Lian Zhidiao couldn’t believe his ears. Unfilial? Yue Fengjian?
“But a famous teacher trains a fine student,” Lin Buhuan countered. “Don’t be so quick to discount the effect of Old Qiaolu’s teachings.”
“Old Qiaolu taught Yue Fengjian’s father as well. And his uncle. He liked Yue Kuangxiang well enough to take the courtesy name Zhengfu and stay by his side after those events. Maybe Yue Fengjian learnt such behavior at the knee of both teacher and father.”
Those events? What events? Lian Zhidiao wracked his brain trying to remember what they were talking about, but came up with nothing. When he’d written Supreme Warlord of the Beast World, he hadn’t written any kind of backstory for the Yue sect other than that it struggled against demons from neighboring demonic lands. There had been an undercurrent of dissatisfaction with tortured protagonists on the web forums, so he’d written to take advantage of that. Yue Fengjian had both parents alive, as well as a nondescript childhood marked only by earnest training. The only remarkable results had been increased strength, and a desire to prove himself to his stern father. Common and relatable tropes that readers ate up.
“Don’t make baseless accusations,” Lin Buhuan said, warning in his voice. “He’s a serious young man who is skilled in warfare. He deserves to be judged on his actions.”
“As you say,” Lin Piaozhu replied.
“You didn’t meet with me just speak poorly of one of our guests, did you?”
“No,” Lin Piaozhu stepped to one side. Lian Zhidiao could see parts of his shadow fall on the boulder next to him. When he spoke again, he sounded much closer. “I received a report from Hui Songbai this morning on the situation at Sancha.”
“Good!” Lin Buhuan’s voice sounded markedly more upbeat at this news.
Lin Piaozhu, on the other hand, sounded more dejected. “They are still searching house by house, but barring the discovery of any more corpses, it appears that around 200 people lost their lives.”
This pronouncement was met with silence, and then with a heavy sigh. “Anything else?”
“There was a blood pit built under the market. One of the engineers has found that the footings are no longer stable and will have to be rebuilt. There was also significant damage to the roadway and other buildings during a fight with a demon.”
“So one got through, eh?”
“Fighting a demon at night isn’t a task I’d want to undertake.”
“It’s my understanding that Lin Zhengchun wanted to wait for reinforcements to arrive, but Yue Fengjian insisted on a night hunt.”
“Mm.” Lin Buhuan’s voice had the grim timbre of a general who has seen too many men lost. “Reckless.”
“Still.” Lian Zhidiao could hear Lin Buhuan tapping one hand inside the other while he thought out his words. “He did pull it off without any cultivators dying.”
“There was the one injury.”
“What do you expect against a demon? How many did it command?”
“Our forces said at least thirty or forty undead responded to its call of agony.”
Lin Buhuan’s voice now sounded more like a merchant crowing about the best trade he’d made all year. “A small price to pay, then. That’s the value of experience.” His tone of voice sounded as if the matter was settled, as far as he was concerned.
Lin Piaozhu’s voice was a little more mincing.“Back to the matter of rebuilding.”
“Right, right.” Lian Zhidiao could practically hear Lin Buhuan dragging his feet.
“The stone will need to be replaced, but we have quarries that can produce it, as well as the timber to rebuild.”
“So what’s the issue?”
“Transporting it over land isn’t possible. We’ll have to float most of it down the Laughing River. And the tax issues with the Wa sect—”
“You and money again.”
“We can’t all live with only flowery promises of immortality sustaining us. Someone has to make sure the accounts are in order. Laborers must be compensated, farmers paid for their rice.”
“I don’t like hearing about the details.”
“They’re required to keep the sect moving. I know you don’t like talking to dajie—”
“No, I don’t,” Lin Buhuan snapped.
“—but then you have to listen to me.”
Lin Buhuan let out a small sigh and then grunted. “Fine. What are you proposing?”
“Sancha Town is on the Green Highway. It would be reasonable to say that we moved materials for the rebuilding on the Highway, instead of the river.”
“Avoid paying the Wa sect for using their river by just saying that we didn’t use the river at all?”
“But why?” Lin Piaozhu’s voice was filled with frustration.
“You can’t have forgotten the Emperor’s accords?”
“The White Emperor has been dead for over 200 years,” Lin Piaozhu pleaded.
“Do we stop following traditions just because time has passed?” When Lin Piaozhu didn’t have an answer ready, Lin Buhuan walked towards the other side of the boulder garden, coming perilously close to the other side of Lian Zhidiao’s hiding place. “Our sect’s position as mediator between the Xinxue Yue and Quanlu Yuan sects and the Xideng Wa and Tuhuan Zhou sects only exists because of the Emperor.”
“Only because of his death.”
“The Emperor wanted unity, and his accords were designed to that end.” Lin Buhuan turned around—Lian Zhidiao could see the hem of his emerald green robes—and walked back toward the center of the boulder garden. “We benefit from the accords. You do very well being able to trade between the two sides and taking your own cut of the bargains.”
“It’s that position that gives us the power to ignore the accords.”
“Ignore them!” Lin Buhuan sounded offended at the very suggestion.
“Who would they trade with if not through us! Without going through our markets, the Wa sect could not sell their rice to the Yue or Yuan sects. Nor could the Zhou buy the gold they like so much from the Yue sect!” Lin Piaozhu’s voice had grown strident over the course of the conversation, and he seemed near his limit. “I am not saying never again pay the Wa sect the taxes awarded to them by the White Emperor, but this is rebuilding our own town in our own lands! What do we owe the Wa sect at all for this?”
“Don’t forget that Wa magician.”
Lian Zhidiao’s heart stopped.
Lin Piaozhu’s voice had been rising as their discussion got more intense, but now returned to a normal level. “What about him? One magician won’t pay back all the ingots of silver we’ve already given them.”
“Do you think that the Wa sect won’t know about this destruction? Do you think he won’t tell them what he’s seen? They’ll be looking to see if we’re rebuilding, and if their taxes aren’t paid, there will be tough questions asked of me.” Lin Buhuan’s robes rustled slightly; his shadow showed that he’d folded his arms over his chest. “To say nothing of the fee they might ask for his assistance.”
“The fee…” Lin Piaozhu’s voice was dejected, as if thinking of the cost.
What is the going rate on earth-seeing anyway? Maybe I should be charging more for my services?
“You could not buy back the goodwill you’d squander the moment the Wa found out about the accords being broken.”
“Even if they are broken, what can the Wa sect do about it?” Lin Piaozhu was back to sounding more like a rebellious teenager than a grown man. “We can simply eject them from the ports.”
“Do you really want to break those accords completely?”
“They are preventing us from moving forward.” Lin Piaozhu walked closer to his brother, his voice so low that Lian Zhidiao had to strain his ears to hear him. “His Majesty’s accords have lasted over two hundred years after his tragic death. That is the strength of his wisdom. But times are changing.”
Lin Buhuan was silent for a long time, and then Lian Zhidiao heard one of them begin to pace, with grit under his shoes. Lin Piaozhu didn’t add anything to his argument, no matter how long the silence lasted. It had the feeling of an ultimatum coming into play that had long been kept off the table. At last, Lin Buhuan grumbled, “I’ll think about it. Don’t make any decisions on your own.”
The next sounds he heard were footsteps walking away and fading into the background noise of the garden. Had both of them gone? He thought he’d only heard one set leave. One second, ten seconds, thirty seconds, a minute. At last, after what felt like an eternity, he heard another set of footsteps stride out of the boulder garden and disappear along the paths.
Still, he stayed in place for another few minutes, to make sure one of them wouldn’t remember something and come back. Only when he was sure he was really alone did he venture out.
It was true that the White Emperor had been a figure in Supreme Warlord of the Beast World, but he’d only defined himself by his absence. Lian Zhidiao hadn’t written him as a character at all, just a void to be filled by Yue Fengjian stepping in to lead the humans in a war against demons. It was another example of how the natural world filled in the plot holes he left behind.
As he mulled over what he’d heard, it was easy to meander through the gardens, following them to their ends. Lian Zhidiao found the kitchen gardens, with their fragrant chive flowers. He found the silk house, and the servants’ quarters, and the plum trees in their early summer leaves. He noted little of it; his mind was spinning.
But he’d barely had time to grapple with the other things the Lin brothers had discussed when he found himself back at the pavilion.
“Oi!” Liao Kuaiyu waved at him while hanging on to one of the posts.
Lian Zhidiao pressed down the questions in his mind and quickened his steps to meet him.
“Where’d you go?”
Lian Zhidiao couldn’t really say that he’d escaped so he wouldn’t be caught staring at someone in the bath. “I had some thinking to do.”
“Oh.” Liao Kuaiyu looked over his shoulder, as if to gesture to the rest of the group. “There was a messenger sent to invite everyone to the Pavilion of Heaven’s Blush for entertainment with the Lin family.”
Lian Zhidiao’s eyes flicked to the pavilion as well: he could see the shapes of people moving around inside as they got dressed and made themselves ready. “I see.”
“You’re coming too, aren’t you?”
Lian Zhidiao blinked. “Of course. It would be rude to decline.”
“Well, Shipei-shige isn’t going. The doctor said he shouldn’t move much.” Liao Kuaiyu folded his hands up behind his head. “The hairdresser is almost done with Yaosa-shimei.” He gave Lian Zhidiao a quick appraisal. “Perhaps she has time for you?”
Lian Zhidiao reached up to touch his hair, realizing suddenly how it must look without being combed out. Embarrassed, he shook his head. “I can take care of it on my own.”
Yue Yaosa was perched on the edge of a bed wearing a qixiong ruqun outfit in different shades of deep pink and red, as if she were draped in camellia petals. The skirt was tied modestly over her bust, with an accenting cord of white that was progressively more dip-dyed at the ends to a deep green. The hairdresser was tying up Yue Yaosa’s sun-reddened hair into a bun, nestling leaf-shaped hair ornaments and fresh flowers in among the hills and valleys. It wasn’t the most elaborate hairstyle Lian Zhidiao had ever seen—she wasn’t an empress on a TV drama—but it showed off her long, lean neck.
Belatedly, Lian Zhidiao realized he had stopped in his tracks and was staring at her.
Yue Yaosa stared back. “Is there something strange?”
Lian Zhidiao flinched, as if she had flicked a melon seed at him. He looked away—the floor, the rafters, anywhere else—and instead found himself confronted with Yue Fengjian. He was also dressed in nicer clothes; his robes were a more lustrous, deep red, with a pattern of banana leaves and bamboo. A long panel hung from his waist, embroidered with a stylized bear. His hair was glossy and lightly oiled, but fuller, giving him that lion’s mane effect again. A more ornate gold xiaoguan perched on top of his ponytail, like native gold discovered in the heart of a mountain. The clean scent of soap was nearly lost under the overwhelming spicy-sweet incense that perfumed his robes. His broad shoulders were held back, square; his presence was a physical force in the room. He looked every inch a leader, a commanding general, a king. Though he was young, there was no doubt that he could be Emperor.
Lian Zhidiao’s mouth was on the verge of falling open.
Yue Fengjian caught Lian Zhidiao’s eyes and arched an eyebrow.
Remembering where he was, Lian Zhidiao clenched his jaw and slipped past him.
Brushing and putting his own hair up would have taken more time than he’d like, but it was something to do with his hands while he was waiting for the hairdresser to finish with Yue Yaosa and come to him. He keenly felt how he wasn’t as ornately dressed as the Yue cultivators, but then again, he hadn’t exactly been traveling with the purpose of visiting sect leaders.
I don’t really know what purpose he was traveling with, honestly.
Lian Zhidiao’s eyes fell on the top of the red silk bag that contained the two jade slips, just barely poking out of his rucksack.
Come to think of it, I never did use the other jade slip or see what was stored in it.
The hairdresser slipped into his screened partition, and Lian Zhidiao shoved the red silk down in the bag so it couldn’t be seen.
I’ll come back to that later. Maybe tonight, when everyone else has gone to sleep.
Once the hairdresser had finished, they assembled in the common area. Yue Fengjian led them through the compound, with Yue Yaosa as his second rank, followed by Liao Kuaiyu and then Hu Baitian. Lian Zhidiao brought up the rear, which made it easy for the Zhou twins to slip in behind Lian Zhidiao when they joined the procession.
The Pavilion of Heaven’s Blush was the largest hall in the Lin family compound; it towered over the other buildings, surely only used on official occasions when respected teachers or sect leaders were visiting.
Perhaps an Emperor walked through this door once, Lian Zhidiao thought, as he walked under it. An electric feeling crawled over his skin.
The ceiling was smooth, painted to resemble the sky at dawn, with the whole bounty of the forest presented as ephemeral clouds. Flowers, trees, animals—all of them were painted just on the cusp of reality, at the instant a formless cloud becomes a recognizable shape. The wood around them was carved with scrolling vines and leaves as well. Censers filled the air with the most expensive agarwood incense to be had. Individual tables had been made ready for each of them, and everything was in its place.
At the head of the room, there were two men dressed in green. Their robes were made of heavy emerald silk. One stood slightly in front of the other; this must be Lin Buhuan. He wore his hair half-up, with a few tortoiseshell ornaments through his topknot. He had a beard, and a strong, square jaw. The same presence hovered around him as Yue Fengjian, but Lin Buhuan seemed more relaxed in the role of leader, with the confidence of an older man.
Next to him stood the man who must be his brother, Lin Piaozhu. Liao Kuaiyu really had been right, you couldn’t mistake one for the other at all. Where Lin Buhuan was robust, Lin Piaozhu was willowy. He didn’t wear a beard, and his sleek hair was swept back from his widow’s peak. Where Lin Buhuan gave off the feeling of a strong man, Lin Piaozhu had the air of a courtier.
Yue Fengjian bowed at the waist, giving them a formal salute, and everyone behind him mirrored his actions. The Lin brothers at the head returned it, and they moved through the pleasantries of introductions.
Lian Zhidiao wasn’t even the last to introduce himself—that dubious honor fell to Zhou Xiangu—but he kept his gaze lowered until he made his bow. The eyes of both Lin brothers fell on him. Lin Buhuan’s regard was reserved, but Lin Piaozhu’s glare pressed on him like the end of a fan in his ribs. Lian Zhidiao swallowed and hoped that their eyes wouldn’t linger on him.
The introductions passed and the meal began, each dish selected for its richness and fullness of flavor. It wasn’t the homestyle meal that Lian Zhidiao would prefer, with everyone around a table, but it wasn’t bad. There was nothing too spicy, and even garlic was scarcely present. But the vegetables were good, the meat tender, and the fruit sweet and juicy. All of it passed by in a short amount of time, and then the tables were cleared away and Lin Buhuan made a motion to indicate that he wanted their attention.
“For a celebration, there should be music and dancing.” He lifted his chin, and he need have given no more signal than that before the doors opened and musicians filed in, setting themselves up in a corner. Three young women in pale green and white entered, with the rear brought up by a fourth woman dressed in soft lavender and green. The four of them took their places in the center of the room.
The music was cheerful but not boisterous. The melody wasn’t one Lian Zhidiao knew, but it seemed like the ones he knew. The dancing girls were dressed in flowing clothes with soft, light scarves. They moved around each other in a circle, and in this way, each of them was able to be seen by the guests, her supple movements and charms appreciated. Liao Kuaiyu and Yue Fengjian both sat up a little straighter in their presence: even Yue Yaosa seemed to want to be seen favorably by them.
The woman in lavender passed by Lian Zhidiao and her eyes were like stars at midnight, her lips like the sweetest cherries, her cheeks like the blush of dawn. She floated past him like a fairy, or else a goddess, stealing his breath away with the barest hint of a smile. In the greatest Hall of the Sect Leader’s home, she could be none other than Lin Xianglan, Lin Buhuan’s niece and the Beauty of the Youlu Lin sect.