"Do you even know what you're doing?" Sky demanded.
The Spirit Monk offered him a single nod of her head before she turned to face everyone else. "Aside from Wild Flower and the Black Whirlwind, I want no one venturing near the Imperial City. We'll set up camp here and wait for them to return with news."
"We're just to sit and wait and do nothing?" Kia Min asked. "There has to be something that we can do."
"We can be vigilant," was all the Spirit Monk would say to that.
Wild Flower glanced over at the Black Whirlwind. Every time she crept closer to the hulking man, he would edge farther away from her. She was unsure of the Radiant Jen Zi's decision to have this wary companion to keep her company within the city walls, but Wild Flower had faith that it would prove to be an interesting experience to say the least.
Sky had since taken to his usual defeated stance as he crouched over the grass as if to study some hidden secrets in the soil. "How long are we expected to wait?" he asked.
The Spirit Monk glanced over the hill they had gathered on and into the distance. It held only more rolling landscape and blue sky, but for the moment it made her appear thoughtful. "Two days."
"Two days is a short time and the Imperial City is large," Wild Flower said quietly.
And there it was. That quick blink of the Radiant Jen Zi's eyes, that uncertainty. "Three days," she said. Death had changed the woman.
"Two days," the Black Whirlwind barked. "We'll be dead with anymore time to waste."
"We'll wait three days," the Radiant Jen Zi repeated. "But I'll be very happy to see you back in two."
Wild Flower beamed and slipped her tiny hand into the Black Whirlwind's. "We'd better get started if you wish to return in two days."
The Black Whirlwind tore his hand from her grasp and stalked off towards the direction of the Imperial City without another word. Interesting, indeed.
She had to run to keep up with the man's rapid pace. By the time she had caught up, her lungs burned and she could feel Ya Zhen growing anxious within her. Perhaps, given the Black Whirlwind's foul mood, it would have been easier to let the demon come out and let her useless body rest, but both Ya Zhen and the drunken brawler were unpredictable at best and now was not the time for chaos.
For now, the demon was content to lend her some of its strength to keep up with the grueling strides of a man who appeared to be hell bent on outrunning her. The Imperial City promised to be a potential bloodbath and Ya Zhen was teeming with anticipation of what could happen if everything went wrong.
It sometimes made her miss the Guardian, but Wild Flower knew that he was sadly too naïve for this world.
"I don't think the herbalist likes me," she called after the Black Whirlwind.
"I don't like you, either," he grunted.
"I noticed." She giggled as she tried to catch her breath. "But I have nothing but good intentions for the Radiant Jen Zi. You have to believe me when I say that."
That made the man stop cold in his tracks. "I know what you do."
"Yes." It wasn't her, technically, but she didn't deny Ya Zhen his little cravings. Years ago, it had been painful when he'd rip through her consciousness, but they had since learned it could be beneficial to both parties if they worked together and allowed peaceful transitions.
"I suppose you do it for Dawn Star's sake?" His hand reached down and traced the handle of his axe. It seemed more a habit than an implication, but coming from a man that could ruin villages without a second thought it still spoke volumes.
"She's come to accept it as that, yes," Wild Flower said slowly. "But I'd be lying if I were to say that was entirely true."
The Black Whirlwind nodded. "That's what I thought."
There was a certain level of audacity that came with a murdering lummox trying to pass judgment on her and her actions. It didn't look like he had told the Spirit Monk anything about it so she was willing to let his comments slide. All things would be answered for given the appropriate timing.
The grass finally met with stone road as they continued on in silence. Even with just the stretch of space they'd covered between there and Tien's Landing there was a noticeable difference. The sweet, yellow-green grass of Tien's Landing was saturated here to the point of being a vibrant green. If Wild Flower stuck out her tongue, she could almost taste the moisture in the air.
"All roads lead to the heart of the empire," she said offhand.
The Black Whirlwind snorted, but said no more.
The Imperial City was more beautiful than the last time Wild Flower had wandered within its walls. Lush with water and life, everything was neatly corralled with a latticework of red railings along all the pathways of the city. Yellow and purple flowers sprang up in uniform lines only in the designated patches of grass just outside the polished stone walls of homes and businesses.
She and the Black Whirlwind were entirely out of place.
The people of the city moved about oblivious to their new visitors. While they would talk freely, it was obvious by their movements that they weren't completely in control of their bodies. Their bodies went in predetermined directions, their conversations to passersby cut short as they hunched over carts or slung sacks over their shoulders.
There was a line of peasants just outside the Imperial Arena. One at a time, they filed inside the building despite the occasional grumbling that it didn't matter because it was zhong xun and every fight during the week of zhong xun was won by Hapless Han. Wild Flower hadn't realized that she had stopped moving in the midst of her observations until she felt a firm jerk at the collar of her robes as the Black Whirlwind tugged her along.
"We're here for the bun man," he grunted. "I don't like the way these bastards are looking at us."
"All the peasants have clean faces," she murmured. "And they all look fed, if not well-fed. That's a good thing, isn't it?"
"You know as well as I do that it doesn't make a goddamn difference." His grip tightened around her little wrist as he pulled her along. A child's would have broken under the pressure, but dead bones couldn't afford to break. "Look at them toddling around without any control. It looks pretty, but it reeks."
Something about the absurdity of his words stirred the demon. Ya Zhen burbled up within her like laughter until his thoughts were spoken on her tongue. "What does a disgusting worm like yourself know of beauty?" he scoffed.
Wild Flower was vaguely aware of the Black Whirlwind snatching her body up by the throat; sometimes it was difficult to see beyond the numbing cloud of red.
"I will tear you out of this kid's throat and then piss on your corpse," the Black Whirlwind chuckled. "The only question is how many pieces I can make out of this kid before you fall out of her."
Wild Flower took a deep breath and urged Ya Zhen down. She stared directly into the Black Whirlwind's eyes. "This doesn't bring us any closer to Hou," she said.
He twisted the hand around her neck so that her head was facing a modest-sized hut. "Hou lives there."
"You knew this already." It wasn't a question. "How?"
"It's where we dropped him off eight years ago," the Black Whirlwind said. "We didn't know then."
Yellow light from an oil lamp shone through the open window. The smell of chicken broth and ginger wafted through the air as they made their way to Henpecked Hou's home.
Inside, a large woman was hunched over a cooking fire while bemoaning the fact that she despised ginger as she mechanically reached down to test her soup. She swallowed it down and smiled despite her vocal protests.
"And who might you two be?" she demanded as her hands continued to season her dinner.
"We're looking for Hou," the Black Whirlwind said as he crossed his massive arms. "Is he around?"
"That good for nothing will be back from selling his buns the same time he always is," the woman grunted.
"Is that soon?" Wild Flower asked.
"Soon," the woman replied.
"There are new people here," a small voice exclaimed from an adjacent room whose doorway was covered with a blanket nailed across the doorframe.
"We have guests? We never have guests."
"I want to see!"
Despite the excitement in the childrens' voices, they marched out of the room with the discipline of Imperial soldiers. Six girls lined up next to the hut's entrance tallest to shortest. Their mother set her soup ladle aside and walked into the other room only to emerge with a baby latched onto her hip.
Seven daughters lined up like perfect porcelain dolls. So that's what the people in the Imperial City did to occupy themselves, Wild Flower mused.
No sooner had the woman taken her place at the door with the baby did Hou arrive. The beaming grin on the bun master's face seemed sickly as he kissed his wife.
"Good evening, my duplicitous daisy," he said sweetly. "With each passing day you become more and more foul and loathsome."
Hou kissed the infant on the cheek and then made his way down his row of daughters beginning with the eldest.
"I swear Hou, one of these days, we will be free," his wife vowed. "And when that day comes, by the time I am finished with you, I will make you want to reach up through your bowels and tear your insides out."
"Having to make love to you nightly makes me wish for that already, my sweetling."
"I will kill you."
"They're repulsive," Wild Flower murmured.
"We have guests," Hou said as he gave the toddler at the end of the line a pat on her head. "This is different. The Black Whirlwind, Wild Flower. It's certainly been a while. Please try not to make a mess. As you can see, we seem to be on a schedule of sorts and I don't think my darling wife is programmed to clean the house again until tomorrow morning."