Zengmei poked her earlobe with her gold demon-spike of an earring a good five times before she finally found where the hole was and pushed it through. Her maid, Tian Wen, was looming over her, carefully gathering the top part of her hair into a jade comb carved with peonies.
It was the one Song Fenghai – second son of the Song Sect of Lushan – had given to her as an engagement gift. The wedding was due to occur a few weeks from now.
It was a wedding of necessity. Zengmei had no interest in love anyway.
Her sister, Ruilan, had taken a child of the Blood Sect and hopped along her merry way away from her responsibilities. Which left Zengmei to take her spot as the one who had to piece their clan back together.
Zengmei’s eyes flitted to the mirror, catching a glimpse of herself, red eyeshadow like flames across her eyelids. “You have to come with me tonight,” she said to Tian Wen, who was securing the bottom part of her hair with a ribbon.
“I thought Madam Jia said she didn’t want me to go with you,” Tian Wen replied.
Zengmei scoffed. “Who cares about what my mother says.”
Ten years ago, the prominent cultivation sects allied to rid their world of the Blood Sect – a clan once led by Hua Zhiyin, a respected cultivator who went rogue and founded blood cultivation; using spiritual energy in blood to strengthen their Qi.
The siege on the Blood Sect resulted in their eradication. Hua Zhiyin had died years before – rumours say that his gory method of cultivation made him go mad. His son, Hua Jing tried his very best to defend the clan against the attack, but in the end, he was dealt a sword through the heart.
The Jia sect had helped in the effort, but many disciples were killed, one of which was Zengmei’s younger brother Jia Han, the future leader of the sect… no longer. Her parents still wept for the death of their only son, and the leaving of their eldest daughter.
And Zengmei, their only child still remaining, had no place in their teary, bloodshot eyes.
Zengmei pushed in her other earring successfully. Tian Wen stuck a gold hairpin the shape of a phoenix through her hair. Zengmei never understood the need for such excess of jewellery. She preferred her plain black robes.
She had spent too much time in meditative isolation to remember what a proper banquet was like. The isolation heightened her spiritual ability to become almost unmatchable in the cultivation world, but didn’t do wonders for her social skills.
“My Lady, you are aware that the Song Sect will be at this banquet, so, at least try to be… proper?” Tian Wen said, a slight waver in her voice.
“I will,” Zengmei replied. She had been known in the past to use her sword rather than her words to make people listen to her – but she was a spiritual practitioner, a cultivator, she was beyond such antics.
Or so she would like to convince herself, and also have others believe.
She hid her sword under her robes. Its name was Huixue.
They announced Zengmei’s name when she walked into Huaiyang Hall like she was royalty.
“It is truly an honour to have you here, Second Lady Jia.” Madam Song and her fake smile – lovely indeed.
Zengmei was respectful though. She bowed. “Madam Song, it is a pleasure to be here.”
Madam Song’s hawk-eyes shifted to the slight bulge at her left hip. “My dear, you’re not carrying a sword, are you?”
Zengmei didn’t even flinch. “No, Madam Song, why would I bring a sword?”
The right question exactly.
That question was easily answered by the fact that the man sitting across from her assigned table, her supposed future husband, was not Song Fenghai at all. She could sniff the Yao’qi on him from here.
The Qi of a demon.
No doubt the bastard had probably killed the real Song Fenghai and was wearing his skin. Zengmei had smelt it on him the first time they met. He was definitely no low-level creature, but he was still unhuman nonetheless.
It would definitely put a pin in the whole marital plans and salvaging the Jia Sect if she unmasked him and killed him right then and there. It would also be quite off-putting on people’s appetites too, she supposed.
Zengmei had to find out his motive though. Was he targeting her? Her sect? The Song Sect? The entirety of the cultivation world?
The last one might be a bit of a stretch. Getting married to her certainly wouldn’t stir up the pot that much in terms of the cultivation world. Zengmei was powerful in terms of her cultivation levels, but she was by no means a significant figure.
She was shown to a redwood table ladled with assorted cold dishes and a pot of jasmine tea. Zengmei glanced across at ‘Song Fenghai’, whose table held a gleaming black bottle of wine.
The creature caught her gaze. He was leaned back casually in his chair, his hair pulled up and tied with a silver cuff and hairpin. He smiled; Zengmei didn’t miss the sly coyness in the curl of his lips and the flash of his canines.
Two wisps of hair framed the roundish face, the out-of-place gleam in those obsidian pupils didn’t so much as tremble when encountered with the flame flickering at the corner of the table.
His smile was unfitting, too malicious on the slightly pudgy face. The gleam in his eyes cut through his irises like a sliver of wayward starlight.
As Madam Song passed, he sat up straight, resuming a dull look that made his eyes look like they were bulging from his skull like those of a fish.
Zengmei had met the real Song Fenghai once before, and he definitely didn’t strike her as having the brightest of minds, but she could tell that he had no ill intentions; in fact, his heart was a kind one, so Zengmei would rather reserve her judgements of character for someone who had a punch in the face coming.
She turned Tian Wen, who was positioned slightly behind her. “Something isn’t right about him,” Zengmei said. “After the banquet, I need to get him alone.”
“My Lady, what do you suspect that he is?” Tian Wen asked.
“Some sort of demon spirit in human form,” Zengmei replied. “Can’t you smell the Yao’qi on him?”
Tian Wen shook her head. Zengmei should have known it was pointless to ask. Tian Wen was not a cultivator, her senses were indifferent to those of demonic creatures. However, that begged the question of why, among a roomful of cultivators was she the only one who seemed to notice the oddity.
“May I offer Second Lady Jia a cup of wine?” a voice said from above. Once again, Song Fenghai’s voice was too airy to fit with the twisty nature of this creature’s words; she knew what he was doing. “Unless your branch of cultivation prohibits such a beverage.”
“What kind?” Zengmei took the cup he was offering. Drinking had nothing to do with her ‘branch of cultivation’. Why would she ever give up alcohol?
“Plum blossom wine,” the creature answered. “Fitting for you, don’t you think?”
Zengmei attempted a laugh, but it was more like a soundless inhale that got stuck in her throat. “Sure,” she replied.
Her name – Zengmei; it meant ‘to gift a plum blossom’. It was a dainty name, had no cutting edge to it – just a flower that could be given away.
She let him pour the wine into the blue and white porcelain cup, and downed it in one go. She didn’t like how sweet it was.
The night was a clear one. The sweetness of the wine had turned sour on Zengmei’s tongue.
Huixue was almost buzzing at her hip, begging to be used. She couldn’t stare down that creature’s incessant sideways glances in her direction, as if prompting her to poke her sword into his throat. The blood would bob hot and syrupy down his neck, starkly red coming through those thin lips.
She shouldn’t be having such thoughts.
Her parents had invited a Daoist priest to their home when she was born to look at her ‘path’ in life – how the balance of the forces with reference to the Heavenly Branches and Earthly Stems had intertwined at the moment of her birth: sheng’chen’bazi – the year, the month and the day to form the ‘eight characters of her birthdate’.
He promptly concluded with maybe a shake of his head, “Your daughter’s xue’xin is strong.”
Xue’xin. Blood heart.
Perhaps Zengmei was just craving to shed some blood.
She should change the xue character in her sword’s name from snow to blood. The blood that always circled back.
“I can tell you want to leave.” The creature was so close to her, Yao’qi bombarding her enough to cause a stir in the flow of her own Qi.
“Sure,” Zengmei said. “Let’s leave.” Her metal headpieces rustled as she rose, ringing out Tian Wen’s protests.
“My Lady, you…” Tian Wen didn’t go on because Zengmei was already walking away, so she just sighed instead. She had known Tian Wen since she was around four; she was one of the few who could dissuade Zengmei from engaging in needlessly bloody antics.
Oftentimes, the bloody antics happened anyway.
Under a weak flamelight, Song Fenghai’s features melted away. Rounded jaw sharpened as though the soft, fleshy bits were cut away with the swipe of a dagger. Now that wolfish grin and keen-edged gleam matched his appearance.
Zengmei didn’t give him another chance to toy with her; forearm jammed across his collarbones, her hand and elbow pinned at each shoulder. Huixue was across his throat. One wrong move and the blade was ready pry open that lacklustre skin.
Zengmei slammed him against the wall, fire boiling at the pit of her stomach. “It’s you.” Her voice was lowered to a hard whisper. “Huli Jing.” Fox spirit.
Sometimes, an animal could cultivate its way to gain human form. Such spirits were akin to consuming human flesh to maintain a prolonged youthful appearance.
Male fox spirits were rare though, so Zengmei remembered a face when she saw one. Especially the face of her brother’s killer.
Ten Years Ago
When the night dissipated after the bloodbath was complete, dawn streaked the sky with the colour of the ground, the walls, the pillars, and the soldiers. The sun hung over them, leaking sluggish rays as though, it too, were wounded and bleeding.
The colour people wore at wedding, New Year… it was supposed to bring fortune.
Blood. To sacrifice yourself for the greater good was a glorious, honourable thing.
Huixue lay drenched in it. And Zengmei alive.
Droplets of blood in fresh snow looked like a string of plum blossoms. The first flower to break through the snow. The sign that the harshness of winter was over.
Her brother’s body in her arms was cold like the snow. The Han in his name meant cold. Their parents called him Han’er – cold child. He wasn’t meant to be cold. Not when his own sword was next to him with no blood staining the pristine metal.
He was the baby of the family. Had two older sisters meant to protect him. But Zengmei failed. They both failed.
But Zengmei especially.
She had been the one fighting Xue Kai. She was weak back then. Their abilities were almost a match, but they were not enough. She hadn’t cared about looking at his face, only the deafening clang of their swords.
Zengmei had caught him as he was trying to run away. She had been instructed. Not a single cultivator of the Blood Sect could be let free.
Especially one who wasn’t even human.
It felt like she was fighting him until the sky had grown faint and the earth was entirely dark. Zengmei had felt the flash of the blade coming towards her chest.
She couldn’t doge it in time. The sword plunged through skin. But not hers.
Holding her brother’s body, Zengmei had cried and screamed, but when had that ever let a person cheat death. You could say she had cheated death. However, the forces of the universe were always balanced.
Her brother had taken her place.
“Jie…Jie…” Each syllable was a slap across the face, a stab in the heart. To become strong, she had forced her will to become unbendable, tough as iron, so nobody could ever tear her down to her feeble, trembling core.
Why was it her own brother?
“Han’Han…” She stroked his cheek, rocking him as though that could make him transform back into an infant who never had to know that red was the colour of blood.
Her tears dripped onto his face, beneath the eyes that stared blankly up at her. Eyes that would never sparkle or hold laughter again.
By the time Ruilan finally came, Zengmei’s arms had gone numb, and she didn’t want to hear the sounds of Ruilan’s crying echoing her own from hours previous.
She never called Ruilan Jie’Jie again.
With the creature that killed her brother so close to her, Zengmei wondered if he could feel the disjointed clang of her heart against her ribs. “What do you want from me?” Her sword cut into his throat as easily as it did any human.
His grin disappeared. “What makes you think I want something? Maybe I’m just here to… make amends.”
“You. A Huli Jing. Making amends?” If ten years-worth of rage and hunger for revenge wasn’t lashing out, Zengmei would have laughed. “I’m not a fool. I don’t fall for such tricks. I don’t want your amends.”
“I know,” Xue Kai replied. “You want to kill me. But do you think revenge will bring your brother back? That this is what he would have wanted?”
Zengmei pulled him back so she could slam him against the wall again. “Do not speak to me about what he would have wanted. You don’t have the right.”
The gleam shifted in his eyes, his gaze intense. “Do you remember when you were thirteen, trekking through a mountain alone, when you encountered a nine-tailed fox which you then slew?”
Zengmei narrowed her eyes. She should cut his throat open right then and there. Of course she remembered that – it had been one of her greatest triumphs. But what did that have to do with him?
“That nine-tailed fox was my mother,” Xue Kai said, his face this time seemed… human. “She died protecting me.”
Zengmei finally let loose a weak laugh. “So I take your mother from you, and you take my brother from me. What do you want? To cry together?”
If he was speaking the truth, then she should make it fair. Zengmei took the sword off his throat and stepped back. “You have a sword on you, let’s fight each other.”
Who knew? Maybe they’ll slaughter each other to make it totally even.
“I would never win against you,” Xue Kai said, pausing. “I could also never lock myself up for ten years to heighten my spiritual energy. Isn’t that what you did after the siege on the Blood Sect?”
“I hate people who continuously talk after I offer to fight,” Zengmei said. “So what if I did? Those ten years were for this moment.”
A crease appeared between his brows. “I think you did it because you wish to turn back time and ensure that nobody ever hurt your brother. That you could protect him better the second time around,” Xue Kai said, his words suddenly smooth now. “Am I wrong?”
Zengmei swung Huixue at him, disarming him with one strike. “If you don’t fight me, I’ll run this sword through your heart.”
“All right,” Xue Kai replied, unmoving.
Zengmei didn’t usually hesitate. But it was almost as though Huixue was resisting her, that no matter what, her arm just couldn’t extend to make the killing strike, as though an invisible force had risen around Xue Kai.
In the vague shadows on his face, she remembered the eyes of the fox spirit she had slain – it hadn’t been menace in them, but fear, a beg for mercy. Zengmei didn’t care then. She had never cared. The fox had been protecting her child, as Jia Han had protected Zengmei.
She didn’t wish she could turn back time. She just wished she could have been the one to take a sword for him.
“I wanted to kill you for a long time as well,” Xue Kai said. “But all that bottled-up rage never helped me, except in driving away the remaining few that still cared about me. It’s not worth it.”
With a breeze, a solemness mixed with an almost-twinkle in his eyes, he disappeared like a ghost. That was the only thing Zengmei had been trying to kill for, for ten long years.
She dropped to her knees, Huixue clattering on the stone. For the first time since the night she had clutched her brother’s body until the sun had risen, Zengmei allowed herself to cry.
To accept that a mother and a brother could make the same sacrifice so that those they loved could keep living.
Living was more painful. But they had to keep living because of the pain, not despite it.
This night was dark, so Zengmei would wait for the sun to rise.