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Tang Dynasty ChinaAD 848
'The mountains are high and the Emperor is far away.'
Bao Yang had always been fond of that particular proverb. It certainly held true in Fujian province where rugged mountains enclosed them to the north, west and south. To the east was the ocean fed by a lattice of streams and rivers. This was a land set apart from the heart of the empire, away from the eyes and ears of imperial authority. This was a land where a person with determination and a little cleverness could carve his own destiny, regardless of his birth.
Even a man with a price on his head.
Yang should have been afraid to return to the city where not long ago he'd tried to have a powerful warlord assassinated, but he had connections. He knew who would turn a blind eye and who could be bribed.
It wasn't that there was no law in Fujian. Imperially appointed bureaucrats still oversaw the administration of the cities, but it was the merchants who dominated the rivers and ports. The surrounding mountains were inhabited by bandits and smugglers. Wealth and commerce were the forces that truly ruled this province.
He was approaching the city of Minzhou now by river, where there was very likely a warrant out for his arrest for attempted murder. Or at least for someone who looked like him. To his knowledge, his name was still unknownfor now, although he didn't know for how much longer. His connections had bought him some valuable time.
The fisherman at the crossing was willing to take him down the river for a few copper coins. Yang hid beneath the wide brim of his hat as the tiny boat drifted into the city, joining the fleet of merchant vessels and ferries that fed the bustling markets.
As the fishing boat crossed beneath one of the main bridges, Yang kept his gaze directed forward. There was a guardsman in the lookout tower, but his bow remained slack in his hands as he scanned the water. The arrows rested soundly in their quiver.
'The city guards have been wary of strangers lately,' the fisherman said as he dragged a long pole along the river bottom, propelling them forward. 'It's best that you find your friend quickly and seek shelter before curfew so you aren't hassled by the night watch.'
'Is the city unsafe?'
'There was some unrest a while back. Bandits, I hear.' 'Thank you, Uncle.'
Three months had passed since he'd broken out of Minzhou's prison house along with his co-conspirators. It was dangerous to return now, but not as much as one might think. Any thief-catchers searching for him would expect him to be in hiding. It was the regions to the north where there was price on his head. The regions that General Wang Shizhen had taken over with his army.
The fisherman steered clear of the busier docks to set Yang ashore at the edge of the market. From there, he moved quickly to a more secluded part of the city, slipping into a public park. A small stream ran through it, branching off from the main river. The walkways appeared empty and the broad canopy of the banyan trees provided cover.
Moving quickly, Yang set about tracking down his associate. He'd built up a wide network of associates over the years of which this particular official was the most powerful. If there was ever a time Yang needed to rely on calling in favours, it was now. He'd been working in the shadows before, seeding disruption and rebellion, but now this was war.
Yang needed the city magistrate's allegiance which was going to require some craftiness on his part. Magistrate Tan was, after all, the same man who was responsible for throwing him into prison in the first place.
Jin-mei dabbed at her forehead with a handkerchief and adjusted the angle of her parasol to block the sun. As they neared the height of summer, there were fewer people enjoying the park in the midday heat, but her daily stroll along the river was one of the few opportunities she had to escape the house.
She had set out with her amah, but the old nursemaid only made it ten steps into the park before she sank down on to one of the benches in a viewing pavilion.
'Don't go too far!' Amah warned, waving her on.
The woman had been considered elderly when Jin-mei was only a child. Now that Jin-mei was nineteen, Amah was ancient and could be forgiven for not wanting to exert herself. The dear old servant had also become less strict with age.
Jin-mei was wearing the lightest robe she owned, a finely woven silk in a peach-blossom pattern, but still the late summer heat was getting to her. She wiped at her face again, this time using the edge of her sleeve. When she lowered her arm, she could see a man crossing the bridge over to her side of the river. Given the man was a stranger and she was alone, Jin-mei slowed her step so they would have no reason to encounter one another.
Unfortunately, he'd seen her as well. He halted at the centre of the bridge before striding towards her with purpose. She should have ducked beneath the shadow of her parasol to avoid his gaze, but she found herself caught in it. Now that he was close enough, she understood why.
Her heart pounded. She knew him.
Most of her father's visitors were grey-haired and uninteresting, but the young Bao Yang had seemed so dashing and full of mystery. He had a gleam in his eye and a half-smile that had always made her stomach flutter. That had been four years ago.
She'd only seen him from behind a screen while listening in on conversations she wasn't supposed to be hearing. There was the one time when she'd attempted to stumble 'accidentally' into the hallway. She had fallen in hopes that Mister Bao might catch her and, well, become immediately smitten with her. Instead, her father had sternly told her to go to her room while the handsome young gentleman had watched her pick herself off the floor.
How odd to see him after all these years! She remembered that arch in the shape of his left eyebrow which gave him an inquisitive look. His nose was slightly off centre and she'd always wondered if it had been broken or was it naturally so. All of these little flaws, yet when put together, they created a face that was inexplicably intriguing. She had been convinced he was the handsomest man she'd ever seen.
Jin-mei wasn't nearly as foolish now, but seeing Yang again brought back a little ache in her chest. That gleam in his eye was still there, even though they were supposed to be only strangers in passing.
'What are you doing here?' she asked when they were finally close enough to engage in conversation.
He gave her a startled look at being addressed so directly. Only then did she realise how impetuous she had sounded. 'I apologise. It's just that I'
Yang laughed and the easy sound of it banished her moment of discomfort. 'It is I who should apologise. I must have startled you. I am here to seek the magistrate.'
He didn't recognise her. Some demon inside of her awoke at the opportunity. Here was a chance for her to make an impression on him. A more favourable one than she had at fifteen, picking herself off the floor in a tangle of silk.
'I know where the magistrate can be found,' she said.
'Then I am fortunate fate has brought us together.'
'Are you flirting with me?' she asked incredulously. She realised only after the words had left her mouth that such directness would be considered rude. 'Sir,' she added after a pause.
His smile didn't waver. 'Miss,' he began, a counterpoint to her delayed honorific, 'are you always so outspoken?'
'It's just that I know you. Well, I don't know you,' she amended, 'but I feel as if I do.'
'I feel as if I know you as well,' he replied smoothly. He glanced at something over his shoulder, before returning his attention to her. 'Will you accompany me?'
He flashed her a crooked smile and then they were walking side by side along the river, shielded by the shade of her parasol.
Bao Yang was flirting. No man had ever treated her with such charm. Her mother had been slender and tall and long-limbed, as graceful as a willow in the breeze. Unfortunately, Jin-mei took after her father's side. Father was short with rounded features, moon-faced and on the plump side.
She was no great beauty to take hold of men's hearts upon a glance. Jin-mei hadn't expected any man to ever flirt with her. In her dreams, she had always impressed potential suitors with intelligent conversation and astute sensibilities.
'What is a proper young miss doing walking alone in this park?' he asked. 'There might be questionable men about with evil intentions.'
'What men are these? I see no one but yourself.' She attempted a coy look, glancing at him from the corner of her eye. An uncomfortable silence descended as Bao Yang regarded her thoughtfully. She was no good at this at all. Her original plan would have to suffice. 'Minzhou is probably the safest city in the province. There are guards on every street, patrolling day and night.'
'Every street,' he echoed contemplatively.
They had almost reached the final bridge that marked the boundary of the park. Once they crossed over it, they would be in the main market area. Jin-mei tried to think of some way to prolong their time together.
'How was your journey?' she asked. 'You seem to have come from far away.'
'Not far at all.' Yang glanced once more behind him and then to other side of the river. 'I live in a small village, only two days from here.'
'Small village?' she asked with a raised eyebrow.
He nodded. 'Hejin Crossing, near the foothills.'
She absolutely knew that for a lie. Bao Yang lived far to the north-west in Taining County, the same place her family had lived before Father was transferred to Minzhou prefecture. She started to question him about it, but his step had quickened. He continued along the water towards the base of the bridge rather than over it.
'How curious,' he remarked under his breath. 'Is that a dragon carved into the stone?'
'Where?' She drew closer, but saw nothing of the sort in the foundation.
He turned to her and took her wrist gently. The gesture sent her pulse racing.
'Let us get out of the sun where we can speak more privately,' he suggested, setting his hand lightly against the small of her back.
As courtship went, his ploy wasn't particularly clever, but Bao Yang's touch was subtly insistent without being demanding. There was a quiet urgency in his voice that both puzzled and intrigued her. In her confusion, they were already to the bridge before she found her voice.
'I am not that sort of woman.'
'I don't think you're that sort of woman.' He was serious now, no longer flirting. Bao Yang removed his hold on her to step into the shadows. 'But there are city guards nearby. If you cry out now, I'm dead. You hold my life in your hands.'
How had he compelled her down there? It was nothing more than a few looks, some polite conversation, a series of light and gentle touches that just breached the boundaries of etiquette, but went no further.
Yang was standing apart from her now, well out of arm's length. She could flee and he wouldn't be able to catch her. For a moment, she did consider fleeing. This man before her was someone who was hiding secrets. Someone very different from the gentleman she thought she'd known all those years ago.
Yet he met her eyes with a look that pierced her, pleading with her silently, as if she were the one with all the power. Jin-mei didn't know why, but she found herself stepping after him beneath the bridge.
'Thank you,' he said quietly.
Once again, his hands barely closed around her shoulders. Her heart pounded, and she held her breath, waiting. It was as if she were moving of her own will and his touch no more than a suggestion.
Lowering her parasol, she looked up at him. 'Why are you hiding?'
He lifted a hand to quiet her, head tilted to listen for sounds from above. She had never been so close to a man who wasn't family. The front of his robe brushed against hers. Even with the dim light beneath the bridge, she could make out the hard line of his jaw. The air was cooler in the shade of the bridge and the two of them were closed off as if cocooned in their own private sanctuary.
'I shouldn't do this,' he began, sending her pulse racing with just the mere suggestion of the forbidden, 'but I must ask a favour of you.'
She'd spoken too quickly. Yang smiled at her, his eyebrow lifting in wonder. 'You're quite fearless, aren't you?'
Jin-mei could hardly breathe with him so close, looking at her as thoughlooking at her in a way no one ever had.
'I'm not.' Not usually. There was something about his manner that made her reckless. She ran her tongue over her lips nervously. 'I wasn't entirely truthful before. I do know exactly who you are.'
His charming expression faltered. 'I'd certainly remember if we'd met.'
'It was years ago, Mister Bao.'
He appeared startled at her use of his name, but before he could reply a loud voice boomed in from the world outside.
'What are you two doing?'
Jin-mei jumped, but Yang steadied her with his hands over her shoulders. Though she was breathing hard, he appeared speculative. He kept his gaze on her, meeting her eyes while he addressed the guardsman behind him. 'My lady companion was feeling faint in the heat.'
'Get out from there immediately.'
The silence was cut by the sound of a sword being drawn and then another and then another.
What was happening? She didn't know when the trembling started, but now it wouldn't stop. In a panic, she grabbed on to his arm. An unreadable look flickered across Yang's face. Calmly, he let go of her and stepped out from beneath the bridge. She ducked out just behind him to see them surrounded by what looked like the entire city garrison. A familiar figure in a dark green robe stood among them, his jaw clenched in fury. Her stomach plummeted and her palms started to sweat.
'Magistrate Tan,' Yang greeted, surprisingly composed among so many armed men.
Jin-mei bowed her head, her cheeks burning. 'Father.'
At that, Yang turned slowly around to look at her, a deep frown creasing his brow. Having men draw swords on him didn't shake him, but apparently what she had said struck him speechless.