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China, Tang DynastyAD 824
Fei Long faced the last room at the end of the narrow hallway, unsheathed his sword and kicked the door open.
A feminine shriek pierced the air along with the frantic shuffle of feet as he strode through the entrance. The boarding room was a small one set above the teahouse below. The inhabitants, a man and a woman, flung themselves into the corner with nowhere to hide.
His gaze fixed on to the woman first. His sister's hair was unbound and her eyes wide with fear. Pearl had their mother's thoughtful features: the high forehead and the sharp angles that had softened since the last time he'd seen her. She was dressed only in pale linen underclothes. The man who was with her had enough daring to step in between them.
Fei Long glanced once to the single wooden bed against one wall, the covers strewn wide, and his vision blurred with anger. He gripped the sword until his knuckles nearly cracked with the strain.
'Bastard,' he gritted out through his teeth.
He knew this man he'd come to kill. This boy. At least Han had been a boy when Fei Long had last seen him. And Pearl had been a mere girl. Now she was a grown woman, staring at him as if he were a demon risen from the underworld.
'Fei Long.' Pearl's fingers curled tight over her lover's arm. 'So now you've come.'
The soft bitterness of the accusation cut through him. Pearl had begged for him to come back a year earlier when her marriage had first been arranged, but he'd dismissed her letters as childish ramblings. If he had listened, she might not have thrown herself into ruin and their father's spirit wouldn't be floating restlessly between heaven and earth.
The young man stretched himself before Fei Long, though he failed to match him in stature. 'Not in front of Pearl,' he implored.
Though he trembled, the boy fought to keep his voice steady as Pearl clung to him, hiding just behind his shoulder. At least the dog managed to summon some courage. If Han had cowered or begged for his life, he would already be dead.
'Step away, Little Sister,' Fei Long commanded.
'I'd rather die here with Han than go to Khitan.'
She'd changed in the five years since he'd seen her. The Pearl he remembered had been obedient, sweet-tempered and pleasant in all things. Fei Long had ridden hard from Chan-gan to this remote province, expecting to find the son of a dog who had stolen her away.
Now that she stood before him with quiet defiance, he knew she hadn't been seduced or deceived. Zheng Xie Han's family lived within their ward in the capital city. Though lower in standing, the Zheng family had always maintained a good reputation. His sister had turned to Han because she'd had no one else.
The tension drained out of Fei Long, stealing away his rage. His throat pulled tight as he forced out the next word. 'Go.' The two of them stared at him in disbelief. 'Go,' he repeated roughly.
Fei Long lowered his weapon and turned away while they dressed themselves. Shoving his sword back into its sheath, he faced the bare wall. He could hear the shuffle of movement behind him as the couple gathered their belongings.
The bleakness of the last few weeks settled into his gut like a stone. When he'd left for his assignment to the north-western garrison, Fei Long had believed his home to be a harmonious place. Upon news of his father's sudden death, he'd returned to find his sister gone and debt collectors circling the front gates like vultures.
His father's presence had been an elaborate screen, hiding the decay beneath the lacquered surface of their lives. Fei Long now saw Pearl's arranged marriage for what it was: a desperate ploy to restore the family honouror rather to prolong the illusion of respectability.
When he turned again, Pearl and Han stood watching him tentatively. Each of them had a pack slung around their shoulder. Off to face the horizon with all their belongings stowed in two small bags.
Han bowed once. 'Elder Brother.'
The young man risked Fei Long's temper to deliver the honorific. Fei Long couldn't bring himself to return the bow. Pearl met his eyes as they started for the door. The heaviness of her expression struck him like a physical blow.
This was the last time he would ever see his sister.
Fei Long took his money pouch from his belt and held it out. The handful of coppers rattled inside. 'Here.'
Han didn't look at him as he took it.
'Thank you, Fei Long,' Pearl whispered.
They didn't embrace. The two of them had been apart for so long that they wouldn't have known how. Fei Long watched their backs as they retreated down the stairway; gone like everything else he had once known to be true.
'Jilted lover,' the cook guessed.
Yan Ling's eyes grew wide. The stranger had stormed up the staircase only moments earlier with a sword strapped to his side and the glint of murder in his deep-set eyes. She'd leapt out of the path of his charge, just managing to hold on to her pot of tea without spilling a drop.
She stood at the edge of the main room, head cocked to listen for sounds of mayhem upstairs. Her heart raced as she gripped the handle of the teapot. Such violence and scandal were unthinkable in their quiet town.
'Should someone stop him?' she asked.
'What? You saw how he was dressed.' Old Cook had his feet in the kitchen, but the rest of him strained as far into the dining area as possible. 'A man like that can do whatever he wants.'
'Get back to work,' the proprietor barked.
Yan Ling jumped and the cook ducked his head back through the beaded curtain that separated the main room from the kitchen.
'Worthless girl,' her master muttered as she rushed the pot of tea to its intended table. She pressed her fingers against the ceramic to check the temperature of the pot before setting it down. Cooler than ideal, but still hot enough to not get any complaints.
It was late in the morning and the patrons had thinned, but that was never an excuse to move any slower. Lately it seemed nothing she did was fast or efficient enough. She'd never known any life but the teahouse. The story was she'd been abandoned as an infant in the room upstairs, likely the very same one where a new scandal was now unfolding.
She paused to stack empty cups onto a tray. At that moment, the young woman and her companion hurried down the stairs, leaving not even a farewell behind as they swept out the door. Yan Ling expected the sword-carrying nobleman to come chasing after them, but only an uncomfortable silence followed their exit.
The patrons began to whisper among themselves. Her master should be happy. This incident would have the townsfolk lingering over more than a few extra teapots worth of gossip.
When he finally emerged, the gentleman appeared surprisingly calm. He descended the stairs with a steady, powerful stride and his expression was as still as the surface of the moon. Instead of leaving, he marched directly over to the proprietor and flashed an official-looking jade seal. At that point, even the proprietor's wife flocked over to welcome him. They ushered him to an empty table at the centre of the room, nearly breaking their backs bowing with such enthusiasm. Her master shot Yan Ling a sharp look, which she understood immediately. Bring tea and fast. She rushed to the kitchen.
'Is there a lot of blood?' the kitchen boy asked as she pushed through the curtain.
She poured hot water over a fresh pot of leaves and flew back out with her hand around the bamboo handle. Back out in the main room, the stranger didn't even spare her a glance as she poured the first cup for him.
His robe was of fine woven silk and richly dyed in a dark blue. He wore his thick hair long, the front of it pulled back into a knot in the style of aristocracy. She was stricken by the strength of his features: the hard line of his cheekbones and the broad shape of his face, which narrowed slightly at the chin.
With a cursory bow, she set the pot down and moved away. There were other tables to tend to and most patrons wanted to drink their tea in peace. Yet her attention kept on wandering back to the stranger.
Hours later, he was still seated in the same spot. He wasn't even drinking his tea any more. Instead, he had taken to staring into his cup.
Government official, they guessed in the back room, though he travelled without any escort and had a sullen expression that continued to sink lower as the day slipped by. Her guess was that he needed something stronger than tea.
By the end of the day, Yan Ling moved from table to empty table in a restless circle, wash rag in hand, as she wiped away at wooden surfaces rubbed bare from use. The teahouse crowd had long returned to their homes. Only the nobleman remained, still hoarding his cold tea.
As long as he stayed there, she was supposed to attend to him. Her master had made that very clear while he sat comfortably in the corner, tallying up the cash. The wooden beads of his abacus clicked together, signalling that the day should be done.
Her feet ached and no matter how much she wriggled her toes in her slippers, the feeling wouldn't quite return to them. The clang from the kitchen meant that the cook and his boy were cleaning their pots. A mountain of cups and bowls and little plates would be waiting for her.
Cook tried to get her to pry information from the man, but of course she wouldn't do such a thing. He'd suffered enough public scrutiny that day to deserve some privacy. She guessed him to be twenty-five years, with a slight crease between his eyes that she imagined came more from deep contemplation than age.
Gingerly, she approached the table. 'Does the honoured guest need anything?'
She reached for the clay teapot, only to have him wave her back with an irritated scowl. For a gentleman, he was uncommonly rude, but she supposed wearing silk and jade gave him that privilege. He propped his elbows onto the table, shoulders hunched, to return to his vigil. From the emptiness of his stare, the young woman had to have been someone close to him. His wife? But no man would let his wife escape with a lover after catching them together.
Yan Ling turned to wipe down her already-cleaned table once more when the stranger spoke.
'I need a woman,' he mumbled. 'Any woman would do.'
Her stomach dropped. She swung around, her mouth open in shock. The stranger raised his head. For the first time, his eyes focused on her, looking her up and down.
'Perhaps even you.'
Any sympathy she might have had for him withered away. If his tone had been leering, or his look more appraising, it might have been less offensive. But the coldly pensive way he'd said it along with the addition of 'perhaps', as if to plunge her worth even furtherYan Ling grabbed the teapot and flung the contents at the scoundrel.
The stranger shot to his feet with a curse. With a choked cry, her master jumped up from his table and his wife soared like a windstorm from the kitchen, apologising profusely. Even the cook and his boy were gawking through the curtained doorway.
'Get out!' the master's wife shrieked at Yan Ling before turning to fuss at their precious patron. The front of his expensive robe was stained dark with a splatter of tea.
'We are so sorry, my lord,' she crooned. 'So sorry.'
Yan Ling clutched the teapot between both her hands while she stared.
The nobleman swiped the tea leaves away in one angry motion while his eyes remained fixed on her. He had lost that distant, brooding expression he'd worn all day. The look he gave her was possibly worse than the one she'd seen as he'd charged up the stairs. Heat rose up her neck as she stumbled back.
What had she done?
'That know-nothing, good-for-nothing girl,' her master railed.
Her ears rang as she ducked into the kitchen through the beaded curtain. Steam enclosed her, but the clang of the pots couldn't block the sounds of her master and his wife apologising profusely to the nobleman.
It wasn't as if she hadn't been taunted before, but over the last years the teasing had taken on a different tone as her bone-thin figure had curved its way into womanhood. She'd learned to deafen her ears and stare ahead, never meeting any of the not-so-subtle glances thrown her way. Yet to suffer such insult from someone who appeared so refinedit was unbearable.
Ignoring the curious stares from cook and the kitchen boy, she slipped through the back door. Her palms were damp and she wiped them restlessly against the sides of her grey tunic. Fear set her heart skittering.
The teahouse was where she'd lived all her life, but it was not home. The proprietor and his wife were not her father and mother. This had always been clear to her and she'd had to earn her bed, this roof and every meal with service and obedience.
One moment of hot-headedness. She'd lashed out at a well-dressed nobleman, of all people. She wasn't even a servant when it came to this man. She was the humble servant of humble servants. Who was she to be outraged?
She would certainly be scolded by both master and mistress, each separately and then together. Yan Ling could hear them already. She had become too much of a burden to feed, to clothe. She wasn't even pretty enough to bring in more customers. They might even be angry enough to take a bamboo switch to her.
A beating was all she'd have to suffer, if she was lucky.