The monastery was empty, almost abandoned. Where were the disciples, the mentors and sect leaders? They should be training at this hour.
Kai knew it was risky to return to the Palam Mountains where the Blood Wolf Sect was quartered, but he had received word that she would be here. And after months of chasing her, he had to take a chance and follow this lead, even if it meant putting his old training ground in jeopardy.
A rustle behind him made him whirl around. There she stood, as though she had never left. As though the two of them hadn’t journeyed all the way to the Lost Kingdom years ago after graduating from the Sect and tried to carve out a life for themselves there.
They had been here before, as apprentices. As equals. As friends – and perhaps something more than that.
But now they stood with their weapons aimed at each other, neither of them willing to budge. There were too many secrets and lies between them – from his – for them to ever go back to the way they used to be.
“Hello, General Kai,” she said.
Wei stared at the girl he had imagined exploring the world with. There were no stars in her eyes now, no hint of the old Ying who had once dreamed of crossing the wild plains of the north to see heaven’s light. The assassin before him now watched him with a gaze as cold and steely as the blade she pointed at him.
“When you told me you were going to seek your fortunes, this was what you meant?” he said. “Working for the Black Lotus Clan?”
“I have my reasons,” was all she replied.
How much of her old life had she hidden from him? How much about her did he actually know? Yet, he had once convinced himself that he loved her, unconditionally.
There was no turning back once one had joined the Black Lotus Clan, the most notorious underground organisation that trained assassins and terrorists, a home to vengeance seekers. Once committed, there was no way out. It was a life sentence, a suicide mission. Death was the only escape.
She struck, feinting to the side before swinging her sword towards his gut. He dodged – just barely – and returned the favour. They launched a flurry of relentless attacks, striking and parrying, almost coordinated. For a moment, it felt like old times again, when they had trained in this very courtyard and grown accustomed to each other’s movements.
“What could be worth selling away your life?” he demanded, fending off another blow from her.
He faltered, lowering his sword. “What?”
She lunged, seizing the moment to throw him to the ground and pin him down.
“This this the only way you will survive,” she hissed in his ear. She proceeded to stuff a handful of herbs into his mouth. He choked, gagging on its rancid tang and found himself spitting out what looked like blood. “It’s just the colouring. But it might be able to fool them.”
“What? Who?” he rasped.
“Don’t tell me you don’t know the emperor’s tracking your every move. He’s still unsure of your loyalties.” He paused in his struggling, letting her words sink in. “You were sent to hunt me down, but I was sent to kill you.”
The truth hit Kai all at once. His sudden induction to the imperial army after the riots believed to be organised by the Black Lotus Clan, after Ying’s disappearance. The emperor wanted to make him bait, to capture Ying and to destroy the clan.
He reached for his sword, strewn next to him after Ying’s attack, and swung it in an arc close to her before knocking her off him. She gasped in surprise, but upon the conspiratorial look he shot her, she stuffed the herbs into her mouth before lying motionless next to him.
His heartbeat slowed as the effects of the herbs kicked in. Devil’s Skin, he remembered now. Ying had once gotten lost in the mountains when she was sent out to collect them, and he had sneaked out to look for her.
The world faded, receding to a pinprick of light, until all that was left was that faint memory.
Later, when the imperial soldiers found them, and the clansmen prowled along soon after, they would all assume that Kai and Ying had killed each other. Devil’s Skin could bury a pulse and turn a body cold. It was the easiest way to fake death, especially to fool these Capital people.
This was their escape.
When night crept upon them, Kai felt Ying’s hand around his. Cold seeped into his bones, and his body was stiff from lying still. But he felt her pulse growing stronger, falling into tandem with his, and began dreaming again of crossing the plains of the north.
He opened his eyes, squeezing her hand, and found himself seeing heaven’s light in her smile.
About the Author
Joyce hails from the tropical island-city of Singapore, where she spends the perennially sunny days writing YA novels and short stories. She holds a degree in English and her YA contemporary novel, LAMBS FOR DINNER, won a nationwide novel-writing competition organised by the National Arts Council and was published by Straits Times Press. She subsists mainly on green tea and toast, and blogs about books, writing, and TV shows at The Writes of Passage in between writing her next novel. You can read all of her short stories here.