If you can't hear my shouts all the way in the Capital, it will not be for lack of trying on my part. I /knew/ you were going to be foolish without me around. Are you /mad/? It's important for you to keep up your charade, but not to the point of exhausting yourself like this. Have you forgotten that you could be surrounded by enemies every way you turn? How can you protect yourself if you push your strength to the point of collapse? And now you are /trapped/ in the palace where you are in even greater danger of exposure, not to mention at the mercy of Long Gui while you are at your weakest!
Qing, you are going too far - you will promise me that you will stop this and tell Aunt about The Eighteenth Buddha or I will write to her myself and tell her everything. I can't let you endanger yourself like this without anyone to help you! If I could, I would spend this whole letter scolding, and it would go on for pages, but I know that you won't listen unless you want to, so I will tell you right now. If you make me worry like this again, I will tell Father and Mother /everything/ and if they don't go to the Capital, /I will/.
Sister, we have enough to worry about without you adding fat to the fire like this! Father and Mother are making their preparations for their journey to Xian Wu, and ready to leave once the Seventh Month is over and it is safe to travel again. The slightese doubt could make them change their minds - as it is I think I will have to push them out of the door when the hour comes.
And perhaps with Mother away and in Father's care, it might be easier for me to find out what is happening in Sandao, and with Half Brother and the Hell's Venom sect. I am tried o all these mysteries, and it's high time /we/ did something about them, rather than letting these strange things happen to us.
So two days ago, I decided to seek out Second Wife's fortune teller myself. From what we've heard so far, he must have some ties to the Hell's Venom sect, yet Father has not been able to discover more about him, beyond a few of his business contacts (ll of the legitimate, so far as we can tell). He seemed like the easiest for us to find and hopefully, question - unlike Half Brother's Aunt, the Black Lotus, who I would rather avoid as much as possible.
Ting did not like the idea, but I overrode her protests and told her to help me keep watch over Kexin, since I am also sure she has a link of some sort to the sect. She steadfastly refused to let me go alone, however, and we almost got into an argument about it until she suggested that I ask Tian Jie for help. I wasn't so sure about the idea - some days I'm not sure we should trust Tian Jie and his teacher any more than we trust Half Brother or Second Wife.
But under Ting's insistence, I told him my plan anyway. He was a little taken back by the idea, but when I pointed out that I was going to do it regardless of whether he came, he claimed he couldn't let me do something so dangerous on my own and declared he had to follow me. I rolled my eyes, but unlike you, my reckless twin, I know when I am treading on dangerous ground.
After a few hours of watching, we saw him leave his house, walking briskly, with a few parcles tucked under his arm. Leaving the roof we had hidden overselves on, we leaped quickly over the wall at the back of his house into his yard. It was empty, as we'd expected it to be; it doesn't look like he has any family, and Father's contacts have said that he never married.
His house was small, but clean and well kept. What furnishings and possessions he had were of good materials and well made - I did not think fortune telling pays so well. I wondered how much Second Wife pays him for his services and felt annoyed. But that was not our concern for the moment. After further exploration, we found his workroom, where he kept his tools and equipment and herbs. And more importantly, letters, as I found in an elaborately carved rosewood desk. Rifling through them, most of them seemed to be bills and letters of credit. I would have given up but then at the bottom of the drawer I found a slim flat box of black laquer and sliding it open, found more letters.
We were in a hurry, so I could not read them in the detail I would have liked, but what drew my eye was the seal that marked each letter, in bright red ink - a serpent, coiling in on itself, with great, poisonous fangs. The letters were signed with no name, only this mark, but I don't think it's hard to guess who they could have come from and what I read confirmed my suspicions quickly enough.
Tian Jie, having finished searching the house, tried to read over my shoulder and exclaimed when he saw the seal. The most recent letter I found was dated to a month ago and was very brief, only telling him that a member of the sect was in Sandao and asking that he seek his payment and make his reports to her. I checked a few more letters, but they too were brief and uninformative.
"This doesn't tell us anything!" I said at last, exasperated. "We will need to question him ourselves after all."
"But that would alert the sect to our knowledge -"
"Perhaps we could pay him to keep his mouth shut," I said, considering. "Or threaten to report him to the authorites - I am sure not all the herbs and drugs he has here are approved of, if what he is giving Second Wife is anything to go by. Did you find anything?"
"Nothing here looks like any poisons I know, though I do not recognise a number of his herbs," Tian Jie said, gesturing to the drawers. "I took a few of them - we could trace them through a pharmacist."
"And he doesn't seem to own any weapons, though that doesn't mean he isn't skilled..." I observed, looking around the room.
Caught up in the search, I am afraid we grew careless, and it was not until a door slammed that we jumped and realised that the fortune teller had returned. I almost dropped the box of letters in my surprise and fumbled - I barely caught it and shoved it back into the desk even as footsteps through the house told us that the fortune teller was approaching. Tian Jie hastily shoved a pouch of herbs into his sleeve and we ran for the window - we would have made it just in time but /now/ my clumsiness chose to betray me and I tripped over a stool in my hurry.
Hitting the ground with a yelp and a curse, I scrambled to my feet only to trip over the stool /again/. The workroom door crashed open and the fortune teller ran in to gape at us.
His round face crimsoned. "Thieves!" he roared.
"We are /not/ -" I began to say even as I struggled to my feet for the second time. But Tian Jie was faster, and he managed to clamp a hand over the fortune teller's mouth just as he opened it to shout again, one arm twisted behind his back.
"We're not thieves!" I said, brushing myself off. "And considering who you seem to do business with, I should think thieves would be the last of your worries."
The fortune teller struggled and Tian Jie yelped - he'd /bitten/ him. He kept firm grip on the older man's arm - at least this seemed to show that he wasn't much of a fighter and couldn't be a sect member.
"I don't know what you're talking about!" the fortune teller snapped at us. "And the two of you broke into my house, took me hostage! Threate-"
"We're not taking you hostage!" I said, affronted by his baseless accusations. "We're not here to hurt you at all!"
He looked furiously unconvinced. There was no way Tian Jie and I could hope to make our escape unnoticed now, even if we knocked him out..
"Well, since we're here we might as well ask you a few questions after all," I said, crossing my arms to frown at him. "What is your business with the Hell's Venom sect? What are they doing here?"
"I don't know what -"
I jabbed an accusing finger at the drawer. "I found letters! And I am sure if I showed them to my father, or even to the town magistrate, they would recognise the seal on them very well indeed! You might as well tell us everything. You might call /us/ thieves but if you tried to report us to the authorities, I think /you're/ the one more likely to end up in the cells."
He subsided then and looked desperate. "It's not like that!"
"Then maybe it'd help if you told us why you're working with them," I said.
"I - I am no sect member! You can see for yourselves - I'm just a poor old man trying to earn a living, I am nothing like their kind. You're right, I run a few errands for them, but it's only little favours, nothing dangerous or criminal -"
"I don't suppose the herbs you give your clients would have anything to do with that," I said, suspicious. "You're certainly not poor - you must do very good business for a fortune teller."
He spluttered. "Herbs? What herbs -" he began, then sut up when I glared at him. "I - I have to choice! You must believe me, they are the ones who came to me, and they old me that if I did not agree to their offer they would kill me!"
"What did they offer you?"
He hesitated, and I loomed over him. "If they threatened you, why did you just go to the mgaistrates?"
"You - you don't understand. Do you have any idea how powerful they are? How ruthless? It would do me no good even if I tried to seek help! I would be dead before I could leave me house," he said, gesturing wildly. "They treat me well enough so long as I cooperate and do not question them, they don't ask for much -"
"What do they want?"
"They just wanted... news. Information, on what happens in San Dao. I am a fortune teller, I have to know everything that happens here, so they must have thought I would be a good source... I sent them reports every month."
"But they have agents here now, don't they? Why are they here?"
"I don't know. They tell me nothing; they don't trust me..." He looked at me and shrugged. "I believe they are searching for something. To do with weapons. They keep very careful watch on the trade in weapons here in San Dao. We do have some of the biggest weaponsmiths and merchants in the land here."
My lips thinned at that. Weapons. That meant, most likely, that they were looking at us. No wonder that Half Brother Fang was here, then, they must have sent him as a spy.
"Is that all that they make you do?" I finally asked. "Give them news?"
"Sometimes they ask me to help them pass... messages. Or parcels. Or -"
"Do they ever ask you to drug your customers?" I said, grim.
He stared at me, eyes wide, and swallowed. I didn't need an answer.
"I've said too much," he muttered. "They'll never forgive me now. WHo are you and what do you want? How do you know so much about them?"
I frowned. From what I know of the Hell's Venom sect, it did seem likely that they would hurt him somehow now that he'd told us what he knew of them. I hesitated, trying to think of what could be done now, but before I could come p with an idea, a movement from the window made me spin on my heel even as a black clad figure vaulted into the room.
I blocked its way as it rolled acorss the room, and we exchanged blows while I tried to drive it back and capture it. The intruder was very, very, fast, and I struggled to block the flurry of strikes, but without my sword, I am afraid I was at a disadvantage, and there was no opportunity for me to summon my sword.
"Ling!" Tian Jie said in alarm as I missed a kick and hit the table. I regained my balance too late - the intruder had headed straight for Tian Jie and to defend himself, he'd been forced to release the fortune teller. I ducked around the table just as the intruder caught the fortune teller by the arm and hurled something on to the floor -
I swore and closed my eyes just as the smoke bomb exploded and filled the room with choking smoke. Eyes shut tight, trying not to breathe, I tried to listen for sounds of the intruder but when I thought I caught the tap of a footstep and spun towards it, I hit the drawers instead.
"Miss Ling!" Tian Jie called out again worried.
"I'm fine!" I returned, coughing, and began to fumble my way to the window by touch and the banging of my shins. I finally found it and leaned out to suck in deep breaths of fresh air.
As the room cleared of smoke, it became clear that we were the only ones there. The intruder and fortune teller were long gone.
"Curse it!" I said, frustrated, and hoped that they would not hurt him. He might be a greedy, weak old man but I didn't think he deserves the sort of thing that I think the Hell's Venom sect more than capable of.
In the end, we left the fortune teller's house by the same way we came in. Tian Jie has promised to keep a sharper eye out for the sect around the town, and discover where they could be hiding themselves. I have also been listening for news, and I've been by the fortune teller's house a few times these past days, trying to see if he had returned. He has not. I can only hope that nothing has happened to him so far.
In the meantime, I have been keeping a sharper eye on Half Brother. If the sect has sent him to spy on us because of their interest in the Li family weapons, it could explain much. But I do not think that he's discovered anything important so far - in fact sometimes he does not appear to have any interest in us or the weapons at all.
But Father and Mother will be leaving soon, and Father is the only possible person who could show anyone where the lineal weapons are kept, so in his absence, it seems that there is little Half Brother or the rest of the sect can do. I can only hope that this is the case - when Father and Mother return, I will tell them what we know so far, and perhaps he could confront Half Brother and Second Wife.
My letter ends here - Qing, I hope this finds you well and safe and out of the palace, and do not forget what I threatened. If you endanger yourself like this again, I really will tell Aunt everything, and if that's not enough, I will send Father and Mother to the Capital to help you. I will not risk losing another sibling to the Imperial Court and its political games.