Chapter 1: Bad Night in Dragon City
Then you can move sky and earth, conquer demons and spirits, take over creation, level hell, ascend to heaven, open the door of life and shut the door of death.
Awakening to the Tao by Liu I-ming (Thomas Cleary translation)
Zhao Yunlan missed everything important the first time he watched the CCTV footage.
Shen Wei was absolutely unmistakable of course, despite the bad lighting and poor quality of the recording. He was still dressed from a lecture in his usual immaculate fashion, and he was carrying his leather messenger bag. Then two men stepped out of the shadows. Shen Wei had evidently been aware of their presence but had not considered them a threat. He didn't startle, only attempted to step around, even ducking his head in pardon. The men stepped with him and moved in too close. One gestured.
Shen Wei took out his wallet and handled over his cash so calmly he might have been buying steamed buns from a street vendor. In contrast, the two muggers grew increasingly agitated, grabbing his briefcase, demanding his watch, then jostling him roughly when he handed that over as well. One of the men reached for the pendant at Shen Wei's throat.
Zhao Yunlan had to rewind and slow the replay to untangle what happened next. Shen Wei intercepted the arm extended towards his neck with the breathtaking physical economy of a master. In an instant, the thief's arm was caught and held. The street camera only hinted at the expression on Shen Wei's face, but the would-be jewelry thief curled in on himself, shoulders bowing, his head dropping. And then, nothing. A pause of seconds while Shen Wei looked intently at the man he held immobile. Then his companion lurched forward, swinging his arm wildly, and slammed Shen Wei across the face with a tire iron.
Shen Wei's head snapped around. He staggered.
The first time Zhao Yunlan watched the recording he swore out loud at the blow. The other members of the SID muttered in unhappy agreement, and Guo Changcheng covered his eyes. The recording showed Shen Wei stumbling hard and his assailants seizing the moment—and Shen Wei—like hyenas on wounded prey. Furious and heartsick as Zhao Yunlan was, he had been a policeman for a long time. He was thinking that although Shen Wei had training, in the final analysis he was a school teacher, not a warrior.
After all, it was early days yet. Shen Wei was endlessly intriguing, but as far as Zhao Yunlan knew, he was just a curiously unflappable professor of bioengineering. He had an excellent tailor and a soft spot for fugitive Dixingren, but it was fair to say Zhao Yunlan had not even been thinking about him the evening he stumbled upon a violent mugging on the outskirts of the Old City. A couple of street toughs had a man on the ground, and they were kicking the crap out of him. They were so intent neither noticed Zhao Yunlan until he started kicking too. He caught the first one sharply between the legs from behind and doubled him over. The second looked around with mulish surprise just as Zhao Yunlan punched the side of his hand into the nerves at the base of the man's neck. He went down with satisfying abruptness, and his tire iron hit the pavement with a clatter.
Zhao Yunlan pulled out his phone and called for backup and medical support. He didn't take his eyes off the two thugs on the ground, but he eased a step back towards their victim. "Help's on the way, friend. Just hang in there."
The other man tried to speak. It came out as a wet gurgle, but Zhao Yunlan recognized him at once. "Shen Wei?"
"Hey, he started it, brother!" groaned the thug who was cupping his balls in agony.
"And I'm here to finish it if you say another word," Zhao Yunlan snarled. As the municipal police arrived Zhao Yunlan explained the situation in a few terse words and then crouched down beside Shen Wei.
"We're going to get you taken care of, professor. What were you even doing here at this time of night?"
Shen Wei gasped thickly.
"Ah no, that was rhetorical. Don't try to talk." Zhao Yunlan reached for his hand and patted it carefully. The blood on Shen Wei's face was black under the pale glow of a single street lamp. It was no surprise his preternaturally good luck had finally run out, but it was heartbreaking all the same. "Did he get you with the tire iron? Sorry, don't try to answer that either. Just stay calm until the ambulance gets here."
Shen Wei coughed and spat blood. He fumbled weakly for his handkerchief. When Zhao Yunlan realized what he wanted, he pulled it out himself and gently blotted his lips.
"I'm all right," Shen Wei managed, slurring and spitting more blood. "Please help me up."
Zhao Yunlan kept his voice low and calm. "You're in shock, Professor Shen." To the medics arriving behind him he said, "Broken nose, probably a broken jaw too. Busted ribs and internal injuries. When I got here he was on the ground. They were kicking him." When he looked down again he found the professor watching him carefully through the one eye that wasn't already swollen shut. Zhao Yunlan let out his breath forcefully. "I really wish you had just stayed home to grade papers tonight, Shen Wei."
It was the wrong thing to say. Shen Wei tried to push his way free of the first responders kneeling on either side of him. "My students—"
"Oh, no no no," Zhao Yunlan hushed him. "We will get in touch with the university for you. I'm afraid it's going to be a few days before you will be standing in front of a classroom again." He hastened to add, "But you're going to be all right, I'm certain! Just let these folks do their job. I'll come check up on you once you're settled at the hospital."
Shen Wei finally lay back. Zhao Yunlan stepped away to give the medics room to work. He was still flushed with adrenaline, sad and furious, and he knew the municipal police would not stop him from giving the now-handcuffed thugs a taste of their own medicine. His father wouldn't have hesitated.
Instead, he looked around the scene and gathered up the professor's leather bag. His watch he found on the pavement nearby, along with his broken glasses. Shen Wei had already been loaded into the back of the ambulance when the driver came up to Zhao Yunlan.
"Excuse me, Chief," she said. "The patient asked if you could look for a pendant that was dropped. Yellow quartz on a cord."
"Tell Professor Shen I'll find it for him. And hey, treat him with special care, would you? He is a very good friend to the SID." That last was more aspirational than fact, but he wasn't letting them drive Shen Wei off without advising he had friends in high places.
Then Zhao Yunlan talked to the municipal officers. He emphasized the status of their victim, a hard-working university professor and a credit to society, seriously injured by the actions of a couple of parasites like these two in the back of the police car. When he was satisfied he'd gotten his message across, he used the flashlight on his phone to sweep the pavement until he found a glint of light that wasn't a gum wrapper, a twist of cellophane or fragment of broken glass. Finally. He scooped up the little pendant and pocketed it with relief. Foolish of him, probably, but he really had not wanted to fail in that one small request from Shen Wei, especially not after the night he'd had. Maybe this would cure the man of his habit of roaming city streets at all hours, but dammit, he would not have wished this on him for the world.
He stopped by the municipal police station before he followed Shen Wei to the hospital, reasoning he would be tied up in imaging and surgery for hours, and Zhao Yunlan wanted to be certain the arrest paperwork was absolutely in order. Dawn was pinking the eastern sky before he arrived at Dragon City General. Flashing his badge got him directed to Shen Wei's bedside where he found the professor sitting up in bed and insisting with great earnestness that he was going to check himself out and go home.
The doctor arguing with him was glad to see Zhao Yunlan. "Perhaps you can talk some sense into him," he exclaimed in exasperation.
"Shen Wei, oh, Shen Wei," Zhao Yunlan said immediately, laying one hand carefully on his shoulder. The professor looked frankly awful. Despite a little cleaning, blood was caked at his hairline, under his nose and streaked down his chin. His face was corpse-white save for the bruises coming up, and his lips were cracked and pale. "We must let these good doctors do their work."
"I am trying to explain that I will heal faster in the comfort of my own home," Shen Wei said, exasperation coloring his polite tone. His voice was clear now, and he was talking without impediment. Apparently Zhao Yunlan had been wrong about the broken nose and jaw, then. In fact, as alarming as first impressions had been, the swelling had gone down, his nose was straight and both eyes were open, only shadowed in purple bruising.
"Professor Shen," the doctor put in. "A man with your training can surely understand that we must monitor internal bleeding in a clinical setting."
"You have also told me the bleeding appears to be resolving without the need for surgical intervention," Shen Wei countered.
"Ah!" Zhao Yunlan inserted himself into the argument. "I come bearing gifts that will allow you to rest at the hospital with an easier mind. Behold, your briefcase, your watch, and this." He extended the little quartz pendant in the palm of his hand. "I'll put it in your briefcase if you like."
Shen Wei abandoned his argument with the doctor to take the pendant from Zhao Yunlan. He closed his fingers around it tightly, attempted to smile, but looked for a moment as though he might weep. "Thank you. Zhao Yunlan, thank you."
"I'm afraid your glasses are a lost cause, but if you would like me to drop the frames off at your optometrist's office, it would be no trouble."
"Oh, no. I have already put you to far too much trouble tonight. "
"And now it is morning! Professor Shen, the only trouble for me was not being in time to spare you these injuries. You seem in much better shape than I could have hoped, but if you feel the need to repay me for anything, you could not do better than by agreeing to follow medical advice. Just stay put until these good medical professionals agree you can safely go home."
Shen Wei blinked. Zhao Yunlan pressed his advantage. "I will notify the university and bring you a change of clothes when you are ready to leave. And please, no more wandering the mean streets of Dragon City in the small hours of the night."
At that, Shen Wei managed a very small smile.
But he didn't promise anything. Not to avoid midnight strolls, and not even to stay in the hospital. Zhao Yunlan had barely arrived at the SID, where he planned to share a brief version of the night's unhappy adventures before going home to have a nap, when Wang Zheng told him he had a phone call from Shen Wei. Zhao Yunlan stepped into his office to take it. "Professor Shen, has something else happened?"
Shen Wei assured him that he was fine. "I was feeling so much better that I checked myself out. I'm home now. I did not want you to make a wasted trip."
Zhao Yunlan swore under his breath. "I thought we already had this discussion. You were going to stay in the hospital where they could monitor you. Need I remind you that I saw what happened last night? It is a miracle you can even walk around today!"
"Surely the fact that I was entirely capable of catching a taxi home argues against anything miraculous," Shen Wei returned calmly. "Thank you again for your fortuitous arrival and for bringing me my possessions. I am in your debt."
"At least tell me you are staying home today."
"Indeed, as you recommended I have notified the department head I am required to take the day off."
Well thank heavens for small mercies. "I will stop in to check on you later."
"That is not necessary, but of course I would be glad to see you."
He was still fuming over that conversation, glad Shen Wei was better, but frustrated he was ignoring medical advice, when he stepped back out into the office and asked Lin Jing if he could find the CCTV footage.
"Professor Shen got mugged? Shit."
Zhu Hong scowled. "Maybe this will cure him of wandering around the city at all hours of the night." Zhao Yunlan didn't usually agree with her when it came to Shen Wei, but right now, he definitely felt the same way.
He would have liked to watch the video without an audience when Lin Jing finally produced it, but could not think of a good enough reason to banish everyone else. The footage of the attack was shocking. Zhao Yunlan was shaky himself after watching the moments before his own arrival on the scene, and he covered by telling Lin Jing to flag it to the attention of the municipal police, just to be sure it was not overlooked.
"It is fortunate you arrived when you did," Chu Shuzhi said in a rare moment of grudging approval. Then he had to spoil it by asking, "How did you happen to be there? Were you following him?"
Zhao Yunlan trained a disapproving look in his direction. He had not been, in fact, but the question made him wonder if Shen Wei had been aware of Zhao Yunlan nearby. He did have a tendency to show up right in the middle of SID Investigations. Last night Zhao Yunlan had not been investigating anything, however, simply on his way home from another late night schmoozing with the ministers responsible for the SID's funding.
Had Shen Wei been keeping an eye on him personally?
"Wait," Da Qing interrupted his worried thoughts. "Shen Wei is already out of the hospital after taking a beating like that? What were those doctors thinking?"
"It must not have been as bad as it looks here," Zhao Yunlan said uncertainly, because in all honesty it had looked pretty damn awful. "He checked himself out against medical advice, but when I saw him this morning he was sitting up and able to hold a conversation. Some people just don't like hospitals I guess."
"Nobody likes hospitals," Lin Jing put in, "but the way he got hit I'd expect a mouth full of busted teeth at the very least."
"All right, enough! You ghouls sound like you're sorry Professor Shen isn't in worse shape.
That has been very bad police work, Zhao Yunlan would judge himself much, much later. He had allowed his relief at Shen Wei's quick recovery to obscure the bigger question. Later, once Shen Wei's steamer trunk full of secrets became too vast to ignore any longer, Zhao Yunlan missed the big picture again. When he thought about that night at all, it was only to realize with a sinking heart the injuries probably had been just as severe as he had first thought. Worse yet, Shen Wei most likely had been out that night precisely because of Zhao Yunlan. It had been Shen Wei's single-minded focus on Zhao Yunlan's safety, time and again, which had finally revealed the black cloak so imperfectly disguised by the professor's finely tailored suits.
Chapter 2: The Unwritten Sign
A year passed during which, against all expectations, the world did not end. Afterwards, Zhao Yunlan comforted Shen Wei as he mourned his brother. He even dared to hope he and Shen Wei might get their own happily-ever-after. And now this.
Three days ago, Shen Wei had walked to his favorite vegetable market and into oblivion. There was no sign of him in Dixing, and investigations into renegade Dixingren networks in Haixing had so far failed to turn up any useful leads. At this point Zhao Yunlan had the SID reviewing every case from the past year, desperate for any lead, no matter how slender.
"OK," he spat. Frozen on the screen before them was the year-old footage of Shen Wei holding one of the muggers immobile while the second one began his leap forward brandishing a tire iron. "How did some stupid street crook get the drop on Hei Pao Shi?"
Guo Changcheng's interns were all pushed back from the table, wide-eyed and silent.
"Something distracted him," Chu Shuzhi declared. "He's staring right into that one man's face."
"Must've been one hell of a distraction," Zhao Yunlan said. "I can understand him not taking a couple of Haixing street criminals very seriously, but to leave himself open like that?"
A lot had happened in the intervening time but still, this was a question he should have asked months ago.
"Did he say anything afterwards?" Da Qing wanted to know. "You were right there. Did Shen Wei recognize him?"
"If he did, he didn't tell me. Of course, he could hardly talk. He begged me through his broken jaw to let him go home but I didn't know—" Zhao Yunlan bowed his head. The memory was almost unbearable, realizing he had forced Shen Wei to endure the clumsy ministrations of Haixing doctors until he could make his escape to heal in peace.
Da Qing was as unsympathetic as usual. "Yeah, you didn't know because in those days the professor wasn't in the habit of announcing he was also the Lord Envoy."
That must have sounded disrespectful to Chu Shuzhi. He scowled. "Hei Pao Shi has always hewn to the demands of duty before all else."
And didn't that raise horrifying possibilities in addition to all the painful memories. "Say what you mean, Lao Chu," Zhao Yunlan ground out. "Do you think Shen Wei left on his own? His sense of duty compelled him to vanish without saying a word to anyone?"
"I cannot know that," Chu Shuzhi met his gaze unflinchingly. "I think we should consider the possibility."
"Fortunately I am still chief of the SID and we don't stop looking until I say so. Lin Jing, we need the names of those two muggers, their backgrounds, families, everything they ever did before they made the very bad choice to interrupt Shen Wei's walk in the city that night, everything that has happened to them since."
Lin Jing blinked. "What, now?"
"I would prefer it a week ago, but since Dixing is unlikely to approve our borrowing the Hallows so you can time travel and give me the information I want before I ask for it, you better get a move on."
"We're on it." He snapped his fingers and the interns scattered. Zhao Yunlan extricated himself from the depths of the sofa and retreated to his office. He had no real hope this particular quest would prove to be anything but another dead end, but watching the tape again had stirred up a host of awful memories. The last time he had seen so much blood on Shen Wei, he'd been on the floor of the palace with an ice dagger lodged in his chest.
Zhao Yunlan took a deep, shuddering breath. He yanked a lollipop out of his pocket, tore off the wrapper and stuffed it in his mouth, sucking like he could pull a drag from it. Shen Wei had complied with his assailants' every demand that night outside the Old City, right up until one of them had tried to take the locket cradling Kunlun's ten-thousand-year-old candy wrapper. Whatever had so fatally distracted Shen Wei in the next moment, he had made his stand over that keepsake, so precious he'd sent it to Zhao Yunlan in lieu of goodbye, as though it could answer all Zhao Yunlan's questions or in any way assuage his grief.
The lollipop knocked against his teeth as he yanked it out of his mouth. The intervening time between their return from Dixing and Shen Wei's disappearance felt misty as a dream. Had they truly shared weeks at a time when their biggest concern had been whether Shen Wei should surrender his apartment now, or wait until they found a larger place? It seemed impossible they could ever have been so carefree.
Well, it had not all been joy. Shen Wei's grief for his brother had been a shadowy third behind all their cautious plans for the future. Shen Wei did not find it easy to speak of his sorrows, but they were not secret. So no, in the final analysis, Zhao Yunlan could not believe that Shen Wei had been harboring secrets so vast and terrible they would impel him to vanish without a word.
It didn't take Changcheng's interns and Lin Jing more than a few hours to gather what they could about Shen Wei's assailants that night. Qin Hu and Wu Chaoxiang had been sentenced for their crimes with commendable speed, and both were now serving years-long sentences. "I hope they enjoy assembling holiday lights," Lin Jing said with dark satisfaction. "They're gonna be doing it for a long time."
"Where are they incarcerated? Get me permission to interview both of them. Let me know if I need to step in and twist some arms. Have you got mugshots?"
Lin Jing did. He threw the pictures up on the shared screen. No revelations there either, even though Zhao Yunlan stared at those two sullen faces intently, silently willing them to reveal the secret of Shen Wei's disappearance.
"Chu-ge," Guo Changcheng interrupted nervously, "are you all right? What's wrong?"
Zhao Yunlan whipped his head around. Chu Shuzhi's face was dark with intense emotion, rage or fear or grief. One arm was resting on the table and his hand was fisted so tightly the knuckles stood out in white knobs.
Zhao Yunlan's breath caught. "Lao Chu, report!"
Chu Shuzhi shook himself like a man awakening from a bad dream. He opened his clenched fist, reached up and took the concerned hand that Guo Changcheng had placed on his shoulder. He lowered Xiao Guo's hand to the table where he cupped his palm over it to anchor him in place.
"I believe I know what happened that night." Chu Shuzhi was choosing his words with care. "When Shen Wei caught Qin Hu and looked in his face, he saw that mark on his forehead. Such an ancient blasphemy, seen so unexpectedly—it could have distracted even Hei Pao Shi, at least for a moment."
Zhao Yunlan looked at the mugshot. Looked back at Chu Shuzhi. "There aren't any marks. What are you talking about?"
Lin Jing magnified the image of Qin Hu's face on the screen.
"You mean those bruises? Or is that dirt?" Zhao Yunlan could just discern a trio of smudged horizontal lines across the felon's brow.
"It's the character sān. He's written it across his forehead by rubbing a stone back and forth until the capillaries burst under the skin."
"What, like gua sha? Lao Chu, I seriously doubt this son of a bitch was worried about forehead wrinkles."
"You may be the Lord Guardian but you are also an ignorant child, Zhao Yunlan."
Zhao Yunlan bit back his first response, then smiled with teeth. "There are many in this world who would not disagree with that assessment, Lao Chu. Have pity, then, and relieve my ignorance."
"Oh, you are kidding me!" Da Qing burst out. "Are you just gonna take that disrespect?" Zhao Yunlan shot him a quelling glare. Da Qing responded by transforming, jumping onto the table and proceeding to wash his genitals with exaggerated attention.
Chu Shuzhi simply ignored the black cat grooming himself in the middle of the conference table. "The bruising is not done for cosmetic or medical purposes. It is the mark of the Unwritten Sign."
"'Unwritten' because it doesn't use ink? OK, so what's the significance?"
"It is said the People of the Unwritten Sign were a splinter religious sect among the Haixingren, back in the age of the meteor strike. According to legend, adherents would use a fragment from the meteorite itself to raise the mark. I myself heard only whispers of the cult during my time in the palace dungeons, and only from the most insane or degraded criminals. Not even Ye Zun would tolerate its mention. Until I saw this photograph, I believed it had been long forgotten on the surface."
Da Qing interrupted again, still in cat form. Now he was huddled into a tight crouch, and he'd begun swaying his head slightly from side to side. From deep in his throat he was muttering, "Nonono—"
Intent on Chu Shuzhi's revelations, Zhao Yunlan absently reached to scruff him. "For the last time, you damned cat—"
Da Qing exploded. He bit Zhao Yunlan's finger so violently his teeth juddered against the bone. Zhao Yunlan roared in shock and tried to fling him off. In response, Da Qing curled to rake his rear claws across Zhao Yunlan's hand and forearm before scrabbling up his shoulder. He shredded shirtsleeve, flesh and Zhao Yunlan's vest along the way, then bit Zhao Yunlan's chin, slashed his face and launched himself across the room.
Zhao Yunlan bellowed, shaking his injured hand. He realized he was splattering blood everywhere and clamped the other hand over his bitten forefinger. "Don't let him out!"
But no one made a move to intercept the spitting, hissing ball of rage. Da Qing reached the window and sprang through. Sputtering curses, Zhao Yunlan limped to the window after him, half-blinded by tears of shock and pain. He wiped his eyes impatiently, smearing blood. Wholly blind now, he grasped the windowsill, blinking furiously until his vision cleared. Da Qing was long gone. "What the hell was that?" he demanded. "No, seriously, what the fuck?"
Chu Shuzhi said. "It was my discussion of the Unwritten Sign. Zhao Yunlan, you require a healer."
"I'm fine. Do you think Da Qing encountered that cult? What the hell did they do to him?"
"Chief Zhao, you are not fine," Guo Changcheng interrupted. That was so surprising Zhao Yunlan turned his head to gape. Changcheng quailed under the scrutiny but he insisted, "Cat bites are very serious! Your finger is already swelling."
"I know bites are serious, but I'll be all right." He absently swiped the back of his hand over his dripping chin and winced. His face hurt to touch and welled with blood. He looked down at himself. The scratches from Da Qing's back claws were also bleeding messily, but the puncture wounds on his finger had closed, and the digit was already swollen fat and red. "Well, hell." He swayed on his feet, adrenaline abruptly exhausted. Chu Shuzhi caught him and walked him to a chair.
Lin Jing cautiously poked his head out from behind the desk. "What about Da Qing?"
"Zhu Hong can get word out to the Yashou in the city. Call her. Crows and flower folk are the only ones with a chance of tracking him." Zhao Yunlan slumped in his chair. "When I catch up to him, I'm getting him neutered, see if I don't." He was sick with worry for that fucking cat, and he had to remind himself that Da Qing had survived ten thousand years just fine, more or less. But Zhao Yunlan had never seen him so out of control. He seriously doubted even Lao Li's dried fish could have penetrated that blind, slashing fury.
Guo Changcheng was plucking at his left shoulder, the side that Da Qing hadn't shredded. "You need to come with me, Chief Zhao. We have to flush those scratches with saline and get you to the hospital."
"Who are you and what have you done with Xiao Guo?" He felt miserably lightheaded. It was ridiculous to be so sick. He had survived torture at the hands of Ye Zun himself. And now he was fainting from a cat scratch?
Well, quite a lot of cat scratches. His blood was still dripping on the floor.
"Come along," Chu Shuzhi was tired of the discussion. "Xiao Guo will get you cleaned up enough to travel, and Liu Chun will bring the jeep around."
Zhao Yunlan allowed himself to be half-bullied, half-coaxed along by his people. He was now riding shotgun in the jeep, having reluctantly agreed to let Guo Changcheng drive instead of the frightened intern. Chu Shuzhi was riding along because Zhao Yunlan still had questions.
"Keep your arm elevated," Guo Changcheng insisted before easing into traffic with a sense of caution that would have done Zhao Yunlan's dear old grandfather proud.
Zhao Yunlan propped his elbow on the window and finally was able to ask Chu Shuzhi, "So these people of the Unwritten Sign. Besides bruising their foreheads, what did they actually do? Why would the mere mention of them make Da Qing lose his shit?"
Silence from the backseat. Then Chu Shuzhi said, "Save for Da Qing and Hei Pao Shi himself, there is no one now alive who could speak to the historical practices of the sect."
"Well, them and that son of a bitch with the sign on his forehead who mugged Shen Wei last year. Qin Hu."
"After the passage of millennia, it is inconceivable that he could know anything more than dubious rumors."
"Since right now we have less than nothing," Zhao Yunlan pointed out, "I will take whatever I can get, even the dubious rumors. What were the crazy people in the dungeons saying about the People of the Unwritten Sign? For that matter, why would they know or even care about an ancient Haixingren cult?"
Chu Shuzhi answered after an even longer pause, palpably reluctant. "Referencing the very existence of that sect signaled an obscene measure of disrespect. Heedless, blasphemous. An unspeakable negation."
Not actually helpful. "Chu Shuzhi, what were they so busy negating?"
"Even Ye Zun in his ten-thousand-year-old madness would not presume so much. He was prepared to consume creation, perhaps, but did not propose its ultimate unmaking."
"And that's what People of the Unwritten Sign wanted? Lao Chu, please explain this to me in language a simple policeman can understand." His phone cut him off and he fumbled awkwardly with his left hand to answer. Zhu Hong was on the line.
"First Shen Wei, and now Da Qing? Lao Zhao, you've got to do better than this," she announced unkindly. Zhao Yunlan didn't defend himself. She wasn't wrong, and she did have good news. "The flower folk have been watching Da Qing since he went barreling out the SID window. Right now he's under a holly hedge just a block from your apartment. They'll keep an eye on him until he makes it home."
Zhao Yunlan slumped in relief. "Thank you, thank you. But let everyone know that no one should approach him."
"Don't worry. Unlike you, apparently, Yashou have enough sense not to approach an enraged cat. What happened, and how badly are you hurt?"
"I'm fine. Zhu Hong, have you ever heard of a group calling themselves the People of the Unwritten Sign?"
"Like some kind of a political organization? Not really my area of expertise. Are they what so upset Da Qing?"
"Maybe. And they're more religious than political, I think. Haixingren. Would you ask Fourth Uncle? They date back to the meteor strike, but they may have adherents even now."
"Do you think they have something to do with Shen Wei's disappearance as well?"
"I don't know that yet. We're looking into it, as soon as I get done at the hospital."
Zhu Hong struck. "Lin Jing said you were hurt!"
Chu Shuzhi reached forward and plucked the phone from Zhao Yunlan's hand. "He got bit a couple of times. We are pulling up to the hospital now." He ended the call and handed the phone back to Zhao Yunlan.
The next few hours were intensely unpleasant. Zhao Yunlan mentally upgraded his threat as he sat through having his bitten forefinger debrided. Neutering was too good for that fucking cat. At this point he was seriously fantasizing about having him put down.
The most frustrating part was not being able to follow up personally on Qin Hu or the Unwritten Sign folk. He reminded himself that his team was looking into it while the bite on his chin was stitched up and his forefinger mummified under a frankly astonishing contraption of metal and gauze that made it look like he had suffered an attempted amputation. It was going to be a long time before he was riding his bike again.
One look at Guo Changcheng's face when he was finally released, and Zhao Yunlan knew there had been a development, and not a good one either. He left Xiao Guo waiting at the pharmacy window for his prescribed antibiotics and walked Chu Shuzhi out to the parking lot. The sun had set while he was being treated, and the night sky seemed low and sullen, dark clouds reflecting the streetlights.
"Spill it. I am not in the mood for any more bullshit."
Chu Shuzhi raised an eyebrow, but this news was apparently easier to share than the beliefs of mostly forgotten religious sects, because he simply told Zhao Yunlan, "You won't be able to talk to Qin Hu or Wu Chaoxiang. Wu Chaoxiang died in prison. Qin Hu is missing."
"Missing? How can a man in state custody go missing?"
"Probably by not being in state custody anymore. The best Lin Jing was able to discover, he was supposed to have been transferred to a facility in the provinces about six months ago, but that prison has no record of the transfer."
Zhao Yunlan started to clap his hand to his forehead, was brought up short by the elaborate splint, and hissed in frustration instead. "This is not an accident or a coincidence."
"Chu-ge, you have to tell him." Guo Changcheng had appeared at Chu Shuzhi's side, Zhao Yunlan's white pharmacy bag in hand. "Also, I have your antibiotics, Chief Zhao. Please be sure that you read all the instruction very carefully."
Chapter 3: Guo Changcheng's Story
As it turned out, Chu Shuzhi could not bring himself to tell the story of Shen Wei and the People of the Unwritten Sign, but in the end, he did not stop Xiao Guo from relaying what he had seen.
In the weeks after the end of Ye Zun’s war, Chu Shuzhi had grown ill. He refused to seek help, and Guo Changcheng had watched him falter until he could not stand it anymore, and surreptitiously sent word to Shen Wei.
Within the hour, he was standing at their door. "Professor Shen!" Guo Changcheng had been so relieved by his presence he could hardly get the words out. "Oh, Professor Shen, I was not sure you would come!"
Shen Wei regarded him with a hint of severity. "You and Chu Shuzhi are battle-tested comrades, and you are my friends," he said. "Never doubt I would be here when you needed me."
"Who is there?" Chu Shuzhi's voice was thin, but carried clearly enough from within. "You are a disobedient child, Xiao Guo! I told you not to bother the Lord Envoy."
Shen Wei followed the voice. Chu Shuzhi lay in bed, his torso partially covered by twisted, sweat-soaked sheets. His face was white, his eyes dark with pain. "I apologize for Xiao Guo," Chu Shuzhi managed in a more respectful tone, though his voice was weak. "It is a passing illness. I am certain I will recover without troubling the Lord Envoy."
"You have been saying that for days," Guo Changcheng disagreed. "Weeks now! This morning you are too sick to get out of bed. I could not wait any longer, watching you get worse and worse."
"Enough," Shen Wei said. "I am here now." He gestured. Energy coalesced in the palms of his hands. Then he stopped and blinked. In his gray suit, that mild expression on his face, he could have been one of Guo Changcheng's instructors from college.
"Chu Shuzhi," Shen Wei said, sounding sad but not particularly surprised. "When did you do it?"
Chu Shuzhi only closed his eyes.
"Oh." Shen Wei answered his own question. "This was after my time as Ye Zun's prisoner at the Pillar of Heaven, wasn't it?"
Chu Shuzhi said nothing. Shen Wei stood for a moment more and then seemed to reach a decision. He eased his suit coat off his shoulders. Guo Changcheng quickly stepped forward to take it from him and laid it with near-reverent care over the back of a chair. Shen Wei thanked him and said, "I require clean towels and linens, as well as a bowl of water."
Guo Changcheng rushed to comply, returning with a stock pot brimming with water that he set carefully on the floor beside the bed. When he returned a second time, his arms were laden with the entire contents of Chu Shuzhi's linen chest.
Shen Wei folded up the sleeves of his dress shirt before sitting on the edge of the bed and taking a white dish towel from Guo Changcheng's stack. He soaked it in the pot of water and wrung it out carefully while Chu Shuzhi watched with growing unease. "My lord, surely it would be more appropriate for Xiao Guo to attend me."
Shen Wei folded the dish towel into careful thirds. "I shall perform this small service for you myself," he said gently, brooking no argument. Ice crackled around his hands, cold mist rising from the damp towel. Guo Changcheng caught the chilling yin scents of mint and citrus in the air. "This will slow the movement of dark energy in your body," Shen Wei explained as he laid the cloth on Chu Shuzhi's forehead.
Chu Shuzhi gasped softly, and then forced himself to relax.
"You may not remember the dark events that followed your and Lao Chu’s first courageous journey to Dixing," Shen Wei told Guo Changcheng. He soaked another towel, wrung the excess water and cooled it before placing it carefully at Chu Shuzhi's throat. Chu Shuzhi flinched at the icy touch, then stilled himself again. The smells in the room grew more intense, resolving into the clear, cold bite of oranges and peppermint. "Although I was able to transport you to a place of relative safety, I had been so weakened by my time at the pillar I did not have the strength to return you to complete health. I should certainly have questioned the speed of your subsequent recovery, but ensuing events conspired to distract me. I regret that sincerely."
Chu Shuzhi opened his eyes and looked past Shen Wei to Guo Changcheng. "I had left you for dead after Ye Zun's attack," he said in a harsh voice. "I am not the one Ye Zun tortured and left hanging in chains, but I am the one who abandoned you. If my Lord Envoy had not summoned the strength to do the impossible, you would not be here now."
"Chu Shuzhi—" Shen Wei interrupted.
But he was determined to say the rest. "Lending my strength in order to restore your health was the least I could do. What use is this poor body if I could not do even that much?"
Guo Changcheng looked from one to the other. "I don't understand any of this!" he exclaimed, so worried about Chu Shuzhi he wanted to cry.
"Chu Shuzhi used the longevity dial to heal you, Xiao Guo," Shen Wei said plainly.
Chu Shuzhi closed his eyes at Shen Wei's words. Shen Wei folded back the bedsheet so he could cover Chu Shuzhi's breast with another cold cloth, smoothing his palm over the heart. Then he removed the sheet altogether and laid a clean, dry towel across Chu Shuzhi to cover him from belly to thigh. He cooled another cloth. Tilting his head in mute apology, he laid the freshly chilled compress across his lap. This time, Chu Shuzhi could not suppress his deep shudders at the cold.
Shen Wei said with sympathy, "Unfortunately, one cannot use the Hallows without paying their cruel price. Lao Chu, you know I am speaking the truth. The light of Xiao Guo's energy is brilliant, but in your body, it is a contamination. You will not be able to continue like this."
Chu Shuzhi met his gaze unflinchingly now. "If that proves true, it was still worth the cost."
Shen Wei laid the final compress across Chu Shuzhi's ankles and bare feet as Guo Changcheng said, "Wait, what? What cost is this?"
Shen Wei straightened. "Without treatment, Chu Shuzhi will not survive the mingling of your life force with his."
Guo Changcheng cried out, "Chu-ge, no!"
"You did no less for Chief Zhao, my lord, and you have survived." Chu Shuzhi was trembling violently from the cold now, and his voice shook. "I know I do not have your strength, but I am steadfast. I will endure."
"I did not survive sharing my life force with Zhao Yunlan because I was strong, Lao Chu. I survived because my brother pierced my chest and consumed me, and the trauma reset the energy flow in my body. We are taking other measures with you."
"Whatever we must do, Chu-ge and I will do it together!" Guo Changcheng cried. "You must let me help!"
"Your help will be very welcome. First, Lao Chu needs you to remain calm."
Guo Changcheng gulped and nodded.
"Secondly, I will require a sharp kitchen blade. And Xiao Guo, Chu Shuzhi and I both require your courage."
Guo Changcheng's eyes grew round as saucers. He brought a chef's knife to Shen Wei, tip-toeing like he was handling nitroglycerin, and unhappily handed it over. "I do not want Chu-ge to be hurt anymore," he protested in concern.
"None of us want that," Shen Wei agreed. "But we must all endure a while longer. This will be difficult, but it may ease the symptoms of Chu Shuzhi's illness. If heaven is merciful, he will even recover most of his strength."
Shen Wei touched the tip of the knife, and a cleansing heat sparked along the edge of the blade in a bright light, then subsided. He stretched Chu Shuzhi's left arm out along another cloth. Chu Shuzhi himself seemed only half aware of his surroundings now, muscles tensed to hold himself still on the bed while hard shudders convulsed his body.
"Lao Chu, I will make a shallow cut here above your wrist. The incision will cross the meridian."
Chu Shuzhi snapped back into the here-and-now so violently he knocked his head against the headboard. He wrenched himself free from Shen Wei's light grip on his forearm. "Lord Envoy," he gasped. "Surely this is unclean, a desecration!"
Shen Wei stopped. "Although this practice is rightfully anathema in Dixing and Haixing alike, under these circumstances I believe it must be permitted. Be calm. I shall make but a single incision and heal it a few moments afterwards."
Chu Shuzhi was not reassured. "Forgive me," he said through chattering teeth. "You know I am pledged to serve you in all things. But how can I accept even a maimed and partial performance of such profound disrespect?"
"Ah," Shen Wei said carefully. "You refer to the disrespect of my person."
"The same, Heipaoshi-daren."
Unexpectedly, Shen Wei smiled. "You are not alone. Zhao Yunlan also refused to believe the utility of this practice could be worth my mere discomfort, and he knew nothing, I believe, of the People of the Unwritten Sign."
"You have done this?" Chu Shuzhi's eyes had gone wide.
"It allowed me to stabilize my system long enough to counter the machinations of my unhappy brother. I understand your misgivings now as I understood those of Zhao Yunlan. But surely I am the final arbiter of what act profanes the body of Hei Pao Shi?" That small smile again. "All the same, I believe we need not share this with Zhao Yunlan."
Guo Changcheng thought privately it was that comment as much as anything else Shen Wei had said which finally convinced Chu Shuzhi. He settled back onto the bed. His lips were blue from the cold as Shen Wei rearranged the disturbed compresses. The cloth crackled faintly with ice crystals, and a cold mist rose above Chu Shuzhi's bed.
"I do not wish—" it was difficult for Chu Shuzhi to form the words. "I can feel Xiao Guo's light in me. It has been with me since I healed him with the Hallows. There is some discomfort, but I do not wish to lose it."
"Chu-ge, you do not have to lose anything! I am right here!" Guo Changcheng exclaimed indignantly. He plopped down on the opposite side of the bed, taking Chu Shuzhi's free hand in both of his own. Then he wondered if he should have asked permission first, and raised his eyes to find Shen Wei did not appear disapproving. That was all the license he required. Chu Shuzhi's hand felt like ice, so Guo Changcheng tucked it under his own chin, holding on tight. The limb was so cold that Guo Changcheng started to shiver himself. He held on more tightly.
"Xiao Guo is not wrong," Shen Wei said. "This will not remove what you have taken into your being. We are attempting only to partition the light from the dark. It is my hope that the intensity of Xiao Guo's light will then no longer interrupt the healthy flow of your dark energy, and the contamination will cease to spread through your system."
He positioned Chu Shuzhi's arm once more on the cloth and pinned him gently with the pressure of his open left hand across Chu Shuzhi's upturned palm. Then he drew the blade across Chu Shuzhi's bared wrist. Guo Changcheng whimpered and bit his lip to silence himself. The cut was nearly bloodless, but a few wisps of dark energy rose sluggishly through the icy mist. Chu Shuzhi's head went back, tendons standing out in his throat.
Chu-ge's cold hand and arm which Guo Changcheng clutched to himself were shaking with tension. He tried to see the expression on Professor Shen's downturned face, wanting him to finish this quickly and end Chu-ge's pain. Shen Wei's eyes were black and Guo Changcheng wondered how he could ever have thought the man resembled one of his own college teachers; for that matter, how any of them could ever have taken Shen Wei for a harmless professor.
Shen Wei set the blade aside and extended his fingers above the incision. Flesh knit together in a red line that vanished as Guo Changcheng watched. He could feel the tears dripping off his chin since he did not have a spare hand to wipe his eyes. Then the coiled tension in Chu Shuzhi's left arm slipped away, and weak with relief himself, Guo Changcheng laid it once more at his side.
Chu Shuzhi settled. The cold mist dissipated as warm yang scents of ginger and cinnamon filtered through the room. Shen Wei removed the compresses one at a time, and Guo Changcheng helped him shake a clean sheet out over Chu Shuzhi, and then blanket after blanket while Chu Shuzhi lay exhausted with his eyes closed, shivering and panting softly.
Shen Wei withdrew and gestured to Guo Changcheng to follow him. "Chu Shuzhi will need rest. He should stay in bed the rest of the day. Give him only a light broth if he is hungry. If he sleeps well tonight, he may be able to tolerate solid foods by tomorrow, and his strength should begin to return over the next week. Do not hesitate to call me if you have any misgivings about his recovery."
"I will take care of him," Guo Changcheng declared. "But I do not understand why
he took such drastic measures to speed my recovery. I probably would have gotten better all on my own, and you have said Chu Shuzhi might've died!"
"He has said it was his duty, but I believe he shared his life force with you simply because you are so dear to him, he could not endure your suffering."
Guo Changcheng's eyes filled again. Tears closed his throat so he could only nod as Shen Wei took his leave. Then he crept back to Chu Shuzhi's bedside and whispered, "Chu-ge? Do you need anything?"
Chu Shuzhi lay on his back, eyes closed, his breathing now slow and deep. Guo Changcheng smiled through his remaining tears. He fetched his notebook and settled onto a bedside chair. Then he laid the notebook aside without opening it. Moving slowly and gently, he curled up next to Chu Shuzhi on the bed. "You are surely just as dear to me," he whispered.
Chu Shuzhi was not quite asleep. He stirred, one hand coming out of the blankets to pat clumsily at Guo Changcheng's head. "Disobedient child," he murmured.
Guo Changcheng smiled broadly. He curled closer, and pillowed his head on Chu Shuzhi's chest and shoulder. He rested in that room scented by warm spice with the reassurance of Chu-ge's strong heartbeat gentle against his face.
Zhu Hong texted as Guo Changcheng was driving them back to the station. Da Qing had been seen making his way into the apartment at last, so as badly as Zhao Yunlan wanted to get to work, he had to check on that damned cat first. He directed Guo Changcheng towards the apartment. He tried to rest his head in his hands, but was stymied by the elaborate splint on his right hand. The anesthesia was wearing off, further jangling his nerves. He yanked a lollipop out of his pocket with his left hand, unwrapped it clumsily and jammed between his teeth.
Chu Shuzhi had scowled all through Guo Changcheng's story, but he hadn't interrupted. Zhao Yunlan said around the lollipop in his cheek, "I should've known you weren't simply taking a vacation, Lao Chu. I thought at the time it wasn't exactly in character."
Nothing from Chu Shuzhi.
"I would appreciate it if we could enact a moratorium on withholding things from Chief Zhao for his own good, but obviously it's never going to happen. I will just have to assume every Dixingren in the SID is plotting something suicidal until proven otherwise."
That at least rated an harrumph. Zhao Yunlan suspected it was only because his complaint included Shen Wei, and Chu Shuzhi was always sensitive to an implied slight to the Lord Envoy.
Zhao Yunlan hesitated before saying the rest, but he was riding the tiger now. No way out but forward. "Shen Wei was right. I didn't know crap about the Unwritten Sign folks before today. I was angry when I found him 'crossing the meridian' because to me it just looked like he was opening his wrist with a carving knife! He was white as a sheet, wobbling like he was about to faint. How was I supposed to feel knowing he had hurt himself for me? How was I supposed to live with that?"
"You could accept it as a gift of love, Chief Zhao, one you know you would return if you had the opportunity." Guo Changcheng kept his eyes on the road, took a breath as he remembered to whom he was talking, but then continued anyway. "I was also very sad when Shen Wei explained the sacrifice Chu-ge made for me. This is how I have made myself feel better."
Zhao Yunlan glanced at the rearview mirror. Chu Shuzhi was looking determinedly out the window, his face in shadow.
But then to his surprise Chu Shuzhi started to talk. "In the palace dungeons, those prisoners too broken or mad even for Ye Zun whispered of a secret knowledge passed down by the People of the Unwritten Sign." Chu Shuzhi's voice was flat, his eyes trained on the dark streets outside the jeep windows. "They believed if you could cross every meridian point on the body three times, that would release enough dark energy to disrupt the coherence of all matter and unwrite creation itself."
Zhao Yunlan heard himself laugh once, sharp and angry. He had a sudden vision of his humble kitchen splattered with blood and seething with dark energy, cloying and thick as the smoke from a grease fire. "Is such a thing even possible? Not even including the part about unraveling creation like a frayed sweater, I mean. How many meridian points on a body anyway?"
"You would have to ask a traditional Haixingren healer, but there are dozens. Several hundred."
"I guess the fact that we can sit here and discuss it means that no one ever succeeded in crossing all those points three times. Has anyone ever tried?"
"It will not surprise you to learn dark things happen in the prisons beneath the palace," Chu Shuzhi said obliquely. Then he reconsidered, remembering that he was trying to be helpful, perhaps. "There were stories told of an unhappy lunatic who flayed himself alive with the sharpened edge of his shackle. Adherents tried to claim him as a martyr to the Unwritten Sign."
"And what does Shen Wei have to do with any of this? Why is the very existence of this sect so impossibly taboo you could not even bring yourself to mention it?"
Chu Shuzhi finally turned his head and looked forward at Zhao Yunlan. His expression was flat with anger, and he forced his words out through clenched teeth. "This is the very heart of their desecration. They claim to revere Hei Pao Shi as a god. Dixing's first and greatest hero! Our Lord Envoy used his unparalleled control of dark energy to give the world millennia of peace, and the People of the Unwritten Sign deify him in an unspeakable fantasy of wantonly mutilating his body and spilling dark energy for destruction. Such a belief desecrates the gift of consciousness itself."
Zhao Yunlan turned around and sat back hard in his seat. Guo Changcheng was just pulling up to his apartment block, but Zhao Yunlan remained still, breathing through his anger and grief.
No wonder Chu Shuzhi found it difficult even to speak of the matter. No wonder Ye Zun hated a cult that deified his brother, even in so depraved a manner. Zhao Yunlan could hardly imagine what Shen Wei himself must think of this, being revered by a sect of destruction. Merciful heavens, he must have been so desperate, in so much pain, that night in Zhao Yunlan's kitchen. Nothing else could have driven him to take such desperate measures learned from such a terrible source.
"Shall we accompany you?" Chu Shuzhi asked gruffly.
"I do not feel comfortable sending you in all alone, and you just out of the hospital!" Guo Changcheng agreed.
"It's only Da Qing." Zhao Yunlan forced himself to focus on the present. "Not some taloned aoyin waiting to eat my brains."
"Not sure you could prove that given the state you're in right now," Chu Shuzhi observed.
Zhao Yunlan touched his chin near the stitches a little self-consciously. "I don't want to frighten him by marching in with an army. But maybe you should accompany me just upstairs in case he needs help."
The smell hit as he got the front door open. Chu Shuzhi and Guo Changcheng were flattened against the wall of the corridor as though they were about to surprise dangerous criminals in their lair, and even Changcheng's gentle face wrinkled in dismay.
"Oh, you fucking cat," Zhao Yunlan muttered, equal parts rage and concern. He reached around and fumbled for the light switch before taking a step. Da Qing had left a pile of excrement just inside the front door. Zhao Yunlan gestured for the other two to remain in the hallway. The apartment was rank with the smell of tomcat spray as well. He could see the guilty pattern across the wallpaper, but of Da Qing himself there was no sign. He tiptoed around the apartment, stopping to throw open windows. At last, still moving slowly, he eased the partially open closet door the rest of the way
A box of winter sweaters had been upended. He clicked the flashlight on his mobile phone, and all the tension in Zhao Yunlan's shoulders suddenly released. He swayed on his feet a bit, so relieved and so very, very angry. A fat, dark ball of fur was curled in a shredded nest of cashmere and merino wool, dead to the world and snoring like a freight train.
Chapter 4: Da Qing Remembers
Coaxed out of the closet in slow steps, bribed with rice and fish broth, Da Qing told Zhao Yunlan a different, much older tale of spilt dark energy.
If anyone had asked Da Qing before the mission, he would have told them flat out: "Leave it the hell alone. Just find another way."
However, Ma Gui and Fu You had been certain that negotiating passage through the Red Mountains would be of great strategic assistance to the Alliance. They talked of the lives that might be saved if they could outflank the rebels, and the young Lord Black Cloak immediately volunteered to personally deliver their offer of diplomatic relations. A single man would surely not be seen as a threat, everyone agreed. And even if he were—Shen Wei had smiled modestly under his mask—he was confident in his ability to defend himself.
Da Qing thought it was a terrible plan, its logic fatally flawed because the People of the Three Thousand who lived in the Red Mountains were in no way a logical folk. Consider the evidence! They named themselves after their method of executing trespassers, and they tattooed that intention—sān quiān—the sign for three thousand—smack in the middle of their foreheads, like it was something to be proud of. What more evidence did you need? Regardless of the military advantage, a shortcut through the Red Mountains was not worth being sliced to ribbons by crazy people.
But no one had asked Da Qing's opinion. Shen Wei had walked in alone, hooded, cloaked and masked, and no one had enough sense to tell him that he was the very opposite of "unthreatening" in that get-up. Da Qing was sulking so he didn't say it either. Besides, no one asked him.
Three days later, however, Shen Wei still had not returned. A dark mist hung over the mountains, shrouding the twin stelæ erected at the top of the pass. The haze made the crow folk uneasy and they refused to fly, so guess who got called up instead?
Light-footed and agile despite his foreboding, Da Qing skittered along the steep embankment above the northern edge of the pass. The sun would be rising in a few hours, and he hoped to have found Shen Wei and be back at the Alliance encampment well before dawn. He didn't want to be up here any more than the crows did.
At this time of night, the summit should have been deserted and silent, but Da Qing could hear a growing murmur of voices up ahead. A gibbous moon was on the horizon, throwing long shadows through the scrub brush. Da Qing finally clambered up to a small overhang and crept forward, the tip of his tail twitching with anxiety. The breeze carried the smell of too many excited humans jammed too closely together, their cook fires, the village latrines, and something else. The breeze shifted, and he smelled blood. Flattening his ears, he inched to the edge.
There was a crowd down there, as his nose and ears had already told him. They were gathered around the twin stelæ which glittered in the moonlight with carved and painted inscriptions. The haze was thicker near the pillars, and it did not look like smoke from a fire. The more Da Qing tried to figure out what he was seeing, the more he thought the haze was coalescing into impossible ribbons of dark fog under the moonlight. They seemed to undulate through the grounds, alternately obscuring and revealing the people below. Da Qing blinked and washed his eyes with a front paw before he looked again. The impression of dark tendrils grew more pronounced, and as his eyes adjusted, he was able to piece together more of the scene below.
A figure with arms and legs splayed wide stood between the stone pillars. As the floating ribbons of mist wound around him, Da Qing realized the man was a prisoner, and that he was unconscious or already dead. Only the bindings which stretched from wrist and ankle to the stone columns on either side were holding him upright at all. His body sagged in his bonds like a sail without wind, his head fallen so far forward that his hair hung almost to his knees. The wind turned, and all at once the smell of blood was much stronger.
Although Da Qing was not surprised to recognize that scent so well, he still felt an ugly, awful lump in his guts.
Most of the Alliance troops were kind enough to Da Qing. Many would give him scraps from their plate when he moved along their ranks as a cat, but only Shen Wei made a point of passing along especially choice bites from his rations. And no one objected to Da Qing sleeping at their feet during the chill of the night, but Shen Wei would gravely welcome him onto his chest and scratch him behind the ears just the right way until he drifted off sleep.
And now because of a stupid plan that Da Qing had known would not work, there would be no more tidbits from the Lord Envoy's own plate, and there would be no more lovely evenings falling asleep to perfect head scritches. Just like Da Qing had predicted, the crazy people had strung up the Black Cloaked Envoy and sliced him to pieces. Three thousand cuts, if you could believe what they said about themselves, and Da Qing in his angry heartbreak certainly had no reason to doubt it now.
He backed away from the edge and the terrible scene below. His body felt hot and cold and he wanted to turn tail and run, away from the People of the Three Thousand, away from the Alliance, away from all the cruel and stupid, stupid people, Dixingren, Haixingren, and Yashou alike.
Instead, after he was sure his breathing was under control, and even though he could still feel the hairs standing up along the ridge of his spine, he carefully raised his head again. He would do his duty and let Fu You and Ma Gui know what this idiot plan had achieved.
The moon threw long shadows across the stelæ and the body between them. The first time, Da Qing had gotten the confused idea that Shen Wei still wore his robes, but it was clear now his figure was black in the moonlight only because he was covered in his own blood. The movement Da Qing had mistaken for the edges of a robe were only the ends of his long hair, fluttered by a night breeze.
Then he felt an instant of cruel hope. Was Shen Wei alive? His captors were still busy at the body. A hunched figure whose slow movements and curled shoulders suggested great age stood beside him, a hand on one of Shen Wei's pinioned arms. Even through the strange movements of the haze, Da Qing caught a cool, moonlit flash from the blade in the other hand. So alive or dead, those bastards weren't done with him yet. Da Qing curled his lip and hissed. The figure holding the knife made a quick, precise cut. Shen Wei's body still sagged in his bonds, but Da Qing saw movement. It was the mist growing denser, a coil of smoky tendrils twisting around Shen Wei and his tormentor.
The figure with the knife crumpled. Shen Wei's head still hung, but Da Qing had seen it was not smoke or fog shrouding the execution site, but Shen Wei's own dark energy, horribly streaming from his lacerated body. The people on either side of him reeled backwards. There was a sudden scream, immediately smothered. The People of the Three Thousand collapsed on all sides. Da Qing had a moment to think perhaps Shen Wei had managed to save himself, but then emotions died.
Da Qing had little use for human emotions. They overwhelmed him at inconvenient moments when he was in that form, and were even less comprehensible when his consciousness rested in a cat. But now he realized there was something even worse. He felt bereft, enraged, helpless, and none of those things all at once. All the flavors had been leached out of existence. Fish had no savor; warmth brought no comfort, not even on the coldest night. Da Qing tried to run away from it, that cold gray horror overwhelming existence, but his sturdy legs went out from under him, and he sprawled on the rock. The moon shadows crossed his body like blows. He rose once more, but he was helpless and yowling. Behind the death of every pleasant thing, there was something he recognized as intelligence, or perhaps only motive. It didn't care about the flavor of fish and it didn't care about Da Qing. It was only negation and ending without even the mercy of grief.
Satisfied at last, Da Qing sat back from his bowl of rice in warm fish broth and washed his face carefully. When he was good and ready, he finally raised his eyes and glanced around. Zhao Yunlan looked terrible, his torn face bruised and stitched back together like a manga character who'd lost a fight. Chu Shuzhi's expression was furiously dark and Xiao Guo was on the verge of tears. Da Qing hadn't seen an expression like that on the kid's face in months.
Da Qing did not feel like talking anymore, but he didn't think he would be permitted to escape just yet. The apartment reeked of cleaning chemicals which would be easier to tolerate with dulled human senses. He transformed and looked around again. The smell was still sharp, and he wrinkled his nose.
"Yeah," Zhao Yunlan said, "that would be your own mess you're smelling."
"I don't smell nearly as bad as that stinky spray bottle," Da Qing disagreed. Looking at Zhao Yunlan's battered face from this angle, he felt a pang which made him angry. "Did I do that? Why the hell didn't you get out of my way?"
Zhao Yunlan smiled tightly, either because his face hurt or because he was very angry. Maybe both. "We will talk about it later. What happened next? Obviously Shen Wei survived and so did you."
"I don't know. My next memories are of being back with the Alliance encampment. For a few weeks I had a special plate of fresh fish at every meal." He frowned. "Then people started to forget and I had to go back to begging, or switching to human form to get my regular rations. People have short memories."
"And Shen Wei?" Zhao Yunlan asked. "He must have healed himself?” His voice sounded funny, scratchy and hoarse. “How long before he was all right again?"
"I think it was some time before he could lead the troops again. Wait, I do remember! He was confined to his bedroll and I could find him there for a nap most any time. Those were good days."
"And the People of the Three Thousand?" Chu Shuzhi prompted. "What became of them?"
"No idea, how would I know? Maybe they all died. The Alliance took down their stelæ and pried out the bits of meteorite they'd embedded to make them shine. Those would have gone into the forge for the Hallows. I thought that was a terrible idea, but as usual nobody listens to me."
Exhaustion was creeping back now that his belly was full. His body was sore from exertion and anger. Only half conscious of what he was doing, he retreated into his cat body. "This discussion is not over,” Zhao Yunlan scolded gently. "But we need to get back to headquarters. Will you be all right, or should we bring you with us?"
Da Qing hooked a claw in the blanket over the back of the sofa and pulled it down halfway on top of himself, then circled around and around to get it stamped down to the perfect shape.
Zhao Yunlan stroked Da Qing's head once or twice as he fell asleep on the sofa, and then made his way to the kitchen to call the office. This couldn't wait until they got back. He let Lin Jing know Da Qing was all right, then announced, "I want you to find reports of unusual meteorological events. Concentrate first on Dragon City and then move out to the surrounding area."
"Unusual events? Unusual how?"
"If I knew that I would tell you." He glanced up to see Chu Shuzhi watching him with approval. "I think you're looking for smoke without a fire."
"I ask for clarification, and you give me a riddle?"
"It might be the riddle that leads us to Shen Wei. You're looking for a rain cloud hanging too low on an otherwise sunny day. More likely it will be something like an unconfirmed report of a gas leak. In fact, concentrate your search in industrial and low rent areas, places where complaints about chemical spills are most likely to be overlooked or ignored."
"Boss, you know we've already been looking for dark energy."
Zhao Yunlan cut him off. "I don't think what we are looking for will register as dark energy. In fact, you might even search for an area where there is a surprising nullity of dark energy."
Lin Jing huffed in exasperation. "What would that even look like?"
"If I knew I wouldn't need you. This is the most important thing and make sure the interns understand it: do not reach out to anyone in the government. I have a strong suspicion the Xingdu Bureau has had their eye on us ever since Shen Wei disappeared, so step lightly with this."
But Li Qian—"
"—would never knowingly do anything to hurt us. But she is surrounded by government functionaries who may be watching her as well. Get a move on. We'll be there shortly."
Guo Changcheng held his question until they were on the road again. "Do you truly believe that someone in the government is trying to perform that terrible ritual? Like the people in the Red Mountains did to Professor Shen ten thousand years ago? I don't understand why! It sounds so cruel and so dangerous."
Chu Shuzhi answered. "They would have no way of knowing what Hei Pao Shi once endured. But even the stories told by adherents of the Unwritten Sign would be compelling enough for a man seeking power. The mere possibility of such destructive potential would be irresistible, and he would not stop to count the cost."
"That could describe half the people in the Bureau," Zhao Yunlan agreed bleakly. "They haven't even allowed Li Qian to discharge Professor Ouyang's most fervent acolytes from the research lab." He let his head drop. "This was all my fault."
"It would have been better had you not tried to grab Da Qing by the scruff of the neck," Guo Changcheng began, and then realized that was almost certainly not what Zhao Yunlan was talking about. "What else could possibly be your fault?"
"I'm the one who made sure they noticed Qin Hu! A year ago, I had Lin Jing track down the CCTV footage of Shen Wei getting mugged and sent it to the municipal police station. In those days I didn't know enough to be surprised a stupid street criminal could get the drop on Professor Shen, but you can be damn sure at the highest levels of Xingdu Bureau, the same people who set up that identity for the fearsome Hei Pao Shi would want to know what the hell happened. Someone saw those marks on Qin Hu's forehead and figured it out months ago. I am sure those are the same folks who pulled Qin Hu out of the state prison system."
Chu Shuzhi sounded profoundly shaken. "Zhao Yunlan, your own father was monitoring Shen Wei."
"And heaven knows Dad holds things close to the chest, but he didn't create and monitor Shen Wei's Haixing identity without plenty of clerical assistance. Other people knew."
Lin Jing was waiting for them at the SID.
"Look what we got!" he announced as he proudly, and utterly incongruously, tried to present Zhao Yunlan with a long florist's box full of flowers, pastries and fresh fruit. Zhao Yunlan glanced down at his own bandaged right hand, then back at Lin Jing and did not take the box. Lin Jing in turn looked more carefully at him. "No offense, boss, but you don't seem that much better. How are you feeling?"
"How do you think? Like crap. I don't think a fruit basket is going to make much of a difference but thanks for the thought."
"No, wait, I knew Li Qian wouldn't let us down!" This time he handed over just the florist's card. The message had been printed in green ink on a card with a pastel background of fruits and flowers. "I am so sorry about Professor Shen. Please enjoy these. We do not have them in the laboratory anymore."
"No wonder, it's not the season for mooncakes," Chu Shuzhi said, examining the pastries with a critical eye. "I wonder how old these are?"
"Well, these are exceptionally beautiful star fruit," Guo Changcheng put in. "Not a speck of green and perfectly ripe. These would be very good for you, Zhao Yunlan! They have lots of vitamin C."
Mooncakes and star fruit. Zhao Yunlan's eyes widened. He pointed at the flowers, fragrant with strawberry red petals lined in creamy white. “Does anyone know what these flowers are called?“
Guo Changcheng was examining one of the star fruits with pleased approval. “My aunt grows them in her garden. They are a kind of baihe, but she also calls them stargazer lilies.”
Lin Jing cocked his finger like a gun at Zhao Yunlan, lifting an eyebrow.
"Oh." Hope and horror were rising together in Zhao Yunlan's chest like a fat black balloon. "Does the research institute have a sample of the original meteorite?"
"They used to. A few grams of the stuff kept under lock and key."
"And now it's gone." Zhao Yunlan made his way to the sofa and sank down into the cushions. "We were both wrong, Lao Chu. Someone at the Xingdu Bureau knows more than just rumors and ghost stories from the cult of the Unwritten Sign. It's the only way they could know there were pieces of the original meteorite present in the Red Mountains."
Chu Shuzhi inhaled sharply. "Zhang Shi must have been with the Alliance at that time. He may even have been among the group that brought Shen Wei and Da Qing down from the mountains."
Zhao Yunlan closed his eyes for a moment. "Lin Jing, tell me you have some sites for us to check out. Shen Wei needs us to find him right now."
Lin Jing hunched his shoulders and assumed that squirrelly look that Zhao Yunlan hated so roundly because it meant he had no good news. "Well we only just started—"
"Please pardon the interruption, Lao Lin," said one of the young interns standing behind Lin Jing. Zhao Yunlan gestured her forward impatiently.
"This is no time to stand on ceremony. Show us what you have."
Given permission to share her finding, she spread a handful of printouts across the table for him."This isn't weather-related but it seemed unusual. It's happening in an old immigrant neighborhood on the northern side of the Old City."
Zhao Yunlan knew the area. It was only a few blocks from the thriving nightlife scene where Shen Wei had fallen afoul of two muggers a year ago.
"Over the past thirty-six hours there have been multiple mental health emergencies on the same block. The same team of psychiatric outreach specialists has responded thirteen times to reports of severely disorganized behavior. Suicide attempts, delusions, catatonia. It's a very poor district and people have a lot of problems, but this seems extraordinary."
Zhao Yunlan sucked air through his teeth and grinned furiously. "Excellent work!" he exclaimed. "You can have Lin Jing's bonus this month." He threw out his left arm to the still-protesting Lin Jing and gestured for him to pull him up out of the sofa. "Call Zhu Hong. The Yashou should know what’s going on.”
Chapter 5: A Quiet Mind
Zhao Yunlan had been half-intoxicated with hope on the ride over, but now he and his people were actually standing on the street corner, he felt as far from finding Shen Wei as ever. Ten and twelve-story tenement buildings rose on every side. The midnight streets had a flat, dead look under the sodium lights. A few people had been on the sidewalks when they pulled up, but by the time they piled out of the jeep the locals had made themselves scarce. The night sky remained clouded and pale overhead. Zhao Yunlan had hoped to see a trail of dark energy leading them straight to Shen Wei, but of course it was not going to be that easy. He spun slowly on his heel, trying to ignore the pain in his bitten finger.
"Any ideas?" he asked Lin Jing.
"I might if you had something more specific than riddles about rain clouds."
Zhao Yunlan closed his eyes wearily. When he opened them, Zhu Hong was marching down the street with Da Qing in tow.
He blinked. "What are you two doing here?"
"I picked him up on my way over," Zhu Hong explained, rolling her eyes. "Did you think we would not want to be here?"
"I can't believe you didn't call me yourself," Da Qing complained.
"I was worried about you, you damn cat. I thought you needed your rest."
"Well, you ought to worry about yourself," Da Qing muttered. Stepping close he butted his head against Zhao Yunlan's shoulder and said quietly so only Zhao Yunlan could hear, "You were an idiot, but I'm sorry." Then he turned and looked at the crowded apartments around them. "Have you narrowed it down any more than this?"
The little intern did a better job of standing up to Zhao Yunlan's glare than Lin Jing. "Emergency services identified this cross street. I could not get anything more specific without reaching out to government services and we were instructed —"
"I know what I told you."
Chu Shuzhi's puppet was scaling the outside of the nearest apartment building, levitating from one tiny balcony crowded with clothes-drying racks to the next. It was a good start, but they would be here all night waiting for the puppet to peek into five or six hundred apartments. "Can you sense anything?” Zhao Yunlan asked Da Qing.
Da Qing crossed his arms over his chest, putting his hands on his opposite shoulders. "I think this must be the right neighborhood because I don't like it here. I don't like it here at all. I'm going to try something but for fuck’s sake stay out of my way this time, all right?" He didn't change until Zhao Yunlan sighed, nodded and actually told him, "No matter what, I promise not to try to scruff you."
At that, Da Qing melted into his chubby black cat alter ego. He flattened to the pavement, tail twitching behind him, and then darted away so quickly Zhao Yunlan thought they had lost him all over again.
"There!" Zhu Hong directed. Da Qing was slinking along the side of the next building, briefly visible between the shadows. He reached the entrance and pawed unhappily at the barrier. Chu Shuzhi had the doors wrenched open in a flash.
The lobby was small and dark. Both elevators were out of service. Zhao Yunlan squinted up at the flickering fluorescent lights. He was still hoping for ribbons of dark energy like Da Qing had described, but there was nothing here but a sense of age and neglect. His bitten finger throbbed in time with his pulse, and the stitches in his face burned. He could hardly see Da Qing nosing around the edges of the lobby, but Zhu Hong had keener eyesight and she followed him into the left-hand stairwell. They ascended in a line, Chu Shuzhi sending his puppet ahead. On the third floor landing a tenant stepped from the corridor into the stairs, saw their little troop, and quickly withdrew.
The stairwell smelled of fried fish and laundry. Zhao Yunlan could not help but compare Da Qing's climb through the Red Mountains to this vaguely ridiculous ascent through tenement housing.
The lighting seemed to fade with every landing. Zhao Yunlan rubbed his eyes with his left hand, which didn't help. Maybe the landlord turned down the lights after midnight to save on electricity. Then he finally noticed the silence. He hushed Lin Jing, who was complaining about the climb, and strained to hear anything besides their own echoing footsteps. It was very late, but Zhao Yunlan hadn't heard so much as music or a television set as they climbed.
And then at the next landing—Zhao Yunlan had lost track, but stairwell signs in cracked tile helpfully described it as the seventh floor—Da Qing stopped, then nosed his way out onto the corridor.
It was very dark. Zhao Yunlan pointed his mobile phone flash at the overhead fixtures. The aging fluorescents had burned out or were simply turned off. Then he finally heard a sound that wasn't their own footsteps. Bursts of orchestral music, tinny and thin through the intervening walls, and the muffled laughter of a studio audience. Applause. It grew louder as they crept down the dark hallway.
Da Qing stopped by a door at the end of the hall. Chu Shuzhi had his strings around the handle in a flash, then waited for Zhao Yunlan to give the word. A burst of audience laughter swelled behind the door. Zhao Yunlan could hardly believe they were actually going to find Shen Wei here, but that burst of laughter was mindlessly enraging. He gestured to his team to take cover on either side. "Open it up," he snarled.
Chu Shuzhi used his strings to rip the door open so forcefully the hinges gave. The entire door spun across the corridor to bounce off the wall on the other side.
The maniacally cheerful strains of the Day Day Up theme exploded into the hall. Bursting through the cleared doorway, Zhao Yunlan felt as though he had to fight his way through a barrier of pure sound. The stitches in his chin burned like live wires. Given half a chance, he would have torn them out of his face in sheer frustration.
But then he saw Shen Wei.
Drenched in blood, he was sprawled naked on his back across a tea table, as if he had been flung there and forgotten. On a television screen beyond, a studio audience writhed in paroxysms of glee, screaming and waving paper flowers.
There was a figure crouched on a nearby cushion, but try as he might, Zhao Yunlan could not seem to focus on him, not even when he saw the glint of a blade in his hand. This was madness, leading his people when he couldn't even hold his own weapon, in so much pain he could not focus on anything except the sight of Shen Wei. He kept moving anyway, and Chu Shuzhi's threads flashed across the room. The knife was plucked away, the puppet pummeling the man on the cushion in a flurry of blows. Before that motion had stopped, Zhao Yunlan was kneeling at Shen Wei’s head.
"I'm here," he said desperately, putting his hand on the bloodied throat to feel for a pulse. "I'm here. I'm sorry it took so long." Shen Wei was blindfolded, and a gag was stretched between his teeth, knotted hard at the back of his head. Zhao Yunlan was shaking so badly he couldn't tell if there was even a pulse to be found, and he was deafened by the racket from the television. He pulled the blindfold away, smearing more blood across Shen Wei's cold white face.
Then the eyes opened. Shen Wei blinked in the light and Zhao Yunlan could have wept with relief. Shen Wei tried to speak, groaning against the gag in his mouth. He turned his head weakly from side to side, and Zhao Yunlan cupped his cheek and jaw to still the movement. "Hush, we'll get you out of this." The studio audience was still screaming so enthusiastically Zhao Yunlan could hardly hear his own voice. He wrenched his head in the direction of the TV and finally, finally someone killed the sound.
He turned his attention to the gag but could not manage the knot one-handed. Zhu Hong was beside him. "It's all right," she said quietly. "I've got it." He stood and stepped forward to give her room, and nearly tripped over something that caught him below knee level. Shen Wei groaned, his back arching weakly, and Zhu Hong snapped, "Watch yourself!"
Zhao Yunlan looked down to see what he had almost fallen over, and realized there was an aluminum mop handle beneath Shen Wei's upper back. The sight was so painfully incongruous it simply had not registered before. Shen Wei's hands had been secured to either end, layers of duct tape wrapped around his palms to keep his bare arms stretched wide. His arms were crossed by dozens of shallow cuts, some scabbed over, more still leaking blood, a few oozing fine wisps of dark energy. The same cuts covered his torso and crosshatched their way down both legs.
Zhao Yunlan staggered, almost falling. Lin Jing caught him. "You OK, boss?"
Zhao Yunlan pulled himself free. "Who else is here?" He flapped his hand towards the figure slumped motionless over the cushion, wrapped in Chu Shuzhi's threads. He dragged his eyes away from Shen Wei to glance around the tiny apartment. It seemed very crowded with his team.
"Who do you mean?" Lin Jing said. "It's us and Professor Shen. And whoever that guy is."
Guo Changcheng was shaking a mylar blanket out over Shen Wei. His eyes were streaming with tears but his movements were careful and his voice controlled. "I believe that is certainly Qin Hu. But I do not understand—"
"I don't understand how one man could do this either. He wasn't alone." Zhao Yunlan said.
"Lao Zhao!" Da Qing shouted in alarm. Zhao Yunlan turned. Da Qing was beside him in human form again, and he grabbed Zhao Yunlan's left hand and pulled it away from his face. "Cut it out!"
Zhao Yunlan yanked his hand free, only then realizing he'd been digging at the bite on his chin. Gingerly patting his face, he felt blood and torn flesh, and he drew a long, shaky breath. He had to get a grip.
Zhu Hong had finally worked the knot free and was carefully pulling the gag from Shen Wei's mouth. His head thrashed and Zhao Yunlan dropped to his side once more. He had a momentary impression of Zhu Hong's eyes flashing at him with elliptical pupils, but then all his attention turned to Shen Wei.
"Easy. We are going to get your hands free and then I'm taking you out of here."
Shen Wei struggled to speak. Guo Changcheng knelt on the other side with a water bottle. Zhao Yunlan cradled the back of Shen Wei's head in the palm of his hand while Guo Changcheng carefully tipped the water bottle to his lips. He choked on the first sip of water all the same and his chest heaved, his face twisting in pain. "Easy," Zhao Yunlan pleaded helplessly while Guo Changcheng apologized and said, "This should work better." He tipped a bare spoonful of water into the lid of the water bottle and lifted the cap for him to sip. Shen Wei tried to speak again, but all he could manage was a rasping groan, which set off another round of coughing. Blood flecked his lips.
"Stop, please," Zhao Yunlan begged. "Whatever you want to tell us can wait." Guo Changcheng continued tipping capfuls of water into his mouth and Lin Jing said, "Oh, I see you now, you son of a bitch."
Zhao Yunlan spared a glance to see what had happened. Lin Jing was reaching above the door frame. A quick wrench, and he had pulled something down. "Camera," he announced, turning to display the small device in his hand. "Someone has been watching."
Zhao Yunlan felt another nauseating roll of anger. "Can you tell who was picking up the signal?"
"Unlikely, but at least—" He was still speaking when Chu Shuzhi's threads plucked the camera out of his hand and crushed it into shards. "Aaand so much for that. Come on, Lao Chu, I wanted to examine that."
"We already know enough," Chu Shuzhi growled.
Zhao Yunlan was about to intervene but then Shen Wei managed to say his name.
"I'm right here," Zhao Yunlan leaned in very close and tried to brush Shen Wei's bangs off his face. The locks of hair were stiff with sweat and blood. "You don't need to talk."
"Zhao Yunlan," he insisted, his voice a rough gasp. "Get out."
"Believe me, we have no plans to stick around."
"There's no time." Shen Wei forced the words from his lips with evident pain. "Evacuate everyone!"
Heavens above. Zhao Yunlan took a deep breath. "Did everyone get that? We need to clear the building. Da Qing, you're with me. Everyone else start going down the halls and knocking on doors." He didn't look to see that his instructions were being followed, just curled more closely over Shen Wei. "We're going to do our best to evacuate the building. You and me will go out together. Is there a bomb? Do you know where it is?"
Da Qing knelt on the other side. Zhao Yunlan saw him wavering in the liminal state between cat and human, extending a feline paw the size of a human palm. It had been years since Zhao Yunlan had seen him on the cusp that way and he blinked, a funny, weightless sense in his gut at the sight. Da Qing used his claws to tear through the duct tape securing Shen Wei's nearest hand. He clawed from beneath the mop handle, trying to avoid flesh. "I want to be careful, but how much time do we have? It's getting real bad."
"Wait, what else is getting bad?" Zhao Yunlan demanded. Even as he asked, something started to hiss just behind him. It sounded like a gas leak. "What the hell?"
Da Qing said, "I know you feel it too. Can we wait to cut Shen Wei free once we're outside? We could maneuver him sideways through the doors, but I am not so sure about the stairwell."
The hiss behind him was growing into a breathy roar, deep and rumbling. Then Guo Changcheng shouted "Hong-jie!"
A shadow fell over Shen Wei. Zhao Yunlan raised his eyes.
If he had ever taken time to ponder the question, he might have assumed Zhu Hong's fully evolved ophic form would be something like a striped coral snake. Sleek and lovely. Deadly, in all likelihood, but diminutive.
But rising impossibly, monstrously in the tiny apartment was a dusty brown cobra. Her blocky head smashed hard against the ceiling. Plaster fell in chunks as Zhao Yunlan tried to shelter Shen Wei. Her tail lashed, crushing furniture, smashing holes through the walls. Windows shattered as her hood spread wider than a beach umbrella. Her hiss filled the apartment like an oncoming steam engine.
"Beautiful Hong-jie!" Guo Changcheng cried out, "please, it's just us, your friends!"
The timbre of her hiss deepened until Zhao Yunlan could feel it thrumming in his bones. "Xiao Guo!" roared Chu Shuzhi as she struck. The flash of her long body forward threw Zhao Yunlan aside. The wave of her retreat flipped the tea table.
Zhao Yunlan's vision had narrowed to a pinprick and he saw only Shen Wei, one knee bent under himself, arms still bound. Dark energy poured from his lacerations. Zhao Yunlan dragged himself to his side, calling his name.
"Leave me and go," Shen Wei whispered. His eyes were closed, slow tears leaking from under the lashes.
Zhao Yunlan wavered between the chaotic present and a scene he had relived in his nightmares for months. Shen Wei sprawled on a graveled Dixing side street, too weak to rise, convincing Zhao Yunlan to leave him.
But this time he laid his trembling hand on Shen Wei's sweat and blood streaked face. "Oh, beloved. Never again."
Zhao Yunlan stepped out onto the street. The sidewalk in front of the SID was crowded with journalists and the public. Cameras flashed. Zhao Yunlan turned his head to be sure they captured his best side and then gave his prepared speech, vowing to continue the work of the SID protecting Dragon City. A polite smattering of applause. Members of the public waved their paper flowers. Clouds covered the sun today and everything had a muted look. Zhao Yunlan approved; direct sunlight was bad for photographs. There was a request for pictures with children and pretty girls, and he complied because public relations were an important part of the job. He thanked everyone for coming and with a slight bow, returned to work.
The offices were crowded. A bevy of young interns flowed between the desks in Guo Changcheng's wake like a school of minnows. Zhao Yunlan withdrew to his office so his hard-working staff would continue without the distraction of his presence. Colors were muted here as well. Calm, conducive to work, even with the faint suggestion of paper flowers crowding the corners of the room.
He opened a desk drawer to pull out a pen and was momentarily surprised by a welter of lollipops wrapped in brilliantly printed labels, garish metallic oranges and pinks that offended the eye. He shut the drawer and opened its neighbor where he found the pen he was looking for. He had hardly begun his work, however, when there was a knock on his door. Da Qing stuck his head around. "Excuse me, Lao Zhao, but you have visitors. Zhao Xinci has been showing the Regent the progress of repairs in the City, and hoped it would not be an imposition to step in."
Zhao Yunlan laid the pen down. He assumed a smile. "What a pleasant surprise. Please send them in."
His father was looking older these days, but he appeared calm and relaxed. On the other hand the Regent, who was costumed in modern Haixing-wear, long hair cropped, looked years younger. Zhao Yunlan led them to chairs, offered tea. The Regent complimented Zhao Yunlan on the city's return to normalcy after the recent unpleasantness, which Zhao Xinci seconded.
Zhao Yunlan accepted the diplomatic courtesies and then added, "With all due respect for the part Hei Pao Shi played in Dixing's history, we have unquestionably been speeded in our return to ordinary life by the merciful absence of such a polarizing figure."
"Nor would I ever diminish the honored memory of the Lord Envoy," the Regent was quick to agree, "but by these old bones of mine, it complicates the business of government no end when heroes literally walk among us!"
Zhao Yunlan laughed. He felt the sharp exhalation from his lungs and the artificial chuckle intended only to communicate social agreement pass his lips. The laughter stopped. He set down his cup of tea and bent forward to take his father's hand. "Zhao Xinci, no one has sacrificed more than you to secure our current peace. I hope that my judicious direction of the SID these past months has been some small consolation for the loss of your son."
And Zhao Yunlan finally remembered the pain of internal organs damaged beyond repair. His swollen heart struggling to beat, his lungs unable to draw breath. He had only enough strength to grasp the lantern with both hands.
Meanwhile, Zhao Xinci managed a thin smile. "We honor heroes for making the great sacrifice that history sometimes demands. But we would all agree that men of such stubborn and uncompromising passion are ill-suited to the orderly functioning of the state."
"Well said," the Regent chimed in happily, "well said indeed!"
Zhao Yunlan remembered the heat of the lantern as his soul caught like parchment in a fireplace, then burst into an undying flame.
But he also remembered for the first time his mother's gentle instruction. Though his father had been completely uninterested in the spiritual side, his mother had been devout, attending the family altar, instructing her son in the nature of the soul. He should have paid more attention. As with all things in heaven, earth and hell, the soul had its yin and yang: a pure soul animating the body, and a cloud soul which was the immortal spirit. Only his immortal cloud soul burned as the wick in the lantern. His pure soul was bound to flesh and blood, and would dissipate as his body returned to dust.
Except his body was now the vessel for Zhang Shi, and Zhao Yunlan's pure soul was only along for the ride.
Had these past months been some kind of after-death dream? A protective hallucination in the face of death that was no end at all?
"You will forgive an old fool for listening to gossip," the Regent was prattling on. "But do you know I have heard it whispered that in your impressive laboratories, your scientists are actually performing experiments on fragments of the meteor?"
The other two men fell silent at once, heads swiveling to regard the Regent with twin expressions of careful blankness.
"We Dixingren are such superstitious children, aren't we? Scaring ourselves with terrible stories about the meteorite. Why, some of us even believe the old leaders actually forged the Hallows in a bid to constrain its destructive potential. Using their power to light Dixing was just a happy accident!" He chuckled, shaking his head.
"That is not—"
"The work of our scientists is carefully—"
Both men broke off, laughed unconvincingly, and lost as he was in the horror of his own situation, Zhao Yunlan was still awed by the Regent. What an utterly irredeemable bastard. He protected his position by sowing discord within the existing power structure no matter who held the reins.
The Regent talked on, even as the other two tried to interrupt.
"Learned men of Haixing like yourselves would have no need to listen to Dixing legend, of course! But ancient tales speak of a cataclysmic accident before the Hallows were forged. Meteorite ore came into contact with dark energy, causing an entanglement of realities from which we will never escape. Why, there are foolish philosophers among the Dixingren even now who claim this world is nothing but the meteor's dream!"
The Regent looked straight at Zhao Yunlan, and the son of a bitch actually winked. Zhao Yunlan's office was crowded with the public now, and though their faces were pale and indistinct, their paper flowers blazed.
"Leave me and go, Zhao Yunlan," Shen Wei whispered with all the force his failing voice would allow. His eyes were closed, slow tears leaking from under the lashes.
"O best beloved, no fucking way." Zhao Yunlan cupped Shen Wei's face with his left hand and pressed a brief kiss to his bloodied brow. "There are fragments of meteorite somewhere nearby. Can you feel them?"
"Please," he whispered, and Zhao Yunlan could not stand to hear him beg. "There is no time."
"I'm not going anywhere so you must tell me so we can fix this together. The meteorite? Even though it is only dust, I know you are strong enough to trace it.”
Shen Wei drew a deep, stuttering breath. "They have secured it to the palms of my hands," he finally managed, the words escaping like a sob.
Zhao Yunlan's vision was already impaired. The flash of rage did not help, blinding red. "Da Qing," he said, unable to focus enough to know whether the cat was actually there or not. "Did you hear? We have to get all the tape off his hands."
"I heard," Da Qing said grimly. "But see for yourself. You've got to finish it."
Shen Wei's right hand was closest to him, still affixed to the aluminum handle, but he could see the progress Da Qing had made. The duct tape had been shredded so thoroughly his palm seemed incongruously cradled in a nest of silvery adhesive slivers. But Zhao Yunlan also saw the problem. The final layers lay against flesh. "I am so sorry," he whispered to Shen Wei, then worked his fingernails under the largest strip of duct tape crossing Shen Wei's palm. He tore it away. Shen Wei's head went back with a gasp. The wide stripe of torn flesh underneath showed white for an instant, with an incongruous center triangle of bruised purple. Then blood started to bead. Zhao Yunlan did not let himself focus on that. He turned over the strip of unforgiving adhesive and there in the center was a small packet. Flat, brightly colored, slightly shiny. Zhao Yunlan's breath caught. It was a fucking transdermal patch.
"Zhao Yunlan," Shen Wei whispered. Zhao Yunlan hushed him and demanded, "Is Chu Shuzhi still here? We need the puppet right now."
Without waiting for an answer he staggered to Shen Wei's other side and once again knelt to tear away the last of the duct tape, hardening his heart against the torn skin, Shen Wei's flinch and breathless groan. And there was the second patch. By the time he looked up Chu Shuzhi was beside him. He was white-faced and wild-eyed and Zhao Yunlan could only hope he could understand what he was saying. He held out the sticky wad of duct tape and patches from both Shen Wei's palms. "We have to get these as far from Shen Wei as possible. Send the puppet down the side of the building and away. We'll figure out what to do with it later. "
Chu Shuzhi stared. For a sinking moment, Zhao Yunlan thought he was too far gone to understand but then he accepted the sticky packets and turned away.
"Zhao Yunlan, it's too late," Shen Wei insisted, his voice a thick whisper. "There are fragments in my bloodstream. Please, if you love me, clear the building and get everyone away from me."
Zhao Yunlan hissed through his teeth, smiling in anger. "It is because of my love that you will never send me away." He had suspected the worst as soon as he saw the patches. Nevertheless: "Molecules, my dear Shen Wei. Nothing more than a few molecules could possibly be in your blood. I refuse to believe they are so dangerous as all that."
Shen Wei's despair was implacable. "For three days I have been trying to contain it, and still the madness spreads. I do not have the strength to continue. Please, Zhao Yunlan." His cracking voice was barely audible. Freed at last from their long bondage, his arms lay uselessly beside him. Zhao Yunlan bundled him closer.
"Is this Hei Pao Shi leaving the field of battle? The Savior of Dixing who carried the burning white energy of the Lord Guardian for months without complaint, without a whisper? I do not believe it! To the mind that is still, the whole universe surrenders!"
Shen Wei blinked. Perhaps it was just surprise at Zhao Yunlan quoting Lao Tzu, but he didn't give him time to think about it. "Rest here in the circle of my arms," he coaxed. "Let me hold you while you calm your beautiful mind in the midst of chaos."
And the thing was, Zhao Yunlan really could feel the madness around them starting to recede. As Chu Shuzhi's puppet carried the weaponized fragments further and further away, the lighting got better in the little apartment and his peripheral vision returned. He could see Da Qing pacing just a few steps away, cat, then human, then cat again. He could see the edges of splintered furniture. Then he saw Qin Hu, no longer restrained by Chu Shuzhi’s threads. There was no need. Zhu Hong’s fangs had punched a hole through his chest and nearly taken off his head. Zhao Yunlan looked away, back to Shen Wei.
Shen Wei closed his eyes. Opened them again. Now that Zhao Yunlan himself was able to think more clearly, he could see the effort with which Shen Wei struggled to focus upon his face. He bowed his head to draw closer. He could feel the mess he had made of the stitches on his chin, hoped Shen Wei could not see the blood he felt running down his face.
And then Shen Wei said so softly there was no breath behind the words, "Don't let me go."
The universe gathered them up together. He was aware of the petals of reality, blown wide like a chrysanthemum blossom at the end of the season. Sweetly irresistible and just this side of rot. The ruined apartment was below him now, the wormhole's starfield a great dome overhead. Zhu Hong had torn out the door frame exiting the apartment and was on her way down the hallway, vastly undulating as she moved. Lin Jing crouched on the floor, his long limbs huddled together, knuckling his fists into his eyes. Zhao Yunlan had also experienced that sepia reality. A world where the Regent had not produced the wick, a reality where Lin Jing had actually obeyed Shen Wei's terrible last command.
The chrysanthemum petals of a million million realities were falling all around them. And then, although he could still feel Shen Wei's tortured body clutched in his arms, he also saw Shen Wei standing in front of him. Beautiful, immaculate in the suit he wore for lectures. In his hands he held the denuded stem of a chrysanthemum flower. Shen Wei's head bowed in concentration. But he raised his eyes, caught Zhao Yunlan's gaze, and allowed a slight, tiny smile to quirk the edge of his mouth.
Night fell, and the dark was absolute. Zhao Yunlan could see only a cluster of pinpricks, ineffable, brilliant. They spun up and out. He felt the terrible cold of them, a sense of something unfathomably ancient and implacable and completely unconcerned with their life and pain. In that inescapable cold, his arms relaxed and Shen Wei started to slip away.
But even at the end of everything, he could not allow that. He tightened his arms around the body he could not see, pulling him up, pulling him closer. The darkness thickened. The cold leached all human warmth from him, save for the tiny bright ember between their bodies where he cradled Shen Wei close.
Then the pinpricks winked out one after another. Strangely, as they vanished, the darkness receded. Once again he saw a vision of Shen Wei before him, golden collar stays in place, his dress shirt lambent white. He was holding a perfect chrysanthemum blossom in his hands, regarding it with a frown of concentration between his brows. As before, he finally raised his eyes to Zhao Yunlan. He smiled.
Then Shen Wei was in his arms. Guo Changcheng was beside him with Zhu Hong collapsed into her fully evolved form. Even like this she was tremendous, two meters at least, her hood rising questingly above Xiao Guo’s head. "Idiot," Chu Shuzhi was saying. He did not quite dare to smack the back of Guo Changcheng's head with Zhu Hong coiled around his shoulders.
"She was just frightened," Guo Changcheng said. "How is Shen Wei?"
Zhao Yunlan looked down. Shen Wei's head had dropped back, exposing his throat. His eyes were closed, his breathing quick and shallow. Still bleeding, still losing dark energy in wisps, but absent the influence of the meteor, the energy drifted and disbursed without effect. Carefully, slowly, Zhao Yunlan lowered him to the floor and laid his hand on Shen Wei's chest to reassure himself of the heartbeat. "Help me with him," he said. "We're going to Dixing."
Chapter 6: Chrysanthemum Tea
Shen Wei awoke to warm water against his back. The sensation was intensely pleasurable, and he allowed himself a sigh. The water continued to rise—or was he being lowered?—until it lapped over his chest. He felt his legs trailing, cradled in warm buoyancy. His skin was stinging but it was a negligible discomfort, compared to the pleasure of being submerged in warmth. Little wavelets tickled his chin. He could hear the sound of water moving over stones, echoing in enclosed spaces. It was very peaceful and seemed to require nothing from him. He could not imagine how he had come to merit this luxury, but found himself too comfortable to worry about it.
He relaxed towards sleep, only to waken again as his head was tipped with gentle care. The warm water felt indescribably good against his scalp. He sighed once more.
"Hey beautiful," came a beloved voice. "Are you back with us?"
Truly, his happiness was complete if Zhao Yunlan were here. He could relax into sleep forever.
"Daren,” said another voice. That was Chu Shuzhi's unmistakable gravelly baritone. "We would trouble you to open your eyes."
Chu Shuzhi was a trusted compatriot and a friend. Shen Wei would never ignore a reasonable request from the man and knew he would never make an unreasonable one. While he considered the matter, he listened to water lapping. Both his arms were tucked close to his body and his hands were submerged, fingers trailing in the warmth. He drifted.
"Xaio Wei, please open your eyes for me."
He did not need to think about whether to obey that voice and opened his eyes at once. With his head still tipped backwards, he saw a rough dome of rock curving down to the surface of the water. Decorative tiles were set in patterns just above water level, where the rising curlicues of steam muted their colors.
Shen Wei knew this place. They were in Dixing. These were the public baths and hot springs under the bluffs beyond the palace neighborhood. He had not visited in a very long time. Probably not since he had assumed his Shen Wei persona in Haixing. The showers in faculty housing and later in private apartments, though a pale substitute, were quick and efficient, and there was always so much else that required his attention.
He had thought wistfully, from time to time, of bringing Zhao Yunlan here, but they had been so very busy in the aftermath of Ye Zun’s war.
"I am glad we are here," Shen Wei said. His own rough voice surprised him. He swallowed and closed his eyes so he could concentrate on speaking very clearly. "I have long wanted to visit the Springs with you."
"Yes," agreed Zhao Yunlan. His voice caught. "I am glad as well."
Shen Wei immediately opened his eyes and oh, here he was, tucked so close. "Zhao Yunlan."
A smile crinkled his face. "Shen Wei."
"Heipaoshi-daren," Chu Shuzhi said.
Ah. And there was Chu Shuzhi on his other side. Curious he could have forgotten. If Chu Shuzhi were here, then this was not the vacation he had been so foolishly quick to imagine.
"Lao Chu," Shen Wei said, speaking very quietly in a bid to disguise the rasp in his voice. "What was it you required?"
To his unspeakable surprise, Chu Shuzhi simply grinned at him. "Truly," he answered Shen Wei at last. Tears spilled from his eyes to complete Shen Wei's bewilderment. "I require nothing more than this."
He looked back to Zhao Yunlan, hoping for answers. But Zhao Yunlan only asked, "How are you feeling? As soon as they told me about this place, I knew it would be just the ticket."
"I am fine of course. The ticket for what?"
"Should have known that was the wrong question," Zhao Yunlan said. "Here is a better one: how does the water feel? Pretty good, yeah?"
"It is an astonishing luxury," Shen Wei answered honestly. Then he thought about it, and it bothered him how slowly his thoughts moved. He turned his eyes from side to side, very gradually beginning to understand his position. He and Chu Shuzhi and Zhao Yunlan were bathing together in one of the smaller pools. Chu Shuzhi and Zhao Yunlan were supporting him, their arms interlaced under his back so his torso could rest just below the surface of the water. As pleasant as this was, it made no sense and was also extremely undignified. He tried to put his feet down to stand on his own. Nothing actually happened, but Zhao Yunlan must have felt the muscles in his back tensing because he immediately chastened, "Hey, no, it's okay. Just let me and Lao Chu take care of this for you."
His neck was very stiff when he tried to turn it, but he rolled his head just enough to see something else odd. Though Zhao Yunlan's forearm was under his neck, keeping Shen Wei's head above water, the hand itself was held awkwardly just above the surface, and was wrapped in a plastic bag. Within, Shen Wei could see bandaging and a splint. This was all growing more and more alarming. He turned to look up at him, intending to demand answers.
There were other injuries. Zhao Yunlan had stitches in his chin, and the flesh surrounding that wound looked red and tender, with bruising from the injury trailing down his throat. He had lines like scratches through his beard and up one cheek. Shen Wei frowned in dismay. He spread his lax fingers wide, intending to gather energy into a usable form, except nothing at all happened. He was aware of the movement of dark energy in his being but seemed entirely unable to influence it. Actually, he couldn't even flex his fingers.
"Whatever you're doing, just stop," Zhao Yunlan said. "I know it is hard, but now is the time for you to rest."
"But you are injured!" Shen Wei burst out. "You are injured and I cannot help!" His voice was thick with tears, and they were actually running down his face as well. He gasped, struggling with himself, but he had no more control over his emotions than he did his dark energy.
"Shen Wei, it is nothing, I am fine," Zhao Yunlan told him, and his voice was so gentle Shen Wei felt more frightened than ever.
"Daren," Chu Shuzhi reminded Shen Wei again of his presence. That stern voice worked when Zhao Yunlan's kindness did not. The weeping stopped. "I can assure you, Zhao Yunlan and Da Qing simply had a ridiculous disagreement, as is regrettably typical for them, but Zhao Yunlan has been expertly tended by Haixing doctors and will heal. The best thing you can do for him, for all of us, is to cease your striving. It is truly said the world belongs to those who let go."
Shen Wei closed his eyes. He could not quiet the intensity of his emotions but as Chu Shuzhi had said, he could stop fighting them. He focused on the movement of his breath. He did not allow himself to pay attention to the tears standing in his eyes and still wet on his face. He was deeply concerned about the injuries Zhao Yunlan had suffered, and it was intolerable that the Lord Guardian was forced to rely upon the slow healing of his own doctors, but he ceased to rail against it, and let the worried thoughts come and go with the lapping of little wavelets. The echoes of water filled his head as they filled the cavern.
Shen Wei awoke being lifted from a stretcher. Although the palms of both his hands pained him with a bone-deep ache, he did not feel the incapacitating influence of the meteorite.
That overconfidence would truly prove to be their first but final mistake, for he would not allow them to bind him again. He held himself still as he was laid upon a surface more like a mattress than a table, not allowing himself to be distracted by the unexpected modicum of comfort. He summoned his glaive, but his dark energy responded too sluggishly to be of use. That must be the lingering influence of the meteor. No matter. He had his fists and his body and he had been a warrior before even the dreams of his enemies' ancestors.
"Speak to him, Zhao Yunlan," came Chu Shuzi's voice. "He is awake and preparing to fight."
"Oh, stay your hand, good Brother Black!" Zhao Yunlan sang out immediately. "Mercy for your humble servant!" He was laughing, artificial and strained. Shen Wei opened his eyes.
He was in a small room with three white-washed plaster walls and a fourth of stone. A small fire flickered on the hearth, a kettle above it. There were few furnishings. Cushions, a low table, the pallet he lay upon. Zhao Yunlan was pulling blankets over him.
Shen Wei swallowed, licked his dry lips.
"You must be thirsty," Zhao Yunlan said. He picked up a tea cup from the neighboring table, glanced down at his bandaged, splinted right hand. His face twisted momentarily in frustration. "We will get you a sip as soon as Chu Shuzhi gets back."
"There were fragments from the meteor," Shen Wei whispered.
"All taken care of for now," Zhao Yunlan assured him.
"How were you injured? Did Chu Shuzhi truly tell me it was Da Qing?"
"We had a misunderstanding. I tried to scruff him while he was having a flashback to the Red Mountains ten thousand years ago."
"Ah." All these years later, and mistakes made while a very young warrior were still hurting the people around him. Tears blurred his vision and he realized to his dismay that although his memory had returned, his emotional control had not.
"Hey," Zhao Yunlan brought his bruised face very close. "We are safe. We will all heal. And I love you.” He touched his lips to Shen Wei's forehead, and then kissed his mouth as Chu Shuzhi announced his return by stomping into the room.
"Lao Chu, give me a hand," he said, straightening up. "Shen Wei would like some tea."
Chu Shuzhi came to the bedside. "If you would permit me.” He knelt, then eased one strong arm beneath Shen Wei's shoulders to lift him slightly. Zhao Yunlan put the teacup in Chu Shuzhi's other hand, and he brought it to Shen Wei's lips. Shen Wei stopped trying to stretch out his own arms and simply drank. It was chrysanthemum tea, lukewarm and overly sweetened. Appropriate fare for an invalid, Shen Wei reflected sourly. It was also delicious. He drank more.
He felt his head clearing a bit and looked around himself while he was sitting up. "This is one of the domiciles below the cliff face."
"That's right," Zhao Yunlan confirmed. "Our favorite barkeep gave us a deal on a sublet just above the baths."
That explained the warmth in the room. Shen Wei could feel heat radiating from the rock wall behind them. Zhao Yunlan was stripped down to a T-shirt and Chu Shuzhi had laid aside his customary scarf and cloak. Shen Wei on the other hand felt chilled where the blanket had slipped. He looked down at his own bare chest. The more superficial cuts were healing, if still visibly red and tender, but a laceration directly across the Earth Phase Meridian in his chest was leaking wisps of dark energy. The sight made Shen Wei feel dazed and nauseated. He closed his eyes, head lolling back on his shoulders, and was dimly aware of Chu Shuzhi settling him back down, and pulling the blankets up to his chin.
"How many more?"
"My Lord?" Chu Shuzhi questioned.
As usual, Zhao Yunlan understood him. "He means the dark energy I think. Those cuts that aren't healing."
Shen Wei listened to movement close to him. Chu Shuzhi and Zhao Yunlan were changing places. The bed dipped where Zhao Yunlan sat down at his shoulder, found his wrist under the blankets and encircled it lightly. "I won't lie to you. There are more than a few. We've had three different Dixing physicians out to see you and none of them were willing to speed your healing. Given your contact with the meteorite, the consensus seems to be that we just have to wait until you are stronger and can stop the dark energy leakage yourself. I'm sorry we can't do more now."
Maddeningly, Shen Wei could feel tears forming. He kept his eyes closed as though that could hide them.
"They are almost certainly correct," he said quietly when he could trust his voice. "All our experience indicates the need for caution."
"And in the meantime, you must simply suffer," Zhao Yunlan said bitterly.
Shen Wei opened his eyes at the sound of Zhao Yunlan's distress. "I am not very uncomfortable," he ventured cautiously. In the past, attempts to reassure Zhao Yunlan about his physical well-being had not gone well.
Zhao Yunlan looked at him sharply, but then allowed his face to soften into a rueful smile. "I say this with all the love in my heart, but you have never given me reason to think I could trust anything you tell me about your health. How about the bruising on your hands? It looked pretty awful. Is it hurting you now?"
Shen Wei forced himself to keep his eyes open and trained on Zhao Yunlan's face while he considered the question. He must have taken too long, though, because Zhao Yunlan said "Right, that answers that. One of the doctors left an herbal tea she said was a mild soporific. Would that help? We could brew a pot for you."
His palms still ached from long contact with the meteorite. The horror of its invading his body by degrees haunted him with dreams of lead and ice. The pain filled his open hands until the weight crushed them, clogged his heart, stopped his mind. He would do anything to erase that unhappy frown from Zhao Yunlan's brow, but the prospect of being medicated with herbal tea back into those dreams was more than he could endure.
"Please," he whispered. "Ask for anything, anything but that!"
"No, no, wait, that is not how this works! Oh, my love, we are really bad at this, are we not?"
Chu Shuzhi snorted.
"This is how I would like to take care of you: you simply tell me what you need. Then I do as you ask, secure in the knowledge that I am actually easing your pain, not making things worse. Can we agree on this simple precept?"
Shen Wei wanted to assure Zhao Yunlan he needed nothing at all, but he did not have the strength to prevaricate. Worse, when he even considered it, treacherous tears gathered once more in his eyes.
Zhao Yunlan saw. "Oh, Shen Wei –"
"Please stay here beside me," Shen Wei whispered because he could say nothing else.
Zhao Yunlan wiped the fresh tears from his cheeks with the gentle brush of his fingers and followed it with soft kisses on both sides of his face. "Hush now. I am here. On that you may depend."
The small bed was not big enough for both of them. Nevertheless, Zhao Yunlan promptly stepped over him, then laid himself neatly down along Shen Wei's side, one arm around his waist and his bandaged hand over the blankets. "And to think this is where I wanted to be all along!" he declared. "Perhaps it is not so difficult for two people to communicate their preferences to one another after all. Something for us to consider after a nice long nap." He kissed Shen Wei's ear and then tucked his chin just above Shen Wei's shoulder, so close that Shen Wei could feel the warmth of his breath brushing his neck.
Shen Wei slept.
Zhao Yunlan was gone when he awoke. The room was still very warm, as it no doubt was always, but the bed was cold. Shen Wei told himself he was a child and a fool to be so disappointed to find himself alone. He lay very still until he was certain he had mastered his emotions, then opened his eyes. Guo Changcheng was seated on a cushion across from the bed, writing in his journal with a serious frown on his face.
"Xiao Guo," he said carefully. "Are you my keeper now?"
Guo Changcheng was so startled he dropped his journal. The pen rolled to the other side of the room.
"Oh," he exclaimed. His face was comical with dismay. "You are awake! Zhao Yunlan will be very upset."
"Zhao Yunlan did not want me to wake up?"
"He was worried that you would awaken and think you had been abandoned. I am to tell you he apologizes with all his heart and will gladly spend the rest of his life making it up to you. Please do not be angry!"
"I am not angry, and Zhao Yunlan has far better things to do with the rest of his life. I'm sure he had good cause to leave."
"Yes, that is it exactly! He had very good cause, even though it made him angry. It was a very good cause."
Guo Changcheng seized on the phrasing with such eagerness Shen Wei was instantly suspicious. "And this very good cause?"
"Yes?" Guo Changcheng started wringing his hands.
"What was it?"
"Zhao Yunlan did not want me to tell you!"
"And yet here we are," Shen Wei said gently. "You must indeed tell me."
"Chief Zhao will be very angry!"
"You have said he is already angry. Xiao Guo, what was so urgent that Zhao Yunlan was forced to break his promise to me and leave my side?"
Guo Changcheng slumped. "Zhao Xinci has come to Dixing to speak to the chief. The Xingdu Bureau wants Zhu Hong to present herself for a hearing. The Yashou have refused even to discuss the matter, but Zhao Xinci thinks they will listen to Zhao Yunlan if he pleads their case.”
"The Bureau has no jurisdiction over Yashou."
"They say they do because Zhu Hong killed Qin Hu."
"Xiao Guo, help me sit up."
Guo Changcheng was very unhappy but he helped, rearranging pillows and bedclothes, then physically hauling Shen Wei upright. It was humiliating to be so weak, but Shen Wei concentrated on his end purpose and endured Guo Changcheng's pushing and shoving. When he was finally propped with his back against the warm stone wall, blankets tucked around his waist, he calmed himself and then said, "Bring Zhao Xinci to me. Do not accept no for an answer."
It was a long wait. Shen Wei regarded the shallow lacerations across his chest and arms that still bled dark energy. They were as uncomfortable as the bruises across the palms of both hands, but armor was always uncomfortable, and weapons heavy to bear. Facing Zhao Yunlan's father, the scars and open wounds were armor and weapon both.
Unsurprisingly, Zhao Yunlan was first back into the room. He burst in, all his objections naked on his face, but one look at Shen Wei and he stopped. He regarded him carefully then gave an infinitesimal nod, and stepped to the side of the door.
His father did not do such a good job of schooling his emotions. He took in Shen Wei's appearance, eyes wide, then narrowing, and averted his gaze. "I apologize for the interruption, Lord Envoy. Obviously this foolish child misunderstood your instructions."
"Guo Changcheng's pure soul was bright enough to enkindle the Guardian Lantern. You will oblige me by not maligning him in my presence, Minister Zhao."
"As you say," Zhao Xinci returned without giving an inch. Zhao Yunlan stirred uncomfortably but held his silence.
"In this instance however," Shen Wei allowed, "it is possible that Guo Changcheng may have misunderstood an affair of state. He advised me that the Xingdu Bureau desires the leader of the Yashou to present herself for judgment. In this, he must have been mistaken."
"It is premature to speak of judgment. But given these recent unhappy events, the Ministry must ask for a hearing. Surely the Lord Envoy will agree that a human having been murdered by a Yashou, especially the titular head of all Yashou, is a matter to be examined with the utmost care."
"She is leader in fact and not just by title. What we may agree upon is that Zhu Hong executed the man who had just spent three days torturing me with the blade of a knife."
"So you confess you are hardly an impartial judge in this matter." Zhao Xinci was addressing a section of whitewashed wall rather than look at Shen Wei.
"I confess Zhu Hong had every reason to judge the man a clear and present danger to us all. Of course, Zhu Hong arguably did not have the capacity to make reasoned judgments at the time. She had just entered the next phase of her evolutionary development."
"These are the extenuating circumstances it will be useful for the Council to understand."
"Well may you speak of extenuating circumstances. Zhu Hong entered her next phase prematurely because my dark energy had been brought in contact with meteorite ore. This was not by accident. Qin Hu was attempting to re-create events that took place ten thousand years ago. The resulting cataclysm sent shockwaves through early civilizations, and legends about the event have fueled unfortunate cult beliefs ever since. Zhang Shi, you know all this. You were there."
Zhao Xinci blinked. The energy in the room changed. Zhang Shi was far more relaxed than Zhao Xinci, the change in body language subtle but unmistakable. "Those were indeed dark and terrible days. We did not think you would survive back then, Shen Wei."
"And I cannot help but wonder," Shen Wei returned calmly, "did you expect me to survive this time?”
Zhang Shi held Zhao Xinci's body in a relaxed posture still, but now the effort showed. "The Lord Envoy is still recovering. We should defer this conversation.”
Zhao Yunlan leaned against a whitewashed wall with a wolfish smile on his face, arms crossed over his chest. "I believe our good Brother Black wishes to conduct this conversation now," he drawled. "Though I understand the minister's position. It has been said the business of government is simpler in the absence of heroes. I could swear I heard those very words not so long ago."
Zhao Xinci twitched. "I fear these unhappy events have left both the Lord Guardian and the Envoy distraught. Otherwise you would surely be more cautious about voicing such unseemly allegations."
"Qin Hu should have been in prison. Not only was he discharged prematurely, there was no record made of his release," Zhao Yunlan said. "It might make a conspiracy-minded soul suspicious."
"More damningly, he had been provided with transdermal patches seeded with meteorite ore," Shen Wei said. "Those could only have come from a government laboratory."
"We have already discussed this with Zhao Yunlan," Zhang Shi said. "The laboratory was the unfortunate victim of theft by a radicalized technician. That perpetrator has been found and dealt with."
"Yes," Zhao Yunlan said slowly. "The laboratory was certainly the victim here."
"There are other circumstances of concern," Shen Wei continued. "The grandmother shopping for radishes who pressed one of those patches into my hand precipitated so immediate a reaction, I am forced to surmise the patch was also dosed with ethanol. So while you may well argue the government has a strategic interest in developing weapons against the rise of any dangerous Dixingren, these were formulated against me in particular. Tell me, Zhang Shi, Minister Zhao, is this the way the Haixing government honors its treaty obligations? By funding an assassination attempt against Dixing's Lord Envoy?"
Zhang Shi stopped pretending to be calm. "Obviously we admit nothing so outrageous, but I will allow the minister himself to respond," he said, eyes flashing gold. It was not an easy transition this time. Zhao Xinci stumbled slightly as he came back to himself. "Hei Pao Shi, we have been colleagues for many years now. I would ask you to consider the political ramifications of such an accusation. At the very least, we should delay so sensitive a discussion until you are in full command of your faculties."
"You do not strengthen your position by insulting my competence!" Shen Wei permitted his anger to rise and could hear the way it sharpened his tone and deepened his voice. "The only reason I have not already taken steps to sever diplomatic relations between our two peoples is out of consideration for the innocents who would suffer. I confess this weakens my own position, since I have a care for my people which the government of Haixing clearly does not share in regard to its own."
"You may exercise your justifiable anger upon this humble minister, but do not presume to question the care our government extends to each and every –"
"If you finish that sentence, Zhao Xinci, you must indeed consider me a fool. Your government funded research into a weapon with the potential to harm far more than an individual Dixingren. In the hands of a religious fanatic like Qin Hu, committed to spilling my dark energy regardless of the cost, the sanity of every Haixingren within our radius was jeopardized. And still your government did nothing. Without the courage and resourcefulness of Special Investigations, Dragon City would have suffered a cataclysm to eclipse even the historical memory of the tragedy at Red Mountains Pass. Truly, I must question whether good faith negotiations are even possible in the face of such reckless war-mongering."
"The Regent will surely not agree to any course of action which threatens the peace between Haixing and Dixing," Zhao Xinci blustered.
"And you misjudge the current political situation if you believe I allow myself to be guided in all things by the preferences of the Regent."
"Forgive me, Lord Envoy, but your injuries–" Zhao Xinci took a nervous step back. Shen Wei did not have to look down at himself to know what the minister was reacting to. He could feel the escape of dark energy from the open lacerations increasing as his passion rose. He did not allow himself to look towards Zhao Yunlan, but he grieved, knowing this could only cause him pain.
“You are the one who came to Dixing with threats against the freedom of one of those selfless heroes who saved Dragon City. Withdraw your request for Zhu Hong's appearance, and I will refrain from taking precipitous action in regard to the treaty. At least until my injuries are healed, given they seem to cause you such distress."
"It is my pleasure to accede to your wishes," Zhao Xinci agreed with a flat, angry smile. "I wish you an expeditious recovery."
"Come with me, father," Zhao Yunlan said, his voice gravelly with suppressed emotion. "I will ensure you reach Haixing safely."
Once they were out of the room Shen Wei finally allowed his shoulders to sag and his eyes to close. The darkness rushed in, roaring like the sea. Despite the warm stone at his back, he was trembling, cold to the marrow.
"I am here," said Guo Changcheng in a quavering voice. "Would you like a bite to eat? Can I help you lie down?"
"Cold," he managed to get out between clenched teeth.
"You would like something cold to eat? But you are trembling. Oh! —you mean you are cold." Guo Changcheng tried to pull the bedclothes up but was unable to tuck them around his shoulders. "I’ll help you lie down. I'm sorry I'm so clumsy." He tugged and shifted and rearranged until Shen Wei was curled on his side with blankets heaped over him.
"Tell me," Shen Wei whispered.
"Yes of course! Anything! Unless it is a secret that I am sworn not to tell and then I will have to beg your pardon."
But Shen Wei had already drifted into disquieting dreams before he could ask Xiao Guo to let him know when Zhao Yunlan returned.
Chapter 7: Ascending
Shen Wei awoke to find that he had been pushed off his pillow and that his neck was now canted at an uncomfortable angle. Further, he was pinned by a warm weight. He opened his eyes and peered down at himself. Da Qing was crouched on his chest with his tail curled neatly around his front paws, eyes heavy-lidded. "You're not mad, are you?” he demanded sleepily. "Because I didn't mean to do it and anyway, Zhao Yunlan was stupid to grab me."
"I am not angry," Shen Wei assured him, distracted by the uncomfortable angle of his head and neck. "I am simply sorry it happened."
"As long as you're not mad at me because it wasn't my fault," Da Qing agreed. He flexed his toes once and Shen Wei winced at the prickle of claws through the blankets. Da Qing closed his eyes. A moment later he was purring. Shen Wei rolled his eyes up and turned his head. His cheek touched smooth, warm scales. From this angle, Zhu Hong's brown and yellow pattern merged into a jumbled checkerboard.
“Guo Changcheng spoke truly, Hong-jie. You are very beautiful, and I am indebted to you for the part you played in my rescue. Congratulations on your evolution."
She coiled and stretched against his cheek and shoulder, her head coming up and her magnificent patterned hood spreading briefly. Her forked tongue flickered as she dipped her head back down. Shen Wei closed his eyes and felt a dry, whispery touch against each eyelid. Then she slipped away, slithering across the bedclothes and hitting the floor with a soft thump.
"She wanted to say thank you in person for handling the Ministry." Shen Wei opened his eyes at the sound of Zhao Yunlan's voice. "Then once we got here, she fell in love with that warm rock wall behind us. We may need to make an offer on this apartment." He leaned over the bed to smile down at him. Without thinking about it, Shen Wei raised a hand and healed one of the scratches that crossed his cheek.
"Hey, wait, no. Don't do that," Zhao Yunlan protested, even as he reached up to touch the newly re-knit flesh.
"It takes far less effort to heal another," Shen Wei explained. "I did not know that I had the strength. I just–did it."
Zhao Yunlan dropped his hand to Shen Wei's face. "Your gift is in letting me know you are growing stronger. Thank you and nothing could please me more. But promise to save your strength for yourself now."
Shen Wei bent his right arm at the elbow, experimentally made a fist and then opened his fingers again.
"Would you like something to eat? We have broth warming over the fire.”
The thought of food turned his stomach, but at the earnest, hopeful look on Zhao Yunlan's face he made himself say, "A few sips, perhaps."
Zhao Yunlan beamed. "Let's get you sitting up. Come on, Da Qing, wake up and give me a hand here.
Da Qing refused to open his eyes. He thumped his tail irritably so Zhao Yunlan swept him off Shen Wei's chest without any further ado. He squawked in offense and stomped away.
"I feel much stronger," Shen Wei said. "Just give me your arm."
And in fact he was able to prop himself up against the wall at his back with minimal assistance from Zhao Yunlan. Zhao Yunlan could not smile any harder. "Look at you!" He swooped in for a quick kiss. Then he filled a small porcelain dish from the pot on the hearth. Shen Wei was not actually sure he would be able to keep down any food, but at the smell of gingery chicken broth his stomach rumbled. Beaming, Zhao Yunlan set the bowl on the bedclothes, then held out a spoonful of broth. Shen Wei sipped cautiously, since he would brave anything to see Zhao Yunlan look so happy.
To his surprise, he was able to finish the little bowl of broth. "Would you like more?" Zhao Yunlan asked optimistically.
Shen Wei actually considered the question. His belly felt warm and tight, his whole body comfortably warm, and he was content. "That is enough for now," he decided. "Thank you."
"You make me so happy," Zhao Yunlan said. He set the bowl aside, cupped Shen Wei's chin with the palm of his hand and dropped yet another kiss on top of his head. "You will be demanding hot pot before you know it!"
Shen Wei smiled. "Let me work my way up to congee first."
"Would you like a bowl of congee?"
"Perhaps in a few hours," Shen Wei agreed. Then he said the difficult thing. "I fear Zhao Xinci must be very angry. I am truly sorry if I have sown discord between father and son."
"No." The smile slipped from Zhao Yunlan's face. "My beloved, you will never apologize to me for my father's actions. I am the one who can never–" He broke off, clearly foreseeing the way such a conversation would go and instead explained, "The minister is not accustomed to his machinations going so badly awry. I am sure he believed the threat to Zhu Hong would be enough to keep us cowed." His smile came back, wide and angry. "At this point you would think that nothing the Xingdu Bureau does could surprise me, yet I am still amazed by what they would dare."
Shen Wei had to disagree. "It is not surprising they would continue to research weapons effective against a powerful Dixingren. The scars from Ye Zun's war will linger for a long time. We must govern ourselves accordingly."
"But they formulated those patches to be used specifically against you, Shen Wei. You, who tried to give your life to save us all!"
"Your affection blinds you. I am only surprised they allowed an irreplaceable weapon to leave the laboratory. I suspect there are more than a few secret followers of the Unwritten Sign working there. While the transdermal patch alone would have hurt no one but myself in the short term, once it was used to deliver me into the hands of a cultist like Qin Hu, all of Dragon City was threatened."
Zhao Yunlan looked away, jaw clenching momentarily. "Chu Shuzhi told me Unwritten Sign followers believe some nonsense about crossing every meridian in your body three times and untangling creation. That must be a fable, and yet I saw things when we rescued you which truly made me wonder."
Shen Wei honored his bravery, and answered as fully as he could. "The cult of the Unwritten Sign perpetuates a misunderstanding of what happened in the Red Mountains so long ago. Cutting my body causes me to bleed, crossing the meridians causes me to lose dark energy— " Shen Wei wanted to look away from Zhao Yunlan's distress, and did not let himself do it.
"Spilling dark energy alone would be no threat to the world around me, but the people who lived in the Red Mountains attempted to execute me using their ancestral method, and they placed me between monuments decorated with ore from the meteor. Clearly, no Dixingren had ever been unfortunate enough to fall into their hands before, and of the many cuts inflicted over the following hours, more than a few crossed meridians. The release of dark energy in the vicinity of the meteorite proved to have profoundly deleterious effects on the mind. I will never cease to regret that you were forced to experience this yourself. Believe me, if I could have prevented—"
"If you think the gates of hell itself could have kept me from your side, Shen Wei!"
Da Qing had evidently had enough, and chose that moment to climb back into Shen Wei's lap, stomping in circles to get comfortable. Zhao Yunlan huffed and sat back. "Be careful with those pointy toes of yours, damn cat. You know I could always trim your claws if need be. "
"I'd like to see you try," Da Qing muttered before finding the perfect spot with his head pressed against Shen Wei's comfortably full belly.
Shen Wei had long since lost track of the days but the next time he and Zhao Yunlan visited the Springs, he was strong enough to navigate the stone staircase down to the pools mostly under his own power. As before, they had the small upper pool to themselves. They laid their robes aside on a stone bench, and Zhao Yunlan wrapped his right hand in plastic. Shen Wei felt the urge to heal him like a physical ache but restrained himself, since Zhao Yunlan would not thank him for it. Shen Wei would not do anything to threaten that smile today.
Zhao Yunlan slipped into the pool first, sighing with pleasure, then he turned back and offered his arm to Shen Wei. He eased himself off the smooth stone shelf into the water. Something of what he felt must have shown on his face because Zhao Yunlan beamed and drew him closer. "We should not have waited until the actions of incompetent and cruel zealots forced us to take a vacation," Zhao Yunlan teased gently. "This is wonderful. How are you doing?"
"Your smile is the only comfort I need," Shen Wei said honestly. "But the water feels very good as well."
Zhao Yunlan gave a shout of laughter. He ducked down below the hot water and burst upwards again, shaking droplets from his hair. Shen Wei loved him so much he would've done anything in that moment, but he thought hard and reached for the action that he knew would make Zhao Yunlan happiest. He lifted one arm. The water made his wounded forearm look as though it were encased in glass for an instant, wisps of dark energy smoky under the surface before disappearing in the steam. He nourished himself with another glance at Zhao Yunlan's smile, slightly quizzical now as he waited to see what Shen Wei was doing. Then he lightly clenched his fist and willed the flesh over the exposed Wood Phase Meridian in his wrist to heal. It was easier than he had thought, though he felt lightheaded afterwards in the heat of the pool. He swayed on his feet, allowing the chest-high water to bear him up. Zhao Yunlan was there in a moment to embrace him.
"I saw that! Oh my love, I saw that! How are you feeling?"
That was a hard thing to answer. He was very tired but deeply content. Though he had not confessed to Zhao Yunlan, he had not known whether he would ever heal sufficiently to close the crossed and exposed meridians. He luxuriated in Zhao Yunlan's embrace now. The heat of his body against Shen Wei's own, the warmth of the water, the relief in his soul together bore him up. Eventually he remembered Zhao Yunlan's question. "With you at my side, I can ascend to heaven."
Zhao Yunlan kissed the tip of his nose and ran his left hand down Shen Wei's flank, skimmed his backside with a grin like a kid stealing candy, before finally settling his forearm at the small of his back. "I like the sound of that." His low voice rumbled like Da Qing's deepest purr. Shen Wei smiled back, weary but content.
The expression on Zhao Yunlan's face changed, became soft and thoughtful. "Walk with me a few steps?" He asked.
"Anywhere," Shen Wei answered honestly.
"Just a few steps," Zhao Yunlan repeated with a sweet smile. "There's a ledge under the surface here." Walking backwards a step at a time, he drew Shen Wei with him to the back of the pool, where he pulled himself onto the underwater stone shelf and then coaxed Shen Wei into turning around and settling on the ledge between Zhao Yunlan's thighs, his back against Zhao Yunlan's chest. "And here we are," Zhao Yunlan announced happily. He wrapped one arm around Shen Wei's waist, his left arm across his chest to keep the bandaged hand above water. "Are you comfortable?"
"Oh, yes." He could feel Zhao Yunlan's heart beating against his back, Zhao Yunlan's breath cool against his shoulder, the sweet intimacy of Zhao Yunlan's sex, half-hard against his backside. "But you still have questions." It was easier to say wrapped in Zhao Yunlan's arms. "Before Da Qing interrupted the other day."
"Damn cat. He didn't like us talking about the Red Mountains."
Shen Wei laid his head back on Zhao Yunlan's shoulder. "It was a traumatic experience for a young Yashou."
Zhao Yunlan's arms tightened. "It was traumatic for a young Dixingren too, my love. We don't have to talk about this now."
"There have been so many things I could not tell you," Shen Wei said. "It would make me happier to answer your questions now."
"It's nothing. It's just." The arms gentle around Shen Wei's torso tightened carefully. "You said that dark energy in the presence of the meteorite disturbs the mind. Is it truly madness, or did the Unwritten Sign people get something right after all? Could those forces tangle reality itself? Because I saw a world where you did not survive Ye Zun's war and neither did I, at least not completely. Has that happened?” His voice broke. “Did that ever happen?"
"Dear Zhao Yunlan," Shen Wei would have turned to see him if he had not been held so tightly. "The evidence of your senses tells you that we are not living in that world."
Zhao Yunlan made a gasping sound, neither laughing nor crying. "Of course, of course." He kissed the point of Shen Wei's shoulder. "Abide with me here a while then. Let me enjoy the evidence of my senses."
Shen Wei closed his eyes and dropped his head back once more to rest on Zhao Yunlan's shoulder. Gladly would I abide with you here forever, he thought, and wasn't sure whether he actually found the energy to say it out loud. He must have dozed for a few moments then, because he awoke to Zhao Yunlan's soft chuff of amusement. "What— ?" he asked sleepily. His head was very heavy. He realized why as he opened his eyes. The long hair of the Hei Pao Shi persona had manifested all unbidden. It fell across his shoulders like a cloak, the ends floating in the water. "Oh."
He slid off the stone shelf after coaxing Zhao Yunlan to let him go, not wanting to smother him in the unwanted curtain of hair. "I apologize," he said, vaguely embarrassed. "Restoring the flow of a single meridian apparently causes my system to respond in… unexpected ways." He raised his eyes and could not decipher the expression on Zhao Yunlan's face. He seemed unaccountably misty-eyed, smiling but shaking his head.
"This does not hurt me," Shen Wei said carefully. "It is merely inconvenient." To demonstrate, he dropped his head back into the water and straightened up again, washing the hair back from his face. A wave of vertigo surprised him and he staggered, momentarily losing his footing on the sandy bottom. Zhao Yunlan was before him in an instant, catching him by the shoulders.
"Are you all right?"
"A moment of dizziness. As I told you." He was even more aware now of the weight of wet hair on his shoulders. "It is inconvenient."
Zhao Yunlan gave him a watery smile. Shen Wei wondered if his own lack of emotional control was affecting the people around him. First Chu Shuzhi and now Zhao Yunlan weeping openly in front of him.
"Shen Wei," he said at last, "I truly believe beauty is always inconvenient, and no less welcome for that."
Shen Wei considered this while he gazed into Zhao Yunlan's beloved face. "That is not true," he decided. "You have always been here when I needed you most. That is hardly an inconvenience."
"Shen Wei, are you calling me a beauty?" Zhao Yunlan tried to preen but the tears flowing down his bruised face made the act less than convincing.
Shen Wei touched his cheek, sorry to have somehow spoiled Zhao Yunlan's happiness. "Please don't," he said softly. "How can I fix this?"
Zhao Yunlan laughed through his tears and gathered Shen Wei close. "If my love for you is a problem to be fixed, then heaven grant me such bedevilment for the rest of my days!"
"I would not have you bedeviled by anything, me least of all," Shen Wei returned. "Rather, I would stand beside you for all of the days you will have me."
"And that will be all the days of my life! Shen Wei, are these our vows?" His right arm was heavy around Shen Wei's shoulders, the weight a gentle tug on his long hair. Zhao Yunlan's splinted, bandaged fingers, secured under their plastic bag, rested on the point of Shen Wei's shoulder. With his other hand, Zhao Yunlan held the back of Shen Wei's head. "Somehow I imagined flowers. And snacks, there were definitely snacks."
"No, wait, let me think this through. This way we do not have to prepare a guest list nor must I rent a tuxedo!"
"Rent a tuxedo?"
"Beloved, I have made my decision. If you will have me, I am yours, now and forever." He drew back just enough to smile, eyes still bright with unshed tears.
Shen Wei allowed himself to kiss that beautiful mouth and tasted the salt of his tears. "As indeed, I have always been yours."
Zhao Yunlan returned the kiss very gently, then gathered him close once more. For a few moments there was no sound but the trickle of falling water echoing endlessly under the dome of rock.
Then Zhao Yunlan said, "You're the one who has to explain to Da Qing why there weren't any snacks."