Heian would like to remind you to refresh the weekly boost on TopWebfiction. How can you say no to that face? You'll probably make her sad. You wouldn't make her sad would you? I didn't think so. So give her a little pat on the head, and take a few seconds to give the story a boost. It helps out more than you might think! Thank you and enjoy the chapter.
Also, with this chapter, book 6 is now finished and I will be taking a much-needed and long overdue break. Next chapter will be on Wednesday the 29th. Thanks for reading!
Deep within the palace of the esteemed dragon clan, Qin Zhao sat in quiet meditation. The room was comfortable and well-decorated—suitable quarters for a guest of great importance. However, Qin Zhao saw past the illusion of hospitality and knew the room for what it truly was—a prison cell. Not a particularly effective one, mind—he could leave at any time, and he doubted anyone would put up more than a token effort to stop him—but it was nevertheless understood that he was not supposed to leave.
That had suited him just fine, since he needed time to recover, but it would soon be time for him to take the stage again.
A fiend with the appearance of a young woman knocked on the door politely before letting herself in. Long Xiaofan, the sister of the so-called Dragon Lord, was quite beautiful, albeit in the striking fashion that one might appreciate the beauty of a great mountain range or an ocean sunset, rather than simply being attractive.
She had long hair in an unnatural shade of pale blue, split by a pair of antler-like horns that marked her as a true dragon. She was unusually tall, for a woman, but carried herself with a grace and serenity that would be the envy of any lady of Qin. Yet despite her graceful demeanor, her fierce yellow eyes made it clear that she was a predator, and the rest of the world, her prey.
She strode past him, setting a tray of food and a carafe of fine wine down on the table. Qin Zhao usually didn’t bother eating, but it was apparently a matter of pride among the southern island tribes to keep their guests well-fed, and he’d been politely consuming everything they served him.
Admittedly, it helped that the food was actually quite good.
“You’ve recovered from your injuries.”
Long Xiaofan’s voice was sharp and precise. A statement, rather than a question. It took Qin Zhao by surprise, as she usually didn’t bother speaking to him at all.
“I have. You have my thanks for the hospitality.”
The dragon woman took a seat at the table and poured two glasses of wine.
“It was nothing. Have a drink with me.”
Qin Zhao frowned slightly, but accepted the invitation. She set a cup down in front of him as he took his seat across from her.
“My thanks. To what do I owe the pleasure of your esteemed company?”
Her yellow eyes bored into him, as if they were searching for something. They reminded him of Lee Jia—she had the same striking gaze, as if she could peel away the secrets of the world just by staring hard enough.
“You’ll be leaving soon. My brother won’t be happy about that.”
“I believe I have already overstayed my welcome. I am needed back home, and cannot impose upon you any longer.”
She downed her cup and began pouring another.
“You lied to us.”
A heavy silence hung in the air, but when it became clear that Long Xiaofan was waiting for him to respond, Qin Zhao chose his words carefully.
“I do not traffic in falsehoods, but neither am I all-knowing. I may have been mistaken, and if I have inadvertently misled you or your Dragon Lord as a result, you have my sincerest apologies.”
Long Xiaofan tapped her finger on the table, frowning.
“You knew what the Snake was planning. You’re complicit.”
“I do not believe anybody knows what Do Hye is planning, up to and including the man himself. His schemes are loose and formless—he adapts to whatever situation may occur and finds whatever path will lead to his desired conclusion.”
“But you knew what that desired conclusion was.”
Qin Zhao took a sip of wine, enjoying the potent infusion of essence enhancing the alcohol’s flavor.
“I did. Not in specific, perhaps, but broadly—yes. That is why I chose to participate in his scheme, even at great personal cost. Regardless of whatever else he may seek, the shackles around this world must be broken.”
She pursed her lips.
“He’s going to betray you.”
“As surely as the sun rises. I assume he already has. It does not matter—our purposes no longer align.”
Long Xiaofan sat back in her chair, staring off into the distance for a moment.
“Your injuries. They were self-inflicted, weren’t they? How? Why?”
That was an odd change of subject, but Qin Zhao was happy to entertain his host.
“My country uses artifacts that resonate with one’s soul. They allow us to know if someone linked to them comes to harm or dies. Soul Tablets can also be used to track one’s location, which would be rather inconvenient when I return to the mainland—I’ve likely been branded a traitor, and won’t be able to act openly.”
“Why return at all, then?”
“I have obligations which I cannot ignore. My nation may shun me, but my oath to the empire remains. I also have troublesome disciples in dire need of my guidance. I fear that in my absence, they will have charged headlong down a reckless and dangerous path, and it is my duty as their master to aid them through that unwise course.”
Long Xiaofan was satisfied with his answer, and after a lull in the conversation, Qin Zhao decided to take advantage of the moment to turn the interrogation around.
“If I may be so bold, Lady Long Xiaofan, what is your interest in all of this?”
She frowned, finishing off another cup of wine.
“My brother might kill you. Keeping that artifact sealed was his entire purpose here, and while we’ve made a home of this place over the millennia, he’s not going to be happy about failing.”
“And? What concern is that to you?”
“I’m not like my brother. I’ve never cared about the Sovereign’s Tear, or the sanctity of the clan. I may have been born in the divine realm, but this world is all I’ve ever known, and it’s mine as much as yours. I don’t trust the Snake, but I think you did the right thing.”
Qin Zhao inclined his head.
“Thank you for saying so. It is not always easy to uphold one’s personal ideals in the face of conflicting loyalties.”
She narrowed her eyes at him.
“I also pay closer attention than people think. I know that those disciples of yours are the ones who recovered the Tear. I know that one of my descendants is with them, having gotten herself caught up in the Snake’s schemes. Tell me, Qin Zhao—without equivocation—that you will look out for them, and for her.”
He raised an eyebrow.
“I am already oathbound to my disciples—”
“Without equivocation, son of Qin.”
Qin Zhao placed a hand over his heart.
“I swear, upon my soul, that I will offer succor to Long Ruiling and her associates within the limits of my means, and without breaking the tenets of my other oaths.”
The weight of his words settled within his soul, both a burden and a source of strength.
“That is all I can offer.”
Long Xiaofan nodded.
“It will do.”
She stood, finished her glass, and turned to leave, glancing back at him as she went.
“My brother will be returning soon. Finish your meal then leave as soon as you can—nobody will stop you.”
Qin Zhao stood and bowed.
“I am grateful for your assistance, but you need not put yourself at risk for my sake.”
“He wouldn’t dare turn his wrath on me. Besides, it’s already done.”
“I suppose it would be rude to refuse.”
She inclined her head, then strode out of the room, closing the door behind her. Qin Zhao glanced down at the plate of untouched food, still steaming. They really did take their hospitality quite seriously.
Do Hye stared up at the clear blue sky above him, wishing he at least had a few interesting clouds to look at. They’d converted the Sky Hall into a prison just for him, twisting its protective formations—meant to withstand the wrath of the heavens themselves—to keep him contained within.
It was overkill, really. But he could appreciate the cleverness of the design. Someone had clearly been doing some heavily focused research on the Sky Hall’s formations lately, and he had to approve of such commitment.
“Seong Misun’s work, looks like—though I have to wonder what could possibly have led to Yoshika having an influence on these spells. Those girls leave their fingerprints on everything.”
“As if you’re one to talk.”
Do Hye blinked. The response was unexpected, but the source was even more so. He didn’t get very many visitors, and when he did it was usually just Hwang Sung coming by to conduct boring interrogations.
This time, it was a young woman whose voice he didn’t recognize, but whose face he did—after all, he’d spent nearly fifteen years raising her brother as his own son.
“Hello there—Hyeong Aecha, I presume? I suppose Dae must have tracked you down.”
She bowed politely.
“That’s correct. It’s good to finally meet you, after hearing so much.”
She was wearing a servant’s uniform, which was to be expected, but was alone, which was not. Do Hye was immediately intrigued—he loved the unexpected.
“The pleasure is all mine. Where is your master, dear?”
“I have been told that I am my own mistress, free to do as I please.”
Aecha paused uncomfortably.
“Mistress Haeun is busy with her sisters today, and I have no other duties that need attending. I’m...free.”
“Does anybody know you came here?”
Do Hye frowned. That was terribly unlikely. There was no chance that his prison was unguarded, and they’d have everyone with even the most remote connection to him under strict surveillance. This was a trap.
“What brings you to me, Miss Aecha? Surely you wouldn’t be paying a dangerous criminal like me a visit on your precious free time without good reason.”
She wrung her hands together awkwardly, staring down at her feet.
“I wanted to meet you. I wanted to know...”
“Well, knowledge is my specialty, young lady. Ask away.”
Hyeong Aecha bit her lip, struggling internally against her conditioning. She tried to look him in the eyes, but lowered her head after each attempt. Eventually, though, she worked up enough courage to ask.
“Master Hyeong and I...what are we to you? Why did you interfere in our lives? Why was I raised to be a servant, while he was taken in as your apprentice?”
Do Hye sighed. He wasn’t sure which was more pathetic—Hwang Sung’s clumsy attempt at wringing information out of him, or the fact that he was going to let himself fall for it.
Normally, he’d never give away such dire secrets, but as always his son was his greatest weakness. He owed Dae an explanation, and since he was unlikely to ever meet the boy face to face again, this would have to do.
“Dae is my son. I am immeasurably proud of him, and I regret the harm I have caused both of you. You and he...were mistakes, on my part. I failed to account for the human element. The truth is...”
He hesitated. Do Hye stood to gain nothing by telling Aecha the truth, and risked losing everything. He’d only raised Dae for fifteen years—what was that compared to eternity? He loved the boy, but surely that would pass. Was it really worth risking everything he’d spent so many lifetimes working for?
Perhaps not. But Do Hye couldn’t bring himself to let the poor children suffer any longer.
“The truth is that I had originally planned to prepare the two of you as potential vessels—a technique lost to this world known as a ‘soul jar.’ Normally, I would simply reincarnate into a newborn, but that’s a painfully slow process as it takes a long time for the body and mind to mature enough.
“I anticipated the need for a swifter option, and you two were meant to be the solution. Prepared vessels that had already matured, placed in separate, but distinctly useful positions. An utter failure, of course—I barely made it two years before I removed the spell that would allow me to transfer my soul into Dae. And you, by extension—twins can be funny like that.”
Hyeong Aecha just stared at him, dumbfounded. Predictably, Hwang Sung chose that moment to materialize next to her, looking rather satisfied with himself.
“So that’s how you’ve been around for so long. I always knew it was suspicious how much you seemed to know. How long have you been doing this?”
Do Hye chuckled. He liked Hwang Sung—he really did—but the man was too competitive for his own good, and it made him far too easy to tease. Do Hye had already committed to telling the truth, so how could he pass up such a perfect setup?
“Oh, forever. It was the only way for me to remain present after the other gods were ousted.”
Hah! Now they were both dumbfounded. It was too easy.