(Zhu Zhan Ye) (Zhuo Hao)
(Pictures Courtesy of Sina Weibo and Ibukisatsuki, also thanks Suteki Da Ne for the blog post about my novel and the idea of putting up paintings!)
Thanks for the patience everyone! This is the newest chapter. Please enjoy!
In the setting sun, Yu Zhu’s scarves soaked the red gold rays, their pale shimmering colors reflecting and dancing in the dying light. Yu Zhu looked on impassively as the young man sighed, “Beautiful. Even better than the ones in the capitol” His expressive eyes seemed to probing her, ” Your skills are astounding for one so young. Here is what I owe you for the wager.” The crowd that had gathered to watch the young embroidery mistress handily beat the handsome young stranger in a wager, murmured their agreement
Yu Zhu plucked small bag of coins from the man’s hand, “I accept your apology.” Zhu Zhan Ye captured her hand, there was amusement in his eyes and a faint smile on his lips, “Perhaps it’s not too late to be friends?” Yu Zhu was surprised but maintained her coolness, “Perhaps.” And she tugged her hand away, her face felt a little hot but she was in control.
“I guess we can’t steal from him. She doesn’t seem to dislike him” Lin Yu looked disappointed as she and Zhuo Hao peered at the two in front of Yu Zhu’s shop. They stood at the back of the crowd, she was happily eating candy that Zhuo Hao held out for her.
“Your sister is exceptional” Zhuo Hao remarked, “She’s too wise to show her true emotions.” He looked at Yu Zhu wistfully, “Too bad she wasn’t born a man. Maybe if she was, she could have become a great warrior, even a legendary general.”
“What about me?” Lin Yu wanted to know. Zhuo Hao smiled sheepishly, “You’re all heart, you would probably make a terrible general.”
Lin Yu shoved Zhuo Hao playfully, “I do what I feel is right.”
“Like the time you threw me off a bridge because you thought I was a bandit?” It was the first time they had met.
“How was I suppose to know that the bandits were holding you hostage?” Lin Yu grumbled as Zhuo Hao broke sesame brittle into bits for her. He smiled as he handed it to her, “I was tied. I nearly drowned.”
Lin Yu rolled her eyes at him. “You’re still here aren’t you?”
Zhuo Hao chuckled, “Yes. That is something.” He mused softly, “Back when I had nothing.”
Zhan Ye bowed to the beautiful shopkeeper and motioned for his guard to follow him. Yu Zhu watched them leave, Zhu Zhan Ye’s hawkish eyes made her wary
Zhan Ye turned around towards Lin Yu and Zhuo Hao to leave, Zhuo Hao turned away at the same moment, seemingly absorbed in the activities of the street, hiding his face from the other man. Lin Yu didn’t notice.
Yu Zhu motioned for them to come into her shop, “It’s almost time to close. Give me a moment and we’ll walk back home.”
“What did you think of that upstart rich boy?” Lin Yu wanted to know as they started down the road. Zhuo Hao took out some of the food Yu Zhu had ordered them to get and handed it to the girls.
“He’s well-bred, too well-bred to be an ordinary magistrate’s dog.” Yu Zhu picked out a mantou bun as she walked, “From his clothes, it’s clear that he’s well-off. Everything was made to look ordinary, but he’s got more knives hidden on him than you or I.” Yu Zhu rubbed her ear, “His accent and speech sounds too cultivated, more so than your average rich merchant. And his mannerisms.”
Lin Yu tilted her head, “what about it?”
Yu Zhu seemed to not hear her, she was remembering all the lessons of the palace, all those long years ago. It seemed like her past encased in silk, waiting for her to unwrap it, to face it. She locked it away again. “He’s good at hiding most of it, but it’s clear he comes from a very privileged upbringing.”
Lin Yu frowned, “So who is he?”
Yu Zhu shrugged, “A duke or an imperial captain, at least.”
The road became slightly distorted she blinked back the un-shed tears, she could not shake the image of her home from her mind’s eye, she sighed “Looks like we’ve caught the emperor’s attention.” Zhuo Hao looked at the two girls carefully, normally, when an ordinary peasant discussed the Emperor, they would do so respectfully or fearfully but these girls showed no outward emotions of hysteria or panic at the thought of the most powerful man in the empire coming after them.
“If you wish to stop all activities, I won’t blame you.” Zhuo Hao said quietly, “In fact, I would prefer it.” For a moment both girls looked stunned, then Lin Yu laughed, “Zhuo Hao, I never took you for a cowardly mouse!”
Zhuo Hao shook his head, “The Emperor is ruthlessness. He had his eldest son, the crown prince killed, because a priest had a dream that that the next Emperor would overshadow the greatness of his father. The Eldest prince of today hasn’t been crowned as the the next heir. In fact no one know who he will name to the throne. If he can kill his children without remorse, you’re flies to him.”
Yu Zhu rested her head on her hand, “I have no fear of ruthless men.” She smiled, “Have you seen Lin Yu? Do you think for a moment that she could be captured?” Yu Zhu stared at Zhuo Hao a little longer, and said carefully as well, “I have plans for tonight. There’s a merchant I’ve been meaning to steal from for days.”
“It’s too risky.” Zhuo Hao began.
Yu Zhu shook her head “Zhu Zhan Ye might catch on, but right now, he’s just arrived and he doesn’t suspect me. This might be the last chance I get before he starts putting men to watch our house.”
Her eyes turned serious as she looked Zhuo Hao, “But I think you need to stop seeing us so often.” She sighed, “Should Zhu Zhan Ye decide to look into you, he might uncover your underground network, and how we funnel money to the poor. You need to take extra precautions.”
Zhuo Hao wanted to argue but Yu Zhu cut him off, “Even if you stay away from our house, we can still get the money to you. But you need to be careful, you are as much the Midnight Thief as we are.”
Lin Yu gasped at Yu Zhu, “But why? I thought you handled him already today.”
Yu Zhu sighed, “The moment he became courteous to me, I realized his true purpose.”
“What do you mean?” Lin Yu asked
Yu Zhu seemed to be a little angry with herself, “He was testing me. Not many ordinary girls can rise up to his challenge. And you and I are so odd already. Two girls who live their lives freely and without a man in our household. We stand out too much, especially to someone who was trained to suspect the unusual. If I failed, he would’ve ruined my business, but now that I won, he’s even more wary.”
Yu Zhu halted, she saw two men standing outside their house. Lin Yu stopped too, “Are you expecting anyone?” Yu Zhu shook her head, “No. Were you?” Both girls felt for the daggers in their sleeves. They couldn’t quite make out the two in the oncoming darknesss, but Zhuo Hao took a few steps backwards, Yu Zhu looked at the Zhu Hao for a moment and at the two figures in the distance.
He cursed underneath his breathe,”Speak of the devil, I’ll take my leave now.” Without another word, he turned around and walked away. Yu Zhu and Lin Yu slowly approached their house.
Zhu Zhan Ye waved, a smile on his lips, he bowed graciously and called out, “I was hoping to speak to Yu Zhu again.” His servant held a basket of gifts and bowed also.
“Master Zhu, I thought our association ended today.” She was coolly polite as they faced each other.
“I came back because I wanted to apologize for my behavior. I’ve only arrived at this town a few days ago, and none of my friends were here to reign in my temper. Luckily, a very nice lady who sells buns told me where you lived” Yu Zhu blinked in surprise but quickly recovered, “Of course. I’ve already accepted your apology.”
They led the two men to the small courtyard underneath a small oak. Bao Lu gently set the gifts on plain table with the muted flourish of a well-trained servant as Zhan Ye said, “With this I hope we can become friends. Behind the courteous Yu Zhu, Lin Yu rolled her eyes. Yu Zhu, knowing how Lin Yu would react, gently elbowed her sister, “Nothing would please me more.”
Zhu Zhan Ye ignored Lin Yu’s antics, “Now, as a friend I was hoping you can help me with something.” He smiled amicably, ” I’m a simple bounty hunter, and I’m looking to catch the Midnight Thief, I was wondering if I may come to you for information.” Lin Yu couldn’t help herself and snorted, “We’re just two girls trying to make it in this town, what would we know about anything?”
Zhan Ye shook his head, “You’re one of the top dancers in the city, perhaps the empire. Men call you the temperamental Goddess, and worship at you feet. You could have any secret you want if you so much as smiled at a man” Lin Yu rolled her eyes. Zhan Ye gestured to Yu Zhu, “And Mistress Yu Zhu’s embroidery shop caters to only the very wealthy in this town, her work is equally of renown. With your access to all kinds of people, I’m sure that you both can provide valuable information.”
He placed a gold bar on the table, “of course, I will reward you handsomely.”
Yu Zhu knew it wasn’t the right time to fight this man, she merely smiled, “We’ve only been in the city for a few months, and can hardly tell you anything you wouldn’t have already heard. But we’ll keep an ear open for you.” She took the gold and offered it back to the man, “It’s late, perhaps you’ll visit my shop sometime.”
Zhu Zhan Ye heard the dismissal in her voice. He smiled and waved her had away, ” The gold is for you to keep. And I look forward to visiting you in the future.”
As soon as they left Lin Yu spun around, “Why are we helping him?”
“Because we need to keep our enemies close.” Yu Zhu mused as she gently threw the gold onto the table, “Let the games begin.”
“Brother” A voice called out from the shadows, Zhu Zhan Ye whiped around. Zhuo Hao walked out from underneath a willow. Zhan Ye smiled and quickly walked over “I didn’t know they let you out. What are you doing here?”
Zhuo Hao smiled and clapped his brother on the shoulder, “I’m just asking for alms for the monastery.” His tone was still light as he said, “I heard you’ve been bothering the townspeople for information on the Midnight Thief. Just come to me from now on, there’s no need for a prince of the empire such as yourself to do so much leg work.”
Zhan Ye’s brows furrowed at his brother’s strange words, “You always tell the opposite. Besides I’m doing my job, as ordered by our father.”
“Your father.” The friendliness in his voice and eyes was gone as Zhuo Hao said coldly, “I was disowned the day I was banished.”
Zhan Ye became cold as the man standing before him, “Deny it all you want, but you are royal blood. You may have given up on throne but that doesn’t make you any less my brother.” Zhan Ye’s chin stuck out, “As a royal prince, it is my duty to seek out threats against the nation, I’m doing what is required of me, not hiding in a monastery.”
“But you of all people should be home, resting to heal your battle wounds. Not out chasing some thief.” Zhuo Hao felt his frustration rise as he looked at his younger brother, “He’s goaded you into doing this just to see how fast you will die, your wounds are serious and your opponent deadly.”
Zhan Ye laughed without humor, “Don’t you think I know this was a suicide mission? But unlike you, I have no choice.” He looked at his brother sadly, “You mother is dead, and mine is still trapped like a bird in that imperial cage. I have to do what he commands.”
Zhou Hao could say nothing, the guilt that he had felt all those years for leaving Zhan Ye came flooding back. The silence was settled between them like a icy fog.
“Failure to capture the Midnight Thief means death for my mother.” Zhan Ye’s mouth lifted in a sardonic grin,”Such is the price for being a son of an imperial house.”
Zhuo Hao’s eyes went cold as he said impatiently, “But I can help. Let me do the work.”
Zhan Ye had grown up with Zhuo Hao, idolized this brother all his life. But his instincts right now told him that Zhuo Hao was keeping something from him.
“No” Zhan Ye said resolutely, “And if you get in my way, I have the full power of the Empire behind me.” With that he walked away.
“Keep him safe. Come to me if he finds out too much.” Zhuo Hao whispered to Bao Lu. Bao Lu nodded and ran to catch up with his master. Zhuo Hao sighed and walked in the opposite direction.
The Dian Kingdom
“Your Majesty, the Princess Hua Er begs your audience. She’s been waiting all day and night” A Enunch trembled in front of Xu Long Hui. The emperor did not glance up from his scrolls, “Are the wedding dowry preparations going well?”
“Yes your Imperial majesty, We’ve sent ten thousand taels of gold, silver, and silk to the Emperor of Yue, he has sent back the signed agreement of marriage.”
“Good.” Xu Long Hui replied, his fingers were white as he gripped his brush, “Bring it and I will sign it.”
“But shouldn’t the bride…” The Eunuch’s voice disappeared as Xu Long Hui said, “ No, she wouldn’t sign it even if I begged.”
There was a yell outside the door, Hua Er had a dagger in her hand and fire in her eyes as she gripped the captain of the royal guards by the collar, her blade at his neck. Circling her were the royal guard, who couldn’t harm their captain or capture the next bride and future queen of the kingdom of Yue. The Eunuch yelped and scampered out of her way. She glared at Xu Long Hui, her eyes full of frustration.
“Let him go Hua Er, you’ve made your point.”
Xue Long Hui waved to his guards, “Leave us.” The soldiers hesitated, a crease appeared between Xu Long Hui’s eyebrows, “Are you all deaf? Leave.”
Hua Er released the captain, who, after a moment, bowed to her with a slight grin. He signaled for his men to follow him.
“I’m not going” Hua Er asked after a moment, “Choose another to send off tomorrow.”
Xu Long Hui looked at her, “You are the highest ranking princess, and my word is law.” His eyes seemed to hold a thousand unspoken words, things that he’s kept from his heart. Hua Er shook her head, “This isn’t the way.”
Xu Long Hui’s voice was cold and logical, “Once you cross the border, you will be safe and protected.” Hua Er’s eyes overflowed. “Do you really think that’s what I want? Do you think that’s why I’ve stayed here all these years?”
Xu Long Hui couldn’t help it, there was desperation in his voice “if I leave this world, let me at least know that you will have a long and happy life.”
Hua Er slowly walked to him. “I didn’t leave when Old Emperor died, because you are here. As long as I am near you, my life is happy.”
She was so close that Xu Long Hui could see the truth in her eyes, “Please. Don’t send me to Yue.”
The conflict raged, but Xue Long Hui was adamant, “The marraige agreement is written and it’s your name on it, to send another now would be an insult to the Yue.” He said as he clenched his hands, “You deserve a better man. A better life”
“I do deserve a better man.” Hua Er said with remarkable stuborness, “So start acting like one.”
Xu Long Hui looked a moment longer, he could feel the demoness stirring in his heart, “Be happy.” With that he gently blew sleeping powder in her face, it would keep her asleep until tomorrow, traveling to the border of Yue.
A servant girl appeared and caught Hua Er as she fell. Xu Long Hui looked at her sadly as she was carried away.
“She gets cold easily and loves jade pear tea. Make sure that she gets only the best foods on the road, no expenses spared.” Xu Long Hui told the captain, as the man once again entered the throne room. He glared at the captain of the guards, “Shan Ying Lang, you bastard. I told you to keep her away.”
Ying Lang shrugged, “I thought that you two deserved a chance to talk. But that wasn’t going to be possible in the polite way, since you were being an ass about the whole thing.”
Xu Long Hui sighed, “I am your emperor, you can at least pretend to have some manners.”
“And I am one of the last true friends you have.” Was the casual reply, “Don’t squander my good will.”
Xu Long Hui looked towards the Pavilion where Hua Er slept, “Keep her safe, don’t leave her side from tomorrow on.”
Shan Ying Lang bowed his head, “I will protect her with my life. It’s you I’m worried about.”
Xu Long Hui smiled, “I won’t matter in a year or two. I have done my duty and protected this country from the claws of the Hongs for as long as I could, but I have been unfruitful in diminishing their power. And soon I will leave this world without an heir. I have failed to protect everything my father worked for, so I ask you to keep the one person I value safe.”
He turned to his friend, “They say that the Emperor is the most powerful man in the world, a wave of his hand can cause the death of thousands.” He laughed bitterly, “But I can’t even grant happiness to one.”
The Demon Realms
“QUIET!” A powerful man barked to a room full of demons cheiftains and their advisors, he turned and bowed to the woman wrapped in red fur on the dais, “Your majesty.” He turned and sat in his chair, his old clan elders stood silently behind him.
The Tiger Queen waited until all the other houses calmed down before saying, “Honored guests, I did not call the Zodiac in order for us to fight. It’s time to put old grievences asides, we have a deadlier problem.”
The Rat Chieftain stood, his shifty eyes zooming from the face of one chieftain to another, “What do you suggest we do, Majesty? The Empire of the Ox has fallen, the snakes, horses, and sheep warriors bow under the Rabbit. And they have a powerful demon god on their side. Is it not time to bend down and surrender?”
The Tiger Queen’s voice held thinly veiled contempt, “You have always been the shrewdest of us all. Anyone else?” the others murmured until a young man stood up, he was reed thin with golden eyes and flame red hair, “Bow down to a man who kills children? The house of the Ox is entirely decimated, they wouldn’t even let a child live. If we surrender, he would cut our heads off the moment our knees touched the ground.”
“Well said, Young Rooster.” A few chieftains nodded. A young woman stood up, she was as beautiful as the tigress queen, “I think we should let the Emperor of Heaven know. For some reason, they haven’t sensed the upheaval from all these years. He is the head of the dragon house, he can hardly ignore the rest of us.”
The room went silent. The Tiger Queen smiled in approval, “The young Monkey Chieftain seems to have the same idea as me.”
She stood up, “This isn’t a little skirmish between the houses. This is annihilation. Our enemies have been quick to kill all our messengers to the heavens. I suspect that they don’t even know Wei Yun is rampaging the demon world. Something is magically blocking the Demon Realm from communicating with the God Realm”
“What does your majesty propose?” The man who sat closest to her asked, the one who had quieted the crowd, he was the Wolf Chieftain, leader of the Dog Clan. The Tiger Queen knew what she asked would be enormous, “I need you to gather any demons who can travel between the realms. They need to find a way to the human realms and from there, find a way to the Heaven Realms to tell them what’s going on.”
“But that’s suicide.” The Rat Chieftain whined, “Only royal blooded chieftains are allowed to travel to other realms, and even then, who would risk their position? The humans have priests and monks who would capture any demon for our power, and we’d become weak, our magic diminished.” The others muttered, seeing that he had backers, the Rat Chieftan felt more bold, “Besides that Wei Yun would sense us as we get close to the border. It would be suicide.”
“And death to us all if we don’t” the Wolf Chieftain said, he smiled grimly, “I will go.”