Photo courtesy of Sina Weibo
The cloudy night was perfect as the dark grey clothed men and Yu Zhu’s black clothes blended into every shadow. The Midnight Thief and her companions ran silently through the dark city as they headed to the Merchant’s giant compound. The fire lanterns of the city slowly burned down to flicker and die as the night watchmen called the hour.
The thieves were as silent as falling leaves, landing in the Merchant’s garden with no more sound than a drop of water falling into a pond. Yu Zhu motioned for them to hide as the first round of guards patrolling the area came though.
Yu Zhu and Zhuo Hao nearly blended into the rock as the unsuspecting guards walked away. Yu Zhu’s hands feeling along the crevice of a great rock. Zhuo Hao scanned the dark pagodas and walkways around the opulent structures, looking for the hint of torches and next round of oncoming guards.
Yu Zhu smiled as she felt the click of a hidden latch. The door sprung open and a silent hiss. Yu Zhu pointed and motioned for the four other men to go in and start pilfering.
She motioned to Zhuo Hao, “I know of something that’s more valuable than gold the merchant has. I’m going after it.”
Zhuo Hao’e eyes widened, “That’s not part of the plan.”
Yu Zhu tilted her head, “It could lead to the Merchant and the Magistrate’s execution.”
Zhuo Hao was torn, “Why did you tell me beforehand? We could’ve worked it in.”
Yu Zhu shook her head, she wasn’t about the tell Zhuo Hao the existence of the ledger. He sighed, “Go. Once my men are done, we’ll provide you with a distraction.” Yu Zhu gave a curt nodded and flew away towards the Merchant’s sleeping quarters.
Zhuo Hao frowned, something was off with the way Yu Zhu kept information from him. It seemed that earlier today, Lin Yu had avoided talking to him as much as possible.
Yu Zhu made it to the private quarters in no time. She swiftly and silently took care of the rooftop guard, he had been napping on the job. Yu Zhu cooly surveyed the guards around He Yi’s sleeping quarters. Twenty stood guard at the front while a group of six patrolled the area. It was clear that after the last break inn, there was only one thing the Merchant wanted to protect.
Yu Zhu carefully took out a small pouch and concentrated, finally, after a long while, she casted her magic on the powder and sent it flying into the men guarding the front entrance. They fell as they breathed in the sleeping powder. Yu Zhu wiped the sweat of her brow and tried not to sway. She grinned, Wei Yun’s gifts were so useful sometimes.
The men patrolling would soon find their fallen comrades. Yu Zhu took a deep breath and landed in the midst of the squad of men.
Four men were down before they knew they were under attack. She never killed unless she had to and these poor souls were certainly not worth bloodying her hands. She simply aimed for their pressure points, kicked, punched, or pressed with deadly accuracy. The six men fell, not one was making a sound.
There was a roar in the gardens. Men rushed to the orange glow. The garden was on fire. Yu Zhu looked to the east. Zhuo Hao and his men must have finished. She hid behind the column as the doors swung open. the three guards ran outsides to see what the commotion was about when they saw all their comrades lying on the ground.
Yu Zhu attacked before they even had a chance to scream for help. These men were trained warriors, they had expected someone with good hand to hand combat skills, not someone who was so fast that that they felt as if attacked by shadows. In no time, the guards fell to the ground. She entered the richly decorated room.
He Yi was hiding behind a scantily clad, young, frightened woman.
“Did Zhu Zhan Ye send you? What ever he paid you I can double it! Please don’t hurt me. Take the girl! She’s young and pretty!” He croaked as he pushed the girl towards Yu Zhu, “I’ll give you wealth and women! What ever you want! Spare me!”
Yu Zhu shrugged as she approached, she gripped the old man’s collar, “Ledger.”
He shook his head, “What are you talking about?”
She sighed and backhanded him, talking to useless with an old fox like him.
Instead she searched the bed frame.
“If you’re..lo-lo-looking for the book he writes in every night.” The frightened girl he had thrown in front of him said in a small voice, “It- It’s hidden in one of the bed posts on the left.”
Yu Zhu knocked on the bedpost. It was hollow. She nodded in thanks and opened the latch to the hollow post. Inside was a thick, yellowing book with no cover. Yu Zhu took it and closed the compartment. She held out a hand to the girl, as if asking the girl if she wanted to leave the place.
The frightened girl shook her head, “I have some business. I-I will be fine. go.”
Yu Zhu stuffed the ledger down her shirt and ran outside. The young concubine followed and pulled a long, nasty looking knife from one of the fallen guards. She pulled down the silk curtains and got to work.
Inside the room, the merchant moaned, he could taste the blood. He looked up to the coldest eyes he’s ever seen. His concubine held a knife in one shaking hand. He was tied to the bed.
“Silly girl, you can’t protect me. Put that down.” He glanced up and moaned as he tried untie himself. He glanced at the girl, who still held the knife in her hands. She asked him in a wavering voice “Do you know who I am?”
He frowned, “You idiot bitch. Shut up and get help.” He raised a hand, “Why are you just standing there, Stupid little brat.” He glared at her and she seemed to look back at him with a new glint in her eyes.
This was a concubine that had never given him trouble, she had always done what she was told. She had been a proud one that he personally broke to bridle. He had already beaten the fight out of her. The girl spoke.
“I was just a butcher’s daughter you took fancy to. You killed my father. Sold my mother and burned down our house. Then you stole me the night of my wedding and forced me to be your concubine.” The girl said, her voice was low and soft, but every word could be heard. Her hand was no longer shaking. She was no longer frightened.
“Every day I dreamed of stabbing you a thousand times. I wanted to peel off your skin and pull out your tendons one by one while you screamed and begged for mercy. I wanted you to feel the pain you caused me, I wanted you to understand the hell you put me through.”
She stepped closer, “Do you know I hear their screams at night? I see them dying before me over and over again? Every time you touch me, I want to gouge my flesh and burn it to ash.” She continued, “I lived so long because I wanted revenge for my family. Endured the humiliation because one day, I knew I could make you suffer like you have made me all these years.”
The merchant whimpered as she came near, the knife she flipped expertly in her hands, there iron will and stark determination in her black eyes, “Today I make you wish you were never born. And when I’m finished, you will think of me every day. Don’t worry. I won’t kill you. I just want you to know and experience the pain that you’ve put me through.”
With force she never knew she had, the girl thrusted the knife into the old man’s mouth. Years of helping her father had taught her how to cut without killing. Metal ripped through the back of his throat as she cut out his tongue. Blood filled his mouth and spewed down his rich silk shirt. The concubine looked into the old man’s eyes.
“That was for my mother, your men killed her while she was begging for my father’s life. They cut out her tongue and threw her onto the slave carts. Can you taste the bitterness she had to endure all these years?” The girl pulled the knife out, the merchant’s blood dripped from the blade.
She thrusted it into his eyes, the soft eyeballs bursted as clear jelly dripped down his face “This is for my father, who had to watch as your men burned our house down. They threw him alive into the flames, laughing as he screamed. Can you see the his hatred?”
Swiftly the concubine cut off the Merchant’s hands and feet, tossing them into a pile as he gargled and moaned for mercy.
“You’ve destroyed my family. You’ve made sure we could never be whole again. I’m giving you the same pain you’ve put me through.” The merchant could not scream, his throat was thick with blood.
The merchant flailed as blood, snot and tears bathed his ancient face. The girl gripped him by his throat and thrusted her knife into his ears, as she said “This is for my beloved, my betrothed, who said he loved to hear me sing. You killed him in front of me when he tried to rescue me from your house. Can you hear him scream?”
With that, the girl picked up her robe and threw down the bloody knife. She grabbed valuables and all the money she could find, it would be enough to help her track down her mother.
She could hear the men yelling and fighting in the gardens. She smiled with reckless abandon as she ran for the back exit of the house, there was no one guarding it. With a great step, she disappeared into the night. The imprisoned concubine was free.
Zhu Zhan Ye had seen the fire at Merchant He Yi’s house, he guessed immediately who was to blame. He and his men had been patrolling the city at night, looking for hints of the midnight thief.
“Gather the men. We’re going rat catching.” He grinned at Bao Lu. The servant shook his head, “You smile to happily about risking your life.”
Zhan Ye shrugged, “After a month of not hearing a whisper this might be the first time the Midnight Rat showed himself. I can’t help it.”
When he gotten there, he could see grey shadows jumping away on rooftops like flees. He drew his sword, it sang as it it flew out of his scabbard. There were four of them, all in grey.
“She must have gone back” Zhuo Hao didn’t like the thought of leaving without Yu Zhu. But if he didn’t get out now, his people would die. Some had suffered minor wounds while fighting the merchant’s men but they were alive.
Arrows flew through the air, one of his men was struck in the shoulder. Zhuo Hao deflected as many as he could shielding his men. “Get him out of here. I’ll be right behind.”
A net flew threw the air, Zhuo Hao slashed before it could reach them. He fought the four men as his tried to escaped.
Zhu Zhan Ye flew through the air and Zhuo Hao felt a sense of dread build in his stomach.
One of Zhuo Hao’s men screamed, Zhuo Hao kicked one of Zhan Ye’s men and grabbed the injured one.
“GO” He roared. And nearly threw the man onto the next rooftop. A cold blade pressed between his shoulder blades. Zhuo Hao turned around slowly.
“Drop the sword.” Zhu Zhan Ye smiled coldly, “while I didn’t catch the rat I wanted, it’s still not bad for a night’s work.”
The sword pointed at Zhuo Hao’s neck was unwavering. He could feel the icy metal, covered in the blood of his men press harder into his skin. Two of Zhu Zhan Ye’s men stood behind him. There was no escape.
“The last I met you. You’d taken my prize from right under my nose.” Zhu Zhan Ye said lightly, “So the midnight thief has a few partners.” Zhu Zhan Ye forced Zhuo Hao back, step by step. “If you don’t want to die for another man, tell me who the midnight thief is.”
Zhu Zhan Ye was met with silence, the threat falling on deaf years, Zhu Zhan Ye smiled, “A loyal criminal. How amusing.”
Zhuo Hao swallowed, his Adam’s apple touching the sword, his mind raced as Zhu Zhan Ye asked, “But tell me, how much does the Midnight Thief value you? Will he give himself up for you? Because if so, you can still be useful to me. Tomorrow you face will be on the public execution papers. We’ll see what the midnight thief will do.”
The knife point shifted, it hooked the cloth covering Zhuo Hao’s face and lifted it. The was an audible gasp as Zhu Zhan Ye felt as if someone had punched him in the gut. Zhuo Hao’s determined faced looked back at him.
The men had been Zhu Zhan Ye’s personal guard in the palace. They were the few that knew what Zhuo Hao looked like. They too, lowered their swords in shock.
“Brother.” Zhuo Hao’s heart ached. He had feared this more than anything else in the world.
“Impossible” Zhu Zhan Ye rasped and realized, “You injured me last time.” He was an idiot. The way Zhuo Hao acted. The way the grey cloth man had attacked last time. Was his mind playing tricks? Was this a nightmare?
Laughter bubbled up from his chest until it erupted like fire out of his mouth. Zhu Zhan Ye threw down his sword and held his stomach. He laughed until his inside ached.
Zhuo Hao walked forward and Zhu Zhan Ye held up his hand, “Don’t touch me. Bastard.” He kept laughing, he felt as if someone was cutting him up from the inside. Zhuo Hao was a criminal. The irony was too perfect. His brother that had protected him his entire life. Zhuo Hao who had always been by his side, teaching him how to fight, how to ride, and how to live in the palace full of death, murder, and secrets.
His brother who raised him when his mother was imprisoned in the cold palace. The brother who had wiped away his tears when everyone had treated Zhan Ye like trash because of his low born mother. The brother who had stood in front of him, shielding him from their father as the Emperor tried to whip Zhan Ye to death.
The same Zhuo Hao who had stood with him as they threw the ashes of their sister into the winds.
Zhuo Hao waited, his eyes conflicted, “Brother, I–”
“You have no right to call me that.” Zhu Zhan Ye straightened, his eyes burned like smoldering embers, “I am the prince of the imperial house while you are a lowly thief. I am the instrument of Imperial Might while you are…human waste. Don’t insult my name by letting that word slip out of your degrading mouth.”
He spat, “A royal prince does not go against the empire by becoming a criminal. I don’t know who you are. My brother Zhuo Hao died years ago when he was banished.”
Zhuo Hao’s eyebrows knitted, there was no color in his face, for minutes the two men stood looking at each other. Finally Zhuo Hao bowed like a commoner to a noble, Zhu Zhan Ye flinched at the bow. Zhuo Hao said, “Your highness. What do you plan to do with me?” There was no emotion in his voice, “Imprison me or kill me?”
Zhu Zhan Ye looked into Zhuo Hao’s face, “I should rip you apart with my bare hands.”
“Do it.” Zhuo Hao said, “Bring my head to our father. Maybe it’ll be enough to release your mother from the Palace of Isolation.”
“You think I won’t?” Zhu Zhan Ye kicked his dropped sword and flipped it into his hand, ” You taught me how to kill. I could deliver you head by sunrise.”
Zhuo Hao closed his eyes. But the death blow never came. He opened his eyes to see his brother’s face, a mask of unspeakable agony and anger. He had seen that look before, and the guilt came rushing back. He had failed Zhu Zhan Ye twice now.
“Leave.” Zhu Zhan Ye lowered his sword, “Never show your face in front of me again. Leave this city. This empire. Because the next I see you face, no matter where we are. I will carve it off your skull.”
Zhuo Hao inclined his head, he jumped and flew onto a rooftop. Zhu Zhan Ye’s lips was a thin, taunt line, “If anyone speaks of this, I’lll skin them.”
Yu Zhu sat hidden in the shadows of a rooftop, watching the drama unfold. She had her arrows and bow at the ready. If Zhu Zhan Ye was really going to kill Zhuo Hao she would have stepped in.
She rubbed her face tiredly. Two princes and a royal princess. Lin Yu whistled softly, her bow and arrow at her side as well.
“Did you know?” She asked in a hushed voice, “Did you think they were brothers?”
“There was some resemblance.” Yu Zhu admitted, “I just didn’t expect them to be royalty.”
Lin Yu put her head in her hands, “When did things get this complicated?”
Yu Zhu sighed and stood up, “We’ve stayed here too long. Let’s leave the city. Find somewhere we can start again, we can help the poor in ways more than one.”
Lin Yu’s mouth fell open, “But we just got the ledger.” She held up her half, “It was hard breaking into the Magistrate’s vault.” Yu Zhu had instructed Lin Yu to steal the other half of the ledger while she and Zhu Zhan Ye were at the merchant’s house.
Yu Zhu grinned, “Well, the fire was a good distraction. The Magistrate’s men came to help once it started. I’m sure he was worried about the Merchant’s half of the ledger.”
“I even left the Minister a gift.” Lin Yu smiled proudly. Yu Zhu looked at her quizzically.
“I found a thick book on morality. So I put that in the place of the ledger.” Lin Yu shrugged.
Yu Zhu smiled and slung an arm around the girl, “I think it’s safe to say that Zhuo Hao can be trusted. He’ll know what to do with it. After all he is a prince of the empire so I’m sure he knows people that can bring down the corrupted. Tomorrow we’ll give him the ledger and be on our way.”
Lin Yu looked down, “I feel like we’re running away.” She didn’t want to leave.
Yu Zhu knew how she felt, “We should. While we still have the chance.”