The pair of cultivators arrived in the city much to the excitement of everyone in the district. One wore black, one wore white. Their clothes and their bearing suggested they came from a wealthy, powerful sect. It was assumed they’d come either searching for spirits or disciples, and a wealthy magnate offered them one of his own estates for their leisure -- but they politely declined in favor of a historic inn near the city’s old bridge.
It was a nice neighborhood, to be sure, but hardly a wealthy merchant’s quarter. The owner was beside himself when they arrived, ordered the best room, the best wine, and a five course meal.
The one in white showed a great interest in the decor, peering at every vase and every table ornament, his arms folded behind his back like an old scholar.
“Hm. The inside isn’t nearly as grand as I always imagined, but it’s better kept up than I expected,” he said, loftily, once he and his companion settled on the veranda, which had a view of the river. “Has your family kept it up this whole time?”
He was a particularly unearthly figure. He had a sharp, aristocratic face that was younger than his long white hair would suggest, and there was an odd, light quality to his movement. His hands remained hidden by his long sleeves.
“Oh yes,” said the owner, eager for the cultivator’s approval. “This inn’s been in our family for nearly two centuries.”
“Then your esteemed ancestor had more business sense than I might have guessed,” said the cultivator.
The owner looked bewildered. “Sir Cultivator?”
His companion in black cut in. He had a warm honest face, the sort that looked like it ought to have belonged more to a friendly local farmer than a cultivator. He radiated a relaxed yet firm kind of power -- the sort you might find in a peacefully grazing bull. “He just means it seems your family seems to have conquered many obstacles to stay in business,” he said. “This city wasn’t always so welcoming. We remember a time when there were orphans everywhere, and the human traffickers to snap them right up.”
“Oh, no, no. Nothing like that anymore,” said the owner quickly. He hated the idea that these two wealthy cultivators might get the wrong impression of the area. It’d be terrible for business. “This is one of the safest streets in the district.”
“Haven’t thrown any urchins out lately?” asked the cultivator in white, eyeing the owner as if he’d insulted him personally.
“I believe there’s a local monastery that takes them in these days,” answered his companion, much to the owner’s relief.
“There haven’t been beggars around these parts for years,” the owner assured them both. “And the local yamen cleaned up the issue of human traffickers when my grandfather was a boy. It was quite an exciting story, actually--”
“Your grandfather,” mused the cultivator in white. “Would that be the one who beat children with a broom or the one who threw rocks from the second floor?”
“That would have been a bit further back, I think,” said the cultivator in black. He looked apologetic, offering yet another very fine piece of coin. “Another bowl of wine, if you would.”
“That’s adequate, at least,” allowed the one in white. The fingers he tapped idly on the table made a ‘tink’ing sound under his sleeve, like a metal key.
“Of course, Sir Cultivators,” said the owner, and gratefully retreated to the back rooms to fetch them another jar of their best.
When he returned, the two were deep in conversation. The cultivator in white had repositioned his stool to sit beside the one in black, and they both watched the river.
“It’s more cramped in here than I remember…”
“We were smaller then.”
“You’re much too easy on them.”
“Well, how could they know?”
“How they beg like dogs when they think we are men of society.”
“We are now, aren’t we?”
When the one in black saw the owner hanging back politely with their wine, he smiled blandly and waved him over. The both of them watched him pour and never said a word, though the one in white’s disapproving thoughts radiated loudly from him regardless.
“You’ve probably guessed we have business here,” said the one in black, almost sheepishly.
“Sir Cultivator, I would never presume,” minced the owner.
His guest looked grave. “I must admit, there is the matter of an old grudge…”
His wide, honest face looked truly aggrieved to be admitting this, as if he truly hated what he was about to say or do. The owner’s blood ran cold, his hand went tight around his tray as he catalogued every wrong he’d ever done in his life, wondering what could have earned him the disapproval of two such obviously illustrious men.
But the man in dark continued, mildly: “I’ve heard there is an abandoned estate, in the north?”
Relief bloomed in the owner’s heart like a spring plum. “Oh, yes.” Everyone knew about the old manor in the north, where it was said a brutal massacre had occurred ages ago, though few actually remembered who had owned it or why they’d all died. It was a favorite ghost story to tell the tourists. He was more than happy to share.
The two cultivators left after supper, promising to return by dawn. The owner smiled and promised to keep a lantern up for them.
As they left, the one in white muttered, “I thought you were the one being soft on him. That must have been five years off his life back there!”
The one in black answered, serenely: “His ancestor did hit us with a broom.”
The ceiling had rotted out of the estate many decades ago, though many of the walls still stood. Fire had taken most of the interior, and the charred furniture had long been picked over by opportunistic transients, the mats turned to mulch, and trees and roots had long pushed their way through the floorboards. The stairs were notched like broken teeth, some of the stones visibly dragged away for construction elsewhere -- but it was clear much of the rest of it had been left alone past that. The two cultivators walked together through the ruin. If there’d been any blood stains on the walls or on the floor, they’d long been commended to either dust or greenery.
In a crumpling room that had once been the young master’s study, the cultivator in white stopped to brush aside the moss with a spindly metal hand. He found a set of ragged holes in the flame-blackened wall. One of them had a mouse’s nest stuffed in the top, but beyond that there was nothing natural about the marks themselves.
The cultivator in black approached quietly from behind.
“There’s no spirits here.”
“I suppose we’re not the first cultivators they’ve sent this way.”
“Very likely. If there’s that many ghost stories about, this spot has been exorcised at least ten times. There’s not an ounce of resentment anywhere in this old wreck.” The cultivator in white pressed his lips together into a bitter line. “Save my own, perhaps. Oh well.”
He dropped his hand, allowing the weeds to cover the marks again.
“It suits me some no-name dealt with this place. Nothing here deserves our attention anymore, anyway.”
He marched for what was once the door, but the cultivator in black lingered, staring quietly at the spot on the wall. He pressed his palm to it, looking grave.
“It’s better preserved than it should be,” he said, softly.
The cultivator in white looked back. “What’s that?”
“Mm. Nothing. Just I’ve thought a lot about walking through the doors as I am now.”
“I always imagined they’d let me in.”
“With money and rank. What reason would they have to refuse?”
“You may be right.”
“I could have bought you off of them without any fuss at all.”
“You think so?”
“Money talks to men like that.”
“The man in question was an incurable sadist.”
“Nevertheless, to gain the favor of a major sect… They would not be in a position to refuse, regardless of his personal opinion.”
“He would have hated being on the other end of that. Good.”
“But the fact they would trade a human life so easily for that. I think I’d have preferred to put it to the torch myself.”
The walls began to shake, weeds and debris scattering around his companion, as the man’s eyes grew darker and more lost in memory.
“After killing the young master first, of course,” he smiled, weakly. “He was wealthy. The yamen would have gone too easy on him. I would have had to have taken his head. I don’t think I could have really done it peacefully. Sorry.”
He added that last part almost as sheepishly as he’d offered the tip to that oblivious innkeeper.
Yue Qingyuan stared pensively at the shadow of the bloodstain at the floor. Shen Qingqiu walked up behind him and put his metal hand over his wrist. At the first push, the arm stayed locked where it was. At the second, Yue Qingyuan lowered it and exhaled.
“Leave the spiteful things to me,” murmured Shen Qingqiu, rocking up on his prosthetics, so his mouth was close to his ear. “I’m better at it than you.”
“I would rather just...” Yue Qingyuan looked at him, as though waking from a long dream. Then, as though drawing from a speech long rehearsed but never delivered, he looked at his companion with an aching smile, turned his shaking hand over and held it out: “Xiao Jiu, shall we leave this place?”
The corner of Shen Qingqiu lips twisted oddly.
“With me?” added Yue Qingyuan, plaintively, and Shen Qingqiu drew a breath as ragged as what remained of the old wooden doors.
“Hmph. About time you asked.” And, as if it was a difficult decision to make, he paused before lowering his spindly metal fingers into Yue Qingyuan’s waiting palm. “Qi-ge. Buy me more of that inn’s awful spiced wine. You always said you would.”
“Yes, Xiao Jiu.”
“And that signature fish of theirs.”
“Xiao Jiu hates fish, doesn’t he?”
“Yes, but they threw us out for trying to steal it. We should have some of our own back, shouldn’t we?”
“Mm. Should we press them that hard, though? The beds are rather nice.”
“Oh, don’t look at me like that. We’ll pay them like princes. The owner will beg to have us back. Beg!”
“I suppose there is some justice in that...”
The two cultivators left the ruin, side by side.