Yu Zhu (photo courtesy of Sina Weibo)
Icy water hit him in the face over and over again until Zhu Zhan Ye climbed out of the hazy, alcoholic fog.
“What.” He gasped and blinked.
Hua Er stood above him, another bucket of water in her hands, “Get up. Now.”
The bucket tipped and the water him face like glass shards. Zhu Zhan Ye shivered and got up. He blinked the water from his eyes.
“Your servant, Bao Lu is dead. And I am truely sorry for that.” Hua Er said without preamble, “My friend’s been captured by your enemies.” She threw the man on the floor a towel, “We have to find a ledger and take it to them.”
Zhu Zhan Ye gasped and tried to clear his head. His eyes focused on the words as his mind tried to process what Hua Er said. The light seemed to hurt his eyes and there were daggers of pain that needled him from the base of his skull.
He closed his eyes for a moment. Compartmentalize. He told himself. Calm down and focus. He gathered his qi and began using his energy to clear his mind.
When he opened his eyes the room was not painfully bright anymore. He looked at the bloodstained note. Somewhere deep down, he felt the shattering grief for Bao Lu. They had grown up together, Bao Lu had always been there. It was impossible, he thought numbly, there was no way.
Hua Er saw the grief beginning to overtake Zhu Zhan Ye’s mind. She callously poured another bucket of ice water on his face, “Grief later. Worry about the living now.”
Zhu Zhan Ye’s hand curled into fists. But she was right, it had to wait. The only way he could avenge Bao Lu’s murder was if he was cool and calm. He needed to plan.
“I don’t know anything about a ledger.” Zhu Zhan Ye stood up completely sober, “But I know someone who might.”
Zhuo Hao meditated in the bamboo gardens of the great temple, the morning sun shrouded by the mists of the forest. The monks shuffled around quietly, unwilling to disturb the young man whom their masters treated with respect.
In the immense quiet, Zhuo Hao thought of the hurt in his brother’s eyes. It replayed in his mind over and over again. He thought of his family and the multitude of cruelties he and his brothers had endured over the years.
“You seem to have a lot on your mind.” An old man looked at him, his dark eyes twinkled against his snow white hair, “The sea of suffering is endless, turn away to regain the path and peace of mind.”
Zhuo Hao smiled, “The path to nirvana is long and short but never the same for each seeker, perhaps mine meant to be bitter.”
“Or perhaps you are simply blinded by pain. Perhaps… it’s as easily as letting go, this sorrow that is making you bitter.” The old man said simply, he plucked the leaf from the tree with a hand. He curled the leaf in his palm for a moment before releasing it and letting the breeze carry it away, “All you have to do is open your fingers.”
“What if my bitterness makes me stronger?” Zhuo Hao asked the Grand Master, “What if I draw my strength from it?”
The Grand Master looked at him, “Then it is a slow poison. It may give you strength now, but it will be the cause of your death.”
The sound of running feet interrupted the two men. “Masters.” A young novice huffed, “A man requested an urgent meeting.” He looked at Zhuo Hao, “He said to give this to you.” There was a bloody piece of ice jade on the boy’s palm. Zhuo Hao leaped up and grabbed it, there was no doubt, this was Zhu Zhan Ye’s family crest, only the servants of the Imperial Prince could wear this.
“Where is he?” Zhuo Hao demanded. The boy gestured, “The main hall.” Zhuo Hao took off without another glance back.
“He would make a terrible monk.” The Grand Master smiled, shaking his head, “He is a man who finds it hard to let things go.”
Zhuo Hao saw Zhu Zhan Ye and relaxed slightly. His brother was not hurt. But then the concern surged, Zhu Zhan Ye’s face was dead white, his eyes had the hollow look of soldiers who had just came off the battlefield.
Wordlessly Zhu Zhan Ye handed the sheet of bloody paper to Zhuo Hao, “Did you have anything to do with this.”
Zhuo Hao read the note, “No.” He said, “I don’t know what this is.”
“And the midnight theif?” Zhu Zhan Ye demanded, “Did he.”
Deep burning hatred rising from the innermost part of his heart flooded Zhu Zhan Ye, “Find the ledger. Whoever the kidnapper is, he has a friend of mine. This is your fault, fix it.” Zhuo Hao saw that Zhu Zhan Ye was beyond reason, the young man was only focused on this one task.
Zhu Zhan Ye saw the hesitation in Zhuo Hao’s eyes. He raised his fist and punched his brother. Zhuo Hao did not flinch. He felt the sharp pain as the fist connected with his jaw.
“That was for Bao Lu.” Zhu Zhan Ye said coldly, “Your midnight thief knows everything that goes on here. I doubt he doesn’t know about a stolen ledger that people are willing to kill for. Find it and save my friend’s life.”
Zhuo Hao knew Zhu Zhan Ye was right. He was the King of the Thieves, and if it wasn’t his people, then it would be Yu Zhu.
“I will help you.” Zhuo Hao promised after he spat out a mouthful of blood, “But tell me what happened.”
Zhu Zhan Ye frowned, and began to speak.
Yu Zhu was packing her things quietly when she heard the hard, angry knock on her door.
Lin Yu opened it and saw Zhuo Hao. His face was covered with a large hat.
Zhuo Hao brushed past Lin Yu without a word, and Lin Yu frowned. The air around Zhuo Hao was cold, he seemed to be emanating waves of coldness. There was no friendliness in his eyes. This was not her Zhuo Hao.
“You tricked me.” He stated it baldly, there was no accusation in his tone, it was a fact.
Yu Zhu looked at him, “You were never fully honest either.”
This was something he could not deny, “I meant you no harm.”
Yu Zhu looked at him calmly, “You wouldn’t be alive if you did. Your royal highness.” The friendship between them had vanished, here were two worth adversaries who appraised each other’s strength.
Zhuo Hao’s hand clenched involuntarily, “So you heard. You were there.”
“We both were.” Lin Yu said, her eyes showed the hurt, “I’m sorry, but we had to know.”
Yu Zhu shook her head, “I’m not.”
Zhuo Hao’s mouth curled up in a half exasperated, half admiring smile, “I didn’t expect my disguise to last long in front of you, but now that you know, I need a favor.”
“I have taken too many risks the last few months” Yu Zhu refused before she even heard it, “We are leaving this place as soon as we can pack. By tomorrow night, I hope to leave.”
Zhuo Hao’s eyebrows furrowed, “Is it because I betrayed you?”
Yu ZHu shook her head, “I am tired of people and their games, that’s all.”
“And what if I said no?” Zhuo Hao wanted to know, “What if I refused to let you two go?” He needed them to stay and help Zhu Zhan Ye.
Yu Zhu smiled icily, “Do you think you have that kind of power?” She knew Zhuo Hao was not that kind of possessive person, he was also not stupid.
Zhuo Hao turned to Lin Yu, “I don’t even need to ask if you’re going with her, do I?” He said softly. Lin Yu shook her head, “Thank you for everything. But where she goes, I go.”
There was so much pain and longing in his eyes that Lin Yu turned around, “I’m sorry”, she said softly, again and again.
Nothing in the world could make Yu Zhu stay and help, not when she’s made up her mind. ZHu Zhan Ye had never been a friend to her or Lin Yu. Even if he begged, he wasn’t sure it would work. But he needed this done for his brother.
“You stole a ledger of some kind, didn’t you?” Zhuo Hao asked Yu Zhu, “This is important. A man was kidnapped because of it. A doctor Li Sun. He’s the friend of the Princess of Dian, who’s here in the city. And if we don’t have it by tonight, He’ll die.”
Yu Zhu was stunned. She turned around and ran for her room. She rummaged for the yellowing two halves.
Zhuo Hao stared incredulously as she brought it back, “I was going to send these to you after we left. But I guess we have to postpone our departure.”
Zhuo Hao blinked, she had refused him only moments ago, “You don’t have to risk your neck to help. It might be dangerous. The kidnappers are highly trained killers.”
Yu Zhu shook her head, “Is the Princess of Dian going to meet the kidnappers?” Zhuo Hao nodded.
Yu Zhu sighed, “Then I’ll be there too.”