Chapter 2

"But even nude as a peeled chicken and tied to a stake atop a bonfire, crafty Zei had more tricks than the ocean has secrets." —Zei and the Tiger's Thirty Tails

Five busy minutes later, Stepfather Yao sat at his desk, frowning at the old man who had somehow breached the most secure level of the most secret fortress in all of Xiansai. Yao had immediately sent news of the intrusion in the usual way to the Broken Man, who was… on business, but that was only a formality. Intruders died.

Aunt Xa and Uncle Hao, two of the Tenth's deadliest assassins, stood on either side of the unwelcome visitor, blades drawn and ready to strike at the Stepfather's word. Apparently ignorant of the implied threat, the old man beamed at the luxurious surroundings and turned his attention to the desk between Yao and himself. He sighed.

"I am famished," he said. "Do you have anything to eat?"

"Of course," Yao said, turning to Jia, who waited unhappily by the door. Perhaps she had expected to be sent out of the room. Were she any other little sister, he would have done so. But Jia was different, and always had been. She needed to be harder. He pretended not to notice that Aunt Xa, who'd once bitten out a man's throat, was shooting concerned glances at the girl.

"Bring us a plate of cakes from my larder, Little Sister. Then make some tea from the brown pot."

Jia hurried away and came back with a plate piled high with cakes. The old man's eyes widened as it was set before him.

"All right, my friend," Yao said when Jia had returned to the larder to make the tea. "Who are you, and how did you find your way in here?"

"Through the secret passage behind your bookcase," the old man said, staring at the cakes as if they were telling him secrets. "May I have that chocolate one with the yanberry stripes? It looks marvelous."

Yao frowned.

"I asked your name."

"Yes, I heard you."


"I thought you were joking!" The old man laughed, flinging his hands into the air. "Everyone knows Covetous Shen!"

"I, sadly, do not," Stepfather Yao said. "Help yourself to the cakes, my friend."

Covetous Shen's jaw dropped at this unexpected generosity, and he lunged at the plate.

"Now, I would like to know why you have…" Stepfather Yao trailed off in amazed horror as Shen demolished the pile of cakes as if it held the antidote to the poisoned tea Jia was making.

"… why you have come here," Yao managed finally. Aunt Xa and Uncle Hao appeared hypnotized by the carnage.

The old man answered in muffled detail, spraying pieces of cake across the desk.

"I don't believe I understood that," Stepfather Yao said.

"I am not surprised," Shen said, swallowing the last bite. "It is a very complex plan."

"No," Yao said, taking a calming breath. "I could not understand what you said through your mouthfuls of cake."

"I apologize. Let me explain again… Oh, here is the tea!"

Porcelain clinked as Jia returned and set the steaming pot and two cups on the desk.

"Thank you, Little Sister," Yao said, and poured Shen a cup. Minute swirls the color of polished oak betrayed the dark tea's deadly contents, but the old man would never taste or feel a thing. He would fall asleep, and that would be it. But there was still the matter of—

Shen seized the cup and downed it in one gulp.

"Oh my," the old man said, breathing out steam. "That was delicious. May I trouble you for some more?"

Brow furrowed, Yao poured another cup. Shen sipped the tea and sloshed it thoughtfully around his mouth.

"Let me ask once more," Stepfather Yao said. "Why are you here?"

Covetous Shen pursed his lips in solemn thought, and he tasted the tea again. Delight bloomed across his face. He leaned conspiratorially toward Stepfather Yao.

"Is that scorpion root I taste?" he said, as though one of the deadlier poisons known to man were an unexpected hint of almond.

"Yes, I'm afraid it is. And if you want to—"

"It's poisonous, you know."

"I know it is," Yao said, gritting his teeth. "And if you want the antidote—"

"Oh, there's no antidote," Covetous Shen said, pouring himself some more tea. "It's one of the deadlier poisons known to man. Luckily, I once spent an unfortunate month trapped on an island packed with scorpion roots and venomous snakes. I had to eat them to survive, of course. The experience left me quite immune to most poisons!"

Stepfather Yao glared at Shen. There was a mystery here. Yao hated mysteries. He met Uncle Hao's eyes and nodded.

The Great Families sent their magical prodigies to Caldeum's Yshari Sanctum to meditate on the wise use of power so they could return to Xiansai and use it unwisely. The Tenth Family preferred more direct approaches to murder, and trained its own in the use of subtly applied force on internal organs.

Uncle Hao raised his hand, mouthed a word, and closed his fist. The lanterns hanging from the ceiling flickered and swayed as if caught in a dark wind.

In the silence, Covetous Shen noisily slurped his tea. By all appearances, his heart was thoroughly uncrushed.

Beads of sweat dripped from Uncle Hao's forehead. His bloodless fist trembled in the air.

A tremor built. The desk shuddered. Covetous Shen finished his tea with a happy sigh and set the cup down.

The teapot exploded, sending glass shards in every direction.

Growling, and only marginally aware that his assassins were frantically checking themselves for poisoned scratches like frightened children, Stepfather Yao tipped the heavy desk out of the way with one hand, and pulled his knife. Covetous Shen sat, unmoving, brow creased with polite concern. Teeth bared, Yao drew back to strike…

… and paused. His forehead ached, and not from a scratch.

Letters could be intercepted, and messengers could be tortured for information. Through considerable expense and some painful enchantments, Stepfather Yao and the Broken Man had obtained another, more secure method of communicating at a distance.

Yao had carefully pictured the intruder when he had arrived, and had muttered the sending word under his breath. He hadn't expected a response.

A hundred mental whispers coalesced into a single powerful thought from the Broken Man.

Give him whatever he wants, and pray he leaves quickly.

Yao's breath caught in his throat. The Broken Man had taken control of the Tenth during the Purge, when the entire city was turned against the family. He was over six and a half feet of scarred flesh, muscle, and mended bone, and the only man Jagged Liang, the most powerful woman in the city, considered a rival.

Pray he leaves quickly.

The Broken Man was afraid of Covetous Shen.

Stepfather Yao sheathed the knife and looked, truly looked, at the intruder. Battered, dust-stained robes. Heavy pouches. And that smile…

Everyone in the Tenth had once taken the Orphan's Test and rubbed the head of Zei for luck. Everyone knew the legend of the trickster god, trapped in the mortal realm until he retrieved the jewels he had stolen from the heavens.

Licking lips that were suddenly dry, Yao said, "Who are you, grandfather? Who are you, really?"

"Just a humble jeweler," Covetous Shen said with grand satisfaction. "And I wish to hire young Jia for a most interesting assignment."

The Orphan and the Jeweler


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