prologue to chapter eight
Finding the man that killed A-duan is easy.
Cheng Bowen remembers the asshole from the day in Zhoucheng, always prattling on and on about the doctors—namely the doctor’s son—all while eating their food, enjoying his free service, and filling his pockets with money that his brother makes across town.
Oh well, his shizun taught him to be honorable, but she’ll never know that the paper money he burned for the city wasn’t his.
Cheng Bowen leaves Ren Liufang on the horse while he drags the man towards a small secluded house in the middle of nowhere. The body twitches in his grip, like a half-dead fish still fighting for life.
Well, Cheng Bowen muses, It depends on what kind of fish you’re talking about.
There is a chair in the house, just like Cheng Bowen remembers. He hauls the unconscious body onto it, setting him upright on the shaky frame. The man’s head rolls back, revealing a pattern of snarling black crawling across his skin. Cheng Bowen adjusts the neck to where the mark isn’t visible anymore, chin to collarbone.
At the very least, he can allow himself this luxury.
He has never been good at tying knots. Cheng robes are sacred, so he wouldn’t dare touch them, but he unravels a few of the old bandages on his chest and uses them as ropes instead. Shi Jinghui would probably burst a vein if he saw Cheng Bowen actively endanger his health, but at least it’d be fun to watch. Shi Jinghui was interesting like that. He pulls the bandage around the leg until it goes taut and the blackened skin around it starts leaking pus. Then, he unknots it and ties it tighter.
It repeats in that order.
When Cheng Bowen is done, the man is completely secure to the chair, no way of removing himself from the bandages bound tightly around all of his limbs. The curse mark pulses on his chest, but it’s subdued for the moment, probably due to the beating it took awhile ago.
Cheng Bowen steps back, and he stares at the man. Immobile. Neck soft and easy to slice through. If he were being crude, he’d compare it to killing a lamb. He’s had plenty of practice beheading people. It’d be over in a single stroke. So easy. Just. Like. That.
Cheng Bowen touches the tip of his sword’s hilt, and he imagines swinging it so hard that blood flies across the room and the ground trembles and a part of the wall caves in from the pressure. Was that how it went? Was that how it worked? Was it really that easy? So insignificant that he didn’t even have to act hard to pretend it never happened? Should he give it a try just to see how it feels?
To, just for a second, see what it was like being in Ren Liufang’s shoes?
Cheng Bowen’s grip on his sword tightens, and he turns away. He kicks dirt into the man’s eyes, and he leaves that house to get Ren Liufang.
The woman is still unconscious when she comes into view, resting discontentedly on top of his horse. Cheng Bowen drags her off without looking at her face, holding her by the back collar. He doesn’t want to touch her skin. Not the blisters on the back of her neck. Not the darkened splotch half covering her body. Not even the normal part, the human part. It’s all the same. She’s still the same. Everything’s still the same.
Except it isn’t. Not anymore.
Cheng Bowen doesn’t want to think about it. He doesn’t want to think about anything. He should’ve killed Ren Liufang half a year ago to keep it simple. Stabbed while she wasn’t looking. Accident in a night hunt. Infection in the doctor’s office. It wasn’t his fault she showed her back to him. It would blow over well for the Cheng sect, though the Ren sect might collapse from the inside out. Better for them. Justifiable once the truth got out. Public execution.
But that was half a year ago, and what was he doing now? Saving her life?
It was too late.