The Heroes Conference, Zhou Zishu thinks to himself with wry amusement, is obnoxiously easy to infiltrate. He’s reached Yueyang, bustling with the increased traffic the Conference always brings, and doesn’t so much as have to go into the backstory Tian Chuang crafted so tightly and cohesively.
Gao Chong has members of the local Yueyang sect wandering in squads in what he imagines is supposed to be security. How laughable. The young men that patrol around in their sect uniforms know how to do nothing but rely on their mere presence to make a statement, eyes bright with youthful naivety and idealism.
They, like the Alliance they serve, seem entirely too concerned with looks. Zishu gets a front seat look at that in no time.
Zhou Zishu cuts a striking figure. He knows this. He’s handsome, his jaw is strong, his features sharp and regal. The coldness and distance in his gaze and the way he holds his head only accentuates these things.
Dressed as he is in fine dark robes and with his hair in a perfect topknot, the Yueyang disciples ‘patrolling’ are falling over themselves to flatter him without so much as a second thought.
“Greetings, my Lord!” the young man at the front of their formation says, clasping his hands in front of him and offering a respectful bow that they all imitate. His eyes shine as he looks at Zishu.
Zhou Zishu has found that those still untainted by the horrors in life mistake the haunted gaze and dulled emotions of those who have seen true tragedy as something to be admired. The young ones always look at him with this awe, and he wishes he could impress upon them how they should do everything in their power to become nothing like him.
Unfortunately, it is only once they’ve been scarred by horror themselves that these young men will ever come to that realization. Until then, they will idolize people who have lived their worst nightmares.
“You must be here for the Conference,” the disciple says, eyes flickering over his posture and refined appearance with awe. “Lord…?”
“Zhou,” Zhou Zishu answers briskly, and wide eyes sparkle with delight again.
“Lord Zhou! We of the Yueyang sect are honored to welcome such a distinguished guest as yourself, Lord Zhou! Would you like us to show you to the manor?”
Zishu shakes his head, and it’s almost comical how predictably disappointed the squadron of young men in front of him look, as if being in his presence for a little longer could help them rise through the ranks and improve in their martial arts.
“No, thank you. I will find my own way. I still wish to wander the market for some time, if you don’t mind.”
“O-of course! Of course! Yueyang markets have the finest of wares and foods, I’m sure you’ll be very much pleased, Lord Zhou! If there is anything you need, the Five Lakes Alliance and the Yueyang sect will be happy to accommodate you. Welcome to the Heroes Conference!”
Zhou Zishu rolls his eyes as soon as he’s passed the little squadron. Such youthful exuberance, he can hardly remember what it’s like to possess it. It’s almost painful to be exposed to it nowadays.
He’s wandering the market less for its ‘fine wares and food’ and more to size up the people that have come for the Conference. It’s not so much that Prince Jin wants this information - nor that he much cares about doing what Prince Jin wants when he’s already overdue for his seventh nail - but that Zishu is curious.
Curious, and after so long in his profession, viscerally adverse to not knowing everything possible about every situation he finds himself in. This includes sizing up the other martial artists that have come for the Heroes Conference. There’s always trouble with rowdy bunches like this, and though none could stand a chance against him he at least wants to be able to identify them when they inevitably makes themselves a headache.
It’s easy to find the ones that are lacking in skill; they’re always the loudest, the proudest, the ones with the most bravado. They play and talk big to hide their woeful inadequacy. That is a fact that no amount of time will change.
The quieter ones, the ones who keep to themselves or seem to be genuinely enjoying the wares and foods of the market are those that should be looked out for in a fight. They’re also the ones least likely to give him a headache trying to do something stupid.
It’s simple to read the crowd, to deduce which sects have grudges against each other, which are allied closely, which are trying to form some kind of beneficial relationship and which are just pretending to in order to size the others up for weakness.
It’s all so, so painfully easy. Humans are so painfully easy to figure out.
Zhou Zishu hasn’t met a human being who defied his expectations in a long, long time. Perhaps that’s why he’s so curious about the attendance of the Ghost Valley. If humans can’t surprise him anymore, perhaps ghosts can.
Speaking of ghosts, Zhou Zishu hasn’t seen a single one. At least, he hasn’t seen any who present themselves outwardly as ghosts. He would be surprised if the Valley didn’t have people amongst the crowd doing their own kind of surveillance and reading the situation, reporting back to the mysterious Valley Chief himself.
Looking around at the martial artists, the passerby, the vendors, Zishu muses over the possibilities. Which one is a ghost wearing human skin? That man selling steamed dumplings? The woman playing the pipa in front of that inn? How about the pair of unassuming martial artists standing at the mouth of the alley two food stalls ahead?
When, he wonders, will they shed their skins and mingle in earnest? When will the Chief of Ghost Valley show his face in the world of the living?
Zhou Zishu has arrived in Yueyang, as was planned, just in time for the first real banquet held in Sanbai Manor.
The thing about the Heroes Conference is that the wealthy and privileged are incapable of being satisfied with an actual conference alone. Instead, people come from far and wide for more than a week of feasting and socializing and bragging before they ever have their actual ‘Heroes Conference’.
Zishu is torn between being pleased at having this time to get a headstart on his plan of drinking himself to death, or irritated that he has to be around so many insufferable characters for this long.
The Ghost Valley better make this shit worth it.
Zishu settles back into his seat in Sanbai Manor’s main banquet hall and knocks back another cup of wine, sighing and observing the din around him with sharp eyes. Most of the guests are still sober, this early in the night, but they’re no less rowdy.
People like this waste no time in singing their own praises and trying to one up each other, after all.
Sanbai Manor itself is quite grand, every nook and cranny dripping with wealth. The food, the drink, the dancers, the tapestries and gilding and paintings on the walls, it’s all obscenely high quality. To an eye unjaded by the ugly things hidden behind wealth and status, it is no doubt dazzling. To Zishu, it’s somewhat nauseating.
No matter. Not nauseating enough to make him abandon the good wine and food he’s being served.
Although the crowd and their hosts do a good job of pretending it’s business as usual, Zishu can feel the undercurrent of nervousness and anticipation that thrums through them all. There’s not a soul here that’s not hyper aware of the letter Ghost Valley had sent, nor of the fact that the Five Lakes Alliance, for whatever reason, had ultimately decided to extend its invitation in response.
The jianghu holds its breath and waits for the Valley to show itself, all while doing their best to pretend they’re not waiting at all.
Zishu knows its coming before the rest of them do. His keen eyes catch the lone Yeuyang disciple scurrying along the outskirts of the room up to the table where their hosts sit, trying desperately to hide the alarm on his face.
Zishu wonders if it’s one of the ones who had mooned over him earlier, as he watches the young man bend to whisper something into Gao Chong’s ear that has him straightening and staring sharply towards the door.
It doesn’t take long after that for the first eyes to fall on new figures sweeping into the hall and for a hush to fall like fresh snow on the eaves of a roof.
The group of women entering the banquet hall with leisurely grace could not be mistaken for the usual martial artists, not in a million years. The majority of them are clad in uniform robes, red and white and delicately beautiful. Their doll-like faces are made up perfectly, ebony hair falling in neat, elaborate styles.
One woman stands out from the rest, her robes richer and more intricately embroidered, golden jewelry and precious gems dripping from her like water. Her hair falls down her back in magnificent silver tresses.
Ah, Zishu thinks to himself, eyes greedy in their curiosity, this must be the Department of the Unfaithful.
The Department of the Unfaithful, led by the owner of the List of the Unfaithful, one of the Ten Devils of Ghost Valley. Tragicomic Ghost.
Although, Zishu muses with surprise as his eyes fall on the same figure many others are now finding, he had been under the impression that the Department of the Unfaithful was made up entirely of women.
The very striking, very male figure mingling with them begs to differ.
He’s an otherworldly beauty, this man. He does the impossible; that is to say, he outshines the many beauties around him, draws the eye and captures it effortlessly. He too is draped in sanguine robes of beautiful quality, hair like a waterfall of ink down his dignified back.
The set of his shoulders and his impeccable posture speak volumes, as does the height at which he holds his chin and the unabashed confidence with which he surveys the room.
His face is truly a treasure to behold. A defined jaw, a strong brow, a straight, regal nose. His mouth is plush and flushed a sweet coral that might be natural, might be augmented with pigment. It wouldn’t be surprising were he to be wearing makeup on his lips, considering there is red streaked elegantly beneath his eyes.
Oh, and what eyes those are. They’re large, hooded, the outer corners curving elegantly downward. Their shape should lend themselves to a guileless, sweet look, and yet...and yet they’re as black and cold as a shark’s. They’re as calculating and empty as Zishu’s own.
Eyes like that do not belong to a harmless man.
Those eyes meet Zhou Zishu’s from across the room in their intentionally uncaring sweep and, for the first time since he entered, show interest. Interest, actually, may be an understatement.
The beauty’s eyes land on Zhou Zishu and light up with fire. An expression of pleasant surprise crosses the strange ghost’s face, fascination kindling in the depths of his gaze. Fascination. Lust. Hunger.
It makes Zhou Zishu’s breath catch in his chest, which is a feat in and of itself. This man in red, he doesn’t even attempt to hide the way he devours Zhou Zishu with his eyes alone, slow smirk spreading across his face as he takes his time exploring Zishu’s figure.
Zishu has never had another man stare at him with such naked lust before. Nor, he muses, has he ever felt a kindling of desire in return.