“The young master has returned!”
A flurry of activity swirled in the courtyard below them. Servants lined up to receive their young master back into the household. An older man with his silver-shot hair in a braid over his shoulder seemed to float toward them. He was dressed in a thick and stately set of dark gray robes trimmed in red ochre. He bowed deeply to Yue Fengjian.
Yue Fengjian’s sword sheathed itself, and Yue Fengjian inclined his head to the older man. “Uncle Song. Apologies for arriving so late and without notice.”
Uncle Song looked from face to face, giving each of the Yue sect members a smile. His eyes lingered on Lian Zhidiao. “Young Master, if this humble servant had known you were coming, or that you would be bringing guests, he would have had the cook bank the fires.”
“There’s no need,” Yue Fengjian said. “We have enough food in our stomachs to last us until the morning.”
Really? We’ve been running on nothing but a few steamed buns all day!
Uncle Song looked at the six of them and then back at Yue Fengjian. “It’s too late to make the journey up to the Quanyuan, so everyone will stay here, is that correct?”
“Yes, except—” Yue Fengjian looked at Lian Zhidiao at his side. “Bring an additional bed into my room. This one is sleeping in there tonight.”
Lian Zhidiao’s jaw fell open. What?
Uncle Song was unflappable. He simply bowed and said. “Right away, young master.”
Lian Zhidiao looked around at the others, finding that Hu Baitian was holding Yue Shipei at knifepoint with his eyes, so neither one of them would look at him. Liao Kuaiyu and Yue Yaosa both had their gazes directed elsewhere, but Yue Yaosa had lifted her hand to hide her face with her sleeve. Her shoulders were squeezed together, as if she was trying to suppress laughter.
NO one is going to say anything about this arrangement??
“We’ll meet with my father in the morning, as soon as he’s finished his breakfast, if he can.”
“Of course. This humble servant will ask his indulgence.”
Yue Fengjian gave Uncle Song a genuine smile, and it changed his face completely. Without the permanent frown making him look so stern, it was easy to see how genuinely handsome he really was. Lian Zhidiao’s eyes couldn’t help but linger on the flash of his smile, but as he felt a blush rising in his own cheeks, he looked away.
“It’s good to be home,” Yue Fengjian said, and then he nodded to the others. It was as good as a dismissal: the other four all began to walk to their own destinations, disappearing into the woodwork.
The Yue family home was a castle framed with heavy timber, a few rough knots still visible on some of the beams. But it was not all battlements. Yue Fengjian led the way, Lian Zhidiao trailing behind him. They passed a few small courtyard gardens like elevator shafts, bringing light down into the deepest parts of the citadel. Lian Zhidiao’s steps slowed as he looked over the railing down to the bottom, where there was a small pool lined with plants and floors made of blue stone; he had to step quickly to catch up.
There were some appeasements to luxury as befitted the ancestral home of an old and powerful sect. The floors were the finest red clay, polished to gleaming purple-black by centuries of use. The walls were covered with carved gold screens depicting cultivators doing battle with horrible monsters. Yue Fengjian knew precisely where he was going, and the servants did as well; lanterns lit the halls along their way.
His quarters were small compared to a pavilion at the Lin sect, but some of the most richly appointed yet, with gold-plated door handles. Inside, more of the gilded screens divided a larger space, which (it was assumed) would be home to his family, once he had one. A large bronze brazier had been freshly laden with coals to warm the rooms. Behind all the screens, Lian Zhidiao could see a bed platform, surrounded by sumptuous hangings to keep out the drafts. Once again, Lian Zhidiao felt that his own threadbare black robes looked terribly plain compared to his surroundings. It looked like the lion had brought home a scraggly black kitten on a whim.
The servants weren’t far behind them. Yue Fengjian had scarcely put his traveling pack down when a knock came at the door, and at his assent, a bed was brought in. It was wooden and low to the ground, with a thin mattress. They brought blankets as well, although these were simply serviceable, probably taken from a servant’s quarters. They set it up in a corner, and Lian Zhidiao hovered near it uncertainly until the servants bowed and left.
Yue Fengjian let out a heavy sigh.
“You must be tired.”
“Mm?” Yue Fengjian was already rubbing his neck. “From traveling, yes.”
“Thank you for carrying me all this way.”
“I’m a little perplexed,” Yue Fengjian said, beginning to untie his belt. “You made it sound like there was a grave threat here, so we flew as fast as we could, and there’s nothing here.”
“You’re disappointed by that?”
“I’m confused by it.” He turned his head to look at Lian Zhidiao; his hair fell over his shoulder as he tilted his head. “I was looking hard as we flew over, and didn’t see anything obvious to be concerned over.”
Like the feeble crops or dead fields that Liao Kuaiyu was listening for.
“What if it wasn’t a real threat?” Lian Zhidiao didn’t like saying it, especially given the pain that it had taken him to bring that message back to Yue Fengjian. But he wasn’t the kind of person to dodge a line of questioning.
“Then what possible reason could you have for—” Yue Fengjian stopped himself. His frown was back in place.
Lian Zhidiao swallowed, remembering Qianjiao’s face leering up at him, the red glowing eyes filling his vision. His voice shook when he started, but got stronger as he kept talking. “When Qianjiao was… talking to me, he said that you would use a Speaker to find out how I died. He told me what he wanted you to hear, thinking that you would see it when the Speakers got it out of me.”
“Speakers take time to do their work.” Yue Fengjian crossed his arms over his chest. “You didn’t mention this before, when we talked in Fenfang City. Or at any point during our journey.”
“I wanted to wait and see if there was anything wrong here,” Lian Zhidiao said. “I sort of wanted it to be true. I’m relieved it’s not, but…” Near the end, his voice cracked.
“But then why were you kidnapped?” Yue Fengjian finished for him.
Lian Zhidiao nodded.
“It’s a foolish exercise, trying to understand why a demon does what it does,” Yue Fengjian responded. “Fortunately for us, the number of demons that don’t think things through is high.”
“So then, why?”
Yue Fengjian shook his head. “He may not have a reason. He definitely may have been lying.” He walked close enough that Lian Zhidiao had to tilt his head back a bit to meet his eyes. “But to him, there was no reason to hurt you. He was just enjoying himself.”
Yue Fengjian started to wobble in his vision, and Lian Zhidiao bowed his head, using his sleeve to hide his face. “I see,” he croaked, although he didn’t see at all.
To his surprise, he felt Yue Fengjian’s fingers lifting his chin. Lian Zhidiao moved his hand up to continue shielding himself with his sleeve, but Yue Fengjian’s other hand pulled his wrist away. Lian Zhidiao’s tears were bared for him to see. There was no point in hiding it from him, so Lian Zhidiao just morosely met his eyes. “I suppose I am delicate, for a Wa magician,” he muttered, meeting Yue Fengjian’s sharp, leonine gaze.
That prompted a soft smile from Yue Fengjian. “You are,” he said, releasing his grip on him and stepping away. “But given what you’ve lived through, the rest of your sect must be truly terrifying.”
Lian Zhidiao sniffed, and wiped his tears away with the heel of his hand.
“If you need to see someone to help you, then I know one,” Yue Fengjian began. “Many people who live through things like this seek the counsel of a learned master to avoid spontaneously deviating later.”
Lian Zhidiao sat down on his bed and rubbed his forehead. It sounded like a ‘learned master’ was the equivalent of a therapist or maybe a priest. Doubtless he was already supposed to know what one was. “Do you think it would help?”
Yue Fengjian hesitated. “The learned master here…has some experience with these matters. I would trust him to guide you back to the right path.”
“Then I will put myself in his hands.”
Yue Fengjian nodded. “Tomorrow then, after I’ve met with my father.” He finished untying his belt and opened up his robes to hang them up. Lian Zhidiao averted his eyes to give Yue Fengjian some privacy, and turned to face the wall to undress himself. This felt more… normal. More like spending the night at another guy’s house. Less like his heart was going to gallop away with him. When they put out the lamp and settled in, he couldn’t even hear Yue Fengjian breathing from across the room. The mountain air weighed down his blankets, and as soon as they were warmed up with his body heat, they were a dangerously comfortable cocoon that lulled him to sleep in minutes.
Lian Zhidiao was awakened by a knocking at the door in the moments just before dawn. Groggily, he lifted his head, but Yue Fengjian must have already been awake, because he sat up immediately and called for them to enter.
A cloud of attendants blew into the room. They carried with them a basin for washing, a light breakfast, clothes, jewelry—everything one would need to be properly attired before visiting with an important person. Yue Fengjian climbed out of bed and met them head on; they swarmed around him like chickens, talking animatedly about their young master’s unexpected return, informing him about the happenings around the city. A changeling had been born in the slums and subsequently died, so that had been recorded and shared with the Yuan sect for the purposes of cataloging omens. The bronze bells commissioned by the founder of the sect had finished being cleaned and had been reinstalled, and the musician responsible for the piece to be played on the founder’s day had begun work. Old Zhengfu had recovered from a serious illness and was said to be accepting new disciples. Occasionally he heard Yue Fengjian’s deep voice asking or answering questions.
Lian Zhidiao stood off to the side, getting ready for the day and eating a small breakfast that was brought and left without so much as a glance at him. Although he didn’t have much to do to get ready, it took him as long to do it for himself as it took the entire group of Yue Fengjian’s attendants. As the attendants performed their roles and backed away, Yue Fengjian’s transformation was slowly completed.
The last of the attendants backed away, and the doors opened again. Uncle Song walked in to inspect their handiwork. Yue Fengjian turned in place, showing off another embroidered bear in red on his back. After a few moments, Uncle Song nodded and then turned and left the room. The rest of the servants bowed and slipped out as well, leaving Yue Fengjian and Lian Zhidiao alone together.
Yue Fengjian glanced sidelong at Lian Zhidiao. His attitude had changed as well: the frown was replaced with a solemn expression, showing the handsomeness of his features. Lian Zhidiao walked forward and took him in without feeling bad about staring.
Gone was Yue Fengjian’s usual ponytail; instead all of his hair except for his forelock had been bound up in a heavy, glossy knot that seemed on the verge of falling off the back of his head, fastened in place with a golden binding and pin. He was draped in dark red silk robes with a wide white collar and voluminous sleeves, embroidered with the sect crest. Over his shoulders was a red ochre jacket, embroidered at the edges, and from his belt hung a panel embroidered with a roaring bear in silver thread with gold claws. His shuangjian Wallbreaker had been replaced with a fan. His bearing at the Lin sect’s estate had been noble, but attired thus, he wasn’t just an aspirant. He was royal.
Dressed as a crown prince and groomed like a future king by his gaggle of attendants, he should have inspired flowery poetry comparing him to the noble brilliance of the sun or the stainless beauty of stars. Or to a regal, ancient beast, untamed by any human or demon. Maybe to the glory of summer itself, warm, heavy, and glittering. But only one soft word fell out of Lian Zhidiao’s mouth. “Wow.”
Yue Fengjian arched an eyebrow. He looked down at his finery. “Surely you have seen better in the Wa sect.”
No wonder all the women in the book fell for him. The Wa sect was known for beauty and art, but… Lian Zhidiao slowly shook his head, a small smile sliding onto his lips. “Not like this.”
Yue Fengjian’s hands tightened around the fan in his hands, but he gave a small nod, as if pleased by this affirmation.
Uncle Song returned, waiting at the door for some signal from down the hall that the leader of Yue sect was ready to see his son. Once the signal had been received, Uncle Song turned to face Yue Fengjian. Lian Zhidiao watched him puff himself up, as if his self-encouragement for facing this had a physical effect. He proceeded out of the room; Lian Zhidiao got up and followed him at a distance, watching his tall, straight shoulders glide down the corridor. Yue Fengjian didn’t look back once, and soon disappeared from sight around a corner.
What must his father be like, for this to be the way he meets him? Lian Zhidiao had no idea what they might be discussing, but it didn’t appear to be a friendly chat. Come to think of it, he hadn’t ever gone into Yue Fengjian’s family life in Supreme Warlord of the Beast World. Yue Kuangxiang had a name, but his relationship with his son had been a footnote to the adventures in battling demons. Because I never specifically wrote a relationship with his father, the world filled it in as it liked.
Yue Fengjian returned in the time you could burn a stick of incense, without a change in his expression, but he avoided looking directly at Lian Zhidiao. Instead he called for Uncle Song again, and small herd of attendants shuffled in not long after that to begin peeling away the layers of ornament and putting back in place the plainer, half-open robes and thick ponytail that he knew. Both of them were Yue Fengjian, of course, but this one was the one that Lian Zhidiao preferred to see.
“Young master, if this humble servant may ask, where are you going?”
“Xiyu Mountain,” Yue Fengjian answered, and recognition swept over Uncle Song’s face.
“My young master will find that the lady Yaosa and young master Shipei have already left for Xiyu Mountain. Perhaps they were unaware of your plans to join them?”
“We didn’t plan anything together,” Yue Fengjian said, “But it will be good to see them there. I assume they took the usual.”
“Yes, although if this humble servant could inconvenience you, they did leave something behind.”
“We can carry it.”
Uncle Song glanced at Lian Zhidiao before speaking. “This humble servant is grateful, and will have the box brought at once.”
Scarcely had he spoken these words but an attendant slipped out of the room. At Uncle Song’s hand movement, the rest of them were freed to go, like a herd of ducks breaking out of a field.
“Kuaiyu? Hu Baitian?”
“Liao-gongzi left for the Quanyuan just after breakfast, and Hu-gongzi went into the city to see a provisioner.”
“Thank you, Uncle Song.”
Uncle Song bowed to him. “If my young master has need of anything at all, he need only ask.”
Yue Fengjian seemed a little more at ease in his normal clothes, though he hadn’t seemed particularly ill-at-ease in his formal clothing. He picked up Wallbreaker and then turned to Lian Zhidiao. “Are you ready?”
Lian Zhidiao opened his mouth to say ‘yes’, when it suddenly occurred to him to bring along the plain jade slip. He showed it to Yue Fengjian, by way of asking the question. Yue Fengjian gave a small nod, and Lian Zhidiao tucked it in his sleeve.
They wended their way down through the castle, and when they made it to the courtyard, there was a woven basket waiting for them. Yue Fengjian crouched by it and opened it to see what was inside. There were a few small sacks of rice, inksticks, paper, and a clay tea set with two cups. Yue Fengjian nodded and replaced the lid.
“Would you mind carrying this? It’s not a long flight.”
Lian Zhidiao couldn’t contain his curiosity. “Are these for the learned master?”
Yue Fengjian dropped his sword into a hover and waited for Lian Zhidiao to pick up the basket. “Well, yes, but not because he’s a learned master.”
Lian Zhidiao picked up the basket and mounted the sword with relative ease; even with more cargo, his balance on the sword had improved by leaps and bounds. Yue Fengjian didn’t seem to think he needed steadying with his arm around him either.
Flying in the morning revealed more of the rugged red beauty of the land, the rivers nestled down between forests, and wide lakes so deep as to be black even in the morning. The flight was short, less than an hour away, away from any of the lower, more easily traveled peaks. If asked to pick the Mountain of Fine Rain out of the mountain range around them, any of them might be a good choice. They all seemed too similar to tell apart.
Finally one mountain rose to fill their vision, a steep tower of rock that appeared to have been broken apart from all the smaller crags around it, and stood alone. Mist hung between the shorter and greater spines of rock. As they descended, moisture clung to their clothes and dampened their skin. From the clouds, a little garden and house appeared at the bottom of the spire, seeming to spring from the rock itself. Then, they could recognize someone standing in the field.
“Dage!” Yue Yaosa straightened up as they neared the ground, a flat basket in her hands with a few vegetables in it. “I didn’t know you were coming here!” Lian Zhidiao hopped off the sword first, and Yue Yaosa grinned at him. “I see you got the last basket we couldn’t get. That’s a big help.”
“Is Shipei inside?”
“Yeah, he’s talking about the Lin sect with…” She glanced at Lian Zhidiao and then back at Yue Fengjian. “Did you bring him because of the demon?”
‘Because of the demon’? Was everyone going to look at him with a mixture of suspicion and pity because of what Qianjiao had done?
“Mm,” Yue Fengjian replied.
Yue Yaosa’s face sobered. “Better tell him sooner rather than later. On that subject, he won’t want to be kept waiting.” She put the flat basket of vegetables on top of the covered basket and then whisked them out of Lian Zhidiao’s hands, walking back toward the house.
That subject. Since Yue Yaosa only knew about the deviate qi, and not his other core, it had to be about that. Lian Zhidiao frowned a little, thinking back on what Yue Fengjian said last night, about ‘what he’d lived through’, comparing it to Yue Yaosa treating him as if he was barely there at all. Was someone surviving this so rare? Yue Fengjian walked past him, and with his head clouded by these thoughts, Lian Zhidiao followed.
Even though summer was about to begin, the shaded part at the root of the spire was almost cold. The little house had a red tile roof, the same as all the other buildings he’d seen, but several of the tiles were cracked or missing, and many more had varied coatings of dirt from being replaced at different times.
Yue Yaosa walked up the steps to the door in front of them, calling out in front of her. “Yue Fengjian’s here!”
A man’s voice answered, “My nephew almost never comes to see me. It must be a trick.”
Nephew?! Lian Zhidiao thought with a shock. The learned master is Yue Shipei’s father?
Yue Yaosa gave Yue Fengjian a knowing smile and stepped off the threshold into a small kitchen next to the door.
“It’s me, it’s me,” Yue Fengjian answered, in the manner of someone who must go through this every time he visits.
Yue Shipei was seated on a simple mat with two mismatched tea cups between him and the red-robed man who sat across from him. He had a slim build that matched his voice, refined features and the sharp, wise eyes that belied the ageless look of a cultivator. His sleek black hair was half-up and perfectly groomed, and a silky beard that made him look the part of a scholarly, noble gentleman living in a small hut in the woods. Yue Shipei’s face showed surprise, but the other man only had a gentle expression of delight.
Yue Fengjian cupped his hands and bowed to the older man. “Uncle,” he said. “I have brought someone to see you.”
The older man’s keen gaze moved to Lian Zhidiao, darting all over him. “A very interesting person, indeed.”
Lian Zhidiao gave him a salute. “I am Lian Chanjian, courtesy name Zhidiao, of the Xideng Wa sect.”
“I am Yue Danquan,” he replied, with a hint of a smile around his lips. “And I can see immediately why you have come.”