(Zhu Zhan Ye) (Zhuo Hao)
(Photos courtesy of Sina and SecretChina)
Yue Kingdom – Ning City
Yu Zhu tried to muffle her scream, biting on a damp cloth as Zhuo Hao sewed the skin on her shoulder back together in the dim candle light. His grey clothes were soaked with blood and his mask lay forgotten in a corner of the room. There were still a few hours before dawn, if she screamed now, the neighbors would wake.
“He hit bone ” Zhuo Hao cursed, “This will take a while to heal.”
The door opened and Lin Yu rushed in, the smile on her face dropping as she saw the bloody rags piled around Yu Zhu. “Move” She said brusquely, her eyes began to glow as green fire sprouted from her hands. Zhuo Hao didn’t need to be told twice and backed away. This wasn’t like the normal powers of well practiced martial artists. This was something he had never seen before.
But Yu Zhu grabbed Lin Yu’s arm with her good hand, her fingers digging into Lin Yu’s arm in panic.
“No! A cut like this? Not worth it” Yu Zhu gasped. Lin Yu ignored her, “Demon magic is strong, you’ll be better in a few hours.”
“Every demon catching priest within thirty miles will be here within the hour if they feel your power. We live next to a monastery, don’t you think they have demon catchers there? Do you want to be the second snake in your family to die at the hands of monks?” Yu Zhu’s face was covered with sweat, but she looked Lin Yu firmly, “Don’t you dare. Once I’m strong enough I’ll can heal myself.”
“Who did this?” Lin Yu asked, her face a mask of rage, “I’m going to bury him in his family plot.” Zhuo Hao fumbled the towel he was holding, neither of the girls noticed.
“No. He was waiting for me.” Yu Zhu shook her head, sweat dripped from her forehead, “Zhu Zhan Ye’s already too familiar with the Midnight Thief’s methods. Also, Zhuo Hao showed up to rescue me tonight. I don’t want him to know anymore about us than he already does.”
“Should we wait until he attacks us?” Lin Yu asked incredulously, “This is more or less a declaration of war!”
Yu Zhu sighed and laid back down, “For now we don’t provoke the beast. I misjudged his intelligence. It’s a mistake that I can’t afford to make again.”
Zhuo Hao walked forward with a sleeping draught, “Rest, my team should’ve taken care of the gold already.” Yu Zhu drank down the vial gratefully and fell into a dreamless sleep.
Lin Yu and Zhuo Hao walked into the sleepy autumn air. Four figures moved quietly in the shadows around them. Zhuo Hao smiled, “I think my people are almost done.”
“Master Zhuo!” A woman in similar grey clothes like his appeared like a ghost by his side, she was tall and reed-like, two long strands of hair framed her heart-shaped face. She scowled at Zhuo Hao, “When you said you needed us to move some very small things out of the city by dawn, did you mean the ton of gold you had in the back room?”
She was covered in sweat as she looked at Zhuo Hao with annoyance, “Three of my men strained their backs moving the gold. The others nearly fainted in exhaustion. I caught four trying to stuff gold down their drawers.” She grimaced at the last one, they were all thieves by trade, seeing the gold nearly made their mouths water. Some of them outright drooled.
“I know you’re always smiling and carefree, but will you for once get it into your addled head that we are not field workers?” She hissed as she rubbed her aching arms, “We’re not use to carrying thousands of gold bars across the city, we could’ve been caught anytime.”
Zhuo Hao slung an arm around Pei’s thin shoulders, “But you’re here, so I knew there was nothing I needed to worry about.” Pei’s eyes nearly threw sparks and Zhuo Hao hurriedly took his arm off, for fear of losing it, “I’m sorry.” He grinned contritely, “This was an emergency.”
Lin Yu smiled absentmindedly at the older girl “Pei, when did you get here? I didn’t notice you.”
Pei, Zhuo Hao’s second in command, gestured to the three others behind them, all in grey, “We’ve all been here since Yu Zhu and Master got back.” Lin Yu looked around and called to them softly, “Min, Ran, Tong. You’re all here!” The three men smiled at her brightly as she went to talk with them.
Pei looked at Zhuo Hao and whispered, “Using a network of thieves to transport the gold out of the city, you’re taking a risk. Even if you are our Thief Lord.”
Zhuo Hao was unperturbed “Some of the gold will inevitably go to the men in our gang, but I trust you to get our people to do the right thing.” He looked towards the monastery, “I have to get back soon. Make sure everyone is gone by sun-up.”
Pei shook her head with a sardonic grin, “You’re a monk by day, the leader of the Ning City thieves by night. Has anyone pointed out the irony to you?”
“It is a little bit contradictory.” Zhuo Hao conceded, “Apart from you and a few others, not many know about what I do.”
Pei smiled , “You won the leadership, by all means I follow you without fail. As do the thousands of thieves you command in this city” She looked a little troubled, “But there’s talk. The Thief Lords of the other cities are growing weary of your reach. Especially with the whole helping the refugee scheme. They think it’s too strange.”
Zhuo Hao’s reply was good natured as he reassured her, “Let the old farts yelp like they’ve a bee in their undergarments. I have other things to worry about.”
Pei’s eyebrows furrowed as she gave up, “Like always. I’ll handle it.” She walked away, exasperated, it seemed like she was always more worried about her easygoing Thief Lord than he was about himself.
Pei smiled at Lin Yu as she gestured for the thieves to follow her out of Yu Zhu’s place, “I’ve heard your dance can make the gods fall in love. Perhaps sometime you can show us.” She patted Lin Yu’s shoulder as she and the others disappeared into the oncoming dawn.
“Thank you.” Lin Yu smiled at him as he walked her into the courtyard, “If it weren’t for you…”
“Yu Zhu would’ve managed.” He said truthfully, “She just had her hands full, but she’s not the kind to get killed that easily.”
“It’s a good thing our network’s so strong. If we were to move the gold tomorrow, Zhu Zhan Ye might’ve already had his men placed here.”
Lin Yu wasn’t troubled, “You’ve always been good at this sort of thing.”
Zhuo Hao sighed, “I’m worried about you two.” He looked at the pinkish hue of the rising sun, “Yu Zhu’s always been two steps ahead of the magistrates and bounty hunters. But with this Zhu Zhan Ye… she’s never been caught off balance before.”
“I wish she didn’t take such risks.” Lin Yu’s normally happy demeanor was gone, replaced by worry, “She won’t let me go because she thinks I might use my demon magic and get caught.”
“She cares deeply about you.” Zhuo Hao said gently, “And she’s doesn’t care for people easily.” Lin Yu looked at him, startled at how clearly he understood Yu Zhu.
He saw her shock and shrugged, “Yu Zhu may be tight lipped and cautious but her actions are clear, she could never place you in danger.”
“But I can handle it. I’m thousands of years older.” Lin Yu said petulantly. Zhuo Hao said nothing, he merely smiled sadly, remembering how Zhan Ye use to plead with him when he went to the borders to fight, Zhan Ye use to think Zhuo Hao was overprotective too. They were brothers through thick and thin, Zhuo Hao remembered Zhan Ye’s eyes, as Zhuo Hao was taken out of the palace in chains. That was the day his brother grew up.
Now they would be facing each other on opposite sides of this battle, neither could win without losing.
Lin Yu looked at him carefully, after a moment she hesitantly asked, “Why haven’t you run away yet?”
That jolted out him out of his brooding thoughts. For a horrifying moment he thought Lin Yu knew everything.
Then, Lin Yu blushed and gestured to herself, “Now that you know… about me being, not human.”
Zhuo Hao actually smiled, compared to what he was thinking, this was nothing.
“Why should I run?” He twisted a piece of grass in his fingers as he waited for her explanation, his eyes looking at her with an expression that made Lin Yu want to turn towards and away from him at the same time.
Lin Yu was even more puzzled, “Yu Zhu and I just told you that I’m a demon… a monster. Most people run away screaming that either we’re insane or go head straight away for an exorcist. You’re no fool.”
Zhuo Hao’s expression was carefully guarded, “Perhaps, I want to be.” He gently grabbed her hand, and looked into her almond eyes, “Yes, monsters and demons are the stuff of legends. But you’re actions towards me and the people of this empire were never so.”
She looked unconvinced, he tilted her chin to stare into his eyes, “Monsters kill for wealth, glory, or power. They devour the world around them, and they spare no one.”
For a moment, the ghosts of his past seem overshadow to his face, Lin Yu covered his hand with her, bringing him back to the present. His lips turned upwards into a boyish grin, “You laugh too freely, run too wildly, and dance too beautifully to be a monster.” She looked his warm fingers gripping her hand, the feeling was making her slightly giddy, “But I’m not human.” She mumbled.
“I couldn’t care if you were a pig, rat, spider or snake.” He answered teasingly, still hand on hers.
The last one gave Lin Yu’s heart a jolt, it made her a little excited, a little scared. She looked at him shyly, “So, you’ll come back?”
His eyes, sparkling in the new dawn glimmer, there was nothing but the truth in his eyes, “You couldn’t keep me away if you tried.”
“Bao Lu, bring me that cloth.” Zhu Zhan Ye said as he sat on the floor, his rich clothes dug into the wood. The girl he had rescued sat in a chair, her face cleaned and her hands neatly bandaged. She was eating a bun with the ravenous hunger of a street urchin, her thin cheeks puffed food. Zhu Zhan Ye carefully put medicine on her ankles, “What is your name?”
The young girl swallowed and whispered, “Lu Xi.” She flinched as Bao Lu came close with some tea, the servant gently set the cup down beside her, she had her hands up as if she was expecting to be hit. Zhu Zhan Ye watched her interaction carefully, without saying anything, but there was pity in his eyes.
“Where are you from, Lu Xi?” Zhan Ye asked gently, the little girl was hesitant as she haltingly whispered, “Clearwood Village.”
“That’s the war zone between Yue and Dian.” Bao Lu breathed, “It’s hundreds of miles from here, how did you come to this place?”
Lu Xi’s eyes watered, “Parents needed money. Sold me.” Zhu Zhan Ye sighed, he had seen this often when he fought in the army. Refugees offering their youngest daughters and sons in exchange for money to feed the rest of the brood.
After a moment, he spoke, “Along time ago, I had a little sister who I loved very much. We played every day, and I promised I would protect her.” He smiled into the thin little face, “I will protect you too.”
The girl looked at him with big eyes as he gently asked, “What happened next?”
She swallowed hard the words were slow and halting at first, “Men came into the village, they gave my parents money and put me in a cart for a long time. Then they took me to a big empty house.” Her lips trembled as tears fell down her face, “A servant came and told me that I’m going to be married, I cried and they kicked me and punched me until I stopped.” Her eyes hardened with anger, “They starved me for days because they said the master liked his girls thin. And then they tied me up and put me in red clothes.”
“How did you end up on the roof then?” Lu Xi frowned, “I…someone came into my room saw me crying and promised that they would help me.”
“Did you see what that person looked like?” Bao Lu asked hurriedly. Zhu Zhan Ye threw a curious look at the eager servant.
“I…only heard a voice.” she looked down, “It was muffled and I don’t know…” She grew frightened and pleaded, “Please don’t send me back to that horrible old man, I’ll do anything. I’ll wash clothes, I’ll carry things. Just please.” Her eyes were over bright and her voice was thick with unadulterated fear.
Zhan Ye handed her a handkerchief, though his heart was burning with anger at her story, “I promise send you back, on my life. Sleep here. My guards will make sure nothing happens.”
He and Bao Lu left the room. Zhan Ye made it down the stairs before he punched a pillar, leaving the imprint of his fist in the wood.
“It doesn’t seem like the Midnight Thief was trying to do some good.” Bao Lu murmured.
Zhan Ye glared at his servant, “Don’t jump to conclusions. He’s still the enemy. We just have to deal with whoever hurt Lu Xi first. I have to make sure they don’t have the balls to do this kind of thing again” He smiled wolfishly as he walked down the stairs, “Who knows, maybe when I’m done with them, they might even have some information about the Midnight Thief for me.”
Bao Lu shook his head as he followed, “If you let them live long enough.”
Yu Zhu had been sleeping until mid day. When she got up, Lin Yu bounded to her side, helping her to sit. “You shouldn’t move around too much” She said as she brought a bowl of meat soup to Yu Zhu. Yu Zhu looked at it suspiciously, “Lin Yu did you…”
Lin Yu smiled and shook her head, “I told Wu Ma to make it.” The kind motherly street vendor had send over a dozen of her best meat buns and stew.
“How are you feeling?” Lin Yu asked as she placed a spoon in Yu Zhu’s good hand.
“I’ve had better days.” Yu Zhu sighed as she sipped gratefully. Her face was pale and her lips were cracked, but she smiled for Lin Yu’s benefit.
There was a knocking sound at the door. Lin Yu ran to see who it was.
Zhu Zhan Ye stood there, his face slightly sheepish. “I heard that Yu Zhu was sick but I have a pressing matter.”
Lin Yu nearly broke the door handle as she glared at him, “It can wait.” She was about to slam the door in his face when Yu Zhu put a weak hand on the wood. She had a thick robe over her clothes, though she was pale, she straightened with a look of iron will.
Lin Yu was always amazed at Yu Zhu’s ability to suppress whatever pain or anger she felt. She had seen it happen when Yu Zhu was a little girl in the demon village, there was a calm air of elegance and grace to her even when she was covered in mud. It was as if she stood above the world, never letting anything affect her.
Yu Zhu bowed gracefully to the man at the door. “Welcome, Master Zhan Ye.”
Zhan Ye blinked, “Miss Yu, you look pale.”
Yu Zhu shook her head with a fragile expression, “I must have ate something bad. I’ve always been a little bit weak, and this week was taxing.”
Lin Yu glared at Zhan Ye, “Making a 100 handkerchiefs will do that to a person. I wonder who got my sister sick.”
Zhu Zhan Ye had the grace to look taken aback, two faintly pink spots appeared on his cheeks. “ah.. well….” Behind him, the little girl peeked out.
Yu Zhu recognized the little girl instantly, she leaned down and smiled kindly, “Hello, little one.” The little girl blinked and looked down.
“This is Lu Xi, she’s 13 years old” Zhan Ye introduced the little girl, “I found her last night and I was wondering if you could keep an eye on her for a few days. I have to go take care of the men that brought her here the first place. Maybe she can help you around the shop?”
For a moment both girls looked at him, stunned at his forthrightness. He continued quickly, using the time to build his case, “She was kidnapped by someone. I have a pretty good idea who. But if I go after that person, I want to make sure that he won’t come for her.”
“Who do you mean?” Yu Zhu asked, “Is it the thief you’ve been chasing.”
Zhan Ye shook his head, slightly disappointed, “No, it’s a merchant. A nasty old man who preys on pretty girls and buys them from desperate and poor parents from war zones, or so I’ve gathered.” His eyes were slightly pleading as he asked, “Can you help me? I’ll make sure that you girls will be protected from any harm if you take her. I’ll make sure the merchant won’t come here.”
Lin Yu looked at him in disbelief, “We just met you and now you’re saddling us with a child? What next, are you going to move your mother in too?”
Zhu Zhan Ye looked even more sheepish now, “I don’t have a lot of friends in the city.”
“That’s a surprise.” Lin Yu snapped acidly.
Yu Zhu put a hand on Lin Yu, as a silent warning. She assessed Zhu Zhan Ye, “May I ask why here?”
Zhu Zhan Ye nodded, “If he knows that someone has his bride, he’ll come looking. I’m a stranger and he might already know I’m investigating him. If I suddenly have a village girl by my side, while I’m surrounded by a retinue of men, there might be rumors.”
Yu Zhu still looked unconvinced as Zhan Ye rushed on, “It’ll be easier for you to say she’s family from the country. They’ve already come to trust you here and they’ll accept your story more readily. People will see her at the inn no matter what and i don’t want to keep her cooped up.”
Lu Xi had looked at Yu Zhu with curiosity every since she had appeared. There was something familiar about her. And when Yu Zhu spoke, Lu Xi blinked. Her voice, it sounded so familiar… where had she heard it before?
Yu Zhu looked at the child, she might remember. I have to get her away from Zhu Zhan Ye before she says anything.
Yu Zhu’s voice was kind. “Of course I’ll help. Lin Yu, please take Lu Xi to our spare room.”
Lin Yu looked like she wanted to argue, but she could see that Yu Zhu was near her limit. Any time it takes to argue might mean Yu Zhu might collapse. She nodded and smiled at the little girl, “Come on.”
Zhu Zhan Ye was relieved, the tension from him was gone as he grinned. Yu Zhu couldn’t help but admire that smile, there was something pleasing about Zhu Zhan Ye when he smiled like that.
Her sensible self admonished silently, he’s still the enemy.
Yu Zhu cleared her throat and gestured to the door, “Now, if you please. I have to rest.”
Zhu Zhan Ye nodded, the light in his eyes changed, and before Lin Yu could stop him, he gripped Yu Zhu’s injured shoulder and squeezed.
To a normal person, it would look as if Zhu Zhan Ye was touching Yu Zhu’s shoulder in thanks. Yu Zhu gritted her teeth as she smiled even more serenely as she felt the bandage dig into her wound. They looked at each other for an electrifying moment, neither seemed to give way to the pressure in the other’s eyes.
“Master Zhan, what are you doing?” She asked like a proper bred lady. Her voice was politely inquisitive, as if they both knew he had committed nothing more than a social blunder.
Zhu Zhan Ye watched her curiously for a second before quickly letting go, “I’m sorry.” He smiled as a blush crept up his face. He scratched his head, “I acted like I do with all my male friends. I must have spent too much time with that rough crowd.” He bowed, “Please forgive me.”
Yu Zhu’s smile was still cold, she could feel the icy sweat from pain form on the nape of her neck. Just a few more moments, she told herself, and then I can collapse.
Zhu Zhan Ye bowed on last time before he left. Yu Zhu bowed as well, her hidden hands shaking from the pain. He had squeezed hard enough to break open the wound.
Once she was back in her room with the doors closed tightly behind her, Yu Zhu collapsed in pain. “Curse the rotten scoundrel” She whispered as Lin Yu ran in after her.
“He’s now got an excuse to put extra guards on us.” Yu Zhu said as she peeled off her robe, the blood already blooming on her bandages. “It’s a good thing I wrapped it well, or this would’ve ended badly.”
“Why didn’t you refuse him?” Lin Yu asked as she hurriedly cleaned the wound, “Why are we taking care of the girl?”
“If she gives her suspicions to him…” Yu Zhu gritted her teeth as they redressed the wound, “Then he would watch us like a dog day and night.” Despite the pain and the extra headache, there was excitement in her eyes at the prospect of a worthy opponent, “I look forward to beating him.”
“I look forward to beating him to a pulp.” Lin Yu muttered.
Outside of Ning City, Yue Kingdom
Hua Er, Shan Ying Lang, and Doctor Li arrived in Ning City unannounced. They were in common traveler’s clothes, with wide brimmed hats covering their faces. The city lay before them like a vast forest of streets, crawling in all directions.
“It’s as big as the capital.” Doctor Li breathed, watching the crush of humanity rushed around them.
“Stop gaping like a country bumpkin.” Shan Ying Lang growled as he poked the doctor on, “We need to find a safe place now..”
Hua Er said nothing, she looked towards the direction Xu Long Hui’s Kingdom, return still on her mind. Shan Ying Lang saw it and sighed, “Going back now would mean war in both countries.”
Of course she knew. They had sent word that they had been attacked to the King of Yue. The King of Yue had replied they would find shelter in Ning City, the they were to wait until he and Xu Long Hui could root out the assassins.
“It’s a good strategy.” Shan Ying Lang had told her, “They’ll search for you in the capitol the most. Maybe even dare send an assassin in the palace, but no one would look for you in the other cities.”
“What’s the person we’re suppose to be looking for?” Hua Er muttered as they scanned the vast city that lay before them.
“His name is Zhu Zhan Ye.” Shan Ying Lang said softy, “Supposedly a prince of this empire.”
Doctor Li’s stomach grumbled, “As long as he buys us food, I don’t care what he is.”
The Grey Moutain, Demon Realms
The Clan of the Dog was one of the powerful family of the Zodiac, rivaling the Jade Rabbit’s power at the height of the wars hundreds of eons ago. While time had whittled at way its former glory, the clan still had serious clout.
The man they called the Wolf Chieftain had taken command of clan forty thousand years ago and created the formidable Red Wolf army. His home was at the edge icy mountains where the monster the demons feared was born. Legend was that anyone who went into the tallest peak would die from a curse Wei Yun had placed there.
The Wolf Chieftain stared at the Grey mountains as he stroked his beard, “there’s something out there.” He whispered, his ears would never fail him. He had returned home to ready supplies for the trip, but tonight, on the full moon, he was sure that something, or someone was in the mountains.
His subordinates looked at him, “Chieftain, what do you mean?”
“Someone’s screaming. Can you not hear it?” The cheiftain looked at his men, “whoever it is, has been screaming for days now.” He pointed to the tallest mountain, the one where Huang Wu was imprisoned in, “I thought I had dreamed it, but it’s clearer tonight than anything I’ve heard before.”
“Surely, we would’ve heard too.” A advisor asked
The Wolf Chieftain shook his head, “The border has to wait a day, I have to go see what’s up there.”