Lian Zhidiao blushed and looked away. He didn’t go so far as to hide behind his sleeve, but from the way his cheeks were burning, he wanted to.
The dance happened in front of him as if through water; the sheer scarves seemed to defy gravity, embracing the girls but barely touching them. The music merged with the sun-soaked light of the golden afternoon that filtered in through screens around the pavilion. Each time he saw Lin Xianglan, he was reminded that she had been the greatest beauty in his novel, and the most well-liked. At this point, seeing her perfect face and jade complexion, he had to admit that his readers had been onto something.
And then the music was over for the third time—when had it ended the first two times?— and Lian Zhidiao found himself blinking in confusion, as if he was throwing off the effects of an enchantment. Lin Xianglan and the other three dancing girls bowed deeply and slipped out of the hall gracefully, and then it seemed that the evening’s entertainment had come to an end. The sun was already low in the sky—how much dancing had there been? How much music?—and Lin Buhuan and Lin Piaozhu bowed to the assembled guests, who bowed back. In this way, the Lin sect’s formal contributions to the celebration were over, at least for the day.
But the mood stayed upbeat as they walked back to their pavilion, their booted footsteps echoing out into the gardens.
“As expected of the Lin sect,” Zhou Xianzhi purred.
“Mm,” Zhou Xiangu agreed, seeming to be in a good mood.
After that dance, who wouldn’t be? Lian Zhidiao kept his eyes lowered. I feel like watching her dance could stop wars.
But something needled his thoughts, and he lifted his eyes to the backs of the cultivators walking in front of him. Yue Fengjian’s ponytail swung back and forth. His steps were sure, without any of the dreamy lethargy that Lian Zhidiao felt pulling at his own feet. Could it be that he wasn’t much affected by Lin Xianglan’s dance?
Maybe he gets to see displays like this from beautiful women all the time. The more he thought about it, the more likely that seemed. The son of a sect leader being groomed for succession, renowned for his strength. Attention like this must be an almost everyday occurrence for him.
“Little one?” Zhou Xianzhi had drawn close to him without him noticing. His smile was sweet and gentle, like a friend checking in with him. “You are making a pickled face.”
Lian Zhidiao instantly realized that he was right, and relaxed his mouth. “Not really.”
“Was the meal not to your liking?” Zhou Xiangu piped up with what sounded like honest concern.
“It’s not that,” Lian Zhidiao answered obliquely.
“The Lin palate is suited to rich, salty food,” Zhou Xianzhi said. “It’s not the Wa sect’s food at all.”
“What is the food of the Wa sect like?” Yue Yaosa hung back to walk closer with them. “I haven’t ever tried it.”
Having never actually eaten the food of the Wa sect, Lian Zhidiao fumbled with his words. There was no fudging this question: he was either right or he was wrong. The Wa sect controlled the rivers, so they probably ate fish. Best to aim for generalities and just hope he was correct. “Sour and spicy. Lots of fish.” The Zhou twins nodded along, which made his heart relax a little bit.
“Hm,” Yue Yaosa grunted. “I think that wouldn’t be too bad.” Then she gave him an encouraging smile. “The food of our sect tends to be spicier, so maybe that will be to your liking.”
Her kindness and compassion touched Lian Zhidiao’s heart, and he smiled back at her. “If I am ever able to eat it, I’ll tell you how I like it.”
To his surprise, she flustered a little bit, averting her eyes and giving a small nod of agreement and walking quickly ahead past Hu Baitian, Liao Kuaiyu, and Yue Fengjian. She quickly ran up the steps to the pavilion and disappeared inside.
What was that about? Lian Zhidiao’s smile melted off his face as he watched her retreating back, his steps slowing before he glanced over at Zhou Xianzhi.
Zhou Xianzhi had pulled out a fan and his face was half-hidden behind it. Zhou Xiangu was red-faced; he avoided eye contact with Lian Zhidiao, keeping his vision trained on the plantings in the garden.
Them too? Did I say something wrong?
But Lian Zhidiao didn’t have the time to think it over any more than that, because their steps slowly came to a halt in front of their pavilion. The golden light of afternoon had already given way to warm purple twilight, the brightest part of evening. A sweet herbal scent of warm grass and night flowers wafted through the air. The sound of moving water came from somewhere out in the gardens, and the calls of night insects and frogs rose up and surrounded them. Hu Baitian continued ahead, escaping the niceties required of official interactions. Liao Kuaiyu also went a few steps ahead, but then paused, waiting.
Yue Fengjian turned around and inclined his head to the Zhou twins. His silence persisted a hair longer than seemed natural, but at last he spoke. “If you do not have other plans for the evening, we would welcome your company while we drink.”
At the words ‘other plans’, Zhou Xianzhi’s eyes flicked to Lian Zhidiao just for the briefest of moments. Lian Zhidiao looked down at his shoes. Was Zhou Xianzhi looking for guidance? Indication that he was going to join them? Lian Zhidiao glanced at Yue Fengjian, and found his attention focused on Zhou Xianzhi, and not looking at him at all.
“Thank you for your kind offer,” Zhou Xianzhi replied, closing his fan with a snap. “My brother and I did have some entertainment we were looking forward to this evening, but some wine before we go would help the rest of our night go smoothly.” Then, just for a moment, he looked at Lian Zhidiao again.
Yue Fengjian gave them a sharp nod and then turned to walk into the pavilion.
Well, I guess that resolved itself? Lian Zhidiao made a salute to the two of them, letting them pass ahead of him. Off to the side, Liao Kuaiyu watched the two brothers in blue. His brow was relaxed—he didn’t seem angry—but nevertheless, his eyes didn’t leave them for a second. When they passed by, Liao Kuaiyu closed in behind them, following them up the steps into the pavilion.
Lian Zhidiao was left outside, alone. The door wasn’t closed to him, and yet he still felt somehow left out. The association between Yue and Zhou cultivators, literally fire and water, should have been the chilliest, but it seemed that even these enemies could sit down and drink together.
Yue Fengjian appeared in the doorway, a cup already in his hand. The lanterns inside were being lit, casting a soft glow around Yue Fengjian and partially hiding his face in shadow. “Are you coming?”
Lian Zhidiao didn’t answer immediately. There was something about the sight of Yue Fengjian cradling a cup of wine in his fingers in the quiet of the evening that made him feel reluctant to speak. But he smiled up at Yue Fengjian and then nodded. “Yes.”
Yue Fengjian stood back, letting Lian Zhidiao pass in front of him. After a moment, he closed the doors behind him.
The screens had been moved to include Yue Shipei in the general area; small tables had been pushed together to make a larger one near his bedside. A few cups of tea had been brought in and put on the tables. Yue Yaosa was nowhere to be seen. The Zhou twins were already seated on one side of the table set-up, with Hu Baitian between them and Yue Shipei. Then Liao Kuaiyu and the rest of the space was free for everyone to choose where they would like to sit.
Yue Fengjian stayed near the door.
The hair on the back of Lian Zhidiao’s neck prickled. It wasn’t just that he was bad at holding his liquor and therefore didn’t care much for social drinking. There was something else happening in the room.
Why is there a feeling of a game of weiqi being set up? Worse than that, it wasn’t immediately clear to Lian Zhidiao how or when his choices were going to affect the game, or who exactly the game was between. But the feeling of apprehension, like waiting for the beginning of a highly-anticipated football match, couldn’t be ignored. The air thickened by the second.
“Little one.” Zhou Xianzhi’s voice broke into his thoughts.
Lian Zhidiao looked at him, and Zhou Xianzhi offered the place next to him with a graceful hand.
He accepted it, if only to try and escape that awful feeling of apprehension that was weighing down his shoulders. But no sooner had he done so than everything seemed to happen all at once.
The first thing was that the rest of the seats around the table filled up almost instantly. Yue Yaosa appeared out of her section of the pavilion. Her hair was still nicely coiffed, but all the finery had been removed and put away. Clearly more comfortable in her sect robes, she took the seat next to Liao Kuaiyu. The only spot left at the table was between Lian Zhidiao and Yue Yaosa, and within a breath, Yue Fengjian planted his cup on the table between the two of them.
The second thing was that the food and wine arrived. Skewers of meat, sunflower seeds, pickled vegetables, peanuts, lychees and melon were placed on the table with small dishes to help themselves. There was tea to drink as well as wine. The wine had been warmed, and the task of filling everyone’s cups fell to Liao Kuaiyu.
Lian Zhidiao watched the wine carefully, and was relieved to see it had a yellow color, like osmanthus. Thus it couldn’t be the fiery baijiu which was the cause of so much regret in his former life.
After the servants cleared away, the conversations started, naturally enough, with the topic of Lin Xianglan.
“Shipei-shige,” Liao Kuaiyu began, handing him a cup of tea. “You should do very well not to get your ribs cracked the next time we get in a fight. The doctor cannot be nearly as nice to look at as the Beauty of the Lin sect.”
“How would you know?” Yue Shipei answered calmly. “Have you seen the doctor?”
The possibility of the doctor being as pretty as Lin Xianglan brought Liao Kuaiyu up short, and he looked across the table at Hu Baitian.
Hu Baitian shook his head, as if he wanted to stay out of this line of questioning. “He may be a distinguished physician, but that’s a different kind of healing than what you would get from watching that dance performed.”
Yue Yaosa took her turn and filled Liao Kuaiyu’s cup with wine. “She was a great beauty,” she chimed in. “Grace and poise like that are rarely seen.”
Yue Shipei was accustomed to Liao Kuaiyu ribbing him, so Yue Yaosa speaking up in support of Liao Kuaiyu actually changed his expression to faint disappointment.
“What did the doctor say about your injury?” Hu Baitian, the one most specialized in healing magic, had the most professional interest in the doctor’s opinions, and could interpret them correctly.
Yue Shipei sighed. “It will be nearly a week before I am allowed to move. That’s with the healing every day. And the medicine.” He made a face that showed exactly what he thought of the medicine.
This prompted a small smile from Hu Baitian. “I’ll let him know that I can help ease his burden if he finds you too disagreeable to treat.”
“It seems unlikely that Shipei-xiandi could be disagreeable,” Yue Fengjian said, standing up. “But if such a thing is possible, perhaps anything is.” He raised his cup in Yue Shipei’s direction. “To my xiandi, who gave his blood as a warning for the rest of us, and will live to boast about it.”
The pull in Yue Shipei’s face softened as Yue Fengjian drained his cup of wine, replaced with a fond expression. Around the table, everyone joined in the toast as well, but instead of touching their lips to their cups as a matter of courtesy, every single cup was tipped fully back and drained dry. As soon as he smelled it, he knew it as huangjiu—sweet, almost syrupy wine—and counted his blessings again that baijiu was nowhere to be found. Lian Zhidiao gulped it down as fast as he could, managing to finish at the same time as everyone else.
As an outsider, the next toast fell to him, and he was not the kind of person whose nerves were strengthened by excessive thought. Best to do it quickly while he still had his wits about him and could make the most favorable impression. “I’d like to propose a toast,” Lian Zhidiao said suddenly, standing up. All the faces around the table turned to him.
He faced Yue Fengjian, cup in both hands. He blinked a few times to gather his thoughts and then spoke. “I am not from the Yue sect. There are… considerable differences between us. In the Wa sect, we think a great deal about the cost of life, rather than the value.” He met Yue Fengjian’s eyes over the rim of his cup, and they were so sharp he felt he might be cut to pieces. He swallowed. “‘What actions will put us in the best position?’ That is our thinking. In Sancha Town, I saw a vision of another way to look at the world.” He swallowed again, and gripped the cup more tightly. The eye contact held. “A man who asks what needs to be done, and does it. The world could use more men like this.” There were more things that he wanted to say, about leadership and the future, but his throat closed up, and he was barely able to get the last words out. “To Yue Fengjian.”
Then Lian Zhidiao lifted his cup and downed the whole thing. When he was done, Yue Fengjian’s head was still back just for a second, his Adam’s apple bobbing as he swallowed.
Lian Zhidiao sat down just as suddenly as he’d stood up, but there was a warm feeling in his chest. The huangjiu must already be starting to loosen him up.
Yue Yaosa fell into easy conversation with her brother and Hu Baitian about food and how good the wine was and promising to drink like this again when Yue Shipei had finished recuperating and could join in. She stood up and proposed another toast to her elder brother for his grit in handling the situation. Everyone drank and then before the wine had even settled in their cups, Yue Yaosa immediately followed that toast with another to Hu Baitian for saving her brother’s life with his battlefield healing. More drinking, and then more wine.
The tone of the drinking shifted to something more friendly. Zhou Xiangu proved to be an amiable drinking partner for Liao Kuaiyu. Despite the frosty air between them at the start, they soon got to talking about poetry, with Liao Kuaiyu revealing that his favorite verses were composed by a Zhou sect troubadour from ages past. Zhou Xiangu stood up and proposed a toast to Liao Kuaiyu and his good taste in poetry. Everyone drank.
Which left Lian Zhidiao, Zhou Xianzhi, and Yue Fengjian to their own conversational devices. The edges of propriety began to fray under the effects of all that huangjiu. Lian Zhidiao didn’t feel nearly as bad as he had during celebrations of passing exams, but the wine wasn’t as weak as he’d taken it for either.
The meat disappeared first, and the seeds slowly started to dwindle. The pickled vegetables were sharp and salty; they cut through the sweet wine taste and made it taste new again when the next toast came up.
“Little one,” Zhou Xianzhi said, taking up the wine ladle and offering his hand for Lian Zhidiao’s cup.
Lian Zhidiao allowed him to fill it, hoping that the next toast wouldn’t be directly afterwards. After all, the mood of the drinking had changed—as was often the case with small parties, everyone had formed groups of two or three to drink together. But his hopes were soon dashed as Zhou Xiangu, possessed of a preternatural awareness that his elder brother’s cup was empty, ladled more wine into Zhou Xianzhi’s cup. He didn’t stand to make the toast—everyone was far too at-ease with each other now—but lifted his cup. “When we last met, much passed between us. When we parted, you said that you could not see a time we would meet again.” He smiled graciously. “And yet, here we are.” His pleased smile became positively feline. “To fate, Lian Zhidiao, and to you teaching me something at last.”
What does that mean? Teach him something at last.
Lian Zhidiao gave him a small nod, the barest hint of a smile. Everyone drank their cups dry. Lian Zhidiao licked the sweet wine from his lips and looked for a pickle, only to find that they had all disappeared. Lychee was the next best thing. He pulled a few out of the bowl and focused on peeling one. And never meeting again? Was the other Lian Zhidiao a friend of his?
Lian Zhidiao picked at the skin of the lychee, finally getting one part of it off. He paused, his fingernail pulling back the leathery skin. Friends don’t call each other little one, though. I don’t think he’s that much older than me… Or the original Lian Zhidiao. Lian Zhidiao’s forehead wrinkled. Or the original me. Lian Zhidiao’s eyelids were beginning to droop. I guess we did meet before, probably. But it seems like it was a good meeting.
“I’m surprised the two of you have met before,” Yue Fengjian said.
“We traveled extensively in Wa sect lands,” Zhou Xianzhi said. The only sign that he’d been drinking at all was a languid flow of his speech and the constant gentle breeze from his fan. “My brother and I are traders, but we also liaise for others when they are moving into new markets. The Wa sect has an appetite for our sort of goods.”
“And those are?” Yue Fengjian drawled, the wine clearly having a greater effect on him.
“Treasures of the sea. Pearls, nacre, and byssus.”
Yue Fengjian’s eyebrows rose slightly and he glanced at Lian Zhidiao before looking back at Zhou Xianzhi. “The Wa sect does have a reputation to rival the Lin sect in their appreciation of fine things.”
“Not at all,” Zhou Xianzhi said. “The Wa sect has an appreciation of beauty that is unmatched, even by us on our island. We simply offer the opportunity to obtain the rarest and… most beautiful pieces.” His eyes slid to Lian Zhidiao.
Yue Fengjian also glanced at Lian Zhidiao.
Lian Zhidiao finally got the skin off the lychee and popped it in his mouth.
“So you were looking for buyers in the Wa sect?” Yue Fengjian’s voice had the tone of wanting to move on.
“Indeed,” Zhou Xianzhi said, taking a sip of his tea. “We were made aware that there was to be a wedding, and the bride wanted decorating as befit her high social position in the Wa sect.”
Lian Zhidiao discreetly extracted the lychee seed from his mouth, nestling it in the skin. “What did she want?”
Zhou Xianzhi’s eyes followed Lian Zhidiao’s fingers. “Her wedding garments were to be entirely lace and show off the embroidery on every layer. She wished for a scene from the ocean, with hundreds of fish with eyes of pearls, and scales embroidered with byssus.” He sighed at the thought of it.
“Did she get what she wanted?”
The delighted surprise on Zhou Xianzhi’s face was instant, and he hid a laugh behind his sleeve. “No,” he said finally. “She did not.” He reached out and took a lychee, digging his nail into the skin until one small bit of it popped off, and then deposited it in front of Lian Zhidiao with an almost predatory grin. “In fact, quite the opposite.”