The worst part of being pregnant was not being able to drink. Despite Zhou Zishu’s strenuous protests that it was by now too late to matter, even his useless disciple had quickly been co-opted into the enemy camp. “I’m losing my sense of taste anyway, so what’s the problem?” Zishu complained as Wen Kexing confronted Zishu with a container of wine that Zishu had hidden for later use. It’d last been squirrelled away in his travelling clothes, which Zhang Chengling had taken away to wash and fold. Curse that unfilial disciple.
“You think it’s the taste of alcohol that’s the issue?” Kexing stared at him, incredulous. “Surely you aren’t that ignorant. Or is this sort of miseducation common for people with no medical training?”
Zishu folded his arms over his chest. Wu Xi and Jing Beiyuan had wandered off somewhere weeks ago to look for special herbs, if first leaving Zishu with enough ‘precautionary’ medications to open a small apothecary with. After all the nonsense in the Hero Conference and beyond, with nothing to do but wait for treatment, Zishu had decided to take Kexing and Chengling back to Siji Pavilion to pass the new year. He’d been looking forward to revisiting the stores of wine that he’d accumulated over the years—only for everything to disappear overnight.
“Pregnant people have cravings, don’t they?” Zishu said, mimicking one of Kexing’s pouts. In the beginning, he’d thought such tactics beneath him, but Zishu had now been continuously sober for the longest he’d ever been in his adult life, and it was starting to get depressing. “Lao Wen. Didn’t you agree to take responsibility?”
“This is me taking responsibility. Watch,” Kexing said. He walked to the courtyard, where he poured out the container onto the gravel and tossed it away, aggravating one count of theft with one count of littering.
Zishu scowled. “Heartless. You bastard, what did you do to all the wine in the storage chambers? You’d better not have thrown that away.”
“You do have exquisite taste in wine, if that was all yours,” Kexing said, wandering back over and closing the chamber door behind him, pouring Zishu some tea.
“Answer the question.”
“I’ll tell you after the birth.”
Zishu glared at the teacup, refusing to touch it. Even the tea was disgusting. It wasn’t the usual sort that Zishu preferred, which tended to be pungent and bitter, served piping hot. Instead, Kexing and Wu Xi had made Zishu drink some terrible concoction brewed with red dates and ginger, a ‘tea’ that he could only have cold or at room temperature. He could accept red dates in chicken soup and ginger as flavouring in a stirfry or something. Everything else was a trap. Worse, when plump and floating in fluid, red dates reminded Zishu vaguely of human brains. Even seeing them made him shudder.
“Didn’t you say you were losing your sense of taste?” Kexing asked, nudging the cup over. “You can’t say that you don’t want to drink it just because you don’t like it.”
“Are you and Wu Xi just making this up to torture me?” Zishu retorted. “I thought doctors don’t tend to have anything to do with pregnancy unless it’s a life or death situation. Don’t midwives usually handle it?”
“Over half of the physicians in the Shaman Medicine Valley were women, including my mother. They didn’t believe that consulting on pregnancies was beneath them or that things should just be allowed to ‘happen naturally’. It’s a complicated process for any human body, one that should be treated just as carefully as any human condition. Speaking of which, you should—”
“Spare me,” Zishu groaned, rubbing his temple. “Not more strange exercises or drinks or odd things to chew, I’ve had enough. Any more of your ‘advice’ and I’m going to run away.”
“You could try, but you’d never escape me,” Kexing said, smirking. “I was going to say, you should stop using your qi in any way save to regulate your circulation—and even then, if you have to, call me over just in case. I’ll take over your disciple’s training for now.”
“He’s my disciple, not yours,” Zishu said, glaring at Kexing. “Find your own disciple.”
“A-Xu, don’t be unreasonable. I’m merely concerned about your well-being—and the child’s,” Kexing said in a coaxing tone, grasping Zishu’s palm.
“You’re overreacting. Until the point that Ye Baiyi said what he did, I’d already been drinking and using my qi every day. Nothing’s gone wrong so far, so what’s there to be afraid of?”
“…I’m starting to think that people who devote their lives to medicine have to be living bodhisattvas,” Kexing said, closing his eyes. “I wonder if my parents ever had to bite down the urge to strangle recalcitrant patients? A-Xu, ah, A-Xu. Don’t think that just because you’re beautiful, I’ll let you do whatever you want. Every morning, I’ll ask you one question: do you still want this child? If you say ‘yes’, then for the rest of the day, you’d better listen to your doctor.”
“Or what, hm?” Zishu asked, partly amused, partly annoyed. “Exactly what can you threaten me with? If you dare, come at me with everything you have.”
“Don’t blame me later for bullying you—you’ve asked for it,” Kexing said, smiling mercilessly. He went from seated primly opposite Zishu to scooping him up, carrying him toward the bed. Zishu snarled, aiming a palm strike at Kexing’s throat, only for Kexing to duck, drop him gently on the sheets, then catch Zishu’s wrists. “Careful. Don’t use so much qi.”
“Get off me,” Zishu growled.
“A-Xu, you have a lot of energy. Maybe that’s part of the problem,” Kexing said, settling between Zishu’s thighs and nudging them open. “What if I help you use it up in a way that’d be fun for the both of us?”
“Why would you want to bed a pregnant person?” Zishu asked, suspicious.
Kexing stared at Zishu, surprised—then he laughed, leaning over Zishu to kiss him, ignoring the growling and shoving at his shoulders. “For someone who sometimes appears to know everything, my A-Xu can also be so adorably naive. I don’t know about other people, and I don’t care about them, but knowing that you’re carrying my child makes me want you even more.”
“You! You’re too much!” Zishu tried to struggle free, only for Kexing to pin him down efficiently, looking deeply into his eyes. The lust and hunger in them were impossible to ignore.
To his horror, Zishu found his attempts to escape getting more halfhearted, biting on his lower lip as he felt himself growing wet. That had been another annoying thing about pregnancy. Nails aside, this felt like the first time in Zishu’s adult life that his body wasn’t entirely under his control. Emotions ran deeper and hotter in a way that Zishu wasn’t used to, and that included desire. Flushing, Zishu’s hands settled over Kexing’s shoulders, no longer trying to knee him in the family jewels.
Trust Kexing not to be gracious in victory. Even as he unwrapped Zishu with the considered care of someone opening an expensive and fragile present, he smirked. Taking his time to peel their clothes open, caressing and kissing every bit of Zishu’s skin that he revealed. All the while saying shameless things like, “A-Xu, you’re already so wet, maybe you can’t wait for me to be inside you?” and “A-Xu, when you blush like that, your porcelain skin becomes even more beautiful.”
“Quiet, just be quiet,” Zishu moaned, clutching at Kexing’s loosened robes as fingers worked inside him. His body opened up more quickly than usual, even though they hadn’t gone to bed together since Ye Baiyi’s surprise revelation—Kexing had transitioned rapidly from being a sticky stalker into a sticky expectant parent. It’d been a relief at the start; then it’d become annoying—and not entirely because of Kexing’s newfound tendency to try and control everything that Zishu was eating or drinking. Zishu pulled Kexing down over him, nuzzling his throat, breathing in his scent. Allowing himself to be relaxed by his Qianyuan’s presence, to be soothed by caresses and lingering kisses.
Kexing chuckled. His kisses grew edged with the touch of teeth, his fingers rougher, grinding inside to the knuckles as he bit Zishu hard on the throat. Reminding Zishu that he was lying with no ordinary Qianyuan, but a man who was a monster in his own right, no matter how justified or unavoidable the reason. Yet who was Zishu to judge? He was himself a monster. The retribution he had meted on his flesh didn’t forgive that. Giving in, Zishu rocked his hips against Kexing’s fingers, panting for breath. He shivered as Kexing pressed his palm possessively over Zishu’s belly, where the swell hadn’t yet become too noticeable.
As fingertips eased lightly over one of the Nail scars, Kexing paused, frowning. “We should get another message to Wu Xi. The operation to remove these—you should do it as soon as possible. Otherwise, the poison from the Nails might affect the child. Even if you don’t suffer a miscarriage.”
“Is this your idea of pillow talk?” Zishu said, pointedly lifting his hips. “Lao Wen, you’re meant to sweet-talk people in your bed, not frighten the life out of them with sudden unsolicited medical opinions.”
“I’m surprised you’re not any more worried than you are,” Kexing grumbled, even as he eased out his fingers and disrobed, using Zishu’s slick to wet his cock.
“Not all that long ago, I was like one of the living dead, just waiting to drink myself into an early grave,” Zishu said, stroking Kexing’s cheek. “Life has already changed so much without me even trying very hard to change—why worry about anything that’s out of my control? Better to count my blessings while I can.”
“Don’t think that’s going to get you out of drinking your tea,” Kexing said, though the annoyance he wore faded grudgingly toward something closer to tenderness as he pushed slowly into Zishu, only to grunt as Zishu kicked his back with his heel.
“Faster. Aren’t you doing this to try and exhaust me? If you’re going to be gentle, I’ll fall asleep.”
Kexing’s eyes gleamed. He flipped them over, smirking as the sudden move drove Zishu down on his cock with his weight. Zishu arched with a yelp, clawing at Kexing’s shoulders. “Go on then,” Kexing said, squeezing Zishu’s pert rump as he looked Zishu up and down appreciatively. “Exhaust yourself.”
“You’re the one who wants to… Kexing!” Zishu snapped, outraged, as Kexing smacked him on the ass.
“Just for a while?” Kexing asked in his annoying, honeyed, impossible-to-ignore coaxing tone. He rocked up into Zishu, making Zishu gasp. “You look so beautiful like this; you’re so tight and wet—”
“Fine, I’ll… just, shut up,” Zishu grit out, ducking his head.
Where was his usually thick skin? The person who dared talk back to anyone, even to a Crown Prince? Having never thought he could ever get this embarrassed, Zishu moved awkwardly at first, avoiding Kexing’s gaze. Not that it could easily be ignored. He could feel how hot it was on his skin, how hungry. It felt good to move at Zishu’s own pace, to feel the powerful Qianyuan beneath his thighs tremble and moan, rocking against him until, impatient, Kexing sat up, kissing Zishu demandingly, scratching at his thighs and hips.
Zishu gripped Kexing by his shoulders and his hair, throwing back his head as he rode him more and more roughly, keening and panting. Did this feel better than usual? Zishu couldn’t be sure. Kexing had always been in control before. It was different this way, more intimate—Zishu giving Kexing what he could, rather than Kexing just taking what he was allowed. A capitulation of sorts, and yet a victory, with Kexing choking out promises between his moans, clawing tracks down Zishu’s back, pressing open-mouthed kisses over his chest. Again and again, until Zishu was losing time, consumed. By the time Kexing groaned one last time and thrust up against him, cock swelling, Zishu’s legs were trembling, no longer able to hold himself up. The mess Zishu had made repeatedly against them pressed slickly against his softening cock, sticky between their bodies.
Slumping against Kexing as they waited for Kexing’s knot to go down, Zishu muttered, “I’m exhausted. We can’t do this again… consider this is a momentary capitulation to your nonsense.”
“That,” Kexing said, grinning slyly, “will depend on how obedient you’re going to be from now on.”
Zishu didn’t see the correlation at the time, but now he did. Standing in the faint chill, he clenched his hands, staring at the hollow dark that now remained. Empty of everything. Zishu had taken all of the Pavilion’s valuables along when he’d moved the sect to the capital, reluctantly leaving most of the wine and whatever he didn’t feel was entirely necessary. The skeletal staff he’d left at the Pavilion had only gotten more skeletal over time until Zishu had finally left the estate to moulder.
Weighed under by old ghosts, Zishu let out a shaky breath, closing his eyes. The last time he had been here, he’d been alone—
“Wei! Lao Bing Gui! Did you sneak down here to drink? I’ll tell Master!”
Zishu flinched, turning on his heel just as Gu Xiang barged into the chamber. The pretty young girl had switched her bright purple dress for a travel-worn set of light purple clothes and pants, trailing an anxious young man behind her who looked apologetically at Zishu. “A-Xiang, quiet down. Wen da-ren said that Zhou da-ren can’t suffer too much excitement.”
“What are the two of you doing here?” Zishu asked, surprised.
“I was going to go with Cao da-ge here to the Gentle Wind Sect, but then I heard a rumour that Master might have had a happy event? I thought I should come back and help out, and Cao da-ge said he’d come along. Then Auntie L… I mean, some friends kept an ear to the ground and eventually figured out where Master might have gone.” Gu Xiang strode over, walking around Zishu and looking him up and down. “Are you really pregnant? You don’t look pregnant.”
“A-Xiang!” Cao Weining gasped, horrified.
“What? It was just a question.” Gu Xiang glared at the hapless boy.
“Ah, well, A-Xiang is right, it might not be pronounced yet, but still, but still, we shouldn’t ask so directly? My shifu always said that Kunze can be quite delicate.”
“Who’s delicate?” Zishu demanded, unsure whether to laugh or get angry. “Do you want to fight?”
“No, no, no, you shouldn’t be overusing your qi at this point,” Weining said, gesturing wildly. “If you’re angry and need to hit something, just hit me normally. I won’t dodge.”
“No one is hitting anyone,” Gu Xiang said, glaring at Zishu and folding her arms. “Anyway, Master is still occupied in town, so. He sent me up here first to make sure that you weren’t sneaking off to have a drink. Also, I’m meant to brew you some red date tea with ginger.”
Zishu made a face. “No. No ginger tea nonsense. As you see, I’m not doing anything—I’m just hiding down here from all you noisy people. Go away.”
“I’m going up to cook and make the tea,” Gu Xiang said, glancing at Weining. “Cao da-ge, watch Lao Bing… I mean, watch Zhou da-ren closely. If he drinks any alcohol, never mind Master, I’ll break your legs.”
“Wei, how can a pretty young girl like you have such a spicy mouth?” Zishu asked, pretending to cover his ears. “Aren’t you afraid that you’d never get married? You’re going to scare off all your prospective suitors at this rate.”
“Who’s a suitor? I’ll scare them off on purpose! You wait. My aunts and the others have given me a manual full of recipes that you’re meant to be eating. I’m going to start making the most bitter one first.” Gu Xiang stuck her tongue out.
“Spare me,” Zishu groaned, but Gu Xiang had already flounced back upstairs.
Left to themselves, Weining shifted uncomfortably on his feet. “Zhou da-xia…”
“All right, all right. You Zhongyong have it easy,” Zishu grumbled as he went back above ground. “No Seasons of Rain, no annoying Qianyuan, no higher risks of qi deviations. I’d say it’s lucky that A-Xiang is also a Zhongyong, except she’s learned all manner of bad habits from her Master.”
“I don’t think A-Xiang has any bad habits,” Weining said, so entirely seriously that Zishu stared at him for a doubtful moment. Huh. He’d forgotten how depressing it could be to be around people who were young and madly in love. It was like watching rabbits repeatedly run headlong into a wall. Cute, but somehow vaguely frustrating to watch.
Deciding to change the subject, Zishu said, “Any news? Has Gao Xiaolian been found?”
“Oh! Yes. A-Xiang and I found her—it was a God-given coincidence. Unfortunately, with my mediocre skills, I wasn’t much help, and it was A-Xiang who saved the day yet again,” Weining said, happily launching into another long list of accolades about Gu Xiang’s infinite graces. Zishu exhaled. So much for changing the topic.
“Enough, enough,” Zishu said, beckoning Kexing to the stone table under the shade was Kexing yet again flattened Weining to the dirt with a few well-aimed pieces of gravel. “Great Philanthropist Wen, please give your future son-in-law some face.”
Weining blushed hotly, even as Kexing frowned at Zishu. “Nonsense. Besides, what kind of face does he still have to lose? Is this the kind of useless disciple that the Gentle Wind Sect is taking in nowadays?”
“I have little skill and learn slowly,” Weining said, getting to his feet with a shy smile. “I’m grateful for all of Wen da-ren’s lessons.”
Sensing that there was no use further grinding the rabbit into the dirt when the rabbit seemed to genuinely think the humiliation was done as a favour, Kexing stalked over, sitting with a huff. Beside Weining, Chengling didn’t dare to look up. “Chengling, don’t think you can slack off,” Zishu said, glaring at his disciple. “Maybe you and Cao-gongzi should go a few rounds. Then you can see the difference between someone who’s been training diligently since young, compared to a lazy creature like you.”
“A-Xu, that won’t be a fair fight,” Kexing said, pouring Zishu some of the accursed tea. “Drink and calm down.”
“It’s not a fight; it’s practice. Go on, you two. Start.”
As the boys faced off, both of them smiling uncomfortably at each other, Zishu slapped Kexing’s hand as Kexing palmed one of the nuts on the table. “Don’t. Interfere.”
“I’m starting to think that I didn’t tire my A-Xu out sufficiently today,” Kexing said, popping the nut into his mouth. “He’s full of energy again. Maybe we should retire early tonight?”
“You can sleep alone tonight,” Zishu shot back, his mood growing sourer and sourer as he watched the pitiful display before him.
Weining couldn’t be considered a natural talent, not like Chengling, but he was still far better. If not for the fact that Weining appeared to still be recovering from some injury, his movements slowed, the ‘match’ would’ve been a more miserable sight. Mentally reviewing everything that he might have to revise with Chengling in the future, Zishu smacked Kexing on the arm as Kexing’s nut-laden hand slipped out of sight, ignoring his pout.
Thankfully, dinner was decent: despite Zishu’s concerns, the ‘recipes’ that Gu Xiang had dredged up from the variable denizens of Ghost Valley weren’t as suspicious as Zishu thought they would be. Most of them so far were even rather tasty, despite his deadening senses, improving his appetite. Kexing left messages with the closest branch of the Ping’an Bank every few days but hadn’t heard back as yet—he had returned from his last visit to town with a stormy expression. Kexing had blamed it on Wu Xi’s continued absence, but Zishu knew better—Kexing kept darting glances up at the forest beyond.
Close to midnight, Zishu was unsurprised to note that Kexing was nowhere to be found. He set off, darting through the forest he’d grown up with, knowing the best route through the trees. Zishu settled on the main path once he was sure that he had outpaced Kexing, waiting. It was a nice night.
Just as Zishu was starting to wonder whether Kexing had run off for some other reason altogether, a faint white flutter flickered through the trees, materialising on the path with a whisper of robes. Ye Baiyi frowned as he looked Zishu over, his mouth pressed into a thin line. “Qin Huaizhang’s disciple—out of my way.”
“Senior Ye, where are you going in such a hurry at such a time of night?”
Baiyi sniffed. “Surely you can guess. Wen Kexing is in Siji Pavilion, isn’t he? Don’t you know who he is?”
“I do,” Zishu said.
“If you know that he’s Ghost Valley’s Valley Master, how dare you harbour such a monster? Your shifu wouldn’t be able to rest quietly in the afterlife!”
“If you’re here to invade Siji Pavilion and disturb one of my guests, you’d have to get past me first,” Zishu said, drawing the Baiyi blade, settling into a ready stance.
“Don’t be absurd. Pregnant people shouldn’t be getting into brawls. Did you use qinggong to get here? You shouldn’t be wasting qi on something like that, let alone this. Out of my way. Go and sit somewhere warm and drink red date tea.”
Zishu grit his teeth. “Are all of you conspiring together to anger me to death?”
“There’s no need to anger you to death when you’re already trying your best to die,” Baiyi said, rolling his eyes. “Never have I met a more stupid disciple—or so I thought? Until you picked an even more stupid one out of nowhere. Each generation is only getting worse: I can only pray the child you’re carrying is the exception to this rule. Who’s the father, anyway? Not someone from the Five Lakes Alliance, I hope? They’re all annoying loudmouths.”
Swallowing his temper, Zishu forced a smile. “Senior Ye, if you’re so worried about that kind of detail, why don’t you head back down the mountain? I’ll meet you tomorrow in town and give you a full accounting to your satisfaction.”
“I don’t think anything you can say would be able to account for this mess to my satisfaction,” Baiyi said, frowning at Zishu. “Don’t think I’m above sealing off your acupoints and leaving you on the roadside for your useless disciple to find. Get out of my way.”
“Senior Ye,” Zishu said, inclining his head and shifting his grip on his blade, “thank you for the lesson.”
Before Zishu could go on the attack, a faint flicker in the corner of his vision caught his attention. Kexing alighted on the ground with his effortless qinggong, sleeves flowing around him in the light breeze. The image of a descending immortal was broken quickly as Kexing rounded on Zishu with a glare. “A-Xu! Did you use qinggong to get here? You shouldn’t be wasting qi on something like this!”
“You shut up and get behind me,” Zishu snapped. For all of Baiyi’s belligerence, Zishu could sense that the Sword Saint Immortal wouldn’t willingly hit a pregnant person, particularly one with whom he had no real feud. “I was here first.”
“Don’t be so stubborn,” Kexing said, furious. “Do you think I’m above sealing off your acupoints and leaving you on the roadside?”
“Why are you and Senior Ye completely incapable of talking like normal people?” Zishu said, incredulous. “Are the two of you secretly related?”
“Besides, his grudge is with me, isn’t it?” Kexing glared at Ye Baiyi. “If you want to fight, let’s fight. I can guess why you’re here—no more talk.” He darted at Ye Baiyi, launching his fan in a killing arc even as Baiyi drew his broadsword and deflected the fan with a contemptuous flick. Kexing took advantage of the narrow opening, gliding into range, aiming for an acupoint.
Zishu swept behind Baiyi at the same time, seeking to flank him, only for Kexing to blink, dart around Baiyi, and grab Zishu by his wrists. “Zhou Zishu! Is there something wrong with your ears? Stop using your qi and sit this out!”
“Who are you to tell me what to do?”
“Shouldn’t the father of your child have some say in the matter?”
“You’re the one who told me that you were leaving the decision about keeping the child up to me!”
“Wait, wait,” Ye Baiyi said, pinching the bridge of his nose, sword lowered. “While we were heading into the Longyuan Cabinet to sort out the truth about my disciple, I had a growing suspicion given the way the two of you were acting, but. I don’t believe this. Tian ah, Qin Huaizhang’s disciple, of all the people in the world you could choose to spread your legs for—you’ve picked the Ghost Valley’s Master?”
“Do you have a problem with that, you old toad monster?” Kexing glared at Baiyi. “Have you even managed to bed anyone before, or are you a 500-year-old virgin? That’d explain why you still have so much energy to stick your nose into everyone’s business!”
“Enough, enough,” Zishu said, holding an arm out in front of Kexing as Baiyi took an angry step forward. “Senior Ye. Have you forgotten all that we learned in the Longyuan Cabinet? People can judge Kexing if they wish. But you—do you have the right? Especially after all that you’ve said? Do you think he had any choice at all but to do what he did?”
Baiyi stiffened. His grip on the Dragon Back’s hilt eased, and he sheathed it at his back with a scowl. In a slightly more normal voice, Baiyi said, “Wen Kexing. You’re staying at Siji Pavilion?”
“What about it?” Kexing retorted.
“Remain there if you know what’s good for you. If I see you again out in the jianghu, I’ll kill you. As for you,” Baiyi said, frowning at Zishu. “If you don’t want the child, you know what to do. If you want the child—stop being such an idiot.” Flicking out his sleeves, Baiyi took off into the trees.
Zishu relaxed, letting out a slow breath—then he began to laugh as the absurdity of the encounter caught up with him. Kexing glared at him, pulling him close and kissing him hard on the mouth. “You—infuriating…!”
“Who’s infuriating, hm?” Zishu cut in, punching Kexing lightly on the shoulder. “Who decided to fly out and ambush Senior Ye in the forest? What was the point, anyway? To prevent him from coming to Siji Pavilion? You have to tell Chengling sooner or later.”
“I’ll explain it to him tomorrow,” Kexing said, grimacing. “Now that the Five Lakes Alliance has spread that manual everywhere, there’s no avoiding it. I’m more worried about A-Xiang. If she truly likes that boy so much, it’s going to be a problem.”
“Cao Weining? He might surprise you,” Zishu said, kissing Kexing on the edge of his mouth. “More so if you choose to let things go. These plans of yours—they won’t bring back the dead, would they?”
“Zhou Zishu,” Kexing said, his tone distant. “Were your parents killed in such a way, were you to grow up with the will to live only because of the depth of your hatred—wouldn’t you think that saying ‘leave and let live’ to someone else is in itself a form of injustice? Why should my grievance be ignored when I’ve nursed it for so long?”
“If there were any justice in the world, I would still be drinking myself into an early grave, miserable and alone, still drowning in my regrets. I would never have met you,” Zishu said, trailing his fingertips down Kexing’s chin. “Who am I to talk about justice or injustice?” Grasping Kexing’s palm, Zishu pressed it over his belly. “Every morning, you ask me if I want this child—I do. Isn’t it time for me to ask you if you want it? With all that you’re looking to do, isn’t it naive to hope that it won’t burn out of control? Even your less destructive plans have already had unintended consequences.”
“Remorse is a strange thing,” Kexing said, smiling. In the dark, the shadows buried his eyes, leaving only a ghostly smile. “You’ve asked me before whether I felt any remorse for the deaths I’ve caused—I don’t. The world has tried to destroy me, so why shouldn’t I try to destroy it in turn? I am, after all, the knife that it honed with grief, tempered through suffering. Why shouldn’t I be all that I’ve been made to be? I’ll do all that I can to spare you and the child—I’ve made plans for that. But—”
“But you can’t be sure, and neither can I. You’re going to tell me next that it’s too late. It isn’t. Lao Wen, I spent my life playing the Imperial Game. Thinking my moves through ten moves ahead while guessing at everyone else’s. Never making any mistakes, even when I was tempted to do so. Here is the last that I’m going to say about this matter: I don’t begrudge you your vengeance. However, our lives are now linked, for good or for worse. So if the bloody path is the one you still choose to walk, despite everything, then you can’t stop me from walking it with you. Whether you like it or not.”
Kexing clutched Zishu’s hands tightly. He closed his eyes, his breaths growing shallow. Two monsters in the dark, frozen in time, could, for a moment, still pass as human.
“Oh, yes. Sorry.” Chengling retreated into the kitchen, red-faced.
“If you have so much energy to laugh, why don’t you help out?” Zishu told Kexing.
“Too many cooks ruin the pot,” Kexing said, having fallen back into a life of leisure now that his free labour had returned to the roost with a free assistant to match. “Besides, someone has to keep an eye on you. I can’t believe you tried to sneak wine into your teapot yesterday. A-Xu, aren’t you old enough to learn some self-control? It’s only going to be a few months more.”
“That’s what you said a month ago.”
“Because it’s still true?”
Zishu huffed, annoyed. He’d thought he’d done so well, at that. “Wu Xi sent word,” Zishu said, changing the subject before Kexing could start haranguing him. “He’ll be here right after the New Year—he’s implied that he has good news.”
“Good news being a decent solution, I hope?” Kexing said, not particularly mollified. “I should hunt down that old tortoise again.”
“You aren’t his match—why bother?”
“Speaking of the toad monster,” Kexing said, ignoring Zishu, “if he could track us down here despite having stayed out of the jianghu for however long it’s been, then Siji Pavilion isn’t as safe as you think. We should go to someplace more defensible. Especially since the devices you’ve been playing with haven’t been fixed.”
“Where? Ghost Valley? Isn’t that even worse? It’s about to become the site of a civil war.”
“Longyuan Cabinet, I think,” Kexing said, though he made a face. “If we cauterised certain parts of it with fire, it’s not a bad place to live. Remote, and thanks to Senior Long, inaccessible to the uninitiated.”
“Senior Ye found it anyway. You might just be underestimating his abilities.” Baiyi had never mentioned how long he’d lived. Still, on the way up to the Longyuan Cabinet, Baiyi had given off the sense that he’d already seen every possible puzzle or trap that was ever worth seeing. “I’ll get Chengling to work harder on the repairs.”
“Do you think he can bend time? You’re already making him spend the morning training under me, then the afternoon studying your techniques, and—”
Zishu glared at Kexing, about to snap at him, then made a show of rubbing his head. “Are you… are you trying to stress me? Now?”
Kexing stared at him—then smirked, grabbing Zishu’s wrist, feeling his pulse. He kissed Zishu’s knuckles as Zishu tried to pull his palm away. “A-Xu. Do you think I’m that soft on you? Besides, don’t you think pulling an act like that is looking down on my medical training?”
“I thought pregnant people get more spoiled by their spouses once they start to show,” Zishu said, pointedly rubbing his belly, “so why does it feel like nothing’s changed?”
“You don’t think you’re spoiled? Should I carry you back to bed?”
“No thanks. Please, direct the Valley Master’s gracious attention elsewhere,” Zishu said, grimacing. Kexing had been so thorough this morning that Zishu had nearly slept through to lunch and woken up still sleepy.
“I will. If you drink your tea.” Kexing nudged the hated teacup closer.
“You’re already at your mother’s house; there’s nowhere left for you to retreat to—Zhou Zishu! Don’t you dare use your qi!”
Zishu glanced at Kexing, who stared out into the night, his expression distant. Weining looked between them, then at Chengling. “Well, I. I’ve had a few? Back in the sect. But this is the best yet. Everything smells so good. Isn’t that right?” He nudged Chengling.
“My last reunion dinner…” Chengling trailed off, likely remembering his family.
Weining smacked himself on the face. “Oh! I’m sorry. I shouldn’t have said.”
“Wei! After I spent this much effort cooking, the two of you better not cry into the rice! Can’t even kill a chicken—call yourselves practitioners,” Gu Xiang said, glowering at them both.
“Enough, enough. Eat.” Zishu dropped one of the prawns on Kexing’s rice. He didn’t remember the last time he’d had a reunion dinner, either. He’d often spent the lunar new year comfortably drunk. At first, because it was the only time in the year where Zishu was reasonably sure that he could take a complete break from Tian Chuang business. After that, it’d just become a habit.
Trying to lighten the mood, Zishu put on a smirk and said, “Lao Wen, there’s only one thing missing. A good drink.”
“Well, it is the lunar new year,” Kexing said, blinking and smiling warmly. “And you’ve been fairly well-behaved for a week. Gu Xiang?”
“Really?” Zishu said, surprised, as Gu Xiang got up and darted off. He’d been joking. Zishu straightened up in excitement as Gu Xiang returned with a dark pot sealed with a red cover, along with a stack of black wine cups that she set beside everyone, before pouring a generous measure into each cup.
Kexing picked up his cup and tipped it toward Zishu, a warm smile playing on his mouth. “A toast to the new year?”
“To the new year,” Zishu said, and raised the cup eagerly to his mouth—only to cough and choke at the first sip. Ginger tea? “You!” He glared at Kexing.
“Why? What’s wrong?” Kexing asked with concern. “A-Xu, you don’t like the wine?” He looked to the others, who were sipping their cups. “How do you young people find it?”
“Good wine!” Gu Xiang said, grinning broadly. “Another toast!”
“Ah, good wine, good wine,” Weining said, swallowing the contents of his cup quickly and hastily eating a few mouthfuls of rice to cover the taste.
“I’ve never had wine before. I think I like it,” Chengling said, absolutely seriously, drinking with what looked like actual relish. “Another cup?” Zishu stared at his disciple, growing uncertain. He sipped the cup again just in case his dulled senses were just playing up and yet again coughed.
“Unfilial disciple,” Zishu growled, “playing this kind of trick on your shifu—aren’t you scared that I’ll disown you?”
“Isn’t it unlucky to talk about disowning people right now?” Kexing placed a piece of chicken on Zishu’s rice. “Eat, eat. Don’t pull such a long face.”
“Who has a long face?” Zishu retorted, dropping the chicken back on Kexing’s bowl. As Kexing chuckled, Zishu picked up some of the fried fish for himself. It flaked perfectly against his rice, then melted on his tongue as he popped it into his mouth.
This had to be the quietest reunion dinner that Zishu had ever spent in Siji Pavilion, and yet, somehow, also the most precious. It may have taken him three decades to reach this point, but now, Zishu wasn’t sure how much of it he would change if this moment were the price. He pressed his knee against Kexing’s under the table, and Kexing looked up with a soft smile.
“Happy new year,” Kexing said.
Zishu returned his smile, reaching out to clasp his palm. “The best one yet.”