Lian Zhidiao swallowed hard. He can tell why I’m here? Feeling almost as if the gray spot at his dantian was visible through his clothes, he glanced down at himself. When he looked back up, Yue Danquan was getting to his feet.
Yue Shipei had a wounded look on his face, but Yue Danquan pre-empted any protests. “A-Zhong, please.”
“I do not think this will take long,” Yue Danquan said, offering his hand to help his son up. “We can resume our discussion later.”
Yue Shipei got up without his assistance and after pinning Yue Fengjian with a meaningful look, bowed, and disappeared into the kitchen with Yue Yaosa.
“Walk with me,” Yue Danquan said in a soft voice. “You too, Hanqi.”
Yue Fengjian blinked. “Yes, Uncle.” He exchanged looks with Yue Shipei and Yue Yaosa as they walked out of the house.
Yue Danquan followed a small path of red flagstones away from the little house. He all but floated over the ground, his sleeves trailing lightly in the air behind him. The path curved around the side of the tower of stone and began to slowly climb the side of it.
“Is my brother well?”
Lian Zhidiao glanced at Yue Fengjian’s feet, but kept his head directed forward.
“Yes. He sends his wishes for Uncle’s good health.”
Yue Danquan chuckled dryly. “I’m well aware that I am a thorn in his side.”
Yue Fengjian hesitated for a moment before speaking. “His direction to me is the same as always.”
“Mm,” Yue Danquan replied. “Then it must be a relief to see that you can report back to him that I have not entered qi deviation.”
“It is as you say, Uncle.”
Qi deviation? This time Lian Zhidiao looked directly at Yue Fengjian before continuing to walk. But Yue Fengjian didn’t reveal anything by words or actions. Surely if Lian Zhidiao didn’t say anything, all would be revealed in time.
They continued walking up gently climbing paths, until they passed by a small, steady drip of water painting the red rock a fresh, wet green, and hidden just among the foliage was an area of flat rock with a seating platform on it. There were no cushions to sit on or tea to drink, but here they might be able to talk in private, surrounded on all sides by nothing but mountains and open air.
Yue Danquan swept his robes out behind him and sat, and Yue Fengjian and Lian Zhidiao followed his leave. “A-Zhong was telling me about your journey and the places you have been.” His eyes moved to Lian Zhidiao. “Along with the people you have met.”
Lian Zhidiao shot Yue Fengjian a sidelong look. Why do I have the feeling of being in front of a teacher about to be scolded?
“Did Hanqi tell you what I do?”
Lian Zhidiao inclined his head. “He said you were a ‘learned master’ who could assist me in recovering from something that happened to me.”
“Mm.” Yue Danquan reached up to stroke his beard. ”That is nearly right.”
“Uncle, he—” Yue Fengjian leaned forward. “He’s had a lot of deviate qi in his body.”
Yue Danquan looked between the two of them, his eyebrows rising. “You’re eager to get to your business.” He pinned Lian Zhidiao with discerning eyes. “A-Zhong said you have recently had some kind of mishap with a demon. But I think it’s more than that.”
Lian Zhidiao looked uneasily at Yue Fengjian. “Why would you think that?”
“A-Zhong is rarely wrong, and he wouldn’t stop puzzling about it before you got here.” He pulled his fist down his beard. “He’s spent some time with Hu Baitian, a healer from the Quanlu Yuan sect, who knows a thing or two about qi deviation.” Yue Danquan had a far-off look in his eyes, staring out past the two men in front of him into the valley beyond. “The demon you met filled you with deviate qi, but you did not deviate.”
“It was very close,” Yue Fengjian interjected.
“It is not usually a matter of ‘close’,” Yue Danquan replied. “One moment of doubt can shake the faith of even the most loyal adherent. So it is with deviate qi. The amount of deviate qi necessary to destabilize a cultivation base is very small.” His eyes flicked to Lian Zhidiao. “A-Zhong told me that the amount you received was not small at all.”
“That’s…” Lian Zhidiao pressed his lips together, trying to think of what he could say that wouldn’t cast suspicion on him. Eventually, his protracted silence became its own kind of answer.
“If I may,” Yue Danquan said out loud. “I’d like to examine your meridians.”
Lian Zhidiao’s head snapped up. There’s no way he can examine my meridians without finding out about the other core with all the deviate qi in it. It doesn’t seem to be getting worse, but anyone that finds out about it will assume the worst. Lian Zhidiao turned to look at Yue Fengjian and found that Yue Fengjian was giving him a sharp look.
This man might be Yue Shipei’s father, and a ‘learned master’, but Lian Zhidiao still had no idea if he was someone that could be trusted with the knowledge of his two cores. I don’t even know what having two cores means, but it seems likely that someone else might. And whether that information could be used to hurt him was also something he didn’t know. He’d been unable to speak against having his meridians examined by Hu Baitian, but surely there was some sort of understanding between a healer and his patient that protected him. Was Yue Danquan similarly bound? Or might he try to do something to Lian Zhidiao in order to protect the Yue sect? What if something went wrong and Yue Danquan was injured?
It would be all too easy for the Yue sect to turn on him; a Wa sect member would be an attractive target to begin with, even before he injured the sect leader’s brother. If he was lucky enough to have Yue Fengjian intercede for him, it seemed unlikely that he would escape retribution. And speaking up for him would put Yue Fengjian in a bad position. His eyes sought the edge of Yue Fengjian’s robes next to him on the seating platform. Lian Zhidiao might be cannon fodder, but there wasn’t any reason for him to seek an accidental death.
“I’m—I’d rather not,” Lian Zhidiao blurted out.
“Hey,” Yue Fengjian hissed.
“Please understand my position,” Lian Zhidiao replied, ignoring the warning tone in Yue Fengjian’s voice. “The esteemed Xinxue Yue sect has its own ways of dealing with deviates, which are different from the Xideng Wa sect, are they not?”
“In some ways,” Yue Danquan said, leaning back a little, his hand around his beard.
“And the relations between our sects are strained.” Lian Zhidiao inclined his head to Yue Danquan. “This humble young man would regret it all the days of his life if something unfortunate were to happen to Senior Yue.”
A thoughtful look crossed Yue Danquan’s face. “I see the Wa sect’s reputation for excessive caution is not undeserved.” Then an enigmatic smile touched his lips. “I think that perhaps my nephew has brought you here without telling you much about me.”
Lian Zhidiao lifted his eyes to meet Yue Danquan’s face and then shook his head slightly.
“Always the type to act first and think later,” Yue Danquan said, shooting Yue Fengjian a penetrating look. “You could benefit from a little caution.” He turned his eyes back to Lian Zhidiao. “I am someone who specializes in qi deviation. Jade beasts vanished from villages in the hinterlands, so we frequently have to deal with those who deviate through no fault of their own.” He paused for a moment and then continued, a bit more thoughtfully. “Like any other sect, we also have those who deviate willingly, and those individuals too must be helped to return to the right path.”
Lian Zhidiao gave a small nod, his eyes lowered. Hu Baitian acts in a similar way, doesn’t he? He had talismans ready for the deviated people in Sancha Town.
Yue Danquan leaned forward again, a spark in his wise eyes. “As I hear it from A-Zhong, your case is unusual. Most of those who deviate through no fault of their own do so because the land itself is tainted. Over time, their will becomes weak. Men abandon their families, women neglect their children, respect for the traditions withers and dies away under an ever-heavier pall of selfishness and apathy.”
The spark in his eyes sharpened, and for the first time since meeting him, Lian Zhidiao got a sense that not everything about Yue Danquan was what it seemed.
Yue Danquan’s soft smile returned and eased the keen pointedness in his gaze. “Therefore, finding someone who has been purposefully poisoned by an excess of deviate qi—well, it’s an opportunity that doesn’t come along every day, especially as you seem to have avoided qi deviation entirely. What I learn from you could save countless others. That is worth no small amount of strife between our sects.”
“I do not think that anything Senior Yue learns from me will be helpful for others. There are special circumstances.” Lian Zhidiao swallowed down his hesitation. Can’t we just talk and you give me a magic pill? Isn’t that what these novels are supposed to be about, pills and magic making everything better? “Is it necessary to do your work and help me recover?”
“It is.” Yue Danquan’s voice was firm.
Again, Lian Zhidiao’s eyes slipped down to the hem of Yue Fengjian’s robes, and then flicked up to his face. His characteristic frown was inscrutable, but he tilted his head ever so slightly. Whether it was a nod to proceed, or just him leaning forward in anticipation of Lian Zhidiao’s answer wasn’t clear. But the small motion was just enough support for Lian Zhidiao to accept his fate without continuing to agonize over it. “Then tell me what I must do.”
“Lie down here,” Yue Danquan said, indicating the part of the seating platform in front of him. Lian Zhidiao obediently got up and then stretched out in front of him. He turned his head to look at Yue Fengjian. Yue Fengjian gave him a small, affirming nod, and that made a little of the uneasiness in his stomach abate.
Yue Danquan stretched out his arm and laid his hand over Lian Zhidiao’s belly, above his navel. “Relax,” he said.
Lian Zhidiao took a deep breath and let it out and then nodded.
He felt a sense of conditional connection, like a man at the sluice-gate of a rice paddy who stands in the river and puts his hands on the gate itself, looking into the field beyond. Almost immediately, Yue Danquan gasped. But his hand remained splayed over Lian Zhidiao’s belly for several more minutes, until he withdrew his hand.
“I see,” Yue Danquan said. He lifted his eyes to look at Yue Fengjian. “You haven’t seen this?”
Lian Zhidiao gave Yue Fengjian a guilty look.
Yue Fengjian’s frown remained steady. “Uncle knows I do not possess any kind of skill with healing.”
“It scarcely needs skill,” Yue Danquan replied. “The wrongness of it is plain enough to anyone.”
Yue Fengjian paused. “Hu Baitian examined him after the demon attack and discovered his… unique condition by accident.”
Lian Zhidiao sat up. “Perhaps Senior Yue can now understand my hesitation.”
“Yes,” Yue Danquan replied, with a note of eagerness in his voice. “Will you tell me how you got your second core? What skills or techniques you used? Training?”
Ah, he’s already trying to figure out how to do it himself. Sorry, Senior Yue, but I don’t think having two cores is something that can be repeated.
Lian Zhidiao bowed his head. “I’m afraid I cannot, Senior Yue. A few weeks ago I fell into a river and nearly died. When I miraculously awakened, it was like this.”
Yue Danquan’s expression became crestfallen, but he cleared his throat and nodded. Within an instant, his wise and kindly demeanor settled back over him. “I see.”
Was it Lian Zhidiao’s imagination, or did Yue Danquan seem disappointed? He’d never written about the brother that Yue Kuangxiang drove into exile, other than how he—
Lian Zhidiao looked at the older man in front of him, with the bearing and disposition of a sage. Now he remembered. Yue Danquan had been exiled for experimenting with deviate cultivation methods. He had never written the ‘why’ of this exile. Seeing the man before him, he could not think of him as a mad cultivator willing to do anything for power. After all, he still clearly had a golden core and hadn’t (as he’d said) entered qi deviation. There must be some reason he’d begun experimenting with deviate qi.
“I’m sorry to disappoint you.” Hands on his knees, Lian Zhidiao dipped his head.
“Think nothing of it,” Yue Danquan said. “You do indeed have some signs of meridian corrosion, but there is no deviate qi in your system other than what is in that… other core.” He seemed to have difficulty even speaking the words aloud.
“Uncle,” Yue Fengjian said. “Is there something you can do about the attack?” He gave Lian Zhidiao a look of concern. “It seems to weigh heavily on his mind.”
“In this the Xinxue Yue and Xideng Wa sects are remarkably similiar,” Yue Danquan replied. “The old techniques that our sects used to recover from attacks from the Yao were easily adapted to deal with the aftermath of a demon attack. The memories can be easily removed.”
The Yao. That’s new. The race of monsters, they were often confused for demons. Lian Zhidiao didn’t remember making two types of demons in this world—in fact, he’d specifically written only of true demons—but here they were, existing anyway. Given how much he couldn’t remember, it wouldn’t surprise him if the Yao race existed separately from true demons.
“How do you remove the memories?”
Yue Danquan quirked an eyebrow. “I imagine it’s the same as with Wa sect. A learned master can assist in extracting them so that no damage is done to the mind. The causes of distress may be removed without affecting one’s recollection of events and stored in a jade slip to be discarded or revisited later.”
Oh! “That reminds me,” Lian Zhidiao said, reaching into his sleeve. “I have come by a jade slip that has something interesting in it. If you’re practiced with removing memories, maybe you can offer some insight.”
“Warn him about the arm,” Yue Fengjian muttered.
Yue Danquan’s gaze flitted between them. “Whose memory is this?”
“I don’t know,” Lian Zhidiao replied, offering the plain jade slip. “We were hoping you could provide some insight. The man had his arm torn off, and the memory contains his thoughts, but we don’t know who he is.”
Yue Danquan’s brow creased. He took the jade slip from Lian Zhidiao’s hand, and touched it to his temple. Unlike Yue Fengjian and Lian Zhidiao, he showed no sign that he was being affected by the contents. Were it not for how long he held the slip against his head, Lian Zhidiao would have thought that he couldn’t view the memory contained within it. At length, he lowered the slip and let out a heavy sigh.
Yue Fengjian leaned forward slightly. “Does Uncle know who the man could be?”
“I have some suspicions, although…” Yue Danquan got a far off look in his eye and then shook his head, dismissing his thoughts. “No, I can’t be certain.”
“I see,” Lian Zhidiao said.
“I did recognize some of the demonic language being spoken. It’s a mixture of both the northern Yao tongue and the western demonic tongue.”
“Do you know what it was saying?” Yue Fengjian asked.
Yue Danquan shook his head. “On the rare occasions a demon is subdued, they’re not interested in talking. But they did use the word for ‘north’.” His expression darkened. “But I think he was being hunted by more than one group.”
More than one group of demons… “That many demons in human lands…could something like that happen with no one noticing?” Lian Zhidiao looked at Yue Fengjian and then back to Yue Danquan. “It’s not common that demons get past the borderlands.”
Yue Danquan nodded, a grave expression on his face. He held up the plain jade slip. “May I keep this?”
Lian Zhidiao nodded. It’s not like he would ever want to view the contents again.
“If I find out anything interesting, I’ll let you know.” Yue Danquan stood up. “Now, if you’ll come with me, we can remove your memory of the demon attack and ease your distress.”
They spent a few hours in Yue Danquan’s little house, where Lian Zhidiao learned how to funnel a memory into a jade slip. There were two methods for doing this: the first involved several ‘passes’ at the memory, and carefully built up the memory to be removed, which could be done largely on his own, with as much detail as the rememberer wanted to include. Then the jade slip could be flooded with qi and do its work to eradicate the offending memory in whole or in part. This, Yue Danquan told him, was similar to how Speakers obtained memories from the dead. Multiple passes at a memory meant that things like pain and feelings and private thoughts could be strained out of the memory, like spices from a braise. Guidance and a specially-made jade slip usually meant the involvement of a healer or Speaker.
Yue Danquan only briefly touched on the second method, which required no outside interference and ripped the memory from the mind entirely, leaving no record of it behind in the person who had experienced it. It went without saying that this was the method used by the man in the plain jade slip. It was still popular in the Wa sect for its ability to preserve whole manuals and techniques in case of capture by hostile cultivators.
So that explains why the jade slip I used provided me with all this information. It was a precaution against Wa techniques being found by outsiders, especially Speakers. The original Lian Zhidiao had also judged that the plain slip, with its horrifying contents, was also supposed to be lost. It wouldn’t have taken long for the bag of slips to be buried under river silt. They were much smaller and easier to miss than a corpse.