The hoofbeats weren’t a full gallop, but even so, another horse so soon after the first?
Lian Zhidiao ran across the road, barely ducking behind the scholar trees in time to hide himself from the rider. The rider was wearing green—impossible to tell which of the two previous riders it was, if they were indeed the same. The horse approached the scholartrees and then thundered past across the bridge. The sound faded away into the eastern forest.
Could it be he didn’t notice the smoking bush? No, more like it wasn’t important enough for him to stop and investigate.
But two riders in such a short period of time suggested two things: that there was a village not far from here, and that there was a lot of information that needed to travel quickly. Maybe a battle was approaching.
In any case, he needed to get moving somewhere, or he’d be sleeping rough tonight. He slung the bedroll with its concealed sword over his back, the knapsack over his shoulder. The jade beast’s case was heavy, forcing him to switch arms frequently. It made a good stool to sit on when he needed to rest; even broken, it wasn’t completely useless.
Although I probably wouldn’t need to rest so much if I wasn’t lugging this thing around.
Despite his apprehension, no more horses passed him in either direction, and he saw a broad stone bridge emerge from the trees just as the sun dipped below the horizon. On the other side, the gates of the village were still open. The reeds danced with fireflies and the sounds of frogs and night insects swelled to fill the dusk. Lian Zhidiao made it inside the gates just as the guards were about to close them.
“Are there lodgings in this village?”
One of the guards indicated a large courtyard house just up the road, in the village proper. Lian Zhidiao trudged through town and then rapped on the courtyard gate with his knuckles twice before a small servant girl unlatched the gate.
“I was told I might find lodgings here for the night.”
The girl looked him over with obvious suspicion, but when her eyes landed on the spindle at his waist, her entire expression melted into obeisance. Her eyes flashed left and right, before she bowed and pulled the gate open. “Yes, please come in.”
The gate shut behind him with a heavy sound. The servant girl led him into a pavilion in the courtyard and motioned that he should wait here. He took the time to look around.
Only every other lamp was lit, but by this meager light he could see that the garden was given to growing beautiful orchids, each one framed with plantings like a setting for a treasured jewel. In the soft light they seemed to fade away into their surroundings, except for their bright blooms bobbing like fireflies among the grass.
“I see you have an eye for gardens.”
Lian Zhidiao turned around to find a woman standing in front of the hall. She wore her hair up and back in a simple hairstyle. Her robes were a soft green, and around her waist, she wore a woven belt. On the end of the woven belt was a jade spindle with its own mass of knotted silk cords, just like his own. Those who practiced cultivation alone had no use for a jade spindle, so that meant…
She’s a magician as well.
Lian Zhidiao realized he had stared for too long without greeting her and made a salute with both his hands, offering a bow.
She gave him a small nod, acknowledging his greeting. “I’m surprised to see a member of the Xideng Wa sect here at this time,” she said, her expression unreadable.
Is the usual deference going to be okay here? That is… I don’t remember the politics of this world. Were the green and black sects on good terms with each other? Lian Zhidiao felt like a million drops of sweat were running down his back. It couldn’t hurt to be a little more….
“Dajie, please forgive this young man’s rudeness. I am Lian Chanjian, courtesy name Zhidiao, and I have been travelling for some time. I humbly ask that I answer your questions in the morning.”
Her eyes raked over him, as if she was picking at each part of his clothing and finding it wanting before flapping it back at him with a scoff. Perhaps she found him distasteful? Or took issue with his sect? Maybe it was the late hour that made her disagreeable. Whatever the reason, she eventually pushed it aside. Her lips tightened and she assented with a nod. “Very well.”
The small servant girl appeared from one of the halls further inside the house, leading him back into a side room with a heavy bed. She wasn’t disrespectful, but she was silent. His brother and sister hadn’t started families of their own—the medical degrees came first—so he wasn’t used to children, much less those that floated around like ghosts.
Lian Zhidiao placed his knapsack and bedroll down by the bed and then shoved them underneath. It seemed unlikely that anyone would go through his things while he was sleeping, but this might at least make them think twice. He gave the bed a test sit and then fell over without bothering to take off anything more than his shoes. The cushions on the bed weren’t thick, but given that his other choice was being dead, he wasn’t about to complain. In truth, he didn’t even have time to think about anything more; he was out as soon as his head touched the pillow.
Lian Zhidiao woke when the sun was already well above the horizon. A few shadows slipped past his room, and he lurched up from the bed to poke his head out of the room. It was the same servant girl as last night, and this time she had another girl with her, perhaps a year or two younger. Lian Zhidiao tried a smile, the kind that he had found so charming in his own reflection.
“Can you bring some breakfast for me?”
The younger girl hid her face behind the older girl, who nodded. Without waiting for him to dismiss her, the pair ran away down the gallery and disappeared into a side room. He cleaned himself up the best he could without water, making sure the bruising around his neck and his arms was covered by his clothing. After that, he walked along the gallery, looking at the plantings until the girls came to fetch him.
Lian Zhidiao was offered a seat on a low bed in the Hall, and a small table to eat from. The breakfast wasn’t grand, but it did a lot more to improve his mood and outlook than the single meal of dried fruit had the day before. He was just feeling relaxed when there was movement beyond the screens, and the woman from the night before swept into the Hall. But she wasn’t alone; a youngish woman with a plump face followed her.
“I trust you’ve had some time to rest and recuperate, Lian Zhidiao.” In the light of the late morning, he could see that she had rather sharp features. She wasn’t a young woman, but neither was she old; she seemed still and ageless. She bowed to him, her hands together in front of her. “I am Lin Jingjing, of the Youlu Lin sect.” She gestured to the woman next to her. “This is Yang Meihua.”
Yang Meihua was shorter and she wore modest clothing that couldn’t hide her full curves. She offered him a welcoming smile.
Wait, are they… related? They didn’t look that similar.
Lian Zhidiao rose and clasped his hands together, bowing to the two of them. Lin Jingjing bowed back, and Yang Meihua bowed slightly lower.
“Thank you for your hospitality towards this young man. I won’t forget your kindness.”
Lin Jingjing looked sidelong at Yang Meihua before replying. Yang Meihua gave a short nod and excused herself from the room. Alone, Lin Jingjing seemed that much colder. “We are honored by your consideration. Will you be leaving this morning?”
She’s direct, or trying to get rid of me. But the question brought him up short. So far, he’d treated his current status as something like sitting around in costume on the set of a TV drama. But there wasn’t a crew or set around him. He was here on his own, and now he had to decide what he wanted to do with himself.
“If the gracious sisters will permit, I should like to stay here another night, but, I fear this isn’t even the most terrible imposition I will make upon you.”
Lin Jingjing’s chin lifted, ice in her eyes. “What would that be?”
Lian Zhidiao tried to make himself look as pitiable and sincere as possible. “I suffered an injury while traveling, and have no memory of this place. Have I been here before?”
Lin Jingjing’s eyes widened slightly. It was at this moment that Yang Meihua came back in the room, carrying a tray table with a pot and three cups. Her voice was cheery and kind. “Thank you for waiting.”
Lin Jingjing smoothed her skirt and the three of them sat down together around the low bed. She accepted a cup of tea from Meihua with a soft nod. Then she looked at Lian Zhidiao, her lips parted, half-considered words on the cusp of being spoken. At last, she said, “As far as I know, no one has seen you here in Shuangwan Village before. I am the head of the village, so the presence of a member of the Xideng sect would have been reported to me.”
For a moment, Lian Zhidiao considered her words. Xideng members were reported to the village head, but were still allowed into the village. Perhaps this was why the guard directed him to her residence, and not the local inn. Not at war, but definitely not friendly. To appear to be acting on the orders of his sect might require him to divulge orders he didn’t have. To appear to be unconcerned with his sect’s business might lead them to mistake him for a rogue or cultivator-in-exile.
“Then I am even more in debt for your kindness under such circumstances,” he said.
Yang Meihua and Lin Jingjing traded glances, and then Lin Jingjing’s eyes dropped to the spindle at his waist, lingering long enough that Lian Zhidiao began to think he had dropped some breakfast down the front of his robes.
Yang Meihua said, “You are a skilled magician, so the loss of some of your memories must be distressing for you.”
Oh, dajie, you have no idea!
The corner of Lian Zhidiao’s lips twitched. “You’re correct, of course. I was knocked unconscious, somehow, and have no way of knowing how long I lay there, nor what I lost.”
Yang Meihua smiled at him again and his heart softened.
Lin Jingjing seemed to be unconvinced, though. “The closest Wa enclave is more than a week’s journey overland, although less if you are traveling by sword.”
So the swords fly too? A real pity that the one I have seems to be stuck.
“You’re right, it’s inconvenient to travel by foot,” Lian Zhidiao agreed.
“Especially when your kinsmen on the river could ferry you anywhere you’d like.” Lin Jingjing’s gaze was dark and sharp.
Of course! The Wa sect controlled the rivers and swamps. He wanted to slap his forehead with his palm. The sects weren’t just based in the particular kinds of land, they had some dominion over them as well.
Lian Zhidiao took a sip of his tea, giving him precious time to think. “I see. But I am not interested in returning to a Wa enclave, if possible.” But the dead Lian Zhidiao had provided for him in this moment. “I am traveling to gain insight. Along the way, I have been putting my talents to use to help those with deviate or dormant jade beasts.”
Yang Meihua’s face lit up, and she turned to Lin Jingjing, who silenced her with a motion of her hand before she could speak.
But it was too late; Lian Zhidiao had seen the tipping point which would give him control of the conversation. “Do you know of any jade beasts nearby that need to be seen to?”
“I do!” Yang Meihua couldn’t keep her lips buttoned any longer. “There’s a cow on the other side of the river.”
Lin Jingjing sighed. “Shuangwan Village was gifted a jade beast centuries ago, as a reward for keeping the river crossing safe, but at some point it wandered off, probably down into the river itself.”
“That’s not true.” Yang Meihua sounded indignant. “That big jade statue has to be the jade beast.”
“It’s not real jade, it’s just been painted.” Lin Jingjing’s voice was softer toward Meihua, more patient.
“Well, it seems like he could figure it out one way or the other.”
Lin Jingjing looked at Lian Zhidiao, apology written all over her face. “I’m terribly sorry for this.” She seemed to be apologizing for Yang Meihua’s enthusiasm as much as the story she told.
Lian Zhidiao offered a smile. “It’s no trouble. But you didn’t think to inspect it yourself?”
Lin Jingjing’s chin dipped slightly. “What could I do if I did find out it was a jade beast? Nothing.”
So the observations and skills my dead friend was collecting were not widely known. Lian Zhidiao’s eyebrows knit together. Why is that? They seem pretty useful. There must be something I’m missing.
“Perhaps if I take a look around, I can figure it out.”
An uncertain smile slowly spread over Lin Jingjing’s face, completely outshone by the broad grin on Yang Meihua.
Shuangwan Village was aptly named: it spanned two sinuous bends in a slow-moving river, with two big wooden bridges linking the riverbanks. Because of the way the river folded back in on itself, the road went from one side of the river to the other, and then back to the first side again, upstream of the first bridge. It connected north with east and west, all in one town. It was a perfect place for crossroads; no wonder there had been so many messengers.
He took the rolled up books on jade beast maintenance, and, at Yang Meihua’s suggestion, an oil paper umbrella. It was that time of year when rain was unpredictable and a storm could blow up within minutes. But it was scarcely necessary. The walk was short and pleasant, with a nice breeze and sunlight that wasn’t so intense it left him sweating. Money changed hands between merchants and villagers on the street, and those who relied on the movement of people through the town were doing brisk business hawking trinkets, charcoal, paper—all manner of things.
On the furthest western part of the town, he found the jade statue, standing in a flooded field. After taking off his boots and tucking his robes up, he stepped down into the cool mud and picked his way through the rice seedlings until he was right up next to it. It looked more like a water buffalo, with horns that swept down from the top of the head and curled gracefully to the side, and it had a solid brass ring through its nose. Its back was covered with fine dust that was easily rubbed away with his hand. He bent to look at its throat. Where the stone was thinnest, he could see light come through from the other side.
Definitely not a painted cow. But also not what I’d think of as a jade beast. It’s supposed to move around.
He waded back over to the bank and sat down on the side of the berm to look through the book. Try as he might, though, he could not find any notes on how to actually clean and treat a jade beast. He hadn’t actually written in the Supreme Warlord of the Beast World about how to take care of them either: just that their absence from the world made it easier for demons to come into human lands. Because jade beasts cleansed the land of concentrations of bad energy, fewer jade beasts meant humans couldn’t recover from demon attacks against them.
Really, there should be lots of people around who take care of jade beasts. Lian Zhidiao lifted his head from the book and looked at the cow’s unseeing eyes. But for some reason, it seems unpopular. Leaving the book nestled inside the umbrella, he trudged back through the mud with sucking sounds following his feet. If I think of the cow as being ‘dead’, since it’s not moving around or acting like a jade beast, then I should resuscitate it. Qi is just breath, after all. So breathing into it should be just like CPR.
Taking some of the field’s water in his hands, he lifted it and rubbed it over the cow’s nose and mouth. Cleaned, the stone was a beautiful green color, but it took several washes for it to be something he’d want to put his mouth on.
With his hands on either side of its head, he tried to look inside it, but no more than a few inches were clear to him. But if he blew qi into it, he might be able to see the qi as it moved through the jade, the same way he saw a ‘thread’ of qi enter a jade spindle weight. He pressed his lips to the cow’s nose and blew.
From his lips, light spread forward through the cow, traveling along the jade beast’s meridians, pouring down into its core. The light slowly began to fade and Lian Zhidiao blew again, as if on an ember. The cow’s inside flooded with qi again, and this time, he could see blockages in the beast’s meridians, like scale in the pipes. Compared to the rich golden light of his qi, these clots were dark, with a cold, dull sheen that seemed to bend and shudder as qi passed near them.
These must be the occlusions that are keeping qi from circulating normally.
Lian Zhidiao breathed out and then drew in a deep breath, pulling qi from the fertile mud underneath his bare feet, and from the seedlings, and from his dantian. The world outside him faded, darkening as he turned his attention to the interior of the cow. He blew the qi up the cow’s nose.
Inside, the force of his breath blasted through the jade beast, shattering the occlusions. He blew again until the inside of the cow was ablaze with qi. The dark occlusions stuck together, gathering into a tighter and tighter ball of dark-dripping pitch, like hot tar. Lian Zhidiao was unwilling to leave it inside, given all the energy he’d put into taking it out. Instead he drew it up the cow’s mouth and nose, sucking it towards himself.
He’d intended to pull away at the last moment, so that the demon tar could be spat out by the cow, but he wasn’t practiced at manipulating qi in such fine ways. It brushed against his mouth, and pain raked his face, like a thousand needles dipped in acid dragged across his lips.
With a yelp, he jerked back from the cow. The mud was slippery, and the sudden movement made him lose his footing. He landed on his back in the field with a loud splat, sending mud flying. It oozed into his hair, over his clothes, and flecked his face.
To his horror, he could clearly hear laughter behind him.
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