Fighting at Lord Envoy's side was an honour Chu Shuzhi would never get used to. Lord Envoy was elegant and lethal, and Chu Shuzhi didn't know why anyone would even think of challenging him.
Chu Shuzhi didn’t have a reason to keep an eye on Lord Envoy in a fight the way he’d have to do with other SID members. He was busy with his own opponent—a very fast rather than strong man, irksome to deal with his ice powers. Chu Shuzhi rolled to avoid an attack. He swirled around to face the man again, and in the corner of his eye, he saw Lord Envoy get hit and stagger backwards. Chu Shuzhi threw his string to slow down the woman attacking Lord Envoy at the same time as using others to break through an ice cone aimed at himself. Lord Envoy recovered quickly, swinging his sword in a wide arc, but his movements were definitely slower than normal.
Something was very wrong here. Chu Shuzhi divided his attention to make sure he could protect Lord Envoy if necessary.
Luckily, he didn’t have to. Even hurt, Lord Envoy was a force to reckon with, and they finished off with their enemies quickly. Chu Shuzhi tied both of the now-unconscious Dixingren together and turned to check on Lord Envoy.
He was back in his civilian clothing, sitting on the ground and wincing. He seemed very pale in the artificial light of the streetlamps. Frowning, Chu Shuzhi realised that the side of his suit was stained with blood—the navy-blue material was turning darker, and Lord Envoy’s hand pressed against it was red.
The mere fact that he got hit was worrying, but this? Chu Shuzhi knew he had healing powers; had used them on Chu Shuzhi before. Why wouldn’t he heal himself first thing?
"My lord—" What's wrong, he almost asked, but stopped himself. Lord Envoy didn't owe him any explanations. "What can I do?" he finished. He remained standing in case someone else attacked them; one of them should be on guard, and it clearly couldn't be Lord Envoy right now.
Lord Envoy shook his head mutely. Dark energy coalesced to life around his palm still pressed to his side. He gritted his teeth. Sweat beaded his forehead but he didn't make any sound even as his breathing grew ragged and his whole frame started trembling.
It seemed to take forever.
Chu Shuzhi looked away. He scanned the sky looking for Crow Tribe spies but couldn’t spot any. No weird sounds, either. They were in a back alley; all he could hear were some distant cars.
"Do not mention this to Zhao Yunlan," Lord Envoy ordered when he was done. Chu Shuzhi hoped he was done, at least—Lord Envoy hadn’t pushed his clothes aside to heal himself, so Chu Shuzhi couldn’t see if the wound was fully closed now.
He was hurt Lord Envoy could even consider Chu Shuzhi would ever betray his secrets like that, but he just nodded. Lord Envoy looked tired. Sad. Not at all like the untouchable man who'd saved Chu Shuzhi's life and given him a purpose to fill the void in his soul.
"What is happening to me is of my own doing," Lord Envoy said, as if he could hear his thoughts.
"You're weakened," Chu Shuzhi said. Blunt, but Lord Envoy didn't need coddling. "How can that be your fault?"
"Do you remember Lin Yusen?" Lord Envoy asked.
"You said he was infected with dark energy." Chu Shuzhi felt his eyes widen. "Is your energy mixed with light—how can it be—" But he knew how. He'd seen Lord Envoy hold the Longevity Dial together with Chief Zhao, healing him, seemingly at no cost.
Chu Shuzhi should've known there was no such thing as no cost.
And now Lord Envoy didn't want Chief Zhao to know, which was the final confirmation. "The Longevity Dial," Chu Shuzhi said.
Lord Envoy nodded.
Chu Shuzhi dropped to his knees. "Take my energy," he said. "If it will help you—" They could make another exchange with the Longevity Dial. Lord Envoy could take as much of his energy as he needed—Chu Shuzhi would gladly give him all of it. Lord Envoy was infinitely more important than him.
"You misunderstand. I intend to use it."
Chu Shuzhi stared at him without comprehension.
Lord Envoy met his gaze. "Ye Zun's power is devouring. Anything; everything. He absorbs the energy of those he consumes."
Chu Shuzhi all but recoiled when the understanding hit him. "No," he said. "That is suicidal."
"And our only option, if we don't find the Lantern." Lord Envoy didn't sound like he believed they would. "Stand up. I told you, you don't need to kneel before me."
Chu Shuzhi elected to sit next to him instead, unwilling to put himself higher again. He kept his strings in the air around them as a shield and an alarm system. "Why?" he asked. "I know no one stronger than you. Why this, instead of fighting him?"
Lord Envoy didn’t answer immediately. He just sat there, on the cold, dirty ground—Chu Shuzhi was far from comfortable and he’d only just sat down—and looked at his hands, pressed together in his lap, for long enough that Chu Shuzhi started to wonder if he was going to answer at all. The night was chilly around them, though nothing like the coldness of the far reaches of Dixing.
Finally, Lord Envoy drew his hands apart, slowly as if against some invisible force. "Ye Zun," he said, with a softness to the name Chu Shuzhi hadn't heard from him before. "He's my little brother. Twin brother."
Chu Shuzhi had no idea what he’d expected, but it certainly wasn't this. Was this why Lord Envoy was telling him the truth, when he was clearly keeping it from Zhao Yunlan? Chu Shuzhi wasn't completely unaware, and while the last thing he wanted to consider was Lord Envoy's love life—the mere term made him wince and wish to punch Lin Jing in the arm for going on about it—he also couldn't deny how important Zhao Yunlan was to him. They had all noticed, back when they'd believed Professor Shen was just that: a too well-informed human, and in retrospect, Chu Shuzhi had seen that Lord Envoy had been more protective about Chief Zhao than his position of Lord Guardian warranted. And the feeling was obviously mutual—so Chu Shuzhi supposed that was why Lord Envoy wouldn’t tell Zhao Yunlan what he was doing.
Zhao Yunlan would hate this plan. Chu Shuzhi hated it even more because he understood. A life without Nianzhi was . . . The wounds of his loss had gotten better, thanks to the Envoy, but they'd never fully healed; never would. To imagine having to hurt him—Chu Shuzhi couldn’t.
And to hear the Black-Cloaked Envoy talk calmly about planning his own death—that was almost as bad.
"I'm sorry for putting this burden on you," Lord Envoy said. "I wouldn't do it under normal circumstances, but I need your help."
Please don't, Chu Shuzhi thought. Don't ask me to help you end yourself.
Lord Envoy must have known Chu Shuzhi didn't want to do it, but while he was far kinder than anyone suspected, he could also be exactly as merciless as everyone knew the Black-Cloaked Envoy to be, and so he continued. "If it comes down to it—if you can—make sure Zhao Yunlan is safe. Don't let him stop me."
"My lord.” Chu Shuzhi hesitated, but he had to say it. “It will break him."
There was a flash of pain in Lord Envoy’s eyes, an expression on his face that Chu Shuzhi would never forget, as if he’d used his strings to cut his heart out instead of simply stating what they both knew to be the truth. Lord Envoy pressed his hand over his chest, between his collarbones, and for a few long moments said nothing, looking at Chu Shuzhi but clearly not seeing him at all.
And then he cast his eyes down, resigned. "But he'll live. Everyone will live." He passed his hand slowly over the part of his clothes covered in his blood, and in the wake of his dark energy, the stains disappeared.
"Not everyone." It was honestly disturbing Lord Envoy would claim otherwise, considering.
"Ye Zun is my responsibility. I have to do it," Lord Envoy said sharply. "Will you promise it to me?"
There was something in his tone that made Chu Shuzhi wonder what he'd do if Chu Shuzhi refused—but it was a moot point. He wouldn't, couldn't refuse; not even something as horrendous as this. It was the worst plan he'd ever heard, but he couldn't even say that, because it was a plan that would work, and Chu Shuzhi had nothing else to suggest, not with Lord Envoy already poisoned by the light energy. Ye Zun had to be stopped before he destroyed everything, and if they didn't find the Lantern in time, Lord Envoy's plan was their only other option. Chu Shuzhi couldn't disagree, not with the logic and not with the emotions behind it. Not when he'd just learnt the truth about him and Ye Zun. And not when Lord Envoy truly needed something. Chu Shuzhi had told him that he'd always support him, and he meant it, even if this, here, went against everything he believed in.
"I'll do as you command, my lord."
Lord Envoy smiled at him with obvious gratitude, as if he hadn’t just ordered Chu Shuzhi to damn his own soul.