The regret from the overindulgence in huangjiu, while not great, was nowhere near the splitting headache and cottonmouth he used to have with baijiu. All things told, drinking parties in this world, from a purely alcoholic perspective, weren’t bad. Lian Zhidiao dressed himself and brushed his hair, wincing at the tug of the comb. Even though the fantasy drama look was amazing, the upkeep was killer.
Breakfast was long over, but a servant girl was sent to bring a meal suitable for a hangover. Lian Zhidiao put his hand to his head as he emerged into the sunlit common area. The screens had been moved again to shield Yue Shipei’s bed from the open area and give him a bit more privacy. People were moving around behind the screens: an older man, his hair shot through with gray, and a few assistants, brewing medicine. Hu Baitian stood off to the side, his arms crossed over his chest, watching. Lian Zhidiao could see that Yue Shipei was stripped to the waist; the older man had his hands on Yue Shipei’s chest, his palms aglow.
This must be the healing that he’s getting every day. I must have missed it yesterday when I went for a walk.
The servant girl brought back congee and some weak tea, which did much to diminish the headache and the feeling of his stomach sticking to his back. By the time he had finished it, the doctor had also finished his healing, and was leaving further instructions with Hu Baitian. The assistants and the doctor filed out; Lian Zhidiao dipped his head as they passed.
“I can do this myself,” Yue Shipei protested.
Lian Zhidiao looked over at them. Beyond the screens, Hu Baitian had his arms around Yue Shipei, pulling his robes back into place. He was moving slowly and carefully, especially on his injured side, where sudden movements might hurt him more.
“Don’t make things difficult,” Hu Baitian snapped at him.
Yue Shipei’s head turned toward Lian Zhidiao, seeming to sense that they were not alone. Then he let out a sigh. “Fine.”
Hu Baitian worked quickly, pulling his robes back up over his shoulders. With quick, businesslike motions, he smoothed down Yue Shipei’s collar and made him look well-groomed despite the days without a bath. He had just finished when he looked up and saw Lian Zhidiao through the screens.
Yue Shipei’s cryptic pronouncement from the night before echoed in Lian Zhidiao’s mind. Even if Yue Shipei thinks it’s good that I came back, that may not be what everyone else is thinking. The look on Hu Baitian’s face was hard to describe, but Lian Zhidiao put it down to contempt. Case in point. Addressing upsetting the mood would be excruciating, but not addressing it at all didn’t seem right either. He might as well start here.
Lian Zhidiao stood up and made his way into Yue Shipei’s area, offering them both a small salute. He kept his eyes averted from Yue Shipei. He hadn’t been so drunk last night that he didn’t remember Yue Shipei’s cool stare by lamplight. The last thing he wanted was to see that stare again.
“Did you sleep well, Lian Zhidiao?”
“Yes,” Lian Zhidiao said, looking up in spite of himself. To his surprise, Yue Shipei’s face was neutral, and in the light of day, wasn’t anywhere near as sinister as he had imagined it last night.
“Good,” Yue Shipei replied.
Hu Baitian rolled his eyes. “You’re being too kind to him.” Then he turned on Lian Zhidiao. “You made a huge scene last night and put the young master in the position of apologizing for you to the Tuhuan Zhou.” He folded his arms over his chest.
“Hu Baitian, I don’t think he intended to cause a scene.” Yue Shipei leveled his gaze on Lian Zhidiao. “It seems like it wasn’t just one thing, right?”
Yue Shipei, could it be that you’re my benefactor in all this?
“That’s right,” Lian Zhidiao said. “There was a little too much wine, it’s true, but first Zhou Xianzhi—” He cut himself off mid-sentence. I don’t really want to reveal what Zhou Xianzhi said. That might create more questions that I don’t want to answer or even think about answering.
“Don’t blame it on that guy. It wasn’t until Yue Fengjian stole your lychee that you stormed off.” Hu Baitian was positively scowling now. “Getting that worked up over something that small!”
“It…” But Lian Zhidiao couldn’t even say that it had been the way that Yue Fengjian had stolen the lychee. Just thinking about the brush of Yue Fengjian’s lips against his fingers made his shameful reaction play out in front of his eyes again. Sober and in broad daylight, his cheeks began to burn with embarrassment.
“It was just a fruit,” Hu Baitian snapped. “It wasn’t even the last one!”
He’s right. Even if Lian Zhidiao had been drunk, he was fully aware that being that excitable wasn’t a good thing. He couldn’t say exactly why what Zhou Xianzhi had said was shocking, or why he’d had such an outsized response. And to be scolded by Hu Baitian, who was dutiful and competent and wouldn’t ever have had that response? Lian Zhidiao bowed his head.
“Hu Baitian,” Yue Shipei said gently. “It isn’t good to hold a man responsible for his drunken behavior.”
Hu Baitian turned his viper’s gaze on Yue Shipei. “You’re defending him? Yue Fengjian had to bow to them so deeply!”
“Dage can admit when he’s made a mistake.” Yue Shipei nodded to Lian Zhidiao. “And he is contrite.”
“So what?” Hu Baitian turned his searing attention back on Lian Zhidiao. His voice rose in volume, no longer just irritated, but angry. “It’s all an act, isn’t it?”
An act? What is he talking about? Just what does he think is an act?? Lian Zhidiao was at a loss for words. The fury on Hu Baitian’s face seemed like too much for such a small transgression. Maybe he’s mad at me for something else? Indeed, the more Lian Zhidiao looked at the situation, the more it seemed like something else had happened and Hu Baitian’s current anger was mingled with a lot of resentment.
“Hu Baitian,” Yue Shipei said, his voice calm and even. His brows were drawn together slightly, but it was catching Hu Baitian in that steady, unflinching stare that seemed to have the greatest effect. With quiet strength, he challenged Hu Baitian’s anger and broke it. “That’s enough.”
Hu Baitian set his jaw, restrained from hurling invective at Lian Zhidiao only by Yue Shipei’s presence. But his fierce glare said enough.
“Perhaps taking a walk is a good idea,” Yue Shipei suggested.
The message came across loud and clear. Time to get out of here.
He slipped away from Yue Shipei’s bedside, still able to feel Hu Baitian’s eyes nettling his back even as he left the pavilion. Lian Zhidiao briefly considered going back to the silk house immediately, but he had not had time yet to let what he’d learned sink in, so he might have found himself sitting there tippy-tapping on an orange cat with no idea what to ask. Walking was better for working out your thoughts.
A servant showed him the way to the front gate, which was further away than he thought. In hindsight, he should have realized from the extensive gardens that the whole palace was larger than he’d realized. The gates were large and imposing, guarded by carved stone tigers that were life-sized.
Come to think of it, didn’t the System say that the Great Jade Beast that was here was Qinghu?
Lian Zhidiao had seen normal jade beasts—well, two broken ones, and those just cows—but a Great Jade Beast had to be somewhat different, right?
It was a bit of a walk, but easy enough to find the center of Fenfang City: all streets led to the Green Highway. The Green Highway was broad, paved with gray stone, and wide enough for nine carts to pass side-by-side. There were countless merchants and tradespeople milling about, assistants at their side with abacus and ink.
Lian Zhidiao thought back to what he’d overheard Lin Piaozhu and Lin Buhuan talking about. The Lin sect—and apparently Fenfang City—was the center of the trading world, serving as a marketplace for the goods of either side to be sold to the other. But it was nowhere near an ocean, meaning that most goods had to be moved overland or by river. For large or heavy objects, this Green Highway might be sufficient for part of the travel, but entering narrower roads would be more difficult. Lin Piaozhu was right; moving quarry stones by river barge would be the best way to do it.
But it looked like everything was going fine. Just how bad were the Wa taxes, anyway?
There were quite a few cultivators in the crowd as well, mostly members of the Lin sect, easy to recognize because of their verdant robes. Several of them had polished bronze armor and wore jewelry or an extravagant gold or silver xiaoguan. Every member seemed to be a display of the Lin sect’s wealth. A few other sects were present as well. About ten members of the Yuan sect were walking around in a group, their robes flashing in the sunlight.
I wonder if those are Speakers.
The group of Yuan sect members were walking up the Green Highway; as Lian Zhidiao followed them with his eyes, he saw a massive temple at the end of it, round, crowned with a golden roof that shone bright enough to leave spots in his vision. Even at this distance, he could see that the ornate doors were covered with silver plating. Without making a decision to do so, his feet started to move toward the temple.
Light-headedness and a faint sensation of electricity slowly crept over him as he drew closer, until his body felt like it was humming. At the same time, there was a pleasant, refreshing feeling, like a cooling breeze on a hot day. The Yuan sect members moved off around the side of the building, staying in the park that was planted around it. Maybe they weren’t here to go inside, but just to be in the area to let their golden cores be rejuvenated. Every part of this temple and the gardens around it seemed to be suffused with living power and warmth.
This must be roaring earth.
Up close the temple loomed even larger; Lian Zhidiao had to crane his neck back to see it. The silver on the huge doors was tinted blue in the shadow of the overhang; one of them stood slightly ajar, just wide enough that people could fit through. The scent of burning incense wafted out of the open doors. Lian Zhidiao’s hands shook with excitement as he slipped inside.
It took a moment for his eyes to adjust to the darkness, but the first thing Lian Zhidiao was aware of was the presence of a free-standing circular altar not far from the door. Bounded on three sides by a red-painted railing, the altar and worshipping space was a small fraction of the interior of the temple.
There was no statue or idol, but ledges going entirely around the altar with row upon row of incense bowls, thin threads of smoke rising up into the blackened rafters. Nestled in between the bowls were small potted plants and miniature trees, each of them full and lush. Some of them had fat, fragrant blossoms weighing down their branches, and on others, small green fruits had already started to bulge from the tips of branches. There were no fruits laid out on platters or cut flowers. Every one of the plants at the altar was not only living, but bursting with life, green testaments to the potency of roaring earth created by the Great Jade Beast.
These aren’t gifts or offerings from cultivators. These were worship from the common people, those without golden cores.
The railing didn’t stop people from leaning over it to peer into the furthest part of the temple. Lian Zhidiao joined them, looking in the same direction they were, and breathing a small ‘oh’ when he saw what they saw.
The Great Jade Beast Qinghu, an enormous tiger made of translucent green jade of the finest color, with stripes of deeper, richer green. The lamplight glinted off his polished stone hide, showing off his sculpted brawn. He lay on his side, very still, and might have been mistaken for a statue if not for the occasional heavy thud of his tail tapping on the floor. His great head turned toward the door, milky jade eyes seeming to regard the people who came to pay homage. The shape of the altar and the railing keeping everyone from going fully into the temple made more sense now. They needed no idol or statue, because the Great Jade Beast was the object of worship.
What makes him Great, other than his size? Are Great Jade Beasts fundamentally different from the regular jade beasts?
Lian Zhidiao was mulling this over when a murmur began among the people standing at the altar. The tiger heaved himself up onto four paws and took a few steps toward the altar. Every paw made the leaves on the plants tremble as if caught in a summer storm. The hum in Lian Zhidiao’s golden core intensified. Qinghu’s head was the size of a small car, each tooth the size of a meat cleaver. When he was close to the railing, he lowered his head and inspected the gathered people.
If the Great Jade Beast had been any living animal, at this distance Lian Zhidiao would have been knocked flat by its breath. But Qinghu was eerily quiet, his huge muzzle drifting over the heads of those villagers who were not too afraid to stay. The tiger touched each of them in turn, and before Lian Zhidiao realized what was happening, the Great Jade Beast nuzzled his head against him.
Before, Lian Zhidiao had inspected the interior of jade beasts that were in a state of deep disrepair. He had needed to provide his own qi to light them up and reveal the deviate and demonic taint that needed to be cleansed. Inside Qinghu, qi blazed like a mighty sun, too bright to behold. Normal jade beasts contained only normal meridians, or at least only a number and arrangement of meridians that one might expect. In Qinghu, his meridians were divided, and divided again, and divided again. Pathways for qi suffused every part of the stone, making them look more like blood vessels than conduits for energy.
Then, as quickly as he had gotten to see inside, Qinghu left him, turning around with his tail high. He (for it was now very clear that Qinghu was a he) walked back to his original location and laid down again, facing the doors and the altar. Once again, Qinghu was the very image of a statue: unblinking and eternal.
Slowly the voices of the people nearby began to filter into Lian Zhidiao’s mind.
“Did you see that, Master Wa?” The man next to him looked on the edge of ecstasy, with wet tear tracks down his cheeks. “Lord Qinghu got up!”
Still a little dazed, Lian Zhidiao turned and looked at the worshippers. “What happened?”
“He hasn’t gotten up to inspect his altar in months! To think that this worthless commoner would be here to witness such an event, to be touched by him!”
Lian Zhidiao looked around and found that other people were similarly overcome with emotion, weeping with gratitude. The man turned to the others, and they all cried at their good fortune. But feeling none of this rapture touch him, Lian Zhidiao slipped out of the heavy silver doors.
The walk back to the Lin residence seemed to take longer than the walk there; by the time Lian Zhidiao reached the front gates, the sun was nearly grazing the tops of the trees. Lian Zhidiao found Yue Shipei in the pavilion in much the same way he’d left him, but without the livid Hu Baitian hovering around him.
Surprise showed on Yue Shipei’s face. “That was a long walk.”
“I went to see Qinghu,” Lian Zhidiao said. “It—” Wait, I’m supposed to have been here before, so I’d probably been to see Qinghu before as well. “—has been a long time.”
A gentle smile spread over Yue Shipei’s face. “You do seem to have a curious attachment to them. I suppose the Wa sect still has an abundance of them.”
“Of jade beasts?” Lian Zhidiao thought guiltily about the broken jade cat in its traveling case. “Well, we have enough. Doesn’t the Yue sect?”
Yue Shipei’s smile developed a wry twist. “The Yue sect has far too much riding on jade beasts to sacrifice any for experiments that might warp the Emperor’s magic and violate the laws. Still,” he continued. “It seems you’ve invented something useful.”
So Lian Zhidiao was the inventor of jade beast cleansing? Had he written something like that? Was that his role in the story? Lian Zhidiao frowned, thinking back on Supreme Warlord of the Beast World. No, he didn’t remember writing anything about cleansing jade beasts: their destruction next to demon lands had just been a convenient plot point. But he should have realized that even if he had written that jade beasts were being destroyed or rendered inactive, that in a real version of his world, some enterprising cultivator would devise a solution.
But what laws was he potentially breaking?
Lian Zhidiao dipped his head a little bit, trying to accept the praise in the spirit in which it was given. “Thank you.” A long silence stretched between them, and Lian Zhidiao finally realized how quiet it was. “Where is everyone else, by the way?”
“Ah,” Yue Shipei replied. “They went into town to visit a garden of flowers.” He looked away, putting his eyes down on the book that was spread open on his lap.
“But it’s nearly sunset. They won’t be able to see the flowers for much longer.”
Yue Shipei’s cheeks were slowly turning pink, and he covered his mouth with his hand, clearing his throat. “There are certain gardens that specialize in night-blooming flowers.”
Night-blooming… flowers? Lian Zhidiao’s eyes widened. He’s talking about a brothel!
“A-Aaah, I see,” Lian Zhidiao said, an uncomfortable giggle under his voice. “Everyone went, huh?”
Wait, what? Even Yue Yaosa?
“You didn’t go because of your injury.”
Yue Shipei cleared his throat. “I’m not fond of those kinds of gardens anyway.”
“…Me either,” Lian Zhidiao said, feeling that while he’d never had the chance to visit a brothel, he wasn’t really interested in going. The two of them shared a meaningful look, unexpectedly bound together by the camaraderie of not wanting to visit a house of ill repute.
The moment was interrupted by the arrival of the old doctor and his assistants with covered trays. Lian Zhidiao stood back as they descended on their patient, ready to mix together his last dose of medicine for the day. Yue Shipei’s expression became a long-suffering one. “They’re likely not to be back until late,” Yue Shipei said.
Lian Zhidiao nodded. “I’ll leave you to your work,” he said to the old doctor, and escaped the pavilion as quickly as he could.
A sense of unease built in Lian Zhidiao as he walked through the private gardens. It was probably due to the doctor; he had not been comfortable around medical professionals since he left school. Lian Zhidiao didn’t look too closely at the ugly feeling that roiled in the pit of his stomach when he thought about Yue Fengjian going ‘flower-viewing’. Yue Fengjian may be a harem protagonist, but he should confine his lusts to the love interests that were written for him!
Before he knew it, his feet had carried him back to the silk house. But instead of a nice quiet moment with him and Orange and System, Lian Zhidiao discovered he was not alone in wanting to escape to the comfort of an attentive, loving cat.
Sitting on the stone step in front of the silk house was Lin Xianglan.
Previous Chapter < Chapter 17: WHAT
Next Chapter > Chapter 19: Being A Wingman For The Main Character Is Hard!