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Inference and Inquiry

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1.

“This stew is tastier than anything they’ll make ten thousand years from now,” says Kunlun, speaking with his mouth full.

They’re dining around the long table in the council chamber, Shen Wei with Kunlun across from him, Ma Gui, and Fu You. Da Qing, who brought a message from the Yashou general just as dinner was starting, has contrived to join them, too.

At Kunlun’s exclamation, Fu You launches into an account of their food stocks and what game can be hunted in the area. Ma Gui casts a wary glance at Shen Wei.

Shen Wei’s mask would hide his reaction if he had one, but he’s used to Kunlun’s extravagant pronouncements by now. He continues eating, paying more attention to the flavors. Kunlun’s right—the stew is very good.

Da Qing has stopped with his spoon halfway to his mouth, a reaction that draws a laugh from Kunlun, whose eyes are lit with teasing humor. It’s not directed at him, but even so, Shen Wei momentarily forgets what he’s doing, forgets the war and everything and everyone else.

The conversation moves on. Shen Wei makes himself pay attention.

 

2.

After dinner, Ma Gui says, “I have questions about the Hallows,” and ushers Kunlun off to his workshop. Fu You excuses herself to reply to the Yashou general’s message in person.

The precise curve of Kunlun’s smile is still front and center in Shen Wei’s mind, but he reviews what just happened. It’s not surprising Ma Gui and Kunlun are discussing the Hallows—the objects are critically important and must be recovered—but why is it Ma Gui who has questions when he’s the one who made the things? What can Kunlun possibly tell him?

And what did Ma Gui’s glance mean, earlier?

Shen Wei studies Da Qing. Kunlun has made no secret of his friendship with the cat. Shen Wei isn’t jealous, he has no right to be—those two have history—but his curiosity is consuming. “Was Kunlun always like this?”

Da Qing stops fiddling with his braids and gives Shen Wei a blank look.

“When you knew him before.”

Da Qing blinks in catlike confusion. “You heard what he said. ‘In ten thousand years’! Does he have a magic mirror that lets him taste future stews? If there is something like that, it should be the property of the Cat Tribe!”

“It’s just how he talks. When we first spoke, he said I hadn’t changed in ten thousand years.” Shen Wei found Kunlun’s hyperbole rather charming.

“There’s more to it than that. When I found him, he already knew my name.”

“What do you mean you found him?”

Da Qing covers his mouth. “I wasn’t supposed to say anything.”

“Didn’t you know him before?”

“Didn’t you?”

They stare at each other.

A kitchen hand comes to clear the table. When she’s gone, Shen Wei removes his mask. The soft brush of air against his cheeks still feels unnatural, but he hopes the gesture will signal this is an unofficial exchange, between friends. “Da Qing, it’s not that I don’t trust him. He’s a great man. But something strange is going on.”

Ma Gui and Fu You are being evasive, and Kunlun drinks up every piece of information as if he’s parched. There’s no one in the world who doesn’t know about the meteor strike and the fight between the Rebels and the Allied Forces, but it all seems new to him.

“I’m going to find out his secret,” declares Da Qing. He tilts his head. “You can help if you like, Hei Pao Daren.”

A knot of disloyalty gathers beneath Shen Wei’s breastbone. If Kunlun wanted them to know about his past, he would have told them. On the other hand, Da Qing seems determined to nose around, and at least if they work together, Shen Wei can keep an eye on him. “We don’t tell anyone.”

“Of course not! He’s Kunlun!” Da Qing looks offended as only a cat can.

 

3.

They start with a debrief, and Shen Wei finds himself holding a creased pencil sketch of Kunlun as he was when he first appeared—short hair, foreign clothes. A stricken expression on his usually cheerful face.

Shen Wei sees himself in that look—he’s carried that feeling his whole life, never talked about it until Kunlun asked about his brother. Hadn’t known what consolation could be found in quiet sympathy and a listening ear. And here’s Kunlun evincing a similar burden of grief, and Shen Wei’s not supposed to know. He can’t offer the same support in return.

But beyond that, beyond the loss in the picture’s eyes, Shen Wei has many questions. “Da Qing, where did you get this?”

“High Chief Fu You gave it to me and sent me to find him. She said to tell him, ‘Take his place.’”

Shen Wei looks again at the picture. It’s not uncommon for someone to change their name and appearance to join his army, to spare their family retaliation from the enemy, but stepping into the shoes of a celebrated general is another matter. Kunlun—his Kunlun—isn’t a fraud, is he? He can’t be.

Take his place.

This Kunlun saved him and his men. His warmth towards Shen Wei and Da Qing seems generous and sincere. He has Fu You’s backing. But why? How did Fu You know to expect him? Where did she get that sketch?

“What next?” asks Da Qing. “Shall I snoop in his sleeping quarters? I can slink.”

Shen Wei puts down the drawing. “Not in Kunlun’s quarters. In Fu You’s.”

Da Qing is a Yashou messenger. If he gets caught, it won’t be calamitous, and no one will know they’re doubting Kunlun’s story.

 

4.

The next morning, Kunlun asks, “How much do you know about the theft of the Hallows?”

“I know what Lady Fu You told me. That the only people seen entering the workshop were Ma Gui and herself.” The Hallows had been stolen while Shen Wei was away in battle. Fu You had been the one to question the sentries and shore up the camp’s defenses.

Kunlun grins and wags a finger. “You know, this is probably why I’m here. You guys need my investigative expertise.”

He leads the way, and together they hear Fu You’s account of the matter. They inspect the broken lockbox in Ma Gui’s workshop where the Hallows were stored. Kunlun sits down with the guards, the messengers, anyone who might have noticed anything, and makes them comb through their memories.

“Why does it matter?” asks one sentry. “Finding out how they were taken won’t bring them back.”

“Know thy enemy,” says Kunlun, absently, then looks up, focusing on the man. “Ah, you won’t have heard that yet. Look at it this way: once we’ve learned all we can about whoever took them, we can better predict that person’s actions.”

“Now the Rebels have the Hallows, we need all the foresight we can get,” says Shen Wei. The tide of war is already against them, and his few surviving men are still in the infirmary.

Kunlun grips Shen Wei’s shoulder and pats the small but powerful weapon sheathed under his jerkin. “I’ll fight at your side. And don’t worry, I won’t let myself be taken hostage this time.”

This time? Shen Wei’s appalled reaction makes Kunlun burst out laughing. He’s clearly talking nonsense. Shen Wei sighs in exasperation and excuses himself to go and find Da Qing.

 

5.

Da Qing’s tiny chamber near the kitchen looks empty, and Shen Wei’s about to try elsewhere when a scuffle and clinking catch his attention.

“Hello?” The room is dim, and it’s only been five days since the Hallows were stolen right here from the Allied Forces base. Despite the increased security, another incursion is not beyond the bounds of possibility. Shen Wei strides to the foot of the bed.

A fluffy black kitten looks up from the floor, a shiny object gleaming under his paws. “I wasn’t doing anything!”

Shen Wei relaxes, biting back a smile, and Da Qing says, in quite a different tone, “Oh, it’s you.” There’s a flurry of dark energy, and Da Qing unfolds, rising to his feet in human form. “Everyone’s been talking about the Hallows without me. I was the one who—who—” He scratches his neck. “I helped with the experiments.”

“Yes,” says Shen Wei, trying to be patient. “But did you search Fu You’s chamber?”

In answer, Da Qing opens his hand to reveal the toy he’d been playing with.

Shen Wei takes it. At a guess, it’s neither jewelry nor a weapon. Perhaps a trinket, or a tool like the ones Ma Gui keeps in his workshop. There’s a fine metal hoop doubled over, the ends unwelded, and hanging from it are five short blunt blades, notched in a pattern. Two are double-edged and symmetrical, three are smooth down one side. None are exactly the same. As well, dangling from the hoop are the shape of a panda bear, enameled in black and white—far cuddlier-looking than the real thing—and a flat disk, transparent as glass but lighter and not so brittle. The disk holds a different kind of picture.

It’s startlingly lifelike, and Kunlun is the subject. Kunlun in his foreign clothes, grinning, his hair covering his forehead, and his arm around the shoulders of a youth, similarly short-haired. Shen Wei sits on the bed, not waiting for an invitation, takes off his mask and summons a dark-energy light to see by. The youth is—

“That’s me,” says Da Qing, coming closer. He sounds unsurprised. He must have recognized himself earlier.

“Yes.”

A different Da Qing smirks out of the picture. A Da Qing with short hair and faded blue straps hanging loosely over his white undergarment. So he and Kunlun did know each other before, wherever they came from. Were paupers together, going by their torn and threadbare clothes, though they seem cheerful. No wonder Kunlun is so casual with the cat.

Shen Wei starts to ask, “Do you remember—”

“Turn it over.” Da Qing doesn’t wait but reaches in and flips the picture himself, and Shen Wei’s breath catches before he’s made sense of what he’s seeing.

It’s him, Shen Wei. (Or his brother, but it can’t be Didi; Didi was murdered as a child.) It’s Shen Wei, but not in his robes and mask. In the picture, he wears blue form-fitting clothes, short hair, wire frames on his face to look through. He smiles as if he’s never heard of the Rebels, his eyes are full of warmth, he looks happy, and—and Shen Wei is suddenly sure that this version of himself is looking at Kunlun. It’s Kunlun who put this smile on his face.

His head reels. How could he have forgotten this moment—this whole other lifetime, with its foreign fashions and strange objects? With Kunlun? He can trace his own history in his memories, an unbroken chain from childhood to here. When did this happen?

Unless—unless Kunlun is more than he seems. Unless ten thousand years is not merely a figure of speech.

 

6.

“What does it mean?” asks Da Qing.

Shen Wei turns the pictures over to stare again at this other version of Kunlun, this other Da Qing. The people in these pictures could be their ancestors or their descendants, but Shen Wei is sure that’s not the answer. Sure because they were in Fu You’s chamber where no one would find them—especially not Shen Wei. Sure because Kunlun promised they’ll meet again.

Because the life that I owe, I will definitely return to you, and you’ve already returned it, many times over.

Still, Shen Wei’s not much older in the picture. Ten thousand years must be an exaggeration. How far apart in time are their worlds really? How long will it take to reunite, after Kunlun goes back? Perhaps Shen Wei and Da Qing will go with him—except no, they must be there already, some future versions of themselves populating Kunlun’s past. He shouldn’t dwell on that, should think of happier things—that if these pictures are from the future, here’s proof the Allied Forces will win the war and Shen Wei will survive. All this understanding unfolds inside him. His head and heart feel like they might burst.

“What does it mean?” Da Qing asks again.

Reluctantly, Shen Wei returns the pictures. “You’ll have to put this back. Where you found it, was there anything else?”

“A folded leather square, and a black glass rectangle. They smelled of Kunlun.” Da Qing wrinkles his nose. “I thought Lady Fu You would notice if they were missing.”

Shen Wei suspects he’d been distracted by the shiny notched blades, and that’s why he’d been playing with them. He searches for an answer to the question: What does it mean? How much of his conclusion should he share with the cat who is, after all, not much more than a kitten.

“It’s proof the three of us meeting is Fate, and proof we’ll meet again one day, just as Kunlun said.”

Shen Wei gave up on Fate the day he lost his brother and decided to forge his own path. It’s strange to believe again.

Da Qing frowns down at the hoop with its jangle of blunt blades, its enamel panda and its pictures. He looks upset.

Shen Wei touches his arm, waits until he has the cat’s attention. “And it means Kunlun is ours, and it’s up to us to keep him safe.”

Da Qing’s disappointment shifts, and he nods as if he’s receiving a mission. Shen Wei smiles. It’s their secret pledge.

 

7.

That evening, Shen Wei and Kunlun sit alone on the clifftop, and Kunlun recounts everything he’s learnt about the theft of the Hallows. When he’s finished, he asks, “What do you think?”

Shen Wei has been watching the lilt of Kunlun’s hands, his loose self-assured manner. Now he reviews the information. With Kunlun’s assistance, one of the Yashou messengers recalled glimpsing the Envoy in the passage outside the chamber that day.

The hairs on the back of Shen Wei’s neck prickle.

“The thief disguised themself as me,” he says, unnerved, indignant.

Kunlun nods and drums his fingers, thoughtfully. “He’s sneaky.”

Shen Wei doesn’t answer. His and Da Qing’s discovery weighs on his mind, rendering the landscape around them transitory; how will it look in Kunlun’s future? He thinks about inference and inquiry. “By the way, do you have another name as well?”

Kunlun goes still. A half-moon breaches the horizon. In the distance, a wolf howls.

Shen Wei waits. He won’t apologize for asking or give Kunlun a polite way out. He needs this information so, when they’re parted, he can find Kunlun again one day.

“I wish I could tell you,” Kunlun says at last, a frustrated tremor in his voice.

Shen Wei isn’t wearing his mask, but right now he might as well be. Learning the omission is deliberate, not just an oversight, makes his face feel stiff. And foolish as it is, he’s jealous of his future self who smiled in that picture with such confidence, who must know all of Kunlun’s secrets. His next question rasps in his throat like footsteps on loose shale: “Can you tell me this much—when we meet again one day, will you know my name?”

Kunlun looks out at the foothills and the land beyond. His eyes glisten in the moonlight of here and now. He doesn’t laugh to hide his feelings. He doesn’t lie.

Their first day, meeting in the council chamber, Kunlun had requested that he take off his mask and smile. Later, he’d asked Shen Wei’s name as if he didn’t already know it. As if he didn’t carry his picture. There is a gulf between them vaster than the night sky, now, a distance neither one can bridge.

“You are my benefactor,” says Shen Wei at last, as he’d said that first day. “Whatever wishes you have, I will fulfill them to my utmost ability.”

“Please, no.” Kunlun speaks gently, but his rejection is a sleety downpour. His face, robbed of color by the moonlight, blurs. “I told you, you’ve already settled that debt. Anything you do now, do it because your wishes and my wishes coincide.”

He holds out his hand, palm up. No demand in it, no expectation—only invitation.

Shen Wei owes leadership and loyalty to his soldiers, to Fu You and Ma Gui, to the memory of his brother. He carries those duties willingly. But his feelings for Kunlun are nothing like that—they’re bright and urgent. A hunger, not a burden.

He takes Kunlun’s hand, his own hot acceptance as shocking as Kunlun’s earlier freezing no. Pleasure blooms up his arm, sings through his veins. It startles Kunlun, too, if his ragged sigh is any indication. Their fingers slide and press and interweave, exploring. Kunlun traces the edges of Shen Wei’s thumbnail, and Shen Wei almost sobs.

He thinks he understands what this is, but to be sure, he brings their hands to his lips, kisses Kunlun’s knuckles, his palm. Kunlun chokes out his name, surges forward, and Shen Wei meets him halfway, with all his heart.

Later, the moon high overhead, they lie in each other’s arms, with their clothes as a blanket. “That,” says Shen Wei, “was better than anything we’ll do ten thousand years from now.”

From the way Kunlun’s breath catches on a laugh, it’s obvious he could dispute the claim. Instead, he slides his fingers into Shen Wei’s hair and says, “Ah, love, there’s no comparison.”

 

END