Don't you dare
leave the Capital!
This letter had better reach you before you do something stupid. I know what you're thinking, but our family is in enough chaos as it is. Father and Mother must be on their way back, and Aunt will reach Sandao soon - if you come haring back home from the Capital, that will leave half the family running in circles around the country, and that is the last thing we need now.
My situation is not as dire as Ting would have you believe - I'm sure I won't be detained for more than a few days, and they wouldn't dare mistreat the daughter of one of Sandao's most prominent merchants. The room they've put me in is confortable, if rather bare, and I've begged paper from an official to write this letter. The worst I've had to put up with is the boredom, and the endless string of questions the official is determined to ask.
I told them the truth where I could - that Second Wife was a frequent customer of the fortune teller, and that I'd spied on him before and believed he was cheating her with lies and drugs. I did not tell them how we'd snuck into his house to try and discover more, only that I'd heard rumours that he was working for a dangerous sect.
"I would never attack an unarmed man who could not fight back - my family's skills are well known, but I'm sure you also know my father would never heard of us abusing them," I pointed out.
The official only frowned at me. "And you say your weapon is a sword, is it not?"
"Yes. Do you need me to summon it now?"
He blinked at me. "Summon...?"
"It's an ancestral weapon, and I can summon it at will so long as I am on the ground."
He looked both confused and suspicious at once. "Perhaps you could give us a demonstration," he said, warily.
I could see his hand go to the sword he wore at his waist - but when I summoned my sword, he was so stunned, I think he forgot it was there at all.
"None of the old man's wounds were inflicted by a sword," I pointed out, and let my sword vanish again.
He blinked and stared at me. "That simply means you didn't use your weapon to attack him," he said stiffly.
Biting back a sharp retort, I took a deep breath. "Are you determined to belive I am guilty?" I asked in a calm voice.
"O-of course not," he said. I think it'd made him nervous to realise I could summon a weapon any time I wanted. I would have found it funny if I hadn't felt so frustrated.
Just then, the door behind us opened. "He is only trying to do his duty and make the investigation as thorough as possible," a deep, strangely familiar voice said behind me. I turned in my chair, startled, and stared.
The scarred man I'd run into at the teahouse and Uncle Gu's shop stood in the door and narrowed his eyes at me. "I see you still remember me, Miss Li. I must admit I did not expect to meet you here."
I glowered at him. "I did not expect to be arrested either. You are an official here?"
"No, my jurisdiction is the city of Chang'an. I came to Sandao to take care of a few matters - if you do not mind, I have a few questions I'll like to ask her," he said to the official who had been questioning me. The man nodded and left the room at once - either the scarred man was highly ranked, or he was more afraid of me than he'd shown before.
He took the official's seat as I stared at him. "Who are
you?" I asked.
His eyebrows rose. "As I said, I am an official from Chang'an."
"Then what brings you all the way to Sandao? And what do I call you?" I asked in a pointed manner.
"You may call me Huo. And I came because I was searching for a man. Your brother. Li Fang."
I blinked. "Half Brother Fang? He's wanted by the ya men
in Hunan? Why didn't we hear of this? If we'd known--"
But it shouldn't have been such a surprise - after all, as a member of the Hell's Venom sect, he was a criminal.
The man shook his head with a rough motion. "There is a great deal we do not know about Li Xue Fang," he told me grimly. "But I did not come to arrest him. I came because I once called him a friend."
"A friend," I echoed, surprised. "You knew him?"
"You could say he is the reason I became an official at all," the man said.
I remembered our conversation about Ting, and studied the man. Two scars stretched across his face, one from his temple, across his left eye (miraculously unblinded) to his jaw, the other from his left ear to his chin. Sword wounds. "I think he mentioned you once," I said.
The man's eyes flickered to mine, surprised. "What did he say?" he asked, very quiet.
"That he had a friend who had taught him who judge beyond appearances."
A strange look passed across his face. "So he still calls me a friend after all."
"What happened between you? How did you come to know him?" I asked. I did not ask if he knew of the attack on our house, not yet.
"When I was six, my village was raided by bandits. I have them to thank for these scars - if my own father had not been a excellent physician, I would be half blind today. But with scars like this, most people shunned me. When we left the village for Chang'an, your brother was one of the few friends I made."
He looked at me. "What do you know of his family?"
"Very little," I said. "My father rarely speaks of them, and before he returned to San Dao, we hadn't heard from him in years. Was he unhappy there?"
"They kept to themselves. They didn't approve of our friendship and I saw them rarely. Maybe they didn't mean to be cruel, but they were not kind people."
That wasn't a surprise, looking at Second Wife herself. Perhaps it's no surprise then, if he hates us for sending him away.
"Did you know that he was a member of the Hell's Venom sect? When did he join them?" I asked abruptly.
"I wished I knew too. It must have been his aunt who inducted him into the sect. I always thought she was a dangerous woman, even before I knew her true identity. I had my suspicions, but it was not till a year ago that I had my worst fears confirmed." He shook his head.
"I told you that he was the reason I became an official - we studied together, and he persuaded me to take the examinations. He could have passed them himself, but did not, because his family did not approve. And though I didn't see it then, after I pssed the examinations, we grew more distant, and I saw far less of him. Six months later, Chang'an was struck by a series of robberies."
"I didn't think such a dangerous sect would lower themselves to common burglary, but it looks like I was wrong," I said sourly, but that was what they had planned to do to us, hadn't they?
"A pity they don't share your opinion," Huo said, dry. "They need funds, and since they will not earn them through honest means, they steal from the innocent instead. During the course of our investigations, we were lucky enough to foil a robbery before it could be completed. And that was when I met Fang and realised what he was. He wore a mask, but I would have recognised his fighting style anyway, and once I'd realised who we fought, the identity of the Black Lotus was all too clear."
"They escaped, but without the valuables they had been after. There were no more robberies in Chang'an, and we were forced to believe the sect must have left the city. And your brother vanishd at the same time."
"Vanished?" I said, startled. "But... when was this? How could that be? We heard nothing of this, my parents must have thought he was safe in Chang'an all this while!"
"This was almost a year ago. His grandparents claimed to know nothing of his whereabouts, and said they disowned him and their daughter. They have been extremely reclusive since, but we have no reason to think they were in contact with the sect."
I frowned. "But he said he returned because his mother had requested his presence. Either she knew of his whereabouts and did not tell us, or her letter managed to reach him somehow..." I could feel my fingers itch to get hold of Second Wife and ask some stinging questions. This entire mess would never have started if she hadn't called Brother Fang back!
"The sect might have found a way to intercept the letter. I came to Sandao following news of the Black Lotus, and those who had seen her, in the hope that I would find your brother."
"Did you know their purpose in coming here?" I asked, very low, finger clenching around the seat of my chair.
He looked at me. "No. But I can guess that it had something to do with your family. The Li clan is well known in the martial arts world, and the Hell's Venom sect could not have passed up the chance to use any connection to you."
For a moment, anger returned to me full force, so that I couldn't speak. I shut my eyes and took deep breaths. "A week ago, the Hell's Venom sect attacked our family and almost burned our home to the ground. I can only think they must have come to try and steal our ancestral weapons - they failed, but not before leaving a trail of wreckage that will take us months to mend." And some things, like Second Wife's pain, and Mother and Father's sorrow when they hear the news, will take much longer, if they heal at all. "Fang came back to help them plot the attack against us. He left his own mother heart broken behind him, and he is no brother of ours!" I said, furious.
The scarred man stared at my fury, stricken, and then rubbed his hand over his face. "Then I cam too late and did too little. I thought I could find him, try to persuade him from this path - clearly, I have failed. Who was hurt in the attack?"
"Fortunately no one was killed. Many of my siblings, and two of my father's wives, were injured, but we will heal," I said, touching the still-healing wound in my side with absent fingers.
The man looked a little relieved, but the pain in his eyes was still clear to see. Their friendship must have been deep - how deep a trail of betrayal did he leave behind him? I can't begin even to imagine.
"Miss Li, from what I've seen of the charges, your arrest is a ploy by the sect to get you away from your family. I don't think it will take too long to clear your name, and I will do whatever I can to help you. If your family needs any assistance, I will do anything in my power to give it."
"My greatest worry is that they will attack the family home again. Ting has set up defences around the house, so they will not get in without warning again, but I am still worried. They won't stand up to another attack, we barely repelled the first and that was when we were uninjured, and Tian Jie and I were there. I am sorry to impose on your kindness, but if you would take a message to my cousin and give her what help you can, my family will eternally be in your debt."
He nodded. "It would be my honour, and you owe me no debt," he said.
By now, the sunlight falling through the room's one, small window was drawing long shadows across the floor. I did not know how long we had been speaking, but it must have been an hour at least. He stood to leave.
"I will bring your message to your cousin, and return with news of your family again tomorrow," he said. "One of the guards will see you back to your cell. I hope you are comfortable?"
"The cells are fine," I said. When he was at the door, I suddenly found myself asking, "What was he like?"
Huo turned me me, eyebrows raised. "I beg your pardon?"
"Fang. What was he like? Your loyalty to him is very great, you must have seen aside of him he never showed us. All I've ever seen of him was a lie and an enigma," I said.
For a moment, he stared into the distance, then finally shook his head. "He was a friend," he said, the words gruff.
With that, he left without a word.
I have run out of paper, Qing, so my letter must end here. I am well, and whatever you do, please do not be rash, espeically not now. Take care of yourself, sister mine, and may luck be with you.