Lian Zhidiao didn’t have long to ponder the dead demons’ names before they drifted toward a building which presumably had been a home at one time, the same one that Hu Baitian had walked towards yesterday. Inside, it was a simple earthen cottage with two rooms. Hu Baitian was sitting on the edge of a mat, putting his hair up. He looked up with a neutral but tired expression that soured when he saw Lian Zhidiao.
“They’ve come back,” Yue Shipei said, gesturing at Yue Fengjian and Lian Zhidiao. “And the qilin has been dealt with.”
“Is that so?” Hu Baitian smoothed his hand up the back of his head. He savagely tied the ribbon around his bun into a knot. “No injuries?”
“None,” Yue Fengjian responded, glancing at Lian Zhidiao. “We were fortunate.”
“Maybe,” Hu Baitian said icily. “Now that you’re finished with that distraction, maybe you can help clear out some of the demons infesting these mountains.”
“We finished all those already,” Liao Kuaiyu said, putting his hands on his hips. “Me and shimei. You don’t have to worry about those.”
Hu Baitian nodded. “There are still others who need healing though.” He stood up so unsteadily that Yue Shipei took a step forward. Stopping Yue Shipei with just a look, Hu Baitian regained his balance and he started walking toward the door.
“I’m surprised you’re still here,” Hu Baitian sneered as he passed Lian Zhidiao. “If you’re not going to help heal the wounded, then you can leave.”
Lian Zhidiao followed Hu Baitian with his eyes as he opened the door and then closed it behind him. When he was gone, Yue Fengjian let out an exasperated sigh.
Silence settled over the room, lasting the space of several breaths. Lian Zhidiao could feel four sets of eyes on him, anticipating his reaction.
Why is everyone looking at me? Hu Baitian is the one who was rude for no reason. But that wasn’t really true either. Like Lian Zhidiao, he’d been through a lot, with less sleep and more people demanding his time. The destruction caused by the qilin in the village compounded by a demon attack coming after a sleepless night, and then another night of no sleep? It would make anyone cranky.
Lian Zhidiao’s voice was soft. “He must be tired.”
Yue Shipei nodded slowly. “He’s the most adept healer at our disposal, and there have been many injuries in these few days.”
“He should have a good long rest when we get back to Xuefeng,” Lian Zhidiao said. “He’ll feel better with a few days to himself.”
“In the meantime, with the qilin taken care of and a whole pack of demons slain, doesn’t it feel like we should be a little more… cheerful?” Liao Kuaiyu looked between Yue Shipei’s drawn face and Yue Fengjian’s scowl before walking over to sling his arm around Lian Zhidiao’s shoulder. “We shouldn’t let Hu Baitian’s grumpiness keep us from celebrating today’s victory.” He jostled Lian Zhidiao until he’d gotten a smile out of him and then turned to look at Yue Yaosa. “Right?”
She folded her arms over her chest, shaking her head. “Maybe. But there’s still a lot of work to be done. Some disciples are coming to help ease the burden on Hu Baitian. This village is worse off than the other, but both will need rebuilding. The people will also need our help to make sure their crops aren’t affected by loss of manpower.”
This is why she is so highly regarded by Yue Fengjian. Strong and hard-working, good qualities in a wife. But thinking like that made Lian Zhidiao’s smile slowly fade.
“I’ll leave this to you for today, Yaosa-shimei.” Yue Fengjian adjusted his sleeves. “I’m returning to Xuefeng tonight.”
Yue Yaosa’s face softened a little. “At least you have some good news to tell him.” It was clear from her tone who the ‘him’ was: Yue Kuangxiang.
“Only on one front,” Yue Fengjian replied, his jaw set.
Even if we defeated the qilin, the deaths of the outer disciples will probably fall on his shoulders as well. Yue Kuangxiang didn’t seem like the kind of man who let one success get in the way of reminding someone of all their other failures. From the sympathetic looks Yue Yaosa and Yue Shipei’s faces, they seemed all too aware of it.
At least I saved him from turning into a walking, fiery corpse. Or whatever else the curse might have had in store for him.
After making sure that the rest of the disciples were accounted for, Yue Fengjian set up a system of relief, whereby the disciples could begin working in shifts to help heal and clear rubble away. The Yue sect was one that placed value on hard work as a spiritual practice, especially for outer disciples, who worked directly with commoners. Although tragic, there was no other sect equipped to respond so quickly to devastating circumstances. After making sure that Yue Yaosa and Liao Kuaiyu would leave in the morning, (and extracting a promise to make Hu Baitian rest from Yue Shipei), Yue Fengjian and Lian Zhidiao flew east.
During the flight, Yue Fengjian kept his arm around Lian Zhidiao’s waist, as if he was especially concerned he might fall off at any moment. His palm pressed against Lian Zhidiao’s belly, as if he were looking into Lian Zhidiao’s meridians. Lian Zhidiao did not feel that telltale sign of conditional connectedness, so it seemed perfectly safe so long as he didn’t begin to deviate. But even the thought of poisoning Yue Fengjian’s core made Lian Zhidiao shiver in apprehension.
Xuefeng City came into view just as the sun sank below the horizon. The signal braziers in the lower quarters of the city were brightly lit, and the sect school high up the mountainside was dotted with small torches. The glow of firelight in the encroaching twilight danced with shadows in the demon-repelling sigils carved into every wall.
They sailed down into the landing courtyard of the Yue family castle. Yue Fengjian’s hand vanished from around Lian Zhidiao’s waist at the same time he saw the figure below them walking into the courtyard.
It was one thing to hear Yue Kuangxiang beyond a wall, or peek at him from behind a door. But facing him, his presence was even more impressive than expected. Lian Zhidiao felt as if he was being whittled down to size. He almost didn’t notice the older man standing practically in Yue Kuangxiang’s shadow.
Who is that?
The older man had long silver hair, and the ageless appearance of a cultivator in the last stages of their quest for immortality. He was ethereally beautiful, except for a single ugly scar that slashed through his left eye. Dressed completely in red, his pale complexion and silver hair gave him the impression of a ghost taking on human form. As Lian Zhidiao looked at him, both eyes, sighted and not, met his gaze. A shudder ran down Lian Zhidiao’s spine even as Yue Fengjian dismounted and Wallbreaker sheathed itself.
“Father.” Yue Fengjian gave his father a salute, and then repeated it to the older man behind him. “Shizun.”
His master?! Lian Zhidiao echoed the salutes, his mind whirling. Then this man must be the elder who trained both Yue Kuangxiang and Yue Fengjian. What had Lin Buhuan called him? Not Qiaolu, he’d changed his name… Old Zhengfu. Chancing a look up at him from under his lowered lashes, Lian Zhidiao couldn’t help but think that he had an unnatural amount of reserve, coolly appraising everything with a folded fan to hide his mouth. Lian Zhidiao had not written much about Yue Fengjian and his master: that Old Zhengfu had trained both father and son was something he hadn’t considered, but it made obvious how the two ended up so similar in temperament.
“I wanted a report in two days,” Yue Kuangxiang said. “You’ve taken your time getting it done.”
Two days? It took us two days just to get there and back, nevermind taking care of the qilin! And that was only because it was in the first place we looked! If Lian Zhidiao and Yue Fengjian had gone to the other village first, leaving Yue Yaosa and Liao Kuaiyu to face the qilin, the timeline could have played out differently. They might only now be regrouping to discuss what to do with a heavenly curse amid a demon attack. Honestly, for a sect leader, this kind of unforgiving attitude won’t work out well for you.
“With good fortune, Father, this humble son has come to deliver it.”
“And?” Yue Kuangxiang’s acerbic voice stung Lian Zhidiao’s ears. “The inner disciples are still dealing with that demon attack. Dividing their numbers to deal with the qilin will spread our forces thinly. You should not have left this unresolved while the disciples are dealing with such serious circumstances. You need not have delivered this report in person. A messenger would have been sufficient.” He lifted his chin. “So, what is your report?”
“We arrived and found that the qilin, whom the locals call Fengxing, entered qi deviation.”
Yue Kuangxiang was brought up short. He turned to look over his shoulder at Old Zhengfu, then looked back at his son. “Qi deviation? In a celestial beast?”
“On my word.”
“All the more reason to put it out of its misery,” Yue Kuangxiang said, his tone resolute. He gestured to the man behind him. “Shizun decided to come out of seclusion early to assist.”
“With the greatest deference to my honored master, this humble student has already defeated the qilin.”
“Defeated it? You did not bring a head, or a horn, or a hoof,” Yue Kuangxiang scoffed.
“The qilin was able to be convinced not to attack our villages anymore,” Yue Fengjian replied.
“How?” Old Zhengfu spoke at last, with a voice that was measured, and deeper than either Yue Fengjian’s or his father’s.
Yue Fengjian turned to face his master. “Shizun, this student managed to force the qilin to the ground and was ready to strike the killing blow. But before I could cleave its head off, a small black cat happened by.”
Lian Zhidiao couldn’t believe what he was hearing. A black cat? Isn’t that a bit too flippant to say to your master and your father? I’m standing right here, they’re going to know that it’s me! But this was one of those things where no one could say what they really meant out in the open.
Old Zhengfu arched an eyebrow. “Oh?” Old Zhengfu’s eyes, one dark, one milky, flicked to Lian Zhidiao and then back to Yue Fengjian.
Lian Zhidiao swallowed, lowering his eyes. That eyebrow arch looks familiar…
“Yes.” Yue Fengjian kept his eyes on his master, without looking at his father. “The qilin, which had been hungry for bloodshed but a moment before, was pacified by the sight of this little cat. So gentled, it left off attacking villages and is now at peace.”
It was clear now that Old Zhengfu was the one whose opinion mattered here. If he could be convinced that the ‘small black cat’ had actually—
“Mn.” Old Zhengfu tapped Yue Kuangxiang once on the shoulder with his folded fan.
He reached a judgment so fast!?
Then Old Zhengfu turned and left the landing courtyard without looking back.
He just left?? Lian Zhidiao’s eyes darted to Yue Fengjian, whose attention was back on his father.
Yue Kuangxiang’s stony expression was matched by a silence that seemed to stretch into forever. Then, he gave a single sharp nod. “Well done.”
Yue Fengjian bowed his head. “This humble son is undeserving.”
Yue Kuangxiang lingered for a moment longer, and then turned with a rustle of red and followed after his master. Even after he vanished from sight, his footsteps echoed down the clay-floored hallways. They became less and less distinct, before getting lost in the ambient noise of the castle itself.
Yue Fengjian stared at the doorway his father had disappeared from for what seemed like forever. Then he let out a short breath. His worthy deed had been acknowledged by his father and his master; he ought to be elated. But his expression was still tight, like a man who had seen a marksman archer in the distance and was waiting to hear the order to fire, the thud of the bowstring.
Lian Zhidiao knew he should put on a happy face and do something to defuse the tension. Instead he was nearly consumed by the urge to take his hand. He couldn’t shake the feeling that Yue Fengjian needed reassurance right now. But a seed of doubt grew in him. If he didn’t need support, then touching him would definitely seem overly familiar. Lian Zhidiao pulled back the hand that had automatically reached out.
The sound of his robes moving seemed to remind Yue Fengjian that he wasn’t alone. He turned to look at Lian Zhidiao. His voice was low. “Let’s go.”
Together, they walked to Yue Fengjian’s chambers. It was fully dark now, but lamps had been lit ahead of them. Yue Fengjian closed the door, but stood near it, his hand still pressing it firmly closed. Lian Zhidiao watched his fingers trail along the wood as he stepped away.
“Are you hungry?”
“I asked if you were hungry.” Lian Zhidiao looked at Yue Fengjian’s hand, white-knuckled around Wallbreaker’s scabbard.
“I—” Yue Fengjian hesitated, and then leveled an accusing eye on Lian Zhidiao. “What about you, aren’t you hungry?”
Lian Zhidiao shrugged one shoulder. “I’m not not hungry.”
Yue Fengjian scowled. “Then I’ll call Uncle Song.”
Despite Yue Fengjian insisting that some baozi were fine, Uncle Song had an actual meal cooked for the two of them at such a late hour. It wasn’t anything fancy—all of it simply steamed or quickly cooked in a wok—but they hadn’t eaten all day after Yue Fengjian refused breakfast from Grandmother Song. Yue Fengjian hadn’t seemed terribly enthusiastic about the idea of dinner at first, but once they began to eat, he was ravenous. Lian Zhidiao couldn’t shake the feeling that if he had not said anything, Yue Fengjian would have simply gone to bed without eating at all.
They talked easily during dinner, about food and about the Quanyuan, the Yue sect school further up the mountain. But after Uncle Song had the dishes taken away Yue Fengjian’s reticence was back in full force. They had little reason to stay up late talking after a long day of traveling, so Lian Zhidiao didn’t push him to continue talking; it was clear his mind was elsewhere. He was even a little absent-minded as they undressed for bed, disrobing in full lamplight. Long after the light was extinguished, Lian Zhidiao lay awake on his smaller bed. Yue Fengjian tossed and turned, unable to settle down; Lian Zhidiao fell asleep to the sound.
In the morning, they called for baths. The privilege of being sect leader’s son was that the household was accustomed to meeting the demands of several noble people at once. Two bathtubs were brought up, to Lian Zhidiao’s chagrin, and they were filled at the same time, with only a screen between them.
There is beginning to be a little too much of this trope in this novel for me, actually. If he had been embarrassed by Yue Fengjian bathing in the same room before, he was now about to be embarrassed by bathing naked in the same room together.
Lian Zhidiao wanted to hang up his clothes on the dividing screens for a little more privacy, but it proved to be an impossible dream. Even with the clothing hung up so that any chance of a peek was squashed, he could still hear every sound of Yue Fengjian scrubbing away. The only thing he could preoccupy himself with was his own bath.
They’d finished bathing and were dressing and putting up their hair when a knock sounded at the door. When bid to enter, Uncle Song came in.
“Young Master, please forgive this servant’s intrusion.”
“What is it?”
“The Lady Gao has sent me to inquire if you would like to join her for breakfast.”
Yue Fengjian glanced at Lian Zhidiao and then nodded. “I’ll join her in the Lower Pavilion.”
“With respect, young master, she specifically said that Lian-gongzi was welcome to join you both.”
Yue Fengjian nodded. “Then we accept. Please tell her we will join her presently.”
Uncle Song scurried away to bring this message, leaving Lian Zhidiao staring after him and wondering what, exactly, he’d just been dragged into.
“It’s strange for her to call for me in the morning,” Yue Fengjian muttered suddenly.
“Lady Gao is…?”
Oh… weren’t the Gao one of the Yue vassal families? I guess having an entirely separate family to choose a wife from would make marrying easier. Not as much checking family histories or adoption records.
“What’s she like?”
Yue Fengjian paused and then shook his head. “It’s better for you to meet her. If she asks you a question, be mindful of how you answer her.”
Given this kind of warning, it was natural that Lian Zhidiao would feel wary. One should always speak to elders with respect, but this seemed to be something more than an admonition to remember his place. Was she anything like Yue Fengjian’s father? A woman like his father would be… terrifying.
Lian Zhidiao was absorbed in thought even as they proceeded to the Lower Pavilion. Apprehension gripped him as they turned the corner and approached an imposing set of double doors. Yue Fengjian walked up and opened them without any trepidation at all, and all Lian Zhidiao could do was follow blindly after him.