The pavilion was a massive timber-framed structure with a characteristic silver tile roof, the trim painted in vermilion and green. The rooms were partitioned with sliding silk screens and the occasional set of carved wooden doors. Each space was richly furnished with finely carved wooden beds, comfortable pillows and cushions, and chests to put their things away. There were tables too, which could be used in bed or on raised platforms for sitting on cushions. Bronze censers shaped like lotus blossoms could open or close with the touch of a finger, changing the heaviness of scent in the air. Nearly all the fabric had some shade of green as the background color, and was embroidered with colored silk thread in fanciful arrangements of flowers and insects.
It was, in a word, a palace.
Lian Zhidiao was so tired, he thought he might fall asleep the moment his head hit the pillow, but instead, he found himself lying awake and listening to the others nearby. Yue Yaosa’s barely perceptible snoring, and the sound of Yue Shipei trying to shift in bed without hurting himself. Liao Kuaiyu was silent as he slept, as was Yue Fengjian. Hu Baitian tossed and turned for a long while before finally settling down. The rhythm of their breathing was somehow both comforting and a reminder that he wasn’t at home.
I don’t even know where ‘home’ is anymore.
Someone in the pavilion passed wind in their sleep, and Lian Zhidiao flopped his forearm over his eyes.
He wasn’t sure what the hour was when he fell asleep, but he felt like it must have been very late. He didn’t awaken until late the next morning, and he might not have stirred then if it weren’t for—
“Do all Wa magicians sleep this much?” Liao Kuaiyu stood at his bedside, looking down at him. “Fengjian-shige and Yaosa-shijie will be back soon.”
Lian Zhidiao blinked sleepily at him and then sat up, rubbing his eyes. “Most people need sleep.”
Liao Kuaiyu was freshly clean. Despite the hair oil and access to a hairbrush, he still had small cowlicks that refused to lay flat. He was also wearing a nicer set of robes subtly scented with incense, as everything seemed to be here.
Well, this is the City of Fragrant Wood, so I shouldn’t be surprised.
“Is there a bath available? Or breakfast?”
“Mm,” Liao Kuaiyu said. “The servants already brought tubs for bathing, and those two will want a bath before they meet with Senior Lin Piaozhu.”
“Not the sect leader?”
“No.” Liao Kuaiyu gave him a skeptical look. He had the air of a know-it-all younger brother who had already been out making the rounds and collecting news. “Weren’t you paying attention last night?”
“There was a lot to take in. I can’t be expected to remember the finest details about their sect.” Lian Zhidiao rubbed his face again and got out of bed.
“Even I can keep the top guys separate.” Liao Kuaiyu muttered, folding his arms over his chest, with a small puff to his cheeks.
“You’ve studied with the Lin sect and been awake longer than I have.” Lian Zhidiao squinted up at him. “And I’d wager no one woke you up like this either.”
“Stop bickering.” Yue Shipei’s voice came from behind one of the silk screen partitions. “Or take it elsewhere, since I can’t leave.”
“You’re just sulking because you can’t get a bath without Hu Baitian’s help,” Liao Kuaiyu cracked over his shoulder.
The only answer was the sound of a page turning in Yue Shipei’s book.
A grin on his face, Liao Kuaiyu began walking toward one of the partitioned rooms of the pavilion. Lian Zhidiao collected his things and then followed him. In one partition, a bathing tub had been set up with drying cloths and soap, very similar to Lin Jingjing’s household. Perhaps the sect also instructed disciples on cleanliness.
“Go on,” Liao Kuaiyu said.
“Are you…” Lian Zhidiao’s brow wrinkled and his hands clutched at the collar of his robes. “Are you going to watch?”
“Hmm? What’s wrong with watching?” Liao Kuaiyu planted himself in the corner of the partition. “It’s not like Yaosa-shimei is here. And Shipei-shige is too busy reading to talk with me.”
A disapproving grunt came from the other room, but nothing further.
I guess there wasn’t much modesty in a harem novel after all. If I’d known that I’d end up in one, I might not have joined in with writing so many scenes where the love interest was exposed during her bath…
Lian Zhidiao clucked his tongue. “Could you at least turn the other way?”
“Fine,” Liao Kuaiyu said, turning around and facing the screen.
After a moment where Lian Zhidiao waited to see if Liao Kuaiyu was faking him out, he took off his nightclothes, laying them out so he could use them again. He bound his hair up to keep it from getting wet and then climbed in the tub.
Liao Kuaiyu, true to his word, remained turned away even as Lian Zhidiao started bathing.
Amid the sounds of scrubbing and pouring water, Lian Zhidiao cleared his throat. “So, what did you want to talk about?”
“Anything is fine,” Liao Kuaiyu replied, stretching out and folding his arms behind his head. “I don’t know much about the Wa sect.”
Me either. But for obvious reasons, Lian Zhidiao couldn’t say something like that. He used the ladle in one of the buckets to wet his skin. “I don’t know much about Yue sect,” he replied.
In Supreme Warlord of the Beast World, the Wa had been a secretive, powerful sect that controlled the waterways and wetlands, extracting tax for the movement of goods down their rivers. Their reclusive nature made them easy for other sects to tolerate: as long as they received their tax payments, they didn’t interfere or even comment on the business of other sects. Wa sect disciples frequently moved through waterfront districts without being overtly detected—or so he’d thought until a comment Lin Jingjing had made rang again in his mind. The guards of Shuangwan village notifying her that a Wa sect disciple was present wasn’t in keeping with his ideas that they were virtually unnoticed.
Then again, he had been wearing a set of black robes. Maybe it was only obvious Wa sect disciples that were reported to her.
He looked down at the green-and-purple bruises around his midsection. Or maybe they were looking for a specific Wa disciple for a more sinister reason.
“Is it true, what they say about the Wa sect and necromancy?”
Lian Zhidiao dropped the ladle. It landed with a clatter and splash in the bottom of the tub. “What??”
“Oh, so it is true?”
Lian Zhidiao picked up the ladle again, dunking it in the hot water bucket. “I just…don’t know what others have said about us.”
“Oh, you know,” Liao Kuaiyu’s voice sounded a little quieter. “Everyone dabbles with demonic cultivation, the sect leader is obsessed with creating an undead army…”
Despite his recent acquisition of this body, Lian Zhidiao had already felt keenly the suspicion that others had leveled against him, which could only be because of the Wa sect. Hui Songbai had been ready to just cut him out of any reward for doing good deeds at all. So despite lacking a sense of filial piety towards the Wa sect or his own family, compared to the treatment he’d personally received from other sects, Lian Zhidiao viewed the unknown Wa sect and the Lian family with comparative warmth.
He picked up the ladle out of the bucket and reached over the edge of the tub, drubbing Liao Kuaiyu on the head.
“OW!” Liao Kuaiyu turned around, looking up at Lian Zhidiao and rubbing the sore spot on his head.
Lian Zhidiao raised the ladle again. “How thoughtless! Just saying whatever you wish about someone’s family! ”
“Okay, okay!” Liao Kuaiyu protected the crown of his head and started to turn away again, but not before his eyes widened, darting all over Lian Zhidiao in front of him.
Suddenly aware of how exposed he was, Lian Zhidiao flattened himself in the tub. “HEY!”
“I wouldn’t have looked if you hadn’t smacked me over the head!” Liao Kuaiyu rolled back to face the screen partitions.
A snort of laughter came from the direction of Yue Shipei’s bed.
Lian Zhidiao took up the soap and lathered it up with a cloth, continuing to give Liao Kuaiyu a look through narrowed eyes.
“So, it’s not true then,” Liao Kuaiyu said with some finality.
“Have you seen me do any kind of necromancy?”
“Then it’s not true.” Lian Zhidiao began scrubbing his skin roughly.
Silence hung between them and then Liao Kuaiyu let out a small sigh. “Good,” he said. “Fengjian-shige isn’t usually the kind of man to be wrong about something, but…” Liao Kuaiyu crossed his legs, bouncing his ankle on his knee. “He’s got a lot on his mind.”
Lian Zhidiao knew well what was on his mind: this early in the novel, Yue Fengjian was trying to convince the other sects that the Yue sect needed help, and it was in their best interests to help them. Each sect had different challenges, which Yue Fengjian met handily—or so Lian Zhidiao thought he remembered.
I wrote him as able to do almost anything, but I always worried that he only appeared to be a good leader because I wrote him that way. Lian Zhidiao’s hand slowed in scrubbing. Even though I’ve had the miraculous chance to meet him, I was still afraid he would just be a self-insert type of character.
Seeing him interact with the others made them seem real. Lian Zhidiao looked at Liao Kuaiyu. They all seemed real.
“You’ve spent time with the Lin sect, haven’t you?” Liao Kuaiyu piped up.
“Not overly much,” Lian Zhidiao answered, hoping he wouldn’t seem too cagey. “Not as much as you have.”
“I thought I would have seen you around before.” Liao Kuaiyu flexed his ankle and then went back to bouncing it. “But I don’t remember you at all.”
That may have more to do with this character being cannon fodder than it has to do with us being in the same place at the same time!
“I’m a quiet, orderly student,” Lian Zhidiao said with a sniff. “I show up and take instruction, and complete my assignments.”
“Yeah, that’s not me at all,” Liao Kuaiyu chuckled, waving a hand in front of his face.
“Even so, I wonder what kind of man the sect leader is.”
“Sect Leader Lin Buhuan? I hardly saw him when I studied here. I spent most of my time with Senior Zhu Cuiyun,” Liao Kuaiyu said.
“Oh.” Lian Zhidiao frowned. The name seemed familiar, and yet, he couldn’t think of the character. He took up the ladle and bailed water over his skin to wash the soap away.
“I didn’t think we would meet with Sect Leader Lin himself. His brother usually handles most sect affairs.”
“Senior Lin Piaozhu.”
Ah, yes, the one he mentioned before. So Yue Fengjian and Yue Yaosa were going to meet with him before they met with Lin Buhuan… tomorrow? “Are they very similar?”
“At least from what I hear, you can’t mistake one for the other. Well, not that I’ve seen either of them in person before…”
Lian Zhidiao ran his hands down his arms and legs, making sure he’d gotten all the soap off. It left behind a fragrance that was faintly sweet and slightly animalistic, a complex, alluring smell that reminded him of a perfume his older sister once spent a fortune on. “I suppose we will find out soon enough.”
The servants took the tub out to empty it, and Liao Kuaiyu wandered out to pester Yue Shipei again. Lian Zhidiao directed the servants to prepare more hot water for the other two cultivators while still wrapped up in his drying cloths. They were large and soft, but he didn’t want to be rude and stay wrapped up for long. By the time he’d gotten his underrobes on, there was a commotion at the front of the pavilion: Yue Fengjian and Yue Yaosa were back. He could hear Liao Kuaiyu excitedly asking Yue Yaosa about the training grounds. Lian Zhidiao smoothed his collar down and gathered his robes around himself with his belt nipped in his teeth.
Where exactly did they go, anyway?
As if in answer to his question, Yue Fengjian’s broad frame filled the gap in the screens.
Yue Fengjian wasn’t wearing his full set of robes, but a set of pale green training robes, like those of a disciple, probably on loan from the Lin sect. The edges were dark with sweat—his exposed chest had a healthy sheen to it—and a few flyaway hairs clung to his neck. Lian Zhidiao looked down at himself: the green-trimmed black robes barely held shut, the silk of his belt clenched in his teeth, his collar not yet smoothed down. Messy and ill-kempt for someone who’d had all morning for his bath. For an instant, Lian Zhidiao froze under Yue Fengjian’s sharp regard, like prey before a lion, but Yue Fengjian looked away so quickly that he thought he must have imagined it.
Servants came in, carrying steaming buckets on a yoke, and left them next to the bathing tub, with fresh drying cloths and soap. They bundled away Lian Zhidiao’s laundry, and bowed their way out of the room. Once they were gone, Yue Fengjian gave him a small salute. “Good morning, Lian Zhidiao.”
Lian Zhidiao’s fingers fumbled with tying his belt. He ducked his head in a small bow, dropping the belt from his teeth as he finally got it wrapped around the right way. “Good morning, Yue Fengjian.”
Then, without any preamble, Yue Fengjian unknotted his belt and started to strip right in front of him.
Lian Zhidiao kept his eyes up in the rafters while he tried to tie his broad belt. The Yue cultivators seem to have zero sense of privacy, at least when it comes to bathing. This may be because I wrote too many bathing scenes in the original novel since they were convenient excuses to be naked together, which leads to one thing, and then to another…
Yue Fengjian’s outer robes and belt landed on the floor with a fwump. The sound was what drew his attention, but his eyes were drawn to Yue Fengjian’s thin underclothes clinging to his sweat-slick skin. Yue Fengjian lifted his arms to take his hair down, and somehow it seemed to make his body look even more imposing.
Lian Zhidiao didn’t realize he was staring.
Yue Fengjian didn’t stop disrobing there, either—he was here for a bath, after all—and the collar of his disciple’s robe was dipping low on his back as he pulled it off. His bronzed back was thickly muscled, as might be expected of an athlete. The small of his back curved down just before rising into the two small dimples just above his ass.
The floor suddenly seemed like a much better place to put his eyes as Yue Fengjian climbed into the tub. “Excuse me,” he mumbled, and made a quick exit without looking back.
Lian Zhidiao didn’t wait around to see what state of deshabille Yue Yaosa was in; his face was warm enough. If she had the same kind of immodest attitude as Liao Kuaiyu and Yue Fengjian, he wasn’t sure he could trust himself not to look. It might start a feeling of protectiveness among the other men: who could blame Yue Shipei or Yue Fengjian if they decided to pound him into pulp for his eyes wandering? No, as cannon fodder, it was better for him just to leave the pavilion entirely until he knew it was safe to return. He shoved his feet in his boots and hotfooted it away from the pavilion without even brushing his hair.
Their pavilion floated in a sea of gardens that wrapped around the base of the mountain. The peaks of one or two buildings flashed between the trees, but otherwise, Lian Zhidiao could not see a wall from where he stood. The natural beauty surrounding him quickly slowed his steps. Instead of taking one of the straight paths, he had taken a meandering route. This path wove in and out of the plantings, which were carefully arranged and groomed to give a feeling of restrained wilderness. A paving stone set in the earth just off the path invited him further into the undergrowth.
As he wandered into deeper parts of the forest garden, he began to appreciate the work which must have gone into building such a landscape. He passed into a circle of very old trees. Moss dotted with small white flowers lay in gentle repose on the dipping and curling tree limbs. In the center of the trees was a boulder garden, shaded from the sun by the high branches. The same moss grew on the stones, speckling them with white stars.
A few of the boulders were engraved with writing, but the moss had grown over them so thickly that it was unclear what had originally been there. But by peering at one of them, he could see that there was a name and what looked like dates of birth and death. The other boulders had similar writing, each with an idiom or perhaps a quote. There were no altars, so it seemed like they weren’t actual graves, but maybe things for someone to think on as they walked. Hidden off the main path of the sect leader’s private residence, there could be no doubt that these were private and important musings for the Lin family.
Which is why he froze when he heard footsteps and voices that were all-too-close.
“You didn’t have to meet me this soon.”
“Please, renxiong. If this worthless younger brother cannot show his respect—”
“Stop that, you know I despise it.”
Lian Zhidiao jumped to hide behind one of the boulders. There was a moment of silence. “Dage.” The speaker paused, gauging his elder brother’s reaction, and then continued. “The disciples are doing well?”
“One talented man is enough for the job,” the older brother said. The two of them ambled into the boulder garden, their steps light. “With more than a dozen elders, they should be able to manage for a few days.”
“I’m still confused as to why you wanted to thank them yourself.”
Lian Zhidiao realized in a flash that these two voices must belong to Lin Buhuan, the sect leader, and Lin Piaozhu, his younger brother. He didn’t dare poke his head out to try to get a peek at them.
“The Yue sect has been our ancient ally since before the first Green Emperor. They have always passed information to us about demon threats along the border. Their young master would have been an elder in his own right here.”
“He may be strong, but he is still young.”
“Mm,” Lin Buhuan agreed. “Like father, like son.”
Lin Piaozhu snorted a small laugh. “If that is the case, we can expect young Yue Fengjian to be as unfilial as his father.”