They left at first light, offering hurried apologies to Lin Piaozhu, who accepted them in the stead of his brother. Any items they could not carry with them would be sent by porter. Following the overland route by air allowed them to shave four full days off of their travel time.
Once again, Lian Zhidiao was a passenger on Yue Fengjian’s sword. Yue Shipei was their navigator, able to recognize the white steles that marked the single overland route across the high steppes. Caravanserai dotted the route every two- or three-days’ travel by horse along it; aside from these outposts, the rest of the high steppes were a harsh environment with no major cities or towns.
They often found themselves the only travelers resting overnight at one. The accommodations were crude, clearly intended more for merchants and porters than cultivators, but continuing to fly at night this close to demon lands was suicide. Everyone who wanted to live through the night would rather be buttoned up in the warded caravanserai than sleeping rough.
The Xinxue Yue sect had dominion over the northern mountains and highlands. To the east, the Xiongji Mountains plunged down into the northern plains, a cradle for the great Qingxie River that quickly disappeared into the flatlands and the northern swamps. To the west, the mountains grew more twisted in their forms as they entered demon lands. And to the south, the Xiongji mountains eased into the wind-blasted high steppes, which were considered farthest of the Quanlu Yuan sect’s western territory.
At last, midway through the seventh day speeding at a hazardous pace across the landscape, the pale yellow moonscape of the high steppes below them yielded all at once to the deep red rocks of the Xiongji Mountains, the physical border between the Xinxue Yue and Quanlu Yuan sect territories. Within a few hours, they were flying over thickly-forested mountain peaks and terraced valleys. By the time the sun was setting, they were well into the lands under Yue sect control. The southern Xiongji mountains were shrouded in mist, with thousands of small springs and secluded grottos hidden within: just the kind of place where cultivators could meditate and develop their skills.
Their destination lay further north, still a full day’s travel away. But they were far enough into Yue sect territory that they could count on a warm reception. They landed in a small village already shaded from the evening sun by the mountains across the valley. Sleeves fluttering, their slow descent attracted a crowd almost immediately.
“Young Master Yue!”
The townsfolk bowed and scraped all the way up to the steps of an ancient timber-framed building that proved to be an inn. Yue Fengjian and the others took this all as their due, but it was the first time that Lian Zhidiao had seen the nobility of cultivators on their home turf. Lian Zhidiao noticed a few pointed glares at him as he filed in with the rest of the party. But even if the Wa sect was hated, Yue Fengjian’s presence alone protected him from more targeted anger. Here, Yue Fengjian was essentially a prince.
It’s unlikely they’d attack a cultivator, even from a rival sect, but I should take care not to be alone.
The inn proprietor nearly pressed his head to the floor, offering his best rooms and a small feast. He also gave Lian Zhidiao a long glance, but it was quickly covered up by a layer of fawning obsequiousness, complete with clasped hands. They sent their things up to the rooms and called for baths—the caravanserai couldn’t comply with heavy water demands, and everyone was a little ripe. Yue Yaosa won the right to bathe first with a game of reflexes, and the rest of them ate and drank tea, awaiting their turns. The inn doubled as something of a tavern, with many other groups of men coming in to drink. Their conversations filled the hall with a lively buzz.
So far, their journey had been tense. Yue Fengjian and Hu Baitian, true to their prior discussion, had not spoken about the two cores in Lian Zhidiao’s body. Liao Kuaiyu and Yue Yaosa asked Lian Zhidiao how he’d survived with his golden core intact, and he replied that he held his breath and didn’t circulate any qi while the demon was torturing him. Having never experienced a demon’s purposeful corruption, they had simply accepted this as something that could be done.
Yue Shipei, on the other hand, didn’t seem entirely convinced. More than once during the nights of travel since, Lian Zhidiao had caught Yue Shipei’s eyes lingering on him, watching. Lian Zhidiao pointedly ignored him, keeping his eyes trained on anyone else. But that was not to say that no one else noticed the new attention that was being paid to him.
“Are you ready?” Hu Baitian stood up, glancing pointedly at Yue Shipei’s empty dish.
“Ah,” Yue Shipei said. “Yes.”
Without another look at Lian Zhidiao, Yue Shipei obediently followed Hu Baitian upstairs to the room he would be sharing with Yue Yaosa.
As soon as the two had left the room, Yue Fengjian let out a small sigh and relaxed, nursing a second cup of tea.
“I’d thought shixiong wouldn’t need any more healing after a week.” Liao Kuaiyu helped himself to more food from the dishes at the center of the table.
“He wants to make sure Shipei is healed up correctly, that’s all,” Yue Fengjian replied.
“I guess it’s only through Baitian’s skill that shixiong was able to come with us at all.”
“Mm,” Yue Fengjian agreed, closing his eyes briefly, clearly not wishing to spend more time on the matter.
“Speaking of healing,” Liao Kuaiyu lowered his voice. “Do you want me to go listen around?”
Lian Zhidiao’s eyes darted to the stairs. Surely he doesn’t mean to Hu Baitian and Yue Shipei?
Yue Fengjian opened one eye. “We’re not exactly in a discreet position here. Do you really think you’ll hear anything of value?”
“You never know.” Liao Kuaiyu gave Yue Fengjian a cheeky expression. “It’s not far from the border.”
“See what you can find out without arousing suspicion, then.”
A grin flashed on Liao Kuaiyu’s face and he all but skipped off to one of the more crowded groups, where a game of chance was being passed around the table. Buying a crock of wine was a quick way to earn friends; Liao Kuaiyu called the innkeep over to that table.
Yue Fengjian took another sip of tea before noticing that Lian Zhidiao’s eyes were on him. He arched an eyebrow.
“Is he spying?”
“He’s listening for anything out of the ordinary. Problems with putting in the rice crop, the millet and barley.”
Something tugged at the back of Lian Zhidiao’s mind. “This village doesn’t have a jade beast?”
“I don’t think so.” Yue Fengjian’s lips twitched. “You’re quick to catch on.”
Of course. Without a jade beast that wandered freely, land with excess deviate qi would just continue to get worse without being cleansed. So the only clue they had that stained earth was anywhere around came from reports of crops failing to take root in the soil.
Lian Zhidiao smiled faintly. “Not something I can help with, then?”
“Not right now.” Yue Fengjian downed the rest of his cup of tea a little too fast and put the cup back on the table, looking out at the various groups of men.
Liao Kuaiyu fit in perfectly among the country folk with his brash, affable nature. He’d gotten a seat at the table during the next round, and crashed out early, watching eagerly with the other men when the betting came down to two men and their luck with cards.
“I’ll share a room with you tonight.” Yue Fengjian didn’t look at him when he spoke, and kept his voice low.
Lian Zhidiao opened his mouth to protest, but even as he did, he realized that it was pointless. He had no choice in the matter—Yue Fengjian and Hu Baitian were both unaware that Lian Zhidiao had eavesdropped on them. They both knew about his dual cores, but they didn’t know that Lian Zhidiao knew that they knew. After they weren’t all sleeping together in a big pile in a caravanserai, it made sense that the strongest cultivator in the group was the one who would stay closest to the potential deviate.
Well, it’s not like it was a devastating blow. Yue Shipei was sleeping in the same room as his sister, and given that the other choices were Liao Kuaiyu’s snoring and Hu Baitian’s irritability, rooming with Yue Fengjian won every time.
Lian Zhidiao saw the innkeeper coming toward them, and stood up. “I’ll take my bath next, so that you won’t have to wait up for me.”
Yue Fengjian shifted in his seat, almost as if he was going to get up, but thought better of it. Lian Zhidiao didn’t wait for him to make up his mind.
You don’t have to accompany me even when I take a bath! Who ever heard of someone entering qi deviation in the shower!
Blessedly, the innkeep was all too eager to get the obvious Wa sect member out of his great room. Lian Zhidiao was led upstairs, to a small but cozy room with one large bed with a thick mattress. The servant left a lantern and closed the door behind him. A stone settled in the bottom of Lian Zhidiao’s stomach.
Just one bed! Why this kind of scenario?
Likely, the innkeep had wanted to offer the best bed in the inn to impress the sect leader’s son. It was just Lian Zhidiao’s misfortune that the best bed was in something like a honeymoon suite. To the side, a deep wooden tub was set up with buckets of steaming water. Knowing he wouldn’t have much time, Lian Zhidiao stripped down to his skin and looked down at his stomach.
Just below his navel, a round patch of skin about the size of a small tangyuan had lost all its color and turned a dark gray. It was cool to the touch, unlike the rest of his skin. He rubbed his fingers over it, working his blood into it, and let out a small breath. It was decreasing in size, as Hu Baitian had said it would—earlier in the week it had been almost the size of his palm. But it didn’t leave him feeling hopeful about what was going on in the second core. He was treating it just like a weirdly-shaped mole: keeping an eye on it and hoping he didn’t have to call for the doctor.
Putting aside his misgivings, he enjoyed the bath, especially being able to wash his hair. He even soaped up twice, scratching pleasantly at his scalp and furiously scrubbing away all the dead skin. By the time he used the last of the hot water, he was squeaky clean and his skin tingled all over.
Lian Zhidiao dressed in a clean set of inner robes and called the servants to take away the water. Then he combed his hair out until it was sleek and smooth as silk. He was tucking the comb back into his pack when his fingers brushed against the red silk bag containing the two jade slips. Idly, he pulled them out to compare them.
One of them was a lush, soft green, carved with lotus and dragonflies darting about in fanciful clouds and waves—this one was the one he’d pressed to his temple and had the knowledge of Wa spells and techniques flood back into him. Experimentally, he pressed it to his temple again, but nothing happened. The other jade slip was darker, plain, and not carved at all. It was like the difference between a personal spiritual weapon, and the roughly-made low sword of a village guard. They couldn’t have come from the same place.
In his warm, sleepy post-bath haze, it hadn’t dawned on him that Yue Fengjian would also be bathing in the same room until the servants brought a tub back up with three fresh buckets of steaming hot water.
There would be only a few minutes before Yue Fengjian was going to come upstairs to take his bath. Lian Zhidiao perched on the side of the bed furthest from the door and fought down the urge to skulk out in the hall and wait for Yue Fengjian to finish before coming back in. Lian Zhidiao was still trying to decide what to do with himself when he heard heavy footsteps coming from the hallway. He tucked the carved jade slip back in the red silk bag, his back stiffening as the door opened.
“You’re still awake.” His eyes fell on the red slip bag next to Lian Zhidiao in the bed. “Working on something?”
“Well… that is…” Lian Zhidiao stammered.
Yue Fengjian looked at the plain slip, still gripped in Lian Zhidiao’s hand. But he slowly relaxed, looking away from the slip, loosening his clothes.
Lian Zhidiao looked at the wall on his side of the bed. Yue Fengjian untied his belt and started removing his clothing. The din of the great room seemed far away; every creak of the floor, every rustle of fabric was deafening. He heard the hollow sound of Yue Fengjian climbing into the tub, and pressed his eyes closed as he heard the water being poured.
Gripping the jade slip tightly in both hands, Lian Zhidiao looked over his shoulder.
Yue Fengjian was naked, as might be expected of someone taking a bath. In the low light from the lantern, his skin gleamed. He had taken his ponytail down and was working soap through the wet locks with measured efficiency. He was clearly accustomed to a rigorous bathing routine, taking no time to luxuriate.
Feeling guilty for spying on him Lian Zhidiao flattened himself in bed, his eyes glued to the wall until he realized he was holding the darker green slip in white-knuckled hands. If there was anything in the slip at all, it couldn’t be much different than when he’d acquired all those techniques. He could do it and then spend his time thinking on it instead of doing whatever it was he’d been doing the last few minutes. Desperate to have something else to focus on other than the perfect bell-like chime of each drop of water falling off of Yue Fengjian into the wooden tub, he touched the slip to his temple.
Pain shattered the left side of his body, hot and electric, but everything else was cold, cold, cold. Lian Zhidiao’s vision pitched wildly, his hair flew in front of his eyes, unbound and unkempt. He was running, running away from them. He stumbled to his knees and groaned in a voice not his own, but one husky with pain. He rocked to the side, pushing himself up with one hand. Looking over his shoulder and searching the mists behind him, Lian Zhidiao caught at the ragged, bloody hole that gaped at his shoulder. His stomach lurched when he realized his left arm had been torn off.
He got to his feet—his black robes were sodden, slapping his knees. Have to run, have to run. Can’t stay here, they’re coming, they’ll find it. Have to hide it for A-Feng. Can’t let them have it. His throat closed up and he felt his eyes stinging. A-Feng, A-Feng…
The river was black and cold, and he ran along it, gasping as he dunked himself in icy water with a poorly-considered step. Still one more to hide. He charged up a steep river bank to a tree with a strangely shaped hollow. He pulled up the grass and clawed a hole between the roots, then he felt inside his robes for something, a hard thing wrapped in white silk. Wincing, he pressed the white fabric to his left side, smearing it with his blood. Then he crammed it into the hollow and slid down the wet riverbank, down to the river in the bottom of the ravine.
Guttural shouts echoed behind him, but they were in no language that Lian Zhidiao could recognize. His heart froze to hear it.
Oh no, they’ve found the trail.
Fear thrummed in his veins. Without thinking twice, he plunged into the river, letting the current carry him away. The cold water drained feeling away from his limbs. He felt a thud against his leg as he crashed against a rock, but there wasn’t anything he could do but be borne along like a twig caught in the torrent.
He passed under a bridge with a high arch, craning his neck back to look at it. Swallowing, he kicked his legs toward shore, willing his numb legs to move. He pressed himself into the mud, wincing as a stick jabbed into his ribs. Close, just one more, the most important one.
Crouching on the muddy bank, he reached into his robes and pulled out a small box made of fatwood. Water beaded on the surface. Using his teeth, he jerked the lid of the box back, and then let it rest on the bank while he felt inside his robes again. He pulled out another small wad of white silk woven with gold, wrapped around something hard. It was stained with blood. His fingers trembling, he pressed a kiss to the fabric and then tore off part of his left sleeve. He wrapped the white-and-gold fabric in his black silk and stuffed it all in the box and slid it closed.
The river closed over his head again, and he opened his eyes. The water was as clear as it was cold, and within a few seconds, he’d kicked his way down to the river bottom. He wedged his feet under a rock and used his hand to make a cairn of river stones, nestling the fatwood box inside. Placing one large stone on top, he looked at it with a feeling of grim satisfaction. They’ll never find it here. Then he let the river carry him downstream. Everything began to fade away.
“Hey!” A voice broke in through the gathering darkness.
Lian Zhidiao sucked in a lungful of air. He could still feel the river pressing in around him, cold and dark. The gripping vision in the slip—no, the memory—was over. Blinking, he swallowed, then looked up to see who was talking to him.
Yue Fengjian leaned across the bed, a line of concern on his brow. He reached out, rubbing his finger over Lian Zhidiao’s cheek. “You were talking in your sleep.”
Lian Zhidiao reached up to his own cheek and was surprised to find it wet with tears.