The full moon is high in the sky when Li Jiaxing hears the not-quite-distant clash of steel on steel. She rushes to the window, looking out to see the paper lanterns of Tian Chuang floating above the central courtyard.
Her maid had been pouring tea at the table, but when Jiaxing turns around, the room is empty. The teapot is laying on its side, tea pooling around it and dripping from the edge of the table. Jiaxing flips her sleeves back, moving to tidy it up. If she is to die tonight, she will not die in a cluttered room. She can control at least that much.
She could run, but she’d be caught. Besides, she reminds herself, she has no real skills for living on the run. She can stitch up a wound, can sew a full set of robes, can run a household with grueling efficiency, but she cannot live on her own. She is a woman, obviously highborn at that, and what meagre fighting skills she possesses as a military family’s only daughter are not enough to keep her safe.
When the tea is cleaned up and the room set to perfect military precision, Jiaxing kneels at the table and begins to pen a letter to the rest of the court. It will be destroyed, she knows, but it makes her feel better to be doing something while waiting for her death.
The hairpin Jiuxiao carved for her is sharp against her hip, tucked into a pouch her mother made for her when she was a small girl. She slips her hand into the pouch, rubbing her finger along the carved wood.
She wonders if Jiuxiao is waiting to drink the Mengpo soup with her. She pulls the hairpin from the pouch, wanting to look at the delicate carvings before her death.
She presses it to her lips. “Soon,” she murmurs. “I’ll be with you soon.”
The sound of footsteps outside her door has Jiaxing scrambling to hide it away again. Appearing to be sentimental won’t help her any, and she is disinclined to do anything that may make her appear less in control.
She stands as the door opens, recognizing Zhou Zishu's imposing figure. So Tian Chuang’s leader has come himself. Is she truly such a threat to Jin-wang that he sends his most loyal dog to kill her in person?
Zhou Zishu turns to look at her, eyes cold. “Jing’an-junzhu.”
She looks outside, sees the Tian Chuang members lined up in the courtyard, her father’s guards dead on the ground, and understands. Zhou Zishu expects to have gone unnoticed up till now. “This is...” she starts, playing coy, like that will help her.
Zhou Zishu finishes with the story Jin-wang has concocted, closing the door behind him. “Li-daren conspired with corrupt officials in an attempt to revolt. He has been killed.”
Li Jiaxing doesn’t believe it for a second. “Impossible,” she says, then repeats it because it bears repeating. “Impossible! My father gave everything to this country!” She screams.
“It’s a pity,” Zhou Zishu cuts in before the rebuttal leaves her mouth, “but his actions must be punished.”
Li Jiaxing stares at him, chest heaving, incredulous. Jiuxiao looked up to this man. Jiuxiao loved this man.
He wouldn’t recognize him now.
Zhou Zishu walks to the table set in the back. “I came to visit today to give you a choice,” he says. “I want to thank you for bringing back Qin Jiuxiao’s body to me in the chaotic circumstances. I will never forget your kindness.”
You didn’t deserve him, she wants to snarl. You aren’t worthy of his love.
But she stays quiet. She knows where this conversation will go. Tian Chuang will kill the entire household, now that her father has been killed as a traitor. It doesn’t matter how false the accusations may be. She knows what Zhou Zishu’s so-called choice will be.
“Your highness, you have high status,” Zhou Zishu continues, taking two vials from his robes. “Committing suicide will save you from humiliation.” He sets the one with the red stopper on the table.
“Am I supposed to thank you?” she snaps, turning towards him again. “You killed my entire household, and yet you’re willing to let me die unscathed.” She wipes away the traitorous tears trailing down her cheeks, stalking forward.
Zhou Zishu’s hand catches hers before she can snatch up the vial. “There is another option,” he says, holding forth the second vial, this one identical but for its blue stopper.
“What, allow myself to be sold off?” Jiaxing yanks her hand away, heart pounding. “Don’t touch me.”
He takes a breath, stepping back. “I am leaving Tian Chuang in two days. For good. It would be disrespectful to Jiuxiao’s memory not to offer his beloved a way to keep living as well. You would have to trust me, but you would be free of Tian Chuang and the fickleness of the court.”
“Why?” she asks, setting her shoulders. “Do you wish to take me instead?”
She actually gets a reaction out of him at that. He steps back further, eyes flashing. “I have no desire to bed you, Junzhu, nor will I ever. I am offering to take you with me in honor of Qin Jiuxiao. If you would rather join him in the netherworld now, you may go ahead.”
“And if I decide to take the blue vial?” If she decides to make Jiuxiao wait a bit longer, to see if there is a way to avenge her father before meeting him in the afterlife?
“Then you will be put into a coma for a few days. Long enough to fake your death and sneak you out of the city, where I will meet with you and we will hide together.”
She looks between the two vials, then at Zhou Zishu’s face, looking for any sign of a lie.
Then, before Zhou Zishu can rescind his offer, she snatches up the blue vial from his hand, popping out the stopper and downing it in one gulp.
It’s fast acting; her grip falters immediately, the vial slipping to thud onto the floor. She sinks to the floor next to it, clutching at her stomach like that will help with the pain.
She rubs her fingers over Jiuxiao's hairpin again, slipping it out of her pouch to look at it one last time.
“Where is Jiuxiao,” she starts, breaking off with a cough, “where is he buried?” she asks, looking up at Zhou Zishu.
He’s staring at the door, and for a moment, Li Jiaxing thinks he’ll ignore her. But then he takes a breath. “Four Seasons Manor,” he says. “He lies next to our shifu.”
Li Jiaxing smiles through the poison eating its way through her stomach. She knows he said this would only make her comatose, but it feels like it could kill her just as easily.
“The flowers blossom in all four seasons,” she recites, forcing the words out through the radiating pain. “Knowing everything in the world.” She lifts the hairpin up from her lap, tracing a finger along the delicate carvings. “He told me... that after he retired from his position, he would... live with me there.”
The words come out stilted, forced, and as soon as she finishes them she coughs, stale blood splattering out in front of her, then knows no more.
Jiaxing wakes in an unfamiliar cottage with a dull ache in her stomach and the taste of old blood in her mouth. Before she can even sit up, there’s a strange man leaning over her with a damp rag, patting at her forehead before he realizes she’s awake. He draws back with a startled, sheepish gasp. “Sorry, Junzhu,” he says cheerfully. “Usually Drunk Like a Dream keeps people asleep a day or so longer.”
Have you any experience with it? She wants to retort, but her mouth doesn’t seem to want to comply, her tongue heavy and throat scratchy. All that comes out is a weak cough, and then the man is helping her sit up, his hands uncomfortable under her shoulders. They don't stray any further than they need to leverage her up against the pillows, but it is still disconcerting to have another person touching her.
The only ones to have touched her since Jiuxiao’s death were her maids.
Her maids, who are likely dead now, killed by Jiuxiao’s beloved shixiong and his underlings.
She wonders why she bothered to keep living. She’ll be on the run from Jin-wang, heir to the emperor’s seat, the one who holds Tian Chuang in his hands. She’ll be hiding with the man who killed her father and his household, who nearly killed her.
How unfilial she is , Jiaxing thinks, and laughs, the bitter sound made harsher by the scratch in her throat.
“Here,” the man says, holding a cup to her lips.
She drinks slowly, the water a balm to her dry throat. It’s not quite warm, but it’s soothing nonetheless.
She doesn’t thank the man for it.
“I’m Han Ying,” he says, when it’s clear Jiaxing won’t say anything. “Zhou-shouling asked me to care for you until he finished up with some business in the court.”
Jiaxing huffs out a breath. “And I suppose he has a lot of loose ends to tie up, then?” she asks, derision dripping from her words.
“He’s meeting with Jin-wang, then he’s coming here to see you,” Han Ying says earnestly. “What do you mean, tie up loose ends?”
Jiaxing does laugh then, really and truly. “He hasn’t told you then,” she gets out through the incredulous giggles she cannot seem to stop. “Your Zhou-shouling is leaving Tian Chuang, Han Ying. Surely you know what that means.”
Jiuxiao had explained it to her, what leaving would entail if he could not convince his shixiong to set him free. Seven nails punctured through his major acupoints, destroying his meridians and martial ability, dampening his senses, leaving him to live his last three years in a dark, silent, painful half-life.
He said it would be worth it if he knew he would spend it with her, even if he could not comprehend it.
Jiaxing wonders how Zhou Zishu plans to get around the nails; if he expects her to take care of him while he lives out his three years of agony, he is much more stupid than she’d thought. If he is going to live a three year half-life, she will leave him to his miserable death.
She looks back to Han Ying, who has collapsed against the side table, face pale. “Zhou-shouling wouldn’t,” he murmurs, mostly to himself.
Jiaxing almost feels bad for telling him, but she reminds herself of the fact that he is part of Zhou Zishu’s Tian Chuang. He might have even been at the attack on her father’s manor. She shouldn’t feel bad for inflicting even a small fraction of the pain she felt that night onto him.
She’s startled by her newfound viciousness, but then again, the Li Jiaxing of before hadn’t seen her beloved’s dead body, hadn’t seen her father’s men cut down by assassins, hadn’t seen her father’s body laying in a courtyard. She thinks of the brief glimpse she’d had of the corpses before Zhou Zishu closed the door, remembers the way her father’s body had laid, limbs splayed and neck slit.
She jerks over the side of the bed, suddenly nauseous. There’s nothing to come up, though, only stomach acid and residual poison. She coughs, bracing her arm against the side table. Her sick puddles on the floor, and she is almost ill again at the sight of it. Closing her eyes helps, though it does nothing for the smell.
Han Ying had jumped at Jiaxing’s sudden movement, and he comes to himself after she’s finished vomiting up the bile. “Here,” he says, holding out the same damp rag from earlier. Jiaxing takes it with a shaking hand, still braced over the side of the bed, and wipes saliva from the corners of her mouth. The rag does nothing for the taste of bile and old blood on her tongue, though, and she leans forward again, intending to set down the cloth and pick up the cup of water.
It slips from her fingers, spilling across the table. Han Ying, kneeling to clean up Jiaxing’s sick, yelps, jerking upwards like he’d be able to catch it. She stares at the spilled water pooling underneath the cup, dripping off the edge of the table. She can’t help but think of it as an ill omen.
The last time she spilled a drink, her entire household was killed. That spilled drink also heralded the arrival of Zhou Zishu, who is even more of a bad omen than any spilled drink could be.
The pigeon that swoops into the open window is not Zhou Zishu, but it looks to be an official messenger pigeon, which is not much better. Han Ying startles at its sudden squawking coos. Tied to the pigeon’s leg is a rolled up slip of paper that Han Ying notices as soon as he’s recovered from his shock, taking it with gentle hands. For a supposedly well trained assassin, he's proven very skittish.
Jiaxing is suddenly curious. “What does it say?” She asks, wondering if it says Zhou Zishu has died. With the way Han Ying’s knuckles have gone white, it’s not an impossibility.
“I must go,” Han Ying replies, handing her the note. His voice has gone oddly flat. “Please rest a while longer before you try to get up; you haven’t fully recovered yet.”
Jiaxing unrolls the note, watching Han Ying shoo the bird out the window. He slips out the door before she even reads the full note.
All operatives are to return to the capital as soon as their missions allow them to swear fealty to the new leader of Tian Chuang.
Jiaxing stares at the characters, trying to make sense of it. It hadn’t really sunk in that Zhou Zishu planned to leave Tian Chuang until now, until she’s staring at the proof. She remembers Jiuxiao telling her that his shixiong had been eighteen when he came to the capital and created Jin-wang’s feared assassin organization.
Jiuxiao had been sixteen when he became an assassin, and he wasn’t even the youngest disciple of Four Seasons Manor at the time. She wonders why the elders had allowed Zhou Zishu to turn them all into killers. She wonders if they encouraged it.
Not that it matters anymore. They didn’t stop it, and now Jin-wang controls the court through fear. Fear of death, of your darkest secrets being known, of your family dying around you, of the shadows in the night.
She wonders what sort of pressure Zhou Zishu put on earnest men like Han Ying, to coerce them into becoming murderers. She wonders if he’d even needed any, or if Han Ying had been bewitched by a false smile and a falser guise of bettering the world. She knows Jiuxiao had been, at first.
Then his fellow disciples had started to die, and he started to wonder. But he never lost faith in his shixiong. Not even when the man poisoned him rather than let him save a man Jin-wang had decided needed to die.
And then Jiuxiao had still tried to save Zhou Zishu, still gone after him in a doomed battle, and he had died , and Zhou Zishu hadn’t even been there at all. Her Jiuxiao died for nothing, and Jiaxing still brought his body back to Zhou Zishu, like he deserved it. Like he still had a heart. Like he could grieve for him.
Jiaxing ruined her body to save her beloved’s, and all she has to show for it is a killer’s word that she will not die.
It’s some time later that the killer himself comes through the doors to the house. Jiaxing has amused herself by counting the boards on the floor (58, that she can see), the slats on the wall (16, before she got bored), and the knots in the ceiling (12, before Zhou Zishu arrives).
He looks terrible, his face pale and movements sluggish. He collapses at the vanity Han Ying had been using to mix medicines, sifting through them to find the ones he needs. He doesn’t acknowledge her.
Fine, then. She’ll ignore him as well. She returns to counting the knots in the ceiling, reaching 25 by the time Zhou Zishu stands again. “Junzhu,” he says. “I assume that Han Ying gave you medicine for the aftereffects of Drunk Like a Dream?”
Jiaxing doesn’t answer, instead looking pointedly at the mostly-dried puddle of water on the table, then at the halfway-cleaned vomit still on the floor.
Zhou Zishu grimaces. “It can have unpleasant aftereffects,” he concedes and returns to the vanity, searching through the collection of medicines and other things. He brings her a green vial. “To help with nausea,” he says, setting it on the table, then kneels.
The towel Han Ying had been using to clean before he was called away is still on the floor; Jiaxing hadn’t touched anything, following his instructions to rest longer. She hadn’t trusted herself to lean over the table again, much less get out of the bed. Zhou Zishu wipes up the rest of her sick, then throws the towel to a far corner.
“I’m sure Jiuxiao explained the basics of what leaving Tian Chuang entails,” he says, sitting back at the vanity. “I will be dead in three years. My senses will slowly fail me, and my martial arts will fade.”
“Don’t expect me to care for you after the nails take your senses,” Jiaxing replies, leveraging herself into a better position to watch Zhou Zishu transform his face into that of a stranger.
“I expect you to leave me the minute you’re certain you can survive on your own,” Zishu scoffs. “I’m well aware of your feelings towards me, Junzhu.” He leans closer to the mirror, a scratched bronze that surely is no more reflective than a muddy puddle, and lifts a mask to his face.
Jiaxing feels the ghost of a smile cross her lips. “Very good. I wouldn’t want you to get any ideas.” She leans back against the pillows again, staring up at the ceiling. “Where are we going first?”
There’s a clink of glass and ceramic, and Jiaxing turns her head to look. Zhou Zishu is painting a thin scar underneath his eye. “I would see my Shifu’s grave before I lose my senses,” he replies. “And I’m sure you should like to pay your respects to Jiuxiao.”
She traces a finger along the edge of the table, considering. “And after that?” She prompts. Surely Zhou Zishu will not plan to stay at Siji Manor, no matter how much he wishes to. Helian Yi will search for him eventually, and the home of the Four Seasons Sect will be the first place he looks.
She wants to stay there, visit Jiuxiao’s grave every day, paying her respects properly to the man who will never be her husband.
They would have wed, she knows, in all the wealth and splendor they could afford.
“After that,” Zhou Zishu hums. “After that, I would like to go wherever the wind takes me.” He stands, moving to a wardrobe in the corner. “Is there anywhere you would like to go, Junzhu?”
She shakes her head, even though he can’t see it. The only place she wishes to see is Siji manor, to see Jiuxiao’s home and to visit his grave. After that, she has no real plans but to take revenge for her father.
It would be easiest to kill Zhou Zishu now, but she cannot do that, because then she will not be able to carry out full revenge against Helian Yi himself.
Zhou Zishu turns towards her again, a set of robes draped over his arm. “These are the smallest robes in this house. I will wait outside while you change.” He sets the robes on the table. “I have a horse that we can take to the next town, where we’ll trade it for a sturdier donkey. We will also get supplies there; this safe house is not meant to store for long journeys.”
Jiaxing frowns at the pale blue-grey of the robes she’s been given, then gingerly slides her feet over the edge of the bed, pushing the blankets aside as she does so. There is a changing screen; she stands, pausing as black spots dance across her vision, then makes her way towards it. She may be alone inside the house, but Zhou Zishu may come back in at any moment, and she refuses to be caught unawares.
The robes are still slightly too large, though that may just be the cut; they are men’s robes, loose laborer’s garb that are meant to stay cool in the summer heat. She tucks her mother’s pouch into the belt, Jiuxiao’s hairpin still inside. (And how relieved she’d felt, when she realized that Zhou Zishu hadn’t taken them from her, these last artifacts of a lost time.)
There is no reason to put her hair in the elaborate styles of a princess, so she does not. Instead, she finds a comb on the vanity Zhou Zishu had used and pulls her hair back into a loose half-bun, leaving the rest to hand freely down her back. She hesitates on a hairpin, thinking to use one of the many scattered across the vanity’s surface.
But she is no longer a princess. She can wear whatever hairpins she likes, without being concerned about propriety or image. She feels laid bare, without any finery or cosmetics. She feels like a different person.
She finds she rather likes it.
She runs the comb through her hair one last time, slipping her expensive hairpins and rings into her pouch. She can take them apart and sell them if she needs to survive on her own. With the stiff way Zhou Zishu is moving, that day might come sooner rather than later.
She takes one final look around the cottage before stepping out into the courtyard.
Zhou Zishu’s eyes catch on her bun--Jiuxiao’s hairpin holding it in place--when she walks up to him and the horse, but he doesn’t mention it. Good. He still has enough respect for his dead shidi that he recognizes the love token that had taken Jiuxiao weeks to carve between Tian Chuang missions.
Zhou Zishu helps her onto the horse, and his touch burns even through the layers of her robes.
As they leave, the moon is setting.