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Dangerous Illusions

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Yuanxiao Festival was one of Zhou Zishu’s least favourite times of the year. It wasn’t the problem of thousands of lanterns clogging up the streets and rooftops of the Imperial City, making it more challenging to conduct Tian Chuang business. It wasn’t the throngs of people who packed into the Imperial City from beyond to enjoy the spectacle, or the increased risk of a fire hazard, or the thousands of perfectly edible mandarin oranges being thrown into the river. It wasn’t the fact that Tian Chuang business often ground to a halt during the lunar new year period, leaving Zishu at loose ends. It was all of that, all at once.

Sitting at home and drinking the night away was too depressing. As to trying to drink it away in a restaurant—restaurants were often either too noisy at this time of year or too full of couples young and old, drenching the atmosphere around them with a depressingly saccharine air of self-absorption and lust. It didn’t help that Zishu could often tell from a glance whether a couple was happy or faking it, whether the man likely had a mistress, or whether the woman he was dining was the mistress.

Unable to switch off and with nowhere to go, Zishu often found a quiet rooftop to lie on and drink with his hair worn loose over his shoulders, dressed unassumingly in shades of grey to avoid easy detection from the street. In recent years, entire streets in the Imperial City had begun competing against each other by building more and more elaborate lanterns, making the festival even more popular. Peaceful rooftops were a difficult find.

This year, Zishu had to content himself with the roof of a small pavilion in a private park attached to the Crimson Peony, a highly exclusive courtesan establishment. Faint music could be still be heard from the elegant, slate-roofed building behind Zishu. Still, this late into the evening, anyone unlucky enough to have to spend Yuanxiao Festival paying for company had long retired with said company, leaving the sprawling gardens nice and quiet.

Opening the bottle of wine he’d brought, Zishu gave it an appreciative sniff. Nu Er Hong—one of the last in his hoard, given how popular it was during this time of year. He began to raise it to his lips and froze. Standing on the red lacquer bridge over the koi pond was a young man in richly made teal and red robes, fanning himself with a large white fan. Handsome and bearing an elegant air, the young man smiled playfully up at Zishu. “Among the flowers with a single pot of wine? Surely it’s too lonely to be drinking alone.”

Zishu rolled his eyes. The stranger didn’t look like a courtesan—more like an arrogant young master from a wealthy family. On a running scale of people Zishu despised most in the world, he tended to consider entitled, rich young men near the lowest bar. “Gongzi, I don’t work here. Get lost.”

The stranger chuckled, undeterred. “That much was obvious. Talented as the usual attractions in the Crimson Peony are, I doubt any of them would be here on such a busy night, drinking by themselves.” He leapt, alighting on the slate beside Zishu with only a faint flutter of robes, glancing up at the moon. “Even if it is a beautiful moon.”

Zishu tensed up, wary. This effortless level of qinggong…! “Who are you?”

“I am known as Wen Kexing,” Kexing said as he looked Zishu over appreciatively. Shameless. “May I know the name of this languid and lonely beauty?”

“I’ve told you, I don’t work here.” On hindsight, maybe drinking in the private park of an expensive brothel had been a bad idea.

“And I’ve said that it’s obvious to me that you don’t. A pity, though. Things would have been much simpler if you did. Never mind all the money in my purse—I’ll sell myself if I had to, to buy just one night with you.”

Zishu stared at Kexing in astonishment. What was wrong with this young man? Were all the courtesans in the Imperial City booked out for the night or something? Zishu had seen many beautiful people in his work as Tian Chuang, often employing a number of them as informants. Not only did Zishu know he couldn’t compare to the least of them, but he’d also never had another man flirt with him so shamelessly.

“Are you trying to annoy me?” Zishu asked. He wasn’t in the mood for a fight. If anything, he might accidentally break his pot of wine.

“Not at all,” Kexing said, hiding his mouth, though his eyes strayed yet again down Zishu’s long legs. “To tell the truth, I’m here to meet a friend of mine, but how can a common flower compare to the light of the moon?”

Zishu sniffed, raising the wine to his mouth. “If your friend is a Crimson Peony, don’t they charge by the hour, even if you’re late? You would’ve had to book them months in advance for a night on this day. Still wasting your time talking nonsense—if you have so much money to burn, how about swallowing it until you choke on it?”

“I can think of something else that I’d rather swallow and choke on,” Kexing said, his eyes flicking down below Zishu’s waist.

Zishu coughed as some of the wine went the wrong way, wiping his mouth. He glared at Kexing. One of the first rules of Tian Chuang was never to allow business to cross with anything personal—Tian Chuang resources were only to be used in the name of the Crown Prince, with no exceptions. For Zishu, this meant never getting into fights unless it was part of a given task—or if he was sparring with Wu Xi for practice. While Zishu could think offhand of eight ways to murder Kexing right now and hide his body without getting caught, it’d be breaking his own rules. Pity.

Gritting his teeth, Zishu resolved to ignore the annoying man beside him. If Kexing got bored and went away, all well and good. If he continued being irritating—then perhaps it wouldn’t so much be murder as self-defence. At least, that was what Zishu would say should anyone manage to find Kexing’s body.

“I appear to have upset the beauty. Perhaps I could make up for it?” Kexing sat beside Zishu, drawing a small pot of wine from within his sleeves. Zishu stared, avarice briefly overcoming his disdain. Lao Gan Zha? Of the Qilin Jimo vintage as well, judging from the scales etched over the pot.

“You have good taste in wine,” Zishu conceded. For a free pot of Lao Gan Zha, Zishu was willing to swallow a certain degree of personal insult.

“I have fine tastes in many things,” Kexing said, smiling invitingly. As Zishu rolled his eyes and reached for the pot, Kexing held it out of reach. Zishu struck, hand sweeping against Kexing’s sleeve, aiming to steal the pot out of Kexing’s grasp, only for Kexing to block with the side of his arm and catch Zishu’s wrist as Zishu tried a counterattack. Still smiling, Kexing unsealed the pot and brought it closer to Zishu’s mouth. “A drink?”

Zishu jerked back and onto his feet, tense. “Wen-gongzi. I’m not looking for a fight, so. Please, leave me alone.”

“Were we going to fight? I thought we were just going to have a drink,” Kexing said, dangling the pot before him. “I hate getting into fights with beauties. When I win, they’re inevitably angry and tend to spite me by refusing to pay me any further attention.”

Zishu huffed, briefly closing his eyes. Maybe if he didn’t kill Kexing but only broke half the bones in his body—or even a quarter of them—that wouldn’t count against Zishu’s rules. Besides, if he didn’t recognise Kexing on sight, the man was likely no one of particular note. Also, people from the jianghu got into fights all the time over minor issues—it was practically customary. So decided, Zishu deliberately re-sealed the wine pot in his hand and balanced it on the roof.

Straightening up, Zishu lunged at Kexing, sweeping behind him at the last moment, aiming a palm strike at his ribs. Kexing twisted around, blocking with the spine of his fan, then stepping back to avoid a punch. He laughed, sweeping back down to the bridge, tossing the wine pot to his free hand as Zishu plunged after him, meeting Zishu’s palm strike in mid-air with his own. Two violent surges of qi slammed together, blasting back the branches of the flowering willow behind the bridge, sending a swarm of pink petals dancing up around them in a dragon’s tail, sweeping past fleeing koi.

Zishu darted back, blinking in surprise. Kexing unsealed the wine pot in hand as though he hadn’t just taken one of Zishu’s full-powered strikes without flinching. He toasted Zishu playfully, lifting the pot to his lips. As Zishu closed the distance between them with Divine Strides, Kexing parried each strike without spilling a drop, his movements just as brutal, just as economical. He smiled as Zishu leapt back, still so very amused even though it had to be clear that Zishu had been genuinely trying to hurt him.

“Who are you?” Zishu asked again, gruffly.

“Shouldn’t I be asking you that? Divine Strides… I did hear that Siji Pavilion had moved into the Imperial City for unknown reasons, but I didn’t think the rest of its techniques were this efficient. Effortless as the spring breeze as it sweeps the lake, yet as precise and as lovely as the red hawk diving for its prey. How beautiful.”

“I am a disciple of Siji Pavilion, known as Zhou Xu,” Zishu said, clasping his hands in a mockery of the jianghu’s usual pleasantries. “May I ask what sect Wen-gongzi might hail from?”

“None at all. I know but a few tricks, taught to me by people of no particular note.”

“You do switch from one style to another, as though you’ve had many shifus.” Some people in the jianghu were like that—wandering martial arts practitioners interested only in learning as much as possible, never heeding one sect or another. It’d explain why Wen Kexing had goaded Zishu into a fight—people like that loved sparring with anyone they thought might be interesting.

“I call no one shifu, no one master,” Kexing said, flicking his fan open. “I go where I like, do what I like. What else would be the point of having any sort of power?” He smiled, something unreadable in the hard curl to his mouth.

“Some would say that the point of power would be to use it to benefit the world at large,” Zishu said. So Qin Huaizhang had taught him—so Zishu had agreed when he decided to work with the Prince of Nan’ning and the others to get the Crown Prince to the throne.

“Tch. The world at large? Whose world? A world that crowns one dragon from a watered-down lineage, then shuts it away in a nest, never to see the light again? Where a word in the right ear at the right place could put entire families to the sword? Where it’s normal to fight over petty items like books and precious weapons?” Kexing laughed, fanning himself. “I reject such a world and want no part of it.”

Saying such dangerous things in the heart of the Imperial City—Kexing was either mad, a fool, or both. “Yet a wanderer with no interest in the world has come to the Imperial City, no doubt the heart of all that he despises.”

“Not all of it,” Kexing said, grinning mischievously and again looking Zishu over.

Zishu let out a snort. “Hand over the wine you’ve promised and go play with your pretty friend.”

“Pretty as they are, sadly none of the friends I know can compare to you. You’ve torn the veil from my eyes, shown them to be mere reflections of the moon in a murky pool.”

“Does this normally work on people you aren’t paying to amuse you?” Zishu asked.

“You amuse me even though I haven’t paid you—I feel like I owe you.”

“Consider your debt to me paid if you get out of my sight.”

“So cruel,” Kexing said, tutting. “Such must be the fate for anyone who falls for a peerless beauty as yourself: to suffer one cruelty gladly after another.”

“Nonsense,” Zishu muttered. He darted up to the pavilion roof to retrieve his wine, only for Kexing to follow closely behind. With a cheeky grin, Kexing sat down, tipping his pot in Zishu’s direction.

Stifling his first impulse to stamp on Kexing’s crotch, Zishu grudgingly sat on the tiles. He reached for Kexing’s pot, frowning as Kexing again held it out of reach. “Can I call you A-Xu?” Kexing asked with another flirtatious glance.

“Wen-gongzi.” Zishu leaned in, his mouth nearly brushing Kexing’s ear. “Today is Yuanxiao Festival. Should you be acting like such a tease? If you waste this much time denying me the drink you promised, doesn’t that leave less time for us to prepare for anything else?”

As Kexing went still, wide-eyed, Zishu snatched the pot of Lao Gan Zha from him. Unsealing it, he leant back and poured a generous portion into his mouth.

“A-Xu,” Kexing said, starting to laugh. “I must be dreaming. Only in a dream could I so randomly meet someone who is just as deadly as he is beautiful, one who is an expert in some of the most elegant martial techniques I’ve ever seen, and yet is also a practitioner of such underhanded tricks. Fascinating.”

“Wen-gongzi, I think I’m the one who’s dreaming,” Zishu said, glancing up at Kexing. Good wine always had a mellowing effect on his mood, and the wine he had in his grasp was excellent. “I came to one of the few places in the Imperial City that I knew to be quiet on this annoying day, only to run into a monster from no sect of note, no name of note, a shameless bastard whose only saving grace is that he shares my taste in wine.”

“Doesn’t it take a monster to appreciate another monster?” Kexing asked, still smiling.

Zishu tilted his head. “Hm? Make up your mind. Am I a beauty or a monster?”

“Can’t you be both, and all the better for it? Your attacks waste no sentiment—they’re purely lethal. They tell me that death, to you, is a familiar friend.”

“I could say the same about you.” Zishu poured more wine into his mouth, then reluctantly offered the pot back to Kexing. Kexing smiled, shaking his head and taking a black lacquer container from his sleeve. As he uncapped it, Zishu could smell the faint scent of Nu Er Hong. “How much more good wine do you have?” Zishu asked, curious. He had a decent hoard of his own, but it wasn’t sizeable enough to be drunk in such cavalier quantities.

“Enough for me to drink you under a table,” Kexing said, tipping the container against his mouth. He paused as Zishu gave him a long, considering stare. “Interested?”

“If you challenge me to such a thing, be prepared to lose,” Zishu said, smirking. Even as all his instincts warned him against this, he got to his feet, following Kexing as Kexing laughed and leapt down to the garden.

As he chased Kexing out of the park and into the Imperial City, Zishu found his reserve ebbing further. He felt like he was stepping sideways into a life that he might have had, had he never become Sect Leader of Siji Pavilion. Never chosen to come to the Imperial City to involve himself in politics. As a wanderer of the jianghu, Zishu could have immersed himself in a life like this, fiercely free. Fighting whenever he wanted, drinking with whoever he wanted. Never caring whether there could be implications that would affect the greater work he was involved in. A life where Zishu could be free of everything—well. That was nowhere in sight for him as he was now, and tomorrow, when he no longer had time for dangerous illusions, he wouldn’t regret it.

#

Zishu woke when sunlight cut across his face, aching all over. His head throbbed, his mouth felt as though something had crawled up his throat and died, and everything from below his waist felt sore. He was also sweating into sheets he didn’t recognise, curled naked on an unfamiliar bed. With a sense of dawning horror, Zishu looked down even as the body pressed behind him grumbled and nuzzled his throat, the arm slung over Zishu’s waist shifting up a fraction. Zishu glanced over his shoulder as horror turned into resignation.

Kexing looked asleep still, breathing slowly, his long hair in as much of a disarray over the pillows and bed as Zishu’s. Past his shoulder, empty wine pots lay scattered over the table and the floor, even dotting the messy line of clothes that led to the bed.

What.

Zishu tried to squirm free and bit out a low gasp, his still sleep-addled brain finally noticing the stickiness against his belly, thighs, and ass. Worse—Zishu’s cheeks reddened—Kexing was… was still inside him? His cock was half-hard, pressed intimately against Zishu’s sore inner walls. As Kexing mumbled again and shifted in his sleep, there was a wet squelch between their bodies. Obscene. Too obscene. Shocked to the point of feeling lightheaded, Zishu swallowed a brittle, disbelieving laugh. He’d never considered a male lover before, let alone…! It was pretty women who Zishu liked looking at and talking to. Yet it was apparent from the mess that Zishu had likely finished over himself at least once.

Deciding not to think about it for now and resolving to erase this all as a terrible, wine-driven mishap, Zishu tried shoving Kexing’s arm off his waist. He hissed as Kexing grumbled and embraced him more tightly instead, then yelped as Kexing pressed deeper inside Zishu as he shifted to get comfortable. “A-Xu, it’s too early,” Kexing mumbled. “Go back to sleep.”

“How am I supposed to… let go!” Zishu started to pry Kexing’s arm free, only to let out an undignified squeak as Kexing yawned and rolled them both over, pressing Zishu between himself and the bed with another wet, sticky sound.

“I’m warning you,” Kexing said, though he sounded amused now. “Are you going to go back to sleep obediently, or do I have to exhaust you some more?”

“Get out of me… you. You’re getting hard? Wen Kexing…! Don’t,” Zishu gasped as his body squeezed down instinctively over the thickening intrusion, the ache worsening. “It already hurts… aah…!” He jerked as Kexing rolled his hips, the thick head of his buried cock pressing against something inside Zishu that shook a bolt of pleasure through him, tangling away the pain.

“Still so sensitive,” Kexing said, kissing Zishu’s shoulders as he chuckled. “You finished so many times last night while crying so prettily… can you blame me for bullying you until I fell asleep still inside you? Even now, you’re grasping me so urgently. Have you truly never had a man before?”

“I’m going to kill you after this… aa! Ahh, no, gentler…” Zishu panted as Kexing began rocking inside him, hitting the perfect spot with each thrust. “Kexing, it hurts…”

“You can take it,” Kexing said, nipping at Zishu’s ear, “but I think I prefer my A-Xu to be crying in pleasure than pain.” He drew out with a wet, slick sound, leaning over the bed to rummage through his clothes. Zishu tried to get up, but a palm pinned his waist to the bed. As he twisted, focusing his qi into his palm for a strike, Zishu stiffened as Kexing kissed him, lopsided and sloppy. He bit down hard, but Kexing laughed even as he jerked back, sucking on his bloodied lip. Cool fingers wet with an ointment Zishu didn’t recognise slipped inside Zishu before he could snarl. He flinched at first, then blinked as the soreness began to subside. Relieved, Zishu’s body shifted against Kexing’s fingers, trying to get them deeper.

“Eager,” Kexing said, squeezing Zishu’s rump.

“Who’s eager?” Remembering himself, Zishu tried to shift free, only for Kexing to bracket him down with his weight, shoving his long fingers in to the knuckle and crooking them. As he pressed accurately yet again against the right spot, Zishu let out a startled moan.

“You sing as sweetly as you fight,” Kexing said, his thumb rubbing a slow circle around Zishu’s opening.

“What nonsense,” Zishu hissed. As the ache faded and Kexing’s hand withdrew, Zishu felt oddly hollowed out. Empty. He scarcely had time to think it through before Kexing was pressing inside him again with something thicker, again stretching him full. Zishu bit down on the pillow to stifle a cry, only for Kexing to tug him back and toss the pillow across the room. Smirking at the angry stare Zishu shot over his shoulder, Kexing kissed Zishu’s shoulder with mock tenderness, then roughly drove in to the hilt. Zishu yowled, arching against Kexing.

“So beautiful,” Kexing said, curling the fingers of one hand over Zishu’s hip and the rest around his throat, holding him gently but firmly up, tilting his body into a graceful bow. Forcing Zishu to brace himself against the bed and the wall as Kexing thrust against him, the wet slaps of their bodies nearly as loud as their groans in the room. “A-Xu,” Kexing gasped between his gasps and moans. “does it feel good?” He repeated himself, sometimes with laughter in his voice, sometimes with a feral hunger that made Zishu bite down on his lip and shiver.

“Enough, aah, enough,” Zishu groaned as he grew ever dizzier, drowning in Kexing’s unrestrained lust.

“What is my name? Call my name,” Kexing said, nipping Zishu hard on his throat.

“Kexing,” Zishu gasped. The name tumbled from his mouth between strangled cries of ecstasy as Kexing grasped Zishu’s thickened cock, stroking it until it spat a pulse of fluid against the bed. Kexing let Zishu slump down into the soiled sheets, shoulders shaking as he fought to control his shallow breathing. Staying braced over Zishu, nuzzling the sweat-sheened curve to his back.

“You. You haven’t…” Zishu rasped belatedly.

“What’s the rush? A-Xu, play with me for a little while more,” Kexing said, baring his teeth as he smiled.

#

“Master, there you are,” Gu Xiang said as she caught up with Wen Kexing on the street as he was browsing a stall of fans. “Lao Meng sent a message. He said there’s been a—”

“How many agents do we have in the Imperial City?” Kexing asked, moving on from the stall, folding his arms behind his back. He was in a good mood, despite his new source of entertainment in the Imperial City having disappeared into thin air after Kexing had last fallen asleep. That had been careless of Kexing.

“Uhm.” Gu Xiang counted on her fingers. “Mostly just courtesans and musicians in tea houses, I’d say. Not that many? Maybe fifteen? You’ve never been that interested in the Imperial City. They’re all friends or relatives of people in the Valley.”

“Put the word out. I want someone found. His name is Zhou Xu. He’s about this tall, a martial arts practitioner, very handsome. Likely someone from a wealthy or noble background, part of Siji Pavilion.”

Gu Xiang nodded, memorising the information. “I’ll put out the sign. What did this Zhou Xu do?”

Kexing glanced at Gu Xiang. “Do you need to ask so many questions?”

“No… just. You want to fight a sect?” Gu Xiang lowered her voice. “Should I get the Ten Devils to make preparations?”

“I’m not looking for a fight.”

“Then?” Gu Xiang paused, thinking the words over. She gasped, pointing a finger at Kexing. “Master. You… you. Don’t tell me. Are you stalking some innocent person again? The last time this happened, the person ran away to another city. You nearly scared them to death!”

“That was hardly stalking,” Kexing scoffed, shooting Gu Xiang a warning stare.

“All right, all right. It wasn’t stalking. It was appreciation. So much appreciation that the person couldn’t handle it.”

“This one can handle it,” Kexing said, smirking to himself. The unrepentant king of stalkers fanned himself as they walked, his gaze flicking across the street, ever aware of everyone’s proximity. Usually, he’d often also take the time to admire any beauty who passed, of which there were many in a city this large. Today, however, no one seemed remotely interesting. Nothing like the man who had last been in Kexing’s bed. “Truly reflections on the lake are but imperfect illusions,” Kexing murmured.

“Master?”

“Nothing. We can’t stay long in the Imperial City, but have our agents keep searching for Zhou Xu. Don’t startle him once he’s found—have them send word to me immediately.”

“So you can rush back to the Imperial City and appreciate him some more?” Gu Xiang asked.

“You little brat,” Kexing said, though he chuckled. “Watch your tongue.”

#

“Ah,” Han Ying said as Zishu thrust the written description in his direction. “Leader, what is this?” He took the sheaf of paper and scanned it through.

“Have our agents put out the word. Find out who this person is.”

“Wen Kexing? Never heard of the name,” Han Ying said. He read through the paper one last time and rolled it up. “A powerful practitioner with no sect? Sounds dangerous.”

“He is dangerous. Don’t engage him if you find him—send word to me.”

“Leader Zhou wishes to attend to this personally? Surely that isn’t necessary,” Han Ying said, surprised. “This subordinate would be happy to do what needs to be done on your behalf.”

“You can’t beat him,” Zishu said. It’d been days since, and sitting down at his desk in Tian Chuang’s headquarters remained uncomfortable despite the number of cushions he’d piled against the chair. Curse that Wen Kexing. If Zishu found him again, he was going to wring his neck. “Besides, I’m mainly interested in finding out who he is. He may have acquaintances in the Crimson Peony. Get our agent in there to figure it out.”

“If he’s still in the Imperial City, we’ll find him,” Han Ying said. He clasped his hands and left as Zishu waved him away.

Alone, Zishu stopped sitting upright, wincing as he rubbed his back and leant against the chair, biting out a curse. Did Kexing have to be so rough? Especially since he knew Zishu had never… with a man… Ears reddening, Zishu rubbed his back again and turned to his correspondence, trying to concentrate. Even though he knew it was going to be an uphill battle. The constant ache only reminded Zishu of everything they had done—memories of the wine-soaked night before had come back in flashes, each more embarrassing than the last.

As Zishu stared blankly at the report on the table, there was a respectful knock on the door. “Yes?”

“Lord Zhou, a message from the Prince of Nan’ning.”

Back to work. “Send it through.”

#

This year’s Yuanxiao Festival had outdone itself—a massive ‘dragon’ made of a string of gigantic floating lanterns hovered over the city, its head pointed toward the Palace. The street that had thought of (and sponsored) such a thing had won easily and was celebrating its victory noisily enough that Zishu could hear it even from the next district. He didn’t begrudge them the celebration. Now that the city had survived a desperate siege, even rebuilding to the point where the scars were near-unrecognisable, the public deserved to enjoy themselves and forget. A luxury that Zishu couldn’t afford.

Some time ago, Zishu had shuddered when Han Ying had presented him with a pot of Lao Gan Zha for his birthday. He’d forced a smile, thanked his subordinate, and hidden the pot in the darkest corner of his room that he could find. Months later, it was now up his sleeve as he crossed the city, again looking for a quiet rooftop. One that was nowhere near any of the courtesan houses.

He found a likely spot on the outskirts of the city: an old temple that was falling into disrepair away from the main thoroughfares. Its attendants had long gone to bed and weren’t martially trained. Zishu settled carefully on the part of the roof with a decent view of the floating dragon and took the bottle of wine from his sleeve.

As he unsealed the pot and started to raise it to his mouth, there was a familiar, playful laugh behind him. “A-Xu.”

Zishu coughed and sat up with a start, even as Kexing swept into view, light-footed as ever. No. He was even better than before—he made no noise even as he stepped on a cracked tile. It’d only been a year. Where could Kexing’s skills have grown ever more monstrous but in a single place? The man had vanished last year, but Tian Chuang was everywhere. To trace someone with fundamental conjectures was not a difficult thing.

“Ghost Valley’s Valley Master,” Zishu said, tilting up his pot in a mocking toast.

Kexing’s fan faltered, then he chuckled again and sat beside Zishu, stretching out his legs. He drew a pot of Nu Er Hong from his sleeve with a salacious smile, setting it between them. “Tian Chuang’s Zhou Zishu.”

Zishu sniffed. He drank from his pot, ignoring Kexing’s offering. “Leave the Imperial City. I’ll give you a day’s head start.”

“How generous of Leader Zhou,” Kexing said, taking another identical pot from his sleeve and setting it down beside the first. “We should even the odds, or you’d be looking down on someone like myself. I have a few more of these in my room—come and spend the rest of the night with me.”

“That was a once-off,” Zishu said with a cough.

“For sure—that must be why Leader Zhou hasn’t attacked me on sight, despite knowing full well who I am. Pity. Nu Er Hong and Lao Gan Zha aren’t the only wines I’ve found this year. I may also have acquired a few pots of Lay Mou and Handi Moutai.”

“You think you can tempt me with wine?”

“Hasn’t it worked before? If not wine, then a fight? If neither of those—then what else would you like? Secrets or blood or treasures, the moon or the stars—I’ll trade you any or all of those for your pleasure.”

“Silver-tongued bastard,” Zishu said. He should draw the Baiyi sword from his waist. Attack Kexing seriously—try to kill him either in a fair fight or with any of the secret weapons Zishu wore on his person. Zishu wasn’t sure why he hesitated, and didn’t want to think about it too deeply. As the dragon spun in the wind, its eyes fixed on the horizon, Zishu shook his head slowly. Besides, why not? Soon, for Zishu, all this would belong to another life. Jiu Xiao’s death had been but the last straw.

“Fine,” Zishu said, re-sealing the pot he held. “Lead the way, but if you’re not gone by the morning, I’ll have your head.”

“As cruel as ever,” Kexing said, his mouth drawn into a wide smile—from one monster to the next, each of them far too comfortable in their skins.