Lian Zhidiao realized with a slowly growing sense of discomfort that instead of flying further afield to rejoin Yue Shipei and the others, Yue Fengjian was taking them back to Grandmother Song’s village, which was much closer.
They landed in the middle of the village, their sleeves plastered to their sides. Even after they had their feet on the ground, it seemed like Yue Fengjian was reluctant to let Lian Zhidiao down from his arms. Not just a princess carry, but now this granny is going to see me being carried, too? Perhaps Yue Fengjian had a point about overextending himself.
Grandmother Song stood at the door to her home, looking at them from under the eaves. She bowed to Yue Fengjian. “Young Master.”
“Please, Grandmother. We have had a taxing battle against the q—Fengxing. May we take shelter with you for the night?”
Grandmother Song swept the sky with her gaze, as if looking for the qilin, and then bowed to Yue Fengjian. “Since my husband died, I don’t have much to offer, but it’s yours.” Then she glanced at Lian Zhidiao, still held in Yue Fengjian’s arms. After a moment in which Lian Zhidiao felt her grudgingly offer recognition, she said, “There is a healing spring about twenty minutes’ walk into the forest. Perhaps Young Master could benefit from a visit.”
‘Young Master’ could benefit from a visit…aren’t I the one who’s obviously being carried? Lian Zhidiao kept his eyes on the ground to avoid looking at Grandmother Song’s face.
But then, Yue Fengjian nodded and looked at Lian Zhidiao. “Stand for a moment.”
Lian Zhidiao clung to Yue Fengjian’s shoulders tightly as his feet stretched down to touch the ground. But it was no good walking. He could barely stay standing long enough for Yue Fengjian to sheathe his sword. Shame washed over him.
It would have been better to just be princess carried the whole way!
Yue Fengjian knelt in front of him, offering his back. “Climb on.”
Climb on?! Isn’t being carried like a child even worse?!
There wasn’t anything he could do about his current situation. He put his legs on either side of Yue Fengjian’s back and wound his arms around his neck. “Ready,” he muttered.
Yue Fengjian didn’t struggle with Lian Zhidiao’s weight at all. He bowed to Grandmother Song again before walking in the direction she pointed out to him. After a quick bounce, he slid Wallbreaker under Lian Zhidiao’s backside to help support his weight, which only made Lian Zhidiao squirm to ride higher on his back.
Yue Fengjian walked in stony silence, and Lian Zhidiao was so embarrassed about his weakness and being carried that making conversation was beyond him. He was trying not to rest too heavily on the sword under his butt, or rub too much against the man who was carrying him. In every way, he felt like an imposition—a tired imposition, at that.
He might have nodded off, his head rolling drowsily against Yue Fengjian’s shoulder until they came to a stop and Yue Fengjian jostled him awake. “Hey.”
“What? Oh,” Lian Zhidiao said. “We’re already here?”
“Yeah,” Yue Fengjian replied.
The ‘healing spring’ was a rock-lined pool below a cliff face wet with flowing water. It wasn’t yet sunset, but the low light from the lingering storm made the forest floor almost as dark as twilight. Scattered clumps of mushrooms clung to trees and rocks around the spring, fluorescing blue and yellow and warm reddish-purple. Their glow seemed to swell and fade, as if they were breathing. Lian Zhidiao recognized why as soon as Yue Fengjian lowered him to his feet: it felt very similar to the ‘temple’ of the Great Jade Beast, Qinghu. This spring was a natural occurrence of roaring earth.
“Undress,” Yue Fengjian ordered.
“Are you going to get into the spring with your clothes on?” Yue Fengjian arched an eyebrow.
Lian Zhidiao sat down near the edge of the pool before he lost the strength to stand. “We’re already wet enough from the rain,” he protested weakly. A little more spring water wouldn’t make that much difference.
“Don’t make me do it for you,” Yue Fengjian said menacingly.
Lian Zhidiao didn’t have any doubt that Yue Fengjian could easily hold him down and take his clothes off for him, no matter how much he tried to resist. One strong hand alone could hold his wrists together, and his other hand could strip his robes off his shoulders. The roaring earth underneath his feet beckoned. Unwilling to put it off any longer, he let out a small sigh and untied his woven silk belt.
Yue Fengjian stood by with crossed arms until Lian Zhidiao was out of his middle clothes. When Lian Zhidiao started to inch toward the edge of the pool still wearing his inner clothes, Yue Fengjian made a noise that sounded like a grunt and a scolding at the same time. He crowded into Lian Zhidiao’s space with a pointed look at his lower body.
“Show me the rest.”
Lian Zhidiao gaped at him. The blush that started to heat his cheeks took the force out of his rebuke. “Yue Fengjian!”
“Don’t be such a silly little boy,” Yue Fengjian retorted. “I’ve already seen the gray spot. Hiding it won’t do any good.”
It hadn’t occurred to Lian Zhidiao that Yue Fengjian might want to see his dantian to see what effect the new infusion of deviate qi was having. He was more concerned about his modesty.. He was conscious enough to protest against it this time, and he certainly planned to do so.
But Yue Fengjian’s scowl told Lian Zhidiao that there would be no arguing with him over this. His intense inspection followed every movement of Lian Zhidiao’s hands. After Lian Zhidiao slipped off his thin top, he hesitated for just a second before pushing the waistband of his undergarment down below his belly button.
Looking down at himself, even in the dim light, Lian Zhidiao could see that the gray circle over his dantian was big, bigger than it had been after Qianjiao had attempted to kill him. Parts of the circle were stained, like long, thin shadows had been painted over the lower part of his belly. He looked up at Yue Fengjian.
Yue Fengjian wore an expression of grim shock. “Get in the spring.”
“While wearing my underwear?”
“Take it off, then,” Yue Fengjian said, stepping away and turning his back to him.
With Yue Fengjian’s back turned, Lian Zhidiao loosened the strings on his undergarment and shimmied out of it as quickly as he could. Leaving it in a pile with his other clothes, he inched to the edge and dipped a toe into the clear, dark pool.
“It’s like ice water!”
“So?” Yue Fengjian turned his head as if he was going to turn back around.
Faced with the immediate terror of Yue Fengjian about to see him completely naked, Lian Zhidiao rolled himself into the spring pool. The cold water shocked him to his bones and made his lungs seize. He clung on to the rocks at the edge, breathing shallowly until the urge to gasp passed.
These cold mountain springs are dangerous! Anyone could drown if they fell into them. Why did everyone put one of these in their novels?
“How is it?” Yue Fengjian turned around, walking back this way.
“Cold, as I said,” Lian Zhidiao snapped.
“It’s the same as the Quanyuan spring,” Yue Fengjian said, sitting down near the edge of the pool.
Lian Zhidiao let out a shuddering breath, trying to find the good in this situation. But the cold was so intense that his skin was starting to tingle. “You do this up in the Quanyuan spring?”
“Occasionally.” Yue Fengjian folded his hands in his lap. “It’s refreshing.”
“It’s not refreshing to feel like my bits are going to fall off.” Lian Zhidiao’s teeth chattered. “You get in, if it’s so refreshing.”
“I didn’t overexert myself,” Yue Fengjian admonished him. “You’re talking too much. Focus on circulating your qi.”
Lian Zhidiao made a face, but did as he was advised, pulling qi from the pool around him. As soon as he was able to relax and breathe fully, the roaring earth around the pool fed him qi. As much as he could ask and more. He closed his eyes and let it flow through him, as if he was dangling his fingers in a fast-moving stream. After a while, the water didn’t even feel cold any more.
Might be a sign of hypothermia, but seeing as how I have no problems breathing, it’s probably fine. Probably.
He turned his gaze inward, and examined his own body. His meridians were full and bright, and his golden core shone steadily in his mind’s eye. The other core was still in a state he could only call ‘excited’, but the longer he continued to breathe and circulate correct qi, the more calm it became. “You’re right,” Lian Zhidiao murmured, without opening his eyes. “It’s not bad.”
His fatigue didn’t disappear, but it eased. Even numb, he felt like he could use his legs again. Holding on to the side of the pool, he let his legs float up behind him and gave a little kick. Lian Zhidiao let out a sigh and opened his eyes.
The gloom was gathering in the forest, but the dim light of the various mushrooms and bugs glowing and dancing in the air made it look enchanted. Encouraged by the early darkness, the night birds began their alluring calls. Fairy-light bugs cavorted in the air, circling the pool in a twilight dance. Lian Zhidiao scooped up a handful of water and dribbled it into a sunken part of one of the rocks. In no time, the fairy-bugs collected at the edge of the puddle to drink, their glowing lace wings shimmering like caster sugar.
Lian Zhidiao folded his arms on the edge of the pool and watched them for a short while before he realized that Yue Fengjian was looking at him. Their eyes met; even in the low light, he could tell that Yue Fengjian wore his characteristic frown, his dark, steady gaze never flinching away from Lian Zhidiao’s face.
How long has he been watching? Feeling self-conscious, Lian Zhidiao sank lower into the pool until only his eyes were peeking above the edge. His cheeks were suddenly warm. I feel like he could set me on fire with that look. It’s like a laser.
Yue Fengjian stood up. “We should get back to Grandmother Song. Do you think you can walk?”
Lian Zhidiao froze, suddenly realizing that if he could not walk, Yue Fengjian was going to have to fish him out of the pool and help him dress. Feeling as if he would die of shame merely from the thought, he nodded.
“Then hurry up.”
Lian Zhidiao watched Yue Fengjian walk to the edge of the clearing around the spring. After making sure his back was turned, Lian Zhidiao picked a part of the pool where the fairy-bugs wouldn’t be disturbed and heaved himself up out of the water with a grunt and sat on the edge of the pool. To his surprise, the vibrant glow of his golden core seemed to fade slightly, or perhaps he had just been dazzled by the roaring earth. In either case, the water of the healing spring had done something to magnify the effects of moving qi through him.
He dressed as quickly as he could, but it still took him several minutes. He was surprised to find that his clothes were relatively dry; he could only attribute that to the roaring earth. It was the earth’s breath, after all. Unsteadily, he walked around the edge of the pool, leaning on the trees as he passed them.
Yue Fengjian gave him a dubious look. “Will you be able to walk back?”
“Mm,” Lian Zhidiao said. “I’d like to try.”
Yue Fengjian looked ahead and started walking, but his pace of walking was slower than usual. They continued in silence until they were nearly halfway back to the village. Then Yue Fengjian spoke.
“Don’t pull another stunt like you did today.”
“Something like what?”
“You know what I’m talking about. The thing with the qilin.” Yue Fengjian’s ponytail swung back and forth. “Can you do reckless things like that because you have two cores?”
Ah. Even showing Yue Fengjian that the qilin could be saved wasn’t enough to convince him that it was the right call to make at the time. Lian Zhidiao crisped his fingers as they walked. “If I’m careful, it’s not reckless.”
“Do you think that anyone would look at what you did and think that you were not going into qi deviation?” Yue Fengjian’s voice was shaking. “Do you know what it looks like to other people?”
“No,” Lian Zhidiao said quietly.
“No, of course not,” Yue Fengjian bit out.
Lian Zhidiao didn’t have anything that he could say to that. He fell into silence,
As they reached the village, Yue Fengjian put out his arm to stop Lian Zhidiao from going any further. “Don’t do anything like that for me again.”
“But everyone else risks their lives—”
“No.” Yue Fengjian’s eyes were sharp enough to slice through the darkness and pierce Lian Zhidiao’s heart. “Not their cores. Not who they are.”
Lian Zhidiao wanted to tear his hair out. Why did I write such a headstrong protagonist?! Yue Fengjian had a stubborn set to his jaw that said he had made up his mind already, and yet Lian Zhidiao couldn’t let it lie. “But the curse!”
“Let me decide what I can and can’t do. Or don’t you think I can do that?”
Lian Zhidiao’s hands gathered into fists. “You think you can just do everything on your own?”
“Do you think destabilizing your core is going to help me?”
Yes! That’s what cannon fodder does! But Lian Zhidiao couldn’t say that without sounding like a raving lunatic. Yue Fengjian’s fierce frown burned down all his resistance, and eventually Lian Zhidiao let out an exasperated sigh and continued walking into the village. Enough of this. He was cold, he was hungry, and he just wanted to go to bed.
Grandmother Song regarded Lian Zhidiao with cold detachment when announced himself and stepped into her doorway. She didn’t even incline her head to him when he bowed to her. Only when Yue Fengjian walked in after him did she make any sign of deference.
There wasn’t much to eat between the three of them. The rice was a rough mountain variety, cooked into congee to make it soft enough for an old person to eat. She had some sour meat that she’d cooked with greens, and some mushrooms in spicy oil. She had no wine or tea, but hot water was enough to warm them up after being wet for much of the day. Both Yue Fengjian and Lian Zhidiao made the effort to eat as conscientiously as possible, nursing their bowls and not taking too much until they felt sure the old woman had eaten enough.
Grandmother Song offered Yue Fengjian her thin mat to sleep on, but he refused. She did get him to accept two blankets, and they settled in for an uncomfortable night on the hard floor. The icy air between them persisted even after the old woman banked the fire. Then the natural hush of a sleeping house descended on them. Yue Fengjian’s breathing slowed almost instantly; he seemed to be able to sleep anywhere he lay down. Lian Zhidiao felt a little stab of guilt. Yue Fengjian had done a lot today too, and he was probably wiped. Lian Zhidiao reached over and pulled Yue Fengjian’s blanket up over him more securely and then lay back down, deep in thought.
The whole qilin storyline in Supreme Warlord of the Beast World almost didn’t exist. The ‘corrupted’ qilin had been a force that terrified villagers into the path of a demon raiding party, making it necessary for Yue Fengjian to save the day. It was the part of the story where Yue Yaosa and her cousin Yue Fengjian bonded in battle, laying the foundations for their later sexual relationship. But instead of that storyline playing out as it had in his novel, something entirely different happened.
To be honest, Lian Zhidiao would have been quite pleased to have pulled off this qilin cleansing in his book, as he had only paired Yue Yaosa off with Yue Fengjian to attract a certain kind of well-paying (if skeezy) demographic. That arc had been the beginning of his ‘cheap restaurant’ style of writing, so seeing that the living, breathing version of his world rejected it made him happy. You see, you filthy commenters? Yue Yaosa would not do something so base.
It put Lian Zhidiao in the frame of mind to think that the reality he was currently living might present a ‘more true’ outcome than the version of the story he’d written to cater to the whims of his readers. Well, everything except the last wife Yue Fengjian met, the Zhou sect member who would become his Empress. That had been his decision alone.
Before too long, the rhythm of Yue Fengjian’s breathing so close to him made him sleepy as well. He drifted off, thinking about what would happen next according to his story, and wondering if—no, not if, how—his lived reality would be different yet again from what he’d written. Well, as long as he reached ‘The Red Emperor’s Wedding’ alive, he wouldn’t be able to argue.
The sound of birds singing out their morning songs woke him. He felt sure that maybe a shaft of sunlight was falling over his blanket, making him feel cozy. But wanting just a few more minutes of sleep, he tugged his blanket up over his shoulders, only to feel a draft stirring his hair.
With a frown, Lian Zhidiao opened one eye and found his face nearly buried in Yue Fengjian’s chest. The draft had been Yue Fengjian’s breath in his hair, and the sunlight the warmth of his body pressed against him.