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Sacrifice

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Zhou Zishu had been young when he’d learned that, in balance, one person’s sacrifice may be worth less than what someone else was willing to pay for it. And if the need was great, Zhou Zishu was always willing to be that sacrifice. Sometimes they’d required of him violence, an assassination of a powerful leader here, someone’s secret lover there; sometimes they’d asked for his loyalty for a day, an hour; sometimes they’d demanded something more—and Prince Jin had wanted all three.

He’d thought that his men would be shamed to learn that their leader had offered himself to the prince, but those whose lives he’d saved from the prince’s fits of pique had promptly set straight any who’d thought it meant Zhou Zishu was weakening.

And it had shamed him at first to approach the prince with this sacrifice, but he saved lives each time he was able to convince Prince Jin that a plan was ill-advised or to distract the prince until his rage had a chance to fade.

It got easier. Zhou Zishu made his sacrifices, and Prince Jin paid his price. As the years passed, Zhou Zishu began to think he’d gotten the better end of the deal. His sacrifice grew smaller in his own eyes, but the prince’s price stayed the same. One life. Another. Another another another.

None of it mattered in the end. His eighty-one disciples had died after all. Died or defected, and it was near enough the same thing. The pain of his Nails reminded him that he’d done this to those who had chosen to leave.

 

Zhou Zishu waited near the river. Ye Baiyi would be by soon. His letter had promised as much, and Zhou Zishu intended to stop him, one way or another. He would ask first, beg if he had to. He would try to defeat him in a fight if it came to it. He wouldn’t win; he knew that. There’d been a time, half a decade ago maybe, when he could have held his own. But he was older now. Naturally just a hair older and slower than he had been at his prime, even before he’d taken the Nails. It was enough against most people. But not now. Not against Ye Baiyi. Now his only hope was to slow Ye Baiyi down. Maybe hurt him enough that Lao Wen had a chance.

He had barely a breath of wind to warn him of Ye Baiyi’s arrival, but it was just enough to catch his shoulder in passing.

Their fight was brief, a chance to see if either would yield. Neither did. It was incredibly clear that Zhou Zishu wasn’t going to come out ahead in a true fight, once Ye Baiyi had grown bored. Especially not with his shoulder. It hadn’t felt good, crashing into the log.

He forced himself to stand, to ignore the sword swaying gently in front of his face. Ye Baiyi withdrew a few steps.

“What else can I offer you?” Zhou Zishu asked.

Ye Baiyi’s chin lifted. Eyes narrowed.

Zhou Zishu took a single, slow step forward. Ye Baiyi didn’t move. Another step.

“What are you doing?” Ye Baiyi finally asked.

“Whatever you want.” This was a familiar part of the sacrifice. Zhou Zishu’s voice dropped just a little deeper; he ducked his head just a little lower. Flicked his eyes up toward Ye Baiyi’s, then down again. Reached out with the arm on his uninjured side to rest his palm above Ye Baiyi’s heart.

Ye Baiyi seemed to be breathing just a little faster, but his expression didn’t change. The fingers on his free hand twitched. Zhou Zishu let his hand fall with a drag of his fingertips across the expensive fabric.

“I am yours to take.”

Ye Baiyi snatched Zhou Zishu’s chin and forced his head up. His knuckle dug into the vulnerable skin beneath Zhou Zishu’s jaw. A lifetime of reflexes told him to fight back, but he buried it deep.

“You’d do this for Wen Kexing?”

“For him, I’d do anything.” That may have been too honest for this particular sacrifice. “I’d offer whatever I had left to give.”

“Even if it would break his heart?”

“Better that his heart beats so it can break.”

“Who?” Ye Baiyi’s voice was the coldest Zhou Zishu had heard from him. “Who taught you this? It wasn’t your shifu; Qin Huaishang was a better man than that. Did that Ghost Valley Master, your Wen Kexing, ask you to do this for him?”

Zhou Zishu wanted to stomp his foot in frustration. The idea that Lao Wen would ask him to do this was laughable. And infuriating. Infuriating that Ye Baiyi couldn’t see who Wen Kexing was—that he’d been driven to this, that he’d been a child taken away by the very people who had murdered his parents.

This wasn’t getting him anywhere.

Zhou Zishu knelt.

Ye Baiyi’s fingers dug into Zhou Zishu’s chin hard enough to bruise, enough to keep his head up but not to keep him on his feet. Zhou Zishu leaned back to rest on his heels and stayed where he was. Expressions flitted across Ye Baiyi’s face so quickly he didn’t have time to identify them.

Zhou Zishu reached up to run his fingertips across the embroidered hem of Ye Baiyi’s robes. Again, Ye Baiyi didn’t stop him, so Zhou Zishu kept going until he reached the fabric of the older man’s belt.

A sharp pain shot through his wrist when Ye Baiyi slapped his hand away and crouched to be eye-to-eye with Zhou Zishu, his grip still iron strong on Zhou Zishu’s chin. This was definitely going to leave a mark, which Zhou Zishu was going to have to explain away, provided anyone survived to tell the tale—or survived have the tale told to them.

“I ask once last time: Who taught you this?”

Zhou Zishu tried to look away, but Ye Baiyi brought his eyes back with a sharp jerk to his chin. “Nobody had to teach me, Ye-qianbei.”

Somehow he felt as if he’d disappointed his master.

“A-Xu?”

Startled, Zhou Zishu pulled back. Ye Baiyi let go, and Zhou Zishu nearly fell backward into the dirt. Lao Wen caught him and lifted him easily to his feet.

“Are you hurt, A-Xu?”

Zhou Zishu shook his head. He’d deal with the various bruises later. Ye Baiyi had already straightened, taken a step back, and was waiting for the two of them to sort themselves out.

“Nobody had to teach you what?” Lao Wen asked, eyes wide with curiosity.

For the second time in less than five minutes, Zhou Zishu wanted to stomp his foot again. “It’s nothing, Lao Wen.”

Ye Baiyi laughed, a cold and bitter sound. “If you don’t tell him, I will.” Zhou Zishu tried to glare him to death, but it didn’t slow him down. “Zhou Zishu offered his body to me to protect you.”

Lao Wen’s hand tightened on Zhou Zishu’s injured arm. Zhou Zishu gritted his teeth at the pain and at Ye Baiyi’s very existence. He tried to catch Lao Wen as he took a step forward to set himself between Zhou Zishu and Ye Baiyi. Lao Wen’s sleeve slipped through his fingers.

“I won’t let you hurt him, Ye-qianbei—”

“A-Xu, shut up.”

He shut up.

“Tell him where you learned this. Who taught you?” Ye Baiyi was taunting them, expecting one or both of them to rise to the bait. And Zhou Zishu had to be the one to do it, because if he didn’t, it would be Lao Wen, and he couldn’t let that happen.

“Nobody had to teach me.”

Lao Wen fixed his eyes on Zhou Zishu, although he shifted to keep Ye Baiyi at the edge of his vision. Ye Baiyi looked like he was enjoying the show too much to contemplate causing mayhem.

Zhou Zishu had long since lost any shame associated with what he’d had to do. He’d had a job to do, and he’d been very good at it. He would do it again without hesitation. But facing these two men, a small frisson of that old feeling shivered down his spine.

He pinched the bridge of his nose and fixed his gaze on Lao Wen.

“In the end, all anyone wants is power. There are few things people find more powerful than bedding Lord Zhou of Tian Chuang, willing or unwilling. My identity wasn’t well known, but to those who didn’t know of my connection to Tian Chuang, I was familiar enough as Prince Jin’s pet,” the word still felt sour on his tongue, like bile rising from his stomach, “to have been a nice reward.”

Lao Wen hissed something Zhou Zishu didn’t quite catch. It didn’t sound particularly nice.

A flash of something that may have been guilt crossed Ye Baiyi’s face. Zhou Zishu didn’t feel particularly forgiving. This was a part of his past he’d been willing to let die with his eighty-one disciples, and Ye Baiyi had dredged it up to fulfill some vendetta against Wen Kexing.

“He traded you?” Lao Wen asked. His voice shook.

“Sometimes,” Zhou Zishu said. “Sometimes I took the initiative to head off danger before he knew it was there.”

That white fan flicked open, closed, open. Lao Wen snapped it shut against his palm. “Why didn’t you tell me?”

“It’s past. It doesn’t have anything to do with my zhiji, with Chengling, with Ye Baiyi.”

“It happened to you! It matters.”

Zhou Zishu rested his hand on Lao Wen’s right forearm. He was so tense he was quivering.

“Lao Wen, it’s happened. It’s over. There’s no reason to be upset.”

Ye Baiyi cleared his throat as if to remind them he was there. Lao Wen spun to face him, fan open and fluttering again. “This doesn’t concern you, Old Monster.”

“What would you have done if I’d taken him up on his offer?” Ye Baiyi asked. He almost sounded genuinely curious. Zhou Zishu wrapped his hand tighter around Lao Wen’s arm before he could move.

“I’d have killed you.”

“You’d have tried.”

Zhou Zishu stepped between them, a hand on Lao Wen’s chest. He wasn’t quite holding him back, but he wouldn’t have been surprised if Lao Wen lunged for Ye Baiyi.

“Enough! Both of you. Do you want me to tell Lao Wen everything I did, Ye Baiyi, or is this because you want to hear it for yourself?” Ye Baiyi looked as though he were about to say something, but Zhou Zishu had had enough and spoke right over him. “Did you want me to talk about the first time I went to Prince Jin to ask him for leniency?”

 

He knelt, forehead touching cold flagstones. 

“Zishu, what’s this?”

“I have little more to offer than what I’ve already given, but I ask for my men to be released. They followed the orders they were given. If anyone is to be punished, it should be me.”

“Zishu, get up.”

Zhou Zishu straightened, but stayed on his knees. “Wangye—”

“They cost me the battle.”

Prince Jin was as petulant as always when he didn’t get his way. Even then, Zhou Zishu had begun to wonder how he hadn’t understood the prince’s personality. How he hadn’t noticed what the prince was plotting, how he’d twisted his words and Zhou Zishu’s love for him into…this.

“I can only offer you what I have left for their lives, but I hope that it may be sufficient.”

Prince Jin was watching him warily but with open interest. His eyes followed Zhou Zishu’s hands as they went first to the clasp of his belt, then as he unlaced the gauntlets. It was a series of motions he would follow several years later when he asked for the final Nail, but even he hadn’t begun to contemplate that yet.

Leather dropped on leather, then the soft rustle of sash, layer, and layer. Until he knelt with only the thinnest inner layer on. The Prince had been approaching, step by step, until he stood directly in front of Zhou Zishu.

Prince Jin lay a hand on Zhou Zishu’s cheek.

Zhou Zishu swallowed against the cold pit in his stomach and the rising acid in his throat. He turned his head enough to lean into his prince’s touch.

 

“If that wasn’t enough for you, should I tell you how I got the scars on my back?”

 

Zhou Zishu wasn’t infallible. His reputation had built up around him, a mythos that even Prince Jin himself had begun to believe. But that illusion shattered when Zhou Zishu and only a handful of surviving Tian Chuang stumbled back to the Prince’s complex. Several of his men had to keep Zhou Zishu on his feet.

There wasn’t much to explain. Information had been old. Someone had leaked their plans. An ambush.

They were permitted to go to a doctor, but Zhou Zishu was ordered to return to the prince’s chambers as soon as the doctor finished with him. It took several hours for the doctor to be certain Zhou Zishu was well enough to go on his way, time the prince had spent stewing in his fury.

Prince Jin’s voice was icy with pent-up anger when he called for Zhou Zishu to enter.

“Robes off,” Prince Jin ordered. “Stand there. Hold on to the pillar if you have to; I don’t care.”

This was new, but Zhou Zishu did as ordered. He pulled off his clothes as quickly as he could, leaving himself barefoot in only his pants. He wasn’t sure what the prince’s plans were, but anything he could do to predict what was wanted of him would spare him a little pain. He stood in front of the pillar, back as straight as he could make it.

He’d cracked a rib, the doctor thought, and it made every breath ache. Zhou Zishu wanted nothing more than to go to his bed and sleep, drink wine laced with Drunk Like a Dream and let it lull him into a deep sleep until both his body and his soul stopped hurting.

“Turn.”

He obeyed.

Zhou Zishu didn’t need to hear the practiced crack of the whip behind him to realize what was coming. He felt the air change, the eager step up behind him. The first snap still took him by surprise, driving him forward half a step until he caught himself on the pillar. He kept quiet, unsure if the prince wanted him to weather this in silence or if he wanted Zhou Zishu’s pain.

A second snap, right across his tender shoulder blades. He had dark black bruises there from being thrown into a banister—through a banister—and it burned. A line of fire across his back, followed quickly by two more, then the familiar heat of blood dripping down his skin.

The prince fell into a rhythm, sharp cracks of braided leather across Zhou Zishu’s back until his knees buckled and he dropped to the floor.

Then there was a fist in his hair, bending him backwards, straining the lacerated skin, the bruises, the rib. Prince Jin dragged Zhou Zishu to his feet and flung him toward the bed.

 

“Zhou Zishu—”

 

Zhou Zishu had reported to the prince’s quarters exactly when ordered. He could hear the quiet murmur of voices inside, but Prince Jin called for him to enter as soon as he made himself known.

Zhou Zishu had known the woman’s name and title then, although he’d forgotten it once she’d no longer become relevant. She wasn’t tall or short, fat or thin, pretty or ugly. She settled so nicely in the middle of all the categories that, Zhou Zishu thought, she would have been an excellent assassin. Nobody would ever see her, and if they did, she’d blend perfectly into the background.

The Prince introduced her, and the Zhou Zishu of the time had filed her name away for future use. As soon as Zhou Zishu reached the table where they were reclined, she stood and began circling him, tapping a finger to her lip.

“I don’t know, Your Highness,” she murmured. “You ask a lot for the use of this one man, as beautiful as he is.”

Familiar bile. Familiar swallow.

“Zhou Zishu, disrobe.”

His hands were steady, his breath was steady, his eyes were steady; his body was well trained, and it obeyed him. It obeyed whoever gave an order. His mind churned, spinning through scenarios and needs and wants, but he came up with nothing but the hush of wind through the trees.

“Scarred,” the woman murmured, dragging a finger across a scar on Zhou Zishu’s chest. His skin crawled.

“All well earned. That one there,” the prince touched a scar low on Zhou Zishu’s side, “in defense of my life.”

The prince had been safe at home, and Zhou Zishu had gotten it in a moment of stupidity.

“It was stunningly heroic,” the prince continued. “You really should see what he’s capable of before you turn down such a treasure.”

In the end, the prince got his treaty.

 

“Or maybe you want to know how I spent eighteen months on my knees to keep him from finding out about—”

“A-Xu, stop!”

His Lao Wen stood in front of him, both hands on Zhou Zishu’s shoulders. He looked like he might have been crying. He was shaking when he pulled Zhou Zishu in for a hug, holding him so tight that the memory of a cracked rib flared to life.

“A-Xu, stop.”

He did sound near tears.

Zhou Zishu clutched at Lao Wen’s back, heedless of wrinkling the expensive fabric in sweaty hands. He hadn’t minded the work he’d done by and large, finding it less distasteful than murdering innocents in cold blood. There were still nights where he was haunted by memories of hands and pain. Even those who hadn’t been memorable—and in truth most were forgettable—surfaced once in a while. Some lived quietly at the back of his mind until he was dulled enough by drink to forget to fend them off.

“None of that was the worst I’ve done, Lao Wen.”

Was that meant to be comforting? He wasn’t sure. He still burned with anger at Ye Baiyi, and, irrationally, at his master for knowing Ye Baiyi.

“I killed her the next year. Prince Jin sent me in the guise of further negotiation and had me kill her. I slit her throat and left her to drown in her own blood. She was still trying to ask why when I walked—”

“Qin Huaishang’s Disciple!” Ye Baiyi barked. His voice was loud enough to echo through the trees and along the river. Loud enough that Chengling would have heard if he didn’t sleep like the dead. “Enough.”

You wanted this. You wanted me to hurt him. Now that you’ve got what you wanted, you don’t have the stomach for it?”

Lao Wen caught Ye Baiyi’s wrist as he raised his hand to strike out at Zhou Zishu. “Leave,” Lao Wen hissed. “We can finish this later, you and I, but I’m getting him back to the manor.”

That Ye Baiyi let them go surprised Zhou Zishu more than the heavy, oppressive silence from the man who seemed pathologically unable to keep his mouth shut. It hurt more than Zhou Zishu had expected.

Lao Wen supported Zhou Zishu as they walked, and Zhou Zishu was drained enough to accept it. He let Lao Wen tuck him in close, let his weight drape against Lao Wen’s arm. They walked that way most of the way back until the manor gates loomed ahead of them.

“Lao Wen—”

Zhou Zishu didn’t know what he was going to say, especially when Lao Wen fixed his eyes on his face. His expression was closed, and Zhou Zishu hadn’t realized how much he’d come to depend on the constant flit of emotion to know what Lao Wen was feeling. He’d never had to guess. But there was nothing. Nothing for him to use to read Lao Wen. Nothing to give Zhou Zishu any idea how he was supposed to feel. He felt empty. Tired. His shoulder and chest ached. The Nails had taken advantage of his weakness and the late hour and flared to life somewhere on the walk back.

He tried again. “Lao Wen, I’m sorry. I should have…I shouldn’t have…”

Lao Wen brushed his knuckles across Zhou Zishu’s cheek as though wiping away long-dried tears.

“Get some sleep, A-Xu. I need to think.”

 

Wen Kexing waited until his A-Xu was safely inside the manor’s gates to fall apart. He dropped to the ground and bit the heel of his hand to stifle himself. He wasn’t sure if he was going to scream or cry or keen like a wounded animal, but any sound would draw A-Xu back, and he couldn’t have that. Not now.

It wasn’t so much what A-Xu had done, or what had been done to him, although if Wen Kexing had been able to get his hands on a single one of those people, he would tear them into pieces and feed them their own flesh.

It was the cold helplessness—something he hadn’t felt in almost a decade—that spread through his limbs and choked his heart. It was the memory of a dozen hands, grabbing and choking and pulling and claiming, once he’d grown enough that the former Master no longer had joy in simply beating him. Once he was old enough to be dangerous. It was faces—most now dead, but not all—appearing in the middle of the night or removing him from the meager protection of Luo Fumeng’s halls.

It was the violence first against him, then against A-Xiang. It was laughter as he was made to beg for things he would have died rather than offer if it hadn’t been clear that A-Xiang was the squirming worm on the hook. The collateral to ensure his good behavior.

A twig cracked and Wen Kexing was up on his feet, fan flicked open.

Ye Baiyi stood in front of him, arms folded. His face was impassive, but not unreadable. If he tried, looked closer than he wanted to at the man who’d promised to save A-Xu and kill Wen Kexing, he might have thought he saw regret in his eyes.

Wen Kexing steeled himself to fight. He didn’t want to die exactly, but he’d almost resigned himself to it before A-Xu had given voice to nightmares. Now he couldn’t bear the thought of leaving like this, with A-Xu’s reopened wounds still raw.

The old immortal tsk’ed. “Don’t be stupid. I’m not here to fight you.” The yet was clear in his voice. “I have something I need to take care of first, and I expect you’d be of use.”

Wen Kexing bristled at being referred to as of use, but the barely restrained violence that emanated from Ye Baiyi—and for once not directed at him—was too intriguing for him not to listen.

“There are people whose actions make their lives incompatible with this world. The Ghost Valley Master is one of them, but so is the man who trades in flesh that isn’t his own.”

Hot, pure joy washed away every other feeling in Wen Kexing. “I won’t let him die easy.”

Ye Baiyi shrugged. “I wouldn’t have told you where I was going if that was a concern. Resolve anything that needs resolving. You have until dawn, then I leave without you.”

 

Lao Wen was gone. He could sense the absence in the manor when he woke the next morning, head pounding from a hangover both physical and emotional. It seemed massively unfair that Lao Wen’s hand hadn’t felt warm the night before but Zhou Zishu could still feel his head throbbing.

He began the slow search through the manor until he came to the main room where Chengling was eating a cold breakfast. A jar of wine sat next to a cup of cold tea at the place Zhou Zishu usually sat. The tea had once been warm, judging by the set-up around it, but Lao Wen had left so long ago that any warmth had long since gone.

“Shifu!”

Zhou Zishu flinched, pressing the heels of his hands to his temples to try to stop the sound from clanging about around in his skull.

Chengling, at least, looked chastised and moderated his volume slightly. Not enough. But slightly.

“Shifu, shishu told me to tell you that he’d be back in a few days and not to worry.” Zhou Zishu’s young disciple worried his lower lip between his teeth. “He didn’t cook anything for dinner, though, and—”

Zhou Zishu flicked his index finger against the rim of a nearby bowl; it spun upward. He struck it with his palm in midair and flung it at Chengling’s head. It moved with enough speed that Chengling would have to move fast, but not fast enough to hurt.

Much.

He wasn’t trying to kill Chengling today, anyway.

The ceramic didn’t crack across Chengling’s head, but it bounced off his hands as he scrambled to catch it and shattered on the floor. Zhou Zishu sighed heavily.

“Practice your steps for four hours, then come find me.”

To his credit, Chengling didn’t complain. He shoveled down a few more mouthfuls of food, then trotted dutifully outside, leaving Zhou Zishu alone with the tea and the wine.

He left the tea as it was, partially out of petulance. Wen Kexing didn’t get to be upset about the things Zhou Zishu had done in the name of getting his work done. One of his own ghosts had been sent to Ghost Valley because of similar crimes, except the only people Zhou Zishu had touched without their consent were the ones he killed.

He took a deep drink of the wine and frowned at it. The wine should have tasted good. It should have tasted of anything.

Maybe that wasn’t the height of a defense against his crimes, but it still seemed the lesser of the evils.

Zhou Zishu drank again.

By the time he felt a heavy curtain of drowsiness sink onto him, it was far too late.

 

Zhou Zishu had lost count of the number of times he’d returned to Prince Jin’s quarters battered and bloodied only to be trotted directly out to some lord or his wife, or both at once. It seemed that each time he returned—further battered and further bloodied, although the exact nature of the hurts varied—more of his eighty-one would be missing. He’d suspected; of course he had. More than that, he knew.

But what was he to do but obey? It wasn’t as if he could march up to the prince and demand to know if his Tian Chuang, those too loyal to Zhou Zishu to be trusted, were being killed. Even if the prince had been responsible, what could he have done? There was no tribunal for him to appeal to. He had no master to beg for forgiveness to be allowed to return home with his wayward disciples. He couldn’t challenge the prince to a fight for their honor or their lives.

All he had was his prince—his cousin—and the organization he’d built. And even within the Tian Chuang factions had grown. He’d been so careful when he’d started. His most trusted disciples as linchpins where, at a single word from him, entire sections of the Tian Chuang could be sheared off, the wound cauterized by his trusted ones.

There were fewer and fewer of them. Qin Jiuxiao. Bi Changfeng. Han Ying, even though he hadn’t been one of Zhou Zishu’s eighty-one. They each were growing roots deeper into the organization, Zhou Zishu knew, but even that wasn’t enough. They tried again and again to bring new ones into the fold, and most of them died. Zhou Zishu ordered them to stop. He couldn’t ask more children to die for him, not like that.

He bought them time with his blood and his body, and then only he and Bi Changfeng were left.

 

A warm, dry hand pressed to his forehead. Zhou Zishu stirred. His every joint burned, his skin stretched too tight. Too tight and too hot.

A voice he almost knew. “The idiot. You certainly know how to choose them.”

“How much did he drink?” New voice. More familiar. This one almost hurt to hear.

“Qin Jiuxiao?” His shidi had to be here. He always was there.

“Who’s Qin Jiuxiao?” That voice…that belonged to a recent memory—if he could just reach it. Younger, higher. A boy barely beginning to reach manhood.

Try as he might, all the voices bled together and tangled with voices from memory, voices he knew were long dead. His master, his father. Voices whose last sounds were weeping or screaming. Laughter, harsh and agonizing.

“Never mind that. How much did he drink?” The first voice again. Insistent, but calm. He’d known crisis, and this wasn’t it. This required only a steady hand.

“I…I don’t know. All of it?”

A stifled grumble, then arms lifting him from the chair. “Let’s get him into his bed and I’ll see what can be done.”

“Do you know what happened that night?”

A quiet negative sound. “Only that shishu said to watch him carefully and that he’d experienced some trauma.”

Voices faded in and out. Can’t believe you dragged me all the way here for this and Should have at least waited and Foolish man.

He’s my best friend and Needs our help and Anything for you to save him.

Will he be okay and Shifu and Please help him.

 

Zhou Zishu woke slowly, in increments measured by the rotation of voices. Snippets of color he thought he was imagining. White and black—or maybe blue so dark it looked black. Bright colors, reds and blues.

Warm hands holding his, cool cloths on fevered skin. Still, sticky air and blessed gentle breezes.

Raised voices, only once or twice.

Tea and water was dribbled into his parched mouth and wiped away with the softest silks.

Between all that, Zhou Zishu drifted in a world where one moment he was comforted by kindness and the next hands were on him, dragging him down down downdowndown and away from everything he tried to protect. Everything he’d built. Sometimes the hands grabbed and claimed. Sometimes they folded his fingers around cold metal weapons and shoved him away. Sometimes they taunted him with promises of kindness and gave only pain.

He didn’t know how long he stayed in that fugue state, only that gradually he began to identify voices. Chengling and…Ping An? That didn’t make sense.

It made less sense that when he finally managed to force his eyes open it was to look at a man with braids in his hair who was holding a cup to his lips and tipping the liquid in.

The man who looked like Wu Xi but couldn’t actually be Wu Xi rested his hand on Zhou Zishu’s hair for a moment.

“It’ll be over soon,” the man who sounded like Wu Xi but couldn’t actually be Wu Xi said softly.

“Lao Wen?” Zhou Zishu mumbled.

“Soon, Zishu,” a man who sounded like Beiyuan but couldn’t actually be Beiyuan said. He stepped up beside the bed and took one of Zhou Zishu’s hands in his. Just like Wu Xi who couldn’t actually be Wu Xi, this man who looked like Beiyuan couldn’t actually be Beiyuan. “He’ll be back soon.”

The doppelgängers had aged just as Zhou Zishu would have expected. A few well-worn care lines across foreheads and at the corner of eyes. They looked at one another with the same mix of adoration and disbelief Zhou Zishu remembered.

“Beiy…” It was getting harder to concentrate. “He can’t be out there. He’ll kill him.”

Both men looked down at him and Zhou Zishu couldn’t see a single place where they hadn’t been replicated perfectly. Because Beiyuan and Wu Xi couldn’t be here. Wouldn’t be here.

“Your Wen Kexing is safe from Ye-xiansheng. Now sleep, Zishu,” not-Beiyuan said. He put one arm around Wu Xi’s waist and squeezed Zhou Zishu’s hand reassuringly.

 

Zhou Zishu’s memories weren’t all bad. He dreamt of a minor court official he’d been sent to placate. He’d obeyed Prince Jin and gone to Mo Chou’s bed.

Mo Chou had been kind. He’d called for the Tian Chuang doctor, although Zhou Zishu hadn’t specified why when Mo Chou had asked for a name, and left Zhou Zishu alone for the night to sleep off his wounds.

The next morning at their shared breakfast, Prince Jin had asked him how the night went. Lying was too dangerous for both Zhou Zishu and one of the few people who hadn’t simply taken what the prince had given. Telling the truth wasn’t necessarily safer, but there was a better chance of engendering Prince Jin’s goodwill and at least prolonging Mo Chou’s life.

Much to his surprise, and later anger, the prince encouraged him to maintain this placation. He was a minor noble, Prince Jin had said, but his family had powerful friends only a generation or so removed. It wouldn’t do for them to be displeased, especially at such a fragile time.

Their position was hardly fragile, and Zhou Zishu told him as much. They were safer than they had been in years. But the order was given, and Zhou Zishu obeyed. Zhou Zishu always obeyed.

They’d had nearly three months together before the prince called Zhou Zishu to him. He hadn’t stopped giving Zhou Zishu away in those three months, although more infrequently. Zhou Zishu wasn’t even suspicious until the prince spoke.

“It’s time your efforts started offering something of use,” Prince Jin said.

Zhou Zishu had begun to kneel before him, but his words shot something cold down his spine. He made himself keep moving until he was bowed before Prince Jin. “Wangye?”

“What have you learned?”

He could tell Prince Jin many things about Mo Chou. The temperature he took his tea. What he’d called his older sister when he was too young to pronounce her name. How his hands felt as he washed blood from Zhou Zishu’s hair in the bath.

“Nothing of importance, my lord.”

Zhou Zishu had been expecting the fury. The jade tea pot that flew at him was a bit of a surprise, but he blocked it from hitting his head and let it bounce off his shoulder. It hurt. He grimaced enough to let it show on his face, although he’d taken much worse hurts without thought.

“You have a week to get me anything useful I can use against him.”

Steeling himself for the very real possibility that this would be the final line he’d cross with the prince —and maybe the moment he pushed too far and the prince struck him down—Zhou Zishu raised his head, looked Prince Jin directly in the eyes, and said, “No.”

The rest of that day and night was as addled in his memory as in his dream. He knew he’d succeeded in getting Mo Chou banished rather than killed, but not much more than that and nothing more for the next several days. He’d come to in one of the buildings that housed the Tian Chuang with a worried Bi Changfeng hovering over him and Han Ying playing nursemaid.

 

Hands sat him up and slipped something into his mouth. “Chew and swallow, Zhou Zishu. It’s time to wake for a bit.”

The medicine took effect quickly. Whatever had kept him flitting between dreams began to fade, leaving him to piece together the bits of memory into a semi-coherent timeline, although the time between memories was blurred.

“Beiyuan?”

Beiyuan smiled down at him, relief written clearly onto his face, etched in the faint lines Zhou Zishu had thought he’d imagined.

“It’s me,” he confirmed.

“Why are you—Is Wu Xi with you? Where’s Lao—where’s Wen Kexing? Is he okay? You can’t be wandering alone like this.”

Beiyuan held up a hand. “We’ll explain everything in a moment. Wen Kexing sent word he’d be returning soon. I’m surprised he didn’t outrun the messenger to get here. Wu Xi?” He raised his voice to call out, but he hardly needed to.

The doors slid open, giving Zhou Zishu a brief glimpse of a half-dozen people he couldn’t immediately recognize and Chengling beside a familiar face—Han Ying? What was he doing here?—before Wu Xi entered and shut the door firmly behind him.

“You drugged me,” Zhou Zishu accused.

“Wen Kexing drugged you first,” Wu Xi corrected. “How much Drunk Like a Dream have you been taking?”

“Where is Lao Wen?” Zhou Zishu asked, ignoring Wu Xi.

In a bit of admittedly fair play, Wu Xi ignored him. He strode over and seized Zhou Zishu’s wrist to take his pulse. He gave a disgruntled hmph.

You drugged me.”

“And that dose should have been enough to keep you under twice as long.” Wu Xi dropped Zhou Zishu’s wrist and gave Beiyuan a small nod. He retreated to a nearby table and began fussing with his supplies there, giving them a bit of space. Wu Xi ran a hand down Beiyuan’s arm as he passed in a gentle gesture of affection.

“Where is Lao Wen?” Zhou Zishu repeated. The touch had brought his loss back to the forefront of his mind.

“He’s due back soon,” Beiyuan said. He sank to his knees at the edge of Zhou Zishu’s bed.

Zhou Zishu tried to stop him from kneeling, but Beiyuan just clutched at Zhou Zishu’s hands and looked at him, desperation in his warm gaze. “The Nails, Zishu?”

Zhou Zishu couldn’t meet Beiyuan’s eyes. “Why are you here?”

“Ye-qianbei sent word,” Wu Xi said.

It was easier to meet Wu Xi’s eyes than Beiyuan’s. At least Zhou Zishu didn’t have to tell him he was dying. Beiyuan was smart enough to know what the Nails meant. Wu Xi had likely already explained anything else, but his impending death wasn’t a topic of conversation Zhou Zishu wanted to broach.

“We could have helped,” Beiyuan said. “We would have done whatever was necessary to get you out, away from Jin-wang.”

“I know. That’s why I didn’t ask.”

Beiyuan squeezed Zhou Zishu’s hands again. “Zishu.”

Beiyuan looked so distraught that Zhou Zishu had to look away again. He was saved from having to explain to one of his oldest friends that he’d taken the Nails willingly and moreover that he’d deserved them by Wu Xi approaching with a cup in his hands.

“You drugged me,” Zhou Zishu said a third time.

“Drink, or we don’t let you out of our sight until Wen Kexing returns,” Wu Xi said. “It’s not Drunk Like a Dream, which I as your doctor order you to stop using. You’ll sleep a dreamless sleep until we wake you, which I can do with this.” He held up a small vial. “You’ll wake instantly.”

“Why even wake me up then?”

Wu Xi didn’t answer. Beiyuan gave him a fond, if exasperated smile.

“He said your qi felt too unsteady for too long. He wanted you conscious in case he needed to intervene.”

“Drink,” Wu Xi ordered again. Somewhat sheepishly, Zhou Zishu thought.

Zhou Zishu looked at Beiyuan for help, but his friend folded his hands in his lap and sent him a look that very clearly said, This is a fight I’ve never won in all my years with him combined with, I choose him over you. Zhou Zishu wrinkled his nose, but accepted the cup.

He sniffed the tea, but smelled nothing. His sense of smell was diminishing by the day, but sometimes he could still catch something, something that let him know he hadn’t yet sunk into a world wrapped in dulling cotton. It probably smelled of bitter herbs, but at least he wouldn’t taste it now. He sighed to show his displeasure, but tipped the cup into his mouth and swallowed.

Wu Xi watched him the entire time. Where exactly he thought Zhou Zishu was going to hide a mouthful of liquid, he didn’t know. But his eyes grew heavy even as he tried to pass the cup over. It slipped from his fingers, and Beiyuan caught it. He was asleep before Wu Xi received it from Beiyuan’s hand.

 

Zhou Zishu woke to the smell of blood. It shocked him awake, reaching for White Cloth. His hand closed instead on a forearm.

Wu Xi turned to set the vial on the table beside the bed. He slipped an arm around Zhou Zishu’s ribs and helped him stand. “Wen Kexing has returned. Beiyuan is trying to keep him from storming in here.”

On cue, Zhou Zishu could hear Beiyuan protesting. “Wen-gongzi, please, if you go in like that, Zishu will think—”

The door flung open. His Lao Wen was dressed in deep red robes with lines of red dashed beneath his eyelashes on his lower eyelid—and that was a look Zhou Zishu would have to digest later. Now seemed an inappropriate time to be distracted by his zhiji’s clothes. He was also splashed with half-dried blood.

Zhou Zishu stumbled toward Lao Wen. He’d been in a bed for long enough that his body needed extra direction on how to walk, and his fear at seeing that much blood overrode any sort of conscious thought.

Lao Wen caught him with his right arm before they crashed together, saving Zhou Zishu from falling to the ground as his balance failed him. His arm wrapped tight around Zhou Zishu’s waist. Zhou Zishu ran his hands across Lao Wen’s shoulders, fingers questing for any tears in his robes that might have indicated wounds.

“Is any of it yours?”

“Yes.” Lao Wen looked deeply distraught. He released Zhou Zishu’s waist and held up his hand to reveal a ragged fingernail with a tiny cut along the skin there. It looked like the broken nail had caught on his finger. “This is mine.”

Zhou Zishu swore at him. Lao Wen smiled beatifically.

“We brought you something,” Lao Wen said, lowering his head until his lips were right next to Zhou Zishu’s ear.

“We?” Zhou Zishu echoed dumbly.

“Move aside, Wen Kexing.”

Lao Wen didn’t exactly move aside, but he did turn so Zhou Zishu could see Ye Baiyi standing in the doorway with a disapproving Beiyuan just behind him. Unlike his Lao Wen, Ye Baiyi didn’t have a mark on him. His white robes were immaculate.

Zhou Zishu had a number of questions, but they all stilled in his throat when Lao Wen lifted his left hand.

A head hung from a fistful of knotted black hair. That alone was so shocking it took Zhou Zishu a moment to recognize the face. It had been badly beaten, but it was still clearly Prince Jin. Lao Wen and Ye Baiyi looked incredibly proud of themselves. Zhou Zishu felt the blood draining from his face.

“He can’t—The balance—” Zhou Zishu cut off, eyes fixed on his cousin’s face. He didn’t know if the roaring in his ears accompanied grief or joy or relief or some other emotion he hadn’t had enough experience with to name.

Ye Baiyi scoffed. “The balance, the balance! Don’t worry about the balance. It’ll be taken care of.”

“The two of you…went together?”

Lao Wen nodded. He peered worriedly at Zhou Zishu’s face and cupped Zhou Zishu’s cheek with his right hand. “I wouldn’t have him hurt you or anyone else again.”

“How you choose to get your work done is your own business,” Ye Baiyi said. “But to force this on another person is unacceptable.”

Zhou Zishu couldn’t stop looking at the head. Lao Wen noticed and passed it off to the person nearest him, which happened to be Wu Xi. The shaman took the head without concern and set it on a cloth resting on the table. He folded the cloth and covered it.

“Leave now, Wen-gongzi, Ye-xiansheng. Zhou-zhuangzhu needs to get his bearings before I leave him to your care.”

Lao Wen gathered the wrapped head before he left. The door closed with Beiyuan and Wu Xi on one side and Lao Wen and Ye Baiyi on the other. Beiyuan was moving before Zhou Zishu realized the world was tilting. He and Wu Xi maneuvered Zhou Zishu back to sit on the bed.

“What do you need from us?” Beiyuan asked, voice gentle. It helped Zhou Zishu focus on something other than what Prince Jin had looked like, his head suspended in the air in front of him, eyes blank, mouth screaming. “Do you want anything? Food or drink?”

Zhou Zishu shook his head. Wu Xi let go of Zhou Zishu’s wrist, which he hadn’t even realized the shaman was holding, with a nod.

“You’ll live,” he pronounced. “For the time being. I’ll work on some things, but in the meantime, I’d ask you not to do anything stupid, but you are my zhiji’s friend, and I know what to expect. Instead I’ll ask only that you spare a fraction of a thought for your Wen Kexing and your disciple before you do something as stupid as facing the Changming Immortal.”

Eventually Beiyuan convinced Zhou Zishu to eat something, and the three of them sat and ate while Wen Kexing cleaned himself up. It was nearly sundown when Lao Wen returned, his hair still damp. Beiyuan and Wu Xi gathered up their remaining belongings and left with a quiet promise to talk more tomorrow.

Lao Wen had changed into a simple cream-colored set of robes. The head was nowhere to be seen, and even the dried blood had been scrubbed from beneath his fingernails. The ragged nail had even been filed down. He saw Zhou Zishu looking and grinned.

“Ping An doesn’t do as good of a job as A-Xiang, but it’s passable.”

Zhou Zishu knew exactly how diligently Ping An approached his work, but he didn’t dispute Lao Wen’s claim.

By and large, their physical interactions had been one-sided—Lao Wen’s side—or only when there was imminent danger. But for now, Zhou Zishu let Lao Wen sit next to him on the bed and sprawl, taking up much more room than even a man his height should have managed.

They were pressed together hip to shoulder. Lao Wen curled his arm around Zhou Zishu’s waist as though he were afraid Zhou Zishu would go somewhere if he didn’t hold him in place, all when he’d been the one to disappear in the middle of the night.

“You’re not worried about retribution?” Zhou Zishu asked at last.

His Lao Wen shook his head. “What would they do, come after the Old Monster and the Ghost Valley Master? None of them are brave enough for that. Besides, you heard him. He isn’t worried about any great political upset.”

“Lao Wen…” Zhou Zishu sighed. “Lao Wen, you didn’t have to do this for me.”

Lao Wen scoffed. “For you? I did it for me. That someone else was allowed to touch you before I was!”

And that was a lie. They both knew it. Zhou Zishu smiled anyway. He lifted a hand to brush a few wayward strands of hair from Lao Wen’s cheek. Lao Wen’s eyes fluttered closed at the gentle touch. Zhou Zishu couldn’t quite feel the hair beneath his fingertips, but Lao Wen looked pleased.

“A-Xu?” Lao Wen asked when  Zhou Zishu pulled away. “Was it okay? What we did?”

Zhou Zishu hummed to acknowledge he’d heard and to buy himself a moment to think. He’d been trying to avoid thinking about that exact question.

“Yes,” he said at last. “Yes. He was going to have to be dealt with one way or another and…” He could admit this last part to Lao Wen only. “And I don’t know if I could have done it. You took the choice from me, but you also took from me the stain of his blood. And I…I have enough blood.”

Lao Wen relaxed visibly. He’d looked like an animal who hadn’t known if they were going to be pet or hit. “I know your relationship was complicated.”

And Lao Wen was quite the one to be talking about complicated relationships, although Zhou Zishu didn’t point it out. It really was quite gentlemanly of him. “Even so, it wasn’t necessary. I’d escaped his reach.”

His zhiji looked at him, eyes bright and serious. “Necessary or no, if I’d had my way, he’d have screamed for a week before I let him die. I won’t allow anyone who’s done that to you to live.”

There was a quaver in his voice. A quaver that seemed not to match the ferocity of his words. A quaver that spoke of a deeper, darker knowledge than just what Zhou Zishu had told him.

“We don’t let anyone like that live,” Zhou Zishu agreed

Lao Wen nodded once. The jerk of his head was so unlike the smooth elegance Zhou Zishu was used to that he gathered Lao Wen fully in his arms. It took hardly any urging at all for Lao Wen to tuck his head against Zhou Zishu’s neck, shaking breath gusting unevenly across Zhou Zishu’s throat.

“Stay with me tonight,” Zhou Zishu said.

Lao Wen drew back just enough to get a good look at Zhou Zishu’s face, then, finding whatever he’d been looking for, nodded and leaned back in.

Zhou Zishu kissed his forehead and let himself relax.