Even the cool mud sliding down his back couldn’t relieve the hot embarrassment rising in Lian Zhidiao’s cheeks. The laughter slowly died back into quiet snickering.
I was so focused on what I was doing that I didn’t even hear them coming.
With a heavy sigh, Lian Zhidiao sat up in the mud. He slung some of the black muck off his hands and heard a whole new round of sputtering laughter rise up behind him. Steeling himself for another wave of laughter, he got to his feet and turned around.
Three horses stood in the road, their tack trimmed with red tassels. The riders weren’t all men, but one woman and two men, one slim, one muscular. The slim man had high cheekbones and his hair completely smoothed back, his eyes sharp. The muscular man wore his hair half-up; it cascaded over his broad shoulders, softening what might otherwise be a stern visage. All of them were dressed in robes the color of red earth, even down to red leather trim on their boots. The broad-shouldered man was biting his lower lip and trying not to smile. It was clear that the slim man’s infectious grin had sucked the other man into his laughter.
“Are you two finished?” The woman wore her hair pinned back in a severe fashion, with no ornaments at all. She was nearly as broad-shouldered as the bigger of the two men. When Lian Zhidiao saw her pretty face and striking eyes, he knew instantly who he was looking at. She was Yue Yaosa, the Beauty of the mountains, destined to become one of the Supreme Warlord’s wives.
Lian Zhidiao took advantage of Yue Yaosa’s words and turned a cold look on the other two members of the group. Drawing himself up as tall as he could, and ignoring the way the warming mud on his skin was beginning to stink, he tried for as lofty a tone as possible. “I did not expect such behavior from the Xinxue Yue sect.”
“Nor we from the Xideng Wa sect,” the slimmer man cracked. “Is it so lonely in your swamps that you are given to kissing cows?”
Is this sect that looked-down-upon?!
Lian Zhidiao squared his shoulders. “No, this is my first time. Maybe you can give me some pointers?”
The slim man bristled and then it was Lian Zhidiao’s turn to hide a smile. It was at this moment that Lian Zhidiao heard a splash behind him and whirled to face it.
The jade beast lifted its front hoof out of the mud with a sucking sound. The mountain cultivators forgotten for the moment, Lian Zhidiao held out his hand, trying to encourage the cow to follow him. The jade beast let out a sonorous lowing, and then walked forward. With squelching noises, it ambled ponderously to the side of the rice paddy.
“Hey, are you controlling that thing?” The broad-shouldered man’s voice was touched with awe.
“No,” Lian Zhidiao said over his shoulder, watching the jade cow. “I think it’s going wherever it likes.
But soon enough, green hooves mounted the side of the rice paddy’s berm and the cow stumbled up onto higher ground, still with an obvious line of encrusted filth where it had been standing in the field for an unknown number of seasons.
“What I was going to say, before you continued poking fun,” Lian Zhidiao said, “Is that I was just helping this jade beast.”
The cow flicked its ears amiably and mooed again.
Gathering clouds darkened the sky and the slim man pursed his lips slightly. “Can’t say I’ve seen a trick like that before,” he said, still a glint of mischief in his eyes. “Tell me about it later.”
Lian Zhidiao nodded to the village. “Are you going ahead?”
“We are.” Yue Yaosa looked at him, and he felt the distinct pressure of her eyes all over the mud-soaked parts of his body.
“If you could be so kind, can you let Lin Jingjing know I am returning.” Lian Zhidiao lifted one sodden black sleeve, caked in wet black silt. “And that I will need a bath.”
Thunder rolled overhead, distant but coming closer. The slim man looked up at the sky and then smirked. “You’ll have one before you get back, I think.” He kicked his horse, and they started to trot away. The broad-shouldered man nodded to him without saying anything more, urging his horse after him.
Yue Yaosa smiled as her horse went past and Lian Zhidiao’s heart skipped a beat. He watched them until the cloud of dust they kicked up hid them from view. With leaden feet, he walked over to where he’d wedged the book inside the umbrella and picked it up, careful to keep the book under the oil paper. As if on cue, the rain started to fall.
There wasn’t any hurry to get out of the downpour—as had been pointed out, it could only get him cleaner—so Lian Zhidiao took his time. The cow walked along next to him, and Lian Zhidiao rubbed the mud away from the green stone with one hand. But as long as they walked, the cow seemed content to stay by his side, even across the bridge into the village itself.
The servant girl hovered in the gate of Lin Jingjing’s house, and Lian Zhidiao entrusted the book to her, with instructions to put it in his room. She mumbled something about the bath being ready in there as well, and scurried off. But when he stepped up into the compound, the cow lifted its foreleg and put a hoof on the step behind him.
Lian Zhidiao paused and then turned in place, looking at the cow. Its jade eyes, carved without irises or pupils, stared into him.
He stepped backwards, deeper into the walls of the siheyuan. The cow stepped up again, both front hooves on the threshold of the gate, and began to lean its shoulder into the side of the gate that was still closed.
“No!” Lian Zhidiao rushed forward and the cow bleated once, easing its weight off the door.
The cow definitely wanted to follow him into the house.
Rain dripped off the tiled roof of the gate as he pushed on the solid stone animal, trying to get it to walk backwards, out into the road. It balked, stubbornly clinging to the step in front of the gate. Lian Zhidiao put his hand against the side of its head and pushed, hard. The jade beast suddenly reversed, and Lian Zhidiao went sprawling on the slick stones in front of the house.
For a moment he simply lay there, letting the rain fall on his face. Indeed, anytime one was on one’s back in the rain, it was a good time to contemplate what you were doing with your life. Having the second such soggy opportunity today might be viewed as an invitation to meditate upon his future. But he rolled to the side and lurched to his feet, his long sleeves slapping against his thighs.
The cow plodded forward, leaning its head into him, and Lian Zhidiao finally let out a long sigh. “Is it thankfulness? Are you thankful to have been revived?”
The cow didn’t answer, but turned its head to encourage him to rub its jaw and ears. He did so absently, sweeping grit off the surface of the stone nose and forehead. At the eastern village gate, the sound of a pair of horses reached his ears, and he turned to watch them ride in.
The riders wore wide capes of silvergrass, but they were not tied so tightly as to hide the color of their robes underneath: the first rider wore red, and the second, white, revealed in flashes by the gusts as they rode.
Compared to the red-robed riders from a few hours ago, he didn’t look strikingly different from far off, but as the distance between them closed, Lian Zhidiao was struck by the size of the horse and, comparatively, its rider. If he were to put his hands together side by side and use this as a way to measure, the red rider’s horse must be 16 hands high at the shoulder. And the giant horse was sized to fit the rider, a big man made even larger by the bulk of the grass cape.
The white rider’s horse was three hands-widths shorter, with a stockier bone structure. The white rider was smaller overall, having not been fed on whatever magic beans the giant ate. They cantered down the lane, their tack jingling and tassels flying.
Hey, this is a town, you know…
They didn’t even slow down as they approached, flinging mud from the horses’ hooves. Lian Zhidiao backed up against the jade beast to avoid being trampled; the muck that splashed the hem of his robe could hardly be avoided.
Hey, hey, you didn’t even slow down! Have a care for other people!
The pair reined in their horses near the other large building on the central square: two boys came out to take their horses into the stable, and the two men melted into the darkness under the eaves. They divested themselves of their grass capes and hats, hanging them up outside to dry. The white rider wore his hair half-up, with a silvery hair ornament that glinted even through the curtain of rain that hung between them.
They look right off the set of a wuxia drama. Well, since I wrote it that way, I suppose that’s exactly what it should look like.
The red rider’s thick black hair was pulled back in a high ponytail with a golden xiaoguan, only a few stray locks framing his face. Against a painter’s palette of mud and wood, his red robes stood out in the shade as much as the white rider’s stainless ones. Tall and muscular, with a broad chest, he radiated strength and masculinity.
The door to the house opened, and the red rider paused at the threshold, glancing around, while the white rider went in ahead of him. He looked directly at Lian Zhidiao, his regard like a lance. Lian Zhidiao glanced down at himself to see what the red rider saw: a man with a somber face, slender to the point of being too thin, dressed in filth-flecked black robes, standing in the rain, soaked to the skin.
It was like a lion looking at a half-drowned housecat.
After a moment, the red rider went inside.
The jade cow nudged his elbow with her muzzle. His mind clouded with questions, Lian Zhidiao rubbed the stone cow’s neck before stepping up into Lin Jingjing’s gate. This time the cow didn’t follow him, and he was able to shut the heavy wooden door with a heavy, comforting thud. He saw the servant girl running off just as he was walking towards the door to his room. Just inside the door was a wide wooden tub and a few steaming buckets of water. Put on a low stool next to it were a few orange soaps and some cloths to dry himself with.
At least this part is familiar enough.
His clothes would have to be laundered, there was no way around it. He put the pile of muddy clothing outside his door, resolving to go take care of it when he was finished. He took his hair down, finding that it reached his lower back. Soaking it and his body took all of one bucket, but it was easy enough to get everything wet. Then, he had to wash it all, and that kind of repetitive lathering set the wheels of his mind turning.
Well, it’s something like, they’re the main party, right? I don’t remember a black magician in the main party. They were all Yue sect cultivators, probably.
He scrubbed at his whole body, trying to get his back the best he could. I can’t even remember who Lian Zhidiao is, though, so he can’t have been very important. But I do feel certain he wasn’t in the main party. So I really am just cannon fodder.
His hair took some effort to clean and keep untangled, but after a while he worked it out.
But then the rider wearing white… must be from the sect with its capital city on the high plains, the Quanlu Yuan, I think? If he can ride with them, they shouldn’t have any problems with members of other sects. Especially since the point of the book was for the protagonist to unite the sects. The white rider is probably an early Plains adherent.
The water was still hot when he started to rinse himself off. Which one is the protagonist, though? One of the two brawnier ones probably.
He bailed water over himself, standing up to let it run off his skin, and trying his best to remember what this protagonist was like. Was he quiet? Loud? Moody? Come to think of it, people complained about how hard it was to understand him.
Lian Zhidiao looked down at his body, at the bruises and wounds that still covered his arms and torso. There’s still the mystery of what happened to this body before I got here. Some of them were beginning to change to a less-concerning green color, but there was still a lot of purple-black bruising.
Yang Meihua’s round shadow passed by the screens at the front of his room, shaking him from his reverie. He crouched in the tub. She paused at his door, and then slipped away, the continuing rain masking her footsteps. He quickly finished bathing and dressed himself in the spare set of robes at the bottom of his bag. These weren’t trimmed with green: just a solid, staid black. Even though he was a somber-looking man, he didn’t want to give himself entirely to the old Lian Zhidiao’s way of wearing his hair. It was too studious, with no flair for the dramatic. He put his hair half up in a topknot, letting some of it hang down in loops to cover his ears.
No reason to look like such a sour old man. Why even be here if I can’t have fun with it, right?
His hosts were sipping tea in the inner hall when he joined them. He clasped his fists and bowed to them. They stood to welcome him.
Lin Jingjing gave him a nod. “Good afternoon.”
“Good afternoon,” he replied. “May I join you?”
“We already have a cup prepared.” Yang Meihua gestured to a fine brown porcelain cup on the table.
“Thank you,” Lian Zhidiao said, sitting down.
Lin Jingjing put her cup down on the table. “Yang Meihua tells me that you have succeeded in nursing our jade beast back to health.”
“I believe that I have.”
“I did not believe her at first. It seems improbable.”
“But then I showed her the cow outside.” Yang Meihua had a small but smug smile on her face. Lian Zhidiao got the sense that she was not used to being the one in the right and was milking it for all it was worth.
“It’s something like a miracle,” Lin Jingjing allowed. She folded her hands in her lap. “However, we know that the Xideng Wa sect is not given to acts of charity.”
A chill moved over Lian Zhidiao’s skin. “If you wouldn’t mind, can you elaborate on that point?”
Lin Jingjing blinked at him in surprise, and after trading glances with Yang Meihua, the latter nodded and Lin Jingjing pursed her lips. “The Xideng Wa sect currently extracts a sum from Shuangwan village for the goods that pass through the docks. The village was once prosperous, since the jade beast encouraged the growth of rice and other produce, but since it became derelict, the village’s money has slowly been drained.” Her eyes remained firmly on her lap. “I shudder to think of what this repair will take from our coffers.”
Is that all? Lian Zhidiao hummed in understanding. With the black robes, of course they think I’m here on the Xideng Wa sect’s business. The next time a tax collector comes through, they’ll be expected to empty their pockets. Guess I have to take a bit of a chance.
“Madame Lin, as I said before, I am in a bit of a bind, having lost my memory. If you would do me the favor of answering my questions and taking care of my accommodations while I’m here, I could accept that as payment in kind.”
When he saw the look of shocked relief on Lin Jingjing’s face, he knew he’d made the right decision.
“Even though we’re such a backwater?” Yang Meihua cut in. “We’re not even aware of the latest gossip from the capital.”
“Anything would be helpful.”
“Then we’ll do our best,” Lin Jingjing said, having regained her composure. She smoothed her skirts over her knees and appeared to prepare herself for a hard line of questioning.
Lian Zhidiao took a sip of his tea. “There was a group of riders in red that came into the village today. They are from the mountains.”
“From the Xinxue Yue sect, yes.”
Xinxue… The Heart’s Blood. A frown flitted across Lian Zhidiao’s features. “But we are nowhere near the mountains, correct?”
Yang Meihua and Lin Jingjing traded glances before Lin Jingjing nodded. “Their presence here is… remarkable. I was quite surprised when they left word that you would be returning.”
“Why!” Yang Meihua stifled a giggle behind her hand. “Treating unknown cultivators as if they were errand boys!”
“Ah.” It hadn’t occurred to him that other cultivators might not pass along a message for a colleague. He’d thought of it as a professional courtesy, but perhaps this wasn’t the case? “Another Yue cultivator arrived in town just before I came inside. There was one other man with him, dressed in white.”
“White?” Lin Jingjing’s voice sounded suddenly thin. “…Just one?”
The soft patter of rain out in the courtyard continued without end. “Members of the Quanlu Yuan sect rarely travel alone.”
“Yes, but there was a group of them that passed through here less than a week ago.” Yang Meihua’s thoughtful voice chimed in. “They were searching for roaring earth.”
Lin Jingjing’s eyes flicked to Lian Zhidiao’s face, and then she looked back at Yang Meihua. “Do you know if they found any?”
Yang Meihua shook her head. “They never came back.”
“It’s not an indication one way or the other.” Lin Jingjing’s jaw tensed. “But I imagine if a body had been found, we might have heard about it.”
“What else could they need roaring earth for?” Lin Jingjing’s face was grave. “How else can you talk to the dead?”
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