we’re headed, it’s a small sect near the Qingzhu Mountains. I doubt the name is widely known enough to matter, but that’s the general direction.”

                “Oh, so when the child asks where we’re going, you answer, but when I want to know…” Zishu trailed off, glaring half-heartedly at his companion. It was obvious why Kexing had not wanted to admit to the end goal of this journey, after all, Zhou Zishu was old enough to know that no martial sect was going to set up that close to Ghost Valley.

                “Is that really far away?” Chengling barreled on. He spared Zishu an apologetic look at the interruption but didn’t go so far as to actually retract his question.

                “From here, it is perhaps another week or so of travel. More if we need to stop frequently.” Kexing was giving Chengling an appraising look as he answered. There was no need, apart from being young, the boy had obviously not begun even the smallest portion of martial training. Their travels were going to slow dramatically with him along.

                That wasn’t even mentioning the time lost from having to backtrack to retrieve their horses from the meadow they had left them in. In his state of strange dissociation, Zhou Zishu had hardly noticed them leaving town without the animals. It was only by the light of the dawn that he had realized that they were missing.

                Now they had lost half the day to recovering their rides and would likely lose more time in accommodating a child. Chengling was an adaptable little thing, readily accepting being placed in front of Zhou Zishu on his mount and holding on for dear life. It was quickly clear that horseback riding was also an area he had little to no experience as he clung desperately to the saddle horn and tried not to slip from side to side.

                “Perhaps we should rent a carriage…” Wen Kexing remarked as he watched Zishu straighten the leaning child for the third time. “It couldn’t possible cost us more time than trying to keep this silly child upright on a horse.”

                Zishu did not want to admit that Kexing had a point. He had been the one to insist that Chengling was small enough to double ride with him after all.

                Chengling gasped and lurched to the side as their mount shifted to avoid an obstacle in their path. Zishu righted him before heaving a deep sigh and shoving his pride down.

                “Yes. In the next town we’ll see if anyone has a rental available.” He grimaced as he considered the cost. He knew who would be footing that bill. Kexing more often than not acted as though he had lost his wallet, constantly pouting and begging until Zishu gave in and paid for whatever his companion wanted.

                He was going soft. First allowing the flowery pestilence of a Valley Master into his space and now all but adopting a kid. What next? A puppy to cuddle and pamper?

                Zishu scoffed at the mental picture of Wen Kexing snuggled up with Chengling and a puppy. It felt more likely than it really should. Terrible.

                “I’m okay. We can keep going like this!” The small boy piped up, interrupting the disturbing fantasy Zishu was lost in. Of course, almost immediately he slipped sideways and almost fell from the saddle.

               

--

 

                Thankfully, they were only a few miles out from town. When they dismounted it was obvious Chengling was saddle sore, but he bore it gracefully. The waddle in his step made Zishu chuckle before he could stop himself. He remembered the first time he had trained in horse back riding and spent the subsequent day walking like someone had shoved a stick up his ass.

                The reminder of the idyllic peace he had enjoyed before his shifu died and left him with the responsibility of eighty-one lives and a legacy quickly soured his mood. It also reminded him that he now had information to pass to Helian Yi. Hopefully enough to direct his attention away from Ghost Valley and its master and onto the Five Lakes Alliance.

                With that in mind, Zishu sent Kexing off to collect a carriage and a horse more suited to the task while he took Chengling and found a quiet place to pen a report to his prince.

                “Who are you writing to? Is it important? Are you telling my parents where I am? My mother will worry, I should write to her. We were supposed to have tea today.” Chengling chattered away as Zishu wrote. The boy was content to sit, only swinging his legs and leaning back and forth as he waited. However, it was increasingly obvious that the child they had collected was incapable of being quiet for longer than a handful of minutes.

                “I’m writing a report. We can send a letter to your family once this is complete.” Zishu replied concisely. It was not difficult to split his attention between his report and the child. In fact, the report was going somewhat poorly. He knew the information he should include. His suspicions about Kexing and his motives. The new intelligence he had gained in regards to Ghost Valley and its actions.

                But the idea of turning Helian Yi’s obsessive and violent attention onto the man he had come to care for rankled his nerves. It felt like a betrayal. It felt like finding another disciple of Four Seasons Pavilion dead. Like he was failing someone he had sworn himself to.

                He had betrayed so many of his brothers. Allowed them to die meaningless deaths in the service of a man who cared little for the bodies he left in his wake. Helian Yi may be the best choice of the options available but uprooting his sect and acting as his secret army had been a mistake.

                Zhou Zishu refused to betray another person’s trust.

                The report brushed over any information specifically about Wen Kexing, including only the story of the Glazed Armor and the hands of the men who held those pieces.

                A plan began to form in Zishu’s mind as he wrote. If he could divert the Crown Prince’s attention onto the Five Lakes Alliance and this mythical artifact, there was a possibility he could sever Four Seasons Manor’s attachment to Tian Chuang. If he implied the sect had been wiped out in the resulting chaos of the imperial army colliding with Jianghu, what could Helian Yi do but believe him?

                The idea was vague. It would require inciting violence between two worlds that more often than not stayed strictly apart from each other. It would require the delicate work of ensuring Helian Yi’s reputation did not suffer in this quest.

                For all that, Zhou Zishu felt the first stirring of hope. It may be fewer than half of the men he had been entrusted with, but he was going to save them. He could do this.

                “Should we tell them where we’re going? I think my father would prefer to know exactly where I am.” Zishu jerked out of his thoughts, noticing his brush had stilled over paper as he considered what the future could hold.

                “We can inform them of our general direction, but it would be best if we were not specific in case the letter is intercepted.” Zishu replied. His report was complete, and he rolled it up, setting it aside to be handed to a courier. Tian Chuang used a series of complex codes to encrypt their letters, so the common mailing system for this was fine.

                “Oh…are you sure I can’t simply return home, Zhou-shu? I miss my mother.” Chengling queried. Zishu wished there was a way to easily return the child to his family. He wished they lived in a world where there was enough honor in men to prevent them from targeting children in their desperate grasping for power.

                “I will find a way to get you home as soon as I can. Just think of this as an adventure.” They did not live in that world. So long as there was a belief that Zhang Yusen possessed an item that could change the landscape of Jianghu, Chengling would always be a target.

                In an attempt to distract him, Zishu pulled out a second sheet of paper and handed the brush over, nudging the inkstone into reaching distance.

                Chengling, for the first time, demonstrated that there was some sort of training going on. He held the brush with delicate confidence, brushing his sleeve out of his way as he placed bristles to paper and began writing. Without thinking, Zishu nudged his elbow slightly up.

                “Pay attention to your posture, if you hunch your characters will become cramped as your back strains.” Zishu murmured gently, remembering a dozen lessons he had gone through at this age.

                “Yes, shushu.” Chengling replied politely, correcting his posture slightly. Zhou Zishu nodded approvingly as he continued writing. His characters were still slightly sloppy, likely as a result of his age. It was something that would improve with time and practice.

                He only realized he had fallen into the role of a teacher a few moments later. How odd, that something he had long left in the past could be so easy to bring back up.

                He had never been a good teacher, too eager for perfection and expecting the same level of dedication he had from those he was training. As soon as he was able, he had left the training of new recruits to the more senior members of the Four Seasons Manor. The men of his shifu’s generation had never complained about shouldering that responsibility, but many of the shidi from his generation had despaired that without practice Zishu would never be able to lead the next generation.

                Those lighthearted reprimands had vanished as the years passed and Zishu never showed an interest in preserving their legacy with a sixth generation. He was sure most of them assumed he was too entrenched in capital politics to care, but the truth was…

                How could he doom another generation of children to the suffering he had already placed on the heads of those who trusted him?

                In the first year under Helian Yi’s command, he had chosen new Tian Chuang recruits with an eye towards those who might make good sixth generation disciples as well. Children with bright eyes, wide meridians and loyalty already steeped in their bones. Those dreams had disintegrated after the first disciple of Four Seasons Pavilion had demanded the nails.

                He was not the first of his sect to die, but the toll of going against his beliefs, of acting as a knife in the dark rather than a guiding light, had finally worn him to this desperate move.

                Bai Tianmo. He was the first but by no means the last.
                Zhou Zishu had not created the nails with the expectation of members of his own sect requesting them. He had had absolute faith in his disciples loyalty and the naïve belief that they were doing the right thing.

                Bai Tianmo’s decision had shattered that fragile belief.

                After that, he had never again considered accepting anyone into Four Seasons Pavilion as a sixth generation disciple. Let his brothers murmur about the death of their sect, he couldn’t handle the image of a child he had raised and trained demanding the nails. His stomach revolted at the picture that painted.

                So, it was a shock to find himself watching consideringly as Zhang Chengling carefully painted out a letter to his parents. This child who had so calmly handled being kidnapped in the dead of night and then dragged along with a pair of strangers. He had the temperament for martial arts. Could it be trained into the deadly edge of calm needed to truly master the art?

                He shook himself. It did no one any good to consider at the moment. Chengling was of an age to begin his training, but he likely would prefer to learn the sword techniques of his own sect rather than those of an obscure sect on the edge of the martial arts world. Even if he was interested, he would also need to convince his father. What sect leader would let his own son learn under a different master?

                Zishu was thinking in circles and giving himself a headache while he was at it.

                Rather than continue down that pointless line of thought, he nudged Chengling. “Are you about finished? We should go find Wen Kexing. He’s probably done with his task by now.” He asked. Chengling looked up from his writing and nodded before quickly adding a few more characters to the bottom of the page. He handed the completed letter to Zhou Zishu and he read it quickly before nodding back.

                The letter was suitably vague, including no names or locations. It would likely only cause his parents more worry, but if it would ease Zhang Chengling, Zishu was willing to ensure it made it to them.

                “Very good. I’ll leave these with the courier, you go outside and see if you can see Kexing out there. Don’t go far though.” Zishu was already halfway out of his seat as he spoke. He figured Kexing would have long acquired their new transportation and made his way over to where they were. The town was not so large as to take any time for someone to meander from one end to another.

                “Yes, Zhou-shu!” Chengling chirped. He jolted out of his seat with all the grace of a newborn deer and darted for the street. Zishu shook his head. Such enthusiasm. Would he put that same amount of energy into learning footwork?

                Why could he suddenly not get the image of a new generation of children studying at the manor? Was the fragile hope he had acquired only recently truly changed that much of his expectations? He would not even be at the manor to see that reality come to pass. If everything went well, Zhou Zishu’s time as lord of the Four Seasons Manor would be nothing but a dark, blood-stained footnote in the sect’s history books.

                What good did it do to start entertaining the fantasy of a life like he had imagined as a child?

                None. That was the answer. It was a ridiculous dream and one for the next person to lead the sect. He had forfeited the right of raising a new generation the day he had taken his cousin up on his offer of protection.

                The courier accepted the letters politely and Zishu quickly made his way out to the street.

                Kexing had indeed finished his task and was waiting outside with the child they had accidently kidnapped. He was chattering animatedly, gesturing grandly with his fan. Chengling looked absolutely enraptured by whatever nonsense the madman was nattering on about.

                “-greatest martial sect of all time. Their mastery of disguise and the beautiful qinggong they are known for are the envy of all Jianghu!” Kexing was expounding as Zhou Zishu made it into easy hearing range.

                “What nonsense are you filling this child’s head with, Lao Wen?” It had sounded like he was talking about Four Seasons Pavilion, but that seemed so strange. What interest would the master of Ghost Valley have in praising some tiny Jianghu sect?

                “Zhou-shu! Is it true that you can change your face and voice to look like anyone? Even a girl! Or an old man?” Chengling was exclaiming before Zishu had even finished his sentence, answering the question with his own.

                “Naturally, young master Zhang was interested in the men he had agreed to travel with, so I was regaling him with tales of the more interesting of the two of us.” Kexing simpered. The smug smile on his face was only half covered by the fan he was waving in his face. Zhou Zishu rolled his eyes so hard he was surprised he didn’t strain something.

                “Ridiculous.” He muttered softly before eyeing Chengling and sighing. “Yes. The human face masks of the Four Seasons Pavilion allow a person to all but become another. But the creation of the mask is only the smallest part of the skill. One must also spend weeks and months practicing how to walk and talk. How to change one’s voice. Even learning how to study a person’s mannerisms and habits. It is as much a skill of study as it is of disguise.”

                He had figured the mention of unglamorous study would dim the hungry gleam in Chengling’s eyes, but it, if anything, seemed to feed those flames. If the child was so interested in martial arts, why had he not started his training with his own sect?

                Well, perhaps being snatched from his bed in the middle of the night had opened his eyes to the need for that training.

                “Wen-shu said you can teach that! Will you teach me?” Wen Kexing was obviously barely containing his laughter in the background, his lips pressed tightly together as his shoulders shook. Zishu gave him a dirty side-eye before refocusing on the overeager pup practically tugging at his skirts.

                “It would be inappropriate for the leader of a different sect to take on the son of a sect leader.” Zishu state plainly. Chengling wilted slightly at the admonishment and reminder that he had a responsibility to at least ask his father’s permission before looking for a shifu outside of the Mirror Lake Sect.

                He figured that would be the end of it until Chengling squared his shoulders up, put on the most ridiculous stubborn pout ever seen on a child, and made determined eye contact with Zhou Zishu. “I will attain my father’s permission. When I do so, will you accept me as a disciple?” He demanded. Kexing lost his battle with his laughter at that point and snorted inelegantly into his sleeve. Zishu would be inclined towards laughter as well in his position, but he was instead in the position of trying to waylay some of Chengling’s overeager insistence.

                “I will make no promises. You know very little about what you are asking and besides that, your father would likely prefer you studied under your family’s sect.”

                “A-Xu, don’t crush his precious dreams! Look how determined the silly child is, he would make an excellent disciple.” Kexing interrupted before Zishu could more firmly tell Chengling that the Four Seasons Pavilion was not taking on new disciples. “I don’t remember seeing any students from a new generation while I was staying with your manor. You’re not getting any younger, you know. Chengling could make for a good da-shixiong for his future shidi.”

                “You are nosier than a fishmonger’s wife.” Zishu complained without heat. It was obvious that this overture of Kexing’s came from a place of genuine interest. Were he teasing, he would be demonstrating the same playful pout that had resulted in his new fan tassel. Instead, Kexing’s peach blossom eyes were oddly earnest. His mouth was smiling, but the edge was soft and there was none of the usual teasing sharpness it usually contained.

                It was hardly Kexing’s fault that he knew so little of the actual situation Four Seasons Pavilion was in.

                Rather than begin arguing, Zishu merely heaved a deep sigh and turned away from the two pairs of sincere eyes and headed towards the edge of town. He knew his travelling companions would be right behind him.

 

--

 

                Their ragtag party of murderers and kidnapping victims was at the edge of town when a voice called out after them. Wen Kexing made to ignore the disturbance, pointing out the carriage he had rented proudly.

                “This will be much kinder on your young body, silly child.” He was teasing even as the fast patter of multiple feet ran towards them. Chengling seemed to be taking his cues from the peacock and acted as though the shouts for them to wait and move no further were mere background noise.

                Zhou Zishu would be more impressed with their coordination and acting if it didn’t leave him in the unenviable position         of intercepting the mob.

                “Wen-shu, I don’t mind the riding.” Chengling protested, either willfully ignorant of Zishu slowing and turning away from their destination or legitimately just not noticing. “It’s good practice. I don’t ride that often…”

                “You! Stop where you are! Where do you think you’re taking Young Master Zhang?” The leader of the gang chasing after them shouted once he was in hearing distance. Zishu frowned at that. He had expected that there would eventually be a search for Chengling, but for them to have been caught so quickly…it was oddly convenient.

                “I believe you are mistake, sir.” Zishu interrupted. He stepped further towards the mob, placing his body between Kexing and Chengling and the writhing mass of agitated men intercepting them. Kexing, he was glad to note, took that as his indication to usher Chengling into the carriage and begin taking up the reins for the horse already hooked up to it. “We were hired by this young master to escort him home. His name is not Zhang.”

                It didn’t matter if the lie was believed or not. Zishu only wanted to buy Wen Kexing the time to get Chengling away from the ensuing violence.

                The men in front of him visibly hesitated, their leader eyeing him up and down with a frown on his gnarled face. The whole group was dressed raggedly and unimpressively. Their clothes dirtied and torn, most of them not even wearing shoes. Even their hair was a tangled mess. It was easy for Zishu to come to the conclusion that the lot of them were likely members of the Beggar Sect.

                True beggars, even the most downtrodden or despairing, generally made some effort to maintain themselves. Hair could be maintained in nearby streams, faces washed at public fountains, straw sandals cobbled together from cast off parts. The members of the Beggar Clan showed none of those marks of self-care. They were almost too destitute.

                Besides that, Zishu noted with an annoyed grimace, all of the men standing before him were armed with bamboo poles.

                Behind him, he heard Kexing give an encouraging shout to his horse and snap the reigns sharply. The carriage pulling away from the town at a quick pace.

                “Don’t get lost, A-Xu!” That annoying voice called out even as the rumble of the carriage began to fade into the distance. The sudden departure riled the beggars to a frothing fury. That was good. Angry men were less likely to be able to coordinate or plan ahead.

                “Stop that carriage! These men match the pictures distributed by the Mirror Lake Sect! Don’t let the young master leave!” The man in the front, dressed in deep blues robes that might have once been of some quality, shouted. The mass moved forward, suddenly unconcerned with the threat Zhou Zishu might pose to their plans.

                That suited the assassin just fine. Being underestimated only made his job easier.

                There were a dozen men at most before him, armed only with their gongfu and bamboo poles. He would make quick work of them before catching up with Wen Kexing and Zhang Chengling.

                “I believe you may be forgetting something.” He stated even as the leader made to dart past him. “You will have to pass through me first.”

                Baiyi flashed like a silver snake as he drew it from its sheath and swiped it across the throat of the man closest to him. There was a fine spray of arterial blood that he elegantly avoided by virtue of ducking down and shooting forward like an arrow from a crossbow.

                Wen Kexing had been the first person in years who had been able to match Zhou Zishu for speed and this held true as he plunged the tip of his sword through another man even as the leader of this little group barely hit the ground. The rest of the faux beggars finally began to notice what was happening as the second man fell, chest still heaving with his last breaths.

                Zishu watched unconcerned as the group surrounded him, their poles in ready positions and postures defensive. There was no one here who was even close to a threat to the leader of Tian Chuang, and their decision to shift in closer to him was only to their detriment.

                As soon as the first pole was flung out to try and catch his temple in a disorienting blow, Zishu dropped his weight and swept his leg out with a flourish. The Swift Moving Steps of the Four Seasons Pavilion allowed him to move almost faster than a person could see and in seconds another three men were on the ground.

                The subsequent confusion as two more men stumbled over their suddenly fallen brethren allowed Zishu to shoot up and sweep Baiyi in a shining arc across two beggar’s chests. The wounds were not fatal, but those two retreated back towards the town, clutching their bleeding wounds as they ran.

                It left three men still standing and five more attempting to help each other up. Only a minute or two had passed since the fight began.

                Zishu smirked at the obvious unease growing on the faces of his opponents. There were few things as satisfying as seeing the blooming knowledge of death appearing on the face of an enemy. He took no joy in the killing of those unable to defend themselves, but with martial artists like this? His blood sang with the thrill of a fight.

                Perhaps this was not the most difficult fight he had had, but it was the first time Baiyi had gotten to taste the blood of men who deserved their fate in quite a while.

                Zishu surged forward just as the three standing men adjusted their holds on their weapons and lunged. He darted between the poles as smoothly as an eel through water, dipping and weaving rapidly even as two more beggars joined in the attack.

                With the flick of his wrist, Baiyi bent at an impossible angle, skewering the pulsing jugular of one man before bouncing off to brush across the eyes of another. The blinded man dropped his pole and fell to the ground screaming, clutching at the weeping viscera of his face.

                Another beggar broke from the group and fled back towards town, shouting to his companions about getting help. It would not matter. The remaining five men would be dead long before he could return with reinforcements.

                There were few things Zhou Zishu was as good at as dealing out death and he planned to demonstrate that ability to its fullest this day.

 

Chapter Text

                It became quickly evident that someone had spread the word that the youngest son of Zhang Yusen had been kidnapped by a pair of martial artists matching Wen Kexing and Zhou Zishu’s description. It was easy enough to intuit that Zhang Chengfeng had assumed that the men he had argued with had decided to take out their vendetta on the easiest target available and told his father as much.

                Zishu blamed Kexing for everything going wrong in his life.

                “A-Xu, I could hardly have predicted young Chengling would need rescuing so soon after his brother knocked you over right in front of me!” The human pestilence was pouting after they had been forced to fight their way out of yet another town. At this rate they were going to be compelled to detour around every major city they came across. “I could not let such an offence go unprotested!”

                “He barely brushed me and your grudge against the Zhangs is none of my business, I don’t see why I needed to be dragged into it.” Zishu griped back. His response was half-hearted at best, for all his protestations, Zishu did trust that if Kexing had ill feeling towards someone, they were well earned. He focused more of his energy into ushering their young charge along in front of them.

                Chengling had been changed into more travel appropriate robes, still in a light blue that complimented his light tan complexion, but of a sturdy cotton material. Kexing had been the one to choose them and he had obviously taken care to ensure that the outfit was stylish and attractive. Zishu wouldn’t have bothered.

                “Shifu, if it’s this much trouble, I don’t mind going home. You can always pick me up on your way back to take me to the manor!” Chengling chimed in looking half excited and half worried. He always looked a little concerned when butting into what he thought might be an argument between the two men he was travelling with.

                And that was the other thing. Wen Kexing had planted the idea of Chengling taking Zishu as his shifu and the child had attached himself to the idea like a piece of sticky rice. The damn pest had said a few words about persistence and now Zhang Chengling thought that Zishu was just being playfully stubborn. At this rate, Zishu was going to be stuck with the both of them for all eternity which really did not factor in with his long-term plans at all.

                “Silly child, turning around and taking you back to Nan He would cost us more time than simply carrying on as we already are.” Kexing stated gently. He was better with the child than Zishu would have predicted. Ghost Valley didn’t seem like the sort of place where one picked up good parenting skills, but here he was, always able to head off a potential breakdown or temper tantrum with the grace of long practice. Maybe he did have a wife and child waiting for him back at the valley.

                Zishu shuddered at the thought. It wouldn’t be such a repellent idea if it was just Kexing’s constant flirting. He had met plenty of married men who showed no qualms with sampling the blossoms of other flowers outside their own gardens. It was disgusting, but not his problem.

                No. The problem here came in that he had grown to quite like the flirting. He would never admit it to Wen Kexing himself. Heavens forbid the man get any encouragement on that front; he was irrepressible enough as it was. But there it was. Zhou Zishu liked the attention. He liked the stupid compliments and the flirty looks and the overly familiar touching. Most of all, Zishu liked that they were kindred souls. Two people who were monstrous in ways few others could comprehend or care for brought together by sheer happenstance. Fated, as Kexing, with his flair for dramatics, would say.

                But all of that would change if there was some pining woman waiting in Mount Qingya for the Valley Master. Zishu could not fathom touching Kexing with even a hint of the longing he felt if there was some little girl missing her father while clutching to her mother’s skirts out there. He may be a murderer and child killer and the man who single handedly all but destroyed the legacy his shifu left to him, but he was not some mistress.

                The mere idea was repellent.

                “A-Xu? A-Xu?” Kexing gripped his arm above the elbow and jostled him, more gently than he normally would have. Worry was clearly written across his face, which made Zishu concerned for what was going on on his own face.

                “What?” He tried for annoyed and feared he managed only nauseated; a tone that was too close to the truth for his taste. He ripped his arm out of the loose grip it was still caught in and stepped away from the man now staring at him with a gaping mouth. “Why are you staring at me like that? What is it?” He managed a snappier response this time, but it was obviously too little too late as Kexing’s jaw tensed and something set behind his eyes, resolved and firm.

                “Silly child, why don’t you run down to the river and fill up the water flasks. Don’t wander too far, stay within shouting distance of us and yell if you even see anyone other than us.” Kexing said, his eyes never straying from Zhou Zishu.

                Chengling glanced between the two of them nervously before deciding that this was a conversation he very much did not want to be a part of and dashing away as fast as his tiny legs could carry him. They were not far from the river; it was plainly visible between the trees. So long as Chengling did not wander to some distant facet, he would still be visible to them both. The rushing of the water would cover their words though, offering a bit of privacy that had been sorely lacking in the week since they had rescued the child.

                “Alright. Spill. Why do you look like you caught your wife fucking the manservant every time you look at me lately?” Kexing spat out. Zishu would have liked to remain cold and removed for the entire argument, but the choice of words landed so close to home that he flinched immediately. “There it is again! What the hell, Zhou Zishu?”

                “It’s nothing! There’s nothing to talk about.” He tried, trying to cover up his reaction by pulling away from Kexing and pacing a few steps towards the river. Of course, never one to let anything go once he had decided to sink his teeth into it, Wen Kexing grabbed him by the shoulder, forcing him to stop in his tracks.

                “If it’s nothing, then why are running away? I never took you for a coward.” He hissed, baring every single one of his white teeth. His eyes were wild, dark with some vicious emotion that Zishu couldn’t name. It was hard to name any emotion with the turbulent flurry of emotions raging inside his own chest at that moment.

                “It’s not cowardice to know which battles to pick and choose.” Zishu said through gritted teeth. He averted his eyes. If Kexing had chosen to have this fight, then they were going to have this fight. He could see Chengling dutifully filling their water flasks, up to his knees in the water to ensure he was getting clean water from a fast-flowing part of the river. His stylish blue robes hiked up and tied around his waist. He pictured a little girl with Kexing’s eyes and some strange woman’s nose doing the same and felt that nauseous jealousy twist in his gut.

                “I don’t want to hear your excuses.” There was moment of dizzy, spinning color and then Chengling had disappeared from his line of site and all Zishu could see was Wen Kexing’s wide eyes, the iris lined with white all the way around. “I want to hear why you keep zoning out and looking at me like you’re going to throw up! Did I do something? What happened? Before we picked up the child, I thought…I had thought…”

                Here, for a second, Kexing faltered. A grimace stole across his face, and he averted his eyes. Zishu knew that if he pressed now, he could escape this conversation for the moment. If he dug his fingers into this weak spot, Wen Kexing would falter and give in, unwilling to sacrifice what he had for what he might gain.

                It would be a true cowards move. It would gain neither of them anything other than more pain.

                Zishu had never been a coward. He had stood his ground as the members of his sect had fallen around him. He had stood true as he had been forced to forsake his morals in the face of what he believed to be the correct course of action. He could brave whatever truth was hiding behind Wen Kexing’s pretty words now. At the worst, he would have leverage to hand over to Helian Yi.

                A wife and child would be nothing more than emotional blackmail to hold over the Ghost Valley Master.

                Zhou Zishu refused to examine whether he could be able to do that to Kexing.

                “Who is waiting for you in Ghost Valley?” Zishu asked, never one to second guess his decisions once they had been made. The slack jawed horror on Kexing’s face would have been funny in almost any other situation.

                The fearsome Valley Master reeled back from Zishu, releasing his shoulder in favor of pulling out his ever-present fan. Zishu could recognize a move of self-defense when he saw one. He wondered what Kexing thought was going to happen. Did the man really think Zishu was going to draw his sword only after revealing he was aware of their destination?

                “I don’t know what you’re talking about!” The denial came a beat to late, and it was obvious by the flash of dread in those dark eyes that Kexing was well aware of that. “How long have you known that was where we were headed?” He tried again. It was a better diversion, and one Zishu was willing to allow for now.

                “Since we left Four Seasons Manor.” He said calmly. One of them had to maintain their heads in this. He could see Chengling in the corner of his eye, staying just out of earshot, but watching carefully for when it would be safe to return to their side. The child had the makings of a good disciple. It was too bad that Zhou Zishu would not be anyone’s shifu in this lifetime.

                “What do you mean!? That’s not possible! That would mean…that..that-“

                “That I’ve known you were a ghost since pretty much the moment you arrived at the manor. Yes.” Zishu chose not to mention that he knew Wen Kexing was the Ghost Valley Master. Some inkling in his gut told him that revealing he knew that would only scare his friend more. Kexing was already on the verge of panicking, his chest heaving as he clutched his fan tightly. Zishu could see his eyes darting back and forth as though searching for an escape route. “You wanted to have this conversation, Lao Wen. Don’t go running away from it now.”

                “Ha!” The laugh was high and desperate. Zishu immediately decided he never wanted to hear it again. Kexing was refusing to look at him, his eyes jumping all around without ever landing on him. “That was when I thought…I don’t know what I thought. Something stupid. Some silly thing we could both laugh about after.”

                “You haven’t answered my question Lao Wen.” Zishu refused to be distracted from his purpose. They were closing in on Mount Qingya now. Another week at their current pace. Only a day or two if he and Kexing were able to use their qinggong and encountered no obstacles. He refused to be surprised by the weeping wife of the man he had grown to care for.

                “Does it matter? What are you going to do with the information? Send it off in one of your little reports?” Kexing shot back, venom in his voice. It was the retort of a wounded animal, something small and cornered and all the more dangerous for it.

                It was Zishu’s turn to be put on the back foot. He would like to think he handled it more gracefully. It was not the first time one of his targets had parsed out who he was or what he did before he was able to make a clean break from them. Still, he had hoped that Wen Kexing would never know about Tian Chuang or any part of Zishu’s role in it.

                “It depends on your answer.” He said honestly. There was a lot about Kexing that Zishu had already left out of his reports to his prince. Information that could have benefited his fairytale hunt for some magic treasure trove. But more and more, Zishu had found his loyalty slipping. “If you knew who I am, why even take the risk of coming to Four Seasons Manor in the first place?”

                “I didn’t know you were part of Tian Chuang when I came at first.” Kexing replied, slumping in on himself. He flapped his hands helplessly before finally making eye contact with Zishu for the first time since it had been revealed that he knew some part of his identity. “I had just heard that…Four Seasons Pavilion was reestablishing itself.”

                Zishu decided not to ask why that was enough to draw the mysterious Valley Master all the way across Jiangnan to Kun. If they were derailed by every question they had, they would be here all day and Chengling would be forced to wait ten paces out of earshot for who knew how long. It was already more than a little ridiculous that the poor child was having to do it at all.

                “You can’t hide whatever it is forever, why won’t you just tell me what is waiting for you at the valley?” Zishu demanded. He was determined to force this conversation back on track. They could sit down and discuss all their secrets at some other time, preferably where there would be plenty of wine available.

                “Why are you so set on knowing this? You set out to find out what I was doing in the human world and now you have to know why I’m leaving it as well?”

                The constant back and forth finally caused something to snap in Zishu’s self-control and he all but shouted at Kexing. “Stop trying to change the subject. Everything else can wait. Why are you in such a rush to go back to the one place every ghost is eager to leave?” 

                “And if you don’t like the answer? If you don’t believe me? What then, huh?” There was an audible tremor to Kexing’s voice. It would have made Zishu feel a little bad if he wasn’t already annoyed with all the deflection and his own brain being hooked on the mental image of his zhiji having some hidden family.

                And wouldn’t that just be fate’s last laugh at him? To finally find a kindred soul, someone he thought of as zhiji without even noticing it happening and that person already belongs to someone else? Zishu bit back a bark of wild laughter.

                “I trust you, you idiot! I’ll believe what you tell me.” How hard was it for a person to understand? It had been a long time since Zhou Zishu had distrusted Wen Kexing.

                The answer still seemed to have shocked the fight out of the other man. His mouth was already open with some planned retort, some scathing remark to turn this from an interrogation into a full-on fight, but the words had been laughed hanging on his tongue. Kexing’s eyes were wide open as well, staring in hopeless confusion at the man he had proclaimed his zhiji.

                “Is that so surprising? You call me zhiji and take my following you and caring for you as expected, but the idea that I might also trust you shocks you to silence?” Zishu shook his head in wonderment. He really was an idiot. A brilliant moron.

                Even in this they were a matched set it seemed.

                “I didn’t realize…I didn’t think you thought of me the same way.” Kexing answered slowly. It was obvious he was still trying to process this sudden information, his eyes finally locked on Zishu’s face as though searching for a lie or clue as to what was happening. “You’ve never said anything.”

                “How can anyone get a word in edgewise with you always chattering on.” Zishu quipped. He could feel the corner of his mouth curling up despite himself and tried to get his face back under control, but the blooming expression of pure joy and exultation on Kexing’s face was too much. “If I didn’t trust you, I would hardly have suggested we babysit a child together.”

                “You think of me as zhiji.” The breath of a reply was almost lost in the ambient noise of the forest, but Zishu easily caught the words even if the tone was gone at that volume.

                “Yes. And your zhiji would like to know why we are trekking across the country to Ghost Valley, please.”

                “My sister. I need to help me sister.” How easy answer came out now that this had been established. Zishu would have rolled his eyes except he was still half-smiling from the beaming grin on Kexing’s face and didn’t want to give the impression he was amused by the situation. He was probably giving that impression anyway. “I received word that there might be a revolt against the Valley Master, but my sister is still in the valley. I left her with our aunt, but it’s not safe if a riot breaks out.”

                The Ghost Valley Master had a sister? Zishu felt the burgeoning well of jealousy and frustration he had been nursing for the last couple weeks abruptly run dry. He had considered siblings to be one of the options for why the rush, of course. But in the rush of new feelings and suddenly realizing just how much he liked having Wen Kexing around, he had latched onto the worst conclusion.

                He could have collapsed in relief that it was a sister.

                “Your sister. Why did you not bring her with you to Four Seasons Manor?” Zishu asked. He believed Kexing, trusted him like he said he would. It was obvious that this was information the man kept under close guard. That only made sense, a family was a liability, but a single, solitary little sister was a huge vulnerability. Why would he leave her behind?

                “I wasn’t sure what I would find at the manor.” Kexing answered bluntly, his eyes stating with clear dire intent that was equally unsure who he would find at the manor. The original lord, as he had been lucky enough to run into, or some rowdy group of upstarts hoping to chase the tails of past fame into easy glory. “It should have been fine. Our aunt is strong and well-insulated from most of the politics inside the valley. An uprising was the only thing that she couldn’t defend A-Xiang against.”

                Zhou Zishu could only imagine the chaos that would reign in that place if someone managed to take out the Valley Master or even just install themselves as the new master while Kexing was gone. A little girl would be at risk even with a bit of protection, and something about the way Kexing had phrased that last sentence sounded off.

                Probably, it was less that this aunt couldn’t defend the girl, and more that she wouldn’t.

                “Alright then. So we’re going to the valley to rescue your little sister.” Zishu smirked, finally giving in to the urge to roll his eyes. “Why didn’t you just say that? We’ve left the little idiot standing over there all this time.”

                Kexing glanced to the side and looked slightly taken aback to discover their little shadow tucked against a tree, trying to look very patient in the way children did sometimes. Which is to say, he looked ravenously impatient, but was making a clear effort to try to not let that show on his face.

                “Ah, silly child, get over here!” Kexing shouted loud enough to be heard where their charge had settled. The boy wasted no time in darting up and over to them at a pace that gave away just how eager he was to be back in earshot.

                “Shifu, Wen-shu! I thought you were going to talk forever!” Chengling whined while handing back the now full waterskins. “Are you done fighting now? Can we go? You took so long, I’m bored.”

                Zhou Zishu was not looking forward to adding another chattering child to their entourage. Maybe he’d get lucky and this A-Xiang would be a quiet, even-tempered girl unlike her brother.

 

Chapter Text

Chapter 13

                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.

                “Wen Kexing-“

                “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.”

                “I know.”

 

Chapter Text

                There was blood in his mouth. Gristle between his teeth. His tongue was swollen with the taste of death and gore. Wen Kexing swallowed convulsively against the sensation of fetid, human meat filling his mouth. The feeling did not go away.

                The gates of Ghost Valley loomed in front of him, a vivid testament to how desperately Jianghu did not want those inside to get out. All he saw was doom and the end of the pretty little dream he had been living for the last few months. His revenge had taken a backseat to his need to learn everything he could about Zhou Zishu.

                Zhou Zishu. A-Xu. The Lord of Four Seasons Manor. Assassin in Tian Chuang. How could a man so embroiled in murder and chaos still be so soft inside? It made Kexing want to pull those insides out and examine them for a clue.

                A lifetime of murder and torture had made Kexing into something twisted and cruel. A creature driven by spite and a vindictive need to see those who had caused his suffering to suffer themselves. Yet, Zishu had spent much of his life in the same way if he had been a part of the assassin’s organization for the full duration of Four Seasons Pavilion’s absence from Jianghu.

                Zhou Zishu was not broken in the same way as Wen Kexing. That had been obvious within days of their first meeting. Well, their second meeting, but Zishu would never recognize the child Zhen Yan inside the monster that was the Ghost Valley Master.

                The Manor Lord was broken though. There was something shattered inside of him that Kexing had not been able to tug out into the light in the length of their time together. It emerged occasionally, the shadow of what was wrong inside the assassin. The first time it had happened, Kexing had written it off as a one-off occurrence. It had been terrifying, to see that blank passivity in eyes that were usually dancing with emotion.

                Then it had happened again. And again. Most of the time the attacks of ambivalent melancholy were subtle. There were days Zishu refused to eat, showed no interest in even the best wine and spent long hours silently reading reports without noting down a single thing. He still spoke on those days, could still engage on some level, but it was as though half of his soul was otherwise occupied.

                The bad attacks though. Like the one from right before they had rescued Zhang Chengling. Those shook Kexing to the core. Zishu became little more than an animated puppet, his every action had to be dictated by someone else and he showed no signs of even being aware of what he was doing.

                Kexing hated it. He hated how helpless he was in the face of it. He hated not knowing the cause of it. His chest burned with fury at his own powerlessness. Had he not spent the past decade and a half carefully ensuring that he would never be powerless again? And for what? He could not even help his zhiji in the way it was clear he most needed.

                Before they had left Four Seasons Manor, the mild attacks had become more and more frequent. Even when Zishu was mostly alright, he often looked as though he were mourning something when he thought no one would be looking. Wen Kexing was always looking. He wanted to know what caused Zishu so much pain. He wanted to rip that thing into bloody pieces and present them to the other man as a gift.

                Something told him that the source of Zhou Zishu’s pain would be more difficult to handle than a rogue ghost or enterprising bandit. A-Xu had never hinted that there was a problem that he would like taken care of, never entrusted Kexing with whatever darkness lingered in the depths of his eyes. There was still so much unsaid between the two of them.

                Whatever ghosts or demons were haunting Zishu’s step and chasing his shadow would have to wait until after Kexing had left the valley again, though. Hopefully nothing would trigger an attack while Zishu was watching over Chengling alone. The silly child would be so scared if his shifu went suddenly unresponsive and cold.

                For a heartbeat, Wen Kexing doubted his choice to leave the two of them outside in White Deer. Would it not be safer to be able to protect them directly?

                “Guzhu. We were not expecting you.” The grating voice of Changing Ghost lanced through Kexing’s anxiety with the precision of a scalpel. The man was hunched slightly forward in some sort of parody of a polite bow, he was making some attempt to hide his face, but Kexing could see his eyes darting from side to side. It told him what he needed to know about who was orchestrating the chaos in the valley.

                It also made him certain that having Zishu and Chengling outside the valley was the best choice. Even the strongest fighters could fall to betrayal and the Ghost Valley was a hive of beasts only waiting for the chance to stab each other in the back. There was no honor or rules of combat here. The strongest took the crown and the rest fell in line until they saw their chance to take it away.

                “I was unaware I needed to report my comings and goings to you or anyone else.” Kexing replied with a voice that could freeze the blood in the veins of lesser men. Changing Ghost was a schemer and excellent strategist, but he was also a coward. In the face of the Valley Master’s aloof disdain, the devil shrunk away, bowing more deeply that before.

                “Of course not, guzhu. I would not dare suggest such a thing.” He hastened to say. There was no tremble in his voice, but his words were spoken much more quickly than his usual drawling cadence. Kexing allowed a smirk of amusement to curl the edge of his mouth. Striking fear into the hearts of his minions had always been one of his strong suits. “I will go and assure that everything is in order for you.”

                Changing Ghost barely waited for Wen Kexing’s disinterested approval before he disappeared deeper into the shadows of the valley.

                Unfortunately, Changing Ghost’s presence had reminded Kexing that he was here for more than preventing a genuine mutiny and retrieving A-Xiang. He also needed to enact the second phase of his plan to bring ruin to the Five Lakes Alliance. Some distant part of him wished he could simply leave it behind. Forget the revenge he had spent years planning and dreaming about in favor of simply grabbing A-Xiang and hastening back to Zhou Zishu’s side.

                But he had spent too much blood and pain on bringing ruin to the people who had destroyed his family and childhood. There would be no peace for his soul until he knew that he had avenged his parents in every way that he could.

                If he survived. If Zishu still wanted him after learning the truth of his identity. If there was still a place for him in Four Seasons Manor. Then he could look towards building the future he and A-Xu had idly discussed those days they had lazed away in the groves of flowering trees.

                For now, the only way to that future was forward. Through the gates that barely contained the horrors Jianghu was unwilling to deal with.

                The entrance to the valley had already been opened for him, Changing Ghost sending the message ahead that the Ghost Valley Master had returned. Kexing didn’t mind that it meant that every rebellious ghost in there would now be ready and waiting to attack. There was not a soul in the valley who could match him in a fight.

                Let them come, he would give them the death they so dearly desired.

                Kexing stepped into Ghost Valley, shedding the human skin he had worn for the last few months as he did so.

                There was blood in his mouth and gore ingrained into his very soul. He was the monster crafted by the valley he now ruled, and he would show everyone today exactly what that meant.

 

--

 

                The first round of ghosts that came at him as he entered the valley were dead before they ever thought to mount a true attack. Wen Kexing flicked his fan open and tossed it into the swathe of faceless masks with a careless motion of his wrist. The bodies were still settling on the gradually reddening earth as Kexing strode deeper into his territory.

                The fighting was not centered around Kexing, most of the smaller ghosts were not even aware that the Valley Master had returned. The few that realized who was walking through the maelstrom without a care attacked on sight. It was hardly a problem, there were few in the whole of Jianghu who could stand their own in a fight against him and none resided inside the valley.

                Ghost Valley was a place reserved for the dregs of humanity. The cast-off refuse of a corrupt world. The most powerful martial artists would not wind up here, they were capable of retaining their positions despite their corruption.

                Another body hit the earth in front of his feet and Kexing barely stepped back in time to avoid the spray of blood that followed. The killing was thrilling, but it was far too messy for his taste. For that reason, Kexing did not bother slaughtering his way to his throne. He could have killed every person between himself and his goal, but instead he focused on merely clearing a path.

                In an ideal world, Wen Kexing would have been able to enter the valley undetected, grab Gu Xiang from her place in Fumeng’s territory, and leave again with none the wiser. It was the plan Zhou Zishu had tried to make. Something that would have them both in and out of the valley as quickly as possible.

                Speed and subtlety had never been in Kexing’s plans. If Changing Ghost hadn’t appeared to announce his presence, Kexing would have done it himself. For this part of his plan, Kexing needed an audience of as much of Ghost Valley as he could manage. These fools seemed to have forgotten what happened when someone stood in the Valley Master’s way.

                He was happy to give them a reminder.

                The courtyard of Yama Hall was in chaos when he stepped into it. There typically hollow and empty space was packed with warring ghosts, blood and gore coating every available bit of clear ground. Kexing curled his lip in disgust and made a mental note to make one of his less favored ghosts clean up the mess. The bodies were piling up and were sure to be a stinking mess very shortly.

                For a long moment, Wen Kexing simply observed the riot before him. The last time there was a mass revolt in Ghost Valley, he had been too busy meticulously skinning a man alive. He had, of course, been aware that outside the throne room a violent riot was going on. He knew that every ghost in the valley had heard that the Valley Master had fallen and were fighting for the right to be the next.

                Little did they know that position had already been filled by the master’s little pet. The Valley Master that Kexing had skinned was not the one that had killed his parents. He was not even the one after that. It hardly mattered, all three had been monsters who took great joy in slicing into Wen Kexing until he screamed.

                He had had the last laugh there. He may have missed his chance to avenge himself against the first two, but the last one screamed louder and longer than Kexing ever had.

                Those screams had muted the cacophony that must have been clamoring just outside the doors of the throne room. If that revolt had been anything like this one, it was a wonder that he had barely noticed it happening at all.

                Right now, the tall walls surrounding the Yama Hall echoed with screams and shouts. The clatter of metal on metal rang out sharply as those ghosts lucky enough to have weapons put them to good use. There was no elegance or showmanship in this fighting. It was the sort of fighting that the desperate and determined excelled at, brutal and efficient.

                Zhou Zishu fought like he was walking on clouds, quick and effective. His skills had clearly been honed over long years of practice and action, but he carried none of the ferocious abruptness that came with killing for survival. Kexing liked sparring with Zishu, he loved the way they could dance in and out of each other’s space with hardly a thought.

                But the harsh fighting style of survival was where he excelled.

                It was the fighting style of the Ghost Valley and all the ghosts present used it to their own benefit. Throats were cut if a bladed weapon was available, heads were bashed in if not. There was no stopping or slowing down to accommodate injuries. Stopping was a death sentence.

                Naturally, they had all signed their death warrants the day they decided to rebel against Wen Kexing. He would not allow a single devil that rose up against him to live.

                Today would be a day of making an example of those who thought to take what wasn’t theirs and endanger A-Xiang in the process.

                Finally deciding that he had seen enough of the fighting, Wen Kexing casually stepped down into the hall. It took no time at all for those fighting to begin to notice him and as they did the tide of violence turned. A small portion of those in the hall fled without a second thought, leaving a clear divide between the remaining factions.

                An enterprising group, sensing opportunity and not realizing they were less than capable of grabbing it, surrounded Kexing. He glanced at them only long enough to allow them to see the wicked curve of his smirk and the spark of manic bloodlust in his eyes before raising his fan and slashing in a full circle around him.

                The wave of attackers fell as one, throats slit and mouths agape with shock.

                “Good, very good.” Kexing finally spoke. He projected his voice with his qi to ensure that everyone present was able to hear the laughter and derision the words contained. “Such a bold attempt at an overthrow! I’m so impressed.”

                Perhaps if all of Ghost Valley had allied with a single devil, they could have taken Kexing out. Even his strength would falter if it was forced to stand against wave after wave of enemies. However, the valley was not a place to create loyalties and the divides in who had pledged allegiance to whom ensured that no one group was large enough and powerful enough to take down the Valley Master.

                The ghosts knew this and slowly the fighting stopped. More small ghosts fled the hall, choosing to preserve their own lives over fighting to support whichever devil had recruited them. The ten devils remained, knowing that there would be no easy escape for them.

                “Well, nothing to say for yourselves? No more valiant attempts to usurp my throne?” He glanced around himself at the carnage that remained to taint the floors of the hall. “After all the work you put in to stage this event, I would think you would want to see it through to the end.”

                As though sensing that Wen Kexing was prepared to execute every single person present, the ghosts lingering around began to kneel. The sound of one hundred voices all clamoring to apologize and beg forgiveness was music to his ears. Was there any sound better than the chorus of victory?

                Well, there was always A-Xu’s voice. Nothing could compare to that.

                “And you? My loyal retainers, were you fighting to preserve my rule or end it? Come, come, answer quickly. I find that my patience of late has been rather thin.” Kexing sang out as he finally made it to the head of the hall. The ten devils were bloodied from their long fights, but he could still see the sheen of nervous swear forming on their brows. As one they knelt, all except Luo Fumeng who stood slightly apart. The girls from the Department of the Unfaithful were bowed slightly in respect, surrounding their leader.

                Fumeng herself was as put together as always, the only person present without a bit of gore staining their skin or clothes. Her long white hair was neat and even her nail guards were untouched. She wore a face of vague satisfaction mixed with something else, Kexing could not place the emotion. The Tragi-comic Ghost often wore it when looking at him though.

                Kexing almost wanted to call it disappointment, though in him or herself he could not fathom. What was there to be disappointed about in him though? He had risen up from a trembling child who could not stand against even the weakest ghost to rule the place that had stolen his life from him. His vengeance against the world that had forsaken his family was nearing completion. He had even raised a child and kept her alive despite the conditions surrounding them.

                Who, if given the same set of circumstances, could have done the same?

                Would Zhou Zishu look disappointed if he discovered that Kexing was not just some lowly common ghost? That he was the ruler of this forsaken place?

                It seemed so unlikely, but the fear of his A-Xu looking at him and finding him wanting had held his tongue even after Zishu had revealed he had always known of their destination. His zhiji had been a part of Tian Chuang. His hands could hardly be less bloody than Wen Kexing’s.

                But he had also forsaken that path in favor of reestablishing his sect and pursuing a righteous life. What if he wanted nothing to do with the blood that soaked Kexing’s path?

                He did not think he could handle that.

 

Chapter Text

Chapter 15

                Wen Kexing allowed the silence to stretch as he watched his ghosts twitch and squirm. The scent of fear and blood was a miasma that choked the air and rendered every breath a sickening lesson in horror. He loved it. He loved watching those weaker and more cowardly than him begin to cave under the pressure of his mere presence.

                How ridiculous that these maggots thought that they could usurp his reign while he was gone. Did they expect him to lay down quietly when he came back and found a new ‘master’ in charge of the valley? He had laid down quietly for two Valley Masters already, he would slaughter anyone who thought to make him bow to a third.

                Among the ten devils gathered before him and the smattering of their underlings cowering in the shadows of the hall, there were only a couple that he could say with good faith had no aspirations for the throne. Luo Fumeng, the Tragi-comic Ghost, had too many responsibilities to her bureau and the women she protected inside of it. As long as the current Valley Master left her largely in peace to do as she pleased, she was content to stay in the background. This had been true of the previous masters and of Kexing as well.

                Additionally, the Corpse Eating Ghost and the Beauty Ghost had never shown much interest in dealing with the tumultuous power struggle involved in being the Valley Master. Liu Qianqiao was frequently too busy helping Fumeng to have the time for it all and Corpse Eating Ghost would always prioritize leisure, comfort and his own eating habits before anything else.

                Aside from them, the Hanging Ghost and the Long Tongue Ghost were simply too stupid to put together a plan for a mass mutiny.

                Which left the most likely dissenters. Changing Ghost, who had been loyal to the previous Valley Master and had never liked Wen Kexing even when he was just a whipping boy and pet, was the most likely mastermind. Black Grim Reaper and White Grim Reaper would do anything he said, if Changing Ghost had designed this riot, they would have been involved.

                And then, of course, the Happy Ghost and Lovelace would have likely been involved as well out of their own self-interest. Kexing had cracked down hard on the ghosts leaving the valley to cause chaos in the nearby towns and the ones most affected had been those two. With the previous leaders of Ghost Valley, there had been plenty of allowances for favorites. The Happy Ghost had been free to commit arson and murder at his whim while Lovelace had brought girls back to the valley almost every night to torment.

                Wen Kexing had put a stop to that immediately and killed more than a few ghosts who went against his word. The ones made an example of had been hung to rot on the valley walls to show what happened when he was disobeyed. Naturally, the rest of the valley had fallen in line, but the lingering resentment had never waned.

                “Well, I asked a question. Do I speak to hear myself talk?” He drawled. The ghosts nearest to him glanced at each other nervously before bowing even deeper. Kexing could see the rapid calculations going on across the myriad faces in his line of sight. Was it worth answering the wrong way? Was staying silent the safer option? He allowed the indecision to linger for a moment longer before throwing his fan out, the bladed edge slicing easily through Black Grim Reaper’s throat where he was bowed beside Changing Ghost and White Grim Reaper.

                There was a moment of startled stillness, a second in which no one was aware of what had happened and even Black Grim Reaper remained upright with an incredulous and confused expression across his face. The blood had sprayed across White Grim Reaper’s robes, staining the pale fabric a lurid red. Then, as though in slow motion, the true ghost collapsed in on himself without a sound.

                The hall before Wen Kexing exploded into a flurry of noise and motion as White Grim Reaper fell to his knees, attempting to staunch the bleeding from the throat of the already dead ghost. Changing Ghost immediately began babbling uselessly, his voice lost to the cacophony. Happy Ghost’s hysterical laughter covered up individual words, but the stampede of footsteps as more minor ghosts fled from before their master would have drowned Changing Ghost out anyway.

                Kexing grinned manically at the chaos he had produced with a simple flick of his wrist. This would teach these fools a lesson about reaching beyond their station. It sated the irate edge to his thoughts that had lingered since the moment he realized he was being forced to leave Zhou Zishu behind after only just finding him again.

                Every ghost who had caused that separation deserved whatever torture Kexing could think of, but none moreso than Changing Ghost. Even as White Grim Reaper was crouching to save his already dead friend, Changing Ghost was rushing closer, attempting to get within earshot as the chaos swelled.

                When he was finally close enough to hear, Kexing was disgusted but unsurprised by the wheedling and cajoling pouring from that painted mouth. “Guzhu, guzhu! We only fought here to protect your rule. We would never stand against you!” He babbled incessantly. Kexing did not care to hear whatever sorry excuses he came up with. It was all just lip service in an attempt to save his own skin.

                “Changing Ghost, do you really think I care about ghosts doing what they were made for? If someone succeeded in killing me and taking my throne, I would laugh and congratulate them as I died.” He laughed now, the manic edge to it causing the crowd in front of him to flinch and try to crouch more deeply into their bows. “I only regret that this has led to some inconvenience for me. I am far too busy to be forced to deal with a pack of wild animals incapable of even taking down one man. Waiting until I was gone on business seems to be in poor form.”

                Out of the corner of his eye, Kexing could see Luo Fumeng rolling her eyes and gesturing Liu Qianqiao closer. Tragi-comic Ghost had never fully bought Kexing’s act of lunacy. She had known him for too long and too well to believe that he was simply mad.

                The rest though, they believed the façade of Lunatic Wen all too well.

                “No, no! Never! We are loyal to Guzhu!” Changing Ghost cried out as he sensed the edge of the executioner’s blade dropping ever closer to his neck. His words fell on deaf ears even as Kexing smiled and nodded along. In a way, it was amusing to hear the protestations of innocence from a man who had been exiled from Jianghu and orthodoxy for his bloodthirst and treachery. “Perhaps Black Grim Reaper had interests in your position, in the power. I can only apologize for my underlings; their punishment is at your discretion. Show mercy, please. There are so few competent ghosts in the valley already.”

                “Right. You are so right. There are so few truly competent ghosts in this valley. Are you one of them? What about White Changing Ghost?” The Valley Master stepped slowly forward, allowing the sluggish pace to do the work in heightening the tension surrounding his inferiors. Changing Ghost stepped back for every step forward he took, his face remaining smooth though the line of his shoulders slowly growing more and more strained.

                “Of course, the ghosts under me know their jobs, they do what they are told and do it well.” Changing Ghost stammered. Kexing barely bothered to listen at all, every word Changing Ghost said was just more lies and petty pandering. The stream of sweet-talking nonsense faded into background noise as Kexing finally made it to stand in front of the cooling corpse of Black Grim Reaper and the trembling form of White Grim Reaper.

                Changing Ghost did not get between them, though he stood nearby, hunched slightly in bow even as his eyes flicked worriedly between his Guzhu and his subordinate. Wen Kexing knew that the coward would make no moves to intercede on White Grim Reaper’s behalf, perhaps hoping that Kexing would be able to sate his bloodlust on others rather than him.

                It was a fool’s hope. 

                “I believe you.” Kexing lied and grabbed White Grim Reaper up by the shoulder, yanking him from his vigil at his friend’s side. “After all, you’ve been loyal to other Valley Masters, so why not me as well?”

                The body in his hands was trembling violently, likely sensing that his doom had already been sealed. Up close, it was obvious that White Grim Reaper was astonishingly young, barely into adulthood. Kexing took a moment to try and remember when this particular ghost had come to the valley but gave up quickly. He paid little attention to the comings and deaths of the people here. Their existence was merely a means to and end for him and he treated them as such.

                The Ghost Valley citizens were simply weiqi pieces for him to manipulate and sacrifice as the need arose. Black and White Grim Reaper were not the first to carry those titles even in the time that Kexing had been the Valley Master. Though they would likely be the last. Wen Kexing had no expectations or plans for the survival of this valley or its residents.

                “Exactly, of course!” The traitor all but screamed. “Just, let White Grim Reaper go, we will go and clean the valley of those who would rise against you!”

                “No need. Did I not already say that I would welcome any who manage to take me down?” Kexing smiled benevolently down at the young ghost fighting back tears. “Of course, if you fail….” He allowed his words to trail off as he moved his hand to grip White Grim Reaper’s throat. He could feel the frantic pulse beneath his fingers, the nervous swallow of a parched throat.

                “It would be cruel, no? To leave one half of a matched set without its complimentary piece?” He knew that after only knowing Zhou Zishu for a few months that he would be bereft and hollow should the other man disappear from his side for good. He would not want to continue existing without his zhiji. “Why don’t you join your other half now, hm?”

                There was a coarse scream from his side as Kexing snapped the slender neck in his hand. It was gratifying to feel the body go immediately limp, the breath sighing out of stilled lungs in a gentle stream.

                Wen Kexing dropped the body with an unconcerned expression. These two were merely examples. There was no position in the valley that would grant a ghost immunity to the Valley Master’s violence and madness. Even the ten devils were not safe.

                The remaining lesser ghosts were still as stone for a heartbeat and then an enterprising man, older than was average for the Ghost Valley based on his voice, cried out. “It was Changing Ghost! He called to arms the 3000 ghosts of the valley and, when we arrived, began slaughtering those who did not side with his plan to overthrow the Guzhu!”

                The single voice was immediately joined by a chorus of agreements. The hall was momentarily filled with the screaming petitions of both those who felt personally wronged by Changing Ghost and those who simply wanted to avoid the wrath of their murderous leader.

                Wen Kexing allowed this to go on for a time, spending those minutes observing Changing Ghost. The man’s face was as pale as milk, his lip stain standing out luridly against the pallor. Kexing could see his throat moving, as though he was attempting to put together an excuse or shift the blame away from himself but could not find the words to do it.

                What could he say in the face of this wave of accusations? Valley ghosts seldom agreed, so having dozens all say the same thing could only be a mark of truth. And of bitter hatred.

                Changing Ghost and his ilk had earned themselves no favors by turning their bloodthirst onto the valley residents themselves. Wen Kexing had allowed the violence for this reason exactly.

                “Well, I suppose that settles things, does it not?” He murmured, even as quietly as he spoke, it caused the whole hall to fall into a hush. “Of course, I hardly believe that you put together this plan by yourself. You’re conniving, but hardly intelligent enough.”

                “Guzhu, don’t listen to them! I would never! I have ever been loyal!” Changing Ghost was on his knees begging. The blood from Black Grim Reaper’s slashed throat was soaking into his robes and the dark stain on the dark green fabric made Kexing wrinkle his nose in disgust. Changing Ghost must know that he had already lost, was there any need to get messy while he was at it?

                “Enough.” Kexing snapped finally, he was done listening to the tired excuses and pleading for clemency. This was Ghost Valley. There was no mercy to be found in this dank place; it was a lesson Wen Kexing had learned well and very young. You were either the hunter or the prey and a moment of inattention could switch those roles instantly. “Your plan has failed. You’ve lost. Now you will either tell me who was assisting you, or I can string you up until you scream their name.”

                “There was no one, there was no plan. Believe me!”

                Wen Kexing was hardly surprised that Changing Ghost would require more motivation to admit who his accomplice was. That was fine, Kexing was well versed in torture. His body bore the evidence of all his ‘experience’.

                “That’s fine. I needed an excuse to practice my skills anyway.” He drawled. “Take him to the cells. I will deal with that rat once I find the time. Until then, no one is allowed near him.”

                A few lesser ghosts separated from the crowd near the walls, grabbing the still whining Changing Ghost and dragging his resisting form away. Kexing did not bother checking to see who exactly had decided to take on the task, but he did notice that one was the older man who had spoken up first.

                Ah well, if Changing Ghost lost a finger or two before Kexing got to him, it would only make his job that much easier.

                “As for the rest of you. I tire of the noise. Leave while you still have your lives.”

                The crowded hall emptied in moments, the remainder of the ten devils slinking away with the rest of the rabble.

                All except Luo Fumeng. She had watched the performance from the sidelines, saying nothing, but staring at Kexing with a challenge in her eyes. She alone in the valley knew that there was little she could do that would earn her the true ire of the Valley Master, and she used that fact to her benefit often. In truth, unless Fumeng decided to do something to A-Xiang, Wen Kexing owed her too much to ever do more than demand her leave his presence.

                The Tragi-comic Ghost was the only reason Zhen Yan had survived his first years in Ghost Valley.

                “How is A-Xiang?” With the hall emptied of prying eyes and ghosts eternally looking for a chink in the armor of Lunatic Wen, Kexing was able to drop the façade. He had spent the last few months being able to act carefree and not worry about the opinion of those around him. Zhou Zishu had never judged him for even the most childish of actions, and though the other members of Four Seasons Pavilion had treated Wen Kexing as an outsider and potential threat, there had never been a suggestion that his welcome might wear out to the point of violence.

                The same as never true in the valley where every action was counted and examined to see what could be used against you. Being the Valley Master meant that Wen Kexing had the power and influence to protect A-Xiang and plan his revenge, but it also meant that every eye in Ghost Valley was constantly watching him. There could be no mistakes or missteps here.

                “She has been who she always is.” Fumeng replied calmly. Her body language was relaxed, no fear or tension to be found, but there was a small furrow between her brows and the corners of her mouth, normally curled slightly in a self-satisfied smirk, were turned down. “She has missed her zhuren and demands him at every hour of the day. But the violence had not made it to the bureau. You arrived in a timely enough fashion to prevent that.”

                “Good. Good…” With the delays he and Zishu had faced on their way here, Kexing had been tight with the anxiety that he had been too late. That some enterprising soul had made it to A-Xiang with the intent of holding her hostage against the Valley Master. “When I leave again, I am taking her with me. Jianghu is dangerous, but this has proven that even the most secure place in the valley is still vulnerable.”

                “You knew this as you left. You did not take her then, what has changed?”

                “Nothing.” He bit out on instinct before stepping back mentally, reminding himself that Fumeng is not asking to find some leverage. She is likely only worried that Kexing has not thought this through and is putting A-Xiang in unnecessary danger. “Everything. I found Zhou Zishu. I found my zhiji. He came back to Jianghu. He….” The words refused to come. How did one explain the feeling of the entire world shifting on its axis? He had left Ghost Valley expecting to find an usurper claiming the name of the sect he had been meant to be a part of only to discover Zhou Zishu, alive and hale and more than he could have ever imagined.

                Zishu did not know who Wen Kexing was, the man he had become bore no resemblance to the child that had spent a few short, carefree days with Zishu so many years ago. But Wen Kexing knew Zhou Zishu. He had never searched for him after learning of the disappearance of Four Seasons Pavilion. It had seemed better to imagine Zishu and the sect safe and simply withdrawn from Jianghu than to search the truth out and discover that they were all dead.

                Many were still dead. The once proud sect was a crippled shell of what it once had been, and Kexing could easily see the way that failure weighed on Zishu. But now that it was reestablished, it could be rebuilt. Chengling was the first step to that. A young, determined, brave boy to be the da-shixiong of a new generation.

                Kexing only hoped that he would be there to see it.

                Fumeng was staring at him carefully. Something about the concerned pain in her eyes rankled. Who was she to judge? She didn’t know, she had never met Zishu. She did not understand that he had found a matching piece to his soul, another person fashioned from the same stone.

                “And this man you’ve not seen since you were a child is one you would trust with A-Xiang?”

                “I would trust him with my life and hers. I know he would never betray me.” He replied stubbornly. Fumeng merely looked at him as though he were a naïve child.

                Kexing had not been a child since the day he had put his teeth to his own father’s flesh and chewed and chewed and chewed. Not since he had seen his mother as an unrecognizable mess of flesh and cartilage, shoulder blades jutting from shredded skin.

                Wen Kexing had learned through blood and pain not to trust.

                But Zhou Zishu was different.

                “I can only hope you are right. For A-Xiang’s sake if nothing else.” Fumeng eventually sighed out. She had the lost, faraway glaze to her eyes that suggested the Meng Po soup was dulling some distant memory.

                “I am. I know Zhou Zishu.” The words were too raw, but he could not go back and change his tone to one of confidence. Fumeng gave him an assessing look before bowing her had in acquiescence. “Now, retrieving A-Xiang is not the only reason I have returned here. It is time to move on to the second part of my plans.”

                After all, he would not be free to truly join Four Season Pavilion and attach himself to Zishu’s side until his revenge was complete and he was able to leave the shell of a ghost behind and step back into the light.

 

Chapter Text

Chapter 16

                Go to Yueyang. Hero Gao Chong has called a Hero’s Conference after the kidnapping of his nephew Zhang Chengling. They intend to deal with Ghost Valley once and for all, but it is the perfect opportunity to seed chaos in their ranks.

                Kill of disciples wandering about town in groups of one or two. Affiliation is unimportant, but those unrelated to the Fives Lakes Alliance would be best. Make the attacks look unrelated to Ghost Valley, plant evidence if you must, but make the deaths look like targeted attacks from within Jianghu sects.

                Above all else, do not let the sects arriving at the Hero’s Conference know that the valley is within their ranks. There will come a time for a direct confrontation with the corrupt powers in charge of Jianghu, but the first step is to destabilize that power as much as possible.

                Thinning out the ranks will serve the dual purpose of making everyone present distrust each other and limiting how many active combatants Wen Kexing will need to plan to deal with in the long run.

                Naturally, this had all been the plan before meeting Zhou Zishu again and discovering that the residents of Four Seasons Manor were genuine disciples of the sect. Now, much of this plan hinged on the pavilion remaining uninvolved with the conference. Kexing was not entirely certain what he would do should Four Seasons Pavilion become embroiled in the mess he intended to sow.

                For now he would simply hope that Zishu would stay true to form and keep his sect well removed from an potential violence.

                Fleeing from violence and chaos was the reason Zishu had left Tian Chuang and retreated to Jianghu in the first place, Kexing was quite certain, it would make no sense for him to reverse course and seek it out now.

                So, Wen Kexing lays out the next steps in his plan to Luo Fumeng, ignoring the disapproval he can feel radiating off her as he does so. The Tragi-comic Ghost has ever disapproved of his determination to avenge his parents’ deaths. Still, he knows that she will agree. The debt she feels she owes him and his family ensuring her loyalty no matter what her personal feelings are.

                “Keep a register of the sects that arrive and how many they each come with. We may as well begin planning for the final assault now.” He ordered after he had wrapped up describing the next phase of his revenge. Fumeng nodded gracefully, though her mouth pinched at the corners as though she was fighting to keep something in. “If you have something to say, you may as well say it now. It may be a month or two before I am able to meet with you in Yueyang.”

                He wanted to ensure Chengling and Zhou Zishu were safely ensconced in Four Seasons Manor and unlikely to leave again before he moved on to the final part of his little production. Travelling from Qingya to Kun and then backtracking to Yueyang would take some time in addition to convincing Zishu that there was no need to follow Kexing into the thick of the mess he was making.

                “I would not question Guzhu.” Wen Kexing refrained from rolling his eyes only because he knew it made him look like a pouting child throwing a tantrum. Fumeng had a gift for being able to add the word ‘but’ into her sentences that was almost an art. “Are you certain this is necessary? Would cutting the head off the snake kill the whole just as well?”  

                And without the risk of the innocent and you in particular, she did not say. The first time they had discussed Wen Kexing’s blinding thirst for revenge, she had not been so tactful. He had not appreciated the concern she was showing and had lashed out in anger.

                Since then, she had only insinuated that a quick, clean death would be just as satisfying in the long run.

                She did not understand, for over a decade now, revenge had been the only thing driving Kexing to survive in this hell. Gu Xiang may have kept him sane, but the complete annihilation of the corrupt sects of Jianghu had kept him breathing before she had even come to him.

                “The plan has already been set into motion. The time for changes has passed.” He growled in frustration. Months ago, when he had begun sending out raiding parties to annihilate smaller sects, Fumeng had only shook her head and silently withdrew the girls from her bureau. It was only when Wen Kexing had announced he would be leaving the valley to investigate a sect far to the south in Kun that she had vocalized her disapproval.

                “Changes can always be made. Think of A-Xiang, what is she going to do in the valley without myself and the others to protect her?” She argued. It would have been a solid argument only a handful of months ago. He could hardly go to war with the whole of Jianghu with a ten-year-old strapped to his side and who in the valley by Luo Fumeng could he trust to watch over her?

                That had changed the day he had arrived at Four Seasons Manor and been greeted with none other than Zhou Zishu.

                Now Wen Kexing had not just somewhere safe for his girl to hide while he completed his revenge, he had a reason to return from this battle alive. Just a little longer, one more final push, and Kexing would be able to retire from all the fighting to stay by his zhiji’s side with their silly children.

                He fought down a stupid grin.

                “She’s not staying in the valley. Once I am done getting my answers from Changing Ghost’s skin, she will be leaving with me.” He said, relishing the shock and confusion that swam across Fumeng’s normally disinterested and neutral face. In all the years they had known each other, how many times had he actually managed to surprise the woman?

                “You cannot be saying you’re going to bring that child to the battle against the alliance!” She shouted at him. Anyone else who dared to raise their voice at him would be dead before they could finish their sentence; Wen Kexing did not encourage such disrespect. For Fumeng, who had done her best to keep him alive when the Valley Master who had kidnapped him took his blood price from Kexing’s skin, he would allow some small affronts. “She will never survive that. She’ll be nothing but a hostage waiting to be taken!”

                “Hardly, A-Xiang has defended herself against ghosts since she was a toddler. Some pathetic little orthodox disciple would have their work cut out holding her down.” He retorted. He knew that there was no way that he could bring A-Xiang with him to Yueyang, but he still felt the need to stand up for his little fiend. She would never take being held hostage laying down. “But, for what it’s worth, she will not be in Yueyang. I am taking her to Four Seasons Manor.”

                “Four Seasons Manor? I thought it had been abandoned. Why would you take her there?” My, but Fumeng was truly doing her best to test Kexing’s limits today. He wondered if something else had agitated her other than his return and announcement.

                “It’s been reestablished. The sect returned at the beginning of spring.”

                “And you believe it is the true Four Seasons Pavilion? Not just some usurpers hoping to ride the reputation of their martial arts into success?”

                “I know it is the true pavilion. I went there myself to determine the veracity of the rumors.”

                There was a drawn out beat of silence as Luo Fumeng processed this revelation. He wondered what she had thought he was doing out in the human world for the past season. Had she assumed he was simply seeding more dissent and disaster? He had a valley full of willing murderers to do that. He would save his energy for taking down the Five Lakes Alliance brotherhood.

                “And you trust them? Enough to watch over A-Xiang?” She queried incredulously. “What if they involve themselves in the Hero’s Conference? Kun is a fair distance from Yueyang, but that may not be enough to prevent the violence from spilling over.”

                “I know the manor lord. He would never put his sect at risk to involve them in Jianghu politics.” Of this, Kexing was completely confident. Zhou Zishu was many things, but a gambler with the lives of his brothers was not among them. Four Seasons Pavilion had already been badly diminished; he knew that Zishu would go to great lengths in order to conserve those that remained. “There is nowhere in the world that A-Xiang will be safer.”

                And besides, Kexing hoped that having a new disciple and a little girl to watch over and protect would keep his A-Xu confined as well. Even though he knew the man would never risk his sect, Kexing was not so confident he would not risk himself.

                “This still seems like a huge gamble, guzhu.”

                “Enough. My mind has already been made up. In two days, I am leaving the valley with A-Xiang and you will be leading the ghosts to Yueyang.” He finally snapped. There was only so much backtalk he could handle, and he was already stressed and annoyed about having to leave Zishu and Chengling alone in White Deer in the first place. “There is one more thing I need to discuss with you. How you handle the information will be at your discretion, use it to the best of your abilities.”

                “Very well, guzhu.” Her voice was strained with malcontent, but Fumeng knew well enough when to stop pushing him. “I will listen and obey.”

                “Good.” Now to see if she would actually get through his whole explanation without questioning him. “Rumors of the Glazed Armor have begun circulating in some of the larger cities near Yueyang. I don’t know where they started from or who is spreading them, but I believe we can use them to our advantage.”

                Using the tales of the Glazed Armor and the World’s Armory would be trickier than simply killing off disciples. There was the obvious problem of not know the origin of those recent stories, most of all. Whoever was spreading the story would have their own agenda and Kexing would be actively working against that. It might draw unwanted attention, particularly since the spreader could only be a member of the Five Lakes brotherhood. On top of that, there was the issue of ensuring his ghosts did not also take it upon themselves to become treasure seekers.

                Greed was the rule of all those who lived in Ghost Valley; Wen Kexing could only use their fear to stymy it.

                “You wish to spread the rumor further still without giving too much away to the lesser ghosts?” Fumeng correctly guessed. He could hear her mind turning over the possibilities, in particular the fact that, done correctly, the rumors of a storehouse of limitless power could drive Jianghu into chaos without Kexing having to involve himself directly. “I believe that can be accomplished. I will have some of my girls position themselves in teahouses and local shops and begin disseminating information.”

                “Ensure that they implicate all the brotherhood. I won’t stand for a single one of those rats escaping.” Kexing ordered, already mentally moving on to other things. “The Five Lakes Alliance has been essentially keeping martial secrets from their true owners for over a decade, it should not be difficult to turn the rest of Jianghu against them.”

                Fumeng had been in the raiding party that had taken his parents from him, the same party had been informed about the Glazed Armor, though Kexing did not who had shared the information. He had, over the past decade, pieced together some information about Rong Xuan and his friends, though. Those six were the only ones who could have made his family into a target.

                Of that raiding party, Fumeng was the only one still living. She alone still knew that the Glazed Armor was, by itself, not sufficient to open the armory. Kexing knew that the Five Lakes brotherhood must also know that fact, but he also assumed they would think the key lost after the Ghost Valley raid.

                Perhaps, as part of the last act, he could reveal that belief to be false.

                “Good. I’ll leave this to you.”

 

--

 

                “Zhuren! Bastard! How could you leave me here!” Wen Kexing had barely gotten past the threshold of the courtyard Luo Fumeng used to house his girl before he was set upon by a small tornado of purple clothes and fury. Here, unobserved by the rest of the valley, he allowed a small smile to curl the corners of his mouth. He had missed his A-Xiang. “Do you know how boring it is! The girls in the Department of the List of the Unfaithful won’t even spar with me!”

                “Little girl, how have you grown even noisier?” He reprimanded, though he knew his words would fall on deaf ears. He had been too young when he got her to know how to raise a child and now, she was so thoroughly spoiled there was no remedying it. Of course, growing up in a place like Ghost Valley had not helped. All she knew was fighting and shouting. “I could hardly take you with me before. What would I do with a little ghost out in the human world?”

                As expected, the mention of the outside world diverted A-Xiang’s attention instantaneously. “The human world? What was it like? Did you bring me something back?” His little devil demanded. It was a good thing, Kexing thought, that he intended to take her with him this next time. He was quite certain she would simply stalk him out if he tried to leave her behind again.

                “No manners at all.” He tsked, clicking his tongue against his teeth in mock derision. “What about ‘zhuren, are you well?’ or ‘zhuren, did you have a safe journey?’” Spending time at Four Seasons Manor would hopefully smooth some of her rough edges out. He’d never get her married if she remained a wild child like this.

                “Please, zhuren, who could do anything to you? You’re the Valley Master. No one would dare hurt you!” While gratifying, the faith A-Xiang had in him was sometimes overwhelming. She had been so young when he had rescued her, by now the memories of the old Valley Master were faded and soft. She barely remembered that there had been a point only a couple years ago where many had done more than dare to hurt him.

                “Little beast, those are pretty words to cover up the fact that you forget your manners the second I turn away.”

                “Never! You can ask Aunt Luo! I was on my best behavior!” She denied. “In fact, I was so good, I deserve a present!”

                Later, Wen Kexing would argue that he was simply tired and the relief of finding A-Xiang unharmed and whole so great that was to blame for him breaking out in soft laughter. He was the feared Ghost Valley Master; he did not chuckle at his girl’s antics like a doting father. This was the exception not the rule.

                For now, he fought to contain his laughter while A-Xiang beamed in pride. She was always happy with herself when she managed to make Kexing smile or laugh.

                “I’ll do you one better, little girl.” He got out, containing the bubbling excitement in chest. There would be time soon where he could grin and tease A-Xiang fully and in the open. He could restrain himself for a few more days. “When I leave again, you’re coming with me. I have someone for you to meet.”

                “You’re taking me with you to the human world!?” The girl exclaimed, breaking out in a radiant grin. Kexing could see a gap in the back of her mouth where she must have lost a tooth she was smiling so widely. “You promise, zhuren? How long are we gonna be out there? Will you buy me a present?”

                “I promise, A-Xiang.” Kexing put a hand on her head to try and slow her bouncing, he was really too tired to keep up with an energetic child who had been cooped up inside for so many months. “We’re leaving the valley. And we’re not coming back.”

                This stopped her dead in her tracks. The startling stillness after the storm of exuberance was alarming, if he was being honest. Wen Kexing had been sure that she would be excited at the news that she would never have to come back to the valley. She had never belonged here to begin with.

                “Zhuren…we’re…we’re leaving forever? Both of us?” The hesitation in her voice caused Kexing to furrow his brow in confusion before realization dawned on him. Oh, oh his sweet, silly girl.

                “Yes, both of us.” He reassured her gently. “When I left, I went to…meet an old friend. He’s the leader of a sect in Kun. When we leave, that’s where we’re going.”

                “A friend? I thought you said you don’t have friends. You said I was the only person you needed!”

                “Brat! Maybe I won’t introduce you to A-Xu, you’ll scare him off with your feral habits!”

                “No! Zhuren! You have to let me meet the person crazy enough to be your friend!”

                “Crazy? Why would someone need to be crazy to be friends with me!” Seriously, this child. Was she raised by wolves? Wen Kexing had tried so hard to train her, even let Luo Fumeng train her on etiquette and manners and for what? This was the thanks he got?

                “Only a crazy man would be friends with Lunatic Wen!” A-Xiang exclaimed before breaking into a run, knowing exactly what was coming next.

                “I’ll show you Lunatic Wen! Get back here, you little brat! I’ll twist your ear clean off this time, just you wait!” Yes, it was good to have his little girl back. Even if she was a little monster of his own making.

 

Chapter Text

Chapter 17

                Wen Kexing was not surprised that Changing Ghost broke within the first day of torture.

                After a solid night’s rest and a slow morning helping A-Xiang pack and prepare for their future travels, Kexing had gone straight to the Yama Palace’s dungeons. The space was derelict and most often empty of prisoners. He was not the type to keep betrayers and assassins alive long enough to question them in general, but this was a special circumstance.

                For the first time since he had taken over as the Valley Master, there had been a full-scale revolt. It made little sense; he had even loosened the leashes holding the ghosts back. If anything, the valley should have been more peaceful than usual as many of the stronger members of the valley were outside causing mischief.

                Instead, he had been forced to run at full speed across the country to come quell an overthrow attempt that would have succeeded if even a single ghost had thought to snatch A-Xiang out from her little haven. The fact that none of the ghosts had done so struck him as odd. It smelled like a plot set in motion by an outsider.

                He did not like that.

                Fingers from Jianghu creeping into the Ghost Valley caused something in his brain to tickle. A pain-pressure that told him to stop thinking on it, but the feeling of diversion only made him want to dig in deeper. There was something there, something important. Meng Po’s soup was a constant blockade, but he had never allowed it to steal his obsession from him and he would tear the memories out with bloodstained fingers if he had to.

                But first, there was the matter of Changing Ghost.

                There was no chance he took the opportunity to stage a revolution on his own, he was too much of a coward. No, someone had given him backing, perhaps even the plan of attack.

                Kexing began with no buildup. Mercy was a foreign word in Ghost Valley and there was no chance Changing Ghost would be alive at the end of this. They both knew this. The only thing he could hope for at this point was a swift death.

                Wen Kexing had kept the former Valley Master alive for three days, tearing of strips of skin like jerky and feeding them into his screaming mouth. Whenever the bleeding seemed to go fast, he had pulled flat panels of metal from the nearby fire he had kept going to cauterize the wounds. Within the first day, the body hanging from those meat hooks was no longer recognizable as the Valley Master.

                By the last day, it would have taken some imagination to see a human at all.

                For Changing Ghost, Kexing did not bother with meat hooks or filleting knives. He did not keep metal heating in a fire or a supply of clean water to prevent dehydration. This was not personal in the way the death of the Valley Master had been. This was simply business.

                Changing Ghost was strapped to a simple wooden chair, his arms were pulled out in front of him to lay on a rough wooden table. There were no chains or lock, just rope. The devil would not be making some grand escape. His allies were scattered and the devils who had backed him were hiding to preserve their own pathetic lives.

                No, Changing Ghost could only hope for the mercy of a knife across the throat at this point.

                It was something Kexing had no intention of granting him until he had his answers.

                A traditional torturer might have started with peeling off fingernails or breaking knees. Simple, straightforward things that the unindoctrinated would cave under. Kexing took the first knuckle of Changing Ghost’s ring finger first. When the scream was followed only by babbling of innocence and having no stake in overturning the Valley Master’s rule, he took the rest of the first knuckles.

                With fingers viciously foreshortened, Changing Ghost finally began some part of his confession.

                “Please, it was Lovelace and Happy Ghost, they came to us and suggested the time was ripe.” He blathered through tears and pathetic sobs. “How could we stand against them? We thought to join them to take their plan apart from the inside.”

                “Hm…you know, I don’t think I believe you.” Kexing said in a soft singsong. “In fact, I think you may be lying to me on purpose! Who would have thought, such a loyal little ghost, yet you would lie to my face?”

                “No, no! Guzhu, I swear!” Kexing didn’t bother waiting for the rest, instead dragging the tip of his knife along the outer side of Changing Ghost’s right wrist, testing the give and the hollows of the bones laying under thin skin. Without any further warning, he dug the knife straight in, careful to avoid going deep enough to sever arteries.

                He peeled the skin aside with the blade, not removing the flap but getting it out of the way to expose a mess of tendon and tiny bones. He considered the sight with a contemplative expression on his face.

                “Which to take…they’re all so pretty and small. Don’t you think?” Changing Ghost was jerking hard against the ropes keeping him tied to the table. The horror of seeing his insides exposed to the open air causing his eyes to widen to the point it looked like the eyeballs would pop right out of their sockets. His mouth was gaping in a helpless howl that went abruptly soundless and airy when Kexing reached in and plucked a tiny wrist bone out of the bleeding mess.

                That first bone resulted in a violent spasm through the resisting body before it went abruptly still and loose.

                Kexing scowled and tsked. “Really? Just from one little bone? Pathetic!” He pulled out a small vial of smelling salts and rattled them lightly. “No worries though, I don’t intend to spend more time than I need to on this. Certainly not going to waste time waiting for you to wake up.” He shoved the little vial under Changing Ghost’s nose and giggled manically as the man jerked awake with a gurgling scream.

                He kept his manic grin on his lips as he made eye contact with his victim.

                “Welcome back! I was so sad you fainted! We’ve only just begun you know?” Kexing affected a childish pout and widened his eyes. He knew how insane the expression made him look; he had practiced in the mirror for hours. There had been a time in the first few months of his reign as Valley Master in which playing the lunatic was the only way he was able to maintain his control.

                The image of the previous Valley Master, his body nothing but a beaten lump of meat, had kept the ghosts afraid for a little while, but too many remembered the whipping boy Wen Kexing once was. He was forced, again and again, to plaster on a face of madness onto himself and make an example of those who thought they could get one over on the weak little child who was playing at guzhu.

                Eventually, the valley had quieted as the residents realized Kexing was a force to be reckoned with.

                Wen Kexing made use of his reputation for madness to its best now. He could see the fear of pain in Changing Ghost’s eyes. He could see the memory of what had been left of the previous Valley Master and how long Kexing had drawn that out.

                There was no life for him after this, but he could at least suffer less at this moment.

                Truly, it was anticlimactic. Kexing hadn’t even needed to pull out the pliers or bone saws. What a total disappointment.

                “There’s an assassin organization, they’re new to Jianghu. They call themselves Scorpions.” Changing Ghost broke spectacularly. He spilled every secret he had under his stupid hat. “Their leader, he’s just a kid, but he came to us with a plan to revolt while you were gone from the valley. That kid, Xie Wang, he knew everything. He was looking for something though, I promised to give him free access to the valley when I took over.”

                “Looking for something? What? And who hired him. Assassins don’t work for free.” Kexing demanded, digging into the stream of confessions. The ghosts who had gone against him were nothing, they would follow whoever wielded the most power, but an external assassin organization taking an interest in searching the valley. That was interesting. They had to be under the employ of someone in the Five Lakes Alliance.

                No one else knew that the valley was the most likely place for where the key was hidden.

                “I don’t know, he didn’t tell me. I didn’t care what he was after. He never mentioned who he was working for. He just mentioned a yifu. Could be anyone!” The panic in Changing Ghost’s voice carried the ring of truth. Kexing nodded thoughtfully. So, an adopted child of one of the brotherhood had created an assassin’s organization to hunt out the pieces of the Glazed Armor. Interesting.

                “I believe you, you know.” He stated blandly, staring forlornly at the stubby remains of Changing Ghost’s hands. “This could have all been avoided if you had only told me this from the beginning. Am I not a merciful guzhu? Still, I feel bad that it came to this. In exchange for your suffering, let me tell you a secret before you die.

                “You struck too soon. Shortly, I will lead the 3000 ghosts of the valley in a full attack on Jianghu. I won’t bother restraining their actions. We will march on Yueyang and their foolish little Hero’s Conference. It will be a blood bath the orthodox sects have not seen since the day Rong Xuan went mad.”

                He smiled, allowing the corners of his mouth to stretch just a bit farther than normal. “It’s so sad that you’ll miss out on that.”

                Tearing the throat out of a human is a shockingly easy action. If you can catch your blade under the little bone protecting the airway, it will rip out like ribs from a tender piece of meat. Cutting straight into the artery pulsing up the side of neck is cleaner, but there is something deeply satisfying about seeing a person’s throat working desperately to bring air to heaving lungs, only to have that lifegiving air whistle uselessly out of the punctured windpipe.

                Changing Ghost was tied to the table and could not bring his mutilated hands to his neck to try and stifle the opening, instead he was forced to sit and gasp helplessly. A fish suddenly deprived of water. His mouth gaped open and closed just like a struggling little fish. The sight was too much for Kexing and he burst into gales of laughter.

                He wondered if Zhou Zishu would find it amusing as well. He had been an assassin; he must have seen his fair share of pathetic little deaths. Were any as amusing as watching a cowardly little backstabber twitch and heave like an insect?

                Perhaps he would ask him about it once they were reunited.

                Now that Changing Ghost and his ilk had been taken care of, now that Kexing knew what outside force was trying to wriggle their control into his valley.

                Now he could retrieve A-Xiang and leave this forsaken place forever.

 

--

 

                It was only a few minutes later, as Wen Kexing was burning his bloodstained robes and scrubbing the viscera from under his nails that he began considering what Zhou Zishu would truly think of the whole situation. Certainly, the other man must have dirtied his hands in his fair share of torture and dirty jobs. Assassins only had so much control over their orders and being under the control of one of the competing princes would only open the doors to more contemptable demands.

                But his zhiji had left that all behind, hadn’t he? He had retreated from the capital and back to his remote manor in the south. Realistically, Kun was as far from the imperial city as Zhou Zishu could get without leaving Jianghu behind entirely. If he had so thoroughly abandoned his place in Tian Chuang, then perhaps he had also abandoned the lifestyle of violence it had contained.

                No, that couldn’t be. Wen Kexing had watched Zhou Zishu rip apart their enemies as they fled from towns where their faces were plastered across every wall.

                Of course, that had been in defense of the child they were escorting and of their personal freedom. If either Kexing or Zishu were captured by the orthodoxy, there would be no trial to prove their guilt. The possession of Zhang Chengling would be sufficient evidence that they were enemies of the Five Lakes Alliance.

                Killing Changing Ghost had been a form of self-defense, Kexing reasoned. Zhou Zishu would hardly blame him for ensuring his enemies were too frightened of him to stand against him. What difference did it make that he had removed a few little pieces of the ghost before he killed him? As soon as he rose up against Wen Kexing, he was already a dead man. Everything that happened to him after was just unimportant.

                Would Zishu believe that?

                Kexing worried his lip, slowly tearing at the flesh with sharp teeth as he considered the smoldering pile of destroyed robes in front of him. They had not been too badly damaged, in truth. Hands were not prone to much bleeding, and Changing Ghost had caved long before the Valley Master had to truly dirty his hands. He had just been caught up in the memory of the day the previous Valley Master had finally died.

                His robes then had been stained so profusely that it was difficult to tell that they had once been white.

                It didn’t matter, he reminded himself. There was no reason Zhou Zishu would ever discover that Kexing had done this in the first place. There was no reason the man would even find out that Kexing was the Valley Master at all.

                He would leave A-Xiang in his care, complete his revenge, and survive to return to Four Seasons Manor.

                After, after it wouldn’t matter who he had been. What he had done. In less than a month, Wen Kexing could leave behind the claws and fangs and sharp edges that had kept him alive for so long. Zhou Zishu was a sharp edged thing himself, but they had not cut each other to ribbons on the journey here. Kexing was confident they would not do so later either.

                Zhiji. It was so odd to roll the word around in his mind, in his mouth. Without Zhou Zishu before him to ascribe the word to, it felt ill-fitting. How could he say that Zishu was one who knew him, knew his soul? When dear A-Xu did not even know what kind of monster he was dealing with? Kexing knew Zishu, could see the rotten bits of guilt and loathing that had festered beneath his skin.

                It was not hard to trace the lines of those wounds though Zishu did his best to disguise them behind icy contempt and disinterest. Kexing knew that members of Four Seasons Pavilion bought the act, believed that their lord was an unfeeling automaton that was little better than a cold tyrant.

                It was not the truth of who Zhou Zishu was. The thing Kexing was unsure of was why Zishu would act that way at all. He could see the deep love the assassin had for his sect brothers and the legacy their shifu had left him, so why did he persuade those around him into believing that he didn’t?

                Kexing worried the edge of that thought as he rifled around in his wardrobe for something new to wear. Soft, white inner robes followed by layer after layer of heavy crimson brocade. Every additional robe felt like armor, a physical barrier between his scarred skin and the prying eyes of his ghosts.

                It was only as he was tying the belt of his last layer that a terrible idea occurred to him.

                Before he had left the last time, Wen Kexing had been making a plan to limit his contact with A-Xiang, to push her away from himself and towards some human. Someone he could find that could be trusted with his girl. His hope in visiting Four Seasons Manor had not been to find Zhou Zishu, though there had been some part of him desperately hoping for it anyway, but to find a small, but gentle sect that might take in a young girl and protect her.

                To do that, he had planned to make A-Xiang view him as a cold and removed lord. Not a brother or father, but simply someone she obeyed for the time being. He had figured the girl was still young enough to be impressionable enough to fall for it.

                That plan was no longer necessary, but, as he considered the way Zhou Zishu held himself distant from those who should have been his family…the similarities were alarming.

                Kexing gritted his teeth and tightened his belt quickly.

                He didn’t know what Zhou Zishu was planning, but he could be assured of one thing, the plan did not include him making it out alive. Wen Kexing’s plan had been a suicide run, some inkling of premonition suggested that Zishu’s was meant to be as well.

                Ha! Kexing had found his zhiji after a decade of torture and suffering. There was not a chance in hell that he was going to allow him to get away now. If A-Xu wanted to die, he had best be prepared to carry Wen Kexing along with him.

                Even in death, there was no place Kexing was not willing to follow Zishu. He would ensure his stupid zhiji was very aware of that fact. Even if he had to beat it through his thick skull.

 

Chapter Text

                “Zhuren, zhuren! When we get to the human world you have to buy me a present! You never got me a present. You promised, remember?” A-Xiang was skipping alongside Wen Kexing as they made their way to the entrance to Ghost Valley. After cleaning himself and ensuring that there was no trace of blood on his person, Wen Kexing had gone straight to Luo Fumeng’s compound to collect his amethyst fiend.

                Of course, the Tragi-comic Ghost intercepted him before he could complete his mission of grabbing the girl and leaving. He had been insistent that he could leave then and there. Torturing Changing Ghost had not cost him any qi and it was still early enough to make it out of the valley and to the road leading to White Deer before it got dark.

                In the end, Fumeng reminded him that though he may be capable of going for days on end with little to no rest, A-Xiang was still just a child. She could not handle the stress of intense travel. If she fell ill on the road to Four Seasons Manor, Kexing would have failed in his task of protecting her. It was safer to delay his return by a few hours and ensure the child had a good night’s rest before the left.

                He hated when Fumeng was right.

                So he had waited. He had tucked his girl into bed, weathered her eager demands for stories of the outside world, and finally threatened to just hit her over the head if she didn’t go to sleep immediately. They both knew that it was an empty threat, but a day full of excitement was already starting to wear on the ten-year-old and she fell asleep shortly after.

                Wen Kexing considered staying awake just to spite Fumeng’s determination to mother hen him, but the thought of spending the next several hours eagerly waiting to leave and return to Zhou Zishu’s side made him a little nauseous. Instead, he laid down along the side of A-Xiang’s bed, keeping his body firmly between her and the door. They had slept like this since the day he had found her.

                There had been a single night when Kexing had first rescued the sobbing toddler from the pack of hungry ghosts intent on making a meal of her, where he had chosen to sleep on his own. He had been so young back then. Barely twelve. He had no idea how to take care of a toddler; he didn’t even know if he wanted to. So much of his time back then had been spent training under the watchful eye of the Valley Master who had murdered his family and ripped apart his childhood.

                Then, in the dead of night, a couple of the ghosts who had been terrorizing the little girl returned to finish what they started. Wen Kexing was awake and breaking a neck with his bare hand before his mind fully registered what was happening. By the time he was fully awake and able to assess the situation, the three opportunistic ghosts were dead.

                He had expected the child to scream in terror or cry in fear. Instead, she had blinked large, solemn eyes up at him and called him brother.

                Their fate had been sealed in that moment and Kexing had spent every night that he was with her, protecting her back.

               

--

 

                Kexing packed A-Xiang up and headed out of Ghost Valley as soon as the sun began to crest the horizon. He had gotten the smallest bit of sleep, but his little girl had slept like the dead and awoke bursting with energy. He was pretty sure she hadn’t even tasted the congee she had bolted down before the left.

                Now she was chirping non-stop as they made their way to the Ghost Valley gates. Kexing could not find it in himself to be annoyed at the noise, this would be the first time A-Xiang had stepped foot in the human world. He had previously always kept her tucked away and safe. Ghosts were predictable, they would always choose straightforward violence if the opportunity presented itself. A human was different. They were deceitful and full of tricks. He had been terrified that someone would fool his little girl into something and get her hurt.

                To prevent that, he had cossetted her in as much luxury as the valley could provide and done his best to train her to be wary and alert. She was still young, but her instincts were good, and she had long learned that it was better to strike first and ask questions later. It was worth killing an innocent once if she was safe from evil the other ninety-nine times.

                “-And then you can buy me all the candy I want!” His little terror continued with her list of demands. Reparations, she was calling it, for leaving her behind and then coming back with only stories of some stupid little boy who got himself kidnapped and a dumb man. If he was going to come back empty handed, he should have at least had interesting things to tell her. In hindsight, gushing about A-Xu to his little sister may not have been the wisest choice. She was now determined to consider him a rival in affection and attention. “Aunt Luo was telling me that there are stores that only sell candy! I want to go to one of those!”

                “Aunt Luo shouldn’t have told you that.” Kexing muttered, already cringing at the idea of A-Xiang hyped up on bags of sweets. He’d never sleep again. “I thought you wanted to see Four Seasons Manor? Weren’t you excited to be able to see what all the fuss was about? We can’t spend so much time going into every shop between here and Kun.”

                “You’ve hardly told me anything about the manor, zhuren!” A-Xiang whined as she tugged on his sleeve. “All you do is talk about stupid Zhou Zishu. Why do you call him A-Xu? That’s not even his name. I don’t see what’s so good about a stinky man, either. Or the dumb boy you saved. Who lets themselves get kidnapped anyway? You know how many dumb ghosts tried to steal me? None of them even lived to get back out the door!”

                “Yes, my A-Xiang is the fiercest ghost in the valley. Who would dare try to abduct the heartless amethyst fiend?” He praised, tapping her lightly on the head with his fan as she preened at the compliment. “As for little Chengling. The silly child has lived a rather coddled life. From what he’s said, his father has not even begun to suggest he start training in martial arts even though he is of the age where he should start learning.”

                “That’s stupid! I was training in martial arts when I was younger than him! You made me run laps with you when I was just four!” She exclaimed. He had already explained the circumstances surrounding his and A-Xu’s acquisition of the child, but A-Xiang continued to be aghast at the entire situation.

                “He’s the youngest son of an influential Jianghu sect. There is no reason he would be expected to do much more than care for his parents as they age. His older brothers will be the ones to take over sect duties, so he gets to live a carefree life.” Or he would have. Now the silly child was determined to be the first student of the new generation of Four Seasons Pavilion. If Wen Kexing had slipped a few carefully worded suggestions into that willing ear, then who would be able to know it? “Now he wants to join A-Xu’s sect, though. It will not be such a pampered life.”

                “I don’t get it. Who would want to join a sect? It sounds so boring. All those rules and people always telling you what to do and how to do it.”

                “There’s safety in being a part of a sect. You have allies to watch your back and protect you if you are injured. But more than that, sects have secret techniques.” He said this part in a conspiratorial tone, knowing that there was little that interested A-Xiang more than the idea that he was imparting some great secret that only she could know. “You have to be a part of a sect to learn those techniques, and Four Seasons Pavilion has some of the most revered secret techniques in Jianghu. It’s made them a target for generations.”

                “If you’re fucking the sect leader does that mean I can learn those techniques too?”

                “Impertinent! Who taught you such language?” Seriously, he was gone for a few months, and someone had sullied his sweet little girl’s innocent ears. He didn’t bother hiding his shock at the rough language. Had Luo Fumeng been the one to say such things? No, there was no chance. So what villain had been teaching his A-Xiang about fucking and earning favors from such things?

                “No one. I just heard a couple of the girls in the bureau saying that fucking a man was the quickest way to his purse.” A-Xiang shrugged without a hint of caring how rapidly she was shattering her poor zhuren’s world. “What is fucking? Is it a kind of manipulation? Did you alter his qi?”

                “It is not something little girls need to be messing about with, is what it is. I never want to hear you say that word again. Especially around A-Xu!” Thank the gods for small mercies. At least she had only heard the word without any context. He was not prepared to give a girl child a talk about sex. Maybe he could convince Zhou Zishu to do it…

                Kexing glanced down at A-Xiang and winced at the evil glint in her eye. It was an expression that clearly said that she was going to say ‘fucking’ the second they united with Zhou Zishu.

                “If you say that word to A-Xu, I won’t be buying you any candy.” He threatened with little hope that it would work. Gu Xiang was too aware that there was little he wouldn’t do for her if she so much as hinted at it. It was his own fault for teaching her how to recognize and use empty threats to her own advantage.

                “Of course, zhuren.” The imp said. “I listen and obey.”

                “Sure you do…” He replied hopelessly.

 

--

 

                The journey from Mount Qingya to the beginnings of White Deer did not take long. Even with the slower pace he had to use to accommodate A-Xiang’s shorter legs and lower endurance, the pair reached the first household on the edge of the town long before the sun began to set. Wen Kexing was set to rush straight to his zhiji’s side, but the child he was now lugging around had other plans.

                “Zhuren, I’m hungry!” They had eaten some dried fruit and nuts on the trip down the mountain, but even Kexing had to admit that that was hardly filling fair for a child. A-Xiang made sure to put on an expression of deep suffering when he glanced down at her. Naturally, that decided everything for him.

                “Alright, let’s get you fed and then we can meet up with A-Xu.” Kexing agreed. It was for the best anyway; his girl would only be more disagreeable towards Zhou Zishu if she was also hungry when they met. He was already bracing for all the bullying he was going to have to intercede in between A-Xiang and little Chengling. “What shall we get you?”

                “That! I want that!” A-Xiang immediately fixed her eyes on a street vendor selling steamed buns. The fluffy white buns were appearing and disappearing as the vendor opened the steaming box they were resting in to serve out portions to customers before closing it again to keep the buns fresh and hot. It could have been worse, Kexing decided. From where they were standing, he could see stalls selling pounded rice cakes, sticky fruit glistening with honey, and sesame cakes the size of his palm.

                At least the buns would have some meat and vegetables. And wouldn’t be packed with sugar.

                “Very well. Go pick out the ones you want.”

                A-Xiang demanded far more than she could reasonably eat, wanting to be able to try every variety on display. The merchant was more than pleased with their large order and even threw in a cake with a sweet egg custard filling. Just what the child needed.

                “You’re going to make yourself sick if you eat all of this.” Kexing reprimanded. “It’s a waste to buy so many when you’ll only be able to eat maybe half.”

                “The other half are for you, zhuren!” A likely story. Wen Kexing had a feeling he’d be finishing half eaten buns as A-Xiang tried and discarded them. In general, she would never waste food, but this would not be the first time she used him as a convenient receptacle to prevent food waste. “Besides, I’ve never had most of these! What if I don’t like them?”

                So the Ghost Valley Master spent the rest of the afternoon eating his little sister’s half finished buns and daydreaming about making Zhou Zishu teach the girl some manners. He had proven himself very resistant to the large, wet eyed stare that Kexing had mastered, so he would also be able to ignore A-Xiang’s pouting.

                The pair finally made it to the only inn in the little town as the sun was touching the horizon. In total, Wen Kexing had made to Ghost Valley and back in a little over five days.

                He tried not to show his nerves and excitement as he led A-Xiang into the building. He had left Zishu right after they had shared their first kiss. It had been a moment building between them for the entirety of their acquaintance, but that moment of lips pressed to lips, with Zishu trying to deepen it even as Kexing braced himself to part again…it had been everything he had dreamed of.

                He could hardly wait to continue where they had left off. Maybe they could send the kids into town for a couple hours to buy themselves some precious moments alone. It would never be enough time. But it would hold them over until they could get to Four Seasons Manor and spend an entire day locked away from the world.

                Would Zhou Zishu be louder in bed? He was so restrained and quiet most of the time, but could Wen Kexing break that wall of self-control? What would it take? He hadn’t had the chance to see his zhiji fully undressed yet. He didn’t imagine Zishu would be shy about his body. He would probably allow Kexing to look and touch his fill with little complaining.

                A couple hours would not be enough to explore Zishu as much as Kexing would like. He’d have to prioritize. It didn’t matter if they got kicked out of the inn as they would be leaving town shortly, so noise was not an obstacle.

                It was only when he greeted the innkeeper and requested to be taken to the rooms hosting Zhou Zishu and Zhang Chengling that Kexing was greeted with the real obstacle.

                A-Xu had left.

                He had promised he would wait.

                He had lied.

                The note clutched in his hand was short. Written in Zhou Zishu’s neat, but non-descript calligraphy. It was the handwriting of a man who wanted to remain invisible as often as possible.

                It didn’t matter what the writing looked like. The contents of the scrap of paper were what was tearing Wen Kexing apart.

                Three sentences. No hint of emotion or hesitation.

                ‘Time has run out for me to pretend this is something for me to keep.

                I will take Zhang Chengling to Four Seasons Manor as planned.

                You will always be welcome there.’

                There was not even an apology. Some semblance of regret. Kexing didn’t understand. What could force Zishu to leave? Was it force? Had he simply, given the time to sit and think without Kexing right there to distract and entice, decided that it wasn’t worth staying at the side of a ghost?

                But the note said he would be welcome at the manor. Why would he say that but still abandon Kexing here? Would he not be at the manor? Did he expect Kexing to gracefully accept this rejection and move on?

                Ha! Never. Zhou Zishu was his and his alone. He would fight to his last breath to have him, even if it meant fighting against Zishu’s own will. The manor lord had caved to Kexing’s persistence once already; he would fall again if Wen Kexing had anything to say about it.

                A-Xiang looked apprehensive as Kexing all but barked for the innkeeper to get his horse ready.

                “Zhuren. The sun is already setting. Are we not staying here for the night?”

                “You can sleep in the saddle. You’ve done it before.” He snapped. In general, he did his best to keep his fouler moods out of A-Xiang’s line of sight. The girl knew that her zhuren was half-mad at the best of times, but there was no reason she needed to bear witness to such displays.

                Kexing had hoped that there would be a time in the near future in which he could discard the mask of a lunatic driven by bloodlust.

                It felt like that dream had burned to ash as soon as the innkeeper had handed him that note with an apologetic grimace.

                His vision swam for a long moment, moisture budding along the edge of his lashes before he blinked the tears away viciously. He would not cry over this. He would not allow anyone to see him as anything but strong and in control.

                A-Xiang’s face, lined with worry and frowning, said that she did not believe him unaffected by the disappearance of A-Xu.

                She knew him too well. It was easy for her to see through his facades.

                It hardly mattered. As soon as the horse was saddled, they would be off. Off to catch his runaway zhiji and demand answers for promises broken.

                Maybe it would even be time to remind Zhou Zishu that he had a duty to his er-shidi.

                After all, breaking your shidi’s heart should come with some sort of punishment.

 

Chapter Text

                Sending his most recent report for Helian Yi from White Deer town had been a mistake. Zhou Zishu recognized this as soon as the reply arrived, barely two days after he had sent his note. The mechanical sparrows Tian Chuang used for relaying messages when no courier service was available were too easily tracked. Were too quick. He should have dropped a missive at one of the drop points along the path to White Deer. Should have lied and said he had lost the trail of the Valley Master.

                He hadn’t thought he needed to hide his location though. The Crown Prince had not seemed more impatient than usual in the last two responses Zishu had received. In fact, the previous message had been almost obliging.

                It had been too understanding by half. When had Helian Yi ever been the sort to allow his ambitions to languish on the back burner? Why had Zhou Zishu been so willing to accept that the man wielding his leash had lost interest in his pet project?

                The answer was frightening in its simplicity. Zishu had become complacent in his enjoyment of having a prospective disciple and his Lao Wen around. For the first time in far too long, he had been relatively content. The threats of the capital felt far removed and even the inevitability of losing Four Seasons Manor had seemed distant.

                Now, sitting in a small, simply furnished inn room, holding the tiny sheet of paper written in Tian Chuang’s secret code, reality was a crashing deadweight. His shoulders felt heavy from it. He could barely fathom unbending from his slightly hunched position let alone standing and packing his things and informing Chengling that they were leaving.

                Zishu read over the small note once more, trying to ascertain what exactly had changed, but the note was nothing but a terse order to return to the imperial city with all haste. The implicit threat to his sect was always hidden. The prince preferred to view himself as a benevolent benefactor rather than what he truly was.

                The man holding all the cards with the willingness to use them to further his goals.

                Zhou Zishu was torn. Every part of his heart screamed against returning to the city that had stolen more than half his sect and his entire adult years. The pangs of reluctance were like iron bracelets, holding his legs still, refusing to allow him to move until he denied the summons.

                It was almost strange, to feel that self-serving stubbornness. After all, mere months ago, Zishu had made the decision to sacrifice himself in the name of the lives of his brothers with no more than a brief feeling of lonely remorse. It had been long years since he had had the luxury of being selfish. Probably since his shifu had died. Perhaps even longer than that.

                He knew the reason he was now reluctant to give himself back over to the bloody work of carving a position on the dragon throne for his candidate.

                He would like to say that it was Zhang Chengling. It felt like it would make more sense for his new reason for fighting would be the hope of remaking the Four Seasons Pavilion into the sect it once was. It was what the child deserved, after all. He could easily, more easily even, have simply demanded to be returned to his home. His father could train him and as the young master of a well-known and powerful righteous sect, Chengling would never want for anything.

                Instead, the little idiot was bound and determined to be a member of a dying sect on the merit of a Manor Lord who had done more harm than good in his time in the position.

                But Zishu strove to be honest with himself, even if he was unable to be so with anyone else. The fact of the matter was, it was the madcap peacock that had lied so boldly to his face all those months ago that made his hand hesitate from penning back an affirmation.

                What would Wen Kexing think, coming back to an empty inn room after being promised there would be someone waiting for him? Would he be heartbroken over the loss of his zhiji? Or would he be furious at the betrayal of trust?

                Would he come after Zhou Zishu if he were to leave without note or sign?

                Or would he let him go? Would he be just another in a long list of people Zishu cared about who were content to see the back of him?

                Did it really matter?

                Sitting here, at the small table the room came furnished with, there were really only two options. Zhou Zishu could burn the letter he had received. Ignore the fact that Helian Yi knows where the fabled key to the mysterious armory is, ignore the summons to return to the capital, ignore the implicit threat against the Ghost Valley Master for likely being in possession of some extra part of the puzzle. And thereby sacrifice his entire sect to the prince’s fury.

                Or he can go back. Back to the soul crushing labor of being the sword in another man’s hand.

                But at least if he goes back, Four Seasons Manor will be safe. If he goes back, he can divert attention from Wen Kexing.

                When he left the Imperial City long months ago, Zhou Zishu had never had any intention of escaping forever. He had simply taken the chance Helian Zhao had inadvertently offered him to save the people he had sworn to protect. Really, it served him right for forgetting for even a moment that this was what he was.

                A piece, albeit an important one, in a grand game. In the competition for the dragon throne, it did not do for the pieces to think themselves any more able to leave play than a stone on a weiqi board.

                At sixteen, Zhou Zishu had not truly known what he was signing up for when he accepted his cousin’s invitation to the capital.

                Now, six long years later, he knew exactly what to expect in returning to the city.

                But his choice had been made at sixteen. He no longer had the luxury of changing his mind.

                Helian Yi had summoned Zhou Zishu back to his side. So, Zhou Zishu would go.

                But not before ensuring the future of the Four Seasons Manor.

                “Chengling, pack your bag. We’re leaving.” Zishu called out. The little idiot had been meditating on the bed while he was considering his options, now, woken from his internal contemplation, the little boy looked as confused as a young deer wandering into the path of a hungry wolf.

                “Shifu? We’re going? But Wen-shu isn’t back yet.” Chengling asked, an endless fount of prattle as soon as the opportunity presented itself. No wonder Wen Kexing adored the kid so much. “I don’t want to leave without Wen-shu. We promised we would wait here for him.”

                The stubborn set slowly forming on tiny shoulders made Zishu’s head pulse with the threat of the headache he was sure he was going to develop in the next couple days. Why did children feel the need to be willful? Jiuxiao was the same way. Setting his jaw and crossing his arms as though looking petulant had ever done him the least bit of good. As if it had ever done anyone any good.

                The fact was life happened whether you braced against it or chose to go with the flow. Zishu had never much felt the need to stand against the will of the universe. It had always been enough to just survive and try to ensure the people he loved survived as well.

                Perhaps stubbornness was the privilege of those who had always been protected.

                Chengling had certainly never faced any hardship in his life before getting kidnapped. And Qin Jiuxiao…Jiuxiao Zishu had carefully kept as innocent and carefree as he could manage.

                Most days he did not feel he had done a good job at it. His shifu and shiniang wouldn’t want to even look at him once he met them in the next life.

                It would serve him right.

                “He can catch up.” He finally replied, noting that the kid had made no further movements after standing to stare at Zishu stubbornly. “I thought you wanted to join Four Seasons Pavilion. That’s where we’re going.”

                At least, that was where the kid was going, but he could see that it had been the right thing to say. Chengling’s little face brightened with excitement and all the willfulness drained out of him in a rush.

                “Really? You’ll take me as a disciple!?” He was practically vibrating with excitement.

                “I’ll see that you are well placed at the manor.” Was his non-answer. An older or more worldly child might have noted that that was not a ‘yes’. Wen Kexing would certainly have noticed the distinct lack of acquiescence in the reply.

                Chengling just beamed and got to work shuffling the few belongings he had acquired on their journey here into his little bag. Mostly the stuff was useless junk that Kexing had felt the need to ply the child with. Little toys, bright feathers and interesting rocks, a small brush set, things like that. The odds and ends used to keep a child content on tiring journey after a traumatic removal from his home.

                It made Zhou Zishu wonder how much experience Kexing had in caring for a young child. It made him realize just how little he really knew about his zhiji. For all that it was easy for Zishu to predict Kexing’s words and actions, he really knew precious little about the man. Even the fact that he was the Valley Master was not information forfeited to the assassin willingly.

                In another life, would Kexing have bared the entire sordid history that had led him to the Ghost Valley? Would he have been willing to share in Zishu’s grief and share his own in turn?

                Did wondering even matter? Zhou Zishu had been dead long before ever meeting Wen Kexing. The fact that his body continued to move about was just death throes. His body ignoring the lack of signal from his brain and heart. Everything else was just semantics.

                Zishu did as he was bid. He packed the room of all traces of his presence. He got Zhang Chengling onto a tall horse and climbed on behind him. He left a short note with the innkeeper despite the misgivings in his heart about that action.

                He fled White Deer and the foot of Mount Qingya, riding as though demons chased his heels.

                Helian Yi was not a patient man. If Zhou Zishu did not return to his side in a timeframe that he considered appropriate, everyone Zishu loved would be forfeit.

                After all, what use was blackmail material if it did not bare the result the extortionist wanted?

 

--

 

                When Four Seasons Manor rose up in front of them a bare five days later, Zhou Zishu had to fight every instinct he had to find a dark corner and sleep for even just a little while. Sleeping in the saddle for days on end had worn him down to the bones. Even Chengling’s previous excitement had dimmed in the face of constant hard travel with only short breaks for rest and food.

                Zishu didn’t even have it in him to be remorseful. He just felt hollow, scooped out from heartache and exhaustion.

                He did feel at least a bit embarrassed presenting the Zhang child to Bi Changfeng and An Yan. The kid had seen better days, clothes travel stained, hair a bird’s nest of dirt and debris, sagging like a dying flower. Zishu could see Changfeng run assessing eyes over Chengling before turning a much more judgmental stare onto Zishu.

                It was likely fair. Zhou Zishu should have sent word ahead. He should have made more of an attempt to keep Chengling rested and comfortable. He should have crashed into Ghost Valley and begged Kexing to save him. He should have never let Wen Kexing in the gate.

                He should have never left the capital at all. What would it have mattered if Zhou Zishu had been executed on the pyre of Helian Yi’s goals? Leaving had only been delaying the inevitable. And it had done him the disservice of giving him hope for a different fate.

                Zhou Zishu kept his expression schooled under Bi Changfeng’s scrutiny. His qianbei had known him long enough that he must have suspected that something was wrong, but so long as he did not ask outright, Zishu was content to pretend at ignorance.

                “An Yan, if you would please see young master Zhang to a set of rooms and show him where the meal hall is. I need to have a word with Bi-shu alone.” He ordered quietly. He just did not have the energy for barking out commands. Five days with hardly any sleep and another three before he would be in a position to remedy that.

                An Yan bowed his acceptance before ushering Chengling away towards the disciple’s wing. The room for him would need to be aired out, but there would be plenty of space. With half of the sect dead, there were rooms to spare in the manor.

                “Shifu? Are you going to be here once we’re done?” Chengling asked even as he was gradually herded away. His innocent face was creased with exhaustion but even that did not seem completely able to dampen his vivacious spirit.

                Zhou Zishu felt a tiny pang of longing for when he had thought the world so bright and exciting.

                “Go with An-qianbei, little idiot.” He said in lieu of an answer. This time, he could see that Chengling had noted that this was not a true affirmative. “Don’t make trouble. It’s been a long few days, and we both need rest.”

                Seeming to accept the logic in those words, the boy finally allowed himself to be led through the courtyard and deeper into the manor. Zishu held his tongue until he was confident that both Chengling and An Yan were out of earshot. Only then did he turn to Bi Changfeng and meet his assessing glare with his own frown.

                “What fool thing have you done this time, Zishu?” Zhou Zishu felt his frown deepen without his consent, the prickle of frustrated hurt making itself known like a bee sting in his chest. After traveling for the past couple weeks with a man who never made him feel like that, Zishu was unaccustomed to dealing with the sensation. Had it always felt so awful to be doubted and suspected by these people? “Or should I say ‘Lord Zhou’?”

                “It doesn’t matter. I won’t be staying long.” He waved off the sarcastic formality. He may have fled the manor after Wen Kexing with barely a moment’s notice, but it was still pushing propriety for Changfeng to be so actively antagonistic. “I only came to present Zhang Chengling to you. I promised him a position in the sect. I trust you can oversee the necessary ceremony.”

                “Why should I oversee the swearing in of your disciple?” Changfeng fired back. The respectful distance between them felt like a gaping chasm. A gap that Zishu was sure at one time he could have easily crossed, but now he could barely fathom being on the other side. There had been a time when Bi-shu would have hugged him and brought him inside. A time when he would have been greeted with concern and affection rather than immediate suspicion. “Is the great Lord Zhou so busy he cannot spare the time even for something so personal?”

                “I requested you oversee the ceremony as I expect he will be your disciple. If you would prefer hand over his training to Qin Jiuxiao instead, I will have no objections.” Zishu refused to rise to the bait. Changfeng hoped that by inciting his temper, he could dig out an opening for more information. Perhaps even a compromise.

                It would not be happening. Zhou Zishu had already made up his mind in that inn in White Deer. If the hope of a future with his zhiji would not sway him from this course of action, then the taunting words of his qianbei were not going to either.

                “What do you mean?”

                “Exactly as I said. Chengling is to be the first disciple of the sixth generation, but he will be a disciple of the Four Seasons Pavilion, not Tian Chuang.” Zishu watched as those words registered. Changfeng’s lined face creasing further with confusion closely followed by anger.

                “You would abandon the duty left to you by your shifu?” He demanded. Zhou Zishu had not expected any worry over what that might mean for himself. If anything, the disappointment in the tone were more than he anticipated.

                Most of Zishu had expected a barely concealed tone of celebration.

                Perhaps Changfeng was just a better actor than he knew. It made Zhou Zishu want to press, to see if he could wrangle some other reaction from the man he had looked up to for most of his life.

                “My first duty is to the Crown Prince.” Zishu said instead. He kept his tone cool and distant, a surface veneer over the maelstrom of exhaustion and pain raging inside his chest. He was not certain if it was that Changfeng bought the lie or if he simply did not care.

                He found he preferred not knowing. It was much easier to think that he trusted his words rather than knowing that he did not care at all.

                “Good. Very good.” The old man growled lowly, finally taking a step into Zishu’s space after spending the short conversation still standing away from him. “How good to know that my shixiong raised such an unfilial disciple. Better to learn it now rather than a decade from now after the entire sect is dead.”

                The pain that shot through Zishu at those words was like a hot sword through the chest. A burning sharp sensation that forced his breath to stutter against the onslaught even as he barely kept his expression from cracking right down the middle.

                Yes. It had been much easier believing in a pretty lie rather than being confronted with the painful truth.

                Returning to the manor had been a mistake. He should have just deposited Chengling back at his home and dealt with yet another disappointed child. He had believed himself strong enough and removed enough to handle the reality of a sect that no longer wanted or trusted him.

                More the fool, him.

                It was alarming how much a couple weeks allowing himself to feel hope once more had weakened his resolve. Already Zishu wanted nothing more than to clutch at Changfeng and beg him to care. Beg him to dig even just a little into why Zhou Zishu was making this decision.

                He had thought himself long past the age of clinging to dreams.

                And that was what being able to stay at the Four Seasons Manor and train the next generation of children with Wen Kexing at his side was. A sweet dream that he had been living in for two short weeks.

                The time had come to wake back up.

                “If Wen Kexing comes back, he is to be welcomed as an honored guest.” Zishu did not really believe that Lao Wen would return to the manor. His zhiji was many things, but forgiving was not one of them. But there was always the chance. And Zhou Zishu wanted to be able to keep at least this one promise. For as long as it remained, Kexing would always have a place at Four Seasons Manor. “This is my last order as manor lord.”

                The words threatened to strangle him, catching at odd angles in his throat as though his very body rebelled against this action. Even with all of his practice at maintaining a neutral expression in the face of tragedy and pain, his voice still shook. It was a sign of weakness he resented even as it lit something like compassion on his qianbei’s face.

                “Zishu…why must you make this hard for yourself?” Changfeng murmured, the words almost lost even in the stillness of the main courtyard.

                Zishu could not parse what he meant. Jiuxiao and the younger disciples may have been under the delusion that seceding from the imperial game would have no cost, but Changfeng was from his shifu’s generation. He had been an old man even as the neighboring sects came slavering for a taste of the secrets of their pavilion. What room was there in such a person for such willful naivete?

                Rather than answering a question he felt was not meant for his ears in the first place, Zhou Zishu simply turned towards the stables. The mare he had raced to the manor on was worn to the bones. She could not handle another leg of the breakneck pace that Zishu needed to maintain.

                Unfortunately, and because his luck seemed to have run out when he was sixteen, Qin Jiuxiao was waiting for him in the stables. He was scrubbing down the poor foaming mare with sharp, hard motions that spoke of deep frustration and indignation.

                Oh, to be young and brash and innocent.

                If Zishu had hoped to avoid a second confrontation in as many hours, those hopes were summarily dashed as soon as his shidi caught sight of him.

                “Shixiong! You’re finally back!” He could see the war between elation and determined outrage playing across his young features. Zishu had never spent any time trying to train him into controlling his face. If anything, he had encouraged the deliberate expressions of emotion. Just another barrier to present should Helian Yi ever request Jiuxiao for any sort of mission. “How could you run off like that and then bring back a kid without even sending a letter!”

                “Zhang Chengling was happenstance. I was just doing my job and following Kexing.” Zishu replied wearily. He was not in the mood for dealing with yet another person he loved looking at him as though he was some sort of plague-ridden rat they caught in the kitchen.

                Jiuxiao, for all his faults, had at least cared for the tack. The leather was freshly cleaned and smelling sweetly of oil. It was one fewer thing for Zishu to have to worry about.

                “You know that doesn’t explain anything. Why are you always like this?” Jiuxiao ground out, his brushing becoming even more frenzied and haphazard. Zishu could see the mare starting to grow aggravated by the rough treatment. “And what are you doing now? You just got back! You can’t leave again!”

                Zishu took a deep breath and tried to let it out slowly enough that it would not count as a sigh. It had truly been too much to hope that he would be able to drop Chengling off and leave again without having to face every person he had hoped to avoid.

                Why could none of them understand? This was not a choice. He was not running back to the capital out of some grand ambition. He was returning for the same reason he had gone in the first place, to save the sect that had raised him since his parents’ deaths.

                But he also knew this, he would rather have the whole manor revile him as unfilial and a traitor than risk even one of the disciples following him to the capital out of some misguided rescue attempt. He had already failed to protect more than half of the lives entrusted to him. He would not fail a single one more.

                “I have stepped down from my position as manor lord.” Zishu said slowly. He followed the sentence by grabbing his saddle and laying it across the back of the stallion he had brought with him from the capital. “As of today, I am leader of Tian Chuang only. Our relationship ends here.”

                He had the horse fully kitted out before Jiuxiao found his words again. The tense silence that reigned for those long minutes was thick enough that it felt as though Zishu was wading through a quagmire. It was still preferable to the explosion of disbelieving anger that followed.

                “What do you mean! You’re…You’re…You’re going back!?” Jiuxiao shouted. “You are abandoning the manor?! My father trusted you to lead us! How could you leave?”

                Zhou Zishu breathed carefully, trying to focus on the sensation air expanding his lungs. Holding his breath almost to the point of pain before letting it out so slowly that there was almost no relief in the action. He wanted to scream. It felt like if he opened his mouth, the only thing that could possibly escape was the animal cry that had been building in his chest ever since the day Helian Zhao had confronted him in that courtyard.

                He could not afford to break down.

                Jiuxiao continued shouting even as Zhou Zishu guided his horse from the stable.

                Shouting that faded to bewildered tears as he mounted the animal without a word.

                Until finally, as he walked the beast through the gates of the manor, one final dagger.

                “My father would be so disappointed in you.”

                Zishu snorted even as he urged the horse to begin trotting towards the main road.

                He hardly needed to be told that. There wasn’t a person in the world who wasn’t disappointed in the man Zhou Zishu had become.

Chapter Text

                The road leading out of Kun and towards the imperial city was, if nothing else, relatively straight and well-maintained. This was likely the only reason that Zhou Zishu managed to make it to his personal estate at all. Exhaustion was like a physical weight across his shoulders. His mind felt cloudy, his consciousness removed from his body like they were two separate things.

                It was a dangerous state to be in when greeting the crown prince. Zishu feared very little, but he was not prepared to deal with the repercussions of trying to sate his cousin’s demands while feeling like this. He feared that he might give away something he could not afford to lose.

                Because of this, he had hoped to slip into the city unnoticed and steal a few hours of rest before announcing his presence to the prince. A little rest and he could put himself back together. Just a few hours where he could close his eyes and not think about all the people he had left behind. All the people now cursing his name.

                Wen Kexing’s fury when he read Zishu’s note.

                Zhang Chengling’s disappointment when he woke to find Zishu gone without a word.

                Qin Jiuxiao’s bitter disappointment in his shixiong.

                His shifu’s regret in naming him the manor lord at all.

                But Zhou Zishu had trained his men well and Tian Chuang had already informed Helian Yi of his impending arrival before he even made it through the gates leading into the central courtyard of his capital manor. A place that had been more prison than home for the time Zishu had spent in the imperial city. The replica painting of a blossoming branch slowly painted red a constant reminder of his duty and his failures.

                 The young Tian Chuang agent awaiting him when he dismounted before his home had the expression of a man who knew he had drawn the short straw but was determined to make the most of it. The determined line of his shoulders and slight furrow in his brow made him look older than he likely was. His ears protruded slightly. They made him look young. A strange contrast against the mature expression and resolute frown.

                Zhou Zishu recognized the man but could not remember his name nor how long he had been a member of the organization. He remembered a time when he knew every man under his command, their names, their backgrounds. That had changed as the organization grew and grew. As his sect began disappearing like a sweet dream in the light of dawn.

                Now, there were members of Tian Chuang that Zishu had never even seen. Men and women who served him and the prince and died for them without ever even seeing the man who had ordered their deaths. The sixteen-year-old Zhou Zishu who had helped propose the spy group would be disgusted. The twenty-two-year-old Zhou Zishu who had just traveled for nine days with little rest, food or water, the man who had left behind everything he loved and every hope he had ever dreamed of could not bring himself to care.

                “My lord, the prince has ordered you to attend him as soon as you arrived.” The man-child stated, bowing deeply. Zishu just blinked blearily at the top of his head for a long moment. The horse tugged on the reins still in his hand, reminding him of where he was. He tried to focus, tried to think around the strange blur that had overcome his thoughts.

                “What’s your name?” It had not been what Zishu had intended to say. A simple acceptance of the order, a command to see to the horse, those were the only words needed at that moment. Why did it matter what the kid’s name was? In the eyes of Helian Yi, he was just canon fodder. You didn’t need to know the names of the weiqi stones you sacrificed.

                “Sir?” The confusion on his face made the man look even younger. Zishu had estimated his age to be close to his own, but with his brows smoothed out in surprise, with his eyes wide and hopeful, he realized that this man could not be older than sixteen. Barely even an adult and he had already sacrificed his life and future to Tian Chuang. Zishu felt nauseous. “This one is Han Ying. You…er…you were the one who offered me a place here.”

                The name rang a bell. Zishu remembered an orphan street rat cutting a noble’s purse without the man so much as looking. The movement had been so smooth and graceful that Zhou Zishu had almost believed that his eyes were playing tricks on him.

                Rather than turning the child over to the army guards patrolling the streets Zishu had offered him a position in Tian Chuang.

                He wondered if it had been a mercy or a punishment.

                “Ah, yes. I remember.” He paused for a moment to take stock of the boy. He was barely younger than Qin Jiuxiao. How many lives had he been ordered to take? “Here, if the prince wants to see me right away, would you see to the horse.”

                It should have been an order. A command to care for the stallion so that Zishu could obey the orders of his superior. Han Ying’s expression implied that he knew this as well. He had long since risen from his respectful bow and was now surveying Zhou Zishu with an assessing expression that he did not appreciate.

                The last thing he needed in this life was another person to disappoint. Zishu was a hollow vessel. He had nothing to offer anyone anymore.

                “See to it.” The order came out clipped and sharp and Han Ying jerked slightly in surprise at the tone. Zishu forced himself not to care. It wasn’t hard, emotions and thoughts still felt distant. As though he had left more than his heart behind in the Four Seasons Manor. As though a piece of his soul had abandoned him as well.

                Zishu did not wait for an affirmative response from the boy, simply passing over the reins and turning in a flurry of travel-stained robes to greet his cousin.

                He had no illusions about why he had been given no time to even bathe and change. Helian Yi was making a statement. Zishu had spent time that the prince had not wanted to pay for. Now Zishu would be forced to make up for the waste.

                He tried again to force some focus to his thoughts. To even attain some semblance of relation with his body.

                Zhou Zishu walked into the prince’s palace feeling like two people. The physical Zhou Zishu, road-weary and drained, a body on the brink of collapse, a tower whose foundation had crumbled and the ephemeral Zhou Zishu, knowledge and presence and nothing more.

                He wondered which piece was the true Zhou Zishu. Or perhaps the real one had died in the manor six years ago. Perhaps he was just a figment. A ghost of a man who had died long ago.

 

--

 

                The eastern palace was an ostentatious affair with multiple courtyards, a sprawling compound boxed in by high walls that offered an ideal spot for guards to lurk in wait. Zhou Zishu could see Tian Chuang agents nestled into the shadows of those walls, a network of protection to ensure that the crown prince remained alive and well.

                Inside, a servant bowed respectfully to the man he knew only as the cousin of the prince. A government official in name only, placed there by family ties rather than true talent. Such a disguise was better than any attempt at hiding his existence. An official like him was the sort of person who was purposely shunned, ignored as useless. It afforded him an ability to stand in a crowded room and be seen by no one.

                Zishu had been the one to suggest the appointment. Helian Yi had argued that Zishu had the martial power and intellect to be given a position based on military achievement. He claimed that it was an unnecessary humiliation to allow Zishu to be viewed as a worthless decoration.

                It was one of the few arguments that Zhou Zishu had won.

                Today, he knew there would be another argument that he could not afford to lose.

                Helian Yi sat behind his desk, a grand figure clothed in elegant burgundy robes richly embroidered in gold thread. His hair was pulled up neatly and pinned with a guan embellished with rubies and intricately crafted gold swirls. A phoenix bloomed from the top of the hairpiece, completing the impression of wealth and power.

                The prince did not look up from the book spread across his desk when Zishu entered the study. Instead, he continued to read, showing no sign that he had even heard the servant announcing the arrival of ‘Zhou-daren’.

                It forced Zhou Zishu to stand at attention even as his back began to protest and his head throbbed with an exhausted headache. By the rules of propriety, Zishu needed permission to approach the prince. By the rules of Tian Chuang, any who approached without following this rule were to be apprehended and interrogated.

                Helian Yi, of course, knew this. Zishu was no fool, he was well aware that this was the beginning of his punishment. The prince was angry. About what, Zishu had no clue. But the summons, the command to attend to him before even changing clothes, and now this deliberate ignorance all screamed of fury.

                He was proven correct when Helian Yi finally looked up from his book, a deep frown marring his face. The frown deepened the lines of stress and age that were starting to make themselves known on his features. It reminded Zhou Zishu that his cousin was deep into his thirties. That the emperor was aging rapidly now.

                That soon, the game for the throne would come to a head.

                “Zishu, approach.” It was not a welcome. The order was said with the controlled tone of a man barely holding back his rage behind gritted teeth.

                Zhou Zishu ignored the tone. There was nothing to be done at this moment for his cousin’s anger. Attempting to assuage it at this point would only suggest that he had something to feel guilty about. Instead, Zishu relaxed his posture and took the five steps necessary to be within touching range of the prince.

                “Zhou Zishu greets his highness.” He stated formally. In the past, such formalities would have been waved away. His cousin claiming that such things were unnecessary between family. Today, the frown on Helian Yi’s face only deepened before he turned away to retrieve a stack of reports from his desk.

                The prince flicked a heavy sleeve to the side, sending a wave of deep red fabric fluttering away from his hand before offering the papers to Zishu.

                He took the papers silently, a shiver of unease budding at the base of his spine. He recognized the handwriting on the reports with ease, familiar as he was with his second in command’s cramped, squared off writing style.

                He loathed what the reports meant. Duan Pengju had likely been ordered into the Jianghu to seek out the same answers that Zhou Zishu was. The truth behind the Ghost Valley attacks.

                It was not that Zishu had not done his job. He had unearthed plenty of information about the ten devils and which sects had been massacred and why.

                He had simply never told Helian Yi that he had personal access to the Ghost Valley Master. Access that he had never used to dig out the truths buried in that infuriating man. Duan Pengju would have strung Wen Kexing up and tortured him until he was screaming his secrets.

                Zhou Zishu felt ill at just the idea of that proud, shameless man reduced to the scraps of humanity that they had pulled out of the interrogation room in the past.

                “Does Zhou Zishu know what these are?” Helian Yi interrupted his thoughts abruptly. “They are reports, from your second in command. About the whereabouts of the glazed armor. He even unearthed information about the armory and a supposed key.”

                “The rumors of the glazed armor have bee-“

                “Have been spread by the very man you’ve been consorting with for the past four months!” The prince shouted, interrupting Zishu’s attempt to divert the conversation to the safest topic. The last thing he wanted was for the Helian Yi to begin looking towards the Four Seasons Manor or Wen Kexing.

                Zhou Zishu’s brow creased in confusion.

                When would Kexing have had time to spread such rumors? And why would he when he seemed to revile the glazed armor and the armory as much as Zhou Zishu himself? Zishu opened his mouth to defend Kexing before snapping it shut once more, the words clamped behind his teeth.

                Giving away his attachment to Wen Kexing would do the man no favors here. To Helian Yi, everyone that Zishu cared about was little more than bargaining chips to ensure his obedience.

                “Nothing to say to that? You’ve had the Ghost Valley Master in arm’s reach for months and done nothing with him.” Helian Yi snarled, the anger that had been simmering behind his eyes finally bubbling to the surface. “Your reports never mentioned such an association. Did you truly not know that the man you had been housing was such a villain? Is my spy master truly so blind?”

                “Zhou Zishu begs forgiveness, I was not-“ Zishu was beginning to grow weary of being interrupted, an extra layer of fatigue to place on the rest he was already suffering through.

                “I had no clue I had such a disloyal cousin!” The reprimand was sharp. Zishu felt his gut tighten in anticipation. He tried to prepare himself for the announcement of what his punishment would be. A part of him hoped it would be something as simple as execution. “I notice that you have also left your sect behind in your rush to heed my summons. But I find I would prefer them to be housed here. Your manor has the space to accommodate them.”

                Zishu clamped down the instinctive shout of denial. He felt dizzy at the mere idea of bringing his brothers back into the snake’s nest that was the imperial city. In his mind’s eye, he could see the joy and relaxation that had blossomed upon their return to Jianghu dying upon news that they were expected to return.

                He could see Qin Jiuxiao’s eyes losing their gleam from yet another blow to his faith in the world.

                No. The sect could not return to the capital. Zhou Zishu would fall on his sword before he allowed that to happen.

                “And your shidi. What’s his name, Jiuxiao? I would like to welcome him as a guest here.” The prince was still talking. Laying out his orders. His spiderweb designed to keep Zishu tied to his side for the rest of his life. Zishu’s hands shook minutely where they hung by his sides.

                The fog that had tormented his thoughts for the last few days pressed harder on him. It felt as though his mind was slipping away like sand through his fingers. Days of stress and little sleep finally combining to press him past his endurance.

                He could not allow Helian Yi to gain Jiuxiao as a hostage.

                He dropped to his knees, not bothering to cushion the blow. There was a certain relief to the pain. It chased away a shred of the fog consuming his mind.

                “Your highness, please reconsider your words.” He said, taking great care to keep his anxiety from his voice. If the prince took note of how badly he had shaken his spymaster, all hope of keeping Four Seasons Manor away from the capital would be lost. “It would be unwise, with Prince Zhao still suspicious of the relationship Tian Chuang and the manor, to have the sect suddenly reappear in the city.”

                Helian Yi was still frowning, his pearl beads clicking quietly as he passed them over his fingers in an endless loop.

                “Even so, I see no reason why your shidi cannot come to reside here with me.” He replied. “Zhao would hardly take note of a single additional man in my household.”

                Zishu could hardly argue with that. Even with the spies he knew were seeded within the crown prince’s servants and groundskeepers, Helian Zhao would hardly care of one more guest amid the ever-fluctuating line up housed in the eastern palace. Zhou Zishu’s return to the imperial city would effectively distract any interest he might have in Qin Jiuxiao’s arrival.

                But, of all the disciples of Four Seasons Pavilion, Jiuxiao was the one Zishu could least stand to be caught up in the palace politics.

                “In this, I can only beg you to not recall him here.” Zishu stated slowly, feeling the words out even as he said them. There would be a cost to Helian Yi’s approval of Zhou Zishu’s request. It only remained to be seen if it was a price he could pay. “My shidi would be miserable so far from his home and family. His father and his father’s father were both sect leaders. In my absence, it falls to him to carry on his family’s legacy.”

                “So, what then? I am to simply take your word that you will not disappear into Jianghu the next time I send you on a mission? Do you think me a fool?”

                “Never, my prince. I am willing to prove my loyalty, naturally. I have already stepped down as sect leader. In many ways, there is nowhere in Jianghu for me to return to. The manor would not accept my return and the rest of the sects have been too offended by the manor to grant me asylum either.”

                “Once, that would have been sufficient. Before you obfuscated the truth in your reports and colluded with the Ghost Valley Master to hide the glazed armor from me.”

                Zhou Zishu kept his face placid and blank even as his heart despised the injustice and inaccuracy of the words. Never had he attempted to keep the truth of the glazed armor from the prince. He had sent every scrap of information about the damned thing that he came across. The only thing he had held back had been Wen Kexing’s existence.

                A selfish impulse that was now threatening to cost him any semblance of control in this situation.

                One fact remained though. Zhou Zishu would never recall the Four Seasons Pavilion back to the imperial city. Helian Yi could do what he saw fit with him, but he could not have his sect.

                “My prince. I have served you loyally for many years now. We are cousins. I swear to you, I never hid any information about the armory. Rumors on the road were limited and unreliable, but I sent you everything I learned. In the name of our long relationship, I am asking you, please allow me one more chance.”

                There was a long pause. Enough time passing that Zishu felt the exhausted haze beginning to fall back over his thoughts. He dug his nails into his palms in an attempt to stay present. The small pain warded off the fog, but he could not say how much longer it would last.

                If Helian Yi continued to demand Qin Jiuxiao be given over as a hostage, Zhou Zishu was unsure what he would do.

                “You are correct. Our relationship is longer and larger than a single instance of disloyalty.” Helian Yi finally said after a long consideration. “I am willing to grant you one last chance. In the name of our family ties and the years of service you have given me.”

                “Anything, your highness.”

                “My terms are simple. One, you swear to me the remainder of your life as my spymaster.” Zhou Zishu closed his eyes and breathed deeply. He had expected this. He knew that this would be the cost of returning to the capital. It had long been a price he was willing to pay. He opened his eyes once more and nodded in acceptance. “Two, you will attend the Hero’s Conference in disguise. Three, I expect you to bring me all the pieces of the glazed armor as well as the key by the close of the conference.”

                Zishu fought back from balking at the demands. He had barely even heard scraps of rumors over the course of weeks of searching. To locate and steal the whole armor as well as a key he had never even heard of was a tall order in so few days.

                But what choice did he have?

                “Yes, your highness.” He agreed readily. He bowed low, allowing his forehead to brush the floor before straightening once more. “Seeing that the Hero’s Conference in just a week, I will excuse myself first.”

                “Yes, yes.” Helian Yi waved a heavily bejeweled hand, clearly having already dismissed Zhou Zishu from his mind. “See that you do not fail me again.”

                Zishu had no response for that. The whole conversation had taken everything he had to begin with. Already he could feel the fog he had been fighting rolling back in, disconnecting his mind from his body even as he rose and exited the hall.

                The rest of the journey back to his estate was a blur. He could not have told someone what path he took or who he encountered along the way. In some ways, it seemed as though he blinked as he exited the eastern palace and was already striding into the small stables set in the back of his estate when he next opened his eyes.

                His body was begging for rest. To be allowed to lay down and relax for even a moment.

                Zhou Zishu did not expect that to happen for several more days.

                Han Ying had done his duty and his stallion was wiped down and brushed. He had a good supply of hay and even a bucket of grains off to the side as a treat.

                That horse would still be too tired to continue on with him. Instead, he turned to the gelding that was kept on at the manor for use of any Tian Chuang agents who needed to depart directly from his estate on their missions. Because there were always a couple horses boarded at the estate, Zishu was unconcerned about his stallion, assured that the horse would be well-cared for.

                The gelding was saddled and ready to go quickly. The saddlebags were filled with money and small valuables for use in exchange should he find an owner of the armor who was willing to barter or to trade for information. He took the time to bundle up a couple extra sets of robes and his make-up kit as well. It paid to be prepared after all.

                Once all his preparations had been completed, there was no more delaying. The Hero’s conference began in six days. He wanted to be in Yueyang at least a couple days in advance to begin information gathering. There was no time to lose.

                He just hoped he didn’t fall off the saddle when he inevitably fell asleep there.