There could be no mistaking the Beauty of the Lin sect for anyone else. Her hair was beautifully bound up, her makeup the perfect image of a refined court lady. The sun sinking beyond the trees warmed her peach-colored dress, painting her with pink light. She was touched by the rays of heaven; the Lin sect’s most enchanting bloom.
Lian Zhidiao skidded to a stop on the path, and tried to hide himself behind a nearby tree.
No, no, this I remember for sure!
In Supreme Warlord of the Beast World, Yue Fengjian used his one-on-one meeting with Lin Buhuan to appeal to the Lin sect for aid in addressing the burgeoning demonic threat along the border. Lin Buhuan was reticent about getting his sect involved in a major war, but said he would think about it. It was this night that Yue Fengjian and Lin Xianglan met and impetuously fell into bed together.
And he’s out at a brothel instead! Young Master Fengjian, you have responsibilities! Responsibilities that included seducing Lin Buhuan’s niece and getting her on his side, so that her influence would help secure his first major ally in the fight against the demons. He didn’t remember all the details of their encounter—after all, it had occurred early in the story— but that the establishment of their relationship would happen tonight was a material fact.
Lian Zhidiao peeked around the side of the tree.
Tabby-And-White had its front paws up on Lin Xianglan’s thigh and was leaning into her hand to get maximum hand-on-ears petting action. Staring off into space, Lin Xianglan acquiesced to this insistent invasion of her personal space. Tabby-And-White, sensing weakness, draped itself across her lap and looked up at her adoringly. Lin Xianglan smiled down at the cat, but soon went back to absently rubbing its ears, her thoughts elsewhere.
An inquisitive mrow sounded at Lian Zhidiao’s feet. He looked down to find Orange looking up at him, his tail straight up and the tip flopping back and forth with interest.
Oh, this is lucky! I can just use the Emergency Terminal without needing to bother Lin Xianglan. Then, when Yue Fengjian arrives, the events of the story can proceed as I wrote them.
“Who’s there?” Lin Xianglan called out across the garden.
Lian Zhidiao froze in place. Orange meowed up at him again, clearly eager to get all the belly rubs that were promised by being the Terminal. Lian Zhidiao gave the cat a disparaging look. It would have been nice to avoid having to talk to her, knowing she was about to spend the night with Yue Fengjian, but now that the cat had revealed his position, he didn’t have much choice. Reluctantly, Lian Zhidiao stepped back out onto the path and immediately made a deep bow and a salute. “Forgive this young man for not announcing his presence sooner.”
“Who are you?” Lin Xianglian’s voice shook a little. She seemed poised to flee the scene, like a deer caught at the side of the road.
Oh no, she sounds like a noblewoman whose virtue is being threatened by bandits. It was a fair assessment of her situation honestly. A member of the spooky Wa sect just appearing out of the darkness in her family’s private garden? Her caution was justified.
“Lian Chanjian, courtesy name Zhidiao.”
“Oh.” She relaxed a little, much to the relief of Tabby-And-White, who had been at risk of being unceremoniously dumped in the dirt. “You’re that Wa magician.”
“Yes.” Lian Zhidiao straightened up and then walked toward the silk house, with Orange following behind him. He couldn’t help but feel that Orange’s attitude was of a cat triumphantly bringing prey back to its owner. Indeed, as soon as he sat down, Orange went over to Lin Xianglan’s side and butted its head against her.
“I thought that I would be safe from talking if I came out here.”
Safe from talking? “What do you mean?”
“My uncle has been discussing matters with your friend for hours.”
“Ah, Yue Fengjian.”
“Yes.” Her voice softened. “He really is in a bind, isn’t he?”
Lian Zhidiao couldn’t help but grin. “Is it possible that you’ve been eavesdropping on your uncle and Yue Fengjian all day?”
“E-Eavesdropping?!” She lifted her sleeve a little to partially hide her cheek. “I-It’s true that my uncle doesn’t often entertain visitors from other sects. I was curious.”
“Is that so?”
“Mm,” she replied. She stroked Orange’s ears and then went back to petting Tabby-And-White in her lap. Orange hopped off the stone step and sat on the path leading to silk house, grooming itself. “This is my first time meeting a member of the Wa sect, for instance.”
“Oh,” Lian Zhidiao said. It was well into dusk now, the gloaming gathering in hollows around the garden. He pulled up the jade spindle-weight and began to spin fire through it. A flame sprang to life just above the ring, and hovered in the air, providing steady light. “Not many of us come here?”
“Well, most sect business isn’t done at home, but up in the hills, at the school.” She lowered her sleeve a little bit, giving him a sideways look from underneath her long lashes. “I heard a little about what you did.”
“What I did?”
“Yes. For Sancha Town.”
“Ah.” Lian Zhidiao tucked his feet up and wrapped his arms around his knees. “That was mostly the Lin sect cultivators and Yue Fengjian.”
“Not the way he told it,” Lin Xianglan protested.
“Did he mention that he was the one who killed the demon?”
Lin Xianglan thought for a moment and then nodded. “Yes, but he placed great importance on the others who helped him.” She paused for a moment and then a small smile spread across her face. “He’s very brave, and humble.”
“Mm,” Lian Zhidiao agreed.
“What’s he like when he fights?”
Here it is, the beginnings of her interest in him. Being a wingman for his own harem protagonist was weird enough; wasn’t it all supposed to happen as he’d written it? I suppose I have to tell her how great he is, so that she will fall in love with him?
“He’s…” Lian Zhidiao let the events of Sancha Town play out in his mind again.
Yue Fengjian’s confidence when hearing of the threat in Sancha Town. The concern on his face when testing the earth or hearing the infant cry. His resolve in the face of scores of deviate villagers and undead. Yue Fengjian’s arm around his waist as they flew on his sword, unflinching as they felt the demon’s killing intent. The courage as he’d faced the demon Tangyi, and his trust in everyone to do their best to defeat the enemy. His mild amazement at the sight of the unearthed jade cow beginning to move again. His reassuring presence behind Lian Zhidiao as they flew to Fenfang City.
“He’s really great,” Lian Zhidiao murmured.
Lin Xianglan giggled, tipping her head towards him, her skin almost glowing in the spindle-light. “You sound like you’re in awe of him, too.”
“He’s just much, much stronger than I am,” Lian Zhidiao laughed. “It’s hard not to respect that kind of strength.”
“I suppose so,” Lin Xianglan replied. “But you seem at ease around him.”
Lian Zhidiao pursed his lips together. Before last night I would have agreed with you! But now, there was a divide between them that he couldn’t reconcile, at least not yet. Not until he’d talked to him and apologized for his bad manners. “He accepted my help, even though I am a member of the Wa sect.”
“Have you left the Wa sect, then?”
“No! No,” Lian Zhidiao protested. “I have just seen his strength and I want to see what he does with it.” He rested his chin on his knees. “That’s all.”
Lin Xianglan digested this information for a moment. “He’s very intense when he talks about fighting demons. I hadn’t heard how much the Yue sect has lost, but it’s apparently quite a lot.”
That got Lian Zhidiao’s attention. “Oh?”
“He asked about the Choking Wood. Uncle just returned from training with his students near there, and said that they’d seen some increased demon activity, but nothing near what they see in the winter season. And then Yue Fengjian said that their demon activity has been increasing every year for ten years.”
“The demons apparently target the jade beasts in the villages, and once those are no longer a concern, it’s easy for them to strike. They put village, field, and forest to ruin, sparing neither women nor children.” Lin Xianglan shivered. “It’s horrible.”
“Mm,” Lian Zhidiao agreed.
“It doesn’t touch your heart?”
“I have seen many things, and the cruelty of the world does not surprise me.”
Lin Xianglian’s voice sounded apologetic when she spoke again. “I’m sorry. My father died when I was young, and since then, my mother has left my education and training to my maids, or to other women in the sect. I have not seen the horrors that you have.” She glanced sidelong at him. “You must think me a silly little girl.”
“Not at all, young mistress.” Lian Zhidiao let his knees fall into a cross-legged position and leaned on his hand. “We can’t help the circumstances into which we are born. You seem to be a genuine and kind person, so I think that it’s better that you are not exposed to the world, which would harden your spirit and thicken your skin.”
It would also destroy that lotus image of you that readers found so enticing. There was but one other Beauty who could even come close to the image of a lotus.
Lin Xianglan’s musical laugh rang out. “You are an amusing man, Lian Zhidiao.”
A cloud covered Lian Zhidiao’s face. “I wasn’t particularly trying to be amusing.”
“No, no, I usually have some difficulty in talking to men, but it’s so easy to talk to you.” Lin Xianglan’s genuine smile matched the contentment in her voice.
“I am a man, you know.”
“I mean manly men,” Lin Xianglan replied with a shy smile. “Like Yue Fengjian.”
Ah. So as a ‘manly man’, it seems like Yue Fengjian is already in her strike zone.
Lian Zhidiao cocked his head to the side. “Why do you think that is?”
Lin Xianglan blinked, as if examining her difficulty in talking to men had never occurred to her. Confusion, and then consternation wrinkled her beautiful face.
She lacks awareness, huh?
“Well, if you can talk to me so easily, then maybe I can give you some advice on how to talk to him.”
“E-Even if I was to speak to Yue Fengjian, what would I say? I only have concerns like which song to practice, or which poems to read.” Her shoulders dropped.
Lian Zhidiao thought on this for a moment. “You should just talk to him. He is a man like any other and will like feeling important to someone.”
“All the men I know do important things, so it’s best not to bother them unless it’s absolutely necessary.” She let out a sigh. “But I’m just me, without any ability to fight or shoot. If I were to speak up about sect matters, I wouldn’t know what I was talking about. And to Yue Fengjian a celebrated demonslayer! What do the words of a pampered princess mean to him?”
“Um…” Lian Zhidiao leaned back on his other hand. “Well, for most people, if you love someone, you want to understand them. It might be possible for a husband and wife to understand each other without talking much, I guess, but… “ He turned to face Lin Xianglan. “You have only just met. How can you understand and connect with one another without ever talking?”
Lian Zhidiao folded his arms over his chest, his brows knitting together. He couldn’t tell Lin Xianglan that if she simply met Yue Fengjian right now, the events of the book would probably take over. Her concerns about whether they were right for each other would be overcome by the force of the plot, which said they had to be together. If she could just meet him alone, tonight, it would be an automatic success.
Instead, Yue Fengjian was at a brothel, and Lin Xianglan was here with him.
Maybe since I’m the author and I’ve transmigrated…the fact that I’ve met her means that I am now the protagonist? Maybe she’s supposed to fall in love with me?
Lin Xianglan gave him a curious look, her features awash with innocence.
No, that would completely change the story! What would be the point of being in a cannon fodder character’s body if I was just going to usurp the story of the protagonist? Why not just put me in the protagonist’s body?
A slow smile spread over Lin Xianglan’s face.
Lian Zhidiao rubbed his chin. No, no, no, she’s still intended for Yue Fengjian, but maybe I have the nights wrong. Maybe there’s more that has to happen between now and then. After all, Yue Shipei has to get better enough to move, and that will take several days at least. There’s still plenty of time for Yue Fengjian to seduce her. But she still absolutely has to talk to him in order for that to happen!
Lin Xianglan reached out and pushed her finger between his eyes, flattening out his brow.
Lian Zhidiao blinked.
Lin Xianglan’s kind and gentle voice reached his ears. Long lashes swept down over her cheeks, briefly hiding her smiling brown eyes. “You’re making a funny face. Are you thinking that hard about my problems?”
Heat rose in Lian Zhidiao’s cheeks. “It isn’t that, it’s just that the young mistress is a good person, so I want to try to help.”
“I think you have,” she said, gently pushing Tabby-And-White off her lap. “I feel much more at peace than I did when I came out to see the cats.” She stood up, looking up at the rising moon, beginning to wane. “I will think about what you’ve said. Maybe I can find the courage to do what I want to do.” She turned in place on the stone step and gave him a bow. “Thank you, Lian Zhidiao.”
Lian Zhidiao got to his feet and returned her bow. “It’s my privilege and honor.” He started to follow her down the steps, but she waved him away.
“You don’t need to escort me. There’s no place safer than this in Fenfang City.” Lin Xianglan smiled, walking near the edge of his spindle-light and then disappearing into the shadows.
Lian Zhidiao stared at the point where he lost sight of her in the darkness, and then sighed. Even after a send-off like that, he felt like a failure. In every story where the author transmigrated and began to interfere with the plot, things inevitably went off the rails. As soon as that happened, he’d be as powerless to do anything as anyone else. This world was mutable, and would change easily if he messed with it. Preserving what little foreknowledge he had and could leverage was priceless. But his options to advocate for either Yue Fengjian or Lin Xianglan were limited. He just had to hope they figured it out on their own so he didn’t have to risk anything.
Well, at least with this talk over, I can find that Terminal. There should be a little time left before the 24 hours is up, and it’s just enough time to ask some questions.
But though he made kissing noises with his mouth and called, Orange wasn’t around. Even Tabby-And-White had cleared off somewhere. Lian Zhidiao was scowling—damn cats!—when he realized that the night had gone very still. There were no calls of night birds, no crickets, no distant frogs in a pond. All he could hear was the sound of the silkworms chewing away at mulberry leaves.
And then, he smelled blood.
The strike came from his right, thick and heavy. His body reacted on its own, shrinking away from the dull sound of metal warping in the air. Lian Zhidiao whirled, painting the area with light. Tall, two horns sprouting out from his temples, a beautiful, cruel face and fine robes, soaked with blood. There was another movement waiting for him, sharper, blacker. The shadows themselves cut at him. They sliced through the silken spindle cord. His flame went out, and the jade spindle-weight landed on the ground with a thud.
In the darkness, he heard a laugh that started low and rose to a sinister whine.
Lian Zhidiao had not gotten the night wrong at all. This first night together hadn’t been a random dalliance.The meeting between Yue Fengjian and Lin Xianglan had been a chance encounter, but a demon had snatched her right at the end of it. It had been an overused trope, so common that you saw it nearly everywhere: one of those ‘you saved me from the demon, so you may do as you wish with me, only please, be gentle’ kind of situations!
Another heavy blow knocked Lian Zhidiao off his feet. He heard the demon step forward, felt the air chill as he got closer. The sound of silkworms churning through the leaves was blocked by the demon’s body.
“It’s you, isn’t it?” The demon’s voice was hoarse, but parts of it cut at him like knives. A clawed hand scraped at Lian Zhidiao’s scalp and then picked him up by the hair. “The troublemaker from Sancha Town.”
Lian Zhidiao wrapped his hands around the demon’s wrist, trying to twist his way out of the strong grip. Whimpers of pain edged his voice.“You’ve got the wron—”
“Silence!” The demon hissed. The stench of blood billowed out of his mouth when he spoke.
Then a hateful shadow curled around Lian Zhidiao, feeling like it would crush his chest to jelly. He was at the demon’s side, being carried like a sack of rice back into the bushes. The demon dragged him into the deepest part of the gardens, over the wall of the Lin family compound, and into the forest.
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