The Heart of Contagion

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He scaled the walls and crept over the makeshift barricades, putting every drop of his diminishing qi into the efforts. Dark shadows crept along the streets and sheltered by the pyres. Mourners, robbers, beggars or those driven mad by their loss or sickness - Yu avoided them all in his haste. He no longer wished to perish, he wanted to make it as he pictured the manor in the Industrious Ward, its gates, its roof, and the old tree in its yard in his mind. He climbed this wall so many times both awake and in his delirium, that it took him a moment to realize that he was actually there, and doing it again.

With a sigh of relief, Yu curled up on the frosted tiles and searched for the familiar qi.

Interference? No. Resonance. As long as I am unseen, I am not doing anything shameful.

By morning, the snow started coming down in earnest. The snowflakes melted on Yu's eyelashes, leaving his cheeks wet. Just after sunrise, he cleaved to her qi long enough to sober up from the craving. He was now sane enough to know how futile his dreams were and slipped down the wall to the street.

"Demure Yu?" a hand weighed his shoulder down. Yu did not have to turn around to know who his captor was. The voice was familiar and not unexpected here.

After all, the man, Chong Ho, owned the house and was married to the woman whose qi Yu kept returning to.

The Inscrutable Contagion left its mark on everyone, sick and hale alike, and Ho was no exception. He used to stoop a little as most tall people do, but now the burden of the city's misfortunes bent him further. The widow's peak had become more pronounced since they parted in the fall, and he had at least two days worth of unshaven stubble that made Yu scratch self-consciously at the uneven patches of golden fuzz that tormented his own cheeks. The man's features and hooded eyes sharpened even more, but Yu still saw the kindness in them. Guilt came on the heels of shame.

I will not come here again. I swear!

"Greetings, Master Chong Ho," Yu bowed low. "I was just hiding from---"

The older man waved away his words impatiently, "You will be safer from the faeries inside rather than on the rooftop. Come on in. Our pantry is not what it once was, but we can still put together a meal."

Yu was desperately hungry, but he valiantly tried to hold on to his vow. "I don't want to inconvenience your wife and you, Master Chong Ho."

"Tien Lyn always regretted not being able to thank you in person. She will be glad to finally do so."

Yu followed him in like it was another euphoric dream. Her name was Tien Lyn, and she wanted to talk to him. He could not forget the pattern of her. It was not only harmonious, but it was also joyful. He did not remember her face very well, now he would have a chance to do it. One look to fix it in my memory and then I'll leave forever.

"Welcome, blessed healer," Tien Lyn said when she served his meal.

Her obvious reverence was absurd, but Yu found it calming. Unlike Ho, Tien Lyn did not apologize for the meal's simplicity. She must have fed many a beggar this winter, and got to know the value of rice to a hungry man.

Yu wished he could eat with decorum, rather than like a mangy cur.

Tien Lyn beamed and put a slender palm on his shoulder in gentle warning. "Be careful, Yu."

He nodded absently, absorbed by the shape of her fingers. People were known to die through overindulgence after starvation. He did not have to be careful and did not wish to, but he had no intention to argue.

Ho poured him a cup of tea.

With food, the warmth, and the ministrations of the kind couple, Yu started to relax. Drowsily, he nodded and smiled to the Chongs' pleasant conversation, until he noticed that he kept himself tuned into her pattern, and what's worse, matched his qi to it. He could not help it. One falls in step with someone by his side or adjusts his breath to that of a sleeping mate. Apparently, he was doing the same but with his forbidden love's essence. That they could not see it, did not make his misstep less brazen.

He was grateful for Ho's question that took his attention away from coveting the kind merchant's wife. Yu put down the chopsticks and voiced something he had long suspected. "The contagion won't stop until we find what roused the evil spirits. I think that there is a Celestial's will at work."

Ho poured some more tea and remained silent.

Yu was unused to being listened to.

I cannot stop embarrassing myself in front of her. Well, better she remembers me as a madman than as a lewd boy.

"When I heal the outbreaks, I sense the pattern. It's radial. But... but I cannot grasp where the heart of Contagion lies. I do not think clearly. I just... cannot."

After admitting his weakness on top of his madness, Yu expected Ho to brew calming herbs for him, but the man lowered his chin on the tips of the steepled fingers.

Tien Lyn sat in silence watching her husband reflect, a fond smile on her lips.

Yu had nothing to contribute, maybe ever.

"I can help you with it, I believe. Come with me," Ho said at last.

Tien Lyn's face lit up with pride; she'd probably have hugged her husband but for his presence. Yu bit his lip, wondering how could he had forgotten her face.

Ho led them to his study and fished out scrolls from the cabinets to show them what he meant.

"It's an old hobby of mine. The drawings have no artistic merit, but they will serve."

The Chongs and Yu unrolled the scrolls and set them side-by-side on the study's floor. They shuffled them around and weighed the paper down until Sutao lay by their feet.

Ho did not paint popular hand scrolls animated with the successive scenes of the city life meant for the private enjoyment of his friends. His scrolls were covered by neat lines showing streets and buildings, with the distances and angles marked down.

Yu kneeled at the corner of the paper city and looked up at Ho. "It must have taken you years... Can I...?"

Ho handed him a bottle of red ink, and his Adam's apple moved as if he had swallowed something. "Mark it."

Yu closed his eyes and searched for the memories of pain and exaltation within his qi. One by one, he turned each recollection into a dot on the city plan.

"You are right," Ho said watching the splotches of crimson expand into a web thinning out away from its centre. "It is radial."

Tien Lyn pointed out an irregular shape immediately west from the epicentre, the only patch of unmarked paper that interrupted the pattern.

Neither Ho's black, nor Yu's red ink had touched anything within it. "Is this the Hill of the Five Seasons?"

Both men nodded in unison.

Tien Lyn's eyes widened in alarm. She stepped towards him but turned to her husband. "Then Yu can't go! Ho, tell him that he can't go! It's the faeries' land, they will capture him, they will---"

Ho abandoned etiquette and pulled Tien Lyn into an intimate hug. When she looked back at Yu, her face was newly serene. "Forgive me, blessed healer. There is no 'maybe' in your fate. You alone can do this."

Demure Yu wanted to vow to succeed and come back. He also wanted to cry, just a little.

I have neither the right to return to her nor the certitude in my success.

Fortunately, Tien Lyn's presence had the usual impact on Yu's mind. His thoughts were clear and human-like. He silently bowed to Chong Ho first, then to his wife, as was proper. They, in turn, bowed back to him.

The three of them repeated the parting ceremony by Chong Ho's gates, and Yu set out on his quest.

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