Chapter 3

"The warrior's wife offered Zei an emperor's ransom in precious jewels, or a night of unbridled debauchery. Of course, for Zei, that was hardly a choice at all." —Zei and the Night of Unbridled Debauchery

The Shifting Estate was five subterranean floors of sleeping quarters and training halls connected by a fortified spiral staircase. Jia followed Covetous Shen up the winding steps sullenly. Somehow, the news of the visitor had already spread. Worried eyes peeked through murder holes, and frantic whispers echoed down in the dark as Xiansai's deadliest assassins jostled for position, trying to see.

Jia growled. She was never going to hear the end of this.

"I know you're not him," she said.

"Not who?" Shen said cheerfully.

"Zei! You're not Zei!"

"I never said I was."

"You never said you weren't!"

"Ah, but if I must spend the entire night telling you everything I am and am not, we won't have time to break into Jagged Liang's tower."

The whispered conversations outside the walls cut off abruptly, and a hundred indrawn breaths sucked the air from the stairwell. Jia stopped dead.

"What?" she shrieked.

Shen peered back at her around the curve of the staircase.

"Oh, didn't I say? Yes, we are going to steal secrets from the Tower of the Advisor. Isn't that wonderful?"

Zhou's laws were determined by a ruling council made up of one man or woman from each of the nine Great Families. As none of the Great Families was foolish enough to trust the others or work together with them, they had long ago created the role of advisor.

This powerful and dangerous position was generally held by a successful merchant raised from the teeming masses. He or she brought important matters3 to the attention of the ruling council and executed its orders4, giving the Great Families time to hold masquerades and plot the assassinations of loved ones. Advisors worked entirely without oversight and were the de facto rulers of Zhou. They also rarely lived to see the end of their one-year term.

This meant that the current advisor, Jagged Liang, was… unusual. She had used the increasing reports of demonic attacks in the bordering Dreadlands and the rest of the world to remain in power for four years, and had survived sixteen assassination attempts. Before she became advisor, the Great Families had filled the city watch with the dregs of their personal armies; Liang reformed, fired, or outright killed the drunks, spies, and criminals, leaving a well-trained and better-compensated force that answered only to her.

In short, Jagged Liang was the sole guardian of order in a city that thrived on chaos. And that put her directly at odds with the Tenth, which prospered from satisfying the whims of the rich and powerful. A silent war had been escalating for years now. Her watchmen raided storehouses and slaughtered Jia's adopted family in the streets. In return, uncles and aunts paid visits to watch houses and made sure the entire city could see the flames.5

No one, not even the Builders and the Landholders, hated each other more than the Broken Man and Jagged Liang.

Jia leaned against the wall. And we're going to steal from her.

"I'm dead," she said.

"Only if her guards catch us," Covetous Shen said, flapping his hands dismissively. "Or we fall during the climb."

"Climb?" Jia said, holding her forehead.

"Oh yes. We will be ascending the outside of the tower." Shen frowned. "Now that I'm hearing the plan out loud, it does sound quite risky. Luckily, you have a secret weapon."

"Yes? What's that?"

"Me!" Shen said, and he vanished around the curve again. Jia felt her family watching her.

"Be strong, Little Sister," one of them said, reaching through a murder hole to touch her shoulder. "Be silent. Be careful."

"Hide in plain sight," said another.

Jia sighed. The last was a quote. From the Book of Zei.

Covetous Shen bounded from the estate's false storefront, and Jia followed glumly. Rugged cobblestone streets reeled through clumps of sagging, multilevel tenements that blocked the stars above.

But not the entire skyline. Half a mile away, the serrated shape of the Tower of the Advisor rose haughtily from the surrounding squalor, waiting for them.

Covetous Shen stood absolutely still in the center of the uneven street. In the soft moonlight, his tangled beard almost glowed, and the faintest memory tickled the back of Jia's mind…

And it was gone. She shook her head and started toward Shen. Maybe the old fraud was having second thoughts.

No. He was hypnotized by the sight of a distant street vendor up the winding curve of the road leading to the tower. The sizzle of meat sent curls of fragrant smoke looping toward them.

"We should head over the roofs."

"There are curried beef vendors on the rooftops?" Shen said with awe. "I have been gone from this city of wonders for too long."

"No," Jia snapped. "It's safer."

"Ah, yes," Shen said, nodding seriously. "Safety is most important. Have no fear. If we need to jump off roofs and battle seven men, I shall let you go first."

He tottered toward the street vendor, leaving Jia gaping in his wake. He must have overheard, of course. But Stepfather Yao hadn't mentioned the roof…

The vendor's cart and grill were built against an open kitchen, connected to its soot-stained walls and ceiling by a complicated array of chains and gears; it looked as though the entire contraption could be pulled back in a hurry so that the slab of iron over the cart would swing down and seal the shop. Jia caught up just as Covetous Shen nudged apologetically through the small line of people waiting their turn. He then ordered everything on the grill.

"Everything, grandfather?" the vendor said, his brow crinkling beneath a wide straw hat with upturned edges. He ignored the grumbling crowd; selling everything at once meant he could go to bed early with a pouch full of gold.

"Absolutely!" Shen said. "My young friend and I have a hard climb ahead of us and—"

"We were here first, old man," growled a middle-aged woman with tired eyes and a heavy, clucking bag over her shoulder.

"Were you? Impossible!" Shen said. "I would have noticed such a beautiful woman in line before me. But no one should go hungry!

"Vendor!" he shouted, slamming his hand down. "Meat for all my friends!"

Jia pushed past the faintly smiling woman and a street performer with a huge eighteen-stringed matar on his back.

"What are you doing?" she hissed.

"Preparing for our secret mission," Shen said in a whisper that was probably heard across the street. There was a sizzling sound.

"You're making a scene!"

"Ah. You may be right," Shen said. "I will proceed more subtly."

"Grandfather," the vendor said, his eyes wide. "Your—your hand!"

Shen looked at him. He looked at the hand he'd slammed down… on the red-hot grill.

"No harm done!" the old man said, leaning onto the grill with his other hand. "I am quite resistant to burns, and it is chilly tonight. Now, where is my meat?"

"Money first," the vendor said, wincing at the continued sizzle.

"Oh, of course. My apologies." Shen straightened and sorted through his pouches with both hands, muttering. Finally, he brightened and brandished a ruby. His palms were unburned.

"Will this do?"

Eyes moved from the hands to the ruby, then to Shen's wrinkled face. Someone whispered, "Jeweler," then, "Zei," and this time, even Jia was… uncertain. The jewel. The unblemished skin that should be scorched. The poison. The magic. Who was he?

Still, she was young, and her natural cynicism bounced back hard.

"You call this subtle?" she said.

"It's not the largest one I have," Shen said, looking concerned.

"It could buy this street!" Jia said. "And you're spending it on a cart's worth of beef?"

"Can't you smell it? A ruby is hardly a fair bargain for such delicious meat!"

"You're a fool," Jia said.

"Beauty makes fools of the best of men," Shen said, winking at the woman with the sack of chickens. She blushed like a priestess. "But you have a good point.

"Vendor, include that wondrous hat, and this paltry ruby is yours," he said, waving the gem above his head. The vendor's eyes were locked to it.

"Stop flashing it around," Jia said. "Do you want to get killed?"

"By these fine people?" Shen said, handing over the ruby and shoving his new hat onto his head. "They seem trustworthy to me. Besides, who would kill someone over my jewels?"

"Only most of the city," Jia said. "Stop shouting about your damn jewels."

"I am more than happy to share," Shen said, adjusting his hat. "I have plenty."

On cue, three scrawny thugs swaggered from a nearby alleyway. Jia moved one foot softly behind her and let a dagger slip silently into her hand, concealed by the nervous crowd. These idiots weren't wearing the mark of the Tenth, which meant that they were unauthorized freelancers6 and unlikely to go away because she asked. In fact, they would probably try to kill her. She would just have to kill them f—

A wandering patrol of the advisor's city watch was approaching from the opposite direction. Perfect. And here she was in her inconspicuous assassin's armor.

The vendor could apparently see the future as well. He hauled the cart backward, and the iron roof began to swing closed.

Covetous Shen caught it with one hand and lifted it back up without any sign of effort.

"Is that," he said, "ginger wine I spy on the shelf behind you?"

Pulling desperately on the unyielding handle, the vendor nodded.

"I will pay you an opal for each bottle," Shen said. His voice echoed off the high buildings above.

The vendor froze. The bald thug dropped his cudgel.

"Really, an opal for each bottle?" Jia said.

"I haven't drunk nearly enough ginger wine in my life," Shen said solemnly. "It is one of my greatest regrets."

Gambling his life for opals, the vendor passed Shen a bottle. Shen tossed it to the bald thug without looking.

"Wine for my friends!" the old man declared. "And now that we have an audience, we will need music!"

An audience? Jia looked up. People leaned out of their open windows, trying to see what was going on. This never happened. At night, Zhou was a city of locked doors and closed shutters. You didn't try to find out what all the noise was about unless you wanted it to come upstairs and introduce itself.

"May I borrow your matar, young man?" Shen said to the street performer.

"May I have some wine?"

"A fair bargain!" Wine and instrument were exchanged. Shen staggered under the weight of the matar. "These are heavier than I remember. I will need both hands.

"You there!" he said to the bald thug. "Help our vendor friend pass the wine around. Everyone else, sing along if you know the words!"

Everyone knew the words, especially since they were dirty ones. Not many songs about Zei were clean. When he got to the part where the peacock queen found Zei in the tree with her three sisters, the woman with the chickens and the bald thug were holding each other and howling laughter.

More and more people spilled into the street only to have bottles shoved at them. The city watch arrived, blowing whistles to summon guards to handle the chaos. Reunited with his matar and blessed with Shen's hat, the street performer strummed maniacally and sang along with his new friends. The vendor shouted for his wife to wake up, then told her to hide the bag of opals and bring more ginger wine and raw meat from the cellar…

Several blocks away and ten minutes later, Jia and Covetous Shen stood at the edge of the courtyard surrounding the Tower of the Advisor. As they watched, the last of the foot patrols left in the direction of the impromptu street festival.

"You cunning old devil," Jia said. "You did all of that on purp—wait, you brought a bottle of wine?"

"I get thirsty on long climbs," Shen said, flicking the cork free with a practiced thumb and draining the bottle halfway in three gulps.

Irritated that a man at least four times her age was forcing her to be the adult in the situation, Jia said, "You can't go up that tower drunk, old man."

"Why not?" Shen said. "I've ascended thousands of towers. Sobriety has never improved the experience."

"You'll fall!"

"Oh no, no. I am too frail to fall. Though I haven't tested the theory, I am certain I would float gently to the ground."

"Fine," Jia said, pinching the bridge of her nose. "Let's go. When I give the sign—"

Shen was already scampering across the courtyard. She cursed and followed, expecting the cry of a guard at any moment. None came, though there had to be archers on neighboring roofs. Shen's luck appeared to be rubbing off on her.

He reached the tower, tucked the bottle into his vast network of pouches, and scrambled up the first ten feet of sheer wall like a rabid monkey. Jia had to use every trick of leverage and muscle to stay with him.

Zhou fell away beneath them. Darkness ruled the sleeping city, except for the miniature Festival of Zei7 Shen had created and the radiant clusters of torchlight and lanterns marking the Eternal Market to the east.

Eventually, Jia noticed that Shen was more or less going straight up the wall. Paying attention now, she saw irregular notches cut cleverly into the polished stone, invisible from below.

"Someone else has been climbing this tower," she said.

"Oh yes," Shen said, not even slightly out of breath. "My son comes here quite often."

"Son?" Jia said. "But you keep insinuating you're a—"

"Celibate? Never. Women would flip mountains into the sea before they allowed that."

"No, a god. And please don't talk about s—about celibacy," Jia said, blushing.

"Why not?" Shen said innocently, pausing to scratch his bearded chin, one bony hand wedged in a crevice.

"Because you're…"

"Immensely handsome? Pleasantly scented?"


"That is true," Shen said, nodding regretfully. "I am old. Too old, in fact, to carry this heavy bottle of wine any farther. Catch."

He dropped the bottle, and she barely caught it before it would have plummeted past her to smash against the cobbles far, far below.

"What am I supposed to do with this?"

"Drink it," Shen said. A gust of wind sent his robes rippling as he braced a sandaled foot against a tiny crevice. "Then, you smash the bottle to scare away hangovers!"

"I'm not going to... All right, does that really work?"

"Possibly," Shen said. "Personally, I enjoy hangovers. They remind me of…"

He trailed off. The silence was so unexpected that Jia felt driven to fill it.

"Remind you of…?"

"Oh, memories," Shen said, grinning down at her.

For the first time, Jia really looked at him. Beneath that oddly familiar beard and the easy smile, she'd seen the briefest glimpse of… sadness, locked behind high walls and a fortified gate. A gate that was closed again.

"You were talking about your son," she said, tucking the bottle into her padded armor.

"Oh, yes. He races up this tower more often than he should. You see, he and Liang are secret lovers."

Jia's hand froze in midair.

"Jagged Liang? The advisor whose tower we're hanging from? That Liang?"

"Absolutely," Shen said happily. "They've been in love for many years. Decades, at least."

"That's impossible," Jia said. Songs had been written of the advisor's lack of interest in romance. Liang had turned down a hundred proposals from various members of the Great Families; it was, Jia thought, one of her only redeeming qualities.

"Not impossible. Just surprising. You may wish to whisper at this point," Shen added. The advisor's window loomed above.

"And this son of yours," Jia said, certain Shen was playing with her. "Is he also a famous seducer of women? A god in disguise?"

"Oh, didn't I say?" Shen said. "You know him as the Broken Man."

Jia slipped. Faster than falling lightning, Shen reached down and caught her wrist with a grunt. Her boots dangled in open space, hundreds of feet in the howling air.

"Careful," was all he said before he swung her toward the wall. She clung to it a moment, face against the cold stone, finding her breath.

"No," she finally managed. "We're at war with Liang's city watch. They hate each other."

"Passion is certainly involved," Shen said, moving again. Either the subject or the near fall had drained the easy humor from his voice.

The window was only five feet above now.

"You're wrong! The Broken Man wouldn't betray us." She heard the desperation in her words, and hated herself for it.

"He was loyal to her first," Shen said kindly. "And the Tenth is a distant third."

"Third? Then what's the second?"

"I am glad you asked!" Shen said brightly. "That is the secret I brought you here to discover."

And with one sinewy arm, he hauled her by the back of her armor to the ledge of the window.

A blade of moonlight pierced the advisor's bedchamber, illuminating a lush carpet, a firepit, and a bed. Jagged Liang faced the wall, drawing a robe over her bare back and pale shoulders.

Naked to the waist, the Broken Man stepped out of the darkness behind her, more scars than skin. Two killer's hands slipped around her throat, pulling her chin up gently, gently, to kiss her…

It was the rooftop all over again. Jia was through the window with her dagger drawn before her brain had time to catch up.

Jagged Liang jerked out of the Broken Man's arms. Her mouth opened…

… and the Broken Man covered it, holding the advisor back. He stared at Jia, his face unreadable, and she knew that he couldn't let her leave alive. Neither of them could.

She wasn't going to escape the way she had come. Jia lunged over the ledge and held a hand out for Covetous Shen… who wasn't there. The wall down to the courtyard was completely devoid of any lunatics with delusions of godhood. Cursing, she spun around just in time to see the Broken Man reaching for her…

She slashed his wrist with her dagger, ducked beneath his arm when he recoiled, and sprinted for the last exit left to her—

"Guards!" Liang roared from behind. Two watchmen burst through the door, her only hope for escape, swords drawn. Without thinking, Jia pulled Shen's bottle from her armor and flung it at the nearest one's head. It rang him like a bell, and he staggered sideways. She darted outside the silver arc of the other guard's slash, plunged her dagger into his forearm, and caught the sword as it fell.

She wheeled about, ignoring the guard's shrieks, and just barely deflected—oh gods—Liang's blade. The woman had killed dozens of the Tenth's assassins. Jia's family. And the Broken Man, its protector, was in love with her…

Blood trailing from his wounded wrist, the Broken Man charged across the bedchamber. Liang swung once, twice, and Jia, hissing with rage, moved with the momentum of the strikes, parrying along the edges of the advisor's blades, spinning…

… and, piling her heartsick fury into a single scream, Jia hurled both dagger and sword at the Broken Man's chest.

He slapped them out of the air and kept coming.

She turned and ran from the bedchamber, down the hallway, to a winding staircase. Armored boots rang on the steps below. Up was the only choice.

Up was death, she knew. She was going to die, and her family would go on suffering for the Broken Man's lies…

She reached the moonlit top of the tower. It was oddly calm. It was also, of course, a dead end.

Jia ran to the edge of the roof, panting, just in case someone had been thoughtful enough to install a ladder since her ascent. No. A straight fall all the way to the courtyard far below. She could make it back down to the advisor's window and the handholds, but not in a hurry. And by the shouts, the guards were almost here.

Jia closed her eyes. There was a story. A story about Zei...

Chased by the Lords of Fire, clever Zei climbed to the very top of the sky. And when they mocked him, Zei planted a kiss on the blushing cheek of the dawn, and leapt…

Jia opened her eyes. Steel scraped on stone behind her as the guards advanced. She might never travel to the horizon as she wanted to, but she could fly one more time…

She turned away from the drop, her heel against the edge of oblivion. At least twenty smirking guards held her in a half ring of spears and fine blades. Twenty soldiers who might go on to hurt her family.

She sighed, and charged.

A sword cut at her throat, and she wasn't there. A spear thrust at her back, and she let it pass behind her before grabbing the haft and tearing it out of the guard's hands.

Oak rang on steel as she bashed the spear's handle into helmets, and a guard fell to the roof, screaming, when she plunged the tip neatly through a gap in his legplates, into his thigh. Jia fought on, knowing she was going to lose. They herded her to the yawning edge, and a lucky slash cut her spear in half. One of them grabbed her from behind, and, snarling, she sank the spear into the top of his foot, whirled out of his arms, and buried the point in his chest.

The haft splintered. She snatched the sword out of the guard's hand before he fell from the tower, and leapt into the thick of the men who would be her killers. Each sweep of her blade deflected multiple blows; each strike found flesh. Laughing, she danced and spun and fought on, and on…

When nine guards remained, one knocked her down with a gauntleted fist, and another kicked the sword from her hand.

Dizzy, she watched the moonlit shadow of the axe rising above her head, and heard someone… someone running up the stairs…

The Broken Man exploded out of the stairwell, seized two guards by the neck, and threw them off the tower. He wheeled around and caught a spear behind his head just as the tip brushed his skin. His backhand crushed the spearman's helmet.

Jia dove for her sword, retrieving it in time to parry a thrust at her chest. His torn knuckles dripping, the Broken Man rose up behind the unlucky guard, took his head in two massive hands, and squeezed.

The remaining five guards backed away, knowing the Broken Man by sight. But Jia knew he wouldn't spare them. Like her, they were witnesses…

… but Jia realized, frowning, that the Broken Man could have let her die.

The man that frail old Covetous Shen had called his son killed three more men in a handful of seconds. The last two he bashed together until they stopped moving, and he tossed them down the stairs.

He turned, blood running from a dozen wounds.

"She's your mother," he said.

Jia stared blankly at him. Shen's secret. Liang and the Broken Man had been in love for decades…

"And you're…"


He hadn't been trying to hurt her. He'd been trying to stop Liang, who didn't recognize her.

She had his eyes, Jia noticed; this was the first time she could remember him ever looking at her.

"I knew he'd bring you here," he said. "No matter the cost."

If this were one of the stories she'd heard as a child, she would have thrown her arms around him. Instead she slapped him, and would have given anything to take it back.

"I'm sorry," the dark-eyed giant said. "I am a target. I couldn't make you one."

Silk brushed stone to her left. Jagged Liang was watching her from the shadows of the stairwell. Now that Jia was aware of what to look for, there was no denying that she and the advisor were nearly identical.

Setting her jaw, Jagged Liang turned without a word and walked back down the stairs.

"She hasn't seen you since you were born," the Broken Man said. "She wouldn't have sent the guards after you if she'd known it was you."

"I'm not sure I believe that," Jia said, remembering the cold fury in her mother's eyes.

"You don't know her," her father said, but the huge man sounded unsure.

"And you do," Jia said flatly.

"Since we were children fighting for food on the streets," he said. "But when I joined the Tenth and made it my family, she set off alone."

Jia felt unwelcome admiration stir in her heart. Her mother, through sheer cunning and will, had worked up from the streets, making the right connections, becoming the advisor, surviving…

... to turn into Jagged Liang, who hunted the assassin children of her lover. Jia could not forgive her, even if she asked.

"We should talk to her," the Broken Man said. "Now that she's seen you…"

Jia checked a sigh as understanding dawned. He's loyal to Liang first, me second, the Tenth third, but he wants to keep all of us…

"We will never be a family," she said. "Understand? She won't stop just because you love her. This ends with her death or the streets red with our blood, and you know it."

"She's your mother," he said.

"No," Jia said, dropping to her haunches at the edge of the roof. "She's your lover. I'm an orphan."

And she climbed down, leaving him standing alone on the tower, surrounded by the dead.

3I.e., important to the Great Family that paid the advisor the most.

4See above.

5When a contract calls for a subtle assassination, Stepfather Yao sends an elder brother or sister. Aunts and uncles are sent on assignments only when it must be made abundantly clear that certain individuals have severely displeased the Tenth Family.

6The Tenth did not have a good sense of humor about competition in Zhou. Freelance thieves, con men, and fences either paid the family a percentage of their earnings, or lost a percentage, usually of something vital.

7Xiansai celebrates many holidays devoted to making a fool of oneself in public, but none of them matches the sheer pants-on-the-head depravity of the annual Festival of Zei, which includes fourteen different citywide parades, astonishingly vulgar reenactments of the god's numerous adventures, and the traditional flood of tricks and practical jokes that almost always result in entire neighborhoods being rendered uninhabitable for weeks.

The Orphan and the Jeweler


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