Miu, second-in-command of the Kinshu amazons, groaned in irritation as she paced back and forth before four of her fellow tribeswomen. Coi's orders made sense to her in theory: use this mercenary assignment as a rite of passage for the tribe's four least-experienced members. All of the Kinshu- and all of the other tribes of the Northern Wastes collectively known as the Mung Sha people- were required to pass a test in order to earn a proper name. Miu herself had been known simply as "Runt" for the first eighteen years of her life; it was only after her bloody trial-by-fire that Coi gave her the name of Miu.
Today, these four young women would have a similar opportunity. Where the logic fell through was in just who those four young women were.
"So we're babysittin', then?" said one of them. She was the youngest member of the Kinshu- probably seventeen or eighteen, Miu wasn't sure. In any case, she was nicknamed Mohawk after her rather unflattering hairstyle, and she did not look happy with the assignment.
"You're watching this building," Miu said, shooting a cold glare at the mohawked girl. There was no reaction from her or her comrades. Miu could feel their lack of respect for her in the air; it was palpable. These girls only respected Coi, and no doubt each of them thought that they could easily take Miu's place at her side. "Observation is an important part of any hunt. If we were back in the steppes, and you saw your target in the distance, you would not merely run after it and hope for the best, would you?"
Another one spoke up, sneering at Miu. "I don't know. I'm a pretty fast runner." This one Miu called Scarface. A few years back, she had challenged one of the more honored Kinshu to a fight, and her face still wore the many marks of her loss that day. She was a bitter and arrogant young woman, one Miu disliked intensely, even among the Bottom Four.
Ignoring Scarface's remark, Miu continued. "The four of you should work as a team. Observe your targets. Formulate a plan of attack. Wait until the moment is right, and then…"
"Then I break that skinny Jiangese bitch over my knee," said another. She sat atop one of the primitive lionine gargoyles that was perched at each corner of the rooftop, drumming her talons on the effigy's snout. Her hair was tied into dozens of thin braids atop her head, each dangling carelessly. Braids licked her lips anxiously, revealing the filed, triangular teeth behind them. She was an animal, no doubt; the only thing keeping her in the "Bottom Four" was her complete lack of respect for the Kinshu's customs.
Braids was considerably bigger and stronger than Miu, surpassing even Coi in sheer muscle mass. She was the largest and strongest member of the tribe, a fact that Braids took much pride in. Considering what she knew about Braids, Miu wondered if she was the real target of the hulking amazon's colorful comment.
Miu stifled a shiver and folded her arms across her chest. "This is a test," she said, exhaling slowly. "Fulfill this mission and you will have earned your rank as true Kinshu warriors. You must prove to Coi and I that you are not only capable fighters, but clever and patient as well. Do this, and you will have your names."
Braids snorted loudly, getting to her feet. "We have to prove to Coi, you mean. I don't consider you a part of the equation."
This insult was a little more direct, and Miu had to fight herself back from retorting. She clenched her teeth tightly and continued. "You have your orders, sisters. I will be watching you."
She bowed her head slightly. It was the closest thing to a salute she could manage for such despicable young women. Only one of them- the last of the "Bottom Four" that had remained silent throughout her briefing- returned the gesture. That one was called Blondie for her unusual golden hair. Miu knew little about her, only that she was of partly Aropean descent and was a close friend to Braids. What she saw in that animal, Miu would never know; however, associating so closely with the Kinshu's black sheep was enough of a mark on her character.
Miu turned and crossed to the rooftop's edge, then leapt gracefully across the gap between the buildings. As she silently climbed to the top of the adjacent roof, she cast a quick glance back at the Bottom Four. Braids was still staring at her, cracking her knuckles. Miu huffed annoyedly and continued on.
Coi had asked her to personally observe the Bottom Four during the operation. She was to evaluate their performance and, she believed, have the final say on whether or not any of them would ascend into the true pecking order of the Kinshu. It was quite the responsibility she had been given, and normally Miu would have been honored, but not tonight. She hated the Bottom Four; they were arrogant, petty, and behaved more like animals than proud Kinshu warriors. They were nothing like Coi.
The sun was beginning to lean toward the Western side of the sky. Midday was a few hours past, and soon the sky would begin to darken. Officially, the Bottom Four were to begin their attack then. Miu doubted they would have the patience. No, more than that, she hoped they would disobey their orders; it would give her an excuse to exile the four of them from the Kinshu forever. The tribe was starting to get crowded enough as it was; most of their numbers were still back in the Wastes, trying to hold onto whatever land they could. Coi had taken only seven of their members with her on this expedition into Jianghu, and for some reason the Bottom Four were among her choices.
As she found herself a comfortable position atop another, higher rooftop a half-block away, Miu saw a tiny shadow slipping into the alleyway next to the building their target resided within. The name of Lu Chao-Mu flashed into her mind. It was the poisoner, the rotten old man that was also assigned to dispatch Zhu Lien. Another look back at the Bottom Four told her that her would-be peers had failed to notice the sly old man's approach.
So be it, Miu thought. Now they've got competition to deal with. A hint of a smile crept up on her face, and she thought back on what her leader had told her about Lu Chao-Mu.
He's a menace, Coi had said after the briefing with that awful Eunuch. Lu Chao-Mu is a stain on the world. He should be scrubbed out of existence.
And yet, Coi had betrayed a sort of begrudging respect for the old killer. He was formidable, that was for sure; at least as much so as any of the Bottom Four. Perhaps his presence would force that quartet of disrespectful she-punks to step up their game.
Not a moment after the shadowed form of Lu Chao-Mu disappeared into the alley, Miu sensed movement from the Bottom Four on the roof next to Zhu Lien's safehouse. Had they spotted the poisoner? Miu crawled over to the opposite side of her rooftop perch, searching for a better viewpoint.
Braids seemed particularly tense, and even from several buildings away Miu could see her muscles tensing as she leaned over the edge of the roof. She started to make a move of some kind, but Blondie grabbed her by the arm, pulling her back. Had it been any other member of the Bottom Four, Braids would likely have slashed her to ribbons with her claw-like fingertips, but instead she relented.
Miu's gaze was drawn to the back alley below, and what she saw there took her by surprise. Zhu Lien, her two hired fighters, the weakling scholar, and another woman had emerged from the rear entrance of their safehouse. They were leaving.
The question now was how the Bottom Four would react. Would they break their orders and attack now that their target was visible? Would they pursue Zhu Lien and watch for another chance to strike? Would they wait at the safehouse and set up a more effective ambush?
Miu sank back behind cover as one of Lien's warriors, a man dressed all in white, happened to glance up in her general direction. He must not have spotted her, because when Miu chanced a glance back down, he was in the middle of a shoving match with the spearman at his side. Miu smirked, wondering how Lien expected to accomplish anything with such strife in her ranks.
Then again, she thought as she looked down at the Bottom Four, who were silently watching from above like vultures, we're not doing much better.
"Stop it!" Lien snapped, putting herself between the Ah brothers. Her eyes bounced back and forth between the two fighters, both of whom had turned red in their anger. "Look, Tian, I know you're eager to fight the Devil Gang, but we have to do this first, okay?"
Tian scratched his head, looking away from her in shame. "Yeah. Fine."
He seemed a bit embarassed at his outburst. Ah Fei had directed yet another verbal barb at his impulsive nature, and it had set him ablaze. It never stopped. This was just a small part of why he wished his brother had never gotten involved with all this.
Lien shook her head, giving Tian a reassuring pat on the arm, and looked back at her friend Sai. "You know I don't have to remind you to be careful," she said.
Sai grinned. "Same for you."
Lien bowed her head slightly. "We'll come back here as soon as we're finished. Hopefully we'll all have something useful to report by then." With that, she gave Tian another pat on the arm- a signal to start moving. "Later, Sai. Be safe."
"I'll make sure that she comes home in one piece," Ah Fei said, raising one finger to his lips and then flinging it back toward Lien. It took her a moment to realize that he was blowing her a kiss, but when she did, she quickly straightened up and hurried to Tian's side. Lau Ban, still silent and awkward as he had been since the return to Guonan, tagged along just behind them.
The spearman exhaled hard, putting his hands on his hips. He looked over at Sai and asked, "Are you sure she likes me?"
Sai was still watching her friends depart, staring at their backs almost longingly. After a moment, she snapped out of her daze. "What?"
He decided not to pursue it any further. "Nevermind. Let's get moving, shall we?"
She looped her arm through his and smiled. "Let's."
Guonan in the afternoon was far different than it had been in the early morning. It now seemed less like a ghost town, as there were more than a few citizens milling about in the streets, shopping at the little roadside stands and going about their daily tasks. Nonetheless, there was something off about it all; there was no doubting that.
It was fear, Ah Fei realized. Eyes darted to and fro cautiously as shoppers withdrew their Taels from their coin purses. Merchants gulped as they saw him pass. A pair of young boys playing with their toy swords in the street scampered when they caught a glimpse of him. As reassuring as it was to know that his Devil Gang disguise was convincing, Ah Fei was startled to find that Lien's claims of the Gang's iron grip on Guonan were hardly exaggerated. In his march toward the center of town, he saw not a single citizen whose face did not betray their fear of his costume.
He tried to keep enough distance between himself and Sai as to not appear as if he were following her exactly. He had learned in the past how to shadow a target, keeping tabs on their location and following their footsteps while still remaining inconspicuous. It was a valuable tool in his trade. It was too rare that he used this skill for a good cause.
Once Sai led him out of the "poor district," he began to see the Devil Gang's men in the streets. They stood on street corners and patrolled up and down the avenues, and it was a fair challenge to avoid their gazes. These were vicious men; he spotted on at least two occasions a Devil Gang footsoldier standing alongside a merchant as he sold his wares, no doubt taking every last Tael for himself. This was more than just typical criminal syndicate behavior. It reminded him of a city occupied by an enemy nation's army during wartime, and now the citizens were under a martial law imposed by the Devil Gang.
Lien was right. This was far from a normal instance of a criminal group rising to power. There was something more at work here.
The idea continued to pound in his head over and over as he and Sai drew closer to the center of Guonan and the Devil Gang's headquarters there. A military occupation…
A deep, penetrating whoosh echoed through the bedchamber as Devil Yuan exhaled. He stood alone, legs spread and his weight lowered, his extravagant robes discarded in favor of a pair of simple training trousers. He cleared his mind and sucked in air, feeling the power of his qi travelling up from his core and spreading to every corner of his being. It flowed with the air, invigorated his being, and he began to move.
It had been many years since he had practiced this particular form. It was a simple breathing exercise, truly; he had long since surpassed the need for the actual hand-to-hand applications of this sequence of movements. He had discovered new techniques, new forms, that fit him far better; nonetheless, he had not practiced his breathing in some time. Dealing with the Devil Gang and working with Han had left him with little free time, and these days he was more interested in spending that time with his wife than training.
It was nearing the day when the next four Heavenly Kings would be elected by the Circle of Martial Brotherhood. There were no hungry young fighters hunting him down and challenging him anymore. His star had faded; his once-legendary fighting spirit came and went with the winds now. Centipede had not seen the light of day for months, and Devil Yuan was startled to find that he no longer ached to send his legendary weapon ripping through the flesh of his opponents.
So why had he felt the need to begin training again? There was no reason to ponder that now. He had felt an impulse and acted on it. The movements of the form felt as natural as they had when he was in his prime. His breath flowed freely; joints and muscles that had not been exercised in far too long moved as effortlessly as if he had never stopped.
When he was a young boy, Devil Yuan's father had called him "a natural." When he began training in the martial arts, he worked half as hard as his peers and yet grew in skill twice as fast. He was a rare talent, a born genius at the martial arts. Before he knew it, tales of his incredible skill were spreading across Jianghu, but not once had he felt that he truly deserved it.
His fellow Heavenly Kings were paragons of hard work and tireless effort. Superleg Kon and Sword Goddess in particular had done enough training in their lifetimes to turn an entire battalion into martial arts masters, but Devil Yuan had reached the exact same rank while never once feeling as if he had truly exerted himself. Compared to his peers, he had hardly worked for his fame at all. In some ways, he envied them. He wished he had their work ethic. It would have made all of this Devil Gang nonsense so much easier.
He finished the form, exhaling deeply and standing erect, allowing his qi to drop back into his core until he could feel its warm pulsations no longer. He felt little satisfaction; his body was still oddly restless despite the workout he had given it. Very well, Devil Yuan thought. I'll just do a little more.
All thoughts and ponderings were exorcised from his mind. He allowed them all to drift away, his being emptying into an abyss. From here he could tap into his true power, let his qi flow to its fullest. He felt it well up within him, surging into his limbs as he breathed. It radiated from him, filling him with strength beyond that which his muscles alone could produce, and he began his next demonstration.
His arms blurred, shooting through the air as he parried the oncoming blows of a hundred imaginary opponents. His feet shifted him seamlessly through a dozen stances, his body moving with a spryness that defied his age and lack of training in recent years. Had there been any observers present, they would likely have been stopped dead in their tracks by the sight of it all.
Finally, he came to a halt, again letting his energy drain away. As conscious thought returned to him, Devil Yuan felt himself smiling. It felt good. It was like he had never stopped.
Even as the voice's intrusion startled him, his body began to move. He sprang back, taking a low stance, his nearest arm whipping up into the air to intercept the incoming blow. A sound like a whip's crack tore through the bedchamber, and as soon as it ebbed, it was replaced by a schoolgirlish giggle.
Devil Yuan's smile widened. "Afternoon, Mei."
She held her attacking posture, grinning. Tu Mei stood on one leg, her high kick stopped completely by her husband's instictive parry. It was a good kick; an average man would likely have been felled by its stroke. To Devil Yuan, it was child's play. Oddly enough, she seemed delighted at the failure of her attack. "You haven't lost a step," she said.
He shifted his stance ever-so-slightly, using his parrying arm to grab Mei's ankle and twist it slightly. She gasped as she was set off-balance, stumbling, but managed to catch herself on her hands, bending backwards and propelling herself back onto her feet.
Devil Yuan clapped, stepping toward her. "You've still got to work on your balance, love." He wrapped his hands around her lower back and pulled her in, wrapping his lips around hers.
She pulled away after a moment, wiping her lips with the back of her hand. "You smudged my lipstick! Now I'm gonna have to redo it." She smirked and poked her husband's bare chest. "Not to mention you're all sweaty."
He raised his hands in surrender. "I am so sorry." He went to his bedside and retrieved one of his many robes, draping it loosely over his shoulders. "I got so into training that I almost forgot about the little party we're supposed to be throwing."
"That you did." Mei sat down on the bed next to him. She toyed with her hair, hoping the carefully-constructed buns had not come undone by her sudden burst of action. "Don't forget, we've got to keep the Gang in good spirits. They've got a lot of crazy stuff coming up soon."
'A lot of crazy stuff' doesn't even begin to cover it, Devil Yuan thought, running a hand through his slick hair. In fact, if they weren't such rotten bastards, I'd almost feel bad for asking them to do it.
"Something wrong?" Mei asked, cocking an eyebrow at him. "First you start training again out of nowhere, then you get that weird, lost-in-thought look in your eye…"
"It's nothing," he insisted, waving a hand at her. "Besides, aren't you the one who's usually casting doubt on this whole plan?"
Mei chuckled. "Can you blame me? We're leaving an awful lot of this up to that Eunuch. You know I can't stand that creeper." She looked away, her tone sobering. "Sometimes I wonder why we're even trusting him."
Devil Yuan threw his arm around Mei's shoulders and sighed. "Don't worry about that right now." He reached over and stroked her chin, guiding her eyes up to meet his. "We're going to change the world, Mei. I know getting there has been a rocky road, but…"
"Oh, for the love of…" Devil Yuan groaned as he got to his feet and crossed to the chamber door. He heard Mei griping behind him and could not blame her. "What is it?" he asked, not bothering to hide the aggrevation in his voice.
It was, of course, the attendant Yui. "A message from Mr. Han, sir," the timid attendant said through the door. "Shall I pass it to you under the door?"
"Just give me the gist of it," Yuan said, banging his fist lightly against his forehead.
A few moments passed. Devil Yuan was not sure if Yui had yet to read the message, or if he was simply chewing the moment over, trying to find the best way to put what he had to say. Finally, it came: "The move to Shienda is to commence in two days. No delays."
He heard the slight shuffle of footsteps as Yui put as much space between himself and his master as he could. Yuan stared at the door, his jaw gaping open.
"Yuan?" Mei asked. "What is it?"
He turned slowly, covering his mouth with one hand, his brow deeply furrowed. "Gods damn that Han," he muttered, crossing back toward the bed and sitting harshly upon it. Mei crawled over and laid her head down on his shoulder. He did not look up at her. "Two days…"
Mei sighed. "That's a little abrupt, don't you think?"
Her husband shook his head, still staring at nothing. "The men will be upset. They expected at least another week or two in Guonan."
Tu Mei leaned over Yuan's shoulder and gave him a kiss on the cheek, hoping it would better his mood. "Well, then," she said, forcing a smile, "this better be one hell of a party."
The main hall of what had once been Zhu Manor was filled with tables, and even though the party had only just begun, the chamber was already packed with bodies. In addition to the countless Devil Gang footsoldiers crammed into the tables, there were at least a dozen serving girls bouncing around all over the place, carrying drinks and food. A couple of the Gang's heavies were moving a few of the tables away from the center of the room to give the night's entertainment room to perform.
Ah Fei hated to admit it, but it was a pretty lively scene. True, the serving girls seemed a bit more anxious and even frightful than those at a normal party, and the partiers themselves all had knives and swords hanging from their belts, but this was not nearly as bad as he had expected. He stuck to the far side of the chamber, where he noted several of the more wallflower Devil Gang members were hanging out. Even a cutthroat gang like this one had a few loners among its ranks, and Fei was thankful that he seemed to be passing well for one of them.
According to what Sai had told him, she was to be one of the girls that would be out serving drinks during the party. Thus far, however, she had remained perched in the lap of the behemoth that sat in one of the large chairs on the raised platform before him.
The huge, bearded man lifted an entire jug of wine in one hand, pouring it down his gullet before belching enthusiastically. Sai laughed heartily, and Fei wondered if the reaction was genuine. She had pointed this man out to him as Koh the Mountain in the moments before she left his side. He was one of the higher-ups of the Devil Gang.
Aside from his sheer size, there was something about Koh that gave Ah Fei pause. He got the distinct impression that Koh was nothing like the similarly-built Bear of the Razor Three; this man's body was sculpted as if from iron, but he moved with a vigor that implied he could be quick on his feet, too. He hoped he would not have to fight the man, but at the rate he was drinking, it was unlikely that he would be able to pry himself out of that oversized throne before too much longer.
Sai almost seemed to be enjoying herself in his company, laughing at the giant's jokes and playfully slapping him on his barrel-like chest. He could not hear their words from his vantage point, but he was decent with reading lips and understood that it nothing more than small talk was going on between them. He was going to have to be patient; Sai could not risk trying to pry too much information out of anyone just yet. Once the party had dragged on a bit longer and the drinks had taken their effect, however…
One of the serving girls approached him bearing wine. He nodded respectfully and took a glass, but did not drink. Tian would have loved this, he mused. This is exactly his kind of scene.
That train of thought led him to a disturbing idea, however. He actually wouldn't seem so out of place in the Devil Gang's ranks…
No, no, that's awful, Fei. Don't think like that. Tian is a little sleazy, but he's not evil. Not like these men.
His eyes drifted to the side. There were three seats atop the raised platform where Koh the Mountain was. The center seat was empty, but the one on the opposite side was occupied by a young man dressed entirely in black. He was a handsome young man, but seemed preoccupied by something. Fei watched him shoo away an approaching serving girl and cup his chin in his palms.
Something seemed off about the young man. He was sitting opposite Koh the Mountain, implying that they might be equals in rank, but he was little more than a boy, likely just out of his teens.
Before he could think any further on the matter, a woman dressed in a fine pink gown appeared on the platform and marched over toward Koh's throne, where he and Sai were still chatting. Curious, Fei edged his way closer to the platform.
"Even though I'm a married man, y'know, I'm just sayin' that I think it's okay to enjoy the company of a beautiful woman, y'get me?" Koh stammered drunkenly, wavering in his seat so much that Sai nearly spilled out of his lap. "Sorry 'bout that."
"No, no, you're fine," Sai said, sitting up and taking a sip from the huge jug in Koh's hand. She had figured that this might happen; despite the fact that he was supposedly married and had two sons, Koh always managed to single her out when she worked these functions with the Devil Gang. He insisted that she come over and drink with him, and he refused to take no for an answer. The upside was that he was surprisingly gentle with her, and his manner was more friendly than she had expected from a Devil Gangster. The fact that his taste in wine was pretty good helped a bit, and he did have something of a loose tongue. She had learned a lot about the Devil Gang's movements and what they had been shipping in from outside Guonan through the hard-drinking man-mountain.
"But I'm tellin' ya," he continued, "I just love havin' ya around. I mean, I ain't cheatin' on Gin, right? We're jus' hangin' out. Y'know, a guy and a girl who are totally pla… pla…"
"Platonic," Sai finished for him.
"Yeah. An' I just think you've got the greatest, y'know, greatest boobs. Like I ain't never seen. Just fantastic boobs."
Sai laughed. "I'm flattered."
Koh grinned before chugging the remainder of the jug's contents and letting it drop noisily to the floor. "Maybe one a'these days, you might, y'know, if Gin tells me it's okay, 'cuz, y'know, I ain't gonna do it without askin' the Missus, maybe… let me touch 'em, just a little bit?"
What a lug, Sai thought. "I guess you'll just have to clear that with your wife, Koh."
"What if she says yes, though?" He almost looked like a puppy begging for scraps. If he had not been a member of the Devil Gang, Sai might have almost found his expression cute.
"Then we'll see about maybe letting you play with them a little," she said, poking Koh's reddened nose. "But not 'till then, okay?"
"Fine with me, sweet pea," Koh said, seemingly satisfied. "You gon' get anything to eat? You oughtta put a little meat on yer bones. Get a li'l bit of fat on ya, like my Gin's got. Fill out them dresses a'yers a li'l better. Yer a fine dame, that's fer sure, but I think you could stand to put on a couple pounds…"
"I've got a very fast metabolism," Sai said, shrugging. "Couldn't put on weight if I wanted to. But I appreciate the thought."
Sai glanced over to see a familiar figure approaching. Slinking across the platform toward them in her partly-translucent silks and high-heel shoes was Tu Mei, Devil Yuan's wife and sister to the eternally brooding Tu Shen, whom Sai was making even more of an effort than usual to avoid. Mei wore a smirk on her red-painted lips that seemed a bit forced. Sai was not used to seeing Mei seem troubled; usually, she had a smile that could almost convince her that she was not an evil Devil Gang concubine.
"See, we'll ask Mei here. She knows what I'm talkin' about." Koh waved her over, a vain motion considering that Mei was on her way to them already. "Mei! Tell her that she'd look good with a little more weight on her. Yuan'd agree with me." He looked over at Sai, still grinning. "Me an' Yuan grew up t'gether, see? We're best buds, and we got kinda similar taste in girls. We like a little bit a'body on 'em."
Mei stopped short, putting her hands on her hips. "You just called me fat, Koh."
"I did not!" he laughed. "'Sides, Mei, you know I think you're the cutest little star in the whole sky. Prettiest diamond in the jewel box, ain't that what Yuan'd call you? Sexiest little…"
"I get it, I get it," she said, waving him off. She raised a hand in greeting to the lady in Koh's lap. "You're… Sai, right?"
Sai's eyebrows raised in surprise. She had only spoken to Mei a few times, despite seeing her at every party the Devil Gang threw. She had not expected the wife of Devil Yuan to remember her. "I am," she replied. "What's up, Mei?"
"Can I borrow you for a little while?" she asked. "Sorry, Koh. I know she's your major crush right now."
"Aw…" the giant started, but Sai got to her feet anyway.
"What's this about?" she asked, trying not to sound as anxious as she felt.
"Let's not talk about this here," Mei said quietly. "Come with me." She gestured for Sai to join her, then took her hand and led her across the stage.
Sai glanced back over her shoulder and saw Ah Fei standing amongst the shadows of the hall. He gave her a quick nod to let her know he would be following along. Just be quick about it, Sai thought as Mei led her toward the edge of the chamber.
They left through a side door and found themselves in a long, dimly-lit hallway that ran around the far perimeter of the main hall. Mei continued to drag her along for a bit, and Sai's mind raced. Did she figure me out? She wondered. Or did somebody spot Fei and knew I brought him along? How the hell would she know?
She knew Mei had some martial arts training, but as she watched the young woman's back as they walked together down the hallway, she wondered if she could beat her to the punch. She shuffled her free hand about in its sleeve, feeling the handle of the knife hidden away there. She could draw it quickly if the need arose, but Tu Mei was no ordinary Devil Gang mook. She was Devil Yuan's beloved wife. Killing her would be the end of the charade. She hoped it would not come to that.
Finally, near the end of the hall, Mei came to a stop and turned around to face her. She looked past Sai, as if watching to make sure no one had followed them. "Can you do me a favor?" she asked, avoiding eye contact with Sai. "If my brother follows us out here, can you, uh… look like you're making out with me?"
"I don't want him to know what I'm up to," she said. "I mean, you don't have to do it for real. Just make it look like that's why I dragged you out here."
Sai blinked, confused. "Um… I guess I can do that, if we have to. I'm not into girls that way, just so you know."
"You totally don't have to be," Mei said, grinning. "I am, though, and my brother knows that. And Yuan would be fine with it, so don't worry about him. This is about Shen."
"Okay, well…" Sai trailed off, shrugging. Get to the point already, she thought.
"Yeah, sorry." Mei grabbed both of Sai's hands. "So, Sai, the reason I brought you out here is because… well, you're probably the most beautiful woman here right now."
"Um, thanks," Sai said. This was growing more and more uncomfortable by the minute.
"Like I said, this is about Shen." Mei looked down, her grin fading. "I'm worried about him. He's been acting strangely lately, and… I can't help but think that it's because he's lonely. He doesn't have anyone to open up to, really…"
She sounded genuinely concerned, and Sai was reminded of her past impressions of Tu Mei. Amongst the vicious ranks of the Devil Gang, she had yet to find anything truly detestable about the girl aside from her identity as Devil Yuan's wife. Speaking about her brother, she sounded truly worried for him, and it almost tugged at her heartstrings.
"I want you to approach him," she said. "You know, kind of talk to him, and… I don't know. I feel like he needs somebody, and there's only so much I can do for him. He's my baby brother, and I love him, and I hate seeing him like this…"
"I understand," Sai said, swallowing.
"I must sound like a total weirdo, trying to hook my brother up on a date like this, but, y'know, we aren't going to be staying here much longer, so…"
Aren't going to be staying here much longer? Sai kept her face stoic, but catalogued this bit of new information regardless.
"…I don't think Shen's ever really been with a woman, and I think maybe as he's starting to get older, he's starting to feel like less of a man… you know, with Koh and my husband around him all the time, talking about manly things and having girls all over them. He's only twenty, so I don't know why he would feel that way, but…"
"But you never know," Sai said, nodding.
Mei squeezed her hands tightly. "So could you try and maybe make him happy? Get him to loosen up a bit? I just… I want to see him smile for a change."
Again, Sai found herself starting to forget just who this woman was. She smiled as sweetly as she could. "I'll talk to him," she said finally.
"Thank you," Mei said, her face opening up into a huge, heartwarming smile. "Gods, I really appreciate it. I mean, you didn't have to say yes, you know. You've made my night." She started to lean forward, her lips pursing, but stopped herself. "You said you aren't into girls, right?"
"Not like that," Sai said, patting Mei on the shoulder. She felt a little hypocritical saying no to the offer; after all, Sai actually loved to kiss her friends, including females, though it was hardly a sexual thing for her. She even kissed Zhu Lien on the lips regularly, although it was practically a running joke for her these days. Nonetheless, she could not accept a kiss from lips that had touched the man she hated more than anyone in the world.
Mei returned the gesture. "Okay, so, no kiss, then. But thanks, really. If you ever need anything from me, you just ask, okay? I'll tell Yuan. He'll get you anything you want."
"That's great," Sai said. "But it's no problem, really. Don't worry about repaying me."
Mei cocked her head to one side. "You absolutely sure? I am great with massages. Anytime you need a good rubdown, you know…"
"I think I'll be okay," Sai said, rubbing her hands together anxiously.
She was close to relenting, but Mei suddenly raised one finger. "I've got an idea. Are your ears pierced?" When Sai nodded, Mei reached up and started to undo the dangling diamond pieces dangling from her lobes. "Yuan got me these a couple of nights ago. He won't be mad, though. I'll explain it to him." She handed the earrings over to Sai, who raised her hands in protest. "I insist. They'll look so sexy on you."
"I really couldn't…"
"Take 'em," Mei said, forcing them into Sai's hands. "Go on and put 'em on. They're gorgeous. And super expensive. Six thousand Taels, y'know."
Wow. That was more than Sai had ever spent on anything in her life. She finally accepted, smiling. They were truly beautiful earrings. "Thank you," she said.
Mei helped her put the jewelry on, then stepped back when it was finished. "They look great. And thanks again, really. I know we don't really know each other that well, but… I think we could really be friends, Sai." She raised a finger to her chin thoughtfully. "What would you think about being… a Dutchess, or something like that?"
Sai was taken aback. "Come again?"
"Just throwing it out there. I just think it's high time us common-born girls got to have our stake in the world." She giggled. "If everything goes according to plan, then I'll see if I can't hook you up with some kind of nice, cozy position or something. I'll talk to Yuan about it."
If what goes according to plan…? Sai stuffed it away in the back of her mind. Something was starting to take shape there, and although it was still too early to make assumptions, Sai did not like the sound of things.
"Anyway, speaking of Yuan, I've got to get going," Mei said, backing away. "He's pretty upset, so I better go be with him."
Sai saw an opportunity and took it. "What's wrong?"
Mei shrugged. "More bad news from Eunuch Han," she said. "Sometimes I wish we had never hooked up with that guy."
Eunuch Han. Sai had heard the name Han whispered a few times, but had never actually seen the man. Now Mei described him as a Eunuch; it was one thing if she was using it simply as an insult, but what if he really was a Eunuch of the Imperial Court?
Too early for assumptions, Sai, she told herself. "Sorry to hear it. I'll take care of your brother for you, Mei."
The wife of Devil Yuan clasped her hands and bowed. "Tell me how it goes, okay?" she asked. "Come by tomorrow. I don't get to hang out with very many other ladies, so I'd like to talk to you. See you then?"
Sai waved. "If not sooner. Later, Mei."
"Bye!" Mei said, still beaming as she disappeared down the corridor.
A long, exasperated sigh escaped her lips as Sai raised a hand to her brow. What the hell am I getting myself into?
"Who was that?" a familiar voice asked. Sai was startled, whipping around to find Ah Fei leaning against the wall behind her. "Sorry," he said. "Didn't mean to scare you."
Sai brushed a loose bang back into place. "That was Devil Yuan's wife, Tu Mei. She wants me to hang out with her brother. I'm sure you spotted the kid in all black sitting on the platform earlier."
"I did. You're going to see what you can learn from him?"
"Seems to be the case." Sai lightly jabbed Fei in the arm, happy to be close to him again. "Tonight's already been pretty fruitful, so we'll see where this goes."
Ah Fei stroked his goatee. "She's a fine-looking woman. Too bad she's the Devil's concubine."
Sai looked away, still unsure of what to think of Tu Mei. For all intents and purposes, if it were not for her connection to their mortal enemy, Sai thought she could certainly have been friends with the girl. "She's actually rather nice," she said. "A little too fond of me for my tastes, but she did give me some very nice earrings."
The spearman examined them and whistled. "No kidding. Those things were made for you, Sai." He looked around. "Heading back to the party now?"
"Yep," she said, righting herself and fixing her robes. "I've got to look my best for our friend Tu Shen."
"He's a little young for you, don't you think?" Fei asked jokingly.
Sai shrugged. "Maybe he's into older women."
Drunken, swaggering idiots.
He hated all of them.
Tu Shen's pink eyes drifted carelessly across the chamber as boredom overtook him. Why did he keep coming to these pointless parties? Would it really look so bad for Devil Yuan to have his left-hand throne empty? Hell, he could let Mei sit there instead of perching in his lap all the time like some kind of floozy. It would be far more respectful to her.
He glanced down at the center of the chamber, where the same trio of dancing girls that usually performed for them was again doing their act. They were beautiful, for sure; Tu Shen did have a fondness for beautiful things, and they possessed beauty in both their appearances and their movements. Traditional Jiangese dance was a joy to watch: graceful, precise, requiring years of training to become any good at. It was not unlike martial arts in that respect. He had wished to study it himself in his younger years, but men did not learn traditional dance. They learned to watch it, for sure, and to lust after those who performed it. Disgusting.
Again, one of the serving girls came to him, this time offering food. He wanted none of the fattening steamed rolls she offered and sent her away with a wave of his hand. This party was ridiculous. Almost none of the men here even knew or cared why they were being treated to such festivities. Only a few had been present for the arrival of the crossbow shipment. Tu Shen had inspected the units himself; they were sufficient. He dared not sully his hands with such disgraceful weapons himself, of course, but they would fit the footsoldiers well. Automatic crossbows were simply far too easy to use, too easy to kill with, and it was so impersonal. There was no thrill in simply shooting someone. There was no beauty in it.
He sighed and leaned back in his throne, not bothering to hide his displeasure at his current circumstance. He had intended on staying until his sister returned, but he was starting to grow tired of the noise. Shen would have risen from his seat and left at that moment had someone else not arrived.
A beautiful woman slinked around the side of his throne, lying a soft hand on his arm. She was startlingly attractive, and Shen realized that he had seen her before. She was the same woman that had been sitting with Koh earlier that night, a beauty that eclipsed perhaps even the dancers. She smiled at him warmly, staring into him with blue eyes that sent a tingle down his spine.
"You don't seem to be having much fun tonight," she said, leaning over and sitting on the arm of the throne. Her voice was had a slightly husky rumble to it, far different from most other women he knew.
Tu Shen looked up at her, blinking in surprise. "I'm not," he admitted after a moment. "I don't really like parties like this."
The woman giggled cutely, and Shen realized that she was considerably older than him, though no less beautiful for it. "You're shy," she whispered. "That's okay. My name is Hon Sai."
"Tu Shen," he said, looking away. "But you probably knew that already."
"I did. I haven't talked to you before, so I thought I might come give it a shot, see what you're like." She leaned closer to him, her busom filling his sight. "I don't guess you're too comfortable here, though."
He swallowed deeply. "I'm not."
She stood back up and positioned herself directly in front of his throne. "You want to get out of here? Maybe go somewhere a little quieter?"
Tu Shen glanced around nervously, Koh the Mountain catching his eye. The giant had one bushy eyebrow raised, watching with a combination of envy and curiosity. His sister and Devil Yuan were nowhere to be found.
He tugged at the collar of his robe, which felt somewhat tighter than usual for some reason. "Uh, sure…"
Sai's smile widened even further as she lifted one hand before him, waiting for him to take it. "Lead the way, Tu Shen."
[Closer: Well, my new year's resolution is to stop making statements about when the next chapter is coming! Work's been crazy lately, so there's no telling when I'll actually have the next one up, but... it should be an exciting one! Stay tuned: a lot goes down in the next installment!]