Zhou Zishu was always hopeless at lying, so it only makes sense that his one and only disciple is, too.
It’s too easy—all Wen Kexing needs to do is turn his dark gaze upon them, level them with a look that’s only a fraction as cold as what he wears in Ghost Valley, and they crumble like pastries.
“He put you up to this, didn’t he,” Wen Kexing says after a long, swollen pause. Zhang Chengling’s eyes are glassy, but he’d delivered his little rehearsed speech without so much as a quaver in his voice: Shifu is too gravely injured. Qiye and Da Wu have taken him across the oceans to seek medical help. Let’s return to Four Seasons Villa and rebuild, Shishu. Let’s wait for him to recover and return. “Did he not consider that I would start asking why he never came back? Did he think I was stupid?”
Chengling just stares at him. This kid who isn’t a kid anymore, who’s almost seen as much death as Wen Kexing had by the time he was his age, still soft as burnt sugar and spring mud. He’s lost everyone, too.
Pain throbs in his left shoulder where Mo Huaiyang had stabbed him, but Wen Kexing sets his jaw.
“Where has he gone?”
“I genuinely do not know, Shishu. All he told us was that his last task was to stop Xie Wang from opening the Armory. I don’t know where it is. Qiye and Da Wu don’t either.”
“I’m going to roll over in my grave,” Ye Baiyi says. “How did that Idiot Zhou put out this idiot disciple? Had he no shame about it before flouncing off to his death?”
Wen Kexing briefly considers throwing a lit candle at his face. Only briefly. The energy of Liu He Shen Gong thunders at the base of his skull and through his meridians, rivers of uncomfortable and unfamiliar energy turning his veins white.
“I’ll follow the Scorpion trails. Black robes on white snow, they can’t be that hard to tail.”
“But how will they help you find—?”
“Fool.” Wen Kexing reaches out, pinches his cheek, and Chengling screws up his face in such a hauntingly similar way to A-Xiang that Wen Kexing has to swallow against the squeeze of his throat. “Your Shishu once played jianghu like weiqi pieces. How hard is it to shadow someone like Xie Wang?”
“You must be careful, Wen gongzi,” says Qiye as Wen Kexing shrugs on a traveling cloak. All his joints are stiff with the pain of someone who’s been lying in one position for too many days. “The path that Zhou zhuangzu took is not one he planned to return from.”
“If you think I plan to, then you too are as much a fool as he.”
“Shishu, if you find Shifu’s body,” Chengling is trying so hard not to cry. It’s wrenching to watch. “Please bring him back. Please bring back anything that’s left of him, then I won’t stop you from whatever you want to do, Shishu.”
Wen Kexing squeezes his shoulder. Has it gotten stronger? Chengling could punch him now and he might actually feel it. “I’ll bring his body back if it’s the last thing I ever do.”
If, he says. Will be, he means.
Then he goes.
In his life, Zhou Zishu has lost Wen Kexing three times.
First, in childhood—a flash of eyes too big for a face, apricot cheeks, crickets in the marshes, and then he was gone. When he asked his shifu, Qin Huaizang had only shaken his head and said he would tell him when he got older. He didn’t stay long enough to watch Zhou Zishu get older.
Second, on the cliffs outside Ghost Valley, hating how peaceful and open Wen Kexing’s face was, like he was just closing his eyes for a nap in the sun.
By then, Zhou Zishu had been stabbed, maimed, flayed a few times, and bitten on one or two occasions. He’d watched the same happen to his martial siblings of Four Seasons Villa, and yet, and yet, and yet—the loss was incomparable still.
Those he knew that had lost their hands or feet on missions would complain that their nerves were alive with the ghosts of their lost limbs, their blood oily and frying in search of the parts of them that were gone. That was losing Wen Kexing the second time. Zhou Zishu’s body screamed, searching for the part that had been cut away, forcing blood out of his mouth like his stomach was being extracted through his mouth.
This is the third time.
He doesn’t understand, right away, vision swimming. The sheer weight of sensation slams against every bit of his body. Is this how it always was to feel? Was this how much he’d felt before? The cold: biting. The roar of wind: swan song. The inside of his mouth had a taste: blades and blood. Most recently, and most cruelly, Zhou Zishu hasn’t been able to see farther than he can throw, the world’s details turning to fog before turning to ash.
But now, he sees, cruelly, clearly, steeped in the blue cold, and Wen Kexing’s head is tipped forward onto his chest. His hair drapes in a curtain of deep winter silver over his shoulders. He’d said that the transfer or Liu He Shen Gong was a dual endeavor. He would be energy well, the anchor, so Zhou Zishu’s meridians wouldn’t be undone. So the pain was bearable. So he could be grounded.
What had he done?
The only method of cultivation that Zhou Zishu knew of that could turn a practitioner’s hair white in the span of a night was Liu He Shen Gong. There was only one known practitioner of it in Jianghu. Unless—
This wouldn’t be the first time Wen Kexing had plans tucked under his collars. He hid them everywhere: in his pockets, in the corners of his mouth, in dark places that would bite back if you stuck your hands into them.
Wen Kexing’s body wilts in earnest. Even with their hands joined he begins to topple, and it’s all Zhou Zishu can do to pull him forward, yanking his weight over the medical texts. The pages crumple between their knees—he can hear that, now, the gentle rustle the same noise Wen Kexing made when he laughed in the safety of darkness—and he crushes their bodies together.
“Lao Wen,” he asks, eyes pricking, nose peppery with the smell of tears. Wen Kexing’s face is icy and stiff where it’s tucked into his throat. Even that he curses the feeling of. “What did you do? Who said you could do this?”
As if Wen Kexing needs anyone to give him permission to do anything. He slumps harder into Zhou Zishu’s front, weight settling even as the twist of his waist looks cramped and painful. Zhou Zishu has seen mangled bodies before, has picked up corpses and carried them home. Some of them had to be crammed into carts too small for them. He never got used to it—the silence of their bones.
Zhou Zishu turns Wen Kexing over so that he’s lying face up in the cradle of his arms. “Lao Wen.” He shakes him, just slightly enough that his head rocks back and forth in the crook of his arm.
For a moment, it seems inevitable that his eyes will fly open, that he’ll laugh hard enough to shake the dust off the high ceilings of the Armory, that he’ll hold his stomach and shout, “A-Xu, ah, A-Xu! You should see your face—when did the unshakeable, steadfast leader of Tianchuang become so easy to scare?”
But he doesn’t.
Instead, a thin, dark trail of blood begins to ooze from the corner of his chapped lips, carving a path down the line of his jaw. Some of it runs onto the grooved bridge of his neck, then into his cloak. Blood comes out of his ears, too, like worms after rain. It stains his pale hair crimson.
“No,” Zhou Zishu catches it with his sleeve. A steady trickle, constant as a trail of ants. “No, please—”
His brain shakes off enough of the hazy panic for rational thought. One of Wen Kexing’s hands lies limply on the stone platform, and Zhou Zishu seizes it, digging his fingertips into the soft inside of his wrist. Tendon and vein shift under the skin.
Then: a pulse, weak as dawn drizzle, but felt on the skin anyway.
“One more breath left,” Zhou Zishu breathes. “Hang—hang on, Lao Wen. We can go home, just hang on.”
Wen Kexing’s head lolls back when Zhou Zishu stands and hoists him up in his arms. He’s so light that Zhou Zishu nearly unbalances, overcompensating for how heavy he thought he’d be, one of his arms dangling loosely over his side. Zhou Zishu forces himself not to look at it, the swing of it, a purpling body on a noose. He needs to find the entrance.
The Armory was built to confuse, with the obvious intention of only letting the familiar pass through with ease, or someone smart enough to have a map. Zhou Zishu finds his way back to the entrance by backtracking all the steps they’d taken to get inside, but getting through the labyrinth is the easy part. The avalanche had dislodged a rockfall. The mouth of the Armory is blocked by boulders and snow, and Zhou Zishu has one sword and two hands.
He sets Wen Kexing down against a stalagmite and arranges him so that he could be taking a catnap, then pulls his outer robes off to bundle them around Wen Kexing’s shoulders and separate his head from the ice. Then he draws Baiyi, breathes in with his eyes closed, and lets his undeserved, newfound spiritual energy surge through his meridians.
Hours skitter by. With this much feeling, the cold starts setting in on him within minutes. Zhou Zishu is shivering by the time he’s halfway through slashing through the snowfall. Using the spiritual force of Baiyi to move drifts in wide, sweeping arcs all at once is faster and safer than digging with two hands, but every three blasts sends more snow tumbling into the spots he’d just cleared.
It’s loud, too. His ears are ringing by the time he steps back, panting. Ice has soaked through his soles and his toes are tiny frozen pebbles in his shoes. He considers sitting down to meditate and center his energy so he can hack at more snow, until he sees the slicing wink of moon up in the highest point of the walled ice.
Two more movements—a twist that he’d seen Wen Kexing use at the last Heroes Conference, from his family’s Eighteen Forms of Qiuming, and a stab forth—and the snow explodes outwards from the Armory entrance. He backs away and listens for more rumbling snow to collapse upon itself, or the eerie notes of stones on ice, and tries not to waste time at the marvel of being able to hear it, to not have to listen to the thrum of vibrations through his feet.
He wraps Baiyi around his waist again and stumbles to where he’d left Wen Kexing, whose head has tipped to the side from the shaking. The blood has crusted around his lips, along both sides of his neck where it had leaked out of his ears. Two trails like tasseled earrings. Zhou Zishu fights down hot, choking tears and pulls his outer robe higher over Wen Kexing so his head is covered.
“We’re going home,” Zhou Zishu huffs when he pulls Wen Kexing’s arms over his shoulders, then hitches his legs around his waist. He hops in place to get a good grip under the bends of his knees, then makes sure his robe is covering as much of Wen Kexing as it can. “If you die before we get there, the first thing Shixiong will do when we see each other on Naihe Bridge is hit you.”
Wen Kexing’s head hangs over his shoulder. For a moment, Zhou Zishu stands in the craggy mouth of the Armory, the snow and melted ice broken teeth around them, and rests his forehead against the side of Wen Kexing’s cheek. He’s close enough to kiss it if he wants to. If he does, he’ll taste his blood.
He sets off down the mountain.
(“Who goes there? What business do you—Zhou zhuangzhu?”
“Ping An.” The world swims, every word filtering through him as though spoken through wool. “Ping An, get Wuxi and Beiyuan, tell them...tell them.”
“Who do you have there, Zhou zhuangzhu? How are you standing—is that—that can’t be Wen gongzi—”
“Hurry,” Zhou Zishu says. His cheek hits ground. The stone is warm and giving. Before he closes his eyes, he thinks he hears shouting. Let go, Zishu. Let Wen gongzi go, only if you let him go can we treat him. Let go. He’s not going anywhere.)
Four Seasons Villa was part mountain, part forest, part ribboned sky, with some stretches of the sect property situated so high up that, on the right mornings, Zhou Zishu could hike up so far that the clouds stretched out in a rolling sea beneath him.
Hiking up there meant that, for some of the journey, he’d be suspended in a layer of those clouds and couldn’t see farther than his arm could stretch. There was no sound, nothing to see, nothing to grasp or touch. Anyone who didn’t know the trails could be lost until the sun burned back the fog.
Shifu always told him that he wasn’t allowed to go up there alone, but he did anyway. It was easy to pretend up there that he was in the afterlife, that if he closed his eyes and opened them again, his parents would be there to tell him that they were doing well. Maybe they’d ask how he was doing in his martial studies. He’d tell them everything that he knew—about being the head disciple, about the new shidi they’d taken under their wing, about the strange movements of the world outside.
These paths are impossible to forget, and Zhou Zishu finds himself surfacing from his head full of clouds to the cliff-studded peaks. Cloud-wet has dampened his skin and robes. Someone else is already here.
They’re not his parents—they stand with their back to him where he always sat as a child, looking out over the golden spills of clouds, fanning themselves as lazy as the open-close of a butterfly resting on milkweed. A mirage in the dawn.
Zhou Zishu steps up beside them, blinking.
Wen Kexing continues staring into the horizon, an easier smile on his face than Zhou Zishu has ever seen in life.
“How about it, A-Xu,” he says. His eyes glimmer. “Does it feel good to see and touch and hear again? Finally, you can imbibe in some decent wine. By the end, I could hand you horse piss, tell you it was wine, and watch you down it happily.”
“Don’t tell me you haven’t had any wine yet,” Wen Kexing says. “Or I would’ve sacrificed in vain. You owe it to your shidi this one time. Hai, should’ve given you a list of things to do for the both of us, but I was worried you’d figure out what I was trying to do if I spoke too much. You’re never smart where it counts, you know?”
His voice echoes, as if time and sound unspool endlessly here. Wen Kexing hasn’t looked at him all this time, eyes curved in laughter that’ll live forever in his chest.
“Shh.” He closes his fan and holds it to his lips. “You’re ruining the scenery, A-Xu.”
Zhou Zishu follows his gaze out into the clouds. They’re so solid, almost thick enough to run on. He wishes he could seize Wen Kexing’s hand here, now, and do that—run, just run, until the line where the sky met the earth eats them both.
“Are you mad that I never showed you this place when you were at Four Seasons Villa?” he asks.
“Does it matter? We’re here together now.”
“You’re not coming back with me, are you?”
Finally, finally, Wen Kexing slides his wayward glance towards him. Zhou Zishu realizes with a jolt that his hair is dark where they stand here. Wonders if it means anything.
“Why do you ask? I seem to recall someone once threatening to sell me to a brothel if I followed him too closely. What, you can’t miss me already, do you?”
I miss you. I miss you in front of me, I miss you when I can’t see you. I’d miss you forever. I’d miss you for all the forevers after that.
“Just worried about what Chengling and I will have to do about meals now.” Zhou Zishu shrugs. “You spoiled his palate. We’re just going to starve.”
Wen Kexing heaves a martyred sigh. “A-Xu, I suggest you install requirements for self-sufficiency and skill in the kitchen as part of the curriculum for the new generation of disciples.”
“I will if you come back. You can teach that course.”
“Never mind, you all can starve.”
Zhou Zishu meets Wen Kexing’s gaze as the sun rises. He laughs first, and then so does Wen Kexing. In the end, even this sensation had been dulled—the sparking light inside him when he did, and the fade of it when he stopped. Wen Kexing doesn’t stop smiling, but his laughter fades from honey to dark, hardened amber. Zhou Zishu’s heart fossilizes inside it. Then he taps Zhou Zishu’s shoulder with his fan.
“Go back, A-Xu. They’re going to be worried.”
“There are people who will miss you if you’re gone too long,” Wen Kexing says. “Promise me something, okay? For shidi.”
“No. Wake up and do it yourself.”
“I’ll meet you here,” says Wen Kexing, opening his fan again. “Walk the edge of the sky for me, and I’ll find you always.”
Zhou Zishu shivers himself awake, jaw aching like a rusty well crank, the surface beneath him sturdy and dry. It’s not snow, and it’s not dirty street. A bed—sweet smelling, freshly lined with woven mats, and big enough that his feet can’t touch the other end.
He sits up, and his head immediately swims, his brain sloshing behind his eyes like a murky pond. What happened—where is he? A silk blanket is pulled up to his chest. When he rolls over, Wen Kexing is there.
Wen Kexing. His body is so still he doesn’t look asleep. He looks dead. Dead things don’t look like sleeping things—it’s how Zhou Zishu made sure all the crown’s enemies were thoroughly executed. He’s dressed in a simple robe in all black, with pale blue collars. It looks like something from Beiyuan’s own closet.
Enough layers crisscross over Wen Kexing’s chest that Zhou Zishu can’t discern the movement of his breathing. The room hasn’t stopped its spinning. He considers for a wild second laying his head on Wen Kexing’s chest to hear his heartbeat, but he’s too scared to lay his ear so close to the evidence. So he raises his hand, shaking, to hold his finger under Wen Kexing’s nose.
He jumps, sitting up until the blanket falls from him, to see Beiyuan standing in the entryway. A disbelieving smile spreads across his face, and he strides across the room, setting down twin bowls of something cloudy on the bedside table, then reaches over Wen Kexing’s form to take Zhou Zishu’s wrist. “You’re awake. You’re at my villa. Are you okay?”
“Beiyuan.” Zhou Zishu struggles to focus on his face, still blinking clouds out of his eyes. “My shidi, he—”
“He’s alive,” says Beiyuan. Not, He’s okay. “We decided to put you both in the same bed, lest you wake up alone and panic.”
The tone of Beiyuan’s voice is far too pointed for Zhou Zishu’s liking.
“He used Liu He Shen Gong,” Zhou Zishu says, casting his gaze down between them. It’s not a question. “It was Ye qianbei, wasn’t it? He transferred it to him. There’s no other way he would’ve been able to do that and survive.”
Beiyun inhales, then lets all the air go slowly. It’s how he thinks. “We tried to stop him, Zishu. We told him what you had planned, how you felt, how it was supposed to be mercy, but Ye qianbei had other ideas. He said the ritual would be a life for a life. Wen gongzi didn’t hesitate.”
“So he’ll die?” Zhou Zishu asks. “Is he stupid? Does he think I want to stay behind when he’s gone? How could he—?”
“Zishu, please, you are still recovering. You had frostbite in both hands and feet by the time you arrived, and Wu Xi saved all your limbs, but you’re no spring chicken anymore.” Beiyuan reaches out to help Zishu climb out of bed, over Wen Kexing without disturbing him. “Come drink this.”
“What is it? I don’t want it.”
“Zishu,” Beiyuan says, exasperated. “It’s ice and water. I’m sure you don’t need me to tell you why.”
Zhou Zishu studies it with suspicion. It really is just water and chunks of ice clinking against the sides of a bowl, floating over the painted spoon like tangyuan. He takes it, downs it, crushes the ice on his molars. The chill streaks in one long, glacial line from his mouth to his belly.
“Shifu—Shifu, you’re awake!”
Chengling’s shadowed silhouette looms in the entryway. He doesn’t even try to restrain his tears, and just this once, Zhou Zishu won’t chastise him for it. The bowl clacks against the table when he sets it down, and opens his arms. Chengling hits him like hard ground after a long fall, sobbing. Most of his words are unintelligible, but Zhou Zishu catches so scared, thought the next time I’d see you would be in a coffin, and I’ll practice hard as long as you live!
“Foolish child,” says Zhou Zishu, palm against the side of Chengling’s face. “All is okay. What are you crying so hard for?”
“Just—just relieved, Shifu. Relieved that I still have you, and Shishu.” He glances past them, to where Beiyuan is standing by the bed, still. “Shishu will wake up, right? He looks different now, but he will, won’t he?”
“He’s…” Zhou Zishu turns. “He’s somewhere far from here.”
“If you thought I was going to let you waltz to your death unchallenged, then you’re even more stupid than I took you for. Don’t make me regret saving you, Zhou Zishu, or at the very least try not to be stupid in front of me. You lower the average intelligence of the whole room.”
Ye Baiyi’s hair matches his clothes, an even starker a white than Wen Kexing’s is. His hand also shakes where it holds his wine cup, just the slightest tremor, but his sneer is as acrid as ever.
“You don’t know that he’d go insane. There was no guarantee. Xisang Gui recalled her memories before she died without qi deviating or going insane.”
Ye Baiyi snorts as he pours himself more wine. “I don’t need to know Wen Kexing to know that I had two choices—I could let you do as you planned. Walk to your death, wake him up, and break the news to him, and then watch his grief-fueled rampage raze jianghu yet again, and then kill him if he didn’t do it himself first. Then I’d die. Or, I could transfer Liu He Shen Gong to him, send him after you, know that he’d be at peace, and save your life. And then I’d die.” He throws back his mouthful of wine. “The choice was obvious.”
“Will he live?”
A shrug. With Ye Baiyi, this is as good a response he can hope for, so he unfolds his legs and gets to his feet, then bows.
“Qianbei, you have done more for me than I can repay in this life,” he says. “No matter what happens, this wanbei will work to honor your legacy.”
“Enough, sit down,” Ye Baiyi says. “I’m tired. I asked myself what I had lived so long for, what the point of it all was.” He pours himself more wine. “You let me make my point. It’s more than most tired immortals get at the end of their lives.”
Chengling passes by Ye Baiyi as he stalks out of the villa, brushing past him with a grunt and, “Work hard, xiaozi.” He trots into the main hall with a tray of steaming food to set down in front of Beiyuan and Wu Xi. Gao Xiaolian and Deng Kuan too are secluded here as jianghu reels in the wake of Zhao Jing’s death and the lingering presence of Scorpion crawlers.
“Shifu,” he asks, setting down full dishes, then hugs the tray to his chest. Gao Xiaolian arranges the food upon the table—jujube-studded eight treasure rice, double-boiled chicken soup, cured ham fried in chili oil. “Is Ye qianbei not staying?”
“There are places that Ye qianbei still has to go,” says Zhou Zishu.
“Oh,” Chengling says, like he understands.
He has a feeling that they will not see Ye Baiyi for a very long time.
“To everyone,” says Beiyuan, as they sit down to eat, and raises his wine cup. “And to Zishu, with his water. How lucky we all are that Zishu and Wen gongzi have both returned to us, against all odds. When Wu Xi, Chengling, and I sent him off outside the gates, we all watched him until he was a shadow, and then a speck, until he was gone, thinking that would be the last time we’d see him in this life. Fortunately,” he tips his head towards Zhou Zishu, “fortunately, they’ve both returned.”
But have they?
Zhou Zishu is oddly thankful that all he’s expected to consume now—all he’s allowed to consume—is ice, snow, and water, because he doesn’t think he could wrestle down cooked food if he tried. Ever since Liu He Shen Gong had made its home in his body, it has craved a different kind of warmth.
“Hopefully Wen gongzi can wake up soon,” says Gao Xiaolian. “In the end, I know it was collateral benefit for me to see Zhao Jing defeated, but we had the same anger. I haven’t thanked him for it properly.”
Wu Xi doesn’t say he will, in his stern, assured way he always does. Zhou Zishu pours himself one last cup of water and downs it before standing.
“I’m going to retire to my room,” he says, when they look up at him. “If that’s okay.”
“You should rest, Zishu,” Beiyuan agrees. “If anything happens, send for Wu Xi and I.”
“Thank you, Beiyuan.”
What could possibly happen? Wen Kexing passes?
He wouldn’t send for anyone. He’d just lie down next to him and close his eyes.
Wen Kexing does not wake up.
It is impossible to tell the passage of time by looking at him. In times when Tianchuang was still his, when Zhou Zishu had to carry bodies home in carts and boxes, he got used to the smell of death. It was always more forgiving in winter, but extracting the bodies of his martial siblings in the summer so that they could be buried together was what steeled his stomach more than anything else. Leave a body alone and bruises will appear in the skin where blood pools. Leave a body alone and soon it will go plum purple all over as it breathes out one last time. Leave a body alone and the earth will reclaim it like it does with everything else, but.
Not now. Wen Kexing lies where they place him, frozen in time. On the second day, Zhou Zishu lets himself in after Wu Xi is finished with transferring energy for the morning, and decides to turn Wen Kexing onto his side. He’ll be sore, lying on his back only.
So Zhou Zishu starts rolling him back and forth between his sides and his back every few shichen. Every day he seems to get lighter. His fingernails are so pale, they’re grey.
“What’s wrong with him?” he asks Wu Xi what seems like eternities later. It’s been four sunrises. Maybe five. “Is there—any hope, at all?”
Wu Xi regards him, expression giving nothing away.
“Please be honest with me,” says Zhou Zishu.
“I am…” Wu Xi says haltingly, “very aware of the ramifications if we do not bring him back to our waking world.”
“Please be direct with me,” Zhou Zishu adds.
“I do not know,” Wu Xi says. “He floats in a comatose state between life and death. His meridians move sluggishly. Most are injured beyond repair, but the internal energy that Ye qianbei passed to him keeps them open and flowing despite the damage.”
Over Wu Xi’s shoulder, Wen Kexing is spread out on his back again, hands folded over his belly white as clams. If not for the black of his robes, he could be fading right into the sheets. Without moving, Wu Xi glances down to the side, as if to follow Zhou Zishu’s gaze.
“There is plenty to hope for and more work to be done,” Wu Xi says. “I would not worry now, Zishu. Liu He Shen Gong is volatile internal energy when transferred from someone as old and powerful as Ye qianbei. Wen gongzi’s body was weak as it was already.”
“What can I do? Is there anything?”
“Keep him cold. Why do you think Ye qianbei spent so many decades in Mount Changming? The energy is less likely to burn through what’s left of his meridian channels if you can keep him cold.”
So the pail of ice water sloshes when Zhou Zishu sets it down at his feet and rolls the sleeves of his robes up to his elbows, tying them off in knots so they won’t budge. A fleeting heartbeat passes when he thinks he can hear Gu Xiang’s shrilling. Hey, Laobing Gui! What do you think you’re doing to my ge? That water is freezing! He likes it so hot he comes out redder than a lobster!
“Lao Wen,” he says, dipping a long rag torn from his old clothes into the ice bath, squeezing out the excess, and lifting Wen Kexing’s hand into his lap, “you really make it hard for Shixiong to take care of you, you know?”
Nasty blade scabs cut across the hearts of Wen Kexing’s palms. The rag comes away pink where he dabs it there, and then he runs the fabric gently up over knuckles and tendons, washing Wen Kexing to his wrist.
“Every day, Chengling asks if you’re okay, and every day I have to smile and say yes. Every day, Gao Xiaolian prays to Guanyin that you’ll be okay, and yet you sleep on. Beiyuan and Wu Xi helped bury A-Xiang and Xiao Cao, but they never wrote their names on their headstones. Said that you should do it, because you loved them when no one else would.” Then he pauses, wiping gently up to the crook of Wen Kexing’s elbow. The veins are blued and stark in his skin. “Well, you tolerated Xiao Cao, which is as close as it came.”
He rinses out the rag, sits up again with a freshly icy handful of fabric, then starts to work on his other hand in silence. Wen Kexing’s fingers are so long; usually, they’re elegant, but now they look clawed and weak, like they’ll break if Zhou Zishu clutches them too tightly. He spreads them out over his own palm and wipes them down, one by one, making sure to catch the webbing between his fingers.
“You’re full of shit, Lao Wen. Even now.” One more rinse of the rag, and Zhou Zishu brushes strands of flyaway hairs out of Wen Kexing’s face. “Never say again to me that there will be people who miss me if I’m gone too long. What about you? You think no one will notice if you were gone?”
He wipes down each cheek. Then the jut of Wen Kexing’s browbone, where his eyebrows are a dark grey instead of white. The long column of his nose, his mouth. His lips are cracked. When Zhou Zishu presses down on his bottom lip, a ring of bitten, angry red stands out in the soft inside of his mouth.
All his skin that sees air is slightly damp now, dewy and newborn. Everything that Zhou Zishu knows about medicine says that the body needs to stay warm, to prevent from winds—but cold and winds are the only things keeping Wen Kexing in stasis.
The rag lands with a wet slap in the tub when he tosses it, sitting in the curve of Wen Kexing’s waist. Before he loses the nerve, he leans down, close enough that he can smell the soft scent of soapberry and tea on Wen Kexing’s hair, and presses his lips to his forehead.
Zhou Zishu pulls back. He glances at Wen Kexing’s hands to see if his fingers twitch.
Gao Xiaolian sings in the mornings when she sits out in the courtyard, or in the mouth of her pavilion with the doors thrown open, lap piled high with linen and silk to sew Deng Kuan a new robe. Day by day, he walks with a lessening hobble, but it’s easier for him to pull his clothes on if they’re cut loosely.
Zhou Zishu can hear her when Chengling brings him cold springwater for breakfast. There’s a moment where Zhou Zishu is rooted in place and he’s standing back in the freshly fallen snow of Four Seasons Villa. Shifu was singing—belting some made up song about snow people lovers.
“Shifu,” Chengling says, as Wu Xi appears over his shoulder. He meets Zhou Zishu’s eyes briefly before ducking into their room and sweeping to their bed. The planks clack with Wu Xi’s added weight as he sits down and lifts Wen Kexing up into a sitting position. “Is Shishu going to be like this always?”
“What nonsense are you talking about?” Zhou Zishu cuffs him in the shoulder, and Chengling chokes, hand jumping to rub at it. Had he hit him harder than he usually did? Zhou Zishu swallows. “No. No, he’ll be okay. This is what happens.”
“What really happened in that Armory, Shifu? I’m your disciple—you both are my shifu and shishu. I ought to know your story.”
It helps to say it out loud, so he does. Not many things enjoy that privilege in Zhou Zishu’s life—a story being known. But it allows him to make sense of what had happened on the stone dais after Wen Kexing began funneling energy through his meridians. Pain unbound and restructured him, so that when he opened his eyes he felt like all of his body had been rearranged. A forgotten muscle twanged. Joints that no longer felt like they were hanging on by frayed threads. It was a curse, in that moment, to feel at all.
He tries not to focus on Beiyuan disappearing into their room where Wu Xi is working on Wen Kexing this morning.
“So what does it mean?” Chengling asks. “But—what about Four Seasons Villa? Won’t you return to it, Shifu, and rebuild? It was your home. It became my home too, the first place since the massacre of Mirror Lake Sect that felt like a home at all.”
Zhou Zishu breathes in. Spring is coming—that itchy pollen-stink on the back of every deep breath he takes, in awe of all he can smell.
“I do not have any interest in fighting Heaven’s will,” he says. “First, we abandoned it, and it fell to ruin. Now, it’s been burned. Treat it as a cleansing, or an offering. We should not live there anymore.”
“It’s where people have died, Chengling.” He shakes his head. “And I have grown weary of dying.”
Gao Xiaolian stops humming before the sun sits overhead, just as the kitchens wake for lunch. Finally, Wu Xi and Beiyuan emerge from the pavilion, and Zhou Zishu rises to his feet. When Wu Xi is worried, he gets a wrinkle in his chin like a ragged cat-scratch. It’s deep as a gash.
“He’s not drinking,” Wu Xi explains as Zhou Zishu and Chengling take the steps by two up to the doors. “I’ve transferred him all the internal energy that Beiyuan and I can spare between us, and it’s enough to align his meridians until the next transfer. He needs ice. With spring coming, the best thing is to ascend the snowy mountains, but I cannot let you travel with him until I know he’s awake and will drink.”
“Drink?” Zhou Zishu pushes past them and steps into their room. “You can’t get him to drink?”
“None of it goes down, Zishu.”
Zhou Zishu clenches his jaw so hard his temples pulse. To Chengling, he says, “Get me another bowl of the springwater you brought this morning and an apothecary spoon—the small ones. Hurry up.”
“I can do this,” he says, climbing onto the side of the bed he always lies in and slides his arm under Wen Kexing’s shoulder to lift him up. He hates doing this—hates touching Wen Kexing so much like he’s just something to arrange and rearrange. “This happened to him because of me. I can do this.”
“Please,” says Zhou Zishu. He aims what he hopes is his most beseeching expression at Wu Xi, who softens, the wrinkle in his chin smoothing. “This would not be the first time I had to force someone unconscious to swallow something.” Not often to save a life, though. Usually to end it. “How much does he need to drink?”
“At least that entire bowl.”
Beiyuan puts his hands to Wu Xi’s and Chengling’s elbows. Without another word, he leads them from the room and pulls the doors closed behind him.
“Can’t drink,” Zhou Zishu mutters. “Bullshit.”
It’s easier to sit with his back to one end of the bed, lean Wen Kexing against him so he rests against his chest, head tipped onto his shoulder. He’s lost enough weight that his shoulder blades are mountain spines through the fabric of his robes.
The angle of his head helps with keeping his mouth open, but Zhou Zishu does have to gently pry his jaw down, and the first thing he smells is blood on Wen Kexing’s breath—fresh, like it’s never left his tongue. Then he dips the tiny wooden spoon into the bowl of water, raises it to Wen Kexing’s lips, and trickles it between his teeth.
What had Tianchuang taught him? Someone who was far down enough in unconsciousness, who wouldn’t swallow, was beyond the help of anything they could possibly swallow. How easy was it to trigger a dying person’s swallow reflex? Too easy—more than once he’d wished it was harder, because it would’ve made kills easier. Elevation of the head, and not letting them choke. Tiny spoonfuls.
Zhou Zishu closes Wen Kexing’s jaw, runs the tips of his fingers down the column of his throat on both sides of his trachea to meet in the dip of his clavicle. Just before it was low enough to hit his gag reflex. If he were awake—oh, if he were awake, Zhou Zishu could only imagine what Wen Kexing would say. You were running your fingers along my neck, A-Xu? What were you looking for? It looks good with a sword against it, perhaps, but it looks better with your hand upon it.
Then, so imperceptibly that Zhou Zishu thinks he imagines it, Wen Kexing’s throat bobs with a weak swallow.
Zhou Zishu stares down at his face, frozen, thinking if he holds still for long enough that Wen Kexing might open his eyes. Of course he doesn’t.
But he swallows again. So slowly, as if he’s gulping down air instead of water, but gasping is better than silence. Zhou Zishu waits long minutes between each spoonful. His back grows sore, spine creaking under the unnatural bend he sits in to support Wen Kexing against him, and still he sits until the spoon scrapes the bottom of the bowl.
Tremors shake him up to his shoulder when he sets down his spoon, arm barbed with cramps. His head meets the headrest of the bed with a thunk, and he thinks about laying Wen Kexing down on his side and crawling into the space next to him.
Gao Xiaolian is humming again. He closes his eyes to listen.
This time, he does have white hair.
Here in the cloud-place, the sun-plane, up here where rain forms its big fat tears, Wen Kexing looks like something molded out of all the skystuff himself. He’s wearing pale blue and lilac, the color of dawn at winter’s end. He has his fan. He’s still smiling.
Zhou Zishu’s shoes are damp from the climb, and if he treks mud into the spot beside Wen Kexing, neither of them care to mention.
“Do you know who I saw up here this morning?” says Wen Kexing. His fan is folded, caught in his hands looped behind his back. “You’ll never guess, A-Xu.”
“A stupid little girl.” Wen Kexing sighs silently. All the evidence is in the rise and fall of his shoulders. He’s so solid here—run into him and you’d fall back on your elbows. “With a big, stupid heart.”
Zhou Zishu has learned that Wen Kexing speaks more when he doesn’t have to meet his eyes. He peers out into the clouds. “What was she doing here?”
“She asked if I was dead.”
“And what did you tell that poor, stupid girl?”
“I asked if she wanted me to be. Brothers, I’ve been told, are not so easy to come by in the next life.” He shakes his head. “But before I could think about what I’d asked, all she did was make this face. Wrinkled nose, like she’d smelled rotting fish. Always hated it more than bodies. She made it when she knew I was coming to her to ask her to do something she didn’t want, and then told me to stay where I was. You know why?”
Zhou Zishu’s throat is dry as the sand beneath him. “Why?”
“Because she said I would be the most annoying person she’d have the misfortune of sharing the next life with if I was alone for it.” Wen Kexing finally turns to him. “‘You can be my brother in another life,’ she said. ‘You have to be a husband first.’”
Finally, Zhou Zishu turns to stare, but Wen Kexing only laughs, opening his fan to flutter it against his chest.
“Lao Wen,” he starts, but Wen Kexing has turned away to head down the path down the mountain. “Wait. Wait, Shidi! Where—”
“Keep up, A-Xu!”
“Where are you going? What do you mean, by—?”
“Did you not hear me the first time? Really, A-Xu, I’m starting to worry you’re wasting all the senses I restored back to you. Ah, you wound me. You give someone your forever, and then they ask you what it means. Shixiong, you know you’re older, you ought to be nicer to me. Come on. You can walk the edge of the sky for me another time. For now, walk the cape of every sea with me.”
“Yeah, A-Xu! I’m here! I’m always here. I’m always gonna be.”
The hard, fast drop of waking, and—
The dark of nighttime presses in on his eyes when he opens them, with only a solitary candle to light the room. With their windows always open, the curtain sleeves billow with the winds.
Zhou Zishu’s body is so taut with cramps that he sits motionlessly long enough for him to register the brush of eyelashes against his cheek. His head had sagged in sleep, bowing low enough that his chin nearly rests in the crest of Wen Kexing’s shoulder.
Soft, textured breath against his cheek. Again: “A-Xu.”
Zhou Zishu sits up so suddenly his back cracks, neck burning as if a whip had been drawn across his skin. Even in darkness, Wen Kexing’s eyes are open wide enough to catch the candle flames. They’re dancing.
“There he is, the slumbering beauty,” he says in a hoarse voice that doesn’t sound at all like himself, but it’s tangible, real, alive.
“First thing you call me upon waking up can’t even be ‘Shidi’? Such as, ‘my dear Shidi who saved my life,’ or something similar?” He coughs, hacking on dry. “Ah, A-Xu. I’d ask if we were dead, but I think you would have hit me by now.”
“Don’t rule it out,” Zhou Zishu says. He tries to sound angry, but his voice is fractured firewood and kindling. “You reckless, stupid, lying—”
“Hey, I told the truth in the end,” Wen Kexing protests. His hands have begun searching in the darkness, and they find Zhou Zishu’s holding him up by his waist. The tangle of their fingers is prewritten and aching. “Ignoring your shidi’s heartfelt confession is your business.”
Zhou Zishu begins to dislodge them so he can take Wen Kexing’s pulse, lie him down and ask him if he has any lingering pain, sit him up properly and transfer him internal energy so his meridians won’t bend under the pressure of his sudden return to waking. He should move. He needs to do something with his hands.
But when he begins to let go, Wen Kexing clutches him tighter, curling himself into the space between Zhou Zishu’s legs. He clamps his arms down so Zhou Zishu can’t extract them.
“Don’t let go! Don’t let go.”
“Lao Wen, you’ve just woken up from days of being unconscious. I have to—”
“In a moment. Not yet. Just,” Wen Kexing is starting to heave for breath, like he’s really panicking, and Zhou Zishu settles back so they can stay together. “Hold onto me and don’t let go, A-Xu.”
“I won’t let you go.”
And so they sit in tangled silence, two huge, hollow towers with tiny flames in their windows.
Zhang Chengling cries. For once, Zhou Zishu doesn’t tell him to stop. He doesn’t even tell him to give Wen Kexing more space.
“Shishu.” He weeps piteously, soddening Wen Kexing’s shoulder where he’s propped up in bed. “Shishu, if you really died, then what would we do? What would Shifu do? I’d go back to having no family. It’s too hard to lose everything twice.”
“I know, xiaozi.” Wen Kexing pats the back of Chengling’s head. “Also, what do you mean no family? Is your Shifu nothing to you? At least say that somewhere he can’t hear.”
“If you died, Shifu would—”
“Okay, that’s enough,” Zhou Zishu says. He unwinds Chengling’s limbs and hands him a handkerchief. “You’re allowed to cry or you’re allowed to speak nonsense, not both at the same time. Wipe your face.”
“Your shishu is not going anywhere.” Wen Kexing reaches for Chengling’s hand and pats his knuckles. His fingers are wiry. “Not before I teach you how to make noodles for yourself, at least. Good heavens.”
Beiyuan and Wu Xi are both gone from the estate this morning to visit the local apothecaries for regional medicines. Chengling trots back and forth between the wells and their pavilion for tubs of cold water, and then ducks out.
“Deng Kuan shixiong said he’s rehabilitating his sword forms,” he explains when Zhou Zishu raises his eyebrows. “It’ll be the only time he’s slow enough for me to keep up with!”
“Don’t be gone too long.”
Sweet, half-bitter vapor rises from the tub where xiangru herb, ground kudzu root, and sesame leaves had been soaked overnight in hot water so they’d be ready to drop into ice water. Zhou Zishu shivers at the thought of climbing into an ice bath.
“In the short time I had with them, my parents never let me swim in the stream after autumn passed.” Wen Kexing eyes the tub warily. “This feels counterintuitive.”
“Just wait till you hear what we have to eat and drink.” Zhou Zishu holds his arms out for Wen Kexing to swing his legs out of bed, and holds his weight against his chest when he straightens up on fawn-weak legs. “It’s not wine, I’m afraid.”
The distance between the bed and the tub isn’t far, and Wen Kexing stands with his shoulders squared and back straight, but Zhou Zishu can feel the tremors in his hands as he walks. Then they pass a mirror, buffed as clear and flat as a pond, and Wen Kexing startles at their reflections.
“Lao Wen.” Zhou Zishu glances at the mirror, then back at Wen Kexing’s face. Close enough, again, to leave a kiss on his cheekbone. “Are you okay?”
“He said it would happen,” says Wen Kexing. “I just didn’t think I would live to see what it looks like. I’m ghastly, aren’t I, A-Xu?”
“You look exactly like a ghost that threatens people’s worst nightmares. In the bath with you, I can feel your knees giving.”
He starts for the ties of Wen Kexing’s belt. The night they’d come back from dueling Ye Baiyi, Wen Kexing’s middle had been so bruised and tender that even the release of his belt being undone had made him suck air through his teeth.
“A-Xu! Give me a moment. It is indecent that this is the first time you’re undressing me. Have you no sense of propriety? The villa leader of Four Seasons, even.”
“Keep talking and I will dunk you the moment I have a chance.” Zhou Zishu sets Wen Kexing’s hands on the end of the tub so he has something to hold onto, and then moves to stand behind him and starts undoing the ties of his robes. So long has he been lying prostrate in the same set that the wrinkles have become part of the fabric pattern itself. “Also, this is the second.”
“Huh. Stop squirming.”
“But I’m ticklish, and you’re doing—something, over there—”
“I’m untying your ribbons is what I’m doing. I said stop squirming.”
What Zhou Zishu means is, if you look at me, I too will forget what I’m supposed to be doing, or what I’m supposed to say.
“How did we get off the mountain?”
“Very slowly. Arms up.”
“I can undress myself, you know.”
“Okay,” Zhou Zishu says, tossing Wen Kexing’s layering robe over the privacy screen, satin slipping off the wooden paneling to puddle on the floor. He’d tossed too hard. “Let’s see you try.”
All that separates him and Wen Kexing is a thin layer of linen. Neither of them move.
Then, slowly, Wen Kexing reaches for the last ties at his waist and undoes them with one hand. He peels off the last of his robes and lets it fall. Zhou Zishu stares at the back of his head and everything above his shoulders.
For a heartbeat, he studies the surface of the water in silence, and then holds his hand out to the side with the shaky hesitation of someone needing a lift up into a carriage.
“A-Xu,” he says, muted. “Can you…?”
Zhou Zishu steps up behind him, touching him nowhere but his hand, and helps him into the tub.
Wen Kexing sinks into the water with a hiss until everything below his neck morphs into shapeless pale streaks under the surface. Zhou Zihu holds his hair out of the water and throws it over the back of the tub. It’s so brittle and dry, like a handful of straw.
“You can go.”
“How are you going to get out?”
“Very slowly,” Wen Kexing says, leaning back against the tub wall and closing his eyes. The ends of his hair trail along the floor like a horsetail whisk.
The cut on his cheek has healed, but his meridians have been so barren, his internal energy so broken, that the cuts on his hands where the blade had dug down to his bones are still scabbing.
“Give me your hand,” Zhou Zishu says. He nudges a footstool to the side of the tub with his ankle, the wooden feet creaking its cheerful tune across the floor. “Left one first.”
Wen Kexing opens his eyes to stare. “Why?”
Zhou Zishu just sits down with a rag, holds out his own, and waits.
“It’s only been days,” says Wen Kexing pensively, lifting his arm from the water. Herbs slough off his skin. “And it’s like I’ve woken up to a different you, A-Xu. Maybe I really am dead, and I got lucky and was reincarnated into the body of a wretched infirm. That would make sense. All the pain—all the death. All that I have done. All that I owe. If I use the merits to reincarnate into a human body, then I wouldn’t deserve to live an easy life. You agree, don’t you, A-Xu?”
Zhou Zishu uncurls Wen Kexing’s fingers and rubs away the bits of dead, raw skin around the scabs. They’re ugly and puckered. Even with medicinal pastes, Wen Kexing does not heal like he once used to.
“So what do you suppose I am, in this balanced reincarnation?” Zhou Zishu asks. He blows a flake of dead skin away where it keeps sticking. “A doctor?”
“I’ll be a thief,” suggests Zhou Zishu. “With a bounty. And then after that...after that, I’m not sure.”
“After that, let’s just be two spiders in the same corner of a barn,” says Wen Kexing. “Live by night. Spin our webs by day. Eat little flies. Die when the snows come.”
He holds out his other hand when Zhou Zishu releases his left, sliding it back into the water. The scabs on his right aren’t nearly as deep, and he sits on the edge of the tub so that Wen Kexing won’t have to lean so far for him to reach.
“Chengling is probably scared of spiders,” Zhou Zishu says. “Pick a different bug.”
“You underestimate him. He sent his own master off to his death, then had to tell his martial uncle the worst lie he’s ever told.”
Zhou Zishu can say nothing to that, so he doesn’t. Instead, he finishes rubbing away the itchiest bits of the scabs in silence. When he lets go, Wen Kexing grabs on.
He turns to him. They’re close enough to share air. Perhaps they always have. One of them was the inhale, the other, the exhale.
“A-Xu,” Wen Kexing whispers. “Don’t leave me, too.”
Wen Kexing is not a man who is ever at a loss for words. Zhou Zishu has seen the way he looks now before, in the Armory right after they’d made it inside, and Zhou Zishu admitted aloud that he’d wanted to die until he loved someone enough to live. The fire-flicker of regret. The red veined prickle of tears.
Zhou Zishu tilts head up and leans in. This time Wen Kexing is awake for it—the press of Zhou Zishu’s lips to his forehead. His breath hitches, and he shivers. It has nothing to do with the icy chill of the bath.
“Don’t save Shixiong’s life like that again,” Zhou Zishu says. “And I won’t go anywhere you can’t follow.”
There are no clouds at the peaks of Four Seasons Villa. Instead, Zhou Zishu looks down, and there’s nothing but an ocean of light beneath them—the city, the fires that keep it going, and the hum of things living.
“Laobing Gui, what are you still doing up here? My ge is waiting for you.”
“Call me that again, see what happens when I find you.”
“Zishu ge,” she laughs. “My ge’s life is yours to look after now. Promise me you’ll take good care of it.”
“I know. I will. Go well, and go happily, stupid girl.”
Wen Kexing, who’s always been so good at staying awake overnight, falls asleep at sunset with his head resting on Zhou Zishu’s shoulder. Chengling brings them their dinner portions of ice water where they sit on the awnings of the pavilion roof.
Beiyuan and Wu Xi have agreed to send them off at the feet of Mount Changming, where Ye Baiyi had made his residence for so many years. Tomorrow they set off—it’s just as well that Wen Kexing gets as much sleep as he can before the journey through the snow. Cold is good for them, but ice and freezing rain are still miserable.
He pours himself a cup of water, singlehanded. The other is folded into both of Wen Kexing’s, their fingers slotted together.
On these roofs, they’re not high up enough for clouds under their feet. The horizon is studded with angled roofs and a handful of watchtowers, beacons burning as night begins to fall. Zhou Zishu can close his eyes and listen to the distant thrum of the time moving forward.
“A-Xu,” Wen Kexing slurs. “Ah, I fell asleep. Is the moon out yet?”
“Oh, good. I thought we’d miss our last moon in the city.”
“It’s much brighter in the mountains.” Zhou Zishu turns his head until he can press his lips to the crown of Wen Kexing’s head, long enough that it’s unmistakably a kiss. “There are plenty of chances to look up at it when we get home.”
“I went home long ago,” says Wen Kexing. “I think as soon as I met you, A-Xu.”
Zhou Zishu tightens his hand. Drinks another drink.
Funny. So had he.