Lian Zhidiao took to peeling the lychee without question. “What do you mean?”
Zhou Xianzhi fluttered his fan a little bit. “It seems that the groom didn’t want to marry her. When his father ordered him to, instead of listening to his family, he ran away.”
Lian Zhidiao’s fingers stopped peeling the lychee. He had the feeling of almost remembering something, but the alcohol sent it floating away again. “Doesn’t sound like he was a good person, then.”
“No,” Zhou Xianzhi agreed. “A villain indeed. Of course it reflected poorly on his father, as it should.”
“Mm.” Lian Zhidiao finished peeling the lychee that Zhou Xianzhi had given him and tucked it in his mouth. “I wonder what happened to him.”
“Who can say,” Zhou Xianzhi answered with a coy smile. “But I suppose, if he’s made the right choice, it won’t matter to him that he’s burned all the bridges with his family.”
“He’ll regret it,” Lian Zhidiao mumbled, still sucking the flesh off the lychee seed.
“Perhaps,” Zhou Xianzhi replied.
Lian Zhidiao pulled the lychee seed from his mouth, licking the last of the juice from his fingertips. His eyelids were starting to droop again, and even peeling and eating the lychee wasn’t keeping warm, drowsy feelings from creeping in.
To his mild dismay, he saw Yue Fengjian reaching for the wine ladle and filling the cup in front of Lian Zhidiao. Another toast. But Lian Zhidiao dutifully took the wine ladle and filled Yue Fengjian’s cup, putting a little extra in it.
The sooner I can get these toasts to stop, the sooner I can start sobering up.
Yue Fengjian waited until Lian Zhidiao had finished before lifting his cup. “To your trade,” he said to Zhou Xianzhi. “May a dozen brides ask for your treasures and more.”
Lian Zhidiao drank with the other two and put down his cup, his brow furrowed. Coming from the protagonist of a harem novel, that kind of statement seems very… prescient, Yue Fengjian. His frown deepened and he hazarded a look up at the big man to his right. His arms slid on the table a little bit. He was at risk of putting his head down when Yue Fengjian reached out and took a lychee, pinching some of the skin off, and dropped it into Lian Zhidiao’s hand.
Lian Zhidiao blinked, but it did perk him up a little bit. Like a child (or a drunk man) given a simple task, he sat up again and began to peel it.
“I’m relieved to know of your trade,” Yue Fengjian said, watching Lian Zhidiao pick at the lychee. “I went to train with some Lin disciples this morning.”
“I bet they were keen to see you,” Lian Zhidiao mumbled, focused on the lychee.
“…Mm,” Yue Fengjian allowed after a brief moment where he seemed unable to say anything. “They had some interesting stories to tell.”
“I love a good story,” Zhou Xianzhi purred, his hair wafting in the gust from his fan. “Tell us one.”
Yue Fengjian’s voice took on the air of a teacher relating a parable while instructing his students, direct and instructive. “It seems that the disciples knew of a woman in the Lin sect who had been recently widowed due to unfortunate circumstances. Her husband was the possessor of a certain technique that was known only to a few people. He was the only one who had not gone into seclusion.” Lian Zhidiao pursed his lips to hide a smile at how well Yue Fengjian fit into the authoritative role.
“Was the widow a cultivator as well?” Zhou Xianzhi reached out and took a piece of melon and put it on a small plate. “It seems she is headed for a sad end if she is not.”
“I was told that she is a cultivator, but has low aptitude,” Yue Fengjian replied.
“How unfortunate for the old master.”
“Love is blind,” Liao Kuaiyu offered.
“Mm,” Lian Zhidiao agreed, pulling off bits of the lychee skin in small pieces.
“It seems that this widow possessed considerable vigor. Their marriage was the kind where an old man marries a young woman. Even if his cultivation was good enough to possess a manual of techniques, it doesn’t mean that the demands of a young wife can be easily met.” Yue Fengjian’s face was completely blank, the facts of the matter related as plainly as could be.
“Oh my,” Zhou Xianzhi said. “Was that how he died?”
“It seems so,” Yue Fengjian said, looking serious.
Lian Zhidiao actually stopped peeling the lychee to stare at Yue Fengjian. Is he saying that she was so demanding in bed, she killed him? That is what he’s saying, right?
Yue Fengjian gave Lian Zhidiao a long, steady look, his eyelids slow to break their gaze. He didn’t look away until long after he’d started talking again. “This ardent young wife was left without a husband, who had outlived all his family. Then she found herself possessed of his not-insignificant fortune, as well as the manuals he had left behind. After the mourning period had ended, a pair of technique hunters found her, it seems, and tried to get her to loosen her grip on them.”
“Fools, of course,” Zhou Xianzhi said airily. “A woman with money has no need of more money. A husband is more important.”
“It is as you say,” Yue Fengjian said. “She was too wealthy to consider obtaining a dowry or selling the manuals, and had her pick of suitors. It became known that she devised a test for her suitors: if they could match her in her vigor, she would marry them.”
Lian Zhidiao realized that everyone around the table had hushed themselves to listen to Yue Fengjian’s story.
“Sounds like a good plan to me,” Yue Yaosa chimed in from across the table. She had a slightly lascivious smile on her face.
“A-Zhen,” Yue Shipei scolded her.
Maybe she’s heard Yue Fengjian tell this story before? Or maybe she just likes dirty stories.
“Well, with a condition like that, men from everywhere wanted to have the chance to try to satisfy her,” Yue Fengjian said. “But with their offers of money refused, the two technique hunters made a deal with her. They would take only one of the dead man’s manuals, if either one of them could satisfy her desires.” Yue Fengjian’s eyes were back on Lian Zhidiao, pressing on him. “She was free to choose which of the two men to take to bed.”
He keeps looking at me. Lian Zhidiao shifted uneasily and finally finished peeling the lychee. This one disappeared into his mouth as well. Lian Zhidiao looked over at Zhou Xianzhi, who had a tipsy smile on his lips. Zhou Xiangu seemed deeper in his cups, and was staring sullenly at the table, listening.
“Which one did she choose?” Hu Baitian broke in.
“The disciples could not tell me that,” Yue Fengjian said. “Only that she did eventually choose one.”
Lian Zhidiao spit out the seed, making a small pile of lychee seeds and skins. The sweet floral aroma clung to his mouth; he licked the juice from his lips. But no sooner had he done this than Yue Fengjian plopped another lychee into his hands, with a hole started for peeling.
“The evening arrived, and the technique hunter made love to her all night long, and when the morning came, she was satisfied. She was true to her word and gave one of the manuals to the man, and he took his leave. She never saw him again.”
“What a lewd woman,” Hu Baitian said, his voice thick with disgust.
“Don’t be so quick to judge, Hu Baitian,” Yue Shipei teased him. “You haven’t had a wife, so you don’t know what it’s like.” Liao Kuaiyu let out a guffaw, and even Yue Yaosa couldn’t keep a giggle from coming out. Hu Baitian colored visibly, but accepted the ribbing good naturedly.
“My xiandi is right, of course,” Yue Fengjian said in a solemn tone. “There is a little more to this story.”
“Oh?” Zhou Xianzhi leaned forward, his eyes shining. “Go on.”
“It seems,” Yue Fengjian said, “That this woman’s servants noticed a man in the garden overnight. Knowing she was expecting ‘company’, they simply believed this man to be her lover. But one of them saw a curious thing.”
“What did they see?”
“One of them heard their mistress cry out with pleasure, and not long after that, another man came out from their mistress’ quarters, and the man who had been waiting went back inside in his place.”
An audible gasp came from Yue Yaosa, and surprise showed on the rest of their faces as well.
“Well, once the servant saw this, her lips began to flap, and her entire household knew about it by morning.”
“They tricked her?” Lian Zhidiao scowled. “How awful.”
“It’s one thing for her to make such a reckless agreement,” Liao Kuaiyu said, his arms folded over his chest. “But if they misused her trust like that, then they’re villains as well.”
Yue Yaosa held her chin in her hand, her mouth slightly open. “But how did she not notice a different man?”
“The late hour or low lighting,” Yue Shipei guessed.
“The disciples were able to tell me that the reason the widow did not notice was that the two men looked very similar.” Yue Fengjian pinned Lian Zhidiao with his eyes, leaning a little closer. “Twins, perhaps.”
“How mysterious,” Zhou Xianzhi said, agreeing with everyone. Zhou Xiangu remained silent.
Lian Zhidiao sat up straight again and gave Yue Fengjian a smile. “A good story to remind you of the realities of the world. You told it well.”
Yue Fengjian inclined his head, his ponytail falling partially over his shoulder.
“Unscrupulous men like that do exist, and the widow’s unfortunate circumstances are cautionary tales to the rest of us.” Zhou Xianzhi chimed in with a happy sigh. “A very good story indeed.”
At these last few words, Zhou Zianzhi moved and Lian Zhidiao felt something touch him. He turned to look, and Zhou Xianzhi’s blue sleeve was resting on top of his left knee. It stayed only for an instant, and then Zhou Xianzhi shifted again, making himself comfortable.
Zhou Xianzhi caught his eye and flashed him a small smile. A certain amount of protective urge was rising up in Lian Zhidiao. He’d seen girls at parties make bad mistakes while drunk. Zhou Xianzhi’s slightly drunken look was charming on his feminine face, giving off the feeling that he needed to be careful about how much more he indulged, lest something bad happen to him.
Lian Zhidiao decided that he was finished drinking for the evening around the same time he got the skin off the lychee he’d been working on. It was halfway to his mouth, pinched between finger and thumb, when Zhou Xianzhi leaned over next to him. The closeness made him pause, lychee in mid-air, as he leaned over to hear what Zhou Xianzhi had to say.
“Little one,” he said, his voice husky. “Don’t you think it’s time we take our leave?”
Lian Zhidiao blinked.
Zhou Xianzhi stopped and pulled Lian Zhidiao’s hair aside gently, letting his mouth get much closer. His voice dropped down into a whisper, but even this wasn’t an overbearing drunk whisper that anyone could hear. It was completely private, just for the two of them.
“I want to have fun with you again.” Zhou Xianzhi paused; his breath stirred the hairs on the sensitive skin of Lian Zhidiao’s neck. “Like we did in the inn on the river.” Zhou Xianzhi’s voice changed; Lian Zhidiao could hear the smile in it, even if he couldn’t see it. “If you wish, you may take the lead.” And after this Zhou Xianzhi drew back, settling back into his place at the table. His fan began to wave again and he seemed at his ease.
Lian Zhidiao stared at him.
A proposition? He blinked again, the realization like dunking his drunk brain in a bucket of ice water. No, not just a proposition. There was something before! He—they—had been together before!
Lian Zhidiao took Zhou Xianzhi’s expression in, his eyes slowly widening. That look of a lazy cat who had its fill of milk and still somehow wanted cream, luxuriating in the liberties afforded to him. And then, slowly, his eyes drifted just beyond Zhou Xianzhi to rest on Zhou Xiangu.
Zhou Xiangu’s silent kind of drunkenness was being dispelled by a soulful look, which he fixed on Lian Zhidiao. It was the kind of longing look a drunk man gave a former lover as he attempted to make the sincerity of his passion clear from across the room.
The bottom of Lian Zhidiao’s stomach dropped.
No…no. Him too?!
Lian Zhidiao’s mouth went completely dry as he stared at him, but the rest of him was beet red. Not just with alcohol—although like anyone, he got red-faced when drinking—but with embarrassment and shame.
It wasn’t even me, but…both of them? Really, Lian Zhidiao? Both of them?
Lian Zhidiao looked back at Zhou Xianzhi to see that his face had become a picture of serenity. His smile had no affect to it or lewd intent. At this moment, he seemed to be content merely to watch Lian Zhidiao work through the offer he’d made, with no idea of the suddenness of Lian Zhidiao’s revelations.
All of this happened in a matter of seconds, and Lian Zhidiao had very little time to absorb any of it before the next thing happened.
A strong hand took his right wrist, pulling at it. Lian Zhidiao turned his head just in time to see Yue Fengjian’s mouth moving toward his fingers. His lips parted, grazing the side of Lian Zhidiao’s fingers, his breath hot on Lian Zhidiao’s hand. Then with his teeth, he plucked the lychee from between them and looked up into Lian Zhidiao’s face, spearing him with that lion’s gaze.
“Aah!” Lian Zhidiao snatched his hand back as if he’d been burned, pulling away from Yue Fengjian. The sudden movement nearly landed him in Zhou Xianzhi’s lap.
Zhou Xianzhi’s arms opened, but a tentative smile was building on his face. “Little one?”
“Aah!!” Lian Zhidiao cried again, stumbling as he got to his feet. There was no staying here between two beasts that wanted to tear him in half. He couldn’t wait around. He heard his name called from inside the pavilion—it might be Yue Fengjian, or worse, Zhou Xianzhi—and he started to run. He had to just get away for a second, just let things cool off, and then come back when he wasn’t drunk and the Zhou twins were gone, and maybe everyone was asleep and no one would ask him why he’d been so upset.
Who wouldn’t be upset at finding out that their body had been the plaything of two very questionable scoundrels!
Yue Fengjian’s face flashed in front of his eyes and he let out a groan.
Those two were enough, but him too? With the stunning clarity that can only come from having two very stern shocks to the system very close together, Lian Zhidiao saw the what—or in this case, who—the stakes were in the game of weiqi he’d sensed around him.
The gardens weren’t well-lit at night, but there were a few paths that had braziers, their comforting fires banked for the evening. Fireflies were still moving in and out between the leaves, their green glows winking in and out of sight. The moon was high and still very full, silvering the leaves and making the white flowers in the garden glow like lanterns. Moonlight reflected off the surface of a pond, luminous highlights that danced over the undersides of lotus leaves and the flat black stones that edged the water.
Somehow, surrounded by darkness and silence, the ice-water effect of shock drained away. Lian Zhidiao looked up at the moon, and noticed immediately that the moon didn’t look like the moon from back home. The maria weren’t the same shape, and this one was pockmarked with craters. In a world like this, there might actually be a jade rabbit on the moon. Lian Zhidiao put his hand to his head and continued to trudge through the garden.
There would be nothing to do but apologize when he got back. He’d been shocked so much, but he’d have to apologize to them both for having such an outsized reaction. Really, this was another reason he didn’t like social drinking. He wasn’t the kind of person who ever benefited from the networking that happened at these parties. Something like this always happened instead.
Well, maybe not quite this bad.
His feet had carried him along a path he’d found earlier in the day, to the silk houses. Big baskets sat empty next to the doors. Curious (and needing anything to distract him from the disaster that had just befallen him), he walked around the silk house, and then peered inside.
Racks of silkworms were set up over large flat baskets. They weren’t wire baskets, but bamboo split into very thin strips and woven into a loose cage. There was a constant, low-level hiss of crunching and chewing, like static on a TV at a very low volume. The closer he got, the more he could pick out the sound of individual worms munching away on leaves.
Something rubbed against his leg.
His nerves fried, Lian Zhidiao skittered back out of the silk house, only to see by moonlight that the thing that had rubbed against him was nothing but a cat. A silk-house cat was kept only to kill the rats that ate silkworms. It was lean, tabby-and-white, and threw itself against his leg again, rubbing its whole body along its calf with its tail straight up.
He put his hand to his heart. “Oh, it’s just… You scared me.” Lian Zhidiao did feel a little silly talking out loud to a cat, but it seemed unlikely that anything that might happen as a result of someone hearing him talk to a cat could top what had already occurred.
Instead, he sat down on the small step of the silk house and patted the stone next to him. The cat hopped up on the porch next to him and began rubbing white-and-tabby fur all over his side.
“Whoa, hey,” he said. The cat put one paw up on his thigh, petting itself against him.
I guess cats will be cats no matter what world they’re in.
Another cat came out from the silk house to investigate: this one was orange and also demanded affection in no uncertain terms. After all, Lian Zhidiao did have two hands.
Once this cat arrived, though, Tabby-And-White didn’t seem interested in sticking around, loping off into the darkness. Orange demanded all his attention, purring loudly. When it was satisfied, it flopped next to him on its side, stretching out and showing its belly.
And because Lian Zhidiao had two hands, he put both of them on the cat to rub its side and belly. He tapped his fingers on the cat like a keyboard, and the cat accepted this indignity without complaint.
Lian Zhidiao grinned. And then out of the corner of his eye he saw lines of white text scrolling by.
Error: Time/Date needs to be reset.
Error: User profile not found.
Error: Personal Companion Unit (v0.3) has been decoupled.
Error: Main Terminal offline.
Error: Auxiliary Terminal not responding.
Restoring to last successful configuration.
Emergency Terminal key generated.
Emergency Terminal online.
User profile generated.
System (™) Version 1.1 Running. . .