The Heroes Conference is rarely anything out of the ordinary. As a matter of fact, the Five Lakes Alliance holds one every year.
From an objective perspective, it is far less an event for the gathering of heroes, and more a gathering for the rich and influential in the jianghu to indulge in food, drink, luxury, and over embellish their own achievements and merits in front of each other. Rarely is it anything different.
Judging by the look on Gao Chong’s face as he stares at the deceptively plain paper of the missive open in front of him, Shen Shen and Zhao Jing are certain that this time, something has changed.
“Dage,” Shen Shen finally ventures to ask in a careful tone, shaken by seeing Gao Chong shaken, “What is it?”
Gao Chong’s face had betrayed shock as soon as he’d opened the letter, but his eyes had only grown wider and face grown paler as his gaze travelled down the page. His hands, his brothers note with great unease, are shaking.
“The Ghost Valley…”
Zhao Jing sucks in a breath, wide eyes darting to Shen Shen as if wondering if he perhaps misheard those three words. Shen Shen ignores him; he has always been their most weak willed, passive brother. It’s no wonder the mere mention of the Ghost Valley would frighten him, rotted by riches and meek as he is.
“The Ghost Valley?” Shen Shen asks, hand seeking the hilt of his sword in a gesture he won’t admit is meant to bring him comfort in his unease and alarm. “What did they do? Who is the letter from?”
Gao Chong shakes his head, tossing the letter down. “The letter is from Ghost Valley,” he says. With a laugh of disbelief, he tells them, “They want to attend the Conference.”
“You want to what?” Luo Fumeng asks, tone sharp and incredulous gaze fixed on Wen Kexing, the man she follows as the Master of Ghost Valley.
He is also the little boy she kept alive by the skin of her teeth and watched grow, morph, into exactly the kind of man he had to be to survive in this place. Into the kind of man that sometimes makes her wonder if it wouldn’t have been a greater mercy to let him die with his parents.
Wen Kexing laughs at her, eyes alight with mad glee. Her reaction seems to be exactly what he was hoping for.
“I know you heard me the first time; your ears are as sharp as ever. What? You don’t like the idea?”
“Ghost Valley and the jianghu stay separated for a reason , Guzhu. Do you want to start another war?”
Wen Kexing turns away from her, his enthusiasm not dampened. He examines his own fingernails idly and takes up a leisurely pacing path back and forth where he stands in her receiving room.
“Is it your place to ask me what I intend? Or is it your place to follow?”
Luo Fumeng hates this. Hates this mask Wen Kexing puts on, one that she suspects he finds harder and harder to separate from himself. He is twisted beyond belief, hardened and made mad with pain and the fight for survival, but she still sees him lurking underneath sometimes.
She knows he’s in there. Not the Valley Master, but Wen Kexing. She hates when he locks that person away under this carefully crafted exterior.
She also knows pushing against that exterior could prove the end of her someday, if she’s not careful. It is for this reason that she takes a deep breath to calm herself and answers in a measured tone. “To follow, Guzhu.”
“Good,” he says, lips curling and eyes still on his own hand. “Not that it would matter whether you like the idea, of course. I’ve already sent the letter.”
She can’t quite disguise the breath she hisses in at that. Lunatic Wen, the Valley calls him behind his back. Truly, he has earned that title many times over.
“So,” he claps, whirling in a graceful spin of robes and ebony hair, rounding on her with a bright grin. “I’ll need your help... Luo-yi. ”
Ah. How cruel of him, to call her that for the first time in so long when they both know he uses it as nothing more than a tool to soften her edges.
It works anyway.
Zhou Zishu is done. Done with assassination. Done with serving Prince Jin. Done with living in the shadows. Done living at all.
He has planned meticulously for being done , for finally leaving it all behind and embracing a few years of peace before finding the blessed release of death as a wanderer. He has built his exit from the ground up. He has, quite literally, nailed it together himself.
Today is the day he presents his resignation, a violent and painful one that has been in the process for eighteen months with the Prince never being the wiser. Today, he thinks as he makes his way towards the throne room with throbbing meridians and snow crunching under his feet, he will finally be free.
Whether that freedom be found through the nails or through a swift death at the hand of an enraged cousin, it matters not to him.
Prince Jin may have summoned him, but it is he who will be making an announcement today.
Servants and Tian Chuang agents kneel as he passes, show their respect, announce him as he strides down the palace halls as if he is not six sevenths of the way to being a crippled man already.
Zishu has always been good at playing pretend.
He has been summoned to this room more times than he can count in these long years past. He knows his cousin’s face and mannerisms like one does their own, can superimpose the same posture and expression and tone from nearly each visit on top of each other in his mind’s eye.
With the rare exception, these things are predictable. With the rare exception, his cousin is the same each time.
Today, it seems, is a rare exception. An exception surprising enough that the single minded focus he has on his resignation is briefly shaken.
Zhou Zishu is rarely taken off guard. The way his cousin stands with a nearly manic grin and gleam in his eye does it like nothing has in a very long time.
“Zishu! Good, good. I have some very interesting news, and a mission for you.”
No sooner does he say this than is he holding a hand up in placation, hissing in a show of sympathy. “I know, I know. You have just returned from your last, and you deserve some rest.”
Zhou Zishu’s face had not changed. His cousin reads him well, though, as his six damaged meridians can attest, not well enough.
“But ,” Prince Jin continues, unfazed by the silence of his audience, “I think you will be quite intrigued by this one. I know how a good mystery scintillates you, Zishu.”
There will be no derailing his cousin’s enthusiasm. Zishu must simply resolve himself to listening until the Prince has worn himself out. Were he not so soul deep tired, Zishu thinks he might even take pleasure in the idea of shattering this enthusiasm Prince Jin shows with a most shocking resignation.
“The Five Lakes Alliance is holding their Heroes Conference soon, Zishu. I’m sure I don’t need to tell you this; nobody has their finger on the pulse of the jianghu like our Tian Chuang.”
A flare of bitter anger blooms in Zhou Zishu’s chest. Your Tian Chuang , he thinks to himself. I want nothing more to do with this legacy of blood and death.
Out loud, he says, “You have never shown a marked interest in the Five Lakes Alliance before, my lord.”
Prince Jin waves his hand dismissively. “Of course not. For all that they think highly of themselves, they are of little use to me. Guppies who think themselves big fish only because they do not realize it is but a barrel they swim in. What I am interested in are the guests. A guest. A guest they have never had before, Zishu.”
Maybe it’s not well enough to see his defection coming, but indeed his cousin knows him. His curiosity is piqued, despite himself. “What guest, my lord?”
Prince Jin leans forward with a delighted smirk, eyes shining and fingers turning his beads over and over. “The Ghost Valley has written the Alliance this year, asking to attend.”
There is satisfaction on the Prince’s face at finally seeing a reaction on Zhou Zishu’s. Zishu had had many split second theories on what kind of guest could have attracted his cousin’s attention like this. The Ghost Valley was not one of them, and it can be seen in the shock on his face.
“ Ghost Valley? ” he asks, caught hook, line, and sinker. “The Ghost Valley has kept to itself for nearly twenty years. What could they want with the Five Lakes Alliance and their Heroes Conference?”
Prince Jin sits back, smiling. “It would seem the Master of the Valley wrote himself, citing a concern of rising tension. The Valley and the jianghu both benefit from their long standing truce, he claims, and hopes to meet with the Alliance to solidify it, keep it on steady ground. He worries, as our agents tell me his letter says, that the total separation for so many years is breeding suspicion and rumors that could endanger such valued peace.”
Zhou Zishu does not bother to hide his scoff. “I don’t believe a word of it.”
“Of course you don’t, Zishu. Your mind is far too sharp to be taken in by such foolishness. The minds of the Five Lakes Alliance, it seems, are not. They’ve accepted.”
With a look on his face that says he knows he has Zishu exactly where he wants him, Prince Jin tilts his head. “I know you have just returned from you last mission, Zishu. But surely you wouldn’t mind spending some time drinking and dining as my eyes and ears?”
Zhou Zishu curls his fist around the nail tucked into his palm and weighs his options. He does not need to keep up this farce to go to the Conference, he thinks. He could kneel and expose his self imposed punishment just as he planned to do, and ask that it be finished. That he be given the seventh nail. Afterwards, he could still make his way to the Conference and find a route in.
Still...if he were to do that, it would be with no name to speak of, no reputation. No merit but his own martial skills to earn him the kind of front row seat that an airtight backstory from Tian Chuang is guaranteed to give him.
And that is provided that he is given the nail and allowed to leave, instead of executed on the spot.
Perhaps...perhaps, he thinks, even as he curses his own innate desire to know that makes him such an excellent spy, his seventh nail can wait. Whatever the Ghost Valley Master intends with this move, Zhou Zishu wants the best spot possible to watch it unfold.
Sighing, Zishu tucks the nail back into his sleeve with an imperceptible movement. “Of course, your Highness. As you wish.”