mikkeneko (mikkeneko) wrote,

[TRC] (Midseries) The Missing Worlds (5/12)

Of the four worlds they visit, this one is the most tenuously connected to any fairy tale. It's got a little bit of "The Man with the Lump," (a traditional Chinese fairy tale,) a little bit of "The Moon Princess," and a little bit of "The King's Lettuce." But I feel that Xiao Lang is enough of a trickster archetype that he could sub into almost any fairy tale. :p (I feel certain that the trick with the sack with nothing in it has been used in fairy tales before, but I can't recall which offhand.)

The Missing Worlds - Middle Earth II
Rating: PG-13
Spoilers: This story is set in the uncertain period after Piffle World, but before Recourt; in other words, in the same never-neverland that the second season of the anime mostly took place in. This means that Fai has not yet learned to whistle, Syaoran is still the original Syaoran, and nobody knows anything about Kurogane's childhood.

Summary: A web of plotting, scheming and lies.

Author's Notes: I'm not trying too hard with any of the alters' names. 'Tideflower' was just a local translation of 'Sakura,' since they probably don't have cherry blossoms underwater. 'Xiao Lang' is nothing more than the pinyin rendering of this character's Chinese name, 'Little Wolf'. (For anyone who reads Holitsuba, Syaoran's twin brother was given the name Xiao Long, which means Little Dragon, and was one of martial artist Bruce Lee's childhood nicknames.) 

"No," Xiao Lang told them in a firm voice.

The four of them - five, counting Mokona - had migrated out of the Li mansion, and were now encamped in the common room of an inn on the other side of the market district, closer to where Master Li had told them Pawnbroker Feng did business. Kurogane had just suggested it was time to get started on their mission, when their guide - Xiao Lang - unexpectedly dug in his heels.

"What are you playing at, brat?" Kurogane demanded. "Your great-grandfather outright ordered you to help us out! Is this how you show obedience to your elders?"

"Master Barbarian, you seem to have a very poor understanding of how our family does business," Xiao Lang shot back hotly. "If I didn't milk you poor suckers for every last penny, my grandfather would disown me!"

"But, we don't have any money," Sakura protested anxiously.

"And if it was money you wanted, surely you could acquire that more easily on your own," Fai said in a reasonable tone. "So what else is it that you want from us?"

"At least one of you has at least a drop of sense to share between you," Xiao Lang said, turning to Fai. "Of course I don't want money. I want your help."

"Our help to do what?" Kurogane growled.

"Breaking into Pawnbroker Feng's house," Xiao Lang replied.

"But isn't that already what we're doing?" Sakura said, bewildered.

Xiao Lang gave her a withering stare. "Of course," he said. "That is exactly why I'm willing to work with you lot in the first place."

Sakura shut her mouth, flushing a bright red. Kurogane's glower on the little thief deepened, but he didn't seem to notice - or care.

"Fearful Feng has something valuable to you locked up in that fortress of a house," Xiao Lang went on. "As it happens, he also has something very valuable to me in the same house. Help me get it back, and I promise to help you recover this 'feather' of yours at the same time."

"Oh? And what exactly has he got that's so irreplaceable to you?" Kurogane asked, his voice dripping with sarcasm.

"My beloved Shang Mei Ling!" Abruptly, Xiao Lang's face lit up with an expression of such anxious, besotted adoration that in that moment, he looked exactly like their companion Syaoran. "She's been trapped in his terrible household for months - he forces her to work like a servant, and I'm afraid that any day he might decide to force his lecherous attentions on her! Help me save Mei Ling, and I'll help you!"

The story turned out to be a long and complicated one, as it unraveled over a dinner of pickled vegetables and rice.

Su-Lin Shang, more commonly known as Sodden Shang for a perpetual and rather pathetic state of drunkenness, had been a minor accountant for noble houses in the city. He had no family connections to speak of and no skill at managing money except that which was necessary to count out coins for another bowl of wine. But he did have a daughter, one beautiful enough to attract hordes of suitors from miles around to clamor for her hand. Xiao Lang, a friend of Mei Ling's since childhood who was already hopelessly in love with her, had been determined to win out over them all, but her father had other ideas.

In order to get rid of the suitors while attempting to parley his daughter's marriage contract more favorable, Sodden Shang had set out a test of challenges. Only one who managed to complete his heroic tasks would be worthy of his daughter's hand. For Xiao Lang himself, he set the task of facing and defeating the terrible red devil of Taihang Mountain, who feared nothing -

"How'd you beat him?" Kurogane wanted to know at this point.

"Easy. He feared nothing because nothing could destroy him," Xiao Lang replied. "I simply showed him a sack with nothing in it, and he was so terrified that he leapt into the sack so that it would no longer contain nothing. Then I tossed it into the river. Stop interrupting."

But when Xiao Lang returned triumphantly to Hangchow, ready to claim Mei Ling's hand, he found the Shang house in a shambles, completely deserted. Some pointed questioning around the neighborhood had brought out the whole sordid story: Su-Lin Shang's debts had been worse than anyone else had known, and all the while he had been playing his daughter's suitors against one another, the debt collectors had been knocking forbiddingly at his door. Once they were all out of the way Sodden Shang had sold off his business, his house, all his possessions, and moved abruptly to Loyang. All his possessions including his daughter, Mei Ling.

"That flea-infested, wine-rotting, stinking piece of dogshit sold his own daughter as a concubine!" Xiao Lang snarled, his face transformed by anger his eyes burning with vengeance. "Sold her off like a piece of furniture or livestock, except that even a pig would have better prospects in the markets of Hangchow than a sweet, innocent girl like Mei Ling! He condemned her to the life of a concubine or worse, and he didn't even care!"

"Calm down, kid," Kurogane said, shooting a quelling glower at a group of nearby patrons who were looking all too interested in Xiao Lang's impassioned storytelling.

"That's terrible!" Sakura exclaimed. "Can't you go to the police?"

"The police? Bah! They're useless!" Xiao Lang scorned the suggestion. "Even if half of them weren't terrified of Feng's private army, and the other half in the pay of the very same army, what could they do? It was a completely legal transaction… and there's no law against being a cowardly, double-dealing, turd-faced excuse for a father, anyway." Xiao Lang subsided into his seat, still fuming, but he made an obvious effort to get his temper under control.

"I've been trying to get a foothold in Fearful Feng's defenses for months now, without any luck," he said, looking over at them. "But with you three along, I just might have a chance. If you'll help me rescue Mei Ling, I'll get your feather for you."

Fai set his elbows on the table and leaned forward, resting his chin in his hands. He raised his eyebrow at Kurogane, who shrugged. "It's the princess' call," he said quietly.

"I think we should help him," Sakura piped up. He mouth was firmly set. "After all, if they're both in the same place, it should be possible to rescue them both at the same time. And besides, we should help people when we can."

"Well, then," Fai said, and put his hands down to smile blindingly at Xiao Lang. "We're in. What did you have in mind?"

They spent the next hour or so debating strategies - that is to say, Xiao Lang and Fai debated, Kurogane drank wine and Sakura befriended the barmaids. As far as the ninja was concerned two of them were far too alike for comfort; they both seemed to delight in fiendishly intricate schemes where a little swordwork and maybe an incendiary charge or two would do the trick much faster.

As a result, by the time Xiao Lang abruptly jumped up from the table and dashed out onto the street, Fai hot on his heels, Kurogane was hardly even paying attention any more. He had to grab Sakura and haul ass out the door, cursing hyperactive idiots in all worlds as they hurried to catch up with their companions. It was really impressive how fast Xiao Lang could move in this crowd, given how impatient and inconsiderate most of the passersby were; perhaps the trail of muttered curses and people hopping on one foot had something to do with it.

A loud whistle split the hubbub of the street, and Xiao Lang muttered a curse word too quiet for Mokona to translate as a squad of uniformed men trotted rapidly and unmistakably in their direction. "I should have known you'd attract the wrong kind of attention," he groused.

"They're not after us, are they?" Sakura said, her green eyes wide with surprise and fear. "But why? We haven't done anything wrong."

"Let me do the talking," Xiao Lang told them, and there was no time for anything else; the crowd melted away like butter as the squad of city guardsmen came puffing up to them.

"You there!" the leader shouted, waving the narrow, stiff bamboo cane that was his badge of office. In the right hands, it could be a fairly effective weapon - especially against an unarmed opponent. But against a real sword, Kurogane dismissed contemptuously, it wouldn't stand more than a second. "Cease and desist this instant!"

Xiao Lang turned towards them and bowed smoothly, his expression bland and inoffensive. "A thousand pardons to the Servants of Heaven for the inconvenience of distracting them from their usual pastimes with our miserable presences," he said. "What seems to be the problem?"

The city guard stopped for a moment, his face knotting as he tried to work out whether he had just been insulted, but then he pushed the matter aside and forged onwards. "Completely unacceptable!" the guard huffed, wheeling around to point his cane at Kurogane. "This miserable barbarian openly and blatantly walking our roads, armed with a sword he has no business carrying! Surrender the weapon at once, or return with us to the precinct office, you scurvy dog!"

Glowering, Kurogane drew himself up and placed a hand on Souhi. He didn't miss how the other members of the squad took a nervous step back as he did so. So they didn't like him carrying his sword, was that it? It would be a cold day in hell before he surrendered her to the likes of these weaklings.

"A thousand pardons, noble sirs," Xiao Lang interjected smoothly, "but I'm afraid that my humble companion speaks not a word of Chinese. He cannot understand your request, so how can he submit to it?"

Kurogane, who had been about to give the guards a piece of his mind, snapped his jaw shut and sent Xiao Lang a fulminating glare, which the boy blithely ignored.

"Well, he doesn't need to understand it, just to do it!" the police chief blustered, and started forward, hand reaching out for the sheath at Kurogane's hip. Kurogane clapped his other hand over the sword and sent him a deliberate look which promised all the slow vengeances Xiao Lang's declaration had barred him from saying out loud. The police chief blanched and stumbled back. "Well, you take it from him, then!" he said, rounding on the safer-seeming young man.

"Alas, if only it were that easy," Xiao Lang said with a sigh of sadness. "You see, this oversized hulk of a thug standing before you is in fact a great warrior of the Yamato clan, a barbarian tribe from the islands of the distant East, so backwards in culture that the great writings of Confucius have not yet reached them. As such they have no knowledge of civilized ways, instead living in clay houses built like pots and devoting all of their leisure time to swordplay instead of study. It is said that a warrior of Yamato must slay a thousand opponents with his bare hands before he earns the right to grasp the hilt of a sword."

The city guards took another shuffling step back, leaving a wide circle of open space around Kurogane and their leader. Kurogane couldn't resist a snort of contempt that earned him another six inches. Sakura was watching this with her hands held over her mouth and her green eyes wide, and Fai's grin was growing wider by the minute.

The leader of the guardsmen had turned the color of pale suet, but he stood his ground. "Well - well we're in China now, not Yamato!" he sputtered bravely. "S-so like it or not, he'll have to give up his sword! And that's all there is to it!"

"Indeed, honored keeper of the law, I fully agree," Xiao Lang said sympathetically. "Of course, my companion may not see it that way; the swords they wear are granted to them in a secret manhood ritual of warriors, the details of which I may not describe in the public street for fear of causing a mass panic and fainting of ladies present - but at any rate, a warrior of Yamato abides by the Ten Rules of the Life of the Sword above all other earthly principles, and one of those rules demands that he chop his way through ten thousand corpses before surrendering his sword to an outsider."

The guard leader's jaw dropped open and he swayed on his feet, but Xiao Lang was just getting warmed up. "Second to none are the devotion of the warrior monks of Yamato!" he exclaimed. "They honor the spirits of their swords as they would an ancestor - except, of course, that they believe each sword to be alive and have its own spirit, which constantly sings out for fresh blood! In order to properly honor the spirit of his sword, a warrior of Yamato is required to slaughter at least one person per day, and I'm afraid to confess, brave noble sirs, that he has not had the opportunity to meet an enemy in combat since breakfast this morning."

The leader of the guards made a tragic noise in his throat and staggered back a step; he would have stepped on his guardsmen's toes, except for the fact that the others in his squad appeared to be mysteriously missing. "Wait, brave lawmen," Xiao Lang called down the street at their fleeing backs. "Surely you wouldn't want my esteemed companion to have to fill his daily count with the blood of an innocent bystander? I haven't even begun to describe the special sequence of cuts, starting with the feet, by which a warrior of Yamato ritualistically disembowels his victims -"

This was too much for the leader of the guards, and he broke and fled down the street after his fellow policemen, yelping in terror. Xiao Lang broke off and turned back to his companions, dusting his hands off and wiping them on his robe. "Well, that takes care of that," he said. "Where were we?"

Kurogane glared at him. "So, kid," he growled in a dangerous voice, "does this mean that you're volunteering to be today's victim?"

Fai collapsed into the laughter he'd barely been holding back, whooping and staggering over to hang off Kurogane's shoulder. "Kuro-manly, you never told us all this!" he cried out between peals of laughter. "What's this about the great manhood rituals of the Yamato that are too scandalous for a delicate lady's ears? Kuro-warrior has been holding out on us~!"

"Shut up! Nothing! He just made it up!" Kurogane snarled, shrugging to push Fai off his shoulder. "None of that had anything to do with me or where I came from! Nihon is a great society, and there's no lack of civilization and learning and - and we do not live in clay pots, dammit -!"

"But, Kurogane-san," Sakura interrupted, taking hold of his sleeve and looking up at him with big dewy eyes, "you aren't mad, are you? After all, he just said it to get rid of the policemen so you wouldn't have to give up your sword…"

Kurogane snarled in exasperation and looked up at the sky, begging the gods for patience. "Fine," he grumbled at last, pushing Fai away from him firmly and crossing his arms over his chest. "Just so long as you know not to believe a damn word that comes out of that little liar's mouth."

"Of course not," Xiao Lang said, completely unperturbed by Kurogane's statement. "You should have known that already."

Kurogane fumed as they set off once more, Xiao Lang leading the way - but slower now, as though looking for something.

"There," Xiao Lang said. "Just leaving the perfume shop - there he is, Fearful Feng himself."

It took a moment to pick the man out of the crowd without pointing or being too obtrusive about it. But once Kurogane looked he saw the way people parted around the ratty little man and his entourage, shrinking away as though terrified - or disgusted - to cross his path. Fearful Feng wore a set of riotously colorful robes that his face completely failed to live up to, bedecked with celestial symbols and embroidered around the hem with tiny animal friezes. In one hand he clutched a purse, and in the other, a stick with a string of bells on it. Two stony-looking bodyguards flanked him, and a thin man with spectacles strapped to his face and a large ledger brought up the rear.

"He doesn't look like much, does he?" Fai remarked.

"He doesn't look like a very nice person," was Sakura's judgment.

Kurogane tensed, hand drifting towards his sword as he eyed the bodyguards. "They're not so tough," he assessed. "I could take them out, and we could wring the feather out of that rabbit in five minutes."

"In the middle of a busy street less than four blocks from the barracks? I think not," Xiao Lang said coolly. "It would take more than a bit of misdirection to get the guards off your tail in that case. No, we will solve this in a civilized manner." He started through the crowds towards Feng and his men.

"What are you doing?" Kurogane hissed after him.

"Talking to him," Xiao Lang threw back over his shoulder. "Pretend you don't speak any Chinese. Act like barbarians - it shouldn't be hard."

With a bemused smile on his face, Fai trailed after the youth. Kurogane and Sakura exchanged a glance; she shrugged, he vented an exasperated sigh and followed.

"Pardon me, Esteemed Merchant Master!" Xiao Lang accosted the small merchant party; the pointed, ferretlike nose turned in his direction with a cold, disapproving frown. "I have a business proposition for you!"

"What is it?" Feng snapped, shaking off Xiao Lang's hand from his sleeve and inching back until he was between his two bodyguards. "I'm a very busy man! I don't have time to talk to every ragamuffin on the street!"

"One thousand miserable regrets for imposing on your time, Esteemed Merchant Master!" Xiao Lang exclaimed, wringing his hands and whining in a servile fashion. "But when my master saw you here on the street, his excitement could not be contained! He's been seeking an audience with you for days!"

"Your master?" Feng's eyes raked the crowd, and he frowned deeply. "Who do you mean?"

Xiao Lang back up a step, and subtly kicked Fai in the ankle. Thus prompted, Fai gave Fearful Feng his best and most blinding smile, then bowed. As he straightened up, he babbled a string of complete nonsense that sounded like a query.

"A foreigner?" Fearful Feng's expression transformed into astonishment, with a hint of nervous terror. He backed away another step. "I don't see what business he could have with me!"

"A foreign doctor, Esteemed Merchant Master," Xiao Lang explained. "He has traveled thousands of miles from the barbarian land of Crete in order to seek out the wisdom of the ancient Chinese masters. Since your knowledge of medicinal goods is said to be unparalleled, naturally he was most eager to speak to you."

"Medicinal goods?" Feng looked back at Fai, puzzlement writ clear on his features. "I don't…"

Fai waved his hands, his eyes bright as he invented a new string of nonsense babble. Xiao Lang listened gravely, then turned to Feng and 'translated'; "He means tea, of course, Great Medicinal Master," Xiao Lang said. "He has heard of the wondrous properties of the Chinese green tea; that it can heal wasting diseases, cure hangovers, and even restore youth! Why, stories of the venerable monks who live to be a hundred and twenty drinking nothing but tea have reached as far as Crete, and of course a doctor could not help but come and investigate this miraculous substance!"

Fearful Feng sputtered, seemingly at a loss for words. "But - that's not - there's no - ah, of course, uh, the sale of tea is prohibited to foreigners, so of course I couldn't…"

Fai interrupted him with another nonsense phrase, this one followed up with a smile and a sly wink. "He says," Xiao Lang translated, "that such valuable medicine would be worth twice its weight in diamonds, and of course he would be prepared to make quite a sizeable purchase…"

"Really!" All hesitation vanished from Feng's eyes, and his face took on a crafty, avaricious look as he glanced around. "Well, well, I'm sure we can come to some agreement… but a busy street is hardly the time, eh?"

"If you say so, Great Merchant Mogul," Xiao Lang replied obediently. "Would you care to come back to my master's hotel and discuss it further?"

"No, no!" A brief look of terror crossed Feng's face. "It's not safe… I mean, my own mansion has much better security. Why don't you come to see me there - say, tomorrow night?"

Xiao Lang turned to Fai and said a string of nonsense words; Fai frowned theatrically, then reluctantly nodded his head. "Tomorrow night it is, then," Xiao Lang said, turning back to Feng. "We'll be there."

"Okay, kid, what was that all about?" Kurogane growled as he caught up to them on the street. "What was all that bull about doctors and miracle tea and diamonds?"

"The fastest way to get a man to open his purse to you is to convince him that he's about to put something in it," Xiao Lang replied, unfazed. "There's normally a two-week waiting period to do business with Feng, but we've just jumped the queue; and since what he's proposing to do is scandalously illegal, he'll be careful to conceal it from the authorities as well. All we have to do is show up tomorrow night with the 'doctor' in tow, and we'll be in."

"A doctor, hmm?" Fai looked terrifyingly thoughtful. "Xiao Lang, you terrible person, are you thinking what I'm thinking?"

"I think so," Xiao Lang replied, "but we'd need at least two jars of poppy extract, an iridologist's practicing license, a whole clove of cayenne pepper, and a turkey baster. As it is, we'll just have to make do with what we've got."

Xiao Lang turned to Sakura, reaching into his sleeve to pull out a sheet of paper and a stick of charcoal. "We'll need the things on this list," he said. "After you get all these, meet us back at the inn."

"Wait, why me?" Sakura wanted to know. "Where are all of you going?"

"Breaking into Fearful Feng's house," he said blithely.

"Breaking in?" Sakura protested. "But that's incredibly dangerous, isn't it? You and Master Li both said that it was heavily guarded!"

"Which is why you're going shopping," he said. "Your two overtall companions seem like they can handle themselves, but you'd just get in the way." He ripped the sheet of paper in half and handed it to her.

Sakura frowned stormily, then sighed at the list he gave her. "I can't read this," she said.

Xiao Lang rolled his eyes. "I should have known," he said, reaching for the paper again. "How about if I draw little pictures of each -"

Sakura shoved the piece of paper back into Xiao Lang's hands. "How about you just tell me what you need," she snapped.

Fai pranced back over to Kurogane, slinging his arm over the bigger man's shoulder. "Wasn't Kuro-puppy impressed by my performance?" he chirped. "I thought I was very good!"

"Impressed by what?" Kurogane shot back, shrugging off the clinging arm. "That you can run your mouth indefinitely without saying a single meaningful word? I already knew that."

"Here we are," the little thief said, turning off the street into a narrow, cluttered alleyway. He stopped in front of a dead end, a stone-and-mortar wall about the height of Kurogane's head, topped by a peaked slate roof.

"Here? This is Pawnbroker Feng's house?" Fai asked in startlement. "I was expecting something a little more grand."

"Actually, we've been walking past Pawnbroker Feng's house for the last six blocks," Xiao Lang said dryly. "This is just a nice quiet, discreet spot for us to make an attempt on the outer wall." He reached down and unclipped a discreet, brown leather case from under his belt; it came as no surprise to Kurogane when the pouch unfolded to reveal a wickedly multi-pronged grappling hook and a length of sturdy plaited silk.

"I don't get it," Kurogane said. "I thought this Feng guy was supposed to be so afraid of everyone that his home was impossible to break into."

"For the most part, yes," Xiao Lang replied. "But as it happens, there's only one thing that Fearful Feng is more afraid of than living enemies."

"And what's that?" Fai asked.

"Ghosts," Xiao Lang said, and pointed to the corner of a roof, just visible through the trees over the roof. "As everyone knows, ghosts can only travel in straight lines; any roof or road that's built with a curve in it will repel them."

"Is that what they're for?" Fai asked in some surprise. "I've seen those everywhere!"

"No prudent man would build a house or wall without them," Xiao Lang said. "And it looks like Feng is more prudent than most. You know, they say that criminals are a superstitious lot, but I've generally found that they have nothing on ordinary men. And superstition," he said, whirling his grappling hook around his hand for a few seconds to build up speed before he tossed it expertly over the gracefully hooked crenellations, "is a criminal's best friend."

"This was a lot easier than I expected," Fai noted as they dropped over the wall into the lush, well-manicured garden beyond it. "What was stopping you from doing this before?"

"That was just the outer wall," Xiao Lang reminded them. "The inner keep is far taller - impossible to scale. All Feng's most valuable possessions are kept within a well-guarded chamber within that, including his strongbox, and collection of beautiful serving girls. That building is guarded all twelve hours of the day, by fierce hounds and unimaginative men who are immune to all manner of persuasion, bribery, intimidation or seduction."

"You've tried all four?" Fai inquired sweetly.

"And that's just the dogs. The guards are even worse," Xiao Lang said, ignoring this interjection. "We can't possibly hope to sneak in."

"Then what are we doing here in the first place?" Kurogane demanded.

"Laying some groundwork," Xiao Lang answered. "Keep quiet."

They came to a second building, this one looming high overhead. The stones fitted together too close and smooth to offer any handholds, and the first window slits didn't appear until nearly twenty feet up. Xiao Lang tilted his head back, apparently counting windows until he found the one he was looking for; then he stopped, and let out a long low whistle of a three-part scale. He paused for a few seconds, then repeated the tone.

At length the window above opened, and Kurogane glimpsed metal bars set into the frame. Fabric rustled, and the shadow of long black hair framed a white face peering out the window. "Is that you, Xiao Lang?" a female voice whispered hoarsely.

"Mei Ling!" All at once the young man's cool, patriarchal features were transformed by an animated glow. "It's me! I've come to see you!"

"It's about time!" It wasn't quite a shriek, since the girl apparently had enough sense not to attract the guards, but it was otherwise quite close to it. "Where have you been? I've been stuck in here for months! Fat lot of good you are!"

Kurogane and Fai exchanged a disbelieving glance. From Xiao Lang's enraptured descriptions of his lady-love - serene, lovely, beautiful, enchanting… they'd been expecting someone much more kind and sweet-natured. Someone more like, well, Sakura; but the young woman's irascible voice sounded about as far from "sweet-tempered" as you could get.

"I was out of the city on a quest for your father, Mei Ling!" Xiao Lang protested. "I had to prove to him that I was worthy -"

"Oh, stuff your quest, Xiao Lang!" the girl exclaimed. "Father never had any intention of dealing fairly with you, and you should have known it! I can't believe someone as clever as you imagine you are would just go trotting off on a wild goose chase like that. I told you -"

"Mei Ling, there really isn't time for this," Xiao Lang whispered urgently. "I've got a plan to get you away from Fearful Feng and get him to leave you alone forever, but I need your help."

"What do you need me to do?" Mei Ling asked suspiciously.

"You're in the inner keep, where he keeps all his strongboxes," Xiao Lang replied. "Would you be able to sneak into Fearful Feng's treasure room and take something out of there?"

"Are you insane?" the girl hissed. "If he caught me he'd have me horsewhipped! And that smelly accountant of his does the inventory every morning at sunup! And even if I could, there'd be nowhere for me to go! The first thing they'd do is search the inner quarters, and -"

"Don't worry about any of that," Xiao Lang interrupted. "You'll be long gone before that happens. The important thing is, can you do it?"

"I suppose," Mei Ling said grudgingly. "But I'm not sticking out my neck for you without a damn good reason! What are you up to, Pup?"

"Pup?" Fai whispered to him, eyes sparkling. "As in, Little Puppy? For real?"

Xiao Lang's ears reddened. "We were playmates together," he snapped. "Now's not the time. Mei Ling! I promise that by midnight tomorrow you'll never have to worry about Fearful Feng again, as long as you trust me on this. Please!"

"All right," Mei Ling said at last. "I'll give it a try. But this is the only thing I'm doing for you, Li Xiao Lang! See if I don't!"

"Thank you," Xiao Lang said softly. "Now, here's what you need to do…"

~to be continued...

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