Fatigue weighed down Lian Zhidiao’s limbs, his chest, his eyelids. Even as he started to swim up from oblivion, he couldn’t quite breach the surface into wakefulness. He hung just below, in the twilight. Someone was touching him. Firm hands felt along his legs and his arms. He had a vague sensation of being watched, of someone examining him intently, but there was no way for him to say anything or open his eyes, so he didn’t struggle against it. But the hands were not cold, not rough—he wasn’t in Qianjiao’s clutches any more.
That’s right. Yue Fengjian had picked him up, hadn’t he?
“I told you to leave.” Hu Baitian’s voice was close; his hands must be the ones touching him. His voice was muffled, as if Lian Zhidiao was floating in a pool with his ears below the water.
“The array isn’t done yet. Kuaiyu-shidi is putting the finishing touches on it.”
Yue Fengjian. Relief suffused through Lian Zhidiao at the sound of his voice, even though it was muffled. He’d lost consciousness with the brilliance of a fireball still burning in his eyes, during what was probably the middle of a pitched battle with Qianjiao. Not exactly a safe place. But waking up here must mean that they’d been victorious. As expected of his protagonist!
But an array? Was it the same protection array as the one in Sancha Town? That had needed almost no time to be set up; what kind of ‘finishing touches’ could be necessary?
“Then he doesn’t need your help. You need to rest.” There was a sound of a tray being moved, porcelain dishes clinking together. “I know you didn’t sleep in here. There’s only one bed and he’s in it.”
Yue Fengjian hesitated. “I slept enough.”
Hu Baitian’s clothing shifted; Lian Zhidiao could almost imagine him crossing his arms over his chest. “You’ve only been gone for four hours. You could at least eat something.”
Four hours. Dinner. Had Yue Fengjian been watching over him for so long?
“I’ll have something sent over.”
“Good luck with that,” Hu Baitian grumbled. “None of the servants will get near this pavilion. They’re all scared.”
“Of course they are. They don’t even have demon-repelling arrays carved into the walls here.” Yue Fengjian’s footsteps were unhurried.
“As if the demon is the one they should be worried about.” Hu Baitian was wry.
“Master Lin offered the use of some of his disciples for protection.”
“They’d be better off fetching your food. When you brought him back, they all looked as if their bowels had turned to water.”
Footsteps, and then Yue Fengjian’s voice was closer. “We don’t have the men to watch every door, even if we take watch in shifts.”
Hu Baitian scoffed. “I don’t see why you’re so concerned about the demon coming back for him. It’s just as likely that he’d deviate and join the demon willingly.”
Lian Zhidiao’s thoughts were getting cloudier again when he finally heard Yue Fengjian talk. “How’s his condition?”
Hu Baitian didn’t answer immediately and then he let out a sigh. “I’ve been splitting my time between two patients and haven’t had the chance to talk to you about that.”
“Can he be moved back to our pavilion?”
So I’m not in the pavilion with them? Why?
“There’s something you need to know first.”
“What?” Hu Baitian turned away—Lian Zhidiao heard his robes and the scrape of his foot—and then a moment later, he heard a small sound of stones clinking together. Then Yue Fengjian’s voice, deadly serious. “This all came from him?”
“How many people can you usually treat with these?”
“Twenty, thirty, if they’re not too badly deviated.” Hu Baitian’s voice was businesslike, the matter-of-fact appraisal of a doctor in triage. “Even if I were to place them with Qinghu, it would take time for them to return to normal, and I don’t have any more. So you should avoid entering qi deviation if at all possible.”
“I’ll keep that in mind.”
“Not only that, but demonic energy as well. The signs are all through his meridians.” Lian Zhidiao felt a finger pressing firmly on his chest, drawing a line down the center of his body, taking detours across his chest to different meridians. “Unevenness, narrowing, corrosion. Not a small dose. He was completely flooded.”
“He was purging when I found him.” Lian Zhidiao heard a footstep come closer, and then Yue Fengjian’s voice was closer too, just next to his bed. “I haven’t seen that much before. He was soaked in it.”
“He didn’t get all of it out.” Hu Baitian’s hand pushed aside his clothes. “Not that anyone could, with that much.” Hu Baitian’s fingers pulled Lian Zhidiao’s robes open lower down, just at his dantian. “Here too.” Lian Zhidiao realized with some embarrassment that Yue Fengjian was looking at his body. Hu Baitian was the one seeing to his health, but why was Yue Fengjian being allowed to look at him this way? Then again, this was preferable to Yue Fengjian having to kill him and then view his corpse. The recent closeness of his brush with death did lend a certain perspective. Doubtless Lian Zhidiao would later re-acquire some shame about his nakedness, but currently, it didn’t seem worth bothering with.
“Those marks—are those from the demon?”
“No, those were there before. Liao Kuaiyu said he saw the bruises when he was bathing.”
Liao Kuaiyu! Can’t you keep your mouth shut?
“The blood is fading, and the rest of the bruises look fairly old.”
“They would have happened not long before we met.”
“Another run-in with a demon?”
“Can’t say,” Hu Baitian replied. “They’re not really consistent with a demon encounter, though.”
“Training, then? I have heard that some Wa techniques are quite harsh.” Warm fingers pushed Lian Zhidiao’s head to the side, clearly getting a look at the fading bruises around his neck. “Although I’d scold any disciple who left marks like this on someone else,” Yue Fengjian murmured.
“Maybe a fight.”
A heavy silence settled on Lian Zhidiao’s chest. He could imagine the meaningful glances they were exchanging at his bedside, each of them with their own ideas about what kind of ‘fight’ would make bruises like this.
Well, if you have any ideas, please let me know, because I haven’t got a clue.
A moment passed, and then Yue Fengjian’s voice was full of resignation, as if he knew the answer to his next question before he even asked it. “His golden core is lost, I presume?”
“No.” Confusion and frustration threaded through Hu Baitian’s voice.
“It’s an impossibility, or a miracle,” Hu Baitian said, full of contempt. “There’s an explanation, but it’s not really an explanation at all. It just raises more questions.” Hu Baitian pulled Lian Zhidiao’s robes shut with a harsh sigh. “He’s got two cores in him.”
“Two…” Yue Fengjian’s voice trailed off. “How can he have two cores?”
“I don’t know, but one of them contains deviate qi. The other is a normal golden core, perfectly healthy.” Hu Baitian’s frustration was clear in his voice.
“…How much deviate qi?”
“I won’t risk contamination to determine exactly how much, but..I’ve filled all those with as much as I could draw off, and it was like I’d done nothing.”
Yue Fengjian’s frown was so deep it could be heard in his voice. “But he doesn’t look like he’s in qi deviation.”
“Except for that mark—”
“I know!” Hu Baitian snapped. “Looking at him, you wouldn’t think he’s got enough deviate qi in him to poison an entire village, but he does.” Hu Baitian jerked a blanket up over Lian Zhidiao’s body. “The mark has been getting smaller, too.”
“How much smaller?”
“It’s decreased in size by a quarter since I was able to draw off some of the deviate qi. And a little more each day.”
Each day? Wait, how many days have I been unconscious??
This time Yue Fengjian had confusion in his voice. “Is he healing it on his own?”
“I don’t know. It’s possible his golden core is doing something, but…” Hu Baitian trailed off. “I’m a field medic. I’ve seen a lot of things but nothing like this.” When he spoke again, his voice was a little further away. Hu Baitian’s speech became much more formal, steeped in self-loathing; Lian Zhidiao recognized it immediately. “This humble student has written a letter to his father to ask for his guidance on this matter. If you would grant permission to send it.”
“You don’t need my permission.”
Hu Baitian stopped mid-sentence. Yue Fengjian didn’t add to his words. There was that pregnant silence again, filled with information that he didn’t have and couldn’t get. Was Yue Fengjian saying that he wasn’t the one to ask for permission, or that permission didn’t have to be asked at all? Why had Hu Baitian asked him for permission in the first place? What was that weird shift in the air for just that question?
Yue Fengjian’s voice sounded a little further away. “Is he dangerous?”
“Now? No more dangerous than any other invalid.”
“No, I mean—” Yue Fengjian turned back to Lian Zhidiao. His voice was quieter, as if he was trying not to be heard. “If he enters qi deviation.”
“If he enters qi deviation, yes, he will be strong.” Hu Baitian’s voice slowly got closer, until he was right next to the bed again. “But absent that…” Frost filled his voice, making even his faint sigh like an icy wind. “You know how I feel about him. So keep that in mind when I say no, I don’t think he’s a danger.”
And I’m getting better!
Yue Fengjian grunted an acknowledgement and then his voice, still lowered, was barely loud enough for Lian Zhidiao to hear. “Don’t tell anyone else about this.”
Hu Baitian matched his clandestine tone. “What about the letter?”
“That’s fine, but don’t tell Shipei or the others.”
“He’s already got more deviate qi in him than I have ever seen in any deviate, even a cultivator. There’s no telling what his limit is or how close he is to it. He could blow up at any time. Will you take responsibility for him then?”
Take responsibility for me? If Hu Baitian was right and he was strong when he entered qi deviation, then the task of subduing him—or worse, putting him down—would likely fall to Yue Fengjian, as the strongest cultivator. Lian Zhidiao’s heart gave a sideways beat.
Yue Fengjian didn’t answer, but Lian Zhidiao heard Hu Baitian give a heavy sigh. “If you think his technique of cleansing jade beasts is worth a few dozen lives, then it’s on your head.”
“It is,” Yue Fengjian agreed.
“I still haven’t gotten to see my other patient yet today.”
“The old doctor has been taking care of him in your stead.”
If Yue Shipei’s care under the old doctor was a positive for Hu Baitian, he ignored it. “He’ll only be confined to bed for one more day, so I’ll go see to him now.” There was the sound of a tray being picked up, with the dishes clattering together, and then Hu Baitian’s footsteps left the room.
He’ll be able to move around? Wasn’t Yue Shipei supposed to be confined to bed for a week? Qianjiao’s leering face swam up from the depths of his mind, his red eyes shining, and his words came back to Lian Zhidiao all at once: better hurry home.
I’ve not been out for a night, I’ve been asleep for days, and the whole time, something has been happening in Xuefeng City! I have to warn Yue Fengjian! I have to wake up!
Lian Zhidiao fought hard, pushing himself up toward consciousness. It felt as if he was fighting for his life, making less and less progress with each surge of effort when he broke through the surface. His body was already breaking out in a cold sweat, but all he could manage was a deep breath and opening his eyes.
Yue Fengjian was standing over him, surprise on his face. Then he turned and hollered over his shoulder. “Hu Baitian!”
For a moment, Lian Zhidiao was afraid that Yue Fengjian would leave. Desperate to get the message from Qianjiao to him, he grabbed hold of Yue Fengjian’s robes, imploring him with his eyes to stay and listen. Parched, he could only manage one word. “…Xuefeng.”
Lian Zhidiao licked his lips, trying to moisten his throat. “Get home. To Xuefeng. Something happening.”
“What’s going on?” Hu Baitian walked into the pavilion again, tray still in hand, only to find Lian Zhidiao struggling to sit up. He nearly dropped the tray, his eyes darting suspiciously over Lian Zhidiao’s body. “You’re awake?”
“What do you mean something is happening?” Yue Fengjian helped Lian Zhidiao sit up before he looked around. “Is there water?”
Hu Baitian put the tray aside and stepped quickly over to another table, dipping a cup of water out of a bucket. As he put it to Lian Zhidiao’s mouth, Lian Zhidiao looked over the lip of the cup at him.
The water was sweet and cold; after only a few mouthfuls, Lian Zhidiao sealed his mouth, shaking his head. “The demon warned me. He said that there was value in knowing where you weren’t.” He couldn’t shake those red eyes staring at him, even when it was Yue Fengjian’s face in front of him. He couldn’t bring himself to say verbatim what Qianjiao had said; his eyes lined with tears and his voice roughened just from the memory of it. “He said for you to hurry home.”
Yue Fengjian’s face slowly drained of color as Lian Zhidiao spoke. Doubtless he was thinking of his family, his friends, everyone who depended on him in his sect—and he, a major piece of their arsenal, out enjoying himself in the Lin sect leader’s private estate.
“Fuck,” Hu Baitian said in a quiet voice.
“Get everyone together. We need to make a plan, but we’ll leave no later than dawn.” Yue Fengjian’s voice was cold. “We can’t wait longer than that.”
Lian Zhidiao expected to see Yue Fengjian rush out of the pavilion, but instead Hu Baitian shot Lian Zhidiao a scathing look and hurried out, his sleeves flapping.
Yue Fengjian stayed next to him. His expression was cold, but Lian Zhidiao could see his emotions hiding in the tense set of his jaw, the small movement of his nostrils, the wrinkle of his brow.
Still cotton-mouthed, Lian Zhidiao reached out for the cup again, but his body was still quite weak. Once he saw the movement, Yue Fengjian knelt to help, bringing the cup up to his mouth and supporting it while he drank. Letting out a sigh, Lian Zhidiao closed his eyes briefly, barely aware of Yue Fengjian putting the cup on a nearby table and standing up. There were things he had to do to get ready to leave, weren’t there? And yet, he was still here next to him.
Lian Zhidiao kept his eyes on the bed in front of him. He couldn’t bear to bring up the existence of the other core inside him. Though it had saved his golden core (and likely his life), it still seemed like a stone around his neck. In his current state, he would be feeble. It would be difficult to transport him long distances even if he was well. As if he was going to ride Yue Fengjian’s sword all the way to the northern mountains. He wasn’t even as important as Yue Shipei, a family member. On top of that, he was apparently some kind of ticking deviation time bomb, so for Yue Fengjian to take him back among his family, into the heart of the sect? Unthinkable. There was no way around it: Yue Fengjian was going to leave him behind in Fenfang City, and the thought made his heart clench.
Cannon fodder will have a hard life no matter what, but I at least wanted my death to mean something. If I’m not near the protagonist…
Lian Zhidiao lifted his eyes to Yue Fengjian’s face. Upon seeing him, he suddenly couldn’t forget the firm press of Yue Fengjian’s fingers around his wrist, and the way his lips had brushed along his fingers. Color rushed into his face and he averted his eyes.
That’s right, I have to deal with that, too.
Reflecting on it, there was no way that he could interpret that as an innocent action. He’d been too addled by alcohol and Zhou Xianzhi’s wiles to examine Yue Fengjian’s actions on their own, but now that he was alone, face-to-face with him again for the first time since that ill-fated drinking party, he couldn’t banish it from his mind. He already knew that Yue Fengjian ended up with women, because he wrote the book on that subject. So the fault lay with himself and his overreaction to a drunk prank; that was the source of his embarrassment.
“Young Master Yue,” he started, “About the other night. I didn’t have the chance to address this topic with you until now.”
“The other… “ Recognition dawned on Yue Fengjian’s face. “You mean the drinking party.”
“Yes.” Lian Zhidiao shifted his legs under the blanket. “I feel as though I must have misunderstood the young master’s disposition, or else had an outsized reaction to some harmless prank. For this, I am deeply sorry.” He would have liked to press his forehead to the floor, but his impatience in wanting his uncomfortable shame dealt with ran ahead of him.
“Ah.” Yue Fengjian arched an eyebrow at the man in the bed in front of him. “It slipped my mind.”
He’d forgotten about it! The thing which had been eating Lian Zhidiao up with worry was something Yue Fengjian could easily forget! No doubt a night at the brothel had done wonders to grease his memory. Lian Zhidiao was in the middle of beginning to boil himself when Yue Fengjian spoke again.
“But if it’s important enough to apologize, then please consider it forgiven.” He turned, leading with his foot toward the opening of the pavilion. “Rest now, and make sure you are ready to leave at dawn.”
At dawn? Wait, aren’t you leaving at dawn to go home to Xuefeng City? I’m coming with you?
But Yue Fengjian was already striding out of the pavilion, and Lian Zhidiao’s voice wouldn’t come to him in time to call out after him.
END OF BEGINNING ARC
NEXT ARC: XUEFENG CITY