Wa Zhuangzhou and Lian Angua led the way through the gardens, with the prospective newlyweds walking behind them. At Lian Zhidiao’s side, Wa Yingyue glided with the air of a fairy, seeming to float above the ground as they slipped between golden leaves and dying grasses to the great hall.
Soft footsteps followed along behind him at a distance, slipping in and out of the shadows of plantings, darting down side paths, doing his best to be unobtrusive. Sui Zhong. So heavily invested in the outcome of the marriage meeting that he couldn’t stay away. If it were anyone else, he might have thought it the work of someone collecting gossip, but Sui Zhong’s loyalty was genuine. And Lian Zhidiao wasn’t the only one to notice it.
“Your servant follows you so closely,” Wa Yingyue said. “Is he always attached at your hip?” Her tone sounded sweet and innocent enough.
“Yes,” Lian Zhidiao replied, feeling a little pleased with Sui Zhong, even if he himself had not been the one to earn such loyalty. “He’s well acquainted with my needs and fulfills them without being told, anticipates my desires in things that should please me, and speaks well when given occasion to.”
“Mm,” Wa Yingyue hummed appreciatively. “I should like to have such a loyal servant. Won’t you give him to me?”
Give him to her? The only person he could count on in this viper’s nest of a house? Lian Zhidiao smiled uneasily. “A man’s servant is different from a woman’s,” he said at last. “I doubt he could know the concerns of a woman as well as he does those of a man.”
“Oh?” Her smile widened. “The concerns of women are more difficult to satisfy, not less. If he has reached his pinnacle with you, then he can only improve as my servant.”
Is she suggesting that being in my service is a dead end? He may not have been used to having servants, but Sui Zhong was so genuine that Lian Zhidiao couldn’t help but think of him as a friend, one he desperately needed at the moment. Irritation pricked Lian Zhidiao’s scalp. But he kept his voice light and pleasant. “Then once we are wed, you may command him to your heart’s content.”
The smile on her face flickered and then she resumed looking forward as they approached the great hall.
Lian Zhidiao wasn’t sure whether that was a battle he won or not, but at least he seemed to have avoided a heavy casualty.
Warmth poured out of the open doors, sweeping the garden’s chill from their limbs as they approached the great hall. Sui Zhong was hovering behind the orange color of a wisteria trained to trellis just off the path when Lian Zhidiao, pausing at the threshold, caught his eye.
At this subtle acknowledgement, Sui Zhong hurried forward, and Lian Zhidiao leaned in to speak, keeping his voice down.
“I will endeavor to speak to my lady alone after dinner, before she leaves. Have my black rabbit cape ready so that she may walk with me comfortably.”
“Yes, gongzi,” Sui Zhong said, glancing beyond him into the hall. “And afterward?”
Lian Zhidiao searched Sui Zhong’s face, puzzled. “Afterward?”
“Would the young master desire some wine before bed?” Sui Zhong’s expression was clear and eager; his desire to help Lian Zhidiao couldn’t be more plain.
Drinking after this? Was there any way it could end in something worth celebrating? Or would he be drowning himself in wine for another reason? “It will be a very long night until then,” he murmured, glancing at the occupants of the hall as they sat down. “I should like to relax, but I don’t feel like drinking, so I think I will go straight to bed.”
Sui Zhong nodded smartly and gave his master a crisp bow. “I will make the preparations, gongzi,” he replied.
Lian Zhidiao blinked. What a curious reply. Then he felt the eyes of his father on him through the open door and he couldn’t put off entering the great hall any longer.
Braziers with red-hot coals kept the large hall warm, even stuffy. Standing lanterns were already lit in anticipation of the coming sunset, driving away the shadows between ceiling beams and setting gold leaf and lacquer aglitter. At a broad table set up in the center of the room, the Wa sat on one side, and the Lian on the other, with the parents and betrothed facing each other respectively. The formal distance between noble cultivators wasn’t observed here; this was more intimate, more familiar.
A servant brought in tea, and Wa Yingyue served them, pouring a delicately fragranced ribbon of tea into each cup. Wa Zhuangzhou began to look at his ease; the brooding cast to his expression faded into serenity as he took the golden cup in his hands and sipped from it, the picture of refinement. Although this was ostensibly a meeting for the purposes of their children’s marriage, it seemed that Wa Zhuangzhou and Lian Angua had already moved past this point in their conversation some time ago. There was no mention of ‘take care of my girl’ or ‘my son is a very hard worker’: the bloviating that Lian Zhidiao had expected between prospective fathers-in-law was missing entirely.
I suppose they must have had all those talks years ago, when this was first agreed upon. Lian Zhidiao glanced at Wa Yingyue, who was paying close attention to her father. In the end, all they need is for me to do my part. In his lap, he gathered his hands into loose fists. All Yue Fengjian needs is for me to do my part.
“Even though it has been but a few days since we spoke, I have news to share with you.” Wa Zhuangzhou had an amiable voice; he was clearly eager to broach whatever topic he had brought with him.
Lian Angua’s expression was neutral. “Oh?”
“I received a message from Sect Leader Zhou Tai’an just yesterday.”
Lian Angua lifted his chin, suddenly interested. “What was his proposition?”
Wa Zhuangzhou smiled. “You know him well enough to know that he always has one.”
Lian Zhidiao’s heart lifted a little bit at the sight of Wa Zhuangzhou’s smile. It wasn’t as precious as Yue Fengjian’s smile, but it did much to banish the image of an unsociable recluse. If Wa Yingyue was a fairy, then her father’s beauty, while severe, certainly made him a fairy king.
Wa Zhuangzhou put his cup down, letting out a small sigh. “As you’ve already suspected, he wanted to know if I had any candidates in mind for their Living Memory.”
“Their Living Memory.” Lian Angua could not hide a knowing smirk. “Have they run out of orphans with good spiritual roots?”
A Living Memory. Lian Zhidiao’s brow creased. What could that be?
“Just so,” Wa Zhuangzhou replied. “Their list of candidates grows perilously short, he tells me. They only have two candidates in line for the next four years. And these may have to serve longer terms.”
“They should record their manuals by hand as a backup,” Lian Angua replied with a dismissive tone.
“Just so,” Wa Zhuangzhou agreed. “The current Living Memory has already undertaken this task, he says. But with over a thousand years of techniques, it will take some time.”
“And the seniors, the bearers of the Whisk?” Lian Angua said, pointedly. “Can they not simply draw upon previous Living Memories to shoulder the burden again?”
“They never have before,” Wa Zhuangzhou said, inclining his head to concede that raising the point was valid. “Despite there being no fewer than 30 or 40 in the Order.”
“And perhaps several more who do not maintain their membership.”
Wa Zhuangzhou nodded. “The Purple Orchid demands a contribution, which is harder and harder for the members to satisfy as they collect more and more techniques.” His eyes flashed briefly to Lian Zhidiao.
Lian Zhidiao met his eyes, his expression slowly changing to one of realization. Technique hunters like Zhou Xianzhi and Zhou Xiangu. The Zhou sect is well-known for their technique hunters; the Living Memory must be the ultimate destination of those techniques. He swallowed a feeling of unease that rose in his throat under Wa Zhuangzhou’s eyes.
“And it’s true that those holders of the Whisk who knew the techniques might be easily targeted. Still,” Wa Zhuangzhou continued, “I suspect there must be some thornier reason they cannot don the mantle again.”
“Even if we knew such a reason, who could say the Zhou explanation could be trusted? They might say anything if a rare technique was in the offing.” Lian Angua’s mild derision lent a twist to his lips. “So will you help him?”
“Probably,” Wa Zhuangzhou said, his thin fingers pale even against the silver scrollwork on his teacup. “There are one or two orphans in the academy who might be suitable. Perhaps you could write to your brother and have him survey his students there?”
Lian Angua accepted Wa Zhuangzhou’s directive without questioning it, the lips that had previously sneered curving in a smile. “Of course. I would be delighted to do so.”
Hearing his father be this agreeable towards his social betters chafed against his psyche. Only a tyrant to those who can’t fight back. Lian Zhidiao glanced briefly at Wa Yingyue, only to find her looking back at him. Startled, he lowered his eyes.
They were interrupted by servants bringing in the evening meal. It was sumptuous, with braised chicken, spiced and sweet with fennel, boiled spicy fish, dumplings, a clear soup, bean curd lightly fried with green onions, and oranges to satisfy a sweet tooth. The warming meal was greeted with satisfaction as the temperature began to drop outside.
After the dishes had been cleared, warmed wine was brought in. Wa Zhuangzhou and Lian Angua slipped into deliberation about the sect and the various masters who were teaching their own disciples, weighing which ones were promising and which ones were lagging behind. They even considered setting up a tournament of sorts to determine who was the strongest among the juniors, and Wa Yingyue began chiming in with names that Lian Zhidiao didn’t recognize, speaking positively about their development. The atmosphere was easy-going and friendly.
But he had much to discuss with her and there would be no better time to ask Wa Yingyue to walk with him. At the risk of breaking the relaxed mood, Lian Zhidiao smiled across the table at her. “Would my lady care to join me for a short walk?”
She looked to her father for permission. Wa Zhuangzhou met his daughter’s eyes, before giving Lian Zhidiao an approving smile and nod.
No sooner had Lian Zhidiao followed Wa Yingyue outside than Sui Zhong appeared at his elbow, offering his black rabbit cape. He had even warmed it. After relinquishing it to his master, he melted into the shadows. Resolving to reward him later, Lian Zhidiao settled it around Wa Yingyue’s shoulders to ward off the chill.
The sun had already sunk beyond the garden wall; servants lingered in the eaves of the side buildings, scuttling away as Lian Zhidiao and Wa Yingyue walked through the garden. It was not yet cold enough to freeze the water around the footings. There were no splashes of inquisitive carp coming to the surface; they sheltered in the warmer depths.
How was this done? He’d gotten as far as this, but he had no idea how to actually go about winning her over. Lian Zhidiao snuck a look at Wa Yingyue. Her eyes were lowered. The cold brought pink blooms to her cheeks in the beginning of winter. Given the rarity of second chances, he should feel honored to court her, but instead he felt only trepidation, glazed with guilt. It wouldn’t be that bad a sacrifice. He could do what he had to in order to secure an heir. But he didn’t love her.
What could he do if these were the circumstances of his second life? It’s not that bad to stay alive like this! He repeated it to himself again, and then again, looking at the light catching in her hair, the embroidery shining on her robes.
Reading this story earlier in his life, he would have railed against the bad choices of a character like himself. Acting only to please his father? Making sensible moves to secure his future and the future of his sect? Forgoing the desires of his heart for duty? Leave that pragmatic crap out of an adventure novel! But here he was, trapped in a box of his predecessor’s making, hemmed in between his own decisions and his heart. He could not stop the way he felt about Yue Fengjian any more than he could summon up more than a forced smile for Wa Yingyue now.
Somehow, I ended up with this kind of forbidden desire in a harem novel. If he’d known this would be his fate, he would have worked harder to guard his heart against falling in love with his own protagonist.
“Lian-shidi is staring at me most attentively,” Wa Yingyue said as they walked past a lit brazier. Her voice was gentle, with a sweet tone. “Has he forgotten what I look like?”
“How could one forget such beauty?”
Wa Yingyue gave a secretive smile. “You don’t need to flatter me so, Lian-shidi. We have known each other for so long that it lands poorly on my ear.”
Lian Zhidiao winced inwardly. Doubtless beautiful women like her heard this kind of thing all the time. “I did not intend offense.”
“You have always had such borrowed ideas of flattery,” she responded. “Can’t you come up with anything on your own?”
With my head full of visions of broad shoulders and a stern face? No! I cannot!
“I fear that I alone am no longer good enough,” Lian Zhidiao said. “Borrowing the valor of better men is the only way I can hope to redeem myself.”
Her lips quirked in a small smile. “At least this part of you is still the same,” she said. “Never afraid to use what you can to get ahead.”
“I will… take that as a compliment, even if my lady doesn’t intend it as one.”
She pulled the black rabbit cape closer around her body. “As usual, you will pick what suits you without a thought for other people.” She turned to face him, the railing overlooking the pond at her back. Her dark eyes appraised him before she continued. “That’s why we work so well together.”
Lian Zhidiao blinked. “I don’t take your meaning.”
“Don’t be coy,” she said. “I have always liked that kind of distant, detached air you have, the way you looked at juniors and excoriated us for our faults, reading out a list of the smallest infractions of the rules.” She gave a sharp gasp of laughter at Lian Zhidiao’s lined brow. “Don’t pretend you didn’t, I can still see your little face as you took my brother to task for failing to prepare his medicine by stirring the correct number of times.”
Oh, he really didn’t remember it. He drew himself up, affecting a sense of righteousness. “It’s a senior’s duty to correct his juniors.”
Wa Yingyue didn’t seem to notice him puffing himself up. “I think it’s because you were so lonely out there with Guizai. You jumped at any chance to spend time with us when you came back to the city, but you were so bad at it.” She hid a chuckle behind her sleeve.
The good humor that she was feeling from reminiscing about their past couldn’t reach Lian Zhidiao. He cleared his throat uncomfortably.
She turned to look down into the pond below them. “It’s good that you brought me out here. We can speak at our ease and make sure everything is out in the open.”
“So you’re ready to talk about the marriage then,” he said.
“In so many words,” she replied. “You seem to understand your place in this match better than you did before.”
Warning bells rang in Lian Zhidiao’s head, but he pushed them aside. “My lady sounds as if she already has something in mind to say.”
“I do. This marriage will proceed solely at my discretion. I may play the good daughter for my father, but only as far as I care to.” Her dark eyes were direct. “Our marriage will be the same.”
“You have…demands that you would make of me.”
“I have requirements.”
The edge of winter cut through the many layers of Lian Zhidiao’s robes, but it was warm in comparison to the chill that ran down his spine. “What are those?”
“You won’t find them too much, I assure you.” Her small white hands poked out of the black rabbit cape and wrapped around the railing, as if she were holding on to a ship pitching in heavy seas. “Not long after we are wed, you will become a guardian of the cache of the Swords of the Myriad Dead, as you would have always been. In public, I will be your obedient wife, but in private I will speak my mind as I desire. You will have no power over me. I will not give you my heart; you lost any chance at that long ago. We can produce an heir, but beyond that, we are husband and wife in name only.” She turned to offer him a wry smile. “But then again, that was always your plan, wasn’t it?”
Lian Zhidiao swallowed down the lump in his throat. “And in our old age? Will you have no loyalty for me or my family after I have been so faithful to you?”
“Don’t misunderstand, I won’t shirk my duty to your family,” she said airly. “But my youth doesn’t belong to you. I won’t waste it on someone who won’t hold me above everyone else.”
Lian Zhidiao licked his lips. “Then I have some demands of my own, as long as we are being honest.”
“Of course you do,” she said, her smile fading. She held his eyes, her attention sharp, daring him to say something.
“Give me the ear of your father,” he said, his hand in a fist at his side. “I need him to listen to me, and trust me on worldly matters with regard to other sects.”
“Oh?” Her eyebrows lifted. “It’s unlike you to care about sect politics.”
“Traveling has made me friends in other sects, and their causes are now my own.”
She let out a small sigh. “You know how he feels about outsiders, so you’ll have to make your case to Father yourself, but you’ll have ample opportunity to do that.” She was matter-of-fact, almost chatty, about the difficulties he would soon face. “Especially once he elevates you to Master and allows you to take on students.”
Lian Zhidiao clenched his jaw. Alone out in the bogs and fens, he doubted he would have much time to speak to Wa Zhuangzhou of politics or daring forays to do battle with an existential demon threat. He would still have to contend with Guizai, and whatever troops of humans or demons that came along prepared to kill him for the chance to grab the swords. Could he even get along with Guizai? He had no idea one way or the other. Potentially, the life in front of him was lonely and distant, no different than the life he’d left behind in the modern world.
“You aren’t saying much,” Wa Yingyue said, intruding on his reverie. “Is that really all you desire out of our marriage?” She sounded a little disappointed, but a fairy princess like her must be used to men laying down their lives for her beauty. By comparison, Lian Zhidiao’s response to her was as flat as a piece of paper.
At first, Lian Zhidiao couldn’t say anything. He’d wagered so much on this chance, he couldn’t say no. But agreeing to it felt like signing his life away for a pittance. A moment later, his shoulders slumped in defeat. “I’m sure we can smooth out any differences in the future with frank discussion,” he all but mumbled.
Wa Yingyue’s answering smile was warm and genuine. “I’m glad,” she said, stepping close to him. With some fondness in her touch, she pushed his hair back from his face, gazing earnestly into his eyes. “It seems like a lot, but we won’t be unhappy, I promise.”
And then she swung the black rabbit cape off her shoulders. Pressing it into his hands, she walked back down the garden path to the great hall alone.
Previous Chapter < Chapter 58: The Repairer of Reputations
There was only one way to interpret the presence of a beautifully crafted jade tool made in the shape of a penis. Only one reason for it to be kept at his bedside.
A very, very small voice in the back of Lian Zhidiao’s head suggested that maybe the original Lian Zhidiao was using it on his partner. But this didn’t explain Sui Zhong interpreting his master’s appraisal of the dildo as a time to offer ‘ointment’, whatever that was. Nor was it likely to be the case, since Lian Zhidiao had a perfectly serviceable unit himself, and so a jade facsimile was not needed. There were also the lascivious presumptions that Zhou Xianzhi had made.
And so this (it must be said again, lovingly detailed) jade dick had sat here, when his other things clearly showed signs of tampering. Sui Zhong clearly knew, and so his father clearly knew. His mother? His sisters? How loose was Sui Zhong’s tongue?
Investigation of the other boxes in the drawer once Sui Zhong had withdrawn didn’t produce anything better: one cock more roughly carved from ivory, and another one made from bronze, with a large ring attached to the base. Presumably this was so it could be pushed and pulled, with the ring as a handle. The verdict seemed clear. The original Lian Zhidiao was not only gay, he was a bottom.
Not that it was any of this Lian Zhidiao’s business, who had to deal with the fallout from his sullied reputation.
He half-expected his father to call on him for dinner that first night, but no summons came, and Sui Zhong led a bunch of servants in with a meal for him. The food was good, it was true, but company was what made eating meals enjoyable. Sui Zhong and the other servants were loyal to his father. Inviting Yue Fengjian to join him probably wouldn’t be allowed, and him leaving the family estate after having so dearly bought his father’s support would not be prudent either.
So he ate alone.
His bed, for all the action it may have seen in the past, was quite comfortable. Better than any bed in this world he’d slept in yet. The cushion was thick and soft, and Sui Zhong made sure that his room was warmed by a brazier and he didn’t want for blankets. In the morning, Sui Zhong pulled aside the netting around his master’s bed and woke him with a soft voice.
The days passed slowly; Lian Zhidiao didn’t see much of his father. His mother never called for him either. This made Lian Zhidiao suspect that even though Sui Zhong had spoken of her will as being something that had to be followed, that she was not in a position to exert her will directly. Perhaps his father had privately told her to give him the silent treatment. Lian Zhidiao supposed that it wasn’t all bad: if he had to also face a stranger-who-was-his-mother as well, it might be too much for him. He spent more time with Sui Zhong than he did with his family.
In fact, if Lian Zhidiao had to guess, the longer Sui Zhong spent with him, the more at ease he was taking care of his master, and the more fondness he seemed to show. When Lian Zhidiao made an offhand comment about wanting more pickled peppers, the next meal had an extra dish of them. Every meal after that also came with a few extra peppers in a dish. Doubtless this Lian Zhidiao’s bathing requirements were more strenuous than the original’s, but Sui Zhong saw to it that the baths were ready promptly and scented with floral water. His hand was tender when he combed out Lian Zhidiao’s hair, as if he didn’t want to give his hair a painful jerk.
After days of this kind of behavior, Lian Zhidiao developed a nagging suspicion that Sui Zhong had stayed in the Lian family’s service only to have the chance to see him again.
When a week had gone by, and a light frost overnight announced the arrival of winter, a messenger came bearing a small box, with no clue as to the sender. Sui Zhong presented it to Lian Zhidiao, his neutral expression hiding his curiosity.
Desperate for something to break up the dreadful monotony, Lian Zhidiao opened it without a second thought. Inside were a few pieces of fragrant wood, labeled with minute brushstrokes, and a small slip of paper, with instructions written down on how many parts to use of each kind of wood. .
“Incense?” Sui Zhong could not contain his curiosity any further, and had come forward to see what was inside.
“Yes,” Lian Zhidiao said. But what kind of incense? “Bring me a knife and some scales.”
Once Sui Zhong did so, Lian Zhidiao carefully shaved off splinters of incense wood. Using the scale, he weighed out shavings in the correct proportions, and then placed them in the incense burner. A coal to start them burning, and within a few seconds, a blue ribbon of smoke filled the room with an unmistakable fragrance. Lian Zhidiao covered his mouth with his hand.
Yue Fengjian had sent the same incense that was used to perfume his robes. The smell was so comforting. If Lian Zhidiao closed his eyes, he could almost feel Yue Fengjian in the room with him.
He looked at the list of proportions, at the neat and regimented brush strokes. To be so close to something Yue Fengjian had touched, and yet feel so far away from him! Lian Zhidiao wafted more of the incense toward his nose, feeling as if he had been a tightly wound spring that was only now able to relax.
He thought about how isolated I would feel. He wanted to express his support, even if he couldn’t do it personally because of appearances. Then, recalling the lustful afternoon in the inn, another thought came forward. Perhaps, he is thinking of me being wrapped in his scent, as if I’d been wrapped in his robes. Used enough, the incense would impregnate his robes, making him always smell as if Yue Fengjian was by his side, even if Yue Fengjian had never been in the room.
Yue Fengjian making sure that Lian Zhidiao was always reminded of him, wanting to stain him with fragrant oil, to claim him—heat began to rise in Lian Zhidiao’s face.
Lian Zhidiao cleared his throat, well aware of his warm cheeks. “It’s a good proportion.”
“Does the young master know who sent it?”
“No,” Lian Zhidiao lied, as easily as he breathed. “But it would be a pity to waste it. I—”
His eyes fell on the slip of paper with the instructions for proportions of each wood. “I’ll write down the instructions later,” he said, tucking the paper into his sleeve, “but this should be used to perfume my robes from now on.”
Sui Zhong gave him a bow and removed the box to another room, while Lian Zhidiao enjoyed the rest of the incense. He even carried the burner around his bed, making sure the comforting smoke saturated the netting.
That original Lian Zhidiao may have been onto something, making even his bed smell this good.
That evening, his father called him to join him for a meal. Although Lian Zhidiao was not at all looking forward to the idea of seeing Lian Angua, he was looking forward to seeing someone other than Sui Zhong. A low, round table was set up in the room just off the hall, clearly sized for at least three people, and seeming too big with just two. Lian Angua came into the room, looking more stately than he had when he blustered into the hall last week, and he even offered his son a smile.
“You have settled back into your rooms. I trust Sui Zhong made sure that everything was satisfactory.”
“Yes, Honored Father,” Lian Zhidiao said, forcing himself to give a gentle smile. “It is like I never left.”
A curious look crossed Lian Angua’s face, but it passed and he didn’t comment on that statement. “You haven’t left to visit any of your old haunts.”
Lian Zhidiao’s face fell into a serious expression. “My honored father is taking such extensive measures to restore my standing in the eyes of Sect Leader Wa. I dare not do anything to place such delicate negotiations in jeopardy.”
“Not even for a visit to a teahouse?”
“And pass by many eyes on the way there, to be entertained behind closed doors?” Lian Zhidiao shook his head. It was far too likely that his well-besmirched reputation would lead to someone getting the wrong idea, setting tongues wagging all over Jiuluwei City. With his luck, he’d end up at that kind of teahouse, and much worse off than before.
The fine lines in Lian Angua’s face softened as he hummed in understanding.. “Your thoughtfulness is uncharacteristic, but perhaps spending the last two years as you have has been instructive for you.”
Oh. Hearing that in his father’s voice made a lump rise in his throat.
Well, if the original Lian Zhidiao wasn’t exactly thoughtful, this Lian Zhidiao couldn’t really say he was surprised by the news. After all, he’d run away from his familial duty, lied about Hu Baitian’s involvement in a plot, stolen a jade beast, slept with two brothers, possibly at the same time—if anything, only someone else taking over his life could save his reputation. It was just unfortunate that he took his own life before things could really improve for him.
“Your rectitude has not gone unnoticed.” Lian Angua said after finishing a bite. “Sui Zhong has told me that there are whispers of your return in the streets, but that you have not been seen. Sect Leader Wa himself expressed doubts that Yingyue could be convinced of your presence without seeing for herself.”
A clammy feeling spread on the back of Lian Zhidiao’s neck. “I see. This foolish son did not consider that.”
Lian Angua shook his head. “There is no need to worry. Sect Leader Wa has agreed to bring Yingyue to a dinner here in a few days where the two of you can become reacquainted.” He took a sip from his tea. “You will apologize to her for your behavior and seek her forgiveness.”
Lian Zhidiao’s appetite fled; he laid down his chopsticks. “And if she does not forgive me?”
“That is not something you, I, or even Sect Leader Wa can control,” Lian Angua said. “Which is why you should throw yourself on her mercy, without reserve.” He spoke in a distant, casual way, as if this were the easiest thing in the world to do.
Throwing myself upon her mercy. As if he had not suffered embarrassment enough at throwing himself on his father’s mercy, at his business being the topic of discussion among the town. It would be worse still if everyone knew that he was gay, and that this marriage—
That this marriage will be a sham from the beginning.
“This humble son will spare nothing in seeking Wa Yingyue’s grace,” Lian Zhidiao said in a hollow voice.
Folding his hands in his lap, Lian Angua smiled, pleased with the change in his son’s attitude. “Once you have convinced Wa Yingyue of your sincerity, the preparations for the wedding will resume.”
Bitterness flooded Lian Zhidiao’s heart. He should be grateful for the chance to regain his standing, to help his father secure the family’s future, but instead, he felt only resentment. He nodded, bowing his head to his father. “Of course, Honored Father.”
Lian Angua sat back from the table, looking satisfied. “Once the future has been secured, you can work as you like on your own projects, of course. Master Guizai will want to see you back for more training. Long periods of seclusion will make time pass in the blink of an eye.” A slightly misty look entered his eye. “Before you know it, you’ll have children of your own that you will want to see married and successful, with children of their own.”
Lian Zhidiao wasn’t sure about that. But Lian Angua seemed to have made up his mind about it. Having yoked himself to his father’s ambitions, he could only nod. The dinner concluded, and Lian Zhidiao returned to his chambers, his outlook bleak. The braziers had been lit, but there were no lanterns lit; doubtless something had called Sui Zhong away.
Upon smelling Yue Fengjian’s incense lingering in his room, his heart twisted painfully again. He sank to his knees next to his bed, pressing his face against the cushion. Already, it smelled of the man who wasn’t there, and this alone kept him from bursting into tears.
It’s just a marriage.
Would Yue Fengjian even be interested in him once he was married? Would they both be unfaithful? Historically, it had always been the prerogative of powerful men to have whatever they wished, but only as long as other prerequisites were satisfied.
The wife, the kids. Lian Zhidiao inhaled the scent of Yue Fengjian’s incense.
It’s just a marriage.
Lian Zhidiao heard footsteps coming down the low wooden walkway that led to his buildings. Letting out a wistful sigh, he pulled himself together and got to his feet before a knock sounded on the door.
“Enter,” he said wearily.
Sui Zhong had the restrained, polite excitement of a servant who has just learned of his master’s windfall. He was a touch out-of-breath as he spoke. “Gongzi, your father has just told me about the visit to be made by Sect Leader Wa.” Sui Zhong gave him an earnest smile. “We will make every effort to impress her with your sincerity, gongzi.”
Lian Zhidiao nodded.
Sui Zhong at last seemed to realized his master’s enervation; concern slowly ate away at his smile. “Is there something wrong?”
“I… have my own fears about the marriage meeting.”
There was a long pause, so long that it seemed like Sui Zhong had been struck speechless or otherwise rendered mute. He was more subdued when he spoke again, quiet trepidation in his voice. “You said as much before.”
Lian Zhidiao looked up. “Before?”
“Those years ago.” Concern was written over Sui Zhong’s face.
Ah, so original Lian Zhidiao did confide in him.
“I see,” Lian Zhidiao said. “I didn’t know if you would remember that.”
“How could this one forget?” Sui Zhong’s voice was soft.
“What should I do?” It was probably inappropriate to ask his servant for advice, but by this point, the outcast Lian Zhidiao had no one else he could ask. Though he was heavily compromised to Lian Angua, Sui Zhong was still the closest thing Lian Zhidiao had to a friend at the moment.
“All of us have our parts to play, gongzi.” He hesitated for a moment and then continued, “It brought me great joy to hear that you had returned and that this one could once again lift you up above the others. Our lives have been linked since we were young. Naturally, this one will do whatever he can to ensure your courtship goes well.”
Hearing Sui Zhong profess such strong loyalty to him wasn’t the kind of comfort he wanted, but it sounded like it might be possible to steal such loyalty away from his father.
Lian Zhidiao forced a smile. It wasn’t the way he’d thought sacrificing himself would work, but modern interpretations of cannon fodder could probably include this. “We’ll do our best, then,” he said gently.
Sui Zhong smiled back, and Lian Zhidiao felt a sinking feeling at this display of genuine happiness and willingness to serve. It wasn’t Sui Zhong’s fault. It was his own personal failings that made it impossible for him to accept something offered so generously.
The next few days dragged on, until at last the date of the dinner was fixed, eleven days after he arrived. For the occasion, Sui Zhong suggested a robe adorned with a motif of paired cranes under a gold-embroidered willow, to express his desire to be married in the approaching spring. Lian Zhidiao agreed without argument.
The morning of Wa Zhuangzhou’s visit, Lian Zhidiao spent half the morning in a bath, and had his robes heavily perfumed with Yue Fengjian’s incense. Sui Zhong put his hair up in a sleek topknot with a gold xiaoguan, and accented his eyes with a small bit of rouge. Lian Zhidiao kept the Yue storage ring near him like a talisman, and waited.
Wa Zhuangzhou and Wa Yingyue arrived in a litter, their family crest of a mist-shrouded lantern prominently emblazoned in gold on the side. No doubt the purpose of their slow crawl through city streets was being seen by those who would spread gossip.
Lian Angua waited for Wa Zhuangzhou to alight from the litter before cupping his hands and offering him a bow that was appropriately respectful and conciliatory.
The reclusive sect leader bowed back before turning his eyes to Lian Zhidiao. He had a high forehead, with a brooding brow, and thin, pursed lips. He did not look like a man who spent very much time being happy, but to Lian Zhidiao’s surprise he smiled, and offered him a bow.
Lian Zhidiao bowed back. He doesn’t seem too bad.
Wa Zhuangzhou turned, offering his hand to help his daughter out of the litter.
Upon seeing her, Lian Zhidiao could not help but think that his original estimation was right: Wa Yingyue was the most beautiful of all the women he’d written. She had lips like ripe cherries, silken black hair pulled into loops on top of her head, decorated with flowers and jet-adorned hairpins. Her eyes were tilted upwards; phoenix eyes, like Yue Fengjian. She looked every inch the fairy maiden, her cheeks the color of pale peach blossoms, her skin as luminous as a pearl against her sheer black robes. These were embroidered with white peonies, edged with gold. On the robe underneath, a lantern.
For all its beauty, her face was carefully set in a mask of pleasantness, as if it had been carved into stone.
Lian Zhidiao met her with a bow, which she returned gracefully, her demure smile giving him hope that perhaps she might actually forgive him. With his hand on the rudder, he could steer Wa Zhuangzhou’s goodwill to the Yue sect.
“Only what I should have done in the first place.”
At this pronouncement from Lian Zhidiao, Yue Fengjian’s fingers tightened around his shoulders. “Whatever it is, you’ll regret it.”
Well, that’s probably true. “My father wishes to re-open my betrothal to Wa Yingyue.”
“Your—” Yue Fengjian narrowed his eyes. “Even after all this time? After what you did?”
“I don’t hold much hope for it being successful, given the circumstances. She is bound to have her own feelings on the matter.” A heavy sigh left Lian Zhidiao’s lips as he tried to accustom himself to the idea of getting married— and having a wife. “If she will forgive me for my actions, then her father likely will as well.”
If she doesn’t marry me, then she won’t have many other options. Fathers often indulge their children, but only up to a point. Even Wa Zhuangzhou’s doting patience might be taxed to its limit by the demands of his daughter.
“Why?” Yue Fengjian shook his head almost imperceptibly. “You had already paid the price for abandoning your duty. Why not just take your freedom and run with it?”
“A man can’t run from duty forever, I suppose,” Lian Zhidiao said, but the words made him feel heavy. “Come with me. I’ll walk you out.”
They trailed back through the extensive gardens; the fall color seemed more gloomy now than it had when they walked in. Lian Zhidiao was not relishing the idea of spending an entire winter indoors with his ‘father’ – a stranger who didn’t feel like a stranger when he spoke. His spirits weighed down by the prospect, Lian Zhidiao trudged through the garden paths slowly, nearly dragging his feet.
Under the drooping golden-orange fronds of a willow tree, Yue Fengjian reached out and caught the hem of his sleeve, keeping him from going any further. There were lines of concern in his brow. “You did this for me.”
“You spoke up for me when Hu Baitian raised his objections.” A ghost of a smile touched Lian Zhidiao’s eyes. “I didn’t forget that.”
“That was different.”
“It was purely tactical,” Lian Zhidiao said. “I know. You wanted me to use the skills I have to support you. Let this be another one of them.”
Yue Fengjian’s scowl deepened with every word. “You misunderstand.”
“I don’t think I do,” Lian Zhidiao said. “I’ve brought you uncertainty more often than not.”
“You don’t even know if this wild scheme is going to get anything I need.” Yue Fengjian seemed to be clenching his teeth at the same time he was speaking, his voice low enough that it would not pass beyond the willow tree. “You could be trading jade for a cabbage.”
“What of your marriage meeting with Yuan Shijun?” Lian Zhidiao searched his face. “Did that go as planned?”
Yue Fengjian’s eyes sharpened. “You’re turning this on me?”
“I genuinely want to know.” Lian Zhidiao’s gaze was intent.
“Yuan Shijun found no fault with the match, although he would prefer that Sect Leader Yuan be the one to make such decisions, but…”
Yue Fengjian let out a short, angry sigh. “It’s just a marriage.”
It’s just a marriage.
That probably means things will be moving along. Lian Zhidiao lowered his eyes and gave a small nod. A vaguely queasy feeling started to turn over in his stomach. “Did you recognize her at the Sacred Gate?”
“No, she wasn’t at the marriage meeting,” Yue Fengjian replied. “Although I supposed that Judge must be her.”
“You would have married her without seeing her?”
“It happens often enough.” Yue Fengjian folded his arms over his chest.
Lian Zhidiao had to admit he was right. After all, he had all but agreed to marrying Wa Yingyue sight unseen. Her appearance hardly mattered. When it came to marriage, there wasn’t anyone he’d been interested in. He had always avoided discussions of marriage, slinking out of the kitchen when his sister and mother would begin talking about it. Well, what could he, someone with nothing to offer a wife, contribute to such a discussion? His heart had never been in it.
In the original novel, Lian Angua’s ambitions were broken by his errant son. Instead, Wa Zhuangzhou had accepted Yue Fengjian as his son-in-law, and promised aid to their new ally the Yue sect. It was the very definition of a political marriage, Yue Fengjian’s seduction of Wa Yingyue notwithstanding. But with Lian Zhidiao no longer missing, there was no incentive for Wa Zhuangzhou to accept an outsider as his daughter’s husband. There was every incentive for Lian Angua to continue with his designs on power in the sect. Modern romantic notions didn’t enter into the calculations.
Lian Zhidiao frowned. But marriage…
There was a soft touch on his cheek.
Yue Fengjian’s fingers rested fondly against his skin. He had a soft look in his eyes, even though his brow was still creased. “Are you that upset by it?”
A soft pink color suffused Lian Zhidiao’s cheeks; he averted his eyes to avoid that look. “You should have more care for your future wife.”
Lian Zhidiao nodded.
“Mmm,” Yue Fengjian mused, with practiced nonchalance. “I can hardly recall what she looks like.”
“But she was the Judge.”
A fraction of smile started on Yue Fengjian’s face, and then it grew slowly, blooming into a full smile in the light of Lian Zhidiao’s presence. “I wasn’t looking at her.”
Yue Fengjian had laid a trap for him, and he had walked right into it. The sudden blush that warmed Lian Zhidiao’s face was so intense he lifted his sleeve to hide it. To his embarrassment, his ears were filled with Yue Fengjian’s low, warm chuckle. A chilly wind began to stir the willow branches. Gold leaves floated around them.
Yue Fengjian drew closer, and pulled Lian Zhidiao’s hand down to gaze upon his reddened face. “You really are delicate.”
“No, not like that.” Yue Fengjian arched one eyebrow, but his lips were curled in a smirk. “Just ‘Fengjian’, like before.”
The ‘before’ in question: when he had been spread out on the bed at Yue Fengjian’s mercy, begging to be touched. Lian Zhidiao’s eyes widened in indignation.
Almost as quickly as Lian Zhidiao sought to pull away, Yue Fengjian took hold of his wrist, preventing him from moving at all. His lowered voice was nearly lost in the rustle of the willow. “I’ll stay at the same inn. If there’s trouble, come to me.”
Lian Zhidiao nodded slowly. He wasn’t going to back out of the promise he’d made, despite his trepidation. Instead, he would use it to help Yue Fengjian.
The wind pushed at their backs even as Lian Zhidiao walked Yue Fengjian toward the front gate, his heart fluttering. Watching Yue Fengjian disappear through that black gate made his feet ache to follow. The gate closed and Lian Zhidian let out a silent, weary sigh.
It’s not that bad. It won’t be that bad.
Lian Zhidiao turned to find an attractive young man in black bowing deeply to him. Unlike the other servants, his clothes were finely woven and had a slight sheen. His personal manservant, then? Lian Zhidiao composed himself. “Sui Zhong.”
Sui Zhong bowed his head. “Yes.”
“Is my room ready?” Surely not, after having been away for more than two years?
“Yes,” Sui Zhong replied.
Lian Zhidiao blinked in surprise. “You made quick work of it.”
“Lady Huo bid that it be kept just as you left it, in case you came back.”
Lady Huo… Probably my mother. “I will have to thank her for thinking of me,” Lian Zhidiao said.
“If this one may… she never gave up hope that you would return.”
For some reason, those words made a knell of sorrow ring in his heart. Lady Huo would never know how futile her hope had been. If someone had ended up in my body, I’d want them to play my part, so that my family could go on believing I was alive. Lian Zhidiao gave a sharp nod and waited for Sui Zhong to lead him to his room.
They walked back through the gardens, and turned right instead of going to the large hall, taking a walkway on piers out into the jewel box setting. Carp danced in the water below his feet as Sui Zhong led him to a wooden building surrounded by water against the eastern wall. It was decorated with artful carvings in the wood. Heavy shutters had been put over the windows for the winter.
Sui Zhong opened the doors to Lian Zhidiao’s room with a minimal flourish, revealing a splendid set of chambers. Pretending to be a young lord inspecting his servant’s work, Lian Zhidiao took his time looking around. His bed was hung with netting, presumably to keep bugs from biting during the night. There was some kind of nightstand next to it, a low box with drawers that would be a good place to have a lamp were it not for the netting. Below one window, he had a short writing desk, with papers still strewn on top of it, a brush laid to the side, ink dried in the grinding vessel. There were more chambers for entertaining, or perhaps for him and his wife to live in, once she was moved in.
A chill raced down Lian Zhidiao’s spine.
“Does everything meet with the Young Master’s satisfaction?” Sui Zhong, who had heretofore seemed unflappable, asked his master for his approval.
“It does,” Lian Zhidiao said breezily, putting on airs to the best of his ability. It was not as richly appointed as Yue Fengjian’s quarters had been, but for a vassal family’s ‘prince’, it was sumptuous enough.
Sui Zhong bowed his head. “This one is pleased that the Young Master finds nothing wanting this time.”
This time? Had original Lian Zhidiao been a spoiled young master type? In these kinds of novels, it was to be expected.
“Will my father want to have dinner with me this evening?”
“He will be spending time at the academy, as is his custom,” Sui Zhong replied.
Both sisters married and living with their husbands… was it the prospect of being alone with his parents that made the original Lian Zhidiao so desperate to leave?
Keeping his tone light, Lian Zhidiao let out a small sigh. “Where are my clothes?”
Tension entered Sui Zhong’s voice. “Does the young master anticipate going somewhere?”
That note of caution caught Lian Zhidiao’s ear. It likely meant that even if Sui Zhong was his manservant, anything out of the ordinary would be reported to Lian Angua. He had to be nonchalant.
“No. While traveling, I have forgotten much of what I had,” he said. “I should like to get reacquainted with it.”
This seemed to put Sui Zhong at his ease. He nodded and then disappeared outside for a few minutes. Upon reappearing, he was surrounded by a small number of servants, more modestly attired than he was. Once they were all assembled, Sui Zhong directed them to bring out selections of Lian Zhidiao’s clothing.
There were dozens of black robes, as might be expected. But rather than the sturdy luxury of the Yue sect robes, the ones that had lain waiting for their master to return were very much the Wa aesthetic: translucent to sheer, embroidered with various motifs in black, silver, or gold, with occasional touches of color from a bead. Worn together, the motifs would send a direct communication to those who knew how to read it. Lian Zhidiao supposed it was no different from knowing what a specific flower or two animals together on a silk painting meant.
Up until now, he’d been able to skate by on his patchy knowledge of his own world. But to live in the Wa sect, he was going to have to learn how to actually read these signs, or risk making missteps that could cost him support.
So today… He walked past the robes as his servants displayed them, pulling them out to look at the motifs.
A pair of ducks with lotus flower and fruit, which mated for life, could represent marriage. But then there was also the other meaning of a duck. Perhaps that interpretation was possible in this world, perhaps not, but he couldn’t risk it being misinterpreted. He glanced at his servants, ending his gaze on Sui Zhong. They would report this to his father, and for Lian Zhidiao’s sake, they needed to say the right thing.
He indicated with his hand. “The pair of cranes, the two carp, and that one, with the lotus.”
The lotus he would wear closest to his skin, a member of the Lian family at his core. The pair of cranes which mated for life, for marriage. The carp for strength, for filial piety, for a wish. It would read like an act of sincere contrition.
“And these robes?” Sui Zhong said, motioning to the ones he was wearing.
The ones Yue Fengjian had had made for him. Yue Fengjian’s smile under the golden willow still warmed him from the inside out. These robes were what Yue Fengjian wanted to see him in. No one here knew where they came from, or what they meant. They would simply be unfashionable, close-mouthed about his desires or ambitions. “Launder them and return them to me.”
Sui Zhong nodded.
He untied the silk cord for his spindle and set it aside, as well as the storage ring. His servants glanced at each other.
“If the young master wishes, we will undress him.”
“I do not wish it,” Lian Zhidiao said, loosening his sash. “I have gotten accustomed to doing some things myself.”
Doubtless this would be reported to his father as an example of changed behavior, but the thought of being undressed by multiple people he didn’t know made him feel unsettled. Hardly the appropriate attitude of a young nobleman.
Only once he was down to his inner clothes did he give Sui Zhong the nod to approach. As he’d expected, the feeling of multiple pairs of hands tugging his clothes on was still disconcerting, but he stood still, letting them dress him. The servants were finished sooner than he expected. Some of the black lotus embroidery was visible near his neck, even if the layers hid the larger motif from view. The middle layer, the cranes, danced in shadow over his chest. On the topmost layer, the carp were embroidered in vibrant gold, swimming around his ankles and over his sleeve. A gold tassel hung from the bottom of each sleeve. Not appropriate for battle, but appropriate for being seen.
Surprisingly, the many layers proved quite warm against the chill in the air. He waved the servants away when they came forward with a heavy cape trimmed in black rabbit; at least today, he would not need it. He tucked the storage ring back into his robes.
“That will be all, thank you.”
The servants bowed and crept out. Sui Zhong stayed, looking over his young master’s appearance. Lian Zhidiao watched him openly, meeting his eyes directly when Sui Zhong dared to look at his face.
Let him feel observed. Let him know that I know he will report to Lian Angua.
Sui Zhong produced a box, and from it he took out a xiaoguan made of black silk and ornamented with jet. It looked very similar to the one his father wore. Lian Zhidiao nodded, trusting Sui Zhong’s selection.
“Leave it like this. It’s cold, so I don’t care to wear it all up.” Lian Zhidiao sat down next to the bed and waited.
With light hands, Sui Zhong took down Lian Zhidiao’s hair and began to comb it out. It didn’t feel like Sui Zhong bore any ill will toward him. He was gentle with the comb and didn’t jerk his head once. He may report to my father, but I don’t think he had a bad relationship with the previous Lian Zhidiao.
“It must have been difficult for you, when I left.”
Sui Zhong’s hands hesitated for a moment. “The young master need not concern himself with this one.”
Lian Zhidiao fidgeted. “It was… rash, and foolish.”
Sui Zhong gathered his hair up and expertly folded the hair in on itself without saying anything.
“I won’t leave you in that position again,” Lian Zhidiao went on.
Again, Sui Zhong’s hands slowed, but he recovered more quickly, fastening the xiaoguan around the gathered hair on top of Lian Zhidiao’s head. But this time, Sui Zhong said nothing.
There’s nothing more I can do about that. Insisting might make it more awkward.
Still looking for something to do with his hands, Lian Zhidiao reached over to the small cabinet next to the bed and opened one of the drawers. A small jar filled with ashes, an incense press, a few slivers of agarwood. Strange to find it next to the bed, but perhaps the previous Lian Zhidiao had wanted to be perfumed even while he slept?
The drawer below that had a few folded papers in it, letters by the look of them, but they were in disarray. Doubtless someone had gone through them when he left.
Lian Zhidiao opened the drawer below that and found a few small boxes that were unmarked. Curious, he pulled one out on his lap and lifted the lid.
Nestled inside on a red cushion was a lovingly crafted jade cock, the pale swirls in the green stone worked into veins across its length. Polished to a mirror shine, it had the fine detail of a thin line to denote the foreskin, and a small slit carved at the tip. A pair of testicles, carved from the darker green part of the stone, completed the jade tool.
Lian Zhidiao put the lid back on the box, closing his eyes and willing himself to fall into the deepest reaches of the earth, never to be seen again.
Lian Zhidiao! What were you doing in your father’s house?! This has been here the whole time?! Someone has been through your things! There’s no rational explanation for this other than—
“Will young master want me to prepare the ointment this evening?”
Of course Sui Zhong knows, too!
“That won’t be necessary,” Lian Zhidiao said, clearing his throat and putting the box back into his nightstand. “Some other night, perhaps.”
Sui Zhong putting the finishing touches on his hair was the only thing keeping him from curling up into a ball on the floor.
Previous Chapter < Chapter 56: Home Is Wherever I’m With You
The heart of Jiuluwei City was built out of earth—woven by the Wa founder himself, who walked on water around the spring to set the nine reeds that defined its original city walls, and then all but emptied his golden core to lay the foundation. Although he had created stability on a shifting mire out of nothing, the city itself was built from more humble materials: black clay tiled roofs baked to dark gray, and subtly shining bluestone from the mountains to the west. Like any city, it had its low houses as well as its great ones. The Lian family home, near the eastern wall of the original city, was careful to keep its grandeur at a respectful remove from the Wa family’s superior position.
Lian Zhidiao and Yue Fengjian walked through the streets rather than fly. Flying would drop them at his father’s doorstep in mere moments. Yue Fengjian fell into step next to him without commenting on this choice, for which Lian Zhidiao was grateful. He had to think.
Unlike Wa Zhuangzhou, Lian Zhidiao’s father had no name that he could recall. In Supreme Warlord of the Beast World, all of Yue Fengjian’s dealings in the Wa sect had been with the sect leader. The Lian family had been the offscreen shame of the Wa sect, mentioned only slightly more than their irresponsible son who all but left Wa Yingyue at the altar. If it hadn’t been for the story that Zhou Xianzhi had told that night in Fenfang City, Lian Zhidiao might not have been able to piece it together. He wasn’t sure what stage of marriage preparations the original had ducked out on, but from his recollection, he’d written some foolish storyline that the Wa princess was heartbroken, and no one would measure up to her runaway groom.
Him. Me. I’m the runaway groom.
Among the Beauties, Lin Xianglan had been the fan favorite, for both her sweet disposition and unstained beauty. But if there was a ‘most beautiful’ Beauty in Chen Jiajian’s mind, that title belonged to Wa Yingyue. He had described her as a beauty that bewitched men just by looking at them, an unearthly fairy almost painful to behold. After their betrothal went unfulfilled, her reclusive father could neither force her to marry someone against her will, nor stand to see her go unmarried. But, like every other woman Yue Fengjian had set his sights on, she could not resist him, and joined his wives.
It was no wonder that her father kept her hidden away until she was to be married.
Lian Zhidiao had worked out that he’d skipped out on the wedding. What was not clear to him was why.
The walls of the Lian estate were made of stone rather than earth, an impressive badge of wealth in a city surrounded by mud. The crest, a stylized image of a half-open lotus flower, was set in relief on the black front gate.
Have I seen this before? Lian Zhidiao reached out and smoothed his fingers over part of the crest. There weren’t any crests anywhere among his things when I took them, except for… the jade slip. That was the only thing he kept. He pulled his hand back, unsure of what to do. Do I knock? Or do I walk in? Will I even be allowed to see him?
His paralysis was interrupted by Yue Fengjian banging on the gate.
Almost as quickly, a door within the greater gate opened, revealing a servant in black. His eyes landed on Yue Fengjian and instantly had a suspicious look. “Yes?”
“I need to speak to Senior Lian.”
“If you haven’t sent your request ahead of time, this one cannot—” The servant’s eyes at last looked at Lian Zhidiao and his voice stopped at once. He took Lian Zhidiao in with shock and then gave a hurried bow. “Young Master!”
Lian Zhidiao swallowed down his anxiety and gave a small smile. “Please let my father know that I’ve come to see him.”
“Oh! Yes, but…” The servant looked at Yue Fengjian, asking the question with his eyes.
“He’ll be with me,” Lian Zhidiao said.
“Yes, Young Master. Please, come inside.”
They stepped in through the gate and found themselves in a courtyard paved with gleaming bluestone. Just beyond the screen wall, a mature garden opened up before them, bursting with gold and red and purple trailing from the trees and creeping over the ground. The buildings were made of dark wood on heavy stone footings, with luminous gilding on the eaves. Much of the estate was on dry land, but portions of it were flooded with water, turning the surrounding buildings into jewels scattered at the edge of a pond. Bright ornamental carp lingered near the footings, never venturing too far from cover.
The servant hurried away down one path, meeting with one servant, and then another. All of them turned to look at the pair of recent arrivals with shock, and then scattered like startled birds.
“It seems your sister did not prepare anyone for your arrival,” Yue Fengjian murmured.
“It’s just as well,” Lian Zhidiao replied in a low voice that matched Yue Fengjian’s. “He might have barred the door.”
Out of the corner of his eye, he saw Yue Fengjian turn to look at him, but he kept his eyes facing forward, on a servant who was walking toward them with intent. His focus had already shifted to navigating the stormy seas in front of them.
“This one will show you in,” the servant said.
The estate occupied an even larger plot of land than the street frontage had suggested. They walked for a full minute before a large hall emerged from a curtain of golden willow trees. It was fastidiously ornamented on the exterior, gilded more completely than any of the other buildings. As with the inn, black was the main color in the decor, but the display of wealth was much more ostentatious. It was sumptuously appointed, with heavy curtains to keep out the draft, fine ebony furniture, bronze braziers filled with coals for warmth, and screens inlaid with mother-of-pearl and gold.
Lian Zhidiao seated himself on a low bed; Yue Fengjian sat next to him and said nothing. The air felt heavy; in his dantian, the deviate qi turned over lazily. He let out a small breath to steady himself.
Then the door opened with a heavy sound, and Lian Zhidiao shot to his feet.
His father barreled into the room at full speed, but as soon as he laid eyes on his son, his steps slowed and then came to a stop. He was taller than Lian Zhidiao, with a furrowed brow and a mien that was both sharp and reserved, like a hunting owl. He wore his hair fully tucked up in a topknot, with a black xiaoguan ornamented with glittering jet. His robes, like the rest of the Wa sect, were many-layered, each one embellished to complement the others. Lian Zhidiao was relieved to see that this man was a stranger to him, looking nothing like his own father at all.
I say that he looks nothing like him, but… He had the same tense set in his jaw, as if he was in the process of both expecting things to go wrong and finding out whose fault it was. Not his actual father, but a man that was fundamentally the same: quick to find fault and slow to forgive, with expectations as high as the sky.
A lump rose in his throat. Lian Zhidiao bowed as deeply as he dared without kneeling. “Honored father. This foolish son has returned.”
His father’s eyes flicked behind him, to Yue Fengjian.
Yue Fengjian was ready, clasping his hands in a bow. “I am Yue Hanqi, courtesy name Fengjian, of the Xinxue Yue sect.”
His father inclined his head. “Lian Angua,” he responded, in a cool but civil tone. He looked back at his son, a muscle in his jaw twitching.
Yue Fengjian said nothing.
Lian Angua took a seat across from them, and before any of them could speak, a servant came in carrying a tray of tea. Without saying a word, she set the cups of tea on a low table and left.
“It’s been how long?”
Lian Zhidiao’s heart froze. Although Lian Angua looked nothing like his own father, his voice was a perfect facsimile. It was the kind of voice that spoke of a heavy smoking habit or a penchant for yelling too much. With Lian Zhidiao’s eyes averted, it was no different than hearing his own father right in front of him.
He struggled to get his thoughts in order. How long had it been? What had he written in his suicide note? “Two winters, Father,” Lian Zhidiao said in a small voice.
“Two winters,” Lian Angua repeated. “And you thought you would show up here now.”
“We arrived here only yesterday,” Lian Zhidiao said. “The—”
“You and him?”
“…Yes.” Lian Zhidiao said.
Lian Angua let his hands rest on his lap, loosely gathered into fists. “You’re traveling together?”
“The demons in the west have become more unruly and more daring,” Yue Fengjian said. “I am seeking the assistance of the other sects in repelling this threat.”
Lian Angua snorted softly. “Isn’t demon-hunting supposed to be what your sect is good at?”
Yue Fengjian hesitated.
You can look down on me, because I deserve it, but you dare target Yue Fengjian! Lian Zhidiao’s eyes flashed. “The demons corrupted a qilin,” Lian Zhidiao interjected, steel in his voice. “That is how powerful they have become.”
“Honored Father, the situation could not be more dire. We battled the qilin ourselves, and only through cunning and the use of many techniques from the different sects were we able to heal its sickness.” Lian Zhidiao leaned forward. “It made clear to me that we must have a united front, or else we will all be at risk.”
“The Yue sect might be at risk, but the Wa and Zhou sects will not be,” Lian Angua said with a dismissive wave of his hand. “They have no power here.”
Lian Zhidiao frowned. “But they will.” As uncomfortable as it was, keeping his eyes on Lian Angua was the only way to remind himself that this was not his father. As if I’d ever discuss this kind of fantasy setting with him! Without looking at him, it would be too close to arguments he’d had in the past with his actual father. “Already there have been multiple demons found deep inside human lands, crafting blood pits for the movement of large numbers of their kind. Even the Yuan sect has had difficulty.”
Lian Angua lifted his chin. “Oh?”
“One of the senior members has begun procuring jade tools to subjugate demons, and large tracts of land under the city are out of balance.” Not exactly keeping the Yuan sect’s secrets, but at the same time, the demons’ efforts seemed to be to the main family. It’s not like hiding Yuan Suwei’s body count—the Wa sect needs to know about this to prepare for the worst and make good decisions.
Lian Angua narrowed his eyes. “How out of balance?”
“Were Baima not quartered in Shengmen City, much of it would be crawling earth. As it is, even with the presence of the Great Jade Beast, parts of the city are stained.”
Lian Angua’s face went ashen. He slowly leaned back where he was sitting; one hand lifted and started to slowly stroke his chin. He glanced at Yue Fengjian again. “And what do you want?”
Yue Fengjian inclined his head, his palms on his knees. “My father, Sect Leader Yue Kuangxiang, has given me authority to seek audience with Sect Leader Wa to discuss alliances and fair terms.”
Lian Angua waited almost too long to answer, as if he was giving Yue Fengjian space to continue talking. But Yue Fengjian didn’t continue, and so Lian Angua glanced at his son before returning his eyes to Yue Fengjian. “I will take a moment to speak with my son alone.” Shooting meaningful daggers at Lian Zhidiao with his eyes, he stood up and walked into the next room.
Lian Zhidiao had no choice. He had to follow him.
The next room, a more intimate chamber of the great hall, had not been occupied yet that day, the braziers still cold.
Lian Angua shut the door and caged Lian Zhidiao in with a ferocious glare. “You dare come back here now, using someone I can’t ignore to get into my house?”
“Father, the threat from the demons is real.”
“So what if it is? What business is it of ours if the Yuan sect wants to rot itself from the inside, or that mountain fool wants to send his people into the waiting claws of the demons. Good riddance!”
“It won’t stop there.” Lian Zhidiao’s voice grew pleading. “They bear us great enmity—”
Lian Angua’s look could have cut glass. “You think you know everything about demons now?”
Lian Zhidiao flinched, the sharp barb making him avert his eyes in spite of himself. “No, Honored Father.”
“Have you forgotten what I told you when you left?” His father’s gravelly voice, stretched with anger, became a low, private roar. “‘Do not come back unless you can fulfill your duty. Do not bring shame upon this house again.’ And you still appear in front of me, as if you did not already drag my name through the mud. The theft of the jade beast! I had to make reparations to the Hu family for what you did!” Lian Angua paced back and forth like a restless tiger. “Wa Langhe hasn’t returned, and you have already drawn another man into your clutches!”
Lian Zhidiao wavered under the blistering tirade, but he could say nothing to answer it.
“Now, of all times, when Sect Leader Wa has finally encouraged his daughter to begin courting again. You dare show your face in this city. It’s like you want to ruin her prospects, the way you almost ruined your sister’s!”
“I saw erjie yesterday.” Lian Zhidiao’s throat was so tight he could barely speak.
A vein pulsed in Lian Angua’s temple. “Would that she was the only member of this family you saw!”
Lian Zhidiao recoiled. It’s not fair.
With a swish of his robes, Lian Angua turned away, fuming.
“Will nothing please my honored father?” His voice was small.
“That you even have the boldness to ask that shows how little you understand,” Lian Angua hissed.
None of this was meant for him; he’d done nothing wrong. But Lian Zhidiao’s original self—dropout, recluse, accidental vehicular manslaughter statistic—was completely invisible.
Now, he was the only son of a powerful family, wealthy and comfortable, betrothed to a beautiful woman from an even more powerful family, commanding immense magical power and secret techniques. What did it matter if he was the original Lian Zhidiao or not? Couldn’t he be happy with what he found waiting for him? Simply by accepting the duty laid out for him as Lian Zhidiao’s life had left it, the future of humanity would become all the brighter, and his own besides. What more could he want?
If someone had all that, and they still couldn’t find happiness on their own, could anything really satisfy them? It was still better than being dead. Wouldn’t anyone laugh at someone who wasn’t happy with that, and think them blind to the realities of life?
His breath caught, trapped by the caved-in feeling in his chest. In his other core, the deviate qi stirred around like a toxic soup.
When you’re not supposed to exist, what right do you have to complain?
His hand curled up into a fist. He sank to his knees and then bent himself in half. He spoke to the cold stone floor of his father’s Hall, and heard his words reflected back at him. “My honored father is right.”
Lian Angua’s feet turned, but Lian Zhidiao dared not lift his head. Below him, behind the curtain of his hair, dark wet spots appeared on the stone.
Without Yue Fengjian seducing and marrying Wa Yingyue, his chances of getting the support of the Wa sect were slim. As her once-fiance, Lian Zhidiao was supposed to disappear to open the path to an alliance between the Yue and Wa sects. This was the truth of his throw-away name: mentioned once in Supreme Warlord of the Beast World to shame the man who had run away from his duty to marry.
Why did I name him? Why did his name fall to me?
Lian Angua took a few steps toward him, but Lian Zhidiao still did not lift his head. The weight of Lian Angua’s gaze between his shoulder blades made him shake silently.
“…I will speak with Sect Leader Wa,” Lian Angua said in that low, gravelly voice. “But in his audience, your friend will have to do his own convincing.”
“Thank you, Honored Father.” Lian Zhidiao’s words tasted bitter and jagged. “This foolish son is undeserving.”
Placated by his son’s contrition, Lian Angua’s tone calmed further. “If he agrees to overlook your mistakes, then Wa Yingyue will surely have no objections to resuming the process of marriage. I assume you have none either.”
The words kicked him in the stomach; all Lian Zhidiao could do was nod.
“Sui Zhong will make your room ready.”
My room… Of course, having gained this power over his son, Lian Angua would not want him to go back out into the world until he’d gotten what he wanted. The father conceals the son’s defects, so the son must conceal the father’s. “Yes,” Lian Zhidiao replied in a hollow voice. “Thank you.”
Lian Angua hummed with satisfaction and walked toward the door. Before Lian Zhidiao could move from his position on the floor, he’d opened it, going back into the Hall with Yue Fengjian. Lian Zhidiao scrabbled back on the floor, out of view, but there was no way that his prostration on the floor wasn’t seen. He stood up as quickly as he could, wiping his cheeks and clearing his eyes.
“Sect Leader Wa is a busy man,” Lian Angua said, walking back into the hall. “But I will see that he sends for you as soon as he has the time.”
Lian Zhidiao straightened his shoulders and stepped back into the room.
With a neutral expression, Yue Fengjian kept his eyes trained on Lian Angua and offered him a respectful bow. “I’m grateful for your intercession, Senior Lian. I look forward to presenting you with favorable news that will help us both.”
Lian Angua gave a short nod, and then, with a fleeting glance at his son, left the hall, the tea untouched.
Yue Fengjian’s head snapped to Lian Zhidiao. He crossed the space between them in a heartbeat and took hold of his shoulders, pinching his thin arms in broad, warm hands. An angry whisper, only for him, filled his ears. “You little fool, what did you promise him?”
Lian Zhidiao looked up at Yue Fengjian, meeting his concern in his eyes with sad resignation. To give you the best chance at success, I should be dead. Having known you now, I hope you can forgive me for not wanting to disappear. If it works, me marrying Wa Yingyue should be the next best thing. “Only what I should have done in the first place,” Lian Zhidiao managed, his voice weak.
As long as I know you live, then this life will bring me joy.
Lian Zhidiao covered his eyes with his hand. Given his goals—to support the protagonist as he builds his harem of political brides—he might have thought that the untimely arrival of Lian Zhidiao’s sister saved him from making a mistake. But any efforts at a logical or thankful mindset were drowned by the tide of lust still pulsing in his blood.
Of all times! I was so close!
Yue Fengjian stood, his own arousal still obvious, and walked to the door. He opened it by a crack and spoke to the innkeeper in a low voice. “Stall her for a few minutes and then bring her up.”
From the quick way the door was shut, Lian Zhidiao assumed that the innkeeper had agreed.
He drew in and then let out a deep breath to try to dispel the ache in his lower body. As he pulled his robes together, he caught a glimpse of his nipples, so intensely sucked and pinched that they were still standing proud on his chest. His face flushed red and he stood up to tie his inner robes back together.
Yue Fengjian walked back over, his expression dark. “Did you go to see your family while you were waiting for me?”
“No,” Lian Zhidiao said shortly. He pulled his outer robes together, wishing his irritation would make his erection subside faster.
Yue Fengjian narrowed his eyes. “And yet she has already heard of your arrival.” His eyes slid toward the door. “Your swamp contains many snakes, I see.”
“I should have expected it,” Lian Zhidiao groused, half under his breath. “After all, I’m the one who—” He stopped himself just before the words slipped out of his mouth.
I’m the one who wrote this secretive, intrigue-ridden sect! I should have known there would be people watching the inns, or the sect school!
Yue Fengjian waited to hear him finish his sentence, one brow arched.
Lian Zhidiao shook his head. “Forget it. It has to be dealt with now.” He sighed with irritation and smoothed down his hair. A small voice in the back of his mind said that this left the thorny matter of nearly sleeping with Yue Fengjian unresolved, but that was a problem for another time.
What was Lian Zhidiao’s sister like? Since he didn’t remember anything about the character Lian Zhidiao himself, it was likely that Lian Zhidiao’s sister wasn’t anyone he’d thought up or written at all. She was an entirely original person, created by the world itself. To deal with her, he would have to read and understand her without the luxury of any of the insider knowledge he’d been relying on with Yue Fengjian.
Best to let her talk as much as she likes and try to draw information out of her. Lian Zhidiao tugged at his robes and then looked over at Yue Fengjian.
Yue Fengjian’s collar was still slightly askew, his lips a telltale shade of pink, but at least his erection was slowly going down. If he sat and draped his robe a certain way, the bulge was sure to disappear. Lian Zhidiao stepped closer to him, straightening his collar.
“What are you doing?” Yue Fengjian’s voice had a hard edge.
“Making it look like we were not in the middle of…” Lian Zhidiao’s words caught in his throat, and he felt his cheeks heating up.
“Why?” Yue Fengjian’s scowl was particularly uncharitable. “If she gets the idea she interrupted something, maybe she will leave suddenly.”
“I haven’t seen her in years,” Lian Zhidiao protested. “I can’t just send her away for no reason.”
Yue Fengjian’s face said that there was a very good reason, but he let Lian Zhidiao straighten his collar and make sure his hair wasn’t mussed. After a few seconds of Lian Zhidiao fussing over him, he caught one of Lian Zhidiao’s wrists in his hand. His sharp scowl had softened. It looked like he might embrace Lian Zhidiao again at any moment.
“Don’t look at me like that,” Lian Zhidiao whispered, that look stealing his breath as surely as any kiss.
Yue Fengjian didn’t show any signs of contrition for his last-ditch appeal to Lian Zhidiao’s libido. But at soft approaching footsteps, he did let go of Lian Zhidiao’s wrist and turned away. He had just crossed his arms over his ample chest when a knock sounded at the door.
Now he is sulking like a spoiled young master!
Lian Zhidiao gave Yue Fengjian a look that entreated him to please just be good until this is over, and composed himself the best he could as he walked to the door. His heart pounded in his chest as he drew back the bar and opened it.
The plump-cheeked innkeeper whispered, “She’s here, gongzi.”
Lian Zhidiao opened the door wider and the innkeeper stood back against the wall to let a hooded figure in a black cloak slip inside. With a nod to the innkeeper, Lian Zhidiao closed the door and bolted it behind her.
Lian Chanrong pushed back her hood, revealing a narrow face with high cheekbones made more severe by all her hair gathered in a round bun at the back of her head. She had the same sad eyes as Lian Zhidiao himself. Based on this alone, it was easy to see that they were brother and sister.
“Jiejie,” Lian Zhidiao said slowly, unsure how friendly they had been. As he’d learned with Yue Fengjian’s family, there might be complications.
“You might have sent a letter, or something,” she sniffled. Before he could reply, she immediately enfolded him in a soft, light hug, resting her head against his. “All this time with no word, never knowing what became of my crybaby little brother…”
A catch in her voice lanced through Lian Zhidiao’s heart, as surely as if he’d heard his own big sister panicking over his disappearance. She must have cried over him when he died in the street, the same as Lian Chanrong must have worried for her brother. He could not dry his own sister’s tears, but he could keep Lian Chanrong from fretting so. “I’m sorry I didn’t send word,” he mumbled into her shoulder.
“Stupid little brother,” she said, but her voice was so colored with tears of relief that the affectionate insult landed on his ear as softly as clouds.
It was at this point that she realized at last that Lian Zhidiao wasn’t alone in his room. She froze stiff in Lian Zhidiao’s arms.
Despite his scary countenance, Yue Fengjian gave her a proper bow. “I am Yue Hanqi, courtesy name Fengjian, of the Xinxue Yue sect.”
Like a frightened deer, Lian Chanrong’s eyes flashed back to her brother. Seeing an expectant look on Lian Zhidiao’s face, she turned back to Yue Fengjian and returned his bow. “Lian Chanrong. Are you…” She hesitated for a moment and then an uneasy smile formed on her face. “I apologize, I wasn’t expecting anyone else here. I thought xiaodi and I would be able to speak privately.”
“You can speak with him here,” Lian Zhidiao said, standing next to his sister and looking at Yue Fengjian. “He’s trustworthy.”
Lian Chanrong unfastened her cloak and laid it aside, revealing a ruqun in green and purple with gold chrysanthemum embroidery climbing her sleeves. Over that were two sheer robes, the colors of pumpkin and padparadscha, that even together could not have offered her any warmth. She was thin and frail, just Lian Zhidiao’s height, and seemed to shiver the moment she doffed the cloak. She moved closer to the brazier and sat down, blessedly not on the bed that had just seen intense use.
Lian Zhidiao called for the innkeeper to bring them some tea and then sat down next to her, across from Yue Fengjian. Time to find a delicate way to open conversation. “I had intended to come see you soon. We only arrived in the city today.”
“I know,” she said, facing him with her expression still pinched. “I couldn’t believe it.” She stared at Lian Zhidiao’s face for a moment, drinking him in. “What have you been doing?”
“Traveling,” Lian Zhidiao said obliquely. “Found work where I could.” He didn’t want to say that Lian Zhidiao had been down to two taels of silver and fairly threadbare robes before falling in with the well-heeled ‘prince’ of the Yue sect.
Lian Chanrong glanced at Yue Fengjian and she looked expectantly at Lian Zhidiao, as if to ask, And him?
Lian Zhidiao wanted to just let the obvious request for information slide—he hadn’t yet come up with a real reason that her little brother would have taken up with a Yue sect member—but he was saved by Yue Fengjian’s quick thinking.
“He’s a skilled cultivator and magician. And he’s already proven himself essential in handling various problems,” Yue Fengjian offered.
Lian Chanrong nodded in understanding. “Mother told me that the household received a payment for services you rendered to the Lin sect. Father wasn’t happy about it.”
“I take it he didn’t like it?”
“No,” Lian Chanrong said.
So the rift between father and son is that deep. Given that I likely ruined a lot of his plans, that is to be expected.
The tea arrived, and the act of pouring it out gave Lian Zhidiao time to think. But on the other hand, it’s quite normal to send money home to the family. With the Lin and Yue sects just sending remuneration on their own without checking with me, it’s like direct deposit! Why did it make him mad?
Lian Chanrong gratefully warmed her hands on her teacup. “Considering the circumstances you’d left in, he said he didn’t even want to hear your name. But then,” she paused, with a small nod to Yue Fengjian, “there was more money, coming from the Yue sect. There was a curious note on it which drove Father to distraction. It said, ‘for the destruction of a peach orchard’.”
Lian Zhidiao slowly turned his head to look at Yue Fengjian.
Yue Fengjian arched an eyebrow in response, daring Lian Zhidiao to say something.
“Is that so,” Lian Zhidiao said, setting his jaw. “I do seem to recall an incident regarding a few peach trees in the Western lands, but it hardly seems like something the Yue sect should offer payment for.”
“He sent me a letter, asking if I knew anything about it—because of that time in the peach orchard when we were little. I had no idea. But,” she favored him with a sunny smile, “That was when I started to leave instructions with certain people to contact me if they saw anything. Especially anyone with the Yue sect.”
No wonder they were found so quickly; Yue Fengjian was eye-catching even in a sea of red robes. One red-robed man in a city of black would have caught anyone’s attention, much less someone who was looking for a member of the Yue sect. Lian Zhidiao could only nod.
“You’re going to see Father, right? That’s why you came back?” There was a hopeful note in her voice that made Lian Zhidiao’s heart sink.
“Actually, we’re here on my business,” Yue Fengjian cut in. “I’ve sought an audience with Sect Leader Wa Zhuangzhou on a matter of some importance.”
“Sect Leader Wa hasn’t been seen much lately, I’ve heard,” she said. “There was a moon-viewing party last month, and then a few weeks before that, my wedding.”
Surprise showed on Lian Zhidiao’s face. “The wedding!”
Roses bloomed in Lian Chanrong’s cheeks, and she lowered her eyes demurely and nodded. “That was the last time dajie was out as well.”
She’s the middle sister! Lian Zhidiao’s brow wrinkled. “Is dajie okay?”
Lian Chanrong looked stricken. “Her pregnancy has been difficult. The doctors have told her to stay in bed until the baby comes, with no excitement.”
So the older sister is married too! And pregnant! I’m going to be an uncle?! Lian Zhidiao couldn’t keep a smile from breaking out on his face at the thought of having a little one running around. He nodded, trying to keep his smile sympathetic instead of looking like he was gleeful about the prospect of his sister losing her pregnancy. “It’ll be okay. Dajie will be fine.”
He said it with the confidence of a writer who knew the story, but he didn’t know the story at all. Rather, he merely wished for it to be so with all his heart.
Lian Chanrong nodded. “I hope so.” She glanced at Yue Fengjian again, and then met Lian Zhidiao’s eyes earnestly. “Please try to reconcile with Father.”
“Erjie,” Lian Zhidiao started to protest. “I don’t think any amount of money is going to undo what I did.”
“Please try. You have a little credit to your name now, having lined his pockets some. He would have to at least hear you out.” She looked him over, taking in the robes that Yue Fengjian had given him, which were thick and heavy compared to the gauzy layers that the Wa sect favored. She reached out and took his hand, squeezing it gently. “You haven’t done so badly you can’t show your face to him. Please, for the good of the family.”
Lian Zhidiao’s heart twisted. Usually when his own sister had said things like that, it was because whatever small peace offering his parents made hadn’t worked to repair their everyday interactions. ‘For the good of the family’ was always so he would paper over an insult, let go of a cutting remark, ignore the way others talked about him. So that he would forget when he was wronged to preserve happiness in the home.
Now, to be asked to do something ‘for the good of family’ when he was surely the one at fault…
Lian Zhidiao let out a small sigh. Accepting consequences for the original Lian Zhidiao’s crimes had been galling, but he’d had no other choice. Likewise, he now had to make peace the same way. “I’ll go tomorrow.”
Lian Chanrong gave him a dazzling smile, and wrapped him up in a hug.
I miss my family. Lian Zhidiao’s heart twisted even more. But I can’t go back now. I can only stay here, and make the best of this one. He awkwardly hugged her back.
“I have to go; I didn’t tell my husband where I was going. He’ll be worried.”
“Oh,” Lian Zhidiao looked at the windows; the light was fading. “Do you need an escort?”
“I have my litter downstairs,” she said. “They’ll see me back safely.” She smiled at him again. “I’ll be waiting for a message from Mother. She will be so pleased.”
Resigned to his choice, Lian Zhidiao nodded. He rose and fetched her cloak, hanging it around her shoulders. With a fond smile for Lian Zhidiao and a bow to Yue Fengjian, she left.
Lian Zhidiao opened the shutter and looked down into the street. Sure enough, she got into a litter, and they trotted off into the gloaming. He heard Yue Fengjian pour himself some more tea, and closed the shutters against the chill in the night air.
“We shouldn’t wait too much longer to eat,” Yue Fengjian said.
“Mn,” Lian Zhidiao agreed.
Yue Fengjian finished his tea and then let out his own sigh.
There wasn’t much to say. Lian Zhidiao knew how Yue Fengjian’s parents hemmed him into a tight spot, and how only his continued, demonstrated excellence kept him from being crushed under their expectations. He was a prince who acted like a prince, with the soul and heart of a prince. He could be exactly what he was supposed to be.
Lian Zhidiao on the other hand, was a modest failure. Sneak thief and runaway groom, he squandered his natural talents with his unfilial choices. Who knew why he’d made them, but they’d ended up in his early death. Chen Jiajian also had his own failures, his own early death. The comparison created a deep well of realization in his mind that he didn’t want to draw from. The effort required in sliding his consciousness around it without looking left him sullen and withdrawn.
Even a sumptuous meal of crispy duck, lightly fried water chestnuts and green beans, spicy celtuce with wood ear, white soup with a luxurious texture, and silken tofu with syrup didn’t make him feel any better. He’d half-expected Yue Fengjian to continue trying to romance him after they had a bath, but Yue Fengjian seemed to have picked up on the muted mood without him saying anything. New coals were put in the brazier, and they went to sleep, each in their own beds, without much discussion.
The morning dawned clear and cold; when Lian Zhidiao peeked outside, he could see his breath. He exhaled deeply, letting the cold air brace him against the unsettling dread that was already starting to build.
Yue Fengjian opened his eyes when Lian Zhidiao closed the shutters. He gave a mighty stretch and then sat up in bed, looking across their bedroom at Lian Zhidiao.
Lian Zhidiao started dressing for the day in silence, combing through his hair, lost in imagining how to react to a father he didn’t know when just seeing his not-sister had animated a pang of longing for home.
“Do you want me to come with you?”
Lian Zhidiao looked up at Yue Fengjian’s sleep-roughened voice. He opened his mouth to say no, that he didn’t need help, that he could handle it on his own. But then he closed his mouth and nodded.
Yue Fengjian pushed back his blankets and stood up. As he walked past Lian Zhidiao to get to his own clothes, he put a reassuring hand on Lian Zhidiao’s shoulder. The warmth of his palm lingered long after he stepped away.
The little village that sprang up around the inn was not much more than one extended family, but it wasn’t far from the next little village. Lian Zhidiao and Yue Fengjian followed the Black Highway north; the land buckled into softly rolling hills below them. The broad, even road snaked to and fro through gentle valleys carpeted with rice fields. Villages sprang up along the way with barely a day’s ride between them. With the harvest collected, all that was left in the fields was straw which would be put to the torch as soon as it was dry enough to light. Manure crops were being planted to hold the winter sunlight for safekeeping in a green larder, waiting for spring.
During their stays in smaller inns, they shared rooms (which did, indeed, only have one bed), and Yue Fengjian undertook the task of teaching Lian Zhidiao the art of demon tracking.
In principle, Lian Zhidiao understood how this fantastic form of cultivation worked, but he had always envisioned it with kind of a gamer mindset. One cultivated and leveled up by breaking bottlenecks, getting stronger with time. Like a character in a game, he would acquire new skills immediately when reaching a new level, and understand intuitively how to use them. It had certainly contributed to this viewpoint, that the original owner of his body had left all his techniques in a jade slip for him to learn instantly. Receiving Shanzhen (which made his spiritual techniques available) also added to this perception of ‘leveling up’.
The actual process of learning a technique, however, was vastly different than he’d imagined.
Yue Fengjian’s attitude toward Lian Zhidiao changed completely once the mantle of ‘student’ was bestowed upon him. Up to a point, Yue Fengjian was a patient teacher. But he continually described the technique of tracking as needing to ‘feel’ for something in the area, and Lian Zhidiao, try though he might, wasn’t very good at feeling things he couldn’t see. Frustrated by the conflict between their teaching and learning styles, Yue Fengjian let the matter rest.
Four days after stopping at that riverside inn, the gentle valleys were overwhelmed by flat farmland.
At the foot of the last rolling hills, Yipan Town was a larger trading center that straddled the Caifeng River. The Black Highway ran through it, via a hump-shaped bridge that rose high over the river. Once on the northern bank, the road turned east, running roughly parallel to the river, but drifting to the north. Yipan Town was a center for the collection and production of items made of precious jet, and their first step deep into Wa territory. Most towns south were a mixture of Lin and Wa sect members, interspersed with the occasional Zhou sect member. Yipan was the first town along the Black Highway fully controlled by the Wa sect.
Though the sun was still high in the sky, Lian Zhidiao motioned for them to land in the city below them. Almost immediately upon landing, several villagers turned to watch them walk past. It might have been that they didn’t often see Yue sect members. Despite their shared border, there was a mountain range between the two sects. But it also might have been Yue Fengjian himself: broad-shouldered, tall, handsome, obviously full of male vigor, he turned heads no matter where he was. It was hard to tell which was the bigger draw.
After asking around for a map, Lian Zhidiao was directed to a mapmaker. Yue Fengjian let him lead the way, looking at the hustle and bustle around them. The streets here were dominated by Wa sect members in black robes with silk blackwork embroidered on the sleeves. Every sect member they saw was dressed to the nines, their multiple layers set apart so they could be easily seen by others, telling stories in the figures sewn over their shoulders and hems. One sect member wore inner clothes embroidered with pale yellow osmanthus, and a moon on her shoulder, barely visible through sheer black robes embroidered with black rabbits that had coral and pearl eyes. About half of the magicians wore a spindle belt dyed black instead of red, as Lian Zhidiao wore his. Many of the sect members wore jet in addition to their jade spindles, either in jewels suspended from their ears, or as beads garlanded around their necks. Some even wore the jewels threaded through their hair, making them sparkle mysteriously each time the subtle gems caught the light.
Out of the corner of his eye, Lian Zhidiao saw Yue Fengjian’s head turn slightly whenever a Wa sect member walked past. But whenever he sensed that Lian Zhidiao was watching him, he immediately acted like he hadn’t just been looking. Unexpectedly, Lian Zhidiao found himself eating vinegar every time he saw a Wa sect member approaching. Even more surprisingly, Yue Fengjian slowly started to show signs of a good mood, the corners of his mouth rising in an almost constant smile as they walked. When they reached the mapmaker, Lian Zhidiao was secretly relieved just to get Yue Fengjian out of the street.
The mapmaker worked out of his home, a siheyuan off the main streets. Upon arriving, they were offered tea while the mapmaker had his apprentice bring out the maps he had to offer for sale. After some back and forth between Lian Zhidiao and Yue Fengjian over which to invest in, and some haggling over prices, they selected a map of all the human lands and a map of the eastern shores: the eastern Lin sect, the Wa sect, and the Zhou sect.
On a whim, Lian Zhidiao decided to ask a risky question. “Uncle, do you know where Guizai might be found?”
“Hmm?” The mapmaker looked a little surprised. “Why would you need to know that?” His eyes shifted to Yue Fengjian. “Going to try to lose your swords?”
“No, no,” Lian Zhidiao said. “He’s my Master, and I was thinking I would make a trip back to see him. I know the way from Jiuluwei City by landmarks, but when it comes to reading a map, I’m liable to get lost if the way isn’t pointed out for me.”
“Ah,” the mapmaker said, and he took out a small stylus, making a gentle divot in the map. “Here, north of Ranzhao Village.”
“Thank you, Uncle,” Lian Zhidiao said, smiling. “Even if I fly as high as I can, I can’t see as much land as your map shows, and certainly not with this level of painstaking detail.”
The mapmaker couldn’t hide a pleased chuckle at having his work praised so effusively. Yue Fengjian paid him for the maps and tucked them away in his storage ring. They were barely out on the street again before Lian Zhidiao heard a scoff from Yue Fengjian.
“That was quite a performance.”
“What part of that was a performance?”
“The sugary part at the end.” Yue Fengjian looked sidelong at him. “If you’re going to fawn over him, you could make it less obvious.”
“It’s good manners,” Lian Zhidiao sniffed.
“You don’t have to flatter someone you’re paying. He knows the value of his maps, given what he charges.”
“A local mapmaker will know the area better than a distant one,” Lian Zhidiao replied, one corner of his mouth lifting. Not every mapmaker will be able to claim they sold to the Emperor. His prices will likely go even higher after you’ve taken the throne. “He’ll be happy to have had your custom later.”
Yue Fengjian was giving him a quizzical look when he suddenly stopped still in his tracks and turned to look over his shoulder. They weren’t yet back to the main streets, but the sound of Yue Fengjian stopping made Lian Zhidiao halt as well. Yue Fengjian tilted his head, almost like he was listening, or considering someone’s words, and then his eyes flicked to Lian Zhidiao.
He reached out and took Lian Zhidiao’s wrist, dragging him down the street in the opposite direction.
“Where are we going?”
They emerged onto a narrow street, which Yue Fengjian looked up and down. It was still early in the day, and there were plenty of people walking about. “Here,” he said in a clipped tone, releasing Lian Zhidiao’s wrist. “Follow me.”
Bewildered, Lian Zhidiao followed him as he flew up and out of the town, just to the northeast, and alighted on the ridge of a field boundary.
“We’ve been having trouble with teaching you,” Yue Fengjian said, before Lian Zhidiao had even sheathed Shanzhen. “Because if there’s no demon around, there’s nothing to track.”
Lian Zhidiao turned and looked back at Yipan Town. “Is there a demon in there?”
“Depends,” Yue Fengjian said. “But I’m going to show you how to find it. Sit down.”
They sat down cross-legged along the dry, browning grasses, with Yue Fengjian sitting entirely too close. He pulled back his sleeve a little, offering his wrist to Lian Zhidiao.
“Watch how I use the technique. Keep some distance,” he added hastily, as if he’d just remembered that Lian Zhidiao’s other core contained enough deviate qi to poison him. “Just watch what I do.”
Lian Zhidiao made absolutely sure that the path to the other core was closed before taking Yue Fengjian’s forearm and concentrating on looking inside. A mighty sun blazed inside him, more brilliant than Lian Zhidiao’s own core, and without a core of shadow besides. He might have been able to better appreciate Yue Fengjian’s power if he wasn’t also looking at the bare skin revealed under his sleeve.
The longer Lian Zhidiao looked, the more he was able to perceive certain things: an increase in qi collected around Yue Fengjian’s eyes and hands, and a soft exhale from his mouth. Like a scene from a spy movie, Yue Fengjian breathed out, and a small thread of light was visible, if only for a moment.
Yue Fengjian lifted his hand and ran his fingers under the light, as if he might pluck the string of an instrument. Lian Zhidiao watched as he lifted his fingers ever so slightly, letting it pull against the pads of his fingers. Then he lowered his hand.
“Did you see it?”
Lian Zhidiao licked his lips; his mouth had gone dry. “Yes.”
“Then give me your hand.”
Yue Fengjian shifted in a flash, collecting Lian Zhidiao between his legs and sitting them back-to-front. He looked over Lian Zhidiao’s shoulder at their hands, and put his forearm back into Lian Zhidiao’s hand while holding the other hand ready. Lian Zhidiao was completely still as Yue Fengjian moved him into position. It was like they were a music teacher and his student, having his body moved to put him in the right position to play—but it was all right between Yue Fengjian’s legs!
“Look inside again,” he directed, but his voice was low and close to Lian Zhidiao’s ear. It was less a request and more an entreaty.
Why does he have to sound like that when we are like this?! Their closeness reminded Lian Zhidiao of the way they flew together. It was familiar, if not exactly comfortable, to be this near to him. Pushing down the emotions that churned in his heart, he focused on the technique. Again he saw Yue Fengjian’s qi gathered around his fingers and his eyes. This time, when he breathed out, he saw the thread of light a little more clearly.
“Yes,” Lian Zhidiao said.
“You see how they disappear if you stop breathing?” Yue Fengjian murmured. “The land here is balanced, so you can see it with little effort. In areas with stained earth, it is easier to see correct qi, more difficult to see deviate qi.”
“And crawling earth?”
“Very easy to see correct qi.” Yue Fengjian hesitated before adding, “In crawling earth, one does not usually need to track demons.”
“Demons find you, I imagine,” Lian Zhidiao said.
Lian Zhidiao turned his head halfway. “Does this mean you can’t track a correct qi user in roaring earth?”
“It’s nearly impossible.”
“The trace disappears. Like red writing under red light,” Lian Zhidiao murmured. These traces, these threads of light, were visible only a little because they were of correct qi in a balanced environment. “Then, the demon…?”
Behind him, Yue Fengjian drew in a deep pull of qi from the surrounding area, and breathed out his mouth at the same time. A small thread of purple light floated in front of his eyes.
Yue Fengjian took Lian Zhidiao’s free hand and matched their fingers together. “Concentrate,” he ordered.
Lian Zhidiao took a deep breath, and Yue Fengjian lifted their paired fingers up against the purple thread of light. Amazingly, he could feel it running over his fingers, like a vine whip, rough and knobbly. Yue Fengjian was careful never to let the thread go taut, and carefully guided Lian Zhidiao’s hand again.
“This is a Yao,” Yue Fengjian said. “Maybe a half-Yao.”
He let the purple thread move off their fingers. “Be careful not to pluck them or pull them like you would draw a bowstring,” he warned. “There are some who can tell they are being tracked.”
The purple light lingered much longer than their own traces, but it, too, disappeared.
“And demons? What do their traces look like?”
Yue Fengjian’s expression darkened. “A black rope that will shred your hand if you’re careless. Demons using their energy to fly will leave one behind them. Not the only way to track them, but the easiest.”
Lian Zhidiao’s thoughts drifted back to Zhang Hundun. So spotting him working in Shengmen City would have been difficult if he wasn’t using demonic energy, unless I’d used earth-seeing. If he hadn’t pursued me, he could have continued working in Shengmen City undetected. Who knew how many demons were still there who didn’t give chase? The realization sent a shiver down his spine at odds with the warmth of Yue Fengjian at his back.
Lian Zhidiao shook his head as he pulled his hand away from Yue Fengjian’s forearm. If anything, the proximity of their bodies was making him a little hot. Yue Fengjian’s arms were draped around him, his legs on either side of Lian Zhidiao’s, paired up like a set of spoons. He seemed quite content to be so close, enjoying a farm boy’s kind of privacy nestled in the tall, dry grass of a canal bank.
“We should go,” Lian Zhidiao said, rocking forward and standing up. He dusted off his bottom and turned to look at Yue Fengjian, still on the ground. “We can still cover a long distance before nightfall.”
Yue Fengjian’s scowl snapped into place on his face almost instantly. If Lian Zhidiao didn’t know better, he would have said he was pouting. But he grunted in agreement and got to his feet.
They flew as fast as they dared, following the Black Highway. Just after sunset, they crossed a long bridge over another river, this one with heavy river traffic. A few lanterns were still lit on the boats lining up and down the banks; they bobbed slowly as a fisherman punted by.
There were several ramshackle buildings that were piled almost on top of each other at the river crossing. Some of them had to be older than the Black Highway itself, their facades faded to a lustrous silver that glowed in the intense pink and orange sunset. The inn was in the process of barring the door when they saw Lian Zhidiao approach, and hurried him and Yue Fengjian inside.
Having arrived so late, there wasn’t much in the way of a meal, but the innkeeper promised that in the morning, his wife would make them a breakfast like they’d never had before. With these words to fill their bellies, they retired to their room. It was modestly appointed, with two beds, a sitting area, and the finest feather mattresses to cradle them to sleep.
The morning brought a heavy rain, and the promised palatial breakfast was even brought up to them in their room. Lian Zhidiao thought this was a little unusual, but it was appropriate for their rank and provided them a modicum of privacy. This was just fine with him, as he had an idea.
“Take out the maps,” he said, once the dishes had been taken away.
“What else do you use maps for?”
“Moving troops?” Yue Fengjian took out his storage ring, bemused. “Are you planning a battle in your own sect’s territory?”
“I’ve been thinking about the demon. Wondering how many there are in human lands, how many could rise up if they were ordered to.” His lips thinned. “The presence of a Yao in that town isn’t encouraging.”
“Your own Master is half-Yao,” Yue Fengjian responded, withdrawing the maps from the ring.
Lian Zhidiao took the maps and unrolled them on their table. “Be that as it may, nothing prepares you for enemies on all sides like having enemies on all sides.” He looked over the map, his eyes darting until he found Yipan Town, then Ranzhao to the north of the Black Highway, and Guizai’s grotto further north than that.
Yue Fengjian sat back, watching Lian Zhidiao pore over the maps for several minutes before speaking. “You’re scared.”
Lian Zhidiao’s fingers paused as they followed the line of a river on the map: Caifeng, the Tailor’s River. Then he let out an inconclusive hum that was intended to neither confirm nor deny Yue Fengjian’s assertion.
“Demons are selfish creatures,” Yue Fengjian said. “Working together goes against their nature.”
“Even a wild animal understands fear,” Lian Zhidiao countered. “If a demon can be afraid of another demon, can’t it be made to obey? Out of fear?”
Gentle thunder rolled over the land outside.
“Why are you suggesting this?”
“When I killed that demon—Zhang Hundun—he said, ‘we can continue our work’. He may have pursued me alone, but he wasn’t acting alone.” Lian Zhidiao looked back down at the map, despair creeping over him. “They are in Shengmen City, in the villages… they could be everywhere.”
The measures Yuan Suwei had taken to root out demons in Shengmen City were starting to look less and less like paranoia.
They left behind the sweet grass meadow on the muddy flat, with its secret safely concealed in the storage ring in Lian Zhidiao’s robes. There was plenty of daylight left, and a great distance still to travel. They continued following the river east, then north.
This time, Lian Zhidiao could fly without worrying about any demons breathing down his neck. He could actually enjoy it. Though they were moving at speed, he flexed his ankles back and forth, lazily making wide sweeps to and fro behind Yue Fengjian. The freedom of having his own sword to fly around with hadn’t swept away the feeling of Yue Fengjian’s arm around him as they had soared over the landscape, but it did reveal just how close they had been when he’d ridden as a passenger on Wallbreaker.
Did I really cram onto that sword with him? How could there have been any room? The only way I could have been closer was if he’d carried me!
It was clear that Yue Fengjian didn’t treat flight as something to enjoy: he had the stern look on his face that he always did, like a factory foreman on the subway anticipating a difficult day on the job.
But then again, he always looks like that.
The soft look on Yue Fengjian’s face from not even a few hours prior flashed in front of his eyes. In spite of the chill wind blasting his face, his cheeks heated up.
Well, almost always.
Just before nightfall, they saw the Black Highway’s river crossing below them, with a large, venerable inn at the side of the road, and several long boats moored at a pier not far from it. The waning moon was already high above the horizon when they alighted on the Black Highway in front of the inn. The ends of the rafters were ornately carved, and decorated with flourishes of red and black paint. The tile roof was a dark gray that looked black in the dying light. Several small buildings were scattered around it. It was practically its own small town.
The interior was well-appointed, especially for a roadside establishment that wouldn’t necessarily cater to an elite clientele. There were several other patrons inside, most of them dressed like merchants. The innkeeper was a thin man with bags under his eyes, who welcomed them with grace if not warmth. He paid special attention to Lian Zhidiao, offering him a hot bath immediately after dinner, and then turning to see if Yue Fengjian would like one as well. The reversal in their fortunes had Lian Zhidiao’s lips quirking in amusement.
For once, I get to be the one treated like a prince at an inn! He could hardly hide how this improved his mood.
They had a meal with white broth, a spicy-sour mix of peppers, some lightly pickled vegetables, and barbecued pork. There was also a delicious fish with water vegetables arranged to look like it was still swimming among the reeds, with little red pearls of chili oil skating on its back. Starving for the past few days made every plate a banquet; every bite had him smiling with pleasure. After eating what Lian Zhidiao presumed was his fill, Yue Fengjian seemed content to just drink wine and watch him stuff his mouth. He even waved away Lian Zhidiao’s attempt to offer him more fish or pork, and instead stood up when the innkeeper informed them the bath was ready.
Lian Zhidiao took his time drinking the last of his soup and scraping the last of his rice into his mouth.Then, feeling the nicest he had in weeks, he followed the innkeeper’s direction to a room for bathing in the back half of the inn. There were some benefits to having written so many bath scenes in the original novel; many of the inns just offered baths as a matter of course.
When he arrived, there were two small lanterns placed in the room, which barely banished the shadows from the corners of it. There was no partition between the two tubs of water, owing to a lack of space for scrubbing in the smaller sitting tubs beside the larger soaking ones. Lian Zhidiao was pleased to discover that Yue Fengjian was already sitting in the soaking tub—no awkward moments of watching him get in or out!—and he could slip by without looking too closely at him.
His own bath was steaming; he undressed as quickly as he could. The same little flower-scented orange soaps were here as well. After wetting down, he started scrubbing all the dirt off of him and out of his hair, festooning himself with suds. It had been days; he was pretty sure the last bath he’d had was under Yuan Suwei’s roof. The thought made him scrub his skin even harder until it turned pink. He didn’t stop until he was sure he’d gotten everywhere, and then rinsed himself in the small sitting tub, unable to hold back another sigh of satisfaction.
Lowering himself into the larger tub, he groaned with delight and sank himself up to his neck. He was full of tasty food and finally clean after a few days of sleeping rough. He let his eyes flutter closed.
Next to him, he heard Yue Fengjian shift. After a moment, he opened his eyes.
Yue Fengjian was leaning against the side of his tub, supporting his temple on his fist. The dim lanterns still caught the water on his skin, making him almost glow in the low light. His hair was drying slowly, plastered against his shoulders. His eyes were half-lidded, but they roamed at liberty over what parts of Lian Zhidiao were visible.
Lian Zhidiao sank a little lower in the tub. “You’re watching me so intently.”
Thank goodness for the low light in here! After a few moments, Lian Zhidiao cleared his throat. “I got that demon’s name, by the way.”
That made Yue Fengjian lift his head off his fist.
“Does ‘Zhang Hundun’ mean anything to you?”
Yue Fengjian’s eyes narrowed and then he let out a breath. “No,” he said.
Lian Zhidiao couldn’t help but feel crestfallen. “Would you recognize a specific name?”
“I keep track of the ones we’ve killed.” Yue Fengjian lifted his hand and pushed it back over his head, collecting his hair under his palm and fluffing it a little. “Their numbers don’t feel endless if you can write down which ones are no longer a threat.”
Lian Zhidiao’s eyes slipped under Yue Fengjian’s arm, following the trail of a drop of water down over his chest before he snapped his head back in front of him and sank even lower in the water.
“How was your sword?”
Yue Fengjian had sunk down in his tub as well, but he was so tall that his knees stuck out of the water. “Your sword,” he said. “What does it do?”
“Ah.” Lian Zhidiao thought about teasing Yue Fengjian—you want to know more about the Betrayer’s sword?—but in the end, decided against it. “It calls lightning.”
“Oh.” Yue Fengjian’s voice was soft. Maybe he didn’t expect the sword of the Emperor’s killer to be that good? “Was that how you killed him?”
“Maybe. Probably?” Lian Zhidiao propped his feet up on the edge of the tub. “I cut off his head and took his core as well.”
A small chuckle came from Yue Fengjian’s tub.
“Striking him with lightning, cutting off his head and crushing his core? You’re very thorough.”
“I saw you do it to Tangyi,” Lian Zhidiao said. There was no need to say that the core was still rolling around in his storage ring; he could still find some place to destroy it where it wouldn’t matter if it poisoned everything for kilometers in every direction. “Should I have done more or less?”
“Usually cutting off the head is enough,” Yue Fengjian said.
“I took the core because I didn’t know how many of them were following me.”
Yue Fengjian arched an eyebrow. “Prudent.” Yue Fengjian shifted forward in the tub and then stood up.
Lian Zhidiao kept his eyes firmly fixed on his toes at the end of his tub.
Just a few feet away, Yue Fengjian wrapped a cloth around himself, drying off with slow, thoughtful motions. “Come to think of it,” he mused aloud, “With your sword being…what it is, it might be good to teach you how to track a demon.”
Lian Zhidiao couldn’t help but turn and look at Yue Fengjian. “Really?” The question was barely out of his mouth before his eyes caught up with everything they were seeing. All his attempts to give Yue Fengjian a little privacy—and himself a little sanity—were for naught. He saw everything. His full chest, the serratus muscles around his ribs laddering down the sides of his body, the lean planes of his abs that cut in around his hips, the girdle of Apollo that guided his eyes further down, the dusting of dark hair that trailed down between his hips… Without meaning to, Lian Zhidiao’s mouth fell open a little. The seconds passed like minutes, in which he sat in full knowledge of the magnificence of Yue Fengjian’s body.
Mortified, he dragged his eyes up Yue Fengjian’s body to find that Yue Fengjian was looking directly at him, that same eyebrow lifted in interest. And then the corner of his mouth rose in a lopsided grin.
“Yes,” Yue Fengjian said, continuing on with the conversation like Lian Zhidiao hadn’t just been caught admiring the art. “There’s techniques for tracking both over land and in the air. Normally, lightning is a spun spell, isn’t it?”
“Yes,” Lian Zhidiao squeaked, his voice as small as he dearly wanted to be at that moment.
“With the ability to call lightning while you fight, you could be a capable executioner.” Yue Fengjian sounded pleased with himself, and left the drying cloth on a small stool nearby while he put on his inner clothes. “Shipei and Kuaiyu are less adept at heavy killing, but I think you could really clear some terrain.” He sounded a little excited by the prospect.
As expected of a great military man.
Once Yue Fengjian had his inner clothes on, it was much less dangerous to look around the room. Spying his own drying cloth, Lian Zhidiao wrung out his hair and stood up to take his drying cloth. Attempting to keep the conversation light (and not directed at himself), Lian Zhidiao talked while he dried himself off. “It’s not as lively without them.”
“Mn,” Yue Fengjian replied.
With the rest of the cloth held against his body, Lian Zhidiao used one corner of it to blot his hair dry so he wouldn’t risk staining his robes. “Why don’t you travel with a retinue?” He looked over his shoulder at Yue Fengjian.
Yue Fengjian was watching him. He had that same deceptively drowsy look as before, but in truth, he was like a lion at his repast, gobbling up the view of Lian Zhidiao’s water-slick legs and backside.
Such a hungry look!
And then, he met Lian Zhidiao’s eyes in a smooth rise up his body, without even bothering to look away or seem embarrassed until Lian Zhidiao turned to hide his naked flanks. Then, at last, he seemed to realize what he’d been doing, and averted his eyes.
“I don’t see the need for a retinue,” he said, pulling on his middle clothes. “I can feed myself, wash myself, dress myself, and speak for myself without help. I don’t want to take competent people away from important work for the sake of vanity.”
Lian Zhidiao slipped on his inner clothes as fast as he could, awkwardly holding up the drying cloth until he could at least get the lower ones on. The innkeeper knocked at the door and told them their room was on the second floor, which Yue Fengjian answered with only a grunt of acknowledgement. Yue Fengjian didn’t look at him again even after he had put on his outer clothes and hastily put up his damp hair. Without a word, he slipped out of the bathhouse.
Did he get embarrassed by all the looking he was doing? Lian Zhidiao dressed himself thoughtfully, looking at the door. Serves him right, even if I was looking too.
He combed out his hair and patted it dry one more time before putting it up for the night. I didn’t intend to look at him like that, but having seen that, it certainly makes some things crystal clear.
As a writer of harem novels, he was familiar with several of the most widely-seen tropes across the genre. For the ones that dared to include any kind of lewd material, a certain amount of description was involved, and there were expectations about the harem protagonist. He would be strong, tall, and handsome. In the bedroom, he would be well-endowed, with the stamina of a bull and the sexual technique of a master of seduction. Convinced of the trope’s necessity by a vocal set of fans, Lian Zhidiao had just gone along with what everyone expected. He wrote a harem protagonist to be a paragon of masculinity and sexual prowess. He hadn’t yet seen the full reality of the situation, but from what he knew and what he had seen, there could be no doubt: Yue Fengjian was hung.
It wasn’t supposed to be my concern! Except that now, it kind of was his concern. He began to pity the heroines he’d written, trying to handle something like that during their sexual debut. Just thinking about it made him blush to the tips of his ears at the same time that he felt an unbearably tense anticipation tighten in his stomach.
It’s definitely a possibility that he’ll want to do something with me. Lian Zhidiao looked up at the ceiling, thinking about their room. They’d only kissed—really kissed—that day. He wasn’t ready to do anything else.
And Yue Fengjian, given the way he’d run hot and cold today, wasn’t ready either. Lian Zhidiao tied his belt tightly shut and apprehensively mounted the stairs. Or if he wanted to, they’d regret it later.
He stood in front of the door to their room, nervousness coiling and uncoiling in the pit of his stomach. Why was he so unsettled? Steeling himself, he opened the door and went in. Inside, there were two solidly-constructed wooden beds with black cushions, blankets, and bolsters, as well as a lantern, and a stone brazier with coals in it to keep the chill out. Yue Fengjian had picked one bed and was sitting on it, combing his hair out more thoroughly. He looked up as Lian Zhidiao came in, but closed his eyes again as he ran the comb through his hair.
Lian Zhidiao went to the other bed and sat down on it, taking off his boots. The knot of tension in his stomach frayed and relaxed: there were two beds.
But one bed wouldn’t have been so bad…
The realization painted a heavy blush on his cheeks, and he silently reached up and covered his face with both hands for several long moments.
“I take it you think I should be traveling with a retinue.”
Lian Zhidiao talked around his hands. “It seems appropriate for your rank. But Liao Kuaiyu, Yue Yaosa and the others… they don’t seem like a retinue.”
“We’re a hunting team. It’s more important that we bring different skills that work well together.”
He couldn’t help but think of how the ‘team’ wasn’t what it was before, with Hu Baitian and Yue Shipei in Shengmen City. “Hu Baitian was part of that team,” he said, trying to get his mind off the thought of just one bed with Yue Fengjian.
“Hu Baitian’s skills in the healing arts gave us a certain amount of autonomy. We could go on extended hunts, deep in enemy territory, without coming back for weeks.” Yue Fengjian put aside his comb, gathering his hair into a loose ponytail. “It will hurt to be without those skills, but he made his own decisions.”
Even after all the business with the Hidden Realm and the cursed sword, he still thinks it’s okay for Hu Baitian to go and me to stay. Lian Zhidiao watched Yue Fengjian put up his hair, chewing over his words. “If he came to you with his problem about his brother, then there must have been a demon involved, right?”
“He came to me and asked to be taught demon-hunting well before his brother disappeared.” Yue Fengjian carefully finished his ponytail, his hair as sleek as satin. “He asked for our help with his brother simply because we were friends. He’d had precious few of those, even after the Speakers cleared his name.”
“He’ll be going back to learning his father’s medical techniques instead of spending time with other sects.”
The scene in front of the Yuan palace replayed itself in his mind: the way Hu Baitian and his father dovetailed together, his father doting upon him, and Hu Baitian being relied upon for assistance in treating a very important client. They were close. Anything the elder Hu asked was something Hu Baitian would jump to accomplish. But given his father’s focus on medicine, it was unlikely that Hu Baitian’s time with the Wa and Yue sects was something his father approved of.
It had been fine for Hu Baitian to seek a semester abroad until it looked like he had found a place for himself outside the Yuan sect. Add in the disappearance of his brother, and any father would be eager to have his son come home and participate in the family business. Learning his techniques, slowly taking over his clients. Hu Baitian’s father would be at ease.
“Was his brother a doctor, too?”
Yue Fengjian stood up. “I don’t know.” With one puff of air, he blew out the lantern. “But I doubt it. I always got the sense that he didn’t tell Hu Baitian what he was doing away from their sect, which is why we had so little to go on in looking for him.”
Lian Zhidiao laid down and pulled a blanket over him, yawning. A vague memory tickled Lian Zhidiao’s brain. “Maybe like a Speaker? They travel a lot.”
“Mn,” Yue Fengjian replied. “They do.”
A few moments later, Yue Fengjian tucked his feet into bed. Lian Zhidiao heard Yue Fengjian stretch his body out the full length of the bed, and then roll over, facing away from him. After a few moments, Lian Zhidiao heard his breathing start to deepen.
He really can just lie down and fall right asleep in the middle of a conversation! Lian Zhidiao turned away from Yue Fengjian as well, letting out a small sigh. It’s for the best. He can tell when something is a bad idea. Restraining ourselves is the right choice.
But their earlier roll in the grass on the riverbank had done much to strip away the careful barriers he’d constructed to blind himself to Yue Fengjian’s desire. He couldn’t ignore that, or the answering desire in his own heart.
It kept him awake long after Yue Fengjian had nodded off.
After the night that Lian Zhidiao had gone through, lying in the warm, sweet grass with Yue Fengjian was Paradise. Yue Fengjian’s arms curled around his back like his hands were trying to push up the hem of his robe, or to pull it apart. Lian Zhidiao rested fully against him, rising and falling with every eager breath Yue Fengjian took. His palms lay on Yue Fengjian’s chest, with Yue Fengjian’s thigh sliding up to part his knees. His inner robe wasn’t tied shut—not really—and Yue Fengjian’s hands scorched through it anyway. Just being held by him lit up Lian Zhidiao’s skin like fireworks.
Every kiss that ended was followed by Yue Fengjian lingering in his space, their lips just a hair’s breadth apart, as if he was weighing the price of kissing him again. Dazed by their embrace, Lian Zhidiao had no room to object as Yue Fengjian claimed his mouth with a deep kiss that made his toes curl. Lian Zhidiao sighed against him. It was a bad idea, and Yue Fengjian had to know it too.
But his kisses were intoxicating, and Lian Zhidiao held on to Yue Fengjian’s neck even as he shifted and rolled him over. Lian Zhidiao held his breath at the delicious weight of Yue Fengjian settling on top of him.
Is he going to do ‘something’ to me? Or with me? Here, in broad daylight on a riverbank in the middle of nowhere? The thought of something like ‘that’ happening made him shiver in anticipation. Lian Zhidiao could hardly put his wits back in order before Yue Fengjian pressed their foreheads together. This time, Yue Fengjian kissed him slowly, his hand at Lian Zhidiao’s jaw, the gentle pressure of his fingers enough to hold him still. Lian Zhidiao was caught by his touch, the whole of their embrace seeming to balance on his fingertips, until Yue Fengjian reluctantly ended the kiss.
This shouldn’t be happening. I don’t want to stop him, but I should. This will ruin his chances in the Final Battle, leave him too weak to destroy the enemy that awaited them. Heavy-lidded, Lian Zhidiao eyes roamed down Yue Fengjian’s neckline, below the edge of his collar. If he doesn’t get the support of the sects, he won’t have enough men to face the demon hordes. Reluctantly, he placed a kiss at the corner of Yue Fengjian’s mouth, and let his head fall back into the grass. Even so, I’m glad he’s here.
“How did you find me?”
Yue Fengjian’s voice was hoarse. “I left as soon as I knew you were being pursued, picked up the trail of a demon not long after that,” he replied. “It wasn’t hard to work out who he was tracking. But he was being careful.” He paused, gathering his thoughts, brow furrowing as he looked at Lian Zhidiao underneath him. “He was nearly a day ahead of me.” With Lian Zhidiao’s life on the line, he’d been flying as fast as he could, all the time fearing he would be too late.
“How many were there?”
“Just one,” Yue Fengjian replied. “I lost his trail some distance back.” He searched Lian Zhidiao’s face, and then reached up and tucked one of the loose locks of Lian Zhidiao’s hair back behind his ear. “I feared the worst. But you’re safe.”
Lian Zhidiao could hear the relief in Yue Fengjian’s voice, gusting out of him like a sigh he hardly dared to let go. His heart felt like it was going to burst. “You were worried he’d kill me.”
The stern set of Yue Fengjian’s eyebrows softened. “Many months without a sword would have dulled your martial senses.” His Adam’s apple bobbed as he swallowed tightness in his throat.
“I flew out just fine,” Lian Zhidiao replied, feeling a little smug. “The demon wasn’t too much of a problem either.” The body of a prodigy certainly had its benefits.
A guarded look slowly came over Yue Fengjian’s face. “It takes weeks to get used to a spiritual weapon.”
“I didn’t have weeks.” I barely had minutes before I was fleeing for my life.
“Was…” Yue Fengjian hesitated. “Your spiritual weapon. It’s not Fengxueya, is it?”
Lian Zhidiao grimaced. Did that demon just yell everything out to anyone within earshot?! Vigilant, Yue Fengjian’s eyes never left his face, Lian Zhidiao’s obvious discomfort absolutely excruciating. Yue Fengjian wanted to hear Lian Zhidiao deny it, to triumphantly announce that he’d gotten his sword back, that it was all a mistake. He could lie, but the truth of it was only ten feet away, bared to Yue Fengjian’s gaze.
Lian Zhidiao let out a small, defeated puff of air. “It’s not Fengxueya anymore.”
A hard edge entered Yue Fengjian’s voice. “So the rumors are true?”
Lian Zhidiao swallowed a lump in his throat. “I don’t know what rumors you heard, so I don’t know if they’re true or not.”
“That the sword that killed the Emperor has chosen a new master. The sword of the Betrayer is back, in the hands of a Wa cultivator—” Yue Fengjian cut himself short, as if there were other, less savory things that he’d heard. The stern look settled back on Yue Fengjian’s brow as his expression darkened. “The entire district around the Sacred Gate was in chaos.”
“…It’s true.” Lian Zhidiao said, his ardor wilting.
“I told you not to take long. I didn’t mean you should grab the first cursed sword you saw and dash right out again,” Yue Fengjian grumbled, easing his weight off of Lian Zhidiao.
“I didn’t know how long it was going to take,” Lian Zhidiao protested, already missing the warmth of Yue Fengjian’s body, already wishing for that weight on top of him again in spite of himself. “And it’s not cursed.”
“Most people take three or four days, not a day and a half.” Yue Fengjian stood up and picked up Wallbreaker from where it lay next to them in the grass. “And it is cursed.”
“It…” Lian Zhidiao got to his feet and picked Shanzhen up. His tone was insistent. “It doesn’t feel cursed, not to me.”
Yue Fengjian rubbed one of his temples. “You can’t keep it.”
After all I went through to get it?!
“It’s my spiritual weapon, not a lost kitten,” Lian Zhidiao snapped. “And it can’t be returned until I’m dead, anyway.”
Exasperated, Yue Fengjian put one hand on his hip. “Why? Why this sword? Why not any of the others?”
Lian Zhidiao was brought up short by the question, and all the emotions that had flooded him when he picked up Shanzhen surged forth again. It’s not a simple answer…
“Does the sword of a traitor resonate with you?” Yue Fengjian’s voice was the sharpest Lian Zhidiao had ever heard it. “Does it speak to you?”
“When you got your spiritual weapon, did yours speak to you?” Lian Zhidiao fingers tightened around Shanzhen’s scabbard as he looked up into Yue Fengjian’s face.
“It…” Yue Fengjian glanced down at Wallbreaker in his hand, and then shook his head. “No, it was silent.”
“But there were others, right? Other swords you touched, and they had a feeling about them? Or maybe they even said something?”
“You’re not supposed to touch all the swords, only your own!”
Lian Zhidiao blinked. Is he actually angry at me? “…What do you think the sword of a betrayer would feel like?”
“There’s nothing to feel or experience. It may be the most important tool you have, but it’s still just a tool.” Yue Fengjian’s expression was beleaguered.
“It wasn’t like that in the Hidden Realm. Several of the swords… communicated with me. I waited until I felt one that was clearly for me.”
“You’re supposed to do that in the first place,” Yue Fengjian scolded him. “Not walk around and touch everything like you’re looking to loot the place.”
Lian Zhidiao “I was only able to take this one; the other swords refused my hand.”
“And it was the sword that killed the White Emperor.”
Lian Zhidiao hesitated, and then looked down at Shanzhen’s black scabbard, the silver clouds rolling over the hilt. “I…know that is what is said or recorded about it. But I don’t know if I believe it.” Out of the corner of his eye, he saw Yue Fengjian shaking his head, but he continued. “When I accepted the sword—or it accepted me—it was filled with devotion and duty.” He didn’t mention the love and yearning in the blade. Things were bad enough without Yue Fengjian realizing the love—not the traitorous murder—was the part that resonated with him.
Yue Fengjian’s expression swung between anguish and derision. Lian Zhidiao’s heart twisted to see him struggling. He clearly didn’t want to even think about its loathsome history. Maybe he felt a little pity for Lian Zhidiao being the one to carry such a woe-stained weapon. “What were you doing here, anyway?” he said in a muted tone. His eyes flitted over Lian Zhidiao dressed only in his inner clothes, as if the thought just occurred to him. “And in such disarray.”
So he’s going to let it lie… Lian Zhidiao gladly accepted the change in subject. It was better than continuing to argue over something that couldn’t be changed. “Do you remember the memory in the jade slip?”
“The one we left with Uncle.” Yue Fengjian nodded, his eyes narrowing.
“Do you remember how he hid little bundles under a tree and in a box?” Lian Zhidiao fiddled with the closure of his inner robe, preparing to take it off again.
“You think that’s here?”
“There was a stump further upstream, with that same strange hollow in it.”
“There wasn’t anything there, but… I don’t think they were that important.” Lian Zhidiao pulled his inner robe off and started to pull a few fistfuls of grass up to make a pathway over the muddy flat. “Remember, ‘one more for A-Feng, the most important one’. I think he was trying to confuse whoever—whatever was following him.”
Yue Fengjian mulled this over in silence, his arms folded over his chest. “…You really think the box is still down there?”
Lian Zhidiao shrugged one shoulder. “I won’t know until I look.” He laid down the grass in a small raft over the mud, and then gave the cold, black river a resigned look. I really didn’t want to before, but maybe a dunk in a lot of freezing cold water would help me clear my head of those kisses. He gathered his fists to get up his determinination, and turned and looked over his bare shoulder at Yue Fengjian, who was giving the river an equally dubious look. “If you’d turn around, please.”
Yue Fengjian bristled and then turned around to look up the bank.
With this gesture as his only shred of modesty, Lian Zhidiao skinnied out of his inner clothes, leaving them on the nearest tuft of grass, and picked his way down the grass bridge until he could dip a toe in the water.
COLD! How the hell did he swim in this? But he couldn’t stop now, not with his suspicions about what might be waiting at the bottom. Maybe going in all at once is the best way, just rip the bandage off. He jumped forward till he was immersed up to his waist, and could not help but let out a whimpering yelp.
“Are you okay?”
“I’m… fine,” Lian Zhidiao chattered, calming his breathing. It felt like his balls were trying to climb up inside his skull to get away from the river. “It’s really cold.”
“I remember,” Yue Fengjian said, half-turning in place.
“Stay facing that way,” Lian Zhidiao said through his clenched teeth.
Yue Fengjian turned back toward the bank.
No reason to drag this out. Just get it over with as soon as possible.
Carefully regulating his breathing, he strode down the river bank until he was up to his neck. When he was sure his cold-shocked body wouldn’t inadvertently gasp in the cold river water, he took a deep breath and plunged beneath the surface.
The frigid water was fast-moving; he had to swim strongly to even stay in one place. Every time he peeled his eyes open even a little, the current threatened to tear his eyelids open. Swimming upstream and then turning himself underwater to protect his eyes from the current, he scanned the river bottom. Everything was blurry, and he was moving so much that it was hard to see any of the shapes at the bottom.
Then, on his second pass over the river bottom, he saw a funny little pile of stones.
Kicking his feet, he swam down to them, closing his eyes as much as he could. With one hand, he held on to a large flat stone jammed into the riverbed. With the other, he removed the stones one-by-one. When he was down to the last one, he groped his fingers into a crevice between the rocks and felt the hard, square edge of a box.
He held down the box with one hand to keep it from floating away, and then shuffled the last rock aside with his feet. The box came loose from a coffin of sand, which had slowly filled in the cracks in the cairn, cementing its contents in place. With his prize in hand, Lian Zhidiao pushed up off the riverbed and kicked his feet toward shore.
He broke the surface with a great gasp, looking toward the shore. Yue Fengjian was searching the river surface with his characteristic stern expression.
After I told him not to look!
Lian Zhidiao’s feet found the sandy part of the river bottom close to the muddy bank, and he crouched in the river, meeting Yue Fengjian’s judgemental gaze.
“Are you waiting for me to freeze to death in this river? Or will you turn around?”
Exasperated, Yue Fengjian chose the latter.
Lian Zhidiao stood up out of the water, slinging his wet hair out of his face.
“You were underwater for a long time,” Yue Fengjian called over his shoulder.
“It’s hard to see underwater.” He glanced at Yue Fengjian’s broad back, and thought for a moment about asking him to help comb his hair out. A few seconds of imagining Yue Fengjian’s fingers threading through his hair, and he was grateful that his body was still nearly frozen.
“Did you find it?”
Lian Zhidiao looked down at the fatwood box in his hands. It was darkened with age, but water still beaded up at some places, so it may still have had some effect at conservation of the contents. “Yes.” Lian Zhidiao picked up his inner clothes, walking up the grass raft to keep his feet from being muddy. Once he was behind Yue Fengjian, he reached around him and offered him the box. “Hold it while I get dressed.”
At Lian Zhidiao’s voice so close to him, Yue Fengjian stiffened, but he gently—almost reverently—took the fatwood box from Lian Zhidiao’s ice cold fingers.
Getting dressed was a bit more difficult than he thought it would be; his clothes stuck to his still-wet skin. Annoyed, he blew a little qi out of his body, getting everything just dry enough that he could stand to put his clothes back on. Each layer was sun-warmed and dry, so he was positively toasty by the time he was tying his spindle-weight back around his body.
Yue Fengjian stopped averting his eyes once Lian Zhidiao was more modestly attired. He had the unflappable confidence of someone who felt he won the substance of an argument, even though the argument was far from decided. With nothing left for Lian Zhidiao to do, he walked forward and offered the small wooden box.
Faltering for a moment, Lian Zhidiao could hardly help but be reminded of a man offering a ring.
But looking at Yue Fengjian, it was clear he thought nothing of offering the box this way. The similarity to a modern romantic proposal for marriage existed only in Lian Zhidiao’s own mind, a product of wishful thinking. Pushing the frivolous thought away, he accepted the box with both hands.
I hope there’s something inside here, for all the trouble it was to get it.
He sat down in the grass. Yue Fengjian took that as an invitation and sat down next to him, so close their arms were almost touching. “Open it.”
Fighting down the butterflies that fluttered in his stomach at Yue Fengjian saying that in his deep voice, Lian Zhidiao pushed at the lid of the fatwood box. Still impregnated with fat, the top slid aside easily.
Inside, there was a wad of black silk.
Lian Zhidiao’s heart started to race. He looked up at Yue Fengjian.
Yue Fengjian leaned in even closer.
Swallowing down his nervousness, Lian Zhidiao pulled out the bundle. Amazingly, the box had worked so well to protect it that the silk was still dry. Lian Zhidiao gingerly pulled the black silk apart, and the white-and-gold fabric came into view, stained dark brown with dried blood. The white-and-gold was a heavy brocade, with dragons grasping branches of peach blossoms in five claws.
With trembling fingers, Lian Zhidiao pushed open the blood-stained brocade.
Nestled inside was a small carving of a dragon about as long as his palm, made from magnificently pure, translucent green jade.
Yue Fengjian was speechless, only able to let out a small breath.
This can only be something of the White Emperor’s. Lian Zhidiao touched the small carving; it was so delicate and beautiful he worried that even touching it might damage it.
“The man in the memory…” Even with his arm torn off, surely bleeding to death, he had risked everything to hide this jade figurine, a priceless piece of art with unknown personal meaning to Shanyin, the White Emperor. A Wa sect member close enough to the White Emperor to take his valued possession, wrapped in a scrap of silk brocade stained in his blood… “Doesn’t this mean he is Jiang Huolu?”
“It doesn’t seem that he could be anyone else.”
“‘They’re coming, they’ll find it,’” Lian Zhidiao quoted. “‘Have to hide it for A-Feng.’”
“I know,” Yue Fengjian said. He sounded shaken.
“Whatever this is,” Lian Zhidiao said, wrapping the silk back over the bundle, “he hid it at the cost of his own life.”
“It doesn’t make any sense.”
“No.” Lian Zhidiao said. Feeling like the dragon carving needed to be protected just as Jiang Huolu had protected it, Lian Zhidiao put it back in the fatwood box and then dropped it in his storage ring. “It doesn’t seem like the actions of a betrayer.”
“It’s too convenient for a Wa sect member to discover that his sect’s greatest shame may not be what it seems.” Yue Fengjian’s eyes lifted to meet Lian Zhidiao’s; he was measured and slow, laying out the evidence behind his suspicions. “Especially if he carries the sword that is the source of that shame.”
There was still the note of accusation in his voice, as if Lian Zhidiao had any control over which sword he’d gotten. A pang of sadness rang in Lian Zhidiao’s heart.
Yue Fengjian gave him an appraising look, and spoke slowly. “You have this memory of the betrayer that no one else recognizes. You were not able to use your spiritual weapon, only to have the Hidden Realm award you the sword of the Emperor’s murderer?” Yue Fengjian shook his head.
“You don’t trust me?”
Yue Fengjian was silent.
Lian Zhidiao’s stomach dropped like a stone. After all he’d done to be useful, after they’d spent so much time together, after they’d given in to something raw and passionate that had them clinging to each other in a riverside meadow? He was still so quick to suspect him? Lian Zhidiao folded his hands in his lap, considering his words carefully before he spoke up.
“When I was in the Yue family castle, when I was at the Quanyuan with so much deviate qi in my other core that I could have poisoned the earth for generations, I didn’t. When your lands were threatened by the qilin, and the choice was between letting you be cursed or doing what needed to be done, I did what needed to be done.” He held back a sudden stinging in his eyes with an iron will. “Can you trust that?”
Yue Fengjian was silent for a long time, all but caressing Lian Zhidiao’s face with his eyes. There was a conflict between suspicion and sorrow in his face, a back-and-forth that was rootless, writhing inside him. Then, with a short breath, he broke their eye contact and turned away from him. “For now.”
END OF SHENGMEN CITY ARC
NEXT ARC: WA-GUIZAI