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In his past life, Jiang WeiSheng had been a slave and had little lingering patience left. Every muscle in his body strained toward freedom. As soon as he heard the first notes of the flute and zither, he escaped the meditation room, earning a sharp “Jiang Shen!” from his master. 

The music was irresistible, and Jiang WeiSheng was not capable of ignoring it. 

Tonight, he thought to himself, I’ll see the dark shadow again. 

The shadow seemed to be fond of music. Jiang WeiSheng picked up the pace, his head down. He had just enough time to change and stake out a good hiding spot. 

He’d first seen the shadow the night he arrived with the rest of the Qi faction of the Huashan Sect. 

After a long journey, even for the most traveled among them, Jiang WeiSheng had been returning alone from the evening meal. He’d been singing to himself, a lullaby his mother used to use to calm him, when a talisman appeared on his robe and he was rooted to the spot, unable to move or call out, encircled by a wispy obsidian form. His breath had caught in his throat, an unfamiliar flush mottled his pale skin. Three heartbeats and it was gone. 

Although he was unharmed, Jiang WeiSheng did not recover. 

On this night, the Empress would host a ceremony carefully planned by himself and his fellow cultivators to draw out a malicious spirit that had been plaguing the palace. Jiang WeiSheng was counting on the shadow’s presence. 

Properly dressed, he entered the great hall, tucking himself behind a huge celadon urn. He breathed sandalwood incense and Western spices and waited, listening. His body longed to dance, always, but not tonight, not here. 

Then it came. A prickle of awareness along his spine, a quiet “Jiang Shen” in his ear. 

He drew his sword. Its white glare illuminated both the magical array and the shadow—no longer a smear of smoke, but a young man whose strong, quick foot movements smudged the demon-catching array’s now-visible marks. 

He smiled a brilliant smile at Jiang WeiSheng before grabbing him at the waist and hauling him to the nearest exit in one leap, then another and they were in the air. 

Jiang WeiSheng was too shocked to struggle, the warmth of the shadow’s body an unexpected pleasure, the screams from inside the palace barely registering. Until they did.

“Stop! Let go! What have you done?”

The shadow landed gracefully on a low rooftop over a quiet courtyard. He turned, a half-smile and sharp white teeth the only thing visible in the moonless night. 

“You were fooled. She was going to have you killed. Your sect members are likely already dead. I chose another fate for you. Now we are here.”

The breeze shushed through the pines above them. Jiang WeiSheng was speechless. The shadow waited. Finally, words came.

“Who are you?”

“Hua LiXuan.”

“The Empress’s assassin.”

“I am. I was.”

Jiang WeiSheng looked at Hua LiXuan for several minutes. Hua LiXuan stood absolutely still. Only his hair ribbon and the edges of his robe moved with the gentle wind. Jiang WeiSheng wanted to touch that ribbon.

“Where do I go now?” he asked quietly.

“We,” said Hua LiXuan. “I will follow you.”


  • Zephyr Marks writes speculative love stories about flawed people and other creatures whose tragedies make for great romance. Writing about really real, truest true soulmate love (and using a tremendous amount of angst to beat everyone up and make them work for it) makes her happy. Writing sympathetic villains makes her a little too happy. She’s done a lot of stupid things for love and that’s how she can do this job. That’s also why there are always happy endings.

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