“Scrolls for each of you,” The merchant said, slipping them into the small pouch once more. “Once my daughter is found suitable by her future master, you will each be handed a scroll to present to those who will command your fate.”
He flashed Alex a toothy smile. “I have thought long and hard on this, boy, and for all that you are a Ruidian, the fact remains you fought honorably and well. Even cultivators need porters and guards to assist and guard them on wild hunts for herbs or spirit beasts, none of their vaunted number expected to waist precious cultivation time keeping watch through long night hours in the wilderness. And since you already seem to have a knack for killing spirit beasts much like the cunning beastial knack that allows my nephew to care for half-wild mounts so well, I do believe this college will be the first step on a path to a rewarding future for both of you! As rewarding as any second born or Ruidian could hope for, in any case. And more than worth the pay any single man can expect for an easy stint as a guard!”
He chuckled softly, his eyes all but daring Alex to disagree.
Yet Alex just smiled and nodded, all too happy to play along.
Hao Chan frowned. “But wait. I don’t understand. Aren’t I performing for whoever’s in charge of student admissions to show I’m worthy of joining the trials?”
Her father chuckled softly. “No need for that, daughter. For I, your wonderful father, have pulled strings only a man as skilled as myself could finesse. And if all goes well? You will be accepted immediately under the loving tutelage of a mistress who will delight in personally initiating you along a path few ever master, but countless thousands hunger for, every day of their lives.”
Hao Chan blinked. “But wait… really? I… wow.” She flashed her father a surprised, grateful grin. “That sounds fantastic, actually!” She let loose a nervous chuckle. “As excited as I was, I know how tough struggling under indifferent masters can be.” She swallowed guiltily. “I saw all the students struggling to earn the basics of the craft Master Pitiao went to such great lengths to personally instruct me in. How they could have benefited from just a few hours under his personal tutelage.”
Her father nodded indulgently. “Precisely, my child. Why should you be forced to endure all that bitter? For the path your future mistress will indoctrinate you in can be very sweet indeed.”
Hao Chan frowned at that. “A sweet path? I’ve never heard of that. Fiercest satisfaction at overcoming insurmountable odds, oh gods yes. But… pleasurable?”
“And why not pleasurable? Do you not deserve happiness, Daughter?” Smile firmly in place, he stepped out of the carriage, giving his daughter’s hand a reassuring squeeze, and did not hesitate to jerk her out with an indulgent chuckle.
Which chilled Alex to see. Though her legs were far more powerful, he knew all too well just how strong Hao Chan’s grip was, having flipped him any number of times.
There was no way he should have been able to tug her along like a father coaxing a spoiled young girl.
Hao Chan’s surprised expression was replaced by awe and wonder as she gazed upon what lay beyond the gate they approached and the spacious field beyond, grand pagodas and magnificent buildings of sculpted marble that quite took he breath a way to see, Alex as well, stepping off just after Chan’s cousins, all of them awed by the sight before them.
Alex turned his head under the wait of countless measuring gazes, only then noting the makeshift field of tents in yet another adjoining field just outside the gate, cleverly hidden by willow trees. And just one look into the cold hungry eyes of numerous young men wearing robes or changshan shirts, loose slacks, and either leather shoes or sandals, and Alex knew they were supplicants, awaiting the trials just days away.
Alex frowned. For all that it looked like their needs were being tended to by Academy staff, the smell of boiled porrige and rice in the air, it looked like they were being supplied with nothing but the barest essentials and certainly weren’t allowed past the gates.
No doubt that was a privilege reserved only for Academy employees and those supplicants who had earned the right to call themselves students.
Not hesitating for the moment, the merchant strode toward the grand gate ahead, cordially bowing his head before a clean shaven man wearing a changshan cut more like a robe than the jackets worn in other parts of the city, bringing to mind Alex’s preconceptions of ‘cultivator’s robes’ he had once enjoyed reading about, a lifetime ago. He noticed the slit along the side, and the dark leggings worn underneath, which would obviously allow for kicking, as Alex would expect, though he couldn’t help thinking the shorter jacket-like chanshan he himself was wearing would be a slightly more practical choice.
But who was he to argue with what must have been a thousand years of tradition?
Interestingly enough, the cultivator seemed to recognize the merchant, giving an infinitesimal bow of his head.
Hao Kong flashed an oily smile. “Dear Zhao Doushi. How very good it is to see you once more!”
The cultivator frowned. “You are late, Hao Kong. The school does not favor merchants who fail to fulfill their orders in the allotted time.”
The merchant gave a deprecating chuckle, bowing to his waist. “This lowly one deeply regrets any offense he might have given, but certain matters were completely beyond our control.”
The cultivator gazed coolly at the simpering merchant. “Really. And what is the nature of your excuse?”
“Spirit beasts!” Hao Kong said in an animated whisper. “We were attacked between Yidushi and Erdushi not once but thrice! It is a miracle we survived at all, and I lost not one but both my wagons, the last attack within just a day’s ride of the city!”
Zhao Doushi’s gaze hardened. “Close by the city, you say? That is hardly likely, merchant. That route in particular is patrolled regularly and cultivators are eager to claim the bounties offered by city lords who will let nothing hinder the lifeblood of trade, particularly within the farming communities within two days distance. Very few armed caravans need worry about fatal trouble until at least a hundred miles beyond Yidushi’s borders. Not unless you were carrying so many artifacts or spirit infused treasures that wild beasts could scent it from miles away.” The man paused, peering carefully at the man. “Or you have taken a darker path than you let on, merchant.”
Hao Kong chuckled nervously. “Did I say a day? I meant several. But we did suffer three attacks by greater spirit beasts and swarms of lessers, and that I will swear to!”
The man snorted. “The school will hardly care either way. You have a debt to clear with us, merchant.”
Hao Chan paled. “Father? What’s wrong?”
The cultivator frowned, tilting his head. “I sense potency from this one. This is good. I take it she will be attending the trials once you have cleared your debt with us?”
The merchant flashed another oily smile. “It is her cousins and a Ruidian boy who proved surprisingly useful that will be clearing all misunderstandings between us today. As for my daughter? Today, she dances for another.”
The cultivator’s eyes widened with something close to outrage, clenching his teeth when he caught sight of an exquisitely beautiful woman and what appeared to be her hulking bodyguard approaching even now.
Alex shivered as he caught the hypnotic violet gaze of the exquisitely beautiful women striding forward with a sensual strut, luxurious tresses cascading down a smooth, creamy shoulder, her qipao hugging her curves in a way that tantalized and teased beyond anything Alex had ever seen before.
Ruby red rips curved in a bemused smile that showed off perfect white teeth.
A smile just for him, as if she could sense Alex’s thoughts, his racing heart, and would dared him to do far more than just look.
Her features were flawless. She smelled of opium and hashish; decadence, decay, and desire, and never had Alex felt so overwhelmed with a young man’s hungers as he did at that moment.
“You would dare this, in front of the academy?” The cultivator hissed.
Sultry laughter met the man’s glare. “You are looking well, young Zhao Doushi,” said the woman, a teasing twinkle to her jewel-like eyes. “We miss you, of course, but understand the duties of an aspiring Bronze eager for so much more.” Her smile hardened. “And you know better than to question the edicts of our beloved magistrate. The proper location for all duels and martial performances not privately held is within Academy grounds… or just beyond the gates, as needs must dictate.”
She didn’t bother to respond any further to the flushing cultivator’s critical gaze, instead tilting her head, peering thoughtfully at a flustered Hao Chan. “And since her father negotiated on behalf of her flexibility and grace more than looks alone, a demonstration of her prowess seems well in order.”
She flashed a brilliant smile, gaze suddenly filled with a mother’s warmth. “Well, child? Perform for me! I’d dearly love to see what you’re capable of.”
A flustered Hao Chan turned to gaze once at her father, gaining an approving nod, and proceeded to do just that.
Despite having seen it a dozen times before, despite knowing what was to come, Alex couldn’t help but be captivated anew by her exquisite dance. The way she immediately leaped and spun about, left lowering with a balerina’s grace as she twirled and spun like a top before springing forward and lashing out with graceful, sweeping kicks that would have shattered bone and showed off her legs to breathtaking effect. The way her outfit caressed her form in ways evocative and profound, yet the innocent intensity of her gaze raised her above simple carnal desire, somehow maintinaining her innocence, her purity, as she lashed out with sweeping high kicks and, butterfly strikes and crane kicks, both legs spinning through the air in techniques that looked far more acrobatic than practical but generated unquestionable killing force; Alex sensing brief flashes of Water Qi laced with Metal the flavor of steel racing through her meridian channels for all that she was still a basic cultivator, even as his eyes got their fill of the most sensual pair of legs he had ever seen.
And near the end of her performance, losing herself in the dance a she spun about like a ballerina top, only her legs were whipping out in alternating tandem as opposed to forking back to her knee, she suddenly changed tempo and form.
Gone was the strikingly hypnotic fusion of capiora, kickboxing and gymnastics, replaced by the fierce practical fusion of Silver Swan techniques and Golden Realm knees and shinstrikes, still twirling, still keeping true to the flow and rhythm of a dance, even as she tumbled and sprung, somehow miming hip tosses, side drops, and back throws interspersed with sweeping kicks and arms that weaved and flowed not as soft, gentle reads, but as if they were a pair of steel rods that flowed like water, parrying and redirecting the force and fury of a dozen blows.
She showed of the skills of an adept synergizing the best of both her and Alex’s systems, for all that it was her dance, and her dance alone.
When she ended her routine, chest heaving with exhilaration and sheerest joy, brilliant red lips pursing into a glorious smile, her eyes locked upon his and his alone.
Alex couldn’t help clapping his heart out, her cousins eyeing Alex oddly for just a moment before cheerfully doing the same.
Yet the merchant, mistress, and gatekeeper were all dead silent.
Alex clenched his jaw in the sudden tension, the way Hao Chan’s enthusiastic hopeful gaze faded to worried disappointment. “Father, is something wrong?”
The man frowned, giving an angry shake of his head. “That… that’s not the dance Master La Pitiao taught you. I’ve seen the dance before. You performed the dance before. That was perfect. This? You disappoint me, daughter.”
Hao Chan’s cheeks flushed. She lowered her head.
He flashed a placating smile for the elegant lady peering so thoughtfully at an embarrassed Hao Chan. “She knows the dance perfectly, Lady Laobao. I assure you! She’s had a less than perfect influence, but with the slightest touch of discipline I know she would be overjoyed, more than overjoyed to embracing the original dance once more. Embracing that, and all the other delightful variants you will no doubt show her!” Hao Kong’s grin showed too many teeth.
But Lady Laobao paid him no mind, instead circling her prize, long lacquered fingernails caressing hips, thighs, and shoulders. The briefest of touches, Hao Chan too polite or shy to say a word, only flinching slightly.
Frowning as she bent down to examine Hao Chan’s heels, insteps, and most especially her shins, and perhaps revealing far more of herself than she had intended as her dress rode up her legs, or by the bemused look her too knowing eyes flashed Alex, as she had very much intended, she gracefully rose to her feet once more, giving a thoughtful nod.
“Her shins are rough and calloused. As are strike points at heels, knuckles, and the sides of her hands. Her limbs have all been toughened by a striking board, and all this no doubt brought to bear by a rogue mentor who cares nothing for a girl’s elegance, because her former master wouldn’t dare.”
Laobao frowned at Alex, and he could feel his cheeks burn. “Finally, her hands are calloused for grappling, and a bit too square. Still, all that aside, she is a striking specimen. Absolutely striking!” She flashed a bemused smile, a laquered finger gently raising Hao Chan’s chin, gazing into her eyes. “You will go far under my wing, child. For all your flaws, I like what I see.”
Hao Chan blushed and smiled. “You do? I mean, I know I altered it. I was struck by so much inspiration during my trip and I trained every single day until the movements were as natural as breathing and I could just sense the gaps in the form Master Pitiao had taught me.”
Lady Laobao gave her an indulgent chuckle. “Really! Are you telling me you had a breakthrough while traveling on a wagon? How very curious. Did you train with every guard?” She flashed a teasing wink. “Or did you embrace other dances to wile the wee hours away?”
Hao Chan flushed beet red, adamantly shaking her head. “No, mam. I stayed true to my form. I know if I’m going to master Silver Swan, I have to stay pure until I at least hit Silver! As for guards, I only trained with my friend Alex.”
She swallowed, her eyes widening, as if realizing she had said to much.
But all her prospective mentor did was raise her gaze, violet eyes peering thoughtfully into blue before she flashed the faintest of smiles. “How interesting. Your father tells me you were just about to make your third breakthrough in his correspondence with me. Have you truly cleared your third Meridian Channel so quickly?”
Now Hao Chan flashed a confident, almost joyous grin. “No, Lady Laobao,” she said, the woman’s smile far from disappointed, actually grew. “I cleared my fifth!”
Hao Kong and Lady Laobao both froze, peering carefully at Hao Chan.
“That’s impossible,” Laobao said. “No matter that you were near your third breakthrough, to endure three within a month’s time, even if you had spent an absolute fortune in cultivation pills, would be near impossible without crumbling your foundation. But yours appears strong.”
She closed her eyes, inhaling Hao Chan’s scent, smiling with obvious delight. “More than strong, your foundation is perfect! It has been a long time, a very long time, since I smelled anyone as innocent, pure, and potent as you, child.”
She flashed a pleased smile, bowing her head at a suddenly exultant Hao Kong. “You were right. I concede the point. She is worth every penny.”
Hao Chan furrowed her delicate brow, the bare skin revealed by her performance dress prickling with goosebumps in the cool breeze. “What do you mean by that?”
“What I mean, dear, is that I absolutely adored your performance! I would dearly love the opportunity to take you under my wing and lead you upon a secret path that will lead to bliss and transcendence unlike anything you’ll ever learn at that pathetic excuse for an academy.”
Alex deliberately shifted his gaze to a still glowering Zhao Doushi, though he said not a word to contradict Laobao’s claim.
Lady Laobao chuckled softly. “Fear not, boy. That foolish man who plays the self-righteous cultivator til his hungers get the him cannot hear a word we say. Discretion is our watchword, lest you dare to cross us.”
Alex’s eyes widened at that revelation, forced to wonder just how powerful this cultivator was, for all that she radiated a decadent sensuality so at odds with the spartan discipline he would have expected. Yet Hao Chan had not reacted at all, the revelation washing right over her, so excited she was to have earned her prospective master’s approval.
“Really! A secret cultivation path? You’d be willing to teach me? Oh that sounds fantastic!” She said.
“Wonderful!” enthused her soon-to-be master. “Now go grab that beautiful red-ribboned scroll your father’s holding out to you, and we can be on our way.”
Hao Chan smiled and nodded, before stopping and frowning back at Laobao. “Mistress?”
“Is it okay if, well, I know it’s not my place to make requests as a novitiate, but would it be possible for my friend Alex to visit me… if he wanted to, that is?”
Laobao gazed Alex’s way, flashing a bemused smile. “Once you have completed your basic training, nothing would please me more than seeing Alex or any other friend you have visiting you as often as they like,” she assured.
Hao Kong flashed a beaming smile that never quite reached his eyes. “Wonderful new, wonderful! Now hurry up and take your scroll, daughter. You too, children. Very good. Now go take them over to our dear friend Zhao Doushi waiting so patiently by the gate. Ha ha, look at his expression as he is forced, I mean, eager to open the gate and accept your scrolls!”
Alex’s heart raced, throat suddenly dry as an excited Hao Chan raced over to claim her scroll, as did both her cousins, elegantly tied lacy ribbons fluttering in the breeze.
Until there was just one fine vellum scroll left, midnight black ribbon of finest silk fluttering in the breeze.
“This one is for you, Alex,” said the merchant, flashing the widest of smiles as the siblings raced over to the gate just a few feet away, for all that the cultivator was frowning as the children gushed animatedly before him, though Alex couldn’t hear a word being said, the pair having crossed whatever barrier had silenced their words. “We have a had a fantastic conclusion to our shared venture together, and I am eager to see how you will profit with the boons before you!”
Alex forced himself to take a deep, calming breath, flashing a smile that was just as sincere as the merchant’s own. “I think I’ll hold off on that, sir,” Alex said, thinking fast. “You and I still have a bet, remember? An entire purse of silver, if Hao Chan can excel in the trials and gain admittance to the academy. And it occurs to me that we haven’t actually witnessed Hao Chan fight at all.”
The merchant’s oily smile turned to a contemptuous smirk. “A purse you lost by default, as my daughter has elected not to attend the trials at all!” He snorted. “Did you really think you could get the best of me, boy? Now take your scroll and be glad I’m willing to forgive your insufferable arrogance, sloth, and absolute disregard of my authority!” His eyes crackled with sudden heat. “Had you not proved yourself capable of at least an animal’s savagery, had you broken before the pitiful trials that did in your foolish fellow guards, I’d have you on the block this very moment!” The man roared, thrusting the scroll in Alex’s face…
Before stumbling forward, hundreds of hours of practice ingraining instant reflexes as Alex effortlessly dodged aside so adroitly he seemed simply to flow away by chance, the very moment the merchant had surged forward, eager to thrust his final scroll into Alex’s hands.
Alex flashed a cold smile. “You were so eager to take that bet, already planning to have Hao Chan meet Lady Laobao before she even had a chance to attend the trials. I think that renders the bet nul and void at the least. And that you would so eagerly connive to swindle the guard that rescued your caravan more than once says more about you than anything else. Now I’ll take back my bag of silver and the payment you promised me, Hao Kong. The entire payment promised to the contingent of guards, as we had agreed, and I will be on my way. And I better not get anything but glowing referrals. Because I did get you back alive, facing extreme peril to do so, and that I’m the only guard who made it back, with your personal lackey Sun Sun hiding in the wagon with you during that last fight, is all the proof you need that I was worth every penny.”
Lady Laobao’s melodious laughter washed over them. “Has that lad gotten the better of you, merchant?” She smirked Alex’s way. “Well played, boy. Few get the better of that trader, and once you get your bag of silver, I hope you will consider spending it on women who would delight in hearing all about your adventures traveling with such a colorful merchant as our dear Hao Kong.”
Hao Chan frowned. “That sounds like a brothel.”
Lady Laobao gave a throaty chuckle. “It does indeed, my darling. Of course I refer only to the most high class, exquisite of brothels where every night is an adventure in rapture and bliss for explorer and mistress both.
The exquisite young woman in the too skimpy uniform furrowed her brows. “But shouldn’t that be discouraged for, well, cultivators?” She said, before immediately flushing and glancing furtively Alex’s way, as if afraid she had said too much as her would-be mistress’s laughter washed over her once more.
Alex flashed her a sad smile, immediately forgiving her reveal, feeling a fierce sense of sorrow for the innocence about to be lost.
Not of the flesh, their opponents hadn’t secured their pieces quite as well as they had hoped, but of the soul.
Laobao gently tilted a questioning Hao Chan’s chin with a single laquered finger. The girl shuddered at whatever she saw in the exotic woman’s gaze. “Why would I ever want to do that? And more importantly, why would you? For we walk dark delicious paths together now, child, ascending to decadent heights of bliss the fools stuck in bitter absolution below can never hope to achieve. And what greater bliss, while walking along our Purple Path, than to share the heights of ecstacy with another?”
“Wait.” Hao Chan shook her head, lips pressing in an anxious frown. “I don’t understand. What’s the Purple Path? I’ve never heard of that style of cultivation.”
And like magic, the lady presented a small glass flask filled with a dark liquid that gave off the most heady and decadent of aromas. Alex’s gut clenched as he recognized the odor, knowing it from the whiff he had caught from a certain dreamy-eyed young woman, dolled up for what could only be one profession, whom he had met at the end of his first day desperately hunting for a job, what now seemed like a lifetime ago.
“Breathe deep, my darling, and savor the Path of the Poppy, her purple mauve petals promising exquisite delights which billions of desperate souls struggle all their lives to reach. A state of bliss and joy, free of all pain. A state which can be yours, to savor and embrace, as you delight in the exquisite rapture you will give and receive for many, many years to come.”
Hao Chan froze, eyes widening with horror, understanding at last.
She stumbled back, all her dancer’s grace gone. “No. Please, no. Not that. I never wanted that!”
Lady Laobao gave a sad tisking shake of her head. “And why ever not, child? Why wouldn’t you want to savor delightful seas of rapture, knowing only the joy and laughter of your customers and your fellow sisters as you all strive to make each other’s most decadent fantasies a reality? You would never know pain, child, I promise you that.” She flashed a teasing smile. “Not unless you hungered for just a taste of it. Many girls do. It does make the sharp euphoria of ecstacy that much sweeter, after all.”
Like a seductive serpent, she moved with fluid grace, flexing and strutting lithe, muscular figure as she crouched down, smiling into Hao Chan’s terrified gaze. “I can all but taste your racing thoughts. That you’ve somehow fallen. Surrendered. Lost your way. Nothing could be further from the truth! You but walk a different path, now. A dual path. You have nothing to fear, child, I promise you!”
She tilted her pristine features, gazing into Chan’s eyes with surprising sympathy, softly rubbing her cheek. “What frightens you so, child? Share with Mother Laobao.”
Hao Chan swallowed, as if desperate to find the words to stave off horrific doom.
Alex clenched his fist at the dark chuckles just a foot away, the merchant having put aside his quarrel with Alex as he savored the horrific spectacle that was his daughter’s fate.
“I’ve seen what happens...” the girl swallowed. “I’ve seen what happens to people who frequent opium dens. How they seem to wither away, youth and joy transforming to desperation and despair, slowly sacrificing everything they valued. Precious heirlooms, their families respect, their own dignity. And even those who manage to break free… they bare the scars for life. Their eyes always shifting, anxious, filled with a desperate need they can only hope will lessen over time. But it never truly goes away.” She choked out a sob. “Not even cultivators are immune. Even they… even they can fall. And even if they can find the strength to break free… they’re never the same!”
“Your fears are valid, child,” Lady Laobao said, her gentle smile not flickering for a moment. “For those who dare the poppy without embracing the Purple Path! A trail promising transcendence and bliss without end, for those who learn and understand its delicious secrets. Secrets no mortal can hope to embrace!”
Lush rips dyed a crimson so deep it was almost purple whispered into a Hao Chan’s ear. “Secrets which only those who walk my path have mastered, secrets open even to the most basic of cultivators, so long as they can open even a single pair of meridian channels, no matter how malformed their gates might otherwise be.” She gently kissed Hao Chan’s surprised lips. “Secrets which I choose to share with you, as I do all the exquisite, sensual darlings possessing a beauty so striking, an elegant grace so refined, it will send spears of desire sharp enough to pierce even a magistrate’s iron hard resolve. And that you’ve somehow gleaned insights transcendent enough to evolve your Clipped Wings Kung Fu to the Silver Swan style it was derived from, that you’ve actually managed to clear your fifth meridian channel in an inconceivably short period of time, all tells me that you will ascend to heights undreamed, in pleasure and power both, once you embrace darkest nectar and savor all her mysteries.”
With surprising speed she had uncorked the bottle, dipped her finger inside before rubbing her digit all over Hao Chan’s lips. “Can you feel the warm tingle? Sweetened with chocolate liquor and orange zest, it is a delight to tongue and senses both.”
For a heartbeat, her smile turned cold, calculating. “Does it soothe the ache you felt growing inside you? A nameless hunger that grew throughout the day? I commend your discipline, hiding it so well from me during your performance, but I know.”
Hao Chan blinked in confusion. “What are you talking about?” She whispered.
Her soon-to-be mistress smirked. “The special wine you ‘father’ gave you every night, to help with sleep while on the road, and assure you the sweetest of dreams.” The mistress gave a throaty chuckle. “And that it certainly does. But I find our chocolate infusion to be best for our newest initiates, and worth a pretty penny, I promise you. But don’t worry. No matter how much you hunger for it, how much you crave to consume, you will never have to pay a single silver for any of it, so long as you remain under my care.”
She gently clasped a stunned Hao Chan’s hand. “Now come, darling. I promise you we will begin with gentle indulgences first. A week of sweetest decadence and exploring the city with a sister who will become your closest companion while we initiate you into the basics of our art, and then sybaritic delights to savor and enjoy, one gentle step at a time, as you revel in sweetest adventure with the handsomest men in the city! Your crippling inhibitions will quickly melt away as you embrace a life filled with excitement, adventure, and sweetest ecstasy!”
But Hao Chan, her face a mask of horror, refused to budge. “Wine? Was that what was in it? I was wondering why I felt so strangely peaceful every night.” Her cheeks flushed in shame. “Why I felt so off those first few days when I really started training and Alex insisted we drink nothing but water.”
Laobao frowned, peering coldly into Hao Chan’s trembling gaze, before glaring at Alex and Hao Kong both. “She bares no trace of poppy’s caress. How could you fail in something so basic, Hao Kong?”
The merchant snorted. “Talk to the trouble-making brat interfering with the girl’s training from the moment we met! The first few days of our trip were easy enough, and I knew she was growing a taste for it.” He glared down at Alex, who stared coldly back.
With every fiber of his being, he wanted to strike the vile monster before him then and there. But since his goal was cultivation, not committing murder in the only city he knew in front of the very temple he hoped to attend… he forced himself to lower his gaze, no matter how cowed it made him seem.
The merchant’s ugly chuckle washed over them. “Oh, this little bastard gave me no end of problems. Had he not actually proven useful, I would have poisoned him long ago. But his obsessive need to help the chit proved no end of an annoyance. I couldn’t very well jam the wine down the girl’s throat, now could I?”
Laobao gazed at the pair of youth beside the cultivator acting as gatekeeper forced to silently wait as the four of them conversed behind Laobao’s ward. She sighed. “The kitsune girl is a ripe young thing in the peak of health. I would have paid a pretty penny for her as well, Hao Kong. You’d be surprised how very many merchants, cultivators, and lords hunger for forbidden fruit like her.”
The merchant snorted. “There was no way I could force that girl to take the wine without giving the game completely away. Besides, she and her brother are serving my purposes quite nicely as it stands.” He flashed a cold smile. “It always pays to clear one’s debts.”
All this said as casually as if they were talking about the weather, while Hao Chan’s look of devastation, of utter betrayal only grew.
“Father? Father, please! What’s going on? Did you… did you really mean to sell me to this… this monster?”
She shuddered under Hao Kong’s contemptuous gaze. “You’re no daughter of mine, girl. Just the bastard get of your fallen mother desperate to believe anyone cared about your fate!”
Words calculated to destroy. Chan collapsed with a sob, Laobao looming over her with cold words meant to break her utterly.
“Surrender, child. You have already lost. Your piece removed from the board the moment your family crossed Hao Kong’s path.” She waved the red ribboned scroll in front of a sobbing Chan’s face. “You are mine now, body and soul. This contract you willingly took and I willingly received bears the terms of your indentured servitude. For I truly do own you, child. Body and soul.”
A lifelong lover of fantasy and science fiction, I finally took the plunge and and poured my heart into a fantasy series of my own!
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