A loud groan jolted Tang Li into consciousness. Her body ached, and her head felt as if it had been crushed in an Arkothi wine press. She hadn’t been so miserable since a patron had forced her to drink enough rice wine to drown a small village. She started to rise, only to find her wrists and ankles bound and secured to something, as they’d been when she’d had the misfortune of receiving Lord Tong a few years ago. She opened her eyes.
Darkness. Because of a blindfold.
Her heart leaped into her throat. Was this one of Lord Tong’s games? No, that was years ago, and after she’d earned out her bond, she’d only fucked men of her choosing, usually to establish connections. Thankfully, she’d never had to endure the sick games Lord Tong enjoyed. So where was she now?
She’d just pulled the contents out of Lord Shi’s safe, that’s it. She’d been so close to satisfying a need to open it. Then, someone had choked her.
And they’d let her live.
She was alone, and this was Lord Shi’s hard bed. Where were—
“You’re awake,” the half-elf said, her pained tone sounding as if she’d been choked out as well. Right, she’d breathed in the toxin, which should’ve kept her knocked out for a few hours.
Tang Li gasped. Had she been out that long? Unless, whoever had choked her had revived the half-elf. “What do you want?”
“Many things, but mainly, I want to know about Lilian.”
Lilian… “We had tea last week.”
“What did you talk about?” Excitement rose in Jie’s voice.
What had they talked about? Tang Li’s appointment book showed they’d sat for two hours, but she only recalled greeting each other, then leaving. “I don’t remember.”
Then, the blindfold came off.
Tang Li craned her neck and turned her head. The half-elf stood there, holding the side of her head. Directly ahead, the Iridescent Moon shone in the south window. It was now waxing toward its fourth gibbous. She’d been out for only a few minutes.
“Tell me again,” Jie said. “What did you and Lilian talk about?”
“I don’t remember.”
Jie sucked on her lower lip. “What can you tell me about the contents of the safe? Stock certificates, a yue ball, a gold nugget, and some bloody sheets.”
“My employer wanted them, not me,” she said.
“Who’s your employer?”
Tang Li’s mouth clamped shut. In the last two years, she’d worked hard to make connections, and to betray an employer would be a blow to her reputation. And this particular employer was particularly ruthless: knowing that Lord Shi had planned to expose his involvement in the illegal yue trade, he’d plotted to frame Lord Shi for attempting to sink Lord Wu’s ship. It’d been a dud—she knew, because she’d procured it and had a contact onboard who’d conveniently discover it just after the fifth waxing Gibbous.
Which meant… “We need to leave here, soon. Imperial soldiers will be swarming here before the full moon.” And if they caught her here, it’d mean torture. Still, something drew her to safe. “Wait, there was something else in the safe.”
“I heard it,” a new voice chirped. The boy.
“Shhh,” Jie hissed.
More shuffling about the room. Tang Li tilted her head and found the boy. He must’ve been hiding out of her line of site earlier.
Jie sucked in a sharp breath. Then, she held up a hairpin, shaped like a lotus. “Was this what you were looking for?”
Tang Li’s eyes went wide as memories of her meeting with Lilian came flooding back, as if a shuttered light bauble was suddenly open. They’d talked about Lord Ting and the North. And then, Lilian had waved her hands and wiggled her fingers. It was then Tang Li had forgotten the conversation and developed the urge to open the safe. Now, though, one detail came back, and it would keep her alive for the time being. “Lilian was the daughter of the late Lord Yu Qian, the last prince of the Yu Dynasty. She was the last heir of the North.”
And there was more, she just needed to see XXX to remember.