“Are you listening?” says Jin Wang.
Zhou Zishu blinks. Jin Wang regards him from where he sits behind his table, hand curled loosely around a freshly opened jug of wine. A thin stream of smoke spirals lazily from the incense burner next to him. Zhou Zishu is standing at the foot of the dais stairs, chin tilted up just enough for him to see Jin Wang, to participate in the conversation. The edges of his stiff collar brush against the side of his jaw, and he catches sight of his shadow on the red carpet of the throne hall: the dark spill of his cape, the outline of his topknot. It’s a scene so familiar he sometimes sees it on the back of his eyelids when he blinks.
He does not remember what Jin Wang said before this. It seems inconceivable that he would not have been listening, but he has been off since Jiuxiao died. Perhaps it’s worse than he thought.
“Zishu,” Jin Wang prods. “Are you with me?”
“Yes,” Zhou Zishu says. He knows it is the right answer. “Yes. Apologies, Wangye.”
Jin Wang gives him a knowing, indulgent look and picks up the wine jug. He blows dust from the mouthpiece, candlelight winking off the heavy rings on his fingers. “We are celebrating,” he says, clearly repeating himself. “Another successful day bringing one more ray of sunshine into this dark world.”
Zhou Zishu blinks again. He becomes aware that his ears are ringing, an echoing, metallic clang like he’s just clashed swords with someone, but the room around them is still save for Jin Wang pouring the jug of wine. He fills two cups, but does not offer one to Zhou Zishu yet.
“There are traitors among us, still,” Jin Wang says, setting the jug down. “I will send you to eliminate them soon enough. Today, there is just one more thing we need to do.”
There’s movement at the far end of the hall, a flurry of footsteps spilling inside. Jin Wang raises a cup in the direction of the door, clearly expecting this, which is the only reason Zhou Zishu doesn’t immediately reach for his sword. “Ah, here we are.”
Zhou Zishu turns. On the floor, being forced to his knees between eight Tianchuang swordsmen, is a man Zhou Zishu doesn’t recognize. Rich green robes. Bright eyes. Crooked hairpin. Blooming bruise at the corner of his snarling mouth. One of the swordsmen taps a dirtied white fan against his palm as the green-robed man twists against the rope binding his hands. It’s no use, Zhou Zishu knows. He picked out the braided rope they use to secure prisoners himself. It takes no less than the sharpest blade to break, and all this man has is his fury.
“Do you know him?” Jin Wang asks.
The ringing in Zhou Zishu's ears gets louder. “No, Wangye,” he says.
At Zhou Zishu’s voice, the prisoner freezes. His head snaps up, wide eyes finding Zhou Zishu’s immediately.
“You wouldn’t,” Jin Wang says off to the side, almost dismissively. “This is the Ghost Valley Master. Take care of him for me, Zishu.”
Zhou Zishu unsheathes his sword as he crosses the carpet. The man’s mouth opens, blood-smeared, drawing a last breath.
“A-Xu,” the man says, and then nothing else as Zhou Zishu draws Baiyi across his throat in a neat, efficient line.
The man chokes. The swordsmen drop the body and the dead man pitches forward onto the ground, two paces from Zhou Zishu’s feet. A pool of blood starts to spread under the splay of dark hair.
Zhou Zishu lets his sword arm fall, graceless. The tip scrapes along the carpet, leaving a thin, dark line. Something cold unfurls in his stomach.
There’s a sudden warmth at his back, at odds with the chill spreading through his veins. Jin Wang curls a hand around Zhou Zishu’s shoulder, fingertips biting deep. “Good,” Jin Wang says. “You always do such good work for me, Zishu. Now, are you ready to come back?”
The ringing grows impossibly louder, eclipsing Zhou Zishu’s thundering heartbeat. He hasn’t heard anything so clearly in months, not since—
The pool of blood reaches the toes of Zhou Zishu’s boots.
“Shidi,” Zhou Zishu whispers, before the room collapses into darkness.
“Are you listening?” says Jin Wang.
Zhou Zishu blinks. Jin Wang regards him from where he sits behind his table, hand curled loosely around a freshly opened jug of wine. A thin stream of smoke spirals lazily from the incense burner next to him. They’re in the throne hall; Zhou Zishu is at his place at the bottom of the stairs, awaiting direction. His stiff collar brushes against his jaw when he inhales.
He does not remember what Jin Wang said before this. He does not—he blinks again, hard. He has been off since Jiuxiao’s death, but he should not be—
“Zishu,” Jin Wang prods. “Are you with me?”
“I—” Zhou Zishu says. “Yes. Apologies, Wangye.”
Jin Wang gives him an indulgent look before blowing dust from the wine jug. Candlelight winks off the heavy rings on his fingers. “We are celebrating,” he says. “Another successful day bringing one more ray of sunshine into this dark world.”
The words rattle around Zhou Zishu’s head. He’s heard them before—of course, they were his own words once. But it feels like he has only just heard them, a perfect repetition.
Jin Wang doesn’t seem to expect an answer, moving on to pour one cup, another. “There are traitors among us, still,” he says, setting the jug down. “I will send you to eliminate them soon enough. Today, there is just one more thing we need to do.”
There’s movement at the far end of the hall. Zhou Zishu is slow to turn, the commotion warring with the strange ringing in his ears, but Jin Wang merely raises a cup in the direction of the door. “Ah, here we are.”
On the floor, being shoved to his knees between eight Tianchuang swordsmen, is a man Zhou Zishu doesn’t recognize. Rich green robes. Bright eyes. Crooked hairpin. Blooming bruise at the corner of his mouth. One of the swordsmen taps a dirtied white fan against his palm as the green-robed man twists against the rope binding his hands. It’s no use, Zhou Zishu knows. This rope takes no less than the sharpest blade to break, and all this man has is his—
Zhou Zishu’s shoulders go rigid. The prisoner’s eyes are locked on him, his chest heaving. There’s no fear in his expression—just confusion, and indignation.
“A-Xu,” the prisoner says again, a whip crack in the now-hushed hall. He jerks his arm, knocking away someone’s hand, but doesn’t try to stand. “What is this? Why are we here again?” His gaze dips for a moment, to Zhou Zishu’s boots and back up. “Did you go to a tailor without me, or have you had this outfit tucked away all this time?”
Zhou Zishu glances back at Jin Wang, who sips from his cup and asks, “Zishu, do you know this man?”
No, Zhou Zishu should say. He keeps a careful catalogue of everyone who knows him, knows of him, knows his false names, does not know him but is known by him. There is no one who knows him as A-Xu.
“You wouldn’t,” Jin Wang continues, unperturbed by his lack of response. “He’s hardly even a man, besides. Before us is the Ghost Valley Master. Take care of him for me, and then we can finish this wine.”
Zhou Zishu draws his sword and steps forward.
On the floor, the Ghost Valley Master laughs. It is not a nice laugh. “Zhou Zishu, if you cut my throat again, you will have to explain to your little disciple where his shishu went. Think of the tears. A full day of them, at least.”
Disciple. Shishu. “Again,” Zhou Zishu repeats. It echoes strangely through the hall.
“Yes, again. Do you not remember? Surely there was a lot of blood.” The Ghost Valley Master glances down, and seems to pause at the unstained stretch of carpet. An odd expression crosses his face, the confusion falling away and leaving a careful blankness in its wake. “Ah,” he says, and briefly closes his eyes, letting out a sharp breath through his teeth. “Is this it, then? I’ve died from qi deviation, of all things, and I’ve arrived in the first level of hell? If this is one of my punishments, to have my throat slit by A-Xu’s likeness over and over, it’s at least more creative than I imagined. But”—and here the Ghost Valley Master smiles, showing the blood on his teeth—“whoever designed this, they miscalculated. It is never a punishment to see A-Xu.”
Zhou Zishu stops. “Wangye,” he says.
Jin Wang is behind him now, where a moment ago there was only empty air. A strong hand curls around Zhou Zishu’s shoulder. “Ignore him, Zishu. Listen to me. Only me.”
Before them the Ghost Valley Master is still talking, head tipped back as if he’s already baring his throat. “What’s next, I wonder? Chengling frying me in a pot of oil? The little idiot can’t even behead a chicken, you might want to rethink that plan. A-Xiang, perhaps. I could believe that.”
“Kill him,” Jin Wang says.
Zhou Zishu swings Baiyi in a clean arc. It will be a merciful death. As merciful as a slit throat can be. Jin Wang doesn’t want this to be a spectacle, and Zhou Zishu is secretly grateful for it. He doesn’t want to hurt the Ghost Valley Master. He doesn’t want to hurt his—
He stops. His blade quivers a hairsbreadth from the Ghost Valley Master’s neck, close enough that the wisps of hair falling beside his cheek shudder in the displaced air.
This isn’t how Zhou Zishu operates. He doesn’t make a show of things. He doesn’t hesitate.
The Ghost Valley Master tilts his head, throat brushing the sharp edge of the blade right where his pulse jumps under his skin. His eyes gleam, still locked on Zhou Zishu, as if to say, Well?
Zhou Zishu’s sword falters. Pulls back. “Shidi?” he says, the word wrenched from his throat.
The Ghost Valley Master’s eyes widen. “…A-Xu?”
The ringing gets louder, almost dizzying. Zhou Zishu drops Baiyi and steps back.
“Zishu,” Jin Wang says, right there at his ear. Fingers bite deep into Zhou Zishu’s shoulder. “That was an order.”
“I can’t,” Zhou Zishu says. He can hardly hear himself. “Wangye. That’s my—”
“Are you listening?” says Jin Wang.
Zhou Zishu blinks. Jin Wang regards him from the dais, hand curled loosely around a freshly opened jug of wine. A thin stream of smoke spirals lazily from the incense burner next to him. Zhou Zishu stands at the bottom of the dais stairs, the throne hall stretched out behind him. For a moment it feels as if he has only just stepped foot inside—though that’s impossible, considering he is already at the far end of the hall, his cloak heavy around his shoulders, ready for whatever orders await him.
Jin Wang had been speaking. Zhou Zishu tries to remember what he was saying, but everything before now is an empty stretch in his mind. Something inside him has felt yawning and empty since Jiuxiao’s death, but not—like this.
Something isn’t right. The thought swirls out of his mind, flimsy as the smoke from the incense burner. Something—
“Zishu,” Jin Wang prods. “Are you with me?”
“I—” Zhou Zishu says. Whatever he was thinking fades before he can catch it. He nods, tight. “Sorry, Wangye.”
Jin Wang gives him an indulgent look. Candlelight winks off the heavy rings on his fingers as he blows dust from the wine jug. “We are celebrating,” Jin Wang says. “Another successful day bringing one more ray of sunshine into this dark world.”
Zhou Zishu’s ears ring. That was— Hadn’t Jin Wang just—
Jin Wang keeps pouring, filling two cups. “There are traitors among us, still,” he says, not waiting for a response. “I will send you to eliminate them soon enough. Today, there is just one more thing we need to do.”
A movement, footsteps at the entrance to the hall. Zhou Zishu turns, mind dragging a moment behind his body. His ears ring and ring.
Jin Wang raises a cup in the direction of the door. “Ah, here we are.”
On the floor, kneeling between eight Tianchuang swordsmen, is a man Zhou Zishu doesn’t recognize. Rich green robes. Bright eyes. Jade hairpin. One of the swordsmen taps a dirtied white fan against his palm. The green-robed man keeps still, chin raised, bound hands resting against his thighs. His gaze meets Zhou Zishu’s and doesn’t waver. All in all, he’s far calmer this time.
On the dais Jin Wang draws a breath, but the green-robed man speaks first. “A-Xu,” he says, still looking right at Zhou Zishu, “here we are again. I don’t suppose you remember me yet?”
His voice carries, a resounding silence filling the hall in its wake. The swordsmen’s eyes flicker over their masks, glancing between their prisoner and Zhou Zishu. Zhou Zishu, for his part, keeps his face impassive as he looks back.
“Zishu,” Jin Wang says behind him, calm, “do you know this man?”
No, Zhou Zishu should say. Something stirs in the yawning emptiness.
“He does know me,” the green-robed man says, chin still held high, gaze unwavering from Zhou Zishu even as he addresses Jin Wang. “At least, he knows me when he’s awake.”
They have faced down defiant traitors before. Slippery-tongued enemies who lied even with their dying breath. Angry, remorseful, terrified, resigned. This prisoner is none of those things. Zhou Zishu breaks their shared gaze to glance back at Jin Wang. “Wangye. What is he talking about?”
Once again, the prisoner speaks first.
“I’m getting there,” the prisoner says. “Your prince is about to tell you that I’m the Ghost Valley Master. He’ll order you to kill me, and you’ll cut my throat. But first, A-Xu, listen to me. What’s the last thing you remember?”
Standing here in the throne hall. The prisoner, bound and kneeling. Are you listening? Before that—
He keeps his expression smooth, but the prisoner must see something anyway, and pounces. “Nothing. Am I right? You remember nothing before coming here.”
“Don’t bother with this nonsense,” Jin Wang says. “Zishu—”
“It’s the same for me,” the prisoner continues, right over Jin Wang. “Only, I remember being here the last two times, and I’m guessing you don’t. I keep waking up in the hall, already surrounded, and then they drag me in here. Over and over. Before that, all I remember is—” And here he falters. “Han Ying.”
“Han Ying?” Zhou Zishu turns to Jin Wang. “Where is Han Ying?”
Jin Wang waves a hand. “Han Ying is fine.”
“He’s not,” the prisoner says. “A-Xu. You really don’t remember that, either?”
Enough, Zhou Zishu should say, or he should simply strike down the prisoner before he can speak again, but he doesn’t move. Han Ying is— Zhou Zishu should know where Han Ying has been assigned. He should know that without even thinking, but he doesn’t.
Jin Wang stands, descending to the main floor. “Contain him,” he tells the swordsmen.
One of the guards shoves a hand over the prisoner’s mouth, muffling a wordless sound of fury, but the damage is done.
Zhou Zishu drops to his knees in front of Jin Wang, bowing his head. “Zhou Zishu apologizes to Jin Wang. What the prisoner says is true. I don’t remember what happened today before this moment. I cannot exercise good judgment in this matter.”
The prisoner wrenches his head to the side, throwing off the hand. “A-Xu, get up! He’s the one who killed your whole sect, surely you at least remember that!”
Bile rises in Zhou Zishu’s throat, sharp and metallic. Siji Manor sits empty. No, nearly empty. No— He squeezes his eyes shut, opens them again. He hasn’t yet—
“You don’t need to exercise good judgment,” Jin Wang tells him, voice floating down to Zhou Zishu as if from the top of a mountain. “You just need to trust me. Get up, get up.” He cups his hands under Zhou Zishu’s elbows and pulls. Zhou Zishu goes to his feet. “Zishu, you’ve been struggling since we lost Jiuxiao. I understand. We just have these last few things to take care of, and then we can go back to how things were.” His hand rises to brush Zhou Zishu’s cheek. “All you have to do is kill the Ghost Valley Master, and everything will be fine.”
For the first time since being dragged into the hall, the prisoner is not looking at Zhou Zishu. Instead he turns his gaze, newly furious, on Jin Wang. “It’s you, then,” he says. “You’re doing this to him.”
And then he moves, heedless of the blades pointed at him. They tear through his sleeves and skin as he surges to his feet and grabs the nearest sword with his still-bound hands, so quick its owner hardly has time to call out.
The sword drives forward in the prisoner’s grip, a deadly streak of silver. It will find its home in Jin Wang’s chest. Tianchuang swordsmen are already lunging after him, but the prisoner is fast.
Zhou Zishu is faster.
It’s instinct, to turn to the side. Put himself between his prince and the blow. Twenty years of training, of using his body to enact Jin Wang’s will; Zhou Zishu doesn’t even think about it.
The blade bites deep. Right between two ribs. Iron floods his mouth, spills over his lips before his legs even buckle. The hall goes dark around the edges, but he can still see the horror on the prisoner’s face, the way he drops the hilt of the sword like it burns and reaches desperately for Zhou Zishu as he falls.
Then the swordsmen are on him. “No,” the prisoner says, even as he’s dragged back, “no, no, A-Xu—”
Distantly, Zhou Zishu thinks: it hardly even hurts anymore. Why is the Ghost Valley Master so upset? It has been a long time since pain meant anything to him.
Someone touches him where he’s curled on the floor. Cradles his head. “Good work, Zishu,” he hears. “You always do such good work for—”
Zhou Zishu wakes up.
He’s breathing hard, air burning in his lungs. The floor of Jin Wang’s throne hall gives way to a sunlight-dappled ceiling as he blinks, trying to orient himself. He’s sure someone was yelling, someone important—but the thoughts drain away faster than he can recall them, water in a loosely-woven basket. He had been dreaming, he thinks. There are drying tear tracks down the side of his face.
“Ah, ah,” a voice says, and then there’s a cool hand flat against his collarbone, pushing him down when he tries to sit up. A mattress presses into his shoulder blades as the world tilts sickeningly from the movement. Drugged, he thinks. Something already in his blood. It takes a moment for him to realize his limbs are tied, individually, to a bedframe using familiar braided rope. It takes less than that to recognize the hand holding him down.
Jin Wang watches him from beside the bed. Zhou Zishu looks back long enough to assess the situation—Jin Wang is dressed casually, no weapons, just an unfamiliar jug on the small table next to him. They’re alone in Zhou Zishu’s old quarters, which are sparse and unchanged, except for the addition of Zhou Zishu’s blue outer robe draped heavily over the privacy screen. That, and the ropes binding his limbs.
He had expected, when he allowed Duan Pengju to take him from Siji Manor, that he would be incapacitated in some way. If he had his full strength he could shatter the bedframe. If it were anyone but the Crown Prince kneeling next to him, he could frighten them into re-tying the ropes, and slip a limb free in the process. As it is, Zhou Zishu can only lie here, mind hazy and energy sluggish, Jin Wang’s hand a heavy weight on his chest.
Still, something inside him eases. He is here, quite literally back in Jin Wang’s hands, but that means Wen Kexing and Chengling are safe. Duan Pengju burned the manor, but would have no reason to search for the hidden room, to raze through the rubble and track them down, if Zhou Zishu is here and helpless. He holds that knowledge carefully in his mind, forcing himself to bring his breathing back under control.
“There you are, Zishu,” Jin Wang says, so gentle, his expression carefully relaxed. The kind of expression that means he is about to ask a question, and knows exactly what the answer should be. “Are you ready to come home?”
Zhou Zishu turns his face to the ceiling and says nothing.
In his periphery, the careful expression freezes on Jin Wang’s face. “Ah,” he says again, sharp this time, and eases his hand back from Zhou Zishu’s chest. “No matter. Here, Zishu.”
He picks up the jug and slips his other hand under Zhou Zishu’s head. Zhou Zishu jerks away—tries to—and keeps his jaw locked tight as Jin Wang presses the jug to his mouth. Wine spills down his chin, soaking into the collar of his inner robe.
“You’re making a mess,” Jin Wang chides, and sets the jug aside. “You’ve already taken it once, Zishu, really.” He produces a damp cloth and dabs at Zhou Zishu’s face, still cradling his head. Most people, if they knew who Zhou Zishu was, would not let their limbs remain so close to him, the way one wouldn’t pet a dog that was trained to bite. But Jin Wang has never needed to fear Zhou Zishu’s teeth, and he shows it, taking his time as he cleans away the spill.
(Wen Kexing, Zhou Zishu thinks, is also not afraid to touch him. Wen Kexing. Chengling. Their ease with him stems from trust. Jin Wang’s ease stems from ownership.)
“The wine wasn’t my first choice,” Jin Wang says, as if continuing a conversation. “But the incense wouldn’t take, so we had to alter it. Zishu, what have you done to yourself?”
Still, Zhou Zishu says nothing.
“Don’t make me force you.” Jin Wang folds the cloth and lays it on Zhou Zishu’s chest, hand resting on top. Below it the nails throb, only half-dulled by whatever drug runs through his veins. “The end result will be the same. The faster you drink, the faster I can untie you.”
Zhou Zishu’s heart thuds in his ears. He remembers, vaguely, arriving at the palace. A room hazy with smoke. When that didn’t work, he must have been fed the drugged wine. Clearly Jin Wang hasn’t achieved what he wants yet, but Zhou Zishu’s thoughts are slippery enough already to cause a cold prickle of unease. “And then what,” he murmurs, eyes tracking the jug, in case Jin Wang reaches for it again.
Jin Wang’s fingers flex on the cloth. “And then you will come back to me.”
“You don’t need me,” Zhou Zishu says. His voice is even, steady, though he can barely raise his own head. “I was only ever a weapon, and now I am not even that. There is nothing to return.”
Jin Wang’s brow dips, hurt. “You are my zhiji.”
Once, Zhou Zishu would have said nothing. For years Zhou Zishu had been something closer and darker than Jin Wang’s shadow. Had protected him. Had given over his career, his brothers, his sect. Zhou Zishu, the sword. Helian Yi, the hand that wielded him.
And now Siji Manor burns. His career is a cold trail of bodies. His sect is gone.
No, not entirely gone.
(Wen Kexing, presenting him with the restored plum blossom painting. Chengling, up with the sun to practice forms. Zhou Zishu, no longer alone, with the chance to do a small amount of good again before he dies.)
“Zhiji?” Zhou Zishu says hoarsely. “You are not worthy.”
Jin Wang’s hand tightens into a fist. “You—!” he says, half-standing. Then, over his shoulder: “Guard!”
A figure in a Tianchuang cloak and mask rushes inside. Jin Wang grabs the wine jug again as the guard clamps a hand over Zhou Zishu’s nose, cutting off his air. The jug cracks against Zhou Zishu’s teeth when he is forced to gasp for air, his body still fighting to stay alive just one more moment, and the wine tips down his throat. He chokes, trying to turn his head, but Jin Wang has the back of his neck in a punishing grip.
There’s not enough to drown himself in it. So the wine goes down. He can hardly taste it, but it tingles, spreading an almost medicinal numbness that’s different from the usual numbness he feels. The world starts to slip sideways again.
In his swimming vision, Jin Wang sits back, resting the jug on his knee. “We’ll do this as many times as it takes. I’ve been working on this since you left, Zishu—a new version of your zuisheng mengsi. You will see what you love most in the world,” he says, “and then eliminate it forever.”
Zhou Zishu’s ears ring. His eyes fall shut.
“Whatever you were seeking when you left me, Zishu. Whoever keeps you away now. Soon, they will be gone.”
Zhou Zishu opens his eyes.
“Watch out,” someone hisses, and Zhou Zishu steps back just in time to avoid a woman hurrying past him with a perfectly balanced tray of tea. As he moves he realizes he, too, is holding a tray, stacked with two clean cups and a glazed pot, steam curling gently toward the ceiling.
For a moment he stills, back against the wall, throwing out his senses to take stock of his surroundings. A wide room spotted with low tables, walls lined with thick curtains. People in fine fabrics ducking their heads together, a brightly-dressed young man playing pipa in the middle of the floor. Through the thin windows, a strip of night sky.
Clarity and unease rush in, all at once. Clarity, for the fact that he’s in a brothel, and unease, for having momentarily forgotten. He is in a brothel, and he is here to kill the pink-robed man in the corner.
Zhou Zishu detaches himself from the wall and crosses the floor, taking care not to hurry. In his sheer outer robe and unadorned veil he passes for a low-level courtesan, and no one gives him a second glance. He draws near the man in pink, seated on a cushion just outside a drape of red curtains. Apologies, Da ren, Zhou Zishu will say, keeping his eyes low, this humble one noticed you had not been served yet, and—
But the man sees him first. His mouth cracks open, and then he scrambles to his feet, oddly graceless. “A-Xu,” he says. “You’re okay.”
Zhou Zishu doesn’t let himself react, though it feels like everything stutters to a halt. He is supposed to approach his target, get him alone. The knife tucked away in his sleeve is cold against his skin.
But his target—already knows him.
“I’m okay,” he tells the pink-robed man, setting down the tray. He slides in on the cushion, beckoning the man to join him, and begins preparing tea.
(Have they met before? Did Zhou Zishu approach him already, was the tea an order rather than an excuse to make contact? Everything prior to holding the tray feels unnervingly blank.)
The man folds to his knees next to him, eyes wide and searching. “A-Xu—you remember…?”
Zhou Zishu softens his eyes above the veil, just enough to sell it. He nods.
The man makes a small, cut-off noise and reaches out. Zhou Zishu forces himself to stay relaxed and not to do something foolish, like break the man’s wrist as he presses a hand to Zhou Zishu’s stomach, then his ribs. It’s as if the man is checking for something, making sure Zhou Zishu is whole, rather than trying to tease or entice. Maybe that’s part of his game—he acts foolish and fumbling and expects Zhou Zishu to take control. Maybe he’s inexperienced and doesn’t know how to seduce someone, even someone whose time he has the option to buy. Why doesn’t Zhou Zishu remember?
(He has been off since Jiuxiao. He knows that much. He just has to get through this, complete his assignment, and then he can figure out what’s happening and fix it.)
Over the ringing in Zhou Zishu’s ears, his target is saying, “I’m sorry. I’m so sorry, A-Xu.” A-Xu, again. Had Zhou Zishu given him that name? “I thought I—when you weren’t here at first, I thought you might’ve really—”
Zhou Zishu takes a gamble and covers the man’s hand with his own. “I’m here now,” he says, running his thumb over the ridge of the man’s knuckles.
“Right,” the man says, staring at their joined hands, sounding a bit dazed. (Zhou Zishu’s guess shifts firmly to inexperienced.) “Right.” He pauses. His jade hairpin winks in the low light, wisps of hair casting thin shadows over his cheeks. “Where is here?”
While the man is busy staring, Zhou Zishu chances another glance around. A name shakes off dust in the back of his mind. “Red Peony House,” he says slowly, and hopes it passes for playful.
(He killed someone here, once. A poisoned needle pricked through the webbing of a man’s fingers as he slept naked, Zhou Zishu half-clothed next to him. The man had convulsed just twice before his heart stopped, and Zhou Zishu had slipped out through the kitchens.)
“Where is that,” the man says, inexplicably. He lets out a shaky laugh. “A-Xu, don’t tell me you know every brothel by sight alone. You must have been here before, right?”
Maybe Zhou Zishu isn’t the one losing his mind, here. “Of course,” he murmurs. He slides his hand down to circle the man’s wrist, nudging under those wide sleeves. “I find the company here very pleasing.”
The man doesn’t seem to get the hint. “Yes, yes, very funny,” he says, gaze slipping past Zhou Zishu to sweep the floor. Over the music, Zhou Zishu hears the voice of the Madam moving toward them. “I don’t see anyone else, yet,” the man continues, shifting closer. “What should we do now? Do you know?”
Finally. Zhou Zishu restrains the urge to roll his eyes, lowering his lashes instead, and leans in to kiss him.
The man makes a startled noise. His head turns, and Zhou Zishu redirects, instead kissing along his jaw, the tense line of his neck. Zhou Zishu strokes the man’s wrist with his thumb again, soothing, and settles his other hand, very lightly, on the man’s knee. The veil is damp against Zhou Zishu’s lips, and through it he can feel a faint tremor run through the man’s whole body.
“Will you be paying?” the Madam says above them, right on time.
Zhou Zishu pulls back just far enough to say, “He will be,” before picking up the tea tray and rising to his feet in one fluid motion. He moves down the hall, feeling the weight of the man’s eyes on his back.
Third room on the left, his feet tell him. He slides the doors open to see a small chamber, a narrow bed and empty table, incense already burning in the corner. Muffled noises drift through the walls—voices, the odd shuffling. He will have to keep this quiet.
He’s arranging the tray on the table when the doors slide shut behind him. He waits for footsteps to approach but is met only with silence, so he allows himself one tiny sigh behind his veil—this man is really going to make him do all the work, it seems—before he straightens and turns around.
His target stands just inside the doorway, unmoving. “A-Xu,” he says. “What are we doing?”
“Whatever you want, Da ren,” Zhou Zishu says, low, making himself trail his gaze up the man’s robes, the sweep of his skirt, the red belt and fine embroidery at his shoulder. With just a touch of impatience, when the man still doesn’t move: “We can skip tea, if your interests lie elsewhere.”
The man takes a step in and draws to another halt, bringing his closed fan up to rest against his chin. “Whatever I want.” A line between his brow smoothes. “The Red Peony House is so accommodating with its beauties. One finds me sitting all by myself and doesn’t hesitate to touch me sweetly, to get me alone. Receptive, aloof, sweet-mannered, sincere, with soft fine skin and well-balanced bone—what’s not to want?” he muses, then tips his head to the side. He no longer, Zhou Zishu thinks, seems so confused and fumbling. “First, I should ask—I left my horse with one of the attendants out front. Said his name was Cao Weining. He looked a bit empty between the ears, will my horse still be there in the morning?”
The morning, huh. Zhou Zishu supposes that’s a fair assessment, considering how long it’s taking this man to even enter the room. “You have no need to worry, Da ren, Cao Weining is our best attendant,” he says, and is turning back to the table when he sees the way the man’s eyes go sharp.
Ah. That was a test, then.
He doesn’t waste time, shaking the knife from his sleeve and whirling around to strike. The man blocks the blade with his fan—fast enough that Zhou Zishu finds himself, surprisingly, impressed—and Zhou Zishu follows the movement, ducking under the man’s arm and jabbing at his ribs. Again the man dodges, spinning to the side and hooking his foot under Zhou Zishu’s knee in a dirty move. Zhou Zishu responds in kind, yanking the man down on top of him as he falls. They grapple there on the floor, tumbling over one another, the thud of their limbs on the ground only just eclipsing the distant pipa music, the giggles from the next room.
The third time he gets the man under him, Zhou Zishu’s foot connects with a table leg, sending the cups clattering to the floor. His focus slips for just a moment—was it loud enough for anyone to hear, to come interrupt—and the man presses his advantage, yanking Zhou Zishu in by the collar and flipping them over. Spilled tea soaks into Zhou Zishu’s back and the man’s knee digs into his inner thigh, making him hiss. He swings up his hand, driving the knife toward the man’s face, and the man catches it, curling his fist around the blade. For a moment they stay like that, blood starting to drip down onto Zhou Zishu’s stomach.
Zhou Zishu yanks the knife back, and the man is ready, hardly flinching at what must be a deep gash on his palm. He grabs Zhou Zishu’s arm and moves, heaving his weight to the side and flipping Zhou Zishu onto his stomach, knife-arm twisted behind him. The man presses down, forcing Zhou Zishu to drop the knife onto the floor.
“A-Xu,” the man says. Zhou Zishu can feel blood seeping into his sleeve from the man’s torn hand. Bile rises in the back of his throat. “Wait. Listen. This—this isn’t real.”
Of course it’s not real, you fool. I’m trying to kill you, Zhou Zishu doesn’t say. He jerks, and the man presses harder on his arm, but not hard enough to break it.
“What’s the last thing you remember?” the man continues. “Do you remember the throne hall? Do you remember our New Year’s dinner? Do you remember Chengling, or the nails, or the liuli armor? A-Xu.”
The ringing in Zhou Zishu’s ears gets louder. Louder. The words scrape through his mind. He doesn’t—
The man said throne hall, he must know who Zhou Zishu is—
He has to—
The man’s blood has soaked through Zhou Zishu’s sleeve by now. His shoulder aches. The man should break Zhou Zishu’s arm. It would be easy, a single push—by all rights, he should do it. But he doesn’t. His other hand, resting on Zhou Zishu’s shoulder, is almost gentle.
Zhou Zishu goes still.
The man breathes harshly above him for a moment, then moves one hand to send the knife skittering away to the corner of the room. Still, he does not break Zhou Zishu’s arm. Instead he eases the pressure and Zhou Zishu twists, flipping onto his back.
“Who is Chengling?” he rasps, grabbing the man’s wrist.
“He’s your—” the man starts, and then jolts, a small sound of surprise escaping his lips. Zhou Zishu lets go. The poisoned needle tucked between his thumb and forefinger tumbles to the floor, rolling under the table.
The knife was only ever a distraction.
“Ah, A-Xu…,” the man breathes, looking hazily down at his wrist. “That’s good. I’ll have to remember that one.”
He sways. Tips forward. Zhou Zishu scrambles to sit up, catching him in an awful embrace, the man’s clammy forehead pressing against Zhou Zishu’s neck, hairpin brushing the corner of his mouth. Zhou Zishu holds him as he shudders, and a cold, yawning pit opens up in his gut. His hands curl into fists against the man’s back, fingernails biting deep. He blinks against the sting of it and for a moment he sees this same man cradled in his lap, pink robes turned to blue, his own hand lifting to dab blood from his lips. Horror is a tangible thing crawling up Zhou Zishu’s spine, horror he can’t even name. He almost doesn’t hear the door slide open.
“Zishu,” Jin Wang says approvingly. When— how— “Good work, good work.” Echoing footsteps, a shadow falling across Zhou Zishu. “This man. Did you know him?”
Zhou Zishu clenches his fists tighter, pressing the man close against him. He doesn’t, he cannot, but the weight of him feels—
What if Chengling sees you hurt like this?
I’ll tell him you did it.
A word, wrenched from Zhou Zishu’s lungs: “Shidi—”
Zhou Zishu blinks.
The sun is high in the sky, beating down onto his shoulders, the top of his head. He blinks again and sets down his cup—water, though with the jug next to him it looks to all the world as if he is sitting outside the inn drinking wine, idly watching passersby stream through the market street. His robes are plain shades of gray, his topknot is a familiar tug at his scalp, and his sword is tucked easily out of view as he waits. When it matters—and it usually matters—Zhou Zishu is very good at not drawing attention to himself.
Except it seems he is not doing such a good job today.
The back of his neck prickles, like a slow drip of cold water sliding under his collar. Casually, Zhou Zishu takes another sip, letting his gaze slide along the street. He doesn’t see any of the usual signs of danger—no quickly turned heads, no flashes of fabric as someone ducks into an alley, no glints of weapons angled his way. What he sees, across the wide street, is a man standing stone-still, staring right at him.
Zhou Zishu falters for a moment—just a moment, a brief hesitation before he looks away from the staring man. Cloudy blue robes, sleek hair, pristine white fan clutched in one hand. Zhou Zishu catalogues these details, and comes up with neither friend nor foe. No one who should be staring at Zhou Zishu when Zhou Zishu has made himself as uninteresting as possible.
The man starts to cross the street. Zhou Zishu’s hand drifts to Baiyi, the rest of his body staying relaxed, unconcerned. He’s done worse than draw his sword in the middle of a crowded street before and walked away without a single whisper trailing behind him, but he would prefer not to undo the day’s work.
(The day’s work—what has been the day’s work, exactly? He is here to collect a booklet, one that will identify his next target. He knows that with an odd, echoing surety. But he doesn’t remember putting on these gray robes, drawing his hair onto his head this morning. He doesn’t remember this morning. He—)
A shadow falls over him. The blue-robed man, fan now open in front of his chest, peers down at Zhou Zishu. Something passes over his face when Zhou Zishu meets his eyes—the slightest tightening of his mouth—and then he breaks out into a grin.
“Forgive me,” the man says. Up close, Zhou Zishu can see the shimmer of the embroidered bamboo leaves across his shoulder, the carved hairpin at the crown of his head. “I saw such a beauty sitting across the street, and he looked so lonely. I couldn’t help but come over.”
Zhou Zishu scoffs in the back of his throat. Strangely, it comes out almost as a laugh. “I’m not lonely.”
“Ah, but I am,” the man says, fanning himself lightly. The wisps on either side of his face dance in the makeshift breeze. “I was supposed to meet my shixiong, but he has not come to greet me.”
Shixiong lands like a fist to the gut. Zhou Zishu swallows. “Well, your shixiong isn’t here at my table.”
“I suppose not.” The man regards him for another beat. “But that’s fine, I can wait for him. It’s a nice enough day to just sit and enjoy the sunshine, don’t you think?”
“Yes,” Zhou Zishu says pointedly, glancing at where the man’s shadow still drapes over him.
The man’s smile only widens. He pours himself onto the other side of the bench, hardly a chi of empty air between his leg and Zhou Zishu’s knee. For a moment Zhou Zishu imagines sticking his foot out, childishly shoving the man off the bench and claiming all of it for himself. There’s a very small part of him that wants to see what this man’s face would do, if he did that.
He doesn’t. Obviously. He’s here for other reasons, reasons that will very likely end with someone dead by the day’s end. This isn’t an afternoon in town chaperoning one of his shidis.
(His shidis, who are all—)
In front of him, the stranger props his chin on his hand. “So, does this peerless, reticent, sun-drenched beauty have a name?”
Zhou Zishu rolls his eyes, and reaches for a name. He has eight different identities and stories on the tip of his tongue, a rotation he shuffles and discards as needed. But— “Zhou Xu,” he says, surprising himself.
The man grins with one half of his mouth, like something about the name is amusing. But he doesn’t miss a beat before saying, “Ahh, I see it. A righteous and just man, with a body like flying catkins…”
Zhou Zishu pauses with the water cup halfway to his lips. He hadn’t told this stranger that he meant the character for willow catkins. He takes a sip, sets the cup down. “Good guess,” he says evenly.
The man’s eyes gleam. “I’m very lucky, when it counts. Wen Kexing,” he adds. “That’s me.”
He watches Zhou Zishu closely, as if to gauge his reaction. Zhou Zishu raises his eyebrow in acknowledgement and goes back to his water.
Wen Kexing doesn’t leave. He stays at the table, chin in hand, closed fan resting against his thigh, and Zhou Zishu lets him. It can be useful, he decides. As good a cover as any, having someone flashy beside him, to make himself more plain in comparison. Anyone looking for him would be less likely to suspect someone with such an obvious companion.
“Are you hungry?” Wen Kexing says. “We could get something to eat, poke around the stalls while we enjoy this sunshine. I’ll even pay for it.”
“I’m fine,” Zhou Zishu says, despite the momentary urge to say something ridiculous, like yes. Not because he’s hungry, but because the thought of it—wandering through the market, this man flitting around him like a large, colorful bird—feels like a window, a brief glimpse into the kind of person Zhou Zishu hasn’t been in a long time.
“Tch,” Wen Kexing says. “All right. That’s what my shixiong says all the time—well, doesn’t say it so much as acts like he’s fine, even when he’s clearly not. He would tell me if he were hungry, though. Sometimes I think the only reason I exist anymore is to make him food, since he has no inclination to do it himself. Can you believe that? He can take down a horde of men armed with crossbows without a scratch, but won’t boil himself a pot of water. He’s going to pass his uselessness along to his disciple if he keeps it up, and then poor Chengling’s future wife will spend her days grumbling about her fool of a husband who can’t even behead a chicken.”
Zhou Zishu can feel Wen Kexing’s gaze still on him, intent. He keeps his own eyes fixed on the street, tracking people lazily as they pass. If Wen Kexing wants to talk, let him. It can only add to Zhou Zishu’s cover. “Why should he cook if you do it for him every time?” he says. “Try refusing for a day, see how fast he figures it out.”
Wen Kexing laughs again. “I’m going to tell him you said that.” His grin slips away, and he’s back to studying Zhou Zishu. “I need to find a way back to him to do that, though.”
“I thought he was meeting you here.” Zhou Zishu finishes his water, just for something to do. Out of the corner of his eye he sees an inn server hovering by another table.
“Ah, it’s complicated,” Wen Kexing says. “We seem to have gotten tangled up in something…unexpected. Last I remember, he was right there with me, but now I think he may be somewhere far away. Far enough that if he did what I’m starting to suspect he did, I’m going to have very strong words with him when I see him again.” He pauses for a moment. “If our places were switched, I bet he would have already figured out what to do next. It’s unfair, really, making me do all the work once again.”
“That’s a lot of words to say very little,” Zhou Zishu observes.
Wen Kexing holds a hand to his chest, pressing his closed fan along the flat front of his robes. “A-Xu! We’ve only just met, and you’re criticizing my storytelling? We must be very good friends already, in that case.”
How many times can someone roll their eyes in the course of one conversation? Zhou Zishu hadn’t even caved during meetings with Jin Wang’s more ostentatious court members.
Wen Kexing’s expression turns oddly wistful, watching him. When he speaks, though, his voice is level. “You’re right, anyway. I’m not hungry either. Ever since I came to this market….” He lifts his head and uncurls his hand. Thoughtfully, he digs his thumbnail into the meat of his open palm, hard enough to leave a blooming red crescent behind. “I can feel pain, but I haven’t felt hungry once, though I can’t recall when I last ate. You know, A-Xu, I can’t even remember how I got here today. Do you think that’s strange?”
Something about the intent way Wen Kexing looks at him sends a small shiver of unease down Zhou Zishu’s spine, the kind that tells him: pay attention. Reassess. He rolls his now-empty water cup between his fingers. “Speak plainly.”
“I am. Are you saying you don’t think it’s strange?”
Zhou Zishu has I’m saying I think you might be ill pressing against the back of his teeth, but—
If he thinks about it—
“Your delivery arrived, Da ren,” the inn server murmurs, appearing at Zhou Zishu’s elbow. He slides a thin wrapped parcel onto the table, and Zhou Zishu rests his fingers on top of it.
“Thank you,” he says with a small smile. He waits until the young man has retreated before saying to Wen Kexing: “Ah, I forgot. Give this to the server, will you?” He shakes a coin from his pouch and tosses it across the bench.
It’s a flimsy excuse, and more of a test than anything. But Wen Kexing just catches the coin. “And what will you give me for my services?”
“I’ll share my wine,” Zhou Zishu says.
“I’m worth more than that,” Wen Kexing tells him, but stands anyway and swiftly climbs the inn steps.
Knowing he doesn't have long, Zhou Zishu unwraps the parcel. It’s a booklet, as promised. Angling the page for his eyes only, he opens to the first page.
When Wen Kexing returns moments later, the booklet has already disappeared into Zhou Zishu’s robes. He stands, making a show of stretching his shoulder. “Your shixiong has kept you waiting.”
“Yes,” Wen Kexing agrees, raising his eyebrows. “He has.”
Zhou Zishu turns away and squints into the bright street. “It’s far too sunny out here. I’m going to take a walk.”
He turns, leaving his empty water jug on the table.
Wen Kexing follows, like Zhou Zishu knew he would.
They track a path away from the market, to the outskirts of the town and beyond, until Zhou Zishu turns sharply off the main road and plunges into the trees that stretch down from the mountain. Even then Wen Kexing doesn’t question him, and Zhou Zishu thinks: he knows.
No matter. As soon as they’re out of sight of the main road, Zhou Zishu draws his sword. In the space between heartbeats, he has Wen Kexing—the Ghost Valley Master—shoved against a tree, Baiyi’s blade to his throat.
The Ghost Valley Master doesn’t fight back. He lets himself be pressed to the tree by Zhou Zishu’s hand, his fan dangling unopened at his side, his other hand empty and unmoving. It’s surprising enough that Zhou Zishu pauses, sword creasing skin but not yet drawing blood. Like this, it’s obvious how much taller the Ghost Valley Master is than Zhou Zishu. Tall enough that he could leverage that against him, though probably not enough to make a difference. Like this, so close to Wen Kexing’s face, Zhou Zishu can see all the little details the Ghost Valley booklet’s illustration got wrong.
Identify the Ghost Valley Master, and eliminate him.
They stay like that for a long moment, only the faint whisper of wind through the trees and the Ghost Valley Master’s heart thundering under Zhou Zishu’s hand to prove time itself hasn’t frozen. Zhou Zishu knows he should— before someone sees— it isn’t like him to hesitate—
“It’s okay,” the Ghost Valley Master says. His voice is horribly gentle. “A-Xu, you can do it. I’ll find you again.”
Zhou Zishu jerks back. The Ghost Valley Master doesn’t press his advantage, just watches him. Has always just been watching him. “You knew what the server gave me.”
“I had an idea.”
“You knew I would have to kill you.”
“I knew it was likely.”
Zhou Zishu is not a cat toying with his meal. He is not some of his subordinates, who seem to delight in causing pain until he catches them at it. Zhou Zishu is the sharp side of a blade, something to be aimed.
Still, he asks: “Then why follow me?”
Wen Kexing says, just as helplessly as Zhou Zishu feels: “How could I not?”
His sword is still hovering near Wen Kexing’s neck. It had fallen away when Zhou Zishu jolted back, but not far enough to stop being a threat. Zhou Zishu doesn’t lower it. “What are you to me, then? Why don’t I remember you?”
“Zishu, what are you waiting for?”
Zhou Zishu turns his head. The motion feels slow, as if he is suddenly underwater. Jin Wang approaches through the trees, an open fan of Tianchuang swordsmen behind him, cloaks and masks blurring into the shadows. The forest has grown darker around them.
“You have your orders,” Jin Wang says. “Kill him.”
“Go ahead,” the Ghost Valley Master says, not to Zhou Zishu but to Jin Wang, in the kind of voice that makes the hair on Zhou Zishu’s arms stand on end. “Kill me all you want. You still can’t have him.”
Jin Wang comes to a stop a few paces away, close enough for Zhou Zishu to see the mild expression on his face. He always looks like that when he knows he has the upper hand. “And what hold do you have over him?” Jin Wang says.
“Zhou Zishu is his own man.”
Jin Wang’s mouth purses like he’s tasting something sour. “Then what are you?”
The Ghost Valley Master smiles with all his teeth. “I’m his.”
The heartbeat under Zhou Zishu’s hand does not stutter.
To the side, Jin Wang scoffs. “Zishu, finish this.”
Zhou Zishu takes a step back, then another, still looking at Jin Wang. Jin Wang, who shouldn’t be here. The darkening forest. The swordsmen appearing from the trees. Wen Kexing, who isn’t afraid of Zhou Zishu, even though he knows what Zhou Zishu is. Zhou Zishu holds these facts tight in his mind even as they try to wriggle away, even as some far-off part of him tries to say this is fine, this is how things are supposed to be.
Hallucination, he thinks, and brings Baiyi down, slashing across his own palm.
The pain flares, sharp and bright. For a moment the whole world shudders.
“A-Xu?” Wen Kexing says, and Zhou Zishu sees the ripple of his robes as he starts forward before the gold and plum of Jin Wang overtakes his vision.
“Zishu,” Jin Wang says, impossibly close, having crossed the distance between them in a single step. He wrenches Baiyi from Zhou Zishu’s hand and tosses it to the side, grabbing his shoulders. “What are you doing to yourself? Stop this. Zishu, look at me.”
Behind him a white fan flashes through the air, sending a line of swordsmen flying back. A whirl of blue, and then Baiyi’s blade is pressed to Jin Wang’s neck.
“Step back,” Wen Kexing says from the other end of the sword, in that same hair-raising tone. He lifts one hand to catch his fan without looking. The swordsmen around them go still, poised, as Wen Kexing presses the blade harder, forcing Jin Wang to crane his head. Slowly Wen Kexing drives him back, moving between him and Zhou Zishu.
Zhou Zishu’s ears ring, louder and louder. Warm blood drips down his fingers. He should—
“It’s you, isn’t it?” Wen Kexing says to Jin Wang. “You’re the one doing this to him. Tell me how to make it stop.” The blade bites in, red trickling down into Jin Wang’s collar. “Tell me.”
“Zishu,” Jin Wang says, not even looking at Wen Kexing, “do something.”
Zhou Zishu curls his fingers into the gash on his palm. The pain of it sings through him, up his arm, the ringing reaching a fever pitch. He knows he’s never seen the Ghost Valley Master before he appeared in the market, and yet. And yet he knows what Wen Kexing’s face looks like when he’s laughing. With firelight dancing over his skin. As he’s bending over a painting at Siji Manor. When he’s sitting on the ground with blood on his mouth, his chin cradled in Zhou Zishu’s hand.
Wen Kexing glances over his shoulder, wild eyes meeting Zhou Zishu’s for a single heartbeat before he turns back and slashes Baiyi across Jin Wang’s throat.
Zhou Zishu has seen enough killing blows like this—most of them at his own hand—to know what to expect. The blood. The shock. The falling.
Jin Wang doesn’t fall. He hardly even sways back, just tilts his chin down to look at the blood spreading down his collar. “Zishu,” he says, and manages to sound disappointed even as his voice gurgles in his throat.
“Oh,” Wen Kexing says, stepping back in line with Zhou Zishu, Baiyi still held aloft. The swordsmen around them remain frozen. “He’s not—he’s not really here. Is it just you and me then, A-Xu? Have you remembered?” Next, a little desperately: “Any idea what to do now?”
Zhou Zishu has not taken his eyes off Jin Wang. He shakes his head once. Whatever’s happening, whatever hallucination he’s trapped in, it hasn’t ended yet. No version of Helian Yi will let him go that easily.
In front of him Jin Wang raises a hand to the mess of his throat. “You were supposed to kill him. You were supposed to protect me.”
“You’re not real,” Zhou Zishu says, as if from very far away.
Jin Wang only sighs, more blood pouring out of the wound as he does. “I have no use for you like this,” he says and turns, Tianchuang swordsmen parting for him as he disappears back into the trees.
The swordsmen close the gap, surrounding Zhou Zishu and Wen Kexing. There are hundreds of them, stretching into the shadows, filling up the whole forest. Zhou Zishu doesn’t recognize a single face.
“A-Xu,” Wen Kexing says, “catch.” He tosses Baiyi to the side and Zhou Zishu catches it, spinning to face away from him. He feels Wen Kexing do the same, fitting easily against Zhou Zishu’s back, a steady weight as the swordsmen press closer. He has a single fan; Zhou Zishu has Baiyi, blood still dripping from the tip. “Promise me you’ll remember what you said, after this,” Wen Kexing says easily, his earlier desperation gone. That’s how Zhou Zishu knows they both see the same thing: that they won’t be leaving this forest.
It’s not real, Zhou Zishu tells himself again, and blocks the first blow, driving his attacker back with a swift kick. No time to ensure he stays down, with another blade slashing at him. Out loud Zhou Zishu says, “What I said about what?”
“About making you do the cooking. I’m really going to deserve a day off.”
“I said no such thing.”
A brush of air as Wen Kexing’s fan knocks away a sword to Zhou Zishu’s left. “You did! You said, try refusing for a—”
Wen Kexing cuts off with an awful, choked sound, and then there’s nothing but open air at Zhou Zishu’s back. Zhou Zishu throws Baiyi wide, knocking back the swordsmen within reach, and then slams to his knees.
It’s not real—
Blood paints Wen Kexing’s robes, marring the bamboo leaves. His lips, when he smiles, are smeared with red. “For a…day,” he breathes. “That’s…what you said.”
“Shut up,” Zhou Zishu manages. Then, spilling from his lips: “Shidi.”
Wen Kexing’s eyes crinkle at the corners. “Ahh. My shixiong…found me after all.”
There’s a flash of silver, a burst of pain in Zhou Zishu’s chest, and everything melts into darkness.
Zhou Zishu blinks against the wind. A carriage jolts under him, swaying as it makes its way up the mountain. He crouches on the roof, a dagger tucked in his sleeve. Somewhere far off an owl cries.
This is not the first time he’s done this. He will slip inside the carriage, slit the occupant’s throat, and disappear into the night, leaving the driver to discover the body on arrival. He doesn’t know what usually happens after that—he is long gone by then.
The trees grow wilder around the dirt road, shadows sharp and stretching. Zhou Zishu waits for a moonless patch of night, and then swings over the side of the carriage and slips inside.
The occupant is waiting for him, eyes gleaming in the dark interior. “There you are, A-Xu,” he says.
Zhou Zishu freezes. He stares at the shadowed figure of a man, sitting forward on the bench seat and looking right at him. A faint wash of moonlight falls over his face, and there’s no fear in it.
“Who is A-Xu?” Zhou Zishu demands, though he shouldn’t care. He shouldn’t be so rattled.
The man swallows. “Ah. You’ve forgotten again.”
Zhou Zishu’s hand tightens on the dagger. The carriage jolts around them and he uses the movement to cover a lunge, shoving the man against the wall, Zhou Zishu’s knee planted between his legs and a gleaming blade pressed to the beating pulse-point of his neck. The man doesn’t fight back, hardly breathing, arms limp at his sides. Zhou Zishu stays there, arm pulled tight as a bowstring, and something stops his hand. He should—
Zhou Zishu blinks against the wind—
Zhou Zishu blinks against—
Zhou Zishu swings himself into the carriage and stays there, perched in the window, the frame biting into his hands. He holds the pain there, staring at the man inside who only stares back.
“I know you,” Zhou Zishu says, ears ringing. “You’re my—”
He is draped in attendant’s robes, holding a pitcher of poisoned wine. His target is the one in purple, seated on the dais, surrounded by the ten devils of Ghost Valley.
It’s a public assasination, but not the most difficult thing Zhou Zishu has ever done. The Ghost Valley Master must like wine—Zhou Zishu probably gleaned that information himself, though he can’t remember doing it. He can’t even remember when Jin Wang became so interested in Ghost Valley, or how he was able to worm his way into this banquet, what the banquet is celebrating, but he doesn’t need to remember. He just needs to complete this task.
He slips along the wall, moving behind the dais with ease. It’s no trouble to step up behind his target and murmur, “More wine, Gu Zhu,” as he tips the pitcher toward the Ghost Valley Master’s cup.
A hand catches his wrist, the Ghost Valley Master leaning back to look up at him. His eyes flicker in the firelight. “I don’t know that I’m in the mood for wine tonight, A-Xu.”
Zhou Zishu freezes—
He is draped in attendant’s robes, carrying a pitcher of poisoned wine to the dais, and his target looks up before he’s halfway across the room, eyes finding Zhou Zishu’s—
He is draped in attendant’s robes and he holds a pitcher of poisoned wine that he can’t bring himself to pour. He gets the Ghost Valley Master alone, and there’s a backup blade up his sleeve, but even that feels wrong, and he doesn’t know why—
“Let him go, Wangye. If what he says is true and I made the mistake of leaving, let me bear the consequences.”
“Zishu, what are you talking about? You never left. Now kill him.”
Distant chatter trails after Zhou Zishu as he moves through the second level of a busy inn. His steps stay light, his shadow melting seamlessly into the already dark hallway. If he went still, one would have to squint to even have a chance of seeing him. The occupant of the private room at the end of the hall certainly won’t notice him until it’s too late.
He bypasses the lock, steals into the inn’s most opulent room. A man dressed in deep blue sits cross-legged by the low table, facing away from the door, a single candle burning in front of him. Zhou Zishu uses that flame to guide his path, moving silently across the floor and slipping his hands around the man’s head an instant later, almost gentle, like he’s cradling someone precious. One twist and his job will be done. Even if the man panics, Zhou Zishu is too strong to push away before he follows through.
The man raises a hand, and Zhou Zishu thinks, here it is, the panic—but the hand only skates along Zhou Zishu’s fingers, back to curl softly around his wrist. Like he’s being cradled back.
“You got me, A-Xu,” the blue-robed man says, and Zhou Zishu freezes. He knows that voice—this hand—
Zhou Zishu slips into the inn’s most opulent room and his target is ready for him. The fight breaks the table, tips the brazier in a crash of embers, a match of equals. But the man misses a chance at a killing blow, so Zhou Zishu takes it instead, only for numb horror to spread through him as the body falls and he realizes—
“Ah, what a mess. Zishu, did you know this man?”
He’s here to eliminate the Ghost Valley Master—
“Isn’t this too cruel, A-Xu? Making me win you over again and again when it already took so long the first time? Those days were so tragic, when you wouldn’t even give me a second glance. Like that night on the riverbank, Chengling and I begging you to open your heart to us both! Well, mostly Chengling, he really was the more pathetic one. Ah, but I think you secretly liked us back then. It’s okay, though, A-Xu, you do what you have to, and I’ll be here the next time, and the next. You know this one, right, A-Xu? I will come and meet you and will never mind the distance, all the way to Changfeng Sha!”
He is here to kill a man who knows too much—
“Do you know him, Zishu?”
He’s here to eliminate—
He raises his sword, lifts it to his own throat instead—
He’s here to find his—
Zhou Zishu reaches the minister’s guest quarters under the cover of a moonless night, only to find a sprawl of dead guards outside the doors. He steps over them, careful to avoid getting blood on his boots, and slips into the dark room behind them. He draws Baiyi as he does, careful to keep the blade in the shadows, but his caution is unwarranted. The room is empty and still, still save the flickering of a lit candle on the desk.
Well—empty of the living. There’s a body curled on the bed, still in a way that can only come from death. The faint scent of iron hits the back of Zhou Zishu’s throat as he moves inside, and he sees a graceful spill of pale green fabric, the gleam of a silver guan.
Halfway across the floor, something catches his eye on the desk. A folded white fan in the ring of candlelight, set carefully alongside a freshly-inked letter.
A-Xu, the letter reads in neat but hasty script, using the character for willow catkins. Something inside Zhou Zishu responds, a string being plucked. I have decided to try leaving early this time. If this works, know that I will come find you, wherever you are.
Zhou Zishu picks up the fan. He curls his fingers over it, sharp edges biting into his skin as his ears ring and ring, horror spreading through him like blood in water. He knows: this belongs to someone he—
The sun has set in Zhou Zishu’s quarters when he blinks awake the second time.
“Zishu. Are you ready to come home now?”
His throat clicks when he swallows. He stares at the ceiling and says nothing.
A hand over his nose again, cup cracking against his teeth—
Zhou Zishu crouches in the thin shadow of a stone wall and waits for the patrol to exit the back gates. As their footsteps fade he detaches himself from the darkness and leaps over the wall, alighting softly in the courtyard on the other side.
The night stretches around him in all directions, far-off footsteps and distant murmurings carried to him on the breeze. He’s alone as he skirts around the outer buildings—no masked swordsmen following behind him, no Han Ying in his shadow. Jin Wang had assigned this mission to Zhou Zishu in private, for his ears only. Zhou Zishu is to find a wooden box carved with a fan in the innermost study of the manor. He is to read the name hidden inside the box. And then he is to kill the man with that name.
(He doesn’t know who the name belongs to, or what they have done to earn a swift death. If he tries to remember, tries to piece it together, the thoughts slip away from him. But that’s—he doesn’t need to know. He’s been off since Jiuxiao—he’s been off, lately. He just needs to finish this, and then he can figure the rest out later.)
He pauses at the edge of a building, tilting his head to track one set of footsteps approaching. He makes quick work of it when the servant rounds the corner, striking the young man quickly and catching him when he topples over, unconscious. It’s easy enough to carry the servant to the dark woodshed at the far end of the yard and slip inside, stow his own cloak in one of the woodpiles and pull on the servant’s robes instead. He weaves through the manor like that, passing unnoticed through the dregs of a late night celebration—guests in finery drunkenly wandering to their quarters, musicians packing away their instruments. Eventually he reaches the innermost building, brushing by a man in white with a low apology as he climbs the short set of stairs, already scanning the windows for signs of activity behind the screens.
There’s no movement. He slides the doors open and slips into a dark study, where he goes about lighting one of the braziers. Anyone coming in unannounced will simply see a servant warming the room rather than a thief rummaging for secrets.
The carved box, when he finds it, isn’t hidden at all—it sits in the center of a sparse desk, like it wants to be found. The lid falls open easily under Zhou Zishu’s fingers, and he pulls out the rolled-up paper, smoothing it against his palm. The right edge is jagged, as if ripped from a booklet. Wen Kexing, it says. Qingya Ghost Valley Master. A drawing of a man stares up at Zhou Zishu. His next target.
(Did he know, before now, that Jin Wang was looking for the Ghost Valley Master? Does it matter?)
He hasn’t yet replaced the box when the doors shudder open. Zhou Zishu doesn’t move—he can explain the box, if it’s a guest or another servant, but a guilty flinch would be hard to cover—and looks up.
It’s the man in white, fine robes reflecting the moonlight behind him as he fills the doorway. His gaze drops to the paper in Zhou Zishu’s hand, where a damning likeness of his own face is inked across the page, and then he meets Zhou Zishu’s eyes.
“Wait,” the Ghost Valley Master says. He doesn’t sound frightened, or angry, or even surprised as he holds up an empty hand. “Wait. I propose a deal.”
Zhou Zishu isn’t in the habit of negotiating with the people he kills, especially not once they’ve seen his face. He’s already calculating the time he needs to draw Baiyi, if he can reach the Ghost Valley Master with his blade before their fight spills outside.
The Ghost Valley Master must see that. “You’ll want to hear this one,” he insists. “The deal is: I’ll let you kill me, if you can tell me how you got here tonight.”
Zhou Zishu blinks. “Your terms seem to favor me,” he observes. “I—”
He doesn’t remember.
Everything before leaping over the manor wall feels like trying to catch smoke in his hands. Wrong. He doesn’t know if he came here by horseback or by foot or by carriage. If he were to take up the bet, he would lose.
He kills the Ghost Valley Master anyway, but the sense of wrongness only surges as the body falls. Zhou Zishu catches him. His ears ring like they just clashed swords, but there was no second sword, only a fan the Ghost Valley Master didn’t even open. Zhou Zishu curls his fists into the Ghost Valley Master’s robes and thinks: this isn’t right.
“Good work, Zishu,” Jin Wang says, stepping through the open doorway. Zhou Zishu doesn’t turn. “Now let him go, so you can come home.”
Yes, Wangye, he should say, but the words won’t come. Something inside him is screaming, bile rising in his throat. A drop of blood trails from the corner of the Ghost Valley Master’s mouth and falls to Zhou Zishu’s lap.
A hand on the back of his neck. “Let him go,” Jin Wang says again, but Zhou Zishu only holds on tighter—
Zhou Zishu crouches in the thin shadow of a stone wall and—
Zhou Zishu crouches in the thin shadow of a stone wall—
Zhou Zishu crouches in the thin shadow of a—
Zhou Zishu crouches in the thin shadow of—
Zhou Zishu crouches in the—
Zhou Zishu crouches in the thin shadow of a stone wall and waits for the patrol to exit the back gates. As their footsteps fade he detaches himself from the darkness and leaps over the wall, dropping soundlessly on the other side.
He can hear the dregs of a late-night celebration from the center of the complex as he weaves through the outer buildings, his feet carrying him like they already know the way. No masked swordsmen follow behind him. This is Zhou Zishu’s assignment alone: to find the carved wooden box in the innermost room of the manor, read the name hidden inside the box, and kill the man with that name.
(He doesn’t know who the name belongs to, or what they have done to earn a swift death. If he tries to remember, tries to piece it together—
But he’s been off since Jiuxiao—he’s been off, lately. He just needs to finish this, and then he can figure the rest out later.)
It’s no trouble to intercept a servant, striking the young man quickly and catching him when he topples over, unconscious. Zhou Zishu bundles them both into the dark woodshed at the far end of the yard, swiftly securing the door and lowering the limp servant to the straw-covered ground.
His cloak and mask are off and he’s shaking off his outer robe, ready to exchange it with the servant’s, when he realizes he’s not alone.
It’s the smallest shift of air, a prickle on the back of his neck. Zhou Zishu stills for just a moment and then turns to look over his shoulder, readying himself to draw his sword or come up with a fast story (ah, he fainted, I’m making sure he’s all right—could you fetch some water, I’ll stay here with him) depending on whether he finds another assassin or another hapless servant. It feels impossible that he failed to notice someone else was in here, when the windows were so dark and still, but clearly that was an error on his part.
What he sees, though, is neither an attacker nor a servant. Sitting on a bundle of firewood like it’s a throne, fine white robes lit up in a strip of moonlight, is a young man. He holds an open fan in front of his chest, and he’s looking right at Zhou Zishu.
“Hello again,” the man says. “Right on time, too.”
Zhou Zishu ignores the way his own outer robe hangs off his shoulder, the unconscious servant sprawled behind him. “You must be mistaking me for someone else,” he says calmly, as though he and this man have just bumped into each other on the street in broad daylight.
“I am not mistaken, Zhou Zishu,” the man says.
Zhou Zishu draws Baiyi and moves across the floor, swinging in a clean arc toward the woodpile. The man snaps his fan shut and knocks away Zhou Zishu’s sword almost lazily, then jumps high to avoid Zhou Zishu’s next strike. A bundle of wood splinters under Baiyi’s blade as the man lands nimbly on the floor, his grin a curved knife in the watery light.
“Really, A-Xu,” he says, flicking open his fan again. “This is hardly fair, I don’t even have a weapon.”
Zhou Zishu sweeps his gaze down to the man’s feet, then back up. He slips Baiyi back into its sheath and the man’s grin widens.
His first strike meets empty air, the man ducking neatly under his arm and jabbing at Zhou Zishu’s open side, driving him back. Zhou Zishu strikes again and the man throws up his arm, blocking without breaking eye contact. Again. Again. Attack. Block. A lunge, a graceful twist away. They move across the floor together, robes swirling around them with each almost-blow. The man seems to anticipate Zhou Zishu’s every move, matching his footwork like they’re doing some strange, choreographed dance.
They near the door, and Zhou Zishu sees his opportunity. He sidesteps the still-unconscious servant and kicks off the closest woodpile, launching himself into the air to flip above the man’s head. But the man anticipates this, too, and reaches up to grab Zhou Zishu’s hand, as if plucking him from a vine. He swings Zhou Zishu to the ground, back hitting the scattered straw, and then the man is on top of him. He straddles Zhou Zishu’s waist, one wide hand trapping his wrists above his head, the other curled, very lightly, around Zhou Zishu’s throat.
Zhou Zishu could throw him off. Could continue their dance, down in the straw. But he waits, instead.
“Are we done now?” the man says. “I think I’ve gotten it all out of my system, personally.”
“You tell me,” Zhou Zishu says. “You seem to know what I’m going to do before I do it.”
“Of course I do, we’ve done this seven times now.” The man reaches up and flicks Zhou Zishu’s forehead with his free hand, only avoiding a set of broken fingers due to Zhou Zishu’s sheer surprise. “You’re the one who doesn’t remember. How about this, when you wake up we can have a fair rematch.”
When he—? “Who are you?” Zhou Zishu says.
“See, you’re asking questions now. Far more productive than just coming at me with a sword right away.” The man drums his fingers on Zhou Zishu’s collarbone once, and stops. “I’m Wen Kexing, Master of Ghost Valley. The paper you were sent to retrieve will tell you to kill me. I was thinking we could skip that part.”
Zhou Zishu doesn’t let his shock show on his face. Doesn’t move at all, except to flex his arms a bit. Remind this Wen Kexing that he’s still holding Zhou Zishu down—people who think they have the upper hand are looser with their tongues. “Who told you about that?”
“You did,” Wen Kexing says. “And then you killed me. Oh, and that’s the other thing: none of this is real.”
Zhou Zishu raises his eyebrows. This is a new one, he has to admit. Usually his targets just call him all sorts of names, or try to offer him a lot of money to go away. They don’t often claim he’s already done the job.
“Ah, ah,” Wen Kexing says. “You’re thinking that I’m trying to confuse you so I can run off. Does it look like I’m running? I’m not going anywhere.” Wen Kexing shifts his weight, as if settling in. Ridiculously, Zhou Zishu becomes aware that his own outer robe is still hanging open. “Hear me out, A-Xu. What do you remember before coming here?”
Zhou Zishu blinks. What is Wen Kexing after? What Zhou Zishu ate for dinner? Who he met with? Travel routes between here and—
And wherever he had been this morning. He doesn’t— He blinks again, hard. He was outside the walls, and before that—
A yawning emptiness. He knows Jin Wang gave him his instructions personally, but he doesn’t remember it happening, whether it was in the throne hall or the study or out walking along the garden path. He doesn’t know if the garden would be in full bloom or if it’s the start of winter, everything fading to brown. He doesn’t know if he came here by horseback or by foot or by carriage. He just—doesn’t know.
“What should I remember?” Zhou Zishu says, trying to cover the unease growing in his gut.
“Nothing,” Wen Kexing says plainly. “You don’t remember anything, because you simply arrived here. You know your mission and nothing else, but you haven’t questioned it until now. It’s the same for me—in this particular dream I just appear in one of the courtyards, already late to the party. Lately I sneak over here to meet you and we do our little sparring routine, and then I tell you it’s all a dream. And before you ask, if this is a dream, then aren’t you just part of the dream, too”—Zhou Zishu bites his tongue—“the answer to that is no, I’m also real. I’m just—here too, for some reason. You don’t remember me right now, but you know me when you’re awake.” A small smile twists Wen Kexing’s mouth to the side. “You once said we’ll meet again if we’re fated, and then we did. Maybe it simply works in dreams, too.” Then: “Ah, hold that thought. Your friend is about to open his eyes.”
Right on cue, the servant stirs on the ground, blinking awake with a light groan. Zhou Zishu had almost forgotten about him, to be honest.
Wen Kexing raises an eyebrow, as if to say, Well?
“Go ahead,” Zhou Zishu says.
“You’ll stay there?”
“I’ll stay here.”
Wen Kexing leverages himself up and leans over to strike the back of the servant’s neck. The young man slumps over, unconscious again.
Just to see what happens, Zhou Zishu sits up and shoots out one hand, aiming to grab the jade hairpin sticking out of Wen Kexing’s looped bun. Wen Kexing catches his wrist without looking back.
“You tried that before, too.” Wen Kexing turns to face him again, not loosening his grip. Like this they’re nearly nose to nose, Wen Kexing still half-seated on Zhou Zishu’s legs. “Still don’t believe me, A-Xu? Go on, ask me anything.”
Zhou Zishu waits a beat. “Is your name really—”
“—Wen Kexing?” Wen Kexing finishes. “ It’s complicated, but yes.”
Zhou Zishu narrows his eyes. “Who told you—”
Once again Wen Kexing jumps in: “—To call you A-Xu? You did. When we first met.”
“—I drug you? No,” Wen Kexing says, looking far too pleased with himself for taking the words right out of Zhou Zishu’s mouth. Zhou Zishu wants to grab Wen Kexing’s fan and whack him over the head until that smug expression goes away. “When would I have done that, anyway? You only just got here.”
“All right, you’ve made your point,” Zhou Zishu says. He takes one breath, another, readying something Wen Kexing should have no reason to expect, let alone know. He opens his mouth—
Wen Kexing speaks first. “Qin Jiuxiao.”
It lands like a blow, and Zhou Zishu feels himself jerk a little, hand tensing where it’s still locked in Wen Kexing’s grip.
Wen Kexing blinks, as if just realizing he’s still holding Zhou Zishu’s wrist, and lets go. “That’s what you were going to say. Qin Jiuxiao.”
Zhou Zishu slowly lowers his hand to his lap. His knees ache under Wen Kexing’s weight, but he doesn’t shove him off yet. “Who are you?”
“I thought we just did this part,” Wen Kexing says. “Don’t tell me you’re starting to forget already.”
“Who are you to me,” Zhou Zishu says. “You said you know me.”
“I do. We’re very good friends, you and I.”
“Then prove it.”
It’s Wen Kexing’s turn to hesitate. Zhou Zishu waits. It could still be a trick, but if it is—well, it’s gotten his attention.
“All right,” Wen Kexing says. “Sorry, we didn’t get this far last time. Let’s see. You like the bagged nuts that seem to show up in every single market, even though the lines are always horrendous.”
“That can be said about plenty of people,” Zhou Zishu points out.
“You’re a master of disguise. You have a kit and everything.”
“Anyone might guess that,” Zhou Zishu says drily.
“All right, all right….” He watches as Wen Kexing taps his fan against his chin and seems to come to a decision. “When you were little. Siji Manor’s second disciple.”
Zhou Zishu’s gaze snaps up.
“He only stayed for a short while,” Wen Kexing says, “but you were very kind to him. Even when you were putting stick bugs in his hair. You looked after a puppy together, Yiguo. And then the boy disappeared.” A pause. “His name was Zhen Yan.”
Silence stretches between them, a bowstring pulled tight.
Then: “Off,” Zhou Zishu manages.
Surprisingly Wen Kexing listens, shifting off Zhou Zishu’s legs, expression carefully blank.
Zhou Zishu doesn’t stand right away, but he draws his legs under him so he could at a moment’s notice. “Zhen Yan,” he says.
“Wen Kexing,” Wen Kexing corrects him. “But. Yes.”
He entertains the possibility, for just a moment, that Wen Kexing somehow—encountered Zhen Yan’s family, heard about Yiguo and the stick bugs, and has been crafting an elaborate plan to impersonate Zhou Zishu’s long-lost shidi for unknown reasons. He considers it, and carefully tosses it away. He has not spoken of Zhen Yan with anyone since he was a child. He assumed Zhen Yan was dead or out of reach, so after Jiuxiao…
The thought slips away from him. Jiuxiao is gone—the grief is a familiar, dull pain in his chest, but he can’t find the edges of it. He can’t, in this instant, remember what he did after it happened. He doesn’t remember how long ago it happened. Maybe this is the natural conclusion, that he eventually goes mad and hallucinates his very first shidi in this dark woodshed.
Zhou Zishu clears his throat. “How,” he starts.
Wen Kexing’s gaze shifts away. “How did I end up the Ghost Valley Master? Ah…”
“How did we find each other again,” Zhou Zishu finishes.
“Oh,” Wen Kexing says. “My maid attacked you in the street, and then I kept following you until you let me stick around.”
“And that worked.”
“It worked,” Wen Kexing confirms. “So don’t think you’re getting rid of me now, A-Xu.”
Zhou Zishu tries to imagine it: this tall, bright man trailing after him. He would have had to allow it—no one can follow Zhou Zishu if he doesn’t want to be found, not even his own men. Not even Jin Wang. For a moment he feels a faint, sick horror at this imaginary version of himself. Is he really so desperate to ruin the last remaining people of Siji Manor that he’d let Zhen Yan be drawn into his life, when Jin Wang still directs Zhou Zishu’s sword? Does it have something to do with Wen Kexing being the Ghost Valley Master? Was Zhou Zishu playing him for information? Or is Wen Kexing the one playing him?
“You said we are very good friends, now that you’ve found me again,” Zhou Zishu starts, watching Wen Kexing closely. “And you call me so familiarly. Should I respond in kind? A-Xing?”
Wen Kexing’s gaze jumps back to him, eyes wide, eyebrows doing something that tells Zhou Zishu he definitely guessed wrong. There’s no satisfaction, no flash of triumph that Zhou Zishu has seemingly taken the bait.
“Why don’t you wake up, and see if you remember what you call me then,” Wen Kexing says, after a long pause.
So he’s not trying to trick Zhou Zishu into false familiarity, at least not in any way that makes sense. Which means—
A dream, Wen Kexing had said.
If so, it’s not a normal one. Aside from the fact that Wen Kexing is here, Zhou Zishu’s dreams, when he has them at all, tend to be jarring and disjointed. His xiongdi disappearing into an impenetrable fog. Half-recognized voices haunting his footsteps down an endless hallway. Circling Siji Manor as a young disciple again, searching for someone he never finds. He’s only experienced something this intricate and consuming with zuisheng mengsi.
Well, if that’s the case. Zhou Zishu pulls Baiyi from his belt and holds out his other hand, palm up.
“Ah ah ah,” Wen Kexing yelps. He leans forward, pressing his own hand over Zhou Zishu’s open one. “You’ve tried that. And then you still forgot again, the next time we met.”
His hand is cool and dry against Zhou Zishu’s, held lightly enough that their palms just barely brush. He has to know that like this, with Baiyi unsheathed and held so close, Zhou Zishu could easily close his hand around Wen Kexing’s and cut his throat before he could break away. It could happen within the space of a breath. But Wen Kexing doesn’t look afraid, only determined.
“Besides,” Wen Kexing adds. “You don’t like the sight of blood.”
Zhou Zishu feels his lips part. Of all the things Wen Kexing has known about him—
Slowly, he sets Baiyi down. “What do you suggest, then?”
Wen Kexing blinks. His fingers curl the tiniest bit against Zhou Zishu’s. “I— A-Xu, you’re really not going to ask about Ghost Valley, are you.”
Wen Kexing snorts, the most graceless thing he’s done yet. “Even here, you’re—well. You’re consistent, at least.”
Under the disbelief, Zhou Zishu hears fondness.
(Is there anyone who is just—fond of him, anymore? His subordinates are respectful. Jin Wang—fond isn’t the word Zhou Zishu would use. Beiyuan has been gone a long time.
He thinks the answer is no.
Except, Wen Kexing.)
“Anyway, no, you shouldn’t,” Wen Kexing is saying. “And to your other point: I’ve tried just about everything. Telling you it’s a dream. Playing along. Letting you kill me. Killing the prince. Killing myself. Even—” He grimaces. “Even when you die instead, none of it works. Just when it seems like we’ve gotten somewhere, like your waking self is really breaking through, the dream changes. You forget again.”
“And you remember.”
“Yes. I always remember.”
“Well. Unless you don’t remember what you don’t remember,” Zhou Zishu says. Reasonably, he thinks.
Wen Kexing gives him an exasperated look. “I remember.” He flicks his fan open and then closed again, tapping it against his knee. “And none of it has worked, no matter how we play it out. The ending is the same.”
Zhou Zishu watches Wen Kexing’s face, the way his eyes go a bit distant at those last few words. “But you have one more idea,” Zhou Zishu guesses.
When Wen Kexing smiles, it’s like the moon breaking through a wash of clouds. “A-Xu,” he says. “Run away with me?”
So they run.
The plan is to leave the manor property and see what they find outside the walls, as if they might be able to outrun whatever brought them here, or find a lit path home. Zhou Zishu thinks it’s unlikely to work, but something about the way Wen Kexing’s face sets with resolve makes Zhou Zishu think it might be worth it just for the trying.
Sure enough, a pool of manor guards meet them at the back wall. One shared glance tells Zhou Zishu that Wen Kexing sees the same thing he does: this is far too many guards for a night patrol. Someone, or something, doesn’t want them to leave.
“Hey, A-Xu,” Wen Kexing says, snapping open his fan. “Last one out is a lazy egg.”
“How old are you?” Zhou Zishu asks, and then the first guards are upon them.
If fighting against Wen Kexing had felt like two equal waves crashing together, fighting side by side with Wen Kexing feels like—a flood, a river unleashed. Wen Kexing’s fan knocks away an incoming sword just in time for Zhou Zishu to slash a guard’s belly, and he responds in kind, cutting another guard down at the knees so Wen Kexing can leap overhead, taking out the whole row behind them.
They clear a path, dispatching the whole group of guards, only for another surge to spill through the gates. Zhou Zishu grabs Wen Kexing’s arm and they change course, sprinting back toward the woodshed. They can get over the wall on that side, take their chances with what they find there—but before they even reach the woodshed more guards spill out between buildings, blocking their way.
The guards pursue them deeper and deeper into the property, and the manor starts to twist, becoming mazelike—a walkway bending right when Zhou Zishu could have sworn it went left, like it’s somehow alive and shifting. Zhou Zishu’s heartbeat drums in his ears. It feels so real, he thinks, the fighting and running, even as part of him notices that the more guards they cut down the more they all seem to blur together, flashes of uniform robes and blank expressions behind dull metal blades.
When they’re finally caught on all sides, it’s with their backs against a decorated set of doors on the innermost building. Wen Kexing’s eyes narrow, scanning the semicircle of guards that press up the stairwell, blocking both routes to the side. Zhou Zishu tracks this as well, and then looks up to the rooftops in time to see a flash of movement, a rooftop archer taking aim.
He grabs Wen Kexing around the waist and slides open the door in one motion, pulling them both inside.
It’s pitch-dark at first, as Zhou Zishu shoves the door shut. There’s no commotion on the other side, no anticipated banging of fists or blades driving through the wood. Zhou Zishu detaches himself and turns to catch up with Wen Kexing. For a moment, in the darkness, Wen Kexing is just a shadow ahead of him. Then something flickers—torches and braziers sputtering alight on their own, casting dancing light over the room they’ve entered.
It’s not a study, or a bedroom, or a treasure vault. It’s Tianchuang’s torture chamber.
Zhou Zishu glances over his shoulder. There’s no door behind him, only a long stretch of wall. In front of him the sight is unmistakable: the tall-backed chair, chains hanging loosely at its sides, the etched boxes holding the nails. Snow drifts in through the skylight, sudden cold biting Zhou Zishu’s cheeks despite the lit braziers. The carved box he was sent to find sits on a low table, surrounded by knives, poison pills, incense burners. A poisoned needle Zhou Zishu once slipped between someone’s fingers in a brothel. A dagger that slit someone’s throat in a moving carriage, discarded in the next town. A goblet of laced wine, drained by his target mid-banquet. An array of ways to kill, poised and ready for the taking.
“This…is new,” Wen Kexing says, stepping forward.
Zhou Zishu doesn’t move. The ringing in his ears surges back, louder than before. He lifts a hand to cup one ear, limbs moving slowly, as if underwater.
“There you are, Zishu.”
Wen Kexing whirls around, snarl forming on his face, but it’s too late. A Tianchuang agent materializes from the shadows and grabs him from behind, gleaming dagger pressed against Wen Kexing’s throat hard enough to bite. Two more appear, one tearing Wen Kexing’s fan from his grasp, the other wrenching his arms behind his back, securing his hands with rope. It’s quick, efficient. Unyielding. The way Zhou Zishu taught them.
Zhou Zishu lifts his gaze. Across the chamber Jin Wang descends the steps to the platform where they stand, more Tianchuang swordsmen fanning out behind him. Duan Pengju follows at his shoulder.
“You again,” Wen Kexing says. He sounds bored, as if his own blood isn’t trickling down the blade at his throat, but Zhou Zishu can hear a hard edge to it. A knife tucked under a serving cloth. “You keep showing up uninvited; it’s very rude.”
Jin Wang ignores him, eyes not moving from Zhou Zishu. “Are you ready to finish this?” he asks, and beckons with one hand.
Someone breaks from the ranks and crosses the floor. It’s Han Ying, Zhou Zishu realizes, just as he hears a cut-off inhale from Wen Kexing. And Zhou Zishu knows—wherever Wen Kexing comes from, whatever is true there, Han Ying is—
Han Ying must be—
The thought slips away from him. He still hasn’t moved, the ringing in his ears getting louder and louder.
In front of him Han Ying stoops to pick up the carved wooden box from the table. “Zhuangzhu,” he murmurs, holding it out. Zhou Zishu does not take it—he knows what he will find inside.
“You sent me to kill the Ghost Valley Master,” Zhou Zishu says instead, to Jin Wang. Sent him, intentionally or not, real or not, to kill his last shidi.
Firelight leaps off Jin Wang’s face, giving the impression that his expression is changing even as he remains placid. A dangerous calm. “Yes. And you’ve brought him here. Good work, Zishu, good work.”
Wen Kexing barks a laugh. The Tianchuang agent holding the dagger tightens his grip. “A-Xu,” Wen Kexing says, voice half-choked from the way his head is forced back, “I have to wonder how Jin Wang gets anything done without you there, if all he seems capable of is begging you to do everything for him. Doesn’t it seem a bit pathetic to you? Tell me, did he even have you accompany him to take a—”
Jin Wang gestures to the side. The swordsmen holding Wen Kexing move as one, dragging him back to the chair at the center of the floor. Wen Kexing doesn’t resist aside from letting his heels drag, his mouth curling in a vicious grin as he’s chained down.
“Go on,” he says. Snow swirls around him. “I know how this ends. A-Xu, hey. Try to remember this part, all right? Don’t make me do all the work next time.”
Jin Wang moves across the floor like he’s wandering the palace gardens, passing his fingers over the contents of the low table. The blades, the poisons. “Take your pick, Zishu. Or simply break his neck, if you prefer. But it must be at your hand.”
Zhou Zishu looks from the table to Han Ying, still bent low in front of him, to Wen Kexing, lashed to the chair with dark stains already blotting the collar of his robes, who only arches an eyebrow. Well? he seems to say.
It’s clear to Zhou Zishu that there isn’t much to be done. He has been calculating: he can do what Jin Wang wants, or he can turn on his own men. Both options end with Wen Kexing dead and blood on Zhou Zishu’s hands. Maybe, if Wen Kexing is right, they’ll meet again.
But there are other ways of fighting.
“No,” Zhou Zishu says.
Wen Kexing’s awful smile slips away. Shock ripples through the room, gazes jumping from him to Jin Wang.
Jin Wang stops his slow walk. “It’s an order, Zishu.”
Zhou Zishu doesn’t move. Perhaps they will force his hand by torturing Wen Kexing until death would be a kindness, but something tells him Jin Wang would have tried that already, if that could accomplish what he wanted. Barring that—there are punishments for disloyalty, especially something so defiant in front of so many eyes. He has decided many of them himself. It would only be fair.
The calm expression on Jin Wang’s face shudders. “You will outright defy me?”
Zhou Zishu says nothing.
Jin Wang’s mouth flattens. He crosses the floor until he’s eye to eye with Zhou Zishu.
“On your knees, then,” Jin Wang says.
The command hangs in the air between them for one more moment, and then Zhou Zishu folds, lowering himself to kneel on the cold ground. Han Ying makes a small, surprised noise. The other swordsmen don’t break, but Zhou Zishu can see the sway of their dark robes, feet shifting in unease.
“A-Xu,” he hears Wen Kexing say, on edge for the first time since they stepped into the torture chamber. “A-Xu, just do it. I’ll find you again. Don’t—”
He cuts off but Zhou Zishu can’t see why, his vision blocked by plum and gold as Jin Wang lowers himself to put them both at eye level again. His forehead nearly brushes Zhou Zishu’s as he leans in, speaking low. “Zishu. Don’t make me do this.”
“Zhou Zishu apologizes. He will not kill the Ghost Valley Master.”
Jin Wang sighs, his concern giving way to disappointment. He reaches down and unties Zhou Zishu’s belt, outer robe, inner robe, undershirt, working them over Zhou Zishu’s shoulders. Behind him comes a wordless sound of outrage from Wen Kexing, a shuffle of feet, someone hissing, “Hold his head still, fuck—”
Zhou Zishu’s robes hit the floor. Cold air sweeps over his skin, and he does not shiver.
Jin Wang picks up Zhou Zishu’s belt and folds it over once, then cradles Zhou Zishu’s jaw, prizing his mouth open. Zhou Zishu lets Jin Wang work the belt between his teeth, tie it back around his head. He has chosen this. Whatever outcome this brings, he only has to bear it.
“Pengju,” Jin Wang calls, and stands. He moves away, and Zhou Zishu can see the bottom of the chair again, the white of Wen Kexing’s robes amid sets of black boots moving between them. Zhou Zishu doesn’t raise his eyes. He has no right to ask anything of the world, but he still finds himself hoping that, somehow, Wen Kexing can’t see what’s about to happen.
A flicker of orange, sharp in the dim light. At the edge of Zhou Zishu’s vision Duan Pengju lifts something from a brazier. For a moment Zhou Zishu can see the curved, glowing dragon of the brand, and then Duan Pengju steps behind him.
He hardly has time to draw a full breath before the brand presses against the back of his shoulder. He jolts forward—he can’t help it—and it only presses harder, searing. It’s not real, he thinks, before he can’t think at all. The world shudders around him as the pain spreads like fire, his body crumbling to it.
Distantly, he hears someone screaming, screaming. “I’ll kill you, I’ll kill you all, I’ll find you in hell and kill you again—”
“Gag him, gag him—”
“—did you see—”
“—nearly bit off my—”
Finally, finally, the brand lifts. The absence is almost worse, pain jolting through him with every brush of air. He breathes harshly around the belt, vision swimming, sweat stinging his eyes. There’s something just out of reach, flitting at the edge of his mind—a memory, a different sort of agony—but he can’t bring himself to catch it.
A hand rests on the side of his head, horribly gentle. “Zishu,” Jin Wang says, and unties the belt. It takes a moment to fall from Zhou Zishu’s mouth, imprints of his teeth cut deep into the leather. “Do you know who you serve now? Will you finish this?”
He reaches for words and finds none, bitten tongue slow in his mouth. Jin Wang grabs his chin, forcing him to look up. “Answer me, Zishu.”
Behind Jin Wang, Wen Kexing still strains against the chair, three different swordsmen trying and failing to hold him still. In a fair fight, Zhou Zishu thinks, Wen Kexing must be unbeatable for pure stubbornness alone.
“No,” Zhou Zishu says, voice thick. “I will not kill him.”
Jin Wang’s expression twists. He drops his hand. “Then you are of no use to me,” he says. “Pengju, you’re the leader of Tianchuang now. Do what you will.”
Duan Pengju drops into a low bow next to Zhou Zishu. “Yes, Wangye. Thank you, Wangye.”
Jin Wang steps back, anger fading to blankness. Duan Pengju scrambles to his feet. He turns to stand in front of Zhou Zishu, out of arm’s reach even though Zhou Zishu is weaponless. Zhou Zishu feels himself start to laugh.
“What’s so funny?” Duan Pengju demands. “Do you think I will spare you?”
Zhou Zishu shakes his head, still laughing. He’s going to die, he knows that. Duan Pengju’s cowardice and thirst for power leave little room for any other choice.
“No,” Wen Kexing says across the floor, hoarse and desperate. Ah. He must have realized. “No, don’t—don’t, don’t. A-Xu, Zhou Zishu, listen to me, just do what he wants, please. I’ll come for you. Just—”
“As a traitor you cannot be allowed to live,” Dual Pengju says over Wen Kexing, drawing his sword. “I also do not trust the former Tianchuang leader not to thwart the seven nails with some clever trick. All I can do is make it quick, with respect to your former station.”
“Han Ying. Han-xiongdi, stop him, cut me free, please, please—A-Xu, don’t—”
Duan Pengju’s lip curls. “Maybe next time you will make better choices,” he says, and slashes the blade across Zhou Zishu’s stomach.
If anyone says anything, if anyone gasps or cries out, Zhou Zishu doesn’t hear. For a moment there is nothing but the line of fire across his stomach, the ringing in his ears. He curls forward on instinct, wrapping an arm around his gut, but the wound is too deep for that to matter. All he can do is take the pain and gather it around him. Cling to it. Stay here, he tells himself. See it through. Stay here for—
He braces one arm against the floor and slowly forces his head up. Through the haze of pain he sees the— he sees— he sees Wen Kexing, straining forward against the chains, no longer screaming. He looks like a wild thing, tears cutting twin paths down his cheeks. Zhou Zishu wants to reach out. Catch them with his sleeve.
“I’ll wait for you,” he tries to say, but all that comes out is a fresh coat of blood down his chin, and then—
Zhou Zishu crouches in the shadow of a long stone wall and—waits.
He doesn’t quite know why, but something halts his feet where he’s tucked in the shadows. Pain echoes through him, though he’s not injured—it fades in and out, a bad memory. A guard patrol moves through the manor’s back gates, disappearing down the path and into the night, and still Zhou Zishu stays where he is.
Eventually, someone finds him.
A man steps over the wall, white robes fluttering as he lands silently a few paces away. His hairpin flashes once in the thin moonlight before he slips into the shadows next to Zhou Zishu, pressing his back against the wall. For a long moment they stand side by side, not looking at each other.
Then the man says: “I’m tired, A-Xu.”
He sounds it. In the darkness Zhou Zishu can see the shape of him, the way his shoulders are set too stiffly, the way his fingers curl too tightly around his fan. He’s using what little energy he has left to brace himself for a blow.
“You’re here to kill me,” the man continues, plainly. “But listen, before you do—”
“Wen Kexing,” Zhou Zishu says.
Wen Kexing’s jaw snaps shut, and he finally looks directly at Zhou Zishu. “…A-Xu?”
A-Xu. It’s coming back to him, a slow trickle. “Wen Kexing,” Zhou Zishu says again. “I don’t—I remember we were here before, inside the walls. You said you would find me again.” Wen Kexing’s eyes widen. They’re dry, but somehow, impossibly, Zhou Zishu knows what he looks like with tears streaming down his face. “I remember…”
He brings a hand to his stomach. Wen Kexing sucks in a sharp breath. “A-Xu,” he says, “can I—I need to—”
Zhou Zishu nods, and Wen Kexing is right there, pressing a hand flat against Zhou Zishu’s stomach. He’s shaking, a fine tremor—Zhou Zishu can feel it in his whole body. Wen Kexing lifts his other hand to curl around Zhou Zishu’s back, clutching him from both sides. Caught. Held. With Wen Kexing’s touch, the echo of pain fades—Zhou Zishu’s stomach is whole and unbroken, and there’s nothing on his back but old half-numb scars, no oozing burn or healing flesh. Still, Wen Kexing makes a small noise and tips his head forward, stopping just shy of pressing his face into Zhou Zishu’s shoulder. Like this, if Zhou Zishu weren’t wearing his mask, the jade hairpin would be in danger of brushing the corner of his mouth.
“A-Xu,” Wen Kexing whispers, almost to himself. Zhou Zishu parts his lips as if he wants to say something, respond in kind, but nothing comes.
Then Wen Kexing moves to grip Zhou Zishu’s arms and shakes him, hard. “You idiot.” Wen Kexing lifts his head. “What was that, ah? What was that? Next time just kill me, don’t be so stupid!”
“It’s gone now,” Zhou Zishu says, nonsensically, considering Wen Kexing can feel that much for himself.
“It doesn’t matter. Don’t make me watch something like that again, I’ll kill you myself first.”
Zhou Zishu thinks this is probably not true.
Wen Kexing stays where he is for another stretch of heartbeats, then pulls his hands back. He turns away, peering into the darkness in front of them, and Zhou Zishu pretends to adjust his robes, giving them both a chance to pretend that didn’t happen.
Eventually Wen Kexing says, “You remember the last dream, then.”
The woodshed, Zhou Zishu thinks. Their fight, then fighting together. The torture chamber. “Yes.”
“But not—before that.”
But not me, Zhou Zishu hears. “No.”
He almost wants to apologize, but Wen Kexing is already nodding. “That’s good. That’s still progress.” He takes a long breath. “I don’t suppose it would make much difference if we simply…ran away again, would it.”
No, probably not. “We could try.”
Wen Kexing gives him a small, slanted smile, and steps forward.
Zhou Zishu follows. First they cross a field studded with rocks and peach trees. Next, a small stream, water like a strip of night sky under a narrow footbridge. After that the treeline rises to meet them, a forest swallowing their path. As they go the moon seems to grow weaker and weaker, shadows like ink puddles where they overlap. Soon enough the trees blur into one another, and Zhou Zishu can’t see far enough above them to make out the sky, nor his feet below him. The ground feels smooth and empty where there should be roots and brambles and burrows. He can hear the rustle of Wen Kexing’s robes, his own muffled breathing, and nothing else.
It feels strange to not be on guard. To walk through the darkness and not track the distance between his hand and the hilt of his sword at every moment, knowing that either this works or it doesn’t. At his side Wen Kexing is the only point of light, a wash of white that just breaks through the clinging shadows.
“Where are you, right now?” Zhou Zishu asks. He half-expects his voice to echo, but it only fades away, the false forest eating it hungrily.
Wen Kexing hums. “I suppose I’m asleep somewhere. Hopefully Chengling is there, so I won’t have to track both of you down once this is over. The last thing I remember…” He closes his eyes briefly. “Han Ying is dead. I’m sorry. I’m so sorry, A-Xu.”
Something twists in Zhou Zishu’s chest. So it’s true, then. “Did you kill him?” he asks.
“It was my fault,” Wen Kexing says, his face turned away. “And I couldn’t save him.”
“But you tried to.”
“It wasn’t enough. I don’t—things get confusing, after that. I know I woke up, briefly. I remembered—” He cuts off. Takes a deep breath. “Lots to do, A-Xu, once we wake up. That’s all.”
Once they wake up. Zhou Zishu turns that over in his mind. Once they wake up, to a world where even Han Ying is gone, but Zhou Zishu’s shidi was there to try and save him.
“The Zhou Zishu that you know,” Zhou Zishu says. “After Jiuxiao—what did he do?”
Now Wen Kexing looks at him again. “You left,” he says.
“Impossible. You can’t just leave.”
Wen Kexing pivots, walking backward just ahead of Zhou Zishu. “There was no just. You—” He lifts his fan, tracing the air in front of Zhou Zishu’s chest. It pauses seven times, for seven meridians. With each pause Zhou Zishu feels an echo of pain.
“We’re fixing it,” Wen Kexing says, tucking his fan away and turning forward again. “You’ve got friends on the way, very important ones, I hear. But back then you chose just a few years of freedom over staying under your prince’s thumb. And now…well. If I’m right, and I think I am, Jin Wang has made a play to get you back.”
Something about that catches in Zhou Zishu’s mind, a loose thread. He snags it. Pulls.
He left Tianchuang, Wen Kexing said. Left Jin Wang, and wandered far enough to find his last shidi in the Ghost Valley Master, and stayed away long enough for Wen Kexing to grow fond of him. Possibly more than fond, if Wen Kexing has been meeting him in countless dreams that end in death and is still doing everything he can to bring Zhou Zishu back to him. (Very possibly more than fond, Zhou Zishu thinks, remembering Wen Kexing’s screams in the Tianchuang chamber, the tears cutting down his face. Wen Kexing’s hand on Zhou Zishu’s stomach, the fine shiver of it.)
He thinks about how Jin Wang, in the torture chamber, hadn’t just wanted Wen Kexing dead. He wanted Wen Kexing dead at Zhou Zishu’s hand. Wen Kexing had known this would happen—had been resigned to it. Hadn’t he said as much, when he’d pinned Zhou Zishu to the woodshed floor? The paper you were sent to retrieve will tell you to kill me. I was thinking we could skip that part. Every time, it seems, Zhou Zishu has been sent to kill Wen Kexing. And every time, no matter what happens, he is sent to kill Wen Kexing again, with no memory of the time before.
If Jin Wang has him, then he must have drugged him. Rather than sending someone to kill Wen Kexing in the waking world, Jin Wang is sending Zhou Zishu to carve Wen Kexing from his own mind. (Jin Wang has always sent Zhou Zishu to do his worst work for him. In a twisted way, it makes sense that this should be no different.) Zhou Zishu knows there’s no outlasting it, or hoping Jin Wang will change his mind. Jin Wang won’t stop until he gets what he wants.
Only—that isn’t quite it. Zhou Zishu has killed Wen Kexing before, according to Wen Kexing’s list of failed results. Letting you kill me. Killing the prince. Killing myself. Even Zhou Zishu’s death, he said, did not stop the dreams.
What is it? What does Zhou Zishu keep doing, every time, to force them back to this?
On the floor of the torture chamber, right before he blinked and opened his eyes to the manor wall again, he had been looking at Wen Kexing. Stay here, he’d told himself. Unwilling to leave Wen Kexing, even as he was dying.
An image bleeding across his mind like ink on wet paper. Jin Wang’s throne hall, staring down at a growing pool of blood. A sense of horror, clinging to it. Shidi?
A brothel floor, clutching Wen Kexing’s body, certain he’s held him like this before.
Did you know him?
Zhou Zishu feels a tug on his arm and looks down. The darkness has grown so thick that he can hardly see their hands, but he feels where Wen Kexing has caught Zhou Zishu’s sleeve firmly between his fingers.
“Don’t lose me now,” Wen Kexing says.
A banquet hall, a moving carriage, an unnamed inn—shidi, shidi, shidi. Even as he carried out his orders, Zhou Zishu has been fighting, too.
He shifts his arm, wraps his hand around Wen Kexing’s wrist. His thumb rests along the fine bones of Wen Kexing’s hand, and he can feel the shift of them. “Who’s losing you?”
Like that, they keep going.
The darkness thins. At some point he can see the outline of Wen Kexing’s face again, the curve of his nose, the slight purse of his lips. Their feet emerge from the shadows. Between blinks, something looms ahead of them.
Wen Kexing’s hand flexes in his, but his steps don’t stutter. They reach it: a wall, stretching so high they can’t see the top. It curves to the side, so they follow it, Zhou Zishu trailing one finger across the rough stone to make sure it doesn’t disappear.
The shadows writhe and snap, and they’re standing in the spot of darkness where Zhou Zishu blinked into being. The wall under his fingertips is the manor wall, merely twice his height. When Zhou Zishu looks back he only sees the rest of the wall, the peach trees in the field, all washed in moonlight that wasn’t there a moment ago.
“Well,” he says.
“Well,” Wen Kexing echoes. He angles his face away, throat working. Then he shakes his head once and turns back, eyes bright, jaw set. “It’s all right, A-Xu. We’ll think of something. Or we’ll try again. We’ve faced worse than this—it’s nothing compared to that evil Long child’s traps, I’ll tell you that. There is no peak that’s impossible to summit, even if we only take one step each day. We’ll go back to the room and see if we can find anything. We’ll storm the manor ourselves, or try killing the prince again, or test our luck until that cranky immortal decides to finish killing me and runs headfirst into Chengling’s doe eyes. Not even he’s immune to that kid. We’ll figure it out. We’ll—we just will.”
Zhou Zishu still hasn’t let go of his wrist. “All right,” he says. “But let’s not rush.”
“Let’s not rush—?”
“I want to remember,” Zhou Zishu says, “while I can.”
Wen Kexing’s mouth snaps shut.
He tugs Wen Kexing up, over the wall and onto the roof of the woodshed. They settle there, tucked away from the rest of the manor, knees brushing on the tiles. Zhou Zishu undoes his mask, false air hitting his cheeks. The night around them is unchanged after their circle through the darkness—distant footsteps, a buzz of night insects, the starless sky.
Wen Kexing holds out a hand, palm up, as if cupping the watery moonlight. “It is no darker though I blow out my candle,” he murmurs. “It is no warmer though I put on my coat. So I leave my message with the moon, and turn to my bed, hoping for dreams.” He looks at Zhou Zishu, a small smile tugging at the corner of his mouth. “We should have some wine to share.”
Zhou Zishu can imagine it—his hand curled loosely around the neck of a gourd, Wen Kexing tugging it from his grip. The glisten as Wen Kexing wipes his mouth, the lilt of his voice as he pretends to complain. The pleasant warmth, the cotton-dulled feeling of drinking enough, something Zhou Zishu would never allow himself to do with enemies nearby.
His ears ring and ring.
“Tell me something,” he says. “Something good.”
Wen Kexing blinks. “About what?”
Wen Kexing tilts his head. “You have a disciple now,” he says. “Zhang Chengling. Or Little Idiot, as we call him.”
Zhou Zishu raises an eyebrow.
“It fits,” Wen Kexing assures him. “He’s young—so optimistic. He even likes me, not that he knows who I really am.” A quick flicker of eyes toward Zhou Zishu, then away again. “He started late, but he works hard. Too hard, sometimes—you make me have to be the easy one. Who would believe that? The crazy Ghost Valley Master, telling you not to let your disciple die of heatstroke. But you’re a good shifu—he’s almost mastered the swift-moving steps. Your sect has a new generation, A-Xu.”
The tiles are rough under Zhou Zishu’s palm. Zhang Chengling—it doesn’t have any significance to him, but his mind knows the shape of it. Chengling can’t go, he has to practice his martial arts. Chengling—work hard in the future. Chengling—stop. Wait for him to come back.
Shifu, he thinks.
“Our sect,” he says out loud. Wen Kexing still calls himself the Ghost Valley Master, but if he knows so much about Zhou Zishu’s disciple—that can’t be the whole story. Zhou Zishu hadn’t asked, before. There hadn’t been time, and he’d felt immediate surety that the answer wouldn’t change anything. But—
“Ah, ah,” Wen Kexing says. “You’re just trying to foist more responsibilities onto me.”
“I’ve seen you spar,” Zhou Zishu reminds him. “Are you saying you have nothing to offer?”
“Nothing you don’t have well in hand. I’ll teach him some dirty tricks when you’re not looking, but he’s all yours.”
A laugh makes its way up Zhou Zishu’s throat, rasping and short, but a laugh still. Wen Kexing’s eyes jump to him, lips parting.
“Surely I don’t let you get away with that,” Zhou Zishu says, once it passes. He wants more—he wants that laugh to come back, until it’s no longer rough with disuse. He wants, fiercely, to know what this new version of his sect looks like, shifu and shishu and disciple. “Tell me, then. Something good about you.”
“As you can see, I am very beautiful,” Wen Kexing says immediately.
Zhou Zishu whacks his arm.
“You don’t agree? My A-Xu is so cruel.” His lower lip wobbles, the most effective pout Zhou Zishu has ever seen on a grown man, and then his mouth straightens and he looks back to his hands. “Ah, you’ll be disappointed if I really try to answer, A-Xu. I was good once, very briefly. Now I’m the evil master of the evil Ghost Valley.”
Zhou Zishu has no way to refute this, no memories to draw on, other than the way Wen Kexing hasn’t hurt him. The way he keeps coming back for him. The fond way he talks about Zhou Zishu’s disciple, about Zhou Zishu himself.
(That, and the knowledge that someone can do very bad things for good reasons, and very good things for very bad reasons. That good and evil are not drawn in such simple lines.
And even if he can’t refute it, well—who is Zhou Zishu to judge?)
“I’m trying now, though,” Wen Kexing says. “When you wake up—you’ll know that. I’ll show you.” He blinks, his expression slipping back into something playful. “For now I earn my keep with dinner. The two of you would starve without me.”
“What a dutiful shidi,” Zhou Zishu observes.
“What a lazy shixiong,” Wen Kexing shoots back. “Look at yourself, a master assassin—who would ever guess he whines at the mere thought of cooking his own meals?”
“Hmm. You don’t seem to mind.”
“I told you, I’m trying to be good. Next time we’re home, pay attention to how hard I work.”
Zhou Zishu tips his face up at the heavy moon. “All right,” he says. “When I wake up—you’ll show me then.”
When he looks back at Wen Kexing, Wen Kexing’s face is turned toward his. It’s so easy, then, to lean in.
It’s hardly a kiss at first, just a curious brush of lips. Wen Kexing sucks in a breath, stilling, like he thinks it might have been a mistake—so Zhou Zishu kisses him again. This time Wen Kexing makes a noise, as if he’s trying to say something without lifting his mouth from Zhou Zishu’s, and then he turns into the kiss, knocking their knees together. Like this he’s not so much taller than Zhou Zishu, and it is hardly a reach for Zhou Zishu to slip his hand around the side of Wen Kexing’s neck, where he can feel the pulse thrumming under his palm.
Wen Kexing touches his shoulder, then slides down to clutch Zhou Zishu’s sleeve, a full-fisted mirror of how they emerged from the darkness. For a moment Wen Kexing is everywhere—he and the moonlight are the same, and Zhou Zishu is bathed in him.
Zhou Zishu turns his head, resting the corner of his mouth against Wen Kexing’s. They breathe together for a moment, cheek to cheek, and then Zhou Zishu pulls back just enough to see Wen Kexing’s expression. He doesn’t drop his hand. “This is what we are, isn’t it?”
“I,” Wen Kexing says. For the first time, he seems utterly lost.
Ah. “We want to be,” Zhou Zishu says.
He hears the click of Wen Kexing’s throat as he swallows. There’s something torn open about the way he looks at Zhou Zishu, still grasping his sleeve.
“We want to be,” Zhou Zishu says again. It feels impossible that this other, awake version of himself could be somewhere in the world, in time, where he could want—where, it seems, he could have.
Wen Kexing’s grip tightens. “If, when you remember—if you still—A-Xu, if you still—”
“I will,” Zhou Zishu says. He feels dazed, the ringing in his ears making itself known again with a vengeance. “But you’ll have to find me, first.”
“I will,” Wen Kexing echoes fiercely. “Even if you change your mind—no matter what. I will claw my way out of hell if I have to.”
Zhou Zishu knows he means it. He also knows Wen Kexing can make all the promises he wants, and can’t do anything about them if he is still trapped in Zhou Zishu’s dreams.
“Okay, then,” he says. “I’m ready.”
He pushes himself to his feet. Wen Kexing doesn’t argue, just keeps pace with him as they make their way to the inner stretch of the manor. Zhou Zishu doesn’t bother to stick to the shadows this time. Beside him Wen Kexing is alert, fan open, but they pass no guards. They pass no servants, or manor guests, as if the whole complex has been abandoned in their brief absence.
They reach the innermost building, the wide set of doors. No one chases them up the steps, and the rooftops are still, no archers appearing to speed them along. When Zhou Zishu shoves the doors open, the scraping sound echoes through the empty pathways.
Like before they step, impossibly, into the Tianchuang torture chamber. This time the braziers are already alight, waiting for them. No swordsmen melt out of the shadows—for now, they’re the only ones here.
Wen Kexing turns as he crosses the floor, gaze sweeping over every corner. Zhou Zishu doesn’t bother and goes right to the low table, where a wooden box sits among the blades and poisons. His instructions float to the top of his mind, clear as if Jin Wang had just delivered them. Find the name in the box carved with a fan. Kill the person with that name.
The box opens easily, spilling a curl of paper into Zhou Zishu’s hand. He flattens it. There’s one jagged edge, as if it has been torn from a book.
Wen Kexing, it says next to an ink drawing of the man Zhou Zishu just kissed. Qingya Ghost Valley Master.
Carefully, Zhou Zishu folds the paper and puts it back in the box. Puts the box back on the table. A few paces away Wen Kexing stands with his back to Zhou Zishu, head tipped to study the skylight. Snow drifts around him in a way that, were they anywhere else, would be almost lovely.
Even after Zhou Zishu killed him, again and again, Wen Kexing will still turn his back.
Zhou Zishu thinks about the version of himself that Wen Kexing knows, the one who was brave enough and broken enough to leave Tianchuang. The one who has a shidi willing to die over and over in a dream just to meet him in the next one. The one who wants.
I’ll find you again, Wen Kexing said, and had. Zhou Zishu only has to trust him one more time.
“Wen Kexing,” Zhou Zishu says, just to hear it again. Holds it there on his tongue as he draws his sword.
Wen Kexing turns. His eyes flick to Baiyi, a line drawing between his brows for just a moment before it clears.
“A-Xu,” he says, and then nothing else as Zhou Zishu draws Baiyi across his throat in a neat, efficient line.
There is no painless way to kill someone with his sword. But there are sure ways. A cut across the throat, fast enough not to drag and deep enough to make it quick. One of the small mercies Zhou Zishu has collected after killing and killing—if you have the choice, if you have the capacity to care: this is how you do it.
He catches Wen Kexing as he falls. That’s how Jin Wang finds him: holding the Ghost Valley Master’s head on his thighs, knees soaked through with blood.
“Zishu,” Jin Wang says approvingly. Fingers ghost along Zhou Zishu’s forehead. Settle atop his hair. “You always do such good work for me.” A pause. “Did you know him?”
Zhou Zishu looks down at the man cradled across his legs. He shifts, loosening his hands from the white robes. Letting go. For the first time in a very long time, all he hears is silence.
Zhou Zishu wakes up.
The ceiling of his quarters swims into focus above him, lit by the pink glow of dawn. He blinks slowly. It’s morning. Something about that strikes him as—unexpected, but he doesn’t know why.
His eyes are dry.
There’s someone next to him, shifting, a hand settling over Zhou Zishu’s chest. “Zishu,” Jin Wang says.
Zhou Zishu becomes dimly aware that his limbs are tied to the bed. The skin of his wrists stings when he moves, rubbed raw. He must have been here a while—the ropes, the sickening way the room tilts as he turns his head, telling him there’s something running through his veins, blurring the edges of his thoughts. The nails ache, deep and biting, like they’re making up for the time he escaped in sleep.
“Wangye,” he says, finally, voice scraping its way out of his throat. “What happened?”
Jin Wang leans forward. Instead of answering he says: “Are you ready to come home?”
The words seem to echo. Zhou Zishu breathes, feeling the rise of his chest under Jin Wang’s splayed hand. Something flickers through his mind—anger souring Jin Wang’s expression, the clack of a bottle against Zhou Zishu’s teeth, but it fades as quickly as it comes. In the end, there’s nothing for him to do but nod.
A smile breaks over Jin Wang’s face. “Good,” he says. “Good, Zishu. Welcome back.”
Once he can sit up under his own power Jin Wang unties him, sending someone to fetch salve for Zhou Zishu’s wrists. Zhou Zishu must have done something very wrong to be so weak now, but Jin Wang doesn’t tell him what happened and there’s only so much one can demand from a prince. He will have to figure it out himself, he thinks, only for the thought to slip away from him a moment later, water through his fingers.
There are clothes waiting for him, ones that look like his own dark robes but clean, freshly tailored. His cloak hangs over the back of the privacy screen next to a blue outer robe Zhou Zishu doesn’t quite recognize. When he asks about it, Jin Wang only has another attendant take it away.
He dresses as steadily as his weakened limbs will allow. Ties his hair up. When he steps around the screen Jin Wang is still sitting by the bedside. The table next to him has been cleared, the wine jug gone.
“Ah,” Jin Wang says softly, regarding him. “There you are.”
Here he is. Zhou Zishu tries to summon a response to those words, and fails.
Jin Wang stands. He has Baiyi in his hand and holds it out, passing the hilt to Zhou Zishu. “I had it sharpened for you,” he says.
Zhou Zishu takes Baiyi and runs his finger along the blade. Lets it bite into the pad of his thumb. A bead of blood wells up.
“Zishu,” Jin Wang chides, producing a handkerchief. He dabs away the blood. Zhou Zishu lets him, and that seems to appease Jin Wang, whose shoulders relax as he steps away. “Haven’t you injured yourself enough already? Tell me you’ll be more careful now that you’re back.”
Zhou Zishu knows what this is. He lowers himself to his knees, then further, pressing his forehead to the floor before straightening enough to speak. “Zhou Zishu apologizes,” he says, and only a small part of him screams that he still doesn’t know what he is apologizing for. It’s terribly easy not to listen, to focus on the silence in the wake of his words instead. “This servant is grateful for Wangye’s generosity, and will accept any punishment he feels necessary.”
When Jin Wang speaks, he is clearly pleased. “No need for punishment, Zishu. No need to be so formal now, either. Call me cousin.”
“Thank you, cousin.” The words crumble like ash in his mouth.
Jin Wang’s hands slip under Zhou Zishu’s elbows, pulling him to his feet. “Come,” Jin Wang says. “You must be hungry. I’ll have breakfast brought to my quarters.”
Zhou Zishu does as he’s told.
For days, he moves in a haze. His subordinates are skittish around him as if he’s some sort of ghost, or a dog off its leash. Even Duan Pengju, newly demoted and clearly furious about it, seems wary when Zhou Zishu looks at him too long. Only Jin Wang isn’t afraid of him, because Jin Wang has never had cause to fear him.
He knows he left some time ago—he has the seven nails to show for it. He knows he wandered. He does not know what happened after that. “We’ll find a way to reverse the effects,” is all Jin Wang says about it, that first day back. He sends Zhou Zishu hot bathwater, numbing salves, medicines to manage the pain for now. Zhou Zishu dips a cloth in the bath and cleans himself, leaving the rest of the offerings on the table. Instead he sits in the middle of the floor and circulates his energy like he’s a child again, learning the limits of his own body. Adjusting to the pain, as if he had somehow forgotten it.
He remembers driving the nails in himself. Kneeling in the throne hall with the last one in hand. But beyond that—
He thinks about eighty-one red flowers, and feels only the echo of grief. Jiuxiao’s lover dead on the ground, and only the echo of guilt. It’s like a thread has been snapped somewhere inside him, and the whole tapestry of his last few months has just unraveled. As if his horror has been cut away from him, corralled behind a privacy screen. The harder he looks for the shape of it, the paler it gets.
So he does not look.
His generals update him on all he has missed, intelligence pulled from every corner of the land in his absence. Han Ying, dead in an ambush. Unrest in jianghu. Gao Chong’s death, Zhao Jing living up to his nicknames. The liuli armor, the search for a key. Zhou Zishu reads stacks of notes by candlelight long after Jin Wang has gone to his own chambers, cataloguing information and feeling nothing at all.
(As he tugs a pile of revised alliance maps toward him a booklet tumbles to his desk. The Brochure of Ghosts, claiming to expose the faces and names of prominent criminals of Ghost Valley. Zhou Zishu opens it. Qingya Ghost Valley Master, the first page tells him. Wen Kexing.
He looks at the face sketched there until his inkstone dries, and then he turns the page.)
He lies awake once he is done for the night, pretending he does not notice the minute shift of a guard’s feet outside his chambers. Later, when pain sweeps through him, he clenches his teeth and thinks, absurdly, that there should be someone there with him. When he walks the halls with Jin Wang during the day he finds himself turning to listen for another set of footsteps dogging his. When he visits the training field, he almost expects to see just one boy instead of dozens, a lone figure practicing his swift-moving steps again, and again, and again.
Somewhere, in a half-formed idea that surfaces when his mind drifts, he knows he is waiting for someone. He doesn’t know when, or why. Just someone, a name that skitters away from him when he tries to grasp it.
So he does not try.
He simply waits.
Someone comes for him on the seventh day.
Zhou Zishu is standing in Jin Wang’s study, just off the low dais as Duan Pengju delivers a report next to him. Jin Wang sits at his desk, brush hovering over a map as he follows Duan Pengju’s latest news from Zhao Jing’s campaign against Ghost Valley and hunt for the liuli armor. Zhou Zishu should be paying attention—he will be tasked with taking over the armory search soon enough—but his focus keeps slipping, gaze sliding past Jin Wang’s table to the paintings on the wall. Colorful peaks and trees, blurring forward like they’re reaching for him. Like he could step onto the dais and pass Jin Wang’s table to escape into the mountains there.
Maybe that’s where he was, before he came back to the palace. On a mountain, alone. The thought comes and goes, fleeting and empty, and the paintings snap back to the wall, flat once again.
“Zishu, are you all right?” Jin Wang asks, cutting Duan Pengju off mid-sentence.
Zhou Zishu blinks, shifting his focus to the slow coil of smoke from the incense burner instead. Yes, he is going to say, because it’s the only answer he has. Before he can, a commotion filters in from the hall.
Jin Wang frowns. “Pengju, see what that is.”
Duan Pengju bows and crosses to the door, shooting Zhou Zishu a withering look as he goes. Zhou Zishu pretends not to notice.
“I have a doctor working on a new pain remedy,” Jin Wang says as the doors slide open. “It will be ready tomorrow, you can try it then.”
Zhou Zishu nods.
“Zishu, are you sure you’re well? If you need to rest, you only have to say—”
The side of the doors again, and Duan Pengju returns, footsteps hurried across the carpet.
“Wangye,” he says, eyes glittering as he takes a knee, “my men have captured the Ghost Valley Master.”
A small shiver rolls down Zhou Zishu’s spine, as if he’s suddenly being watched. Next to him, surprise flashes across Jin Wang’s face. “I did not authorize a raid on Ghost Valley yet,” he says, warning.
“No, Wangye,” Duan Pengju says quickly. “My men caught the Ghost Valley Master’s trail near the palace, where he attempted to set a trap for them. However, he was readily beaten and apprehended. The agents who followed him believe he is seeking the rest of the liuli armor.”
Jin Wang leans back, settling his brush against the inkstone. “Have him brought to us.”
Duan Pengju’s mouth curves into a smile. “He is already here.”
He returns to the doors, sliding them open. Zhou Zishu turns, putting his back to the wall to keep Jin Wang in his sight as a line of Tianchuang swordsmen file in to line the walls of the study. Another group follows, flanking a man Zhou Zishu recognizes only from the Ghost Valley booklet. Deep crimson robes. Bright eyes lined in red. Jade hairpin. He looks like the booklet sketch, except the slope of his nose is sharper in person, and he has blood running down his chin from a split lip. As soon as he steps into the room his eyes find Zhou Zishu and stay there.
The swordsmen force the Ghost Valley Master to his knees. He goes, chin raised, bound hands resting against his thighs, eerily calm despite the number of unsheathed swords angled toward his body. The swordsmen are silent, watching him carefully above the clothes covering their faces. One holds a white fan in his hand, the edges of it stained red.
Jin Wang stands, circling his desk to stop at the edge of the dais. “Is this truly the Ghost Valley Master?”
“Yes, Wangye,” Duan Pengju says, but Jin Wang looks to Zhou Zishu.
Zhou Zishu nods once. “His face matches the sketch, Wangye.”
When he turns back, the Ghost Valley Master is still watching him. The same shiver runs down Zhou Zishu’s spine again, the one that tells him: pay attention.
“Excellent,” Jin Wang is saying, “excellent.” To the Ghost Valley Master: “Forgive the circumstances, Valley Master, but your reputation demands…caution.”
“Of course,” the Ghost Valley Master says sweetly. He smiles, a fresh rivulet of blood trickling down his chin. “If I ever see you again, I will be sure to return your hospitality in kind.”
Despite the clear threat in his words, Zhou Zishu feels the strange urge to—laugh.
Jin Wang is less amused. His eyes narrow, staring down at the Ghost Valley Master. “I am not a fool. After sequestering yourself in Qingya Mountain and going undetected for so long, it must be no coincidence that you find yourself here.” To the side, Duan Pengju shifts uncomfortably. “You must want something.”
“Interesting.” The Ghost Valley Master sounds lazy, as if he doesn’t have blood on his teeth. “I’ll bite. Tell me, Wangye, what do I want?”
“An alliance,” Jin Wang says. Zhou Zishu can hear the note of satisfaction in it. Jin Wang thinks a fly has flown right into his web. “To protect yourself as you seek out the rest of the liuli armor.”
The Ghost Valley Master tips his head back and laughs. The sound fills the chamber, wine overturned into a too-small cup. When he stops laughing, though, the Ghost Valley Master’s expression holds no mirth. Only vicious hatred, directed at Jin Wang. “An alliance? Does a viper ally with a worm? What use could you be to me, when you were too stupid to even realize the piece you already had was a fake?”
“You can chase the liuli armor until your bones collapse into dust. You can find the armory and gorge yourself on its secrets until you choke. What I want is so much more precious than that.”
Jin Wang starts forward, arm twitching back like he might strike the Ghost Valley Master across the face. He stops, though, and turns to Zhou Zishu instead.
“Find out what he knows,” Jin Wang orders, and shakes back his sleeves as he makes his way back to his desk.
Zhou Zishu can see his next steps easily—the Tianchuang jail, the torture chamber. The wooden chair. He could have answers for Jin Wang by sunrise, if there are any to be found.
He crosses the floor, noting how the swordsmen shift, how the Ghost Valley Master’s gaze jumps back to him. The viciousness drains away as Zhou Zishu approaches, leaving something open, a soft parting of lips.
“If Zhou-shouling isn’t feeling well, this one could transport the Ghost Valley Master instead,” Duan Pengju is saying to the side. Zhou Zishu pays him no mind, coming to a stop a sword’s length from the Ghost Valley Master’s knees. He holds out a hand to the swordsman with the dirtied fan. As he does, his gaze flickers over the group. All nine guards look steadily back at him.
The swordsman passes him the fan. Zhou Zishu curls his fingers around it and finally meets the Ghost Valley Master’s eyes.
Everyone who knows Zhou Zishu knows to fear him. His subordinates, armed with their own swords, still keep out of arm’s reach. But the Ghost Valley Master, weaponless and bound, tips his head back and looks at Zhou Zishu with nothing but absolute trust.
Zhou Zishu has been waiting for someone. He thinks, now, he no longer is.
“A-Xu,” the Ghost Valley Master says. It sounds like hello. He lifts his hands, still bound with the braided rope Zhou Zishu selected, ages and ages ago. It can only be cut away with the sharpest of blades.
Zhou Zishu draws Baiyi.
“Zishu—” Jin Wang has time to say, before Zhou Zishu swings his sword down in an arc, slicing through the ropes at the Ghost Valley Master’s wrists.
Freed, the Ghost Valley Master stands in one fluid motion. As he does, the swordsmen surrounding him turn their blades away, leaping to attack the Tianchuang guards along the walls.
In front of him, the Ghost Valley Master holds out a hand. “May I?”
As if in a dream Zhou Zishu hands him the fan, and the Ghost Valley Master whirls around, tossing it to knock away some of the dueling guards, the ones who didn’t march him in. The short hall is suddenly a flurry of blades, a clash of swords that sets Zhou Zishu’s ear ringing. He doesn’t move.
“Zishu!” Jin Wang’s voice calls from the dais. “Zishu, come to me!”
He could. Even if every swordsman in this room attacked him at once, Zhou Zishu could fight his way to the prince. The only person he might have trouble fighting is the Ghost Valley Master, who had the chance to turn his iron fan on him already and didn’t. Zhou Zishu could use that to his advantage and secure the room before the palace guards even catch wind of the attack.
But Baiyi is in his hand, unbloodied. He finds he doesn’t want to change that yet.
“Zishu! Pengju, do something!”
A flash of silver to his left as Duan Pengju throws back two swordsmen, breaking through the fight to point his blade at Zhou Zishu. Zhou Zishu turns to face him, slow, as if underwater.
“Zhou Zishu,” Duan Pengju shouts, mouth curling in triumph, “you traitor. I should have guessed you would have a hand in this, colluding with Ghost Valley to find the liuli armor.”
The tip of his sword pricks Zhou Zishu’s chest. Zhou Zishu raises his eyebrows.
“We’ll take you away, too,” Duan Pengju goes on. “To a jail you truly can’t escape, along with the Valley Master, and you’ll never—”
A white fan streaks past, slashing across Duan Pengju’s arm. He drops his sword with a cry, and the Ghost Valley Master fills the space where it was, curling one hand around Duan Pengju’s throat and lifting him clean off the ground.
“Yes?” the Ghost Valley Master prompts, tilting his head. Zhou Zishu stands just behind his shoulder, and he can see the soft fall of the Ghost Valley Master’s hair as he does, the gleam of his eyes. “He’ll never what? You didn’t finish your sentence.”
Duan Pengju rasps, scrabbling at the Ghost Valley Master’s arm, nails raking over the fine embroidery on his wide sleeves as his face reddens. “Shouling—”
“Tch,” the Ghost Valley Master says, and tightens his grip. With a crack of bone Duan Pengju goes limp.
The Ghost Valley Master tosses the body to the floor where it lands in a heap next to another swordsman, dead or unconscious. The hall is calming around them—the nine guards that brought in the Ghost Valley Master still stand, two barring the closed door, others eyeing their fallen opponents. On the dais Jin Wang half-stands behind his desk, staring down four blades in wordless fury.
In front of Zhou Zishu the Ghost Valley Master surveys the end of the fight. One of the remaining swordsmen approaches with a bow. “Wen-gongzi, the room is secure.”
The Ghost Valley Master nods and closes his fan. Then he turns back to Zhou Zishu, eyes blazing, and steps toward him.
“A-Xu,” the Ghost Valley Master says. He lifts his sleeve to wipe the blood from his mouth, then wraps that hand around the back of Zhou Zishu’s head and reels him in.
The kiss is desperate and hard, teeth dragging across Zhou Zishu’s bottom lip. He has a moment for a jolt of shock, a cut-off gasp as the ringing in his ears sharpens to the point of pain, and then there’s only quiet. His own breathing. The Ghost Valley Master pulls back, just enough that their noses still brush, and now it is Zhou Zishu whose face is tipped back, looking up at his—
It slots into place deep inside him, a key turning in a lock.
Zhou Zishu closes his eyes, just for a moment. When he opens them it’s Wen Kexing looking back, eyes wide and searching. Zhou Zishu lifts his free hand and curls it around Wen Kexing’s wrist.
“Lao Wen,” he says. Lao Wen. Lao Wen. “What took you so long?”
Wen Kexing’s answering smile puts the sun to shame. “So long!” he says, indignant. “You think this kind of plan comes together in one day? You flatter me, A-Xu.”
A plan, indeed. Zhou Zishu can see Wen Kexing’s hand at work now, in both the brilliance of the plan and the theatrics of it. The way it mirrors those first few dreams, drawing from Zhou Zishu’s memories of the palace to Wen Kexing’s advantage. The split lip and tied hands, to sell the act. Zhou Zishu wants to punch him in the arm for the audacity of it; he wants, more than that, to tip his face into Wen Kexing’s neck and laugh and laugh.
“Chengling?” he asks under his breath, still holding Wen Kexing’s wrist.
“Safe,” Wen Kexing affirms.
Before Zhou Zishu can say anything else, Jin Wang calls: “Zishu.”
Zhou Zishu blinks. He had almost forgotten, here under the curve of Wen Kexing’s body, that Jin Wang was still watching. He shifts his gaze, looking over Wen Kexing’s shoulder at the dais where Jin Wang stands hunched, fists pressed to the surface of his desk.
“Zishu,” he says again, broken with fury. “What are you doing? How—?”
“‘You will see what you love most in the world, and then eliminate it forever,’” Zhou Zishu says, plucking the memory easily from his mind. He feels Wen Kexing’s surprised inhale next to him. “You tried to make me forget him. But he didn’t forget me.”
“A-Xu,” Wen Kexing murmurs.
Jin Wang slams a hand flat on his desk. “So this is it, Zishu? You’ve found a new master?”
“Zhou Zishu is his own man,” Wen Kexing says, a thread of amusement in his voice. He shares a look with Zhou Zishu, a little joke only they know.
“Then what does that make you?” Jin Wang demands.
Wen Kexing raises his chin, proud. “I am his.”
Absurdly, Zhou Zishu feels his neck heat up. “Lao Wen,” he mutters.
“Really?” Wen Kexing says. “After you just declared your love for me in front of everyone, now you want to be shy?”
“Shut up. It wasn’t everyone.” Chengling, he thinks. They’d probably want to tell him at some point. Gu Xiang, too. Zhou Zishu isn’t looking forward to whatever talking-to he’s going to get from her.
Jin Wang hits his desk again. “Zhou Zishu,” he says, “you would abandon our cause, everything you’ve worked for, for someone like this? You’d throw everything away, run off again, to align with criminals and nobodies? You will never be free of the things you’ve done. I’m the one who has forgiven you, after I gave you everything and you threw it away. Now you are nothing.”
Wen Kexing turns to face him, snapping his fan open. “If you keep talking, I’m going to assume you want to die.”
“Kill me, then!” Jin Wang shouts. “Kill me! You think you can just walk out of here either way?”
“Yes,” Wen Kexing says. “Zhou-shouling is going to escort his prisoner out of here. Isn’t that what you ordered? By the time anyone thinks to question it we will be long gone.”
“You—I’ll kill you! All of you! Guards!”
Zhou Zishu lets go of Wen Kexing’s arm and steps around him, making his way to the dais as Jin Wang continues to yell. The swordsmen part for him and Jin Wang glares, breathing hard.
“There will only be others,” Jin Wang seethes. “Worse than me. You know that better than anyone.”
“I do,” Zhou Zishu says, and strikes Jin Wang in the center of his chest.
Jin Wang gapes soundlessly, stumbling back from his desk. He tries to raise a hand to his chest and his arm falls back to his side. Blood spills over his chin.
“You,” he says. “You—Zishu.” And then he crumples to the floor, unconscious.
Zhou Zishu steps off the dais and returns to Wen Kexing in the center of the hall. Wen Kexing watches him carefully, then nods once.
The swordsman who had declared the room secure earlier hastens to bow to Zhou Zishu. “Zhuangzhu,” he says. “This one is Bi Xingming. We came with Wen-gongzi to escort you to safety. We should hurry now to meet the others.”
“Others,” Zhou Zishu echoes.
“Yes, by the way,” Wen Kexing says, “I’ve brought you a few more disciples.” He meets Zhou Zishu’s eyes, his smile softer than it has been since he was marched into the room. “And he’s right, we should go. Zhou-zhuangzhu, would you care to escort this prisoner out of here?”
Zhou Zishu swallows. “So dramatic,” he says, instead of everything else welling up inside him. He starts for the door, Wen Kexing falling into step beside him, the swordsmen gathering themselves around them both. And like that, Zhou Zishu leaves Jin Wang’s palace once again.
Later, after everything—after slipping out of the city with Han Ying’s juniors, after Wen Kexing kneeled to him on a dusty road and declared himself Siji Manor’s unworthy second disciple, after reuniting with Chengling and Gu Xiang and Beiyuan—Wen Kexing helps him take down his hair.
It’s in a topknot, the one he did this morning in his palace quarters. Wen Kexing unwinds the leather wrap, dropping it unceremoniously on the ground. Shakes out the single braid with careful fingers. Zhou Zishu could do this himself—was planning on doing it himself—but Wen Kexing had followed him here, and Zhou Zishu had not protested. He can see Wen Kexing’s face now, reflected in the little round table mirror, the line between his brows as he wets a comb and smooths the waves left by the knot.
He thinks Wen Kexing might want to be rid of it as much as he does.
Evening is setting in outside, light thinning. The occasional footsteps pass, a snatch of conversation. Zhou Zishu settles into his chair and lets his eyes slip shut. His limbs are heavy, and Wen Kexing’s hands are gentle as they gather his hair into a half-twist. It is, Zhou Zishu knows, a blessing that he can still feel this. That he did not return to a body that is wholly numb, not yet.
A slight tug at the twist, and Wen Kexing’s hands still for the first time. Zhou Zishu opens his eyes and blinks at the mirror. Wen Kexing’s jade hairpin catches the waning light, stark against Zhou Zishu’s hair.
For a moment, when he blinks again—
The hairpin, crooked in the candlelit throne hall—
—lit up by a strip of moonlight in an unnamed manor’s woodshed—
—brushing Zhou Zishu’s mask as Wen Kexing clutched his shoulder—
Here, now, Wen Kexing sweeps a strand of hair over Zhou Zishu’s shoulder, his hand lingering, and leans down so his reflection fits next to Zhou Zishu’s. Like this, their heads so close together with the hairpin glinting in the middle, anyone looking wouldn’t be able to tell which one of them was actually wearing it.
“There,” Wen Kexing says. “Pretty as ever, A-Xu.”
Zhou Zishu lets out a soft breath and reaches back with one hand, catching Wen Kexing and holding him there. They stay like that for one heartbeat, two, and then Zhou Zishu twists in his chair, bringing them nose to nose. Wen Kexing doesn’t move, watching, his cheek cupped in Zhou Zishu’s hand.
Zhou Zishu turns his hand, tracing the backs of his knuckles over the hinge of Wen Kexing’s jaw, lower, across the smooth, unbroken skin of his neck. He feels it when Wen Kexing swallows, and he swallows too, reflexively.
What do you say to someone after you’ve cut them open and they’ve still come back, over and over again?
In the end he doesn’t say anything. It’s Wen Kexing who says, “A-Xu…”
“Lao Wen,” Zhou Zishu replies, and tugs on his collar, once, just enough for him to get the hint.
Wen Kexing kisses him. It isn’t the sudden, curious kiss on the rooftop, or the desperate kiss in the study. This is slow, Wen Kexing’s lips against his, a shared breath, another. This is both of them awake and real.
Zhou Zishu is the one to part his lips, deepen the kiss. He traces his tongue along the swell of Wen Kexing’s lower lip, then sucks it into his mouth. Come on, now.
Wen Kexing makes a muffled noise. Without breaking the kiss he leans forward, dropping the comb on the table, and then both of his hands are tangled in Zhou Zishu’s hair, disturbing all that careful brushing. He tugs and Zhou Zishu rises to meet him, turning fully in the chair, one knee planted on the cushion. He still has a hand curled in Wen Kexing’s collar, and he reaches out blindly with the other, catching the robes at Wen Kexing’s waist. They kiss like that, the line of their bodies broken only by the back of the chair, until Wen Kexing breaks away to kiss the corner of Zhou Zishu’s mouth instead, his temple, the space under his ear, turning Zhou Zishu’s head by the hair as he goes. Zhou Zishu shivers and closes his eyes, and feels the sudden urge to laugh, remembering the Red Peony House. Thinking Wen Kexing was fumbling, that he wouldn’t know what to do, given the chance.
Evening light presses against his eyelids, making everything warm and red-tinged as Wen Kexing trails a line of heat along his jaw, back to his mouth. Zhou Zishu’s whole face is tingling by now, sensations overlapping like ripples on a pond, but he still feels it when Wen Kexing hums something against his lips.
“What?” Zhou Zishu says, pulling back just enough to speak.
“A-Xu,” Wen Kexing says.
Zhou Zishu tips forward again, so his lips just graze Wen Kexing’s. “You keep calling me. I’m right here.”
“A-Xu,” Wen Kexing says, like he’s agreeing. “A-Xu, A-Xu.” His hands tighten in Zhou Zishu’s hair, just enough that Zhou Zishu can feel the pressure on his scalp. Enough to know Wen Kexing has him like this—tethered.
“Lao Wen,” he breathes, “are you going to keep saying my name, or are you going to tell me what you want?”
Wen Kexing pauses. His breath ghosts along Zhou Zishu’s cheek, and he shakes one hand loose, using it to push Zhou Zishu’s hair away from his neck. There’s a shock of cool air against his sweat-dampened skin, and then Wen Kexing swoops in and bites, hard.
Zhou Zishu’s eyes fly open. “You—!”
Wen Kexing laughs into his neck. “It’s only fair,” he says, smug, before kissing the tender spot. And Zhou Zishu knows Wen Kexing heard what Zhou Zishu couldn’t find words to say, earlier.
“You’re such a brat,” Zhou Zishu says, instead of: I swear these are the only marks we will ever leave on each other again.
Eventually Wen Kexing lifts his head, and they trade kisses until Zhou Zishu’s knee hurts even through the chair cushion, and then for a long while after that. They don’t do anything else, though Zhou Zishu’s hands dip lower in the folds of Wen Kexing’s robes, and he starts to think about the narrow bed across the room. Maybe later, when he has been himself again for more than a day. When exhaustion isn’t so set into his bones. There’s a lot of work ahead of him, with his new disciples, with tackling the issue of the nails, with Jin Wang’s continued threat. But somewhere in there, Zhou Zishu thinks, there will be a later.
Speaking of work—
Zhou Zishu pulls back, gently untangling Wen Kexing from his hair. He returns Wen Kexing’s hands with a kiss to one palm, and then Zhou Zishu stands, taking a subtle moment to shake out his knee before pulling on his outer robe.
“A-Xu, are you leaving?” Wen Kexing says, plaintive expression cut by his bitten-red lips, his bright eyes.
Zhou Zishu slides open the door. “I’ll be back,” he says, but Wen Kexing trails after him anyway, like Zhou Zishu knew he would. They wander Beiyuan’s manor until they find the empty kitchen, and Zhou Zishu busies himself lighting a brazier and looking for a pot.
Wen Kexing props his elbow against the long table. “What are you doing?”
“Boiling water,” Zhou Zishu says pointedly.
Wen Kexing lights up. “You remembered.”
“Mm.” Zhou Zishu settles the pot over the flames, and comes to face Wen Kexing across the table. “You said you’d deserve a day off.”
“And I do.”
“You do,” Zhou Zishu says. He pauses a moment, the crackle of flames filling the quiet. “More than that, probably.”
“Ah…” Wen Kexing shifts. “Better not. Poor Chengling would perish if he had to eat your cooking for any longer.”
Zhou Zishu snorts. Then, because he can, he leans forward and kisses Wen Kexing right between his eyebrows. Also because he can, he reaches up and flicks his forehead immediately after.
“What— A-Xu!” Wen Kexing claps a hand over his forehead. “What was that for?”
“I remembered that part, too,” Zhou Zishu tells him, and returns to the pot.
When the tea is done he carries it back to his room, where they drink and let the rest of the evening slip away. Wen Kexing doesn’t mention the room Beiyuan has surely prepared for him, and neither does Zhou Zishu. It only makes sense, then, that Wen Kexing wriggles in beside him on the bed, long legs knocking against his.
For a while they’re both quiet, just listening to each other breathe. When exhaustion is a physical weight on Zhou Zishu’s eyelids he tips his head to the side, only to find Wen Kexing already looking back at him.
“Are you afraid to sleep?” Zhou Zishu murmurs.
“Who’s afraid?” Wen Kexing nudges Zhou Zishu with his knee, a thin excuse to shift closer. “I’m only here in case you’re afraid.”
“Hmm. Lao Wen’s kindness truly knows no bounds.”
“And don’t you forget it.” Another shift, fingers brushing Zhou Zishu’s. “Go on, A-Xu. I’ll be here when you wake up.”
Outside the night darkens and turns toward tomorrow. Zhou Zishu curls his hand around Wen Kexing’s wrist once more and, together, they slip into a dreamless sleep.