“What?” Dazed, Lian Zhidiao looked from his tear-stained fingers to Yue Fengjian, his face lit by the soft light from the lantern in their shared room in the inn.
“You were having a nightmare.”
Lian Zhidiao could still feel the frigid current pulling on him, carrying him away from the fatwood box. He lifted his right hand and felt along his left arm. Thankfully, it was there—of course it was, but all of it felt so real, like they’d been his arm ripped off, his flight for his life, his deep and desperate thoughts. As Yue Fengjian leaned closer, Lian Zhidiao rubbed his face to scrub the dreamlike state away. “Y-Yeah,” he said, finally focusing on Yue Fengjian and immediately wishing he hadn’t.
Yue Fengjian definitely had finished his bath, but only just: his hair was still damp, and he hadn’t yet combed it out. His white inner clothes stuck to his skin in places, and gaped open just as much as his outer clothes did during the day. The bared chest exposed there had been the invention of the artist who worked on the novel’s cover: it telegraphed the novel’s genre better than more historically accurate clothing ever could. Slowly, the illustrations and fanarts had become more and more daring, exposing more and more decolletage. It seemed that in reality, the step-wise revealing of his manly chest from the first book to the last wasn’t necessary; Yue Fengjian was already at the finish line.
Yue Fengjian’s voice was cold, with a note of command. “Who is A-Feng?”
“Who…” Lian Zhidiao lowered his eyes to the jade slip in his hands. “…I wonder.”
“You don’t know?” Yue Fengjian scowled. He glared at the jade slip in Lian Zhidiao’s hands.
Lian Zhidiao swallowed and then looked up at Yue Fengjian. If he told the truth—I’m from another world and this was in the possessions of the body I took over—he’d be laughed at, or killed on the spot, especially with the dual cores making him a suspect for deviation at all times. Raving was a sure sign that something was going very wrong in someone’s mind.
So he didn’t like it, but he was going to have to come up with something creative to make up for his poor judgment in doing this while Yue Fengjian was in the room.
“You know that I have some talent for working with jade. So people often give me jade things.” He looked down at the jade slip. “I don’t even know where this one came from, but I didn’t expect to find anything in it.”
The lines on Yue Fengjian’s brow eased. He seemed to buy that explanation relatively easily. “What was inside?”
Yue Fengjian lifted his chin, at last leaning away. “You Wa sect tamper with memory too much. Discarding important things at-will is disrespectful.”
“I don’t think it’s just a memory that the owner no longer wanted.” Lian Zhidiao rubbed his left arm.The pain in his body—in his heart—was too fresh. He felt the loss of A-Feng as keenly as that man had, as if he himself was grieving. It didn’t seem like something that the nameless man would want to lose; on the contrary, holding on to A-Feng’s memory was vital to him. “It seems like…” Lian Zhidiao looked through his hair at Yue Fengjian. “Like a message.”
“A message.” Yue Fengjian arched an eyebrow.
“Here.” Lian Zhidiao offered him the jade slip. He did it without thinking too much about it, the way he would show something on his phone to someone who expressed doubts about a message or a picture. “You’ll understand better if you see for yourself.”
Yue Fengjian frowned, taking the slip in hand with a suspicious glance between it and Lian Zhidiao. But after the time it took for a single breath, he closed his eyes and raised it to his own temple.
“Be careful,” Lian Zhidiao said suddenly.
Yue Fengjian opened one eye. “Why?”
“It will hurt a lot, when it starts.”
“Then why would I want to view it?”
“You don’t have to view it,” Lian Zhidiao mumbled.
Yue Fengjian’s wrinkled brow deepened into a stern frown. He stretched out on the bed and touched the slip to his temple.
Even though Lian Zhidiao knew what was coming, he wasn’t prepared to hear Yue Fengjian gasp in pain and stiffen up on the bed. His jaw was tightly clenched, but not another sound passed his lips. To him, being trapped in the pain of someone else’s wounds felt like it had taken an eternity. Every time Yue Fengjian sucked in a breath through his teeth, Lian Zhidiao thought that he must be at that part, when he touched the stump, or that part, when he was battered about in the gelid river. But watching over Yue Fengjian as he lived through it, it took less time than he thought. All too soon, Yue Fengjian weakly let go of the jade slip and opened his eyes.
“You could have warned me about his arm,” he bit out.
“Would you have still viewed it?”
“No,” he admitted. Yue Fengjian pushed himself up to a sitting position, looking pale. He turned to look at Lian Zhidiao, and it was then that Lian Zhidiao caught sight of the mistiness in his eyes.
So even he was touched by the terrible loss. Somehow, realizing this made Lian Zhidiao feel closer to him. “I don’t know who A-Feng is. Or… was.”
“It’s a strange thing to put aside,” Yue Fengjian said, blinking a few times to clear away the mists. “We don’t know what happened to him, either.”
Lian Zhidiao’s face showed his surprise. “But his arm was gone.”
Yue Fengjian waved a hand dismissively. “He’d stopped the bleeding with his qi, so he could have lived, as long as he was given time to heal.”
“Really?” Lian Zhidiao leaned forward. “Have you seen anyone recover from an injury like that?”
Yue Fengjian arched an eyebrow.
Lian Zhidiao leaned back, sitting with his hands in his lap. He really thought the nameless man might have lived? Or was he just trying to make Lian Zhidiao feel better about crying?
Yue Fengjian was the first to move, calling for the servants to take away his bathwater. After they left, he stood up and began to comb out his half-dried hair. It hung down to the small of his back when he had it up in a high ponytail. Loose, it was much longer than Lian Zhidiao’s, dusting the bottom of his ass.
Before Yue Fengjian could turn around, Lian Zhidiao reached out and took the plain jade slip from where Yue Fengjian had left it on the bed.
“You’re right,” Yue Fengjian said suddenly. “The fact that I was able to view it means that it was intended to be retrieved more than once.” He brought his hair over his shoulder and tied it with a length of silk. “He wanted it to be found, but not by the demons that were chasing him.”
The sound of the demon tongue baying behind him echoed in his ears and Lian Zhidiao shuddered. So it had been demons that spoke like that. No wonder he didn’t recognize it. Of course Yue Fengjian, who was experienced in battles with demons, would have heard their speech.
“I guess you’ve heard a lot of them talking, huh?”
“Yes, although they don’t speak much to each other using that language.” A frown was etching itself deeper and deeper into Yue Fengjian’s face.
Lian Zhidiao thought back to when he’d been seated on the stone step outside the silk-house and Lin Xianglan had pressed the wrinkle between his brows to keep him from frowning. That press of her fingertip against my forehead was probably meant for him, given how much he frowns.
The more Lian Zhidiao looked at Yue Fengjian, the more he wanted to know what his reaction would be to something like that. There was no way that he could do what Lin Xianglan had done, but still, he couldn’t help but smile at the idea.
Yue Fengjian glanced at Lian Zhidiao, and his frown melted a little. Whatever he’d been thinking on was cast aside in favor of blowing out the lantern and sitting down on his side of the bed. There was an awkward moment only a breath long before Yue Fengjian lay down and pulled a blanket over his body. Lian Zhidiao pulled his own blanket up over himself and settled his head on his pillow.
It was totally pitch black. In having one of his senses rendered completely useless, the others sprang into strong relief. The sweet scent of the honey locust tree soap. The weight of Yue Fengjian next to him. The sounds of people milling around in the great room were almost nothing compared to how close Yue Fengjian’s breathing was. By comparison, his own breathing sounded like he’d just gone up two flights of stairs in his old, harem-novel-writing body.
Yue Fengjian’s voice was deep and low, and close. “Are you still upset?”
Yes? No? My breathing just won’t slow down. In the end Lian Zhidiao managed a non-committal sound.
Yue Fengjian let out a big sigh. “Try to sleep. We won’t stop until we reach Xuefeng City tomorrow. Even if that means flying at night.” His tone said the conversation was over, as far as he was concerned. Then there was a soft rustling and his breathing started to deepen. Lian Zhidiao listened to him, his fingers tied up in the hem of his blanket, waiting for something he couldn’t name.
Then Yue Fengjian was deep asleep, leaving Lian Zhidiao alone with his thoughts. Lian Zhidiao stared up into the blackness, keenly aware of the warmth of the man in bed next to him. His thoughts wandered—the unknown man, the still-dull ache of his arm being ripped off, the sight of Yue Fengjian leaning over the bed with his hair in disarray—and without realizing it, he crossed into dreamland as well.
Just before dawn, Lian Zhidiao woke up with the chill of a mountain night having crept in through the window shutters. And between his legs, he had a problem.
It’s not like he’d never had morning wood before; it was a natural reaction, as every harem protagonist liked to say when caught pitching a tent. But rather than being able to blame it on needing a piss in the morning, there was no getting around the facts of the matter. This body was no less virile than the one he’d left behind, but he’d had no time to think about taking care of himself in that way. To compound his problems, next to him, Yue Fengjian had turned away in his sleep, exposing his broad, warm back.
There has to be another way for me to handle this until I can find some time alone. Maybe if he kicked off his blanket and opened his robes, the freezing mountain air would shock his body into calming down. Even thinking about it was enough to make him feel chills, but the shiver only caused a frisson of pleasure to race down his spine. He had to get this under control now, before Yue Fengjian woke up to find him in a state like this. Lian Zhidiao reluctantly loosened the belt on his inner clothes while still under the blanket. Then he cupped his hand over his erection and gave a regretful sigh for what he was about to do to his innocent body, which had done nothing to deserve this.
Outside a cockerel crowed, and suddenly, Yue Fengjian breathed in deeply. Lian Zhidiao shot out of bed, robes hanging off his shoulders and belt falling down around his thighs.
No! No, no, no, no! Don’t wake up yet! You won’t like what you see!
With light steps on the frigid floorboards, he went to open the shutters just a crack, letting a blast of chill air into the room. Teeth chattering, he tried to hold his robes open a little bit while not exposing himself to the outside world. The cold worked its magic quickly; within seconds, the erection started going down, leaving only a deep and abiding sense of discouragement. Lian Zhidiao let out a shaky sigh, pulling his belt back up and fastening his robes shut again.
That was too close. But ‘too close’ to what, he didn’t want to think deeply about.
“You’re up early,” Yue Fengjian yawned, sitting up.
Lian Zhidiao was about to protest when he realized that he hadn’t exactly been a morning lark. Sleeping for days after a demon got hold of him, sleeping in after cleansing a jade beast, sleeping in after he’d found the System—
“Damn!” Lian Zhidiao pressed both of his hands against his head. The System! I never got to ask any more questions!
“What?” Yue Fengjian was on his feet in an instant, looking ready to fight, even though he was still clearly a little drowsy.
“No, I…” Curse that demon! Being unable to ask anything else of the system was literally adding insult to injury. How was he going to find out where the terminals were? Or what the Personal Companion Unit was? He’d missed out on so much information that he might need!
Yue Fengjian was giving him a suspicious look. His hair looked wild; all the combing he’d done the night before seemed to have been for naught.
Lian Zhidiao stammered. “I-I just remembered.” What could he say? What might be a believable deflection? “I… forgot to ask Lin Xianglan something really important.”
Yue Fengjian’s expression turned absolutely black. “It’s too late to ask her now.” And then he turned away and began to shove his arms into his outer clothes, clearly in a foul mood.
Cowed, Lian Zhidiao slipped to his side of the bed and timidly started to put on his own clothes. By the time he finished putting his hair up, Yue Fengjian had already done the same and cleared out of the room. Lian Zhidiao made sure he had the jade slips in his things and went down as well. The innkeep had already been awake for hours and had steamed buns ready for all of them. Yue Fengjian all but inhaled his; his face gave enough warning to everyone else to steer clear.
Liao Kuaiyu sidled up next to Lian Zhidiao and leaned close. “Did something happen between you and shixiong?”
Something? Lian Zhidiao’s eyes darted from Liao Kuaiyu to Yue Fengjian and back. “Why do you ask?”
“Why?” Incredulous, Liao Kuaiyu hid his mouth behind half of his steamed bun. “He looks like you insulted his father.”
“I would never,” Lian Zhidiao hissed, also hiding his mouth behind his steamed bun. “I just woke him up abruptly.”
“Ohhh,” Liao Kuaiyu said, trailing off and looking sidelong at Lian Zhidiao. “He’s usually in a good mood in the morning.” Liao Kuaiyu crammed the rest of his steamed bun in his mouth, dusting off his hands.
Lian Zhidiao didn’t want to remember the embarrassing situation that had led to his realization about the System. His cheeks started to turn pink; he lowered his head a little bit, trying to avoid Liao Kuaiyu’s searching look.
Liao Kuaiyu’s chewing slowed down as he watched Lian Zhidiao, and then his face split in a big grin and he all but skipped off to Yue Yaosa’s side.
That Liao Kuaiyu… did he arrive at the correct conclusion by accident? That there had been an embarrassing interlude while sharing a bed, which led through this and that to Yue Fengjian’s bad mood? The idea of letting Liao Kuaiyu draw his own conclusions was mildly terrifying, but he didn’t like the idea of lying about it either, which left only the uncomfortable truth. Supposing that whatever Liao Kuaiyu invented in his head could hardly be worse than what had actually happened, Lian Zhidiao let it slide. He had no more time to deliberate over what to do anyway; Yue Fengjian walked towards him, his sword unsheathed, ready to fly. Yue Fengjian stepped onto his sword, but as Lian Zhidiao settled his weight in front of him, Yue Fengjian’s arm snaked around his waist, holding him firmly, as if he might fall off. His heart sped up a little, but given that he could still feel the waves of Yue Fengjian’s rotten mood wash over him, he pushed down his agitation immediately.
They took off through a thick mist. Lian Zhidiao wondered how Yue Shipei knew which way to go. All the mountains looked the same to him, especially under such heavy cover. But once they breached the top of the mists, the sunrise gilded the mountains around them, lining red with gold. Their hulking forms lumbered north, looking like the bear that was their namesake. The sun burned off the rest of the vapor, and the rugged beauty of the Yue sect’s land spread out below them, unfurled yellow and green and scarlet.
Around midday, a wide white road snaked up from the southeast: the Red Highway. Yue Shipei dropped in altitude, and they began following the road more closely, swinging in and out of the mountains. A few other Yue cultivators flew by on their swords, their red sleeves flapping like pennants. They slowed and offered a nod, but Yue Fengjian didn’t slow at all, and in fact seemed to pick up speed. Surrounded by land that was familiar to him, he knew exactly where he was, and made himself at home.
Below them, near the Highway, land was being cleared by a group of elephants, and Lian Zhidiao couldn’t help but tap Yue Fengjian’s hand around his waist excitedly and point at them. In answer, Yue Fengjian dipped even lower into the valley, zipping over the terraces. Dozens of men were picking rocks out of a field and building a wall. Then, a few seconds later, they flew over another part of the forest being cleared; the workers and their elephants didn’t even have time to look up at them before they left them behind. Their destination lay to the north, where the highest mountaintops still wore crowns of snow even as summer began.
The rest of the flight was spent alternating between climbing into the skies and zooming down low to see what was happening in the fields and terraces. By the time the sky was turning purple, Xuefeng City was in front of them, shining red in a tapestry of green. The buildings clung to the mountain, nearly stacked on top of each other, with red tiled roofs. Demon-excluding wards decorated the city walls, and sometimes the walls of buildings inside.
The Red Highway ended at a round temple-like building resembling the one in Fenfang CIty, but Yue Fengjian urged his sword beyond that, above the narrow streets, to a large mansion that crowned the city. This was the Yue family citadel, with demon wards so thick on the walls the whole building looked covered by a net. There were no trees, nor expansive gardens. It was nothing like the sprawling pleasure palace of the Lin sect. It was an austere, impregnable fortress.