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Once Upon a Time in Dixing

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When the Envoy steps out of his portal, which is ice cold and devoid of light or sound, into the warmth of the Special Investigation Department, he finds the SID team gathered around the long table in the middle of the room. Zhu Hong is reading from her mobile phone, raising her voice to be heard over the ambient chatter. “Question four: Which season is the most romantic?”

“Winter,” says Zhao Yunlan, from his near-horizontal position on the couch, “when it’s snowing.”

Da Qing, perched on the couch back behind him, scoffs. “You hate winter. You’re always complaining your feet are cold.” But Zhu Hong ignores the cat and taps her phone, clearly ready to read question five—until they collectively register the Envoy’s presence and a shocked silence falls.

It’s a shame. Shen Wei would like to hear more about Zhao Yunlan’s opinions of the seasons. But he’s here on official business. “Chief Zhao.”

Zhao Yunlan tilts his head back and sideways, arching till he’s almost upside down to look at him. “Hei Lao Ge, was I expecting you?”

There’s a lazy warmth in his voice that hadn’t been there in his previous encounters with the Envoy. Something has shifted during their recent cases—first with Wu Tian’en and his son, then with Zhou Weiwei. The Envoy and the SID have conspired together to save a life, and the SID has agreed to a new, more lenient policy for law-abiding Dixingren living in Haixing. It gives Shen Wei hope and confirms his decision to consult with the SID on this matter.

“I have urgent business to discuss with you,” he says.

“By all means. Let’s hear what you have to say.” Zhao Yunlan gestures to the rest of the team, and Lin Jing hastily vacates a chair and offers it to the Envoy.

The Envoy stays standing, his eyes on Zhao Yunlan alone. “If we could speak in private—”

“Ah, a sensitive matter. I understand.” Zhao Yunlan sits up and swats casually at Da Qing, whose expression is hidden from Shen Wei’s view but is apparently provocative in some way. “Then please come this way, Hei Lao Ge.”

He rolls to his feet in a move that should look ridiculous or at the very least juvenile, but which he manages with lithe grace, and leads the way back to his office. Shen Wei steadfastly sets aside his awareness of him. A man’s life may be at stake. This is not the time for personal indulgence.

When they are alone behind closed doors, he gets straight to the point. “I’ve received news that a human has been apprehended breaking into the Dixing palace prison. He’s being held in custody.”

Zhao Yunlan pauses in the middle of unwrapping a lollipop, and his lackadaisical manner falls away like a cloak, leaving him alert and ready for action. “What human?”

“Ji Xiaobai. Apparently he made his way to Dixing somehow and was attempting to free Zhou Weiwei.”

“His Zhou Weiwei,” corrects Zhao Yunlan, frowning. “Are you sure your information is good? Love is a powerful force, but Ji Xiaobai is just an ordinary guy. How would he have made his way Downstairs? It’s not as if he could take a bus.”

“I can’t be sure, but there may be Dixingren living here who would be willing to transport someone for a price.”

“Dammit!” Zhao Yunlan rakes a hand through his hair, leaving it in disarray.

“There’s more.” Shen Wei hesitates. Zhao Yunlan is only just beginning to think well of Dixingren, and Shen Wei has no desire to reignite his waning prejudices. Still, the truth cannot be covered up forever. “Unfortunately, the political situation in Dixing is currently unstable. I don’t want to give you the wrong impression, Chief Zhao, but there’s an ill-informed minority who have been spreading anti-Haixing sentiment. I’m concerned the palace will try to appease them…”

“By making an example of Ji Xiaobai,” finishes Zhao Yunlan. His hands clench at his sides.

“Yes. The death penalty is a legal recourse in Dixing, as it is in Haixing. If they label him a spy, it’s possible.”

Zhao Yunlan tucks the lollipop into his breast pocket. “What do we do? Is this a diplomatic mission?”

“We can’t go through official channels.” Shen Wei feels his mouth tighten. “I haven’t been formally notified, and there are factions in the palace. I can’t risk exposing my informant.”

“Right. Then—?”

“Chief Zhao.” Shen Wei turns to the man who was and will one day be again his indomitable brother in arms, his lover and his friend. “I need you to stage a jailbreak.”

 

*

 

Of course, it doesn’t stay a private matter for more than the time it takes to walk back into the main room of the SID. The rest of the team are still gathered around the table, but the topic of discussion appears to have shifted to the purpose behind the Envoy’s visit.

Striding in at the Envoy’s side, a quickly sketched map of the palace prison rolled up in his hand like a baton, Zhao Yunlan ignores their gossip—perhaps doesn’t notice that he too, by association, is the subject of speculation—and barks to his subordinates, “Okay, which one of you has been blabbing to Ji Xiaobai about Dixing?”

There’s a pause while the team eye each other with varying degrees of suspicion. Then Guo Changcheng springs awkwardly to his feet, trembling as if he wishes the floor would open up and swallow him, and raises his hand. “He wanted to understand what had happened to his Zhou Weiwei.”

Zhao Yunlan wags a finger at him but seems at a loss for a reprimand. Then he frowns. “But you didn’t tell him how to get down there.”

“He wouldn’t have needed to,” offers Lin Jing, from the desk chair he’s pulled over to the table. “There’s an app for that.”

Shen Wei only vaguely knows what an app is—something to do with mobile phones and the internet—but even he can tell this is concerning. Zhao Yunlan glares at Lin Jing for a pregnant moment, then grips his own neck and drops his head back to stare at the ceiling. “There’s an app for getting to Dixing,” he says, his voice muffled. “How is this the first I’m hearing about it?

Lin Jing shakes his head and smirks. “It’s not really for that. Mostly people use it to hook up for kinky Dixing sex stuff.”

An app for liaisons between Humans and Dixingren. For just a flash, Shen Wei imagines a world where Zhao Yunlan did know about the app and was prepared to use it himself—a circumstance for which it might well be worth learning the intricacies of modern technology. Shen Wei has acquired several relevant powers since last they were together, and going by long-past experience, Zhao Yunlan would definitely encourage him to experiment with them. His face heats beneath the mask.

Then he blinks and realises everyone is avoiding looking at him, with the exception of Zhao Yunlan himself, who raises his head again and sends Shen Wei a quick, apologetic glance, before snapping, “Enough! Lin Jing, take down that app. Hack it, delete it, break into their datacentre and steal the hard drives, whatever you have to do to shut it down. If the Head of the Xingdu Bureau gets wind of it, no one on there will be safe.”

“Do you want—”

“Yeah, get me a copy. I want to know if anyone’s doing anything unsavoury.” Zhao Yunlan holds up a hand to pre-empt interjections. “Non-consensually unsavoury. I’m talking murder for hire. The consensual stuff is between them and their health practitioners.”

“On it.” Without getting up, Lin Jing propels himself backwards on the roller chair and takes his place at a desk, where he immediately starts tapping away.

Zhao Yunlan has already moved on. “Lao Chu, Da Qing, you’re with me. We have a rescue mission to perform.”

Da Qing starts to climb off the table. “Where are we going?” he asks, looking from his chief to the Envoy and back.

Shen Wei lets Zhao Yunlan answer, which he does with a wide, manic grin. “Why, Underground.”

 

*

 

Shen Wei glares balefully at Zhao Yunlan’s enormous cherry-red car. It’s bad enough that he’s standing on a Haixing street in his robes, in full daylight, but he can’t possibly ride in that car without feeling ridiculous. He’s certain that on the previous occasions Zhao Yunlan gave Professor Shen a ride, the car was smaller and less… red.

“I’ll meet you there,” he says, stiffly, raising his hand to summon a portal. Chu Shuzhi is perfectly capable of navigating Zhao Yunlan to the passage beneath the great locust tree.

Zhao Yunlan grabs his wrist before more than a pinhole can form in reality. “Ride with us, Hei Lao Ge. We need to strategize, and it will be more efficient to do that on the way.”

He shepherds Shen Wei into the passenger seat, overriding any further demurrals, and Shen Wei swallows a sigh. This will not be the greatest blow to his dignity today: he is about to pay a visit to the Justiciar.

“So, once we get there, we’ll need a diversion,” says Zhao Yunlan, as they traverse the city streets towards the park. His thumb is tapping restlessly on the steering wheel, but whether it’s nerves or merely a desire for action, Shen Wei can’t be sure.

“I can create a diversion,” says Chu Shuzhi from the back seat. Shen Wei doesn’t need to see his face to know his expression is grim.

“There’s no need,” Shen Wei assures him. “My arriving at the palace unannounced will be diversion enough.”

Zhao Yunlan casts him an appreciative grin, and Shen Wei allows himself a small smile in return.

“All the same, we should wear Lin Jing’s earbuds in case something goes wrong,” says Zhao Yunlan. “Da Qing?”

Da Qing leans forward between the front seats and gives Shen Wei a small electronic device, with wires and a tiny battery visible through its translucent casing.

Shen Wei holds it gingerly between his fingertips. “I’m—I’m not proficient with technology.”

“You don’t have to do anything. They just work,” says Da Qing. “Yours and Lao Zhao’s broadcast and receive. Lao Chu’s and mine listen in. Too many channels, and it just gets confusing.”

“You’ll be able to hear if we get into difficulty, and we can do the same for you,” explains Zhao Yunlan.

Which means they’ll be able to hear everything Shen Wei says to the Justiciar. Still, it’s probably wise to keep the lines of communication open. He nods reluctantly.

“Good, good.” Zhao Yunlan pulls into a parking space and turns off the car engine. “Just stick it in your ear.” He points to his own ear to illustrate.

“Chief Zhao!” Chu Shuzhi is affronted on Shen Wei’s behalf, and for fraction of an unlikely moment Zhao Yunlan does actually seem abashed.

“Oh, ah…” He looks up at Shen Wei through his eyelashes. “No disrespect intended, Hei Lao Ge!”

A smile is playing around the corner of his mouth. He’s flirting with the Envoy. It takes every ounce of Shen Wei’s self-control not to respond in kind. He swallows and directs his gaze through the front window of the car. “I understand, Zhao-xiong.”

They disembark from the ridiculous car, and Shen Wei leads the way through the thankfully deserted park to the passage under the great locust tree, the official doorway to Dixing. Of course, Zhao Yunlan can’t see it, but he nods amiably when Shen Wei assures him it exists. He’s like an eager but not particularly studious undergraduate on a field trip.

He trusts in the Envoy. The knowledge stokes a warmth in Shen Wei’s heart.

Shen Wei has confidence in him, too, and his team. Besides, if they are apprehended, the Justiciar won’t be able to detain the Chief of the Haixing Special Investigation Department without causing a diplomatic incident, and the same can certainly not be said of any Dixing subject Shen Wei could have recruited to perform this task, even if he’d had time to seek them out. All the same. “I hope we can complete this mission without anyone getting hurt.”

“Don’t worry.” Zhao Yunlan clasps the Envoy’s shoulder, and once more the illusion of nonchalance is dispelled, though he remains cheerful. “We’ll only stun the guards, at most. We won’t seriously injure anyone.”

Shen Wei stares, but he seems perfectly serious. His obliviousness to personal danger is both frustrating and endearingly characteristic. Shen Wei turns back to the gateway and nods. “Let’s go.”

 

*

 

Stepping onto the dark cobbled streets of modern Dixing is always an adjustment. The air is heavy, still and slightly sulphurous from Mt Dixing, the volcano which rumbles in the distance, and when they emerge from the side alley where the doorway to Haixing is located, the avenue near the palace is practically empty compared to the perpetual bustle of Dragon City.

The others are still shaking off their visions from the portal: “Mama?” says Zhao Yunlan like a child. “Delicious fish,” says Da Qing, almost as wistfully.

Then Zhao Yunlan rubs his face, visibly gathers himself and looks around with interest. “So this is Dixing.”

“A part of it.” Shen Wei tries not to sound defensive. His life force, which is muted in Haixing, is surging to its vibrant fullest, and the contrast makes even the old grey buildings here seem artistically evocative. “As you’re probably aware, the Hallows were lost years ago, and the land fell into darkness. I wish you could have seen it as it was.”

Shen Wei himself had slept through Dixing’s Age of Light, but he’s seen the paintings.

“I’m sure it was beautiful,” says Zhao Yunlan politely. “Anyway, we shouldn’t be seen together. Meet you back here?”

“Yes. If you encounter any trouble—”

Zhao Yunlan is already backing away down the street, flanked by Chu Shuzhi and Da Qing. “We’ll let you know. Don’t forget your earbud!”

Shen Wei nods, they turn a corner, and then they are separated. There’s no time for misgivings or second thoughts. Shen Wei steps into a shadow to pull down his hood, and presses Lin Jing’s device into his ear.

Immediately, he can hear Zhao Yunlan speaking. “Okay, so we’re here. Ha, look, what do you know? This is Guangming Road, too—almost like coming home. Damn Cat, scout ahead and see what we’re faced with.” A faint meow, and then Zhao Yunlan again: “So, Lao Chu, how does it feel to be back?”

“I would gladly have never set foot in this land again.” Chu Shuzhi sounds flat and impatient but not afraid, despite his history with the palace.

“Oh, come on, it’s not that bad. The cobble-stoning is excellent work…”

Shen Wei tunes them out, or tries to, as he enters the palace gates, but it’s disconcerting having Zhao Yunlan’s voice in his ear, even if his words are addressed to another. It reminds Shen Wei of past intimacies, and he can’t afford to be distracted right now.

He ports from just inside the gates to the dining hall, preceding the news of his arrival by mere seconds. It’s worth it to see the dismay on the Justiciar’s face. A spring roll falls from his chopsticks and bounces onto the table top.

The Justiciar covers quickly, half-rising from his seat. “Hei Pao Shi, this is a surprise!”

The table is groaning with a wealth of fragrant dishes, half of them made with food from aboveground, even though the Justiciar is dining alone. When he signals towards a doorway, two young serving women hurry in with plate, bowl and utensils and set a place for the Envoy. At the same time, a page runs in. “Lord Justiciar, Hei Pao Shi—”

“Yes, yes. I’m aware.” The Justiciar waves him away with poorly disguised irritation.

Shen Wei regards the scene coldly, takes his seat and waits.

“Wine?” offers the Justiciar, hopefully.

“Water,” says Shen Wei.

The Justiciar sighs, and one of the serving women fills Shen Wei’s cup. There are fewer menials and bureaucrats in evidence than there used to be, but the guard is as plentiful as ever, at least two of them armed with guns that could only have been illegally imported. Someone is running a successful smuggling ring, and Shen Wei will be very surprised if anyone outside the palace is seeing the benefits.

“Hei Pao Shi, I know you’re very busy. What brings you here?”

Shen Wei meets the Justiciar’s gaze. He can’t overplay this or he’ll arouse suspicions. “I’ve come to discuss my proposal for establishing a school.”

In his ear, Zhao Yunlan murmurs, “Someone’s coming,” and then, louder, in an overtly casual tone, “Excuse me, sir, I seem to have got turned around. Could you direct me to the nearest hardware store?”

Shen Wei tenses.

“Wait, Damn Cat, is that you? Good disguise—I thought you were a guard.” There’s rustling, and while he listens, Shen Wei takes the opportunity to serve himself rice and fish, vegetables and sticky pink pork, doused in delicate sauces. He chooses only the traditional, local Dixing dishes, and when he takes a mouthful and chews, the flavours are instantly comforting and familiar.

“This uniform is enormous. Couldn’t you have brought me smaller trousers?”

“You’re the one who’s always boasting that your jeans are too tight,” retorts Da Qing.

“That’s a different matter entirely! That’s—”

Shen Wei chokes on his food, barely keeping from spraying the table with rice, and there’s a sudden deafening silence in his ear.

“Right,” said Zhao Yunlan after a moment, in quite a different tone. “Did you get keys, too?” A jingling sound. “Remind me to buy you fish cakes.”

“Hei Pao Shi,” says the Justiciar, and Shen Wei snaps back to his current surroundings. “About your proposal. It’s persuasive, I’ll admit, but unfortunately the coffers are at a low ebb this year, and the King feels—”

“The only way to expand the economy is to invest in infrastructure and the people,” Shen Wei points out, as he did in his most recent proposal, and the two that preceded it. The idea of a brilliant young Dixingren, perhaps someone like Li Qian, denied the opportunity to develop their potential has been troubling him more and more. “There are many bright young minds here that would benefit from nurturing, and no shortage of men and women who would make fine teachers. If it’s a matter of materials, I can make arrangements.”

“And fill their heads with Haixing propaganda? We have our own ways, as you would remember if you spent more time here, Hei Pao Shi. Once we can raise the funds for the necessary supplies, the King will revisit the issue and no doubt commission some textbooks.”

“Learning is learning, science is science.” Shen Wei is impatient. “And as I’ve informed the King, I have already begun writing a history of the Dixing people myself. There’s a wide world out there full of wonders—”

“A world that doesn’t welcome our people.” The Justiciar smiles in sour triumph. “That would rather pretend we don’t exist.”

“Lord Justiciar, do you think the Haixing people are really so different from us?”

There’s a sudden lull in Zhao Yunlan’s artless commentary, which has been running on in the background, and then he says, quietly, “Say that again.” But Shen Wei isn’t sure who he’s addressing and is in no position to comply, regardless. “Never mind,” says Zhao Yunlan. “Later.” This promise is followed by the decisive clink of a key turning in a heavy iron lock.

The Justiciar is talking over him anyway. “Hei Pao Shi, I think you’ve been Upstairs too long, mingling with those humans in your ivory tower. History tells us clearly, education invites revolt.”

“It invites reform,” counters Shen Wei, but he’s too aware that Zhao Yunlan is listening in, turning his keen deductive skills on Shen Wei when he should be concentrating on rescuing Ji Xiaobai. If only Shen Wei could remove his earbud without the Justiciar noticing, but if he did, would it stop working or continue to broadcast every sound he makes? And if Zhao Yunlan and the others meet trouble, he needs to know.

Focus on now, deal with the rest when it happens, and harbour no regrets. He mentally squares his shoulders and raises his chin at the Justiciar, who despite his obsequious deference still treats him like an anachronistic figurehead, out of touch with the realities of running a country. It’s ironic, really, since that’s more or less how Shen Wei views the Justiciar—along with an additional large helping of naked self-interest.

“Revolt, reform—two sides of the same coin,” says the Justiciar. “Don’t forget that you, too, benefit from the status quo, Hei Pao Shi—”

Shen Wei’s jaw tightens involuntarily, but he refuses to give the Justiciar the satisfaction of reacting further, though his hand itches to summon his blade.

“—the freedom to come and go as you choose, a generous stipend, lack of accountability—” This last phrase sounds foreign on the Justiciar’s tongue. He’s been studying Haixing, quite likely its politics.

“Lao Chu,” whispers Zhao Yunlan, the susurration tickling the fine hairs in Shen Wei’s ear. “Can you put that guy to sleep without causing a stir?”

Shen Wei resumes eating as an excuse to halt his exchange with the Justiciar while he listens. There’s a short, sharp scuffle, and Zhao Yunlan again. “Gently, gently. He’s still breathing? Good.” The rustle of paper—the map of the prison, no doubt. “This way.”

Shen Wei is beginning to grow accustomed to this link between them; having Zhao Yunlan’s voice in his ear, piecing together the import of Zhao Yunlan’s words and sounds. He thinks he might miss it, once the mission is through. He takes another serving of vegetables, and then Zhao Yunlan murmurs, “Hei Lao Ge,” and Shen Wei nearly drops his chopsticks. He has to force himself not to answer.

“If you have that distraction up your black-cloaked sleeve, now would be the time. There’s half a dozen soldiers playing dice between us and our target.”

Shen Wei chews, swallows and motions for more water. Kunlun had once called him a straight arrow, and when they first met it had been a fair assessment. But Shen Wei’s talent for learning isn’t restricted to Dixing abilities: anything biological is his to master, and ten thousand years ago, Shen Wei learned how to bluff from Kunlun himself. Besides, he only needs to buy a little more time.

He thanks the serving woman who fills his cup, and she bows and backs towards the doorway.

“Patience,” murmurs Shen Wei under his breath, because he can almost hear Zhao Yunlan’s lack of it. He puts down his chopsticks and glares across the table. “Lord Justiciar, you accuse me of sequestering myself in an ivory tower, but you have barred yourself in a silken palace built from the toil and blood of our people, including the King’s.”

Anger flushes the Justiciar’s cheeks. He starts to answer back, then checks himself and moves instead to appease, but at the edges of the room, the guards are repositioning themselves, more arriving with each passing minute. Shen Wei’s loyal informants are hidden among them. Word is spreading. It won’t be long now.

Sure enough, just then through his earbud Shen Wei hears a distant, breathless young voice announce, “Hei Pao Shi is here!” It’s the same page who belatedly announced his arrival to the Justiciar.

“So what? What’s Hei Pao Shi ever done for us?” replies a rough, bored voice, and others jeer and laugh agreement.

“So he’s in the dining hall,” says the page, “and Cook Tang is on her way there now!”

A second’s shocked silence, and then there’s an outcry, and the thunder of many heavy footsteps, like an avalanche.

“What is happening?” asks Zhao Yunlan in surprise, apparently not bothering to keep his voice down.

“The diversion,” says Chu Shuzhi. “Come on!”

 

*

 

Throughout his undergraduate years and well into his post-graduate studies, Shen Wei hadn’t really had friends. His mindset was, in part, still that of a general, and his classmates were as children, untouched by war. Moreover, he was always busy, either in the dry hush of the university library, catching up on the millennia of scholarship he’d missed while he was buried, or stalking Dragon City as the Envoy, attempting to capture stray Dixingren before the then Chief of the SID, Zhao Xinci, could deal with them in his merciless way.

But there had been one place of warmth and companionship to which Shen Wei had retreated time and again, a waystation on his visits to talk to his brother: the palace kitchen. The celebrated head cook, Tang Ning, was descended from a family of soldiers and had grown up hearing tales of Hei Pao Shi and the ancient war. She welcomed Shen Wei into her domain, listened to his thoughts and plans, and fed him. It was Tang Ning with her deft practicality who had taught him to how to cook.

He had seen her less and less over the years. Usually when he came to Dixing on business, he went directly to the royal audience chamber because his presence elsewhere attracted too much attention. But he’d known that once news of his arrival in the dining hall reached the kitchens, she would come, and in her wake, everyone else would follow, from maids to groundskeepers, even to the prison guards. Everyone but the King himself. It’s tradition.

When Tang Ning leaves the kitchen, there are incredible displays and sweet treats for everyone.

She arrives in the hall looking much the same as ever: short and cheerful, with an upturned nose and sharp, inquisitive eyes. She’s only a few years younger than the Justiciar, but her tread is still firm and energetic. Behind her, four young kitchen hands carry large trays of sweets—candied fruit piled around the edges, swarms of spun-sugar and almond confections in the shapes of fireflies, honeybees and locusts in the centres. The insects seem alive, their eyes and wings glistening in the torchlight. Shen Wei doesn’t need to examine them to know they’re exact in every detail.

She bows to him out of deference to the occasion and his rank, but her smile is broad, and she doesn’t mince her words. “Welcome, Xiao Hei. It’s good to see you.”

“Cook Tang.” Shen Wei rises to greet her. In the background, he’s aware that Zhao Yunlan and the others have reached Ji Xiaobai’s prison cell, that the man is resisting his rescue unless Zhou Weiwei too can be found and freed. Zhao Yunlan interrupts the argument to exclaim, “What is happening? Xiao Hei?” But for once Zhao Yunlan cannot hold Shen Wei’s attention. This is the Dixing he loves: talent for talent’s sake, feats of beauty and craft as deep and mysterious as a night sky.

The trays are brought forward, and he and Tang Ning look at each other. She nods.

One locust’s wings flex and then another’s, until Shen Wei and his friend, using their powers together, raise the confections into the air in a magical glittering dance.

Even the most jaded guards gasp with wonder. Even the Justiciar can’t look away.

 

*

 

They meet in the alley by the portal half an hour later, after Shen Wei’s predictably fruitless audience with the King. The Justiciar’s hold on the administration is insidious, the King little more than an appointed puppet, but with every clash of wills, Shen Wei learns. One day he’ll find a way to circumvent the outdated customs and bring progress and light, an argument so watertight even the Justiciar can’t refute it.

Zhao Yunlan and Da Qing are dressed as prison guards, but Chu Shuzhi is still wearing his own clothes and a scowl, though the latter quickly vanishes when Shen Wei arrives, leaving him respectfully impassive. Shen Wei appreciates the courtesy, even though there are times he’d be better served by the man’s candour.

“Hei Lao Ge,” says Zhao Yunlan, in greeting. “What’s in the bundle?”

“Nothing important.” Shen Wei gives his earbud and the parcel to Da Qing to carry and assesses the situation.

Ji Xiaobai looks none too happy to be rescued, his gaze continually drawn back towards the prison. His face seems hollow, shadows like bruises under his eyes. “I can’t leave without her. I promised to be her prince and her knight.”

“Well, you can’t leave with her,” says Zhao Yunlan, evincing little sympathy. He shrugs at Shen Wei. “We couldn’t find her. Is there a separate women’s prison?”

Shen Wei doesn’t answer. Truthfully, he’s surprised—and touched—that Zhao Yunlan bothered looking for the woman who threatened to kill him and his team, and although Ji Xiaobai is barely an acquaintance, Shen Wei has much sympathy for his plight. “I’ll meet you back at the Special Investigation Department,” he says, gesturing to open the passage.

Zhao Yunlan hesitates. “If there’s more to be done—”

Shen Wei shakes his head, and at his signal, Chu Shuzhi drags Zhao Yunlan, Da Qing and Ji Xiaobai through the swirling black doorway to Haixing.

 

*

 

When the Envoy arrives back at the Department Headquarters, later, the place is in chaos. In large part, this is because someone, probably the curious Da Qing, has set loose the parcel of sugar insects Shen Wei entrusted him with, and now they’re flying around and around the room just above head height, while half of the Special Investigations team gives chase and the other half watches and laughs.

Zhao Yunlan is sitting on the stairs, sucking on a large honeybee as if it were a particularly delicious lollipop, and watching the proceedings with an indulgent eye. Ji Xiaobai sits beside him, forlorn.

“Xiaobai!” shrieks Shen Wei’s travelling companion when she sees him.

Shen Wei puts a restraining hand on her shoulder. He’d warned her before they came that nothing was yet settled, and that any untoward behaviour—especially any use of her powers against others—would result in immediate banishment. But after the lengths Ji Xiaobai has gone to, and Zhao Yunlan’s hinting at his willingness to sanction the relationship, Shen Wei finds himself wanting the best for them.

And indeed, Ji Xiaobai leaps to his feet, hope visibly kindling inside him. He approaches slowly, searching her face. “Weiwei, it’s really you. My Zhou Weiwei.” There are tears in his eyes. “I promised to be your protector, but I couldn’t find you.”

“It’s me, Xiaobai. I missed you so much. I couldn’t sleep without you there.” She takes his hands, straining forward, but Shen Wei can’t release her, not yet.

Zhao Yunlan rises, too, and follows Ji Xiaobai, a thousand questions on his face, and through the Envoy’s mask, Shen Wei meets his eye. “What do you think, Chief Zhao of the Special Investigation Department? Will you give them another chance?”

“Me?” Zhao Yunlan seems nonplussed.

The rest of the team notices what is happening. One by one, they abandon their game and gather around to bear witness.

“It’s not my choice to make,” said Shen Wei. “Say the word, and I’ll enforce the agreement between our nations and banish Zhou Weiwei back to Dixing.”

Zhao Yunlan takes the misshapen honeybee from between his lips. “But not to prison.”

“To her relatives’ house,” Shen Wei agrees. “Never to see the man she loves again.” His heart is beating loudly in his ears, but he’s almost certain no one else can tell.

“Chief Zhao, please let her stay,” begs Guo Changcheng. Chu Shuzhi grips his shoulder to quiet him.

“Lao Zhao,” says Zhu Hong, adding her agreement, but Zhao Yunlan’s focus on Shen Wei is unwavering.

After a moment, he looks away and laughs. “If you think about it, she didn’t do anything but throw some threats around. Can’t say I wouldn’t have done the same in her position.”

Shen Wei waits.

“Yes, yes, let the lovebirds be together.” Zhao Yunlan gestures expansively, and at that, Shen Wei loosens his hold and lets Zhou Weiwei throw herself into the arms of the man who, knowing her truth, nonetheless risked everything to find her.

The SID team grin with relief; there are even some cheers. And then Da Qing and Guo Changcheng are distracted by a passing locust, and the party atmosphere resumes.

Shen Wei should take his leave. Instead he climbs the stairs and watches from the balcony, enjoying the others’ exuberance and merriment from afar. Da Qing regales the rest of the team with the story of their mission, much exaggerated, and his impressions of Dixing. Even Chu Shuzhi chimes in once or twice.

Zhao Yunlan finds Shen Wei there, comes up beside him and claps him on the shoulder. “I have something special to give you.”

Shen Wei is glad of his mask. That can’t possibly be innuendo, no matter how much he wishes it.

Sure enough, Zhao Yunlan hands him a sheaf of papers. “A printout of some information from the Dixing app. Lin Jing ran some analysis—I think you’ll find that your Justiciar is NobleDixingMerchant28. His dealings are extensive. It’s almost impressive. I’d provide you with a USB drive, but—”

Shen Wei takes the papers hastily and stuffs them into his robes. “Thank you, Zhao-xiong.”

Zhao Yunlan smiles and moves to stand at Shen Wei’s side, so they’re looking down on the department together, shoulder to shoulder. Zhao Yunlan has apparently consumed all of the honeybee and moved on to a lollipop. He braces his arms on the railing and stares down at Ji Xiaobai and Zhou Weiwei, who are on the couch, holding hands as if they’ll never let go.

“A love affair between a human and a Dixingren,” he muses around his candy stick. “Who would have thought?”

“It’s not the first time.” Shen Wei is proud of the evenness of his tone.

“Nor the last, if that app is anything to go by.” Zhao Yunlan smirks, briefly, then seems to remember himself. “Sorry… Hei Lao Ge, it’s not easy, the job that you do.”

Shen Wei leans in slightly, lowering his voice. “It has its compensations.”

“Are you—” Zhao Yunlan’s eyes widen, as if he’s not sure how to interpret that.

Shen Wei suppresses a smile. It’s too soon to flirt openly, and he has to maintain his position, but he doesn’t want Zhao Yunlan to consider him untouchable either. It’s a delicate balancing act, and he congratulates himself on navigating it well so far.

At least, he does until Zhao Yunlan shifts to press his shoulder against Shen Wei’s arm through the robes, and says, “There is still one thing I’m curious about.”

Shen Wei turns his head in query, and suddenly they’re face to face with scant inches between them. Zhao Yunlan’s gaze is bright, penetrating, almost knowing, and his breath is sweet.

Shen Wei, fighting several warring impulses—to hide, to flee, to lean in and succumb to the hot temptation of his mouth—freezes.

Zhao Yunlan extracts the lollipop and licks his lips. If anything, he sways closer. His voice drops even further, low and sultry. “Tell me, Xiao Hei, how much do you know about the field of biological engineering?”

 

END