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Zhongli Quan first realised something was wrong when Lu Dongbin called him away from the other Transcendents.
Quan went, meekly — for who could refuse their leader and not lose face?
Lu Dongbin’s rooms were the largest on Penlai Station, with a bay window overlooking the vast expanse of the planet of New Ceres below.
“We have a mission for you,” he said. Lu Dongbin always spoke in the plural, even though the decision was likely his alone.
Smugness, the Ancestor said within Quan’s mind. It’s not going to be a mission you’ll like.
Even without the input of his subconscious adviser, Quan would have guessed. “I already have a mission. We’re all going down…” Down, of course, meant planetside: to Dongjing, the capital of New Dragon — and into the Forbidden City itself, where the bitter struggle for the succession of the dying Emperor would have begun, every faction striving to eliminate its opponents in bloody purges.
Neither Quan nor Lu were aligned: their role was merely to monitor, to give the right nudges at the right time to make sure New Dragon was secure from offworld interference.
In other countries on New Ceres, they’d have been called Proctors. But here, in New Dragon, this careful, artificially preserved recreation of eighteenth century China, they styled themselves the Transcendents — the Eight Immortals, forever watching from their lofty heights.
Lu hadn’t answered Quan’s remark. No doubt his own Ancestor was busy grinding data, analysing Quan’s most minute reactions.
“We agreed on this,” Quan said, carefully, quietly. Buddha! he thought, exasperated. How he wished he was not so new amongst the Transcendents, so green and without authority. “My predecessor—”
“—was not head of the Transcendents,” Lu Dongbin said, smug as ever. “Our plans have changed, Quan. You’ll go to Laochan to investigate a murder.”
Small village, the Ancestor prompted, raiding the memories of Quan’s predecessors. Peach-Blossom Ward of Jiangxi Province, New Dragon.
In other words, so small it was barely on the register. “Did someone important die?” Quan asked.
Lu Dongbin’s lips stretched. Malicious amusement, the Ancestor said.
“Important enough to send you.”
In other words, probably not. Lu just wanted to assert his authority, to show the others that as leader of the Transcendents he could send Quan back and forth on trivial matters. The fact that one of Quan’s namesakes and predecessors had founded the order and raised Penlai Station in the sky meant nothing. Nothing at all.